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Annual #1
an FDC original series...

Higher Learning
"Dark Light"
By David Marshall

Dr. Light shook his fist as he took in the sight of the classroom trapped like prehistoric insects in amber. "Unacceptable!"

One of Sandy Anderson's classmates was responsible for the eerie sight. The girl's power was impressive. Sandy couldn't wait to meet her.

"At least they're alive," said Rosa Hervegas, Professor Knott's secretary. "Or at least I think so if I understand the girl's power."

Sandy Anderson arrived on the Windsor Academy campus less than half an hour earlier. Mrs. Hervegas escorted her to a class called "Strategic Theory 101" and the pair found student and teachers alike frozen like statues. Was this a bad day at the school for villains in-training or typical? Either way, it certainly beat another day holed up in a mall somewhere stealing pretzels.

Dr. Light turned to Rosa and gestured wildly at the victims. "Alive? Does that look like living to you? That girl should be punished severely!"

The dwarf named Gizmo buzzed around Light's head. "Come on, Arthur. You're overreacting. I have as much at stake here as anyone else if not more! The St. Claire kid possesses the most brilliant mind I've ever encountered but I'm not going off the deep end. We'll get Indira to unfreeze them and that'll be the end of it."

Dr. Light swatted at him. "Away from me, Mikron! My mind is made up! Our time together in the Fearsome Five won't save you from my wrath if you stand in my way!"

Gizmo removed a surprisingly large gun from his backpack and brandished it to his chest. The weapon was impossibly bigger than him or his backpack. "You really want to do this, old man?"

A blast of white-hot energy erupted from Light's hands and slammed the dwarf through a window in the hallway.

"Bloody nass!" Sandy cursed as the glass that remained in the window gave way and fell in around them. She rose into the air and crashed through what little glass remained in the empty frame. She cut her arm but put the pain out of her mind. Gizmo was nowhere to be seen on the manicured lawn but she spotted the tall weeds behind the school bristling.

Not knowing what to expect, she rushed to the dwarf's aid and found him spread-eagled on his back. His face was a bloody mess. She landed beside him and checked for a pulse. He shoved a small blaster under her nose.

"Hey, it's me," said Sandy. "Are you hurt?"

Gizmo put the blaster away. "Nothing wounded permanently but my pride. I let Dr. Light take me down! I'll never live it down! Do you know how many times I could've killed that insufferable buffoon over the years? Why God, why? Why didn't I do the world a favor when I had the chance?"

Sandy shook her head and gave the dwarf a hand. "No idea but from what I've seen of him the whole universe would probably be a better place if you had."

Gizmo staggered to his feet. "You got that right, Toots! Maybe now would be a good time to kill him."

Sandy steadied him with a hand on his back until he seemed sure to stand. "It's okay, sir. I've got you."

Gizmo pushed her hand away and slung blood from his nose into the tall grass. "Sorry sister but it was starting to run into my throat."

"Think nothing of it," Sandy replied. "I've seen my share of blood. It doesn't bother me."

Gizmo was missing a tooth when he smiled. "You're alright, kid."

Sandy smiled. "Thank you, sir. You are too."

Both Sandy and Gizmo rose into the air and shot toward the courtyard. The scene was as chaotic as the one they left in the hallway with the remaining staff, plus a few others that weren't involved before, trying to reason with Light.

"To answer tit for tat is my responsibility!" hissed Light. "With the Professor incapacitated it only makes sense that I'm in charge!"

A laser blast exploded beneath Light's feet and knocked him to the ground. "Because that always works out so well," Gizmo shouted back as he and Sandy rejoined the chaos. He aimed his gun at Light once more. "The first one was a warning shot."

Light grumbled under his breath and stood slowly, staring down the floating Gizmo the entire time. "You'll pay for that indignity, O'Jeneus!"

"Don't you ever attack me again, old man! Next time I'll forget we worked together!" Gizmo warned.

Light raised a hand to attack.

Twin balls of flame danced on Sandy's hands. "Do it and I'll roast you alive."

Light stood down. "This is getting us nowhere! Can't any of you see? Such shenanigans could close the entire school down! We could lose donors if word of this gets out! Who would invest in such a gamble, a bunch of spoiled children who attack their peers and mentors with every teenage whim? That girl must free the others and pay the price for her folly! I aim to assure that happens!"

"Fine Light!" said Rosa. "Do it your way but harm one hair on that child's head and you will answer to me!"

Light shook his head in disgust then turned and made his way toward the girl's dorm. "Stupid old cow! I should slay you where you stand for talking to me in such a manner! Like you could harm me!"

Fire danced on Sandy's fingertips but Rosa put a hand on her shoulder. "He isn't worth it sweetheart. Let the old fool taste the bitter salt of his failure!"

A beam of white light erupted from his hands and Light rode it girls' dorm. He landed by the front door and pushed on it but found it locked. "Ms. Khandhari! Open this door now!"

There was no answer so he pounded the door and again barked his demand.

"Go away!" yelled a girl's voice from inside. She sounded impossibly small.

With a wave of his hand, Light ripped the door from its hinges and hurled it toward the bystanders.

Sandy shot toward the approaching door. "I've got this," she said. Twin flames erupted from her hands and burned the door to ashes before it could hurt anyone.

Gizmo chuckled. "I bet she's popular at backyard barbecues!"

Light entered the dorm. Much shouting ensued but the villain finally emerged with a squirming, kicking girl in his arms. Sandy guessed she was Indian or Pakistani but wasn't sure. She was a tiny, petite girl and appeared to be no match physically for Dr. Light. Despite the vigor of her protests, kicks, and screams, Light held firm to her.

"Let go of me!" Indira cried. Tears poured from the girl's eyes and ran down both cheeks. "I said let me go!"

"Fine! Consider yourself free!" Light replied and threw Indira to the ground. She landed so hard her small frame made an audible thump.

"Come on, Light!" yelled Gizmo as he floated toward them. "You're way over the line here!"

"Am I?" Light asked turning to his one-time colleague. "With all that's at stake? How much cash is Knott tossing your way to teach these snot-nosed brats? Do you want the well to run dry?"

Indira curled into the fetal position and broke into heaving sobs.

Light turned his attention back to her once more. "That's all you have to say for yourself girl? You whimper like a dog that's been kicked too many times? There's no room for victims in this business! Perhaps you're not cut out for this line of work!"

Gizmo landed next to Light and tried to pull him away. "Okay, Arthur! That's enough. She's down! You've made your point!"

"It isn't over until I say so," Light replied, pushing Gizmo away. "The girl must be punished or every single hooligan that crosses the threshold of this school will believe they can do the same!"

"I already have enough reasons to kill you, Arthur" said Gizmo. "Don't give me one more."

"You? Assault me with your crude weapons?" Light laughed. "When I can manipulate the very beams you would hurl at me? If you're the only one standing between me and the brat then I have no reason to fear!"

At that moment Light's eyes rolled into the back of his head and sheer terror swept across his ashen face. He loosened his grip on Indira as if she weren't even there. "No, Psimon! Please not again! The pain is unbearable! No, my atoms! Must keep my atoms together! Please stop!"

"You overestimate your abilities," said the voice of a tall, lanky man walking nonchalantly onto the scene. He was dressed like an extra from a Dickens play. "Or underestimate those of your colleagues, specifically me."

"Dr. Norton!" Rosa exclaimed. "Thank God you're here!"

Dr. Norton nodded and approached Light. He studied the frightened man and seemed genuinely pleased with his handiwork. "A pity. Hugo would be most upset with me if I turned your brain to mush, no?""

"Go on and do it," said Gizmo, moving back to where the staff was gathered.

Sandy leaned close to Gizmo and whispered. "What's up with the crazy old coot now?"

Gizmo shrugged. "Dr. Norton apparently has powers I didn't know about. Looks like he's making Light relive the time a former teammate of ours tired of his cuckoo ways and dispersed his atoms."

Sandy smiled. "Gruesome."

Gizmo shrugged. "You should have been there to see it kid! The rerun doesn't do it justice! The terror in his eyes is there but it's not the same without watching him fade to nothingness."

Sandy liked Gizmo.

Dr. Light thrashed wildly as if trying to grasp his own atoms. "No! Please don't leave me again! Stay together, damn you! Stay together!"

Dr. Norton sighed and released Dr. Light from his mental control. "I suppose I should release you before the pea you call a mind is too far gone."

Light collapsed to the ground. So much drool ran from his mouth he looked like a rabid animal. He was visibly shaken, his former bravado long gone.

The man called Dr. Norton stood over his fallen staff-mate. "That was but a small taste of my capabilities, Dr. Light. Touch any of these children again and even Hugo's wrath won't save you from the full extent of my power."

Rosa and Ms. Escobar took advantage of Light's incapacitation and bolted for Indira who was still curled up in ball. They lifted her gently but she bolted for the dorms.

Gizmo rose into the air. "Heads up people! We've got ourselves a runner!"

Dr. Light pushed himself up to this hands and knees. His breathing was still labored and he gasped between breaths as he spoke. "You imbeciles! All of that work for nothing! She'll barricade herself inside one of the rooms."

Ms. Escobar stepped forward and tapped Light on the shoulder. When he turned she slapped him across the face. "You foolish worm of a man!"

Fury returned to Light's eyes as he stood. Sandy wondered if the pretty young woman hadn't pushed him too far. "You dare strike me woman? None may lay a hand on the person of Dr. Light! Not even the strange powers of Dr. Norton can protect you from my vengeance and wra….."

Ms. Escobar kicked Dr. Light in his male parts. "I don't need Dr. Norton to protect from the likes of you!"

Dr. Light dropped to his knees and nursed his aching groin. He seemed short of breath moments before but it came in heaving, staccato bursts now.

Gizmo leaned in toward Sandy. "I hate the guy but that's harder to watch than seeing his atoms dispersed!"

Sandy nodded. "He got what he deserved!"

Ms. Escobar wasn't finished scolding Light. "The girl needs compassion and you attack her? What kind of monster are you? You're unfit to be around children!"

A guttural sound emanated from Light's throat.

Ms. Escobar smiled at the sight of Light prostrated before her. "What? No witty comeback, Ese? Perhaps the cat has more than your tongue?" She stepped over him.

"If you'll excuse me, I'll see to Indira myself!"


A shadowy hand fingered the communication console. "We've lost all communication with our mole."

"Unacceptable," another voice replied. "Keep trying. If you can't establish contact within the hour we must consider going in."

The first shadowy figured sighed. "I'll do my best."

"I know you will," the second figure replied.

Windsor Academy Campus, Girl's Dorm

Indira couldn't believe the Professor failed her. What of compassion and basic decency? It was one thing to break the law but it another altogether to protect human traffickers! Even aiding such an endeavor made one complicit in the wrecked lives of the young girls they abused. How could he not see that?

Then again, how could she expect anyone else to understand? No one else at the school was marked for such a life. The others were ignorant of the drunken, slovenly kisses of overweight, middle-aged business men who left their consciences at home with their families. Her classmates often complimented the small tattoo on the side of her nose, an inverted biological sign for a female. It was her former captor's mark, a reminder that she was less than human and little more than a plaything for the underbelly of society to enjoy. It was shame.

Most frightening of all was the lingering scourge of AIDS. She kept her daily regimen of medications hidden from all but Professor Knott and the school nurse. Kobra was more than her sponsor. Her lord was also her lifeline, providing advanced medicines on the cutting edge of science. Without them she would have probably died already.

Indira's thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. "Go away!"

"Indira? It's me, Ms. Escobar."

The perky Spanish teacher's arrival was a pleasant surprise. At least it wasn't that jerk, Dr. Light! Indira left her bed and unlocked the door.

Ms. Escobar entered with the same comely smile that melted the boys' hearts to mush. "I wanted to check on you. Como Estas?"

"More embarrassed than anything else," Indira replied. She returned to her bed and sat on the edge with her knees cradled to her chin and rocked. Ms. Escobar took her right hand. "I'm here if you need to talk."

"Who sent you?" Indira asked suspiciously, stretching her legs and draping them over the side of the bedframe.

"No one," Ms. Escobar answered. "I came because I care about you. You believe that don't you?"

Indira wanted to but did anybody really care? "If you say so."

"I know we aren't close and I won't pretend to know what happened in the classroom but you can't leave everyone like that."

Indira sighed. "I know. I lost control and then that idiot Dr. Light…"

Ms. Escobar laughed. "Will speak an octave higher after the kick I just gave him."

Indira laughed. "Good for you. I don't like him."

"He's not an endearing man," Ms. Escobar replied. "So what made you lose control?"

"It started with the jungle," Indira replied.

"What happened in that jungle?" Ms. Escobar asked.

Indira stared into her teacher's dark, piercing eyes. "I don't know how much of my story Professor Knott shared with you."

Ms. Escobar smiled. "You're from India, an excellent student, and a hard worker. Your classmates respect you more than you realize. You... not much I'm afraid."

At least Professor Knott kept her secret.

"Promise you won't tell?" Indira asked.

"Anything you say to me will remain in confidence," Ms. Escobar answered.

Indira took a deep breath and, among a torrent of tears and snot, unloaded everything on her teacher - her abandonment as a child, life on the streets, forced prostitution, and her struggle with AIDS. Her words flowed like water from a broken dam, each tear a soothing salve to her soul.

All the while, Ms. Escobar held her and let her cry. It was comforting to know there was one person - one adult - in the whole world who wanted nothing from her. There was no expectation of sex, no demand for loyalty in exchange for live-saving drugs, not as much as a romantic undertone even. For the very first time in her young life, Indira Khandhari experienced genuine affection from another human being.

The pair sat in silence for a while until Indira's sobs subsided and she pulled away from the delicious hug. "I should free everyone from stasis."

Ms. Escobar nodded. "An excellent idea but perhaps you could make an exception for Jake."

They shared a laugh and Indira followed Ms. Escobar to the courtyard. She was happy to find it empty.

"The others must have returned to their responsibilities," said Ms. Escobar.

"While you talked me down from the proverbial ledge?" Indira asked.

Ms. Escobar said nothing and led Indira across the courtyard and into the Main Hall. The building was eerily silent as if the others were afraid Indira's stasis was contagious and stayed far away in quarantine. At last the pair made it to Professor Hand's classroom.

Indira peeked through the window. Seeing her friends and mentors frozen like statues was unnerving. It always seemed satisfying when it was a foe but to watch her friends trapped like figures in a portrait of the damned brought her shame. "They're going to hate me."

Ms. Escobar shook her head. "They won't hate you."

"What about Professor Knott?" Indira asked. "I'm sure I'll be in trouble."

Ms. Escobar shrugged. "You leave the Professor to me. Now if you will please free everyone."

Indira concentrated and reached out for the stasis. The purple light was tangible to her. Perhaps only that old fool Dr. Light could understand what she meant by that but it was true. Its touch was liquid. She latched onto the ray and felt it weaken before it at last dissipated altogether. "We should get in there. They'll be in a fog when they come around."

Professor Hand was the first to move. He stumbled back into the shiny new whiteboard at the front of the room. Professor Knott reached for his head as if he could clear the cobwebs manually.

Indira made her way to Portia first. "Don't hate me. I'm sorry."

"What the hell?" Portia asked.

Two seats away, Zeke hurled on the floor. The vomit splashed onto Bo's sneakers.

"Dude!" Bo yelled. "Not the new Light Forces!"

Somehow Georgia made it to her feet but fainted as soon as she stood. Tristan rushed to catch her but he too stumbled and the two bumped their heads together before collapsing in the floor.

Indira bent down to Portia. "It was me. I… freaked and my power went out of control."

Ms. Escobar turned toward her but said nothing to correct Indira's half-truth. She tended both Professors.

"Ms. Khandhari," slurred a clearly groggy Professor Knott. "Are you …"

Indira nodded though she knew the Professor couldn't yet concentrate well enough to see her do so.

In the midst of the confusion someone pulled a fire alarm, adding to the confusion and chaos.

Indira looked around but everyone was accounted for in the classroom. Of course there was other faculty and staff and even the girls she and Bo rescued from the Colombian jungle so the list of likely suspects was formidable but still it seemed overkill. She was more embarrassed than ever.

Then came the first explosion outside. She wasn't sure what exploded but a chunk of concrete from the sidewalk blew in through the windows and would have crushed Tristan and Chaucer if not for the quick thinking of Professor Hand who used residual energy within his hand to form a barricade construct.

"Everyone down!" Professor Hand yelled. "We're under attack!"

"Any idea who it may be?" asked Professor Knott who was having trouble seeing for some reason.

"Negative," Professor Hand replied. He lowered the chunk of concrete and earth to the floor slowly.

A second explosion rocked the courtyard. Indira made her way to the gaping hole by the blasted-out windows and peered out. She couldn't see anyone.

Someone grabbed her and pulled her to the ground. She fought at first but then realized it was Bo.

"Are you crazy?" Bo asked as he finally overpowered her and slammed her down on top of him. "You trying to get yourself killed?"

Indira struggled to free herself from his grip. "Let go of me!"

Georgia crawled to their position and joined them. "He may have saved your life? Are you crazy? Did you see anything?"

Indira rolled off of Bo and shook her head. "Not a thing. It's nothing but calm."

A moment later a grenade came hurling through the window. Thankfully it was a smoke grenade and not an explosive one. It quickly filled the room with a cloud of thick, white smoke. It smelled terrible, like sulfur and burnt popcorn. The overpowering stench also made Indira groggy. She was afraid to lash out with her powers and afraid not to at the same time.

Professor Hand, Professor Knott, and Ms. Escobar fell to the floor. They were out.

"Everyone stay below the fumes if you can!" Georgia warned.

Indira couldn't see well enough to know who heeded the warning and who didn't. She wasn't even sure if the others were conscious at that point. Then things got worse in a hurry. Someone kicked the door open and three men in gas masks stormed into the room. Portia lost it and transformed into her wolf-self but she too fell when she leaped onto Professor Knott's desk. Through the smoke Indira saw her fall and heard her hit the floor with a canine yelp.

It was the last thing Indira saw before succumbing to the fumes.


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