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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla #5: "Ayla and the Networks"

Ayla #5: "Ayla and the Networks" 

- a Whateley Universe Tale

by Diane Castle (with help from the whole Whateley intranet)

Wednesday, November 29, 4 pm
Whateley Academy
AYLA

I walked into the cafe and over to the table that Jadis had commandeered.  A ‘client’ - one of the sophomore girls I didn’t know - was just leaving.  I wasn’t going to ask what the client wanted, or anything like that.  She just had that ‘oh God I didn’t know it was going to cost THAT much’ look on her face.  I wasn’t the only businessperson at Whateley, and it wasn’t like Jadis was working as a middleman for hired assassins or something.  What angle was she actually working?  I had already decided I was going to operate under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for as long as I could.

Nacht was staring at the client’s back with the same flat expression she used on everyone and everything.  The cute girl sitting with them was someone I hadn’t met.

A cute, big-eyed ‘dragon’ about the size of a housecat suddenly hopped from her lap onto the table.  Oh.  I’d heard about that dragon.  That made the girl Dragonrider.  Another of the Bad Seeds.

I smiled, “Hi Jadis.  Hello, Kate.”  Since Nacht obviously disliked having me call her Kate, I made sure to do it.

I turned to the third girl.  “You must be Dragonrider.  We haven’t met.  I’m Phase.”

Dragonrider didn’t look like a Bad Seed.  She looked more like the sort of sweet, innocent girl who should be hanging around with Jade and Anna.  Or maybe with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  But appearances could be deceiving, especially in a school with more Shifters and Mages and devisers than you could count.  Not to mention that a really dangerous Bad Seed ought to be smart enough to be posing as a good guy, particularly if she was working hard on her plans for world domination.

Dragonrider gave me a sunny smile and scooped up her dragon-ette.  “Hi!”  She stroked the neck and back of the dragon, which chirped happily.  “And this is Pern.”

Pern?  I didn’t say anything, but suddenly her codename made a lot more sense.  And I realized that either Dragonrider was just as she appeared, or else she was the best actress on campus and probably a major threat to life and limb.

Nacht looked at me with her usual Wednesday Addams face and acridly said, “I think I’ll run away now, before you two start discussing something truly interesting, like the worst plays of William Shakespeare.”

I grinned evilly.  “Ooh, good topic.  I nominate Troilus and Cressida.”

Jadis didn’t crack a smile as she disagreed, “Timon of Athens.”

I sat down.  “Good choice.  But I think Troilus and Cressida is even worse.  Think about Act 3, Scene 2, where…  Hang on Nacht, you aren’t leaving just when we’re getting to the quoting-annoying-lines-at-each-other part of the argument?”

Nacht gave me a flat look that was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of men.  “Do you mean some of this argument isn’t annoying?  I think I’m going to go back to Melville and see if I can find Belphegor.”

She enveloped herself in writhing tendrils of darkness.. and then the darkness faded away, leaving nothing but hints of danger.

I stopped and asked Jadis, “Belphegor?  Don’t tell me she likes him!”

Jadis flashed me a wicked smile.  “Oh no, she hates him.  But Kate’s a lot more terrifying when she tries.  And she tries very, very hard for Bel-foghorn.  He’s scared silly of her.”

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, if you ask me,” I smirked.

She grinned, “Since Belph likes to pick on Mal, I feel exactly the same way.”

“Anyway, Timon of Athens isn’t the worst.”

She complained, “Are you kidding?  ‘We are for law; he dies’.  Did Shakespeare even write that junk?”

I frowned, “Okay, meta-analysis is another matter.  That is one of the plays people think might have gotten hacked up by other writers.  But still…”

Dragonrider cautiously asked, “But, isn’t Titus Andronicus supposed to be really bad?  My dad’s friend said it was really awful.”

“Oh no,” I told her.  “The ending’s over the top, but it’s actually well-constructed, and it has some great lines.”

Jadis said, “I have to agree.  Just because the wronged victim gets even in a really.. creative way doesn’t make it a bad play.”

I suddenly thought of something tangential.  “Have you ever seen the Vincent Price movie Theater of Blood?”

Jadis’ eyes lit up with amusement.  “Oh right!  That is one of the plays in there!”

I said, “You should get that and show it to her.”

Dragonrider winced, “Is that a horror movie?”

Jadis grinned, “It’s a horror comedy.  It’s a parody of the typical Vincent Price horror movie.  And it’s got a great cast.”

I added, “But first, it’s a lot funnier if you know the plots of the Shakespeare plays they ref in the movie.  Let me tell you what actually happens in Titus Andronicus…”

 
Wednesday, November 29, 7:30 pm
Whateley Academy
THE INTELLIGENCE CADET CORPS

Ace stood at the head of the table.  He was leading the meeting, as always.  He’d made it clear from the day he was handed the leadership of the Intelligence Cadet Corps that he ran the meetings, and he ran the Corps.

He said, in his best growl, “I think we need to start tracking Phase.  She met with Nephandus and Techno-devil right under our noses at the Weapons Fair.  Now she’s meeting with She-Beast and Nacht and Dragonrider.  If she’s holding these meetings publicly, we need to know what she’s doing in private.  I’d like Kew to put one of our trackers on Phase.”

Interface smirked, “Wouldn’t being a Goodkind count as being the kid of supervillains?  Maybe she’s trying to join up.  Everybody seems to be pledging the cool groups right now.”

Ace gave everyone his best ‘Clint Eastwood’ glare.  “I don’t want to talk about Reach now.  Stick to the subject.”

A-Plus asked suspiciously, “Why would she meet with them in public?  She’s not stupid.  And She-Beast knows these games inside and out.  I can’t see either of them tipping their hand like rank amateurs.  Maybe it’s some tricky little scheme they’re running?  Maybe a double Xanatos Gambit?”

Holdout rolled his eyes, “With She-Beast, it could be an entire Xanatos Roulette, and we’d probably never see it coming.  Remember her ‘French ambassador’ ploy back in the spring?”

No one wanted to talk about that embarrassment from last year.  Even Ace refrained from giving his usual ‘Dirty Harry’ growl.  Interface actually cringed.

Kew pushed on as if Holdout hadn’t spoken, “But who are they running it on?  Us?  Security?  The Alphas?  Someone else?”

A-Plus admitted, “I have no idea.  For all we know, She-Beast has brought in Phase so she can run this gambit on some of the other Bad Seeds.  But I do know this: if we don’t get a handle on it fast, it’ll be too late.”

Kew blushed as she admitted, “I.. umm.. already pulled the tracker off Dragonrider and put it on Phase.  Monday, after that first meeting.”

Ace said, “That’s good.  Proactive thinking.  What’d you get?”

Kew reluctantly admitted, “Well.. nothing.  Phase is going to be harder to track than I thought.  She routinely does anti-surveillance techniques.  Monday after that meeting, she walked into an empty hallway and phased through the floor into the tunnels.  The tracker lost her right there.  I lucked out, and when I took the elevator down to see what happened, she was still there.  She stopped to talk with one of the Thornies for a while.  I managed to get over to my lab area and get an untested tracker up and running, and after her before she moved.  Then she walked down the Hawthorne tunnel and right into Hawthorne.  Between Static Girl and Antenna and a couple other uncontrolled Energizers there, it’s not a safe environment for our trackers.  Especially not an untested tracker.  I held it in reserve there for an hour, just in case, and I lucked out again.  She walked back past it.  I followed her roughly halfway back down the tunnel.  Then she just cut through the wall.  Based on the location of the tracker, she did it at a point really close to Poe, so she was probably going back to her dorm.  But there wasn’t any way to tell.  She might’ve just gone up to the surface and gone for a walk, for all I know.  The new tunnel over to Poe is open, but they have that security airlock so you can’t just walk right in there from the Hawthorne tunnel.  So the tracker couldn’t get into the Poe side-tunnel.  We’ll have to find a way of putting a tracker on her person.  Then we’ll have to hope she doesn’t spot it.  And we’ll have to hope her phasing through solid matter doesn’t kill it.”

“So.. what do you have in mind?”

 

THE MASTERMINDS

Hazard rolled her eyes and looked up at the clock.  It hadn’t moved.  It still said 8:15.  Stopwatch had probably gimmicked it.  Again.  Bugger.  “What’s the point here?”

Stopwatch insisted caustically, “As I was explaining, before someone lost focus, we have limited information-gathering opportunities right now.  Those Spy Kids nitwits have been trying to tap my communications channels, and that’s forcing me to spend most of my time on anti-espionage systems and encryption protocols, instead of real work.  But one of our information sources has let me know that his connections into the Security office have been compromised.  Some of Trout’s squad, apparently.”

Dash casually said, “I thought Lt. Trout was imminently bribable.”

Hazard snootily replied in her best upper-class tones, “For enough hard cash, which none of us is waving around at the moment.”

Haywire grumbled, “Since we had to spend most of the take from the Boston job on medical bills, so the school wouldn’t find out…”

Stopwatch insisted, “That’s not the point!  The point is that someone else is horning in on our information network!”

“Do you know who?” asked Hazard, even though she knew ‘Watch was dying for someone to ask that.

Dash muttered, “Don’t tell me it’s those Secret Squirrels again.”

“No,” Stopwatch said.

“Those S.T.A.R. League Junior twats?” wondered Haywire.  He still hadn’t forgiven Wallflower and her pals for that fiasco with the ‘variable interface’ gizmo.

“No.”

Heartbreaker suddenly gasped, “Oh God.  Not the Bad Seeds!  I’m not messing with them!”

“Worse,” Stopwatch insisted.

“What could be worse than the Bads?” asked Dash.

“I’ll tell you,” Stopwatch stressed.  “A Goodkind.”

“What?  Phase?  The boy-girl weirdo?”

Stopwatch insisted, “Yeah.  Phase.  Ayla Goodkind, AKA Trevor James Goodkind, son of Bruce Goodkind.”

“THE Bruce Goodkind?”  Hazard was actually shocked enough that her upper-crust accent got lost for a moment.

“Yes,” Stopwatch nodded unhappily.  “My intel says that Phase was – and still may be – second in line to take over Goodkind International.  According to Forbes, Trevor James Goodkind was going to inherit twelve point five BILLION dollars on his twenty-first birthday.  No one really knows if he's still got that kind of money, or if they disinherited him, or what.  And no one really knows what a Goodkind is doing at Whateley.”

“She’s going to school, just like the rest of us,” shrugged Haywire.

“A mutant-hater from a family that’s out to get mutants, and she just decided to go to Whateley?  Yeah.  Sure.  She’s probably trying to learn how to neutralize all of us,” snapped Stopwatch.

“She’s NOT like that!”

Everyone turned and stared.  Jello hardly ever spoke up in the meetings, especially when Stopwatch was running them.  And she had been even less likely to speak up, ever since the Necromancer had given her about twenty straight concussions at that little disaster in Boston.

As soon as she realized that she really had spoken out loud, and that everyone was staring at her, Jello pulled back out of the discussion.  Literally.  She sort of flowed backward, squashing herself against the back of the chair.

Heartbreaker reached over and gently patted Jello on the wrist.  “It’s okay.  Just tell ‘em what you told me.”

Jello looked at Heartbreaker, and reformed, taking on a new shape that was part Jello and part Heartbreaker.  It wasn’t unattractive.  In fact, it was more attractive than Jello usually was.  But it certainly wasn’t Jello.  She started talking, slowly at first, then gaining momentum.  “You know we had another big mess with Spoof, and some kids had to go to the hospital?  Well, it was Phase who rescued us.  She even got in trouble for doing it, ‘cause Fubar told her to stay out, but she jumped in anyway, and helped Slab, and rescued Ricou, and me, and a couple other kids.  An’ she didn’t have to.”  As she focused on her story, she began losing cohesion again, and her entire right side began sagging like warm wax.

Haywire shrugged, “That doesn’t mean anything.  We all know she has courage.  She took on an entire Alpha hit squad.  At least twice.  And won, when it mattered.  And she’ll tackle anyone in aikido class.  I sparred against her once or twice, and she just hammered me.  One day in class, she fought Lancer.  And she even hurt him a couple times.  He threw her through the capture cage, and it didn’t even hurt her.”

Dash agreed, “So she’s tough, and she likes to mix it up.  That doesn’t mean ‘Watch is wrong about her.”

“Well thank you for that stunning endorsement,” said Stopwatch as scathingly as he could.

Heartbreaker glared at the little snot.  She didn’t like him, even if he was really smart and a good planner.  He wasn’t nice to Jello, even if they were all part of the same group.  He didn’t have to be mean to Jello.  He just enjoyed picking on someone who wouldn’t pick back.  She snapped, “What’s your point?  So someone else wants an intelligence network.  Half the school’s like that.”

Stopwatch smirked at her.  “Isn’t it obvious?  We need to plan our next caper.  We’re going to find Phase’s data center and steal it.  If we can set it up so we can copy everything whenever we want, we’ll just let her spend her money and build up a huge network.  For us.”

Dash grinned, “Now that sounds like a real master plan there.”

Hazard admitted, “I have to agree.  After the last couple disasters, we need to think about the cost of a failure.  If we’re accused of stealing another student’s stuff instead of Whateley property, the penalty is comparatively light.  And if we're accused of NOT stealing it, but merely looking at it, the penalty will be a slap on the wrist.”

Stopwatch nodded.  “First, I’ll map out a plan that will let us find out where Phase stores her data.  Then we’ll need to lay out some sort of red herring to get the Secret Squirrels off our arses.  Once we have that in place, we can walk off with the information.  You know it’s not going to be well protected.  She’s just a frosh.”

Hazard disagreed, “She’s a filthy rich frosh with years of experience in similar settings.  What if she’s got that flipping mage Fey putting spells on it?  Or some deviser booby-trapping it?  Maybe Bugs.. or Automa-tech?”

Stopwatch grinned wickedly, “It wouldn’t be fun if it weren’t a challenge.  Now would it?”

 

THUBAN

He looked up from his homework when Dai knocked on the door and called out, “All clear in there?”

Thuban sighed, “What would be going on in here?  You know I never do business in the room.”

Dai dropped into his chair and put his textbooks on his desk.  “I was.. umm.. checking that you weren’t up to a little monkey business that you didn’t want interrupted.”

Jade?” Thuban choked.  “I…  She wouldn’t…”  He swallowed and pulled his tattered dignity back together.  “We most certainly wouldn’t be doing something like that here, where anyone could walk in on us, and everyone in the hall could hear us!  And Jade isn’t that kind of girl!”

Dai shrugged, which looked odd given his rather turtle-like body.  “I know, I know, I’ve heard you talking about Jade before.  But plenty of those Poesies are that kind of girl, from what everyone says.  I mean, look at the girls Jade hangs with.  Tennyo used to go around without a bra.  Not that she needed one.. and you know every guy on campus was checking her out, just making sure.”  He grinned.  “And that Chaka girl…  Everyone says she swooped in on Thunderbird and snagged him away from what, four or five other girls who’ve been after him for like a year?  And then you’ve got Fey, and I don’t think I want to start on all the rumors about Carmilla, people are saying she’s done everyone on campus except Reverend England and the headmistress, and I don’t even know what sex Heyoka is, and-”

“I believe you’ve made your point,” Thuban said in exasperation.  “But Jade is not like that!”

Dai just grinned at Thuban’s determination to defend his girlfriend.  He hadn’t ever seen Thuban this smitten, which was kind of funny considering some of the hot skanks who had thrown themselves at Thuban over the last year or so just because he was one of the campus rich kids.

Before Dai could rub it in a bit more, the phone rang.  Thuban looked relieved to dodge the rest of the conversation, as he answered it.  “Thuban here.  What do you want?”

The voice on the other end of the phone didn’t identify himself, but Thuban recognized the student at once.  He knew all the Faction Three members.  In some cases, he knew them better than they knew themselves.

The voice said, “More news you’ll want to hear.  Phase met again with She-Beast.  Right in front of the whole school.  Nacht avoided the meeting, but Dragonrider stayed for almost the entire time.  The only time I was able to get near them, they were discussing killing some old woman’s kids and baking them in a pie, then serving it to her and making her eat her own kids.  That sounded pretty dangerous, so I didn’t press my luck.  I did get a complete recording of that part of the conversation.  I’ll keep monitoring anything in the Crystal Hall, but there’s no telling what they’re up to somewhere else.”

Thuban replied, “Good work.  Keep me informed.”

He hung up and stared at his homework without seeing anything except a mental image.  An image of a group of gorgeous girls walking across campus with one lone guy.  All of them laughing about something inconsequential.  One of them, a petite Japanese girl, looking up coyly through her straight black hair to make a comment.

Team Kimba.  They had caused him more trouble this year than the Alphas and the Capes and the Good Ol’ Boyz combined.  They had caused more trouble for him this year than even Peeper and Greasy and Montana put together.  His sources had informed him that Phase was working her own intel angles.  And now she was meeting publicly with She-Beast.  What was she up to?  Would Jade tell him if he asked her?  Did he dare ask, when she would inevitably make her own decisions about telling the Kimbas what he had asked?

He needed to find out.

He needed to know what was going on.

And he needed to figure out why the whole piece about baking a woman’s kids in a pie sounded so familiar.  There was no way a smart operator like She-Beast would plot a murder in front of the whole school, when anyone walking past – or anyone with listening gear or psi abilities or scrying skills – could pick up on it.  Not someone like She-Beast.  And it didn’t seem like Phase would make such an amateur mistake either.  So what were they up to?  He was going to have to listen to that recording.

 

THE ALPHAS

Don Sebastiano looked up from his class notes.  It would be so much easier to take these tests if he could just riffle through some of the minds of the other students in the class.  But he would have to be stuck with a teacher who could detect that.  Life was so much easier when he had unskilled baselines as professors.

Cavalier walked in, looking grim.  He said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, sir.  But you did ask for any reports related to our intelligence network to be brought to you immediately.”

The Don nodded as he pushed the papers to the back of the desk.  “If not sooner.  Thank you, Cav.  I needed a break from this garbage, anyway.”

Cavalier said, “Hartford is continuing to be difficult.  She keeps telling me that she doesn’t have time to dig through Whateley computer files for us and also cover her trail well enough to remain anonymous.  She is actually preoccupied with something else, even though she’s unwilling to admit it to us.  She’s afraid of an outside source for some sort of threat.  And it’s somehow personal with her, as opposed to something like the Halloween attack.  I couldn’t gather more than that, since Dr. Bellows came out of his office just then, and it’s not safe to probe when he’s around.”

The Don frowned and said, “I’ll have a talk with her.  She’s still holding a grudge against us for the gas attack on the senior party.  Even though she can’t prove we did it.”

Cavalier added, “To make things more difficult sir, our usual source in Security is having trouble gaining access to new intel other than the standard incident reports.  It appears that Chief Delarose has instituted a major crackdown on this, and Sergeant Buxton is making our source tow the line.”

“And what exactly is the problem?  Why does Delarose have a bug up his ass.. this time?”

Cavalier said, “It seems that there are more players than usual this term.  Which means more people in Security trying to get at the same intelligence.  It’s reached the point that the higher-ups are noticing.”

“And what do you propose?”

Cavalier frowned, “This may be a problem for us, sir.  Our source says that the new networker is offering some really large payoffs.  We have only been offering sex with Skybolt, and getting Hartford to lay off of the Security officers.”

“So who is our new player?” Don Sebastiano asked.

Cav ducked his head, “I’m sorry sir, but I have yet to learn that information.  My source said he didn’t know, and I probed his mind fairly thoroughly when his guard was down.  He really didn’t have any idea.  He also didn’t know which other Security officers were involved.”

“Then ask Buxton.”

Cavalier bowed his head obediently, “Yes sir.  As soon as possible, sir.”

The Don added, “And check with Solange.  If it’s really someone with money to burn, it’s likely to be someone she knows.  Perhaps one of the Golden Kids.  If it’s not, then perhaps her services might prove valuable.”

“Her psychic knacks, do you mean?”

The Don leered, “Oh, those too.”

 

THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ

Fantastico leaned back in his armchair, all ready for the meeting.  They had the whole rec room to themselves, until an hour past curfew if they needed it.  Melville had the best meeting rooms on the whole campus.  Since he was the head honcho of the Good Ol’ Boyz, he was dressed for the occasion.  His second-best tan cowboy hat, his genuine snakeskin cowboy boots – with the big spurs on – and a brand new pair of $200 pre-stressed jeans.

Ferret choked, “Watch it, F-man!  Imperious said we better not scratch up his table again, or else.”

Fantastico leered nastily, “Oh, His Royal Imperiosity said that, huh?”  He promptly kicked back and sunk the rowels of his spurs deeply into the veneer of the table.  Then he deliberately stretched his legs, ripping a vicious scar across the table that no one could miss.  He wasn’t worried.  Imperious was a tough son of a bitch, but in a fight they were actually pretty even.. if no one cheated.  And Imperious had found out the hard way that Fantastico was perfectly willing to cheat in a fight.

Ferret just winced, and said nothing.  He knew that Imperious and Majestic tended to leave Fantastico alone and zero in on the rest of the gang.  Which meant that Ferret was probably going to be getting a lightning bolt in the ass sometime in the next couple days.  Fantastico was a junior, just like Imperious.  And ‘the F-man’ was an Exemplar-6 Energizer-3 who could take just about every one of the tough guys around campus.  Not only could F-man bench-press a freaking pickup truck, he had those eyebeams: heat beams that at full power could slag a Hummer.

Fantastico leaned back and drawled, “Okay boys, what’s all the fuss ‘at I gotta get dragged away from World o’ Warcraft right when I was ‘bout ta smack down a whole shitload o’ trolls?”  He was really pleased with his warrior guy, since he’d paid Ferret and a couple other nerds to do enough level grinding to turn his player character into a freaking powerhouse.

Ferret said in his best East Texas drawl, “I found out some intel on a new player.”  Ferret was actually from Missouri, but he was in the gang because he was good at ferreting out information.  So he was always pretty sensitive about his non-Texas status, and the fact that he had to fake his Texas accent.

Fantastico nodded, “Okay, Boy Genius.  Lay it on us.”

“Roger that,” Ferret said.  ‘Boy Genius’ was way better than some of the other nicknames ‘The Big Eff’ dropped on him.  As long as F-man wasn’t calling him ‘Rat-turds’ anymore, he was good.  Besides, ‘Boy Genius’ made it sound like F-man really admired him.

Oiler interrupted, “Does this have anything to do with the sophs and froshes in the Bad Seeds, like we were bitchin’ about last week?”

Oiler, Rick Howser of the Houston oil business Howsers, was a senior, and had groomed Fantastico to take over the Good Ol’ Boyz, ever since Fantastico’s dad - Bert Sr. - had called Oiler’s dad to say that his boy had gotten the Superman package and was going to Whateley too.  Oiler wasn’t an Exemplar, and didn’t have the Big Eff’s charisma, but was more than smart enough to realize that, and play to Eff’s strengths.  Hell, since he had talked F-man into taking the helm, the Good Ol’ Boyz had exploded from four fairly lonely Texas boys to thirteen Southwestern (and outsider) guys, with another half dozen or so hangers-on.  And plenty of girls wanted to hang with the Good Ol’ Boyz now that one of the campus studs was in charge.  He and Fantastico were the only Good Ol’ Boyz who had money, which gave him leverage over the Big Eff that the rest of the gang didn’t have; but he tried not to use that unless he had to.

Fantastico laughed, “Oh relax, Oily.”

“Don’t call me that,” Oiler growled.

“Oh c’mon, Greasespot.  It’s jest a nickname, cuz I like ya!”  Fantastico turned back toward Ferret.  “Relax, Oiler’s not gonna bite your ass off…  Agin!”  He laughed loudly, as several other guys around the room snickered.

Ferret shrugged it off.  He was a gadgeteer, and only a sophomore, and the smallest guy in the gang.  People picked on him, just like they had before he became a mutant.  But now that he was one of Fantastico’s pals, the only people who got away with picking on him were some of the other Good Ol’ Boyz, and he was okay with that.  Pretty much.  And Oiler didn’t pick on him.  Okay, so Oiler went apeshit now and then and screamed at everybody ‘til he was red in his ugly face.  Ferret’s dad was worse than that.  It wasn’t like Oiler was using his oil-manifestation powers on the gang.  That would be pretty gross.

Ferret looked over at Oiler and said, “Actually, it might be connected to some of the Bad Seeds.”

Conduit drawled, “I was kind of hopin’ it was about why our intel source just dried up on us a couple weeks ago.”

Conduit was the only non-white guy in the room.  He was half-black and half-white, which wasn’t a good thing when you were growing up in a place like Mesa, Arizona.  He knew that Oiler had only let him into the gang because of the powers that Conduit brought to the table.  Conduit was the unusual combination of Psychic and Energizer.  As a Psi, he had a knack that let him convince people to do things for him without having to do any major psychic intrusions that might get him in trouble.  He had used that ability to open up a friendly connection with an officer in Security, so the Good Ol’ Boyz could keep abreast of anyone who might want to tangle with them.  As an Energizer, he was an energy absorber: he could absorb and re-direct energy attacks, including psychic energies.  That made him really valuable to the gang, when people like Imperious and Cavalier and Skybolt and Bravo were so dependent on their energy attacks in a fight.  Not to mention that assholes like Don Sebastiano would try a psychic attack on you as soon as your back was turned, unless you had someone like Conduit to stop them.

Ferret nodded, “Yep.”  He looked at Oiler, “And it has to do with some of the Bad Seeds too.  But on the side.”

Roadrunner grimaced, “That doesn’t sound so hot.”

Fantastico waved him off, “Ahh, don’t git your shorts in a knot, Meep-meep.  It’ll be easy ta handle, jes like always.”  He turned his head, “Boomy’ll figger out somethin’, jes as soon as he stops playin’ with li’l toy soldiers with those A-Teamers.  Right Boomy?”

Minefield, the other senior, grimaced and agreed.  “We’ll figure something out, F-man.”  Boomy was but one of the little nicknames that Fantastico had for him.

Minefield exchanged dour looks with Oiler.  Minefield was the gang’s strategy and tactics guy.  But he had been part of the A-Team since his freshman year, and he didn’t like it when people made fun of them.  The A-Team were the Whateley campus ‘strategy and tactics’ buffs.  They were big on military history.  Some of the A-Team preferred technically accurate re-enactments of major historical battles, while others were more into ‘historical battle’ gaming.  But NOT that Dungeons and Dragons crap.  That was for weirdoes.  The one thing Fantastico did that still got under Minefield’s skin was making fun of the A-Team.

Ferret started, “It’s Phase.  Ayla Goodkind.  The word is that she’s one of THE Goodkinds…”

Fantastico interrupted, “Oh, the boy-girl faggot.  Ah thought we took care o’ her already.”

Minefield said, “We suckered that dickhead Bravo into goin’ after her, which was way easier ‘n I thought it’d be.  And we tricked G-Force and his thugs into taking a crack at her.  Neither worked.  She took out both of those groups without breakin’ a sweat, and neither gang’s had the cojones to try again.  Then the Alphas got into it with her, and she kicked their asses too.  About five times in a row, includin’ trashin’ Aries in about three seconds, and then takin’ out a whole fuckin’ hit team o’ theirs.  And then they sicked that loony bitch Fireball on her, and everyone knows what Phase did to her.  So now a lotta people who don’t like her are scared to go after her.”

“Ah don’t like her.  Him.  It.  Whatever,” Fantastico insisted.

“Me neither,” Minefield replied.  “But she’s tough to fight, and she can turn Exemplars inta monsters so you gotta stay away from her, and she’s got a lot of allies now.  She’s got Lancer and…”

“Ah can take that boy,” Fantastico interrupted.

“Sure, but can you take Tennyo?” Minefield pushed.  “Even threatenin’ to get into it with Tennyo’s gonna get you expelled.  Can you take Fey?  Hey Ferret, what’s the word on Fey?”

Ferret eagerly supplied an answer.  “Bad news.  Majorly bad news.  Even Hekate and Majestic don’t wanna get into it with her.  Word is she took on The Necromancer in Boston last month and kicked his creepy old ass all over the town.  And then she may’ve done it again in a big rematch just a couple weeks ago.  No one beats The Necromancer, and definitely not twice in a month.”

“Sheee-it!  The Necromancer?  She’s just a freshman!”

Ferret added, “She’s supposed ta be so powerful they had ta bring in a special magic teacher just for her.  And ya know no one’s gonna just stand around and let you fight her.  Every single guy on campus who doesn’t swish when he walks ‘ll be jumpin’ on yer ass as soon as you tackle the pretty princess.”

Fantastico nodded, “Well, she is HAWT.  With a capital ‘H’.  She’s got some serious hottitude goin’ on there.  I’d sure go kick some guy’s ass if I thought it would get me some o’ that nookie.”

Conduit agreed, “Oh yeah, I’d hit that.  Every guy in Melville would.”

Roadrunner groaned, “I can’t believe she’s dating that loser Stalwart!”

Oiler grumpily got things back on track.  “Ferret, mebbe you’d better explain why you’re all worried about Phase, before these guys start pullin’ out their posters o’ Fey and beatin’ their meat.”

“HEY!” Larry ‘The Man Called Vengeance’ Damone complained from the other side of the table.

“Cool it, Vengeance.”

“That’s ‘The Man Called Vengeance’!  Not just ‘Vengeance’!  Ya gotta say the whole name!” Larry angrily protested, for about the seven thousandth time.

“Not now, Vengie,” murmured Fantastico.  The F-Man was about the only guy in the room who could get away with that.  Larry tended to go nuclear on people who didn’t call him by his full codename, no matter how awkward it was.

Ferret just shrugged.  He had one of those posters of Fey too.  He’d gotten it for free from Greasy in exchange for a little hardware work in Workshop.  He had it up on his bedroom wall next to his desk.

He said, “Anyways, Phase is doin’ two different things that look real suspicious.  When Conduit’s conduit got shut down, he asked me to find out why.  Security’s had to clamp down hard, because a whole buttload o’ campus players are tryin’ ta get Security reports this term.  Phase is one of ‘em.  And what I managed to pick up is she offered enough hard cash that everyone else’s contacts are gonna be hittin’ students up for major payola increases.”

Fantastico shrugged, “B.F.D.  We can afford it.”

Ferret nodded, “But Security’s clamped down on everyone’s contacts because there’s too much talk about these payoffs inside Security.  It may blow over.  It may just take bigger payoffs.  It may be the end of this kind of intel source.  We don’t know yet.”

Fantastico yawned, “So what?  If no one has any intel, we’ve got a level playin’ field agin.  Don’t care.”

Ferret said, “Okay.  But Phase is also makin’ some sort of move toward the Bad Seeds.”

“You’re shittin’ me,” gasped someone on the other side of the table.

Ferret went on, “She just walked up to She-Beast and Nacht, in broad daylight, like she didn’t care people were watchin’.  Then she sat and talked with She-Beast fer like hours.  They’re up to somethin’.”

Minefield stewed, “What’s a Goodkind who hangs with the Berets and the Golds doin’ with the daughter of a major supervillain?”

Oiler grumbled, “F-man, I told ya not to diss the Golds.  We coulda’ had info on Phase through ‘em.  Now we aren’t even invited to their stupid meetin’s.  You just had to piss off Premier and Tidewater…”

Fantastico scowled, “Those fucktards?  Preemie an’ Tideybowl wanted me ta kiss their shiny li’l asses just cuz’ they’re from fancy-pants East-Coast families.  Ta hell with ‘em!  An’ Ah don’t like all those damn furr’ners in there anyways.  Krauts and Frogs and Kikes and Towelheads and Nips and everythin’ else…  Next year, when those two fancy-pants faggots are gone, the Golds’ll all be stumblin’ around with their heads up their asses, and they’ll be beggin’ us ta come back and straighten ‘em out.  Then Ah’ll be runnin’ the Golden Kids too, and Ah’ll be sayin’ who’s in and who’s out.  Ah’ll show those pussies…”

Oiler frowned, but decided to keep quiet.  It wasn’t going to be his problem, anyways.  He’d be long gone from Whateley by next fall.

Roadrunner pointed out, “And what’re they up to if they’re meetin’ in front of everyone?  They gotta be up ta somethin’ sneaky.”

Fantastico said, “Who the hell knows?  Mebbe they’re tryin’ to freak out the Alphas…”  He kicked his feet off the table and asked, “Is that all the news?”  Ferret nodded.  “Then I got me a whole pile o’ computer monsters ta hack up.  Adios.  You guys kin detail out all the detailin’.”  He strolled out of the room, his spurs jingling jauntily.

Minefield growled, “He does this every fuckin’ time!”

Oiler smirked nastily, “That’s why he’s the boss and you’re the strategist.  So how about some strategizin’?”

 

THE BAD SEEDS

“Jadis, are you sure it’s a good idea to get involved with that Goodkind chick?” wondered Nacht, carefully pitching her flat tones loud enough for the whole table to hear.

“I’m not getting involved with Trevor.. I mean Ayla.  I’m just thinking about talking with him some more about an Umberto Eco novel.  Maybe some Thomas Hobbes.  Ayla wants me to read some Spenser too, and he’s going to read some Yeats, like I asked.”

“That sounds like involvement to me,” Kate insisted.

Render leaned forward intently, “Yeah.  It’s a classic ploy.  The meet-and-greet on something unrelated and safe, then you worm your way into the mark’s confidence, until you can get them to forget you’re not an outsider, and then they spill.”

“I’m not a mark!” snapped Jadis.

“I thought Phase was nice,” offered Dragonrider.

“You thought Nephandus was nice,” pointed out Thrasher.

“I resent that slur!” snapped Nephandus.  Thrasher ignored him.  So did the rest of the room.

Jadis gently said, “Lindsey, remember that you thought my roomie was nice?”

Dragonrider winced, “Well, how was I supposed to know she was just using me so you’d think she was a good henchman?”

Jobe drawled caustically, “Q.E.D.”

“Shut up, Jobe,” snapped at least three different voices.

Silver Serpent cautiously suggested, “I have a hypothesis.  I believe that Team Kimba is planning on taking over the entire campus, either as the next Alphas, or as the hidden but de facto controllers.  They have already demonstrated that they are unafraid of the Alphas, and that they are ready to dethrone them by force.  Lancer already has contacts with Security auxiliaries and the Grunts.  Generator is dating Thuban, and Shroud has been attending Faction Three meetings.  Tennyo is rumored to be building some sort of force at Hawthorne, plus she has far too much interaction with the Wild Pack.  Bladedancer appears to be infiltrating the Dragons, while Chaka may be doing the same with the Tigers.  I am still concerned about Bladedancer, as I have discussed before.  Plus, Chaka is dating one of the Capes and is likely to be rushed by the Capes next year.  Phase is already a force in the Golden Kids and has most of the Beret Mafia talking to her.  We also know she was talking with the Secret Squirrels at the Weapons Fair.  Fey is becoming a power in Venus Inc., and it is clear that she has inroads in every group which has heterosexual boys.. or lesbian girls.  The Kimbas have a connection with Carmilla’s group which is not clear, but is definite.  I believe that they are using Phase to make connections with us, through She-Beast.”

Thrasher said, “Yeah.  Why aren’t WE planning on taking over the campus like that?  I mean, who are the Bad Seeds around here anyway?”

Render pointed out, “Well, the Kimbas may be a lot more nefarious than they’re letting on.  Think about it.  They’ve got a freaking Goodkind.  They’ve got a demon from hell…”

Thrasher wondered out loud, “Is that Waite chick really in with them or not?  She seems to have her own posse these days.”

“Classic ploy,” Render pointed out.  “The old ‘we aren’t friends any longer’ routine.”

Techno-Devil looked up from the holographic image he was fiddling with and contributed, “Yeah, I think they’re trying to sucker the Goobers into spilling who’s really behind the hits on the demon chick.”

Render snapped, “Would you jerks quit interrupting me when I'm monologuing?  Where was I?  A Goodkind.  A real demon.  That Tennyo chick, who may be connected with something REALLY major.  My sources say Reverend England is massively wigged out about her, and he’s got a really good track record for picking the right monsters to fight.  Fey, who – thanks to Jobe’s DNA work – we now know is really one of the Sidhe, and all the Sidhe around campus have their noses out of joint over it, because the rumor is she’s The Queen of the Fey, back from the dead, or something like that.  So major threat there.  Next, there’s Shroud, who’s apparently a dead spirit or something.  Then Generator…"

“The little kid?” snorted Thrasher.  “How’s she a threat?  Does her Betsy Wetsy doll pee toxic gas?”

Render frowned, “That little kid only looks little.  I don’t know what there is about her, but she’s already got Thuban wrapped around her little finger…”

“Maybe.  I say-”

“Quit interrupting me, dammit!” Render growled.  “As I was saying, I found out something about Generator.  Bloodwolf and Killstench are scared shitless of her.”

“Bloodwolf?  No way, dude!” Thrasher gasped.

Render nodded sagely, “We all know the Alphas put out hits on some of the Kimbas.  According to Sheeb’s contacts at the clinic, Phase shredded Fireball’s BIT and turned her into a demon – which by the way is NOT a power listed in her base powers testing records, so we don’t really know what she can or can’t do.  Tennyo scared Buster and Negator so bad they’re still pissing their pants over it, and neither one can remember what happened.  The docs here think it’s psychological trauma.  Fey ripped Nex a new one and put that glow-in-the-dark charm on him that he’s still fighting.  And what else happened that night?  Think.  At the same time, someone nailed Bloodwolf to a tree with railroad spikes, burned a message into his chest, and put Killstench and Maggot in the hospital.”

“The little kid?” Thrasher wondered out loud.

He went on, “Yeah.  The message said ‘I ATTACK LITTLE GIRLS’.  Who else does that apply to?  Oh, and get this, the scars didn’t heal up.  On Bloodwolf!”

“Sweet.  So the prissy kid bit’s just an act, and she’s really a badass.  Nicely done.”  Thrasher licked his index finger and made a downward mark on an imaginary blackboard.

“So who does that leave?” Nacht supplied.

Render started again, “Okay.  Tennyo the Section 33, Phase the Goodkind – I think that worries me a lot more – and Carmilla the demon, Fey the Sidhe queen, Shroud and Generator the hidden badasses…  That leaves Bladedancer, Chaka, and Lancer.  Silver Serpent has that goofball theory about Bladedancer, but we don’t have enough intel on her yet to know for sure.”

Techno-Devil interrupted, “We know something.  Twelve-point matching computer scans of the student body before and after the Halloween disaster showed Bladedancer ended up with bullet holes right through the back of her costume.  Not a scratch on her, though.  Not that many people even at Whateley who can shrug off heavy machine gun fire like that.  That’s like Exemplar-7 territory.  And she’s supposed to be a baseline?  I doubt it.”

Render glared at him and continued, “And Chaka and Lancer?  Who knows?”

She-Beast blithely explained, “Chaka and Lancer?  Simple.  In any well-coordinated takeover attempt on this sort of scale, you have to have some components who infiltrate the good guys.  That’s their role.  Lancer’s playing the straight arrow and getting in with Security and the Grunts and those S.T.A.R. League Juniors.  Chaka’s playing the wildass warrior, and getting in with the Capes and the Thornies and the martial arts nuts.”

Mal added, “Sounds like they’ve planned this out in a lot of detail.  They put together this team in the first days of the term, and they must have assigned roles right away, because they’ve done a really good job of staying in character 24x7 since then.  Then they’ve managed to pull in some new blood along the way and fully integrate it into the plan, which is hard.”

Nephandus asked, “So what's our response?”

Render just pointed across the table.  “Jadis.”

“Oh no.”  She-Beast put up her hands palms out, and shook her head.

“Come on, Jads.  All you have to do is let Phase make her move.”

A whiny voice drawled, “Oh be serious here.  You want someone who looks like She-Beast to be the femme fatale in this plan?”

“Shut up, Jobe,” snapped Jadis.

 

WHATELEY SECURITY

Sergeant Clay Buxton ran one hand through his mostly-gray crewcut and growled, “What the hell am I gonna do with you two?”

Officers Trews and Green looked at each other and then back at the sergeant.  Even though Simeon Trout was a lieutenant and their platoon leader – and was standing right behind them, glowering at them – they were a lot more worried about Buxton.  Sergeant Buxton ran things behind the scenes at Whateley.  All the betting in and out of Whateley ran through him, even the stuff that the cottage bookies did.  Well, supposedly.  A lot of other stuff ran through him, but since Trews and Green weren’t getting a cut of that action, they were careful not to know anything about it.  And they were careful to forget anything they accidentally found out.  Buxton never went back on his word, but crossing him was about as stupid as jabbing one of the Ultraviolents with a pointy stick.

Trews started, “Umm, Sarge, look…  We didn’t do anything everyone else isn’t doing.  And she offered us a hell of a lot of money too.

Green tried, “Ten K just for some incident reports?  A hundred K a year for the intel we get from the powers testing geeks on all the students?  How could we say no to that?”

Lt. Trout, behind them, snapped, “For starters, you dicks, you didn’t clear it with me first!”

Buxton glared, “And you didn’t clear it with me, and you didn’t keep your mouths shut about it!”

Trews managed not to wince.  “I know.  We didn’t want to say anything until we’d gotten started and cleared it with you two, but Sergeant Hackitt caught us copying some incident reports.  It was either spill it to him, or have him rat us out to someone who’d really let us have it.  You know what Hackitt’s like.”

Green added, “Yeah, the last thing any of us want is for the Chief to find out!”

“Or Forsyth.  Or even that pinhead Reynolds,” added Trews.

Green went on, “It wasn’t our fault Daniels and Metler walked in on us while we were trying to get Hackitt off our asses, and they heard what the kid was going to pay us.”

“So then all of Squad 7 heard about it, ‘cause Daniels can’t keep his piehole shut about crap like that.  And then the Ell Tee heard,” explained Trews, tilting his head back toward Lt. Trout.  “We didn’t want anyone to find out.  I mean, this kid’s a frigging goldmine!”

Buxton frowned, “And you know who this kid is?”

Green and Trews exchanged looks, before Trews admitted, “Uhh…  Yeah.  Phase.  Ayla Goodkind.  One of THE Goodkinds.  Fourteen, and already has more money than all of us put together are ever going to earn.  So what’s the harm of collecting from this one?  I mean, most of ‘The Bashers’ are getting some extra income for copying incident reports off to outside sources.”

They didn’t need to explain who The Bashers were.  Everyone in the room - everyone in all of Security - knew it was a nickname for Platoon 3, Lieutenant Simeon Trout’s platoon.  Squads 7, 8, and 9.  They were also known by the rest of Whateley Security by a few other nicknames, including “Simeon’s Slugs” and “the Payola Platoon”, but the Bashers usually ignored those jerks.  There were also the much nastier names that the late unlamented Erik ‘oh my God not that asstard again’ Mahren had for them when any of the range weapons went missing.  On the upside, that crazy bastard was dead.  Wilson might be a goddamned nightmare in a fight, but now that Mahren was dead, they were going to be getting around Wilson.  Both of them knew there was already a list being assembled by the Bashers of every deviser weapon and fancy gizmo that ‘Motherfucker Mahren’ had managed to keep out of their reach.

Buxton admitted, “Not just the Bashers, you know.  We’ve got officers on the other platoons reporting to the FBI and CIA, the MCO, Interpol, MI5, the Knights of Purity, over a dozen different superhero teams…  And that doesn’t even count that useless fuckhead Johnson who thinks we don’t know he’s H-One.”  He glared at the two officers, “But that doesn’t get you two off the hook.”

Trews tried again, “Look Sarge, it wasn’t our fault word leaked all over Security.”

Buxton gave him a glare that could have melted body armor.  “Maybe not, but you two are going to be the scapegoats if anything craps out on this.  You know that, right?”

Trews winced, “People can rat us out on this, but we’re innocent!  Umm…  Well…  We’re not guilty on this one, anyways.”

Buxton snarled, “I don’t like it when Delarose finds stuff out.  He’s too damn good at his job.  If some moron like Reynolds was in charge, we’d run rings around him.  I heard some of the kids are callin’ him ‘Commander Chipmunk’ now.”  He stopped while the rest of the room chortled wickedly.  “But that bastard Delarose is too frigging smart for his own good.  And he’s too damn stubborn.  When he wises up on shit like this, he finds out what’s going on.  Then he deals with it.  You won’t like it if he deals with you two.”

Both Trews and Green paled.  Both of them knew what Delarose had done two years ago, when that alien hand weapon had gone missing after that asstard Mahren had checked it in.  Boyarlie had gotten caught in under 48 hours, and the punishment Delarose had dished out made Mahren look like a frigging pussycat.

Green winced, “Look, we don’t want to get what Boyarlie got.  But you’ve gotta let us go after this pot of gold.  A hundred K a year, plus special payments?  For four years?  And God only knows what she’ll pay us after she graduates, if we keep doing good work for her.”

Buxton fumed, “And where’s this intel gonna get used?”

Trews shrugged, “Everyone knows she’s got a bullseye painted on her ass.  That whole Goodkind thing, on top of the rich-kid thing, plus every kid on campus is talking about her having a dick too.  Pretty freaky, even for around here.  The gaybashers are after her, and the Alphas, and a shitload of kids who just hate H-One…”

Green added, “So it’s like we’re doing a good thing.  Helping her out and all.  And she knows how the game is played, which makes life a hell of a lot easier.”

Lieutenant Trout complained from behind them, “You’re assuming.  And when you assume, you make an ass out of you.. and your pal Trews too.  She’s a Goodkind.  She may be making files for the Goodkind family that’ll cause major problems for us in future.  Do you really want another frigging Halloween invasion on your hands?”

“Oh HELL no!  Sir,” replied Green.  The stitches had all come out of his leg, and he’d only been off patrol duty for a week and a half after getting shot that night, but the docs at the clinic had told him the bullet only missed his femoral artery by about two inches.  He’d come two frigging inches from bleeding out, less than a mile from the best hospital he’d ever seen.  He’d been four inches from having his balls shot off.  He didn’t ever want to see another Halloween invasion, or anything like it.

Buxton snapped, “We can’t trust her until we know what the hell she’s really up to, and whether this is gonna boomerang on us.  Believe me, if Delarose and Carson think you’re selling out the school, you’re gonna wish those fucking Sabretooths had gutted you!”

Trews gulped loud enough for the whole room to hear.

Green cautiously said, “So how are we supposed to find that out?”

Buxton leaned forward, “Okay, here’s what I have in mind…”

 

THE WHITMAN LITERARY GIRLS

Reverb leaned over and whispered, “Where’s Fractious?  I thought she wanted to get reviews on her latest story?”

Foxfire rolled her eyes.  “You mean the 600-page novel?”

Loophole said flatly, “Let me guess.  Another police procedural.  With more detailed background discussion than even Tom Clancy could handle.”

Lifeline nodded, “The story was okay.  Except for the fifty pages on the crime scene investigation-“

Selkie added, “-and the fifteen pages on the history of forensic sciences-“

Arachne put in, “-and the ten pages on fingerprinting techniques-“

“-and the twenty pages on identifying toolmarks,” Foxfire wrapped up.

Loophole shook her head.  “Sounds typical for Dee.  So it’s a twenty-page short story with a couple criminology textbooks crammed into it?”

Lifeline agreed, “Yeah, but it’s not her fault.  She gets like this every time she tries to write.  It’s her OCD.”

Arachne added, “And that’s why she’s not here.  She insisted there was a cobweb in her closet, and she had to wash all her clothes and scrub the closet clean.  But I swear it wasn’t me.  I even made sure none of my little friends would go in her room any more.”

Foxfire muttered, “That’s one way to get a single.  Be so compulsive that people would rather room with Diamondback or Harpy than with you.”

Selkie murmured in her soft brogue, “I dinna think Psydoe would agree with you on that.”

Reverb said, “No wonder everyone calls her ‘O. C. Dee’.  At least it’s not Diedrick’s.”

Mrs. Savage stuck her head into the Whitman cottage library to remind everyone, “Girls?  Curfew in twenty minutes.  Please wrap up and get up to your rooms.”  She didn’t get any farther, because Deimos came up to her with a problem and whispered something into her ear.  She sighed, “Diamondback and Psydoe?  Again?  I’ll be right there.”  She turned back to the girls in the library, and saw that the usual suspects still weren’t gathering up their stuff.

She cleared her throat.  “Foxfire?”

“Yes ma’am?”

“I’m making you responsible for this.  If the Literary Girls aren’t all up in their rooms by curfew, you will be getting detention.  Do you understand me?”

Foxfire winced, “Yes ma’am.”

The Lit Chix remained around the table while the other three girls in the cottage’s library cleared out.  Then Loophole whispered, “Why did Bek get put in charge?”

Foxfire put her finger to her lips.  She whispered, “Reiko?”  And a misty gray form shimmered across the floor to puddle in her lap, transforming into a yearling silver fox.  The foxling promptly rolled over to have its tummy scratched.  Foxfire obliged with a quick belly rub.  The foxling gave her a glare as if to say ‘hey you can do way better than that’.

Foxfire sighed, “I know, but I need you to go make sure no one’s hanging around.  Especially not Shady, if you know what I mean.”  Foxfire’s roommate Shadowdancer was the biggest snoop in the whole dorm, mainly because her shadow powers were always helping her get away with it.

The foxling gave a quick, agreeable yip and raced off to the hallway.

Loophole tried again, “Come on, Bek.  Why’d you get put in charge?”

Foxfire stared at her.  “You mean, besides the fact that you would’ve been arguing about the exact details of the curfew rules for the next two hours?”

Loophole tried to say that wasn’t fair, but the intense snickering from Arachne and Reverb got her to stop before she stuck her foot farther in her mouth.  So she just frowned at Bek.

Arachne added, “Besides, Mrs. Savage knows who’s always behind all the naughty stuff we ever do, so she just figured she’d assign blame preemptively.”

“Hey!” squawked Foxfire.

Lifeline looked intently into Foxfire’s eyes.  “But it’s true, Rebecca.  You know it is.  So why argue about it?”

Foxfire shrugged, “Anyway, we don’t have time.  We need to get out of here before Savage comes back and catches us.  And I do have something I want to bring up…”

“I knew it!”  The odd echo told Foxfire that Reverb had said the words at exactly the same time that Loophole had.

Foxfire sighed, “Look, it’ll only take a couple minutes.  You know how Project ‘Princess Aura’ has been going…”

Arachne muttered, “Yeah.  The first rule of Project Princess Aura is do not talk about Project Princess Aura.”

Selkie pouted, “I tried talking to her about co-writing a story…”

Loophole added, “I was sure she’d be interested in writing a sci-fi anti-hero story.  You know, she’d subconsciously be writing about herself, and-”

Foxfire cut her off, “We’ve all tried.  No one’s been able to get She-Beast interested in joining the Literary Girls anyway.  And it was a great idea!  Once we had her writing about a supervillain, we’d be able to look through her stuff for clues, and figure out what she and her brother were up to, and then we’d be able to lay a trap to catch them, and…”

Lifeline interrupted, “But what if they weren’t up to anything?  What if they’re trying NOT to do anything while they’re surrounded by superheroes?”

Reverb insisted, “We know they’re up to something!  They’re Dr. Diabolik’s kids!  They have to be up to something!”

“You said that already,” Foxfire pointed out.  “You say that every time.”

Loophole complained, “So what’s the point?  We’ve talked about this before.”

Foxfire looked at her and explained, “I have new information.  Someone walked right in and took over our plan.  I think.  Phase just walked right up to She-Beast and Nacht on Monday, and talked with Sheeb for like hours.  And then she did it again today.  Somehow, she got under the Beast’s guard.  I don’t know what she did.  She’s not one of the Magical Arts students, and she doesn’t have psi powers.”

Lifeline asked, “Well, what can she do?  You saw all of them fight, back in Boston.”

Selkie pointed out, “When you got hurt.”

Foxfire groaned involuntarily.  That hadn’t been fun.  “Phase?  She’s super-strong, and she can ‘phase’ through things.  She beat Matterhorn, and-”

“Matterhorn?”

“SHE’S the one you said picked up Matterhorn and body-slammed him half a dozen times?”

Lifeline quietly pointed out, “Becky, Matterhorn is a forty-foot giant.  He must weigh over ten tons.  That would make Phase the strongest brick at Whateley.  That can’t be right.”

Loophole said, “Well, maybe she’s just figured out some way around the whole ‘giant size changer’ thing.  She’s a Goodkind, right?  Maybe she’s just bought some really high-end devises so she can disrupt Warper effects.  Or maybe she paid some mages to ‘Dumbledore’ up some fancy charms for her.  Or…”

“Well, she did something,” interrupted Foxfire, who pointed at the clock.  She knew that if she let Elaine get going, they’d be sitting there all night while Loophole tried to figure out every possible way Phase could have pulled it off.  And they only had about fifteen minutes left.  “At ANY rate, she’s targeted She-Beast.  And she’s horning in on our plan.”

“How do you figure that?” asked Arachne.

Reverb and Lifeline both groaned.  If Becky got started on her big exposition, they might be sitting there for half an hour.

Foxfire glared at them, looked at the clock, and admitted, “Okay, I don’t have time to go over everything I figured out.  We’ll cover that tomorrow.  But here’s the basics.  Phase is a Goodkind.  The Goodkinds have been after Dr. Diabolik ever since his attack on Pittsburg destroyed a major Goodkind Research lab and trashed the surrounding Harriet Goodkind Memorial wildlife area.  I figure Harriet Goodkind is revered in their family like some sort of saint, because they have a ton of good things named after her, all over the country.  So you just know the Goodkinds went postal when one of her memorials got chewed to bits.  I figure that Phase has to be trying to trip up She-Beast to get at Dr. Diabolik.”

Arachne pointed out, “She-Beast has to know that, and yet she’s still talking to Phase.  I don’t get that.”

Foxfire admitted, “Me neither.  Maybe they’re both trying to scam the other.  If so, one of them’s going to lose.  If Phase takes down She-Beast, we want to be in on it.  If Phase gets creamed, we want to be there to catch She-Beast in the act.  Either way, we’ll finally get to be the heroes!”

 
Thursday, November 30
AYLA

I did my best to make it look like I was hurrying through my morning routine, while still getting in a good ten minutes of staring into the mirror.  I got to ogle half of the hotties on the floor for at least a little bit, before someone was nudging me to ‘quit hogging the sink’.

Man, there is no way I’m ever going to tire of watching Fey do her matutinal ministrations while wearing nothing but a semi-sheer white peignoir and still being damp enough for it to cling to her skin.  Oh my GAWD.  Not to mention Bugs and Vox and Rip and the rest of the gang.  I would have ogled Chaka too, but that Ki sense of hers always seemed to tip her off when I was focusing on her.  She wasn’t as curvy or as sexy as Vanessa, but the way she just sort of flowed through her morning movements was just mesmerizing.

I had a quick conference call with some New York business partners before I rushed off to breakfast.  Setting up a corporate buyout was WAY harder when you didn’t have your own teams of lawyers and accountants on hand.  Otherwise, I would have just bought most of the company myself, and had my executives handle the details.  As it was, I was having to let some other businessmen in on the plan, and to trust that they could keep their teams from leaking the news to the buyout target.  Or to the Wall Street Journal.  I needed my own financial organization that would be loyal to me.

Right, like a fourteen-year-old mutant intersexed freak was going to inspire loyalty in anyone.  Meanwhile, I had to get the buyout done before Marvel’s parent company made any more stupid commitments on movie rights.  I swear, those guys didn’t have enough sense to keep from sinking their life’s savings in ePets.

And at breakfast, I even got a morning treat from Chef Marcel.  Two perfectly-prepared, still piping-hot French crepes, each wrapped around a tart, tangy cherry conserve filling.  The conserve was made of fresh pie cherries, with orange zest and cinnamon to give it some zing, and just enough green tea to give it some bite.  The crepes were exquisite, and went perfectly with the crème fraiche artistically drizzled over the top.

After I ate, I had to go talk about the conserve with Marcel.  He whispered in French, “Be sure to look for the lunch crepes as well.  I am feeling quite in the mood for the crepes today, and we managed to import some real farinede blé noir from Brittany, so for lunch I’m preparing some traditional Brittany buckwheat crepes with the scallops and the onion confit.

Well, there was no way I was going to pass that up.

After breakfast, I had a chance to have a relatively private chat with Bunny.  “So, what do you think of my idea?”

She wrinkled up her nose and admitted, “I just don’t have time now.  I’ve got a big project for Workshop that’s due before finals, I promised Jade I’d upgrade her grappling hook system by next weekend, and-“

I cut her off with a raised hand.  “It’s okay.  I’m not in ‘deadline’ mode.  I just wanted to know if you thought it was workable.”

She brightened up at that, and her head twitched in a side-to-side motion that made her spaniel-ears hairstyle move like bunny-ears.  It would have looked pretty funny if she weren’t so darn sexy.  She grinned, “Oh yeah, it’s definitely ‘workable’.  I ought to be able to build it all into the lenses on your headmask, with maybe a few additions in the fabric around the lenses.  But instead of a StarLight™ night-vision system - which won’t do you a bit of good inside a sewer or a cave or something-“

“Ugh.  Don’t remind me.”

“Well, anyway,” she chirped on, “I was thinking about a small near-infrared light, maybe mounted just outside your right eye or at your temple, and working up a lens material that would shift the near-infrared to a low-end red color, so you could see it.  Then you’d have your own light source, and no one else would see it.”

“Kewl,” I added.

“The ‘getting near a strong electrical source’ signal is easy.  As long as it isn’t totally shielded, any major voltage source is going to be giving off a massive magnetic signature, so I can just design a liquid crystal display on the inside of your lenses that shows a scale for magnetic flux density.  That’ll be your surrogate for ‘strong electrical source here’.  Okay?”

“More than okay.”

She grinned her ‘Bugs’ grin that had all the male devisers drooling over her.  “An altimeter isn’t going to work.  Normal altimetry works based on relative air pressure readings.  You’re not going to have that available if you’re fifty feet under ground.  Right?”

“Right,” I nodded.

She went on, “So I think what you need is just a ‘which way is up’ system and a compass system, which we can do in a single display image.  I just worked it out, but I haven’t implemented it yet.  I was thinking a compass display that shows ‘N’ or ‘SW’ or ‘NNW’ or whatever, but is also rotated to show your relationship to ‘down’, which we’ll do with a simple gravimetric detector.”

“Sounds clever,” I encouraged her.

She frowned, “As for all the rest of the stuff you asked about…”

I waved her off, “Don’t worry.  I already outsourced that stuff.  I’ve paid Rubik out in California to put me in his queue and work on that stuff for me.”

Her eyes got big.  “Whoa.  Rubik himself?  But he charges a fortune for…”  She let out a breath.  “Oh yeah.  You’re Richie Rich.  I forgot for a second.  I sure wish I could meet him sometime…”

I grinned, “Tell you what.  If I’m going to pick up my stuff from him next summer, I’ll fly you in so you can meet him too.  How’s that sound?”

She gave me the big happy puppy dog eyes and gasped, “You’d do that for me?  Oh Ayla, you’re the best!”  She wrapped her arms around my neck and gave me a huge hug.  Then she realized we had nearly reached my classroom, and she rushed off for her first class, down in the Workshop areas.

“Shit, what I wouldn’t give to have Bugs hugging me like that.”

I went heavy as I turned around.  It was Superior and a couple of his asswipe sidekicks.  I snarked, “Never gonna happen.  You’d have to be a nice person first.”  I didn’t mention he’d have to be a nice girl first as well.

One of his buddies sneered at me, “Shut up, faggot.”

I smirked, “Ooh, snappy comeback there, Mortimer Snerd.  Why don’t you and Jerry Mahoney-” I tilted my head at Superior’s other flunky, “-get going before Inferior here has to lead you to your seats?”

“Shut up, freak!”

“Man, you guys really have all the snappy rejoinders lined up, don’t you?” I grinned.

Superior stepped forward and stared down at me.  “Watch it, weirdo.  Or I’ll have to do something about it.”

I glared up at him.  “Any time you want, M.K.  Any time.  Just you and me, in Arena ’77.  The whole school can watch on closed circuit while I turn you into a boyfriend for Tisiphone.”  He didn’t take that too well.  He gave me the tough-guy posture, but the fear was showing in his eyes.  I added, “It only took me one pass, right through her the hard way.  Of course, she was in agony for about four straight days afterward.  And then she got shipped off to Hawthorne until she could control her powers again.  Then she got dumped into Whitman.  And now none of her old friends will even talk to her.  You probably wouldn’t enjoy it a whole lot either.  But I can make it happen.  If I have to.”

He spun on his heel.  “C’mon, guys.  I can’t stand to be around this weirdo another second.”  They hurried off into the classroom.

A deep voice behind me rumbled, “Run run run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Superior man.”

I turned, to find Igneous and one of his friends enjoying the show.  So I gave them a half-bow.

Igneous rumbled in his nearly-subsonic way, “Nice job, Phase.  High five.”

Since I was already heavy, I gave him a serious high-five.

He grinned and shook his hand, “Damn, you’re stronger than you look.  Come on, we’ll be late to class.”

Of course, just about any class would be better than a confrontation with big jerks when I had to threaten them with something so horrific that it still made my stomach churn.  I hadn’t told anybody except Dr. Bellows and Chou, but I still had occasional nightmares about accidentally shredding someone’s BIT and turning them into a hideous monstrosity.  And some of the biggest assholes in my life - Golden Girl, Superior, most of the Alphas, you name ‘em - were Exemplars that I didn’t dare give the ol’ phase-disruption anymore.

Classes were fairly boring.  I worked on getting farther ahead in my Spanish and trig homework while Mrs. Ryan tried to make several pinheads in Costume Shop realize that their color choices were either (a) ugly; (b) nauseating; (c) embarrassing; or (d) all of the above.

I did my usual detour to my locker to download stuff from my memory stick to my official Whateley laptop.  When I wasn’t lugging my school laptop to classes, I made sure to update it with files and changes from my real computer back in my room.  Since the memory stick was easy to lose (or steal, if you really want to know my opinion), I made sure not to carry around in it any more than a few file updates or a list of file changes.  That day, I pulled the laptop out of my locker and hauled it off to my next classes.

Then I used Powers Theory class to complete my Costume Shop homework for Friday and Monday.  It was all computer work, and I made sure to save the changes and mods to my memory stick so I’d have the details on my room computer, where the real work got done.  There wasn’t much point in listening to Dr. Quintain, since he was virtually reading verbatim from the textbook on the qualitative differences between Wizard levels 1-3 and Wizard levels above 3.

Not to mention that I had a Wizard next door to me who was probably about a WIZ-7, and could accidentally whip up stormclouds just by having PMS, so I had already grasped the fundamentals of his lecture: Wizards levels 3 and lower - wimpy unless given lots of prep time; Wizards levels 4 and higher - prepare for trouble, and make it double.

Charmer was obviously bored by Quintain’s lecture - frankly, no human could listen to that droning tedium and not be bored insensate - and the dismissive look in her eye told me that I’d probably not have a lot of success quizzing her on her own power levels.  But she looked at me and her eyes lit up.

Oh.  She was going to ask me for something.

She excitedly whispered in French, “Phase, tell me if you please, what is the level of the Wizard for Fey?”

I tried not to smile as I answered, “I do not know, but if I had to guess, I would say that she is a Wizard-7. Higher than that, possibly.  She has created magical effects in the hallways by accident which are more powerful than some of the so-called impressive performances Majestic has done in the Quad.”

There was an odd look in Charmer’s eyes.  It wasn’t jealousy.  Perhaps a mixture of respect, and a longing to be that good.  I couldn’t really read her.  I did look pretty hard.  It wasn’t as if staring into those lovely violet eyes was a hardship.

Then I hurried to get to lunch.  Chef Marcel saw me enter the Crystal Hall, and ducked back into the kitchen.  I stalled, putting together a small but complex salad, so that he had time to whip up the crêpes.  By the time I strolled past the serving tables for the main dishes, he was ready.  A centaur - a centaur wearing a chef’s white coat and a hairnet - trotted out with a wide plate and handed it to me.

“Thanks, Jana,” I grinned.

She smiled and whispered, “You’ll really enjoy these.”

I hurried back to the Team Kimba table and touched Fey’s crystal so I could hear what was going on.  I mean, the usual conversations were pretty wack, but the fake conversation that the crystal was generating was absolutely unbearable: which Britney Spears album was the best.

“…so then I showed him what a Ki-powered wedgie felt like, and…”

“…I wasn’t being that scary.  Honest!  But suddenly she screamed like I was turning into Sara or something, and this huge yellow stain flooded the front of her pants…”

“…so how was I supposed to know he could smell that I’d been down in the sewers and he could still smell the velociraptor guts from when Morrie blasted that thing?  I mean, I showered really hard afterward!”

Okay, maybe the Britney Spears discussion wasn’t so bad in comparison.  TK did have some pretty freaky mealtime conversations.

“Whoa!  Ayles!  Pancakes for lunch?” Toni asked, as she eyed my food.

Fey stopped talking with Jade and looked over.  “Crepes, right?”

I nodded.  It was pretty obvious they weren’t pancakes.  Each crêpe was so crisp and thin that it was almost semi-transparent.  One was topped with a confit of onions and a garnish of crisp bacon.  The other was topped with halved scallops in a delicate white sauce that was redolent with the scents of a fine wine.

I tried the scallops first.  Oh man.  The crêpe was light but firm, with a crunchy, salty richness that still allowed the malty tang of the buckwheat flour to shine through.  The sauce noix de Saint Jacques was a delicious white wine cream sauce that had been made from a really rich fish stock and a really rich muscadet, along with pureed scallops unless I missed my guess.  Then perfectly-browned halved sea scallops were scattered over the sauce to provide a marvelous accompaniment to the crêpe.

The onion one was just as exquisite.  One mouthful told me it was a confit d’oignons au cidre - a cider-spiked onion confit.  Thinly-sliced caramelized onions, a sweet apple cider that tasted like the alcohol had been carefully burned off in the cooking, freshly grated nutmeg, and sea salt.  A really tasty accompaniment for the buckwheat crêpe.

“Hey Ayles, when you’re done having a foodgasm, how’s about a taste?”

I nearly laughed at Toni’s comment.  And spitting food all over the place is a sin when the food is this good.

Fey tried too, “Umm, could I have a taste of the onion one?”

I grinned, “Sure, but you’d better be prepared.  This is a Breton-style crêpe, and it’s made with farine de blé noir instead of regular flour.  It’s savory and tangy, instead of sweet or pancake-y.”

Hank eyed my food with alarm, as if I’d told him that it had been prepared using Satanic rituals.  Well, Hank wasn’t exactly Mister Adventures-In-Dining.

I cut a bite of the one with the onion confit for Fey, and a bite of the scallop one for Chaka, then watched as they ate.

Chaka finally said, “Okay, you got me.  This time, I don’t know whether to say ‘mm-mm good’ or ‘what the hell are you trying ta make me eat’.  That’s kinda really good, and kinda weird.”

Fey agreed, “The onion stuff is really good, but the crêpe part…  I guess I’m just sort of stuck on the idea of crêpes being sweet.”

I explained, “It’s the flour.  They’re using a special buckwheat flour from Brittany.  That’s in France.  So the flour has the acidic, almost flinty, taste that comes from the soil it’s grown in.  What in the wine-snob world you would call the terroir.”

“Sounds weird,” volunteered Hank.

Jade just sort of stared in shock, as if I’d offered her chilled monkey brains or something.

Tennyo shrugged, “What’s the deal?  Food is food.”  Then she proceeded to wolf down a slab of chocolate cake that was about the size of her head.

After that, things went back to normal.  For lunch with Team Kimba, anyway.  Chou mooched a small piece of the onion crêpe, while Jade kept complaining about some overly-squeamish kid in her class who had a super-sensitive nose and had nearly passed out from the dead-monster smell she hadn’t managed to scrub off.  Jamie wheedled a little of the scallop sauce, while Chaka carefully explained that some people just needed a Ki-powered wedgie to get the message across.  And Sara came by to needle Tennyo about accidentally scaring some freshman girl so badly that she’d peed her pants in the hallway.  Did I have the weirdest friends on campus, or what?

Of course, they probably said the same thing about me too.  Repeatedly.

Walking to aikido class was just like always, even if there did seem to be more speedsters zipping past than on most days.  Not that this was anything weird, since some of our speedsters weren’t too speedy between the ears, and were likely to use their speed to recover from leaving books or papers back in the room or in the locker.  Or even zipping off in the wrong direction and having to make.. ahem.. ‘mid-course corrections’.

Haywire spotted me about halfway across the quad and flagged me down.  “Phase!  Hello!  You’re not going to be too tough on me this time if sensei pits you against me, are you?”

I gave him a ruthless smile.  “Oh come on, Haywire.  The Reason Ito’s been putting you up against me and Britomart and Adamantine is you’re too dependent on one attack.  If you can’t shock your opponent, then you’re done.  You really need to work on the martial arts part more than the ‘using your powers’ part.”  Man, I couldn’t believe I just said that out loud.  Was I channeling Chaka or something?  “And you need to dream up sneakier things you can do with your powers.”

“Got any suggestions?” he wheedled.  “I heard you came up with that move Aquerna’s been using that looks like she’s scrambling up a tree.  Every time she uses that on me, I get a couple bruises in suspicious places.”

“Well, why don’t you shock her while she’s still scrambling over you?”

He blushed a little.  “I tried.  She is much quicker than she looks.”

I nodded.  “And then she gives you that squirrel look?  The ‘oops did I do that?’ one?”

He grimaced.  “Ja dyirbal.  Yes.  It is most frustrating.”

I told him, “Well, my best recommendation is to find out what Blitz does in sixth period MA.  She’s got your ‘shock the shit out of ‘em’ power, plus better martial arts skills.  And I don’t think she can do the static charge stuff you can do, so there might be some things you could do that she can’t.”

He frowned, “Blitz is.. unlikely to be willing to talk with me about this.”

Okay, his expression was somewhere between ‘discouraged’ and ‘she hates me with a deep abiding passion’.  “What did you and your Mastermind pals do to her?”

“WHAT?!” he yelped.  “Me?  No, I am not one of the Masterminds.  What would make you think that?”

I rolled my eyes.  “Come on, Haywire.  I’m friends with Lancer, and I know Wallflower too.  It’s not like I didn’t hear the entire story of you guys trying to swipe the variable interface devise a while back.  As a matter of fact, I think I’ve heard Lancer tell it about three times.  To different people.  You guys aren’t very popular around campus, so it’s a big hit.”

He sputtered a bit, as he tried to protest his innocence.  He was about as convincing as Daffy Duck claiming it was ‘wabbit season’.

Aikido class was its usual barrel of laughs.  After Phobos and I were paired up to work on throws and counters, it was time for sparring.  First off, I got Charmer.  She had a set of charms made especially to fight me – which I suppose I should take as some kind of compliment.  Her barrier charm hadn’t stopped me before, since I could either phase through it, fly over it, or dive underground to get under it.  Some of her other charms had also proved less than effective against me.  So she had a new strategy.  A charm that put a glittering globe of containment around her, plus three golem charms.  Three golems were too much to beat down in the three minutes we had for the match, and I couldn’t get through her containment charm whether I was heavy or light.  The best I managed to do was give her a bit of a headache by going heavy and pounding on the globe until her golems jumped me.  The worst I managed was taking a terrific shot when I hit that globe while going light.  Ouch.  Ito ruled it a draw.

So then I had to spar against Phobos, and I wasn’t allowed to use my Warper powers.  Great.  An Exemplar-3 against her Exemplar-4 strength and speed, plus her four arms for extra blocking and striking.  I spent the whole match retreating, trying to attack her non-human legs with the human-style kicks of aikido.  Frankly, her legs were better suited to kicking backward, so I had to make sure not to be right behind her unless I wanted to get kicked into next week.  I lost, but not too badly.  Still, I was going to need Chou’s muscle cream, and I knew I’d have bruises for the rest of the weekend.  That scrawny little Japanese bastard.

After that, Prism and I had to spar with no powers except our Exemplar abilities.  We were really pretty even there, so it was a good match.  Prism had a longer reach and more strength, but I was a bit quicker and I seemed to be ahead of him on aikido skills, possibly because Chaka liked to show me new stuff back at the dorm.  (Translation: demonstrate new ways to throw Ayla into a wall.)  I got in a lot more strikes, but his blows had more power.  Ito ruled that I won, which I thought was a technicality.  A stupid but apparently necessary technicality, since neither of us was lying on the mat bleeding and unconscious.  Still, awarding a winner based on number of unblocked strikes in a school like Whateley was just insane.  It meant that someone like Scrambler could zip in, deliver forty meaningless punches, and zip out.. and ‘win’ a bout against Tennyo or me or Lancer when she couldn’t even hurt us.  Like I said, stupid.

Well, maybe Ito was trying to teach Prism some point about working harder on his aikido skills.  Or maybe he was trying to teach me that I should let Chaka whomp up on me more because I was actually learning things from her.

Frankly, Chaka was awesome at martial arts, not that I needed to tell her that.  I had used her as a resource a couple times.  Any time someone in class tried out a move I didn’t know how to counter, I’d just go back to the dorm and show it to her, and she would instinctively know what to do.  That girl was going to put Ito out of business in a couple years.  It wouldn’t surprise me if some day she had her own fighting style, and a chain of martial arts studios, and exercise videos with titles like “Lose Weight The Chaka Way!”  Or maybe “Thinner Thighs and Flying Feet: Become A Hottie And Kick The Ass Of Guys Who Don’t Take ‘No’ For An Answer.”  Maybe she ought to be talking with me about venture capital for her future chain of Chaka-Do exercise studios.

After I showered, I walked off to Powers Theory.  Golden Girl followed me almost all the way, which was just weird.  She wasn’t scowling at me, like usual.  Which was really weird, because she had really been mad at me back in class, probably because I hadn’t been pummeled by Prism.  So I didn’t know why she was going to be late to her own class just to follow me to Powers Theory, and I didn’t know why she wasn’t glaring at me, and I didn’t know why she wasn’t hanging with her usual posse either.  That girl had issues.

Automa-Tech met up with me outside Powers Theory to tell me in Spanish, “Phase, I was able to reserve a small meeting room at Melville for tomorrow evening, from 8:00 until 9:30.  I look forward to hearing what you have found out about patent rights for my invention.  I have been most frustrated hearing about other Europeans who had their intellectual property rights stolen completely by the <something I didn’t get> Easterners and the Russians.

Fortunately, I was able to follow all of that, except for the rude bit about the Eastern Europeans that she stuck in.  Something maybe about a goat, along with some verbs that were definitely not in the vocab sections of my Spanish textbook.  I replied, “That sounds excellent.  I’ll see you at the entrance to Melville at eight.  You will need to accompany me while I am in Melville, since I am not popular with a number of residents.”  I’d been working on my Spanish, but it still came out stilted because the idioms weren’t my strong point.

She snorted, “Yes, yes, I have heard all about your adventures with the Alphas, and the Yellow Queen’s brigade of idiots, and several others I would be most pleased to see leave Whateley for good.

I turned to go into Powers Theory.  Golden Girl was gone, but over where she had been standing, one of Superior’s buddies was standing staring at a closed locker like he couldn’t remember his locker combination.  When had that dork come down the hall?  And where had Golden Girl gotten off to?  And did those guys even have their lockers over here?

And then Powers Theory was its usual fun.  Not.

I did my usual lifts and recorded my results.  I’d been building muscles all term long, so I was up over two tons on my powerlift.  But that was when I was maximally heavy.  And it was chump change for Whateley.  Lancer could lift five tons with his pinky.  Hip could bench over eight tons.  And Fey could probably lift even more than that with just a twitch of her nose and a handwave.  Around Whateley, ‘lifting two tons’ was utterly unimpressive.

Then Dr. Yablonski drafted me as one of the helpers for some work the Energizers were doing.  Tennyo and Blot also got tabbed, so I figured the Stern Teacher Of Justice was picking out the more damage-resistant kids to wave the targets around.  Each of the Energizers was trying to hit a moving target without trashing the area behind the target.  I got to be one of the people holding the targets on the ends of long non-conductive metal rods.

We waved the targets about, trying to keep them from being blasted.  It was boring, tedious, and not very safe even when I was heavy.  Most of the Energizers didn’t have pinpoint aim, and none of them could regularly hit a moving target that flew around haphazardly.  Of course, that was the whole point of the exercise, since half of them could accidentally kill an innocent bystander if they really cut loose and then missed their target.  Still, being part of the ‘ancillary damage’ for the class wasn’t exactly a laugh riot.  Blot didn’t mind the energy blasts, but he got hit with some molten metal rod toward the end of class, and had to go to the clinic because of the burn on his arm.  Ouch.  I had to wonder how they were going to treat a burn they couldn’t see, since he absorbed all the light that shone on him.

Someone different followed me to trig class.  This time, I knew it was a shapeshifter or an illusion, because the person looked like Musk.  And I knew damned well that Musk couldn’t walk down the school hallways without a special sealed environmental suit because of the odor she gave off all the time.  Maybe I was getting paranoid, but I was starting to wonder if there had been a lot of people following me around lately.

As they say in the industrial security biz, “it isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you.”

On the other hand, Bogus was known to be a pretty smart mimic.  I couldn’t see him copying Musk, when he’d know she wouldn’t be out without an environment suit.  And if he’d been copying Golden Girl, she would’ve acted more like GG really did.  Everyone knew she had a major hate-on for me.  So maybe I was over-reacting.

Or maybe it was a Shifter other than Bogus.

I spent most of trig stewing about potential shapeshifting stalkers.  It was a good thing I was so far ahead in homework in trig, because I definitely wasn’t paying attention to Mrs. Bell.  If I hadn’t already had this chapter of the textbook down cold, I would’ve needed to pester Electrode for her class notes.

On my way from trig class to the Accounting I open session, I spent a lot of time looking for possible stalkers.  I didn’t see anyone unusual, or anyone who followed me all the way to the classroom.  But a good shapeshifter ought to be able to switch shapes quickly enough to cover that problem.  On the other hand, there were a couple speedsters who zoomed past me, when there usually weren’t any on this path at this time of day.

Great.  If this was a power mimic like Counterpoint, there was no telling all the ways he could choose for following me around.  Flight, invisibility, magic, scrying, …

Accounting open session went okay, even I got interrupted by a phone call, and even if a bunch of people in the class were still tossing Aqueous out as a wind dummy while they waited for me to turn into a mutant-hating monster and scream at him or something.  I finally glanced over at a couple of the kids clustered around Mister Marley and whispered to Aqueous, “Aren’t you getting kind of tired of being the designated chewtoy here?”

He shrugged, which looked really kind of sickening since he’s pretty much made of water.  His shoulders sort of lurched like a water balloon.  “What the hell,” he answered.  “I get worse all the time.  The fucking pretties around here treat most of Twain like that.  And it’s worse back home.  Felt like most of my whole damn town was H-One.”  He glared at some of the kids who were peeking our way, and turned back to me.  “Fuck ‘em.  I want an ‘A’ in this course.  Show me what I did wrong on the homework.”

 
Thursday November 30, 5 pm
THE ALPHAS

Don Sebastiano looked away from the television when his cell phone rang.  He let Cavalier answer it.  After all, what was the point of the most obedient servant ever, if you didn’t let your servant do all the dirty work?

He listened as Cavalier answered the phone, “Don Sebastiano’s residence.  May I ask who’s calling?”

After a long pause, Cavalier stepped over to the phone cradle and plugged in the phone, switching it to speakerphone.  An obviously electronic voice came through.  “I have evidence on Phase.  And She-Beast.  Hard evidence.  A tape recording of them talking about a murder.  I’m going to auction it off tomorrow night at seven.  Are you interested?”

Cavalier raised his eyebrows and looked at Don Sebastiano, who took a moment to decide.  He gave a quick nod.  Cavalier said, “Yes, The Don is interested.  He will, naturally, require evidence that this tape is genuine, and that it really does provide evidence that would stand up in court.”

The voice said, “Sure.  Who wouldn’t?  Have a deviser who can compare the voice tracks against Phase and She-Beast, so you’ll know it’s real.”

Cavalier nodded silently and then asked, “Who will we be bidding against?”

The voice said, “Don’t know yet.  The Good Ol’ Boyz are in, and so is Thuban.  I still have a couple more calls to make.  I’ll call each of you at eight tomorrow night, and we’ll have a phone auction.  Then the winner gets me the money in a simple swap the next night.”

Cavalier said, “Good enough.”  And the phone line went dead.  He turned to The Don and asked, “Any other thoughts, sir?”

Don Sebastiano looked at the ceiling for several seconds before he nodded.  “Yes, Cav.  First, get one of our on-call devisers in on this.  I’ll want real proof that it really is an un-altered conversation between Phase and She-Beast.  Then I’ll want our little deviser to put a tracer on the phone so we’ll know who’s working this one.  We may want to reclaim our money at some point, or perhaps - if they’re good enough - persuade them to work for us when we choose.  Then call Solange and ask her how much money she’ll contribute.”

“I’m on it now, sir,” nodded Cavalier, as he turned back to the phone.

The Don knew that without hearing it.  He took a sip of his martini and turned back to the television.

 

WHATELEY SECURITY

Trews and Green reported to Sergeant Buxton’s office.  Most of the time, people who were summoned to Buxton’s office were in for the ass-chewing of their lives.  But they knew they wouldn’t get off with just some yelling.  They knew Buxton was going to toss them in front of a sniper and see if they got their heads blown off.  Well, the Whateley version of it, anyway.

Buxton looked up when they came in, and waited impatiently until they closed the door.  Then he pressed a small white cube and made sure it glowed green.  “Okay, we’re safe to talk.  For a moment, anyway.  I’ve got the package being prepped right now.  It’ll be ready before midnight.  Call Phase and arrange to deliver it tomorrow.  Got it?”

“Yes sir,” said Trews.

Green nodded, and then dared to ask, “What if she goes postal when she reads the stuff?”

Buxton grinned nastily, “That’s what we’re hoping for.  If she makes a run on our patsy, we’ll know she’s safe.  If she turns the intel over to Goodkind interests and they make a run on our patsy, we’ll know she’s trouble.”

Trews asked, “What if she doesn’t do either?”

Buxton shook his head, “You don’t have to worry about that.  With the dynamite we’re putting in this package, she’ll explode, one way or another.”

Trews reluctantly said, “Yes sir.”

Buxton pointed at the phone on his desk.  “Go ahead and call her on her cell.  Set up a meet for tomorrow.  Try for breakfast time.  She’s got more of a window then.”

Trews nervously picked up the phone and dialed.

“Phase here.  Can you call back a little later?  This isn’t convenient.”

Trews said, “It’s officers Trews and Green.  We have something of yours that I believe you’re looking for.  Can you swing by and pick it up before breakfast tomorrow morning?  Same place that we saw you the last time.”

“I’ll be there.”

Buxton took the phone from Trews and hung it up.  “See?  Piece of cake.”

The two security officers left Buxton’s office and moved out of Kane Hall before they started talking again.

Green asked in puzzlement, “Same place as last time?”

Trews nodded.  “Yeah.  The hallway outside the Golden Kids meeting.”

“Oh right.”

The walked silently for nearly a minute before Green spoke again.  “I hope this doesn’t backfire.”

Trews agreed, “Yeah.  ‘Cause, if this blows up, we’re the ones who’ll end up being the ‘ancillary damage’.  Buxton’ll walk off scot free either way.”

Green muttered, “Well, at least Phase isn’t one of the school ‘rippers’.”

Trews grimaced, “Yet.  Who the hell knows what she’ll do if this goes bad?  You hear what she did in Powers Theory?”

“What?”

“Andrews did a demo for Quintain.  He was in a Roosevelt-class MCO power armor suit.  She scragged it and knocked him out before he could blink.  He said she just jumped through the fucking armor and then ripped the back out of it.  He said it felt like she hit him with about fifty Tasers all at once, all over his body.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.  And she can run through walls and crap.  If she goes for us, there ain’t any place that’s safe, except for inside a forcefield or something.”

“That fucking Buxton.  This better work, or I’ll come back as a ghost just to frag his ass.”

 

THE MASTERMINDS

Stopwatch caught up to Hazard as she walked back toward Melville.

She was talking on her cellphone, obviously arguing with someone.  “Look, I know that, you ponce.  No, I’m not telling you what that means.  Americans!  Honestly!  It’s simple.  Lay off twenty percent of that, and you’ll be covered.  No, the odds of that are ridiculous.  Just twenty percent.  I…  Bloody hell, I’ve got to go.”

She turned around and said, “What do you want this time, ‘Watch?”

Stopwatch checked for surveillance with a devise that looked like a small scanner, and then smugly said, “I wanted to give you an update.  I had Dash and Jello following Phase all day in between classes…”

“I know.  You’ve been going on about this already.”

He nodded, “We already have a success.  Two, in fact.”

Hazard refused to give Stopwatch any credit.  “So you’re saying that Jello and Dash did an extremely good job?”

He admitted, “Jello did a lot better than usual.  Not only did she see Phase loading stuff onto her Whateley laptop, but she found out that Phase actually leaves it in her locker at night.  She doesn’t take it home!”

Hazard shrugged, “I could’ve told you that.  Risk told me Phase has some super-expensive computer set-up in her dorm room.  Better than the Whateley gear, and it’s loaded with cool games.  Plus it’s got awesome playtoys.  Holographic visor, high-end steering wheels, joysticks, all kinds of stuff.  Lancer’s gotten to play Halo on it a bunch of times.  Phase let Risk and Flux play on it one day as some sort of payoff, and Risk says it’s the best game system he’s ever heard of.”

Stopwatch grumbled, “Hmmph.  Stinking rich bitch.”

Hazard finished, “So, as I was saying, Phase told him that she leaves her laptop where she can slog it around to classes.”

Stopwatch tried to recover, “Well, Jello also came up with a time for us to run the caper.  Phase was having a talk with Automa-tech in Spanish.  Jello doesn’t speak Spanish, but she got a recording of the entire thing.  I translated it.  Even the part where she was saying some things about Eastern Europeans and goats that I really ought to play for Bogus and Glissade and some of their pals, just to get Automa in trouble with them.”

“And your point would be…” Hazard interrupted, in her most glacial ‘aristocrat’ tones.

“The point would be that Phase is meeting Automa-tech at her dorm Saturday night at 8 to talk about getting the patent rights for an invention of Automa’s.  We now have a window of opportunity.  Now all we have to do is plan on luring the Secret Squirrels out of the way, and do a little detail work to figure out what kind of security Phase has on her locker.”

 

THE INTELLIGENCE CADET CORPS

Ace waited until everyone was seated.  Then he stood up and said, “We have news.  Kew?  Would you report on our tracking progress?”

Kew looked a little nervous as she looked at her computer screen.  “We’ve been tracking Phase too, since this week.  She didn’t meet with the Bads today.  She only attended classes and followed her usual routine – as far as we know.  Even her lunchtime was typical.  She sat with the rest of Team Kimba and ignored the lunch conversation, which was pretty boring anyway, unless you actually care about Britney Spears albums, and one of them shopping for Hello Kitty fashions.”  She paused while A-Plus and Rez cringed, and Interface made a ‘gag me’ gesture with his index finger.  “On the other hand, Stopwatch abruptly changed his usual pattern, which – based on his past behaviors – probably means he’s planning a new caper.”

Ace asked, “And what about the other Masterminds?”

Kew frowned in concentration as she pulled up some charts on the monitor.  “Okay, as you can see, Jello wasn’t doing her usual routes.  I’ve got her usual routes marked in blue, and today’s unusual ones marked in red.  Note that the red ones fall right after most of the class periods, except for after lunch and after sixth period.  Dash was all over the place.  It looked like he was using up all his power boosts for the entire day, just doing some speedster sprinting up and down the halls in between a few classes.  This light red is for his sprinting before first period, this burgundy red is for after lunch, and this yellow-red shows him after sixth period.”  She put the pattern up on the projector so everyone could see it, and she timestamped every point where he changed direction.

A-Plus stared at it and realized, “That’s not even close to his normal pattern for going to his classes.  He’s…  He’s following someone.”

Interface said, “That pattern looks really familiar.”

Ace said, “Kew.  Pull up Phase’s tracking data, overlay Dash’s movements, and time-synch them.”  He watched as Kew typed rapidly and the image appeared on the big screen.

“Bingo,” breathed A-Plus.  It was obvious from Kew’s mapping images that Dash’s power boosts matched up with Phase’s movements at the same times.

Ace added, “Now add in the tracking data on Jello.”

That took Kew another ten seconds.  Everyone stared as Jello’s movements matched up with those of Phase and Dash.

A-Plus said, “Every time Jello wasn’t following Phase, Dash was.”

Holdout muttered, “I guess we didn’t need to tag Phase.  The Masterminds are tracking her too.  They’ve got their speed-boy and their shifter sneaking around watching Phase without having to tag her with a tracker.”

A-Plus said, “Now we only have to figure out why.”

Kew suggested, “The new tracker Holdout stuck on Dash is working really well.  So I’m pretty sure where their current meeting space is.”

Interface smirked, “Surely you’re not suggesting we commit breaking and entering.. again.  I’m shocked.”

Kew blushed and said, “Well, with the tracker on Dash’s shirt, we’ll lose this opportunity tonight as soon as he takes his shirt off and gets ready for bed.  But right now, we know when they’re in their meeting room.  And we’ll be able to tell when they leave.  It’s a perfect opportunity.”

Ace graveled, “I say we go for it.  If we can plan a way in and back out that minimizes the risk, we should take the chance.  What does everyone else think?  Are we a go?”

A-Plus didn’t like Ace’s tendency to ‘go rogue’ and break the law as part of law enforcement, but she knew it was part of the training of the Intelligence Cadet Corps.  And it was important to know how, if your job was an intelligence officer instead of a police officer.  She clenched her jaw and nodded.

Interface smirked, “This’ll be way more fun than math homework.  I’m in.”

Holdout nodded, “Me too.”

Rez gave a quick glance around the room and nodded too.  As the ‘new kid’, she didn’t feel like she really had a vote.  Not yet, anyway.  Besides, it ought to be pretty cool.

Ace had Kew pull up a map of the part of the tunnel system where the ‘meeting room’ seemed to be, and they started putting together their plan.

 

AYLA

I walked back to the dorm with Vox.  We took the Hawthorne tunnel, since the weather was getting nasty outside.  She gave me a hug when no one was around, and smiled, “I just have the last chapter’s homework to get through, and then I’ll be ready for the final.  You are gonna quiz me before I take it, right?”

“Of course.”

She teased me, “I always knew there’d be perks for dating the course T.A.”

We walked through the airlock into the new Poe corridor.  After the Halloween disaster, someone had come up with some extra funding to improve the heat in Poe cottage and build this short tunnel from the Poe basement into the Hawthorne tunnel.  The rumor was that it was Heyoka’s guardian, Gabriella Guzman.  I wished I’d thought of it, even if the chance that Carson would have let me pay for something like that was pretty much zero.  People called it an ‘airlock’ just because there were two glass doors, about four yards apart, at the Hawthorne tunnel side of the corridor.  Considering how chilly it got in the Hawthorne tunnel, the airlock was a good idea.  Not to mention how it made things easier for monitoring people trying to get into Poe cottage from the main tunnel.

No one had removed the chalk outline on the wall twenty feet south of the doorway, along with the “Phase’s personal doorway” comment.  After all, I was still taking that shortcut sometimes.  I didn’t always bother with the new corridor unless I was walking with someone.  Force of habit, I guess.

Not long after I got back to my room, I got a phone call from the West Coast.  It was Rubik.  “Is this Phase?  This is Rubik.”  His German accent was still unmistakable, even though he had supposedly lived in California for years and years.

“I’m Phase.  I really didn’t expect a call from you any time soon.”

“I have not moved you up in the queue.  I may not be able to get to your projects until spring, since I have several bigger projects already ahead of yours.  But I wanted to check over the specs that you sent me, just to see what sorts of difficulties they might present.  I find it’s often helpful to have these projects rattling around in the back of my mind for a while before I actually start on them.”

“I’m fine with that,” I said.

Zehr gut.  Now you want a set of bootjets powerful enough to give you ten minutes of flight when you are carrying a ton?”

“I’m sorry, I thought I made this clear in the specs.  I’m an extra-dimensional density warper.  I have flight at zero weight, but I have really minimal control over it, with pretty much no ability to change direction.  At normal weight or at my most dense - when I weigh a little over a ton - I have zero flight capabilities.  I’d like to change that.”

“Hmmm…” he thought.  “An extra-dimensional density changer.  Interesting.  Very interesting.. but intricate.  It is a good thing I called.  What are the limits on the size of the boots?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He explained impatiently, “It should be obvious.  Can I put in a three-inch platform sole under your boot?  Or a three-inch heel?  I will need room for fuel, and room for the propulsion system, and room for the compensating devises to handle your density changes.  Then steering, yaw control…  This could be my most interesting jet propulsion system to date.”

“Got you,” I managed.  “Okay, I’d be good with a two or three inch platform.  I’m pretty short, anyway.  I’d rather not have too much of a heel.  I’m not really into high heels.”

“You’re a very sensible girl, Phase,” he said.

Ugh.  I’d rather sound like Superman or Batman, and instead I come across sounding more like Arrowette.  Crap.

He went on, “Next.  A glove or gauntlet with a forcefield disruptor built in.  Do you have a specific type of field in mind, or are you hoping for more of a wide-spectrum field disruptor?”

I said, “I’d prefer the wide-spectrum disruptor.  I realize that different types of forcefields present different problems in terms of interaction or disruption effects, but I’d like something that handles as many types as possible.”

I could almost hear him nodding at the other end of the call.  “Yes, I see you have been doing your research.  I might be able to incorporate effects to handle multiple types of forcefields, but I have yet to come up with a process that can handle all known types of forcefield at the same time.”

“Well, I’ll take what I can get,” I told him.

“You do realize this will be quite expensive…”

I emphasized, “You did look at the name and address attached, didn’t you?  I’m a Goodkind.  I came to you because I can afford your work.”

“A Goodkind?  A mutant who’s a Goodkind?  I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he complained, as if I’d done it just to irritate him.

“I’d never heard of it either.  Until it happened to me,” I said.  “The family’s still pretty freaked about it.  But if you don’t believe me on this, just ask the headmistress at Whateley.”

“Oh?  You are still a student?  Your projects sound more like you are already in a super-team.”

I explained a little bit, “I’m only a freshman, but I do have a last name that attracts problems like moths to a bug zapper.”

“I see…”  He paused and added, “So the ten-minute oxygen supply that would fit in the mouth like a mouthguard…  Hmm…  Have you consider a rebreather instead?”

“No,” I admitted.  “I don’t have a lot of experience with air supply systems.  I’ve snorkeled and done a little highly-supervised shallow-water scuba diving, but I’m not an expert on the stuff.”

“Ahh.  Let me think this over for a while.  I will get back to you some time.. perhaps in April or May…”

By the time I was done talking to him, I was almost late to dinner with the team.

After dinner, the whole gang came back to the dorm and then split up.  Some of the Kimbas headed upstairs to watch a movie on the big screen.  A couple headed for Kimba Korner to study.  Of course, even an ordinary night is weird when it comes to Team Kimba.  Lancer and Wallflower and Tennyo and Jinn were all studying over the study desk, so Flux and Kenny and Aggro could get in some study time sitting at the desk.

I didn’t want to have to put up with Kenny and Aggro, so I headed upstairs for the movie.  It was a chick flick.  All of Girlzone was mooning over the female lead, and most of Boys Town was ogling the male lead, and none of them wanted the two to end up together.  In between them, Jade was sitting with Megs and Delta, rooting for the two stars of the movie to figure out that they were supposed to end up together.  Except that Jade kept telling everyone that the guy would look better if he were more dragon-like.  Eeesh.

After about twenty minutes of that, I left.  I would have needed a lapful of Vanessa to make me stay for the rest of that drivel.

Okay, if the female lead had been better looking and not so damned annoying, I might have stayed longer.

I dropped in on Chaka and Fey, who were busy having ‘girl time’ together.  They were doing each other’s hair.  Before I came to Whateley, I had thought that stuff only happened in bad television programs.  Of course, Team Kimba never does anything the ordinary way.

Chaka waved me in with a smiling, “Hey, Ayles!  What’s the what?”  As she waved me in, Fey finished weaving a spell, and suddenly Chaka’s hair changed from her usual hot mini-fro to a long Beyoncé Knowles look.

Chaka admired herself in the mirror and said, “Damn, girl!  That is awesome!”

I agreed, “You do look good that way.  Of course, you’ll need twenty times longer in the morning to get ready…”

Fey turned around so her back was to Chaka, and explained, “Oh no, it’s just a minor glamour.  It’ll fade in an hour or so, and the illusion will vanish.”

Chaka flipped her ‘hair’ to the side and grinned, “But this would be so fly for a date.”

I said, “I think you’re missing the key point, which is that a hairstyle like that works for you, but in the real world it only works if it’s on a girl who’s sufficiently fly to start with.”

Fey giggled teasingly, “Ooh, Chaka!  Ayla thinks you’re hot.”

I rolled my eyes.

Chaka grinned her usual leopard grin and modestly admitted, “Well, that would be because I am a hottie.  Just ask Scott.”

Fey grinned, “Or Mace, or Dredz, or-“

Chaka did something with her Ki as she moved her hand toward Fey’s shoulder, and Fey lurched forward a little as if Chaka had given her a little ‘shut up’ shove.  They just grinned at each other.

“My turn!” crowed Chaka.  She closed her eyes as she put her hands on Fey’s flowing red locks.  I couldn’t tell what she was doing, but suddenly Fey’s hair just curled up into something like a perm.

“Whoa,” I managed.

Fey held up a hand mirror, and waved her fingers at it.  The image of the back side of her head appeared in it, which should have been impossible if she weren’t bespelling the mirror.  “Sweet!  That looks great!”

Chaka shrugged, “Well, I doubt it’ll hold up to a shower.  I just attuned the Ki in your hair to my Ki, and made it curl up.”

That was all she did?  I groaned, “Jeez!  You two just stay away from my hair, okay?”

Chaka smirked, “Maybe you oughta stop gaping at us in the bathroom, or Nikki’ll make your hair grow out and turn blonde, and then I’ll Ki-style it into a white-girl afro.”

“You wouldn’t.”  I gave them my most malevolent smile.

Fey smiled naughtily, “Just try me.”

I replied, “No, you wouldn’t.  Not that you couldn’t.  But you won’t.  Because you both know that I’d retaliate.  In subtle but horrific ways that would make your lives a living hell.”

Chaka called my bluff.  “Oh yeah, like what?”

So I said, as if I were reading notes off imaginary index cards, “Okay.  Level 1 for Chaka.  Tell Mace and Dredz and N’Dizi what your class schedule is, so they can all drop in on you whenever they want.  Then ask the chefs in the cafeteria to stop making your two favorite desserts.  Starting with that chocolate cream pie you like so much.”

“You wouldn’t!” she gasped.  “You don’t play fair!”

I added, “Level 1 for Fey: give Rhiannon and the rest of the Fey Fan Club your entire class schedule and evening schedule, including Venus Inc. modeling nights and your planned times for visiting Hawthorne.  Then tell them that you’re considering selling Fey Fan Club t-shirts if they come up with a good catchphrase.”

Nikki frowned, “Ayla, you’re a very, very evil person.  You know that?”

I shrugged, “Well, I wouldn’t do that stuff to you.  And I certainly wouldn’t do Levels 2 through 6 to you.  But I also expect you not to do stuff to me.”

“Mutual Assured Destruction?” asked Toni.

“Yup.”  I wasn’t about to mention how much I hated the idea of having long, girly hair.  Even if there was no way to conceal my emotions from Fey, or to hide from Chaka what my Ki was doing.  I was just depending on their being my friends.

I was so not dealing well with being stuck in this body.  Even if I wasn’t walking around constantly bemoaning my horrible fate, like, say, Residue or Stygian.  Fey had to know that the easiest way of getting even with me would be to wait until I was in the middle of campus and then turn my clothes into a dress and heels.  Maybe with hair like Solange’s and makeup like the Yellow Queen’s.  That would totally freak me out.  Fortunately for me, Fey was one of the good guys.  If Majestic ever figured it out, I was toast.

 
Thursday November 30, 10 pm
A-PLUS

A-Plus made sure the rappelling line was securely hitched to her belt harness before she flipped upside down and let Ace lower her headfirst into vertical ventilation shaft G74, down to level 3 of the tunnel system.

Ace carefully operated the automated rappel system, stopping each time she clicked her comm system so she could disconnect the security systems.  Ace had claimed that he was lowering her first because he was the stronger one, but she knew it was really because she was better at disabling the alarms.  They both knew it was due to her clairvoyant talents.  But Ace wouldn’t admit she was better, and A-Plus had stopped bringing it up because Sahar kept getting mentioned in their arguments.  She hated that Sahar was better at it than she was, and she hated how Sahar had learned her own knack for feeling when the alarms were about to trigger, and she hated that Ace had slept with Sahar too, and she hated to think what Ace would think of her if he ever found out she’d been lured into a relationship with another girl.  He’d think she was a raging lesbo nutcase.  He’d never believe that she could be interested in a guy…  In him.  She refused to think about it anymore, since she had work to do.

Well, she tried not to think about it.

Once the alarms in the ventilation shaft were disabled, Ace lowered himself down and Interface followed.  It would’ve been nice if I-face would stop humming the “Mission Impossible” theme song over and over.  But if she asked him to stop he’d just do it more.  And if Ace asked I-face to stop, he’d start making up lyrics.

She watched as Ace pulled out a set of lockpicks – a set once owned by a master burglar – and quickly unlocked a panel on the side of the shaft.  I-face reached into the panel and quickly ‘interfaced’ with the security access systems.  In under a minute he stopped humming and simply said, “Done.”  A-Plus knew he’d re-directed the security system so the hall video monitors were on a loop, and they’d stay that way until the team was done.

Kew quietly verified over their comm system, “All systems go.  No alarms.  Monitors look good.”

Ace swung the closest grill open, and they slipped out into the hallway.  He moved to the area of wall that supposedly had the ‘meeting room’ on the opposite side.  He ran his hands over the wall.  Nothing.  He wasn’t getting a thing.  That was clear by his reaction.

A-Plus stepped over and put her hands to the wall, almost touching it.  Nothing.  She tried her hardest to get some sort of clairvoyant ‘reading’, but it felt blank.

I-face rolled his eyes and stepped over to the closest junction box.  He put his fingers against the electronics and…  “Nothing.  Nada.  The Big Zip.  I can’t find any sign of even one re-direct or cutout over there.”

Ace touched his comm, “Kew.  Check your schematics again.  We can’t find an opening in the wall here.”

Kew came back in a few seconds, “Rez is here with me.  She wants to know what the doorway is that’s about fifteen feet to your right.”

Ace growled, “It’s just a janitor’s closet…  Crap!  A-Plus.  Check the lefthand interior wall of that closet!”

A-Plus moved to the door and first checked the closet door for telltales or security systems.  “There’s something here.  There’s an alarm on the door.”

I-face came over and used his talents to disarm a subtle electronic alarm system built into the hinges of the door.  He smirked, “Yeah, your average janitor’s closet ALWAYS has high-end security like that.”

A-Plus squeezed past him and into the janitor’s closet.  She noticed right away that it was oddly clean, and very carefully organized.  That in itself was a giveaway.  She put her hands before the left-hand wall and concentrated…  There it was.  She got it: the door into the meeting room ran through here.

It took them another two minutes to defeat the inner security, and another five minutes to defeat the hidden cameras.  They stepped into the meeting room.

She could feel Hazard and Stopwatch had been in here.  She’d picked up their talents before, and she knew what they felt like.

Ace was quickly photographing the pictures on the wallboard.  Pics of Phase moving through her daily routine, almost all of them single shots of Phase: going into classrooms, opening her locker, meeting one of the upperclassmen, heading into the Crystal Hall for lunch, the usual.  Even one of Phase in a gi, heading into the Teachers’ Lockers with sensei Tolman.  That struck A-Plus as odd: why would a student be going into the Teachers’ Lockers?

Interface was rifling through the simple computer that ran the overhead projector, pulling up the images left on its internal hard drive.  He smirked, “They took their computer with them, but they didn’t think about the internal bubble memory in the projector.”

A-Plus simply sat in Stopwatch’s seat and let her clairvoyant talent do its stuff.  She said, “They’re targeting Phase.  Something about stealing her intelligence network.”

Ace studied the photos and the Post-It notes stuck to them.  He growled, “They know she’s collecting intel from Security, and from some other sources.  They’re planning to piggyback on her work.  Smarter than ‘Watch’s usual crimes.”

Interface nodded, “They’ve got pictures in here that weren’t cleared out.  Poe cottage, Phase’s roommate Bladedancer, and Bladedancer’s pal Gateway.  Also Mrs. Horton and the kids who room near Phase.”

Ace agreed, “They’re planning on scanning her intel off her computer.  Now we know they’re going for the one in her room.”

A-Plus studied the schematics on the wall and added, “It looks like Stopwatch has built or borrowed a ‘caster that will project a good enough illusion that Heartbreaker or Hazard can pass herself off as Gateway.”

Ace graveled, “Gateway?  Gateway can’t get in unless she’s with Bladedancer, and…”

Interface smirked, “Yeah, you wanna see a transition of Jello turning into a copy of Bladedancer?  It’s right here on the hard drive.”

A-Plus looked at her partners, and nodded.  It was simple.  Interface pointed out, “Now, all we have to do is figure out when the Masterminds are going to invade Poe by posing as Bladedancer and Gateway, and hack Phase’s computer.”

A-Plus pointed to one of the pics of Phase – the one that had an extra person in it - and said, “That’s easy.  We just ask Automa-tech when she’s getting together with Phase.”

“Good thinking,” admitted Ace.

They carefully let themselves out, re-arming everything as they retraced their route.  Then they moved into the ventilation shaft.  Ace secured the grill and moved up to the surface.  Interface repaired his hacks to the security cameras and followed.  Ace winched A-Plus back up, letting her re-set each of the security alarms she had bypassed on the way in.  On the way to their HQ, A-Plus made a quick phone call.

They met up with Kew, Rez, and Holdout.  Ace explained succinctly, “The M’s are going to hit Phase’s dorm room computer.  They’ll scan all the intel off it, and maybe plant a virus that downloads all her new intel to some drop that Stopwatch can hit when he wants to.  They’ve got an image-caster, and either Hazard or Heartbreaker will use it to pass as Gateway.  Jello will pose as Bladedancer.  They’ll just waltz right into Phase’s room and have plenty of time to muck with the computer security Phase undoubtedly has.”

A-Plus added, “And it’ll be between 8 and 9:30 on Saturday night.”  Ace glared at her.  She smiled sweetly, “I checked the on-line dorm meeting room reservation lists.  Automa-tech has a small room reserved for the two of them.  I knew she’d do it on-line instead of by hand.”

Holdout smirked, “So all we have to do is wait until our bunnies try to slip into Poe, and unmask them.  That’s automatically entering with intent, right?”

“Right.”

Kew suggested, “Why don’t we wait until they commit the crime, and then grab them on the way out?”

Ace raised one eyebrow and said in his best ‘Dirty Harry’ growl, “If we could do it, I’d go for that.  But all they have to do is change.  Jello might turn into anyone.  Whoever has the ‘caster can change into anybody in its memory.  They might split up.  If we wait until they commit the crime, we may not have a chance to catch them.  I say we grab them while they’re still posing as Bladedancer and Gateway.  Entering with intent is a crime, and impersonating another student for criminal purposes will get them in real trouble.  That’ll be good enough to get them searched, and then we’ll find whatever devises Stopwatch gave them to break Phase’s computer security.  Possession of burglary tools will put ‘em away.  And it’ll get Stopwatch too.  Then we get Jello to roll over on the rest of the gang, and we have ‘em all.”

Kew shrugged, “Okay.”

Rez asked, “If we’re going to grab them outside Poe, what powers do they have?”

Ace nodded, “Good question.  Kew?” 

Kew smiled tensely, “Jello, Heartbreaker, and Hazard are pretty low threat-level.  Without Dash and Haywire, the only hard part will be catching Hazard.  But Poe has Flux on the same floor as Phase.  In fact, he’s just around the corner and down the hall from Phase.  Hazard won’t want to accidentally run into Flux.  They’re both probability warpers, and freaky stuff is likely to happen if they cross paths even by accident.  At a minimum, the image-caster would probably go wonky.  So I’m figuring they’ll send in Heartbreaker and Jello.  That makes things easier.  Heartbreaker is a Threat Level 2.  She’s a low-level Exemplar with no martial arts skills and some Psi.  We’ll have to make sure we stay far enough away from her before we spring the trap, so she won’t read any of us.  Ace and A-Plus both have some Psi-blocking abilities, so they’ll want to be on point.  Then Jello is a Threat Level 4.  Shifting, Exemplar-3 strength, her shifting gives her solid recovery from physical attacks, and she’s got a low-level Psi talent with a knack for being able to knock out an unprepared opponent.  Ace, A-Plus, Interface, and Rez ought to be safe from that, but we don’t know yet if Holdout is.  She probably won’t know to target Holdout anyway.”

Ace nodded, “Good briefing, Kew.”  She blushed a little.  He went on, “So our plan is simple.  We’ll use Standard Set 6, modded to the site.  A-Plus and I on point, at each corner of Poe so we bracket the front doors.  Holdout and Rez on backstop, about a hundred yards out, closing in behind our targets as they approach.  Interface in position as the closer, in case one of us gets taken out and we need to keep our trap closed.  Kew notifies Security on my signal, so we get official backup.  That way, we’re covered if Dash or Haywire comes in as support.”

A-Plus added, “And remember, if Dash shows up and he’s powered up, your best tactic is a stall.  It takes him maybe ten minutes to get psyched up for one of his power boosts, and then he’s only good for maybe ten minutes or so before he’s back to Exemplar-2 strength levels for a while.  When he’s in a power boost, he’s strong and fast enough that he might as well be Aries, so you don’t want to tackle him one-on-one then.”

Ace nodded, “Thanks for the reminder.  Kew, maintain the usual surveillance, so they don’t realize we’re onto them.  Rez, get schematics and photos of Poe and the surrounding area, so we’ll be able to map positions and possible problems beforehand.  Holdout, anything you want to prep for us will be good.  Maybe a couple Tasers or a capture net for Jello.  Anything else?”

Kew volunteered, “I’ll see if I can put together something to knock out that illusion caster.”

Ace nodded firmly, “Good.  Okay, meeting adjourned.”

A-Plus smiled to herself.  This time, everything was going to go their way, and those Masterminds were going to get exactly what they deserved.

 
Friday, December 1, 7 am
AYLA

I got moving a few minutes earlier than usual, but not so early that anyone would notice.  I hoped.  I had a meeting with a couple security officers, and I didn’t want anyone to notice my movements, or even wonder about them.  So I wanted to leave Poe a few minutes early, and still have the usual breakfast with Team Kimba in the caff.

The down side was that I missed seeing Fey and Bugs shower.  Man, life can be tough at Poe.  Still, spending several minutes supposedly flossing my teeth while watching Rip do her jacuzzi trick was well worth the time.

I dressed and headed off to the Hawthorne tunnel.  There were some Thornies walking to breakfast.  I didn’t want to be seen vanishing off into the tunnels instead of walking with everyone to breakfast.  So I went straight up, and popped up far enough off the walkways that I could duck into the treetops and vanish from sight.  I phased through a fair amount of forest before I dove down into the tunnels again.  I still had to duck through walls a few times to avoid two devisers and a security officer, so that I could get to the meeting place unseen.

Officers Trews and Green were right in front of the doorway into the Golden Kids’ meeting area, ostensibly sweeping the area with electronic gadgets.

I flew down the hall to them and went solid.  “Nice cover,” I murmured.

Trews grinned at me and handed me a sealed manila envelope.  It looked like a standard Whateley Security envelope.  It was marked “WHATELEY SECURITY: DO NOT OPEN UNLESS THIS IS INTENDED FOR YOUR USE”, and it was decorated all over with magical glyphs to prevent espers and mages from snooping.  I quickly checked.  I couldn’t reach through the envelope either.

Green glanced around to make sure we were alone, and murmured, “Here’s the first installment.”

I slit it open and pulled out a sheaf of Whateley powers testing reports.  “Thanks.  I trust you’re not getting yourselves in trouble getting these for me?”

They looked at each other strangely, and Trews answered, “Nope, we’re being careful.”

Man, I really wished I knew what that weird glance meant.  Of course, if I were a Psi, I’d have to avoid peeking inside their heads anyway, so I still wouldn’t know.

I looked over the sheets.  Whoa.  Powers testing results on my pals the Alphas.  Bingo.  I looked up and grinned, “Nice!  Thanks.  Let me know when you want another meet.”

They nodded and moved off, down the corridor.  I didn’t pay much attention to them, because I was busy scanning the reports.  Man, this was exactly the kind of thing I had hoped for.  I studied the sheets.

Hamper & Damper.  Both were sophomore EX-2/EN-3.  Hamper’s EN classification was for the psychic confusion and masking trick he did, while Damper’s was for his power-blocking ability.

Aries. Junior EX-5/EN-3(speedster).  I had most of that worked out already, but confirmation was always good.

Cavalier.  Junior PDP 3/3/2.  That meant that he had ESP at level 3, Psi at level 3, and PK at level 2.  The powers testing guys had noted that Cav could already use his PK to form a sword and buckler, as well as using his PK to run fast, leap fairly far, and climb sheer surfaces.  It looked like Chaka already had him beat on all three of those.  Oh.  And the notes said that a year ago he was a green belt who was about ready to test for his brown, but he had stopped his martial arts training last winter term.  Right about the time he went from ‘superhero Beret Mafia good guy’ to ‘mind-slave of Sebastiano’.

Don Sebastiano.  Junior EX-4/PSI-3.  Hmm.  So he was actually a pretty strong Exemplar, even though he didn’t act like it.  Well, he had hammered a few robots and Sabretooths at Halloween.  And his Psi ability was a lot lower-level than he wanted people to believe.  Now that was interesting.  How the hell had he managed to psychically ensnare Skybolt and Cavalier with a PSI level of 3?  There had to be something else going on that no one had spotted.  I was going to have to do some investigating, because he was only a major power on campus due to that mind-slave bit.  Not to mention that Sky and Cav might want to go back to the Light Side of the Force if someone would just figure out how to help them.

Okay, next was Hekate.  Junior EX-3/PSI-3/WIZ-3.  Okay, so she might be as strong as I was in a fight.  I’d have to remember that.  And that was a significant Psi power that I never heard anyone talking about.  What was she doing with it?  Knowing her, it was undoubtedly something spectacularly evil.  And Wizard level 3.  Hmm, I was expecting a much higher WIZ level.  A level of 3 or lower meant that she must put a lot of time into study and preparation, plus she might not have much in a fight if all her prepared spells were exhausted.  There ought to be some way that a mage like Fey could use that knowledge in a battle.

Icer.  Junior EX-2/MAN-4c(ice).  Okay, not much on the Exemplar side, but a pretty hefty ice power.  Manifestor level 4 meant that if he had to, he could crank out a lot more ice than I’d seen him do.  I’d have to remember that the next time I ran into him.

Skybolt.  Junior EX-4/EN-3(lightning, flight).  Pretty much what I already knew.

Solange.  Junior EX-1/PSI-2, currently reclassified to EX-1/AV-?/PSI-2.  Oh ho!  So now the school knew she was a secret Avatar, and that question mark undoubtedly meant that she’d been pretty uncooperative about further testing.

And the last powers-testing form was Kodiak.  Senior EX-5/AV-2(bear spirit).  Hmm.  He hadn’t looked like an Exemplar-5 when we’d tangled.  Well, getting body-slammed by Hank will do that to you.  I’d have to watch out the next time I had to face him.  According to his form, the bear spirit gave him added strength and endurance, ‘natural weaponry’ that manifested as ‘bear claws’, a resistance to cold and physical damage beyond his regular EX-5 power, and that ‘bear image’ thing.  Testing showed that the bear spirit also protected him from mental and magical assaults.  I needed to tell Sara and Nikki about that.  Okay, Kodiak had come off looking pretty lame in our big fight, but his powers suggested that we’d just blind-sided him and gotten lucky.  I needed to tell the team about that.

Behind the powers testing forms was the real gold.  The supposedly ultra-secure intel on two of the Alphas, Solange and Aries.  I skimmed the intel on Solange, and I was unimpressed.  I knew more about her than they did.  Okay, I knew more about her than most of her own cousins did, so maybe that was completely unfair.

The intel on Aries was so stunning that I dropped the papers.

Codename:  Aries

Real name: Arnold Wesley Robinson

Home:      1147 S. 15th St, Springfield, Illinois

There was plenty more of stuff like that, but the real meat was the section on aliases and juvenile crime.

Aries is believed by local authorities to be the serial killer known locally as the Springfield Slasher.

Christ!  I knew about that bastard.  The Springfield Slasher killed and hacked up four women in the summer of 2003, then six more in the summer of 2004, and then vanished without a trace.  And I knew about the Springfield Slasher because his seventh victim was Helena Goodkind-Prescott, one of my cousins.

They had just handed me a frigging nuclear bomb.  And it was pretty obvious to me that they were expecting me to use it.

They just didn’t know that I knew they knew.  If that makes any sense.

But what the hell was I going to do next?

 

THE MASTERMINDS

Stopwatch walked through the cafeteria, carefully avoiding a glance over at the Team Kimba table, where the usual brainless silliness was going on.  Every time he’d bugged their table, the conversation had been so stupid he felt like it had actually sucked IQ points out of his head.  That last conversation he had monitored, about the Britney Spears albums, had made him want to wash his ears out.  With Drano.  God only knew what they were yammering about this time.  Paris Hilton’s clothing choices?  He was pretty sure that Phase was really related to Paris Hilton, so it was entirely possible.  Still, the real reason he didn’t want to glance that way was his plans for Phase.

He passed the table where Hazard and Heartbreaker were eating with a weird assortment of Venus Inc. models and girls connected with Hazard’s bookmaking operations.  He made a casual gesture, rubbing his neck with his left hand, then touching his ear.  That meant a quick meet in four minutes.

He strolled out into the hallway and waited.  When Heartbreaker and Hazard caught up with him, he led them into a still-empty classroom and flipped on his personal anti-snooping devises.  He quickly told them, “Meeting.  7 pm tonight.  Back in our usual headquarters, instead of the special one we used last night.”

Heartbreaker asked, “Why the big switchy-ness?”

He grinned wickedly, “The Secret Squirrels tagged Dash yesterday, so I used that for our plans.  I moved the meeting to a room that wouldn’t give anything away.  They still don’t know where our real HQ is, or what our plan is, or anything.”

Heartbreaker admitted, “I thought the secret entrance through the janitor’s closet was kind of clever.”

Stopwatch leered unpleasantly, “Well, I’ll be sure to tell Nephandus that you thought so.  He’ll probably want to ask you out, for being so clever to realize what a genius he is.  You can thank him in person.”

Heartbreaker glared, “Watch, if you do that, I’ll tell him you used that room as a distraction and deliberately let the Spy Kidz find it.”

Hazard ruthlessly added, “And I’ll tell She-Beast.”

Stopwatch turned white.  He whimpered, “No!  Not her!”  He was still standing there in shock when the girls exited the room and Hazard slammed the door.

It wasn’t until the door slammed that he realized his special 48-function wristwatch was making strange little whines and squeaks.  He looked down to see that the hands of the timepiece (which on this model, actually told time in all 24 time zones as well as tracking the phases of the moon and any near-future eclipses) were spinning madly.

“Damn it!” he cursed.  He had to remember not to make Hazard mad anymore when he was within a few feet of her.  Her probability warping powers tended to make electronics around her go haywire when she lost her temper or got too stressed out.

It would probably take him hours to fix the damn watch, and he didn’t have that much time when he had plots to direct and Secret Squirrels to confuse.

And he still had to pay Nephandus for the room rental.

 

THE THREE LITTLE WITCHES

Clover wrinkled her forehead in confusion, “But Pally, I thought you said we couldn’t try to.. umm.. borrow Foxfire’s essence again.  Or Lifeline’s.”

Abra muttered, “We got in enough trouble the last time.  I don’t like detention.”

Clover added plaintively, “And I really didn’t like Halloween!  That was scary!  I don’t wanna do that anymore!”  Then she smiled, “And besides, I’ve got a witch hat now, so I don’t need to!”

Abra snapped, “Stop it with the hat already!”

Palantir patiently explained, “We can’t borrow from Foxfire or Lifeline if they can tell on us.  But what if, say, they were going to go do something bad, and they wouldn’t be able to tattletale because they’d have to admit what they were doing?”

Clover wondered aloud, “You mean we have to sneak out really late again?  We got in a lot of trouble for that.”  She pouted prettily, “And I promised Buttons I wouldn’t make him be up past his bedtime again.  He doesn’t like being up that late!”

Palantir rolled her eyes.  Normally, she really liked Clover’s ability to wheedle things out of people.  She didn’t like it when Clover was using it on her.  “Come on, Clover.  The whole point is not getting in trouble this time!  All we’re gonna do is find out what they’re up to.  If it’s really bad, they’ll have to keep quiet about it.  AND we can sneak up on ‘em to steal Foxy’s Essence ‘cause they’ll be too busy sneaking up on someone else!  It’ll be great!”

Abracadabra calmly said, “I think we should see what they’re up to first, before we stick our necks out.. again.”

“Okay.”

“Okay!” Clover bubbled.  “And Buttons will prob’ly wanna come too!”

Palantir sighed with the weight of the world, “Ohhh-kay…”

 

THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ

Fantastico looked at the hardware Ferret was lugging into his room.  “Is all this crap really necessitatory?”

Ferret winced and looked over his shoulder at Oiler for support.  Oiler nodded firmly.

Ferret said, “Uhh, yeah, it is.  Oiler wants to make sure it’s really Phase and She-Beast, and not a couple mimics, and that it’s really a legit conversation, not some stuff spliced together to sound right.”

Oiler added, “And we wanna be able to track these little maggots down, in case they pull a fast one on us.  So I want Ferret to install some tracing hardware here, and downstairs in the basement at the switchbox.”

Ferret explained, “well, it’s technically not a switchbox, since it’s based on a PBX paradigm, even though-“

“Don’t care,” interrupted Fantastico.  “Don’t need to know, so don’t wanna have ta listen.  Get it done, and don’t bug me about the detail-itude.  Got it, Rat-turds?”

Ferret hated it when the F-man started calling him names like that one.  He winced, “Got it, Big F.”

Oiler added, “I figure we need to track these weasels down, anyways.  If they’re the ones who did the recording, we want to use them as the frontmen in any ploy we use to smash Phase.”

Fantastico nodded sagely.  “Yeah, anything that smashes that faggot is okay by me.”

Oiler complained, “Unfortunately, Ferret says we can’t tell who the voice is.”

Fantastico asked, “Why not?  They do it all the time on ‘CSI’, for Christ’s sake.”

Ferret said, “First of all, that’s tv.  They’re lying their asses off about the capabilities of crime labs.  And second, this isn’t a real human voice.  I’m pretty sure from the analysis I already did that it’s a completely computer-generated voice.  Someone’s prob’ly typing the words into a program that cranks out the sentences.  It’s not getting some of the inflections right, for one thing.”

“Shit!” was all Fantastico had to say.

 
Friday, December 1, 4:40 pm
AYLA

I had my usual Friday afternoon appointment with Dr. Bellows, so I had an excuse to be over in the Admin area.  I just ‘accidentally’ arrived twenty minutes early.  I smiled at Valerie as she answered the phone.  As soon as she looked down to take a message, I walked through the door right into Mrs. Hawkins’ office.  I didn’t bother opening the door and calling attention to what I was doing.

Mrs. Hawkins looked up angrily, until she saw it was me.  Then her face burst into a huge smile.  “Phase!  Come in!”  I already was in.  She got a dreamy look on her face and purred, “That mink coat is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!  I’ve always wanted one just like that.  It’s perfect!  I don’t know how you found that out, and.. I don’t care.  It’s so gorgeous!  I showed it to my sister, and she just died of envy!  I can’t wait ‘til Christmas so I can wear it around my sister-in-law!”

“I’m glad you like it,” I said.  Trin and Macintyre hadn’t had any trouble tracking Mrs. Hawkins’ web-surfing activities, since she hadn’t made any effort to hide her tracks.  Her fixation on full-length real mink coats was easy to recognize from the pictures she downloaded and the e-stores she visited.  So deciding what to use as a bribe had been quite simple.

I smiled, “Have you had a chance to do what I asked?  If you need more time…”

“Oh no, it was simple,” she asserted.  She typed on her keyboard to pull up a screen, and then turned the monitor so I could see.

There it was:

Codename:  GENERATOR

Grade:     Freshman

Powers:    REGEN-5/DEV-2/EX-1/WIZ-1

See:       Shroud, Tennyo

Groups:    Team Kimba

Status:    scholarship class 4a

Jobs held: junior waste management technician

Security:  see reports 106:0003, 106:0029, …

I mentally skipped over the huge list of Security reports that followed.  Man, Jade had gotten herself into (and out of) a lot of scrapes – even if Team Kimba as a whole was responsible for a bunch of those reports.  “That looks great, Mrs. Hawkins,” I said.  “Thank you.”

She hugged herself as if she were imagining wearing her new mink coat, and she smiled, “No, thank you.”

All I’d asked her to do was to make a small change in the ‘powers’ entries in the system.  It wasn’t like they were notoriously accurate, anyway.  But now Jade was ‘officially’ a deviser with some weird magical connection to her ‘dead’ sister Shroud.  Plus a scary level of regeneration.

I left Mrs. Hawkins’ office and shuddered.  Thinking about what Jade had done to herself only a matter of days ago was still freaking me out.. not to mention making me sick to my stomach.  I was pretty desperate to go back to being a boy, but even I couldn’t see hacking my own flesh off with surgical tools.  Ugh.

And I couldn’t decide which would be worse in terms of our mutual problem: the ‘somewhere around level 1’ regeneration I had, or the level 5 that Jade had.  If I tried surgery to fix a part of me, like having my boobs cut off, I’d be in serious pain for days or weeks, and whatever-it-was would grow back in under a month.  Jade couldn’t even have a month.  She had butchered herself in what should have been a fatal mutilation, and she’d been fully healed in.. what?  Four or five hours?  That was just stomach-churning.

But with my little bribe in place, Mrs. Hawkins had quickly notified me when Generator’s official file was open for revisions.  So when the powers testing guys had submitted the electronic request to get Jade’s file updated because of her new regeneration ability, Mrs. Hawkins had taken the request out of the queue and updated it herself.  The way I wanted.  It was simple, and remarkably clean, just because of the unusual likelihood that Jade’s powers testing entries really did need updating just then.  I was figuring that the campus players who had access to the computer files would spot that change and focus on the key points.. which would completely mislead them.

Nobody needed to know that I was a party to the ‘mistake’ in Jade’s new records.  Mistakes and typos happened all the time.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if someday there was a completely misleading entry in my records, like maybe my secret, never-before-revealed weakness to undetermined chemicals in dark chocolate.  Feed me some rich, delicious, dark chocolate, and in an hour or two I’d be temporarily powerless.  That would be an excellent entry in my MID.  I couldn’t wait to get that into my records, and then watch to see who tried to feed me scrumptious desserts.

Which gave me another idea.  I called Dr, Shandy and said, “Hi!  This is Phase.  Did you guys ever figure out what would happen if I held a burning candle in my hand and I went light or heavy, taking the candle with me?”

“Hmm…”  Dr. Shandy thought about it for a second.  “Actually, we have three competing theories about how that might work, if you can get the candle flame inside your convex hull.  Are you interested in tryin this out under controlled conditions?”

“Sure.  How about Sunday afternoon, right after lunch?  Gotta give Hillary time to get back from church, and all that.”

This time, there was a longer pause.  “Yes, we certainly do,” he said.  “Okay, we’ll see you in Lab W at one on Sunday.”

I smirked the whole time I waited for Dr. Bellows.  Then I had a really hard time keeping him from realizing why I was feeling so smug.

I was trying hard not to grin the whole way back to my room.  When I came around the corner and found Chaka and Fey waiting for me, my smile vanished.

Fey was looking grim, her arms crossed under her breasts and a small storm cloud hovering over her right shoulder.  A real storm cloud, about six inches across, with miniature lightning bolts occasionally flashing out of the cloud toward her shoulder.

Chaka was looking even more upset, but she wasn’t standing still like Fey was.  She was practicing with a nine-foot length of chain, whipping it around herself with unconscious moves that would have made Jet Li turn green with envy.  The ends of the chain were moving so fast that they were just blurs.

Have I ever mentioned that some of my teammates can be pretty damned intimidating when they want to be?

“What happened?  Did someone get attacked?”  I asked the first things that popped into my head.  Well, really, the second things.  The first thing that popped into my head was that some Goodkinds had just done something dreadful to someone we liked, and the team was going to banish me.

“Ahem.”  A sound like a female drill instructor clearing her throat flared right behind me.

I tried not to jump.  I hadn’t heard Tennyo come up behind me.  But she’d probably floated down the hallway, so I would have needed some sort of magical charm to detect her.  She tended to forget about stuff like gravity when she was distracted.

I turned and looked her in the eye.  Well, I tried to.  But she was floating, so her face was a good foot and a half above mine.  “What’s the problem?” I asked.  I noted that her catlike eyes weren’t glowing that furious red color, but she looked like she was only a step or two short of that.

“Your room,” she snapped.

Jade, looking really worried, came up behind Billie.

Chou stepped out of my room, coming up behind Toni.  I was expecting Toni to stop with the chain, so she wouldn’t hit Chou.  Instead, Chou did this hesitant little jitter-step with her whole body, and then suddenly Toni was passing the chain all the way around Chou also.  And the chain wasn’t slowing down a bit!  Jeez!  When did they work out this little song-and-dance number?

Chou calmly ignored the deadly chain flying around her and said, “The room is ready.”

Fey pursed her lips – which on her looked really hot – and said, “Phase?  Would you step into your room and then stand in the golden circle on the floor?”

I rolled my eyes.  “This isn’t one of those ‘wicker man’ things again?  I hate those.  That time at Sara’s, I didn’t know what the hell was going to happen to me if I did it.”

Chaka frowned, “Just stop talking and do it.  Okay, Ayles?”

I didn’t have to.  I knew that.  No one here – not even Tennyo – could stop me if I just dove through the floor and went down to Mrs. Horton’s office to complain.  (Unless Fey had already magicked the walls and floors and ceiling with me-proof protection.)  But they all seemed so worried.  What the hell was going on?

I shrugged and did it.  Toni did something, and the chain stopped flying madly about, to swirl around her waist into what looked like a chain belt.  Dang, that was maybe more impressive than those other chain-fighter moves.  Some days it seemed like there wasn’t anything that girl couldn’t do if she put her mind to it.

Toni and Chou backed up past my door, as if they thought I was a flight risk.  That didn’t bode well.  Meanwhile, Fey was right on my butt.  She was close enough that I could feel the static charge from her storm cloud.  Heck, I could smell the ozone from it.

I walked into my room, to find that Sara was there, scribbling runes around a golden circle drawn on my floor.  And Bugs was there, fiddling with a control panel that was being held up by one of her rabbit robots.  Sniffer was whirring around the room, poking at corners and electrical outlets.

“Man, what on earth is…”

Sara held her finger up to her lips in a ‘silence’ gesture, and pointed at the circle.  Honest to God, if I didn’t trust these girls with my life…

Toni and Chou stepped into the room, blocking the door as though they could actually contain me if I made a break for it.

I stepped into the circle.  There was a faint hum, and then…  Nothing.

“Is that it?” I complained.  “These practical jokes are getting really lame.  What’s next?  The burning paper bag full of dog doo?”

Fey stepped into the room, and Sara pointed at my butt.  Then Bugs stepped over and pointed at my butt too.

Okay, I knew perfectly well that my rear wasn’t the hottest behind on the floor.  With Sara and Bunny and Nikki and Chou and Toni in here with me, it was at most sixth-best in the room.  So they weren’t pointing at my can because they thought I was sexy.  What the hell was going on?

You know, I really shouldn’t even think stuff like that around Sara.

Fey pulled out her anti-eavesdropping charm and handed it to me.  As soon as I touched it, she said, “That ought to do.”

“What?  Am I bugged?  Is that what’s going on?”

Sara grinned wickedly, “Normally, I’d be wondering if you’ve got a bug up your butt.  This time, we know it’s still outside your butt.”  Her right hand reformed into a horrifying set of seven or eight one-meter-long tentacles, which reached through the golden circle to tug gently on the tail of my blazer.

She stepped back, and I could see that she was holding a tiny object, about the size of a postage stamp.  It was the color of a Whateley blazer, and both sides were thick with what looked like Velcro.  Fey did something with her fingers and the gizmo seemed to lurch, like it was alive and she’d hit it with a Taser.

I just gritted my teeth.  I didn’t like that I’d been tagged like a tyro.  I’d been through a lot of training on surveillance issues, starting with our family trip to Tokyo when I was about six.  I had thought I was safe.  Well, safe enough.

Fey stared at it and choked out, “It’s not like…  Merry’s…  Is it?”

Uh-oh.  The heavily-sanitized debrief we’d gotten from Sara and Nikki on Sara’s ‘friend’ Merry included warnings about a supervillain named Nimbus, someone no longer called ‘Frank’, toxic Energizer drugs, and implants that were some sort of magi-tech that was more Mythos than was safe for anyone like me or Bunny to even look upon.

Sara gave me a relieved grin.  “No.  No magic, no technomancy, just plain old inventions.”

“Gadget or devise?” I asked.

Bugs waved an instrument over the thing.  Her tool looked bizarrely like a little girl’s pink fairy wand, complete with sequins all the way down the business end.  She looked at her control panel.  “Definitely a devise.  Sophisticated counter-counter-measures equipment, ruggedized, passive low-bandwidth signaling to make it hard to detect, that kind of stuff.”

The rest of the gang eased into my room.  Chou sat on her bed, while Jade floated up to the lower hammock and Toni did a flat-footed leap-and-barrel-roll that put her horizontal in the upper hammock.  Billie floated near the doorway, while Shroud drifted over my bunkbed and Hank flew low to plop onto a beanbag chair.  It was a good thing I had arranged the room for this sort of thing.

Chaka asked, “But who made it?  And who’s friendly enough with Ayles that she’d let ‘em pat her on the tush?”

I gave her a glare that promised horrible retribution, someday when she least expected it.  She just smiled and stuck her tongue out at me.

Fey chanted something that sounded like no language I’d ever heard, then gestured at the devise.  It trembled slightly, and then an image appeared in the air over it.  A petite girl with reddish-brown hair, her eyes hidden behind opaque goggles.  Even with the goggles on, it was clear that this girl was no Exemplar beauty.

“It’s Kew,” I said.

“Yeah, definitely,” echoed Bunny.

“Q?” asked Toni with more than a hint of amusement in her voice.  “She’s a James Bond tech groupie?”

“She’s not like that!” defended Bugs.

“It’s Kay Eee Double-you,” I explained.  “But she’s the gadget girl for the Spy Kidz.  Hence the codename.”

Fey performed a similar chant, and made nearly the same gesture.  The image shimmered, and became a guy I’d never seen before, even if I recognized the ‘Spy Kidz’ outfit he was wearing.  He was standing in Schuster Hall, in a crowded hallway, and launching some sort of rigid mechanical extension arm from his left sleeve to stick the tiny bug onto the back of someone’s blazer.  The back of my blazer.

Billie snapped, “Holdout!”  When she saw the blank looks in the room, she explained, “No, his codename is Holdout, ‘cause he’s an external ‘size’ Warper and he can hide all kinds of holdouts, shrunk way down, in his pockets.”

Right.  The ‘external size Warper’ from that entire week I’d missed of Powers Lab.  Billie had seen him do his schtick that day.  I was glad she was paying attention.

Hank said, “So the Secret Squirrels have targeted you.  I’m not surprised.”

“Me neither,” Chaka said.

Billie added, “Not after what Jade’s boyfriend spilled.”

Sara just looked at Fey and muttered, “I’ve got nothing here.”

Nikki grumbled, “Nothing here either.  No compulsion, no geas, no love charm, not even a minor seeming.”

“What the HELL are you people babbling about?” I yelled.

Sara stared at me with a look of real disappointment and said, “You’ve spent half of the afternoons over the last four days sitting and talking with the daughter of Dr. Diabolik.  Did you even know where you were?  Do you have any idea what you might have told her?”

I rolled my eyes.  “Honest to God, you guys!  Why didn’t you just ASK me?  Yes, I’ve been talking with her for a couple afternoons.  Yes, I know EXACTLY what I’ve been telling her.  And yes, I’ve been doing it of my own free will.”  I sighed in disgust.  “Didn’t I ever tell any of you about going to elementary school with kids who are here?”

Chou carefully supplied, “Yes, but I thought you were talking about Solange and Glitch.”

I groaned, “Yeah, well Tansy was there too, even if she was two years older.  Ren?  I didn’t meet him until junior high.  The two kids I went to kiddy school with?  Jadis and Mal Diabolik.”

Sara looked at Fey and asked, “Implanted memories?”

“GODDAMMIT YOU GUYS!!” I hollered.  “It’s not an implanted memory!  What the hell is wrong with you?”

Billie calmly said, “Remember how you reacted when Jade said she was going to let Thuban use her like a lab rat?”

“Oh.  Right.”  I thought it over, and it seemed like all of us had worried about Jade.  A lot.  And now they were worrying about me.  Well, I’d worried a fair bit about my interactions with the Diaboliks myself.  “Yeah, I kind of see your point.”

I thought it over for a second, and a simple solution presented itself.  “Wait, you all know I’ve babbled on and on more than once about Franklin Academy and Westchester Montessori.  Right?”

“Right.”

“Way too often,” supplied a smart-ass in a hammock.

“Thanks Toni, I love you too,” I replied.  “Chou?  Pull up your laptop, go to the web archives of the New York Times, and search for stories with the keywords ‘Diabolik’ and ‘Benjamin Franklin Academy’.  When we were little kids, someone ratted them out and they were all over the newspapers for a week.”

Toni groaned, “You mean a couple little kids got targeted by major paparazzi while they were in elementary school?  That sucks.  What happened?”

I gritted my teeth, “Their nanny and bodyguard whisked ‘em away, and they never came back.  They COULDN’T come back.  Jadis said they had to be home-schooled after that, because the FBI and the CIA had men following them 24-7 after that.”

“Jadis?  You call her Jadis?” asked Billie, sounding somewhat aghast.

I shrugged, “I always have.  When I knew her, she was a kid barely a year older than I was.  It wasn’t like she had those forelock horns then.  She and Mal were just other kids.  I spent most of my lunch periods talking with her about books.  That’s all we’re doing now.”

Chaka glared, “That better be all you’re doing now, Ayles.  ‘Cause you’ve already got a girlfriend.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Says the girl who’s dating Riptide AND T-Bird, plus having to chase off another three or four guys on the side!”

She actually looked abashed.  “Yeah, well, I’m not exactly proud of the way I handled all that, if ya have to know.”

I shrugged, “Well, if I were bi, and I looked as smoking hot as you and Fey, I probably would’ve done a lot worse.”

Hank snorted, “Oh yeah, says Miss ‘Goodkinds do not cheat’ herself.  I just don’t see you doing that.  Maybe being real confused, but not sneaking around behind your girlfriend’s back to date a supervillain.”

There was kind of a long, uncomfortable pause in the room, since there were a couple people in the room who had a girlfriend and were also dating a guy who didn’t know about said girlfriend.  And one of them had her girlfriend in the room right then as well.

Chou quietly said, “I notice that you did not defend She-Beast as not being a supervillain.”

I sighed, “I wish I could.  But I just don’t know.  Mal is certainly working hard on it.  He’s even hanging with that dork Nephandus all the time.  Jadis?  She might be going either way.  Supervillain-wise, not anything else you’re thinking about.”

Chaka snorted in amusement.  “Well, she sure doesn’t look like your type.”

Sara smirked, “Which, judging by the girls you stare at, is more like this…”  And she changed shape, right before my eyes.  Jeez!  I was never going to get used to that.  In seconds, she was about eighteen, busty, with legs like a supermodel, and nearly as pretty as Nikki.  And her dress rose up until it just barely covered her crotch.

I had a really hard time not staring.  But…  Dang!  Was she shapeshifting her clothes too now?  Or was she doing something creepy with tentacles on the underside of that skirt?  Okay, I didn’t want to know that part.

Lancer helpfully put in, “Umm, Sara, to be fair, I think most of the room would think that was their type.”

Chaka inserted, “Mm-mm!  That’s some diggetty going on there!”

Chou tried not to stare at Sara as she said, “I am not sure what she just said, but I think I agree.”

Frankly, with those curves, and that face, and those legs, Sara’s form was a threat to every girl on campus who wanted to hang onto her boyfriend.  Including the hottest Exemplars.  Everyone in the room was staring at her, except Jade and Billie.  Which made me really wonder about Billie.

I said, “Not that I’m not enjoying the heck out of staring at you, Sara, but I still want to know why you all decided to gang-query me.”

Several heads turned to stare at Jade.  Oh.  Of course.

Jade quietly admitted, “Today, Stephen needed to ask me something.  About you and She-Beast.  And he played me a recording.  You two talking about.. about.. killing some old woman’s children, baking them in a pie, and making her eat them.  It was awful!  But Stephen promised it was really you.  I said you’d never do that unless someone had you under some kind of compulsion.  And he said it was up to me whether I told anyone in Team Kimba.”

I looked at Hank.  “You should’ve brought Lily into it.  She would have recognized it immediately.”

“Recognized what?” he asked.

I told him.

“Whew,” sighed Fey behind me.  “That’s a major relief.  I was pretty worried.”

Sara just smiled smugly, “I told you I knew what it was.”

Lancer stared at her, “But you didn’t tell us what it meant.”

I fumed, “This is high school.  No one’s stopping you from, like, learning some stuff.  To paraphrase Santayana, ‘Those who cannot remember history class are condemned to repeat a grade’.”

“Oh great,” groaned Chaka, “Now she’s buying her material from Dennis Miller.”

At least Sara wasn’t complaining.  I turned to her and said, “If you’re so worried about what Jadis is psychically peeling out of my cerebrum, why don’t you join us sometime?  You might even enjoy the discussion.”

She rolled her eyes, “I think I’ll pass.  I’ve still got a big bullseye painted across my derriere, and sitting in public with the two people who are maybe the second and third biggest targets on campus wouldn’t do any of us good.  In fact, it might just persuade someone to try a tactical strike while the three of us are together.”

“Thanks for those highly encouraging words,” I grumbled.

She shrugged.  Man, I wished she wouldn’t do that when she had nests of tentacles instead of shoulders and arms.  She added, “I don’t see any point in lying to you.  Reverend England has made it clear that he thinks I’m a threat to all life on earth, and he thinks it’s his sworn duty to erase me.  Just because he’s on a short leash for now doesn’t mean he won’t make another try if the opportunity presents itself.  And I have other enemies who just aren’t as honest as he is.  You have even more enemies on campus than I do, some of whom certainly wouldn’t mind if you had a fatal accident.  Miss Diabolik has scores of people around here who want to attack her, either because they’re good guys and they’re sure she’s evil, or because they’re bad guys and they have a score to settle with Diabolik Senior, or because they think they’re really bad dudes and they’re trying to make their bones, or even because someone they know was hurt or killed in some Diabolik operation.  I just think that the three of us sitting together in public is asking someone to connect the dots.  If one of my enemies launches an attack and makes it look like a ruthless hit on you or She-Beast, then said enemy might just get away with it.  Similarly, one of your enemies or one of She-Beast’s enemies might try the same ruse.  And frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone got the bright idea of wiping out the three of us in one massive strike after accepting contracts on all three of us at one time.”

Fey said, “Wow Sara, you’re just a barrel of laughs these days.”

I wished I was amused.  Unfortunately, I had to agree with her.  There were kids on campus who might be bigger targets than the three of us, but there weren’t a lot of them.  Jobe probably was, even if no one thought of Gizmatic as the warm, fatherly type.  It wouldn’t surprise me if there were already major contracts out on Don Sebastiano, given what an enormous prick he was to everyone in sight.  Between the Goodkinds and the Mathersons and anyone else that Solange had probably mind-raped for industrial espionage purposes, Tansy was probably atop some rich baseline’s to-do list.  And then there were kids on campus (besides Sara) who already had a few murder charges on their rap sheets.

As I stood there, getting depressed about the sitch, Jade suddenly piped up.  “And I’m pretty sure Stephen was worrying about your intelligence network stuff too, but he didn’t want to come out and say so.”

“Oh great,” I groaned.

Sara said, “Thuban already has an intelligence network, and we know he doesn’t want to share.  Is he going to try to interfere with the network Phase is trying to put together?  And if so, do we let the J-Team tell him what we’ve been talking about?”

Jade fussed, “Stephen isn’t like that!  He’s a sweetie!  And he’s so cute when he goes all ‘dragon up’.  You know, his scales are really soft.”

“T. M. I!!!” squealed Nikki.

“Gotta agree on that,” complained Chaka.

“Ditto,” added Lancer.

Billie insisted, “Well, I think we ought to let Jade decide what we’ll do about Thuban.  He’s her boyfriend, after all.”

Jade smiled happily, “Thank you, oneesama.”

I frowned, “We’d better not.  Jade isn’t always the most level-headed girl in this team.”

“Hey!” complained said girl.  “I am SO level-headed!  And anyone who says different is going to have to answer to...  The CABBIT OF DOOM!”

Chaka rolled her eyes, “Your point exactly, Ayles.”

Billie tried again.  “Well, I still think we ought to give her a chance.”

I tapped my foot impatiently.  “Two words: noodle incident.”

Jade’s toy lion erupted, “That’s not fair!  I didn’t start it!”

Jade agreed, “Yeah, it wasn’t our fault!  And it wasn’t like I was really using noodles…”

“Pronouns, please?” complained Fey.

Shroud added, “I agree.  It wasn’t our fault.  We just finished it.”

The lion giggled, “Yeah!  We finished it but good!”

I said, “Agreeing with yourself doesn’t count as having external support.”

Lancer reluctantly said, “Okay, the noodle incident was a problem.”

Fey fumed, “We were just lucky I happened to have the right spells prepared, or we would have gotten in trouble.”

Jade burst out manically, “But we DIDN’T!  WE GOT AWAY WITH IT!  BAH-HAH-HAH!”  Then she ‘jumped’ upright in her hammock and did a Jann-assisted victory dance in mid-air.

Billie watched her and finally groaned, “Great, now I’m going to have to side with Phase.”  She stared at Jade for long seconds before she added, “And stop with the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes already.”

Dinner was great.  Chef Peter had a treat for me.  And Jade didn’t feel the need to launch “Noodle Incident 2: This Time It’s Personal”.

Okay, Jade looked like she really wanted to launch a pre-emptive mashed potato strike, but Billie was giving her ferocious glares every time the food started to levitate off of Jade’s tray.

In addition to a nice salad I built myself, and a vegetable medley (that was frankly ordinary even after I added plenty of oregano and fresh-ground pepper), I had Chef Peter’s treat to enjoy.  A miniature calzone stuffed with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and real Italian sausage, along with a robust red sauce chock full of basil and Roma tomato and fennel and anise.  The handmade dough was perfectly baked, and a rich golden-brown.  I was guessing from the rich color of the baked calzone that Peter had painted the calzone with egg white too.

Chaka stopped wolfing down her meatloaf long enough to ask, “Hey Ayles, how come your veggies have all that sprinkling stuff on top, and mine don’t?”

Well, that was what I thought she said.  It was hard to tell with all that meatloaf still in her mouth.  I replied, “I just added oregano and fresh-ground pepper, to taste.”

Fey wondered aloud, “I know where the pepper is, but how’d you get oregano for sprinkling on stuff?”

I smirked, “It’s simple, I just-”

Chaka interrupted, “-flew a couple Italians in and they made up a batch.”

Billie snickered around a mammoth mouthful of meat.  Rip gave Chaka a little elbow in the side.

I went on, as if ‘Richard Prioress’ over there hadn’t started her evening monologue.  “I just went over to the pizza area.  They have a big pepper grinder, a shaker of oregano, a couple shakers of dried red pepper, and a couple shakers of what passes for Parmesan cheese in this country.”

Hank muttered, “Sneaky.  I never thought of that.”

I snarked, “Well, you and Tennyo go for quantity over quality, so I’m not surprised.”

“MMM!”  That was Tennyo objecting with most of a steak crammed into her mouth.

After dinner, things were pretty quiet.  I was ready for Saturday morning’s World Lit class, so I spent almost an hour finishing my term paper for it: “Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’: a hypermodern epic form”.  After I completed the paper, I went up to the sunroom upstairs.  Nothing much was going on anywhere else, so I snuggled next to Vanessa and watched some lame television programming.

I even managed not to lapse into the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, which that show really needed.  It wasn’t just bad, it was boring.  Vanessa really needed to elevate her taste in television.

All right, the entire room needed to elevate their taste in entertainment.

 
Friday, December 1, 6:45 pm
THE ALPHAS

Don Sebastiano stared in disgust at the nerd crawling across his freshly-cleaned rug.  “And what is the point of this?”

Greasy looked up and winced, “Sorry, uhh, Your Don-ship.”

“Don Sebastiano,” The Don ruthlessly corrected.

“Uhh, right, umm, sir.”  Greasy had a synthetic skin covering his pores, but he could almost feel the sweat pouring off his body.  Peeper had insisted that Greasy do what The Don wanted, and Greasy had figured it would be pretty awful.  Putting together some phone-tapping and phreaking gear was a piece of cake.  But he was having to set things up under the super-critical eyes of Don Sebastiano, Hekate, Cavalier, Skybolt, and also Aries.  That was making him more nervous than he’d been the time he was trying to broadcast test paper answers to Peeper so Peeper could cheat on his American History midterm.

“Cav?” The Don suggested.

Cavalier prompted Greasy with a foot to the butt.  “Greasy, what are you doing?”

“Well, I’m tracing the phone wiring, just in case someone tried to slip a devise on your end of the line so they could mask their signature from you.  I already checked the line through the dorm basement, and it’s clean.  The speaker I set up has a ‘lie detector’ that measures vocal chord stress, and it also has voice-pattern matching capabilities, so we ought to be able to tell if the voices they say they have are really Phase and She-Beast.  The hands-free system will sit on your left ear, and only your voice should go out over the phone line.  And the box hooked up to the phone jack ought to let us trace the line back to the other phone numbers on the call.”

Cavalier only said, “That sounds like what we asked for.”

Don Sebastiano shrugged, “It had better be.  Greasy knows the penalty for failure around here.”

Greasy gulped.  Hard.  The last time The Don had been mad at him, he had been pummeled hard enough that he could hardly get out of bed for a couple days.  Not that Peeper had let him stay in bed and rest when there were girls to go film…

 

THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ

Fantastico kicked back and had a couple swallows of soda.  “C’mon, Ferret.  Ya got that thing working yet, or not?”

“Just another minute, F-Man,” Ferret groaned.  This was tricky enough without having someone bugging you every ten seconds.

Oiler muttered, “Just let him do his job already, Bert.  Ya wanna have everything set up right, don’t ya?”

Fantastico said, “I want him ta do a good job.  I just don’t see why I havta be the one who gets all inconvenient-y on it.”

Oiler growled, “Come on, F-man!  He couldn’t do it during dinner, he has to eat too!”

Fantastico rolled his eyes, “Ya coulda gotten Meep-meep ta run a to-go dinner over here for him.”

Ferret put down the E-M spectrum analyzer and stood up, rubbing his aching back.  “Done.  And in plenty of time.  Now we just havta make sure that recording is what they say it is.”

 

Friday, December 1, 7:02 pm

THUBAN

He sat in his ‘office’ and waited until the third ring to answer the phone.  He had a hands-free system with some very special equipment, so he could have answered the call a millisecond before the first ring.  But there was no point in revealing his capabilities, or those of his equipment.

“Thuban here.”

The obviously computerized voice grated, “Welcome, Thuban.  You are our second bidder.  Fantastico is already on the line.  We will now contact our third bidder, so we can begin.”

Thuban merely said, “Go ahead.”

 

THE ALPHAS

Don Sebastiano sat and listened to the tape.  It certainly sounded like Phase and She-Beast to him.  But he was fully aware that devisors could fake people’s voices well enough to fool the human ear.  Even the human ear of an Exemplar like himself.  That was why he had Greasy analyzing the sounds, as well as tracing the call.

Phase: “so then I get even.  I kill her sons.  And I bake them in a pie and feed them to her!”

Unidentified voice: “Ick!”

She-Beast: “And that still isn’t enough.  He kills Lavinia and then he stabs the old queen to death.”

Phase: “But it’s still not over…”

Greasy looked up and nodded.  He whispered, “The computer says it’s definitely She-Beast and Phase.  I’ve got a 74% probability that the ‘ick’ word is from Dragonrider, another of the Bad Seeds.”

Don Sebastiano sat back in his chair.  That was what he needed to know.  Now the bidding would begin.  He would have to be circumspect.  He had up to $50,000 from Solange that he could use, and nothing else.  Thuban and Fantastico had more resources than he did.  He might want to play Thuban against Fantastico first, and then, if the bidding got too high…

The computer voice stated, “The bidding can begin whenever you are ready, now that you have been reassured that this is really She-Beast and Phase.  I am going to insist on American dollars, so please bid in round numbers of dollars.”

Thuban made the first bid.  “I’ll start at ten thousand.”

Don Sebastiano offered, “Twelve thousand.”

Fantastico pushed, “Twenty thousand.”

The Don rolled his eyes so that Hekate could see his reaction.  Typical Americans.  Couldn’t engage in a subtle bidding auction.  They had to leap in with both feet, like it was a swimming pool.

Hekate wrote on a notepad.  Do we have more than $50.000 to play with?

Don Sebastiano shook his head and wrote back.  Not unless you wish to contribute, my queen.

Thuban replied, “Twenty-five thousand.”

She pursed her lips and wrote back, I will contribute up to 20.000 American.  And not a Euro more.

Very well.  That gave him $70,000 to work with.  He said, “Forty thousand dollars.”  Perhaps he could bluff someone out of the pot.  If not, he had a backup strategy in mind.

Fantastico offered, “Sixty thou.”

Thuban casually replied, “Eighty thousand dollars.”

Curse the lizard-boy.  That was beyond his resources.  Not that he was going to let either competitor know that.  It was obvious that neither was ready to back down.  So he would see just how much money he could cost them.  “One hundred thousand dollars.”

Hekate glared at him.  He had to stop and open a psychic link.  “I am merely bluffing, running them into bankruptcy if I can.”

She smiled wickedly.  Then she turned to Spellbinder and Conjure and pointed at the conjuring circle.  They went to work while she sat.

Greasy whispered, “Okay, I’ve got a trace, sir.  Somebody really good is behind this one.  It’s electronically connected through the campus phone system to us, and Thuban’s ‘office’ number, and Fantastico’s dorm room, and…  Oh, hah hah.  They’re making it look like the fourth line goes to Carson’s office.  No wait, it’s cycling…  That’s…  Jerks.  That’s your cell phone number.  Okay, it’s cycling again…  Now it’s Oiler’s dorm room number…  Okay, that’s Solange’s room number…  And that’s the security hotline number…  They’re just jerking our chains.  Now that’s Hartford’s private line…  Next is.. oh, that’s Mr. Anderson’s unlisted number, don’t call that one if you know what’s good for you…”

Don Sebastiano listened to Greasy with one ear, while the bids rose.  He contributed, “One hundred and fifty thousand.”

Fantastico pushed the bidding even higher.  “One sixty.”

Thuban calmly said, “One hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars.”

Fantastico paused before he said, “One seventy-five.”

It was obvious that Fantastico wasn’t willing to go much higher, so The Don opted to drop out of the bidding.  He had wanted to push his competitors too high, but he had to make sure that he didn’t get caught in the bidding.

Thuban said, “One hundred and eighty thousand dollars.”

The Don stared at the speaker, as if it would magically yield answers.  Thuban wasn’t giving anything away.  Don Sebastiano still didn’t know whether the lizard-boy was already folding, or ready to go up another hundred thousand, or something in between.  He detested Thuban, but had to admit the lizard was a worthy opponent.

Fantastico sighed audibly over the speaker.  He finally said, “Okay.  One eighty-five.”

It was obvious to The Don that Thuban could get the recording for a couple thousand more.  The F-man was done.

Thuban came back, “Very well.  I concede.”

The computer voice checked, “Don Sebastiano, do you wish to put in a higher bid?”

The Don pretended to think it over.  He finally said, “No, I think I will let Fantastico have it.”  He was certainly not going to let that Texas twit realize that Don Sebastiano had merely been maneuvering him and Thuban for several minutes.”

The computer voice said, “Don Sebastiano.  Thuban.  Thank you for participating.  I am now ending your connections, and I will discuss matters with Fantastico privately.  Good night.”  The line went dead.

Don Sebastiano stared at Greasy, who checked his equipment again and unhappily shook his head in a nervous ‘no’.

He turned away from the deviser in disgust.  He looked at Hekate until he had her attention, and then he re-opened the psychic link.  “Hekate, were your attendants able to scry and find our little friend?”

“No,” she thought angrily.  “Whoever they are, they were prepared for magical examination.  I couldn’t find the callers, and I couldn’t bespell the phone system to reveal their true location.”

“How strong a mage would that take?”

She glared at Sebastiano.  It was so frustrating to see how little he had grasped about her world.  She angrily thought at him, “A WIZ-1 could do it, given they had a couple days to prepare, and enough training.  Frankly, they could have paid a mage to do the spells for them, so they may not have any magical training.”

The Don grimaced.  “How.. uninformative.”

Greasy looked up from his gear, “Umm, can I pick up my stuff and go now?”

The Don nodded regally, and watched as Greasy scrambled to get away from him.  Keeping most of the school scared of him was a good thing.. not to mention how much fun it was.

Once Greasy had piled his gear into his bag and had run out the door, Don Sebastiano looked around the room.  “Any last thoughts?”

Cavalier nodded, “You played them extremely well, sir.  They never realized you didn’t have the monetary resources they did, and they never realized you were bidding them up more than they needed to go.”

The Don nodded, “Exactly.  And we don’t need that recording.  All we need is a guarantee that someone else will use that recording to attack Phase.  If anything, Fantastico hates Phase more than we do.”

Cavalier agreed, “He is the one who has been trying to get groups to attack Phase.  Although I have my suspicions that Solange psychically ‘encouraged’ Aries to keep attacking Phase until things escalated out of our control.  Still, I might be wrong about that.  We know that Solange has a long-standing personal grudge against Phase, but I haven’t seen evidence that subtlety is one of her gifts.”

The Don shrugged, “It no longer matters.  I don’t mind the Alpha hit squads striking without my permission first, but I do object to them doing it and being humiliated in the process.  Still, several days in lockdown in Hawthorne with broken toilets in their rooms is more than enough punishment.”

Hekate finally asked, “How did you manage to get the toilets broken?  We lack resources in Hawthorne, and Fubar is notoriously unpleasant about intrusions against his kids.”

He smiled nastily, “I didn’t.  I regret to admit that I didn’t even consider it.  One of the Thornies must have done it.  But that doesn’t matter, as long as people have to worry that I might have been able to extend my reach that far.”

 

THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ

Fantastico pumped a fist into the air.  “All right!”  He’d kicked that slimy Spic’s ass in the bidding.  And he’d taken out that creepy little Chink dragon-boy too.  Now he was going to get a tape that would put that faggot girly-boy freak Phase in his place.  Her place.  Its place.  Whatever.  He smirked out loud, “Now we’re gonna get on this.  I’m gonna make Phase do whatever the hell I want, includin’ getting’ me summa that Team Kimba pussy.”

Oiler groaned, “Don’t get ahead of yourself.  We’d be in a better position if we knew who sold us that tape.  Then we could use them as frontmen.  Plausible deniability is always a good thing, ya know.

Ferret said, “Maybe we better plan how we’re gonna bracket the drop site tomorrow afternoon.  It’s down in the devisor tunnels, so that’s gonna limit access for our greedy little friend…”

Oiler muttered, “What I wanna know is who’s Lafinia.”

Fantastico said, “Sounded ta me like ‘Lavinia’ or ‘Lavidia’.”

Ferret said, “Could be.  But it might be a codename.  So it might be something weird that sounds like ‘Lavinia’ or ‘Lafinia’ or something.”

 
Friday, December 1, 8 pm
THE WHITMAN LITERARY GIRLS

Foxfire looked around the room.  “Okay, where’s Fractious this time?”

Reverb looked a little embarrassed.  “Uhh, there was some mildew in the showers, and…”

Foxfire groaned, “Oh, not again!”

Reverb shrugged, “Hey, at least we have the cleanest bathroom on campus…”

Loophole pointed out, “Actually I hear Hawthorne has the cleanest bathrooms on campus.”

Hawthorne?” questioned Reverb.

Lupine nodded, “Oh yeah!  Babs was telling me about ‘em.  Between Jimmy T and Plasmoid-”

“Ewwww!” groaned Arachne.  “I don’t wanna hear anymore!”

Foxfire tried to regain control of her meeting.  “Okay, the reason I called all of you together is because-”

“-one of you is the murderer!” chimed in Loophole.

“Knock it off, would you?”  Foxfire shook her head in frustration.

Lifeline suggested, “Why don’t we just go on without her?”

Loophole added, “Besides, I can brief her later, and there’s always the chance she won’t be able to get in on the action, if.. something like this comes up…”

Compiler slapped the arm of her chair and grinned, “Yeah, this is gonna be great!”  Then she noticed that she’d accidentally bent the metal chair arm, and tried to bend it back into shape before anyone else noticed.

Foxfire rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, we need to be ready.  We think something’s going down and really soon.  Lifeline and I are trying to track the Bads, and we’re trying to scry around She-Beast.  She’s too tricky.  We can’t scry her directly, but when she’s talking to other people sometimes we can scry them and hear what she’s saying too.”

Lifeline added, “She’s really good about basic magical protections, and her security routines are really top-notch.”

“Like we didn’t know that already,” pointed out Loophole.  “I think that we need to try tagging her with electronics again.  Just because she fried my three last bugs doesn’t mean we can’t get one on her if we set things up differently.”

Foxfire grumbled something under her breath and said, “Back to our meeting, please?  We know the Spy Kidz were trying to tag Phase with a bug.  And we know the Masterminds were following Phase around.  So they know something’s going down really soon.  And the only thing Phase has done lately is talking with She-Beast.  So it’s gotta be her.”

Loophole pushed, “But what is it?  I mean, there are a lot of possibilities here.  First, She-Beast could be trying-”

Becky cut her off, “We don’t exactly need to know what it is.  But we know when the Spy Kidz think she’ll pull something.  Right?”

Loophole admitted, “Oh yeah.  That.”  She looked around at the group and explained, “We have a regular Saturday evening ‘girls of the Workshop’ get-together, 7:30 until curfew.  This time, Bugs said she was going to bring her new DVD player, and Widget has a holographic projector she wanted to try it on, and Wundy is bringing the popcorn, and…”  She noticed Becky was staring at her and tapping her foot impatiently.  “Well, anyway, Kew told us she was going to have to cancel, because she had something going on then.”

Foxfire emphasized, “So the Spy Kidz think it’s going down after 7:30 tomorrow night.  Whatever it is, we can’t let them steal our idea!  We came up with the idea, and we should be the ones who get to take down She-Beast!”

 

Saturday, December 2, 7 am

AYLA

“Two all-lard patties
full of terrible disease,
and you know about the creepy boss
so you know that ain’t no special sauce,
it all goes to your waist,
clogs your arteries like paste,
and…”

I woke up to Brass Monkey’s “Rage Against the MacCheese”.  I hummed along while I floated out of the sleeping bag and grabbed my heavy bathrobe.  I grabbed my shower caddy and turned off the radio before I left the room.

It was still early for a Saturday morning, so I didn’t have as many girls to ogle as I did on weekdays.  Still, Bugs came in and showered while I was there.  That was hot.  And I don’t think she noticed me staring at her reflection as I flossed my teeth and she dried off.  You know, when it comes to naked hotties drying their backs, it’s all good.

Then I made sure I had my term paper, and I zipped off to class.  A quick stop at the caff netted me a large to-go cup of the good coffee, plus two flaky, buttery croissants that just melted in my mouth.

I wasn’t the last person into class that morning, but it was close.  And I wasn’t the first person to get their term paper in, either.  Rats.  Majestic and Pendragon had both sent their papers in electronically.

Majestic just gave me one of her usual insufferably smug looks.

Pendragon shook his head and said, “Really, Phase.  It’s not a competition.”

I shrugged, “I know.  I just like to get my term papers in early.  Then I have more time to prep for finals.”

Pendragon exchanged knowing looks with Majestic.  That made me wonder what the heck I was missing about finals at Whateley.

Majestic saw my expression and smirked, “You’ll find out soon, little girl.  Really soon.”  Then she gave me an evil grin and went back to her notebook.

Man, I just hate it when there’s something that everyone except me knows about.  Especially if it’s likely to be something major.  Well, I can take a hint.  Time to step up my prep for finals, so I’ll be ready well in advance.

Professor Zinn reminded us that term papers were due by Saturday the 16th, and then he got into the day’s discussion.  Ezra Pound’s The Cantos.  Pound may have been a brilliant man, but he had been a total loon.  He was so fixated on Renaissance Italy that he actually ended up broadcasting for Mussolini during World War II, which put him in a stockade for years after the war ended.

Zinn asked, “Who translated the Greek and Latin for Pendragon’s workgroup?”

I raised my hand and admitted, “Latin.”

Pendragon said, “I did the ancient Greek.”

Zinn nodded slowly.  “Adequate.  Both of you…  Miss Summers?”  Majestic nodded his way.  “Your translations are really outstanding.  I’m going to recommend you to several of my colleagues.  Feel free to take their jobs or ignore them, as you wish.”

The regal expression on her face told me that she wasn’t going to put up with just anyone.  Which meant that this was pretty much business as usual for her.  Well, if she really was the avatar or channeler (or something) of Juno, then her ancient Greek and Latin were probably unbeatable.  I still didn’t like having her outdo me on the translations.

It turned out that Stunner was the only one in the class who could really translate Basque.  That wasn’t too surprising, considering how few people spoke it at all.  Silver Serpent might have been the only Oriental in the class, but it turned out that there were two other students who knew enough Chinese to tackle the ideograms.  My Chinese was limited to just enough to engage in polite business conversation.  I was glad I hadn’t had to try translating those things myself.  The subtleties that Silver Serpent had noted would have gone right over my head.

The discussion was really interesting.  Silver Serpent had a really Eastern take on Pound’s obsession with ancient China.  Majestic had written about Renaissance Italy and how Pound’s interests related to parts of Renaissance Rome that related directly to ancient Rome.  (I hate to admit it, but she’s a damned good scholar when she isn’t getting derailed with her obsession about Juno and Hera.)  Pendragon had written about Pound’s years in prison, and how that came through in the ‘Rock Drill Cantos’.  Bubble…  Well, the less said about Bubble’s paper, the better.

 

THE BAD SEEDS

Nephandus caught up with She-Beast and Techno-Devil.  “I just wanted to give you some early warning, in case you had anything brewing.”

She-Beast looked intently at him.  “Not here.  Not if it’s important.  Wait until we get into the ‘protected’ areas.”

He nodded in agreement.  He understood the need for caution and privacy just as well as the Diaboliks did.  “This part isn’t that private.  I knew Stopwatch had to be up to something, when he just casually asked me about renting one of my lairs.  For that very evening.  At the time, I assumed he was trying to incriminate me in something, even if that seemed more risky than ‘Watch usually dares.  So I arranged to monitor as much of the meeting as I could without setting off Stopwatch’s usual anti-snooping devises.  I couldn’t get much, since the little worm does do a halfway decent job on anti-listening systems.”

Nephandus stopped talking as they passed a Security officer.  The man stopped and stared at them suspiciously.  She-Beast sighed.  This was so common that she ought to lure Hazard or Boxcars into betting with her on it.  Did anyone in Whateley trust her?  Particularly when she was talking with other Bads?

Nephandus pulled out a small crystal and turned it three times.  Then he went on, “I think it’s set for Phase’s dorm room, tonight at eight.”  They stepped through a private doorway.  She-Beast touched the runes along the doorframe, and they moved into the private area.  Nephandus added, “Whatever it is going to be.”  Then he leered, “And I’m really hoping to get to see the Masterminds and the Spy Kidz both get an extra helping of humble pie served to them.  Normally, only one goes down hard.  But with Phase involved, if she’s really as competent as you implied, this could be most entertaining.”

She-Beast nodded, “We’ll have to see if we can get Security camera footage of it, so we can see how they perform.”

Jadis didn’t say anything else, but she worried.  Should she intervene?  If she warned Trevor, would that reveal the information network that Jadis had put together?  If she didn’t warn Trevor, would it be as big a problem as it looked?  She was going to have to think this over.

 

THE WHITMAN LITERARY GIRLS

Foxfire and Lifeline stood in Lifeline’s room, leaning over a silverplated bowl of liquid.  They were scrying very carefully, but it was a major problem to get anything useful when She-Beast was so careful about snooping.  The girl used so many magical defenses, on top of all the devises Techno-Devil and Nephandus kept making for her, that finding out anything was a victory.

Lifeline added a few more drops of a potion that made Foxfire’s eyes water.  But it paid off.  They managed to get a few seconds of clear image:

                   set for Phase’s dorm room, tonight at eight

Then they lost the clarity, and a few seconds later the image vanished completely.  Lifeline looked up, “There’s no point in trying more.  This level of degradation means they’ve moved under a magical charm specifically designed to stop eavesdroppers.”

Foxfire grinned, “But it doesn’t matter.  We know where, and we know when.  All we have to do is get into positions around Poe before eight, and spring our trap after She-Beast does whatever she’s going to do to Phase!”

Lifeline looked up, “Umm, Becky, shouldn’t we do something before She-Beast attacks Phase?”

“We won’t have any hard evidence if we do that!”

Lifeline rolled her eyes.  “Yeah.  But Phase could get hurt.”

“Psht.  Anyone who can smack Matterhorn around can take a surprise from the Beast.”

“Oh Goddesses, I hope so,” muttered Lifeline.

 

THE THREE LITTLE WITCHES

Abra and Clover hastily pulled their stethoscopes from Foxfire’s door.  They had to slap their hands over their mouths to keep from giggling out loud.  They slipped down the hall and down the stairs before bursting into high-pitched squeals of laughter.

Palantir ran up to them.  “Did you get it?  Did you find out something good?”

Abracadabra grinned manically, “Good?  It’s perfect!  They’re going to spring a trap on She-Beast.  That’ll never work!  We’ll have all the time we need while they’re fighting her.”

Clover giggled wildly, “And it’s gonna be at eight tonight, so we won’t even be out past curfew!  Buttons will be so happy!”

Palantir smirked, “We’d better start preparing a couple Essence-siphoning spells.”

Abra nodded.

Clover perked up, “And I’ll get my witch hat ready!”

 

AYLA

I got to the Team Kimba table a little later than usual, since I’d stopped and chatted with Silver Serpent and Stunner about translating languages when the linguist is a tad.. well.. eccentric.  Stunner’s take was that Pound had done a pretty impressive job with Basque, particularly when there aren’t a lot of places where you can learn the language.  Silver Serpent’s feeling was that Pound had done a decent job overall with the ideograms, but he had missed some nuances with a couple of the characters.  I thought his Latin was better than mine, but that he was really stretching when he was trying to sneak in a couple cross-language refs.

When I walked up to the table, the anti-eavesdropping spell was in full swing.  It sounded like most of the table was chatting about spring fashions and going shopping over the winter holiday.  Not that there was a chance in hell that Chou would really be talking excitedly about shopping for bikinis.  I’d have to gig her about that some evening in our room.  I was pretty sure Molly would love getting Chou into a bikini – and Chou would look hot in one – but she was still in the “I’m a guy and I won’t wear that” stage.

I sat, set my tray down, and touched the crystal.  The faux-conversation sort of blurred into the real thing.  Jade was arguing with Hank and Toni about the kinds of munitions that went with a Hello Kitty motif.  Hank was pretty insistent that no munitions went with Hello Kitty.

Toni was having a blast driving both of them up the wall.  “In the world of Hello Kitty 40,000 there is only WAR!”

“Stop it, Toni.”

“Nothing says ‘cute’ like a solid pink AK-47, ya know.”

“Hush, Chaka.”

“Ahhll be bock… wid a pink howitzer.”

“Toni!”

I rescued Hank and Jade.  “Hey Tonester.  That doesn’t look like your usual chocolate cream pie.  Going on the wagon?”

She grinned, “Ah, no.  I just figured I’d try something else.  Not that they’re really gonna stop making it any time soon, but…”

Billie butted in, “I think it’s my fault.  I got the last three pieces, and I ate ‘em all before Chaka got to the table.  I guess they don’t have any more today.  And I really worked up an appetite in Flight class today.”

I wondered out loud, “Don’t you eat breakfast after Flight class on Saturdays?”

Jade helped out, “No.  She has breakfast before, and then she sneaks back in and has a second breakfast after.”

“That was what I meant,” I replied.

“Hey, I have a hearty appetite!  That’s a good thing!” Tennyo complained.

I suggested, “I think ‘hearty’ applies to an appetite like Toni’s.  Yours is somewhere between ‘enormous’ and ‘oh my god it’s coming this way’.”

“Why does everyone always pick on me about food?” she fussed.

“Probably because you can take Jimmy Trauger in an eating contest,” said Lancer.

Jade helped out again, “Sure she can!  Tennyo can beat anybody!”

“Jade, you’re really not helping here.”

“Sorry, oneesama.”  Not that she looked the least bit sorry.  In fact, she looked like she was trying hard to think of a way to rub it in a bit more.

After I finished lunch – along with a really superb vanilla custard made with real vanilla bean and then drizzled in a fresh marionberry puree – I stood up.  I was planning on walking back to Poe and pestering Zenith until she told me whatever it was that Pendragon and Majestic had been hinting about.  But I saw Jadis taking her usual place at her official business table, and I decided to go ask her instead.  She was more likely to spill the beans than Zenith, who sometimes took her ‘fixer’ responsibilities a little too seriously.

“Umm, where ya off to, Ayles?”

As if Toni didn’t know exactly where I was looking.  I told her, “I’m going to go ask Jadis a question.”

Fey carefully asked, “And can you afford what it costs to get an answer?”

I sighed unhappily, “Look guys, Jadis is an old friend.  I don’t have many friends, and I have pretty close to zero old friends.  I’m not going to trade her the security diagrams for Goodkind International headquarters, you know.”

Several people around the table stared at each other with varying degrees of disbelief or suspicion.

I rolled my eyes again.  “Honestly, you guys.  Some of you hang out with Sara, and plenty of other suspicious characters around here.  You’ve got a lot of nerve putting Jadis in the same class as that, when she hasn’t done anything.  Ever.  I’m just going to go talk to her.”

I got up, gathered my bookbag, and strolled over to see Jadis.  She was sitting with Nacht and Dragonrider, as was pretty much the standard.  Dragonrider was cooing to her little dragon, while Nacht was making some statement about a senior girl doing something further around the perimeter of the Crystal Hall.

I got to the table just in time to hear Nacht wrap up, “…and really, does she have to dress like ‘Grease, the Lolicon Version’?  I mean…  Oh Phase.  How.. something to see you.”

I looked to see who Nacht was dissing.  It was one of Bubble’s bimbo buddies.  The girl was dressed in something like a ‘Catholic school girl’ outfit made for a hooker, except with goth frills added for some weird inexplicable reason.  I drawled, “I think she’s auditioning for ‘Ho School Musical’.”  Nacht put considerable effort into not smiling or giggling.

I sat down between She-Beast and Nacht, as if Nacht wouldn’t object, and asked, “So, what’s the deal with the upcoming surprise for finals?”

Nacht gave me her blankest look, while She-Beast tried not to give anything away.

But Dragonrider piped up, “Oh the ‘combat finals’ thing?  We’re not supposed to know about that until the instructors tell us next week.”

Combat finals?  CRAP!  No wonder Majestic looked so freaking smug!

Jadis gave Dragonrider one of those ‘you were not supposed to tell’ looks.  Then she admitted, “It’s not really a need-to-know issue, but they try not to freak out the froshes any earlier than they have to.  First week of finals is combat finals for the lower two grades combined.  Grading is fair, so if you end up facing, oh, I don’t know, say.. Tennyo, you don’t have to win to get a good grade, just demonstrate what you’ve learned in your aikido class.”

“That sounds fair,” I ventured.  That wasn’t what I was thinking, of course.  No, my thoughts were more along the lines of “Jesus Christ, I only have a week and a half to plot combat strategies against the toughest fighters in the frosh and sophomore classes, then get the equipment ordered from Sin d’Rome, and find ways to carry all that junk around with me!”  It looked like Möbius was going to be making some major bucks off me in the next few days.

And I needed to give my teammates a heads-up.  Mostly.  Lancer probably wouldn’t want an ‘unfair advantage’.  Tennyo and Chaka and Fey probably wouldn’t do anything differently anyway, given how they seemed ready to fight someone like Cataclysm at the drop of a hat.  Generator would probably go manic on me.  Okay, maybe I’d talk to Billie first and see if she thought I should tell Jade.

Before I had a chance to ask more questions about the combat finals, Nacht reacted.  Not that she gave anything away with her expression.  Oh no, not the Great Stone Face, version 2.0.  No, it was the way she suddenly turned in her chair.

I looked in the direction she was facing, and I winced.  It was my roomie.  Chou was strolling toward us with Molly.  That made everything look casual, but I could tell that Destiny’s Wave was lurking behind Chou.  That made this a potentially explosive encounter.  The last thing I needed was for my roomie to go all ‘Handmaid’ on me and start turning the daughter of Dr. Diabolik into julienne fries.

Then I heard Jadis clear her throat, “Oh.  It’s the pincer maneuver.  I didn’t know your friends were studying tank battles.”

I looked over to her side, and I groaned, “Oh no.”

Jade was ‘casually’ strolling up to the table from the other side, with a stuffed cabbit toy walking along beside her while waving a big carrot.  Oh brother.

I muttered, “Well, at least it’s a green flag day.”

Nacht almost smiled, “I was about to leave, but I think I’m going to have to stick around to watch this one.”

I had a sudden impulse to bury my face in my hands.  I just knew that this was going to make the ‘noodle incident’ look like a high tea.

I didn’t bury my face in my hands.  I sat up straight, turned to face Jadis, and said, “I think they’re worried about my hanging out with you.  They think you’ll be corrupted by all this exposure to a Goodkind.”

Jadis just rolled her eyes and looked at Nacht.  “We’ve seen this before, haven’t we Kate?”

Nacht nodded slightly and added, “I hereby declare the opening of the 2006 Whateley Witch Trials.  And here comes the runner with the torch…”

Jadis added, “…to light the ceremonial first witch on fire.”

Oh man.  I hated sitches like this.  Were Jadis and Kate just playing me, or were they really fed up with being labeled ‘evil’ just because of their parents?  Were they good guys, or were they really bad guys, or were they perhaps neutrals?  Were my friends just ‘dropping by’, or were they going to turn this into another Breakfast Brawl?  With Team Kimba, simple situations often rapidly devolved into battle scenes out of old ‘Justice League of America’ comics.

Nacht drawled, “What do you think, Jadis?  ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’, or ‘High Noon’?”

Jadis smirked, “I’m going to go with ‘Stagecoach’.  The John Wayne version.”

Fortunately - for me, anyway - Chou opted for the subtle approach.  She walked up and said, “I hope I am not interrupting anything.  Phase, please don’t forget.  We’re going over to Hawthorne at three, and you promised you’d tutor Frostbite and Puppet.”

I nodded, like we’d rehearsed this bit.  I was sure we weren’t fooling anyone, but I gave it a shot.  “Hey, I never forget…  Oh, let me introduce you.  Bladedancer?  This is She-Beast and Nacht.  Jadis?  Kate?  This is my roommate Chou.  And this is…”

“Ooh, he’s so KYOOOT!” squealed Molly.

“I was going to introduce you to Gateway, but I see she’s occupied.”

Molly was already sliding into the chair next to Lindsey.  “I’m Gateway.  But call me Molly.”  She switched to baby-talk.  “And who’s this little cutie-pie?”

I managed not to wince as Pern did everything except gurgle at the sudden onslaught of attention.

“I’m Dragonrider, and this is Pern.  He’s my very own dragon.  I made him myself!”

“Oh, I have to show my friend…”  And then there was a gateway forming right over Molly’s shoulder, and Rythax leapt through.  Only Rythax was being subtle.  He appeared in his smallest form.  He looked like a large, jet-black housecat.  With wings.

Lindsey took one look and squealed, “OOOOH!”

Nacht muttered, “You didn’t tell me you were going to attack me by giving me a case of diabetes.  If this gets any sweeter, I’m gonna pass out.”

“Hyperglycemia,” I claimed.  “We’re trying to give you hyperglycemia.  It’s all a fiendish plot to…”

I never finished.  Jade got up to the table and saw both Pern and the fun-sized version of Ambassador Rythax.  She squeaked, “Oh my GAWD!  They’re so KYEWT!”

And the cabbit did a leap onto the table, only to stare at the other two creatures and shout “Miya!”

I looked at Bladedancer and said, “Chou, if I ever find out you actually planned this…”

Chou shook her head in shock.  She was still staring helplessly at the other end of the table, as the cabbit gave Pern a big furry hug.  “Mi mi miya!”  Pern rubbed happily against the cabbit and chirped.

Jadis added, “If Barbie and My Little Pony show up now, I’m outta here.”

I groaned, “Don’t tempt fate.  You don’t know what my teammates are capable of doing.  Especially Jade.  Two words: Hello Kitty.”

Jadis actually winced.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, things were getting steadily worse.

“Ooh!”

“Chirp!”

“Ooh!  He’s just darling!  Can I hold him?”

“Mi mi miya!”

“Okay, you cute little cabbit, you can hug Pern too!”

“Miya!”

Trying not to cringe, Nacht drawled, “If your team is capable of worse than this, then we may have to induct them into the Bad Seeds on general principles.”

“Ooh!  CUTE!”

“Your point exactly,” I grumbled.

It just got worse.  While Jadis and I tried to start a conversation about Umberto Eco, there was a high-pitched giggle-fest going on at the other end of the table.  Molly and Jade and the cabbit cooed over Pern.  Lindsey and Jade cooed over the fun-sized Rythax, while Pern tried to rub up against the ambassador’s side.  Lindsey and Molly were all googly-eyed over the cabbit, who was eating up all the attention like Tennyo in a chocolate factory.

“Ooh!  Isn’t he the KYOOOTEST thing you ever saw?”

“Miya!”

“Ooh!”

“Chirp!”

“Ooh!”

“I really feel obliged to point out that I am not a plush toy, young lady.”

“Oooh, he talks too!”

“How come he doesn’t say ‘meow’?”

“Meow?  I am not a feline!”

“But he’s so KYOOOT!”

Jadis glared at the other end of the table and quietly muttered, “While the coo-fest escalates over there, I need to tell you something major.  The Masterminds have targeted you.  They’ve been following you, and they’re going to try to rip off your intelligence network from one of your computers.”

I just grinned wickedly.  It was about time someone tried it!

Jadis stared at me, her eyes moving into a squint, as plot after plot spun through her brain.  Finally, she rolled her eyes a little, and she muttered, “I should’ve known.”

I smirked, “Still, I didn’t know the timing.  That’ll help a lot.”

Nacht whispered to Jadis, “What?”

Jadis just said, “Xanatos Gambit.”

Nacht looked at me with something akin to surprise and said, “Nice.”

It took half an hour to separate the gigglers at the other end of the table.  At least Jade didn’t arrange a ‘playdate’ between Pern and the cabbit.

As I left the Crystal Hall with Chou and Molly and Jade in tow, I made a quick phone call.  “Automa?  It’s Phase.  I’m going to be late to our meeting.  Let’s re-schedule the start to 8:45.  Great.  Sorry about this.”

 

THE MASTERMINDS

Stopwatch strolled casually down the hallway, trying to not look at all the lockers on either side of the corridor.  He stopped at an empty classroom and subtly checked the doorknob.  The spray-on plastic on his hands was nearly invisible, but would prevent his leaving any fingerprints or DNA evidence.  His tests showed that it did a better job than latex gloves.

The door was locked, as he had expected.  Still, it didn’t hurt to check.  He tried to look casual as he stepped into the middle of the hallway and faked a big yawn, extending both arms straight out.

Dash spotted the signal.  He was in power-boost for the next ten minutes, and didn’t want to waste a second.  He zipped down the hallway, picked the lock at super-speed, and zipped inside the classroom before anyone would notice.

Stopwatch glanced at his wrist.  His watch wasn’t working right as yet, and the moon-phase system was still out, and the eclipse tracker wasn’t working right.  But the electro-magnetic jammer was working properly, so he knew the security camera down the hall wasn’t getting any of this.

Hazard and Haywire followed quickly and closed the door behind them.

Stopwatch touched a button on the side of the watch, and an image was displayed on the whiteboard beside him.  It was a picture of an open locker, taken from the side so that the interior was clearly visible.  Hands were reaching into the locker to pick up a laptop which was standing on its side.  He explained, “Dash got this shot of Phase’s locker yesterday.  Note the electronic device mounted on the inside of the locker door, and the crystal hanging from the shelf.  It’s clear that Phase does have security on her locker.  And there’s only one reason why she’d bother with this level of security when there’s already a security camera covering the hall 24x7.”

Hazard nodded, “It’s got her intel network in there.”

Haywire said, “Oh!  Now I see!”

Stopwatch rolled his eyes at his teammate’s stupidity.  “Yes.  Now we have her locker combination from the telephoto pictures Dash took.  We know there’s at least two security features.  Right now, we just want to determine what they are.  No intrusions.  We’re not committing any suspicious activities now, other than ‘borrowing’ this conveniently-unlocked classroom for a team meeting.”  He grinned wickedly.  “In fact, we’re not even here.  The trackers that Kew put on me and Dash this morning think we’re standing three hundred yards north of Poe, in a small clearing that gives a very nice view of people walking from there to main campus.”

Haywire smirked, “I ‘accidentally’ fried mine this morning.”

Hazard shrugged, “I’m a probability warper.  It’s not my fault if my power makes electronics go wonky sometimes.”  Then she gave Stopwatch an evil grin.

He nodded, “Excellent.  Now.  Haywire, you lean against this whiteboard and check the back side of Phase’s locker for any electronic or magnetic signatures.  Dash, you zip out in front while I’m still jamming the security camera, and wave this charm around Phase’s locker.  Slowly.”  He handed Dash an oddly shaped piece of what looked like quartz.  “Haz, you stand here with ‘Wire and see if you can pick up anything.  If there’s a third trap in there, you’re our best bet on remotely picking it up.”

Dash was back in seconds.  The crystal had changed color to an eerie purple.  Stopwatch took it gingerly, and slipped it into a black velvet bag.

Haywire stepped away from the wall and said, “There’s definitely a strong signature coming from the inside of the locker.  She’s got some sort of electronic burglar alarm there.  I think I can take it out pretty easily, but stopping it without leaving a trace will be harder.”

Hazard pointed at the crystal in the bag.  “What’s the purple colour mean?”

Stopwatch pursed his lips and reluctantly admitted, “I don’t know.  Magic isn’t one of my strengths.  My.. consultant will diagnose the type of magical alarm and come up with a counter-agent for us.  Now did you find anything else?”

Hazard shook her head no.  “Didn’t get any sign of trouble, though.”

“Good, good.”  Stopwatch took a breath.  “Okay, we’re good for the day.  We’ll meet at the agreed-upon site outside the building at 19:54 tonight.  Dash, Heartbreaker, and Jello are our lookouts.  You, me, and ‘Wire are our infiltration team.  If everything goes according to Plan A, we’ll be in and out of here in under fifteen minutes.  The Secret Squirrels won’t even realize they’ve been duped until over an hour after we’re long gone.”

Hazard tried not to roll her eyes.  When had any thing around here ever gone according to plan?

Stopwatch glared at her.  “Fine.  We have Plans B through J as backups in case Phase’s security systems are tougher than we thought, or in case we’re interrupted.  Then we have plans K through T in case those plans need revision.  And finally, we have plans U through Y as our emergency backups and escape ploys.  Do you want me to detail all of those for you?”

Hazard hastily shook her head.  “No no no, I’m good.”  It had been bloody awful when ‘Watch went over all the plans the other night.  There was no way she was putting up with the whole thing again.

 

THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ

Fantastico walked down the long tunnel with Oiler and Conduit and Ferret.  The Man Called Vengeance had gone on ahead, and Minefield was covering their backs.  Roadrunner was making quick passes through nearby hallways, just in case.  But Fantastico – Bert Walker Jr. - didn’t like parting with $185,000 of Bert Walker Sr.’s money.  If he could swipe it all back after he got the tapes of She-Beast and Phase, he’d just get the money back and not bother to tell the old man.  If he really did have to spend the cash to get the tapes, he’d have to explain about going head-to-head with the kids of Bruce Goodkind and Dr. Diabolik.  He didn’t know whether his dad would pat him on the shoulder for being a chip off the old block, or scream at him for biting off more than he could chew.

Oiler murmured, “She-Beast and Phase both…”

Fantastico sneered, “More like She-Dog and Phaggot, if ya ask me.”

Oiler went on, “There could be a shitload of blackmail material there.  If we get both of them, we’ve got the Bad Seeds.  A big chunk of Melville that She-Beast runs.  Who-knows-what Goodkind resources.  Parts of the Golds and the Berets.  Those Team Kimba fruitcakes…”

“Yeah, and I’d go for summa that Kimba pussy,” said the F-man.  “I bet Phase is blackmailing the crap outta them to make ‘em keep her on their team.  I mean, why the hell else would hotties like them keep a freak like him around?  So we put the screws to Phase, and we get Fey.  And Tennyo.  And Chaka.  And Bladedancer.  And the rest.  Fuck, they’re a buncha froshes, and they’re already the hottest fuckin’ team on campus!”

Oiler snapped, “First we gotta get the tapes and see what we’ve got ta work with.  Then we’ve gotta see how far we can press those two bitches, and how much they’ll squeeze their pals for us.  Don’t get too far ahead of yerself.”

They reached the assigned intersection, but there was no one else around.  Oiler checked his watch.  It said 3:00 on the dot.

“They said three o’clock.  How long are we supposed ta wait?” complained Fantastico.

“No way to tell,” growled Oiler.  “If it was me, I’d want ta check and make sure the coast was clear first, but on the other hand, I sure wouldn’t be dicking around and risking losing this much cash.”

A ventilation grill only inches from the floor suddenly popped open.  A squat, tank-like robot rolled out, a massive metallic tube trailing behind it.  The robot popped open its right side, and a CD in a clear plastic player popped out.  The CD spun up to speed, and a conversation played off it.  The conversation between Phase and She-Beast from the conference call.  Then it stopped.

The electronic voice played from a speaker on the side of the robot.  “I just wanted you to see that I have the CD, and that this is the real CD.  Now put the money in the other side of my robot.”

The left side of the robot opened up, revealing a space the shape of a dollar bill, but about five inches deep.  Fantastico reluctantly tucked the niche full of bills.  He stood back up, and the left side closed with a whirring noise.

The robot clicked a few times, and then the CD player opened up to release the CD.

Oiler carefully took it, looked it over, and nodded at Fantastico.

The F-man went into action.  He grabbed the robot, easily lifted it off the ground, and tried to rip the door of the lefthand compartment off the thing.  He managed to get one side of it pried up, but the lock at the other side held.

“Hurry up, F-man!” hissed Oiler.

“Goddamnit!” growled Fantastico.  He glared at the locked side, and suddenly beams of red light shot from his eyes.  The metal of the robot slowly reddened, until the lock melted and snapped open with a rending sound.

“Hey!” he yelped.

The money compartment was empty.

“What the…” gasped Oiler.

They both stared at the thick conduit trailing from the robot back into the ventilation tunnel.  Fantastico grabbed the conduit and yanked hard.  The entire conduit came flying out of the duct.  The other end still had a couple bills sticking out of it.

Fantastico dropped to his stomach and reached into the shaft.  “There’s another goddamn robot in there, an’ it’s gettin’ away!”  He groped furiously, but couldn’t reach the machine that was rolling deep into the ductwork.  “Fuck, who the hell builds these things so people can’t get into ‘em?” he complained.  “Hey Ferret!  Git over here!  Can you crawl inta this bastard?”

Ferret scrambled over, but even he was too big to fit into the duct.  Well, he wasn’t really ferret shaped, since he was about sixty pounds overweight.  So there was no way he was going to fit into that ductwork.

Fantastico hollered down the halls, “Condee!  Venge!  Meep-meep!  We got an escaped ‘bot an’ it’s got my money!  It’s in the goddamn WALLS!”

A mad scramble ensued, as the entire G.O.B. ran to check every grill and every air duct they could find.  After five minutes, they all had to admit defeat.

Oiler grimaced, “At least we’ve got the CD.  Let’s get back and see what we’ve got to work with.”

Fantastico glared at him.  “Fuckin’ devisers.”

Ferret winced at his words, and took a different way out of the tunnels.

 

AYLA

Officers Trews and Green hadn’t been too thrilled when I had demanded a meeting, and they really hadn’t liked it when I insisted on a meet at four in the afternoon, in the tunnels right under Kane Hall.

Officer Trews stepped forward when I floated up from a lower tunnel and appeared in the tunnel.  Neither of them was comfortable, since the tunnel where we stood led right to one of the stairs up to the Security offices.  “Phase, this isn’t a good meeting place, and it’s not a good time for us.  You really don’t want to have other Security teams seeing this going down.”

I glared at him and Green.  Not that a glare from what looked like a fourteen-year-old girl was going to affect anyone like them.  “We need this meet.  You need this meet.  You gave me fake intel.  That’s not good.”

Trews managed to look puzzled.  “What do you mean?”

Green wasn’t as convincing.  “Us?  Why would we…”

I knew there was a sergeant running the black side of Ops around here, so I hit them with my best guess.  “Your sergeant put you up to this.”  Both of them reacted.

Trews got his act together first.  “N-no!  That’s not…  I mean, there’s no way we’d let someone else in on this.”

I pushed, “You gave me bad intel.  On purpose.  You gave me a trap, and waited to see what I’d do with the poison bait.  That’s a bad way to start off in a working relationship like this.  I’m going to have to assess some sort of penalty.  I’ll start with a 20% reduction in pay for security reports and powers testing.”

They both winced, Green more so than Trews.

So I pushed some more.  “So you need to take me to see your Sergeant.  Now.  We need to get this straightened out ASAP, or else I’ll have to find someone else to provide my intel from Security.  Capisce?”

They looked at each other and had a hurried non-verbal argument.  Finally, Trews said, “We can’t take you to see the Sarge.”

I nodded angrily, “Fine.  Then I’ll go straight up through the ceiling, right into Security, and go to his office myself.  Without you.  And I’ll tell him that you muffed his assignment and I spotted the fake intel.  What do you think he’ll do then?”

“Oh no, don’t do that!” gulped Green.

They were bluffing easier than I expected, so I figured that the mysterious Sergeant X was a bad mamma-jamma to cross, and these guys had been pushed into giving me the bad intel.  Looking back on how they’d behaved when they gave me the packet, that made a lot of sense.

“Last chance,” I threatened.

“Look Phase, we can’t take you to see the Sarge, and you really don’t want him mad at you.”

I snarled, “No.  You really don’t want me mad at you.  Or at him.  You see the Security reports.  Do you know any students here who can take down Matterhorn?  Besides me?  Or Skybolt?  Or Kodiak?  Or an entire Alpha hit team?  Or G-Force and all his homeboys?  Or Bravo and his Team Moron?  I’m an extra-dimensional density changer.  That means there’s nothing and nobody who can protect you from me if I come after you.  I’m basically Tinsnip but with money.”

They both winced at that image.

“All right, I’m going up to see him right now.”  I went light and floated up through the ceiling, into the main floor of Security.

But I took my time doing it.

That gave Trews and Green enough time to sprint down the hall, up the stairs, and through the rabbit warren of the Security hallways.  I took enough time that they were able to catch up to me.  They both blocked the same hallway.  So I walked right through them in that direction.

“NO!”

“Phase, ya gotta stop!  Ya don’t know what you’re getting’ us into!”

I turned and let them bracket me.  Green edged past me to block the hallway on my left.  This was just like a magician’s force.  As long as I let them keep ‘blocking’ me, I’d know where to go next.

I passed through Green’s body.  He made a frantic ‘eep’ and jumped out of the way.  I didn’t hurt him, of course.  I was completely light, not disruption-light.  After all, I didn’t want to hurt them or knock them out, I wanted them to lead me to Sergeant X.

Trews dodged past Green, down the hall past me, and turned to face me.  “Come on, Phase.  Just calm down.  There’s no need for this.  I just need to tell you something…”

He was obviously stalling.  Why?

Uh-oh.  I went maximally heavy.

About half a second later, Green nailed me in the small of the back with an energy baton.  Goddamnit, that hurt!

I did my best not to scream or anything.  I turned, grabbed the barrel of the baton, and squeezed as hard as I could.  The metal cracked with a nasty flash of energy, and Green dropped it with a pained jerk.

I hastily went light and passed through Trews, and then I turned to face both of them.  I lied, “That stuff doesn’t really hurt me anymore.  I just left bad intel like that on my powers testing report so I’ve got simple ‘weaknesses’ that my enemies think they can target.”

Trews tried one more time.  He ducked down the hall on my right and tried to block an office door.  It said, “Sergeant Clay Buxton” on a plastic sign at eye level.  Trews said, “I’m tellin’ ya, this is a really bad idea.  You have no idea how much trouble you can get into doin’ this!  I-”

The door behind him swung open, and a big ‘drill sergeant of your nightmares’ kind of guy appeared in the doorway.  “Just how much trouble would that be?”

Trews gulped.

I phased through Trews and walked up to the big guy.  Buxton was an old white guy, maybe mid-fifties if I had to guess.  He had weathered skin that made it hard to peg his age.  But his graying crewcut gave me a rough estimate.  He was a little over six feet tall, and heavily muscled.  He looked like he could eat Trews and Green for breakfast.

I looked up into his eyes and said, “We need to talk.  You gave these guys disinformation to give to me, and you thought I’d walk right into a trap.  You made a mistake.”

He looked at me, looked at his officers, and made a command decision.  He snapped, “Trews.  Get my favorite meeting room.  Now.  Green.  Get Trout.  I don’t care what he’s doing.  The room.”  He looked down at me.  “You’re Phase, right?  Come on.  Let’s talk, if you wanna talk.  But in private.”

He turned his back on me and confidently marched in a zigzag path through the maze of corridors.  I followed him to a door that Trews was standing beside.  The door was labeled “Meeting room C” but a large cardboard sign duct-taped to the door read “Not Available Until Repaired”.  Buxton opened the door and marched in.

The room was fine.  In fact, it was better than fine.  It was obviously well-equipped for private meetings.  It even had anti-eavesdropping gear on the walls and the back side of the door.  I wondered if that stuff was standard for the meeting rooms in Kane Hall, or if it was some of Buxton’s private stock.

Buxton marched around the meeting table toward the big armchair at the other end of the table.  I let him take the chair.  I took the seat opposite it, even though that left my back facing the door.  I knew who the threat was in this room.

I sat and said, “Let’s wait until your army shows up, so we only have to go over this once.”

He nodded, “I’m good with that.”

It took about two minutes for Green to show up with a guy who was wearing an officer’s uniform.  The namebadge said ‘TROUT’.  He was a spiffy-looking guy who looked a little too polished, if you know what I mean.  He looked like the kind of executive who was perfectly competent, but maybe you wouldn’t want to trust him with the crucial company secrets.

Lieutenant Trout looked at Buxton and gave him a raised eyebrow, along with a slight tilt of the head in my direction.

Buxton said, “Have a seat, Lieutenant.  This is Phase’s meeting.”

Once Trout sat down - and the two officers took up station on either side of Buxton - I started.  “You made a serious mistake when you gave that intel to Green and Trews.  You assumed I didn’t have alternate sources of intel around here.  You laid out a nice little trap for me.  You knew I have it in for Aries, and vice versa.  You gave me a stack of valid intel sheets, and then under them you listed Aries as a possible for the Springfield Slasher, knowing that that psycho killed one of my cousins a couple years ago.  What were you hoping for?  That I’d fly off the handle and try to kill Aries myself?  That I’d call my family and have Aries put on a hit list?  Major mistake.  Goodkinds don’t operate like a bunch of gangsters, and you should’ve known that.  It looks to me like you were using this as a test to see if it was safe to let me see this kind of intel.”

Buxton wasn’t giving anything away.  Well, I didn’t have to play poker with him.  I just had to persuade him to cooperate with me.  I went on, “I have other intel sources, so I checked out everything you gave me.  I know that Aries isn’t even an Illinois native.  I now know his real name, and where his parents live, and even how much they owe the bank on their dairy farm.”

He blinked at that.  I figured that meant that he actually knew that much about Aries.  Which wasn’t good if Whateley security on codenames depended on him keeping his mouth shut.

I added, “If I’m having to verify every detail you send my way, I’ll have to cut the amount I was going to pay Trews and Green.  Which means your take gets cut too.  The official payout is now down by 20%.  The next time you pull crap like this, it’s down by 60%.  If you do it after that, I’m gone.  I’ll find other intel resources who aren’t jerking me around.  And you know that I’ll find a lot of them for the kind of money I’m paying.  It’s your call.  If you can’t do business with me, I’ll take my billions elsewhere.”

Buxton put a hand up.  “Phase, it’s not that we’re.. unwilling to take your money.  We just need some sort of.. proof that you’re trustworthy.  You are a Goodkind, and that’s a problem around here.”

“I’ve noticed,” I muttered.

He nodded slightly.  “We’d like to do business with you.  But we have to know that you’re not going to use the intel to create a threat situation.  The last thing any of us want is another Halloween.  Or worse.  Now this wasn’t their fault.  I forced it on ‘em.  So if you want to blame anyone, blame me.  But I’d rather pass on the potential income, if there’s a high risk that comes with it.”

I sighed, “I can understand that.  I can tell you that my family won’t have anything to do with me now that I’ve manifested as a mutant.  They paid me off so I won’t go near them again.  I’m not even allowed back on the family estates in New York.  But you have no way of verifying that information.  For all you know, I’m a plant.  For all you know, the entire Goodkind family is using my manifesting as a tool to get into the mutant community and do stuff that would make the Halloween battle look like a birthday party.  So…  What can I do to convince you that you can trust me with this kind of intel?”

Buxton ran his hand through his crewcut and admitted, “Ya see, that’s the problem.  We couldn’t come up with any solid verification.  Except the test we tried on you, that you blew apart already.”

I said, “Except that I could have just kept quiet about it, and let you think that I was safe.”

“So why didn’t you?” he asked.

“Because it was only a matter of time before you figured that out,” I told him.  “And I don’t like having to verify and triple-check every bit of intel I get from every one of my sources.  It’s inefficient and wasteful.  And I may have a time-constrained need at some time in the future.  So I can’t afford this sort of problem.”

I wasn’t going to tell him that the real problem was that I couldn’t check most of the intel I got from him.  I had just lucked out on the one point where they were testing me.  They knew I had fought with Aries, and so they set a trap using his name, when they didn’t know I had already investigated him (and a number of my other enemies).  Shrike had told me the truth about Aries, and she had given me enough information that Trin and MacIntyre had been able to track him down.  So I had known weeks before I read the packet from Green and Trews that Aries wasn’t from Springfield, Illinois.  I couldn’t depend on that kind of lucky break happening again, anytime soon.

Buxton said, “I’m glad you’re being so.. reasonable about this, Phase.  Not everyone would be.”

I shrugged, “It’s just a business negotiation.  Not anything personal.”  At least, I wanted it to be a business negotiation.  The fact that it really was personal for me was something I didn’t want to think about.  But the idea of not knowing something that could get me hurt.. something that could get one of my friends hurt…  I wasn’t handling that idea very well.

He nodded.  I was hoping he wasn’t picking up on my real feelings.

He thought it over.  “We’d really like ta do business with you.  Some of the kids around here are all yap and no teeth.  They talk a big game, but they don’t always have the cash ta back it up.  Or they only have the cash once they’ve pulled something off.  Or they don’t know how to make a payment.  Or they don’t get how this really works in the real world.  But we’ve got a big ‘trust’ issue with you.”

I sighed a little.  “Yeah.  You and ninety percent of the campus.  A friend of mine said having a last name like Goodkind here must be like being named Hitler and attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.”

He didn’t grin as much as I had hoped.

I had been thinking about this problem for a while, though.  I had a proposal.  “So…  What if you get me the Security reports and the powers testing reports only.  Those are both guaranteed to be codename only.  Nothing else.  Well, maybe the juvey records if they come up in Security records.”

Buxton thought about it.  “That could work, but…”

I pushed, “Let me sweeten the pot a bit.  Go with me on this, and I can do financial planning and investment for you guys.”  That wasn’t actually a generous move on my part.  The more money I had to invest, the more powerful my investment moves could be.  But I was hoping they’d see it as a big concession from me.

But Buxton frowned and shook his head ‘no’.  “I don’t think I’d like having you know how much money some of us have to invest.  That just doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

I agreed, “I’m fine with that.  It was just a little sweetener for the pot.  How about the occasional stock tip?”

That time, I definitely saw the greed in Buxton’s eyes.  He smiled, “You know Phase, I think we have a reasonable arrangement.”  He looked at his cohorts, “Anything else?”

Trout said, “Yeah.  I’ve got something.  We’ve got a Goodkind here.  We ought to figure out how she can help us with Johnson.”

Johnson…  Johnson…  Oh!  The asshole who gave Tennyo so much shit and then walked into the Grove the night Tennyo went after Mister Lodgeman.  “What about Johnson?” I asked cautiously.

Buxton grinned fiendishly.  Seeing that grin made me very glad we’d worked out an amicable arrangement.  He smirked, “Security Officer Derek Johnson.  Newbie who got hired over the summer.  Stupid prick doesn’t think anyone around here’s smart enough to figure H-One put him here as a plant.  Delarose tumbled to him during the interview.  I figure Delarose and Carson put him on staff to keep an eye on him.”

“Better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t know,” I said.

“Yeah.  This way, they know who’s what.  They turn him down, and the next H-One guy might be a little smarter, or have a little better cover story, and might get in place with no one the wiser.”  He snorted, “The problem is Johnson couldn’t keep his issues bottled up.  His sergeant and the Ell Tee-”  He pointed a thumb at Lieutenant Trout.  “-they figured he was going rogue and trying to get a shot at Tennyo.  Like that would’ve done anything except pissed her off.”

Great.  Another problem for Team Kimba to worry about.  I said, “What a maroon.  You saw what she did at Halloween, right?  Took a couple seconds of Vulcan cannon fire, trashed Chessmaster’s best cyborgs, then took out a couple dropships by herself before the rest of the bricks got up and supported?”

Buxton stared at me, “I’ve seen a lot of Security footage from this place, and I’ve seen a lot of students who thought they were the next Champion or something.  There aren’t many kids who scared the holy crap outta me.  I’m not ashamed to say she does.”

I admitted, “I’ve seen her in action, and I’m just glad she’s never decided to come after me.”

Trout cleared his throat.  “So.  Phase.  You think you could help us with the Johnson problem?”

I was tempted to make a crack about having to deal with johnson problems pretty much 24x7 around here.  I managed to control myself.  Instead, I asked, “Did you have something in mind?”

He grinned, “As a matter of fact, I do.  Let me lay out a scenario for you, and you tell me if you’ll go for it.”

 
Saturday, December 2, 7:50 pm
THE MASTERMINDS

Dash moved carefully toward Stopwatch’s official meeting site.  Stopwatch had to have a fancy ‘espionage’ name for it, but it was just a meeting spot.  The guy was good on gadgets, and mind-boggling on planning capers, but a giant pain in the ass on stuff like this.

Dash checked his watch again.  Normally, he was just a low-level Exemplar.  It was his short-term Energizer power that made him as awesome as he was.  He could be as strong as Lancer and as fast as Accelerator.  But only for ten minutes or so.  And it took him around ten minutes to build up his energies to the point that he could do it.  And then it took him an hour or two - and a ton of food - to recharge so he could do it again.  The day he’d helped Jello track Phase around had been a real bitch.  He’d done three ‘power spikes’ in eight hours, and he’d been exhausted for over twenty-four hours after that.

Still, ‘Watch was smart enough to figure out when Dash’s powers were most likely to be needed.  So Dash knew when to start prepping.  It was the prep time that was the real killer.  He got clobbered every term in Combat Finals, since he never had more than a minute’s warning before he was in a sim, and he never had the time to build up to one of his power spikes.

He checked his watch again.  7:52.  Time to start building up for a power spike.  If ‘Watch was right, then the times that Dash’s powers were most likely to be needed were at 8:02, 8:03, 8:05, 8:09, 8:11, 8:12, 8:13, 8:15, and 8:17.  ‘Watch had worked out some sort of math formula, and had figured out that the 8:02 to 8:12 window was going to be ‘optimal’, whatever that meant.  So Dash was concentrating from 7:52 until 8:02, to be ready for ‘Watch’s ‘optimal window of problem cases’.

He checked his watch again.  7:54 pm.  Perfect.  He slipped out of the building and over to the secluded little spot that ‘Watch had selected.

Stopwatch and Hazard were there already.  Stopwatch was looking his usual exasperated, nerdy self.  Dash figured the little squirt was overcompensating for being a geeky little shrimp.  Not that Dash really cared, since ‘Watch didn’t take it out on him.  Hazard was dressed in tight black pants and a charcoal-gray top that really showed off her sleek curves.  It also did a great job of looking like Hazard’s regular wardrobe while making for great ‘sneaking around at night’ gear.

Dash gave her a naughty grin, “Looking good there, Haz.  No wonder all the Spy Kidz want to track you down.  If you know what I mean.”

Hazard rolled her eyes, but gave him a flirty smile.

Stopwatch scowled, “We do have a caper to run.  Focus on your part of it.”

Dash smiled lazily, “Oh, I am.  I’ll be ready.  But nothing says I can’t appreciate a lovely lady at the same time, right?”

Just then, Heartbreaker slipped into the site with Jello in tow.

Dash smiled at them too, and purred, “And good evening to you two lovely ladies as well.”

Heartbreaker just ignored him, as usual.  She turned to Jello and said, “He’s just flirting.  He’s not being mean, okay?”  Jello nodded uncomfortably.

Dash turned to watch Haywire come running up, his hair standing up in spikes and his clothing clinging to his body.  Typical Haywire, the guy couldn’t control his electrical field and sprint to the meeting site at the same time.  Oh well, ‘Wire would get things under control once he caught his breath.

Dash glanced back at Heartbreaker.  The babe was a real knockout.  Even hotter than Hazard.  But she just didn’t want to play along.  It wasn’t like he was asking her if she wanted to get engaged.  He was just having a little fun!  He knew what the problem really was.  ‘Breaker had chewed him out more than once about it.  She could read him, so she knew he was just kidding around.  But he wasn’t interested in Jello, and ‘Breaker knew it, and ‘Breaker was just so damn protective of her.  It was a lot worse since the Boston fiasco.  Dash had gotten beaten up a little, and ‘Breaker had been poisoned, but Jello had stood up to the Necromancer and had gotten about a jillion concussions for trying to protect her friend.

Dash looked back at Stopwatch.  “There’s nothing I like more than an evening stroll with three campus cuties, but I think we’re supposed to be doing something else?”

Stopwatch scowled at him again.  “Wait for it…”  He counted down seconds off his wristwatch.  “Now.  Heartbreaker.  Jello.  Move to your assigned watchposts.  Jello?  Don’t forget your disguise.”

Jello nodded and began shifting into another form as she walked off.  She had already ‘become’ Tennyo before she moved out of sight.

Dash wasn’t about to admit it, but he thought Stopwatch’s idea of Jello taking on the shape of Tennyo was fucking brilliant.  Nobody who didn’t know Tennyo well was going to walk up in the darkness to someone who was a Section 33 and a known nutcase.  And anyone who did know Tennyo was also going to know Phase, and that would give them a great monitoring system on that side of the building.  Plus, Tennyo was supposed to be working in the library tonight, and she had a rep for waiting up for her little roomie Generator, so she had a reason to be hanging around the area after dark.  The only thing that could go wrong was if the real Tennyo showed up, and Stopwatch had explained three different things Jello could do if that happened, including just being Jello and saying ‘hi’ to her and waiting until the real Tennyo left.

Stopwatch didn’t bother to check his wristwatch again.  Dash had noticed that the guy had an amazing ability to track time in his head.  Stopwatch murmured, “Our turn.  We move into position now.  I’ll take out the security camera at 8:01.  We wait to see if security twigs to it.  We move to the locker at 8:02, with Dash fully powered up.  We instantly begin Plan A, with Dash ready to start Plan B and Haywire ready to start Plan C.”

Hazard groaned in her poshest accent, “Yes, we already know that.”

Dash gave her a broad grin.  Haz might be from a bad part of London, but she sure sounded like she was related to royalty.  And Dash was okay with anyone who gave ‘Watch a little grief when he was getting like that.

 

THE INTELLIGENCE CADET CORPS

Ace checked his throat mike.  “Everyone in position?”

A-Plus countered, “Yes.  Just like the last three times you asked.”

Interface, Rez, and Holdout all came back with a quick “Check.”

Kew added, “All quiet on security cams.  No sign of anyone out of the ordinary on the paths.  No sign of any motion at all in the tunnel to Poe.  Audio systems aren't picking up any sounds: no walking across the snow, no anti-grav systems humming, nothing.  No energy signatures either.”

 

THE WHITMAN LITERARY GIRLS

Foxfire whispered, “Any sign of She-Beast?”

“Nothing,” murmured Arachne.

Selkie sighed, “We’re just going to have to spread out an’ cover the paths.”

Foxfire murmured, “I guess so.  I don’t like splitting up when we’re up against The Beast.”

Lifeline nodded, “Well, we’ve already had to do some splitting.  Fractious and Reverb are covering the Hawthorne tunnel, so She-Beast can’t sneak in that way.  Not without us knowing about it.”

Foxfire nodded.  The problem with Fractious was her OCD.  She wasn’t good in a battle that might include snow or rain or mud or dirt or pollen or…  Well, Fractious was better in a nice, clean tunnel.  Assuming nothing came her way, like mice.  Or Phlegm.  And Reverb would be better with Fractious’ Warper power to ‘echo’.  Not to mention what Reverb could do if She-Beast tried any of those PK tricks on her.  Still that left Foxfire with Lifeline, Arachne, and Loophole.  And Compiler had come along too, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  Babs had a tendency to lose control at times.  It would have been nice if they could have gotten Golden Girl and Ebon to come too, but some people had misplaced priorities.

Foxfire finally agreed, “Okay, we’ve only got two paths to cover if we stay close enough to Poe.  I’ll take Arachne, and cover the main path from campus.  You take Loophole and Selkie, and cover the back route.”

“And Babs?”

Foxfire sighed.  “Okay, Compiler is with me.”

“I could take her, if you really don’t want to…”

Foxfire muttered, “No, it’s okay.”  She checked the charm on her wrist and said, “All right.  You and I have these magical communicators, so we’ve got to keep our teams together.”

Lifeline nodded, trying not to look exasperated.  “I know, Becky.  They’re my charms.”

“Right.  Well, good luck.”

 

THE THREE LITTLE WITCHES

“Pally, I can’t see them!” a little voice hissed.

“They gotta be around here somewhere.”

“Ooh!  I know!  Buttons is on their trail!”  A slight sniffing noise was followed by baby-talk, “Oooh what a good boy you are.  What a smart puppy!”

“So, which way?”

“Hang on a second.  Which way, Buttons?”  After a pause and several quiet sniffs, the voice came back.  “Over that way.”

“Which way?”

“The way I’m pointing?”

“We’re in the dark!”

“Well, come over here and I’ll show you.”

“Okay…  hey, watch out, Abra!”

“I am watching out,” came a calm voice.  “You walked right into me.”

“Hey!  Watch out for my witch hat!”

 

THE MASTERMINDS

At exactly 8:01, the red light atop the security camera faded out, and the camera stopped panning along the supposedly-empty corridor.  A hand motioned to a point further down.

Dash sprinted ahead to Phase’s locker.  He was only seconds away from being in ‘power boost’, so he was already faster than normal.  Stopwatch, Hazard, and Haywire hurried along behind him.

Stopwatch reminded everyone, “We need to get our gear prepared first.  Haywire, you need to take out the electromagnetic alarm without setting it off, so get started.  I’ve got a magical charm that’s supposed to block Fey’s amulet.  My source said Fey would be limited in what charms she could put in a locker here because of the stuff people might have in other lockers around here.  And some people who won’t be mentioned - but their codenames sound like ‘Muh-West-Ick’ - walk around throwing off magical effects just to show off.  Haz, are you picking anything else up?”

Hazard concentrated for several seconds.  “Yeah.  There’s.. something.”

Stopwatch looked worried.  “Another security system?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Something else?” he tried.

She frowned, “Yeah.  I think it’s something outside the locker.”

“Something big?”

She concentrated, “No.  It doesn’t seem that threatening.  Way smaller than Halloween…”  Everyone else cringed at that.  “Smaller than a bust by Security.  Even smaller than the rumble with the Star League Juniors.  I can’t pin it down.”

Stopwatch gave up.  If it was smaller than any of those, it couldn’t be too serious for them.  He said, “Just keep checking on it.”

 

BLADEDANCER

Chou really liked the ‘private’ area that Molly had magically created in the library.  But it wasn’t the same as real privacy.  She reminded Molly, “Ayla won’t be back to the room until 9:30, maybe even later.  We could…”

Molly looked around the library.  She kissed Chou one more time and said, “Okay, it is kind of crowded tonight.  And Ayla said she’d be out of the room for a while, and she always knocks first, so.. okay.”

Chou beamed at her love and smoothly rose to her feet.  It would only take a few minutes to walk back to Poe.  It was so clear and crisp out.  And Molly would want to snuggle because of the cold.  They slipped out of the library and headed toward her room.  This was going to be a perfect evening.

 

THE MASTERMINDS

The timing wasn’t that crucial for this part of the operation, but Stopwatch wasn’t going to let his team get sloppy.  Particularly if there was a motion sensor or light sensor inside Phase’s locker.  He had plans for a third alarm system, and Dash’s speed was going to be a primary component.  He wasn’t willing to use his real ace in the hole for this caper.

He watched as Haywire carefully synchronized with the electromagnetic fields in the locker, and locked them up.  Haywire nodded.

Stopwatch stepped forward with the specially-designed crystal from his mage friend.  Okay, so the guy wasn’t so much a ‘friend’ as a ‘vendor’.  But this was less expensive than usual.  He used a suction cup to adhere the crystal right over the locker door where the magical alarm hung.

Dash stepped up and spun the locker combination fast enough that the tumblers hardly had time to click into place.  Then he swung the door open fast enough to tackle any surprises that Phase might have in place.

And.. nothing happened.  Haywire’s efforts were working out.  The crystal seemed to be thwarting Fey’s charm.

Stopwatch carefully lifted the laptop out.  He quickly slipped a special devise into one of the USB ports, then used a miniature lightning blaster to over-ride the BIOS chips and beat the internal security.  It started up and mistakenly treated the USB devise as the primary drive.

Stopwatch counted off the seconds in his head as the hard drive spun up and the USB devise began accessing everything Phase had on the laptop.  Once everything was copied, he had a replacement for one of the system executables, so the laptop would appear to be untouched, but would periodically download updates to an online dropbox that he knew how to access.

Everything was running just a little too smoothly for his taste.  He decided to verify things.  He murmured, “Dash, take a quick run around the building and make sure we’re still good.  This will probably take another minute.”

Dash nodded quickly, and then disappeared in a blur of speed.

 

THE INTELLIGENCE CADET CORPS

“Got anything?” Ace asked impatiently.

“Nothing.”

“Cool your jets,” snapped A-Plus.  “It’s only a couple minutes after eight.  We may be sitting here for another hour.”

Kew cut into the radio frequency.  “We have a bogey.  Two figures, walking together down the path from main campus.  It looks like two girls, but I don’t have the infrared feed from Security, so I can’t be sure yet.”

“This could be them, but it might be a diversion.  Everyone hold positions and wait for verification.”

“Roger, Ace.”

 

THE WHITMAN LITERARY GIRLS

Loophole whispered, “Psst!  Lifeline!  There’s other people out here!”

Selkie winced, “Uh-oh.  What if those two aren’t She-Beast?”

Loophole came up with yet another possibility.  “What if none of ‘em are She-Beast?”

Lifeline winced.  Loophole was pretty bad about coming up with every possible permutation of a problem.  But once in a while she was right.

 

THE THREE LITTLE WITCHES

Palantir whispered, “There’s Lifeline!  Got the spells ready?”

Abracadabra replied, “Yeah, but where’s Foxfire?”

Clover fussed, “I wanna know where Arachne is.  I hate those webs.  They got all over my witch hat the last time!”

Two voices simultaneously said, “Shush.”

 

THE INTELLIGENCE CADET CORPS

Ace whispered into his mike, “Kew.  Alert Security now.  We’re going in.”

He then stepped out from the corner of Poe cottage and confronted the interlopers.  He saw in his peripheral vision as A-Plus moved into position on the other side of the front doors, bracketing the two perps.  He was confident that the rest of his team were moving from the darkness, closing in on the two Masterminds.

He stepped forward and put his hands where he could make a quick-draw of his Taser.  The Taser was standard issue for Whateley Security, but the holster was a vintage leather holster that had once been owned by a legendary Old west gunfighter.  “Jello!  Heartbreaker!  Halt right there!”

Jello, posing as the freshman Bladedancer, assumed a careful martial arts pose.  He hadn’t known that Jello knew that much about martial arts, or could hold a mimicry that effectively under stress.  The other one, Heartbreaker under the illusion-caster, looked truly confused.  Whoever had programmed the illusion-caster was dangerously talented.

Heartbreaker-as-Gateway looked around frantically and squeaked, “Are you crazy?  I’m Gateway!”

Jello-as-Bladedancer pulled out what looked like a sword.

Ace spoke into his mike, “They’re not going to surrender.  Take ‘em down.”

A-Plus instantly evaluated the sitch.  The ‘Gateway’ illusion was closer to her, while the ‘Bladedancer’ copy was already moving toward Ace in a smooth aikido glide that didn’t look at all like Jello’s usual movements.  Holdout was taking up position with a laser-guided netcaster, while Interface and Rez were moving to backstop the potential escape points.  She moved right at the ‘Gateway’ illusion.

 

THE WHITMAN LITERARY GIRLS

“What’s going on?” whispered Arachne.

“Uhh,” Foxfire stalled, “it looks like Bladedancer and Gateway, being jumped by.. the Spy Kidz?”

Compiler nodded, “Ooh, that’s a clever cover!  Pretending to be the Spy Kidz…”

Foxfire squinted through the darkness.  “I think it is the Spy Kidz.”

Arachne doubted, “What?  You think She-Beast has the Spy Kidz doing her dirty work now?”

“No way,” insisted Compiler.  Those Spy Kidz guys were too cute for that.

Foxfire didn’t know what She-Beast’s scheme was, but she had to check this out.  Maybe it was just a smokescreen or a diversion.  “Let’s move in closer.”

 

THE THREE LITTLE WITCHES

“Shh!”

“Hey!  My witch hat!”

“Quiet!”

“Where’s Foxfire now?”

“I dunno.”

“Try over that way.”

“Why?”

“My witch hat’s leaning that way.”

“Uh boy…”

 

THE SCENE AT POE

Chou tried to focus, but she couldn’t feel the Tao flowing through her this time.  Maybe this wasn’t a situation that mattered to the Tao.  Maybe she was failing in her duties.  She couldn’t tell.  She gripped Destiny’s Wave and prepared as the Exemplar boy moved toward her.

 

Ace moved at the ‘Bladedancer’ copy.  He’d faced Jello before, and remembered the Shifter’s strength.  Not to mention the uselessness of punching someone with the consistency of Playdough.

“Not a problem,” he whispered to himself.  He only had to distract the Shifter long enough for Holdout and Interface to use their weapons, and then keep her here until Security arrived.

 

Molly watched the tall girl move right at her.  The girl moved like Chou and Toni did.  Molly couldn’t possibly fight someone like that.  Not an Exemplar who moved like that.  She whispered, “Please Rythax, please!”

 

Holdout had already un-shrunk the Goodkind Defense Corporation laser-guided NetLauncher 794A, and had the entire system ready to go.  The tripod base was securely set, even in the snow where he stood.  The secondary nets were in his right cargo pocket, ready to be enlarged, and he had the laser pointing right at Jello’s back.  He had shrunk his parka and shoved it into a side cargo pocket so he could operate the gear unimpeded.

Jello might be a tough Shifter, but there was no way she was going to get out of a titanium-steel capture net.

 

Interface had Holdout’s backup Lightning Blaster ready to go on his left shoulder.  He could tell just by holding the barrel that the system still needed a couple seconds to finish warming up, and then he’d be ready to back up whoever needed help.  Not that he thought A-Plus was going to need help with Heartbreaker.  The chick was hot with a capital ‘H’, but had squadoo for fighting skills.

Still, there was no telling what else she might have on her, underneath that illusion.

 

“Pally, Lifeline’s moving up to do something!”

“Okay, I got the stuff ready.  Let’s go!”

 

Lifeline focused.  It was a complicated spell, but she was sure she could do it.  It would redirect negative energies, and bring a growing struggle to an abrupt halt before it could turn into a raging battle.

Well, she was pretty sure she could do it.

She summoned her inner resources of Essence and began to cast the spell.  “igcanthis melora b…”

Suddenly there was a flash of light, and she felt drained.  She couldn’t move.  She was paralyzed.  She fell backward into the snow, a rectangle of paper stuck to her forehead.

“Hee hee hee!” a voice she knew ran off through the darkness.

 

A-Plus ignored the obviously-fake ‘portal’ that opened up behind the illusionary ‘Gateway’.  A good trick, but once you knew that wasn’t Gateway, you weren’t likely to fall for something that only the real Gateway could do.

So when the immense, winged, panther-like thing leapt through the portal, A-Plus ignored it, even as it appeared to fly at her.  A really impressive illusion, but still just an illusion.

A-Plus focused on the girl.  Right up until the panther-thing hit her in her body armor and knocked her twenty feet through the air.

 

Ace cautiously moved with the Shifter.  Even if Jello didn’t know real martial arts, anyone could be dangerous with a sword that size.  He had a nasty feeling that it wasn’t going to be a nice, safe, dull-edged prop sword either.

He made a lightning-fast move for the Taser in his holster, and pulled the trig-

SHING!

He suddenly realized that he was holding only the back half of the Taser.  The girl had somehow sliced through the Taser like it was butter.

Before he had time to think how to handle a cutting weapon like that, a backspin kick caught him in the stomach.  Despite his body armor, he folded up and landed hard on his butt in what had once been a snowfort.

Just before he leapt to his feet, four hundred pounds of packed snowfort wall fell on him.

 

Holdout targeted the Shifter, who was holding still while she decided what to do to Ace.  Holdout got a lock, and fired.  The net exploded outward and wrapped Jello/Bladedancer up tightly, sword-gadget and all.  The girl struggled fiercely for a second before falling over.

 

Interface and Rez both fired at the panther-thing that had just clobbered A-Plus.

Interface was sure it was a robot or devise, so he used his power to bump the lightning blaster to full power.

Rez was sure it was a ‘hard light’ projection, so she set the disruptor Holdout had given her to its highest setting and aimed for the center of the projection.

The panther-thing roared in pain and writhed in the snow, but didn’t stop moving.

Interface stared at it.  How could a robot take that kind of hit?  He wondered if it could be some sort of ‘hard light’ projection instead.

Rez stared at it.  How could a hard light projection maintain stability from both those blasts?  She wondered if it could be some sort of ruggedized robotic devise.

 

Compiler said to Foxfire, “We’ve got to stop this!  Bladedancer’s one of Chaka’s friends!”  She ran down toward the melee at top speed.

Then she realized she’d kicked in with a burst of speed she couldn’t control.  “BECKEEEEEE!!”

 

Holdout slapped the secondary net into the NetLauncher 794A, and pointed the laser guidance system at the big cat-thing.  If it was a robot, the titanium net just might be strong enough.

He had a lock.  The cat-thing was struggling back to its feet, but was ignoring the laser dot on its flank.  He slipped up the trigger guard and caressed the trigg…

POW!

Something crashed through the NetLauncher and hit him with the force of a pickup truck.  The net launched up into the air somewhere.  Everything went black.

 

Selkie and Loophole rushed over to the spot where Lifeline was laying face-up in the snow.  Selkie took one look at the magical paper on Lifeline’s face and growled, “Palantir!”

Loophole helpfully added, “It could be, or it might be one of her little friends, or it might be someone trying to frame Palantir, or it might b-”

There was a magical flash as Selkie tried to peel the paper off Lifeline’s forehead, and both girls were knocked backward into the snow.

“Selk, why can’t you make this snow softer?” groaned Loophole.

“I’ve told ye!  It’s frozen!  I need it ta be water!”

Loophole sat up to make some suggestions, and got a quart of manifested water in her face for her trouble.

 

Rez sprinted forward, her disruptor carefully held for rapid deployment, her finger outside the trigger guard just as they had shown her.  She wanted a closer shot at that winged panther robot.  She figured she had four shots left in the disruptor, and then she’d go with her holdout weapon at the small of her back.

Something came whirring out of the sky.  It smacked into her and knocked her down before she realized it was one of Holdout’s capture nets.  She struggled futilely to find an edge and work herself free.

 

Foxfire sent Arachne off to the left, while she tried to figure out what had happened to Compiler.  It looked like Babs had sprinted through the battlezone at about a hundred miles an hour and crashed into something.

She had a theory.  The girl posing as Gateway had just magically summoned something big and nasty.  If one of those two girls were She-Beast, it could be her.  Foxfire prepared to cast a spell to dissipate the magical manifestation.  If she did this just right, the backlash ought to knock the caster for a loop too, and she’d have She-Beast down for the count.

She brought her hands into position and concentrated.  The blue foxfire covered her fingers and began to form into a short cylinder pointed at the ‘Gateway’ image.

A familiar flash of light and feeling of draining caught her.  Palantir.  As she fell face-first into the snow, she almost managed to screech out the girl’s name.  But she ended up with a mouthful of snow, so it sounded more like “IRE..mmgh!”

A giggling voice ran off with a glowing ball of energy.

 

Interface moved forward, keeping Rez on his three.  It looked like it was up to the two of them.  Well, Ace didn’t let the others play hero that often, so he was good with this.

He whirled at the motion on his nine.  A petite girl riding a huge.. dog?.. stared at him and screeched as his weapon tracked her way.

Suddenly his weapon made a high-pitched grinding noise and discharged through the frame.  Which it was absolutely NOT supposed to do!  The burst of electricity shrouded him for a second as he twitched helplessly from the wattage.  Paralyzed, he fell onto his side.

The girl and the massive dog loomed over him.  She was wearing a costume witch’s hat that was tilted over one of her eyes.  She pushed the hat back into place and chirped, “Sorry, mister.”  Then she wheeled about.  “Come on, Buttons!  Pally can’t have all the fun!”

He lay there as the massive dog spun about and bolted into the darkness, kicking snow into his face.

What the hell had that been?

 

Bladedancer rolled over and twisted, bringing the cutting edge of Destiny’s Wave to bear on the metal netting that trapped her.  The mystical sword sliced through the net as if it were as fragile as a paper napkin.

She whirled to her feet and sliced the remaining strands of metal net from her legs.  She was about to move toward the guy struggling to clamber out of the wreckage of Quake’s snowfort, when she sensed something behind her.

 

Arachne had cut off that obnoxious little Clover, but Palantir had come up from behind with a beachball-sized glowing orb of energy.  Simone had to figure this was a bad thing, because Palantir wasn’t running in terror.  No, the little sprog was gloating as she started to cast some sort of hex at Simone.

Palantir opened her mouth to launch the spell, and…

SHING!

 

Irene watched in horror as Bladedancer sliced through the impervious mystical ball as if it wasn’t even there.  The ensnared Essence zipped back across the snow to two downed mages.

Two downed, extremely angry mages.

Suddenly both Foxfire and Lifeline were up.  Up, and running right at her, and firing off spells at her.  She really didn’t want to find out what those spells would do if they hit her.

She ran as fast as her legs would carry her.

She could hear Abra right behind her, panting furiously.  “I.. told.. you.. this.. was.. a.. BAD.. idea…”

Clover rushed past her on the back of a massive Gabriel hound.  “Hurry up, Buttons, we gotta get away from the mean witches!”  A ball of blue foxfire tore past Clover’s ear.  “Hey!  My witch hat!”

A furious voice screeched from behind them, “When I catch you losers, I’m gonna turn you into NEWTS!”

 

Ace was nearly out of the snowfort that had collapsed on top of him, when he felt something at his throat.  He look over, and a ferocious Oriental girl was holding what looked like a big green sword to his neck.  She growled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?  If you hurt Molly…”

He looked over at A-Plus, who was flat on her back, pinned underneath one paw of a giant winged panther-thing that looked like it could eat the entire Intelligence Cadet Corps and still have room for Sizemax.

He groaned to A-Plus, “Uhh…  I don’t think this is Jello.”

A-Plus gave him a scathing look.  “YA THINK?”

 

Holdout came to.  He was flat on his back.  In a snowbank.  Freezing.  Had a tree fallen on him?  It had felt like a pickup truck smashed into him.  His chest and right side were killing him.  If he hadn’t been wearing body armor, his entire ribcage might have been crushed.  And he couldn’t breathe.  Was that tree still on top of him?

He focused.  There was a girl on him.  A gorgeous brunette with big breasts.  That were pressing against his aching chest.  That didn’t really happen, except in the movies, did it?

The only problem was that the brunette seemed to weigh about a ton.

She blinked impossibly large eyes at him and said, “I’m really sorry.  In theory, I should‘ve been able to control my speed there.”

“Can’t…  Breathe…”

“Oh God!” she whimpered.  “I’m so, so sorry!”

She climbed off of him, and he could breathe again.  It hurt, but he could at least inhale.  If he didn’t have a cracked rib, he’d…

“Let me help you up,” she purred.

She grabbed his right arm and tugged.  He flew into the air, stopping with a painful yank on his arm.  But if she hadn’t been hanging onto his arm, he would have been thrown several yards into a different snowbank.  “Oh no!  I’m so sorry!  In theory, I ought to be able to control that too!”

Great.  Holdout rolled his eyes.  He finally got the hot Bond Babe, and she’s a nutcase with uncontrollable super-speed and super-strength.  He muttered, “Could you let go of my arm, because I…  JESUS CHRIST!  MY PANTS!”

No wonder he was so damn cold!  His pants were gone!  The waistband was still around his waist, but there was nothing else from there on down to the unattached cuffs sagging around his now-shredded boots.  What the hell?

The brunette gasped, “Oh darn it!  I had my sonic screwdriver out, and I had it set to disassemble any devises nearby - it’s a nanotechnology devise - and it must’ve found a bunch in your pants pockets, and…”  She stared down and her voice trailed off.  “EEP!”

That was when Holdout realized that not just his pants had been disintegrated.  His boxers were gone too.  His privates were dangling down in front of God and everybody.  And the freezing weather wasn’t doing him any favors either.  “Shit!”  He slapped his hands over his groin, gasping at the pain in his side as he moved his right arm too quickly.  I-face was never going to let him forget this one.  “Shit shit shit shit shit!”

 

In theory, Compiler was so miserable that she could have cried.  She meets a cute boy - a boy who even likes devises - and what does she do?  She smashes his gear, crushes him into a snowbank, nearly throws him across the field, and disintegrates his pants and underwear!  That look in his eyes.  She’d seen that look before.  That look that said, “you may look hot, but you’re a loony and a freaking menace, and just stay away from me!”

Oh what the hell.  She opened her mouth and bawled.  “Whaaaaa!”

 

Ace looked at the Security team rushing down the path, and groaned.  This was not going to look good.  What was he going to have to come up with to keep I-face and Holdout from blabbing the whole humiliating story to Reach?

 

THE MASTERMINDS

Stopwatch looked at the new display on his watch.  The files coming off Phase’s computer were mostly homework.. but really useful homework!  He could hawk those lit papers as full-fledged term papers.  The trig and Spanish homework wouldn’t go for as much money.  But the Costume Shop templates could pay off with some simple generalizations.  The ‘intelligence network’ files were all encrypted, but he had expected that.  He doubted it would take long to break.  He looked at the next files…

“Wow,” he gasped.

“What is it?” asked Hazard.

“Just what we were hoping for,” he lied.  Then he pretended to check his watch.  “Haz, ‘Wire?  We’re set here.  You two take off.  Dash will be back in seconds, and he can get me out of here if anything goes wrong.”

Hazard twitched a little and said, “I just felt something.  Maybe Security’s on its way, or we missed a trap.  Something minor.”

Stopwatch nodded, “Thanks.  You two head off.”

“Gotcha,” she said, and she left with Haywire in tow.

Dash zipped up from the other direction.  “You were right, ‘Watch.  A Security team’s on its way here.  ‘Breaker’s rounding up Jello, and they’re heading home.”

Stopwatch nodded, “Everything’s going according to the backup plans.  I need about twenty seconds, and then we’ll leave.  You get to carry me.  At your top speed, we’ll avoid the Security teams by five to eight seconds.”

He slid the laptop back into the locker.  He pressed the ‘reset’ button on the electronic alarm, closed the locker door, and carefully peeled the crystal off the front of the door.  “We’re good.  Let’s go.”

Dash slung him over one shoulder and took off at top speed.  Stopwatch bounced and shuddered from the high-speed running.  Oh God, this was a lot worse than he had expected.  He really hoped he could keep from losing his dinner.

 

AYLA

I watched Dash take off with Stopwatch.  I waited a minute to see if anyone came back, and I turned off the videocamera.  It was a good thing I had decided to phase through the lockers to hide in the lockers opposite my own.  Hazard’s probability-warping powers had turned off my little videocamera twice.  If I hadn’t been lurking here, I wouldn’t have gotten all this juicy evidence.  Hiding in four lockers was easy with my power.  I just had to put up with the flowery smell of the potpourri in the locker on my right.

I watched while the Security team swept down the hall, turned their monitoring camera back on, and left.  Then I pocketed my videocamera and sank through the lockers.. through the floor.. into the tunnels.  I tried not to feel too smug as I strolled off to Poe.  I still had time to hide the video before rushing over to my meeting with Automa-tech.

 

THE MASTERMINDS

Hazard sat down and stared at Stopwatch, who was staring intently at a pair of computer screens, with text scrolling by at a headache-inducing rate.

Once everyone was present, Stopwatch paused both screens and looked up with a smile.  “First, I’d like to thank everyone.  This was our smoothest caper yet.  We worked well as a team, and we dealt with the few unexpected variables that cropped up.  Jello did a great job tonight posing as Tennyo, and even deflected a friend of those Kimbas who might’ve walked in on us.  Heartbreaker did her usual strong job too.

“Now, for the bad news.  Phase has a ton of campus intel.  Most of the intelligence that isn’t blatantly obvious is just plain wrong.  I thought she was a player, but this is just pathetic.  Still, she has some really good World Lit papers we can sell as term papers, and some other homework we might be able to use or sell off.  Now, I’d like to run a quick de-brief, and then everyone can get back to their dorms…”

 

Stopwatch waited until everyone had left, and then checked to make sure that Hazard hadn’t ‘accidentally’ left the door unsecured so she could come back and snoop at what else he had.  The intel on the computer was just lame for someone with Phase’s rep, and the encryption had been pretty simple to crack.  But that complete business plan for a mutant-sites-only web spider?  That was awesome!  It even included cost estimates and A/R projections and all the computer code he’d need.

Stopwatch dove into the ‘web spider’ concept.  This was a freaking goldmine, and he had to get it up before Phase did!  He already had a hacked computer on the University of New Hampshire campus, and that would work perfectly.  All he had to do was mount some partitions that the admins couldn’t find, upload the IP-address-search software, and get it launched.  Immediately.  He did a quick calculation and estimated that he could get 65% of the relevant webpages searched and categorized before morning.

Phase would be furious when she realized that someone had stolen her mutant-only web-spider concept and had already made a fortune with it!

 

THE INTELLIGENCE CADET CORPS

Ace sat stiffly at the table in Conference Room C of Kane Hall.  Delarose had been chewing them all out for nearly ten minutes, and was now expecting a response.  He admitted, “It’s my fault, sir.  I was in charge.  I planned the operation.  I led the team.  The buck stops here.”

Delarose stared at the kid and growled, “That’s one of the few things you did right this whole evening, son.”

A-Plus cleared her throat uncomfortably.  “Excuse me Chief, but I’d like to be on record as disagreeing with my team leader.  He’s not solely responsible here.  He didn’t make us go do any of this.  We all agreed with him.  We all saw the evidence that led us to conclude the Masterminds were attempting to rob another student, and that it was going to be right after eight this evening, and…”  She looked uncomfortably over at the two petite young women huddled together across the room.  “…we all agreed that the evidence was clear.  Jello was going to mimic Bladedancer, and either Hazard or Heartbreaker would use a devise to appear to be Gateway.  We were completely taken in when the real Bladedancer and Gateway walked up to Poe precisely in the time window.”

Delarose looked over at the two vics.  “Bladedancer, I believe this was touched on in your incident report, but why did you and Gateway decide to walk back to Poe right at eight o’clock?”

He watched as Bladedancer calmly replied, “The library was extra-crowded tonight, at least where we were trying to study.  We also knew that my roommate Phase would be out of the room in a meeting from 8:00 onward, possibly until 9:30 or later.  So we decided to walk back to my room.  To study.”

“Right,” blushed Gateway.

Delarose noted how the smaller girl seemed to blush with embarrassment.  Well, he knew all about the kids who were lodged in Poe cottage.  What two kids did in the privacy of one’s dorm room wasn’t technically under his purview as Chief of Security.  Still, it would be nice if Gateway didn’t give that secret away.  Despite the mistake the Intelligence Cadet Corps made tonight, they weren’t stupid or anything.

He turned to Ace and added, “And the reason why the Security teams were late getting to your location was another alarm.  A camera on a first-floor classroom hallway of Schuster went offline seconds before another alarm in Schuster triggered.  We tried to send the Wild Pack over to your six, but they had an alarm of their own.  Someone tried to get into Thunderfox’s devisor bay at 8:02.. or at least they made it look like it.”

Ace looked stricken.  He groaned, “First-floor classroom hallway in Schuster?  That’s where Phase keeps her other computer!  Oh man, did we get suckered!”  He leaned forward so suddenly that he smacked his forehead against the table.  He didn’t seem to care.

A-Plus winced, “So we were right after all.  It was planned for eight tonight.  The target was Phase, and they were after her computer.  Her other computer.  They set us up perfectly.”

Bladedancer quietly said, “And someone still has to tell my roommate that her laptop was robbed, and possibly damaged in some way.  And that you knew she was a target, and you did not warn her.  She is not going to be happy.”

Interface smirked at Ace, “Hey, now you’re playing in the big leagues.  You’re gonna have a Goodkind pissed at you.”

Holdout rubbed his bruised ribs, trying not to hurt the pulled muscle in his right shoulder.  He glanced down at the oversized, borrowed Security uniform pants he was wearing, and muttered, “At least someone besides me gets embarrassed tonight.”

Interface grinned evilly at Holdout, “Hey, look at it this way.  She knocks you down and rips your pants off.  I think she LIIIIIKES you.”

Holdout grimaced, but managed to keep his mouth shut.  If he talked back, I-Face would just hold this over his head even longer.  Plus, Delarose would be pissed.

“What exactly did happen out there?” wondered Kew.

Ace hadn’t lifted his face off the table.  He muttered, “I have no idea.”

Delarose tried not to smile as he said, “From the Security camera footage, there were at least four mages, apparently fighting each other.  We’ve ID’ed Compiler, thanks to Holdout…”  The boy blushed furiously.  “…and Foxfire, thanks to Bladedancer.  I think you fell into a fight between the Whitman Lit Chix and some of their enemies.”

Interface grumbled, “I’d just like to know who the heck is riding around on a dog the size of a pony, wearing a witch’s hat.  The kid looked like she was about junior high age.”

Delarose didn’t smile at that.  Clover.  That meant the Lit Chix had been up against Elyzia Grimes’ three little magical pests.  He’d have to have a chat with Ms. Grimes about this.  He wasn’t looking forward to that.

Bladedancer spoke up.  “Chief?  Gateway and I would rather not swear out a complaint against anyone.  They were trying to protect Poe and my roomie, and they made a mistake.  It is not as if I have never made such an error.  They were very careful, and tried to restrain us using capture nets and such.  I, for one, am glad someone is out there trying to help Security.  Perhaps next time, they’ll stop and alert the potential victims…”

A-Plus just winced.  The Oriental girl made it sound so simple.  She knew better.  Alerting the mark was almost always equivalent to tipping off the perps.  It just didn’t work that easily in the real world.  And what would this kid know of the real world?  She probably hadn’t been any closer to a real-world sitch than the world news on her television.

Still, Bladedancer didn’t want to make a big deal out of the whole mess.  That was probably the biggest plus of the night.

 

THE WHITMAN LITERARY GIRLS

Foxfire looked around the Whitman library and finally grumbled, “Well, that was embarrassing.”

Lifeline fretted, “Babs is still crying, back in her room at Hawthorne.  Stella’s with her.  She figures she’s blown yet another chance at a boyfriend.”

Loophole chipped in, “Smashing a guy into the ground and disintegrating his clothes in a freezing snowbank?  That would do it.  But at least she didn’t hit him in the face with a bucket of water while he was lying in a snowbank.”

Selkie muttered under her breath, “I said I was sorry!”

Fractious complained, “I didn’t realize how dirty some of those underground tunnels get.  I mean, how does dirt even get in there?  And don’t they ever clean the walls?”

Reverb rolled her eyes and said to the rest of the room, “At least she finally stopped washing her hands.”

Arachne groaned, “And She-Beast wasn’t even there!  Does anyone know where she was, and what she got away with?”

Foxfire sighed, “No.  But at least I finally caught up with those little…”

 

THE THREE LITTLE WITCHES

Clover cuddled a cute puppy and smiled happily, “At least they didn’t hurt my witch hat!”

“Oh be quiet.”

“My butt still hurts.  I didn’t know you could do that with a spell.”

Clover helpfully added, “And they said they were going to tell Grimsy on us too.”  The ‘puppy’ clambered up her shirt and appeared to lick her on the ear as she giggled.  “Buttons thinks they’re a bunch of doody-heads.”

Palantir groaned, “Maybe next time we should go after someone besides Foxfire.”

Clover asked, “What about Fey?  She’s s’posed ta have tons of Essence…”

 

AYLA

I finished my business meeting with Automa-tech in less time than I expected.  The issues involved have been known to get pretty sticky, since marketing inventions in Eastern Europe has been a royal headache for years.  Or maybe that’s a royalty headache.  Areas that have little history in intellectual property tend to have a lot more copyright theft, so we had been worried about some of the sales issues.

But Automa had come up with an ingenious idea for her invention.  A little internal gadget that looked fantastically intricate, but was relatively cheap to reproduce.  It didn’t do anything other than signal other parts of the gadget that they should keep working.  She grinned and explained, “I got the idea when I saw Belphegor cracking the code on a dongle so he could steal some software.”

Man, sometimes I so didn’t want to know what life was like down in The Workshop.

Not to mention that I was pretty sure the dongle was only used on a few computer products in America, including several security tools sold by Goodkind Computing.  I’d have to give my brother Paul a heads-up that they needed to improve the security on their software products ASAP.

At any rate, I thought Automa’s idea was really clever, and possibly even more marketable than her original invention.  A lot of companies would want to use her new security feature in their own products.  I’d have to look into that for her.

It was pretty cold outside, so I went light and flew off the Melville hill.  I soared over to the walkway to Poe, then down through the ground into the Hawthorne tunnel.  It was definitely warmer in the tunnel.  Not a spring-like 68 degrees or anything, but definitely warmer than outside.  At this rate, January was going to be a bitch around here.

I phased through the twin doors of the airlock to the Poe tunnel, and took a peek to see if Sara’s door was hanging around Poe.  Not there.  Was that a good sign or a bad sign?  Oh well…

I floated up through the basement ceiling into the main-floor common room, and I flipped my cell phone back on.  I’d deliberately turned it off when I met with Automa-tech.  Nothing says ‘you have my undivided attention’ in a meeting like showing that you won’t answer your cell phone until the meeting ends.

There was a missed call.  From Jadis.  That couldn’t be good.  Why would Jadis be calling me at this hour, on a Saturday night?  Particularly when I had been meeting Automa-tech in Melville, only a floor or two away from Jadis’ room - and Jadis knew about the meet?  Oh well, there was only one thing to do.  I returned the call.

“Jadis here.  Thanks for returning the call, Ayla.”

I told her, “I only just turned the phone back on.”

“Not a problem.  I only called you about a minute ago.  Now turn on the max levels of encryption and security you’ve got on that rinky-dink toy.”

I asked, “Are you sure?  Once the encryption goes on, you won’t be able to decrypt-”

“I’ll have it encrypted before you can say ‘Umberto Eco’.  Just do it.”

I sighed, “Okay…”  I pressed the buttons and said, “Umber-”

“It was decrypted before you finished that big, dramatic sigh.  Dr. Dad has way better gear than Goodkind Telecom stuff that’s up for public consumption.”

I complained, “Okay, so I need a better phone.  It’s not like I’m allowed to have my old high-end Goodkind International corporate cellphone anymore.  Is there a reason you’re rubbing my nose in it, or are you just pissed at me?”

“I’m pissed at someone all right.  We’re being blackmailed.  You and me.”

I snorted, “You must be kidding me.  Is someone threatening to tell Dr. Dad that Dr. Daughter is having chats with an evil Goodkind?  My family disowned me.  They probably figure I’m spending all my time chatting with you.  And your dad.  And Cataclysm and The Necromancer.”

“No.  Stop being a smartass.  Someone has a recording of us talking the other day, and they're trying to extort concessions from us.  Listen to this:”

And then the recording played a little bit of my voice: “so then I get even.  I kill her sons.  And I bake them in a pie and feed them to her!”

I rolled my eyes.  “And they think this is extortion material?  Are they stupid, or what?  Don’t they know who they’re dealing with?”

“They think they’re players on campus, obviously.  But they’re too stupid to know what they’ve got.  I went ahead and scheduled a meet with them tomorrow morning at ten.  They wanted the devisor tunnels, so I insisted on the Quad.  I’ve got Mal and Jean-Armand on backup, in case our extortionists try to avoid a face-to-face.  Their devises or magical charms just won’t work on the Quad within fifty feet of the bench I’ve picked out.  For an hour before and after ten.  Unless they’re Majestic-level Wizards, in which case we could be in trouble.”

I chewed on my lower lip.  “I’ll see if I can get Fey to cover the Quad with a counter-spell, just to help out.  If there’s a mage she can’t stop, we’d probably better just turn over the whole planet to them and get out of the way.”

“Fine.  I trust you to know her abilities.  But you need to be there with me for the meet.  And here’s what else I’m setting up…”

 

BLADEDANCER

Chou trudged back to the dorm room.  Molly had gone off to her dorm, and Chou was left with nothing but a couple bruises and some frustration.

Looking back, it made sense that the Tao hadn’t come forth in her.  It wasn’t an important moment.  Her life wasn’t in danger.  The people facing her hadn’t even been after her, but had been trying to stop someone who would have impersonated her to break into her room.  Still, fighting trained Exemplars without the power of the Tao was.. something she needed to work on.  And those gadgets had been…  Well, she needed to work on dealing with things like them as well.  Maybe Bunny could help with that.  Or maybe she could ask to spar more with Jericho.

Chou knocked softly before opening the door.  Ayla was sitting at her desk, talking on the phone.  But she waved Chou in and gave her a smile.

Ayla hung up and turned to Chou, “Hey there.  I thought you’d be all snuggly with Molly when I got back here, and.. nothing!  You decide the library was quiet enough for you?”

Chou frowned, “No.  We were attacked, right outside Poe.”

She watched as Ayla’s face went rigid with anger.  “If it was those goddamned Masterminds, I’ll…”

Chou shook her head no.  “It was not them.  Not directly.  It was the Spy Kidz, who were trying to stop the Masterminds from sneaking into Poe and breaking into your computer.”

She expected Ayla to be furious.  She expected Ayla to jump up from her chair and storm around the room, ranting angrily about being attacked because she was a Goodkind.  She didn’t expect Ayla to laugh so hard she nearly fell out of her chair.

When Ayla stopped snorting with merriment, she grinned, “Okay, you’ve got to tell me what happened.  Everything that happened,  I’m really sorry, but if I’d had any idea this could’ve happened, I would’ve given you a heads-up.”

Chou stared in puzzlement.  After she told her story, she was going to make sure that Ayla explained whatever was going on.  Even if it took all night!

 

Sunday, December 3, early morning

AYLA

I woke up and rushed to the bathroom.  No Fey yet.  Good.  I knocked on her door, and Chaka bounced over to answer it.  “What’s happenin’ Ayles?  Got to get in that early-morning peeping at Nikki?”

I smiled, “Actually, I wanted to talk to her about a little problem.  Something she can help me with.  It’ll wait until she’s out of her coma.”

A muffled groan arose from a large lump under the covers of one bed.  “I heard that!”

I told Chaka, “Look, let her sleep a bit longer.  When she’s up, point her my way.  I’ll wait in my room.”

Chaka nodded and closed the door.  From the hallway I could clearly hear a loud voice belting out a Macy Gray tune loud enough to wake people in Melville.  “Dance with me love!  Please and love…”

I rolled my eyes.  Nikki was going to be in such a great mood now…

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting in my bathrobe reading email, when there was a fierce little knock on my door.  I called out, “Come on in, Nikki!”

A grumpy, under-caffeinated Faerie stuck her head in the door.  “Some over-peppy maniac who thinks she can sing said you needed my help on something?”

I nodded and waved her in.  Then I poured her a cup of my good coffee.

She stared at my Dilbert “I’m not anti-business, I’m just anti-idiot” mug for a second before taking a long sip.  “Ooooooh,” she sighed.  “I should come over here for coffee more often.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Any time.  Just give me a couple minutes to grind the beans and brew the coffee, and you can have a cup.”  Given that she was Nikki Reilly, wearing just a filmy nightie and that semi-sheer peignoir, and she had a halfway-to-orgasm expression of bliss on that perfect face, I wasn’t exaggerating.  I’d be happy to have her drop in like this, anytime.

She sipped more coffee and smiled, “And it’s so much warmer in your room than on the rest of the floor!”  She looked around at the infrared space heater over in the corner, and then at the special transparent insulation over the window.  “I should drop by here more often.”

I grinned, “Yeah, you should.”

She confided quietly, “You probably won’t believe this, but I think Toni likes it that cold in the room.”

I decided then that I needed to provide a special Christmas present to the girls on the floor: a set of wall-mounted infrared space heaters for the bathroom, to make life more pleasant in the mornings all winter long.

“So…” she temporized, “What was it you wanted me to do for you?”

I said, “Let’s go shower.  I feel grotty.  I’ll explain on the way.  Basically, I need you to drop some sort of spell over the Quad so that if someone tries to do some magic there between say, nine and eleven, it’ll go wonky on ‘em.  I’ve got to deal with an extortionist, and…”

“Ayla!  What is it with you and blackmailers?”

I groaned, “Maybe it’s the target between my shoulderblades, with the sign that says ‘Insert Knife Here’.  Look Nikki, this is one of the things that rich people have to deal with all the time.  Fake lawsuits, nuisance lawsuits, invasion of privacy, blackmailers and extortionists, the personal attentions of psychotic nutbars…  You name it.”

We walked into the bathroom and I explained the rest while Nikki undressed, adjusted the temperature for her shower, and stepped in.  After watching a naked Nikki moving around and getting wet, I had to stop and take a shower with the water a lot colder than I liked.

 

SHE-BEAST

Jadis sat calmly on the middle iron bench near the north side of the Quad.  Waiting for a group of blackmailers with the combined IQ of Bronco and Silo?  Not a problem.  She’d faced far worse.  She was calm.  She was prepared.

Still, she had to make an effort not to flinch when something came up through the middle of the Quad.

It was just Phase.  Trevor - darn it, his name wasn’t Trevor anymore…  Ayla casually strolled over to the bench and sat down beside her.  Sometimes it was hard to believe that anti-mutant Trevor Goodkind could now be this girl.  This not-quite-girl.  At other times, just watching Ayla was all the evidence Jadis needed.  No one else quite had that “when I rule the world I will not permit such behavior” attitude that Trevor used to project.  Not even some people she had met who actually wanted to rule the world and occasionally tried to conquer it.  Dr. Dad knew a lot of interesting characters.  Ayla still had it, even if it wasn’t quite so blatant anymore.

Phase just sat there and gave her an easy smile, “Good morning, Jadis.  Anything interesting going on?”

Jadis just smiled back.  Honestly, sometimes that Goodkind training just couldn’t be kept under wraps, could it?  She could see it in the mannered way Phase sat, even if they were sitting outside on a bench in winter weather.  She could see it in that ‘when needs must’ attitude.  She could see it in that ‘I am not inundated by the floodtide around me’ calmness.  It would probably require Goodkind-level calmness to endure all the craziness that seemed to gravitate toward Team Kimba.  One day, she’d figure out a way to get Ayla to tell her the truth about some of those stories.  The ‘lightning storm in the hallway’ one she could believe, but she still had serious doubts about the ‘Yellow Queen and Bloodworm sacrificing Carmilla to a Dark God’ one.

Phase looked over and murmured, “Fey agreed.”

Jadis gave her a little nod.  She’d known that one already.  Her wrist bracelet charm that showed when she was being watched or bugged had suddenly gone apewire when she walked into the Quad.  Some major magic had been hurled across the Quad, gumming up lesser magics as easily as swatting a fly.  Mental note: never engage Fey in a battle of magic without a couple months of preparation first.

Jadis answered, “Mal and J-Arm came through too.”

Ayla just looked out across the Quad and said, “I expected they would.  For you.”

Jadis resisted the urge to look at her wristwatch.  She knew it was only a couple minutes to ten.  She knew the extortionists would be showing up soon.  She expected they had some plan to remain hidden from sight.  Mal expected them to pilot a robot of some sort into the Quad as an intermediary.  Jean-Armand was hoping for some bit of technomancy.  Both had provided a little something special, to handle eventualities.

Ayla turned to her and said, “So, while we’re waiting, whatcha been reading lately?  I’ve been reading Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman.”

 

AYLA

We had been talking about Chaucer for maybe ten minutes when Jadis spotted something coming our way.  I turned my head to look.

It was a ‘Battlebots’ style robot, motoring down a path towards us at maybe five or six miles an hour.  I noted that it was one of the paths back toward Melville and the dorms beyond it.  That didn’t really mean anything, since if I had been behind this I would have made sure to send my robot negotiator from a false direction to mislead my opponents.

The thing looked way too much like a rollerboard suitcase on its back, except steel-plated.  I turned back to Jadis, knowing she was going to argue with my point about the Nun’s Prioress’ Tale.

Instead, she gave me a tiny smirk and said, “Wait for it.”

I turned and watched the suitcase-bot roll our way for a little longer.  It got nearly to the edge of the Quad, and suddenly stopped.  It shuddered, backed up a couple feet, and tried again.  This time, it got to the edge of the Quad and began having a robotic seizure.  It shook, popped open some doors on the top and sides, and then froze up.  A nasty-looking arc of electricity leapt from its top to the ground, and then black smoke began leaking from its side vents.

I turned back and looked at Jadis.  Her tiny smirk was now a smug grin.  She admitted, “Mal.  He set up some little feedback devises around the perimeter of the Quad, and he’s watching from an upstairs classroom window so he knows when to activate an attack.”

I made an effort not to look away from Jadis.  I asked, “And next?”

She smirked, “Now they go to Plan B.  If they’re smart enough to have a Plan B.  If you ask me, they probably have trouble saying their alphabet that far.”

That was about what I figured.

About two minutes later, we heard a faint hum coming from the same direction as the still-smoldering suitcase-bot.  This one looked like a flying hovercraft.  It had a round ‘flying saucer’ configuration, but it clearly had a huge helicopter blade in the center of the ‘saucer’ to provide the lift.

The ‘saucer’ was about twenty feet up when it crossed the edge of the Quad.  It suddenly sparked, and dropped like a rock.  It cracked open when it hit the brickwork.

I looked at Jadis and asked, “You think they have a Plan C?”

“Sooner or later, they’re going to run out of toys, and then we’ll see if they go to a Warper or a Speedster.”

A few seconds later, a sphere of magical energy came floating through the air from the same direction.  It didn’t even make it to the edge of the Quad before it began to vibrate oddly.  Then it began to pulse.  A couple seconds later, it exploded silently.  Jadis looked like she was having trouble not bursting out in giggles.

I smiled wickedly, “Score one for the Faerie chick.”

Jadis looked up and wondered aloud, “So how long before we see Plan D?”

 

THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ

Fantastico stared angrily at Minefield.  “So where’s all your hotshot plans now, Mister Big Fucking Planner?”

Minefield looked up from where he was kneeling beside Nantuko.  “Give it a rest, F-man.  Nan’s out cold.  We need to get her to the clinic, in case it’s something major.”

Fantastico sneered, “You’d like an excuse ta ditch, wouldn’t ya?  You’ve been against this whole plan from the start.  Yer prob’ly sabotaging me right now.”

Minefield stood up and faced him.  That wasn’t smart when you were up against a fucking Exemplar 6 who could knock you into next week.  So just in case, he had one of his biggest blast-globes in his hand, behind his back.  “Goddamnit F, you know that’s just a big fat friggin’ lie!  Sure, I think it’s a bad idea.  But I’m not sandbaggin’ you, and you damn well know it.  They’re just outgunnin’ us!”

“Explain it ta me, Boomy,” Fantastico ordered.

Minefield sighed, “You know all this, Bert.  She-Beast boxed us into this site last night, and I didn’t like it then.  The Quad is too damn public, and too damn popular at this time of day, even when it’s this cold.  People are coming and going all morning long, even now that breakfast’s been over for a while.  That limits our options.  Which was why she did it, ya know.  I still went down and hid a minefield grid around the zone early this morning, in case we needed to fight Phase and She-Beast when this goes down.  Nantuko went with me, and laid out half a dozen magical traps she’s been workin’ on.  And Ferret put a bunch of his gear around the target bench.  Well, forty minutes ago, at 9:30, everything went ta hell.  All of Nan’s magical traps blew up, disintegrated, or just plain vanished off the face of the earth.  My whole minefield just.. disappeared, like something ate it.  Every one of Ferret’s gadgets fried.  That took out our Plans 1 through 4, and our backups Baker through Frank.  In one fell swoop.  Whoever they got playing backstop is way too fuckin’ powerful for us ta mess with.  If it’s Fey, we’re not gonna out-power her anytime soon, either.  Especially with our mage knocked out.”

“Yeah, I know that,” growled Fantastico.  “That’s why I want that freak Phase under my thumb, so we can make Fey do what we want.”

Minefield went on, “Plans 5 through 7 just went down the toilet too.  Ferret’s toys-”

“HEY!” squawked Ferret.  “They’re not toys!”

“-his toys got fried when they got near the Quad.  You saw that.  They’ve got some serious anti-gadget weaponry in place, and we haven’t been able to find any of it.  Then Nantuko tried sending down her ‘cellphone’ energy ball so we could talk to them through that.  It went up like a Mexican firework, and the backlash coulda’ hurt her.  I’ve gotta figure they’re prepared for us to use a speedster ta sprint messages back and forth, or a Warper ta do the same thing with teleports - and Roadrunner isn’t all that fast.  That means we’re out of the game, unless you wanna go face-to-face or else re-schedule.  And if you re-schedule, they’ll just do this same thing again.  We’ve got Ferret and Nantuko, and not a lot else.  They’ve got Fey, Techno-Devil, Nephandus, Bugs, and a lot more.  And if ya really back She-Beast into a corner, she’s got Jobe.  You’re in charge.  You make the call.”

Fantastico gritted his teeth and said, “You’re right.  I make the decisions around here.  I’m the Decider.  And I’m decidin’ that it’s time to take this down there and get up close and personal.”  Oiler groaned unhappily behind him, but he ignored it.  “I go down with you, Oily, Condo, and Venge.  Meep-meep carries Nan-tucket to the clinic.  Ferret stays here with Appaloosa and tries to get some of his crap back online.”

“Oh great.  I always wanted to get the shit beat out of me by two chicks.”

“Shut up, Larry.”

 

AYLA

We had to wait almost ten minutes before Extortionists ‘R’ Us gave up on all their super-sneaky plans and finally came out in person.  So we whiled away the time by arguing about the moral dissonance in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” when viewed by today’s reader.  I mean, face facts.  Even Mel Gibson couldn’t get away with turning stories like the Nun’s Prioress’ Tale into a movie in today’s world.

Finally, Jadis reacted a little, and I turned my head back toward the Melville path.  Five guys were doing the ‘superhero power walk’ toward us.  The guy in the middle, slightly ahead of the pairs on either side of him, was Fantastico.  I’d heard plenty about him from some of the Golden Kids.  Bert Walker Jr., heir to the Walker Beef empire.  A Texas redneck with money, who couldn’t be bothered to cooperate with Tidewater on the rules for Golden Kids meetings.  That made this the Good Ol’ Boyz.

Jadis watched them walking toward us and muttered, “Nice stride, good coordination.  But no theme music, no slo-mo effects, and no fires or explosions behind them.  I’m only giving it a five out of ten.”

I managed not to laugh out loud.

We waited patiently until they stopped in front of us.  Fantastico actually put his fists on his hips.  What a dork.

Jadis turned to me and said, “Phase, let me perform the introductions.  These are the main men of the Good Ol’ Boyz.  This is Fantastico, Oiler, Minefield, Conduit, and The Man Called Vengeance.”  She turned her head and said, “Boys, this is Phase.  But you already knew that.  Right?”

Fantastico looked like the typical Exemplar who had gotten the ‘Superboy’ package.  He probably traded pretty heavily on his ‘tall dark and handsome’ routine.  Not to mention that he could probably sling pickup trucks around like sandbags.  Oiler was the usual high schooler, with just a hint of an early-receding hairline to go with a sneer that suggested he spent a lot of his time being a crabby jerk.  Minefield looked like he was majoring in ‘grouchy’, but that could have been because he’d been dragged into this confrontation.  Conduit had one of those Tiger Woods-like mixed-race faces, but maybe he wasn’t really half-black; Fantastico didn’t exactly strike me as ‘Mister Tolerance’. And the last guy was a blond guy who was wearing a leather motorcycle jacket that practically had ‘no, I really am a tough guy’ spelled out across the front of it in metal studs.  I wasn’t all that impressed.  These guys looked like half my teammates could take all of them in the time it usually took Tennyo to eat her first course.

I smiled politely.  “I’ve heard about Fantastico.  You have a marvelous rep with the Golden Kids, you know.”

He angrily spat on the brickwork.  “Those pussies just wanted me ta kiss their blue-blood asses.  I don’t play that game.”

Yeah.  I could see this guy was Mister Congeniality.  Fine with me.  It just made manipulating him that much easier.  I gave him a snotty smile that riled him up, and regally said, “Did you wish to see us about something?”

That did it.  He might have been ready to play a subtler game, but he lost it when I gave him the ‘royal snob’ treatment.

He flared, “Yer gonna be singin’ a different tune now that we got the two o’ you plotting a murder.  On a CD.”

Jadis looked at me and pursed her lips, “Ooh.  That sounds like blackmail.  And blackmail is such an ugly word.”

“I prefer ‘intentional torts’.  At least it sounds like some deliberately tasty desserts,” I chimed in.

Fantastico sneered, “Hardy har har.  When you two get done with your lttle comedy routine, you can shut up and listen ta me.  Yer both gonna turn all your intelligence network stuff over ta Oiler here.  She-Beast, yer gonna give us everything you’ve got on the Bad Seeds.  Phase, yer gonna give us whatever you’re usin’ ta blackmail the Kimbas ta keep you on their team.  Then yer gonna show us yer family connections.  And if either of you try anything funny, we’ll just go straight to Carson and Delarose, and tell ‘em about the horrible murderers they got right here at Whateley.  You can tell the MCO all about whatcha did with those bodies and Lividia.”

Jadis said, “I think that’s pretty clear.  Don’t you?”

I agreed.

She looked back at Fantastico and asked, “Did you want to add anything else?  Threats against our families, for instance?”

He just glared at her.

She said, “Oh well, that’s enough.  Definite evidence of felony extortion under U.S. and New Hampshire state law, as well as under Native American Tribal law, since Whateley is on tribal lands.”  She lifted her lapel and talked into it, “Did you get all of that?”

The five guys in front of us suddenly looked worried.  They looked a lot more worried when Chief Delarose stepped out of Schuster Hall with two squads of Security officers.  I could see him talk into his wrist-mike.

His voice came out over Jadis’ lapel bug.  “Oh yes, we got it all.  And I believe the headmistress would love to hear it as well.”

Fantastico stood his ground, even as he watched the Security guys troop toward us.  He glared at us, “Two can play this game, bitches.  You take us down for this?  We play Carson that CD.  We get detention?  You get twenty to life for murder.  Don't be stupid.  Last chance…”

Jadis coldly said, “You really have no idea who you’re dealing with, do you?”

He looked like he wanted to use that ‘heat vision’ I’d heard about to burn a hole right through her chest.

 

HEADMISTRESS ELIZABETH CARSON

Liz Carson turned off the CD player as soon as Chief Delarose alerted her that he was coming in with the big problem for the day.  At least this time, a student had gone through proper channels to deal with the problem, instead of ‘pulling a Spiderman’ and trying to handle it on his or her own using mutant powers.

She smiled as she closed the cabinet doors to conceal her CD library.  She was sure that everyone on campus except Circe - and perhaps Bladedancer’s mystic sword - would think her an ‘old fossil’ for listening to Benny Goodman.  But she found so much of today’s music too raucous and unsettling.  She was sure that was what old fossils had said about new music ever since Gregorian chants were in style, but still…

She hummed a little of Goodman’s version of Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” that she had just turned off.  Then she moved over and slipped on her suit jacket.  She preferred to look her most imposing for confrontations like this.  She checked her cuffs, put on her reading glasses, and sat down behind her desk.

The knock on the door was only seconds after the security system alerted her that people were entering the foyer of Admin.  She announced, “Come in, Chief.”

Chief Delarose had seven people with him.  She had expected Phase and She-Beast, but she hadn’t known who the others would be when she had first been told of the problem.  Still, she had already pulled the files on the ten campus groups she thought were most likely to try something like this.  And she had been alerted when Roadrunner brought Nantuko into the clinic, so she had been confident that she would be seeing more of the Good Ol’ Boyz this morning.

She pointed to the armchairs on her right.  “Miss Diabolik?  Miss Goodkind?  If you would be so good as to sit over there?”

Then she turned an angry glare on the five boys.  “Mister Walker.  You and your four friends will sit here.”  She pointed one carefully-manicured finger at the seats directly before her desk.  They hastily sat down as if she had pointed with a flaming halberd.

She stared at the five young men.  She could hardly believe they would do something this stupid.  This venal.  She could feel her power rising in her, and she deliberately waited until an energy discharge flared around her before tamping it down.

“Mister Walker.  Mister Howser.  Mister Dunliff.  Mister Reece.  Mister Damone.  Have you any idea how much trouble you five are in?  Not to mention how much trouble your friends at the clinic will be in?”

She looked over at Franklin Delarose.  “Chief?  Are there more students involved?”

He nodded, “Yes ma’am.  We caught Ferret and Appaloosa cleaning up their evidence at a site between Melville and the Quad.  One of my teams is making them gather it all up and catalog it for Security.  Then they’ll be led here.”

She nodded, “Then I’ll speak to Mister Lark and Mister Parsons when they get here.”

She glared at Fantastico so hard that he winced.  “Mister Walker.  Would you like to explain why you have committed a probable felony against two fellow students, and dragged at least eight of your group into this action?”

He swallowed hard, and his voice cracked slightly as he tried to weasel out of his responsibility.  “Y-yes ma’am.  I would.  I know that recording Security has sounds bad, but it’s not fair.  We were just tryin’ to protect the campus from them.”  He pointed at the two off to the side of the room.  “They’re murderers.  And worse!  We have evidence!”

“Evidence?  Legal evidence of a felony?” she asked.

“Yeah!” he insisted.  “We’ve got it on a CD!”  He turned to Minefield and said, “Go ahead.  Play it!”

Minefield winced, “Uhh, I can’t.  The player fried when we walked into the Quad.  Their anti-gizmo gizmo.  Remember?”

Fantastico rolled his eyes, “But you’ve still got the CD, right?”

“Well sure,” he admitted.  He opened up a small CD player inside his jacket and showed the CD.

The headmistress took the CD and put it in her stereo system.  She firmly pressed ‘play’.  The voices came out clearly over her speaker system.

Phase: “so then I get even.  I kill her sons.  And I bake them in a pie and feed them to her!”

Unidentified voice: “Ick!”

She-Beast: “And that still isn’t enough.  He kills Lavinia and then he stabs the old queen to death.”

Phase: “But it’s still not over…”

Anyone would recognize Phase and She-Beast on that recording.  That didn’t mean that someone couldn’t have faked those voices.  Most of the sirens on campus could have replicated those voices.  Far too many mages and devisers could have faked those sounds.  But these weren’t faked.  She knew that, because Miss Diabolik had already told her what she would hear.

She turned to face the young men sitting nervously in their seats.  “And you didn’t find anything suspicious, or noteworthy, in this conversation?”

“Uhh…  No?”

She pushed, “Not even the name Lavinia?”

“Uhh, is it a codename?”

She struck, “Mister Walker, did you not take English Lit last term?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And did you not earn an ‘A’ for your term paper on Shakespeare’s tragedies?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And which of Shakespeare’s tragedies were on the reading list for that course?  On which tragedies did you write your ‘A’ paper?”  She held up a sheet from his folder, so he’d know what he was facing.

He gulped, “Umm, Hamlet and King Lear and Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus.”

She glared at him.  She said, “Miss Goodkind, would you please tell the room why you were speaking in the first person singular on that recording?”

Phase calmly replied, “It sounds sort of stupid now that I hear it.  But I was trying to explain to Dragonrider about some of Shakespeare’s plays.  We were talking about a Vincent Price movie called Theater of Blood, and you really need to know the Shakespeare plays to get all the humor in the movie.  That was me, being way too dramatic, when I told her the plotline of Titus Andronicus.”

Fantastico gulped.

She turned on him and snapped, “Mister Walker.  You’re an Exemplar 6 with a near-eidetic memory.  You supposedly read that very play and wrote a paper on it, not six months ago.  I find it very difficult to believe that you, in fact, wrote that paper at all, or that you even did all the required reading.”

“So your punishment will reflect that.  First, all of you - and your co-conspirators - will be given two weeks’ work at Hawthorne.  Mister Walker, you and Mister Howser will most likely be cleaning toilets there.  Anyone who complains about this punishment can volunteer to face the MCO and see how they feel about mutants engaging in major felonies!”

All five of them cringed.

She went on, “And there’s more.  Mister Walker, your grade for last term’s English Lit class is now an ‘F’, since you clearly didn’t write your own term paper.  If you want that ‘F’ removed from your record, you will have to apologize to the instructor, and write a new term paper.  And I mean research it and write it yourself.  If there is even a hint of someone else’s involvement, all of you will be facing even more severe penalties!  Furthermore, all of your papers for this term will be undergoing scrutiny.  If any of your papers have been accidentally written or even researched by one of your friends, you and he will both be receiving ‘F’s.”

She turned her head slightly, “That goes for you too, Mister Howser.  Tell Mister Lark that he is not allowed to ghost-write homework or papers for anyone anymore.  Is that clear?”

Now that she had them shaking in their boots, it was time to get them to talk.  “Mister Walker, why don’t you explain - from the beginning - how you acquired this recording, and why you decided to use it in such an inappropriate manner?

The boy spilled his guts.  He didn’t stop talking for the next twenty minutes, except when Mister Howser chipped in with further information.  She didn’t bother to look over and see if Franklin Delarose was taking notes.

 

AYLA

Maybe it says something bad about me that I had no trouble at all enjoying my lunch, even though I knew Fantastico and all his little pals were sitting over on the other side of the caff, well out of my sight, having a miserable time. Fantastico?  ‘Patetico’ was more like it.

I was sort of surprised at how easily they’d all been snowed.  I mean, didn’t these guys have any experience with blind auctions, or intelligence verification, or anything?

I’m sure it also says something about me that I wasn’t particularly bothered about the Good Ol’ Boyz holding a major grudge against me.  Even when Roadrunner zipped up beside me to deliver a message.  Although I did immediately go heavy.  I made sure I took my to-go cup of coffee with me, in case he decided to make a hyper-speed swipe to knock my coffee all over my clothes.

He didn’t look too happy about delivering the message, but he did it.  Maybe he was just unhappy about being in target range for some freakjob Warper.  He unsmilingly said, “I have a message from Fantastico.  He says, ‘This isn’t over.  Not by a long shot.’  You know what that means.”

I just stared at him.  “You’re playing on the wrong team here, you know?  He’s just going to drag you guys down, as he makes one bad decision after another.  Maybe after you experience Hawthorne, you’ll realize that.”  I paused and added, “Give the big dope a message from me.  Tell him, quote: ‘if he wants to keep this war going, I can make it just as painful as he can take it.  Tell him he’d better just let this drop.  Or else’.  Unquote.  Got that?”

He took off at high speed. 

I watched him go, and made sure no one was around me before I went light.  I was already in the hallway between the caff and the elevators, so I carefully dove into the tunnels below.  I even managed not to spill any of my coffee.

I got down to Lab W a couple minutes before one, so I didn’t have to rush.  Richard Hewley and Jared Shandy were still setting up instrumentation, while Sean Clark was lugging even more gear into position.  Apparently they had at least one storage room through a concealed door on the far wall, and the storage room had enough extra gear for a small army of scientists.

Hillary Newman met me and said, “They’ll be ready in just a couple minutes.  They had to dig out some equipment they normally only get to use with some of the fire manifestors, so they can do.. I think they called it ‘flame spectroscopy’, but I’m not sure.”

I had figured that I would hold a candle, go light, go heavy, let them measure stuff, and be done.  It looked like I had underestimated their ingenuity.  Or I had overestimated my own.  I even had to go dress in a solid white supersuit with white gloves, so things like the color and texture of my clothes and skin wouldn’t interfere with the readings they were getting from the candle.

And then there were the candles.  Plural.  There was an entire rack of candles, starting from little ones about the size of a birthday candle, and leading up to some candles as big around as my leg, with wicks that looked like wax-dipped ropes.

Oh man, how many days was I going to be stuck here?  Me and my big mouth…

Actually, it wasn’t so bad.  Frankly, it was pretty interesting, once they explained everything to me.  And the supersuit wasn’t too terrible.  Aside from having to wear the stupid cup for boys and the padded suit for girls.

Doctor Hewley said, with a gleam in his eye, “This is something Filbert.. I mean Doctor Quintain.. has written a conjectural paper on, but I didn’t think you’d be willing to let us do all this testing in addition to your routine powers testing, so we were putting this aside, but we had a gap before our next set of powers testing runs, and you just turned up at exactly the right time!”

Sean Clark added excitedly, “This is phenomenal!  My major prof told me that three published papers on a single area of concentration would be acceptable as my doctoral dissertation, and this could be Paper Number Three on extra-dimensional density warping!  I can’t thank you enough.  Really!”

Doctor Shandy concentrated, “Doctor Quintain conjectured that the k-dimensional convex hull of the extra-dimensional Warpers’ hyperspace boundary ought to show definite impleisiastic effects as oxygen has to be drawn across the boundary to maintain the candle flame.  So we’ve got some carefully-designed research candles here, and we’ll see how this works out.”

I didn’t really get all the technobabble he threw at me, but I did get some parts of it.  I wondered aloud, “Oxygen doesn’t move across the boundary where I go heavy or go light without.. effects?  I haven’t ever noticed anything about that.  I breathe just fine, and everything.”

Shandy grinned, “Yeah, I pointed that out to Doctor Quintain.  You weren’t having any trouble breathing when you changed density.  Lemure doesn’t have any trouble with that, either.  But he has a theory about that.  First, Lemure is an inter-dimensional density Warper, so the hyperspace boundary theory doesn’t apply.  And second, you’re an EX-3, so you’re a lot stronger than a normal baseline, so you’re probably not going to notice the effect even if it’s really there.  Now if you weren’t an Exemplar at all, and Quintain’s theory is correct, you would have noticed.  Well, we think so, anyway…”

I refrained from rolling my eyes.  After all, it was my fault we were all here, anyway.

Basically all I had to do was stand in a light-controlled box and hold my arm with the candle out to the side, so they could get readings with all their instruments without my body getting in the way.  Then I went light or went heavy, depending on what they wanted.  It turned out that the smallest candles tended to just gutter out in seconds.  There was enough extra energy required to move the oxygen across the hyperspace boundary (whatever that really means in English) into my own personal extra-dimensional position that a small candle would just go out in a few seconds.  Weird.  The largest candles had special chemicals embedded in the wicks, so they kept burning.  But the powers testing guys could apparently measure the effects by looking at changes in the electromagnetic spectrum given off by the candle.

After about two hours of holding candles, I finally got to stop.  They had enough test results to go crazy with for a while.  I sat down with Hillary, while the testers geeked out over the test results.

I took a swallow of water and smiled, “So.  How are things with Doctor Dashing?”

Her eyes just lit up.  She took a quick glance over to make sure all the labcoats were where they were supposed to be.  “You were right!  You were so right.  After a couple racquetball games, Jared wanted to give me some private lessons.  Then we did private lessons, followed by dinner at my apartment.  Thank God he let me shower first.  I would’ve died if I smelled as bad as I did after half an hour of racquetball lessons!  And then he took me out to dinner a couple times, and then the next time I cooked dinner at my place…”  She got a dreamy expression on her face that I really didn’t want to know the details on.  Ick.

“So.. everything’s good?”

She chewed on her lower lip for a bit while she frowned.  “Well…  Mostly.  But his ex - I told you about her - she was a lot more.. umm.. developed than I am, and I can tell he wishes I had more.. up top…”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to go for some devisor’s boob-growth ray or something!” I gasped.

She shook her head.  “Unh-uh.  But I was thinking about implants.  I just can’t afford ‘em.  And when would I get ‘em?  I did some research, and they hurt for days, and I wouldn’t be able to work for maybe half a week afterward…”

I checked to make sure the wonks were still obsessed with the monitors.  “I can take care of that,” I told her.

“You can’t be serious!” she whispered.

“Hillary, I’m a Goodkind.  I could afford to buy breast implants for every woman in the state of New Hampshire if I wanted to.  Look, I’ll find a top-notch plastic surgeon for you, wherever you’re going for Christmas…”

“My mom and stepdad’s place in Pittsburgh.”

I went on, “Good.  That’s really good.  There are going to be some really top-notch plastic surgeons in a city that size, and you can get a couple days of non-technical care at home with your mom.  Plus, you’ll need to buy new bras, and new tops, and new dresses…”

“Oh my God, I’ll never be able to afford all that!”

I nodded, “I can.”

She looked at me in shock.  “You can’t be serious!  I mean…  That’s a ton of money!  And you don’t even know me…”  She stopped and gulped.  “I don’t have to .. like.. sell you my immortal soul or anything, do I?”

I had to grin.  “Nope.  Wrong Whateley student.  But I would want something in exchange.”

She thought it over.  “What?  I’m not going to do it if it’s something I couldn’t live with.”

I told her.  “Every year, you do a hundred or two hundred powers testing evaluations or re-evals.  Just get me copies of them.  No real names, nothing that’s not official.  And I’ll pay you ten thousand a year.  Just for that.”

She sucked in her lips and bit down on the insides.  “I don’t know…” she fretted.

I patted her hand, “It’s okay.  You can say ‘no’.  I’m not going to go postal on you or anything.  If you want to, just let me know.  You know where I live.”

“That’s it?  I can just say ‘no’?”

I nodded, “Sure.  If you say ‘no’, I’ll just find someone else who’ll say ‘yes’.  It’s just a business deal.  It’s not life or death.  And these are files that are out on the Whateley intranet anyway.”

“Well…  What’re you going to do with ‘em?”

I smiled gently, “That’s a good question.  I’ll bet your professor over there wouldn’t think to ask that.  I’m a target here.  You know how much I was beaten up back in September.  And most of my teammates are targets too.  I need to know what powers people have, so I can assess threats.  When the Goths jumped me a couple months ago, I picked the wrong people to fight.  I could’ve been killed.  I had no idea Screech was actually the serious threat there.  I need to know who can do what, and how well they can do it.  Powers testing results are the best way to get that info.”

She swallowed hard.  “I.. I don’t think I can do that.”

I gave her a little smile, “It’s okay.  Really.  I’m not even mad at you.”  I looked over to see the wonks were pointing at something on a couple monitors.  “Although I really don’t think you need breast implants…  So tell me how your racquetball game’s improving.”

So I just chatted with Hillary for about half an hour, while the lab-boys went bananas over false-color images of burning candles.  It was interesting talking with Hillary.  What she really wanted was to be convinced that giving me information would be doing a good thing.  I wasn’t going to try to do that.  There were enough assholes around the campus who were spending all their time trying to manipulate people, either magically or psychically or just using old-fashioned political tricks.

I did stew about whether I would have been so scrupulous about things if I didn’t like her.  That was me: Mister Moral Relativism.

In the end, I didn’t have to do anything.  Just the fact that I was being nice to her and talking with her was enough.  That, and the fact that I didn’t try to force the sale again.

She waited until I changed back into my own clothes, and she walked me out of the labs.  “Umm, how would I go about getting you the information?  I don’t want to get in trouble, and we’re not supposed to be giving anyone this stuff.”

I’d been thinking about this ever since I had thought about how to bribe Mrs. Hawkins.  So I had an answer.

“Grab a notepad.  I’m going to give you the name of a computer on your local net, and a file folder on it.  A friend of mine did some mapping of the Whateley intranet for me, and he found a lot of interesting things.  This is a computer you have access to - it’s part of the testing network - and these are directories you have access rights for.  All you have to do is use this directory and folders under it as your new backup area.”

“Umm, I’m not actually backing stuff up.”

I frowned, “Well, you should be.  So use this spot as your backup area.  That’s all you have to do.  It turns out that this part of this computer isn’t protected well enough, in part because it’s also part of the external access for Admin to the powers testing data, so it has to be accessible in a number of ways by a number of different people.  My friend will just copy bits of the files, now and then.  If anyone asks you what you’re doing, just tell them the truth.  It’s your backups for important files for powers testing.”

She thought for a minute.  “That sounds pretty easy.  What else do you need me to do?”

I assured her, “That’s it.”

“Really?  Are you sure?  Because this sounds like I’m not doing anything.”

I grinned, “Actually, that’s the whole idea.  You’re not doing anything wrong as far as any investigation could show.  In fact, you’re probably going to get a good review for it, because you’re finally backing up your files in an appropriate place off your computer.”

She gave me a sunny smile and thanked me.  I just told her, “Now, when you plan your Christmas vacation, you’d better plan on time to recuperate over the holidays.  I’ll get back to you with information.  Your plastic surgeon is probably going to want to meet with you before the operation, and he’ll have a couple scheduled times when he can fit your in over the holidays.  I’ll make sure of that.”

She peeked over at Shandy and smiled, “Ooh, thanks so much!  I can’t wait to surprise someone next term!”

I said, “I hope this works out well for you.  Just don’t go overboard on this.  You want to look like you, not like Pamela Anderson’s sister or something.”

She giggled a little, “Ick, I wouldn’t want anything like that.”

“Good,” I told her.  And I was relieved to hear it.  The last thing I wanted was Hillary’s oversized chest on my conscience.

I floated up through the tunnels and came out near the Quad.  Then I made sure I was all alone before I made a phone call.  It rang five times before it was answered.

“Hello?  Who is this?  This is an unlisted number!”

“Hi, Mrs. Hawkins, this is Ayla Goodkind.”

Her voice changed instantly.  “Ohh, AY-la!  What can I do for you?” she said venally.

I let her know, “There’s going to be a new powers testing report.  An addendum on the files for Phase.  It’s minor.  Would you please add it in, and also add in something new in the ‘Weaknesses’ section of my powers testing reports?”

“Of course, dear.  What would you like?”

I smiled as I told her, “I’d like a small piece that says: ‘weakness to dark chocolate administered orally, unknown causative factors, possible allergic or psychosomatic reaction, temporarily limits density-changing abilities’.  That’s all.”

I could hear the bamboozle over the phone.  “Weakness to dark chocolate administered orally?  You mean if you eat dark chocolate you lose your powers?  I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

I grinned, “Neither have I.  It’s not true.  But if anyone is looking at my records to figure out how to attack me, I'd like it on record that the easiest way to do it is to give me really nice desserts.”

“Oh!  I get it now!” she snickered.  “Give me the text once more please?”  After I gave it to her again, slowly enough that she could write it down, she said, “Got it.  I’ll keep a lookout for that report this week.  Now you take care, dear.”

I said, “Thank you.  And maybe next winter, you’ll want to take a vacation in the Bahamas or something.”  She really liked the sound of that.

I smiled the rest of the way back to Poe.

 

THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ

Oiler grumbled, “Well, we better make the most o’ this date, because we’re gonna be stuck in Freak House for the next couple weeks of prime dating times.  Why the hell did she have ta pick 7:30 ta 9:30 at night for our detentions?”

Fantastico rolled his eyes.  “Why d’ya think?  She damn well knew we cared more about after supper than before it!  I wanna know why the hell she thinks cleanin’ a bunch o’ toilets is a big deal.”

Oiler said, “Can’t be as bad as cleanin’ up oil riggin’ after a gusher gets capped, and I’ve done that for the last two summers.  Dad thinks ya can’t be a real oilman if you’ve never worked the wells.”

Fantastico agreed, “Yeah, and when you raise herds of cattle, there’s plenty of clean-up that makes toilets look pretty damn good.  Prissy bitch.  Probably has a maid ta clean her house and wouldn’t know one end of a toilet brush from the other.”

Oiler nodded.  “Well, we might as well enjoy the hell outta this date, and then figure out how ta get these chicks ta make time fer us in the afternoons fer the next two weeks.”

Fantastico shrugged, “It’ll work out.  You worry too much.”

Oiler gritted his teeth.  The F-man was a big, muscular stud with Exemplar 6 powers.  Babes just crawled all over guys like him.  The hotties weren’t interested in guys like Oiler when there were all these goddamn Exemplars strutting their stuff around Whateley.  Which was why he was taking out Flicker’s roommate tonight, instead of one of the school hotties.  Goddammit, next year he was going to be a college student at Texas A&M, and things would be different!

He walked into the Crystal Hall with Fantastico, and made for the tables where the Dickinson girls usually hung out.  That was where Flicker and her roomie were supposed to be, even though they were going to eat in a private room in Melville.  He figured the girls just wanted everyone to see who was taking them out for a lavish private banquet.

And there they were.  Flicker was sitting next to Fade, and across the table from Solange.  The usual ‘queen of the school and her minions’ deal.  Oiler wasn’t too keen on the freaks around Whateley, but even he thought Solange was one mean bitch to people, and for no fucking reason.  He figured there was a story in there somewhere, but knowing Solange, it was probably a ‘Dick and Jane’ reader for first-graders.

Oiler was ready to do the meet-and-greet bit and get the girls off to Melville.  But Fantastico suddenly stopped and stared in another direction.  The F-man’s hands curled up into fists that could punch a hole in a wall.  Oiler took a quick glance.

Oh holy fucking crap.  It was Phase.

“Not now, Bert!  We’ve got girls waitin’!  No paybacks on those bitches until we’re outta detention, right?”  But Fantastico was too busy being pissed off.  Which was probably going to be really bad.

The F-man growled, “Look at that little freak!  Laughin’ it up with her pals, got off scot free, and we got two fuckin’ weeks of Freak House bullshit!”

Oiler tried, “C’mon, there wasn’t any getting’ off scot free!  She didn’t do anything!  Someone set us up.  We could’a dropped outta the bidding and then it would be The Don or that snake-boy Thuban who’d be gettin’ detention.  We don’t like that little perv, but she didn’t do anything this time!”

Fantastico gritted his teeth.  He didn’t want to let the thing drop.  Not even for two weeks.  He wanted to get even with that freakjob right now.  He could…  He could use his heat vision and give that freak a burn that would last a hell of a lot longer than his detention.  He could…

He couldn’t do it and get away with it.  Not in the middle of the place, when his heat vision made flaring red beams that anyone could see, even from the side.  The powers geeks in the basement told him a bunch of garbage about what that meant, but all that it really mattered was people could tell when he used his heat vision.  And Carson would roast him if he got caught before detention was over.  He was going to have to come up with some way of fixing that freak with no witnesses.

 

AYLA

Vox was about to go join her pals, when she looked past me and tapped me on the shoulder.  “Ayla…”

I looked over.  And I instantly went heavy.

It was Fantastico, standing there with Oiler, the two of them dressed like they were going out somewhere fancy.  Maybe they had dates for the evening.  But Fantastico was looking at me like he wanted to storm over and rip my liver out.  His eyes were glowing a ferocious red, which could mean I was about to get a little flame-broiling from his infamous ‘heat vision’.

“Vanessa, take your food and get away.  Fast.  This A-hole might start a fight right here.  Or he may use an energy attack from way over there.  I want you a safe distance away.”

I didn’t know if being heavy would protect me from his heat vision, but I was pretty sure being light or being normal would be bad.

He spotted that I’d seen him, so he gave me the throat-cutting gesture, just to let me know that he was going to take care of me, sooner or later.  Preferable, later, with no witnesses.  Great.

Unfortunately, you can’t let bullies get away with crap like that.  If you don’t stand up for yourself, or your friends, or whatever the bully is targeting, he’ll keep attacking.  Things will just escalate out of control.

Okay, I was going to have to deal with this.  Right now, while we were in front of everyone.  Fortunately, I had a plan for something like this.

I stepped off to the side of the lunch line and asked Maria if she would get Chef Marcel for me.  Then, when he stepped out, I asked him for a bit of special food and one of those tacky plastic serving gloves.

Once I was prepared, I walked straight up to Fantastico and Oiler, with my hands casually behind my back.  “Hey.  F-word.  Oiler.  I want you guys to stop the war with me.  Or else.”

He looked around at all the witnesses, and grinned maliciously.  There was no way he was going to back down in front of a roomful of watchers.  As I was anticipating.  “And if I don’t, little girlie-boy?”

I smiled unpleasantly.  “You seem to be under the misapprehension that you have options, and that I don’t.  You can’t attack me without tipping your hand.  Your heat vision leaves really distinctive forensics.  Minefield’s trademark attack is just as distinctive, and Oiler can’t do anything without leaving unmistakable traces.  If you and your pals jump me, everyone will know it was you, and Carson will crush you like leetle teeny bugs.

“I, on the other hand, have dozens of options.  For starters, I have friends over at Hawthorne-”

“You would,” snarled Fantastico.

“-and I can make your two weeks a breeze.. or I can make it seem like hell on earth.  Your call.  Then, I have resources you can’t approach.  My mage can kick your mage’s ass without even trying.  My devisors already kicked your devisor’s ass.  My other contacts can stomp your fighters.  And if you really want to get down and dirty, I’ll bring in Tennyo.  In case you weren’t paying attention at Halloween, she’s invulnerable, she heals up from stuff that would kill you instantly, and she took out a couple Syndicate dropships before anyone else even had a chance to get up and help her!

“And those are just the obvious resources I can call on.  You think you have money and connections?  I’m a Goodkind.  To us, you’re a dirt-poor redneck.  I can wipe out your family’s business.  I can find out all your family’s major clients and pay them to switch to other beef producers.  I can get some U.S. Senators to take away your family’s business tax breaks.  I can get the Centers for Disease Control to announce that Walker Beef is a probable infection point for Mad Cow Disease in the continental United States: that alone would wipe your family out in weeks.  You so don’t realize who you’re fucking with.”

“Tough talk, bitch-boy.  I figure a freak like you can’t back up those threats,” he pushed.  I noticed that Oiler was doing his best to make the big goon shut up.

I smiled, “Do you remember the exact words I said to Roadrunner this afternoon?”  I could see by his expression that he did, but he didn’t see the point I was making.

I lazily swung my hand in a large arc, right at his face.  He reacted with his usual Exemplar speed.  But I had already gone light.  His ten or fifteen blocks, punches and kicks just passed right through me.

My hand moved right through his blocks and whisked through his face.  The moving finger, having writ, moved on.  I turned and walked away, acting as if I were ignoring him.

He didn’t have time to react to my diss before he screamed in pain.  “WAAAUUUGGHHH!!”  Stuff came flying out of his mouth, all over the Dickinson girls at the table in front of him.

“EEEEEEWWWWWW!!!”

“My hair!!”

“OHMYGOD!!”

“Ick!”

“What the fuck is wrong with you dude?”

“My blazer!”

“My soup!  He spit in my soup!”

“My eyes!  It’s burning my eyes!  You bastard!”

Before they could jump to their feet and start threatening him, he grabbed two of their drinks off the table and chugged both of them.

“AAAAGGHH!”  He screamed again, even as he leaned over the table, grabbed three more drinks, and guzzled them in turn.

“My diet Pepsi!  You prick!”

He sprinted to the next table, grabbed their drinks, and chugged them too.  Then he screamed again.  By then everyone at that table was ready to punch him as well.

But he was still moving.  And as an Exemplar 6, he could run pretty damn fast.  He sprinted at maybe sixty or seventy miles an hour right for the tiered, greenery-planted fountain in the middle of the room.  He buried his face in the lowest pool, right among the floating water plants.  You could still hear him screaming even with his head under the water.

I turned to Oiler and Flicker.  Oiler was still standing there in shock.  Flicker had jumped to her feet and was staring downward in horror.  Oiler looked mad enough to take a bite out of me.

I casually said to them, “Wow.  For a Texan, he’s not real good with spicy foods, is he?”

Flicker examined her elegant dress, now covered with spit-out shreds of yuck, and whined, “Oh my God, do you know how much the dry-cleaning on this dress is gonna be?”

I stared Oiler down and said, “I hope I made my point?”

He looked at Fantastico, who was still head-down in the fountain while everyone in the caff tried to get a better look at him.  “Yeah.  You made your point.”

“Good.  Because next time, I’ll be playing hardball.”

I turned to leave, just as Solange complained to someone else at the table, “THIS is why I never eat with you losers!”

I walked back to the cafeteria line, carefully inverting the kitchen glove as I peeled it off my hand.  I carefully said to Maria in Spanish, “Would you please put this in the trash for me?  Thank you.”  Then I strolled over to the Team Kimba table and casually sat down, making sure I touched Nikki’s crystal so the fake conversation – which was about dresses and skirts in the latest ‘Elle’ – would just stop.

Billie asked, “What the heck did you do to him?”

Jade just looked at me with big eyes and said, “Wow.”

Toni said, “Spill it, Ayles.  You're just dyin’ to tell us what can of whoop-ass you opened on F-face.”

You know what?  I’ve decided that Toni does that homegirl lingo bit with me just to yank my chain.  She doesn’t talk like that around Nikki.

I smirked, “You know I can phase through things and take things with me.”  I noticed that Jade suddenly clamped her legs together.  “I can also phase through things and leave stuff behind.  I asked a friend to give me one ounce of finely-minced habanero pepper.  Then I dropped it off in Fantastico’s mouth while he was trying to hit me.”

“Habanero pepper?” winced Fey.

“An OUNCE?” gasped Bugs.

“Jesus, Ayles.  Remind me not to get in a foodfight with you.”

 

THE ALPHAS

Don Sebastiano turned to Hekate and smirked, “Well my queen, you complained of a lack of entertainment.  Does this qualify?”

She smiled nastily, “It most certainly does.  And it happened to Fantastico, who has been an enormous nuisance.”  She paused and added, “I would be even happier if I knew what Phase did to him.  It’s not that simple to attack an Exemplar 6 with something that will actually cause damage.”

He smiled and hinted, “Yes, I remember.  Stormwolf.”

She frowned angrily.  She didn’t like to be reminded of her failures, and Stormwolf had been a large one.  She had expended a great deal of resources, made a substantial sacrifice to a minor demon to power the spell, and still nothing had happened to Adam Ironknife.  He should have been turned into an uncontrollable wolf-like monster that needed to be locked away.  Instead the spell had failed abysmally, and the backlash had disintegrated a valuable spellbook.  One she couldn’t afford to replace.

The Don turned to his lackey, “Cav, be a good lad and find out what Phase did.”

Cavalier faced the Team Kimba table and concentrated fiercely.  The Don went back to his crabcakes.

Hekate said, “Still, it was immensely entertaining to see the Good Ol’ Boyz get embarrassed in public.”

“Yes, Phase does seem to have a preference for the public strike in the Crystal Hall.  Remember the Yellow Queen?” Don Sebastiano replied.

Kodiak suddenly laughed so hard he nearly choked.  “Oh God.  Patty, running around screaming, with no panties on…  Goddamn, that was funny.”

Cavalier turned back to Don Sebastiano, “Sir, I can’t find out what you wanted.  Not at the moment, anyway.  They’re all talking about fashion magazines, and why the smallest one – Generator – should stop reading something called ‘Tiger Beat’.  It’s almost as if Phase’s effort with Fantastico is too inconsequential for them to think about.”

“They may not recognize that the Good Ol’ Boyz pose any sort of threat to them,” commented The Don.  “Most of them don’t appear to be very bright.”  Not that he cared.  Team Kimba was a bunch of bimbos.  They were certainly no threat to him, and that was all he cared about.  He had maneuvered Fantastico into over-bidding for what – according to Hartford – was a piece of worthless junk, and Fantastico had then proceeded to make several self-destructive moves in only a few days.

The prestige that the Good Ol’ Boyz had been accumulating was now lost.  He had agreements in effect with the New Olympians and most of the other real threats to his power base.  The Wild Pack was effectively hamstrung as long as everyone thought of them as ‘The Betas’.  The Capes and the Golden Kids weren’t interested in launching wars against him, given everyone’s reactions to the situation with Cav and Sky.  Don Sebastiano was content.

 

TWAIN BASEMENT

The spacious, high-ceilinged dining room was large enough to seat two hundred, even though the basement doorway to this dining room used to open onto a bare 10’x20’ storage room with a low ceiling.

Thuban leaned back in his armchair at the end of the table.  He looked at the huge monitor, which was currently showing scenes from the Crystal Hall.  He smiled slightly at the sight of Fantastico, whose face was still submerged in a pond full of water plants.  A Security officer was trying to talk to the Exemplar and find out if medical attention was needed.

Carapace looked over and grinned, “That Phase likes putting on a show at mealtimes, doesn’t she?”

“That she does, Dai my friend, that she does.”

Carapace smiled, “And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.  Except maybe Don Sebastiano.”

Thuban gloated, “Oh, this will be quite sufficient.  For now.”

 

THE GOOD OL’ BOYZ

Oiler trudged over to the table where Minefield was arguing with a couple other members of the A-Team.  Minefield got up when he saw Oiler coming, even though one of the girls at the table loudly said, “Oh yeah, just run off when you can’t admit that I’m right about the Battle of Missionary Ridge!  Loser!”

Minefield pointedly ignored the girl, and caught up with Oiler.  They walked out of the cafeteria and into an empty hallway.

Minefield asked, “I take it yer date is down the crapper?”

“Oh yeah,” mourned Oiler.  “It wasn’t like she was Poise or sumpthin’, but she was still pretty cute, and you damn well know as soon as Flicker put out for the F-man, I was gonna get some too!”

Minefield shrugged, “I think we have bigger concerns than one date.”

Oiler growled, “Me too.  I think Bert’s big moves over the last couple days have screwed us but good.  Everybody knows we fucked up bigtime and Carson slapped us all with major detentions at Freak House.  Now everyone saw the Big F get one-punched by a freshman girly-boy weirdo.  Our rep is down the crapper, just like my date.

“And…” Minefield prompted.

“And we’ve got to get back up on top of the heap, man.  Startin’ with paybacks.  We’ll have to postpone it ‘til Winter or Spring term, but I want that bitch-boy Phase taken care of.  Revise our shitlist.  Phase is now officially Number One.  With a bullet.”

Minefield nodded.  Oiler had to be really pissed off.  It was pretty rare to move someone up past Don Sebastiano, Thuban, Jimmy T, Razorback, all the Bad Seeds, Imperious, and the couple dozen other students who had been ahead of Phase on that list.

What the hell.  He hadn’t had a chance to plan a full-sized campaign against a real, live target since last spring.  That bitch wouldn’t know what hit her.

 

THE INTELLIGENCE CADET CORPS

A-Plus watched as the Security officer led a still-gasping, red-faced Fantastico off to the clinic.  She tilted her head slightly toward the Team Kimba table, where most of the froshes were getting ready to leave.  “Ace, I think this is our optimal time.”

He nodded slightly.  “Yeah.  I just hate apologizing.”

She muttered, “I just hate having something to apologize for.”

Ace stood up and stomped off in what A-Plus privately thought of as his man-with-no-name-in-a-gunfight stride.

They caught up with Phase and Bladedancer and Chaka, just as the Kimbas were leaving the Crystal Hall.  Ace growled, “Phase.  Can we talk for a minute?”

Phase looked at him as if she were some sort of royalty, and he was some minor minion she was going to have to chastise.  She calmly said, “Of course.  Why don’t you talk with me while we walk back to Poe.  And anything you have to say to me you can say in front of Bladedancer and Chaka.  Particularly after your introduction to Bladedancer last night.”

Chaka snickered unsympathetically, “Yeah.  I heard she introduced you to her foot.  And her sword.”

Phase regally added, “Chaka?  This is Ace and A-Plus of the.. Intelligence Cadet Corps.  Ace?  A-Plus?  This is Chaka.. who you’ve probably read about in dozens of Security reports.”

Chaka stopped whatever she was about to say to Ace, and turned back to Phase.  “Hey!”

Bladedancer quietly said to the Cadets, “I already told Phase all about last night, including the meeting at Kane Hall and my decision not to press charges.”

Chaka glanced at Phase and added, “Of course.”

Whatever the joke was, Phase ignored it.  She said, “Bladedancer and I briefed most of the team.  So there’s little you can say that these two don’t know about.”

A-Plus tried to use her powers to get a handle on these three, but all she could pick up was Phase’s financial gifts, and a weird feeling like her martial arts skills were suddenly a dozen times smoother.  That did make sense, given that Chaka was down as a Ki controller and martial arts whiz.

Ace admitted, “We came over to apologize.  We were so caught up in tracking the Masterminds and catching them that we didn’t think about what could happen to you if we failed.  We think they scanned the hard drive on your Whateley laptop.  And they probably left some sort of virus on your machine, too.  You’ll probably need to re-install everything.  We can have Kew do that for you, if you’d like.”

A-Plus turned to Bladedancer and said, “And we really are sorry about.. last night.  I guess you can defend yourself, but if your friend Gateway hadn’t been able to summon that giant panther thing…  I was wearing body armor, and I’ve still got dinner-plate-sized bruises from that thing.”

Phase blithely shrugged and said, “I’m good.  The laptop is fine.  I’m keeping it untouched.”

A-Plus stared at the little frosh.  Didn’t she realize the threat that viral software posed on a system that had a wireless network connection?

But A-Plus could feel through her clairvoyant power that this was something Phase knew about.  Financial abilities and political skills and…  She gasped, “You’re keeping it that way to get at the Masterminds!  They didn’t set you up…  You set them up!”

Phase merely shrugged.  “Not explicitly.  I just gave a determined thief reasons to believe the laptop was worth hitting, and I put enough security on it to make it look desirable.  I didn’t know it would be the Masterminds who tried for it.”

“Lemme guess,” Chaka grinned.  “You were hoping the Alphas would make a run at it.”

Phase shrugged again.  “Them, Thuban’s people, the 733t Phreaks, some of the groups our friends have run up against…  I had a list of over two dozen possibles.  One of them was bound to try an ‘Ethan Hunt’ on it, sooner or later.”

A-Plus just stared at the kid.  Maybe those Goodkinds really were different.  Because it sounded like the kid was already playing up at the pro levels.  Maybe that’s what she was doing with She-Beast.  Divvying up the turf, or working out some sort of détente between the Goodkinds and Dr. Diabolik.  Okay, A-Plus wasn’t asking Phase or She-Beast.  They’d found out that She-Beast was out of their league, and they didn't need another major humiliation so soon after this latest little fiasco.

Phase said, “I appreciate the apology, but it wasn’t really necessary.  I understand how Black Ops work.  You couldn’t risk tipping off the perps by letting the mark know what was going on.  Don’t worry about it.  Just remember next time that I know how the game gets played.  Find a secure way of tipping me off, and I can re-direct the perps into your hands.”

Ace and A-Plus stopped as the three girls made their way off to Poe cottage.  Ace finally said, “Maybe we made a mistake when we told her we weren’t interested in working for her.”

A-Plus admitted, “I thought you were wrong then, but now I’m thinking you made the right call.  Can you imagine what it would be like, not knowing whether your boss was setting you up for a fall, just because it helped her with some exotic Xanatos Gambit or something?”

Ace muttered, “It was bad enough living with She-Beast around here.  Now we’ve got another major player, and we still haven’t figured out how to stop the Masterminds.  We have got to step up our game.”

A-Plus turned to walk back to her dorm.  Once upon a time, having a quiet nighttime stroll with Ace would have been romantic.  Now, after that bitch Sahar, it was just tense and embarrassing.  She sighed, “I don’t know.  I feel like I was just dismissed by the Queen of England.  Maybe the Goodkinds really are different from you and me.”

Ace quoted, “They are.  They have more money.”

 

Monday, December 4, 7:30 am

THE MASTERMINDS

Hazard split from her friends when she felt the twinges in the probabilities.  Something was about to happen, and it seemed to be centered around Stopwatch.  Which could mean bad things for the rest of the Masterminds.

She strolled over to the table where Stopwatch was having breakfast with several other devisers.  She looked at his face and smiled, “Hey ‘Watch?  Why so smug?”

He couldn’t keep the smirk off his face.  “Oh, nothing.  Just a little business deal.”

She hinted, “Okay, I just wanted to give you a heads-up, because I.. noticed something flaky.”  She knew he was just going to tell her to bugger off.

His watch beeped, and he looked down at the tiny text scrolling across its rectangular face.  “No.  Oh no.  Oh no no no!!”  By then, his face was ashen.  He jumped to his feet and sprinted away.

As she left, she heard one of the other devisers saying, “See?  I told you about Halloween when she was the DJ, didn’t I?  If Hazard tells you something’s going to happen, for God’s sake listen!”

“Like I’d ignore anything a hottie like her said to me…”

She rolled her eyes and went looking for Memo and Risk.  Maybe she could get something useful done today.

 

Monday, December 4, 8:30 pm

THE CLINIC: LONG-TERM CARE, ROOM 417

Security officer Derek R. Johnson packed his bag and prepared to leave room 417.  He’d been there for long enough that he knew every single hole on every single acoustic tile in the entire damn ceiling.

Okay, he’d needed months of recovery time.  The docs told him he was lucky he survived walking into The Grove, and he was even more lucky he’d retained his sanity.  He wasn’t making that mistake again.

Running up against something like The Grove was one thing.  Missing out on a war against Tiger Guards, Sabretooths, and a fleet of dropships?  That was something else.  There were a couple Security guys in the rooms next to his who were never walking out of this place again, unless they opted for the Robocop solution.  Morrison had lost pretty much everything from the bottom of his ribs down, and was going to be on a dozen different machines for the rest of his life.  That cute little number McGraw from squad two?  God, now her face looked like…  Well, it was pretty clear those Tiger Guards were using MilSpec flechette grenades, the bastards.  The stories they told made him wish he’d been able to help.  He didn’t like the gene filth who were students here, but his fellow officers…  That was different.  He felt like he’d let the platoon down, even if he’d been restricted to his room and on heavy doses of Thorazine back then.  He hadn’t even known a war was going on until the next morning when new patients had been brought into his area.

He didn’t know what he was going to do.  His platoon were all pissed off at him over the Tennyo incidents, especially the Grove thing.  That one was a clear violation of Security protocols.  At least they didn’t know he’d been angling for a quick headshot on the freaky-looking bitch.  But he couldn’t just transfer out of Whateley.  He had a real job to do.  Assuming Delarose didn’t shitcan him now that he was on his feet again…

When the kid walked right through the far wall, Johnson instinctively went for his sidearm.  Even though he wasn’t wearing one.

But the kid didn’t do what he expected.  He was figuring she’d attack him, or do a spell on him, or something.  Instead, she crossed her arms and stared at him.  “Officer Derek Johnson.  I have something to say to you, and I want you to listen closely.”

He was still edging back toward the bed, where he might be able to bust the nightstand over this mutie’s head and get some help before the mutie fragged him.

The kid said, “Domino Overlord Seven Nine Alpha.”

Holy shit!  Johnson practically yelled at the kid, “What the hell?  You?  YOU’RE my contact?”

Now that he wasn’t expecting to be attacked, he took more time to study the girl.  Pretty fucking hot for fourteen, and she acted like she didn’t care.  She had a petite build with a tiny waist and what was probably an awesome ass.  She was only around five feet tall, but if she was five-foot-ten instead of five-foot-nothing, she’d be a runway model.  Especially with that face.  She had a gorgeous, heart-shaped face with high cheekbones and big green eyes and a Cupid’s bow mouth that had him thinking completely inappropriate thoughts.  She was gonna grow up to be a real heartbreaker.

She was probably some kind of Exemplar freak.

So how could some little underage bit of gene filth be his contact to his Humanity First! handlers?

She frowned and gave him a glare like some five-star general or something.  “Keep it down, Johnson!  I made sure the bug in your room is out of action for a bit, but we still don’t want everyone on the floor to hear this.

"Bug?" he wondered out loud.

The girl stared at him like he was stupid.  "Of course, a bug.  Security is onto you now.  You nearly ruined everything with that stupid crap with Tennyo.  You have no idea how much money I had to spend to fix that."

Money?  Humanity First! connections?  Wait a minute…

“You’re the Goodkind chick,” he guessed.  “Everyone in Security’s been trying to figure out if you’re for real or not.”

She nodded regally.  “That’s me.  Phase.  Ayla Goodkind.  I’m not your handler.  Your handler has enough sense not to be within fifteen miles of a place where psychics and mages can pick up your thoughts without even trying.  You obviously don’t have that much sense, because you’re letting your H-One thoughts out all the time.

“Now.  I’m a Goodkind.  But I manifested over the summer.  So I'm undercover here.  That’s how I have enough information to know your handler's countersign.  But you’re about to ruin months of hard work by half a dozen dedicated Humanity First! workers.  And you're about to ruin one of my best potential assets with this stupid vendetta you have for Tennyo.

“So let me tell you what you’re going to do.  First, you will copy me on all reports to your contacts.  You will NOT break security and tell me anything about them, or tell them anything about me.  I will provide emergency support for you or external contact to H1, but only if you absolutely need it.

“Next, you will avoid Tennyo at all costs.  She's Regen 7+, so you couldn't kill her with anything short of a nuclear bomb anyway.  And you will become the perfect security officer from now on!  No disruptions.  No disobedience.  No appearance of misbehavior.  No comments around students or around other Security officers.  You will never get promoted to a position of responsibility unless you do these things!  Your contacts will tell you the same things. They should have already done so - repeatedly.  Humanity First! needs you to play the 'good soldier' here.  If you screw up again, it might take YEARS to get a new H1 agent in place.  Do you understand me?"

The last sentence made him feel like he was back at boot camp.  He instinctively said, "Yes ma'am."

She nodded tersely.  "Then get out there and make Delarose think you're promotion material.  Tell everyone that you learned from your mistakes.  And no more even thinking H1 thoughts around here, except when you're writing reports way off-site.  Don’t even broach the subject to your squadmates."

"Yes ma'am."

She paused in thought.  "All right.  Do you need any support or logistics right now?"  He shook his head no.  "Then we never had this conversation.  If you see me on campus, you will not reveal that you know me.  Got it?"  He nodded his head yes.

She said, “Good.  I’ve made an effort to clear up all the bad paper on you.  Third platoon is malleable that way, if you have enough ready cash.  But don’t count on my pulling your ass out of the fire next time.  If you keep screwing up, I’ll recommend that you be terminated with extreme prejudice, and a new undercover operative be brought in.  Got it?”

He gulped and slowly nodded his understanding.  He watched as the girl turned and walked through the wall like she was a ghost.

“Damn!”  He wasn’t sure he could get used to the idea of an undercover mutant.

 

SERGEANT BUXTON

Clay Buxton put down the headphones just as the Goodkind kid walked through the wall into the room.  He looked over at Lieutenant Trout and grinned wickedly, “I think you just got yourself a hardworking officer for your platoon.”  Trout grinned back.

The kid looked at him and asked, “Do we have a deal now?”

“We do.”  He still wasn’t a hundred percent sure on the kid, but he figured he had more reason to trust her than he did some of his regular ‘trading partners’.  Still, it would make him feel better about her if she’d stop standing there with that attitude she had.  That pompous ‘I know best and I deserve to be running things’ attitude that he tended to associate with people like Elizabeth Carson and Lord Paramount.

She put out one small hand and said, “Good.”  He shook her hand.  He was a big man who had trained hard for decades, but her records said she was an Exemplar 3, so he didn’t bother to give her one of those dainty little handshakes he was supposed to give girls back when he was a kid.  It was just as well, because she had a grip like a trash compactor.  Well, he wasn’t running things around here because he could out-wrestle these kids; it was because he could out-maneuver them.

Right.  It was time to start out-maneuvering this one.  He’d pissed her off with that ‘Springfield Slasher’ disinformation stunt.  That had backfired seriously.  But he had a way to start patching that up.  His guys were right.  The kind of money a Goodkind had to sling around was way too important to lose.  So, a big show of ‘honest trading’, and he’d have her back where he wanted her.  He gave her his most sincere look and said, “Phase, look, I’m sorry about the Springfield Slasher business, but we had to check you out.  So I’ve got some intel for you.  For free.”

“I’m not restoring the original amounts I offered,” the kid insisted.

“That’s fine,” he pretended to agree.  “And I’m not asking you to pay for this either.  It’s sort of a peace offering.”

“Okay…” the kid agreed cautiously.

“The police didn’t get anywhere with the Springfield Slasher crimes because they didn’t know what the hell to do with the evidence they found.  I have some contacts who aren’t exactly.. kosher.  And they said the cops - and the FBI and the private investigators the Goodkinds forced on the cops - were all stymied because the crime scenes weren’t ordinary crime scenes.  They were actually pretty nasty magical rites.  Some kind of theurgy or necromancy - you know what that means?”  The kid nodded calmly.  “And my contacts tell me that all the killings occurred within 21 days of the summer solstice, in a ritual pattern, so the killer probably got the boon he was after and left town.  They figure he wasn’t local anyway, he was just using Springfield like a big G-Mart for dark mages.  You drive over there, get the fancy stuff you wanted at a big discount, then you’re gone again.  So, whoever he was, he had a lot of training in really nasty magical rites, he wasn’t from Springfield but he was from somewhere that was easy access from Springfield, and he won’t be back.  My contacts are waiting to see if the same ritual patterns pop up in some other city sometime soon.”

The kid just stood there and thought it over without giving anything away.  He wondered if she’d be tough in a poker game.  People claimed that Goodkinds were trained from the cradle to be ruthless businessmen.  It sure looked like there was more truth to that rumor than he really wanted to have to deal with.  Especially for the next four years.

Finally, she asked, “Was there a specific connection to the Goodkinds, or could the Goodkind victim have been random?”

Buxton shrugged, “I did think about that, but no one had any idea.  The Goodkind investigators didn’t turn anything up, and you know they were going over that crime scene with a fine-toothed comb.”

The kid just nodded.

Buxton checked, “Anything else, before you leave?”

She thought for a second and finally asked, “How did you have the countersign for Johnson’s handler?  It made convincing him really easy.”

Buxton grinned like a shark.  “Johnson’s been pretty well trained in this.. somewhere…  But his handler slipped up after Johnson went into the hospital and missed his next three regular reporting times.”

The kid nodded, then simply sank into the floor.  It was like watching a magic show.  He was going to have to think about how to block a density changer like her.  Well, he had plenty of resources a kid like her had no idea about.  First, he’d check her powers testing results and read the Security reports on her…

 

Tuesday, December 5

AYLA

While breakfast hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary, lunch was marvelous.  Chef André had a striking salad of baby greens topped with perfectly poached sea scallops in a warm vinaigrette of ginger, shallots, and garlic.  That was topped with some slivered peppermint leaves that gave the sautéed ginger a tangy sweetness that offset the crisp tang of the baby mustard greens and radicchio in the salad.

I was still thinking about lunch as I walked toward aikido class.  That was why Stopwatch got so close before I spotted him.

As soon as I looked his way, he waved his arms and yelped, “Phase!  Wait!  Please!”  He even ran over, and believe me, he didn’t have the build of a sprinter.  Or the endurance.

I slowed down a bit, but I was not about to show up late to Basic Martial Arts and have to deal with Sensei Ito’s punishment for tardiness.  Whatever that might be for today.  Maybe having to spar with Tolman, or something even worse.

Stopwatch caught up, although he was nearly panting too much to speak.  “Wait.. up…  I.. need.. your.. help…  It’s.. the.. it’s.. your.. web.. ser-.. service…”

“You stole the plans off my laptop, and implemented them,” I said flatly.

He froze.  Or rather, he tried to freeze, but he was still trying to get out of oxygen debt.  Finally, he panted, “I’d.. rather not.. discuss that.”

“Well, you’re going to have to,” I pressed.  “I’ve already bailed out your sorry butt before.  Remember Boston?”

He nodded unhappily while he tried to recover from his little sprint.

I kept walking as I told him, “If you want me to save your ass on this one, you’re going to have to give.  First, you’re going to set up a meeting between me and all the Masterminds.  This afternoon.  At 4:45, in your secret lair.  You’ll meet me outside Mrs. Bell’s sixth-period trig class and escort me there personally.  Then I’ll tell you how I’ll solve your problem, and I’ll tell you what you’ll do for me in return.”

He glared at the ground for a minute as we walked along.  Finally, as I was walking into class, he folded.  “Agreed,” he fumed unhappily.

I figured he’d try something that afternoon.  At a minimum, he’d substitute a back-up meeting room.  But I didn’t really care about that.  I’d just thrown that out as a red herring.  As long as he didn’t try to bushwhack me, I was good.  And if he did try something, he was going to be in for a nasty surprise, because I knew who he could throw at me, and I was going to be heavily armed.

 

Tuesday, December 5, 4:39.475 pm EDT

STOPWATCH

He arrived outside Phase’s trig class at precisely the computed time.  It was important to regain the leverage that he had lost at lunchtime.  He had been so panicked by the emails he had received that he had let Phase take the initiative.  So he had spent most of fourth period computing strategies to compensate.

This was precisely the optimal time to meet with Phase.  Not so early that Phase would still feel in control, and yet not so late that Phase would begin getting defensive.  Then he would take Phase to the meeting site by a roundabout route, past a carefully-prepared chemistry lab.  Phase was known to have a very sensitive palate, so a timed release of concentrated butanoic acid ought to upset her stomach and make her feel queasy.  Then he’d lead Phase to a false ‘meeting room’ so she wouldn’t know the real location of their current lair.

And, just in case, Dash would be there powering up, so he would be ready in case Phase wanted to try anything other than talk.  And, in case of real emergency, Stopwatch had his secret mutant power that he could use on Phase.  The meeting would be just himself, Phase, and Dash.  He’d tell her that the rest of the team had refused to meet with her, or had been too busy with other things.  Which wasn’t true.  He actually had all the other Masterminds meeting at their real lair not too far away, just to keep them out of his hair.  He had several options arranged, so that if he needed a diversion or a secondary assault or one of several other tactics, a press of a button on his watch would give them the information on the projector in the room, and they would follow his orders.

Still, he didn’t want Haywire at this meeting; the guy liked Phase.  For some stupid reason, Haywire thought she was being nice and taking it easy on him in aikido class.  He didn’t want Jello at the meeting, because Jello thought Phase was some sort of hero, after that problem with Spoof’s manifestations.  So that meant he didn’t want Heartbreaker, because she’d side with Jello automatically.  And he definitely didn’t want Hazard at this meeting, because…  Well, because he’d rather stab a fork into his hand than have Hazard see how badly he’d screwed up.

But he had to get Phase to help him out.  The threatening email yesterday from Crucible was bad enough.  Crucible, for God’s sake!  But since then there had been 47 other threatening emails from around the globe.  Most of them were from supervillains dangerous enough to make the Halloween battle at Whateley look like Guy Fawkes Day.

He looked around the hallway.  No Phase anywhere.

He looked into the classroom.  She wasn’t there either.  Had she just left without meeting him?

Suddenly he realize that two tall women were looming over him.  He looked up and found that he was staring into the faces of Unicorn and Electrode.  He gulped.

Unicorn put out her hand and said, “You must be Stopwatch.  I’m Unicorn.  How do you do?”

He nervously shook hands with her…  “OWW!  BUGGER!”  He yanked his hand back and cradled it gingerly.

“Oh, sorry,” the big blonde said.  “I’m a PK brick you know, and sometimes I apply a little too much pressure without meaning to.  Are you okay?”

“Fine.  I’m just fine,” he grumbled.

The brunette smiled, “Oh.  Phase wanted me to give you something.  She lifted up a hand, apparently wrapped around a piece of paper.

He reached out.. and thought twice about it.  His hand was still killing him.  He held out his left hand instead.

Electrode stared at his wrist.  “Ooh!  What a gorgeous looking watch!”  She reached out and tilted it slightly between her thumb and forefinger so she could see the watch’s face better.

“OOWW!” Stopwatch yelped, as a wicked spark shocked him.  Damn these Energizers who didn’t bother to control their powers!  She was worse than Haywire!

“Oh, I’m really sorry,” Electrode insisted.  “I didn’t mean to.  You’re just having the worst day, aren’t you?  Well here, it’s the note from Phase.”

He took the note and carefully opened it, his right hand throbbing wretchedly and his left wrist still stinging from that spark.  The note said:

Niles, old boy, I spotted Haywire running past, so I’ll just follow him to the meeting room.  See you there.  Phase

“BUGGER!” he cursed.  Haywire was going to the real room, not the one Phase was supposed to go to!  This was a monumental disaster!

He sprinted out of the room and signaled for Plan J to get everyone out of the real lair, and to re-direct Haywire.

Nothing happened.  He checked his watch.  The display was blank.  The functions around the display were all off-line.  The diagnostic system was off-line.  Nothing was working!

His heart sank.  That stupid shock from that Poe nutcase Electrode.  She had fried his watch!  And he’d just spend hours repairing it after Hazard damaged it a couple days ago!

And since his watch was his comm system too, he was in serious trouble.  He ran as fast as he could for the closest elevator.  Once he got down into the tunnels, he might even have to use his secret power…

 

ELECTRODE

“Well, that was fun,” smiled Unicorn.

Electrode grinned back, “I’ve had to put up with that little weasel and his creepy Mastermind pals before, so I really enjoyed that.”

Unicorn asked, “So, how much wattage did you put through his wristwatch?”

Electrode grinned, “Phase figured it was probably ruggedized, so I put enough of a charge between my fingers to melt a steel rod.”

Unicorn snickered and said, “Come on, I want to tell a couple friends about this one.  You’re not the only one who’s wanted to get even with the Masterminds.”

 

AYLA

I stepped out of the lockers once Stopwatch had rushed past.  I wasn’t too worried about him getting ahead of me, since he was going to have to stop and wait for an elevator down, and I could sink through the floor to get ahead of him again.

I had made a couple guesses, and it looked like they were panning out.  I was pretty sure Stopwatch would show up late to try to regain control of our interaction.  It was pretty straightforward Politics 102.  And I was also reasonably certain he would try to have a meeting with as few of his fellow Masterminds around as he could manage.  No one wants to admit in front of their team that they screwed up in a major-league way.  Especially not a control freak like Stopwatch who’s supposed to be the Big Cheese who runs the team.  Well, that was why I had dangled such a juicy plum in front of him - or whoever finally got around to looting my laptop.

And I had been pretty pleased that Brenda and Jackie had wanted to do the physical part with Stopwatch - apparently, Stopwatch and his gang weren’t making friends with anyone, not even the ninjas and the Bad Seeds.  I was sorry I hadn’t gotten to watch that bit, but I was pretty sure Jackie would want to tell most of Poe about it, so I’d hear it all later.

I casually followed Stopwatch down the hall, and floated down through the floor while he waited for the elevator with an expression that I would have characterized as ‘epic levels of frustration’.

 

STOPWATCH

He was frantic enough that he finally resorted to using his Warper power, which no one at Whateley - except Hazard - even knew about.  Once the elevator reached the right level, and he checked that no one was in sight, he focused.

When little Niles Ridgely had manifested as a mutant, his memorization and detail-tracking abilities had gone up.  But the best part was his time control.  He could dilate or compress time locally.  He could make his own personal time run faster or slower than the world around him, and he could even hit nearby people with the same effect.  He’d had great success in using it in his capers, until that bloody Scotland Yarder had trapped him using his own time dilation talent.  Ever since then, Niles had been rigid about not using his Warper power in any capers.  He had saved it for emergencies.  And this was an emergency.

He sped up his own personal time, so that he could run down the hall at what would look like ten times his normal speed to an outsider.

He rushed to the secret door into their meeting room, and operated the biometric sensor that was disguised as an ordinary junction box.  It looked as though nothing had happened, but that was what was supposed to occur.  The secret door swung inward, while a holographic projector made it look like the wall was still solid.  He stepped through the hologram into the room.

Hazard was lazily sprawled in Stopwatch’s personal armchair at the head of the table.  Heartbreaker was chatting with Jello about something that was making Jello smile.  Haywire was playing with a box of paperclips, using his powers to make them stick to each other so he could make a little sculpture.  Hazard looked over at him and casually drawled, “I thought you were supposed to be meeting Phase in your fake lair while we prepped for a big rescue.”

He rolled his eyes.  “Yes.  BUT Haywire walked past Phase’s classroom window on the way here, and Phase decided to follow him instead.”

Haywire looked up from his paperclip man in surprise.  “No, I didn’t.  I took the tunnels.  I didn’t go anywhere near the classroom buildings.”

Stopwatch froze.  Haywire was obviously telling the truth.  The guy was a lousy liar.  And he was surprised enough to lose his concentration, because his stupid sculpture was falling apart.  Which meant…

Phase’s note was a con.  Which meant the scene with Unicorn and Electrode was a set-up.  Which meant that they had deliberately hurt his right hand so he would extend his left hand, all so Electrode could fry his 48-function watch.  Which meant that Phase had planned to disrupt his communications.  Which meant that Phase had probably followed Stopwatch right to the secret lair, even with the time compression trick.  Which meant…

Stopwatch looked at the amusement in Hazard’s eyes.  He slapped his hand to his face and groaned, “Phase, you might as well come in the rest of the way.”

He turned around, to see Phase casually strolling through the wall.  He gritted his teeth as he realized that he had led the girl right to their secret lair.  He ground his molars as he thought about all the other Masterminds seeing it happen.  Bloody hell.  Hazard was never going to let him live this one down.

Phase casually strolled around the room, looking at the kitchenette and the computer systems.  At least she wasn’t gloating.  She was just acting as if she owned the place.. or was at least considering taking out a lease.  That irritating Goodkind “we own much of the planet and if we don’t own you it’s only because you aren’t worth our time or investment” attitude.  He just wished he could knock the expression off her face.  Not that he could, when she was an Exemplar 3 who could become dense enough to fight Lancer.  Haywire had told him all about that particular aikido class.

Phase turned to him and asked, “I take it this isn’t the room you let the Spy Kidz find?  That was really quite ingenious.  Did you get video footage of what happened outside Poe Saturday night?”

Heartbreaker put in, “We ought to try.  Lifeline was still griping about it last night.”

Stopwatch frowned a little.  At least Phase was being nice about things.  So far.  And he knew where Lifeline had seen Heartbreaker.  It had to be the regular ‘Models Inc.’ meeting.

“Here, let me show you,” Phase reached inside her blazer and pulled out a small videocamera that couldn’t possibly have fit in there.

Oh.  Right.  Haywire had talked about the weapons Phase pulled out from under her gi.  And Möbius had been talking about the backer he had who talked him into raising his prices more than an order of magnitude before the Weapons Fair.  So the backer was Phase, the Goodkind.  And Phase was subtly pointing out that she might be standing there with enough weaponry to take out the Wild Pack.  That automatically invalidated Plans C, F, and I, as well as Plans N through P.  He was really getting to dislike this bint.  And he still had to get her to help him out.. only now it would have to be in front of the entire team.

Phase idly strolled over to one of the computers, pulled out a USB cable, and plugged her videocamera into the computer.  She clicked on a couple icons, and the projector began showing the video feed against the far wall.  Stopwatch stared in horror.

“We need to get our gear prepared first.  Haywire, you need to take out the electromagnetic alarm without setting it off, so get started.  I’ve got a magical charm that’s supposed to block Fey’s amulet.  My source said Fey would be limited in what she could put in a locker because of the stuff people might have in other lockers around here.  And some people who won’t be mentioned - but their codenames sound like ‘Muh-West-Ick’ - walk around throwing off magical effects just to show off.  Haz, are you picking anything else up?”

“Yeah.  There’s.. something.”

“Another security system?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Something else?”

“Yeah.  I think it’s something outside the locker.”

“Something big?”

“No.  It doesn’t seem that threatening.  Way smaller than Halloween…  Smaller than a bust by Security.  Even smaller than the rumble with the Star League Juniors.  I can’t pin it down.”

“Just keep checking on it.”

Phase drawled casually, “Oh dear, it appears to be one of my many copies of your team committing B & E.  And, since I already listed the files on my computer as being worth more than $200 in intellectual properties, that makes this also grand larceny.  Plus all the criminal acts involved in downloading illegal software onto a computer for purposes of future theft of services and/or theft of intellectual properties.  Tsk, tsk, tsk.  By the way, afterward I made sure to preserve the exact state of the files on my laptop, so Security has some lovely evidence to show to Carson.  If need be.”

Hazard muttered, “I knew I felt something.”

Phase just tilted her head.  “Indeed you did.  If I hadn’t been standing in the lockers across the hall filming the whole thing, your probability warping powers would have sufficed.  I had to re-start the videocamera two different times during your little heist.”

Haywire asked, “Are you blackmailing us?”

Stopwatch just stared at Haywire.  How could anyone be so stupid as to not understand exactly what Phase was doing?

Phase just smirked, “I believe this is where I’m supposed to say ‘blackmail is such an ugly word’.  But I already did a joke about that this week, so let’s pretend the issue never came up.”

She turned to face Stopwatch.  “Now Niles, I know you don’t want to discuss this, but I really think it’s time you tell the entire room about your little venture into e-commerce.  You know, the one using my business plan that you looted off my hard drive.”

Hazard smirked wickedly, “Niles?

He wondered where she’d found out what his first name was.  He never used it anymore.  Oh well, there was no dodging it any longer.

He grumbled, “I didn’t tell anyone, but I also lifted a business plan off Phase’s computer.  It had all the details - including some very well-designed C code - for a web-spider that would go out and index all those mutant-only webpages that you can’t find without already knowing their IP addresses.  The business plan projected a $300,000 (American) profit in the first year alone.  And the risks listed were quite minor.”

Phase interrupted, “Of course, that was because I deliberately left off the two major risks.”

Stopwatch glared at the girl and sighed.  “Yes.  Quite.  I’ve already found the first one.  In spades.  Every supervillain I uncovered with that web-spider wants to rip my bowels out and make me eat them.”

Phase smirked, “The superheroes you find won’t be happy with you, either.  That could eventually be a bigger problem, even if they’re unlikely to take direct action, like those supervillains.”

Stopwatch grimaced, “I also got a very nasty email from the Cataclysm Fan Club, which has a hidden website too.”

Phase added, “So you asked me to a meeting to persuade me to pull your fat out of the fire.  And you completely ignored the fact that I and my team saved your asses in Boston just a couple months ago."

Jello piped up, “That was you?”

“Yes,” Phase blithely replied, as if taking on The Necromancer and the Children of the Night was something Team Kimba did weekly, just for fun.

“Thanks!” chirped Jello.

“You’re welcome, Eleanor,” smiled Phase with a gallant tilt of her head.

Stopwatch stared in frustration as Jello blushed with pleasure.  What difference did it matter if Phase knew Jello’s real name, and used it as if they were pals?  Obviously, it mattered to Jello.

Haywire said, “Yeah.  Thanks.  Those bastards left us to die.”

Phase nodded, “Well, all of them do have Murder One wants.  They play for keeps.  It’s not like you were up against the Whitman Lit Chicks.”

Heartbreaker asked, “But Team Kimba beat all of them?  We were really beaten up pretty bad, and I don’t think any of you had a scratch!”

Phase shrugged and said, “Fortunately for us, the only people who took real damage can heal up quickly.  Carmilla got ripped in half.. but you can’t kill her that easily.”

Stopwatch admitted, “It was fairly obvious from the newspapers who was involved.  They had telephoto shots of Fey and Tennyo and Shroud on the front page of the Boston Globe.”

Phase just smirked.

Hazard dropped into her plummiest tones, “And so you showed us that video footage and set up a little entrapment for Stopwatch, for the express purpose of…?”

Phase smiled broadly, “Why, so we could all become friends, of course.  I can do things for you, and you can do things for me.  That’s what friends do, right?  And I’ve already done things for you.  For instance, I got the Wild Pack out of the way Saturday night by setting off a false alarm at Thunderfox’s devisor bay.  I used a timer on a small devise from a friend of mine.  Wasn’t that thoughtful of me?”

Stopwatch gritted his teeth to keep from cursing.  Phase had really wanted him - or at least someone - to get away with the theft and stick their neck into that ‘web spider’ snare.  He growled, “And now you want…”

Phase waved him off.  “Oh, don’t worry about that.  First, I’m going to rescue you.  I’ll take the website off your hands and turn it over to some people who can handle the unpleasant problems you’re having with the ‘public relations’ side of the business.  You can continue to host the spider site, and I’ll pay you a reasonable amount for your hosting services, assuming they’re entirely legal.”

Stopwatch just glared at her.  She knew damn well that he didn’t have the money to have that much computing power lying around.  She had to know he had hacked a site to get the web spider resources.

She clamly continued, “Next, the Masterminds are going to contribute to my intelligence network.  You know, of course, that the intel on my laptop was disinformation.  Anyone trying to use that intel would get themselves in serious trouble.  I’m glad you had more sense.  But I’d like a heads-up whenever you find out something new around here, and I’d like a warning before you pull a caper on anyone who’s a friend of mine.  Just think of it as adding a new person to your team.  Me.”

Stopwatch clenched his jaws so hard that his molars hurt, but he said nothing.  She had him over a barrel, and she knew it.

She went on, “And finally, Hazard can benefit a great deal by bringing me into the network that the dorm bookies have.  I can do a lot for the bookie network, and in exchange, they’ll just keep me informed so that I can keep helping them out.”

Hazard carefully asked, “And why should I think this will help me out?  After all, if Risk hasn’t gone along with you, there must be drawbacks.”

Phase merely smiled.  “Of course.  Risk felt obliged not to lobby for me, since you do have rules about keeping unnecessary people out of the loop.  Plus, he was legitimately concerned about the effect of bringing a ‘Goodkind’ in, and what a certain sergeant in Security might say if that actually occurred.”

Hazard looked extremely uncomfortable as she said, “I’d prefer not to bring any members of Security into this discussion.”

Phase looked completely unruffled, which really irritated Stopwatch.

Phase calmly said, “I don’t have that liability.  Said sergeant and I came to a firm agreement this week, so that’s no longer an issue for your group.  In fact, in case of problems, I am actually in a position to act as a mediator between Sergeant X and your network.  Plus, I’m in a position to make sure that the Golden Kids don’t make bets so large that you can’t afford to cover them.  And I would be in a position to act as your bank, so that anyone in your network who is caught short could get a low-interest loan from me until they could recoup their losses and re-establish themselves.  And I could contribute intel, just as your network would provide intel to me.  Does that sound so bad?  Really?”

Hazard thought it over.  It seemed like a good deal.  Low cost, possible heavy returns, and nothing felt twitchy about it.  “I’m in.  I’ll contact the other bookies and let them know.”

Phase nodded and said, “And let them know that I’d appreciate a heads-up if there’s any betting on friends of mine.”

“Naturally.  But you wouldn’t be able to get better odds by being inside the network.”

“Of course,” Phase replied.

Stopwatch stood there, gritting his teeth, and wishing he could regain control of the meeting.  But Phase had made it quite clear - in her own subtle way - that she was running this meeting and she would get what she wanted, or everyone else in the room would regret it.  And so far she wasn’t really pushing her advantage.  She was obviously aiming for an agreement that would benefit the Masterminds enough that they would cooperate with her in future, instead of spending all their time plotting revenge.

Still, it would be a lot easier to swallow, if Hazard and Heartbreaker weren’t so blatantly enjoying watching Phase walk all over him.  And he wasn’t going to be able to plot against Phase anymore.  The rest of the team would see to that.  Not to mention the explicit evidence of multiple felonies, all ruthlessly preserved on those copies of that video.

He looked over, just in time to catch Heartbreaker whispering something to Jello as the two of them stared right at him.  They giggled mercilessly.  He gritted his teeth yet again.

At this rate, he was going to have to go to the clinic and have his caps replaced.

 

AYLA

I decided to rub it in a little by strolling out through the wall again, instead of opening the door from the inside.

I hadn’t bothered to tell Stopwatch just how I was solving his web-spider problem.  I was solving it by turning the website over to someone who could run it without fear of reprisals from supervillains.  No badguy was going to think their IP address was going to get turned over to Lady Astarte or Champion if the people running it already had a rep.  So I was giving it to Jadis, and Mal would keep it running.  After all, it was only a useful idea for the right people.  And what supervillain on earth would worry about the children of Dr. Diabolik?

As for the Masterminds, I was fairly sure about Hazard and Jello.  Hazard could see the benefits of having a connection with me, and Jello trusted me.  That gave me fairly good ties with Heartbreaker.  I didn’t know what their connection was, but Heartbreaker was a lot more protective of Jello than most ‘pretties’ would be.  I had to wonder if Heartbreaker was doing a little more with Jello than ‘just being friends’.  Maybe that was just my experiences in Poe talking out loud.  Plus, all three of them had obviously enjoyed watching me walk all over Niles.  Then Haywire seemed to be leaning my way too.  All that would make it a lot harder for Stopwatch to double-cross me some time in the future.

I strolled down the tunnels toward Poe, and I had to make an effort not to start singing a couple Brass Monkey tunes.

 

Tuesday, December 5, 7:30 pm

THUBAN

Stephen sat down in his armchair and concentrated for a moment.  He wanted to be the mysterious and dangerous Thuban for this meeting, not Stephen Cheng Lee, freakish mutant boy.  He smiled slightly, thinking how Jade would chide him for even thinking of himself as freakish.

“No, don’t smile, concentrate,” he reminded himself.

The knock on the door to his ‘office’ room was Dai.  He knew that knock.  Still, he said, “Come!” in a regal tone.  He had to maintain the image, after all.

Carapace opened the door and ushered in two Twain residents.  Two teenagers who looked nothing alike.  One was a misshapen boy in a wheelchair.  The other was a mammoth person who looked more like a Sasquatch than a human being.

Thuban gestured at the large armchair before him, as he spoke in his standard formal manner.  “Montana, please come and sit down.  Kludge, I would appreciate it if you would sit beside Montana so I may address both of you together.”

The two obliged.  The chair for Montana was oversized and reinforced.  It was designed to hold someone the size and weight of Montana or Igneous.  He had it brought out when he was likely to have such a visitor.  It tended to make normal-sized people feel under-sized and inadequate, so he also had it brought out when he was likely to be visited by undesired ‘pretties’ who needed to be put in their place.

“I want to congratulate both of you on really excellent jobs.  Montana, you did your usual masterful work on the campus phone systems.  As far as our targets were concerned, I was just one more bidder.  Neither of them realized that we were running the operation from here.  And your ‘false lead’ connection was beautifully done.  Their devisers couldn’t get past it, and our friend ensured that neither could their mages.  Kludge, your robots performed everything I asked of them, and more.  The entire process worked perfectly.  As far as the campus knows, I was merely one more potential victim of the scammers, and you two have no connection whatsoever with any of it.  I asked both of you here to show you something, and then ask something of both of you.  But first, the show…”

He turned slightly to the side, so both young men would look at the wide-screen television he’d had mounted on the wall.  First he played the official Security video of Fantastico’s blackmail attempt in the Quad.  When both of them were done snickering, he played a hidden-camera recording of Phase humiliating Fantastico in the Crystal Hall Sunday night.

He patiently waited until Montana and Kludge both stopped laughing.  It took a while.  It seemed as if every time the laughter died down, the Exemplar on the screen would yell again or stick his face back into the fountain.

He began, “The Good Ol’ Boyz are not as big a threat as many on campus.  The Alphas are the most visible threat to us, but the New Olympians and the Golden Kids possess many members who could be dangerous.  There are plenty of others, as well.  But the GOB are notorious for their attitude about things like this.  They won’t let this week go unavenged.  They will target Phase and her friends, and they will spend their considerable resources trying to track down the ‘crooks’ who took Fantastico for $185,000.

“So we must keep this quiet.  Neither of you may talk about this, or even hint about it.  Not to your fellow devisers, not to your roommates, not even to your closest friends.  This must remain completely under wraps for the rest of the school year.

“Therefore, I must ask you to hand over the full $185,000.  Furthermore, you must act as if you have not just been paid a large amount for a job you just completed.  I am asking you to let me manage the full amount, essentially putting it in escrow for you to reclaim at a later date.  If we don’t do this, someone may realize that you two were party to this.  At a minimum, Fantastico and his friends will attempt to injure you, and very few students on this campus can stand up to Fantastico when he has his gang supporting him.  Besides that, Oiler has the money and connections to press for you to be prosecuted for felony fraud and grand theft.  I think we all know what would happen if two handsome, upstanding, baseline-looking students of wealthy families went up against you two in a court in this country.  It would not be pretty.

“So.  Will you hand all the money over to me?  Bearing in mind that I will protect it until it is safe for you to be spending it?”

Kludge and Montana looked at each other, and finally nodded to each other.

“Okay.”

“I guess so.”

Thuban nodded, “Then I would appreciate it if you would bring it to me as soon as possible, so we can make sure it is safe from prying eyes.”

Montana sighed loudly and looked over at Kludge.  “I guess you better go get it.  Damn.  I was really counting on being able to buy some new testing equipment and some of the new stuff in the Goodkind Technical catalog.”

Kludge groaned, “YOU were counting on it?  I was counting on buying enough power armor components that I could work on my new designs for my leg and hip modules!  Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I could walk?”

Thuban reluctantly said, “I am sorry.  But this is absolutely necessary.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“We got you.  We’ll go get the cash now.”

He watched them leave, and he sighed.  It wasn’t fair that people like Kludge had to struggle just to be able to walk.  It wasn’t fair that a genius deviser like Montana was treated like some sort of feral monster.  It wasn’t fair that he needed to protect them by taking away the money they had held and that they had begun thinking about spending.

It wasn’t fair.

It just was.

It was just one more reason why Faction Three had to succeed.

 

Tuesday, December 5, 8:30 pm

AYLA

Team Kimba was just having some downtime in my room.  The microwave popcorn I wouldn’t eat myself was already gone, mostly into the bottomless pits known as Lancer and Tennyo.  The apples and pears were gone, and all cleaned up.  Jade and Chou had eaten a few of the rice crackers before Billie inhaled the rest.  So we were just hanging out.

Toni and Nikki were lounging around in my hammocks.  Chou was stretched out on her bed, while I was on mine.  Jade was practicing using Jann to fly her around the room near Billie, and Hank was lounging in a hammock so he could work on a bag of potato chips from my pantry.

Actually, Jade was the most interesting to watch.  Her ‘flying’ was all Jann doing PK lifting, so her positions and ‘aerodynamic form’ were utterly irrelevant.  That gave her the opportunity to try all kinds of positions, apparently to decide what looked ‘cool’.  Billie was just ‘lying’ on her side at eye level with me, and Jade was hovering about halfway between Billie and the ceiling.  Jade was trying what I thought of as the ‘Peter Pan’ form, pointing forward with her arms out like a cross.

“Whaddaya think?  Do I look cool like this?”  She tilted her arms and turned her head, and suddenly she was veering off in that direction, looping under Billie and then swooping past me to take position above her roomie once again.  I wondered how she was maintaining communications with Jann, since Jann seemed to know exactly what she was thinking.  Did the J-Team have certain modes that gave them psychic connections?  And were those connections vulnerable to other Psis?  I’d have to pester Jade about that someday.

After that, she tried the arms-pointed-straight-ahead ‘superman’ posture, and the one-arm-up-one-leg-up ‘supergirl’ posture, and a couple more.  Every posture brought out a new request for checking on the cool-o-meter.  Billie was playing it completely straight, while most of the rest of the room - particularly the snarkers in the hammocks - took the opportunity to put in a few teasing comments.  Okay, I said some stuff too.  So sue me.

Chou looked away from the aerial acrobatics to ask me, “Ayla?  Did you ever find out who sold the recording to the Good Ol’ Boyz?”

“Good Ol’ Pricks, if you ask me…” added one hammock user.

“Not definitely,” I admitted.  “But Jadis is pretty sure it was Thuban.  It was one of Thuban’s Twain crowd who was cleaning tables the day we were telling Dragonrider about Shakespeare, so who else could’ve gotten the recording in the first place?”

“Ooh, Pern is so KYEWT!  I could just hug him to death!” purred a petite flyer as she tried rotating around her roomie like a satellite.

Nikki put in, “I thought you said Thuban was one of the bidders.”

“That’s what Fantastico told Carson,” I agreed.  “But that’s another reason why Jadis and I think Thuban was behind it all.  He’s too smart not to figure out what the recording really meant.  He wouldn’t have bid on it.  And if he did want to bid, he wouldn’t have dropped out just when Fantastico was wilting.  So all his bidding was just jacking The Don and F-man up to stratospheric levels to screw one of them over.  Jadis is pretty sure that Don Sebastiano doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of dough, but there’s no telling how much he could’ve gotten from Tansy, so we don’t really know what his upper bid limit was.”

Hank stopped chewing chips and thought out loud, “So Thuban sees the Alphas and the G.O.B. as bigger threats than you or She-Beast.  Currently, anyway.  He probably figures he has a line on you, thanks to his girlfriend.  I don’t see how he expects to have a handle on She-Beast.”

“My guess is she’s already done something to arrange a ‘truce’ with him, and neither one’s talking about it,” I ventured.  “Probably some inter-dorm fixer deal, so they know they can trust each other at this level.  Mirror’s supposed to be the Twain dorm fixer, but everyone knows Thuban really runs the place.. along with half of Whitman and a chunk of Hawthorne.  And the official Melville fixer is coming down with a bad case of senior-it is, so Jadis is stepping into the breach.  Or so I hear.”

Chaka laid it out.  “So you suckered the Masterminds, who suckered the Secret Squirrels, who got pasted by the Lit Chix, who got blindsided by those three junior high airheads, while Thuban suckered the Good Ol’ Boyz into making a try to control the Bad Seeds and Team Kimba.”

“...who lived in the house that Jack built!” added Jade.

Chaka rolled her eyes and went on, “Okay.  I got that.  You’ve been using your laptop as a trap for the whole term, and that mutants-only web-search dealie as another trap for almost that long.  But they could’ve hit your real computer in here.  Where’s your real intel network data?”

“Guess,” I said.

She smirked, “Inside a wall somewhere in the room.  You’re a density changer.  You could have a memory stick or somethin’ that you stick through the wall and hide in between the 2x4’s.”

“Nope.”

Hank tried, “A hard drive hidden in your utility belt.”

“Nope.”

Nikki guessed, “Bugs has it all on one of her high-security computer storage systems.”

“Nope.  Although that’s a really good idea I hadn’t thought of.”

Jade fussed, “Come on, already!  Where?”

I smiled, “Hey Chou, where do you think it is?”

I could hear the quiet smile in her voice.  “I believe it is.. directly over my head.”

I laughed, “Bingo!  Don Pardo, tell her what she’s won!”

Jade said, “Huh?”

I grinned, “I’m an Exemplar 3, but I tested out with Exemplar 4 reading and memorization abilities.  Remember?  I just memorized it all.  Everything I ever typed into one of the computers was just bait with deliberate errors in it.”

There was a long pause before anyone spoke.

Chaka finally said, “So you’re saying that all that intel you got just went to your head, right?”

Even she couldn’t simultaneously dodge two beanbag chairs, three PK-maneuvered pillows, and a magically-guided bolster.  I didn’t have to do a thing.

 

THE END