The Road To Whateley (Part 1)
A Whateley Academy 2nd Generation Tale
The Road To Whateley
by Bek D. Corbin and E. E. Nalley
I feed on the fear of the Devil inside
of the enemy faces in my sights:
aim with the hand,
shoot with the mind,
kill with a heart like arctic ice...
The Warrior Song, Warrior Project
July 20th 14:22hrs, 2016
Domus Sanctae Marthae, Vatican City, Italy
Rome was burning.
A pall of oily black smoke of burning cars and building hung thick in the air accompanied by the staccato tattoo of machine gun fire, punctuated by screams of the wounded and curses of the dying. For Nick Brennan, it was a day that had started bad when the Thunderbird helicopter he'd been riding in had been hit by a sparrowhawk surface to air missile and quickly turned worse by an emergency landing in the Palazzo Barberini doing God only knew how much damage to a priceless historic land mark. From there it had been a long hard slog over the two and a half miles from the crash site to the hole in the wall that separated the Holy See from the secular portion of Rome.
Now the group paused along the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri and regrouped. It was a long open and exposed gap to what little shelter the Holy See's wall would provide and leave them well exposed for most of that way. Judging by the carnage, the fighting here had been recent. A group of frantic hand signals were exchanged and then, silent as ghosts despite their size, the unit crossed the gap in ones and twos, eyes and ears constantly seeking targets. A pleasant stroll would have taken a few minutes at most, but the big ghosts took nearly ten, leap frogging each other, until they arrived at the opening.
The hole had once been a narrow, but regular entrance for automobile traffic with an improbably long name in Italian that would have defied Nick's tongue even if he could remember what it was. Not that it mattered, the only Swiss Guards here wouldn't ask to see his passport, or anything else again. They had gone out fighting, judging by the pile bodies, but had been overwhelmed by force of numbers.
Nick jerked around reflexively at the terse scream to his left, holding down the trigger of his rifle as he did so. The 'Aught Five' roared, spitting a stream of 7.62 NATO rounds clipping the corner of the wall Nick was using for cover until the muzzle cleared it and the rounds began to travel out into the street. There they found a crowd of 'Reds' as they had been dubbed, Jihadi militia that had been infiltrating Rome for months that now had risen up with the supporting Russian troops that were coming across the Adriatic Sea from the Balkans.
The Aught Five was a scaled up version of the FN M240 general purpose machine gun for use by the huge 'Animen' creations of Dr. DNA as a lethal cross between a belt fed battle rifle and a squad automatic weapon. It was actually too large for any human being to use, but to the big half horse, half man it served as a grunt's primary rifle. The weapon had been officially adopted in 2005 by the Paradise Island Defense Force as the M2005 where upon it quickly got the nickname Aught Five.
The rifle's big, .30 caliber rounds and it's devastating rate of fire formed a lethal cloud of lead that slammed into the AK-74 wielding Jihadi terrorists, every fifth round a red tracer making it seem like some futuristic blaster from science fiction had struck them down. “Reloading!” he shouted over his shoulder which brought Ed Jenkins to scoot in front of him while he thumbed the release of the box hanging on the side of the rifle and it fell off.
“How are we doing, skipper?” the lighter, but faster Quarter horse mix asked as he kept his eyes down range for any of the militia Nick might have missed.
“Nickel and dimed,” Nick replied as he worked a box containing a belt of two hundred rounds from a carrier on his web harness and went about getting it locked into place. “You and me and Manetti and Dade are what's left of our combat effectives, I'm down to three more boxes, then my pistol, how about you?”
“The box in my rifle, one box in my belt and my swinging cod,” the other replied as he spied some suspicious movement across the street. Nick fished one of his boxes from the carrier and put it in his team mate's hand.
“Make 'em count.”
“Will do,” Ed chuckled as he sent a few rounds into a building he saw one of the militia run into. That sparked a response of AK74 fire that was wildly inaccurate and went everywhere except in their direction. “Got a grenade?” he asked.
“Last one,” Nick told him as he dropped it into Jenkins hand.
“I knew you loved me,” Ed chuckled as he pulled the pin and heaved the grenade. It sailed for a good fifty yards from the strength of the Animan.
The pair's sharp ears heard panicked screams of, “Ifriti! Ifriti!” It was the Arabic word for 'demon;' what the Jehadis called the Animen, believing them to be soulless manifestations from hell. They did not scream long as the explosion silenced them. Nick helped Ed up to his hooves and wiped his brow which was running in sweat. The other noticed it and instantly became concerned.
“Hey, you ok, Skipper?”
Nick tossed his head. In truth, he felt terrible, nauseous and over heated, but he was determined. “Too much breakfast,” he quipped. “Let's get the Pope and get out of here before...” He wasn't able to finish as several things happened at once. His ears and one eye caught sight of the light platoon of Russian regulars that had been using their Jehadi 'allies' as human 'canaries' probing for the resistance they were expecting emerged from the cover of the building across the way and began to fire.
Nick's system was flooded with adrenaline as he saw the muzzle flashes and felt the hammer blows of the hits. He frantically grabbed a hold of Ed Jenkins, intending to throw him clear and out of danger when the heat, and the dizziness turned into a white hot pain of electric agony. A frantic discharge of blue white lightening enveloped the two Animen, like something out of a Tesla coil as Nick and Ed screamed in pain. Then agony passed and suddenly Nick felt amazing! More alive than he ever had in his entire life, but Ed, continued to scream, holding his charred hand, blacked by an electrical burn, where Nick had been holding his arm.
Jenkins crumpled, howling while Nick starred, horrified as 'bullets' ricocheted around them both. “Medic!” he shouted, sickened at the sight of his injured friend. “Real world!” he shouted again, “Medic! Real World injury!”
Vatican city vanished to leave the four Animen in the large white space of a Johnson Hard Light Room, the doors opening to allow a paramedic to rush in.
<p">July 20th, 15:12hrs, 2016 <p">New Worlds Simulation Arcade, New Eden, Paradise Island
Nick sat dejectedly on a bench in the lobby of NWS, absently pulling off the blue bandanna on his left arm that marked him as a member of Blue Force as he watched the paramedics load Ed into the ambulance outside. One ear was listening to the conversation Nat Turner, the organizer for Hard Light World Wide, was having with the other marshals in the four other NWS locations that were taking part in the Operation: Rome event around the world. The other ear was listening to the worried whispers of his team mates, an eclectic mix of worry about Ed, worry about the outcome of the adjudication and, most importantly, the whispered worry between Sandy Manetti and Jennifer Dade. The two fillies of Team Pegasus were worried about him and that would have made him feel great at any other time.
For himself, Nick Brennan Junior was a ball of pent up energy. He didn't feel like he'd just gone through a horrifically realistic simulation of fighting his way across two miles of the Eternal City, indeed he felt quite the reverse, amped up and ready to run a marathon the need to do something, anything, was almost over whelming. His left hoof tapped out a muffled beat on the floor because of his leg bouncing with the energy. “Nick?” He looked up into Jennifer Dade's blue eyes and smiled. That he couldn't help, Jenny was growing into a fine figure of a woman and Nick Junior was much closer to Stallion than he was to Colt. Of course, it didn't hurt that Jennifer was already showing to have inherited the genes that gave her mother such an impressive...bust line... “It..it wasn't your fault...was it?” she asked hesitantly.
Nick shrugged. “I...I don't know what happened, Jennifer...” he started, but Nat Turner had hung up the phone and the big bear was walking over.
“Listen up,” he rumbled. “Because of the injury, HLWW has ruled the following outcome of the Operation Rome event. Pope Francis has been successfully kidnapped by the forces of the New Com Block. North Atlantic Alliance forces have retaken Rome and expelled the invaders. Team Pegasus, because NWS Paradise Island had the injury, it has been adjudicated that you have all survived your wounds and will be available to participate in Operation Sarajevo next month. Good luck!”
“Hoorah,” muttered Nick as he shook his head.
“Hey, we're alive,” Jennifer told him.
“What does that mean if Ed loses his hand because of me?” he shot back. “I gotta get to St. Francis,” he said, referring to the Island's hospital where they both had been born and where the ambulance would be taking Ed.
“Not so fast, young man,” a voice ordered from the door. Nick Junior lost nearly a foot off his seven foot frame as he slouched down and rotated his ears back.
“Mom...I can explain...” he started.
July 20th 2016
Paradise Island in the West Caribbean, off the coast of Nicaragua
“Where is he?” demanded Colonel Brennan as he entered his home. It had been his intention to quickly discover his eldest son's location from one of his wives and proceed to him at once, however he was mobbed by wave of children excited that he was home. The Colonel greeted his daughters, all five of them, with glee, picking up Abigail who was still young enough to want to be picked up all the time and carrying her into the spacious living area. His two middle sons were playing some kind strategy game on the Goodkind Fun Box that seemed to be based on the Crimean War.
“Who?” asked Julie, the youngest of his three wives from the kitchen where she was chopping celery for what ever she and Rebecca were making for dinner.
“Junior,” the Colonel replied as he sat Abigail on the love seat so as not to disrupt his son's intense concentration on their game and stripped off his decoration covered jacket.
“Where else?” replied Heather as she swept through the kitchen from her office, pausing to peck the cheek of Julie, her sister wife, as she passed as well as help herself to a small handful of the celery. “On the beach,” she told him as she greeted her husband with a kiss and offered some of the celery. Heather was Brennan's first wife, alpha of his herd, shiny red coat gleaming under her mustard yellow mane and tail as she relieved him of the jacket and carefully draped it on a hanger she'd brought with her. “Nick,” she cautioned with a softer voice. “Go easy, alright? He's as upset about this as you are.”
Nick Brennan crunched celery as he reached up and undid the ascot around his neck and handed it to her. His three, thick fingers would have significant difficulty with a tie and the uniform had been designed with that in mind. “Upset?” he asked sardonically with a raised eyebrow. “I'm not sure that's the word I'd use, Heather! How long as this been going on? Why didn't he come to us...?”
His dominate wife laid a thick finger over his wide mouth. “That doesn't matter, Nick. All that matters is our son needs his father. Right?” His ears twitched away in annoyance before rotating back to face her, drooping slightly.
“Of course, Heather, I just want to know...”
She leaned forward and planted a kiss between his wide nostrils. “And you will, lover mine. But just get comfortable and go talk with our son, not to him.” He nodded and started to move towards the french doors set into the two story picture wall that looked out over the deck, the back yard and their portion of the private beach, but she stopped him gently. “Hold on soldier, I'm not sending 'The Colonel' I'm sending the father. Go change.” He chuckled and nodded, pausing to kiss her back before he trotted upstairs to their bed room.
The uniform quickly discarded, Nick settled on a pair of shorts and a loose, baggy T shirt that was emblazoned with a beer advertisement. He took his boots off his hooves, careful not mar the glass like shine he'd worked into them over the course of weeks and decided to go bare hoof to the beach. His eyes fell on the small refrigerator he and his wives kept in their bedroom and on a whim he opened it and removed a pair of bottles before he let himself out onto the Master Bedroom's balcony and made his way down the connecting stairwell to the main deck, and then down to the yard.
As he made his way through the yard and down the path to the beach, Nick couldn't help but marvel again at the circumstances that had led his life to this point. He didn't wool gather long, it was late afternoon and the wind was in off the ocean, carrying with it the sounds of his son's acoustic six string and his rumbling baritone. His speaking voice was lower, but loosing himself in song gave him an easy, higher pitch. “Haul the sheet in as we ride on the wind that our Forefathers harnessed before us. Hear the bells ring as the tide rigging sings. It's a son of a gun of a chorus...”
The Colonel found his eldest son sitting on the stump of a palm tree they'd cut down some years previous that was exactly the right height and width to be a comfortable seat. The youngster caught sight of his father's approach and trailed off, not finishing his song, his eyes fearful and ears alert. The Colonel effortlessly picked up one of the Adirondack beach chairs from the set as he passed and carried it over to the stump. Junior set the instrument aside and dipped his head. “Hi, dad.”
“Son,” Brennan greeted as he sat down. His trusty P38 from his keyring opened the first bottle that he offered up. “Buy you a drink?”
The young stallion perked up at once. “A hard cider? Really?”
“What's more natural than two men having a drink together and talking about things?” he replied, opening his own bottle and returning his keys to his pocket. He watched his son take his first drink of his first 'adult beverage' around his own. Nick Junior was his mother's son; her ruddy coat, her white socks and muzzle, her mustard yellow mane and tail, but when the light was right, the Colonel saw his own green eyes twinkle out of his son's face. He licked his lips and looked and the amber hard cider in the bottle.
“I thought it would be sweeter.”
“They vary,” Brennan replied. “Your mother prefers a crisper cider with a bite.” He started to reach for the bottle. “If you don't like it...”
Nick kept his bottle out his father's reach. “I didn't say I didn't like it,” he noted with a wide mouthed grin. They took another sip and stared out into the ocean. The Brennan house was on the windward side of the island and the sun was sinking into Nicaragua behind them, looking out onto the vastness of the Caribbean towards Jamaica. Despite the heat from the Sun and the latitude, the twilight breeze off the ocean was cool. After a long moment and several sips. Nick asked, “What's it like, dad?”
The Colonel blinked at his son's request. “What's what like, son?”
His oldest child looked him in the eye and despite the mane that needed cutting and hung into his blue-green eyes, it was the most mature look the elder Brennan had ever seen on his son's face. “Being human,” he asked finally.
“What brought that on?”
Junior sighed and turned back to the sea. “Mom and I had a long talk on the way home, about powers and mutants and paranormals and...I guess it hit me all of a sudden. I...we...We're not human. At all, really. I mean, you and moms used to be human, but I...I never was. I don't have any idea what that's like.”
Nick licked his wide lips and hung his head in thought for a moment. “I suppose, I don't really think about it much any more. There are times,” he paused as one ear caught an odd sound that didn't belong and he traced it. That brought a chuckle. “Just now, in fact,” he admitted “where I catch myself just being this form without thinking about it. But, being human is...very different physically. They're smaller, weaker, frailer. Even I when I was human and in the peak of condition as a Ranger, I was no match for this body.”
“Is it just physical?” Junior asked.
His father waggled his free hand back and forth. “I feel more, my emotions are much more vivid.” He chuckled again at a distant memory. “Before I got a handle on my temper caused all sorts of problems with your mother and me, but we sorted things out. That said, where things really count son, in your heart, in your mind you are human, not an animal. We think, we feel, we remember, and that is the most important part of being human.”
The young stallion processed that for a long moment, took another sip of his cider and looked back at his father with a concerned look on his face. “Am I in trouble, dad?”
Brennan sat back in the Adirondack and got comfortable. Despite having worn a form that was half man, half eight foot tall horse for nearly 20 years, there were time when it just didn't feel natural to him. This was one of them. “I don't know that 'trouble' is the right word, son. You want to tell me what happened?”
The boy sighed noisily through his lips, unconsciously making a very 'horse-like' sound. It was the kind of thing that Nick and his wives, who had once been human, purposefully kept themselves from doing but their children, who had always been this way, seemed less concerned with. “Dad, I swear I didn't do it on purpose! We were at New Worlds, doing the Operation Rome event I told you about, remember?
Brennan nodded indulgently. He didn't really care for his son's hobby of making a game out of the horror that was war, but Heather thought it harmless, and judging by his son's physique it was good exercise. “Yes, I remember,” he said, “Go on.”
Me and Ed Jenkins we were taking fire and there wasn't any cover so I was going to try and throw him clear then I felt kind of hot and dizzy, right as I got a hold of Ed. Next thing I know there's this...” He shook his head, unable to look his father in the eye. “Surge, I guess you could say.”
Brennan waited several long moments after his son trailed off, before he finally asked, “Then what happened, son?”
“Ed was on the ground,” Nick replied quietly. “He...he was screaming and holding his hand. It was really badly burned. It hurt me too, really bad and there was a bright spark, like electricity or something, but I didn't get injured at all.”
“Is this the first time something like this has happened?”
Nick's ears drooped and he shook his head in a somewhat exaggerated gesture. “No sir. I...I've noticed for a couple of months my phone and my iPad don't lose charge when I hold them. I didn't think anything of it until today.” Finally he looked up, real fear in his eyes. “What's wrong with me, dad?”
Brennan laid a comforting hand on his firstborn's shoulder. “I don't know that anything is wrong with you, son. The egg heads are still trying to sort out what and how Dr. DNA did to create us Animen. It could be he intended all of us to have some kind of paranormal ability and fouled something up. I don't know, son. I'm mostly just glad you're ok.”
A tear escaped Nick's eye. “What about Ed?”
Brennan smiled and squeezed his son's shoulder. “I spoke with Tom Jenkins on my way home. Ed's going to be fine. It was an ugly burn, but there's no nerve damage and the paramedics treated him with Grease-Skin so there shouldn't be any scarring either.”
Nick stared out at the ocean for a long time, his ears slowly swiveling as they sought the crickets and other insects that were active at twilight. He took a drink of his cider and swallowed his emotions. “So...I'm a mutant? Or a 'paranormal' or something?”
“Do you think it was just a one time thing?”
Nick sighed again and shook his head, “No sir, it's not.” He stood, putting the bottle on the stump and stepping out into the sand of the beach. He centered himself and went through some kind of kata. Brennan watched his son intently as the motions slowed and finally stopped with both of his hands by his side. Nick was a strong boy, well muscled for his age, but he was obviously straining. Finally, much to his father's amazement a light, a ball of energy, began to coalesce, hovering between his son's hands, who suddenly, with a cry, shoved it forward, out to sea. The ball elongated into a beam, nearly a foot wide that arched out and buried itself into the ocean, sending up a huge waterspout. Nick fell to his knees, causing his father to jump up and rush over, but the young Animan was only panting with exertion. “I'm ok,” he gasped, panting for air.
“How long have you been able to do that?” his father demanded.
“About two weeks,” Nick replied breathlessly. “I was reading this website about martial arts and awaking your inner Ki...”
“Son,” Brennan chided, “the amount of hucksters on the internet...”
“No, no,” Nick replied quickly, “Master Chandler is respected world wide. She has 9th and 10th Dan rankings in...”
“I'm sure she has a very impressive resume,” Brennan told his son. “It's not the point. You tried this after reading...?” Nick's grin was sheepish.
“Sounds kinda lame, now, doesn't it?” Brennan crossed his arms over his own massive chest and gave his firstborn the gimlet eye. Nick dropped his ears and lowered his head, even as he accepted his father's hand up on his hooves. “It didn't do anything at first. And I never felt the ease and the open natural flow Master Chandler talks about. But I kept at it and, then, suddenly, it was like if I pushed myself really hard, then something gave and...” He made a gesture at the ocean that was still returning to it's previous calm. “That happened. It's not ki. I emailed Master Chandler and she replied back that...”
Brennan gripped his son's shoulders and turned him to face him. “You emailed this woman?”
“I was freaked out, dad!” he shot back. “Master Chandler says ki shouldn't do what mine does!”
The Colonel closed his eyes and hung his head. “Why didn't you come to me, son? Or one of your mothers?”
The young stallion was contrite. “Dad, if I'd had some problem with my AR, I would have come to you! If I couldn't figure out the tune to my guitar I'd head straight for Mom Julie. You always said if you need information, go to an expert. That's all I was doing. I didn't think it was dangerous! It wasn't until today!”
The elder Brennan swallowed his hurt pride and nodded, satisfied with his son's logic. “Alright, so, this expert emailed you back and said what?”
“That she'll be here tomorrow,” Nick said quietly.
“Oh,” he replied. “Do your mothers know about this?”
July 21th 2016
New Eden International Airport, Paradise Island
“Welcome to Paradise Island, home of the wildest life in the Caribbean. We hope you enjoy your stay with us. We caution all of our guests that Dr. DNA is not a resident on Paradise Island, the Animan conversion process is extremely complicated and there is no such thing as 'Animan Serum', pills or any other miraculous drug that by passes this process. Immigration to Paradise Island is currently severely limited and cannot be initiated by anyone except a uniformed and credentialed member of the Paradise Island State Department. Examples of these uniforms and documents can be viewed at the visitors services kiosk on the main concourse. Be wary of anyone making contradictory claims to these facts...” Nick Brennan chuckled as he listened to the automated cautions that were on a loop through out the airport. Seems like there was rarely a week that went by when one of his Defense Force Teams didn't apprehend some group of want to be 'furries' desperate they missed out on DNA's scam and hoping against hope there was some new source of whatever the Doctor had used.
Nick had been a US Army Ranger when he'd first come to investigate the sudden raising of Cayos Miskitos to a pair of islands, significantly larger than their previous selves and to try and lay hands on Dr. DNA himself. He'd been human then, unaware of the bazaar turn his life was about to take. He shook his head in amazement as his son in front of him immediately became more alert.
“I'd forgotten how small humans are!” murmured Heather at his side.
A vixen wearing the uniform of the State Department was approaching, at her side was a lithe, dark skinned woman of African heritage but something about the open, easy way she walked made the Colonel certain she was American herself. She was wearing a smart pants suit in white that darkened her complexion further, but made for a stunning contrast. Her boots were made of some kind of snake or lizard skin and had a considerable heel, but Brennan instantly knew, again from the way she moved, they wouldn't hinder a woman who was obviously a very dangerous fighter. She was smiling and chatting with the vixen, her hair in a medium afro bobbing to the time of their conversation. “Colonel Brennan? Mandy Rihannon, with the State Department.”
“Agent Rihannon,” Nick greeted, even though he was dressed in what on the island was considered formal, but civilian clothing, well pressed jeans and a polo shirt. The vixen indicated the young woman beside her.
“May I introduce Toni Chandler? Ms. Chandler has been granted a non-tourist visa by the State Department to visit your family over a medical issue, is this correct?”
“It is,” the Colonel replied, extending a hand the young woman shook. Or, it was more correct to say she put her hand out to be massively dwarfed by his and he shook her hand and a good chunk of her forearm. “Ms. Chandler, I apologize if my son put you out of your way...”
“Not at all!” the young woman affirmed. “I've never been to Paradise Island so it's a great excuse!”
“Enjoy your visit,” Agent Rihannon murmured as she withdrew, returning the young woman's passport as she left.
“This is my first wife, Heather,” Brennan introduced. “And evidently you've corresponded with our son.”
“A pleasure,” Toni replied, then gave the Colonel a long, appraising look. “You're not wrong to have a healthy dose of skepticism, Colonel Brennan. Especially where your son is concerned, I totally get that, in your position I would be skeptical of me. Perhaps there's somewhere we could talk privately?”
“You may not be aware, Ms. Chandler, but there is not a great deal of privacy on this island.”
“Oh yeah, I remember hearing about that reality show from a while ago,” Toni replied, then her eyes got larger. “That's still a thing?”
“There are over seven billion people on the planet, Ms. Chandler,” the Colonel replied with a chuckle without mirth. “Even a one percent niche market is measured in millions.” He shrugged expressively, having made his peace with it long ago. “Between the pay per view and merchandizing rights, it's a substantial source of income for the island. I suppose it's a small price to pay for not having my income taxed.”
The young woman looked around. “I...I don't see any cameras...?”
“You won't,” he replied. “It's part of the deal. They're hidden and unobtrusive and we don't air our dirty laundry in public. Once we became independent, those who wanted could have the cameras in their homes removed, but even those who didn't, insisted that the bedrooms were off limits. Just assume that in public, you're being recorded.”
Toni blinked and shook her head. “How...Orwellian. The bathrooms too...?” He shook his head while she sighed with relief. “How do you live...?”
“We ignore it,” he replied. “I imagine you're not as private in the United States as you think you are. The last time I was in Washington, D.C. I don't think I was out of sight of a camera the whole stay. We just edit and broadcast ours.”
Heather gauged her husband's expression, then favored the young woman with a smile. “There's a food court just this way...”
A short walk found the odd quartet at the local caffeine addicts retailer and while the parents stood in line, Junior led their guest to a table that could comfortably accommodate all of them and they sat to wait. “I'm the first human you've ever seen, aren't I?' asked Toni to break the ice.
“As if!” the boy replied with a deep chuckle. “I've totally seen humans before, but, like ok you're the first up close...” Toni couldn't keep in a laugh. “What?”
“No, no, I'm sorry!” Toni managed around her laugh. “I wasn't ready for that.” The boy's ears flicked around as his blue-green eyes focused on her. His mane hung into his eyes, which strengthened the surfer dude vibe his Panama Jack shirt and shorts had started and his choice of words had continued.
“Soooo....?” he drawled. “Ready for what? What's funny?”
“Your voice,” Toni replied, finally mastering herself again. “It's like James Earl Jones channeled the ghost of Jeff Spicoli!”
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the young stallion concluded. “Righteous! You into old movies?”
“Just the good ones,” Chandler cautioned. She examined the flow of his Ki. His flows were far more relaxed and even than his parents' had been, or the Vixen that had brought her over to be introduced. It was the obvious difference in someone who had once been human and undergone the Mad Doctor's 'treatment' either willingly or unwillingly, and a young stallion who had been born this way. And while it was immediately obvious that the young stallion's Ki was not awakened, Toni certainly understood the swirling vortex it washed around inside him, she had seen it plenty of times before.
In addition to explaining a cryptic phone call she'd gotten from an old friend she hadn't spoken to in nearly ten years.
“Here we are,” Heather announced, playing hostess as she and her husband arrived. “Everything alright?”
“Actually, yes,” Toni replied as she pulled up her brief case onto the table and opened it. “It's a good news thing. You son does not have active Ki, he's an energizer. That's a kind of...paranormal,” she said discreetly, pulling out a pair of brochures and handing them across the table. “As luck would have it, there are schools for that.”
“Whateley Academy?” asked Heather curiously. “Never heard of it.”
“I'm an alumni, actually,” Toni told her. “I was once where your son is.”
“Were your parents bankrupted too?” the Colonel asked archly. “Even allowing for exchange I don't make this in a year.” The smile never left Toni's face.
“Actually, Colonel, it seems your government is just as eager to understand where they came from as the Trust is in understanding mutation. I thought this might be the case and took the liberty with opening a dialogue with them. It's why Agent Rihannon met me. If you're willing to share the testing results of your son's time with the school...”
“Tests?” The Colonel demanded flatly.
“Not what you're thinking. Regular fitness exams, passive recording of biometric data during Physical Fitness and ability control training and passive tracking of his eating habits, sharing of health records if he gets sick, breaks a bone, things like that. It's all behind a double blind system that will never link to him personally, though him being the first from Paradise Island that might not be sufficient I'm afraid. But it's not Dr. Frankenstein's Lab, I promise.”
“Good,” rumbled the Colonel. “Living on the Island of Dr. Moreau I wouldn't want to change authors. The weather is better here.”
“There is not a safer, or better equipped school anywhere on the planet, Colonel,” Toni affirmed. “As I said, I'm an Alumni myself.” She took out an invoice and slid it across the table. “These are the numbers I've managed to negotiate with your government, the Trust and the Academy, pending your consent.”
Colonel Brennan took in the paper, noting it's drastic discounts. “Dude!” exclaimed Nick. “Dad, they have classes on secret base construction! And a NATO certified ROTC program!”
“Well, these are certainly more reasonable rates,” Heather opined. “Especially for a boarding school.” She looked up at her husband. “And this has to be the most impressive list of accreditation I've ever seen, baby.”
“The principal is Lady Astarte!” enthused Junior from his brochure. “How totally bitching is that!”
Nick Senior parsed his lips as if rolling the idea around in his mouth. “Well, it seems like the decision has been made for me. When does the semester begin?”
August 26th, 2016
Off the Coast of Karedonia, in the Lesser Antilles
In a lot of ways, Karedonia is sort of like the Caribbean: beautiful, serene and seductive, with a totally bogus sense of safety and belonging. It’s all sapphire blue water, lapis lazuli skies, snowy-white beaches, greenery, and hawt chicks wiggling around in as little as they can get away with. But you’re not safe. It’s all there just to lull you into a nice relaxed sleepy doze, and then the nasty makes its move. Yer kicking back, chilling out, everything mellow, and then a shark moves in.
In this case, literally. Okay, it wasn’t a frickin’ megalodon with a fin as big as my sail, or even a Great White, but dude, a shark is a shark is a shark! And it wasn’t the shark that worried me. Well, that much. I mean, these days, I could hand that shark its scaly ass! It was the white enamel clip attached to the shark’s dorsal fin that worried me. That meant that it was one of Emperor Wilkins’ freaky RC laser-guided patrol sharks. I watched as the dorsal fin moved across the UPC ‘zebra’ strip on the boat. A laser played across the strip, and the shark’s implanted radio relayed that to Karedonia Coast Guard’s database, and confirmed that this was a rental boat, that it had been rented, and it had been rented to a guest with a valid visa. If none of those conditions had been met, the shark would have gone into an instant triggered feeding frenzy. If the shark couldn’t rip it apart, it would attack with the laser. If the laser wasn’t enough, then the four kilos of C-4 implanted in the shark’s body would be detonated, bringing every shark, normal or augmented, for miles around; oh and the more conventional Coast Guard units as well.
I mean, it’s hard to relax and go skin diving, when you’re not sure whether that cool sea shell is Karedonian proprietary defense technology or not.
The boat passed muster and the shark moved on. Smokey peered over the edge of the boat and squeaked angrily at the big pushy finny bully.
Oh well, I think that’s it for this boat ride; that shark just killed whatever ‘last sail’ vibe I may have had going. I turned the boat around and headed back to the beach. I turned the sailboat back in at the rental pier. But Smokey hadn’t quite had enough. He dived off the pier and swam for the beach. I’d practically had to drag him into the water, but like a little kid who found out that he liked what he’d been saying ‘no, no, no!’ to, now he couldn’t get enough. He was past the ‘dog-paddle’ stage, and now he was wriggling his way through the water like an eel.
By the time that I caught up to Smokey on the beach, he had gained a circle of admirers. Slinky admirers with slate black skin, pointed ears, silky white hair, and killer figures in teeny little white bikinis. Drow. They were gathered around the one who was cradling Smokey in her arms, cooing and giggling and making general ‘how cute!’ sounds. Smokey was, of course, digging on it, the little horndog. Unfortunately, these are drow, which means that they were 21-to-35-year old dogs and schlumps who did something to impress the Imperial Princess Jobe – yeah, THAT Princess Jobe, the one that practically has her own tabloid dedicated just to her brainfarts and train wrecks- so they could be ‘adopted’ (translation: given some bizarre treatment that turns them in lithe young demihuman hawtties) into the Drow Nation. Do not ask me why, but for some reason, the women that Princess Jobe uses that process on seem to regress to Middle School and become giggling Mean Girls. I mean, is it genetic or just the head trip of going from being a frump to a supermodel that does it to them?
They were all wearing white bikinis, which said to me that they were all probably recent ‘adoptees’, which suggests to me that they’re all recently out of the conversion vat; yes, that look rocks against their skin, but Princess Jobe sort of wore that signature look out four years ago. This does not fill me with hope. Still, I hadda go get him. A boy and his dragon, that kind of thing. God knows what they’ll do to him? Dress him up in baby clothes or something…
I stepped up and gave a whistle. “C’mon, Smokey, we gotta get going.” Smokey made an ‘awww…’ noise, but crawled out of the drowette’s arms and came to me. There were also some ‘awww…’ noises from the Drows, but I said, “Sorry Ladies, but we really do have be going.”
I picked Smokey up, but as I turned, a hand that was disproportionately strong latched onto my shoulder. “And where do you think you’re going with that?”
“Excuse me?” I turned to face the drow. “He’s mine.”
“THAT is proprietary biological technology of Princess Jobe. You’re stealing an Imperial Secret.” And suddenly, like they freaking teleported down from the Enterprise, the entire clutch (clutch? gaggle? swarm? What IS the proper group designation for Drow?) surrounded me, all of them with this look like they’re up for razzing the squirt. Chill, AJ, chill… just remember, three years ago, these broads probably met at a dog fight. Then the beat-down started. Or at least, they tried to start a beating. Drow are significantly stronger than human and they’re God’s own fast. BUT, what these bitches were not, was anything even like experienced fighters. And I have been trained by masters since I was, like, THREE.
And before you give a deep sigh of ‘yet another teenage martial arts master’, let me say that I’m not a badass martial artist. What I AM is God’s own hard to hit. I’m… middling okay at the hitting and kicking thing, nothing special. On the other hand, I could teach freaking Jet Li a thing or two about avoiding being hit in hand-to-hand. When I was little, Mom always told me that the people she dealt with wouldn’t so much as blink an eye at hurting a little kid, so the best thing I could do was run away. And I’ve gotten very good at that. Hey, at the various schools I’ve been at, I’ve always noticed that you can’t get punished for NOT throwing a punch in a fight. Oh, and this ‘surround and beat down’ tactic? It looks like a killer gambit, but Dad says that there are 17 effective ways of using that against your attackers, and I know 11 of them, and I’ve mastered 5 of ‘em. Oh, and the fact that while they may be fast and strong, these drow are total newbs who don’t know how to use that, or how to coordinate a smackdown like this helps a lot. If anything, they did most of the smacking each other around for me.
Short form, about three minutes of Sexy Stoogette action later, they were winded and battered, and I hadn’t even taken my hands out of my pockets. Smokey was coiled around my neck and hissing (hey, cute babes petting him is one thing, but he knows who fills his supper bowl), and the Seven Mental Dwarfs had broken off and were trying to think of what to do to save some face. Then a (deliberately) hoarse electronic voice snarled *DEE-Sist and DIS-En-GAGE! This alter-cation is in di-rect vio-lat-ion of Civil Law-* and it rattled off something legalish. The Daleks, Emperor Wilkins’ trademark cybernetic law enforcement drones, had shown up. There were three of them, but Joe Wilkins really does know how to pack as much punch per pound into his combat units.
“This THIEF has stolen Imperial Proprietary technology from Princess Jobe!” one of the dark smurfettes yelped, pointing at me.
Y’know, people complain about endless paperwork. Right up to the point where it would have been useful to have done that paperwork. Thanks Mom! Knowing that I was dealing with a peripheral of a database (with a LOT of weaponry attached), I raised my left wrist, pointed to the bracelet and said, “Extended Visitor Visa.” The Dalek scanned my bracelet. When I was reasonably sure that it had pegged my file, I continued, “Special rider Visa for a Unique Bio-Form (sub-reference: ‘Smokey’) was filed and accepted on entry, and possession and ownership of the unique bio-form ‘Smokey’ was recognized. The accusation of theft is invalid.”
As the Drow went ‘huh?’, the Daleks processed this. Then the Daleks shifted their aim a little. *Po-seess-ion of u-neek bio- form Smo-key con-firmed. You may leave.* I strutted out from the middle of the Drow, who started to complain. The Daleks pointedly charged up their weapons at the Drow *You are in di-rect vio-lat-ion of Civil Law-*
“Have fun as ORKS, ladies!” I called over my shoulder as the Daleks read off the charges. Not that it would come to that. While the Daleks are incorruptible and totally beyond intimidation, the Karedonian courts are as open to influence and clout as anyone else. And the Karedonian courts do have some sense of proportion. That is, if it goes that far. Odds are that the desk sergeant will chew them out a bit and let them stew for a couple of hours in a holding cell, and then release them to the custody of whatever passes for a parent analog in the drow micro-culture. Okay, so the Wilkins regime surprises me occasionally with the odd instance of utter dickishness, but I’m not worried about those drow.
Well, if the system works for me, then it must be fair and impartial. I got a pedal-cab from the beach to the complex that Mom was using for the summer. Kardeonian time-share lairs are really weird fusions of ‘space age fortress’ and ‘tropical getaway’. On one hand, the entire point of coming down to Karedonia is to get away, relax, let that knot in your gut untie itself, enjoy life and remember that you’re a human being and like all that; on the other hand, it’s hard to relax and enjoy yourself when you know that Plague Wolf, a guy who has loudly sworn to use your skull as a port-a-potty, is maybe five miles down the road with a bunch of his own goons and enough firepower to take over Kuala Lumpur. Emperor Wilkins’ forces, starting with the Daleks, going through Nomad Enforcers, to RC helicopter drones that could go toe to toe with fricking Apaches, to rumors of a local Ninja Clan, to the far-from rumors of the Drow Nation (who despite their girlie-magazine physiques are fucking deadly), to Joe’s Own ‘Uruk Hai’ elite guard, to something called ‘Globulon’ that I have never seen and don’t really want to, to the fact that Princess Jobe is rumored to splice together diseases for- get this- ‘amusing reactions’… anyway, the Karedonian Armed Forces will smack Plague Wolf down, like that’s gonna do you a lot of good after he’s taken a dump in your skull. So, the time-share lairs are designed with the idea that you can hold off a concerted attack by Plague Wolf’s forces for maybe an hour at the most before Emperor Gizmatic’s Rapid Deployment forces get there.
Inside the compound, the guys, outside their ‘witch-knight’ and ‘shadow-knight’ rigs, were splitting their time between keeping guard, training to keep sharp, and a whole lot of chillaxing and soaking up the tropical paradise. Then I noticed that part of the rifle training had one guy tied up spread eagle, with two targets on either side of his head, two targets on either side of his body, and a target between his legs. Oh, and they were using live ammunition. I walked up to the Knight Sergeant in charge of the firing range, who was watching this with a sour expression and asked, “Isn’t that-”
“A blatant violation of every Firing Range safety principle ever made?” he snarled, “YES! Do I like it? NO! But it was this or get Orked. HE goes to a minion bar and brings a handgun into a nice, civilized brawl, and as punishment, MY firing range gets disgraced! When his hour of this is over, I’m gonna make him scrub the range until the SHAME comes off of it!” Yes, Karedonia has bars that cater to minions, where after long months of ruthless fighting with superheroes, police, security guards, and whatever insanity their boss has cooked up, supervillain minions can blow off steam by- fighting the minions of other supervillains. Mom says that it’s all part of the minion headspace, go figure.
I left them to go find Mom. I found her in a really weird combination of royal reception, coffee klatch, board meeting and harem scene. Mom was sitting on her ‘Witch Queen’ throne, showing off her admittedly fantastic bod with one of those beach skirts over a bikini, and that’s IT. Seated around her in a casual chat session- with binders full of documentation and charts and laptops and stuff- were the heads of various covens of her Witch Cult, wearing various grades of tropical vacation wear. While there were the expected Muumuus and white linen tropical pantsuits (for which, given their figures, I am grateful, Lord), there was also a surprising range of MILF-age going-on ‘oh yeah, that’s hawt’, showing off the benefits of Mom’s fiddling around with the Purifier’s ‘Aryan Exaltation’ by wearing some pretty damn skimpy beachwear. Mom had arranged to bring these coven leaders down for a combination of getaway, reward for jobs well done, business meeting, and showing off how large she was living. As Mom likes to say, a lot of her rank and file joined the Witch Cult largely out of a sense of living vicariously through Mom; she shows off that she lives the Good Life™, and the girls don’t feel so bad about their own ticky-tacky lives, especially when Mom lets them sample the good stuff every so often.
At the moment, Mom was explaining that the costs of this time-share lair weren’t coming out of Coven funds; the lair was rented out to the Crimson Scarab. But the Scarab was up to his power armor thermal vents in Syria, and he really didn’t want to give the Headless Wraith, a notorious time-share mooch, an excuse to glom onto his (the Scarab’s) months on the excuse that he wasn’t using them. So the Scarab offered the use of the lair for these months in exchange for a favor that the Trenton coven had done. That went down pretty well; living large is one thing, but living large on someone else’s dime is SMART.
I waited for them to get to whatever point that was on the table, and Mom noticed me and made her excuses to ‘the Girls’. A few of ‘the Girls’ remembered me from back when Mom was toting me around to various meet-and-greets with the Covens (Cody Gifford, if you’re out there- I know that feel, Bro), and I had to put up with the cooing and remembrances that you have to take when you meet up with someone that you met, like, ONCE years ago, and the remarks about how big you are and all that crap. Smokey was digging on it of course. After dressing for the airport, Mom rescued me from ‘the Girls’, and we were getting ready for leaving when the Compound Alert went Amber.
“What’s the matter?” asked one of the Coven leaders, who could have been the ‘hot mom’ on any of those old sitcoms.
“Just a sec.” Mom pulled out a phone and contacted her Guard Commander. She made a few ‘uh-huh’ noises. “I understand, continue.” And she clicked off. “Nothing to worry about, just another idiot who doesn’t get how things are done around here.” She pointed her phone at the big screen TV, and a street scene appeared. A very large, rippling muscled guy in a very ‘heavy metal’ outfit with black leather trousers, black leather vest, studs, spikes, chains, and all that crud was mixing it up with some daleks. He was snarling and glowing with energy, and his fists were blazing, and all that. He looked tough, and there were at least two daleks smashed to pieces around him, but the others had surrounded him, and were pounding him pretty fiercely. The TV channel was treating it like a traffic jam, and there were inset maps showing alternate routes to avoid the mayhem. “Nothing really to worry about, but he might try to climb over the compound’s walls. If he does, the boys will throw him back over and let the daleks handle him. Just stay inside until the daleks put that yoyo under wraps.”
As more daleks swarmed around ‘Mr. Bigandbad’, one of the soccer moms asked, “Does this happen a lot around here?”
“Not that often,” Mom said with a ‘meh!’ “Say two or three times or so, every two weeks. There’s always some punk who comes here, thinking that there aren’t any laws here.”
“There are LAWS here?” One of the other coven leaders asked. “But isn’t the head of this place a SUPERVILLAIN?”
“He USED to be a supervillain,” Mom corrected her. “Now, he’s a legitimate head of state- just ask him. And he’s very strict on people obeying his laws. Those laws, admittedly, kind of boil down to ‘don’t piss in Joe Wilkins’ beer’.”
“There’s a common misunderstanding,” I said, “kind of an urban legend, that Karedonia is sort of a ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ for crooks, a place where supervillains can come and not worry about being extradited, and walk around and do whatever comes into their little Neanderthal heads.”
“And they can’t?”
“Not hardly,” Mom said, blandly watching the show as new daleks showed up with different weapons arrays, and Bigandbad started taking a real pounding. “That would be bad for business. And even more than the mining and resorts, Karedonia’s main source of income is the Banks; Wilkins can’t afford to let people think that he can’t maintain order. Wilkins has managed to keep the IRS from pressuring open the Karedonian secret accounts, but he might not be able to do that if it looks like his regime is unstable.”
“Then why doesn’t he do something to… I dunno, at least put out that that’s just an urban legend or something?” one of the other coven leaders asked.
“Because this lets Wilkins show off that he IS in charge,” Mom pointed out. “And it proves that NO, he won’t play favorites to supervillains, and he’s managed to turn it into a kind of tourist attraction. Besides, he always needs more Orcs for those mines. And he once told me that this winnows out the real idiots in the Underworld, improving things for everyone.”
“You’ve met the Emperor?”
“Once or twice. We’re not exactly Buds,” Mom admitted. “But when you’re a supervillain of any standing at all and you show up in Karedonia, it’s good form to show up at the palace, meet the man himself, bend knee and say that you’ll be a good girl, and like that.”
“Oh? What’s he like?”
“You’ve seen his daughter, Princess Jobe, on TV?” There was a general nodding and noises of agreement. “Well, compared to her father, Jobe is simply the sweetest little thing, an absolute ray of sunshine.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” someone said, “That’s THIS estate, isn’t it?” Bigandbad was scrambling up a concrete wall, and then the Compound Alert went red, and a voice on the PA system announced that someone was coming over the wall at section D-12.
Mom went red in the face with anger and snarled, “NO, you did NOT!” With a grumble about not dragging his raggedy ass into HER garden, Mom ran for the lanai. Oh, this is NOT good. Mom may say that her ‘Witch Queen’ bit is a shtick and all, but there are times when she gets downright medieval about things. Now, Mom is stronger than me, she lifts about 3 tons or so and I can only lift a little under 2 tons. But I can boost my strength up to a touch over 4 tons with my dragonfire, and I was wearing cross-trainers, not 3” heels; so I was able to catch up to Mom at the lanai. Sure enough, Bigandbad was lowering himself down from the wall. With a snarl, Mom let off a bolt of witchfire that left a stencil silhouette of Bigandbad burned onto the concrete.
Bigandbad dropped and I power-leaped over to him, landing on his little pin head. Then I threw him against the wall and gave him a big blast of dragonfire. As he reeled from that, I pounded him a few times with that roughly 4-ton strength of mine, and then switched over to a dragonblade (just the dragonfire, not Smokey- I didn’t want to kill the asshole, just put him down). I smacked him around a few times, and then stepped back for the Witchknights to take over. Bigandbad looked groggily up into a near-wall of assault rifles as halberds that glowed with witchfire pinned him to the ground. “Just stay down, Asshole,” the Knight Commander hissed. “Gizmatic wants you alive… but he doesn’t really care what shape you’re in…”
Bigandbad sagged, and showing exactly what he was made of, started crying and whining.
“LEX!” Mom snapped, “What do you think you were doing? He was MINE!”
“It was a fair cop, Ma’am!” the Knight Commander said as he snapped to attention. “In the state you were in, all that you’d have left of him would’a been a pile of ashes. We can’t hand ashes over to the daleks.” Mom didn’t like that, but she couldn’t fight the logic of it either. One of the things that you see in some of the Big League supervils is that they actually respect and listen to their senior henchmen. They’re secure enough in their power that they don’t interpret anything that isn’t ‘Sir! Yes Sir! Three Bags Full, SIR!’ as a challenge to their authority, like you see on TV and like that. “Besides,” the Knight Commander added, “this asshole was already tired and beaten halfway to death by the daleks. The kid just saved us a lot of running around.” He gave me an approving nod. Not for the smack-down, which had been pretty routine, but for stepping in between Mom and the asshole. Another part of the whole ‘henchman’ thing is the idea that if you’re going to work for a supervillain work for a badass. I mean, really kickass supervils like Typhon command a lot of respect by the fact that he really IS willing to step in and duke it out himself with the White Hats. There is NO cred in working for a wimp. But the downside of that is they find themselves working for some pretty… ah, what’s the word?... Volatile… yeah, that’s the word, volatile personalities. And Mom is a pretty good supervil to work for, all things considered, but even the Knight Commander wasn’t very happy with the idea of getting between her and her latest punching bag. So, the guys appreciate me stepping in and keeping things from going someplace sticky. They weren’t going to throw themselves on any grenades for me or anything, but I still think my stock went up from just being ‘the boss’s kid’.
“Yeah, and the footage is totally KICKASS!” one of the Coven leaders said with a notable Jersey whine. She held up her smartphone (as did a couple of others). “The girls back in Tenafly will totally PLOTZ when they see this!” Yeah, one of the reasons why the rank and file members in Mom’s ‘Witch Cult’ joined up was to enjoy the thrill of the whole supervillain action going down- from a nice safe distance. And from the way they reacted to Mom blasting Bigandbad- or from the way he’s blubbering, more like ‘Bigandbaby’- halfway through the wall, I’m guessing that they’re not immune to the ‘our boss is a badass’ mentality either.
“Okay, okay,” Mom sighed. “Marcie,” she gave instructions to one of her secretaries, “inform Dalek Central that we’ve got the fugitive under wraps, and they can pick him up at the main gate.” She looked at the silhouette burned into the concrete, and the cracks in the wall where I’d slammed Bigandbaby into it and said, “If it was me, I’d leave those there, just for the bragging rights. But this place belongs to the Crimson Scarab- oh, and the Headless Wraith, too- and I don’t want to give them any excuses to get all huffy. Fix up those cracks and paint over the scorch marks. Okay Lex, grab your bags and let’s go.”
As we drove out the carport, we passed the front gate. One of the local TV heads asked the Knight Commander, who was in Witch Knight formal dress plate, exactly what happened. I heard him respond in the approved low, husky, slightly raspy mock Gutter Brit tone, “No one crosses the Witch Queen…” Which is Minion-speak for ‘We work for a badass’.
It took about a half hour to drive to Wilkins International Airport. And yes, the name ‘Wilkins’ really IS all over the place here. Still, how many places did Alexander the Great name ‘Alexandria’? At least Wilkins doesn’t rubber-stamp everything, there is some differentiation. Wilkins International Airport is… well, not the worst of Gizmatic’s crimes. Fortunately, Mom rated the ‘VIP Lounge’. Yes, I know, Mom’s not A-List (thank you, God!), but then if you’ve ever been in a ‘VIP Lounge’, you’ll notice that most of the ‘VIPs’ aren’t even really that ‘I’, let alone ‘V’. We settled in and did the last minute chit-chat thing, until Mom got a buzz on her phone. She casually checked the message, and suddenly went totes non-casual. “Shit!”
“Well, that was a joyous, happy noise,” I noted sarcastically.
“Due to- and I quote- ‘mysterious circumstances’, The FAA is barring all small charter aircraft from flying from Karedonia directly to the US for an indefinite period of time. ‘Mysterious circumstances’ my ass! They’re just leaning on Gizmatic, trying to get him to open up some of those secret accounts. Like that’s going to happen.”
“So they won’t let small charter aircraft fly into the US. So, I’ll have to take a commercial flight, big deal.”
“And they’re restricting all commercial flights from Karedonia into the US to landing at Miami International Airport.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense!” I blurted out, “If they do that, then anyone who doesn’t want it known that they were here will either have to go through MIA or risk flying into the States illegally!” Then it hit me like a mallet: the FAA didn’t care. The IRS was leaning on them, and the State Department was backing up the IRS. Either Gizmatic’s supervillain cronies would have to expose themselves to the TSA at Miami International, or be obvious as they fly through the US’s air defenses from Karedonia. While it was a pretty dang open secret that Wilkins let supervillains take refuge in Karedonia, he’d managed to avoid actually getting caught at that unofficial policy- so far. Of course, that many weirdoes suddenly being funneled through Miami International would probably lead to several supervillain incidents at the airport, and civilians would get hurt. But that didn’t worry the IRS or the State Department. They were a bunch of bureaucrats who wouldn’t be anywhere near the danger area. And they’d get their way. And that was what being a bureaucrat was really all about: getting your way, no matter who else got shafted.
Mom nodded as she saw the implications register on my face. “Don’t worry too much about it, Sweetie,” she said, giving me a hug. “There are too many ways around it. They can just do a runaround from Karedonia to any of the other islands in the Caribbean, or Mexico, or Canada. We’re talking Supervillains here! Sneaky is what they do. And all the ultra-rich non supervillains- who, by and large, have a lot more blood on their hands, if you ask me- visiting their money will kick up a row at being inconvenienced, and their rent-a-congressthing will pull strings, and it’ll all go away in a while. BUT, you, young man, have to go to school! That very expensive school… fortunately, I know someone who’s arm I can twist into getting you a seat in time. But in the mean time… it’s a commercial flight…” she reached inside my tote and pulled out the special TSA approved ‘secure containment tube’ (it looked like a thermos, if you ask me) with the special runes that Mom had inscribed on it, and the far more arcane looking Customs Service labels and seals. “So, he can’t fly in a normal pet container, we’ve been through this before.”
“But MOM, you know that Smokey hates that thing!” The Smokester agreed with me and hissed at the hated cramped dark tube. I mean, think about it: would YOU like being crammed in there?
She shot me the dreaded ‘Mom Stare’. “You have until I finish this phone call, getting you that seat.”
And, ten minutes later, I was still trying to get Smokey into that tube, but Smokey wasn’t having any of it. Mom put away her phone and said, “Well, it’s not First Class, but then it’ll only be two hours, if-” then she saw me trying to push Smokey into the tube, and not doing a good job of it. “This is why I wouldn’t let you have that puppy you wanted,” she said sourly. She pointedly took the ‘thermos’ away from me. Then she leaned over, and violet fire erupting from her eyes, she snarled, “Get into the CAN, you stupid little IGUANA!”
Smokey squeaked out a choked little squeal of panic and slid into the tube. Mom clamped the lid shut and taped one of those Customs stickers across the lid. “There! That wasn’t such a chore, now was it?” With that, we went to find the Karedonian Customs Service desk, where the seal would be verified and notarized.
Before we got to the desk, she stopped and handed me a pink cardboard box that looked like it was from a bakery or something. “Oh, Lex, we’ve got to have this sealed and notarized too. US Customs are so freaking paranoid about everything.”
“What is it?”
“Muffins? You’ve got to get muffins cleared by Customs?”
“Yes, and Lex, don’t eat these unless it’s an absolute emergency.”
“MOM, airplane food isn’t THAT bad!”
Mom gave the ‘aggravated mother’ growl and said, “Lex, one of the first rules of life as a supervillain is ‘Shit Happens’. Now I’d love to go with you, and make sure that everything goes right, but my being along would most likely make things worse. Not to mention the whole ‘only losers have their mommy take them to school’ thing.” Thank GOD! She’s not entirely clueless! “Now, honey, there’s something that you’re going to have to learn- and I just hope and pray that it’s not the hard way- you’re not Green Lantern. You didn’t absorb all of that dragon-construct’s power- Thank GOD, or you’d have burned up like tinder! Your dragonfire has limits- yes, I know that I’ve told you this before, but you don’t really listen! Lex, your dragonfire is like… gasoline… the more you use of it, the less you have. Yes, you recover it, and mostly from normal food, thank God, you’ll never have to worry about getting fat… but the more you use, the longer it takes to recover. And since Murphy’s Law applies to supervillains even more than normal people, the odds are that just when you need the power the most, you’ll be low on gas and running on fumes! Believe me, sweetie, I’ve BEEN there! So, I came up with these,” she reached into a blazer pocket and pulled out a capped white glass phial.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Those are your power elixirs. You’re low on gas, so you slug back one of those, and you’re like Popeye.”
“They still show Popeye cartoons?”
“Not really, but Dad used to watch Popeye cartoons with me, y’know to relax and like that?”
“Oh?” she filed that away for future reference.
“Hey, it wasn’t all ‘train, train, train, be stronger, harder, smarter!’” Okay, there was some of that, but we did goof around a little. Pixie insisted on it.
“Anyway, I’ve baked some of my power elixir into these muffins. If you’re in a spot and you’ve run out of juice, eat one of those and do a 30-count; it should kick in by then.”
“Why not just give me a few phials of power elixir?”
“Going through Customs, you always have to assume that you’re going to be searched, Lex. And with that little lizard of yours, it was almost a given that you’d have to be processed by the TSA, if not the MCO. If you had little phials of liquid on you, they’d arrest you and then disappear you. No, you only think I’m being paranoid, Lex. One of the major rules of being a supervillain is never make it easy for the cops. It’s not like they’ll thank you for it. So-” she tapped the box of muffins. “What could be more innocent that a mother making a few treats for her boy, as he goes off to school?”
“Why not brownies?”
“Everybody knows the brownie trick.”
“Okay, I can see that- what kind of muffins are they?”
“Marcie’s Oat bran-Wheatgrass specials.”
“Marcie’s Oat bran- Wheatgrass specials?” I echoed with a sick note. Marcie, one of Mom’s secretaries, is a health food nut, one of those types who think that the worse it tastes, the better it is for you.
“It’s an old Army trick. The reason the Army makes K-rations and MREs taste so bad, is so the grunts won’t eat them before they absolutely have to. The entire point of emergency rations is that they’re there when you really need something to eat, not when you just feel like a nosh. And, besides the elixir kick-in, there’s all the very healthy carbs and proteins and all that healthy junk that you’ll need. If anything, these muffins are probably better for you than the liquid. If it didn’t take so long to kick in, I might adopt an elixir power bar… well, that and the taste… Also, from the way these things smell, it’s a lot less likely that the airport goons will snitch one for a nosh.”
Oh-kaaayyy… I’m taking muffins from my mommy to school. Maybe I can ditch them before anyone from the school sees me. Gawd, I hope that I won’t have to actually eat one of these. Eating one of Marcie’s concoctions is like grazing on the lawn.
“AND,” she handed me a stack of thick trade-sized paperbacks, “if Whateley’s anything like I remember, it won’t hurt to have a few nasty tricks up your sleeves- and in your back pocket- and tucked in your boot- and hidden in your books- and under your pillow. And as I recall, the Mystic Arts program is rather heavy on the basics and on ‘safe, responsible procedure’, and quite light on ‘getting over’. So, here are some of my better works for my Covens, jam-packed with good, no-nonsense magical dirty tricks.”
“Ah? Mom? These are the ‘Hunger Games’ books.”
Mom twiddled out a pattern on the cover of the top book. Now, instead of a Mockingjay, Mom was smiling up at me from the cover, holding up a crystal ball. “I had these made up for the Covens and enchanted them with an overlay from various mass market printings. Anyone who’s not attuned to them will see a cookbook, a bestseller, whatever. It also prevents the books from being scanned, so I don’t have to worry about finding my spellbooks on Demonoid™ or The Pirate’s Bay™. But you will be able to read them without any problem. Also, they’re printed on stable flash paper, so if you burn them, they’ll go up in a flash without leaving any evidence. I’ve been thinking about adding a magnesium igniter, but that could cause problems.” According to the covers, ‘The Hunger Games’ was really a compilation of Mom’s most popular spells. ‘Catching Fire’ was devoted to spells and tactics for getting ahead at School and Work. The truly horrifying thing is that that implies that the basic dynamics for school are the same as for work. And ‘Mockingjay’ was pretty much a recipe book for potions, lotions, elixirs and all that crap, which could be whipped up in any kitchen.
“Ah? Mom?” I repeated, “These are still ‘Hunger Games’ books.”
“So? The Hunger Games are very popular. No one will raise an eyebrow at you having them.”
“Mom? They’re popular… with teenage girls. This is Chick Lit!”
“It is?” Mom’s eyes popped open and she blushed a little. Then she hurried to cover her brainfart. “Now, this is very important, Lex: While it’s not Hogwarts or anything, Whateley is still one of the densest concentrations of magic users on the planet. Not the densest concentration of experienced magic users, but still! Anyway, back when I went there, the faculty of the Mystic Arts program was very sharp about spotting when kids in the MA program start casting prank spells on the other kids, and I don’t think that they’ve gotten any duller since then. If you use this to just pull stupid pranks on kids, the instructors WILL catch onto you, and maybe onto these books. So,” she took one of the books and opened it, “This symbol means that this affect magically impacts on the world, and can have a backlash. It also means that the Mystic Arts instructors can backtrack that to you, so watch out. Annnddd… this symbol means that this effect could be considered intrusive or even coercive- do NOT use that spell on school grounds!” She paused to see exactly which spell she was looking at. “As a matter of fact, I’d shy away from that spell all together.” She carefully tore those pages from the book. “THERE!” she handed me the book back. “Well! We just have time to get you to your flight!”
I read through the spell books that Mom gave me while I sat through the flight. I’ll give Mom this: she really knows how to write a spell book. Either that or there are some very VERY confused ghost-writers wandering around New York. Seriously, there are some very nice spells in here, mostly ‘jog your memory and perceptions to come up with the answer’ stuff, but there’s also a very nice selection of hella useful low-impact spells like, ‘How to Spot a Hidden Enemy’, which would be dang useful for spotting bullies and mind-fuck artists; ‘Get into the Groove’, a spell to determine whether a look or act will fly with a particular crowd (hey, what school kid doesn’t want to know that, hah?); ‘Study Smarter, Not Harder’, a spell that doesn’t do the studying for you, but helps you get into that ‘oh, that’s how this works’ headspace; ‘Rule the Room’, which lets you not only hog the spotlight at any party, but do it well and really bring a dull party to life; and ‘Blabbermouth’, a low-intrusion spell that doesn’t force your target to tell the truth, but sort of switches off that little filter that lets them know that talking about something would be a bad idea. Nasty, but very effective, I wish that I’d had that one back at Montessori.
But then, I noticed something. While the ‘Mockingjay’ spellbook was devoted strictly to spells and potions and such that you could whip up using stuff that you could find in any kitchen, grocery store or drug store, both of the other two books routinely required some pretty damn rare and hard to find materials. How did Mom expect her Rank and File to do all of this, if they were wasting their time tracking down black toad skins, or stuff like that?
As I re-read the books, I spotted sections in the fronts of the books, explaining about how to get special materials from the Coven leaders, and other ‘local Witch Cult providers’.
A cauld grue went down my spine. How… how could even MOM be involved in anything so… cold-blooded and EVIL? My… my mother… is involved in… MULTI-LEVEL MARKETING!
Oh, no one must ever know…!
August 28th, 2016
Paranormal Screening Lounge, Miami International Air Port, Miami, FL
Nick Junior discovered that flying commercial was not one of his favorite things to do. His size, seven and a half feet tall, meant that like most Animen he had to fly at least business class as he wouldn't fit into a coach seat. But even the big seat that converted into a bed couldn't make up for the feeling of claustrophobia. Fortunately Delta only ran 767s to Paradise Island and the nine foot interior cabin height helped, but Nick had never been so conscious of his body, or so glad to get off a vehicle.
As he wandered down the concourse in an airport over twelve hundred miles from the city he actually was supposed to be landing in Nick shook his head at the needlessness of it. Somebody had decided that any flight originating in the Caribbean had to clear customs in Miami, and that was going to be the way of it, and be damned whoever was inconvenienced. So Nick was standing in a custom's line to officially enter the United States for the first time in his young life, shuffling through while being careful not to step on anyone's foot, even if the mother with the infant behind him wasn't being so careful about what her infant grabbed. “What are you?” demanded the TSA guard when it was finally Nick's turn to get his tail away from the grabby infant.
“Tired,” Nick replied with what he hoped was a winning smile. “A little hungry, bro. Is there a good salad place...?”
“Documents?” the guard demanded, completely without humor. “Anything to declare?” Nick handed over his passport and shucked off his back pack and guitar carrier onto the table. “You're a mutant?” the guard demanded reading over the exception paper that Nick had left in the passport.
“No, I'm an Animan,” he replied. “You know, Paradise Island?”
“This says you're a mutant!” the guard exclaimed, brandishing the paper.
“Well, if you want to be technical about it, I'm not human...” Nick started and found it was exactly the wrong thing to say. The guard called for the Supervisor, the supervisor called for the MCO the MCO called for the DPA and Nick found himself in a waiting room with a four or five others, one of whom was in this red and black superhero outfit with a cape and trunks even.
It was a very nice lounge, big over stuffed leather furniture, craft service with cookies, various drinks and pastries and a nice floor to ceiling window that looked out over the tarmac with the air planes taxiing to the gates or runways. It was a very nice cell, but no one in it didn't understand that it was a cell.
That said, there was nothing to do but wait, so Nick found an used portion of wall to sit against and unlimbered his guitar from its bag. He was in the process of plugging his head phones into it, when the man in the red and black outfit came over, cape heroically billowing behind him. “You any good, son?” he asked in strong, confident voice with a gesture at the guitar in Nick's hands.
“Oh, I dunno,” he replied, feeling a little on the spot as the other people in the lounge turned to look. “I'm alright, I guess.”
“We're dying of boredom,” a very attractive medium complected young woman of African American decent said as she came over. She smiled a lovely smile. “Having a pleasant time in here would be wonderful revenge against the dimwits trying to 'punish' us for being mutants.” She looked back over her shoulder. “Does anyone mind?”
Only the old man in the dour trench coat by the window didn't answer, but the three other occupants and the craft services girl were agreeable, so Nick plugged in his amp and set it to a low volume that wouldn't annoy. “Vanessa,” the girl introduced herself. “What do you play?”
“Nick,” he replied with a smile as even for a human, she was breathtakingly beautiful. “Nick Brennan. Uh, classic rock mostly, anything with good riffs a couple of R&B standards. And parrot head stuff, cause, you know, I grew up on an island, so...”
Her grin widened considerably. “Oh, great! Do you know the duet arrangement for Come Monday?”
“Oh, the one Zac Brown did with Gretchen Wilson at the VMA awards? Yeah, I know that...” She counted time and then revealed herself to be a siren as in addition to her heart melting contralto singing voice she added drums and a keyboard to Nick's guitar. There are times when impromptu 'jam' sessions can be a horrific mess or one of those inspired events that everyone who was there speaks of in longing whispers later on that makes all who hear of it envious of having missed it.
For Nick, the next hour was one of the most exhilarating moments of his life. Vanessa was a gifted musician, an accomplished singer and that almost magical kind of teacher who can instruct without seeming to. Nick didn't even notice people come or reluctantly go and being able to tell the story that he had had a jam session with the Vanessa Jackson became one of his favorite claims to fame.
All things end and finally her agent came and informed her things had finally cleared. She was gracious in her praise of his guitar work and he couldn't help looking after her until she was out of sight. “Wow,” he whispered, shivering with the joy of what he'd just experienced.
“You can say that again,” a voice said beside him.
Nick looked down to find a young human boy next to him. He was a russet haired, middling tall, scrawny kind of kid, but then any kid next to Nick would look scrawny and he looked up with gray eyes there where too intense to be in his long face. “You on your way to Whateley too?”
“Yep,” the young stallion replied, offering a hand. “Nick Brennan.”
“You know, part of this whole 'mutant' thing is being cagy with your real name, right? I mean, I could be anybody, I could be the kid of super villain, or a mob guy or...”
Nick smirked and crossed his arms over his chest. “I grew up on an island covered with cameras that are wired to the internet and has it's own reality channel. I can be lots of things, but anonymous won't ever be one of them bro.”
The young boy belatedly offered his hand which Nick took. “Lex...”
“Luthor?” asked the stallion with a sideways grin. The boy rolled his eyes.
“Call me AJ.”
Further questions were halted by a burly man in an MCO uniform. “Blackstone?” Rolling his eyes, AJ stood and followed the man out of the lounge.
August 28th, 2016
Paranormal Screening, Miami International Air Port, Miami, FL
MCO Field Operative Daisy Hawking was a junior grade field operative, and that gnawed at her. A lot. Daisy was 27, but she was routinely mistaken for 16. A cute, perky, wholesome, blonde, blue-eyed high school sweetheart 16, at that. She got carded. A LOT. Her ID was challenged. A LOT. She was a college graduate with a Masters, and she’d gone through her Basic at the MCO academy with honors. But she was sick to death of people asking her if she waiting for her daddy. She was tired of other people at the MCO being suspicious about her, because she still looked like a kid. But most of all, she was sick to death of fetching coffee for big lugs like Len Rowan, her senior partner. While Daisy basically agreed with Rowan that mutants needed to be exposed for the material threat that they really were to the general public, he simply lacked the fine touch to pull that sort of maneuver off.
Oh, Rowan was big and tough looking, but his problem was that he looked and sounded like a bully when he was pushing someone’s buttons. Take the kid he was working on, right at the moment. The kid was 15, and he’d just gotten off the plane from Karedonia by himself. He was at least affluent, but not rich enough for a bodyguard/minder. His Visa and passport were clean, but there were some glitches in the background check. But most of all, he was carrying a TSA Secure Transport Tube. Rowan was right: this kid was eminently shakable, and if done right, who knows what might fall out of his pockets?
BUT as per usual, Rowan was hogging the spotlight. The Supervisor had put them together with an eye toward making a killer Good Cop/ Bad Cop team. Nobody could play ‘Good Cop’ the way that Daisy could, and Rowan had ‘Bad Cop’ practically written all over him. But Good Cop/ Bad Cop needs a certain give and take between the partners, and Rowan was all about the taking. Rowan didn’t just play at being a bully, he WAS a bully, and he’d probably scarred a bunch of kids for life back in middle and high school. He was going at it all the wrong way- AGAIN- and Daisy would probably have to separate him from the kid and kiss a bunch of ass to gloss over Rowan’s ham-handed tactics- AGAIN. The worst thing was that hand-in-hand with being a bully Rowan was also a dyed-in-the-wool credit hog. On the off chance the kid did actually spill anything, Rowan would write up the report claiming that it was all him, and Daisy had been in the powder room, doing her hair.
Hanging back, Daisy silently ticked off the ways that Rowan was screwing this grilling up. The kid had just come from Karedonia, he was heading to New York to start school, well dressed, had a Rolex watch and a JinnTech™ tablet, and his paperwork was just this side of perfect. The kid’s folks had money. One of the first things (off the record) that Daisy’s instructors at the Academy had told her was, ‘Never go up against rich people’s lawyers’. It simply wasn’t worth the hassle. The days when State and Municipal judges quaked in fear of the MCO’s wrath were, maybe not gone, but definitely in the shade. Target the Middle and Working Class suspects; they’re both easier to handle, and a lot easier to discredit. The kid was pissed but calm and focused. He knew that his paperwork was clean, and he knew that Rowan was rattling his cage. He deflected each of Rowan’s jabs clearly and calmly, like he was giving testimony in court. Fuck, the kid probably had a recorder on him, and he was taping everything that Rowan was saying.
Frustrated that the kid wasn’t playing along, Rowan went too far. “And what about THIS?” he held up the ‘thermos’.
“It’s a TSA secure tube. That’s printed on the tube, right there,” the kid said evenly.
“Yeah, and what’s IN this tube? That you’re bringing into the country from KAREDONIA, hah?”
“It’s in the freakin’ paperwork, dude.”
“A ‘unique bio-form’?” Rowan sneered. “Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying BIOLOGICAL WEAPON? Isn’t that what you’re bringing into the country, a gengineered plague?”
“Look, I’m not bringing anything INTO the country, that ‘unique bio-form’ was-” the kid realized that he was letting Rowan get his goat, and clammed up again. “It’s IN the freaking PAPERWORK.”
Rowan spared a look at the manifest and muttered, “Oh gimmie a fuckin’ break.” He picked up the ‘thermos’ again. “I’ll bet that if I opened this, I’ll find a nasty little tailor made epidemic.”
“It’s been vetted by both American and Karedonian Customs as being safe to enter both countries,” the kid droned. “It’s. In. The. Paper. Work.”
“Yeah, and what are these?” Rowan pointed at the odd symbols worked into the tube. “Even Karedonian Customs isn’t weird enough to put THIS on transit tube! Maybe ‘unique bio-form’ is a new euphemism for a DEMON, hah?”
“It’s sealed and notarized by both US Customs going out, and Karedonian Customs combing back,” the kid kept his calm. “Unless you got a warrant, Jack, you’re never going to find out.”
At which, Rowan pretty much threw the rule book in the trash can. “Yeah? Let’s just SEE, wiseass!” Rowan slipped a thumb under the paper seal over the cap of the ‘thermos’ and ripped it off.
Oh Crap! Daisy could just see her career spiraling down into oblivion right along with Rowans, in another fucking Molly Hagen incident. If Rowan tried to dummy up a phony ‘berserker’ shooting to cover his ass, Daisy was fully prepared to cap his ass and roll over on him on paper or in court. MCO policy on this kind of thing was clear: don’t pick fights with people with lawyers, and don’t do anything stupid where TSA could see it.
“Hey!” the kid snapped, “Don’t open that! It’s sealed!”
“Yeah, freako? Let’s see what’s got you so wor- YOWCH!” Rowan let out a shrill yelp of pain as a small golden beak darted out of the tube and bit him on the hand that was still holding the lid.
‘Man, this job just gets weirder and weirder,’ Daisy thought to herself as a small gold-and-black dragon oozed out of the TSA tube and spread a pair of batlike wings. The kid cussed loudly that he’d never get it back into the tube and dived for the dragon-thing. The dragon skittered out of his grasp with a squeal and dove to the floor, running under and between the desks. The office exploded into chaos. The kid ran after the dragonet, and Rowan ran after the kid with his gun drawn, and the TSA agents ran after Rowan, yelling at the top of their lungs about waving loaded guns around in their office. Wonderful; like TSA didn’t resent the Office enough as it was.
The kid tried to make a diving tackle of the lizard-whatever-it-was, and lost the TSA tube. Daisy let out a grunt and waded into the mayhem to try and haul Rowan’s ashes out of the fire-AGAIN. She looked around for the tube, just in time to see a remarkably unremarkable looking man tucking something inside the tube, and then too-casually placing it on one of the tables and making his way out of the office. Her curiosity piqued, Daisy calmly walked through the bedlam over to the table and picked up the tube.
The weight was off. Upending the tube, she found a lead capsule, maybe 2 inches in diameter and five inches long, with rounded ends and odd markings worked into the metal. There was a seam that ran the length of the capsule, and tiny hinges on one side: it was a box. A shielded, warded box that fit in the palm of her hand. Daisy had an overwhelming urge to open the box and find out what was inside. But then, entire vistas of smarter plans opened up to her. That guy, whoever he was, was smuggling this… whatever it was… into the US, using that poor schmuck mutie kid as a mule. That lead to the idea of finding out who the smuggler was, who he was hauling for, and beyond that to a bust- if not a series of busts- that would make her career. Waiting around for your big break was for suckers; winners went out and made their own breaks. And Daisy saw herself as a winner with a capital W. Calmly sauntering through the havoc, Daisy went over to the field equipment drawer and tucked a standard MCO median-distance tracker into the tube. She took a few snapshots of the capsule with her smartphone, and then put the capsule back in the tube. Then she went over to the lounge, and asked if anyone could help get the minor riot back in control. It took the curvy Siren ten seconds to stop the insanity with a shouted order to STOP! For which, in thanks, the TSA speed-stamped her papers, and she was free to go.
* * *
August 28th, 2016
Paranormal Screening Lounge, Miami International Air Port, Miami, FL
AJ sat glumly in the lounge. Three hours, a ton of paperwork, and a phone call to his Mom’s lawyer later, and as far as the MCO and the TSA were concerned he was technically free to go. Not that he had any way to go. As he sat in the lounge with Smokey in his lap, Nick, the big Animan guy clomped in and sat down on the floor and blew air out his lips in a very equine raspberry.
He looked just as glum as AJ felt. “What’s the matter?” AJ asked of his new acquaintance.
“They put me on the No-Fly List,” he muttered.
“Because they say that I’m an untrained Energizer- that means that I give out these bigass charges of electricity every now’n again- and even if I don’t pop a fuse while we’re in flight, I muck around with the plane’s avionics.”
“And why’re you still here?” he asked.
“I’m on the No-Fly list too.”
AJ pointed at Smokey. “They won’t let me fly with him outside that stupid thermos-thing, and he won’t go back in the tube unless you make him, and I can’t make him. And there was only one person in Miami that I think had a snowball’s chance of getting him to go back in and they let her walk three hours ago.”
“And how.” AJ groaned. “My plane ticket’s non-refundable, they won’t let me take a private flight because I’m on the No-Fly list, and even if I wasn’t, there’s no way that I could afford the price of the ticket!”
“What about your folks?”
“My Dad’s out of touch on a job, and if I called my Mom to bail me out of this, I’d never hear the end of it.”
“Where you heading?”
“Up north to a private school in New Hampshire.”
“You going to Whateley?”
AJ blinked as his thoughts raced. He’s going to Whateley? Well, DUH. Where else would he be going? The Kentucky Derby? He nodded.
“So, how you gonna get there?” Nick asked
The young man let out a deep groan of disgust. “Train. It’s all that my credit card will handle. Worse, I gotta go ECONOMY. Hours, stuck in a day coach seat, with a hyperactive dragon that’s all curious about everything… Oh, there’s no way that this won’t turn into a disaster!”
The horse man's eye caught something over AJ's shoulder and his entire bearing picked up and changed, eyes sparkled, ears picked up and he scrambled back up to his hooves. AJ hadn't know the strange youngster long enough to pick up the nuances of his moods and expressions, but every kid who ever lived knew when another kid just got a wicked idea. “How'd you like to travel in style and get paid for it?” the Animan asked him.
AJ turned and looked over his shoulder, seeing nothing more interesting than a poster of Miami from the ocean with a clutch of boats in front of the sky scrappers. He looked back at the big equine. “What do you have in mind?”
August 28th, 2016
MCO Administrative Offices, Miami International Airport
Daisy came out the detachment commander's office with a grin on her face that would have given a shark pause. Oh sure, she was suspended for a week while the investigation wound its way through the bureaucracy, but it was a suspension with pay which was free vacation days. Not to mention rolling over on Len Rowan had been absolutely cathartic. In her most sweet and sincere tones she'd recalled to the commander how hard she'd tried to reign in Len's...enthusiasm. How she'd always been early for her shift, stayed late, and never once claimed the over time. Her reports always had her Is dotted and her Ts crossed, it wasn't her fault she'd been partnered with a loose cannon.
She had made sure she had given the commander a perfect out by pointing out that has the senior partner, her reports were washed through Len so of course the commander didn't know what was going on. How could he? She'd gassed up the bus for the Commander, handed him the keys and then tossed Len right under it. He was being led out in handcuffs by the TSA while Daisy was on her way to toss her new baited hook into the water and see what bit.
It was all she could do not to skip to the detention lounge as she decided which way she'd put the screws to this kid, but when she arrived, she was in for a shock. The lounge was empty except for the concession girl. “Where is he?” she demanded, desperate to keep panic from her voice.
“Who?” demanded the girl from brewing a new pot of coffee.
“The kid with the dragon,” Daisy told her. “Um, Blackstone, AJ Blackstone.”
The concession girl dried her hands and looked over the empty room. “Oh, yes, he left with the Animan boy.”
“Did they say where they were going?” The girl shrugged and shook her head. Recognizing the dead end, Daisy kept her calm. She had a leash on her boy, and she'd intended to throw him into the wild anyway. She turned her steps to the detachment storage facility and checked out a scanner that could pick up the tracer she'd already planted on him. Now it was just a matter of a little leak to chum the waters and wait for the sharks to show up.
August 28th, 2016
International Yacht Brokers, South Beach Marinia, Miami Beach, FL
It had been a relatively short bus ride from Miami International across the Intracoastal Water Way and onto Miami Beach, despite only being a bus ride it had been like going to another country. Further it had definitely been a trip into the surreal. Even this late in the season there were breathtakingly beautiful women wearing strings and a few strategically placed inches of cloth. Stranger was that Nick was evidently something of a D-list celebrity and two people had greeted him by name and one asked for an autograph. But most definitely worse was that Smokey was the darling of all those scantily clad women who crowded around oohing and awing such that the little shit's ego would never fit in its box again and AJ had that five hour boner the little blue pill commercials warned about he was certain he'd never loose.
Still, AJ had grown up with money, but he was a smart enough kid to realize the neighborhoods they were walking through were well and truly out of either of his parents tax brackets. These were the kind of people, powers or not, that existed above things like rules or laws or even countries. And that closed in feeling of not belonging was playing on his subconsciousness and making him very uneasy. “Where are we going?” he asked for the fifth time of the big equine who if the neighborhood bothered him he didn't show it.
Indeed, Nick seemed to move with the easy confidence of someone who fit into the surroundings and knew exactly where he was and belonged. He'd led the way from the bus stop down onto a Marina where there were boats tied up that obviously cost more than the neighborhoods AJ had grown up in. Before they'd left the air port he'd stopped at the restroom and changed from the jeans and polo he had been wearing to a pair of chino shorts, an A-style undershirt that was tight enough to have been painted on and was doing a fine job of showing off his six pack with the single loudest Hawaiian shirt AJ had ever seen he wore open. “We're here little bro!” the other replied, opening the door of a very exclusive kind of yacht brokerage.
At least it wasn't the front door where likely the two scruffy don't belongs would likely have been arrested for trespassing or something. But again AJ's expectations were shattered as the man inside stood with a huge grin on his face, “Nick! How you been my brother?”
“On the waves and counting days, Jay,” the equine replied. “This is AJ. AJ, Jay Randolph, senior dispatcher.”
The man offered a genuine handshake that was firm and a level gaze directly into AJ's eyes that was about as far from judgmental as could be. “Good to meet you, AJ.”
“Likewise,” the young man replied, his confusion even greater than it had been.
The man, a tanned, buff movie extra with sun bleached hair in desperate search of a camera turned back to Nick. “If you're looking for a last lark before school, I wish you'd called ahead, Nick. I don't have anything headed to your side of the Caribbean.”
“Actually my brother, I'm headed north to New Hampshire. Anything going between Boston to say Portland?”
The movie star's face split into a perfect grin of perfect teeth. “There is a God and he loves me! I've got a Oceanis 45 I need delivered to Martha's Vineyard. I'll even spring for the Ferry to Boston, that do you?”
“I am your man, bro!”
The man went back behind his desk and waved his hand over a sensor. This called up a hologram desktop that he began to manipulate. “Cool!” exclaimed AJ as he leaned forward. “A hard light projector?”
“They get us all the toys,” Jay said with a smile. “Now I just have to get you two a skipper...”
“Your problems are already solved,” Nick said with a grin as he opened a leather document protector he'd fished out of his bag and presented a wallet of documents. “Guess who passed his coast guard captain's test?”
“Nick you are the man!” He opened a key box and removed a set which he tossed to the big equine. “Slip fifty five. Go take a look while I prep the paperwork, this is really going save my neck!” AJ followed Nick out of the office as he headed down to the docks, both boys having left their bags in the office.
“Ok, sorry to be slow on the uptake, but, what's going on?” he demanded.
Nick chuckled as he led the way down to one of the finger docks and walked confidently out on it, waving to some of the other people on boats as he did so. “I grew up on an island, AJ,” he said with remarkable balance on the dock that was bobbing from the wakes of other boats out in the bay, Nicks own weight and who knew what else. “I've been around boats since I could walk. So where as your average American kid gets the job flipping burgers or at the mini-mart, I got my USGC papers and an able seaman's cert and Watchkeepers License. I just got my Master's Ticket.”
“English, big guy, please,” AJ requested with a chuckle.
“I got the paper to run crews for these boats,” he replied over his shoulder. “Lots of rich folks don't want to deal with actually long distance sailing their boats. Either they need work, or they need it moved for one spot in summer, but moved for the hurricane season, or they just bought a new one and they want it delivered. Jay's brokerage hires a crew and we sail them to and fro.” He stopped in front a forty five foot boat that probably cost more than the houses of any of AJs friends. “And it's way better money than the mini-mart too. Here we are.”
“Here what?” demanded AJ, careful not to look too hard at the expensive little palace least he break something his dad would have to mortgage the house to pay for.
“This, little buddy, is our ride to Whateley. Or, at least as far as Boston. Trains from there...”
AJ blinked. “You're serious?” he demanded, he pointed back towards the office. “Your buddy is going to just let us sail this thing to Martha's Vineyard?”
“Let? No, not let,” Nick replied shaking his head. “He's gonna pay us.”
“You get paid to...?”
“Welcome to the Caribbean, little bro!” He nimbly stepped over the pier and onto the boat, causing it to bob in the slip due to his weight. The motion didn't slow him in the slightest and in short order he had the main door open and was below. AJ cautiously boarded the boat, his own hairs standing up as he made his way through the cockpit towards the main companionway below. He wasn't a boating novice, it likely would have been better for him if he had been a novice and didn't know how much all this teak, brass and stainless steel cost.
“How much?” he asked as he carefully descended the ladder into the salon.
The big equine lad was standing a little workstation at the bottom of the half ladder, half stairway in front of a bank of controls, reading over a book he'd gotten from somewhere. “Mmm?” he asked, inserting and turning the key causing the lights and other items on the boat to spring to life.
This below decks area was just as lavish and nice as the exterior had promised, even if not a lick of space was wasted. This room had a booth like something out of a restaurant on the right hand side looking forward. Across the isle was the single most space efficient kitchen AJ had ever seen. Then forward was a teak door. There were four more aft two on either side of the ladder out. “I said, how much are we going to get paid?”
“Oh, well, I presume you don't have any kind of paper, right? Able seaman, anything?” AJ shook his head. “Well, that would make you a 'hand' and it's a long sail, probably they'll pay you $100 a day, so, six, seven hundred bucks.”
“Wait, what?” AJ demanded. “A week?”
“It's a twelve hundred mile sail direct,” Nick replied. “Even if we have great wind and I go hard sail the whole way this boat won't make much better than seven or eight knots. She's a cruiser, not a racer.”
“What does that mean, knots?”
“Well, in miles per hour? Eight or nine or so, and like I said, that's perfect conditions and hard sailing and it depends on how many stops we have to make.” The puzzled look on AJ's face did his asking for him. “I'm a new captain, bro, so they may want stops for inspection along the way, make sure I'm not abusing the boat. So if we have to stop up the coast to be inspected every couple of days, that will start adding days.”
“We're going to be late,” AJ said glumly.
Nick shrugged. “I promised you style, not speed. You want to try something else?”
“Two days on a train with a loose dragon in a coach seat? No thanks, I'll be late.”
August 28th, 2016
South Beach Bistro, Miami Beach, FL
The Courier had been enjoying a wonderful lunch of a Cuban Panini with coffee, when a chance glance spoiled it completely. He'd followed his unwitting mule and the strange mutant with GSD from the airport to South Beach. It had been unfortunate they'd been put on the no fly list. All that work in getting their flight altered to Charlotte had gone to waste; still it wasn't a complete loss. He'd followed them here, assuming the GSD mutant knew someone who they could get money from to change their travel plans. Once that was complete, he would have inserted himself, masterfully solved their dilemma and offered them up to his employer.
It was a gambit that he'd used many times before and had made a name for himself in the business by it. So it was a complete shock that a casual glance out over the bay would see his mule and his new GSD friend sitting in the cockpit of a very expensive, very new looking yacht that was motoring out to sea. He choked and coughed, getting strong Cuban Coffee up his nose in abashment. This just became a problem.
It went without saying his employers didn't like problems.
However there was nothing else to do; he had to call in for instructions.
August 28th, 2016
The Stone Lair, outside Asheville, NC
There was something about super villains that seemed to make them want to name things, as if somehow the personalization made the thing more theirs. Mirabel had only worked for two super villains in her life and they both did it; their wands were The Death Stick or the Soul Stealer, one had a helicopter he'd called his Sky Chariot and this finished in and plumbed cave hidden in the Great Smokey Mountains was The Stone Lair to Sycorax.
Mirabel just didn't get it. She'd had four apartments and a house she'd rented for a while and they weren't ever anything but 'the house' or 'home'; certainly nothing so grandiose as The Manor of Paper Thin Walls or The Dump With The Leaky Kitchen. But Sycorax The Devil's Mistress had The Stone Lair. Arriving at the door to her employer's inner sanctum, she took a moment to clear her mind and focus completely on her message. She still wasn't sure if Sycorax was a mind reader or not and either way it wouldn't do to be mentally indiscreet this new in the employment relationship. Mirabel knocked eagerly on the door, but waited respectfully for an answer. “Enter,” came the brusque welcome.
Mirabel entered cautiously, always being cautious of her mistress’ touchy nature. She cut a very fine figure of a woman if what her clothing revealed was any indication. She had a penchant for silks and satins which both clung and slink-ed sensuously as she moved. Even though she wore a vaguely Arabic veil that covered her head and face, leaving only her eyes visible, everything was in bright colors of reds, cobalt blues and rich, sulfurous yellows and every curve was on display. Mirable had no idea how old Sycorax was, but she had a feeling the woman was much older than she'd admit, or to have a body as luscious as the clothing belied.
And despite being very straight, yet again Mirabel couldn't stop the fantasies of what might lay under those silks and how she would enjoy them. Sycorax glared at her balefully, clearly tearing her unsettling blue eyes from the silver mirror that she’d been studying, as if she knew exactly what her underling was thinking and was both pleased at her ability to generate the reaction and offense Mirabel would dare think it. “Well? Can’t you see that I’m busy?”
Mirabel cleared her throat and said, “We’ve received a message from the courier, that the boy that he planted the, ah, ‘package’ on at Miami International Airport has managed to leave the airport with the package undiscovered.” The Mistress gave Mirabel a ‘go on’ look. “There is a complication: the boy has hooked up for some reason with what the courier describes as a ‘very odd sort’, and he’s tracked them to Miami’s yachting district, where they’ve arranged for a sailboat, a, ah, ‘Beneteau Oceanis 45’, whatever that means, which was registered as heading north to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.”
“A Beneteau Oceanis 45 is a high-end luxury pleasure yacht,” Yvonne said smugly. “Small enough for one man to handle, and more than enough for a man and a boy to handle easily.”
As Sycarax absorbed this, Mirabel took the opening to push Yvonne aside. If she'd known Sycarax already had an apprentice and wanted another to play them off each other she would have stayed with 'The Red Wizard' and put up with his crass attempts at sexual 'humor'. “This isn’t a big problem. They’ll probably re-provision in Jacksonville. I’ll go down there with Burke, hire a boat and a couple of local goons, and go out after them. I’ll cast the Mists of Muspelheim, which will totally fog them in and cut off their GPS and CB radio. Then we go in. We’ll give the goons a shotgun, which should be more than enough to handle a man and a boy. And Burke should be more than enough to handle three goons with a shotgun. Burke and I will take the capsule from the boy, pay off the goons with, say, $200 each and the sailboat. They’ll disappear the boat for us by reselling it on the black market. The courier said that he picked a boy who was in the TSA office during a mixup with something from the MCO cooler; so, on the off-chance that the courier was dumb enough to pick a blind mule who has some sort of metahuman ability, or the ‘very odd man’ has one, I’ll prepare a few offensive spells, pre-summon some sort of water-based attack creature, and have Burke prepped with say, a level 3 offensive-effect complex.” Mirabel finished with a hopeful smile.
Sycorax just gave her a chilly glare over the veil that covered the lower half of her face. “First of all,” she began with a gusty sigh of tried patience, “you’ve been watching too many Pirate movies. Finding a boat at sea, let alone catching up to one is a LOT harder than Hollywood makes it look. Anything you could do to whittle down the odds would have a material chance of either sending the capsule over the side, or even sinking the boat. Given the wardings on the capsule, finding anything that small underwater in those seas would be almost impossible! Secondly, casting the Mists of Muspelheim will only make you conspicuous! If nothing else, have you considered what the effect of casting that decidedly COLD based spell would have on the very WARM water of that current? Mist? You’d be lucky to not call up a STORM! Third, we know nothing of the ‘very odd’ man the courier spoke of. And given that I’m picking up cues that the boy may be far more than a mere boy; knowing who he and the man are is very important before we intercept them. Indeed, I’m picking up connections that suggest that it was no accident. There’s a definite link to a… old friend…” Syrocax’s voice went from merely chilly to venomous for a moment.
Both Mirabel and Yvonne pulled back a little, neither wanting to get in the way of their mistress’ snit, or to give the other one anything that she could use against her later.
Then Sycorax mastered herself, and continued in a controlled voice, “No, give me the name of the boat. I’ll pull a few strings with the Coast Guard and have the boat impounded or something. Heading north? Taking a car would be too exposed. If they were willing to fly, they’d have done that in the first place. Noooo… the train. Yes, definitely the train. We’ll finesse them onto the proper train, say in the general direction of New Orleans… I have some friends in a whistle stop town some fifty miles east of New Orleans. We’ll have someone on the train watching them, seeing what they’re about, and when they reach Bellereve, we’ll have their tickets expire or some such. They’ll be thrown off the train in Bellereve, where we’ll be waiting for them.
“Yes, Bellereve would be perfect… nice sleepy little town where nothing much happens. And the local sheriff knows not to cross me…”
Sycorax stopped short and snapped at Mirabel and Yvonne, “Well? What are you waiting for? Start packing! We head out for Bellereve tomorrow!”