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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla #4: "Ayla and the Tests" / Part 5

Ayla #4: "Ayla and the Tests" 

- a Whateley Universe Tale

by Diane Castle (with oodles of help from the whole Whateley crew!)

CHAPTER 5 - The Apples of the Hesperides

 

Monday, October 16

Since everybody had been on my case about staring in the bathroom during shower time, I was trying a new approach.  I was rushing in, hopping in a shower for a quick wash, and then going straight to a sink to do all my matutinal chores: tooth brushing, hair styling, flossing, face cleansing with special astringent, …  Basically, anything I could think of so that I could stare into the mirror at the hot babes as they walked behind me.  So it looked like I was being a good boy and hurrying through my routine, while I was actually getting in maybe ten minutes of serious gawking.

Breakfast was great.  Chef Peter had a surprising treat for me.  The bottom layer was a Greek yogurt mixed with minced crystallized ginger.  The middle layer was a mixture of fresh blueberries, marionberries, golden raspberries, and huckleberries.  Over that went a rich caramel that had obviously stood for several minutes after pouring, because it had hardened to a lovely crunch.  That was a surprising combination of flavors, and it was really good.  Plus, it looked too pretty to eat.  Not that that kept me from eating all of it, of course.

And then it was time for even more powers testing.  Man, it was a good thing I wasn't struggling with my classes.

Still, missing another hour of Costume Shop was probably a good thing.  I could live without another hour of Mrs. Ryan trying to convince that dork Superior that an all fire-engine-red costume with a white helmet just made him look like his codename ought to be Captain Pimple.

This time, we were back in Lab E.  Shandy and Hewley brought in three new characters.

The woman was from the Magical Arts department.  It was pretty hard to take her seriously, since she looked like she was going to a Halloween party as Morticia Addams.  At least she didn't go with the tight, flowing, black mermaid skirt.  She was actually dressed pretty normally for a Whateley teacher.  But from her long black hair to her pale face and heavy-lidded eyes, she just looked like she ought to be on a recruitment poster for goths.

Then there was a balding guy who looked like he hadn't exercised since he had to make that mad dash through the grocery store to get the last jumbo bag of Doritos.  He apparently was a specialized dowser.  He had a briefcase that held five different diving rods.  Man, I didn't even know there could be five different kinds of divining rods.  But he had everything from the metal rods bent in an 'L' to a highly-polished forked stick.  For me, he used two metal 'L's, with both short sides held in one pudgy hand.

The third person was obviously a deviser.  From his nerdy look and Whateley labcoat, down to his bizarre gadget with five waving radar dishes on wiggly stalks, he was pretty unmistakable.

After Dr. Hewley introduced us all, we got down to business.  The woman from the Magical Arts Department was Elyzia Grimes.  I made a mental note to ask Nikki about her.  The dowser was a guy codenamed Spiesberger.  'Cheeseburger' would have been more like it, given his shape.  I didn't say anything, since he had flown all the way in from D.C. for this one test.  The third guy was Mr. Pressman, one of Whateley's own Workshop instructors.  I wondered if he'd ever had a codename.

I stood on a platform and spent about ten minutes going light, then going heavy.  Meanwhile, they all concentrated on their stuff.  Miss Grimes made passes through the air until something bluish actually began to congeal out of nothingness.  The dowser held his rods until they began to twitch and jump.  The deviser twiddled with dials and scopes until the radar dishes all locked onto my position.

Dr. Shandy asked, "Have you had enough time?"

Miss Grimes coolly stared at him through those heavy-lidded eyes.  "Yes, Dr. Shandy.  Phase definitely does not have GSD."

The deviser nodded, "I concur.  No sign of Gross Structural Dystrophy.  Nothing but a well-conformed BIT there."

The dowser lowered his metal 'L's.  "Same result here.  No GSD.  Not even a hint of it."

Dr. Shandy and Dr. Hewley both thanked the three, and had Mr. Clark walk them out.

I couldn't make my throat work enough to say anything.

It was my BIT.  I didn't have GSD.

It was all in my BIT.

Theoretically, BITs were built up through subconscious imagery about mutant powers and how those powers related to your own body.

Which meant that it was my own subconscious imagery that was responsible.

Everything I had ever learned from my family about the dangers posed by mutants.  Everything I had ever thought about mutants being freaks.  Everything Father had ever said about transsexuals and she-males.  Everything I had ever thought about transsexuals being freaks…

I HAD DONE THIS TO MYSELF!!!!!

I had turned myself into the hated freak I was now.

"NNNOOOOOOO!!!!!"

I fell to my knees and screamed.  I covered my face with my hands and cried like a little girl.  And I couldn't stop crying!  I tried and tried, but I just couldn't get myself under control.

They rushed Dr. Bellows over to see me ASAP.  He spent an hour talking with me.  I still felt like I was coming apart at the seams.  I guess he thought the talking helped, because he decided not to hit me up with the drugs he had in his black bag.

He called Vox out of her classes, and the two of them walked me back to my room.  He told Vox, "Just be there for Ayla.  You've both got notes to miss the rest of your classes for the day."

I cried for hours, with Vanessa holding me and being there for me.  I don't remember lunch, or eating, or anything like that.

The next thing that I really remembered was Vox and Chaka having an angry conversation.

"Goddammit Toni, he's not in any shape to go get tortured at Freakhouse!"

"Well, fuck you too!  They're not freaks!  And don't call 'em that!"

"Don't tell me what to do!"

"Don't ever try pullin' that voice shit on me again, 'Nessa, or I'll rip you a new one!"

"Look, homegirl…"

"I ain't one o' your fuckin' homeys!  You maybe got a thing goin' with Phase, but she's my friend, and I'm not gonna do anything to hurt her!"

I gasped, "Stop!  Please, just stop!"

They stopped.  And stared at me.  Chaka smiled at me, "Well, it talks and everything."

I grimaced, "Yeah, it walks and goes potty too, just like a Goodie doll."

She said, "Well, you need to go potty, and then walk over to Hawthorne.  We got detention, and I doubt Carson will let you out because you got crapped on today."

"Christ!" I swore.  "Does everyone know what the hell happened?"

Vox gently said, "Just Toni.  I had to tell her, so she wouldn't drag you off to detention.  You're not in any shape to go shovel snot, or clean monster-toilets, or whatever.  Are you?"

And it dawned on me that I might be, if I could get her to help me.  "Just voice me.  Tell me that I can do it."

Chaka cheered me on, "Good idea, Ayles!"

Vanessa pursed her lips unhappily and thought it over for long seconds.  She finally said, "I don't know how long this'll hold you.  And I don't like voice-ing my friends."  She took a breath and said, "You can do this.  You can go to Hawthorne and do your detention."

I could feel it working.  I just felt better.  Stronger.  Like I could stop crying and get up and do what I needed to do.

I hugged her and said, "Thanks, honey.  That really did help."

Chaka said, "Yeah, thanks.  Sorry I got pissed at you."

Vox replied, "Yeah.  Me too.  You just take care of him, okay?"

Chaka took me by the arm and said, "Let's go, while your shawty's voodoo's still holdin' up.  And if anything gets bad, you come get me.  Understand?"

I tried to grin, but I didn't quite make it.  "Got it."

She led me down the stairs and through the common room.  Then she waited until we were all alone on the path to Hawthorne.  "Look Ayles, I know what you're feelin'.  You feel like everything's totally fucked, and there's nothing you can do, and you're just screwed seven ways to Sunday.  I know that feelin'.  I lived with that feelin' from when I was about six, until after I started turnin' into.. me.  You and Chou?  You're goin' through that now.  Nikki's still workin' through it, findin' her way out the other side.  But you can do this."

I admitted, "I dunno.  When I could tell myself it was GSD, and it wasn't my fault, and it was just bad luck…"

"It's NOT your fault, Ayla!" she snapped.  "You can't blame yourself for everything in the world!  I know you been payin' Bunny for her time workin' on gadgets for the J-Girls, and I bet you've been doin' the same with Harry behind Jade's back.  And I know you been checking on whether Chou's got enough money for the term.  You ain't that subtle.  You can't be everybody's guardian.  Hell, even Tennyo can't protect everyone!  You gotta accept that there are just some things you can't control.  You can't make everything go your way!"

I told her a secret.  "I've been telling myself that for months.  Ever since I turned into.. what I am now.  But I'm a Goodkind, and I've spent my whole life learning that I can make everything go my way.  That I can protect everyone I'm responsible for, and that I can fix anything that goes wrong.  The family motto is 'Goodkinds don't complain, they fix things'.  It's hard un-learning everything you learned from the time you were born."

She snorted.  "Well, if you ask me, that's another thing you're good at."

"What?  Un-learning?"

"Yeah," she answered.  "We all knew you were a Goodkind.  You told us on Day One.  You don't think we've been watching you to see how you handled yourself around a bunch of freakin' mutants?  Risk still has a bettin' pool goin' on how long it would be 'fore you lost it and called somebody like Sharisha or Gerald 'gene filth'."

Oh God.  It's so nice to know what your whole dorm thinks of you.  Of course, that was pretty much what the whole school thought…

She smirked, "Most'a TK's cleanin' up on that one.  We all bet on you, 'cause we know you.  A lot o' the Thornies had it in fer you, and Tennyo too, and you still didn't complain after the crap they pulled that first week.  Risk was so sure you'd lose it that week that he upped the odds.  Too bad fer his bank account."

"Tennyo?  Why Tennyo?"

She shrugged, "Billie said it was that whole 'deport Tennyo to Hawthorne' trial deal.  Word got around that she said she'd rather die than end up in Freak Central."  She looked at my expression and said, "Yeah, I know, she'd never say that.  She doesn't even think that way.  But someone was spreading that around, and…"

"Hartford," I insisted.

"Doubt it," she said confidently.  "No one at Hawthorne's gonna listen ta Hartass, or any of her Alpha buddies.  Someone else.  Coulda been Montana, or one of his pals.  'Course, now that Tennyo's buddies with half the Thornies, and you're pals with the Foob and Puppet, people are seein' you differently."

I complained, "I don't think getting hit in the face with five gallons of snot counts as making friends with Louis."

She grinned, "Well, what I heard was you handled it like the friggin' Queen of England.  I guess breeding tells.  You were all 'stuff happens and I have more work to do'.  Slab was impressed, even if he didn't wanna admit it.  I think even Cantrel was impressed."

"Could have fooled me," I said.

"See?  You're doin' it now, and you're not even thinkin' about it.  You.. mmp!"  She shut up quickly when we saw that the Alphas were trudging out of Hawthorne and were nearly within hearing distance.

This was their sixth day of detention, and none of them looked like they were enjoying it.  Tansy looked BAD.  She was white and shaken, like she'd been left in a pitch-dark sewer and attacked by a couple hundred zombies.

Remind me again not to piss off Mrs. Cantrel.

Hamper looked sopping wet from head to toe, and all his clothes looked a nasty brown.  Even his hair looked the same brown color.  I wondered what had happened to him.  I hoped it was something really, really, fun.  Like the bio-hazard toilets.

We walked in and found most of the gang was already there.  Tennyo was chatting amiably with a couple Thornies, and Jade was talking to Mrs. Cantrel about something she wanted to do.

Mrs. Cantrel scooted most of the group off to people they wanted to see.  Then she said to me, "Goodchild, I think you should go down and see Fubar."

"Oh, not again!" I gasped.

"You just git.  Hear me?"

I sighed, "Yes, ma'am."

I trudged down to Fubar's pool.  'Aerial boy' was lounging outside the entry door, talking to the kid I now knew was Phlegm.  They were both laughing about something.

They looked up when I came down the steps and said, "We're clearing out."

I asked, "Why?  Don't want to see the big show?"

Phlegm said, "Oh, we already had the big show.  Hamper.  It was pretty freaking funny."

'Aerial boy' said, "The Foob told us to leave, and not come back until you were done.  He wants privacy now, I guess."

I said, "I guess he doesn't want you to watch while he practices new ways of bombarding kids with gallons of snot.  He wants it to be a surprise when he shows you his new trick."

Phlegm said, "Naah, he's too old for that.  He's got all his tricks down."

'Aerial boy' snickered, "Today was the best in a long time.  Hamper got sent down to clean the pool, and The Foob got him a gorgeous one right in the chest.  Splattered everywhere.  So then, while Hamper's having a shit-fit about it, Fubar appears and says, 'Oops, I did warn you, let Phlegm take you down to washroom 3 and help you get cleaned up.'  And he fell for it!"

Phlegm snickered, "Washroom 3 is a floor down from here, and it's the worst one in the building.  The pipes are all full of crud, and no one uses it.  And every time Hamper got mad, I'd stagger and fall against him and get another gallon of slime on him.  And then Slab would yell at Hamper to stop using his power on me.  So Hamper was trying to get clean using smelly brown water, and I kept wiping more mucus on him any time I thought I had an excuse.  It took him about an hour and a half to get cleaned up, and he's gonna be scrubbing himself for another hour once he gets back to Melville."

I had to laugh too.  I didn't know I had any laughs in me right then.  "Good.  Hamper and Damper aren't exactly my favorite pals on campus."

Phlegm said, "Yeah.  We heard.  Chaka was changing my filters a week ago, and she said you were the one who fried them and Icer and Aries, and got them lockdown upstairs for a couple days.  There are a lot of Thornies who were pretty entertained by that one.  And somebody busted their tank toilets, so their rooms smelled like an outhouse until after they left.  They weren't too happy to be back here after that."

I knew exactly who was responsible for that, but I wasn't admitting guilt.  "Any idea who did it?"

'Aerial boy' shrugged, which caused a sudden cascade of energy over his body.  "Could've been anybody in the whole dorm.  'Cept Puppet and Plasmoid.  They can't get out of their rooms without help.  Or Musk.  We would've been able to smell if she'd been there."

I looked at them, "I know you're Phlegm."  I turned my head to 'aerial boy' and said, "I'm Phase."  I went heavy and put out my hand.

He thought carefully before he reached out to shake.  "I'm Antenna.  You can guess why.  You lightning-proof?"

"Close enough."  And I shook his hand.  Bolts of energy cascaded down his body and attacked my arm.  It wasn't bad, as long as I was diamond-hard.  Stronger than Skybolt's lightning, but not bad.

He grinned, "I don't get to shake hands with a pretty girl too often."

I sighed miserably.  "You still haven't.  I thought everyone on campus had heard about me by now.  I'm a guy.  I have BIT problems.  You know how Thuban's turning from a boy into a dragon?  And Slab turned from a boy into how he looks now?"  They both nodded.  "Well, I turned from a boy into this.  And no one knows how far it's going to go.  I'm really hoping I can change back to a boy."

Antenna said, "Well, that sucks."

I had to grin a little.  Here was a kid who couldn't even get around without using a giant toddler walker full of energy drainers.  A kid who couldn't even touch other people.  And I was getting sympathy from him.

I walked into Fubar's room.  But there wasn't any pool-cleaning to do.  I figured that Fubar had cleaned up by himself while Hamper was busy getting slimed and re-slimed.

I noticed a new pump where one of the old ones had been.  So I asked, "Hey Fubar!  Did you get an upgrade?"

Louis appeared before me, looking grim.  "No.  Solange and some of her friends sabotaged my pump a few days ago, to keep me busy while they screwed with Zenith and Sahar."

They sabotaged his pump?  So he had no oxygen?  The stupid fucks, he could have died!

He smiled slightly, "I'm glad you care, Ayla."

You know, that mind reading act gets old pretty fast.

He said, "There's no clean-up for you to do.  I want you to come downstairs and play chess with me.  And talk about your powers testing results."  I couldn't help reacting to that.  "Yes, Dr. Bellows is worried about you, and he asked me to see what I could do to help you through this.  So I had the powers testing guys fill me in about your BIT.  Oh, and you'll be glad to hear.  Tisiphone regained control of her powers really quickly, and she's already been moved to a room over in Whitman.  She was happy to get out of here, but not happy about where she was sent."

I groaned, "Yeah, she's not going to be happy with me for a LONG time."

I spent the entire detention getting esper psychiatry from The Foob.  And getting my ass kicked in game after game of chess.  Damn, I hadn't gotten clobbered this badly when I'd played against a couple American grandmasters at a schoolboy chess tourney in New York City.  The best that I managed to do was - playing white - to get a couple stalemates.

Have I ever mentioned that I hate losing?

Tuesday, October 17

I must have been REALLY depressed, because I didn't pay any attention in the bathroom, and I don't even remember what I ate for breakfast.  Or if I ate breakfast.

I had an early meeting with Dr. Bellows, and also an after-class session with him.  I got that this was my BIT, but it was torture to realize that I had made myself into a freak.  Lots of other exemplars had the same problem, from Thuban to Igneous and back, but that didn't make me feel better.  Dr. Bellows arranged to meet with me every day for a while.

Meanwhile, Ito acted like I had just skipped BMA the day before so I could go drink mojitos or something.  He paired me up with Golden Girl for hand-to-hand practice, which that day was throws and reverses.  She, of course, did her 'golden energy' bit so she could get as strong as possible - based on what I've seen her do against Silverwing, I was guessing she would max out somewhere around three or three and a half tons - and then she did her best to throw me through the nearest wall.

I retaliated.

One thing that I've learned in a couple months of aikido at Whateley is that you don't throw flyers.  They fly off.  You slam them into the floor hard enough to knock the wind out of them.

"Whatsa matter, Goodkind?  You don't look so good.  Get the crap kicked out of you in Bosto… OOF!!"

It took her three turns to realize what I was doing.  It should only have taken her one turn.  But I could see by the angry gleam in her eye when she was ready to return the favor.

When she tried that technique on me, I just phased my arm through her hand before she could hammer me into the ground.  Too bad for her.  Then I took my turn, and once again I slammed her into the mat as hard as I could.  She was really pissed by the end of the one-on-one practices.  Good.  The angrier she got, the sloppier her form got, and the less effective she became.

Then Ito had me spar against Prism.

Crap.  Prism was an Exemplar, so I didn't dare try my phase-KO on him.  I was nauseated and horrified by just the thought of doing to him what I had done to Fireball.  But he was a major Energizer, so I couldn't go light without getting ripped to shreds.  And if I stayed normal or went heavy, I still got blasted all over the mat if I gave him half a chance.

I tried something new.  I went heavy and took a deep breath.  Prism, of course, blasted me full force with his energy beams and knocked me twenty feet through the air.  Right as I hit the mat, I went light and phased right through the floor, instead of crashing to a halt and rolling to my feet, as usual.  Then I flew through the solid subfloor and came up behind him.  Only the yells of the other students alerted him.

But he reacted too late.  I was heavy, with him in a full Nelson, before he could attempt to turn and blast me again.  As long as I had him in that hold, he couldn't blast me.  And I was too heavy for him to throw.

After classes, it was time for Day 2 of our detention.  It was the last day of detention for the Alphas.  It looked to me as if they had sneaked away early, since they were all long gone before we got there.  Mostly, I spent time talking with the Foob.. and losing several more chess games.  Then Cantrel gave me a series of easy tasks.  Helping Static Girl with math, and talking with Puppet about our family situations.  And losing another two games of Scrabble to Diz.

Goddamnit, I hated getting beaten in Scrabble by a kid!  Okay, I hated losing at anything.  I went to the library and read the entire Official Scrabble Dictionary, cover to cover.

Wednesday, October 18 - Saturday, October 21

The next several days were just misery, interspersed with people bugging me so I didn't sit in my room doing nothing but feeling miserable.

On Wednesday morning, Chaka and Chou dragged me off to breakfast with the team, to discuss an attempted hit on Sara.  Where 'attempted' included putting a stake through her chest.  I wasn't very hungry – I mostly just stirred my coffee until everyone else was done eating – but I did manage to drag myself into the conversation a bit.

Of course, I wasn't focusing all that well, or I wouldn't have said, "Word is that Tansy's this close to worm food herself; she's been lying low trying not to give Hekate an excuse to voodoo her into oblivion."  I mean, the last thing I wanted to do was to reveal in public that I had inside intel from the Alphas.

 

I had a lot more meetings with Dr. Bellows.  He wrote out a 'skip-class' note for the week, so I wouldn't be in trouble when I cut.  I just spent as much time in my room as I could.  I didn't want to go out, or be seen, or anything.

Most of my detentions over those days were with Fubar, sitting there supposedly playing chess with him, but really talking to him about my fucked-up Exemplar body.

It was pretty hard to feel bad about how I looked, given how he looked.  But that was the point of being sent down to talk with The Foob, wasn't it?

I watched him move through a really complex opening without having to think about it, and I finally realized just how badly I'd been had.  I asked him what his rating was.

He didn't have to think about it.  "2799."

"CRAP!" I exploded.

2799?  That put him at the top of the WORLD chess grandmaster ratings.  And how the hell could anyone play chess against a 2700-level chessmaster who couldn't help but read your mind?  So much for being able to plan out any kind of strategy.

After that, I just stopped trying to plan and strategize, which would give him a major advantage as he read my mind.  Instead, I played speed chess, which still gave him an advantage, just a slightly smaller one.

Damn, I hate losing at anything, even if it's to one of the top chess players on the planet.

I asked him, "Is there anyone at all who can give you a good game?"

He admitted, "Not if they're in the same room with me.  Except Jimmy Trauger.  You know him?  He's a psychic null, and he.. umm.. has a way of getting world-class help when we play.  Otherwise, I play by mail and play by internet and play IBM's new chess computer every time they get it revised."

IBM's latest chess computer?  Crap and a half.

I sternly told him, "You know that Goodkind International is a major part of IBM's chess computer project, right?"

He just nodded.

I said, "No one at IBM has admitted to Goodkind International that their star test subject is a mutant.  Goodkind Int. would can that grant in a second if they heard that."

He raised one eyebrow, "You're not going to tell them, are you?"

I confessed, "No.  Even though I ought to.  I'd rather that you got your IBM contacts to tell the truth instead.  IBM doesn't need the Goodkind International grant anyway.  And your contacts ought to be able to get a Goodkind competitor to take over the outside funding.  I can make a few suggestions, if it would help."

 

Team Kimba and my other friends kept me going.  Chou made sure I got up every morning.  The whole team kept coming by and dragging me to do stupid stuff, like go eat.  Jody kept coming by, supposedly to see how my food supply was, but mainly to see how I was doing.  Vanessa made sure I didn't miss any BMA classes or my appointments with Dr. Bellows.  And sometimes she just cuddled with me to make me feel better.  That really helped too.

Chaka made sure I went to every detention, which was almost as helpful for me as the sessions with Dr. Bellows.  And since detention was playing chess with the Foob, or playing Scrabble with Diz, or talking with Puppet, or working with Claire on math, it was probably the best time of my day.  Except when I was getting lots of hugs from Vox.

Other than that, I cut classes most of the week and just hid in my room, working on homework and stuff, and trying not to think about my body.  I finished all my Civics and Business Accounting stuff.  I knew I had 'A's in both, probably 'A+'s, since I had also aced all the extra credit parts.  I also got way ahead on my Spanish and Powers Theory and trig homework, although I had to go online twice to find out what was going on with some of the more advanced trig stuff that I didn't understand just from reading the textbook.

 

On Thursday, I almost beat Diz at Scrabble.  I even led most of the game.  She had to pull one out of her ass on her last turn, to win by two points.  TWO STINKING POINTS!  She just completely lucked out on her tile draw.  I could see it in her face as she looked at that last tile.  GAH!  I am gonna beat that kid one of these days!

 

Thursday evening, someone dropped a disk into my mailbox.  I didn't know who, but I suspected it was an outsider.  No one had seen anyone unusual, but I checked with Mrs. Horton, and she had spotted some kind of disturbance in her wards.  Unfortunately, at Whateley there were far too many shifters, devisers, wizards, and psychics who could have temporarily made themselves look like one of the Poesies, or just made everyone think that way.  Or it could have been someone like Solange or Hamper, who could psychically make people 'ignore' them.

That led me to open the package with extreme care and my now-usual forensic precautions.  Fortunately, Chou wasn't around, so I didn't have to explain why I was making like Gil Grissom.

The tiny package contained a DVD to which no one here should have had access.  It was a recording out of ARC, from one of their classified Sections.  Someone with a lot of pull was out to get Sara.  Someone who was way too connected to be a student.  I mean, even Thuban couldn't have pulled this one off.

The only question was whether it was a good guy protecting the world from evil, or a bad guy trying to attack Sara obliquely, or some of both.

I watched it on my laptop and managed not to leap out of my chair.

It was Sara.

It was Kellith.

It was horrific, is what it was.  I dragged my teammates into my room and showed them.  First, I showed it to Nikki and Toni.  Then to Tennyo and Hank.  I couldn't bring myself to show it to Jade.

 

Friday morning after I showered, Chaka took me aside.  "Ayles?  Do you need to talk or anything?"

I grumbled, "All I've been doing lately is talking about this.  My body is fucked.  I did it to myself.  I hate my life.  What's to talk about?"

She bounced on her toes and insisted, "C'mon, Phase.  Ya gotta pull through this.  I know you can."

Nikki walked over and gave me a hug.  She smiled, "It'll get better with time.  I was totally freaked when all this dropped on me, so I can guess how you're feeling.  Just keep moving, and eventually you'll be able to look back with some perspective."

Tennyo walked over and said, "Yeah.  You're really making me worried about you, Phase.  You're not even looking at girl's breasts in the bathroom!"

"Sorry," I muttered.

Chou put a caring hand on my shoulder and said, "I do not believe that anyone is supposed to apologize for NOT ogling girls."

 

Later that day, I heard back from my Business Accounting teacher, Mister Marley.  I did have an 'A+' for the course.  And he wanted me to come to open sessions to help tutor people.

I thought it over.  It would be easy work.  And it would help people see me as a 'good guy' instead of as a mutant-hating, trouble-making, H1-loving Goodkind.  I hoped.

I emailed back and agreed to do it.  Then I stewed about whether I had made a mistake.

 

Saturday morning class was unusually tense for me.  I hadn't been on my A-game for the World Lit paper that week, and I knew it.  So I was at my most defensive in class.  I just couldn't help it.

I think everyone noticed.  Before class, Pendragon even stopped me to ask if I was all right.

I admitted, "I will be.  I just got some really bad news in powers testing, and I'm not doing all that great this week."

Stunner said, "Come on, Phase.  You're tough.  You can get through this.  If you can beat Aries and a whole Alpha hit squad, you can beat this."

I know, it was corny.  But it actually made me feel better.  Not the pep talk, but the mere idea that people like Pendragon and Stunner thought I was tough.

Then, I wasn't at my best during the discussions.  It didn't help that one of the school doctors came and yanked me out of class to rush over and join the rest of the team.  Sara had been attacked again.

Chou and I sat down as the unofficial guard on Sara.  Jade was around somewhere too, and maybe Tennyo, but the team was actually counting on me to be a front-line fighter in case anything happened.  Me.  The dork who got lost in the Boston sewers.

I think those two things - the confidence from Pendragon and Stunner, and the reliance from my team - were the turning points for me.  I waited for lunch, and I was actually disappointed that there wasn't anything special for me.  I hadn't cared about food for almost a week.

As I waited with Chou for an attack that didn't arise, I told myself that I hadn't done my usual on that last paper, but I would get back on track.  For next week, we were reading Gilgamesh and Beowulf.  I could write a 'compare and contrast' paper covering both.  I'd think about it over the weekend.

Then, when we weren't guarding Sara, I had HOURS of head-shrinking that day.  I had an extra-long early-afternoon session with Dr. Bellows, plus a couple hours with the Foob for my detention.  By the time I left Hawthorne, my brain actually felt shrunk.

Sunday, October 22

I woke up when the alarm went off, and I actually got out of bed without Chou having to haul me out.

And frankly, it was easier if I did it myself.  I went light, floated out of my pajamas and bedsheets, drifted down to the floor, and slipped on my bathrobe.  That was way easier than being cajoled into moving my sorry butt, and then having to clamber down from the top bunk like a drunken sloth.

The morning showers seemed brighter, somehow.  I assumed it was just me, being less of a depressive dork.  But I spent some extra time at the mirror 'flossing', so I could watch Fey and Riptide dry off.

Man, there was just something about Fey standing there naked and summoning up lines of force to magically dry her hair.  I could watch that every day for the rest of my life.  And if I was lucky, I would actually get to watch it every day, for the next four years.  Wow.

Okay, I was also watching Chou.  Even if she was my roomie.  You wouldn't think girls would look graceful while drying off, but Chou and Toni sure had it down.  I mean, most mornings they just flowed.  It was pretty discouraging watching them and knowing it was going to take me years - maybe decades - to get where they already were in martial arts after just a month or two.

I spent most of the morning working on my paper for World Lit.  When I wasn't doing that, I was drawing up a list of things I might want to buy at the Weapons Fair.

Yeah, the Weapons Fair.  I'd looked forward to this for weeks.  Maybe going to it would be a good thing.  I told Chaka and Chou where I'd be, in case of emergency.  I knew I could trust them not to stick their noses in without an invitation, and I knew they'd summon me if they needed me.  I told Vox too, so she wouldn't worry if she couldn't find me for a couple hours.

And I was actually looking forward to lunch, for the first time in nearly a week.  My eagerness was rewarded with two scrumptions treats.  A phenomenal soup from Chef Marcel, and a delicious dessert from Chef Peter.

Marcel 'casually' strolled out with a bowl of mussel and carrot soup.  It was a golden, carroty orange, with mussels in their shells just lying open and waiting for me to devour them.  I inhaled deeply, and I could smell the richness of the chicken stock and clam juice, along with shallots and garlic and ginger.  And it tasted divine.  The chicken stock was so rich that it had to be made from scratch.  The carrot juice tasted fresh and sweet, and was probably freshly-made.  There was a really good Chardonnay used in preparing the soup, too.  And the liquid was perfectly seasoned with browned shallots and garlic, plus just the right amount of ginger and cumin.  Fresh tarragon topped the soup for that extra little zing.

And Peter had a lavish chocolate dessert for me.  It was a thick slice of a chocolate panna cotta layer cake.  Instead of a coating of frosting around the outside, this cake had a soft band of bittersweet chocolate.  The thinly-sliced cake layers were made with a really good quality cocoa, plus a dollop of espresso.  The chocolate panna cotta was a rich milk chocolate, with plenty of vanilla.

I got the feeling that someone had told the chefs that I wasn't doing all that great, and they were thinking about me.  I was going to have to think of some way to thank them.

Tennyo was busy wolfing down three pieces of pie and four bowls of ice cream.  Well, it was her fourth trip to the food line, so she was ready for some dessert.  She looked at my dessert and asked, "Hey, is that pudding in there?"

Pudding?  Calling this panna cotta a pudding was an insult.  I said, "Yeah.  In the same sense that Fey is a mere girl."

"Huh?  Oh!"

Fey looked up from her apple and said, "Ayla, you're entirely too serious about food…  Although I do appreciate the compliment."

I looked around as I ate.  Almost every devisor and gadgeteer I could see was rushing through lunch and then hurrying out the door.  How subtle was this?  Everyone and their grandmother had to be able to figure this one out.  Inspector Clouseau could figure this one out!

I saw Stormwolf suspiciously eyeing a couple of the running devisors, so I stopped Bobcat and told him that it was the Weapons Fair in Devisor Lab 4.  I asked him to keep Stormwolf out of it for a couple hours.  He grinned wickedly and gave me a nod.  I didn't think I could do anything like that to Security - at least not without compromising my arrangement with two particular security officers - so I just crossed my fingers.

Then I casually strolled out of the caff and away from the elevator that everyone was crowding into.  Man, subtlety was definitely not their strong point.  Instead, I walked to an empty hallway that was over a tunnel, and I sank down through the floor.

I met Automa-tech at the door into the lab.  She and Triaxial seemed to be in charge of things.  She was directing people, and Triaxial was getting everyone set up at their designated tables.  I guessed that was a downside of being upperclassmen.  Some deviser or gadgeteer had to set it up and organize everything, and put up with all the hassles and all the goofballs.

Automa-tech introduced me to this huge, hulking brute who was coming from the other direction.  The guy had to be 6'6" and 300 pounds, with a build like two linebackers.  He had a brow ridge you could have camped under, and thick black hair including caterpillar eyebrows that met in the middle.  Mister Unibrow also had five o'clock shadow.  At one in the afternoon.

She said, "This is Pyrs.  He's a brick."  Well duh.  He looked like he'd be the head honcho of the Brute Squad.  I wondered why he was here.  "Pyrs?  This is Phase."

He frowned down at me for a second before he said in a rumbling basso profundo, "You're the one who took out an entire Alpha hit squad?  Sweet."

I took a reasonable guess and asked, "Anything in particular you're looking for today?"

He growled out in that low voice, "Sure.  I heard Greasy had another couple dozen condoms for bricks.  You can't use the store brands if you're exerting a couple thousand pounds of force."  That seemed shockingly reasonable for someone who looked like he did.  "And I can always use a really good holdout.  People look at me, and they can't imagine I'd use anything except a fist.  It gives me a real advantage once in a while."

Well, I was obviously under-estimating him based on his appearance.  Just as he seemed to be under-estimating me based on mine.

And those brick condoms sounded like a good idea.  Even if Vox was sure that she wasn't interested in any hanky-panky, it would be good to have them on hand, just in case.

We stepped in, and I got my first glimpse of the Whateley Weapons Fair.  Someone had arranged a couple dozen folding tables in rows throughout the room, so that all the devisors and gadgeteers had their own tables of sales items.  Each table was situated so that it had enough room on all sides that people could walk between tables and talk with sellers.  Actually, the arrangement was more likely so that some deviser's exploding dorkage wouldn't nail everyone else too.  Each table had a prism-shaped piece of what looked like real wood, with the seller's name etched across it.

Automa-tech murmured in my ear, "Don't the nameplates look great?  Usually, they're just cardboard, but that's so tacky.  I paid Fran to do these.  All I had to do was put wood beams on each table, and she just walked through and re-formed them into these cool things.  She can re-form any natural material just by touching it."

"Nice."  I just hoped that 'Fran', whoever she was, was a Good Guy, because I could think of some seriously evil things someone like that could do.  Most people who could manipulate matter at the molecular level could only alter really tiny volumes of mass.  But Fran could obviously alter stuff by the bushel, in only seconds.  Any natural material?  Every wood and/or stone construction on the planet was at her mercy, if she felt like it.  If the Brits ever pissed her off, they could say goodbye to every one of their cherished castles.

I wove my way through the growing crowd to find Möbius first.

He saw me coming, and gave me a wave.  "Hey Phase!  I'm all set!"

And he was.  He had a dozen utility belts of different sizes, along with several 'storage boxes' that were all bigger on the inside than the outside.  He had a price sheet on the table, with the utility belts listed at $5000 for the smallest model, with prices rising from there.  That was what I thought market forces would support, based on a small financial model I'd built.  He was still pretty skeptical.

He pointed to an upright parallelepiped with a slightly domed top.  The base was about six inches on a side, and the box was a little over a foot high.  He grinned, "I call this one my TARDIS model.  Watch this…"  He reached into something that apparently had a volume of about a quarter of a cubic foot, and pulled out…

A quilt for a double bed, and a thick blanket to go with the quilt.  Holy crow!

I told him, "Nice.  When you get up to a foot locker that holds an entire closet of clothes, including clothes rods and storage racks, I've got first dibs."

Sure enough, the first people who walked by took one look at the price list and bitched about the price.

"You can't be serious!"

"Five thousand bucks?  American dollars?  That's nuts!"

I pretended to ignore them.  I gave it my best 'customer' attitude, and I said, "I have a twenty-inch waist.  Do you have anything adjustable that would fit me?"

One of the guys behind me said to his pal, "Hubba hubba!"

You know, some days I really hate my body.

And I bet he thought he was being quiet, too.

Möbius grinned at me, "Sure.  Try this one."  It was black and a fake alligator hide.  The pockets were just as small as the ones in my utility belts.  I slipped it on and tightened it until it nearly fit my waist.  I just needed to make sure that no one realized I already had a utility belt on under my sweater.  Then I opened a pocket and reached way into it.  The inside wasn't much bigger than my fist, but I did my best to make it look like the pocket was even larger.

One guy behind me said, "Whoa!  You could put a whole arsenal in there!"

Well duh.  That was the whole point of a utility belt, right?

The other guy - who really needed to lose some weight - asked, "Got one with even bigger pockets?"

Möbius said, "Sure.  Try this one."  It looked like he'd stolen it off Bruce Wayne.  It was black and plastic looking, but each pouch was about an inch and a half thick, maybe five inches high, and about four inches wide.

The chubby guy released it to its largest width and put it on.  It was still really tight on him.  He slid one hand into the closest pocket.  "Jesus!  This is awesome!  How much for this one?"

Möbius said, "That size?  Eight grand."

Lard-boy complained, "Jesus H. Christ!  Do I look like I'm made of money?"

I snarked, "No, you look like you're made of MacDonald's quarter pounders with cheese."

"Thanks a lot, bitch."  He turned back to Möbius and said, "Look pal, this is pretty cool, but it's way too expensive."

I walked off, telling him, "Hey, your call, but my guess is that once these things start selling, he's gonna jack up the price a lot more.  Buy it now for eight K, or buy it next year, for twenty K..."

I distinctly heard 'Mayor McCheese' react to my comment.  "JESUS!"

I worked my way through the crowd.  They'd picked a room that was just too small for the number of people.  But they probably hadn't known it would get this crowded.  Or had they?  Maybe they had other limitations, like which rooms they could 'borrow' for an afternoon without Security finding out.

I was looking for one particular person, and I heard her before I saw her.  There was no mistaking Bunny's airhead voice and techno-chatter.  I was never going to get used to that.  It was like having Jessica Simpson playing the part of a nuclear physicist in a James Bond movie.  Or maybe having my sister Heather playing the part.

I knew that Bugs would have some cool gadgets and devises.  But I also knew enough about her to know how her gear would look.  I walked over to her table, and - sure enough - people were already bitching about the pastel egg cases.  I sort of eavesdropped as she tried to make a sale to a big, macho thug who looked like a junior or a senior.

She was insisting, "But really, Render.  This is the perfect protective carapace.  Nature developed it over billions of years of evolutionary testing!  And you can't find many anti-missile devises that have actually been out at the Whateley test-firing ranges for evaluation under field conditions…"

"Look, I don't care if it's tested under field conditions or not!  It's a fuckin' pastel egg!  Do you know what'll happen if I whip out an anti-missile devise and it's a pink pastel egg?  I'll get laughed out of the Cataclysm Fan Club!"

*sniff*  *sniff*

"Hey, don't cry, I'm really sorry, please stop crying, look, I'll buy two!  Okay?"

"Well…  Okay…"

It was all I could do not to laugh out loud.  That Bunny was a menace.

I stopped and said hi.  She gave me a big grin and said, "What are you in the market for?"

I told her, "Well, I have a whole shopping list, but I'm starting with force field scramblers.  Do you have anything that'll take down a force field?"

She pursed her lips and waggled her head from side to side, which made her pigtails flop back and forth like real rabbit ears.  I had to bite the inside of my mouth so I wouldn't laugh.  At least she didn't wiggle her nose too.

She said, "I haven't even thought about something to bring down a PFG."

I knew what a PFG was.  I told her, "It doesn't have to be some gadgeteer's Personal Forcefield Generator.  I was thinking more along the lines of an Energizer's forcefield, or a PK brick's forcefield, or even a PDP's forcefield."

Okay, I was specifically thinking about Golden Girl, Skybolt, Slab, and Cavalier.  But I'd take whatever I could find.

She thought for a few seconds.  "I might be able to build you a little something, but coming up with something that would stop every forcefield is going to be pretty tough.  Think about it.  Nikki's magical force fields are really nothing like the warp forcefields Billie produces, and neither of them are like Hank's PK skin-field, and that's really pretty different from the kind of PK shells that Gabriel and Mega-Girl put up…"

"Well, I'd be interested in anything you come up with."

She gave me a big smile, "Sure thing!"  Then she waved her hand over her gear, "And maybe there's something here you'd like too…"

I looked over Bunny's stuff.  There were pastel eggs, and frilly eggs, and sparkly eggs, and eggs decorated with what looked like icing piped onto them, and eggs covered in pink rhinestones.

I looked at an armada of miniature eggs she had in the middle of the table.  They ranged in size from 'Cadbury Crème Egg' size down to 'big jellybean' size.  And they were color-coded, with a printed sheet explaining their functions and prices, along with technical details so complex that I couldn't follow them.

She pointed some of them out to me.  "Now the puce ones are explosive.  I made them using the egg as a functional model, with the sensitive chemicals in a 'yolk' in the center of a 'white' that holds them in hydrostatic equilibrium.  You just throw it hard enough, and it detonates on impact.

"These pretty smoked-turquoise ones are smokebombs.  They're not 'smoke' like the airborne particulates you get from pyrolysis.  They're actually an opaque air-liquid colloid, so they're technically more like a fog you can't see through.  The little baby ones will make a smoke-cloud that's about an eight-foot sphere.  The bigger ones will make a cloud about twenty feet across.  My big girls…"  She pointed to two similarly-colored eggs that stood about six inches high.  "…will make an opaque cloud that would completely fill this room and a chunk of the hallway too.  And, since this is a special colloid, it disperses more slowly than smoke, and isn't harmful to breathe.

"The pomegranate ones are pyrolants.  The inner 'yolk' is an explosive dispersant, while the outer 'white' is a layered colloidial suspension of powdered magnesium, powdered aluminum, iron oxide, titanium hydride, and zirconium hydride.  The outer shell is actually a double layer.  When you throw the egg hard enough to crack the outer shell, the inner shell ignites and initiates the reaction, starting with the magnesium, then quickly running up through the thermic sequencing, until the aluminum and titanium ignite.  The inner dispersant explodes at that point, creating a five thousand degree Fahrenheit fireball about ten feet in diameter."

"Nice," I said.  "Do you have anything that does the opposite?  Cools stuff down?"

"Oh, sure!" she said excitedly.  "I've got some ice bombs too.  They're not field tested, though.  They worked just fine in the lab, but that's not quite the same is it?"

I had to grin.  That was exactly the attitude I liked.

She reached under the table and pulled out several shimmering, ice-blue eggs about an inch and a half in length.  "They're devises, so they ought to work for you, but you can never tell.  On impact, they create an endothermic reaction that should draw roughly 100,000 kiloJoules of heat.  That's about enough heat loss to turn a hot jacuzzi into a big block of ice."

"Wow."  I couldn't keep the evil smirk off my face.  I bought two, since I seemed to have way too many crazed Firebozos in my life.  I wondered if I was going to have to use one against Tisiphone any time soon.  I had a feeling she wouldn't like meeting Frosty The Snow Egg.

I bought a pyrolant bomb that would be better than my last one, and a small flare egg for the next time I was trapped in a pitch-black sewer.  I also got several jellybean-sized smokebombs.

Then, when no one was looking, I slipped all my eggs into a pocket of my utility belt.  I hoped no one noticed, but I was wearing my utility belt to the Weapons Fair to use as my shopping bag.

About then, I heard a loud voice doing its best to produce that British Public School voice that most of the Brits at Whateley seemed to be using and/or faking.  Up in the front row, at the table on the far left end of the row, was this sneering fat kid sitting in an anti-gravity chair.  He looked like the lovechild of Baron Harkkonen and Dolores Umbridge.

And I don't mean that in a good way.

He was loudly fussing at someone who was complaining about his wares, "How DARE you doubt my genius!  You, who could hardly put together Erector sets, and you question ME?"

Oh, great.  Some dork has to evince Diedrick's Syndrome, right at the start of the Fair.

I stepped over to help out, in case things went sideways.  I glanced at his nameplate as I got close enough to read it.  Belphegor.

Belphegor?  As in the demon of sloth from Binfield's Demonology?  As in the demon from Orlando Furioso?  Man, what more did I need to know about this guy, other than that he had named himself Belphegor?

A deviser I didn't know - but a deviser nonetheless, based on the Whateley labcoat he was wearing, and the widgets hanging off of its mounting points - stepped in.  "Come on, Belph.  Stop complaining, just because…"

"The great Belphegor doesn't need to steal from lesser inventors!"

But the deviser suddenly stood up straight and got angry.  "Oh yeah, Belphe-grunt?  Then how come you got MY gravitic spectrum analyzer RIGHT THERE IN THE MIDDLE?!?!  You scumbag!"

"Oh man, don’t tell me Belph is at it aga…  HEY!  That's my gluon generator that disappeared last month!  You fat bastard!  I oughta…"

"Wait a minute, let's not get carried away, I mean…  HEY!  THAT'S MINE!  YOU PIECE OF SHIT!"

Automa-tech and Triaxial were right there.  Jim said, "Pip, I warned you about this.  You're out of here.  And all the gear stays."

Belphegor insisted, "You cannot treat the great Belphegor like this!  I am not a peon to be bossed around…"

Automa-tech backed up her co-chair.  "No.  We can do this.  Everyone who got a table, including YOU, signed the entry form, which includes a clause for disputed gadgets and devises.  After the Fair ends, we'll take all these to Security and you can contest the claims by all these other people.  Or you can shut up and let things go, and NOT get two months of detention!"

I watched as they 'escorted' him out.  From the expressions around the room, I was surprised the crowd didn't just put him in a pillory and throw rotting vegetables at him.

The girl standing next to me muttered sadly, "I hear this happens ALL the time with Pip.  He did the same thing last year at the Weapons Fair.  And he got caught cheating on his finals last year, so he's STILL a freshman."

Man.  What a dork.  Still, with a name like Belphegor, what did people expect from him?  I had to wonder how he managed to steal from everybody all the time, if everyone already knew he pulled this crap constantly.  Did he have a power he used?  Or some really good devises?  Or some paid henchmen?  After all, it would only take one sidekick with powers like mine, and nothing in any of the Devisor labs would be safe.

I stepped out of the lab and walked along at a distance behind Triaxial and Automa-tech, just in case they needed any support from someone who could go heavy or go light, and take on whatever Belph had hidden in that big anti-grav La-Z-Mutie chair of his.  Guys like that always had something nasty up their sleeve.  Or in this case, up his wingback.  But Belphegor just yelled at them, repeatedly telling them how The Great Belphegor would not be stopped by lesser minds.

I figured that if he wanted to find 'lesser minds' around here, he was going to have to go look up Solange and her airhead blonde friends.

Once Triaxial and Automa-tech had said goodbye to bad rubbish, they turned and walked back.  I stood still and let them come to me.

Automa-tech said in Spanish, "You did not need to follow us.  We are capable of handling children like that…"

Triaxial had a different attitude.  "Hey, thanks for keeping an eye on us, Phase.  You can never tell what Belph is gonna pull.  Sometimes he's a reasonable guy, and sometimes he thinks he can get away with all kind of stuff.  Last year, when he got kicked out of the Weapons Fair, he launched a vertigo-induction missile at us.  If it hadn't been for all the PFGs at the Fair, it might've caused problems.  Instead, it really made a lot of devisers mad at him."

Automa-tech snorted and reverted to English.  "You mean that it made many devisers far more angry at him than they already were."

Jim grinned at her, "Well, yeah.  That too."

We walked back into the Weapons Fair.  I had checked on Möbius and visited with Bunny, so I was all set to work my way through the rows of widgets.  I started at the tables in the first row, beginning with the one at the far right.

I could see that the guy sitting at the table was a tall, skinny kid who looked like he was probably a junior.  He had a long, thin face with too much nose and chin, so he looked kind of Jay Leno-ish.  He also looked like there was some Mexican Indian mixed in with all the Caucasian in him.  You could see it in his cheekbones and his eyes.

There were a couple guys standing there, arguing with him about something.  I glanced at his nameplate.

Mega-death.

Whoa.  This was the infamous Mega-death?  I had only heard him ranting manically at a distance.  Okay, I had heard him ranting manically in the halls between classes, and I'd heard him maybe half a dozen times.  Which was way too many, considering that I didn't have any classes with him, and as far as I knew, I didn't have any classes near him.  He was the most notorious Diedrick's Syndrome case at school.

He had some wild-looking stuff spread out on his table.  Everything from bizarre hand-held gizmos to something that looked like a mutated phaser rifle.

He was groaning, "Look, just TRY it!"

The tall blond guy shook his head sadly, "No thanks.  The last time I 'just tried' one of your things, I had burns on my hands and arms that were so bad I had to go to the clinic and admit what I'd been doing!"

The shorter but wider sidekick said, "Man, you shoulda seen it!  That rifle exploded like a friggin' fireball!  It was awesome!  I laughed fer like an hour!"

The tall guy just glared at him.  "Shut the fuck up!"

The sidekick cringed, "Sorry."

The two guys walked on.  I decided I was going to pass on his stuff too.

As I started to walk to the next table, he called out, "Phase?  Ayla?  Hang on a second."

I really wasn't interested in buying junk, especially junk that blew me into a million pieces when I used it, so I was somewhat reserved as I turned to him.  "Yeah?  I'm Phase."

He grinned.  "I just wanted to say.. well…  Thanks.  Just thanks a ton."

Okay, he had my interest.  "For what?"

He shrugged, "For taking out those Alphas.  Everyone knows it was you.  They've had it in for me for a couple years now.  Like I don't have enough problems without them fucking me over ten times a day, making everything I've built that's actually working that day suddenly go Westworld on me…"

We got into a nice chat for a few minutes.  He seemed like a nice guy, even if he had this kind of "I know there's something really horribly wrong with me" vibe like you'd think Bruce Banner would be toting around.

It suddenly dawned on me.  If you're a decent guy, it must really suck to know you have Diedrick's.  And to know there's nothing you can do about it if the meds don't help you.  And to know that it's only a matter of time before you explode like some loony supervillain, ranting and over-reacting all over the place.  He had to know he was one of the laughingstocks of the school, and that had to hurt.  Olympia was a total jerk 24-7 as far as I could tell, but he seemed worth knowing.

He pointed out a couple of his gimmicks, including just what I was after, a one-shot force field scrambler.  He looked at my facial expression and said, "Look, I know I don't have much of a rep, but take it.  Try it out some time.  If it works for you, come back and pay me then.  Everyone knows who you are.  I can trust you to have the money and to keep your end of the deal."

I smiled, "Thanks, Mega-death."

He actually blushed a bit.  "Harvey.  Call me Harvey.  Or MD.  I.. umm.. kind of picked out a codename when I was 'dricking out, and now…"  He shrugged.

"Sure.  I'm Ayla."

He nodded, "I know.  Ayla Goodkind.  I'm Harvey Hastings Calloway.  My dad's Reed Calloway, the corporate attorney?"  He didn't see any recognition in my face.  He tried again.  "My uncle's Derek Calloway, the architect."

I gave him a smile.  "Nice.  I've been in a couple of your uncle's buildings in Arizona and California.  Well designed and attractive."  I thought for a second and asked, "If you're one of the Arizona Calloways, then why aren't you in the Golden Kids?"

He winced, and I was suddenly sorry I'd asked.  He admitted, "They blackballed me my freshman year when I 'dricked out right there in front of 'em.  One of my devises melted down, just as they were asking me if I wanted to come to a meeting.  I screwed that one up royally.  Maybe it was the Alphas screwing things up for me."  He shrugged miserably, "Doesn't matter.  They would've had to blackball me eventually, anyway.  People don't want Diedrick's cases loose at their parties.  This was just sooner, instead of later."

I moved on to the next table.  But I was wondering about his ethnicity.  The Arizona Calloways I had met were whiter than white.  Someone had had the balls to marry outside their little gene pool.  But I didn't know Harvey well enough to ask him a question that personal. 

Still, a guy like him needed friends.  Friends who could understand that some of the time he wasn't in control of himself, and who could help him when he needed it.  I didn't know if I had what it took to be that kind of friend, but I was definitely considering giving it a try.

At the next table was Jericho.  That was probably a good fit.  If Jericho had made friends with threats like Razorback and the Fury Twins, he probably didn't have any trouble coping with Mega-death.

Jericho had some cool little toys organized in rows on his table, but everybody in the vicinity was bitching about his wardrobe instead.

"Oh my God, I think I'm gonna barf!"

"Honest ta God, Jericho, do ya havta look like this?  Makes me wanna hurl!"

Really, what did they expect from a blind guy, GQ fashion coordination?

Okay, it was really, really hideous.  I think his color choices scarred my retinas.

Phobos had told me he was doing it deliberately.  I could believe that, because his color choices were unbelievably painful every single time.  Random chance would dictate that SOME of the time his choices would be okay, or just blah.

And the fluorescent pink bellbottom pants had to be deliberate.  Where would he even find such a thing?  The Barry Gibb Disco Clothing Emporium?  They definitely didn't go with the purple tiger-striped vest, or the lime-green 'Indiana Jones' hat with orange-dyed marabou feather sticking out from the brim.

I just closed my eyes and pretended he was sitting there in a Whateley uniform.  Or a safety-orange prison jumpsuit.  Anything but what he was actually wearing.  "Hi Jericho."

"Hi, Phase.  How're you doing?"

"I'd be doing better if your clothes weren't inducing nausea and vomiting in a fifty-meter radius."

He actually laughed.  He was doing it on purpose!

He had a couple gadgets that would make awesome prank toys.  I was so not going to show those to Jade or Beltane.  The small glue-grenades came to mind.  I could just see the hall in Poe filled with angry people on their way to the showers, all of them glued to the floor.  Or suddenly finding out that someone had glued my clothes to my butt.  Or my butt to a bench in the Quad.  Those two didn't need any new ideas.

The glue grenade I bought was for me.

He also had some emergency kits that were well-designed, well-organized, and really made a lot of sense.  I bought two.  The deviser anti-poison injector alone was worth ten times what he was charging for those entire kits.

I slipped the glue grenade into my utility belt, but the emergency kits were too large.  I had to ask Jericho to hang onto them for me, until I was done shopping at the Weapons Fair.

I really needed to talk to him and see if he needed financial backing for mass-marketing some version of those kits.  I doubted the deviser anti-poison injector would lend itself to a mass-market approach, but most everything else in the kits would.  And he was supposed to be a gadgeteer/deviser like Bugs, so maybe he could come up with some sort of non-deviser replacement that could be patented and mass-produced.  I could help him with that.

Suddenly there was a voice behind me.  One of those whiny, nasal voices that make you instinctively want to smack the owner.  "Jericho!  Honestly, use your brain for something, since you're obviously not using it for visual cortex processing anymore.  A complex mechanical injection system for your anti-poison serum?  Think biological instead!  A simple patch with my patented mDMSO so it crosses the dermal barrier transparently instead of having to inject it.  I can't believe how primitive this is…"

I turned and looked at the guy as he disappeared into the crowd.  All I caught was the back side of a short nerd in a Whateley labcoat and Dockers.  I looked back at Jericho, "Who's that prick?"

He growled, "Jobe Wilkins."

I choked, "That's Jobe?  THE Jobe?  The jerk who mangled Phobos and Deimos?"

"Yeah, in the flesh.  And you know what I REALLY hate?"

"What?"

He frowned, "That he's right about the injector.  He's a creep and a major asshat, but he knows his stuff.  He's a freshman, and he already has more bio-patents than the entire research branch of UNESCO has cranked out in the last ten years."

I rolled my eyes, "Great, so he's a conceited asshole who just happens to be talented?"

"You got it."

"So can you revise your introduction system and make the anti-poison serum in production mode?"

He thought for a second.  "The system is easy.  Even if I don't use his mDMSO.  But I'll have to work with the anti-poison serum for a bit to see if I can remedy that.  Why?  You want a hundred of 'em?"

"No.  I want ten million of them."

"WHAAT?"  He nearly fell out of his chair.

"Look Jericho, this is the best-designed emergency kit I've ever seen.  If you can turn the anti-poison part into a gadget instead of a devise, you can get the whole system patented, and get each of the pieces patented, and then get the whole kit mass-produced.  You'll have to decide on licensing it to a company like MediWays, or else going into direct competition to MediWays and Johnson & Johnson, including running the company that makes the kits, and handling the production and marketing and financials…"

"Whoa!  Why would I want to do all that?"

"Because you'll make more money that way.  It'll come with a slew of headaches, but I can help you with the process, either way.  But the first thing is to get the devises turned into gadgets, and get patents on all the unique features of the kit, plus all the variants of those features that you can think of.  I've got a patent attorney on retainer, so I can help with that end of things."

"And what do you get out of this?"

I smiled, "I'm glad you asked.  As your agent, fifteen percent."

"Fifteen percent?  For doing stuff I can do on my own?"

"No.  For doing all the things you CAN'T do on your own.  Like knowing how to seek patents on variants of your processes and inventions, so that rival companies like Johnson & Johnson can't get their scientists to come up with variants that will scoot around the patents and undercut you.  Or knowing how to negotiate with the lawyers of a company like MediWays, so you get what your inventions are worth, instead of what they'd like to pay you.  If I get you ten times what MediWays would have conned you into accepting, and I make sure that rival companies can't undercut your patents, then that ought to be worth WAY more than fifteen percent of your returns."

"Good point.  And you already have a patent attorney on retainer?  Why"

"Because you're going to be my third client here.  Fourth, if Bunny agrees."

"Who are the first two?"

"Triaxial.  His automatic reader.  And Automa-tech.  Her case is a lot more complicated, because EU patent laws are totally different, and in Eastern Europe and Russia there's not a lot of respect for intellectual property rights."

"Hmm.  Triaxial, Automa-tech, and Bugs.  Okay, if all of them are good with you, then sign me up too…"  He took a breath and admitted, "I could use the money.  I'm working on a big project in Workshop, and I don't have the cash to get some of the components I really need."

I asked, "What is it?"

He got a funny look on his face as he admitted, "Power armor."  I guess I reacted, because he explained, "No, not like that.  I'm trying to build the kind of armor that medics and EMTs could wear to protect themselves when they have to rescue people in the middle of battles or superhero fights.  That kind of stuff."

I told him, "That sounds phenomenally marketable in and of itself.  I can help you with that.  Goodkind International has contacts in every military and paramilitary agency in the U.S.  And I can get you a super-low-interest loan based on the projected sales performance of your emergency kits."

He stared at me with his mouth open.  "You're kidding."

"I never kid about business."

He slowly shook his head, "Christ.  You really are a Goodkind."

I smiled, "I'll take that to be a compliment."  I gave him my cellphone number, and told him to expect me to be showing up with patent forms in a day or two.

He just grinned, "Yeah, then you trick the blind kid with fake forms…"

Right.  Like that input jack in his head was only for AM/FM radio.  If he couldn't patch into camera systems or computer systems with it, then I would eat that glue grenade.

Before I could reply, he went on, "But seriously, I'm gonna want to take all the forms and contracts and patent filings and whatever, and run 'em by Diamondback before I sign my life away on anything."

I said, "Look, it's a really good idea to have someone you trust to look over stuff like this.  But why Diamondback?  There are people around here who have specialized skills for things like this."

He glared at me with those solid-white eyes of his.  "Because I trust her.  And she's probably the smartest kid at Whateley."

Hmm.  I didn't know about the IQ bit.  I just knew she looked like a Naga, and a lot of people avoided her like the plague.  I explained, "Look Jericho, it wouldn't matter if she's smarter than Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein put together.  It's not a matter of IQ.  This is mostly a matter of familiarity with legal terms and legal statutes, along with research into patent law and current patent licensing practices.  Along with learning about all the ways there are for skirting around patents, or for challenging them in court.  If Diamondback wants to tackle this for you, she'll have to start with U.S. Patent Law and Patent Law trial records.  There's a complete set of all seventeen volumes in the library here.  But that's just a starter set, considering that she'll have to be ready to look up all the legal terms and check on all the legal citations.  Plus, she'll need to be able to research current patents and all related patents pending.  And those aren't available on-line…"  I thought for a moment.  "Although, if you found a way to input all the patent filings and turn them into a fully-searchable electronic database, there are a lot of patent attorneys who would pay serious bucks to get access to that."

I took a breath.  "I'm off on a tangent.  Sorry.  Look, I make sure that my contracts are as simple as possible, but no simpler.  There's no point in adding extra noise, since once in a while that just adds in a legal loophole someone will try to exploit.  There's legalese, but only when it conveys a specific legal meaning that's needed in context.  Have Diamondback look over everything.  But don't assume that having a genius look over your contract is as good as having a subject-matter expert you can trust.  There are plenty of geniuses out there that I wouldn't trust to evaluate a handshake agreement to do lawn-mowing for your neighbor."

He insisted, "Sandra's not like that.  She's sharp, and she knows her limitations."

I told him, "Good.  But – unless she wants to spend several months studying patent law and patent development and patent finagling – you'll still be better off working with a patent law office you can trust.  You don't need the smartest person at Whateley.  You need people who will sit down and go through paper copies of ninety thousand relevant patent filings by hand, looking for duplications and interactions."

He thought for a moment and cautiously said, "I'll get back to you."

I shook his hand and moved on to the next table.

This one looked like it was going to be weird.  I mean, weird for a table at the Weapons Fair.

The table looked like an odds-and-ends table at a garage sale, with weird junk all over it.  The guy looked sort of ordinary.  His companions looked anything but.

The nameplate said 'Knick-Knack'.

I'd heard of him.  Jean-Paul Alivares, from somewhere near the Pyrenees Mountains.  The Beret Mafia had talked about him one time while I was eating with them.  He was supposed to be a real hotshot deviser.  Kismet and Charmer had told me that he was also supposed to be a wizard.  Wizard/Deviser combinations were supposed to be pretty rare, even if there were several at Whateley.  The reason the Berets were talking about him was that he wasn't interested in joining their clique, and they were busy being affronted.  Again.  He hadn't been willing to be a Beret Mafioso last year, either.  He was too busy with his own projects and his own friends.  Automa-tech thought he was hung up on Majestic.  I remembered that, because Cytherea had thought that idea was screamingly funny.  Of course, Cytherea tended to think that no guy could be hung up on anyone except her.

He was a big guy, maybe six feet even, and not as skinny as you'd think a six-foot-tall sophomore would be.  He looked like he worked out a lot more than your typical deviser.  He had a beefy kind of build, more like a college senior who stays in good shape.  He had massive upper arms, but he had the hands of a surgeon.  He wasn't handsome, but there were plenty of guys in the room who were uglier.  It looked like - under his suitably tricked-out Whateley labcoat - he had forgotten to change his shirt for a couple days.  With his average brown eyes and average brown hair, no one would take him for a mutant.

On the other hand, everybody would take him for a mutant as soon as they saw his companions.  He was sitting in between a pair of hot babes.  Who weren't normal women.  They weren't speaking, and their faces were oddly flat, as if someone had given them several hundred Botox injections.  Plus, they were moving in perfect synchronicity.  If one turned to the side, both turned to the side.  But they weren't moving like robots.  In any other place in the world, I would have guessed that they were real women wearing plastic forms over their entire bodies, and they'd practiced this act for a long time.  But this was Whateley.  So there was no telling what the heck they actually were.

He was typing away on a laptop that had half a dozen different infrared connections stuck into the backplane.  I was guessing that the computer was interfacing with a lot of the gadgets on the table.

But the table looked like stuff from a flea market.  There were twelve devises that looked like he'd built them inside real lava lamps.  Weird.

He had a Caribbean conch shell that was set opening down, and kept trying to move off to the edges of the table.

I didn't even want to know.

He had a bunch of 'wizardry' knick-knacks too.  A 'Harry Potter' wand.  A couple little wizard statuettes that the estate of the late J.R.R. Tolkien would have fussed about.  Some D&D stuff.

And he had an assortment of other junky-looking stuff.  Several different snowglobes.  A cuckoo clock.  Several items that looked like they were sculpted out of scrap metal.  Some small plastic cubes with opaque white sides that looked like they might be Christmas ornaments or something.

I pointed to the lava lamps.  "So, what do these do?"

It took him a second to switch focus from whatever he was working on.  He replied with a slight accent that I couldn't quite peg.  "Oh!  These?  These are capture gel systems.  You focus the targeting system using a computer system like this one, lock it on the target, and launch.  The capture gel delivery system expands over a thousandfold when exposed to air, and it tracks the perpetrator until it envelops him."

I suddenly had a freaky image from an ep of "The Prisoner" that Uncle Theo had once shown me.  Uncle Theo was a big fan of old television stuff, and he had shown a lot of it to anyone who would sit still long enough.  At the estate, that meant he was showing it to me or to Paul.  His children were still too young for that.

Gesturing at the assorted junk piled around the table, I asked, "What about these other things?"

"Hmm," he stopped to think for a moment, as if he'd forgotten what some of the things did.  "The plastic cubes are devises for checking whether you're being snooped on.  Hidden mikes, esper 'remote hearing', most techniques.  Touch the button on the underside.  If it glows green, you are unobserved.  Red, you're being listened to.  Amber, there's something suspicious but it might not be aimed at you."

I picked up one of the 'anti-snoop' cubes.  That was definitely worth buying.

He went on, pointing at a couple of the odd metal shapes, "These are anti-grav sleds.  This one will lift up to thirty pounds of gear, while this larger one will lift up to ninety pounds.  I do have one that will lift up to three hundred sixty pounds, but I didn't bring it.  Now then.  The wand.  Let me think…  Ah yes.  It's a 27 Mega-watt laser.  Of course, at that power, the beam only lasts a limited amount of time…

Someone behind me nervously asked, "What's that seashell doing?"

He looked over in some surprise, almost as if he had forgotten that he had a moving seashell on his table.  "Oh.  That.  It's a security devise to protect against shoplifters."

Okay, now I REALLY didn't want to know.

He looked at the seashell again.  I checked.  It was sliding across the table in an eerie, undulating manner, and making straight for the hand of a guy who was casually leaning against the edge of the table as he chatted with someone else.

Knick-Knack stood up and limped around the table to rescue the shell.  Or maybe he was rescuing the guy's hand before the shell got at it and did whatever anti-theft evil it was designed to do.  When he moved around the table, I realized that he was wearing a brace over that leg.  And I noticed that he had mismatched sneakers too.  I wondered if the mismatch went with the leg problem.

When he picked the shell up, something nasty slithered back into the shell.  Then he limped back to his chair and put the shell opening-down in the center of the table.

Yikes.  I really, really, REALLY didn't want to know.

Rather than think about the shell, I asked Knick-Knack, "Are you okay?  I saw you limping."

He gave me a Gallic shrug and said, "It is nothing.  I have had it since I was born."

I said, "Well, I was just wondering, because I see people getting hurt around here all the time."

He nodded, "Yes.  Prism says that many people have been hurt in his martial arts class."

I grimaced, "I'm one of 'em.  Prism probably saved my arm one day last month."

His eyes lit up.  "Oh!  You must be Phase!  Prism says you are a very difficult opponent.  He told me that you are the only one in the class he does not want to have to spar against.  Which is probably why your teachers match him up against you so often."  He grinned wickedly.

I said, "Well, Prism is pretty tough for me to handle, too.  But we're lucky.  The really tough line-up is in sixth period BMA.  He'd have to face Tennyo, and Lancer, and Punch, and Chaka, and Shroud, and Sara, and Blitz, and a bunch of really tough opponents."

He smiled, "Some of us have enough sense not to take martial arts.  That avoids all the problems in one fell swoop."

I warned him, "I don't think so.  I think it just delays the inevitable."

He grinned wickedly, "But I already have all the defenses anyone could ask for.  I make them myself."

At the next table was a petite girl, dressed in the standard Spy Kidz regalia.  She was quietly conversing with two other Spy Kidz, who were glancing around the room while trying to make it appear that they weren't looking around.  That just made me wonder what the hell they were up to.  So while I was chatting with Knick-Knack, I was doing my best to eavesdrop.  It was pretty clear by the way she was gesturing and pointing that she was sending the other two on a mission to look at everyone else's gadgets.  But I was pretty sure she said "Nephandus and Techno-Devil".

Great.  My friend the probable Supervillain-in-Training has Spy Kidz snooping around.  What the hell was I supposed to do?  Tell him, and maybe let him get away with something bad?  Not tell him, and be a lousy friend?  There was no way I was going to figure out who the good guys were on this one in the next fifteen minutes.  Assuming there were any 'good guys' in this sitch.

I walked over to the table.  The petite girl…  Oh God, she was my size.  Except I had a narrower waist and more rounded hips.  Crap.  And I was 'cuter'.  A lot cuter.  She had reddish-brown hair and an okay-but-not-pretty face.

Sometimes I really, really hate my body.

She was 'Kew', according to her signage.  How cutesy.  Well, that told me way too much about her.  So she had to be the deviser for the Spy Kidz, the little James Bond wannabes.

And she even had all sorts of James Bond gadgets on her table.  Taser guns.  Computer-guided rocket-powered grappling hooks with launchers and ultra-thin cabling.  Dart guns that strapped onto your wrist so they were hidden up your sleeve.  You name it.

Man, remind me to go heavy the next time any of these dorks were around me.

I stopped and talked with her about her grappling hook system.

She gave me the hard sell.  "This is the best grappling and climbing system you're going to find anywhere.  The hook is laser guided with this wireless system here, so it goes exactly where you want.  The grapple is titanium, and spring-loaded, so it'll withstand almost any impact, and it won't fall off afterward.  The cabling is super-thin, so four hundred feet of it fits on this spool here.  But it's a woven titanium-and-Plexon cable, so it can take 2250 pounds of strain.  That's easily the weight of six people plus all their gear.  AND, if you buy the whole system, I'll throw in four of these 'climbers' too!"

The climbers were gadgets the size of an iron.  Each one clamped onto the cable, then automatically ran you up or down the cable while you just hung onto the grip.

Cool stuff.  But if she was selling it so hard, then she probably wasn't using it herself anymore.  There had to be something better that she had designed for her little Bond-ians.  I decided to bet that way and toss in all my chips.  I'd see if I could bluff her out of the pot.

I said, "This is really nice. Kew.  But I know that the Spy Kidz have much better tech for this kind of thing..."  Her eyes bulged.  "And I know that YOU designed it..."  She jerked her left hand over and hastily pressed something on her right wrist.  "And I know that you just signaled the two Spy Kidz here in the room."  Kew looked like she was about to wet her panties.

Two Exemplars in the standard Spy Kidz 'uniforms' - black turtlenecks, cargo pants, and sneakers - suddenly bracketed me.  Both of them were a lot taller than I was.  The girl was a good half foot taller, and the guy was near six feet tall.  Plus they were obviously Exemplars, and who knew what else.  I went heavy, just in case.

Kew gabbled, "She knows about our tech!  She knew this isn't what we're using, and she knew I made the new gear!"

The guy looked down at me with one arched eyebrow and growled at me in a decent replica of Clint Eastwood, "And who do you think you are, honey?"

The girl on my right tried to whipsaw me with the next question.  "And what are you doing harassing Kew?"

I didn't bother to turn my head.  The guy put his hand on my forearm and tried to get a grip on me.  He was strong, but not nearly as strong as I was, since I had already gone heavy.  I reversed his grip and said, "I didn't give you permission to manhandle me, did I?"

He looked shocked.  That seemed odd.  He had to know there were tons of kids around here who were stronger than he was.

He looked at the girl and gave her a shake of the head.  Okay, he'd tried something and failed.  Had he tried an esper trick on me?

The girl said, "I'm not getting anything either.  If she knows anything special, I'm not getting it.  And I'm not getting any.. wait a minute, there's something.. financial?"

Okay, that was more than definite enough for me.  They were both some sort of esper.  The guy had to touch stuff to pick anything up.  Probably, my being heavy had messed that up.  The girl only had to be in the vicinity.  And she had spilled a little too much.  She could pick up knowledge, and she could pick up abilities.  I didn't know how much of either she could actively use.  That made both of them pretty damned dangerous.

I said, "I'm Phase.  Ayla Goodkind.  As in THE Goodkinds.  So of course you're picking financial abilities.  And you're not picking up extra knowledge, because I was bluffing the snot out of your little deviser here.  You guys need to do a much better job of covering your own tracks.  For example, you've tipped your hand pretty badly that you're checking out the devisers here, particularly the Bad Seeds."

'Dirty Harry' drawled, "Phase?  So you're the one who took out that Alpha Hit Team last month."

"Among others.  I assume you know that I've been involved in a lot of fights lately."  He nodded.  "And that my won/lost record is about 20 and 1, with a win in the rematch after the one loss."

The girl said, "She's part of the Negligee Nightingales."

I snapped, "Look, do I call you the 'Secret Squirrels'?  We're Team Kimba.  And if you can't remember that, I'll introduce you to Tennyo, who can help your failing memory.  The same way she helped Aries.  And Hamper.  And Damper.  And Skybolt.  You two may be Exemplars and Espers, but I seriously doubt you can take on a girl who beat the crap out of the Arch-Fiend, demolished a building in the process, and ended up with nothing but some torn clothing."

The guy rasped, "Tennyo's just another Warper."

"Yeah, like Carson is just another private school headmistress.  If you're this badly informed, I'm sorry I bothered checking on you."

The girl wondered, "You were checking on us?"

I glowered, "Of course!  Just how incompetent are you, anyway?  I'm a Goodkind.  Think about what that means.  I wanted to see if your team was competent enough to hire, for several projects I had in mind.  But right now, I'm leaning more toward hiring Spade.  Or Tracer."

Wow, they really didn’t take too well to being considered incompetent.  What a surprise.

The guy growled, "Those jerks?  We can do anything they can do, and we can do it ten times better!"

I looked over and saw Nephandus, leaning against the wall and enjoying the show.  He was in his usual wardrobe of Merchant-Ivory cast-offs.

I tilted my head in his direction and said to the Secret Squirrels, "I know you're here checking out the Bad Seeds.  So I'm going to go over and talk to Nephandus and find out how competent he thinks you are."

The girl snorted, "Oh sure, like an egomaniac like him is going to think anyone else is marginally competent…"

I pointed out, "When you talk with an egomaniac, it's not what he says about a third person that matters.  It's how hard he has to spin-doctor things to cover up how badly he got his ass kicked by the third person."  Then I walked off before they could finish reacting.

Nephandus was casually fiddling with his cane.  I noted that there were several almost-concealed buttons on the cane, so I figured it was chockfull of weaponry.  I'd have to bear that in mind if I ever had to tangle with him.

I walked over and said, "Hi there.  Long time no see."

He looked daggers at the Spy Kidz and asked, "Having fun with Ace and A-Plus?"

Those were really their codenames?  "Ace?  And A-Plus?  Think much of themselves?"  He laughed.  I said, "Oh, I had tons of fun.  They're easier to bluff than I expected.  Particularly when they can't use their esper talents on someone."

He rolled his eyes, "Oh, they think that they can actually keep up with those of us who have been trained our entire lives to avoid detection.  If they're not snooping on us, they're playing hide-and-go-seek with the ninjas, or chasing after the Masterminds.  Why can't they get a life?"

"So.  Do you know what they can do?  Other than being Exemplars.  That much is obvious."

He nodded.  "She-Beast told all of us.  Ace is a psychometrist.  He can handle objects and temporarily gain the talents of the former users.  A-Plus is a clairvoyant.  She can pick up knowledge and skills just from being near you, and use them for a bit.  Magic can block both of them."

Hmm.  It looked like I guessed right on both of them.  So I was also going to assume that going heavy interfered with Ace's attempt to get something esper-y by touching my clothes.

I asked, "Are they any good?"

He frowned, "I'd say they're better than Whateley Security.  But that's like saying you're smarter than Buster."

I decided I was going to take that as an endorsement.  Plenty of Whateley students were able to get around Security, but these students were going to be running rings around the police forces of the world in a couple years.  Or, in a few cases, had already been running rings around the world police forces for some time.

I said, "Thank for the info.  I'll see you around."

Then I walked back to where the two Spy Kidz were standing in front of Kew's table, silently fuming as they watched me chat with Nephandus.

I told them, "Nephandus can't stand you.  Which you should take as a compliment.  And he thinks you're a bigger threat than Whateley Security, which is also a compliment."  I looked at the guy, "I know you're Ace."  I turned to the girl, "And you're A-Plus.  Your team deviser is Kew.  I assume you have some other teammates.  If I hire you, I'll want to meet the entire team."

Ace gave me some more of his 'Dirty Harry' imitation.  Or was that supposed to be his 'Frank Horrigan' imitation?  "We're not henchmen.  Or thugs.  We'll decide whether we want to be hired or not."

I just stood my ground.  "Sound policy.  You definitely don't want to get caught up in something that might impact your future career plans.  So I'll provide a complete precis of any project for which I want to hire your team, and then you'll have a full meeting of all team members so I can meet them all."

'Dirty Harry' gave me a "We'll think about it."

I walked off.  I still didn't know if I really did want to hire them for anything, or if I could trust them when I did.  The only thing I was thinking about at the moment was building an information network, and I was pretty sure they had one.  I was also sure that they would be really protective of it, since it had to be one of their primary resources.

I walked over to the second row of tables.  At the far left was a guy whose placard said "Ecto-Tek".  With a name like that, I could guess what his focus was likely to be.

He was busy doing the hard sell to two people I didn't know, while an Exemplar blonde kind of 'herded' the two into place and kept telling them that Ecto-Tek's devises were really good.

Oh, wait.  I'd seen that blonde before.  In church.  She looked a lot like a younger Sarah Michelle Gellar, right down to the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' hairstyle and hair color.  That was just sort of goofy, having a Buffy wannabe as your 'sales bimbo' while you sold anti-monster hardware.  Did he pay her to do her hair like that and act like that?  If so, there had to be a bigger market around here for that type of gear than I had realized.

Ecto-Tek was in the middle of his hype.  "…But in the middle of the nght, in a hideous surprise attack by some Type-2 entity, say a werewolf, you're not going to have time to take careful aim and make sure you're not hitting an innocent bystander.  That's why these are the perfect anti-werewolf weapon.  They're harmless to humans.  Say you accidentally shoot your partner.  Or yourself!  What happens?  Nothing!  Not even a burn.  But if you hit the werewolf anywhere, you'll incapacitate it, and if you hit it anywhere at all in the torso or head, you'll kill it…"

He was pointing out four weird-looking handguns on his table.  Each one looked like it was started from one of those rubber guns your dad had as a little kid that you squeezed in order to shoot a ping-pong ball out of the muzzle.  But these now had triggers and trigger guards mounted in front of the grip, and the muzzle flared out in a wide plastic bell, like the end of a trumpet.  Well, they sure didn't look dangerous.

"…Now I also have these anti-vampire weapons, and these anti-spirit weapons - the anti-spirit weapons come with this head-mounted targeting system here, since they're usually invisible to the naked eye, so you'd want the complete package - but there are werewolves not that far off-campus, in the protected forest areas.  So more people around here need anti-werewolf weapons than anything else.  Especially during the full moon…"

I Look over at the next table.  It was Harry.  What idiot put the werewolf next to the fanatical anti-monster nut?  Harry was actually sitting there putting up with Ecto-Tek's spiel, even though he was really not happy about it.

"…a horrific beast, savage, mindless, hungry for human flesh…"

I watched as Harry kept getting less and less happy about Ecto-Tek's spiel.

"…a hideous beast with nothing but savage cunning where once was a man's mind…  But you have the ET2000w in hand…"

Finally, Harry stood up and walked to the side of Ecto-Tek's table.  The blonde Exemplar suddenly focused on Harry and shifted into a karate stance, like she was going to take him on if he did anything suspicious.

Harry picked up one of the anti-werewolf guns, pointed it at his stomach, and asked, "Like this?"

He fired it right into his stomach.  There was a small launching noise from the gun, but nothing happened.

Ecto-Tek abruptly stopped ranting, and focused on his now-fired gun.  He fumed, "It took me three hours to get that properly loaded for werewolves!  And you're not a real Were!  You're not even a Type 2 entity!  Stop messing up my demo gear!"  He grabbed the weapon back from Harry and began fussing with it.

I stepped over to Harry's table.  Sitting down and grinning at Ecto-Tek's frustration, Harry didn't look as intimidating.  I could see that his placard read "Techwolf".  Not a bad name for a wolf/inventor cross.  The alternatives that ran through my mind were too goofy.  Names like 'Lobo-tech', which looked like a copyright violation waiting to happen.

While Ecto-Tek fumed and tried to convince his customers that his devise really would work on a real werewolf, Harry leaned back and smiled, "Hi, Ayla.  How are things going?"

I shrugged, "Oh, pretty much the usual for Team Kimba.  Fight horrific badguys, kick ass, get in trouble for not running away, do detention at Hawthorne…"

He just shook his head.  "You girls are a menace.  At the rate you're going, Hawthorne is gonna be the cleanest, best organized cottage on campus."

I thought about what Ecto-Tek had said, and I asked, "You're not a werewolf?"

He shrugged, like he'd already been asked this question by everyone else on campus.  "Not really.  My dad and me?  We just look like this.  It's a curse.  Mister Lodgeman's helping my family out, trying to bust the curse and stuff.  And he thought I'd do better here at Whateley.  He was right.  This is the coolest place EVER!"

Man.  Being stuck looking like that because of a curse on your grandfather?  That really sucked. 

"So, what are you selling?"  I had to admit, I had no idea.  The stuff on his table looked like incomplete metal fabrications that were supposed to be part of bigger stuff.  Did they do some weird "Transformers" thing where they converted into something else and then joined together?

He grinned.  On his face, that was a big smile.  "Look around.  Everyone else has big fancy guns, or fancy armor components.  So what do you do if you have the big fancy armor, and the big fancy gun?  You have to mount the gun on the armor somehow!  These are conversion kits.  So you can get that BFG mounted properly, and hooked up to your cybernetics in your armor, so you can operate the gun."

"Oh!  Man, that's a good idea!"

And just to prove his point, Dynamaxx and two other guys came by while I was talking with Harry.  All three bought one of the conversion kits.  Well, I could tell who had power armor around here.

I gave Maxx a brief "guten Tag" and he smiled back.  But he was way too focused on the conversion kits.  He had components for the right shoulder and upper arm of a suit of power armor, and he was looking at each of the conversion pieces, trying to find one that would match his contours perfectly.

I stepped out of Maxx's way, and looked at the next table.

It was Montana.  So who knew?  I had figured him for one of the Brute Squad, but apparently he was really a deviser or gadgeteer who just looked different.  Well, not everyone in Workshop needed to look like a short, dumpling-shaped nerd.  Bunny pretty well proved that, all by herself.

Even sitting down, Montana was huge.  I mean, he'd bumped into me in the halls, so I knew he was like seven and a half feet tall, and heavier than Pyrs.  Of course, when I was walking the halls and going heavy, I was way heavier than Montana, with a much lower center of gravity, so when he bumped into me, he tended to bounce off like he'd just walked into a five-foot-high concrete wall.

Montana was busy arguing with a nerd I didn't know.  The nerd looked like the prototypical deviser, down to the labcoat and glasses.  But Monty was schooling the guy.  Apparently, Montana specialized in small electronics or something.  Who knew?

Monty pointed at the guy's gear and insisted, "Look, it's just not going to work like that.  You need a metal with a much higher resistance here, maybe a ceramet, because I can tell you're getting electromagnetic bleedover across your modules.  Right here and here.  Okay?"

The guy shrugged and admitted, "Okay, if you say so…"

Montana watched the guy trudge away, and then turned to look at the new person at his table.  He took one look at me, and his eyes snapped in anger.

"You.  You're one of the Kimbas," he growled.  "The rich one.  I don't care what you're offering.  I'm not selling to you.  I'm not even talking to you.  Just scram."

I'd seen him fight Chaka, so I was sure I could take him really easily if I went heavy.  But I didn't see any point in making him mad enough that I'd have to fight him.  I had enough people who were dying to fight me as it was.

Besides, I'd heard about his first year here.  Tansy Walcutt had gamed him right into the mud, all to get herself into the Alphas.  And he was still lashing out at pretty girls as a result.  That bitch had a lot to answer for.  I looked like a cute girl, and he knew I hung with the people who had most recently humiliated him: Tennyo and Chaka.  Who could he hate more than me?  Besides Tansy and her bitchy friends.  Well, probably Fey would be right up there, just for looking like Fey.

I shrugged, "Fine.  I just figured, with your background, that you'd want to know how much I hate Tansy Walcutt."

"You?  Why would you care about that bitch?  You're one of the pretties."

I told him, "I only look like a cute girl.  I've got a weird BIT.  I'm a boy with bizarre physical distortions.  Like you.  Tansy has gone out of her way to make my life a living hell.  Like you.  The difference?  Tansy socked it to you for a month or two.  She's been on my ass since I was in second grade.  And when you're a scrawny little second grader, and the people picking on you are big, mean, ugly fourth graders, they might as well have super-powers."

For a moment, he was lost in thought.  Then he softly said, "Yeah, I know how that is…"

Hmm.  Had he been a scrawny little kid, picked on by bigger kids?  Had he wanted to be bigger than the bullies so he could push them around?  I had certainly thought about it, back when I was in elementary school.  If so, he must have really thought it was great when he starting growing, under the manifestation of his mutation.  And then it must have really sucked to realize just what he was growing into.

I said, "I'm leaving.  But if you ever – and I mean EVER – want to trade Tansy Walcutt horror stories, come see me.  I can tell you stories about her that'll make you want to grind her into pet food."

"Already do," he growled.  "But I kinda got even.  A little."

Yeah, I'd heard about that.  Jinn had seen Thuban and Skinwalker threaten Tansy with being possessed by Skinwalker, just before Jinn escaped.  And I'd heard that when Skinwalker had possessed Tansy, a lot of guys in Twain had benefited from that.  A lot of guys - guys who weren't looking at getting laid by anyone better-looking than Tisiphone - had a chance to take one of the school models for a test drive.  Apparently, after that a bunch of them had names for Tansy that were awful enough that she was avoiding them as much as possible.

I gave him a nod and moved to the table on my right.

I immediately recognized the impossibly cute, ridiculously curvy, black-haired girl with the huge green eyes and the teeny-weeny nose.  Even if I'd only seen her once, when she was lying on top of Chaka.  She was sitting on a reinforced stepstool instead of a chair.  And she had a reinforced steel table instead of the usual folding table.  Of course, that made a lot of sense in her case, because I was pretty sure that she weighed about a quarter of a ton, even though she looked like she ought to weigh about as much as I did.  Plus, there was that whole 'cannot always control strength or bursts of speed' thing which was why she was living in Hawthorne.

Her placard said "Compiler", although Chaka usually called her 'Babs' when talking about her.  She was supposed to be a nanotechnology whiz.  Although, having seen how that worked out with her body, I wasn't completely sure anything on the table would be safe to touch.

Compiler gave me a polite smile, and then paused with that 'do I know you?' look on her face.

I helped her out, "I'm Phase.  We met when I lifted you off Chaka that time in your room?"

"Oh!"  She blushed clear down to her neck.  I couldn't tell how far down the blush actually went, since she was wearing a Whateley uniform under the standard Whateley labcoat.  "Now I remember you."

I grinned, "From what Chaka says, you don't normally jump on cute girls and pin them to the floor."

She frowned in thought.  "In theory, I ought to have super-speed.  But I can't control my neural pathways precisely enough, so I end up with bursts of high speed, usually when I'm not trying to do it.  It's kind of a problem."

Well duh.  Take a super-dense girl with super-strength she can't control, and throw in accidental bursts of super-speed, and you have a girl who has to live in a super-reinforced room in Hawthorne.  Chaka had been lucky she didn't get broken bones from having Compiler smash into her.  Or had Chaka been using another of her Ki powers to protect herself?  With Chaka, there was no way of knowing just what she might figure out how to do.. in the next few minutes.

I looked over Compiler's table.  There was a large laminated sheet with sales items and prices, but half of them were crossed out.  On the table were sets of solid hair rollers in a plastic-looking pink color, bottles labeled 'mascara' and 'eyeliner' in half a dozen different colors, and a bowl of silver balls that looked like what Jade loaded into her Cobra 250.

I looked at the laminated sheet.

          Instant self-heating hair rollers

          Pore cleansing facial crème

          Once-a-month underarm deodorant

          Permanent mascara – 4 colors

          Permanent eyeliner – 8 colors

          Tangle-web loads for Cobra linear induction weapons

          Perpetual tampon

I said, "So tell me about your stuff, Babs."

She smiled, "Oh!  I love these new cosmetics I came up with.  I had to use the nanotechnology to create the mascara and eyeliner, because I can't get the nanos to keep working more than about five feet from my body.  But they work great."

"Are they really permanent?" I asked.  I was wondering if Vox might be interested in a mascara she only had to apply once-a-whatever.

"No," She sighed.  Then she perked right back up.  "But they'll last for about three months, until enough of your skin cells have flaked off that the originally-tinted skin is all gone."

I wondered, "So, what happens if you make a mistake while putting on the makeup?"

She frowned, "Well, that would be bad."

Crap.  I suggested, "Then maybe you ought to think about designing a remover too, right?"

"Oh!  Good idea!"  She sat back down and started thinking furiously.

"Babs?  Babs?"  I gently led her away from Devisor-Land.  "What else do you have here?"

"Oh!  Right!  These are tangle-web loads for linear induction devises like the Cobra 250, the Cobra 400, and the Cobra 40000 rifle.  Do you know what those are?"  I nodded.  "Well, the webbing has to be under high pressure, and it gets sticky as soon as it's exposed to air.  In theory, you could make them in a high-pressure xenon atmosphere.  But I designed some nanotechnology that would create them inside the spheres from precursor chemicals.  That's much easier."

Jade would love these babies.  "I'll take six."

"Ooh, really?  Great!"

I wrote Babs a check and resolved not to tell Jade how much they actually cost.  Then I asked, "What about the things that are crossed off?"

She blushed again, only harder.  "In theory, they should have worked perfectly…"

Well, that was why they called it 'theory'.  As we said in the business world, "the difference between theory and practice is that, in theory, there isn't any difference."

She explained, "The pore-cleansing facial crème should have worked.  In theory, it would work down into your pores, find the clogging oils and detritus, and scour them away.  Stella was insistent that I test it out, and she went out and found some animal carcasses…"

"And it scoured everything?"

She cringed, "Yeah.  All the skin, down to the subdermal layers.  It was bad.  Stella made me dump all of the crème into the bio-hazard chutes."

I couldn't help wincing.

She went on, "The once-a-month underarm deodorant seems to be working okay, but in theory it shouldn't cause rashes and urticaria."  She stopped and scratched one underarm for several seconds.  "The itching's pretty awful.  But I'm working on a skin cream that ought to clear that right up."

Okay, after those revelations, I really, really didn't want to hear about what went wrong with the 'perpetual tampon'.

Before she could tell me what went wrong with that little devise, a whiny, nasal voice came from my right.  It was impossible not to recognize the voice as Jobe.  "Babs, Babs, Babs…"  He picked up one of her self-heating rollers and rolled it back and forth in his hand.  Then he stared right at her boobs and went on, "Honestly, I would think that YOU of all people would appreciate the risks of the interactions from several distinct nanomolecular devises used at the same time!  This is just a monumentally bad idea.  Like your skeletal structure.  Although I do think the breasts and buns are a step in the right direction.  Very nicely done."

Compiler uncomfortably pulled her labcoat closed over her uniform, but didn't verbally complain.  Jobe probably thought he was being smooth, the little git.

Man, why didn't someone just punch his lights out?  Or at least trick him into leering like that at Hippolyta.. which would accomplish the same thing.

Then I noticed that the rolling he had done with the curler had activated the heating system.  The curler was burning the plastic covering of the table.

I pointed at the curler and sighed, "Babs, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your self-heating curler is now hot enough to give some girl third-degree burns on her scalp."

She looked at it and gasped, "It's not supposed to do that!  In theory, it only gets turned enough to roll up someone's hair!"

Jobe snorted, "Really, Babsy.  And what happens when your customer rolls the curlers out of the bag onto the counter?  Try to keep up here…"

I turned to the little weasel and said, "I believe that everyone gets the key points here, Jobe."  I carefully picked the curlers up off the table and tucked them out of sight under the table.  I had to go heavy to pick up the activated roller, since it was nearly hot enough to distort the metal of the table.

Then Compiler reached into her labcoat to pull out some sort of tool.  She stared at it, and it transformed into something like a really thick Magic Marker.  She carefully drew a line through the words "Instant self-heating hair rollers" on her price-sheet.  Then she tucked the thing into her labcoat and sighed miserably.

I suggested, "Why don't you market that devise you just used as a marker?"

"What, my sonic screwdriver?"

I nearly snorted in laughter, but I managed to contain myself.  "Yeah."

She frowned, "Oh, it's a devise, and it's all nanotechnology.  It only works within a couple feet of me.  It's not reproducible, and it doesn't work once you move it away from me."

I thought about Jade's cover story and said, "Yeah, you're not the only deviser like that.  Generator has some devises like that too.  But I don't think they're nanotechnology."

Jobe nasally intruded, "Generator?  Which one is she?  The little Chink kid?"

I didn't even bother to turn my head toward him.  "She's the short one, of Japanese ancestry.  Most Asian people would be insulted by the term 'Chink', Vanilla-Boy."

He sneered, "Well, Miss P.C., thanks for the news flash.  I'll be so concerned about that in future."

"You might want to be.  Her big sister is Shroud, who has NO sense of humor.  Being dead already kind of does that to you.  And her roomie is Tennyo, who eats guys like you for in-between-meal snacks."

He snarked, "I heard she didn't want to fight Monty."

I explained, "No, she didn't want to accidentally KILL Monty.  You might want to remember that less than a month ago, she took out Aries, Hamper, Damper, and Skybolt.  Total time from first take-out to last?  Maybe twenty seconds."

He shrugged and strolled off, as if her fighting skills were unimportant.  Well, maybe they were, to him.

Babs was looking really discouraged, so I gently asked, "Are you okay?"

She sighed, "Yeah.  Sure.  In theory, anyway.  I just hate it when my inventions go Westworld on me."

"Wait a minute.  That's the second time I've heard that expression since I walked in here.  Is that a deviser code-phrase?"

She thought for a second.  "Uhh, no.  Well maybe.  Everyone uses it in Workshop.  It's been around for decades, though.  It's for an old movie called "Westworld" where the robots go crazy and start killing all the people.  I think Barbara Streisand's husband was in it."

Once I'd made sure that Compiler was okay, and I had carefully slipped my half dozen Cobra loads into another belt pocket, I moved on to the next table.

The first thing I noticed - other than the fact that the freshman-looking kid in the chair was almost as big a dweeb as Jobe - was the placard.  The wooden prism said 'Goodvibes'.  But he had the word 'Doctor' on a piece of etched plastic, carefully taped to the left of the name 'Goodvibes'.

I asked, "Why the 'Doctor' added on the front?"

He groused, "It's this stupid Whateley rule.  I had the name Doctor Goodvibes all picked out before I even got here!  But you can't have a military rank…"

"Like Captain Bravo?"

He turned up his nose in disgust.  "Yeah, like that dork Bravo, or a professional title, like 'Doctor', or a title, like 'Baron', until you've earned the real creds.  So I can't be 'Doctor Goodvibes' until I get out of here, or earn a doctorate in something!  It's not fair!"

I tried to console him a little.  "Hey, look on the bright side.  At least you don't have to really call that idiot 'Captain Bravo'.  And you just know that, if it weren't for that rule, Belphegor would be going around calling himself 'Baron Belphegor'.  Or something worse."

"Lord Belphegor," he suggested.

"Emperor Belphegor," I countered.

He laughed, "Yeah, well, there is that."

I smiled, "So tell me about your stuff."

His table looked like he'd robbed a Radio Shack.  A Venusian Radio Shack.  It was covered with things that looked like they might be speakers or stereo systems or headphones.  Or things that connected to speakers and stereo systems and headphones.

He pointed at several squat boombox-shaped things and started turning dials.  "I call these my 'soothing sound' systems.  They've got different types of relaxation sounds you can have them play.  This setting creates a series of harmonics that helps you focus.  It's great for studying.  Now this setting is terrific for sleeping, or just screening out unwanted noise.  And this setting is my favorite.  It creates a layered harmonic system that actually improves your mood..."

Wow.  I sure could have used that last week.  Not that I was going to buy it.  It seemed like too much of a crutch.  I didn't want to end up depending on a stereo system in order to be able to function.

"…and this over here is a sound cancellation system, so you can have complete privacy.  No one outside of your arrangement of these four speakers can hear what you're saying, and you can play your personal music as loud as you like, and no one outside the speakers will hear.  It uses active wave cancellation technology…"

It looked good in theory.  But it seemed to me that it would be easy to defeat with anything that didn't use the sound vibrations to detect what was being said.  Magic or psi or an esper talent would do it.  So would something as simple as lip-reading.  I didn't burst his balloon.  But I didn't buy one, either.

He had a host of other sound system gadgets, and sound-related systems.  I bought a bone-conduction system to replace my earphones, so people would stop complaining about my music when we were studying together.  Chou would probably appreciate it, too.

The bone conduction 'headphones' folded up, so I slipped them into a utility belt pocket too.  I was wondering if I was going to run out of room before I got to the back row of tables.

The next table was Techno-Devil's.  There was no mistaking Mal's shaved mullet with the input jacks, or his cybernetic eye, or that glaringly red Whateley labcoat.  He had three of his little robots lurching around the table, checking out everyone who walked past.  They looked like he'd stolen the design from the ED-209 of "Robocop".  But each one was only knee-high.

Okay, I had to wonder if he was planning a fifteen-foot-high version that would be armed with a chaingun, grenade launchers, and a couple lasers.

On the table was a rack of handguns.  Okay, they were handguns only in the loosest sense of the word.  There were six of them, all alike, and all looking like a Star Trek phaser had mated with a Stargate SG-1 P-90.

I figured it wouldn't hurt to stop and say hi.  "Mal!  How're things going?"

He shrugged, "I wanted to see if anyone was interested in these lasers.  J-Arm thought there'd be a few takers."

"Jay Arm?" I asked.

"Jean-Armand.  Nephandus."

"Oh.  J-Arm."  Well, the guy was bound to have a real first name.  Or two.

Mal was still staring with disgust at the back of a Spy Kid.  Obviously, Ace had stopped by to 'investigate' what he was selling.  Mal muttered, "Those damn Secret Squirrels.  They think they're James Bond and Triple X all rolled into one.  Like a Diabolik would leave any traces that dorks like them could find…"

I asked, "What did he think he was going to find?"

Mal shrugged, "Probably illegal equipment.  These are just ordinary inter-phased lasers.  The effective beam is actually up in the gamma ray wavelengths, so it's invisible.  I have to provide a harmless, low-wattage red laser, so people can see what they're hitting."

I asked, "But won't a beam in the gamma ray frequencies go right through the target and hit everything behind it too?"

He frowned, "Well, it depends on the target.  That is why I stepped the frequency down from cosmic ray frequencies.  But there's no point in a weapon that puts most of its damaging power into stuff behind the target…  Maybe I need to do some more testing."

I said, "Maybe you need to re-think the entire concept.  If you have that kind of energy source, there ought to be something more efficient you can do with the output."

He smirked, "You sound just like Jadis, you know that?"  Then he got serious.  "You really ought to look her up.  She'd love to be able to sit around and talk books with you.  You two were so darn annoying back in grade school.  'Oh no, you have to read Dickens in the context of the prevailing social setting of the time.'  God!  It was like eating lunch with a book club."  He grinned to show he didn't really mind.

I said, "Yeah, you're right.  But I never seem to see her anywhere."

He guessed, "You're probably taking a million classes and you have all your afternoons booked up solid, don't you?"

I admitted, "Yeah, but there's a lot of courses I want to take."

He snorted, "Like they can teach anything really valuable here.  That's why Jadis has her whole afternoons free, so she can do her own stuff.  She's hanging out in the caff half the time, when she's not running her clique of Melville girls, or hanging with some of the other Bads."  He shook his head, "She's so tired of the Lit Chix around here.  There are about half a dozen that keep trying to drag her into their write-stories-and-criticize-everyone-else's-stuff world.  Jadis thinks they just want to play Sherlock Holmes, with her as Professor Moriarity.  So they can catch Jadis while she's up to some nefarious scheme.  Like she couldn't run circles around the whole lot of them, if she was up to something interesting."

I teased him, "Hey, isn't that Moriarity ref a Lit thing?"

He grinned, "See, some of Jads' bad habits are rubbing off on me."

After I chatted with Mal a bit more, I moved to the next table.  A Hispanic kid who looked like a freshman or a sophomore was sitting there in a wheelchair.  Well, a highly customized, mobile chair that might even have working wheels.  This was Whateley, after all.

His nameplate said "Kludge".  And he looked like a kludge.  His arms were obviously two different sizes, with his left arm looking too big for his frame, while his right arm looked too small.  Since he was in a wheelchair, I was guessing there was something similar wrong with his legs.  And his right shoulder seemed to jut out farther than the other one did.

Man.  And I was whining about my body.

On the table, he had a body harness that would strap on around your torso and shoulders, so that the one-inch-thick contoured frame would cover most of your upper back.  His information sheets explained that this was a custom-made power-amplifying harness for an Energizer.

He explained, "It's sort of my specialty, since I'm a faux-Energizer too."

Oh.  His powers were a kludge too.  He was a deviser/faux-energizer.

I said, "Is this one yours, or is it for someone we know?"

He smiled, "Oh, this one is mine.  I haven't been able to build one that lets me walk.  Yet.  But with this one, I can float.  And power some gizmos I've been building.  Right now, because of my body, I'm sort of looking at the Iron Man option for walking around and stuff.  You know, like Rack and She-Bot."

Okay, I knew who Rack was, since he had gone out of his way to talk to Chaka during one lunch.  Rack seemed like a really good guy.

Automa-tech came by, and interrupted our little chat.  "Phase, have you seen any problems?"

I switched into Spanish, since I'd been studying and working on my vocabulary.  "No, I have not seen any problems.  I did enjoy seeing Belphegor being thrown out."  Okay, it wasn't really idiomatic Spanish.

She smiled, "Your Spanish is getting much better."

"Thank you," I said.  "I am working on it, and our teacher is very good."

Automa-tech was actually worried about the Beret Mafia members.  Spark and Wunderkind, and the rest.  Even though Belphegor was European, Automa-tech was VERY glad he wasn't interested in being one of the Berets.  Apparently, he was that big a pain in the ass every moment, to every person.  I hated to think what it would be like for his roommate.

She moved on to check with the next person she knew, and I turned to see who was at the table behind me.  It was Gadget.  If I hadn't seen her before, that would have been a heck of a shock, since Gadget looks pretty much like a five-foot-tall squirrel with some human features tacked on as an afterthought.  Her big, bushy tail was sticking out behind her as she sat somewhat uncomfortably on a chair that was obviously made for a normal human butt.

Man, at least Anna hadn't gotten the squirrel appearance too.

I gave her a smile.  "So, Gadget.  Tell me what you've got."  I was interested, too.  Because her table looked like she'd taken Iron Man apart.

"Okay," she chittered.  "Well, I've got parts for power armor.  You have to build the body and frame to fit yourself, but everything else is here.  These over here are cybernetic control systems.  And these are weapons that get powered by the armor.  And if your armor has enough power, you can also use something like these Personal Forcefield Generators, which can be mounted in the chestplate or the hip-packs, or this larger one here can go on the backplane."

I said, "These are pretty cool.  I'll be sure to tell some people."

On the other side of Gadget was Slapdash.  He was looking a little nerdy in a Whateley labcoat, instead of his usual camo that he wore when he was running around with the rest of the Grunts.

Well, it was pretty tough to make him look at all nerdy, given that he looked like a hero in a Hollywood action movie.  He was a little over six feet tall, with a decent set of muscles on a medium build.  He was handsome enough to have a lot of deviser girls swooning over him.  He had Scandinavian features under red hair in a well-trimmed crewcut.  And his hair wasn't chestnut red or ginger red, it was blood red, so it looked almost like he'd dyed it that color.  Maybe it was his real hair color: I'd seen far stranger things at Whateley.  Just in the last hour.

He had an assortment of weapons spread across his table, ranging from a couple little things that you could hide in your hand, all the way up to a couple seriously-beefy rifle-things.

He was talking with a big Exemplar-type who seemed to be really trying to be a jerk.  The guy was sneering, "Yeah?  Well I think that havin' to haul around a big gun is some kind'a Freudian thing.  Overcompensation.  And what are you gonna do about it?  Tell your Auntie on me?"  The guy swaggered off, to go be an asshole somewhere else.

I asked, "What was that all about?  'tell your auntie'?"

He grimaced and tilted his head at the departing jerk, "Bearclaw and some of his pals in the dorm like to give me a hard time about my name.  I'm Dale Carson."

I stuck out my hand.  "Ayla Goodkind.  Nice to meet you."

He shook hands like I was normal, instead of a menace to all mutant-kind.  "Yeah, I see you've got a last name like that too.  Scott Emerson's the same way.  People give him grief about owning Emerson Cottage, just like people give me grief about being related to the Headmistress.  Which I'm not.  We just have the same last name.  And it's not even her real last name, since it’s her married name.  I guess you get a lot of that too, because of your last name."

I admitted, "Actually, I get a lot of that because I really am one of the Goodkinds."

"Whoa."  He stared for a second before he said, "Oh.  Sorry."

I shrugged, "It's okay.  I get a lot worse all the time.  Mostly it's just stares and cursing, but I've had fights about it too."

He said, "Yeah, I've heard about that.  I think you and Tennyo have had more fights this term than the entire Ultraviolent list."

I complained, "I think my mutant superpower is the ability to draw in super-powered nutbars who want to get into it at the drop of a hat.  And none of the things with Tennyo were her fault.  We're just trouble magnets or something."

He replied, "Then I guess you really need to be shopping at the Weapons Fair.  I guess you can afford anything you see."

"So show me what you have."

He grinned, "Well, I'm trying to be responsible about this, unlike some people.  So no plasma weapons, and no biological warfare gear.  These rifles are lightning blasters.  Nothing up in the Giga-watt/Tera-watt range, that's not safe on most people.  And you can calibrate them, so you can take out a normal, or crank it up to stop someone like Bearclaw.

"These handguns are tasers.  No permanent damage.  They automatically gauge from the feedback they get how high to crank up the amperage, so they ought to be safe, yet effective, regardless of the target.  They won't take down someone like Sirrush, but they're pretty effective.

"And these little handheld cartridges are 'mace' squirters.  It's not really mace, technically speaking.  They fire a chemical that - on contact with mucus membranes - gets into your system and causes nearly-instant unconsciousness."

"And if there isn't a readily available mucus membrane?" whined a voice I'd already heard more than enough times in that room.  "Or what if there's a stiff breeze, and the downwind mucus membrane is your own?"

Slapdash tried to remain calm.  "Jobe, those really shouldn't be problems.  The stream is pressurized, and the nozzle is designed to make sure the stream remains intact."

But Jobe hassled him about antidote issues, and about the fact that he didn't need to depend on access to mucus membranes if he'd just use one of Jobe's already-patented bio-chemicals.  "Please Slap, try to keep up, or at least not let me lap you so many times…"

Jobe finally strolled off to go aggravate someone else.  Slapdash just glared at his back.

I said, "I think Jobe's only here so that he can piss off every other deviser at Whateley."

Slapdash grinned, "Nah, he's already done that, loads of times.  I think this is his idea of constructive criticism.  Back in Karedonia, he can say whatever he likes, and no one's ever going to complain."

Oh.  Right.  Jobe was technically the Crown Prince of Karedonia, since his father Gizmatic was the king.  He'd probably spent his whole life treating everyone the way that Tansy Walcutt treated bad servants.

I got off that topic.  "So show me the rest of your gear.  What's with the single black glove?  Got a Michael Jackson fetish?"

He laughed, "This is something I just whipped together last week.  The glove's made of a spandex-Insular blend, so it fits tightly but has an extremely high electrical resistance.  The thick layer across the back of the glove?  That's a high-density rechargeable battery pack.  And you see the metal contacts on the tips of the first two fingers?  They're wired to the capacitors that go to the battery.  So it's a touch-taser.  You turn it on at the mini-switch here, and give it at least three seconds to fully charge.  Then you touch your assailant with the tips of your first two fingers."

"Nice."

I bought it.  Not only would it fold up to fit easily in my utility belt, but it might even work when I was heavy or when I was light.  I'd have to try it out on someone.  Maybe Golden Girl in BMA class.  No, I'd go to Bugs and let her check it out with her multi-meter.

Then I'd try it out on Golden Girl, if I needed to.  Knowing her, I'd probably need to before the end of the month.

I rolled up the glove and slipped it into a pocket of my utility belt.  Then I moved to the next table.

The next table was Widget.  I knew who she was.  Chaka had pointed out Thunderbird's entire posse of not-girlfriends, and Widget was one of them.  She'd been chasing Scott for over a year, and Scott still thought of her as a teammate.  All of Scott's not-girlfriends were incredibly pissed at Chaka, who had spotted Scott as the 'boy scout' type and landed him in five minutes, simply by not playing any games and being completely up-front with her interest.  Okay, there was also the fact that Chaka was phenomenally hot, and had all the moves.

Widget was a pretty, blue-eyed blonde.  If she hadn't been at Whateley, and she hadn't been the tomboy type, she could have ruled most high schools.  She could have been the Homecoming Queen at most high schools in America.  Here at Whateley, she wasn't even in the top ten percent.  And since she spent most of her time with her hair up in a ponytail under a bicycle cap, and with her clothes draped haphazardly about her, she was seriously undercutting her chances of getting Scott to notice her.

She was sitting behind her table and looking really unhappy.  The bicycle cap was gone, but the ponytail remained.  Her uniform blouse under her labcoat looked kind of wrinkled, but I doubted that was why she was upset.

I tried, "Hi, Widget.  Are you okay?"

She looked up at me and recognized me.  "Oh!  You're one of Team Kimba, right?  Chaka's group?"

I gave her a smile anyway.  "Yeah.  I'm Phase.  The Goodkind everyone's talking about."

"Oh!"  Her eyes got big.  "I heard about you from Tesla and Jaunt.  Jaunt said you're like the toughest one in her aikido class, and you didn't even have any martial arts before."

I shrugged, "That's not saying much.  No one in that class had any real martial arts skills.  The real tough guys are in sixth period.  Chaka's class."  She frowned at that, as I had expected.  "And Chaka's one of them.  I know you don't like her, but she's a lot more dangerous than she looks.  I saw her take down Lancer and Hippolyta both, with just one of her ki shouts."

Okay, to be technical, I hadn't actually seen it, just experienced it from my room.  Plus, Hank and Hip had been wrestling each other, not Toni, when Toni broke up the brick fight.

She just frowned some more.  I figured it was going to be a long time before Chaka got off her shitlist.

I tried again, "So what's got you so down in the dumps?"

She tilted her head to the next table.

Oh.  It was Greasy.

I muttered, "Him.  Well, I can't blame you."

Greasy looked over, and reacted when he saw me.  He suddenly started rolling up several posters he had lying out on the far side of his display table.  He stuffed all of them into a tall cardboard box behind the table.  I couldn't see it clearly, since it was on the other side of his chair, but it looked just the right size to hold twenty or thirty rolled-up posters, of, say, Nikki.  Undressed.  With those leaves swirling around her.  Why else would he want them off his table when I was about to walk over?

Granted, those were some VERY hot posters.  But this was over the line.  He obviously knew it, since he was hiding those posters away until I was out of sight.

I muttered, "Nikki will be SO thrilled…"

Widget said, "Oh yeah, Fey's on your team too, isn't she?"

I remembered what Toni had told me about her first date with Thunderbird.  So I said, "Yeah.  She's Chaka's roommate.  Which would be a good thing to remember the next time you and your friends decide to play a prank on Chaka.  Powerful mages don't always play nice when stuff happens to their room.  Or their favorite roommate."

She glowered, "So, did you come over here to threaten me, or were you gonna buy something?"

I told her, "I didn't come over to threaten you.  Sorry.  I am in the market for stuff.  Remember?  I'm a Goodkind?"

She shot a nasty glare over in Greasy's direction just for good measure.  Then she started talking about her gear.  She actually had some interesting stuff, for the right buyers.  She had a couple targeting systems, plus some large chunks of hardware designed to hit someone at twenty or thirty yards with a big burst of vertigo, or confusion, depending on which hardware you bought.

I thanked her for talking with me, and I moved over to the next table.

Greasy looked like he could be a normal.  I mean, I'd seen plenty of guys with hair that greasy.  Some of them even did it deliberately.  But Greasy wasn't a normal.  He had GSD.  He secreted some sort of heavy oil from all his pores.  People in the know said it looked like motor oil.  Not that I wanted to find out.  But he was an inventor, so he had this amazingly realistic synthetic skin that he wore over his real skin, to hide the oil secretion.  The only place he couldn't apply the fake skin was apparently his hair.  So his hair not only looked like he had coated it in motor oil, it actually had been coated in something like motor oil.

And, of course, he was selling stuff that only Peeper could love.  He had super-strength condoms for bricks, in nicely-designed round foil packets.  He had nanotechnology sexual lubricant that would also stimulate pleasure centers.  He had robotic mini-cams for snooping.  Some were mounted on little robotic tanks, and a couple were mounted on little robotic spider-structures.

Okay, I bought half a dozen of the brick condoms.  Just in case.  You never know.

I had to wonder if any of the 'spiders' could climb walls like, say, the outside of Poe.  I was going to have to warn some people about that.

Right about the time that Automa-tech strolled over to see if Greasy was up to no good, one of the tank-mounted robo-cams suddenly revved up and began rolling on the floor, all the way around the table.  I watched out of the corner of my eye, and sure enough, it was trying to sneak up behind Automa-tech so it could peek up her skirt.

I 'accidentally' went heavy and stepped on it, just as Greasy was really focusing intently on his computer screen.  It could probably withstand a few pounds of force, but I was over a ton right then, and I put all my weight on it.  It crumpled like aluminum foil.

Before Greasy could stop and check on what went wrong with Robo-Peep, Jobe walked past and started hassling him. "Really, Greasy.  Using nanotechnology in a sexual lubricant?  That's so last decade.  I suppose I shouldn't have expected rational thinking from you.  You'd be much better off using a biochemical approach instead of a nano-tech approach.  The biochemical approach gives you a much cheaper, far more reliable methodology, plus it's easier to replicate, and it's going to be far more stable over time.  Have you even tested what the nanotechnology in this lubricant would do to a person a year after it was purchased?"

"Uhh…  Well…"

Jobe went on, "If you ever decide you want to pay for that kind of test, we have test labs on Karedonia where you'd be able to check that out on human subjects for real-time evaluations."

Holy crow!  Test labs on living people?  Yeesh.  Remind me not to vacation in beautiful tropical Karedonia any time soon.

After Jobe and Automa-tech walked off, I decided I was done.  But I need to deal with those posters, in my own inimitable way.  As I was gathering up my half dozen brick condoms, I deliberately rolled one across the table and onto the floor beside Greasy.  I went light and strode right through the table, despite his frantic gasps.  Then while I was still light, I stood right in the middle of the cardboard box to pick up my condom.  Supposedly, anyway.

I went heavy.  It stung a little bit, but I was only disintegrating a pound or two of paper, so it wasn't bad.  On the other hand, I left little more than a couple handfuls of shredded paper and cardboard behind.

I picked up the condom and said, "Oops!  Sorry.  Those weren't anything important, were they?"  I knew perfectly well he didn't dare admit what was in that box.

He winced, "Uh, no, they were.. just paper…"

I looked over, and Widget was giving me a big thumbs-up sign.  I smiled at her and moved on.

The next table had two - count 'em, two - devisers behind it.  The wood placards said "Flashbang" and "Tinkertrain".  Behind the table were two nerd-girls.  On the table were a dozen massive, nasty-looking weapons.

With a name like Flashbang and a pile of evil weapons, I could guess how she devoted her time.  But the other girl?  The only 'Tinkertrain' ref I could think of was a horrific Ozzy Osbourne song about a pedophile preying on little girls.  I didn't even want to think about what in a girl's past would make her name herself Tinkertrain.

And Jobe was already there, harassing them about a massive rifle-like thing that looked like it fired a burst of some sort of liquid.  "Really Flash.  Does everything in the world have to turn out to be a BFG you can't carry around without attracting the attention of the FBI, the MCO, and the Empire City Guard?  You're going about this all wrong!"

The other girl beside Flashbang squeaked, "But you have to do something about people with body armor…"

Jobe just sighed and looked heaven-ward, as if his patience were being tested unfairly.  "Tinkie, honestly!  What's the point of a one-shot devise to dissolve body armor?  No no no, try to keep up here.  At least try not to lag so far behind.  A simple prion system would be a lot more portable.  Plus, it would give you scores of shots, since you're unlikely to run into just one idiot in body armor.  Also, it would be far more reproducible.  It would require immensely less energy, and it would be much cheaper to produce.  This?  This is just a travesty!"

He stormed off.  Well, he left as dramatically as possible for a short, nerdy dork with no style.

Before I could ask Flashbang and Tinkertrain what their mammoth weapons were supposed to do, a big goon was already pawing over their stuff.  The guy looked like he ought to have a sign on his shirt that said 'Future Henchman, for sale cheap'.  He picked up the nastiest-looking weapon and said, "What does this one do?"

Tinkertrain smiled excitedly, "That's my latest plasma sphere launcher."

"Wow!  Have you tested it out yet?"

Flashbang frowned, "Well, we would've gotten that one tested last week, but Mister Mahren wouldn't let us fire it off at the range."

"Wait.  He wouldn't let you FIRE it?"

"Well…  He said the plasma balls wouldn't go straight and would target random objects including us, but.."

"INCLUDING THE GUY WITH THE GUN?!?  No thanks!"

"Hey wait, it's not that bad!  Really!  Come back…"

"I told you not to tell people about that, Flash."

I took that as a sign that I wasn't interested in their products.  Not that I had much use for weapons that were nearly the size of Jade.

At the next table was Hazmat.  With a name like that, I already knew he had to be a chem-geek.  He had nicely-arranged rows of bottles on his table, with pricesheets and information packets.  He had one-ounce bottles full of opaque white goo, bottles the size of a soft drink can that were full of clear gels, and quart bottles that were full of a glowing yellow liquid.

He was busy trying to make a sale to a girl.  The girl was yet another nerdy, labcoat-clad tech-type.  She had stringy brown hair in a hideous haircut.  It wasn't until I heard her slight but noticeable German accent that I realized I knew who she was.  It was Wunderkind, who I'd seen with the Berets.  Dynamaxx had introduced us once, but I had seen her face-on that time, so I hadn't realized how awful her hairstyle looked from behind.

Hazmat was saying, "Look, it's simple, you pour this onto your hair and let it soak in for at least an hour.  Then presto!  You have perfect hair that any Exemplar would envy.  And the longer you leave it, the more it replicates the proteins, so your hair gets longer and shinier and thicker, and more split-ends get sealed off, and everything!"

Wunderkind thought for a second as she ran her fingers through her ratty hair, "And how do I style my hair if I use this?"

"Uhh…  Style?  It's just hair.  You'll have long, straight, really shiny hair."

She insisted, "I was thinking about something very curly.  And bouncy."

He started to look worried.  "Uhh…  Curly?  Bouncy?  I don't think that's a good idea with this…"

Another guy - one I didn't know - strolled up and interrupted, "Hey Hazmat, how's that wig working out?  Anybody spot it yet?"

Wunderkind turned and stared at the new guy.  "Wig?  What are you talking about?"

Right about then, Hazmat started frantically giving the guy the throat-cutting 'shut up' gesture.

The guy blithely said, "Oh, he burned all his hair off last week trying some stupid chem experiment out on himself…"

She shrieked, "HE BURNED ALL HIS HAIR OFF?!?!"  She rushed off as fast as she could.

Hazmat called after her, "Wait!  I got the bugs out of the proteinase oxidants!  Really!"  He thought for a second and added, "I'm pretty sure of it!"  But she was gone.  He just turned and glared at the guy.

The guy just looked confused.  "What'd I do, Haz?"

Through gritted teeth, Hazmat growled, "I'll show you tomorrow.  When you're showering."

I moved on to the next table.

The placard said "The Stratosphere Siblings".  There were twin boys sitting behind the table.  But the girl standing in front of the table, who was giving it to them with both barrels, was obviously a relative.  She looked so much like them I had to suspect she was their sister.  She was sure chewing on them like an older sister, even if she looked a year or so younger than the twins did.  Of course, around Whateley, that didn't mean much.  For all I knew, she was four years older, but had a weird BIT.

The boy on the left groaned, "Oh come on, Terri, it didn't blow up on our test run."

The girl snapped, "Tommy!  You know perfectly well you didn't do a full test!  You checked it out in the basement!  It's a rocket pack!  You need a full-fledged test in an open area, with a simulated human body for weight and balance.  And it'll BLOW UP under that much stress!  I know it!"

The other boy whined, "But we already built it, and brought it with us, and everything!"

The girl glared at him, "Look Nate, that's not an excuse!  You know mom's rules!  I have to look over all plans before you build the gadget, and I have to check over all gadgets before you test them out!  Do you want me to tell mom about this one?"

The boys groaned in unison, "No, Terri."

"Well then?"  She crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently.

The twins reluctantly took the rocket pack off the table and hid it underneath.

"That's better.  Now.  Do I need to check over the rest of the gear?"

Both boys groaned, "Yes, you do."

While the girl started going over the rocket propulsion gear and the weapon arrays, I moved on to the next table.

Automa-tech was standing there in front of the table, arguing with Unicorn.  The placard read "Hydroflux", and a plain girl in a well-cut Whateley uniform sat there, smiling at the interplay.  The table was covered in plumbing hardware and pieces that looked like the high-end stuff from a "Bed Bath and Beyond" catalog.

Unicorn was pointing at a weird-looking thing that appeared to be a programmable dual hi-lo showerhead arrangement, with a connector and valve so that it could switch off with a normal showerhead.  She insisted, "Are you kidding? This is worth its weight in GOLD!"

Automa-tech snapped, "It is worth its weight in diamonds!"

Unicorn snapped, "Twenty K."

Automa-tech offered, "Thirty thousand.  Euros."

Unicorn glared at the girl and snapped, "Eighty K.  Take it or leave it."

Automa-tech complained, "I cannot get that much together until after Christmas holidays."

Hydroflux just grinned, "Sold!  To the soon-to-be-extremely-happy Unicorn!"

I stepped in and whispered to Unicorn, "Is that what I think it is?"

She nodded, "Mm-hmm" with a look in her eyes that ordinarily I would have associated with her hearing that Pendragon wanted to ask her out on a date.  She added, "Hydro is a plumbing GODDESS!"

The light bulb finally went on.

Unicorn wrote Hydroflux a check and walked off with her prize.  Automa-tech ushered her to the door, pleading with her for some kind of sharing arrangement.

I stepped in front of the table.  "Hydroflux?  How much for three of them?"

She stared at me in confusion.  "Aren't you Ayla Goodkind?"

"Yeah…"

She insisted, "You don't even have what this is designed for."

I grinned, "That's what I figured.  I wanted to buy a nice surprise for the girls on my floor in Poe."

She stopped and got lost in Deviser-Land.  "Hmm, Poe…  Probably has inadequate water pressure, and not enough temperature control, so you'd want in-line temperature adjusters, and stand-alone pressure boosters…  Probably need to adjust the mineral content of the water…  Let me see…  Okay, I've got some other commitments, but I could have three for you by late January.  For, let's say, $80,000 I'll even install them with all the other hardware, and do a demo for the girls on your floor so they'll know how to use them."

I pulled out my checkbook.  "Sold.  And get Riptide to show you her upright jacuzzi technique.  If you can figure out a widget to replicate that, you'll have more business than you know what to do with."

She smiled naughtily, "I'll have to see what she does, but I've probably already got one."

The last table in the row was Wunderkind's.  It was pretty obvious that she was interested in forcefields.  She had two Personal Forcefield Generators for sale, along with two massive table-top models that each looked like they weighed a couple hundred pounds.  And then there was a set-up that looked like a power harness that clearly went with a small plastic case the size of a derby hat.

I switched to German, since that was her native language.  "Good day, Wunderkind.  How are you doing?"

She smiled, "I am doing fine.  I have sold one PFG, and I have a customer who may come back and buy one."

I pointed at the mammoth generators.  "And what are these for?  Surely they are too large to be for a person."

She smiled, "Oh no, these are for larger systems, and they require significantly more power.  But let us say that you have a vehicle you wish to use as your transportation.  Let us say, something the size of an American SUV.  And suppose that it has an internal power generation system appropriate for a superhero's vehicle.  Then you could use this as a forcefield generator for the entire automobile."

Hmm.  I could think of several uses for that, once I actually had a car of my own.  Even if I wasn't playing Batman all day, I could see a real advantage to having a Rolls Royce which couldn't be dented by some nearby drunk driver, and which couldn't be keyed by angry thugs, and which couldn't be entered by car thieves.

I told her, "I really like that idea.  I will want one of them when I am old enough to drive."

She smiled, "Very good!  Then you might also want one of these."  She pointed at the harness-cum-headpiece.  "It is a forcefield generation system designed to protect you from psychic influence."

Just then, a big, musclebound dimwit cut in.  "Hey Frenchie, how's about ya speaka dee Eenglish?  This is America, ya know."

She gave him an icy glare.

He obviously couldn't see why.  I mean, doesn't everyone love being told that their language is crap?  And doesn't every German love being mistaken for a Frenchman?

She said in perfect, hardly-accented English, "Yes?  What is it that you want?"

He pushed, "Triaxial said you had a thing to block Psis.  I need that."

"Oh!"  She suddenly became a lot less icy when presented with a possible big sale.  "I have just the thing you want.  It is a forcefield system, but the battery power, the generation system, and the phase-intergrid manipulator are all hidden in this harness, which weighs a mere twenty pounds.  It has a scrambled wireless link to the actual headpiece, which is quite small.  You see…"

And she opened up the plastic dome to reveal a sparkly metal semicircle encrusted with fake diamonds.

The guy stared at it, utterly aghast.

She demonstrated, "Look, it works like this.  See?  You stand there.  You say, 'Yes, that's right, everyone knows I'm weak to psi.  Now hold on one second, while I put on this obviously harmless tiara.'  And then…"

He growled, "It's a fuckin' tiara!  I ain't wearin' no fuckin' tiara!"

I stepped away before I laughed out loud and made the big goon get madder.

I noticed that Delta Spike was at the table behind Wunderkind, and Spark had the table next to Delta's.  I'd have to go see both of them and check out their wares.  But first I went back around to see how Möbius was doing.

He grinned up at me, "We've sold four utility belts so far!  Two small, and two large.  We cleared twenty-six thousand dollars, just on the belts!  Twenty-nine thousand, including the storage containers."

I grinned, "You mean YOU cleared twenty-nine K."

He insisted, "Nuh-uh!  We made a deal, and I'm holding you to it.  As my agent, you have to take fifteen percent.  That's $4350.  And if you don't take it, I'll lower my prices."

I laughed, "Okay, you drive a hard bargain.  You win."

But he had sold four of the belts so far, when faced with a very limited audience.  There had to be a way to market his stuff to every prospective Batman wannabe out there.  The only problem was that the best person to ask was probably Headmistress Carson, and she wouldn't want to see my face any time soon.  Not to mention that her personal Cerberus, that bitch Hartford, would never let me have an appointment with Carson if it might be for something that could be good for me.

I walked back to the last row, and I started on the left end of the row of tables.  For some reason, the organizers had put Delta Spike in the back left corner.  I had to wonder if that was deliberate.  They had put Harvey in a corner, presumably to control him in case he 'dricked out or something.  They had put Belphegor in the other front corner, and they had certainly needed to deal with him.  So, were the two back corners indicative of other potential problems?

I'd seen Dee-Ess around Poe a number of times, since she lived only one floor up from us.  She was Mega-Girl's roomie Elaine, so I knew that normally she was a hot brunette Exemplar-slash-Energizer.  And one of us changelings.  I'd even seen her doing the 'Cape Squad' thing with Megs once or twice.  Delta was pretty hot stuff in spandex.  Very curvy, with great legs.  And she went for the whole superheroine package, including high-heeled boots and a flowing cape that covered the energizer harness she wore to spike up her strength and Energizer abilities.

I had once overheard Pendragon having a private discussion with Iron Star in the hall outside our World Lit class.  They had been talking about a number of people who wanted into the Cape Squad, and most of them were people that the Capes desperately wanted to keep out.  So I knew that Delta Spike was one of the people trying to get into the Cape Squad - one of the ones they DIDN'T want to deal with, like Winter of the Bad Seeds, and that dickhead Bravo.  Well, Delta did have a rep - even around Poe - as kind of a flake.

This time, she wasn't wearing a tight school uniform, or her Cape Squad super-suit, or the cropped top and skater skirt I'd seen her wearing around Poe.  She had on a shapeless labcoat to hide her curves, and absolutely hideous glasses.  She had her long hair up in a nerdy bun from the Amelia Hartford School Of Hairdressing.  I figured that she was trying to come across as a skilled devisor.  In my opinion, she would have drawn much bigger crowds if she had worn her super-suit instead.  The market in here was mostly male, and largely nerdy.  And even the non-deviser guys like me would have been hanging around watching her do demos of her gear, if she had been wearing just her super-suit.

As I strolled up, Dee-Ess was in the middle of a demo.  I could tell by the way she was leaning forward and getting louder that she was giving it the old hard sell.  The two people watching her were taking different tacks.  The guy was leaning forward with interest.  The girl was standing there with her arms crossed, already preparing to say 'no'.

The guy asked, "Can it take more power than that?"

She grinned, "Well sure it can!  Let's just crank it up another couple notches, and you'll see that it'll stand up to a…"

ZZZAAAPPPP!

Right then was when the blinding flash occurred.  A vicious arc of blue-tinged lightning jumped from the devise to Delta Spike, hitting her square in the chest.  And I do mean 'square'.  It had to have interacted in some way with her power harness, because there was an unmistakable rectangle of points burning their way right through her labcoat, which wasn't supposed to happen with Whateley labcoats.  Arcing lines from shoulder to shoulder, from hipbone to hipbone, and down both sides, traced out what had to be structural parts of her harness.  And then another arc of lightning leapt from her body, split in mid-air, and hit two more of her devises on her table.

The guy and the girl dove for cover.  I went heavy, and moved right for the gear on her table.  The sooner I disabled the demo widget, the sooner its feedback with Delta would stop.

Someone behind me - someone who sounded like Automa-tech - screeched, "DELTA!  Not again!!"

I stepped forward, and walked right into a force field.  Wunderkind had her personal forcefield generator going, and she'd activated one of her big desktop models too.  While her big field was protecting her, it was also keeping me from getting to Delta Spike.  I started to detour around, and I realized that everyone in the vicinity was putting up force fields.

A guy yelled, "Oh shit, is it one of her galvanomorphs?"

BOOM!

One of her demo units exploded, sending shrapnel everywhere.  Fortunately, almost all of the shrapnel hit force fields.

"Ow!  Maybe not."

Okay, not enough of the shrapnel was hitting force fields.  Several pieces of plastic and metal had pinged off me too.  If I hadn't been heavy, I would have been in real pain right then.

"Oh God, it's Explosion Queen at it again!"

And then Pyrs was there, only a couple yards from me, scooping up the girl who had been watching Delta's demo.  He turned, so his massive body was shielding the girl.  As soon as she was upright and screened from flying debris, she ran like Nephandus was asking her for a date.

I looked around.  Wunderkind's force fields were screening the front of Delta's table.  Several other force fields were blocking other angles.  All we had to do was move a couple forcefield generators so that the room was screened, while a narrow corridor was left for me to squeeze through.  Then I could get in there and shut stuff down.

I yelled out, "Hey Pyrs!  I've got a plan!"

Of course, that was when everything went to hell.

The whirlwind of arcing, jagged energy bolts around Delta suddenly spiked.  Jagged lightning arced to Wunderkind's forcefields, making them go insane.  Wunderkind grabbed the controls on her table and began frantically adjusting, trying to keep her big forcefield stable.  But the field was rapidly turning into the same kind of jagged arcs of energy that were tearing Delta Spike's table apart.

Someone screamed, "Wundy!  Forget it!  Your field's getting heterodyned into Dee-Ess's!  Get out of there!"

But there was no way for her to get out, because her personal forcefield was getting caught up in it too.  I stepped over and hammered on it, trying to get to her, but the combined fields were too damned strong.  The jagged energy that coursed over my hands wasn't too fun, either.

The energy build-up suddenly arced in the other direction, going sideways to the next table in Delta's row.  Which was Spark's table.  The energy instantly attacked her forcefield.  The field immediately went chaotic.

I shouted, "Pyrs!" and pointed at the arcing nightmare.  All we needed was for a chain reaction to sweep through the entire room.

Pyrs quickly moved to Spark's forcefield, just as it started going postal.  He pounded on the field, but couldn't get through.  The field erupted in another spike of lightning that headed for the forcefield generator on Juryrig's table.

Pyrs then did something that was either incredibly clever, or incredibly stupid.  He cut into the jagged lightning bolts with his massive body.  That gave Juryrig enough time to pull the plug on her own forcefield, and get her gear out of there.  Since Juryrig was in a powered wheelchair, she abruptly flew around her table and away from Delta's energy maelstrom.

The lightning bolts dropped Pyrs like he'd been sucker-punched.  By Champion.  He fell over backward, landing right on the end of Juryrig's display table.  The table flipped over, flinging possibly-dangerous devises all over the place.

Crap.  Thank God it wasn't Tinkertrain and Flashbang's table.

I decided it was desperation time.  I reached into my second-from-right pocket and pulled out MD's one-shot forcefield scrambler.  I had no idea if this was going to work, or fizzle out, or blow me across the room in a huge fireball.  I slapped it against Wunderkind's insanely-arcing forcefield and activated the devise.

There was a sizzling flash of power, and both of Wunderkind's forcefields collapsed.  Wow, that worked WAY better than I had expected.  I helped Wundy grab an armload of gear and scramble to safer territory.

But we still had a major problem with the energy maelstrom arcing all around Delta's table.  The energy build-up was next to impossible to get through.

Mal's voice echoed across the room.  "Phase!  Duck!"

I did.  And a beam of red laser light hit Delta Spike's energy vortex, only to spread out like a squirt gun blast hitting a windshield.  I couldn't tell if the invisible laser beam did anything useful.

A girl's voice yelled "Stay down!"

And a green cylinder of light blasted past me to charge into the energy build-up.  The vortex of energy pulsed, and suddenly increased in power.

Someone else yelled, "Oh thanks a fuckin' heap, Tink!"

Tinkertrain hollered back, "Hey!  At least I tried something!"

I shouldn't have emptied my utility belt.  I should have worn it, and worn my backup utility belt over it as my shopping bag.  I didn't have any of my toys to try out.  The energy vortex seemed to be resistant to energy weapons, but one good super-dense steel ball into the devise would probably bring it to a screeching halt.  Unless the steel ball would have gotten caught up in the electro-magnetic effects and made things more dangerous.

A couple more people tried their energy weapons too.  Some of them had no visible effect, while another one made the maelstrom grow larger.

Crap.  I was going to have to try to wade through that energy vortex to get to that devise.

Suddenly I realized that the most annoying voice on campus was talking to me.  Jobe had ignored the damage and the threats, and had walked up behind me.

He calmly said, "Phase, if you would density-change to your heaviest form and walk into that, and provide me with a screen so I can get closer?"

I did, even if I was worried, because this dork had no armor, no PK field, no Exemplar protection, nothing.  He could get hurt.

I strode forward, with Jobe so close behind me that I kept expecting him to start copping a feel of my butt.

One step.  It was like stepping into one of Golden Girl's energy blasts.

Next step.  The pain increased.  The difficulty increased.  It was like walking through one of Prism's energy beams.  While trying to push Phobos out of the way.

One more step.  It was hurting even more.  I wasn't sure I could keep going much further.

"This is close enough."  Suddenly I realized that he was sticking both his hands out around me, into the energy maelstrom.  Was he nuts?

I saw as he flexed his right hand, and some sort of dart fired off from his sleeve.  The dart hit Delta Spike right in the chest, in the 'V' of the labcoat.

He flexed his left hand, and a different-color dart fired off from that sleeve, to impact right in the middle of the flaring electrical devise.

Delta wobbled, and fell over backward.

The devise made a series of popping noises and began to sizzle.  The electrical build-up faded away.  The energy vortex vanished.

Jobe blithely said, "She'll be out for an hour from the drug, and she'll have a headache when she wakes up.  Take care of that, would ya, doll?"  And he just strolled off and left, like he'd swatted a fly.

Crap!  That guy was fucking DANGEROUS.  Why didn't everyone else realize that?

And he'd called me 'doll'.  Crap again!  Sometimes I really, really hated my body.

Triaxial, using some sort of PA system, announced to the whole room, "Okay everybody, Fair's over.  Let's gather up our gear and clear out before Security shows up!"

Triaxial started going around, making sure everyone was getting packed up and out the door.  Apparently, Automa-tech was running interference out in the corridor.  I had no idea what she was doing to delay or distract Security.  I didn't think I wanted to know, since that might make me an accessory after the fact.

At least the Wild Pack hadn't been alerted, or half of them would already be here.  I knew that Stonebear could teleport, and Stormwolf was only slightly slower than a full-fledged speedster.

I heard someone grumble, "At least Glitch wasn't here making things worse."

Once I was sure that everything was under control, I went back to the front row. 

Mega-death was busy packing his gear into a weird-looking octopoid robot that had apparently been lurking under his table.

I interrupted him, "Hey Harvey!  Your forcefield scrambler worked like a dream.  Here's a check for the one I used, and the other one you've got.  I'm hoping no one bought it yet.  And I'll take two more, whenever you get them built."

He broke into a wide grin that transformed his long face into an almost-handsome appearance.  "Hey, Phase.  I was happy with just not 'dricking out when the shit hit the fan!  This is great!  Thanks!  Thanks a ton!  I owe you one!"

I didn't feel like he owed me anything.  It was his devise that had done the trick.  His devise, and Jobe's bio-darts, whatever the hell they were.

Then I went around and helped people gather up their stuff so they could get out.  I was particularly concerned about Möbius and Jericho and Bugs.

Actually, it turned out that Möbius didn't need any help at all.  As I should have known.  He opened up his freaky M.C. Escher diagonal pocket on his vest, dropped all his remaining utility belts in, plus the storage containers and the pricesheet, and then slid the entire wooden nameplate in afterward.  He gave me a fake salute and strolled out.

Next, I made sure that Jericho was all set, and that he would talk with me about marketing some of his other gadgets.  He handed me a small plastic bag with my two already-purchased emergency kits in it.  I had forgotten all about them.

After that, I helped Bunny get all her eggs and stuff bundled up.  Everyone else was hurrying as fast as they could.  I wasn't especially worried about getting caught by Security.  After all, all I had to do was phase through the nearest wall or the floor.

When Bugs was all set with her rolling cart of her gear, I slung Delta Spike's unconscious form over one shoulder, draped a bag holding a couple hundred pounds of her utterly-trashed gear over my other shoulder, and walked Bugs back to Poe.

Bugs was chattering away, "What is it with big dumb guys and how their anti-missile devises are supposed to look?  I mean, the egg is the perfect protective carapace.  And those rhinestones not only provided a control system, but also a really sophisticated sensor grid!"

I didn't say anything, but I wouldn't have bought a pastel pink egg decorated with rhinestones either.

We caught up with some other Weapons Fair participants trudging down the hallway, and we just walked along behind them.  It was pretty interesting, just listening to them gripe.  Apparently, something like Delta Spike's explosions happened during every Weapons Fair, and usually forced an abrupt and unwelcome ending, with people running for cover and corollary damage all over the place. 

One guy grouched, "At least this year, no one got seriously hurt.  And hardly any property was destroyed, except the gear at the tables on either side of Dee-Ess…"

Wunderkind was complaining to her friend, "And my newest personal forcefield generator!  Completely trashed!  I admit, some other people's PFGs too..."

An older 'voice of reason' type said, "Could've been worse.  Last year it was Mega-death's force field defragmenter.  He had this devise to repair and strengthen force fields without taking them down first.  But Glitch walked into the room, and MD's devise went off.  The defragmenter made every force field generator in the room overload and heterodyne.  We were lucky we could get out of there before everything exploded."

Someone ahead of them crowed, "Oh, that's nothing!  The year before that, it was Wingnut's robotic chessplayer-slash-bodyguard that went Westworld on him.  That was nasty.  He was in the hospital for three weeks.  And the year before that, it was Propaedeutic's 'learning machine' devise that over-learned and tried to take on the properties of every devise and gadget at the fair.  Including all the weapon arrays and a targeting system!  It took Security and the entire Cape Squad to put it down.  Put about a dozen people in the hospital too."

Great.  I could hardly wait for next year.

"Oh, and I heard that the year before that one, …"

Holy crow.  No wonder Security hated these Weapons Fairs.

Bunny and I had to take an elevator up to the surface and then hike to Poe.  Her rolling cart just purred as it ran under its own power, rolling alongside her like a well-trained pet.  I was still heavy, so lugging Delta and all her junk wasn't a major problem.

When we got to Poe, I was going to carry Bunny's cart up the stairs to our floor.  But she whipped out a remote control, pressed a couple buttons, and it levitated.  It floated up the stairs and off to her room, as she steered it from her keypad.

Man, the Daleks need to take lessons from Bunny.

Scratch that.  We needed to make sure that the Daleks didn't take lessons from Bunny.

I lugged DS and her gear up another floor, to what we laughingly called 'Damnation Alley'.  Hippolyta got right in my face before I could even get to Delta's door.  Okay, with Hip rampaging around, Damnation Alley was probably a pretty good name for it.

"What did you do to her?"

I looked her right in the eye, which wasn't that easy when she was a good foot taller than I was.  "Doggone it, Hip!  You know perfectly well I never start anything around here!  She blew up the Weapons Fair!  I could've left her there for Security to find, but I lugged her and all her crap all the way up here, just to be nice!"

Someone stuck her head out into the hallway and said, "Elaine blew up the Weapons Fair this year?  Great.  I'll be getting shit from my training team for WEEKS over this."

I knocked on Marty's door.  She was in her Mega-Girl super-suit.  As always.  Did she shower in it?

Ooh.  Showers with Mega-Girl and Delta Spike.  That would be hot.

She took one look at DS and gasped, "Oh no.  What happened this time?"

By then, there was a good-sized crowd hanging around.  I told her, "Delta was demo'ing some gear at the Weapons Fair, and it did something freaky with her body, and suddenly there was this feedback loop that sucked in all the force field generators within several yards.  And you KNOW that at the Weapons Fair, there's a wonky force field gadget every three feet.  So suddenly a big chunk of the room was Insane Forcefields 'R' Us.  A bunch of us managed to get it contained.  Jobe darted her and her gear, and everything stopped."

Suddenly most of the crowd blanched.

"Jobe?"

"Jobe Wilkins darted her?  With WHAT?"

"Oh fuck, what if she's contagious?"

"Where's my TheraFlu?"

"I'm outta here!"

"I think I need to go to the clinic!"

I insisted, "It's just a knockout drug!  He said she'd be out for an hour, and then just have a headache!"  But by then, two-thirds of the crowd had run away.

One frightened guy stared at me with horrified eyes, "But what if he LIED?"

Man, that nerd had a killer rep.

I told Megs, "Dee-Ess is going to have a big headache when she wakes up.  And all her gear is fried."  I held up the big bag of hardware.  "But other than that…"

Megs sighed, "Poor Elaine.  And she was so hoping to make some big sales.  Her breakage fees in Workshop have been really high this term…"

Yeah.  I could guess why.

Hip tersely pointed, "Just put her on the bed.  She'll be fine."  And Hip marched out.

I walked back toward the stairs.  Electrode stood in her doorway and asked me, "Delta?"  I nodded.  She just glared down the hall, "Serves her right."  Then Electrode turned back into her room and slammed the door.

Man, what was that all about?  Weren't the changelings supposed to stick together?  I was going to have to ask someone what the deal was with the two of them.

I walked down to our floor and knocked on Jade's door.  Tennyo opened it.  She was floating horizontally, about four feet off the ground.

I said, "What's up?  Usually the J-Team gets the door."

But the J-Team was hardly to be found.  Jade was lying on her bed reading a comic book and looking exhausted.

Billie said, "Jade was really tired, so I made her stay home instead of going to work."

I asked, "Isn't that kind of unusual?  She's usually pretty persistent about earning more money."

Jade admitted, "Okay, so I pulled a fast one on Stan and Morrie.  I charged Jann into the skin-pours, and sent her off as me."  She shrugged, "It's still two people doing full-time jobs, so it's not like I'm cheating."

I told her, "Everyone needs some time off.  You don't have to kill yourself to pay off all your debts, you know.  You can always come to me for help."

"Gee, thanks!" she beamed, and she climbed off the bed to give me a big hug.  Sometimes, being around Jade was like having a little sister.  A wacky little sister.

I added, "And, in the spirit of giving, but mostly to get more hugs from cute girls…"  She gave me a huge smile at that.  "…ta-da!"

I reached into my utility belt and pulled out the Cobra loads.  "Tangle-web shots for your Cobra."

She held them in her hands and marveled over them.  "Wow!  These are really expensive!  How much do I owe you for them?"

"Zero.  Think of them as the beta-test version.  Compiler - you know, Chaka's Hawthorne buddy Babs - has a new system for making them.  If they work as well as the usual ones, just go to her for tangle-web loads from now on.

"Oh, thanks!  Thanks a ton!"

Tennyo teased, "What, don't I get a present too?"

I smiled, "Sorry, but no one was selling a superpowers-dial-down-to-safe-levels devise."

She grinned and stuck out her tongue at me.

Man, we are one seriously mature team.  Okay, so I stuck my tongue out too.

And then I hardly had a chance to unload my utility belt goodies into my desk drawer before Chaka was dragging me off to detention at Hawthorne.  It was our last day.  Or perhaps I ought to say that it was our last day this time.  Based on how the term had gone, I was betting that we'd be back here doing detention before the end of the year.

Mrs. Cantrel sent me off to The Foob, as usual.  We played chess - okay, he beat the snot out of me at chess - while we talked.  He pointed out that I 'felt' a lot better since Friday, and I sounded a lot better too.

After an hour or so, he faded out a bit, then told me, "Mrs. Cantrel would like you to go help Static Girl with her homework.  But remember, Phase.  You can come back here and 'play chess with me' anytime you want to.  Got it?"

I smiled, "Thanks, Louis.  Thanks a lot."  I had a sudden impulse to give him a hug.  I knew it was stupid, when he wasn't really there, and the real him was a horrible monstrosity living under water.

He just smiled at me.  You know, that mind-reading bit gets really old, really fast.

Then I went up to see Claire.  After I discharged things for her, I helped her with more algebra.  But after maybe half an hour, Mrs. Cantrel told me to go check on Puppet.  Claire cautiously asked me if I would come back and 'help her with math' when I could.

Puppet was just fine, but she really wanted to talk with me.  And, after little more than a half hour, Mrs. Cantrel was scooting me off to see Diz.

Puppet quietly asked me not to forget her.  I smiled, "How can I forget my own cousin?"

Then I hardly had time for half a Scrabble game before Mrs. Cantrel was shooing me out of Hawthorne.  When it was my turn, and I was about to move into the lead!  Diz gave me the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes as she asked me to come back for Scrabble rematches.

I'll bet Jade's been giving her lessons.

I noticed by the hall clock that Mrs. Cantrel was sending me on my way about ten minutes early, for some reason.  How suspicious…

I walked out of Hawthorne.  Chief Delarose just HAPPENED to be loitering in the vicinity.

"Chief, why what a surprise!" I said, with enough sarcasm that he knew I wasn't surprised at all.

He smiled, "Phase.  Let me walk you back to Poe."

I gave him my best Blanche Dubois.  "Ahh have always depended upon the kahndness of strangers…"

He gave me a grin.  "From what I heard, several strangers were depending on you today."

I shrugged.  It was way too early in the discussion to incriminate myself.. or anyone else.

"I'm not the enemy, Phase."

I nodded, "Oh, I know that.  But you ought to know that I do have enemies, some of whom have access to Whateley Security reports."

"Still worried about the Yama Dojo?"

I grinned, "No, I think I have a lot of enemies a lot closer to home that I need to worry about first."

He smiled, "Aren't you over-reacting just a bit?  After all, it's not like your sparring partners on campus are reading the Security reports on you."

I gave him a glare.  "I beg to disagree.  I know that Hartford has access to all the Security reports, and she's already demonstrated that she's out to get me.  I know that Cavalier has access to every single Security report, and the Alphas are definitely still pissed at me.  Nex apparently has ways of getting through your systems to steal any reports he wants, and Tansy Walcutt has paid him off to do just tha…"

"Whoa!  Wait a minute!  Can you prove that?"

I admitted, "Probably not.  But you do know that Tansy vampired Jinn Sinclair right out of her costume, right?"

He nodded.  "We have her on tape confessing to the whole thing.  Apparently, you guys scared the crap out of her."

I nodded.  I knew better, but there was no way I was going to tell Delarose that it was actually Jinn, hijacking Tansy's body.  "Anyway, while Jinn was a prisoner inside Tansy, Jinn observed the hire, and the exchange.  I doubt any of that is going to be considered evidentiary.  But Tansy Walcutt has been a personal enemy of mine and my younger brother's since I was in second grade.  And Nex certainly has it in for most of Team Kimba now.  Not to mention that whoever is involved with that avatar-jacking scheme is likely to have Team Kimba marked down on their to-do list."

He looked really grim about that one.  "We're not discussing that one.  The Wild Pack gave me a full debrief from your meeting.  But we're playing that one as close to the vest as possible.  If you come up with any new intel on that one, come in to talk to me privately.  Or go right to Carson.  Don't discuss it in the open, and don't discuss it except in clean rooms."

"Gotcha.  But I think you'll have to agree with me that there are people on this campus who would love to get new data on me, and who already have access to Security reports in one way or another."

He just said, "Phase, you have to remember something.  I am not your enemy.  The Headmistress is not your enemy.  You kids are pretty hot, but you're not the Empire City Guard!  You need to get help from the people who are here to help you."

I admitted, "You might be talking to the only member of TK who would listen to you on this point.  When those idiots tried to sacrifice Sara, who went and got appropriate backup?  Me."

He looked at me.  "Still, you don't exactly have a sterling record of working through channels to resolve problems.  Ninja Night?  Fights with bullies?  Aries and the Alpha hit squad?  Boston?  Fi…"

"Don't say it.  I've seen Fireball.  She doesn't even call herself Fireball anymore.  Now she's going by Tisiphone.  Get the Greek mythology ref?  At least she's up-front about it.  She's spending her every spare moment now trying to figure out a way to do to me what I did to her.  And you know the worst part?"

He asked, "What?"

I admitted, "The worst part is I deserve it.  I totally ruined her life.  She was a hot Exemplar babe, and now she can't even get Faction 3 guys to hang with her.  Before, she had some mental problems, but she was on meds.  Now, she's a freaking insane demon.  How can she possibly forgive me for that?"

He said, "She won't.  Not as long as she's mentally unbalanced.  The person who needs to forgive you is YOU.  She was trying to permanently scar you.  Or worse.  All you did was knock her out.  That's ALL you did.  You didn't even bruise her.  You tried to talk her out of it.  You did the absolute minimum to get safely out of the situation.  Everything else that happened?  There's no way you could've known that would happen."

"I've heard that before.  A lot.  I'll let you know when my subconscious finally buys into it."

He shifted his stance, and suddenly he looked a LOT more dangerous.  His stance was like some of the top ex-mil Goodkind Security guys I'd ever met.  Maybe there was a hell of a lot more to Chief Delarose than I knew.  Maybe I needed to look into this.

He said, "We both know that you can take Tisiphone.  What concerns me is that you might refuse to defend yourself because of what happened.  Do not do that.  Treat her as a serious threat.  Don't do the disruption-phase attack on her unless you absolutely have to, but anything else goes."

I thought about that for a second.  "Thanks.  But I doubt she's the only person looking for a piece of me."

He admitted, "No, she isn't.  But Security got to a couple of the campus gunslingers before they had a chance to go after the new sheriff in town, and we showed them what you did to Fireball.  I think we put the fear of God into most of them."

"I appreciate that.  Really.  But who's not listening to you?"

He thought it over for a few moments before he made up his mind to tell me.  He admitted, "You might keep an eye out for Counterpoint.  He's a high-level power mimic.  And Powerhouse.  He's a brick.  He likes to take down people he thinks are getting too big for their britches."

By then we were back at Poe.  I said, "Thanks for your support, Chief.  Maybe this week I can have a nice, peaceful high school experience."

He actually smiled.  "Did any of us have nice, peaceful high school experiences?  I think that's a contradiction in terms."  Then he turned and strolled off toward Kane Hall.

I walked back to my room, and sat down to think.  I'd been a depressed, pathetic little lump for nearly a week.  That wasn't me.  Goodkinds don't complain.  They fix things.

What I needed to do was to fix my BIT.

I pulled up a sheet of paper and started making a list…