Anna crouched, automatically turning to face the screaming. A man was running down the path towards the exit of the park, a little girl under his arm who was screaming and kicking, obviously trying to get free.
A single glance was enough for Anna to know something was wrong, the girl looked terrified while the man looked determined as he ran, also the man and girl looked nothing alike, the girl blond and in a nice dress and shoes, the man in a dirty hoodie and tattered running shoes. The sight of a woman on the ground screaming after them “Mary!” and the girl screaming back a terrified “Mommy!” were enough for Anna to make her decision and she took off running for the man carrying the girl.
Anna arrived at the exit of the park just in time to see the man making for a nearby car, without thinking Anna jumped, landing right behind them, grabbing the man by the shoulder and swinging him to face her. As he turned, Anna reached out, prying the girl from his grasp. Twirling with the girl in her arms, Anna put her on her feet and pointed to the woman now running along the path to get to her daughter. “Run!” Anna gasped, giving the girl a push towards her mother before turning back to the kidnapper.
With a snarl the man lunged at her, a knife cutting through the air. Training taking over, Anna caught the man's wrist and twisted, forcing him to drop the knife. She then stepped forward, still twisting his wrist, using it to turn his whole arm, twisting until she had forced him to the ground, face first with his arm held painfully and used as leverage to hold him there.
It was only as she knelt on the man's back to keep him still and the cheers of the crowd forming around them started that she realised what she had done. Face paling, Anna stared desperately towards her friend Ree as a couple of foot-patrol cops ran up to her and took charge of the kidnapper, one of the cops cuffing him and radioing in for a patrol car, the other firmly grasping her shoulder and preventing her from leaving.
“I'm sorry Mr. Davies, I didn't mean to get into trouble or cause Ree to be noticed!” Anna Parsons put her face in her hands and tried to stop the tears. Ree’s father had just stepped into the interview room she had been escorted to after the cops in the park had bundled her, Ree and Ree’s friends into a patrol car that had bought them to the Binghamton Police Headquarters. Anna had been separated from Ree and the others as soon as they arrived and left in the interview room alone since, leaving her with plenty of time to understand the magnitude of what she had done.
“Anna! You're not in trouble!” John Davis sat down next to the distraught girl and put his arm around Anna to give her a hug. “Nor is Ree! You stopped a kidnapping, you're a hero!”
“But now I need to ring Whateley, and Mr Delarose is going to be so upset! We’re not allowed to be heroing and I promised after Christmas and that Santa’s Elf thing that I would never do it again, and now I did it again! But I couldn't not do it! She was so scared! And if I hadn't of done it he would have taken her!”
“So Santa’s Elf was you?” Stunned Anna turned to the door where a tall, middle-aged male detective was standing with a mug of coffee and a stack of folders. “Looks like I lose the pot then, I had my money on a big New York City hero taking a break incognito in our fine metropolis.” Sighing he came into the interview room, putting the coffee and the folders onto the table before turning to close the door and sitting down comfortably in the chair opposite Anna.
“I'm Detective David Carter,” he introduced himself, leaning across to offer his hand.
“Anna. Anna Parsons,” Anna shook his hand, face white in fear.
“John Davies,” Ree’s father said, also shaking the Detective’s hand. “Anna is a friend of my daughter's, she’s staying with us for the summer.”
“So you’re OK to be her adult supervision for the interview?” the detective asked.
“I insist on it,” John answered firmly.
“Fair enough,” the Detective smiled winningly, pulling out a pen and opening his notepad. “So, this isn't the first time you've saved someone then?” he asked Anna.
“I didn't go looking to do it!” Anna cried. “I was just at the park with Ree and her friends, they were showing me around Binghamton today, and he just jumped out and grabbed the girl, knocking her mother to the ground and running off with her screaming! I couldn't just stand there! So I chased him and I know some basic martial arts, so I know how to throw people and hold them and things. And at Christmas, the mother was so scared, and the little girl, he was threatening them! And I thought, well I knew really, he was going to hurt them! So I couldn't, I mean I was the only one who could hear it! I couldn't just ignore it! And Boston wasn't my fault! I wasn't like Phase or Fey or any of them! I'm not deputised by the Boston SWAT! I was just there for Ayla’s party! And then they attacked us! Mercenaries and guys in armour and they were shooting at my friends and I did almost nothing! Just threw a couple of the mercenaries and took the batteries out of a some of the armoured suits, stuff like that! Not like the others! They were awesome!” Anna put her face in her hands and sobbed.
Detective Carter blinked, eyes sliding almost against his will from the sobbing girl to the man sitting beside her also staring at the girl in surprise. Carefully putting down the notepad and pen, Detective Carter coughed to regain Anna’s attention. “Ah, perhaps I should be using your codename for our report?” he suggested carefully.
“Oh, do you have too? None of Ree’s friends know she's a mutant and if they find out I'm one they'll find out about her too! Couldn't you just, I don't know, use my real name? It's not as if I have any great mutant powers or anything! I'm just an avatar for a squirrel spirit! All I did was run down the guy and use some martial arts on him and make him stay put until the police officers got there to arrest him! I mean, if the MCO gets involved it's all over for Ree!”
“Do the MCO need to be involved?” Detective Carter asked softly. “I mean, you do have an MID right?” Anna nodded miserably. “Can I see it?” Detective Carter pressed her.
Anna pulled her shoulder purse onto her lap and slowly she withdrew a credit card sized piece of plastic from it. Reluctantly she passed over her MID, her Mutant ID, to the detective.
“Aquerna?” Detective Carter raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Its Middle English for ‘Squirrel’,” Anna mumbled.
Grunting Detective Carter carefully read both sides before looking up at Anna. “It says ‘Avatar 1’ here, what does that mean?”
Anna blushed. “It means I have the spirit of a squirrel bonded to me. Basically I can talk to squirrels,” she admitted.
“Anything else?” the detective asked bemused.
“Well, I can also run and jump better then most people, and I have no fear of heights.”
“And the basic martial arts?” Detective Carter queried, pointing to a line on the Anna’s MID.
Anna blushed again. “I'm studying martial arts at school, I only started last year.” Anna looked worriedly up at the detective.
“There were no squirrels involved in today’s incident?” the detective checked. Anna shook her head and Detective Carter smiled. “Well then, I think we can forget about this,” he said handing Anna back her MID, which she took gratefully and returned it to her purse. “How about you go through what happened today for me? And once you finish that, totally off record, how about you then tell me about what happened at Christmas?”
“And Boston?” Anna asked worriedly.
“You told the Boston police about that?” Detective Carter checked.
“Oh yes! It was at the same time as the attack by Necromancer and the Roxbury C prison breakout, they interviewed us for ages!”
Detective Carter stared at Anna for a moment, tempted, before sighing. “If the Boston PD already interviewed you about that, there's no need for me to. How about you just tell me what happened today?”
Anna smiled at him and nodded. “OK. Well it started with Ree and her friends taking me to Binghamton, because over Christmas I was just here for a week and we had no time to sightsee, but I'm here all summer this time and they wanted to show me around …”
“So what's going to happen now?” John Davies asked Detective Carter quietly as Ree hugged Anna tightly, having run up and grabbed Anna as soon as she’d been let out of the interview room and returned to the visitors area where Ree and her friends had been waiting. “Is she going to need to testify against him?”
“I doubt it,” Detective Davies replied smiling at the two girls. “The perp has a record as long as your arm, with multiple warrants outstanding. We caught him red-handed, I'd be surprised if he doesn't take a plea bargain of some sort and it never even gets to trial. But don't worry, nothing Anna did was superhuman, there’s no need for anyone to know she's special in any way. No need for me to put that in the case file at all.”
John sighed relieved. “And the Christmas thing?” he asked hopefully.
Detective Carter smiled. “I'll just have a quiet chat to my friend whose case that was, have ‘Aquerna’ added to the case notes as the name of the ‘superhero’ who saved them. What a delightful name, what did she say it was? Middle English for ‘Squirrel’?” Chuckling Detective Carter turned and started to leave. “Oh!” he called turning around at the door. “Anna and your daughter, and your daughter’s friends, are all fine to leave now, we’ve got all we need. Take them out and give them a treat, she deserves at least that. There’s a side exit that way, leads to the donut shop on the corner.”
“Side exit?” John asked hopefully.
“Yeah, only the local press know about it, and with the Mayor making his speech on the front steps …” Detective Carter left it hanging.
Smiling his thanks John waved. Turning quickly he gathered up his charges, hurriedly bustling them out of the building before the distracted press came looking for the hero of the hour. Spotting the aforementioned donut shop, John paused thoughtfully before glancing at Anna and making up his mind. Anna was still crying, hunched up in the arms of Ree. His eldest daughter Meg, also with an arm around Anna, saw him glance at the donut shop and then back at Anna. Meg smiled and gave him a firm nod of agreement.
Steering Ree and Anna through the door, John stopped stunned at the spontaneous applause. Looking up Anna stared around in wide-eyed surprise at the uniformed cops who had stood up clapping as she entered the store, the closest ones even coming forward to shake her hand.
Turning around John spotted Detective Carter who had followed them into the store and was giving his own applause to Anna. Smiling John nodded his thanks to Detective Carter, before turning back to Anna and guiding her to the table set out ready for her and her friends.
“See Anna?” Ree whispered in her friend's ear. “You are a hero!” Anna blushed and ducked her head, before looking up and smiling shyly back to her friend, hugging her tight in thanks.
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra were playing a Moonlight Serenade in Elizabeth Carson's ears on a device that would have amazed her in her own childhood. The iPod was in her pocket, and the earphones communicated with it without wires using frequencies and protocols that would have sounded like something out of Buck Rogers to her back then.
She sat on the shore of South Ponds, a little clutch of small ponds just off the school property and the Reservation and relaxed. She was comfortable again, in jeans and a well loved red and black flannel over a tank top in the shade. At her back was a massive old oak tree and an inexpensive rod and reel was on a holder within reach as she watched the float bob in the water. She didn't expect to catch anything, but that wasn't really the point.
Shelly had decided to spend the summer with her father, and Liz had encouraged her to do so. She would see plenty of Shelly over the school year and it was good for her to reconnect with her father in the way she and Liz had reconnected. For a while Liz's thoughts turned to Owen Carson and she sighed with a mixture of regret and embarrassment. She had met Owen at a fund raiser for the school and he had been charming enough, he was stable, well-off and dependable, the kind of man girls of her generation had considered perfect.
Liz shook her head as she reached into the cooler next to her and removed an eight ounce glass bottle of Coca-Cola and casually flipped the metal cap off with her thumb. She had never liked the metallic taste of the beverage from a can and so paid more for the glass bottles of her youth. She and Owen had been oil and water and her pride had kept her from seeing his growing resentment; of her career, of her abilities, and of the realization he would always be second fiddle in the arrangement. Liz took a sip of the cola and laid her head back against the tree.
There were not many great failures in her life, but Owen Carson was certainly one of the greatest.
Everyone had told her she was making a mistake, she had to admit, but she had charged ahead with all the surety of Sir Galahad that she could make the mismatched pairing work. It wasn't really a money thing, sure he was significantly more wealthy than she was, but that was not to say she was a pauper. While her own, long dead parents had been working class, her father was a machinist and her mother had also been a teacher, over her long life Liz had learned the secrets of managing money and had done well for herself.
She sniffed in disdain of remembered arguments as she drew in the line, checked that her worm was still on the hook and recast it. “You're only after my money!” had been Owen's favorite verbal weapon to fling at her. Never mind that Liz was herself a millionaire, though admittedly of a lesser amount. She was grateful he had never dared to employ words like gold digger or worse. She had never laid a finger on him in any of their sometime spectacular fights, but had he gone there ... Liz shuddered and sent a little prayer of thanks to heaven it was a test she hadn't had to face.
After they had “lost” Shelly the divorce had been a blessing. Liz had thrown herself into her work and mentally sworn off men. She was an old lady after all, in real numbers if not in body and perhaps it was high time she acted her age. She had updated her wardrobe with the settlement from Owen so that her clothes would always remind her of the mistake, bought a pair of fashion eyeglasses to hide behind and set about being a respectable old maid.
Alright, so perhaps she shouldn't have decided on above the knee skirt suits, but Giorgio had been so insistent that it would be a crime to conceal legs as perfect as hers. Well, who was she to argue with one of the fashion greats? And, she had to admit, those suits did look good on her. Looking back, it was probably only natural it would pique someone's interest. Liz had thought herself well and truly over such things, acting post-menopausal even if she wasn't, she had set out to be the prude's prude, prim, proper and respectable.
“You never saw Langley coming, did you?” she asked herself with another sip from the bottle.
She had known Langley for years, of course, they moved in the same heroic circles. He had been a few years younger than she and for all that, he was comfortable. He was a man she could be herself around and not worry about anything. They knew all the same jokes, had listened to the same music, seen the same movies and watched the world change around them as America lost her innocence a second time.
And some part of you knew Langely was a leg man, she accused herself.
No! she protested as a picture perfect little family got out of their car and began to set up their campsite across the pond. Giorgio had said...
Her inner subconscious would have none of it. You knew he was watching and you flaunted those skirts and those heels just to get a rise out of him! Admit it, you old tease!
Elizabeth smiled to herself as the music changed and the more upbeat tune of Glenn's made her want to dance. Yes, well it certainly has turned out well so far. Tapping her foot to the music, Liz smiled to herself as a part of her wondered what she was doing playing at fishing. She took her cell phone out and dialed. A part of her still felt sixteen as she anticipated hearing his voice and then the line connected.
“Hi, Langely, it's Liz. Are you busy?”
“Never for you, my dear! Tired of fishing? What are you in the mood for?”
A trumpet crescendo brought a smile to her face. “Well...”
Sunday July 8th, 2007
Manhattan, New York.
Ryan Chambers stood atop a tall building, silently looking out over the city. He was looking for something, though even he didn’t know quite what, only that he’d recognize it when he saw it.
At the moment, Ryan was dressed in the uniform for his second job, the unofficial one where he was the superhero known as Superhawk. He wore a suit of lightweight armor, that was dark blue and white, with a hawk symbol in the middle of his chest. A dark blue cowl covered most of his head, leaving only the lower part of his face exposed. And with the cowl framing his chin and jaw, that changed the shape of his face a little and helped to conceal his real identity even further.
After remaining where he was for nearly twenty minutes, Ryan still hadn’t seen anything that really caught his attention. Letting out a sigh, he manipulated his own gravity and floated up into the air, and then began to fly off over the city. If he couldn’t see anything while staying still, perhaps he could find it on patrol.
Ryan hadn’t gone far when he caught sight of a silhouette on top of a nearby rooftop, one that looked like a woman with horns. It was her. His heart jumped in his chest, though he wasn’t sure if it was excitement or concern. The last time he’d seen her had been several weeks earlier, after she’d helped him save Melissa’s life.
“I owe her,” Ryan muttered, knowing everything that she’d risked to help his daughter. “But I still have a job to do…”
Taking a deep breath to brace himself for the encounter to come, he swooped down towards the building, and paused, hovering in the air. There wasn’t anyone on the building, merely several piles of clutter and garbage. From the right angle, the piles had almost looked like a human woman with horns, crouched down. Ryan scowled at the sight, feeling an odd mixture of disappointment and relief.
“Just my overactive imagination,” he grumbled.
Ryan’s thoughts turned back to her. He’d spent nearly ten years chasing her and trying to put her behind bars, though she’d always mock him and slip away. For nearly a decade, she’d been an enormous source of frustration for him, and though he’d been reluctant to admit it, a source of amusement as well. Even when his life had been at its darkest, she’d somehow been able to make him laugh again.
After ten years of chasing this thief, Ryan had thought himself to be an expert on her and her tricks. But a couple weeks earlier, he’d learned how little he truly knew her. He’d gotten a glimpse behind the figurative mask she wore, and now, he couldn’t stop thinking of the woman he’d seen beneath. She was smart, clever, funny, and in spite of being a professional criminal, surprisingly kind. However, he’d also gotten a sense of loneliness that she tried to hide, and it made his heart ache for her.
“She’s a thief,” Ryan firmly reminded himself. “A supervillain.”
He took a deep breath, dreading the next time he met her, because he’d be forced to take her in. And after all the secrets she’d revealed, this time, she wouldn’t be able to trick him and get away. At the same time, he looked forward to seeing her again as well, and not just because he’d finally have a chance to defeat her.
With a shake of his head, Ryan dropped down towards the streets below, looking for something to distract him from these thoughts. He spotted a crook running away from a woman with her purse in hand. A faint smile formed on Ryan’s lips, because this was just the kind of distraction he needed.
“That doesn’t belong to you,” Ryan called out.
When the thief kept running, Ryan fired a ball of warped gravity at the man, hitting him right between the shoulders. Suddenly, the young man fell to the ground, now weighing twice his normal weight, at least for a couple seconds. It was about the weakest that Ryan could do with that power, but he didn’t want to risk hurting the man, even if he was a thief.
A cop had apparently heard the yelling, and rushed up to grab the purse snatcher, after he’d already been dealt with. Ryan nodded at that, thankful that at least he’d been able to stop one thief without any problems. If nothing else, he’d accomplished that today.
“I should probably be getting home to Melissa,” Ryan mused.
His daughter would be home soon, and he would need to get dinner going for them. With a faint smile of anticipation, Ryan floated back up into the air and started for home. However, he thought that it wouldn’t hurt to fly past his favorite art museum on the way home … just in case.
Suddenly, Ryan heard an explosion, followed by yelling. Without hesitating, he flew towards the sounds, trying to ready himself for whatever he was about to face. He saw a jewelry store, with the whole front of the building smashed in and ruined.
“A robbery,” Ryan muttered grimly. Then he landed, calling out, “Come out with your hands up.”
Sometimes, he’d found that a strong and confident presentation, was enough to intimidate the criminals and make them surrender. Not often, but often enough to be worth the trouble. And even when it didn’t work, it could still give him a psychological edge over his opponents.
A moment later, Ryan saw a figure moving within the shop, coming towards the front. Then he let out a gasp as he saw the familiar silhouette of a woman with horns and a devil tail.
“Not her,” Ryan started in shock and confusion. This wasn’t her kind of job at all.
For a moment, Ryan remained frozen, and then, the figure stepped out of the shop and he got a good look at her. The woman was wearing a red spandex costume that covered her entire body, except for her head, which was adorned with a headband that included obviously fake devil horns. From her back side, was an equally fake devil tail, which like the horns and costume, was bright red.
“I’m the Jersey Devil,” the woman announced in an accent that sounded like it had come straight from the Jersey shore. She held up a pitch fork and exclaimed, “Don’t get in my way hero, or I’ll flatten ya …”
Ryan let out a sigh of relief. Jersey Devil took advantage of his obvious distraction and pointed her pitch fork at him. Suddenly, a blast of energy shot out from the tip and hit Ryan, sending him flying back across the street, to where he slammed into a wall. He staggered from the blow, silently thanking the armor that his sister had made for him, because without that protection, that impact could have killed him.
As Ryan stood up and tried to regain his balance, he looked over and realized that he’d come close to being thrown right through a small kiosk, about ten feet away. From what he could see, they were selling T shirts, baseball caps, pins, and random tourist chotchkies.
“You might want to get somewhere safe,” Ryan told the old man, who was cowering down behind his kiosk.
“Taste the power of Jersey Devil,” the villain called out triumphantly.
Ryan was not amused by this particular devil. In fact, he was used to fighting a much higher quality of devil, and this one just couldn’t compete.
Taking a deep breath, he stood up straight and tried to look impressive, in spite of how bruised he felt. Body language was important for this kind of thing.
“Is that all you have?” Ryan called back. He went to a parked car and put his hands on it, before announcing, “Now, it’s my turn…”
With that, Ryan altered the gravity of the car and then picked it up, holding it over his head and acting as though he was about to throw it at Jersey Devil. She cried out in realization, then turned tail to run. With satisfied chuckle, Ryan put the car back down. No need to destroy the car and cause a lot of other unnecessary property damage in the process.
“You won’t escape that easily,” Ryan announced as he floated up into the air. He was used to chasing villains who were MUCH more slippery than this.
Ryan fired a ball of warped gravity, straight at Jersey Devil. She turned around to blast him with her pitch fork again, so his attack caught her right in the chest. A moment later, her gravity was reversed and she suddenly ‘fell’ up into the air, dropping her pitch fork in the process. Jersey Devil went up nearly twenty yards before Ryan’s power wore off, then she abruptly dropped back towards the ground, screaming the entire way. He caught her on the way down.
“My name is Superhawk,” Ryan introduced himself, saying it loud enough so that the bystanders and police could hear it as well as Jersey Devil. Then, he smirked down at his captured villain before lowering her back to the ground, and into the waiting arms of the police.
Ryan remained while the police finished taking care of Jersey Devil, just in case. Then, once they were finished with her and with him, he went back to the kiosk that he’d seen earlier. It had been completely undamaged by the short fight, and the old man had already opened it back up for business.
“You have a nice collection of pins,” Ryan told the old man, with his eyes going to one pin in particular. He’d noticed it earlier, but hadn’t give it much thought at the time. The pin was of a little cartoon bird with brown feathers, who would be immediately recognizable to anyone who’d watched the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. “I’ll take this one…”
Fortunately, Ryan kept a few items in his belt pouches, including cash for emergency purchases. He paid the old man, then stared at his pin, feeling vaguely amused. She always called him Chickenhawk, using that nickname as a way to mock and insult him. And though Ryan would never admit it to her or anyone else, he actually found that somewhat amusing. After all, that little bird was one of his favorite cartoon characters, and there were much worse things that he could have been called.
“I need to get her out of my head,” Ryan muttered to himself as he flew up into the air. “Only she could get into my head and annoy the hell out of me, even when she isn’t anywhere nearby.” He shook his head and began the journey home, so he could make dinner for his daughter. “Maybe I just need to find a nice normal girlfriend to get my mind of her … I wonder if Candice Kade would be interested in going out …”
"Mom," Lily asked softly. "Why did you become a hero?"
Startled at the question, Tabitha looked thoughtfully down at her only child. “That's an interesting question, what bought it on?” she asked surprised.
Unable to meet her mother's eyes, Lily's gaze slide sideways. Sitting next to the dancing waters of the waterfall pool at the centre of Whateley's Crystal Hall in the middle of summer was just … weird. The upper levels were closed off and very few students were around, and those that were seemed … subdued somehow, like the absence of riotous laughter and mayhem throughout Crystal Hall had reduced them somehow. Lily had been driven out to Whateley by her mother for another of the regular sessions with Dr. Markham her parents had insisted she have since returning home from Washington and was now having lunch with her mother before the drive back.
Lily sighed and looked down at her hands, worrying apart the sandwich in her tray. “Something Dr. Markham asked me,” she almost whispered the reply to her mother's question.
The sincerity and vulnerability of Lily's answer bought a tender smile to Tabitha’s face. "Your father," she answered simply, hand absently reaching up to stroke the face of the daughter sitting beside her, lifting Lily's chin so she once again looked her in the eye.
"But," Lily blurted. "You were a Mastermind, a thief! And then … you said you were going straight! Having a normal life! What happened?" Lily's own hand came up to gently push away her mother’s.
Tabitha shrugged and let her hand fall back to her lap. "I fell in love. Robert was my life and then there was you." Tabitha smiled again. "I was happy. I was in love and I was married. I had a daughter that was my entire world and then …” Tears came to Tabitha’s eyes and she stared blindly. "And then Robert didn't come home one night," she whispered. "Nor the next day. Nor the day after."
Lily stared in horror, allowing herself to be pulled close as her mother absently reached out, trembling, to hug her tight.
"No one knew what happened. Nobody would tell me what he had been doing. And I …" Tears freely falling, Tabitha sobbed as she remembered. "I couldn't lose him," Tabitha whispered as Lily stared at her horrified.
Giving herself a shake, Tabitha turned and smile wanly at her daughter, reaching up a hand to wipe away the tears on her face. "So I took you to your grandparents, promised them I'd do all in my power to find Robert, and went out and renewed contacts with my associates from the bad side of Whateley. I went dive to dive from one end of Boston to the other, tracking down all rumours of Falcon that I could, till eventually I tracked down a warehouse I was sure he was being held in. Using all my skills as a thief, I broke in through the roof and sneaked around in the rafters looking for him."
Pausing, Tabitha sighed and gave Lily another hug. "I found him just as they finished another session of 'interrogation'. He was unconscious and they were dragging him back to a cell, laughing and joking about what they would do to him when he finally cracked and gave them the information they wanted. After they threw him into the cell, they paused by another one, commenting on how much they'd get when the 'merchandise' inside was sold."
Tabitha shivered. "Merchandise!" she snarled. "When they left, I crept past that cell on the way to rescuing Robert, and I glanced inside." Tabitha clutched Lily tight to her. "It was children," she whispered horrified. "Drugged and chained, one little older then you were then."
Tabitha sat silently staring ahead, before with a smile she hugged Lily to her. "I rescued Robert from his cell, and I dragged him off and was hiding, waiting for an opportunity to bolt, when I overheard them talking about the 'buyers' for the children, and what they would do to them. I ... I couldn't help it. I kept seeing you, chained and drugged and ... I couldn't do it. I couldn't skulk away and leave them. Not even for Robert." She closed her eyes, shaking at the memories.
Tabitha sighed and hugged Lily to her and smiled. "After that, I was always at your father's side, making sure that never again would he be alone. Without backup. Without me. Making sure that from then on, he always came home every night." With a final hug, Tabitha stood up and gathered her tray, looking back at Lily. “You ready to go home now?” she asked.
Lily nodded firmly, gathering her own tray and following her mother to the tray return, thinking deeply about what her mother had said.
Tansy balanced on one hand, blonde tresses hanging, upside down, deeply regretting her mind not being as fast as her mouth. Sensei Ito had been in the process of explaining the Mizu no michi, the Way of Water, how it flowed and adapted to terrain, to adversity, to challenge. He had been trying to impart to her this was how she should conduct herself, to learn and flow like water.
Walcutt had rolled her eyes and demanded, “You want me to 'feel the Force?'” she had quipped.
Ito's dark eyes had narrowed. “You wish to feel the Force, Walcutt-san?” he had asked in a remarkably quiet voice. The next thing Tansy had known was she was upside down in a hand stand, while the little man stood over her, more emotional than she had ever seen him, angrily shouting, “Do you feel the force, silly girl?”
Tansy only got as far as opening her mouth to answer, when he had scowled and shouted, “One hand!” and struck her right arm sharply with his little bamboo pointer. It stung like a whip and cost her her balance and she'd fallen. “Up!” Ito shouted. The pointer cracked through the air against her skin as she scrambled to obey. “One hand!” SNAP!
A whimper escaped her throat before she could censor it and the pointer smacked again. “Do you feel the force?” SNAP! “No?” SNAP! “One hand! One Hand!”
“I'm sorry, Sensei!” she cried, but that only seemed to make him more angry.
“Sorry?” he demanded, the pointer striking like a swarm of angry hornets as she scrambled back into the handstand. “Do not waste my time with sorry Tansy Walcutt!” SNAP! “You want to learn? Then ONE HAND!” Before he could strike she twisted her arm out of the way and balanced, one handed on the mat, tears streaming up her forehead into her dangling hair.
He leaned over, sneering and upside down. “Do you feel the Force, Walcutt-San?”
His eyebrows went the wrong way, 'down' but 'up' his forehead as the blood rushed into her brain. “Do you? Well, lift the bar bell over there,” he commanded. “Make it float with the force!”
Her lip trembled as she closed her eyes, desperately trying to keep her balance and somehow will the bar bell to rise. She felt the mat shift as he began to casually stroll around her, could feel the vibrations in the floor of his feet and realized she knew where he was with her eyes closed. Before she could properly marvel, she heard his gi rustle and his left knee popped, the one he favored slightly but would never say why and knew he was squatting, then the boards groaned and for a spit second he was gone from this new sense he had given her, made her see somehow.
Then he landed on her foot, and balanced perfectly on his right foot standing on her right foot. She squawked with surprise but with a supreme effort of will managed to remain upright on one hand with the little Japanese teacher balancing on her foot. Almost casually he remarked, “The barbell is not floating, Walcutt-San.”
“But...but I still felt...something...Sensei!” she managed as she fought the stagnate blood her brain was drowning in.
His tone was disbelieving. “Oh? Did you? And what did you feel, Walcutt-San?”
“I...I knew...knew where you were...” she gasped. “I heard you walk on the mat...and your knee popped when you squatted to jump...”
“Mmmmm,” he growled almost to himself. “It almost makes you think there is something to that hooey, doesn't it, Walcutt-san?”
“N...no, Sensei...” She gasped.
“Good. Gain control of your mouth, Walcutt-san, or it will get you into a lot of trouble.”
“Hai, Sensei.” His weight was suddenly gone and he landed far lighter than even someone as small as he was had a right to. He pushed on the small of her back, but rather than landing in a heap, Tansy turned the fall into a roll, then a somersault, then she was back on her feet, in a fighting stance, unsure if he would attack or not.
His wrinkled face split into a toothy grin of pleasure. “Good! You are paying attention! You are water, Tansy Walcutt, flow into my teachings, let them mold you, but do not be contained! Absorb them and flow freely! Adapt to the situation, find the weakness and exploit it.”
She nodded, a bit sweaty and a little unstable on her feet from the blood pooling. “Yes, Sensei.”
“Hairu,” he called softly. From the shadows came six men in black, tactical clothing and boots, all wearing a uniformly ugly expressions. “Do you know these men, Walcutt-san? Shall I remind you?” A shiver ran down Tansy's spine as the little instructor went from man to man. First was the widest of them, cracking his knuckles ominously. “You remember that delightfully humorous prank you pulled on Officer Green your freshman year, yes? Exposing him taking bribes to Chief Delarose as a diversion to one of the little raids Freya had cooked up on the school's wine cellar.”
“Almost cost me my job, bitch!” Green growled.
The little man in the Gi continued on. “Or the chocolates you'd coated with Exlax you gave Officer Trews here to create a shortage on a shift for who knows what kind of skullduggery you indulged in.” Trews slapped his billy club into his open palm. “Or Sergeant Hackitt who enjoyed a two week suspension without pay due to a sexual harassment claim from you...”
“He did...” Tansy started, but Ito merely raised a hand to quiet her and kept walking.
“Officer Simpkins was enjoying the little arrangement you had until your conscience got the better of you and your confession cost him a promotion,” Ito continued as he walked. “Well, I could go on and on, couldn't I, Walcutt-san? These men have ample reason to dislike you. But I have brokered something of a fresh start for them. They get the next five minutes with you to do, whatever will salve their bruised egos, so long as no bones are broken of course, and I will not report what they do to Chief Delarose when he returns from summer vacation.”
Tansy took a halting step backwards. “What...what do I get out of it?” she asked timorously.
Ito's smile was diabolical in its evil intensity. “The joy of knowing you helped your fellow man work through their troubles. Use the Force, Miss Walcutt. Hajime!” For all their flaws of character, the six security guards were all combat veterans, all used to working with each other, and were all very dangerous men. As one they came at Tansy, intent on settling scores and old grudges, instinctively splitting into two rows of three to surround and overwhelm the girl.
But Tansy rolled forward into the charge, coming up on her hands and knees to throw out a leg to trip Officer Green. He tried to raise his leg higher to compensate for the trip, but that exposed his other leg as Tansy rolled again and kicked the back of his knee out. Green, fell hard to the floor, tripping Trews as he went down and Trews tried to dodge. Walcutt flipped up to her feet and grabbed the night stick from his extended hand and pulled it forward. She brought her free hand hard into his elbow to unlock it and twisted his arm with the billy club.
Trews screamed as muscles and tendons extended and threatened to tear as he released the club and was thrown on the struggling form of Green who was trying to rise. Tansy leapt sideways and spun over the pile of guards, striking down with the club as she passed over, hitting Trews across the back of the head.
An arm was in her way as she landed, but she grabbed it, tucked under and still holding it climbed up his back and locked her legs around his throat. She forced his neck down and rode him to the floor, rolling away from his painful face-planting to come up into a booted leg meant for her face. She threw up her arm with the night stick protecting her forearm to the howling agony of Sergeant Hackitt, whose scream went up into falsetto as Tansy spun and kicked into his groin.
The sergeant fell, curling into a ball to protect his abused genitals, tripping another man behind him, who Tansy struck sharply across the temple as she passed, squaring off against the surprised and equally enraged Officer Simpkins. From somewhere he produced a Ka-bar knife and flipped it into a slashing grip in his left hand. Without a word he lunged, leading with the knife that Tansy parried with the nightstick, guiding his hand up as she went under it and did a leg sweep.
Simpkins only managed to dodge with one foot and lost his balance. As he began to fall Tansy came up behind him, grabbed his wrist and twisted it in the wrong direction while pulling him further off balance. Simpkins's hand opened giving up the knife as he fell hard. Tansy stomped on his face, caught the knife and threw it, embedding it in the floor between Ito's feet.
“Yameru!” Ito shouted. Tansy stepped back from the pile of men, breathing hard. “Gentlemen, honor has been satisfied, I believe?”
One or two of the guards, grumbled, but Ito pulled the Ka-bar free and weighed it in his hands. “I'm sure Cheif Delarose would agree with me this is not exactly according to the Marquis of Queensbury rules, yes?”
“My nuts...!” whimpered Hackitt from his ball.
“Next time wear a cup!” Ito told him without sympathy. “Go! You had your chance, and it is ended! What happens on the mat stays there!” Grumbling, the guards helped each other to their feet and ambled out of the dojo, none daring to look back.
Ito relieved his student of her stick and smiled. “Sit,” he commanded. “Meditate, and don't let your victory go to your head. Nothing more will I teach you today,” he said with an arched eyebrow.
Tansy smiled and shook her head as she sank into the lotus position and caught her breath. As he walked towards his office, he distinctly heard her whisper, “Yes, Master Yoda.”
It brought a smile to his face as he continued to his office to hear what his previous protege had to say.
Ayla smiled as he entered the reception for JFK's 'Dead Carpet Club', with any luck Addy would already be there waiting for him, according to the flight schedules her flight should have arrived by now. Ayla looked forward to seeing his girlfriend again after the four weeks she'd spent touring around America with her friends, visiting their families.
Smiling at the receptionist Ayla presented his membership card. Scanning it and briefly glancing at the screen, the receptionist handed it back. "Good afternoon Miss Goodkind, welcome back to the Red Carpet Club. We have reserved private room three for you, through and around to the left Miss Goodkind," she guided him with a free and cheerful smile of her own.
Ayla smiled his thanks and accepted the card back. "I have some guests meeting me here ..."
"Yes sir, your Assistant has already arrived, she’s waiting for you in room three," the receptionist interrupted, puzzled Ayla smiled politely to the cute blond. Turning Ayla walked towards the entrance to the private first class lounge, nodding to the other staff who subtly indicated directions to his private room as he walked along.
Turning from thanking the employee that opened the door and ushered him into the private room, Ayla stopped stunned at a sultry-voiced greeting. "Good afternoon Miss Goodkind. Your guest’s plane has landed and they are on their way. Your flight to Paris is still on schedule, if you would care to follow me I've had the chef prepare a light meal for you to enjoy before there is some slight business you need to attend to which should be finished before your guests arrive."
Ayla stared face blanked at the vision in front of him, a stunning Asian girl of about seventeen dressed in an exquisitely tailored, expensive business skirt suit, white silk blouse emphasising and framing her breasts, but still covering them with all decency. Short skirt cut exactly the right length to frame and accentuate the delectability of the stockinged legs, while still being long enough to not offend conservative business sensibilities.
Dragging his eyes back up from the short heeled shoes, past the socking legs, the delightfully short, but not too short skirt and the blouse with its conservatively covered but still stunningly presented breast, Ayla's eyes finally rested on the polite but perky Asian face where after a slight pause he managed to blurt out "Jinn?!"
To the accompanying sounds of howled laughter, Jinn smiled the full Jade face splitting grin and explained. "We thought this body worked best for being your Personal Assistant, and Nikki took me to the Venus Inc. store rooms where they have an awesome collection of professional business wear, and she help us find just the look for a young female PA and let me borrow the suits and shoes and everything to pull it off so that we won't embarrass you at all when I accompany you to your business meetings." Standing there smiling at Ayla with thanks and happiness, Jinn patiently awaited Ayla's requests as her sister Jade howled her enjoyment at Ayla’s stunned reaction from the table where she sat behind an opened laptop.
Fighting hard to maintain his accustomed blank business face, Ayla suppressed a groan of disbelief as he realised his throwaway idea of telling Jade he was "hiring" her as his Personal Assistant for the trip to France as a scheme to get her to accept the winnings from the bet he placed on her to win her combat finals was anything but to Jade. Ayla fought hard to cover his horror as he contemplated his trip to France followed around by a bombshell Jinn-as-PA. The sight of Jade almost crying in laughter over the scene did not help Ayla's forebodings of doom one little bit.
With a forced smile Ayla let Jinn welcome him into the private room and guided him over to the table, setup already with a place laid out for him, to eat as Jade regained her composure, stood, straightened her own professional business skirt suit and waited demurely at the table, where she paused for him to be seated before taking her own seat again in front of her laptop, into which she logged in and busied herself with the information displayed.
Ayla sat nervously, glancing at the now prim and proper Jade, busily working the laptop before her. Taking a deep breath Ayla sampled the food before him, uncertainly considering his friend and notorious prankster as she seemingly ignored him and concentrated on her computer. Ayla was worriedly contemplating the chaos a sexily dressed Jinn with the personality of Jade could cause on the upcoming trip when a subdued throat clearing in his ear caused him to jump. “Adalie Vitesse and her party have arrived, shall I escort them to you?” Jinn purred sexily in his ear as Ayla blushed.
“Jade!” Ayla turned to his teammate and glared.
“Ayla?” Jade replied innocently. “Is there perhaps some service me or my sister could provide you?”
“Please Jade?” Ayla begged.
With a giggle Jinn jiggled over to her sister, giving her a hi-5 before with a saucy wink to Ayla she crouched down and seemed to disappear into the backpack on the floor at Jade’s side. Smirking at Ayla’s discomfort Jade stood and once again straightened her skirt and settled her jacket as Ayla rushed towards the door to the private suite. Jade blanked her face into a polite smile as she waited for the arrival of Ayla’s girlfriend and friends.
"Where's Jinn?" Alicia asked puzzled as Jade started to lead them from the private room towards the departure gate for their Paris bound flight.
"In here," Jade jerked her head to indicate her backpack.
"What? Why?" Alicia stared confused at the backpack. "Ayla too cheep to buy you a second ticket?"
Jade's expression became thunderous. "The United States of America won't issue passports to the deceased," Jade growled.
“Ah,” Alicia equivocated, suddenly realising what she’d been missing. “I suppose that would be a problem.”
“It's not fair! Oneesan and Ayla, they wouldn't even let me apply!” Alicia's eyes widened at the suddenly animated Jade. “I had the paperwork all filled out ready to get Jinn a passport so that when Whateley Admin and Ayla straightened out my records Jinn could have her own passport too, but Billy wouldn't let me!” Alicia gave Jade a slightly strained smile, looking around a bit desperately for an out from their conversation. “I mean, they could have at last let me try!” Jade wailed as Alicia gave a non-committal murmur of comfort. “Could you just imagine the shock on the Passport Clerk's face when they finally realised they were doing a passport interview for a 'ghost'? It would have been hilarious!” Alicia stared in stunned amazement stopping short in shock as Jade angrily stomped away from her.
Kayda came up and put her arm around Alicia, encouraging her to start walking again. “Don't worry about Jade, she just takes a bit of getting used to, but mostly she's harmless.”
“Mostly?” Alicia squeaked. “How do you live with her?”
“Well, she's gonna be living with all of us for this trip, you'll find out first hand now won't you?” Kayda laughed.
“You Posies are crazy!” Alicia muttered, before quickly hurrying to catch up with the rest of the group.
It had been a long flight, but Jade had gotten plenty of sleep so she beamed happily up at the man behind the customs and immigration desk at Paris airport as she pulled her suitcase along behind her and stepped up to the desk.
"Bienvenue à Paris, avez-vous quelque chose à déclarer?" he greeted her with an answering smile.
Frowning slightly, Jade haltingly replied. "Pardon. Ne comprends, parler anglais?" she attempted, finishing with another smile and fixing him with wide puppy-dog eyes as she held out her passport.
Grinning at the young girl's halting attempt to speak French, the immigration official took pity on her. "Oui, mademoiselle. Welcome to Paris, do you have anything to declare?" he repeated the question in barely accented English, accepting her passport and scanning it.
"Well, I've got clothes, and shoes and things in my suitcase," Jade started babbling as the immigration official absently nodded, only half listening to her while he examined her passport and the contents of his computer screen. "And I have some harmless electronics and stuff, projects I've been working on at school, but I left all the guns and explosives and things like that at home, because all of that is like a big no-no to bring on an airplane."
Blinking rapidly and snatching his gaze up from his screen at the mentions of guns, the officer glanced at the front of Jade's U.S. passport before looking up and rolling his eyes as she continued, sparing her prattle only a momentary glance before returning to processing her passport.
"And in my backpack I have a change of clothes, some books, gee it was a long flight! I'm so glad I brought them, not to mention my b-phone for its music and videos. And of course, there's my sister's ghost. She's in the backpack too."
Pausing in the act of giving Jade back her passport, the officer asked cautiously, "Your sister's ghost?"
"Yeah, she died two years ago and she's with me constantly to look after me and protect me!" Jade declared happily.
"Oh, I see," he blinked at her.
"Yeah, she's always helping me, telling me things, watching over me ..."
"As an older sister should," the officer murmured absently crossing himself. "Well, here is your passport. Welcome to France I hope you and your sister enjoy your stay," he smiled formally at her as he held out her stamped passport.
"Thank you!" Jade said happily gathering back her passport and stepping through the checkpoint to exit.
"Yes thank you!" The officer started and stared hearing a voice seemingly coming from the young girls backpack. Staring after the young Asian girl in disbelief, he watched as a white hand emerged from the backpack and waved goodbye to him cheerily as the girl disappeared into the crowd of other arrivals.
"How do you do such a sultry voice?" Adalie pleaded in a whisper as Ayla got out of the limo wincing at the pressure his gaff was exerting to keep his panty line undisturbed and his secret hidden. The limo trip from the Airport to the train station had been all but excruciating for Ayla after Jinn had made her reappearance, slinking up next to him on the seat and sandwiching him between herself and his girlfriend. The non-stop innuendos and breathless, sexily delivered ‘offers’ from Jinn had kept Ayla constantly off-guard, not to mention what two pretty girls pressed up against him had been doing to his libido.
Jinn giggled. "I just imagine how Nikki would say it if she wanted to melt Hank into a puddle on the floor."
Adalie blinked. "Isn't Stalwart Nikki's boyfriend?" she demanded confused.
Jinn giggled again. "Yes, but Nikki and Toni realised early on that Hank is the perfect gentleman and would never presume no matter what they teasingly suggested to him, so poor Hank became the patsy Nikki and Toni perfected all their feminine wiles on. Sometimes Hank was left not knowing which way was up, and which way was down when they were around." Smiling delightedly Jinn started to follow Ayla into the train station.
"Have they been doing the same thing to Ayla?" Adalie demanded in a whisper when she too followed Jinn after Ayla.
Jinn shook her head. "Ayla's not much of a challenge to them, so they save it up for special occasions," Jinn placated her.
"Challenge?" Adalie splurged outraged.
Jinn turned to her and smiled. "It's a good thing that Lily is a ‘girl next door with a heart of gold,’ by now nearly every seductress on campus has tried her hand at Hank, but without Nikki and Toni's advantages, none of them have even entered Hank's conscious as an attempt on his affections."
"Advantages?" Adalie asked confused.
"Nikki has her Sidhe glamour and her empathy, and Toni is almost as good as Nikki at reading emotions through monitoring Ki flows. Plus they have the advantage of knowing all of Hank's weaknesses through teasing him from all the way back to that time when a pretty girl pressing against him and fluttering her eyes worked wonders. Nowadays Nikki and Toni have so desensitised Hank to that, I doubt there is a woman in the world other then Nikki or Lily that could still do it to him." Jinn snickered wickedly. "And Lily almost has Hank to the point were Nikki's Glamour isn't enough to get a response anymore. God he's soo far gone,” Jinn giggled. “Hank hasn't a chance at all of escaping Lily's intentions," she smiled excitedly to Adalie who grinned conspiratorially back at her.
Ayla turned from where he was waiting, smiling towards Adalie, but neither of them could miss the slight darkening of his expression nor nervousness when he glanced at Jinn and especially after he turned to Jade, who had positioned herself politely behind and to the side of Ayla, where she was standing with an attentive posture.
Adalie too glanced towards Jade, before leaning close and whispering to Jinn. “What is it you've got planned for Ayla? He's almost going nuts trying to figure it out, even Kayda’s getting jumpy watching you and Jade whisper in the corners and giggling.”
Jinn favoured Ayla with a seductive smile, before turning back to Adalie and giggled. “Nothing,” she replied. “That's exactly what we've got planned. Nothing. We’re just going to enjoy France and our holiday!”
“But the giggling, the sideways looks …”
“All just part of the fun,” Jinn assured her. “Look how upset and jumpy Ayla is and we’ve literally had to do nothing for it! Viva la France!” Laughing Jinn bounced up to Ayla where she made sure to stand right next to him, leaning in close and making Ayla as uncomfortable as possible, until laughingly Adelie rescued her boyfriend from his pranking teammate.
Jade practiced her demure posture and blank business face as she watched Jinn whisper with Adelie before bouncing up to tease Ayla. Yes, this was going to be an awesome holiday, and she fully intended to enjoy every minute of it!
“Oh, Dr. Smart, it is such an HONOR to meet you!” squealed the young Science Fair contestant, starry-eyed with excitement behind her large-framed glasses.
“And it’s great to see another young woman applying herself in the STEM concentrations,” Dr. Smart replied. While, to be honest, Helen really liked seeing and hearing the effect that she was having on young women, it was getting a little repetitive. The news that she was going to be one of the judges of this Science Fair had almost doubled the percentage of female applicants, and the Hero Worship there was getting a little thick. She was worried that she might be alienating Drs. Hong, Lefkowitz, Lefebvre and Mendez, the other four judges on the panel. Then there was a strange touch of familiarity about the girl. But for the life of her, she couldn’t place the girl. The only thing that seemed out of place was the fact that the girl and her mother were wearing matching outfits and mousy brown soup-bowl hairstyles. Well, that and the fact that both of them could have done a lot better, if they’d put half the effort into their style as young - what was her name? Jane? - Jane had put into her project. Yes, it was another ‘hard light’ effort - and why did that ring such a bell? - which was a popular subject, with many of the contestants trying to do something with the new technology. But Jane’s effort was simple and practical, a ‘virtual keyboard’ that was quite elegant.
Jane’s mother was brimming with just as much excitement as her daughter, and asked Dr. Smart to pose for (yet another) picture. As Helen put her arm around Jane and smiled, Dennis Hawkins walked up with a tablet in his hand. Both Jane and her mother reacted to Dennis in the same way, which had little to do with their former hero worship, and everything to do with the way that he filled out his suit. While Dennis was wearing a proper suit and tie, and not his usual T-shirt and jeans combo with the utility belt and harness, he still managed to show off his splendid physique.
Accepting that barely restrained adulation with more grace and humility than you’d think an Undergrad was capable of, Dennis handed Dr. Smart the tablet. “Here’s the latest Security upgrades, Doc.”
Helen snorted, “Really, Dennis! This is a Science Fair! Who’s going to raid a Science Fair?”
“And I’d like to keep it a Science Fair,” Dennis said seriously, looking around at all the high school science wonks of every stripe, all eager for approval from the Big Eggheads, “and not a Hostage Situation.”
Jane’s mother made a worried noise, and looked over Dr. Smart’s shoulder at the tablet. Helen assured her that there was nothing to worry about. Jane’s mother managed to talk Dr. Smart into another photo-op with Jane, and then she managed to get around to viewing the other projects.
She just wished that she could figure out why Jane rang such a bell.
Dr. Smart continued, visited a few more exhibitions, and finally made her way back to the other judges. “Well, have you made our decision for us?” Dr. Lefebvre snarked.
“Oh, you need someone to make up your mind for you?” Dr. Smart riposted.
“We DO need to see all the exhibits, not just the ones that fans brought just for you to see,” Dr. Lefkowitz, the only other woman on the panel, managed to make ‘fans’ sound compromised and suspect.
“Precisely!” Dr. Smart said briskly. “Then let’s get to it, shall we? After you, Dr. Hong!”
The public announcement system informed the exhibitors that the official judging was about to begin, told them to make their exhibitions ready, and explained how the panel would proceed through the fair. Despite that all five of the judges had already seen most of the exhibits and spoken with the teenagers, the panel was now official, and went from one booth to the next, viewing the exhibits and speaking with the competitors as though it was for the first time. Dr. Smart let Dr. Hong take the lead, and only spoke up to present a respectful opposing viewpoint.
After about a half hour, the panel walked up to a booth where two young women were in the final stages of hooking up an elaborate array of power leads to a squarish 7’ x 7’ framework. The panel waited as the two fiddled with a receiver, tweaking it until they got a smooth, uninterrupted signal. “Excuse me, Miss,” Dr. Mendez cut in when they finished up, “while this is a very impressive assembly, WHAT does it have to do with an Electrolytic Resin Depolymerization process, as you’ve stated in your precis?”
“Nothing,” one of the girls answered chipperly. “This isn’t an Electrolytic Resin Depolymerization process; this is an anchor for an Intraspatial Dimensional Transit Portal device.”
“A Boom Tube,” Dr. Smart croaked with aghast understanding.
“Oh, puh-lease!” Dr. Lefebvre sneered, “Do you honest meant to tell me that that this is capable of creating a tunnel in the fabric of time and space? How could something with an energy array like that have the power to accomplish that?”
“We didn’t say that that it generated the portal-”
“She said that it anchored the gate,” Dr. Smart finished for her. “DENNIS! CODE RED!”
“On It!” Dennis dropped a bag on the floor and kicked it across the floor to Dr. Smart. The bag slid across the carpeting as though it was polished. But one of the two ‘exhibitors’ dashed over and intercepted the bag midway.
As the panel was absorbing this point, Dr. Smart pulled a pouch on her belt around, exposing a disassembled array of components that could quickly be assembled. But the second that the pouch was exposed, the second ‘exhibitor’ reached over and tore the pouch off the belt. Or more accurately, the belt off Dr. Smart.
The ‘exhibitor’ did a tumbling flip over Dr. Smart, leading her away from the portal anchor. Then the framework flared with energy, and a ring appeared in front of it. “Crap!” Dennis grumbled. He gave up trying to get the bag away from the first phony exhibitor, and sprinted over to the framework. Giving it a quick once-over, he found a likely junction box and pulled a breaker lever. But instead of shutting down the portal, the metal lever gave off a powerful electric jolt, and since Dennis was standing on a metal plate that had been put there for just that reason, he was shocked into unconsciousness.
“DENNIS!” Dr. Smart shrieked. She tried to run to him, but she was cut off by a barrage of figures that rushed out of the portal. The figures burst out of the portal so quickly that they battered Dr. Smart by colliding with her, throwing her to the ground, and the last couple almost trampled her.
The streaks resolved into a group of women wearing red ceramet body armor with ‘theme’ horned masks. The body armor didn’t cover their arms or legs, showing off that their limbs were cybernetic. They rushed to strategic points all across the venue, where they aimed submachine guns with under-slung additions. Two of them seized Jane and her mother, holding them in classic hostage positions. “NO ONE MOVE!” boomed an amplified voice.
A huge, misshapen figure in a modern version of chainmail armor loomed out of the portal, carrying a massive energy weapon connected to a huge pack on the back. “Doctor XXX,” Dr. Smart hissed with recognition.
“Not Quite,” corrected another familiar voice from behind the first. Through the portal into the auditorium strolled a bizarre figure, a man dressed in a long red old-fashioned labcoat, whose face appeared to be a lurid red devil mask- floating on thin air. A group of five more figures, four men and a woman in red devil livery, all of them bearing arms, followed just behind.
“Doctor Lucifer?” Dr. Smart bleated in abject confusion. While Drs. XXX and Lucifer were both professional criminals, renegade scientists and recurring enemies of hers, they were also vicious rivals and bitter enemies. The idea of Dr. XXX not merely working with Dr. Lucifer, but apparently for him, was utterly incredible. “HOW?”
“The fortunes of war,” Dr. Lucifer said smugly. “Lumpy here,” he gave Dr. XXX a kick on the ankle, “tried to be clever. So clever that he violated hospitality. And that turned around and bit him on the ass.”
“And how does his violating hospitality turn into you endangering all these kids?” Dr. Smart asked sharply. “Why are you HERE, Lucifer? This is a high school science fair - there isn’t anything here for you to STEAL!”
“I DO apologize, but really, the situation called for measures just like this,” Dr. Lucifer said contritely. “And as for stealing, quite the contrary! I come bearing gifts!”
On a signal from Dr. Lucifer, the female of the group of minions stepped forward. She presented a long rectangular armored case with formidable clasps. With a wordless flip, she opened the case, revealing an array of components on a rotating cylindrical frame, with a pistol grip and a targeting scope. “The Stinger!” Dr. Smart gasped. “Were YOU involved in the Nazis’ attack on the Athena?”
“Only tangentially,” Dr. Lucifer assured her. “That was more Lumpy’s doing than mine.” He rapped his knuckles on Dr. XXX’s chestplate.
“Then how did you come to have this?”
“As I said, the fortunes of war. He tried to use that against me, along with another development. And he lost, and now everything he had is mine. C’est le guerre. I return this to you.” The female minion shut the case with a quick flick of her wrists and the clasps snapped shut. She held the case forth. “The case is armored and the clasps will only open once we leave. Take it as a compliment; I have nothing but respect for your skills - and the threat you can pose.”
“Why?” Dr. Smart asked suspiciously, “After all the times I’ve stopped you? Why would you give back my favorite project?”
Dr. Lucifer shrugged. “As I said, the Fortunes of War. I can take it as well as dish it out. I did what I did for what I saw as acceptable reasons, and you prevented me for reasons of your own. I can’t blame you for doing what you thought was right. Besides,I was amazed at the finesse you showed in tearing apart my heavy metal extraction plant off Barbados, just you and the Boy Wonder over there,” he jerked his head at Dennis, who was already shrugging off the effects of the zap trap. The largest of the devil minions forced Dennis back down with his boot, and the smallest of them held a crystal edged sword to Dennis’ neck.
“You’re just handing the Stinger back to me?” Dr. Smart asked warily. “You went through all this, just to give me my property back?”
“NO, there is something I want you to do for me,” Dr. Lucifer said with a gesture. On that cue, the devil-minions, less the swordsman, went back into the Boom Tube. They came back with more cases, which they opened and began to assemble the contents. Quickly, they assembled a set of modules into an arrangement dominated by two reclining chairs and a large console. Both chairs were obviously designed to restrain the occupants, but computer consoles were built into them, and both had large bowl-like cowls that would fit over the occupants’ heads.
Dr. Smart let out a muffled gasp of recognition. “The Skulljacker!” She gave a fearful sideways glance at Dennis, who was trying to get some leverage from his prone position, but the swordsman wasn’t giving him any room to move.
“NO,” Dr. Lucifer said wearily, “if was going to use it on young Mr. Hawkings, or you, or any of the panel, I’d do it quietly, and not have a hundred eyewitnesses to it. No, come, Dr. Smart, examine the Skulljacker. And you, Dr. Hong, Dr. Lefebvre, Dr. Lefkowitz, Dr. Mendez - examine it as well. Take pictures! Just … not too many, for everyone’s sake.”
After about 10 minutes, Dr. Smart and the rest of the panel broke from their examination. “It’s a Skulljacker, all right. It’s definitely the Transhumanite’s work. I’d say that it is the 1993 Antwerp model, the one he used to assume the identity of Rutger Schliemann - and 6 other people in turn over a nine-month period.” There was some muttering on the behalf of the rest of the panel, not wanting to let Dr. Smart have the complete spotlight, but none of them were willing to challenge someone who knew a LOT more on this subject than any of them did.
“Excellent,” Dr. Lucifer said. “Now … Dr. Smart … what would you do if I GAVE you the Skulljacker?”
“I’d SMASH it!” Dr. Smart said with steel ringing in her voice and flashing in her eyes. “I’d wreck it, and smash every component, every chip, every array, every cathode, and keep smashing until no one could conceivably reverse-engineer any part of it, no matter how innocuous or promising it might be! I’d smash it until it was a pile of steel wool and silicon dust!”
“Perfect!” Dr. Lucifer chuckled, “Just the answer I wanted. It’s YOURS. And, on top of that,” the female minion handed Dr. Lucifer another case. Dr. Lucifer presented the case to Dr. Smart and opened it. Inside, on a bed of peaked temperfoam, was a sledgehammer with a steel haft and a large head that gave off an odd gleam in the overhead lighting of the auditorium. “The shaft is stainless steel,” Dr. Lucifer said, “And the head weighs 125 pounds, with a sheath of Messingite™.
Dr. Smart took the hammer out of the case and got a feel for the swing of it. “Just … in case you feel tempted,” Dr. Lucifer said warningly, “just ask yourself: in the greater scheme of things, which is more dangerous? The Skulljacker? Or Me?”
Dr. Smart gave him a muted scowl, but seemed to agree with his point - from the point of view of the greater scheme of things. She channeled her frustration, anxiety and anger into smashing the Skulljacker, starting with the fantastically advanced rings of instrumentation in the cowls, and finishing by tearing the couches apart. It took her a good 15 minutes, but she did indeed reduce the bleeding edge piece of technology to a pile of rubble. When she was finished, Dr. Smart took a short break to catch her breath. But her need to know made her ask with a raspy voice, “WHY? Why did you seek out the Skulljacker, just to have me destroy it?”
“I didn’t ‘seek out’ the Skulljacker,” Dr. Lucifer said equitably. “It fell into my lap, in the same windfall that brought me the Stinger, that Boom Tube, and indeed Dr. Triple-yech himself. But after I verified that it was, indeed one of the Skulljackers, and not just Lumpy making ‘booga-booga’ noises-”
“You used it? You used the Skulljacker?”
“Yes! And I feel soiled by it! I don’t regret … intellectually … what I did to the test subjects, but on a very primal level, I feel that what I did was wrong.”
“You? Admit that you were wrong?” Dennis said with amused derision from where he was laying.
“YES!” Dr. Lucifer snapped. “I’m a professional criminal, and I don’t toe the line for most Scientific Conventions, but there IS a line I won’t cross. I may not draw the line where you do, but there IS a line for me. And, having put a toe across that line, I’m making sure that it doesn’t happen again.
“And beyond personal morality, the Skulljacker is DANGEROUS! And I’m talking putting Tac Nukes in the hands of street gangs dangerous. You see, I discovered something truly horrific about the Skulljacker when I was checking it out. Like you, I assumed that it was a Schimmelhorn Device, that it only worked because the Transhumanite’s insanity made it work!
“But it’s not! It showed none of the usual signs of a Schimmelhorn Device - none of the glitches, or eccentricities or illogic that you see. If I’d studied it long enough, I could have reverse-engineered it, and figured out its core operating principles.”
“Then, why didn’t you?” Dr. Lefkowitz asked, drawn into the discussion despite herself.
“Because the Skulljacker threatens a basic and necessary aspect of the Human Condition: no matter how poor or wretched, we still own our own bodies! But in his - or its - zeal to leave the limitations of Humanity behind, the Transhumanite dreamed of ‘liberating’ Humanity from its carnate existence, to become beings of pure thought!
“PAH! I know people, and if the Transhumanite had ever truly perfected that technology, and it fell into the wrong hands, it would have been disastrous! And there are NO right hands for that thing! The technology would have been monopolized by the ruthless, the scheming, the unprincipled!”
“In other words, your kind of people?” Dennis mocked him.
But Dr. Lucifer took the jibe in stride, without blinking. “Yes! Why do you think I wanted the Skulljacker destroyed? I know what people with power are like! The Power Elites of the world have viewed their subjects as cattle since the days of the Pharaohs, but now the Powerful would see them as a disposable resource. Mutants wouldn’t be hunted to be exterminated anymore - they’d be bred like horses for specific traits, so the Top Ten Percent could live immortal lives in super powered bodies, completely unconcerned with the lives of the common herd. Why be an athlete, when you know that after years of striving and effort, some rich bastard will just come along and take your body? Why bother being fit at all? All that will happen is that when you hit your prime, some rich guy will just have you shoved into a Skulljacker, and suddenly you’ll be a middle-aged (if you’re lucky) reprobate with lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver and shot kidneys!”
“Then why not just do it yourself?” Dr. Smart asked uncertainly.
Dr. Lucifer chuckled, “I’m afraid that after that spate of awkward idealism, my reasons for being here are woefully pragmatic. You see, the incident where I gained possession of the Skulljacker wasn’t an entirely private affair between XXX and myself. No, XXX managed to drag a good-sized crowd of supervillains into the mess. Half of them are scared to death that I’ll use the Skulljacker myself, the other half are drooling at the thought of gaining the Skulljacker for themselves, and they ALL know that I had the damn thing!”
“SO, why not just wreck it yourself and be DONE with it?”
“Who’d believe me?” Dr. Lucifer asked plaintively. “I’m Doctor Lucifer, mmmaaaddd sccciiieeennntist! They’d all assume that I was pulling some elaborate scam! No matter what I said or did, there’d always be someone trying to steal or muscle or chisel out from under me something that no longer exists! The more I’d deny it, the more they’d think I was pulling something!”
“Oh, you poor, poor misunderstood evil genius,” Dr. Smart cooed sardonically.
Brushing that aside, Dr. Lucifer continued, “My only way out from under it, was if the Skulljacker was examined by an expert on Sinister Technology - like you -, who owes me NOTHING - as you do -, and would never risk her reputation for a criminal like me - as you would never do. AND, just to show that I wasn’t pulling some elaborate scam on you and the world, YOU personally destroyed the Skulljacker in front of all these witnesses.
“AND, having done that, I will release the hostage and leave with no further ado. I’ll leave you the hammer and the wreckage. At the very least, the latter will both prove to the Authorities that is was the real, complete Skulljacker - or at least the 1993 Antwerp model.”
On a cue from Dr. Lucifer, the two cyborgs who were holding Jane and her mother released their hostages. The cyborgs exited from the auditorium into the Boom Tube, followed by the faux-exhibitors, and then the minions in red, and then Dr. XXX. Despite his promise of ‘no further ado’, Dr. Lucifer paused just before entering the Boom Tube. He turned to Dr. Smart, and with a puckish smile on his face recited a cryptic six-line nonlinear poem heavily interspersed with numbers and suggestions to higher geometry. When he finished, he gave Dr. Smart a brisk salute and disappeared into the tunnel in the air.
The Boom Tube collapsed, and the anchoring mechanism destroyed itself in a shower of sparks.
After giving the Police a preliminary statement, Jane and her mother were put into a cab and allowed to go home. As soon as the ‘taxi’ went under an overpass, it changed into a Soccer Mom van. When it left the highway, it changed into an Econobox sedan. By the time it reached the affluent suburb where the Harrow family lived, the car was an upscale luxury sedan. Mara Harrow and her middle daughter, Jessie, got out of the car. They’d shed the mousy brown wigs, and the drab look-alike outfits had only been glamour masks that Jessie had cast as part of her magical training. Looking like an ad out of Town and Country magazine, Mara and Jessie went into the house and promptly passed through a secret passage to a stairwell down. They went down to the secret complex that was under the Harrow property - and, to be honest, the properties of five of their neighbors, who had no notion as to the sinister reason why their plumbing never had problems.
When Mara and Jessie entered the lounge of the underground base, JD, who was waiting for them along with Uncle Luke, the Harrow cadre of lieutenants and the cyborg minion-ettes, greeted his kid sister with, “Hey, Jess! Why’d you take off the wig? That look rocked for you!” Jessie simply returned the jibe with a ladylike razzberry.
“Well?” Luke asked his sister-in-law with all the breathless anticipation of an actor awaiting his first reviews. “How did it come off?”
“Very well,” Mara said. “Dr. Smart and the other panel members were very dubious at first, as were the Police, but after turning it upside-down and twisting it inside-out, they’ve more or less come to the conclusion that the only reason that you’d go to those extremes to prove that you were telling the truth was that you WERE telling the truth.”
“Thank God!” Luke grumbled. “I was starting to think that I’d have to do something ‘subtle’, like inserting a mysterious message into the New York Times crossword puzzle or something.”
“There were two very bored reporters at the science fair, so no matter what the Police decide to do, word will get out,” Mara assured him. “It will take a few weeks for the more paranoid members of the community to figure it out, but it shouldn’t be that long before people stop planning to kidnap you for the Skulljacker.”
Luke slumped with a wordless ‘whoof!’ that suggested that it couldn’t be over soon enough.
“Hey Unk!” Jessie cut in, “What was that gobbledygook sort-of poem that you rattled off at Dr. Smart, just before you cut out?”
Luke bucked up with a puckish smirk. “It means nothing; it’s a semantic ‘Indian monkey trap’, designed to keep whoever tries to solve it running in circles. If Dr. Smart is trying to figure out what my ‘clue’ means, then she’s not tracking down my latest endeavor. Besides, no matter what I said at the Science Fair, I still owe Dr. Smart something for trashing my heavy-metals extraction plant in the Caribbean.”
Monique Leger peeked around the office door of her teammate in the Heroes Glorieux de Bordeaux. "Lunch?" she asked the two women - one wispy teen girl and one slender, Asian woman with long, silky black hair. The Asian woman sat at a desk working at her computer, while the girl was at a small table that looked to be an afterthought to the office, making the small office a tiny bit cramped. Besides the girl's strange hair coloration, her dark blue eyes were streaked with a swirling pattern of green and white, and a pointy elf-ear poked out through her hair which was white and streaked with light blues, like a glacier.
Angelique Zhi Liu - Orchidee Quantique - looked up from her computer. "Give me a minute. I've got to sync our database with the latest villain data on HeroWatch." Angelique wasn't wearing her hero costume; like Monique, she put on her outfit only when they went out on a duty call. Unlike her teammate, she had her outfit stored in a quantum tunnel, a spatially-warped gateway that was a signature of her power.
"Elle, do you have a preference for food?" Monique asked the girl as Angelique worked on her computer.
"Um," the girl said hesitantly. Being from Norway, French wasn't a language that she knew when the government had arranged her internship with the HGB. She'd been frantically studying the language ever since, but she was still far from fluent. "Do you mean which café to go to," she asked, careful with her pronunciation. "Or what type of food?"
Angelique looked up from her keyboard. "Don't ask her that!" she said with a sly grin. "She'll have us eating codfish or some other Norwegian 'delicacy'!"
Elle stuck her tongue out at the Asian woman. Before she could retort, though, Angelique pushed her keyboard back and stood. "Do we have time to go to Chez Jean Mi? I think I would like seafood today."
"That sounds good," Monique replied, "but you're supposed to be working with Flamme Bleu this afternoon, remember?" Part of Elle's internship included tutoring from the HGB on her powers, and as she was an energizer as well as a mage, the HGB's energizer was tasked with helping her learn.
"He had to go home, to La Rochelle. His father was injured in an accident and is in hospital," Angelique countered. "So we have time."
With Brigitte Marquet, the HGB's mage, the women sat at a patio table just outside the café, enjoying their food and the lovely summer day. Around them, residents of the city as well as tourists milled about the famous Marché des Capucins, enjoying the cafes, shopping for seafood, and just generally being annoying and mostly clueless tourists.
"There are two!" Elle called out with glee, pointing at a couple of people walking down the street, watching everywhere but where they were going. As a result, many locals had to duck around them, and from the motions of their mouths, were probably cursing in French.
"Germans?" Angelique guessed, peering at the pair.
"Americans," Monique countered with a shake of her head.
"How can you tell they're not German?" Elle asked curiously.
"They're not goose-stepping," Brigitte laughed. Seeing the shocked looks on the faces of her teammates, she shrugged. "What? That was a joke!"
"A bad one!" Angelique said with a frown, but she couldn't keep a straight face and giggled a bit.
"Now what?" Monique asked when she finished chuckling. "Since we don't have anything else to do this afternoon."
"The Musee d'Histoire Naturelle is having the re-opening ceremony this afternoon," Brigitte commented with a shrug. "Do you suppose we should be there, at least as a token representation?"
"As long as the MCO isn't there," Angelique countered. "I don't think Monsieur Favager would be thrilled with our presence." She couldn't help but grin when she saw Elle's confused look.
"The MCO had a few ... issues earlier this summer."
"So did the museum," Brigitte added with a hearty laugh. As the women stood and began to walk toward the park and museum, the HGB women explained the summer adventure with the museum and MCO. It was difficult - the heroes were practically in tears laughing at the entire episode, but by the time they got to the museum, Elle was laughing as well.
"You have very distinctive and lovely hair, cheri," a male voice sang politely beside Elle. She turned, since it sounded like the speaker was very close, and she came face-to-face with a young Frenchman, who looked to be a couple years older than her.
"Oh," Elle stammered, her cheeks flushing a bit at the boy's complement. "It's ... it's nothing special."
"It's quite attractive. I know several girls who would kill to have hair as pretty as yours." He smiled warmly as the girl blushed again. "I suspected that you were not from here," the boy continued. Seeing her baffled expression, he continued with a smile. "From your charming accent. Let me guess. You're from ... Denmark, perhaps?"
"Non," Elle answered, carefully pronouncing her French even though it slowed her speech a bit. "Close. I am Norwegian."
"I should have guessed," the boy said, still smiling. "Scandinavian women are renowned for their beauty. I'm Remy. Remy Gardinier " He extended his hand. "Welcome to France, cherie."
"I am Elle Astrid Ruud." When Elle hesitantly reached out to take his hand, the boy grasped it lightly, drawing it up, and he kissed it. A strong tingle coursed through Elle's body, as if his kiss was electric and had stimulated every pleasure nerve in her body. Her cheeks burned as she blushed at the boy's flirtation. She was flustered, unused to having boys so obviously trying to charm her, and as her mind swirled with the new and quite pleasant experience, she continued to chat with the boy for a few minutes, soaking up his charm and wit like a dry sponge in a bathtub.
Suddenly, the girl straightened and looked around, her expression changing slowly to alarm and then near panic. "Where are they?" She looked around again. "My sponsors ... they're ... where are they?"
"Oui. I am on a sponsored internship for the summer. Learning foreign culture, you know," she added hastily, having been cautioned about letting slip anything about her own or the HGB's mutant status or identities. "I bet they've gone to the museum," Elle decided. "Before lunch, they were talking about the reopening ceremony."
"I can show you the way if you'd like," Remy offered graciously. In reality, he was somewhat smitten with this very cute girl, and any excuse to spend more time with her was welcome.
For some reason, Elle found his offer very attractive, and she didn't protest when he offered her his arm, instead lightly holding him above his crooked elbow. "Bordeaux is a quite lovely city," she said by way of small-talk as they walked. "Much prettier than Meraker or Trondheim."
"Then it's fitting that you're here," Remy commented. Seeing her confusion, he smiled. "A pretty girl in a pretty city."
Elle wanted to gag at his cheap pickup line; Einar had used such lines - and better ones - when he lived in Meraker, but for some reason, Elle felt another tingle. It was different when she was the one being complimented, she realized. And since she hadn't had much experience as a girl receiving such compliments, she might have been over-reacting.
She interrupted her train of thought as they crossed the park toward the museum. "I think I see them!" she said excitedly, peering intently at the steps of the museum. "Two of them, anyway." She worried her brow. "I bet Monique is still back there looking for me."
"Why don't you call her?" Remy suggested, causing Elle to nearly face-palm at having forgotten something so obvious and simple as using her cell phone.
"Excuse me, miss?" The voice was strong and masculine, and close. Elle noticed that other people had stopped and were looking toward her - or the direction the voice had come from. She turned to see an older man with a stern frown looking at her. "Miss?" he repeated.
"Elle," the girl said, feeling nervous. The man looked quite determined, like he was on serious business and would not be distracted or deterred. "Can I help you?"
The man nodded very slightly. "You are foreign, yes?"
"Oui," Elle answered, starting to feel a bit nervous about the way the man was staring at her. "I'm from Norway."
"May I see your MID? I am Agent Favager, with the local MCO office."
"My ... MID?" Elle stammered. "But ...."
"From your hair, your eyes, and the elf ear that periodically pokes out through your hair, I assume that you are a mutant," the man said. "Am I correct?"
"Yes," Elle said in a weak voice, feeling a little more nervous. This man wasn't like the friendly MCO agents back in Norway. He looked too stern, too serious.
"Then you will have an MID that you can show me, since you had to travel across a border to get here," Favager stated.
"But ... the Schengen agreement ...," Elle protested. "I ... no-one told me I needed an MID."
"Schengen doesn't apply to mutants," Favager said flatly.
"I didn't get one. But I have a letter from my government and my sponsors about my travel ...."
"May I see the letter?" His tone sounded less like a request and more like a demand.
"I don't have it with me," Elle replied, her voice cracking from nerves. "It's ... at my sponsor's place of employment."
"Then I'll have to take you to the office," Favager said. "You can call your sponsors and have them bring the documentation. However, if it is insufficient to match treaty requirements ...." His sentence hung ominously as he reached out to lightly grasp her arm.
"I ... I can't leave! I have to talk to my sponsors first!" Elle cried out, panic setting in.
The boy Remy watched the proceedings with interest; unlike many who might have fled or scorned her for being a mutant, he didn't seem at all flustered by that revelation. "Monsieur," he said politely but insistently, "the MCO does not have power to arrest or detain anyone ...."
"Except in the commission of a crime or at ports of entry," Favager replied sharply. "And since she had to travel from Norway to France, she came through a port of entry. Ergo, she had to have an MID, which she admitted she does not have, which puts her in violation of international treaty, and thus subject to the jurisdiction of the MCO."
Elle's eyes were wide as saucers. She'd heard tales of foreign MCO offices that were a little too enthusiastic dealing with mutants, but hadn't believed them. Now, however, she realized that the tales might be true.
Elle did what any normal teenager who was away from home in a foreign country confronted by a questionable law enforcement officer. She panicked.
Without consciously doing so, she let her power loose as she wrenched her arm away from the MCO agent, and immediately, the air cooled to sub-zero temperature around her and the moisture in the air rapidly condensed into a thick cloud of white snowflakes, which were swirled about near her by a sudden vortex of wind. The white flurry was thick enough that visibility was reduced to only a meter or so.
For some unknown reason, Remy grasped Elle's hand and tugged her away from the agent and toward the museum. Surely Brigitte and Angelique would see the minor snowstorm and realize that she was in trouble. Especially since the blizzard was following her as she and Remy dashed toward the museum, ignoring all the startled - and suddenly chilly - onlookers who were gawking at them.
Taking the steps by twos, Remy led Elle toward the museum entrance. Unfortunately, they couldn't see much since they were as blinded by the thickening snowstorm as onlookers, but they both knew that Favager would be following them. Thus, the two teenagers couldn't tell that the ceremony was over and the officials on the steps, including the mayor, the museum director and his staff, and two of the Heroes of Bordeaux had gone inside to a reception celebrating the reopening. At the top of the stairs, Elle regained a modicum of emotional control and turned off her powers so she could find her friends, but it took a few seconds for the snow flurries to end.
With Favager hot on their heels, the teens ran into the museum, startling the guards and guides. Elle pulled up short to avoid running into a gigantic T-rex skeleton mounted on a dais in the entrance hall. She glanced around, seeing all the various halls branching off the entrance, and she didn't know where to run.
Favager drew his stun pistol as he took the steps. A mutant fleeing a lawful request from an MCO agent, he assured himself, was a threat to public safety, and thus using his stunner on her was totally justified. Coming inside, he saw the two teens, so he stopped and aimed at the girl. Slowly, he squeezed the trigger.
Remy had looked around when they stopped, and he saw Favager drawing his pistol. Without realizing why, except perhaps that his teenage hormones were overpowering the logic and reasoning centers of his brain because of the pretty girl, the boy grabbed the first thing he could find, which happened to be a small display board full of pamphlets about the museum. Without aiming, intending only to distract the MCO officer, he threw the small board. The brochures spread everywhere, startling Favager as he squeezed the trigger. Then the board luckily hit his hand, causing him to flinch, which resulted in the stun pistol pointing upward. The air crackled and hissed as the energy bolt leapt from the muzzle.
Elle had turned to see how far Favager was behind them, and she gasped at the sight of his weapon being levelled at her. If there was an adrenaline-meter, the girl's level would have started high, and the sight of Favager would have pegged and then broken the meter. Without conscious thought, her powers snapped on in an instinctive self-defense maneuver.
Favager's shot was unlucky enough to hit a fire sprinkler head, which shorted out a sensor, and the main control unit reacted as if a sensor had gone off due to fire or heat. The 'brain' of the fire control system sent an electrical signal to a massive valve, which caused the fire suppression system to activate as a warning siren began to whoop through the halls.
Interacting with Elle's power, the sudden deluge of water from the sprinkler began to freeze as it fell, becoming a thick sleet interspersed with a blinding, swirling mass of snowflakes. The airborne ice spread almost instantaneously back up into the sprinkler heads, and the sudden blockage and expansion due to the ice shattered most of the sprinkler heads, opening the pipes directly to the interior of the museum hall. In seconds, the entire floor was coated in a layer of ice, as were the stairs and railings and everything else near the girl. And Favager, who was suddenly struggling through an inch-thick coating of frozen water that clung to him like a suit. Because of her power and control over snow and sleet, Elle was unaffected by the deluge, and as Remy was in close proximity, still holding her hand in fact, he was shielded by the same power that protected Elle.
Of course, this was all lost to nearly every observer in the hall as a brilliant light-show of aurora borealis-like colors and patterns swirled around the hall, dazzling and temporarily blinding everyone as their pupils contracted to shut out the intense lights. After a couple of seconds, the display vanished as quickly as it had come.
Alerted by the alarm, the museum director and his staff dashed from the reception room into the main hall, missing most of the Zetar-like light-show but just in time to hear a loud creak and groan from the center display. As the director watched in horror, the massive skeleton, coated with a blanket of ice that sparkled in the light, gave up a struggle against the weight of the frozen water. With a massive crash, moving almost like it was a slow-motion movie, the skeleton tottered and then collapsed to the floor. The skull smashed into the main reception desk, splintering the desk into a shower of ice-coated kindling. Other minor displays began to topple as well from the weight of the ice, while several patrons who had been on the stairs found themselves suddenly on a slope of nearly-frictionless ice. They tumbled down the staircase in a tangle of arms and legs.
As everyone stared in horror, not least of all Elle who knew she was going to be in huge trouble for the debacle, Monique Leger shook her head with a heavy sigh and walked toward the human icicle whose teeth were clattering from the sudden chill caused by his frozen coat. Overhead, water dripped from the sprinkler system and snowflakes settled into a thick coating atop the icy floor.
The portly, slightly balding museum director stood, his mouth agape, his jaw dropping more and more as he panned around the entrance hall in disbelief, seeing the collapsed skeleton, the shattered desk, the ice and snow everywhere. Only minutes before, the hall had been a repaired, remodelled entrance hall. His lower lip trembled as the disbelieving look was replaced by one of utter dismay. He began to weep.
"Monsieur Favager, are you causing trouble with a mutant again? I thought you would have learned from earlier this summer, and what happened to Monsieur Delacroix," Monique chided the regional MCO director. "I thought the Justice Ministry made it very clear that you must follow proper procedures, especially when underage mutants are involved!."
"She ... she entered ... the country ... without ... an MID," Favager said, his words interrupted by the sound of his teeth knocking lightly and rapidly together.
"He ... was going to arrest me!" Elle cried. She knew her internship was going to be cut short, and that she might be held responsible for the damage to the museum. Her trip was turning into a disaster.
"She has a letter from the Foreign Ministry permitting her trip," Monique replied.
"She ... didn't ... have ... the ...."
"Of course she didn't have the letter! It's in my office, with a copy in her room! No-one would carry such a letter routinely, and any competent bureaucrat would know that and would allow her to get it as proof!"
Brigitte and Angelique stepped to the poor distraught museum director. "Since this was caused by an inappropriate and possibly illegal action on the part of the MCO, no doubt the magistrate will find them responsible for the cost of cleaning up this new mess." The director didn't seem at all soothed by their prediction. His museum, his beloved hall showcasing natural history, was in ruin. Again. His tears flowed more freely.
At the main doors, three Gendarmes reacting to the ruckus rushed into the museum only to find themselves slipping and sliding on a floor covered with snow and ice, skating without benefit of ice skates. Two managed to retain their balance, while the third man's feet slipped out from under him and he ungracefully fell on his ass. Rubbing his now-sore butt, he carefully levered to his feet, a scowl forming when he recognized Monsieur Favager. "Again, Favager?" he said bitingly. "Will you never learn?" He turned to the two other Gendarmes. "Take this ... thing ... outside to thaw in the sun," he directed with a sigh of disgust, looking toward the human ice-statue. "Then we'll take him to the office to discuss this little ... mishap."
Monique looked at Elle warily. "We'll talk about this back in the office," she said. "After we fill out the reports for the police. And since you were part of it, that means you get to do your share of the post-incident paperwork."
"I'm so sorry!" Elle apologized, nearly blubbering as she bawled because she felt responsible for the mess and that she'd ruined her internship.
Monique leaned toward the girl. "That's what an internship is for," she whispered. "To learn to control your powers. The local MCO office has a reputation for reckless behavior, so no-one will blame you. Everything will be okay." She frowned as she looked at the boy, whose fingers were still interlocked with Elle's from holding her hand starting way back in the park. Shaking her head, she turned and walked carefully across the slippery floor toward her team-mates. "I should have guessed there'd be a boy involved somehow," she muttered, glancing over her shoulder at the boy and Elle.
Immobile and shivering inside his ice prison as the Gendarmes half-carried, half-dragged him toward the museum entrance, Favager wanted to cry. Maybe, he thought to himself, it was a sign that he should retire. "Yes," he inadvertently muttered aloud through chattering teeth. "Definitely time to retire."
“Yes Mrs. Selkirk?” Anna Parsons squeaked as she pulled up suddenly when her housemother loomed out of her apartment at her. Anna had been on the way out of Dickson Cottage with her friend Ree who had come over from Whitman Cottage, they had been on the way to the campus store to purchase their books and supplies for the term.
“Miss Parsons. It pains me to hear this, I thought you were such a sensible girl, but I've been informed that Security wishes to talk to you about your activities over the summer break.” Anna eeped and accepted the note Mrs. Selkirk held out to her, eyes falling to the floor as Anna tried to avoid the disappointed look her housemother was giving her. “You are to proceed immediately to Kane Hall where you will wait with the other students who need to talk to Security about their summer misadventures.” Nodding miserably Anna waited for the martyred sigh from her housemother and the sound of the door to Mrs. Selkirk’s apartment closing before she continued down the corridor and out into the still warm September sun.
Anna had forgotten her friend Ree was with her until she reached out and took the note Mrs. Selkirk had handed Anna and read it. “This is so cool!” Ree squealed almost dancing in excitement. “Look at this! It's not just you, all the students from the summer break are getting called in, who do you think will be there?”
“All of them?” Anna asked puzzled, turning her head trying to read the note Ree was excitedly holding.
“Yeah, see?” Ree pointed. “It's not addressed to you, it's just saying that that the ‘Summer break student encounters debrief’ is this morning and the students are to report to Chief Delarose.” Ree’s squeal of “This is so exciting!” easily drowned the gulp of consternation and little yelp of dismay Anna made as she heard who she was supposed to be reporting to.
With an excited skip Ree grabbed the hand of her friend and started dragging her towards Kane Hall. “I can't wait to see who else they’ve called in, I mean you can't be the only one who did something over summer! I bet you all the Kimbas are there! I wonder if we will find out what they did? I bet whatever Fey did it was awesome! And Chaka?” Ree squealed. “I can't wait to hear what she did! I bet it was all Bruce Lee spin kick punch awesome!” Ree did a little one-two punch and a happy dance before spinning around and grabbing the hand of Anna to resume dragging her friend down the path to Kane Hall.
“Ree!” Anna gasped as she was pulled along, glancing uneasily at the rapidly approaching entrance to Kane Hall. “I don't know how long I'll be, maybe you should do your shopping without me?” she suggested.
“Shopping?” Ree stopped to stare at Anna in disbelief. “Why would I want to go shopping? I'm going with you! I want to see who’s there! If we get a seat close enough maybe we could even hear what it was they did! Wouldn't that be awesome! First hand gossip on all the hero fights from the summer!” Turning back around Ree excitedly pulled Anna through the door and straight up to the front desk of security.
“Anna Parson, Aquerna, here for the summer break student encounters debrief!” Ree panted to the desk sergeant there.
Slowly raising an eyebrow at the excited student before him, the sergeant turned to regard the blushing Anna who stared down at the floor in embarrassment. With a grunt the sergeant raised a hand and pointed towards a group of chairs lining that hall outside Chief Delarose’s office. “Take a seat,” he instructed them. “The chief will call you when he’s ready.”
Pulling Anna excitedly, Ree dragged her around the corner, eyes widening in delight at what she saw. “I told you!” Ree whispered gleefully into Anna’s ear as she grinned towards Billie, Jade and Ayla who where already seated waiting outside Chief Delarose’s office.
“Anna!” Jade exclaimed happily when she saw who Ree was dragging around the corner. Jumping up Jade ran to her fellow Wondercute teammate and hugged her enthusiastically, dragging her back to sit beside herself and Billie, Ree following behind to sit down next to Anna. “What are you here for? What happened? You didn't get attacked did you?” Jade frowned worriedly at her friend.
“Anna’s a hero!” Ree blurted excitedly.
“A hero? Really?” Jade squealed. “How? Tell me! Please?” she wheedled.
Slowly, blushing profusely with Ree excitedly interrupting frequently, Anna told the tale of the attempted kidnapping she foiled.
“Wow! You stopped a kidnapping? That's awesome!” Jade squealed excitedly giving Anna a hug of joy.
Embarrassed, Anna glanced around furtively. Billie was giving her an encouraging smile, but it was the look of approval, Ayla gave her, that most shocked her, especially the warm pleasant feeling she felt inside at seeing it. “What about you? Why are you here?” Anna blurted to Jade, trying desperately to change the subject from herself.
“Oh Kayda got us in trouble with the French MCO while we were in France,” Jade shrugged. “I just think they want to talk to me about the museum again,” Jade waved the question aside. “I don't know why they're making such a fuss, we didn't start it! The MCO poopyheads did!”
Ayla gave his teammate a wry look. “I think it was all the damage to the museum that has everyone so upset.”
“None of that was our fault!” Jade protested. “All that damage was caused by the poopyheads! Shooting and charging and running everywhere!”
Ayla merely raised an eyebrow. “So you had nothing to do with the movement of a dinosaur skeleton?” he asked as Jade blushed. “My brother Paul called me especially to complain that the museum needed to fly in a team of palaeontologists to sort through the bones in order to remount their prized dinosaur skeleton.”
Jade opened her mouth to reply but Ayla just raised his eyebrow at her, grunting in satisfaction when Jade snapped her mouth shut in a huff.
“What about you Billie?” Anna quickly asked to distract from the awkwardness. “You didn't go to France did you?”
Billie shook her head and blushed as Jade snapped out of her huff and started laughing again. “No, Billie didn't go to France, Billie’s been called in because Billie invaded the Pentagon!” Jade announced with glee.
As Anna and Ree stared at Billie in open-mouthed astonishment, the blue-haired Ryoko clone slumped in her chair blushing, making every attempt possible to fade from existence.
“Billie?” Anna asked slowly, questioningly. “Why did you invade the Pentagon?”
Billie tried even harder to sink into her chair. “It wasn’t an invasion,” she mumbled. “I was just trying to find Hank’s Dad.”
Jade howled with laughter, and Anna glanced quickly back and forth between the howling Jade and the amused Ayla. “Why were you looking for Hank’s dad?” Anna asked puzzled. “Was he taken by the Pentagon? I thought he was an Army colonel?”
Jade laughed even louder and Billie turned even redder, staring at the floor seemingly unable to speak. Finally Ayla rescued her with a chuckle. “No, Hank’s father works at the Pentagon, Billie was just trying to find him to ask where Hank was.”
getting her giggles under control Jade interrupted. “It's just, well, she flew right in without warning! Into the Pentagon! They got a little upset at her,” Jade finished laughing hard as Billie blushed so red it looked like she was on fire.
“Billie! You didn't!” Anna gasped in shock. “They could have killed you!”
“I know!” Billie moaned. “Mom and Dad! They lectured me about it for hours! They even got one of their bosses from work to give me a lecture on all the anti-mutant weaponry and tactics the Pentagon guards have at their disposal! They gave me tests on it! All summer long!”
Anna tried, but even she had to give in to the giggles at the sight of an outraged and put-upon Billie, Whateley’s Section 33 student, woebegone at having to study and take tests on her summer break!
Just then a muffled shout from Chief Delarose’s office made them jump, and Anna glanced cautiously at Ayla, who sighed.
“We’ll probably have to wait a while,” Ayla informed her quietly.
“Why?” Ree asked curiously.
“Kayda’s still in there!” Jade giggled pointing to Chief Delarose's office. “And they're only up to her second interview!”
“Second interview?” Anna eeped.
“Yeah, she's in there now with Adalie, Alicia and her brother, oh and Nikki,” Jade explained. “Before that it was Tansy and Loophole.”
“Nikki? Loophole? Tansy?!”
Jade giggled. “Apparently Loophole gave Kayda a lift home from school last year, with Tansy tagging along. They got caught in some sort of supervillian heist of some kind.”
“Warhorse,” Ayla grunted.
“Warhorse?” Anna asked confused.
“Warhorse the villain, well mercenary actually,” Ayla elaborated. “He attacked a facility just as they were driving past, apparently it turned into quite the supervillain fight which the three of them somehow got involved in, Warhorse against some pretty stiff opposition from both the facility guards as well as law enforcement's response.”
“What about Nikki?” Ree asked breathlessly.
“Oh that wasn't then, it was later,” Jade responded breezily. “Kayda asked Nikki to come to South Dakota after another demon snake attacked and killed her Grandmother.”
“Her Grandmother was killed?” Anna gasped in shock.
Ayla sighed and nodded his head. “Kayda’s Grandmother was killed by the brother of the native demon spirit that attacked Kayda in Dunwhich,” he explained softly. “Kayda called in Nikki, and together they hunted it down, the two of them as well as Adalie, Alicia and Kayda’s brother.”
Anna stared wide-eyed, jumping a bit when the door to Chief Delarose's office suddenly opened and he looked out thoughtfully, before turning back to call inside. “There’s too many of you involved in that museum stunt for my office, come on you lot, out! We’ll use the conference room.” Turning back to those sitting outside he glared at Ayla and the smiling Jade. “Up you two, you can lead the way.” Chief Delarose waved Jade and Ayla to go before him as he started down the hall, followed by Sam Everheart and the students who had been in the office with them.
As Ayla and Jade rose from their seats, Anna rose automatically too. “Not you Miss Parsons!” Chief Delarose waved her back down. “You, Miss Wilson and, Miss Davies what are you doing here? Never mind, the three of you wait here,” he ordered as went past.
Anna stood awkwardly as the others filed past, especially as Kayda approached her. Anna squirmed uncomfortably, then blurted out “I'm sorry about your grandmother!” to Kayda as she passed. Glancing at the only boy to come out of the office, Anna realised who it must be and she murmured “I'm sorry for you too,” to Kayda’s brother before blushing and staring down at the ground.
Kayda stopped surprised beside Anna, her brother also stopping to give Anna a curious look. Finally Kayda sighed and nodded. “Thank you,” she murmured before hurrying herself and her brother down the corridor.
Anna looked up and watched Kayda hurry away, sadly contemplating what it would be like to have someone, or something, kill her grandmother like had just happened to Kayda and her brother. Tears were glistening in her eyes when Ree came up and gently touched her shoulder.
“I think I'm going to go do my shopping after all,” Ree murmured, glancing towards the front desk of security where another group of recently arrived students was being pointed towards the chairs they were waiting at. “I … I no longer want to hear the other students stories,” she apologised softly.
Giving Ree a quick hug, Anna forced a smile and nodded her acknowledgment. Ree hugged her gratefully back and then scurried off for the exit as Anna sat back down to wait, surprised when Billie reached across and gave her a quick hug of support.
“It's not so exciting when people die is it?” Billie murmured softly as Anna shook her head fiercely, trying to keep back the tears. Billie just sighed and pulled Anna in tighter, sitting there holding the crying girl as slowly the chairs around them filled.