Ayla and the Birthday Brawl: (Chap 7)
Ayla and the Birthday Brawl
Ayla and the Birthday Brawl
by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)
CHAPTER 7 – The Legend of Mutability, or of Change
I was concentrating on the bokken katas for defending against a knife or fighting claw. But I was keeping an eye on the other side of the room.
I was utterly unconvinced by Ito’s calm manner. I was sure he had something nasty up his sleeve. I checked on him several times during practice, and he was constantly focusing on his little group of students. He usually looked over and checked on the other teachers now and then. Once again, I made sure that my utility belt was in place.
On my way to martial arts class, I had gotten a really weird phone call from Chou’s instructor Journeyman, but it sounded like he had the resources to buy a decent utility belt. And, as the marketing director for Möbius, it really was my job to get people to buy more of those belts. Still, it would have been nice to know if he really needed that belt that very second, since it sounded like he was having a nice little phone chat with me while fighting a small army. Somehow, I doubted that he had the television on and was watching an old kung fu movie. On the other hand, the phone call had nearly made me late, and that would not have been a good thing.
When we finally sat seiza for sparring, I sat down next to Chaka and Lancer. But Ito didn’t look our way even once. And he usually checked to see if Toni was up to any monkey business. Monkey business. Gah. Now I was wondering if the Monkey King was somehow responsible for that particular Western phrase.
The first trio of sparring partners included Tennyo vs. Lancer. Let me just say this much: HOLY CRAP! Now that was what superhero battles were supposed to look like!
They started out on the ground, trading blows, kicking and punching and blocking expertly, attempting to get each other in throws, and then they soon lifted off in true superhero style, taking their battle halfway up to the rafters. And it was a draw: neither one of them got that second point before time expired. I was so glad I had both of them on my team. Granted, Ito made Tennyo withhold the big stuff, because her plasma blasts and lightsaber would slice right through Hank. And Ito made Hank keep his paper swords in his pants, just to be fair. But without her big weapons, Billie was pretty evenly matched against Hank.
The second trio included Shadowolf vs. Aquerna. She was wielding her kama, even if they had guards over the blades, but he was going with his manifested shadow claws instead of the usual metal-and-wood fighting claws I had seen him use in practice. They were fairly equally matched in speed, but he massively out-powered her. That was obvious in their first couple clashes. She kept having to break off and leap away from him. Then he started using his shadow powers to try to blind her or hide his location, but that didn’t seem to work as well as he was hoping on someone with squirrel powers. She kept turning her head to find him, and then leaping out of the way of his attacks. She probably had really good hearing. Maybe she wasn’t as strong as he was, but she could sure leap around the sparring ring to stay out of his clutches. He finally won 2-0, but she really made him work for it. He only just got that second point a few seconds before Tolman would have called the match.
Then Ito called up the third set of three pairs. “Chaka? Judicator? With sensei Tolman. Redlight and Shroud, with sensei Beaumont. Swordmaiden and Phase, with me.”
“And Phase, please leave your bokken behind. I would like to see you wield your new tactical baton this time.”
I had to wonder about his choice of Swordmaiden as my opponent. Was this because Swordy had treated Chou like shit the other day? Was Ito testing me to see if I was going to go postal on Swordy because of that? Was Ito checking to see if Swordy was going try and mistreat me in similar fashion, because I was buds with Chou? Or was I just reading too much into the whole thing? Maybe he just wanted me to get my ass kicked by a martial arts specialist, just to remind me again that I didn’t know shit about fighting.
I left the bokken at my place, and hastily grabbed my black gloves out of the far right pocket of my utility belt. I checked by touch that the throwing darts were in place, and I thumbed the button to charge up the taser on the other glove. Hopefully, Swordy didn’t know what the gloves meant.
I took up my position with the baton collapsed. Swordy stepped up, holding her sword at the ready behind her back, so I would have even less idea about her initial attack. But when we bowed to each other, I saw she was wielding a cutlass. A real freaking sword. Not a bokken at all. Crap.
Okay, no staying at normal density ever. I was pretty sure that at my heaviest, I could take a sword impact without getting cut. Okay, maybe not a sword slice if Hank was wielding the sword as hard as he could and his PK field was over it. But Swordy wasn’t a PK supergirl. She was an Exemplar with lots of martial arts training. And I had to admit that it was probably fair, since I was getting to wield a tactical baton that was made out of adamantium and that I could turn into a club that weighed more than Swordmaiden did.
I went fully heavy before Ito started us. “Hajime!”
Swordy was fast. Maybe a little quicker than I was, but a hell of a lot more skilled. She had me on the defensive from her first movement. All I could do was deflect every slice and stab I could spot, and try to get ready for the next one. I slid back a step and deflected another blow. And again. I was still looking for even one opening, when Ito called out, “Yame!”
That was when I finally realized that I had been giving up so much ground to Swordy that I had backed out of the sparring ring. Damn! Swordy just gave me a smirk. Fine, if she didn’t want to play nice, I could do that too.
Okay, round two of getting my ass handed to me by a more skilled opponent. I needed to stop trying to out-hack her and use my powers more effectively. Of course, the really effective attack would be a disruption-light attack that would knock her out and maybe destroy her BIT in some horrific way, so there was no way in hell I was going to do that. I would quit the class before I would risk hurting someone like that ever again.
Swordy moved in with a slide-step, and she launched an attack I recognized from class but still had no idea how to counter effectively. I just barely blocked the first couple slices. Her third movement was a feint at my head and a hard jab at my chest. I completely fell for the feint, so I was utterly out of position as the point of the cutlass soared toward my heart.
Instead of leaping backward and maybe ending up out of the sparring circle again, I darted toward her and did my light-heavy-light flicker just as she extended her arm. She smoothly came back into a balanced position, only to realize that she only had half a cutlass.
That made her mad. “That was one of my swords!”
I muttered, “I didn’t ask you to stab me through the heart, did I?”
She tossed the remnant out of the sparring circle and came at me open-handed. I retracted my baton and made sure it was as heavy as I was. She moved toward me with a fast combination. She launched a sidekick to my head. I just barely managed to brush-block it. She leapt into a spinning back kick to my solar plexus. I slid back and to the side just enough that she missed. I tried to grab her ankle as she lashed out, but I wasn’t fast enough to catch her retreating leg. She followed that up with a backfist to my face.
I let her hit me. She was strong, too. But I was fully heavy, and in a balanced stance. It had to be like punching a marble statue. It sounded like it really hurt her hand. She didn’t get her arm back as fast as she ought to, and I managed to give her the touch taser on her arm. She dropped to her knees.
“Yame. Second point to Phase.”
She looked a little shaky as she got back into position. I whispered, “Are you okay?”
“Shut up,” she growled. “I’m fine.” But she was still a little shaky as she went over and got a bokken.
I charged up my glove again, and I held my retracted baton behind my back in an attack position. She held her bokken the same way. As soon as Ito started us, I pushed the button and whipped out the baton. Then I attacked as quickly as I could. I swung the extended baton as hard as I could, first from the left side at her ribs, then from the right side at her front leg. She still blocked both attacks, even if the weight of my baton obviously surprised her both times I struck. I could see the shock on her face, but I knew I had just lost the element of surprise. She now knew I was wielding a super-heavy baton, and she had already been able to deflect my attacks before she knew that.
I stepped back and moved the baton behind my back, where I retracted it and made it heavy again. She paused for just a second as she considered my weapon. That gave me just enough time to make sure the baton was heavy and launch a new attack.
It turned out she was attacking me at the same time. She hit me across the ribs so hard her bokken shattered. I hit her so hard across her ribs that she went flying. She had to dive into a roll to absorb at least a little of the impact. She popped back up on her feet, holding the bottom third of her bokken and looking ready to attack me with it.
“Yame!” Ito called out.
I looked down at her feet, which was when she realized that she was standing halfway out of the sparring circle.
She was pissed. I didn’t know whether she was pissed about getting clobbered by a noob, or about losing to one of the Kimbas, or about not stomping a Goodkind when she had the opportunity. Probably all of the above, plus being angry about losing on a technicality. Although she was rubbing her side rather gingerly as she took her place beside the mat.
I sat seiza and waited for the next matches. I could tell by a quick sideways glance that Swordy was not a happy camper. Great. Now I had someone else out for my blood.
Then Ito gave me one of those looks. Great, with a cherry on top. That little bastard was going to hit me with someone even worse tomorrow. I just knew it. Who was it going to be? Chou? Hank? As long as it wasn’t that Dyffud guy who was kicking the holy crap out of Chou and Toni and Billie. If Journeyman was my surprise opponent tomorrow and pummeled me, I was so going to make him beg for a utility belt.
The rest of sparring was fairly anticlimactic. Most of the heavy hitters of the class, including my teammates, had already had their turns, and I was reasonably certain that Evil Midget Man wasn’t going to pit me against Interface or Força again. I was equally confident that I wasn’t going to face Aquerna or Generator, either. No, he was going to heave me at someone like Judicator or Aztecka. Or maybe a very vengeful Swordmaiden. Nightbane was tough, but I thought I could take her, unless Ito let her use that orichalcium sword she used on Sara.
Okay, I had no idea how my powers worked against orichalcium. I was just making some assumptions based on my tests with mithril. I ought to investigate that, since the price of certain assumptions was pain. In some cases, it was worse than that. I needed to look into some tests against orichalcium, assuming I could track down any sources. It wasn’t like there was a Whateley student who was sweating that stuff like Silver sweated mithril. Nikki would probably know, and if she didn’t I had a feeling Zenith could track down any orichalcium currently residing on or around the campus.
I watched Aztecka’s turn in the sparring circles, but I didn’t gather much intel. She utterly outclassed her opponent, and just knocked him out of the circle twice in a matter of seconds. What was I going to do against someone who was both stronger and faster than I was? Granted, there was nothing Az could do to me if I stayed light, so I ought to be able to get a stalemate against her if I couldn’t use my utility belt. In a real fight to the death, I would go disruption-light through her, but there was no way I was doing that to an Exemplar. Frankly, I still felt sick to my stomach just thinking about what happened to Fireball.
After class, I did my usual sprint into the women instructors’ locker room, followed by my standard routine. This time, I Phase-leapt across the dojo and through the wall, and I stepped out of my clothes before Phase-leaping into the shower area, so I was done showering and I was already dressing before Tolman and Beaumont walked in. I was pretty sure they stopped talking when they realized I was in earshot, so it was possible they were talking about me. It was also possible they were talking about any other student, and they didn’t want to reveal confidences in front of another student. Still, the slight smirk I caught on Tolman’s face when she glanced my way made me suspect they had been talking about me. Not that I was ridiculously paranoid about this class or anything…
I waited in the dojo, and people started trickling out of the locker rooms in twos and threes. Hank was chatting with Chet about the day’s sim runs. Toni was talking with Judicator about fighting styles with a spear and shield. Jade and Jinn were talking with Anna and some other girls about movies. It occurred to me that I was once again isolating myself by my choices. But I needed to shower in the instructors’ locker room. There was no way the girls in the class would put up with me when I was an intersexed freak, and – even worse – I was a boy with a bizarre BIT. Not even Toni and Jade really liked having me in the girls’ showers with them, and these showers weren’t separate stalls, but several showerheads in a single open area where anyone could see the others showering. The girls like Aztecka and Swordmaiden would erupt like Mount Vesuvius.
Still, it would have been nice to have a good ‘cohort experience’, as they called it in the prep school brochures. If the BIT-slicer worked tonight, I could shower with the guys again. I could kid Hank, and chat with Chet, and be one of the guys. I would have to give up a heck of a lot to do it, but I needed to be a guy again! I knew Chou understood, and I was pretty sure Jade and Toni understood. I wasn’t really sure that Nikki or Billie really understood anymore, given how their linked spirits seemed to be altering their outlook on the gender divide.
I knew that if the BIT-slicer worked, I would have to stop rooming with Chou. There was no way around that one. If I looked like Peril instead of a girl, it would kill Chou to keep rooming with me, even if the school administration wouldn’t blow a hundred fuses. I couldn’t imagine how awful I would feel if I was still stuck in this body, and still rooming with Chou, and she was back in her old Alex body, so I could see every day just how masculine Chou had become while I was trapped looking like a freakjob.
But would I have to move out of Poe? Having a single in Poe wouldn’t be too bad, or switching rooms with Heyoka would be workable. Moving to Twain would be okay, since I had plenty of friends and acquaintances who were already on the freshman floor there: Harry, Blot, Gila, Ash, Mechano Man, you name it. And I was on speaking terms with Jobe, which was apparently a great rarity. Or maybe I might be moved to Emerson. I was in good shape there, too. On the other hand, if I was a normal, handsome Exemplar with billions of dollars and a powerful name, then I might get moved to Melville. That was more problematic. I assumed I could rely on Jadis and Mal, as well as most of the Golden Kids there, but there were more enemies in Melville than allies. I knew a number of Alphas and Alpha wannabe’s who would love to be able catch me in my sleep and wreak vengeance. Then The Don would eventually recover enough to return to Melville, and he would be after the hides of Team Kimba, the people who had knocked him from his own personal Mount Olympus. And speaking of Mount Olympus, there were too many New Olympians in Melville. Most of the New Olympians I needed to watch for were over there, starting with Counterpoint and Imperious and Majestic. Then there were a number of the Good Ol’ Boyz, starting with Fantastico and working my way down their little Southwestern-flavored food chain. And some of the homophobes and anti-Goodkind jerks who had tackled me last term were in Melville. Bravo came to mind. That guy seemed like the kind of pinhead who didn’t have enough working synapses to aim for revenge and do anything else at the same time.
And what would Vox do if I didn’t look like me anymore? I had been avoiding that issue for a long time, but I decided I needed to talk with her before I went into the BIT-slicer. She needed to know what I was doing, whether it worked or not. And if she decided she couldn’t date a guy who looked like Peril, instead of a boy-girl who looked like me, then… Then I was still going to go through with it. And if it worked, then I would spend the next couple months courting her all over again, trying to convince her I was still me where it mattered, even if I no longer looked the same.
I was also worried about Team Kimba. Would they still let me stay on the team if I changed physically? I was hoping they would. No one had said anything that would indicate otherwise, and we as a team weren’t very good about keeping thoughts like that to ourselves.
Okay, so my priorities were clear. I needed to talk with Vox. That was paramount. I needed to think about being moved out of Chou’s room. I needed to think about the consequences of being moved out of Poe. I needed to make sure Team Kimba was okay with me if I metamorphosed. So I wouldn’t be able to shower with some of the hottest girls on the planet: I could live with that. I would miss ogling Nikki and Vanessa and Bunny and Billie and Pilar and Toni and Chou and… Well, everyone except Sharisha and Jade. But if that was the only cost of this kind of metamorphosis, then I could count myself phenomenally fortunate.
And if I changed back to a virile male form, would that affect things with Paul and Connie? Could that make it that much easier for my family to accept what I had become? All right, Mother would never accept anything even vaguely related to mutants. Not ever. Even if she weren’t still clinically mutophobic, to her it would be a betrayal of everything she still associated with the death of her big sister. Father would never accept a mutant into the family fold. But perhaps Uncle Theo might. If I knew there was a chance that someday in the distant future, the family might relent and accept me again, then I could wait. And maybe, just maybe, things would work out better with Vox if I looked like a guy. If she could accept me like that, then we could date publicly. We could do boyfriend-girlfriend things. She could introduce me to her mother and grandmother, without facing the stigma of a ‘lesbian’ relationship. Maybe…
Man, did I need to talk to Vanessa. I hiked back to Poe with my gear, planning on just tossing it all on the floor until after I checked on Vox. But I forgot I was a part of Team Kimba, instead of a nice, normal training team. Chou was lying on the bed, really upset about the latest confrontation in her life. I tried to be Mister Supportive, and it appeared that I didn’t do too horrific a job of it. Then I used The Spots and quickly summoned the rest of the team.
Chou explained the whole deal, once I had everybody assembled. She had been suckered into a fight with Counterpoint, which had then boiled over into a battle with some of the heavy hitters of the New Olympians. And the Tao was with her, so she had kicked their deified asses. Now she was worrying about dragging herself and the team into yet another conflict.
Hank had the sound strategic advice, of course. Toni had the peppy attitude. Jade and Jinn supplied the hugs, until Chou could get over to Molly or Dorjee. I did what I could, offering to do some networking to see if I could smooth things over. I had some hope that Prism or Cytherea could get Judicator to talk to Majestic and Imperious. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but from what Chou was saying, it sounded like someone had set her up. Or else someone had used her to set up Counterpoint. And if I could get Imperious or Majestic to point that out to Counterpoint himself, he’d probably go ballistic on the guilty parties, and we would know who was behind it simply by picking up the body parts and doing some forensic identification.
I even offered to make tea, which was a heck of a lot more domestic than I liked to be. But Chou really needed a pick-me-up. I got out the special bottled spring water to use in the tea. I had gotten a contact to send me a dozen quart bottles from a private spring in Tibet. I just had a feeling that this was the kind of water that Chou’s special tea deserved.
We sat around and drank some tea, while Chou calmed down and Toni made a series of rude comments about Counterpoint not being able to keep his spear in his sheath. Okay, she was really funny. I cracked up several times, even though Chou was upset and I was worried. This was, after all, the third Team Kimba member that Counter-prick had targeted, and the second one in a week. That suggested a deliberate scheme behind things. As we Goodkinds have said for generations, “Once is chance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”
Then, once Chou hiked off to find her girlfriend and boyfriend, I went to look for Vox. As I had planned some time earlier.
Vanessa wasn’t in, but Sharisha was willing to concede, however grudgingly, that Vox would probably be back within minutes. So I took care of my martial arts gear and cleaned up my room, just in case. Then I flagged Chou.
<(Phase) Chou? Are you there?>
<(Bladedancer) Here. Problem? Tell me it isn’t Sun.>
<(Phase) No, no problem at all. I just wanted you to stay out of the room for a little while. I want to have a talk with Vanessa. I’ve got to convince her that I need to try the BIT-slicer, and that she shouldn’t dump me.>
<(Bladedancer) Not a problem. I will be sorry to lose you as a roommate, but I hope you have the success you desire.>
<(Phase) Thanks. Over and out.>
I paced up and down the hall for about five minutes before Vanessa came back to the dorm. “Hi, Ayla! Lemme just put my stuff in my room.”
I nodded tensely. “Yeah. Do that. We need to talk.”
She suddenly looked really tense herself. She met me in my room in under a minute. She closed the door and sat down in my desk chair. She winced, “I knew it. I knew you’d find someone better’n me. Who is it? Just don’t tell me it’s Solange.”
“Gah!” I choked. “Solange? I’d rather stab myself. Vanessa, it’s not that at all. There isn’t anyone else. Really. It’s something completely different.” She looked like she was about to wince, like she was expecting some awful verbal blow. Man, if I ever found her dad, I was going to kick his ass, at least in the financial sense of the phrase.
I said, “You remember the BIT-slicer? Jade went through it and looked like she had Billie’s body for a couple days?” She nodded, but the crease across her forehead told me she had no idea where this fit in with the rest of the discussion.
I went on, “That couple days was the best they’ve managed with the BIT-slicer. They’ve had six trials and six failures. And it’s entirely possible the limited success with Jade was because they were using Billie as the template, and not anything to do with their devises. The second best they managed was Jello ending up looking like Heartbreaker for several hours.”
She goggled at that. “But… But Jello’s a Shifter! She’s supposed to be able to look like other people! How does that count as a success?”
“That’s what I said,” I agreed. “They think it’s a success. I think Jello just reinforced her own will power enough to hold Heartbreaker’s form for more than a few minutes.”
“So what does all this stuff have to do with us?” she asked.
“They think it’s ready for another test. I’m going to try it. Tonight. If it works, I’ll have a body more like a normal Exemplar guy. I won’t look like… this anymore. But I’ll still be the same person inside. I don’t want to lose you over this. Can you still be my girlfriend if I don’t look the same anymore?”
She puzzled it out for a moment. “Aren’t you worried about some other stuff? Like Chou, and staying in Poe, and staying a Kimba?”
I admitted, “I thought about all of them. A lot. But the one I’m the most concerned about is you.”
Her eyes grew huge, and she gushed, “Really? Me?” I nodded. “You sweetie!”
Apparently, that was the right thing to say, because she hopped out of the chair, sat in my lap, and kissed me senseless. I had some other things to tell her about the BIT-slicer, but I sort of lost track of things for a while.
Okay, for a really long while. A really, really long while.
I was late to dinner. Not that I was all that concerned, given the quality of the food that probably awaited me. If I was going to find heaping helpings of gruel surprise and pig intestine tartare when I walked into Dunn Hall, then being late wasn’t exactly a problem.
All right, no one was preparing gruel or pig intestines. As far as I knew. It just felt like that, when the food was so far below what I had been getting from the chefs. That was it, really. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was just plain spoiled. The food wasn’t really any worse than the slop I had had to endure at Chilton. It was just that I had grown accustomed to better cuisine since I had arrived here, and now I wasn’t getting what I wanted. God, I sounded like a two-year-old.
I got in the food line, and tried not to think about what I was going to be choking down for this meal. I should have ordered out. I should have arranged for a lavish dinner for two, and then explained to Vox about the BIT-slicer over canapés and an elegant main dish. Or perhaps there was no way that a dinner explication could have gone as well as our chat actually had. If the BIT-slicer worked – or if it failed horribly – Vanessa was still going to have to deal with the consequences of my actions. And neither of us had really dealt with some of the possible consequences. Still, some of the truly deranged concepts I came up with simply weren’t reasonable: the trials they had run had uniformly had either no effect whatsoever, or a temporary re-structuring of the BIT along the lines of the BIT donor. And I was still as nervous about it as a GSD case in a Humanity First! meeting.
I told myself that I still had several meringue tart halves back in my fridge. I could eat one or two of them if tonight’s dinner choices were less than stellar. Or less than mediocre. Or somewhat farther down the scale than ‘even Flem Snopes wouldn’t eat it’.
They had rolled-up objects that were called ‘burritos’, even though they obviously had enchilada sauce poured over the tops. I wondered snidely if that meant they were made with real burro. But I didn’t say that out loud. I was particularly careful to keep my mouth shut when half the students around me were helping themselves to the ‘pequeños burros’.
I didn’t want to be reminded of the infamous Chilton main dishes of ‘mystery meat surprise’ and ‘mystery meat rolled up inside something starchy’, but those enchiladas didn’t exactly perk up my appetite. Fortunately, there were a lot of alternatives. The chefs here needed tons of alternatives, when they had to feed nearly six hundred kids, some of whom ate almost as much as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir all by themselves.
Once I hiked past Enchilada Acres and Taco Terrace, carefully skirting the dreaded Swamp o’ Salsa, I checked out some main courses which weren’t an insult to the eating habits of the entire country of Mexico. The chicken and rice casserole actually looked like it was made with chicken and rice. And it even smelled like baked chicken, mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Mostly. I risked a helping. It looked like it was going to be several orders of magnitude better than the fried chicken patty sandwiches and fried fish ‘fillet’ sandwiches that were nearby.
The vegetables weren’t very promising, unless a bog of mashed potatoes counted as ‘promising’. There was a spinach soufflé that appeared to have misunderstood what the word soufflé meant. There was a jumble of overcooked corn kernels and oversized lima beans that tried to salvage those mistakes by tossing in tiny bits of red bell pepper for coloring. Next to that, there was a collation of mixed vegetables that looked like they had taken everything else in the kitchen, diced it, and dumped it into a big pot.
On the other hand, the fruit looked fresher than usual for Dunn Hall, so I helped myself to that. The ‘Caesar salad’ looked like it bore as much resemblance to Caesar as Edward G. Robinson had managed, but the Cobb salad looked like it was supposed to. I took a helping of that, along with a serving of a vinaigrette that had an interesting-looking mix of red pepper and onion in it.
Then I went hunting for some dessert. That apple pie had been fairly decent. I found what looked like the same kind of apple pie, and I took a large slice from the sector that looked like it was properly baked. Those ovens didn’t need a repairman, they needed to be dropped into Jade’s junkyard and crushed along with a couple old cars. And then dumped down those bottomless shafts so they couldn’t return à la “Christine”, because those ovens were undoubtedly evil.
I sat down at our table and touched the crystal. Everyone else looked up from their food. Chou said, “You are late.”
“Yes, mom,” I teased.
“Maybe a whole lotta ‘explaining’ goin’ on in that room with Vox,” smirked Toni.
“Oh, so that’s what they call it nowadays?” wondered Nikki airily.
Molly peeked from the other side of Chou. “Did it go okay?”
I found that the ridiculous smile was sliding back onto my face, no matter how hard I tried to control it.
“Oh yeah, that’s a ‘went real well’ smile there,” Toni asserted.
“So she’s okay with the whole BIT-slicer thing?” Jade checked. “You know, ‘cause that’s kind of important.”
I said, “I told her about it. She didn’t seem too upset with the whole guy-or-girl thing, but then that’s Vanessa anyway. But when I admitted I was more worried about her reaction than Chou’s or you guys’, then-”
“That’d do it,” interrupted Toni.
“Oh yeah,” Nikki agreed.
“Even I can see that one,” Hank added.
“You’re more worried about her reaction than mine?” Chou pretended to pout. I noticed Molly gave her an elbow.
I grinned, “Hey, I don’t want to lose you as a roommate, but I figure that’s bound to happen one of these years, now that you have Molly.” It seemed pretty inevitable to me that sooner or later, Chou was going to have a chance to room with Molly. Who the heck could turn down something like that?
Molly ducked her head and blushed, so I figured she had been thinking about the same thing at some point. I did wonder a bit about Molly’s current roommate. How did Dragonrider end up with Gateway? Okay, the two of them together were cute enough to give you a serious attack of hyperglycemia. But had Jadis exerted some of her ‘fixer’ muscle to get Lindsay a more compatible roommate? And if so, then how was Jadis planning on handling the whole ‘uh-oh I forgot to tell you about my dad’ issue? Did Jadis know that had apparently already come up?
And then there was the $64,000 question, which I had already decided I was not going to ask until I absolutely needed to know: what had the daughter of Devilmaster done when she learned that the family of her roommate was being threatened? The answer was going to be sweet, pathetic, or horrific… or some combination of the three. If she really liked Molly as much as she seemed to, would she stand off to the side and do nothing? I certainly hadn’t sat still when I found out about that extortion note. So, if Lindsay felt the need to do something, what would that mean? A call to daddy to wreak vengeance upon the Tong in ways too horrible to contemplate? Because Devilmaster was not known for being a ‘kitties and rainbows’ kind of guy. A call to him could unleash a small armada of flesh-rending devils. Or perhaps something a lot worse. So Lindsay had a rather unpleasant choice to make, and she was going to have to live with the consequences, either way.
“So… what are you gonna do if you end up beefcake instead of cheesecake?” Toni wondered out loud.
I sighed. “I don’t know. There’s no way I could keep rooming with Chou, so I might end up with a single down the hall over near Hank. Or they might kick me out of Poe. With my luck, I could end up in Melville next to Counterpoint and Bravo.”
“That would suck,” added Hank.
“Yeah. That’s the real excitement of prep school. The classes are fine. It’s the ‘getting stuck rooming with the Hannibal Lecter in training’ that’s really the problem,” I complained.
“And around here, when you say ‘Hannibal Lecter’, that can be a lot more literal than you’d like,” muttered Billie.
“Yeah, you just know we’re goin’ to school with the next Dr. Diabolik or Deicide,” Toni said.
“Or Cobrafire!” Jade piped up. “What a creep. I mean, trying to burn up a mom and her baby?”
“It was really excellent seein’ Tennyo punch ol’ Trappy in the face like that,” Chaka grinned.
“Yeah, I kind of missed that part,” I groused.
Hank shrugged. “I had to make the call. We didn’t have Fey to hit him with a sleep spell, and we didn’t have Gen to shoot him with her Cobra. We needed something fast enough to stop him before he could even try to fry any of the hostages.”
“Okay, I think you made the right call there,” I confessed. “I just wish it didn’t hurt that much.”
He stared at me. “Some day we may have to do that for real, you know. So work on that.”
“Plus, you’re way better looking than Wolverine,” Toni said helpfully.
“Yeah, he’s short and stinky, and he smokes cigars,” Jade added.
“Yeah, but think of all the cool food you could prepare if you had those blades popping out of your arms whenever you wanted,” Nikki said sarcastically.
Toni helped out in her usual way. “Yeah. The Popeil Vegematic Wristblades. It slices! It dices! It makes hundred of julienne fries!”
“What are julienne fries?” Jade wondered.
“Hell if I know,” Toni admitted. “But they sound cool.”
“Thin french fries, basically,” I explained.
“Well, that doesn’t sound nearly as cool,” Toni said.
“I don’t know,” Billie mused. “Thin french fries sounds more appetizing to me.”
“Everything sounds appetizing to you,” I objected. “You ate about ten of those burrito/enchilada things, and they looked about as appetizing as rolled-up carpets.”
“Hey!” she protested. “They were good! And the sauce was tangy. I poured on a bunch of the hot sauce in that big green bottle to make ‘em spicier though.”
“Oh my God,” Nikki gasped. “That green bottle with the fire on the label? I only had about five drops on mine, and it still nearly burned a hole in my tongue!”
Billie shrugged. “Hey, if you live in Colorado, you get used to good spicy stuff.”
While the conversation devolved into a discussion about what was deliciously spicy, vs. what was insanely painful to put in your mouth, I savored my dinner.
Okay, I tried to savor my dinner. The chicken and rice casserole wasn’t too awful. Based on my experience with Janet’s limited cooking skills back in Los Angeles, I was guessing the ‘artificial mushroom’ taste was due to the liberal use of cream of mushroom soup. But the chicken wasn’t really overdone, and the rice wasn’t too overcooked. Okay, it was a plain, long-grain white rice that lacked flavor and texture, but it was otherwise edible. The vegetables in the casserole were overdone, but that was fairly inevitable given the constraints of the chefs. Then the fruit was fine, even if I would have been happier with a better variety. The Cobb salad by itself was okay. The salad dressing was a refreshing surprise, though, and it lifted the salad from ‘just barely okay’ to ‘I would certainly eat this again, given the alternatives’. There was just enough red pepper and finely minced onion to give the dressing piquancy and flavor, without overwhelming the tastebuds and burying the flavors of the salad. The hints of garlic and oregano were subtle and well-balanced, while the olive oil tasted like a better variety than I was normally seeing in Dunn Hall. And finally, the apple pie was as good as I remembered it, although I wouldn’t have wanted to find out what the other two-thirds of the crust tasted like. I was figuring that about a quarter of that pie had seriously overdone crust, while perhaps a little less than a quarter was underdone, and would taste disgustingly doughy.
I decided to make a little effort to improve the dessert, and so I went back to the food line. I found some cinnamon and pulled the crust off to add just a hair of piquancy to the pie. Then I walked back to the table.
“…So I was listening to my new Britney Spears record, and my stupid roommate came in crying about her boyfriend…”
Oh crap. I hastily touched the crystal to avoid hearing the rest of that story. Nikki had to find some better mealtime conversations to replicate.
“…and that was when I found out no one had told Molly about the new shower system,” Chou finished.
Molly blushed bright red and buried her head in her hands. “Well, how was I supposed to know how to switch on the sound masking thing? Nobody told me!”
Oh man. Maybe it would have been better to listen to the ‘Britney Spears and roommate’ thing. This was just painful. Poor Molly. And I didn’t want to know who heard her. It would probably turn out to be Stoner and Gabriel and Flux.
Toni tried to cheer her up. “Hey, no big. Last time someone forgot it was Sharisha. Now that was funny!”
I said, “Pilar forgot too. It happens. And it’s not like we’re holding it against you.”
Nikki added, “Plus, Toni promises she won’t tease you about it.”
“I what? Oh. Right. I promise.”
Molly whispered into her hands, “It’s still really embarrassing.”
So I ate my pie while enjoying the entertainment, which was Toni repeatedly having to contain her natural urge to tease, kid, gig, torment, and otherwise heckle people. Every time she had a really good line to toss at Molly, she’d get a glare from Nikki or Chou, and suddenly remember she wasn’t supposed to tease Molly. She was acting like the stress of having to choke back her witty comments was slowly strangling her. After a while, even Molly was giggling at her performance.
You know, if Toni ever loses her powers and goes back to being a baseline, she has a great career ahead of her doing stand-up and comedic acting. On top of that, she would be the best-looking professional comedienne ever. That would automatically put her in the running for a ton of movie roles… as long as she didn’t have that ‘mutant’ tag hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles.
Once we were all done, and Billie had eaten another tray full of those burrito-shaped logs, we headed back over to Poe. I had planned an agenda for the evening, but the more I thought about it, the more I needed to talk some more with Billie and Jade about the BIT-slicer.
I detoured over to their room while they were still getting inside. Jade was wondering out loud, “So you think I could put Jasmine in the cabbit and go over and tease Akira some more? It’s really funny!”
Billie sighed, “Please, not again. They’re acting like I really am Ryoko, and I really have some secret way of getting into outer space! They’re bugging me again to take them with me. They’re driving me crazy!”
Jade agreed, “Yeah! So let’s tease ‘em some more with the cabbit! It’s tons of fun!”
“Okay, okay, sometimes you’re no fun at all,” Jade muttered.
“And speaking of no fun at all, I’m here too,” I put in. I figured that if I said it first, they couldn’t get away with using the line.
Billie looked over at me for a second and then pretended to pout, “But I’m more fun than Ayla, right?”
Jade tried not to giggle as she said, “Oh yeah, everyone’s more fun than Ayla.”
I added in a pompous voice, “In fact, I’m changing my name to… No Fun Guy!”
Billie grinned, “Hey Jade, that could be like your arch-enemy.”
I put my fists on my hips in a Skyhawk imitation. “That’s right… Giggle Girl! Once I unleash my latest invention, the Federal Tax Code Emulsifier, no one will be having fun ever again!”
Jade immediately leapt off her bed into the air. Literally. Her blanket leapt off her bed with her and became a cape billowing dramatically behind her. She hovered about two feet off the floor with her hands on her hips and her feet apart, matching my dorky pose. “Giggle Girl doesn’t know the meaning of the word defeat!”
I couldn’t resist interjecting, “And she doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘rationality’ either!”
“Or the meaning of the word ‘crayon’!” added Billie helpfully.
“Giggle Girl does so know the meaning of the word crayon!” proclaimed Giggle Girl. “It’s the cute little pink thing I use to write ‘No Fun Guy is a big poopyhead’ all over your secret lair.”
I pretended to slap myself on the head. “Doh! I knew I shouldn’t have shot all those henchmen even after they said they didn’t do it…”
“Hah! Giggle Girl always defeats the forces of boredom and no-fun-ness!”
I gave her my best evil look. “But can she defeat… your next final exam!!!”
She clapped her hands to her face in the “Home Alone” look and wailed, “Noooo! Not that!”
Billie spoke down a cardboard tube that had probably once held paper towels, just so she could get the right quality in her voice. “Has No Fun Guy defeated our heroine? Can she find a way out of this hideous trap? Tune in next week for the further adventures of GIGGLE GIRL!”
“Same laugh time, same laugh channel!” added Jade.
I sat down in one of their desk chairs and said, “I don’t know, I just don’t think this show is going to get decent Nielsens in the target markets.”
Jade sank back down to her bed. “See? You really are No Fun Guy.”
“But only because I strive to be a better No Fun Guy every day, and I practice diligently at it,” I said.
Billie sounded sad as she pointed out, “You know, Ayla, you kinda do. You do all this extra stuff for Team Tactics, and you write all our reviews, which is really totally not fair, and Chou says you’re taking three full term no-fun classes on the side, plus that Shakespeare course you’re taking, and if that’s as much fun as you’re getting, you really do need Giggle Girl to come cheer you up.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jade. “That Intro to Fabrication course is the most fun thing ever! I get to let Jasmine and Jayna out to play, and we make the coolest stuff…”
Billie rolled her eyes. “I was thinking about stuff like the fun courses. You know. Flight. That course Vanessa’s takin’. That sounds really fun, from what she was saying. The courses on tv and movies and stuff. The dance classes. The ones on learning to play tennis and badminton and volleyball.”
“You know, Toni never did stop griping about everyone else using their powers when she was learning tennis last term. Remember Silver playing with two mithril rackets that could extend arbitrarily far?”
Jade grinned, “I liked the girl who absorbs energy, and she kept absorbing the energy on the tennis ball, making it drop on the ground as soon as it got over the net.”
Hmm. I’d missed the griping about that one. “Still, you need to learn to play normally, without powers, so you can play a normal game with someone you meet at a country club or a gym.”
“Why?” Jade wondered.
“What do you mean ‘why’? They’re social activities, in a sports context. It’s how you meet people and gain their trust, and it provides a way to interact outside of meetings.”
Billie frowned, “Ayla, I think you missed the whole point. Most of the world isn’t the millionaire country club set with super-fancy business meetings. That’s just you.”
“Okay…” I temporized. But that was why we had been taught how to play tennis and golf, and how to ride horses. Because they were sports you could play while meeting other businessmen, and while interacting with those people when you ran into them again. I didn’t learn how to play golf just so I could find a way to waste entire Saturdays, for Pete’s sake!
“So if you didn’t drop by for tennis lessons, what’s up?” Billie asked.
“Yeah, you hardly ever come by just to hang out,” Jade concurred.
Damn. They were right about that, too. “That’s because I’m a bad friend,” I admitted.
“No, you’re not!” Jade insisted. “You have us over to your room all the time.”
“Nobody else around here keeps snacks around for me and Hank,” Billie added.
“Yeah, but I am over here to bug you about something,” I said.
“What?” Billie asked. “More stuff to test?”
“No,” I told her. “I’m really nervous about the BIT-slicer. And so I’d like you to tell me everything you can remember about it.” Nervous? Me? Of course not. I wasn’t nervous. I was pants-wetting scared.
Jade said, “Ayla, you already asked us about this junk.”
Billie looked at Jade and agreed, “Yeah, if you’re this worried about it, maybe you oughta just not go through with it.”
I gritted my teeth. “I have to. Jade, you know why.”
Jade nodded. “Umm, well, yeah. I was the same way. But it didn’t really work for me. Okay, it worked for a little bit. And that was the best thing ever. But then it didn’t last. Okay, maybe that’s just me. But I don’t want you to get hurt, or do anything crazy if it doesn’t come out the way you want.”
I thought about how Jade had handled her reversion, and I shuddered inwardly. “Of course not. If this doesn’t work for me, I still have options. And those options include providing additional funding, and then letting them get the BIT-slicer up and running before I try it again.”
I should have known not to say I had other options. Not in front of Miss ‘I’d Rather Hack Off My Own Dick’ herself. “Other options? Really? Are you sure?”
I caught Billie’s angry glare, and I backpedaled, “Well, not immediate options. As I said, giving Knick-Knack and company more time to get the BIT-slicer working. Giving Spark time and money to study her biomorphology results – if she can turn Reach into a girl, she might be able to make that work under controlled lab conditions if she has time to work out the problems. And then there’s Mister Bio-deviser himself. Jobe.”
“Ewww,” Jade cringed. “Even I’m not desperate enough to go there.”
Billie looked positively alarmed. “Jobe? Aren’t you just asking to get turned into a Drow girl dark-elf thing, or whatever everyone’s talking about?”
I nodded, “I know about that. The idea is to wait until he’s done Drowing up his harem, and then give him a problem that captures his intellectual curiosity. That’s bound to get him focused.”
Billie winced, “That still sounds really, really dangerous.”
“Of course it is,” I agreed. “That’s why it’s so far down my list of rational options. I’ll only consider it if I can work out a reasonable contract and have a rational expectation that he’d willingly adhere to the conditions. Otherwise, there’s no point in even considering it.”
Jade finally said, “Can you do a contract with someone like Jobe?”
I nodded. “Sure. He’s dangerous, but he sticks to his guns.”
Billie muttered, “Only his guns shoot Ebola virus at you.”
Jade added, “Ebola virus, only with little tiny teeth and claws too. And maybe scorpion stingers.”
I went on, “The key is working out the contractual details, in their entirety. I have a lot of experience in contract negotiations, and I know when to bring in subject matter experts. This would be a complex negotiation, and we’d need a lot of give and take in the early phases.”
Billie looked at me funny. “Who the heck do you get for a contract like that one?”
I told her my choices. She looked at me like I had just told her I was going to pick Damien Faust as a negotiator, and then trade my soul to Satan for a really nice Barcalounger.
After that, I had a hard time getting them back on track. But once I did, they chatted about their memories of the BIT-slicer trials. I was fairly sure they were doing it just to humor me, but that was okay by me.
Billie mainly wanted to talk about what perverts Kew and Sonex were. Okay, Kew had been pretty embarrassed about the contact solution and the other stuff, but not nearly as embarrassed as Billie was. And then it took forever for Billie to scrub all that crap off again. She didn’t seem to remember the pain, or the inertial forces. But this was Billie, so she might not have noticed any centrifugal forces.
Jade, on the other hand, thought that the first part was icky, especially the part that shoved up into her crotch as her vagina formed, but she mainly remembered how much it hurt. The intermittent contact, as her breasts filled out and her male privates turned into the privates she really wanted, meant that she spent a lot of the time getting nasty electrical shocks to her sensitive bits. The high-speed spinning made her feel like she would either black out or be squashed into paste on the side of the machine. She hardly even remembered the clean-up afterward: the first time, she had been too discouraged to think about it, and the second time she had been too elated to notice much of anything else.
And they both remembered when Jade found out that Jinn had Billie’s shape, and had become a chalk Ryoko. Billie rolled her eyes as she pointed out how goofy it was to do the ‘evil clone’ routine when you were only made of chalk dust.
“It was funny!” Jade insisted. “And besides, it’s traditional. Every superhero who gets an evil clone, the clone does it!”
Billie reminded her, “That’s in comic books. In real life, clones don’t work like that.”
Jade pouted, “Well they ought to! It would be really cool!”
I managed not to get into a rant about the drawbacks of cloning technologies. Goodkind Research had a division in the Biological Sciences Department that been working on cloning technologies for a couple decades, and was still finding flaws. They had done better than Dolly the cloned sheep, but not in a way that lent itself to replication, much less to any sort of mass production process. And the whole ‘grow a new person’ concept was rife with problems. Maybe a deviser could do it once, possibly even without drastic flaws, but it certainly wasn’t working for baseline researchers.
While Jade and Billie spent some time warning me about the perverted weirdness they had to go through before they went into the BIT-slicer, I stewed and fretted. I wasn’t really all that concerned about the painting-on-electrical-connections part. I had survived a few days in the tender care of Emil Hammond, so nothing was going to approach those levels of nastiness. I wasn’t even that concerned about the electrical shocks, even though I wasn’t looking forward to getting hurt. I was worrying about the same old thing that had haunted me for a couple days. What if it worked? What if it failed drastically? What if it worked, and then Vanessa found out that the reality of a muscular guy was more than she could handle?
I wrapped up, “Hey, thanks for putting up with me on this.”
Billie smiled naughtily, “Toni would say we have to put up with you on all kinds of stuff.”
Jade clambered off her bed and gave me a big hug. “And good luck! I really wish it had fixed me for keeps, and it was really great being a girl even for a few days, so I hope it works for you.”
I hugged her back. “Thanks. Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.”
“Hey, Team Kimba sticks together,” she insisted.
“Yeah,” said Billie. “The team that somethings together sticks together.”
“Our new motto,” I smirked.
“I should work on that,” she muttered.
“The team that icks together, sticks together!” Jade suggested.
“The team that sneers together, adheres together,” I contributed.
“Sounds like the motto of the Alphas,” Billie pointed out.
“The team that smears together adheres together!” Jade grinned. “Because we sure have smeared plenty of other teams.”
I walked off, wondering if there were any rhymes for ‘adhere’ that would work well. I got back to my room just as my bPhone rang. As soon as I saw who was calling, I rushed to answer it. “Hi, Paul!”
Paul said, “I can’t talk now, but I just wanted to give you a quick heads-up. That little thing you asked me about? I managed to swing it without making it look too obvious.”
“Really?” I broke into a grin. “How many?”
“Two,” he said. “That’s all I could do.”
I smiled, “Hey, that’s more than I expected. Thanks a lot. And if everything goes smoothly, I won’t even need them.”
He sighed, “Since when have things gone smoothly for us? I think the last time things were going smoothly was about a year before Greg jumped ship.”
Yeah, we had been through a rough period lately. I reminded him, “Goodkinds don’t complain, they fix things.”
“So, are you fixing things at your end?” he replied.
“I’m trying. In fact, I’ve got a try tonight. If it works, I’ll probably look like a cross between you and Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
“And if it doesn’t work?” he checked.
“I would probably end up looking the same as I look right now.”
“Well, good luck on the body building,” he said.
We hung up and I checked the time. Damn. Still too early to go get Peril. I forced myself to sit down at my desk and read through eClip links and phone messages and everything else I had in my week’s backlog, until it was 7:42. Even then, I didn’t really need three full minutes to fly through the wall and over to the standard meeting locale Peril and I had adopted. I took the time to check that I had my utility belt on me, and then I took a leak. And I was still early.
Peril was just arriving at our spot as I flew in. He saw me and waved, “Hey, Phase! Right on time!”
I said, “Great. We need to get down into the tunnels and hike all the way over to the lab.”
“No problem,” he grinned. “This oughta be really cool.”
I shrugged, “Maybe not. Remember what I said about Tennyo and Generator’s trip in this thing. Not a lot of fun for the whole family. I would have thought the jetpack incident would have taught you a lesson about this type of ‘fun’ activity.”
He laughed. “You sound like my mother! Honey, don’t jump off the roof onto the trampoline. Honey, don’t skateboard-jump over the creek. Honey, don’t bicycle off the roof, onto the trampoline, over the fence, onto the Dawsons’ trampoline, and into their pool.”
I think my jaw dropped open. Holy crap! I could envision just what that last stunt would entail, and I didn’t think Evel Knievel could pull it off.
He looked at me. “Everybody gives me shit about that jetpack thing, y’know, but it was a hell of a lot of fun, right up ‘til the big boom part. And it was just ‘at one time. I do a lot of testin’ for the devisers. Well, the ones who aren’t so dumb they’ll test it out on their own selves when they don’t have Exemplar skin and they don’t have a lick of Regen. So I get to try out a lot of the coolest guns and stuff, and some of the anti-grav gizmos, and stuff like the jetpack, and all kinds of gear. Last fall, Flashbang and Tinkertrain even let me try out this awesome plasma cannon on Range Four. Okay, so the plasma balls didn’t go where you aimed; I could still outrun ‘em easy even carryin’ the cannon, and there was no way Tinkie could’ve run fast enough. It was still more fun than… than… Mahren’s firearms class! Back home, you go huntin’ and all you got is a thirty-ought-six or somethin’ like that. Here, I get to try out stuff like lightning blasters and masers!”
Okay, so maybe I was underestimating him. If he did this stuff all the time, and only had problems once in a while, maybe this was a bit more rational. And if he had been doing this sort of risk-taking since he was a little kid, then getting Exemplar and Regen powers was probably his dream come true.
I said, “Well, hopefully, this is going to be putting on a freaky suit and then having fun in a high-speed Tilt-a-Whirl. Nothing more. But I can’t guarantee there won’t be any problems.”
“Oh, come on,” he argued. “Where’s the fun if there’s no risk?”
“You mean, like the thing where you jumped from your roof, onto two trampolines, and into a swimming pool?”
He laughed, “Yeah! Like that. Not like I made that one every time, y’know. One time, I racked myself pretty good, and one time I broke my leg. But all the other times were awesome.”
I winced, “You racked yourself? Flying through the air on a bike and hitting the ground?”
He laughed, “Oh yeah. Tony Dawson got it on his mom’s little videocamera, and we sent it in to ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’, but we didn’t win first prize. I still got a copy, Tony put it up on YouTube. It’s a riot. He’s got like three of me making the double-jump and landing in the pool, the one where I racked myself, and the one where I caught the edge of the trampoline and hit the fence and did about a triple somersault in mid-air and broke my leg when I hit the ground.”
It was all I could do not to cringe just hearing about that one.
He grinned, “Relax! It was fine. And that video’s one of the all-time most popular ones on YouTube. Tony gets thousands of hits every single friggin’ week! Must be maybe five or ten million hits since he first put it up. Even more than the video he got of me skiin’ off his roof, doin’ a somersault off the top of his mom’s garden shed, and divin’ into his pool.”
Christ! I was suddenly feeling a deep sympathy for his mother. He must have been a madman as a kid. I had a feeling that if Peril hadn’t manifested, he’d be an X-Games superstar now, breaking bones about once a month and shilling for energy drinks or athletic gear.
I asked, “Are you going to be a test pilot for inventors after you graduate? It might be a way you could make a living doing the thing you like to do.”
He shrugged. “Really hadn’t thought about it. I’ve kinda been figurin’ I’d go to college, get a business degree, and go run the family business, and do the fun stuff on the side.”
I pointed out, “But now you know you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Your folks are set, the company’s in a good place, they can afford to bring in new blood, like technical experts they can groom to take over when they want to retire. Or you can take ten or fifteen years to be a product tester, and then go join the family business. You have a lot more flexibility now that I’m growing the corporation and they’re getting a permanent source of work.”
He thought out loud, “I dunno. Would devisers really pay for me to test their stuff?”
I snorted. “You could make a name for yourself just from what you’ve done around here. Set up a website. Use your deviser and gadgeteer contacts here to grow your business. Get references from everyone for whom you’ve done testing, and focus on the part where they say ‘oh my god if I hadn’t gotten Peril to do the testing I would have died, or been horribly maimed’. Start with Flashbang and Tinkertrain, with an emphasis on what their plasma cannon would have done to them. Ditto for your jetpack inventor. And once word of mouth goes around, you’ll have a ton of business. I can help you set up a pricing structure that will provide a decent career for you, and then… playtime.”
He grinned, “That sounds pretty damn good there, Phase. You really think I could make it work?”
We walked into a tunnel entrance, and it was bright enough to see him again. I nodded. “Yes. Start tomorrow. We’ll get business cards printed up. Go to all your testees, and hand out cards, and tell them you’re going to be available for testing at reasonable rates once you have all graduated and they have incomes. Ask them to recommend you to their friends and lab cohorts. Find someone who can recommend you to all the senior devisers and gadgeteers. If you don’t have anyone, I’ll get Triaxial and Automa-tech to do it as a favor to me. Then we focus on the networking. Some of them know Whateley alums. Some of them are related to Whateley alums – not that I want you testing for Gizmatic or Dr. Diabolik, but there are other options on the ‘relatives’ front. I think one of S.T.A.R. League Jr. has a dad who’s a deviser, and I have an in with them. And then there are the kids who have mentors or patrons who are devisers or work with devisers. That’s the business growth model you should pursue.”
He just stared at me open-mouthed. “Uhh… I know you’re a Goodkind and all, but you’re like fourteen!”
“How the hell do you know all this shit?” he finished.
“It’s what we do,” I explained. “I’ve spent my whole life learning about these kinds of issues, ever since I was old enough to understand what my father and uncles were talking about at the dinner table. When I was a little kid, my oldest brother taught me to read with the Wall Street Journal.”
“Man,” he muttered. “That sucks.”
“It was great,” I objected. “I loved being Father’s little businessman, and showing off how much I knew about the dinner conversation. I thought it was the coolest thing ever when he let me intern at Goodkind International headquarters… Okay, Heather hated it with a passion, but she hated everything that didn’t involve her being told how wonderful she was, and being allowed to shop ad nauseam. We run trillions of dollars of companies all over the world. Someone has to be willing to step up and assume the responsibilities.”
“Better you than me,” he groaned.
I shrugged. I didn’t get why people made such a big deal out of it. For a long time, I had wanted to be a doctor. But eventually Father had gotten me to see that I could help a lot more people in a lot more ways by being a businessman. And I wouldn’t ever have to say ‘turn to the left and cough’ while I was working.
I led Peril down the tunnels to Knick-Knack’s large lab. As we walked, I told him about the meeting I once had with Knick-Knack just outside the lab, and how we found that cloaked listening devise.
“And that’s another thing you should advertise,” I said. “A willingness to sign non-disclosure agreements. You would want someone to look over every NDA that wasn’t one of your own forms, because you would want to be able to go to the authorities if you recognized a devise you once tested, when it was publicly used by a supervillain. That might cut down on your business from certain sectors, but you’d sleep better at night, and you’d have fewer problems with the police and the feds.”
He asked, “Did you ever have problems like that?”
I sighed, “Now that you mention it, yeah. I provided support for Goodkind Legal, the summer of the Emil Hammond trial. I thought I was protecting a good guy who was being framed. It sure looked that way from our end, anyway. Then I turned into a mutant, and ended up in one of Hammond’s labs, and I found out – the hard way – that he really does torture mutants. I talked with Carson about that, after I came here. And that’s not the only example. I supported the MCO too, and that pretty well came back and bit me on the ass… like a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex. So now I’m wondering how much damage I did by all my efforts to do the right thing and save the planet. Some nights I don’t sleep well.”
“Yeah, but how could you know you weren’t doin’ the right thing? Not that I think you were, but jeez, there was no way you could know,” he stressed.
I sighed. A lot. “I tell myself that, but it doesn’t change things. There were years where I contributed more to the MCO than all but a couple countries. And frankly, I was pretty damned smug about that. The MCO still runs on Goodkind funding. I spent my whole life thinking the MCO was the best thing since sliced bread. Now I have wonder if I subsidized kidnapping and murder. Or worse.”
Peril shook his head. “You don’t get to run the world yet, pipsqueak. You’re an American. You’ve probably paid a shitload of taxes already. Are you responsible for every stupid thing Americans do overseas? Are you responsible for Iran-Contra, or giving Iraq and Afghanistan the weapons they’re usin’ on us these days? No! You don’t get to take credit for everything on the planet, even if you are a Goodkind.”
I muttered, “Thanks for the pep talk, coach. But I still feel guilty about it.”
He shrugged, “Hell, I still feel sorta guilty for talkin’ Tony into jumpin’ from his mom’s shed into their swimming pool when we were little, and he didn’t make it, and he needed about thirty stitches. That doesn’t mean I have to make it my life’s work to make it up to everybody who ever got hurt near a swimming pool.”
I admitted, “Just because you’re capable of dealing with these things doesn’t mean everyone is. And it doesn’t mean I should get off scot free for doing things that I once thought were right. There are plenty of people in prison cells right now who committed crimes while doing what they thought was right.”
He rolled his eyes. “NOBODY is ever gonna put a kid in jail for giving money to worthy causes that his family told him were the right thing to do. So just drop it.”
“Okay,” I said. Not that I was going to drop the issue. I was just going to drop the conversation.
We made our way to the Secure Mechanical Labs, although only my Exemplar memory kept us from getting hopelessly lost in the confusion of tunnels down in the deviser dungeons. Labyrinthine didn’t begin to cover the mess down there. I finally found the sign “Secure Mechanical Labs 1 – 8”, just before I spotted Security Officer Vane standing inside the doorway.
I led Peril up to the entrance and smiled, “Officer Vane. Don’t they let you sleep or anything?”
He smiled back. “Phase. Right on time. Knick-Knack’s people told me you were coming, and bringing someone for the project.” He rolled out a gizmo that was festooned with antennae and miniature radar dishes. “Let me activate B-SASE here.”
“B-SASE?” I asked suspiciously.
“Broad-Spectrum Anti-Surveillance Equipment. I didn’t name it,” he told me.
He flipped several switches, and it hummed ominously. Two of the tiny radar dishes swiveled about in an oddly choreographed maneuver that reminded me of someone rolling their eyes. Blue sparks flew back and forth between two neighboring antennae. The low hum changed pitch, slowly moving from basso profundo up to soprano. And finally, the light on the top of the thing turned a bright green.
“Okay. All clear,” he said. “We’ve been having problems with more of those cloaked bugs you caught, so I have to run this every time I’m going to open the entrance door.”
“How many have you caught?” I wondered.
He pursed his lips. “I’ve been asked not to go into the details in this, so I think I’ll just say that your time wasn’t the only time.”
“And even once is too many times,” I said.
He nodded, “Too right.” Officer Vane let us walk in, and he quickly closed the security door behind us.
I pointed out the nice, normal hallways. “This is a lot nicer than the original spot where Fearless Leader had the devisers working before.” Peril chortled at my little joke. I went on, “He had it hidden away in one of the distant ‘secret’ tunnels. Sonex told me Knick-Knack complained a ton about having to travel that far every day, and how he was going to have to cut down on his project hours because it took so long to get from his main lab over there.”
Peril nodded. “Knick-Knack’s got a bad limp. I can see that happening.”
I said, “Anyway, after they ended up needing two separate runs to get their second trial to do what they wanted, they had some brainstorming, and so the new system is supposed to be smaller. And that’s why they moved it over here instead. That, plus the ability to hire a Security guy for protection, given the amount of snooping around that they seem to be getting. I know a couple devisers who are dying to get in on this project, and then there are the industrial espionage types. And God only knows how hard Belphegor is working to steal some of this stuff.”
“Ugh, don’t mention that fat blobbo,” muttered Kew as she walked forward to meet us. “I wanted to get a couple Cadets tailing him, but Ace is too busy with the Masterminds and the Bad Seeds and the Ninjas, and now A-Plus wants us checking on the Whitman Lit Chix to see why they messed up our op last term, and Rez wants to track down the Dylans’ secret greenhouse and find out if they were involved in that G-Force episode at Halloween. I’m starting to feel like a real police detective: incredibly overworked, and completely unappreciated.”
I did the introductions. “Peril, this is Kew, the brains behind the gadgets used by the Spy Kidz. Kew, this is Peril, who’s best known for the exploding jetpack incident, but it turns out is one of the biggest Type T’s here at Whateley.”
Peril grinned, “Come on, it was just that one time! Aren’t you ever gonna let that drop?”
I smirked, “What? And give up the only thing I have for teasing purposes?”
Kew said to Peril, “At least she didn’t bluff you so bad at your first meeting that your teammates are still giving you shit about it.”
“Sorry about that,” I apologized rather belatedly. “I was so busy planning tactically and trying to figure out whether you guys could be a valuable resource that I sort of forgot to avoid the ‘treating people like crap’ part or the ‘no publicly humiliating people’ part.”
She gave me a half-shrug, half-wince reaction. “Worse stuff’s happened to me here. And you did stuff Ace real well there. He was grumpy about that for days.”
Peril said, “I heard you suckered the whole Secret Squirrels team into a snowball fight in front of Poe.”
I admitted, “It wasn’t me. That was the Masterminds, running a big con so they could try something elsewhere.”
Kew couldn’t help smirking. “I’m glad I missed that one. They all ended up with egg on their faces. And snow down their shorts. Interface still keeps gigging Holdout and Ace about it. Especially Ace.”
I told her, “Yeah, Bladedancer and Gateway were pretty pissed off. Since ‘Dancer’s sword can slice through, say, Sirrush, Ace is lucky all he got out of it was snow down his clothes. If A-Plus had hurt Gateway, Bladedancer might have turned half the team into chopped sirloin.”
Peril laughed, “Yeah, we all saw what she did to that dickhead Nex.”
Kew nodded. “And a lot of people saw what she did to Bombshell in that Arena match. That put a bunch of smug bricks in their place.” She sounded like she had a couple smug bricks in mind, too.
As we talked, Kew led us through a long corridor, past several other labs, and finally through a special security gate that looked like what airport metal detectors wished they could be when they grew up.
Once we were inside the atrium of the lab, Kew turned to us with a wince. “Umm, Phase, Sonex says you’re really a guy? Just with a weird BIT?”
“Yep,” I admitted through pursed lips. I didn’t like where this was going.
She continued, “And you actually have… still… a wiener? And everything?”
I said, “Well, I have male genitalia, and a male brain. But that’s about it. I apparently have an endocrine system that can’t figure out what the hell I am, and all the rest of me is distinctly female. Why are you asking?” But I had a good idea already.
She winced again. “Knick-Knack isn’t gonna help with the… umm… details.”
I nodded. “I know all about the details. I got full reports from two of your early subjects.”
She tried again. “So there’s only me and Sonex to do the… ahem… meridian marking.”
Peril suddenly grinned, “Oh! And you don’t wanna be dealin’ with a naked guy, right? But everyone knows Sonex likes guys, so you figure we don’t want him workin’ on either of us.”
I added, “And you don’t have any lab techs to do the dirty work.”
She frowned, “Right. Knick-Knack’s the only one with peons to do the dirty work. At least, that’s how he sees it. So one of you gets me, and one of you gets Sonex. And either way, I’m stuck marking meridians on a guy. With a wiener and stuff.”
Peril snickered, “The old ‘meat and two’.”
She looked at him strangely, and he explained, “It’s slang. Where I come from, there’s these little diners that serve great Southern food, and you order a main dish, and two or three or four side dishes. We call it ‘meat and two’ if you get two sides.”
“Oh.” The explanation didn’t cheer her up.
I said, “Look Emily…” She started slightly when she realized I knew her real name. “…I don’t care. It’s embarrassing either way. But I know Sonex, so having him work on me doesn’t bother me any more than having you work on me. I’m a freakshow under this uniform, so neither of you is going to like what you see. So you go ahead and choose.”
Peril shrugged and said, “Sonex is an okay guy. I tested some stuff for him last year. I’m okay with him, if you don’t wanna have ta work on me.”
She looked back and forth between us, and finally said, “God, I guess I’m going with you, Phase.”
Peril wiggled his eyebrows at her and teased, “Ya sure you don’t wanna pick me, Kew?”
She rolled her eyes. “No pickup lines, please. I know your girlfriend, and she wouldn’t be happy at all if she heard you were hitting on me.”
He smiled, “I’m not gonna hit on you. That would be rude. And besides, everyone knows I like ta live dangerously.”
She looked at me and muttered, “Looks like I made the right choice, Phase.”
I grinned, “Maybe, but what if I spend the whole time trying to talk you into making some cool gadgets and then using my patent and marketing services?”
She just shook her head. She pulled out her cell phone and pressed a speed-dial button. “Sonex? We’re waiting on you. I’m taking Phase, and you’ve got Peril… Yeah, Peril… Don’t be icky!” She hung up and said to Peril, “He’ll be out in a couple seconds. If he gets gross or anything, just go ahead and hit him.”
Peril just laughed. “Where is he?”
Kew pointed at a doorway off to our right. Peril just strode right over to it and yanked it open, calling out, “Hey Rafael, it’s Michelangelo!”
Kew just stared with her mouth hanging open. She turned to me, “Was that supposed to be a ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ joke?”
“It’s possible,” I admitted. Granted, about all I knew about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was that they were named for four Italian Renaissance artists. On the other hand, there was a mutant in Poe named Michelangelo, even if most of us called him Stoner… when we weren’t calling him Gerald or That Asshole. So maybe, maybe not.
She shrugged. “Come on. We’ve improved our technique, but it’s still icky. And the BIT-slicer’s improved too.”
“Really?” I asked, trying to keep the suspicion and anxiety out of my voice.
“Really,” she replied. “We got to the point where the length of the cables and the distance the energy had to travel was becoming a bottleneck, so we had to re-design. We made the rotator as small as we could, we moved the control room in closer, we put the energetic subsystems in closer… We ended up with something a lot smaller and faster than what we started with.”
Okay, that probably meant that a lot of the information I had was out of date. That wasn’t making me feel better. In fact, it was making my stomach knot up even more than it had been doing earlier. I just concentrated on looking calm, even if I didn’t feel calm. I said, “Interesting. Shall we get started?”
She shrugged again. “Okay. I guess Generator and Tennyo told you what we did?”
I nodded and lied, “Yeah, them and a couple other of your subjects.”
She winced. “Shit! You’re not supposed to know about the other tests! Who told? Igneous? He was really pissed it didn’t work, I can see him doing it. Was it Psydoe?”
I held up my hand. “No it wasn’t either of them. So relax.” But I had a lot more information, just for the minor effort of bluffing the pants off Emily. Again.
She held up a sponge-tipped brush that was at the end of a plastic tube. The other end of the tube fitted onto a small compressor, which in turn had a tube that ran to a closed canister. The sponge tip was wet with a thick golden-colored liquid. She explained, “It’s our new contact colloid dispenser. I’m gonna paint this on – well, they’re not meridians, but they serve an analogous purpose – and on some contact points. We’ve added more contacts and a better linkage system. But I’m still going to have to… umm… well… paint some of this on your privates.” She looked a little bilious at the idea.
I said, “Emily, if this is too gross for you, I could do the paintjob on my genitalia. You just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. Okay?”
She cringed. I could hear her muttering under her breath, “I can do this… I can do this… I can do this…”
It took The Little Engine That Could about twenty seconds to get up her courage. Then she shook her head, “No, I got it. I think… No, I know I can do this!”
“Not to break the momentum or anything, but aren’t you going to need me to undress first?”
She blushed. “Oh yeah. That. Umm, you need to undress. Totally. Once I get all the contacts marked on you, we’ve got an insulated outfit for you to get into. It’s not any fun either.”
Great. This sounded more and more entertaining with every second. I could hardly wait.
I undressed, carefully setting my utility belt nearby, just in case. Not that I really thought I was going to need it, but it didn’t hurt to have it handy. Just as I was planning on taking the belt and Team Kimba’s uniforms along when we went to Boston on Saturday. And I had already made sure Nikki would have her ‘dressing everyone in their uniform’ spell along. Plus, a couple other little precautions I had already undertaken.
Not that I was getting paranoid in my old age or anything, but at the ripe old age of very-nearly-fifteen, I was learning that the universe really was out to get me. My universe, plus some very nasty parts of some other universes.
Kew didn’t want to watch me get undressed, but she was obviously curious. Okay, lots of people had heard that I was an intersexed freakjob. I didn’t blame her for wanting to know just how bizarre I really looked. But she was being polite, and even helping me hang up my clothes on some hangers.
She said, “Doc Martens so do not go with a school uniform.”
I admitted, “No, but they do go with the look I’m trying to present.”
She smirked, “The ‘I’ll kick your ass if I have to’ look?”
“Exactly,” I said. I was after an image that made a variety of points simultaneously: wealthy, traditional, yet approachable… and potentially very dangerous.
She hung up my blazer and pants and blouse. Then she looked at me and stared. “I thought you were supposed to be a guy!”
I looked down. At that point, I was wearing nothing but a bra and women’s menswear-tailored boxers. Not the most masculine ensemble imaginable. I shrugged, “I have boobs. So I have to wear a bra. You know what would happen if I walked around here braless.”
She nodded and pursed her lips. She confided, “I’ve been wearing a camisole and skirt with a special x-ray refractive coating, ever since we found out about Peeper. But I don’t know if it works.”
I told her, “I think Peeper’s talent is probably Esper, rather than real x-ray vision. But I don’t know for sure. But if it really is Esper, then the x-ray refraction may not do the trick.”
She nodded, “Oh sure, we figured that out a while ago. Bugs is trying to work up a devise that’d work like a Wizard’s blocking spell, so Esper talents wouldn’t see through your clothes either.”
I thought about what I had in mind for the next time I went over to Hawthorne. “Why don’t you try something worse? Instead of a blocking spell, try something that would make him sick to his stomach every time he looked. Like maybe a copy of Jericho’s clothing.”
She giggled evilly. “Or every time he looks at one of our crotches, he gets a mental image of a great big wiener.”
Okay, that was even more evil than my idea. I would have to tell Nikki that one. She’d love the idea of Peeper scoping her out – yet again – and screaming in horror.
She hung up my bra and said, “La Senza? Isn’t that like super-expensive?” As I shrugged, she said, “Oh yeah. You can afford it. I forgot you’re richer than Thuban and Fantastico put together.”
I decided to explain a little. “I have some figure problems…”
She stared at me and frowned, “Are you kidding? I’d kill to have your figure.”
I sighed, “That’s it exactly. I’d do just about anything to not have this figure. How would you like it if you looked so masculine that girls came up to you and wanted to date you?”
“Eww,” she choked. “Just ewww.” Then she got it. “You’re really a boy? And you have other boys hitting on you? That’s just icky.”
I took off the boxers and the thong from Cecilia, and my privates swung free.
“Oh my GOD!” Kew squeaked.
I looked up. She was standing there cringing, with her arms over her chest and her eyes squeezed shut. It didn’t take Hercule Poirot to figure out she had been surprised by the sight of my boy-package.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than that, does it?” she asked hopefully.
I looked down and checked. “Oh yeah, it does. This is the flaccid state.”
She gulped. “Oh God.” She concentrated on her little mantra. “I can do this… I can do this…”
I sighed, “Look Emily, if this is too awful for you, just tell me what I need to do, and I’ll do it for you.”
“No! I can do this!” she insisted.
I knew she was stressed out, but she was really making me feel like I had some sort of contagious disease, or something worse. I tried again, “So tell me what needs to be done.”
She still had her eyes clamped shut, but she explained, “I, uhh, the prep person needs to place eight dots of the contact colloid on specific spots on the… umm… penis and… umm… well… the testicles. Then there’s a bag you put the person’s… privates in and zip it closed, so we have the insulation and the proper conductive connections.”
“Sounds like more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” I said dryly.
She admitted, “It’s bad enough touching another girl’s… umm… stuff, but I don’t know about doing this to a guy’s… junk.”
I tried again. “Do we need to do the genitalia thing first, or last?”
“Umm, last would probably be better, but…”
“But you don’t want to look at my junk any more than you have to. Right?” I supplied.
“Right,” she winced.
“Okay, then let’s get that out of the way first, and do the other stuff second,” I pushed.
She finally relented, and we got down to the extremely uncomfortable task of applying cold goo to my privates. Which was really not as much fun as it sounds, particularly when the application was being done by someone who was looking at my privates like they were some sort of Lovecraftian horror that might at any moment leap off my body and attack her. Kew put on some heavy gloves and put the dots of golden goop on my junk, even though she winced and cringed with every application. You would have thought she was getting the stuff painted on her privates.
After the raw entertainment of that experience, the next step was comparatively mild. There was a rubber mold that I had to slip my privates into and zip closed along the top. It had some cabling on the side which had a complicated connector near the base of my dick. I had a feeling it would plug into something, somewhere.
The next step was more marking. Kew seemed to feel better about things when she didn’t have to look at my boy-package, so things progressed a little faster. She painted lines down my sides, from my armpits to my ankles. Then she added lines down the insides of my arms, lines down my back, and lines down my abs.
“Done yet?” I asked.
“No, not quite,” she replied. “I still have to do your… umm…”
“My nipples?” I interjected. I had been paying attention to Billie and Jade, you know.
“Well, yeah,” she admitted. “And then the insulated bodysuit.”
“Which is what?” I asked.
“Well, now it’s a wetsuit, with some conductive cabling added. Way easier to make than the stuff we had before, and we can have a bunch of different sizes without too much trouble, So, once I get your… umm…”
“Yeah. Nipples. Then you put on the wetsuit, and you’re ready.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s get to it.”
The spongy applicator felt just as weird as it had when it was touching my dick. Tennyo had complained a couple times about the involuntary nipple erections she got, and how embarrassing that was. I didn’t have that problem. Instead, I had an itchy feeling I couldn’t scratch once the golden-colored stuff dried to a metallic hardness.
Then I had to clamber into the wetsuit. It was open down the back almost to the butt, just like other wetsuits I had seen. The arms and legs had long zippers, so it was easier to get limbs in and it could then be zipped up to provide tight sleeves. My small feet and dainty hands slid in easily, and I shrugged my way into the wetsuit, just taking the time to slide my privates through the opening in the crotch. After that, Kew connected the genitalia holder to the cabling of the wetsuit. Then she zipped the wetsuit closed up the back. After that, I let her zip the arms and legs closed. At that point, it really wasn’t any worse than real wetsuits I had worn while snorkeling in Hawaii and Tahiti and the Bahamas.
I checked, “Is there anything else? Footies, or gloves, or a hat?”
She thought for a moment. “You know, footies would probably be a good idea.”
I said, “Well, I’m willing to wear some, if you have them. My feet are getting cold.”
She let me put my socks back on. While I sat on a bench and did that, Kew was studying my utility belt. She turned to me and asked, “Size Warper, Wizard, or Deviser?”
I knew what she meant. “Deviser. Möbius.”
“Oh right,” she muttered. “He was selling these at the Weapons Fair. What compression rate do you get?”
I told her, “About a factor of twelve in each dimension.”
She frowned, “But the pockets are so tiny. You probably can’t get anything bigger than your hand in here.”
“Right,” I agreed. “But on the other hand, it looks like it can’t really be a utility belt. I’ve gotten that one through airport security a couple times, and I’ve even gotten it past an MCO officer when I was being searched.”
“But don’t you run out of room?” she wondered, as she explored it with her fingers.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “But I can get access to only so much, no matter how big the pockets are.” I thought about the J-Team and added, “It’s not like I can have an entire closet in there, with a magical gnome that reads my mind and hands me whatever I want.”
I watched her expression and said, “And yes, I know about Holdout, and his external size Warper abilities.” I guessed, “You must have studied him a lot to be able to replicate his abilities as well as you do.”
She blushed. “Well, it’s not that great. I can’t get any of ‘em to come out as gadgets, so I have to make ‘em one by one and make sure my client can use ‘em afterward. I had a heck of time making Ace’s stuff stay shrunk after Holdout shrank ‘em down for him. He just doesn’t trust it to work, and that kind of makes it not work for him.”
Rather than pointing out that she had once again leaked information on the Intelligence Cadet Corps, I slid to another topic. “Do you think Thuban has size Warper abilities, or do you think he just pays some size Warper or Deviser to make special pockets for him?”
She looked up from my utility belt. “Oh! You mean his Combat Final?”
I shrugged. “That… and other things.” I wasn’t going to go into all the stories Jade had told about him, ever since she first got dragged down there in Tansy’s body. But it had been obvious to me from the first story about Tansy that Thuban was either using the services of a teleporter or a size Warper to maintain his ‘secret cavern’ in the basement of Twain. Once I heard about his special limo and saw Jade’s ‘purse of holding’, I knew the answer was ‘size Warper’. Still, I had to figure that Thuban himself was the size Warper from reading Jade when she was so carefully refusing to comment about particular parts of her trips with Stephen. She wouldn’t have needed to be that careful unless Thuban was the size Warper, and also he was asking her to keep it a secret.
I still thought Thuban had more or less blown that secret in his Combat Final, in his big effort to show he was dangerous enough to give Slab a run for his money. Okay, the campus jerks now knew to leave him alone. They probably knew that already, since all of Faction Three would come after anyone dumb enough to assault Thuban. But the real campus threats back in December were Hekate and The Don, and neither of them would launch a direct, physical attack. No, they would just be forewarned sufficiently to launch a really nasty magical attack which would be invulnerable to all of his holdouts.
Once I persuaded Kew to leave my belt alone, we walked through a sealed security door into a larger room. It wasn’t all that much larger. After what Billie and Jade had told me, I had been expecting a cavernous lab with a massive devise in the middle of an armada of weird systems. Instead, it was a normal-sized work area with a fifteen-foot ceiling. The experimental lab was perhaps fifty feet by sixty feet, with the concentration of equipment laid out in the central third of the room.
The ‘rotating stage’ Jade had described had been re-designed. I was looking at something that appeared to be a round plastic table about four feet across, with a totem pole mounted at its center. The four-foot-diameter plastic platform was only a foot off the floor, but it appeared to be mounted on top of a complicated motor. An eight-foot-high metal telephone pole stuck up from the platform. The pole was covered in odd connectors and straps and gauges. The platform sat in the center of about a hundred mounted devises which looked for the most part like energy weapons and intricate sensors.
“Okay, that doesn’t look like it’s going to disintegrate chunks off anyone strapped to the platform,” I snarked.
Kew said, “Oh, those aren’t disintegration beams or anything. Real disintegration weapons are a lot bigger, and typically need at least two barrels with a lot more power, so you can induce the molecular bonds to break or disrupt the strong nuclear forces.” She caught my expression and backpedaled. “Not that I would know anything about building real disintegrator rays, or have studied the theory, or anything like that…”
I pretended to let it slide. But there were times when I really wondered about this school. Granted, there probably wasn’t anything the people here could teach a potential supervillain like Jobe or Cheese. Then there was the added benefit that threats like Overclock and Make could be locked up before they learned how to be global menaces. Then there was The Don. He was probably a stellar example of the real benefits of Whateley Academy. If he had the time to practice his skills and hone his schtick before we all met him, I doubted anyone would realize what an incredible monster he really was. Now, we all knew what he really was like, if you turned your back on him. Even Freya, with her Brisengamen Effect, had outed herself at Whateley, so future superheroes would know to watch out for her. For that matter, superheroes like Powerhouse and Iron Star had already tipped their hand, so the rest of us knew they weren’t exactly another Stormwolf or Puritan. Powerhouse was apparently another Captain Courage, who was only in the superhero business for all the nookie he could garner. There was a reason most of the tabloids referred to Captain Courage as ‘Captain Condom’. It was rumored that Captain Condom was living in another country these days, because of all the paternity suits and child support payments he was dodging. A lot of Exemplars seemed to be roughly as prolific as baselines, and some seemed to be sterile – or at least genetically different enough from baselines that they weren’t having children – but there were always a few Exemplars like Captain Condom who seemed to be wielding super-sperm too.
Peril was already in the room, laughing with Sonex about something or other. I had always assumed Southerners were more bigoted than us Northerners, but Peril clearly didn’t care one way or another about Sonex’s sexual orientation. Come to think of it, he hadn’t ever been bothered about my body, and that was pretty much an open secret on campus. Maybe I needed to do some research on prejudice in America. After all, I was probably one of the biggest potential targets in the whole country. I was a mutant, and intersexed, and a billionaire. Well, I was a billionaire again as of Monday afternoon. Plus, I was a Goodkind, which meant that anyone who didn’t want to punch me in the face for being a mutant was likely to want to punch me in the face for being a Goodkind. Toni probably had some valuable insights into the whole ‘prejudice’ issue if I could get her to be serious for a while. After all, she had grown up black, in a place like Baltimore. And she had been transgendered, probably since she was old enough to realize her body and her brain didn’t agree with each other. Since I was having that problem now, I sympathized with her a hell of a lot more than I undoubtedly would have done a year ago.
That just made me wonder if my former friend Derek would ever be on speaking terms with me. Derek Holdridge came from a black family that was well off but not extremely wealthy. His family was very religious and very anti-mutant, which was how he had ended up knowing a rich white Goodkind at Chilton. But now I was a mutant, and I was an intersexed freak. Man, back when I was Trevor, I had sure done an excellent job of guaranteeing that I would end up friendless now.
“Hey Phase!” Peril called out, giving me a chance to escape my dark mood. “Sonex says we get strapped ta that post, and then he’s gonna spin us up like a hard drive!”
I nodded, “What, 33 and a third isn’t good enough these days?”
Sonex laughed. “Us young whippersnappers don’t listen to you old fogies anymore, you know. Nah, I think we’ll spin you two up way past 78.”
Peril grinned, “Come on! This sounds like fun.”
Oh yeah. At least as much fun as a root canal. Maybe a root canal plus a high colonic enema. And electroshock therapy added in, for that dash of je ne sais quoi.
I followed Peril and stepped up onto the platform. Sonex positioned Peril on one side of the pole, and had me stand on the other side. Then Sonex and Kew started strapping us to the pole. There were straps across my chest and stomach. There were straps at my biceps and forearms and wrists. There were straps at my thighs and shins and ankles. There was even a strap across my forehead.
I said to Kew, “You do know that this isn’t going to hold me if my Warper power gets kicked in, right?”
She nodded. “Umm, can you try really hard not to do that? Your file says you can go through stuff and disrupt electronics. We can’t afford to replace everything.”
I said, “I’ll be trying really hard not to do it, because sometimes I can disrupt a person’s BIT too, and I don’t want to hurt Peril. You heard about Fireball, right?”
Kew said, “Oh yeah. She won’t stop talking about it. You’re really at the top of her shitlist, you know. Some of the Workshop spent some time trying to figure out how a density Warper could disrupt a BIT, and the best we could do was some pretty esoteric pattern theory that might or might not hold up under practical evaluation. But I think we’ve got you covered, as long as you don’t go to zero density and fly off the platform.”
Somehow, I just knew it wasn’t a good idea to let a bunch of devisers try to figure out how to disrupt BITs. I didn’t say that out loud, but I certainly was thinking about it.
Once Kew had me strapped to the post like the mad scientist’s victim in a bad horror movie, she hooked up all the little connectors to matching connectors on the post. Then she and Sonex climbed down. They scurried off into the room behind the massively thick Armorglass. I wondered if that meant they were running behind schedule, or if it was just dangerous being in the BIT-slicer chamber.
I waited almost a minute, while they prepared. Lights and energy beams turned on. The platform twitched and turned, as if they were testing the motor system. Sensor systems came on-line, with little red lights atop the systems to show they were running. My stomach was knotting up until I felt nauseous. I figured that didn’t bode well for the high-speed spinning we were about to endure.
Finally, the platform began to turn. It sped up until it was obvious to me that they had to strap us to the post just to keep us from flying off from the centrifugal forces. We spun faster and faster, until the room was nothing but a blur of light and metal. So far, so good.
Oww! A sudden jolt of electricity arced from my privates up through my torso. I couldn’t even convulse properly, since I was strapped to the post behind me. Oh God, I shouldn’t have even thought about how things were working out okay! Ouch! Damn!
“Umm, look at this,” Rafael pointed out, as the readings fluctuated strangely.
“Hmm,” considered Knick-Knack, stroking his chin as if he had a beard. “That looks most interesting.”
Sonex noticed that Knick-Knack did that a lot more right after he had been hanging out with the other New Olympians. He wondered just what that meant. Most of Poe had heard Phase’s crazy speculations about Imperious and Majestic and the rest of the ‘Lympies – as Team Kimba had apparently named them. Still, just because Phase could make the evidence appear to fit her idea, that didn’t make it true.
Kew spoke up, “And check out these readings.”
Sonex looked over. And blinked.
Knick-Knack frowned. “I thought Generator’s readings were bizarre, but this looks…”
Kew tried running the image through a couple low-pass filters, and it resolved into something a little clearer. “Oh wow!” she gasped.
Sonex looked over her left shoulder, while Knick-Knack stood up and peered over her other shoulder. As far as Rafael could tell, the image looked like about eight BITs overlaid on top of each other.
Knick-Knack pointed out, “Just because our three-dimensional representation looks like this doesn’t mean the n-space pattern really looks like this.”
“True,” Sonex agreed. “But it doesn’t look like anyone else’s BIT. At least not like anyone we’ve analyzed. And we’ve even run Tennyo and Jello through this process.
Kew looked up at her partners. “You think this is the reason Phase trashed Fireball’s BIT?”
Knick-Knack muttered, “Insufficient evidence. Still, let’s make sure to filter Phase’s readings more heavily, just in case her BIT is constantly threatening anything nearby. We don’t want to burn out anything this time.”
Sonex looked down at the protection status. “Umm, about that… We’re getting rising temperatures across the board.”
Knick-Knack said, “Right! Then let’s finish this. Full power! Don’t walk when you can sprint!”
“Are you sure?”
Knick-Knack leaned over Kew and shoved two throttle arms to maximum. “Haven’t you learned anything from me yet?”
Sonex complained, “I hope so, because we’ve got overheating through the power core now, and the cutouts are starting to kick over to the backup cutouts.”
They looked through the Armorglass window. The pole was spinning so fast that the two figures on it were a meld of blurs.
Kew pressed a button so they could hear sound from the other room. It sounded like a girl screeching “OWWW!” while a guy yelled “YEE-HAH!” She hastily let go of the button. That was why they kept the sound off, except when they needed to check on the test subjects. This wasn’t even one of the awful ones.
Knick-Knack looked over the readings on the panel in front of Sonex. “Damn. We’re overheating everywhere. Switch to tertiary backups on heat sinks and cutouts for the Variable Interface Devise. That’s the one irreplaceable component.”
“Already on it.”
I was spinning so fast it felt like all the blood was collecting in my face. And nipples. And dick. And my fingers and toes. Hell, it felt like my eyeballs were about to be launched out of their sockets.
The electrical shocks were stronger, but they had become pretty much continuous. I stopped screaming, because I couldn’t make my muscles work well enough to get another breath.
I couldn’t see the room anymore. Between the stress on my eyeballs and the speed of our rotation, all I could see was a big blur. God, why had I thought this was a good idea?
Peril was still having the time of his life. I tried really hard not to think ugly thoughts about him.
Oh, Goddamnit, it felt like the electrical current just got ratcheted up another couple notches!
Rafael was already flipping switches and typing commands as fast as he could. But the primary cooling system had crapped out, and half the primary heat sinks were already too hot to keep connected. He was scrambling to re-initiate the cooling system interchanger. Kew was trying to make sure the backup cooling system was ready to go on-line. Knick-Knack was scrambling to run the entire BIT-slicer himself, in a wild effort to finish the run before anything melted down. Jean-Paul was shouting his usual weird ‘nearly Americanisms’ that he yelled out for emphasis to show how ‘hip’ he was.
Meanwhile, the readings on Phase were getting even more peculiar. It really looked more like Phase had a BIT hacked together from a dozen other people, and they weren’t inter-relating well. No wonder Phase was so uncomfortable in her own body. But it looked like the Variable Interface was finally getting more input than it could handle, and it was about to go off-line too. As soon as the cutouts took it off-line, the BIT-slicer run was dead in the water. So Sonex was doing everything he could to keep the Variable Interface devise alive and kicking. So far so… Well, not good, but not horrific, either. Not yet, anyway.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Kew scrambling like mad to re-program the auxiliary system box. She whined, “Jean-Paul, we’ve got to shut down! We’re losing too many key components!”
But Knick-Knack insisted, “No! More power! Let’s wrap this up like a Christmas present!”
Kew tried again, “But we could shut down, re-set everything, and be ready for another run by tomorrow!”
“Don’t stop when you can jump!” insisted Knick-Knack. He reached over her shoulder and pushed the last throttle to maximum.
Sonex nearly jumped out of his chair as sparks erupted out of the control panel, nearly underneath Jean-Paul’s hand. J-P yanked his hand back, cursing furiously in French or Spanish. Well, it was something Sonex didn’t know. It looked like J-P had picked up a pretty wicked burn there, but he wasn’t letting that stop him.
Knick-Knack snapped, “Quick! Switch over to backup controls, before the cooling systems go to h-”
And before he could finish his sentence, the monitors began tripping over from yellow to red. First the mains, and then the secondaries, and then the emergency backups. As fast as they were scrambling, systems were failing, or kicking over to backups, even if those backups were already shot.
Knick-Knack moved over to cut out the Variable Interface devise manually, but the burn on his hand slowed him down just enough that he didn’t get everything cut off in time.
I was spinning so fast I felt like I needed to close my eyes just to keep my eyeballs from flying out like something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It felt like all the blood in my body was trying to pool in my anterior areas: my face, my boobs, my toes and fingers…
There was a noise like a lightning bolt hitting a tree, but I didn’t feel a shock. I was hoping that was a good thing. Okay, I was pretty sure the sound like a box of cell phones all overloading simultaneously was a bad thing. And the smell of burning plastic had to be a bad thing.
Sonex’s voice blared from the speakers all around us. “We’ve got a fire here. Can you hold your breath for about three minutes? The Halon systems are all kicking in, and I can’t stop ‘em.”
Damn. I started hyperventilating before trying to hold my breath.
Peril yelled, “What’s the problem?”
Sonex yelled over the speakers, “This isn’t Halon 1301 or anything safe! It’s Halon 7542, which is a gadgeteer chemical! It’s way faster and more effective on even electrical and chemical fires, but you can’t breathe it like Halon 1301!”
I groaned, “Peril! Just pull free and get out of the room!”
“Not without you, I ain’t!” he hollered.
“You must be kidding,” I gasped. “You forget what my powers are!”
“Okay…” I felt it as he ripped his bindings off and went tumbling off the platform onto the floor. “I’m good! I’m gettin’ outta here! Go for it!”
“Leaving… NOW!” I yelled. I went heavy, which made the platform wobble sickeningly. Then I squatted down a few inches, which was all the slack I could manage, and I Phase-leapt straight up.
I still had far more angular momentum than I wanted, but I blasted straight up. When I flew up out of the ground, I went heavy. That took care of most of the nauseating spinning, but then I was falling toward the ground. I hastily did my light-heavy-light-heavy flicker to eat up my velocity, and I finally slowed to a near standstill while I was still a dozen yards above the ground.
I took a deep breath and sank straight down into the ground, hoping I could find the lab again. I was counting seconds in my head. If I hadn’t found the lab again by the time I counted to forty, I was going to come straight back up to the surface, and take the long way down, through all the tunnels. Even though I was walking around in a wetsuit with my wiener practically sticking out.
I sank down perhaps a hundred feet before I hit the lab again. It wasn’t that unlikely. I had gone straight up, and then straight down again. Almost. I was a good twenty feet from the central platform when I came down through the ceiling. Halon gas was hissing from valves near the ceiling, and sizzling electronics were turning from fiery threats to bubbling, ruined plastic. I floated through the Armorglass into the control room, where Knick-Knack and his cohorts were strapping on gas masks and oxygen bottles.
I went heavy and strapped a spare mask on before breathing again. Man, I so needed to get that rebreather as soon as I could. Somehow, I was figuring that a rebreather that filled my mouth would not be all that great in practice, as long as I was dealing with this stupid claustrophobia.
I watched as the three devisers scrambled to salvage what they could of their electronics and devises and other gear. Knick-Knack didn’t even bother to wrap up the wicked-looking burn on his palm. But it looked like they had lost the one irreplaceable component. The Variable Interface devise that they needed for the throughput was fried. If Knick-Knack couldn’t rebuild it, I didn’t think anyone here could.
Perhaps my extra-dimensional Warper abilities had shredded the inter-dimensional devise that they were trying to protect. Perhaps the cutouts had failed. Okay, obviously the cutouts had failed. But the Variable Interface devise had completely melted down, along with half of their other equipment.
And they were all upset. Sonex groused from inside his oxygen mask, “Shit! Phase, this is really bad.”
I apologized, “I know. You needed that Variable Interface devise to get enough bandwidth. I’ve heard.”
“No,” he corrected me. “It’s really bad, because we never got a real success! A lot of people needed this thing to work. And I still don’t understand why it worked even temporarily for Generator, when she was the one with the freaky bandwidth that looked the least workable.”
Great. Now Thuban was going to be so thrilled with me.
Kew turned to me. “Phase? You know where I got you ready?” I nodded. “Well, there’s a shower in there. There’s a big plastic bottle that says ‘solvent’ on it. Rub that on all the places where you’ve got conductor, and wait a minute, and then scrub it off.”
I checked, “Can I get in there and breathe, with all the Halon?”
She nodded, “Oh, sure. Just don’t open the door to go in there, and you’ll be fine.”
That would have been absurd to say to most people. Even most people on campus. For me, it was merely a matter of cutting through the walls around the main lab area, and avoiding any high-voltage lines.
Hmmm. The more I thought about that, the less rational it sounded. I asked, “Are all the high-voltage cables off? Because I don’t want to walk through lethal electrical surprises, or anything like that.”
She thought for a second and said, “No problem. The high-power lines are there, there, and there.” She pointed at places on two walls. “So you can go that way.” She pointed at the opposite wall. “That just backs up onto bare rock, I think.”
“Pretty much,” Sonex agreed. “Some waterproofing material, insulation, security materials, that kind of stuff.”
I risked it. Okay, I sort of risked it. I went light, floated so I was parallel with the floor, and put one arm forward in the Supergirl pose. Then I took a deep breath and flew through the walls. I was really hoping that if there were any electrical cables or energy conduits in front of me, I would hit them with my outstretched hand and only give myself a small burn on my fingers, rather than giving myself a near-lethal shock through my torso.
I finally had some luck. I made it all the way into the changing room without frying myself. I had been spun until I was probably going to have bruises where the straps held me in place. I had been shocked repeatedly. I had used up favors from Peril and Knick-Knack and Thuban to no avail. I was still stuck in this stupid, intersexed, freakazoid body. I still had to get the dried crap off my skin. But I had made it back to the changing room. Great.
After that pathetically small accomplishment, I got down to the business of cleaning up. The cables didn’t want to release, so I did my light-heavy-light-heavy flicker through them and disintegrated them. I figured the cost of the lost cabling was the least of their worries right now.
The next problem was the wetsuit and the wiener-bag. The conductors on the inside of the material had adhered to the conductor glued to my skin, so I had to peel off the wetsuit and the bag. The bag was really uncomfortable. It was glued to my privates in those eight places where Kew had ever-so-reluctantly applied the conducting goop. And those eight spots were really tender, because of all the shocks I had taken to Little Trevor and his Gucci luggage.
I ended up squeezing a lot of the syrup-like ‘solvent’ into the bag and letting it do its work while I struggled to peel off the wetsuit. I finally went heavy and just ripped it off. Then I rubbed more of the solvent all over the contact points and conductive strips all over my skin, and I let it sit while I went back to rescuing my privates.
Once I got my genitalia out of that bag, I put more solvent on and let it do its job. Then I showered. That got most of the conductive material off. I had to apply the solvent again, though. I waited two minutes and showered again. At that point, I had managed to remove probably ninety-five percent of the golden goop. But I still had traces and flecks of the stuff on my skin.
Perhaps it was just my usual stubbornness and my perfectionist pickiness, but I ended up going through the solvent-waiting-showering cycle twice more before I was satisfied with my level of cleanliness. I got dressed again, making sure that I had my utility belt. I checked in a pocket, and, sure enough, Kew had messed up the careful arrangement I had. Crap. I was going to have to empty every pocket and re-arrange everything, just so I could find the weapons I needed, when I next needed to use my utility belt.
Maybe I really did need a new utility belt. If I got one as ugly and clunky as Batman’s utility belt, I could store a buttload of supplies. A one inch by two inch by three inch pocket could hold a backpack full of gear. But then, how would I find anything when I needed it? I had learned the hard way that in a fight I had to know where anything was, and be able to reach in and grab it. I didn’t have Jinn inside my utility belt handing me stuff. If I had a pocket that was three feet deep on the inside, how the hell would I ever find anything? Now if I had one pocket like that, which only held one large object, it might be workable. Reach into the pocket, yank out a GKI PAMM (that’s a Goodkind International Portable Anti-Mutant Missile), unfold it, and fire. Sure. The GKI PAMM Mark VI took three to five minutes to unfold and set up, if you started from the collapsed version in the carrying case. That was totally unworkable. Maybe a Gizmatic Lightning Launcher™. I was fully aware that Jobe distributed a couple hundred copies of Gizmatic’s weapon catalog whenever a new edition came out, but still I couldn’t see myself buying anything that might yield a profit for someone like Gizmatic.
I needed to re-think my entire weapon storage process. I ought to start with some method of ensuring that no one else could reach into the pockets. That would go into my list of desirable magical spells.
Yeah, I know. I was focusing on everything I could think of, instead of crying over the failure of the BIT-slicer to fix my problem. It didn’t exactly take Karl Jung to figure that one out. I was pissed off, and miserable, and depressed. But I had to keep moving. I needed to do something.
Speaking of which, I figured I ought to check on the three devisers and make sure they were okay. I was under the impression that Halon meant a whole class of gases that suppressed fires, and all of them were supposed to be safer than flooding a room with carbon dioxide. I didn’t understand why they had picked a gas that was so dangerous, unless it had some special characteristics they hadn’t really had the time to explain to me. On the other hand, in just the last couple months I had seen plenty of less than optimal decisions made by supposed geniuses. For all I knew, it was the ever-popular ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome: if they had something they had invented, they might stubbornly keep using it when a better tool was available.
I slipped on my oxygen mask and opened the air-tight door into the main lab area. Peril was already in there, with his oxygen mask strapped on tightly. He was lifting a large sensor and following Kew’s directions.
I walked over to Sonex. “What can I do to help?”
He looked at me and asked, “Can you lift a ton of red-hot heat sink?”
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I can.”
He nodded, “Great. I can use your help over here right now.”
So I followed him to a framework halfway between the no-longer spinning platform and the Armorglass window into the control room. I could see Knick-Knack inside the control room, busily pulling circuit boards from a computer system and checking them for damage. It looked like he had already checked about a fifth of the boards, and thrown half of those into a hazardous waste bin. Boy, I really hoped it wasn’t my fault everything had melted down.
I helped Sonex lift a melted plastic cover off the framework. Inside was a metal and plastic blob that had once been the Variable Interface devise. I had even held it in my hands once, back when it was intact. That made me think about ninja assault squads and the Yama Dojo. Why were Team Kimba getting into trouble with so many different enemies? As if it wasn’t bad enough that – as a team – we had over a dozen different groups out for our blood, we now had really serious enemies. How the hell did a freshman training team end up with supervillains and demons and everything else out to get us?
Sonex pulled out a clear plastic box that was open on the top. “Here. Put that blob in the box. It’s an ablative plastic, so it won’t burn me.”
I went heavy and obliged. The heat from the components didn’t bother me as long as I was heavy. It looked like the blob was hot enough that it was burning off some of the ablative plastic as we spoke.
Kew yelled through a loudspeaker, “Okay! Venting Halon now! Breathable atmosphere in twenty!”
Sonex nodded. I figured I would wait and see if he was fine before I took off my mask. Just in case. Someone needed to be conscious if things didn’t work properly.
But I could feel a strong, cool breeze roaring through the room. I assumed that they were piping in fresh air and venting the Halon to the air up top. On the other hand, since they were devisers, it was always possible they had a Halon extraction system so they were recovering all their special Halon gas and storing it away for the next fiery inferno down here. Which probably happened about once a week, given some of the devisers I knew.
Sonex shivered, “Damn! That air’s cold! I thought they were gonna pull it from the HVAC system, not the outside air.”
As long as I was heavy, I had extra protection from extremes of temperature, so I just said, “What next?”
Sonex’s teeth chattered as he said, “Ok-kay, See that b-block the blob was set on? That’s the main heat sink. Pull it, and carry it over to where Peril is. You can drop it anywhere over there.”
I grabbed the heat sink by a pair of conveniently-placed handles, and I lifted. It wasn’t the heaviest thing I had ever lifted, but it was a lot more awkward to manage than a set of freeweights. And walking with the extra weight was difficult. It wasn’t too problematic, but that was probably because I was about as heavy as the object I was carrying. If it had been twenty times my weight, I’m sure I would have overbalanced.
Then I hauled the thing over to the far side of the lab. Peril had been working away, and there were three massive metal heat sinks already shoved against the wall. I stacked mine on top of two of his, and went back for another. It only took the two of us about five minutes to haul all the heat sinks and trashed cooling systems to the side. I had no idea how long it would have taken the three devisers to do it by hand, even with Kew’s size-warper devises and Knick-Knack’s anti-grav floaters. I supposed he could bring in his two robotic girls and let them do the heavy lifting, but he might have needed to get a forklift or a miniature crane for some of the work.
Once Peril and I were done, Sonex concentrated on checking over our oxygen masks, while Knick-Knack shooed us out as if we were naughty children sneaking into his kitchen to snitch freshly-baked cookies. Not that I had ever done such a thing. Although once or twice, our butler Manning had been shooed out of the baking area when I sent him in to get some freshly-baked cookies for me.
I walked out of the lab with Peril. I figured it would be a good idea if I showed him how to get back out of the tunnels. He probably had the Exemplar memory package, but I had never checked on that. It was even possible that he had the Exemplar directional sense. Still, it didn’t seem like a good idea to abandon him down in the bowels of the deviser dungeons if he might need a little help to get out again.
Peril grinned at me, “Man, that was fun!” He stopped for a second and looked at me. “I mean, I’m real sorry you didn’t get your body fixed like you wanted, that really sucked...”
I shrugged. I really didn’t want to think about that. In fact, I was doing pretty much anything, rather than thinking about how the fucking BIT-slicer hadn’t done a goddamned thing for me. I told him, “C’est la vie. As I told you, it hadn’t worked properly for anyone before me, so there wasn’t much chance that it would work for me this time.”
He nodded, “Okay. I get ya. Ya hoped it would work, but ya didn’t bet the farm on it. Still, it would’ve been cool if it worked for you.”
“Yeah, I would have been a lot happier if I’d had a success. Now it’s back to the drawing board.”
He nodded again. “Still, that was more fun than I’ve had in days. Any time you want me to go for a spin on that toy again, you just say so. I’d love to get to play with that spinner anytime I wanted.”
I thought about the stuff he had done as a kid, and I had an image of him using that spinner to launch himself through the air at all kinds of toys: swimming pools, trampolines, maybe even something insane like a steel jungle gym.
I changed the subject. “Speaking of fun activities, I’m taking some friends to Boston on Saturday.”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Everybody’s talkin’ about that one. I heard ya had to bribe Hartford after all the trouble you guys got into the last couple times you went there.”
I laughed. “Hartford has family money. She has relatives who went to school with my big sisters. You don’t try to bribe people like that.”
“Didn’t say I believed it, just said I heard it.”
I went on, “Anyway, I wanted to know if you wanted to come too. Private jet to and from Boston, limos to the restaurant and back, catered luncheon, hot babes, you name it.”
He grinned, “Yeah, I heard you got Fey and Chaka and Bladedancer and Bugs and some of the other freshman hotties goin’. But I already got plans for Saturday. I got a little something special planned, with a certain very hot Exemplar babe, and that isn’t gonna wait. So thanks, but not this time.”
I said, “Not a problem. If your plans change, let me know. We have room on the jet.”
He grinned, “Hey, it wouldn’t be fair for me to go, since I got twenty bucks says you Kimbas get in another super-battle and kick ass. And I’m countin’ on you, because winnin’ money from Hazard and all of them is like tryin’ ta squeeze blood out of a turnip.”
I smiled back. Somehow. Even though I really didn’t feel like smiling. I told him, “You can’t count on us getting into a battle royale every time we leave the dorm, you know.”
He just laughed. “Yeah? How many times you girls been off campus and not got into trouble or had to rescue somebody, or somethin’ like that?”
I said carefully, “I personally have been to Dunwich several times without a disaster yet. And Jade has gone with Thuban to Berlin several times without incident.” But I realized that I was already running out of cases. “No one had a battle when they went into Dunwich to get their maid costumes fitted for the Golden Kids soiree. And…”
He grinned. “Run outta stuff? ‘Cause, you know, word gets around, especially when you girls get into a fight big enough to make the newspapers.”
I groaned. “And just how extensive is the distribution of this kind of gossip?”
He snickered at that. “You know, you sound like you’re the queen of the country, tryin’ to find out how bad the gossip is about what some duke went and did with some hooker.” I gave him a raised eyebrow, which didn’t faze him. He said, “Look, half the school knows who went to Boston and fought The Necromancer. Twice. And there’s really only one person people are talkin’ about with that thing in Kansas City over Christmas Break. Kali’s little sister knows Fey, so when that whole building went down, and Kali was insistin’ right and left it wasn’t her, everybody pretty much figured out it was Fey.”
I tried not to groan out loud. I was so sure Fey would be thrilled to death to find out she had been tagged for the destruction of that Syndicate base.
He went on, “And pretty much everybody heard about how you girls covered for Tennyo when she ducked out with the Security Officers tryin’ to pull her in, and then the papers were all about an entire closed-down NORAD base gettin’ blown ta bits, and then when she got back here she got grounded for it.”
I didn’t know whether I needed to fret more about my failure to build a decent disinformation network, or about my failure to tap into the campus gossip webs.
He kept going. “And then the new kid, Jolt, can’t stop talkin’ about how Bladedancer and Chaka rescued him from a Knights of Purity team when he manifested. He makes ‘em sound like Lady Astarte and Doctor Thunder slapped together.”
I wondered if Toni had any idea Jolt was blabbing about her Christmas exploits. Of course, knowing Toni, she would probably be thrilled about it. She would probably be wondering if she could get Jolt’s narration down on DVD. Chou would be blushing into her hands.
Then he gave me a long look. “And then there’s the Headhunter thing out in La-La Land. There’s a bunch of kids that one coulda’ been, but the teevee people said it was a teenaged girl, and the Headhunter wasn’t a mutant after all, but a real demon, and the West Coast League came in and saved the day. And there aren’t that many Whateley girls livin’ in L.A., ya know.”
I could so tell where this one was going. I refrained from wincing.
“So someone I know asked a couple of the L.A. kids, and sure enough, your name came up. And a couple others. But Scrambler ratted you out, and blabbed everything you told her about your fight to the death with a real Tier 3 demon, which I gotta say, is pretty fuckin’ impressive, even if you had ta get saved by the whole West Coast League.”
I complained, “I called them for help. And I told them what I was up against, so they could be prepared before they arrived. Even then, everything would have been fine if the MCO hadn’t fucked everything up and nearly got me killed.”
He stopped grinning. “Didn’t hear about that part.”
I groused, “Yeah, I got the demon partially bound, and I got the civilians out, and then the police and MCO came in. The MCO power armor jockeys went with me down to the demon, and then it mind-controlled ‘em. The power armor guys shot me with everything they had, and one of them undid the binding. I had to knock out all the power armor, and try to protect all the police, and stop that goddamned demon from making more devils. I got my ass kicked. I probably would have died from internal injuries right there if Hollywood hadn’t had some serious Healer talents. So, after all that, the MCO decided I was the bad guy!”
He just nodded. “We thought it was you. And whenever Team Kimba goes somewhere together, shit just happens.”
I admitted, “The first Boston trip was definitely our fault. We could have stayed in the restaurant and eaten lunch, but some of us had to rush out and play superhero. That pulled the rest of us into it. And it’s probably just as well, because if we hadn’t intervened, a lot of police officers would have been killed, and at least one museum building would have been turned into rubble. The second time, we knew going in that the Boston P.D. were probably going to use us to contain the Arch-Fiend if they got him to break cover. We even prepared for it with new costumes. We didn’t plan on ending up fighting The Necromancer again, plus all his Children of the Night, plus a crew of mercenaries he brought in just for extra problems. Tennyo got smashed into the asphalt, and we still won. And we caught everyone except Neccy himself, Nightgaunt and Vamp, and the anti-Paladin.”
“Damn!” he swore. “The Anti-Paladin too? You girls kick ass!”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Neccy brought in the Anti-Paladin, Matterhorn, Jabberwock, and Ironhawk as his backup team. Ironhawk is definitely over-rated, and I have yet to be impressed by Jabberwock.”
“See what I mean?” he grinned. “You all are gonna have a big battle and catch bad guys, and earn me a nice profit outta Hazard’s pocket. And then I wanna hear a blow-by-blow of the whole fight, with all the little details that never make the papers.”
I just shook my head. Maybe I needed to hire a spin doctor to handle my PR, if this kind of thing kept occurring. I really didn’t need people to be talking behind my back about the trouble I kept finding, no matter how reluctantly.
On the other hand, I could definitely benefit from better PR, if it would intimidate certain sectors of the campus. Perhaps I could find a way to do some market segmentation, and target particular messages to specific audiences. Play up the ‘fearsome fighter’ angle to the campus bullies and anti-Goodkind jerks; then play up the ‘helpful good guy’ angle to the devisers and Underdogs. I would have to think about hiring the right PR person, and then making sure Carson didn’t have any problem with my chosen public relations campaign across the campus. Perhaps, if I hired another student, it would create fewer problems for the Whateley administration. But, whether I hired a student or not, I would have to do my research first. That could take a while, because I was going to have to get the right person for the job, and I was going to have to do it on my very first try. If I hired the wrong person and my PR campaign tanked, it would wreck everything. Whateley Academy was too insular and too integrated to overcome a disastrous reputation in any reasonable amount of time. Tennyo was a perfect example of that. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She hadn’t hurt anyone. She was the victim in nearly every incident, unless she was fighting a superpowered opponent as part of a team battle. And yet she was already regarded as someone to avoid at all costs. When superpowered mutants considered you someone to avoid, that was a bad sign.
Once Peril had his bearings, he thanked me for a fun evening and headed off to his dorm. I went over to the Hawthorne tunnel and flew home. Rather than think about the suckiness that was my life, and how the BIT-slicer hadn’t done a damned thing for me, I concentrated on other topics. Like Kew’s idea.
As soon as I got into Poe, I flew up to our floor and went looking for Nikki. Rip was chatting away with Toni in the hall, and directed me to her room. Normally, I would have let Nikki have some privacy with Bunny, but this time I was too busy focusing on not thinking about the BIT-slicer.
I knocked on Bunny’s door, and Nikki called out, “Come on in, Ayla!”
Well, so much for not broadcasting like a lighthouse. I opened the door and found the two of them sitting together on Bunny’s bed, their hips touching, while Bunny was showing Nikki some sort of devise that was inside a pink ovoid the size of an ostrich egg. You know, if I had Nikki all to myself in a private room, and she was willing to snuggle against me like that, I really doubt that I would have wanted to show her an invention.
Nikki looked at me and paused for a second. Then she said, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.”
Bunny asked, “What didn’t work out?”
“Ayla took a turn in Thuban’s BIT-slicer.”
Bunny’s eyes grew huge. “Oh no!” she squeaked. “Not Knick-Knack’s Body Image Template Replication System! Oh Ayla, that’s not a good idea. It really didn’t help Jade, you know.”
I winced inwardly. “We really don’t know that.”
Nikki contributed, “It may have been that curse, or the thing with Hekate, or the combination of the two. We still don’t really know why it worked so much better for Jade than anyone else.”
“Knick-Knack and his buddies don’t know either,” I confided.
Bunny asked, “Did you come over to ask me if I could fix it?”
I shook my head. “No, I came looking for Nikki. Kew had a really evil idea for dealing with Peeper.”
“Ooh! I need to hear this one!” Nikki giggled.
“Me too,” chipped in Bunny.
I asked Nikki, “Do you think you could create a charm that could be clipped onto a girls’ panties, so that every time Peeper looked at her crotch, he’d get the mental image of a ‘great big wiener’ instead of seeing her privates?”
Nikki snickered evilly. “Ooh, if anybody deserves that, it would be Peeper. Let me think a minute… The spell would need to be replicable… The Law of Similarity would mean that… OH! I know!”
She pressed a finger behind her ear and whispered. <(Fey) Fey here. Phase is with me. Generator? Are you on?>
<(Generator) Sure. What’s up? Big fights? Cool inventions?>
<(Lancer) Any problem?>
<(Fey) No. Phase just had another brainstorm.>
<(Chaka) Oh no, not another Phase brainstorm. Are we gonna have to clean brains off the floor again?>
<(Tennyo) Brains! Why did it have to be brains?>
<(Bladedancer) Okay, I have to hear this one.>
<(Fey) A magical charm to clip on our panties, so every time Peeper stares at our privates he gets a view of some guy’s big, hairy hotdog instead.>
<(Chaka) Buh… I… AH-HAH-HAH-HAH! I want one!>
<(Tennyo) Me too.>
<(Phase) Don’t tell me Peeper has the balls to ogle you too!>
<(Chaka) And one for my bra, so when he stares at my boobs he gets an image of some fat guy’s hairy bitch-tits!>
<(Fey) I’m liking this idea more and more every minute.>
<(Phase) And I’ll pay all costs. I’d like you to make more than we need. We ought to distribute these to Venus Inc., and some of Peeper’s other main targets.>
<(Generator) Okay, I don’t get why you wanted to call me.>
<(Fey) Do you still have that clump of Peeper’s hair?>
<(Generator) You mean that clump of hair Spinner hacked off when Peeper was trying to peek up Tennyo’s skirt?>
<(Generator) Umm, yeah, I think so. I mean, I think most of it got left in the bottom of my purse. Lemme check.>
<(Chaka) So, is Phase all beefcake-y now?>
<(Bladedancer) You know what we all agreed on.>
<(Phase) And I’m still on the line.>
<(Chaka) Oh come on, Fey would’ve been all ‘ooh now he’s all muscle-y and hunky’ if he’d changed.>
<(Phase) Oh yeah, she’s blushing like crazy now. I guess you were right.>
<(Bladedancer) So… Phase… Are you okay with how things went?>
<(Phase) Yeah. Mostly. I knew there was about a zero chance of it working, but still, it’s a pisser it didn’t do anything. And the whole place melted down, and it looks like they lost the Variable Interface devise, so now they can’t do any more runs at all, until they get some sort of copy of the thing. So Thuban will probably be pissed at me about that.>
<(Generator) Stephen won’t be like that! He’s a sweetie. And… Oh! I got it! Yuck. One clump of stinky boy hair comin’ up.>
<(Phase) Fey is in Bugs’ room.>
<(Chaka) Like we didn’t know that already.>
<(Fey) Okay, with Peeper’s hair, and some herbs Koehnes can get for me pretty quickly, and an illusion spell Aunghadhail knows, I think I can get this one working tonight. I just need a bunch of beads we can pin onto clothes.>
<(Phase) Where’d you get the beads for the charms you had Saturday night?>
I looked over at Bunny, who was looking a little grumpy at being cut out of the conversation. I asked her, “Hey Bunny, where did you get the beads you gave Nikki last Saturday? The ones she turned into those anti-photography charms?”
She crooked her first finger and summoned me over. I leaned over, and she whispered in my ear, “Umm, well... I got ‘em from Shove. Don’t tell anyone.”
“Okay.” <(Phase) Give me five minutes to come up with some beads. I’ll meet you in Fey’s room.>
<(Fey) Okay. I’ll need that much time to set things up and send Koehnes off on errands.>
I went light, floated through Bunny’s door into the hallway, and drifted up into the hallway above our floor. I was hoping to get to Shove’s room without any difficulty, but of course that didn’t happen.
Hippolyta spotted me and came charging my way. I put out my hands and lied a little, “Hold on, I’m still light, and you know what that can do to Exemplars.”
She didn’t look worried. She just shook her head. “What are you froshes doing up here this time?”
I told her, “I need to talk with Shove for a minute.”
She growled, “This better not be anything to do with Beltane.”
I admitted, “I don’t even know what the hell is going on with Belle and Shove. I mean, I know there’s something, because I saw Shove searching frantically for some sign of the next Kendall assault, and I even got jabbed in the ribs for not being an ectoplasmic Ayla.”
She stared at me. “The weird thing is that actually makes sense.” She sighed, “Oh, go ahead. But try not to get Shove any more wound up than she already is.”
I knocked on Shove’s door. A nervous voice from inside called out, “Who is it?”
There was a pause of several seconds. “How do I know it’s really you?”
I rolled my eyes. This girl was in bad shape. “I could walk through the door. Would that help?”
I drifted through the door and then went heavy before she could jab me in an inconvenient spot.
She was sitting at her desk, staring at an open textbook and obviously not making any progress at all. She studied me carefully for several more seconds. I felt a jab at my solar plexus. I was already fully heavy, so it didn’t hurt. She reluctantly admitted, “Okay, you’re Ayla.”
“I’ve noticed that,” I said dryly. “Look, if you’re really worried whether I’m real or what I’m up to, call Bunny. She sent me up here.”
“Bunny?” Shove looked puzzled.
I added, “She said she got some beads from you last Saturday. I was hoping I could get a bunch from you.”
“For what?” she checked suspiciously.
I told her. She actually laughed out loud. “Okay. That’s worth it. But I want a set too.”
I said, “First, I want to pay you for the beads. You can even add on 15% to the price, to make it worth your while to be handing out this kind of thing.”
“That sounds fair…”
I went on, “And second, we’ll want a lot of beads, so we can hand them out to a lot of girls.”
She grinned maliciously. “Now you’re talking.”
She got up from her desk and walked over to her closet. She looked surprisingly embarrassed. Usually, Shove wasn’t embarrassed by anything she did, which was pretty impressive, because she normally had the tact of an angry rhinoceros. She opened the closet door and lifted a large plastic Tupperware box off the floor. Before she turned around, she said, “You have to promise not to tell anyone about this.”
I staunchly said, “There’s no way I’m making any such promise, before I know what I’m swearing to do.”
She groused, “Frigging Goodkinds.” I didn’t say anything to that. She set the large box on her bed and unsnapped the lid. Inside were a dozen compartmentalized boxes like what Hydroflux used to store all her tiny components. But Shove’s compartmented containers were full of beads. All kinds of beads, in all kinds of shapes and all manner of colors.
She frowned at me, “Okay, so I like to make jewelry. Big fucking deal.”
I had to admit, I was surprised. I had figured it would be something unpleasant, or possibly even nasty. Shove didn’t exactly have the reputation of Pollyanna or Mary Poppins. But it was fairly obvious that she was telling the truth. One of the top layers was a flat, felt-covered surface with grooves for laying out what would apparently be single-strand up to five-strand necklaces, and in the grooves were the beginnings of a three-strand necklace that looked like it would be composed of crystalline beads in varying shades of blue. I wasn’t an expert on jewelry, but it looked to me like it was going to be fairly attractive when it was done.
She pushed again, “Now you know what it is. Don’t tell anyone. I’ve got a rep to maintain.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “I won’t tell anyone, unless it’s really necessary.”
“How could it be ‘necessary’?” she fumed.
I rolled my eyes. “What? You never watched television? How many times on ‘Perry Mason’ or ‘Matlock’ did some dork go to prison because he or she wouldn’t admit what was really going on?”
She shrugged. “No idea. Never watched that old junk.”
I rephrased the issue. “Okay, I’ll keep it a secret, unless something really important comes up. If you’re accused of murder, or even just pissing off the New Olympians, and I have an alibi for you because I know you were making Troika a necklace at the time, I’ll rat you out and expose your alibi. Otherwise, I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“You Kimbas have to turn everything into an episode of Justice League.”
I told her, “I have the same complaint. We do have days where it seems like that.”
She asked me, “So what were you after, anyway?”
I said, “I was thinking about something simple, like two colors of beads. Maybe blue for bras and pink for panties. That’s nicely mnemonic. And some sort of pin or clip to hold them in place.”
<(Phase) Hey Fey, do the beads need to be any particular material or color or size or shape?>
<(Fey) Well, not plastic. Glass would work. Anything natural, like wood or amber.>
I asked, “Do you have average-sized beads, real glass, in two colors?”
She said, “Sure. I’ve got this whole packet of dark blue glass beads I’m not using, because they’re a little too purple for what I wanted. And these pink beads here are a little too orange for what I had in mind, so I was going to send them back. You can have both.”
I nodded. “How much for both envelopes, plus enough of those little pins to hold them to clothes?”
She quoted me a price as she pulled out beads and safety pins. It seemed really low to me. I checked, “Julia, are you sure your price isn’t too low?”
She tossed me the little clear-plastic envelope of pink beads. Hmm. Even I could tell they weren’t a true pink. But the envelope had a stick-on label with the price, so I could see she was correct. I added on fifteen percent in my head, rounded up to the nearest dollar, and looked in my wallet.
Okay, so I was using one of the pockets in my utility belt for my wallet and some other non-combat items. I was also thinking about a little ‘emergency money’ bag to hide in the bottom of one of the pockets. Perhaps a couple credit or debit cards with a fake ID, a few Krugerrands, two or three faceted diamonds, and maybe a rare stamp. Given all the insanity that seemed to erupt around me and my team, it made sense to plan ahead for that one time we ended up stranded in South Africa, or another dimension, or something even more bizarre.
I paid her, and she made sure that I hid all the beads and pins in my utility belt before I left the room. She frowned, “Now promise me you won’t tell anyone.”
I rolled my eyes. “I already promised. But I’ll do it again, if it will make you feel any better. I, Ayla Goodkind, hereby promise not to rat Shove out and reveal that she’s not actually a ballbusting bitch twenty-four-seven as she likes people to think, unless it is absolutely necessary.”
She gave me a glare, but let it slide. Sort of. “I don’t know who’s worse. You Kimbas, or Beltane.”
I said as flatly as I could manage, “We’re far worse than Belle. She doesn’t even have an evil laugh. Mwah. Hah. Hah.”
She fought hard not to smile at that. “Even that little pipsqueak Jade has a better evil laugh than that. Hell, even Angel has a better evil laugh than that.”
I lied, “I’m reserving my real evil laugh for more appropriate moments. I have enough trouble with people assuming I’m automatically evil just because of my last name.”
She pushed, “Well, you are one of those Goodkinds. You probably had Emil Hammond and the MCO on speed-dial.”
Rather than admitting anything that would be used against me, or getting into an argument with one of the dorm mistresses of dissension, I moved onward. “You really don’t know anything about me.”
She waved me off. “Oh, like you’re all secret, and shit. I know tons of crap about you. You’re a Goodkind. One of the Goodkinds. You and Solange have a big mutual hate affair going on, and she can’t stop talking about what assholes your big sisters are. You spent like a million bucks on a fancy uniform to get an ‘A’ in Costume Shop I. Vox thinks you’re hot stuff. The freshies can’t stop bragging about how the showers you bought are a hundred times better than ours. Tempest thinks you’re after Vox for one thing only, and you’re way more evil than Maleficent. Bugs and Riptide think you’re going to make Bugs a millionaire. Majestic hates your guts because you made her look like a tool in some stupid English Lit class no one in their right mind would take. The Beret Mafia actually talk to you, which makes you like one of three Americans in the whole school who aren’t on their Shit Lists. You have this weird thing with Puppet over in Freak Central, even if doing her would be like totally poisonous. Gorgon thinks you’re going to squash Zenith and take over as the dorm fixer. Risk thinks so too. Traduce thinks you’re a total bitch, which is pretty fucking funny, considering it’s Traduce saying it. You still have a dick, and you’re rooming with one of the dorm hotties, even if she used to be a boy, so a couple people think maybe you bought off Mrs. Horton on that one. So what don’t I know about you?”
I grinned, “Obviously, a ton. Starting with the fact that over half your so-called facts are wrong.”
“Oh yeah, which ones?” she argued.
“I told you. Most of them. Just do some decent research, and it’ll become obvious,” I replied.
Before she could engage me in a discussion in which I didn’t want to participate, I paid her, and then slipped the beads and pins into my utility belt pocket alongside my wallet. I thanked her, and I floated out through the door. I mean, I knew that part of being a Goodkind was having absurd factoids floating around like a particularly nasty pollen, but I wasn’t particularly happy about some of the gossip Shove had heard.
On the other hand, it was probably better for Puppet if people didn’t know she was a Goodkind. I wasn’t going to correct Shove on that point. And I was glad that Sharisha really cared what happened to Vox, even if she had a decidedly jaundiced view of rich white people… which probably wasn’t nearly as jaundiced as the view that most rich white people had about kids like Sharisha. Plus, I was sure that Zoe had done her Database technique on me enough times to know that I wasn’t going to try to push her out of her spot as dorm fixer. On the other hand, I had to admit that I loved the fact that everyone on campus knew I had made Majestic look bad in that English Lit class.
I put that nonsense aside, and I floated down through the hallway floor into our hallway. Then I walked over to Nikki and Toni’s room. Toni yanked open the door before I even knocked. “You have the stuff? All of it? Girlfriend, I can’t wait, this is gonna be so great!”
Nikki looked up from her desk, where Koehnes was spreading out an assortment of herbs. “Glad you’re here,” she groaned. “Someone’s been so excited she’s been running up the walls ever since she heard about the plan.”
I deadpanned, “Sorry, the babysitter’s over in her room, but maybe she can get her cabbit to come over for a playdate.”
Toni laughed, even as she bounced on her bed, “Oh, we have to figure out where we’re gonna spring this one on Ol’ Fluorescent Blue Eyes. And his sidekick Igor.”
I said, “I managed to acquire a nice collection of glass beads. I figure we can go for the obvious mnemonic here. Pink for panties, and blue for bras.” I pulled out the beads and the pins, and let Nikki study them.
Toni managed to bounce from her bed to Nikki’s without moving from a sitting position. “Where’d you get the beads?”
I told her, “Hey, if I want to be the dorm fixer some day, I have to learn who has what around here.” I added, “And I learned something new. Apparently, I bribed Mrs. Horton so I could room with a real girl.”
Toni grinned, “Dude, for all the perks of roomin’ with you, I’m surprised you don’t have a line outside your door begging you to let ‘em move in. Heck, even Hip would probably wanna room with you if she didn’t have Sara’s own private Room of Requirement to hang out in.”
Nikki showed she was paying some attention to the conversation while she focused on the components laid out on her desktop. “Hippy smokes. I don’t see Ayla putting up with that.”
“I think there are a few other things I might object to, other than that,” I said dryly.
“Like her beatin’ up every guy who comes by to talk to you about money?” Toni teased. “Or you comin’ back to your room and findin’ her and Sara in the middle of hot, slimy tentacle sex?”
“Eww,” Nikki muttered without looking up from her work.
“Mostly, I’d just be jealous, because she speaks about three times as many languages as I do,” I said, knowing I could get Toni off the subject if I came up with just the right factoid.
“I can see it now,” she went on. She switched to a quavering, nerdy deviser voice. “I-is Phase here? I’d like to talk to her about the s-stock market?” Then she changed to a superhero pose and tried a parody of Hippolyta’s voice. “Puny man! Comparing women to animals in a market? Take THAT!” She finished her routine up with a quick physical comedy bit of Hip tying said guy into a deviser pretzel.
Obviously, I hadn’t gotten the right factoid, because Toni was still obsessing about Hippolyta. I tried again. “You know, if I had Hip for a roomie, I could probably get her to try fighting with you all the time like she used to do with Hank.”
Toni’s face lit up, and she bounced from Nikki’s bed back to her own, with a back somersault in the middle. “Man, that would be awesome. She’s got some really impressive martial arts moves I’d love to learn.”
Nikki didn’t look up, but she said, “Don’t break my bed. Again. Okay?”
Toni grinned, “Sure!” And she promptly did a handstand on her own bed before launching herself at Nikki’s bed.
She hit an invisible wall halfway between the beds and fell to the floor. Only her preternatural grace allowed her to catch herself in a one-armed handstand before she actually did a face-fault on the floor tiles.
“Thank you, Koehnes,” Nikki said regally.
“You’re welcome, Your Majesty,” piped up a small voice that seemed to come from under Nikki’s bed.
“I was not gonna break that bed!” Toni complained, still doing her one-armed handstand.
This time, when Nikki finally did her magic, I could feel it. There was an almost tangible trembling in the air, like the way the atmosphere wavers over a concrete street in the middle of a sunny day in Kuwait. I asked, “All done?”
Nikki looked up and smiled. “Yep. Now we just need to put all the beads on these pins…” She slowly passed her hands over the beads, and they skittered across the desk onto the safety pins as if an army of invisible ants were down there obeying Nikki’s wishes.
I said, “Next, we need to distribute them, and then-”
“-attack Peeper!” Toni interrupted.
“Yes, we’ll attack Peeper with our underwear,” I deadpanned.
“Because nothing says ‘horrible vengeance’ like jewelry and lingerie,” snarked Nikki.
I tried again. “We have a limited number of sets right now, so we need to figure out who gets this batch. I don’t need one, since I already have something Peeper doesn’t want to stare at.”
Toni said, “We need some for all us Kimbas, and Rip and Bunny…”
“I need a couple sets to distribute to people, starting with Vox and a couple Poesies I owe favors to,” I put in.
Nikki nodded, “I think we ought to get sets for Poise and Lifeline and a couple of the other Venus Inc. girls Peeper hassles the most.”
“But not for Solange,” Toni insisted.
“No way,” Nikki agreed.
“Not even if Peeper’s gaze set you on fire,” I snapped.
Toni kept balancing on one hand, but lowered herself until her nose was nearly touching the floor. Then she stealthily reached under Nikki’s bed. Meanwhile, she said, “Dude, you gotta let out those feelings. Don’t bottle it all up like that. ‘s not good for ya.”
Just then, Koehnes squealed and scrambled out the other side of Nikki’s bed.
“Take that!” Toni crowed.
“Toni, don’t be mean to Koehnes,” Nikki said in the tones of a mother to a six-year-old.
Koehnes gushed, “Thank you, Your Majesty, for protecting me from the vile intrud-”
“Uht!” snapped Toni.
“-from the other resident of your horribly limited abode,” Koehnes ended.
“Sounds like you need a loan from Goodkind Financial Management,” I joked.
Nikki glared at me. “Don’t even joke about that! Between Koehnes and Aunghadhail, they’re driving me crazy that I need a fancy palace and servants and everything!”
“I could help you with that,” I reminded her.
“I know that,” she fumed. “And so do they. Toni helpfully explained to Koehnes about modern times and estates for rich people. And I need to be in this dorm for nine months a year, until I graduate, so I can learn enough, and then my mom expects me to live at her place the rest of the time, and it’s just not practical!”
“Maybe when you graduate, and you’re a world-famous supermodel,” suggested Toni mischievously.
Nikki growled in a way that suggested Toni had broached this idea before. Repeatedly. She muttered, “Keep that up, and you’ll get the defective charms. Instead of casting the illusion that only Peeper sees, it’ll make all your clothes turn invisible for everyone.”
“Ooh, I bet Mace and Dredz would like that,” I contributed.
Nikki fumed at me, “And you’re not helping either!”
Before both of them could jump on me, there was a knock at the door. Nikki smiled and called out, “Come on in, Bunny!”
Oh yeah. The old Empath trait.
Bunny opened the door and wiggled in, clutching several focusing systems and a couple of her smallest holographic projectors. She giggled, “I think I figured out how to do it with some of my holography devises! This is so cool. I’ve gotta get this worked out and distribute ‘em to all the Workshop girls!” Her giggle wasn’t so much evil-sounding as high-pitched and bubbly, but for Bunny that was a very evil tone.
Nikki offered her a set of the charms, but Bunny just kissed her on the cheek and bubbled, “Oh no, my devises are gonna be way more fun! And since I already have that three-dee holo of Ayla’s wiener, and some really icky stuff I scanned off the internet, I can change the images anytime I want!”
I warned her, “Just make sure it’s really something Peeper wouldn’t want to see, because guys can be pretty perverted. Especially teenaged guys.”
“And you ought to know,” chimed in Toni.
“I think everyone in this room knows, except Bunny,” I pointed out.
“And Koehnes,” added Nikki.
“Thank you for thinking of me, Your Majesty!” came a voice that was apparently now somewhere near the floor of the closet.
“Yeah, run it by Ayla and Hank first,” said Toni helpfully. “If they don’t puke, it’s probably not gross enough for Peeper.”
“Oh, thanks so much,” I muttered.
She gave me her usual ‘leopard grin’. “It’s the least I could do!”
Bunny asked, “So, do we all just start wearing these and passing ‘em out?”
I said, “I think it would be more fun if we planned how we’re going to spring them on Peeper. I was thinking dinnertime tomorrow evening, after we have the chance to plan this out and conspire with some of his other victims.”
“In the caff?” Toni checked. “That’s like your favorite pranking spot, isn’t it?”
I smiled wickedly. “It is highly effective, from a public relations standpoint. And it does provide a maximum of embarrassment, for a minimum of effort.”
Nikki pointed out, “And you do realize that if we try it in the caff, we’re probably gonna get spotted? And maybe we’ll have to have a little heart-to-heart chat with the Headmistress?”
I shrugged. “For what? Putting a charm on women’s clothing so Espers can’t ogle their privates?” I asked innocently.
She slowly shook her head. “Carson’s not gonna fall for that one.”
I said, “I know. I’ll take the fall, if need be. She’s letting Peeper pull this paparazzi crap, so she’ll know that sooner or later, students will start inventing legally effective strategies.”
“Whoa! Wait!” Toni squawked. “You mean Carson’s letting Peeper run wild on purpose?”
I shrugged. “Probably. One of the things we’re supposed to learn is how to get by in a baseline world. Learning to deal with snoops and reporters and paparazzi has to be part of that. If Peeper wasn’t running loose like a slimy little Howard Stern in training, Carson would probably have to sucker some student who’s less of a jerkwad into playing the part.”
“Eww,” groaned Toni.
“Yick,” agreed Bunny.
“What is a howard’s tern, and how do you train it?” asked Koehnes.
“I’ll explain it later,” Nikki said regally.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Koehnes said obsequiously.
“Are we agreed?” I checked. “We aim for dinner tomorrow evening?”
“Aye aye, captain,” Toni mock-saluted.
Nikki smiled wickedly, “I think that sounds good.”
Bunny grinned, “In the words of supervillains everywhere, mwa-ha-hah!”
I took several sets of the beads and went back to my room. Chou wasn’t there, but someone was. Vanessa was lying on my bed, reading a book and obviously waiting for me to return.
I had no idea how long she had been waiting here for me. I suddenly felt really bad that I had gotten sidetracked with the anti-Peeper charms and everything else. I softly called out, “Luuuuu-cyyyy! I’m hoooo-ooome!”
She looked at me and grinned. “Even I know who that’s supposed ta be.” She rolled onto her side and studied me carefully. Then she frowned, “You don’t look like you had a big success, honey.”
I shrugged like I didn’t care. “It didn’t work. In fact, the whole machine burned up.”
She waved me up into the bed. I went light enough that I could jump up into the upper bunk like I was possessed by the spirit of Chaka, and then I went back to my normal weight while I settled in next to her.
She hugged me warmly and stroked my cheek. She murmured, “I know how bad you wanted to be a guy again, so I’m really sad for you. But I have to tell you, I like that you still look all sexy like you are now. I like you like this. I mean, I’m pretty sure I could get used to you no matter what you looked like. Even if you looked like Stoner, maybe.” She gave me a grin to show she was teasing. “But I know I like you like this, and it’s easier for us this way. That doesn’t make me a bad person, does it?”
I hugged her back. “No, it just makes me a bad person for wanting to change things when we don’t have any idea of how things would be afterward.”
“You’re not a bad person!” she insisted. “You’re just… a person. A normal person who doesn’t wanna be in a fucked-up body when you could be lookin’ like Stormwolf or sump’m.”
My eyes started burning. I wasn’t crying, though. It was dust in the air, or maybe Vanessa’s perfume. But I wasn’t crying. Really.
I nestled into her and admitted, “I was so counting on it working, which was really stupid… I knew it didn’t work for anybody else, and I was so desperate for it to work for me, and I kept telling myself it couldn’t work, but I just needed it to work for me…”
And then tears were streaming down my face, and I was too choked up to talk. But I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t.
Vanessa held me to her breasts and kissed the top of my head. “It’s okay, honey. It’s okay…”
She held me for a long time. I guess I fell asleep somewhere in there.
But I don’t care what you say. I did not cry myself to sleep!