Theoretically he'd had enough sleep last night. Probably. For a definition of "sleep" that included sporadic naps which in the aggregate added up to a few hours. Several mugs of #3 Devisor Double Mocha had filled in the gaps admirably.
His quest to dig up extra dirt on Calliope's circle of friends in the Mutant Mayhem Machine -- what a name! -- via social media algorithms had proven less fruitful than he'd hoped. In the case of the beta males, there just wasn't much worth finding. Jimmy "Shieldwall" Cannes was as squeaky as they got, with a social wall plastered with pro-police, pro-Scouting, pro-goody-two-shoes stuff. Though there was also a lot of high visibility, pro-mutant stuff as well. High Gear could at least hit the 'Like' button a few times as a show of solidarity.
That Japanese fag didn't really do social media, small surprise. He had a profile page on Facebook, but it didn't even have his own picture anywhere on it. A bit of research showed that this was pretty normal for Japan, the land of polite privacy.
And Vic... High Gear had to wonder wonder what Jack knew about the kid that he didn't, because the trail for that one petered out over a year ago. No updates, except from family members. He filed away a few names for checking later, in case they needed a better handle on the kid.
The girls were no less opaque, if for different reasons. The blue girl, Cerulea, gave the biometric algorithms fits. There was something about how the colors in her skin were layered that made it difficult for the photo analysers to tell where her bone structure even was.
The red one, Morgana, apparently did not exist prior to three months ago, judging by her social media footprint. With GSD like that, there was no telling what kind of girl she'd been before, but his bet was on fugly. She had that air about her.
The white girl, Bianca St. Claire... he'd already heard plenty about that one, and he wanted nothing to do with that. Few things in the world were a dumber idea than messing with the Chicago underworld. A permanent "Do Not Bother" mark was put on her file.
And then there were the two hangers-on, the Japanese girl and the bunny who ate at the M3 table more often than not. They weren't members, but the trap was with them enough that they warranted some checking. What easy checking it was, too. Lucretia del Bosque made a lot of headlines a few months ago, and all the facts were there to see. She was a trap, but too open about it to trap anyone. They could deal with her another time if they wanted to, but anyone pursuing her openly would get branded a tranny-chaser, and who wanted that?
As for Hikaru Myoujin... ho-lee crap. Where most people had a social media footprint, hers was like that one movie with the giant monster where the scientists didn't even realize they were standing in the middle of the print until they zoomed out. He put her name next to St. Claire's on the "Do Not Bother" list. Messing with a girl like that was liable to get a dude stomped on.
Last came the roommate, Erica von Abendritter. High Gear had put his all into this one. Not only was she the trap's best friend, but Gouyasse was offering some pretty hefty quid-pro-quo for any new details. So Blondie alone had accounted for almost half his research time that morning. He wished he had more to show for it.
Ms. Abendritter's social media presence was immaculate, well-curated, and a complete fraud. He could tell that much by this point, but beyond that there was nothing to report. Whoever this girl was for real, someone had thoroughly scrubbed that information from digital existence. A more experienced hackmaster or an infopath could probably tease things out, but from the way his intrusion countermeasures electronics console had lit up like the Fourth of July after one push too many, odds were that the hypothetical other person of better experience and black-ICE tech was already working for her. He'd cut the connection and scrambled his ICE before daring to get back online after that.
So now he was taking a break, sitting back with another mug of #3 Devisor Double Mocha, and pondering his next step.
Jack's entrance at this juncture was a welcome distraction. "Whatcha got?" he asked the ginger.
A pointed grin answered him. "A few times, locations, and other details for the next three days. Plus..." Jack paused expectantly.
High Gear rolled his eyes. "Oooh," he said in bored tones. "Whatever did you find."
A photo flashed before his face, one of those pseudo-Instamatic jobs that Jack had put together. Its image wasn't static; it flipped through about ten frames per second to provide a kinetoscopic sort of video of two girls.
Calliope and one other, a black girl that he didn't really recognize, holding hands and twirling around happily. He didn't need to see the kiss on the cheek, stolen from a moment they thought was theirs alone, to reach the obvious conclusion.
"Our trap's trapped herself a girlfriend, huh?" he said. "Now isn't that interesting..."
It was a quiet morning in the Amazon's semi-secret clubhouse, whose location was common knowledge, but not its extent. Valentina de Sanchez y Hernandez, otherwise known as Eurydice, approved of the expansions and redecoration. Back home in Venezuela, such things were signs of wealth and the power to hold on to that wealth.
And if her sisters had anything, it was the power to get and hold what they wanted.
"Brita?" she called, shutting the front door behind her. "Are you in here?"
The stifled moaning from the next room over wasn't an actual response, even if it did answer Val's question. Proper etiquette had her sit on the couch and wait for Brita and whichever sister she was with to finish. It just wasn't polite to invite herself into the middle of something.
Well, perhaps later. There was always the illicit bathhouse Brita had snuck into the last set of renovations. The thought warmed her heart, among other things.
She was halfway through that week's reading assignment on her smartpad when Brita emerged with Muliebris in tow. They were both dressed in their exercise outfits and drenched in sweat. The German girl called StahlFaust had her dark blonde-brown hair plastered to her forehead. The dark-skinned Muliebris didn't have that much on top, but the sweat drops shone like diamonds upon her skin.
"Have a good workout, ladies?" Val asked sweetly.
"The only way to start a weekend," Brita replied. Muliebris grunted, but was otherwise her usual loquacious self. "Didn't expect anyone else to be here so early," the German added.
"Obviously," Val said. The natural red of her lips brightened at the feel of afterglow running off both her fellow Amazons. "I bring news," she explained.
"About the little Italian songbird."
"Oh..." Brita stopped stroking Muliebris's leg and listened more closely. "What about her? I thought we were giving her and her roommate some space to think and get over that issue with the Euro-sophs."
That was a neat little distortion of recent events, Val thought. In truth, it was more because Brita's own little tirades had spooked the two Dickinsonians enough for them to distance themselves. Much as she loved her fellow Amazon, in all the senses, Val had to admit that Brita's blatant prejudices did the group little good. There were several otherwise prime candidates whom Val as chief recruiter would love to... introduce to the Amazon way of life.
Though some of them seemed good at introducing themselves to it.
"Guess what I saw behind the Crystal Hall after breakfast...." she began.
It had been half an hour since Nina, or perhaps Noah, had left to chase after his/her Italian crush, and Kara hadn't heard anything since. That might be a good sign, but it probably was not. She was still learning the ins and outs of the Nightingale Cameo and the power it hid, but one of the first things she'd come to understand was the intuitive sense it provided.
Something was not right. She simply had to figure out what.
And where, too. A quick sweep of the quad had only shown where Noah was not. Toughing the cameo lightly with her left hand, Kara focused on the image of her friend. A mote of power leapt to her outstretched right hand, forming into the silhouette of a tiny nightingale. With a song in its throat, the shadow of a bird took flight, and she followed.
The paths surrounding Poe Cottage seemed laid out specifically to provide the largest number of quiet spots available, either for assignations or crying. With the dorm's reputation, it could easily have been both. Kara found Noah sobbing on a bench hidden behind an azalea bush.
"Hey," Kara said, sitting down beside her friend. "So, that Michelle girl? Total creeper, but I'm sure TimeBomb's big sister hasn't noticed yet. She also thinks I'm your jealous girlfriend or something."
A hiccupy giggle answered that. "She... doesn't have a clue, does she."
"Well, it's not like we didn't discuss the possibility..." Unfortunately, Kara was straight as an arrow, and if they were both to be honest, a regular relationship between them without the presence of Glee would've been a bad idea as well. Best friend romances looked good on the silver screen, but it was messier in real life. "So, what happened?"
"I, I was following Cally, wanted to catch up and say hi, y'know? And." Sniff. "There was someone waiting for her." Snrk as Noah blew his nose. "Not a boy. A girl."
Kara gave him a big hug. "I'm sorry..." she said for lack of anything better.
The sobbing quietly continued. "On, on Monday, Cally and I were chatting, and, and, I asked her what kind of boy she liked..." Another honk into the handkerchief. "And, and she said that, that if she met a boy like m-me, she might, might..."
"Oh dear." She held her friend, rocking him gently. "And you didn't think to ask about girls," she said.
"No!" Noah wailed. "That's not, not what I am, or, or how I think, and..."
She patted his back and waited patiently for the next round of sobs to end. "There, there. Why don't you have Glee switch you back to male for a while? That cheers you up. No one around to see, so it should be safe."
Sniffle. "I'm, I'm already male. Switched back almost half an hour ago." He shifted his legs uncomfortably.
"What, really?" She looked him over closely. "Sorry, I couldn't tell..."
"The researchers are calling it progressive feminization," he said. "Glee floods my system with girly hormones when she's feeding, and all that's still in the bloodstream when I switch back, only I can't ever switch back long enough for the testosterone to kick in. No, no, don't worry..." he said, not to Kara. "I know you have to feed reg'larly, and I agreed to it and all. I went and fucked myself over here, and, and..."
Kara took him by the arm. "Come on, let's get you back to Poe. Nap it off, and I'll be by this afternoon to pick you up for the picnic, okay?" She framed it as a question, but didn't give him time to refuse.
At half past ten his shift ended behind the pastry counter of the Crystal Hall's infamous buffet line. He'd be back later in the evening to start the bread for the next day, but there was a lot to do between now and then. Daniel Diggins needed to hustle if he was going to have time to catch a quick nap, change clothes, and pick up Cookie in time for their K9 training.
Daniel tended to ignore the lingering students in the cafeteria. In the first few days he'd gotten pushed around a bit, but four weeks on dessert duty made him everyone's friend by now. There were worse situations, he figgered.
Because of that, he didn't notice the girl who moved to intercept him until he was about to run into her.
He sorta recognized her, much like he did everyone else at the school, but he'd never heard her name. Tall and athletic, with bright red hair that shaded to salmon pink at the tips, and eyes the color of blood; a scowl seemed her natural expression. "Come with me," she commanded in a strong Southern accent.
"Um, sorry, I have to get go-eeee..." She had one hell of a grip. His arm was gonna be purple after that.
Letting her walk him along was the less painful option by far, and much quicker, too. They went up on set of stairs, and then another, all the way to the third level of the cafeteria where the upperclassmen had their tables. Some of the kids up here were real movers and shakers in Whateley's little slice of society, and he had to assume that whoever had summoned him was at least that important.
"Thank you, Jenifer." The young man's voice had a silky tone to it, with a European accent that altogether put Daniel in mind of a sachertorte. The red-headed lackey shrugged, letting go Daniel's arm and pointing to the nearest chair.
He seated himself. "Um, hello. Ah..."
"Karel. Karel Lorencz." The owner of the voice was darkly handsome, with black hair that hit his forehead in a V-shape, a narrow face, and a very pronounced chin. "My code name is the Bohemian Lion. And you have already met Scarlyt here."
The girl nodded but reserved more attention to her breakfast.
"Now, as I am sure we are both busy young men, I will be forward here." Karel's smile was as fierce as his code name. "There is a picnic event later this afternoon, and I find myself in need of catering for a personal party. I have heard that you can provide certain things."
"Could be that I can," Daniel said carefully. "Nothin' too big, or too much all at once. Big weddin' cakes are right out."
Karel laughed politely. "Weddings are the last thing we have in mind. But, might I ask for a demonstration?"
With a shrug, Daniel put his hand over an empty plate sitting on the table. When he pulled the hand away, there was a flat sugar cookie with a spiral pattern baked into it, resting on the dish.
The older boy clapped. "Bravo. So interesting to see such a quotidian ability here amongst all the usual superhero clones. Marvelously mundane, in fact. Jenifer, if you would?"
Scarlyt took an experimental bite out of the cookie, considered a moment, then nodded. "It's good," she announced in her strong Southern accent. "Not like mama used to make, but then again my mama couldn't bake for shit."
"Could you manage perhaps four dozen such cookies and one or two cakes?" asked Karel. "Nothing too large; it won't be so big a party as that."
"Maybe," said Daniel. "Not right this moment, but this afternoon, yeah. What's it worth to you?"
"One hundred dollars, on delivery." Karel smirked.
"Ya might get a couple dozen for that," Daniel said back at him. "But cakes ain't cheap, and cookies add up quick." He did a quick bit of mental math, based on Miz Debbie's regular prices back home. "Yer lookin' at three-fifty, at the least."
"Five dozen cookies, two cakes, four hundred dollars?" the older boy offered. "I do admire a young man who knows his worth, but they had better be delicious, for that."
"Ain't no other way to make 'em," Daniel said, all serious.
Monica's so-called flight suit -- really an old track suit into which her aunt had sewn as much padding as physically possible -- was the sort of labor of love that wore better than it looked. Not that she cared much. Scrawny as she was, the suit's excess bulk actually made her look more girl-shaped than usual. On a normal kid, it'd be more like the Michelin Man.
Her Saturday Flight class still made her nervous, but it felt good knowing he aunt had her back like that. And she'd actually made progress. A little. She wasn't falling down as often.
Before class, she decided to see how Daniel was doing. Their date earlier this week had ended with a mutual friendship and not much else, but for a Whitman girl so heavily marked by her mutation, just an hour or two of relative normalcy was golden.
She walked into the Crystal Hall just in time to see Daniel get marched up the steps by that junior, Scarlyt.
Oh... oh, poo. Double plus un-good. Every dorm had people it paid to recognize, and Scarlyt was the one all freshmen girls at Whitman were warned about. There was just something... wrong about her. Monica wished she'd actually listened to more of the rumors now.
Patience had never been so hard as she waited near the main steps. When Daniel came down, she practically flew over to give him a hug. "Are you okay?" she whispered.
"Yeah, but thanks for the concern." He ruffled the down feathers atop her head. "Just someone wanting to pay for special treats this afternoon."
She couldn't share his attitude. "They're bad news!" she hissed. "S-scarlyt's the crazy one, but they're all awful. They, they..." Her words ran out as they left the cafeteria. It took a few steps for her to find new ones. "That group, they like to prey on people, make them feel awful, just for fun. Some of the Whitman girls hang out with them, d-do things for them, but only because they're scared not to."
Daniel nodded. "I'll be careful. Promise."
"W-what time will you do their delivery?"
"About two-ish, I'd say. Why?"
Monica's head was clicking thoughts together. "I'll get someone to go with you, as backup. Um, they can carry stuff for you, too?" she added.
She was rewarded with a warm smile. "Thanks, Monica," he said.
Lavender, Tanya was learning, had a lot going for it. As a color, it wasn't too strong or too bold, but neither did it fade when paired with other hues. White was a good match-up, of course, but she was surprised when the teacher had suggested chartreuse as contrast. The shade of yellow-green was more something she associated with reflective night gear or really awful drink mixes, but it certainly brought a bit of zip to her costume plan. Not too much, just some accents and piping.
"That looks nice," Sterling said. Her roommate had yet to commit to anything, costume-wise, despite Tanya's encouragement. Attempts to get the teacher over a consultation had gone about as poorly as expected, but at least they'd tried.
"Maybe something in green?" Tanya suggested. "To match your hair?"
"Who are you talking to?" Sera Eir Magnusdottir was officially an Icelandic-American dual citizen, but her accent leaned heavily towards her father's native land. It reminded Tanya of Sylphie, one of the members of her mom's old hero team, just younger.
She took Sterling's hand. "Let's try to tone it down some, okay?" she said gently. "Breathe in, out, there..."
"Oh." Sera blinked as her memories of the silver-skinned girl returned. "Yes. You. Ah, sorry.
Sterling nodded, but her face never lightened. They set back to work, the three of them, and not five minutes later the entire scene played out again. The girl from Iceland was on the low end of the psionic resistance spectrum, it would seem, and only needed a short time out of sight for Sterling to be out of mind completely.
Well before the class was over, her roommate stood up and left. At least this time, Sterling actually waved goodbye to her, even if no one else noticed.
She sipped, enjoying the fresh squeezed lemonade in the bright sunshine. Her phone was in front of her, plugged into her clips and piping a bright tune into her brain as she read the book displayed on it. Ibby would no doubt be disappointed that it wasn't some trashy bodice-ripper of a novel, but instead a technical manual for maintaining and repairing cars, but Tia was sure that what her mentor didn't know wouldn't hurt either of them.
A shadow fell across her phone, a thump sounded above her music, and a rattle almost jolted her from the table she sat at. With a sigh she made no effort to hide, Tia looked up. Who would be trying their best to ruin her day this minute? She'd almost read a full page this time.
Standing in front of her, on the other side of the table with her foot on the seat, was a tall, short-haired blonde, an obvious exemplar dressed in loose jeans, a leather top, and a rotten attitude.
"Well, well, well. Look who we have here. A little bunny, all alone." Her accent was German.
Tia thumbed off her phone's music app. Another tap and her special recording app turned on. "Can I help you?"
"Yes, you can," the girl answered. "You can shrivel up and blow away, Mister Del Bosque."
The way she emphasized the title left no doubt why she was here. Tia stood up."I'm afraid I can't actually do that, miss...?"
"StahlFaust." The girl answered, her grin widening.
That was a name Tia recognized, the name of the crazy girl who'd beaten one of the strongest mutants she knew into the dirt in under a minute.
She held out a hand. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Steel Fist. I hope you'll forgive me for not pronouncing the German, my accent is less than perfect."
StahlFaust did not take the hand, eyeing it as if it were something disgusting. An image of week old fish flashed through Tia's mind.
"My thanks for sparing me, but I am not pleased to meet you, or even have you here. You breathe air meant for those better than you."
Was she serious? Tia thought. That barely counted as insulting to her anymore. It was like the girl was barely trying. She'd heard much, much worse. Some of that must have shown on her face, because StahlFaust's complexion went ruddy. A brusque gesture brought another girl out into the open, from around the side of the cottage.
This girl was taller than StahlFaust, dark-skinned with short-cropped black hair and grey eyes. She also showed more muscle definition than even the other girl, while keeping that exemplar look. Aside from these two, the campus around them was empty.
There was something about that girl, something even more dangerous than StahlFaust herself. Tia decided to act, before the anxiety became too great.
"Let's just get this over with. What do you want?"
"I want you to know how your little friend felt in the hospital. Maybe you'll stay there longer than she did. Maybe you'll learn."
Tia made a point of turning her back on the other girl and her grin of violence to come. "Two against one, huh?"
StahlFaust stepped around the table, getting closer. "Are you implying that I'll need another for you?"
Tia shook her head. "No. You know who I am. That's why this is confusing."
The German scoffed, "She is here to prevent your escape. I have heard you like to run, little rabbit." She made a fist under Tia's nose. "However, I'll give you a chance. If you start now, I'll give you a full ten-second head start. Who knows, you might even make it back to Melville before I catch you."
Tia heard the girl step aside behind her. The path back to Melville was clear. Instead of giving in to the temptation to look, she slowly set her phone down and slid her back leg out, taking her best boxer's stance.
"You may kick my ass. You may even kill me. But you won't do it while I'm running from you."
StahlFaust snarled, her fist blazing in. So fast! was Tia's thought. Too fast! She tried to get her arm up in time -- better that it would break, rather than every bone in her face. She braced for the pain... and Stahlfast stopped, her scowl disappearing.
"Fair enough. See you around, Del Bosque."
StahlFaust and her friend walked off with matching waves, all smiles.
Tia wobbled a little, then sat down. After a minute, she retrieved her phone, stopped the recording, and brought her book back up.
Muliebris was not a person of many words. She let her expression and body language speak for her. At the moment, it could be summed up as "Why?" Brita didn't need to guess the rest. The two of them were sitting in the bushes, within sight of the Melville entrance and that misbegotten bunny-girl-who-was-boy, like a pair of creepers. Anyone would be wondering the same thing.
"She sat down. She didn't run back to her house mother, or Security. She's reading and sipping lemonade again, without a single care in the world."
A rough grunt sufficed to continue the line of questioning.
"So, Muliebris, she knew my name, my reputation, and she has no powers to fall back on. She took your intimidation field head on, and refused to run. There is some real steel in that one. And after all, this was simply a test. Del Bosque's profile is too high for us to actually touch; I merely wanted to see if I could stand being in the same school."
Muliebris stared. A single eyebrow raised to her non-existent hair line. "Really?" That word actually made it to the air, so doubtful was she.
"Yes," StahlFaust answered, standing up. "I'm already in trouble, and if my guess is right, we won't need to touch her. Her line of enemies is well over a mile long. We can simply sit back and watch the show. Now, to better business. We've got to go see our newest girl beat someone up at the tournament this afternoon. Time is wasting."
--Assay & Ladybird
"Yummy, yummy, in my tummy. Hip-hip-hip-hooray!" Hannah Sammish was singing as she and her roommate left the Crystal Hall that lovely October morn.
"Could you can it for just a few hours?" her roommate grumbled. Natalie "Nana" Bosch was whatever the complete opposite of a morning person might be. Unnaturally red, glossy hair was dotted with large black circles, marking her with her avatar spirit's colors. "It's just breakfast," Nana stated.
Hannah feigned shock. "Just breakfast? Why, I'll have you know that after dinner and lunch, breakfast is the most important meal of the day! So cheer up; you had your bacon and eggs."
"Don't remind me." Nana had been planning on going full vegan that year, only to suddenly acquire the aggregate spirit of a million-zillion ladybird beetles. The end result was that she was now an unhappily obligate carnivore. "And how are you still hungry?" she demanded to Hannah, who now had a cookie sticking out of her mouth.
"I'm a growing girl, eh?"
"Are you sure you're not secretly an energizer or something like that? You sure eat enough." To the best of Nana's knowledge -- and at this point she'd know better than anyone -- Hannah's sole power was the ability to sense and assess the power profiles of others. While the researchers raved over it, in Nana's opinion the biggest use for that power was to get Hannah kidnapped. It'd happened enough last year.
"Ya got me." Hannah went stock-straight, walking stiffly with her elbows crooked. "I. Was. Made. In. A. Lab. I. Need. Sweets. For. Power. So...ur...ce..." She stopped in her tracks, head and arms dangling.
Nana swatted her lightly across the back of her head. "C'mon, you goof."
"Ah! You have seen through my clever ruse... ah... huh?" Hannah was staring at an empty set of steps leading up the hill towards Melville. "Hey, Nana. Do you see what I see?"
"I don't see anything."
"Exactly. But up here..." She tapped her forehead. "I can feel a power in use where no one's at. Funny, eh?" Skipping over to the mystery step, Hannah stuck out a hand. "Hey, I can't see you, but I know you're there. Just wanted to say hi."
The silence deepened, and the complete absence of anybody there bore into Nana's head. "Are you going mental? Um, more mental?" she asked. "You're talking to no... no... um... What were you doing again?" She should have known the answer. It was right on the tip of her tongue, but...
"That's the power at work," Hannah declared confidently. "I can see it working, sort of an omnidirectional psionic vibe that's blotting out whoever it is with a big 'NOT HERE.' Pretty cool, eh?"
Nana's head felt like there were goldfish swimming inside it. Big fat ones. "Um, huh. Er, really."
"Yeah," Hannah confirmed. "But seeing it in action kinda dilutes the effect, eh?" She dug out another cookie and presented it to the thin air. "Here you go. A molasses cookie. I made them myself in Home Ec. with my grandma's secret recipe. Super-tasty, I guarantee." In between blinks, the sweet disappeared from her hands, like it had never been there.
"Anyhoo," the Canadian girl continued. "I'm Hannah and this is Nana. We're in Dickinson #221. Come by sometime and say hi if you want."
For a split second, the veils seemed to drop away, and the presence of a girl sitting on the steps seemed almost to materialize. "Thank you..." The words were light on the autumn breeze.
Later, Nana claimed not to remember the incident at all. Hannah, diligent keeper of an hourly journal of cool power-related stuff, managed a little better.
--Shawn Barker, ODS dud
No one had commented when he sat in on Costumes class. Apparently it wasn't that uncommon for interested students to just drop in for a session, and as long as they didn't disrupt the class, the teacher didn't mind. So he had a good view of the Japanese kid for the entire period.
Shawn wasn't sure what to think about that. When Kenshin was first called up to the front of the class to show his design work, there'd been no warning that the young man was going to immediately strip down to the waist.
Well, the expectant oohs of roughly half the class should've been a warning, but he hadn't caught it in time. Instead he was treated to the sight of the most awesome abs on campus. Seriously. What did a guy have to do to get ripped like that? Sure, some high-level exemplars effectively had twelve-packs, but Kenshin's managed to look realistically attainable.
Kenshin had immediately re-clothed, materializing some sort of Japanese kimono-jacket thing out of thin air, deep blue with aqua trim, and a symbol on the back: three arrows crossing within a circle. "My family crest," the Japanese kid explained, like it was completely normal to have something like that.
What would his be... Shawn doodled some ideas with as steady a hand as he ever got. He only vibrated it through the desk once.
The class ended, and Shawn had no better insight into his target than he'd had before. If anything, he was more confused than ever. He dutifully shadowed Kenshin out the door.
"Ono Taka!" The shout rang as soon as they cleared the building. Standing in the middle of the path, a young man -- Chinese or Japanese, Shawn couldn't tell -- was standing in a pose that could only be described as defiant, with chest puffed and arms akimbo. "At last you show your face!"
"Eugene Lee," Kenshin replied. "Yoroshiku. Ah. It is... good? Good to see you." He didn't sound too sure of that translation.
"Do not call me by that name!" the so-called Eugene yelled. "I am Liu Yingjie, and today I bring challenge against you!" The young man hefted a short bar, which with the press of a button extended into a polearm. "For the glory of the Maiden of Heaven, and the honor of being Her servant!"
"Sorry, but no." Kenshin turned on his heel and proceeded downhill.
Eugene, or whatever his name was, scrambled to run ahead, blocking the path with his polearm raised horizontally. "Have you no honor?" he cried.
"I have promised Hikaru-sama that I would not start any fight," Kenshin replied. "And so I am honoring her commands now."
From behind him, Shawn could hear two people giving commentary. "Eugene needs to get on meds," a girl's voice said.
"You always think so, Nu Shu," a boy replied. Looking back, Shawn could see an older Chinese boy talking with a similarly oriental girl whose skin was so pale it looked blue on the edges. "What am I to do about it?"
"As the supposed leader of Pan-Asia, you should do something," Nu Shu hissed. "Come on, Kowloon. You're the only one he listens to!"
"Not right now," said Kowloon. "He's too caught up in it all. And oh, look, our minders have decided to step in."
A woman in Security colors was storming up the hill. "Mr. Lee. Mr. Ono." She sighed. "What is it this time?"
"Officer Canterbury!" Kenshin bowed. "I am returning from class. Eugene --"
"--Eugene," he repeated, "wishes to fight with me, but I have promised not to. He, ah, persists."
The officer shook her head. "Always on my shift..." she muttered. "So, you want a fight," she said, pointing to Eugene.
"And you..." She hesitated, looking Kenshin over. "You wouldn't mind a fight, but you don't feel the situation warrants breaking your word. Well then. Listen up!" she shouted. "Impromptu brawls are bad, mmkay? If I volunteer as referee, can we move this to the open grass and stop obstructing traffic?"
That was apparently equitable, and the now sizeable crowd of spectators migrated to the greener space of the quad, leaving a wide circle for the two combatants. Shawn had to struggle to keep his spot at the front.
"Under Section 2, paragraph four of the Whateley dueling code," Officer Canterbury announced, "with the supervision of a qualified combat referee and with the provisions of no fouls, no maiming, and no collateral damage to school or to bystanders, it is time to start! Gentlemen, prepare yourselves!"
Kenshin materialized a suit of light armor around him, in the same colors and with the same insignia as his Costumes project. A pair of swords appeared in his hands. At the other end of the field, Eugene's body was surrounded by colorful PK energy that formed around him and his weapon to produce the image of fanciful armor.
"Stupid waste of focus," Kowloon muttered nearby. "It doesn't matter what his PK looks like, and he knows it. But he just has to look like a hero from Dynasty Warriors."
Shawn watched as the duelists faced off. Eugene's outline seemed to expand, puffing itself up menacingly. Kenshin gave no sign of noticing. The Japanese boy's stance was steady and his swords poised. Shawn kept his eyes peeled, alert and ready to catch the exact moment they chose to begin, and every move that followed.
And then he blinked.
In the short moment that his eyelids shuttered, his ears caught the sound of feet on grass, the loud cry from Eugene's throat, and the not-so-loud but quite definite thump of a body hitting the ground.
And then the fight was over.
"Mr. Ono is the victor!" Officer Canterbury declared.
Kenshin had the poise of a classical statue, his sword now sliding into its sheath. Behind him, Eugene lay face down in the dirt. "To not start fights was my promise," he said. "But to end them is my pleasure."
To Shawn's mind, and apparently the minds of many other bystanders, only one response was appropriate: "Awesome..."
She hadn't much to do for the rest of the morning. Homework was relatively light this week, and thus easily completed. Cally was out doing band stuff, so the dorm room was nice and empty. It was time to review personal projects, she decided.
First and most recent was the card slipped under her door early this morning. The numbers on its surface currently read 9:30. That was far lower than it'd been the first time, but how sprayed ink on paper card stock could do such a thing was beyond her. She could try, though.
Uncle Adolf and Aunt Margit had presented her with a kit of forensic devices and tools as their idea of a "back to school" present, which would normally have been five types of weird, but in the here and now of Whateley it made a lot of sense. After half an hour of work -- the card now read 9:00 -- she could say that the card itself was completely normal, but the countdown was actually a strip of printed microdots that switched between off and on at pre-programmed intervals.
Cool tech, but it didn't tell her much else. At least not till 8 o'clock that evening.
She was about to sit down to finish reading her borrowed copy of Eschbach's Die Haarteppichknüpfer when her phone rang.
"Hello?" she said. The number was unknown, but then again so was hers. There was a short list of people out there who might have it.
"Hey, um, this is Erica, right?" The voice on the other end was nervous by habit and several years older. She hadn't heard it in months.
"LAN, is that you?" LAN Ulster was a tech specialist that Uncle Adolf had called in to deal with certain problems after that initial mess in Wichita in June had gone further off the rails. Afterwards, her uncle had bribed the guy into staying in town as part of the reformed Wichita Warriors group. "Is everything okay? How are Ruby, Matt, and Billy?"
"Um, they're all okay. Calling about you, actually. Er... someone tripped flags earlier today on all those fake online profiles I set up for you."
"This isn't the first time, though?"
The nervousness chuckled its way out of his voice. "Nah. Had a few hits a week for the past month, including several from Germany, but this one was a bit, um, more intense. It looked like he was trying to crack the metadata on those childhood photos I made for you."
Now it was her turn to feel a chill. "They didn't, ah, find anything, did they?"
"Nah. This guy was good, but I think he's more tools than experience. I got 'im beat on both sides. Wanted you to know anyway. I couldn't get a full trace, but he pinged as being on the East Coast, and with those tools, well... pretty good odds that it's someone at your school."
"Thanks," said Erica. "I owe you one."
"Well, since you say that... Do you think you could find me some gear? All those science types on campus, there must be something new and cool in development."
"I thought you said you had the best tools," she teased.
"Better than that clown, but there's always room for improvement," he said.
Erica was still chuckling as she hung up. Well, there was one more side-quest to add to the rest. Though now that she thought about it, this wasn't too different from what Uncle Adolf had asked... She brought up the text file with the list of requested items for her cousin's birthday. With all the drama of the past week or two, she'd hardly been diligent in pursuing this one.
She saved the list to her smartphone. Today was as good a day as any to get on it.
For Derek Richardson, up-and-coming lieutenant of the Future Super Heroes of America, the new semester was looking good. Time flowed on, the year turned, and hopefully they could lay that ridiculousness of the past safely to rest. As he liked to tell his detractors, progress slowed was progress steadied. Pushing forward too hard caused problems, while holding back protected against them.
If he were more honest with himself, he'd just say no to any changes proposed in the next two years on general principles.
The sort-of tournament at the picnic this afternoon, for example. This had not been his idea, nor were the FSHA competitors his choice. Those girls were green, untested, and he still wasn't sure either had the moral fiber to stick with the path of the hero. Invictus would need some watching, for sure.
Unfortunately, while he may not like the tournament, he was still charged with its management, so he had to say goodbye to his girlfriend Gwen at the club's table, centrally located on the Crystal Hall's second floor. She and her friends could hold down the fort there, keeping an eye on the rowdier kids and ensuring a swift response if there were an incident.
An incident landed practically in his lap as he exited out the front door of the cafeteria. A face, seen in passing. A memory of a short paper brief, faxed to his house over the summer with a note. He'd torn it to pieces in disgust, but the face remained.
"You," Derek said, striding up to where the boy was stumbling along. "What's your name?"
The kid stopped in his tracks, arms dangling limply. His eyes, when they turned to stare at Derek, were dark and dull. "Oh, hello," the kid said. "I'm sorry. I need to get going..."
Derek put his arm out to block the kid's escape. "First things first. What's your name?"
"Hi, my name is Vic Rivera." The sentence was flat, with the cadence of a rote response.
The name matched what Derek's exemplar memory provided. "Do you know someone named Caroline Seaver, or Lifeward?" he demanded.
"Yes." Something brightened and then faded behind those eyes. No other answer arrived.
"Look," said Derek, his temper burning short. "I don't know you. I don't know how you know that woman. But I do know where she tends to pick up her charity cases, and that doesn't say much for you. Understand?"
The kid was nodding along, like a bobblehead in a breeze. "Who're you?" he mumbled.
"Derek. Call me Megaton." Derek puffed out his chest and found himself wishing he'd worn his nicer outfit that morning to breakfast. "Now, as for Lifeward..."
He almost punched the kid right there. Good sense held his fist in check. Broad daylight, out in the open, with an unknowable number of potential witnesses? No, not yet.
"Now remember this," he growled at the kid. "I'm on the side of good and right. You're some punk that that bleeding heart thought more important than her own family. And yanno what? I don't care what she thinks. She pulled you out of the gutter and as far as I'm concerned you should be thrown back in. Do not cause trouble and do not cross me. Understood?"
"Yeah. Okay. Nice to meet you. Goodbye..." The kid walked away, his body jerking mechanically, and Derek had to wonder what he was smoking or snorting. It would be just perfect if the latest charity case was a Dylan already. Anything was possible with that sort of street rat.
Derek followed at a distance, curiosity morbid. The kid walked down into the tunnels, around a corner, and up to one of the myriad doors that led to only Carson-knew-where. The portal cracked open, and for a brief moment Derek spotted bright orange hair.
He didn't bother to check further. That shade of orange was quite familiar. If this Vic Rivera kid was already hooking up with Dylans and Masterminds, like Jack-in-the-Box, then he was a lost cause from the start.
It was so like Lifeward to waste time and energy on a total loser. He added that to his list of complaints against her.
His head was a dome, a bell of cracked and pitted bronze from some ancient pagan tradition, being rung from the inside by two deaf goblins who'd long since lost their wits to their sonorous labor.
Or maybe he was just hung over. It had never happened to him before, so there wasn't much to compare the experience to.
What had he been drinking last night? The few brain cells that had paid attention now informed him that it was beer which had landed him face first in the gutter. He was an exemplar, though. Experimentation with the party set in Genoa over the last six months had taught him that a few light beers practically fizzled out before they could effect him.
His roommate, an Australian boy who preferred to be known as Duster, was nowhere in sight when Fra did stumble out of bed, for which he was thankful. He doubted he could stomach the disapproving looks that he probably deserved.
No. No more beers for a while, he promised himself. His sister was right; he had a second chance here at Whateley, and it was time to shape up. He winced as the contents of his head shifted. And... perhaps no more meetings with the Outstanding Dudes Society, either. Not for a while, at least. He hoped his friend Mac would understand.
The showers were practically deserted, leaving him only his thoughts for company as he tried to wash away the dreck of an evening enjoyed too thoroughly. Every memory starting a few minutes after that last, really nice beer was foggy, fragmentary.
He only hoped he hadn't made too much of an ass of himself.
If life was a length of rope to be measured, then surely he was at the end of his. So far, between last night and this morning there were three gaps in his memory that he could not account for. The third had been the shortest, barely ten minutes, but it left him with such a headache that for the moment it was all he could do to hold down the sofa cushions in the Twain lobby area.
"You okay, man?" asked the older student now manning the front desk. Everyone in Twain knew Lenape by this point, the so-called most senior final student of the Class of 2016.
He considered being snarky, but it hurt his head too much to try. "No," he finally replied.
"Wanna talk 'bout it?" The most-senior left his post, settling down beside Vic on the couch. "I mean," he said, rubbing that fuzzy strip of almost-hair that ran over his head like a two-dimensional mohawk. "I know all sorts of shit go down at this school. No reason to let it cling."
"I..." Vic could already feel something tensing behind his skull, readying to unleash a flood of inconsequential chit-chat instead of his real feelings. "I can't," he finished promptly.
Lenape had watched his face carefully as the inner struggle had worked its way through. "Shit. I know that look. Whatever hold this other person's got on you, you'd better end it soon. I seen too much of this crap over the last four years. If it's just afraid-can't, then your best bet is to report it straight up."
Vic managed a tremulous shake of the head.
"Damn, then it's forcibly-can't." Lenape rubbed a gloved hand across his face as he pondered. "Look. Whether it's a psi-command or a devise or a post-hypnotic thing, there's always a loophole. Tried writing it down?"
A pained nod. His fingers still hurt.
"Shit. I wish Louis were still around..." Lenape said cryptically. "That telepathy of his got through most anything."
It was like a light bulb turned on in Vic's head. A few options so far not considered clicked together. "Th-thanks." His tongue stumbled through the words. "I, I gotta sort some stuff out..."
"Let me know if you do," said Lenape. "Or if you don't. I should probably report this, but..." He winked. "If you got a plan, I can spot you a few hours. Self-reliance is good and all, but everything's better with a backup plan. Best of luck."
Vic could've hugged the guy, but he was pretty sure he'd heard Lenape's skin was toxic. So instead, he shook one gloved hand. "Thanks," he said again.
She was sitting on those steps for a while. The exact time didn't really matter. People came and people went, and the steps were wide enough that she never seemed to get in anybody's way. Even if they couldn't see her, they still avoided her. No one stopped to say hi.
Well, almost no one. There'd been that weird girl who could almost see her. The one with the cookies. And that weird dog from Twain Cottage had definitely given her a puzzled look earlier.
The world was scary; she wanted to be alone.
The world was scary; she needed a hug.
Sterling's greatest wish in the world was that she could've brought her teddy bear, Sir Snugsalot, with her from home when everything had gone weird. She missed his stuffed self.
Eventually her feet decided to go somewhere. She found it hard to care. Nobody noticed her on the path, or around the corner, or through the back trails behind the school, or in the tunnels, or...
Her nose caught a whiff of smoke, fragrant and dizzying. Oh yes. Here.
Two freshman boys had made this little glen their habitual smoking spot. She'd passed by several times over the past month, and it was always just the two of them. She sometimes sat down with them on the principle that misery loves company.
"Like, think about it..." said the first boy, a darkly tanned kid from Miami who went by the code name Kinesio. Everyone else called him Spazz. "There's so much world out there, and we're told it's all been mapped and visited? No way. There's, there's gotta be stuff hidden in the cracks."
His friend just nodded along. From what Sterling had gathered, Feedback suffered from an overly chatty spirit in his head, and the weed was the only thing to block it out. "Mebbe nice," he said finally. "Lonely spot, no one for miles, no one to, to listen to." He ground the last words out through his teeth.
"Here," said Kinesio, passing the joint over.
"Thanks." Feedback took a long drag, then passed it to Sterling.
She stared at it for a second, the roll of paper in her fingers slowly smoldering. There was no way that the stoner kid had noticed her, and yet he'd passed it along like it was the most natural thing to do. A short, experimental puff set her lungs to hacking, but of course the boys didn't notice that. Kinesio accepted the joint back without comment.
"Well lookee what we have here." A girl waltzed right into the glen. She was dark-haired and remarkably normal by even the standards of the outside world, until the brain processed the hard gleam in those eyes, or the broad smile that seemed plastered in place. "Just the gentleman I was looking for."
"Man, I thought you were keeping an ear out!" Kinesio said to Feedback.
"I smoke to shut the little Echo fucker up, dude!" Feedback shouted back. "And who're you?"
The girl tutted. "What wastes of space, sitting here on a sunny Saturday getting wasted."
Kinesio huffed and twitched. "I need it--"
"Yeah, yeah, to control the pain from your mutation. Incomplete internal energizer setup, isn't it? That's why they call you Spazz. Even if I reported you, there's that medical waiver. Your pal Skitz, on the other hand..." That grin aimed itself at Feedback.
"Whaddaya want?" Kinesio demanded.
"Why, to help you! I saw some details of your case and I thought to myself, 'Jamie, there's a kid who's being kept from his full potential.' I'd like to know why."
Now Sterling was able to place her. Jamie Howe had arrived a few days later than the other girls in Whitman, and their paths rarely crossed. The bright, unfocused look in the devisor's eyes made her kind of glad for that.
"Take my card, Spazz," Jamie was saying. "Think it over. What's the harm in trying? I learn something, you get fixed up, everyone is happy. Let me know soon." With that, the girl waltzed off as confidently as she'd arrived.
Sterling followed, mostly out of frightened curiosity. Her one little puff off the joint had calmed her down a bit, and she wouldn't have tried this otherwise. Well, she was pretty sure of that. Social invisibility made it kind of hard to care.
Jamie had her smartpad out. On the screen, Sterling could see a list of code names. Kinesio was halfway down the list, along with some other odd ones, like Nightingale, Eisenmädel, Cerulea, Ping... A bright red X had been marked next to the code name Handmedown, whoever that was.
"Okay, you charlatan," the girl was muttering to herself. "You better be right about all this."
The look in her eyes did not make Sterling feel good at all.
Rachel Altus was on the prowl. Those with any sense stayed out of her way. People were being quite sensible today, which was actually kind of annoying. She did so enjoy applying object lessons with her elbows. On the front of her black t-shirt, the words CARPE SCROTUM could be seen in shocking pink letters. Most folks on campus had quickly learned at least two words of Latin this month, too.
She'd circle the quad a few times now, sauntering along the trails and enjoying the morning until her prey could come out and play. The honey badger spirit inside her, perhaps remembering those golden days at the old Roosevear Memorial Zoo, was happy to stroll with her around their turf.
And then there he was, walking on the track between the cafeteria and Poe with two of the junior high kids. In the past two days she'd done some digging, gotten what dirt she could on one Daniel Fontenot, a.k.a. Wilder.
Born in one unpronounceable Louisana town, and recently arrived from another. A room to himself in Poe, where they supposedly kept the crazies. Honestly, Rachel had yet to see much difference between the average Poesie and anyone else on campus, but in Wilder's specific case it made sense.
Just last Thursday she'd seen him turn into a crazed, bloodthirsty beast, after all. It had been a helluva fun fight.
Rachel started up a conversation by the simple expedient of parking her feet in the middle of the track, and silently daring them to bump into her. When they sagely changed course, she moved to block them again.
"Um, skyooz me," said Wilder, "but we gotta get by." He had a heavy tough of the bayou to his voice, which was totally cute. "We haveta--"
"It can wait," she said firmly. "You and I've got business to finish up."
"We do--?" The question barely squeaked around the backhanded slap that smooshed his face leftward.
"Hey, hey!" yelled the first junior high kid, the one with the messy brown hair and a devisor's belt around his waist. "That, that's a really bad idea..."
"Oh, shit," said the other kid, with the lime green hair. "That's her. From Thursday!"
The stunned awe in his voice was a pleasant welcome, and she took a bow. On the way back up, she smacked Wilder across the other cheek.
"You... yer makin' a mistek..." he said, words slurring both through his accent and through the jaws that were realigning themselves into a nasty grimace to accommodate the fangs. "I... Ah... can't... kint cont-t-t-rooooo..."
Control, maybe not. Hesitate, certainly yes. She could see the rage building in his eyes, and the veins popping from trying so hard to hold it back.
Rachel punched him in the gut and then, when he was down, kicked him square in the face. "It's been fun," she said. "And could be funner, but I'm making a point here." Pulling a small spray canister from her pocket, she knelt in close and gave Wilder a spritz right up his flaring nostrils.
His eyes went out of focus, losing the creeping redness of repressed transformation, and he fell over backwards.
"What the..." the brown-haired boy said.
"Cuckoo Channel's Knock-Out #1," Rachel told him. "Potent, but very short duration. Good for calming hysterics, panics, or hormone-fueled rages. See?"
Wilder was already sitting up, rubbing his face gingerly. "Whadda f..." The cussword snapped off when he saw Rachel. "You!"
"Me!" she shouted in agreement. "Feeling upset?"
"Yesss!" His voice began to slur again.
"Good. Save it all up for later." With a wink and a twirl, she danced right up to him and landed a kiss on his cheek. "See you at the picnic, boyfriend."
As she skipped away happily to Whitman, where her picnic plans needed finishing, she could hear that bayou voice say, "Dafuk?" She spun around to blow him another kiss, then continued on her merry way.
Loopholes, loopholes... He repeated the thought in his head. Whatever Jack-Asshole had done, its biggest limitation had to be on the user's end. Vic could be commanded not to blab or write about the problem, what little he actually knew about it, but that didn't mean all avenues were closed.
He had to assume that Jack actually had a copy of his power profile or MID report, both of which listed a TP-1 rating as a minor part of his mutation. At that level, telepathy would be scattered, intermittent, and difficult to use without training -- training which a freshman was unlikely to have. And if all Jack had was the basic report, then that would be the correct assumption to make. Vic hadn't had the time to master any limited side abilities he possessed.
That was, if he'd started from the official date his mutation manifested.
Loopholes. Loopholes and omissions. Not outright lies, just... letting others assume. The listed date of manifestation in his file was off by several months, for instance, to avoid getting him arrested for a host of reasons the MCO felt were important, as well as to make it harder to connect him to certain events.
The report also failed to mention his mother.
No big surprise there; he rarely felt like talking about her with strangers. Four years on, and it still took all he had not to cry some nights.
Once upon a short lifetime ago, his mother had been Comsat, a third-tier heroine on a minor team, who'd specialized in overwatch and communications. Fancy com-badges were still just glorified walky-talkies, as she used to say. Hacking a well-made telepathic webwork was something else entirely.
Of course that didn't mean it was impossible, which was why Vic was here and his mom was in the ground. He paused for a moment's reflection to calm himself.
The thing was, mom always relied on her telepathy when others preferred smartphones. Vic had learned from a young age how to focus and "shout" in his mind so that a receptive might hear. That part of training carried over now, when he had the same raw talent of his own to work with.
The question was, who to try and contact? He didn't know any telepaths on campus personally, and if the school were mostly open today he'd be knocking on the Psychic Arts Department's door right that instant. And the only empath he knew was Calliope, which given the apparent nature of whatever Jack had done did not seem a good choice.
That left one option, and he wasn't sure if he... oh hell, he was that desperate.
Vic stomped back towards the Crystal Hall, hoping and praying. Whether those prayers were to find someone or not find them, not even God could answer.
Life was practice. Every day in every way, Calliope was practicing something. Singing in the shower or her dorm room. Dancing down the halls or in private with Neff. Natural talent was good, exemplar-backed memory and physical ability was better, but neither meant anything without experience. Some things simply needed practice to learn properly.
Right now, they were practicing how to be a band. It wasn't going particularly well.
"But she upstaged me!" Electradyne was wailing. The girl was dressed in her usual black, to match her hair, and also as usual it was cut to show off curves that she just didn't have yet.
"You're not the only person to include outfits in their performance," the teacher, Mr. August, noted. "Though I dare say yours are more unusual than most. Just because Calliope chose a different sort of display and made it work is nothing to get angry about."
Calliope herself was sitting this argument out. Her English was good, but when the other girl was actively looking for insult then nothing was good enough. This had all started with her saying "Good morning" to Electradyne, apparently with the wrong tone of voice.
"We could change the order," suggested Nick. The horse boy with the golden guitar was so laid back he could have been a deck chair in a former life, but even he was showing annoyance with the black-haired girl.
"Or coordinate their looks better, so they can do stuff together?" said Kieran, the sax player. No one missed the betrayed look Electra sent his way. "Look, we're a band. We've got to cooperate on something."
Mr. August applauded. "Exactly! It was a lack of coordination and communication which led to last Tuesday's costume clash, and we're still arguing about it now. This simply will not do. Ladies, please find something you can agree on. Until then, let us speak of different things. Dalton, Emile? How go the plans for tomorrow?"
The two senior members of the Unladen Swallows looked up from the podium, where they'd been consulting some notes. "Space is reserved," Dalton reported. "Um, performance order is Kieron, Electra, Nick, and Calliope for showcasing. Not a lot of room for fancy maneuvers."
"And not a lot of time for practice," Mr. August concluded. A chorus of groans rose in harmony. "Now, now! You'll never get anywhere with that altitude. First up, Calliope, with Dalton and Emile on backup. Let's go, everyone!"
Calliope was more than happy to get the argument behind them. Grabbing the mike from Emile, she started the words even as Dalton began the drum line. There was very little lead-up on this one.
Who shot that arrow in your throat?
Who missed the crimson apple?
It hung heavy on the tree above your head
This chaos, this calamity, this garden once was perfect
Give your immortality to me; I'll set you up against the stars.
Emile provided harmonies, both vocal and keyboard, but otherwise this was very much her song to sing. It was a funny set of lyrics, with references to Eden, William Tell, and maybe Greek epic imagery in quick succession, but she poured her heart out through them anyway. Live life, the song suggested. It's all over soon, so do things. Good advice, sometimes. She was glad Tobias had recommended it.
The sea is wine red
This is the death of beauty...
The doves have died
The lovers have lied...
Monica had worked out that, as long as she ignored the fact that the ground was eight inches below her, the world ignored that she was eight inches above where she should be. The hard part was that being aware of her own ignorance turned her flight exercises into a sort of centipede's dilemma.
Ask a centipede how it walked with all those little legs, the story went. As soon as the crawler focused on each step it took, it lost all ability at coordinating its feet, and couldn't walk at all. Monica could sympathize, as she once again dropped to the earth.
"You lasted longer that time," her practice partner noted. Tanya was nice enough not to mention that Monica's best time was still only measurable in seconds.
"Thanks." Next to her bag was a little paper box, hastily folded together. A half-dozen donut holes remained inside -- and then there were five, as she popped one in her mouth. It made her feel a little better.
"Thought you and donut boy weren't dating after all," Tanya remarked as Monica returned to the circle to practice her lifts.
One inch, two inch, three inch, down...
"That doesn't mean we can't be friends with, ah..." She stopped as she realized there was only one good word to finish that thought, and it had the completely wrong nuance attached.
Tanya cackled as she shot up into the air, a light purple aura surrounding her. "I dunno," she said when she came back to earth. "I'd say donuts are a pretty good benefit. So, you two gonna meet up for the picnic this afternoon?"
"I hope so," said Monica. "He's... got a delivery to make. To the Bohemians."
The lavender girl lost any trace of humor to her expression. "That's not good."
"And you warned him?"
"Uh-huh... and asked my roommate Jordain to go with him for the delivery."
Tanya sighed. "Well, it's the best we can do, I suppose. Just don't like the idea of Daniel walking into the lion's den like that."
Monica found it hard to focus on her flight exercises after that. "Up and down" was more downs than ups for the rest of the practice period.
Well he'd found who he was looking for. Now came the hard part. Vic tried not to be too obvious as he observed the sophomores at the Cape Squad table from a safe distance. The M3 table was deserted now, so at least he didn't need to not-explain this to anyone else right now. He just had to work up the nerve to get over there.
Meditation helped a little. Images of ripples and waves really spoke to his mind at some deep level, and he wasted several minutes pulling the contents of his cup of ice water into fanciful shapes.
He must've been spotted by now, Vic figured. With so few people around, his freshman self stood out like a sore thumb here on the second floor. His gaze settled on the other table, and he thought he saw the students there glance back once or twice before continuing their conversation.
His feet made up his mind for him, picking him up and carrying him the proper direction. The three girls at the table looked up as he approached. Only one recognized him, and her eyes showed her emotions all too well.
"Um, hello?" he said. Already, his mouth was preparing to engage in babble-mode; he'd learned the sensation too well by now. So instead he focused on the word HELP! as hard as he could in his head and pushed it at the one person he knew well enough to spark a connection.
At least, he hoped he still knew them well enough.
"If you'd excuse us," said the first of the three, a blonde whose hair shaded to deep brown at the tips. "I need to have a word with my..." Her voice skipped a beat. "With my step-brother here."
The others, a skinny brunette and a Chinese-looking girl with bright red hair, weren't too ready to let their friend go like that, but after one more request they left to get drinks. Vic had that long to get it right, to explain the situation... somehow... and get help.
He was so screwed.
"Um..." he began, sitting down. "Hey, Ollie..."
"That's not my name anymore," she snapped. "And I swear, if anyone figures anything out because you called me by the wrong name... I've worked hard to get my life restarted here, and you are not going to ruin that."
"S-sorry!" Hell, this was not starting well. His brain kept flashing HELP! in the hopes that she really was picking up on it. "I'm, um, sorry. Gwen."
"It's a little late for that." She lifted her right arm, flexing and twisting to make a point. "Took a long time to heal up from our last little family reunion."
"You shouldn't have pushed me like that," he growled.
"You should've come home with me," she shot back.
"I didn't need your pity."
"What you needed was a quick kick in the pants!"
He wiped a hand across his face. "This isn't what I wanted to talk about..."
"Oh yeah?" Gwen scowled. "What else is there then? And why do I keep hearing you shouting with your mouth shut?"
"You can... you can hear that?" It was the best piece of news he'd had all day.
"Kinda? The volume's up a bit strong. Just tell me straight, why don't you?"
CAN'T he broadcast. HELP PLEASE!
Gwen fell silent, wincing from the contact. "Seriously, Vic. Volume control."
"Sorry, Oll... er, all about that, Gwen."
Her two friends had been slow to return with the drinks, but now his time was up. The brunette and the redhead approached with double-fisted, extra large drinks and a look in their eyes to suggest they weren't intending for them to be drunk. "Is he bothering you..." the brunette began.
"Chrissy? Les?" his sister said, waving at them to sit and put their drinks down. "Remember how Megaton asked us to keep our eyes open for any potential situations? Well, we've got a real one now..."
Vic sat back and brooded as the three girls talked about him like he wasn't even there. Occasionally one would ask him a direct question, which his traitor mouth would sometimes answer straight, but just as often would meander off-topic while his brain flashed an SOS. Soon the limits on his telepathy became very apparent: not only was Gwen the only one who could hear, not only was he restricted to the simplest possible thoughts, but he couldn't project the name Jack-in-the-Box or any of his nicknames when he needed to.
"Are we even sure..." Les was saying, only to be interrupted by a chiming sound. All eyes turned his way, including his own, which were staring down at his pants pocket. He dug out a small, round trinket, a timer of some sort. It let out a complicated tune of beeps and whistles, and then his head started to swim...
...and he snapped back with hacking, gasping gulps of air. "What..." he said, the sound barely escaping.
"He's back," Les reported. She held his eyelids wide open, examining with her own emerald gaze. "Normal dilation; everything seems fine."
"What..." he tried again, slightly louder. The girls still didn't seem to hear.
"I still say we should dump him and this whole mess," said Chrissy. Her brown hair was now swept back into a tail and seemed longer than before. "Never thought I'd have anything to do with that bastard ever again..."
"What?" he finally said at a decent volume. "What's going on?"
""You, little brother, are in deep shit," said Gwen.
"Tell me something I don't know..." Glancing around, he realized they were no longer in the cafeteria. In fact, it looked like the lobby area of Twain, only... cleaner? Better kept? Decorated by someone with actual taste? "Um, where are we?" he added.
"Poe, first floor," said Les.
"Mrs. Horton only let us drag you in because you were such a mess," added Gwen. "Best behavior, Vic."
"Right, Oll... Alright. Gotcha, er, Gwen." His step-sister's expression was stormy, but he knew from experience that it would pass soon if he didn't provoke her. "So, um, my first question?"
"You went sleepwalking," said Gwen. "Well, you excused yourself politely and left, but the way you did it just didn't feel natural."
Chrissy snickered. "It was the polite part that sent up warning signals."
"So we followed at a very discrete distance," Gwen continued. "Mostly by drone, since Les is so good with those." The redhead took a bow. "Here's what you missed."
The image on the smartpad was grainy and shaky, not to mention taken at a fair distance from the objects of surveillance: namely himself and Jack-Asshole. There was a very one-sided conversation going on. Vic's body was slumped, its only motion being a nod of acknowledgement. Jack was far more animated and upset, once or twice slapping Vic across the face. At the very end, Vic's arm raised itself woodenly for a handshake.
He cringed in anticipation, but the buzzing thing was a lot more subtle than it felt. Les had to zoom in and refine the image several times before the devise in Jack's palm could be seen at all.
"That two-faced, lying son of a..." Chrissy spewed. "They made him destroy all of those things! Remember, Les?"
"I remember taking the hammer to one personally," the redhead confirmed. "No reason he couldn't make a new model, though."
"And let's face it," said Gwen, "with Mrs. Carson being MIA and a Syndicate dude now in charge, old Jack Shit won't be the only one testing the limits of the new administration."
Vic was still staring at the image. "What..." he asked in his best imitation of a broken record.
"Post-hypnotic command," Les explained. "The buzzer shocks your brain into a receptive mode, and then he tells you what to do. Regular buzzes reinforce the previous orders and let him add on more."
If Gwen's face was stormy, Chrissy's was volcanic. "Bastard was using it to pick up girls last year, including me," the brunette said. "Only it works weird on people with certain types of ESP or mental skills, and he was too careless to realize. Should've been expelled," she declared.
"Friends in wrong places," said Gwen with a sigh. She didn't look Vic's way at all when she said it, but he could feel that the puff of vocalization was aimed his way. "Les, you still have the notes from last year? Any chance we can override it?"
The redhead thought it over. "Probably, yeah. It won't tickle, though."
Vic shivered as his step-sister took him by the wrist and urgently pulled him to his feet. "Don't worry. My bro here probably deserves it. Let's get this over with."
"Wine Red" by The Hush Sound