Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy / Part 6
“Lancer. That’s such a manly name.”
The voice whispered in his ear. He tried to concentrate. He knew there was something he had to do. But the voice was so seductive… So irresistible…
“Don’t move. Just stay right there. Let me love you.”
He felt the arms slide over his chest and around his back. He felt the full breasts pressing against his blazer. He wanted desperately to have nothing in between his body and hers.
“That’s right, don’t listen to those nasty voices. They’ll just make you lose me.”
He had to think. Why couldn’t he think? Distantly, he heard other people. Who were they? Why couldn’t he remember? Why wasn’t he supposed to listen to them?
“That’s right, my love. Now drop that naughty PK field of yours. I want to kiss you properly. I want to make you mine.”
He didn’t see the energy pistol she was pointing at the small of his back, as she waited…
Tennyo screamed as memories came rushing back in waves. Memories from so far away and so long ago that the very universe felt different. Princess Arlon. King Velus. The planet. The entire star system of Gulenn. The Starstalker had done those things. SHE had done those things.
“NO! NO NO NO NO!!!” Tennyo screamed, but she couldn’t make the thoughts go away. She had ordered the Princess Arlon kidnapped. She had ordered the young girl tortured and publicly ‘executed’. Executed? It was murder!
Something was telling her that it was necessary, but she wasn’t listening. How could you justify something so... so horrible? So vicious? So evil?
The ghost was still wailing. “I begged you to stop! I begged you to help us! Why wouldn’t you stop?”
“I HAD TO!” Tennyo screeched. “I HAD NO CHOICE!” She gasped and pleaded, “I didn’t do it! I… It was me… But it wasn’t…”
“YOU ARE THE STALKER OF THE STARS! YOU DID THIS! YOU DESTROYED OUR WORLDS!”
“No…” Tennyo begged, “Please, I wouldn’t… I couldn’t…”
In mid-air, Tennyo curled up in a ball, as if she could somehow keep the memories at bay. Tears streamed down her face as she begged, “I couldn’t… Please… Don’t make me remember any more…”
Chaka darted to the side and down onto the grass. Another magical blast just barely missed her. That one burned the grass and baked the ground into clay. She figured that if she got tagged even once, she was going to be roast leopard.
It was Majestic. Majestic, glowing with power, surrounded by a transparent blue sphere, and floating twenty feet above the ground.
Chaka jinked again as her Ki sense told her another blast was on its way. She just barely managed to dodge the shimmering red globe. It hit twenty feet past her and turned the asphalt of the street into a boiling tarpit. The tar that splashed onto her legs stung ferociously. She didn’t dare stop to check how badly she was burned.
She sprinted across the blue-enclosed arena, as Majestic slowly turned to watch. She remembered what Phase had said about the New Olympians. Maybe Toni had been too hard on Phase, because it sure looked like Phase had nailed this one. Majestic was supposed to be a wizard and high-end Exemplar. Well duh. Not real helpful. The wizard part was pretty obvious. But the Exemplar part meant Majestic would still be a bitch to fight in hand-to hand. Assuming she was dumb enough to let Chaka get that close.
Still, Chaka was going to try. She dipped down to avoid another nasty-looking red globe, and she snagged a loose chunk of concrete off the curb. She hurled it side-armed, only to have it bounce off that flimsy-looking blue sphere around Majestic. Damn!
It had taken her nearly thirty minutes to use her Ki to take down Fey’s force field that one time. Majestic wasn’t going to give her thirty seconds. So maybe she needed to make Majestic a little less controlled…
“Hey Summers! Nice throws! I’ve seen better aim at Little League games! More like Buffy Summers if you ask me!”
That hit the mark. The witch screamed in anger. And suddenly, Toni was having to dodge half a dozen red globes. Plus two yellow ones that were tracking her relentlessly across the arena.
“Uh-oh,” she muttered to herself.
Phase hit the street as another energy blast sliced into his lower back. He tried to dive into the road, but it refused to give. He pushed off into the air, just barely dodging another blast. The pain in his back was crippling. It seemed like he couldn’t bend or twist or even raise his arms with searing rips of agony.
He went heavy and dropped to the street with a crash. The next blast caught him in the side, but only smarted. He turned to find Knick-Knack standing there with both of those oddly-robotic ‘women’ that followed him around. The women were holding racks of weapons and gizmos for Knick-Knack.
Despite the searing pain, Phase sprinted right at Knick-Knack. He couldn’t go light when the guy had energy weapons, so he had to take the fight to Knick-Knack before the guy pulled up a force field or something.
Knick-Knack pulled up a massively-fat, rifle-shaped thing that looked like one of those shoulder-mounted anti-missile weapons Everheart had talked about, only bizarrely mutated. Phase went light just as Knick-Knack fired.
Whatever the hell it was, it passed through Phase like a rocket. He instantly went heavy again and kept moving toward Knick-Knack.
Knick-Knack looked at one woman while reaching for a weapon from the other one. The first woman lifted the massive rack in one arm and, brandishing the rack like a giant club, ran right at Phase.
Behind Phase, the rocket exploded against the face of the mall. The robot-woman staggered with her arm still raised, so Phase took a chance. He did his light-heavy-light-heavy flicker and sliced his hand through the robot’s shoulder. He screamed in pain.
Generator lifted off the ground a couple feet, and straightened out like Superman flying to the rescue. Not that she was flying anywhere. She was just floating behind the top part of the utility box.
She lucked out. Prism’s next blast burned a huge hole right through the bottom half of the box and set fire to the grass under her. But she only had a couple seconds before Prism saw that she was still hiding, and not a chunk of charcoal burning on the grass.
Bladedancer struggled to roll back up to her feet. Her left leg felt like someone had pressed a branding iron against her knee. Her kneesock was still smoldering. The rolling she had done across the dirty concrete floor had accidentally put the fire out. She whipped off her Whateley blazer and pressed it against the sock. It would either put out the fire or burst into flame. She could use it, either way.
Counterpoint leered, “That was pretty pathetic, Sword-girl. Not much without that sword, huh? Well, you better crank up those powers, or I’ll take you apart a piece at a time. Or maybe you like it that way? You like it rough?”
Bladedancer spat, “I wouldn’t like it from you if you were the last man on earth. Hell, I wouldn't like it from you if you were the last thing on earth with a spinal cord.”
He angrily snapped his hands up to blast her again, and she moved. She whipped the blazer around as she side-stepped, and the blast set fire to the blazer. She finished her first move by throwing it in his face. He tried to swipe it away with his speed, but his hand merely tore through it, spreading the fire around.
She gracefully slid behind him and struck. A kick to the back of the knee, a blow to the kidney, and another kick to the back of his neck as she leapt back out of his reach.
The kick to the back of his knee made his leg flex forward a couple inches. The other two blows did nothing. It was like punching a marble statue. He whipped a backhand in her direction. If it had made contact, it would have ripped her head off.
Fey’s body stopped spasming, even if it still twitched a couple times in convulsion. She struggled to get to her feet, even though her body burned and her muscles felt like someone had ripped them in half.
A massive form grabbed her by the ankle and yanked, slapping her against the floor. Then he swung her about and threw her into one of the partitions. The partition gave, and she crashed to the floor atop it. She felt like she had one enormous bruise from her cheek down to her knee.
She could see him coming for her. Imperious. Phase had fussed about him enough that she knew Imperious was a big Exemplar and lightning blaster. Well, she’d noticed the lightning. If she hadn’t had half a shield up, she’d have energy burns over half her back from his blast.
Lightning! If she could get him to hit her with another lightning blast instead of his fists, and she could see it coming, she could use it as a power source. Maybe. She just didn’t know how much physical punishment she could take before she could get him to blast her again.
He strode closer, and she tried not to cringe.
Shroud ignored the explosion that ripped out some of what had to be windows at the end of the store. She spun furiously so her chains formed two buzzsaws of destruction, one at her shoulders and one at her hips. She battered at Judicator’s PK shield, but her best efforts only dented and chipped the thing. She tried to swoop over Judicator to catch her from behind, but an end table flew up to block her.
At least her whirling chains worked on that. She turned the end table into wood chips. But by then, a set of metal chairs had leapt up off the floor and pinned her against a loveseat.
Judicator hefted a broken table leg and stabbed Shroud in the chest, pinning her to the furniture.
Shroud gasped in pain as Judicator reached down and ripped off her left forearm, throwing it across the room.
Lancer heard the sultry, delicious voice.
“You want to love me. You want to worship me. You desire me. You cannot live without me.”
He did. So what was making him feel like he shouldn’t?
“Don’t resist me. Kiss me. Lower your PK field and kiss me as a man kisses his goddess.”
Kiss. The full breasts pressing against his chest weren’t the right breasts. Someone else should be there instead.
“Lower your field. Let me in. Make yourself one with me.”
The long blonde hair slid across his face. It should be black hair. Straight black hair. Who was it? Why was he thinking about black hair? Lily! He needed to think about Lily!
“That’s right, lower your field…”
The energy pistol moved into position…
Tennyo screamed. She couldn’t stop. The memories kept flooding in. More and more. Each ghost that screamed at her made more memories explode into her brain.
“My country! You made us fight for you! We all died! We ALL died!”
She whimpered, “I had to… It wasn’t me… I wouldn’t…”
“Our world! You made our star go supernova! Everyone I ever knew was destroyed! Why?”
She sobbed, “I couldn’t… I had no choice… It… I… OH GOD!”
“All our ships. You forced us to join your war fleet. We all perished. And for what?”
She cried, “I… I had to do it! You don’t understand! OH GOD PLEASE STOP MAKING ME REMEMBER!!!”
She crashed to the ice rink, and didn’t even notice. The ghosts swarmed all around her.
Chaka raced across the blue-surrounded arena. She had dodged all the red globes, but the yellow fireballs were following her relentlessly. She figured she had one chance. Maybe two.
She cut away from one fireball, so the other one was a couple yards closer. She sprinted right at the arena wall. She could feel the yellow fireball getting closer... and closer…
When she was inches away from the blue wall, she used her Ki to jump straight up. The first fireball exploded against the wall in a blast of freaky green fire. She had been hoping for a big ol’ hole to get blown in the magical wall. But the wall didn’t give. Damn.
She didn’t stop moving. The second fireball was right on her tail. She ran across the wall, back to the ground, and sprinted toward the center of the arena. Right at Majestic.
She muttered to herself, “Okay, let’s see how smart your little smart-bombs really are, bitch…”
Instead of running under Majestic’s glowing sphere, Chaka lightfooted it right at the sphere. At the last second, just as she touched the sphere, she let go of her Ki and dropped to the ground. The yellow fireball splattered against the glowing sphere... and fizzled out.
“Damn!” She was running out of options, and fast.
Phase felt like he’d plunged his hand into molten metal. The searing, burning pain made him stagger and fall to his knees.
Beside him, the arm of the robot, still gripping that rack, fell to the ground with a thud. The rest of the robot wobbled and fell over.
Knick-Knack scowled, “Do you know the favors I had to call in to make that?”
Phase looked up to see Knick-Knack pointing another energy weapon at him. This one ended in a flaring black bell, like a blunderbuss that had been filled completely with soot. It fired, hitting Phase with an energy bolt that knocked him to the asphalt.
Knick-Knack frowned, “It’s a Warp field disruptor. I was sure you were still light. Oh well…” He took another weapon from the rack. This one had a bizarre set of prongs sticking out. He fired it, and it expanded into an open cage. The cage was about six feet across, with prongs shaped like semicircles, all attached to a metallic base. It snapped closed around Phase. The tips of the prongs came together and sparked, becoming a solid disk. Phase was trapped inside, like a seed inside a malevolent orange.
He grabbed the bars and tried to force them apart. The cage was stronger than he was. He went light and tried to dive through the bars.
But the bars were filled with some sort of energy. He screamed in pain as he bounced back.
Knick-Knack picked up a thing that looked like a psychedelic lava lamp, and pointed it at the ground. “Now that I have you caged, it’s time to take care of you once and for all.”
The ‘lava lamp’ spewed out a red blob which rapidly expanded into a pastel-red amoeba the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. One of Knick-Knack’s ‘Rovers’. It rolled and bounced toward the cage. Phase watched in horror as it oozed through the bars, unharmed by the energies of the cage.
It encased Phase’s legs. He kicked it. He punched it.
It couldn’t be hurt. It oozed farther into the cage, slowly moving up Phase’s body.
It felt like jello. It wasn’t. Phase knew it was only a matter of seconds before it covered him completely and suffocated him.
Generator watched through the gaping hole as Prism strolled around the big utility box. When Prism was halfway around, she swooped through the massive hole in the box and tried to escape behind him.
An energy blast burned into her side and knocked her to the muddy grass of the median. God, that hurt!
Prism grinned, “Tricky. But not tricky enough. Now it’s time to start frying, shrimp. Get it? Fried shrimp?” He raised his hands again…
Bladedancer backed up as Counterpoint beat out the flames all over his clothing. She needed help. This trap was designed for her, and…
Right. It was designed for her. Not for anyone else.
<(Bladedancer) Need help ASAP. I’m in the garage with Counterpoint, and I don’t have Destiny’s Wave. Or the Tao. He’s got exemplar, speedster, and blaster, with a slot open for the power the thought I’d have. If anyone can help…>
<(Chaka) Still northside. Majestic’s runnin’ me ragged here. I’m gonna need Tennyo or Fey or DW to get me outta this magical playpen.>
<(Phase) Knick-Knack’s got me in a trap, and he’s trying to suffocate me with a Rover. I could REALLY USE SOME HELP!>
<(Generator) Prism just blasted the poo out of me, and I don’t have anything.>
<(Shroud) I’m at one of the stores that just got blasted. Judicator’s about to rip me to shreds. I got nothing.>
<(Fey) Imperious has me on the ropes. No Essence. No sword. He’s- SHIT! That hurt! Bastard!>
<(Tennyo) Noooooo! Make it stoooop! I’m sorry! Pleeeeeeeease!>
Bladedancer made a break for it, but she only got about a quarter of the way toward the car gates when Counterpoint sped past her and kicked her legs out from under her. She hit the concrete painfully, but managed to roll and leap to her feet.
She came up just in time to parry a punch that could have knocked her across the garage. She parried two super-fast kicks and failed to block a third. She felt herself flying backward…
Fey groaned as Imperious picked her up and threw her. Again. The guy had a serious anger management problem. The only thing keeping her intact was the partitions. Every time Imperious threw her into one, it absorbed the impact and fell over, leaving a Fey-sized dent in the hard foam that made up the centers of the panels. If he ever wised up about that, he’d find something a lot harder to throw her against.
She rolled to her feet and tried to defend herself against an Exemplar-5 brick. He punched at her, and she managed to parry it with a Tai Chi move that let her get in a kick to his stomach.
It was like kicking a mountain. All she did was hurt her foot.
She just barely got her foot back in time to avoid being grabbed by the ankle and thrown into another partition. It wasn’t like there were that many left standing by now.
He stepped forward and threw a two-punch combination. She parried the first and caught the second with a two-arm block. God! It was like trying to fight Lancer! Even the Hardass wasn’t this strong, or this fast. She kicked him in the knee and leapt back.
He just laughed. “You think someone like you can hurt me? Without your magic you’re nothing. Majestic was so right about you. Strip you of your Essence, and you’re as helpless as a baby.”
“At least I’m not as stupid as a donkey,” she sneered at him.
“For that, I’m going to break a few extra bones,” he flared.
“Big, tough guy,” she sneered. “Have to beat up little girls, and you have to get Majestic to tell you how to do it. What do you do when you don’t have her around to pat you on the head and tell you what to do?”
“Shut UP, you bitch!” he roared. He blasted her with a killing lightning bolt.
Shroud tore her costume from around the table leg, and slithered out from under the metal chairs, but only because she didn’t have human joints or bones.
Judicator was caught by surprise. People don’t just slide off of a table leg through the chest. Shroud had enough time to smash one of the metal chairs down on Judicator.
Judicator blocked it cleanly with her PK shield, and smacked Shroud into a dresser. Before Shroud could get to her feet, a queen-sized mattress smashed her flat against the floor. A PK spear plunged through her head, while several sets of fondue forks leapt out of a display to pin the mattress to the floor along the sides, trapping Shroud underneath.
Judicator fumed, “Maybe you can’t be stabbed, but let’s see if you can be incinerated!”
Sam looked up. Delarose was trotting across the grass toward her team with another heavy-weapons squad. She and her people already had the combatants face-down on the grass, and no longer trying to rip each other’s heads off. Blasting their shoulder angels into pieces had done the trick.
She took the time to scroll through the holo sim records. Team Kimba hadn’t done anything. They had walked from the Quad toward Kane Hall, then turned around and walked back. And now they were walking back toward Kane Hall.
It was the exact same footage.
She verified the matches in microseconds. There was a 47.25-second loop based mostly off the original footage.
Someone had built a loop in one of the most secure computer nets on campus. Someone must have used templates that were supposed to be off-grid. Someone had the sim monkeys looking at fake footage of Team Kimba.
So what the hell were the real Kimbas doing?
Or, more realistically, what was being done to those kids?
She sprinted to Delarose. “Chief, I think we have a situation in the sims right now. Request permission to leave the scene and investigate.”
Delarose gave her one of those looks he sometimes had, like he had just won a bet with himself. “Go.”
She sprinted for the closest entry to the tunnels. She called on her internal commlink.
“Everheart. There’s a loop on the Kimbas! Someone’s probably sabotaging them right this second!”
“Shit, I thought it was weird they weren’t doing anything interesting, knowing them…”
“Have Mark start tracing on all running software, all modules, and retrieve all security videos, starting with backups. Have Larry get a lock on the current state of the sim for later analysis, because if it’s what I think, it’ll erase itself completely once the damage is done. And I need you to get down to the Kimba rooms and find out what the hell is going on!”
“On it, admiral.”
By then, she was already in the tunnels, racing to the control room. “And have the entry door unlocked before I get there!”
Generator tried to ignore the burns on her side. They’d heal. Heck, they weren’t really there. She had to help Billie!
Prism swaggered toward her, enjoying her helplessness. He had his hands up, ready to blast her as soon as she twitched.
She put her hands on the ground. Grass. Soft earth, soaked by regular watering from a sprinkler system. She had Jann in her clothes and skin already. She cast Jeannie and Jamie.
Prism jumped back as a massive lump of mud flew at his face. He blasted the mud, which disintegrated into a spray of dust. The dust swarmed at him. He blasted the dust again and again.
A second lump of mud leapt up and tackled Prism while he couldn’t see. He staggered backward and fell to the pavement. He blasted that lump as it tried to leap on him.
By the time Prism finally cleared out all the attacking dirt, he realized that Generator was gone. He glanced around, but she was nowhere in sight.
Phase stared in terror as the red stuff oozed up his body. He choked down the panic in his throat. Knick-Knack was bent over a laptop, concentrating on the damned thing, probably directing this nightmare.
Phase went light, and moved so a nasty pile of the Rover was inside him. He went heavy, disintegrating it. He ignored the stinging pain. He just needed to repeat that. A lot. He went light and moved, then disintegrated more of the blob. Light. Heavy. Light-heavy-light-heavy. He was winning. He was disintegrating it a lot faster than it was oozing into the cage.
<(Generator) Phase, I’m incoming.>
<(Phase) Just a fly-by. Smash Knick-Knack’s laptop and don’t stop. Go to the east side and rescue Lancer.>
<(Generator) ME? If Lancer can’t handle it…>
<(Phase) It’s got to be Cytherea. You can take her easy.>
Generator flew by at thirty or forty miles an hour, and swatted Knick-Knack’s laptop into the air.
Knick-Knack reacted as soon as he saw the laptop fly. He went for one of the deviser weapons his robot was holding out for him.
The laptop hit the pavement and cracked. Phase went heavy. The Rover faded into mist, and the cage sprung open. Phase jumped, and then went light in a phase-leap.
Knick-Knack grabbed the weapon and spun.
Phase vanished as he tore down the street too fast for Knick-Knack to follow.
<(Phase) ‘Dancer! Incoming!>
<(Bladedancer) No! He’s got an open slot!>
Bladedancer watched as Phase flew into the parking garage at enormous speed, and dropped into a run. Phase had to be heavy, because every step was gouging the concrete.
Counterpoint stopped moving toward Bladedancer and focused on the new player. “Phase! Even better! Come to daddy.”
<(Phase) I got it. You take Knick-Knack.>
Bladedancer sprinted out of the garage. Knick-Knack was trotting in her direction, and carrying something that looked like a fat, modernistic blunderbuss that was filled with black foam. He stopped nervously and asked, “Excuse me, have you seen Phase? Whateley uniform, short black hair, all spiky?”
Bladedancer ran at him. Knick-Knack fired the weapon as Bladedancer zigged to one side, but the weapon didn’t seem to do anything. It dawned on her that he was looking really nervous. And all the traps were set for a specific person. Maybe that thing only worked on Warpers.
She changed direction slightly so it was clear she was running past him. She smiled, “Just passing through!”
As she passed him, she clotheslined him. His head hit the asphalt with a nasty crack.
She sprinted at the odd-looking woman holding the rack of weapons. She grabbed the two nastiest-looking weapons, a weird rifle and a futuristic pistol, and smiled, “Why thanks!”
Then she took off for the damaged face of the mall. Shroud ought to be in one of those stores.
Generator came flying around the corner of the mall, to see Lancer just standing there. It looked like he was straining helplessly, while Cytherea coiled herself skankily around him. Ooh, Lily wasn’t going to like that!
Cytherea didn’t hear her coming. The blonde sleazebag was busy trying to do something to Lancer. It looked like Lancer hadn’t folded yet.
Generator didn’t slow down as she pivoted in mid-air so she was moving feet-first at Cytherea. At Jann’s top speed, she kicked Cytherea in the head with both feet. “Take that, slimebag!” she shouted. Cytherea went flying backward, and an energy pistol went tumbling across the street.
Lancer collapsed to his knees. He gasped, “Lily…”
Generator grabbed him by the shoulder. “Lancer! Get up! We gotta go! We gotta help Tennyo!”
Lancer stared at her with eyes that were slowly losing their glazed look. “Oh shit, that was nasty. I couldn’t think. She wanted… She wanted me to lower my field…”
Generator looked at the energy pistol and grimaced. “Yeah, I can guess why. I gotta go rescue Billie!” She swooped over to grab the pistol.
Phase went disruption-light and flew right at Counterpoint. If he could knock out the creep before Counterpoint could mimic his powers, everything was good.
Counterpoint dodged at speedster velocity as Phase passed by.
Phase spun in mid-air and faced the power mimic. He thought, “Damn, I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way.”
Counterpoint grinned wickedly. “Why didn’t I try to get your powers before? Now I can phase through things. And people.”
Phase smirked, “By the way, you did choose Exemplar, instead of PK flier, right?”
“How do you know?” Counterpoint snapped suspiciously.
Phase smiled nastily, “And did anyone show you how to control the gravity problem with my powers?”
He frowned, “What are you talking about, bi-”
Phase pointed down at Counterpoint’s feet and snidely mocked him, “Whutchoo talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”
By then, Counterpoint had sunk up to his calves in the asphalt. Phase watched, hoping Counterpoint would simply sink into the concrete and be trapped. No such luck. Counterpoint was no longer sinking. Okay, 0-for-2. The guy was starting to get a grip on flying with Phase’s power set. Not good. Time for the last try.
While Counterpoint was looking down and concentrating on lifting himself out of the floor, Phase took a deep breath, flew behind him, and grabbed him in a full nelson. Then, while Counterpoint struggled to break free, Phase arched his back and dove backward. They both soared headfirst through the concrete and downward.
Bladedancer lightfooted her way into the first floor store. The one that had the expensive furniture in the windows. Well, the one that had burning shreds of fabric and wood in three windows, and knocked-over expensive furniture in the other windows.
Judicator had a mattress pinned down on the floor, and she was stabbing it with her spear while a smashed lamp kept poking at one edge in an effort to start a fire.
Bladedancer dropped to one knee, aimed, and fired the deviser rifle. It snapped, crackled, and then made a discouraging fizzling sound.
Judicator looked up and spotted Bladedancer. The armored Olympian waved a hand, and two metal chairs flew right at Bladedancer’s head.
Bladedancer dropped to prone position and fired off a shot from the second deviser weapon. A bolt of green struck Judicator in the face and sent her flying.
<(Bladedancer) Shroud, I just got Judicator off you. Can you get out from under the mattress?>
<(Shroud) Sure. It was just way safer under there.>
Bladedancer watched as lumpy gray fabric slithered out from a corner of the mattress. The fabric stood up and ‘popped’ back into a female form.
Judicator groaned and struggled to get up. Bladedancer said, “We can-”
Shroud said, “No! I’ve got to go help Tennyo!” She flew into the air and headed away from the damaged windows.
Bladedancer muttered, “Great, I’ve got an Exemplar with PK armor and PK weapons. And maybe this devise still works.”
Fey took the lightning bolt in the chest. She captured most of it in a magical net, even though enough of it blasted through to knock her down again. But this time, she had enough Essence to heal herself. She put up a hasty shield.
Imperious hit the shield and bounced back. He glared furiously and hit it with a lightning blast. And another. And another. Each time, the shield flashed into green fern-like fractals.
Each time, the shield grew weaker, and the blast passed more force back at Fey.
Lancer flew alongside Generator. He easily punched through the heavy windows of Neiman Marcus, and they flew into the mall.
<(Shroud) ‘Dancer rescued me. I’m going for Tennyo now, and… Jeez! The place is full of ghosts!>
<(Generator) If Phase makes one more ‘I see dead people’ joke…>
<(Lancer) It’s Stygian. Shroud, you have him one-on-one. The ghosts can’t hurt you, and I HOPE his powers won’t work on you.>
<(Generator) But I need to help Tennyo!>
<(Bladedancer) You are.>
<(Generator) Oh. Right. Okay, I guess.>
<(Bladedancer) Phase took Counterpoint, and I haven’t heard from her since. I could use some help with Judicator, but I’ll be all right for a minute.>
<(Fey) HOW ABOUT ME DAMNIT!? Oh shit, that hurt!>
Phase flew up from the concrete floor of the garage. He gasped for air. Fighting an Exemplar brick without oxygen was even less fun than it sounded. Not to mention the energy burn he now had on his head from that asshole’s blaster power. Good thing this was a sim, because the idea of leaving a real person deep underground to die horribly of asphyxiation just made his stomach roil.
<(Phase) Counterpoint’s down. Who needs support?>
<(Lancer) Stay away from the ice rink. Shroud vs. Stygian there. Bladedancer’s on Judicator in the furniture store. I’m going for Fey.>
<(Phase) Jewelry store? Huge? Probably fifth floor, north side.>
<(Lancer) You would know that.>
<(Chaka) HEY! I could use some help out here! I don’t know how much longer I can stay on the run from this bee-yatch!>
<(Phase) I can’t help with the magic bit. I’ll go after Prism.>
Shroud flew through the swarms of ghostly things. Whatever they were, they weren’t human. Were there alien ghosts?
Oh God. If Billie was based on some sort of space pirate from long ago, then there had to be lots of dead alien space pirates! Right?
Jinn didn’t have emotions like Jade did. But seeing Billie curled up on the ice, sobbing horribly, it sure felt like she had emotions. She screamed and aimed right at Stygian.
He turned and stared at her. He looked like he didn’t care if she attacked him or not. He looked like he didn’t care if she killed him. That was really creeping her out.
Ghost after ghost flew into her face, trying to stop her. She ignored them. She swept through the immaterial things and punched Stygian right in the jaw, superhero-style. He fell back limply and cracked his head on the ice.
The ghosts vanished.
Billie didn’t get up. She lay there, curled up in a ball, crying hysterically.
Jinn flew over and picked Billie up. She couldn’t remember ever being the ‘big sister’ to Billie, instead of the other way around. She cuddled Billie against her breast and made soft shushing sounds.
Billie just kept crying. She hung onto Jinn and sobbed, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! All of them… All dead… Because of me… What kind of a monster am I? Oh God, I’m so, so sorry!”
<(Shroud) Stygian down. Tennyo… Physically okay. Mentally? I think we need help. Fast.>
“Oh please, just make the memories go away! I don’t wanna be the Starstalker! I didn’t… I did… How could anybody do things like that?”
Jinn held Billie tightly and told herself it would be okay.
Lancer flew up through the huge open center of the mall, until he reached the fifth floor. He looked at the huge jewelry store. Goodkind-DeBoers. “Oh.” He should have known.
He flew fists-first through the security glass and aimed for the lightning blasts in the middle of the room.
He flew past Fey, over the rapidly-failing magical forcefield, and right at Imperious. The big guy blasted off a lightning bolt that hit Lancer dead center. Lancer just absorbed it.
He punched Imperious in the jaw, sending the guy over a partition, and into the wall. “That’ll teach you to hit a girl.”
“About time you got here, pal,” grumbled a grouchy redhead behind him.
“I got distracted,” he muttered.
Imperious pried himself out of the wall, just in time to take the lightning blast back from Lancer. Then Lancer demonstrated what he’d learned in the fall. A roundhouse kick to the stomach doubled Imperious over even as it knocked him back against the wall. Lancer did an aikido slide-step in mid-air and launched another kick that knocked Imperious through the wall. The New Olympian didn’t get back up.
<(Lancer) Imperious down.>
Fey muttered angrily, “Big jerk! Why do these guys have to ambush me?”
“Come on,” Lancer smiled. “We have to help Chaka.”
“Right,” nodded Fey. “Get me out of here so I can get some Essence again.”
Lancer threw a couch through a window. Then he scooped her up in his arms. “Let’s do this.”
<(Phase) Prism down.>
Phase looked down at the unconscious form of Prism. He’d been pretty sure that this couldn’t be Prism in a sim suit somewhere. So he’d tried something that the real Prism wouldn’t fall for: the ‘diving-into-the-ground’ bit. Phase had used that trick on Prism a couple times in martial arts class, and Prism had seen Phase use it on plenty of other students in class.
But this fake Prism had been easy. As soon as Prism had started blasting in Phase’s direction, Phase had turned and had leapt into the ground like he was running away. Then he had doubled back underground, come up behind Prism, and given him the old phase-KO.
Phase had figured this couldn’t be the real Prism, because he’d realized in the parking garage that he wasn’t facing the real Counterpoint either. Phase had wised up about a second after he noticed that the fake Counterpoint didn’t know about the real Counterpoint’s history. Counterpoint really had gone after Phase back in the fall, but the simulacrum hadn’t known that.
So someone had thrown a bunch of computer simulations at them, without the real people behind the simulations. Phase smiled nastily as he thought about Imperious’ reaction when he found out.
He hurt too much to walk, so he went light and flew toward the Galleria.
Fey inhaled deeply as she exited the mall through the fifth-floor picture window. Once she was out of that room, Essence came pouring back into her. She pulled it in from the park across the street, from the electrical power in the building behind her, from all around her.
She lifted up out of Lancer’s arms and concentrated. She pulled the magical energy out of Majestic’s huge trap, until it faded into nothingness.
She almost laughed as Chaka threw Majestic a mock salute, snarked, “It’s been real, Juney!”, dodged two more red globes of magical force, and sped away, blowing out a display window with some sort of Ki attack to take a shortcut into the mall.
Majestic looked up from her globe of power and sneered, “So! The Faerie princess dares match power with the greatest magic-using goddess of all!”
Fey smirked, “Sounds like delusions of grandeur to me.”
Lancer grinned, “More like delusions of competence.”
Majestic screamed in fury and fired off a handful of red globes at Lancer. He didn’t bother to move. He just hovered upright in mid-air in a superhero pose, with his arms casually crossed over his chest and his shoes touching, as if she were powerless against him.
The globes hit him and vanished. “NO!” she screeched. “It can’t be!”
Fey smiled wickedly, “Oh I think it can.” She cast a spell that launched a glowing ball of pure white. It expanded until it was thirty feet across. When it hit Majestic’s glowing sphere, the sphere shook and nearly fractured. Fey grinned angrily, “You’re going down.”
Chaka sped across the ice rink, using her Ki to maintain her traction. She saw Shroud and Generator holding a sobbing Tennyo. That looked bad.
<(Chaka) Hey, where’s ‘Dancer?>
Shroud pointed at a furniture store across the rink.
Chaka lightfooted her way up out of the rink and into the store.
When she got inside, she had no trouble finding Chou. She could hear the fight. Chou had two wooden table legs, and was battling Judicator. Judicator was stronger. But Bladedancer was more skilled. The spearthrusts were being parried. The shield-blocks were being avoided, so that Chou could get in shots against the PK armor. When Judicator used her PK to throw junk at Chou, the Handmaiden consistently dodged or else knocked it out of the air with a table leg.
Chaka grinned and stepped forward. Judicator was using PK armor and a PK shield. And that was something Chaka could handle. She got everyone’s attention with a swagger and a hip-tilt. “Judi Judi Judi!”
<(Phase) Not her Cary Grant impression!>
Chaka bounced forward. “Is that a spear in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”
<(Phase) Mae West now? Oh God, make it stop!>
Chaka strolled forward while Judicator watched her cautiously. The closer Chaka got, the easier it was to get a handle on the PK in the shield. Judicator moved her spear into position.
<(Chaka) ‘Dancer, just block the spear.>
<(Bladedancer) Got it.>
Chaka leapt into the air.
Judicator thrust forward with the spear, only to find two wooden table legs blocking her access to Chaka. Judicator quickly blocked with the hoplite shield.
Chaka used the same trick she’d used on Cavalier. Her Yin energies interacted with the PK of the shield, and it exploded.
Judicator stopped flying backward when she hit the store wall. She collapsed face-first onto the floor.
“Well, so much for that rug.”
“Hey, I wanted to say that!”
“How much of a discount do they give on store models with bloodstains on ‘em?”
<(Bladedancer) Judicator down.>
Fey let Majestic hurl another handful of the red globes. She’d already seen them when they missed Toni, and when they hit Hank. Fey knew exactly what she wanted to do. She hovered in mid-air and cast what looked like a simple screen.
The globes struck the screen, and Fey drank in all the Essence within them. That was when she had the revelation. This wasn’t Majestic. It was some sort of computer program designed to look like Majestic. But it wasn’t as sophisticated as Majestic, or as - okay, she hated to admit it - stylish. This was just a brute force magical spellcaster. But if this wasn’t really Majestic, then did that mean the jerk who had beaten her up wasn’t really Imperious?
She hovered and let the Majestic mimic hurl more red globes of magical force.
<(Fey) I don’t think this is really Majestic. Just a computer program.>
<(Chaka) Well, I can believe that. The bee-hatch never did figure out what I was doin’.>
<(Phase) I’m sure these aren’t Counterpoint and Prism either, and probably not Knick-Knack.>
<(Generator) They’re ALL fakes?>
<(Shroud) Maybe not Stygian. Something had to summon ghosts that did this to Tennyo, and I don’t see how the sim computers could know enough to do it. Hell, we don’t know enough to do it, and we know more about her than anyone!>
<(Lancer) Okay. Fey and I will finish off Majestic. We’ll all meet up in the middle of the ice rink. Then we’ll figure out how to break out of this trap.>
<(Phase) And maybe Fey could do some magic healing, because I really feel like crap.>
<(Bladedancer) Phase isn’t the only one.>
<(Generator) Yeah. Maybe Fey could do something for B- Tennyo too.>
Fey watched as ‘Majestic’ hurled three yellow balls of fire that sought out Lancer. Even a computer program has to exceed its programmed capacities sooner or later, and this thing had been hurling blasts at Toni non-stop for maybe a minute. While holding up a substantial magical barrier around Toni, plus the shielding globe around herself, and the ‘hover’ spell. If this program-thing was limited to Majestic’s official Wizard levels - which, according to Ayla the Snoop were WIZ-4 - then it ought to be nearly exhausted of Essence.
<(Fey) Lancer, make a flanking attack, and when I hit her with my spell, blast her with everything you’ve been absorbing.>
<(Lancer) Roger that.>
Lancer flew off to the side, apparently ignoring the blast after blast that Majestic hurled at him. Fey wondered how frustrated the real Majestic would have gotten, because this ‘Majestic’ was practically foaming at the mouth with fury.
Fey took the time to carefully build her spell, and then cast it while Majestic was so distracted with a PK brick who seemed immune to magic. The real Majestic would have known this about Lancer: it had happened in one of the most talked-about Combat Finals of the lower grades. Fey knew that Lancer was only immune to explicit magical assaults, and not more subtle workings, but she wasn’t about to explain that to anyone else. Especially not a likely enemy such as Majestic.
Fey cast the spell, concentrating on the words. Aunghadhail kept prompting her, but that was okay. This time. This spell could go badly wrong with but the missed pronunciation of a single syllable.
She unleashed a prismatic coruscation of light that wasn’t light. It sped toward its target and exploded about Majestic in a flash of something that seemed more like sound than light, but was neither. Majestic’s remaining Essence exploded in a blast that knocked down trees and lampposts, set fire to the lawn below her, and knocked Fey backward twenty yards despite her forcefield. Fey noted with some envy that Lancer was hardly budged.
Stripped of the Essence powering her ‘hover’ spell, Majestic dropped helplessly to the ground. She landed hard on the still-smoldering grass, but got right back up. You couldn’t hurt a high-level Exemplar by dropping her twenty feet onto a lawn.
Lancer concentrated, and an uncontrolled magical bolt erupted from his chest. It hit at Majestic’s feet and knocked her flying.
<(Lancer) Sorry. I can’t really aim this stuff that accurately.>
<(Fey) Good enough.>
Fey finished Majestic off with a simple ‘sleep’ spell that dropped the witch before she could right herself or draw more Essence from her surroundings. Majestic folded over and landed face-first in the ashes of the once-green grass.
<(Fey) Majestic down.>
<(Lancer) Nice. Now let’s get back to the ice rink and see how everyone else is doing.>
They flew through the shattered ground-floor display window that Chaka had blasted, and they cut through the store to get to the ice rink. The rest of the team was there, clustered around a still-weeping Billie.
Fey gulped as she saw - and felt - Phase and Bladedancer. Both of them were in a lot of pain. Fey could see burns and bruises, and that was from fifty feet away. She swooped in to heal them, wondering if she needed to in a sim, and whether it would help them for real.
Suddenly, Gunny Bardue’s voice blared throughout the sim. “Team Kimba! We’re extracting you now! Don’t worry! Hold on for just a few more seconds!”
“Yeah, yeah, where were you a minute ago, when we really need you?” complained Ayla.
“Okay, disengaging holos… now! Open your helmets!”
Jade blinked as she found herself in total darkness. She quickly lifted up the front of her helmet. She was back. Out of the sim. She pulled off the helmet, clambered out of the sim chair (which disconnected from her butt with a sticky click), and sprinted down the hall for Billie’s room.
Ayla hastily popped open the front of the helmet. “CRAP!” Even lifting his right arm hurt! God! He felt like that Knick-Knack sim had burned him for real! His back hurt, and his hands hurt, and his face hurt, and the top of his head hurt!
“Jesus Christ!” he groaned. Had the damned sim suit really burned him for real? If he found out that Cecilia had given him booby-trapped sim suits, he was going to… Well, he’d make sure every mutant on the planet knew not to buy clothes from her, ever again!
He could hear people running down the hall past his door, so at least the rest of the team was okay. Or at least a lot of them. He was really worried about Billie. He hadn’t been able to hear much of what she was sobbing at the ice skating rink, but it sounded like she was re-living some of the Starstalker’s past, and finding out that it was pretty horrific. Last term, she’d told them about her vision when the kitsune tricked her into drinking the Waters of Memory, and that had been bad enough. As soon as he got to a phone, he was calling Dr. Bellows, Saturday morning or not.
If he could get to a phone. It hurt way too much to stand up. He decided to hold himself so his back wasn’t pressing against the sim chair, and wait for a little help.
Lancer popped off the helmet and leapt out of the chair. He was red-faced with embarrassment. He’d let the entire team down. He’d let an Esper stop him dead with nothing but a lust aura. Or whatever the hell Cytherea hit him with. How was he going to explain this to the team? Hell, how was he going to explain this to Lily?
He hurried to Tennyo’s cubicle. Jade and Shroud came racing down the hallway and nearly beat him to it. Well, whatever damage Jade had taken, she was obviously healing up fast from it. He swung the door open cautiously, not knowing what they’d face inside.
Billie was still in her sim suit. Her helmet was still in place over her face. She was still sobbing horribly. With the helmet on, her crying had a creepy, almost-echoing sound to it. She was curled up in a fetal position in the sim chair. Except for her arms.
A helmetless boy in a sim suit was standing in front of the chair. An electronic umbilical cord trailed from the small of his back to a port in the front of the chair. The boy had pulled Billie’s arms to him. He was holding Billie’s hands so the palms were against his suit-clad chest.
Lancer’s stomach felt like it was dropping out of his body.
The boy turned to face them. Even through the mask of his sim suit they could tell it was Stygian. He was crying too. The desperation in his voice was terrifying as he asked, “Why didn’t she blast them? Why did she let me live? WHY DIDN’T SHE KILL ME! OVERCLOCK PROMISED! All she had to do was one good blast!” He looked up at he ceiling and screamed, “WHY DIDN’T SHE JUST KILL ME?!?!”
Everheart ran up behind him. She asked, “Overclock?”
“That’s what he said,” Lancer murmured.
Bardue appeared behind Everheart. “Lancer? Son, either get in there and help her, or get the hell out of the way.”
Lancer moved into the room and gently pried Billie’s arms away from Stygian. He turned to Bardue. “Someone needs to get Stygian to psych right away.”
Bardue nodded firmly. “I’ve seen suicide by enemy action before, son.”
Lancer nodded at the J-Team, who were already moving to Billie. He said, “They’ll take care of her and get her over to the hospital. And they’re the one person Billie’ll never hurt.”
He tried to ignore the strange look that Everheart gave him. Hell. Had he done the pronoun thing in front of her? Well, let her go crazy trying to work it out. He didn’t have time. He had a team to check on.
Fey’s voice came from behind him. “I need to look at her.”
Lancer moved, so Fey could slip by. He watched as Shroud cradled Billie’s body and Jade took off the damn sim helmet. Fey moved over and put her hands gently on Billie’s teary face.
Fey concentrated for long seconds before she stepped back. She slowly shook her head. “I can’t help her. It’s not an injury or a psychosis. It’s memories. There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I will do. I’d have to strip all those memories out of her head, or else strip away her emotions so she wouldn’t care about the memories. Either one’s mind-rape. Either one would likely be catastrophic. Not to mention that you probably can’t do either to someone like Tennyo.”
Lancer thought for a moment about someone like Tennyo without any emotions any longer to keep her in check, and he just shuddered.
Bardue said, “You’re all going to have to go to the hospital for a check-up. Admiral Everheart’ll go with you and de-brief you. We’ve got forensic programmers swarming all over the set-up here to pin this shit down.”
Lancer just nodded. “Shroud will carry Tennyo, and Generator will accompany them. They can take Stygian with them.”
Everheart said, “I’ve already got a medic on the way. He’s…” She stopped for a few seconds and stared at something that wasn’t in the room. “Okay, he just came in through the security door. I’ll go lead him here. You girls get Tennyo to medical. The medic will take Stygian.”
Lancer said, “Sounds good here. I’ve got to check on the rest of my team.” He turned his head. “Fey? I think I’m going to need you for this.”
Lancer and Fey moved back into the hall and walked toward the three unopened doors. They knew the status on Jade and Jinn. What about Toni and Ayla and Chou?
Chaka came bursting out of her cubicle. “Hey dudes! Is Billie okay?”
Lancer shook his head reluctantly. “She’s in bad shape.”
Fey explained, “It’s nothing I can heal, either. She’s remembering things from her… From its past.”
“All those things she was screaming about?” Chaka wondered.
“Real ghosts,” Fey explained. “Conjured up by Stygian. Dead aliens from the goddess-only-knows where and when. I think seeing them triggered memories Billie’s been repressing.”
“Shee-it!” Chaka swore. “Is she gonna be okay?”
Fey sighed. “I really have no idea, Toni. None whatsoever. Maybe she’ll be okay in a couple days. Maybe she’ll be more depressed than Ayla. Maybe... something really, really bad.”
Lancer frowned, “You know, when you say ‘really really bad’, I tend to think like nuclear explosions.”
Fey glared at him, “This could be a lot worse. We’re talking about the Starstalker here, and even I don’t know what that really means. Even The Grove hasn’t been able to explain any more, and it’s ancient. If it’s what I think, then the worst-case scenario is inter-galactic badness.”
“You mean like Galactus-level stuff?” Chaka asked.
Fey had a far-off look in her eyes. “Toni, did it ever occur to you that some memes get passed down to humans through means we don’t really understand? And they might have some past basis in reality? That even things like Ryoko and Galactus could have had some basis in fact, maybe something so long ago or so far away that even the Sidhe don’t remember it?”
Lancer couldn’t stop the shiver that ran down his spine.
Chaka just said, “What? You mean, a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away?”
Fey frowned, “I wish.”
Bladedancer’s door swung open, and Chou limped out.
“Uh-oh,” Toni muttered.
“Not good,” Lancer said.
Fey stepped over and said, “Chou. Stop walking. Let me see what I can do.”
Bladedancer managed a pained smile. “That would be good. It feels like I have bruises from my face down to my knees, and a bad burn on my left leg. I don’t understand how the sim suit is still sending those signals when I’m not hooked up anymore.”
Fey concentrated for a few seconds. “It’s because your injuries are real. You really are bruised and burned.”
Chaka gasped, “Shit! You mean these suits can really hurt us? Whose crazy idea was that?”
Lancer thought out loud, “I don’t think it’s supposed to happen. You know Phase. There’s no way she’d just put on a suit like that without warning all of us, and then trying something to minimize the effects.”
Chaka added, “And you know she read the whole frigging binder, whether she’s gonna admit it or not.”
Fey concentrated on healing Bladedancer, while Chaka went to check on Phase.
Chaka stepped into Ayla’s cubicle. It was weird. Her brain was telling her she ought to be exhausted after sprinting like a maniac for all that time Majestic had her trapped. But she felt just fine. She wondered how Ayla was holding up.
“Hey Ayles! How come you’re just sittin’ around?” she snarked.
Ayla groaned in what sounded like real pain. “Crap! I could use a hand. It feels like my back is one big burn. Is everyone else okay?”
Chaka walked over and stared at Ayla’s Ki. “Umm, Billie and Stygian are pretty much in need of shrink-time. Chou’s got some bruises and burns. That Counterpoint’s a total asshole… You don’t look so good.”
“I don’t feel so good either,” Ayla moaned.
Toni could see Ayla’s Ki right through the suit, and it looked bad. She said, “Come on, you need to get up and come see Doctor Nikki.”
Ayla didn’t even make the ‘playing doctor with Nikki’ joke that Toni was anticipating. She just barely got to her feet, with a painful groan that had Toni thinking about the burns she’d seen on Ayla in the sim. “Ayles? I think you need to phase out of that suit. Right now.”
“Good idea, Lord,” Ayla groaned.
“Of course it’s a good idea!” Chaka teased.
“Gotta admit, that’s not quite as bad as your Cary Grant.”
“Well, thanks for that rousing compliment,” Toni smiled.
Ayla floated through the sim suit and away from the chair.
Toni didn’t need to look at Ayla’s back. The front was bad enough. Not even counting the ‘completely naked’ part. “FEY!!”
The voice from the hall yelled back, “Almost done with Chou! Hang on!”
Lancer walked in and took a look. “Oh Christ, Ayla!”
Lancer led the five Kimbas through the tunnels on the way to the hospital. Fey had pretty much healed both Chou and Ayla, even if Ayla’s hand and back still looked like hell. Lancer was a lot more worried about Billie, to be honest.
He, Fey, Chou, and Toni were still in their sim suits. Ayla was stark naked, and wrapped up in a big blanket that said SECURITY across the back. She had insisted on Toni going into the locker room to get her clothes, and when Ayla Goodkind chose not to cooperate with you, you ended up having to cooperate with her. He briefly wondered what it had to be like being security chief for the Goodkinds, or even one of their doctors.
He looked over at Fey, who picked up on his emotions. She said, “Chou will be sore for a couple days. Ayla’s going to need some more healing. And someone who can keep her from overdoing it for a few days, given her hand and back. Maybe Vox.”
He nodded at her. “I didn’t think the sim suits could do that to someone.”
She frowned, “Ayla didn’t think so, either. I think we need to ask Sam.”
He listened, as Ayla trudged along behind them. “God, this blanket is so itchy! Can’t they get decent equipment for Security around here? Or is this stolen off some horse?”
He glanced at Fey and whispered, “Well, she can’t be that badly hurt if she can gripe about the blanket.”
Fey gave him a blinding smile that just reminded him of the trouble he’d had shaking off Cytherea’s powers.
Shroud looked up when the rest of Team Kimba came trooping in. For some weird reason, Ayla wasn’t wearing her sim suit. Shroud wondered what that was about. Oh well, Ayla would tell her. In lots of detail. For days.
She saw Lancer looking past her at the hospital bed, where Billie was lying quietly. There wasn’t a lot the doctors could do for Billie. There wasn’t a drug out there that would affect a Regen-7 for more than a couple minutes. Maybe the doctors could come up with a couple hundred different tranquilizers and sedatives, and give Billie a new dose from a new drug every ten minutes for the next week. She didn’t really know.
She looked over. Jade was stroking Billie’s face, and Billie was whimpering quietly into her hand. That was better than before. She thought they really needed to get the cabbit too, so Billie would have someone small and fluffy to hold. That reminded her. They still needed to get the rest of the teeth and claws and stuff back into the cabbit. She didn’t know why they couldn’t keep the ones from Colorado, just because of some stupid radiation thing. That wasn’t going to hurt Billie any. And it probably wouldn’t hurt her. Jade. And even if it did hurt her, as long as it helped Billie, she wouldn’t care.
I came back from a visit with Caduceus, to find Everheart standing there stiffly, de-briefing the team. I had a pair of surgical greens from Caduceus, along with a pair of hospital undies that left a lot to be desired. And surgical booties on my feet, instead of my shoes. At least they weren’t a pair of goddamned heels with a skirt and a girl’s Whateley uniform. I think I was more upset about that skirt and heels than I was about the burn on my hand. Of course, nothing compared to the anger I was feeling about what had happened to Billie.
Along with the greens, I had something else. A really foul taste in my mouth from the medication Caduceus gave me. Was there a rule that the most effective oral meds had to taste the worst? It was like a party in my mouth. A frat party full of hairy drunk guys, vomiting all over the floor. Well, if it speeded up the healing on my hand, I wasn’t going to complain. Much. My hand still felt like someone had shoved it into a toaster, but at least it no longer felt like someone had actually burned my hand off my arm. And the skin across my upper back still felt seared. I had plenty of other aches and pains too. The top of my head still felt like the world’s worst sunburn, and one of my cheeks felt like I’d been bitch-slapped by Lady Astarte.
Everheart looked up and asked, “Phase, did you want to contribute anything? We’ve been going over the simulation, and everyone else has had a chance to contribute.”
Lancer had been giving me highlights over the Spots, so I didn’t need to add much about the agony of the simulation. Instead, I decided to talk about the external issues.
I sat down in the chair next to Chou, and I looked over at Billie. Crap. Even with Jade and Jinn mothering her, Billie still looked like hell. If I’d looked that bad the week or so I was utterly depressed about my BIT, it was no wonder everyone had been trying to take care of me. God, I just hoped Billie wasn’t that depressed. How were we going to feed her enough if she didn’t feel like eating? Maybe we could let her sleep through Team Tactics for a week or so, and then we could catch her up over the weekend.
I looked at Everheart and answered her question, “Someone knew we were going to be taking the intro sim, and they spent a hell of a lot of time building this trap specifically for us. They knew enough about us to target our weak points. And they knew enough about the holo sims to know how to do it. The binder says the sim center is completely off the network and can’t be accessed from outside.”
Everheart nodded tersely. “It wasn’t accessed from outside. Someone let intruders into the sim center, and got them into a heavily-secured wiring closet. The one wiring closet in the wing that would let them gain access to the sim security systems.”
Lancer said, “We already know it was the Alphas. And Overclock.”
Jade added, “And probably Make too. Overclock’s always working with Make. Everyone in Workshop knows they’ve got a secret lair somewhere near the supercomputer tunnels.”
I hadn’t heard that part! Overclock? I knew who he was. I fumed, “How do you know it was that fat toad Overclock?”
Lancer looked at Billie as he said, “Stygian told us. Overclock promised him that if he helped take out Tennyo, they’d fix it so Tennyo would kill him.”
“WHAT?” I couldn’t help gasping in shock. That was insane! “He wanted to get killed?”
Everheart calmly said, “Stygian’s a known clinical depression case. The New Olympians are probably the only thing keeping him going.”
I muttered, “I heard he has a couple ghosts that won’t leave him alone, and they’re the only reasons he gets up in the morning or eats or goes to classes. Must be loads of fun for his roommate.”
Everheart pursed her lips and said, “I won’t ask where you got that intel, Phase.”
Good. Because I wasn’t planning on telling her.
She went on, “The little bastards took out the devise on Tennyo’s headmask. The one that re-directs her powers from herself to her simulacrum. If she’d defended herself even a little, Stygian would be a spot on the wall. If she’d made a major effort to protect herself, like one of those super-gravitation blasts she started to do in the Combat Finals, there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of B Wing left standing.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry you got hit with this. Ordinarily, I’d say this is completely impossible. They must have had several days to work with the New Olympians templates to build those attackers, and they must have had access to the source code for a lot of the security modules. Which they shouldn’t be able to get at. They’re supposed to be completely off-grid, so no one and nothing can get at them. Hartford’s pretty paranoid about network access, even through all her firewalls. So someone got these crackers illegal access to the software, and someone got them into the sim center against our rules, and someone set them up in the most secure wiring closet. Where they left a few fingerprints, even though they wiped most of the place down. And someone got Stygian’s sim suit out of the boys’ locker room, past the security cameras, and over to him.”
Lancer said, “Has to be the Alphas. They’re the only other ones who were there this morning. They only formed that team because of us. Stuff like this has to be their primary goal.”
Everheart said, “Just because you have a grudge against them doesn’t mean they’re our perps.”
I interjected, “No, but they have motive, means, and opportunity. Name anyone else - other than you and Hartford - who has means and opportunity both.”
Everheart gave me a glare that could have peeled paint. “Thanks for including me in that list, Phase.”
“Just being honest,” I insisted. Okay, I was being both honest and sneaky. I couldn’t make my next point without putting her on my list. “You and Hartford have the technical know-how and the computing power and the Whateley resources. There are some hackers and crackers around campus who have the computing power, but not the access to the sim software and not the physical access to the sim center. I don’t believe it was you. That pretty much limits the possibilities.”
“I notice you didn’t exclude Amelia Hartford there,” Everheart pointed out.
I flatly said, “Hartford and her family have a grudge against my big sisters, particularly Heather. For a good reason, in my opinion. Heather’s the kind of bitchy abuser that the Alphas seem to crank out on a regular basis. Where do you think Tansy Walcutt learned the techniques? Plus, Hartford has an ongoing war with Charlie Lodgeman that Tennyo has already been sucked into. Not to mention that we’ve pretty much stomped on the faces of her precious Alphas a couple times since fall. I think all that counts as motive. Not that I really see her risking her neck and her job just to sneak down here and monkey with the sims.”
Everheart said, “She didn’t. She had to come in to Admin today and handle a whole series of problems we’re having across campus. She’s hardly had time for coffee this morning.”
I just stared at Everheart. So Sam had already checked out Hartford’s alibi. Now that was interesting. Apparently, someone else wasn’t all that trusting. I’d have to remember that.
Before I could say anything else, there was a rough knocking on the door. Bardue came in, holding a clipboard. He said, “Admiral? Can I have a minute of your time?” They stepped out into the hall and shut the door behind them.
<(Lancer) Fey? Can you scry?>
<(Fey) Already on it.>
“Admiral? It looks like Farrago let ‘em in. Overclock and Make, with Stygian in tow. They re-directed security cameras and erased the video footage they couldn’t hide, but they didn’t get all the backup copies erased before you had us freeze the systems. Don’t see how Farrago got ‘em Stygian’s suit, but there are plenty of size warpers and devisers and teleporters and mages and what-all who could’ve done it for him, and they’ve got a pretty powerful mage in Elite League. They must’ve had source code to work with ahead of time, because they were only in that wiring closet for around an hour before they sprung the trap. That means the code had to come from the off-line system inside the sim center, or else Hartford’s private secure files. Both of those are off-grid and physically secure, so someone had to get them physical access. Somehow. And here’s the initial report from Larry and Cliff.”
<(Phase) That fat pimple-farm Overclock! Where’s my cellphone?>
<(Lancer) This is why I didn’t tell her before.>
<(Chaka) Hey, no calling in hit squads, okay?>
<(Phase) Worse than that. I’m calling some lawyers.>
<(Fey) You know Phase, you really don’t fight fair.>
<(Phase) Glad you’ve noticed. Feel free to spread the word around.>
<(Bladedancer) Phase, I know you’re hurting, and we’re all upset about Tennyo, but perhaps it would be better if you calmed down before you made those phone calls.>
<(Chaka) And if you won’t listen to her, I’ll drag Generator over here and have her give you the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes.>
<(Phase) Now that’s just plain underhanded.>
Everheart walked back in. She looked grim.
<(Lancer) No more comms. I think she’s eavesdropping on us.>
Everheart squeezed the clipboard so hard that the plastic cracked under her fingers. “This ought to be impossible. We have a first cut from our techs in the Sim Center. Our perps knew how to get into the security boxes and override the security protocols. They killed the bail-outs. They disconnected the re-direct for Tennyo’s sim suit, so anything she did would have gone into the room instead of the sims. They hijacked templates for the New Olympians to use as your threats, and they spent a lot of time customizing them. And they figured out how to up the sensitivity of the suits from the standard ‘5’, past the supposed max of ‘10’. That’s why the suits did so much physical damage. That’s NOT supposed to ever happen.”
Lancer frowned, “Why the hell would they do something like this?”
I snarked, “Umm, complete and utter disregard for human life?”
Chaka put in, “Major sucking up to the Alphas?”
Jade looked up from the hospital bed. “Overclock’s the one who yelled at Billie last month for eating all the honey nut cereal.”
I rolled my eyes, “Oh, come on. No one’s crazy enough to try to kill people over a freaking bowl of cereal!”
“Well, this is Whateley,” Chou softly reminded me.
Fey pointed out, “And he is a deviser. Maybe it’s Diedrick’s.”
I growled, “Or maybe he’s just a freaking sociopath.”
Chaka added, “I vote for ‘D’. All of the above.”
Bardue and Everheart trooped out on their way to tell Carson the good news.
<(Lancer) Fey, can you do your magical anti-eavesdropping spell and ALSO make sure Everheart’s nanites aren’t already in here listening to us?>
I just looked at him. I should have thought of that. Well, it was a good thing we had Lancer as our strategist.
While Fey did her thing and I dressed in the clothes Chaka had brought along, we all watched Billie and fumed.
Fey finally said, “There. Even Sam’s nanites won’t pick anything up.”
Chaka said, “Probably won’t stop her from slipping us a few nano-eavesdroppers the next time she throws us a pop quiz in the sims.”
I added, “Or when we do the sims next Saturday.”
Chou pointed out, “After today, I think we should allow her to do it. It would have helped a lot if she had known about the attacks on us right away, instead of two minutes later.”
Lancer stared at me. “Okay Ayla, spill. What are you planning on doing?”
I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Those little pricks can’t get away with this. And the way to hurt guys like Overclock and Make is in their pride, and in their wallet. I know a lot of dirt on the devisers and gadgeteers from a Workshop friend. Overclock’s real name is Jerome K. Gurewich, Jr. I can find out Make’s name too. I’m going to call some patent attorneys and have them find all of Overclock and Make’s patent filings. Once I have that intel, then I get some contacts to alert all possible companies and corporations with any relevant patents or patent filings or computer products. Then I get out of the way while those companies legally block their patent filings and file suits, claiming that they’re not entitled to those patents because other sources already have similar inventions already developed. Instant poverty. Particularly, if they have to hire patent attorneys to try to defend themselves from Microsoft, IBM, Goodkind Computing, Oracle, Siemens, you name it.”
“Pretty nasty there, Ayles,” said Chaka.
Fey carefully pointed out, “If you strip away all their sources of income, they’ll have to turn to a life of crime.”
I fumed, “As opposed to grand theft, breaking and entering, assault with a deadly weapon, and attempted murder? They’re already in a life of crime.”
Lancer sighed, “I think Fey has a point, Phase.”
“Rrr!” I growled. “I hate it when other people are being rational about me being irrational!” I stared at the floor and muttered, “Okay, but I’m still telling the New Olympians who used them as computer toys and then tried to get Stygian killed.”
Jade didn’t look up from Tennyo. “Call Bunny first.”
“What?” Fey asked.
“Call Bunny first,” Jade insisted. “Let the Workshop guys around here get started on ‘em.”
I blinked. “Good idea. You know Jade, you’re way more evil than I am.”
She flashed me a big smile. “And you’re just figuring that out now?”
Sam checked over her commlink. “Johnson? Still got all of Elite League there?”
“Yes ma’am,” answered Officer Derek Johnson. “They don’t understand why they’re being kept here, or why we haven’t let ‘em move out of B-3.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Well, most of ‘em don’t know. I think a couple of the sophs know exactly why we’re holding ‘em. I’d say Farrago and Spellbinder. The rest? They don’t know, or else they’re really good actors.”
Sam knew who and what Derek Johnson was. And she had her suspicions about what Buxton might have done to get Johnson back on track, and at least pretending to be a good Whateley Security man. But Johnson believed Sam was a baseline career soldier who had suffered a freak nanotechnology accident. Johnson was good with baselines, and he respected career soldiers. So she hadn’t had any trouble with him. Not yet, anyway. Johnson wasn’t stupid, either. Occasionally blinded by his own beliefs, but not stupid. She said, “Have the Forensics guys finished going over their clothes and their lockers?”
“Yes ma’am. Nothing obvious, at any rate. They’ll analyze the samples they collected, and go from there.”
“Okay,” she said. “Let them change clothes. Then march them straight to the Headmistress. If they ask you what’s going on, or why they’re being sent to the Headmistress, tell them you’re just following orders. Do not tell them anything about the incident, or who was involved.”
“Yes ma’am, that’s just what we’ve been doing. Over and out.”
OVERCLOCK AND MAKE
They managed to walk out of Carson’s office. Even if it was more of a blind stagger. Carson could be pretty damn scary when she wanted to be, but they’d never seen anything like that. Which was why Overclock had a big wet spot in the crotch of his pants that had spread so much that it was no longer hidden by his blazer.
Make was still shaking as he whimpered, “We’re expelled! I am so dead! When my family finds out…”
Overclock hissed, “Shut up!” It wasn’t their fault, anyway. Sure, they’d deliberately violated that stupid Section 33 deal on Tennyo, and that bitch Carson had made it clear back in the fall that attacking Tennyo was an automatic expulsion offense. If they just hadn’t gotten caught, everything would be okay! Okay, so they’d taken a run at that blue-haired freak. B.F.D. That didn’t mean Carson had to file criminal charges against them. And she made it seem like they’d really been evil or something: grand theft, breaking and entering, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder… So what if Stygian should’ve bought the farm? The guy was looking for a way to check out. Everyone knew that. All they were doing was helping him some. She didn’t need to call the MCO!
Make choked, “But the MCO! Maybe the American MCO will let you off with a slap on the wrist, but the MCO in India is ruthless! I’m so fucked!”
Overclock elbowed him hard. “Let’s get down to the secret lair and get as much of our shit as we can. We’ll lug it down to the main Workshop lab, and get Jericho or Visio or someone to teleport it all for us. Then we get ‘em to teleport us to downtown Berlin, and that’s how we dodge the MCO. I’ve got a U-Store spot in Berlin, just for emergencies, and it’s got room for all our stuff. And I’ve got a couple cases of Dew in there. Plus, I’ve got about sixty K in a bank account under an alias, from picking up computer stuff from guys’ labs, and selling it on eBay. We’ll use that ‘til we’re settled in. We can start fresh. Box all our stuff up, take a nice train ride to somewhere like Miami or L.A., and set up shop there. Build a real hideout, far away from these jerkoffs. No more having to put up with anime bitches stealing our food, or Exemplar pricks pushing us around because it’s just ‘high school pranks’. We can set up a few dozen dummy links as anonymizers, and break into a few high-traffic computer networks to use as our fronts, and then we can steal enough electronically to keep us rolling in dough for good. Nice, safe, electronic crime. That’s the way to go.”
Make just whimpered, “She’s writing a letter to my parents! I’m doomed!”
Overclock ignored him. So what if that bitch Carson wrote a letter to Make’s parents? It wasn’t like Make was going home anytime soon. And Overclock didn’t give a rat’s ass if Carson wrote a letter to his own parents. The stupid dorks. They probably wouldn’t even read it, unless Carson put ‘YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER!’ across the front of the envelope. Overclock wasn’t planning on ever visiting his folks again, unless it was to piss on his mom’s stupid Pomeranians and tell the ‘rents he was rich and they’d never see a dime of it.
He nudged Make again. “Come on. We only have an hour before we have to be back at Admin with our suitcases. We want to be long gone before then.”
Make gave him a nervous nod. He definitely didn’t want to have to face Carson ever again.
They hurried down the tunnels, checking to make sure they weren’t followed. Not that it mattered anymore, since they weren’t going to be coming back. But Overclock figured there was a good 300 K worth of computer gear for them to hijack, and once they’d vanished without a trace, it wouldn’t matter if Whateley Security came looking for them.
“Uh-oh,” Make muttered. The outer door was wide open. Not good.
They nervously peeked into the short hallway. The inner door was wide open too. Really not good.
And stuff inside their lair was sparking and smoking and fizzling. Double plus ungood.
“Frikkin’ hell!” cursed Overclock.
Make pulled a sign off the outer door and showed it to him:
THE BOOZE IS HIDDEN IN HERE!
“Who the frikkin’ hell did that to us?” Overclock yelled.
They ran in, to find everything in ruins. Every computer and PDA and electronic device was fizzling away, or else completely burnt out already. They spent ten minutes choking on smoke and Burnt Resistor Smell. They came away with one lousy cardboard box of salvageable gear that included three hard drives that looked like they might still be intact.
Overclock muttered angrily, “When I figure out who did this, he’s frikkin’ TOAST!”
Make pointed out, “Hey, at least we’ve got backups of most of our stuff on the mains, and we can download it onto a few memory sticks.”
Overclock moaned miserably, “But all that Hartford code! That gorgeous code! It’s all gone!
Make said, “Maybe not. We got those three drives out of there. Probably, most of each of them is recoverable.”
Overclock nodded unhappily, “Maybe. And we can probably sell a lot of that simulation center code for a pretty good price. We’ll just have to code up whatever got munged, to fill in the holes. We can do that.”
Make agreed, “Yeah. And I’ve got maybe eighteen Gigs of anime porn. We can set up a website in some place like Trinidad and Tobago, and sell it to guys too stupid to figure out how to swipe it themselves.”
Overclock gave him a grin. “Good point. I’ve been turning porn movies into MPEG files, and I’ve got five or six hundred of ‘em. We’ll use them, and your anime porn, as starters. Any good websites with porn we can find, we can bust their firewall and copy all their stuff off for new product.”
Make thought out loud, “…Or maybe Karedonia. They have great laws for mutants. ‘Course, everything with a .kar URL is blocked in plenty of countries, so that might not work…”
Overclock rolled his eyes. What was the big problem? You just hacked a major server, like the Stanford site or the George Washington University site, you used their hard drives as your disk farm, and then you hacked the DNS servers so it looked like your stuff was coming from Hong Kong or wherever. The only real trick was over-writing the DNS information every time the DNS servers got refreshed…
Make kept babbling, “…Russia’s good right now. But there’s no telling how long that’ll last. And if they get shitty about stuff, who knows if they’ll just steal your website and take all the profits for themselves? Maybe Bulgaria instead…”
He looked through the reinforced window into one of the padded rooms of the psych ward. Stygian just sat there listlessly, completely uncaring that he was in a straitjacket. The three ghosts around Stygian were talking to him, but he kept shaking his head no.
He turned to Majestic, “This is not to be tolerated.”
Majestic shrugged, “These mortals have no understanding of us, or the powers we truly command. It was inevitable that someone would think Stygian could be ‘helped’ via assisted suicide. We simply need to make it clear – painfully clear – that such ideas are rash, with very painful consequences.”
“Agreed.” Imperious walked away from the window and asked quietly, “Did you get anything from him?”
She shook her head. “Not really. Two computer geeks set it up. He wanted Tennyo to kill him. She didn’t even try to hurt him.”
He frowned, “Tennyo? Do you think it’s possible that she really could have some connection to The Destroyer?”
Majestic sighed. “There is no way to tell. Yet. Michael saw the ghosts that besieged her, and they were not human. That suggests that the connection is more likely than we want to believe.”
He turned to face her. “We must know. If Tennyo really is linked to The Destroyer, we need to deal with this. She cannot be allowed to remain in our part of the universe. We’ll have to find a way to seal her off from us permanently, or else we’ll have to find a way to kill her off. For good. As our most powerful mage, you’ll need to investigate the possibilities and come up with effective strategies. Work with Judicator on this.”
She rolled her eyes. As always, he wanted planning and progress. He just didn’t want to do the work himself. Some beings never changed.
She turned when she heard the footsteps coming toward them. She groaned as she recognized the person. “Oh, not her. Ugh.”
Imperious looked at the approaching figure. The petite girl was doing her best to hide her femininity, and losing the struggle. The Whateley uniform blazer didn’t conceal the girl’s breasts or her tiny waist. The uniform pants didn’t hide the wide hips or the long legs. The heavy boots didn’t mask the dainty feet, or the feminine walk. The short hair and lack of makeup didn’t hide the beautiful features. Once, he would have made a point of teaching a girl like that not to dress in such a manner. But in this modern world, the old ways tended to create... problematic situations. Not to mention that Majestic was able to keep a much closer watch on him when they were stuck in this tiny school.
As she grew closer, he recognized her. The girl who had refused to fight Counterpoint last term. The girl who knew what the New Olympians really were, and who actually spoke some real Greek. His Greek. Not this modern slang stuff that people in Greece were really speaking these days.
Majestic glared, “Phase. What are you doing here? Come to gloat about your grade in World Literature? Sorry, but Silver Serpent has already beaten you to it.”
Imperious tried not to smirk too much. So this was the little frosh who had embarrassed June in that Lit class last term. How... interesting. How very, very interesting. He wondered if there was some way in which he could use that against one of them. Or both of them.
The girl blithely said, “I’m not really interested in grade competition. As long as I get an ‘A+’, I’m good.”
Imperious had to turn away so that Majestic wouldn’t see his huge smile. He pretended to focus on Stygian, while really devoting his attention to the confrontation.
Majestic fumed, “You certainly enjoyed aggravating me every time you had the chance.”
The girl just gave Majestic a bland expression that could have been carved in marble for all that it revealed. Every time he saw that girl, she showed too much presence to be an ordinary mortal. He was going to have to ask Tracer to find out about her.
Majestic commanded her, “Then tell me why you’re here!”
The girl looked at her as if June was being rude. Imperious had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing out loud.
The girl finally spoke. “I thought you two should know who did this to Stygian, and why.”
Imperious wheeled about at that. He saw Majestic staring at the little girl with enough intensity to burn a hole through her, but the girl seemed impervious to Majestic’s forcefulness.
The girl calmly explained, “The Alphas have several grudges against us. Farrago got Overclock and Make to attack us in the sims. They used Stygian to attack Tennyo psychically, and they killed the re-direct in the suits so anything Tennyo did would go off in the cubicle, instead of in the sims. If she’d so much as bit her lip and spit blood, Stygian would be dead now. And also, you’ll be thrilled to know that those geeks used your templates to attack the rest of us.”
“WHAT?!?” Majestic screeched.
The girl apparently ignored the force of Majestic’s wrath. “I believe you heard me the first time. They used both of you, and most of your cohorts, as little electronic puppets to be manipulated and then thrown away. Once word of that gets out, it won't do your street cred much good, since they ‘magically’ inserted all of you behind each of us in individual sneak attacks, and not even the attack on Generator was successful.”
Imperious growled, “Overclock and Make, you say? Two computer nerds?”
“Yeah,” the girl agreed. “Devisers or gadgeteers, so Knick-Knack will know them and know where they are.”
Majestic insisted, “Tell me who else is behind this, besides that idiot Farrago!”
The girl gave her a bland stare and said, “One of these days, you’re going to have to learn that politeness does have major advantages.”
Imperious had to turn around and clench his jaws to keep from laughing at June’s frustration. No wonder the mortal had been able to get under her skin so easily.
Majestic merely glared at the irritating child. Imperious knew this tactic well. The fearsome presence of Hera would discommode most mortals in no time.
Majestic glared some more.
The little girl casually crossed her arms and regally raised one eyebrow.
Majestic glared some more.
The girl didn’t move.
Majestic glared harder, her eyes flaring furiously.
The girl sighed with what seemed to be boredom.
Imperious wondered how long the girl could stand there and bear up under Majestic’s force. The only problem was that he had better things to do with his time than stand around and watch. At another time, this would extremely entertaining. But he needed to find out about Stygian’s attackers, and the threats that might oppose the New Olympians. After he heard what he needed to, then he’d be ready to stand around and watch Majestic become more and more frustrated. Or watch the little girl’s mind snap like a twig. Both at the same time would be good too, but that was really unlikely.
He stepped between them. “Majestic, we need this information right now.”
The girl looked up at him and said, “Actually, you needed it yesterday.”
He frowned, “I do not need someone like you telling me things I already know. I want you to tell me what I don’t know. Now, would you do so?”
The girl smiled slightly, “Since you’re being more polite than Majestic, I’ll tell you.”
Majestic growled angrily. Imperious managed not to smile at her fury. He didn’t know whether she was mad that the girl was talking to him, or because the girl wasn’t talking to her, or because so many women had been willing to do anything he asked, or what. But he was enjoying it.
The girl said, “We have no evidence that anyone other than Farrago was involved. He’ll probably claim it was his idea, and the computer dorks did way more than he wanted. But it’s likely the Alphas set up his team in Team Tactics specifically to give them a crack at Team Kimba. And my people think it’s highly likely he had background support from higher-level Alphas. But there’s no evidence whatsoever that they knew what Overclock and Make were planning to do with Stygian. Still, Farrago must have known something was up when he helped them at the sim center, because he had to see Stygian when he let them in, and he almost certainly was the one who got Stygian’s sim suit for them.”
Imperious nodded. “That’s what I wanted to know.” He turned and stepped away from the two girls. He pulled out his cell phone. “Tracer?... YES! It’s me. Stop being like that. I need you to find out where Overclock and Make are. Start with Knick-Knack… No, I’m not telling you how to do your job. When you know where they are, I’ll have a message for you to deliver to them… Yes, that kind of message.”
Then he positioned himself so he could watch Majestic face off against the little hottie who really ought to be in a minidress and heels. Long hair and makeup would be good too. It was just a shame that it wouldn’t lead to a catfight. In skimpy lingerie. Perhaps with a mudpit. Granted, an Exemplar like June would rip the girl to pieces if it went that far, but it was fun to imagine.
Solange listened on her cellphone. “Uh-huh… Okay… Hmm…. No problem.”
She hung up and turned to Kodiak. “Jeez, I don’t know why Hartford keeps bugging me with all this stuff! It’s not like I care.”
Kodiak gently pointed out, “Tansy, if you’re going to be queen of the Alphas and Hartford’s contact, then you have to know she’s going to be calling you with all the information she needs to pass on to us. If you don’t want her to call you all the time, then you need to designate someone else as the new contact point.”
“But this is lots of work!” Solange complained. “And she’s all ‘you need to know this’, and I don’t! I don’t even want to hear it. Plus, she’s like totally crabby about stuff. I’m tired of having to listen to her. It’s worse than putting up with my step-mom!”
Kodiak refrained from sighing in frustration. “So what did Hartford want us to know?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Solange pouted. “Carson really, really yelled at Farrago. But Farrago said we didn’t know about his plan, so we’re okay. And that’s what matters. Right? And he said the rest of his team didn’t know, so they’re not in too much trouble. And he said he didn’t know those two little dweebs would go totally postal on the Kimbas, it was just supposed to be a big prank. And he said no one could blame him about anyone getting hurt, because there’s like no way he could even know that it’s even possible to make people get hurt for real when they’re in the sims.” She stopped and stared at Kodiak. “Can people get hurt in the holos? I thought it was just holographic stuff.” He gestured for her to get back to the point. She said, “Okay. So Farrago got yanked off the Elite League, and she gave him an ‘F’ for the course. And she gave him detention at Hawthorne for like four weeks, which is just yucky.” She stopped and brushed her hands together, as if she were brushing off a little dust. “Okay! That’s that. We don’t have Carson on our backs now.”
Kodiak frowned, “No, it’s not that simple. Farrago took a bullet for the team. We support him in turn. He gets full warnings about everything we know in Hawthorne. He gets full support from us in private. Silver Rose gets our protection too.”
He didn’t need to mention the bio-hazard toilets over at Hawthorne to Tansy. She still had nightmares about them. But the Alphas now had a list of warnings for new Alpha detention cases, starting with those toilets, the fourth sub-level bathroom with the demons, Fubar’s charming pool-cleaning prank, and that were-panther cub in the basement. (The bear in him looked forward to meeting the were-panther girl some day, but he wasn’t going to mention that to Tansy.)
Frankly, he thought the other Alphas had whined too much about the Hawthorne detentions. He’d had fun. He finally got to arm-wrestle with Slab, who was a great opponent. He picked up in Compiler’s room twice, and got an armful of busty Barbie Doll a couple times when the girl lost control of her speed. He got to see some of Spoof’s manifestations, including naked Fey pixies. He had fun with the ice in Frostbite’s room – it wasn’t like he felt the cold as much as most people. He wouldn’t go back on his own, but he wouldn’t really care if Carson threw Hawthorne detention at him again some day.
Solange pouted, “Why do you have to make everything so complicated, Kody? It’s like a new car, and I just want to drive it, and you want to look under the hood, and play with the engine, and change the seats, and put in really fancy stereo stuff, and put a lock on the engine so I can’t go really fast in it, and stick a GPS inside so I can’t sneak off to Paris again, and… What was I talking about?”
Kodiak didn’t answer. He just thought about getting a girlfriend who had a measurable IQ and wouldn’t act like a bimbo. As soon as he could, he was going to find a way to get Tansy to dump him, and then he was going to ask Loophole out. He was sure Elaine wouldn’t put out constantly like Tansy, but Elaine had other traits he wanted. The bear in him roared with excitement at the idea.
Dr. Bellows patted Tennyo on the shoulder and said, “And I want to see you tomorrow morning too. Okay? And we’ll talk about slipping in an afternoon or evening appointment too, even if it will be Sunday. And we’ll set up a series of appointments throughout the week, to fit in with your schedule.”
Lancer watched as Tennyo nodded. She still looked miserable, but at least she was pretty much standing up and paying attention again. She still looked like someone had shot her dog. And her cat. And her mom. And then given her old room to her little brother. But at least she was up, and not crying constantly. He was still worried about her, but she was looking better. She was up to the ‘Ayla in complete depression’ phase, and hopefully on her way to the ‘Nikki at her sickest’ phase or maybe even the ‘Jade after losing Jinn’ phase. Just as long as she didn’t get to the ‘Chou angry enough to punch Sharisha into the next state’ phase. That would be bad. They didn’t want Tennyo the Star Stalker angry at the whole world.
He looked down the halls, but there was no sign of Phase. He mentally shrugged and said, “Let’s head on back to Poe. I want to get Tennyo somewhere safe. If any of our enemies spot the shape she’s in, they may decide it’s a good time for a unilateral strike.”
Fey muttered, “Phase ought to be back by now. She said she was just going to check on another patient.”
Bladedancer admitted, “She was going to see if the New Olympians were gathering around Stygian.”
Chaka rolled her eyes. “What is it with that girl and the ‘Lympies?”
Lancer guessed, “She’s probably going to sick ‘em on Overclock and Make and the Alphas.”
Fey frowned, “Oh great. Like we don’t have enough trouble around here already.”
Chaka pointed out, “Well, you got all up in her business over her big revenge plan and made her scrap it. You didn’t think she was just gonna let it drop, did you? This is Ayla Goodkind we’re talking about here.”
Fey shook her head slowly. “Remember when we were teasing Ayla and we said someday someone would piss her off and she’d make a few phone calls, and suddenly the entire planet’s economy would strike back? Not so funny right now.”
Lancer pointed out, “It was only funny then because it was true. Ayla doesn’t see the world like a regular superhero. She sees the world like a Goodkind.”
Chaka added, “It’s a good thing she’s on our side.”
Lancer said, “But what if she hadn’t gotten booted out of her family? You ever think about that? What if they decided she was a valuable asset as an infiltrator?”
“Brrr,” Fey shivered. “I’d rather not.”
“Hell, you know most of the school believes it,” Chaka pointed out. “People all over campus hate her just ‘cause of her last name. I hear lots of people talking smack about her.”
Lancer looked grim. “I know. You’re not the only one who hears stuff like that. And you know Ayla knows about it. There’s even a rumor around here that she was behind the Halloween thing.”
“Da-yum!” swore Chaka. “That’s all we need. Billie like this, and Ayla going postal on the school.”
Bladedancer finally felt the need to insert herself in the conversation. “Ayla would not do that. She is not the person she was a year ago.”
Chaka nodded, “Yeah, I know that.”
Fey added, “Don’t forget the other rumors: Sara impregnating or eating everyone, and me invoking the wrath of the Sidhe on the whole campus.”
Bladedancer added, “And me chopping the entire school into matchsticks with Destiny’s Wave.”
Lancer glanced around before he said, “Just bear this in mind. Ayla won’t make a unilateral strike that can be traced back to her and proven. Remember what she said about the Tansy hits? Plausible deniability.”
Fey muttered, “Maybe it’s a good thing she still can’t shield really well. At least, if she does do something, we’ll know about it.”
“What the heck are you talking about?” flared Jade. “Ayla’s on OUR side!”
“Yeah!” flared Bladedancer.
Jade fussed, “Why are you talking bad about her? Do you talk about me like this when I’m not around?”
Chaka grinned, “Nah. When you’re not around, we say much worse stuff. First we badmouth Hello Kitty, then we-”
Jade waggled a finger in her face. “No saying bad stuff about Hello Kitty!”
Chaka opened her mouth to tease Generator some more, but she caught Lancer’s eye and stopped.
Lancer said, “Let’s save this for later. We should get Tennyo to her room, talk things over with Phase… And then badmouth Hello Kitty.” He couldn’t keep from grinning.
“Ooh! You guys!” Generator fumed.
<(Lancer) Let’s be on our guard, just in case.>
<(Chaka) Do you really think we need to?>
<(Lancer) Can’t hurt. Not bothering to look out? Could hurt us a lot. Especially right now, while we’re easier targets than usual.>
<(Lancer) Chaka? You’re on point. Fey? You’re long-range sensing.>
<(Chaka) Ooh! You’re the Enterprise sensor arrays! Can you do a computer voice?>
<(Fey) Don’t worry about me. Redshirt.>
<(Chaka) Oh! I resemble that remark!>
<(Lancer) Guys, could we save the banter ‘til we’re inside Poe?>
<(Fey) Okay… Uh-oh. There’s some sort of disturbance going on between us and the Quad.>
<(Chaka) On it.>
Chaka tore out of the room at high speed. Lancer gave Bladedancer a quick tilt of the head, and she ran out to support her friend.
<(Lancer) Until Phase gets back, Generator and Shroud are close guard on Tennyo. I’m fallback. Chaka and ‘Dancer will have to handle the scouting duties.>
Chaka was back in seconds, with Bladedancer beside her. “It’s another freaking shoulder angel fight. I swear. A couple of the Uber-Jocks rumbling with a couple Golds, and Security waiting for ‘em to stop tearing up the place.”
Bladedancer added, “I saw a Security team taking some shoulder angels away from some of the bystanders and giving them flyers. So I got a copy.”
Lancer glanced at it. The flyer had a simple message in huge letters. No more wearing shoulder angels around campus, and an emergency assembly for the whole school at 5 pm. Nothing that wouldn’t wait a few hours. They’d deal with that when it got closer to five.
Fey focused for long seconds before she said, “That’s not the only one. I’m sensing several boiling points across campus. Any of them could be a battlezone by the time we get there.”
Lancer nodded. He sighed, “Okay.” He switched to the Spots for the tactical intel he didn’t want an eavesdropper to be able to pick up.
<(Lancer) We take the tunnels. Phase has the right power set to avoid pretty much anything out there. She’ll meet us at Poe when she’s ready.>
<(Generator) I think the tunnels will be better for Tennyo anyway.>
<(Shroud) I’ve got her. Let’s go.>
They moved down the hall and into the elevator. As soon as they reached the tunnels, they heard the announcements over the speakers. “Attention all students. There will be a mandatory assembly for all students at five pm. Missing this assembly will be an automatic suspension.”
“Whoa, someone’s got the jeebs about somethin’,” Chaka muttered.
Lancer said, “I think we can all guess what that’s about.”
Fey said, “At least it’s not about us.”
“You hope,” said Generator. “I mean, you’re not the one who’s gonna get blamed for inventing shoulder angels.”
Bladedancer patted her on the shoulder. “It’s not your fault. If anyone gets blamed for the fighting, it will probably be Peeper and Greasy. They’re the ones who started it with those Solange and Fey angels.”
Generator snorted, “Those dorks? They never get detention.”
Fey muttered, “That’s just because no one in Hawthorne could stand having Peeper around for a week.”
Lancer added, “And Greasy gets constantly punished. He has to room with Peeper. What could be worse than that?”
“Having Musk for a roomie?” Chaka tried, even though she knew Lancer wasn’t looking for an answer.
“Hey, Sue is nice!” Generator fussed.
“And she’s really sad all the time,” added Shroud. “Don’t be mean about her.”
“Fine. I’ll go back to the Hello Kitty jokes.”
“HEY!” shouted two voices simultaneously.
OVERCLOCK AND MAKE
Overclock dropped his cardboard box on an unused work table in the big Workshop lab. “Now first thing, we split up and run to our rooms. You’ve got five minutes to throw any clothes and shit you want into your suitcases. Then lug it all back and meet me right here.”
Make groaned, “I need one of the anti-gravs so I can move my suitcases back here. They’re big. Like a hundred pounds each.”
Overclock rolled his eyes. “Fine! Grab Knick-Knack’s big floater from the closets, and go. We’ll be long gone before he even knows anyone borrowed it.”
He took off for his own room. He didn’t have as much stuff as Make. Make’s parents had sent him off with enough crap for a couple years away from home. Overclock had enough stuff for two weeks, tops. If you bothered to change underwear and shirts every day. He was on his third day on these undershorts and socks, and it wasn’t like anyone was complaining about the smell, or anything.
As soon as he got to his room, he pulled the duffel bag out of his closet. It already had his dirty clothes shoved in it. So all he had to do was yank his remaining clean stuff out of the drawers and shove it all into the bag. Plus his stuff off the top of his dresser, and his dop kit. His electronic gear was all back at the lair, completely fried. He’d have to buy new stuff once they got somewhere safe.
He got back to the Workshop ahead of Make, so he grabbed a couple loose memory sticks off someone else’s desk and cranked up a computer so he could download all his porn files off the Whateley servers.
Make came hurrying in, three mammoth hard-sided suitcases trailing behind him on Knick-Knack’s anti-grav carrier. He gasped, “I turned on my roomie’s laptop while I was packing, and guess what?”
“What? His background is My Little Pony?” Overclock asked snidely.
“No! Be serious!” Make moaned. “I had all those Gigs of anime porn on the server, and now there’s nothing left! Nothing!”
What a loser. Probably left the files where Hartford’s ‘cleanup Nazi’ programs could find them. That bitch was like a cross between Adolf Hitler and Larry Wall. But with tits. He concentrated on his files, which were carefully hidden in a concealed partition, and…
“SHIT! Frikkin’ bitch!” Overclock pounded the table in frustration. “Damn! I had all those porn movies translated into MPEG files, and now there’s nothing except…” He gagged horribly. “…pictures of naked fat guys! Oh. And a note... to go see Hartford about inappropriate use of Whateley computing equipment. Uh-oh. And it’s signed ‘Circuit Breaker’. Do you know anyone named Circuit Breaker? Shit. Good thing we’re gettin’ the hell out of here.”
“So much for our porn website,” muttered Make.
“Hell, we got it once, we can get it all back,” frowned Overclock. “We just have to get the hell out of here.” He looked around. His duffel bag and a frikking cardboard box. Pathetic. It was a good thing he’d been borrowing stuff for months, and he had that U-Store in Berlin. And his bank accounts. He’d have to do something to Hartford - or whoever screwed him over - to get even, once he was safely away from this armpit.
First things first. He needed one of the devisers with a teleporter - a working teleporter that he trusted - to get him and Make out of here and over to Berlin. He’d call Visio, then Jericho, then Dredz, then… Well hell, he didn’t really know if Jericho’s teleporters had that kind of range, and Christ only knew if Dredz really had that thing working right or if he was cheating with help from Psymod, and… And the list of devisers with real, working teleporters was pretty frikking short. High schoolers with working teleporters? He was probably lucky there was even one at Whateley right now.
He watched Make pull out the three hard drives they’d salvaged, and carefully hook them up to the Workshop repair system. Maybe they’d still have something worth selling.
Overclock pulled out his cell phone, and checked that he had reception (sometimes equipment in the Workshop screwed with the cell phone frequencies, along with everything else). He called Visio. “Hey Visio, it’s Overclock. I need a huge favor.”
“What kind of favor?”
Overclock admitted, “The teleporting-someone-way-off-campus kind of favor. But I can promise that it’s the last time I’ll ever ask.”
“Where are you?”
Overclock told him, “In the main Workshop area, at the computer docking stations.”
“Okay. Stay put.”
Overclock hung up, muttering, “Yeah, yeah, like I’d go wandering off so you didn’t know where I was when you were ready. Dork.”
A second later, his phone beeped with a text message:
CLOCK & MAKE IN WRKSHP NOW
Why was Visio sending Overclock a message telling Overclock where Overclock was standing? Dork squared.
Make looked up, “Hey ‘Clock, why’s Visio sending me a message telling me where we are? Is this a secret code?”
Overclock frowned, “He sent me the same message. Maybe he wants us to stay put. Or…”
It only took Overclock a few seconds to verify that Visio had texted the entire Workshop with that message. Was it possible for high school seniors to get Alzheimer’s or something?
There was a noise in the hallway, and Overclock looked up in time to see Techwolf sprinting into the room. Good old Harry! Now Visio’s texting made sense. He’d texted a slew of Workshoppers to come help!
Techwolf ran up to Overclock and loomed over him. Overclock suddenly realized that Harry was angry. Really, really angry. Growling-like-Bloodwolf angry. Overclock had never before really thought about the fact that Harry was a seven-foot-tall monster with huge fangs and claws that could rip a person in half. Until right that second. If he hadn’t pissed himself in Carson’s office, he would have done it right then.
Harry growled, “You stupid little bastard! Why the hell did you have to hurt her? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Overclock’s knees started to tremble, as he remembered. Oh yeah. Tennyo was one of Harry’s… whatever. It wasn’t like a hottie like Tennyo would date a big creep like Harry. But Tennyo seemed to like Harry, for some weird reason. At least, she acted like it, and she wasn’t getting anything out of the deal. So Harry liked her. Or maybe more than that. And Harry was going to rip Overclock’s throat out in about three seconds… Oh God… He watched as a huge, furry fist prepared to lash out and smash his face in…
Overclock’s knees gave out in relief, and he flumped onto a stool. It was Mega-Death. Harvey would save him! “Harv!” he croaked.
Mega-Death trotted in, a variety of devises bouncing from anchor points on his Whateley labcoat. He put a hand on Harry’s arm and said, “Look, I know what they did, but you don’t want to do this.
“Just because they’re insane little sociopaths, and they tried to destroy our friends… Just because they tried to put Tennyo in a psych ward, and they tried to hurt Phase… I mean, Phase is my friend… She’s one of the few people outside of Workshop who’ll even talk to me, and… AND THEY ATTACKED HER! THEY DARED ATTACK THE FRIENDS OF THE DREADED MEGA-DEATH!”
“Oh crap,” whispered Overclock. Harvey had ‘dricked out. Again. Only this time, another deviser was going to be the target. Even Techwolf looked worried.
“HOW DARE YOU ATTACK THE GREAT MEGA-DEATH? A SIMPLE DEATH IS TOO GOOD FOR YOU!” Mega-Death screamed, spittle flying from his mouth all over Overclock. “FIRST WE SHALL REND YOUR INTESTINAL TRACT UNTIL YOU CAN NO LONGER STAND!”
Unfortunately, Mega-Death suited his actions to his words. He frantically yanked a devise off his labcoat. It looked like a cross between a harmonica and a Star Trek hand phaser. He waved it at Overclock and pulled the trigger.
Suddenly, Overclock felt like someone had shoved him into the biggest bell tower in the world. His entire body vibrated helplessly. His head felt like it was a gong. A really big gong, being beaten by a huge guy with a sledgehammer. He tried to beg Mega-Death to stop, but his throat was no longer working. And then he felt the vibrations cascade through his bowels. He tried to stand up, as his large intestine emptied convulsively.
“HOW DARE YOU TRY TO THWART THE GREAT MEGA-DEATH?” Harvey screamed.
Overclock blinked. He was lying on the floor, his pants filled and his guts still twitching, as Techwolf tried to pry the sound weapon out of Mega-Death’s hands. The thing was pointed at the far wall now, and was making glassware explode everywhere it pointed.
“Harvey! Harv! Calm down!” Techwolf growled. He used his superior strength to pull the weapon from Harvey’s hand, and then he used his superior height to keep it out of Harvey’s reach.
“THE GREAT MEGA-DEATH WILL NOT BE DENIED! ATTACKING THE GREAT MEGA-DEATH MUST BE PUNISHED WITHOUT MERCY!” Harvey howled manically, his eyes rolling in his head and spittle running down his chin. “OVERCLOCK AND HIS MINIONS MUST PAY! THEY MUST PAY! THE NEURAL SUBJUGATOR! YES! THE NEURAL SUBJUGATOR NEXT! FIRST, THE GREAT MEGA-DEATH WILL MAKE THEM IMPOTENT! THEN THE GREAT MEGA-DEATH WILL MAKE THEM UNABLE TO USE THEIR HANDS! YES! BWA-HA-HAH! PROGRAMMERS WITHOUT WORKING HANDS!”
“Oh crap!” Overclock whimpered. “Not the dick!”
Mega-Death grabbed another devise off his labcoat. This one looked like a mutated flashlight with a pencil-thin electronic spike coming off the front. Overclock hastily clapped his hands over his crotch.
“THE GREAT MEGA-DE-”
Before Techwolf could grab the new weapon, Harvey pointed it and pushed a button. There was a terrific flash of green light, and a huge blast of energy backfired into Mega-Death’s body. He staggered backward three steps and collapsed bonelessly. Harry caught him just before he hit the floor.
Harry looked at the limp body in his arms and grinned, “Whew. It was getting a little… hairy there.”
Fire Forge stomped in right then. “Good thing that didn’t fry ‘Clock.” Overclock looked up at her in relief. She added, “No way MD gets to toast these little weasels before I got my shot in.”
“Oh fuck,” muttered Overclock from the floor. He tended to think about Fire Forge as one more lame deviser chick, and he sort of forgot that she was huge. But having her stand over his prostrate body sort of drove that point home. Especially when she looked like she wanted to stomp him into the floor.
She bent over and snapped, “You stupid little asswipe! Tennyo’s my friend! Not that you’d know what that meant, since you don’t have any!” She clenched her fists and muttered, “I oughta… I oughta…”
She turned and punted Overclock’s duffel bag. It flew halfway across the room and hit a workbench, the glass and plastic items inside breaking with muffled crunches. Make hastily ducked down behind a desk.
She turned back to Overclock and reached down to grab him. He wiggled backward, whimpering fearfully.
“Hey! There they are!” yelled Paige Donner from the doorway.
Fire Forge stopped and looked over to see what Paige was doing. Paige tromped in, talking on a massive, rubber-coated cell phone. Oh yeah, electrical freak on top of werewolf-thing and other weird shit. Right behind her were Stalwart and Bugs, closely followed by Spark. Jesus Frikking Christ, had Visio texted every single frikking workshopper in the whole school?
Paige moved over to the computer repair desk where Make was hiding. She snarled, “I have a message for you two from Sara Waite. She wants you to know that she’s pissed about this. REALLY pissed. You two fucked up big. Start looking over your shoulders from here on out.” She put her hands on the three hard drives, and suddenly electricity erupted from her fingers. Smoke began seeping out of the hard drive cases.
Make suddenly poked his head up and stared at her. He yelped. “NO! Not the hard drives!”
Paige sneered at him, “Yes, the hard drives. They’re toast now.” She turned and glared at Overclock. “And Carmilla got a message from someone named Circuit Breaker. You know those bank accounts with your illegal eBay money? Gone. Also, Circuit Breaker informed eBay that you’re selling stolen goods, and they called the FBI.” She glared until Overclock started to sweat that maybe she’d go Were on him.
“Not my money!” wailed Overclock.
“Yeah, you jerks!” squealed Bugs. “How could you hurt a sweetie like Fey? You guys are creeps!”
Stalwart stepped up beside her. “I must avow that I am in complete agreement with the beauteous Bugs. Attacking Fey is abhorrent! Blackguards such as yourselves must pay the price!”
“Yeah. I totally agree with Paul,” insisted Bugs. “You guys are going down. Which is why I emailed all the other devisers and gadgeteers, and told them what you did to Team Kimba. Expect major payback.”
Stalwart nodded. “When word of your sins against the fair Fey reached my ears, I immediately set about an appropriate punishment. I lured Glitch down to your lair.”
“And I popped the locks,” added Bugs. “Kew took out your computer security.”
Fire Forge moaned, “Dang! I wish I could’ve gotten in on that!”
“Moi aussi,” insisted Spark. “Stupid cochons, you attacked the girl who saved the whole Weapons Fair! Don’t you realize how many people are going to be angry about that?”
“STARTING WITH ME!” screeched a voice from the hallway. Delta Spike trotted in, wearing her standard ‘Workshop’ outfit of ill-fitting clothes under a Whateley labcoat. She had rushed so much that her usual pinned-up ‘Workshop’ hairdo was coming loose at the edges. “You stupid dipshits, didn’t you think about anything before you started this? Don’t you know who’s the best source of venture capital for gadgeteers around here? Hell, probably anywhere. And you had to piss her off in the holos! Are you morons or something?” Delta gritted her teeth, looked around, and pointed her arm at Overclock’s cardboard box of salvaged gear.
Suddenly, Overclock remembered. Delta was a faux-Exemplar and a faux-Energizer. “Oh shit,” he whispered.
A massive flash of energy erupted from her hand and blasted the cardboard box. It seemed like everything in the box shorted out simultaneously. The edges of the box smoked and blackened as they threatened to catch on fire. Make dove back down behind his table.
Delta fumed, “You dumb-ass pricks! Every single inventor working with Phase is going to want to tear you a new one over this!”
“Hey! I forgot about that! It’s not my fault!” insisted Overclock. It didn’t look like anyone around him was going to believe him. He tried again, “C’mon, guys! Cut me some slack!”
A voice that sent shivers down Overclock’s spine answered from near the door. “That’s not what I’m thinking about cutting,” sneered Nephandus. He strolled in, pointing his cane at Overclock in a threatening way.
Overclock froze. He knew there was enough firepower in that cane to fry him, blast half a dozen holes in him, and then maybe turn him into a slimy blob of ex-hacker. “Uhh… H-hi there, N-nephandus,” he stammered.
That freaky ‘evil pokemon’ thing hopped from behind Nephandus and looked at Overclock like it had just realized he was edible. Overclock gulped.
Techno-Devil stepped up to stand beside Nephandus. “Overclock. You and Make picked the wrong person to piss on. She-Devil wanted us to give you a message. She is very, very, VERY disappointed that you chose to attack one of her friends. And she is going to make her point… at some time in the near future.”
Overclock gulped so loudly that everyone in the room could hear.
Techno-Devil went on, “And I’m fairly pissed off myself. Let me demonstrate…” He pulled out a thing that looked like a cross between a ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ phaser pistol and a ‘Stargate SG-1’ zat gun. Overclock desperately curled up in a ball and threw his hands over his head.
Techno-Devil turned and fired at Make’s suitcases. A burst of silvery energy blasted a hole through all three suitcases, leaving a circular burn mark on the far wall. “That could just as easily have been your intestines. Consider yourself very lucky. For the moment.”
“MY CLOTHES!” Make shrieked. As soon as he saw that the two Bad Seeds were looking his way, he dove back behind the desk.
Nephandus purred nastily, “Oh, good point, Make. We wouldn’t want to leave a fire hazard lying about, now would we?” He pointed his cane at the smoldering suitcases and pressed a concealed button. A magical sphere formed at the tip of the cane before flying away with a whirling, glimmering fire. It hit the suitcases and surrounded them with a horrific purple glow. The suitcases sagged like candles in a hot room. In seconds they had puddled into a bubbling gray ooze that looked like it might start moving on its own at any moment.
“My clothes!” whimpered Make wretchedly.
Nephandus turned back to Overclock, but before he had a chance to do more, Knick-Knack came hobbling into the room, his two robotic henchwomen walking smoothly on either side. Knick-Knack pointed out the two whimpering workshoppers and said, “Get them.”
The robot women quickly grabbed Overclock and Make and held them up by the backs of their collars. Then they carried the two programmers over to Knick-Knack.
As the two nerds dangled a foot and a half in the air, Knick-Knack glared at them. “I do NOT appreciate finding out that I have been made into someone else’s computer toy! And neither does anyone else in the New Olympians!”
“Ahh, good to see you’ve got everything well in hand. So to speak…” Tracer rushed to Knick-Knack’s side and leered at the two captives. He added, “And, since you’ve heard Jean-Paul, you’ll be happy to hear that Imperious and Majestic will BOTH be showing you their extreme displeasure. Personally. And repeatedly. Until no one else on campus will even consider treating them so carelessly.”
Just then, Jericho strolled in, his white cane tapping aimlessly in front of him. “Glad to hear that you’ve got everything under control there. But now it’s my turn. Visio’s busy with Senior Project stuff, so he sent me here to operate his teleporter.” He turned to Overclock and grinned evilly. “And I promise not to teleport you into outer space.”
“Hey, how come Visio trusts Jericho with his teleporter? He wouldn’t let me come near it,” whined Mega-Death from the place on the floor where he was still laid out.
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
Jericho asked, “Do these guys have anything to take with them?”
Nephandus, Stalwart, Fire Forge, Spark, and Delta Spike all blasted Overclock’s duffel bag.
“Nay, nary a thing.”
“Good, good,” agreed Jericho carelessly. “The less weight you send, the better Visio’s ‘porter runs.” He made a ‘come along’ gesture and said, “Well, haul ‘em down to Visio’s lab. Let’s get this done.”
As Jericho walked down the hallways, Knick-Knack and his robots followed, with Overclock and Make painfully held well above the floor by the robots. The rest of the devisers followed.
Jericho didn’t bother to look over his shoulder. “Do you two asstards know why I like the Kimbas?”
“Cuz Phase is making money for you?” guessed Overclock.
“BZZZT! Wrong answer. But thank you for playing our game!” grinned Jericho. “Dumbshits. I like ‘em because they like my friends. Do you know how many people around here will talk to Razor? Hardly anyone. Fey taught herself sign language so she could chat with Razor. FEY! Phobos has maybe three friends in the whole school other than the Outcasts. One of ‘em is Phase. Phobos went rager and ripped Phase’s arm apart. Phase wouldn’t even testify about it. Diamond actually got up and sang for Bladedancer and Phase. And you had to fuck ‘em over for a bunch of Alpha dickheads. Well guess what? I’m gonna personally explain to Tennyo who fucked her up, and how, and why. She’s not gonna be a happy bunny. In fact, I think she’ll probably want to show you just how pissed she really is.”
That time, the foul, liquid sound was Make soiling his pants in terror.
“Put ‘em in the teleporter,” Jericho directed. Knick-Knack nodded, and the robotic women obliged. As the two nerds stood on the platform, their knees hardly holding them up, Jericho gave them a nasty smile. “And, just so you know, I’m putting you in downtown Berlin.” The teleporter revved up to a nerve-searing whine. “Right in the middle of the MCO offices.”
Overclock had a sudden horrible sensation of having his entire body being turned inside out, run through a blender, and then put back together. With a staplegun. When his vision cleared, he was lying on the floor of an office, surrounded by armed MCO agents.
Make struggled to his knees and wrapped himself around the ankle of the closest agent. “Arrest me! Deport me! Put me in jail! Just DON’T SEND ME BACK TO WHATELEY!!!”
One of the MCO agents grinned, “Now this is what I call a cooperative perp.”
Saturday, January 13, 2007, 4:40 pm
Team Kimba stayed in the middle of the Poe Cottage pack, with Lancer occasionally giving signals over the comms. They tried to look casual as the strolled into the auditorium.
<(Lancer) Fey? Anything?>
<(Fey) Yes. EVERYTHING! We’re in the middle of 600 grouchy high schoolers, and some of them want to go over and punch some of the others in here! I can’t pick up anything definite. At least, not anything definitely aimed at us.>
<(Lancer) Thanks for trying. I figured it was worth a shot.>
<(Fey) I’m working a little enchantment to try to pick up anything specifically coming at us. Give me a few.>
<(Chaka) I’m not picking up anyone focusing on me. Except for Dredz. And he’s not focusing on me that way.>
<(Phase) I don’t want to turn around and be obvious. How’s Tennyo holding up?>
<(Generator) Not so hot. If she didn’t have Fey’s spell masking her, everyone would see how depressed she is.>
<(Shroud) At least we’re hugging her under the masking spell.>
<(Phase) Does that cabbit have a Spot too?>
<(Shroud) No, I don’t.>
<(Phase) That statement is philosophically absurd.>
<(Shroud) You know what I mean!>
<(Lancer) Knock it off, Phase. You caused enough trouble today.>
<(Phase) Me? Generator’s the one who thought of ratting those dweebs out to the Workshop.>
<(Generator) You’re welcome!>
<(Phase) Gotta admit, it worked about three time better than I expected.>
<(Generator) We have lots of friends! Just because you don’t think anyone likes you doesn’t mean it’s true.>
<(Chaka) And the rest of us are beloved by one and all!>
<(Lancer) Yeah, tell that to The Don and Majestic.>
<(Phase) Or Tesla and Aztecka.>
<(Chaka) Now that’s not fair, girlfriend.>
<(Lancer) Heads up. It’s our turn.>
Team Kimba followed Mrs. Horton into several rows of seats. Lancer noticed at once that the Melvillains were down in the front center rows, with the Emersonians in the front left rows and the Dickinson girls in the front right rows. The Poesies seemed to be used as a buffer zone between those three houses and the rest of the school. Twain and Whitman came in behind Poe, with about half of Hawthorne behind them. Lancer figured that the rest of the Thornies were still in their rooms, watching the assembly on their monitor screens.
<(Phase) Segregation much?>
<(Generator) And it’s so not fair! Stephen must be really upset.>
<(Fey) It really isn’t fair. Especially this time, given what the problem is.>
<(Chaka) Damn straight, Skippy!>
<(Phase) No kidding. Right now, I’m surprised they didn’t separate everyone by clique.>
<(Lancer) Might be better, but it’d be harder logistically.>
<(Chaka) Nah, we just put the Alphas in the dumpsters behind the caff, and the…>
<(Lancer) Heads up!>
Amelia Hartford stormed out to the middle of the stage. She cleared her throat and began. “Quiet! I want complete silence in here! The headmistress has an important message for everyone in here!” Since Ms. Hartford looked like the librarian of your nightmares, the room actually came to a near-silence.
If Hartford had stormed out, then Elizabeth Carson hurricaned out onto the stage.
The auditorium went so quiet that you could hear individual gulps across the crowd.
Carson was in a simple business suit and low heels, but she looked more intimidating than if she had been in an ARChammer power suit. She looked angry enough to rip out the front half of the audiorium, and use it to hammer the back half into the bedrock.
She was stuck with a pair of shoulder angels.
Floating just above her right shoulder was a gleaming Lady Astarte with her hands on her hips in a classic pose. Floating just above her left shoulder was an evil version of Ms. Might. Her costume was re-done in purple and dark green, with a high collar that just screamed ‘evil supervillain’.
<(Phase) Oh crap.>
<(Lancer) Who the hell has the balls to prank Lady Astarte?>
<(Shroud) They’re magic. I can see it.>
<(Fey) A really powerful spell, too. And if Lady Astarte can’t banish it…>
<(Phase) Oh crap.>
<(Chaka) Hate to break the bad news to ya, roomie. But with Hekate gone, you and Majestic are probably the top suspects on that one.>
<(Lancer) Spellbinder and Conjure.>
<(Fey) They’re good, but not that good.>
Elizabeth Carson glared at the assembled students, and her eyes flared with red energy. She snapped, “This has officially gone TOO FAR.” The entire room winced.
The shoulder devil shook her finger, “That’s right! So now we’re going to have to smite you all, you wicked, wicked students!”
The shoulder angel turned and insisted, “No, no! We should show them loving care, like a stern but devoted mother!”
A burst of white energy flared around Carson’s navel, and erupted upward in a line that would have sliced an ordinary superhero in half. She growled, “THAT’S IT! Too far!” Power coruscated off of her like solar flares off of a star. She seemed to swell with energy.
The entire front half of the auditorium instinctively pressed back against their seats, some of them passing through the seats or ripping the seats from their moorings in the process.
The shoulder angel and the shoulder devil looked at each other and said, “Uh oh...”
The two shoulder figures exploded in gouts of bluish flame. Most of the auditorium flinched.
Carson bellowed, “From now on, anyone caught planting one of these things gets a toilet scrub-brush, if you catch my drift! And anyone wearing one, whether by choice or not… Let’s just say that there are a lot of odious chores on a campus this size!” She took a deep breath and snapped, “DIS-MISSED!”
The students flowed out in a rush that would have looked like panic at any other prep school.
Circe turned to Elyzia Grimes and murmured, “See? I told you giving her shoulder angels would take care of the problem.”
The raven-haired witch muttered, “I just wish there was an easier solution.”
Circe stared up at the ceiling for long seconds before saying, “You don’t know what I foresaw… This was the easy solution.”
Elyzia said, “Well, I hope that’s the end of all this madness.”
Circe nodded slowly. “Yes. Definitely. Whateley will never again be foolish or goofy or insane. Except for the popsicle-stick skyscraper. Or the giant magnifying glass. Or the exploding puddings. Or the escalator to nowhere. Or the...”
Elyzia put her head in her hands and whispered, “Oh Gods.”
Saturday, January 13, 2007, 11:50 pm
Farrago looked around the Quad. The whole team was here. He didn’t know why he had been included, when Carson had already kicked him out of Elite League. He didn’t know why they had been dragged out of their bed at nearly midnight. He just knew it wasn’t a good thing.
He turned to Spellbinder. “This is going to be the last sim run they ever let me do with you guys, so I want Spellbinder to be the official team leader from now on. You guys are going to have to work out on your own who’ll be the team strategist and the team tactics officer, and you’ll have to give them your loyalty. Got it?”
Bombshell said, “I still don’t get why we all got dragged here with no warning. It can’t be a pop quiz, can it?”
Spellbinder said, “It’s probably a punishment for the thing with Team Kimba.”
“Did any of them even get hurt?” asked Swoop.
“They took Tennyo to the hospital,” explained Farrago. “I don’t have more intel than that, and you shouldn’t admit to knowing that much.”
“So now what?” asked Accelerator, who was zipping back and forth in boredom.
“I don’t kn-”
“ELITE LEAGUE!” bellowed the voice of Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue. “Tonight you all get a special sim run! Since you think you can play with the sims and screw with the safeties, you get EXTRA WORK! And the safeties are still off-line! Your mission, which you WILL ACCEPT, is to stop a student who was psychically assaulted in the sims until she went insane. You may use any measures you deem necessary, but you will stop this student or die trying. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME MAGGOTS!!!”
Suddenly the Quad changed. They were standing in the middle of the remains of the Quad.
Farrago gave Spellbinder a look, and she hastily started. “Okay, quick assessment. Who’s the psycho?”
They looked around. Chunks of the Quad had been disintegrated in massive spherical blasts. Other parts had apparently exploded like they had been blown apart from within. Trees were knocked down, and large portions of the Crystal Hall had been blown away.
Bombshell muttered out loud, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I think maybe it’s-”
Bardue’s voice blared again, “Okay Elite League, welcome to a little simulation that I like to call DARK TENNYO!”
Half a dozen voices simultaneously gulped, “Oh fuck.”
Suddenly a blue sphere of fiery plasma crashed into an iron bench, sending white-hot metal fragments everywhere. Including into most of the team. Several people yelled in pain. Then the corner of Schuster exploded, as a fast-flying figure blasted through the edge of the building like it was kleenex. The figure hurled another deadly sphere and headed directly for them.