Smoke and Mirrors
A Whateley Academy Tale
Smoke and Mirrors
Bek D Corbin
May 25th 2007
It was just the end of the week, the Crystal Hall was open again, classes were out for the day and I was conducting business up on the mezzanine. By ‘conducting business’, I mean that I was dividing my time between doing homework, chatting with Kate and Misty, fielding cell phone calls, and taking the odd walk-up business. I’m hardly the only fixer at Whateley, but I’m the only one who’s the kid of a name supervillain. That gives me a certain cachet, a street cred that the other fixers don’t have. Still, it’s taken me this long to drum into the general awareness that NO, I won’t contract a hit man to get someone out of their way. Kate and I were helping Misty with her Algebra homework. Like most American kids, Misty has an aversion to numbers and math that’s just this side of a complex. But once she’s got her head wrapped around something, she’s fine.
Then a guy wearing a Whateley lab coat walked up, did the clearing his throat bit to get our attentions, and said, “Excuse me, She-Beast? Could I have a few moments with you, if your friend doesn’t need you too much?”
“Hey, go RIGHT ahead!” Misty said, snapping the cover of her book shut. “I really need a break… my head hurts…” she finished with a whine. Kate just gave us that blank cold stare that she does so well, which indicated that she wasn’t moving.
So, I walked over a couple of tables, sat down, crossed my legs and smiled coquettishly at the guy. Then I wished that I hadn’t done that, when I got a better look at the guy. He was about my height, skinny, and he looked like Huck Finn with an All-American redheaded boy face with curling red hair and the mass of freckles on his face. Then I almost kicked myself. Again. This was a girl. She claimed that she didn’t care about not being a stock Whateley babe- or being routinely mistaken for a boy. I think that she’s either deeply in denial, or she’s saving up to move to San Francisco’s Castro district when she graduates. “Hey, MadSkillz, what’s up? And where’s your partner in crime, Smoke Test? I almost didn’t recognize you without him welded to your hip.”
Maddy gave me an embarrassed grimace over laced hands. “aaahhh… Smokey’s sorta the reason that I’m here…”
“You two found something?”
“Yes’n no… the thing is, I’m afraid that Smokey’s gonna do something really stupid…”
“Well, that’s a switch. Usually it’s Smoke Test who’s holding your safety line while you go over the edge. Come to think of it, you two have been comparatively quiet this year. Last year, you two would have given Team Kimba a run for their money in the landing in trouble sweepstakes. What have you two been doing?”
“Well, we been workin’ on a coupl’a different projects. And that’s part of the problem.” She paused and she gave out one of those ‘oh WHY couldn’t I just chew glass?’ expressions. She let out an aggrieved sigh. “LOOK, when Smokey and I stepped up-”
“Ex-squeeze me? ‘Stepped up’?”
“Oh, you didn’t hear about that?” Maddy asked with a wiseass grin and a tone of amusement. Well, that was more like it. I was beginning to wonder if the sober, concerned, responsible person sitting before me was indeed Mad-skillz, or just some shifter trying to pull a fast one on me. It has happened. “What? Your famous intelligence network didn’t pick up on that one?”
“Apparently not. Regale me.”
“Okay, you know that Smokey and me are both gadgeteers, right?” I nodded. Well, Smoke Test was a gadgeteer with a rather interesting knack in that he could find the thing in any mechanism or system that would cause it to fail. He could be a great systems diagnostician- or saboteur. Calling Madskillz a gadgeteer was a lot more iffy; she was called a gadgeteer mostly because she applied her gift to technology, and she sort of insisted on the label. “Well, the people in the Workshop have been bitching and moaning about how I’m not really a gadgeteer, like forever, right?”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Anyway, I was working on this new project- you don’t need to know- last November, and Rack, you know Rack?”
“Short guy, walks around in an exo-frame, has three steady girlfriends who all know about each other?”
“Right, anyway, Rack is watching as I’m doin’ my mojo on my Het- er, my project, and right outta left field, he tells me that what I do, how I can just pull information out of the air and apply it to my project the way I do, isn’t one big thing, the way that we been thinkin’, but rather, like, I’m doing TWO things, drawing on the information of everyone around me with telepathy, and then applying that to the project with ESP.”
“Let me guess,” I said with ripe amusement, “the Workshop people have been noodging you to talk with the Psycho Arts people for a long time.”
Maddy gave me the gorgon eye. “Very funny. Anyway, it turns out that I was a blocked Package Deal Psychic.”
“And why not? All the cool kids are turning into Package Deal Psychics.”
More gorgon eye. “Very funny. Anyway, Smokey was helping me with one of the straight telepathy exercises, and BOOM! We connected!”
“Very funny. No, it just turned out that Smokey was a blocked PDP too, and we found out the hard way.”
“Smokey hasn’t widened his scope of his knack has he? You didn’t unlock his block or anything?” The LAST thing that I need is the Second Coming of Loophole. That girl worries me more than ten MCO agents, and she’s only gotten worse since she turned into an Exemplar. She hasn’t given me any trouble since that ‘Wicked’ thing, but that doesn’t mean anything in the long run. One Loophole is all I can stand, I don’t need TWO. That is, unless I can sic them on each other.
“No, but now he has telepathy and some shaky PK. We’ve been doubling up our Workshop classes and Psycho Arts, which is why we been busy lately.”
“Okay, Madskillz, that’s really interesting. Now: what’s your problem?”
She paused and considered. “I hear around the Workshop that you’re tight with Jobe.”
“Tight?” I responded wryly. “It’s more like she’s that really annoying cousin that you don’t like but can’t get shuck of, ‘cause he’s family. Jobe and my brother Mal crawled around some of the same playpens. Mal grew up -some- but we’re still waiting for Jobe to get out of her Terrible Twos.”
“But you helped Belphoebe, that drow-clone that Jobe and Belphegor cooked up between them, when she was getting her bearings. And you took her and Jobe shopping for clothes and stuff, after Jobe went drow.”
“Yeah,” I chuckled with an ‘I got over’ grin. “And I picked up a killer wardrobe- on Jobe’s credit card- both times.”
“I also hear that you helped out that guy Reach, when his girlfriend Spark turned him into a girl.”
“It was a lot more complex than that,” I hedged, “and I didn’t really help him all that much. I gave him one or two pointers, pretty much as a party trick.”
Madskillz absorbed that, and she seemed to get a little edgy. She gave me a measuring look, trying to figure what he could safely tell me. “I understand that a Mage can’t break a sworn promise.”
“A Sorcerer’s Contract is binding,” I said loftily, raising one hand, “and no magicker who values her SOUL will break one.” Well, it’s a lot more involved than that, and involves the actual use of magic to seal the bargain, but there’s a common misconception among the Profane that any promise made by a Mage is just as binding. But I’m not telling her that. It’s a useful misconception. “I promise to keep your secret as best I can. I mean, I am NOT going to jail for you.”
Maddy nodded and gave me that ‘chewing broken glass’ look again. “I think that Smokey might want to… switch teams.”
“You think he wants to join the MCO?”
“No,” she growled, “I think that Smokey’s a switch-hitter!”
“Maybe… who knows?” She dropped to a hissed whisper, “I mean… he wants to be a she! He’s a gender-bender! A transsexual!”
“Are you sure about this?”
“What? Are you kidding? Of course I’m sure!”
“Well, now that we’re connecting telepathically, I’m picking up things, like, he’s not happy bein’ a guy, he envies girls, and he is really a lot more interested in what a girl’s wearing than how she’s filling it out, stuff like that. Also, even before, there were things about Smokey that didn’t add up, but do now.”
“Okaaayyy… and what am I supposed to do about it?”
“Him being T? Nothing. I’m down with that. I don’t understand it, but I’m down with it, ‘cause it’s Smokey. But…” she put on that ‘Lucy Ricardo ‘splainin’ something to Rickie’ look, “…I think that Smokey’s gonna try and fix himself somehow.”
“’Fix himself’? How?”
“How do you think?”
“He’s going to try and steal Spark’s Exemplar State Inducer? I thought that Carson showing everyone Migraine’s ‘after’ pictures showed what a BAD idea that was!”
Maddy waved me down. “It’s not THAT bad. Bad, but not that bad. But it IS somethin’ like that. A few years back, a devisor (I think) called Sinewave had another great bad idea: he built a devise that replicated the Mimic function of the Shapeshifter trait.”
“Oh, I do NOT like the sound of where this is going…” I groaned. “Wait, how long ago was this?”
“Nine years ago? I think?”
“And what happened to Sinewave?”
“I hear that they buried him. In a bucket.”
“Yeew!” I reeled. “Okay, now I get where you’re coming from. You want me to put a quiet word in an official ear to put a stop to this, without Smoke Test knowing that you ratted him out.” Maddy shook her head. “You want me to arrange for Sinewave’s doohickey to disappear?” She shook her head again. “You want me to arrange for someone to dig it out first, and have some sort of smoking wreck that would discourage him from trying it himself?”
“Well, that would be good, but not what I’m really going for,” she said carefully.
“Okay, I’m really sucking at second-guessing today. Okay, what DO you want me to do?”
“I, ah, want you to help me hijack his plan.”
“For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been exploring some of the lower tunnels in that weird patch between the Workshop and the main transit tunnels, y’know, looking for hidden labs left behind by guys who graduated?” I nodded. I do the same thing, and I’ve bought a couple of sites from Maddy and Smokey in the past. Hey, they needed the cash, and I made money on it too, so it was all good. “And we found a system of hidden teleport bases.”
“Interesting,” I said nodding. “Why bother with all the problems of a hidden door for your lab and avoiding being followed, if you can just gate in?”
“That’s the problem,” Maddy said. “It doesn’t Gate. It beams us around.”
“Beams you around?”
“Yeah, like on Star Trek; it disassembles you somehow and reassembles you wherever it dumps you.”
“You’re kidding! Nobody uses that transport scheme! It’s way too fucking dangerous! Even Jeff Goldblum knows better!”
“Yeah, I know, right? But get this: there are at least a hundred of these bases scattered around the place, but they’re on some sort of shuttle schedule. If you don’t use it at the right time, it could beam you to somewhere else in the tunnels; that is, if it works at all. And if you try to use it right after someone else has used it… well, I’m never going to wear that pair of sneaks again!” Maddy shook her head as though clearing her sinuses.
“Okay, and what does this have to do with Smokey, and your suspicions that he wants to play Marcie to your Peppermint Patty?”
“Look, we’re not stupid; we’re trying to be as careful with those teleportation bases as we can. But, a couple of times, Smokey’s gotten beamed without me, and… well… he was just plain weirded out when I finally found him. And believe me, it took some doing to find him! And, I’ve been checking his figures and besides the work on the timing that we’ve been doing, he’s been doing some calculations based on readings that he took of his own body. I know for a fact that Smokey examined Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer last year, but he checked it and examined it again last week. And now he’s been working on something that he claims will counteract Protein Antagonism. Y’know, like when clones get the cellular version of metal fatigue?”
“Yeah, I’m familiar with it. So, you think that Smokey’s going to use Sinewave’s gadget on himself, copy the form of some girl that he’s picked out-”
“-yeah, and then use the teleportation thing to cover it up. He uses his invention to stabilize himself, and then he goes, ‘Oh rue is me! Alack the day! Some cruel, unforeseen trick of fate has turned me into a GIRL! Oh, WOE for my lost, lamented manhood!’” Maddy said stiltedly, her head back, hand to forehead.
“Hopefully, he’ll do a better job of acting,” I said dryly.
“Okay, so I’m not Meryl Streep, so sue me. Anyway, he plays the poor emasculated All-American Boy, we work feverishly to find a way to reverse the effect, and then, just as I think I’ve got it, *BOOM!* his gadget melts down in a shower of sparks, leaving him trapped like that. OR, something like that. Smokey can be a really sneaky little shit when he wants to.
“BUT, what if he gets turned into a girl by someone else? If he’s not in control, and it’s not up to HIM, then it’s a whole different thing, right? Then he’s trapped, and he has to admit it to himself, right? Well…” she faltered a little, “that is, if he’s not really a Tranny. And, he, ah, if she is, well then, it’s all good, right?”
“I thought that you were sure that Smokey was transgendered.”
“Look, I did my research,” Maddy said severely. “Most people who think that they’re transgendered are actually something else, usually they’re just confused about their orientation, or they’re hiding from the fact that they’re gay, or something like that. See, Smokey’s dingus will keep molecules from getting all ‘metal fatigue’ from whatever, but I think it could also be used to fix a person into that form when Sinewave’s Mimicry gadget is used on them. See? He wants to keep control of the change! He’s not sure, but he won’t let himself see that!” she finished as though she’d just presented a thesis paper.
God save us all from Sophomore psychology students.
“You’re taking as a given that I can find some way of turning Smokey into a girl,” I pointed out
“Well, SHUH! Cop Sinewave’s Mimic thingie! Or something else. Don’t tell me.”
“You don’t want to know?” I asked with a sharp eyebrow.
“Well SHUH! Smokey and I, we connect! I’m just good enough to hide this right here with you from him, but there’s no way that I could hide setting up anything that would fly from him. You know me, I get too all wrapped up in whatever I’m doing for anything like that! If I held back enough to keep it from him, Smokey’d pick up that I was trying to pull something for sure!”
I gave Maddy the ‘severe big sister’ look that I use on Mal when he’s being deliberately dense. “You DO realize that the smart, safe, sane thing to do would be to go to the school counselors and let people who are trained to handle these things take care of Smokey.”
“I can’t do thhhaaaattt…” Madskillz whined, “It’s SMOKEY! He’s my amigo, my compadre, my BUD! I can’t rat him out like that! If he is TG, or gay or autogyno-whatever, he’d never forgive me for outing him! And if I’m wrong- hey, this mind-reading stuff is a lot harder than it sounds!- then I’d humiliate him! I mean, Smokey’s not exactly the most macho guy around, and if he’s not TG, then he’s gotta be hella touchy about that.”
She gave me a pleading look. Dear God, I’m letting a wacky redhead talk me into a harebrained scheme. I wonder if this is how Ethel Mertz feels… “Two things,” I opened. “First, I want a written statement from you- and by ‘written’, I mean hand-written- stating that this was your idea, and that I’m doing this at your request. Hey, there are a lot of people who want my head on a pike on general principles; if something like this went wrong, they’d get it. If this goes sour, I’m going to be running some serious personal risks.”
“Okay. Done. And what’s the second thing?” She asked owlishly.
I gave her my best predatory grin. “What’s in it for ME? You’re asking a LOT from me, Maddy. This will involve some very detailed work, and I’ll have to call in favors, and if it goes pear-shaped, I will be in a LOT of trouble, with Smokey, with Carson, with the Workshop overseers, with Rev. Englund, with the girl whose template I use, with the girl’s friends, with her boyfriend, with the capes… Heck, I might even get in trouble with the NOW. Why should I stick my neck out for you?”
Surprisingly, Madskillz smiled back at me confidently. “Jadis, I can sum it up in one word: DUPRAEVE.”
“I need to make some calls, do a few meetings. I’ll get back to you.”
Several hours later, I had another meeting, this time in the former clubroom of the Whateley Junior Entrepreneurs Association, which was last years’ cover for the Masterminds. Besides an enviable array of anti-eavesdropping gear, it had quite a few secret entrances and exits. One of the two people I was meeting with knows those entrances very well, and was inside and seated at the table as though she’d teleported. Then her partner, Zenith, walked in. “Okay, She-Beast, you wanted a meeting?”
“Yeah, but first, I want your word, your sacred oath, that if you don’t accept my deal, that you won’t tell anyone, anyone at ALL, about what I’m going to tell you,” I demanded, feeling every inch a hypocrite. I handed them the spell slips.
Zenith looked at Sahar. Sahar said, “I can’t read her. But then, I never could. Still, I do get the impression from her body language that she’s on the up and up. Besides, if she’s playing us, there are other ways of dealing with her.” She gave me a look that said that if she put her mind to it, she really could tie me up in a pretzel- at least legally. And she’s got the connections to do it. I handed her the spell slip, and then Zenith.
“Okay,” I said in a gusty breath, “take a seat and settle in. This is gonna be a long story.” Then I broke my word to Madskillz, and told them everything that she’d told me.
At the end of my spiel, Zenith gave me a viciously dirty look. “She-Beast, mark my words, I am GOING to GET you for this! When Carson finds out that we knew about this-”
“Carson already knows,” I said as evenly as I could.
“What? Yer kiddin’!”
“You have my permission and exception to the pact, to contact her and confirm this with Carson.” Zenith shared a look with Sahar, and did so. And, of course, Carson gave a brusque confirmation, before getting back to her busy schedule.
Zenith shut her phone and gave me a measuring look. “Okay, color me curious. HOW did you get Carson to go along with this ludicrous scheme of yours?”
“Actually, large parts of it were her idea.”
Sahar looked at me with those eerie red-ringed eyes of hers. “Exactly what do you want from us, Jadis?”
All right, at least, they were listening. “Okay, here goes. The idea is we let Smoke Test pull of his little scam- but on OUR terms.”
“By ‘ours’, you mean ‘yours’?” Sahar said with a smirk.
“Mine,” I agreed, “and Carson’s and Bellows’, and hopefully, yours. Madskillz’ idea of getting the idea across to Smoke Test (and anyone else paying attention) that using Devisor tech on yourself is DUMB going on suicidal, is a good one, and Smokey has more or less volunteered for it. However, Carson thinks that using Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer is a bad idea. Indeed, if anything, I think that Carson sees this as an excuse for getting her hands on that prototype and destroying it.”
“If not Sinewave’s gadget, then how is Smoke Test supposed to pull off his magic trick?” Zenith asked, kicking back in her chair.
“Okay, bear with me, we are going to go on a little trip on the near edges of the Twilight Zone here. Are you familiar with the concept of the ‘mimic suit’?”
“You mean like a camouflage suit? One of those ‘hologram suits’ that’s supposed to blend in perfectly with the background, not quite invisibility?”
“NO, that’s actually sane,” I admitted. I reminded them about Sinewave, and his ultimately suicidal Mimicry Inducer. “Anyway, before that, Sinewave was working on a similar project with another devisor called Escher. One of their projects was a ‘Mimic Suit’, which you put on, and became a functioning duplicate of a person that they’d taken a template of.”
Zenith blinked at me and said, “She-Beast, that isn’t even insane, it’s just stupid.”
“I agree with you, but apparently Escher was very big into synthetic warping and ‘overpattern’ theory.”
“Don’t ask. Carson showed me Escher’s ‘Basic Operating Concepts for Dummies’ notes. Zenith? Sahar? I could challenge Bachelors exams in Math, Physics and Engineering tomorrow, and walk away with three degrees. And it was all Greek to me. I speak Greek, and I still couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Asterlitz, one of the Workshop overseers told me that Escher created no less than four new curvature tensors to make it work.”
Sahar arched an eyebrow at me. “Are we talking ‘things that Man was not meant to know’?”
“No, I think that it falls more under the heading of ‘Things that Man is not yet ready to know’.”
“How well could they duplicate someone?” Zenith asked.
“Pretty superficial, from the file that I read,” I admitted. “Mostly, they copied the gross physical form, and the simpler, more direct traits, like high-level exemplar traits such as super-strength, nigh-invulnerability and so on, were more easily copied and used. There were some issues where certain traits didn’t synch together very well, like energizer and warper and like that.”
“Were there any long-term exposure effects?” Sahar asked, like she was looking for a trap or trick of some sort.
“Long-term?” I shook my head. “Warpers and those Mages that they could talk into the things didn’t like them much, but that was almost an automatic thing. There were a couple of cases where the suits synched too well, and they couldn’t get the things off for a few weeks-”
“AHhhhh…” Zenith and Sahar sighed as one. “THERE’S your hook.”
“Good to see that we’re on the same page. We get Smokey to use one of these suits and ‘somehow’ it gets loaded with the template of a female exemplar. ‘Whoops, it won’t reset’! And, after a while using it, ‘whoops, it won’t come off!’”
“So,” Sahar purred, “Smoke Test either gets a week or so with a perfect excuse to walk around as a cute girl, or he has to face up to what he really believes.”
“Which while not exactly gentle,” I pointed out, “could very well save his life. I did some reading up on the subject- hey, I hang out with Trevor Goodkind; I like to know what I’m dealing with- and teenage transgenders have a nasty proclivity toward self-destructive behavior, including self-mutilation. If Madskillz is right, and Smokey’s trying to reverse-engineer Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer so he can Mimic his way into being… oh, say, you or Majestic or Gloriana, or any of the other glamour-pusses on campus, we could very well be saving him from being buried in a bucket.
“Now, the theory that we’re operating under here, is that most people who think that they’re transgendered either are simply what they call ‘gender confused’; Madskillz says that Smoke Test has done a raft of tests on himself, including testing himself for the sex differences in the brain, but-”
“But self-testing is always suspect,” Sahar finished for me.
“Bingo. Smokey will get his head shrunk after the change, SOP and all that. If it’s just confusion or curiosity, a week or two as a girl should be enough to soothe that, and he’ll welcome the change back. And if it’s not, Bellows should be able to help Smokey get a grip on whatever’s biting him.”
“And what if Smoke Test IS a legitimate transsexual?” Zenith asked. “Then you’ll have given her a week of relief, then another week of panic as the suit starts to fail, and then he’s back where he started, with only a taste of what he went through all that to get.”
I shrugged. “We- or at least Bellows- will cross that bridge when we get to it. The point here is that Escher’s body suit dingus is safe, while Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer isn’t.”
“And what is OUR role in all this?” Sahar asked.
I gave them a pained smile. GOD, did I know that I was asking a lot! “Well, first, we need someone to provide the template. And, we need someone to sort of babysit Smokey, while he’s finding out what being a girl is like.”
“And you thought that we were good for it, because we gave Reach a helping hand,” Zenith said with her mouth pursed like she’d just bitten into a sour apple. “Dear God, it’s true: no good deed goes unpunished.”
“Actually, you two were Carson’s idea,” I said. “My idea was to use Spark and Reach. But Carson thinks that you two are safer and more reliable.” I gave Sahar a sharp look, wondering why Carson would think that. Sahar has a reputation as the coldest, most ruthless- and effective- backstab artist in school. She’d even taken two of the most formidable mindfuck artists in school for a ride, and she’d done a job on Zenith, too. But then, before Christmas break, for some reason, she and Zenith mended bridges, and they were tight again. And I want to know why.
Zenith and Sahar shared one of those silent looks that shared information and ideas better than a mediated symposium. Zenith looked at me. “Okay, if Carson wants us to do it, we’ll consider it. But we’ll be doing most of the heavy lifting, so there’d better be something in it for US, She-Beast.”
I nodded. “There is. And Maddy summed it up for me nicely in one word: DUPRAEVE.”
“DUPRAEVE?” Zenith and Sahar chorused back at me. “Are you shitting me, Diabolik?”
“Nope! Somehow, Smokey and Maddy managed to find one of DuPraeve’s hideouts, including research materials, gadgets, maps, psyche profiles, surveillance tapes, disguises, and a shit-ton of blackmail.” And I knew that I had them. Last year, Nick Dupree was the Mastermind of the Masterminds, back when they were an actual threat. He’d spent four years at Whateley, getting away with murder (well, maybe not murder- that we know of), and laughing at everyone. He was always one step ahead of everyone, including Carson, and while he made no secret as to exactly what he was, nobody could prove jack, he was that slick. The only one who was even in his league was Freya, the Alpha of the Alphas, and even they had a ‘don’t fuck with me, and I won’t fuck with you’ truce. Then Sahar pulled her Magnum Opus of treachery. She managed to get in with both the Mastermind and the Spy Kidz, telling each that she was their mole in the other. And from there, it gets very, very convoluted, but basically it winds up with Slick Nick walking straight into a trap that caught him with his pants around his ankles, no excuses or anyone to blame it on, and Carson standing there with a big smile on her face.
Even then, Nick had an escape route planned, just in case anything like this ever happened. Of course, that escape required that he throw his two closest (read: only) friends, Nightfox and Latchkey, to the wolves, but hey, that’s DuPraeve all over.
This goes a long way towards explaining why Sahar is still in school after some of the shit she pulled: Carson owed her a big one. And on the other hand, it’s why Sahar will go along with this: DuPraeve’s out there, and he’s not exactly famous for being a forgiving, ‘business is business’ kind of guy. There’s no news that he’s gone after his old sparring partner, Hotspur of the Cape Squad, who’s in college now, and fair game for that kind of thing. Which implies that Dupraeve’s biding his time, waiting for Sahar to graduate, and then he’ll really put the screws to her. Sahar and Zenith shared another of those looks, and Sahar said, “I’m in. Does Carson know about the Dupraeve files?”
“It’s a big part of why she’s going along with it. I think that letting Smokey do his walk on the femme side (under controlled conditions) is sort of Carson’s idea of a cookie for his finding Dupraeve’s stuff.”
Zenith speared me with a glance. “Okay, that covers why Semi and I should do it, and why Carson’s going along with this. So, why are YOU doing all this, She-Beast?”
“Hey, I was involved, the second that Madskillz told me about it. The very fact that I knew would implicate me in it, no matter what went down. And everyone involved would assume that I was the evil mastermind at work, because I’m the daughter of Dr. Diabolik. SO, my only way out of this mess is to engineer the best possible outcome, with Carson’s blessing. Just kicking back and letting the chips fall where they may is SO not in the cards for me.”
“So, you’re doing it to cover your ass,” Zenith said in a flat, unbelieving tone. “And whatever brownie points you get from Carson.”
Nertz, I hate dealing with people who are as sharp as I am. “Look, DuPraeve wasn’t the first, but he was definitely the nastiest of the assholes that wanted to get a job interview with my father through me. He hadn’t started to put the squeeze on me-”
“He was getting ready to,” Sahar said, from her privileged position of knowing what DuPraeve was doing at the time (mostly). “He was beginning to collect materials on you, with an eye toward crafting a compromising incident. But he hadn’t gotten around to actually doing anything.”
“And that’s DAMN good to know!” I said with total sincerity. “Maddy and Smokey found DuPraeve’s lair, but they’ve only found it once. His entry system is too subtle, even they haven’t quite figured out the sequence. I NEED for his files to be found, and his notes about me. Hey, I wasn’t doing anything that he could hold against me, and dammit, I want PROOF of that!”
“That’s… kind of paranoid,” Zenith said.
“Truly spoken like someone who doesn’t have to periodically shake out her underwear drawer for electronic bugs,” I groused. “Like I said, he was gathering information on me; I want that information. If it’s just lying around, someone might get stupid ideas.”
Zenith chewed on it for a while. “Okay, if Carson’s cool with this, then I’m down with it. If there’s a catch or glitch in it anywhere, I don’t see it, and it sounds like you’ve maximized the Pro Bono factor. So, the big question is: which of us takes the hit?” She shot a look at Sahar. “No matter which of us steps up, we’ll both be doing some serious hauling taking care of Smokey. AND, there’s the none-too-minor issue as to whose template gets copied.” She arched an inquiring eyebrow in my direction. “Or, has that already been decided?”
“I think that’s one reason why Carson chose you two,” I offered. “Part of the criteria is that the subject has to be clairvoyant, as well as an exemplar, as not to conflict with Smokey’s ESPer talent, in case the template affects Smokey’s talent. You’re both ESPers of one sort or another, so we can rig it so that it’s not so bloody obvious that we’re foisting just the one of you on Smokey.”
“I’ll do it,” Sahar said with the sort of simple, matter-of-factness that suggested to me that there was a lot more going on.
“Penance?” Zenith asked in the same way.
“Some,” Sahar admitted. “More that it’s the right thing to do, and I really do need to work on that. My reflex is still to go for the weak spot. Besides, you did ‘Big Sister’ duty when Reach first changed over. And, if Smoke Test looks like you, then there will be three of you. You’ll all gang up on me. I need someone on my side.” I wondered how much of that was them being playful, how much of it was real power-brokering, and how much of it was just a show that they were putting on for me.
Zenith shrugged and made a ‘whatever’ gesture. “Okay, it looks like we’ve got the basics nailed down. So, let’s get cracking!” We all pulled out cell phones and started making calls.
“What are THEY all doing here?” Madskillz hissed at me, indicating the crowd that I’d assembled, which was trying to achieve some measure of cohesion. It was a bear, considering their number, and the fact that some of them made no secret that they didn’t respect certain of the others at ALL. Besides Zenith and Sahar, I’d managed to talk Reach, his (?) girlfriend Spark, and some of the other Spy Kidz, my brother Mal and a few other noodle-heads from the Workshop into lending a hand.
“Many hands make for heavy lifting,” I replied with a smile. I added with a whisper, “And many suspects make for complete surprise.”
MadSkillz paused, thought it over and nodded. “Okay, I can see that. But why did you ask THEM?” she pointed over at where Horrorshow, Runestrong, and the other Losers, OMAG especially, were hanging out, chatting about this and that.
“Hey, with a scene like this, it was either them or the Rat Pack.” Every school has its little gangs of grungy losers, and the Losers and the Rat Pack are ours. They don’t much like each other, but the Losers hang out at Emerson, while the Rats are mostly a Twain crew. “The Losers have a knack for smelling out rats, and while they may not be particularly reliable, at least they’re mostly honest. Dumb, but honest. Which is a helluva lot more than you can say for the Rats. Besides, they got OMAG, who can send copies of himself to get clobbered, if it comes to that. AND, it couldn’t hurt to have a bunch of guys who’ll go and do dangerous, stupid shit of their own free will in something like this. On top of that, Horrorshow volunteered!”
Maddy let out an annoyed grunt. “Smokey says Horrorshow’s sweet on me.”
“Really?” I asked in a bleat, genuinely surprised. “That yahoo actually has the depth of character and taste to appreciate what you’ve got? Color me impressed! I had jim pegged for the type that drools over the honey-of-the-week on the porn sites.” Maddy groused over having a creep like Horrorshow keen for her, and I was about to rib her about Smokey, when my phone went off.
[Thunderbirds are go] I recognized Zenith’s voice.
“Already? I mean, is it wise to initiate so soon?”
[With this crew, the sooner the better, before anyone does anything stupid]
“There IS that…”
[Just follow Scenario C, and everything should go okay]
“Fine! I’ll get them going, and even if we don’t find it, at least we’ll get a better idea of how the damned thing works.” I hung up and gave Madskillz, a nod. It was on. I let out an ear-piercing whistle and said loudly, “Okay People! The Maintenance Department just called, and they’ve got the power watch installed, so we are GO! But, just so that nobody complains that they didn’t understand the terms of this, you are all doing this of your own free will- and a chance to see whatever it was that DuPraeve had up his sleeve. IF you are worried that DuPraeve had some blackmail on you- legit or otherwise- don’t worry; the Administration says that Tricky Nick was in the habit of forging blackmail against people when he couldn’t find anything real to hold over them. So, Carson’s ruled that any incriminating documents or other such found in DuPraeve’s hidey-hole will be discounted as a forgery on general principles.
“STILL, if you find yourself in DuPraeve’s lair: Stand still and Don’t DO Anything, other than contact ME. If you don’t, you’ll automatically be suspect if anything’s missing. We’ll take it from there.
“And People! This is a Team exercise! We ALL win if we find his lair, and all that any of us are going to win are bragging rights and brownie points.”
“What about examining DuPraeve’s teleporter?” someone in the peanut gallery asked.
“That too,” I allowed.
“How come the Stormwolf and the Wild Pack aren’t in on this?” someone else asked. “DuPraeve hated Stormy’s guts, and vice versa; I’d think that they’d be all over this!”
“If you think that my sister would just hand over control of this to Stormwolf, you’re nuts,” Mal sniped.
“A bit more to the POINT,” I tried to take back control of the briefing, “according to Sahar, as a matter of SOP DuPraeve had everything he had set to shut down if there was any sign of any of the Wild Pack. Exactly HOW he was able to do that is one of the things that we’re looking forward to finding out when we finally get into his lair. It’s also why WE are doing this, and not Security; if he had the Betas taped that way, he sure as hell had Security taped as well. It’s also why we’re not using Juniors or Seniors for this; that, and the fact that there’s a quantum shift less chance that DuPraeve had a Sophomore either taped or under his thumb, and no chance of a Freshman.”
“What about the Cadets?” Ace asked in his usual ‘Clint Eastwood’-poser rasp. “If DuPraeve had his whatever set against the Betas, he’d do the same thing against us.”
“Good point, Ace,” I verbally patted him on the head. “The Spy Kidz are here to provide overwatch. The others will do the actual brute-force search, while you guys watch remotely. But then, you’re good at that, aren’t you?” I gave him the dig; the ‘Intelligence Cadet Corps’ has been following me, Mal and most of the other Bad Seeds, trying to catch one of us doing something that they could bust us for; their stupid club was on indefinite suspension for what they tried just before Spring Break. Ace gave me a silent snarl that said, ‘Yeah, we’re good, and we’re gonna bust your ass, Diabolik’. Dream on, doink.
“Okay, here’s the thing.” I brought up an image of a stock keypad on a monitor. “This was the key to DuPraeve’s access system. There are pads like this all over the school. Security and Maintenance use them for various purposes. You’ve seen them damn near everywhere, so for all practical purposes, they’re invisible. Somehow, DuPraeve managed to not only infiltrate this system of keypads, but he managed to install somewhere between 60 and 100 of them in various places that have no Security or Maintenance purposes- at least, not for the school. DuPraeve set these things up so that he could ‘beam into’ his lair, Star Trek- style, with the assumption that he was being followed or monitored at every step. Some of them are out in plain sight, and he’d key something in, and then go somewhere else and do something innocuous, like buy a cup of coffee from a vending machine, and as soon as he took the cup of coffee from the machine, his teleporter would beam him in. Others are set up in places where he could skip all that, and beam directly in, because they’re placed where he could see whether he was alone or not. And another set of them are placed in very hard to reach places, which DuPraeve got to by levitating. We’re not sure exactly how the things work; under that plate, there’s an absolute mish-mash of circuitry and wiring that doesn’t make sense. But that means that we can’t narrow things down by simply removing them one at a time, at least not before we find DuPraeve’s lair; it might simply shut down if we did that.
“Now, the reason that we’re using all you guys, and not a codebreaker program, is that, as Ace over there will tell you, DuPraeve was way too sneaky for anything like that. BUT! All of his measures,” I gestured over to Sahar, who knew him better than anyone, “assume that Slick Nick, or one of the other Masterminds, or their pawns, would be available to handle whoever was going nibble, nibble, like a mouse. Anything going at computer speeds, it would simply shut down and send Nick a message, and he’d handle it from there; but anything going at human speeds, Nick’s computer would string them along, try to keep them at one keypad, and wait for Nick or one of his goons to handle them. We’re going to use that.
“Our approach will be three-fold: The first approach will be a simple brute-force-”
“Y’mean, yer just gonna kick down some doors, like a normal person?”
“NO, OMAG,” his buddy Runestrong corrected him, “she means that it’ll be a matter of trying every possible combination.” OMAG grumped something about taking a simple problem and making a big deal about it.
“Actually Runestrong, it’ll be a little more sophisticated than that,” Kew corrected him. “We’ve got Ringo on board, and he’ll be giving you sequences to use, that he’ll use to try and figure out the key to DuPraeve’s cryptic key. Now, here’s the thing. Before he escaped, Security managed to get their hands on DuPraeve’s PDA, and they didn’t find any crypto-key, so he must have kept it in his head. DuPraeve didn’t have eidetic recall, so he must have been using some sort of mnemonic to recall the key to his sequence. But, since that was modified by some variable- time and date were obviously part of the cipher, but the constant? No one knows. But Ringo thinks that he can figure it out by studying how DuPraeve’s system reacts to different inputs. You’ll still get teleported around-” There were cheers and ‘all right!’ from the Losers at that, “-and you can expect to wind up in some seriously icky places-” OMAG and Unbreakable looked jazzed, “-but that should be the worst of it.” Horrorshow and his gang actually seemed to be eager to get at it. “Oh, and for the unavoidable question: NO, we can’t use robots, there’s got to be a life sign at the keypad, and YES, I tried mimicking a life sign, and it didn’t work.”
I stepped in again. “The second approach will involve analyzing the energy that DuPraeve’s teleporter uses to move you around, so, YES, you getting beamed around WILL actually be useful. Once we’ve got a lock on it, we’ll use a Teleporter that got put in storage before DuPraeve ever got here, so his teleporter won’t know how to block it, and we’ll just jaunt into his lair. At least… that’s the theory…
“And the third angle of attack will be concentrated at those hard-to-get-at spots, which are mostly hidden down in the more remote parts of the extended tunnel complex. IF there’s a weak spot in DuPraeve’s access network, it’s probably there. We’re going to use Gadgeteers against them, specifically three pairs: Zenith & Sahar, Madskillz & Smoke Test, and Spark & Reach. Okay, Reach isn’t a gadgeteer, but she’ll provide security for Spark; DuPraeve has booby-trapped all the keypads that we know of, but that just means there might be one that we just haven’t seen. YET.”
Kitbash, one of the Sophs that I’d seen hanging around the Workshop said, “So, we’re supposed to walk up to a keypad wearing waders, goggles, a crash helmet and a gas mask and suddenly disappear? What are people gonna think when they see us do this?”
“Probably, ’Another boring day at Whateley’,” I replied with an acidulous smile. “Maybe, ‘Wow, Kitbash is really improving her fashion sense’.”
“Why not just let OMAG here do most of the entries?” Mal asked. “When he gets dumped, he just dismisses his duplicate and he won’t have to deal with whatever nastiness DuPraeve had in the lineup.”
“Well, YEAH, but where’s the fun in that?” OMAG drawled. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about this Duprave guy, I’m in it for the RIDE!” the other Losers vocally agreed.
“Besides,” Runestrong said, “while Sandy could avoid getting beamed with one unit, there’s no way that he could direct his units to do anything as complicated as entering a code sequence for more than two different units.”
“Oh? He was pulling off some pretty fancy moves in the Combat Finals- when he wasn’t getting a PIE shoved in his face!” Mal snickered.
“Oh, the combos were complicated, but what each unit was required to do was actually very simple: mostly ‘separate, latch onto the unit in front of you, do THIS’, that sort of thing.”
“And why don’t you just shut the fuck UP, Round Boy?” OMAG snarled.
SMOKE TEST/ MADSKILLZ
“How did DuPraeve keep them all straight?” Maddy said, looking at the map of the keypad placements in the ‘hard to reach’ areas. “I mean, okay, so the entry sequence probably keys off on the time, date and location… but how did he remember it all? I mean, he could have used psychometry- if he had it- but how could he use psychometry, if he was levitating to get to the keypad?”
“What I want to know is HOW DuPraeve got those stupid things up there in the first place?” Smokey asked, looking at the same map.
“And what *I* want to know,” Ace grated, stalking up wolfishly and giving them his best ‘Clint Eastwood’ glower, “is why you went to Diabolik to set all this up, and not the Cadets? This should be an Intelligence Cadet Corps operation!”
“Well, technically, we went to Jadis Diabolik, not ‘Diabolik’; just ‘Diabolik’ is the name of an Italian comic strip char-” Smokey stopped waffling in mid-sentence as Ace scowled at him.
“We went to She-Beast, because we’ve done business with her,” Maddy said defiantly. “We knew that she’d get the right people, and have all the clearances that we needed, without all the ‘need for security’ crap that you’d insist on. Besides, with She-Beast, we know that we’ll get credit for this.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ace snarled.
“It means,” Maddy snarled right back, “that when you waltz into a project where two people have already done 85% of the WORK, you’re SUPPOSED to at least mention those two people, instead of just rubber-stamping it an ‘Intelligence Cadets Project’, when those two people aren’t even members of your stupid little weenie CLUB!”
“We saved your LIVES!”
“It must be nice to think that.”
A-Plus rolled her eyes as Ace and Maddy yapped at each other for a bit. Then She-Beast clipped up with Zenith and Sahar in tow. “Making friends and influencing people again, I see, Ace” Jadis breezed. “What’s the problem now?”
“Double-Oh- Bozo here wants to stage a coup and take over the operation,” Maddy said in a snit.
“This is rightfully an Intelligence Cadets Corps operation,” Ace insisted.
“NO,” Jadis corrected him, “there IS NO Intelligence Cadets Corps at the moment, remember? Besides, rightfully, this is a Security operation, and they’re letting us run this under supervision. And by ‘us’, I mean ME.”
“And how did you arrange that, Diabolik?” Ace rasped, his eyes glittering with suspicion.
“Oh, very mysterious, very underhanded, very sinister… I went to them and ASKED, and then presented a detailed project plan.”
“What are you after, Diabolik?” he demanded.
“Well, World Domination is so cliché…” Jadis drawled through a snide grin.
“What’s going on?” Harley ‘Reach’ Sawyer asked as she walked up with her girlfriend, Genevieve ‘Spark’ Etincelle.
“Oh, Ace was getting behind on his ‘Functional Paranoia’ class, so he decided to squeeze in a little homework,” Zenith said pertly.
“Well, then, let this ‘paranoid’ point out a major flaw in your plan,” Ace grumbled.
“Channel D is open; go ahead.”
“One of your most experienced Clairvoyant teams-”
“I think that he means us, Maddy; cherish it,” Smokey said wryly.
“I’ll try not to let it go to my head,” Madskillz said breathlessly as she fanned her face with her hand.
“-is sorely lacking in defense. Knowing DuPraeve, even his most covertly placed- hell, ESPECIALLY his best hidden entry pads will be covered by some sort of trap or weapon. Instead of the teleportation games that the other entry pads will respond with, I’ll bet that there are stun weapons set on the obliquely placed entry pads. Knowing DuPraeve, he wouldn’t use anything deadly in the weapon, but he’d rely on the fall to either kill or knock out anyone trying to get in. Zenith, Sahar, Spark, Reach, A-Plus and myself can all take a hard fall; neither Smoke Test nor Madskillz can.”
“Oh, WOW, Semi,” Zenith said with patently feigned ingenuousness, “we never THOUGHT of that!” she finished by dropping a pair of ‘Safety’ yellow outfits on the table.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” A-Plus said flatly, “what’s THAT?”
“We asked Mr. Frankowski, the Workshop overseer on this project, to dig up a reliable teleporter that preceded DuPraeve by at least four years, so that he wouldn’t have heard of it and come up with a detector and counter-measure for it, and he mentioned this one. It was designed by a guy called ‘Escher’,” and from there, Sahar went on to explain the Mimic Suits.
“The idea being that Smoke Test and Madskills will wear these, which will be encoded with templates taken from Stormwolf and Zoe, gaining the physiques of level: 6 Exemplars, though not their other powers. This will make it easier to get to the keypads without setting off any of the inevitable alarms that DuPraeve has set, and protect them from any traps that he’s laid. Your first move when going up there will be to find and report any such traps, so the next person coming along knows what to look for.”
“Has anyone given any thought to the possibility of using these with GSD cases?” Smoke Test asked, checking out the WiFi’d file on his PDA.
“I’d be amazed if someone hasn’t, Smokey,” Zenith said as she fiddled with the suits, attaching leads and cables to various points. “But it would be a waste of time; the effect is purely superficial, it doesn’t cause any material physiological or genetic change.” She paused and considered. “Mind you, it might have some applications with MATD and other teratogenic disorders, but testing it beyond purely cosmetic effects would be hideously dangerous.”
“I haven’t heard of this ‘Escher’ guy,” Smoke Test said warily.
“Well, if YOU had, then DuPraeve definitely would have, and that would defeat the entire purpose of the thing, now wouldn’t it?” Jadis said puckishly.
“What happened to him?”
“We’re not sure…” Zenith admitted. “According to Frankowski, he stepped into one of his teleportation projects, and that was the last that anyone’s seen of him.” She scowled at some of their reactions. “We’re not using that one!” she snapped, “Frankowski recommended both the teleporter and these suits, and he has an admirable bug about safety.”
“Well, we’re not making any headway just standing here yakking,” Jadis said with a gusty sigh, “Let’s see if these things perform as advertised.” She led them into a room that was dominated by two devices: a squat, flat-white ‘saucer’ with a door cut into one side, and a bank of instrumentation with four glassine cylindrical booths.
“How 1960s,” Ace sneered.
“Don’t look at me,” Zenith said, “I didn’t design them.” She sent Smoke Test and Madskillz into a set of knock-up cloth-and-tubing changing booths to get into the Mimic Suits.
A few minute later, Smoke Test called out, “Is Ace still out there?”
“Yeah,” Hold-out said. “And Rez and me are here. She wanted to see the Mimic Suits.”
“Oh. Wonderful,” was Smoke Test’s embarrassed reply.
“What’s the matter, Smokey?” Madskillz asked from the other booth.
“It’s a little… uhm…”
“Unforgiving?” Reach offered.
“Just the word I was looking for, Harley.”
“Sorry, Slim; Ah know where yer comin’ from, from personal experience. But, again from personal experience, all ye can really do is suck it in and cowboy it out. Jest come out here and get it over with.”
Madskillz burst out of her changing booth wearing her mimic suit and dragged Smokey out. “Come ON, Smokey! This is as hard on me as it is on you!” And Maddy was quite right. If anything, the suit made her look even more like a 15-year-old boy instead of a 16-year-old girl. Not that Smoke Test was getting off any easier. He was a prime example of a scrawny bookworm, with a stick of a body, and a face that unfortunately resembled Dilton Doiley, the arch-nerd from Archie Comics©, down to the oversized glasses. Red as a beet, he put on the full-face helmet to hide his blushes as he walked alongside Madskillz to the booths. Sahar helped Maddy attach the remaining leads, but Smoke Test insisted on attaching every cable, with the exception of one or two that were in very hard to reach places. Then they both stepped into the booths, attached the leads to the cables inside the booth.
The power-up started, but when dealing with the Spy Kidz, there’s always one problem. “ACE! Don’t touch that!”
“But I was just-”
“But this configuration-”
“A-PLUS, get away from there, before I give you an F-MINUS!”
Finally, Zenith snapped, “Spark, get these clowns OUT of my operating area!”
Genevieve stepped forward, her tarry symbiont enveloping her normal clothes and encasing her delicate features in a featureless mask. Four segmented ‘Dr. Octopus’ arms uncoiled from her side. Jenny placed one hand on her hip and tapped one foot impatiently as she jerked a thumb towards the door. Ace started to argue, but Spark whipped out one ‘tentacle’ that gripped him by the top of his head and urged him in the direction of the door, like a mother shooing a balky child into the bathroom. One by one, Jenny got the nosey parkers out of the operating area, and Zenith was able to get the synchronization sequence done. “Aaaanndd… It’s Soup! Power it up, Semi!” The two figures inside the glassine booths disappeared into an iridescent fog as the warping going on inside splintered the ambient light into component colors. Then the fog dispersed, and in the place of the two wiry figures there was a tall, strapping muscular male figure and a sleek, curvy, chesty female figure. “Okay, so how does it feel?”
“Is this some kind of JOKE?” Madskillz’ slightly hoarse squeal came from the masculine figure. Maddy took the helmet off, revealing her boyish face atop the manly figure.
“ACE!” Jadis called loudly, a storm on her angular face, “What did you DO?”
“What do you mean, ‘what did I’-” Ace stopped in mid-complaint to smother a smirk at the sight of Maddy’s head on Stormwolf’s body and Smoke Test’s furiously blushing head atop Zenith’s frame.
“Well, _I_ wasn’t the one messing around with the control panels!”
“Is this your idea of a joke, Ace?” Maddy snarled, “What? I’m not feminine enough for you? Well, I got news for you, Bud, I am a girl, and I enjoy being a girl! I even had a Barbie©!” Maddy paused. “Okay, my Barbie had kickass adventures, not sitting around having tea parties and all that wussie stuff… but I still had a Barbie!”
“Aaahhh…” Smoke Test interjected, “Is this supposed to feel like this? I can’t feet the suit!” He covered his breasts with his hands, “I mean, I feel naked!”
“Yeah, it’s supposed to feel that way,” Zenith said as she massaged the bridge of her nose. “Just… put the helmet back on, and get back in the booths. We’ll just reconfigure the suits with the proper templates.” She glared daggers at the Spy Kidz. “You! Out!” Ace started to argue, but Zenith just gritted her teeth and snapped, “OUT!”
They powered up the booths, and Maddy and Smokey disappeared into the iridescent fog again. Zenith and Sahar carefully reset the templates, the fog shifted, and then dispersed again. This time, there were two gloriously female figures in the booths. “Well, all RIGHT!” Madskillz enthused, “now this is more LIKE it! Hey, Smokey, how d’you like- omigawd, Smokey, are you okay?”
Smoke Test looked down at his feminine form and said, “Well, I felt the suit change again… so why didn’t I change?”
“Good question. Madskillz, you’re good, so step out of the booth. Smokey, let’s just try it again.” But Smoke Test didn’t change. Not the second time through, or the third, or the fourth or the fifth.
“ENOUGH!” Maddy shouted, “We’re only making it worse! Smokey-” she waved Smoke Test out of the booth. “Look, according to Escher’s notes on the project, every so often, the suits just get stuck. Normally, it happens on the fourth or fifth use. Just yer luck, Smokester, it gets stuck on your maiden voyage, while yer usin’ the wrong bathroom.” She took another look at her PDA, “Accordin’ to this, the only thing we can do is wait for the charge that the suit’s built up to peter out, and then the suit will just sort of slip back to normal.”
“How long should that be?”
“Well, it says eight hours per charge, they ran you through five charges, so forty hours more’r less.”
“FORTY HOURS?” Smokey sputtered, “But that’s almost TWO DAYS!”
“Yeah,” Jadis agreed. “IF Escher hadn’t improved the charge duration since those notes AND the escalation is arithmetic, not mathematic or differential.” Jadis let out a gusty sigh. “Okay, Smokey, I’m not going to tell you that it’s all for the best, but it’s not really all THAT bad. You just LOOK female; you’re still a guy inside there, and it’ll go away. Eventually. And you’ll be back to normal. In the meantime, if you just brood about it, you’ll go nuts. So, go check out the keypads as planned. Your, ah, ‘bumps’ won’t really get in the way that badly, and fine detail work is just the thing to get your mind off of this.” Jadis shot Ace and the Spy Kidz icy glares. “You WILL let him get his mind off of this, won’t you?”
“Not a problem, Smokey,” Reach said with a wide smile. “Ah got yer back on this. There’ll be no blabber-mouthin’.” She reached her arms around Ace and A-Plus in a faux comradely hug and applied noticeable pressure. “Ain’t thet right, guys?” she said with a vicious grin.
“Understood!” “Clear as glass!” Ace and A-Plus grunted.
“Okay,” Smoke Test whined, “but what if someone sees me? My face, I mean?”
“Just leave your helmet on while you’re not working,” Spark suggested. “You’re going to wear it while you’re working, so just ‘forget to take it off’ when you’re finished. We can improvise after you’re done. Somehow.”
“But the other teams, we’ll be working with them and-”
“Not a problem,” Jenny insisted. “Zenith and Sahar will be wearing my fullerene suits, the same as ‘Arley. In this iteration, I’ve included variable colors and patterns for the suit.”
On a cue from Spark, Reach fiddled with one of the controls with her cell phone, and both the vest and the skin-tight suit shifted colors, and added things like stripes, chevrons, logos, Reach’s name in various places and other indicia. Finally, she settled on the ‘safety yellow with black stripes’ design of the mimic suits. “And we’ll be wearing helmets too, so who’ll know which team is which? Besides,” Reach copped a pose, “with bodies like these, who is gonna be lookin’ fer the guy?”
“But Spark-” before Smoke Test could finish his objection, Jenny’s symbiot had changed color to match Harley.
“Enough!”Jadis snapped. “You all know what to do, so get to it. As for me, I’ll be doing the hard work.” She pulled out a cell phone and flipped it open. “Damage Control. Mrs. Linford? Is Ms. Hartford there?”
“Come maaawwwnnn, Smokey! It’ll be GREAT!”
“That’s what you always say, Maddy,” Smokey grumped.
“Hey, Smokes, we got EXEMPLAR bodies now! And Zenith’s level FIVE, so we’re almost Brick level strong!”
“But not quite.”
“And we’ve almost got Acrobat level reflexes and Speedster speed!”
“But not quite.”
“And check out these bodies! We are Exemplar-level HAWT!”
“But not qu- er, okay, I gotta go with you on that one, Maddy.”
“Score One for my Mad Skills!” Maddy led an even more nervous than usual Smoke Test to the designated area, and spotted the keypad, a good 25 feet above them. “Okay, there it is: number #143. MAN, I thought that DuPraeve only had twenty or so of those things.”
“Not according to Sahar. She said that DuPraeve was building up to have as many of those things as he possibly could, just so that he could pull off a quick, quiet escape if anything went sour on one of his scams.”
“Oh,” Maddy said, you could see the connection clicking even through her helmet, “so that’s how he managed to get away. But even so… hypnotic Christmas lights? What was he thinking?”
“I think that Sahar had something to do with that,” Smokey said. “Tripping him up so that he’d finally go too far. Besides, who are you to talk? I was the one who had to pour cold water on you, to get you to snap out of it.” Then Smokey winced. “Maddy, would you not do that?”
Madskillz stopped squeezing her breasts through the mimic suit. “But if feels so REAL! I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a real set of jugs. C’mon, Smokey, cop a feel! On yerself, I mean.”
*heh* “Thanks but no thanks, not interested.”
“Oh? Then why…” Maddy stopped what she was saying, uncharacteristically choking it off halfway.
“Never mind, I just choked on the foot that I was putting in my mouth. Never mind, Smokey, it was just me rattling off at the mouth again, and I almost said something that would hurt you, and I never want to hurt you, Smoke.” Smoke Test reached into his utility belt and pulled out an Oreo ©, which he handed to Maddy. “What’s this for?”
“Well, you give a seal a fish when it does something right, so…” Maddy bounced the cookie off Smokey’s helmet.
“Still, these things are great!” Maddy enthused, refusing to let a joke harsh her good mood. She and Smokey started strapping electro-adhesive climbing pads to their feet and hands. “Maybe we could reverse-engineer these things!”
“First, I’m pretty sure that these are devises, Maddy. Second, we have a backlog of half-finished projects to get done. Finding DuPraeve’s lair is gonna go a long way towards getting us out of the doghouse- not to mention, debt- but we’re gonna have to have at least three finished projects by term’s end if we want decent marks in Workshop.”
“Yeah,” Maddy whined as they started scaling the sheer granite wall, “but it’s all fiddly stuff at the moment…”
“Maddy, ‘fiddly stuff’ is what real R&D is! Just throwing stuff around is what tinkerers and hobbyists do! Remember what Thomas Edison said: ‘Genius is One percent Inspiration and Ninety-nine percent Perspiration’.”
“Okay, okay, but I still think that we should at least get a few ideas down on paper, while we’re thinking about this.”
“That’s what you said about the Tickle Ray. And-”
“Hold that thought, Smokey,” Maddy checked the keypad. “Okay, set the piton.” Smoke Test used a variation of the vibratory probe that they used in the Workshop to place or remove bolts and such from a project without actually opening it up, to set the piton into the stone. He threaded climbing rope through the eye of the piton and threw one end to Maddy. As Maddy secured herself with the rope, Smoke Test secured his end, and set himself to counter Maddy’s fall if something caused her to fall. “You set, Smokester?” Smokey gave her a game thumbs-up.
“Okay, Kew? Madskillz here. We’re at number #143, and ready to go. Gimme the sequence.”
Kew reeled off a 24-character sequence, which Maddy relayed directly to the keypad. “Done!” but as soon as Maddy finished the sequence, she felt the familiar all-over tingle that went with being teleported the ‘Star Trek’ way. The world turned into a sparkling haze for a second, and then focused back into clarity.
And then she started dropping. “CRAP!”
Madskillz made out that she was in some sort of industrial-seeming chamber, with lots of chains and cables draped from the ceiling. She used her wobbly newbie PK to pull one of the cables to her, and used the swing to break her fall. Only to almost swing right into the side of one of the larger structures. Maddy let go of the cable, absorbed the impact with her legs, and bounced off the side of the whatever-it-was. She then hastily improvised a series of bounces, flips, somersaults and vaults, which used all the Exemplar speed, agility and strength she had, until she finally came safely to rest on a catwalk. “WOOO-HOOO!” Maddy whooped, as she did a victory dance. “That! Was! AWESOME! Hey, Kew, where the hell am I?” Kew responded that Maddy’s tracking beacon put her in the Vat’s (the Workshop’s Chem Lab) decontamination chamber, and that she was alerting Security as to come and let her out. Maddy spotted the exit door and started making her way there. “Hey Smokester! You just missed a totally classic descent! I was dropping from at least 30 feet, but I managed to pull a cable to me and- ah, Smokey? Smokey, are you there? Smokey? SMOKEY? Call back already!” Maddy started running towards the door and did a vaulting leap across one span to save time. “Kew? Smokey’s not responding. Do you have anything? Did something happen to Smokey?”
[Kew: Keep your hair on, I’m checking. He appears to be at the same position… oh, this is not good.]
“’This is not good’? What do you MEAN, ‘this is not good’? Come ON, Kew, ‘this is not good’ is right after ‘oops’ on the list of ‘Things You Never Want To Hear In The Workshop’. Kew, you do NOT say, ‘oh, this is not good’ on the air and just leave it at that!”
[Kew: Most of Smokey’s onboard electronics look fried. Wait a minute, I’m getting his bio-stat monitor and his cam is coming back online… oh, crap]
“KEW, ‘oh crap’ is not a big improvement on ‘oh, this is not good’!”Madskillz said as she waited at the door for Security to let her out, dancing like she had to go to the john in the worst way.
[Kew: According to Smokey’s head-cam, he’s lying flat on the floor. Where was he when you beamed out?]
“Twenty feet off the ground, same as me,” Maddy croaked.
[Kew: Let’s see who’s available… Ah! Finally, a break! Reach! Harley, Jenny has just touched down safely, she’s fine. Problem: Something’s happened to Smoke Test, and you’re the closest person we’ve got. Smokey is NOT, I repeat NOT, responding, and ICC SOP-]
[Reach: Ah’m already on the ground and makin’ miles, Kew] The Intelligence Cadet Corps’ SOP in such situations was to assume that the cadet in question was unconscious, harmed, at guns’ point, or otherwise in grave immediate peril. The proper response in this situation was that the closest cadet would make all haste to the situation, either to provide immediate assistance or to give an eyeball sit-rep to the Tac/Ops Officer.
A few moments later, Harley’s tense report was, [Tac/Ops, we have a man down, Ah repeat, a man down. Smoke Test is unconscious on the floor of the corridor. Looks like he fell. Ah can’t tell anything through that suit he’s wearin’, except that his breathing is heavy and labored. No obvious breaks, cuts, rips or other observable injuries. As Ah recall mah Boy Scout First Aid trainin’, Ah’m supposed to support the head. Is it okay for me to r’move the helmet? It can’t be helpin’ his breathin’, and Ah need to check his PERL.]
[Kew: Don’t, Harley. I’ve alerted the medics that we had on standby, and they’re getting the gurney into the teleporter as we speak. They should be with you presently; leave that to the Pros]
Madskillz listened to this and whined as she waited impatiently at the safety door, and flirted with the notion of ripping it off its hinges. Then she heard, [Reach: What the?]
[Kew: ‘What the?’ And you talk about ME? Harley? What happened?]
I’d just gotten there myself, and had barely managed to wrap my head around what had happened, when Madskillz came crashing into the infirmary (literally, and that door is Whateley reinforced). “SMOKEY!” she screamed, and then removed the helmet she was wearing when it rebounded her shriek back at her. “Smokey!” she yelled once she had it off, “What happened to Smokey?” She grabbed me, apparently since she seemed to think that I automatically know what’s going on (I WISH!), and started shaking me. I went beastly and had her to calm down, largely by sitting on her.
*CHILL OUT!* I told her. She calmed down a little, and I dropped my beast-skin. “Smokey’s alive and in one piece. After that, it gets weird.”
“Yeah. And believe me, I know weird.”
I walked her over to where Reach was standing, (looking way hotter than I ever will in that fullerene suit of hers), looking at the figure on the bed. “Okay, Madskillz is here, tell her what is going on.”
“Ah found him on the floor of the corridor. No sign of any obvious injuries, but he’s still unconscious. They can’t dew a sonogram or any of the usual scans because of that suit, so they’re entubin’ him and sendin’ a probe down to scan his internal organs from the inside. We only been here fer five minutes, so thet’s all’s Ah kin say.”
I pulled out my cell phone. “Kew? She-Beast. Was there any footage from Smoke Test’s helmet-cam before he got shot down?”
[Nothing worth mentioning. But I can tell you that his headset was corrupted, not overloaded. The signal degraded, but it didn’t show the spikes that you associate with an electronic overload]
“Interesting. Kew, I need a list of everyone on the project, including me, where they were at the precise time that Smoke Test was attacked, what they were doing and who they were with. Also, if possible, the same data on anyone who wasn’t with the project, but was in the target area five minutes before, during and five minutes after the attack. And don’t spread around the fact that Smoke Test was attacked, if you haven’t already.”
[And why am I taking orders from YOU?]
I bit back a snarl and massaged the bridge of my nose. “KEW,” I sighed, “Delarose is going to be here in at least five minutes. When he gets here and gives you that exact same order, you can either say, ‘Three bags full, Sir!’, OR you can give him the information on a silver plate and look like a professional. You’re the one on suspension; your call.”
There was a pause and then, [I’m on it] Some day, I’m going to look back at these days nostalgically, and remember with pride how I used to get people to cooperate through sheer reason; God, I am SO looking forward to that.
Closer to 10 minutes later, (okay, so I fudged a little to light a fire under Kew; so sue me!), Delarose was at the infirmary, along with Spark, Zenith & Sahar, and Ace & A-Plus. Ace had shut down the news feed before it got out, which proves that he has something on the ball. Precisely what, I’m not sure. Delarose did the ‘I’m in charge here, bring me up to speed’ thing. He asked Kew for the exact same information that I’d told her to prepare, and he was suitably impressed by her initiative and diligence, (yada yada yada); not that she’ll ever thank me for the idea. Then he asked, “Okay, the plan was that the keypads would be scouted for emplaced traps and weapons first; who scouted that area?”
Reach raised her hand. “Ah did. And there weren’t nothin’ thair.”
“And I checked the site immediately afterwards, while Reach was busy helping the Medics get Smoke Test’s gurney into the teleport pod,” Zenith added. “Nada. No sign of any hardpoints, power leads, sensors, nuthin’.”
“Okay, nice to see that people are on the ball- after the fact. Madskillz: does Smoke Test have any enemies?”
“Smokey? Enemies?” Maddy peeped, “Why would anyone want to hurt Smokey? He’s such a sweetheart!”
“And what about you?”
“Okay, there are people who don’t like me,” Maddy admitted, “but to be honest, I don’t think that they’re the types to lay elaborate traps. They’re more likely to sneak into my room and sabotage my projects or start nasty rumors behind my back.”
“Is there anyone who might want to get close to you, and may think that Smoke Test was an obstacle to that?”
Maddy let out a husky laugh. “Are you kiddin’? Most people think that I’m a guy!” she gestured at herself, and then remembered the mimic suit. “Well, usually they do.”
“Besides, there’s something about this that sort of rules out a simple attack,” Reach said.
“I’ll let the Doc tell ya.”
Dr. Gutierrez looked up from her laptop, and took that as an invitation. She stepped into the gathering and said, “We’ve done as full a scan of Smoke Test’s insides, and while we’re still interpreting the data, there are two things that are abundantly clear: first, that he’s taken no serious damage, internally or externally; he should waken up a few minutes after we remove the electro-narcosis headset, we put it on him because we didn’t want him waking up while we were taking scans and choking on it. Second, Smoke Test has a complete set of apparently functioning female organs.”
“WHAT?” was the general reaction.
“Ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vaginal canal, vagina, labia, the works, as far as we can tell. And, again, as far as we can tell, inside that bizarre dimensional Gordian knot he’s wearing, Smoke Test is filling out that suit perfectly.”
“Why?” Ace bleated, clearly croggled, “Would? Anyone? Want? To turn? Smoke Test? Into a Girl?”
“Clearly, it’s a devise of some sort,” Spark said, gnawing at her finger. “But what could affect that great a material change in a matter of minutes? And, as Ace said, why would they want to turn Smoke Test female?”
“I can think of a few reasons,” Delarose growled. “Spark, Reach, Sahar, Zenith: get back to the search. Spy Kidz, we have searchers waiting for instructions, or at least an idea as to what all the fuss is all about. Tell them the bare bones: Smoke Test fell, he’s all right but the doctors want to keep him under observation overnight, SOP. Tell them that it was some sort of trap, but leave out the bit about turning into a girl. So, get back to the search, but don’t tell the rest of the Spy Kidz about this-”
“You might want to re-think that last part, Mr. Delarose,” I murmured.
“Think about it: they’re IN the Spy Kidz ‘cause they’re incurable snoopy noses. They know that something’s going on. If you stonewall them, they’ll just keep picking at it until they get answers. That is, if they don’t just start making up answers of their own that suit their prejudices. I speak from painful- er, personal experience.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“THINK about it, Ace,” I sneered back.
“And where were YOU when this went down?”
“I was assisting with the coordination effort, where I wouldn’t be accused of hijacking anything, if something was found.”
“Yeah? Can you PROVE that?”
I gave him my ‘diabolik’ grin. “Of course I can. I have the best witnesses possible.”
“You guys.” I peeled off the ‘invisible’ tracker that Kew had planted on me. “This has been keeping tabs on me the whole time. HASN’T IT, KEW?” She stuck out her lower lip and nodded. I handed the tracker to Ace. “Why do you think I let her tag me in the first place?”
“Enough of that,” Delarose said asserting his control. “Ace, bring the rest of your crew in on this, but drum it into their heads with a sledge hammer if you have to, that I do NOT want it generally known what happened to Smoke Test. Madskillz, She-Beast, you stay here, the rest of you, let’s get this hunt back on schedule, huh?”
“Why does she stay?” A-Plus asked, glaring suspiciously at me.
“Because she’s the student project leader,” Delarose said in a ‘why do I have to explain this to you?’ way. “Besides, once Smoke Test wakes up, someone will have to make the arrangements, and it’s simpler if she handles that.”
The group split up, and as Delarose was busy, Maddy pulled me over. “Look, Beast, I know that I wanted you to make it look good, but don’t you think that you’re playing this kind of harsh? I mean, you got Security all over it and everything!”
“Excuse me?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
“I mean, it’s a great setup, but what if they find out that we- I mean, YOU- blasted Smokey?”
I finally made the connection. “ah… Maddy? I had nothing to do with that.”
“What?” she bleated, going pale.
“Look, Maddy, my plan was for Smokey to *ahem!* ‘accidentally’ get stuck in that suit, and start floating hints that his DNA was reacting to the over-pattern and stuff like that. After a while, I’d do a few things to his face to make it look like it was starting to conform to the rest of his physique, and then sic Nephandus on him. Hey, if that didn’t scare him back into pants, nothing would.”
“What? If not you- Who? How?” Maddy blithered.
“That’s sort of the big question at the moment,” I spelled it out for her. “What just happened was real. Not some Sitcom harebrained scheme, not a prank, not a mind game. Somebody jumped Smokey, Maddy. Why, I’m not sure. But what really baffles me is his choice of weapon.”
I was swimming in milk; everything was this vague white haze. And while it wasn’t particularly bad swimming in milk, I had a vague, rather abstract instinct that this wasn’t the way that it should be. Muzzy, I slowly recalled the basics of rational thought, perception, observation and focus, though as I got further along, I got the nagging notion that that was a bad idea. The white became a pink that was crisscrossed with veins of red, which in time I recognized as actual veins. I was looking at the insides of my own eyelids. I had my eyes shut. Major point, make a note of that. Then I became aware of various technological sounds. That relaxed me, for some reason. So, bit by bit, I methodically worked out how to open my eyelids.
It was blurry. I couldn’t make out anything.
Oh. Right. Eyes. They need to be focused.
I went to work on it, and before you knew it, everything was crystal clear. Then I remembered that I’ve worn glasses since I was Five.
Isn’t it strange how something like that can snap you out of a funk and get you right back into the groove? My eyes were wide open, I was sitting up and looking around, and I was firing on all eight cylinders. I was sitting in an IC bed in the Infirmary, with a net of sensors around my head. Out of pure annoyed reflex, I tore the web off my head, setting off a bunch of quiet alarms. Nurse Lipton came bustling out of her cubicle, and a minute later, Dr. Gutierrez and Chief Delarose came in. As Dr. Gutierrez fussed with me, looking into my eyes and doing all the ‘is your head still working right?’ stuff, Delarose looked at me oddly for a moment and then said, “Okay, McRae, what happened?”
“ah, Isn’t that supposed to be MY question?”
“Look, Smokey, I know that you’ve had a shock, but we need to know- what happened up there?”
I dug back to the last thing that I remembered clearly- which was suddenly having the body of my dreams (I didn’t tell Delarose that ‘of my dreams’ part), and then step by (curiously clear) step, I led up to watching Maddy disappear, and then…
“And THEN?” Delarose prompted.
“And then I woke up here! What happened?” According to Delarose, I’d gone out of contact almost immediately after Maddy beamed out, and was found on the tunnel floor. “I didn’t hit my head did I?” Even factoring in the Woody Allen joke, it’s my favorite organ!
Delarose gave me a look that implied that he thought that there was a lot more to it than that, but he’s got a lot more experience in beating telepaths than I do in reading minds. “Okay, this has stepped up a notch. From here on out, you answer to She-Beast. She’s in charge of the DuPraeve effort, she’ll tackle the student end of this, and handle all the arrangements for you, for as long as this lasts.”
“Why She-Beast?” I asked suspiciously. “And what do you mean, ‘for as long as this lasts’? As long as what lasts?”
Delarose gave a wry smile. “She-Beast is handling it because she’s already in this up to her bony hips and because she has her paranoia on a leash. Most people get dragged around by their paranoia; Jadis Diabolik has hers trained like a circus dog. She’s on the spot, and sure as church bells come Sunday morning, she WILL get off of it. And as for ‘as long as this lasts’…” he picked up a hand mirror and handed it to me.
I had this sudden impression that the Universe hadn’t been shortchanging me on lucky breaks, it had just been saving them up for a big splash, when it finally got around to making up for the shitty break that I got when I was born the wrong sex. I was a girl. Not just a girl, but an Exemplar-class cutie, with an apple-shaped face, delicate features, the cutest turned-up nose, full lips, big round cornflower-blue eyes, the whole ‘Oh yeah, I want THAT’ package. The lone sour note in my personal ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ was the mess of butter-yellow blonde hair that was tangled around my head. Delarose was studying my face, looking for a reaction. “HOW?” I asked, going for the old reliable. “The mimic suit didn’t cover the head!”
“That’s rather the question,” Gutierrez said. “Well, ONE of them anyway.”
Then Maddy and She-Beast came in. “Smokey?” Maddy gawped, looking wonderingly at my face, “Is that YOU?”
“That’s what they tell me,” I said, making like I was putting up a good show (when I was really digging the hell out of it, even that slightly disgusted look of pure envy that She-Beast had).
Maddy was making all sorts of ‘it’s okay’, and ‘everything’s going to be all right’ noises, when suddenly, She-Beast snapped her fingers. “There! I knew that there was something that didn’t fit!”
“Well, DUH!” Maddy drawled.
“So far, we’ve been assuming that whatever the weapon was that attacked you imposed the overpattern of the suit onto your body somehow,” She-Beast said. “Which is ridiculous, but we’re talking about, a devise here, so all bets are off. BUT, if that was the case, then you’d be a near-perfect copy of Zenith, whose ‘overpattern’ –or whatever- we were using for a template. But you don’t look like Zenith. Yeah, you’ve got the bod, but the face? Okay, there are a few similarities, but she’s a lot stronger in the jaw, she has a longer nose, her cheekbones aren’t as wide, and all in all, your features are more delicate than hers. So, the question is: WHY? There’s another factor going on here that we haven’t fit into this equation. Any ideas, Smokey?”
“Hey, I just woke UP, She-Beast!” I complained. “And what did that whatever-it-was do to the suit?” I looked down at my body. I was only wearing the paper hospital gown (y’know, the kind that they make you wear, so that you’ll die of embarrassment, instead of whatever you came in with?). “Wait a minute… what happened to the suit? Where is it?”
“We, ah, removed it,” Dr. Gutierrez said in a flat tone, like she’d just stepped in something.
I started to ask exactly HOW they got the thing off, when Maddy steamrollered over my question (as per uze), bawling, “OH SMOKEY, I’M SO SORRY, itsallmyfaultIthotthatyewwastryin’toturnyerself-” Somehow, between a tenuous telepathic connection and over a year of practice in such things on my part, I managed to sort out that Maddy had somehow figured out that I was transgendered (Maddy knows! Maddy knows! RUN! Run away! Run for your LIFE!), and had somehow managed to get all these people in on one of her damn-fool ideas. All for my own good, of course.
She-Beast just massaged the bridge of her nose and groaned, “Grace under pressure, there, Madskillz.”
“She-Beast!” I snapped, “I can see Maddy coming up with something this harebrained-”
“Hey, don’t blame this on me,” She-Beast said defensively. “My plan was designed with the idea that there was an equal chance that you might or might not be Transgendered. We were going to tell you that the suit was stuck, like we did, and we were going to see how you reacted to the situation.”
“Then how did this happen?” I waved a hand at my body.
“That’s sort of the big question,” Delarose said, muscling his way back into the conversation. “For instance, exactly HOW did whatever that did this to you do it through a dimensional warp, which is what Diabolik tells me is essentially what that suit was?”
“You’re asking ME?” I bleated. “I’m a Gadgeteer! Sort of. This is Devisor crap! I know better than to use that junk on myself!”
“Oh? Then why did you examine Sinewave’s Mimicry inducer last week?”
“Because I’m working on a project to stabilize Protein Antagonism, and I thought that looking at Sinewave’s project might give me a few ideas.”
“Why would you be so interested in stabilizing Protein Antagonism?”
“Because, there is a raft of Gene Therapy applications that could help GSD mutants, but in order to work, they have to put too much chemical strain on the DNA, effectively causing low-level Protein Antagonism in the patient. But if we can develop a Protein Antagonism counteragent, then those Gene Therapy methods might work better. And…” I had to make it come out better. “And, I think that something’s wrong with me.”
“Smoookeeeyy…” Maddy whined.
“NO, I am NOT a hypochondriac!” I snapped. “I am neat! That doesn’t automatically mean that I’m a hypochondriac!”
“How many times have you been to the doctor, this month alone?” Maddy scowled at me.
“We pass by JOBE’S lab on the way to our workspace!” I defended myself. “That’s not hypochondria; it’s common sense, it’s a public duty!”
“Well…” Dr. Gutierrez sighed, “We were going to have to give her the works anyway, though I don’t know how much of pre-existing conditions is going to be reflected in her current state. I’ll get the forms, Smoke Test, and you can spell out all your aches and pains.”
As Dr. Gutierrez put Smoke Test through the first of what was obviously going to be a long series of tests, Delarose took Madskillz and me aside. “Look, Diabolik,” he said, “special project or no special project, we can’t shut down that stretch of the tunnels indefinitely. You have three hours, and then we have to open them up again. You can try again tomorrow, but odds are that you’ll be going back to square one. She-Beast, I suggest that you team up with Madskillz here; after that, I’m not letting you kids go up there without backup.”
“Just what I was trying to avoid,” I snarled. “Okay, but I want you to SIT on Ace, when he starts making Inspector Javert noises.”
“Hey, I should have your problems.”
“Is this where we all chime in for a rousing rendition of ‘A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One’?”
“Just get going, while you’re still on a roll.”
I let out an annoyed grunt, nodded and said, “Let’s go, Maddy. We’re not doing anything here, except providing easy targets for nasty comments.” I pulled on a set of safety yellow-and-black overalls that weren’t quite as ‘unforgiving’ (as Harley put it), and then I went off with the poster girl for ADH- oh shiny! Maddy’s problem is (and I’m guessing here, ‘cause I have no idea what she was like before her ESP thing kicked in) that she has an ESP knack that’s rather similar to Zenith’s ‘Database’ technique: she just pulls info out of thin air. Unfortunately, she lacks whatever Zenith has that puts it all into context. She’s an information font with Tourette’s. The info’s there, it’s just that there’s no way to put it into context, or find out whether it’s still valid or what. I hear that Maddy’s got a rig that records her when she sleeps, filters it through a voice-recognition system, and then downloads that into a computer that tries to sift through it all and make connections. She’s come up with a few gold nuggets that way, but my sources tell me that most of the link-ups that her system comes up with get filed under ‘Well DUH! We already KNEW that!’
Oh, and I still have no idea as to why they used Zenith’s template, when Sahar had made such a production of being the template donor. <Memo to Self: find out, there may be blackmail there>
Maddy rattled on as we walked to the first keypad <memo to self: nominate Smoke Test for sainthood> After living with Misty for a month, I can deal with it, but Maddy’s prattle lacks… what is it? Both the element of innocence, and those occasional little flashes of insight that suggest that maybe Misty’s just operating on another frequency. Still, I could tell that Maddy was very worried about Smokey, so I let it slide. That is, until she asked, “So, She-Beast… what’s the deal with Spark and Reach?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, from what I heard, Reach is really a boy that Spark turned into a girl, and she did something to him so he doesn’t mind it, and then she used the whatever it was to turn herself into an uber-babe, and now they’re sharing a room at Melville? How’d she get away with THAT?” I gave her a more accurate version of the story, gleaned and vetted from my information network (hey, it’s mostly old news anyway). Maddy batted her eyes. “So… Harley changes back and forth every so often… and he’s roommates with his girlfriend?”
“Harley rooms with another guy when he’s male.”
“And this other guy is cool with it?”
“Why not? He’s a freshman, and he effectively has a single.”
“But they’re… Reach and Spark… still… an item, when he’s a she?”
“I don’t ask, and they don’t tell.” I gave her a snarky grin and asked, “Which do you want to ask out on a date: Reach or Spark?” She immediately retreated back into her glass closet and denied any interest all the way to the keypad. The first keypad only teleported Madskillz out onto the top of the Observatory Tower on Kane Hall. The second one teleported me into the toxic waste treatment facility. The third one didn’t do anything at all, which was really interesting. And Madskillz put her Techno-Tourette’s to work on it when Ringo’s selection didn’t do anything. Interesting. Finally, Maddy gave up on that, and we schlepped over to the next keypad.
“Okay, Kew, we’re on number #177. Maddy has her combo and- SHIT! Kew! We’re BOTH-” I beamed out before I could finish. Then I felt the world scramble back into clarity.
“BINGO!” Maddy exulted, “Kew, mark this position! This is IT~ AWK!” then Maddy went down. I had the barest time to turn and see what hit her. Before I even had a chance to put up my beast-skin, I felt like that ‘This is your brain on DRUGS; any questions?’ commercial. And then I hit the floor.
Mind you, I don’t think that I was out that long. But the contortions that my body was making, the painful contortions, made me wish that I was still unconscious. Finally, I was able to focus enough to hit the panic button on my cell phone and yelp, “TRAP! We need a MEDIC!”
I was beginning to ride out the overall cramp from hell when Escher’s teleport module appeared near us. Reach slithered out, and Spark skittered out on octopus legs. They did a SWAT type recon of the immediate area, and then let the medics get to work. “What’s wrong? Can you describe it?” One asked as he waved a sensor-wand over me.
“You ever have a really nasty cramp? The kind that starts one place and sort of rolls from one place to another?” I grated out. “Like that, but over my entire body. Madskillz got zapped. Sorry, that’s all I can say, she got zapped by something over there.”
One of the medics pulled the helmet from my head and did a PRL (Pupilary Response to Light). Then he said, “She looks okay for the moment, but we’ve got to get the other one to the Infirmary STAT.” They put Madskillz in the gurney and tucked her into the module, with Spark riding shotgun.
When the module disappeared, Harley looked at me and said in a tone that was more suited to a Kentucky State Trooper saying that your kind wasn’t needed in those parts than a schoolboy/girl, “Okay, whut happened, and whar’s She-Beast?”
I gave him the evil eye and said, “What ARE you talking about Harley?”
Reach, well, reached over and grabbed me by the jumpsuit, and pulled me up into her face. “Okay, wun mohr tahme- WHERE IS JADIS DIABOLIK?”
“What’s WRONG with you, Harley?” I put up my beast-skin and growled right back at her.
“YOW!” she yelped, and jumped back with a whole new attitude, “I’m sorry, Jadis, but Ah hadda be sure!” she reached into her vest and pulled out a cell phone. She took my picture, and then gingerly showed me the picture.
Wondering what the hell she was up to, I took a look. “Say WHAT?”
As I gaped into the cell phone image, Harley rummaged around as best as she could in the gloom, and found a reflecting surface, a mirrored drinks tray. She showed me my reflection in the mirror, so there was no doubt that what I was seeing was real. The girl in the reflection had my hair, complete with devil-forelocks, but NOT my face. Instead of my- well, let’s not go there- she had one of those perfect delicate faces with great cheekbones, pouting lips, tiny little nose, big sloe eyes, your basic ‘don’t hate me because I’m beautiful’ package. “Ah hadda be sure who you were.”
“Okay, Harley, I get the point,” I said as I poked at my own face, just to be really, really sure. “Still, the question is still WHY would- hey, wait a minute! I know that face!”
“It IS familiar,” Harley admitted, peering into my face, “but Ah cain’t quite place it…”
“Let’s see… I’m getting smug and superior… but not quite Freya-era Alpha quality superior… A little snotty, but doesn’t do it as a full-time gig… Definitely judgmental… not laughing… better… better dressed… Yeah, like anyone wouldn’t look better with THAT face and figu- AH! Now I remember! The hair threw me… It’s Poise, the big noise in Venus Inc!”
“WHY would ennyone use turnin’ you into a copy of Poise as a weapon?”
“Well, it was pretty dang painful, and- hey, how long did it take you guys to get here?”
“Hey, we got here as quickly as we could! Teleporting blind, even with coordinates, is dangerous!”
“Answer the question.”
“Well, Ah’d say that it took us about two minutes to scramble, ‘nuther three to warm up the pod, and another minute to double-check the co-ords, so six minutes all told.”
“And I was sort of too busy to notice for about three or four minutes,” I mused. “So ten minutes, give or take. Enough time to beam away, and take a few loads with him…” then the penny dropped. “loads?” I pulled out my penlight and flashed it into the gloom from where Harley had picked up that mirror. The room next to the teleportation chamber was packed with archive-type boxes, in an outlay that suggested loading. “Nertz,” I said disgustedly.
Harley looked where my flashlight went and came to the same conclusion. “Well, look at the bright side,” she said, “at least they didn’t get everything.”
“Odds are they only took the stuff that we really wanted,” I grumped. I looked around. “Where are the lights? DuPraeve wasn’t the sort who’d think that brooding in the dark was cool. Though, I’ll lay you odds that this place is decorated in early Hugh Hefner.”
“There’s something lit over there that looks kinda like a control panel,” Harley pointed at just such a panel that barely illuminated what looked like an entry hall with several doors and a checkerboard tile floor.
“Watch out for traps,” I warned her as she walked toward the panel. And the second that she stepped on the tile floor, her foot passed right through it. She teetered for a moment, and started to fall. She flailed around a bit with her elongated arms, but I managed to catch her and drag her back to safety.
“What was that?” Harley gasped.
“Vintage DuPraeve,” I said. “A hologram covering a classic drop-pit, with that panel as the bait.” I poked my head through the hologram and flashed a light around. “There’s a back-breaker ledge about 20 feet down, just low enough to stun most people, just high enough that they might not react quick enough.”
Harley looked over the arrangement. “D’you think that panel is for real, or is the real light switch hidden somewhere?”
“I’m guessing that it’s real. DuPraeve could levitate over to it without any real bother, and look like he was walking; heck, considering that his most likely guests here were Nightfox and Latchkey, I’ll lay money that this trap was mostly for them, in case either of them decided to cross him and raid this lair. DuPraeve was a classic wiseass; he loved to show off how much smarter and sneakier he was than everyone else.”
“You seem to know a lot about this DuPraeve guy.”
“He had a yen to apprentice under my dad- or, more likely, he wanted to sleaze his way into an established and smoothly-running supervillain organization and backstab his way into the leader’s spot. He tried to impress me with how diabolical he was, and later on I learned that he was collecting information on me, with an eye into twisting my arm into making the connection. But the real expert on DuPraeve is Sahar; she’s the one who finally got Slippery Nick to slip on his own banana peel.”
Harley shrugged and stretched over to the panel. She fiddled with it for a bit, and then the lights came on. In the meantime, she also turned on the stereo, the ‘mood lights’, a ‘relaxing sounds’ machine and a few other gadgets that suggested that DuPraeve had indeed gotten most of his ideas as to ‘the good life’ from Playboy magazine. Harley pulled herself back and said, “Hmmm… I’d have thought that DuPraeve would have built a few traps and such into that control panel.”
“Nah,” I bleated, “Nick would never be that overt. Anyone who got to that panel would be expecting something. Nick would wait until they weren’t expecting anything.” I paused and considered. “Which suggests that there’s some sort of security code that’s tacitly built into that panel. No, that would put too much on DuPraeve, he’d have to remember it every time. No, I’m sure that he’s built some sort of trap into the system, but we won’t know what it is until it’s too late. I should have thought of that earlier.” I let out a gusty sigh. “Well, too late now, we might as well get our backup in here.”
“Why do we need backup in here?”
“YOU don’t need backup, Harley,” I answered, “I, on the other hand, DO. Having found the place, I’m removing myself, so nobody can say that I pulled a swift one. You’re my witness that I didn’t mess with those boxes.” I pulled out my cell phone. “Kew? What’s the ETA on that transport pod? I need to be evacuated, before I get cooties all over the evidence.”
[ETA?] Kew echoed back to me. [You mean that it isn’t there?]
“You mean that you sent it already?”
[Sure! It’s on remote control, and Ringo says that according to his board, it’s right there with you]
“Ah, Kew… we got nuthin’ here.” I’ll spare you the back-and-forth: the point of it all was that Reach and I were stuck in DuPraeve’s lair with no known way in or out.
To Be Continued