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Author: Robin Epstein
Publisher: Soho Press, 2015

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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When her acceptance to Columbia is revoked just weeks before graduation, Kassandra Black is desperate. She hastily enrolls in the summer program at Henley University under the watchful eye of her great-uncle Brian. She figures successfully assisting him in his H.E.A.R. program (Henley Engineering Anomalies Research), will get her into college somewhere. As Kass gets to know the four other H.E.A.R. students, she realizes that she overlooked the "Anomalies" part of their acronym. They've all been recruited to help Brian run experiments that gauge Extrasensory Perception--including, to her astonishment, Kass herself. But Kass would know if she were psychic, right?


Chapter One

There's no announcement when we arrive. Everyone else just seems to know we've reached the final destination. I wait for a moment before I stand and watch those around me hoist their suitcases and backpacks. They all look calm and confident. Even the ones who are forced to turn around when they see the train conductor's "wrong way, asshole!" gesture. But I'm as nervous as I am excited, and I'm so excited I feel like I might throw up.

I still can't believe I'm here. I'm lucky, I know it. I always have been. Henley University's footprint is small, but its reach and reputation make it one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country, a staple on those U.S. News and Blah-Blah-Blah lists. And though my father took advantage of the system to get me here, I'll do whatever I have to do to stay.

When I step off the train, the sticky-hot summer air assaults me. It's as if the atmosphere itself is testing me by turning up the heat.


I turn to see a tall elderly man striding in my direction. He's dapper in a crisp Oxford shirt rolled up to the elbows and green-and-white-striped seersucker pants. Though I haven't seen him since I was little, I recognize Great-Uncle Brian right away because the family resemblance is striking; he's the much older image of my dad.


"Kass," I say with a nod.

"Welcome to campus, Kass." He scans my face as if doing a

computer analysis. "Well, you look nothing like your father."

"Thank you," I reply quickly, before realizing the potential offense. "I mean--"

But Brian laughs. "Come, let's go. I'm afraid we have quite

the hike back to my office. They built the engineering quad on the other end of campus, presumably to prevent our majors from trying to escape."

Uncle Brian is the reason I'm here, and I need him to like me. He only let me into his summer workshop because my father begged him--and though Dad wouldn't tell me the specifics of how the deal was struck, he did let me know that the favor was costly. So if my great-uncle wants me to take that hike barefoot on glass, off go the shoes.

He threads his way through the people loitering on the train platform. As we trek across Henley's campus, I gawk at the buildings and their cool mash-up of designs. I didn't appreciate the details when I was here as a kid, but there's a heavy dose of Gothic architecture interspersed with hypermodern stuff, which makes it all feel vaguely CGI. It's like it's a movie-set version of a college, not the real thing.

"Not far now!" Brian says over his shoulder. I approach the curb where he's waiting for the light to change. "Once we get to Greaves Street, our quad is right there."

"And how much farther is Greaves Street?" I ask.

"A mile or so."

"What?" I gasp.

"That's not so bad, is it?"

Maybe this is a test. "No, no, that's fine," I say as I try to rebalance the beast of a bag I'm carrying before it cuts off the circulation to my right arm.

Brian smiles. "Okay, green light. Let's roll."

Twenty minutes later, my arm feels as if it's about to fall off.

"We have arrived," Brian announces. "Welcome to our SEAS, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. We're big on the acronyms here at Henley."

I have no idea what Brian's specific area of study is. All I know is that he's the J. J. Dyckman Distinguished Professor of Applied Engineering. He opens the glass doors of the Merion Building, and we enter a two-story atrium. The space is open and bright: floor-to-ceiling glass partitions, white walls, oak doors.

There are a few indoor picnic tables, and he points to a fancy-looking hot-dog truck with a Henley blue-and-gold umbrella in the corner of the lobby. "If you're hungry, the Snack Wagon has all manner of sugary supplements as well as a large selection of healthy items. Too many healthy items if you ask me. But we're very fortunate here."

I nod, struggling to keep up.

"Most of the other buildings in the SEAS quad were designed in the nineteen seventies, by people I assume were blind," he continues dryly. "They were constructed almost entirely out of cinder blocks, giant fortresses of ugly. The Merion Building, however, was built by architects who knew something about aesthetics--it even features drywall." Brian raps on one of the walls with the knuckles of his right hand. He seems genuinely enthusiastic about the white drywall. Before I can wonder why, he adds, "You can tell how important a professor is by how much drywall he has in his office. Onwards."

His office is almost too predictable. There are papers and books piled everywhere; models of an anatomical cross section of the human head, the solar system, some sort of chemical structure. What's surprising is how sunny it is. Of course, this might have something to do with all the bright-white drywall. There's a lot of it.

"Sit, sit, please!" He removes the stack of papers from the visitor's chair. Pile in hand, he walks behind his desk then promptly dumps it on the floor. "It's my own system of organization. I call it 'dis-organization.'"

I try to smile, try to feel at ease. Not so easy. Dad gave me the impression that Uncle Brian was, in essence, a brain with teeth. Someone so brilliant he couldn't relate to normal people. "Peculiar," "cold," "never been married"--those were the descriptors overheard at the family gatherings Brian didn't bother to attend. The party line is that for all his eminent genius he isn't "quite right in the head." On the other hand, by letting me come here, he's saving my ass, so I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"Kass, close the door, will you?"

"Sure." I turn around in my chair and swing the door shut. On the back of the door is a poster with four class photos attached. At the top someone has stenciled hear summers, and underneath each headshot, names are printed.

"What are HEAR Summers?"

"Ah yes," Brian says. "They're the Henley Engineering Anomalies Research team. Meet Mara, Alex, Dan, and Pankaj--pronounced like punkedge."

"Punk edge?"

"Run it together like one word," he corrects. "Punkedge.

They're the students you'll be spending your time with while you're here. Now look at me."

As I turn back from the door, his phone's flash snaps in my eyes.

"Not bad." He nods and hits a few buttons on the screen. The picture begins to materialize from his printer. "An action shot. Here." He hands me the printout along with a thumbtack. "Will you put that up there with the rest? I'll print another to use with your Henley ID."

I glance at the photo, and he's right: it's not terrible. My straight blond hair is frozen midswing, and my lips are slightly open, still stained with the strawberry lip gloss I dabbed on while I was on the train. But as I'm about to tack the photo to the poster, I look more closely at the pictures of the others. They are not an average group of teens. They're all gorgeous. Like, modeling-agency attractive.

"Truly an extraordinary group of young people," Brian says.

"They certainly look extraordinary," I hear myself say as I attach my photo at the bottom of the bunch.

"Yes, they also happen to be good-looking; it's true. So you'll fit right in, Kass."

I turn and laugh. "Thanks, but I don't think--"

Brian holds up his hand in a "spare me" gesture. "As I was saying, your peers all have some marvelous qualities. Mara's an excellent artist. Alex speaks multiple languages. Dan is well known in the tech community for having created an alternative programming language. And Pankaj..." Brian pauses. "Well, he's what I'll call a character. He--"

There's a knock at the door.

"Professor Black," a voice says, "You home?"

"Yes, come in, come in."

I open the door, and one of the poster boys is in the hallway. He's even hotter than his picture: chestnut hair, slate-grey eyes, and swimmer's shoulders.

"Hi." He extends his hand to me. "I'm Alex."


"Kass is our newest HEAR Summer," Brian says. "She just arrived this morning."

"Glad you made it." Alex touches my arm just below the shoulder.

"Thanks." I awkwardly lean against the wall. "I was just learning about your group... Are you the computer guy?"

Alex shakes his head. "No, that's Dan. My claim to fame is that I can speak a couple of languages."

"He's being modest," Brian interjects. "He speaks five languages. And not just your standard slacker Romance-language fare. In addition to Spanish, this young man is fluent in Arabic, Mandarin, Greek, and Hindi. He can communicate with at least one of every three people on the globe in their native tongue. He's bound for Harvard in the fall. The State Department nearly had me killed for taking him out of their intensive language program so he could join us here this summer instead."

I try not to stare at Alex, opting for his photo instead. "That's... amazing."

Now Alex leans against the wall, managing to appear much less awkward. "Languages are easy for me. So it isn't a big deal. And I'm sure people would kill for you too. I mean, just look at you."

I feel a bright, hot blush spreading across my cheeks. "Speaking five languages sounds like a good party trick at the very least," I say quickly.

He laughs. "Trust me, where I'm from in Texas, it's considered only slightly cooler than juggling fruit. So I'm curious, Kass: What's it like to have an uncle like Professor Black?"

I try to think of the most diplomatic way to explain it. I catch Brian's gaze but can't read his expression. "We haven't really spent much time together," I reply honestly. "I'm glad that's going to change this summer."

"We did spend some time together when you were a young child, right here on campus," Brian clarifies. "I have pictures somewhere around here..." He picks up one of the avalanche-worthy piles on his desk, looks underneath it, then shrugs, acknowledging the futility of the effort. "Well, I'll find the photos at some point. Your parents would bring you when they came back for reunions. And you were also here for one of the many summer enrichment pro- grams my colleague Chris Figg and I used to run on campus."

Dad had reminded me of that too. But I only have the vaguest memories of the camp and the ponytailed man who ran it. Mostly I remember that it wasn't very camp-like. Not much fun, no swimming or volleyball, but lots of puzzle matching memory game type stuff. What stands out most vividly, still, is one mean little boy stomping on a popsicle-stick house I'd built. My first reaction was to cry; then I punched him. I think I was "excused" from the rest of the day's activities. I don't recall going back to camp after that.

"My parents met as students at Henley," I tell Alex, mostly to fill the sudden silence. "At a Hounskull party. It's one of the Concord Clubs." I hear myself spouting the story of my parents' romance, and I feel slightly ill.

"You wouldn't think so looking at me, but there are some very good genes in the Black family pool," Brian adds.

"Obviously." Alex smiles agreeably and gives me a wink. "So, Kass, are you staying in the dorms with the rest of us?"

I look at my uncle.

"She'll be residing with me," Brian explains. "My nephew, Kass's father, made that a condition of her stay here."

"Well that's too bad," Alex replies.

When our eyes meet, I wonder if he has a girlfriend. He must... though maybe they have a "what happens at Henley stays at Henley" policy?

Brian wags his finger at Alex. "We might have to watch out for this juggler." Before either of us can reply, he continues, "Kass, I know your dad hasn't told you much about what's expected of you this summer."

I nod, feeling Alex's eyes on me.

"As I mentioned, HEAR stands for Henley Engineering Anomalies Research," Brian explains. "It was established in the nineteen forties as an interdisciplinary department, comprised of engineers, physicists, neuroscientists, and psychologists." He pauses and I feel like he's waiting for me to ask a question.

"So... what do you study?"

For some reason, this makes Alex laugh. I can feel my face getting hot again.

"As the name suggests, we study anomalies," says my uncle, shooting a stern glance at Alex. "Phenomena that deviate from the common order."

"Let me translate," Alex says wryly. "He means they study random stuff that no one can seem to explain."

"You could do your research at my high school," I say, hoping to redeem myself.

Brian arches an eyebrow. "Really? What makes you say that?" He leans forward across his desk.

"I, um..." I summon my confidence. "A lot of kids pride themselves on being 'anomalies'... you know, bizarre and unknowable creatures. But most of them are just basic, trying to act cool. Then there are the kids who are far from normal but have no idea that's the case."

Alex laughs again. "That's every high school, isn't it?"

"Indeed." Brian nods. "And what we also find is that many young people who possess truly extraordinary minds try to hide their gifts. They're worried they'll be thought of as different, even freakish. But even average teenagers have fascinating brains from a neurological standpoint, far more interesting than the average adult brain."

I picture the lunch line in my high school cafeteria. I'm not sure I can agree with that statement. "What makes them--us--so interesting?"

"The adolescent brain is still growing and forging neural pathways, the roads on which thoughts travel. A teen brain also processes at lightning-quick speed. It tends to respond rapidly to chemical stimuli. That's part of the reason teenagers frequently act on immediate desires and gut instincts. Previously I worked with research volunteers and our graduate-student population at Henley, but I've found them lacking. The group I've recruited here this summer is special in part because yours is the time in life when people's minds are most open and receptive to triggers. That's what I'm interested in exploring and tapping."

Tapping? I look at my uncle. "Can I ask--"

"How do I plan to do this?" He laughs. "You're picturing me sawing open the top of your skull and poking around in your brain?"

"Well I wasn't until just now," I mutter.

"She's funny, your niece," Alex says.

Again, I feel a flush. I keep my eyes focused on my great-uncle.

"I want to access your brain at the point where thought processes form," Brian says, all business again, looking back and forth between Alex and me. "We'll be testing the chemical reactions that are involved in activating key neurons. We'll be trying to establish simultaneous reactions in all the group members. And we'll be running tests to see if we can establish neuronal networking."

I have no idea what he's talking about.

"Does that make sense?" he asks.

I nod. At least I'm not lying out loud.

"Everyone else in the group has already signed their releases."

Releases? To access our brains? I glance over at Alex.

"When I heard about the chance to work with Professor Black..." He shrugs as if he needn't bother completing the thought.

The skin between my eyes pulls together, a habit my mother tells me will lead to a set of wrinkles known as the "angry eleven."

Uncle Brian catches my reaction. "Kass, you're not having< second thoughts, are you?"

"No," I lie again. But duh, yeah, of course I am. Neuronal networking? All I can picture is a mad scientist running jumper cables between jars full of brains--mine included. Still, I can't risk getting tossed out of here on day one. "No, no, of course I'm not having second thoughts. I'll sign whatever you want." I smile, trying to defuse any tension. "So, have you guys already started this testing?"

"Individually, yes, among the other four these past two weeks. But I planned to wait for your arrival to begin the rest."

I shoot my uncle a that's impossible look.

It was only decided that I'd be coming here two days ago. That he "planned" for my arrival can't be right.

Copyright © 2015 by Robin Epstein


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