September 7th, 2007, Range 4
“No, Buxton, you are specifically on my ‘fuck off’ list for Range Control, you aren’t accessing my armory, you will not touch my ammunition, and if you threaten me again I will throw your ass down the fucking hill and let the kids use you for target practice!”
The Platoon Sergeant frowned. The whole “Junior Range goons being intransigent” seemed to be a theme over the last eight years, or so he was told by some of the hats who’d been around longer. “Look, I get that you haven’t been here long…”
“Motherfucker do not try to play the 'new guy' card with me. I have seen your files that my boy, Hijacker kept on you shitasses, I know just how many attempted break-ins you twits have attempted and just how much ordinance you fuckers have misplaced.” Heckel wasn’t even howling, nor bothering with his ample ability to be heard across a parade deck without shouting.
“I’m just saying it’s not a good idea to set yourself against the Security teams. There’s no need for this hostility…” He let out an urk! As a hand grabbed him from behind, and Heckel grinned as he saw the metal-haired amazon girl spin Buxton, shove him and put her jungle boot into his ass to send him skidding away from the firing area.
“Get the fuck off my range, buddyfucker, or I’ma shove your head up your ass again!” The girl roared.
“Girl if you think I’m going to put up with…”
Buxton very slowly turned and looked, seeing the chromed, ivory-handled sidearm the girl had taken from Trout aimed at his head. “Go complain to Delarose. Ranges are off limits to you fucksticks, per Sergeant-Major Sean Burlington-Smythe. So unless you have a criminal investigation that requires your presence inside the armory vaults? Fuck off.”
Heckel looked at the tattooed, metal-haired girl and simply said “Huh. It’s amazing what you learn when you pay attention Buxton, I have a class to teach in ten minutes, now get the fuck off my range.”
“Delarose’s pet banshee ain’t gonna be here to push me around every time, Samson.”
Caitlin looked at the new range instructor. “Oh, I’m sorry, I was trying to help, not give the yard trash the impression that you needed it to deal with him. He’s all yours, Sergeant.” She nodded to the Range Monkey and holstered her sidearm. Heckel was happy to note that she’d thumbed the safety back on.
“Very well, we will play.”
Five minutes later, Heckel was wiping the blood off of his knuckles, and using a lighter to cauterize the cuts he’d gotten on Buxton’s teeth. “So explain to me why, oh why, you think I should not skin you for drawing down on Buxton?”
“You have the Auth clearance for the Back Cage?”
“What do you know about the Back Cage?” Heckel eyeballed her suspiciously.
“I’m the person previously responsible for guarding the Armory vaults from the likes of Turd Platoon, and keeping the counts up.” She looked at the man stumbling away. “He knows the Back Cage is NatSec. He still keeps letting his flunkies try to get in.”
“Auth Clearance has been given, Codeword is Victory.”
Caitlin nodded. “Let’s get you set up so I can leave this piece of shit behind me.”
“How did you wind up authorized to even look at it?”
“Long, stupid story. But I’ll pull my Trophy out of there so you don’t accidentally stumble on it.”
“The Reaper Blade. It kills anything organic it touches. Since I don’t qualify anymore, I’m keeping it out of people's’ hands.”
Heckel wished he hadn’t, even after she made the thing vanish from reality. He also suddenly understood why Whateley Academy had a “Lethal Force Required” lockup on-site. There were some things he never wanted to see, and some things he wished he hadn’t seen again, inside. But he suddenly understood just why the girl had threatened Buxton, and why she would get away with doing so.
Razorback was sketching the scene in front of the Crystal Hall, with students walking by. The centerpiece of the sketch was a dreadlocked nerdboy in terribad attire holding out a mug, sitting on the bench. Jericho thought panhandling was funny, especially since some of the rich kids were stupid enough to drop loose change in his cup.
Imp actually tossed a quarter into the cup hard enough to bounce out enough coins to get coffee. She put them back, of course, but it was amusing, as the boy gave no sign of realizing she’d done it.
Razorback could only chuckle as his buddy pretended not to notice. The details solidified in the picture in front of the geodesic dome. Jericho was lounging, holding out his cup and grinning ridiculously. The only thing missing were the two humorless Security Officers walking up to do something about his beggar behavior.
So Jack drew them into the scene.
He didn’t draw the blind devisor drawing a devise to throw at his feet, to create a plume of smoke, only to realize that it exploded in his hand, spraying half his body with purple dye and glitter.
“CURSES! I left my getaway devises in my other pair of radioactive pants! Feet, don’t fail me now!” Jericho beat feet towards the Crystal Hall, looking somehow worse than when he started. The two security officers who were going to see him about the panhandling simply shook their heads, and walked away.
Neither of the Outcast boys realized that an Imp was watching, and smiling approvingly.
Caitlin and Razorback were on the quad, goofing off. The pair were wrestling, tossing each other around to the amusement of some of the other kids, who enjoyed seeing the two tossing each other around like rag dolls, because it was fun. Unfortunately there were some on campus who could not figure out the difference between work and play.
Aegis saw the Raptor tackle a tattooed girl with a killer body, as she was pounced on and driven to the ground, and his brain shut down, barely registering that she seemed to fling the clawed monstrosity off of herself with surprising ease, kipping up and trying to grab the insanely fast creature as they circled around. She whipped out a nightstick and cracked it on the ground, causing the ground to shake and unbalance everyone near her, as she went after the much larger monster, and no one was helping her.
Aegis charged, “Get away, I’ll hold it off!” His noble act was met with shocked looks, disbelief and more than a few facepalms around the quad. Unfortunately he didn’t see them.
Caitlin saw the bleached-blonde, spiky-haired boy charging Razorback, and as the two turned and paused, she snapped an arm out across his chest yelling “Nope!” and knocked the startled boy flat on his ass.
Then Razor jumped on him, knocking the air out of his lungs right before he remembered to put up his PK field, and got to enjoy the sensation of trying to get up while a four hundred pound dinosaur decided to bounce gleefully up and down on him while the metal-haired girl laughed.
Caitlin took a knee, and poked Aegis in the forehead. “He’s my training team Speedster, twit. Figure out what the hell is going on before you decide to jump in!”
Razorback bounced up and down on top of him twice more then hopped off, using his clawed feet to rip furroughs in the lawn and kick dirt on the embarrassed boy like a cat burying a turd in a litterbox.
The two Outcasts wandered off, shaking their heads.
Zenith rolled her eyes and picked the Freshman up. “Really, of all the people, you tried to rescue two of the Outcasts from each other?”
Aegis shook off and grumbled. “How was I supposed to know they were both villains in training?”
“Ok, stop that line of thought right there, newbie.” Zenith looked him dead in the eye. “Those two are ragers. They are ragers whom, if you provoke, can and likely will kill you if they snap, because neither one can stop themselves. They are also two ragers who saved more people in Darwin when Reaper attacked than you likely will in your entire life.”
Aegis looked at the leaving pair dubiously. “How was I supposed to know they were friends?”
“Did you ask? There’s several capes who were watching them toss each other around. Do you think if they were trying to kill each other they would have let them go at it?” Zoe gave the boy a look. “Pay attention, Razorback could have hurt you badly.”
Aegis doubted that. The two of them had caught him by surprise, though. He should have kept his PK field up the whole time. In the spirit of diplomacy, he nodded and went and wandered over to the Crystal hall. He didn’t need some random blonde in a hoodie to tell him how to be a Hero, even if she was hot.
Zoe, for her part, followed the two Outcasts for a while, then waited for Razorback to break away as Caitlin wandered up towards Hawthorne. “Penny for your thoughts?” Zoe looked at the taller girl quietly.
“I try not to think most days, it hurts less.” Caitlin snorted as they hiked up to her cottage.
“Was wondering about the Hooligans. When I called everyone together I was kinda expecting you to take the lead.”
“Why would I do that?” Caitlin smirked at the Senior. “Sure I have the best feel for the runs, but I honestly have more fun teaching people how than showing I can lead the pack. I think the Hooligans have their lead, and I think that she’ll do just fine. Even if she is a Crazy Poesie.”
“Zoe I know you’re psychic, I know full well that you’ve probably caught bits you didn’t mean to, or wish you hadn’t.”
The hoodie-locked girl nodded slightly.
“The Hooligans are never, were never, and will never be about me.” Caitlin led Zoe to a quiet space where most in Hawthorne avoided due to Spoof’s frequent manifestations. “When you called the Hooligans together this year? You called them, you led them, and there was no voice against you, no complaints.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready to lead the Hooligans the way y…” Zoe stopped herself, “The way Teach did.”
Caitlin grinned. “Trust a Poesie… Evil knows it’s own, eh Zenith?”
The nod and smirk told the whole tale in response.
Caitlin pulled the hoodie’s hood off Zoe’s head. “You got hurt once, and you’ve recovered. You reconciled, and you got better. Zenith, the Hooligans are a club, here for fun, to run, and to be who and what you want to be. Past doesn’t matter. I’m fairly certain you were going to be the one picked as the Student lead of the Hooligans this year anyway.”
Zoe’s eyes went wide, but she didn’t say anything, just listening.
“Take the hoodie off, put a real shirt on, and run your hooligans. I’ll help the newbies.” Caitlin gave Zoe a smile. “The Parkour Hooligans were always about you, and Breaker, Slapdash, Thrasher, Aquerna, Gateway… All of you and whoever comes after. Seriously, quit hiding your face under a hoodie, girl.”
“You’ve been saying that for years, though,” Zenith said quietly.
“And I’m right, too. You’re my first Hooligan, and I’ve seen how you compete, how you help the newbies and how you run. Give ‘em an example that isn’t a hardasstic, cranky asshole and they’ll come right to you to see if they can learn. I’ll be here, helping you out because regardless of what anyone thinks, Zoe Nesmith, over the last three years you’ve earned it.”
“It’s good to have you back, even if we can’t tell anyone.” Zoe hugged her and smiled. “Too bad the rest of the campus never got to see you off the ranges.”
“They never looked. Now let’s scoot, before someone comes wandering in looking to see what we’re up to.”
“I’m not ditching the hoodie.”
“I’ll bribe Sahar to burn all of them.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Who you think you’re talking to?”
“A sophomore who’s cruising for a bruising!”
“Bring it shaggy! No more hoodies, no more hiding!”
“Shaggy? Shaggy?” Zenith put her hands on her hips indignantly.
“Tell you what. I’ll race you to the top of the Crystal Hall. If I win, you have to toss the hoods. You win? I’ll never mention it again. You’re an exemplar five, you should be able to beat me!” Caitlin gave her a sly smirk.
Zoe stopped for a second, then shook her head. “Got a spare shirt? I know better than to go for THAT bait.”
“Yeah sure, but they’ll be a bit large and baggy on you.”
“Works for me!” Zenith said cheerily.
“Curses! Foiled again!”
There was a Marine Sergeant waiting outside Bellows’ office in full uniform as Nikki Reilly scooted off from her mandatory evaluation period. The man was in the khaki and green uniform that most civilians wouldn’t differentiate from an army uniform.
“Can I help you?” Bellows was curious why the man was there.
“Yes sir, I’m here as a courier for Brigadier General Pearson, to read you in on certain events.”
Bellows was genuinely confused as the man entered his office, closed the door and activated an anti-snooping device. “Here you go sir, this is a file Dossier on seven marines.” He withdrew seven file jackets and handed them to Bellows. “Before you start reading, this is Eyes-Only material, I will be taking the folders with me after you sign the documentation and read them.”
Bellows looked at the ream of “Eyes-only” warnings and penalties for violating clearances. He’d left the service to get away from this stupidity many years ago. He almost refused when he saw the names on the files: Samson, White, Rockham, Dominguez, Mendez… Mahren. Bellows signed the paperwork, then opened each Dossier, reading the psych workup on each of the men, noting that four of them were genuinely marked in as in need of help. He also took note that three of them were marked in a way that bespoke the military finding a reason to eject them.
Multiple decorations, campaign medals, and highly competent were the words he would have chosen for these men in the folders, right alongside broken, tormented and desperate for four of them. He put the dossiers back in the briefcase. “How much can they tell me?”
The Sergeant looked at Bellows for a long moment before speaking. “Everything they’ve gone through, or seen, they can tell you, Doc. You have full access per my boss.”
Bellows nodded, then let the Marine show himself out, the single sheet of paper detailing what, exactly he was allowed to know, in vague words, sitting on his desk before him. This was going to take some careful thought.
Circe looked at the six children arrayed before her in the classroom. Well, five children and one ornery Artificer were there, anyway. “Carson says you lot need a bit of background on the whole “Five-Fold Courts” thing. I don’t know why she’s having me do it, I’m not remotely that old!”
“Probably finding another reason to stick Loophole into a snowglobe so she can shake her,” Monica quipped.
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Circe’s attention diverted as she considered. “Not a snow globe, no. But close…”
“Earth to Circe, there are people in the here and now.” Caitlin snapped her fingers flippantly as the Magic Department head zoned out.
The Mediterranean woman gave Caitlin a scowl. “I should turn you into a pig for that.”
“Good luck with that.” Caitlin grinned. “Love ya bunches, Milady student advisor, but collectively we’re extremely ADHD. Our attention span is only as long as Razorback’s.”
Razorback heard his name and stopped pretending to snore, sputtering and coming awake, smacking his jaws together.
“Quite.” The old Sorceress gave the Outcasts a flat look. “How much do you all know about the courts?”
“Not a lot,” Jericho said ruefully, “just that there were five, as pointed at by the name. Dragons, Elves, Genies, and Merpeople all together with… I dunno.”
“Don’t look at me, I just know what the inside of a Forge from the time period looks like.” Caitlin snorted. “And I destroyed the Center Court Artificer Forge at Uluru.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that last part, so I don’t go insane.”
The Outcasts just grinned.
“So why has Carson been worried about me?” Monica asked.
“Carson is worried because you Outcasts together are a Blood-Circle bound to, as rumor has it, one of the Four Sisters.” She looked at the children, considering. “I explain this only as I do because it is the closest approximation to what the Court actually was. Even the spirits who lived during the time cannot fully explain the Earthen Court because it was in many ways, a court in name only, and the Four Sisters were its leaders, or overseers, or simply the most potent creatures among them.”
“Heh, I don’t feel particularly potent… Okay, let me amend that. I don’t feel particularly potent when standing next to a lot of the other kids here on campus.” Monica was considering carefully. “The spirit never gave me a name, said she had forgotten it. Then both Cait and some dragon-looking Dallas guy both tagged the name Terra-Kashaly, Thirdborn. It’s familiar, it’s like I should know it, but it doesn’t actually mean anything to me.”
“I suppose if the old traditions were held to it would be Terra-Anomaly, or Terra-Monica, Firstborn.” Circe looked at the six-armed girl carefully. “The Sisters were children of the Earth itself, or so claims are made, more force of nature than living creature, and each bonded with a mortal to gain a guiding consciousness. Unlike spirits of the Astral, most spirits of the physical world have no sentience on their own, and cannot affect the world directly without joining to a host.”
“Are you telling me my sister’s an immortal force of nature?” Sandra gave Circe a skeptical look.
“Given what happened to the immortal creature that joined with me, I’m not so sure immortality’s as much of a blessing as some think.” Monica said wryly.
“Quite so.” Circe looked at the Outcasts. “I look into the future, but the veil blinds me at the closest juncture. I cannot tell you who, or what you will be, but I can tell you that you are a creature of the Primal Court. The Court where Natural Law is the whole of the law. Hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed, rise and be the hero, or burn out like a guttering star.”
“So what does that make Noms there?” Jericho nodded at his old friend.
“An infant, in many ways.” Circe wandered over and looked the odd girl in the eyes. “The Four Sisters were the last shield of the world. They constantly sought the unattainable, perfection, and power. When they were killed, they would subsume another mortal creature, not always human, and grow. When they had achieved a pinnacle of their growth and achieved ennui, they would hunt for a mortal, almost always human, and teach them a ritual of succession.”
Circe continued, looking at the six young guardians fate had placed before her. “When they allowed the mortal to complete the ritual, they would shed most of their power, save for the indestructible core of what they are, and subsume themselves into a new host, so they could look at the world through new eyes and begin their eternal hunt again. Then the other three would take their new sister, and teach her what she needed to know to grow and learn, and see the world through their eyes.”
“Damn, and here I was hoping we’d get an instruction manual for once.” Caitlin quipped, smirking.
“The other thing that you should know, that would make Anomaly important is that only the Four Sisters had the authority to sanctify the Five-Fold Court, and act as the mediators and enforcers that kept things together.”
“And humans? Where would we fall in this mess?” Jericho had a funny feeling he knew the answer.
“Pets, servants, nomads, food, all of the things that humanity has railed against, time and again.” Circe looked at Jericho oddly.
“Fuck that.” Monica looked at the others. “Cait was right, let the Five-Fold Courts rot. I’m not going to allow some inhuman fucks to declare open season on my family and friends.”
Circe smirked. “The only way you can prevent that, would be to find the other three sisters, and enjoin your thoughts there, Monica. It would only take one of you. And the Four Sisters were always sisters by Blood-Circle, not by birth.”
“Now I really want to go find that Sidhe and strangle the bejeezus out of her.” Monica sighed. “She told me to teach you guys how to do the ritual for some reason. She also wanted me to go give the ‘Queen to Come’ her regards. Not that I have any idea what the fuck that shit is all about.”
“Oh goody, I always wanted to hear Nikki scream.” Caitlin grinned.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope, she’s not,” Diamondback interjected.
“And suddenly I question the wisdom of binding myself to the lot of you.” Deimos smirked wryly. “Sorry if I haven’t been much involved, I don’t have a whole lot of frame of reference to this spirit shit.”
“Would that we all had your ignorance,” Sandra rolled her eyes, then looked at a corner of the room and hissed at something, almost as though to punctuate her statement. “Might as well teach us how to do it. Your seer apparently said we’re gonna need it.”
“Sounds like an awful lot of manipulation and tampering.” Jericho didn’t like it, not one bit.
“Now that we have all that behind us,” Circe began lightly, “Caitlin, dear would you care to explain why you are failing in basic algebra so very badly, again?”
“What?” Caitlin could feel five pairs of eyes locking onto her, staring with disbelief.
September 8th, 2007
“All right Outcasts for our first dance I figured that in the spirit of the New Year I would give you a simple defense simulation.” Gunny Bardue was very carefully schooling his face and voice as he laid out the straightforward mission. “You’re going to be in the New York Sewers, the city subcontracted your company to clean out sewer monsters, and you got tapped because of your… native expertise.”
“Gee, thanks, no snarky connotations there at all.” Janine’s voice was dry as she looked at the monster squad she was now a part of.
“None whatsoever I assure you.” Gunny turned and grinned evilly to himself, then pointed at the screen. “The scenario you actually find yourselves in, has nothing to do with monsters. What you find is a loose pack of about eight GSD runaway children. They’re the monsters you were sent to hunt, and now the company has broken off contact with you when you reported that the monsters were children.” He turned back to them. “You have every reason to suspect that your company has sent another team to… sterilize the situation if you won’t.”
“Oh yay, hey everyone who else needs a reminder why they can’t walk out in public?” Diamondback snarked as she raised her hand, noting that none of her friends did.
“I didn’t actually make this one up, Diamondback.” Gunny gave her a serious look.
“So we’re going to be doing a historical re-creation?”
“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?” Caitlin gave her ‘adopted father’ a hard look.
“Your suspicious nature wounds me, girl!”
The Outcasts rolled their eyes and went to the sims. As the small children and the sewer appeared around them, Anomaly looked over at Caitlin. “Trap?”
“Trap.” Jericho answered for his team tactician, “All right folks, we dunno how much time we got available. Secure the little ones and lock down the perimeter. We can’t just sneak them out to the Orphanage and call this a win.”
The Outcasts immediately went about doing the rotten things required to introduce whatever attackers might come to the “Monsters in the sewers” scenario that they so very much loved.
“Wild Pack, your mission is simple. Monsters have been discovered in the new York Sewers. It is believed that one of the creatures is the leader, a psychic that can absorb other people's’ consciousnesses into a gestalt and enslave them. All studies conclude that this gestalt is both full mental enslavement, and it is incurable.” Gunny looked at the students who were suddenly grim-faced.
The old Marine continued on with the brief when the more serious students declined to snark. “Your mission is sterilization. If even one of these creatures gets loose amongst the populace, they can enslave the entire city. One team has already been compromised, Outcast Corner has been taken and is now in the monster’s thrall. You have been ordered to fully sanitize the sewer system of all trace of this burgeoning hive mind. Do you have any questions?”
The Wild Pack grimaced a bit, but shook their heads. They were ready.
“Get to your sim pods. God only knows how long the Outcasts have been given to prepare for you.”
The Wild pack got up and grimly went to their simulator pods, careful not to discuss tactics until they were in-sim. Outcast Corner was bad enough when there were just three of them, and now there were six of them. This was going to take a lot of work, and very fast thinking.
Gunny Bardue waited until the last of the Wild Pack were ensconced within their Simulator pods, dropping into the simulation when he sent a signal and a gaggle of nightmares in sailor fuku uniforms poured in.
“Wondercute! Your mission is simple. One of your disgustingly adorable friends disappeared two weeks ago. Rumor is that she was turning into a monster. Just ten minutes ago, you learned that your missing friend was seen being taken by monsters into the New York Sewer. You’ve had just enough time for your team devisor to cobble together an adorableness tracker.”
“Get in there and rescue that little girl before the monsters eat her.”
“Aye, Gunny!” Jade yelled fiercely as she and the other wondercuties bolted in to settle themselves into the simulator.
As the last group began settling into the sims, carefully spaced out so that none would meet the others too soon, a woman’s voice purred. “That was actually evil, Gunny. I approve!”
“Imp, you know what to do. I just need you to get used to the sims, and evaluate the lot of them today, nothing fancy.”
“I can do that.”
Two minutes later, Wondercute’s missing twelve-year-old Imp friend rezzed into the scene, unnoticed by the frantically preparing Outcasts, and found herself herded into a very reinforced room. “This won’t do at all.” She vanished, creeping out to watch the mayhem, rather in the manner of a curious child.
Adam “Stormwolf” Ironknife was cussing up a storm already. Firecat was down, and Stonebear had already been locked up. It had been a disaster and a half after Stonebear tripped over some kinda landmines that blasted the eight-foot Senior so hard he pancaked unconscious against the ceiling. He was still concussed. Firecat had been snatched, unexpectedly, when gravity suddenly decided it wanted to go sideways and dropped him right on top of Eldritch and her nightstick.
Firecat was now aware of the girl’s immunity to fire. He was also face-down and unconscious. Now Stormwolf had a face full of the two mystic Outcasts in Eldritch and Diamondback, one of whom had a love affair with armor piercing handgun rounds, the other who was remarkably adept at not being where he swung.
Razorback and Jericho were going back and forth with Thunderfox as the girl desperately traded fire with Jericho down the concrete and stone corridors and hallways, pausing occasionally to swing at Razorback, to knock him away with her power bat long enough to keep him from completely wrecking her self-repairing armor.
Mindbird was desperately trying to hide while the two multi-limbed maniacs hunted her. Anomaly and Deimos weren’t exactly pushovers, and her psychic invisibility didn’t stop the six-armed warper from pulling everything to her, or Deimos from occasionally catching her emotional trail and following her like a bloodhound.
None of the wild pack were pushovers, and Anomaly went flying as Stonebear came back in a fury, smashing the Pk Outcast across the room into a wall. Mindbird grabbed the ruby-flashing Deimos before the brickbuster of Outcast corner could pull him apart with her regen-shattering, hellclaws.
They were outnumbered. They needed an angle.
“Stormwolf, I’m not sensing any psychic activity here, just Eldritch and Diamondback buggering the area with magic!”
“Shit, bad inte…” He stopped and grunted as Caitlin slammed into him, smashing him through a door in a berserk fury. It didn’t really hurt, but the curious little faces poking out from a door were clearly visible. As was their GSD. He slammed the Outcast away from him, into a wall. “Fall back, Wild Pack, grab Firecat.”
“Say what?” Mindbird barked in her comms.
“The Outcasts are sitting on GSD children, fall back!”
“Get away from them!” He heard Diamondback’s shriek erupt under her skull-mask and red robes as he was blasted back into a wall by the emerald Force-wave.
“Where’s our friend you monsters?” an impudent voice demanded as insanity began to engulf all of the combatants.
“Fuck, it’s Wondercute!” Eldritch screamed into her comms. “They have backup!”
“Oh for shit’s sake, how could this get any worse?” Stonebear asked.
Heavy machinegun fire ripped across the place where Firecat was slowly regaining consciousness. As he looked up, he saw the powder-blue suits of MCO power armor opening fire on Anomaly and Deimos. “MCO, you are all under arrest, drop your weapons and…”
A core ejector round blasted through the armor, killing the operator as Jericho spat “Fuck you.”
“Guys? It just got worse.”
Caitlin got to know the joy of having to fight someone using her own Parkour tricks in close as Aquerna dove on her, forcing her onto the defensive in a manner she was unaccustomed to. “Get away from my friends you monsters!”
Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue basked in the seventeen glares locked upon him. If looks could kill, he’d be dead and his soul slow-roasted and served with a side order of Red Wine. The good stuff, not that cheap boxed crap. It made him feel like he had done his job well.
“And what did we learn today?” he smiled beatifically.
“That you’re an inhuman bastard?” Jericho posited.
“Oh please, if you hadn’t figured that out by now you’re a slow learner.” Mindbird snarked.
“I was in denial.”
“We learned that you will give three different briefings to three different groups and send them in to collide.” Stormwolf had kept his helmet on, so Gunny couldn’t see his face.
“Correct. Just because you have intel on a situation doesn’t mean you have good intel. Or any meaningful intel.” Gunny looked at the Outcasts, who had all gone down save for Jericho for one reason or another. “The briefing I gave them was the discovery that their intel was bad, and that they were protecting a bunch of GSD kids.”
He turned to the Wild Pack. “You all got the briefing that was meant to kill two birds with one stone, deal with the monster-babies, and burn the monsters that the company felt were an image liability.”
“Wondercute was given a vague idea that the sewers were where a missing friend had been taken by monsters.” Bardue looked at the fuku-clad girls. Wondercute wasn’t nearly as upset at getting torn up badly as they had in their first loss. Their disastrous encounter in the sewers delivered by the berserkers defending the GSD children, then the Wild Pack hunting them, then the MCO was taken in stride incredibly well. “Then the MCO decided they were monster-hunters too.”
Aquerna, for once, looked remarkably pleased with herself. She’d managed to stick an explosive slap-patch made by Bunny onto Eldritch in their acrobatic Parkour-fight while not getting shot, or caught in the blast.
Bardue looked at everyone. “It’s a highly improbable, nearly impossible convergence, I’ll admit, but it happened in ‘92 when a cleaner corp with ties to Wulfin the Purifier decided that their GSD monster squad had outlived their usefulness. A small group of mutant children and an MCO Power armor squad got into the mix. The result was a tragedy.”
“You all, at least, managed to not lose a single child. Not even the one I had roaming just to see if anyone could catch her.”
“Gee, thanks for this wonderful opener to the Sim year… Dad.” Caitlin said drily, her tone dripping with irritation.
“You’re welcome! I’m more than happy to show the quality of education you can get here in Crisis Sim Central.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something, Gunny?” A female voice came from nowhere.
“Ah yes, my teaching aide today will be critiquing your performances. Mostly because I have important things to do. I want a three-page-per-team-member report on what happened, what you could do better and where things went wrong.” Gunny grinned, put a cigar between his teeth, did a textbook right-face and marched from the sim room.
A puff of smoke erupted near the podium, and a woman who looked an awful lot like the devil-girl in the simulation appeared. “Now… Who wants to go first?”
“Anomaly, Mrs. Horton says she needs you to come talk to her.” Murphy looked annoyed as she walked into the room.
“That stupid spell thing.”
Monica looked at the door, looked at her books, picked up her gear and shrugged. “Not happening.” She smiled beatifically to hide the upwell of fear bleeding from the back of her mind. “If anyone needs me for anything important, I’ll be in the band room. Anyone who needs to know will know what you mean.”
“Of all the things, why fight about this?”
“Because it’s my free will, and I’m not letting anyone take any portion of it away.” The six-armed girl patted Murphy on the shoulder. “Odds are you’ll have it slip off the way you mangle.”
“You’re gonna get in trouble, you know.”
“Don’t care!” Monica gave her roommate a bright smile.
Murphy giggled and gave the six-armed girl a fistbump. “I’ll give you a couple minutes, then go tell Horton you said no and left.”
“So the rumors are true, you do say shit to people just to watch the outraged expressions?”
Joanne Gunnarson grinned evilly. “Tis one of my few true joys in life.”
“I think we’ll get along juuust fine.” Monica grinned.
“Why don’t you just tell her no?”
“Because she has no right to demand that the rest of us suffer a Geas because Sharisha outted Nikki and Fey to my sister.” Anomaly shrugged. “She has no right to put us under a geas.”
“Sharisha did what?”
“You heard me right. Anyone but Diamondback and that shit might be all over school.” Monica shook her head. “And she did it in the common room here in Poe.”
Murphy blinked, and stood uncomprehending. Her brain could not process the level of stupid that would have taken to be seen as a good idea.
“See ya later, Murph.”
She hit the stairs and dropped into the new tunnel entrance under the cottage, hiking the way out towards the junction near Poe and hiked towards the Thorny Den, leaving her roommate to try desperately reconciling what she heard Sharisha had done with anything resembling intelligent behavior.
She didn’t even bother to be irate that Bella Horton wanted to enforce the stupid magic on her. It wasn’t like she didn’t have a sister who’d simply strip it off again and flush the essence the House Mother wasted down the toilet. But bluntly… she didn’t feel safe around someone who felt that she had to put a brake on her free will.
So Monica did exactly what she and Sandra had done whenever they had been in danger of being within twenty feet of Pastor Farris back home. She snuck off somewhere she could feel safe. Despite the fact that she knew the House Mother cared deeply, she didn’t feel safe around Bella Horton. Every instinct she had screamed at her to run.
So Monica hiked over to the Outcast’s Corner, popped open the biometric locks, entered the large room and locked herself in so she could start shaking in private..
The Flying Blue Squirrel, that night.
“Ahhh, my new boss.” The weaselly-looking skinny man that greeted Buxton looked like he was on the take from the get-go as he unceremoniously sat down at the table of Third Platoon’s sergeant.
“Don’t recall asking you to be my drinking buddy.” Buxton eyed the man distastefully. He recognized the new meat from the last few days prepping for the duty changeover. They had dropped him into the rotation early to get him acclimated to the school.
“You didn’t, you won’t, and bluntly, I brought beer anyway.” The man slid the mug over to Buxton. “I thought you and I needed to have a chat before we go on duty together. And no, I’m not here to make threats or demand in on your operations. I figure I can find my own way, or you’ll decide I’m worth cutting in on your own.”
“So why, then, are you disturbing my calm?”
“My name is Jerry Mendez, your replacement for the guy that got gibbed by Deathlist last year. I just got done having a very long chat with Franklin Delarose about my place and purpose as Whateley Security, and from his tone he sounded like he wanted a few things fixed in the platoon. From his commentary I’m guessing you are the one he wants to fix them, so I am going to do you two favors, pro bono to establish my credentials.”
“So why do you think I need your help?” The Sergeant asked warily.
“Need? Nah, you have your own thing going here, and you don’t need a rookie telling you how to operate. I can, however, make your life more predictable.”
Buxton looked at the weaselly man with a hard look, finally, noting the stone cold look of someone who was not a third-rate amateur. “I’m listening. If I don’t like what I hear, I’m gonna put you on every shit detail I can find between now and doomsday.”
“First, Carson hired me to watch third, and make sure you fuckers don’t step far enough out of line that she has to intervene.”
“So you’re to report on everything we do directly to the boss?”
“No. Not even closely. From what Delarose tells me, you’re the only one in third with his eye on the prize. Not so much in straight talk, but the implication that you don’t want someone hacking open the golden goose to get at the eggs is definitely there.” The weaselly man looked at his new boss with a rather serious expression. “I think you and me can work things so that Third doesn’t actually do anything that I have to bring to Carson, right? Neutrality gives some leeway, but you know where the lines are, and you respect them, don’t you?”
Buxton looked around slowly and gave a slow nod, noting that whoever this guy was, he was intelligent enough to not say anything openly accusatory or incriminating. “I see your point. Yes, I know the rules, so your first favor is telling me you are a watchdog, and wanting to help me so you don’t need to bark. Why?”
“Opportunity. I’d be retarded to think that there isn’t some good things one can get out of this place without burning and looting it.” Jerry looked at Buxton. “My second favor, is I will teach you how to do what you need to do without clashing with the range crew. I am to understand that they cut the teeth of their new hires on your asses, and that this was left over from the fuckups Delarose replaced with you and Trout.”
Buxton was now definitely interested, Range crew hostility had been the bane of his existence, and caused him to lose out on some choice opportunities. That wasn’t even including the aggravation of having a shrieking Mahren, Wilson, or now that Sophomore girl ripping through his office, cussing. “I’m getting a bit tired of them, and their threats to shoot my boys.”
“Those aren’t threats.” Mendez looked Buxton in the eye. “If any of the range crew catch your boys successfully tampering with the ammo bunkers and weapon vaults they will shoot you. They have orders and authorization to shoot you. Carson had to sign off on that little piece of ass in order to get authorization to have those ranges and bunkers in the first place. The fact that they have not is because they’d rather you learn to leave them alone rather than putting an over-curious ass in the ground.”
“Then there’s that vault-within-a-vault that is out on range four, the back cage.” Buxton grimaced.
“Delarose flat told me that the Back Cage needs to come off your radar.” Mendez looked at him quietly. “The AEGIS loaders that Gizmatic has a bounty for the recovery of aren’t the ones held in the back-cage lockup. The ones in the back cage are the most recent variant, designed by a kid called Slapdash. The original Giz loaders are… I know where, and I will tell you if you agree to pretend that the vault-within-a-vault does not exist. There are some things that need to never see the light of day, man. I know one thing that is in there for certain. I helped put it there. The Back Cage needs to stay closed.”
Buxton chewed on the man’s words. He didn’t like leaving things be, but he saw the look in Mendez’ eyes, and doubted the man was lying. “Alright, first you have to tell me how to get around the range crew. Then you have to tell me how you know that, and I’ll agree to take the Back Cage off the blotter.”
“First one’s easy, it’s a control issue. Whateley Ranges are a military-controlled lockup, right? High muckety-mucks from SOCOM and other Alphabet-Soup agencies inspecting routinely. If something disappears from the range lockups, it’s their asses. They go to Leavenworth. Do not pass go, do not collect two-hundred dollars. Your retirement is cancelled. Hence why my boy Mahren, who was waaay too honest for his own goddamned good, was such an uptight and mean fucker.”
“So how do we get around that?”
“Paperwork.” Mendez grinned. “I looked at the procedure manual, and lo and behold, did you know that Whateley Security is not subject to that same level of scrutiny?”
“Of course I am.” Buxton gave Mendez an irate look.
“There is a piece of paperwork that is rarely used, in fact the last one was put out approximately nine years ago, back When Third Platoon decided that the rules were too inconvenient and the hoops to jump too tiresome, and from what I heard Talking to Gunny B is that Wilson gave your predecessors nightmares in a way my boy Mahren could never match.” The new-hire grinned. “It’s a formal request from Security for asset transfers from the range, restricted by cost and type, of course, that formally removes said assets from government oversight and places it in the care of Whateley Security.”
“How did you find that?”
“I asked. First thing I do whenever I come to a new place is figure out the rules. And no one on Third has ever used it in the last decade? How much ammo gets expended? How many parts wear out? How many things just break?” Mendez grinned. “That Everhart chicka is amazingly helpful if you ask the right questions, about how to do things that your predecessors may have neglected to train members of the platoon for.”
“What are the limits?”
“Personal weapons are no bueno. You can’t asset transfer anything registered to student, teacher or staff. Whateley Academy the entity has to own the piece outright.”
Buxton grinned. “You’re already turning up useful. And my other question? And how do you know that shitbag, Mahren?”
“I bled with that shitbag, as a member of Equalizer Squad in M-SOC Pacific. I’m a Dragonslayer, so was Mahren, and we’ve been officially declassified.”
“I am, of course, going to verify everything in detail before I touch any of it.” he gave Mendez a hard look. “Don’t fuck with me, I’ve had about as much as I can handle of people shitting up my life, and I’m not making you into a partner with a cut of my take.”
“I don’t want your take, I want a healthy, respectful relationship where the two of us can do our thing without mashing each others’ dicks.” Mendez nodded. “Besides, if you were that stupid I’d take you for everything you had, except whatever pair of underwear you had on at the time.”
“We’ll see. Alright Mendez, you’ve amused me a little. Tell you what, we keep this conversation between the two of us. If your story checks out? We might have ourselves a healthy, respectful relationship. If it doesn’t? Well, let’s just say the boys don’t like watchdogs, and they tend to let these things sort themselves.”
“Happy to hear it.” Mendez grinned. “And Buxton? Remember that time in Brazil back in 2000 right around November? You never saw me, but I remember you. If I have a training accident, the USMC will receive your full Dossier and personnel jacket and you will get to answer for assisting in the hijacking of that business jet that carried a pair of State Department Attaches and two Colonels, one of whom wound up very messily dead. Syndicate work pays well, but you forgot your face-concealing storm trooper helmet, and I have the photos.”
Buxton went a little pale. That operation had gone completely tits up, and the ensuing firefight had killed a lot of people. The military wasn’t well known for its “capture for trial” notions. He would effectively be imprisoned on Whateley Academy grounds until the day he died, if Carson didn’t fire him and evict him into the arms of the MPs herself.
“And remember, I’m one Dragonslayer. The others who are still alive will come hunting for why I died, and they all have full access to Whateley. I don’t think you can silence all of them without Carson or Delarose figuring it out. Do we have an understanding? I would hate for anyone to be implicated, such as someone telling several people he was planning on having a talk with you about… things.”
Buxton revised his opinion of the man rapidly. There was far more to Jerry Mendez than his dossier showed, apparently. He also had him over a barrel. As he watched the weaselly man get up and walk away, he finished his beer, and found a small photo in the bottom of the drink, discolored and warped from the moisture. Buxton could tell it was a picture of himself, wearing the red-striped black leather of a tiger uniform in Brazil right before the attack happened.
“And you’re sure you have no idea where she went?” Bella Horton asked the oddball roommate of Anomaly.
“Nope, not a clue.” Murphy shrugged. “She said something about a band room, but I have no idea where it is she’s talking about. Me and the Outcasts aren’t exactly tight.”
“It’s almost midnight and she hasn’t come back.” Horton eyed the clock sitting by an empty bed. “Again. What exactly did she say?”
“I’ve told you three times now. No offense Miss Horton, saying it a fourth isn’t going to change it.” Murphy noted the distressed look on the woman’s face. “I doubt she’s hurt or we’d have Diamondback ripping through here like a berserk, scaled harridan screaming to know where her twin is.”
“Wait, what?” Bella Horton drew herself back. “Twin sister? I knew Diamondback was her sister but twin?”
“Identical. Twin. Sister.” Murphy rolled the words out on her tongue. To be fair she was trying to keep her voice from dripping irony all over the room, but it was one of those magic moments where she could legitimately get one over on an adult at the school. The staff at Whateley were distressingly competent and perceptive in most cases. “You know now that I think about it, their faces are the same. Eyes too. GSD makes the rest harder to suss out but they have that same lithe upper body build.”
Bella Horton gave Murphy a flat look, knowing full well the mouthy Alaskan couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that. “And when were you planning to come tell me that she had left the cottage?”
“I wasn’t,” Murphy said evenly. “This argument’s between the two of you. Bluntly I only put up with the spell thingy because I figure it’ll pop off me as soon as I need it to, or at the least convenient time when I’ll actually have to use, you know, willpower to keep my mouth shut.”
“Do you think I am being unfair?”
“I’m not the one you need to ask, I didn’t want to come here to begin with. You and Mrs. Savage didn’t exactly give me the option, remember?”
Horton schooled herself, not used to having to deal with such a flippant, and bluntly ungrateful tone. To be fair, Murphy hadn’t wanted to come to Poe, and for the most part felt even more out of place among the LGBT kids than she had amongst the GSDs where she’d had to learn to master her instinctive panic at close proximity with physically deformed girls, many of whom could be used as the creature feature in a horror movie, including her ex-roommate. Now she had to learn to master discomfort at occasionally having some of the girls openly leer at her until they saw the lopsided-looking face with one glassy, onyx eye and a lot of creepy, white scars.
“Do you have any idea why she objects so vehemently?”
Murphy stopped, then considered and almost glowered at herself. “Answering that will sound a lot more snide than I intend it to be.” She considered carefully. “Beyond the fact that whenever someone mentions it to her she briefly looks like she’s about to have a panic attack? I’d say it probably has to do with feeling punished because Tempest ran at the mouth right before Christmas break and outing Fey and Chaka to Diamondback in the common room when it’s Sharisha’s fault that Diamondback found out to begin with?”
“And how can we be sure Diamondback won’t tell anyone?”
“Trust me,” Murphy said drily, “If Diamondback had told anyone everyone in Whitman would have been talking about it in hours. She has a knack for rumor-mongering, from what the other girls say, she does it every so often to keep in practice. Guarantee you if Diamond was inclined, I wouldn’t have been as shocked and loud when Mrs. Savage marched me over here. And if Monica’s a Changeling, how much ya wanna bet Diamondback is too? You can’t have identical twins of two different genders.”
“What makes you so sure Monica didn’t start female like you?”
“Makeup, more specifically complete lack thereof, style of dress, word use and of course the incessant, very quiet bitching about having to wear a bra every morning when she thinks I’m still asleep and I’m desperately trying to not be awake. Ignoring that, the words ‘how the hell do girls get used to this bullshit?’ may or may not have slipped her mouth from time to time.”
“You’re making judgments based on makeup, or lack thereof?” Miss Horton actually looked amused.
“I’m lazy, Anomaly isn’t.” Murphy smiled sweetly. “Besides, there isn’t enough makeup to cover up the injury albinism and eyeball fuckery.” She pointed at her odd left eye to illustrate.
Horton gave the crass girl a level look.
Murphy gave the look right back. “All I know for sure, I’m not picking sides in this little argument. It’s between you, her, and her guardian: The State of Texas. Good luck getting that parental permission.”
“Murphy, do you have to try and get the best of everyone else in a disagreement?”
“My level of cooperation is proportionate to my desire to be involved in the argument to begin with.” Murphy looked at Bella. “Roomie sez no. There’s no provisions in the school charter, state or federal law that supports you doing a mystic compulsion. I looked, once I figured out my new roomie was developing oppositional defiance disorder on the topic.”
Horton began rubbing her temples. “I’m beginning to understand why Mrs. Savage called you a handful.”
“No, that had more to do with the fact that I pick a fight with Pucelle every few weeks on general principle.” Murphy grinned. “Now instead of watching one of the arguably hottest girls in Whitman preach how all of us with normal faces should be ashamed for not suffering GSD I get to watch Hippolyta and Lancer use each other as bowling balls in the hallway. Just as fun, doesn’t require as much effort from me.”
Bella Horton laughed, despite herself as the flippant girl didn’t bother to justify her actions, or anyone else’s. “Please tell me you’re not going to make a habit of punching bricks for fun here in Poe.”
“Nah I do that every day in class with Mrs. Dennon. I’m planning to punch Fey in the face,” the snarky girl joked, “because I figure that it’ll make Disneyland on the night of July 4th look positively sedate by comparison.” She got a wicked grin. “It’s a small world after… BOOM!”
Horton rolled her eyes. “Go to sleep, Murphy.”
“You got it. As soon as the 48 ounce mug of coffee I just drank wears off.”
Horton sighed, but refused to rise to that last little bit of bait, instead making her way down the stairs to the basement and stopping to look at the small singleton room the Outcast Changeling girl had hidden out in for her first semester at the academy.
She hadn’t physically seen Monica Carter except flashes in passing for the first few days this year, or even much after the first time she’d made it clear to Anomaly that the spell she was using was for the cottage’s protection last year. Now she understood why.
The Outcast girl was avoiding her.
As Horton rubbed the charm on her necklace that alerted her when one of her charges was distressed, she followed the feeling to a solid, metal door with a biometric lock. There had been a few instances the previous semester where Anomaly had seemingly vanished from the cottage for days on end, usually corresponding with when she had wanted to see the young girl for something, always accompanied by a distressed feeling. Always leading here.
She knew the lock wouldn’t open for her. While she knew that she could probably have Security open the door it likely wouldn’t help.
Bella Horton left, heading back to Poe and wondering exactly how she had managed to alienate one of the girls in her cottage.
Caitlin and Louis both watched the small, blonde form sprawled out on the RA bed that never saw use on top of said RA. Miranda had passed out in Caitlin’s lap, using her odd sibling as a pillow after trying to learn everything she could about her “new” big sister. The poor girl had been a ball of excitement, worry, fear, and depression. She felt abandoned, lost, and worryingly, she was latching onto an emotionally unstable young woman who could, and had, snapped and tried to kill people.
“Why now, why here?” Caitlin finally spoke, two hours after the girl had fallen asleep. Her voice was almost inaudible, but that hardly mattered.
“Bad luck on the part of Miranda.” Louis finally responded. He was worried, as Miranda wasn’t much younger than he had been when he’d erupted in the psychic event that caged him in a swimming pool in the sub-basement of the cottage for the rest of his life. She was also as powerful a psychic as he’d been, without the refinement, experience or control that years of experience had taught him.
“How bad is she off, Louis?”
“Fortunately, more confused than anything. Everything’s happened so fast for her that she’s only just now processing what happened.” Louis paused, looking at the girl. “In her own way, Miranda’s as bad off as Adore, but she at least has you to anchor to.”
“That’s not a great qualifier, Louis. I’m not exactly all there.”
“Neither was your mother, from what I’m seeing from both of you, but you’re both used to family being a bit cracked.” He smirked. “All joking aside, I know you feel like you’re not the best role-model, and you have that berserker edge, Caitlin. It’s not true, and for your own sake and your sister’s I think it’s time that you finally began to understand and accept that you are a decent person, not a villain needing redemption.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew..” Caitlin began as Louis finished.
“...about Rager’s Night, about Butcher’s Row, how many people died when Firefall got eaten by the hostile in Asia when you went berserk and pushed a button that buried the murderer who had no intention of letting anyone live along with his hostages.” Louis looked at Caitlin. “You’ve been a good friend, you’ve been a good teacher and the only people you’ve ever bullied are the third platoon bastards who keep pushing past the point where legally you should have shot and killed them. I’ve seen in your mind Caitlin, and I know what’s there.”
Caitlin’s voice choked on itself, and she couldn’t talk, and she listened as Louis finally told her who she was hiding from.
“You are more disciplined and in control than you or anyone else gives credit, despite the fact that your emotional state would be rampant in almost anyone else. Are you a bit crazy? Yeah you’re a bit cracked, same as the rest of us. But I know you, I know that the burn scars on Erik Mahren’s back were caused by an acetylene torch-heated piece of rebar when you got caught and dragged away from your team. I also know that the M-SOC metahuman Marines who you thought hated you, thought had the right to hate you, were the ones to smash into the building and tear apart everyone who had the audacity to do harm to one of their Marines.”
Caitlin’s tears were real, as she let Louis talk. “Everyone knows who you are except you. You almost made it with Cat, and if I could I’d rip the bastard who killed her apart a thousand times, because he caused the death spiral that almost took a good man from us. Carson knows it, Bardue knows it, Smythe knows it, Delarose and Wilson know it. Now your baby sister has the chance to know it, to know you as we know you. I think if you give yourself the chance, you’ll do right by her, better than you think.”
Caitlin sat there, pulling Miranda close, and covering the girl with a blanket, holding her as tightly as she dared for fear of shattering the child. She was the spitting image of their mother, and if the future proved as she thought, Miranda Mahren would be the heartbreaker her mother was said to be.
“I have to do right by her, Louis.” She looked down at the girl who had latched onto her like a lifeline.
“You will.” Louis grinned. “I’ve never known you to fail at anything you decided was worth putting effort into.”
Caitlin settled in with her sister, closed her eyes and didn’t find sleep, but her thoughts were on Miranda as she cleared away the noise and began to meditate, practicing a skill she wasn’t particularly good at. She didn’t see Louis fade away as her mind fell into the empty grayspace as she found her center.
September 10th, 2007, Schuster Hall, Carson’s office
“Request denied,” Carson said simply.
“I’m afraid I must object. That girl has assaulted myself and my officers without consequence far too many times to…”
“Lieutenant Trout, I’m going to ask you once.” Carson gave the Third Platoon Lieutenant a level glare. “Why exactly do you feel that one of the Ultraviolent students on this campus needs to be censured further when other students, Razorback included, have caused more injuries on the security staff with nary a comment?”
“This kid seeks out and attacks Whateley Security Staff specifically.” Trout held out a log report of Caitlin’s alleged attacks.
Carson took the log and quietly paged through it, then tapped several Eavesdropping killers on her desk before removing another log book. “Hmm, let me see, ah yes, this assault was logged by Delarose. Date matches.” Carson looked at him with a slight smile. “Although if we investigate this incident we will, of course, be forced to ask you how you came in possession of Caitlyn McQuiston’s personal sidearm and why you did not return it.”
Trout smirked slightly, he could handle that inquiry.
“Or why on these three dates, the officers in question were found to be inside the armory bunker on Range Two without authorization from Delarose, Everhart or Smythe. Ah, this one. Accessing the Range Four armory bunker, and attempting to access the Back Cage. By all rights, that officer should have been shot. I’m frankly shocked by Miss Bardue’s restraint. Four entries into Ammunition Bunkers, led to aggressive retrieval of said ammunition.”
Trout’s smug smirk faded abruptly. “The girl does not have the national security authorizations to act as an arrest, retrieval or defense authority on the control cages.”
Carson looked at the man like he was a bug under a microscope. Trout hadn’t been in the Syndicate, having been a crooked Naval SP that had gotten out before the Navy could pin him with various thefts. He was at Whateley because the man was a superb crisis command and control asset, seemingly able to dispatch assets to crisis points with a gut-level of finesse that was more valuable than the annoyance factor that his presence might cause.
“Lieutenant Trout, I am not required to provide you with NatSec authorization protocols, nor is Delarose. However, I will tell you that Caitlin Bardue’s Security Clearance is higher than yours.”
Trout’s smug slipped a bit more. “That doesn’t answer her assaults upon my officers. She is a danger to my boys, and the other students on campus.”
Carson smiled, an unfriendly expression on her face directed at him. “Trout, I only put up with you because Halloween proved that we need men with your crisis management talents. However, I’m going to tell you why I am not going to censure Eldritch. First, every time she has assaulted you or your men, it was under a circumstance where she should have shot you by procedure. Well, excepting Cat’s sidearm, but in that case, few juries would convict her.”
“Second, the only people Caitlin has threatened or assaulted happen to be in Third Platoon. None of my teachers have been given threats or ultimatums, and First and Second Platoons report her conduct as exemplary. She can be defiant and obstinate, but I am appraised that her reasons for that are almost invariably sound and fall outside Whateley Disciplinary Policy.”
“Finally, if you come to me again with another spurious accusation because someone is interfering with Third platoon’s ability to loot my ranges I will eject you from this campus. You did it with Wilson, you’ve done it with Mahren, and now you’re doing it with Caitlin. Have care if you choose to do it with Heckel or Jeckel. I have it on good authority that the two of them are more likely to just follow procedure, and shoot anyone intruding on the ranges. It’s one of the reasons I hired them, I want the ranges to be secure, and I’m done with my ammunition bunkers being a battleground between teaching staff and security.”
“And Trout? If I have another complaint coming from Security regarding mismanagement of Range Protocols on my desk in the next three years I am going to order an investigation into why you are unable to keep your platoon under control and doing their jobs.”
“You are dismissed, Trout. Say another word at your own peril. Third Platoon now officially has my eye. You have drawn my attention.”
Lieutenant Trout went slightly pale, then turned and walked out of the office. The message was clear. He had gotten Lady Astarte’s attention.
Carson waited until he left and leaned back, smirking. Mendez had already gotten to Buxton, as planned. She knew the Dragonslayer was a dishonest shit, Mahren had told her as much. What she had not expected was the finesse and competence that Mendez had shown handling Buxton. The report had been sparse, but the message was clear. Third Platoon would be brought back in line with the school charter, and neutrality would be preserved.
Sandra entered the Quad and stopped in surprise. Sitting on a bench, her head resting on her hands, a very dejected looking Nikki stared down at the ground pensively. Slowly slithering up to Nikki, Sandra reached out and touched Nikki's shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"Classes," Nikki muttered, looking up to give Sandra a wan smile.
"Which ones?" Sandra asked curiously, settling on her coiling tail beside the bench.
"My magic ones," Nikki sighed to Sandra's surprise. In all the classes Sandra shared with Nikki, it always seemed that Nikki needed the spells explained to her just once before she'd repeated them perfectly. Sandra had been so jealous of Nikki's skill at casting for so long, she didn't even know how to respond to Nikki's revelation.
"It's. I don't know," Nikki sighed again. "It's like, they're telling me these rules and restrictions, and they make no sense!" She exclaimed in frustration. "All these rules! All these words and gestures and preparations, and you just don't need most of them, and when I try to ask which ones are needed, and why they are needed if they really are needed, everyone insists 'they're all needed Miss Reilly!" Nikki screamed in frustration. "How am I ever going to work out what the real rules are, and which are the training wheels, if nobody's ever going to explain it to me!"
"Training wheels?" Sandra asked cautiously.
"Yeah, you don't need the words and the preparation, you can just ..." Nikki scowled and sort of reached with her hand, and suddenly before her appeared her brownie and Hank's brownie, rolling around screeching and screaming at each other.
Sandra goggled at the ease of it. She didn't know if Nikki had performed a summons, or a teleportation, or what. She'd just ... gestured and it had happened! Sandra broke into a cold sweat as she considered the numerous 'rules' of spell-casting that Nikki had just sort of ... ignored.
Nikki looked down at the two fighting brownies and sighed. "Koehnes! Leanne!" She half moaned, and the two separated instantly, Koehnes prostrating herself before Nikki.
"Mistress! This filth entered your ..."
"Leanne was minding her own business and ..."
Nikki sighed and waved them quiet. "Koehnes, I've got a headache, can you get me a cool soothing tea?" she begged, sighing in relief as her brownie scurried away. "And Leanne, can you please leave my handmaiden ..." Nikki started to say as Hank's brownie stood defiantly before her, giving her the evil eye. Nikki sighed, bringing her hand to her head and closed her eyes for a moment. "You know what, I can't deal with this now. Leanne, just go find Hank, tell him I'm going to the Grove, ask him to pass it on to anybody who looks for me, and don't fight with Koehnes while I'm gone!" She ordered.
With a wan smile for Sandra, Nikki stood and made her way from the Quad.
Sandra watched Nikki leave, before turning to the small brownie giving her a curious stare. "Aren't you going to do what Nikki told you to do?" Sandra enquired curiously.
The brownie shrugged. "She's not my mistress," she informed Sandra rebelliously.
"Wouldn't Hank want to know where Nikki is going? She's his friend after all."
The small brownie frowned for a moment, before nodding with a smile. "Master does like to know where his friends are," she agreed, before with a shy wave she turned and ran off into the bushes surrounding the Quad.
"What a strange creature," Sandra murmured, before with a shake of her head she resumed her interrupted journey.
Sandra had come to her two hours after her encounter with Nikki, and now Caitlin found herself tripping over the Grove, trying to find her way into the tangled mass of branches, roots and problems. On top of Miranda having to be in tutoring, Caitlin was supposed to be in class with Williams, listening to his biased take on World History. Caitlin had already taken High School history classes, and pined for the less competent but more unbiased presentations of her youth.
Now she was dealing with, in her mind, the lesser of two evils. Skipping Williams’s class to go hunt down a depressed Sidhe girl with enough power to blow a hole in the world somewhere in this shitty grove place. Caitlin didn’t bother playing nice. When a branch blocked her she kicked it off it’s mooring. When a root tangled her leg, she carved it off with her harvester. When a rock rolled at her, she shattered it with Foundation-Breaker.
She didn’t care that she had to fight the Grove, or that she was stupid for entering. Sandra had said Nikki Reilly was genuinely distressed. Caitlin generally trusted the empath to know what she was talking about.
Get out, thing, you are not welcome here. The voice was audible, and spoke in a language Caitlin’s memories parsed from another life.
“You’re between me and one of my students, who has been having problems and needs help. Bar me at your own peril, because I will come back with explosives and a fucking flamethrower and burn this goddamned place down to aid her.” Caitlin put words to action by demonstrating the only offensive spell she knew, slamming her hands together and opening them rapidly to release the concussive force that smashed through the tangle of branches that came together to cage her.
We will not allow this.
“You can’t stop me.” She put words to action by breaking into a full run, diving across roots uprooting themselves to impede her, using tree trunks to rebound and avoid hazards while occasionally releasing the odd burst or strike with a weapon to shatter bonds that would grip her.
You have no respect for this place, or for nature.
“You mistake fear for respect.” Caitlin saw the currents of magic that animated the trees before they fully took hold, and avoided them, getting better at keeping ahead of her attacker. Then she stopped, and grinned. “You cannot cage me. I’m not a normal human, and I have no compunction about killing anything to protect the children in my charge, the Sidhe girl is one of them.”
“No, she doesn’t.” Nikki’s voice rang out. “I already owe her my life once, please let her pass. Barring her will only spur this one to rip her way to me, heedless of the damage.”
“She’s right, you know.” Caitlin said quietly. “I’m here to talk, not to fight, but if you wanna go rounds, my sense of self-preservation isn’t what it used to be.”
I will have your oath.
“I’ll not be enslaved by my word any more than she will. Let me pass or I will pass my way. I’m not accepting demands of oaths.”
If you seek her harm, you will not live to see the Dawn.
“You better hope I live to see the dawn, I have it on good authority that when I die, I’m gonna explode like a MOAB.” She took advantage of the parting of the bindings to step back into the forest, unimpeded, but definitely with the impression she was being watched. As she walked, she sheathed her Harvester and sent the nightstick back where she hid it.
Nikki was waiting at the clearing where the “Wild Bunch” had been accepted by the Grove. She’d been crying, and despite the girl’s attempts to pull herself back together and have her dignity, she was still more than a little frustrated. To her side, a small sapling was growing in the epicenter of a truly massive vortex of essence. It was only visible when almost right on top of it, and Caitlin found herself blinking. The little plant acted like a vortex reactor on the essence around it in a manner similar to how she, herself, interacted with it.
“Should have known Sandra would send help.” Nikki’s voice was rueful. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, or make you feel like you needed to rescue me.”
“Nah, I don’t do the damsel in distress thing.” Caitlin grinned. “But it was the kind of distress that you were having that had Sandra mentioning it to me.”
Nikki snorted. “You Outcasts, you can’t let someone hash things out quietly, can you?”
“Nope! We have two empaths, one of whom is a healer, two of us have definitive ‘keep-people-alive’ mindsets and the other two of us will eat people who fuck with our friends.” Caitlin chuckled. “But more seriously, what Sandra told me is something that needs to be hashed out. If you’re having those kinds of problems with classes, then we need to hash out something else because the teaching ain’t working.”
“How much do you know about magic and how they teach?” Nikki asked curiously.
“I know what they teach me, and what I’ve learned on my own. I can’t make their shit work. None of it makes any sense to me, and all of the things I’ve figured out are based on physical principles of the world that I understand.”
“Then how am I supposed to know what the actual rules are versus what are the training wheels?”
“All of it.”
“What?” Nikki looked confused.
“I had a lot of time to ask similar questions of Earth Mother, Circe and Carson over the summer, more cussing about it if I’m honest. I try to avoid Grimes because she annoys me.” Caitlin grinned. “But basically what it boils down to is that what they teach are concentration aids, guidelines to keep you from killing yourself, a methodology is actually more important than the rules. Having a way is more important than the rules, because most mages cannot break the actual rules, it’s impossible.”
“But Chulkris and Grimes say different things about what rules go where.”
“That’s probably because each one does things completely differently. Hell, you know Diamondback follows some of the rules and ignores others entirely?”
“I noticed that. I don’t understand how, and some people, Petuja being one, can do things I can’t figure out and for the life of me cannot mimic.”
Caitlin nodded and tossed Nikki a chromed sidearm, which the deft girl caught and, gratifyingly did not point at her or look down the barrel. “Shoot that rock.” She pointed at a small rock that had once been part of a larger, shattered stone.
Nikki gave Caitlin a quizzical look, and sighted down the weapon and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. She stopped and looked at the weapon for a moment, then thumbed the safety, and then aimed and pulled the trigger, but the pistol still didn’t fire. “Is this loaded?”
Caitlin walked over and gently took the sidearm and traced a finger along the ivory handle. “I have to give this back, soon.” She smiled slightly at bittersweet memories. “Think of magic like this pistol. The better you understand it, the more easily you can manipulate and affect it, right?”
Nikki nodded. “Right, that’s one of the base principles of magic.”
Caitlin traced a finger along the back of the grip, where it looked like a part of the handgrip along the back was disconnected and raised. “You have to hold this correctly to disengage the trigger lock. And if you pull the trigger too high, there’s another lock to keep it from firing. Multiple safeties built in to prevent you from accidentally killing someone unintentionally, or yourself.”
The artificer dropped the magazine, put it in a pocket, then pulled the slide back and Nikki saw the bullet fly from the barrel, ejected to the ground to the right. Caitlin snapped the slide forward, and holstered the pistol without reloading it. She picked up the bullet, popped it back into the magazine, then slid the magazine back into her pocket.
“So what the teachers are doing is building trigger locks?” Nikki looked at Caitlin curiously.
“That’s effectively it. Another chunk of it is if you don’t understand it, or you think it’s bogus at a core level? Then it won’t work for you.” She looked over to the side and made a crooked-hand gesture perfectly. “This shit is a focus, a trigger association between your intent and your will to harmonize them so you don’t fuck up and explode, or blow a hobgoblin load all over the innocent people nearby.”
“So it’s not necessary?”
“Not really, bluntly I find the stupid contortions to be imbecilic. There’s better ways to focus, in my opinion, and bluntly I find them stupid because they telegraph your intent. That obstinate pragmatism means I have a very hard time tracking on what they’re trying to teach. The latin, hand gestures, none of them ultimately mean shit. You don’t need it, but it’s a trigger lock, a way to focus so that you don’t make a mistake.
Nikki nodded. “Okay, thank you, that makes a lot more sense. My other problem is that I’ve been having problems with spells I could casually do before since…” her voice fell off.
“Since you lost Aunghadhail.” Caitlin’s voice wasn’t judging. “She was your cheat-sheet in a lot of ways, wasn’t she?”
Nikki nodded. “Everything I had learned she had done so many times she could do it casually, and now that she’s gone, my ability to execute some of the more complex things, like the teleporting, the mass-effects? My ability to hold onto them is shaky at best.”
“Still puts you ahead of me. Difference between you and me, and the kids learning, hell, even our teachers? You and me aren’t tapping our wells. We’re both grabbing the source directly and pulling it together to do what we want.”
Nikki nodded. “Yeah it’s more like using a muscle than reciting a formula.”
Caitlin smirked. “Aunghadhail had the muscle memory, you don’t. It’s like combat classes, repetition and practice until you can do that shit in your sleep.”
“So I’m trying to… what?”
“Probably overthinking, same as me. Trying to decipher the bizarre-ass code the teachers present as the keys of enlightenment, not realizing that each code is different, and for each person, besides the fundament of what magic cannot do, like bring back true life to a corpse, or rocket you backward in time to fix something fucked up? The rules are slightly different for everyone. Everyone has limits and they’re incongruous. Diamondback’s a WIZ-1 and she still pulls off bigger and tighter effects than most threes and fours because she cannot afford to be sloppy.
Nikki nodded. “Yeah, basically my problem is my control is more shaky. I can still kinda do the things from before, things like light spells are easy, or calling Kohennes. However, like I said, being able to do a lot of what I used to is shaky. I don’t know why.”
“Same reason someone taken off a mechanical aid has to relearn to do what they were doing before.” She looked at Nikki. “You don’t have a permanent guide rail helping you execute millennia of experience. Bluntly I think Aunghadhail should have been letting you fumble more, so you wouldn’t be as dependent upon her to execute.”
“So, much as I’d love to believe I’m showering you with wisdom, and being an enlightened sensei or something mystically significant, you know more about this shit than I do, you’re probably smarter than I am, and I doubt I’m telling you much of anything you haven’t already already figured out. What’s really eating you?”
The stunning, redheaded girl looked at Caitlin ruefully. “You’re relentless, aren’t you?”
“Ask Zenith about me some time. She’ll give you an ear full.”
Nikki snorted. “I recently had my eyes opened to just how dangerous a casual word can be, both to myself, and everyone around me. And because I didn’t understand that, I came very close to losing my friends, terrifying everyone and possibly screwing myself into a position where I would set myself at odds with everyone I love and be unable to back away.”
The amusement faded from Caitlin. “Ah. That.”
“You knew about Carson’s plan too?”
Caitlin shook her head. “Carson had a plan? I don’t believe you.” She grinned as Nikki snickered just a little. “No, you’re not the only one dealing with that piece of shit oath worry.” She sat down on a large rock, even though she didn’t feel fatigued. “The more magic makes up the fundament of who you are the easier it is to bind yourself into an unbreakable oath. Sandra explained this to me, and to Anomaly. Both of us fall under the same boat you do, Noms possibly more than you and me, but maybe equally.”
“I thought Noms was a warper.”
“Noms still needs to discharge a service, to give her regards to “the Queen to Come.” Caitlin looked at Nikki as she brusquely deigned not to elaborate too much on Monica’s status. “The only reason she hasn’t done so yet, is because she’s trying to figure out how she’s supposed to do that now that she knows the debt to be discharged applies to you.”
“Oh fuck.” Nikki went a little wide-eyed. “Monica isn’t Sidhe!”
“Nope, Noms is Center Court, just like Razorback and just as tied to her words as you, and probably me.” Caitlin looked over at Nikki. “But that’s neither here nor there. Now that you know the danger, what’s your worry?”
“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”
“Not unless you promise to bring it up with Bellows or whoever your headshrinker is. You running here to the grove will only alienate the people who you call friends if they get a hint that you’re here because of them.”
“I… I said some things to Hank, and treated my friends poorly, because I was obsessive about some Legacy for Aung. I never realized where that could lead, until I had my nose rubbed in it. It made Hank fear me, and I don’t know how to handle that! I don’t want to be some merciless warrior-queen, but I also don’t want to forget what came before.”
“Well, have you apologized to your friends? Tried to make amends?”
“Then let time, and your intent shine through. They will forgive and accept, or they won’t. Don’t force it, and just let what comes, come. True friends can adapt and adjust, and they will forgive. Just let it come and go as it will, and be a friend to them, that’s all you can and should do.”
Caitlin smiled a bit as the elf-like girl nodded. “As to the queen shit, there’s two ways you can play that. Will you claim a throne and a crown, or will you act as the example of what a Queen should be even if you never seize that authority? Royalty,” Caitlin almost choked on the word, “is just a word. Nikki Reilly, the Queen to Come can be queen by whatever example she shows the world. But Fey, the student who does stupid shit like going toe to toe with the Necromancer, has a few years before she needs to worry about what happens then.”
“So I’m worried too much about the future, too?”
Caitlin nodded. “In my opinion, yes. This is going to sound cold-blooded as hell, and for that I apologize. You need to not have someone telling you who you should be, or grooming you to be the inheritor of their legacy. You need to be Nichole Reilly, just Nichole Reilly. Who that is to you, and who or what you want to become should be guided by none but your will, your choices. Not a legacy so far and long dead that no one remembers it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Think about it with your friends. We’re all here if you need us.”
“Thank you, Caitlin.”
Hawthorne Common Room
Miranda, Pahelee, Shifty and Ember all were enjoying the spoils of their sneaky, in their minds, shenanigans. The four kids were helping themselves to warm, gooey, still-sticky-from-baking brownies looted from the extra tray Amy had made. Miranda knew that Amy had made the tray so they would have something to loot while she cooked for everyone. But she wasn’t going to spoil the fun her new friends were having.
She was rapidly learning that it wasn’t so much that people hid the truth, as most people didn’t necessarily want to deal with the naked truth. The knowledge that they were clever made the kids of Team Awesome! happier, and Amy was spared their worst predations. Win-win.
You’re learning quickly. Mister Louis looked amused. Miranda, you’re not alone, and I’ll be here for you. So will your sister.
She’s scared she’ll hurt me. The little girl wasn’t as worried.
Caitlin worries about others more than herself, it’s part of who she is.
She loves me, and Mom, and Cally. She even loved Dad, even if she wants to pound him.
Louis let a nod of approval shine through. Your sister learned to be a good person even if she doesn’t believe it.
I want to be a good person too.
I don’t think that’s going to be a huge worry. Just remember that you want that when you’re in a place where you can choose not to be.
Miranda grinned as she felt another presence nearby that had just gotten done suppressing laughter at the four kids’ thievery, and was steeling herself to pretend to be disapproving and responsible. She snarfed down the last of her brownie just as Caitlin loomed over them, glaring.
“What’s this about you lot stealing a tray of brownies?”
Miranda didn’t even bother hiding her smile as she held out empty hands while her friends quickly tried to hide the spoils. “What Brownies?”
Child Protective Services, Fairbanks Alaska
A stack of paperwork hit the desk of Ellen Bower’s desk. She had just gotten back and recovered from the ordeal of dealing with the Little Mutant Delivery when the woman she’d been removed from the custody of appeared like a Banshee from Hell.
Ellen looked at the attractive blonde in her late forties with a death glare that was returned threefold. As Ellen looked at the paperwork, her heart dropped as she began to read the court-order reversing and blocking the decision not to allow Natalie Nichole Mahren to see her daughter again.
The blonde woman’s eyes burned at the woman sitting at the desk, as she slowly ground out the words past her fury at the woman who had stolen her child via the legal system, aided and abetted by the meat sack who was now likely staring sullenly at the divorce papers she had served him two days prior.
“Where… is… my… daughter?”