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A Whateley Academy story

Like a Brick...

by Kristin Darken


St. Petersburg, FL - Sunday November 5, 2006 – 18:12
         [GEO: The Valley of the Font of Evil]

The leading ranks of the Ring advanced steadily down the ramp to the north, three separate squad-sized phalanx formations prepared to divide and break the charge of the cannon fodder below. Each group consisted of a strong defender at the point capable of blocking heavy attacks and charges with a massive shield backed by a Spearman and a Guard bearing a pole-arm. Along the sides of each arrowhead were the strongest of the offensive fighters, bearing a startling array of weapons paired with shields, ready to quickly crush and disable any enemy challenging their position while maintaining a solid  defensive wall. At the core of each of the three units was a Sentinel, an aura based support character, capable of providing immediate healing for critical injuries and strong  close area battlefield enhancement buffs to lend significant advantages during the changing tides of combat.  While no individual orc or lesser creature below stood a chance of defeating the heavily geared warriors, they would rely on numbers to fatigue the battleline of the Apropos Ring and sow chaos where ever possible. Only then would the more powerful Dark-sided enemy engage in melee.

Still, the battle did not wait for the melee to crash together with the waves of creatures rushing to meet them. Archers and Rangers immediately sought out powerful opponents to weaken from long range, focusing at first on casters without active effective mystic defenses against their attacks and then on creatures that looked to be capable of flight. Even in the fantasy realm, air superiority could heavily influence the progression of a battle and typically that advantage lay in favor of monsters created through bathing in this Font of Evil. Of course, not all monsters were created equal... as with any other character, their strengths and weaknesses relied on the development of natural talents and trained skills. This freedom of choice in prioritization was unfortunate for a small cluster of harpies, whose players had focused too heavily on offensive abilities and left their flight slow and erratic; they were removed from the battle before they could even reach a target for their deadly screeches or similarly devastating poisons. A quick barrage of low grade enchanted arrows found their marks and the harpies were dead.

The red wyrm and two demons proved to be far superior to the harpies.  Each had good speed and maneuverability and significant defenses against arrows from both scales and magical auras. After Archers had made a few unsuccessful attempts to hit them, they passed word to the casters and switched to other available targets. They were quickly discovering that one advantage to being so greatly outnumbered was that even attacks that missed their target had a good chance of striking something somewhere in the enemy lines; though, some were still able to defend against the attacks by blocking and deflecting arrows. Still, even the best defenses can be overwhelmed by number and the Apropos Ring Archers were old hands at concentrating fire against those opponents.

As the enemy forces began to press into the base of the ramp, the Battle-Mages still on the ridge above reached the peak of their chanting. Unlike a quick round to round traditional exchange of spells from Wizards, their abilities were most effective on this sort of battlefield. They would continue chanting, channeling energy into the mystic forces on the field below, while viewing the battle from within the focal point of their spell. As the power built and discharged, they would select locations or creatures as targets and move within the enemy's midst as pure mystical energy. Back at their bodies they would be vulnerable and if disrupted, they would need to begin the long channeling process again. To keep this from occurring, each of the three Apropos Ring Battle-Mages had two other spell-casters and someone capable of some melee defense assigned, at least partially, to protecting them. The Battle-Mages would be high priority targets because even one, given sufficient time, could destroy an attacking force... even one as powerful in strength and numbers as this. The most powerful of the three casters had manifested a fierce beast of elemental fire in the midst of the forces closest to the Font; it radiated devastating heat, forcing the enemy to pull away from it or take injuries simply from being nearby, and was throwing blasts of fire into nearby companies. The second of the mages manipulated a small storm cloud, winds and lightning from it blasting into squads of opponents just beyond the orc companies at the front lines. The actions of the third were not visible directly from a distance, but far to the left side of the field, groups of the enemy would suddenly stagger or be thrown off their feet and others would just fall, as if sucked into the earth itself.

Of course, the forces of Evil present on the field had their own spell-slingers prepared to engage in battle. Most of the attacks were traditional offensive spells, balls of fire and shards of wickedly cold energy; these were targeted randomly across the field and intercepted by the Sentinels or others with some defensive magic available. Such spells were the magical equivalent of the orc attacks, serving little purpose but to catch the unaware and to drain the strength of mages before more serious combat began. On the Dark side, there were also greater magics underway: a foul looking mist was creeping steadily in towards the west side of the ramp, killing what little plant life it encountered and a few mortally wounded orcs attempting to flee before their death took them out of the battle completely. Each death seemed to fuel the mist to a greater strength than before, a fact noticed by more than one commander of troops on the side of evil. One more pragmatic leader ordered his own company of orcs into the mist for the glory of the Dark. The mist grew more dense, a life stealing cloud moving forward in coils towards the attacking Light siders. It was not unnoticed, however.

A pair of Alchemists had already selected several flasks from their bags and racks of supplies. After a quick discussion, and a few well placed throws, there was a series of quick concussion waves to that side of the ramp. The force of it staggered the melee engaged on the ramp, both orcs and Apropos Ring warriors. After a moment to re-orient themselves, the fight resumed. But below them, the cloud was moving away from the front lines, pushed by a determined breeze that emanated from a pool of elemental components lying amidst shards of broken crystal.

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Terecia was waiting, more or less useless in the battle so far, near the top of the ramp. From this vantage point, she had a clear view of the majority of the battlefield; but with only melee skills at any significant level of training, there was little she could do to participate. She would need to find time to take up some sort of ranged attack, if she didn't follow the magic path Necina had encouraged her to try.

She had just scanned the field looking for possible dangers to the casters near her when trouble appeared, coming from above. The red wyrm dived out of the sky, almost directly above the mages at the top of the ramp. As it pulled out of the dive, it released an enormous blast of flame that rushed downward; Terecia threw an arm up above her head in a vague (and useless) attempt to protect her face and eyes, but beside her Necina already had the attack blocked. With a long crystal wand, the Enchantress defined a massive dome shape above all of them, intercepting the flame. Almost before the shield was in place, she also had a small stone bowl in her other hand and was whispering an incantation quietly to it. As she finished the spell, she allowed the shield to drop and the remaining oily fires were drawn into and absorbed by the bowl. A wicked grin creased her lips as she passed the newly enchanted item to Terecia.

[Necina says from beside you]”Here, run this up to Garic and tell him it's wild dragon fire. He'll know what to do with it.”

Terecia looked at it curiously, but turned to head down the ramp to where Garic was directing the battle. Even before she began moving, Necina was intercepting blasts of energy from a lich with some sort of large hoop of wire. She quickly reached Garic and ran her rapier through an orc the warrior was toying with.

[Garic says from in front of you]”Hey, I was playing with that...”

She quickly passed over the bowl and the message from Necina, bringing a similarly wicked grin to his face. He turned and glanced over the battle at the base of the ramp, quickly taking in the flow of events and making new strategy in seconds.

[Garic commands the nearby battle-lines]”Advance in three victor! I need a wedge into their forces.”

Several orcs looked at each other in shared horror before diving off the ramp, two of them rushing to dive off the ramp, one to each side. They were the only ones who survived the sudden push forward, as the Apropos melee line moved off the ramp and into the enemy forces. There was a great crash of wood and steel as the shield wall slammed into the oncoming enemy.

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For the first time, the skirmishers were able to put away bows and other ranged weapons and break free of the tight infantry style formations they had been using on the ramp. Several slipped in each direction around the wedge, challenging opponents as they encountered them. While they weren't suited for standing in front of the most powerful physical opponents, or taking the hits that the heavy infantry had; they had agility and speed in their favor. They could quickly strike and fade back as necessary to keep their opponents from closing in around the advancing center of the Apropos line. There weren't many true Thieves or Rogues in the Apropos Ring and no Assassins anywhere in the Kingdoms of Light, except undercover agents of Darkness, but they had a healthy dose of Swashbucklers and Duelists. These weren't typically archetypes designed primarily for battlefield style combat, but good players could easily adapt the advantages of being able to quickly disable a single target to reduce the effectiveness of an enemy force. Of course, against Dark sided opponents; a disabling or critical injury was as likely to end in death as if they'd taken the time to finish off the enemy. There were few healers in the Dark side archetypes and it was just as likely that another Dark-sider would take the time to administer the coup de grace and take that share of the experience total for themselves as to aid the wounded.

The Apropos Ring advance came at an even worse time for the forces protecting the Font than they believed at first, as several companies were forced to retreat into the magical cloud created by one of their own casters. They were consumed immediately fueling a surge of growth in that spell and leaving an entire side of the field uncrossable, giving the Light-siders a protected flank without having to expend any effort to make it that way. The lack of focused leadership was hurting the the Dark forces as well; too many of the high powered characters had either been given inaccurate orders or were following assignments with conflicting directives. Several groups had already fallen to infighting, one of the giants was missing and so were the two major demons. Word was also starting to get around that one of the demons was the Succubus Marala... that bit of information was starting to hurt what little cohesiveness they had left. And they still hadn't managed to interrupt the work of the enemy Battle-Mages. Then, the balance of power seemed to shift in favor of the Dark.

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With the slow expansion of the forces pushing forward in the wedge, a greater distance was opening up between the battle-mages and their defensive group and the other casters and ranged forces. The Wizards, Alchemists and several War-priests were centered around Necina nearly at the base of the ramp. Terecia and an Arcanist were further out on the field with one of the skirmishers and a warrior assigned to watch over them, but they were still a good distance behind the front line. A dark cloud of pestilence served as a wall to the left, cutting into the enemy force heading almost directly toward the Font. Most of the skirmishers were harassing the enemy lines off to the right. Then suddenly, there were dark clad opponents in their midst.

Terecia was able to react quickly, blocking a dagger thrust almost instinctively. As she did, the Warrior with her spun to her defense, thrusting his blade through a second opponent at the Performer's back that she hadn't even seen, before pivoting to strike at the one she had. To her side, another Ninja or Assassin put his blade through the neck of the Arcanist, interrupting his use of the wooden staff that was pulling lightning out of the stormy sky. The Assassin reached over to grab the staff, but was stopped by the knife thrown into his shoulder from behind. He whirled to protect himself as a nearby skirmisher rushed at him, seeking to protect his fallen comrade.

Even as Terecia's small section of the fight seemed under control, there were suddenly undead Mages standing between them and the Battle-Mages. That sort of short range teleportation wasn't nearly as costly as the long range version, but it could be taxing on an inexperienced caster so was not a common battlefield tactic. These undead were not lacking in experience, however; and they quickly showed how effective the trick could be. Nearly before they had finished materializing, they had each scattered pouches of small stone runes across the ground around them. Casting the runes was an almost effortless task for an adventurer, unlike a scroll that required someone who understood the languages of magic and the power involved in those mystic tongues; if the power levels of a given rune were less than those of the equivalent spell or scroll, however, the speed and flexibility of their use more than made up for it. Terecia and her remaining guard immediately started to rush back up the ramp to help fight these attackers.

In addition to their runes, the undead casters were prepared with a variety of fast direct force spells. They immediately cut loose on the left-most Battle-Mage, who was controlling the storm cloud. The attack was so quick and expertly executed that the Battle-Mage was cut to ribbons and on the ground before his defenders even shifted their attention from watching the skies for the dragon. The Vedron Liches turned their attacks to the next target. Unfortunately for them, he was just interrupting his own spell as he watched the Apropos Ring melee approaching his elemental's position. His consciousness returned to his body just as his Wizard defender blocked the first force blast with a quickly cast shield. The defenders from the downed Battle-Mage stepped forward as well and with the extra guards providing a delaying action, he prepared his own counter-attack on the undead.

While the power of the Light itself was typically in the purview of Priests and Hermits, Mystics and Oracles; it was possible to manipulate that energy in the same manner as any magical force. Few Battle-Mages bothered to learn the techniques and fewer still took a moral stance to ensure their balance of morality gave them access to a pure enough source of Light for it to matter. Himariki the Bright was not the typical Battle-Mage; he was, in fact, listed on various tracking sites as the highest ranking spell-slinger in the world. While fire, lightning and force were powers that few could ignore; against undead, there was nothing so deadly as true Light. He threw wide his arms and began a chant that sounded across the valley like the call of trumpets. As that sound rang out, Terecia's guard skidded to a stop and held out an arm to hold her back as well. He turned back towards the front lines but remained close to Terecia as she watched Light respond to the call of the Battle-Mage.

Above the ramp, the clouds cleared to reveal the brilliant blue of a mountain sky; but as though it had been trapped and building up an overwhelming pressure behind that barrier of moisture, the sunlight blasted through in a brilliant white beam. It illuminated the ramp, causing the undead attackers to burst into flame. Small shields, generated by the runes scattered at their feet popped into existence as if to block the attack... but unlike fire or force, Light could not be so easily blocked. Unable to focus through this unexpected attack, the Vedron found themselves crippled and then destroyed in seconds.

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Free of his current attackers, Himariki continued to build upon the power of his attack and allowed the sunlight to sweep down the ramp and across his allies. Where lesser demons and undead were engaged by the Apropos Ring, the enemy died with screams and cursing. While not every opponent on the field would be susceptible to this spell; unlike a beast of fire, the power of Light could be used without fear of harming allies. More than a few were even far enough aligned to the Light that they received a minor healing benefit and regenerated some endurance from being within the golden rays.

The guardians around the Battle-Mages redistributed themselves and returned to their vigilance. Their timing was nearly perfect, as the dragon swept in from the west so low to the ground that it barely cleared the side of the ramp as it approached. The boulder that it carried weighed as much as several horses and if they had been unprepared for the attack, it would have hit and crushed several of them. An Arcanist on that side of the ramp held up an arm and shook the bracelets hanging on it, producing a chiming sound that echoed oddly around the cliffs behind them and formed a visible wave of air and force that spread out towards dragon and boulder. The dragon released the boulder and banked hard to its left, trying to avoid the spreading effect. As the boulder struck the wave, the dragon's concern was made clear. It shattered with the sound of a gong into pebbles that rained down over the group of men and women below. The wyrm roared its anger as it disappeared over the enemy forces to the East.

The main body of the Apropos Ring had managed to push nearly 60 yards into the center of the enemy forces, and most of the lesser Dark side troops were gone or scattered. But the enemies that remained were more closely matched in skill and while it was not uncommon to see a single Warrior or Ranger taking on more than one Gladiator or Dark Knight, it was no longer possible for each of them to hold entire squads or companies. Even a few of the spell casters had blades in hand, challenging one opponent with a quick thrust and the next with a blast of icy energy.

From near the point of the wedge, Garic hefted the stone bowl as far into the air toward the right side of the Font as he could. As he did, he shouted out ”Now Necina! Fall back!”

As Apropos warriors quickly disengaged and fell back into a tighter formation half way back to the ramp, the Enchantress released the binding on the bowl she had made. Gobs of dragon's fire blasted across that section of the battlefield, even reaching as far as the new formation. Hastily cast shields protected the line of battle from the flames that decimated the Dark side forces. Where the dragon's fire landed, it continued to burn... eating its way through armor and scales, even melting some of the rock beneath where it struck the ground. Only Necina's magic had kept the same from happening to their own forces earlier in the battle. Fortunately, dragons were rare and even the strongest could only produce so much in a limited time. It was unlikely anyone had ever seen it captured and used in this manner before.

”Advance, up the middle!” Garic shouted out again, his orders carrying across the field.

With a cloud of pestilence and decay blocking the ground to the west and dragon's fire ravaging the east, few opponents stepped forward to meet the immediate advance. But while many had been defeated, there were still many more Dark side creatures than members of Apropos Ring remaining... and it hadn't just been forces on the side of Evil who had fallen in the battle. A good third of the melee and skirmishers had fallen in pushing forward in a wedge, and several casters had been lost in the stealth and teleport attacks as well. As the battle line advanced, the Alchemists tossed flasks off to each side  creating walls of flame and mystic energies that would prevent flanking maneuvers, even if someone managed to circumvent the barriers already in place. The materials cost alone would stagger many guilds and leave individuals stunned at the extravagance for a temporary barrier. The corridor technique was a planned expense, however, for these types of battles; providing an important line of retreat to the ramp if they were overwhelmed or needed room to consider how to fight an unexpected opponent.

And then the front lines were past the worst of the spell effects and the enemy was waiting. To the left, a group in the colors of the Dark Lord, leader of the one significant city in Dark territory, attacked relentlessly. A pair of Knights, Anti-Paladins or Dark Guards, worked together exceptionally well in a combination of feints and brutal attacks to bring down one of stronger heavy Warriors who had taught Terecia how to work with a slim blade like her rapier against full plate armor. As the Warrior fell, Garic started to step into the gap left behind but one of the remaining Arcanists stepped up and released a force bubble that threw the remaining fighters of that unit up into the air and over other nearby opponents. The attack wouldn't kill them, or even injure them badly; but it would take them a brief while to reorganize and return to the front line. In the meantime, the Alchemists continued building their wall along their route and the melee tightened up as they pushed forward. From the direction where the two must have landed came a howl of rage that sounded far more reptilian than human.

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Terecia had been attacked several more times as she continued along, staying amidst the center of the attacking force. It seemed there was no end of hidden, stealthy Assassins who could use invisibility or camouflage to work their way into the middle of an attacking army. Fortunately, one of the Runecrafters had passed her a series of runes that enabled her to detect invisible and hidden threats. As each expired, she activated another. They hadn't shown her all of the Assassins, but most of them had been revealed in time to let her defend herself. But other than an occasional attack on Necina or one of the Battle-Mages, they all seemed to be focusing on her. Someone out there knew that she was more important than her combat skills merited... and they wanted her stopped, but not enough to make it obvious enough for the rest of the enemy to know about it and focus their attacks on her. And that... was decidedly odd.

She considered trying to let Garic or Necina know... but both were in the thick of the fighting and the last thing they needed was another little detail to worry about.

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The front lines of the Apropos Ring had reached within 30 yards of the outer ring of stones that made up the structure of the Font. For the first time in the battle, they ground to a complete halt; unable to push forward. Necina and two of the Wizards stepped up to trade spells with the Lich that had been pointed out before they'd even begun the battle. Garic also took a more personal part in the melee at the front line, squaring off against an Ogre who fought more like a Sword-Saint than something that size had any right to.

It was at that moment, when the most powerful members of the guild were needed at the front lines that the dragon struck once more at those remaining at the rear. More powerful than expected, the dragon breathed fire once more; laying down a trail of liquid flame over most of the ramp and killing the Battle-Mage still controlling the Living Earth spell, his guards, and most of the others nearby. One of the Magi supporting from the rim of the cliff nearby had managed a divine barrier that stopped the dragon's fire from killing Himariki and his Wizard guard. The Wizard shook the Battle-Mage from his spell and began building a bridge of energy to use to get clear of the fires burning all around them.  They were cut off from the rest of the guild and it was highly likely that the dragon would return if it realized anyone had survived. With the war-magic broken, the clouds closed off the breeches overhead and blocked the sunlight; undead that had retreated to the rear of the enemy forces were now beginning to advance back into the fight.

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Terecia happened to be looking toward the Font as one of the huge demons, this one obviously female, interposed herself between the advance and the center of the Font. Strangely, this position caused more than a few of the other Dark-siders to shift away or find a reason to charge into the melee battle as far away from her as possible. Despite the weakening of the forces directly ahead, the continued assault from the sides kept the Apropos Ring advance stalled. As she watched, the eyes that she had seen in the darkness reformed. But this time, the eyes became more and more present, and a form made of dark mist in a vaguely humanoid shape stepped from the power of the Font. The demoness and this... entity... seemed to exchange words, the petulant looks from the Succubus suggesting that she was being dressed down for failing in some way but then she suddenly laughed outright and both of them turned to look Terecia's way.

The world around her grew translucent, the color seeming to leech out of combatants on both sides leaving them defined in patches of light and shadow, and the action of the battle slowed even beyond the stylized pace the game used to provide reaction time and speed variations due to magic and physical enhancement. She stepped forward, still moving at her normal pace and punched her rapier through several opponents, splashing an arc of black geometric shapes through the air around her. Almost as if by chance, a corridor opened in the action; she took the path toward the Font and the two creatures of Evil knowing somehow that this was the whole reason she was here, that this was part of her quest. Neither ally or enemy noticed as she passed through the battle as if she were simply walking through a peaceful crowd in a mall. The open passage behind her remained, even expanded some as she passed as if to reassure her of her safety.

[A being of tremendous power speaks to you]”Terecia of the Apropos Ring, you are called to the Font of Evil to bath in the power of darkness and take up the mantle of the chosen. You may choose between the paths of Betrayer or Dark Avatar, and this battle will end. No longer will you stand behind the powerful of the realm, granting them the benefit of your presence. You will stand equal to them, above them, directing the actions of the weak to serve your purposes. Simply step within the Font and choose your path.”

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Tampa, FL - Sunday November 5, 2006 – 20:27

“I still don't understand what you thought you were going to accomplish,” Baker grumbled from the couch in Kimmy's office.

“You know as well as I do that Craig has had a crush on her since our junior year at Whateley,” Kimmy explained pointedly, not interrupting her feline pacing across the plush carpeting.

“I know. And nothing will ever happen. He's a high level exemplar and she doesn't have anything but her flight and her vision. It could kill her even if he tried to take precautions.” The issue was one all of them faced, that despite the evolutionary advantages being a mutant provided; there were decided concerns facing successful breeding to keep humanity 2.0... or whatever version they now were... thriving. Some types of mutants had fewer difficulties, but any time you mixed in greater strength it was a double edged sword. The ability almost forced mutants to breed with others like them, for safety's sake... though that would also ensure that such traits could breed true. Or so the bio people at Whateley people were saying, and the Evolution Rocks! propaganda people.

“Assuming she's even interested,” Kimmy clarified. “But that doesn't matter. It was a known desire. The dancer looked like her, close enough that Craig would associate them without being so similar that he just duplicated Vulture. And any fantasy he's going to have is going to involve someone who is either a high end PK brick or an exemplar so they can actually fuck without someone getting hurt.”

“So? So the kid turns into someone who can get busy with Rock-E and he ends up a little less... tense. That's not exactly worth all this...” So not worth it. Billions of dollars of damage, putting the kid on par with a friggen' hurricane.

“Callie has been making noises about leaving the team for... a long time, Baker. She's only stuck around this long because we've needed her. She's been valuable to us... but mostly because no one knew her vulnerabilities. That fight back in February ended that; anyone willing to pay for that information knows just how easy a target she is. Some KKK Humanity First crossbred redneck with a deer rifle could take her down if he could find her in the sky. If we can put this shifter into that spot, air support with sensory advantages; Vulture can retire and settle down somewhere without any risk. And if our replacement happens to have a defensive advantage on top of that, we all win. Craig getting a fuck buddy is just a bonus.”

“Ok... ok... I get it. But that's not what we got. We're talking... major disaster. She basically ripped through the 'burbs like a tornado and exploded in downtown. There's flight... but no control, no... she's a meteor. A meteor that picks itself back out of its crater and tries again.”

“Your control of metaphor... is amazing,” she teased him.

“Ya, whatever. I didn't give a shit about English classes when we were at the academy, why would I care now? So why was the... this Sexpot... so different from Vulture?”

“Honestly... I don't know. Jackie, the female form he uses most often, is fairly open mentally and I can push her any way I need. She's more intelligent in that form too, which makes it easier to chain through her secrets. The thing is, she doesn't really know all that much about her abilities. It's mostly speculation and random luck that she's stumbled across as much as she has.”

“Great. So what we really need is a lab full of Testing geeks?”

“Pretty much. But I think we can get a lot out of trial and error, we're just going to need to be a lot more careful to make it more about the trials than the errors. If we can convince her to do it willingly, we can at least keep some controls on the changes.”

“Do you think the compulsions affected what she became?”

“I've thought about it... but I'm pretty sure they didn't. Not directly. I'm willing to bet every bit of that form came from Craig's head. The body was an idealized version of the girl dancing for him, with some subtle variation for musculature and exemplar symmetry. She had flight... extremely resistant to damage. The rest... I think they came from quirks of psychology.”

“Oh?” Baker looked intrigued.

“I'd just warned Craig to look but not touch when the girl started dancing. He assured me he didn't need to be compelled... and I know he was just joking around, but still. The idea that he's vulnerable to my powers was there... and so the girl became resistant, not just to my compulsions but to any Telepathy or Empathy.”

“That makes sense... and the differences in her flight?”

“The ability to get to him faster? He's always saying he wishes he had some way to move faster.”

“Craig weighs more than some vehicles... he's lucky he can move at all.”

“I know... just saying that it could be a bit of wishful thinking. Imagine going into a fight with her carrying Rock-E... and dropping him fist first into our opponents' brick?”

Baker whistled quietly and nodded. “Ok, I think... oh... her flight ceiling! Vulture has always been out of sight, out of his reach. Maybe that's why she can't get any elevation.”

“I think you're reaching a bit... but.. maybe.”

“What about her vision? Like you said earlier, if she'd been able to see like Callie, she'd have known we hadn't made it downtown yet. She'd have taken a different route.”

“I think part of that was just that I was trying to push her in that direction. The coast would have been safer, but it would have taken you longer to get there... and I had no idea that she was going to be that destructive. But as far as not getting the vision... I just don't think it was part of the equation for Craig. We might take Vulture's information for granted when we're in a fight, but how much impact do you think the specific way she gets it has on his fantasies? In fact... I think its why she seemed to have such poor control. Remember all the things that Speedsters have to deal with to move as fast as they do? Their senses and nervous systems have to be hopped up otherwise they're limited in how they can use their speed. Turns at Mach 4 take... well, I don't remember the math... but she may have been moving so fast that her senses were overloaded. By the time she knew there was a building in front of her, she'd already come to a stop.”

“If that's true... how can you hope to get a usable result out of this? Little 'quirks' are always going to cause problems like that,” Baker pointed out. How exactly were they going to deal with problems on that scale, anyway? It wasn't like they had some sort of headquarters with high tech restraints or anything.

“I know. Like I said... trial and error. And we know she has a pretty significant power, if a shifted form is capable of being that powerful. It just happens to be locked into an unusual triggering method. For that matter, we don't really even know that... it's just what she believes. It could be purely psychological, or just coincidence that its always sex that's involved.”

“There's got to be a better way...” He finished the thought silently, preferably one that doesn't get us sent a bill for billions of dollars.

“It's all I've come up with... hell, we don't even know if the kid is going to come back to us voluntarily. I thought that once he got a taste for a bit of power, that would be all the bait we'd need. This... makes it more difficult. The press is calling him a monster... people think he's a terrorist... I've even heard that they're talking about bringing a Knights of Purity unit in to patrol downtown until they're sure Sexpot isn't still around. Especially after the Air Force dropped the ball on defending Tampa... like they had any chance of engaging her.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes, each considering plans. Then, Baker continued.

“So we wait until the kid comes back? I guess that means we have some time on our hands... whatever will we do with it?” he teased, pulling Kimmy into his lap.

“I'm sure we can think of something,” she whispered back, between kisses.

“We don't have a shapeshifter tucked away in the closet behind me, do we?”

“No... the last thing we need here is two of me,” Kimmy warned him, poking him in the stomach.

“How do you know it would be a copy of you? I might have other fantasies, you know... and quirks, even.”

“Oh, really? I think I know how to make sure that all you're thinking about is me,” she assured him, pulling herself tight against his chest.

“Hmm..mm.mm.” Baker mumbled, around Kimmy's aggressive kisses.

 

Tampa, FL - Sunday November 5, 2006 – 13:42 (roughly six hours earlier)

Government buildings were typically closed on Sundays, but the disasters caused by a mutant terrorist had more than a few public officials at their desks or in front of an onslaught of press, doing their best to calm the public and keep their own heads from rolling due to the guillotine of politics in a disaster area.

“Yes, Robert... I know how bad a risk it is to bring the Knights of Purity into a city that has the sort of population of mutants that Tampa does,” explained the wiry grey-haired mayor of the city of Tampa. He knew it better than the Governor, considering his own granddaughter had manifested some sort of sunlight based power only a year prior. For some reason, most of the manifested mutants in Florida and even the states to the north and along the Gulf coast tended to migrate to his city. The nearest place with anywhere near the number was Atlanta. But he had a crisis on his hands and the fact that no one even knew where this mutant had come from or where she'd disappeared to made it all the worse. His constituents understood random loss from weather.... as did anyone who lived in hurricane, tornado, or earthquake territory. But this was different. You couldn't put a face on mother nature; she hit you and you just did what you could to recover. This girl's face was on every newspaper and television screen. Aid came from all over, provided by those filled with sympathy and compassion. Something like this? Those people were weren't in shock or denial that it had happened wanted to respond to it, violently.

“Fine.... I'll make a few calls. You'll still have to justify this to the state legislature, but more than a few of them will be relieved that you're taking responsibility for bringing those people in. Just... do what you can to keep them reined in.”

“I will... “ he assured the governor, only to get the click of a disconnecting line.

The Mayor stared at the letter with the Goodkind logo at it's top for a long time before getting up and walking to his window. There was no real hope that conventional means were going to find this terrorist... if that was what she really was. And even if they did, there was little they could do to stop someone who could crash into buildings at Mach 4 and walk out without a scratch... dear God, Mach 4; he could count the number of mutants who had ever reached such speeds without some sort of technological enhancement on just his hands. That alone made her frighteningly powerful. Humanity First and other anti-mutant groups were having a field day with the attention. The MCO was poking its nose into any place in the city it thought it could get away with, despite not being given any official authorization. Then he'd gotten the missive from the Goodkinds. His first instinct was to politely, but firmly, tell them no. Then he'd gotten a phone call from the one person who he'd expected would be fully in support of that decision.

Kimmy Descadara wasn't the sort of backer that most politicians liked to admit to. It was a bit like having mob ties. But despite the potential press nightmare that she could be... due to her less than conservative ideas, such as running a strip club or her ties to the mutant group Baker's Dozen; she had money and influence with people who could make things happen. And despite his own beliefs that she was, herself, a mutant of some sort; she had suggested that he make contact with the Goodkinds and bring in the KoP. He'd explained that they had already extended an offer and she assured him that he should take it.

It was good advice, for the moment. If there was potential for another attack, it would help having people trained to counter mutants in the area. It would reassure the citizens of Tampa that their leaders were taking every possible step to protect them. For that matter, it would probably get the MCO off his back. But he still had reservations. And that little bit of doubt, telling him that once they were here... then what? It worried him. Oh, there was no question that he was going to make the call. Somehow though, he knew that it was going to turn bad.

After another heavy sigh, as he looked out at the press vehicles cluttered all over the sidewalks and lawn below; he turned and walked to his desk. The Mayor of Tampa picked up the phone... and dialed.

 

St. Petersburg, FL - Sunday November 5, 2006 – 20:31

Jack was stunned by the offer of using the Font. This had to be the Dark Master or whatever it was they called the GM that ran the quests and storyline of that side of the game. If it was true, it meant that the whole quest chain that he had been offered and all the things that the Apropos Ring had done to get to this point had all been a trick, a way to lure powerful characters or rare archetypes like his own to cross over to the other side. Or even to plant evil into places where they had a huge reputation for being good.

He could leap through all the intermediate effort of training and questing, seeking out rare materials for equipment that needed to be specially made to enhance Terecia's specific traits. She could be as powerful as this demoness beside the GM, who grew more powerful by stealing abilities from others. How much more powerful had his quest made the Succubus? How many of the Apropos Ring losses along the way had been due to her actions? For that matter, how many of the more powerful creatures who had been present at the start of this battle had had their end at her hands instead of those of Terecia's guild?

What would these archetypes be like, Betrayer or Dark Avatar? Of course, the first thing Terecia would have to face if she stepped into the Font would be the remaining members of the Apropos Ring. Somehow, he knew, she would be powerful enough to survive it if she did.

Jack pivoted Terecia's view to look back towards the core of the battle. In the distance, it was possible to see the last survivors on the cliff edge facing off with the dragon who had finally returned to the ground. The five of them seemed to be holding their own, but they weren't doing much more than that. Near the front lines, Garic had defeated the Ogre and was now fighting a were-cat of some sort. She was extremely fast and agile, moving so quickly that even the slowing effect that made everything else look like it were in Matrix style slow motion was barely enough to bring her to normal speeds. Only Garic's superior equipment and the enchantments in his armor were preventing her from shredding him to bits. But the enhancements weren't enough to allow him to successfully hit her, either. They were the sort of match that was interesting to watch, neither being the ideal to kill the other, so it was truly a challenge of skill and luck as to who would win.

For a moment, he couldn't manage to see Necina at all. Worried, he looked harder... and it seemed as if the pathway through the battle spread further to allow him to see her. The Enchantress had been thrown to the ground by some sort of dog-like humanoid who had a small pack of dark-hounds fighting along with him. One of the hounds was tearing into her right arm, preventing her from manipulating any sort of magics with it. The rings on her other hand were flashing sparks into the other hounds, warding them back. Their Master, however, had a warped looking great sword drawn back, ready for a strike.

 

Tampa, FL - Sunday November 5, 2006 – 16:05 (several hours earlier)

A team of privately funded scientists and technicians working under the auspices of the investigative branch of the Knights of Purity crossed the National Guard barricades checkpoint and quickly moved to a clear section of the street near the Bank of America strike point. Two gunships had taken up stations at opposite ends of the downtown area, engines and rotors uncommonly quiet despite their proximity to the ground. Within minutes of gaining access to the disaster site, several additional vehicles had come through the blockade positioned to unload equipment and technical crew. The swarm of men and women appeared to be almost fanatical about their focus in setting up the diagnostic and testing equipment they pulled from the trucks. Off to one side of the activity, a wiry gray haired man in work clothes and a lab coat supervised the crew he'd built for this sort of disaster. As he watched them, his patron and another man approached him. Despite the conditions of the disaster area, both wore custom tailored suits and $750 shoes.

“Your crews are staying consistently ahead of schedule, Doctor,”  his patron spoke first.

“Of course, sir,” he responded, keeping the frustration and exasperation in his voice to a minimum. “We spend significant amounts of time and money designing the layout and training every one of them for just this sort of situation. Our drill process is more rigorous than the military's readiness standards. If they did not meet the time table, no one could.”

“When do you expect results?” the second man asked.

“Excuse me?” blurted out the Doctor, unable to contain his surprise.

“Results. When can you tell me who she is?”

“Sir?” the Doctor asked, looking at his patron in confusion. The man who had provided much of the funding they had just discussed only shook his head subtly.

“Well Doctor?”

Doctor Harold Malomer was used to working with Goodkinds and anti-mutant groups like Humanity First, or with government representatives with a mutant related agenda. This was the third time he had been brought in to investigate a crime scene by the Knights of Purity. He wasn't one of the top researchers in mapping out the mutant genome or manifestation mechanics or body image templates, but he was one of the top scientists in the world at giving that research practical expression. There wasn't a non-Devise method of detecting mutants or identifying the range of abilities their mutation granted them. Not yet. Malomer was working on it, though; and while his prototype equipment couldn't identify everything, there were a few things he could discover.

Of course, few people outside the MCO cared about tests to identify exemplars. Anyone with half a brain could just see when someone was an exemplar, they were physically idealized with symmetrical features and abnormally balanced muscle tone. That was especially true once they exceeded the normal human ranges where it really became vital for anyone to know. They were supermodel or movie star beautiful without the make-up,  camera, and computer processing tricks those professions used. But the professional sports leagues found the test useful and it was part of the official Olympics testing process... so even without being a complete test, it was useful and profitable. Still, if he wanted to keep the research and testing costs from coming out of his own pockets; he had to work with the people who had a desperate need to be able to detect mutants.

“Doctor?”

“No,” he told the man, bluntly. “Our time table has us searching for samples along the Bank impact site by night fall. We will move across the street into the Tower tomorrow morning, and to the library in the evening. If we have not yet discovered a viable sample, we will check the other impact points. If we do get a good sample, we shift to the second stage time table and you can base your estimates on results on that. Until we do find that sample, however; any estimate I can give you will vary greatly.”

“Days... days until we even know if you can give us something to start our pursuit?”

The Doctor tensed up visibly, “And if we don't take those days... Mister...?”

The man's gray eyes connected to Malomer's own piercingly. “Smith.”

“Ah... yes... Mr. Smith... good to meet you...”, the Doctor sneered. “You could always use that time to pursue your other leads.”

Smith scowled at the doctor.

“I thought so. Investigations of this sort take time. Even when we spend enormous amounts of money and time in preparation and planning to keep that time during a critical event to an absolute minimum. If you want miracles, you could always try magic or a devise. If you need another copy of our schedules, contact our offices and my assistant will forward them to you.”

Smith's scowl deepened and he stalked off. Obviously, he was anti-mutant and involved in some way with the federal investigation... but probably not MCO. Their people didn't wear suits like that.

“One of these days, Doctor, you are going to torment the wrong powerful man and regret it.”

“Possibly. But that day won't be until they... and you... cease to want what I can provide. In the meantime, you'll just have to bear with my eccentricities. You know as well as I do that we provide far more detailed and realistic time tables than anyone should ever expect to receive for a crime scene investigation. To expect more is foolish posturing, no matter how powerful he is.”

 

St. Petersburg, FL - Sunday November 5, 2006 – 20:33

         [GEO: The Valley of the Font of Evil]

All thoughts of the offer to use the Font were cast aside as Terecia saw Necina in danger. She raced back through the open passage, taking full advantage of the difference in speed she currently had over the rest of the forces of both Good and Evil here. The Performer threw herself at the Huntsman, ensuring that no matter what happened Necina would have time to fight off the beasts before having to face the one controlling them and the dark blade he wielded.

The impact threw the Huntsman nearly twenty feet from where Necina lay and knocked his weapon from his hand. Terecia scooped it up and she rolled back to her feet and threw herself on top of her opponent, both weapons taking the full weight of her body and driving into his chest. She quickly pulled her own blade free, but the borrowed weapon seemed to stick in the body and dark tendrils of energy flickered out from it into the body. A few of the sparks raced across her hand and up her arm.

A hand reached out from behind her and pulled her own from the blade. “You don't want to keep hold of that,” Necina explained. “That's a Soul Thief. It will take life from the victim and feed it into you... just like Succubi do. You can get a lot of power using one of those, but it corrupts you in the process.”

Terecia nodded, carefully, then turned to make certain Necina was all right. The wounds on one arm looked bad, but it was also clear that the Enchantress was safe. She glanced around at the battle that was still raging, realizing that while Necina was now moving at her speed, the rest of the battle was still moving along slowly.

Then, Necina's arms wrapped around her and she found herself staring into the Enchantress' eyes. “Thank you, Terecia. If he'd used that on me, he could have taken my magic away and possibly destroyed all the artifacts I've created for the Ring. Weapons, Armor... many of the things keeping them safe right now. We owe you... I owe you, my life.”

And with that, she kissed Terecia. The world resumed its normal pace. Nearby catcalls and whistles quickly reminded both of them that despite everything going on, they were surrounded by gamers and to all appearances, they were two women kissing. They pulled apart, the look in Necina's eye suggesting that they weren't finished.

Then, the world... shattered.

line break short

Marala watched the newest member of the Apropos Ring race away from the Font, her transformation as yet not accepted. “What is she doing?” she vocalized.

“She has made her decision, Succubus. The young one has chosen friendship and love over power. Such things are not the paths of Evil... as you well know, my girl, despite all your presentation of Marala as a creature of Darkness. You should collect your own and escape before the Font turns. It would be... unwise... for you to be here when it does.”

The demoness turned to look at the Dark Master and stood somewhat incredulous as she saw a radiance begin to build within the mist of his figure. She glanced back out at the battle, in time to see the Enchantress take Terecia into her embrace. In a single leap, half simple jumping and the other half flying; she reached the front lines and grabbed the were-cat mid-pounce before it landed a claw strike on Garic. It growled at her before realizing who had caught her up, then blinked at the demoness in confusion.

“Time to go, kitty cat,” With a flick of her wrist, Marala opened a portal out of the Valley and tossed the cat through it. She dived through behind her ally and friend, followed by several Dark Knights and a few others who quickly decided that when the most powerful quit the field abruptly, it probably meant things were about to go horribly wrong for their side. In doing so, they managed to escape the disaster that befell the rest of the army of Evil remaining at the Font.

line break short

The pulse of Light that raced across the Valley scattered combatants, stopping all serious attempts at fighting. While the physical knock back had little effect on the members of the Apropos Ring, each wave threw those aligned to Evil dozens of feet. At the center of the Font, a brilliant radiance was building in contrast to the dark pillar of energy. With a final pulse and burst of music, the world literally came apart around those who remained.

It was similar to watching an animated scene broken down to mesh frameworks, shifted around, and reassembled for rendering. Bits of rock and blood soaked earth separated from neighboring sections, whirled through several alternate perspectives which included different ratios of white and black, and returned to their original locations filled with colorful life. In moments, large sections of the battlefield were replaced by lush grasses and wildflowers.

Overhead, the clouds fled leaving a vibrant blue sky and the twin suns shining cheerfully. Sunlight, freed of constraints completely, blasted the remaining unprotected demons and undead into dust. War magics disappeared from the valley, along with any signs of the damage they'd done. Of the remaining forces of Evil within the valley, a few remaining fliers escaped over the cliffs; the rest simply... died and when the ground beneath them was finished changing, there was no sign that they had ever been present.

Finally, the pillar of dark energy collapsed under the weight of the Light all around it and the survivors were left with a natural silence, revealing in its absence the persistent hums and whispering that had been a part of the environment of the Font of Evil. In its place, a pillar of Light filled the center of the valley. A light breeze crossed over them, as warriors and casters alike put away weapons and tools, and began walking to the Font they had won.

 

Tampa, FL - Monday November 6, 2006 – 09:15

Despite crews having worked through the night, the investigation at the disaster site was continuing at an almost frenzied pace. The fact that they had yet to locate any tissue or blood sample was supporting the current theories that the mutant had a very high ranking PK power set. How high was still under debate, simply moving a human body at the speeds reported by military radar tracking took an incredible amount of power. Yet, the amounts of damage along her course seemed inconsistent on several levels. While a significant amount of wind damage had resulted, most of the damage was simply the result of the shock wave of an object passing in close proximity at supersonic speeds, a sonic boom. This suggested that the mutant was using some refined level of control of her PK field to reduce friction and drag, or possibly some variation of Warper ability. Either possibility reduced the power scale into a more standard regional level threat instead of the world class threat that a mutant would be if it were entirely brute force PK. Also, either ability could also allow the mutant to produce a greater impact on a structure she hit than simply the damage of the collision by expanding her shell or warp field outward to disrupt the integrity of walls and supports before she struck.

Still, it was a high enough level of PK to ensure the field remained intact throughout the series of attacks on the downtown area and thus prevented leaving any DNA sample at the scene for testing. The video that was captured of the girl in the downtown area was nearly useless for piecing together details. In flight, she was moving far more quickly than standard digital video surveillance video sampled. She rarely appeared in any camera's field of view for more than a couple frames of footage. The useful shots, for identification purposes, were all of her pulling herself out of the rubble or walking normally down the street in only a diaphanous bit of lingerie that revealed far more than it covered and should never have held up to the forces to which it had been exposed.

Facial recognition had produced only one near match in the MID database, the local hero Vulture. Despite the similar appearance and the ability to fly, this was clearly not the same woman. Vulture had no PK shell, or any ability to use her PK for anything other than flight. On top of that, Vulture was not an exemplar and this woman was far to attractive not to be; very few women could look and move with that level of sexual attractiveness in the best of circumstances, let alone when climbing out of a pile of rubble. Still, the similarities were close enough that a team was looking into Vulture's family history and relatives. This mutant could be a sister or cousin.

Malomer brought his musing to a stop as one of his crew chiefs approached. The man was one of the newer supervisors but was an expert in video technology, with several patents to his own name for video surveillance devices. It had taken quite a bit to get him to join the team, but he suspected it would be worth every dime.

“Alavera? You have something for me?”

“I do, Doctor. I've got 12 frames of footage from just before the flight into the library that I think you're going to want to see.”

“Tell me.” He didn't need the crew chief to show him the video, if the experts said there was something there worth investigating, he was going to take their word for it. Not only did it save him time, it was a great morale booster for his people to know that he trusted their reports and analysis of the data they got.

“Her hair blew into her mouth. She spit it out.”

“Excellent. You've given the grid details to the search teams?”

“Yes, Doctor. Team Echo should be on their way there right now.”

“Good work, Alavera. Even if this doesn't pan out, you've earned your bonus with this one.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I'll get back to my crew, we've still got a lot of footage to work through. I've already forwarded the clip on this potential hit to you, along with the enhanced segment.”

There was no guarantee that they would get a DNA sample out of this, but it was a start.

 

Tampa, FL - Monday November 6, 2006 – 10:04

Jack wanted the confidence and strength of being Jackie, but stayed in his natural form in an effort to stay as distant as possible from the... things he had done. Despite being awake for almost forty hours, he'd still had a difficult time getting to sleep and it had been anything but restful when he had. Now, with a new day starting; the world seemed somewhat surreal to him. His memory kept providing flashes of blurry views of the streets of Tampa seen from overhead and the images were starting to resolve into real places. Sights, sounds, the sensations of flying along the river at incredibly high speeds had all been too much to comprehend at the time, running together into a euphoric explosion of hyper-stimulated senses; but now, memory... or imagination... was starting to make sense of those events. Dread filled him with each new mental snapshot; when would the worst come to him? That image of a doctor torn apart by shards of glass? The wide-eyed boy on the road? And would that be the worst... or would it be worse to know what he had done and never remember those moments?

The taxi hardly seemed to be moving, its mundane speeds barely registering through his dazed musing. Not that it mattered, he was oblivious to the world outside his thoughts for most of the trip into Tampa. His car was still at Kimmy's... had been there since Saturday night. He doubted she would have it towed, not after... just... not. But he couldn't leave it there, someone would notice eventually.

The cab driver chattered in the front seat, talking about the weather and one of the college teams. Jack ignored it, mostly, the way he would have any other day. Cab drivers and barbers, they were direct taps into the gossip network of the community. Today, more than ever, he wanted to avoid hearing what the community was talking about. The odds were far too likely that he would be at the center of it.

The dark shadow that raced past his window disrupted his internal focus and he glanced up to see a gunship circle overhead. His flinch caught the attention of the driver who took this as a suggestion for a topic.

“Gunships all over the city, you know. I can't understand why the Mayor would let these Knights into Tampa... bad as the MCO, you know... and there are entirely too many people in the city here who know someone who has a friend with a family member who's a mutant. It's all the UV rays with the sunlight, you know... that's why we get so many of them here. But getting these northerners in here with their helicopters and their power armor... nothing but trouble. They were hassling Handler first thing this morning you know...”

Handler... wasn't that the telekinetic gadgeteer in Baker's Dozen? Jack tried to remember what he knew about her... one of the two fliers on the team, Handler and Vulture. He'd seen Handler in action once, years back, just after the hurricane that had done so much damage to Fort Myers. Not that he'd seen much, since Baker himself had chased him off before he'd barely even realized what he was seeing.

“... some sort of DNA evidence. They'll be catching this Sexpot before you know it...”

Jack blinked and tried to mentally recover what he'd been blocking out, but he'd done too good a job ignoring the cabbie. “What was that you said?”

“Oh... you hadn't heard the reports? The Feds were saying that this expert investigation team they've brought in, some sort of Goodkind's organization, found some sort of DNA... hair or something. Once they run some tests on it, they'll be able to figure out what this mutant was capable of... maybe even track her down.”

“I thought... isn't it impossible to do any sort of test to tell what a mutant does?” It had to be, or the Army would have known what he was... they'd never have discharged him if they'd known. What he'd done... if they could use him as a weapon like that. He'd never have any freedom.

“This is that inventor fellow. Whatsit, Malomer? Does the tests they use for the Olympics even. He has a test that lets him... oh, this is you right? Kimmy's Kittens, right? Good to see a young fellow like you take a cab when he's had too much... too many drunks just drive themselves home. That's your car there, right... real beauty, just like you said... looks like I'm not the only one who thinks so...”

Jack glanced out the window as he handed the driver some cash for the fare, expecting to see Kimmy or maybe Dee waiting by his car. The massive suit of power armor hunched over it was so unexpected he gasped and slammed himself back in the seat.

“Something to see, aren't they. Too bad those things aren't in the hands of some of our National Guard boys... instead of these bigots. Purity my ass. 'scuse my language. Like some Nazi KKK group. You'll be just fine, son. They're just here for this girl; once they've got her, we can get our city back and they'll be gone.”

Jack nodded and slowly got out of the car. It was far too late to convince the driver to take him somewhere else. He'd nervously bragged about the Mustang early in the trip, just to distract the driver from his incessant train of chatter. Any change now would be suspicious. He picked a path circling around the power armor, heading for the driver side door but being careful not to put himself into a blind side where the Knight was startled.

“This yours,” the question blasted at him out of the power armor's PA system. The sheer volume of it had him slamming his hands over his ears. “Sorry man, forgot the gain was still up for announcements over the gunship rotors earlier,” came the apology more quietly. “I was checking out your ride. You still have the original engine in this thing?”

“I... I think so,” Jack responded, hesitantly as he uncovered his ears. “I haven't had it long and I don't know all that much about cars. I just liked how it looks... and how it drives.”

There was a whining noise of servos as the power suit settled closer to the ground and the main hatch opened. The young man, probably in his late twenties, that got out of the unit had that military look to him. He was muscular without being heavily built, clean cut, and with closely cropped hair. The clothing he was wearing looked a lot like a flight suit a pilot might wear. He held out a hand as he approached Jack, who hesitantly took it.

“Jackson Daniels. I know, I know... don't say it.”

Jack blinked at him a couple times, confused.

“Jack... Daniels... right?” the Knight explained, shaking his head.

“Oh... ha... sorry, rough morning. Not sleeping well... Jack, also. Jack Rizeppi.”

“I understand... this stuff downtown. Has a lot of people shook up, its easy to support mutants and want them to have the same rights as everyone else... and then one of them does something like this. Tampa's lucky, you know. This Sexpot girl could have hit a city like New York or Chicago... someplace that early hours on a weekend wouldn't have been so empty. Don't worry. We'll get her. She'll be locked up tight in a facility designed for people like her. Where she'll never hurt anyone again. Not a chance,” he clapped Jack on the shoulder. “You mind if I take a look under the hood?”

“Uh... no... “ Jack stepped over to the front of the car and pulled the release through the grill. He'd been surprised when he'd first discovered that there was no lever or switch inside, that would prevent someone from opening the hood without having keys to get into the car. Evidently the old cliché about it being a simpler time applied to cars and car theft, too.

“Not a purist then, whoever had it before you,” Daniels pointed out. “Couple modifications to your cooling system here... and I think this is from a later model...”

Jack tried to follow what was being said, but even if he had known enough about cars; it was all he could do to not curl up and try to hide, or run as fast as he could, or turn into Jackie and let her deal with the situation. Of course, none of those were options. He knew that the only thing that was saving him right that moment was that the Knight was focused on something other than him personally. And that assumed he could even think through the buzzing sensation in the back of his neck that felt vaguely like the tingling lust of shifting. In the end though, it was his mutation that saved him. His stomach growled loudly enough that it startled both men.

“Uh.. sorry about that. Didn't eat this morning.”

“No problem, I've held you up long enough. Thanks for letting me take a look. She's a real beaut.”

“I got a great deal on her.”

Daniels started to get back into his power armor, then paused, “Remember. We'll get this girl. Don't let it mess up your day, or your sleep. We'll get her and she'll regret ever having done this to Tampa.”

The certainty in the Knight's voice sent a chill down Jack's spine and he stood there with his hands on the hood of the Mustang until the other man was back in his armor and started moving up the street. He circled around to the driver's seat and climbed into the car, even got the key into the ignition before the shakes started. Then, the outside world went away and for a while, Jack Rizeppi grieved.

 

Tampa, FL - Monday November 6, 2006 – 11:31

The look on his face as Baker came out of the Mayor's office suggested that things hadn't gone as smoothly as he had hoped. Even though the Dozen's position in Tampa was unofficial, he'd hoped he could sway the politician's opinion that the city could leave the hunt for this girl to other mutants. That they could get the Knights of Purity out of the city before things got out of hand. And it was clear that they were going to... both Handler and Vulture had already been hassled, as had one or two of the unaffiliated fliers. Simply for being able to fly. Like being able to soar at the pace any norm could pedal a bike had anything to do with someone who could fly at Mach 4.

If Kimmy hadn't been so insistent, he'd be inclined to simply give up the girl and let her take the bullet and let the rest of them go about their lives. But when she dug in her heels on something, the only thing they could do was ride it out. Something this kid could do made him seriously important to her plans, not that she was sharing what those plans were. Baker had long since realized that Kimmy Descadara was playing a long game... and no matter how close they were, he wasn't going to find out before she wanted to tell him. If...

“No luck then?” she asked him, as he reached the car.

“Nope. He says they have leads. They're following them.”

“Really?”

“That's what he said. What they told him,” Baker let her know just how much he trusted the Mayor with the smirk on his lips.

“Sounds like the government has information on how to identify and track mutants that no one knew they had.”

“Or they're spinning the info they have to make it sound good.” As he vented he was flashing dime sized ovens of air to about 1800 degrees between his fingers. Kimmy glared at him after the fourth oven collapsed. There was a light sheen of perspiration on her neck.

“It's a rental Baker, the AC can't keep up... and they're going to charge me extra for smoking in the damn thing.”

“Jesus, Kimmy... you never use rentals.”

“My cars aren't usually a victim of mutant destruction, and it takes time to have all the custom work done to replace it with one that can survive what having this team as passengers...” her cell phone chirped an interruption.

As soon as she glanced at the number, she switched it onto the external speaker so Baker could hear it.

“... sorry to call you... like... well... you said... you said you can... can help. I'm here... at the club... and... I need help. They're going to find me... and they're... they're going to take care of me. Please. I can't... I didn't mean to do it. Please help me?”

She gave Baker a smug smile and toggled the phone back to the regular speaker, “I'm on the road from downtown now, Jack. I should be there within a half hour. Can you wait for me?  Good. Wait there, no one will bother you there. Yes. We'll see you soon.” She shut the phone down and slipped it back inside her purse.

“The boy?”

“I told you he would call.”

“You did. But what are you going to do with him now? Like the Mayor said, they have evidence, they're going to find him.”

“Baker dear. If the Mayor or the Feds had half a clue how to find him, they wouldn't still be looking for a woman. If there even is a sample, and it's for a woman; then it's of a woman who doesn't even currently exist anywhere in this world. Even with mutant help, it would take serious magic to make that connection. I'm not even entirely sure that would work, Jack is a very different person than his derivative forms. Tracking him through such tenuous connections might be possible if the mage knew about them; but it's not terribly likely without knowing how his power works. There are just too many variables.”

Baker looked at her carefully, weighing the concept in his mind. There had never been any doubt in his mind that she was smart, definitely smarter than him, but it was times like this that really worried him about just what her long games were leading towards. This was far too devious, too considered, to be a casual decision. How long had she been watching this Shifter, waiting to set him on this path? Could it really have been coincidence that led him to experience his manifestation in her club? Where she could get it on video?

“Baker. Stop cooking in my rental.”

He stopped himself from popping the oven between his fingers. “Damnit.”

 

Tampa, FL - Monday November 6, 2006 – 12:03

Dr. Malomer sat back in his chair in Van Two to gather his thoughts before turning his attention to the tracking data another one of his teams had pieced together. What was especially interesting about it was that it directly conflicted with the radar data that had been provided by the military. The girl had first been visible right on the Gulf coast northwest of the Hernando County Airport, just north of Bayport. She'd flown southwest along the coast until almost reaching Hudson, then veered more southeast to head straight towards Tampa. The most important part though was the time stamps on her appearance on radar; a flier at Mach 4 at low altitudes was moving at 3350 mph... which meant she would have covered the distance from her appearance at the coast to downtown Tampa, a straight line distance of around 35 miles, in about half a minute. Even taking the slightly more erratic path she had traveled, it would never have taken the nearly three minutes she had been on radar... despite the indications that she was moving over four times the speed of sound. In fact, there was every possibility that she hadn't broken the sound barrier at all... which made the shock wave and wind damage that surrounded her path even more curious.

Some energizers might project or disrupt a radar signature that could produce a false result on standard aircraft tracking systems. It was unusual to see an Energizer or an Electro-kinetic with flight, however, especially at this sort of speed... which was still significant despite being sub-sonic. An Electro-kinetic also wouldn't be likely to have developed the sort of fine control over their shell that would reduce drag and friction components without disrupting its armor value.

On the other hand, Warping could be involved in some fashion. It had been posited by one of the teams looking at the shockwave damage already, due to the unusual patterns of damage that could not be produced by standard wind or concussion effects. This was one more piece of data that might support that theory.

In either case, the girl was also an Exemplar. The DNA tests they had performed on the saliva coated piece of hair had indicated that she clearly fell into the high end of EX-4, which made her capable of surviving a great deal but not to the extent of the impacts she had taken. So there was still some additional factor involved in protecting her from damage, either a PK field, Warper effect, or another variation.

They had circulated her image to the retrieval and engagement teams. The gunships and remote control recon craft were all providing continual video footage from road and sidewalk traffic, to be fed into the facial recognition computer system. If the girl was still in Tampa, she would be found. It was only a matter of time now.

 


Fort Myers, FL - Monday November 6, 2006 – 15:13
         [GEO: The Valley of the Font of Good]

Garic looked out over the fields below, covered in wildflowers and emerald green grasses. The ravine leading into the valley from the Dark kingdoms had collapsed, along the entire length from what they'd been able to scout; and a good portion of the trails they had used would be extremely difficult to follow by anyone incapable of flying. In the other direction, however, a clear road had opened up. While they hadn't explored its full extent yet, there were good odds that it would lead into the heart of their own lands and provide easy access for the inhabitants of the Light Kingdoms to begin attunement quests for their own version of the Dark's monsterization process.

A number of the members of the Apropos ring had already begun the quest process, but only a couple had the ability to complete it right away. Himiriki the Bright was one of those few... the only surviving Battle-Mage had walked into the Font and emerged as a being of pure Light. He still had many of the magical skills typical of his original archetype, but it would now be much more difficult to disrupt his efforts; when channeling magic, his energy body dissipated completely until he ceased focusing on the spell. Gary was certain there would be more than a few threads in the game forums complaining about the overpowered status of a Battle-Mage that didn't have a physical body to maintain some vulnerability. Fortunately, the GEO designers seemed far less concerned with balance between archetypes than any other game he'd ever seen. They certainly didn't run around with nerf-bats like most of that sort.

Garic himself was delaying his completion of the attunement quest, while he considered the long term commitment that such a thing might cause. His own opportunity would place him in direct responsibility for protecting the Font, which could conflict with his ongoing efforts of leading the Ring. It could end up being more work than he had time for... but he was fairly certain he was going to try to make it work anyway. He would need to put a conscious effort into keeping the Font under the control of the Light until most of the guild had a chance to complete their quests anyway, including many who didn't meet the base requirements for the transformation yet. Like Terecia.

There were some... other concerns about Terecia to face first. More than one member of the guild had informed him that they had seen the Performer speak with the demoness and Dark Master at the Font before it had turned and that in rescuing Necina, she had used a Soul Thief and gained power from it. Necina had assured him that she had stopped the use of the Soul Thief before it had actually transferred anything into their newest member, but she couldn't explain how Terecia happened to stop the Huntsman just in time or been able to use the Soul Thief at all. It didn't help that the blade had since gone missing.

Jack hadn't stuck around after the battle. Terecia wasn't eligible for the quests, he'd said... so there was no point in waiting around while the rest of the guild did what they needed to. But the Performer had been the focus of the quests that led them here all along, so it was more than a little unsettling that she wasn't needed at the end of the battle in some way.

Gary suspected that there was a story there, one that he wasn't going to get by talking with Terecia in-game. That meant he needed to talk with Jack. Unfortunately, he'd found out that morning that Jack wasn't at work at the Emporium. He'd been out sick, even though he'd said nothing while playing the day before. And now he'd just flat out missed a shift. Worse yet, he'd put in a two week notice and as far as Gary knew, Jack didn't have anything else lined up. Something was wrong and when he'd shared his concerns with Nadial; she'd been even more worried than he was. The woman had always been extremely perceptive about people, and while it might just been the relationship that was coming to life between the two of them... she'd assured him it was more than that. He'd have to find Jack and confront him, somehow.

He was afraid that when he learned the truth, he was going to find that stripper in the middle of it. And that club in Tampa. And if that were true, then it would be all his fault for taking the kid there in the first place. He just prayed it hadn't gotten any worse than a little kinky sex and a woman manipulating an inexperienced kid into doing something stupid.

 


Central Florida Bunker - Thursday November 16, 2006 – 13:01

The lights flashed, blindingly bright, for just a moment revealing several people standing in the room, then dimmed in a brownout ... or Jack did... as pain dragged him back out of consciousness.

 


Central Florida Bunker - Friday November 17, 2006 - 15:53

His skin cracked under heat lamps so intense that the room smelled like a BBQ. Except the meat was him... and she was there... just on the other side of those lights and in his thoughts, shuffling through his memories... one moment, fear spiking so high that his heart tried to race out of the room, the next depression so violently cold that he was ready to die. The straps holding him to the table flexing as each emotion fired across his senses, driving chaotic impulses until she found lust, a reflection of that morning when he had torn through Tampa like a monster... and his body once again began warping, driving conscious thought away...

 


Central Florida Bunker - Monday November 20, 2006 - 11:17

The dreams were blurred, like that morning. The morning when he'd killed all those people. That clawing, dragging sensation of pulling the world out of his way so he could get to someone so important that nothing else mattered to him. Not that there would be people hurt. Not that he'd destroy property, cars, buildings... disrupt the workings of the city itself. Just that if he stretched hard enough, he could bring the places together and they'd never be apart again.

 


Central Florida Bunker - Thursday November 23, 2006 - 13:08

Cool water splash on his lips. He drank, slowly, from the cup held up to him. A metallic click as the cup was placed on the table beside him. Jack... focused... on a beautiful face in front of him. Slim hand, wiping his feverish forehead with a damp cloth. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly, eyes widening as something changed. She grinned and kissed him again, then backed away. The shuffling sensation in his mind distracted him, but the woman was too far away and the change faded quickly. Exhaustion seemed to fill every part of him and with nothing to focus on, he faded quickly into sleep. And again, the nightmares emerged...

 


Central Florida Bunker - Friday November 24, 2006 - 10:22

He could hear the mechanical sounds of the power armor moving towards him out of the darkness. The Knight's had found him. Had found out what he had done. And they were going to take him apart and learn how his power worked and make an example of him for all mutants to see. Turn it against him. Every kiss. Every little thing to turn him on would turn him into a helpless whore. Weak, stupid, desperate for someone to do things to him while looking like everyone's wet dreams. It was all he deserved... and he was going to get it...

 


Central Florida Bunker - Sunday November 26, 2006 - 07:41
,

Jack woke, gasping for air. His heart was racing, face covered in sweat, and an undefinable fear that if he couldn't turn around fast enough...

His body quickly flickered through the reshaping pattern; taking mere seconds before she, Jackie, sat in the comfortable desk chair that her counterpart had fallen asleep in just a few hours earlier. While playing his game. She pulled back, slightly disgusted at the drool on the desktop. The heavy steel military issue desktop. At least the chair was a more comfortable model, designed for the human body and long hours of time at the desk. Of the two, the desk more appropriately suited the cement block and concrete structures around her and the spartan decor.

She was locked in an underground bunker of some sort in central Florida. The extent of her movement was to the dining room, the gym, and through some of the living quarters. There was, supposedly, a lot more to the complex and it was in use by Baker's Dozen much of the year. However, in the time Jack had been 'in residence,' he had yet to see any of the team. But supposedly, as long as he was here; there was no danger... and Kimmy assured him that if he really wanted to leave, all he had to do was change into Sexpot and leave. Nothing she had could stop him if he tried. He hadn't tried. She had tried to talk him into changing into her... that flying monster... to test her abilities, but Jack had refused and, so far at least, Kimmy hadn't pushed the issue.

When Kimmy was there, they ran tests. The tests, exercises, and more tests that the woman was putting them through were grueling. Mostly just being connected up to some sort of machine while he worked out on fitness equipment and she did other things around him. How she managed to keep Jack completely exhausted without being present for most of the day, was a real mystery. And he was constantly hungry; even more than before, when he was pushing his ability to the limit every day to try things on his own. She was clearly no scientist or teacher. While she took notes on what was happening as each test occurred; it was clear even to Jack that half of what she did was just mimicking something she remembered from her own days in the testing chair... or gym room.

Sometimes she brought someone else, two different people, but no one Jackie had recognized. Those people had been able to trigger changes, and Kimmy had been pleased with whatever form it had been... but she hadn't been able to see any of the changes before they reverted. None of them had locked. That's what Jack had started to call her template ability. Something about some shapes: the time in them, stability of the form, the strength of the sexual feeling, the type of form... some of them created a template that locked into place and they could recall it at any time. Sometimes a locked form could remain in place for hours... like Jackie. Others, like Sexpot evidently, used up whatever strength or power accumulated in that form really quickly.

That sort of testing was helpful to some degree; it was refining her ability... like working out let you lift more, or lift for a longer amount of time. But it was also clear that sweet Kimmy was doing something to her head. Sometimes, especially as Jackie and even occasionally in other forms; she could feel the sensation like... someone tracing the red thread through a complex pattern in a piece of cloth. In her head. Except, the pattern was changing... and not in ways that felt right. Like she were leaving it folded or wrinkled in places. In her HEAD. Especially after they'd found out that Kimmy couldn't be the partner to one of her forms.

Kimmy had tried, her skin flush and breathing erratic as she brought herself closer and closer to an orgasm that should have had the shape shifter twisting into fantasy forms in a flash. But there hadn't been a flicker of change. Not from Jackie, who had been ready to help finish things. Not from Jack, who'd been hard as a rock and as embarrassed as a high school freshman who gets a boner in math class just before he has to stand up to solve a problem... not even from some of the sex dolls that had no inhibitions at all. Far lesser efforts had worked for Dee. Who, she found, she didn't actually miss. Lusted after, maybe... but after a few days, she felt happy to be on her own. As if the distance and absence from the partner who created her gave her some additional strength of character. And she had used her freedom well.

If there were people she... or they... missed, it was the Apropos Ring people. The only contact with the outside was the computer, but Kimmy had warned not to try to contact anyone. There was only so much she could do to keep the Knights from finding out what he had done if they started investigating him. So they played GEO, but didn't spend any time chatting out of character. Even the flirtations with Necina were awkward and brief. They wanted to know if he was ok... and she was afraid that if he told them... anything... that they'd see right through him. He wasn't ok. His life was going from bad... to worse... and he had done it to himself. To protect the world from him. From her. Even the stupid language wasn't designed to make sense for people like her.

She pushed herself away from the desk and checked over the blouse and slacks she was wearing. They'd do for a visit with Kimmy, but there was going to be a surprise later in the afternoon. Or so she had been told. What Kimmy meant as a surprise might either be good news... or another test. For a woman who ran a strip joint, she had a very unusual idea of what made for a good time. But if there was going to be a surprise, she'd best dress for it. That meant it was time to get out the leathers. And maybe she'd spend a little time on her hair. Maybe the official tests with Kimmy hadn't produced anything... but that didn't mean that unofficial ones couldn't be fun.

 


Six Stars Keep - Thursday November 23, 2006 - 12:02

[GEO: Six Stars Keep - Guild home of the Apropos Ring - Three days earlier]

The Council chambers of Six Stars Keep followed standard Arthurian principles. The circular room held three large wooden tables shaped in a slightly smaller circle, except with three access ways allowing entrance into the open center circle between them. At each of the three tables were three high backed chairs, well padded for long meetings. Each chair left plenty of room for one of the nine Council members to have food, drink, books and tools, and a variety of other implements nearby without impinging on each others space. When in session, three representatives from each of the primary parts of the guild: War, Exploration, and Logistics; would be present. At the moment, only War and Logistics were represented... but the out-of-character tags visible on their conversation revealed that the conversation wasn't exactly official guild business. In fact, it had very little to do with the guild at all.

"Three days this time," Gary growled through the mic as his warrior prowled back and forth in the center area of the room. "And then for only a half hour."

"She didn't even say anything to me," responded the voice of the guild's leading crafter, the former enchantress Necina. "Almost as if she wasn't even aware she's been gone."

"He..."

"Right... he. Not that it matters. You know I offered my digits, I thought she... he... might take me up on the chance to talk about whatever it is. He was so adamant that I not tell him."

"He's running from something. I'd hoped you were having better luck getting him to open up about it... but now... I'm not sure what to try. I thought you two... you know..."

"You should know. Don't think I didn't know that you were playing matchmaker, bringing him into AR. But to be honest... I thought we were, too."

"It wasn't the only reason... but I'm not averse to using one stone to bring down two dragons."

"That's a big stone."

"The only thing I was worried about was that he'd turn out to be too young for you, Natalie... but after that slip last year..."

"At least you were the only one who noticed it. It's bad enough that so many people know I'm actually female."

"You don't have anything to worry about... the BB know better and the few people that have been brought into AR that aren't from the old crew understand that we mean business about discrimination and maturity. You do a lot of the screening, I don't need to tell you..."

"I know Gary. But the Ring isn't the only place I spend time... and some of the online communities that are starting to be available through the industry make me wary. It doesn't help that some of those companies are using women as..." There was a distinct pause. "You know... that I've got an active meta-gene... right?"

"You've said some things over the years.. and with your age and everything... I... well, I thought it was pretty likely. Not many teens ever kept pace with the Beta Bunch and you were challenging some fairly established design theory with more than a few of the concepts for scripting and boss mechanics you presented in articles."

"I have three PhD's, Gary. Because I got bored and wanted to know more about the subjects. I'd probably be locked up in some government think tank project except most of the government flunky types are unwilling to to believe that a teen-aged girl might be their best possible candidate."

"And now..." he prompted.

"And now I know enough to keep them from being able to railroad me. I also have enough super groups that owe me favors for consulting that I can't just disappear."

"Handy."

"Could be... you need a shrink ray? I think I can get you a deal."

Gary snorted, and choked on something. Natalie suspected it was the coffee the old man was constantly drinking. While raiding, while exploring, during council meetings, while writing articles or posting on his blog; he always had a mug of his special blend ground fresh from several types of beans he kept in his freezer in the garage. Coffee was so much a part of the man's character that the Beta Bunch regularly replaced his usual shield or coat of arms with a silhouette of a steaming mug, on a field of beans. There had been a bit of a stir when the same thing had happened on GEO... and no one would claim having done it.

"Seriously... I think Jack has gotten mixed up with something down there. And knowing that part of Florida..."

"You know my neck of the woods?"

"I know about as much about Florida as your average forty year native... maybe more... since I started to get to know her... Jack."

"So you do have a bit of something going..."

"Maybe... but... maybe it's just on my part. She... he's avoiding me as much as he's avoiding you. And I'm almost positive it has to do with the Knights of Purity... and that club you took him to."

"Club?"

"The strip club."

"Uh... do I want to know how you know about that?"

"Probably not... but Gary, that's not just any old club to hang out with your guys and watch women strut around naked."

"I got that impression. It was far too upscale, even for Tampa. I don't know how they could bring in money on that level even as nice as it was."

"They don't. The owner is a mutant... and one of the backers for Baker's Dozen. She's probably blackmailing half the politicians in the southeast for one thing or another."

"Wait... what? Ah... hell."

"Exactly. The last thing I can find about Jack is a video feed outside her club... talking with one of the Knights of Purity. I don't have any sound... and the angle is wrong to read the lips. I've tried. I learned a dozen video enhancement processes just to try to work it out. But one thing I'm sure of... somehow, Jack got between the Knights of Purity and someone I'd rather never meet again. "

"You know her?"

"We... went to school together. Sort of. I was very young. She was graduating. But it was the pieces of people that were slowly being put back together after she left... that made me pretty sure the stories of her were worth remembering. She's not good people."

"But the Dozen are..."

"Most of Baker's people are good people, trying to be heroes. But not all of them stay on that side of the line all the time, Gary. It's why they have the rep they do. And she's why their rep is positive at all. And not because of her charity work."

"So, he's in trouble. What do we do?"

"We can't do anything. I don't even know where he is. I don't know what to study or where to start the puzzle to solve it. I don't need much... but I need a clue. He sat there... in this car, and he was there for... I don't know, fifteen or twenty minutes after the Knight got back in his armor and left. And I think he was crying."

"Nat...."

"I don't know why he was crying, Gary. And that's the last anyone has seen him, the video I can find with him in it... before he drove off and disappeared."

"I'll visit his parents. Maybe they can tell me something. If they will." Gary reassured her. He'd been to the house a few times. Didn't really like Jack's parents, but he'd put up with them if he could find anything out.

"Thanks... and... do you think I could use your couch for a few days? I need to see his apartment... see... something?"

"Oh, sure. There's a guest room, actually... we don't use it much, but you're welcome to it. Are you going to drive down? That's a couple days trip from where you're at, isn't it?"

"I'll have my bike... motorcycle... but, I'll probably get a lift down. Private... well, jet's not the right concept, but its close enough for normal explanations. I'm calling in a few favors."

 


Central Florida - Thursday November 30, 2006 – 10:22

Jackie tapped the watch on her wrist, a little concerned that it wasn't working properly. Time was operating a little, erratically. Or, maybe it was just her perception of it. Shifts weren't lasting the right length. She was losing time, somewhere. The divide between her thoughts as Jack and Jackie were becoming harder to bridge somehow, like they'd experienced with Hunk or the less intelligent bodies. If one of them spent some time thinking about something before the shift, it crossed over well enough... but more and more, it was like they found themselves as separate people. Completely picking up where they had left off before the shift. Without the extra boost in intelligence, Jackie wasn't sure she'd have even noticed. Jack had quickly dismissed it and gone about his day; playing games and watching porn on the computer. She spent most of her time in the gym or with Kimmy who, it turned out, actually did know quite well how to have a good time.

She had maybe twenty minutes to kill before they started the next text. The force fields that they had used in the last test were evidently a sort of personal level shield to protect someone against other mutants or munitions up to light artillery, but Sexpot had shredded them as if they hadn't even been there. The geek who had been with Kimmy had gone into some sort of spasms trying to explain what had happen before she'd led him out, promising to bring something more durable today. The poor geek had been hard the whole time... but then, Sexpot was clearly an Exemplar. A goddess compared to most women... not that she cared what some geek thought about. Only one man had any interest to her. And he was... he wasn't here.

But Jackie... the geek was put together well enough for her to play with. If there were time. That would probably depend on how well the force fields were set up today. They were working on that in the testing room now.

 


Central Florida - Thursday November 30, 2006 – 18:02

Jack woke in darkness, punctuated by random red-orange flashes of moving light and a terrible acrid burning in his throat. He coughed, but only lightly before a searing pain revealed that he was lying on his side, partly under some sort of metal structure or framework which was, itself, buried under what was probably a wall and part of the ceiling judging by the compression.

"Is... is anyone there?" he choked out, the smoke and pain competing to make it difficult to speak. His own voice seemed distant, muffled... like he'd popped his ears wrong on the airplane as pressure shifted. Something found its way into his eye and started burning, forcing him to struggle to free an arm... or anything, to wipe it out. The pain from moving around seemed less... either his senses were dulling, or he was finally getting some benefit out of being a mutant. They all seemed to heal more quickly than normal people. Although, he didn't remember regeneration being a typical part of Shifting. Maybe he was 'shifting' into a healthier form in some fashion.

He finally managed the right combinations of twisting and contortion to get an arm free and start to feel around in his immediate surroundings. The first discovery was that there was a lot of sticky liquid on the floor. Considering the coppery metallic scent that filled his mouth as he brought his hand close to his face, he was pretty sure it was blood. It was impossible to know whether it was his and if he was still bleeding out, though. Not without light.

Shifting to a smaller body might get him out of this trapped mess... but less strength might make it worse. If the fallen debris started moving to close the gap, it might keep moving until he were completely buried. Going with a larger body might give him the strength to fight his way free of the debris or he might just crush himself in the space he had available. Really.. the only form that would be safe, should be safe... would be the powerful form of Sexpot.

Could he risk it? What would happen if he took that form and she immediately took a direct line to where she knew she could find her bonded lover? He'd never determined if the original path he'd taken was directly towards him or just a heading that took him into Tampa where he believed he'd find the member of Baker's Dozen. He didn't even know exactly where he was right now, so it was possible that any direction he picked could be completely safe before her form expired.

He coughed again, noting that the acrid taste seemed worse and was in his lungs as well as his mouth and throat. The pain elsewhere had lessened, but the air was getting worse. Could he survive the smoke and bad air long enough for rescue?

Certainly, it wouldn't be any terrible loss to the world if Sexpot died in this bunker. It would be better if that happened than if he took her shape and then blasted his way through Orlando, which couldn't be too far away if he were in central Florida as he'd been told.

But he owed Gary... and... Natalie... an explanation. The older man had done more fathering than his blood relatives had ever done; and he'd trusted Jack enough to give him an invite to the greatest game guild the world had ever known. Maybe that wouldn't mean much to the rest of the world. But it meant everything to Jack Rizeppi. And damn it all, he liked Natalie. Aside from all her geek cred, she was a great friend and they had chemistry. A lot of chemistry. And from the hints from Gary, she wasn't really a fifty year old bearded guy in someone's basement somewhere... in fact, she might be as in to Jack as he was to her.

He wanted to know if that was true.

So he'd figured out how to control Hunk and the various sex bodies... it was all about the thoughts active in the mind at transition. If he could just convince her not to go flying off out of control. To just get free of the bunker and then wait for the shift to end.

Focus. Focus. Focus. Every time he thought he had everything totally lined up and ready, his smoke battered lungs would complain and he'd have a coughing fit. He was running out of time. He had to make it work.

He clamped his mind down like a vice on the important directives of getting free of the bunker and then just waiting for the shift to expire. And then... triggered the change with a quick thought about that lust filled moment when her template had locked.

A weak wave of lust ran through him, the sign that that form had already been used and worn out for the day. Despair and then horror ran through him as he realized that not only could he not escape as Sexpot, that it was likely that being her was what produced the disaster around him. His eyes stung, and he told himself weakly that it was the same smoke that was burning in his throat. There wasn't anyone else there to call him out on the lie.

 


Central Florida - Monday December 4, 2006 – 11:11

Jackie woke to the teasingly pleasant touch of soft whispery fine silk being pulled lightly over her lips and cheek. Those lips parted slightly, just enough for the intake of breath she needed for a short "mmmmm." But even as one type of appetite awoke, so did another and her sense of smell was suddenly struck with the incredible scents of eggs, Belgian waffles, bacon and fresh squeezed juice. Mouth salivating, she nipped at the cloth with her teeth and started to sit up.

"Easy dear," Kimmy teased. "You had a bit of an accident with the weekend's exercise. Try not to move around too much until the doctor has a chance to look you over and make sure everything is still healing alright. He did say you would probably be hungry, though; so I thought I would bring you some breakfast... in bed, of course. Do you want me to serve you?"

Jackie withheld her urge to simply leap out of bed to the table and devour everything there. If Kimmy wanted to serve her, it was only fair to let her. Jackie could be a sub if she needed to play the part; but Kimmy didn't seem to understand that her usual role as blackmailer didn't make her the dominant she liked to present herself to be. And the sooner Kimmy learned to accept her real role, the sooner she would find the happiness she couldn't quite get being Baker's partner and 'controller.'

"That would be sweet of you," she smiled at Kimmy. "To be honest, though; I don't feel like I had an accident. What happened?"

"Oh, nothing too horrible..." Kimmy responded, trying to mask her initial reaction as she put together a plate of food. She handed Jackie a glass of the juice, which was mostly orange but had a few other fruits mixed in. "We overloaded some equipment and we were worried that the backlash might have pushed you into a burnout... but the doctor assures us our concerns were mislaid. We've just been pushing you too much too regularly and evidently, you haven't been eating enough. So your body just shut down to recover."

"I wasn't eating enough? I feel like a pig most of the time," and it probably looked like it from the outside, as she ate shovelful after shovelful of the eggs and bacon Kimmy was pushing towards her.

"That's part of being a mutant. Some people get their energy from the outside, but a lot of us have to fuel what we do from purely natural digestive processes. And that can mean a lot of food."

"Why did I wake up as Jackie?"

"What do you mean?" Kimmy asked, not really giving the question much attention as she put together a third plate of food for her patient.

"I mean... usually, after being asleep to start of the day, I wake up as Jack. That's the default... I can't be Jackie all day, even if I can be her for a lot longer than I could when she first locked."

"Oh..." Kimmy actually paused long enough for Jackie to grab a piece of bacon off the plate herself, which prompted her host to go back to feeding her. "I think you've actually been Jackie constantly since the accident, though. Are you sure Jack has to be the default?"

"I... no. I suppose not. But if not, it means some of the assumptions of how my Shifting works might be... wrong."

"Well, that is why we are testing you," Kimmy argued pointedly.

"In that case, you'd better feed me faster... or get a doctor in here to clear me to feed myself so we can get back to testing. If I can take on alternate forms on a permanent basis; we have a lot more work to do."

Though she tried to hide it, Jackie saw Kimmy's victorious look and spent the next few hours going over the conversation she had just had with a fine tooth comb. Jack might be a naive little boy; but when Dee had created her dream mistress to see through her own charade, she had given Jackie more than a little paranoia and deviousness to go with the intelligence. Everything Kimmy had done since day one had been a con... it was just a question of what her end-game could be. And how Jackie would turn it into something she could win.

Let Jack play his little fantasy games with pixels. This was the sort of game Jackie was made to win.

 


St. Petersberg, FL - Tuesday November 28, 2006 – 18:20

While the motorcycle Natalie pulled up on was configured like a Japanese rice rocket, the deep rumble of its engine at idle was closer to that of a Harley... or, perhaps more accurately, those more accustomed to being revved to the cheers of monster truck rally crowds. Neither cars nor engines were Gary's area of expertise, but even he knew that the two things didn't belong in the same machine. The only question was whether it was the work of a Gadgeteer... or a Devisor. Or, from the more immediate perspective; was it really safe to have it sitting next to his own completely normal car.

"He bought this?" the older man asked as the two vehicles shut down. "There's no way he made even a down payment on something like this from his job at the game shop." It was a gorgeous old house surrounded by the gardens and appearances of Southern old money; but supposedly remodeled on the interior with all the gadgets and conveniences that might be wanted by a rising star in the tech industry. If it had been on the open market, there was no way it had been there at less than a million three. And like the classic car sitting on the drive, both were not only far beyond Jack's possible budget but completely out of character for the young man they knew.

The young woman who unwound herself from the back of the motorcycle looked like she belonged on the list of 'impossibly bad assed female avatars' in an action game more than in real life. She wore her long straight black hair braided down her back; though that might have been a concession to riding the motorcycle. She had subtly done makeup which accented her gray eyes and gave her some maturity and age that her natural features hid. Without it, he suspected, she still got mistaken for a teenager. She was built slim, but had a sort of controlled grace that suggested good physical training and muscle control... and probably more than a little skill with a martial art. And, of course, she was wearing aqua blue biking leathers with silver metallic accents and heavy boots; which had to be warm in the Florida sun, but would keep her safe on that bike... and might actually be part of a costume with body armor or more advanced technology in it.

"Not directly," his friend of almost a decade answered him. Natalie had barely reached her teens when they had first met, in an online discussion group about the development of the first large scale multi-player games. He had already made his mark on the industry, mostly as a reviewer and advocate for the community of players. Her insights had impressed him immediately, as she took apart the arguments of reviewer and developer alike to reveal the truth about what appealed to gamers; the underlying psychology of goal setting, problem solving, the balances between risk and reward. Even after ten years, she still surprised him with how well she knew human beings and how foolish people were who failed to see just how wise and how important she was to the world. Or would be, once people were able to look past the college co-ed exterior.

"What does that mean?" he asked, as he followed the stone path up to the main door.

"He paid money to someone, signed papers to take over ownership. For the house, the car... some other things in town. But it's pretty clear that none of that was handled in the normal fashion. If he'd had any experience before this, even signing a lease on an apartment; he would have realized something was wrong... and even still, it's hard to believe he would have been this naive."

"So..."

"So, someone made it possible for him to put a down payment on a house, buy a car, office space and a bunch of things for a cash payment. In full. Totaling millions of dollars. And then handled all the paperwork in a way that made it seem like something he could afford. There is no evidence that Jack ever had millions of dollars. It would be like me selling you my bike for a dollar."

"Which is clearly worth more than that."

"Probably as much as this house is," she agreed, grinning at the look on his face. Then the look shifted back to an angry scowl as she focused on the door. "And I haven't been able to track it back to its sources. So we're talking government, or super-human technology of some sort. Which, these days, considering the recruiting the government is doing legal or otherwise... is pretty much the same thing."

"But why would someone with these resources take an interest in Jack?"

She had the gadget in and out of the lock and the door open so fast, Gary almost thought that the door had been unlocked... until he saw the metal filings land on the door frame. Their steps into the foyer produced enough wind to scatter what was left of the mechanism to the wind.

"Did you know that Jack is a mutant?" she paused, putting her hand on his arm to stop him from going further into the house. Gary looked at her sharply, surprised. "So he didn't tell you either. I'm not surprised... his parents didn't know."

"Jack is a mutant? What kind?"

"I don't know. The military believed he was a low level exemplar," she explained before seeing the confusion in Gary's expression. "Exemplar is your basic improved body and mind... normally its sort of 'human' with the dial cranked up to 11... or 12. No special powers or anything; just human, only better. There's more to it than that, and there's often a archetypal ideal involved that... well, as far as ability goes, that's not really important."

Gary nodded, making the connection to some of the news reports of the past decade. "But Jack's not even especially athletic, let alone above average," he pointed out.

"No, but then physically, neither am I," she gestured at her own leather clad figure. Gary raised an eyebrow in response. "No, really... completely un-enhanced by my evil mutie genetics. But up here," she tapped the side of her head, "I'm several steps above what they consider normal capability. The point is: Exemplar doesn't just express itself as purely physical or a boost across the board. It also often expresses an ability at max performance potential, basically all the time."

Gary gave her another look of confusion.

"A mutant Exemplar doesn't need to train to lift a car. If they are capable of lifting a car, they can lift that car today whether they spent the last year working out in a gym or eating bon-bons and being a couch potato."

"Handy. If you like the crap that's on television these days," they shared a look of disgust.

"Thing is, that peak potential point doesn't have to be above the ability range of a normal human. In fact, the first couple ranks of Exemplar rating aren't."

"So it's possible to have a mutant gene that prevents you from getting in shape?"

"Yes. And that's what the Army doctors discharged him for being," she explained, releasing Gary's arm and walking around the corner into the front room. Gary followed her, looking over the furniture that she uncovered as she went. Each piece suited the room very well and most of them appeared to be antique pieces. Again, extremely expensive and completely unlike the personality of the young man they knew.

"That makes sense, really. The endurance and combat training the military relies on to develop soldiers wouldn't help someone who is always stuck at a specific physical peak that is below that of a trained soldier."

"Right. But I don't think that's what Jack really is."

"Why not?" Gary asked.

"Does Jack still look like the kid who had just graduated from high school and gone into the Army?"

Gary started to shrug before realizing what she was talking about. He nodded to himself, thinking about how Jack had slowly filled out, shoulders widening, face becoming a bit more lean and scruffy. Not really any more athletic, but still growing into a man, just as most do through their early twenties.

"No, I guess he doesn't," he agreed, following her into the next room. This one was more in line with what he might expect from Jack, if Jack were to come in to a lot of money. The home office was, again, taking its layout from the idea of having everything that a young tech businessman might want; but with added enhancements on the computer system and desk layout that were more likely the influence of a gamer. Unlike the front room, this room had been completely set up and used.

"Most Exemplar can be mistaken for adults almost from the point at which they manifest. The only time that isn't the case is when their BIT... the template that their body is shooting for... is significantly different from their original body or when there is no physical component, like mine. Jack is still filling out... and he's definitely done so since his boot camp testing."

"So he isn't an Exemplar."

"Right," she agreed, powering up the computer. "He's not an Exemplar."

"So what is he?"

"I... don't know."

Gary looked at her surprised, then gave her a more focused look as looked away, fiddling with the computer. "Nat, what is he?"

"I don't know. For certain. Honestly."

"But you have a guess."

"Yeah," she said sadly, biting her lip.

"Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like it?"

"Because you won't... and because if I'm right, its going to mean a lot of really bad things are going to happen. And we can't be sure Jack is going to get out of it all ok," she walked away from the desk. "Nothing on it, it's practically new out of the box... he hasn't even used a browser on it yet, just GEO. We need to find the one he had before he upgraded." She headed back to the main hall.

Gary ground his teeth and followed her, "So what is he?"

"It's more a matter of... " she began, before turning the corner into the kitchen. She picked up several papers off the counter and flipped through them quickly. "Some sort of shopping and housekeeping service. These are the groceries that replaced everything that was used between visits. Either he had five or six guests or..."

"He was pregnant?"

"What?" Natalie stopped, startled. "No," she continued, seeing that he was joking. "No, but its pretty clear that he was feeding a metabolism that is far above normal human. That doesn't really help to narrow it down... but it does show that something changed from when he was living in Fort Myers and continued when he moved here."

"So it is more a matter of?"

"Of who he is."

"Who?"

"I think he's the woman that the media is calling Sexpot."

"What? No. Jack is no terrorist. He wouldn't do that," the bearded gamer defended his young friend.

"Not intentionally... but think about it Gary. No terror group has presented a serious accepted claim. There was nothing specifically accomplished by what they are calling an attack, despite what Bank of America wants to claim. From the video I've been able to get hold of, she looks lost. Confused. Like you might if you suddenly found yourself flying around slamming into buildings and can't get your bearings or find your way out of it."

"But we've seen Jack since then," he protested

"I know. But what if..."

"If it was him, it explains why he was so freaked out about the Knights of Purity."

"Right. And why he wouldn't tell us," she added.

"Because he wouldn't want any connection leading back to us. He's got to be feeling guilty about it... the media certainly haven't painted her as lost, they've gone straight to 'monster.' And she did kill some people. Jack's a good kid, that would eat at him big time." Gary looked around at the house around them. "Someone set this all up to make it look like he took a lot of money to do what he did to Tampa, didn't they."

Natalie nodded solemnly, "That's what I came up with, yes."

"You knew what we were going to find when we got here, didn't you?" the older gamer asked, bitter anger starting to simmer in his words.

"I had a pretty good idea," she agreed. She pointed out utensils and supplies, all coordinated and neatly arranged. Like much of the furniture, the kitchen was mostly far beyond what would be set up by a young gamer like Jack. Were it viewed from the perspective of someone who didn't know him well; it would suggest an entirely different personality, one decidedly more worldly and interested in material wealth and appearance.

"So what's next?" Gary asked.

"That depends on what you think of Jack, now. Now that you know your padawan has taken a little trip over to the dark side, spent a bunch of skill points in force lightning, and blown up Alderaan along the way."

Gary let out a long sigh and rubbed his forehead. "He caused billions of dollars in damages, and killed people. What are our options?"

"Someone is trying to take what happened in Tampa and turn that into a controllable weapon. We need to get Jack back and under his own control... with some real training to make sure he CAN control it," she assured him adamantly.

"That's only one option. What else can we do?"

For a moment, she looked down biting her lip and noticed she was still holding the housekeeping updates. She smoothed the wrinkles out of them and put them back on the counter. Then, with voice cracking "We can find him and make sure that no one can control him and make him do it again."

"Why us, Nat? Why you? Can't we just walk away from this... he's our friend but ... " Gary couldn't make himself finish the thought aloud.

"Look at what happened in the game, Gary. We had this huge quest to take Jack's character to the Font. But once we got there, she got nothing out of it."

"Hardly nothing... her combat skills are ridiculously high for how long..."

"That's not what I mean and you know it. Font power drives character growth through transformation and artifact design. More of the guild members are in the top ranking charts now than ever before. But Terecia didn't benefit from the Font at all. There was a moment at the end of the battle when she wasn't there. And then she was back to rescue me. You can see it in several of the videos people have posted."

"I know, I've seen it... mostly with people telling me they think she's a plant from the evil side..." he looked around the room and shrugged. "Maybe I should take them more seriously... maybe Jack IS going dark side on us."

"I think it's the opposite. I think he was offered the chance and turned it down. To be the character that brought the Apropos Ring to the Font of Darkness for their slaughter... that would be enough of a coup to boost her way into the ranks of the powerful on that side. And yet, Terecia was there in time to save me from one of the few things that would have really hurt my character... and the whole guild, for that matter. Jack came back for us... can we do any less for him?"

"No, of course not... but..." Gary growled "look, don't do the rallying speech thing on me. I agree... he's our friend and we should get him back. And then worry about how to keep him from tearing down cities and somehow dealing with the murders... " he raised his hands placating Natalie as she started to look frustrated again. "I know you think it was accidental. I get that... but it still happened. And we can't just ignore it."

"I know... but..."

"But you are in love with him and mounting a rescue is the only thing you care about doing right now."

She looked at him, surprise slowly spreading into a smile. "It is."

"I've known you for ten years, girl. That should give me something of a clue how you think... you might be a super-brain, but you're still practically my daughter," he smiled paternally. "I just wish you'd told me your suspicions sooner. Maybe we could have stopped all this."

"I didn't know that early. And by the time I saw the tape of him in his car after talking to the Knight of Purity; I think it was already too late," the young woman sighed in frustration. "I'm pretty sure that's the last time he's been free."

"But that means he's played GEO from wherever he is," Gary pointed out, hope filling his voice.

"That would help only if it were possible to hack GEO for log in location info. And its not."

"Didn't you say government or super-human systems..."

"I did," she agreed, then laughed at the look on the older gamer's face. "GEO? Not normal. Come on Gary, no one believes GEO was just a normal game development."

"Well... no. But that doesn't mean I expected some actual confirmation of that."

"Well, there you go. Mutant super-brain telling you that whoever is behind GEO is smarter or more server savvy than she is. My sources tell me magic is involved, but at that level magic and science are more alike than different; so I'm not sure who is right."

"So... it could be anyone? Gizmatic? Dr Diabolik?"

"Uh... no... probably not. Probably not anyone who is a public figure actually," she assured him. "We pretty much know the techniques and goals of most of the powerful villains like that and a game for baselines and mutants alike doesn't really fall into anyone's M.O."

"We?"

"Those of us who keep up the public databases of the information we think everyone should have for safety reasons. Even a lot of the super groups use those resources, we keep it as neutral as possible and maintain the privacy of the people we list; so no one ever thinks to come looking for the source of the info."

"And who do you think is behind all this..." he asked, gesturing at the house.

"Oh, I told you who that is."

"You did?"

"Yes," she assured him. "Are you ready to go take on Baker's Dozen?"

"Uh... Natalie, you do remember that I'm a 'baseline' and an old gamer? And you're not exactly a brick, yourself."

"Don't worry about that... first though, let's see if we can find that other computer. Maybe we can narrow this all down some."

 


Central Florida - Saturday December 9, 2006 – 05:51

Jack woke slowly, pulling himself almost physically from the darkness of unremembered dreams. Every muscle and joint, every piece of flesh and bone all the way to the core of his being resisted his conscious will to come fully awake. It was like waking from a long induced sleep, like the anesthetized sleep of surgery. The recognition of the similarity confused him for a moment in his struggles, as he was unable to remember when he had ever been drugged for an operation.

After rubbing his eyes free of the gummy leftovers of sleep, he could see little of the room around him in the darkness. The usual LED alarm clock was gone from the nightstand beside the bed and there was no light from where the computer usually sat on the desk at the far wall. The barest hint of light came into the room under the door, but only enough to provide some frame of reference. But enough small variations suggested that this wasn't the room he'd last gone to sleep in... why would he have been moved in the middle of the night?

As he pushed the blankets away, he discovered that he wasn't he at all. Breasts, fairly large ones, lay beneath some sort of wispy sleeping dress that slid up his soft thighs as he slipped off the bed. He ran his hands along his sides, taking in the contours and confirmed that the body he was currently wearing was decidedly female. As the wispy cloth settled back down at mid-thigh, barely covering any of his long legs; he wondered why, with the female form, he still thought of himself as Jack.

Yet, there were none of the usual personality variations that led him to 'name' the different forms he took. Jackie had a sort of arrogant dominance, and thinking with her mind had a clear edge to it both sharper and more aggressive. Molly was the opposite, it was difficult to take control of anything or think clearly in that form. It had seemed, especially when he had been experimenting with Dee, that it would be almost impossible to learn a form that would think normally... because the sort of sexual focus necessary to trigger his ability didn't exactly involve clear thinking. Had Kimmy somehow solved that problem? If she had, why didn't he remember it? For that matter, what had they accomplished here? There were tests, lots of tests. But they seemed somehow distant.

He crossed the room on strangely sensitive bare feet, feeling the chill tile floor but not particularly bothered by it. The door, like most of the ones in his stay in the bunker, was not locked and did not appear to have a lock at all. Jack cracked it open, face pressed against the door frame to peer down the hallway. More light flowed into the room, but at a dim amber level, the usual night time lightning for the bunker complex.

A quick look back into the room revealed little more than a hospital room. The bed was a solid structure, clearly designed for a stronger specific purpose. He had seen something like it at the Science Center on a field trip, where they'd shown what sort of thinking had to be involved in every day life when you were a hero. Or a villain. A regular bed wouldn't hold a half ton of muscle and bone. Chairs would crumple. When you could pick up a car, it could be challenging to use an egg whip to make scrambled eggs and finding a house with a bath tub large enough to soak in after a hard day's work could be a problem. This was a bed designed to hold a brick.

He stepped out into the hallway and went left, following the wall from his room. At the end of the hall, it T-d; Jack could hear a quiet murmur of talking to the right. He padded cautiously that direction, appreciating the light body and the soft bare feet. Of course, they might be great for sneaking around; but what was he going to do when he found someone? Given his current state of undress; whoever it was, was going to get a bit of a show. There wasn't really any choice though, its not like there had been anything else in his room to put on. Though, he supposed; now that he thought of it, he could have wrapped the sheet or blanket around him.

As he approached the end of the side hall, the flicker of light and the sounds of speaking were more clearly identifiable as a television. Jack slipped up to the entry into the room and took a good look around what appeared to be a rec room or maybe movie viewing room. A number of fairly large, bulky but comfortable looking chairs sat in arcs in position to view a really large screen television, easily a one hundred inch screen; which was currently showing an old, classic movie. Jack didn't recognize it, but the setting was a courtroom and the actor playing a lawyer seemed familiar.

In addition to the chairs set up to watch the television, the large room had a number of small group areas and even single chairs isolated from other areas. The far corner even had a pool table and Foosball, while one of the near corners had a small bar and a large cooler.

"You!" croaked a voice from one of the nearby chairs. Jack had just enough time to recognize the source of the voice before he ducked back from the entry way. "Shit," muttered the voice, followed by the sound of large furniture being overturned. "that was... Xavier!" There was a strange digital ping. "Intruder alert, Xavier."

Oh shit! Jack bolted back down the hallway, one arm awkwardly pressed against breasts too large for running without restraint. He wasn't going to get back out of sight before...

"No intruder detected in this wing, sir."

"But I just saw her... that woman... check again, Xavier."

As he ducked around the corner, Jack sighed in relief. The mutant had stopped to argue with the computer or security team just long enough to give him a chance to stay out of sight. But he kept moving, not stopping until he was back in his room and had his back pressed against it from the inside. Jack didn't know why Kimmy had chosen to inform the computer of his presence but not her teammates; but at least now he knew what body he was wearing. The way she had reacted to the size and shape of the mutant brick, her glimpse of those powerful hands... Jack shivered as a wave of heat ran through him, leaving behind an ache for...

No, he told himself. He would not give in to this monster. No. No ... No.

A moment later, all thought went away; and Jack sunk back into the darkness of sleep.

 


Central Florida - Saturday December 9, 2006 – 06:18

"Well, no. There's no guarantee that they'll let us in, let alone answer any questions about Jack..." Natalie agreed with Gary. She was in the aqua blue leathers again, which confirmed his belief that it was her armor and colors.

"Then why are we here, especially this early in the morning?" Gary asked. He wasn't built to wear leather, so in preparing for the encounter; he had chosen a different sort of armor. It had been some time since he'd been anything but a very specialized reviewer; but he'd been a mainstream journalist at first. Few people harassed a serious reporter in a suit. It might not protect him from shrapnel and collateral damage, but it would mark him as a non-combatant in the same way that the red cross protected a medic on the battlefield.

"Because I went to school with most of these guys. With the team. And few people accumulate favors like information gatherers. But more importantly because, unlike most of her team; Kimmy runs a business that works late hours in Tampa on the weekends."

Gary barked out a laugh as he realized what she meant. "So the one person that we're really worried about, probably won't be here."

"Bingo," she grinned. "Only fair, since it was her erratic behavior; traveling back and forth several hours to this place like this, that gave me the idea to look here at all."

Gary pulled the car up to the gate. They had left Natalie's bike in a restaurant parking lot in the last town they'd passed through. For insurance... and backup... she'd insisted. He had no idea how the motorcycle was going to be backup, unless it was a transformer; but she'd avoided explaining.

"Now remember..." she reminded him as they got out of the car.

"Let you do the talking?"

"Right. Mostly, anyway. They're going to expect a reporter to ask questions, so it'll be odd if you don't... but, let me get us in and accepted first."

She pressed a call button on the security panel at the side of the gate. The system chirped and the screen flickered to life. A slightly unnatural sounding digital voice queried "Voice identification?"

"Memoria. And one guest," Natalie responded with a shrug. Gary mouthed the name back at her, questioning. She stuck our her tongue.

"Unauthorized. Please step away from the gate."

"Wait... contact Handler. Or Moose. Or Vulture. They know me."

"Unauthorized. Facility in emergency lock down. Please step away from the gate."

The computer chirped again, clearly indicating that they had been cut off.

"Well, that didn't go well," Gary noted.

"Emergency lock down," his young companion pointed out. "What sort of emergency lock down overrides voice access with people inside?"

As if in answer, the ground dropped out from under them before jumping several feet to the right. A moment later, their bearings barely regained; it rippled again, throwing both of them back off their feet. They didn't try to get back up as quake after quake hit, making them wonder if Florida were finally about to slide into the Atlantic. Then, about forty yards to the north, on the other side of the fencing; the ground exploded upwards. By the time the debris cleared, they were barely able to see a single human sized figure rapidly disappearing in flight to the northwest.

"Oh, hell," Gary swore.

"We've got to follow her. Hurry," Natalie urged him, heading for the car.

"There aren't any roads going in that direction... even if we could keep up with her."

"We have to try... come on, at least get me to my bike. I can track her through the ATC networks."

"Fine," Gary agreed, getting in the car, "Are we in the least bit worried that there might be people trapped in whatever just happened underground here?"

"No," she growled. "If they're trapped because they've been doing things to Jack, then they got what they deserved."

 


Perry, FL - Saturday December 9, 2006 – 10:30

The small roadside diner was quiet, all eyes focused on the news coverage of the morning's events. The sound of silverware hitting china and the sizzle of hash browns and sausage on the grill seemed alien beneath the lack of conversation; but not a single person wanted to miss a word coming out of the television speakers.

"... now confirming that the mutant terrorist referred to as Sexpot has destroyed a training compound northeast of Ocala owned by Florida super-hero group Baker's Dozen. While there are no deaths confirmed, two team members are still presumed missing in the collapse of underground complex tunnels. Several injuries are also reported. Excavations by team members and the Army Corp of Engineers are underway. It is believed that surviving team members are in other sections that were unaffected by the damages, and will be safe until a path is cleared to extract them.

Sightings as far as the panhandle, north of Panama City suggest that following the battle, the terrorist has fled Florida. Damages along her flight path continue to add to the total destruction attributed to this villain. Fortunately, the direction she has traveled has avoided most urban centers and may even have led her across the Gulf for a segment of her route.

Police and Federal authorities were tipped off this morning as to Sexpot's whereabouts since the terrible Tampa Bay attacks. However, any evidence the authorities have found seems to contradict what sources indicated should be present. This suggests a third party or an organized group is attempting to cover up information that would lead to the capture of this terrorist. Further inquiries are underway to determine why this information was only delivered today and what benefit might be gained for covering up the actions of a terrorist instead of claiming them.

More as the situation develops..."

An unusual couple, an older man in a suit and a young woman in a blue leather riding suit dropped a couple bills on the counter for their coffee and sandwiches and headed out the door. The locals gave them only the briefest attention before returning their focus to the television and the morning's excitement.

 


Bay Bares Nudist Park, Florida - Saturday December 9, 2006 – 15:13

For the second day that day, Jack found himself fully conscious wearing one of his female forms. From the long dark hair, it was most likely Jackie's face that would look back at him from the mirror... if he had a mirror. The jeans were tight enough that the only way they could have been smaller were if they were painted on, but at least the blouse covered up most of his assets. He was, once again, barefoot; however. This time that was going to be a problem, because he was sitting on a rock just off what appeared to be a country lane. He slipped off the rock and started down the lane, carefully watching where he was stepping.

So... he'd lost control of Sexpot and escaped. Somehow. From what he remembered of the moments before he'd become... lost... he had the uncomfortable notion that he'd lost his girl-side virginity. Obviously, something more than testing was going on with all the crap Kimmy had been doing to him. His ability was either different or broken in some fashion, the physical Shifts and the personalities not synching properly in some fashion. Logically, there wasn't really a reason why his Shifts had to have different personalities. After all, even in cases where they were mentally more efficient or less, or where there were chemical imbalances ... it was really just his mind treating them as characters in a game. They were separate identities because he needed them to be.

So he was Jackie. The clarity of thought was there, even if the other things that were part of her nature weren't being expressed right this moment. And, really, he could feel some of the inclinations. Her paranoia wasn't quite uncontrollable... her inclination towards control... hadn't been that much of a stretch from his own nature, really. But given expression as a separate identity, unleashed... she had gotten out of his control.

Why then, was she now 'in' his control. And why had he had control of the... the one the media called Sexpot... and then lost control?

In his musings, he'd missed seeing the buildings to one side, but now he approached what looked like the main office building for a camp or farm of some sort.

"Howdy young lady," welcomed an extremely overweight and very southern man, in shorts that he was only now buttoning up. Jack realized suddenly that the signs off to his right read, "Welcome to the Bare Bays Nudist Camp."

"Um... hi... " Jack was struck by how strange it felt to speak in Jackie's voice, even though he'd done so, as her, plenty of times. His lips and cheeks shaped things differently, his tongue touching on lips and teeth with a strange sensation "I'm sorry to bother you... but... "

But what? He had no money. No car, nothing. And no way to get anything except being a criminal... did he rob the nudists?

"Yes? Are you thinking about joining us here? We don't have many young women... or men... your age."

Jack could feel that strange sense of lust reach out and almost physically grab hold of him, the tingles of incipient Shifting about to happen.

"No," he answered, frustration and denial in his voice, as he answered both the obvious question and his own internal dialogue. At the same time, the denial stopped the sense of Shifting and while he could still feel that pipeline of emotion, of lust, connecting him to the older man; there was no flow of energy across it. It was there... but it wasn't changing him.

"Sorry," apologized the nudist, "You walked in... is... did your car...?"

"No... its ok, I'm sorry to bother you. I'm just trying to work something out," Jack explained.

"Well, you be careful out there... we get some perverts riding up these lanes sometimes hoping to catch a glimpse of our folk and you don't want them deciding you're a target."

"Thanks for the warning," Jack acknowledged. He could very much be a target for some pervert... the ideal target, if he wasn't careful. But... he had just stopped a Shift just this moment. He waved goodbye to the office manager, as his thoughts carried him back to the lane. So what happened to him wasn't uncontrollable. It was... two sided.

So what did he do? If he practiced enough, he could use the powered form to fight crime a couple minutes a day. With the right costume people might not connect her to the terrorist who wiped out Tampa. As long as he didn't fly. How long would it take doing that to 'pay back' what he'd done? There were people dead because of... her. Though, now that he thought about it... how much of the fault did he really deserve? Kimmy had set that up, created the situation where Sexpot was born and then launched her like a rocket. No... he couldn't escape the blood on his own hands; but he had to stop thinking that it was his fault and only his fault.

That meant he needed to put some light on Baker's Dozen and get people to see what Kimmy was really doing. That probably meant that he needed another group of heroes. And it would mean turning himself in, even if that meant spending time in jail. So where was the nearest group of supers capable of challenging Kimmy and Baker's Dozen?

Jack looked up and around the country lane he was walking. For that matter... where the hell was he?

Up ahead, the lane appeared to end, connecting with a state or county road. As he approached it, he could hear a vehicle coming down the lane behind him and stepped off the side of the lane to allow it to pass him; wary of what he'd been told. It came to a stop beside him, the window rolling down on the passenger side.

"Bobby's a good man, but some days he don't have two brain cells to rub together. I told him you don't have no car out here," came a husky female voice from inside the old Buick. It's owner, clothed in a simple old dress was in her late fifties and had a sort of leathery texture to her skin that suggested she was either a smoker or had spent most of her life in the sun... or both. "Come on, get in."

"Thanks, but I just need to walk and do some thinking."

"Girl, you don't have no shoes. No purse. And we are miles from everything out here. You're not just walking and thinking. You don't even know where you are, do you? How long did you sit waiting for him to come back and get you?"

Jack just looked at her, confused.

"The boy that done left you here when you wouldn't put out?" she encouraged. After a pause, "Ah, sweety; he didn't drug you did he?"

Jack made the connection with an almost audible click. "Oh... no.. nothing like that. But... you're right, I guess. I don't know where I am. What's the nearest town?" he asked, climbing into the car.

"That'd be Fountain... it's just up the road a bit."

"Ok," Jack agreed. "I'll just... call someone to come..."

As she turned off the lane onto the state road, the older woman gave Jack a no nonsense look. "If you were from these parts, you'd know that there's nothing in Fountain. No where for you to wait even if you had money to make a call to have someone out here... and you could just as easily have asked to use my cell. Or the phone back in the office."

Jack nodded.

"I don't know who you're running from or what he done to you. But you keep running. Don't call him and apologize. Keep going. You help me with some errands today I need to do down in Panama City, and I'll give you enough money to hop on a bus to the city somewhere he can't find you so easy. New Orleans, maybe... or Texas."

He looked at her, a bit wide-eyed.

"Don't you worry none, I been where you are and someone gave me a hand. It's about time I paid it back," she reassured the younger woman. "And we'll stop at a thrift shop and get you some shoes and things to change in to."

It was all Jack could do to keep the smile hidden as he turned and watched the woodland. Things to change into, indeed. The whole problem was too many things to change into. Still, she'd offered a solution... and he could find another team of heroes in New Orleans or Dallas. Now, as long as he managed to stay in Jackie's form long enough to get to Panama City and get on the bus west...

 


Florida Panhandle - December 8, 2006 – 19:51

"There's nothing out here Natalie. It's almost all woodland. That's good news for the damage and injuries count, but it's going to make it almost impossible to figure out where Jack ended up."

The young woman was messing with something like a smart phone, with a larger touch screen, that she called a tablet. It had all the power of a computer, in fact it seemed more powerful than most of the computers he'd used. Custom built, it was mostly limited to software she had designed specifically for it, but she claimed that commercial models were under development by a few of the big computer and electronics companies and would use the same principles as smart phones, with applications available through a global market. It made Gary smile to see it; he kept geeking out over the Star Trek reader and hand held computer connection.

"I don't know why they can't refine the end point of his flight more than this. They can tell us where a Cessna is within a couple yards but this area is over ten miles across. That's ridiculous," she complained.

"You know they had that big argument between the military and those private researchers over the... situation in Tampa. Maybe there is something to it?" he questioned.

"You mean that her flight isn't 'normal'? You know at least part of that has to be right. No one I've ever met has a flight ceiling that low... it's usually just a matter of being able to breath that prevents a flier from going higher. And she clearly flies slower than radar shows. But you saw how fast she was moving when she left the bunker."

Gary nodded in agreement, "Most of what you're getting is coming from ATC radar results, right? If it can't get accurate readings of speed, wouldn't that impact position too?"

"No... " she disagreed, then paused. "Ok, I suppose that's possible. So what we need is something that relies on visual images." She started tapping and dragging things around the screen of her computer. After a moment, she continued "... and... wow... she's hot."

Gary snorted.

"Not like that you pervert. Thermal images..." she waved him over to look at the screen. "IR satellite view."

"That can't be right... that much heat, would cook her."

"You'd think. That's not standard pyrokinetic flight either though; but it might explain some of the turbulence patterns. Actually... hmm..."

Gary nudged her along with the reminder of the real goal "... if you have visual, does it show where she ended up?"

"What? Oh... not quite. That one was in position for a lot of southwestern Florida for hurricane watching. There isn't as much purposed for up here," Nat explained. "We're lucky we got that much."

"So what do we do now? We don't have the manpower to do a manhunt through these woods and we can't exactly go public to get people to help us look for him without revealing what we believe."

"But if we..."

"Natalie, I know you're very capable and given time you'll figure out how to find Jack..." Gary assured her, "but its getting dark. We're not going to find him tonight and I don't have the slightest idea where the nearest place that we can stay might be... short of sleeping in the car. I think we should log into GEO, or at least the guild forums, and leave Jack a message that worried. That we're looking for him. And tell him where we are."

"That's... " Natalie started. "... that's actually a really good idea."

"That's why I get paid the big bucks," Gary nodded sagely. "I don't know if he's in a position where he wants to admit that there's a problem, yet... but let's give him an option. At least he'll know we're here, if he wants to lean on us."

Natalie wrapped her arms around him in a solid hug. "Thanks, Gary."

Comments   

0 # ~Archangel~ 2015-12-06 18:10
Ok just finished this, glad to see these characters back. Now I'm really curious about what's been done to Jack. Poor guy can't catch a break. I love it.
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0 # Malady 2016-01-30 19:36
Hmm... Still interesting!

Is there something wrong with the formatting after here? The line width seems to shrink...:

"Fort Myers, FL - Monday November 6, 2006 – 15:13"
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0 # Kristin Darken 2016-01-31 06:11
Mmhmm. Looks like a blockquote tag slipped its way in there somehow. Should be gone now.
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0 # Wil 2016-07-12 03:54
Is there more coming? I hope so, I'm really enjoying it.

Wil
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0 # Kristin Darken 2016-07-12 19:14
Indeed. :)
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