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When your IQ is so far off the scale that scientists are lining up to create new tests to measure it and Mensa is knocking on your door, there are only two ways to go in life. You can embrace your nerdly glory and live a life condemned to exist on the fringes, without any real human contact, or you can pretend. Or you can be an arrogant jerk like Greg, but he’s practically an entire category to himself no matter which way you slice it.
Like any other normal teenager, I just wanted to belong. Okay, at first it was frustrating that the rest of the class would take hours to understand what I’d figured out in three seconds, but that was easily dealt with: I just ignored school altogether. My real education happened in my spare time anyway; school was just somewhere I had to be, with people who I desperately wanted to like me.
They didn’t, of course. I mean, to begin with they accepted me and all, but there was always this vague sense of unease, like they knew I was hiding something, but couldn’t figure out what. And then bloody Mr Hangley had to perform what was tantamount to abuse on that poor, unsuspecting tangent secant theorem, and I couldn’t help myself: before I knew what I was doing, I’d opened my big gob and corrected him, and once the words started they just kept pouring out, a torrent I’d been hiding inside for so many years that when they finally spilled over, they flooded everyone within a five mile radius.
Actually, I can only vouch for the fact that they drowned my classmates, and very nearly Mr Hangley, who stood staring at me like I’d grown horns and started tap-dancing naked on the desk. Which, thinking back, may have been the smarter thing to do.
After that, there was no going back.
Megan cornered me right after class, fists on hips and eyes flashing. “What was that, then?” she demanded.
I did my best to shrink, to blend back into the crowd – but the crowd was no longer there. Instead, guys I’d just half an hour ago called mates were edging away from me, pointing and whispering, and I stood out like I’d always known I’d eventually have to, raw and naked and alone. So, eloquently, I shrugged and tried to pretend like I had no idea what she was talking about. Like lecturing your maths teacher on the subtleties of advanced trig was normal.
“I’m serious,” she said, tossing her hair. Man, you do not want to get Megan riled up. I swear, she’s part terrier or something, because once she’s latched onto something she does not let go, and she is scary. “What was up with that?”
“With what?” I snapped, shoving midgety year sevens aside so I could stomp away. Sure, that’s right, I thought. It’s not enough that my cover’s blown and I’m back to being Chris-fit again, bloody brunette Barbie has to come and rub it in, just to make sure I got the point.
“Your dazzling display of brilliance,” Megan said archly, tagging along at my shoulder.
I ground my teeth, staring fixedly at the far corner of the building, around which ladies never durst trod.
“Come off it, Chris,” she said, doing that hair-toss thing again. How do girls do that while they’re walking? How do they not lose their balance? I’ve seen even the most uncoordinated of girls manage the hair-toss feat without a problem. It must be another one of those mysterious things they get taught at Girl School.
“That was no act,” Megan continued. “You can’t possibly have made that up on the spot. I mean, anyone who knows anything at all about geometry could see Mr Hang-me was wrong from a mile away, but the cross products? Even I hadn’t thought about how that connected.”
Somewhere in all of that, I’d trailed to a halt, eyes wide and mouth gaping, frozen halfway through a step. Quickly, I wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve and quit the zombie impersonation. “What the hell?” I said. “You understood that?”
Megan shot me a scathing look that left me cowering. “Just because you’ve been too busy trying to be a dick to notice the rest of us.” She did that ‘tsh’ thing that girls do when they’re exasperated and stalked away, leaving me once again doing my zombie act at her back.
“Wait, what?” I said, hurrying to catch up. “The rest of us? The rest of us what?”
Megan pressed her lips together and glanced sideways at me. “You’re not the only smart kid in the school, you know.”
“I…” I trailed off. I’d been going to say that I knew that, of course – only clearly I didn’t. All this time I’d thought I was the only freakazoid hiding out in this teenage shark pit, alone and misunderstood, when really… I shook my head like a dog twitching away a fly. “How many?” I asked as I tagged along at Megan’s shoulder. I had no idea where she was going, but she hadn’t told me to get lost yet, and that was something.
Megan murmured something too soft to catch, then stopped, hands fisted at her sides, staring at me.
I caught myself shrinking away from her again and forced myself to straighten. Geez, I was twice her height, and even if she was smart enough to understand what I’d said back in maths, I was still arrogant enough to know I was smarter than her. I didn’t need to shrink from her.
“Four,” she said, laser-sights blazing. “Five, if we’ll have you.”
“If you’ll… have me?” Once more, I found myself wrong-footed and gaping. I should have realised then what that meant, but no guy jumps to the conclusion that a tidgey girl half his size could whip him arse over nostrils with his own intelligence and then run three times around the metaphorical block before he’d even got his feet under him again. I’m not saying it can’t happen – bloody hell, Megan is a monster – I’m just saying it’s not expected, all right? I’m not sexist. Megan’d eat me alive if I was.
“Yes, if we’ll have you. And just because you’re smart, don’t think we will. You’ve been enough of a dickhead the last three years that Greg’ll blow his nut when he sees you tagging along.” She spun around and marched off again.
“Wait, what?” I said, beginning to feel that that might be a fairly standard comeback to any conversation Megan was in charge of. “Tagging along to what?”
“You’ll see,” she said primly, turning a corner and shouldering her way through a glass door.
For a millisecond, I froze, mouth open like some gobbing goldfish, staring at the door. She had not just gone through that door without opening it. No way. I blinked. No, of course she hadn’t; there she was, holding the door open for me, impatience clearer than daylight. Of course she hadn’t gone through the door. Dimwit.
“Come on,” she said, continuing her march down the corridor. Before I could open my mouth and make an idiot of myself yet again – which would be what, like ten times in as many minutes? Dude, seriously: what was going on with the world? – she stopped outside a classroom door and took a deep breath. Her commando-queen façade slipped for a moment and she shot me a nervous glance. “Ready?”
I shrugged. “As I’ll ever be.”
Rolling her eyes, Megan pushed the door open and walked into the room. I hung back, not quite sure what I was expecting. A fanfare, maybe. Rabid applause. Maybe rotten fruit. But when nothing especially unusual was forthcoming, I stuck my head warily around the corner and peered into the room.
Four kids, two pretty normal looking and two looking like the King and Queen of the Geeks – glasses, ties, the pale, washed-out, pasty skin of people who spent too much time indoors, you know, the works – perched variously on chairs and desks, deep in conversation.
I stepped into the doorway, and they all completely ignored me. I forced my fists to unclench, shoving aside memories of my Chris-fit days, and cleared my throat. Nada. I cleared it again, louder this time.
The normal-looking guy lounging on one of the desks turned and nearly lost his eyebrows as they shot upwards. “What the hell?” he said, turning to Megan. (The other normal-looking kid. Not that anything about Megan is normal. It’s not normal to be super smart and wicked hot, is it? I mean, it’s just not fair on the rest of the gene pool. Never tell Megan I said that. Ever.)
“Easy there, mate,” I said, grinning my trademark bad-boy grin and raising my hands. “We’ll find your eyebrows again, don’t stress.”
“Greg.” Megan shot him a warning glare, which he kindly returned. She turned to me. “Guys, this is Chris. I told you he was one of us. Chris, this is Matt, Pip and Greg.”
The geeky guy and girl, who now I looked past the apparel were clearly related, nodded in a nonchalant sort of way. Greg, on the other hand, looked like he might fall off the desk. “What the hell, Megan?” he said. “You invited Chris? Are you insane? The guy’s fifty kinds of dick just on Mondays!”
“Thanks,” I said, shoving my hands into my pockets. “Nice to know my reputation precedes me.”
Megan rolled her eyes. “Seriously, can we put the testosterone away for like five second please? Greg, you should have heard the circles he ran Mr Hang-me in just now in maths. It was awesome.”
I totally didn’t glow at that. Totally.
Greg eyed me suspiciously. “He could’ve memorised it, or something.”
I raised an eyebrow, but Megan came gallantly to my rescue, shaking her head. “Nuh uh, he knew what he was talking about. He’s the real deal, Greg.”
Okay, I confess: I grinned. “Real deal, huh, Greg. She ever called you that?” I bounced on my toes.
Greg made to scramble off the desk, settling for killing me with his scary, scary eyes when Megan laid a restraining hand on his arm. I snickered.
“Oh, go wank yourself,” Greg muttered, and turned away.
I figured that was as good an invitation as I was going to get, so I strode into the room and pulled up a chair, flipping it around so I could lean on the back. “So,” I said. “What’s the deal?”
“Nothing,” Greg muttered again, but this time I had the distinct impression the angst wasn’t directed at me.
Sure enough, Megan shot him a filthy look before turning to me. “Officially or unofficially?”
I shrugged. “Whatever. Both.” I wouldn’t have admitted it for fifty bucks, but my heart began to pound. I was about to learn their big secret, and despite the fact that they were geeks to the max and the secret was probably about how they planned to finish extra credit homework before three pm, I was curious. And I hadn’t been curious about anything in a long time.
Megan’s lips twitched. “Officially,” she said carefully, “Greg is right. Nothing. Yet,” she stressed, shooting Greg another Look.
“And unofficially?” My palms itched and I rubbed them against my thighs.
Matt shifted in his chair. “Unofficially, we’re investigating the real-world effects of extreme scientific theory with the aim of utilising these theories to create an environment more conducive to justice, equity, and compassion.”
“We’re saving the world through science,” Pip added, smiling. She actually managed to be kind of pretty when she smiled – it was the contagious kind of smile that had me smiling back before I even realised what she’d said.
I shook my head. “Hang on, wait. What?” Again with the Confused Brethren act. Would I ever feel in control of a situation again?
“Justice, equity and compassion, dimwit,” Greg said helpfully. “Surely even your old band of miscreant friends have heard of the concepts?”
“Piss off, numbskull,” I countered, drawing on my superior wit and intelligence. Greg’s like that; he brings out the best in everyone.
Megan made a grumbling, growling sort of noise and tossed her hair. “This is going to be impossible if you two can’t get over yourselves.”
“Hey, you invited him,” Greg said, holding his hands up in defence.
“And it’s not my fault Greg’s insecure about having another male around,” I added, lifting an eyebrow. “Um, no offence,” I said quickly, nodding at Matt, who just shrugged.
“Oh, would you shut up,” Megan said, voice full of exasperation. “Do you want an explanation or not?”
I hesitated for just a second, then swallowed the bickering and nodded. “Yes.”
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