Smoke and Mirrors 2
A Whateley Academy Tale
Smoke and Mirrors
Bek D Corbin
I was going through the MRI-monitored response test (for the third time) when something happened, and suddenly, I was old news. I wonder if that’s what being a Teen Idol is like: one minute, you can’t get any privacy; the next, you’re standing all alone by yourself, and no one’s talking to you. “Will someone at least get me out of this stupid sensor coffin?” I yelled.
I was in the process of laboriously un-strapping myself with my PK (NOT my strong suit), when they all bustled back in, practically tore me out of the MRI machine and stashed a girl in Safety Yellows into it and turned it up on high. I was about to complain about the handling, when I recognized the tool belt that they’d removed. “MADDY! Is that Maddy? What happened?”
I found myself restrained, but Delarose had the simple decency to say, “We’re not sure. She-Beast said something about a trap. When the Teleport Pod popped in, Reach said something about something being weird with She-Beast. Now, Kew tells me that the Teleport Pod has gone AWOL, leaving both She-Beast and Reach stranded inside. We’ve got a few Junior and Senior Workshop students working on getting them out, but we’ve only got their cell phones to locate them with; trying a remote teleport without a lot better navigation cues is damned risky; that Pod was the best thing we had for that kind of thing.”
Then I got a big shock when they removed the helmet. “She looks just like me!”
“Yeah,” Delarose said, giving me a shifty look. “Interesting… Smokey, why don’t we take this where we’re not in the good doctors’ way?” He took me by the arm in a way that I didn’t need telepathy to know meant, ‘Come with me OR ELSE’.
“No!” one of the medics said, “We need her to provide a comparison!”
“Why does Maddy look just like me?” I asked, “How is she? Is she gonna be all right? Howcome her hair is better than mine?”
I spent maybe an hour or so having the doctors wave things at me, and then at Maddy. Then they said that they had as much data as they could handle at the moment, and they removed the ‘Russian Sleep’ diadem from her head, so she could recover normally. Of course, that was just the cue for Ace and A-Plus to grab and frog-march me into a room where the rest of the Spy Kidz were waiting. “HEY! What IS this?” I demanded.
“Shut up,” Ace growled. “We’re asking the questions here.”
“She-Beast and Reach are trapped in DuPraeve’s lair, the Teleport Module’s disappeared, and there’s no way of getting them out. We Cadets don’t LIKE it when one of our own suddenly goes missing. We get downright nasteee…” he finished with a hiss.
“Okay, I admit it, I’m spacing. I know that that wasn’t from the original Dirty Harry movie… The Enforcer? Magnum Force?” Okay, so I’m not the best wiseass out there, but I try, I try. Ace growled, grabbed me and pulled me to him. “HEY, HEY, HEY! Paper gown here! No free shows!”
“I think that you know more than you’re telling,” A-Plus said, coming up from the side.
“And I think that I want a lawyer!”
“Oh, you need a lawyer?”
“I think that I need power armor!”
“Why did you trap Reach in DuPraeve’s lair?”
“How long have you been working for Diabolik?”
“What does She-Beast want from DuPraeve’s lair?”
“How long has Diabolik been working with DuPraeve?”
“Why did you set that trap for Madskillz?”
“What are you getting out of all this?”
“What hold does Diabolik have over you?”
“Where are the rest of DuPraeve’s lairs?”
They went at me like that for the better part of a half-hour, bouncing me around with one bizarroid accusation after another, and I was trying to defend myself, while keeping that stupid paper gown from shredding. Then, finally, salvation came when the door came banging in, and Zenith said, “Knock, knock,” in a very ‘why are you making me put up with this?’ tone of voice.
“HEY! We’re in the middle of something here!”
“And your something requires a gorgeous young girl dressed only in a paper gown?” Zenith quipped. “A ripped paper gown?”
“We’re TRYING to get a few straight answers around here!”
“Why isn’t Delarose handling this?”
“This is a Student Project; She-Beast has gone missing, so it defaults to the Cadets,” Ace said sturdily, but I was picking up a sense that he was trying to get that accepted on face value or something.
“That’s not how it works, and you know it, Ace,” Sahar said reprovingly. “And even if it DID, the Cadets are officially on suspension. She-Beast brought you into this with the hopes that you might have learned something; I’m personally saddened that you haven’t.” That led to a lot of angry yapping as Zenith called Delarose, while Sahar handed me a bathrobe to cover the paper gown (I don’t know why people are always saying that she’s such a bitch; she’s always been nice to me).
Then a strangely familiar voice, but one I couldn’t quite peg, said from the door, “Well, making friends and influencing people again, I see.” Then a disturbingly familiar but absolutely gorgeous girl with white hair wearing a yellow-and-black safety suit strutted in, with Reach right behind her. She folded her arms across her chest and copped a pose. She cocked an eyebrow in Ace’s direction. “So? Do I want to know?”
“What do YOU want, Poise?” Ace snarled at her.
“ah, That’s not Poise, Ace,” Reach said. “Thet’s She-Beast. And YES, Ah made sure; she did her beast-numbuh on me. Ace, Ah don’t think that she’s in a mood t’be trifled with, jest at the moment.”
“But then, I never am,” she turned and looked at me. “So, what’s going on?”
“Hold ON,” Ace said, coming between us, “What’s with THIS?”
“Oh, THIS?” She-Beast copped a coy pose, hand coquettishly set on breast. “I got zotzed by whatever hit Smoke Test and Madskillz, only without the protection- if that’s the word- of the Mimic suits. Apparently, whatever it was used Poise’s template.” Ace started to say something, but She-Beast rolled right over him. “Smokey, Dr. Gutierrez says that Maddy’s awake and rational. Or, at least as rational as she ever gets. Gutierrez thinks that Maddy might need a familiar face; but we’re gonna have to make do with you, Smokey.”
“NO,” Ace yelled, “How did you get here? The last we heard, you and Reach were stuck in DuPraeve’s lair, with no way out!”
“Simple. I used my head,” She-Beast purred. “There’s no way that DuPraeve would have built a lair that he couldn’t have gotten out of in a pinch.”
“Jadis figgered that DuPraeve would’a built the place with the assumption that ever’thing would go t’ hell’n back at some point,” Reach explained. “DuPraeve had this 3-story drop-pit set right next to the teleporter, which struck her as a lotta effort for a pretty feeble trap. She figured that it was a cover for DuPraeve’s exit, in case anyone ever cornered him in his own lair. He’d make some play and make out like he got caught in his own trap or somethin’ like that. There was a trap door at the bottom of the pit that could only be found and opened with telekinesis.” She-Beast smirked and flexed a set of dark PK claws.
“Okay, very clever,” Aced growled, arms folded defensively. “And what’s the point?”
“Point?” She-Beast peeped. “There’s no point, just answering your question. And now, Smokey? I think that Maddy needs a friendly face. That means that you stay HERE, Ace. Take the opportunity to bone up on respecting Civil Rights during an investigation, remember that you’re NOT a recognized club just at the moment, and maybe review the Whateley Canon of Ethics for Psychics.” She shot Interface a cold glare as she shepherded me out of the room.
When we got back to the infirmary Maddy was strapped to the observation bed with some serious restraints. “Hey Smokey!” the girl who looked just like me rasped in Maddy’s distinctive husky voice, “Tell ‘em that I’m not berserk, and get me OFF OF THIS THING!”
“We know that you’re not berserk,” Dr. Gutierrez said sourly. “This is so you’ll STAY STILL long enough for us to get a decent reading!”
Still, having me there for her to yap at did give Maddy something to focus on other than bouncing around. She was buzzing with all the expected questions. Her reaction when she saw her face and heard that they’d removed the mimic suit: “Ohthisissokewlwowilookgreat! How long will this last? Can we make it permanent?”
“So much for all that, ‘Gee, I don’t give a hang about how I look’ crud,” I grumbled.
“Oh, come ON, Smokey!” Maddy rambled on a bit about three things simultaneously, including how great we both looked, how we might contrive to make it permanent, and who the chick with the weird hair was.
“Is she always like this?” She-Beast whispered into my ear.
“Are you kidding?” I whispered back, “If anything, she’s staying remarkably on track, since she likes what she sees.”
Maddy rattled away as Dr. Gutierrez scanned and re-scanned her. Then Gutierrez finally let Maddy up and had She-Beast lay down on the scanner. As Jadis was being scanned, Maddy hefted her breasts through the gown with the biggest grin on her face that I’ve seen since the time that our control override on Belphegor’s floating chair sent him into the lake. “So much for ‘big tits only get in the way’,” I grumbled.
“Aw, c’mon, Smokey!” she grinned at me, “Don’t tell me that you ain’t dying to take a big grab!” She held out her breasts and squeezed them. Whether in teasing or making a slightly lewd proposition, I’m not absolutely sure; then again, with Maddy, it’s not 100% that she was sure, either.
Dr. Gutierrez cleared her throat censoriously. “If I could have all of your complete and undivided attention?” Maddy emptied her hands, blushed and gave the doctor a wide, too-bright smile of innocence. The doctor let Jadis up off the sensor bed. “I’m afraid that this just got very complicated.”
“Complicated?” I bleated, feeling an ice cube the size of a city block form in my gut. “What do you MEAN, ‘complicated?” I hate it when doctors say ‘complicated’ or ‘we’re not certain’ or ‘we need more tests’…
“Did you have to put it THAT way, Doc?” Maddy whined, “You know that Smokey’s a hypochondriac!”
“I am not!” I said, pretty much on reflex.
“Okay,” the doctor said digging in for the long haul, “Let’s try this: Madskillz, Smoke Test, I have good news and I have bad news.”
“Oh wonderful,” She-Beast grumped, “What’s next? Knock-knock jokes?”
“The Good News is that you two, Madskillz, Smoke Test, have a good chance of keeping those forms for the rest of your lives.”
“YES!” Maddy yelped. “Waa HOO!” She did the ‘whoop-whoop’ crank, even though nobody’s really done that since Arsenio Hall went off the air.
“What’s? What’s the Bad News, Doc?” I asked, since Maddy was too busy with the good news. As per usual.
“The Bad News is that the rest of your lives may be measured in months, if not weeks, and at the end of those months, you will be suffering from a prolonged case of Protein Antagonism that will, if you’re very lucky, cause a fatal seizure or systemic collapse.”
“If we’re lucky?” Maddy gawped.
“OMIGAWD!” I yelped, “Protein Antagonism? You mean like CLONES? OMIGAWD, we’re both gonna melt like a couple of Barbie dolls that someone put on the barbeque!”
“That was an oddly specific analogy,” She-Beast commented.
“My brother has a nasty sense of humor.” I responded, pulling myself together a bit. Then I lost it again, “They’re gonna bury us in two BUCKETS!”
“Did you have to put it so bluntly?” She-Beast said as she handed me a paper bag and indicated that I should breathe into it.
“Normally, no,” Gutierrez admitted, “But I find with certain students,” she shot Maddy a chilling glare, “you really do have to break a 2x4 over their heads first, if you want them to listen to you.
“Now that I have your attention, YES, you are all in very real danger. NO, you’re not going to dissolve in a puddle of goo right now. However, if your DNA matrix isn’t stabilized within a couple of weeks, there is a very real chance of uncontrollable and undoubtedly dangerous, if not fatal, mutation or cancerous cell replication. This will not happen for weeks, but it could happen, and we need to fix this NOW.”
“DuPraeve!” She-Beast snapped. “This has DuPraeve written all over it! This is the trap that we’ve been expecting all along! Nick Dupree is a classic paranoid, both in terms of his vaulting self-esteem and his conviction that other people are after him. There is NO WAY that DuPraeve would leave his teleport keys unprotected, even if they were disguised and hidden. THIS is his trap, built right into the very mechanism. It also explains WHY someone as cowardly as DuPraeve was using such a dangerous teleport scheme.”
“Yeah, the only people who even talk about using molecular disassembly/ reassembly as a means of teleportation are whoever’s got the Star Trek franchise this year,” Dr. Gutierrez commented.
“But that means something,” Jadis said with a smirk. “As cavalier as he might have been about other people’s safety, Nick was downright religious about protecting his own personal ass. There is no way that Nick would have used that teleporter unless he had a way of detecting and correcting anything that went wrong, right there, probably built right into the teleport device.” Jadis pulled a cell phone out of her belt and punched a code into it. “Delarose? She-Beast here. Have you searched DuPraeve’s little hideaway? Great. Have you found the teleporter yet? Right, Harley and I looked for it, and couldn’t find any trace of it. That’s why we didn’t just beam out again. You’re sure. Just a highly suggestive bracket, a power junction and a few input cable sockets. Nertz. But why? They must have had their own teleporter, or how else would they have gotten in there? If they’d beamed in the same way that we did, then they couldn’t have beamed back out, not and taken the teleporter with them. The only other way out would have been DuPraeve’s secret door, which hadn’t been used in months, and… the…” Jadis wiped some egg off her face. “The teleport module. Somehow, they sneaked onto the teleport module while the parameds were concentrating on Madskillz and me, and somehow the medics didn’t notice them in the module when they ported out. After the medics got Madskillz out, whoever our perps are hijacked the module, and I have no idea where they went after that. Yes, Chief it is very important that we find that teleport rig. Call Dr. Gutierrez directly, she has all the info.”
Jadis pulled away from her phone and arched an eyebrow at Dr. Gutierrez. “Okay, I hate to be self-centered, but what about me? I mean, Thelma and Louise here have been beaming up to the Enterprise for weeks; what about the rest of us?”
Gutierrez worried her lower lip. “I don’t think that Protein Antagonism is a real concern for the rest of you. But I don’t think that you’re quite off the hook; the same basic mechanism that would lead to Protein Antagonism could, on a milder level, cause genetic mis-sequencing that could lead to any of a raft of genetic conditions, ranging from Cancer to GSD that would make Fubar look like Miss America.”
“My Protein Antagonism project!” I blurted out, the Hawthorn connection bringing it to mind. “The entire point of it wasn’t just to prevent clones from melting down; it was so that we could use Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer- on a lower level, not a ‘copy the entire person’ level- to counteract GSD. If we can examine Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer, between the two of us, I think that Maddy and I could figure out how the stabilization factor that Sinewave used worked.”
“Or, more to the point,” Jadis snarked, “where it didn’t work.” She reached for her phone again, but as she was about to punch in a code, she paused and scowled.
“What’s the matter, Beast?” Maddy asked. “You look like you’re about to bite an apple that you think has a worm in it.”
“It’s a reasonable idea,” she admitted, not taking her eyes from her phone. “Carson would insist that you do it under strict supervision, and in complete secrecy, and then she’d insist on destroying what you created. When you think about this, the Mimicry Inducer is nightmare-ware, right up there with nuclear hand grenades, do-it-yourself gene splicing kits, home matter/anti-matter power generators, and trickle-down economics. Every devisor and gadgeteer in the Workshop will want to know how it was done, and how to build their own. Everyone will want to be an exemplar, to have the absolute best set of powers. Identity theft will run rampant; you’d never know who you’re talking to. Idiots will turn themselves into puddles of goo, right and left. And that’s just here at Whateley; God alone knows what people would get up to with it out in the so-called ‘real world’. The things that *I* could come up with make my blood run cold, and I’m not that bloody-minded! I mean, if this was an old movie, the mad scientist who created it would hack the thing apart with a fire axe in a fit of remorse, be electrocuted doing it, and the hero of the movie would make a pompous declaration about ‘playing god’ and ‘there are things that Man was not meant to know’. But what’s biting me, is that I can’t get rid of the sneaking feeling that we’re playing right into DuPraeve’s hands.”
“But… DuPraeve’s… gone…” Gutierrez pointed out.
“Like a little thing like that would stop that Professor Moriarty wannabe,” Jadis sneered. “If anything, Slippery Nick has a real penchant for the Kansas City Shuffle. Suckering us into delivering a Mimicry Inducer into his hands by remote control is precisely the sort of thing that he dreams of. And half the reason for the shit that he pulled was to illustrate how much smarter he was than the Exemplars. I can’t say as I blame him much there, the arrogant shits. But he’d jump at the chance to become one himself. Like so many people who talk about what shits the Exemplars are.” She grit her teeth with a snarl of frustration and punched a code into her cell phone. She talked to Mr. Wayland, who was in charge of the Ultra-Secure Locker at the Workshop. Then as we waited for a bit, Maddy nattered on about whether we should go for the ‘Doublemint Twins’ look or not. She-Beast’s eyes snapped wide open with surprise. Then they crossed with confusion. Then they went steely cold. “Understood,” she snapped as she shut her phone. “Well,” she said coldly; you didn’t need telepathy to see that her brain was working overtime on whatever was biting her, “that’s two questions answered.”
“Hey, don’t be mysterious, Beast,” Maddy snipped, “we’re listening already!”
“The first question that’s just been answered is ‘what devise was used to do this?’ Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer is missing, and Wayland says that he has no idea how long it’s been gone.”
“oh crap,” I whispered and started breathing into that bag again.
“What’s the second question?”
“Whether DuPraeve’s behind this,” she answered decisively, though I could tell that she was still thinking furiously. “He’s not. If DuPraeve ever decided to take Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer, he wouldn’t use it on you two like that. Not unless there’s a major factor that I’m not seeing. No, he’d want a nice, stable, reliable, preferably permanent version. And this isn’t him testing the Inducer on you two; if he had the Inducer, first he’d mock up a replacement so that the theft wouldn’t be noticed, and the mockup would be rigged to self-destruct without apparent cause when it was turned on, so the theft would go undetected. Then, he’d simply keep testing it until he got a version that was stable, no matter how many rats- or monkeys- or people got turned into sludge doing it. Besides, as… baffling… as this is, this simply doesn’t have the… verve… that Old Nick had.”
“No…” she said, obviously following a line of thought, “this smells like someone with another agenda, who saw an opportunity and jumped on it.” Then I saw a realization click into place. “Oh… crud.”
“That is NOT a happy sound, She-Beast.”
“This has all the earmarks of someone who thinks that they’re clever but isn’t, trying to play Evil Mastermind.”
“Oh, CRUD,” Dr. Gutierrez, Maddy and I all said at the same time. Idiots trying to be Professor Moriarty have a nasty tendency to get very messy and very nasty. Evil Mastermind wannabes tend to make their plots really complicated, with twists and turns and booby-traps and all the crud from bad movies, ‘cause, like, y’know, that’s what evil masterminds DO, right? They just don’t really get that a simple, elegant, well-thought out gambit, like a simple, elegant, well-thought out mechanism, does the job better, quicker, more reliably and with fewer surprises or unpleasant side effects than some big overcomplicated mess with too many moving parts.
You’ll have to excuse Smokey, folks. But assholes who overcomplicate their designs is one of her ‘rant’ buttons.
No, it’s NOT! It’s just… STUPID! Now pipe down and let me narrate!
Anyway, I asked She-Beast, “What makes you think that it’s a makeshift Moriarty?”
“The Mimicry Inducer,” she replied, and from months of experience in the Workshop, I could feel exposition coming chugging down the tracks. “It makes for a lousy weapon. The fact that it put me down for as long as it did doesn’t change that. That means that the reason why he used it is that it was the only weapon that he had inside DuPraeve’s lair at the moment. That means that he came into the Lair along with us somehow, and it was the first time that he’d been in there. That means that the reason that he had the Inducer there in the first place was to use it on YOU, Madskillz. He zotzed Smoke Test with it because he couldn’t tell the two of you apart and took the 50/50 shot. Which means that transforming you was the real point all along. And that means that grabbing all of DuPraeve’s stuff was on the spur of the moment, grabbing the gold hoop when it dropped at his feet. Even given how much he was able to tote off in so little time, it was still a dumb move. Strictly amateur hour. I don’t know why Mr. X wants you to be a cutie, Madskillz, but it has to be important enough that risking all of that to grab DuPraeve’s stuff was a pure punk move. A good evil mastermind knows to keep it simple, keep it unexpected, keep it quick, keep the cast as small as possible, and keep your eyes on the prize at all times.”
Then a light went on in her eyes and she cocked a half grin. “Excuse me, Ladies, but I have some serious fixing to do…” She pulled out her phone and was out the door, punching in a code.
The nurse let out a gasp of exasperation. “What? She would leave now! We can’t have them stay here! It’s SOP to keep things like this as secret as possible; how’re we supposed to keep those two secret, with the idiots that are searching those tunnels running in and out of here with their boo-boos?”
“Why is it so important to keep this a secret?” Maddy asked.
“Well, you’re in Whitman, right?” Nurse Lipton asked leadingly.
“Do you remember how the Whitman Girls reacted when Bova talked Jobe Wilkins into giving her the Drow treatment?”
“Yeah, but-” Maddy stopped talking in midsentence and a look of stunned realization froze her face.
“Now, Bova had the excuse that she was saving her own life,” Lipton continued. “It was go drow or die. How do you think that the Whitmaniacs will react to seeing you like that?”
The frozen look of realization melted into a look of sick horror. “Good call,” Maddy croaked. “That reminds me: Mrs. Savage still expects a formal letter of apology to Bova from me.”
Then Zenith stuck her head in the door. “Knock, knock! Is it safe?”
“Oh! Zenith,” Dr. Gutierrez said with a note of relief, “Jadis sent you?”
“Sort of,” Zenith said, coming into the room with armfuls of clothing, followed by Sahar who was also carrying a bunch of clothes. “She guessed that they’d need clothes, but she had some stuff she had to take care of.”
“Ah,” Gutierrez quirked an annoyed look. “So, she’s pulling one of her famous ‘I’d tell you what I’m doing, but then I’d have to kill you’ games.”
Zenith nodded and smirked, “And she wonders why she doesn’t get more business. So! What needs doing here?”
“Get them dressed and over to Poe ASAP,” Gutierrez stated firmly. “Don’t bother putting together anything fashionable; just get them OUT of here with as little fuss as possible!”
“POE?” Maddy yelped, “Why would you be sending us to the Nuthouse?”
“Because people have been wondering why you two weren’t sent there to begin with,” Zenith snipped with one eyebrow arched.
“Maddy?” I reminded her sotto voce, “Zenith’s IN Poe, remember?” Maddy had the good grace to be embarrassed by her faux pas, which shows that, slowly, in little baby steps, she IS learning.
“Besides,” Zenith continued, “Poe kids are very good about keeping secrets.”
“Oh? What kind of secrets?”
Zenith smirked. “That would be telling. And besides, with Team Kimba there, the weirdest that you two will come up with will get lost in all the chaos.”
“Besides,” I added as I picked through the pants for something that I thought would fit me, “it’s temporary, just until we figure out how long we’re gonna stay like this. We gotta stay somewhere while this gets settled out, and Poe’s as good a place, and better than most. Hey, even if the Poesies figure out who we are, it’s not like anyone will believe them. Uhm, Maddy? What are you doing?”
Maddy was going through the clothes, holding them up, comparing them. “Oh,” she sighed, “I’m just trying to find something that will work…”
“MADDY, you heard the doctor! Just find something that FITS, fer the luvva Pete!”
Maddy grumped, pulled on some jeans, a T-shirt and a hoodie, and sighed, “There is just SO MUCH you don’t understand about being a girl…”
As Maddy walked out the door, yammering away a mile a minute at Sahar about… stuff… Zenith leaned over and asked me quietly, “And you put UP with that?”
“You’d be amazed how much good will I get from people who ask me that question,” I replied.
Sahar took Maddy out one door, while Zenith took me out another. We took a roundabout path from the infirmary to Poe Cottage’s back porch. Zenith spent much of that time on her cell phone, talking with who I guess was the Poe house mother. We waited for a moment, until the door opened, and an attractive, if rather tense middle-aged woman let us in. She gave me a quizzical look, sighed, and said, “Well, at the very least I can say that it isn’t always the same-old, same-old on this job…”
She led us through the kitchen to the front room, where Maddy and Sahar were waiting for us. She gave Maddy and me a look that was that weird combination of Den Mother and Drill Sergeant that I think may be standard issue for Whateley House Mothers. She took in a deep breath and let out a resigned sigh. “Well, there’s no graceful, gentle way of doing this that wouldn’t make things worse than they already are. So, let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of the matter, shall we? I’m Mrs. Horton, the house mother for Poe. You two will be living under my roof, and you’ll be living by my rules, is that understood?” We gave her the ‘yes, ma’am, you’re in charge’ nods. Hey, what would you do, under the circumstances? “Very good. Now, which one of you is Travis McRae?” I raised my hand.
“TRAVIS?” Maddy gawked, “Your name is Travis?”
“What? You thought that my parents named me ‘Smokey’?”
“But ‘Travis’ is so… macho!”
“And I’m not,” I grumped, “Thanks ever so much for reminding me.”
Mrs. Horton cleared her throat and dragged us back to the point. “Miss Tate,” she said looking sternly straight at Maddy, “are you a lesbian?”
“What?” Maddy gawped.
I could sense her total blither reflex kick in, so I cut in, “Yes, she is. She’s not a 100% lesbian, there are one or two guys who push her buttons, but for the most part, she gets more charged up by Megan Fox than Brad Pitt.”
“What?” I shot right back, “Maddy, you have a glass closet! The only people who don’t think that you’re a dyke are the ones who think that you’re a GUY! And it certainly doesn’t help, the way that you ogle Bugs in her Capri pants! Why do you think that I agreed to be your lab partner? Because I knew that there wouldn’t be any embarrassing complications!”
“I thought that it was because we were friends,” she pouted.
“We ARE friends,” I assured her. “Now. But we hadn’t met yet, and remember? You called me a ‘wimpy little runt’, remember?”
“Well, it wasn’t my fault that you let your mother dress you,” she grumped.
Mrs. Horton cleared her throat again. “You get used to this,” I assured her. “Well, at least I have.”
Mrs. Horton cleared her throat yet again and raised an eyebrow that was more demanding than Perry Mason on cross-examination. Maddy caved. “Yes. I’m a lesbian. Or, at least I think that I’m a lesbian. It’s not like I’ve had a lot of chance to find out how I’d feel in a clinch with a real girl.”
Mrs. Horton smiled and nodded. Then she arched that same eyebrow at me. “And you’re a transsexual.”
“Ahhh… yeah.” Why bother denying it? Apparently, Maddy’s been blabbering it all over campus! I’m gonna have to improve my PFG, just to survive dinner! I gave Mrs. Horton the ‘please don’t squish me’ look.
Instead, she gave me the ‘finally, someone with sense’ look that I get from people who’ve been dealing with Maddy for any length of time. Then she said, “Now, girls, I want you to swear a binding oath, that what I’m about to tell you will go no further. And when I say ‘binding’, I DO mean binding, in ways that have nothing to do with lawyers or courts.”
What are you supposed to do, when someone tells you that? You’ve just GOT to know, and one thing where Maddy and I are exactly alike, is when we get bit by the curiosity bug, we get bit HARD! We both held up one hand, our other on our hearts, and swore, managing to get one of those creepy ‘in unison’ moments. Mrs. Horton nodded approvingly and said, “Whether you remain as you are or not, you’re welcome to remain in Poe Cottage. You see, the reason for that oath, is that Poe Cottage isn’t the place where we keep the nuts and headcases… not that you’d know it, from the way that some of them act. No, that’s just a cover for the more… reactionary students on campus. No, Poe is a haven for students who are of what they now call ‘Alternative Sexuality’- Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, or so Bisexual that it’s an issue.”
You could have knocked me over with a bucky-ball. But after going wide-eyed over the news, a big grin spread over Maddy’s face. “You mean… that BUGS is Gay?” she squealed.
“Yes,” Mrs. Horton said in a tone that said she was trying to break bad news to Maddy gently, “she and Nikki Reilly are very good friends.”
“FEY is GAY?” Maddy goggled. “I knew that that thing with her picking that dork Stalwart as her boyfriend was a total shuck!”
“Not a complete shuck, dear,” Mrs. Horton told her gently. “It’s a complicated situation, which is sort of the norm around here.”
“So, what’s our cover going to be?” Maddy asked, eagerly haring off on a new tangent. She does that a lot.
“What new names we’re gonna use? How about ‘Trixie and Tricia Terrific, the Turbo Twins’? Yeah!”
Mrs. Horton did a silent five-count and gently corrected her, “NO, you’re going to remain ‘Madskillz’ and ‘Smoke Test’, or Madelyn and Travis, or?” she raised an eyebrow in my direction.
“Tracy,” I said with a blush. Well, you fantasize about things like this, and…
“Madelyn and Tracy,” she summed up. “You’ll still be you, and as soon as this is sorted out, you’ll begin your regular classes again, AS Madelyn and Tracy.”
“WHAT?” Maddy yelped, “It’s no big for me, but what about Smokey? If she suddenly goes out there saying, ‘yeah, I’m a girl, ain’t I cute?’, there are guys who will fu-freaking KILL her!”
“Yes, there most probably will be a couple of unfortunate encounters,” Mrs. Horton allowed. “But the simple fact of the matter is that it’s far too likely that the word has already spread among the searchers. If we tried to conceal what happened to you, the gossip mill would spin it completely out of control, and it would get very nasty. And, you two showing up out of the blue, just as ‘Madskillz and Smoke Test’ disappeared, it would be far too obvious. And it’s not as bad as it might be. First of all, Tracy has the excuse that she was the unwilling target of some uncertain devise. After what happened with Folder and Reach earlier, there should be a certain element of sympathy for you, if you play it right. Next, she has you,” she said with a nod at Maddy. “First of all, the fact that you’re nearly identical should slow down the wiseacres enough for you to remove yourselves from the problem. And along those lines, Madelyn, you spend a lot of time around Tracy anyway, so it will be natural for you to be there to lend a helping hand, should it become necessary.” She gave Maddy a sharp look. “That is NOT carte blanche to start fights, young lady.”
Maddy had the brass to look offended, but Mrs. Horton kept right on. “Also, Reach has agreed to be your, not so much bodyguard as escort, while you get settled in. I think you’ll agree that Ms. Sawyer has nothing but empathy for your situation, Tracy.”
“Reach?” Maddy asked with a gleam in her eye. “And Spark?”
Mrs. Horton censured her with a sharp clearing of her throat and continued. “Besides being quite familiar with the sort who’d be most likely to react with hostility, Reach is quite tough herself, and Spark isn’t a slouch in that department either. And lastly, you have backup from roughly 1/8th of the students on campus, namely the other Poe kids. Tracy, they ALL know exactly what you’re going through. I assure you that you can expect help from almost any Posie. Well, maybe not Sharisha, but the vast majority of them.”
“Backup?” Maddy bleated, “From Team Kimba?” We shared a shudder at the thought, showing that Maddy does have some sense.
“And the other Poe kids.”
“Hey… HIPPOLYTE…” I pointed out.
“Now that’s what I call BACKUP!” Then something occurred to Maddy. “Hey, if we’re gonna be all up-front about it, then what was all that jazz with all the secrecy and cr- eerrr- ud?”
“Our policy is secrecy as the default option,” Mrs. Horton explained. “While you four were on your way over here, it was decided that openness would be quicker, safer, simpler and more effective in this case. It’s far easier to use openness if secrecy fails, than it is to use secrecy if openness fails. If nothing else, it’s a lot easier to have your private effects brought from Whitman and Emerson, if we don’t have to conceal the fact that you’re here, now isn’t it?”
“Well, yeeeaaahhh… but all my clothes are JUNK! And they sure won’t fit THIS body! Hey d’you think we can talk She-Beast into taking us on one of those fancy no-holds-barred shopping trips that she’s so famous for?”
“Maddy, if you were as into being a girl as you’ve been saying,” I said, “then you’d know that She-Beast got away with those trips because she suckered Jobe into paying for them. The only way that we’d get Jobe to pay for clothes for us, is if we let her inject us with the drow complex.”
“It was just a thought!”
“That’s what you always say. And then the explosions start.”
“Omigawd! I just realized! Delta Spike is in Poe!”
Mrs. Horton cleared her throat censoriously again. “Chief Delarose informs me that it’s crucial that you two get back to work in the tunnels. I’m not entirely clear why, but in my experience, Delarose isn’t prone to either hysteria or hyperbole. The tunnels will be busy during the after-class rush, but as soon as that’s through, he can shut down that stretch of the tunnels again, and you can get back to seeing if you can’t fix this somehow. Why don’t you two go get your things from your cottages, and then get a jump on an early dinner? It will give us a chance to shuffle things around and make room for you two.” It would also, I was picking up, allow Mrs. Horton to wrap her head around what she was getting herself into with Maddy.
Zenith, Sahar, Maddy and I knocked it around a little, and we decided that it would be best if we went together to each cottage, rather than splitting up. If nothing else, I was seeing that I’d need all the backup I could get, when I went to pick up my gear. Maybe we could get Reach to go with us to Emerson. She knows the guys, the guys know her, and best of all, Tee-Kay, the biggest asshole in the cottage (even worse than Horrorshow) is scared to death of her. He won’t admit it, but when you read between the lines, that’s what I get.
Zenith got on her phone and got in touch with Reach, and she and Spark met us halfway. When we ran the minor problem of which cottage to go to before dinner past her, Reach rocked back on her heels a bit, and drawled, “Well, it strikes me that maybe yer puttin’ the cart afore the horse here. If you go to one cottage, and then another, then you gotta tell the tale twice, and you gotta put up with a lot weird stories that’ll pop up by the time we get to dinner, ruinin’ a good meal. How’s about this? We get a jump on dinner, and use the time for these two to figure out what they’re gonna take to Poe and what they’re gonna put in storage. From my personal experience movin’ into Melville and roomin’ with Jenny, I’d say they’ll be more interested in their tools and gear than they are with their clothes.”
“Yeah?” Maddy and I said in perfect unison, “And your point IS?”
“Yes, ‘Arley,” Jenny asked, giving her boy/girlfriend a cold glare, “Exactly what IS your point?”
“Just that they have some serious decision making t’do,” Harley backed up a bit. “Let’s face it, there’s a reason why they try to put tech-heads in rooms with non-techies.”
“Which IS?” Jenny asked, Harley apparently not having improved her situation much.
“SPACE! Jenny-hon, I love you, but yer gear takes up more room’n YOU do!”
“And the problem with that is?” Jenny backed down a little.
“Look, I know you like to have some tools around, in case ‘le grande inspiration’ strikes, I get that,” Harley tried to improve her footing. “But, now imagine that there was ANOTHER gadget-girl in that room. With her own tools…”
Harley’s point drove home to Jenny, Maddy and me at the same time. Bannockburn, my roomie, is always complaining that he doesn’t have enough space to move in our room. Of course, he’s a big guy, and he’s always practicing with a weapon- and get real, who practices with a battleaxe inside? But if Maddy brought all of her stuff into our room, and I brought all of MY stuff… Man, you’d barely have room to change your mind! Not that that would be a bad thing where Maddy was concerned, but still…
Once that had squarely registered, Harley took over again, “So, as Ah sees it, y’got three choices: One, you can put up with bunkin’ in a shoebox. Two, you can compare yer tool lists and eliminate anything y’got two of.” Maddy and I both stiffened. Hey, one of the reasons why we take tools to our rooms in the first place is that every tech-head ever born hates it when you reach for a tool, and it ISN’T THERE! And besides, tools are kind’a like golf clubs, or musical instruments; you kinda get used to having yours, and another just isn’t the same. Besides, if Maddy ever got her hands on my pocket Valence bonder/debonder, I’ll never see it again! “And Three, there’s nuthin’ that says you two gotta room together. Y’can just get other roomies.”
Well… I love Maddy like a sister… but to be honest, there are times when it’s a relief to get away from her. Though I was a tad miffed when she had exactly the same reaction. I was even more miffed when she got miffed at my reaction. Zenith read our reactions on our faces and gave a grudging nod. She pulled out her cell phone and scrolled down a menu. “Okay, there are three possibles for Smokey: Electrode, Mega-Girl and Delta Spike.”
“Delta Spike?” I yelped.
“Not really a solution,” Spark covered for me. “It would be the same problem, only with someone you don’t know as well.”
“Yeah,” Zenith allowed, “but Electrode’s an energizer, and Delta Spike used to be her roomie for a while. Let’s just say… they aren’t speaking to each other anymore.”
“Mega-Girl?” I mused. “Well, I sort of know Marty from around the Workshop. I think I could share a room with her. She couldn’t be any more obnoxious than Bannockburn and she might teach me something about clothes.”
Zenith nodded but then shook her hand. “Nice thought. There are two problems with it: First, Delta and Marty aren’t just roomies, they’re buds. I really doubt that they want to split up, and considering what Elaine does in her room, her having a bomb-proof roommate is a good idea. Second, if you moved in with Marty, that would leave either Electrode or Delta Spike as Maddy’s roommate, and let’s face it: either of them would probably rather have you as a roomie.” Maddy squeaked with outrage, but Sahar just shut her down with a glare.
“Why are only those three girls available?” Spark asked.
“Poe cottage politics,” Sahar covered nicely. Jenny accepted that at face value. But then, from what I’ve heard, the French regard Politics as the sort of full contact sport that should require padding and rigid helmets. And crotch protectors.
Maddy let out a sigh, reached out a hand to me and said, “Put ‘er there, roomie.” I shook it with the same sigh.
“Well then, now that that’s settled,” Reach said, “you can get down to the really hard part: figurin’ out what you’ll be takin’ with you and what you’ll have to stash at the Workshop.”
“Oh. Right,” Maddy and I said in perfect unison as we pulled out our PDAs with equal synchronization and started going over our equipment lists.
Skipping forward through a ton of sharing, comparing, contrasting, and dragging Maddy back onto the subject with a derrick, we suddenly found ourselves in the cafeteria, with plates with the remains of very healthy portions in front of us. “How did we get here?”
“You walked,” Harley said with a tone of amusement.
“We ate?” Maddy asked, surprised.
“Ah got a devisor girlfriend,” Harley jerked a thumb over at Jenny. “Ah got some experience in handling that.”
“I had a Devisor moment?” I said, with a note of dread.
“Both of you did,” Harley said.
“Of course, tools were involved,” Jenny pointed out.
“What?” I said looking down at my plate, “We had the Shrimp Scampi? I love shrimp scampi, and I don’t even remember tasting it!”
“Well, you can go get seconds,” Harley suggested. “Yer an exemplar now, so’s it’s not like yer gonna lose yer girlish figure.”
“Seconds?” I echoed, giving the line a fearful look.
“Smokey,” Harley said, “like I said, yer an exemplar now- you kin take a lot more poundin’ than you use’ta, and you need the food! Besides, yer also a really cute girl now. Take it from me, cute girls can get away with crap that would get a guy sent to the hospital.”
“’Arley, why don’t you escort Smokey through the line?” Jenny suggested. “On your way there, you can stop at the Emerson boys’ table and introduce the new Smokey to his roommate, and get that out of the way? I’ll do the same with Maddy.”
“A suggestion of genius, Jenny-hon, with one leetle adjustment,” Harley said. “Go through the line first and hit the tables on our way back.”
“Because a big sloppy plate full o’food makes for a great weapon of distraction, if things get nasty.”
Jenny agreed that this was a good idea with a puckish look that suggested that she was holding back on an affectionate kiss, but was holding off ‘cause it was the caff. We went into the line as a group, which was a girl thing apparently, power in numbers and like that. The fact that Harley and Jenny were known on sight and avoided by some of the harder asses in school helped. We tanked up on food (Yes! They still had Shrimp Scampi!) and then split up, Spark taking Maddy over to the table where her roommate Hela was eating.
I very pointedly didn’t go over to that table; Hela and my roommate, Bannockburn, have what you might call a Love-Hate relationship. Y’see, Hela is bipolar- or something bipolar-ish: half the time, she is a gracious, sweet-natured creature with a sunny disposition and the decided hots for Banny. The other half, she’s a cold, morose, spiteful shrew who gets pissed off if Banny even so much as comes near her. They’ve gone hammer and tongs at it a few times, and they’re both working off some serious detention- on very different shifts.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering: yes, she has the ‘Two-Face’ thing going on, as per the Norse myth. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of her magic or what, but while the right side of her face can stand next to some of the foxier Exemplars on campus, the left side? Yuck. You can tell whether she’s on her cheery or gloomy side by whether she’s covering her left side. That and whether or not she’s got a bunch of moaning spooks hanging around her. We’re reasonably sure that they’re just manifestations of her magic. Well, reasonably reasonably sure. She used to keep them under wraps a lot better, but ever since that Generator kid who hangs with Team Kimba started having that creepy ‘maybe sister’ spook tagging along with her, Hela’s been doing the entourage thing. Somehow, do not ask me how, but Maddy’s ditz makes her impervious to all that.
Not that being roommates with Bannockburn was any picnic. Banny’s an ‘energizer superman’, and like I said before, he’s a BIG guy. A big guy who wears a kilt. He’s really big into his Scots heritage. So big that I kinda wonder whether he’s actually from Scotland, or if he’s from someplace like North Dakota or Minnesota or Saskatchewan or maybe even somewhere in Britain south of the Tyne. There are a few Scots at Whateley and I’ve met a few Scots on my own, and most of them are like ‘yes, I’m from Scotland, what’s your point?’ And a few have fun with Americans’ (and the English’s) preconceptions of the Scots. But that ‘Proud Scot’ act of Banny’s has a ‘poser’ ring to it. He also has that pushy up-in-your–face act that people tend to associate with the Scots. But I’ve been dealing with that bit on one scale or another all my life, so I’ve been able to put up with him. But Jeez, there is only so much plaid that you should have to put up with!
When we got there Banny was chowing down with Stalwart and G-Force. Strange, G-Force is an Emerson guy, but he normally hangs with the Cape Squad. Then I spotted the books; y’see, while Banny is a big, tough, very physical guy, he shares with Stalwart and G-Force a love of Shakespeare.
Yes, Shakespeare. Banny and G-Force just don’t make the big deal about it that Stalwart does.
It must have been a slow night for them: from what I could tell, they were re-hashing the question of whether or not Shakespeare wrote ‘The Winter’s Tale’; always a good way of killing time.
Reach called out, “Hey Guys!” as we walked up with more confidence than I would have had under the circumstances. But then, besides being a really hawt babe, she’s also a stretcher and an Exemplar who’s at least as strong as Banny is when he isn’t fully charged up-
oh, wait a minute- so am I! Well, not a stretcher, but I do need to remember that I’m as strong as Bannockburn now. Why do I hate losing my patent excuse for being a coward?
Anyway, Banny turned around in his chair and gave us this big smile. “Ach, Harley! Good to see you! Very good to see you,” he added with a smirk as he looked her up and down with obvious appreciation. Well, at least he didn’t drool. I mean, no actual saliva hit the floor or anything.
Then he spotted me and the drool factor went up significantly. “And who’s THIS?” he asked, turning around and showing off his chest muscles. Banny’s under the impression that he looks like the ‘hero’ of one of those cheap romance novels, the kind with the Scots highlander and the busty wench on the cover? Thank God, I wasn’t wearing a bodice.
“Oh Hi, I’m Tracy!” I said with as bright a smile as I could muster. “We just came over to let you know that something happened with your roommate, Smoke Test? Yeah, it’s real involved, and the upshot is that they’re moving him over to Poe Cottage. We just wanted you to know, ‘cause after dinner, a bunch of us are coming over to move some of his gear over to Poe and the rest over to storage.”
“Well, it’s about time!” Banny sputtered. “Finally, I’ll have room to swing a cat in there!”
“You swing cats around in your room?” G-Force snarked.
“Well no, but should the need ever arise…” Still, he wasn’t a complete creep about it. “So, what happened to the little squirrel?”
“Ah, it’s complicated,” I fudged, “and I don’t think that Smoke Test would appreciate me going into details.”
“Besides, the house mothers already know about it, so us just coming and swiping his gear isn’t an issue,” Reach pointed out.
Banny gave us that big ol’ leering grin and said in a Scots accent that even Mike Meyers would have sneered at, “Whayl, it’s nawt like I evah said NO tew a pair o’ bonny lassies beggin’ t’ come into MY rewm, now is it?”
And the truly sad thing is that Banny actually gets some action with that bit.
I made a few stammering remarks, and made an excuse to get back to our table. Hey- shrimp scampi! As we walked back to the table, Reach asked me, “Howcome you didn’t tell William Wallet back there who you really were?”
Coming up blank for a reasonable reason- even for myself- I ad-libbed, “Well, we’re supposed to be on the down-low, right? Banny might not say anything, but G-Force might get all righteous and drag the rest of the Cape Squad into this, and I kinda doubt that Jadis would appreciate them being mixed up in it. And Golden Stallion isn’t exactly famous for being gay friendly.” Which were reasonable reasons, but to be honest, I wasn’t really sure WHY I did it.
When Spark and Maddy got back to the table, Jenny sat suspiciously close to Harley, and Maddy had a spooked look on her face. “Maddy, what’s the matter?”
“uhm, Smokes, ah, after dinner, could you and Reach come with us to Whitman and help me move my stuff out?”
“errr… It might be safer….” Maddy was uncharacteristically quiet for the rest of the meal. I took advantage of that to pull out my Kindle and check out the schematics for those stupid keypads again. “Smooookeeeyyy…” Maddy drawled warningly, “You’re just making yourself crazy again…”
“Maddy, I’m telling you, DuPraeve hid the secret of the teleportation activation sequence somewhere in the hardware. It’s the only reason that he’d clutter up the keypads with this… spaghetti!”
Reach looked over my shoulder and made a curious noise. “Smokey hates overcomplicated designs,” Maddy explained. “Somehow, when he made those keypads the main interface with his teleportation setup, DuPraeve installed a ratmix instead of a matrix, a whole tangle of snarled up redundancies and unnecessary branches and dead-end passages, and two boards stacked on top of each other when one would do; it’s just a mess! But Smokey insists that the secret of how DuPraeve’s teleporter knows where and when to beam someone is in there somehow…”
“That’s the only reason that he’d make it so… messy!” I maintained with perfect logic and total objectivity. “There’s no way that DuPraeve would leave something like that up to software, not with all the insane hackers around this place! She-Beast says DuPraeve was a classic paranoid, as well as a massive smartass. So he’d want something that HE understood, but no one else could. Something simple and elegant, that’s hiding somewhere in that jungle of bad engineering design…”
Maddy gave Jenny and Harley an apologetic smile. “She… ah… gets like this every so often…”
“I understand completely,” Jenny said. “The simpler I make my fullerene matrixes, the sturdier and more reliable they become.” I gave Maddy a ‘see? Why can’t YOU be that sensible?’ smirk, to which Maddy just rolled her eyes.
We finished up and were looking around, when Zenith and Sahar walked up. “Okay, if you’re quite done, let’s get over to Poe. We only have so much time before curfew.”
“Poe? But what about our STUFF?”
“FIRST you help the girls move out of that room,” Zenith said archly.
“We ARE shoving them out of that room, Maddy,” I pointed out.
“And after how you left Whitman, it might be a good idea to make a good first impression at Poe,” Jenny pointed out.
Sahar leaned in and added soto voce to Maddy, “and it’s always a good idea to make a first impression when you’re meeting cute girls for the first time, no?” Maddy’s eyes popped open wide and she let out a big smile of anticipation.
Zenith let Harley and Jenny go off and take care of their own business while she took Maddy and me to Poe. We’d hook up at Whitman after I got my stuff from Poe. I didn’t need telepathy to know that Maddy was simply bubbling over with anticipation at meeting a mass of teenage lesbians. We were met on the foot of the stairs by a slender, slinky girl, who didn’t have that much better of a figure than Maddy’d had before, but she carried it off WAY better. I recognized her from the Workshop, where she’d made an entrance with all the subtle demure modesty of a Las Vegas showgirl, and was working hard to make herself indispensable: Vamp. “Well, HELLO,” she purred, her ruby-red eyes sparkling, her mouth wide in a smile that was more than half leer. “Jadis called and told me to make sure that everyone knew that you were coming. We’re just so happy to welcome you both, Madskills, Smoke Test, to our little haven. So, come on up and let the rest of us welcome you as well!”
As Vamp walked up ahead of us and out of earshot, I whispered to Zenith, “She didn’t say anything at all lewd or suggestive- so why do I feel like I just got propositioned? How does she do that?”
Zenith sighed, “Practice, practice, practice…”
Vamp showed us up to the Sophomore floor, where there was a fair amount of activity, with girls lugging stuff around. A cute brunette with a clipboard walked over to Vamp and handed her the clipboard. Vamp looked at it and worried her lower lip as she tried to figure something out. Then she noticed us looking at all the hubbub and explained, “Roommate Roulette. We’re getting pretty packed in down on the Freshman floor, and you know how it is: everyone wants a single. Fortunately, we have a few couples that you’d have to pry apart with a crowbar. And you have a few roomies that can’t wait to get away from each other. It’s the others that are the real bear.”
Vamp jotted a few things around the board, gave a big sigh and said, “Well, that’ll have to do… C’mon, Tara…” and she stalked off with Tara clipping after her.
I looked at Maddy, Zenith and Sahar. Maddy shrugged and we followed. Vamp came to a room and knocked. “It looks like you’re the best fit!” she called in. “You guys ready to go to your new digs?”
“Yeah,” said a husky voice, “it was only a matter of time.” A very buff looking, very dark African American girl came out, carrying a stack of boxes that must have weighed at least 200 pounds. She peered around the boxes and asked, “Hey, Tara, would you steer me in the right direction?”
“Better!” Tara armored up and took half of the boxes from the top. Then she showed the girl- who goes by the handle ‘Inkblot’- down the hall.
“Hey, that’s easy for you!” yelled another voice,” But I gotta break this stuff down first!”
“Not to worry, Brando!” Vamp called in, “We bring capable trained assistance.” Then she sashayed in, beckoning us in after her with a finger.
The inhabitant just had to be an exemplar. She was a 6-foot-something vision from Paradise Island, with long flowing wavy raven’s wing black hair kept in check by a pair of Q-goggles, a great body wrapped up in a red turtleneck sweater and a pair of jeans that could have been painted on, and best of all, a toolbelt that showed that she actually knew what she was doing. She was up on an elaborate structure of struts and pipes and cables that was set up high near the roof. And the Whateley dorms tend to have very high roofs; when you stop and think about the student body, the reason becomes pretty dang obvious. She had gear and workstations and what looked like exercise gear strung out all over the place. She was industriously unscrewing what looked like an air purifier from one of the upper struts. “Yeah, that’s nice, but do they-” Brandimant (yes, I recognized her; she and Maddy have a long history together) started to say something, but then she looked down and saw us. She stopped in mid-sentence and locked. Then she hurriedly duct-taped the purifier to its mooring, and dropped down to the floor, doing some unnecessarily fancy gymnastics on the way down. She did a perfect dismount right in front of us. “Well, I DO appreciate this!” she leered, “I can use all the help I can get!”
“Yeah, I’ve been saying that for months,” Maddy sneered.
“CHILL, Maddy,” I said. “She’s moving out of her room for us, isn’t that enough?”
“Maddy?” proving that Exemplars aren’t just pretty bricks (well, some of them anyway), Brandimant showed that she had some actual chops. She took in ‘Maddy’, Madskillz’s voice, our identical appearance, our postures and the way we stood next to each other, and maybe didn’t hit the bullseye, but was definitely on the board. “WHAT? You two nitwits found an Exemplarizing devise down in the tunnels, and they let you USE it on each other?”
“NO,” Zenith said severely stepping up into a face-off with Brandimant. “And I’ll thank you to NOT repeat that outside this dorm!” She spelled out in the simplest, least compromising terms what happened.
Brandimant looked over Zenith’s shoulder at us with an odd mixture of suspicion, surprise and concern. “Smokey? Is that really YOU?”
“Ah… YEAH. And before you go into anything, Maddy had absolutely nothing, NADA to do with me getting Ka-girled. She damn near had a meltdown when she heard about it. AND, she got zapped by the same asshole who zapped me- that, or this whole thing is a ton weirder than we thought, and it’s hard to do that without Rod Serling stepping out from behind the drapes.”
Brandimant gave me a look. “You lost your balls, but you got a spine in the process?”
“Well, suddenly not having ‘fragile, handle with care’ on my forehead has something to do with it.”
Brando arched an eyebrow. “You got Exemplar tough along with Exemplar cute?”
“We figure that they’re both somewhere between a level 5 and 6, coupled with their PDP talents,” Sahar said clinically.
“PDP? You two are PDPs TOO? What, did you suddenly complete, like, TWENTY quests all at once, and level up five times overnight?”
“We’ve always been PDPs,” Maddy sneered, “we just didn’t know it. That’s old news. If you’d been paying attention, you’d know that.”
Brando got a glint in her eye, but Zenith stepped between them again. “AND, since we’re here to help you get moved, Smokey, why don’t you help Brandy up there, and Maddy, you can ferry the stuff over to her new digs as it comes down?”
“Excellent idea!” Brando swept me up in her arms and jumped up to the lowest level of supports, and King Kong’ed me up to the highest level. She quickly finished untaping the air purifier and yelled down to Maddy, “Incoming!” Then, just as Maddy was connecting, Brando dropped the air purifier down. From there, it was like an old 1980s video game, with Brando telling me to disconnect this bit of this or that, and dropping it down to Maddy, pretty much daring her to drop something. Oh, and for some reason, while Brando left the unscrewing and disconnecting to me, she felt obligated to look over my shoulder and, ah, ‘encourage’ me. Which involved a lot more body contact and, ah, rubbing than I’m really used to.
Still, Brando’s ‘game’ had the virtue of making the job go quickly, and Maddy didn’t drop a thing. Even when we were down to the support pipes, and we were unscrewing them out of the mooring sockets. Brando gave us a slightly miffed look as she picked up the load of pipes. But she gave a leering smirk and said that she’d be seeing me around in a way that was half-Vamp-level proposition and half slap at Maddy. And as she walked out of the room, I could swear that she was working her rear end a bit.
But Maddy looked around the room, and checked up at the number and placement of the sockets with an intrigued air. “Y’know, if you’re an exemplar, that arrangement isn’t as doof as it looks at first. If we can find out what diameter of pipe she-”
“MADDY… FIRST we get our stuff from our old rooms. THEN we find either the stolen teleporter or the Mimicry Inducer, whichever comes first. THEN, we stabilize ourselves so they don’t have to use buckets at our funerals. Then and ONLY then do we start on any new projects!”
Maddy grumped but saw the logic in it. The prospect of turning into a hundred pounds of gravy will get even Maddy to focus. We cleared it with Mrs. Horton that we’d head over to Waldoville, meet Reach, Spark, Zenith and Sahar there (and probably overload Banny’s little pea brain in the process), and head from there in force to Whitman. When we got to the porch of good ol’ Emerson, Reach stopped us and said, “Okay, I been through this before. Now some of the larger, beefier types will feel thet they gotta be all big and manly and help us poor li’l gals haul all that nasty ol’ heavy gear. Now this is very important, girls: LET THEM.”
“It lets the little dears feel useful,” Sahar said with a smirk.
It was significantly weird. And YES, after all that I’ve been through today, I can say that now it got weird. I mean, really, is six girls coming into a boy’s cottage really that weird? Okay, six absolutely stunning girls, four exquisite blondes, one very hawt brunette and one exotic dusky doe-eyed Lebanese goddess… I mean, this IS Whateley, one of the most densely concentrated collections of female gorgeousness on the planet, so it shouldn’t have been THAT weird. Though it didn’t help that Harley was calling out ‘how are yas?’ to guys she’d known in the cott. And it certainly wasn’t that odd at how quickly we disassembled my stuff and got it all packed for moving. I mean, it’s MY stuff, Maddy knows how I arrange my things, Zenith has that ‘Database’ technique that Maddy’s so amped on learning, Sahar has copied that technique somehow, and Jenny and Harley stretch. So why were all the guys gathered around my room, staring at us all wide-eyed?
Of course, once we had my stuff all neatly stacked together for moving, Banny struts up, puffs out his chest and says that he’ll be glad to move those big heavy boxes for us. And Gold Stallion and G-Force were there, helping with the heavy lifting, despite the fact that I know that Reach is stronger than Gold Stallion, and I think that I am now too. I didn’t need telepathy to know that Maddy was thinking about how she could use this- or, inevitably, abuse it. But GOD, why didn’t I tell Banny who I was, right off the bat? He’d have gone off his nut, but it would have been in the cafeteria. And now when he finds out about it- and he WILL find out about it somehow, and he’ll feel that he got tricked. And guys get very weird about being tricked.
BUT, having a guy along who reduced the weight of all that by 23% was really very helpful. G-Force chatted Maddy up, telling her that 23% was the most that he could reduce the gravity without completely messing up our balance and foot-eye coordination. I wondered how much of that was LeShawn macking on Maddy, how much of it was because he’d been raised to be a gentleman, and how much of it was because G-Force has taken it in the chops this year, what with the drug thing on Halloween and that weird thing where he tried to fag-bash the Goodkind a few weeks ago. LeShawn swears up and down that he got framed on the drug thing, and he gets all scrunched up and paranoid when the Goodkind thing gets brought up. LeShawn’s got a lot more going on under that ‘NAACP Poster Boy’ image than most people know. Telepathy is my ‘minor’ PDP trait, and I vastly prefer my faux-Gadgeteer trait; I’m especially glad of that when I’m around people like LeShawn. There are cans of worms you just don’t open.
We took the stuff over to Whitman and left it with Mrs. Savage, the house mother while we schlepped the rest over to the Workshop to be put in storage. It was… interesting… going into Whitman Cottage. I don’t know about the Twain Gang, but the Emerson boys have a kind of oral tradition about the other cottages. Poe is, naturally, the Nuthouse, and the walls and stairs are padded with rubber, and the kids run around cackling madly, and all that comic strip insane asylum crap. Dickinson is all prim and proper with lace doilies everywhere, and the girls sit around sipping tea and discussing 19th century poetry. Melville is this jazzy 5-star hotel with ALL the posh perks, including hot tubs, Next-Generation-Plus internet connection, heaters that warm up your towels and bathrobes for you, insanely over-opulent showers with elaborate fittings and Milan tile, and private penthouse suites right out of a 1960s ‘Swinging Bachelor’ movie, all of it taken completely for granted by the Trust Fund brats that infest the place. And Whitman? Well, the Emerson collective imagination has painted Whitman as sort what Hugh Hefner might come up with if he tried to build the Addams Family mansion. Or maybe if Charles Addams had done a storyboard for ‘the Facts of Life’ sitcom. Very confusing impressions, now that I think about it.
But nowhere near as confusing as seeing a strapping amazon carry a girl with squidlegs up the stairs piggyback.
But what really got you was the stark contrast with Emerson, especially the cold accusing stares that we got from the girls. ALL the girls. Even the ‘normal’ and quite pretty ones. Mrs. Savage, the house mother, took pity on us, and stilled the hostility with a single hard *ahem!*. In a clear, carrying but not loud voice, she welcomed us. She told the guys to remain in the lobby, while we girls went up to the third floor to help with clearing out Maddy’s room. I had my PDP thing set to my usual default of ESP, but even that couldn’t cut the chill from the cold shoulder we were getting.
And then we got to Maddy’s room, and I really missed the warm, human companionship of simple mortal hatred. Hela was flitting around, clearly in her Manic state. Which wouldn’t be that bad, if not for the fact that when Hela gets manic, so do her spooks. The spooks were being ‘helpful’.
And I was reminding myself way too much of the Cowardly Lion, telling himself that ‘there’s no such thing as spooks’.
And then, suddenly, we were all done. One minute, the room was strictly divided between Hela’s stuff and Maddy’s, with Maddy’s all over the place. Neat and orderly, give Maddy her due, but still, all over the place as only a gadgethead with too much stuff and too little space can do. The next minute, Hela’s half is just the same, but everything of Maddy’s is packed up in three sections, one to be taken to the Workshop, one to get lugged over to Poe, and one for Storage. Maddy was looking around with a ‘wha?’ look too, but Harley, Jenny, Zenith, Sahar and Hela were all giving us these ‘what did you just DO?’ looks. Even Hela’s spooks were hanging in midair with their ectoplasmic jaws on the carpet.
Ooohhh-kaaayyy, what the hell just happened?
Really not wanting to get into that, I said, “Well, okay, now that that’s done, let’s get this stuff out of here? Before Banny says something stupid and starts a riot.”
And, speaking of riots, what happened next was NOT Banny’s fault. Or Maddy’s. As a matter of fact, it all really started ‘cause Maddy saw Bova, that ‘cow girl’ who got Drowed by Jobe? Apparently, Maddy had given Bova a large ration of shit over going Glam, and now that she was in the same boat, Maddy felt she owed Bova more than a written apology. She stopped, talked to Bova, owned up, and it was all very genteel, very civilized, very ‘there is hope for the Human Race’. Then Tweak, a girl-geek I know from the Workshop, who got a major makeover from her (then) boyfriend, told Maddy that she knew how she felt. Then this cute but lippy chick called Spectral started giving Maddy sass, and it started to go downhill.
It wasn’t that bad, until a black-haired, red-skinned, bat-winged, horned, tailed, cloven-hoofed (yet very cute for all that) devil girl named ‘Angelique’ suddenly broke down and begged Maddy to use her ‘Exemplar Thingie’ on her. And then it got nasty. This chick named Pucelle who was wearing a mask for reasons I don’t want to know started getting all PC about ‘Pretties’ and like that, and a devil-girl with skin like stone was giving Maddy some grief that seemed pretty personal, and another devil-girl with tattered wings was giving Harley grief, and someone else was ragging on Spark, calling her a dyke, and that cold, hard tension was coming back.
Bova stepped between us and the Whitmaniacs, and managed to calm things down. I was dang impressed by how she handled the situation. But then, like I said, before she got Drowed, she was this big bovine woman. So she really does feel their pain and all that. And she was bringing the harsh down to some reasonable mellow.
Then, do not ask me why, he’s not stupid, but then LeShawn, y’know G-Force? He steps in and tries to help, saying that Maddy didn’t do it, that it was done to her, and like that. It was working okay, but then he adds, “But what I don’t get is who this Tracy girl is… and where’s Smoke Test?”
And you could see a massive putting of 2 and 2 together to get: a riot.
Ironically, Banny was trying to be the voice of reason, and he really got trashed over it. He was keeping his rager thing under control, but Hela and her spooks totally wigged out. Her spooks and the spooks of that Spectral chick got into a tangle over him. Gold Stallion lived up to his codename and galloped the hell out of there.
And, well… there are things you just don’t DO to a man in a kilt!
Short form, we barely got out of there with our skin intact. Jenny had to drag Harley out. Literally. Yard by yard.
Banny was understandably upset. G-Force was pretty beaten up, both physically and emotionally, the latter being him putting his foot in his mouth. He was so apologetic that we just had him take Banny back to Emerson and make sure that he got a bath and some hot cocoa. And we lugged some of our stuff over to the Workshop, and the rest to Poe. When we got to Poe, Maddy let out a gusty breath of relief and said, “Well, at least I don’t owe Bova a letter of apology anymore. Now, I owe her a ‘Thanks for saving my hide’ letter.” We let Jenny and Harley get back to Melville, and started lugging our stuff up the stairs.
Brando was waiting for us at the head of the stairs on the Sophomore floor. “Whoa! What happened to you two?”
“Somebody had a nasty case of blabbermouth, let slip who I was, and, ah, ‘hilarity ensued’.”
Brando the good grace to wince. “Owch. So, they know about you, Smokey?”
“Well… at least you’re contributing to the cottage cover as the nuthouse.”
Brando helped us get our stuff up the stairs and to our room. “Hey, Zee, I’ll go get Vamp; maybe she can grease these two downstairs for some hydroflux. After what they’ve been through, they could really use some hydroflux.”
Hydroflux? I know a girl in the Workshop called ‘Hydroflux’, but she’s a joke! She’s fixated on plumbing!
THIRTY MINUTES LATER
All Hail Hydroflux!
As she and I walked back up to our room with a decided spring in our steps, Maddy was bubbling over with ideas for duplicating Hydroflux’s technology.
“It’s no good,” Brando said with a wry smirk as she waited for us at the head of the stairs. “The only way to really study the tech would be to take one of the heads apart and try to figure it out. Hydroflux charges a kidney for those things, and trying to snitch the head from downstairs would set the entire Nursery after your blood.”
“Y’mean… Tennyo?” Tennyo is a girl who looks a lot like the character ‘Ryoko’ from the Tenchi Muyo anime. Besides that, Tennyo has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous students at Whateley. Rumor has it that she has a Section 33 tag out on her: if you pick a fight with her, you’re kicked out of school. Even Counterpoint, one of the most notoriously violent headcase bullies in school won’t mess with her.
“Worse. They may sic Jade on you.”
It took me a second, but I placed ‘Jade’ as Generator, this cute little Japanese girl in the Workshop, who does some truly strange stuff, even by Whateley standards. “Generator? On Team Kimba, they have a Section 33 case, a wizard who as a small cult-or something-, one of the hottest martial artists in the Dojo, a brick with military training and The Goodkind, but you’re worried that they’ll send Generator after us?”
Brando just shook her head heavily. “Do. NOT. Mess. With. Jade.”
Brando very casually strolled along with us to our room. “Hey, I see a lot of gear, but what about clothes?”
“Well, all of MY clothes are guy stuff,” I pointed out, “and Maddy’s stuff…” I paused, trying to figure out how to be discreet about this, “…don’t suit her current frame.”
“Oh, right, you’re the tactful one on this team,” Brando sniffed. “So, when are you two gonna go get a new set of duds?”
“After we’re not in dire immediate peril of melting into pork-flavored goo,” Maddy answered with a suspicious amount of rationality.
“That bad?” Maddy and I gave her perfectly orchestrated deep nods. “Where’d you get those things?”
“Ew. Okay, nuthin’ for it. Wait here.” Brando strode over to a door and knocked. A cute minxish girl with a dark pixie haircut poked her head out. “Dodge? We got a situation. The two new girls who just came in don’t have any clothing, and it’s gonna be a while before they can get out and buy some new stuff. Go get Marlene, Rigs or Tammy; I think they’re their sizes. I’ll see if I can talk Tuppence, Kim, or Troika into dipping into their closets.”
“Isn’t that Zee’s job? Or at least Vamp?” the girl asked. Then she looked at us, got a better look and perked up. “On it!” she beamed. She jumped over Brando, using her head as a vaulting horse and ran down to another door and knocked. Brando gave out an aggrieved sigh and told us to go back to our room.
Maddy and I went in, looked around, and promptly got into our first argument as roommates about our priorities of unpacking. I wanted to do a complete inventory; Maddy just wanted to get started.
Then there was a knock on our door, and Brando stuck her head in. “What’s this? Already you’re arguing? Smokey, I thought that Madskillz had you on a leash or something.”
“Yes, we argue,” I snipped. “But only about important things, like inventories.”
“If it wasn’t for me, Smokey would still be counting the circuits in the packet of gear he got last year at the beginning of the semester,” Maddy sneered.
“Oh, this is gonna be a barrel of laughs,” Brando droned. “C’mon in, girls, there’s still room to move.” Six girls walked in, five of whom were my and Maddy’s size, the sixth of which was a little taller, more slender- and bald. “Okay, girls, these are Maddy and Smokey, the new girls on the floor. Maddy is better known to some of you as ‘Madskillz’, and Smokey used to be the boy who was her partner. And… Mad Science happened. Past that, you’ll have to talk to Zenith about the details; the point is that those are the only clothes that either of them have at the moment. So, they’re gonna need something to wear while they get their current crisis under wraps. And YES, there will be quid pro quo for this.” That made a certain… harsh… sense; can’t ask a bunch of girls I don’t really know for clothes without some kind of payback. Of course, the bitch is that tech-heads get hit up for ‘favors’ even more than Mages do, and that’s saying something. Maddy and I will probably wind up paying top dollar for used clothing- in hardware and repairs and IT support, of course.
Brando said, “Okay, let’s get the introductions out of the way quickly, so we can get down to the important part: trying on clothes.” That comment confused me; it was a stereotypical sexist remark, almost something out of a 1950 comedy. Then it hit me: she wasn’t looking forward to trying on clothes; she was looking forward to Maddy and me taking off these clothes and trying things on. I am SO not in Emerson anymore… Brando waved a hand at what appeared to be a set of identical triplets, with identical wavy dark brown hair pulled back in the exact same chignon, all wearing identical jeans and tank tops. “This is Cass Addington, also known as ‘Troika’.” All three of Cass put down the clothing they’d been carrying, and then they sort of melded together into a single girl of the same description.
“Hi!” she chirped at us. “Gimme a second to get my head together.”
“Cass was doing her Math, History and Grammar homework- at the same time- when I found her,” Brando explained.
“The thing is, getting the information all sorted out in my head actually makes it easier to learn,” Cass said as she held her head like she was getting a headache. “But I still gotta get it all straight.”
“You can do that?” I asked. “OMAG, who’s in Emerson, can do the ‘multi-man’ thing, but he can’t split his attention well enough to do anything as abstract as study.”
“OMAG,” she said with an expression that I didn’t need telepathy to read as ‘that retard’.
“And this is Tuppence,” Brando said, indicating another girl, similar build, but sandy blonde hair in a bob.
“Tuppence?” I echoed, “You’re from England-er Britain?”
“New Zealand, actually,” she said with an accent that wasn’t Aussie, but slightly off.
“Then why did your parents name you ‘Tuppence’?” Maddy asked. “I thought that was a Brit shtick.”
“This is why.” Tuppence shrank down to the size of… well, I suppose a tuppence was the idea. She bowed and grew back to normal size. “I can also grow to 12 meters and change high, but not indoors.”
“These three,” Brando, indicated the last of them, including the bald one, “are the Electro-charge sisters. They’re all energizers and best buds. Kim’s the one whose clothes you’ll be bumming; the other two are just along for the show.”
And then, on cue, the short girl that Brando had talked to poked her head in the door and then remembered to knock. She brought in three more girls, again all with the same basic height and physique. Brando gestured at one girl with pale blonde, almost white hair cut in a pageboy with bangs. “This is Tammy, or ‘Ghostly’; she has, if it needs saying, ‘ghostly’ powers.”
Tammy sort of went faint and transparent, and floated half a foot off the floor. “Think Danny Phantom,” she said. “I can become invisible, go through walls, fly and stuff. I can’t do blasts or any PK stuff though.” She paused. “I think…”
Brandimant started to introduce the next girl, same basic physique, but African American, with her hair in braids pulled up in a bun behind her head. But Maddy and I beat her to the draw. “Hey, Rigs,” we said. “Didn’t know you were in Poe,” Maddy added. Rigs, or Rigger, is a gadgeteer with a passion for- get this- the complexities and nuances of broadcast code. She can do totally insane things with drones and RC stuff. I hear that the NSA is drooling to get her under contract.
“Well, I’ve always said that you belong in Poe,” Rigs smirked back. “Nice to see that you might actually be worth having around.” She put down her clothing and shot Maddy a look that said, ‘there WILL be payment for this, and I don’t need anyone to do my tech work for me’. Oh yeah, we’re gonna be paying top dollar for this stuff…
“And this is Marlene, the floor’s resident badass,” Brando waved at the last girl with clothes on their arms. She was, again, roughly our size and figure, with dirty blonde hair pulled back into a long high ponytail. Without too much ado, she nodded and concentrated, and a layer of transparent ‘crystal’ formed around her, making her look like she was carved out of diamond. “Her handle’s ‘Diamond’,” Brando said. “She’s your basic sheath manifester, with strength up in the 4 to 5 tons range, very tough shell and claws that can cut steel. And she’s immune to most acids in this form-oh, and it lifts unsightly stains from her clothes like a miracle.
“And this is Lisa; she goes by the handle ‘the Artful Dodger’, so she’ll also answer to ‘Artie’ or ‘Dodger’ or ‘Dodge’, or just throw a book at her to get her attention.” The perky little minx that Brando had gone to us first and brought in the other girls gave us a pervy smile.
“Artful Dodger?” Maddy asked, “What are you, a warper with the ability to pick pockets?”
“Warper, yeah,” Lisa said. “Pickpocket not so much. I don’t do the ‘bamf’ thing or duplicate- okay, I can duplicate, but it hurts like fuck. What I do is I warp space around me so it’s real hard to hit me or lay hands on me. Tons of secondary effects, including,” she hopped up over Brando and did a one-handed-handstand on her head.
“Don’t. DO. that,” Brando grated out in the tones of someone who gets used as a vaulting horse a lot.
“I’m an Exemplar-3,” Lisa gloated as she dismounted. “With these elevated levels of cuteness, daring, savvy and raw COOL, what else could I be?”
“Don’t ever take a bet against her at dodge ball.”
“And now that that’s done, this is Smoke Test- by the way, what’s your real name? I’ve never heard you called anything but Smokey,” Brando said.
“Well, since it looks like I’m gonna be stuck this way- that is if I don’t melt into a puddle of GOO- I’ve been calling myself Tracy,” I said. “I’m a Package Deal Psychic, but my telepathy is pretty median, and my PK is in the ounces league. My thing is that we used to think that I was a Gadgeteer, with a focus in Failure Point Location.”
There was the usual ‘HAH?’ reaction.
“That means that Smokey is aces at finding the points in a system- mechanical, electronic, whatever- where a failure is most likely to happen,” Maddy used her default lecture on the subject. “Weaknesses, stress points, imbalances, whatever.”
“And this is Maddy, better known as Madskillz,” Brando said. “She’s also a PDP- news to me too- and, well, the less said about her, the better.”
“And now that the snippy bitchery portion of our program over,” Vamp, who’d come in with her sidekick X-O while all the introductions were being made, said, “let’s get down to business. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll reduce everything- clothes, shoes, services, goods, la-la-la- down to Dollar values. The clothes will be given the going E-Bay asking rate, and in return, the vendors will be given an IOU that the twins WILL make good on (if they know what’s good for them), once the whole stabilization thing gets taken care of. For return services, the Workshop has a standard dollar-value-for-task chart that we’ll be using. It won’t be as much fun as haggling, but since they’re going to be living here, it would be a good idea to keep the shafting to a minimum. Or at least pleasurable,” she finished with her trademark Vamp pervy smirk.
And from there, there was a lot of taking clothes off and putting other clothes on, and swapping and mixing and matching, and me spending a LOT more time in my underwear with other people watching than I’m really comfortable with. The rapt appreciation on the girls’ face as we did this was a major part of it. And that pervy smirk never left Vamp’s face. Or the Artful Dodger’s. And Brandimant had a definite sparkle in her eye as well.
Finally we both picked out four sets of ‘walking around and going to class’ clothes, with school uniforms being provided by the school. Why only four sets? Because if we manage to find the Mimicry Inducer or DuPraeve’s teleporter, we can go to Manchester or somewhere and buy our own clothing at non-extortion rates. And if we don’t? We’ll have WAY bigger problems than if our clothing is shabby.
That done, it was Vamp (of all people!) who ended it by clapping her hands, saying, “Okay, let’s wrap it up. It’s late, and the girls want to be up bright and early. WHY anyone would want to be up bright and early, I have NO IDEA…”
Vamp and X-O shepherded the girls out the door. The Dodger was shoved out the door last, and yelled over Tara’s arm, “See you around girls! Especially in the showers!”
Maddy looked after them and said wonderingly, “WHY didn’t I know about this cottage earlier?”
Looking at the clock, it was 9 o’clock, little early, but Vamp was right- we’d want to be up very early and get into the tunnels for the big search. Vamp and Tara had brought sheets, so the sooner we were in bed, the better all around. “So Maddy- you got any particular preference for your bed?”
Maddy walked toward me with this weird- but somehow familiar- smirk on her face. She got in real close, like nose-to-nose, and said in a purring voice, “So who says we can’t share a bed?” Then she kissed me.
Short form: we did the Sex Thing. Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be long and lyrical, but get real: I’m an Engineer, not a Humanities Major. From what I’ve read of ‘Erotic Literature’, it’s all about writing up the same basic scenes in new ways. And I don’t do that.
And even with all that, at the end of it, there we were, together in bed, naked. Maddy asked, “Smokey? Was it good for you?”
Now, as I said, my telepathy is pretty median. And the subtle nuances of communication is NOT my gig. But Maddy and I do have a link, so I knew that she really did want to know if it had been good for me. Cause it hadn’t been that great for her. “I’ve had better times with my hand, Maddy. Not bad, but not ‘scaling high walls and fighting loathsome beasts’ worthy.”
“I don’t GET it!” Maddy said, genuinely baffled, “We’ve got killer bods, fashion model faces, and I know you like girls-”
“Actually, Maddy, I never really thought about sex that much,” I admitted. “For me, it was always something that other people did. I’m not really sure how I do around guys or girls. But-” I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. “I know that I love you, Maddy. Like a sister. Like a part of me. But you just don’t… you just don’t excite me.” I looked her in the eyes and said the part she didn’t want to have to say. “And I don’t excite you. No matter what bodies we’re in, I’m Smokey and you’re Maddy- and we’re buds. Not lovers, not sweethearts, not fuck buddies, none of that. We could be lying on the fanciest bed in the hawtest lingerie ever designed- and we’d be thinking about how to make our latest project work.”
“Yeah,” Maddy sighed. She wrapped her arms around me, we were both naked, and there was warmth- but no real heat. Then I felt something occur to Maddy. She grinned at me and said, “So, you wouldn’t mind if I took a run at Rigger?”
“Not tonight, Maddy.”
“Hey, gotta have something to look forward to!”
“G’night, Maddy.” And I used a meditation I learned in Psycho Arts to put myself to sleep.
Waking up was, well… involved… for both of us. But apparently being an Exemplar is good for more than looking really good. Our new Exemplar memories sort of smacked us upside the head and filled in the mysterious blanks. It also (miracle of miracles!) helped Maddy realize that getting dressed and over to the Workshop was more important than checking out her new body. And for once, I truly shared Maddy’s pain.
We checked in with the Graveyard shift concierge and called Zenith to get someone to bring us a couple (maybe 4 or 6- no, given Exemplar appetites, it might be best to bring 8, just to be on the safe side) Devisor Specials from the cafeteria. We waited an eternal 20 minutes until the Workshop coffee pot was ready to pour out lethal black stimulation. Now that I think about it, how do Workshop grads get their fixes of this stuff? Don’t tell Maddy- God alone knows what she’d make of it. Once we’d got our first cups of the day, we reviewed the doors and corridors of the Workshop, trying to find some wrinkle or dodge that ‘Mr. X’ could have used. We came up with dozens of possibilities, courtesy of Maddy, but we weeded them out, courtesy of Yours Truly.
We settled down to doing what we do best: Maddy using her flawed Database technique to flesh out new theories, and me using my Failure Point Location as Occam’s Razor to whittle down her theories. I was proving to Maddy that her latest SWAG was wrong with the Power History records, when our breakfasts arrived. Now, I was expecting Rigger and/or her bestest buddy/ arch-rival and fellow Poesie, Kitbash (and possibly more, now that I’m in the know), or some other technologically oriented Poe boy/girl. But no, it was a tall, skinny, tow-headed, ferret faced guy, and a much shorter and significantly rounder guy with glasses and dark hair. “Horrorshow?”
“Smokey?” he bleated, somehow caught flat-footed, despite the fact that he must have been clued in already. “Is that really YOU?”
“Let me guess: G-Force has been telling everyone in Waldoville about me.”
“Ah, no.” Horrorshow said, with Runestrong shaking his head, backing him up. “Bannock came back, babbling something about the cute little blonde really being Smoke Test, and how he needed a pair of pants.”
Maddy, who had been uncharacteristically quiet through this, gently lifted several breakfast cartons out of Runestrong’s hands. She would have taken all of them, but I put an irresistible finger on the top, so I snagged 3 for myself. “So, what are you two doing here? This is tech-head central; that’s kind of out of your turf.”
“Hey, I may not be able to build a giant flying robot, but I can solder a circuit together!” Horrorshow snapped, sounding a lot more like the jackass I’ve come to know. “and… come ON! What’s going on here? First Jobe, then Reach, and now you? You may not have been big bad buff Buck McBrawny, but you were still a guy! What happened?”
Maddy was making her break from the room with her 5 cartons of breakfast, so I covered for her by telling the two guys the rough outline of what happened, leaving out certain embarrassing details. When I told them about Sinewave’s Mimicry Inducer, Brian’s (that’s what he’s called when he’s not being all Horrorshow) face went slack, his eyes went wide and he croaked, “They can DO that?”
“It’s a Devise,” I pointed out. “A very high-level, very twitchy, very Black Shelf devise that they kept around because it would be too dangerous to not have it around. If it wasn’t for that JIC factor, they would’ve junked it years ago.”
“But… aside from being, y’know, a girl… you’re okay?”
“As a matter of fact- NO.” I spelled out the ‘buried in a bucket’ factor. “And while you guys aren’t in anywhere near as bad a fix as Maddy and me, you all really need for us to find that stupid teleporter. Finding the Mimicry Inducer would be nice, but the teleporter is our best chance. My recovery matrix may still be in its History- I don’t see how, the details must be millions of Gigabytes- but if it’s there, we can use that to restore ourselves.” <memo to self: make sure I get to the teleporter first, find my recovery matrix, and erase it>
Runestrong gave me a weird look. “And they moved you into the nuthouse?”
“Can you think of any bunch of people at this school who’d be weirded out LESS by this?”
“And how are you doing?”
“Right now, I’m real focused on not melting like the Wicked Witch of the West. Later? I’m looking forward to a nice noisy nervous breakdown,” I lied.
“Y’know, you may be going at this all wrong,” Horrorshow said, all serious-like. “You’re treating this like it’s just another piece of gear. But it’s not. It’s a Devise. It’s fucking techno-magic! What I’m saying is that if you can’t find either the Mimic thing or the Teleporter, you still have options.”
“You have the phone number for Star Fleet? Doctor Who, maybe?”
“No, MAGIC!” Horrorshow held up a cupped hand and a tongue of green flame shot up. Now Horrorshow isn’t a Wiz-trait; he’s some kind of Manifestor, very detailed, give him that. The green fire is a little vanilla for him; Horror is still kind of stuck in the Junior High gross-out stage. His usual stuff is more ‘body horror’, with spines and goo and suppurating cysts and fangs and- y’know, I’m starting to see why Maddy doesn’t like the idea of Horrorshow being interested in her. “The problem with technology is that it’s bound by the conventional Law of Physics. But Magic- and Devises- aren’t. Everybody keeps saying that Devisors are really mages with a technological worldview. I dunno, but it strikes me that trying to fix something that a Devise did with another Devise is like trying to fix a leaky boat by drilling holes in it to let the water drain out. And trying to fix it with regular tech would be like trying to fix a broken arm with a blowtorch.
“You’re unstable at the molecular level. If you use Tech, you’re looking at trying to affect things molecule by molecule. But if you go with Magic, then you’re using your body’s own vital essence to keep you together. Instead of making things more complicated, you’re making them simpler. Magic works best when it’s working with the Laws of Physics. Your body wants to be whole. The magic would be working with your body, instead of cramming more weirdness down its throat.
“AND, best of all, when you look at this weirdness from a magical point of view, this is an Enchantment. And my boy Runestrong,” he draped a chummy arm around Randy’s shoulder, “is an Enchanting ACE. He may not be able to wiggle his fingers at you and make everything all better, but he CAN work at creating an Enchantment that will keep you from melting down. Like… a Transformation Spell, in reverse. You think you can pull this off, Roonester?”
Randy looked profoundly uncomfortable and said, “Ah, Horror, could you give me a few moments alone with the… uhm… girls?”
Horrorshow stopped short, had a Newsbreak worthy moment of social awkwardness awareness, and looked around. “Ah. Yeah. Right. I’ll… ah... I’ll just take this,” He went over to a dolly loaded with crates of high-tech scrap and jerked it onto its wheels, “I’ll… take it to the shredder! Can’t leave stuff like this just lying around, it’s dangerous!”
As Horror exited the room in a display that shows that there just MAY be something to him, Runestrong let out a relieved sigh. “He’s been weird ever since he heard about Smokey. I think that he thinks that Smokey got hit because someone was targeting you, Madskillz.” Then he noticed that Maddy had snuck out. “Anyway, despite himself, Horror’s got a good idea. Well, for Horrorshow, anyway. If Technology doesn’t do the trick, Smokey, talk to someone in the Mystic Arts program. It’s way beyond me, but that doesn’t mean that there might not be someone who could handle it. Al-Feyez has a bee in his fez that there’s some kind of link between enchantment and devises, so he’d probably be willing to take a stab at it.”
Okay, that’s way more in what I expected of those two: Horrorshow coming up with a dingbat ‘cool idea’ and Runestrong either talking him and the other Losers out of it or at least keeping the collateral damage to a minimum. Kind of like me and Maddy. Not that I would ever say that in front of Maddy.
To Be Continued