How to Move Spheres and Influence People
by Marko Kloos
For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. An outcast learns how fit in at her school and much more in Marko Kloos’s short story “How to Move Spheres and Influence People.”
T. K. hates a lot of things, but at the moment, it’s how she becomes the #1 target during dodgeball at gym. Everything changes, however, when she discovers that she has the ace ability to direct spherical objects — and she makes her classmates pay! But her powers are made for more than petty revenge, as she soon discovers while on a family vacation.
The first time it happens, she’s in P.E. class, because of course it has to be P.E.
It’s fashionable to hate P.E., and most of the other girls at Mapletree Academy claim they do, but T.K. really doesn’t mind it. It’s only twice a week, and they mostly stick to sports she can do with her one working arm. She knows she could easily get out of P.E. by pulling the Cripple Card (although she never calls it that; her parents and teachers would flinch in horror at her own insensitivity toward herself, go figure), but she doesn’t because she likes to run around even if she’s not very good at it. She also doesn’t want to give her stuck-up classmates the satisfaction of being able to shoot her pitying glances as she sits on the sidelines and eats Goldfish crackers while doing her math homework. Truth be told: it’s the only time during the week when T.K. doesn’t feel like everyone’s pussyfooting around her disability.
They’re playing dodgeball that day, at the end of the class. T.K. is pretty good at it considering she can only use one arm, even if she gets nailed by the ball a little more than the other girls. But this session is a shooting gallery, with her as the target. Again. It’s just two girls who are targeting her specifically—and her left side, too, where she can’t block—but they’re stealthy about it so Mrs. Williams, the P.E. teacher, doesn’t come down on them. For some reason, Brooke MacAllister has decided that if T.K. wants to play with the varsity, she can take the hits too. And for this week, she seems to have recruited Alison Keller to be her wingman, because T.K. is getting targeted fire from two angles. Mapletree has a special version of dodgeball where you have to crank out five push-ups on the spot if you get hit. Mrs. Williams wanted to give her a waiver on the push-ups, but T.K. refused the special treatment. She’s not strong enough for one-armed pushups, but she can do crunches just fine, so she does those instead. And today, she’s doing a lot of crunches courtesy of Brooke and Alison. In the middle of her fifth set, a ball comes in and beans her on the left side of the head just as she is coming up from a crunch.
T.K. glares in the direction of the ball’s origin and spots Brooke, who gives her a curt and jock-like “Sorry!” without even the slightest tone of apology in her voice. T.K. doesn’t want to make anything of it, so she doesn’t even look for Mrs. Williams, but she has her limits, and Brooke’s attention is starting to poke at the edges of them. She finishes her crunches and gets back up to rejoin the ranks. Another ball shoots past her face, so close that she can practically smell the rubber, and she ducks and flinches. This one came from the other side of the court, from Alison’s direction, but Alison pretends to not notice T.K.’s glare as she conspicuously picks another target. T.K. grabs a ricochet off the gym floor and chucks it at Alison, but it misses her by a foot and smacks into the mats lining the wall behind her. Alison looks over to T.K. and smirks, which only serves to crank up the dial of T.K.’s Pissed-Off-O-Meter another notch. She can’t really complain about them throwing balls at her, because that’s what the game is about. But getting singled out for no good reason takes the fun out of it.
“One minute,” Mrs. Williams shouts from the sideline. “Wrap it up, ladies!” Then she turns around and checks her cell phone. T.K. groans.
“Don’t you—” she calls over to Brooke, but Brooke does, and so does Alison. Of course they were waiting for the opportunity for one last cheap shot. Alison’s shot hits T.K.’s right thigh and bounces off. Brooke’s ball comes in a flat arc, and T.K. knows that she’ll take the stupid thing right on the bridge of her nose.
That’s when the thing happens.
Later, she’ll puzzle about what triggered it. She’s hot and sweaty, angry at Brooke and Alison, hurting from the shot to the bare skin of her leg, and the muscles on her left side, the one with the paralysis, are taut enough to snap, which is what happens when she overexerts herself. But she knows that she feels a swell of fresh anger, and something goes snap in her brain. There’s a hot, trickling sensation, like someone just opened the top of her skull and poured a cup of coffee directly on the back side of her brain and down her spinal column. T.K. raises her hand to keep the ball from hitting her in the face, even though she knows it’s too late for that. But then the strangest sensation follows the hot trickle. She can feel the ball not three feet in front of her face—its roundness, the way it displaces the air around it—and she gives it a tiny little shunt with her mind, and it’s the best feeling she’s ever had, like finally scratching an itch you couldn’t get to for an hour, only a hundred times better. The ball—the one that was about to give her a nosebleed—hooks ever so slightly to the left and whizzes past her left side, close enough to her ear that she can hear it whistling through the air.
Nobody notices. T.K. isn’t even sure that Brooke saw the ball didn’t fly true, that it made a little skip at the end of its arc. There are still half a dozen other balls in the air, and there’s a lot of movement and yelling, kids paying attention to throwing or not getting hit. But she is dead sure that she caused that little skip, because she knows that for just that half second, the ball was in her control, and that it went precisely where she had wanted it to go.
They hit the showers and get dressed, and T.K. is too amazed and shaken to seek out Brooke and Alison to bitch at them. Now that P.E. is over, nobody pays attention to her anymore. In the first few weeks after she joined the class, her awkward-looking one-handed maneuver to get back into her bra and shirt got some interest from the other girls in the locker room, but that’s old hat now, and she finishes up and leaves as quickly as she can. P.E. was the last class of the day, and now they have an hour of library time before dinner. But T.K. doesn’t feel much like going to the library. Instead, she unloads her backpack at the dorm and then goes back to the gym.
She had figured the place to be empty by now, because Mrs. Williams usually leaves on time. But when she walks back in, Mrs. Williams is still there, walking toward the door with a bag on each shoulder.
“Tilly,” Mrs. Williams says, and T.K. tries not to frown. Most of the teachers address her by her chosen name instead of Tilly, which she hates almost as much as its proper long form, Lintilla. She knows she’s named for a great-grandmother she never even knew, but “Lintilla” sounds like a species of exotic rodent to her. So she was Tilly until she was thirteen, at which point she decided that “T.K.” was edgier than “Tilly Kendall.” Like she’s a New York City spray tagger or a skateboarder instead of a skinny fifteen-year-old redhead from rural Vermont with freckles and left-side hemiparesis. But Mrs. Williams insists on using her actual name, which strikes T.K. as slightly disrespectful.
“Mrs. W,” she replies. “I, uh, forgot something in the locker room.”
It’s a quick and shoddy lie, but Mrs. Williams, loaded down with bags as she is and clearly in a hurry, buys it without trouble. Besides, the gym is always open for the students anyway—there’s a keypad at the door and everyone knows the code, and what kind of trouble can you get into in a school gym?
“Well, go get it. But make sure the door is latched when you leave, okay? The latch sticks sometimes if you don’t push it shut all the way.”
“Will do, Mrs. W,” T.K. says. “Have a good evening.”
“See you tomorrow, Tilly.”
T.K. heads toward the girls’ locker room and pauses in the doorway to wait for the “click” of the sticky door latch. Then she turns and goes to the door that leads into the gym. That feeling she had just a little while ago, when she moved that ball away from her face, had been the most wicked rush of her life, and she wants to see if she can repeat it.
The balls in the gym are neatly stashed away in nets hanging from the wall on the back of the gym, right next to the equipment lockers. T.K. walks over to one of the nets and pulls it open. She fishes out a ball and tosses it into the middle of the gym, where it bounces a few times and rolls to a stop.
“Here goes nothing,” T.K. says to herself. Her voice echoes a little in the empty gym.
She’s afraid that the moment of total control during the game was a fluke, a one-time thing, some momentary and non-recurring phenomenon, maybe a glitch in her brain. That she’ll stand here in the gym and stare at that ball like an idiot for a bit while nothing happens. But when she concentrates, that control comes back with absurd ease. It’s like looking at the curve of the sphere throws a switch in her mind, one that wasn’t there before. It’s not as strong as it was the first time around, but when she feels the curvature of the ball with whatever new sense her brain has flipped on with that switch, that feeling of deep satisfaction comes back, and she knows that it wasn’t a momentary thing. It feels like she’s holding that sphere in the palm of an invisible hand, one that’s much more strong and limber and precise than her own.
T.K. laughs with relief. Then she picks up the ball with her mind and flicks it halfway across the court to the basketball rim on the far end. The ball hits the rim and bounces off. Before it can hit the gym floor, she picks it up again without effort, raises it slowly, and dumps it straight through the hoop.
“Holy shit,” she says and laughs again.
She has superpowers. She’s a damn ace.tor.com • Illustrated by John Picacio