Cast of Wonders 411: Studies on the Impact of Homeschooling, or When Not to Wear a Tuxedo
Studies on the Impact of Homeschooling, or When Not to Wear a Tuxedo
by R. Rozakis
“Daddy, can I use the atom scramblizer?” Hilde kicked her heels against the metal cabinet she was perched on.
“No, pumpkin.” All she could see of him were his feet sticking out from underneath the giant chassis.
“How about the temporal destabilizer?”
“Can I at least graft some new wings onto Spuffy?”
Her father slid out from under the chassis, pushing his goggles up onto his forehead. Dr. Acheron von Phlogiston never went anywhere without his goggles. He’d even convinced them to let him keep them during his jail stints. Not that those ever lasted long before he’d craft an ingenious device from common cutlery and break his way free once more. “Sweet pea, we’re at a critical juncture in this plan and I need to concentrate. Can’t you find something to do in your room?”
“You won’t let me keep any of the good equipment in my room,” Hilde said. She pulled her lip back in. Twelve was entirely too old and mature to still be playing adorable moppet. If she wanted her parents to take her seriously, she needed to stop pouting when she didn’t get her way. She’d made a list of behaviors to avoid, and pouting was right at the top.
“Hildegarde, are you bothering your father while he’s trying to make the final adjustments to the duplicator?” Her mother swept in, high heels clacking and her lab coat billowing behind her. Dr. Octavia von Phlogiston, nee Brown, had perfected the arts of trans-species transplants and walking through a lab strewn with rejected mechanisms in stilettos without tripping. “Darling, the telepathic marmot is ready to go. All we need is to copy another three thousand of them, and then we can release them into Davos during the World Economic Forum, and the elites of the world will be under our total control.”
Somehow that didn’t seem quite right to Hilde. “Won’t they stop being under control when they leave? Are they supposed to take the marmots home with them?”
Her father heaved himself to his feet, blinking hard to reset the microscopic lenses her mother had crafted to replace his pupils. “Ah, sweetie, that’s why I bought three thousand cat carriers. They’ll all be very pleased with their new pets.”
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” her mother said, stepping over a rejected ventilator and interlacing her fingers with his. “This one will work, Ronnie. In just a few days, they will tremble before us. And then, together, we shall rule the world!”
Her mother began to laugh, the rich, throaty, evil cackle that Hilde loved. Her father joined in. But then her father seized her mother’s face, kissing her hungrily. Her mother molded her body against him.
Hilde stared politely at the wall for a few minutes. But the kiss didn’t seem likely to end in the near future. She was well acquainted with the facts of life; her mother had drilled her in biology lessons at an early age. While she was generally all in favor of making her own observations, that did not mean she wanted the subjects in question to be her parents. Besides, if they didn’t get back to work soon, their timetable would be off and then they would both be cross for weeks. She cleared her throat.
Her parents broke apart with a gasp, and then had the grace to look ashamed.
“There’s a prisoner in Lab B,” her mother offered. She would never apologize in words, but Hilde took the offering as it was meant. “I’m all done, you can play with him if you want.”
“Really?” Hilde hopped off the cabinet, grinning. “Come on, Spuffy! Here, Spuff!”
She hurried out before they could change their minds. Spuffy trotted behind her, panting, the nails of all six legs clicking on the tile.
“Don’t forget to take out the trash!” her father called after her. She sighed. She was more likely to remember her chores than her parents were.
The von Phlogiston residence at the moment was a Swiss castle, with half the rooms full of scientific equipment and half full of ill-preserved furniture. It was not Hilde’s favorite of their various homes over the years. She’d liked the undersea research station. The tropical island had been nice, especially the mango trees before her mother had mutated them. The various bunkers were less fun, although none had been as drafty as the castle was proving to be. She supposed after the Davos thing failed, they’d find somewhere new. She hoped it was warmer.
They were all lonely, though. Science was not congenial to bystanders, at least not the way her parents practiced it. She’d tried to argue once that they should send her to a boarding school so she could acquire proper socialization. (She’d spent two weeks researching arguments against homeschooling first.) Her mother had sat her down for a devastating anthropology lecture on the dominance and display rituals of pubescent children, with slides Hilde could tell had been prepared in advance. She’d also shown Hilde the scar on the bridge of her nose from where bullies had repeatedly broken her glasses in fifth grade. Hilde hadn’t asked again.
But now she had someone new to talk to, at least until they escaped or were dissected. If she’d been younger, she would have skipped.
She turned on the blowers in Lab B to disperse the sleeping gas and waited for a few minutes. Then she held up a palm to the scanner. The door obediently slid open.
The metal examining table was tipped up toward the opposite wall, so she couldn’t see its occupant from the doorway. The occupant clearly heard her enter, though.
“So what will it be?” asked a man’s voice. Cultured. Maybe British? Like someone out of a movie. “You’ll lower me agonizingly into a pit of molten lava? Or perhaps a tank of water full of piranhas?”
She slowly walked around the examining table.
“Or perhaps your patented mentalizor ray to break my will—oh. Hello. You aren’t Dr. von Phlogiston.” He finally caught sight of her.
“Not yet,” she said, and hopped up on the stool. Her legs still dangled. “I’d think the disintegrator chamber would be the easiest, but they always go for the complicated stuff and then the heroes always get away.”
“Quick, child,” he said, looking increasingly concerned. “You must complete your escape. Now, before either of them can return. Don’t worry about me, save yourself.”
Hilde studied him. He had a fancy tuxedo on, which seemed to her like a weird thing to wear to break into a castle. Or a lab. The little black button things down the front of his shirt had all been removed, which made her think maybe they had been explosives or spy cameras or something. She twitched one eyelid and let her ocular implant refocus and extend a bit. She was disappointed to see that there were white buttons underneath the black ones that held the whole thing together. She’d always thought the black ones were actual buttons. That was just silly. Who needed two sets of buttons?
The prisoner gasped, though. “My god. You poor girl. What have those monsters done to your eye?”
Her temper flashed and for a moment she forgot that she’d meant to play a game with him. “They didn’t do anything. Mother let me design my own eye, thank you very much. And then she let me help with Daddy’s. I scooped out the whole thing, all by myself, and didn’t even touch the optic nerve. Mother said I was turning into a very fine surgeon.”
His mouth hung open for a second. On one hand, she’d completely ruined the game. On the other, it was worth it for that expression.
“You…you’re their daughter.” He looked like someone had stolen one of his frontal lobes.
She was insulted. Whatever organization had sent him to stop her parents didn’t brief him on her. Maybe hadn’t even heard of her. What was the point of becoming one of the world’s youngest, most brilliant scientists if no one even knew you existed? “Obviously.”
“You’re a tiny evil mad scientist,” he said, trying to slowly recoil but not getting very far because he was strapped to a steel table. “In pigtails.”
Hilde’s hand went up to her pigtails and her cheeks felt hot. Maybe it was time to stop wearing pigtails? But she liked how they kept her hair out of her face while she was working. “I’m not sure about the evil part yet.”
He stopped recoiling and started to look interested. “What do you mean?”
What did she mean? It had been bothering her for a while. She couldn’t talk to her parents, obviously, but she didn’t have anyone else to talk to. And it wasn’t like he was going to tell them. “I just mean…I don’t know if I want to be evil. I don’t actually want to take over the world.”
“What do you want to do?” It was the first time someone had asked her that.
“I want to invent stuff,” she said slowly. “And discover stuff. But…maybe I want to use that to help people? There has to be more to science than just showing them all. I want to show them all…something. Something useful.”
“But your parents…?” he invited.
“They just…ugh!” She kicked the base of the examining table. “They make all these amazing inventions and then they just use them for another try at world domination. And it never works! Half the time someone like you comes in at the last second and foils them. And half the time it all blows up by itself anyway. And then we have to move again. I don’t think they even know what they’d do if they did win! I just want to stay in one place for a while. Maybe make some friends. Be normal girl.”
Spuffy yipped at her raised voice. She leaned down with open arms and he bounded into them, so she could scoop him up into her lap.
The prisoner’s eyes were wide. “That…is not a normal dog.”
“Spuffy?” She cocked her head a little, examining him. Spuffy wagged both tails. “No, he’s only about…” she did the math in her head, “13% dog. And not all the same dog. He started out Spot, and then I added Fluffy, but I stopped adding names because it was getting hard to pronounce. I use him to test new theories.”
“I see.” He took a deep breath. “So you want to keep the “mad” part of the mad science, then.”
She made a face. “Normal science is boring. Mother said she gave up on normal science after her grant proposal was rejected three times and then her advisor hit on her. If someone hits on me, I’m going to breed a giant plant to eat them.”
“That sounds a little evil.”
“If people go around hitting on people, they deserve it,” she said. Secretly, she wasn’t sure she knew exactly how to recognize if someone were hitting on her, but her mother had been really angry about it, so it must be really bad.
“Do you worry about being evil?” he asked. “Since you haven’t been around good people much?”
That shocked her into silence. It was so similar to what kept her awake at nights. Was it enough to just not take over the world? What did normal people do? She swallowed. “But how am I supposed to tell?”
He gave her a funny smile, all crooked on one side. It made his eyes twinkle, and made her want to make him smile again. “I guess you need a model of sorts, don’t you. Someone who knows how good people might behave.”
It wasn’t like it hadn’t occurred to her. She’d just never been able to figure out how she could meet someone. But…he was a hero, wasn’t he. He’d come to stop her parents from taking over the world, so he must be a good guy. “I suppose I could come talk to you, couldn’t I?”
“Well, I’m not sure how your parents would feel about that.”
“Not good,” she agreed.
He cocked his head. “Do you want to see me get dropped into lava or lobotomized?”
She shook her head.
“Do you think it would be a good thing for the world if your parents took it over?”
She thought about it. Her dad would probably lose track of the fact he was in charge after a few days and let most of the world economies collapse. Her mother would just use everyone for test subjects. And Hilde knew better. You needed someone left normal, if only to be the control. She shook her head again.
“You know,” he said softly. “Part of being good means making hard decisions sometimes.”
She didn’t like the decision she was heading towards, but she didn’t really see a way around it. Not if she wanted to be good. “You want me to let you go, don’t you.”
“Do you think you can help me save the world, little girl?”
She wasn’t a little girl, but she knew this wasn’t the time. She took a deep breath. “I’ll let you out. And I’ll help you escape. You can probably save everyone if you just get some big rodent traps. But you need to leave my parents alone, not hurt them.”
So she hopped down from the stool and tapped at the controls until the metal cuffs at his wrists and ankles slid back into the table with a hiss. He rubbed at his skin and sat up.
“Be careful standing up, you’re going to be woozy.”
Of course he stood up too fast and staggered. Adults never listened to her. But he kept moving.
“We need to hurry,” he said.
“Ok, follow me. The more squeaking you hear, the less time we have.” She led him out into the hallway.
They moved fast. Spuffy clicked along behind them. Fortunately, there was no one in the lower levels of the castle to notice. Finally, they came to the end of a darkened hallway. There were two glass doors, leading to two small circular rooms.
“This is it,” she said. “The door on the left is the elevator shaft down to the base of the castle. You should be able to escape into the woods from there.”
“And the right?”
“Goes up to the command center.”
He darted past her, into the right-hand shaft, and slammed the glass door behind him.
“You promised! You promised to leave them alone!”
“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice was muffled behind the glass. “But it must be done.”
“I thought you were one of the good guys!” Her throat tightened up.
“I am,” he said. “But sometimes good guys have to do bad things for the sake of the greater good.”
She folded her arms. “That’s horrible.”
“That’s life, my dear. Now, you’ll have to excuse me.” He fumbled at the controls.
Feeling betrayed, she pushed the intercom button on the wall.
“What is it, sweetie?” her father’s voice echoed. “We’re kind of busy at the moment.”
“I just wanted to tell you I’m taking the trash out like you asked,” she said.
“Oh good,” her mother chimed in. “Which did you choose?”
Her mother sighed. “We need to work on your panache, darling.” Frantic squeaking burst out of the speaker. “We’ll talk later. Who knew marmots could be so feisty?”
“Wait, what? Disintegrator chamber?” The man froze, staring at her.
“You chose it,” she said. “The other one really does go to the forest.” She’d really hoped she had been wrong. But her mother had been sure that her curriculum included a full section on social engineering.
He started to look panicked. “Wait. We can discuss this. I thought you didn’t want to be evil!”
“I don’t. Good daughters take care of their parents.” She turned Spuffy’s head so he couldn’t see and pushed the big red button. “And I choose to be good.”
About the Author
R. Rozakis has the amazing superpower of causing professors and technicians to stare at her lab equipment and say, “I’ve never seen it do that before!” Her current job in marketing in New York City seems so much safer, really. Her biggest argument with her exceedingly patient husband is in what order they should show Star Wars to their son. Previous work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Allegory, Liquid Imagination, Bards & Sages, Weirdbook, Every Day Fiction, and the anthologies Substitution Cipher, Clockwork Chaos, and Baker Street Irregulars II. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won LUMINA’s 2018 Speculative Fiction contest.
About the Narrator
Kaitie Radel is a music education student and aspiring voice actress, has been voice acting as a hobby for two years. In addition to this project, she has participated as both a VA and administrator in several fan projects such as The Homestuck Musical Project and Ava’s Melodies.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.