The Riddle of Sappho (Canto III)
A Whateley Academy Adventure
The Riddle of Sappho
by E. E. Nalley and ElrodW
Deathless face alight with your smile, you asked me
What I suffered, who was my cause of anguish,
What would ease the pain of my frantic mind, and
Why had I called you
Hymn to Aphrodite, Sappho
Sunday, May 6th, 2007 - 5:45 am
The Nations Sweat Lodge, Whateley Academy
"When I said early," Janice Talbert grumbled between sips from her travel mug as the trio walked through the woods approaching the sweat lodge, "I didn't think you'd interpret that as first light."
"Imagine how I feel!" Lifeline complained. "Sunday mornings are meant for sleeping in."
Janice took another sip from her cup, wincing at the strong, bitter taste. "Where the hell did you get this coffee, anyway?" she said with a grimace. "It sure isn't from the cafeteria. Or from the coffee mess in Kane."
Sam chuckled. "It's Devisor coffee," she explained. "I had an officer pick it up this morning, since I figured you'd need a lot of caffeine to keep going after an all-nighter."
Lifeline paused as they broke out of the trees and into the clearing around the sweat lodge. "Can I ask what's going on?" she said. "First we heard that Jamie got killed ..."
Sam nodded, her face carefully neutral. "He did."
"And then there are rumors that Kayda killed him and was hauled off by the MCO," Lifeline continued.
Sam and Janice exchanged a wary glance which didn't go unnoticed. "Kayda is a suspect," Janice admitted warily, "but she is not the only suspect, nor has she been hauled off by the MCO."
"So why are we out here at the crack of dawn?" Lifeline's question was obvious. "Unless ... " she thought a moment. "Unless Kayda's alibi is that she was out here and not in the arena when Heyoka got attacked," she deduced quickly. "And you're out here to look for evidence." She saw the two exchange glances again. "And you brought me along because I know how things are supposed to be, right?"
"Very good," Janice said respectfully. "I was told that the girls in the Whateley Book Club were rather accomplished detectives; I see that wasn't an exaggeration."
"So you want my help looking for anything that seems out of place?"
Sam shook her head. "In a way, yes. Mostly, you're here to help us ..."
"Like the tent flap?" Maggie interrupted.
"That's a new tent flap," Maggie said confidently. "Where's the old one?"
Janice arched her eyebrows. "How do you know?"
Maggie shook her head. "Because I made the one that was here four days ago." She pointed at the flap, which was slightly mismatched in color. "And that is not the one I made."
Janice cocked her head to one side, walking slowly toward the covered opening. "Are you absolutely certain?"
Janice halted a few feet from the entrance, looking around the ground near the sweat lodge. "This area looks disturbed, too, like there's been a lot of activity around the entrance," she said. "Maggie," she asked, turning toward Lifeline, "in the ceremonies your group does here, is there a lot of activity around the entrance?"
Maggie shook her head. "No. Everyone just goes in."
"What's the fire pit for?" Sam asked, looking at a fire pit fifteen or so feet from the sweat lodge in the center of the clearing."
"It's kind of like a campfire." Lifeline explained, shrugging. "It's our fire circle. The traditional way to have a sweat lodge ceremony is to heat rocks in the fire circle and use them to heat the lodge."
"Like a sauna?" Janice asked with certainty, pretty sure she understood what Lifeline was telling her.
"Yeah. But now we use devisor simulated rocks. They heat up faster and it's less work and less risk of getting burned than using a fire circle and real rocks."
Janice inched toward the campfire circle, her eyes focused laser-beam-like on the area. "When was the last fire circle?"
Maggie shrugged. "A week ago." She frowned as she stared at the fire circle. "And it rained last Wednesday, so there shouldn't be anything stirred up in the fire circle, is that what you're saying? Like that ... mess?"
Janice was looking at the scuffed up dirt on one side of the fire circle, and at the disturbed ashes inside the ring. "Yeah."
Sam studied the site. "One person? In a big hurry?" she asked.
"Yeah, that was my first impression," Janice nodded as she looked closer, one hand rummaging in her purse slung over one shoulder. "Let me get some pictures - there are some clear shoe-prints around here. I'm willing to bet it's from the same pair of shoes." She pointed at other marks. "And that - like something was thrown over here, and then picked up?"
"Maybe the old tent flap?" Lifeline volunteered.
"Could be," Janice said as she took photos of the area. She continued to get more pictures of the fire circle and then the area surrounding the entrance to the lodge. "It looks like there's been a lot of activity around the entrance in the last day or two. And you say there haven't been any ceremonies or other uses since?"
"Nope," Lifeline reported with certainty.
After Janice had sufficiently photographed around the entrance area, she began studying the tent flap.
"This really isn't my work!" Lifeline said with a derisive snort. She read Janice's expression. "Look at the holes for the pegs! They're not even, they don't line up well, they're ...." She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "It looks like a four-year-old was playing with a pair of dull scissors!" She felt the hide. "And it's not even .... It's too heavy a hide. And I don't think it was traditionally brain-tanned like all the skins Mr. Lodgeman's got us."
Inside, Lifeline switched on the simulated candles, and Sam pulled out a bigger light and turned it on to supplement the meager little lights.
Janice wrinkled her nose as soon as the smells penetrated her olfactory system. "Do you guys ... do ... like sacrifices or something in here?" She pulled out her own flashlight and began looking around the interior.
"Because I smell something burned." Janice had to force back some memories of her time on the force - and in particular one horrific victim that had been burned beyond recognition. The smell of charred flesh was indelibly imprinted on her mind - and this place had a hint of that smell to it. Instead, she looked around, looking for things that seemed out of place.
The dirt floor was covered with animal hides, except for a circle in the center, which held what looked like stones. "These are the hot stones?" she asked. Her flashlight was already probing around the structure. "Lifeline, what's supposed to be up here?" The light was fixed on a cross-junction between the uprights and the latitudinal frame.
Lifeline frowned. "Uh, nothing." She looked again. "Nothing goes up there. The inside is pretty bare - on purpose."
Detective Janice Talbert was getting a sense that there was a lot wrong with the scene, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. One or two things being out of place? Maybe. But .... She focused the light in one area and drew very close to the indicated spot. "See this? The bark on these poles is chafed, like something is supposed to be tied here." She frowned. "Or was tied here."
"And there's another over here," Sam pointed out, shining her light at a spot about a third the way around the lodge, and at the same height - which was eye-level. Her light continued its path around the interior. "And here." More methodically now, Janice and Sam probed all of the junctions in the lodge's skeleton, looking for other unusual marking, but apart from the occasional sloppily-tied joint, there were only the three spots that had the unusual abrasion.
"What's this?" Lifeline interrupted Sam's search.
The admiral was impressed - most teenagers would have picked up something unusual that they saw; Lifeline was on her knees looking into the central pit, pointing at something and very deliberately not touching it. Sam looked closer at what appeared to be folded paper, browned and semi-charred from the rocks a few inches away. "Janice? We might have found the missing note."
May 6th, 2007 - Dawn
Headmistress' Office, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
There was far too much coffee in Mrs. Carson's cup and far too little in her system as she finished the walk to the administration offices in Schuster Hall. Sunday was a day of rest and she did her best to observe that in her bed until at least nine. But that wasn't to be this morning as her appointments were waiting on her, coffee cups in hand themselves as the Headmistress fished her keys out of her pocket and opened the door. "This better be good," she warned the pair, as she led the way to her office door and worked the ring in her hand to find its key.
"I think you'll be quite happy with things once you've heard," Dr. Bellows assured her after a fortifying gulp of his own coffee. "Bad news first, I'm afraid."
"This is about Kayda?" Mrs. Carson asked as she flipped on the office lights and made her way to her desk.
"Yes," Dr. Bellows replied. "You know how a mage can react when their magic is sealed?" he asked, to which Liz nodded grimly. "It can be very traumatic. And you know what happens to avatars when they lose their spirits."
"I know it's serious, Doctor," Liz started to say.
"No, you don't know how serious it is," Bellows countered with uncharacteristic frustration. "I'm the one who has to try to help the kids put their shattered selves back together." He realized Liz was practically gawking at his outburst. "I'm sorry, I was up most of the night trying to assist her, and I'm exhausted. He shook his head again. "You know the statistics - seven cases in the last six years, one of whom ...." He couldn't bring himself to say out-loud that a student had committed suicide over spring break because of losing her spirit. He didn't have to; Liz knew only too well. "Two in ARC Red, maybe permanently, and two extreme cases of depression! And that's just one kind of psychological trauma. You know that – but..."
"Alfred," Liz gently admonished him for his outburst.
Dr. Bellows caught himself. "I'm ... sorry," he apologized. "Two of the worst psychological traumas that can be inflicted on a student, and Kayda got hit with both of them - and you're wondering how she's doing?" He shook his head. "She had a serious PTSD episode last night, disassociation, along with confusion and lethargy." He yawned and shook his head. "She's nearly catatonic. I don't know how she's hanging on, but in my professional opinion, if we leave her isolated for much longer, she'll be leaving in a straightjacket going straight to ARC Red."
"And how does Miss Nalley figure into this?" Mrs. Carson asked with an arched eyebrow to the other occupant of her office.
"Miss Nalley found Kayda in her cell, bringing her a few comfort items from her room," Dr. Bellows informed her. "And a good thing she did. I shudder to think how bad things would have gotten if she had been that way all night and found this morning."
Mrs. Carson frowned. "Do we need to transfer her to Doyle?"
"No," He said with a smile. "That would require her to be handcuffed to the bed, which honestly would likely make things worse. However, Miss Nalley made me aware of a wonderful solution..."
Mrs. Carson rolled her eyes. "And since I'm deprived of my morning, logic suggests it's a wonderfully contorted bending of rules that requires the Headmistress' approval." She sighed and fixed a steely gaze on the young redhead. "Alright, let's hear it."
Lanie blushed and hid it behind a sip of coffee. "Well, with Kayda's magic sealed, that just leaves her as a Gadgeteer, which under the Yerunkle-Corbin System is an Esper (3)G talent and a physical package Exemplar 1..."
"I'm aware," Mrs. Carson replied. "However, under the Hewley-Aranis system..."
"Ah," replied Lanie with a grin. "But the Hewley-Aranis system hasn't been adopted by the DPA and so has no force of Law or Federal Regulation. So as an Exemplar One is only just measurably above baseline, the individual in question has no access to a vehicle or ready stores of cash if she surrenders her MID to the recognized representative of the Medawihla Tribe, then under Federal Guidelines she is no longer considered a flight risk. And Ah am an Exemplar Four, full package and as a Federal Firearms Permit holder a duly certified Volunteer Air Marshall..."
A grin that would give Satan himself pause brightened the Headmistress' features. "Let me make a phone call, Marshall."
Sunday, May 6, 2007 - Early Morning
Security Detention Area, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
Buoyed by a second large cup of coffee, Lanie paused a moment to rearrange her expression to something that wasn't grim or sad. With a deep breath, she stepped through the outer security door into the area with the detention cells, to where Kayda lay curled up on an uncomfortable bed, although Lanie figured that in her distress, Kayda hadn't noticed how uncomfortable the bed was. She could barely wait for the officer to unlock the cell door, bolting past him into the cell and sitting on the cot beside Kayda in a blur of motion.
"How are you feeling?" Lanie asked, her hand automatically reaching out to gently stroke Kayda's cheek, to brush her hair from her face.
The Lakota girl didn't answer, but just shook her head feebly.
"Ah'm sorry Ah couldn't stay with you all night." Lanie's apology was heartfelt and sincere; she really had wanted to stay to comfort her friend through what had to have been a long night for Kayda.
"I ... I know," Kayda stammered softly, forcing a smile. "Dr. Bellows stayed most of the night and he was a big help."
"Ah've got good news," Lanie said, pulling the other upright into an embrace. "Dr. Bellows and Ah managed to get you out on bail."
Kayda backed up and stared at the redhead, her eyes wondering as her traumatized, sleep-deprived mind tried to digest the facts. "Bail?" she asked hesitantly.
"Well, Ah found some regulations, and Mrs. Carson agreed with mah interpretation, that help," Lanie explained. "With your magic sealed, you can't teleport or go invisible. Nor are your powers dangerous enough to make escape likely. Under the circumstances, you aren't a flight risk according to Federal Code. You'll have to give Mrs. Carson your MID until you're cleared, but when you do, that entitles you to supervised release."
"You need to be supervised at all times by an authorized agent, and since the school is on reservation property not subject to state law, only an authorized Federal agent can fill that role." She smiled at her friend. "Did Ah ever mention that Ah'm a deputized, authorized Federal Volunteer Air Marshall?" She saw the others eyes widen. "Until the conclusion of the hearing, you and Ah are Siamese twins."
Kayda looked at her friend, the words slowly sinking in. "So I ... I can go ... back to my room?" she asked timidly. "I ... don't have to stay here?"
Lanie grinned. "Nope." She chuckled at a particularly amusing thought. "Ah would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Mrs. Carson told the State's Attorney that you were being released to mah custody and that the hearing wouldn't be held until Monday."
"But ... but she has to have a hearing," Kayda protested. "It's in the rules. She has twenty-four hours."
Lanie chuckled again. "She has twenty-four business hours. So she could have technically waited until Tuesday. From what Ah was told, she's tryin' to balance giving the team time enough to thoroughly investigate against damage to your reputation from bein' under a cloud of suspicion. They'll probably have the hearing as soon as they can, if they can find evidence." She paused and gave the other girl a baleful glance. "Of course, they'd have some really good evidence if someone would let someone else..."
Her panicked expression did all her protesting for her. The tall redhead stood abruptly and took Kayda's hands, helping her to her feet. "Alright, Ah won't bring it up again. Now come on - let's get out of this place."
Getting out was easier said than done. Kayda and Lanie were briefed on their responsibilities and duties, including what Kayda could and could not do. That led to forms for the girls to sign indicating that they'd had the briefing, understood the restrictions, agreed to not evade said restrictions, and Kayda agreed to random, spot inspections as needed to check her compliance. Kayda's personal possessions were returned - after a thorough check of an inventory of her purse's contents to verify that nothing was missing. Of course, there was a form to sign for that. Just getting out of the 'jail' took more paperwork than Kayda would have thought necessary.
And on top of that, Lanie had taken Kayda to a bathroom, where she fussed over the Lakota girl's hair and makeup until she was satisfied that Kayda was presentable in public. "The rumpled look for your clothes won't do," Lanie griped, "but there isn't much Ah can do about that right now." She smiled. "Let's go."
Sam was waiting when they exited the restroom. "Kayda," she said solemnly, "a word of advice." She saw that she had the girl's attention. "Don't mess up. Don't do anything wrong."
Kayda gulped at the somber tone the Admiral had spoken in. "I won't," she promised.
"Good. Now you two need to wait a moment. One of the Wild Pack will be here in a moment."
Kayda's eyes widened. "The ... Wild Pack?"
"Any time you're out of your cottage, unless you're in class, you are to be escorted by not only Miss Nalley," Sam said firmly, "but also by a security auxiliary."
Kayda gulped again. "Yes, ma'am."
Within a couple of minutes, Mindbird entered Kane, goggling at Kayda and bearing a stricken look on her face. "Let's go," she said uneasily.
No sooner were the three out of Kane Hall than Mindbird spoke to Kayda, her voice strained. "I'm sorry, Kayda," she apologized, rushing to get out the words. "I really, really didn't know it would hurt you!"
Kayda thought. "I ... I wasn't dreaming?" she asked hesitantly. "You ... got me some ... tea?"
Lanie glanced back and forth at the two. "What? What did you do?" she demanded angrily.
"I ... I was trying to help," Mindbird continued quickly. "I know how much her tea helps, so I had Clover make her some."
Lanie stared at Mindbird, stunned. "What ... happened?"
Mindbird shook her head sadly. "The tea has some essence in it," she began.
Lanie's eyes went wide. "And ... it got absorbed into the charm?"
"Circe really gave me hell for trying it," Mindbird said with a nod. "She explained that losing her essence was ... traumatic ...."
"That's an understatement," Kayda whispered softly, looking quite pained at the memory.
"And ... when the essence from the tea hit and then got yanked back, it was even worse." Mindbird winced. "Kayda ... got sick. We ... the security team and I ... made sure she was okay and conscious, and the on-duty doc from Doyle came over to check on her. The doc said she was almost completely exhausted, probably from the loss of her core of essence, and that security should check on her periodically."
A deep scowl greeted that response. "Dale Townsend, of all the stupid, half assed..." Elaine ground to a halt, her face flush and obviously furious. "She went into a PTSD episode," Lanie shouted at the Security Auxiliary who only winced and seemed to shrink under the blistering scolding.
"I'm just repeating what the doctor said," Mindbird explained quickly. She glanced at Kayda, nervous that the girl was going to hold it against her. "I'm really, really sorry, Kayda."
The Lakota girl shook her head, a significant effort given her near-total exhaustion and laid a restraining hand on Lanie's arm. "You didn't know," she said softly. "You were only trying to help."
"I'm sorry," Mindbird repeated. "That scared me. And it really scared Clover!" she added.
The girls walked quietly for a bit. "What did you have to pay her?" Kayda finally asked, breaking the awkward silence.
"What?" Mindbird gawked at her. "What makes you think ...?"
"Sucker..." Lanie chuckled in a sing-song voice.
Kayda's smile was thin and knowing. "It was one of the Three Little Witches," she said. "So did you have to enter into a sorcerer’s contract with her?"
Mindbird stared at Kayda for a moment, and then nodded. "Yeah. I owe her a favor." She paused. "We're here. Remember, if you want to leave the cottage, you have to have a second escort."
Kayda sighed, nodding. "I know."
Dale turned her so the girl was facing her. "Kayda, this is deadly serious. You can't treat the rules so casually like you did before. If you aren't properly escorted, the authorities have grounds to take you into custody off-campus. And you know what that means, don't you?"
Kayda nodded somberly, gulping yet again. "Yes."
"Don't worry," Lanie said firmly. "Ah won't let her."
Inside the cottage, Kayda paused, feeling awkward as conversations ceased and every eye seemed to focus on her. She trembled nervously; "They all think I did it," she whispered to Lanie.
Lanie shook her head. "No, they don't," she replied firmly. "Is Mrs. Horton in?" she asked in a louder voice.
"Right here," Mrs. Horton said, appearing in the doorway to her apartment. "Come in girls," she added, ushering the two into her apartment and closing the door behind them before wrapping Kayda in a massive hug. "How are you doing, dear?" she asked, genuinely concerned.
Kayda started to answer, but tears started flowing instead. "I'm ... I'm scared," she whimpered. "And very tired. Everyone thinks I killed Jamie."
"No, they don't," Mrs. Horton replied firmly. "Everyone is curious because a lot of things have happened so quickly."
"Mrs. Horton," she said quietly, "what now? They said Lanie has to be with me all the time! Does that mean ....?"
"No, we're not kicking Evvie out of your room," she glanced at Lanie and saw the mischievous twinkle in her eyes, "and you're not sharing a bed with Elaine."
"Oh, darn!" Lanie feigned a complaint. "And Ah brought over mah best leather bustier too!"
"Hush, you rogue!" Mrs. Horton replied in a mock scold. "Evvie and Naomi moved a few ... essentials ... up to three-oh-three, which is empty right now. Lanie, it's right next to Wallflower's room, and since she's a security auxiliary ...."
Lanie grinned. "If Ah have to use the restroom or the shower, Lily can watch Kayda so she's always monitored." She looked at Kayda and put on a pouty look again. "But that takes away my excuse of showering with you, too!"
A knock on the door interrupted things. "Come in," Mrs. Nelson called out.
Evvie peeked nervously in, like she wasn't quite sure if she was intruding or not. Pure relief flooded her features when she saw Kayda, and she bounded into the room, sweeping her roommate into a bear hug. "Are you okay?" she asked. "I was so worried - when I heard all the rumors, and when Lanie came to get some things for you," she babbled, her friendship for Kayda causing her emotions and words to spew forth almost uncontrollably. "But you're back now - Naomi and Ros and I moved a few things up to the third floor for you, so you should be comfortable, but ... it's not the same without you in the room."
"Thanks," Kayda said wearily. "I have to be escorted by Lanie all the time ...."
"You look exhausted. Maybe we should take you up to your temporary home so you can rest" Evvie suggested.
"If you need anything," Mrs. Horton said before they walked out of her apartment, "call. Any time, day or night. Okay?"
Kayda nodded, reassured by Mrs. Horton, and flanked by Evvie and Lanie, she walked up the stairs, through a gauntlet of curious stares - and possibly some accusatory ones. Evvie and Naomi had moved up some clothes, her books, and bedding and toiletries, so it was almost like her room downstairs. Almost. The poster of her beloved was absent, and not having Evvie in the room made a difference.
"I'm sorry I got you mixed up in this mess," she apologized softly to Lanie, looking down out of embarrassment.
Lanie plopped on the bed beside her and lifted her chin. "Ah'm not," she answered firmly. "Ah am sorry you feel on the spot about what happened between us."
She felt Kayda's arm snake around her waist and hug her one armed. Lanie smiled and touched her forehead to the other girl's forehead. "The only thing Ah regret about that is that neither of us was free or really willing." She sighed and looked away for a moment. "Ah'd be lying if Ah said Ah hadn't wanted to be with you, because Ah did, and...honestly...Ah do. You...you fill a hole in me Ah didn't realize Ah had. But, more important than you being mah lover, you're mah Soul Sister, and Ah'd do almost anythin' for you." She gave the Lakota girl a quick kiss on her forehead. "And don't you forget it."
Kayda nodded. "Were you ... hoping you'd have to share a bed with me?" she asked in a voice that wasn't quite playful and wasn't quite serious.
Lanie laughed. "Even Sisters have a few secrets from each other." She smiled again and shrugged. "Ah am here for you. If you need me to hold you while you sleep, Ah will." Her form blurred as she stood and suddenly she almost was too tall for the ceiling, rich reddish brown fur over a form that was strong and yet so wildly feminine. "You can even say you only slept with your teddy bear."
Kayda doubled over in a giggle at her friend's off beat sense of humor, holding out her arms and being wrapped up in the mother of all bear hugs. For the first time in a long, exhausting day, she felt warm and safe. "You can hug me for a little while," she whispered.
May 6, 2007 - Early Morning
Cyberspace, Whateley Academy Servers
The network stretching out in front of him, Blue paused at the Whateley firewall before him. He, or more accurately, his cyber-avatar, stood in the cyberworld, a dark blue plane lined with dull silver traces that pulsated in time with the data packets they carried, blobs of bright silver stretching the traces like swollen spots in garden hoses as they moved down the information highways. Here and there, angular structures jutted forth, from small boxes that were individual computers to towering edifices resembling fortresses - the bastions and firewalls of secure facilities, castles to be stormed electronically, as if it was all a colossal game for her private amusement. The 'ground', if one could call it that, seemed to stretch forever in all four directions, and overhead, looking more like a painted ceiling than a sky, a faintly-glowing medium blue canopy illuminated the cyberworld. It had an other-worldly air to it, and Paige found it quite comforting, a place she could escape the harshness of reality into this techno-fantasy world in which she was one of the pre-eminent rulers.
He knew that getting out to the open internet would be easy. From there - not so much. And the branch off toward the security sub-domain within Whateley - even less easy. Still, Sam had practically given him carte blanche. He turned around again, looking. <Are you here?>
The girl appeared out of nowhere, but it didn't surprise Blue. <Ah, I was wondering if you were up yet.>
<A girl's gotta eat, you know,> the girl replied with a smile. <Why are you standing there gawking at the firewall?>
Blue paused, and then sighed. <Sam Everheart asked me a favor.>
<Oh?" the girl was intrigued. <Does this have anything to do with whatever has Hartford in a tizzy?>
Blue shrugged, but inwardly he wasn't so sure. <Maybe. There's a lot of interest in an Assistant State's Attorney and a new MCO agent in the area. Why?>
<Hartford has me doing scans of the print servers. If the first file scans don't turn up anything, we'll be doing deep scans. And I mean real deep scans. Trying to tickle out first and second and third layers of data from disk sectors, looking for some keywords on some print jobs.>
<Wait, isn't that what the NSA ....> Blue dropped his head, shaking it. <Sorry,> he apologized, smiling in a way that the girl thought was rather cute in an embarrassed way. <Forgot who I was talking to.>
<I've got the basic scanning jobs running in automatic mode, so it's boring.> A wicked smile crept across her features. <How about I help you dig for whatever it is you're going to dig for?>
Blue frowned deeply. <I thought it wasn't safe ....>
Paige chuckled in the net-realm. <I thought of a trick - if you want to try it.>
<What sort of trick?>
<I'll piggyback on your net avatar,> the girl said confidently.
<But ... someone will notice. And you said it was dangerous.>
<Not if we link in a private tunnel through this server. Copy down this string.> Paige rattled off a string of over one thousand alpha-numeric characters. <When you get a dialog box, enter that and it'll establish the link.>
<It's worth a try," Blue said. A moment later, after he'd typed in the string, Paige's avatar drifted into his and merged. <Whoa! This is ... kind of freaky.>
<Now, what's the game?>
<Are you in my cyber-mind?> Blue asked cautiously. "Because if you are, that's kind of ... private.>
<Don't worry. If I find out anything, I won't tell,> she said coyly.
<Okay, we're supposed to find out anything we can about MCO Agent Jack Dougan and Coos County Assistant State's Attorney Jerome Hervik.>
<Let's go searching then. First we'll go for this Hervik guy, and then the MCO agent. It's been a while since I've played with an MCO system.> She sounded positively eager to have at the much-vaunted MCO computer security systems.
A very short time later, Paige sighed as Blue walked out of a firewall somewhere on the vast internet domain. <Well, that was no challenge.>
Blue shrugged. <It's a university. What do you expect?>
<So Mrs. Hervik was a big Humanity First zealot in college before they got married,> Paige said. <That's pretty thin evidence.>
<What would you suggest?>
<How about we go digging ... >Wait a sec," Paige interrupted her own train of thought. <Someone else is looking for info on our guy!>
<Dunno,> Paige answered. Tens of nanoseconds passed while she thought, which was an eternity to Blue. <Let's backtrack and find out.>
It only took a moment to backtrack to a server in France. <Damn,> Blue swore. <A randomizing anonymous server with encrypted links backward.>
<Hmmm,> Paige thought again. She suddenly seemed to vanish, only to reappear moments later. <That should do it.>
<What? What did you do?> Blue asked warily. He already knew that to Paige, bits were bits, and she seemed to have no compunction against manipulating data in ways that were frowned upon, if not downright illegal.
Paige chuckled. <Set up a honey-pot with data about our man - and his wife. Now,> she paused, <just a moment here ....> another few milliseconds passed. <Bingo! They've taken the bait.>
<So what?> Blue commented. <It's ...>
<Encrypted? Yes. But I've got a little program running doing correlation between the two sides of the anonymizer. It shouldn't take long for ... There! We've got them!> Guiding Blue, they went through the internet to a firewall, a solid block bigger than the meager firewall of the university they'd just visited. Silver traces, pulsing with data blocks, led into the impressive structure. <Give me a sec,> Paige told Blue. Cybernetically, she analyzed the firewall; it was pretty sophisticated, but nowhere near as good as what she and Ms. Hartford had placed around Whateley. She watched it poke and prod around its perimeter, looking pro-actively for threats.
<Ah, here's what we need,> Paige said nonchalantly. Through Blue, she reached out to touch the firewall - and immediately, a hole opened that the two walked through. Inside, there were five computers frantically at work, reaching out through the firewall to the anonymizing server. Paige reached out to them, touching each in turn. <Okay, we can go now.>
<What? You didn't infect them with something, did you?>
<No,> Paige admitted with a chuckle. <I just got their session keys for the encryption. Now we can simply monitor the traffic from the outside while we look elsewhere.> The duo crossed back into the 'wild'. At the relay server, Paige paused, placing a code package - a shimmering blob of something ethereal - into the block that was the computer. <We'll just sniff and log everything they find. Who knows - they might find something that we didn't.>
Blue snorted. <Not likely.>
<Let's go look at the IRS,> Paige suggested.
<If she's still active and giving speeches, there have to be honoraria and reimbursed travel expenses, and those will show up in their tax records.>
<But ... the IRS?"
Paige chuckled. <If the North Koreans and a couple of rogue Russian hacker groups can waltz through, how hard can their security be? And if we don't find anything like you're looking for,> Paige said, <we can always make something up.> Blue couldn't see, but somehow he could sense Paige grinning. <And then the fun - we get to go after the MCO's deepest, darkest secrets!> She was positively chortling with anticipation.
Sunday, May 6, 2007 - Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Heads turned, and conversations trickled to a halt as Kayda walked in, flanked by Lanie and Wyatt, with Mindbird close behind. For a few moments, the only sound was the splash of the waterfall, until someone dropped a tray and the shattering crash of a plate and the clatter of silverware and metallic tray on the floor broke the awkward silence.
"They're all staring at me," Kayda whispered nervously to Lanie.
"Let them," Lanie said back confidently. "You and I know you didn't do it. So just be strong and hold your head up high."
"Yeah," Wyatt whispered at the Lakota girl, chuckling softly so no-one else could hear. "That way you won't be staring at my girlfriend's tits!"
Kayda stared at him, sputtering in disbelief for a moment, and then her features relaxed. "Thanks," she said softly. "Surprisingly, that ... helps my nerves."
Worse than the silent stares, though, where when the whispered gossip started spreading, stopping when the trio passed, the participants staring, and then the gossip resumed when they were out of earshot. It was quite disconcerting to Kayda to know that she was the subject of what seemed like all the cafeteria gossip.
As she stood in line, she encountered another bubble of silence, and, looking around nervously, she saw Anno Domini glaring angrily at her, his expression betraying judgement that she was guilty of killing a member of his team.
Wyatt noticed and stepped around Kayda to him. "You got a problem, AD?" he asked in a deceptively calm voice, his disapproving glare piercing the other's willpower.
"Yeah," AD said with righteous indignation. "She killed one of my friends."
"The jury's still out on that," Wyatt said coolly. "You should wait for all the facts and not prejudge someone based on rumors and gossip."
"I know what's been reported to security," AD countered, "and it's pretty obvious she did it." A few students were using his stubborn courage to buck up their own spines. "Yeah," a number of them echoed, slowly edging near him to present a united front.
Kayda's lip trembled at the unfair, accusatory glares she was receiving, but after closing her eyes a moment and taking a deep breath through clenched teeth, she turned away, shaking mildly, and stepped to the serving line, refusing to let them see that their accusations stung her, instead pretending that he hadn't rattled her but that she was ignoring him.
"Someday," she heard Lanie said venomously behind her, loud enough for half the cafeteria to hear, "Ah hope you get to feel what it's like to be unjustly accused and have everyone treat you like you're guilty before the facts are in."
In the ensuing stunned silence, Lanie and Wyatt joined Kayda at the serving line. With AD and his buddies retreating, grumbling, the trio finished being served and paid.
"You want to see the view from upstairs?" Lanie asked, "or do you want to introduce us to your friends?"
"I wanted to get takeout food," Kayda grumbled, but Lanie saw that she wasn't serious - just tired and emotionally exhausted.
"Let's go up to the third floor," Wyatt suggested. "There aren't as many people up there, and the view is better." Kayda knew immediately what he meant; fewer people meant not as many would be staring or gossiping about her, which would make her breakfast more comfortable.
Upstairs at the Alpha table, several students already seated looked uneasily at Kayda, but they were unwilling to say anything because Kody and Lanie were standing beside her. Wyatt noticed. "Ladies, gentlemen," he said in his booming yet polite voice, "you all know Kayda. As leader of the Nations, she is a de-facto Alpha, so we invited her to dine with us this morning." The unspoken message was clear. 'Any of you have a problem with that, you can take it up with me.'
Kayda noticed that everyone was staring at her, and she gulped nervously, still trying to follow Lanie's advice and example and hold her head high, but then she saw that the stares were over her shoulder, not directly at her. She stole a glance at Lanie and Kody, who were back to talking with each other, so Kayda figured that the disturbance couldn't be serious trouble. She turned around ....
... right into a hug from Fey. It felt as if the Sidhe girl was magically pushing energy and strength and calm - which was impossible given the charm on Kayda's neck; still, the Lakota girl felt reassured and soothed by the caring embrace. Moments later, Fey was displaced by her roommate, whose hyperactive hug startled Kayda. She was followed by a hesitant hug from Tennyo, but Kayda didn't let her off with a half-assed embrace, pulling her close into something meaningful as she realized that she was crying because of how supportive everyone was being. Jade followed with a hug that dwarfed her small stature, her eyes brimming with sympathy for Kayda's plight and conveying her wishes that the troubles be over with soon.
"If there's anything I can do ...." Ayla said awkwardly when it was his turn, reluctant to hug the Lakota girl for fear of triggering a PTSD attack, but knowing he should show support in some way.
"Thanks," Kayda said softly, wrapping him in a hug. It was comforting to have friends who were supportive; it offset a lot of the harsh, judgmental looks and whispered gossip that greeted her wherever she walked.
"I've got Trinn and McIntyre standing by just in case they take you off-campus, they'll keep you safe from the MCO and H1. And I've got a couple of top-notch lawyers on retainer if it comes to that," Ayla informed Kayda, telling her in his own odd way that he really, really cared for her as a friend and that he'd do anything he could to help.
Kayda shuddered at the implications of Ayla's preparations. "Thanks. I ... I hope it won't come to that."
After they left, Kayda turned to Lanie. "Is Ayla kidding ... about Trinn and McIntyre?"
Lanie shook her head, smiling but unable to hide her worry. "No. Ayla doesn't kid about things like that. Ah'm willin' to bet that T&M are already doing research on everyone in the county who might try to get involved. And probably makin' plans for appeals, changes of venue, and any other legal strategies that could be necessary."
Sunday, May 6, 2007 - Early Morning
Franks Family Farm, South Dakota
Pete Franks slammed the phone down. "Shit!" he swore uncharacteristically.
June turned from the stove where she was cooking breakfast. "No luck?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"Everything goes through Chicago or Minneapolis, and after they cancelled a Chicago flight yesterday, the airlines are all very overbooked trying to catch up," he spat bitterly. "We're on standby for two flights on Monday, and they can only confirm a flight on Tuesday."
"Can't they do better?" June asked, worriedly.
Pete shook his head. "I pleaded with them," he said sadly. "No dice."
"Ida can come whenever we need her," June said. "Maybe we should drive to Sioux Falls just in case?" Her voice had the worry of a mother whose child was in trouble and she needed to help.
"We'll drive down early tomorrow. If we go now, what will we do? Sit in the airport and fret?"
June shrugged, but her worry lines over Kayda's predicaments were slowly becoming permanent creases in her otherwise flawless skin. "Like I'm going to do anything but fret here!"
Frank walked over and hugged June from behind. "I'm sorry, hon," he said in earnest. "I don't know anything else we can do."
June dropped her spatula, spinning and clutching tightly to her husband, her eyes misting. "Oh, Pete," she started to sob, "did we make a mistake sending her there?"
Sunday, May 6, 2007 - Morning
Administrative Offices, Whateley Academy
Amelia Hartford sat at her desk staring into the screen, a cold cup of coffee ignored on her desk, her eyes impossibly sorting through a flurry of data, the results from the server search that were streaming into her computer. In real-time, reacting to the flow of data, she adjusted search parameters to try to weed out nonsense and false-hits. Frowning, she typed in a command.
She expected an instantaneous reply, but it took almost three quarters of a second. <Yes, Ms. Hartford?>
<Where are you?> Ms. Hartford typed. Her stern presses on the keyboard couldn't translate into cyber-messages, but that didn't dissuade her from expressing her displeasure on the keys of her computer.
<Oppo research,> came the answer from within the cyberworld.
<You know it's risky for you to leave the campus network.>
<Got it covered. What do you need?>
Amelia scowled. Paige would change the subject away from her behavior. <We have no hits from the servers in Twain, Whitman, or Hawthorne,> she reported. <I want to modify our search.>
<I just started a task to look through the network logs, too> Paige reported. <And I've got a search going on in the printer buffers.>
<Skip that - I already looked. They're clean.>
<Hold on - I've got something on the library's server,> Paige interrupted Ms. Hartford's typing.
<One disk sector - it' a partial print job.>
A moment later, the fragment of a message was displayed on Ms. Hartford's computer. <NOT come to Arena 77. Don't be there at 2:00. Ptesanwi>
<The first sector or two of the file - including the source - have been overwritten,> Paige reported.
Amelia's fingers danced on the keyboard. <Start a deep scan on the disks, looking for the first previous generation.>
<I'll have to take the servers off-line,> Paige cautioned.
<Do it. And expand the search," Hartford typed. <Add 'sweat lodge', 'Mule', 'Kayda', 'Lifeline', and 'Pejuta'>
<The search is running,> Paige replied via the screen. <It's going to take a lot of my time, though.>
<Can you get to the data from security sensors ...> Hartford called up an image on her screen, <Bravo 14 and 15 and Echo 3?>
<The RFID sensors are out on Bravo 14 through 17. Window of the search from fourteen-hundred thirty hours to sixteen-hundred thirty hours?>
Ms. Hartford shook her head. <Start at fourteen-hundred hours. That gives margin before the crime.>
<Please let the Chief know I'm poking holes in his firewalls again, :P> Paige displayed. "He got a little upset last time.>
<Last time, you didn't have my authorization. And FYI - he's the one who asked for you on this assignment.> Satisfied that all the variations of tasks she could think of were covered, Amelia let her fingers dance again. <Now, what are you doing off-campus?>
<Blue and I are gathering intel on the State's Attorney and the MCO agent who were at school last evening. Finding some interesting stuff, too. There's a file on your computer with what we've found so-far.>
Amelia scowled - Paige was a little too good of a cyberpath, putting files on her protected hard drive at will. <Ask next time.>
<You were busy; didn't want to interrupt something important. Hang on - doing a Bernstein and Woodward.>
<Follow the money. We're going into the IRS database.>
<DO NOT DO THAT!> Amelia typed frantically. There was no response, so she typed it again, more urgently. She sat back, fuming at the girl's bravado, while at the same time, Amelia couldn't help but admire the girl's talent for thinking outside the box.
May 6, 2007 - after breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
The arm giving her a reassuring squeeze on her shoulders was a comfort to Kayda; she'd had to walk through another gauntlet of stares, glares, and whispered rumors as she, Wyatt, and Lanie walked out into the sunshine, followed a few yards behind by Thunderfox from the Wild Pack. "Was that as bad as you feared?" Wyatt asked.
Kayda nodded. "Yeah," she replied, feeling a shudder from nervousness course down her spine. "Or worse." She looked at Lanie. "How ... how can you be so ... so confident?" she stammered. "So strong?"
Lanie and Wyatt both chuckled. "You saw what Ah looked like last year," the redhead said with a wry smile. "You know how desperate Ah was to bind with Griz." A grin spread across her face. "Confident? Ah wouldn't say so."
"But ... you're ... not afraid," Kayda protested. "You don't care what people would say if ... if we were ... you know."
Lanie squeezed Kayda's shoulders again. "Ah'm comfortable with who Ah am, Sister," she said. "What others think of me doesn't change who Ah am."
Kayda shook her head. "It's ... hard," the shorter girl admitted with a gulp, "when you know people are staring and talking about you. When you aren't sure what everyone is saying."
"And that matters to you why?" Wyatt smiled. "You have to be comfortable with yourself and confident. You have to trust what your true friends think, not what random idiots and fools say or think." He glanced down, a knowing sparkle in his eye. "And it's not easy, but we know you can get there. We believe in you. You need to believe in yourself."
"Miss Nalley!" A woman's voice pierced the morning air. The trio turned as one toward the woman walking briskly in their direction. "Miss Nalley!" They stopped so Janice Talbert could catch up to them. "Admiral Everheart and I need to talk with you," she glanced uneasily at Kayda; it was obvious that the topic was Kayda's current difficulties.
"Ah presume you want to meet in the security office?" Lanie asked. When Janice nodded, Lanie clutched Wyatt's hand tightly. "Ah'll catch up with you later, baby," she said, her voice silky smooth.
Followed by Thunderfox, the three women strolled toward Kane, a little urgency in the Janice's pace. As soon as they entered Kane, Thunderfox split off from the group, turning back toward Schuster.
Admiral Everheart was waiting for them. "Kayda, can you wait out here?" Sam gestured to some chairs in the duty officer's area, while Janice led Lanie to a small conference room.
"If this concerns Kayda," Lanie fussed unhappily as she sat down at the conference table, "why is she not included?"
Janice grimaced, but Sam was ready to answer that. "Miss Nalley, what can you tell me about how the student ID cards track students?"
"It's pretty simple, and foolproof. The reader transmits a low-power challenge code. The card receives that signal, uses the signal itself to power the chip on the card, and encrypts the challenge code and transmits it back to the reader."
"So if someone understood the encryption..."
"You're asking the wrong person," the redhead stated bluntly. "Kayda knows a lot more about that weird encryption math than Ah do." She read the looks on their faces - having Kayda prove that someone could spoof it wouldn't carry much weight in the investigation.
"You don't think it's possible to spoof the encryption?" Janice asked.
"Ah wasn't finished," Lanie said. "The readers all have decryption chips to verify the response. They store the challenge and response locally, and they forward that data to security to be permanently stored."
"So if someone intercepted the signals from the readers ...." Janice asked hopefully.
"They'd get useless data bits. The data sent to the central security server is still the encrypted challenge and response codes. That provides authentication and non-repudiation - it's considered impossible to crack the encryption code."
"So if every reader has the encryption technology, wouldn't someone be able to hack one of them and then use that ...?"
Sam shook her head at the same time Lanie did. "It's public-key encryption using a pair of keys - the public one that everyone knows, and the private one that only the smart card or the reader knows. Knowing the public key isn't enough."
Sam turned to Lanie. "Miss Nalley, can you use your power to find vulnerabilities in the system?"
The redhead's face blanched, knowing that the primary evidence was the RFID system and the student IDs. That was what Mrs. Talbert and Admiral Everheart were poking at - if they could find weaknesses in the RFID system, it would undercut the case against her friend. "Um, my power ... isn't exactly workin' right now."
"What do you mean, not working?" Sam asked, eyebrows arched in concern.
"When Ah got mah spirit," Lanie explained with a pained expression, "it put pressure on the part of mah brain that works with mah power. Ah have to learn to use it again."
"So ... you can't help find weaknesses that someone could have exploited?"
"Shit!" Janice swore, letting her head tilt forward to rest her forehead in her palm, shaking her head gently. After a second or two, she looked up, frustration evident on her face. "At least you can tell us who in the labs might be able to spoof the RFID system?"
Elaine arched one eyebrow as she thought. "Well, for starters..."
Sam pushed a notebook to her. "Write them down, please. " Lanie pushed it back and shook her head.
"You're over-thinking it," she said earnestly. "KISS."
"What?" demanded the former detective as the Admiral chuckled.
"It's an acronym," Sam told her. "It means 'Keep It Simple Stupid'."
"If you're gonna try to hack security this good, complexity is the enemy," Elaine added. "You've got to keep it simple." She reached over and plucked Janice's ID from her blazer pocket and walked out the door, then stuck her head back in. "You just left. Ah have record of it and everything."
"But I saw you..." drawled Janice, her eyes lighting up.
"And if you hadn't?" she asked coyly. "And what if Ah put it back before you notice it's gone?"
"Of course!" Janice blurted aloud. "Why try to spoof the system if you can use it to your advantage by stealing an ID?"
Sam blinked as the Hive up-linked with the school's computer system and fetched the file she wanted. "Kayda said her ID wasn't where she kept it in her purse when she was detained. It's in Circe's witness statement."
"Cameras," declared Talbert. "Let's put time stamps with video and see if something doesn't sync up."
Sunday, May 6, 2007 - Morning
Confident but still worried, Blue threaded his way through cyberspace toward the realm of every mutant's worry or fear, the MCO computer systems, the vaunted keepers of who-knew- how-much personal information about each and every mutant in the country. In the cyber-domain, the MCO's system resembled nothing so much as a massive fortress, a towering firewall with everything behind shrouded in mists, a vast mysterious landscape both inviting and foreboding.
<Cool, isn't it?> Paige asked, with her voice echoing her supreme confidence.
<Intimidating is more like it,> Blue said, gulping nervously.
<Piece of cake. Now reach out to the firewall.>
<Are you sure about this?> Getting no response, Blue reached out to the menacing structure.
Arms, like mechanical robotic appendages, reached out suddenly from multiple points on the gleaming black wall, grippers on each clacking together like crab pinchers. Blue flinched, knowing that if he was caught by these robotic snares, the firewall would pin his connection enough to trace where he'd come from and learn his identity.
The claws halted, the arms falling limp, inches from Blue's avatar body. <Told you,> Paige's voice echoed in his mind.
<You could have warned me,> Blue snapped, stepping to the firewall.
<Hang on,> Paige commanded. Blue felt some strange energy reaching out of his avatar toward the monolith. <Adding an exception to the firewall so it'll recognize this encryption stream as part of normal traffic. Otherwise we'd be cut off when you go through.>
<I see what looks like the personnel database,> Blue reported almost immediately.
<Damn! The disks are encrypted!> Paige swore. <These guys aren't stupid, are they?>
Blue looked around. <Hey, there's someone poking around what looks to be a case file database.> He grinned. <Are you thinking what I'm thinking?>
<Hijack his credentials and see what it gets us? Yeah, that's what I was thinking, too.>
Guided by Paige, Blue tiptoed over to the connection that glowed with use. He followed the line back to a computer - where it was physically was irrelevant in the cyber-domain - and carefully, using some of Paige's tools, wiggled into the computer's operating system. A few nanoseconds later, he re-emerged, holding a piece of data. <Got his session key - and I think we've got his master key, too.>
<Ms. Hartford will love that piece of data. She's been trying to get into their encrypted database for ... well, for quite a while.>
Blue tried something. <It bounced from the personnel file system. Guess he's not authorized.>
<It'll work on the case files. Let's go looking for Mr. Jack Dougan,> Paige said with the glee of someone on a hunt.
As the database queries ran, Blue frowned. <That's odd.>
<Our man doesn't seem to have filed any cases in his career.> Blue thought a second. <Let me try expanding the search and see if he's been part of investigating teams.>
<Concentrate on Los Angeles division.>
Blue scowled. <Well, duh!> He started a new set of queries in the database. Around him, he could feel Paige poking and peeking into adjacent servers and machines. <What are you doing?> Blue asked, concerned.
<Seeing if I can find anything useful and unencrypted. And leaving a few probes around to catch keystrokes and user keys.>
Blue frowned. <They've got some real deep-scanning anti-malware tools here - it looks like they have checksums of ever executable file! How are you going to keep them from eradicating your probes?>
Paige's grin was audible again. <Simple. I slipped the probe into the anti-malware and then placed a copy in one of the core OS files. And no, they won't notice the checksum or file size - the file is the same size, and I fiddled with some of the oddball, never-used cursors to get the checksum to come out the same.>
<Simple. Distributed algorithm, like they use for SETI. I actually used the SETI swarm and sent permutations of the file manipulations to a few million idle computers to compute checksums. Then it was just finding the one that matched the old code.>
Blue grinned. <I'm glad I'm not on your enemies list!> He looked at the search. <I've got everything the case-file server has on Dougan. What now?>
<I'm already sending it back to Ms. Hartford.> Paige chuckled electronically. <Now, let's go to Disneyland!>
<Just kidding. Let's go pay a visit to the LA MCO office. Maybe they're sloppier with their security.>
Getting to the LA office was even easier - they just followed a secure tunnel from inside the main MCO facility - and because it came from MCO-Main, the LA computer systems assumed it was safe and trusted.
<Shit!> Blue cussed after testing the access controls on the main file servers. <They're encrypted, too!>
Paige had been poking around at a few computers while Blue was busy. <Maybe,> she answered, <but their department manager really needs to retake security training. His master crypto key was just lying around in resident memory in his computer.>
<Jackpot!> Blue declared gleefully.
<You see what you can find.>
<What are you going to do?>
<As long as they're vulnerable, I'm going to set up an exfiltration job to vacuum every bit of data out of these servers. Maybe Ms. H will give me an A in hacking this term!>
The nanoseconds ticked by agonizingly slowly for Blue as the searches progressed. Finally, he saw some results. <Aha! We've got our man!>
<He's been running second-fiddle to all the major bads that the DPA scooped up.>
<Do you suppose someone was hiding him? Letting the other bad apples be exposed in case something went down?>
Blue nodded, a grim expression on his face. <Yeah. Or he was hiding himself. It's classic misdirection - obscure your real attackers behind pieces you don't mind sacrificing and hope your foe isn't paying attention.>
<If they did it with him, chances are there are still a lot of bad apples that the DPA didn't catch, but are still hidden.>
<Yeah, that's ... Hey! isn't Pejuta from South Dakota?> Blue suddenly asked.
There was a brief pause before Paige came back. <Yeah. Her student record shows some problems with the MCO office in Sioux Falls.>
<You're snooping in student files?> Blue asked, incredulous.
An electronic chuckle sounded from Paige. <I could, but this time I just asked Ms. Hartford. Why?>
<I thought I remembered that. Well, take a look at this - Dougan's best friend at West Point also left the service when he did, and then the two of them went through the FBI academy together, and then both of them transferred to the MCO - at the same time.>
<Not a coincidence,> Paige observed.
<Worse - both of them were FBI liaison officers to Humanity First - that was back when the FBI was trying to calm them down, remember? >
<Okay, so they're both pretty dirty. What's the tie to Pejuta?>
<Dougan's friend Norm Sallas was one of two agents in Sioux Falls who were arrested - just like the MCO offices in Berlin and LA - and the Deadly Force Pre-Authorized tag they put in Pejuta's file was evidence used against them.>
<Dougan's friend ...was taken down because of her?>
Blue nodded. <Apparently.>
<That explains a few things. Okay, let's tidy up here. Then we need to pay a visit to the Sioux Falls computers and see if there's anything interesting we can find there.>
May 6th, 2007 - Mid-Morning
Camera Surveillance Review Room, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
The monitor review room looked like something you'd see back in the days of live TV, dozens of monitors on the wall with a small bank of controls to command them. The Hive interfaced with the computer system, calling up cameras and footage at specific date and time stamps. To a normal human it would have been impossible to take everything in all at once. Fortunately Sam Everheart was nothing close to normal.
She sat back like a director might have in those live TV days, concentrating only a couple of high interest monitors as the Hive began to sort through miles of footage as fast the computers could feed it to her. It was only a matter of time now.
May 6th, 2007 - Late-Morning
Interview Room 2, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
Kayda sat somewhat skittishly in the chair Detective Talbert indicated. She stole a glance at Elaine who was now seated at the far wall, fiddling with her phone, but the redhead looked up and smiled at her. "Are you thirsty?" asked Janice as she closed the door.
"I...I'm fine," Kayda replied.
"So, first the good news," the blonde said as she sat down and took out her note pad. "We have a good lead on how we think the RFID system was spoofed. Admiral Everheart is running that down now. However, it would help if we had some additional collaboration."
"Sure," Kayda said. "I'll help however I can..."
"That's good," Janice told her as she got the page of her notes up. "So, at the time of the murder, you told me you had received a note to meet your team at the sweat lodge?"
"Yes," the Lakota girl affirmed. "I found it when I saw Debra off, in the parking lot of the guest cottage. I...I thought she had snuck it into my purse, but it was from Mule."
"And you went straight to the lodge?" Kayda nodded. "You didn't call anyone or make any detours?"
"No, I went there directly, uh, by the front of the guest cottage, then the connecting path between it and Dickinson Cottage, then up to Holbrook and around behind it."
"There was no one in the lodge when you arrived?"
"No, but I figured I'd just gotten there early."
"Who arrived after you?"
Kayda blinked and stuttered, "No...no one..."
Janice sighed and put down her notes. "Kayda, I was a police detective for a long time, did you know that?" The girl nodded uncomfortably. "So I have a pretty good idea when someone is lying to me, so I know that someone arrived after you got to the lodge."
"No!" she declared firmly. "I...I was there alone!"
"Stop. Lying. To. Me," growled Janice in a completely new tone. "I can't help you if you won't tell me who was with you!" Kayda looked away and sat silently, almost peevishly, mule-stubborn. Janice stood and came around the table and sat on it, gently forcing the young girl to look up at her. "Let me tell you what's going to happen. The States Attorney has an excellent circumstantial case that you murdered Heyoka."
"What you say doesn't amount to a hill of beans!" snapped the detective. "According to rumors all over the campus, you had a motive to kill Heyoka. The RFID system that a busload of experts can testify is unbreakable put you at the scene of the crime, at the time of the crime - that's opportunity! The boy was killed by a large animal, just like one you can manifest and by a tomahawk blow to the head, your favored weapon! I personally have put people in prison for life on less evidence than that!"
Kayda's eyes went wide and white. "But..."
"But what?" Janice demanded. "But you're innocent? So what? You think that matters to that lawyer? Convicting you is a win on his record! A record he'll parlay into being District Attorney at some point, then perhaps a judgeship or maybe he aspirations of going to the State legislature or Congress! He doesn't give a damn about the guilt or innocence of Kayda Franks, only what he can prove in a court of law! And while you think about that, chew on this - New Hampshire has executed six people since 1939 and do you know what they all have in common? They were all executed within the last ten years and every one was a mutant!"
Kayda's skin blanched and she went pale. "I...I can't! If...if I betray them, they will be badly hurt! It will ruin her life and I can't be responsible for..."
"How ruined will your parents' lives be if their daughter is convicted as a murderer and executed?" the detective demanded softly. "This man has enough evidence to get a Capital Murder charge to stick against you. And don't think that a jury or your gender will buy you any sympathy! Do you want to die?"
A tear ran down her cheek. "N..no..."
Janice leaned in. "Then tell me who was with you!" Kayda's eyes subconsciously flicked over to Elaine, but the Detective was focused on her subject with laser like intensity. "Of course!" she exclaimed. Having caught the guilty glance, she turned on the redhead sitting against the wall. "She's being stubborn! What's your excuse?"
"Sorcerer’s Contract," Elaine told her bitterly. "Making promises to a mage sucks."
Janice sighed as she stood and went back to her side of the desk. "It's a start," she said, picking up her note book. "At least now we have one person who corroborates your alibi. Not much, but a start. So, what were you two doing out there?"
"Lanie...!" whined Kayda, but the taller girl shook her head.
"Ah'm sorry, Kayda, Ah won't let them put a needle in your arm just because it's embarrassing, and she already figured out I was there with you." She stood up and looked the detective in the eye. "We were having sex."
Janice blinked. "I...I see. And...and you're both of age?"
"Ah turned seventeen March tenth."
"Ah just had my sixteenth birthday in April," Kayda whispered, her skin bright red and her eyes down cast. "The twenty-sixth."
The Detective shook her head. "I'm not judging you, I...I got started early myself, so..." She sighed and raised an eyebrow. "Just the two of you? No one else can confirm...?"
Lanie reached into her pocket and pulled out an SD card. "Ah can prove what we were doing, but you technically can't see this without committing a crime."
Janice rocked back as if struck. "You...you videotaped yourselves? You're pornographers?"
"No!" protested Kayda, her skin as red as Elaine's hair.
"We were set up," Elaine told her. "Ah got a note..."
"You got a note too?"
"Yes, here," she replied, pulling out her purse and handing her the folded slip of paper. Was put under the door of my private lab. I noticed it right before Tansy came by to see me." Janice's pen started scratching notes on the paper.
"When was that?"
"Uh, about one-thirty Ah think. After lunch anyway." Lanie's eyes widened. "Wait a sec! Something isn't right with the note."
"What isn't right that you didn't notice before?"
"Ah was distracted in mah lab," Lanie replied. "And Ah didn't notice, but the note - it's addressed to Elaine."
"But that's your name."
Kayda shook her head, suddenly realizing what the redhead was driving at. "If I'd have written a note," she said firmly, "I would have addressed it to 'Lanie'."
"That's mah nickname that Ah prefer," Lanie explained. "Ah don't know why Ah didn't think of that sooner!"
The detective produced an evidence bag and put the paper in it with a pair of tweezers. "Excellent. So this just says Kayda needs help, but if she left it, why not knock? Interesting, you went to the lodge and...?"
"Well, Ah didn't go to have sex," Lanie replied somewhat indignantly. "Ah thought Kayda was trying to smooth things over with me and Maggie Finson." Lanie shoved her hands into her pockets at the implied question and looked away. "Mah new bear form, Ah don't have a whole lot of control over, Ah woke up in it and..."
"This I heard about," Talbert admitted with a raised eyebrow. "Maggie is holding a grudge?"
"No, she's afraid of GSD ragers and Ah guess Ah reminded her," Elaine replied. "Anyways, Ah thought Kayda was trying to play peacemaker. Cept, when Ah got there she...well, she had been exposed to a very powerful aphrodisiac, which Ah was also exposed to. The results are here."
"How did you get that if you didn't record it?"
"Someone delivered a copy to Cody, trying to trigger a fight between us and accuse me of cheating on him," Elaine replied. "Or try to trick him into going rager on Kayda."
"I wondered what those marks were," Janice muttered. At the two girls' glances she elaborated, "We found marks that three small unknown devices had been strapped to the upright timbers of the Lodge. Doubtlessly the cameras that took this footage."
The door opened and Admiral Everheart entered, a smile on her face. "We may have a new person of interest in this investigation."
One of Janice's eyebrows arched. "Oh?"
Sam looked at Kayda. "Do you recall being bumped or jostled at lunch?"
"Uh," Kayda was thinking, trying to recall the facts of Saturday lunch with her sleep-deprived and emotionally-unsettled mind, "I ... I don't remember," she admitted when nothing came to mind.
"We don't have a face shot, but someone came by your table and it appears, as near as I can tell from the security tape, that person did something with your purse," Sam explained.
"Her ID card?" Janice caught on to Sam's line of thought immediately.
"Exactly," Sam said.
"It's not a lot, but it's something. I have some exculpatory evidence myself," Janice replied. "Mrs. Carson?"
"Not yet. She has to stay neutral, so we have to have all the data ready, and I have a few loose ends to tie up. I'll summon the others. Let's have a conversation with Mrs. Shugendo."
May 6, 2007 - Lunchtime
Cyberspace, Whateley Academy
<Yes, Ms. Hartford?> Paige asked in the blue and silver realm of the cyber-world, and artificial and yet somehow comforting world to her.
<I go more information from Mrs. Talbert of the investigating team,> came the reply from Ms. Hartford's computer. <I need you to broaden your search.>
<That'll mean starting some scans over,> Paige replied. <The first-level deleted file scans are about halfway done, and I don't want to restart them. It's taking most my time and toolkits.> She shook her head, an action not seen by Ms. Hartford, who wasn't directly in Whateley's corner of cyberspace. <The hardware isn't really made for this type of job.>
There was a long pause - which seemed an eternity to Paige. <Look at the other servers first while the Beck job finished.>
<What do I need to add?>
<Loophole, Nalley, Elaine,> Ms. Hartford replied, causing Paige's eyebrows to rise. <There may be a note to Loophole asking her to meet Kayda at the sweat lodge.>
<Okay.> Paige turned a bit of her attention away from the Beck Library print server, toward the servers in the other buildings, reaching into the thin air and creating a small glowing cube out of nothing, a portal hanging about shoulder-high which gave her access into her private file systems elsewhere in the artificial techno-world. <The fragment we saw traced to a job submitted through the Emerson router's IP address space,> Paige reported to Ms. Hartford. <According to the router log, it looks like it was printed at 12:13 pm yesterday.>
<Interesting. Anything else odd about the jobs?>
Paige knew she had piqued Ms. Hartford's curiosity. <Before I took it offline, I noticed that the Beck server printed three jobs that were submitted within two minutes.>
<And there was very little other traffic Saturday early afternoon.>
<Mrs. Talbert will be very interested to note that there are three jobs.> Ms. Harford speculated. <Anything ...?>
<Hold on!> Paige interrupted. <The router packet-header log shows three jobs from somewhere in Emerson, all destined for the Beck Library print server, all printed within a one-minute, forty second time span.>
<That can't be a coincidence,> Ms. Hartford noted. Her deep frown wasn't visible, but Paige knew it was there.
<Hang on - we got a bit of luck!> Paige declared. <The router captured and logged one of the jobs.> She fiddled a tiny bit with a file in cyberspace, pulling a glowing packet
<Elaine, I need your help at the sweat lodge as soon as you can come. Kayda.> Ms. Hartford read on her screen. <Good work, but this makes the mystery even deeper.>
<Isn't that what Mrs. Talbert asked about? Didn't she tell you why?>
<Yes, and she didn't tell me. And I'm very curious.> Ms. Hartford replied. <When ...>
<This job printed at 12:14 pm.>
May 6, 2007 - Lunchtime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Tweak frowned to herself as she eased down into a chair beside Cueball - he didn't even look up from his computer, let alone acknowledge her presence. At least, she consoled herself, he wasn't spending all his time gawking at or chatting with other girls, even though Heartbreaker did frequently dine with them. Today, she wasn't with the Masterminds or the wannabe Masterminds, so there wasn't really any competition for Cueball's attention.
"Morning," Tweak said casually to Cueball.
The boy looked up from his laptop, attracted by her tone of voice. He arched an eyebrow as he saw the self-satisfied smile on her face. "What's got you looking so ... smug?"
Tweak fought to keep a silly grin off her face as she shrugged, trying desperately to look nonchalant - and failing at it. "Been working on a project in my lab," she explained.
"Yeah, I heard." He was getting more and more curious at her diffident answers. "And?"
"I ... found something rather ... interesting," she couldn't contain herself any longer. "Very, very interesting. It's ... got huge potential!"
"Oh?" Cueball glanced around - one could never tell when the wrong ears might be listening. "What kind of potential?"
Tweak glanced around, and then hunched closer to Cueball. "Handled one way, it could cause a certain ... high-profile individual enough fear of exposure that they might be inclined to do some favors," she said in a hushed voice. "Another - it could get that person expelled. Yet a third way could humiliate them and destroy their reputation and credibility. A fourth way could incite certain ... highly opinionated people to act rashly and take, shall we say, extreme ... permanent ... measures."
"That sounds ... interesting," Cueball said, studying her posture and expression thoroughly. "And the risk of having this information is ...?"
"A certain ... friend ... of the individual might become rather irate," Tweak continued with her euphemisms, not wanting to say anything that might be overheard. "Of course, that would depend on how the information was dealt with, now wouldn't it."
"And ... what might it take for me to get access to this information?" Cueball asked, his face carefully schooled to betray no emotion.
"You know how valuable information can be," the girl stated the obvious, "especially in certain ... enterprises. And even more-so is someone who knows how to get that information from hidden sources."
"So what will it take?" Cueball repeated, expressionless.
Tweak was fighting frustration - her interest in this boy was almost overpowering and his careful neutrality was even more maddening. "There's a movie coming to Dunwich that I really, really want to see," she purred, trying her best to sound sexy and seductive, since the 'spymaster' approach didn't seem to be working. "And I so hate to go to a movie alone."
"A date?" His eyebrows arched again. "You want me to ask you on a date - in exchange for the information you have?"
"Actually," Tweak admitted shyly, blushing a little bit as she looked down to her plate, "a date would be a ... bonus." She shook off her mild embarrassment - after all, she told herself, fortune favors the bold. "Actually, I'm really interested in joining an organization that might help me make best use of my talents and abilities, and make contacts for after we graduate." She looked back at Cueball evenly. "An organization that looks more to success than to ... following outdated rules and bureaucratic regulations."
His eyes narrowed to slits. "And what if the information is ... less than worthwhile?"
"It'll cost you a date to find out," Tweak said, smiling boldly. "And would that be such a huge sacrifice?"
Cueball studied her expression for a little bit. "Deal," he said finally.
Having observed the little flirtatious dance between Cueball and Tweak with amusement, Heartbreaker, left her table and took a seat on the other side of the boy, much to Tweak's ill-disguised annoyance. She decided to change the subject. "Have you heard the latest about Pejuta?"
"Yeah," Cueball said nodding. "I don't know ...." He shook his head. "Something doesn't seem right."
"According to word around security," Heartbreaker reported, "she had motive - hell, everyone knows how she and Heyoka were feuding."
Tweak shook her head. "That's all rumor." She snorted derisively. "Give me an hour, and I could have rumors all over campus that ..." she looked around the dining hall, and her gaze settled on a trio of boys, "that those three are flaming homosexual lovers, and that their outspoken bigotry is a cover."
"Yeah, right!" the other girl replied, not believing her.
"No, she's got a point," Cueball observed. "Rumors are all circumstantial, and besides, nothing travels around campus faster than a rumor with a hint of scandal."
"And her ID shows up at the scene of the crime at the time of the crime," Heartbreaker continued.
Tweak winced. "That pretty solid evidence," she admitted. "But ... I still don't buy it."
"Oh?" Heartbreaker's comment was a bit snarky. "What would it take to convince you that she did it?"
"If she didn't have an alibi," Tweak said, a knowing smile on her face.
"What?" Heartbreaker and Cueball said at the same time, seeing her shit-eating grin.
"The file I was talking about. It has some really ... interesting things," Tweak said suggestively.
"Do I have to wait for the date to see...?" the boy asked, curiosity burning in him like an inferno. From her comments, he knew that she had something good, or she would have been able to keep a straight face and not look like the cat that ate the canary.
"No, your word is good, isn't it?" Tweak glanced around, and then handed a memory card to Cueball. "Take a quick look at the still image here," she said, her grin of triumph unmistakable.
Cueball and Heartbreaker also glanced around, and then he put the memory card in a slot. A few mouse clicks later, an image appeared on the screen, which was obscured from other students by the trio huddled closely around it.
"Is that ...?" Cueball tried to ask, his jaw dropping nearly to the floor.
"Ho. Lee. Fuck!" Heartbreaker mouthed softly.
After staring another couple of seconds, Cueball closed the file. "Is that genuine?" he asked, almost in a state of shock.
"It was muxed onto security camera data," Tweak said softly, smiling. "I don't think a security camera took this, it wasn't encoded. But it could be someone caught onto their little fling and decided to get some blackmail video. This might explain the lack of an alibi," she added.
"This is a ... goldmine!" Heartbreaker said slowly.
None of the trio noticed a small spider robot hanging precariously from the underneath the support structure of a second-floor dais, it's eye-like cameras pointed down toward them. At the other end of a wireless link, a mouth hung agape. "I have got to print this out for Cody," the gadgeteer girl said softly. "He's gonna kill Cueball!" Rez grinned. "And I've finally got the goods on one of the Masterminds!"
May 6th, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"I hate to interrupt your lunch," Sam said, sticking her head into the temporary office Janice was using and seeing her partner chewing on a half a vending-machine sandwich.
Janice shook her head and quickly washed down the bite in her mouth with a large gulp of devisor coffee, which made her wince. "If I get addicted to that stuff, we're going to have words," she grumbled. "What have you got?"
"We got an analysis of the browned paper - enough that we can read the words." Sam reported. "And interestingly enough, it matches word-for-word with the file Ms. Hartford's team found on the print server. The font and spacing in the print job reproduce exactly to what's on the paper."
"What does it say?" Janice let the sandwich fragment in her hand fall to the desktop.
Sam recited the words from the computer file, which the hive was reading.
"Kayda, the team wants to get together about 1:30 to talk about tomorrow's simulation. We need to do some planning and also think about thing that might go wrong and how to deal with them. We'll meet at the sweat lodge; Lupine thinks a purification ritual couldn't hurt our chances against Gunny and Admiral Everheart.
Janice nodded, smiling a tiny bit. "This and the note for Elaine Nalley corroborate their ... alibi."
"There's an alibi?" Sam arched her eyebrows, curious.
"And it's a problem," Janice said. "Because someone was apparently attempting to blackmail or humiliate Elaine and Kayda, so their ... interactions were recorded."
"Interactions?" Sam nodded as the meaning sank in. "They were ..."
Janice nodded, wincing. "... having sex, yes."
"Kayda is afraid of being outed, and in her present emotional state, she's not thinking clearly; she's even more worried about Miss Nalley being outed."
"I can understand that, given the bigotry we have around here." Sam puzzled a moment. "Do we have two different parties at work here - one that killed Heyoka, and a second who's opportunistically trying to blackmail them?"
"I considered that. It's possible, but it's more likely that we have one party who's not nearly as clever as he thinks he is." Janice sighed. "But what we've got so far isn't enough to hold up to legal analysis. According to Miss Nalley, there are no time marks on the recording, so it's still possible that Kayda killed Heyoka, then met up with Miss Nalley for the ... events that were recorded." She shook her head. "It's an alibi, but it's a weak one."
May 6, 2007, afternoon
Dickinson Cottage, Whateley Academy
"There's nothing good to watch on Sunday afternoons," Carlie complained, sprawled in a chair in the third floor Dickinson TV room.
Kandy looked through a newspaper. "What do you mean, nothing on? Titanic is on channel 4."
"Oooohh," Tangent cooed, "Leonardo DiCaprio!'
"Bleh," Cytheria scoffed. "He's ... incredibly average."
"Compared to the guys around here," Heartbreaker chuckled, "yeah. But for a baseline..."
"You guys want a good romance movie? An Affair to Remember," Tangent chimed in her opinion. "Too bad that's not on."
"Casablanca," Flicker and Lemure opined at the same time.
"I don't know," Kandy said hesitantly, afraid she'd get ridiculed. "I like The Princess Bride."
"What's your favorite, Tansy?" Duplex tried to get something from the increasingly reticent and reflective former bitch-queen.
"I don't know," Tansy said hesitantly. "Pretty Woman, maybe."
"That figures," Flicker sniped, her snarky tone unmistakable.
Tansy's spine stiffened. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, nothing," Flicker said in a syrupy, sweet voice, pretending she hadn't meant anything by the comment, when in fact she had - a nasty reference to Tansy's habit of screwing guys to get into their minds so she could get control.
"What about you, Teresa?" Cytheria changed the subject away from the increasingly bitter sniping between Tansy and her former lackey Flicker. "You haven't said anything."
Duplex shrugged "I ... it’s a little different," she hedged. "I really like Show me Lover."
"Never heard of it."
"It's a Swedish film," Duplex said cautiously. "It's an ... alternative ... love story."
Tansy's eyes widened. "Alternative - as in lesbian?" she asked in horror.
Heartbreaker snorted derisively. "You want a lesbian movie, go ask Cueball to see the little film clip he got at lunch."
"A couple of girls caught on video doing the nasty," Heartbreaker chuckled.
Tansy got a sinking feeling inside, based on her mental touch with Kayda and a general feeling from Lanie. "What kind of nasty gossip are you yakking about now?" she said sternly to try to quell the rumors.
"Oh, it's not gossip," Heartbreaker chortled. "Kayda and Loophole - going at it like there was no tomorrow - captured on video."
"Yeah, well, that's not surprising. Loophole spent most of last year in Songbird's little love nest." Cytheria couldn't help but sound more than a bit judgmental. "It was no secret which side of the street she walked last year."
"Wait - isn't she busy riding Cody's baloney pony?" Washout asked, frowning. "Unless he's got it set up that he's doing both of them?"
"Oooohhhh!" a couple of girls cooed.
Heartbreaker shook her head, smiling wickedly. "No sign of Cody in the video," she said. "It was all girl-on-girl."
"Yuuuuccckk!" Tangent squirmed uncomfortably, but then a slow, devious smile crept across her features. "Hey, maybe if those two are busy with each other, I could get Cody's attention!"
"Fat chance of that!" Duplex said with a knowing leer. "The two of them are probably more than he can handle, and they have to turn to each other ... to stay satisfied."
"Excuse me," Tansy said, faking a yawn to cover her need to leave based on the topic of discussion - and the gossip. It was almost physically nauseating to hear such cattiness. Wyatt and Elaine had been good to her, offering her protection and help as she sought to reform herself. And Kayda? Well, she didn't know what to think of the Native American girl, except that she seemed innocent and shy and very, very badly wounded emotionally. "Anyone else want to walk over to Melville, to Call Me Coffee?"
"Nah," Duplex declined, echoed quickly by the other girls.
Tansy waited until she was outside the cottage before she took out her cell phone. She dialed a number from memory, then winced as she waited for the other party to pick up. "Please be there!" she whispered urgently. "Please ...." The phone picked up. "Wyatt? It's me, Tansy. Hey, are you busy right now?"
"No, just putting some polish on a term paper for Dr. Zinn. If you can save me from Gilgamesh I'm all ears."
"How about you meet me in the coffee shop in Melville? I just left my cottage, and there are some rumors going around that you probably want to hear about."
May 6th, 2007 - Afternoon
Arena 99 Simulator Briefing Room, Whateley Academy
"I'm sorry, Kayda, but you know the rules." For the first time in the Lakota girl's experience, Gunny Bardue sounded sympathetic. "You can't use the simulators while you're on in-house detention or supervision."
"Aw, c'mon, Gunny," Lupine pleaded on Kayda's behalf. "She's worked so hard to set this up and get it scheduled! Can't you just, you know, look the other way?"
"Her presence in the sim suite - or any arena or other combat area - will be logged based on her ID," Gunny countered, shaking his head. "It's set to alarm in security when a student is so restricted. No."
Kayda, looking down, nodded slowly. "I ... understand," she said in a heavy voice. "It ... it was just ... I was hoping for a little ... fun ... to break up all this stuff."
Stormwolf exchanged a glance with Mule, and then glanced around the rest of the group before looking back at Kayda. "We'll reschedule this for later."
Kayda looked up sharply at the group. "No," she said softly but firmly, her lip trembling at the emotional effort of her thoughts. "It's not my group, it's yours, So you guys go ahead and have fun."
"Are you sure?" Flux and Pristine asked at the same time, looking a little guilty that they'd get to have fun doing the simulation that Kayda had been so looking forward to, while she couldn't.
The girl nodded to reassure them, but even the most insensitive one in the group could see the hurt in Kayda's eyes.
"Go to your sim chairs," Gunny ordered gruffly, breaking up group's emotional mood. "We've got a sim schedule to keep, you know."
Mule nodded. "Team, to the simulators." He turned to file out of the briefing room toward the individual sim suites, pausing in the door to look at Kayda. There was something positive and hopeful in his expression and his hand clasped the girl's shoulder. Startled, she turned, and then looked up at Stormwolf. "I know you didn't do it, Kayda," he said softly. "You're not that kind of a person. I know this is all a big Charlie Foxtrot, and it'll be sorted out soon enough." He smiled. "Keep your chin up." With that, he turned and, as the last member of the team to leave the room, ambled through the door and down the corridor to the sim suites.
"I'm sorry, Kayda," Gunny repeated. "And you really need to leave the sim area. It's bending the rules for you to be even in the briefing room."
Kayda nodded. "I know," she said without feeling before walking out the other door, the one leading to the tunnels and eventually back to her little island of exile, her own Elba in Poe.
"I didn't think it'd work," Lanie said, not taking any delight in saying 'I told you so.'
"I .. I had to try," Kayda replied.
Lanie wrapped her arms around the shorter girl and gave her a hug. "I know, sister," she said softly, so softly that Mindbird, a few feet away to provide the required second escort, didn't hear.
"I ... I need ... I need something normal." Her words didn't sound whiny, or tearful, but a few drops of moisture from her misty eyes left spots on Lanie's shoulder. It had been less than a day without the her core of essence seeming to warm her within, without her spirits talking to her, without the ability to dream-walk - and Kayda understood now only too well how losing a spirit or one's essence could dishearten someone so thoroughly that they'd do something rash after a period of time trying to live like that.
Lanie released Kayda from the embrace and the trio - with Lanie and Dale flanking Kayda, began a long, slow walk through the tunnels - a pace that was almost funereal. Occasionally, they'd pass another student - a devisor or gadgeteer scurrying through the maze of tunnels between labs, or a student going to or returning from a simulation, or someone from the outer cottages
"Was ... Maggie there?" Lanie asked quietly.
Kayda had known the question would come up. "Yes," she replied softly. "She was." From the corner of her eye, she saw her friend tense up. "She ... I think she knew you were around to escort me; hell, everyone knows that by now."
"Or they're speculating that my being around you is for other reasons," Lanie sighed.
"She didn't say anything, and I didn't either." Kayda didn't need to see the look on Lanie's face to understand the distress in her friend. Instinctively, she wrapped an arm around Lanie's waist and pulled her close, her other arm resting gently on Lanie's. "I'm ... I'm sorry. I should have realized that she might be at the sim and not dragged you down here."
"It's okay," Lanie said, trying not to show the hurt she felt. "What were you planning to do if Gunny let you participate? You know I'd have to be with you."
"Eep," Kayda winced. "I didn't think of that." She glanced at her friend. "Maybe I'd have had to sit in your lap?"
"Oh?" Lanie asked, wiggling her eyebrows. "Let's go back. I'm sure I can find something in the rulebook that would let your participate!"
"You're bad," Kayda chuckled, slapping Lanie's arm playfully.
A couple of guys passing them glared at the two girls, Kayda's arm still around the redhead's waist. "Fucking muff-divers!" one snorted angrily, deliberately loud enough that the girls could hear. "Keep your filthy displays out of public view!"
Kayda flinched, feeling her cheeks burn, and she dropped her arm from around Lanie.
"Keep your head up, Sister," Lanie said softly to Kayda. She turned toward the offending uncouth boys, but Mindbird saw the potential conflict brewing.
"This is official security business," she warned the two in a commanding voice. "Clear the area immediately."
Muttering loudly, all of which were disparaging, insulting, or outright hateful comments about lesbians intended for Lanie and Kayda to hear, the two boys moved away, hastening their pace to get clear of the security auxiliary.
Lanie reached over and lifted Kayda's chin. "Hold your head high, Sister. If you believe in yourself and are comfortable with yourself, you have nothing to be ashamed of."
Kayda nodded uncertainly. "I know," she said. "But ... it's hard." She trembled uneasily. "And ... without ...."
"I know, Sister," Lanie tried to reassure her. "I know."
May 6th, 2007, afternoon
Devisor Tunnels, Whateley Academy
Cueball didn't make a habit of wandering through the tunnels, but Tweak had invited him to look at something she'd figured out, promising that it was even more important than the video clip she'd given him. He lost himself in thought as he strode down the main 'avenue' of the tunnel complex, what the tunnel rats called 'Broadway', thinking about Tweak. She was a little too obvious in her desire to join the Masterminds, and she was way too obvious in her 'hints' that she wanted to go out with him. Was she playing the romantic angle to use him to join? Or was she wanting to join as a way to gain his interest?
Damn girls, he thought as he rounded a corner toward her lab. So confusing, so illogical at times. Their machinations make counter-espionage seem like a kiddie's game.
On the other hand, she was attractive and intelligent, not some ditzy blonde airhead. She was highly rated as an electronics gadgeteer. He could easily see the utility of such skills when he graduated and went pro. And she was attractive; yet the two of them could easily pass as baselines, unlike many of the exemplars with their over-the-top glamor and good looks. Disarmingly sweet and innocent and attractive and so obviously not a mutant - until it was too late and the caper was done.
Damn, but his rational, logical thinking was being swept away. And he was way too distracted thinking of the girl whose presence had wormed its way into his brain. He barely noticed others, until a very distinctive, loud, angry voice called out, "Cueball!"
Cueball stopped and looked around, puzzled, just in time for his shirt to be grabbed in two massive fists as he was hoisted up and slammed into one of the tunnel walls. "Oh, hey Cody!"
"Where is it?" Kody demanded, his angry, snarling face mere inches from Cueball.
"Where is what, Cody?" Cueball asked even as he knew what the big, beefy senior wanted.
"A friend told me that you were showing off a video clip at lunch today," Kody snarled. "A video clip that shows my girlfriend in a very ... unflattering light. So where is it?" he demanded again.
Cueball fought to control his bodily functions; Wyatt Cody enraged was a truly terrifying spectacle. "Um," he stammered, "I ... it's on my computer."
"How did you get it?" Wyatt demanded. "Who gave it to you? Amber?"
"N ... n ... no," the smaller boy said, shivering in fright. "I ... I got it ... from ... from Tweak! She gave it to me ... at lunch!"
"Who else saw it?" the senior demanded as he lowered a rattled Cueball to his feet.
"Um, nobody, I don't think," he answered nervously. Everyone had heard the story of Wyatt Cody and Wildman, and everyone was suitably scared of an enraged Cody. Suddenly spurred to honesty, he added, "Heart...Heartbreaker! She was there, she saw it too!"
The senior's face clouded over as he got even angrier. "You claim to be a spy and you let one of the biggest gossips on this campus see...?"
"I didn't know what Tweak was going to show me!" the other boy stammered. "Honest!"
Cody grasped Cueball by the arm, his big beefy hand encircling the upper arm of the smaller boy and squeezing painfully tightly. "Let's go talk to Tweak then, and between you, you can tell me how you got this video, since now I know which one of you has been telling everyone about my girlfriend and Kayda!"
"Honest, Wyatt, I haven't told anyone!" Cueball simpered. Half carried, his feet only occasionally touching the ground, he had no choice but to be dragged by the big senior to Tweak's lab.
Tweak heard a knock on the door and looked up from her computer, surprised. She was expecting Cueball - she'd given him the one-time-use code for her door lock - so a knock had to be someone she wasn't expecting. A couple of keystrokes on her computer and the hidden camera near the lab door sent an image to her computer.
Tweak gasped. She expected Cueball; she did not expect to see him held - painfully so, judging from the expression on his face - by Wyatt Cody. And Cody did not look happy at all. She did what most people in her position would do - she froze.
"Linda? Open the door please," Cody said gruffly, his voice booming through the heavy reinforced door.
Tweak thought - quickly. Elaine Nalley - one of the two in the video clip - was Wyatt's girlfriend. Had he found out about the video? If so, she gulped at the thought, he would be very, very upset, and possibly rager-angry? She had to get rid of the evidence - and quickly. She started fumbling with the keyboard frantically, her shaking hands interfering with her intended actions.
"Linda, open the door before I have to tear it open," the senior said, his voice threatening. "You know I can do it if I have to."
Tweak hesitated, knowing that Wyatt Cody could and would rip her door open. Then what? Would he tear apart her lab looking for the security files? Or was he, as some claimed, such a gentleman that he wouldn't hurt her? It quickly dawned on her that trusting him to be merciful was her best - really her only - option.
"Just a sec," she called out, her voice cracking. With trembling hands, she undid the deadbolt and released the electronic locks, tugging the door open.
Wyatt Cody was an impressive specimen when viewed from across the quad or in the cafeteria. From a distance of three feet, holding her would-be boyfriend like a rag doll and completely filling the door frame, he was beyond impressive; he was downright terrifying, especially with his very unhappy scowl. Tweak retreated a couple of steps without even realizing she'd done so.
Wyatt set Cueball on the ground, releasing his vice-like grip on the smaller boy's arm; Cueball automatically began to rub his upper arm where Cody's mitts had painfully encircled the limb. "Sit down, please," he suggested to the two as he shut and bolted the door.
Eyeballs bulging in fear, Cueball stumbled backward, pulling a lab stool from beneath the bench and plopping nervously onto it. Tweak, likewise, sat down at the bench.
Cody noticed her nervous glance upward. "I fully expect that you're recording what happens in your lab," he said bluntly. "And I want you to know that I'm not planning on doing anything violent. I just want to know where you got that video clip and who you've shared it with.
"Video ...?" Cueball started to feign innocence.
"Don't try to lie. I've got very solid information that says one of the two of you," he pointedly looked with a frown toward Tweak, "obtained a video clip that shows ... my girlfriend and another girl in a ... compromising position."
Tweak exchanged a nervous glance with Cueball. "I ... I wasn't looking for anything like that," she stammered, her voice as shaky as she was. "I ... I was ... looking at security data feeds ..."
"Yeah, because you're trying to join the Masterminds," Wyatt finished, sounding quite bored.
Cueball's and Tweak's eyes widened. "You ... know?" Tweak stammered.
"You two aren't exactly subtle," the senior chuckled, surprising them. "Now tell me about what you found. And who you've shared the data with."
Tweak winced, glancing again at Cueball. "I ... managed to get a couple of data files from ... from the remote monitors," she confessed. "I've been trying to crack their data packing and crypto. It's ... a way to sharpen my computer and electronic skills."
Wyatt shook his head, smiling knowingly. "Yeah, right. It wouldn't be because knowing how to crack the security monitors would let you monitor other students, or even spoof the sensors if you wanted to do something ... against the rules, would it." He saw the two sitting, looking like kids who'd been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. "Okay, I may not understand all the electronic stuff, but I want you to show me how you got the data."
Still fearful, Tweak turned to her computer. "I ... hacked into the security router so I could intercept the log files from the monitoring system to the general administrative file servers. Each file is from a remote sensor - in this case, I got this data from Bravo fourteen. Somehow, another wireless signal got coupled onto the main data signal. I noticed it, so I started filtering it out." She repeated the steps on her laptop - which took no time this time around, "and I found a streaming video feed." She winced, but seeing the look of grim determination on Wyatt's face, she configured her computer to play back the data stream. "This is what I found," she announced.
Wordlessly, Kody watched the short video clip, his expression inscrutable. "Okay," he finally said more than twenty nerve-wracking seconds after the video clip stopped. "What can you tell me about this file and its other data?"
Tweak glanced at Cueball again, and then looked back at her computer. "Just this afternoon," she said, "I figured out how to read the primary video feed and the time codes. I still have to ..."
"The time codes?" Wyatt asked, eyes wide in astonishment.
"Yeah," Tweak said nervously. "Every frame has a time code so security can do time correlation, look for spoofing attempts, and so on."
"And you know the time code of this fragment?" he asked, a hint of excitement in his voice, confusing the two other teens.
"Yeah," Tweak said, puzzled. "This one is between two twenty-three and ten seconds and two-twenty five and forty seconds."
"Are you absolutely sure?" Wyatt demanded.
Tweak nodded. "Yeah."
"And if I got you more security files from that sensor, could you extract the time code at the same time as you extracted the video?"
"Yeah," she answered. "But ... why?"
"Hang on a second." The burly boy pulled out his cell phone.
"That won't work," Tweak warned him. "We're out of range of the repeater." She pointed to a phone on one corner of her lab bench. "Use that."
Wyatt nodded and then picked up the phone, his fingers dancing over the number keys as the other two sat, watching but not understanding. "Security? Wyatt Cody. I need to talk to Sam Everheart. It's urgent." He seemed amused at the expressions on the two other's faces. "Sam? Kody. You know the missing time codes? I think I found them."
A few seconds later, Wyatt hung up the phone. "Okay, you're going to bring your equipment to security."
"But ... my work ...!" Tweak protested. "I can't afford to have my computer and equipment confiscated."
Wyatt shook his head. "It's not going to be confiscated. It's going to be used to examine the data files from that sensor - Bravo fourteen, did you say? - and get the video with timestamps."
"But ... why?"
"I can only tell you what you need to know," Wyatt said curtly, "and then you can tell me who saw that video and what you're going to do to ensure that there are no more copies of the video on either of your computers." He saw their looks of disbelief. "For your information, the two ... girls ... are both under eighteen. Which makes reproduction and distribution of that video distribution of child porn." He saw them goggling at that piece of information. "And you know what that would mean!"
Both teens gulped - child porn was a sure-fire ticket to detention with the MCO, and they' lock up the perps and throw away the key. And no-one in the administration - not Mrs. Carson, not Ms. Hartford, not Chief Delarose, and most definitely not Mrs. Shugendo - would raise a finger to help.
"But ... I ... I can't analyze the video then," Tweak said weakly. "It'd be ...."
"Sam Everheart will get you exempted for what you've done so far, and for anything you do under the auspices of a security investigation. As long as you cooperate in destroying any other copies."
"Why?" Cueball asked simply.
"Because a friend of mine is being railroaded into a murder one charge ..."
"Kayda Franks - Pejuta?" Tweak asked, already knowing the answer. She'd heard the rumors.
Wyatt nodded. "And she's potentially facing the death penalty because she doesn't have an iron-clad alibi. Your little ... gizmo ... and those security files give her that alibi." He indicated that Tweak should begin packing up her gear. "It'll cost her - she'll be outed as a lesbian, and my girlfriend will be confirmed bi, but that's better than Kayda being convicted and executed." He stared evenly at them. "And I know those rumors are already spreading like wildfire - possibly because of your little video clip." He saw them both swallow hard, afraid of repercussions for that little inadvertent disclosure by the two of them. It would help them cooperate to stay a little nervous.
May 6th, 2007 - Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"I wish Kody was here," Kayda whispered nervously to Lanie as the girls walked through the doors into Crystal Hall. To Kayda's imagination, every conversation halted, every eye was fixed on her, and then as murmuring began, she was convinced that all the conversations, whispered among little groups as they gazed accusingly at her, were about the murder and her being a suspect, or worse, about her and Lanie.
The taller redhead seemed to know precisely what the Lakota girl was thinking. "Everyone is not gossiping about you and me or accusing you of killing Heyoka."
"Yes, they are," Kayda retorted, her voice trembling as she struggled to keep her emotions in check - a difficult task considering the incredible emotional trauma she'd suffered in the preceding twenty-four hours, her incredible fatigue, and the incredible loneliness in her heart where her spirits should be comforting her.
"Wyatt said he found something very important - someone else managed to get the video signal ..."
Kayda rolled her eyes. "So that's where all the gossip is coming from," she spat in disgust.
"But the other video source has time codes on it, so it's pretty solid evidence that you ... that we were ... that you weren't near the arena," Lanie tried to console her friend. "He's working with a ... a gadgeteer that intercepted the video," she winced, knowing that she was confirming Kayda's fear that the proof had gotten out among the students. "And Sam - they're recovering all the time codes and correlating them to the video on the SD card." Lanie knew better than to try to lie or bluff; Kayda would see through that instantly.
"Hey, Loophole," one smartass guy in line ahead of them called out, "how's your baby dyke?" Around him, his friends chuckled.
"Did you get lucky and get a gold star?" a girl with the boys sneered. "Fucking rug-munching dykes!"
"Oh, Fran," Lanie sighed. "Ah'd say envy doesn't look good on you, but honestly, anything is an improvement..."
Fran's face turned beet-red, and her jaw clenched with considerable force - and pain. Her mouth flapped, trying to emit some kind of witty rejoinder, some mocking and insulting comeback to Loophole, but her rage at Lanie's insult had her brain nearly locked up.
"So Wyatt is a cover story, right?" another mocked them. "And you really prefer Kayda?"
"Ah'll be happy to let you take that up with Wyatt," Lanie said confidently, unfazed by the taunting. "But if you really want to know," she turned to Thunderfox, who was the escort of the hour, "Diana, could you please educate these ... I hate to use the word 'gentlemen' because it so obviously doesn't apply ... people as to why we're here with Kayda?"
Thunderfox gazed evenly on the small gaggle of students who were gathering at the taunting and public scene. "Kayda is on supervised release until the hearing," she said calmly, "to be escorted at all times by a registered Federal Marshall and a security auxiliary to preclude the MCO taking her into custody off campus." There were a few gasps of shock; no matter how much one student might have disliked another, no-one wanted any student to be taken by the MCO.
"Lanie happens to be a registered Federal Volunteer Air Marshall, so she has to escort Kayda at all times," Diana continued.
"At all times?" a boy leered, waggling his eyebrows. "Including showering and sleeping with your new pet?"
Elaine smiled a cruel smile. "Why, yes, Ollie, Ah'll be all alone with a beautiful girl - dressing and undressing and showering ...and you won't ever know what that's like!"
Kayda goggled at the cool, aloof rejoinder Lanie had so almost instantly snapped off. She felt the color drain from her face as Lanie was all but admitting their liaison, like she really didn't care, just as she'd said. Trembling, Kaya wished desperately that she had Lanie's self-confidence.
A number of the other boys cat-called Ollie Hatchel as the taller girl gave the red-faced boy a 'talk to the hand' gesture and turned back to the line. While a few idiots and assholes continued to taunt Kayda and Lanie about being lovers, most the students who had been gathered turned their attention back to food, leaving the girls dealing with only a few occasional snide comments and leering stares. Lanie was taking the experience in stride, letting the comments roll off her easily, Kayda was having a lot more difficult time dealing with the hazing.
"Where do you want to sit?" Lanie asked as they cleared the checkout island. "Up at the Alpha table?"
"Uh, no," Kayda stammered, still feeling like she was under a microscope, surrounded by judgmental and condemning gossip. "I ... I ...." She wasn't quite sure what she wanted. "Can we sit with my friends?"
"Sure." Lanie was full of self-confidence, totally unfazed by the comments they'd gotten, which was puzzling to the shorter girl, but at the same time was heartening that, given time, maybe she could learn to be so confident and cool.
"How ... can you be so ... cheery?" She wanted to know how Lanie did it, so she could learn to be so self-assured and confident and not care what others were saying.
Lanie smiled at her younger friend. "Ah like who Ah am, and that doesn't depend on what others think. With Griz, Ah feel comfortable with mahself. And we're getting' you out of this pickle, so why shouldn't you feel good too?"
Kayda let her head droop, staring at the floor. "You ... have your spirit. I ...." Her eyes misted again, and she felt the terrible ache inside her where her spirits until so recently had brought her succor and assurance. "Mine ...." She couldn't go on, fighting tears. "The other day, you asked me what it would be like if I didn't have my spirits, remember?" she sniffled. "Now I know. It hurts! It hurts real bad. I feel ... lost, and so ... alone. And without my magic, I'm ... I'm ...." A tear dribbled down her cheek. "I'm just a ... a baseline." The tear was joined by another. "Before, I could ... hide, so no-one could see me to make fun of me, or to accuse me, but now ...." She looked up at Lanie. "I feel so ... vulnerable. Like the night ..." She dropped her gaze, tears rolling from the corners of her eyes.
Lanie set her tray down on the nearest table, ignoring the three students sitting there, and then wiped Kayda's cheek with her finger, pushing the salty tear away. "You're going to be okay," she assured her younger friend.
"Do you ... do you really think so?" Kayda sniffled, her voice devoid of even a hint of confidence.
"Ah know so," Lanie said firmly. "Ah promise you, Ah'm not going to let anything happen to you. So buck up, and let's go eat our dinner." She picked up her tray and walked beside the shy, emotionally battered Lakota girl to her table. "Hi," Lanie said cheerfully to the four already seated - Alicia, Addy, Laurie, and Adrian. "Mind if we join you?"
"Mais oui," Addy said warmly. "We have missed you dining with us," she continued as Lanie and Kayda sat down.
"How are you doing, ma cherie?" Alicia asked in her Cajun-accented French, taking a moment to hold Kayda's hand gently, showing her support for her friend. "I would imagine this is really tough."
Kayda nodded, relieved to see that her friends' expressions displayed concern about her, and nothing but support; there wasn't even the slightest hint of doubt or accusation. "Yeah," she said. "I'm trying ... but it's hard." She sighed. "It was bad enough with being arrested and ...." A shudder coursed through her at the memories of the previous, brutal evening in the cell. "It's ... hard to be under a cloud of suspicion." She sounded exhausted, which wasn't surprising given the turmoil and trauma of the preceding twenty-four hours.
"And I'd imagine that the other rumors don't make it any easier," Adrian commented sympathetically. He saw something in the quick glance Kayda shot Lanie's way. "They are just rumors, right?"
This time, it wasn't a furtive glance Lanie's way, but a full study of the redhead's expression, which Kayda found supportive and, surprisingly, encouraging her to tell the truth - all in the subtle looks she was giving Kayda.
Kayda looked down at her plate, ashamed. Why couldn't she be strong, like Lanie? She wanted to be so confident, so self-assured that she didn't feel so fragile. Maybe, when - if - she got her spirits back, she could be. After all, that's what Wakan Tanka and Tatanka had been trying to teach her ever since she manifested. But that confidence had seemed so far out of reach, given all she'd been through, and now, without her spirits to help her, and without her magic to help her feel safe against bullying and possibly worse, she felt like she had no self-confidence. And there seemed no end in sight for her torturous isolation.
"No," Kayda squeaked. Under the table, Lanie gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "No, they're not rumors. It's ... true."
The silence at the table was palpable, giving Kayda more reason to not look at her friends. She feared that they were going to reject her now that they'd learned that she was gay.
"There was something ... that made a very powerful compulsion," Lanie explained softly. "We ... couldn’t stop."
The hand touching hers snapped Kayda out of her self-pitying mood. She looked up, following the hand across the table to Laurie, who was smiling at her - like she ... understood? And wasn't condemning Kayda? The warmth in her smile, reflected in her eyes, was nothing but reassuring and accepting.
Kayda was confused, and she looked around the table. Addy, of course, knew, but this was news to Alicia and Adrian, and also to RPG who'd joined them without Kayda having noticed. "Ah'm not goin' t' judge y'all," Alicia explained softly. "Ah cain't imagine doin' that myself, but ...."
All eyes at the table were on her, including Lanie's supportive look and smile. "I ... I need to explain," Kayda said softly. "After ... after I manifested," she managed to squeak, "I ... I was beaten almost to death twice."
"Da. We know," Vasiliy commented.
Kayda looked down again. "What you don't know is that the second time," she halted, her voice cracking, "I was ...." She couldn't continue.
"Kayda was brutally raped," Lanie finished the thought. "Ah hope you understand why she can't even think about being romantically or physically involved with guys."
"That's why ... I'm ...."
"Gay?" Alicia asked softly, to which Kayda just nodded.
Kayda looked down again. "I understand if you don't want me on your training team now." She fully expected the team to reject her now that they knew she was gay. Everyone on the campus knew - or would know soon, and that might create trouble for the team.
A hand lifting her chin startled the Lakota girl. She found herself looking eye-to-eye with Laurie. "You are who you are," Laurie said with a smile. "A warm, wonderful, caring friend. I can't speak for the others, but I like you for who you are, and your being gay doesn't change that one little teeny bit. I'm honored to be on a training team with someone like you."
Stunned, Kayda gawked at Laurie, not sure what to say.
"And Debra is your girlfriend, isn't she?" Laurie asked rhetorically. There was no doubt she knew.
The dusky-skinned girl nodded. "Yeah." Slowly, she looked around the table at her friends, one by one. Addy, of course, already knew Kayda's secret, and she put her hand on Kayda's, squeezing it warmly. "You are ma cherie," she said, "and you always will be. And my team-mate."
Alicia nodded. "Ah've never had a friend who's gay," she said, causing a moment of panic in Kayda, "until now," she concluded. "And y' know what? It don't make a bit of difference as far as Ah'm concerned. Ah'm lookin' forward to you visitin' mah folks this summer, and Ah'd be a stupid bigot if Ah let your being gay interfere with our friendship."
Adrian nodded. "What they said," he repeated simply.
Vasiliy smiled broadly. "In Russia, is against law," he began, making Kayda worry. "But Russia has great many stupid laws like that. You are good person. Have only once concern - but you having girlfriend makes it not a worry. As long as you are not trying to be stealing affections of Chat Bleu, does not matter to me." His goofy grin was infectious.
May 6th, 2007 - Dinnertime
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
The batch of chemicals and moonshine that Sam called a meal only took seconds to ingest, seconds away from a very urgent task. Once that task was completed - without the mealtime camaraderie and gustatory delight that she'd once enjoyed but was now meaningless to her mostly-nanite body, she settled back in her chair in her office.
Inside, the hive nanite brain was working feverishly, digesting security file after security file from the remote sensors, searching for the subtle data overlays that were the parasitic video from the sweat lodge. It was tedious work - extract the video from the signal after creating software algorithms based on the experimental apparatus Tweak had showed them, extract the corresponding time-code from the encrypted security data stream, and then do frame-by-frame comparison between the video from the SD card and the video from the security monitors - output to a split-screen display configuration with the SD card on one half and the time-coded security stream on the other half.
Tweak didn't know it - yet - but Sam had taken the precaution, via her nanite hive, of searching Tweak's computer and completely eradicating all traces of the video, erasing it to the extent that not even the NSA's best tools would ever recover the data from the hard disk. It was highly unlikely that Tweak would complain; after all, she'd been reminded multiple times that the video file she had was legally child porn and its mere possession was a felony, never mind the fact that she'd been the one to process and produce it from a random security file.
The breaks between security files were a major nuisance; to avoid gaps, each sensor produced files containing ten minute of data which had a five-minute overlap with the previous file, essentially two parallel data file sets offset by half the file time. Entire files could go missing and the security data stream could still be reconstructed in its entirety. But those breaks and overlaps created a significant amount of extra work for Sam, doubling the time required to process the data.
Once the Bravo-14 sensor data was processed, Sam began to look at nearby sensors to see if any other data streams contained the anomalous - but serendipitous - data. Bravo-13 had bits of the data, but the signal level was so low that only about one frame in fifteen was recoverable. Still, Sam processed it, creating yet another file which had corroborating evidence.
After over an hour of intense work, Sam stretched and then thumbed on her speaker-phone. A few rings later, the other end of the phone line was picked up. "Janice? Sam. I've got the video all processed. I created a complete, side-by-side comparison of the two different video sources with time codes overlaid on the video from the security sensors."
Less than a minute later, Janice knocked and entered Sam's office without waiting for a reply. "Whatcha got?" she asked, skipping formalities and walking directly around the desk to where Sam sat before her computer monitors.
"I'll show you the first frame that includes both girls and the end frame," Sam offered. "Beyond that ....."
"That includes both girls? Do you mean that ... there's video of just one of them?"
"Yes. Miss Franks arrived first, and she ... began to ... pleasure herself. When Miss Nalley arrived, Miss Franks practically ripped Miss Nalley's clothes off ...."
"She raped Miss Nalley? Janice asked, absolutely astounded.
"At first, Miss Nalley seemed a little reluctant. But then she became as ... eager ... as Miss Franks and their sex was mutual."
Janice nodded, wincing a little inside. If she was still an active detective on the NYPD, she could view the data with immunity from prosecution on child porn laws. Here at Whateley, it was far less certain that she could claim such immunity. Still ....
She gasped when the first shot came up on the screen, two images side-by-side on the single monitor. There was no doubt in her mind that the girls were engaged in sex, sufficiently so that this video evidence would definitely get the two girls expelled. On the other hand, being expelled for Kayda was a lot better than being executed for murder. She nodded to Sam, who switched the video to the final frame, where the two girls were lying naked cuddled tightly together.
"I presume the entire video is an unbroken sequence with good time correlation?"
"Perfect correlation," Sam reported. "There's virtually no chance the two videos are different sources."
"Okay, that's a pretty solid alibi," Janice admitted when the image disappeared from the screen. "But is possible that the video was played into a transmitter during the time of the murder?" She read Sam's expression that it was possible.
"If we don't have a good suspect, or can't poke holes in the evidence in the tunnel cameras, I'd expect the prosecutor to go after Miss Franks," Janice postulated, "and as she's a mutant, even though the evidence is circumstantial, he might have a case he can win."
"That might be difficult," Sam noted. "There aren't many people with the ability and the motive."
"I'm going to call Michiko, Amelia, Alfred, and the students to go over what we have and where we still have work to do. Probably about fifteen minutes, over in Schuster."
"I'll be there." Sam turned back to her computer, no longer looking at Janice as she left, her heels clacking on the tile floor. Sam focused on the data as the Hive started going back over the data, looking for something that she may have missed. There was something nagging at her, but she couldn't quite put the pieces together.
May 6th, 2007
Conference Room A, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Mrs. Shugendo and Ms. Hartford went over the folder of evidence slowly, giving everything the weight and attention a subject concerning life and death demanded. As they did so, a clutch of students waited as patiently as young people in their situation could. Kayda was nervously playing with her fingers while Elaine fiddled with her phone and Wyatt crossed and recrossed his arms, scowling at the administrators for not making a snap judgment in his favor.
A bit separated from them Admiral Everheart and Mrs. Talbert were encouraging Tweak and Cueball that silence was golden and their continued silence would help in mitigating their dire circumstances. In the middle was Dr. Bellows who walked from the group of teachers to his patient, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. Finally the Dean of Students and the Assistant Headmistress looked up from the file.
"Where did this SD card come from?" Ms. Hartford demanded after a long pause.
Wyatt cleared his throat. "A student delivered it to me, Amber Prentice," he told her. "I don't believe she made it. She told me she was delivering it to pay off a favor and she didn't seem to know what was on the chip."
"When did she deliver it?" asked Mrs. Shugendo.
"Just before dinner," Wyatt told her. "About five fifteen or so."
The Dean wrote on her note pad. "Is there any chance the time stamps here have been tampered with?"
"No," Ms. Hartford replied. "I wrote this algorithm myself. It's embedded not only into the data stream itself, but here is the check sum bit inserted instead of a color bit and it's cross checked by the receiving server. There are other measures, but I won't mention them in front of students. This is legitimate."
Mrs. Shugendo sighed. "Well, this clears one problem, but opens another. We'll have to convene an expulsion hearing based on..."
"Based on what?" asked Ms. Hartford blandly. "A video that purportedly exists on an SD Card? Have you seen this video, Michi?"
"Of course not, Amelia!"
Hartford's smile was predatory. "Of course not, that would be a crime after all."
"We have testimony from..."
"From minors," Hartford purred. "Who claim they saw a video that no one can watch without possibly committing a crime." She sniffed. "Hearsay at best. The handbook clearly states for a student to be expelled for carnal actions a member of the faculty must discover them In flagrante delicto. And since that has not occurred, as far as I am concerned, the only expulsion hearings will be to cover the offenses of murder, blackmail and extortion."
Mrs. Shugendo managed to close her mouth with some effort. "That...that is uncommonly generous of you, Amelia."
"Rules are in fact rules, Michi. Don't you agree, Miss Nalley?"
"Oh, yes ma'am," the redhead affirmed.
"Now," the Assistant Headmistress said, closing the file. "the timestamps of this file and the affidavits of those who have seen the file place Miss Nalley and Miss Franks at the 'Sweat Lodge' at a length of time that precludes either of them from being the perpetrator of the killing of Miss...er...Mr....um, Student Heyoka. We have evidence that Miss Franks' ID has been stolen and used fraudulently from Admiral Everheart and Mrs. Talbert. And we have testimony from Miss Franks and Miss Nalley that they were affected by some chemical at the sweat lodge. Can that be corroborated?"
The appearance of a full grown Kodiak bear out of the air did not cause as much consternation here as it might have elsewhere. If I may, Ms. Hartford?
"Mr. Cody," Amelia asked coolly. "Is this in fact your spirit?"
"The testimony of spirits isn't admissible in New Hampshire," Mrs. Shugendo cautioned.
"Fortunately, we are not legally in New Hampshire," Ms. Hartford replied. "You have something to add, Kodiak?"
While my testimony may not be admissible, the bear thought at them. I can point you in the right direction. Having seen the footage in question, it seems to me both girls were under the influence of a major compulsion."
"A psychic compulsion?" demanded Mrs. Talbert.
No, the bear corrected. Grizzly noted a chemical entered her host's body through her left hand. That means a physical, possibly magical component. Based on the activity it compels, I feel safe in calling it some derivative of demonic lust. And you do have an expert in such substances here on campus.
"Mrs. Talbert," Ms. Hartford said calmly. "I believe this report is incomplete. Will you kindly include an interview with Miss Waite?"
"I'd be delighted to, Ms. Hartford."
May 6th, 2007 - Evening
Lovecraft Room, Hawthorne Cottage, Whateley Academy
The hover-chair floated in the middle of the wide hallway, pointing toward a rune-marked door that gave the eerie sense that it was alive. "This is it," Mrs. Cantrell said from her chair. "If you go in, don't be surprised if you find yourselves in Poe Cottage when you leave. The room likes to move back and forth, but no-one has figured out the pattern - if there even is one."
"No one has seen Miss Waite for the past couple of days?" Janice asked to confirm her information.
"Not since Tuesday night. Hippolyta was ... visiting, and she claimed that Sara just disappeared. She said she filed a report with security, but nothing has happened, and Sara hasn't been seen," Mrs. Cantrell reported, her disgust at the lack of response by security palpable.
"Can you send for Hippolyta, please? I'd like to talk to her after I talk to Sara - if Sara's here, that is." As Mrs. Cantrell turned her hover-chair and zipped back toward the stairs, Janice rapped on the door nervously, half-expecting the door to grab her hand or something equally creepy.
There was, of course, no answer to her knock, so, glancing at Sam, she rapped again, louder and longer. The only sound was the faint echoing of footsteps elsewhere in the basement corridors. Janice looked at Sam. "If you please?"
The old skeleton key looked particularly gruesome, the handle being a miniature skull in dull metal, with something in the eyes that seemed to glint red - perhaps some semi-precious stones, Janice convinced herself. As Sam extended the key toward the lock, she suddenly had to fight to control it because some supernatural force was tugging the key, pulling it toward the slot in the keyhole cover, and even with Sam's considerable strength, she couldn't control the key. When it was seated, the eye sockets in the skull, previously glinting red, glowed unnaturally.
Despite years in the paranormal division of NYPD, Janice shuddered a bit at the key. It was like the key - and thus the room - were inviting them in. Being it was called the Lovecraft Room, Janice was a little nervous. No, she corrected herself, a lot nervous. Despite some very interesting cases, she'd never dealt with anything Lovecraftian.
Sam glanced at Janice, and then twisted the key in the lock, turning the doorknob and easing the door open. She half-expected the hinges to creak eerily as the door slowly swung open, but there was no sound.
"Maybe Sara doesn't like squeaky doors," Janice said, trying to keep the mood light - mostly so she didn't get more nervous than she was. It happened every time she went to a paranormal crime scene - she got a case of the willies, which she could usually control. In her mind, it was something that kept her on edge, anticipating the unexpected, but deep down, she knew it was because of the horrific, demonic murder of her best friend in front of her eyes when she was but a little girl. Those memories had been indelibly seared into her mind, the seeds of nightmares that she'd only really gotten over when she went to college. Going into paranormal law and law enforcement had been a way for her to confront those terrors, and it usually succeeded.
But this was Lovecraft. This was potentially terror beyond human ken. She gulped nervously
The room inside looked reasonably normal - if by normal one meant a lavishly carved bed and dresser set whose patterns seemed to throb like heartbeats, or if by normal one referred to walls covered with strange and eerie raised runes that pulsed like they were alive. Janice winced.
"Miss Waite?" Sam called, looking around the room to no avail. There were clothes in a laundry hamper beside a massive armoire which was carved to match the bed. The bed wasn't made, but quite messy, as if someone had just arisen and hadn't bothered to straighten the covers. "Miss Waite?" Sam called again, a little more urgently.
Janice looked around the room, her eyes focusing on minute details. "She left in a hurry," she noted, looking at the wrinkled bedding. "And she wasn't alone, either."
Sam's eyebrow arched. "What makes you say that?"
"Look at the wrinkle patterns in the bed. It looks like two people were here, not just one."
"Hippolyta, perhaps?" Sam speculated.
"Why do you think it was her?"
"According to Mrs. Cantrell, Hippolyta was visiting and claimed Miss Waite just vanished. She also stated that Hippolyta filed a report with security about Miss Waite's disappearance."
Sam got that far-off look in her eyes again, for a brief moment. "There have been no reports filed about Miss Waite disappearing. What's more, the RFID tracking system shows no trace of Miss Waite since Tuesday evening."
"Okay, so now we have four mysterious events in the last two weeks." She saw Sam's quizzical look. "One - someone killed Apathy - after he was identified on video swapping weapons in Miss Frank's training gym. Two - someone killed Heyoka and made it look like Miss Franks is to blame. Three - someone lured Miss Franks and Miss Nalley to the sweat lodge and - if the story is to be believed - dosed the two of them with a very potent lust aphrodisiac."
"I saw all of the video clips," Sam interrupted, "not just the first and last scenes. I had to in order to process the video," she added at Janice's odd look. "As time went on, they were not enjoying themselves, so that by the end, they looked desperate, one might even say agonizingly so."
"Which lends credence to them having been dosed with something. And that brings us to number four - the one student who might be able to shed some light on this aphrodisiac - or possibly be the source of it - appears to be missing."
"You suspect that Miss Waite had something to do with the setup or the murder?" Sam asked.
Sam shook her head. "Not likely. Have you ever seen Miss Waite eat?" she asked bluntly.
"Don't. It's ... disturbing," Sam said, involuntarily shuddering at the memories. "She ... absorbs the life force from a living thing. That reduces the ... victim ... to a handful of blue powder." Sam watched as the implications sank in. "If she wanted to murder Apathy or Heyoka and leave no trace, she'd just have to sweep up a little blue dust and put it in the trashcan. No need for all this elaborate ruse."
"Could she have had a grudge against Heyoka, maybe? Or against Kayda?"
Sam shook her head. "I doubt it. Sara is in pretty tight with Team Kimba, and so is Heyoka. There haven't been any reports of friction among the three of them. And since we found Apathy's corpse and not a pile of blue powder, it was unlikely to be him."
"This keeps coming back to Miss Franks," Janice speculated as the two searched the room, including in the dresser and armoire, looking for anything that might be a clue. "Apathy was in a position to make mischief with the poster, and to steal the copper spike."
"And he was vulnerable to blackmail," Sam noted.
"Apathy was gay, but not out. If someone knew that, he'd be very vulnerable to extortion."
"So someone used Apathy to get at Miss Franks? Why?" Janice was a little peeved that all this background information was coming to her attention very late in the investigation.
"There have been a number of attacks and events surrounding Miss Franks."
"Someone trying to get rid of her?" Janice frowned. "That doesn't make sense. Why not just kill her instead of Apathy and Heyoka?"
"Consider that may not have been the goal."
Janice thought but a moment, and then her face lit up and her eyes widened. "Someone want her off campus? Badly enough to try framing her, or blackmailing her for being gay?"
Sam shook her head. "Doesn't add up. At least three of the incidents were intended to be fatal. Why would someone who just wants her off campus try something fatal? And if they wanted her dead, why would they try things that are non-fatal?"
"As I understand it," Janice posited, "Miss Franks is an avatar with a very important Lakota spirit. It'd be easy to imagine someone wanting her out of this school and back in the tribal lands. But dead?"
Sam's eyes widened as realization dawned on her. "What if there isn't one party, but two? What if someone wanted her dead? Pinning a capital murder rap on her is a death sentence. And there's another, separate person who just wants her off campus?"
Janice shook her head. "I thought about that. The problem is that the murderer would have had to make sure that Kayda has no alibi." She sat down in a chair. "Look at it this way - if someone wants her off campus and doesn't care if she lives or dies, then it makes sense to frame her for a murder while luring her to a situation where her alibi gets her expelled for violating the rules, and even if she isn't expelled, she'd be outed as gay, which might cause her to leave in shame. If someone just wanted her off campus but alive, it's too risky to frame her for murder."
"Cause who to leave in shame?" a girl's voice boomed from the door. Sam and Janice both spun to the interruption, startled.
"You would be ...?" Janice asked hesitantly, staring at the blonde-haired Amazon who looked like she wanted nothing more than to rip someone apart.
"Hippolyta," Hippy growled. "It's about fucking time those pencil-dicked morons in security finally sent someone to investigate Sara's disappearance."
"How long has it been since you've seen Miss Waite?" Janice asked.
"It's in the report," Hippy snarled angrily.
"What report?" Sam asked. "There's no security report on Miss Waite."
Hippy's rage went up to a new level. "I filled out a report for that dick-faced weasel Coltrain! The son-of-a-bitch said he was going to take care of it!" She looked like she'd personally rip Coltrain's lungs out if he was in the room.
"Calm down," Sam said to the agitated girl. "I just notified Emily Strong to start looking around the files to see if it got misplaced." None too gently, she took Hippy's arm and guided her to a chair. "Now, tell us all about her disappearance."
"If you're not here because she disappeared," Hippy scowled, "then why are you here?"
"First things first - what can you tell us about Miss Waite's disappearance?"
Hippolyta looked first at Sam, then at Janice, her expression wary at best. "I was ... visiting ... Tuesday evening. She was helping me ... study," Hippy explained, her expression angry and daring the women to challenge her assertion.
"Was there a phone call? An e-mail message? Did she just get up and leave?"
Hippy snorted derisively. "It's all in the damned report!" She saw the stern expressions on both older women. "Okay," she conceded, lightening her tone a little bit. "We were ... cuddling," Hippy admitted as if daring someone to tell her it was wrong.
"Go on," Janice prompted gently. Hippy was a seething volcano of emotions, and she could easily be set off when they needed to get information from her.
"All of a sudden, she stiffened, convulsed violently a couple of times, and disappeared," Hippy continued. "It was weird - like something was pulling her, and she was trying to fight it." The Amazon girl shuddered at the memory. "When that was happening, her mark ... on me ... burned for a moment." She shook her head. "I haven't felt anything in her mark since."
Janice looked knowingly at Sam. "A summoning?"
Sam shrugged. "You're the expert, not me."
"I'm hardly an expert, but it does match what I know of a summoning."
"Wait a sec," Hippy interrupted. "A summoning? That means that Sara ... could be anywhere," she wailed, tears coming to her eyes. "You have to find her! Please! I need her!"
Janice and Sam exchanged glances again, both wondering just what kind of relationship this Amazon girl had with the lust demon. "Um, yeah," Sam said uneasily, "We'll find your report and get searching. But first, since you're here, we have a few questions about Miss Waite that you may be able to answer."
Hippolyta looked, her eyes pleading, at Janice, and then slowly nodded. "I'll ... I'll try," she sniffled.
"In your ... friendship ... with Miss Waite, have you seen or experienced her inducing strong lust? Perhaps even uncontrollable?"
"N...no," the imposing girl answered hesitantly. "She ... she has a lust aura - the same way that elf has a beauty glamour. But it's not that strong."
"That you know of?"
"Uh, yes. I've ... experienced it," Hippy admitted, her cheeks flushing a little bit, "but it wasn't irresistible or overpowering or anything."
"Is her lust aura the only way she can cause ... sexual attraction?" Sam tried to be discrete, but with the topic, that was proving nearly impossible.
"She ... her ... body fluids ... can be very powerful. She told me that she has a lust essence that is impossible to resist, but that she's never used it because she thinks it can be dangerous."
Janice frowned. "That jibes with what I know about demons and their core essence," she said. "So ... maybe ...."
"Maybe someone found out how to summon her, and once summoned, she had to obey? Even possibly giving some of her demonic essence?" Sam completed the frightening thought.
"That would imply the summoning was on campus, or nearby," Janice speculated, her mind racing. "But summonings can be very, very dangerous. The slightest mistake - a crack in a concrete floor through the summoning circle, for example, and the being that was summoned can escape."
"So if someone summoned Sara," the impatient Amazonian interrupted, "why didn't she come back?"
"Let me ask you a hypothetical," Sam spoke to the student. "Suppose someone were to expose two people to this ... essence. Would they be able to resist having sex?"
Hippy shook her head immediately. "From what Sara told me, no."
"And if they were of the same sex? Say, two guys. Or two girls?" Sam continued.
"Wouldn't matter," the girl answered matter-of-factly.
"And ... how long would it last?"
Hippy thought a moment. "Sara told me it could last for hours. But it's not something you'd want to use on yourself."
"Oh?" Janice was surprised. "Why not?"
"From what I understand, if you were under the influence of the essence," Hippy explained, "you couldn't get satisfaction. You'd literally wear yourself out trying to get enough sexual pleasure to satisfy the essence - and you'd probably pass out first."
"Speculate her for a moment, Hippolyta," Sam said, "what do you think it would be like if a person was exposed to the essence? Would they ... start to be desperate, perhaps? Frantic? Could it cause a mental breakdown?"
Hippy bit her lower lip for a moment as she pondered the question. "I suppose, and this is only my guess, that anyone exposed would be quite desperate, maybe even afraid that they couldn't get enough satisfaction."
Sam looked knowingly at Janice. "The video. That's what Wyatt Cody's spirit was trying to tell us - Kay ... the girls ... looked desperate!"
"You've gotta be talking about Kayda and Lanie, right?" Hippolyta speculated correctly. "Because that's all the rage in the gossip circles right now." She shook her head. "But that doesn't make any sense."
"What do you mean?" Janice and Sam asked simultaneously.
"Kayda's gay. Not surprising, considering she was brutally raped. And Lanie - she's was a good Sister, but now she's sold out to that ... piece of man-sausage Kody!" Hippy snarled.
"Yeah, but how many other people know that?"
"About Lanie? A lot of people, probably. She and ... her lover last year weren't exactly ... discrete." She shook her head. "But Kayda? I don't think anyone outside of a few close friends know." She deliberately neglected to mention that the entire Poe girls' community knew of both the rape and her sexuality.
"I've got a few new questions," Janice said, pulling out a notebook and jotting down a few items. "What happens after a summoning - is the demon automatically released? Does an RFID sensor penetrate a summoning circle? How long does the essence last before it wears off? How could one be exposed to the essence? Through direct contact? Via an intermediary, like essence left on a glass?"
"Or a tent flap," Sam said with certainty.
"Yeah. I was thinking the same thing." Janice offered Hippolyta a hand to rise from her chair. "We aren't forgetting about Sara. In fact, she's even more important to the case we're working than we would have thought."
Sam nodded grimly. "I'm going to find out what happened to that report, and if someone deep-sixed it, they're going to wish that they drew sewer duty." She turned and led the trio out of the room.
"What the hell?" Sam demanded on entering the hallway. It was ... wrong.
"We're in Poe," Hippy said. "The room moves whenever it wants to."
"Okay. We'll take the tunnel back to Kane," Sam said with a sigh. "It's a bit closer anyway." She set out for the tunnel entrance at a quick-step. "How did Debra Matson take the news?"
Janice stutter-stepped, startled. "What?"
"About Kayda being detained? I suspect she'd want to come out here to support Kayda since they're ... close friends."
"I ... I thought you called her," Janice protested weakly, paling at the thought that they'd overlooked calling Cornflower.
"I thought you had called her," Sam replied, wincing. "Oh, shit."
"I'll call her as soon as we get back to Kane."
"Okay. Do you know who in the magic department knows the most about summoning?"
Nearly running to catch up to Sam's very rapid pace, Janice shook her head. "There was a Mr. Langford from Berkeley here in the winter term; he's supposed to be one of the country's foremost experts in summoning. He might still be around. If not him, probably Circe or Elyzia Grimes."
"Call them. We need to meet with them ASAP. I don't need to remind you that the clock is ticking." She grimaced. "I don't like the fact that the one student who could tell us about lust and such has gone missing, too."
May 6th, 2007
The Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Despite what Lanie had been certain had been a very profitable day, Kayda remained worried. She'd asked 'what if' questions all through dinner, panicked about every little possibility and potential outcome. Lanie tried to reassure her friend that her innocence was basically proven, that the investigation had moved past exonerating her to finding who the real culprits were.
In public, Kayda had made all the right noises, but her barrage of questions and theories hadn't abated. Instead of the date they'd had planned, Wyatt, Elaine and Kayda had settled for the inaugural Crystal Hall 'Movie night' that Dashboard had set up with the assistance of Mr. Parker. She projected a three story hologram, much larger than a traditional movie screen, but less than the new Imax format that was becoming popular, against the waterfall and the sound was piped through the Crystal Hall speakers. The feature picked to start this new tradition was The Princess Bride.
Lanie had spent the night cuddled up against Wyatt, more feeling that listening to his laughter while she watched Kayda in the flickering darkness. Kayda hadn't watched the movie either. She'd stared listlessly off into space, when she wasn't stealing lonely, forlorn, envious glances at Elaine and Wyatt. She didn't join in when the students began shouting 'Inconceivable!' or 'As You Wish' at the screen, every time the line was uttered. And the speech about the rarity of True Love had tears streaming down her cheeks. She seemed to be sinking into depression about her situation - being alone without Debra to comfort her, under suspicion, having lost her spirits and her magic, and now being outed and subject to ridicule and nasty taunting.
Finally, the redhead could take it no longer and with a meaningful glance at her own lover, she sat up, reached over, and pulled the smaller Lakota girl against her, then laid back down against her man. "No!" Kayda hissed, looking around frantically. "People will see!"
Kayda looked up just in time to see the pair turn to her and look her directly in the eye, then, in chorus as if they'd planned it, Lanie and Wyatt whispered, "Fuck them," then turned back to the screen.
Kayda spent a fruitless moment in a halfhearted struggle, but Lanie was much stronger than she was. It was not so much that she was held against her will, it was more a firm affirmation that the redhead didn't care who saw them. Kayda looked up to see Wyatt looking at her, a slight smile on his face as he winked at her and laid one of his massive hands on her shoulder, mostly on Lanie's arm where she was holding Kayda against herself, but Wyatt had big hands. For the first time in her new life, Kayda didn't flinch at the touch of a man, didn't feel threatened, but rather, felt perfectly at peace and safe. She knew Lanie wouldn't let Wyatt do anything to her. She quit struggling and laid her head against Elaine's soft breast and sighed in contentment.
Before the Dread Pirate Roberts came for their souls she was asleep. Lanie kissed her forehead and then the arm of her fiancée, feeling him kiss the top of her head. "No man," he whispered into her ear, "ever had a better mother for his children than you."
Elaine smiled as she rubbed her cheek into his chest and realized yet again Wyatt had cut through all the innuendo and appearance to the true heart of the matter. There was nothing truly sexual in their embrace and it could easily be that of a married couple and their child. Lanie absently stroked Kayda's long, midnight black hair and basked in the love she felt.
Tomorrow there would be trials and tribulations, more drama in discovering who really had committed this horrible crime. There would be rumor and rumor-mongering and all the foolishness that came with high school, but tonight, just now there was only love and friendship and a wonderful little peek at what motherhood would be like. A peek that more than ever strengthening Elaine's resolve that she had chosen the right course for her life. "As you wish," she whispered.
May 6th, 2007- Late Evening
Walkway between Schuster and Poe, Whateley Academy
Kayda was snuggled up in Cody's arms, and given her size compared to the burly senior, the appearance was that of a father carrying a small child. Lanie hung on his arm, leaning her head against his shoulder, occasionally gently stroking Kayda's cheek or hair if the girl squirmed or started, while she cooed softly to Kayda that everything was okay.
The content little trio dodged to the side of the walkway as two adults came quick-stepping down the brick path, and then Janice Talbert halted suddenly when she recognized Kayda being carried by Wyatt, with Lanie at his side. "Miss Nalley," she said, insistently and softly, "May we have a word with you?"
Lanie glanced up at Wyatt, who seemed confident and comfortable gently cradling Kayda, an image of loving fatherhood that put a lump in Lanie's throat, re-confirming what she already knew. With his affirmative nod, she took a few steps toward Janice and the other woman, who she could see was Sam Everheart.
"Yes?" she asked simply, not quite sure how else to start or ask what was on their minds. Her concern lay with her charge a few feet away, and the fear that Kayda would awaken and be startled by Wyatt holding her and be pushed into a PTSD event.
"Has Kayda ... Miss Franks ... asked about Miss Matson?" Sam asked softly.
"No," Lanie replied. "She's very concerned about how Debra's goin' to take the news, but frankly, Ah think she's too emotionally and physically exhausted and too distracted."
"We ... accidentally neglected to call her," Janice said, wincing at the admission. "Each of us thought the other had."
Only the fact that Kayda was asleep in Wyatt's arms a few feet away kept Lanie from launching into a loud bit of invective against their negligence and what it might have meant to Kayda if she'd asked and discovered that Debra hadn't even so much as inquired about her. "Ah see," she said, her voice cold and hard despite the near-whisper.
"I'm going to call her as soon as I get back to Kane," Janice added hastily.
We will talk to Kayda's beloved in dream-space, Grizzly sounded in Lanie's mind. "It will be better than a ... cold phone call. And you can use that time to prepare Kayda's beloved for the truth, which Kayda will have to tell her eventually."
"Ah'll contact her," Lanie said, shaking her head sadly at the oversight. "Better that she hear from a friend than an anonymous school official." She sighed. "Ah know Debra from last year, so it'd be easier on her. And Ah can dream-walk with her - with my spirit's help. That'd be much less impersonal."
"Are you sure?" Sam asked uneasily.
"No," Lanie replied, glancing at the peacefully-sleeping girl. "No, Ah'm not sure, but Ah know Ah have to."
"Okay," Janice said. "If you think that's best. Well, good night then." Janice and Sam resumed their march toward Kane, albeit at a slower, less-determined pace.
Wyatt looked at Lanie as she stepped back to his side. "Are you going to tell her?"
Lanie nodded. "Ah ... Ah don't know how Ah can not tell her," she admitted softly.
May 7th, 2007- Early Morning
Dream-space of Debra Matson, The March of Dreams
There are many who believe that a dream-space of an individual must be some pastoral scene of idealized nature; that the accomplishments and buildings of Men have no place in this perfect realm. They are wrong, however, as a Dream-space is as personal a thing as can be and reflects the tastes and personality of the person, as does the way they appear in the March of Dreams.
Elaine had started on an island in the middle of Lake Allatoona in a pair of cutoff jeans and a bikini top that she had explained what she had to do to Grizzly in. The primal Bear had become her Amazon self and started walking. The small island they had started on was too small to have a forest this thick on it, but the trees gave way to an alley way, and the alley gave way to Madison Avenue in New York.
It was not, however, the New York some hundreds of miles to the south, but an idealized New York, full of handsome, well dressed mobsters, lantern jawed honest cops and everywhere there were glamorously dressed, beautiful women. There was no litter, nor even street crime, this was far too cosmopolitan for that, this was the New York of the movies, black and white or color, Bogart and Bacall or Joel and Carey this was a New York that only existed in dreams.
Lanie stepped up on the curb to find her foot was now encased in the Prada pumps Mrs. Carson had bought for her, and indeed she was wearing the same designer silk skirt suit and while Grizzly was as equally dressed to the nines to match her, there was something almost 'body guard' about her flowing pant suit and there was almost certainly a hand gun under her stylish jacket; not that she would need it. The doorman tipped his hat as he held the door for the two and heels' clicking sharply on the marble they made their way to a bank of elevators that dutifully took them up to the penthouse. "I'll wait outside," Grizzly murmured as Lanie allowed a maid to take her fox fur stole and over coat.
Inside, the redhead was led to a sumptuous art deco living room right out of a film noir to find Debra laying on a chaise lounge in a white sheath gown that would have looked at home on Marlene Dietrich. She blinked in surprise. "Lanie? What are you doing here?"
Elaine couldn't help but look around, surprised at the surroundings. "Ah have to say, Deb, you are a master of 'if you're going to dream, dream big.'" She cocked her head in confusion and looked back at the blonde. "Why are you in Sioux Falls?"
The penthouse shimmered and suddenly they were on a farm so perfectly American you'd expect the name 'Kent' to be on the mail box. Both girls were leaning on a split rail fence next to a bright red barn in jeans, a flannel for Debra, a Ford T-shirt for Elaine. A ways off Grizzly was leaning against Elaine's Mustang on the gravel driveway, wearing a cut off flannel tied under her impressive bosom and a pair of Daisy Dukes. "Because who would ever believe a glamorous super model came from this?" she asked with a grin.
The grin faded somewhat. "How is Kayda? What's going on? I got this vague phone call about an investigation and..."
Elaine sighed and did her best to look the older girl in the eye. "Deb, Ah've got some bad news..."
"Oh God," the blonde whispered. "Is she...?"
"She's alive, and she's not hurt," Lanie told her quickly, watching the other girl sigh in relief. Elaine reached out and put a hand on the other girls' shoulder. "But she's in trouble; legal trouble. Somebody is framing her for the murder of a student on campus."
Debra's face marched through several expressions, finally settling on shock. "Murder? Kayda? But...how? Why? And why isn't she...?"
"They've sealed her magic," Lanie told her which caused Debra to be instantly aghast.
"They can't do that!" she shouted. "She has PTSD! To have her magic sealed would shut her off from her spirits and..."
"Murder, Deb," Lanie told her softly. "Mrs. Carson is already playing fast and loose by letting her out in mah custody. Ah'm doing what Ah can for her..."
The redhead was surprised by the other girl sweeping her into a hug over the fence. "Lanie, you're the best!" she enthused. "Please tell her I..." Debra felt her friend stiffen and pulled back from the hug. "There...there's more, isn't there?"
Elaine forced her head to nod as Debra's grip on her shoulders tightened to the point of pain. "Deb, whoever did this, they tried to make sure that Kayda wouldn't have an alibi. They lured us..."
"Us?" the blonde demanded archly. The grip crossed over the line on Elaine's shoulders. "What do you mean, 'us' Elaine? Why wouldn't Kayda have an alibi if she was with you...?"
"Deb, it wasn't on purpose..." Lanie's protest died off in a cry of pain as fingers dug into her shoulders. In a flash, Grizzly was behind her, massive furry paws around Deb's wrists.
"Take your hands off my host," the bear growled.
"What did you do?" Debra demanded, releasing the other girl and yanking her hands free from the spirit to clinch the rail between them until her knuckles went white.
Elaine turned gently gestured to Grizzly. "Ah got this, Grizzly, it's ok." It was obvious the bear spirit didn't think so, but she withdrew to a more conversive distance. She sighed and turned back to Debra. "Deb, Kayda and Ah got lured to that sweat lodge she built and we were both dosed with...something. Grizzly thinks it...it was lust demon essence."
Debra's eyes filled with tears but she said nothing. "It was lust-demon essence," Grizzly affirmed.
"We...we couldn't stop, Deb, we tried. Mah hand of God..."
"You...you had sex with her," Deb whispered. "After all your promises and protests of how much you love Wyatt, the god damned instant my back is turned...!"
"Deb, it wasn't like that!" Lanie pleaded.
"How was it, you whore?" she shouted, tears running down her face. "The bear makes Wyatt a complete man slut but I thought you had integrity, Elaine Nalley!"
"God damn it, Deb, listen to me!" she shouted back. "Yes, alright? Ah wanted to fuck Kayda! Ah admit it! Ah wanted to dive into her and wrap her around me! There, Ah said it! But we didn't have sex by choice!"
"The flap on the tent was covered in lust-demon essence! You took demonology! You know there is no resisting a lust demon! And god damn you, we both still tried! When we finally came out of it Kayda was hysterical because she thought she'd raped me! Her first thought was how she'd betrayed you! She's terrified that even though it wasn't her fault, you can't or won't forgive her, but that you'll turn her away now because of this. She's scared to death of losin' you!"
The tears streamed down the older girls face. "Why are you telling me this?" she demanded.
"Because Ah wasn't lying at the table, and she wasn't lying. Sure, Ah turn her on, and she turns me on." Elaine sighed and reached out to pull the other girl into a hug. In her ear, she whispered, "But she loves you. Ah'm so sorry, Deb, if Ah could undo it, Ah would!"
Debra withdrew and sniffed to clear her sinus, where she forced a smile through the tears. "No you wouldn't," she managed with a laugh that wasn't quite so forced. "You...you know you wanted her."
She shook her head and spun around to pace. "No, I'm sorry, Lanie, it sounded funny in my head." She sniffed again and wiped her nose on her sleeve. "Thank...thank you. This was hard to hear, I won't lie, but knowing you came and told me, shows you weren't..." Her eyes flooded and spilled down her cheeks. "I love her, Lanie!"
The redhead leapt the fence and hugged the other girl. "Ah know, Deb! Ah'm sorry!"
"Don't you take her from me! I don't know what I'd do without her!" Deb's legs gave out and the two girls sank into the grass as the final dam gave way and Debra sobbed out her grief and fear. "Don't take her from me!"
"Ah won't," Lanie swore. "Ah swear, Deb, Ah won't take her!"
Debra clung to her friend and wailed out her grief and frustration that she could not even have the solace of anger. So she held onto Lanie while she tried to believe these new promises of honor and fidelity and wept out her sorrow. For her part, Elaine could only hold the friend she had unwillingly betrayed and let her cry.