Chapter One: After The Last Time
Kally Carmichael frowned, a pencil held in the space between her nose and lips. Something on her computer monitor didn't look quite right. She couldn't figure out what though, and it annoyed her. She frowned, impatiently pushing auburn hair back behind one ear. She really should have put it up that morning but couldn't find any of her scrunchies.
A scholarship student, she lived on campus with another girl who was easily five years older than her, though she'd never actually asked her age. It was awkward enough knowing she should technically still be a sophomore in high school, but she'd lucked out with a dorm mate who didn't seem to mind. She could have graduated secondary school sooner but chose to try and not stand out too much. Instead, she'd taken some classes online to keep from becoming too bored.
Most of her high school contemporaries were from poor backgrounds, just like her. And standing out too much tended to bring a lot of unwanted attention by means of bullying, mostly through taunting and cruel jokes never carried quite too far. It didn't help that she was one of the only white students who'd attended that particular institution. She felt thankful her current bunk mate didn't share the same mentality they had, even though she was still a few months' shy of turning sixteen.
"Is something wrong?"
Kally looked up at the visiting professor, who just happened to teach her programming class that semester. She hadn't caught where he was from. All she really knew about him was that he was old, with white hair and a weight of immense years about him. She suspected he was older than he looked, but, again, didn't bother asking. It wasn't polite. And if there was anything her father had taught her before he'd passed on, it was to be polite. Even her foster parents had adopted an environment demanding respect. It was as much a part of her as anything was. And yet, despite her not wanting to ask, she still couldn't help but feel like he was some kind of father figure. There was something decidedly familiar about him, though she knew she hadn't met him before this school year.
Kally sighed as she glanced back at the string of code on her monitor. "It's this algorithm," she confessed as she pointed to the equation in question. "It looks right but it doesn't feel right." She just hoped he didn't ask her to explain what she meant by that because she doubted she could. It made no more sense than the feeling of surety that the equation was wrong. She'd copied it character for character straight off the white board as instructed, but it still didn't feel right. "I've double-checked it at least fifty times," she added, in case he thought she was just derping around.
Professor Othin peered at her screen with one scrutinizing eye. The other was covered by an eye patch. No one had been brave enough to ask why he wore it. Maybe he'd lost it in a fight or to cancer. It was anyone's guess. "I see," he mused, double-checking her work for himself. "And why don't you feel it's correct?"
She felt somewhat relieved he hadn't hinted that she'd thought him the cause of the mistake. He didn't seem like the type to make mistakes. But his attention still left her feeling out of her element. "Well," she hedged, reminding herself not to fidget. She didn't like drawing attention to herself unless she had to. "This part is alright," she pointed to the string. "But this character just doesn't feel like it belongs there." Her finger hovered over a delta sign.
"Hmm," the professor mused, pursing his lips. He rubbed at his beard, then returned his attention to his student. "It doesn't feel like it belongs," he said, repeating her words thoughtfully.
Kally couldn't help but fidget this time as his intense gaze seemed to look right through her. But it didn't feel creepy or anything like that. She had no words to describe the exact sensation, other than she somehow felt exposed, but not in a threatening way. It was almost as if he were looking at her soul and sizing it up. The unfortunate thing was the sensation, though not meant to be malicious, was decidedly uncomfortable.
Professor Othin straightened as he put one hand on her shoulder. "Miss Carmichael seems to have managed to discover what no one else in this room has," he announced. "The algorithm I asked you to copy was flawed. I wanted to see which of you," he removed his hand from Kally's shoulder and began pacing the spaces between the various computer stations, "would be capable of finding it."
Groans filled the room as various students either threw their hands up in the air, hit keyboards, or face planted on their desks. "All right," the professor continued in the same tone, "if any of you can figure out what Miss Carmichael found and have that answer to me before our next class, I won't dock you for today. Class dismissed."
Almost as if the bell had rung to release the last class of the day at a high school, all the students vacated the lab. All but one. Kally chewed the inside of her cheek, a bad habit she'd developed over the years. She closed her eyes and exhaled. She hadn't wanted to stick out, but the professor had pretty much just ruined that for her. As if being the youngest student on the NYU campus wasn't hard enough.
Finally, she made sure her work was saved on the network before logging off. But when she moved to exit the classroom, the professor moved to intercept her. "Miss Carmichael, may I have a word?"
Kally chewed her cheek some more, her backpack hanging off of one shoulder as she paused. "Uh, sure," she hesitated, moving away from the door to meet him halfway. He wasn't as young as he used to be and she figured it would be easier on him that way.
Professor Othin gave her another intense look that, to any outsider, looked no more than casual. She knew better. "Your work so far this semester has been exemplary," he began. "You have managed to progress a lot more quickly than many students several year's older than your current age."
Cheeks now somewhat red, Kally looked at the floor. This was the last thing she'd expected. The praise wasn't something she'd asked for or felt had been earned. Experience had taught her that such praise would only get her in trouble with her other classmates. Such attention, in the past, had earned her a permanent place on the bully list of her peers, usually resulting in taunting and cruel practical jokes. She had done her best to stay out of the lime light since coming here, with the fear of similar treatment from her older classmates. "Thank you," she said faintly.
He gave her another long look as she stared down. There was a sense of kinship there, even if he knew he sometimes intimidated her. It wasn't hard to be intimidating. In fact, he usually had to hold himself back. Of course, it had taken him some time to get to where he was now, but that didn't bear thinking about just now. "Which is why I requested I be the one to tell you," he continued.
Kally couldn't help but look up at that. She searched his face, as if by doing so she would know what he was thinking before he spoke again. "Tell me what, professor?"
Othin directed her further into the classroom, away from the door and any potential of being overheard from someone in the hallway. "As you may know, NYU hosts a student science exhibition every year. It is funded by Stark Industries, among others. The brightest in all scientific fields are invited to present a project, either as a showcase piece or practical exhibit on the floor. I am told that many prestigious companies handpick their future employees from this event."
Watching with wide eyes, Kally realized the professor had pulled an envelope from his pocket and was holding it out to her. Her fingers trembled as she accepted the expensive stationary, her heart pounding in her ears at the possible implications. Stark was an entity everyone in New York, and probably the whole world, knew. And since he'd been willing to sacrifice himself to save the world back at the Battle of New York, she couldn't help but feel a desire to align herself with him and his company, with the possibility of working with them some time in the future. She just hadn't expected for the opportunity to come so quickly. After all, she was only heading into the second half of her first real year there.
It was no secret that Tony Stark personally attended each science expo put on by the university. He was hard to miss, with flashy entrances. And as the professor said, various companies used the expo as a scouting venue to pluck out future employees and protegees. Only the best of the best all over the country were invited, all currently enrolled in some form of upper education. Usually those invited came from prestigious schools . More often than not, many of those who came from other schools were scooped up to finish out their education at the university she now attended.
"I hope six weeks is sufficient time to prepare a project for the event," the professor continued, breaking into her thoughts. He looked amused at her dumb-founded expression. "Well? ?Go on," he added, breaking the tension with a gruff tone, hands clasped behind his back. "I know you have other classes." He watched as she jumped like a deer in headlights before slipping out of the room.
Baymax stared at the television screen with rapt attention. Cass Hamada had already gone down to open the cafe, leaving him to keep an open ear for Hiro. The boy was still sleeping, something that wasn't unexpected, considering it was a Saturday. He didn't have any classes and the Big Heroes didn't have any missions to worry about. It was probably a good thing Hiro was still asleep. He'd been skimping on sleep lately, against his advice. But the real reason he was keeping an open ear was due to them needing to keep him away from the cafe for a little while.
"It's alive! It's alive!" the character on screen intoned. The healthcare robot had learned how to manipulate the controls on the entertainment medium. And while he had one metaphorical ear turned towards the upper level, the rest of him watched in fascination as the story of Frankenstein's Monster unfolded. He seemed to like such horror flicks almost as much as Cass did.
Baymax blinked as the tell-tale sounds of Hiro waking filled his sensors. Almost as if with a sigh, he turned off the television and waddled towards the stairs, taking them one at a time. Sometimes Hiro woke screaming, though this time didn't seem like one of those times. It was an unfortunate side-effect of all the craziness he'd been through over the past few years. It eventually all took its toll. All he could do was try and help ground his young charge until he was able to return to a more healthy mind set, however long that took.
"Good morning, Hiro," the robot greeted as Hiro sat up in his bed. He'd just finished climbing the stairs, Mochi the cat trying to twine around his legs. "How did you sleep?"
Hiro pushed fingers through his mess of hair, which was showing a decided need of a good run through with a comb. It was sticking up all over the place. "Hey, Baymax," he greeted sleepily. It no longer surprised him to see the robotic nurse first thing in the morning. It would have been weird not to. "Not bad. Wouldn't have minded more but I guess I got enough." He rubbed at his eyes to clear the sleep out before turning to slip his feet out from under the covers and to the floor.
The robot performed a preliminary scan of his number one patient. While it was true he could have slept longer, Baymax was not displeased with the amount he had managed to get. "Your aunt has left you a plate of fruit and pancakes downstairs," he announced. "Do you plan on meeting up with your friends later today?"
The teen genius made his way to the bathroom to take care of his usual morning routine. "Yeah," he answered behind the closed door. "We still need to go over that one project from school." A few minutes later, he exited the bathroom, hair at least somewhat managed, looking more awake than before. He moved to get dressed as the inflatable marshmallow followed him around the room.
The two made their way down to the second level as soon as Hiro was dressed. He found the plate his aunt had left out and sat down to eat while Baymax glanced towards the deactivated television. He still hadn't figured out how to use the pause button. "Perhaps your aunt would like you to help in the cafe today," the robot suggested, even though he knew the opposite to be true.
Hiro couldn't help but laugh at that. "Yeah right," he contradicted. "After the last time I offered to help? I don't think so." His thoughts turned to that time when he'd tried to get a stubborn coffee machine to perform correctly, only to accidentally make the thing explode in a rain of boiling hot coffee. Luckily, no one was really hurt, though he had gotten a few burns Baymax had quickly taken care of. And that had only happened a month ago.
"I believe I see your point," Baymax responded. It probably was better to let him work on his own projects, leaving his aunt to her work. She likely had more than enough helpers. That and they were setting things up for later. Or at least he had been led to believe they were. He hadn't been given a specific time table.
Finished with his meal, Hiro rinsed off his dishes in the sink before placing them in the dishwasher. "I guess I could always tinker down in the garage until it's time to go over to Fred's," he said thoughtfully. He could also go check the mail. Saturdays usually had a lot of junk mail. At least they'd finally stopped sending stuff to Tadashi. It had taken them long enough to get the memo. He'd been dead for almost two years now.
Baymax tilted his head to one side, wondering if Hiro had forgotten what today was. Apparently he had, or he was not sufficiently awake to realize it. Having been sworn to secrecy, he didn't feel the need to remind his companion. After all, it would ruin the surprise his friends and family had planned. "Perhaps that would be best," he agreed to Hiro's plan. It would keep him out of the way long enough for the others to put things together without him having to come up with excuses to create the same result.
Acting almost as a buffer, Baymax made sure Hiro went straight to the garage, bypassing going through the cafe. It was imperative for him to make sure he didn't enter the cafe too soon. And his reverse psychology seemed to have helped with that. "What project will you work on?" he asked curiously as he followed Hiro to one of the work benches. Chances were always good Hiro would do something that might require his attention, or at least his supervision.
Hiro plunked himself down into the swivel chair in front of the 3D computer. "I was thinking I'd try to improve our armor designs," he answered in a distracted tone. He'd already called up the designs, something he kept on a special cloud drive with enough encryption to put the armed forces to shame. That way he could access them at home, their command center, or, less likely, at school. "I'm hoping to find a way to make your gear easier to store should we need to transport it again."
He'd heard about his crew's exploits with said armor shortly after he'd been transformed back into a toddler. They'd had to hastily store the robot's armor in Wasabi's van, mostly covered over with a thrown quilt. But even with that precaution, it had taken up a lot of space, space that could have been used for other things. And if they ever had to leave the area in a hurry, chances were good they'd need that space for other things. He didn't anticipate it happening any time soon but thought it would be better to be prepared just in case.