Smoke and Mirrors (Part 3)
A Whateley Academy Tale
Smoke and Mirrors
Bek D Corbin
When I got to the Workshop in the morning, the usual crew of maniacs was there, and Ace and A-Plus were arguing with various personages over… something.
I think I liked those two better when they were tragically pining away for each other.
“Making friends and influencing people again, Ace?” I said as I marched up to the head of the briefing room. Stepping in front of the smartboard, I gave them all a confident smile and enjoyed the comedic looks of bafflement on their faces. “And for all those wondering who I am, I am Jadis Diabolik. And yes, if I could do it safely, I would duck out on all the tsuris by assuming another identity. Don’t make me go beastly on you; it’s going to be a LONG day as it is.” I explained what had happened to me.
“Humph,” Ace humphed, “no one complains when she just waltzes in and takes over, but everyone constantly complains when we try to insert some sanity into the situation.”
“Yes, they do,” I cooed. “Step back for a moment and PONDER the reasons for that, Ace. Okay, besides THIS,” I pointed at myself, “there’s another few material matters you people need to be aware of.” I had Madskillz and Smoke Test step up, confirming (some of) the rumors that were flying around like bats on cocaine. Then I spelled out the ‘mysterious assailant’ and ‘molecularly unstable’ and ‘buried in buckets’ aspects of the whole thing. The last one really got their attention. Teenagers may not think that much about immediate danger, but slow, ugly, painful dissolution gets even a 13-year-old to pay attention.
“Okay people, this has just gotten exponentially more complicated, and all of you are on the spot, right along with us. We HAVE found DuPraeve’s lair, but now the stakes are a lot higher: your lives. Even higher: MINE. Though, if anyone can come up with a way to stabilize me while keeping this form, I’m offering a $10,000 reward.
“As for the inescapable question as to ‘if you’ve found DuPraeve’s lair, WHY are we still listening to YOU?’, the answer is: the best way to fix this mess is to find either the teleporter stabilizer component that was snitched or the Mimicry Inducer as a secondary. Delarose has managed to seal off the suspect section of the tunnels. ‘Mr. X’ has had a night to figure a way of moving the files, the teleporter and the Inducer. We have to move FAST, so he doesn’t have time to weasel around that. We have a power lock and watch on the area.
“We have two edges on Mr. X: cooperation with oversight, and these,” on my signal, Reach brought in one of the pylons on a dolly. “THIS is a signal jammer, set to the Teleporter’s exact frequency, or our best guess from readings. Basically, it’s a jumped up PFG that creates a globe field around the pylon with a diameter of about 30 feet, give or take. And YES, I see the right idea forming in a few eyes- once we get one or more of these bad boys around the teleporter, Scotty ain’t beamin’ nobody up to the Enterprise. And with that teleporter being Priority number ONE, the Mimicry Inducer as priority Two and DuPrave’s files as number Three, that means we gotta wheel these things around until we track down Mr. X. Delarose put a much larger such field around the suspect area of the Tunnels, so the Teleporter and the other stuff is still in there. Somewhere.
“These pylons are designed to be moved quickly, but they can also be locked into place. Unless Mr. X is super-strong or has a power frame- and how obvious is THAT?- once the clamp is on these, it will stay on. The downside is that we only have 12 of these things. And just because Mr. X has only used the Mimicry Inducer on anyone doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have- or can’t get- something with real damaging potential. Hey, this is the Workshop- who here hasn’t built a blaster? So, we’re going to do a brute-force search of the tunnel. Again, remember, this a group effort: if we win, we ALL win; if we fail, we all may get buried in a mass bucket.”
Then I brought out the board with all the ID tags on it. “These tags have RFID circuits that will identify you to the Tunnel sensor system, and allow the central control to keep tabs on everyone.
“Just remember, besides helping us choreograph all this, these pins are also your alibis for where you were when this or that went down,” I told them.
“Who’s keeping tabs on these?”
“Kew of the Spy Kids. Idle hands, and all that.”
A+ yelled, “And what if they teleport into one of your sneaky secret labs, Diabolik?”
I gave her my patented Diabolik grin: “Then all they are is MINE.” Getting serious, I said, “And remember this: IF you see Mr. X or his hench-whatevers, DON’T try to capture them. Just guard the pylon and give us a squeal. We’ll send one of three capture teams- Team A: Sahar and Zenith, Team B: Reach and Spark, and Team C: Madskillz and Smoke Test. And yes, each team of them IS tougher than you guys.” Still, I saw a speculative look in some eyes. “And anyone thinking of crying wolf, just to see them come running to the rescue- I repeat: each team of them IS tougher than you. And they have express permission to keep order during this exercise. Also, keep in mind that the Spy Kidz are still on this; do you really want to give them an excuse to put you under surveillance?”
We were making our last-second gear checks when Horrorshow, with his sidekick Runestrong and the rest of the ‘Losers’ following, walked up to Maddy and Smokey. Smokey gave ‘em a nod but Maddy focused on double-checking her tool belt (utility belts are for posers). “So, you’re really going through with this?” Horrorshow asked.
“No this is really just an incredible life-like simulation,” Maddy sneered. “These are just realistic holograms; Smokey and I are really safely in an undisclosed guarded location with a hot tub, WiFi connections and a gourmet selection of chocolates.”
Smokey gave Maddy a sharp look. “NOW you think of that?”
“Okay, but we’re gonna be there for you, every step of the way,” Runestrong assured them.
“Why?” Smokey asked with an ‘are you kidding me’ zing to it.
“Because you’re a LOSER!” Unbreakable said, like he was bestowing a great honor on her.
“Since you got tits!” OMAG said with an obvious leer.
As Horrorshow and Madskillz nattered at each other, Jenny leaned over and asked in a low confidential tone, “Despite France’s reputation as a nation of passionate romantics, I’m not that fluent in the nuances of flirting. Exactly what is going on?”
Leaning over, I replied in the same tones, “Well, what my sources back in Emerson tell me, Horrorshow-”
“Why does he call himself ‘horrorshow’?” Jenny asked with girly-girl annoyance at little-boy antics.
“Well, first of all, Brian- that’s his real name, Brian- has a weakness for gross-out humor, and he uses his manifestation trait to prank everyone. Second, Brian’s grandmother- or some such female relation- is Russian, and apparently there’s a Russian word that sounds like ‘horrorshow’ that means ‘oh wow, COOL!’. And third, I heard that it was real hard for Brian to come up with a cool codename, so when that one clicked, he jumped on it.”
Jenny chewed that over, nodded and said, “And you were saying about your sources?”
“Just ‘cause I’m in Melville now doesn’t mean I can’t keep tabs with the guys back in Waldoville,” I said. “From what Stalwart and a few guys have been saying, they think that Horrorshow is warm for Madskillz, and he’s been cozying up to her wingman Smoke Test hoping to get a foot in the door.”
“But aren’t the Losers the ones who are always pulling those idiotic stunts that would get someone who didn’t have a mutant power KILLED?”
“So, he likes to show off,” I said. “Maybe he’s angling to pull off something to impress Madskillz.”
“But that’s such a little boy mind set!” Jenny objected. “Why would anyone that juvenile set his sights on someone as….” Jenny wrestled to find a word to describe Madskill’s unfeminine physique, but locked as she took in Maddy’s new look; she let it slide and finished, “as Madskillz?”
“Hey, just ‘cause a guy likes to goof around a mite don’t mean that he can’t have unexpected depths. He could appreciate her…” Jenny gave me a look cold enough to freeze seawater “-aw, who am I kiddin’? I got no idea what’s goin’ on between those two.”
But give Horrorshow his due, he was determined, and he managed to talk his and his boys’ way into being Smokey and Maddy’s unofficial escorts. Which is not the most damnfool thing that Horrorshow’s talked the Losers into doing. But not by much.
Then She-Beast announced that the quarantine bubble was certified as being unbroken, and it was time to check each and every inch of the tangled maze that is the Whateley Workshop tunnels. And hope that there weren’t no Beholders or Displacer Beasts or Owlbears.
You only think I’m jokin’.
Jenny and I escorted a team of tech-heads into the search area, and I had to wonder about some of them. Yeah, I could see how a modulating multi-frequency sonic analyzer could be useful (if a little awkward on that hand truck)… but a squad of animatronic bunny plushies?
Jenny was chatting away with Bugs as Goodvibes (they made him stop using ‘Doctor’) was probing various potential secret niches. Yes, seriously, you’d be amazed at some of the stuff we found that some alums stashed away, forgot and graduated without. There WILL be some serious horse trading for this stuff later. Then: [Kew: Harley! We have a runner! Head to sector Ee/2.5!] Kew had called me (my being a full-fledged Spy Kid now, and faster than either Teams A or C), but Jenny didn’t need an invite, and she’s just as fast as me. Though, I wish she’d pick one set of extension limbs, preferably the ‘Dr. Octopus’ arms, and stick with them; the spider legs she was using at the moment just creeped the hell out of me.
When we got to Ee/2.5 (can’t explain; Workshop security and all that), there was the sound of scraping metal, whining jets, loud faux-Shakespearean cussing and high-pitched giggles.
What we found was Belphegor in one of those floating chairs they keep taking away from him, jerking around like a bull with a bulldog that’s latched onto his nose. Clinging to the top of the chair and grinning like a loon was a minxish looking girl of maybe 16 or a well-developed 15, wearing stealth ops gear. She reached into Belpho’s chair repeatedly and managed to snag something with every time. Belphegor was roaring as best he could seeing as how his voice only just broke. He was nattering along in something that sounded Shakespearean- if you’d never actually seen a play by Shakespeare. Then she spotted us. “Allo, ‘allo, ‘allo, wot ‘ave we ‘ere?” She said in a mock Cockney accent that was even worse than my Cousin Mindy when she tried out for the role of Eliza Goodlittle in her YWCA production of ‘My Fair Lady’. She disconnected something from the egg-chair and dismounted with a vaulting summersault, landing right in front of us. “Inn’t there a rewahrd for this owr summat?” she presented the whatever it was to us like a kid showing off the big fish she caught.
“NO!” Belpehgor roared, “That wonder of innovation is MINE! Yes, it will stabilize those idiots who were daft enow to use an unknown, untested teleportation system. BUT! As it is MINE, MY design, MY work, MY genius, they shall have to negotiate with ME for its use! I put in countless hours of grueling work-”
“Oh, bugger that tripe!” the girl, ‘the Artful Dodger’ if I’m right, sneered. “I saw yew skulkin’ abawt th’ tunnels, lookin’ for wot’eer you could, and you spotted that, grabbed and ran! Well, y’ran as fast as that chair would let you.”
“LIAR!” Belpho exploded, “Swindler! THIEF!”
“Naw, RECOV’RY AGENT!” The Dodger said with a snide grin.
“She steals MY WORK, and sells it to the fumblewits of this workhouse, who wish to lay claim to the glory of MY g-”
“Dummy,” Jenny said off-handedly, looking at the whatever-it-was.
“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?”
“Not YOU, Belphegor,” Jenny said calmly. “THIS,” she hefted the not-teleporter-after-all, “is a complete fabrication, a mock-up, a FAKE. If you were going to offer this to the afflicted, then you would be swindling them. This cobbled-together agglomeration wouldn’t make a grilled cheese sandwich, let alone stabilize a molecularly unstable person.”
“Did you have to put it that way, Jen? Now I’m hungry again, and it’s hours ‘til lunch.”
“So, no reward?” the Dodger asked with a little girl voice.
“REWARD?” Belpho thundered. “Your just robbed me blind, just now, right in front of them, and you expect a REWARD?”
“I didn’t take nuth’n!” Dodger whined. She turned to me, unzipped her coat, showing off her trim curvy body and said in a throaty voice, “Go ahead… FRISK me.” She leaned in close and added roguishly, “Frisk me, good and hard…”
Jenny stepped between us, with a flush of Frankish fury on her face.
“BUT now that you mention it, I did find something on him,” the Dodger backpedalled, pulling a silver case out of a pocket that shouldn’t have held it- or at least should have been very obvious in holding it.
“SEE?” Belphegor demanded, “She admits it! That’s MINE, and she STOLE it!”
“You’re sure that it’s yours?” Jenny asked, examining the case.
“Of course I am!” Belpho huffed. “It’s a short-range multi-frequential analytic radar scanning device, for identifying unknown constructs on the fly. It is a premier example of my towering genius.”
“Well, I will agree with you that it is an example of excellent design and workmanship,” Jenny said pulling the case off the dingus. “But I disagree with you on a material issue- namely, that this is MINE.” She pointed at a central component on the motherboard that was in the design of a butterfly- which Jenny had registered with the Workshop as HER trademark.
Belpho stopped, flustered.
“Now, Belphegor, would you kindly explain how you knew exactly what this device was, and roughly how it worked, and why you claimed it as your own- when it is demonstrably MY project?”
“Not to mention the fact that you’re in a section of the tunnels that’s been declared OFF LIMITS?” I added.
Belphegor hit his chair-mounted PFG and ignited his ‘bugout’ turbo thrusters. He bounced off more walls than he was probably comfortable doing, but he managed to get away from us. Watching him ricochet away, I decided that it was more trouble to catch him than Belpho was worth. So I turned to Jenny and asked, “If he had your gizmo for identifying unknown tech, why did Belly-boy grab that decoy?”
“Well, I was working on this just last night,” Jenny said checking it out. “I wasn’t even aware that it had been stolen. My guess is that Belphegor had just snitched it and hadn’t figured out how to use it yet.”
“And while we’re talking about that…” Dodger said intently to Jenny without a smack of that phony Cockney accent. Jenny rolled her eyes, gave that sigh she does, and reached into her hip area. She produced something that looked like a computer tile- or a stick of bubblegum- or… something. But the Dodger knew exactly what it was and accepted it with a big grin. She tucked it away and ran off in the general direction that Belphegor had taken, giggling as she ran.
Well, whatever it is, if anyone’s got it coming to him, it’s Belphegor.
“Kew, this is Reach. I got good news and bad news. The runner was Belphegor. That’s not the bad news. The bad news is that Mr. X has started planting decoys. Belphegor found a decoy of the teleporter, and hilarity ensued.”
[Harley! Have you examined the decoy?]
[ICC Rule #16!]
ICC Rule #16 is: ‘Always assume that any unknown advanced technology is dangerous, unstable, trapped or all three until the device has been examined by a Workshop supervisor’. “Jenny!” I said, “Don’t. The rule is we leave examining things like this to the instructors.”
“But it’s just a decoy!” Jenny said.
“Which means that it’s not worth losing your Workshop privileges by breaking a sensible rule, eh?”
[Harley, if you and Jenny are quite through flirting or whatever it is you two do, we have a situation at Dc/3.2. Madskillz and Smokey are mixing it up with one of the Bad Seeds, and they need backup]
“I thought that Horrorshow and the Losers were backing Maddy and Smokey,” I said.
[They are. That’s WHY they need someone competent to back them up, and Zenith and Sahar are busy]
Jenny and I made tracks to Dc/3.2 with a squad of bunny bots hot on our heels. And trust me, no brag just fact, these heels are HAWT! And when we got there, the bunny-bot weren’t the weirdest things around anymore. The thing that dominated the area was a swarm (trust me, it’s the only term that applies) of insect-like robotic drones that was over everything and everyone. While there was a scale of size, the basic drone was about the size of a beagle, had this funky half insect/half machine design, with a wasp-like body, eight tentacle-like legs, heads with knobby eyes, flat vane-like wings, and a hardpoint on the back with various gadgets mounted there.
There was a second set of four robotic drones built along very different lines. They were each about the size of Saint Bernards designed along the lines of a bipedal reptilian predator- y’know the ‘velociraptors’ from the Jurassic Park movies?- with a hefty shot of the ED-209s from the Robocop movies. Instead of fanged snouts, they had nasty curving raptor ‘beaks’, and instead forelegs or arms, they had a set of wide-arc set blasters. They had counter-balancing tails, but the ends looked like clubs better suited to Ankylosaurus than utahraptors. The raptor drones were mixing it up viciously with the bug drones, snapping, smashing and blasting at the bugs, not really caring whether Madskillz, Smoke Test or the Losers got hit or not. Those worthies I just mentioned were fighting the bug drones with all they had, and not getting anywhere.
But the thing that really got my attention was Ace in hand-to-hand with a big guy in some kind of biomechanical power armor- and getting his ass handed to him. Well, Ace can be kind of a pain in the ass at times, but he IS a Spy Kid, so I hadda go help him.
Besides, if he got hurt, A-Plus would be pissed, and trust me on this, that is one woman you do NOT want mad at you.
I stretched over the small riot, latched onto Mr. Ugly and wrapped myself around him. And while I’ve gotten a few offers in that line, it was (kinda-sorta) friendly, and I was NOT in the mood to be friendly. I lifted Big Ugly off his pins and smashed him down. “HARLEY!” Smoke Test (I think) yelled, “NO! That’s Horrorshow! And the other guy isn’t Ace!”
I let Horrorshow down and he groaned. My excuse is that while I was aware that he used his manifestation power to create a stronger, more durable ‘armored’ sheath, he keeps changing the look of it as to scare the besnoogers out of guys. And it looks like that came around and bit him in the wiseass.
I was about to take out my embarrassment on the bogus Ace when I heard Runestrong yell, “Jenny! No! Don’t mess with those things!” Runestrong peeled himself away from the bug-drones and inserted himself between Jenny and the dino-drones. “No! Nephandus created these things! And he binds demons into these things!”
“Okay, it’s time to stop fardling about and do this RIGHT!” OMAG yelled out. And a cold feeling formed in my stomach. OMAG and his ideas about ‘doing things right’ are right up there with Horrorshow’s ‘cool ideas’ for giving the Losers their clique-handle. “Let’s simplify this!” he said as he formed as many ‘clones’ of himself as he could and linked them in a ring around the dino-drones. “Rooney, you say they’s magic- so MASH ‘em with Magic!”
“HOW?” Runestrong asked in desperation. “I’m only a sophomore! All I know about demons is ‘stay the fuck AWAY from them’!”
“oh crap,” OMAG said in a small voice. Then the robo-raptors cut into him. Lucky for him, they chewed up his clones, and not OMAG-prime. Though from the way OMAG-prime was reacting, he wasn’t having a lot of fun. Indestructible managed to haul him away from the dino-drones.
“I’ve seen Nephandus control those things with his walking stick,” Jenny said. “Where is he?”
“Over there,” Madskillz said pointing at a mass covered with mini-bug drones. Zap cleared the bug-bots away from the Bad Seed with a bolt of bio-electric energy. Which probably didn’t help ‘Count Fopula’ that much. But then, we’re talking about Nephandus, so… who really cares?
Jenny ran for Nephandus’ cane as soon as it was clear, but the bug-bots swarmed over her. She curled up and formed an ‘egg’ with her symbiote. Which kept her safe, but worried me a mite. So I reached over all that and grabbed the cane. Then one of the bigger bug-drones popped up out of the mass of buggitude, and a weird contraption clicked into operating configuration. “NO!” (I notice that people are using that word a lot) Runestrong jumped between me and the drone, throwing up a transparent shield of floating circles of letters I didn’t recognize. He seemed real confident in that shield (I assume), but the drone fired its… whatever, and the blast went through the shield like a brick through a plate glass window. It hit Runestrong square in his center mass. He stood there for a second with a ‘what?’ look on his face. Then he started to twitch and fell down.
“MAN DOWN!” I yelled.
“HARLEY!” one of the blonde twins yelled (Smoke Test, I think) and held up one hand. “The stick!” oh, right. I picked up the stick and threw it to Smoke Test. Then I went to get Runestrong out of harm’s way. As I did that, Smokey fiddled with the stick furiously for a second, and then the dino-drones started to stop in their tracks one at a time.
But all that did was give the bug-bots a new target. As a couple of bug-drones turned their weaponry on Smokey, Horrorshow got up, took this in, and jumped between them. And give the boy props for balls, but that tactic didn’t work for him anymore’n it did for Runestrong. The first blast took down Horrorshow’s manifested armor, and the second one took him right out of the picture.
Jenny hatched out of her protective egg and went to help Horrorshow. But before she could get to him, something happened, and everyone except the bug-bots suddenly couldn’t keep their feet on the ground. As we slipped and slid, the bug-drones made a mass exit using those wings. And somehow, the bogus ‘Ace’ made it out without slipping a bit. As soon as I was able to keep my feet on the ground, I went after them. But nuthin’. No tracks, no signs, no clues, nuthin’. Except for a latex mask that I vaguely recognized as Ace- just before the mask melted into nothing in my hands.
With that feeling of disgust at yerself that I’m way too familiar with, I trudged back and made a call. “Kew? Send an EMT team with a teleport module, tell ‘em to prep for two. Yeah, we got two men down. Yeah, just like that. And while you’re at it, tell She-Beast that we had two possibles, and a bunch of crates at… what was it? Right, Dc/3.2, and they was last seen headin’ south-by-southeast.” The teleport module showed up and the EMTs loaded Horrorshow and Nephandus.
They took Nephandus ‘cause he was knocked out, and Runestrong insisted that she was okay. Well, sort of okay. And yes, I used ‘she’. The Mimicry Inducer strikes again. Runestrong, who was still a little shaky on her pins, was a near-duplicate of She-Beast and Poise, except for the dark ‘should’a got a haircut two weeks ago’ mess of curls, and the clothes of course. The clothes, which included a harness for spell slips and magic what-alls, a utility belt, shin and forearms guards and a rock climbing helmet (keep in mind that Runestrong hangs with the Losers, and has learned from bitter experience), was a long-sleeved red-and-white striped rugby shirt and a pair of cargo shorts. The rugby shirt and the cargo shorts were a truly strange combination of too-long and too-short, with too-tight and too-loose, and the too-big sneakers didn’t help. As a copy of Poise, Runestrong had a body that would’ve had recruiters from Playboy beating down her door, but despite that those clothes made her look purely ridiculous. Having been there m’self, I felt for the poor schmo. Still a little wobbly from the change in center of balance, Runestrong said, “I’m OKAY! Hell, if what happened is what I think happened, I’m probably better equipped this way than I was before.”
Well, give Rooney props- she’s as game as they come!
[Harley, we have a situation at Ef/6.7] Kew informed me. [And put on your diplomat hat; it’s not Mr. X pulling anything- YET]
“Why isn’t Security handling it?”
[They’re handling a ‘mysterious ticking package’ report in the Kitchens] Now, you gotta remember that the Whateley kitchens are our source for primo chow. They even get grits right. No matter what, I couldn’t argue with Delarose’s priorities on this one.
When we got to Ef/6.7, there were two kids blocking one security door. I recognized one of them as ‘Render’, one of the Bad Seeds. One of the more senior and more quiet Seeds as well, according to the ICC dossier on him. From the red energy display she was showing, I’d say that the other one was ‘Crimson’, his girlfriend. The Cadets didn’t have a dossier on her. Render was a PK brick, and was supposed to be very nasty at hand-to-hand; I’m guessing that Crimson was some sort of energy projector. That suggested a very effective close/distant combat combination, which would be a very good combo for holding that door against… someone.
As we got there, the two gave us synchronized ‘go ahead; START something’ smirks. “Ah, guys,” Madskillz opened, “if you haven’t heard, we got kind of an emergency going on, and we can’t have this door blocked.”
“We know that,” Crimson said keeping the smirk up. “This doorway is key to no less than SEVEN major pathways inside the Workshop. Now, we are willing to hold down this point for free. But letting anyone pass? Now THAT is a point for negotiations.” With that, she pulled a piece of paper from her cleavage. And yes, I was watching that very closely. And not just because she had a killer bod wrapped up in a tight-fitting suit of trousers, T-shirt and leather blazer. No, at Whateley, the question with a girl with a killer bod is: is she a Exemplar? Or some kind of alternate power Exemplar knockoff? Is she seriously into physical fitness and/or martial arts? Or is she just a 17-to-18- year old girl with a hawt bod? Crimson cuddles up to Render, who’s a serious Exemplar, so it is a question. The point for that question being ‘how tough is she really?’ How hard can I afford to get with this chick, without seriously hurting her? And how delicately can I handle her, without her tying me into knots?’
“We… don’t have any real money on us,” Runestrong said, clearly trying to keep OMAG from doing anything stupid (always a mighty trying chore).
“I know that, Sugar,” Crimson said too- sweetly. “But I got a list of… favors that I need done.” She flicked that piece of paper open.
Jenny and I shared a look. We shared that look with Madskillz, Smoke Test and Runestrong (who was easily the most reasonable of the Losers). I got on my phone and called central. “Kew? Put She-Beast on the horn. We got us a serious negotiation here lookin’ us square in the eye, and I think we’re boxing out’a our weight class.”
“Smart Boy,” Crimson purred, putting more sting into ‘boy’ than was strictly called for. Jadis got on the line and told me to give the phone to Render. I tried, but Crimson intercepted the phone. She told Jadis that this was her operation, and that Jadis would have to negotiate with her.
They was going at it, when Holdout came up from the other side. “Ah hey? Can I get through, 007 official business and all that?”
Render just gave him the ‘speak to the hand’ bit as he kept one ear on Crimson’s negotiations with Jadis. “Hey Reach,” Darren said, “Gimme a break here, I got my orders from Ace.”
“What, you don’t have anything up your sleeve?”
“Why would I have anything up my sleeve?”
What? Darren doesn’t have something tucked away for just this emergency? Ridiculous! That’s like… Belphegor not having a bad phony Shakespearean quotation for something. Holdout LIVES to spring stuff on people. And ‘got his orders from Ace’? In front of two Black kids? Oh, not only was this not Holdout, this was someone who didn’t know anything about Darren or the Spy Kidz. “Jenny? Can I borrow your phone?”
‘Darren’ picked up on this, and suddenly the corridor on the far side of Crimson and Render was dark with drones. Drones crawled all over Crimson, who screamed in rage (or surprise, but Crimson’s the type who’s more comfortable with rage). Runestrong reacted to this by yelling, “Sandy! Red Rover!”, and putting up that magic shield. Y’know, that didn’t work worth squat last time; I think Rooney does that as some kind of ‘see, I’m not such a wimp’ reflex move. OMAG did his multiple-man shtick and formed three lines of ‘clones’ that reinforced our side, their arms linked together.
Then a familiar drone climbed to the top of the heap. Runestrong did something to her shield and reached for one of the pockets on her harness. But whatever she did to her shield, it wasn’t enough, ‘cause the Mimicry Inducer went straight through the shield again. Rooney went down but didn’t stay down. Another drone zapped someone, and suddenly we were all fighting to keep our footing again. Render and Crimson let a few drones through, but that was IT. They turned on their butt-whoop machine and mashed those bugs as fast and hard as they could. Jenny and I didn’t bother getting to our feet. We just reached out and grabbed as many drones as we could and chucked them into the Crimson-Render Grinder. The drone-swarm hung on for a while, probably covering Mr. X’s retreat, ‘cause when the swarm ebbed, he was nowhere to be seen
[Thanks, Ray!] Jadis called out from the phone [Way to step up to the plate!]
Ray turned to Crimson and said snidely, “”THIS is why I run my operations OFF-CAMPUS.”
And, of course, Runestrong insisted that she was good to keep going. We’d gotten everyone squared away, even the robo-bunnies (Jenny tells me it could have been worse- apparently Bugs has a squad of robots designed as Easter eggs that sprout long thing tentacles to move around. Cutesy AND creepy) when we got another emergency call. Only this one was from Ace. [Harley! Get your entire squad over to Hc/2.7!] With no explanation. And Canadians are always complaining about us Americans…
When we got there, well I ain’t even gonna try to describe it. It was a mess with Ace and A-Plus and Jadis’ brother ‘Techno-Devil’ and his crew mixing it up with a swarm of Bug-drones of all sizes, from dinky little things the size of my thumb to a few big ones the size of a St. Bernard dog. Only not as cuddly. And proving that the Losers don’t need Horrorshow to do stupid things, they charged right on into the mess. And Bugs sent her squad of bunny-bots into the fray, which wasn’t as stupid as what the Losers were doing, but y’gotta wonder if nuts is contagious or something.
Then one of the beagle-sized drones with a very familiar back-mounted weapon scrambled to the top of the heap and taking aim. “Ace! That’s the Mimicry Inducer!” I yelled. Ace did an evasive backwards flip, but the drone had him tracked. Then Unbreakable inserted himself between Ace and the Inducer drone, and assumed the ‘Superman, ‘go ahead and waste your bullets’ pose with fists akimbo and chest thrust forward.
Okay, in case you didn’t figure it out by his handle, ‘Unbreakable’ projects a PK field that could stop a speeding car. He can’t use it to be superstrong or fly, though not for the lack of trying. He hangs with the Losers ‘cause, well, he could survive a 5-story building dropping on top of him. But still, you gotta wonder- is that ‘blocking an attack with your body’ thing a Loser double-dog dare or something?
And again, however that thing works went right through Unbreakable’s force field. I’ll never forget that look of panic on his face as it registered that he’d be in line for the Ladies’ room, right after Runestrong, Madskillz and Smoke Test. He went down with a squeak and started doing the spasm thing.
Slide skated into the mess and dragged Unbreakable out. The inducer-drone took aim at Slide but Runestrong did the ‘step in with the shield going’ thing- AGAIN. And again, the inducer beam slipped right through her shield and hit her central mass. Rooney went down on one knee and grimaced, but she was able to grate out, “HOW? How is that thing getting through my shield?”
Oh. I’m guessing that it’s the Mage version of Tech-head pride; Runestrong’s pissed that she can’t fiddle her shield into being effective.
And then Techno-Devil yelled, “GOT IT!” He looked up from a dingus he’d been looking at and pointed at one clutch of drones. “THAT ONE”, he said with a smirk. His crew, who’d been almost entirely on the defensive, keeping Mal from getting hit, went on the offensive. Techno-Devil telescoped out one of his ‘pitchfork’ things and blasted a path in the direction of the clutch. Charger, well… charged into the cleared path. Buzz let out bursts of vibration that seemed to do more to the drones than most, and drove the drones back. Sapper ran after Charger, covering his back. After all, she could absorb most energy blasts, and what was it to her if she got changed into a girl? And then Techno-Devil waded into the fray. He zapped away bug-drone after bug-drone until he got to… whatever ‘It’ was.
And then everything went black.
When the lights went back on, all the drones were gone, the OMAG swarm was looking around stupidly (which seems to be their default), and there was no sign of Techno-Devil, his crew, or ‘it’.
“SHIT!” Ace screeched. “He got away with it! I knew we couldn’t trust that little weasel!” We started to ask what he was talking about, but Ace just pulled out his phone and hit a direct-dial. “Diabolik!”
[What is it NOW? I’m busy, in case you hadn’t deduced that, Sherlock]
“Diabolik, your little brother just ran off with the grand prize.”
“He grabbed the teleporter away from the drones, and pulled a classic Diabolik getaway, probably something your father taught you two at the breakfast table!” Ace snarled.
[Are you sure that it was the real teleporter? It could have been a booby-trapped decoy and Mal and his buddies-]
“He was sure of it, Diabolik. He made sure of it. He almost let Ann and me get killed to be sure of it. He probably teleported away-”
[Unlikely] Jadis cut him off. [Kew and Rigger have been keeping a close watch on the EM signatures, and there was no pulse along those bands for the past 5 minutes]
“Hold it!” Goodvibes said, looking intently at his readout. “I just have this section a superficial pulse, just in case there were any camouflaged entrances here.”
“And, of course there are secret entrances here,” Goodvibes said as he fiddled with his controls. “The trick is figuring out which one before Mal can figure out the teleporter.” He did something, and a section of one part of the hallway started to rattle inside its sill.
“I’ll handle this,” Spark said as she covered herself with her symbiot. She held up one hand and slid it up and down the crack of the doorway. Some of her black goo seeped in, and the door popped open.
Behind the door wasn’t a corridor (thank God!) but a jumped up storage closet. Mal’s crew was bending over the teleporter as Techno-Devil himself was tinkering with it. “Son, I’d stop monkeying around with that doohickey and come out with yer hands in the air,” I said backing Jenny up. I couldn’t see him, but I could just FEEL Ace right behind me with A-Plus, grinning like the Devil catching a lawyer in a lie.
Techno-Devil’s whole crew stared at us pop-eyed, but some of ‘em were faster on the uptake than the others. Charger sprinted out of the closet, past us and down the hall before we could even blink. Buzz vibrated his way through the closet wall and was gone. And Techno-Devil and Sapper were looking for their own ways out, but not coming up with anything.
“Don’t just STAND there wi’ yer teeth in yer gobs, ye gombeens!” one of the OMAGs snapped as he pushed his way past us. “He might just figger out how to use this dingbob!” The other OMAGs in the swarm sort of looked at him with a blanket ‘hah?’ expression.
That OMAG wrestled the teleporter away from Techno-Devil and dragged it out of the closet. Looking at it, he asked Goodvibes. “So, is the blocking field in place here?” Goodvibes nodded, not sure of what was going on. “Where does the field end?” Goodvibes pointed a few yards down the corridor.
As that OMAG geared up to speak, one of the other OMAGs said, “You’re not one of me. And that’s the worst bad American ‘Scots’ accent I’ve ever heard.” As that registered on everyone there, the bogus OMAG pulled a control until off his utility belt. With a hit of a button (I’m not sure which one) a mob of bug-bots came swarming down the tunnels. Zap and Techno-Devil opened fire, trashing as many as they could.
Then another group of bug-bots came at us from behind. One of them zapped Zap, and started picking off OMAGs. As each ‘clone’ was ‘popped’, OMAG-Prime reacted like he was being beaned by a line drive.
And then a cocker spaniel-sized bug-bot plopped on top of Slide’s head. And Slide totally lost it. This was not a proud day for Emerson Cottage. And apparently it was Slide bollixing his frictionless power those times when we’d been knocked off our feet. ‘Cause we all took a header, even Jenny, whose symbiot should have gripped the floor.
And when we got to our feet, there wasn’t a sign of the teleporter, the bogus OMAG, or the bug-bots. Nothin’. Nada. Zip. How the HELL do they DO that? And the worst part was knowing that when one of us did figure it out, the rest of us would be kicking ourselves, since this has all the earmarks of one of those ‘gimmick’ ploys that Jadis warned us about when we was investigating how Migraine pulled off her mean-spirited pranks.
No, the worst part was Bugs’ bunny-bots turning on us as we tried to figure out what happened. I mean, I am not ‘Mister Touchy-Feely’, but it takes a harder man than I am to just rip a bunch of cute little fluffy bunnies apart like that.
No, now that I think about it, the worst part was seeing Bugs’ eyes when it was all over, looking at the wreckage of her bots. Seriously, do not mess with that girl. Did you see what she pulled on Tarmac in the Winter Combat Finals? [Author’s Note: ‘The Pushover’] That girl has Big Sad Puppy-dog Eyes that should be registered on her MID as dangerous weapons.
I made the mistake of trying to distract us from that. I asked OMAG. “How did you tell the ringer from the rest of you?”
OMAG stopped cold, his eyes went wide and then he lost it. Like I said, not a proud day for Emerson. “WHY did you ask me that? Now I’ll never be able to tell myself apart again!”
“Jadis this is very important,” Techno-Devil was saying to his sister on the phone, “That teleporter was not, I repeat NOT a decoy. You should amend your layout strategics from-”
[Very clever, very subtle,] Jadis sneered. [MAL, what the HELL did you think you were doing? What do you have against Madskillz or Smoke Test? Or ME for that matter?]
“But I was just-”
[You were just about to stick it to us for everything you could get!]
Gripping him by the collar of his coat and twisting the power trident out of Techno-Devil’s hand, Ace stated “We’re taking them to Delarose for punishment!” as though he expected an argument. A-Plus got Sapper’s arm behind her back as well. “And don’t think that She-Beast is going to be able to weasel her widdle bwuther out of THIS one.”
Jadis said simply [Don’t let me stop you.]
Ace stopped cold “_whut?_”
Mal yelped “I’m telling DAD!”
Jadis sighed a deep long-suffering Big Sister’s sigh. [Mal, the 007s are running security for this op, and Dad would be the first to tell you that you’ve got to give your minions a cookie every now and again.]
Ace snarled, “Diabolik, we are NOT your minions.”
Jadis said, gloat clear in her voice, [Ah, as a matter of fact, Ace, just at the moment… you ARE. Now take them to Delarose and let them get the detention they’ve earned]
Ace grumped, “Yeah, now that you’ve taken all the FUN out of it.”
[Teams B and C, we need you at Ed/6.5, ASAP]
“Kew, can Team A handle that one?” Smokey asked in a scared little girl voice. Jeez, she is adapting FAST.
“WHY?” Jenny asked.
“Ed/6.5 is where JOBE’S lab is,” Smokey said with wide eyes and a choked voice. I think she’s been cribbing notes from Bugs.
[Sorry, Smokey, but Team A already has their hands full. If it wasn’t Jobe’s lab, I’d put it on the back burner and send you 4 to back up Team A. But…]
But it’s Jobe’s lab, and anyone tetched enough to break in there is no one you want handling what’s in there. “Chillax, Smokes,” Maddy said. “You don’t have to go into Jobe’s lab, just watch the door.” Smokey gave a fretful whine but agreed. As we hurried to Ed/6.5, I noticed that Smokey is the only person I’ve ever seen who could hyperventilate and sprint at the same time.
When we got there, there was another swarm of bug-bots crowding the doorway. Then someone got the boot and landed on his shoulder. Didn’t slow him down none, thought. Madskillz and Smokey helped him to his feet. It was that Bad Seed Render, the guy we almost mixed it up with a little earlier. He got up and pulled himself out of Smokey and Maddy’s arms. “Crimson!” He pointed into the lab. “Those fukkin’ BUGS still got her in there!”
An energy blaster. In Jobe’s lab. When Jobe isn’t in there to keep things from getting busted. Dealin’ with a Biblical plague of bug-bots. “I’m goin’ In!” I shouted and crashed through the wall of robo-bugs. I stretched my way through into the laboratory. Which was curiously empty, except for four girls in tight-fitting color-coded outfits with odd fully-enclosing helmets.
Looking around, I asked, “Where’s Crimson?”
“At Harvard?” the girl with the blue-and-silver outfit asked with a noticeable British accent.
“JOBE!” Jenny, who’d hitched a ride along with me. “Are you alright?”
“Spark?” the girl with the purple-white-and gold-trim asked with one of those not-one-place-or-another Northern accents as she broke from a martial arts pose. “Are you involved in this? WHY are you involved in this? I thought that you were busy with those moronic grapheme matrixes.”
I looked around for any clues, and all I got was a sign on Jobe’s lab door- ‘Darwinian Selection Test: Come on in and pick one of three test tubes marked poison!’ “Jenny? You know Jobe?”
“Well, of course! I made those biohazard suits she and her drow are wearing.”
“Those are biohazard suits?” They fit more like wetsuits, except for the helmets, which, now that I was looking, were designed with breathers and their own oxygen tanks. “Where’s Crimson? Black girl, real fit, very pretty?”
“That fit every girl in this lab, until you two came in,” Jobe said snottily
“She came in with that guy, Render? Isn’t he one of you Bad Seeds?”
“Neither Render nor his overheated squeeze-toy were in here,” Jobe said. “Only those shoddy robotic mish-mashes of entomological features.”
“You recognize the design?” I asked, hoping that we finally had a lead.
“No,” Jobe answered folding her arms and visibly concentrating. “I never met him, but almost every roboticist in the Workshop who works the Biomimicry angle works off Cyberscarab’s designs. And give the hack his due, he knew better than to mix and match biological patterns like a Mr. Potato-bug head.”
Well, scratch that. But I had to know. Leaning in, I asked Jenny in a whisper, “You made those? Okay, I can see the color coding- but what’s with the black diamond on their chests?”
“That’s not a diamond- it’s a cutout.”
“On a biohazard suit?”
“Belphoebe insisted. It’s covered by a transparency.”
I was suddenly very glad that I was a girl just at the moment; as a guy, in my own spark-suit, it would’a been powerful embarrassing.
Then I heard Madskillz voice behind us. “Reach? The Bug-bots just cleared out.”
“Which way did they head?”
“No clue. They were jamming the doorway one minute, then they headed every which way at once, and the next minute they were gone.”
“Where’s Render, Maddy?”
“Oh, he lit out the second you crashed through the wall of bugs.”
“Oh?” then the quarter dropped. “Oh crap! That was Mr. X, pulling one of his disguises again!”
Then I heard Jobe talking into her own phone. “Sheba? In know you’re trying to help, but next time would you send someone COMPETENT?”
[Harley?] Kew contacted us, [Would you take a couple of Safety Yellow suits to Zenith and Sahar at Hj/3.1?]
“Is it an emergency?”
[Kinda-sorta. Zenith and Sahar came across a few of the Masterminds mixing it up with Stalwart over something. ‘Stalwart’ must have been Mr. X again, ‘cause a bunch of the bug-bots came out of nowhere. Zenith and Sahar managed to drive them off, but the bugs have come up with a new gimmick: now they can spray a corrosive. Zenith and Sahar got hit by it. They only got a nasty rash from it, but their suits are trashed]
“Well, what are we waiting for?” OMAG said with a big grin on his face. The rest of the Losers (at least the ones who were still male at the moment) bucked up at the thought as well.
Well, what can you do? While I understand where the boys are coming from, as a part-time girl, I do have my priorities straight. I walked over to OMAG, picked him up by the belt, held him angled over my head and said into his face. “YOU Bozos. STAY. PUT. Or I let JOBE amuse herself with you.”
“Why would I want those rejects from the reject bin?” Jobe sneered. “But Madskillz? Smoke Test? The word is that you’re both molecularly unstable. That could make for some… interesting… possibilities.”
Smoke Test went wide-eyed and froze behind Madskillz. Maddy froze for a second herself, and then ducked behind Smokey. Smokey made an ‘urk!’ noise like someone stepped on a gopher, and RAN. Maddy was two feet behind her.
“WHAT?” Jobe demanded, “All I wanted was a cheek swab!”
Fast-forwarding through a stop at the Workshop front desk for those two new Safety Yellows to Hj/3.1, we stopped at the door, knocked, and Jenny took the overalls in. I stayed at the door and kept our ‘backup’ from getting too nosy. I was just noticing that Unbreakable was a lot ansty-er than Runestrong was, when Jenny said, “All clear.”
Poking my head in, I saw that Zenith and Sahar were standing in the middle of a mass of high-tech stuff that was, to say the least, trashed. “What happened?” I asked as a mass of OMAGs peeked over my shoulder and made disappointed noises.
Zenith repeated what Kew had said about a bogus Stalwart and some guys who fit the description of some of the Masterminds, specifically Stopwatch, Dash and Haywire. “Okay, some of the Bad Seeds are making moves; it would be a miracle if the Professor Moriarty Fan Club didn’t try something,” I said. “But did the M&Ms jump Mr. X, or vice-versa?”
“A little of both and neither,” Sahar said. “From what I saw, they were fighting over a machine that was turning out bug-drones on an assembly line.”
“Well, that explains where the dang things are coming from,” I mused. “But why did Mr. X wreck his own 3-D printer?”
“It wasn’t a 3-D printer,” Zenith said like something was nagging at her. “Maybe an injected plastic molder forming carapaces around electronic internals… nnnoooo… that doesn’t work either,” she chewed at a fingernail. “But how were the internals assembled? And where were the components brought in?” She shook her head. “Looking back and visualizing it, it made no sense. It had everything but a whistle that went ‘toot-toot!’”
Sahar nodded in agreement. “And why did he add the acid sprayer to the drone’s core chassis, instead of just tacking it onto the back of the unit, as he did the Mimicry Inducer and the blasters?”
“Maybe it was part of the drones’ self-destruct mechanism?” Madskillz asked. “Every one of the drones we’ve squished dissolved. Heck, only a few of ‘em even left electronic scraps behind.”
“We’ve been tagging and bagging what scraps as we could find,” Smokey said, holding up a bag of very melty looking junk.
“What WAS this place?” Runestrong asked, looking around.
“As near as I can tell it was yet another cache of hidden technology,” Jenny said. “The fight seems to have destroyed most of the things here, and the acid splashed around by the destroyed drone compiler makes identifying what they were… problematic.”
“Can you ID anything in here, Jenny-hon?” I asked.
“Wwweeellll… the crates of scrap electronics are quite obvious,” she said. “And those are drums of injection plastic resins, and that looks like one of the PK energy synthesizers that I use for my fullerene matrix attunements.”
“Y’mean, like the one that Migraine used to boost her PK when she was messing with us?”
“Yes, but a different model. Maybe M’sieur X uses some sort of PK assembly process?”
“Hey, even if not, it’s a still cool idea,” Madskillz said as she jotted down a memo.
“Mmaaadddiiieee,” Smokey drawled, peeved.
“Let’s FINISH something, before we’re finished!”
“At least now Mr. X has a finite supply of drones,” Zenith said.
“Not if he has more than one compiler,” Runestrong said. “Think about how many of those things he has. And, they seem to come from everywhere and nowhere; if I was him, I’d have a bunch of compilers and recyclers scattered around in as many forgotten caches as I could, hiding them among all the left-behind bozo-tech.”
“Sure,” Runestrong said, obviously amped at being the one to Sherlock it up among all the know-it-alls. “Self-destruction only explains so many of the drones disappearing; so, the damaged drones are hauled off by the ones that are still working, and they’re recycled and made into new drones as needed. If they need big drones, they make big drones; if they need little ones, they make little ones.”
“Which is a pity,” Sahar said looking at the wreckage of the compiler. “I’d really like to take a look at a whole, working sample.”
“Why?” Maddy asked, “I mean, you’re not a full-time tech-head.”
“Maybe not, but Mr. X has a remarkable development in them,” Sahar said. “When we entered the fight, Haywire was almost having a fit, because he couldn’t get the drones to short-circuit.”
“And short-circuiting electronics is Haywire’s big ace-up-his-sleeve,” Zenith agreed.
“Yeah,” Runestrong said, “but the real question is: if Stopwatch, Haywire and Dash are trying to find the other compilers, what are the other Masterminds up to?
“Gimme a break, Sheba,” Hazard said into the phone, “a girl has expenses, and Jobe’s pretty much dried up as a source of high end fashions.”
When Jenny and I (and Runestrong, Unbreakable and Zap; OMAG and Slide went with Maddy and Smokey) got to where Dynamaxx, She-Bot and Slapdash had called in their distress call, we had our answer to Runestrong’s question. Two of the other Masterminds were struggling with She-Bot for a stack of banker boxes. She-Bot was fending off Heartbreaker and Jello by herself, because Dynamaxx and Slapdash were just standing there, going ‘eeeyyyeeewww’ and drooling into thin air. As I understand it, it’s not so much that Heartbreaker can’t affect girls, it’s that she knows where guys’ weak spots are. Heartbreaker must not be having much luck with She-Bot, she was trying to distract She-Bot while Jello slunk off with six banker boxes under her taffy-like arms. But while She-Bot may have arms of ceramic metal compound, she has a will of iron! Well, maybe all that wiring She-Bot has in her head has something to do with it.
On the off chance that those banker boxes had DuPraeve’s files, and not just more decoys, I stretched over to Jello and started wrestling her for the boxes. The reason I didn’t peg Jello with a punch that had an absolute hardness of 715 (Jenny is always trying to improve her ‘Spark Suits’) is that while she’s at least as strong as I am, something about her Exemplar status is seriously off. And, well, a good peg to the head could cause the girl some brain damage. And I may not play the ‘Southern Gentleman’ card as much as some, but I do have serious reservations about that kind of thing, especially women.
Which, of course, immediately came and bit me on the ass with stainless steel teeth.
A hand reached around, grabbed my head and turned my face away from Jello. “Why, you’re Harley Sawyer, aren’t you?” Heartbreaker purred into my face. “The girls at Melville are all abuzz about what a gallant boyfriend you are.” And then I felt something reach right into my brain and start pushing buttons. And the worst thing about it was that I knew that she was pushing my buttons, like all those times in Grade School when you know that you’re being played, but you can’t stop yourself.
But just as I was starting to go ‘ddoooyyy…’ like Dynamaxx and Slapdash, Jenny stopped dealing with Jello, marched over to us, grabbed Heartbreaker’s face, turned it to hers, and snarled it in. Heartbreaker went ‘oh crap’, and then it got really nasty.
The worst part of it was that it was just so stupid. TK, the biggest wiseass in Emerson was blocking a doorway with his two buddies Truck and Nitro. They called themselves ‘TNT’, and collectively they were some of the meanest bullies at Whateley. Well, except for Counterpoint, and that’s like being second strongest man to the Incredible Hulk. But they’d recently hooked up with Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone, the Furies, a group of GSD- but strangely hawt- girls with a rep for being crazy bad news themselves. The word was that the Furies were supposed to be some sort of brake on TNT’s bullying, but here they were. They even had the Furies along, backing them up. WHY, I’m not clear. TNT was pulling the same exact power play that Crimson and Render had. Not that I’m telling them about that; I’ve noticed that bullies are very big on the ‘I’m ever-so special’ brag, and telling them that someone beat them to their ingenious gambit doesn’t end well.
Not that they admitted that they were pulling a shakedown. TK claimed that he had the blackmail boxes, and Truck and Nitro were backing him up. As far as they were concerned, they were collecting a debt that was due.
Tisiphone and Alecto were making bitchy remarks about ‘gender freaks’ and how we barely got out of Whitman with our hides intact. “You yoyos DO know that this section of the tunnels is off-limit, don’t you?” Maddy asked, making a point of not being intimidated.
They just laughed at her. “And this is She-Beast’s operation,” Maddy continued, how do you think she’s going to react to this?”
They just sneered. “We can take out the Beast,” Truck jeered. “She ain’t as tough as she makes out.”
“She doesn’t have to be,” Maddy pointed out. “She has Team Kimba for that.” That knocked some of the sass out of Truck. “Everyone knows that She-Beast is tight with The Goodkind. And She-Beast already knows about this; she’s probably on the phone with The Goodkind right now. Forget about one of the craziest devisors in the Workshop. Forget about an Army-trained PK brick that could break Truck over his knee. Forget about the most powerful mage that anyone’s even heard of. Forget about a martial artist who mixes it up with Counterpoint for shits and giggles. You’ll have to go up against Tennyo, the Section 33 case. Even if you survive, you- all of you- will automatically be expelled. And Nitro? Aren’t you on some kind of probation? If you get kicked out, they hand you right over to the MCO.”
“And?” Alecto sneered, stepping forward, her big bat wings spreading out, eyes glittering with anticipation and a terrifying evil grin on her gorgeous face. “That just means that we’ll have be quick about kicking all your asses.”
“ALL of our asses?” OMAG said, stepping forward, pushing that idiotic tam forward as he multiplied to all 16 of his clones. “That’s a lot of ass t’kick, boyo,” OMAG said in 17x unison, “and it’s damn hard ass.” Which would have been a great action movie line; pity Sandy didn’t have the grit to back it up. Alecto ripped into him, Truck got his badass on, Nitro gave several of him nitro-blasts, Tisiphone burned a few of him, and TK and Megaera just stood back and enjoyed the show. In the end, OMAG himself wasn’t hurt- croggled all to hell, and his clones shredded, but nothing he could take to the Infirmary- or Security.
“Twins?” TK said as he leered at Maddy and me. “Interesting. Let’s see how much fun we can have with you two…” And the Furies smirked like they were looking forward to making Maddy and me not pretty no more.
Aw, Come ON! I just GOT this face, and they’re gonna mess it up?
“You’re in a restricted tunnel shut down by Security, and you’re interfering with a Security cleared search team on an important mission,” said an accented female voice. Sahar stepped past Slide, who was holding OMAG up. Zenith was a few steps behind Sahar, but she held Zenith back with a hand and copped a badass pose in front of the six buttheads.
“Oh please!” Tisiphone said with a sneer. “Is this supposed to be intimidating? Yeah, you’re supposed to have a badass rep, but I ain’t seen shit for it. Boys, MASH her. And make it show.”
TNT stepped forward, with Nitro visibly building up a charge and clearly digging on using it. Tee-Kay was twirling that cane he’s been carrying around since that thing with Diviner, and he had one hand in his longcoat, like he had a surprise that he was gonna spring. And Truck was large and in charge in front. But Megaera was standing with her shredded wings spread and an expression like she had a nasty prank up her sleeve.
Though it does help that since she’s started dating TK, Meg’s stopped wearing those tattered robes. Who’s idea was that, anyway?
Sahar ignored TNT and scowled at Megaera. “Being clever with your one trick doesn’t make you not a One-Trick Pony.” Megaera flinched badly and shuffled back with abject terror on her face. Truck used that opening to snap a quick jab at Sahar’s chin. He might as well have been aiming at Florida, as close as he got to her. He gave her a flurry of jabs, but she just wasn’t where he was aiming.
“Majnun!” she snapped, “All power, little skill, less understanding! I should geld you and use you as an OX!” Then she lit into him, hitting him with a machine-gun hail of ‘crane-hand’ strikes. I remembered hearing that Sahar’s been training with Chaka from Team Kimba. Maybe Chaka’s been teaching her some tricks, ‘cause Truck was registering those ‘pecks’, and normally he just sneers off even other bricks’ punches. Though I picked up on a flare of something telepathic, so… who knows?
Tee-Kay took this in and spun his cane really dramatically, though he pulled a chain-link ‘snake’ out of his pocket and threw it at Sahar. Sahar glared at him, I felt another flare of telepathy (seriously, this ‘mind reading’ thing is a lot harder than TV makes it look), and she caught the ‘snake’. “Kalb ibn Kalb, do you think you have a single trick that I don’t know and can’t top?” She threw the snake at Nitro, who reacted as though it had wrapped around his neck and was strangling him. Nitro let off his charge before he was ready trying to get the ‘snake’ off his neck, but how do you blast off something that isn’t there? As Tee-Kay reacted to Nitro’s fit, Sahar stepped up to him, took his cane from his hand, tripped him with it and battered the living hell out of him.
“Semi’s trying to be a better person,” Zenith said to Maddy conversationally, “but she also worries about losing her edge.”
“Clarence!” Tisiphone gasped, and fire formed around her hands. She threw a couple of fire- blasts at Sahar, but Sahar grabbed one of the banker boxes and parried the fire. Yes, apparently they were fireproof banker boxes, which is a clue that they might be the real McCoy. Sahar blocked a few blasts, then threw the box at Tisiphone, and followed that with a couple more.
Tisiphone went down, which left Alecto the only Fury standing. And she wasn’t as cocky as she was 10 seconds ago. She and Sahar locked eyes, there was another flare of telepathy, and I swear that big bad Alecto wet herself.
Then three of the banker boxes- cardboard ones, I noticed- popped open and colored smoke started spilling out. I’m guessing that it was some kind of antipersonnel gas, as it stung my eyes and made me cough. It really did a number on OMAG, who was just getting his legs back under him. Then I heard Maddy say, “Wait a minute! It’s SO Obvious! HEY!” Looking around, I saw Maddy sagging like she’d been shocked, and… Horrorshow?... standing next to her with a hand shocker in one hand.
“MADDY!” I yelled as I turned and started to run to help Maddy. Nabbing Maddy was apparently Mr. X’s latest gambit, ‘cause Horrorshow was still in the infirmary.
And then the floor slipped out from under us. All of us. Maddy and Mr. X disappeared into the cloud of stinging gas. It took me a bit, but I managed to get to my feet and started to move.
But a rock-steady hand held me back. Turning, I looked into Alecto’s sexy devil face, which had that ‘MAN, are you gonna get creamed’ grin on it again. “And where do you think YOU’RE going, Wimp?”
I swear, it is just one thing after another on this case! Just when we think we’ve got Heartbreaker and Jello cornered (that bitch can really run when she wants to), Jadis called. She said that Zenith and Sahar needed some backup. “What about Maddy and Smokey?” I asked.
[Apparently they're one of the things Zoe and Semi need help with] I gave Runestrong and Unbreakable a questioning look. Runestrong just shrugged and gave me directions.
When we got there, Zenith, Sahar, OMAG and Slide were just standing there as a furious battle was going on. I recognized TNT of course, and I knew that they were dating three ‘devil girls’ called the Furies. Well, you gotta wonder- but if women actually showed taste in their romance, the human race would have died out thousands of years ago. From what I’ve heard, the Furies are as nasty in a fight as TNT is. But all six of ‘em were getting shellacked by Madskillz and Smokey. Maddy and Smokey were bopping around in something that was half Hong Kong Wire Fu movie and half Circe de Soleil. As we got there, Maddy was giving Truck an airplane spin and then Smokey threw Alecto at them and they collided in midair. Tisiphone screamed and built up a pair of blockbuster bomb-rating fireballs in her hands. Smokey did something that caused four fire extinguishers to pop out of their brackets. Then she and Maddy traded off spraying Tisiphone with fire retardant foam and smacking her with the canisters. Tee-kay lifted them off the ground with his TK, but they pulled hand arc welders from their tool belts and touched them together, which caused a blinding flash. Then they started throwing stuff at TK. He wasn’t quite blinded, so he reacted by trying to catch as many things as he could. Then when TK was trying to figure out which of the junk to throw back, Maddy and Smokey broke through his field and clobbered the hell out of him.
Megaera was standing there, wings outstretched, totally flummoxed, with a look of ‘WTF? Why isn’t my power working?’ on her face. Maddy and Smokey double-teamed her, got her upside down, and pile-drivered her into Truck, who was trying to get up.
Watching this slack-jawed, Unbreakable just droned, “That. Is. SO. Hawt.”
Then, when Truck was well and truly down for the count, Smokey and Maddy snapped out of it. “Did… WE do that?” Smokey asked at the pile of pummeled putz.
“Ah… yeah,” Maddy said, just puzzled as Smokey was. “We did it. I don’t know HOW we did it. But we did it.”
“You remember doing it?” Sahar asked. “When you two did that at Emerson and Whitman, you didn’t remember it. But it was more or less the same, only non-violent. You were throwing things around like an expert juggling act and putting them away in fast-forward. You didn’t even have to look, you both knew where everything was, and where it should go.”
“What? What’s going on?” Smokey asked. I know it was Smokey, ‘cause Maddy was visibly digging on the idea.
“I’m not a Psychic Arts instructor,” Sahar said carefully, “but from what I saw and felt, I’d say that you two… merged. A kind of gestalt or limited mass mind, where your minds and personalities fused together, your psychic powers meshed together for greater effect. You two have been doing this on a lower, cruder level-”
Sahar was cut off when She-Beast called on the phone. [Get Madskillz and Smoke Test up to the Ops Center NOW]
“She-Beast, something just-”
[Harley, tell me about it when you get here]
When we got to the ‘Ops Center’, She-Beast had a simple project room tricked out like the Situation Center out of an action movie. I wondered how much it cost her. Then I wondered how long She-Beast had been waiting to pull off something just like this. Besides Kew, there were a bunch of other tech-heads paying real close attention to… whatever they were looking at. She-Beast herself was leaning over one of those ‘hard light’ displays that the techsters were all panting for, a 3-D display of the Workshop (I think; there is a LOT going on there I had no clue about) with dozens of red balls, green pyramids, blue squares, pink and blue ‘people’ tokens and…. Stuff. She-Beast was talking with someone on a headset and moving things around. Her eyes were glittering and she had that wide Smart Alec grin on her face she gets every so often. Lay you odds she’s got a name for it.
“She-Beast!” Maddy hollered as she looked around the place. “Are you playing Chess with Mr. X?”
“Of course not!” Jadis said, never taking her eyes off that 3-D display or losing that grin. “That was Westmoreland’s mistake in Viet Nam. Chess is all about foisting your terms of conflict on your opponent. Westmoreland tried to force the Viet Cong into engaging the US and RVN forces on his terms. But the VC had read their Sun Tzu, and weren’t playing. They picked and chose the times they attacked, when they were absolutely certain of winning. They finessed Westmoreland into heavy-handed uses of raw force so that he alienated the otherwise neutral Vietnamese, which cost him the war. The Viet Cong didn’t play Chess- they played Gō, and they played it to win.
“And that’s what I’m doing: playing Gō. I’m pushing Mr. X around the Workshop, getting him to teleport, and eliminating his options, one at a time. I know where the teleporter is, and the Mimicry Inducer, and three cashes of records. I’m forcing him to make hard decisions, so he’s not paying attention to the tactical situation in the Workshop.”
Speaking for us all, Smoke Test bleated, “What?”
“The layout of the Workshop- power plants, shielding, force fields, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera- limit the lines of transmission that the teleporter can use. Mr. X has been using they keypads to teleport, which is being a pain in the ass. I tried cutting Mr. X off from the system of keypads, but he’s managed to sleaze back. Since it’s that important to him, I’m using it against him. Every time that Mr. X teleports away from our searcher, I have them leave ‘mines’ on the pad, just in case he tries that spot again.”
“Nothing explosive, nothing deadly, nothing that will damage the teleporter,” She-Beast assured us. “I made a big noise about the blocking pylons, so that’s what he’s concentrating on. The reason that I called you two here, Maddy, Smokey, is that this is the point where Mr. X might decide that kidnapping one or both of you would be a good side move.”
“A day late and a dollar short, She-Beast,” Maddy said pettishly. “He tried that a few minutes ago, disguised as Horrorshow. And Horrorshow is still in the infirmary. He IS still in the infirmary, right?”
“Trackers show Horrorshow at the infirmary and still out cold,” one of the Teksters reported.
“And what about this place?” Jenny asked, looking around. “If M’sieur X gets in here, he could not only take Madskillz, but destroy your entire headquarters with his drones.”
Jadis’ grin turned into a smirk. “I hope he tries. I have some surprises in here that would catch Brigand with his armor around his ankles. So, first, as stated, we’re entering a phase of the game where Mr. X taking one or the other or both of you as hostage would be too good a tactic for him. Second, if either Maddy or Smokey is that important to his plans, it might finesse Mr. X into attacking the command center, which would suit me right down to the ground. Third, the second, and I DO mean the second that we have DuPraeve’s teleporter nailed, we need you two to get there and stabilize yourselves. You can’t risk being in a situation where you can’t get to wherever it is, or being blocked by Mr. X for some reason. When the light is green, the Spy Kidz will escort you there; either Reach and Spark, or Zenith and Sahar will be there to run the teleporter for you.”
“And how are we supposed to know where to go?” Smokey asked.
“The reason I chose this room is that it’s centrally located,” She-Beast explained. She fiddled with her smartphone and spider-y lines of different colors spread out from a spot on the top level. “These are fastest routes to the most likely locations for the teleporter to be. When one of them goes Green, memorize it and make tracks.”
Then she turned to one of the Tech-heads and asked, “Rigger, have you isolated the drones’ command frequency?”
“N-n-n-nope,” Rigs admitted. “When you bag one of those drones, I WANT IT. I’m getting bits and pieces, and it’s driving me nuts.”
“Any clues as to the location of Mr. X’s surviving drone compiler?”
“I’m proceeding on the assumption that Mr. X found a shielded compartment, maybe several. Hell, he might have found the compiler, which was left behind when someone graduated. Like so much,” Kew snarled.
“Any luck getting the keypads off line?”
“I’ll tell you the second I figure out how to do it from here,” Wrenchworx said.
Then golden circles appeared around a red ball, a green pyramid and one blue ‘person’ token, and black crosses appeared on a bunch of others. She-Beast’s grin went into overdrive. “Atari,” she breathed. “Okay everyone! This is it! I’ve got the SOB pegged! And now…” She dramatically raised her hand, like she was about to PUSH THE BUTTON, and set everything in motion.
Then her face fell and her eyes went wide with horror. “no,” she whimpered. “Not now. Why NOW?” Then she curled up in a ball, pain written in big marker on her face.
‘Whatever the Mimicry Inducer did to her is wearing off,” I said. “From what she said in DuPraeve’s lair, She-Beast’s gonna be down for three or four minutes.”
“And since Murphy’s Law is in full force, it will probably be longer,” Ace said, A-Plus backing him up. “Okay, she’s down, I’m taking command!”
“And do WHAT?” Maddy asked, giving Ace the ‘gimme a break’ look.
Ace locked, a Daffy Duck look of ‘oh fuck’ on his face. “Come ON!” Madskillz demanded, “She-Beast’s trap is too finely tuned! We gotta do something NOW, or Mr. X will get away with the teleporter!”
“How would I know?” Ace demanded, “The logical thing to do is just set off She-Beast’s trap, but she didn’t TELL anyone how to DO that!”
“Well, maybe if someone hadn’t kept trying to turn every little thing into an excuse to get her under their thumb, she’d have been more open,” Jenny snipped.
“Give us a chance to Gadgeteer the trigger out of her control panel,” Maddy said. As she and Smoke Test fussed over the board, Madskillz griped, “I had an idea as to what was really going on, but then Slide tripped everyone up, and I completely lost what I was thinking just then.”
Smokey bolted up straight, her face flat and eyes wide. “…SLIDE…?” she slid her thumb and forefinger back and forth over the other index finger. Then she bolted out of the Ops Center, and ran to the nearest keypad (She-Beast insisted that there weren’t any keypads on the Ops Center, for obvious reasons). She poked at the pad and gave a ‘YES!’ “DuPraeve, you sick, twisted evil GENIUS!”
Then she came back and dragged Madskillz to the keypad. She jabbed her finger at the pad and both she and Maddy did the ST:TOS ‘sparkle out’.
“KEW, RIGS, Follow that power trail!” Zenith yelled. The second that we had a green trail on the map, Jenny and I were out the door, and the only reason that Zenith and Sahar were behind us was that they didn’t have our mobility advantage.
Getting there involved dropping two floors, but kids at Melville do that to hurry up all the time anyway. When we got there, which was the storage area for junk that was going to be shredded down as close to elements as they could, the place was absolutely swarming with drones, and there was a compiler there, churning out more to throw into the fight. And Lordy, what a fight it was! Madskillz and Smoke Test were in full Gestalt mode, and they were more like Experimental Dance than fighting. They were in perfect synch, with Madskillz knowing exactly where everything was and what it was doing, and Smoke Test knew exactly where and how to hurt them. Bugs were popping everywhere, and the only reason they hadn’t done the whole thing for us was that stupid compiler. Oh, the bugs were bulldogging them something fierce; if they went for the compiler, the bugs would try to sneak the teleporter out of the room. If they went for the teleporter, the bug with the mimicry inducer on its back would make moves. If they went for the inducer bug, the bugs would form a defensive wall for the compiler. If they went for their tool belts, the bugs would try to swarm them.
Well, Sir Westmore would tell me ‘keep your eyes on the prize. So I reached out and snagged the teleporter. But as I was grounding myself to bring it over (hey, exemplar or not, I gotta deal with Laws of Physics, same as everyone else), a bunch of drone climbed up on my arms and came scuttling right at me.
You have NO IDEA how creepy that is. But Jenny wasn’t having any of that, and she whipped them off my arms and helped me drag the teleporter to safety.
Priority A: fulfilled!
Handing the teleporter over to Zenith, I went for the Mimicry Inducer. We had to go in among the bugs to get it without getting zapped (I’m weird enough as it is, and I have no idea what matrix Mr. X has it loaded with now), but Jenny and I managed to squash that bug and get the Inducer.
Priority B: fulfilled!
“Reach!” Ace yelled from the doorway. “Throw me the Inducer!”
“Grab him,” the Smokey/Maddy gestalt said in the same creepy droning chorus that the spooky twin in ‘The Shining’ did. “That’s not Ace.”
That stopped things cold. Exactly what was going on there?
“Where’s A-Plus?” they added. Well, they had a point; A-Plus has dang near been welded to Ace’s hip through all this. But then the compiler blew up, rattling everyone.
Priority D: unsuccessful.
Then ‘Ace’ threw a smoke bomb and was out of there before we could get to our feet. Whoever he is, that ratsass is quick.
I was just getting my wits together, when Zenith reported in that the Teleporter and the Mimicry Inducer had been secured, the second compiler was trashed, there was an acidic pool of gunk with electronic scraps all over the place at the rendering station, and Smoke Test and Madskillz were stabilizing themselves.
What? All that work and I miss out on the payoff?
I don’t know which hurt more: the cramps from the transformation, losing that beauty or Ace’s gloating.
Later, after we got everyone gathered for the Debrief, I addressed the troops: “Okay, for beginners, YES, we have recovered the teleporter and the stabilizing component. Madskillz and Smoke Test have tested it, and the nurse reports that they are both molecularly stable again. So, if you’re worried about it, just report to the infirmary, have the nurse check you, and they’ll get you back to normal. Or as normal as this crew ever gets.
“Security checked the teleporter’s history, and found five bases that DuPraeve built in various places. Including one right under Carson’s house. Don’t go asking about it- Carson has dibs on it. I think she’s going to turn it into a rumpus room or something. That should be the last of DuPraeve’s bases, BUT Old Nick was just slippery enough to have bases that weren’t on the teleporter’s menu.
“Second, the Mimicry Inducer has also been recovered, so you don’t have to worry about someone popping up with it and zapping you. And Asterlitz says that while they won’t destroy it, it’s going in the toughest Top Security lockup they have. And God bless for that.
Third, Bad News for anyone who wanted to examine Mr. X’s bug drones or the compiler he used. The compiler is a total loss, and we can’t find a single one of his drones. Not one. Tons of gook and bits of electronic scrap, but not a single piece that’s large enough to bother. As for the gook, well, certain parties who didn’t understand that this was an emergency have detention coming. They can expect to do mop duty to clean that up.” I shot Malachai a ‘I expected better of you’ look, which he just returned with a martyred ‘persecuted kid brother’ look.
“Fourth, the 007s have pulled their weight, minded their manners and actually contributed for a change. They get props for that, especially Reach, who went above and beyond. I’m not saying that they’re reinstated as an official club, I’m just saying they get points for it. And so does everyone else who put in the sweat.
“As for DuPraeve’s keypads, I’ll hand that over to the person who earned the honors.” I gestured to Smoke Test, who approached the podium. From where he was standing with the Spy Kids, Ace gave a humph of someone who got passed over.
Smokey called up to large hard light windows and addressed the congregation. The guys in the crowd were paying her a lot more attention than they had before. “Okay, I’d love to spell this out Sherlock Holmes style, but to be honest it was one of those ‘everything falls into place’ moments.
“But here goes: the key to the whole thing is DuPraeve’s powers and personality. I only met him once or twice, but I could tell that he wasn’t just sneaky, he was the kind of sneaky that’s proud of being sneaky. ‘See how much smarter and slicker I am than you feebs?’ and all like that.
“When he came up with this teleporter scheme, DuPraeve didn’t want just a way of getting into his lairs without giving away where they were; he didn’t even want a way of throwing off a follow; he wanted a way of slipping right out from the Spy Kidz’ surveillance in a way that was big ‘Up Yours’. He didn’t even settle for that. He wanted a way that would confuse and embarrass the Spy Kidz, the other Masterminds, the Capes and even Security. He was able to punch into a keypad, walk away, get a cup of coffee from a vending machine and THEN beam out. Which bugged me.”
“Smoookkeeeyyy…” Madskillz drawled warningly.
“Okay the whole thing bugged me!” Smoke admitted. “But how he worked a timer into that mess really burned my biscuits.”
Smokey hit her phone and electronic diagrams appeared on both of the hard light ‘windows’. “Okay, these are the schematics for the two boards of the keypads. Man, this is disgusting; it looks like a dog ate a laptop, tried to digest it and threw it back up. But then, just when everything looked like it was going to Hell and back, Maddy mentioned ‘Slide’.” Smokey hit her phone again, and the lines one of the two schematics went Red, while the other went Blue. Then she merged the two windows. The Red and Blue didn’t clarify a bunch of the combined image, but there was now a simple, intuitive pattern of Purple circuitry.
“See this line down here?” Smokey said.
“It’s a capacitive rheostat,” Montana said. “You move the point of contact from left to right, and as the charge diminishes the contact point returns left… which would act as a timer. Just swipe the point of contact right and wait for it to get back to the initiation point. But that would only work if the two boards were in direct contact, and the keypads are 4 mm apart from each other. And someone would have noticed if the boards were flexible.”
Smokey nodded. “Back to DuPraeve. DuPraeve was a PDP whose major power was telepathy, which he used in ways that sort of highlight the reason why the Canon of Psychic Ethics was created. His secondary power was clairvoyance, and he put the lie to the idea that ESP is a wimpy power. We’d been assuming that Old Nick was using ESP somehow to pull off this trick. But Nick also had PK; he could lift himself and a few more pounds. Not a lot by Whateley standards, but still a good deal. Nick would do stuff like levitate himself to a keypad that was way up out of sight, which should have been our clue. Now, after Maddy got zapped in DuPraeve’s lair and was evacuated, Reach says that she and She-Beast found a pit dug in the floor of the lair that was concealed by a hologram ‘floor’. She-Beast thinks that DuPraeve would levitate and mock-walk on the hologram floor for his buddies Latchkey and Nightfox, so they’d fall into the pit if they ever snuck in without him. AND, on top of that, he had a trap door in the bottom of that pit that could only be found and opened by someone with PK.
‘So, Slippery Nick likes to play nasty games with psychokinesis when no one’s expecting it.
“My next point focuses on the fact that the Spy Kidz had no PKs in their ranks. The reason why Maddy, Jadis and I were able to access DuPraeve’s lair, when no one else could, was that when we were punching codes into the keypads was that, while we weren’t aware of it, we were applying minute amounts of PK to the pad. That didn’t do much, but it was enough to create a PK link between the two boards. Electricity would jump across the link, a charge being a charge, and it would complete the circuit. That took us off the ‘Chump’s Roulette Wheel’ circuit and onto the ‘Secure Menu of Sites’ circuit. We didn’t get his lair every time, because we didn’t really know that we were doing it, and we weren’t using PK every time either. But eventually, with enough tries, we managed to get DuPraeve’s lair. When I figured that out, I just ‘felt around’ with my PK and found an energy echo that I used to figure out the keypad, using my Exemplar Eidetic Recall.” Smokey gave Maddy a smug look. “And you said I was wasting my time.
“And that’s it: the big secret was DuPrave using PK under everyone’s nose,” Smokey finished looking very fresh and perky.
“How did Mr. X get into the lair?” Mal asked. Well, he would like to know, and he’d rather chop off a finger than ask me.
“He didn’t,” Maddy said, not willing to let Smokey hog all the glory. “He had the drone that was armed with the Mimicry Inducer right next to us, probably concealed by a cloaking device or a chameleon function or something. It got beamed into the lair along with Jadis and me. Once he knew about that, he snuck more drones into the teleportation module that Security was using, and used that to get the teleporter and a bunch of boxes of DuPrave’s blackmail out of the lair.”
“Okay, and what do we know about ‘Mr. X’?” Kaiju asked.
“I think that that’s the ICC’s bailiwick,” I said, gesturing Ace over to the podium. Hey, gotta give the big showboat his dole of glory, or he gets all cranky.
Ace shot me a pro forma ‘what are you up to?’ look, but took the podium as his just due. “Okay, we haven’t had a chance to sit down and really go over his profile yet, but this is what we’ve got on ‘the Bug Bot Bandit’:
- He is definitely a student. Male, between 15 and 17 years old.
- He definitely has a technological bent
- He is familiar enough with the Workshop to know of several hidden compartments in the granite. He may also know about at least one hidden passageway, give how he and his drones could get around without being spotted.
- Given the descriptions of the drones and the drone compilers, he may be a devisor, or he may be a gadgeteer who found a graduated devisor’s stash of gear. The Workshop overseers will go through their files to find any matches for either the drones or the compiler.
- Either way, the Bug Bot Bandit has a working knowledge of plastics and composite materials. Besides the drones, he was able to create realistic plastic face masks of various people- including myself.
- He may be an Exemplar: he was able to go hand-to-hand with Horrorshow with one of his manifested exoskeletons up. And while not exactly Anime quality those exoskeletons are reasonably tough.
- He seems to have a grudge against the Losers. At least, he seems to have studied them closely.
- His bug-bot blasters tore right through Horrorshow’s exoskeleton and put Horrorshow himself down so hard that he’s still in the infirmary.
- The Mimicry Inducer was perfectly calibrated as to pass through both Runestrong and Unbreakable’s protections, despite Runestrong repeatedly adjusting his magical shield for better protection.
- He was able to trigger Slide’s ‘friction free zone’ on cue
- And he had no problem playing merry hob with OMAG’s copies
- But he doesn’t seem to have studied the Intelligence Cadet Corps very closely- his impersonations of Holdout and me were complete washouts. That implies some sort of focus on the Losers.
- A squad of drones broke into Jobe’s lab bay, but nothing seems to have been stolen. Give that Mr. X impersonated the Bad Seed ‘Render’ as part of it, then that raid must have been important. But why?
- As for his motive, the old ‘Perfect Girlfriend’ angle is too obvious to be ignored, especially regarding the ‘Prettification’ effect the Mimicry Inducer created. BUT, if so, then:
- Why Madskillz? He wanted Madskillz specifically, since he got Smoke Test by mistake the first time.
- Why not someone else? There are dozens of girls at Whateley, GSD and not, who’d love to be an induced exemplar, and would play along with Mr. X for whatever he wanted.
- Why the ambush? Why force the exemplar state on Madskillz that would most likely alienate her from him?
- My personal theory is that the ‘perfect girlfriend’ angle isn’t what he’s going for. For some reason, Mr. X wanted to merge Madskillz glitch ‘Database’ technique or some other aspect of her PDP trait with the Exemplar state. What that would do? I have no idea. But we can assume that if he told Madskillz about it openly, she’d refuse, and if he foisted it off on her covertly, that she would hold it against him. Possibly violently. What he’ll do now that Madskillz is stable in an Exemplar state? I lack facts.
“That is the most cogent theory we’ve got at the moment,” Ace wrapped up. “It’s probably wrong or at least incomplete, and the theory will change as more facts come to light. We WILL keep on this.”
“You mean, SECURITY will keep on it?” I corrected him, gently shoving him away from the podium. “You Squirrels have earned a few brownie points, and Reach and Spark went above and beyond, but the 007 are still on suspension as a club.”
I favored the briefing room crowd with a smile and asked, “Before we let you go off and get yourselves stabilized: Any Questions?”
I saw a hand from Poise; no, he doesn’t deserve the grief, it was Runestrong. “Yeah, I have two questions: First, how long wil this ‘Mimic’ state last?”
“Well, it affected me for about 10 hours,” I answered. “But you got zotzed multiple times. I have no idea how that’s going to affect you.”
“Crap,” Runestrong (hey, it might have been Unbreakable) pouted, “Okay, second question: Will you talk to Poise, so she doesn’t bump into Marty or me- or worse, Marty AND me- and have a hissy fit about ‘knockoffs’? I don’t know what powers she has besides being flat out gorgeous- and I don’t wanna find out the hard way.”
The Debrief ground on for a few more hours- hey, we’re talking about a room full of tech-heads. Nitpick and quibble are what we DO. But the part just above was really the crux of the whole matter: we found out how DuPraeve pulled off his teleportation scheme, and we still don’t know how or why ‘the Bug Bot Bandit’ (I am going to GET Ace for that) did what he did.
But at least Maddy and I finally got a ‘Complete’ (and an A!) on our sheets.
When we let go for the day, we were told that Mr. Carstaires at Psycho Arts wanted to talk to us about the ‘Gestalt’ thing. Later. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even 2 in the afternoon.
Still, long day or not, Maddy was stoked about talking with Carstaires. “Just think about it, Smokes! If Carstaires okays it, we could train so’s we could go Gestalt any time we want!”
Crap. She would be jazzed about that. “uhm, Maddy? I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not? It was just So Kewl being so focused like that, instead of going off in every which direction, like I usually do! We KICKED ASS on TNT and their skank girlfriends.”
“Maddy? Yeah, that’s great, but when we’re… y’know… all Gestalt and crap… we’re not really US. You’re not Maddy and I’m not Smokey. We’re… this third person. Okay, I’m not as anxious as I usually am… but is that worth losing Who I am? Did I just lose a bit of anxiety… or a bit of ME? I’m not that happy with the thought of not being, y’know, me, and becoming a part of… that third girl. Who I don’t really know. And I may not like…”
Maddy opened her mouth, and I could just hear her brush off my worries with a breezy ‘It’ll be GREAT!’ But then she stopped, thought and she looked at me and said, “Y’know, Smokey- you’re right.”
“We can’t just go charging into this Gestalt thing and assume that everything will turn out okay.” Is the world coming to an end? Maddy is being… reasonable? “BUT, we can’t just lock it in a closet and not deal with it. Yeah, we find out what we’re dealing with first, but we find out what’s going on. Yeah, maybe this Gestalt thing is Mr. X’s grand plan. Maybe it’s not. We gotta find out first, before whatever it is comes knocking. Good, Bad or Ugly, we gotta have it under control, or it will have US under control.”
“Okaaayyy… that makes sense,” I allowed. And the weird thing was that it DID make sense, it wasn’t just Maddy nagging me into something, like she usually does. “Check it out, find out what’s going on first… that’s probably what Carstaires wants to talk about anyway.”
“There y’go, Smokey! And remember, no matter what, you got me by your side, ‘cause I know that no matter what, you’ll have my back.” That sounded good. Of course, she said the same thing just before we broke open that ‘do not open, recycle ASAP’ drum. It took weeks for the smell to get out of my hair. “Okay, we’re excused from the rest of our classes for the day, so why don’t we head over to Poe and use this opportunity to score some… hydroflux…?” she finished with a leer.
“Okay, but I really think that before we do that, we should visit Horrorshow in the Infirmary.”
“Do we HAVE to?” Maddy whined, which just proved that no matter how focused she may become Maddy is still Maddy.
“It’s the right thing to do,” I said primly. “Besides, if he sleazes on us, we have a better excuse for hydroflux.”
“Now yer talkin’, Smokster!”
And yes, we visited Horrorshow. He was still wiped out. And he must have been MAJOR bummed, ‘cause he only got in two sneaky gropes.
We spent the rest of the day kicking back and getting our room in shape. And as much as I hate to admit it, ‘borrowing’ Brandimant’s system of high reach bars for storage may be the only way to avoid something called ‘Fibber McGee’s Closet’ (don’t ask me). I was laying back on my bed, looking up and seeing if we could come up with any new wrinkles when Maddy came in with a big grin on her face. The afternoon had gone, dinner was over (and, yes, they had shrimp scampi again <big grin>), and it was the social portion of the cottage’s schedule. “Guess what, Smokes?” she leered at me. “Remember Cass Addington?”
“You mean Troika?”
“What would you say to a ménage a quintet?”
I scrunched up my face. “I think that it would be jumping into the sexual pool at the deep end. If you wanna, go ahead with a ménage a quatre.” I got up. “As for me, I think I’ll take things slower.”
“Stop the presses,” Maddy grumped. “Smokey’s taking it slow.”
“When you take it slow, you can savor things, really enjoy them,” I said as I walked out the door. And from the door, I went three doors over and knocked. There was some noise, and Brandimant answered the door wearing a red ‘Wonder Woman’ T-shirt with pink pajama bottoms with a white frolicking bunnies pattern all over it. She gave me an unsure look and made a questioning noise. “It’s me, Smokey,” I said.
Brando relaxed and leaned against the door jam. “So, what do you need now?” she asked with a smirk.
“Oh, I don’t need anything at the moment,” I assured her. “No, I was wondering if you could use a hand getting your rig set up. I mean, tearing something like that up is one thing, but putting one up is a lot more involved. I’m sure that you could use another pair of hands…y’know… making sure that everything’s tight and secure…” I wandered into her room, looking up to the rafters, where she was still installing the sockets.
Brando picked me up in her powerful arms and carried me up to the rafters. And we took our time, working very closely, and made sure that everything fit snug and tight.