Whateley Academy, Twain Cottage, 2nd floor
Monday, February 5, 10:45 PM
Life is rough when the world chooses to constantly dump on you. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been cursed by small minds and the malicious twists of fate. “God never intended for man to meddle in the genetics of living creatures,” they say.
Excuse me, but what I do makes a heck of a lot more sense than meddling in the genetics of dead creatures. I mean, think about it. And frankly, I have a few complaints about the so-called “great designer.” Puh-lease! I’ve seen cats come up with better designs while coughing up hairballs. Assuming He exists, which I rather doubt, the Grand Engineer can be credited with some decent creativity. Just look at the Cambrian Explosion. My personal theory is that the Burgess Shale represents God’s LSD phase, and He later decided to conceal the whole mess with a flood or an asteroid or something. But even if you credit His wacky creativity, He doesn’t have much in the way of solid engineering. I’d rank Him as a sophomore, at best. Well, compared to me.
So when people bring up the “God never intended” argument, I have several reasonable counter examples. I engage the Luddites in a discussion over facts, morality, genocide, or simply the endless varieties of life. Naturally, along the way, I take the opportunity to enlighten them on their own abysmal ignorance and utter lack of scientific accomplishment. But people like that can’t really engage in reasonable discourse. The immediately accuse me of being arrogant! Me! And then they get enraged, and soon threats are flying back and forth. They swear to shut me down, or hit me with a U.N. injunction, or stage a boycott or something absurd. I swear to blow them off the face of the earth, or infect them all with bubonic plague or something. In the end, nothing really changes except that maybe there are a few less Luddites around.
And then, the other half of my curse steps in. When the Small Minds are unable to stop my good works, Fate decides to oppose me. I’ve been struck with all manner of unlikely accidents – slave revolts, mass escapes of venomous animals, boycotts, biohazard emergencies, U.N. injunctions.
I try to take it in stride, with my usual sunny disposition. But sometimes it’s hard.
Here’s an example. “What a piece of work is man.” So there I was, on the verge of solving one of man’s all-time greatest problems: man. Well, in this case, woman. I had designed the perfect woman. Better in every way: stronger, smarter, longer lived, more durable, more affectionate, far better looking. I mean, we’re talking about a major upgrade here. Okay, not perfect, I’ll reluctantly grant that. I’m still working on a good knee design. But we’re talking about the biggest thing since Eve.
And what happens? Fate steps in, trying to stop me. I had a momentary lapse of attention, and injected myself with the formula.
I swear, sometimes the frustration is enough to make you want to give up.
But I’m better than that.
In this case, my own cleverness was enough to bring things back under control. Granted, in the past month the regenerator cells of my genetically engineered “drow” template have spread in a fine dispersion throughout every part of my body. They’re still sitting there, growing slowly and patiently, trying to “heal” my body back into the template form I’d designed.
Unfortunately for them, the human brain is just a little too clever. Well, my human brain, at any rate. I was currently taking, morning, noon, and night, a special cocktail of exotic chemicals and tailored pharmaceuticals. It wouldn’t kill the regenerator cells (the little bitches were damn tough), but it sure as hell slowed them down. In the meantime, I was working on a cure.
That’s not to say that there were no side effects. As always, my morning shower was an adventure in frustration. There was the normal issue that snow on the ground outside seemed to mean less hot water inside. Not only was I forced to cope with practically third-world conditions, I had to do it with a handicap. I had white gloves on both hands, socks, and an assortment of bandages all over my body as I headed into the tile dressing room to wait for my shower.
Harry was just coming out. “Next!”
“Dammit, you didn’t leave the drains clogged again, did you?”
The cursing was from Scott Harrison. He’s taller and stronger than most of the rest of the freshmen, but has nothing on Harry, who’s six-foot-eight and nearly 300 pounds of werewolf muscle.
Harry was sincere, too. He wasn’t the type to lord it over people he could dominate. Go figure!
“I ought to use your body to clean it out,” Scott threatened.
Harry just grinned back at him. “Mutual defense pact!”
The rest of us nodded. Us first-years had a deal. Scott possesses people, but we’d agreed that if he took any of us over, the rest of us would grab his unconscious body. Anything bad he did to them, we echoed on his own unconscious body. Which had led to the well-remembered “shaving incident” and the “dual skunk knockout.” But Scott had his uses, so we defended him when it worked to our advantage. None of us was likely to forget the visit by a possessed Tansy Walcutt, at the start of the year. “Sloppy Solange,” as we’d called her ever since. So Scott got a lot of slack from us.
Delwin Florian looked me over, almost cringing as he did so. The guy’s an inch taller than me, and he cringes. Which indicates the fairly high native intelligence he possesses.
“What’s with all the band-aids, Jobe? Is that where you’re turning into a black chick?”
“I am NOT turning into a ‘black chick’!” I informed him, in no uncertain terms. “First, she’s a drow. Dark elf. Not a ‘black chick.’ There’s a difference. Second, I’ll be cured long before there’s any danger of ‘turning into her’!”
A hand (just a hand) appeared in the air and ripped off one of the larger band-aids on my arm. Underneath was a patch of smooth black skin the size of a nickel.
“Cheese!” I bellowed.
The little twerp just giggled and dropped the band-aid, as his hand re-appeared back on his arm where it belonged. “Looks like drow skin to me!”
When the jig is up, you need to adapt smoothly.
“Well, yes, obviously.” I recovered. “But it’s only temporary until I perfect the cure. Still, it’s pretty good workmanship.” I tugged my left glove off, displaying a hand that was completely black. “I mean, look at that quality. Imagine that skin on your girlfriend.”
So we’re standing there in the shower, towels wrapped around our waists, and the guys start feeling up my hand. At first, I was glad that they appreciated the workmanship involved, but then I started getting a little creeped out, and snatched my hand back.
“Hey! That’s just a sample, so don’t get carried away.”
“How come your palm isn’t light,” Cheese wondered. Figures the little genius would spot that. “A lot of blacks have light palms and soles, since gestures are so important for communications. Did you overlook that when you designed the drow?”
“No.” I drew the word out. ME, overlooking a major design detail? I allowed a fair trace of the obnoxious to enter my voice. It isn’t often I get one up on Cheese. “It’s just that the light skin makes you easier to spot at night, too. So I improved on the light-colored palm, considerably.”
I held my hand out and flexed that odd not-a-muscle that activated the bio-luminescence. The palm of my hand – my gripping skin – glowed with a pale green light.
“See? Communications when necessary, signals, even my own flashlight. And when you want to be unseen in the dark,” I extinguished my glow “voila.”
“Kind of a … delicate … looking hand, isn’t it?”
I pulled my glove back on. “You guys are just perverted,” I told them all. “It’s a hand. A strong, man’s hand.” I held out my gloved hand. “Handshake challenge, anyone?”
Steve Tupolo took me up on it. He’s six foot to my five-three, but he doesn’t have any strength powers.
“Give me a squeeze, ladyfingers.”
I crushed the hell out of his hand before he cried for mercy.
“That’s what you get for the ‘ladyfingers’ remark.”
I thought about my ‘growing’ problem as I waited in line for the shower. The ‘cocktail’ that I’d worked up had slowed the advance of the regenerator cells. Except for one very important loophole. Whenever I was bruised or cut or wounded in any way, the regenerator cells would be there first, filling in the gap. Every injury I took made me more and more drow. Combat and fighting practice had bruised my hands, sending shocks and impacts down to the bones themselves. Hence, black hands. My agility had spared me from most big bruises elsewhere, but I wasn’t sure how long that would last.
The whole wound-regeneration was a bad thing … mostly. But I couldn’t help taking advantage of it in some ways. Exercise, particularly weight training, is a very specific type of injury you do to your body. You deliberately tear your own muscle tissue. When that tissue heals, each cell has become two or three muscle cells. Thus, exercise temporarily weakens you, but in the long run it leaves increased muscle mass, more cells, more strength.
This whole tear-heal process takes about three days for a normal human. For a regenerator, it takes anywhere from seconds to hours. I’d measured myself, and I came in at about twenty minutes. I’d spent an extremely productive half day on the weight machines, moving from machine to machine as I worked out different muscle groups, exercising until I was ready to drop. But by the time I came around to the first machine, I was significantly stronger.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
It was a good analogy to consider, as I finally got my shower.
I’d never been particularly strong growing up. Never saw much need for it. But last week, I hit the gym, and in the course of three days, I pushed myself to a level of strength and power that I had never imagined. I was now in the exemplar-three category, strength-wise. That is, I was as strong as the best norm you’re likely to come across. I mean, the best bodybuilder norm. There was still room for improvement. My calculations indicated that I could ultimately get up in the exemplar-four range, but I’d need a lot more varied training.
And, of course, there was the “gotcha.”
Initially, I was thrilled. Day by day, I became measurably stronger, without turning into some sort of bulked-out brick. Instead, I was like me, only more so. The small band of irritating fat around my middle vanished. My body shape hardly changed, but feeling my biceps and body, I was much harder, under my skin.
The excitement of discovering my new aptitude for weightlifting led me to momentarily forget that females add muscle differently from males. The fat had left my waist, but remained elsewhere. Not that there was much of it. At best, I still retained a thin layer of “baby fat.” But the chiseled, heroic figure I knew I deserved didn’t have any fat at all, in my mental conception.
Instead, I actually gained a bit of fat on my face. My features softened slightly. I also seemed to gain a small layer of subcutaneous fat nearly everywhere except my waist. It hid the muscle definition I’d hoped to display.
That’s why I’d surprised Steve in our test of strength. I looked myself over critically, as I rinsed off. I was the same as yesterday. Smooth skin, soft on the surface, hard just underneath. I passed my hand over my body, noticing that I was losing hair. That was also due to the influence of the regenerator cells, but I’d expected it.
There was something new.
I sluiced the rinse-water off of me, running my hand down my belly and down my hips.
There was no doubt. I had picked up a small mound of…. I poked it. It felt like fat. I’d picked up a small mound of fat, just at the front of my hips. Just above my penis.
I had a mound. A mons pubis, to be technical.
This is not a feature of male anatomy.
I cut the shower short, and rushed back to my room.
Wondering what new harm my weightlifting had done, I closed and locked my door, then scrutinized myself in the mirror.
I was looking better than last week. Stronger, sleeker. My arms were strong – I knew that from the weight machines, but they remained thin. Any muscle definition was concealed by that slight layer of subcutaneous fat.
I had little shoulder development – no change there. I’d lost some bulk from my neck, and my face looked softer. My waist was more trim – I’d lost all the fat there.
The only muscle bulk I seemed to have added was in my thighs, and to a lesser extent, my hips. It was still looking sleek and hard, rather than the more defined cords of strength I’d been trying to achieve. In fact, the line of my waist, hips, and thighs almost seemed to hint at…
I did an immediate blood draw, ignoring the fact that the needle site quickly healed over with perfect dark skin.
The blood work confirmed my theories. Significantly depressed levels of testosterone. Elevated estradiol.
How the hell?
It’s not like I didn’t have testes! A quick ultrasound (rather more advanced than a hospital version) confirmed the total lack of ovaries or uterus, praise be to Crick and Watson.
So where was the estradiol coming from?
It was produced in small quantities by the adrenal glands. Surely, regenerator cells in the adrenal glands couldn’t be compensating for my (from their point of view) low estrogen levels, could they?
Estradiol was a big concern. It governed a whole suite of activity, including both secondary sexual characteristics and brain development.
Double crap. That was just what I did not need. The very thought that I might someday feel stirrings of interest for the pathetic losers I shared my shower with, was enough to put me off breakfast.
It was time to face the music and make another call to Dad. I went up to my room and locked the door. I wasn’t worried about Oak coming back in – he’s never indoors during the day, not if he can help it. He’s even more of a sun worshipper in the winter, when he’s got limited hours.
So after locking the door, activating the anti-eavesdropping security (one of Dad’s gizmos – I’ve got no idea what it does), closing the curtains, starting the white noise generator in the background, and setting up the cameras, I was ready to make the call.
I called up the software on my laptop, and punched the encryption codes in.
The screen cleared, and a dignified black man answered.
“You have reached the Emperor of Karedonia. I’m afraid his Imperial Majesty is not – Oh, it’s you, Jobe. Just a moment, I’ll put you through.”
The view switched to a hospital bed. Dad seemed to have a few dozen IV tubes stuck in him.
“Hello, son! Called to congratulate your old man?”
“What’s up, Dad?”
“I just cheated death … again!” He began to laugh, then started coughing.
“Isn’t it time you started taking it easy?” I asked.
“Not my fault, boy. This was an actual invader. Flew right up to the palace. You remember Red Hand of Death?”
“A few decades before my time,” I admitted. “Wasn’t he a wanted criminal?”
“Still is. I guess he does the occasional hit, these days. Ah, that was a fight in the old style. Him swearing vengeance, vowing that I’d pay for my crimes. Lightning flashing, as we battled like titans…”
“Gee, sounds great Dad. Listen, I have something to tell you—”
“Then he ripped my still-beating heart from my chest.”
That got my attention. “What? The new heart I cloned you last Father’s Day?”
“That’s the one.”
I scowled. “What was this guy’s name again? And did he get away?”
“Son, I don’t want you getting involved! This is my fight.” Under his breath, he muttered, “It’s not like I’ve got that many of them, these days. I’ll track him down, don’t worry.”
“No, I told you that I would handle it. I’ll make sure to extract a painful revenge. I can still teach my son by example.”
“It’s not that, Dad. It’s just… the patents haven’t cleared yet on the heart I cloned. If he takes it to a foreign biotech firm, it could really cut into my future profits.” Then the reality of the situation struck me. “Oh, hey, and how are you doing? You’re looking pretty good, for having your heart ripped out. Should I drop down to the island, maybe clone you a new one?”
“No, I’m going mechanical. Should have done it years ago. Much stronger than any of that biological junk.”
I tried to keep my mouth shut about that one. Dad and I get into enough fights as it is.
“So what’s up with your life, son? Have you finally seen the light? Have you switched to those computer and electronics classes, the way I advised you to?”
“Dad…” I tried not to get angry.
“I’m sorry, son, it’s just … well, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, Dad. It’s about my drow project.”
“Still trying to make a girlfriend, huh? At least in that, you’re a chip off the old block. Let me tell you, son, it doesn’t work! You can’t build a girlfriend.” He leaned toward the camera, speaking confidentially. “Robots are just no good in the sack! Believe me!”
“Dad!” I covered my hand with my face, grateful that no one else was seeing this. I hope Dad’s encryption technology was as good as he thought it was.
“No, son, the true secret, the true aphrodisiac is power. If it worked for Henry Kissinger, it’ll work for anyone. Once I was an emperor, I had to beat the girls off with a stick.” He frowned. “Actually, a baseball bat, in one case.”
“Dad, it’s like this—”
“Not that I didn’t have problems, along the way!”
“Dad, I had an accident!”
Mom leaned into the screen. “Don’t worry Dear! That’s nothing to be ashamed of in boys your age. Just change the sheets, and no one has to know.”
Maybe this call was a mistake.
Dad, who was probably regretting the whole “dim-witted is cute” idea that he’d had in his youth, was zeroing in on the real problem.
“Problems with the formula, son, or did you finally finish it? What’s the matter? Someone steal it?”
“Well, yes, a sample. Don’t worry, I’ll find the culprit and inflict exquisite agony upon them. No, there’s a different issue.”
His eyes narrowed. I think he guessed. The old man can be fairly sharp, sometimes.
“Yeah, Dad. I accidentally injected myself.”
His eyes narrowed. “You know that I didn’t mind having a black girl as a daughter-in-law. I’m as open-minded as anyone—”
“She’s not black, Dad, she’s drow.”
“Be that as it may, I won’t have a black girl for my son!”
“It’s not a problem, Dad! I’m working on the cure right now.”
His eyes hadn’t softened. “You were planning on marrying this girl, right?”
“Well, her or one of her genetically-identical clone sisters. I figured I might have to go through a few, before I got a personality that worked out, you know?”
“Son, I may not know a lot about ‘genetics’ and the so-called sloppy sciences, but if you were planning on marrying her, how much genetic code did she share with you?”
“Not much, obviously. It’s not like I’m keen on incest or anything.”
His eyes hardened even more. “Which means that this drow girl is no son of mine! Do I make myself clear?”
I sighed. “Yes, Sir.”
He scowled again. “What was that?”
Don’t you just hate calling home, sometimes?
I appeared in martial arts for the first time in weeks without band-aids. A self-examination of my white hand resulted in critical approval from that most discerning judge – me. The fingernail join still needed some work, but I doubt anyone would notice. In general, I considered my new spray-on skin to be a success. It was far better than those stop-gaps I’d been using.
I made a mental note to include first aid as a possible application. Between that and cosmetic use, the new invention should be good for a few million.
It occurred to me that the various freaks on campus might want it. Some of them went to a lot of work to pass in normal society. I’ve always felt that such charitable causes were a good idea – a trivial amount of effort often gained substantial payback in terms of obligation and favors. I made a mental note to speak with Thuban. He served as something of a broker for the freak community. Kind of a one-stop-shop for your freak and lackey needs.
Moving onto the mats, I felt strong and confident. Since my strength boost, I’d been able to do moves in fighting that I’d never dreamed of. Dad had provided some of the best hand-to-hand trainers available, since before I could walk. But my new strength gave me the speed and power to take things to a new level. More like three or four levels higher. The only difficulty was getting used to my new capabilities.
Today’s sparring had me matched against Counterpoint, a bully of a freshman that everyone gave a wide berth to. I just smiled, enjoying the challenge. He didn’t impress me all that much. He couldn’t hold a candle to some of the dinner guests we’d had back home.
Counterpoint strode onto the mats like he was the god of combat. “You’re that girl-boy everyone was talking about, aren’t you?”
I politely covered my yawn with one hand. I didn’t bother taking a stance. “And you’re Counterpoint. The bully boy, the big rep. I’ll rue the day, yada yada. Can we skip the color commentary and do some fighting? I have a few moves I need to practice.”
Counterpoint dropped into a crouch and began jockeying for position. “Let’s do this takedown hand-to-hand.”
I’d seen his version of grappling. He was flawless in his classical wrestling techniques, but he always made it look like he was trying to bugger his victim. And with his level of skill, I assumed the visual implications were all on purpose. Sort of an alpha-dog display, I expect.
Thank you, no.
Counterpoint is a tough foe. He’s not the best of the best in anything, but he’s third or fourth best in everything. He’s got the TK-superman package, strength, flight, force field. He’s only good for about two tons, but that’s far better than I’m ever going to manage. He’s got speed, too. Not actually speedster-level speed, he can only move at maybe 50 miles an hour. But he corners like a runner, not like a car, and his reactions and moves are sometimes too fast to follow. As if that wasn’t enough, he can shoot flame like a flamethrower, he has low level regeneration, and he’s got mental powers, too. But his most powerful ability is one I call the “super sphincter.” His ego has the strength of ten, and he’s got enough nasty black bile inside him for an entire platoon of thugs.
I smiled, anticipating the challenge. As soon as I cured myself of “girl drow”, I’d have to whip up a “guy drow” formula. Knowing that I was backed up by high-level regeneration made for an interesting attitude when approaching combat.
Question one was: How could Counterpoint be so powerful? Was he the jack of all mutant skills? Maybe an avatar, with a collection of really good spirits? Was he a mimic, like Thunderbird? Or did he have some sort of meta-skill, that he substituted for more “normal” mutant abilities?
I had no illusions about my ability to take him, but this is what practice is about. And if you’re going to get good, you need to be ready to take a few lumps.
I backed up a little, moving to circle Counterpoint, while reaching behind me to extract a handful of kunai. I keep a full load of them in belt packs, and in arm and calf sleeves. I usually had a pair of guns, too, but those had been forbidden during normal practice, so kunai it was.
Kunai were traditionally ninja weapons, meaning that unlike the finely honed perfection of samurai weapons, they were cheap throw-aways. Still, “cheap throw-aways” in an era of mass production were a far cry from the soft iron trowels of classical Japan. I’d convinced Dad to set up a factory, and we now supplied kunai and shuriken to a good percentage of the world’s ninja wanna-bees. We supplied thugs and lackeys, too, but that was another story. The Karedonian deluxe kunai was black anodized metal, razor sharp, with an arrowhead-shaped blade – a six-inch-long arrowhead. Behind that was a rubberized shaft to hold onto, followed by a small ring for attaching rope. They could stab, slash, be thrown, used as pitons, grappling hooks. My own were further modified to include poison or gas storage, organized by texture cues on the grip. Since they were (literally) throw-away items, I usually carried about fifty of them on me.
I flicked a trio at Counterpoint, but he didn’t even blink. They just bounced off his force field.
Maybe a different tack. I snagged a trio of kunai from my hip pack, making that little finger crochet-maneuver that connects the line to them. A moment later, I had a set of bolos swinging over my head.
“I’ve given you enough target practice,” Counterpoint decided. “My turn.”
I flung the bolas, he blurred forward. He was fast enough to dodge my thrown weapon. My training took over. Without conscious thought, a kunai had dropped from a wrist sheath into each hand, and I spun out of the way of his attack. As I spun, I slashed, trying to nick him.
He was already there, moving behind me, his arms coming up to immobilize both mine. I dropped, slashing out with both hands.
To my shock, it worked. The knives didn’t skitter along the frictionless surface of a force field, they sliced flesh!
I kicked and rolled, coming up to face my foe.
Counterpoint was still standing there, a look of horror on his face. He had nasty gouges down his right arm and left leg.
“Neurotoxin,” I explained. “Surprisingly painful, isn’t it? I can administer the antidote, if you give up. Otherwise paralysis should be complete in another fifteen seconds, followed by death by asphyxiation.”
Counterpoint glared, and I noticed an unusual thing. A sort of static ripple seemed to travel over his skin. It only took a fraction of a second, but each breath after that seemed to be a little easier. After five seconds, the combat aid interrupted us, saying, “Mr. Wilkins, I’m going to declare this match over. Administer the antidote. Immediately!”
“Not…yet!” Counterpoint ordered. “No one EVER beats me! No one! I’m going to squash him like a bug!” And with a massive effort, he began to move.
A normal person would have been completely paralyzed at that point. A regenerator, of a decent level, such as myself, would be partly on the way to a full recovery. Counterpoint was midway, fitting in with his sub-par regeneration abilities. But he didn’t have his force-field, either. There are subtle cues that can tip off the observant eye. Likewise, he wasn’t moving with speed.
Which meant, to my way of thinking, that he was probably a multiple sequential mimic. Still tough, hell yes. He could pick his four or five favorite powers and cycle through them. They might be weaker than the original, but he could create potent combinations. But, since he seemed to be sequential, he also had a weakness, as I’d just demonstrated. Apparently, he could only use one power at a time.
Moving more freely now, he said, “That fucking poison won’t work on me again.”
I shrugged. “I normally switch up every few days. Or immediately, if I’ve used it on someone.”
“Doesn’t help you now,” he said, making a feint.
“Good tip,” I replied. “Thanks. Maybe I should just carry an assortment.”
He was getting his speed back, which was not good news. On the other hand, he was going to need to keep his regenerator power going for at least an hour. Which meant that if my guess was correct, he couldn’t use any other powers. Still, that left him at Exemplar-three. I could match his strength, but only just. Could I match his speed and skills?
He snapped an arm forward again, moving in a bear-like rush. I flipped backward, launching a trio of kunai as cover.
He dodged two, but one penetrated. Before, I’d just slashed him. This one went in point first, unloading a full dose of toxin. That had to hurt. Even a regenerator as strong as me would be hard pressed to handle that.
Counterpoint swayed, then toppled.
“Win: Wilkins. Now, give him the antidote.”
So, training, planning, and a bit of luck had turned the tide for me. I hadn’t expected to win this one, and it left me feeling pretty good. I certainly didn’t plan a career as a front-line fighter. Deliberately putting yourself in harm’s way, week after week, was a sucker’s game. But it was nice to know that I could defend myself.
I was whistling in the showers. No new bruises, I’d won a fight against Counterpoint, and even learned some valuable intelligence. It was a good day!
Still, I’d kept enough situational awareness to shift to the side, when the ten-pound sledgehammer swung through the space my rib cage had been occupying.
I finished scrubbing my hair and leaned forward for a rinse. A sledge hammer isn’t exactly the quickest weapon.
“Hello Sledge,” I greeted. “What can I do for the Tigers today?”
“Not with the Tigers,” the black sophomore explained, in his quaint gutter accent. “’M doing work for my main man Ar—I mean, Counterpoint.”
“I didn’t think you usually did jobs for the man,” I said, getting that last rinse.
Sledge is an energizer, who boosts both strength and speed. It’s a shame his boost didn’t improve his thinking processes as well.
“Counterpoint is different. He comes through for the Tigers, we come through for him, hear?”
I held a handful of soapy water, trying to decide whether to shoot it for his feet or his eyes. “So what’s the problem? And why can’t Counterpoint handle it himself?”
“You made my man look weak out there. You fucked him over with poison! That’s over the line. So now you got to pay.”
Deciding there was no big threat, I rinsed my hands off.
“Sledge, Sledge, Sledge,” I admonished, “that’s the way I work! Everyone knows I use poison. Come on! This is Jobe Wilkins you’re talking to. Besides, you know how it goes, out on the mat. What happens in class stays there. No grudges. Hell, think of the number of times I’ve been beaten down! If I didn’t follow the code, half of campus would be dead or dying. You know I have a reputation for revenge. ‘Diabolical and extreme’ is the term that’s usually bandied about. But class is different! That’s why, next time you face me on the mat, you’ve got no worries. If you win, I’ll take my lumps. It’s just part of the learning process. But if you came after me somewhere else, like in here, you know that you’d have to kill me. Otherwise, I’d be forced to concoct some hideous revenge against you. But if you did kill me, my old man would come and wipe out you, and your family, and friends, and everyone you’ve ever met. It’s just not worth it. So I say, save it for some safe outlet, like next time you face me in class.”
“It’s not going to work like that.”
The voice came from the direction of my locker. Counterpoint stepped into view, and the other students finished dressing and began to flee.
“Sledge isn’t going to hurt you. I am. And I’m not scared by your sissy threats.”
You should be, I thought. But it didn’t seem wise to say that aloud. Instead, I tried to greet him humorously.
“Counterpoint! You aren’t looking so good. You should probably rest up for a few hours. Even with the anti-venom, a low-level regenerator like you is going to need some time to recover from a good neurotoxin. And frankly, tetrodotoxin is pretty potent, particularly when directly injected.”
The taller boy didn’t seem mollified by my advice. The locker room was nearly empty now, but Sledge was still there.
“Grab him,” Counterpoint ordered.
I dodged away from there, but a blur from the other side took hold of my upper arm. Then Sledge moved, and he moves fast. I looked over to my other assailant. Aries! He’s a speedster who usually hangs with the Alphas. Before I knew what was going on, each of my arms was held.
“What—” I began to question Aries, but Counterpoint took me between the legs, kicking fast and hard. The pain was excruciating. I would have doubled over if the two bully-boys weren’t holding me up.
My towel dropped off.
“Scrawny waste of flesh,” Counterpoint said, looking me over. “You should be a girl. You sure aren’t much of a man.”
He nodded again, and his thugs Aries and Sledge each hooked a foot around one of my legs, pulling me spread-eagle. I tried to gather myself for a move, but it took more than a second to shake off a blow like that.
It was a second I didn’t have. Counterpoint pulled back a booted foot and let swing, striking me square in the testicles. It broke through my self control and I actually let out a scream. I’m not quite sure what happened after that, but when my vision came back, I was still being held there. My locker was smashed open, and Counterpoint had one of my kunai, which had the distinctive gleam of fluid at the edges.
He leaned in close. “No one fucks with the god of slaughter,” he told me. “I fuck with them.”
Then he stabbed me low in the gut, as deep as it would go.
Of course, the toxin was nothing. Every day, I take the antitoxin that matches my daily selection of poison. It’s just part of my morning ritual, like selecting socks that match the tie.
It would be easier as a full regenerator. A few dozen inoculations and I’d be carrying around antibodies to all my favorite poisons.
I let out another scream and my nerve cells tore themselves apart and rebuilt, nearly as fast.
Gotta work on that cure, I reminded myself. Maybe tomorrow.
A teacher came pelting in.
“Wilkins! My god! What happened?”
I wrapped a hand, slippery with my own blood, around the kunai and extracted it, which prompted another scream. After gasping for a moment, I tried to answer.
“Nothing … serious …” I explained. “An accident. I apparently cut myself with my own knife. Oh yes, and kicked myself in the nuts. Hard.”
“This is inexcusable! Who did this?”
“I told you … it was an accident.”
He helped me up to the bench, grabbing a new clean towel to press against the slash in my gut.
“What can I do for you?”
You ever tried to breathe without using your abdominal muscles? It’s trickier than it sounds. After a moment, I answered weakly.
“I need a note to skip my next class. My next two classes. I should be fine by then.”
“Are you sure? You aren’t listed as having healing powers. Some new invention?”
“Something like that.” Apparently he didn’t listen to WARS, our local radio gossip.
“Granted,” he told me immediately. “There’s a cot in the coaching office. You can rest up on that. You’ll also be out of the way of the next class.”
“Good.” Then I remembered. “My blood, on the floor, it’s a biohazard.”
“Right. Thank you for that information. I’ll get on it. Anything else, Jobe?”
I gave a nasty smile, despite my pain. “Just tell the other students. How you found me. Also that it was three-on-one.”
“Are you sure, son? I hate to say such things about your schoolmates, but some of them are rather nasty opportunists. If word of your vulnerability goes out like that, you may be facing other trouble.”
That’s one of the things I like about taking martial arts in the morning. If something happens, I can deal with it at lunch. I was up and mobile long before lunch. The free pass let me make a quick trudge through the snow into Dunwich. Some of my friends – well, perhaps “acquaintances” is a better word – we have a group we call “The Bad Seeds.” Which sounds better than, “My parents are supervillains.” A few months ago, we went together on a very large locker up in Dunwich self-storage. Being Dunwich, it’s already protected against most psychic and magical attacks (so I’m told). A few of us added some extra security features. The locker is actually more of a walk-in vault, and we use it to store those countless extras from home that either don’t fit into a tiny dorm room, or else are forbidden by international law.
I retrieved a pair of small ping-pong balls, and extracted some slivers from my stock of BioWeapon Q-497.
The ping-pong balls were actually only hemispheres, with small protrusions like a soda straw. I loaded them up, and set one near the cafeteria entrance, and another in a bush near Counterpoint’s usual table. After getting an early lunch (that pass was so useful!) I finished setup.
I flipped open my laptop, and entered the blow-sniper command codes.
Dad had whipped up the ping-pong balls a few years back, to help me with a practical joke. Each device was equipped with a chameleon circuit, blending into the background. They contained tiny cameras, and an encrypted Wi-Fi link. I sat at my table, and monitored the campus network, tracking my targets, while looking at the “targeting view” (complete with sniper cross-hairs) in a small window to the side.
Pretty soon, my table began filling up. Jadis and Malachi Diabolik joined me, or She-beast and Techno-Devil, as they’re more commonly called.
“Are you okay?” Jadis called, her voice full of concern. “I heard…”
“Counterpoint got you good,” her brother finished. “Gutted you like a fish, was what I heard. After kicking the shit out of you, including stomping the old gonads.”
“Correct in spirit, but missing a bit in accuracy,” I informed them. “And he had Sledge and Aries holding me.”
“Yeah, I heard that,” Jadis said. Her voice suddenly filled with concern. “Oh, Jobe, you aren’t going to kill them, are you?”
“For this? Hardly. But I think they do need a bit of a lesson.”
“Why not snuff ‘em?” Malachi asked, with mild curiosity. He peered over my shoulder at the laptop screen. “What’s that?”
In the small targeting window, Counterpoint had just sat down. I aimed carefully. He probably had his force field back on. But his stew had chunks of beef in it. I targeted the top piece.
“Malachi,” I asked, “do me a favor and insult Counterpoint, would you?”
Malachi stood. “Hey, Counterpoint! You SUCK!” he yelled, over the growing din of the cafeteria.
In the targeting window, Counterpoint looked up, away from his food. I hit the space bar to fire. The top cube of meat moved slightly, as a frozen sliver of biological material impacted it.
Counterpoint shrugged and turned back to his food. It looked like he was laughing, but he ate the meat.
“Excellent!” I said, doing my best Montgomery Burns imitation. “Now for the easy targets.”
I was able to target Sledge and Aries separately, as they walked into the cafeteria. One slapped his neck, as if swatting a mosquito. The other barely noticed, simply itching his arm where I’d hit him.
Satisfied, I pressed a button and closed up my laptop.
“There. Evidence erased.”
“What’s the gear?” Malachi demanded.
“Hmmm.” This could be good for at least a couple of lunch conversations, if I drew it out. “You’re a tech devisor. Let me give you a design problem.” I snapped off the end of my toothpick, so that it was only a couple of millimeters long. “Let’s say that you had a piece of ice about this big. And your goal is to make a remote sniper, like a blowgun or something, that will fire that teeny shard of ice into a target. How would you do it?”
Malachi got that distracted look that all of us are so prone to, as we throw ourselves into an interesting problem. “Ice is pretty fragile. A magnetic accelerator would take too much barrel length – hard to conceal. Maybe pneumatics. A small camera, for down-the-bore sighting.”
“Maybe add encrypted Wi-Fi remote control?” I suggested.
“Oh, sure, that wouldn’t be a problem.”
“And a self-destruct?”
“Naturally. Thermal self-immolation. Every last bit of evidence, gone.” Then he looked puzzled. “But that doesn’t leave room for much poison. Maybe one of your more potent spider venoms or something…”
I shook my head sadly. “Malachi, Malachi, Malachi. Poison is so crude.”
“Huh? But you use poison all the time!”
“Well, sure, if you’re going to stick a knife in someone. That’s pretty crude on its own. And it stores well. But for something more interesting, you want bacteria. You can tailor them for specific effects, it only takes a couple to start breeding, and you can build in weaknesses so that they’re easy to undo when you’re ready.” I gifted him with a benevolent smile. “Remember: control. That’s the key. You should always be in control.”
By this time, several of our other comrades had arrived, and the conversation took off in full swing.
“That’s the problem with you mastermind types,” Ray said. Ray is a TK-superman who goes by the handle ‘Render.’ “You got an enemy? You should kill them. Quick, merciful, simple, and I guarantee you, no more problem.”
“Hellooo!” Winter mocked. “How many times has Champion been killed? The only thing death does to that guy, is make him more powerful and competent, and remove his weaknesses. And we have at least one more waiting in the wings, don’t we?”
“I gotta go with Ray on this one,” Thrasher said. “If somebody’s hassling you, you hit ‘em back. How hard depends on how hard they’re hassling you. Even for Champion, getting killed has to be a serious speed bump. Anyway, it’s not like it’s the same guy that keeps coming back.”
“You are all wrong.” Hua Chu Lan goes by ‘Silver Serpent,’ and feels the need to fill the ancient sensei role of our group. “A true master leads through inspiration, not fear. Admittedly,” she nodded toward me, “punishments may be occasionally necessary, but they should be loving taps of direction and guidance, not the blunt hammer of terror.”
Cheese giggled. “I don’t think Jobe was trying for benevolent guidance.”
“Well,” I admitted, “let’s see how philosophical you are, when you’ve been stabbed in the gut with a poison knife.”
“Wasn’t it your knife, and your poison?”
“Beside the point,” I dismissed. “But Serpent and Cheese are both close. Take a look at Aries and Sledge. I think they have the potential to be good mid-level lackeys. I wouldn’t expect either to come up with grand strategy, but if you can thump them hard enough to recognize their master, they might have some potential, if properly directed.”
“A dangerous psycho,” I decided. “Reminds me of Gore, but with less self-control. We’ll see whether he’s smart enough to learn that you don’t touch the stove.”
“Hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” Cheese said, enigmatically.
Nephandus had joined us by then. “Von Maas, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you know?” The diminutive genius had chosen the codename ‘Cheese’ all on his own. You never quite knew why he did some of the things he did. Now he spun out a story while waving a stalk of celery for emphasis. “Counterpoint thinks he’s three or four thousand years old. He thinks he’s the physical incarnation of Ares, the ancient Greek god of slaughter and bloodlust.”
“Gee, and I thought he was just insane,” I commented.
“The best part is,” Cheese revealed, “the evidence indicates that he is Ares.”
“Hold the phone,” Nephandus said. “That can’t be true. Didn’t you say his lackey was Ares?”
“Not Ares, Aries,” I explained.
“Oh!” Nephandus got it immediately. “That’s pretty funny!”
“Huh?” Ray, on the other hand…
Even Winter rolled her eyes. “One’s a sheep. You know, astrology? The other’s a god of war.”
“Slaughter, bloodlust, carnage, battlefield fury, that sort of thing,” Cheese corrected.
“So the god of war is named after a sheep?”
“Hmmm, I’ll have to remember that one,” I decided. “That should spike the old rage-o-meter.”
“You still haven’t told us how you’re going to get your revenge,” Jadis mentioned.
As if on cue, a commotion rose from over at the Alpha table, as Aries shouted out, “I’m blind!”
Lunch was fun, particularly since all three of them had gone blind before the cafeteria emptied.
The rest of the day wasn’t so good. I could feel myself healing up for the entire afternoon. Counterpoint’s stab had gone in low in my gut, almost nicking my hip bones. I expected the regeneration to happen pretty quick. Instead, my guts were seething and bubbling for the rest of the day.
In partial compensation, dozens of people gave me gratifying looks of fear and alarm. A few asked me to confirm this or that rumor, which afforded a pleasant diversion as I constructed various ways to confirm everything, without actually admitting to anything.
“I tried to tell them that combat in class is for practice, and that class issues should stay in class.”
“Three on one. Ambushing me in the showers.” I tsk’ed. “What would it be like if we all abandoned the ways of honor?”
Or my favorite, “Anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t get mad.” I used that one a lot.
But I usually ended with the sort of answer that I wanted to filter through the campus, and back to the idiots involved. “Well, I suspect they’re suffering from a purely temporary condition, probably brought on by their own sense of guilt. That’s probably a good thing, since if I’d gotten mad at them I might have done something regrettable. I hope their brief malady at least gives them the opportunity to gain some … insights.”
Tragically, though, there were lasting repercussions from the locker-room incident.
I’d gotten the first clues standing at the urinals. After class, I sped back to my room to check things out more completely. Locking the door, I dropped my pants and did a quick self-examination.
I had no balls. Just an empty scrotum. They hadn’t healed. I’d expected a lot of dark skin down there (which I found), but not this.
Grabbing the ultrasound probe, I booted up the 3D visualizer and began a self-examination. I applied the lubricant and ran the probe over my lower abdomen, searching for the missing gonads.
The results were worse than I’d expected.
I’m not sure whether it was the kick to the balls or the low knife wound. But the results were clear to see as the 3D picture built up. An obvious set of ovaries, in the proper location, too. Fallopian tubes. And a small knot of muscle, still only about walnut-size, that was obviously forming into a uterus.
At least there was no vagina yet.
I was in a pretty bad mood for a while, yelling and ranting. I planned three revenges against Counterpoint, each worse than the last.
After that I calmed down a little and thought more seriously.
I couldn’t surgically remove the offending organ. It would just grow back. I was already taking a drug regimen to slow the regenerative invasion. Maybe if I added a second set of regenerator cells – keyed for a male drow? But the simulations on that were terrible. Likewise, interfering with my body’s changing hormone balance was a bad idea, medically. The decreasing testosterone and elevating estrogen levels would actually slow down my regeneration. A male hormone balance was perceived as “damage” on a cellular level, and triggered a response.
So, until I had things fixed (so to speak), for the next few weeks I’d be swimming in the estrogen pool. Which was disturbing and frightening at the same time. From seeing how it affects the brains of chicks, I was half-afraid of becoming an over-emotional bimbo. But I told myself that intellect triumphs over biology. No matter what indignities the accident might force upon me, my iron control and piercing logic would allow me to overcome the trials that natural-born females are unable to weather.
Still, I shouldn’t underestimate the size of this challenge. I thought of some of the more rational females I knew, such as She-beast, or Dragonrider, or (god help us all) Winter.
The more I thought about it, the more depressed that thought made me. But I vowed to triumph over the inevitable waves of estrogen to come! I would rise above it, as surely as I had risen above the testosterone games of dominance that so plagued my fellow males.
Counterpoint and his little delusions had distracted me from the important work. Not only did I need to be working on a cure, I needed to track down the source of a little theft that had occurred in Devisor Bay Three – the biotech lab. The underground is popular in the winter. With snow on the ground, up top, the tunnels seem warm and toasty. Dropping into the lab that afternoon, I found the culprit working away as if he was innocence itself. He didn’t even turn toward me as I entered the lab.
Maybe I was still smarting from the metaphorical loss of manhood, but I readied a kunai and threw it in one swift movement.
My target threw himself out of his seat, in one convulsive moment. I swear, the guy has eyes in the back of his head. Well, not literally. He’s blind. I’d figure out how it is that he sees, if I cared. Which I don’t.
“Shit, man! What the hell was that for? You trying to kill me?” He grabbed for his blind-man’s cane, which is actually a fairly impressive shock-stick.
“Maybe,” I answered ambiguously. I pulled the kunai out of the desk. “Hmmm, must have forgotten to poison this one. Maybe before I remember, you want to tell me what you did with it?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
He was fast, on his feet already, and in a stance. I liked it. It didn’t look like a stance, it looked like, ‘blind man desperately defensive against a threat he can’t even see.’ But then, I’d seen Jericho in Ito’s martial arts class. He was fast, he learned all the moves (even the dirty ones), and he hit hard. He didn’t have the advantage of a lifetime of training, like I did, but he knew how to fight.
I looked down at his bench. There was no sign of it there, but he was working on something.
“Be a shame if all this work got smashed and ruined, wouldn’t it?” I asked.
“What’s wrong with you, Jobe? I thought we got along.”
“I thought so, too,” I answered.
Naturally, I wasn’t counting the odd prank here or there – the odd virus in the coffee cup, that sort of thing. To be fair, I’d pulled pranks on Jericho, too. Just good fun.
“But that was before you stole my drow formula! Why’d you do it? Looking to cure your scaly girlfriend?”
His blank, white eyes didn’t show much expression, but his face tightened. “Don’t even think of bringing her into this!” Then, “Wait a minute. I didn’t steal any drow formula. You mean, Peeper and Greasy were right?”
“Never mind that! And don’t try to deny it! You left microscopic traces of skin oil in the safe, and it had your DNA, Jericho. I know you did it.”
Jericho rubbed the side of his head. I was desperately trying to keep my eyes on his face, and not on hideous pattern on his shirt. That was a collection of multi-colored arrows, all pointing in different directions. The pattern was almost like an optical illusion, one that fostered instant nausea in any viewer. I think his wardrobe is part of a subtle defensive strategy which he himself is immune to, having the good fortune to be blind.
“Okay,” Jericho said, thinking it through. “You trusted the safe in the devisor lab. And someone broke in, big surprise. And since there were traces of biological material inside, traces with my DNA, you knew the thief was me. In the bio-devisor lab.”
“Putting it like that makes me sound like an idiot,” I objected. “But everyone knows about your obsession with the snake-freak. Who else is going to be desperate enough to use an experimental formula to create the perfect girlfriend?”
Sometimes, all you need to do is re-state a problem to make the answer obvious. Jericho and I shared a look.
“Oh, shit,” I realized.
“Belphegor!” he said, voicing the answer we both knew.
I’d say that Jericho had a blank look in his eyes, but with that blind white surface, who can tell? Still, he stood there motionless, with just a wire trailing from the back of his head into the bay’s main computer.
“You’re sure he can’t hide his traces from you?” I asked.
“I may not be the best hacker on campus,” Jericho admitted, “but I’m way above Belphegor’s league.”
“Help me track this down,” I decided, “and we’re even for any assistance I gave on your neural tap.”
“Deal. You find anything?”
“I’m missing a bunch of parts for a cloning chamber I was working on.” I searched the back of the closet. “Yeah, the whole thing’s gone. I was about two thirds done.”
“Someone,” Jericho said, “accessed your blueprints… ten days ago. You left a half-finished cloning chamber sitting around that long?”
“I had other things to work on! I can’t believe I trusted the lab’s security!” But isn’t that the way of the world? You do your best, fight your hardest, trying to solve the most important issue around. And meanwhile, the dark fates and the small minds are chipping away at some weakness you never even thought about.
“I swear,” I decided abruptly, “as soon as all the current disasters are over, I’m coming up with my own security system! And god help anyone who tries to mess with it!”
“Uh, no offense…” Jericho asked, “but didn’t your old man get his start by stealing stuff?”
“Yeah. What’s your point?”
“Nothing, really. Just wondering.”
The next day, as a meeting of the Bad Seeds, I began to create the first answers to my problems. Not Belphegor. I didn’t want to share that. The sweet payback against him belonged to me, and me alone.
Counterpoint, on the other hand…
Well, let me put it this way. If you stepped in something, and a friend offered to scrape it off your shoe, would you let them? And Counterpoint really bothered me. He was an arrogant jerk with an attitude that wouldn’t quit, no matter how much you wanted it to.
So at the meeting, I leaned back in my padded chair, steepling my fingers. It wasn’t really an appropriate gesture for the conversation, but I needed the practice. After all, I practice martial arts. It’s just as important to practice those poses and gestures you’ll need as a ruthless leader.
“We have discussed the ‘Vendetta Protocols,’” I began ominously. “Now I find that I may have need of them. As you know, recently I was senselessly attacked by three members of the student body here at Whateley. Shortly after that, through some vast coincidence of cosmic justice, all three were struck blind.”
Lindsey waved her hand. “Uh, ‘scuse me! Are you actually admitting to that? In public? And it is just temporary, right? Thought I’m a little nervous about how you temporarily blind someone.”
“I didn’t admit to anything – not in so many words.” Then, to further calm her, I added, “And to temporarily blind someone, I’d think you’d just need a bacteria producing an enzyme that causes the vitreous humor that fills the eyeball to become opaque. As soon as the enzyme was flushed from this system, sight should return. Say, in four to six days.” I considered. “Maybe faster, for a mild regenerator.”
Nephandus was practicing his sneer. He needed a lot of work. “And you think that maybe those guys will want payback? I can’t imagine why.”
“Yesterday, at lunch, Cheese was trying to convince me that Counterpoint is actually an incarnation of Ares, the ancient Greek god of war.”
“Slaughter and bloodshed,” Cheese corrected.
“And while I find it unlikely that Counterpoint has any avatar abilities, I’ve grown convinced that he is a total psychopath, who probably believes that story about himself. In other words, he believes he’s a god, and he’ll respond exactly as he thinks an offended god would respond.”
Rosethorn smiled in that ‘I really can’t be troubled’ way of his. “So now your posterior is in a sling, and you’re hoping the Vendetta Protocols can save you, is that it? As you recall, we never finalized the protocols. And I can’t say that I’m over-eager to have some unstoppable psycho after me.”
“What are his powers, anyway?” Render asked.
“He’s a mimic, like Thunderbird,” I explained. “He can only do sequential, one at a time, but he seems to get about third or half strength on the copies. He’s also an exemplar, about level three, on top of that.
“You sure know how to pick ‘em,” Thrasher commented.
“Look, I’m not really looking for the Vendetta Protocols,” I told them, quickly seeing how the wind was blowing. “I’m looking for advice, instead. His main shtick is the TK-superman bit. He’s good for about two tons. Most of the other stuff I could handle, one way or the other. It’s that damn force field that has me stopped.” I looked at Thrasher and Render, since they both had force fields. “Technical advice, that’s what I’m looking for. Consider it your first contribution to the Protocols.”
I was pleased with the way I’d pitched it. First, it sort of implied that I would help them in turn, without promising it in so many words. Second, I needed an incentive to get them to dish on their own weaknesses.
“Well,” Thrasher considered, “I don’t know. I mean, it’s a force field, right? Aside from smashing it down, what can you do?”
Render almost choked on his own bile before he’d admit a weakness, but he forced himself to respond. “Laser beams. Sometimes.”
“How’s that?” I wondered.
“Well, the field is invisible, right? So it doesn’t stop lasers. But don’t count on that. Some of us, if we get hit enough by lasers, we learn. The force field changes, to respond to lasers. Not all of us can do that, just like not all of us can learn the knife hand, but a lot can. And nothing teaches faster than actual combat.”
“Okay,” I noted. “Useful tip. Any others?”
Techno-Devil laughed. “A Big Fucking Gun. The force fields are good – your gun just has to be better. Seems to me, a big-enough gun will solve all sorts of problems. And unlike your little display, they don’t usually come back from being hit with a BFG.”
“Good point.” His philosophy was practical, and hard to argue with. “One problem, Malachai. I’m not that sort of devisor. And you are, but you’re a devisor, not a gadgeteer. So if you came up with something for me, odds are it would fail right when I needed it most. Besides, if he’s true to form, Counterpoint will strike from ambush. And it’s a bit hard to carry a BFG with you wherever you go.”
Malachai sprung backward out of his chair, in a maneuver that was obviously well-practiced. He rolled and snapped back up. As he did, rings and tubes extended from his right shoulder somehow, until he was holding a high-tech contraption that was clearly some sort of major firepower. He also carefully didn’t point it directly at us.
“Okay,” Nephandus admitted, “that was impressive. Didn’t know you had it in you, Malachai.”
The well-armed boy began to chortle. “Didn’t know I had it in me! That’s rich.”
“Thanks, TD, I’ll keep it in mind,” I promised, “but I really don’t think the Whateley staff would take to kindly to me blowing away other students. And a BFG is kind of all-or-nothing, isn’t it? You don’t shoot to wound.”
“You’re just jealous ‘cause I have one and you don’t!”
“Well,” I admitted, “there’s that, too.”
Winter leaned over next to Lindsey. “You know what they say about boys who carry big guns, don’t you?”
“Help me out here, guys,” I called. “He’s got that stupid force field up all the damn time! Particularly when he jumps me. How do I defeat someone who is stronger than me, and absolutely untouchable? There has to be some weakness! Does the field pass gasses? Maybe I could poison him.”
I had to speak louder, to be heard over the sounds of Lindsey and Winter laughing.
“Boy are you in a rut,” Rosethorn decided. “Poison, poison, poison.”
“I like bacteria and disease, too. Besides, what am I supposed to do? He’s got a frictionless, impenetrable shell.”
“It’s not frictionless,” Render began, and then froze, as if revealing some dark secret.
“Mine is,” Thrasher said. “Always.”
We all stared at Render.
“Well,” he admitted, reluctantly, “if it was frictionless, I couldn’t pick anything up, could I?”
“Good point,” I decided.
“When I stand on something, or touch something, the field … I can sort of feel into it. Does that make sense? So I grab something, but the field sort of soaks into it, giving me a really good grip. Same when I’m walking or standing on something.”
I nodded. “That figures.”
“Sure, it grips some things better than others. And the frictionless – with a couple of exceptions,” he glanced at Thrasher “no one masters that to start with. It’s one of those tricks that almost every TK-fielder is supposed to be able to learn, but no one knows it to start with. It’s like the knife hand. You have to practice.”
Winter leaned forward, interested. “Really? Who’s learned it?”
“If you spot anyone skating the way Thrasher does, they’ve learned it.”
“Also, anybody that flies faster than fifty or sixty miles an hour – they’ve probably learned it.”
That made sense. I wondered what your top speed would be, surrounded by a frictionless field. “How about Counterpoint? Has he learned it?”
“Him? Doubt it. He thinks he’s god’s gift to combat or something. He doesn’t even come to the TK classes.”
“You know,” Thrasher said, “just because it’s frictionless, doesn’t mean that nothing sticks to it.”
That was from left field, so I provided an articulate response. “Huh?”
“I had this slug that got onto my board once. Wouldn’t come off. It slid around like anything – fastest slug in history – but it wouldn’t come unstuck. I had to change the board shape, and slide it out from underneath.”
Cheese got a gleam in his eye. “A slug?” The guy is completely wasted on classical villainy, but give him a prank and he’s all over it.
“Makes sense,” I mused. “The surface must be smooth as glass. With a good seal, air pressure would keep things pressed against the field. The slug or whatever wouldn’t cling to the surface, but it would be pressed against it.”
Cheese casually looked over at Render. “And you implied that some substances cling to a non-frictionless field?”
“Uh, wait a minute…”
“To the atomic force microscope!” I shouted.
Cheese had a manic grin. “How do we characterize the surface of a non-existent surface?”
“Better yet, how do we exploit those characteristics?”
And we were off.
“Oh, Jobe honey!” The voice was sing-song, and sarcastically sweet.
It’s my opinion that Scott Harrison practices being annoying. How else could he get so good at it? He ambushed me in the Twain common room, while I was hard at work on several of my problems.
“Go away, Skinwalker. I’m working on a Death Ray.”
“Are you really?”
I sighed, putting down the yellow legal pad, and the hand-drawn gene sequences. “I wish. No, I’m afraid it’s just a chemical sequence with an affinity for telekinetic frequencies. What do you want?”
The other guys in the common room were all looking up now. Everything from turtle-shelled Carapace to the hairy bulk of Montana.
“I bought you a present!” Scott continued in his sing-song.
“Not interested. Got papers to write, people to terminate.”
“But look!” He held up a bright pink book, with a bow and a ten-cent padlock. “It’s a diary! You can record all your girlie secrets!”
I ran my tongue firmly across the inside of my cheek, as I considered how best to respond to this.
“You do know that I’ve got more of the drow serum, don’t you?” I asked casually. “It would be a lot easier to finish the cure if I had a couple of test subjects that I could use for more … aggressive experimentation.”
The book tumbled out of Scott’s hand to land on the floor.
“Uh… never mind! I ought to be working on my own homework! Bye!”
“Wow,” Mechano commented, watching. “Did you know that Skinwalker had speedster powers?”
“Sometimes these things come out spontaneously, under great stress.”
I stepped over and picked up the bright pink book.
“Hey, look!” I said. “Someone left this cute li’l diary! I’ll be just perfect for writing down all my heart’s deepest secrets!”
One and all, the guys stared at me like I’d just flipped my lid.
That’s when I gave my best ever evil mastermind laugh. Oh, yes, it’s good to see the fear shining in their vacant little eyes! I love playing with their minds!
Even a campus like Whateley, filled with the future masters of the planet, has its share of losers. There are several tiers. First, there are your major players, such as myself. Slightly below that are the people who may be major someday, such as Counterpoint. Generally, those types with flashy powers like to strut around like they own the world. What they don’t realize is that those of us who do own the world don’t need to strut.
Far below those tiers are the people who think they are major, but never will be. Belphegor falls in this last category.
And below that, you have non-major players. Lackeys and victims, but it’s not like they matter, is it?
Back to Belphegor. The boy (you certainly can’t call him a man) is a classic product of the British dental system. Not only does he have rodent-worthy buck teeth, the rest of his teeth are either irregular, or repaired with obvious silver fillings. I believe there is actually more silver than enamel, and you have to wonder, why not just pull them all and cast a set of cybernetic teeth or something? Maybe something classy, like that assassin from the James Bond movies.
However, “classy” and “Belphegor” have never previously occurred together in the same sentence. The boy is plump and pasty, an overweight nerd who is desperately in search of someone he can intimidate. So far, on the Whateley campus, he’s been pretty much out of luck. He keeps trying to lower the bar, and hasn’t been able to find a low that is still manageable for someone of his meager skills.
A couple of weeks back, he tried to intimidate one of the real young students – an eleven-year-old girl. She’s scrawny, short, weak, and her only power is a sort of primitive proto-devising. Not to mention that she came out near the bottom of the rankings. So Belphegor figured he’d finally found his target.
Instead, he ended up with an anti-gravity wedgie and was stuck in mid-air while the entire lunch crowd laughed at him and mocked him.
I don’t mean to say that he’s entirely worthless. Belphegor does have a single good quality. And I’m not speaking of his almost non-existent skills as a bio-devisor. (His theories of bio-physics and external energy fields are complete hogwash.) No, Belphegor’s only admirable quality is a sort of animal cunning, a rodent-like paranoia that combines with his personality to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of epic proportions. This, added to an almost pathological kleptomania, leads him to into uncontrollable waves of theft, frequently from me. He shows modest skills at stitching together the diverse inventions that he appropriates, but I don’t believe that he has ever demonstrated true intelligence.
I was sharing these insights with the other occupants of the bio-devisor lab. As hard as it is to believe, they were not yet fully receptive to my observations.
“I don’t see why you’re so down on the guy,” Jericho protested. “He’s had some good ideas.”
I don’t generally have a problem with Jericho, but sometimes he is definitely blind.
“No, Jobe’s right,” Nephandus agreed, rooting through one of the workbenches. “The guy is a complete pest. He’s always all over me. ‘Oh, great Nephandus! Can I see your staff? Oh, great Nephandus! Teach me how to turn a GameBoy into a summoning portal!’ Shyah. As if.”
I normally tune Nephandus out since he’s such a loser. But then I realized… “What the hell are you doing in the bio-devisor lab?”
“I’m searching through the loser’s stuff. I heard he’s supposed to have blood samples from half the heroes and villains of the seventies, in cold storage somewhere.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Belphegor? Where’d the loser get that?”
“Stole it, of course.”
Which as the cue. Knick-Knack came stomping in, scowling like a thunderstorm. He took one look at us, and immediately thundered, “Looking for more of my work to steal?”
“Well, I’ll work him over once I find him,” Knick-knack promised, “but now that I know who’s responsible I’m not that worried. It’s not like he can do much damage with my latest project.”
Feeling a growing sense of dread, I asked, “What exactly was your latest project?”
“I’ve been experimenting with BIT fields. You know, reading them, writing them, recording them. Way back in October, I had a read/write helmet, but I guess I misplaced it. So I finally made a new one, and that disappears, too.”
The huge devisor has a genial attitude, despite the fact that fate crapped on him by giving him a club foot. “Well, my sympathies to the thief. I wasn’t finished with the new helmet. It’s got an intermittent glitch. Only works about one time in three.”
“Belphegor again,” I hissed.
“Geez,” Nephandus said, backing off. “Even I’m not that obsessed with the guy.”
“Yeah,” Jericho agreed. “We don’t know it was him yet.”
Following those disastrous revelations, Nephandus and I headed to lunch, and Cheese joined us. Negator followed, but as usual, he kept a few paces back. We were walking along, minding our own business, when the ambusher dropped from the trees in a shower of snow to slash me in the back with a huge knife.
I can’t say that I felt my spine being severed, but I definitely felt the loss of my lower body. I managed to twist as I fell, bringing the enemy into sight.
I have to say, being cut in half (or feeling like it) really reduces your combat options.
My good friends reacted instantly. Negator cringed back, trying to fade into the underbrush. Nephandus raised his walking stick, and blue plasma fire began to crackle over it. Beside him, that imp-golem-whatever thing that always follows him began to transform, becoming more dangerous and lethal as it sprouted weapons and eldritch emitters.
Cheese swept some snow from a bench and took a seat.
“Stay out of this,” Counterpoint warned viciously. “I’m only after the freak!”
Cheese waved him off. People tend to dismiss him as a little kid, but they forget that he’s a nasty, vicious, genius, little kid. Nephandus, predictably, held his ground.
“We’ll watch as you do your worst to our friend,” he said firmly, “but take a single step toward me and you’ll regret it!”
Gee thanks, Nephandus. I didn’t know you cared. Oh, that’s right. You don’t.
Negator didn’t say anything, he just hid in the bushes and created yellow snow.
I levered myself up on my left arm and readied a kunai with my right. I fumbled with it for a bit, then flung it at Counterpoint. As he’d obviously expected, the throw went wide, passing over the top of his head.
“My own fault,” I said bitterly. “I expected you to be out for longer. You absorbed a new power, didn’t you?”
His gaze swept over me, his eyes unnaturally wide. “I may keep this one. It intrigues me.” He paused, then stared at me closer. “Are those … spiders crawling on you?”
“My own variant of black widow,” I admitted. “They won’t bite me, and I’m immune to the venom now anyway. You must be looking through my shirt.”
“I borrowed Peeper’s eyes,” Counterpoint explained. “Worthwhile enough on its own, considering some of the flesh on this campus. But to see past a foe’s clothes and armor, to see what secrets he conceals…” He gave a mildly regretful smile. “I enjoyed our little conflict. But, inevitably, all who face me must know defeat. Rest easy, knowing that you were dispatched by the best.”
You might think that with me lying paralyzed on my back, bleeding to death, and my foe looming over me with a short sword, it wasn’t the best time to talk. On the contrary! It was absolutely the best time to talk! What it wasn’t a good time for was fighting. At least, it wasn’t good for me. Let us say that I was rather desperate to talk, and stall.
“Haven’t you been bested before?” I asked. “Repeatedly, if I recall. By Athena.”
Counterpoint’s wide eyes narrowed slightly. “You know more about me than I expected. Still, it will do you no good. Yes, I’ve often been plagued by arrogant females. In the long run, that conflict strengthened us both, but now I tire of it as I tire of you. Goodbye, freak.”
“Wait!” I ordered. “If you value your life, stay back. I’ve been slowly releasing a poison gas around my body. You obviously aren’t using your regeneration power right now, so this could kill you. It also has a potent cross-reaction to the venom, which would definitely kill you. If I were you, I’d head to the nurse’s office right away. She stocks the antivenom.”
Counterpoint paused once again. “Venom? What are you talking about?”
I sighed, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “The kunai I ‘missed’ you with? It was trailing drag lines. Thin web lines, with spiders attached. My throw pulled the drag lines over your head and body. They must be finished crawling inside your clothes by now, which is incidentally inside the force field you sometimes use.”
“Spiders? You lie!” Counterpoint slapped his shirt, then howled as he got bit.
I winced. “Ow, big mistake. I know how much that neurotoxin can sting. I’d head off for that antivenom now.” I had to shout to be heard, as he took off. “And you might want to ditch your clothes!”
At lunch, the wheelchair garnered both interest and sympathy. I got checked out by Mindbird of the Wild Pack. Of course, I deliberately called them by their unwanted nickname, just to watch the expression on her face.
“What brings me to the attention to the prettiest member of The Betas?” I asked.
She winced. “We prefer – oh, you knew that, didn’t you?”
Talking to psychics is obnoxious sometimes.
“Just for the record, is it true that Counterpoint ambushed you, swung from behind, and crippled you?”
“Sure is!” I responded happily. I pulled up my shirt and leaned forward. “Check it out! He sliced clean through my spine, just below my rib cage.”
“There’s no wound, but you’ve got a slash of dark skin…”
“Lab accident with some foreign regenerator cells,” I explained.
“The radio story was true?”
“…yes,” I admitted reluctantly.
She sighed. “Look, Counterpoint has gone way over the line this time. Would you be willing to testify against him, under oath and maybe psychic monitoring, about this incident?”
I frowned, considering.
“I can understand your fears, but if witnesses won’t come forward…”
“It’s not that,” I told her. “I’m just thinking that if I agree to testify, it would probably be better if I let him get away with this, and didn’t take any revenge of my own.”
“You – huh? – what?” She seemed a little confused.
“Well, look,” I explained reasonably. “That’s the way these things usually work. Some psycho decides to attack me for no particular reason. Then I’m forced to teach him a lesson about what happens when you touch the stove. Each time, the lesson is a little stronger. Either he learns, or he dies. Pretty simple, really.” I mused, half to myself. “But what retaliation would be good at this level? The intestinal predator? The humiliation therapy?”
It must have been hotter than I thought, because Mindbird was suddenly sweating. “Uh, could you maybe forgo the revenge, this one time, and maybe let the system deal with this?”
“The system?” I considered. “Well, it’s a novel approach, I’ll grant you that. Do you think it has a chance of working?” I leaned forward confidentially, and tapped my head. “Counterpoint isn’t quite right upstairs, you know. Thinks he’s the reincarnation of the Greek god or war.”
“Ares was the god of slaughter and bloodshed,” Cheese corrected, from the other side of the table. “And is it fair to question his sanity? I mean, he’s doing a pretty good Ares.”
“Who cares?” Malachai asked. “If you’d used the insanely big gun, like I wanted, you never would have had these problems.”
Mindbird was looking a little upset. “I really think you ought to let the system handle this one.”
I looked up with what I hoped was an expression of naïve excitement. “You know what? I’ll do it! Because… it’s just crazy enough to work!”
She made a quick escape.
“Do you really believe that?” Cheese asked. “I mean, about it being crazy enough to work?”
“Not a chance,” I said. “But that girl is so full of innocent goodness – it’ll be nice to see her get a glass full of reality thrown in her face.”
Jobe’s Estrogen Log, February 7th
I can feel the hormones working their insidious way through my body, my brain. Already, I’m starting to notice changes. My skin is so soft, so delicate. I can’t even rub myself dry after a shower. Even with the softest and fluffiest towel, I have to pat my skin dry.
And my hair! I just want to spend an hour each evening, brushing it out until it shines!
I don’t know why I feel compelled to confide my secrets in this pretty little diary, but I do. So I’ll have to hide my most secret thoughts here on these pages. Like how I’ve been going wild over the cutest new skirt-and-blouse combo, or my thoughts on boys!
Yes, boys. Like any other girl, the only thing that really matters to me is boys. But that’s for later.
First, an embarrassing secret. I’ve developed the nastiest rash in the … crotch area. It’s some sort of virulent mutant fungus, that makes me want to just scratch myself like crazy.
It completely embarrasses me whenever I’m around the boys.
Fortunately, I’m a rather brilliant bio-devisor, and while I haven’t managed to create a cure yet, I’ve isolated the fungal strain. So the boys will never find out…
By evening, I was up and walking again. Being pumped full of regenerative cells has its good points. As I came into the Twain common room, I hear roars of laughter. In the center of a large crowd of people, I hear Scott Harrison reading aloud to a fairly large audience.
“…isolated the fungal strain. So the boys will never find out!”
There were howls of laughter at that, and Scott continued, pausing only to wipe a tear of amusement from his eye.
“They’ll never know, unless they actually handle this page of the book, where I’ve preserved the … specimens of the … highly infectious fungus.”
His face fell. I walked toward the crowd. “Psyche,” I said calmly.
“Oh, crap,” Scott realized. He reached out toward me.
The crowd parted like the red sea. “Don’t touch me, man!” someone yelled at Scott.
I shrugged, unconcerned. “You think I wouldn’t immunize myself against my own joke?”
Scott glanced back toward the book, still clutched in his left hand. “But… I thought…”
“Don’t tell me you actually fell for any of that crap? Too-sensitive skin? Come on! You ever seen the hands on a professional washer-woman? I’ve seen softer grades of sandpaper!”
Scott dropped the book like a hot potato. “Disinfectant! Where’s the chlorine?”
I picked up the pink diary. “Hey,” I said aloud, “now that everyone’s afraid of this book, I can probably really use it to store my juicy secrets!”
Monty glared at me. “Do you really think we’re stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice?”
“There’s really only one way to find out, isn’t there?”
I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d rolled in nettles. The sheets of my bed were scratchy and rough. My fingertips felt raw. And worst of all, my, er, male anatomy felt like the top layer of skin had been sanded off. My silk boxers were painfully rough.
The alarms turned the sunlamps on over Oak, waking him up. He must have noticed as I stumbled over to my worktable, groaning.
“Problems?” he rumbled at me.
“Just a minute…”
A few medical diagnostics later, and I had my answer. My nerve endings had just increased by 50%. That helped explain why I had tiny black spots all over my body. It looked like someone had been shaking pepper on me.
“Crap,” I muttered. “And it seemed like such a good idea at the time.”
“What happened?” Oak wasn’t ready to unroot and amble around yet, but he could talk and think.
I explained. “Back when I designed the drow, I wanted my girlfriend to be more sensitive and erotic, so I increased the number of nerve endings. I think that’s finally coming through on me. Probably because that asshole Counterpoint got me in the spine. It must be triggering nerve replacement throughout my body.”
I touched my chest area.
“Ow. Okay, definitely a mistake.”
Oak was making that raspy sound that signified laughter for people who are part tree.
“Yuk it up, bark boy. How’d you like it, if you had nerve endings on every flower?”
“What makes you think I don’t?” He made a couple more of those raspy heaves. “You know what the best part is? You’re suffering from sensitive skin!”
That had been the buzzword through Twain, ever since last night when Scott, or ‘Captain Itchy’ as he was now being called, had read my bogus diary entry. Each time he went mad with the scratching, someone would politely inquire, “Sensitive skin?”
It was an amusing joke at Scott’s expense. I had no desire to become a victim of my own prank.
“Tell anyone and I have just three words for you: boring bark beetles.”
“Oh, I won’t tell. But it’s still funny.”
“Yeah. Funny like a crutch.” Then I had to laugh myself, because crutches are pretty funny.
Before I left the room, I’d have to come up with a solution for this new trial. There were three big issues. First, my entire body was more sensitive. Second, the problem I called “up top.” Having a shirt slide across my chest, even a male chest, had suddenly become pretty nasty. Lastly, there was the “down under” problem. I’d actually doubled the number of nerve endings down there. Now that I had a chance to test out the design, I had to ask myself, “What the hell was I thinking?”
It wouldn’t have been so bad, if I hadn’t also eliminated all the protective hair down there. I saw now that curly pubic hair formed a cushioning mass that guarded sensitive bits from the bumps and scrapes of everyday life.
The end result of all of this was pain. Irritating, abrasive pain.
Fortunately, my keen mind was already hard at work on the situation, devising a plan that would solve all these issues at once.
“My liquid skin!” I announced, unnecessarily. “I’m starting to look a little piebald anyway.”
“Son. You’re looking a bit better. Did you finally finish your cure?”
“Uh, no, that’s why I called. This is my new spray-on skin. I was starting to look a bit spotty.”
“I’ve been meaning to compliment you on that skin invention, son. It’s good stuff. I’ve been using over my prosthetics, and it’s really much better than the old plastic goop. I, uh, don’t suppose you have a solution for fingerprints, and the palms of the hand?”
“Version two, Dad.”
“Right. You know, son, I’m glad you called. I’ve decided that my outburst was unworthy of me. If you can ask for understanding and support for anyone, it should be me. Heck, who amongst us hasn’t been occasionally infected by our own chemical weapon or deadly plague?”
I sniffed. “Thanks, Dad. That means a lot.”
“Which is why I whipped up a new batch of nano-eradicator units. Just inject them in, and they’ll go cruising through your bloodstream on a seek-and-destroy mission, searching out all those invading stem cells. Sure, it’s painful, as they wage all-out microscopic war inside the vessels and chambers of your own body, but once they’re done, you’ll feel like a new man! And I really mean that last part.”
“No need to thank me son. I’m just glad that this old fogey can still contribute something to you modern futuristic kids.”
“No, Dad, I mean… the change has gotten to my nervous system.”
“So, destroying the changed cells is likely to… well, it’s not good.”
He was silent at that, but I noticed his jaw firming up.
“I’m starting to think that I may have to go all the way through to completion, and work on changing things from there, once I’m stable.”
“And I’m starting to think it’s time to break out that cloning chamber you made back in seventh grade!” he threatened. “We’ll just download you.”
“No, Dad. I hate those download copies! They’re always glitchy.”
“Your mother never com-com-complained about me.”
“That’s because you brainwashed her not to.”
“True.” He didn’t look convinced. “When was your last backup?”
“Uh…” I really did hate that thing. It was one of Dad’s earlier inventions, but it was buggy as hell. I swear, if that thing had worked properly, Anti-Champion wouldn’t even exist. But that’s a fight I didn’t want to get into. Not again.
“I think my last backup was back in September,” I lied. “Before I even started at Whateley. So I’d miss practically a year of school! Just forget it, Dad.”
He rubbed his face, tapping his fingers on the cyborg half. “I should yell at you for not keeping up your backups. Still… the divergence might be good. That way, once you go girl, you could marry yourself. Keep it all in the family.”
“Dad! WHAT ARE YOU THINKING!”
“Alright, alright. Don’t get so worked up. It was just an idea.”
“Well it was a BAD ONE!”
“You don’t have to be so sensitive.”
“Sensitive?” I couldn’t help screeching a bit. No, it wasn’t an infusion of girl-ness. It’s just that some situations call for screeching. “Sensitive? You remember the whole ‘Let’s turn the Mediterranean into grape jelly and then hold the world’s bread for ransom’ idea? Well, this one’s worse!”
“That almost worked, you know. If only I hadn’t overlooked the tortilla.”
I tried to get me breathing under control. “No clones! No downloads! Period.”
“You have to promise to send a new backup.”
“And you have to promise that even if you do change your mind, I’m still you’re heir! ME!”
“And I keep my patents! And this promise is binding on all future clones, downloads, constructs, software simulators, and parallel-dimensional replacements!”
He sighed, sensing defeat. “All right. Once you send in the download. Agreed.”
“I know school is busy and all, but you really should try to call more often.”
I was in the warm, dry lab, trying to bribe Jericho out of some of his old gear.
“No, really, name your price,” I told him. “I’ve got some good stuff. I can whip up even better, if you’ll wait. Belphegor’s stupid ‘Eye-enhancement serum’? Hell, I’ll keep working with you until we get it right.”
“Not interested,” the fashion-freak said. “And you’re just nuts if you think I’m letting you anywhere near my eyes.”
I lowered my voice, speaking confidentially, with an easy camaraderie. “Look, Jericho, let me be honest. The pure-white eyeballs may have worked in the old Kung Fu shows, but only because it was freaky as all get-out. When people see a kid like you with those blank white things, it makes ‘em want to chuck their lunch. And I’m telling you this because I’d like you to think of me as your friend.”
He was looking at me like I was nuts. And the truth was, I didn’t really consider him my friend. Not because he was a pudge, or a black kid or anything. It’s just that he was about ten million dollars short of my friendship, in the net worth department. Okay, granted, I hang around with other poor losers, too, but at least their parents are news-worthy.
But just because Jericho wasn’t my friend, didn’t mean I couldn’t be his friend. Particularly if I helped him overcome his crippling handicap. I reached out to clasp him warmly on the shoulder.
“Get your hand off me!” he yelled, smacking my hand away. “Key-ryst Jobe! You’re bad enough when you’re being an asshat. Don’t go trying to be a friendly asshat, on top of that. Particularly not with that lame act.”
I nodded. “Okay. Cards on the table. A straight-up trade. You’ve got devises and gadgets. You’ve used them to take down TK-supers in sparring. What do you want for them?”
“Is that what you’re after?” He got a crafty look on his face. “Well, they’re not that great. And I never used them on someone who was actually trying to kill me.”
I spread my hands, just a helpless victim at his mercy. “You have me over a barrel. What’s your price? If nothing else, I’d think you’d want someone to tattoo a pupil on those eyeballs. It would look a lot better.”
“And lose my unsetting negotiator’s stare? No way!”
He stared at me with those blank white eyes. At least, I think he was staring at me. Who can tell, with Jericho?
“First off,” he said, “I’m not even interested in anything new or experimental, or anything that isn’t through testing yet. Second of all, all my gear is ‘as is’, you got me? Third, your dad had some dingus that changed the color of clothes, from like twenty years ago? I want the plans.”
We’d gotten a bit farther in our negotiations when Nephandus came in.
“Are they in here? No? Thank the dark one.”
“Go away,” I told him. “I’m negotiating.”
Nephandus waved heading back out the door. “Okay. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t run into Belphegor and Phobos.”
I turned back to Jericho, and then stopped. “Wait, you mean – together?”
Jericho looked up, too. “Are you saying that Deimos wasn’t with them? The twins go everywhere together.”
Nephandus shrugged. “Don’t look at me.”
Jericho and I said it at the same time. “Uh oh.”
Nephandus had seen them down in the underground. While he led the way, I tried to figure out what was going on.
“I thought the fury girls hated devisors?” My comment to Jericho was half statement, half question.
“No. Whatever made you think that? You must have seen her hanging around with me, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
The truth was, I had more important things to do than mapping out the social networks for all the little people on campus.
“It’s just that she hates Nephandus—”
“Easy enough to understand,” I interjected.
“—apparently for some really bad pickup lines he’s used on her, as well as some sort of solicitation to black magic.”
“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” Nephandus protested.
“From what the twins told me,” Jericho corrected, “in this case, it did hurt. But they reserve their true fury for you, Jobe. And I don’t think we need to explain why.”
I sighed. “This is so unfair, do you know that? You’ve been around them often enough. You’ve seen that thing that happens when the two of them merge together. The Siamese-twin multi-armed-devil monster?”
“The Fury,” Nephandus said, almost fearfully. “That thing is insane! No one with half a brain wants to be anywhere near them when they do that. Did you have anything to do with that, Jobe?”
“Exactly the opposite,” I said, sadly. “It was back in September. They’d fused, and gotten stuck that way. They’d come down from the fury, but hadn’t split apart. They were desperate, and they’re psychic reverbers on top of everything else, so most people couldn’t even go near them. It was a crisis. But I had an idea, and offered to help.”
Jericho winced. “That’s not exactly the way I remember it.”
“It was a crisis,” I continued, ignoring him. “We were in a hurry! You try and help someone out… Look, a couple of points in my defense. First, the recombinant virus needed to be tested out, right? And they were practically asking for it. The theory was sound. Mutate one of them enough, and it would break the fusion. Which it did! As advertised! I completely fulfilled my side of the promise. Not my fault that they shared blood, and eventually both mutated identically. I would have had a more permanent fix (along with solving the tail and eye issue, like I promised) if they’d only given me more time. As for the extra arms – grow up! Throw a lab coat over it. It’s not like anyone wants to look at either of them that closely, so most of the time, people won’t even notice. And yet, when I offered them honestly helpful advice like that, they got all weepy on me like a pair of little baby girls. ‘Boo hoo! You turned us into four-armed freaks!’ ”
I huffed indignantly. “They should be happy. That double shoulder joint is tricky. What, do they think Belphegor could have done better? Four arms, sure, but four fully functional arms. Well, from now on, forget it. Hey girls, don’t bother asking me for any more help!”
Nephandus was looking at me with something between horror and admiration. “So, wait a minute, the four arms, two tails, and three eyes are all your fault?”
“Hardly. Just the four arms. The rest was there before I started. And I could have cured it all, if they’d agreed to become my fall-semester project, as I offered. But noooo, they were all boo hoo about a couple of extra perfectly good arms.” Honesty required me to admit, “Well, I also gave them the hooves. They had normal feet, before. And the black claws, but those are so useful I can’t imagine anyone turning them down. And maybe a teensy bit of skin change. But the eyes and tails they had before.”
“Wow,” Nephandus breathed. “I thought they hated us equally. But I only insulted them. You… Wow. When they finally get even with you, remind me to watch from a different planet.”
I waved it away, not really concerned at the moment. “Oh, please, like I could make them any worse. Look, let’s talk real-world situation. Someone spots them on the street. How can you tell he’s spotted them? Because he’s barfing into his briefcase. If we were to examine the mind of this poor slob, I seriously doubt that he’s thinking, ‘Hey, that monstrosity over there has too many arms. If not for that, she’d be really attractive. And those durable and functional hooves, well, they really make my stomach constrict.’
“I wish they’d just sit still for a minute so I could give them some honest advice. You know what I’d tell them?
“‘Girls,’ I’d say, ‘those are the best part of what you have going for you! Don’t try to hide your differences – exploit them! Okay, so you’ve got four arms. A lot of guys are going to see that as a problem. Why? Because you don’t have an equal number of tits! Trust me, nothing turns guys on like tits. So first, we set you up with a nice quartet of mammaries. Now you’re getting noticed in a good way. The hooves? Work ‘em. Shave those goat legs. Okay, I mean, fix those scaly legs, but we have so many options there.
“‘The eyes, well, I’m torn there. See, it seems ready made for surgery. We cover over the forehead horror, but meanwhile implant a cyber-screen giving your third eye a constant visual link to the net! We probably only want to try that on one of ‘em, in case it doesn’t work out so well. Another option is some subtle build-up of the forehead muscles, for a sort of Hindu ‘third eye’ effect. Keep it closed most of the time, and who’s to know? Or, if you want to go the other way, I could graft on some very useful feeding tentacles, on each side of your mouth. After that, who’s going to be looking at the eye, right?
“‘And the horns – well, they’ll sure hold your hat in place, won’t they? I mean, at the worst, they make a great place to hang a veil. Heck, it you don’t want to saw them off and putty over the stubs, put on some color, girl! A little pink or yellow will help you lighten up.’”
I laughed, because I really do crack me up sometimes. Nephandus was trying to hold in the snickers. (He’s got terrible taste, but even he has to acknowledge when I make a funny.) Oddly enough though, Jericho wasn’t joining in our amusement. He almost looked angry. Who knew? Along with being blind, maybe he didn’t have a sense of humor, either.
“You okay, man?” I asked, deeply concerned.
“Is that all they are to you?” he demanded, sounding like he was ready to punch someone. “Lives ruined, people turned into monstrous things, and it’s all just a joke to you?”
I could tell he was hurting, so I reached out to him.
“Look,” I said seriously, “I understand what you’re saying. I know how chicks get all anxious about ‘Oh, am I ever going to land a man?’ If they would just come and ask me for a little help, I could fix all their problems. First off, we’ve got a lot of miners and soldiers and what-not back on Karedonia. These guys have various monster issues of their own, and they’re all pretty desperate, if you get me drift, so they’re none too picky. Leave it to me, and the twins could have all the men they want, seven days a week. And if they’re still having problems with guys, here’s a simple suggestion: turn down the lights. Because they’re all pretty much the same in the dark, aren’t they?”
Jericho stopped at that. He turned to face me, and said, “You know, I thought the twins were joking when they said they were going to rip you into teeny tiny bloody chunks of meat, and then eat you alive just so that later on they could crap in your recently-emptied skull. But after that speech, I’ve decided that they didn’t go far enough! In fact, I’ll offer to hold you down, while they perform the first cuts.”
“Well, jeez,” I responded. “What’s your problem?” I looked at Nephandus. “Was it something I said?”
Nephandus just shrugged.
Another thought occurred to me.
“This doesn’t affect our negotiations, does it?”
The underground is an incredible warren of tunnels. I’ve got three different storage vaults hidden down here. Naturally, this made it a bit tricky to find Belphegor.
We’d come to a halt, while we thought about our options.
In the last day or so, I’d noticed that my nose had become more sensitive. I was trying to find a trail by following Belphagor’s undeniable stench. I suspect that the Cockney labor farm where he’d been hatched had been under permanent water rationing, because he never seemed to have acquired the habit of regular bathing that civilized people accept as a matter of course.
Still, the whole nose thing was new enough that I wasn’t getting good directions. I knew he was around here somewhere, but direction was lacking.
Then, a door opened and a three-eyed horned freak came out.
“Phobos!” Jericho cried. “What’s going on? What are you doing down here?”
“Huh. I could ask you the same thing. Especially since you’re here with him!” Using her upper right arm, she pointed at me, as if I’d done something wrong.
“Oh, I think he’s just paranoid about Belphegor…”
Ignoring the reunion of the bit characters, I pushed ahead through the door. Inside, I found my worst nightmare.
The first thing I spotted was – “My cloning tank!”
The machinery had been finished, and was sitting drained and vacant in the far corner. Nearer, at a bank of equipment was Belphegor. He was closely examining something that looked like a colander, with a huge tangle of wires sprouting from it. The wires led to a complex rack of machinery, and then to another colander resting on the head of a dark body on a table.
I took one look at the dark-skinned girl. Her eyes were open, but motionless and blank. She was breathing, but seemed to be in a coma or something. Despite that, I recognized her instantly.
Had I been in my right mind, I would have lunged for Belphegor instantly, clawing his worthless eyes out of his moronic pasty white face, and burying a poisoned kunai deep within the empty sockets of his ugly head. Had I done so, the tragedy to come would have been averted. Instead, I was frozen for a precious instant.
On the one hand, there was the clear evidence of Belphegor’s kleptomania. It’s nothing more than you would expect, really, once you understood that he was raised in a rat-infested squalor spawned by the lazy criminal underclass that was his birthright. I’d known all along that his magpie-like mind operated on a principle of “Shiny! I take it!” But to see such blatant evidence of his whole-hearted betrayal – that threw me for a loop. First was my cloning chamber! That was vital, valuable, secret technology! And he had simply stolen it! I no longer felt even the least bit of remorse for appropriating his minor bio-energy transducer to power the chamber.
And there, on the table, her modesty preserved through only the thinnest of white sheets – there was my drow! Plainly, she did not have the light of intelligence burning in her eyes. If she’d been quick-cloned, her mind would be a blank slate. I wasn’t sure what Belphegor thought he could do with her. On the other hand, here was confirmation of my design. She was even more beautiful than I’d imagined, with those huge dark eyes, those luscious lips, and those substantial … assets. The thin sheet revealed enough of her figure that I could see that my design had worked out very well indeed. But she was my property, and to see her here in Belphegor’s lab was a violation of everything that was sacred.
“I only came to piss off Jobe,” Phobos was saying, behind me. “Jerkwad over there promised that he’d be able to transfer my mind into the perfect body, and that it would drive Jobe absolutely nuts.”
“You left Deimos behind?” Jericho asked.
“She’s our guarantee. If I worked, then nerd-boy would clone up a second body. If I didn’t return, she’d shred him. We didn’t trust him enough for both of us to come into his lab.”
“Oh. Good thinking.”
“Yeah, too bad the big brain over there fluffed out on us.”
I got that crawling sensation at the back of my neck, and dodged before Phobos could slash me with her claws. Claws that she wouldn’t even have, if not for me.
She hissed, and then said, “Much as I’d love to torture you by having your fantasy girlfriend date your arch-rival, I guess I’ll just have to go back to Plan A.”
I looked toward Jericho. “The crap in my skull thing? Yeah. Take a number and get in line, babe. Meanwhile, I’ve got important things to worry about.” I turned away to consider the problem of Belphegor.
That might not have been the wisest idea. She didn’t sever my spinal cord, the way Counterpoint had, but she did cut some impressively wide gouges into my back.
And that put me down for just a few seconds too long. I hadn’t dealt with Belphegor, and now it was too late.
"How poor are they that have not patience!” Belphegor lamented, holding his malfunctioning helmet. “What wound did ever heal but by degrees? Thou know'st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft; And wit depends on dilatory time."
I lay bleeding on the ground, as Phobos stalked away, but even through my pain I recognized Knick-knack’s read-write helmet. What had the big guy said?
“It’s got an intermittent glitch. Only works about one time in three.”
And it was suddenly obvious why Belphegor’s plans had failed. Before I could even call out, I watched disaster unfold.
"What's gone and what's past help, should be past grief." Belphegor gave a final sniff of sorrow, and gently placed the helmet on his own head.
Instantly, the rack of electronics erupted in blue fire behind him. I derived some comfort from seeing Belphegor’s bloated body light up in electrical agony. He did a very amusing dance, as each and every one of his muscles was locked by a voltage only slightly less than that supplied by a traditional electric chair.
Less amusing was watching my beautiful drow maiden suffer through the same torture. Her mind may have been a blank slate, but she was perfection itself. If I was Pygmalion, then she was my Galatea. How could I stand to see her suffer?
And then, the panel blew out. Belphegor collapsed to the ground, like the jellyfish he was. A moment later, he raised his head.
“What hit me?”
Only, the words came from two throats. One, in Belphegor’s whinny tenor. The other, came in a melodic contralto, from the perfectly arched throat of my dark beauty!
“Who said that?” The pair of them, beauty and beast, stared at each other.
The pale slug sighed theatrically. “Lovely. Now it works!”
While the dark beauty looked down at herself, and in the sweet, throaty tones of a sex kitten, proclaimed, “Bloody hell! I’ve got a rack!”
To be continued…
“I know how traumatic it was for me when I lost my penis—”
“Huh? When you what?”
“It was back in the nineties. You were just a baby, but I got busted up pretty bad. Oh, you wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but that’s because I invented the OmniSqueal 5000.”