Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy / Part 1
Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy
by Diane Castle (with assorted angelic and demonic assistance)
I woke up when my alarm clock began playing Brass Monkey’s brilliant love song “Why I Hate Your Guts”.
The voice just behind my ear growled in a sexy soprano, “Goddamnit Ayla, this is the last time I’m cuddling wit’ you if I have ta wake up ta that shit every morning!”
I snuggled back against Vox’s voluptuous shape and said, “Okay, I can change the alarm clock.” Sleeping with Vox was so great, even if it was only sleeping and no messing around. And we were both in pajamas. Long pajamas: Vox was in a full-length cotton nightie and socks. Not to mention that I had once again awakened with a boner you could use to drive nails.
I went light and floated up through the sheets, the pajamas coming with me. Chou’s Christmas gift was pretty darn handy a lot of the time. I didn’t have to worry about ‘sleepwalking’ out of my pajamas and pissing off Vanessa, or embarrassing Chou. I drifted down to the floor. Then I went heavy and scooped Vox out of the bed.
Vox gave me a warm kiss on the cheek and said, “Besides, Sharisha ought to be back today, and I’ll want to spend some time with her, just catching up on stuff. I’ll probably go back to sleeping in my own bed. Unless your nightmares come back.” I opened my mouth to make some smart-alecky comment, but Vox cut me off, “No, I mean real nightmares that Chou says really happened, not making up stuff to get me to snuggle wit’ you all night. Got it?”
Vox walked out of the room, but paused in the doorway in a pose that made my crotch throb hungrily. “Not that snuggling with you at night isn’t really nice and all, but we’re not supposed to. And you know it.”
I certainly knew it, but I just liked snuggling with Vox. And doing other stuff with Vox. Even if we had our own sets of friends, and our own cliques. Not to mention that at least a couple of Vanessa’s friends hated me and my friends with a fiery, insane passion. I told myself that we had several years to work that out. I was absolutely not going to think about the well-known fact that high school romances hardly ever lasted anywhere near that long. I was definitely not going to think about the fact that I was damned lucky Vox had put up with me for this long.
I took my time getting ready for the showers, so Vox would get there a few seconds ahead of me. I knew just how long Vox would need to change out of her nightie and grab her shower gear when she didn’t have Sharisha to stop and chat with, so I could time it fairly closely.
Man, had I ever missed showering in the girls’ bathroom while I was home over Christmas holiday. There were definite advantages to a private bathroom, particularly when you were intersexed, but my bathroom back at Gracie’s just didn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.
Okay, I knew exactly what my bathroom back home didn’t have. It didn’t have nearly-naked hotties who were gorgeous enough to put Playboy and Mutants Illustrated out of business. I walked in behind Vox, who had ditched her full-length cotton nightie for just a towel - and it wasn’t a really big towel. Vox had a world-class backside. Plus, she was singing to herself again. As a siren, Vox had a fantastic ability to control sound. She was singing “Break It Off” by Rihanna and Sean Paul.. only she was singing both parts, and also doing all the instruments. It really sounded like Rihanna and Sean Paul and their backup singers and the entire band were all in the bathroom. I had done the “no wonder it’s so crowded in here” joke about two dozen times already since the start of Fall Term, so I refrained. This time, anyway.
THE POE GIRLS
Vox waited for Fey to step out of the right-hand shower, so she could get in. She knew damn well that Ayla’s eyes were drifting off of her and onto Fey. What the hell, so were the eyes of every girl in the damn bathroom, except Jade, and well, Jade was only like eleven or something, and still didn’t get it. She would’ve been a lot more ticked at Ayla if she could’ve stopped staring at Fey. The girl was so damn hot.. for a white girl, anyway. Hell, Sharisha couldn’t stop staring at Fey, and Sharisha hated Fey. Vox was totally sure it was jealousy, since Fey hadn’t even been a girl for more’n about a year, and she was probably gonna be ruling Venus Inc. by next fall.
Chaka stepped into the bathroom, just as Vox hopped into a shower that Nikki was obviously getting out of. ‘Course, Ayla was standing there pretending to wait her turn, while getting in as good an ogle at both of them as she could. Mister Subtlety, that was our girl Phase.
Tennyo finished showering, and could see the crowd waiting to get in. So she just went straight up. She snatched her towel as she lifted off, and went horizontal so she could float over the showers and dry off. Punch gratefully slipped into the now-empty shower.
Ayla looked up.. and froze. Christ! Billie was floating overhead, stark naked and face down. And her legs were spread apart, while she dried off her back. Vigorously. Which meant that her breasts were jiggling wildly. And…
Chaka felt the odd shift in attention, and looked over. Ayles, naturally. Only, this time Ayla was looking up. Oh. Billie. Didn’t that girl ever notice what she was doing to everyone around her? Billie’s crotch was about three feet from Ayla’s face, and her feet had to be almost a yard apart.
Chaka summoned her Ki into her index finger and gave Ayla a Ki-powered finger in the ribs.
Chaka tried not to laugh. Ayla had nearly jumped out of her bathrobe. Which wouldn’t have been a good thing, since Ayla probably had a boner like a flagpole. Toni said, “Hey Billie, why dontcha close your legs?”
“Not that we don’t enjoy the view…” Rip chimed in.
“What? Oh.” Billie blithely closed her legs, did an impossible barrel-roll-and-sideways-slide maneuver, and flew out the bathroom door.
Ayla gingerly rubbed the spot where Toni had just zinged him. It had felt more like a cattle prod than a finger. Of course, it had to be one of Chaka’s Ki tricks. At least she hadn’t blasted Ayla with that “Chaka Chaka Bang Bang” Dragonball Z trick. How the hell was a boy supposed to keep his eyes where they were supposed to be, when girls were doing stuff like that all the time in here?
“You were staring again, Ayla,” growled a small, childlike voice.
Ayla looked over to his other side to see Jade glaring angrily at him. Of course, Jade glaring at you wasn’t nearly the same as having Billie glaring angrily at you, or Nikki for that matter. Or even Bunny. Jade’s fiercest glare still looked like a petulant eleven-year-old who wanted her dolly back. Ayla tried to apologize, “Sorry… But you saw what she was doing! I’m trying to be a good boy in here, but some days it’s really hard.”
Vox called out from her shower, “Yeah, we all saw how hard it is!” Half the room cracked up.
Sharisha called out, “And the rest of us don’t wanna see!”
Ayla blushed and tried again, “Look Jade, I am trying. It’s tough being a little angel around here, you know.”
Fey turned from the bathroom mirror and added, “It’s just that some days, she’s a little more devilish, instead of being a little more angelic.”
Jade stopped suddenly. She stared at Nikki. Then she stared at Ayla. She turned and rushed out of the room, laughing madly.
“Was that insane supervillain laugh Number Two?”
“What was that about?”
“I dunno, but I bet someone’s gonna regret it.”
Ayla groused, “I think we all know who that’s going to be, thank you very much.”
“Look, we’ve got to get our schedules all organized if we want to take Team Tactics together,” Chaka insisted. “First two periods of the morning, and we’re newbies, so we’ll probably have to take several extra classes to learn how to run in the simulators.”
“Hey, we already did the simulator in Arena ‘99 for Combat Finals,” Tennyo pointed out.
Chaka shook her head no. “Not like these. Scotty told me about ‘em. They’ve got these state-of-the-art simulation systems that are totally virtual. You put on a special suit, you sit in a chair, you put on this headgear, and when they flip it on, you’re in a virtual reality simulation like nothin’ you’ve ever seen before. Everybody else taking Team Tactics is probably a year ahead of us on this, at least.”
“What about taking Martial Arts, Special Topics with Sensei Ito? You were all hot on that before break,” asked Lancer.
Chaka waved him off, “That’s been moved to sixth period. We can do that too.”
“Crap!” I complained. “Do you know how many electives you’re trashing for me if I have to give up periods one, two, and six? I really wanted to take this class on Micro-Economics and the Mutant Community.”
The rest of the table stared at me like I was insane.
Chaka wondered, “Why would anyone wanna take a class like that, unless the Alphas were holding your family hostage?”
Fey looked at a pile of papers on the table in front of her. “Forget it. That’s a juniors-only class.”
I drew myself up and carefully insisted, “I believe I have all the prerequisites for that.”
Chaka muttered, “And Her Royal Highness has spoken.”
I didn’t think I’d been that formal, or anything. I needed to work on that.
At the table next to Team Kimba, Paige turned to Sara and asked, “Okay, I know I’m the new girl, but how can they take all electives and combat and stuff for the rest of the year? What about English and Math and History and stuff?”
Sara smiled, showing her fangs. “Okay, you’re making the common mistake around here. Winter Term is a seven-week ‘special topics’ period. Same ‘seven periods including lunch’ arrangement as Fall and Spring Terms, just specialized coursework. So seven weeks of Winter Term, one week off, then Spring Term, which runs exactly like Fall Term. Also, the short term gives the seniors a seven-week interval - well, eight weeks counting the break week in case things run over - to get the Senior Legacy done without blowing an entire term of coursework in the process. So the seniors will all be working on their big project, while everyone else gets a chance to take courses they’ll never get to see outside of Whateley.. or maybe outside a few very select supergroups around the world. That ‘Team Tactics’ course? Most military organizations, intelligence agencies, and police forces teach their own versions of team tactics. For most police forces, it’s basic stuff like room-to-room searches and group arrest tactics. But that changes as you scale up, and your opposition scales up. By the time you get to Team Kimba-level threats, you’re talking about the equivalent of room-to-room when invading your enemy’s evil lair, complete with booby traps.”
Paige nodded, “Okay, that makes sense. Now I get why I couldn’t find English and Math courses on this stupid list.”
Jamie suggested, “Oh, there’s English and Math on there. Just special topics stuff.” He – and Jamie was decidedly male that morning – pointed to some courses on page 6. “See? ‘Grammar as a Weapon: Negotiating Tactics in Superpowered Conflicts’. And ‘The Mathematics of Codebreaking’, and this one on graph-theoretic predictions of your opponent’s movements… I don’t even know what that’s about.”
Sara started to explain, “Graph theory is really quite simple. You see…”
But Paige cut in, “The Mathematics of Codebreaking? Awesome! I need that one! What are the prereqs?”
Sara smiled, “I think someone’s got the Winter Term fever now.”
Feral smiled wickedly behind her Ray-Bans, “That’s why they call it ‘Cabin Fever Term’, ya know.”
Hippolyta gruffly pointed at the sheets of paper. “The prerequisites are right there, Paige. Algebra and Trigonometry, or the equivalent. Three terms of Computer Science or the equivalent. At least one term of Hacking Theory and Lab.”
Paige grinned broadly. “Oh! No problem. I’ll just ask Ms. Hartford to clear it for me.”
The entire table stared at her in utter shock.
“Didn’t I mention that Amelia Hartford is going to be my personal tutor this year?”
Feral dropped her sunglasses.
The ‘class selection’ debate was still raging all around our table. It wasn’t being helped at all, now that Beltane and Delta Spike and Shrike had squeezed in around the table and were giving ‘helpful’ advice. Even Jade knew that Beltane’s helpful advice was liable to get you in the middle of some prank that was only funny for everyone else in the vicinity. Delta’s idea of helpful advice would probably get you blown up. And Shrike never bothered to give the newbies helpful advice. She didn’t even hang with the other Poesies most of the time.
“Costume Change I and II. Ugh. Costume Shop last term was more than enough for me,” I groused. I didn’t really care if I’d gotten an ‘A’ in that class. I’d gotten all ‘A’ and ‘A+’ grades. That class had been lame. If I’d just wanted a nice costume that looked stylish, I would have gone to Cecilia Rogers and paid her to design one.
Shrike burst out, “Oh no, this is WAY better! I’m already signed up for Costume Change II. I took Costume Change I last winter and it was awesome! Ever wonder how Lady Astarte gets into that skin-tight thing in under an hour?”
“ … “ I couldn’t make myself speak. Lady Astarte. That skin-tight outfit…
“Ayla! Focus!” insisted Tennyo.
“Uhh. I was focusing. Just not on… Never mind,” I mumbled uncomfortably.
“So, are you gonna take Costume Change I?” prodded Shrike.
Lancer said, “I don’t think so. It conflicts with Team Tactics, for one thing.”
Chaka said, “And it’s not like most of us need it, anyway. I’ve got my Ki-powered clothes switch, and Fey has that magical clothing change, and Phase did that kick-ass smokebomb costume change in combat finals, and Shroud is her own costume change, and Tennyo doesn’t even use a costume, and Lancer… Well, Hank really needs help putting together a costume first. Most of those things he wore last term were just whack.”
“Thanks, Toni,” he pouted.
“Hey, don’t thank me, I’m just glad to help the style-challenged. You were like ‘What Not To Wear’ some of the time last term. You’re just lucky Stacy and Clinton don’t do New Hampshire.”
Hank rolled his eyes and tried to ignore her as he worked out the rest of his schedule.
I pointed out, “Did I mention that I didn’t want you guys to load me down with team stuff this term? I’m trying to do Accounting II, III, and IV this month for Mister Marley.”
“You’re tryin’ to do all three courses at the same time?”
I shrugged a little and explained, “Well, sequentially at least.”
Lancer snorted, “Mister Marley? Accounting? Does he wear chains and moan a lot?”
Fey grinned, “Are you going to have to change your last name to ‘Scrooge’?”
Tennyo grinned, and then moaned in a ghostly wail, “Aaaaaaayla! Aaaaaaayla Goodkiiiiiiind! In death I wear the chains that I forged in life!”
I gave all of them an eye roll and scowled, “Jeez, it’s not like we didn’t do every one of these jokes last term.”
Fey sagely pointed out, “It sounds to me like Mister Marley is just setting you up so he’ll have a course T.A. for every one of his accounting courses from now on.”
“Well duh,” I frowned. “That was pretty obvious. I saw that one coming down Fifth Avenue. He’s just an accountant. He sucks at the Machiavelli routine. But it’s a great opportunity for me to get three full terms of accounting classes credited. And I do know most of this stuff already. I just need time to read all the textbooks and see what I haven’t picked up from Father and working at G.I… Plus, it’s a really good way to get people to see that I’m not like Humanity First! just because my last name is Goodkind. And there’s bound to be major extra cred for being an accounting T.A. in high school. It’s a great extra-curricular for my college and grad school applications. I was already trying to figure out how to talk him into something like this, when he proposed it to me.”
“Hey, get a load of this one! ‘Secret Hideout Design’. That sounds pretty wild.”
Delta Spike perked up, “Ooh, I took that last year. Pretty awesome. We called it ‘Evil Lair 101’, and Mr. Dragomir - the teacher - got really pissed at us. Seems he really designs evil lairs for a living. He actually showed us the blueprints for an old Crucible lair he did, that the West Coast League blew up a few years ago. The term project was taking his design and thinking about what to add to stop invaders and stuff.”
I grumbled, “Have I ever mentioned how freaky this school is sometimes?”
“Only about half a dozen times.”
Jade complained, “Come on, I’ve got to get two complete schedules mapped out here!”
Tennyo gently pointed out, “You do realize you don’t have to book yourself solid, don’t you? Maybe you could give yourself a break and not go all ‘Ayla’ on your coursework.”
I looked around at the snickering faces, and decided not to reply.
Lancer said, “How about this one? ‘Secret Identity: Tricks and Traps’. That sounds kind of interesting.”
Shrike leaned forward, “Oh yeah, someone like Tennyo needs that one. Y’ever heard of Clark Kent?”
Tennyo growled, “It’s not like I can disguise how I look anytime soon. I mean, look at me!”
Shrike explained, “No, see, you’re thinking about it all wrong. This is why you need that course! In a sitch like yours, what you do is establish yourself as a big popular superhero first, and you wait until the fan clubs form. You get a bunch of superheroine otaku all over town dressing all the time as you, and then you just pretend to be one of them! No one says ‘hey, you look like Tennyo!’ Nah. Everyone says ‘oh crap, not ANOTHER Tennyo fan, there’s one down in the mailroom right now!’ This course is brilliant!”
Tennyo scratched her chin and said, “Hmm… Maybe… Let’s see… Monday-Wednesday-Friday, 1:30 to 3:30? I don’t know…”
“Hey, what about this one? ‘Dating With A Superpower’. Oh no, that’s a juniors only course.”
“Rats!” complained Jade.
Shrike fussed, “Come on, you’re only 14! You’re not even supposed to be thinking about that stuff yet.”
Jade looked up wistfully, “Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?”
Bugs leaned in, “I hear there’s really useful stuff in that one. Because some of the weapons-heads down in Workshop said Mister Mahren got a bunch of burns in really.. umm.. interesting.. places when he was dating Backdraft.”
Lancer winced, “Ouch. Dating a flame Manifester. Never thought about that problem.”
Wallflower gave him a sharp elbow that didn’t manage to make any impression on his PK field. “And you’d better not!”
“Oh yeah. I forgot about Phoenixfire,” he admitted.
“Good! That’s just the way I like it!” Lily insisted.
Delta Spike said, “Or some guy dating Electrode? What if she sparks when they do it? French-fried johnson.”
Ayla and Hank both winced.
I leaned forward and ‘helpfully’ added, “Besides, Jade, Chaka can teach you everything you need to know. Just learn how to give one of those Ki-powered massages, and your S.O. will never even think about straying. Bugs told me it took Rip half an hour before she could even stand up afterward.”
Shrike suddenly stared wide-eyed at Toni. “You can really do that? Apply Ki abilities to.. well.. you know?”
Chaka shrugged, “Well sure, it’s easy, but…”
“Kind of boggles the mind thinking about what she could do to you if you were dating her, doesn’t it?” I snarked.
Most of the table went dead silent. Several mouths fell open too.
“WHAT?” insisted Jade.
“Uhh, oh never mind,” muttered Beltane, who was still blinking at the idea.
“Well, what about this one?” pressed Jade. “When Good Devises Go Bad. Proven Methods for Stopping Runaway Inventions.”
I couldn’t resist smarting off, “Yeah, Delta’s going to be the T.A. for that one.”
“Can it, shorty,” said the ‘Explosion Queen’.
It was pretty easy to read her. She wanted to say something wicked back at me, but she was still trying to get on my good side. After all, I had helped her out a ton the previous term. And I was pretty darn sure that Delta was still trying to talk me into investing in her big plans for biomorphology manipulation. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she was still working on a revision to her prior application for venture capital.
Bugs said, “Ooh, that’s a ‘Special Topics: Workshop’ class… Let’s see… Okay! I’ve taken all the prereqs! And it’s Tuesday-Thursday 1:30-4:30…”
Jade scowled, “Fooey. That one sounded really useful too.”
Bugs smiled, “Don’t worry, you can take it next year, when you’ve got some Workshop courses under your belt.”
“What about this one?” asked Lancer. “Powers Integration I, II, & III. No prereqs. Only requirement, a team of two to four must agree to take the course together.”
Shrike sneered, “Yeah, the ‘Dynamic Duo’ course. All the Robins want to take that with their fave supers.”
Beltane admitted, “Really, it’s supposed to be pretty good. Hamper and Damper took P.I. I last year. They weren’t that tough as a team before. Word is they’re taking P.I. II this year.”
Delta Spike faux-whispered, “I heard Pendragon and Glorianna took it every winter.”
Wallflower groaned, “Great. The cheap date superpowers course.”
Lancer nodded, “And what happens if you break up with your partner in the middle of the course?”
“Eeeewwww.” Most of the table groaned at that one.
I looked again at the carefully-ordered stacks of papers I had assembled. “Let’s see what else is on this page… Special Topics - Flight…”
“Hey Tennyo!” Jade cheered.
“Already got it down.”
I ignored the byplay and went on, “Special Topics - Powers Theory (with lab).”
Shrike groaned, “Crap, that’ll eat up your whole schedule. That one’s like the entire morning every day, plus lab all afternoon two or three days a week. If they don’t have your exact power this term, forget it.”
I checked the listings. Then I stood up and called out to a table several rows over, “Hey Vox! Special Topics - Powers Theory with lab. This term, section A is Projective Empaths, and section B is Sirens!”
“Hot damn! Okay, now I know what I’m taking!” yelled Vox in return.
I sat back down and went to work again. “Hmm. Special Topics - Costume Design. Not a chance in hell. Special Topics - Intro to the Whateley Ranges.”
Delta Spike crowed, “Oh yeah! Last year Mister Mahren let me blow up a cop car with a plasma cannon! Best. Course. Ever!”
An excited voice squeaked, “Ooh!”
Tennyo growled, “Jade, put down that pencil.”
“Yeah, well you can blow up cars with plasma balls any time you want,” Jade complained.
I rolled my eyes and went back to the papers. “Special Topics - Theory and Practice of the Escape.”
Shrike gasped, “Take that one! I learned how to pick handcuffs and get out of a locked jail cell, and that really came in handy last summer when…” She suddenly realized that the entire table was staring at her. “Uhh... Um, never mind, I never mentioned that out loud, did I?”
Man, the things you learn about people at this school. I slowly shook my head and kept reading. “Special Topics - Integrating into Social and Job Settings When They Know You’re a Mutant. Oh yeah, that’ll do me a lot of good at Goodkind International.”
Fey muttered, “Goddess! Ayla, not every company has a ‘shoot on sight’ policy.”
“Hey, they’re not that bad!” I wasn’t exactly sure why I was defending my family, but I said it anyway.
Lancer kindly got us back on topic. “Okay, what else?”
I checked the next section. “Special Topics - Finding a Job Only YOU Can Do.”
Beltane nodded, “Sure! You know how much NASA saved on launches last year with Regnad flying perishables and spare parts up to the space station?”
A giggling voice said, “Hey Billie, want to find out how many NORAD bases need major reconstruction?”
Tennyo growled, “Knock it off, Jade.”
Lancer looked thoughtful as he said, “I don’t know, I’d think Tennyo could easily do some jobs like nuclear reactor testing that no one else could even survive.”
Tennyo stared at the ceiling for long seconds before she finally said, “Okay, lemme see if I can fit it in my schedule.”
Ayla went on, “Okay, what’s this one? Special Topics - Enemy Computer Systems?”
Delta waved that one off, “Oh, that’s mostly how to break into your enemy’s computer intranet in his secret base. You know. Make it take anything you type as the new password. Unlock any terminal you find. Set systems to self-destruct when they don’t normally have a self-destruct. That kind of stuff. BORING!”
Several of us noticed that Bunny was scribbling madly. I had a feeling Delta was pulling that stuff up out of her ass. I had enough exposure to computer security at Goodkind International that I knew what was feasible and what wasn’t. And making the system take anything as the new password before you broke into the system wasn’t possible. Well, maybe a high-end mage like Fey could make something like that happen if she worked at it, but it wasn’t something a computer hacker could do.
I went on, “Hmm. Special Topics - Public Relations as a Superpowered Individual.”
Beltane grinned, “What, you don’t think supervillains want good PR too?”
Lancer choked, “You mean that whole course is just for bad guys?”
Beltane just grinned at him. “Oh no, ever since The Pummeler, good guys have had PR problems too. Don’t you read ‘The Amazing Spiderman’?”
“I’m pretty sure everyone at this table has read enough Spiderman to get a medal from Stan Lee,” I said. I tried again. “Let me see… Special Topics - Religion.”
Beltane put her head in her hands and groaned, “Oh crap, I bet that means Reverend Englund’s doing another ‘fire and brimstone’ comparative religions course again. Skip that, unless your idea of ‘comparative religion’ is ‘everyone other than us is a bunch of devil-worshipping heathens.’ Ugh.”
“What if I want to sit behind Nightbane and poke her with tentacles all term long?”
“Jade, you’re a sick, sick girl.”
I went further down the list. “Hmm. Special Topics - Magic. This year, it’s ‘Necromancy - Threat Or Menace’. Man, I could’ve used this two weeks ago. Oh crap, I don’t have anything close to the prereqs.”
Beltane peered over my shoulder. “Necromancy! That’s brill! Last year it was just on Theurgy… Although it was pretty awesome when we had that Special Guest Lecturer that day.”
Fey quickly asked, “Who?”
Beltane shook her head, “Oh no, we’re not allowed to tell which Goddess it was.”
Half the table had looks of astonishment, but the other half had looks of ‘Belle is pulling another prank’. I was in the ‘pulling a prank’ group, if you have to know.
Fey tried again, “Come on, just give me a hint.”
Beltane insisted, “No, I mean we’re not allowed. She put a geas on us so we couldn’t tell about Her. Still, it was the best class ever.”
Delta muttered under her breath, “Bet it wasn’t as good as blowing up a cop car with a plasma cannon.”
I was still reading, so I ignored her. “Hey Nik, look at this one. ‘Practical Uses of Magic’. A three hour class on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.”
“Ooh! That sounds really…” Her voice dropped from excited to depressed in a millisecond. “…like something that’s gonna conflict with Sir Wallace and The Hardass.”
Chaka nudged her roomie, “Hey, there’s no point in not trying, right? Ask ‘em. This looks like a really good course, and you’ve got a right to get the education you want.”
Nikki took a breath and said, “I’ll do it.”
I kept on reading. “Let’s see. Special Topics for Workshop. Basic Nanotechnology for Devisers, Techs and Programmers. Monday-Wednesday-Friday, lab Saturday.”
Bunny waved a hand dismissively. “Did you look at the prereqs? It’s too intro to be interesting.”
“How about ‘Intro To Fabrication Techniques’?”
Bunny snorted, “Get serious… No, wait a minute. Actually, Jade ought to take that one. She’d be learning some useful stuff, and she’d be at least as good at that as the other devisers.”
Jade was still poring over two matching schedules, but she looked up long enough to say “Hmmm…”
I pressed on, “How about this one? Special Topics for Workshop. Abnormal Brain Chemistry and Mutants. Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday.”
Bunny frowned, “Some kids were talking about that one last month. They’re going to be studying stuff like Diedrick’s Syndrome and Rager Syndromes and Quinzel-Osborn Disorder and stuff like that. I’m not really interested in those areas of research. Mega-Death was talking about volunteering to be one of the subjects.”
Fey gasped, “He’s going to let those fruitcakes experiment on him? Is he nuts?”
Bunny really frowned then. “First, he is mentally ill. And he’s not happy about ‘dricking out like ten times a week. Second, they’re not fruitcakes, they’re my friends! And third, no one is going to be experimenting on anyone else! This is a research course, not The Island of Doctor Moreau! What they’re really hoping for is someone to come up with some new research avenues, or maybe even a drug that can be put through rigorous testing and maybe help someone like MD somewhere down the line. And fourth, don’t call my friends fruitcakes again!”
“Ooh, someone’s not going to be getting any from Bunny for a while!”
I turned the page and kept reading. “Hey, look at this! Intensive language courses! Every day, 1:30-4:30, 7 days a week. No days off. Completely immersive language studies. Let’s see… English? Hey Toni, maybe you’d better check this one out.”
“Me speaka dee English good alreadys,” she grinned back.
Beltane argued, “Of course there’s English in there. They do English every Winter Term. You don’t think Hip came to America and just magically learned to speak and write English as well as Americans - which isn’t saying much if you ask me…”
I replied, “Hey, around here, I’d believe it if someone did say Hip learned English magically.”
Fey just rolled her eyes. “Ayla, you so need that Intro to Magic course.”
Ayla ignored her and looked at the list. “Okay, besides English, this year they’re offering Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin. Ooh… Oh damn it, I can’t fit that in now either!”
Jade whined, “Why doesn’t anybody ever teach Japanese?”
I suggested, “I could introduce you to Hatamoto and Gundam. They’re both Japanese. And Hatamoto’s a nice guy. I don’t really know Gundam. Maybe you could learn ‘conversational Japanese’ by spending some time with them.”
Tennyo mentioned, “Don’t you really want to work on your Chinese anyway? For Steeeeeeeeeeephen?”
Jade scowled at the giggles around the table, but didn’t exactly intimidate anyone.
I just kept reading, “Let’s see. Special topics in Literature. Shakespeare. Been there, done that, got the tunic. Conrad. Ugh, they must be kidding. Twain. Now that would be cool… Damn it, I can’t squeeze that one in either! You guys are killing me! Special topics in history…”
Chou looked around the table while I was trying to focus on a bunch of courses that obviously no one else wanted to take. She said, “I am going to have a special tutor come in, at least for this term if not longer. Ito soke and Chief Delarose arranged it. He is a master of focus, so perhaps he will want to work with Chaka some? Or perhaps some of the rest of you? I don’t know when he will want to meet, but hopefully we can work something out so I can take the Team Tactics course with all of you.”
I muttered to myself, “Renaissance Italy? That would be awesome. And… Shit! I can’t work that one in either! Why did I agree to that Team Tactics course?”
Jade finally dusted off her hands and said, “Done! Now I can get going on my project!”
I sort of registered what Jade had just said, while I continued to fume over the history courses. “No, don’t want to take ‘the Dark Ages’. Ugh. ‘Modern America and the Mutant Genesis’. I’ll pass…” I heard a lot of giggling, but I tried to ignore it. “Hmm. ‘Future History: the Predictive Power of Mathematical Extrapolation’. Could be good, could be dreadful…”
By then, the giggling around me was full-fledged hysterics. I looked up from the papers to see everyone staring. At me.
Suddenly a little voice - a little voice that sounded just like a tiny Ayla - piped up from my right shoulder. “Of course you should take Team Tactics with your team. You’re a team player!”
I turned my head, and I froze. Standing on my right shoulder was an ‘Ayla’ angel. It was about five inches high, with beautiful alabaster skin and big green eyes and long golden-blonde hair. It was wearing a slinky white robe that showed off an impressive set of curves. Plus it had a golden halo and a pair of fluffy white wings. The thing that really threw me was that the angel was strikingly beautiful, but unmistakably me. And the last thing I wanted was to be a hot babe.
Another tiny voice piped up from my left shoulder. This voice was still obviously ‘Ayla’, but was more of a sexy contralto than the angel’s soprano. I refused to wince when I looked at my left shoulder.
Standing on my left shoulder - well, floating just above my left shoulder - was an ‘Ayla’ devil. It was five inches high, with red skin and dark eyes and jet-black hair in my own new-wave haircut. Instead of a covering robe, the little devil wore a black bustier that made it look over-endowed. The bustier didn’t hinder the black bat-wings sticking out from its shoulderblades, either. It also wore a ridiculously short black miniskirt, black high-heeled ankle boots, and what looked like teeny-tiny fishnet stockings. Christ, this one was worse than the angel!
The ‘devil’ purred at me, “Screw that Team Tactics course! They’re your friends whether you take it or not. Take the courses you want, for a change! You got massively screwed on your schedule last term, have some fun this term! And while you’re at it, knock off this pansy ‘I don’t look at the girls in the bathroom’ bit! Stare at ‘em! Hit on ‘em too! Ya might get lucky.”
The ‘angel’ gasped, “Oh no, don’t do that! You’re refined! Cultured!”
“Like yogurt,” sneered the ‘devil’.
“That’s so not nice!” snapped the ‘angel’.
“Tough noogies,” snarled the ‘devil’. “What are you going to do about it? Lose your temper and hit me? Don’t think so. That wouldn’t be angelic.”
“See what the dark side is like?” pushed the angel. “They’re all like that. Mean, nasty poopyheads. They just want you to be a mean, nasty poopyhead too.”
I stared down the table and complained, “Jade. Knock it off! Or I’ll be staring a lot more in the showers! Plus.. serious payback.”
The shoulder devil leered, “Who’s Jade? The hot redhead? You want that one. The blue-haired hottie? You know anime girls are hot. How’s about the bride-of-Dracula girl at the table behind you? Mmm! Or the black cutie across from you? I hear she’s got all the moves. What about the hot blonde with the pigtails? I bet she’d put on a pair of glasses and let you play ‘James Bond and the Hot Scientist’. Can you say ‘Christmas comes early’? There. I knew you could.”
I growled, “JADE!” I took a fast swipe at the ‘angel’, and my hand passed through it, causing it to ‘swirl’ oddly around my digits. The angel re-formed almost instantly, leaving me with nothing but some chalk residue on my hand. “I knew it,” I snarled. I took a swipe at the ‘devil’ and had even less success. My hand seemed to sweep through the figure with no effect.
Actually, there was one effect. The entire table was laughing so hard I had to wonder if someone was going to pee themselves. So I tried something else.
I made my hand go light, and I made a fist. Once I moved my fist into the volume where the shoulder devil was standing, I made my hand go solid again. But there was enough chalk (and whatever) left to re-create the devil as soon as I pulled my hand away. I tried the same trick three more times, with no success. Jade obviously had enough chalk prepared to handle this approach.
The devil complained at me, “Hey, watch the hands, pal! If you wanna play rough, try the angel over there. She just looks innocent. I bet she’d like it if ya peeled that little robe off her…”
The angel gasped, “You naughty girl! Ayla, don’t listen to her! She’s trying to corrupt you!”
I had finally had enough. I stood up as calmly as I could, and I pointed at Jade. “I hope you know.. this means war.” I went light and sank through the floor.
THE CRYSTAL HALL
Ayla vanished into the floor, leaving nothing but a couple puzzled shoulder angels behind.
Jade pouted, “I didn’t think she’d be able to get rid of ‘em that easy.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think she’d be able to get rid of us that easy!” piped a higher-pitched, tinier voice
“Ahh, shuddup. Of course she could get rid of us that easy. What are you? Stupid?”
“You are a mean, mean devil, and a big poopyhead!”
Bunny flopped her head from side to side. “That was so funny! I know what you can do next…”
Fey leaned forward and whispered, “After you and Bunny work stuff out, come by and talk to me.”
Seven tables away, Peeper punched Greasy in the arm. “Did you get ‘em? Did you get ‘em?”
“Ow.” Greasy rubbed his bicep and muttered, “Of course I got them. My new videocamera has a highly-improved telephoto system that’s self-adjusting using a simple range-finder princi-”
“Shut up. I don’t care if it uses chewing gum and monkey snot. Just as long as you got those shoulder angels! That was the hottest look we ever got from Phase. That Phase devil in those fishnets… Oh my God, guys’ll be fighting to buy these pics!”
Greasy said, “Well then, have you thought about shoulder angels for other girls on campus?”
Peeper stared at Greasy and froze. “SHIT! That’s brilliant! Put together some shoulder angels for Fey and Solange and Poise, and we’ll rule this dump! Greasy, I love you!” He grabbed the camera and rushed off to the computer lab.
Greasy just sat there for a long time. He finally whispered, “Sure, you say that now…”
I walked into Admin and went straight to Valerie’s desk. When she looked up from her data entry, I asked, “Is Mrs. Hawkins in?”
Valerie frowned in thought, “Yes, but she said not to disturb her, because she’s got a lot of Winter Term schedules to check.”
I smiled, “Well, would you just tell her it’s Phase, and I’d like just five minutes of her time?”
Valerie shrugged, “Well okay, she does seem to like you…” She placed the call. “Yes ma’am… I know, but it’s Phase… That’s right, and she said it would only take about five minutes… Okay. I’ll tell her.” Valerie looked up in surprise and said, “Go right on in.”
I thanked her and walked over to the closed offices. I knocked on the door and stepped inside at the cheerful response. I quietly closed the door behind me and smiled, “Good morning, Mrs. Hawkins.”
The woman behind the desk beamed, “Good morning, Ayla. It’s a pleasure to see you! And what can I do for you?”
I told her, “I have a set of schedules. You don’t need to evaluate them or check them over. I already did that. All I need is for you to slip them into the system as ‘pre-accepted’.”
Mrs. Hawkins said, “For you, I’m sure I can manage that. And it’ll be that many fewer schedules for Admin to worry about this afternoon. There are still a lot of students who aren’t officially signed up.”
I idly wondered, “Does that count the seniors?”
Mrs. Hawkins shook her head gently. “No, dear. The seniors are all registered in the curriculum under one of the ‘extracurricular projects’ categories, except for some of the devisers and gadgeteers, who are listed under ‘special senior projects’.
I nodded, “That makes sense.”
Mrs. Hawkins smirked at me, “I see someone already heard what the big senior project is for this year.”
Mrs. Hawkins waited until Phase was all the way out of Admin. Then she walked out to Valerie’s desk. She dumped the papers on top of the inbox and snapped, “These are all pre-accepted. Get them into the system ASAP. I’ll have more for you later.”
Valerie stifled a groan, and simply nodded. “Yes ma’am.” She waited until Mrs. Hawkins was back in her office before snorting in disgust.
The phone rang. “Counseling Services, this is Valerie, how may I help you?”
She was shocked when a voice she knew well said, “This is Amelia Hartford. What was Phase doing in your area, and what did it have to do with Hawkins?”
Valerie carefully answered, “Phase had some more schedules, and Mrs. Hawkins marked them all pre-accepted.” She was always careful with Ms. Hartford. There was only one person in Admin who was more vindictive than Mrs. Hawkins, and everyone knew who that was.
“Hmm. Read me the schedule for Phase.”
Valerie glanced through the stack. The one for Phase was on the bottom of the new set. “Let me see. Team Tactics, first two periods, Monday through Friday. The plays of William Shakespeare, Monday-Wednesday-Friday fourth and fifth periods. Martial arts special topics with Mister Ito, sixth period Monday through Friday. That’s a weird combination, if you ask me.”
“Nobody asked you,” snapped the voice on the phone, just before she hung up.
Amelia Hartford checked her PDA. She didn’t like this crop of Alphas, but this level of disruption wasn’t good. Hekate gone, possible forever. If what Carson had hinted was really true, the evil little shrew was likely to end up in a European MCO prison if she showed her face anywhere near Whateley again. So scratch one queen bee. Don Sebastiano? Hospital wing for the foreseeable future. And the insufferable twit hadn’t even bothered to keep track of the keys and codes for the various Alpha skyboxes, private rooms, clubhouse, trophy room, or security system. He had left it all to Cavalier, who was on his way to a padded cell at ARC, along with Skybolt. Aries, Hamper, Damper, Icer… Nothing but thugs. Kodiak? A possibility.
No, wait. It couldn’t be.
Amelia pulled up her campus schematics on her desktop box, and zoomed in on the security for the main clubhouse under Schuster. Solange was using it. Solange? Wasn’t she on the outs with The Don and Hekate both? How the hell did she get the keys and the passcodes necessary to get into there? The girl had the mental acuity of a pineapple. There was no way Solange had outsmarted the computer systems to get in there. She could have screwed her way into the heart of one of the more talented campus crackers - God, did Amelia hate the use of the word ‘hacker’ for the black hats in the business - but none of them could have gotten through all the computer security without at least setting off half a dozen warning levels on Amelia’s secure boxen. And none of the crackers could have gotten the keys, which were not electronic.
Somehow, Solange had finessed her way into the control of the perks of the Alphas.
Amelia smiled ruthlessly. This could work. Solange was known to have a serious hate for Phase. And Shroud and Generator. And Fey. Not to mention most of the rest of Team Kimba. A simple phone call would probably be enough.
THE CRYSTAL HALL
Korende ‘Kismet’ Mitterand detoured past her usual spot at the Euro-promotional League table to veer over to where most of the rest of the Vindicators were sitting. She grabbed Dynamaxx as she passed, and dragged him along.
Maxx smirked, “Kismet, please, I know you can’t resist me, but this is so public!”
She unconsciously slipped into Dutch, “Shut up, Maxx! This is important, and we have very little time!”
Dynamaxx rolled his eyes. Everything was always of the utmost importance for Kismet. He wondered what silliness she was going to drag the Vindicators into this time.
Kismet pushed him into a chair next to Lemure, while she sat next to Sizemax. She fussed, “Listen. I just heard that Team Kimba is taking the Team Tactics course this term! We have to take it! I said we ought to, but noooooooo, that was too much work for Lemure!”
Lemure rolled her eyes. “You seem to have mistaken me for someone who gives a rat’s-”
“But Team Kimba has embarrassed us too many times! Halloween. Parents’ Day. That awful thing at the end-of-term dance!”
Sizemax stopped eating her salad long enough to point out, “Actually, Kiz, that was just you. I told you no guy was gonna dance with you if they could dance with Fey, but you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Hmmph!” Kismet hastily glossed over that detail. “We still have a responsibility to the name of the Vindicators to show that Team Kimba is no match for us!”
Sizemax admitted, “Well, I actually was hoping to get us into some team training. Our tactics haven’t been up to snuff in the sims, and that Yama Dojo group pretty well kicked our a-”
“Exactement!” Kismet jumped on the part that matched her goals. “We need to learn better techniques, and we need a chance to practice them before we try them out in the sims. And if we happened to defeat Team Kimba as we did so, then…”
“You just want to stick it to Fey,” said Lemure flatly.
Dynamaxx smirked, “As does the male half of the school.”
Kismet pointedly ignored Maxx. “So, are we all agreed?”
“No,” said Lemure.
“Sure,” said Sizemax. “We have to rescue Donner anyway. He totally screwed up his class schedule. Again. He wanted ‘Costume Change I’ and ‘Scandinavian Cuisine’, and somehow he managed to enroll in ‘Interpretive Dance III’ and some Workshop thing on the design of glue guns.”
Donner shrugged, “Da Scandinavian thing looked reelly tasty.”
Lemure groaned, “Did anyone bother to tell you ‘Scandinavian Cuisine’ is a cooking class, not an eating binge?”
“Well, would we get ta eat it if we cooked it?” he wondered.
Dynamaxx snorted in amusement, then admitted, “I could do this. I only have one class this term, and it’s an afternoon Workshop seminar two days a week.”
Kismet turned up her nose, “Slacker.”
Sizemax said, “Okay. We’ll round up Cerebrex, and get this done. Will they let us change this late?”
Kismet smirked, “Madame Prudhomme owes me a rather large favor. She will let us.”
Lemure put her face in her hands and groaned, “I know I’m gonna regret this. I just know it.”
Don Sebastiano groaned as his hospital room was invaded once more. The door swung open, and multiple feet tromped in. He couldn’t tell who it was, either. Which was the ultimate indignity. He was so badly concussed that his Psi talent was unavailable, possibly for several more days. He opened one eye - which was all that he could open at the moment - and saw that it wasn’t a nurse with more pain relief, but the complete opposite of pain relief. It was Solange and Kodiak, with Aries and Icer in tow. He couldn’t even turn his head and look away. The doctors had his head locked in this infernal ‘halo’ device to protect his skull and neck until he healed.
Solange looked down on the figure in the bed. The high and mighty Don Sebastiano, who had treated her like a cheap whore. She thought, ‘How are the mighty falling.’ It was something like that. She’d never paid much attention in literature classes, they were all so boring, and nobody really read those books anymore anyways.
He sure didn’t look so hot now. Cavalier and Skybolt had come back to Whateley, and from what she’d heard, had made a beeline for the Don’s room. Too bad for him that he was in. They’d beaten the shit out of him. She’d read the Security report on the fight, while she was down enjoying the perks of the Alphas’ clubhouse. The great Don Sebastiano had needed to be saved by Imperious and Majestic! She could hardly keep from laughing about it. And the report said Cav and Sky were practically insane. They were screaming things about torture and mind control and demonic rituals and being raped.. and being saved by that little bitch Fey. Solange knew what that last bit meant, even if no one else did.. yet.
She turned and said in a falsely caring voice, “Aries, would you please get a nurse or doctor - one who’ll be discreet - and have them tell us all about poor Sebastiano’s injuries?”
Then she turned to her other side. “Kody? Did you have something you wanted to say to poor dear Sebby?”
Kodiak cleared his throat, which sounded more like an angry bear preparing to attack than a teenaged boy preparing to speak. He glared at the injured junior in the bed. The guy looked about three inches from intensive care, not that Kodiak was in the mood for charity after what he’d seen after lunch.
The Don was laid out in the bed with a heavy neck brace and one of those ring things securing his head. He had bandages over his nose and one eye and most of his hair, stitches in most of the places that weren’t bandaged, and clearly had casts on three out of four limbs. Plus that urine collection bag hanging on the bed meant something pretty gross.
And the guy deserved it.
Kodiak growled, “Cavalier and Skybolt almost got hauled off to the lock-up in Security, but they were acting crazy enough that they got dragged off to the hospital. Whatever the docs there found, they shipped ‘em off to ARC for a little ‘rubber room’ vacation. We don’t know when they’ll be back. If they’ll be back. Hekate’s gone.”
Solange cheerfully added, “And it looks like she’s ‘wanted for questioning’ by the FBI, the American MCO, the E.U. MCO, the Kansas City Police Department, and the INS. Dear dear, she does seem to be in trouble, doesn’t she? And we all know that Fey is here and looking healthy, so Hekate isn’t likely to be coming back to Whateley any time this decade. Is she?”
Kodiak nodded abruptly and added, “Your room was destroyed. Not just trashed, but hacked apart and blasted by lightning bolts. I figure you know about that already, since you were in it at the time. There’s not enough left to salvage.
“But we found a couple intact DVDs in one of the drawers that used to be locked. One of ‘em had you gloating about what Hekate did to Cav and Sky. While you made Cav give you head! You sick bastard! I thought you got into their heads… Figured out what they really wanted more than anything else… Talked ‘em around to your way of thinking, like you did with Peppercorn… Or played headgames with ‘em until they knuckled under, like you did with Bogus. Maybe cut ‘em a deal to make them do whatever you wanted, in exchange for getting what they were really after… But turning them into mindslaves? And they knew the whole time what you were doing to ‘em? That’s the sickest fucking thing I ever heard of. You’re out. You’re out of the Alphas. You’re just lucky we’re not turning those DVDs over to Security and Carson!”
Icer asked, “Can you boot him out? Just like that?”
Solange smirked wickedly, “No, but I can. You see, Hekate left me her passcodes and the keys, so I’m the head Alpha by default! And poor little Sebastiano there can’t do a thing about it. Hekate told me. He had his slave Cavalier do all that stuff. Cav had the keys, and he had the passcodes, and he had the secret instructions. The great Don Sebastiano didn’t have to lift a finger. Whoops! He doesn’t have Cavalier to kick around anymore! There go the keys, and the codes, and everything!”
Kodiak gritted his teeth, “And if Seb was really planning on turning half my friends into mindslaves just to keep me in line, like he said on that DVD, then he better not be looking for any help from the Alphas anytime soon, either.”
Aries came in with a nurse then, so Kodiak abruptly dropped the subject. Alphas didn’t foolishly discuss sensitive subjects in front of other people. Unless they were so stupid that they were busy confessing to major felonies and getting it recorded on DVD, like some people he could name.
Kodiak glared at Sebastiano one more time. Kodiak wasn’t a saint or anything. He liked to throw his weight around. You couldn’t have the spirit of the bear and not want to push everyone, just to see who’d push back.. and who’d roll over and play dead. Not that he hadn’t done the same thing before he captured the spirit of the bear. Still, a little testing to see who wants to stand up to you is one thing. What Sebastiano had done was so far over the line that it was in another state. So what if Cavalier was some kind of rival? You sparred with a rival. You fought him, he fought back, you found out who was the alpha male, then you shook hands and had a few beers together where Security didn’t know about it. You didn’t mind-rape him and his girlfriend and turn them into mindslaves and then do sickoid things to them for giggles.
Solange could hardly keep the glee out of her voice as she asked the nurse, “Now could you tell us just what our poor, poor friend Sebastiano has? We know you’re not supposed to. Just like you’re not supposed to let us all in here. But the Alphas know how to make a thing like this worth your while. Right?”
The nurse nodded nervously. “Yes ma’am, Solange. I appreciate it, too. Let me go through the patient folder and tell you, and then I need to get back at my station in case someone comes and checks on one of my patients.”
Solange waved regally and said, “Go right ahead. Take your time. We want a complete list.”
The nurse nodded and looked at the chart. “Well, the worst thing is the head injury. He has a fractured skull, and a subdural hematoma. The drugs we’re giving him to shrink that bleeding, and the areas of the brain the swelling is pressing on, well, the doctor’s note here says that this is probably going to knock out his psi talents until the hematoma goes down and he’s off the meds.”
“Ooh, no Psi powers for The Don? How sad,” cooed Solange.
The nurse went on, “The third vertebra is cracked, and there’s swelling around it, but he doesn’t have any paralysis or numbness, so that should be good once he heals up. We’ll just keep the neckbrace and the halo on him until he’s healed.” She added, “The next biggest thing’s got to be the perforated colon. The doctors had to remove the base of a lamp from his rectum-”
She stopped as Icer and Aries burst out laughing.
“This isn’t a laughing matter!” fumed the nurse.
“Oh, of course not,” purred Solange, doing her best to keep her grin off her face. At least, while the nurse was looking at her.
“Anyway, perforated colon, torn anal sphincter, torn rectum… The doctors had to perform abdominal surgery. He has a colostomy bag until things heal enough that the colon is healed up inside.”
Icer and Aries were still struggling not to laugh out loud. The nurse insisted, “Please, this is your friend we’re talking about!” It was all Solange could do not to shriek with laughter at that. Don Sebastiano had gone out of his way to make sure that none of them were his friends, and now he was reaping the rewards.
The nurse glanced at the notes and said, “I’ve got to hurry, so I need to summarize. Oh, the third-degree electrical burns on the penis are painful but not - could you stop laughing! - not life-threatening; same for the electrical burns on the nipples; the energy burns on the arms and shoulders; the testicles are damaged and partially crushed, but they’ll heal completely in - please stop giggling - in a month or so since he’s an Exemplar 4; eighteen broken bones, a lot of them are in his left foot; ninety-seven stitches; and a very large number of contusions, abrasions, and first-degree burns. Very serious, but not ‘intensive care’ serious. He’ll be up and around before the end of Winter Term.”
“Oh, that’s an immense relief,” Solange said mockingly.
Solange waited until the nurse left before she began. “Hekate is off-limits. With the FBI and MCO after her, we don’t want to contact her, or even be contacted by her. With her gone, and The Don laid up with his power base wrecked, and Cav and Sky bustled off to a loony bin, we have to cement our power base as the Alphas, or else we’ll get knocked off. Kody?” She turned the floor over to her much larger compatriot.
Kodiak knew that Solange was trying to make herself the head of the Alphas. And she was willing to make him the ‘king’. He could live with that. Plus, Solange was stupid enough to think that the way to do that was lots of sex with him. That was a bonus. She was a hottie, and really good in bed, and she still hadn’t figured out that she was never getting past his bear avatar to sink her psychic hooks in him, which meant more nookie for him. So it was all good.
He took over from her. “The Good Ol’Boyz aren’t in any shape to take over from us after their last big screw-ups, but they’re stupid enough to try. The Betas don’t look like they’re interested in taking over from us. Adam’s keeping them focused on being the campus heroes. Sebastiano just couldn’t believe that, and wasted a lot of time on them. We won’t. Not as long as Stormwolf runs them. The current Capes are busy with senior projects and long-term planning. College and grad school and career placement. They’re not interested in being the Alphas. Not this year, anyway. We’ll have to watch out for them as soon as Pendragon and Glorianna turn over the reins. Thuban’s busy trying to turn Faction Three into his personal fiefdom, so he’s not trying to dethrone us. With Solange on our side, we don’t have to worry about Venus, Inc. That leaves our official outside threats as the New Olympians, the Golden Kids, and the Uber-jocks. The Yellow Queen and Farrago and Silver Rose may also try to push us from within, and we’ll have to watch out for any alliances they make. Imminent and Parallax are also Alpha wannabe’s we need to keep an eye on, but they spent most of last term laying low, so we don’t know if they’ve given up or not.”
Solange smiled broadly and gave The Don her nastiest smile. “I have the keys and codes, and Hartford has decided that I’m her new contact. So I’m in charge. Me, and Kody.” She stopped talking long enough to lean into him and hug his arm. “Icer? Aries? Let all our people know The Don is out, Hekate is gone, and we’re consolidating our forces. Tell our hit teams and our contacts that they need to talk to me or Kody, not anyone else. And no going solo, or whatever it’s called. We’re likely to need them free and clear at a moment’s notice.” They nodded. She looked over at the bed. The Don was in a lot of pain, and much of it wasn’t from his injuries. This was killing him. Well, that was why she’d brought her big performance in here, instead of in the Alphas’ clubhouse. She loved the idea that Sebastiano couldn’t even launch one of his Psi attacks until he got better.
She smirked, “And now for our first unofficial act as king and queen of the Alphas. Hartford told me the Kim-butts are taking Team Tactics. She said they don’t know anything about the holographic sims, or any of that stuff. I want to put together our own team and go smash ‘em up. Make an example of them. Who’s available that would fit in a class like this?” She looked over and casually offered, “Oh, and Sebby, you may offer advice.. as a valued outside consultant.”
He groaned angrily, but didn’t say anything. It was all Solange could do not to perform a little victory dance right there.
She led off her impromptu meeting. Her first meeting as the ruler of the Alphas! This was so exciting! And she just had to make this work, or she’d look stupid or something. “Okay. Who can we get to go into this Team Tactics class and kick some Kimb-ass? Any thoughts, guys?”
Kodiak said, “Bombshell’s pretty pissed at them. She’s a frosh, so she’d be a natural for a course like this. She’s a PK brick, and it’s pretty clear she needs to learn the tools, so this could be good for her too. I think she’d jump at the chance, if we dangled a little Alpha-hood in front of her.”
Solange purred, “Ooh, I like the way you think! She’d make a good Alpha. Someday. Not this year, of course.” Bombshell was perfect. The girl was an Exemplar, but too gauche to give Solange any competition in the next year and a half. Plus, if she cut Sweetheart out of the up-and-comers while giving Bombshell lots of perks, the two froshes would be at each others’ throats instead of threatening her. “On the other hand, Sweetheart’s a PDP, but definitely not a fighter. So drop her from the list. She totally froze in that pathetic match last month.”
Aries asked, “What about the rest of the Young Turks? Any new meat there?”
Kodiak shrugged carelessly. “Farrago debriefed ‘em after the fight. Scratch Behemoth. Major loser, and probably has the hots for Fey. Scratch Goodvibes. Gadget-geek, and the Kimbos totally had his number. Shadowolf dropped the ball on the whole thing. Scratch him too. Grenadier? A greaseball Minefield wannabe without the tactical skills. That leaves Swoop and Accelerator.”
Solange thought for a moment. Swoop wasn’t all that impressive in the arena match, but she was pretty, and she was a redskin. Maybe a nice little squaw would keep Bluejay in line. “Let’s pull in Swoop.”
Sebastiano groaned from the bed, “-celerator.”
Kodiak nodded, “Yeah, their speedster. From what Cav said, he was the guy who set up their trap on the Kimbees and made it work. Then he was the guy who got their slow members and their gear out of the area when the whole thing went south.” He looked over at Aries. “I like having a speedster around for stuff like this.” Aries gave him a thumbs-up.
Sebastiano tried again, “Needs ‘clear’. Y’ll own him.”
Solange got it. She had some nice controllable contacts with little drug problems too. “Oh! So he’s one of the secret Dylans, huh? If we can keep him clean for fights and get him some clear when he needs it, he’d be a great addition to the hit squads. And he’ll never get uppity or try to take us out, because he’ll need us and we can turn him in.” She turned her head, “Aries, you’re probably going to have to train him up. Yes or no?”
Aries smiled at her, “Sure. Piece of cake.”
She smiled back. Men were so easy to manipulate. Boys, even more so. She was already going to bring Accelerator in, but knowing what Kody and Aries wanted just made it so simple. Now Aries thought she actually cared what he thought, and he’d be loyal to her without having to screw him. This ‘queen of the alphas’ thing wasn’t so tough.
Icer volunteered, “Farrago or Talos could be a maybe. Beltane turned them and their girlfriends into major losers, and maybe they could get some payback on her pals.”
She nodded and gave him a smile too. “Good idea! Now. We need a rounded team for this, and some wildcards. Hamper and Damper?”
Aries shook his head. “No, they’re not gonna drop out of P.I. II after they got so much out of it last year.”
She insisted, “Well, we need more than a couple bricks. Look at how the Betas are set up. Or the Capes. We need a major blaster, and a good enough Psi, and probably a big Warper to deal with that Tennyo bitch.”
Icer groaned, “Oh man. After her combat final, no one’s gonna want to go one-on-one against her.”
Kodiak snapped, “This is ‘Team Tactics’, bonehead. No one has to go one-on-one against anybody.”
Sebastiano groaned again. “G’ld’n G’rl.”
Aries caught it. “Golden Girl?”
Solange smirked, “Yeah, good idea, Sebby. How about her? She’s definitely an Exemplar. She hates Phase, she’s got strength, flight, an energy barrier, and energy blasts. She’s done some martial arts class too, I heard. She’d love to get on the fast track to Alpha-ville.”
Kodiak thought it over. “I dunno. Word is, Phase trashed her several times in BMA last term, and put her in the hospital the last time. GG might not want to risk that again.”
Solange tried, “Phoenixfire. She’s been getting Alpha perks with her roomie.”
Aries supplied, “No. She’s already in Team Tactics.” He snickered, “With her S.T.A.R. League Junior buddies.” What an embarrassing name.
She sighed in frustration. She was the queen. She didn’t need to be messing with details like this! “Okay. We’ve done some brainstorming. Aries, I’m putting you in charge of this. Get a team together, then get the paperwork over to Hartford as soon as you can. Okay?”
“Okay,” he agreed. “I’d better get started.” And he sprinted out of the room fast enough to suck several sheets of paper out of The Don’s folder.
“There. That wasn’t so hard!” she announced. “Come on, Kody. I want to talk about private Alpha business. We’d better not do that in front of an outsider. Like him.” She pointed at The Don, lying helplessly in his bed.
She let Icer open the door for her, and she sailed out. She was a queen now, and she ought to start acting like it. No more sleeping around for favors. Now she could just snap her fingers and get someone else to do the hard work. Plus, no more icky sex with guys. She was definitely not going to think about Chaka, though. Absolutely no way.
She led Kodiak and Icer down into the tunnels, and toward the official Alphas’ clubhouse under Schuster Hall. As she walked, she called Flicker on her cellphone. “Yeah, it’s me… No, it went great. You’re talking to the new queen of the Alphas!… Yeah, you get bennies too. Tell Fade I said her too… Stop screeching, I have something for you to do. Get Fade, call Imminent and Parallax and Powerhouse and Pyrrhic, oh, you better add Hamper and Damper and Farrago and the Yellow Queen in there, and tell ‘em The Don and Hekate are out, and the new Alphas are meeting in the main clubhouse right now, and we want them there too… No, you need to stress the ‘no more Don and Witch-bitch’ part… Okay, get a pencil and I’ll give you the names again…”
Once she hung up, she smiled at Kody. “Okay, the next thing I wanna do is something Daddy was talking about over Christmas. Strategic initiatives. I want us to get some strategic initiatives going against the G.O.B. and the New Olympians, and maybe the Golds and the Jocks, and anyone else we think might try to knock us off and take over as the new Alphas. After all, a lot of people left us alone because they were afraid of Sebby. But now that The Don is out of action, and he’s lost his main power base, they’ll be coming after the rest of us.”
Kodiak nodded and asked, “So, what are you going to do for these strategic initiatives?”
She shrugged, “Silly Kody. I don’t know! That’s not my job. I just come up with the great ideas. Maybe we just make them look really stupid, so no one will think of them as Alpha material. If no one respects you, you’re not an Alpha. I figure we’ll put Imminent and Parallax in charge of the initiative things. That’ll pull the two of them back into the Alphas, and it’ll keep them under control. But they’ll think we care about them and want them in the Alphas, so they won’t be as big a problem. Okay?”
Kodiak nodded. It was a good idea. He would have to remember this. Just because Solange wasn’t book smart didn’t mean she was stupid. No, she was definitely as cunning as a fox. And animal cunning was something he respected. He pointed out, “That’s probably a good idea if we can make each of those groups do it to themselves. The Good Ol’ Boyz already did that. What a bunch of losers. The only one of ‘em worth fighting is Fantastico, and he always cheats.”
Solange babbled on, “And I want people to look up to us. We need to make people forget the ‘Sebby and Kallie’ era, and start admiring how wonderful we are! Like things were under Freya. We should organize some big party for the whole campus, maybe something big for the unveiling of the Senior Legacy. We’ll need to get someone to plan it, I bet Patty would rip off her own legs to be the chair of it, so we’ll ask her if she’d like to do it for us, and she’ll have to make sure the legacy work isn’t running long. It could be in… Oh, I know! In the new Macfarlane Stadium! That ought to be finished in another week or two, even with the cold weather. You know, the Alphas should be about power, and power can be showing off that you run things. Naturally, the partygoers won’t want to have those Faction Three uglies around. Maybe we could help Thuban run a matching Faction Three party. Somewhere else. Just to keep the uglies out of our hair. I know, we’ll ask Pyrrhic to talk to Dragon-boy. We want Old Scaly to think he doesn’t need to keep checking on us, like he was always doing when Sebby was in charge.”
Kodiak added, “Maybe we could tell the others to tone down the pranking too.”
“Why would we care what our friends do to people we don’t even want to look at?” she wondered.
Kodiak glanced at her to make sure she was serious. She was. She was completely confused by his idea. He’d have to remember that too. He couldn’t understand the point of pranking, whether the pranks were on people he disliked or not. In his worldview, there was only predator and prey. Alpha male and lesser beings. Not predator, prey, and also balloon animals to play with on the side. He said, “The fewer pranks our people pull on Thuban’s folks and Jimmy T’s folks, the easier it’ll be to convince them that we’re cleaning up after The Don and they can relax.”
“Ohh,” she said. “I get it! It’s just a trick so they let their guard down. Okay, I’ll go along with that. For a while…”
He looked at her smiling face. Okay, maybe not cunning like a fox. More like a cat. A pretty little bobcat.. that likes to play with its prey before it rips the thing’s throat out.
Hank and I moved slowly along the food line, while half a dozen kids - who must have had the refined palate of a vulture - puzzled over the tough choice: green jello with hard things, or red jello with mushy things. I liked Hank, but frankly I would have preferred to be arriving late to dinner after spending the afternoon necking with Vox. Not happening. Vanessa’s roomie Sharisha was back. They were off gabbing with friends, catching up after being separated for a whole two and a half weeks. I understood that Vanessa needed to be her own person - a young black woman who was going places - and not just some bimbo who was arm candy for some rich white boy. I just wished Vanessa could do more of that while hanging with me.
Hank was saying, “So anyway, I started out seeing you as our support and logistics officer, with me as strategist and Toni as Tac Ops. But we’re all growing, so it needs to be a lot more fluid than that.”
“Okay, I agree so far,” I chipped in.
Suddenly, an Ayla-ish voice piped up from my right shoulder. “I agree too! We want to be a team player!”
Another Ayla-ish voice - this one with a huskier pitch - insisted from my left shoulder, “No frackin’ way! We should be the boss!”
Hank managed not to snicker. Much.
I couldn’t help groaning, “Oh crap, not again.”
“Don’t say bad words! Swearing is wrong!”
“Oh shuddup, you feather-winged featherbrain! Cussing is manly! We need to do it more!”
Hank went on, as if bickering shoulder angels were perfectly normal, “You’re providing intel now. You and Billie and Nikki are all showing good tactical awareness, and we can’t count on every one of us being present in any sitch. So we need a more fluid structure and less of a rigid chain-of-command concept.”
I opened my mouth to make a suggestion, but the pests on my shoulders cut me off. “That’s a very good argument! Agree with him!”
“Oh shut up! Don’t put up with this! Take charge!”
Hank grinned, “You know, this is pretty funny.” He blinked at my baleful glare and added, “From a certain perspective, anyway…” He hastily changed the subject back. “So I’m seeing a Strat team and a Tac Ops team, with a ‘chain of authority’ in each, so there’s always one person who has the final say in any given arrangement of personnel.”
I added, “And Toni as the on-site tactics lead, since the pull-it-out-of-your-ass plan is her specialty.”
But before he could say anything, the right-hand angel complained, “You need to stop cursing!”
The left-hand angel butted in, “No, keep cursing! And I wanna see Toni pull it outta her ass the next time!”
“That’s rude and sexist!”
“DUH! And your point would be…”
A smiling adult male voice from the other side of the food table said, “Ah, Phase this is a most unusual dinner accompaniment!”
Crap. I looked up to see that Chef Marcel was standing there enjoying the performance. I refrained from wincing. Instead, I explained, “A friend of mine is playing a prank on me. I can’t get rid of them. See?” I made a quick grab for one of the angels, and the chalk of the angel wafted about my hand. I brought my hand back and showed Marcel the chalk residue on it. “I’ll have to take additional steps to get rid of them.” I glared down at the angels. “Something horrible.”
The shoulder angel said, “You shouldn’t even think about things like that.”
The shoulder devil said, “Oooh, I’m really scared now, meathead. Bring it on.”
I gave the angels my ‘calm’ face and ignored them as I shifted into French. Which Jade didn’t know. “And how was your holiday vacation?”
Marcel grinned, “It was far nicer than I had anticipated, thanks to one particular person. And speaking of ‘thank-you’s, I have a little something for you.”
The shoulder devil complained, “Hey! No talking in foreign languages!”
The shoulder angel added, “Well, it is rather impolite…”
I managed not to look too smug. At least I was fairly sure I wasn’t looking too smug.
Marcel turned away for a moment and pulled a small ramekin out from under a table. He set it on my tray and smiled, “Happy Christmas, Phase.”
I took a deep breath through my nose and guessed, “A chocolate banana soufflé? Merci beaucoup.” I could smell the lightest traces of vanilla and rum underneath the rich chocolate and ripe banana fragrance. I knew it would be exquisite.
Hank grinned, “Man, what I wouldn’t give my own personal chef.”
I snarked, “Why? So your deep-fried pork rinds could be served up piping hot?”
“Hey, just because I have a weakness for pork rinds doesn’t make me a bad person.”
The shoulder angel sanctimoniously said, “I doubt the pig would feel that way.”
Instead of getting all cheesed off, Hank just laughed. We turned to go continue our tactical talk at Team Kimba’s table. We didn’t make it.
We turned around, trays in hand, to find Fantastico and Conduit standing there looking like they were ready to fight. I instantly went heavy, taking the tray with me.
I glanced out of the corner of my eye, and I spotted Hank concentrating while looking down at his tray. Oh, good. He was probably trying to extend his PK field to cover his food tray, which would give him a hell of a weapon that the Good Ol’ Boyz wouldn’t even recognize until he had to use it. If he had to use it. I was seriously hoping he wouldn’t have to. Well, at a minimum, that PK field would protect his dinner if Fantastico was just here to be a jerk.
The F-Man himself growled at me, “Phase, you boned us but good last term. Payback’s a motherfucker.”
I gave him a calm expression. “You know, I find it amazing how often a moron like you will let himself get pointed at entirely the wrong person. Someone - probably the Alphas - suckered you into losing nearly 200 K. Then they suckered you into gunning for two of the most dangerous people on campus. You got caught. Are you blaming the people who suckered you? No. You’re blaming one of the other victims.”
I wasn’t about to tell the F-Man that it was probably Thuban, and not the Alphas, who had been behind that scam. And I was beginning to suspect that he was never going to figure it out on his own. I had met guys like him before. Once he made up his mind, he was married to his ideas. Good, when he was right. Incredibly bad, when he was wrong.
Fantastico spat, “You’re the one who sicked Carson on us. You’re the one who humiliated me in front of the entire freaking caff! You’re gonna pay for that.”
“Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. And for the rest of your life,” chimed in my shoulder devil.
“Huh?” Fantastico stared in surprise at the little thing that had just derailed him.
The shoulder angel said, “Really, Phase. Defending yourself when a much bigger person attacked you? What were you thinking?”
The shoulder devil chipped in, “Yeah! What the hell were you thinking? You should’ve just shredded his BIT and turned him into a hideous freak.”
The shoulder angel frowned, “How can you say a thing like that? Fighting is wrong! Phase should be peaceful. Just leave a cement block in Fantastico’s stomach, so he needs a really powerful mage or else emergency surgery.”
The shoulder devil laughed, “Wow! And I thought I was evil! That’s just totally awesome! I would kill to come up with an idea that good! Oh wait, I’m sure I did, just a couple days ago…”
The shoulder angel fussed, “Killing and violence are wrong!”
“So? What you gonna do to make me stop? Punch me? Hah-hah-hah!”
Fantastico opened his mouth to tear into me, and…
“HEY! Get a load of these!” a nasal voice called out.
Suddenly we were surrounded by a gaggle of devisers and gadgeteers, all admiring the shoulder puppets.
“How come we haven’t made shoulder angels for us yet?”
“How’d you handle the artificial intelligence system?”
The shoulder devil glared at the deviser, “Hey! My intelligence isn’t artificial!”
The shoulder angel leaned forward and said, “She’s all artificial, with no intelligence!”
The shoulder devil laughed, “Hey, that’s rude! You’re gonna lose your angel wings!”
One of the gadgeteers laughed and said, “Man, I’m takin’ notes on this one!”
I waited until the geekfest slowed down enough for me to get a word in edgewise, and I said, “I appreciate all your interest, but I’m not the inventor. Generator did these, and they’re devises. Now, if you don’t mind, Lancer and I are going to go eat before our food gets cold. In the meantime, just keep an eye out for Generator, and be sure to ask her all your questions when she comes in.”
Hank followed me over to the usual TK table. He waited until we sat down before he said, “You know, Jade’s not going to be able to answer any of those questions they’ll have…”
The shoulder devil smirked, “Getting even with Jade. Very evil. I approve!”
I ignored the devil and shrugged, “Of course she will. She’s been making up technobabble explanations for her gizmos for months now.”
The shoulder angel said, “See? Ayla’s just making sure Generator has plenty of street cred among the devisers.”
Hank snorted, “‘Street cred’? Are your shoulder angels channeling Toni now?”
I looked up when I spotted my target. “Oh. Jade just got in line, and one of our little deviser pals just spotted her. I give them thirty seconds to point her out, and another minute to form a crowd around her.”
Hank wondered aloud, “What’s with the timing?”
I smiled evilly, “Oh, just a little payback. Nothing major. Yet.” Of course, there was no way I was going to explain my plans out loud when I had the J-Team using me as a perch.
The shoulder angel shook her finger, “You shouldn’t be thinking about things like revenge! That’s naughty!”
The shoulder devil responded, “Ah, shuddup! I want her to do something spectacular!”
I tried not to smile as I said, “More spectacular than this?” I went light and disappeared through the floor, sinking out of my Whateley blazer in the process.
THE CRYSTAL HALL
The shoulder angels remained on the shoulders of the blazer, as it lay limply in Ayla’s chair.
The shoulder angel said, “That was extremely clever! I didn’t think she’d figure out we were embedded in the blazer this time.”
The Shoulder devil glared, “Oh shuddup! I wanted to go along and see what she does to Jade!”
Jade and Tennyo were chatting as Tennyo loaded up her tray with four steaks and six baked potatoes. Jade went on, “…So I’m wondering if there’s any point in you taking the time to cook the steaks.”
Billie complained, “Eat ‘em raw? I like to enjoy the taste, you know. Just because I could eat the meat raw doesn’t I want to. I like a nice, broiled, medium-rare steak with plenty of salt and pepper.”
Jade giggled, “Or seven of ‘em!”
Billie was about to make a snappy reply when they were surrounded by nerdy-looking guys. The one with the black-rimmed glasses and bad teeth said, “Generator! Hey Generator! Phase showed us those boss shoulder angels you made for her. How’d you do it?”
The chubby short one with the pimples said, “Yeah! How’d you work the AI?”
Another asked, “How’d you make ‘em so realistic?”
A fourth asked, “What about the synchrony? Do you have them both on a wireless link to a master AI box?”
A fifth tried not to drool as he asked, “How’d you get those super-sexy outfits?
Jade was sort of stunned at the attention. And she didn’t have deviser explanations all prepared for the shoulder angels. But she knew if Tennyo thought these guys were overwhelming her, Tennyo would let the guys have it. And she didn’t want that to happen.
But she’d been rehearsing her explanations with Bunny for months. And Ayla had given her pages and pages of ‘weird science’ stuff from old books. She even had a pair of ‘Professor Bunny’ glasses to wear for this. She charged Jinn into her purse and reached in, the glasses leaping up into her hand. She carefully adjusted her glasses on her nose and began. “Ahem. Now the angels look like regular constructs, but in fact they’re a pseudo-plastic I’ve been working on that’s modeled on the biological structure of Shifters. So the pseudo-plastic, under controlled electro-magnetic conditions, can be shaped in the same way that a Shifter changes shape. It changes the color and outer appearance at the same time, so the ‘clothes’ look different from the underlying material but are in fact part of it.”
“Wow. Impressive. Is it reproducible?”
“No,” she insisted. “It’s a fairly fragile devise. It’s fine for a little prank like this, but it’s not really suitable for anything else. I’ve got a long way to go before they’re really useful for anything else. Even examining them using the usual techniques sometimes causes them to dissolve into constituent components.”
“And what about the artificial intelligence?”
“That’s all faked,” she said. “Bugs and I built a simple responder program based on the Eliza type of AIs. It seems a lot more intelligent than it really is, because the byplay between the angels can be completely scripted beforehand. Then the two angels seem to be having a live conversation.”
“Hey, that’s pretty clever. So, what about their interaction with the person?”
She was running out of pat explanations, but she went on, “That part is… EEK!”
She suddenly felt her panties and bra vanish off her body.
She glanced down in horror. She was surrounded by boys, in public, and her bra and panties were gone! At least Ayla hadn’t taken her skirt too!
“What’s wrong?” one of the guys asked.
“Nothing! Nothing important,” she tried to assure them. She looked over at Billie, who mouthed the word ‘Ayla’ and pointed down at the floor. Like she hadn’t known who did it.
Then Billie started pointed at Jade’s own chest. Jade looked down and saw that her blazer wasn’t buttoned. It was hanging open, and her ‘girls’ were looking distinctly.. distinct. She had a sudden impulse to scream and flee from the room. The only thing that stopped her was the whole Yellow Queen incident in the Crystal Hall the previous term. What was she going to do? She instinctively charged Jinn into her clothing…
Jericho sat down next to Eldritch and tried not to look across the table as Razorback and Diamondback did their tag-team carnivore bit. The two of them looked like they were chowing down on about half a herd of cattle. He didn’t mind that they were hungry; he just minded that he couldn’t have a big, thick, juicy steak too. Not if he was going to keep from turning into a blimp again. No, he was going to stick with his chef’s salad, and that was that.
He leaned across the table and said to Diamondback, “Did you see Phase? Man, that’s just what I need. Shoulder angels. I’ve got some components I could use, and I bet Triaxial would let me use his AI chat system… I could probably build a decent set in, lemme think… Well, if I stayed up all night…”
Razor signed, ~So the one on your left shoulder would just be you, right?~
Jericho snorted with laughter and said, “Hey, I just realized. With shoulder angels, I can wear three different outfits at the same time!”
Sandra put her fork down and sighed, “And they’ll clash horribly, won’t they?”
Razor signed, ~As long as none of them are that shiny purple shirt that made me vomit every time I looked at it.~
Caitlin tried not to think about three different Jericho outfits showing at the same time. Then she noticed that Jericho was looking at her and concentrating. She threatened, “You’d better not be thinking about outfitting me with shoulder angels! Unless you want me turning every one of your meals into.. this!” She reached over to his plate and let loose. His chef’s salad suddenly reacted. The lettuce leaves turned into shards of purple lettuce-shaped glass, while the rest of the salad dissolved into ooze.
Jericho frowned, “Damn! Now I’ve got to go back through the line and get food all over again!”
Razor signed at him, ~This time, get some real food. You get too cranky when you’re starving yourself.~
Sandra laughed out loud, and just barely managed to keep from spraying her half-chewed steak all over the table.
Generator stomped over to the Team Kimba table with Tennyo. Phase was sitting there like nothing had happened, just chatting away with Lancer and Fey about… Spring fashions? Oh. She needed to touch the crystal so she could hear what was really going on.
She and Tennyo set their trays down, Tennyo’s tray clunking loudly under the massive weight of the food piled across it. They both touched the crystal draped casually over the condiments in the middle of the table.
“…No, I think I need to be a little lower in the tac ops line-up,” Ayla was saying. “Definitely lower than Chaka and Fey. I’m just not that good. I got my ass kicked over Christmas. Hell, I’m lucky to be alive and not in an insane asylum right now.”
Hank frowned, “I think you’re under-rating yourself. You do this all the time. You rate yourself really, really high in the areas.. umm.. where you feel confident of yourself, and you rate yourself really low in the… Well, pretty much everywhere else. Like in Boston. You said you were too slow to help out. But you’ve gotten better. A lot better. You just keep downgrading your-”
“AHEM!” Jade cleared her throat as loudly as she could. “I have something to say!” She glared at Ayla with all the fierceness of a pouty eleven-year-old. “Not funny!”
Ayla did that ‘when you come before The Queen please address Us properly’ thing that she did sometimes. That oh-so-superior look, with her body just like that. Jade loved it when Ayla did that to Sharisha, or Aggro, or Fantastico. It wasn’t so great having it directed at her. In fact, it was really pretty aggravating. No wonder people kept wanting to punch Ayla in the face.
Ayla just sat there. She didn’t say anything. She just raised one eyebrow in a silent ‘did you want to say something’ gesture. Ooh, she was just asking for a pack of more shoulder angels!
Jade snapped, “That wasn’t funny! There were all those boys around me, and I didn’t have anything on underneath!”
Ayla regally asked, “And this is different from being embarrassed by shoulder angels.. how?”
“It’s different, okay? It’s different!”
Tennyo growled, “She could’ve been exposed!”
Jade watched as Ayla gave Tennyo the same ‘we are not amused’ look, even though Tennyo was really glaring at her pretty hard. Ayla carefully said, “No. She couldn’t. We both know she looks a hundred percent correct now. And we both know that all she had to do was charge Jinn - or Jann, or Jeannie, or Jehosaphat, or whatever she’s calling them these days - into her clothes.”
“Umm, yeah, that’s what I did,” admitted Jade. “And then, once I was charged into my clothes, I was a lot calmer than me, so-”
“Pronouns, please?” begged Nikki.
“-so I just got a grip on the blouse and skirt. I made the blouse front stiff enough not to show anything it shouldn’t, and I made the blazer close up over everything, and I made the skirt stay down more.”
Ayla merely nodded. “I thought it looked a little stiff when you were walking over here,” she said. And she said it like she was royalty. Ooh, sometimes Ayla was really aggravating!
Jade frowned, “Yeah. I’m holding it all around my legs so nothing shows. And it’s drafty in here! And I felt it when you made me lose my grip on the shoulder angels too. What did you do?”
“Nothing much,” shrugged Ayla. “I just figured out that you were storing some extra material under my blazer, and I took care of it.”
Jade stared angrily, but Ayla didn’t say another thing. Ooh!
Ayla didn’t think he ought to tell Jade precisely what he had done, even though it ought to be fairly obvious to everyone that he had just gone light, put his hands into the shoulder angels, and gone solid to disintegrate them. When they just re-formed, Ayla had figured out that there had to be enough material for multiple copies, all carefully hidden where he wouldn’t see it, like under his blazer. So Ayla had repeated the process until the J-Team ran out of un-disintegrated chalk and whatnot. Once all the matter was gone, the J-Team would just pop back into Jade’s head.
Ayla also wasn’t going to mention that the light-heavy-light-heavy switching had given him another idea for things to do with his powers. First he’d practice until he could do it well enough. He didn’t like doing things that he couldn’t do well.
Lancer said, “Look, I think you two need to call a truce on this stuff. We’ve got seven weeks of Team Tactics, and I don’t want us blowing that because we’re having a lot of infighting.”
Ayla calmly said, “Good point. I’m willing to stop if Jade is.”
Jade frowned, “Sure, that’s easy to say for you, ‘cause you got the last shot in!”
Ayla merely said, “That’s not really the point. And I have an excellent chocolate-banana soufflé to finish. There’s a hint of rum in it to complement the bananas, and I think some grated plantain to meld with the banana flavor.”
“How can you even tell all that?” Tennyo puzzled.
Just to yank Ayla’s chain, Lancer ‘explained’, “She just makes it all up, because she thinks we don’t know any better.”
After dinner, Jade slipped over to Bunny’s room. She knocked softly and waited until Bunny invited her in. She looked both ways to make sure she was undetected before she slipped in, and then she closed the door as quietly as she could. She whispered, “What did you have for the shoulder angels?”
Bunny giggled, “Well, I don’t think I can hack an AI together that’ll do as well as Jinn, but we don’t need to. I figure all we need is this holographic projector, and a simple quadraphonic sound projector so it seems like the sound is coming from the shoulder angels. Then you just cast Jinn into the projector mike and the hologram control system, and let her do all the talking.”
Jade hugged Bunny happily. “You’re so smart! This is great!”
Ayla stood in his room, arms out in front of him, eyes closed, concentrating so hard he was sweating. The old, damaged mannequin from the basement was standing there in front of him, with a thin yagyu-style bokken duct-taped to its hand.
Finally Chou couldn’t take it anymore. “Ayla? May I ask what you are doing? Your Chi looks.. very odd. Almost as if it were.. umm.. stuttering.”
Ayla actually grinned. “Good. No, bad. That means Toni’ll see it coming a mile away.”
“See what?” asked Chou.
“My new trick. I got the idea at dinner. I should have thought about it a long time ago. If I can go heavy and light, and switch back and forth fast enough, I can do some new tricks. One thing I thought of is this.” Ayla swung his hand through the bokken.
Chou’s first thought was that this was no different from any other time Ayla had gone light and phased through a solid object. Then the upper half of the bokken fell off. Chou grinned, “You disintegrated the weapon as you went through it.”
Ayla nodded. “I either have to time it perfectly, which I can’t do, or else I have to switch back and forth between heavy and light so fast that I’d nail it pretty much anytime. But I can’t really do that yet, either. I’m still working on it.”
Chou nodded, “Still, it is most impressive. You should show it to Ito soke and ask his advice on adapting it into your martial arts program.” She could tell from Ayla’s expression that Ayla had thought about that some time ago too, but wasn’t going to say ‘Duh!’ to her. Not out loud, at any rate.
Tuesday, January 9, 2007 - early morning
I woke up to the alarm. It really sucked having Vox back in her own room. Not that I was ready to start a sexual relationship with Vox – okay, parts of me were definitely ready for that, even if the rest of me knew that it was too soon. I just liked holding Vox, and snuggling with her, and kissing her. I just liked being with her. Things would have been a lot better if I were still Trevor-looking, instead of being stuck in this mostly-female intersexed freakazoid body: I could take Vox on dates, and I could hold hands with her in public, and I could do all the other boyfriend-girlfriend things kids did all the time. Except that Vox probably wouldn’t be interested in someone who looked like Trevor. Damn it.
I put those thoughts out of my mind. Well, I pushed them way off to the side and got going. I floated out of the bed and drifted toward the door. I was wearing the pajamas Chou had given me as a Christmas present, so I couldn’t phase out of them. Instead, I slipped them off, let them go normal, and dropped them into the laundry basket. Jody had arranged to do my laundry on Tuesdays this term, so I wanted to make sure the pajamas got washed as well.
Then I went normal. I grabbed my bathrobe and towel and shower kit, then moved off to the showers. It was the first day of classes for the term, so I was expecting a big crowd in the bathroom.
I walked in, and I got in line for a shower. Jay Jay was buzzing about while she waited for a shower, and her hyperactivity kept making her towel come loose. Hot. Verdant was trying something new, and so she was standing there naked and her skin was exuding what looked like liquid soap, while she waited to get into the next open shower. Very hot. Bugs was trying to dry off and also have a technical discussion about simulating artificial intelligence engines enough to make a computer system seem to talk. She was concentrating on the tech and forgetting stuff like drying off, so she was standing there starkers with her towel held in one hand. Extremely hot.
Suddenly, a voice from my left shoulder purred, “Wow! Look at her can!”
Most of the room turned and stared. Crap. I stood there and refused to show how embarrassed I really was.
The shoulder angel on my right shoulder complained, “That’s horrible! Don’t look! What’s wrong with you?”
Most of the bathroom was giggling by then. Only a few people seemed bothered. Even Sharisha was enjoying the hell out of my discomfiture. No surprise there.
I turned around to find the petite pest I was expecting to find there. After all, Jade needed physical contact to cast Jann into things, and I was pretty sure Jade had charged the shoulder angels into a handful of chalk that was now embedded in my bathrobe. I figured that Jade needed to make sure I couldn’t just go light and walk through a wall to get away, and I figured that Jade needed enough replacement material that I couldn’t disintegrate a shoulder angel once and be rid of it.
I told her, “You know, I can be sufficiently conflicted about this without your help, Jade.”
The shoulder devil added, “You tell that little shrimp!”
The shoulder angel fussed, “Hey, it’s not nice to talk that way about the vertically challenged.”
Jade complained to the shoulder angels, “Watch it, I’m only a couple inches shorter than Ayla! And I’m way bigger than you two!”
The shoulder devil smirked, “Big talkin’ there. For a midget.”
Jade complained, “Hey! Knock it off!”
Chaka finally stuck her nose in. “Jade? Is there a reason you’re arguing with yourself?”
I smirked, “I think she’s trying to work up a case of multiple personality disorder before she goes back to Dr. Bellows again.”
The shoulder angel pouted, “I don’t think this is a nice thing to say about your own teammate.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jade.
My shoulder devil disagreed, “Well, it sure is funny.”
“By the way,” I drawled as I stepped into a shower, “If this keeps up you might find yourself losing all your underthings. Six or seven times a day. Might get expensive. Plus, Thuban might get the wrong idea when he gets a present from you.. that’s got all your used undies in it.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” hissed Jade. But the shower door closed right in her face. “Ooh, somebody’s really asking for it!” she snapped.
I noticed that the chalk shoulder angels didn’t want to get under the shower spray with me. Jade would know about that as soon as the charge expired, which meant the J-Team would be dreaming up new and disturbing ways to torture me. I groaned silently and finished showering.
As soon as I went light to drop off the water, I stepped out of the shower and grabbed my bathrobe. The shoulder angels were perched atop the bathrobe just waiting for me. Of course. I went heavy, snapped the bathrobe so hard it cracked, and the chalk flew up toward the ceiling.
“Hey! Knock it off!” squawked a hastily-reforming shoulder devil as it flew back toward me.
I waited until the last second, and then went light. I stepped through the bathroom wall and vanished down the hall.
The shoulder angel ran face-first into the wall. “Ow!”
The shoulder devil sneered, “Quit fakin’ it. Nobody’s buying that bit anymore.”
The shoulder angel shrugged, “Well, I was hoping to get a laugh.”
Jade held open a small bag of ground chalk, and the angels dove into it.
Jade looked into the bag. “You okay in there, Babba-Looie?”
A deep voice echoed from the bag. “S’Alright.”
Tennyo shook her head. “Jade, you’re watching way too many old cartoons.”
I walked to breakfast with Fey and Chaka, trying to let Chaka’s boundless enthusiasm infect me instead of depressing me. I asked rhetorically, “How long do you think it’ll be before I have chalk on my shoulders again?”
Chaka wondered out loud, “What I wanna know is how she’s doing the talking without one of her speaker disks.”
Fey explained, “Oh, Bunny spilled the beans on that one. The first time, Jade just had a couple of her smallest speaker disks. Now that Ayla’s gotten sneakier about wiping out the chalk and stuff, she’s borrowing a bunch of micro-transponders from Bunny instead.”
I rolled my eyes. But I suddenly had another idea…
Fey asked, “Do you have your costume under your Whateley uniform?”
Chaka and I both said yes.
“Do you have your ‘Spots’?” she checked.
I sub-vocalized over the system, <Yes.> I’d been practicing that on and off since Bunny gave us the system, and I was getting pretty darn good at it. I could talk over the Spots without making more than a faint whisper in my throat.
Chaka looked at Fey and said, “Yes, mom. And I’m wearing clean underwear.”
Fey grinned, “Because you never know when you’re going to be in an accident.”
Chaka nudged her, “And you never know when some pervert is going to steal ‘em off you while you’re standing around doing something else.”
<(Phase) Knock it off, or I’ll switch your undies with Jade’s. How’d you like to be trapped in public in Hello Kitty panties?>
Chaka smirked, “Ayla, you’re a very evil person.”
I smiled back. “Thank you, I try.”
We stepped into the food line in the Crystal Hall, and noticed that Sara and Hip were half a dozen people ahead of us in the line. Fey nudged me and pointed them out.
Sara had a pair of shoulder angels. From behind it looked like one was a slinky angel with white wings and a halo on a little stick. The other looked more like a writhing blob than a devil.
Hip spotted us, and got Sara’s attention. Sara turned to say hi.
My stomach lurched horribly. The shoulder angel was a sexy little ‘Sara’ angel all right. But the shoulder devil was a hideous cosmic horror of writhing tentacles and eyeballs and body parts. After the nightmare that was my Christmas vacation, I really, really didn’t want to see anything like that, anytime soon. Like in the next geological era.
The reaction from the rest of the line was more extreme. The girl right behind Sara took one look, screamed, and fainted. The two girls behind her shrieked and ran off. The two guys behind them suddenly clapped their hands over their faces and began gagging. One ran to the bathroom while the other just sank to his knees.
Hippolyta just said, “See? I told you the shoulder devil was too much.”
Sara shrugged, and the shoulder angels re-formed into tentacles that then were pulled back into Sara’s body. “Okay, so the Shoggoth wasn’t a good idea. I’ll work on it.”
I muttered to Fey, “After that, I think I won’t complain about Jade’s shoulder angels.”
Chaka just grinned, “Hey, look at it this way. We just moved way ahead in the food line!”
Once people moved, I stepped ahead to the food tables where Chef André was doing a bad imitation of someone casually loitering in the area.
I smiled and said in French, “Good day, André. Did you have a good vacation?”
André smiled back, “But yes, I had a most excellent vacation with my family. I even learned a few new recipes. For a breakfast treat I have prepared these.”
He handed me a small plate with two beautiful little cylindrical cakes, gorgeously fluted with a crisp caramelized outside.
I thought I knew what they were, even if I hadn’t had one in over a year. I grinned, “Ooh! Are these cannelés de Bordeaux?”
André nodded, “Yes. I picked up some copper molds over Christmas - the copper is very important for the baking, to encourage the caramelization on the top and sides - and I adapted the classic recipe. Instead of gold rum, I used a blend of orange and lemon peel.”
“Merci!” I could smell the delicious aroma wafting up from the cakes. I was hoping that Jade would at least let me enjoy my breakfast before the shoulder angels came back.
As I joined Fey at the food table of fresh fruit, Jimmy T walked past carrying a tray that had five enormous plates of food crammed on it. I muttered, “We ought to have an eating contest around Billie one of these days. Tennyo versus Jimmy and Razorback and a couple of the Energizers.”
Fey nudged me, “Did you see the shoulder angels?”
I nodded, “They’re pretty hard to miss.”
Jimmy T was sporting a pair of his own shoulder angels, no doubt done with his shifting abilities. Only his ‘angel’ was George Burns as God, complete with a tiny cigar. And his ‘devil’ was his own Elizabeth Hurley ‘Satan’, right down to the skimpy red dress Jimmy had worn at Halloween.
I pointed out, “At least they don’t talk.”
That was about all they weren’t doing. The Elizabeth Hurley ‘Satan’ was blowing kisses and waving at passing boys. The George Burns ‘God’ was winking at all the girls.
Fey shrugged carefully, so she wouldn’t spill her herbal tea. “Looks harmless to me. At least they’re not harassing anyone. Or telling Jimmy he shouldn’t shift into naughty shapes.”
As we walked over to the TK table, we noticed several devisers who had their own shoulder angels. None of them worked particularly well.
Fey murmured, “Get a load of that one.” She was looking at one deviser who had a sexy blonde angel girl on his right shoulder, and a macho-looking brown-haired man-devil on his left shoulder. The ‘angels’ weren’t doing much more than moving around and glancing at each other. She added, “It’s High School Musical: The Puppet Version.”
I snorted in amusement and pointed out another deviser, whose shoulder angels were moving, but in jerky, uncoordinated motions. “Get a load of the Disney animatronic angels over there.”
Fey smiled, “Goddess, these guys make Jade look like the greatest deviser in New Hampshire!”
I grinned, “Isn’t she? I mean, she overcame the ‘natural movements’ problem and the ‘artificial intelligence’ problem and the materials fabrication problem and the speech synthesis problem, and she got all of it into a package that’s only a couple cubic inches. These guys are going to be tearing their hair out trying to duplicate all of that.”
We walked up to our table to find Chaka was already sitting down, gesturing wildly while talking to Jade and Tennyo about the importance of proper moisturizing at night. I sat down and touched the crystal wrapped around the salt shaker. Suddenly the conversation changed to the real topic.
Chaka continued, “…so then she tells me that there are nearly a dozen new kids starting this term, and they have to get ‘the lecture’ from Carson this morning, while everyone else gets to eat a decent breakfast. How are you supposed to start out in winter term, when you don’t know enough to pick out good classes to take?”
Tennyo said, “There are lots of good things to take! And there’s only a few of ‘em. Maybe Carson’ll help ‘em get started. Maybe they need one of the all-afternoon language courses, or stuff like that.”
I started to add something, when suddenly an all-too-familiar voice piped up from my right shoulder. “We should seek them out and make friends with them!”
A voice replied from his other shoulder. “Yeah! Co-opt ‘em and make ‘em part of our gang! We can always use more minions!”
I calmly looked across the table at Jade. “So, is it true you’re still using those miniature transponders from Bunny?”
Jade asked, “What about ‘em?”
I told her, “I think that could be a tactical error.” I made my hand go disruption-light, and I passed it through one angel (and the fabric underneath the angel), then repeated it on my other shoulder.
The shoulder devil opened his mouth and gestured angrily. No sound came out. The shoulder angel tried talking. No sound.
I ignored the gesticulating angels and savored my breakfast. “Mmm, nothing like a gorgeous breakfast in a peaceful, quiet setting.”
Chaka looked down at her tray and said, “Cuz this is nothing like a gorgeous breakfast, or a peaceful quiet setting.”
Jade stared in frustration for long seconds before the chalk angels dissipated. I watched as the chalk flew under the table to go back to whatever Jade was using as storage containers. Maybe bags of chalk. Suddenly Jade blinked, as Jann came back to her. She frowned as she processed all of Jann’s memories. “You fried all the transponders!”
I kept eating my breakfast as I told her, “As I said, a tactical error.”
Jericho yawned fiercely as he sat down at the table.
Diamondback stared at his tray. “Is that it? Three cups of coffee and some fruit?”
Eldritch smirked, “Looks like someone didn’t get enough shut-eye last night. Up late practicing with Razor?”
Razor angrily signed, ~More like someone never came to bed last night. Workshop?~
Diamondback hissed, “You idiot! Did you really stay up all night working on those stupid shoulder angels?”
Jericho yawned again and muttered, “Hey, it’s an interesting set of design problems if you wanna have something better than those losers.” He yawned again as he tried to point out the lame shoulder angels on the devisers around the caff. “I need another day before I’ve got some really good ones up and running. Maybe tonight too.”
Razorback signed, ~Moron. You have classes!~
They trekked off to the ranges to find their new classroom. They were as much of a team as they could be. Everyone was either in uniform or else ready for a quick change (just in case the teachers sprung a ‘pop quiz’ on them). Generator was in her deviser gear, complete with backpack and arm bracers and holographic eyepiece. Bladedancer was in her usual tunic and yoga pants, underneath her Robe of Midnight, with Destiny’s Wave hidden across her back. Lancer was in his ‘urban badass’ camo outfit with the fingerless gloves and boots – even if Chaka didn’t think it was a good uniform. Tennyo had opted for her ‘Galaxy Pirate’ costume from Halloween, although Jade had needed to make a completely new one after the first one was shot into a million pieces. Shroud was in her gray ‘eerieness and chains’ look that had been so effective in her combat final, although the team had been adamant about ‘no maggot slurry’. Chaka, Fey, and Phase appeared to be in their Whateley uniforms, although each was ready for a fast costume change.
<(Lancer) Testing. Everyone’s Spots working properly? Sound off with weapons list. I’ve got my paper swords.>
<(Tennyo) Tennyo here. No weapons except me.>
<(Generator) Generator here. I’ve got Shroud, the arm bracers, the barrettes, Shielder, Kitty Compact, the holographic blaster, my Cobra, my universal remote, and Spinner.>
<(Shroud) Shroud. I’ve got my complete armory.>
<(Bladedancer) Bladedancer. Destiny’s Wave, and six throwing knives in my belt compartment, thanks to a nice Christmas present.>
<(Phase) You’re welcome. Phase here. Do you want the full list? My utility belt’s pretty full right now.>
<(Fey) Fey here. Malachim’s Feather, and four pre-set spells.>
<(Chaka) Chaka. Chain, bow in Fey’s magic pocket, shuriken, two decks of cards, packet of sewing needles.>
<(Lancer) Good. Let’s keep up commo security. Bugs thinks we can’t be detected with this gear, much less decrypted and tapped. But I’d like to play this for real whenever we’re in class.>
<(Tennyo) Works for me. Given how many times we’ve been jumped, we should get used to full C & C security 24-7.>
Lancer led the group down the path, since he was the only one who had a decent idea of where they were going. Breaker had told him where the classroom was probably going to be.
They passed the pistol range and found a row of ‘briefing rooms’. The door to their classroom, Briefing Room 2, had a cardboard sign on it.
Due to student count
class moved to
Briefing Room 4
Chaka ventured, “Hey, did we muck things up by jumping in late?”
They walked over to Briefing Room 4, which was only two doors down. The door opened into a room big enough for a briefing by half a dozen leaders for sixty or eighty soldiers.
Lancer’s first thought was that they had been waylaid, and a deadfall was about to drop on them. Then he saw two teams were already sitting in the room, up at the front.
On the left, in the first four chairs of the front row, were S.T.A.R. League Junior in their standard uniforms. Most of the campus thought the four were S.T.A.R. League groupies, since they even wore uniforms that looked remarkably like those of the real S.T.A.R. League. Lancer knew differently: Wallflower, Phoenixfire, Dredz, and Psymod were the children of the real S.T.A.R. League.
<(Lancer) We know them. Wallflower. Invisibility and force fields. Phoenixfire. Strength, flight, fire manifester, flaming sword. Dredz. Deviser, gun-builder, marksman. Psymod. Telepathy and short-range teleporter.>
<(Tennyo) And they know us. Phoenixfire has done some sims with me and H- Lancer. Lancer’s scrimmaged with them against the Masterminds.>
<(Chaka) Yeah, I know Dredz WAY too well. AND his mom.>
On the right, in the first two rows (including the girl in the wheelchair sitting beside the first row) were the Power Cats. Their leader Redlight was in the first row, along with Diva, and Juryrig in her wheelchair. Behind them were Duplex and Zip. They were all in matching supersuits which had a ‘Green Lantern’ style to them, but were black and orange instead of black and green.
<(Generator) Ooh! It’s the Power Cats! There’s Duplex. She’s really nice.>
<(Phase) Right. Duplex is a touch-based power mimic. Low-level. Not in Thunderbird’s class, or even Counterpoint’s. Still, watch out for contact. Redlight is a PDP. He’s got a nice psychic paralysis attack if you’re not blocking well enough. Diva’s a siren AND an Exemplar 6. Their big hitter. Juryrig’s a deviser/Energizer combo. Expect powered hardware and energy weapons. Zip’s a speedster. Expect they’ll have comms and probably holdouts, since they have Juryrig.>
<(Chaka) Yeah, so… Lancer? What kind of gear are the STARs packing, if they’ve got mommy and daddy helping them out?>
<(Lancer) They don’t need a lot of parent help. Dredz is a good deviser on his own. No comms since Psymod usually handles that for them, weapons carriers that are better than Phase’s bag of tricks, the usual. Plus short-range teleporting means they can hide a lot nearby for surprises.>
<(Phase) It was just the S.T.A.R.s and the Power Cats on the list when Mrs. Hawkins added us. So why the big room?>
<(Chaka) Maybe they were worried about havin’ enough space for your head?>
They moved up and sat in the third and fourth rows, right behind Wallflower’s group. Just as Phase was about to make another comment, the door behind them opened again. In strolled a group that looked like juniors, all in unique costumes. The new group took seats at the back of the room on the right.
<(Lancer) Who are these guys?>
Phase turned and looked. The big muscular guy leading the group to their seats was built like he could be a professional wrestler. An adult pro wrestler who had been taking steroids for a really long time. He had a chiseled jaw and a Brad Pitt kind of face. He was wearing a gray supersuit with a medium-length black cape and a navy blue Sam Browne belt covered in pouches.
Beside him was a curvy girl with jet-black hair, in a purple supersuit that looked like it was made out of velvet. She even had velvety purple high-heeled boots and a purple velvet domino mask. After her was a slender guy in an all-black supersuit that even covered his face. Not even his eyes and mouth showed. After him was a plain-looking but well-muscled guy in a green-and-yellow outfit that included a bright yellow harness on his back with yellow metallic cables leading down his limbs to thick yellow bands around his wrists and ankles. The last one was a sexy blonde Exemplar type in a deep-red supersuit with large diamond-shaped cutouts over her sternum and abs. That was quite an outfit. If the diamond over her sternum stretched any more, her nipples were going to be popping right out of that suit.
<(Lancer) Who are these guys? Anyone?>
<(Phase) Leader-guy may be Grapple. Junior Exemplar and Energizer. Big in the Uber-jocks. Strong, with electrical energy on contact. I think the first girl is Confundus. Junior. PDP with a big emphasis on confusing illusions. Green-and-yellow-guy may be Eruption. Junior deviser and faux Energizer. Big on blasting stuff. Flies too. But I’m not sure it’s him. The other two? Don’t know, but I’m guessing juniors. They don’t match our frosh-soph intel we got from our week of combat finals.>
<(Lancer) Anything else?>
<(Fey) I’m getting a pretty nasty vibe from their direction. Don’t count on whoever it is to spend his spare time petting cute fluffy bunnies.>
The door at the front of the room opened, and two people in fatigues walked in. The older man was a tough-looking black guy who looked like he ate D.I.s for breakfast, even if he looked like he was somewhere around sixty. The younger woman was a sexy Exemplar-looking blonde who looked like she ought to be a high-school senior, not one of the instructors. Both of them looked military and starchy.
<(Lancer) It’s Sam!>
<(Phase) She said she was an old guy who got rebuilt by nanites, so it’s possible.>
The older man looked around the room. “Good morning class!” he almost bellowed. “I’m Gunny Sergeant Bardue, your lead instructor for Team Tactics I. You can call me Gunny or Sergeant. Do NOT call me Mister Bardue or Professor Bardue or any of that cr.. ud. This is Rear Admiral Everheart, U.S.N., retired. You may call her Admiral or Ms. Everheart. Now…”
Just then the rear door burst open, and a fussy voice insisted, “This cannot be right! We need to go back to… Oh.”
A much friendlier voice said, “See? Come on, let’s get seats. Donner, come on.”
In rushed the Vindicators. Sizemax was directing Donner to seats a couple rows behind Team Kimba, while Kismet and Dynamaxx came in behind them. Cerebrex - better known around campus as ‘Captain Canada!’ or ‘that dimwit’ - came in, more or less dragging Lemure in with him. All of them were in their usual costumes.
<(Fey) Oh great. Kismet.>
Before the door could swing closed, another group strolled in. This group was in sharply-pressed Whateley uniforms. Farrago led the group to seats behind the Power Cats. Bombshell, Accelerator, and Golden Girl followed him into one row, while Swoop, Spellbinder, and a gangly but reasonably handsome guy sat in the row behind them.
<(Phase) Oh crap, it’s the we-hate-Phase gang.>
<(Tennyo) Could be the we-hate-Sinclairs gang.>
<(Lancer) Think bigger.>
<(Fey) I know everyone except the blonde in the first row and the guy in the second row.>
<(Phase) Golden Girl, and Stretch. He’s one of Gold Stallion’s homeys.>
<(Chaka) Hey. Rich white chicks do NOT get to use the word ‘homey’.>
Bardue stared fiercely at the newcomers. Then he snatched up some papers off the light table in the front of the room. He frowned, “Hmm. We never get six full teams…”
He studied the papers for a couple seconds and then said to the class, “Hang on one second. I’ve got to have a quick scheduling discussion with Admiral Everheart here.” He led the young woman to the far wall, and they turned their backs on the students.
<(Tennyo) Psst. Can we listen to what they’re saying?>
<(Chaka) Nope. That’s in Bunny’s next version.>
<(Fey) I can augment things with a little scrying spell and maybe even pipe it into the audio. Hang on a second, let me see if I can get this…>
Suddenly the entire team could hear the conversation.
“…and how the hell did we get SIX teams when we had only two registered at Monday eight ack emma?”
“Hive has this in the computer records. Team Kimba was logged in by Mrs. Hawkins at 11:47 yesterday with a data entry by Valerie Sperry at 12:07, so Mrs. Hawkins might have not gotten it done in a timely manner. The auxiliary notes file says they registered three weeks ago.”
“Yeah, that sounds like the old bag.”
<(Phase) Nice going, Hawkins! Heh-heh.>
“Vindicators were submitted last night at 18:25 by Madame Prudhomme.”
<(Phase) She’s Beret Mafia oversight, has to be Kismet ramming it through at the last second, you know what that means.>
<(Fey) Ugh. What is it with that girl?>
<(Chaka) It’s you. Maybe you turned her boyfriend into a slug or somethin’.>
“Elite League is stamped by Hartford. Initial entry record at 12:09, it’s just a placeholder, with team personnel added in an addendum at 16:47 by this Valerie Sperry again.”
<(Lancer) I knew it, that’s the Alphas. Just look at ‘em, it’s the fracking Alphas.>
<(Chaka) We kicked their asses before, we can do it again.>
<(Fey) So they’re out to get us. We can work with that.>
“And Omega Squad was added yesterday evening at 19:45 on an official Trustees request, originated by Blackblast.”
“You’re shittin’ me! These kids got their entry from a Syndicate contact? And Carson okayed that?”
<(Phase) Oh brother, that means they’re the Hive Five.>
<(Phase) The Injustice League, kiddie division.>
<(Generator) I still don’t get it.>
<(Tennyo) Supervillains in training, Jade.>
<(Lancer) I don’t think this can be tapped, but let’s try to keep commo security up, okay people?>
Bardue stomped back to the light table at the front of the room. “We have six teams this term. We were expecting two. That’s going to affect how we run some of our exercises. But we’ll work things out.
“Now first things first. We’re going to use some live simulations, some runs in Arena ‘99, and some runs in the holographic system. We have one entire team and a few other individuals who haven’t run the sims there, so they’re going to have to take our quick-and-dirty sim training the next two Saturdays.”
<(Chaka) Oh man! There goes my BF time!>
<(Fey) Maybe Scotty’ll want to give you some holo tips or something.>
Everheart stepped forward and took over the talk. “Team tactics have been taught to soldiers for decades, in one form or another. Adaptations of military team tactics have been taught to para-military groups and police forces for years. There are standards out there for a wide variety of situations. But they all have to be heavily modified for mutants. And the variety of mutant powers - the variety of powers in any given team - means that each team has to figure out how to mod standard team tactics for themselves. A large portion of this class will be just that: we show you what the standard maneuvers are, and then we watch to see how each of you mod those maneuvers.
“There will be classroom lecture, homework, field exercises, and even some full-scale red-team exercises where you start from a basic strategic briefing, plan tactics and run your ops, and then go to debrief. Grades will be simple. You get graded on each homework assignment and field exercise, with the final exam - which is a red-team exercise in the sims - counting for a quarter of your grade.”
Bardue took over. “And now I want to say a few words about the principles behind our team tactics. The U.S. Department of Defense has been thinking about this for a long time, and they’ve distilled it down to some basics that apply regardless of your team. Among the U.S. infantry’s basic fundamentals are the principles of war, the elements of combat power, and the tenets of what we like to call the ‘AirLand Battle’. These fundamentals have application to any super-team too. Over the next seven weeks, we’ll talk about the mission, and the doctrine principles that are basic to the team, regardless of who’s on that team. These principles will form the basis for your team tactics, techniques, and procedures. They’ll provide a framework for your team drills…”
Ayla took careful notes on his Bunny-phone that Chaka had given him for Christmas. He was going to have to find a bunch of these sources and read through them. He didn’t like being behind the curve, and he felt like he was about five years behind the curve as long as Lancer and Wallflower and Redlight were in the class. Bardue talked for a while about mutant powers substituting for standard military forces: infantry, airborne, air assault, suppressive fires, light forces, and ranger forces. Team Kimba had pretty much already worked out which of their team covered which roles.
Everheart was talking now. “You’ll need to figure out how your team members will be placed into appropriate roles for a wide variety of tactical and strategic situations. If you need to attack over a dangerous or tricky approach, who makes the attack and who stays back as the ‘heavy forces’? If you need an initial penetration in a difficult situation, for later exploitation by your heavy forces, who goes first and who comes later? If you have existing obstacles or difficult terrain, who do you use to maintain those obstacles as your pivots for operational and tactical maneuvers? If you need to control restrictive routes for use by other forces, who on your team does that? If you need to operate primarily at night, or during other periods of ‘natural or induced limited visibility’, who’s on point and who’s going to be limited in their abilities? If you’re being tasked to support heavy forces in a larger strategic situation, how do you deploy? If you need to conduct rear area operations, how do you capitalize on air mobility? We’ll talk about each one of these as we address the most common situations that teams see…”
Ayla stopped taking notes and thought about that. Team Kimba had worked most of those out already. The ‘control restrictive routes’ issue ought to be looked into. Particularly when they fought a speedster or a fast flyer. If they could control the routes that the threat took, even a little, they could control to some extent what the threat could do.
“…Next, success in battle hinges on the actions of your team members and small sub-teams in close combat and deployment. It depends on their ability to react to contact, employ suppressive fire if you’ve got it, maneuver to a vulnerable flank, and fight through to defeat, destroy, or capture the enemy. The successful actions of your individuals or small units rely on the ability of your leaders and your team members to use terrain to good advantage; to direct your blasters and wildcards to use their abilities with accuracy and optimal effect; to out-think, out-move, and out-fight the enemy…”
Ayla made some more notes. These were all good points. Team Kimba had needed to pull just about every one of Everheart’s tactics in just one term, so more study on this stuff would be useful. He made a lot more notes as Everheart lectured on the four elements of combat power: maneuver, firepower, protection, and leadership.
“Now. We’re going to use these principles as we step through the basic tactical problems. We’ll start off small, with tactics for room-to-room maneuver, street-sweep, distant sniper and distant armed force, power armor brigade, crazed mob, the usual. Then we’ll move on to several levels of rescue ops, crowd control, stopping a robber or a team of criminals, infiltration, assaulting a base, on up toward…”
Suddenly Admiral Everheart loomed over Ayla. “Phase?” she growled.
“Yes ma’am?” Ayla replied calmly.
“Would you care to explain why you’re sitting there with a pair of goddamn SHOULDER PUPPETS?!?!”
“What? Oh crap!” Phase swiped at them, trying his fastest light-heavy switch. Nothing happened. They didn’t even swirl about, and there was no chalk dust on his hand either. “Sorry, but I’m being pranked.” Phase thought fast. If it wasn’t chalk, and it wasn’t solid, then it could be magical. Or a Psi projection. Or… Shit, it could be holograms. Bunny and Jade working together. Well, Fey and Jade together would be way worse.
The shoulder angel piped up, “No, she’s not! She needs us to correct her moral compass!”
The shoulder devil sort-of-agreed, “Yeah, she’s such a goody-goody she needs me around to keep her off the straight and narrow.”
“You just stop right there, I’m here to keep you from leading her astray!”
“That’s not nice!”
“And what did you expect from me, halo-head? A freakin’ Catholic mass?”
Ayla muttered, “Sorry, admiral. If you can get rid of them, I’d appreciate it.”
The shoulder devil said, “Atta girl, get some Exemplar to do your dirty work. Good thinking.” Everheart glared ferociously at that.
Ayla muttered, “Jade, you’re so gonna pay for this.”
Bardue growled, “Well, since Phase knows so much about this material that she can play with puppets, we’ll just give Team Kimba the last position in today’s little exercise.”
Everheart snapped, “Teams! You will stay put in here until we call for you! Then you’ll be taken over to a tactical area for today’s drill! First up: S.T.A.R. League Junior!”
Phase turned and glared at Generator. He didn’t say anything. However, he certainly sub-vocalized over the Spots. <If we get hammered in today’s drill, you’d better start carrying spare undies. A LOT of spare undies. And you’d better get used to them appearing up on the flagpole, under Thuban’s door…>
<(Generator) You wouldn’t!>
<(Phase) …in Peeper’s mailbox…>
<(Generator) ACK! I surrender! I surrender!>
<(Lancer) Phase, drop the threats. Generator made a mistake. We’ll work on a recovery plan. Generator? Stop the shoulder angels. Now. Or I won’t stop Phase.>
<(Tennyo) Yeah. This time, they weren’t funny. Bardue could’ve kicked Phase out of the course. Or given her a big fat ‘F’. What would you do then?>
<(Generator) Okay, okay, I get it! No more shoulder angels on Phase! Jeez, some people have NO sense of humor.>
After about eight minutes, the instructors called for the Power Cats. Seven minutes later, they called for the Vindicators. Four minutes later, they called for the Elite League. Eight minutes later, they called Omega Squad.
Lancer looked around the empty room and said, “I figure we’re up in seven or eight minutes.”
Phase smirked, “I figure the short time on the Vindicators is because they got their asses kicked.”
Fey frowned, “Just as long as it doesn’t happen to us.”
Chaka grinned, “Hey, come on! What can they throw at us that Team Kimba can’t whup?”
Phase guessed, “I figure they’re going to hit us with a ‘pop quiz’ covering what they talked about today, in a sitch that Sam mentioned.. just before some shoulder angels distracted her.”
“Okay, okay, stop harping on it. I said I’m sorry!” fumed Generator.
Lancer said, “I’m going to agree with Phase on this. So if we don’t get time to plan this out, let’s go with Fey and Generator as rear area protection, Tennyo and Fey as suppressive fire, Generator too if she can use her armbracers, Tennyo and Phase as fast flanking maneuvers, Chaka and Bladedancer and Spinner as secondary flanking maneuvers, Phase and Kitty Compact and Fey and any Spyspecks as our infiltration capabilities, and me and Tennyo and Shroud as the heavy armor. Agreed?”
Most of them nodded.
Lancer added, “Look, we’ll assess capabilities based on how well this goes, and we’ll adapt for future missions. Okay?”
Fey added, “And we might as well do our costume changes now.” She waved her hands, and her Whateley uniform transformed into her ‘fall colors’ supersuit and her mithril armor.
Chaka did her Ki-powered quick change. Phase simply went light and walked out of her Whateley uniform, since she had her costume on underneath.
Lancer asked, “Anything else?”
Generator shrugged, “I might as well charge up Shroud again, and get Kitty Compact and Spinner ready to go.”
Tennyo winced, “Maybe we’d better see if Spinner’s appropriate for the sitch.” She looked at the rest of the team. “Spinner has this.. tendency.. to turn enemy forces into ground round. Not something you want to see happen to some Security guys just playing the enemy team.”
Chaka winced, “Man, if Tennyo thinks it’s overkill…”
The speaker blared, “Team Kimba, you’re up! Admiral Everheart will meet you outside the building.”
Lancer turned and flew to the door. The team followed him. Tennyo scooped up the slow members of the team, Generator and Shroud.
<(Generator) Hey, how come you didn’t grab Phase or Bladedancer?>
<(Tennyo) In case you hadn’t noticed, Phase is flying a bit faster than Lancer right now. And Bladedancer’s running nearly as fast as Chaka. Slowpoke.>
<(Generator) I have GOT to find a way to fly faster!>
They got to the building exit. Everheart spotted them, waved them on, and took off running.
<(Phase) Crap! How fast is she moving?>
<(Chaka) Dunno. But we’re not gaining much. Sam does have that Hive thing jacking her up into a super-soldier.>
<(Tennyo) Should I speed up and catch up with her?>
<(Lancer) Umm… No. Let’s treat this as part of the exercise. We’ll stick together for this part, just in case it’s a trap.>
<(Fey) I’m not picking up any emotions either, maybe Hive is screening things.>
<(Shroud) Me neither. And I definitely saw emotions on her before, in the classroom.>
Everheart ran to a spot well into the target areas of Range 4. She waited impatiently as Team Kimba rushed over. As soon as the last person arrived, she started talking. “Everyone. Put on one of these vests on the ground here. Now. They’re all tagged with your names, so get your vest and get it secured. They’re sensor vests that’ll signal hit/injured/damaged/dead. A yellow flash is a hit. Solid yellow is ‘injured’. Orange is ‘damaged’. Red – a flashing red with a beeper so you’ll notice it - is ‘dead’. As soon as your vest signals dead, you hit the ground and stay there. Got it?”
Everyone nodded and slipped on their vests, buckling them closed.
“Since you guys think you know so much that you can prank each other in class, consider this an object lesson. You’re on a firing range. A heavy-firepower team 600 yards away is going to open up on you. All robots in power armor and remote-controlled mobile artillery, so no excuses that you didn’t want to hurt anybody. The ‘firepower’ is artificial, and will trigger the vests based on your personal power levels. Getting a direct hit may hurt a lot too. You have ten seconds before the enemy pops up and opens fire. Oh, and I’m a hologram.”
The image of Everheart flickered out of existence, just as someone muttered, “Oh crap.”