Metro 2: Running With A Devil (Part Four)
Metro 2: Running With A Devil (Part Four)
"Teacher said that every ending is a new beginning."
"Teachers can be wrong."
Chapter 7: Rolling Bones
"Prosperity is no just scale; adversity is the only balance to weigh friends."
Tuesday afternoon, January 29, 2008,
Team Tactics I Planning Briefing, Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
Alexander Peters ('Sandy' to his close friends, 'Gravedigger' for this exercise) paged through his sketches, shaking his head at how his assignment was panning out. The advice he'd gotten from his team had been limited to "As long as it makes that queer-bait Holm look bad, it's good enough in my book!" and "Sandy, just try to keep it simple and play to your own strengths." Thanks, guys.
"Miss Everheart? You do realize that I'll be catching hell over this exercise, no matter how it goes down?"
Sam looked him in the eye – although his being composed entirely of sand made that tricky – and said, "Are you worried that Rorsmand will take it personally? I know he's your roommate, but we aren't kidding when we tell students that what happens in the sims had better stay in the sims."
"Maybe. But I'm going to catch hell from my own team if I don't take them down, and hard."
"Your grade would also be suffering if you go easy on them."
Wednesday morning, January 30, 2008,
Team Tactics I Combat Simulators, Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
Valravn scouted out the visible building complex from near astral space while Metro checked below-ground from a similar vantage point. Not many of the other students in class had caught on to that, just that they probably weren't actually asleep. Vapaat Taivas collected aerial recon for Rorsmand and Sophia to composite and check against known building plans. Smithy was getting used to playing the heavy on lookout, but she'd rather be looking for ways to turn their incoming information to better advantage.
Valravn returned first with his observations on personnel and activities. He was learning to recognize EM signatures and wiring layouts – electrical circuits were just another way to harness lightning after all – and the team hoped that that would leverage Metro's security training. Thomas still planned to accuse Mads of taking the Winter Term escape course because he's a clown at heart.
Metro was the last back: willing one's astral self through soil and rock was much easier in theory than in practice. Also, he'd had to map out a small underground complex, relaying his findings to the team through his link with Valravn.
One of the findings was that "the floor is covered in sand throughout, so I want everyone checking their face masks and filters."
Rorsmand's shoulders slumped a bit, over the potential conflict of interest. "The only person in the class who'd get much use out of that is Tephra."
"PK and sand is a rough combination on gear, eyes, lungs. If we plan for Tephra and it turns out to be Pejuta, we'd be screwed."
"So noted. Where did you find Tephra and not Pejuta?"
"This room here, under the grain elevator."
Valravn said, "Great. A sand trap. And me without my golf clubs."
Metro replied, "So you'll be backing up V-T and Rorsmand."
"Don't go assuming the rest of us'll be safe there," Smithy reminded him. "A person can drown in fluidized grain. Heck, even silage'll take a person down while it's being loaded. What else we got?"
"There's a warehouse... here. Tons of pallets, so that's going to be fun exercise in room clearance. There should be an accompanying elevator connecting to a topside building with security. Maybe there's a ramp instead."
Vapaat Taivas chimed in over the comm link, "Are we at go or no-go?"
"The premise is that we're up against a paranormal criminal. Can we turn this over to the police and hope he doesn't get warned? We're the smallest team, but..." Rorsmand was learning that even when the right answer was go, the right answer might not be the best one.
Smithy said, "I'm worried about there being a warehouse down there. You always hear about massive drug shipments, but never about massive stockpiles of the product or the precursors."
"That's because it gets stepped on and passed around as soon as it hits the street. Too much demand for product and for quick payoff." Metro looked past his working display at his two unamused team-mates. "What?"
"I'm trying to pretend you don't know so much about the business end. I do know that meth labs have a nasty habit of blowing up, and the materials being used are just as dangerous without a spark. What if that's what's down there? I'd rather not find out the hard way if I've got enough regen to deal with anhydrous ammonia. My last chem lab partner was scary enough."
Metro stuck his tongue out at Smithy.
She continued, "They told us in Workshop Safety that Class D fires have to be physically smothered. I wonder how many locations down there are legit set up for a powder dump in case halon doesn't work?"
"If people are going to be idiots, dump grain on them and let the dust sort them out."
"That's a sure-fire recipe for a fuel-air... oh, you sawed-off little bastard."
Valravn smiled, partly at the mental image. "Sounds like a hazardous work environment to me. If we're going to be blamed for the fireworks anyway, let's do something about that first..."
Combat Simulators Control Room
Oscar Bardue knew something painfully headache-inducing was inbound his position when the technician handling calls to 'the authorities' handed the handset off to him. "You want to call in OSHA violations? Why would you people think that's appropriate to this scenario?"
"Check your email."
"Ever try moving product through a facility locked down and loaded with code inspectors?" Bardue could picture Metro's smirk over the line. "Not my favorite activity..."
No. His favorite activity is giving his teachers new ulcers. "You want the buildings evacuated."
"With the alarm systems disabled and time to look for the routes to and from the underground facilities without being clocked by our opponents."
One four-hour time skip later
The cargo elevator lurched into operation at the same time Rorsmand's "I'm in." hit the team's tactical channel. First step was to send it down empty in case the bottom level was booby-trapped for their arrival. Thus, while attention was directed to the elevator and its controls, no one was watching when Metro was slammed into the nearest wall.
Smithy: Rorsmand, get the elevator back up here.
Vapaat Taivas: What's the plan?
Smithy: Lure whatever the hell this is into the elevator. Let our bad guy deal with it.
Rorsmand: I see some of the insanity is rubbing off.
Valravn: Earth spirit. I'll get its attention. A bolt of lightning intercepted the creature before it could get to the downed magician.
Smithy, Valravn, and Vapaat Taivas swapped hammer blows, lightning bolts, and kinetically-enhanced bearings with the spirit's angered swings, moving in and out of its reach to draw it to the elevator platform. It roared out its frustration.
Rorsmand yelled out a warning seconds ahead of gallons of liquid something manifesting in the spot Smithy dove away from, neither noticing Tephra's futile attempt to grab her. The liquid flashed into steam when another lightning bolt struck his now acid-drenched mass. Hydrogen boiled up through the sand and ignited as the acid ate into the metal below it.
Tephra, Red Team Simulators
“Hello Tephra,” the computer voice said. “Welcome back. It is Wednesday, January 30th, 2008. It is now 10:17 am. Your team has lost.”
"Way to rub it in before everyone else does."
Sandy removed his helmet, stood up from the simulator seat, and trudged over to the changing room for a quick suit rinse and shower. He couldn't believe he'd gone to so much effort to take into account Rorsmand's precog ability, the team's fliers, and even the mage, and they'd somehow managed to circumvent all that. He didn't even want to think about being stuck underground with that thing they'd conjured up... They were going to do that to him?
Lost Puppy Patrol, Blue Team Simulators
“Hello Rorsmand,” the computer voice said. “Welcome back. It is Wednesday, January 30th, 2008. It is now 10:17 am. Your team has won.”
Kristian stretched as best he could before hauling himself out of the simulator pod. The other two guys looked like they'd been hit pretty hard by the simulator's feedback circuits and their own weird connection.
Valravn was already out. "What the fuck was that all about? You know better than to evoke an earth spirit on the fly when you know you might be fighting another one!"
Metro removed his helmet slowly. Kristian saw the beginnings of a black eye. "It wasn't on the fly. He owed me a service or two."
"It sure as hell didn't look like that to me!"
Mads winced, "Y'don't have to shout."
"Guys, can't it wait for our debrief?" It was just a simulated mishap, under controlled conditions, right?
There would be time enough to wonder what went wrong, but Metro later told the team that he wouldn't be attempting to summon earth-related spirits after this without having a Name and a Plan. Kristian doubted that, but kept his peace for now. The team had enough issues to deal with, and to be fair, none of the tactics being taught in class required tactical evocation to work.
Friday morning, February 1, 2008,
Team Tactics I, Arena 99, Whateley Academy
The students stopped talking when Gunny Bardue and Sam Everheart walked in. Team Tactics wasn't a course for idiots. Mostly. Everheart sat down to the desk at the front of the briefing room; playing "good cop"/officer to Bardue's "bad cop"/noncom role.
Gunny Bardue spoke. "Good morning. We're starting off today's class with a few bookkeeping announcements. As some of you know – the two or three of you slugs who've actually read the pre-Term briefing materials – training teams are allowed to drop or add members at the end of the fourth week. Those dropped receive an 'Incomplete' for this course, to be resolved when they retake the course. Those added are expected to carry their own weight starting yesterday, but thanks to whoever wrote these rules the gaining team officially has until next Friday to finalize their roster. Few teams take advantage of these options for what should be obvious reasons."
Gunny Bardue paused to scowl, as if the options left a bad taste in his mouth. Nervous glances shared among several team members betrayed more in-team fractures than the slated changes did. Maybe it was better to give these kids a dose of Real Life after all...
"Let's get this over with. Tephra!"
Sandy's smile faltered as he realized where this was going, "Here, Gunny!" His shoulders slumped and he looked down to the floor. Hadn't he worked hard enough to demonstrate that he could be a team player?
Mary-Joy looked Bardue straight in the eye, daring him to say whatever came next. "Present, Gunnery Sergeant Bardue."
Both students were stunned at being singled out like this. Not that one could deny that their 'wildcard' powers were difficult to work into the class scenarios, but now the default assumption would that these kids couldn't make the cut on a "good" team. Their chances of being placed on a decent training team before next year's class were tanking even has he spoke.
"You both are excused from any of today's scenarios that involve Brigade. Please take your books and move to the... Metro! Set your ass down on the goddamn chair like a normal person!" He'd deal with the ones that snickered at the normal person comment later.
"But I can't see through this guy's head!"
"Do you see any trace of concern on this face, Cadet?"
"No, Gunny Bardue."
"That is correct. Down, boy." Did I really just say that? "Where was I? Tephra, Waikikamukau, it pains me to the very depths of my heart to say this, but Lost Puppy Patrol requested the two of you."
"Do you have something to contribute at this late date, CnC?"
"No, Gunny. I was just surprised by the, er, fortuitous turn of events."
Admiral Everheart stood up with a folder in her hand. "The forms were completed by hand, in blue ink, signed, counter-signed, and dated Friday, January 25th. If you believe my recollection is in error we can review the originals in my office after class." She left Is this the hill you want to die on? floating between them.
"I'm telling you Sam, I do not like what that girl is doing, whether the rules allow it or not. She's strung these two kids along just long enough for everyone else to buy off on the B.S. excuse that this was based solely on performance. Jones is sure to get stuck with one of the random teams that would rather gnaw their arms off before take this class with her. That's a guaranteed Incomplete there. Peters would be lucky to hook up with some over-motivated freshmen and all the problems that go with that."
"I know, but we need to consider the fact that Newhouse's team isn't holding together well, and that is one of the fracture lines. You know it, I know it, half the teams in the class have made comments about it."
"That doesn't mean I have to like it. We're about to kick two hard-working kids to the curb, knowing that no one's likely to pick them back up afterward."
"It's because I care for you as a friend that I'm not going to ask you to put money on that." Everheart pulled a form from the class files. "Take a look."
"Metro's a mercenary and corporate raider at heart. His right hand man, Rorsmand, is a precog and an empath. If they didn't have a reason, they'd have stayed out of it."
"Meanwhile Jones and Peters will accept, thinking they have to, not knowing what they're signing up for. Lovely."
Women's Locker Room
Mary-Joy walked over to where her new teammates were getting dressed. "Abbie, Elve, is it just me or did the hits in the sims get a lot harder today?"
Abbie and Elve looked guiltily at each other, wondering what to say. Elve answered, "For training purposes, the feedback limiters are dialed back for our team. Officially, it's to keep any of us from becoming over-confident. Unofficially, it's still important for me not to risk any kind of muscle injury and Mads has more nerve problems than he lets on."
"You voluntarily do this to yourselves?"
Abbie said, "Pain is the body's way of saying 'Don't do that!'"
"Crap. That means Sandy really took a hit back there."
"Yeah. The first time. The second time, he got his butt in gear, didn't he? Look, we'd both love to talk more about training, but we've got to get to Combat Movement this next period. Come sit with us during lunch? You and Sandy?"
"What about the other three?"
"They'll be at the Beret Mafia table. Can't miss them."
Elve said, "Easily within range of a well-aimed bread roll or three, but we didn't tell you that."
Early Friday evening, February 1, 2008,
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Mary-Joy 'Waikikamukau' Jones knew that even here her height and weight made her stand out from other girls her age. But walking next to Abbie Elliott, someone who clearly worked at her forge, pared that difference down to a healthy contrast. Elve Järvinen, to her other side, had blades of white bone sticking out of her head, arms, and back! Next to her, having black and white skin marked like an orca's was hardly something worth fussing over. She could still envy the Finnish girl's long black hair, no matter how much work it had to be to keep up with it.
Mary-Joy, why should you compare yourself to her? There is pain and there is joy enough for both of you to eat your fill.
Don't worry; be happy? Maki, really?
No, no. That's how fat sea lions get caught. Swim fast, eat well, learn the stories of your pod. You'll know many things then!
You're not going to make any of this easier for me, are you?
Where is the fun in that? I don't sweat small things – actually, I don't sweat at all – you shouldn't sweat small things either. Too much work for too little food.
Elve asked her, "Communing with your spirit?"
"Was it that obvious?"
"You slow down and your skin temperature drops when you zone out like that, so maybe."
"No one else bothered to tell me that. Do you expect the guys to be eating with us?"
Abbie wiggled her hand, fingers spread out, in a 'maybe, maybe not' gesture. Even though the hand was held palm-down, Mary-Joy noted the edges of calluses. "Sandy was looking rough at lunch, but Kris'll probably drag him down to eat something. I figure his mood will depend on how much he knows about whatever Crash and Burn have planned for the weekend. Both of 'em have excused absences for tonight and tomorrow, and that's got to be a bad sign."
That didn't make much sense from context, unless Smithy'd meant Metro and Valravn, but then she'd made it sound like...
"It's a lot like you're probably thinking. Thomas and Mads are the next worst thing to an official couple. Being boys, they won't admit there's anything more going on than being practically joined at the hip, and that confuses the hell out of Kris because he's still crushing on Mads and can't figure out where he stands with either one a' them."
"It sounds like one of those comedies where everyone ends up in bed, in jail, or scarred for life."
Abbie shook her head at the on-the-nose image. "Girl, ain't none of those necessarily exclusive outcomes."
The three separated to hit the meal lines. When they met again at the team's table, Thomas and Sandy were already seated and eating. Thomas looked up. "Guess who's running late."
Abbie asked, "Could someone tell me what's so special about 'Special Topics in Masochism' that that one always runs late?"
Sandy shrugged. It wasn't that bad. "Not always. If enough students get hurt, Ito lets them out on time."
"Which class are we talking about?"
Thomas said to Mary-Joy, "Special Topics in Martial Arts: Traditional Weapons. If you've ever wondered whether Ito is as evil as everyone says, consider that they're teaching Teenage Werewolf how to use infantry weapons and Lone Gunman MacSniperboy to play with knives."
Sandy looked up from his food and said, "Mary-Joy's in that class too. The way I hear it, Bloodwolf's been having a ball; something about the fights lasting longer."
Abbie asked, "Why does this strike me as an unintended consequence?"
"If it keeps him too busy to pick on the Underdogs, I'm all for it. He wears that UV band for a reason! Guys like you don't have to worry too much about bullies trying to pick a fight, except maybe if they get word that I'm your team's new weak link."
"Sandy..." Mary-Joy wasn't sure what to say to that. The potshots they'd both been taking under cover of 'performance critique' the past few weeks had gotten under both their skins. The strange thing was that Absinthe's and Pejuta's teams included literal Underdogs, but Fixx, Nursing, and Headrush were enjoying themselves. Come to think of it, Aquerna was an Underdog AND a co-founder of the highly-ranked Wondercute combat team. What did these people have that they didn't?
"You two weren't picked up out of pity." It was disconcerting to have Thomas staring at her like he could read what she was thinking.
"Or any other four-letter word." Abbie mentally went over a list of possibilities before adding, "Except bait."
"You use that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means," misquoted Elve.
"How many times has Mads taken 'trail' when that put him between the opposition and the rest of us?"
"He just does that so he can toss more grenades."
Mary-Joy interrupted the by-play. "Sandy does have a point. What do you all see in us? Two of you are in Whitman, just like me, but four weeks into this course I still don't feel like I know much about either of you!"
Elve said, "Mary-Joy, here in the Cafeteria is probably the worst place to hang out our laundry, but it would be nice if we could rely on someone other than my roommate to tank for the team."
Sandy asked, "What about me then?"
"Let's just say we're disappointed with the training you've been getting." Thomas looked past Abbie. "Oh. Looks like someone's decided to grace us with their presence."
Kristian frowned at the accusation that he'd be deliberately late! "I sent an email!"
"So we noticed."
"We were waiting for further proof that you'd mastered the arcane science of Reply vs. Reply to All." Abbie's grin was only somewhat malicious.
"I only did that once!"
"What can I say? It was memorable."
"By the way..."
"I know. Empath, remember? We should get together soon to start getting to know each other, have a feel for who we all are. Maybe then everyone's worries will begin to resolve themselves." He grumped, under his breath, "Trust issues, on the other hand..."
Sandy asked, "Why not start after dinner?"
"Evening class. Can't afford to miss it."
"You guys signed up for a full schedule plus an evening class? That's insane!"
"We didn't get much choice. It was the only time open for the instructor. We should all be out by nine. The only question is where?"
Abbie said, "I'd volunteer our room, or one of the common rooms, but Mrs. Nelson wouldn't hear of it. Sorry, guys, but you are guys."
"Good thing the Hawthorne sub-basements have sub-basements, then!" Did Mads use invisibility even in places where he could get stepped on? "Mrs. Cantrel put her foot down so you'll have to settle for one of the ground floor library rooms. I did ask about using the Lovecraft Room, which she informed me was a special kind of stupid. Something about lack of adult supervision."
"Why Hawthorne? The Lovecraft Room? What's that?"
"Why Hawthorne," Mads repeated as he nudged Kris over to make room to sit down. "It's co-ed. And if you run into some questions you don't know how to answer or questions you don't know if you should answer, you can get good advice from Fubar or Eldritch. Sandy, you need to make friends with Jimmy T anyway. Besides, the team has way too many pretties to book a room through Thuban."
"Um, no offense intended to the ladies, but have you ever looked at me or Mary-Joy or Elve?"
"Yep!" Mads said and then went about unpacking his evening meal. "What with Kew being over in Whitman, I've probably seen as much of them as anyone. Maybe a lot more!" Abbie muttered something about "not her again."
"And this Lovecraft Room thing?"
"Pretty much what it says on the tin. Someone said they had a baby Great Old One or something rooming there last year."
"Okay. Forget I asked... and are you going to play that joke again?"
"The hazmat and poison labels on your dinner. It was sort of funny at lunch, but not so much the second time around."
Kristian winced at the misunderstanding. "Sandy?"
"Those labels are real."
Caer Bwca on Ben Trégor of the Dreaming Lands
The hall to which Thomas was directed, among many other revelers, was decked in the palette of Winter: a stark contrast of black and white carried over from Deadwinter, but hangings that would have been tricked out with toxic holly reds were replaced with others now favoring muted slate blues, frost-burnt brown, and pale yellows. He allowed himself some open amusement when an attendant barely contained their sneer at having been tasked to take his aggressively 21st century charcoal grey overcoat.
"How unfortunate! I fear that I didn't fully apprehend that you might be in need of compensation to ease the burdens of a coat check."
"Perish the thought! Her Ladyship's hospitality is so rarely diminished to common expectations that I was overcome with surprise."
"Then it has surely been a pleasure to provide entertainment. By what name should I address my impromptu audience?"
"Larkin of the Spur. And... hang on. My Lady! How might this one be of service?"
Thomas had not seen "My Lady's" approach, but then tonight's backstabbing was expected to be limited to jousting with verbal daggers and the odd character assassination. The dove gray silk of her skirt and sable-lined jacket was set off by a black bodice stitched with seed pearls. Wearing the evening's colors so closely was a bold move for any but the hosts and their house. Thomas himself had chosen a sulfur blue shirt to wear against a chocolate brown waistcoat.
"Larkin, is it? I could not help but notice the disquiet here."
"Yes, m'lady. Please think nothing of it!"
"Perhaps I shan't. Might I have a word with Lord Shadowsfall?"
"B-by all means!"
"Indeed. My Lord?"
"It would be a pleasure."
Once they were a socially polite distance from the gaffe she said, "I do hope Her Ladyship doesn't arrange for him to be hung up amidst the other coats and wraps until after the Ball. Lady Fiona Tregarth, at your service."
"Count Thomas Hrafn Jensen of Shadowsfall, but of course you knew that."
"What I hadn't expected, nor had Her Ladyship, was that you would be attending alone. I trust there's nothing amiss that the Court should be forewarned about."
"When I left he was preparing for his personal part in the observance of Imbolc. There would need to be much amiss for him to arrive here on this might."
"I wasn't aware that Shadowsfall was such a military posting."
"His is ... what one might call an older obligation."
"One might call me intrigued. Let's see whatever appetizers have been set out, shall we?"
"Lead on, m'lady!"
There would be time enough to field subtle queries about tension between a certain distant march of the Dreaming Lands and a self-styled Seelie Court-in-Exile located in some dreary material plane location called Atlanta. Those attending the Ball would surely make up their own minds as to which party may have overstepped in a recent matter. However, it was not soon forgotten which had come for the ball and which had come to bawl, as one or more guests may have later intimated.
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Mads tore through his meal as if he were running late for something, finishing before the other team members though he'd been the last to sit down. Any other time, any other night, he could have enjoyed a slower-paced meal. However, he could already smell the sour sweat and remnant gore of a battle-stained helmet liner and he imagined that he could feel the slick rub of grave-dampened leather chin straps. For the two newcomers, Mads' disquiet was just another quirk they figured they'd have to get used to, so they didn't say anything about it when he got up to leave. He put his hand on Kristian's shoulder and tried not to take notice when his friend flinched at the contact.
"Kris! By the way, you wouldn't mind taking good notes for me and Thomas would you?"
"Because I have to leave soon. Oh! And don't forget to drag Sandy and MJ to class tonight."
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I don't know, and it's usually been better that way."
Mads had no intention of telling Kris that the worst part wasn't the anxiety of not knowing, but the visceral need that presaged being joined to a gathering Hunt.
Kristian swallowed. "You're missing class and the team meeting you set up."
"How many times do I have to tell you that I don't like being treated like a mushroom?"
"Good. He's recovering from shocks faster," or so Mads thought. "Circe should be covering the appropriate issues in class, including why you should be carrying some salted bread and a piece of iron with you this Imbolc."
Mads patted Kris' shoulder then walked away without looking back. Kris was tempted to follow the nut, but something in the back of his head warned against chasing Hel's own Horseman on a deadwinter night.
Greater and Lesser Entities, Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy
The topic for Circe's lecture and discussion turned out to be the myths, lore, and legends regarding the Wild Hunt. It wasn't a surprise that many Christians claimed that the Devil himself was the Master of the Hunt. As if he wouldn't delegate the dirty work. Learning that the dimly-remembered Sidhe considered it great sport and an invigorating way to thin their human herds? That was more disturbing. Circe smiled faintly when Abbie asked if that were the case for later hosts, say the daoine sìth?
"No. As we discussed earlier in the class, the Children of the Goddess Danu, the Gentry, the People Under the Mounds and of the Otherworld ruled no better nor worse than their human neighbors. Would they punish those they felt had wronged them? Severely. Would they exchange a sickly elf-child for a human baby? If they could - and the child would likely grow to a healthy fae adulthood. Does that make them safe to deal with as you would another? No, and no again."
What struck ice in Kristian's veins was the idea that the Huntsman could represent or even be in mortal service to Cernunnos, Herne, Odin, or even Loki. Other stories held that he'd been a mortal sinner or blasphemer, condemned to serve as a living host to whatever rode in his flesh. In other stories, he could also just as often be the revenant victim of murder or an unjust execution, bound to Hell's own hot trod until vengeance was finally meted out.
Sandy was feeling quite lost between what was being said, and what was emphatically not being said. Hell, starting a class like this halfway through the term was daunting enough! "Pardon me if I'm not getting this straight, but isn't this all more of a reason for Mads and Thomas be in class tonight instead of whatever they're getting up to?"
"Mr. Peterson, this class is normally reserved for juniors and seniors in the Mystic Arts Program. Why might I have made an exception for a freshman training team?"
"You'd have to... We're in deeper than it looked from the outside, aren't we?"
"If you understand nothing else from this course than that, you won't have been wasting my time."
Elsewhere on the Whateley Academy grounds
The barrow-wight grinned a toothy yellow-brown smile. The crescent moon wouldn't rise over these lands for hours, and there was no shortage of prey to be had. Better yet, the myriad wards and bans that secured the safety of this place he found himself in were on the wrong side of him! In some places, they'd been weakened by conscious act or negligence. Such happenstances could often lead to prey.
"A fine night for a ride, isn't it?"
He looked for the source of the greeting, but all he saw in that direction was a skinny mutt of some sort, half curled-up on a wrought-iron bench. Courtesy still demanded courtesy! "That it is, though my mount appears to be delayed."
"Quite the dilemma though: join up with your forces and return to find entry barred to your kind, or strike out on foot and risk defeat."
Perhaps a fox? This one seemed more wise than a common cur. He shook his head at the territorial beast. "We would allow a foolish fae-wife to join us, per an intent she has too often declared. That is to say we would unless some other holds the greater claim?"
"I'm a little surprised that you would stand here, ignoring what lies beneath you."
The wight looked down, lidless eyes glowing with pale-green balefire as if they could burn their way through haunted rock. After some time he looked back up to the canid, "Our way is barred by that which we dare not oppose."
"I thought as much. Oh, well. Here comes the Queen's toy, right on time."
"Which Queen would you say crafted the puppet's strings?"
"Maybe you have not heard of the Queen To Come. How many years have you been out of commission?"
"Too few, and you know it, Old Man. No, that one is old enough to remember the arrival of both Fir Bolg and Danu's Children to Eire."
"You don't say." Coyote's tail flicked out and back.
As Koehnes approached, the wight called out, "Come, little one. Your wish has become entwined with my command, and we've many an errand to run ahead of Elatha's scythe!"
The diminutive fae shivered as if the night air chilled her to the bone. "F-forgive me! I beg of you! I only wished to remind Her Highness of the ways of the ancient Court; no disrespect my intent. Alas! I'm too weak and small a creature to ride with the Hunt."
The wight knelt on one knee, striking sparks as corrupt armor rasped against rusted mail. "Her Highness, is it? Do you speak of Aunghadhail's intended vessel, little one, or of Ægloswen's, or perhaps yet another?"
Koehnes drew herself up to her full height, looked the spectre in the eye, and said, "I speak, of course, of the Queen To Come!"
"Mark my words well, little one, the Western Court, itself only one of five, and with it the Great Hall of the Burning Oak, merely one of nine, was sundered long, long ago. However, let it not be said that we of the younger races are lacking in charity. As you have asked thus it shall be that you do not ride with the Hunt tonight. As token of this oath, you have but to accept this from my hand."
Koehnes, still trembling, reached out to take the leather token from the other's hand. No sooner had she touched the mouldering thing than the collar at the end of the hunter's leash reappeared around her neck, cold iron studs around it and not a buckle to be found. She shrieked a curse against her own betrayal and frantically shifted from shape to shape to shape, but the collar held fast until she ended up in the form of a Gabriel's hound, immune for a time to the burning studs.
"For your own sake, I hope you weren't planning on taking a second hound from here."
"Do you think the three of us could take down the one you asked about?"
"Then, no, let's not do that this evening. Come, my sweet Koehnes: Better at once than never!"
Early Saturday morning, February 2, 2008,
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Leanne liked the early morning hours. She could tidy up here and there without being troubled or causing trouble for her master and the kitty. Both were yet so very young. These were also the hours that the young master sometimes had the worst of his troubled dreams, so it was good to be awake and vigilant.
So it was that on this winter morning that when she stepped out into the pre-dawn dusting of snow to empty a dust pan she saw an odd tangle of briar wood. Or, perhaps, it would seem nothing but briar and thorns to the mortal eye, but to one of the Fae?
"Oh, dear. I should bury it under a rock and return it to the cursed soil from which it came, but that would upset Her Uppityness, which would upset Master. Nothing for it, is there?"
Leanne lifted the bundle with the dirty dust pan, and brought it in through the secret ways twining between and among ward and brick and stone. She dumped it in Queenie's bed. The Sidhe mage still leaked more Essence than either cared to admit, and that was what Koehnes would be needing the most.
It would also embarrass the hell out of that spriggan masquerading as a brownie. All she had to do was sit back and listen for the roommate's laughter.
She couldn't anticipate the tears the silly bundle of twig and outrage would cry in recounting her night of ensorcelled bondage and foul errands under the cover of darkness. Hadn't it asked more than once when the Hunt would ride again to strike down man and beast, like her Hank and her Kitty? Perhaps nailing a horseshoe over the door lintel would be in order?
Before daybreak, Saturday morning, February 2, 2008,
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Making the return trip on an excess of offered wine, dance, revelry, and scant sleep to recover from it, was not the easiest thing Song of the Thunderbird had managed. He'd managed to avoid partaking of the red ale and honey cakes favored by the Gentry, but those may have been the only temptations offered he'd avoided. Thomas' beard itched down to its roots. His tongue felt like a troop of grunts had walked across it in sticky dirty socks. His head rang like a carillon, and not all the pretty lights dancing across his vision were will-o'-wisps. It took two tries to find the path back to the Whateley he was supposed to come back to. It might have been much more than that, but even with fumes of the vintner's craft bewitching his mind he made the effort to remember his patron.
Just to be on the safe side, he wished both Bella Hortons a good morning. One of them might be her! It was amusing to see her twitch in stereo. He was still chuckling about the sight when he collapsed face-first into bed still wearing his rumpled and soiled clothing.
Mrs. Horton's office
Louis, who or what just stumbled into my Cottage wearing Valravn's face?
Bella, that was him, in the flesh and without his usual aura masking.
If that's so, and were one of the more ethically-challenged students to recognize him for what he is, it could be bad for everyone involved.
He's stone-faced drunk, he reeks of the perfume, enchantments, and sweat of multiple partners, and is in a remarkably good mood. How many storm spirits does that normally describe?
That's no excuse to return drunk!
He was invited to attend at the hosts' pleasure. I'd not recommend action against him less than a day's ride from their gate.
1 AM, Sunday morning, February 3, 2008,
Whateley Academy grounds
Mads Jensen decided, from his vantage point laid out over snow and turf, that there were better ways to regain consciousness. Most of them actively excluded shouting, screaming, or jostling damaged parts that hurt, dammit! Some folks would exclude the smell of blood- and sweat- soured clothing, but he was kind of used to those things.
Yes, he knew his name. No, he didn't want to say it. Names are magical something things. Stupid jerks.
Darkness back. That's nice.
He felt like someone was taking off his clothes. And... that sounded like vomiting. He wondered who he'd stepped in. Or shtepped in. Whatever.
People are too loud. Go 'way. If he knew a spell that would make his clothes stand by themselves he'd use it himself.
Whoever said they were getting his arm was getting a bottom-shelf deal. OWWOWWW!
Huh. That looked like a hospital. The dark came back.
7:30 AM, Sunday morning, February 3, 2008,
Office of the Headmistress, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Dr. Ophelia Tenent wasn't one to slam a coffee mug down, but she set hers down on a coaster with a visible effort to maintain her composure. "Let's just run down the list, shall we? Dehydration, blood loss, cellular starvation, sprained right wrist and elbow, dislocated right shoulder, wrenched left knee, minor bruises and lacerations. Of course the graveyard shift decided it was somehow my turn to patch him up." She wrinkled her nose in remembered disgust. "It wouldn't have killed them to have hosed him down first, but then I wouldn't have samples to turn over to ARC."
"New Orleans morgue in a summer power outage bad. Three-days left in a trench bad. Take your pick."
Liz Carson said, "Neither one, thanks for asking. What's his current status?"
"'Rode hard and put up wet' would be the layman's term. I can't tell whether the retrograde amnesia is a symptom or a mercy. Either way he doesn't remember anything from Friday evening until he showed up here. For what it's worth? Never try Sit verum on that child when he's not expecting it." Ophelia shook her head and retrieved her coffee cup."React badly, did he?"
"He's still deathly afraid of compulsions. My spell didn't just break, it shattered, flinging any and all shrapnel to 'Occupant'. If I weren't the occupant of the space in question, I would have wanted a chance to observe that again more closely."
Carson ventured "We could make arrangements for the Spring combat finals?" more as a trial balloon than something she wanted to see.
"Let's not. He's been pushed further than he was ready for. When that counter-spell went off, I'm certain I saw signs of an unstable Core."
Doyle Medical Center
"Hey, Val! We brought you some breakfast. What's the damage this time?"
Thomas Jensen looked up from the assigned French reading to see Abbie Elliott leading the rest of the team, newbies included, into the hospital room. If the room didn't need to be out-sized to accommodate the warding, it might have been cramped in there.
"Hard to say. Some of his injuries are consistent with being unhorsed by an attacker riding down on him from the side, maybe dragged. Biggest problem might be exhaustion."
Sandy asked, "Can't they just fix that up? I'm, um, assuming that Mads is supposed to be underwater like that?"
"Mostly, and definitely."
"Yeah, nah. You're going to have to explain better than that, mate," Mary-Joy said. "Last year, the docs had to patch up a chunk of rebar through the heart and the girl still pulled through. One of your Poesies, now that I think about it."
"You know how most healing spells work like giving someone temporary regen? That's a problem when the patient doesn't have the energy reserves or the aerobic capacity to support that regeneration. For now, they're pushing glucose and saline before kicking the engine to see if it'll turn over."
"Any leads on who could have jumped him?"
"Nothing but tissue samples."
Abbie asked, "Does that mean you've already had breakfast?"
Sister... Abbie could feel Inaam shaking her head.
What? He eats like a bird!
Your comment could be interpreted in some unfortunate ways.
Thomas mimed straightening a tie. "If you simply must know, nothing of that sort happened. In fact, said samples were last seen being packed in a warded, lead-lined case for guarded transport to Arkham Research Consortium's facilities under chain of custody."
Sandy was now leaning over the tank, looking in. "You sure he's okay in there?" "No way to track the samples back to where they came from? I thought that was the reason magic-users are so paranoid about hair, nails, blood, and so forth..."
Kristian cut him off, already turning green from something he'd picked up on. "If you haven't yet run a trace, DON'T. Do NOT draw their attention here." He looked around wildly, found the sink, and proceeded to review his breakfast selections.
"Yeah," Thomas drawled, "I could already tell it was a road I didn't want to find myself on, but thanks for looking into it. Scales and slime are usually a bad sign by themselves. Nickel-blue pus? Infinitely worse."
A couple more heaves and Kristian just might manage to vomit up his shoelaces.
Thomas said, "Let me guess, we're still 'go' for flight practice?"
Abbie said, "I was thinking if you and Elve could work Waikikamukau into your practice, Kris could go over comms with Sandy and work homework into it since they're in the same law class."
"Running behind on your projects?"
"Using a drive train designed for helicopters comes out to 'too many moving parts', even scaling down from off-the-shelf designs. Don't worry. We'll have Kris up, up and away in no time!"
There went the shoelaces!
Monday morning, February 4, 2008,
Undisclosed location, Bayern, Germany
A gentleman at his desk picked up the telephone handset at the first ring. It was small things like this that reminded subordinates that they aren't half as clever as they think they are.
"Tell me. What was this recent escapade supposed to prove?"
The speaker on the the other end of the line sounded unperturbed. "It proves that this iteration hasn't drifted as far from its purpose as some have feared. More importantly our serpent's tooth is marked in such manner that we should have less trouble extracting it two months from now."
"See to it that we don't. But know this: if your actions cost us our property..." He let the promise linger.
"They will not."
"Then that will be all."
That settled, the gentleman set aside The Work and composed his mind to tend to mundane work. After all, the future doesn't pay for itself.
Three years ago,
a dockside warehouse, Lagos, Nigeria
A taloned digit gestures. Several brightly-colored cards flip over on a table before the querent, in a pattern that could only be known in the context of the previous moves. The sad little mayflies wanted to play with one of his toys, after breaking their own? In an adjoining room, his very personal executive assistant would soon place calls to certain players on his behalf. In turn, some things would happen and others now could not.
How best to demonstrate to the would-be powers behind the throne of an imagined Empire that their Imperial bastard had yet to swim past the heavy breathing and furtive departure stages of its misconception?
A taloned digit gestures. Cards again turn and fall in a pattern of meaning only to their master. He smiles. It was a long game, but it was his game, and some had already lost more than they'd wagered.
Monday morning, February 4, 2008,
Team Tactics I, Briefing Room 2, Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Admiral Everheart closed the pre-brief for this morning's exercise with the standard "Questions, Comments?" While the students wrestled with their prospects, she took the same time to evaluate them. Most, but not all, looked shocked by the mission requirements. This could be interesting, after all.
Metro crossed his arms. "No."
"Well, then. You have ten minutes to get dressed out and hash out your plans."
"I said, 'No.'" This time he signaled his team to stay where they were.
"Then why are you still sitting around here?"
"My team will not be engaging in wetwork. Period. This is not negotiable."
"Then you all will receive an 'F' for this exercise."
"That is one difference between us, Ma'am. I don't take contracts for assassination, not for the highest bidder, let alone for free. Can you, on your soul's name, say the same without perjury?"
"Let's see if the others are as happy to fail as you are."
"That was not an answer."
"That is insubordination."
"I amend my remarks, then. You propose barratry."
"I'm proposing a way for the others to salvage their grade. Miss Jones, Mister Peters? I'm sure we can find you a place with one of the more responsible teams."
Mary-Joy Jones hated being put on the spot like this, and she could sense that Everheart knew that. She could also tell that Metro wasn't going to back down on this principle. Including Sandy in the offer was just another manipulation...
Sandy didn't even look to see which way the wind blew. "I'm not for sale, lady."
Mary-Joy said, "Do whatever pleases you. I'm not selling my team out."
Everheart looked to the others. "Same offer."
Elve said, "After you are gone, I would love to hear Mads' reasoning." She turned and raised an eyebrow at her roomie.
"Don't look at me. Pa always said you train the way you plan to fight." Abbie paused to get the words right, "Until right now, I used to wonder what he was getting at. Not so much anymore."
"You could lose your scholarship."
"I could lose my soul. Kick me out on the street, see what it gets you. It may take a while, but you'll reap as you've sown."
There were still many ways this could play out. Some were easier, but those were all distasteful? Abhorrent? "This stopped being a game the day I had to let my arm be destroyed. Maybe before then. Do you recall who was there for me that day? It wasn't you."
Everheart sighed. "I suppose it's a waste of time to ask if Valravn is willing to be reasonable."
"A) I'm eminently reasonable. B) Insulting me is less than reasonable. C) This is one situation in which Mads is right and you are in the wrong. Take your 'reasonable offer' and spin on it."
"Out of curiosity, now that you've each made your own bed, are there any other types of operation you children think you're too good for?"
Metro made a production of turning back to his Day 1 class notes while speaking. "The vast majority of your combat simulator runs are presented with insultingly unprofessional briefings, limited intel of the sort that gets field personnel killed, and a hysterically inept lack of prep time. On our end, I do not have any personnel temperamentally suited for wetwork and only one with an appropriate skill set. I do not plan to welcome any attempts to change that. Kidnapping is another specialized operation I am not interested in pursuing, nor do I intend to work with such specialists.
And one more thing: I do know you've taken part in both. I can see it in your eyes. So, if this is how you want to run your game – blackmailing minors – all I can say is 'It's on.'"
Metro began putting his class materials away. The other members of the Lost Puppy Patrol followed suit. When they got up to leave, having phone calls and explanations to make now, Everheart called them out.
"Where do you think you're going? I haven't dismissed you lot!"
"Your say in what we do today ended with that 'F'," Metro snapped. "As to whether any of us will be back, EVER, depends on how you and this institution pursue the remainder of your duties. I recommend against attempting assault or false arrest."
"That door does not open until I give you permission to leave!"
Valravn started laughing, as Metro's ears reddened, "Doors can be locked. Walls can't!"
"It was just that one time!"
"Please! Just, please sit down, and hear me out."
Metro muttered, "Without oath or promise" before doing so. He remained tensed in that seat. Only Hive and Rorsmand were unsure whether he'd released his hold on the surrounding Essence.
"First off, we can't very well demonstrate rescues or running security against assassination or kidnapping without there being a Red Team to simulate an opposition."
"I am not seeing this as my problem. There are well-known protocols for maintaining personal or group security; I should know, as I've broken nearly every one of them."
"Second, we do have legitimate concerns as to whether this team can function AS a team under pressure when the members don't know each other well."
"That's for us to work on."
Abbie said, "Did you think we knew each other four months ago? Except for Mutt and Jeff here, that is."
"And third, this was the exercise. Accept the mission and carry it out, or completely refuse it. Every team that's treated it as just another class exercise or a game to win has failed miserably. There are reasons for that..."
Metro said, "Aside from the risk of being party to felonies, the Johnson may have the refusing team executed to maintain OPSEC. If the team accepts but fails or succeeds but in an unacceptable manner, a liquidation of assets may still be judged prudent. There is also the case in which a less-than-polished team may be assigned to some task in the operational area as a distraction. Those jobs tend to be lethal. Should I go on?"
"Those are the most common complications. Therefore the only way to keep a passing grade on this exercise is to keep your mouths shut about it. No warning friends about it."
"In other words, welcome to the rabbit hole, leaving the land of 'Want to know' for the wobbly intersection of 'Need to know' and 'Cleared to know'. Been there, done that, still have most of the scars from it."
Men's locker room
Metro walked up to Tephra in the locker room. "Sandy, I want to apologize for missing the weekend. Like I said, there are some things I wanted to go over with you about your powers. Do you have any open time in the evenings?"
"Depends on homework, but yeah."
"Cool! Let's start with some basics after Greater and Lesser Entities class. Basement B, Room 222. I'll have to see if Goria has time for us later in the week."
Instructors briefing room
"Sam, we almost lost that whole group of kids."
"How else should I have approached it? As I recall, you were the most worried that Metro would bite at the job or split the team over it."
Oscar Bardue shook his head. Around this place, it was sometimes the staff that gave him new gray hair. "You started with the ones at greatest risk of jumping ship. As I recall, the SOP for flight-testing hostile prisoners was to start with the most stubborn."
"That would have cost us four or five students with no chance of rehabilitation, and a load-bearing wall. I kept my eye on the precog and hoped I was betting the right way."
"The rest of the class is still going to assume that they've gone Dark-side."
"Let them. That's a real-world risk that comes with consequences."
Wednesday morning, February 13, 2008,
Brigade vs. Lost Puppy Patrol, Arena 99, Whateley Academy
The Lost Puppy Patrol had a nasty habit of fading into and back out of the woodwork, never being where they should be. Booby-trapping their team's flag had been a calculated risk – Brigade had to walk out with their own flag in hand before the clock ran out – but Tephra was down for the count. When had the freak become so sneaky? Once the course was over, they'd have to debrief the turncoat about disloyalty and its consequences. CnC keyed her transmitter.
<CnC to all. Does anyone have visual on our targets?>
<Negats on that, Cee. Proceeding to next sector. Redjack out.>
<No joy here either. Continuing search. Damiana out.>
The back of Metro's throat was raw from the dry heat the sim's programmers loved to hit his team with, knowing the toll it took on him and Waikikamukau. Safety restrictions knocked down some of the team's better hit it and get going tactics. The reactive camouflage suit he wore locked him into a personal sauna of sweat and pheromones: a physiological stressor he didn't need this morning. Some day he was going to have to have a talk with whoever worked it out that by adding pets and other animals to the simulations, he gave away his own position when he didn't wear the sealed suit.
"Rorsmand, take what we've got back to the rendezvous point, Val and I will cover from here."
"You can't hold off their entire team!" Damn him! This is exactly how it happens.
"The odds get worse if they get a jump on us. Go!"
Kristian did as he was told. He knew what he wanted to do instead, and why he wouldn't, but he hated himself for it nonetheless. It didn't help him at all to know that Dr. Bellows would agree that taking the least wrong path was sometimes the best possible option.
Facing off against the Lost Puppies was frustrating enough – aside from the name of the team, or the Uvie in charge, or having taken in Peters and Jones like they were doing her team a favor – without being thrown a scenario that played to their strengths in area and information denial. Luckily, today's op was held in an Arena so the simulator programmers could get a jump on some projects: Arena rules required the magicians to back off on the power of their strikes, and close-in fighters to scrap some of their more brutal moves. CnC continued to review her options while she, Gundeck, and Bulwark worked their way toward the other team's flag.
Damiana, on air recon
Over the past few weeks Damiana had been studying a combat ritual to wreck active spellcraft by disrupting the essence flow through any active spells or talismans an opponent might be using. The risk came from the need to personally strike a blow against the enemy after reciting a chant. That required her to close to within an arm's reach, making finding the asshole a priority, but fortune favors the wise.
For example, if Metro was maintaining concealment spells, then he had to be actively pulling in Essence by now, which in turn should alter the natural flow around himself. Gladys couldn't directly perceive magical energies like Absinthe could, but even to the mundies the guy stood out in a crowd. She took out her cased lodestone and began searching for good ambush points near fluctuations in the local essence field...
... which she'd almost completely over-flown. She was better than that. Good thing brooms were quiet! Damiana set down on the next block to begin stalking her quarry. She began the chant for the disruption ritual, stating her intent to the World only loudly enough to hear the words match those in her own head. She halted at the corner of the last building on the block to unsheathe the athamé that she'd been gifted on her thirteenth birthday. It wasn't the most powerful in her family, making it easier to conceal from prying outsiders.
Gladys heard the scratch of sand between boot sole and pavement, only a few feet from where she stood. Wait a second to carry the boot wearer another meter or two closer ... and pounce! Her opponent's look of surprise and fear thrilled her. She would win this!
She closed on Metro in that instant, slashing at his shooting arm and pivoting to deny him a counter-attack to her back. The ancient steel cut through the boy's tunic sleeve and base layer like they were gauze. She grabbed his forearm in her off hand, intent on finishing this. Judging by the grimace he wore and his unsteady stance, it wouldn't be a long wait for the overextended magician to give her the opening she needed. He gritted his teeth against the pain in his arm, desperately trying to raise his service pistol for a point-blank body shot. She pulled it down and to the side, no match for her PK-augmented strength. Some part of Gladys' mind noted the muzzle flash, calculating that the shot had to have gone wide. Mostly she felt or heard her spell hitting its peak — diving into a waterfall or chasing a thunderstorm must feel something like this. Gladys watched Metro fall to the pavement like a puppet with its strings cut. There was an outraged scream on the wind, like an eagle's cry in the distance. Then it cut off as if it had never been.
Careful examination reassured her that her opponent wasn't faking unconsciousness. A few more minutes to go, and soon Redjack called in that he'd spotted the other team's base. From there, it was a matter of well-directed brute force against hit and run tactics.
Even Gunny Bardue's bellowed "Brigade! Briefing Room Two! Get in here!" couldn't spoil the fact that they'd come out on top!
Admiral Everheart intercepted Gladys on her way to the debrief with the rest of her team. "You're wanted over at Doyle Medical, ASAP."
"The student you cut isn't waking up. There's a remote chance that if he's sick with something you may have been exposed as well. Jobe isn't the only biodevisor or chemist who brings his NBC projects to class."
And here I had been worried about nicking an artery! "I see."
"I'll accompany you to minimize the risk of cross-contamination."
Dr. Ophelia Tenent's Office, Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy
Elyzia Grimes said to her department colleague, "I wonder if we should have told her the full story of what she may have done."
Ophelia Tenent shook her head. "No. We don't have the full story. All there is to go on is a magical accident involving an old bloodsteel-laced athamé that resulted in one injured and seriously ill student. The other student's coincidental disappearance might be enough to tell an unscrupulous practitioner which of those two holds the keys to a pact."
"Do we have a missing student?"
"You don't see Thomas Jensen camped out in his usual waiting room spot, do you?"
"Leave that to myself and Ms. Hartford. I suspect that there may be an unfortunate death in the family or misplaced paperwork that must be tended to without delay. Honestly, some of the incidents our charges get themselves caught up in make excuses like that seem reasonable."
Ophelia smiled. "Even Bethany, Irene, and Estelle's?"
"Those three don't even hold the record. Do you think we will see a full recovery?"
"If Mads' Well hasn't been permanently damaged, it's possible. We'll get a new set of scans this afternoon to see if there's been a medical setback to his older injuries or new complications."
"Do you expect complications?"
"His body's still trying to recover from almost being sacrificed to some thing back in August. Having a lit Well and Valravn close by worked to stabilize him. Now? I don't know."
"If nothing else comes of this, we should be able to disallow bloodsteel weapons in the combat training tracks and finals going forward without outing Eldritch as an Artificer. Small comfort, but the more if think about the circumstances, the less I think that allowing Damiana know that we've discovered anything more than that is wise."
"If that's enough encouragement to keep it locked away from using on other students, I can live with that."
Post-Op Recovery, Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy
Bright lights. Hazy woolly feeling in my head. General anesthetic. Yay. Something in my mouth tastes weird: must still be intubated. Hate that drek. Usually doesn't taste metallic. Still yuck. Prob'bly positive ventilation. Toes move. Leg muscles. Hip. Stomach. Can't shift breathing: def a tube in the way. Shoulders. Ow! Not doing that again. Fingers. Neck muscles. Spine's not jacked. That's good. Wonder if T got a look at the paperwork?
Okay. Once more with feeling.
A knotted wave of gut pain swept into and over consciousness. Argh!! Eff me sideways this hurts! Tensing shoulder and arm muscles with that did not help at all. As the pain faded, he realized that he also had one or two hells of a headache. Not so good.
Thomas must be really pissed over something, ignoring him like this. Not like he didn't deserve it. What was the last thing before the hospital or clinic? Class. Got it. Big class, so Team Tactics. Felt like someone watching. Turn. Go back to corner, and long dark hair reaching out to cut into his neck again! No. No. That wasn't it. But dark hair. Female. Dagger! That explained the arm pain and surgical stuff. Trying to remember the time after the slash of an obsidian-black blade, he fell back into an all-consuming anesthetic darkness broken only by distant flashes of lightning from a distant storm.
Lunch, Wednesday, February 13, 2008,
Lost Puppy Patrol table, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
This just might be the place Rorsmand least wanted to be, the worst circumstance as well, but the team needed whatever sort of stability he could manage. He took a deep breath to steady himself and put on his best It's going to be alright face before taking his lunch tray up to the second dining tier. His detour to Doyle Medical Center had made him the last to arrive at the team's table.
"Did you see him?" Him, and not them. Abbie's phrasing made it clear who she meant and what they knew.
He sat down and took a steadying breath before answering, "Briefly. They have him heavily sedated, behind wards, in an intensive care unit room. The cut on his arm's been sutured, but it may take some time to heal."
Elve's voice was soft when she asked, "Will he, this time?"
"They don't know. It depends on how much his healing depends on his access to magic or whether his body can shift for itself."
"What about Valravn? How does a guy just disappear like that?" Sandy didn't know Crash and Burn very well yet.
Mary-Joy fielded that one for Kristian, "If you'd been here last year you wouldn't want to ask or you wouldn't want to find out. For Sparky, I hear it's second nature to go disappearing when he wants. Maki thinks it's the wannabe who should be worrying."
"He says he remembers our resident taniwhas from the bad old days."
Abbie set her glass of tea down. "Our what?" If Mary-Joy was talking about Mads, that had to be a Maori curse-word.
"Taniwha. They're beings belonging to Aotearoa. They can be guardians or predators, depending on their nature and how they are treated, and they often call a river, harbor, or some other body of water their home. Sound like anyone you know?"
Not a curse word, after all! "Mads doesn't make a very convincing predator spirit."
"We could try sacrificing a virgin to him and find out!"
"Elve, that was sick, and wrong!"
"Besides, where would we find a virgin volunteer around this place?"
It may have been meant as a joke but the darkening color of Kris' ears gave away how close to the mark it had hit. Sandy stayed diplomatically quiet until the subject was changed. There'd been enough blood spilled to chum the waters.
Late Wednesday afternoon, February 13, 2008,
Magic-enhanced Intensive Care Unit Waiting Room, Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy
Kristian had spent much of the past few hours going over his notes for the Team Tactics course and ignoring the dull pastels of the waiting room's carpet and shabby furnishings. It would not have surprised him if some of the magazines left sitting out dated back to the school's founding. Which president was Nixon, anyway? Flipping through one or two of the dog-eared and creased issues felt like a wasted effort: nothing in them took his mind away from going over and over what he could have done or should have done better during the sim run.
He'd been dismissed from his last two classes of the day for being too distracted to function, giving him plenty of time to pace in his head. For better or worse, that put him close by when a routine trip to radiology ended with an express return to ICU for their only patient. Later, when the shouts and other, more animal, sounds wouldn't stop ringing in his head, a doctor prescribed a short course of an anxiolytic. He was too upset to remember which one. It must have worked, because the hospital's antiseptic spilled across chilled bathroom smell stopped bothering him as much.
Shortly before visiting hours were scheduled to start Kristian heard footsteps coming from the tiled hallway. Abbie and Mary-Joy sat down on either side of him. The silence in the room grew longer for their patience until he finally spoke.
"The doctors said his Well was extinguished. They aren't sure when. They aren't sure if it can be safely rekindled. And, well, I mean, they said, but I? I don't know." He leaned forward to bury his head in his hands. Abbie put her arm around him, and he turned to her, trying not to break down. From his other side, Mary-Joy embraced them both. She may not have known them long, but their worry and pain was obvious. Someone needed to remind them that they didn't face this alone.
The nurses at the nurses' station gave the kids a few minutes to regain their composure before escorting Kristian in "as long as he promises not to deck any of my patients this time."
Room 1, Magic-enhanced Intensive Care Unit
Mads Møller-Jensen had been awake off and on during the afternoon. Just enough to gather that there was more wrong than a simple cut and Thunderbird's Song being far, far out of reach. He was just too tired to connect the dots on his condition beyond the nurses and Dr. Tenent being 'off' somehow. It was like their auras had echoes ringing behind them. That didn't make much sense. At least someone had removed the breathing tube and let him drink some water. Unless it wasn't water. You couldn't be too sure in sneaky places like hospitals.
It was getting late in the day or early in the evening, whatever day it was, when a nurse brought Kris in. Great. Just because Kris is getting much better at putting on a brave face, that doesn't mean he should.
Kris had to move up to the bed and bend over to hear Mads repeat himself. It sucked being so tired.
"Not us. As soon as you dropped and the telltales on Thomas cut out, they kicked us all out and substituted ANTs for the other team to kick around."
"Don't settle for a bad grade over that."
Mads laid his head back, eyes closed. It looked to Kris like he'd fallen asleep, but he started speaking again before the other could make ready to leave.
"Is there a circle on the floor?"
"Sh—! Uh, yeah."
Hah! Made you look! "Can't scuff it can you?"
"It looks like it's part of the floor. I take it you've been here before."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"I'm not stupid enough to sabotage isolation wards in an intensive care unit, Mads."
"I'd feel a lot better if you did."
"Because it might cause your well to ignite on its own and/or supercharge your body turning against itself?" Kris reminded himself that he'd promised not to punch the jerk.
"... Anyone else out there?"
"Yes. Abbie and Mary-Joy. No, they aren't going to fall for your bullshit either."
"Worth a shot."
"If you aren't going to sight in, at least change out your clip. You're firing blanks."
The nurse from earlier returned, "Mr. Holm? There are others waiting to come in."
"Remember what I said, Mads."
"Elephant gun from the rooftop and wait for the cops. Got it."
Room 1, Magic-enhanced Intensive Care Unit
Dr. Tenent came in to check on her student and repeat patient. She set a box down, off to the side, before going through the routine of updating charts. Mads hoped that the box meant he'd at least be getting his comms and interface gear back. Medical monitors were boring, even worse than the repetitive 2-D stuff everyone else seemed to enjoy "on TV".
"So, Doctor Tenent, will I be able to play the piano after this?"
"I don't know, Mads. How well did you play it before?"
"The last time I tried, I was told to 'Please stop banging on the keys and go play in traffic.'"
"Then I wouldn't get my hopes up." Mads caught the hint to dial back the gallows humor. "My concern is about how you're going to finish Winter Term. Officially, your partner in crime was called back to Ottawa at the request of his sponsor, so that's settled. Unofficially, of course his problems are not settled."
"I was taught it could take a month or more before a spirit could return, but me and T are kind of off-script."
"That's one issue, yes. The other is that your pact may be all that's keeping you stable. There's something I want to try, to see if we can't do better than keep you locked in a warded room until he's back." Dr. Tenent pulled on a sturdy pair of gloves before reaching into the box she'd bought. Catching sight of Mads' frown, she said "No, it's not because your clothes are in the box." She retrieved an odd necklace from the box. Mads recognized some beads as hematite, and guessed at jet being among the others. "I need you to put this on. It should prevent Essence from accumulating in your magical core. I've added an enchantment to it to prevent it from being removed against your will."
"A sump pump for magic?"
"That's not the worst comparison you could make. After all, a flooded basement can destroy a house."
The necklace had a slick and cold feel to it that the polished stones didn't account for. Not seeing much reason not to, he put it on. Nothing happened. The doctor let out a held breath.
"Try a light spell."
Mads gave it three tries before shaking his head. "Nada."
"Now we try that outside the isolation ward."
Nothing again. The room looked brighter, but that had to be a placebo effect. Back inside the isolation ward, Dr. Tenent cast a healing spell on the wound that had started the whole insanity. She then went ahead and removed the surgical staples before updating his chart some more.
"With that necklace on, your own magic is effectively sealed. While that leaves you in a poor position for the mystic curriculum, you'll be able to go to classes without risking the magical equivalent of a burnout or a repeat of this afternoon."
"How do I explain it when the topic comes up in Team Tactics?"
"We found an expressly forbidden book in your room, instead of in the Lovecraft Room where you've been keeping those two manuscripts we officially don't know about. Our options were this or an all-expenses-paid, one-way trip to ARC Black."
"Arkham Research Consortium is one of my sponsors. How's that going to play with them?"
"Expect more lab rat time, not just as a cover."
"And the problematic book?"
"Les Cultes des Goules. Oh, don't be giving me that look young man! Reverend Englund already had to put his foot down to stop a couple of impromptu 'operations', so we need to stick with that story."
"I did not know that."
"He said that in your hands" Mads winced at that. "... I should tell him he's right, isn't he?"
"Let's just say that Madsy is not supposed to play with the bad books about dead things that don't stay that way."
"Or open, or touch. Reading is Right Out."
Early Thursday morning, February 14, 2008,
Lobby, Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy
If he'd started off a few minutes earlier, he could have pulled off his escape. Maybe. Unfortunately, the doors facing the path to the Crystal Hall were also the closest doors for anyone coming from the resident cottages. In his own defense, he was really, really tired.
"Mads Christian Møller-Jensen! Where the Hell do you think you're going?"
"Umm... To get breakfast before classes start?"
"Did you know it's Thursday? Where's your uniform?"
"Yes. My uniform is ... maybe I should have taken the tunnel."
"And yet, you didn't manage to remember that before walking out AMA. What's going to happen now is that you are going to turn around, go back to the room you left, and disconnect whatever kludgewerk you've set to spoofing the medical monitors."
"You sure you can't go back out so we can do this over?"
"Not going to happen."
"Wait a sec. Why are you here so early?"
"Because I know you. Remember?"
"I'm perfectly fine!"
"Then explain how you forgot that we don't have drill during the Winter Term."
Shoulders slumping, he let Kris usher him back to his hospital room.
Chapter 8: Shattered Reflections
"You're gone, gone, gone away, / I watched you disappear / All that's left is a ghost of you."
—Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, Ragnar Þórhallsson, "Little Talks"
Friday morning, February 15, 2008,
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Metro's first day back in Team Tactics class was a mixed bag. Everyone had heard the rumors about his punishment, but some reactions puzzled him. Pejuta gave him a couple of feet more space than her usual arm's length. At first he would have blamed that on her PTSD – just about everyone on campus had either been briefed on that or shown her Spring 2007 combat final – but when he caught her staring at his new jewelry, her expression held more sadness than fear. Whatever the reasons, he decided he shouldn't poke at them today. Damiana, on the other hand, looked rather pleased. Maybe she felt she'd proven herself? A number of students just seemed glad to be free of the effects of his glamour.
Getting into and out of his sim suit without lighting every freaking nerve in his body on fire was tricky, but Mads found that he could get away with keeping the essence-draining necklace in one hand or the other. It hurt, but not as much as having metal fibrils extend and entwine along living nerves. Seeing Kristian flinch from empathy pain negated any comfort he could have had in that. He wanted to bang his head into a wall, but the odds were good that Kris would feel that too.
Friday morning, Downtown Detroit
The team rezzed in for an on-site briefing with two members already missing: Valravn and Metro. Rorsmand wheeled around looking for Metro at least to show up. "He entered the sim pod the same time as Tephra and I, what happened?"
Sofia: Mapping protocols online. Searching for landmarks. This is Detroit."
Rorsmand felt Sofia's dismay, which made NO sense. Did AIs have emotions?
@Sofia: Detroit should be good for us, right? We'd have all the street maps for a change.
Sofia: Wrong Detroit. Check the date on your display."
This time, the ice water in arteries feeling was Kris' own.
Sam Everheart raised a hand to signal a halt to the panicking. "Simulation: freeze." Everything around them in the municipal greenspace stopped.
"This is a deep environment simulation that we've been working on for the past few months. Your team is getting the first run-through, to see if it meets our expectations. Gunny Bardue is briefing Metro as to his part in this." This run may be starting in a park, Smithy realized, but it might not be a walk in the park. "This will be an infiltration exercise. Your job is to find Metro and bring him back to this park. Any questions?"
Waikikamukau looked around. "No offense meant to Absinthe, but are those elves?"
Sofia: Homo sapiens nobilis. The people you are describing are human.
Rorsmand: Will they recognize Mads as human?
Sofia: The Corporation that holds Major Gunnison's contract does not recognize those affected by anomalous genetic expression as legally distinct from their race of birth.
"The physics engine," Tephra asked, sticking to something he knew, "How different is it?"
"Gravity works. So do engineering and magic. Smithy, you've been quiet. Questions?"
"Is this portion of the run being recorded for the class?"
"Recorded? Yes. For class critique? I will make that determination."
"This is the hellhole Metro's really from, isn't it?"
Everheart smirked, "As a matter of fact, he's all of fourteen and a half, and he's even holding down a job."
"Fourteen? What about child labor laws?" Waikikamukau shot Tephra a look that said They are still holding out on us! "How old is our guy?"
"The best answer I can give you is seventeen or eighteen subjective years of age, as not all of his time has been spent on this plane."
"There's no answer I can give you that will make sense."
Mareschal Law Security, Marketing and Accounts Promotion Department, Neo-Detroit Simulation
Mads Gunnison walked up to an admin assistant's station, confident that the woman at her desk wouldn't notice his shadow this morning. Setting up this segment of the simulation had been ... contentious, until Everheart reviewed the floor plan with an eye to set up a Big Bad. The actual assistant to the Chief of Marketing had a corner office well buffered from noise and unnecessary distractions. Of course, every other year the unit was treated to entirely new office furniture as the offices and cubicle farms were rearranged. To no one's surprise, there were usually enough patentable or licensable electronics squirreled away in the old furnishings to recoup some of the costs of letting the sales drones brag about their new office equipment. (Of course the workstations were replaced, because Dear God! Could these people load more malware if they had help?)
To his shadow's surprise, the woman smiled at Mads.
What did that say about his own people that he couldn't recall seeing anyone smile at the boy?
"Good morning, Mads!"
"And a good morning to you, Mrs. Abrams!" Metro checked the time in AR. "How's the family today?"
"Michael's got a date tonight! I'm too young to be having kids old enough to be dating!"
"Aw, you know it'll roll aces."
"So ka. You still seeing that jerk - the one that did you ugly?"
"What can I say? My head says 'bad idea', but my heart says 'vruk'."
"I know, I know. But the next time you stagger in that close to flatline, there's going to be an attitude adjustment party. You just tell him that for me."
"Will do, Mrs. A.!"
"Sure, sure. Go log on already, Private."
Gunny Bardue spoke up, "Did she just offer to beat the hell out of your ... boyfriend?"
"Ayep," the younger man said from the side of his mouth. "She's got the jazz and the wires to make an adjustment like that stick, too."
"For an intern who's just here to serve coffee and hand out the mail?"
"We're all wageslaves here. Would you let some rando beat up one of YOUR privates on a routine basis?"
"I would expect him to stand up for himself."
"Who said your private was a guy? Some gillettes I've run across could hit you four times for your one punch, and easily two or three times as hard." Mads shook his head. "Damn. What I wouldn't give to have Yuki or Victoria working for me again." Those were rough and tumble times – as high stakes / low mates as they came – but good too.
I want Thomas back. No wonder I got written in as the ball and chain.
The boy headed to a representation of what once was his desk, logging on before pasting a fake smile on his face and speaking again. "Gunny, you're on sovereign property belonging to a corporation that favors initiative over gender. Better for fostering innovation, better for the bottom line."
This is Admiral Everheart, the urban center emulation checks out. We're going live.
"That's my cue. We've allotted server time for exploration and recon, so try not to get too bored."
Metro threw the Gunnery Sergeant a two-fingered sniper check as he rezzed out.
Lost Puppy Patrol, Neo-Detroit Simulation
Tephra asked, "How hard is it going to be to find one kid in a city that's how big?"
Sofia: There are roughly 2.5 million corporate and civil citizens, and an official estimate of 4 million undocumented residents.
"Okay. But even in a city that size, there should be what, half a dozen magicians?"
Smithy said, "Tephra, he's mentioned that he was maybe one of the top fifty mages in Detroit."
Sofia: There are twenty full-practice mages and shamen known to be operating in this area, at or above Major Gunnison's rating. This cohort includes his adoptive mother. For comparison, there are roughly ten to twenty thousand practitioners of all ratings and specialties thought to be operating in the Detroit metropolitan area."
"Translation: If this is an infiltration op, with jack for upfront intel, the only way this works is if Metro's where he's supposed to be."
Sofia: I believe the correct phrase would be 'like searching for a needle in a haystack filled with dirty needles'
Smithy looked around for building signs. One thing that corporations are always proud of, no matter where one found themselves, is their 'We Are Here!' signs. An entire complex matched descriptions she'd heard from their team leader, once one accounted for his penchant for undersell. "We are so screwed."
"Not all of us! You guys were going to have to leave me behind anyway. We don't have a caster with us who can fool security scanners."
"True." Rorsmand said, "I don't want to leave our exit site unguarded, either. Any other ideas?"
"You boys could be over-thinking this. We're high school kids. The madman's a high school kid. Why don't we try asking if he can come out to play?"
"M-K, it's going to be hard to pass you off as a high-schooler..."
"There are orks walking around here, some in business suits, I swear I saw one in a miniskirt. I can play this gig. How are we set for cash and ID? It would be nice not to look like we're here for the costume party."
Sofia: Within the terms of the scenario I can arrange for limited lines of credit. Identification will take somewhat longer, depending on who goes in."
"He doesn't talk much about school after sixth grade. Has he said anything to you, Smithy?"
"No. Sofia, what schools has Mads attended in Detroit?"
Sofia: Sending data to your displays.
"That looks more like a penitentiary."
Sofia: The facility did have notably lax entry standards. This time, Mary-Joy knew she'd caught an emotion in the AI's response. It wasn't one of pride either.
"How did our boy survive attending a school with those demographics? I know that your American cities aren't all wall-to-wall slums, but this is ridiculous. Sofia, there are some pictures missing, aren't there?"
From the shot angles and enhancement artifacts, the originals had to have been taken during surveillance. One still included a reticle pattern that hadn't been edited out. The subject's spiky dirty blonde hair was familiar. Hazel eyes smiled or winked mischievously, as if he'd caught the photographer at some game. Healthy skin colors over a face that hadn't missed too many meals or weathered too many fevers made the photo set almost painful to look at. Elve was the one to notice that the boy's too-thin jacket didn't hang right: no sidearm. Just another way Mads had stood out like a sore thumb.
"I am definitely looking at a bully magnet."
Sofia: There is one record of the Major being bullied at that school. One, precisely. There's no reason for alarm: his overwatch detail helped with disposal."
"His overwatch detail?" Tephra asked. "Why would a freshman, okay, I mean I can see the need, but?"
Sofia: He was privy to corporate proprietary information. In case of coercive extraction, there were usually one or two operatives with orders to terminate the security breach. Otherwise, their orders were to stay back and not be seen by the principal or by his associates.
"How well did that work out?"
Sofia: Uso daro!
Smithy quietly said, "These people play for keeps. Let's get Rorsmand and Waikikamukau ready to go in. I'll take the first exit waypoint, so I'll need passable ID and clothing. V-T, I want you on overwatch for me and Tephra. We know Metro plays with drones; it's safe to say we haven't seen the worst of what's available yet. If anyone stops us, we're in a play."
"Which play? In case someone does ask."
"Death of a Salesman."
Mareschal Law, Marketing and Accounts Promotion Department, Neo-Detroit Simulation
One coffee run later, Bardue called in to the sim. "So how is it that if everyone's so damned equal, half of these bozos can't even manage their coffee and doughnut orders without you doing it for them?"
"Easy. I'm countersigning with an ID card that tells the world that I'm a prospective employee on a program to expedite opportunities for sprawl-dwelling scum. Alfred? He's formerly a second or third gen citizen of one of our competitors and old money before that. It took a week for the guy to notice I existed."
"That would be Mr. Two Sugars, not One?"
"Yep-per! Two sugars, and as many nanotags as I can palm into the cup without leaving a visible residue. Good thing I'm also officially shadowing his work."
"This is going to get boring quickly, if we run it in real-time, isn't it?"
"My target usually goes for a long lunch. Every other Friday, it's to meet up with one of his handlers for instructions, after which he may skip the rest of the day. The upside is that it gives me time to update his reports. We don't want him fired for cause before we know who he's selling us out to."
"Is that all we'd have to simulate here?"
"Pretty much. It's a Friday, so I need to grab gear from home in time to catch a red-eye to Kansas City to meet up with my team. This weekend, if I recall it correctly, I catch a hoop-load of drek for looking like a narc because of the crewcut."
Because of his haircut? The plain earpiece, BCD glasses, slightly shabby black jacket, white oxford-cloth shirt, rep tie, black belt, trousers, socks, and shined shoes. Back up there, Marine! Even sitting, the kid's gig line was straight. The majority of men around him were clean-shaven, many wearing styled hair, but the kid was in a minority who could pass inspection or wear a gas mask without a trip to the barber. The heavy pistol in a shoulder holster took it over the top in the Marine's eyes. No wonder no one working for Security or the Ranges was signing off on his "just a kid" act.
"If we shift scenes, what is your 'team' doing in KC? We might not have that built out yet."
"Muscling in on the two local gangs moving party favors on the Aztlan-to-Northlands corridor, on behalf of a friend here in Motor City who's looking to expand business. Even after settling accounts with the Russians here, Jade's one of the few people who still gives us the time of day."
Gunny Bardue felt a headache coming on. "Exactly who do you work for?"
"I have always been upfront about that. The corp comes first. Period. Oh, and if you draw on a cop, the next round's in you. That's not a threat. It's a statement of fact."
I bet the boy isn't even aware that by leaning back in his chair, smiling like that, and displaying a holster strap, he IS threatening violence. "Good thing you're in Marketing, I guess."
"Marketing for a triple-A international security services provider that's a subdivision of one of the premier defense firms on this planet. Alfie's probably the only mook on this floor not jazzed, chromed, running combat wetwares, or packing heat."
"Why, on God's little green earth, is everyone running around armed?"
"If we don't trust our company's products, who the hell will? Besides, even clavies gotta go home sometime."
"What about weekends?"
"Let's see how much HIVE pulled from my archived emails..."
Marvin: 'Archived', see IGNORED.
Looie: I'm not that bad.
Marvin: We're only simulating the year before your promotion, Major. Ditch the nick.
"There's a half-marathon fun run tomorrow; that'll be wall-to-wall peeps. It's warm out now, so there's some Scouting trips, advanced bivouacs, of course the ranges and gyms are open, hm, all sorts of health and fitness courses."
Come to think of it, there weren't any overweight people among these office workers. "Sounds like a real flag, motherhood, and apple pie culture. Why aren't you scheduled for any of that?"
"When I go to sign up for one of these things, the appointment software doesn't have the security rating to connect to my records."
"Right. You just carry on, then. Some of us got work to do."
"Meh. I wonder if they've got a decent simulation of the 'trix running?"
Forest Park, Neo-Detroit Simulation
"I am never going to understand the whole 'shopping for clothes' thing, am I?" Rorsmand managed to look dejected over something the male of the species didn't often have the socialization for.
Abbie would have added "how to fit in with people you're not used to" to that but went with "You'll be fine. Some day. Think of it as gathering supplies for an expedition."
"Why does that conjure up boxes of ammunition and fittings for ballistic vests?"
Waikikamukau laughed at that. "Because you spend too much time with Metro, and half your classes this term are being taught by paras? Too bad I can't wear this out of here. Tu meke!"
"Ask a tech to shoot the specs to Miss Rogers after we're done. Looks like we're here."
Smithy: Showtime! Let's break a leg! "Annnnd, cue the curtain drop." All stations, did we just glitch or what?
Rorsmand tapped Smithy on the shoulder – left-handed – "Something has gone wrong. My arm's rebooting and I can't raise Sofia."
Morningstar Industries cyberspace, Neo-Detroit Simulation
"Marvin! The hell? Did we just get dumped?"
"Now I lay me down to sleep, Try to count electric sheep, Sweet dream wishes you can keep, How I hate the night"
That was not the diagnostic code I was hoping for.
Mads mentally sat down to work this one out. If he could break out to the original simulation environment, there should hopefully be enough tools available from his workstation to see if the "attack" was one of the instructors' little surprises. If the problem were outside that environment, he'd ... still need to get back to there for a clean disconnect. If this were a planar rift or incursion, it could still be external to and impinging on his plane and on the scenario's plane. Except, the scenario here was a simulation based on there, and there was nothing here to base that sort of nothing on.
Meanwhile, this might as well be Cleveland, because there's no there here either. Look, Ma! No metaphor!
"I wonder if I'm going to be blamed for this too, even though nothing's exploded or caught fire?"
"Why is there never an ice-cow and a handy salt lick around when you really need one?"
Simulator Control Room, Whateley Academy
As soon as the lights faded back in from the brown-out, Gunny Bardue called over the instructors' comm circuit, "Sam, was that you or HIVE?"
"No. And I can't raise either of the AIs that the kids officially don't have on them. What does it look like on your end?"
"Best I can tell, something's consuming every spare resource in our systems. Just as we brought our two guests on-line too."
A tech spoke up, "On the bright side, while the people inside the simulations may be experiencing time dilation, with the interpolation and rendering software equally bogged down everything they interact with should seem normal. At worst, their brains will be filling in and reinforcing whatever inputs they are getting instead of interpreting the feed as a simulated time stop."
"How is that a good thing?"
"I was assuming we want them sane when they get out. Some of the repurposed equipment patched into this behemoth was intended for brainwashing and psychological torture."
"I want emergency personnel in each staging area and a full sweep to make sure we aren't having a repeat of last year."
"Making the call now, Gunny."
"Next problem. Who can tell me where this is coming from, and how did they get in?"
"How about next week's lottery numbers while we're at it?"
"Keep it up and I'm shoving you in a sim suit to conduct an up-close-and-personal assessment."
Forest Park, Neo-Detroit Simulation
Rorsmand stared at his AR display. The message didn't make much sense beyond the general urgency.
"Heads up. I've got a message from Everheart. Something did glitch on us. Sofia's sitting out the simulation to cut down on the processing load, while they pull the other teams out."
Waikikamukau shook her head. "That sounds sus to me."
"Of course, but that's all part of the business. I'm wondering if having Vapaat Taivas and Tephra exit the sim would help, IF it's a processing problem."
Abbie thought about that. This could also be a trick to make the exercise more difficult. "How about you two continue as planned, while I send them out one at a time? If it doesn't work, I'll bring them back here. If you all are successful, you can meet me back at the gate or page the guards to let me in? Fewer locations to build out that way."
"Looks like we have a plan."
Forest Park Entrance, Morningstar Industries Headquarters, Neo-Detroit Simulation
Of the two, Waikikamukau was far more introverted than Rorsmand, but after they'd dressed for the scenario an observer could be excused for mistaking them as having chosen opposite parts. Looks like lead on this part was down to her and her best Goria impersonation. "Excuse me, sir? We're looking to meet up with a friend of ours, and it's like, meant to be a surprise? But, like, someone forgot to copy down which office he's working in? I mean it's gotta be some mail room stuff, right? So it being Friday after all, and all I've been hearing is how the C-man's been missin' his boo, and like, it's not like the Mad-man be missing anything."
Rorsmand hastened to add "Not that the work people do for Morningstar Industries isn't important! It's more a matter of him being a freshman on an internship, not someone who would be actively supervising time-critical work."
No one that neurotically buttoned-down could have an ulterior motive without his parents' signature on a permission slip issued by a teacher or guidance counselor. The guard, "Poroshenko, I." according to the glossy name tag on his uniform, sighed. Kids. You can't live with them, and you can't ship 'em off to Siberia until they finally grow up enough to be useful! "Put your IDs on broadcast, and tell me who you're looking for. Do you have any idea which division he's attached to?"
"Mads Gunnison, and no. He thinks he's being soooo mysterious, hinting about the important jobs that are being done around him." Kristian didn't even have to act this part out. Ten would have gotten him one that that annoying habit had not changed in the slightest. He looked over to Waikikamukau.
"Woah, homeslice. Don't be throwing no shade in my direction. I don't sleep with the shortstop!"
He'd already said "We don't play ball!" before he realized how that might sound in context. Or that any part of it was being recorded and forwarded. The boy's ears were fire engine red before he could finish putting his foot in his mouth.
"Okay, kids, we've located your classmate. His supervisor, Mrs. Abrams, is authorizing us to send you two up. Just give me a few minutes to get the passes printed out and shoot maps over to your comms. We wouldn't want you to get lost! We should be so lucky. You might be able to ask for a tour of some of our public facilities if your friend's busy at the moment."
Mads, local cyberspace, Whateley Academy Combat Simulator
Nothing. Everywhere he looked: still nothing. Like booting up his school laptop without a cup of coffee.
Funny how a void looks the same whether one is calling physical order out from chaos or programming complexity from an ordered array... Which means I just jacked in to a matrix that hadn't finished initializing yet.
I don't take enough Ritalin for this kind of stuff this early in the morning.
Astral projection was right out. If the machinery was having trouble emulating basic virtual reality within a simulated reality, then having it try to emulate another level of experience in its place didn't feel like an effective use of resources.
On the other hand, this might be a good time to try out the utility programs of Questionable Legality he Definitely Did Not Load on his burner phone.
Kristian and Mary-Joy
"Hey, Carl, how much we going to trust these yobbos?"
"Less than I'd trust you-know-who to stay out of trouble."
"That's what I thought. This map isn't showing a direct route to where we're going. ...but if I were him, I'd have arranged it so that cutting the corners we most want to cut drops us in an alligator pit."
"So we continue to listen for any unusual radio traffic, act like teenagers, and—"
"We ARE teenagers!"
"— and above all act like we belong here. Because we do."
"So I should be taking selfies to send to Abs?"
"I know I'm going to regret this, but yes."
"Sweet." *click* "Surprising we don't have a tail."
"Wrap that pass in metal foil and you'll find out how much of a tail we have."
"Is that paranoia or prognostication?"
Mads, local cyberspace, Whateley Academy Combat Simulator
The boy grinned in spite of the situation. His traffic analysis toolkit hit paydata in time to feed system messages into his architectural rendering software. That was off-the-shelf stuff, but as long as it worked for now he could give a damn about the l0s3r aesthetics later. Now that he knew it was the Whateley wares that were going Westworld, and that because they didn't recognize him as a user and not an object that needed to be rebooted, what next? Ask for a less broken brain to see if they could compose one in his memory registers? Find a different scratch monkey to point the mind-control lasers at?
"We're willing to wipe the slate clean, give you a fresh start. All that we're asking in return is your cooperation in bringing a known terrorist to justice." came to mind.
"How about I give you the finger, and search for any of my team on the outside of this funhouse. Hello, Tephra! Oops. Time to avoid the cleaning crew!"
Mads hoped this episode of talking to himself wouldn't be featured in his next therapy session. Totally awkward.
Simulator Control Room, Whateley Academy
"Gunny, Tephra's confirmed that the rest of the team's pushing forward with the mission. No one inside's got any idea how bad they're lagging."
"Did we get any of our resources back?"
"Briefly. Looking back through logs, something similar to this has happened before."
"Might as well hear the bad news first."
"Physical disconnection of participants during resource deadlocking resulted in injuries 'consistent with acute ischemic infarction', according to coroners' reports."
"Was there anything in common among the fatalities?"
"Their powers files were either badly out-of-date or heavily altered."
"I don't see how that could cause a problem that severe."
"The daemons programmed for garbage collection also check other objects in the environment for indications of cheating, sabotage, or unauthorized functions. Apparently, having the same memory locations that your executive functions are using overwritten with ones and zeroes isn't healthy."
Mads, local cyberspace, Whateley Academy Combat Simulator
Many of the tricks used in stage magic and street cons rely on the simple observation that people don't know what they don't know:
- The Lottery: Someone Has To Win!,
- Two men say they're Jesus, one of them must be wrong!, or even
- I saw you put the Queen under
That could work for him, or against him. He thought about the text he'd sent out; if he had to act before it could be acted on, it would make for a pathetic epitaph if he got himself fragged running this con. He almost felt sorry for swapping an Ace for the Queen, until he saw the hunter-killers move in.
The backlash from the casting was still more than he'd bargained for.
Kristian and Mary-Joy
"Mrs. Abrams? Hello! I'm C—"
"Please hold." Mrs. Abrams looked up at the two visitors, "I'll be ready for you in just a moment. I have a few things to say to you so don't go anywhere." Returning her attention to the call, "I beg your pardon, I didn't catch that?" She waved the two teens over to some uncomfortable-looking office seating.
Waikikamukau leaned over to whisper to her teammate "I think things may be getting complicated, unless you've torqued this woman off in a past life or two."
"I haven't even met the woman! Something about her feels familiar, but that person has to be younger."
"Just how many women have you been stringing along, 'Carl'?"
"No one! Why does everyone think things like that about me?"
"You're a cute exemplar whose ex-roommate has a mouth and a grudge."
Simulator Control Room, Whateley Academy
"Whatever just happened nuked half a dozen security and maintenance processes, but we're back in business!"
"Patch me in to the telephone at Abrams' desk."
"Roger that, Gunny."
Kristian and Mary-Joy
The telephone call dragged on, but eventually the woman set the old-fashioned receiver down. She straightened a few papers on her desk before walking over to the two teenagers. In spite of the carpeting, the footsteps sounded heavy against the floor.
Waikikamukau stood up to restart introductions, "Mrs. Abrams? I'm Mary Jones, and this is Carl Holm, here to see Mads Gunnison if he's still here?"
"He should be finishing up some paperwork. Mary, is it? Why don't you stay here where it's more comfortable. Carl, there are a few people here I'd like you to meet."
"Er, I'm really just here to hook up with Mads. We're both freshmen, so, no offense! but I'm not looking for employment."
"That very much isn't a problem. We would just like to know more about how our young intern is getting along, outside of work hours. We've been worried about some things that have happened over the past few weeks. So, you are the young man that Gunnison has been with lately, correct?"
"Ma'am, we are just here to see if our boy Mads can take some time off. I mean, it's Friday, the weather's as good as it gets, and m'boy here's been jonesin' to scratch an itch, y'know what I mean? And well, me 'n' th'crew were in the neighborhood, so why not give a shout?"
"That's a rather charitable way of putting it, given the bumps and bruises of a certain young man's recent love life. I'll take Carl to one of our conference rooms, but if you insist, you can accompany him. It's nice, quiet, out of the way, and as I said before, we can wait there for Gunnison to clear his inbox for the day."
Kristian did NOT like the way some of that was phrased but kept to the cover story. "We're sorry if we're putting anyone out."
"Oh no, no. I consider it my pleasure. In fact, why don't I have the young woman waiting for you outside the property escorted in?"
Good old contagion and sympathetic magic! The combat simulators may not have known this dog on the internet wasn't supposed to be casting spells, but that bloody necklace did. He held his head in his hands until the feeling of acid burning through his arteries faded to merely horrific pain.
"Hey, Gunnison! You look like hell. What did you do – get the weekend started early?"
"Er, no. Migraine, I think. It just hit worse than I expected."
"Oh. After that surgery? If it keeps up, page the infirmary. That's what we have it for!"
"Right! Thanks." Right after I give a tourniquet the try.
When he connected back to his terminal in AR mode there was a message directing him to one of the nearby "closed discussion rooms" for debrief. Lovely. All this static, and the team must not have made it. He acknowledged the message, and began shutting down to leave.
Conference Room 407, Mareschal Law, a Division of Morningstar Industries Headquarters, Neo-Detroit Simulation
As conference rooms go, this one was set up with standard Corporate Nondescript decor. The reinforced soundproof walls and doors didn't give much indication of hostile negotiations past. The self-sealed paint and polymer flooring were entirely inoffensive and could easily be scrubbed of any biohazardous materials within minutes.
Smithy, Rorsmand, and Waikikamukau still sat speechless when the presentation piped directly to their AR displays ended. The man who'd been calmly narrating the various high points reminded himself to free up some more time in his schedule. He hadn't covered everything, and these three were each more than smart enough to fill in gaps in the story. That wasn't going to make any of them feel better.
Mary-Joy looked over at Kristian. "Aren't you glad you went in with backup? If the folks he worked for would go that far just to make a public warning..."
'Mrs. Abrams' or Dr. Ophelia Tenent as the students knew her said, "There were some complicating factors to the situation that we cannot show to you."
"Because of our age?
"Because of his age at the time those recordings were made. According to his mother, the punitive strike in response was considered 'restrained'."
"Let's get back to the simulation for a minute. I can see someone blaming arriving late to work on one's partner, but coming in injured? That doesn't make sense."
Dr. Bellows and Dr. Tenent looked at each other and then at Kristian.
"While we're not asking if you've ever slept with Mads..."
"I did, a couple of times, but by that I only mean we shared the same bed. And by 'share' I mean he managed to kick all the sheets off and end up with most of the mattress. His body was so hot, I ended up doing most of the sweating."
"Kris, you ain't helping your case none."
"Which is consistent with the worst case interpretation," noted Dr. Bellows.
"No, the worst case is already in his medical history."
"Doctors?" Abbie wasn't sure she had that right, but it got their attention. "I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that he was involved in an abusive relationship. I take it that no one else who knew him before would be?"
Dr. Tenant shook her head.
Kristian wished he was anywhere else. Or, in lieu of that option, have Thomas here to say something completely inappropriate to break the mood.
Metro took longer than he'd expected just to find Room 407. The door opened on the second knock. That was a good sign, right? Inside, there were no indications of rough handling. He had worried that Kris might have hinted at a physically close relationship, which . . . wouldn't have gone well. Kristian still looked miserable enough for a beating. How had that happened?
"Excuse me, but are you all complaining about me or were you just now attempting to explain the leathers and the leads to Kris?"
Mads stayed halted where he stood. Maybe it was a function of how much he compartmentalized the various parts and pieces of his life, but he had never thought about how Abbie or Mary-Joy might look dressed in the fashions he was used to. Mary-Joy had gone all-out: bone black make-up and graphic tats complemented silver glitter over black and white skin, where the engineered-leather qipao and high boots she wore allowed that to be seen.
Kristian looked uncomfortably adorkable dressed up as he was. Mads went over to him, pushed his sunglasses back down, and mussed up his hair to distract him as an enchantment altered the color to a striking platinum blonde over blue-black roots. Another spell converted the confiscated ball cap to a spiked collar. If he paid more attention to looking for concealed bruising than the spell-work, this wasn't the place to sue him over it.
When he walked in, Kristian and Abbie both saw the new and old surgery scars that Mads' hair hadn't yet grown long enough to cover. That was troubling, but neither could ignore the fact that for the first time they were looking at him in something close to full health. His expression was still more guarded than someone his age should be fronting, but the hazel eyes that looked back at them were younger?
Doctor Bellows broke the silence first. "We needed to discuss sensitive matters with your team about your background in a location that couldn't be easily eavesdropped, preferably one that could be effectively reset or expunged. Admiral Everheart volunteered some of your classroom time, as there would be heightened security within and without the scenario being run. Ophelia?"
"The initial plan was to bring me in as your doctor to evaluate your reactions. To that end, I stepped into the role of Mrs. Abrams while Gunny kept you distracted. We've gotten a number of alerts indicating that you should be on suicide watch, in protective custody, or both. Before we get into that discussion, and we're more short on time than we'd planned, I'm curious: did you really blame some of your injuries on a boyfriend?"
"Only twice. Valentin was male, and he became a non-enemy, so that technically counts. The second time was more my fault than Thomas', but this was always going to be a temp assignment. I say that, but the consequences continued on for another year or so."
"I see. Moving along then, there are some other things we'd like to take the opportunity to discuss."
1100, Friday, February 15, 2008,
Men's locker room, Combat Simulators, Whateley Academy
Kristian was ever so glad to get out of that sim suit! Glad enough to skip cleaning it, but glad. He noticed Mads looking over at him a couple of times, projecting some ill-defined concern. He didn't think much about the other's rush to get finished, though, because he knew he liked the third-period class he was missing. That being so, he didn't give the odd behavior too much thought until he got out of the shower, dressed, and stopped to comb his hair.
He knew damned well his hair was not supposed to be platinum blonde with blue-black roots.
Kris' shouted, "Goddammit, Mads!" could be heard across the hallway and into the women's locker room.
President's Day, Monday, February 18, 2008,
The Workshop, Whateley Academy
No one present expected to see much of Mads Jensen after the brutally frank discussion, and demonstration, of Why Metro Is So F*cked Up. Continuing the disappearance into Monday was a reason for worry. The team had themselves mostly to blame for not knowing where he was, because they should have remembered that Metro and Smithy shared a Saturday lab class. At that point the relevant questions became "Why haven't we looked for Smithy to ask where her lab partner might be?" and "Remember that thing called email?"
"Where is he going with the cameras?" might have also been a sensible question.
Mary-Joy and Elve eventually found him at his classroom lab station, face down in a spilled pool of carbon-black nanite ooze.
Doyle Medical Center
"We'd wondered if his hypothalamic implant would do that," Dr. Tenent remarked to his panicked friends when they carried him in to Doyle Medical Center. "First, we'll have to treat the allergic reaction. Then I'll make some calls to see if anyone can remove the dye."
Elve said, "There' no hurry on that, is there? Kristian is still miffed about his new hair color."
"I think he should take a chance on getting used to it. It should grow out before summer."
Time to change subjects! "Doctor, do you mind if I ask why you're here this morning? Don't you get any time off?"
"Miss Jones, mornings are busy enough, but they're much worse after a holiday weekend when the kids with the cinematic powers finally remember they had a roommate. Long hours spent in pursuit of a big idea on top of adolescent hormones, too little food, too much caffeine, and too much stress makes for a lot of lab mishaps. Contrary to popular belief, just being a mutant doesn't mean that a person will heal back up from whatever happens to them."
"I suppose you'd want to have more healers back on campus tomorrow to reduce the workload, right?"
"You'd think that, but healers are rare enough that holidays barely matter. Instead we have certain medical technology focused students assigned to us on work-study. Sometimes we have to call in the mystic arts staff and some of the department's students, one of whom was just brought in for treatment."
Dinner, Wednesday, February 20, 2008,
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Mads had walked off back to Hawthorne after his Martial Arts class, just as he did most days before washing up enough to be presentable at dinner. Today, once the remaining team members sat down, he excused himself to retrieve something from a locker in adjoining Schuster Hall. Whatever it was, the box was nicely wrapped.
"Mary-Joy, I was thinking about the nanotats you were wearing Friday..."
"I've asked around. That tech's not available here. Nice try, though."
"This is Whateley Academy. There is no try. There is only do, or run for cover."
This was the first time in Mary-Joy's memory that anyone had bastardized that iconic quote. It was not a good feeling.
"So? Open up the box. See what's inside!"
The wrapping was: normal. The box was: normal. Taped shut with duct tape, but normal. Inside the box was an oversized holo-display unit, and an instruction book that read like Calvin (of "Calvin and Hobbes" fame) attempting to describe the process of putting on make-up to a tiger. Looking over at Mads in this light, his expression wasn't all that different from the look on a puppy that's sharing its new chew-toy, one which may or may not be still alive and/or wildly venomous.
"Phase wasn't immediately interested. Something about needing testing and FDA approvals? But there's only two days left for screwing with the other teams' heads, so here ya go!"
Abbie said, "Mads, I'm glad that you are completely secure in your homosexuality, because for the life of me I can't figure out whether that's the worst possible gift for a woman or something that should come with a ring."
Friday afternoon, February 22, 2008,
Special Topics in Martial Arts, Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue was definitely tired of students' sponsors double-checking (and second-guessing) the hard work he and the other instructors put into giving their students a decent chance at staying alive in the outside world. So far, this Bjorn Sonnung hadn't pulled a Guan Yu on the facilities but he wasn't going to bet against it just yet. Nor was he ruling out a problem with the student, who did NOT know this person was coming to the school to see him. Mixing UltraViolent kids and family surprises made for a Bad Idea all around. Going one further by springing a surprise on a student with a double-digit body count made even less sense. That the freshman had already had questionable luck when it came to family visits . . . Buxton in Security had three-to-five odds on at least one hospitalization before the day was out.
Bardue soldiered on, leading the visitor to the school's extensive physical education and martial arts facilities at Laird Hall and answering those questions he could. He didn't appreciate the looks that the guest had given some of the more robust young ladies on the campus, not that he was going to let said guest out of his sight anyway. He was pleasantly surprised to hear from him:
"There is a protocol to entering this hall as a guest, is there not?"
"We will need to take off our shoes when we enter the dojo. For various reasons, we do not require students to bow to the center's shrine."
The guest openly laughed at that, revealing a deep bass note in his voice. "I was informed that there were such concerns, some of which touch on the Academy's neutrality. Mrs. Carson's explanation was more succinct, if not as amusing, in addressing those concerns."
"In general, we just ask that visitors observe common courtesy and try not to bring the buildings down on our heads. For the students' sake."
"I do understand, though my father and uncle may disagree. I was also informed that the school's maintenance budget was habitually strained quite sufficiently without additional help."
Bardue wondered, 'Is it wrong to worry when the boss has openly front-loaded the big-ticket issues?'
Practice Studio, Whateley Academy
Sifu Wong Ah Lam watched her student carefully as he sparred against her teaching assistant. Metro still had a nasty tendency to start off tentatively, second-guessing whether he should be fighting and then second-guessing himself. That second response was new, and a response to the loss of a team member and a quarantine of his magical abilities. If he'd been fighting a real opponent and not sparring with a classmate, the bruises he'd be sporting soon would have been disabling wounds instead.
Weeks earlier, she'd been surprised that the boy was far more aggressive when wielding a single knife, and then appalled when she analyzed the locations on his opponent's body that he'd instinctively gone for. Each strike had been aimed for a spot associated with maximum pain and minimum blood loss. Only a long and private discussion with Louis Geintz, and Bladedancer's availability, had convinced her to keep him in the class. His athamé and survival knives were not to accompany him into the studio. A more positive observation was that he showed some promise with the paired dao of the Baat Jaam Do form.
They'd just gone through Luk Dim Bun Gwan long pole forms when she saw Oscar Bardue escort a guest of the school to the part of the studio where she was teaching.
Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
The men were greeted at the entrance by Sensei Ito, who directed them to a far back corner where Wong Ah Lam was teaching a couple of students. The kid had certainly made a lasting impression on the martial arts master! Bardue expected to see him still working his way through the basic forms. There's only so much that could be accomplished in one semester of Basic Martial Arts, even under Ito and Tolman. What he and the visitor saw instead was a male student with sandy blond hair and pale skin standing maybe an inch shorter than his opponent, who had her long, dark hair tied out of her way. Any question as to which of the school's few Asian students she could be was poleaxed when she leapt onto and walked up her sparring partner's spear. The boy jumped into a forward roll, over his own pole, forcing her to dismount. What the hell is that woman teaching? Metro's not even remotely in Bladedancer's class as a fighter!
Wong Ah Lam called a halt to the exercise. The two students stepped back from each other and bowed.
"Take a five minute break and then resume with Chi Sao, understood?"
The Asian woman monitoring the two returned the students' bows before turning to greet the visitors. Ah, well. Even though this cut into the short time remaining to the winter term, interruptions were to be expected from time to time.
"What may I do for you gentlemen?" She knew the Marine Gunnery Sergeant, of course, but the other?
Bardue cleared his throat. "Sifu Wong Ah Lam, I'd like to introduce Mr. Bjorn Sonnung." The tall gentleman accompanying him was broad of chest and shoulders under his suit, wore his dark red-brown hair and beard stylishly trimmed, and looked like he was born to portray an action hero. Instead of wearing a tie, his shirt collar was left open to display a Neopagan pendant on a chain. His chi flowed deeper and differently to that of even the highest-rated exemplars. He smiled and reached out for a handshake. "A pleasure to meet you."
Observe and listen. Let the unknown betray itself. "Likewise, Mr. Sonnung."
"Mr. Sonnung is here to see how Metro's training is progressing. After the pre-term evaluations, I'm surprised to see him facing Bladedancer." Surprised, appalled, same difference.
"What of it? The boy was not experienced with weapons other than firearms, and so it is critical that he build up his strength and stamina without learning new bad habits. Luk Dim Bun Gwan is a form for the long pole and for learning to use both hands in concert, Baat Jaam Dao is a paired knife form in which the hands are apart. I requested that Miss Lee assist in this training, as she has progressed to the point of assisting me in teaching. As her principal weapon is the jian, she is well suited to showing Mister Jensen why the study of Baat Jaam Do and Luk Dim Bun Gwan are of value. In turn, Mister Jensen provides certain challenges that Miss Lee's other classes might not.
Sonnung said, "I understand teaching the boy quarterstaff and polearm, but many of the instructors I've known would favor teaching a swordsman to use a shield, unless she wielded a two-handed sword."
"The jian can be wielded effectively in two hands or one-handed. Once inside an opponent's guard, a free hand can be used to equal or better effect than if it were burdened with a heavy shield. For example, there may be times when the tomahawk's utility in blocking or capturing a blade serves greater purpose. The same blocks may not work as well against a pole or spear. That is but one of several things that Miss Lee and Mister Jensen have been working on. Before we continue with this discussion, might I ask about the nature of your interest in my student?"
"We're cousins! Perhaps a bit distant, but how could I not take some interest in his welfare?"
"It has been our experience that distant relatives tend to take a negative interest in our students' welfare."
"That is... unfortunate. Without knowing more, I cannot say that I approve. Be that as it may, if he takes after his forefathers at all, I expect he fights by his own rules."
"Our job is to see to it that he can survive those fights he cannot avoid, not to pass judgment on the methods."
The teachers and guest watched Chou Lee and Mads Møller-Jensen return to the sparring circle to practice the 'sticking hands' drill. Chou Lee's mastery of the technique was indisputable. However, this was a technique that required extended physical contact in order to feel out the partner's chi without losing contact with one's self. To Bardue's eye, neither teenager was comfortable with such contact. Both of these kids need to put some things behind them.
Wong Ah Lam saw those same small faults which betrayed much larger internal problems. She also knew that both students had limits to their patience. "Chi Sao can also be used to develop awareness of the flow of chi within and between each partner. Unlike many other training forms, it's difficult for an outside observer to assess the students' skill. Not that many would pay attention to someone training with a disabled student."
Someone in the extended family - IF he was a family member - didn't get the full briefing.
Wong Ah Lam responded, keeping her voice level. "Mister Jensen is still recovering from two murder attempts, one of which required an exceptional course of treatments, all in addition to two incidents in the past month which have required hospitalization. Among other medical issues, his aerobic capacity remains impaired."
"It would be wise to note that he's the one still breathing. As far as disregard for rules may be concerned?"
From the direction of the practice mats where the students had been sparring came a loud bark and a string of epithets in Chinese best left untranslated. Wong Ah Lam picked up where she'd left off.
"Case in point."
Sonnung said under his breath, "Úlfheðinn? Father has a thing or two more to answer for."
"It can be difficult to sense an opponent's chi while your face is being licked by a dog ..."
"Wolf, of sorts."
"... by a wolf that is a mage who specializes in appearing to be a sheep. How could you be sure it's a wolf?"
"Stick someone else's hand in his mouth. Works every time."
Bardue said, "The apple didn't fall far from the tree?"
The overheard student discourse was followed shortly thereafter by a whine down-shifted by the Doppler effect and silenced by a meaty thud.
"It may have been pushed."
Further discussion of didactic techniques was interrupted by a very contrite Bladedancer leading a staggering Metro back to their teacher.
"... No. I think, and DW agrees, that you need to be seen by a professional," Chou Lee was saying to the boy.
"I gots two ov'em. Wan' one? Limmm'ted time of-ff-fer. I'm okay, really. Really, really."
Chou could concede that Mads was almost convincing. Except for the slurred speech, or the walking like he'd just stepped off the deck of a ship, or even speaking to the Chou that wasn't in the direction he was looking. The mileage he must put on his therapists. . .
"No thank you. Sifu? May I be excused to see to it that this one has his head examined?"
Said examinee objected, "Z'jus a li'l bump."
"A 'bump' which is pronounced 'concussion'."
"Please see to it and return so that we may discuss your training without further incidents. If you see Doctor Tenent, please inform her that based on his improvements as of yesterday, I will be willing to accept him in my Spring Wing Chun class. If he should live that long."
Gunny Bardue watched the two head off. "It's a good thing that Doyle keeps the JROTC unit and Security aware of these little mishaps. It always looks bad when I have to sign off on witnessing one cadet or another having been thrown into a wall."
On the path from Laird Hall to Doyle Medical Center
Guiding her inadvertent charge to one of his usual destinations was easier than Chou had expected. That gave her time to think. "I wonder who the visitor was?"
< Are you asking myself or your charge? > asked Destiny's Wave.
< Both, depending on who would give the most straightforward answer. >
"Nothing, Mads. I was just thinking out loud."
"Oh. I thought you asked who my uncle was. Never met him."
"Technic'ly cousin. Iz complicattlpated."
< Wasn't someone just now complaining about not getting a straightforward answer? I forget. >
< How could it be that complicated? >
< Mystical inheritance and reincarnation interact oddly, more so when a soul's path is being affected by outside forces. >
"You two are talking bout me, aren't you?"
Chou turned to see the confused magician point his first two fingers at his eyes and then at the sword and her. I see you!
For emphasis, he pointed his thumb at himself and added, "Not blind."
"My apologies," said the sword, "I was informing Chou Lee that your soul's path has not taken the expected course."
Mads was having trouble remembering if anyone had told him the sword spoke with Eldritch's voice, but that was okay. He was used to finding out things no one wanted him to know.
"Na' my fault."
"I regret that my explanation may have led you to that conclusion."
The sword sounded genuinely concerned. That was good, no?
"Z'alright. How far we have to go? I don' feel s'good."
Chou Lee said, "It's this big building ahead of us."
. . .
"When'd they put that there? Wait one, I think I'm going to throw up."
Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
"I have to say I like this Bladedancer of yours. The boy cannot expect to earn his place hiding behind his mother's skirts," Sonnung said.
Having met Metro's mother in person last Parents Day, attempting to reconcile hiding behind his mother's skirts to a memory of seeing her holding the boy up by his suit collar like a naughty puppy left Oscar Bardue's mind croggled. "I, *cough*, I don't see that as a likely problem."
"... That she also knows how to deal with the battle-drunk also speaks well of her. I should like to learn more about what this school has to offer young warriors. Perhaps the boy could benefit more than I was led to believe."
Wong Ah Lam began, "Mr. Sonnung"
"Bjorn." The Wing Chun instructor bowed from the neck to acknowledge this before continuing, "The basic skills of defense, such as we might teach, are not the only things the boy could benefit from. I do not wish to give offense, but I take it that you don't know him very well."
The man's good humor faded to a pained sobriety like sunlight blocked by rain clouds. "No, I don't. For example, I wasn't aware of his medical problems. Shall we discuss this further?"
Saturday afternoon, February 23, 2008,
Devisor Lab, Workshop, Whateley Academy
Metro took his time packing up his lab station, making sure that similar items were boxed together, and that bagged items were clearly labeled. Replaceable stock and standard projects would go to a rented locker, but only after proprietary projects and supplies were packed up and taken back to his dorm room. Kew may have been the first 'Shopper to violate his limited trust, but over the past several weeks several efforts had been made to ensure she wouldn't be the last.
He didn't have a dedicated lab or work bay set aside because as a mystic arts student the Gadgeteer rating on his MID didn't carry much weight. Maybe if he could ditch Home Economics for a second semester of Electronics, he'd have to be allotted classroom lab space. Otherwise, he'd have to lease space, and that was a thinly-traded market.
At least he had something to occupy his mind instead dwelling on why he lately felt so lonely in a school with over six hundred students. It was only one person missing, and it was just a matter of time before he could return, if he could, and if he wanted to. The case for returning wasn't looking compelling from this end.
Sunday morning, February 24, 2008,
Security Office, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Harris! Hey, Sarge!"
"What's going on, Wilkinson?"
"Did you notice that Jensen isn't signed up for any watches?"
"The school's on break for the students. There's always scheduling problems after breaks, that first week."
"Okay, but that's not the only problem. He missed check-in, and his tracer isn't pinging."
"Lovely. Have someone check the sensors for last known location, room search, talk to any friends he has. Wait a minute. Isn't he on—"
"Yes, but with the restrictions on his use of the tunnels and the restrictions on Hawthorne students not using them, providing an escort has fallen by the wayside.
"I'll pass it up the chain to Reynolds and the Chief, but let's keep the investigation low-key for now."
6PM, late Sunday afternoon, February 24, 2008,
Bluff overlooking the right bank of the Miskatonic River, Coös County, New Hampshire
Mads Jensen stubbed out his cigarette before field-stripping it. The smoke burned like hell, but if the strategically-placed birds' eye pepper and catnip didn't convey 'Don't follow me' well enough, it still would mask his trail. He chanted an old prayer for safe passage, over a tobacco offering, while he bundled up what little he brought with him. Where he planned to go, traveling light was the way to go about it.
As the last reflected glow of sunlight died, the young man stretched out his arms and dove beneath the waters.