Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy: (Chap 2)
Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy / Part 2
Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy
by Diane Castle (with assorted angelic and demonic assistance)
<(Lancer) Fey, your barrier.>
<(Fey) On it.>
<(Lancer) As we planned…>
Suddenly, a massive row of ‘soldiers’ in power armor and in mobile armament popped up at the distant firing line and opened fire. A dozen energy bursts and small shells exploded against Fey’s barrier, each one marked by a burst of green where the magical barrier was hit. The firepower increased steadily.
<(Lancer) Tennyo, suppressive fire. Flank left.> Tennyo took off at top speed, swerving around to the left and launching plasma balls from her right hand.
<Remember Phase will be coming up from behind the enemy, so don’t overshoot. Fey, suppressive fire if you’ve got energy to spare.> Fey faced the enemy and put her arms up. A blue sphere launched itself at the right side of the firing line.
<Phase, infiltrate. Go far enough to avoid the suppressive fire.> Phase dove into the ground.
<Chaka? ‘Dancer? Flank right, watch out for incoming.> They took off, weaving and dodging as a portion of the firing line focused their way.
<Shroud, Spinner, Kitty Compact. You’re with me. Straight up the middle. Weave to evade their fire.>
<(Fey) You should be able to pass through the barrier from this side.>
Lancer flew through the barrier, accompanied by Shroud and two ‘devises’. He rapidly pulled away from them, since he was flying at about twice their speed. Fey threw several covering charms in front of him, each one exploding in a burst of light and then leaving a thick cloud of smoke in its wake. Lancer used them for cover, and then veered unpredictably while he was screened by them.
Tennyo flew in an arc, off on the left flank, dodging the massed firepower from the firing line. She had no trouble changing direction or zigzagging about, since she was ignoring inertia. But the more she dodged and the more plasma blasts she threw, the more the firing line concentrated on her. Just how many heavy weapons did they have over there anyway?
Phase counted seconds in his head as he flew underground. He was just praying he didn’t hit a live power line, or something worse. He really needed the improvements for his headmask that Bugs was working on. Well, that Bugs was supposed to be working on. If those shoulder angels had been holograms, there was no way that wasn’t Bunny’s work.
Fey threw another four covering charms in front of Lancer and Shroud. She was drawing Essence from the Earth at a pretty hefty rate, what with the barrier to protect her and Jade, plus all the covering ‘explosions’ plus the explosive blasts she was hurling at the firing line. She figured she had enough Essence for another several attacks, so she launched two more of the blue spheres at the right side of the firing line. Each one fried electronics within fifteen feet of impact, so between her attacks and Tennyo’s plasma blasts the enemy was taking a beating.
Generator watched Shroud and Kitty Compact and Spinner zooming at the enemy. That left her with a charge to spare. She launched a quartet of explosive missiles from her armbracer. They snapped out into aerodynamic shapes and zoomed off, staying in a tight formation.
Chaka couldn’t feel the shifts in Ki that would tell her a person was focusing on her. So she had to dodge a lot, and keep an eye on anything being launched her way. She and Chou just needed another few seconds, and they’d be able to run up the thirty-foot concrete reinforcement wall that marked the edge of the range. Then they’d be able to move at that firing line without spending all their time trying not to get their booty blown off.
Shroud was flying as fast as she could, but Lancer was leaving her behind. Even Jade’s missiles were almost caught up with her. Every time she zigged or zagged, she lost time. Plus, some of the weapons launched energy blasts that she couldn’t see. She could see the ‘shells’, and she could see things that normal people couldn’t, but the bursts of – well, they might be light energy – she couldn’t see until they hit something. Like her. A burst tagged her, causing her vest to beep once at her. She couldn’t see the color of the light, but she could tell from the lack of pulsing electricity and the lack of a steady beeping signal that it wasn’t the flashing red warning, so she wasn’t ‘dead’. She tried zigging from side to side a bit more.
Tennyo tore through the incoming fire, ignoring everything that didn’t hurt a lot. She threw a blue plasma sphere at the incoming shells, and it disintegrated everything with a reassuring flash. Her vest kept flashing, but the yellow light kept returning to green. Was the system figuring these things wouldn’t really hurt her? What the heck. She was going to keep charging until she got the flashing red light. She hurled a pair of blue spheres at the closest weapons platforms that were still firing – she’d already wrecked the half dozen closest to her.
Phase came up through the ground and took a deep breath. He whirled around at the same time, since he didn’t want the enemy forces to spot him before he spotted them. He was maybe twenty-five yards behind the line of firing robots. The robots and weapons platforms definitely looked the worse for wear. One end looked like Tennyo had been using it for target practice. The other end looked like Fey had been turning sophisticated weapons systems into sparking hulks. Sweet. He went disruption-light and flew into the closest ‘tank’, trying to ignore the pain as he flew through the higher-voltage electronics in the thing. Then he turned to his left and flew down the line toward Fey’s end, frying every electronic system he touched.
Lancer gauged Phase’s path by the row of tanks and robots that were suddenly shorting out. Starting from the center of the line and moving to the right, flashes of electricity and small bursts of black smoke were marking a path of disruption and destruction. Lancer shifted his path slightly so he could take the tank to the left of Phase’s swath. He would work his way leftward through the line until he met up with Tennyo’s killzone. At least, that was his plan. He never saw the shell from his left that caught him in the side. His vest flashed yellow, and then went directly to red. He dropped to the ground and lay there, cursing up a storm at getting caught like that. He hadn’t really believed that any of the weapons would register a ‘kill’ on him.
Phase had already reached the end of the working machines, and halted abruptly before he ran into one of Fey’s magical blasts. He reversed direction and headed back to the other side, hoping he didn’t get hit by one of Tennyo’s ‘destructo-spheres of doom’.
Chaka and Bladedancer ran down the wall to face off against the line of robots. They both stopped when they saw that every weapons platform and robot in sight was already ruined. None of the ones at their end of the line were moving, and most were sparking disconsolately or giving off sad puffs of black smoke.
Chaka stared at the wreckage and her shoulders sagged. “Damn! They didn’t leave anything for us!”
Chou said, “Perhaps there are some weapons left in the middle of the line.”
“Okay! Let’s rock!” They sprinted down the line of opponents.
<(Shroud) Lancer is down. Repeat, Lancer is down. He’s signaling me to move on, so he’s not really hurt. But we lost Lancer.>
<(Chaka) Okay, we need to wrap up fast. Phase, Tennyo. Keep at it. Shroud, go back and check on Lancer and make sure he’s really okay.>
<(Tennyo) Phase, pull up. I’m about to finish off the last couple.>
<(Phase) Roger that. Not interested in getting disintegrated.>
<(Fey) No more incoming. Generator and I are moving up to check on Lancer too.>
The debrief had been going on for five or six minutes. Lancer had stood there in front of Everheart and Bardue and taken responsibility for sending himself up the middle against fire of unknown strength. Everyone else had chimed in that they had agreed to it. On the other hand, Lancer hadn’t expected to hear that every team had lost at least one brick to the firepower. Everheart had firmly pointed out, “Just because you can take a two-ton boulder off your skull doesn’t mean that you’re proof against high-end tank rounds and anti-mutant rounds.”
Bardue finally summarized, “So, let me get this straight. Even your frontal assault was a diversion?”
“Yes sir,” Lancer said. “Against robotic infantry, our best weapons are really Tennyo and Phase and Fey.”
Bardue frowned, “That’s… That’s actually pretty damn good for beginners. But Lancer? Next time, don’t get killed.”
“Team Kimba… Dismissed!”
Once Team Kimba trooped out of the debriefing room, Bardue turned to Everheart. “You heard ‘em over our rifle mikes. How the fuck did they know what was coming? Maybe they’ve got reconnaissance skills they’re not telling anyone. They do have a pretty high-powered mage. Or maybe they’ve got good tactical presence and some strategic planning, to go with that high-end commo.”
Everheart said, “Phase is Ayla Goodkind. She’s supposedly worth billions, right? Maybe she bought some high-end subspace communicators for the team.”
Bardue frowned in thought. “Maybe. We picked up the comm signals from the Power Cats and Omega Squad, even if we haven’t tried to decrypt either, so we know what they’re using. Good thing we had the Foob listening in on the S.T.A.R.s, since they’re using Psymod’s telepathy for their commo. So maybe it really is a subspace comm-band system. Christ. That kind of thing costs more than this entire range is worth. Fucking Goodkinds…”
Everheart grinned, “I liked Tennyo. Did you watch the video footage off cameras 9 and 10?”
“Haven’t scanned it yet.”
“Let me pull it up. Watch. See these balls she’s throwing? Watch what they do over here on camera 2…”
“Yeah. The first one munched an entire half-track, and two robots on the far side of it. And then she took a direct hit from a blast off Puncher 4… There… Which the computer marked as ‘injury - quick recovery’.”
Bardue nodded, “Yeah, I can believe that. You know at Halloween she had a leg blown off?”
“Watched the Security videos of it.”
Bardue said, “According to our systems, it re-grew before she had a chance to tackle her attackers.”
“That’s what it looked like.” Everheart shook her head. “Still, it’s pretty hard to believe.”
Bardue nodded, “Hell, you saw what she did in the combat final. Did you see the Security report on her little Christmas escapade?”
“Oh yeah. Definitely a ten on the MCO threat ratings. And it’s not like the rest of her team was slacking off out there. Mages aren’t supposed to be able to whip up barriers and attacks that powerful in two seconds. And Lancer’s obviously a good team leader. He just under-estimated the available firepower. His file says he took a round from an Abrams before he came to Whateley, he may not have known there was anything that could stop a PK brick like him.”
Bardue leaned back and broke into a big grin. “You know what? Maybe we could have some real fun with Team Kimba this term…”
POWERS THEORY CLASS
Vox checked her watch. She was sure she was in the right room, but there was no one here except her and two white girls she didn’t know. It was 8:35 now. Where was the teacher? She was thinking about getting up and leaving. Or at least asking the other two girls if they knew what was going on.
After another minute of nervous waiting, the attractive blonde girl looked around and asked, “This is the class for Sirens, is it not?” There was no mistaking that this girl was a Siren. She had interesting harmonics and overtones that rang around her every syllable. And Vox was pretty sure from that accent that the girl was Russian. Hmm. Hadn’t Ayla complained about some little Russian blonde who hung with the Alpha wannabe’s and was a Siren?
The other girl, who had brown hair with dyed-in blonde streaks (and wasn’t nearly as cute as the blonde), said, “Oh thank God, I was worrying about the same thing!” That girl had another strange Siren voice. Hers sounded like she was harmonizing with five other people who weren’t visible. It reminded Vox of when Ayla’s friends had dragged her off to watch some stupid Star Trek movie, and the Borg had spoken. Ayla had wanted Vox to sit with him and watch the movie, but his friends thought Vox would be interested in the Borg ‘voice’.
Vox volunteered, “I’m Vox.”
The blonde only said, “Glissade.”
The brunette smiled and turned to face Vox. “Hey! I’m Chorale. You’re a frosh, aren’t you? I’m a sophomore over in Whitman.”
Just then, the door beside the blackboard opened, and in walked three people. Vox recognized Dr. Hewley from her powers testing. And she recognized Screech from that nightmare in the gym on Halloween. The third person looked like a junior or senior girl. Vox had no idea who she was. It looked like Dr. Hewley and the older girl were practically dragging Screech into the class.
Dr. Hewley was saying, “Please Screech, just give it a try. I know you don’t want to be here, and I know you’d rather be taking that course on Necromancy, but I think you’ll get a lot more out of this class.”
Screech finally let her shoulders sag in a silent acceptance of defeat. She unhappily slunk into a seat.
Dr. Hewley looked at the three girls who had been waiting, and smiled. “This is excellent. We have five Sirens, and you have a nice variety of vocal kinetic talents already. The morning classes from me are going to be theory: I want to start off by teaching you the basics of your mutual talent, but then you’re going to teach each other your individual tricks, and you’re also going to work on learning new tricks that none of you can perform. Yet.
“Now, since there are only six of us, we’re going to be very informal. You can call me ‘Doctor Hewley’ or ‘Professor’ or ‘Doc’, or even ‘hey you’.” He grinned to show he was joking. “Our Teaching Assistant this term is Ligeia, who has a couple very nice talents to teach you. The four of you are Screech…” Screech slumped even further in her chair. “Chorale…” The brunette smiled and gave a little wave. “Glissade…” The Russian blonde nodded. “And Vox.” Vox put up a hand and smiled.
Dr. Hewley grinned, “Since we won’t have our first lab until tomorrow afternoon, I want to get things started by all of us going down to powers testing lab K, where you’re all going to get to show what you can do.” Screech flinched abruptly. “Yes, even you, Screech. It’ll be nice and safe. I promise.”
Even while they were walking down the halls and taking the elevator down to the testing labs, Dr. Hewley was happily chatting away about the course material, and how interesting this was going to be. He admitted, “I have a tendency to get too far into the theory of how a power works, in this case the psychokinetics of vocal projection in Sirens. So you’re not going to be tested on that. There will be one course grade, theory and lab combined, and it will entirely depend on two things. First, the new talents you learn; and second, your old talents you manage to teach to your classmates.”
They walked into Lab K. Vox had been tested in there, so she already knew it was pretty big. She figured all the sirens had probably been tested there. The room had an area off to the right that looked like some kind of specially-reinforced firing range (and was actually used like one), and it had an area off to the left that looked like a showroom, with a whole bunch of different materials held in place on solid-looking pillars that were about two or three feet high. (Vox remembered the testing she’d had over there.) In between, and along the wall where they stood, were a host of lab tables, testing areas, computer monitors, and a bunch of even weirder stuff that Vox hadn’t seen used when she was tested in here.
Dr. Hewley excitedly said, “And here we go! Screech, you’re up first. Come on over to the firing range, and you can show everyone what you can do.”
Vox watched with interest. Screech looked like she’d rather be sticking her head in a lion’s mouth. But she slumped over to the firing range. Someone had set up a three-inch-thick sheet of metal, with a suit of armor behind it, and a concrete block wall behind that. Ayla had said Screech melted a couple badguys with one blast, but this seemed like overkill.
Screech stepped up to the ‘firing position’ and frowned at Dr. Hewley.
He smiled, “Yes, I know. But I think we’re ready this time. Go ahead and let loose.”
Screech reluctantly opened her mouth. Vox picked up a side-vibration that sounded about as loud as a loud conversation. But the effect, even at that volume, was astonishing.
An invisible cone of kinetic energy pealed out from Screech’s mouth, disintegrating everything in its path. It burned a disk through the heavy metal plate. It disintegrated the armor from the waist up. It ate through the concrete block wall. And it pummeled some sort of force field set up at the back wall of the range. Vox could see the field shimmering and vibrating.
Screech closed her mouth, wincing slightly.
Dr. Hewley smiled paternally, “No no, that was great. Just perfect. And see? The force field at the back held up this time, and no damage. You’re doing great.” He turned to the rest of the girls. “I don’t expect that anyone else is going to learn how to do this, certainly not at Screech’s power level. But you should be able to do something analogous by the end of the term. Most of you can already do a simple version that uses harmonics and resonant frequencies. All right, Glissade, you’re going to be up next! Let’s just walk over to the materials area…”
They walked over to the ‘showroom’ section of the lab. Glissade looked at the materials set up on the columns, and said in her distinctive voice, “the best I can do is, I believe, this.” She touched a one-inch-thick transparent square that was labeled ‘ArmorGlass Grade A2’.
Vox was already impressed. She couldn’t do much more than plain old windowpane glass. That ArmorGlass was supposed to stand up to guys with rifles!
“Go ahead and give it a try,” urged Dr. Hewley.
Glissade tapped it with one carefully manicured fingernail. Then she stepped back a couple feet and sang. Vox could hear as the high-pitched tones harmonized. And then the ArmorGlass vibrated.. and trembled.. and shattered into a hundred pieces.
“Wow,” murmured Vox.
“Yeah,” agreed Chorale.
“Nicely done,” encouraged Ligeia.
Even Screech smiled and nodded.
Glissade said, “I can make a scream that stuns someone in front of me. I do not think we want to test that on anyone in the room. And I can also push people to do what I tell them, but it is not very powerful. At most I can get someone to do something that is.. similar to what they might do. I know I am not expressing myself well.”
Dr. Hewley nodded, “You’re doing very well. I believe that we can get Mister Clark to come in and be our guinea pig for this part of the demonstrations.” He pulled out a cell phone and made a quick call. “Sean? Yeah, it’s me. Can you come over to Lab K and be a victim for our Sirens? Great.”
Dr. Hewley closed his cell phone and shoved it into a coat pocket. He smiled naughtily, “Mister Clark ought to be here fairly soon. He sounded quite interested in letting you Sirens have your way with h-”
“Did I take too long?” A young man in a labcoat sprinted into the lab, coffee mug in one hand and notebook in the other. He ran over to the group.
Dr. Hewley did the introductions. “Ladies? This is Sean Clark, who has been interning in our testing labs this year. I believe some of you have met him already?” There were several nods. “Sean? This is Vox.. and Glissade.. and Chorale. You already know Ligeia and Screech, right?”
“Right,” Mister Clark said. “I’ve never gotten to be mentally manipulated using sonics before. This should be really interesting!”
Glissade looked at Dr. Hewley. “I can persuade him to do something not too unlike what he would normally do in different circumstances. But I cannot make him do something like murder an innocent man, or take on abilities he does not have.”
Dr. Hewley whispered something in her ear. Her eyes grew wide. “Are you sure?”
Dr. Hewley grinned wickedly.
Sean smiled, “Richard, I know you’re up to something.”
Glissade stared at him and spoke. “You are playing baseball. Scratch yourself.”
Sean casually put down his coffee and began scratching his crotch through his labcoat. Several girls giggled. Screech even smiled.
After a few moments, Sean blinked his eyes several times, and looked around. “Oh. Wow, that was striking. I heard you, but I also got a mental impression that was.. unusual.” He turned to Dr. Hewley. “We should get some PET scans of volunteers while our Sirens are manipulating them. This could be really useful. Maybe even explanatory!”
Dr. Hewley stared at the ceiling and thought for a few seconds. “Hmm. Good idea. We ought to work that into the lab portions of the course this term. We might even be able to assess the strength of the mental control based on the differential PET readings.”
“What does that mean?” asked Glissade.
“I’ll talk about it in morning class when we get to that kind of Siren talent. For you, what it means is that we might be able to evaluate the strength of your mental control, and tell you when you’re improving,” Dr. Hewley replied.
“That would be very cool,” she said.
Dr. Hewley turned, “Now Vox, you’re up next. I understand you can demonstrate some similar talents?”
Vox admitted, “I can’t come close to breaking ArmorGlass. The best I can do is regular glass. Or crystal. But I can do a bit more with the mind control part. I’ve been calling it ‘voicing’ people. I made a criminal put his gun down and go turn himself in to the cops.”
Dr. Hewley nodded. “That’s in your files. So, can you ‘voice’ Sean, then take a crack - pardon the pun - at some of our glass?”
Vox worried, “I can make him do a lot of things, but I don’t want him to get hurt. I mean, if I told him to stick his finger in a wall socket, he could get killed.”
Dr. Hewley sent another naughty smile Mister Clark’s way, and said, “No, don’t do anything like that. Use your imagination. But make it something Mister Clark definitely wouldn’t do.”
Vox thought for a moment. She turned to Mister Clark and said, “Take off your labcoat. Walk over to the sink and pour a quart of cold water down your pants.”
Sean’s eyes took on a slightly glazed look as he dropped his labcoat and strolled over to the sink on the near wall.
“Is he really gonna do it?” giggled Chorale in a whisper.
Sean blithely poured cold water into a jug, pulled open the front of his pants, and poured the water in. The whole room went silent.
Suddenly, Sean jumped about half a foot in the air. “JEEEZ-us! That’s freezing!” He half-turned, “Oh, sorry ladies. But man, is that cold! Oh Vox, that was really impressive. We have to get some PET scans of people while you’re voicing them. Rich? I’ve got to go change clothes.” With that, he hobbled out of the room, his knees as far apart as he could manage.
Once the door closed behind him, Glissade and Ligeia burst into giggles. Vox asked, “That was okay, wasn’t it? I didn’t want him to get hurt.”
Dr. Hewley grinned naughtily, “That was just fine, Vox. You know, I should have put a few custard pies in the fridge over there. Then we could have Sirens order people to smack themselves in the face with a pie. Harmless, but not something the target would normally do.”
Chorale asked, “So you could like voice a guy into walking in front of a speeding truck?”
Vox winced. “Yeah, I guess I could. Not that I’d ever do something like that!” She usually tried not to think about some of the things she could do with her voice if she really wanted to.
After that, using her voice to break a sheet of tempered glass and a couple crystal goblets was small potatoes. But most of the group was fairly impressed when she did her rendition of “Break It Off”, sounding like Rihanna and Sean Paul and their backup singers and the entire band all at once.
Chorale demonstrated that she could sing like an entire choir. But the really cool thing she did was to sing a set of ear-pounding notes that really built a sonic ‘cage’ around her. Once she had the cage up, they threw things at her. Everything just bounced off the invisible sound barrier. Dr. Hewley even had her put up a sound barrier in the firing range (without her in it) and let Screech take a blast at it. It actually held up to Screech’s force, although the impact gave Chorale a horrible headache.
After that, Dr. Hewley had Ligeia step up. She said, “I can do most of what you all showed. Except for the sonic cage - I’d like to learn that one myself - and Screech’s kinetic blast. But here’s something at least half of you can learn, I think. You can shatter a solid object that has a resonant frequency you know how to hit. Glissade and Vox are already doing that with the glass and stuff. But here’s something I learned to do. Really complicated objects and objects of mixed materials may not have a single resonant frequency, but they may have a set of resonant frequencies for their component parts. And if you can combine all the resonant frequencies just right…”
She walked over to a block of clear plastic. They could see that inside was a set of steel bars, and some kind of concrete strip going in a diagonal through the bars, and some other types of plastic that were sticking out at weird angles.
Ligeia started humming. She slowly started out at a sound so low they could only feel it, up past normal musical tones, and up into frequencies so high that they were only picking them up as a ringing in their ears. Then she worked back down to the subsonic tones. “Okay, I think I’ve got it. This’ll take resonant frequencies for all the individual parts, plus some harmonics to make sure everything vibrates together.”
She stared at the block and screamed. Vox could hear all the different frequencies, and could almost feel how they linked together. But she was pretty sure she couldn’t do it herself. She told herself that she was going to work hard on this one. She watched as the block shuddered and the things inside it began to vibrate.
Suddenly the steel grate split apart, shattering the concrete strip. The plastic block split down the middle, tiny chips spraying out in all directions. The smaller plastic pieces split apart too. The whole thing fell off the pedestal and crashed to the floor.
“Wow,” gasped Vox.
“Da,” agreed Glissade.
“Jeepers,” said Chorale.
Dr. Hewley smiled broadly. “The five of you have a really nice variety of Siren effects. There are some other effects we’ll talk about in class, and maybe you can develop some new techniques. Some other possibilities that we know of include a number of what we like to call ‘mindscream’ techniques. Siren cries that can stun or daze a person, or disrupt his equilibrium by disturbing his inner ear, or deafen him, or even - in rare cases - paralyze a person by shocking his nervous system. Also, you all have perfect pitch as part of your talent. So voice mimicry and ventriloquism are possibilities. So is voice stress analysis. If you can hear a person’s normal voice and you can recognize the micro-stresses in his voice when he lies, you could theoretically ‘hear’ his lies in future.
“But your first homework assignment is completely different. Everyone in this class needs to learn sign language. Screech needs it so she can communicate with us; we need it so we can understand what she signs to us. Screech has a lot to teach us, I think. And I’m hoping that we can teach her as well. One of my goals for this class is to teach Screech enough control that she can speak without disintegrating things. If we manage to get that far this term, everyone automatically gets an ‘A’ regardless.”
“Wow,” murmured Vox. She didn’t see Screech, who was standing behind her, with tears streaming down her face.
I didn’t need to clean up after Team Tactics, but I did want to change back into one of my non-costume Whateley uniforms. The costume-friendly uniforms were larger in the bust to accommodate the boob-padding in my supersuit, not to mention being bigger in the hips to make room for the athletic cup and the padding that concealed it. It had been months ago that I had come to the rather pathetic realization that I was going to have to wear girls’ clothes and girl-tailored clothes until my body stopped looking like it belonged to Kate Moss. I mean, no one on earth had a waist-to-hip ratio like mine unless they were an Exemplar or a long-time corset wearer. It was just sickening.
But needing to wear girls’ clothing didn’t mean that I had to like wearing girls’ clothing, or that I had to put up with wearing clothes that had padding at the boobs and hips. My costume-friendly Whateley uniforms made me look even more female. I didn’t like that. Not even if Vox did like it. A lot. A ton. She really liked that my legs were completely hairless now, and that my face was all smooth. I didn’t. I hadn’t told anyone, but every night at bedtime, when I went to brush my teeth and wash my face, I spent some mirror time looking for a sign that my hair was growing back. There wasn’t anything approaching a sign. Not even one of those signs you drive past that has half its bulbs burned out and now spells something embarrassing. I didn’t know how long it would be before my facial hair and body hair grew back. But the mere fact that there wasn’t any sign of it yet, when I had at least some decent level of regeneration from my Exemplar-3 body, made me really worried. If my hair wasn’t coming back, then that probably meant that my BIT was keeping it from returning. Which would mean that in the long run, my BIT would make me get even more feminine than I already was. Which was something I was trying not to think about. Instead, I kept telling myself that my hair would start coming back any day now.
Chou and Billie and Hank had walked back to Poe with me. Chou had wanted a shower, and the chance to change into a different set of mandarin top and black yoga pants. Not that I blamed Chou for wanting to stick with fairly masculine outfits. Sometimes I seriously thought about just giving up and wearing nothing but super-baggy sweats all the time. Even if I’d probably get in trouble with the dress-code Nazis. With my luck, Hartford would probably seize the opportunity to make me wear the school uniform. Only she’d undoubtedly insist on my switching to those stupid skirts and kneesocks. Nobody was wearing those things now that it was January. Even the school flirts were bundling up in long pants and down parkas.
Tennyo had needed to clean up a little also. Lancer had need a lot of clean-up. He had done a faceplant into the rocky soil of the range when his vest signaled that he was ‘dead’. I personally thought that was a bit more method-acting than even Stanislavsky would have chosen.
I waited for Chou to get dressed. I even waited out in the hallway to give her some privacy. I mean, let’s face facts. Chou is hot. Just Bai-Ling-eat-your-heart-out hot. Away from Whateley, anyone would rate her a ‘10’. But she’s my friend, so I try not to ogle her much. It really helps that she’s up and martial arts-ing at a quarter of insanely early, so we’re not scrambling around buck naked looking for clothes at the same time every morning. Maybe she gets up that early just to get away from accidental shots of Mister Happy, who’s been at attention a couple times when she was in the room, and she’s never happy about that.
At any rate, by the time we got over to the Crystal Hall, we spotted Fey and Generator standing not too far away from the lunch line, chatting with Bugs. But this time, Bugs had shoulder angels. Each one was a cute little chibi Bunny, with enormous cute eyes, and round little heads, and blonde hair done up in floppy twin-tails. The one on Bunny’s right shoulder was draped in a sexy white robe with feathery white wings and a gleaming halo, while the one on Bunny’s left shoulder had black bat-wings sticking out above a black leather bustier and black hot pants. Plus cute little horns and a wiggling devil-tail. Both of the shoulder angels were really hot.
When we got closer, I realized that the chibi shoulder angels also had voices like Bunny’s, only higher-pitched and squeakier, if you can imagine. We walked up behind Fey, and I could tell that the angels were somewhat transparent. I muttered to Chou, “Let me guess. A pair of holo-Bunny angels. Just what we need around here.” Well, I should have expected this, particularly after I had guessed that my visitors this morning in class were holograms courtesy of the dreaded Bugs-Generator team-up. So I wasn’t surprised that Bugs now had a set for herself.
Nikki was obviously trying to apologize for something, so I got close enough to listen. Maybe I dragged Chou along with me, because Chou’s a much nicer person than I am, and surely she wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on this conversation. Much.
Nikki cringed, “…and I’m really sorry about that, Bunny. You got me such a great Christmas gift, and all I got you was-”
The shoulder devil interrupted, “It was crappy! Come on, Bunny! Tell her off! And kick her in the shin! And slap her!” Then it mimicked Bunny’s side-to-side head bob, making the ponytails flop like bunny ears. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing.
The shoulder angel insisted, “No! It is better to give than to receive. You need to give her a new gift, to redeem yourself for whatever you did wrong that must have upset her...” Then the angel did the same side-to-side bob.
Nikki stammered, “I… No, you didn’t… You.. you don’t…”
Bunny looked at her right shoulder and said, “That’s a really good idea. You know, Nikki, I did buy you something special, as a token of our memories together.”
Nikki blushed a bright red. She looked around to see if anyone was watching them, and simultaneously tried to stammer out, “B-but you didn’t need to…”
The shoulder angel chirped, “It’s lingerie! Back in the room!”
The shoulder devil smirked, “Really sexy lingerie.” Then both the shoulder angels did the side-to-side bob.
Nikki gasped, “L-lingerie?”
Bunny purred, “I was kind of concerned about the fit. Maybe later we could check on that. Mine fit exactly right.. now that I got that wax job. I’ll show you, so that we can adjust your, er, fit…”
Nikki choked, “I... That is... I’m not sure...”
The shoulder devil chortled, “That’s the stuff! Then we’ll make her go all cross-eyed again, and make all those funny sounds! And she’ll never ever care about hanging around with that stupid BOY!” She flopped her ponytails again.
The shoulder angel tsked, “There’s good in everyone. Even boys. Probably. I wish that Nikki would be as good to us as we hope to be to her...”
Nikki looked up at the ceiling and screeched, “GAH!” Then she turned and rushed off toward the exit.
I put a hand on Jade’s shoulder and said, “Have I ever thanked you for keeping your shoulder angels under control? Relatively speaking, of course.”
Bunny pressed some buttons on a wristband, and the holograms vanished. She smiled innocently at us. “Was it something I said?”
Jade giggled all the way through lunch. But not me. I was fine.
Well, except for when Billie sat down and asked, “Anything interesting happen before I got here? Chou and I looked at each other and completely lost it. And every time we looked over at Bunny, who was sitting there with this Little Miss Innocent look on her face, we’d start laughing again.
When I went looking for some dessert, Chef Marcel had something waiting for me. It was a really gorgeous Semifreddo al Torrone e Cioccolato - a classic Italian frozen chocolate and nougat dessert. Marcel had made it with real Italian torrone, the Piedmontese nougat made with egg whites and almonds. I could taste the difference it made in the dessert.
Before I had a chance to go talk with Marcel about his dessert, Beltane stopped by the table to show off her new manifestation. She had ectoplasm shoulder angels. Both of them were hot little Kendall Forbes look-alikes, but with less nose and a softer jawline, and a lot more curves. They looked like little Beltane Exemplars. They both had Belle’s jet-black hair, but the angel had hers done up in a formal style, while the devil had hers done in a style that made her look like she was ready to go clubbing.
Belle smirked, “And how are the children doing today? I heard you were naughty in class this morning, but aced the pop quiz!”
The shoulder devil wrapped herself in her black wings and purred, “I love the idea that they were naughty in class, right in front of Security.”
Chaka helpfully pointed out, “You really need to work on your ventriloquism there, Belle.” The shoulder devil just leaned forward and gave her the finger.
The shoulder angel put her hands on her hips and sternly lectured us, “You shouldn’t do that! But good work on the pop quiz. I heard the devisers and the boffins are still trying to get most of those robots moved off the firing line.”
Lancer shrugged, “We did okay. Nothing we haven’t done against real threats.”
Fey frowned at him, “Except one of us getting killed.”
Chaka waved her off, “Hey, same old same old. It’s not like Unga-Dunga didn’t get killed once, and Sara died before she turned into Carmilla. Jade got killed over Christmas, in case ya didn’t notice. And Tennyo did some stuff like that too. So we’re good.”
Belle just shook her head at Chaka’s speech and said, “Well, ta-ta! Some of us have exciting classes to attend…”
Her shoulder angel blew kisses to the table, while her shoulder devil thumbed its nose. It was pretty hard to keep a straight face.
Chef Marcel wasn’t around to discuss desserts, so I figured I would track down Vox and find out how her morning had gone. I had a couple hours free before sixth period, since the Shakespeare class was Monday-Wednesday-Friday only. But I spotted She-Beast and Nacht making their way over to She-Beast’s usual ‘private consultant’ table, so I thought I’d check in with them first. I’d heard that Jadis was apparently playing ‘fixer’ for Melville, while their senior fixer was off working on the Senior Legacy for the term. And she was certainly extending her reach to anyone who would risk going to the dreaded She-Beast for help.
I walked up to the table just as the two girls got situated. I smiled at them, “Anything interesting going on?”
Jadis and Kate both looked up at me. Kate looked a little puzzled. Jadis looked really shocked. I-just-got-anal-probed-by-Fox-Mulder’s-aliens shocked.
“You. Plucked. Your. Eyebrows.” Jadis sounded like she’d been taking diction lessons from Nacht. Or maybe acting lessons from Keanu Reaves.
Kate suddenly struggled to suppress a giggle. “Oh, that’s what’s different.”
“You.. plucked.. your.. eyebrows,” Jadis insisted.
I only rolled my eyes. I refused to show the discomfort welling up inside me. Of all the people I knew at school, I’d expected Jadis to accept this the most easily. And I had to admit - now that it was too late - that I had been counting on Jadis accepting it easily. Her opinion meant a lot more to me than I wanted to admit. Even to myself. I muttered, “Christ! You’d think I plucked your eyebrows.”
“You plucked your eyebrows!” Jadis yelped.
“I didn’t do it. And I didn’t want her to do it either,” I groaned.
Kate lost her battle with her usual ‘Wednesday Addams’-itude and broke into a huge grin. “This story I have GOT to hear.”
I sighed and pulled up a chair. “Okay, but you won’t believe half of this...”
A little later, I got up and left to go find Vox. I looked back, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Nacht was still giggling. And frankly, Nacht’s laughing was a hell of a lot creepier than her usual deadpan routine.
What the heck was so funny about the ‘bodywax Ayla and make him wear a dress’ thing? The only person who hadn’t laughed insanely over it was Mrs. Carson. Oh yeah, and Jadis. Jadis had sat there the entire time, giving me the ‘what the hell were you thinking’ stare, which had really made me uncomfortable. Why were my eyebrows such a big deal for Jadis? She had horns, for Christ’s sake, and she was pissed off about my eyebrows? Crap.
I was making my way out of the caff when Kismet waved me over. I instantly started wondering what this was going to be. Things had become somewhat stickier with Kismet since she had launched her ‘I am better than Fey and the Vindicators are better than a bunch of froshes’ campaign. I just had a feeling that this was going to be connected to ‘Team Tactics’ class.
Kismet took on a determined air and asked in French, “And how was your test this morning? I understood that the girl Everheart - pah, I cannot believe that she could be an admiral in anyone navy, she’s no older than I am - was going to give your group a very difficult trial?”
I gave her my best Gallic shrug and said, “Our group found it quite easy. How did the Vindicators do?”
Kismet tried to wave away the question. “We did very well, if you please…”
But Dynamaxx was sitting there and corrected her. “It was embarrassing. We were about a hundred meters from a dozen robots, and Sizemax actually thought she could throw Donner that far. The robots blasted him before he could pick himself up out of the dirt. My PFG couldn’t protect everyone, and Kismet’s spells didn’t do any better. Someone ran amok and was shot down long before he got anywhere near the enemy, in fact I believe he was running the wrong way when he was shot down. In short, the only good part was that he did not have time to shout about Canada for more than a few seconds. It was a disaster.”
Kismet glared at him hard enough to melt steel.
I managed not to smile. “Well, they put us about a third of a mile off and gave us almost no time to prepare. Plus they attacked us with dozens of robots and mobile weapons platforms. Fey and Generator gave us plenty of rear area protection, Fey and Tennyo provided more than enough suppressive fire, we launched three flanking attacks-”
“Three?” gasped Kismet.
“Three,” I insisted. “Tennyo on the left flank, Chaka and Bladedancer on our right flank, me underground up the middle-”
“Under the ground!” Kismet hissed at Dynamaxx. “It is all Lemure’s fault! She should have gone under the ground and attacked them from the rear!”
Dynamaxx rolled his eyes, but manfully refrained from saying anything.
Cytherea interrupted the discussion. “Phase, I love what you did with your eyebrows. You’re a beautiful person, and you should do more to bring out that inner beauty.”
Charmer stopped chatting with Spark and stared at me. “You did, didn’t you? I thought you said that you wanted to become a boy again?”
Oh crap. Not this again. I groaned, “I did. I still do. But the thing with the eyebrows…” I turned to stare at Dynamaxx. “What?”
Maxx just gave me his most roguish smile. “I believe the American vernacular is ‘looking good there, baby’. You really are a beautiful woman, you know. When you’re all girl, just let me know, and-”
“No!” I snapped angrily. “Not a chance! I have no intention of becoming female, and I didn’t even want her to pluck my eyebrows!”
Kismet raised one eyebrow and simply asked, “Her?”
Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead. “Henry V” suddenly seemed uncomfortably relevant. I sighed, “My big sister. Let me explain. So it all started with The Headhunter. The serial killer running through Los Angeles? It was all over the news. The police were looking for him, and so were the feds, and even the MCO. So…”
It must have taken another ten minutes to get through the whole story and answer everyone’s questions. Especially Cytherea’s questions, because she was way too interested in all the beauty treatments I had endured. And the rest of the table couldn’t stop snickering about it.
I got up and wandered toward the exit. It was time to get out of the caff and find Vox. I could hear Kismet and Charmer still snorting in their efforts not to laugh hysterically. And there was no doubt in my mind that every one of the Berets at that table thought I was ‘going girl’. Dynamaxx could hardly sit still long enough to ask me out, Spark was full of ‘helpful’ advice on the biomorphology of changing myself into a girl, and Cytherea was just effusively encouraging on how lovely a young woman I was becoming. Ugh.
I thought I would just walk out the door and be gone. It wasn’t that simple. Rumors were going around. Rumors about me. Several of the Capes caught up with me before I got out of the caff. Then explaining to them took so long that half a dozen of the Golden Kids had time to cluster around me and ask questions.
No matter how many times I tried to explain the whole ‘hiding from the MCO in disguise’ bit, people already had their pre-conceived notions that they weren’t going to drop. They took one look at my face - my now-noticeably-cuter face - and reacted in their own ways.
Unfortunately, the most common response was: “You had me fooled, I believed you when you said you wanted to go back to being a boy.” Ugh. Why wouldn’t anyone listen to me?
But there were enough guys who had that look in their eyes. The “you are the biggest fag I’ve ever seen” look that had gotten me into so many fights last term. I didn’t want to think about how much trouble this was going to cause in the near future.
I needed to think about how much trouble this was going to cause, and plan accordingly.
As soon as I got out of the caff, I dove through the floor and into the tunnels. Then I took the Hawthorne tunnel to Poe, so I wouldn’t have to deal with any more homophobic reactions, for at least a little while.
It was a physical relief to get back to Poe, where only Sharisha was likely to give me any shit over my eyebrows and the ‘deeper meaning’ there. Not to mention that Sharisha had gotten the snot beaten out of her enough in the past two months that she might even have learned something. Such as: ‘keeping your mouth shut can be a viable option’. And if those poundings didn’t help, that nasty detention Carson had dumped on her ought to be of some assistance. I was going to keep that particular detention in mind: it was important to know that Carson could be pretty damned creative - and pretty damned warped - for a seventy-year-old.
I found Vanessa sitting in her room, studying away. Since she was alone, I walked over and gave her a big kiss. Then I grinned, “Hi honey, how was your day?”
Vox gave me a brilliant smile and gasped, “It was awesome! This is gonna be the best class EVER! I am so glad you spotted it and told me! You wouldn’t believe what we did today!”
She was so beautiful when she was excited about something. I sat down on her bed and said, “Why don’t you tell me?”
She hopped up from her study chair and sat beside me. “Okay, first, it’s just me and Screech and Chorale and Glissade and Ligeia - she’s the TA - and Dr. Hewley. Do you know why she’s named Ligeia?”
I smirked and made an educated guess. “Because Ligeia is one of the names of the ‘classical Greek mythology’ sirens. So she’s a siren… Is she part-bird? Maybe some wings or something?”
Vox shrugged, “I don’t think so. Well, not that I saw. But let me tell you about what we did…”
After Vox told me all about her fun morning, I told her about my less than fun day, from getting in trouble because of Jade’s prank, to all the implicit accusations in the cafeteria. I finished, “…And so I ended up telling that stupid ‘beauty pageant’ story about five times, and I don’t think I changed anyone’s opinion about me. Damn it! The whole school’s going to think I like wearing girls’ clothes and stuff. Which is why I was getting in fights about every other day for a while last term. I don’t want to go through that anymore!”
Vox wiggled over even closer, slowly wrapping her arms about me. “Poor baby,” she purred. “Maybe I can make it up to you… Somehow…”
Just as we started kissing, a loud series of trills sounded. From me. “Damn it,” I swore, “It’s the timer on my watch. I’ve got to get going so I’m not late to sixth period. Maybe we could take up later where we left off?”
Vox frowned in thought, “I hope so. But Sharisha’s going to be back from detention soon, and I’ll need to spend some time with her. Yesterday when she came back, she just sat on her bed and cried for like an hour. I know she fucked up big-time, but.. she’s really miserable… And her detention’s so awful…”
I gave her a smile I didn’t feel. I caressed her cheek and said, “We’ll work something out.” Then I took off for my room, to get my martial arts gear. Including my utility belt, which I was going to wear under my gi every single day this term, no matter what that evil little midget Ito said.
I slipped on my utility belt, grabbed the small duffel bag that had my gi and sports bra and athletic cup already packed, and went light with the bag. Then I dove through the floor and down to the corridor to the Hawthorne tunnel. I flew down the tunnel and took the route to Laird Hall. Once I was up to the surface levels and in the Eastman Annex, I made my way to the locker room for the women instructors, and I changed there. I made a large mental note to check with Ito about doing that in future. I really didn’t want to end up in a fight with Tolman over the showers. Or Lillian Dennon, who Hank claimed was a major brick on top of being the judo instructor. Or that Beaumont woman. I’d only heard a tiny bit about her. Or the female Oriental instructors, who I hadn’t yet had the misfortune of meeting.
I stepped into the dojo and saw that I was early, which was good. I wasn’t the first person there, of course. No, the really serious martial arts nuts were already working away. Toni was warming up on the near side of the mat, while Chou worked on the far side. Toni was doing some complicated kata, but every time she did it, she moved faster. And faster. Until her final iterations of it were little more than blurs, as she moved so quickly that the very air seemed to be snapping from her blows. If there were speedsters who could go through that kata any faster, I didn’t want to meet them.
Chou was practicing some elegant moves with her sword. I watched in awe as Chou did this whirling, spinning thing with her foot slashing in a circle at head height while on the other side her sword whirled about at stomach level. Jeez. ‘Bladedancer’ was right on the money as a codename for Chou. She looked like the characters of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ought to be bowing down in front of her and chanting “We’re not worthy!”
Plastic Girl was working out on the mat too. Jody was in a black gi with a green belt. A green belt? Crap. I had a sudden uncomfortable realization. Really advanced martial artists might be in this class. I’d gotten my ass kicked enough times last term. I suddenly wondered just how far over my head I really was. Jody was moving through a series of katas too. But Jody was doing something different. Since she did that whole ‘Plastic Man’ schtick, she was combining that into her forms. Every punch and kick suddenly exploded outward, so she was punching and kicking as if her opponent were five yards away, instead of five feet away. How did you fight someone who could stand fifteen or twenty feet back and still kick the shit out of you?
Other people were starting to filter in from the regular changing rooms. I moved to the edge of the mat and sat seiza beside Generator and Shroud. As I sat, I noticed that there were scores of martial arts weapons arranged on the wall behind us. A lot of them, I didn’t even know what they were called. Well, it looked like Ito was prepared for some serious weapons training.
I was pleased when Aquerna came in and sat next to me, with a quiet ‘hi’. Lancer and Tennyo came in as well, and took places near the mat. Then more than a dozen other students came trotting in. I recognized Redlight, Shadowolf, Interface, Nightbane, and Sahar. Great. Just great. Sahar had that whole ‘reading your mind and knowing what you will do next’ thing that Toni had talked about. Shadowolf had to have a major hate-on for all of Team Kimba. Make that double for Nightbane, after her Halloween experiences. And Interface was wearing a freaking brown belt!
Then there were the people I wasn’t sure about. The snotty Exemplar adjusting her gi was probably Blitz, from what Toni had told me. The black girl with the nearly-shaved ‘look, I must be a genie!’ head had to be Alakazam. The two tall Latinas were almost certainly Aztecka and Judicator. Toni had bitched enough about Aztecka, and Judicator was the de facto fixer for Whitman now. Damn. Aztecka was an Exemplar-6, and Judicator was another of those Exemplar/PDP combos which were supposed to be as rare as diamonds but seemed to be all over the place at Whateley this year. The huge black guy with the flattop cut and the sledgehammer had to be Sledge. But there were another dozen people that I didn’t know. And in a class like this, not knowing what your opponent could do was tantamount to fighting blindfolded. Okay, some of the people in here could fight blindfolded if they wanted to. Not me, of course. But Toni and Chou immediately came to mind.
Toni, Chou, and Jody rushed to take their places at the edge of the mat, and everyone was sitting seiza before the bell rang. I was utterly unsurprised when sensei Ito walked in with sensei Tolman and a slender blonde I didn’t know. The woman was wearing a karate gi and carrying what I was fairly sure was a shinai. Not that I’m a genius with martial arts weapons, but when you’ve looked at pictures of all ten of the things that look like that, you can pick them out. Just don’t ask me to tell the differences between all of the dozens and dozens of different types of polearms.
This sensei was a middle-aged woman with a long face. I guessed that she was either Lillian Dennon or Genevive Beaumont, since she obviously wasn’t Oriental.
Ito strode forward toward us. “Good afternoon, class.”
“Good afternoon, sensei,” replied most of the room. It looked like all of us had been in his classes before, and knew what he wanted.
Ito nodded. “Good. Let me introduce sensei Tolman, who all of you know. And sensei Beaumont, who is Whateley’s instructor in Karate and Kendo.” He cleared his throat. “Now let us dispense with the necessary but uninteresting. All of you have had me for introductory aikido. Some of you have taken additional martial arts training either here or back home. So there is a substantial variety of martial arts training, as well as a wide variety of experience with weapons. But weapons will be the focus of this seven-week class. Learning to use classic martial arts weapons, learning to use the weapons your body now provides for you, and learning to defend against such weapons. Do not assume that this course provides enough training in any weapon you take up. No, this will prepare you for further training. Do not assume that this course covers all weapons. We will not address guns, powered weapons, assault weapons, and so on. I recommend that you consider taking the ‘Introduction to the Ranges’ course next winter, if you have not already taken it, so that you can gain experience with some other types of weapons.
“We shall start out by working with the weapons you currently favor, if any. Then we shall look into new types of weapons that you might look into. We shall look at countermeasures for some popular weapons, particularly those your classmates favor. Grades will be based on improvement shown in class, rather than final skill level. So first, after you warm up, we shall take the time to see what you already know and what you already use.”
We all took the hint. We spread out across the tatami mat and stretched, so we were ready.
I was still stretching when Ito made his first summons. “Tennyo. Bladedancer. Lancer. Step forward.”
The rest of us hurriedly finished and got back to the edge of the mat. Nobody really wanted to be in the wrong place if Tennyo cut loose. The testing quickly turned into a three-ring circus. Each of the instructors had wooden boards in frames, and concrete blocks. With the three people up there, I thought they needed to move up to something stronger, like maybe adamantium girders. Bladedancer demonstrated her moves for sensei Beaumont, Lancer worked in front of Tolman, and Tennyo did her stuff for Ito soke. With the three of them, I didn’t know on whom I should focus.
Lancer did his stuff with his paper swords. Once he covered them with his PK field, they were pretty much indestructible.. unless they ran up against Billie or Chou. Those boards and concrete blocks didn’t stand a chance.
Chou showed some of her sword moves she’d been practicing, and Beaumont did a little sparring, Destiny’s Wave against Beaumont’s shinai. Beaumont was pretty damned impressive, but I was still fairly sure Chou and DW were taking it easy on that piece of wood. After that, Chou whipped out some throwing knives and showed what she could do with them.
Tennyo was her usual impressive self. I hadn’t realized she’d been working on martial arts katas using her antimatter sword. They looked more like dance moves than aikido, so I had no idea from what school of martial arts she’d pulled them.
When those three had come back to the mat’s edge and sat down, Ito gave his pronouncements. “All three of you are promising. Bladedancer, you are focusing on another style of martial arts, and will be in class irregularly because of your arrangement with your other instructor. That is acceptable. When you are here, I will expect you to work on attack and defense against other styles of martial arts that are represented here. Tennyo, you will focus on these forms you are creating, and when Bladedancer is not around, we will find opponents you may spar against. Lancer, your shortswords show a lot of potential. I am going to recommend that you focus on the forms that are traditionally used with a pair of sais or a pair of daggers. Not only will you be able to use these forms with your own weapons, but it should give you ideas on how to modify your weapons to better use common martial arts forms.”
Ito looked over us and snapped, “Next, Chaka. You will work with me. Judicator, you will work with sensei Beaumont. Interface, you will work with sensei Tolman.”
Chaka, I knew. I hadn’t met Judicator or Interface, but I’d heard about both of them, and I knew Interface on sight from seeing him with the other Spy Kidz. Judicator was a tall, authoritative Latina with a stern expression. As the fixer at Whitman, she was getting a pretty impressive rep for facing down the problem children, and psychically figuring out who was telling the truth in any argument. Of course, that didn’t help when the problem was two girls who were both sure that they were right. Interface was pretty obviously Eurasian, and he looked like he was having a great time. I wondered what would happen if Mister Fun had to spend a lot of time with Miss Stern. Or vice versa.
Chaka did her usual ‘Mistress of all things Ki-ish’ bit. It turned out she had her chain hidden in some sort of holster inside her gi sleeve, so she could snake it out in about a second, and go wild. She whipped her weighted chain around so fast that the ends were blurs, doing a few acrobatics while the chain sliced between her legs or past an arm. She was impressive enough that Interface stopped to watch her before Tolman got on his case about it. Then she really pulled out all the stops. In between impossibly-fast whirls of the chain, she snapped her arms, and throwing weapons went flying. She hurled throwing spikes, throwing knives, throwing disks, and about fifty sewing needles. When she was done, she snapped the chain and it wrapped snugly about her waist. That was when we could get a good look at the boards on the other side of her. She had made a perfect capital ‘C’ with the throwing weapons, and decorated all along both sides of the ‘C’ with the sewing needles. Whoa. Ito gave her a stern look that didn’t take the grin off her face.
Judicator and Interface weren’t anywhere near as much fun to watch. Interface was good. Really good. But he looked like a baseline brown belt, rather than a superhuman fighter. He whipped out half a dozen sword katas with a bokken, and he performed another several katas with a bo. Man! Where did he learn all that stuff?
Judicator stood stiffly before Beaumont and suddenly manifested a set of PK armor and weapons. And I nearly choked. Classical Greek helmet, breastplate with cuirass, and greaves. Those went with a circular shield and a spear. She looked like.. like… Christ, she looked like Athena. How long ago had I stood and argued with Nikki and Toni about the New Olympians and their version of Athena? What had I said then? “Stern goddess of justice.” I was looking at her. Stern. Fixer. Judge in Whitman arguments. Judicator had to be their Athena. Maybe she was even THE Athena. A wicked chill ran down my spine.
And she was good with that spear and shield. Not in Toni’s class, but up there with what I’d seen of Cavalier last term. Of course, if all that was just a PK manifestation, then Chaka could kick her ass, the same way she’d clobbered Cavalier.
Once the three of them were done, Ito had suggestions for them too. For Judicator and Interface, he suggested katas and martial arts styles to help them with their chosen weaponry. For Toni, he had something else. He said, “And Chaka, since you are already so adept with the manriki-gusari and your throwing weapons, I think that you should try every weapon in the room. Then you will report on how each blends in with your martial arts styles.”
Yikes. That took the smile off Toni’s face.
Ito looked around the class. “Nightbane, sensei Beaumont. Sledge, sensei Tolman. Shroud, with me.”
I didn’t think it was possible for Shroud to look nervous, but she sure moved like she was. I remembered how upset the whole J-Team had been last term when Ito had ripped Jinn a new one over her ‘fighting style’, so I could guess why someone might be tense about this demonstration. But Shroud had evolved a host of techniques since then. I hadn’t seen any of them except when I watched her take down Tisiphone in the combat finals, but I knew she had them.
And let me just say this about her array of techniques: HOLY CRAP! She stood up there, and she suddenly turned into a whirling, slicing death machine. Chains flew out of her hips and shoulders and rotated so fast she might as well have been a pair of buzzsaws. Her hands turned into shortswords that sliced and stabbed with no relation to normal human motion. A fracking beartrap erupted out of her face, while a cloud of sand blasted right at Ito’s head before stopping in mid-air.
Note to self: don’t get the J-Team pissed off at me again.
Nightbane and Sledge looked pretty dangerous, but not insanely, inhumanly crazy like Shroud. Nightbane had a sword and a dagger. Okay, the dagger looked suspiciously like a wooden stake mounted in a hilt. And she was pretty good with both. She seemed to like heavy kicks to the head and stomach, in between slashes with the sword and jabs with Mister Pointy. That had been Hippolyta’s assessment of Nightbane back before Halloween. I still thought Nightbane looked - and fought - like she really wanted to join the Buffy Summers Fan Club. Sledge was wielding - you’ll never guess - his usual sledgehammer. He was pretty good with it. He was supposed to be a faux-Exemplar like Sparkler, using his Energizer power to make himself stronger and tougher and faster. So he was strong enough to swing that sledgehammer like it was just a really heavy bokken. He even did a trick where he smashed some cinderblocks with his weapon, let go of it, launched a couple dragon-style Kung Fu kicks, and then made the thing jump back up into his hand.
Ito’s first advice for the three of them was pretty much what I expected. Shroud needed to try out more types of weapons, and figure out creative ways to use them. Nightbane needed to work on sword katas. Sledge could benefit from learning a variety of bo and bokken forms. Then he surprised me. “Shroud, since you essentially cannot be hurt, you will also be serving this class as a full-contact sparring partner. This will give you some experience against high-level opponents and simultaneously provide them with an opportunity to go full out. You will also work as a human target for some of our students. I will discuss this with you further, a bit later.”
Shroud just nodded her acceptance. I wouldn’t have been that complaisant. Oh wait, I already had been, just last term. Ito had paired me up with Phobos. He had used me as a brick ‘opponent’. He had… Well, that’s probably one of the things that goes with martial arts. Somebody has to be the guy you kick.
Ito snapped, “Phase, with me. Shadowolf, sensei Tolman. Plastic Girl, sensei Beaumont.”
I gulped. Hard. I felt totally outclassed by the people who had already been called up. I just tried hard to concentrate on what I could do, and what I had hidden in my utility belt. So I missed Shadowolf working with his ‘shadow claws’, and I missed Jody sparring with sensei Beaumont using shinai.
I focused on my footwork as I went through the moves I had practiced and practiced and practiced. I showed soke my best backspin kick, but I dropped one hand down toward my waist as if I had forgotten that I needed to block my opponent’s reply. I slipped my fingers into my utility belt and I pulled out one of my throwing knives. I went heavy with it. Then, as I finished my spin, I threw it as hard as I could at the target boards. The knife even went where I was aiming. Still, calling that a ‘knife’ might be a bit of a misnomer. Once I went heavy with it, it weighed over twenty pounds. Thrown as hard as I could, it cut through the boards like a throwing axe.
That went pretty well, so next I went with my ‘cannonballs’. Two-inch steel ball bearings that weighed over twenty pounds apiece once I went heavy with them. They punched through the cinderblocks. After that, Ito was stil encouraging me to pull out more stuff, so I threw a couple throwing spikes, one of my drug-coated ninja darts, and my osmium games dart. Then I had to go get everything I’d thrown. The ball bearings had managed to end up at the far side of the dojo, so it was kind of embarrassing as I scrambled around picking up my toys.
Ito had some recommendations for each of us. He wanted Jody to work on the brown belt and black belt karate forms for the shinai. He wanted Shadowolf to learn a series of katas for fighting claws. And he wanted me to work on two things: katas for throwing weapons; and using an ASP tactical baton as a bokken. I had no idea what he was talking about until he tossed me a short metal wand. When I pressed the release button, it snapped open and became a two-foot-long baton. Oh. Short enough to conceal in my utility belt, but snapping open to something long enough to use against a sword. I thought about the Whateley equivalent of a tactical baton as I sat down between Aquerna and Generator.
After us came three more students: Blitz, Aztecka, and Redlight. Then Sahar, Alakazam, and Aquerna. Then the rest of the class, in threes. Generator was in one of the last trios. Somehow Ito managed to get through all of us without running too late.
Blitz was working with a manriki-gusari chain of her own. It carried a huge voltage as long as she was holding it, but she wasn’t very proficient with it. Obviously, once she got really good with it, she’d be a menace. In the meantime, Ito thought she needed to work with the ‘rope and monkey fist’ version. She wasn’t happy about it, but she wasn’t going to disagree with soke.
Ito pointed Sahar, Redlight, and Alakazam toward the bokken and the shinai. And he suggested that Aquerna try working with the fighting claws and the kama. That made sense to me, if her squirrel spirit could give her some instinctive clawing and scratching attacks.
The really interesting suggestion was for Jade. Ito told her to try the nunchaku. It occurred to me that maybe he knew a lot more about her real mutant talents than he was letting on. A pair of nunchuks would take a really long time for a newbie to learn. But a pair of nunchuks that had Jann charged into them could do pretty much whatever you wanted them to.
As soon as Ito dismissed class, I made a beeline for Tolman and Beaumont. “Excuse me? Sensei?”
Tolman looked at me and rolled her eyes as she remembered why I pestered her, just about this time last term. She turned to Beaumont. “Genevive? This is Phase. She.. ahh.. he has a physical problem.”
Beaumont lifted one eyebrow elegantly and checked, “He? She does not look like a ‘he’.” There was a distinct French accent to her voice.
So I tried switching to French. “Pardon me, but I am only partly female. I was born male, and my mutation has given me this apparently-female body. However, I still have male private parts, so I am not welcome in the girls’ locker room.”
“Ahh,” she muttered in understanding.
Tolman pursed her lips and explained, “Last term, we let Phase shower in the women instructors’ locker room. It was only me in there at the time, and Phase is pretty fast. I just waited until she was done. If this is going to inconvenience you, we can try something else.”
I switched back to English and volunteered, “Last term, it was in the middle of the day and I had to get to Powers lab right away. This is sixth period. I could just go home in my gi and change back at Poe.”
Beaumont quirked up one corner of her mouth and said, “Let us see how quick our Phase can be. Go ahead.”
“Merci,” I said, as I ran for the locker room. I walked out of my gi and gear, flipped on the shower spray, showered as quickly as I could, went light to drop off the water, and rushed naked over to the locker where I had put my duffel bag.
A smiling French voice suddenly said, “My Lord, I see that this could be a problem in the girls’ locker room.” Apparently, sensei Beaumont had no qualms with watching to see if Tolman and I were telling the truth.
I blushed as I hurried to get dressed. Beaumont didn’t have the grace to look away. Or maybe she just wasn’t embarrassed, like I was. At times like this, it would have been handy if I could phase into my clothing too.
I got out of the instructors’ locker room as soon as I could, and walked over to the door into the girls’ locker room. I waited for a few minutes, and Jade came out with Shroud and Chaka. In twos and threes, the girls straggled out of the locker room, and eventually Nikki and Billie emerged, deep in conversation with Sahar.
Sahar was explaining, “No, I have never worked with the bokken or shinai before, except the little bit we did last term in aikido. I simply sat next to Interface, and used Zenith’s Database technique to pick up some of his forms, and put them into context, so that…. Oh, hello Phase!”
“Hi, Sahar,” I smiled. “I was just waiting to see who was walking back to Poe.”
She smiled wickedly, “I thought I might go that way and see if anyone was around.”
As we walked back to Poe with Sahar, she managed to cut me out of the herd long enough to whisper, “Is everything going along with.. the business venture?”
I shrugged, “Sure. But you won’t see anything until the 22nd. You’ve got a couple weeks to wait.”
She suggested, “I could go visit several of the precogs, use my version of the Database technique, and perhaps get a glimpse of how things will fare once the…”
I shook my head no. “Don’t do it. It won’t help anything. We’re going through with it no matter what, at this point. It’ll just make you worry more. And besides, it’s officially against the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules to use precogs or prognosticators or seers or devises or any other mutant talents in any way ‘to predict or forecast stocks, securities, derivatives, and/or related markets which could have a bearing on said exchanges’. That’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty close to the official wording. Plus, Zenith would know you’d used your knack on someone, and it would bother her.”
She just stared off into the distance. “I don’t know how you can be so calm. This is everything I have!”
I nodded, “I know. It’s well over half of everything I own. But worrying this much about that kind of thing just means you’re in the wrong business.”
She sighed, “Sometimes this ‘being good’ stuff is a lot harder than it looks.”
I grinned, “Yeah. But think of the unbearable smugness you’ll get to have later, when you’re being a sanctimonious jerk to those of lesser standards.”
“That does not sound like fun to me,” she replied. Then she looked at me and muttered, “Oh. A joke. It was not very funny.”
I shrugged, “Sorry. If you want the real hilarity, go talk to Chaka. She’s a regular Dave Chappelle with boobs.”
After we got back to Poe and Sahar rushed upstairs to visit Zoe, Tennyo followed me into my room. She frowned, “What was that with Sahar and the SEC?”
I started to ask her how she overheard our conversation, and she beat me to it by pointing at her ears. Oh yeah, I tended to forget about that.
I told her, “Remember back in December when I was trying to get you and the rest of TK to chip in some funds for a project?”
“Of course I remember,” she fumed. “You wanted each of us to go back to the ‘rents and dig up tens of thousands of dollars! It’s not like money grows on trees for the rest of us, you know.”
I shrugged, “I am aware of normal socioeconomics, you know. It’s not like Gracie and Janet live in a palace.”
She muttered, “Well, I did bug dad about it. A lot. But he didn’t want to take the penalty for yanking it out of his government retirement fund.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, thanks for trying anyway. But part of the payoff on the investment is going to be in two weeks. Sahar put some money in, and she’s worrying.”
Tennyo frowned, “Where did Sahar get that kind of money?”
“I think she sold a kidney on eBay.”
“WHAT?!?!” she bellowed.
I quickly held up my hands. “Just kidding! Jeez! She took out a loan with the Whateley Foundation, which she’ll be able to repay in its entirety within 120 days, so she won’t even have interest to pay off.”
She wondered aloud, “How’d she manage that? I thought the Whateley Foundation was tighter than Scrooge McDuck.”
I admitted, “I helped her write a loan application that would have loan covenants we could work with, and I helped her do the paperwork to get her sponsor to cover the loan and work it out as Mezzanine debt based on her future earnings.”
She just stared at me. “I have no idea what that means.” I opened my mouth, and she cut me off. “And I don’t think I want to know. Just… Never mind. Okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed. “But if you want to have something to lord over your folks, remind them now about the money they wouldn’t invest. Then in a couple weeks, I’ll tell you what it was.”
She gave me a mischievous grin on her way out. After Tennyo left, I went over to Vox’s room. I could hear the sobbing, so I peeked inside without knocking. I didn’t even open the door. I just went light and stuck my head through it. Sharisha was crying hard into Vanessa’s shoulder. Vanessa looked up at me and mouthed, “Later.” I nodded and left.
I didn’t get any farther than the hallway around the corner. It was the Nikki and Bunny show. Bunny had her ‘chibi Bunny’ shoulder angels out, but Nikki had shoulder angels too. A sudden awful thought hit me. What if they were more of those hobgoblins? I instinctively started to back up. Then it occurred to me that they might be some of Jade’s ‘Nikki pixies’, so I moved closer.
Whatever they were, they were Nikki. Or rather, Fey. As I got closer, it was easier to see them. And harder to look away, because they were breathtaking. It took me a few seconds before I started thinking again, and then it hit me. Damn, Nikki was using her glamour through these little angels.
And they were pretty damned glamorous. The right shoulder was a Fey angel that was everything you’d ever imagined the Faerie Queen might be. Not only was it Fey at her most beautiful in a slinky white robe, but it shone with a seductive white light. The left shoulder was a Fey devil that was everything you’d ever feared the Faerie Queen might really be. It also was Fey, but in a black robe and so beautiful it was terrifying. The power of the Fae shone out of it, and looking at it reminded you that some creatures thought mankind was little more than a troublesome pet.. and maybe being its pet wouldn’t be so bad if you just let go…
I told myself that I wasn’t going to get any closer to those angels, no matter how much my feet seemed to want to drag me over there.
Bunny’s cute little shoulder angels were at it again. The angel insisted, “We should do something extra-special for Nikki. Maybe we could show her how to shave her pubic hair like we do!”
Bunny’s shoulder devil added, “Oh yeah. In our room. On the bed. With no roomie around. And lots of shaving gel…”
But Nikki’s shoulder angels weren’t putting up with that routine this time. Her shoulder devil flared, “How dare thee imply that my physical body failed you in any way!” Lightning flashed around the little figure, and Bunny unconsciously took a step back.
Hell, I took a step back, and I was twenty feet away.
Nikki’s shoulder devil loomed forward and flared, “Do not judge us, human, for you do not understand the ways of the Fae!”
Bunny was so shocked that she forgot to do whatever she needed to do to activate the next part of her shoulder angels’ programming. She and her angels stood there frozen.
Nikki’s shoulder angel intervened in the tones of gods, “Now now, do not be too harsh. These are mere children. They are merely a part of the garden world we created and populated. They cannot understand us, anymore than they could bear to see our true form. As any child, she cannot understand about gifts as we do.”
Nikki interrupted her shoulder angels, “I think you’re being unfair. She gave us an expensive gift. She didn’t know that we were doing simple gifts this year so we could afford to buy some really nice things for mom and dad and Troy. She couldn’t know how much we were counting on mom and dad having Christmas together for the first time in years, or how much we were hoping they’d get back together. And it’s certainly not her fault that everything got ruined when DARPA yanked dad in so he had to miss Christmas with all of us...”
I wasn’t sure whether she was about to reduce Bunny to tears or have an armful of Bunny kissing her to ‘make it all better’. Maybe both. But before Nikki had a chance to go into her big wrap-up, Riptide came down the hall and interrupted.
Rip jumped into the conversation, “Hey look, I’ve got shoulder angels too!” And she did. Both of her shoulder angels looked like little inflatable dolls, but they were decorated to look like Rip, right down to the red stripe in the hair. The shoulder angel was in a white minidress and standing on what looked like a teensy-weensy cloud. The shoulder devil was in a black leather minidress, and had red horns and a red tail. Both of the angels waved excitedly at Nikki.
Rip stopped and did something with some sort of gizmo strapped on her left wrist, and the shoulder angels began talking, in a higher-pitched version of Rip’s voice.
The shoulder angel waved at Nikki and said, “Hi! Is your roommate in? I can’t wait to see her! She’s so special!”
The shoulder devil replied, “Yeah, at least she thinks she is. I’ve got a few bones to pick with her. And another thing… Pretzels are not my favorite.. glider.”
“What?” Nikki wondered aloud.
“That didn’t sound right,” agreed Bunny.
“Doggone it!” Rip fussed. “I can’t get the right tracks off the recording!”
The shoulder devil suddenly said, “And another thing, your underwear is… Flowing across the room.”
“Damn!” cursed Rip. She looked up to see most of us were trying really hard not to laugh out loud. “It’s not funny. I worked for hours setting up the recording like Bunny showed me, and now I can’t get it to work right, just when I was going to go show Toni, and it’s so not fair!”
The angel and devil gestured angrily as they silently agreed. The little cloud fell apart as Rip got frustrated and focused on the wrist gizmo.
I looked closer, and I realized that her two shoulder angels were inflatable dolls. I could see the inflation port on the angel. Rip had filled them with water instead of air, and she was using her hydrokinesis to manipulate the water. Very sneaky!
Bunny gently put her arm around Rip’s shoulders and said, “Come on, we’ll get the tracks straightened out, so you can go show your honey your angels. Okay?” Rip trudged back to their room with Bugs escorting her.
I stepped closer to Nikki and admitted, “That’s a pretty impressive set of shoulder angels there. They look way too dangerous to just be puppets.”
She shrugged casually and made a complex hand gesture. The angels faded away. “They’re just a seeming.” She turned and walked toward her room. I walked beside her. She added, “I made the effect a bit more powerful than I planned, but it still worked fairly well.”
A ‘bit’ more powerful? Just ‘fairly well’? I told her, “Nik? Sometimes you’re pretty damn scary, you know that?”
She blithely replied, “Well, Aunghadhail helped out a lot on that one. So the seeming was more of, well, me than I normally let out.”
I winced, “Nikki? Let me repeat what I said. Sometimes you’re pretty damn scary. You know that?”
She nodded, “I know it. But it’s part of who I am, just like Goodkinds are part of who you are. And thinking you can actually sing like Macy Gray is part of who Toni is.”
“Hey! I heard that!” came a supposedly-fierce reply from their room.
Nikki walked into their room and teased, “It’s not my fault that your singing is horrifying enough to make people give in and wear Hello Kitty earmuffs.”
Chaka insisted, “Jade would’ve worn those anyway.”
“But not Lancer and Aggro,” I helpfully added.
“Those were not…” Toni trailed off when she realized that we would both keep teasing her for as long as she reacted. She turned to Nikki and said, “By the way, you got a New Year’s card from your agent Frankenstein.”
That’s Finklestein, thankyouverymuch,” Nikki calmly insisted.
While Nikki read her card, I took the opportunity to stick my nose in. “By the way Nikki, why didn’t you come to me about agents and publicists? Even if you didn’t like the people I could’ve put you in contact with, you could have asked me if I wanted to contact a few people.” I don’t think I managed to keep the hurt out of my voice as I pointed out, “You know, I could have at least helped with the financial side. I’m not a publicist, but I am trying to get people to come to me for financial management. And it doesn’t help my case when my friends would rather not work with me, and instead go with psychos who turn them over to supervillains.”
Fey turned and looked at me. Not Nikki, but something closer to Aunghadhail. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, Ayla. But I thought I’d better not. Money is the fastest way to ruin friendships… At least where I come from. Maybe in the upper-upper-crust, there’s enough money to go around that no one cares, but the rest of us are at a different level when we have to worry about the cost of sending a kid to Whateley. I mean, Chaka didn’t invest in your venture either, righ-” She stopped dead in her tracks and turned on her roommate. “Toni! You said you didn’t!”
By then, Toni was blushing, which I have to admit looked pretty cute on her. Toni waffled, “Well… I didn’t invest anything… Did I, Ayles?”
I sighed and just stared at her. I knew what she wanted me to say, but there was no getting around the embarrassment and whatever else that Nikki had spotted. You can’t hide stuff like that from an empath. Well, I can’t. Toni probably can when she has time to pull out one of her Ki tricks.
Toni finally sagged, “Okay, dad told me over Christmas that he invested a shitload out of one of their pension plans, after he talked with Ayla about stuff during Parents’ Day.”
Nikki glared at the ceiling in frustration. “Ugh! If it turns out dad went behind my back and did it too, after that huge deal he made about not investing with friends unless you’re willing to risk losing the friendship…”
I sort-of-lied, “No, your dad didn’t invest with me.” And I concentrated really hard.
She stared at me for long seconds. “What are you not telling me?”
Okay, not concentrating hard enough. I so needed help work on my anti-Esper skills.
Toni helped out, “Yeah, because your Ki says you’re not telling the whole truth, and you’re hoping Nikki won’t ask… OH! Nikki’s mom invested with you! Right?”
“Ooh! I’m gonna strangle that woman!” Nikki snapped. “And after all the shit she gave me and Jade about not telling the whole truth about important matters…”
I tried, “Relax. This is as close to a sure thing as you’re going to find in the financial markets these days. And it’s paying off abnormally fast, because we didn’t have to fund a start-up, we simply initiated a management process that should have been done twenty years ago. I went to the stakeholders who caused the failure of the incorporation efforts fifteen years ago, and got them on-board, then I laid out my proposals, and everyone bought in. So it’s already going onto the NYSE this month, and everyone who contributed money that was used for venture capital ought to get substantial returns on their investments. Venture capital doesn’t normally work this fast, but I saw an optimal opportunity, and I got lucky.”
“Yeah. Lucky,” Toni drawled dryly. “That sounds about as lucky as Ito taking Hank first day of aikido class last term. Pure luck there.”
Nikki agreed, “Show me where the ‘luck’ part comes in.”
I shrugged, “I was lucky that Marvel’s been spawning off separate corporate entities for years, instead of consolidating, so when people finally wanted to incorporate in the 90’s, there were too many stumbling blocks to it. Then the bottom dropped out of the comic book biz, so no one thought it would be profitable to incorporate for years afterward. Marvel sold rights to several of their characters to get movies made, so, for instance, Sony owns more of the movie rights to Spiderman than Spiderman’s own creators. That limited the advantages of incorporation even further. Then they set up separate LLC’s to fund some of their movies, which complicated everything and actually lowered the net worth of the overall enterprise. Then they generated a chain of lame movies that did crappy box office business, and nearly went into bankruptcy.”
Nikki snorted, “The Hulk, done by Merchant-Ivory? Who thought that one up?”
Toni smirked, “Could’a been worse. How about Ang Lee’s ‘Brokeback Hulk’? Coming soon to a theater near you and your same-sex life partner.”
I went on, “Finally, the executive meddling at Sony made ‘Spiderman 3’ get put on hold, and made Tobey Maguire refuse to come back as Spidey, so Sony stocks took a hit and Marvel Studios Inc. nearly went under. So all those little screw-ups made the entire enterprise - all the individual pieces - readily available. So I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and see the possibilities if I could get the right people to cooperate. Sony wouldn’t play ball with Marvel Comics or Marvel Toys, but Hatamoto’s family owns enough Sony stock that they could apply pressure for me. Marvel Toys wouldn’t play ball with anyone else, but one of their wholly-owned subsidiaries utterly tanked because they depended on Disney merchandising, and Disney’s movies have bombed horribly over the last decade. I knew the right people here and there, so I was able to pull it off. Plus, I put up most of the necessary funding, when nobody else had the available liquidity.”
Toni muttered, “Yeah. That sounds so much like luck to me.”
I just shrugged again. What did they want me to say? I saw an opportunity, and I figured out how to make it work. The opportunity shouldn’t have even existed. That part was nothing but luck.
I switched to a different topic so they wouldn’t keep harping on my definition of ‘luck’. “So, Chaka… Did you tell Nikki about Judicator’s PK armor?”
Toni rolled her eyes. “Oh man! Not that shit again!”
“What?” Nikki wondered.
Chaka groaned, “Remember last term, when Ayles was all bent out of shape about the New Olympians? That whole deal with ‘who is Athena’ and all that?”
Nikki snickered, “Tansy as the new Aphrodite? Pffft.”
Chaka looked my way. “Well, remember that whole thing about Athena being the stern goddess of justice?” Nikki nodded. “Ayla thinks she’s found her. Judicator.”
Nikki complained, “And why is that, may I ask?”
Before I could explain, Toni laughed, “Judicator’s another Exemplar/PDP combo. So she gets up there and does her ‘PK armor’ bit. And it’s fake Greek armor, with a shield and a spear. You should’ve seen Ayla’s face. I thought she was gonna shit a brick.”
I argued, “It wasn’t fake Greek armor. It was the PK version of real Greek armor. Right down to the way the greaves were curved at their edges.”
Nikki calmly said, “There’s no reason she can’t have looked it up in a book, you know. So is that all you have? She likes the look of ancient Greek armor, and she has a PK spear?”
When she put it like that, it did sound pretty stupid. “She’s got the look too. Exemplar, stern attitude, and she’s the fixer for Whitman. She’s got a rep for being able to psychically figure out who’s telling the truth in arguments.”
Nikki nodded, “So she could be the stern goddess of justice. Does she ever hang with Imperious and Majestic?”
I admitted, “Not that I’ve seen.”
Chaka stuck in, “So you don’t have any evidence she’s one of their Greek-o-rama gang?”
“No,” I muttered.
Chaka relentlessly pushed on, “And even if you did, that wouldn’t mean she was really one of the Greek Gods, would it?”
“No,” I sighed. “Same as with Counterpoint. The options for Judicator are: avatar or channeler of a Greek God; self-deluded loon who thinks she’s Athena; or in this case, just someone who thinks she looks good in hoplite armor.”
“Well, she did look good out there,” encouraged Chaka.
Nikki asked, “But you haven’t let the ‘new Olympians’ thing drop, have you?”
“No,” I said. “And Jadis had some intel on them too. Their inner circle seems to be Imperious, Majestic, Stygian, Counterpoint, and - get this - Cytherea.”
Chaka asked, “Isn’t she one of your pals from the Berets?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “And she’s got a major lust aura that she likes to use to get her way on things. So she could be Aphrodite.”
Nikki warned me, “So could a ton of other Exemplar girls around campus.”
I pointed out, “But I’ve got one tiny bit of evidence. One time when someone brought up the way Knick-Knack hangs with Majestic when he’s not one of the ‘pretties’, one of the Berets ventured that he was warm for her form. Cytherea heard, and laughed so hard I thought she was going to pee herself. Okay, Cytherea tends to think that every guy is going to go for her instead of, say, the guy’s actual girlfriend. But this was different. And if I’m right about the New Olympians, then this is why. Aphrodite knows that Hephaestus is hung up on her, and was married to her by Zeus. Hera is the mother of Hephaestus, not a love interest, and Aphrodite knows it.”
Chaka slowly shook her head. “Ayles, you’re hangin’ a hell of a lot of guesses on one coathanger.”
Nikki said, “I have to go with Toni on this. You don’t have enough hard evidence to back any of this up. I mean, for all you know, they’re just a gang of mutants who like the ‘Mount Olympus’ theme and roleplay it. But go ahead and tell me who else you have on your list.”
I frowned, “Okay, we’re now adding Judicator as our Athena. We have Prism as Apollo, Knick-Knack as Hephaestus, and… Okay, after that, it’s wild guesses. Although I do like Feral as Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt. I just don’t know her well enough to go ask her about it.”
“Speaking of stuff we don’t know enough about…” Chaka hinted.
Fey nodded, “Oh yeah. I need to talk to you about the Hekate sitch.”
“You’ve got news?” I asked excitedly.
“After we round up the team and get some security measures,” she said.
“Okay! My room in five,” I grinned.
I walked into my room and stuck my head into the sunroom - literally. I said to Chou and Lancer, “My room in five. Be there or be square.”
A couple minutes later, Chaka walked in with Tennyo and Jade and Shroud. Then Fey came in and did her Dumbledore routine. A blue sphere expanded until it moved past the walls of the room and vanished.
I asked, “Anything anybody need?”
Lancer said “No.”
Tennyo’s stomach rumbled loudly enough to be heard in Hawthorne.
I threw a bag of popcorn into the microwave and said, “This is Nikki’s latest report on the Hekate situation. You all know that Skybolt and Cavalier came back and immediately targeted The Don?”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” smiled Chaka.
I went on, “My contacts tell me he’s going to be in the hospital for most of the term.”
“Ouch,” added Lancer.
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” repeated Chaka.
“Security dragged Sky and Cav away, and they’ve gone cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, so their testimony isn’t worth squat. Insane babbling about magical mind control and slavery isn’t going to convince anyone, especially if the witness is foaming at the mouth and acting like a homicidal loony.” I turned to Fey. “Got anything more? Anything you’re going to be able to do?”
Nikki looked frustrated enough to start popping off hobgoblins, so I was keeping an eye out. She fumed, “Ooh! If I could do something more, I would! But I spent HOURS with Carson and Delarose already, and they’re not going to do anything! Hekate’s already expelled - Carson did that much, and she gave the MCO everything I told her - but there’s no evidence The Don did anything illegal. Chief Delarose pointed out that as far as the evidence goes, there’s nothing that says Sebastiano just took Hekate’s word that she’d given Cav and Sky a mystical boon big enough that they were willing to do anything as repayment. Given that, the most anyone can pin on him is treating his new friends like shit. And Cav and Sky aren’t going to be testifying against anybody for a while. If ever. No one’s going to take the word of two crazy mutants who are running around attacking people and babbling about magical curses that no one’s even heard of, and claiming they were helpless slaves when everybody saw them walking around looking perfectly normal for months and months.”
Chaka interrupted, “Wait, no one’s heard of this spell thing?”
Fey looked like she wanted to do something drastic, but all she did was slump in her beanbag chair. “No. Even Circe hadn’t heard of it. She said there were rumors of Mythos magics that could maybe do that, but she’d never seen evidence that such a thing really existed. And the only evidence of such a spell got blown up in the lower levels of a Syndicate hardsite. And even if they found hard evidence, that wouldn’t be enough to do anything other than get Hekate in more trouble. Which she’s already in.”
She stopped to take a breath. “Cav and Sky may never be coherent again, even with Doctor Otto and his people working with them at ARC. And Carson doesn’t want me talking about it either! She says she has something important brewing, and she needs me to keep this under wraps. She wouldn’t tell me what it is, but Delarose knows. I could tell.”
Nikki’s shoulders sagged, “And anyway, what good would it do to tell everyone? The whole school knew the Alphas enslaved those two, and everyone was scared shitless about it when they thought it was just a really powerful Psi trick. If they thought it was magic so dark that the instructors don’t know it, they’d shit themselves! At least this way, everyone thinks The Don screwed up and lost his control and got a massive beatdown for it. If we shut up about it, he loses out. Everyone goes back to thinking he’s a slimepig who lost the one edge he had.”
Chaka groaned, “So you mean the best thing we can do is.. nothing? That sucks!”
Lancer thought it over. “But it’s strategically effective. Nobody knows how much or how little Fey learned. The only people who are even going to worry about it are actually involved in the thing. So we sit on this and see who exposes himself. Or herself. It may be The Don really didn’t know just what Hekate did. From what little we know, he seems like a pretty hands-off manager. He just used Hekate’s work to his best advantage. Well, we already knew he’s a self-centered bastard. The only way we’re ever really going to know is if Sebastiano goes to the trouble of trying to find out how much Nikki knows about Hekate’s partners in the ritual.”
Nikki added, “And it might not be Don Sebastiano. It might be Hekate’s flunkies Conjure and Spellbinder. They’re the ones who helped with Hekate’s spell on Jinn. And I haven’t seen any evidence that Sebastiano has Clue One about magic.”
Chaka’s eyes suddenly gleamed, “What about the evidence? Has anyone, say, accidentally strolled through Donny-boy or Hekkie’s room, or their lockers, or anything?”
I pointed out, “Just about everyone had a look through The Don’s room after Cav and Sky were done with him. There was no door left, and not much wall. If there was anything there, it’s already been grabbed.”
Nikki frowned, “As for Hekate’s room, if there was anything there, it’s been found. Carson told me she and Delarose went through it with three MCO agents. If Hekate had anything incriminating, she took it with her. Or someone got in there already.”
Chaka added, “And if they had anything hidden away in the Alpha clubhouse or whatever, you know the rest of the Alphas already have it.”
Jade contributed, “And I bet if Hekate left anything magical behind in some secret place, her sidekicks Conjure and Spellbinder already snitched it.”
I suggested, “Then, if there’s no chance of hard evidence turning up, let’s play it Hank’s way. We keep quiet about this. If anyone wants to know what really happened in Kansas City, we have a group meeting before we decide whether to bring anyone else in.” None of us liked it, but if the best way to screw over Don Sebastiano was not to tell on him, well…
I looked around the room. “Anything else?”
“Yeah,” Jade piped up. She looked at Nikki and waited for a nod before continuing. “We haven’t told anyone, but we found out how they tracked Nikki home. Someone put a tracker in Nikki’s luggage.”
“Son of a bitch.”
I muttered, “Well, we knew it had to be something.”
Nikki said, “We didn’t even find it until we got back. Mom packed a bunch of Jade’s presents and gear in one of my suitcases, so after I finally got all my stuff out, I just gave the whole thing to Jade to unpack in her room.”
Jade nodded, “What with the babysitting thing and class schedules and stuff, I didn’t unpack it until today. It wasn’t like I was missing any clothes or anything super-important. So I just touched the case, charged Jann into the whole thing… And Jann came back to me almost instantly. She found the thing right away. It was a disk about an inch across, hidden inside one of the flat inside pockets of the divider thing between the two sides of the suitcase, where you stick ties or nylons or something.”
Nikki added, “As soon as Jade brought it over, I did some scrying, and it’s been magically nulled. No trace of who touched it.”
Lancer asked, “But we know the motive. Opportunity?”
Nikki said, “That’s the problem. When I was done packing, I put a small spell on the suitcase so I’d know if anyone got into it while it was in transit. No one did. But Bunny says the tracer ran on two ordinary watch batteries, and was putting out a strong enough signal that it would’ve died in about eight to ten hours. So someone slipped it in there while I was packing. In my room. That morning.”
Lancer said, “So we have a mole. A mole for some really dangerous enemies.”
That put a damper on the room. I figured it was time to play one of my hole cards. “I have a theory about that. Remember the extortion note I got at the start of school?”
“Christ, are you ever gonna let that go?” complained Tennyo.
“No. And I’ll tell you why,” I replied. “I think it was Tansy, and I think she did it via her knack that she did on Cavalier. Jade told us all about that ‘getting the mark to agree to something they’d ordinarily do’ routine. I think that’s how Tansy got the blackmail note into Poe in the first place.”
Lancer said, “Anyone could’ve just walked in and slid it under your door.”
Tennyo jumped on that, “But they got the wrong door! They didn’t know we’d switched rooms!”
Jade added, “And they didn’t know about Poe, either.”
I disagreed, “The letter writer didn’t know about Poe. That doesn’t mean the delivery kid didn’t.”
Lancer said, “You’re making this too hard, Ayla. There’s no reason why Tansy couldn’t have done that ‘don’t notice me’ knack and just walked in and left it. Or hired a Shifter to pose as one of us and leave it. Or got a mage or a teleporter to pop in and leave it.”
I grinned, “Yes, there is. Mrs. Horton has wards up around the dorm to keep snoopers out. No one who isn’t a Poesie can walk in here without setting off the wards.”
Chaka thought out loud, “So you think this was Tansy too, huh? But Tansy’s on the outs with Hekate and Donny-boy.”
I nodded, “And she’s been looking for anything that would get her back in their good graces. This would do it. She gives Hekate’s tracker to her pawn and has the pawn slip it into Nikki’s suitcase. That’s how Hekate knew where Nikki was, and how she set up the whole thing with Solicitor.”
Lancer groaned, “But we’ve been over this. The blackmail note was dropped the day that all the upperclassmen moved in. The only people we were able to clear were the people who knew about the room-switch, and the half-dozen juniors and seniors who got in late.”
I said, “Yeah. But if - and I grant you, this is still a big if - the same person did both jobs, then we know something else. It was one of the people who dropped in that morning to tell Nikki or Toni goodbye. That lets out nearly everyone upstairs.”
Nikki thought for a moment. “The only people from upstairs were Megs and Belle. Right, Toni?”
Toni thought it over. “Right. And don’t forget, Belle knew about the room-switch.”
Lancer said, “Okay, so it would be either Marty or someone on our floor. Who didn’t know about the room-switch.”
I added, “And was in school at the time, which lets Chou and Jamie out.”
Toni said, “Sharisha. She’d be easy to get to do something like that. She hates all of us.”
I shook my head no. “Unh-uh. Vanessa and Sharisha were two of the only ones who did know about the room switch. Them and Bugs and Rip.”
Lancer frowned, “So that leaves the rest of the floor.”
Toni disagreed, “No, only the ones who came in to say bye that morning. And Sharisha definitely wasn’t one of them.”
Nikki started counting people off using her fingers. “Besides you guys and Bunny and Rip? Punch came in. Scrambler. Verdant. Flux and Risk.”
“Flux and Risk? Did they want to check out your undies or something?” I snarked.
Nikki smirked evilly, “No, I’ve gotten to know them better. Ever since I used them to get even with Belle after one of her pranks.”
“Ooh, good thinking!” cheered Tennyo. “I’ll have to remember that. I still haven’t gotten even for that ectoplasm door trick.”
“Anyone else? Besides the people we already cleared?”
Toni looked up suddenly, “Yeah. Jody.”
“Oh, right,” said Nikki. She wanted to know if we needed help with our bags or anything. She’s really helpful, you know.”
I suddenly felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. Jody. The girl who had put her name on Mrs. Horton’s list just the day before I looked into hiring some help. Which someone like Tansy would expect that I would be doing. Jody, who had been so helpful, popping into my room even when she didn’t need to. I growled, “If Tansy used Jody’s helpfulness to make her a pawn, I’ll strangle that bitch!”
“Whoa whoa whoa!” said Lancer. “We don’t know it’s Jody. We don’t know it was even the same person. We don’t know Tansy was involved in any way in the suitcase job. We don’t really know for sure that Tansy is our blackmailer.”
“Extortionist,” I corrected. “Oh, that was Tansy. I have no doubt whatsoever.”
“How can you be so sure?” Hank pushed.
“Remember when the Spy Kidz screwed up and almost beat up Chou and Molly?” Everyone nodded. Chou nodded and glowered at the same time. “The Spy Kidz wanted to know what they could do to make it up to me. Well, I’ve kept the extortion note and the envelope, and I have them where no one’s going to find them without bringing in some serious help. I got A-Plus to use her clairvoyant skills on the note and envelope. Tansy wrote both of them.”
Lancer asked, “So why haven’t you used your evidence yet?”
I frowned, “Because Carson knows about the wards around Poe. So she’ll know Tansy couldn’t have delivered the letter. It’s at least as likely that I got some high-end mage,” I gave Nikki a speaking look, “to ‘forge’ the clairvoyant signature, to frame Tansy. Without any idea who delivered the envelope for Tansy, I had no case that would stand up.”
Nikki nodded, “But now we might - and I mean just remotely might - know who Tansy’s pawn is. Maybe Jody. But it might be Flux or Risk or Punch or Verdant or Scrambler or Megs.”
I nodded, “And we play this very close to the chest. We don’t act any differently around anyone in the dorm. But now we’ve cut the list down to seven suspects. And if one of them is the pawn, it’s extremely likely they don’t know it. We just wait for Tansy’s next gambit, and we see if she uses her pawn again.”
Tennyo’s stomach rumbled again, so we broke up. She walked out saying, “Okay, I’m heading off to dinner in half an hour.” I tossed her a couple oranges to tide her over until then.
I made a short phone call to one of my contacts in Security to see if he could get me Security video footage on demand. He told me I’d have to go to Buxton and work something out. It seemed like a good idea, particularly if I had a specific time or place to check out, and if it was covered by the Security cameras. After I wrapped up the call, I headed out of the room.
And then I heard it.
“Ow! Okay, I got it… OW! Okay, wait… OUCH!”
What the heck was that? I followed the noises to Jade and Billie’s room. And there was Jade, handling real nunchaku, two wooden rods connected by a length of chain.
Billie was floating beside her in frustration, quietly insisting, “No, you’ve got to take it slower at first.”
Jade glared at her. “If Jet Li can do this, then I can too! So there! Now watch. I swing into first position… Then second position… See? Now I double…”
I watched from the doorway as Jade flipped the nunchuks, wrapped them around herself, switched to her other hand, sped up, swung the nunchuks between her legs... And clocked herself right in the crotch.
“AAAAGH!” She dropped the nunchuks and grabbed her crotch, while her knees caved in until they clicked together.
I interrupted, “Wow, that would really hurt if you still had testicles.”
She glared at me like she wanted to shoot laser beams out of her eyes and bore a pair of holes through my chest. She groaned, “I…still…do.”
“Oh crap,” I muttered. “Sorry. I thought you got that all.. umm.. taken care of by your mad scientist pals.”
In a voice so strained it should have been called ‘pureed’, she groaned, “nOT yET.” Then she waddled to her bed, her knees virtually welded together. After a few seconds, she looked up at Billie and moaned, “I thought.. this wasn’t.. supposed.. to hurt so much…”
Billie shook her head sadly, “Oh, it still hurts for girls. A lot. We just don’t need a great big athletic cup anymore. I just wear a strip of kinetic gel about the size of a feminine napkin inside my exercise briefs when I’m sparring.”
Jade looked up at me and moaned, “NOW she tells me.”
I asked, “Why didn’t you just charge Jinn into the things?”
Jade groaned, “Jasmine. Jinn and Jann are off working with Stan and Morrie.”
“That’s not really the point,” I said.
Billie complained, “Well, I wanted her to start out with the foam-coated beginner sets, but she had to go grab my real ones and start whacking away. Too much anime-watching, if you ask me.”
“Okay! I get it!” Jade growled. In her place, I would have been lying on the floor holding my groin and whimpering, but she got up and charged Jasmine (or whatever she was calling this one - it was getting pretty hard to track all of them any more) into the nunchaku. Then she started over again. I couldn’t help watching, even if it was somewhat like watching NASCAR and waiting for a car accident. I’m guessing here, since I don’t watch auto races.
This time, when she started going a little too fast, the nunchaku abruptly stopped just before they would have whacked her in the ribs. Instead, they lifted up into the air, gave her a light tap on the noggin, and then settled back into her hands. She glared at her weapons and fumed, “Okay! I got the hint!”
I shook my head and moved on down the hall. I rounded up Chou and Nikki and Toni, so we could all walk to dinner with Billie and Jade and the flying nunchuks. Jade didn’t hurt herself again, but the nunchuks did stop three times to rap her on the noggin in complaint. And every time she would fuss at two pieces of wood, which would then do everything except thumb their nonexistent nose at her. It was pretty hard not to laugh out loud.
Dinner wasn’t so humorous. Even the marvelous veal cacciatore from Chef Peter couldn’t make up for the revolting performance in the middle of the Crystal Hall, as Solange and Kodiak royally welcomed half a dozen other Alphas to ‘their’ table.
And the veal was pretty awesome. It was probably veal shoulder roast, braised in a rich tomato sauce with sliced pancetta, chopped porcini mushrooms, and Niçoise olives, with garlic, celery, and diced baby carrots. The bay leaf and fresh rosemary were perfect accompaniments to the veal.
But my dinner was pretty hard to stomach with Tansy playing ‘lord of all she surveys’ at the Alpha table. Okay, everyone knew that Hekate hadn’t come back to school. And everyone had heard that The Don had been turned into chopped sirloin by the tag-team of Cav and Sky, who had then been hustled off to rubber rooms at ARC. Those of us in TK knew from Nikki exactly why.
But how the fuck did TANSY become Queen of the Alphas? Was my karma that horrible? Had I been Adolph Hitler in a former life or something? Tansy Walcutt, my arch-enemy, the bitch who had to be behind that stupid blackmail scheme in the fall, the fiend who had avatar-napped Jinn, the psycho who had put out hits on three of my friends? That Tansy was now running the fracking Alphas. This was so not fair.
I tried to keep a bland smile on my face when Tansy had Glissade make a big announcement to everyone in the whole Crystal Hall. As a siren, Glissade could do it without shouting. “Everybody, please listen! We have an important message for everyone! You all know that things have been tense around here, with Hekate and Don Sebastiano running the Alphas for their own personal goals. Well, that’s all over with! They’re no longer in the Alphas, and everything has changed for the better. We have a new term, and a new elite. The Alphas have turned over a new leaf. And to show how much the new Alphas care, there’s going to be a big party for the whole school in the new Macfarlane Auditorium at end of term, celebrating the Senior Legacy!”
It seemed like most of the Crystal Hall applauded. I just wanted to vomit. Instead, I smiled politely and pretended to clap along.
Tennyo nudged me, which was like getting ‘nudged’ by a semi. “Who’s that up there with them?”
“Dunno,” I admitted.
Fey leaned forward and said, “The good-looking blonde guy is Imminent. He’s a precog. And Exemplar, naturally.”
Lancer turned our way, “The other new one is Parallax. He’s a Warper, and it’s pretty obvious he’s an Exemplar too.”
Tennyo growled, “So how’d Walcutt pull this one off?”
Chaka suggested, “Maybe Kodiak pulled it off and he’s just letting her be the point man so she can get targeted instead of him.”
Chou said, “Now that sounds like something the Alphas would pull.”
I insisted, “No. Tansy made a deal with Hekate. She got the tracer on Nikki, and got a share of the perks. Then with Hekate gone and Sebastiano laid up, that left Solange as next in line for the throne.”
Lancer muttered, “You’re reaching there, Ayla.”
I told him, “Yeah. But it would explain everything.”
Lancer said, “Yeah. It would. But that doesn’t make it true. It just makes it something you’d like to believe is true.”
You know, I hate it when other people are right about stuff like that. But I had definitely over-reached when I had induced - pardon me, when I had wild-guessed - that Hartford was behind the extortion note. I was going to have to remember that. I didn’t have enough evidence to be sure Tansy was behind the tracker disk, and I didn’t know how Tansy and Kodiak pulled this off.
On the other hand, I also didn’t know how long they could hold on to their crowns before someone knocked them on their cans. Neither of them had the threat potential that The Don did, and there were plenty of sharks in the water around them. It suddenly occurred to me that this might turn out to be entertaining, rather than frustrating.
That nasty little thought buoyed me up, which undoubtedly says something really horrible about me. But then, I never was a ‘turn the other cheek’ kind of guy. That’s not usually a viable model in a competitive business situation.
After I went and chatted a bit with Chef Peter about the veal cacciatore, I went back to the table and waited until Tennyo and Lancer finished chowing down. I think Billie had five trayfuls of food. Not plates. Entire cafeteria trays. I once again decided not ask where she puts it all. One of the things I learned from the Emil Hammond trial is that a lawyer should never ask a witness a question to which the lawyer doesn’t already know the answer.
We trekked back to Poe, but there were enough people walking near us that we didn’t dare discuss the whole ‘Tansy is now running the Alphas’ issue.
When we got back to Poe, I looked in again on Vox. It looked like she was tucking her roomie into bed. I figured that meant neither had gotten any dinner. Once Vox came out of her room, I took her over to my room and fixed her a little something. She was going to settle for a bag of microwave popcorn, but I put my foot down. I fixed her some tangerine segments, some slices of Camembert on rice crackers, and I got out her favorite yogurt, raspberry.
She wolfed down the yogurt while I sliced Camembert for her. “Ayla, you are way too good to me.”
I grinned, “Well, I think you’re worth it.”
She smiled back, “Am I the only girl who gets a delicious dinner without having to go over to the caff?”
I told her, “Not likely. Besides Chou, there are bound to be a bunch of snots over in Melville and Dickinson who have their food brought to them. And Thuban probably has his own private dining room down stairs in Twain.”
“His own dining room? You’re shittin’ me… Really?”
“Really,” I insisted. “Do you ever see him eating at the Crystal Hall?”
She shook her head no while she ate some tangerine segments.
“That’s right,” I told her. “He’s got his own private place in Twain.”
She swallowed and then asked, “So why don’t you have your own private dining hall? And masseuse? And sauna?”
I admitted, “The only thing I really miss is my own private library. Eating alone sucks. I… I really miss eating with the whole family and talking with mother about… Things.”
But I was never again going to get to eat with the whole family. And I was never again going to get to talk with mother. And one of the things mother and I talked about the most was her work at Goodkind Research. Just thinking about that - and Emil Hammond - made me feel nauseous. Suddenly, just looking at the food I had set out for Vanessa was making me want to barf.
I must not have done a decent job of hiding my emotions, because Vanessa got up and gave me a huge hug. She kissed me on the cheek and whispered, “I’m really sorry, honey. For a lot of us, home was pretty crappy. For Sharisha, it was pretty much hell. A lot of the time, I forget your life used to be perfect, and now it’s in the shitter. For a ton of us, here is WAY better than being home.”
“I’m okay,” I lied. But after that, I really didn’t want to be in my room, and I didn’t feel like doing the studying I needed to do, so I let Vox lead me upstairs to the big television. She had a program she wanted to watch, and she figured I’d do better just sitting with her for a while. I didn’t have anything better in mind, even if I thought her program sucked dead donkeys. It certainly had been written by dead donkeys. It was too awful to have been written by live ones.
We walked in and found the usual tv junkies on the couch and in the chairs. Plus Beltane. Belle was sitting there slumped in a chair, listlessly watching television and looking miserable. Her shoulder angels were nowhere to be seen.
I walked over and asked, “What’s the matter? Your angel and devil dumped you and then locked you out of your room so they could make out?”
“Hah bloody hah,” snapped Beltane.
I persisted, “Something is wrong, isn’t it?”
Feral looked over, lifted her sunglasses, and glared, “I swear, if you get her started again… The program’s just about to start!”
I put a hand on Beltane’s shoulder and said, “Come on, let’s go back to your room and you can tell me all about it.”
Belle snarled, “And why do you care so much?”
I admitted, “Well, it’ll be the first time all day people were talking to me about their problem, instead of mine.” She stared right at my eyebrows and smirked evilly. Great, so everybody had heard about my eyebrows.
Once Beltane had trudged back to her room, she flopped down on her bed and started. “It’s this bloody necromancy class. I was so sure it was going to be great! Last year’s Theurgy course was awesome. But it’s already turning to shit. I walked in and looked around, and I felt like I’d been smacked with a Grimsby cod.
“First off, Nightbane and Carmilla are both in it. They sit on opposite sides of the room, and Nightbane spends all her time glaring at Sara like she’s going to attack her in a second. Nightbane? ‘Nut-brain’ is more like it, if you ask me. And Sara just sits there smirking at her or blowing her kisses, pissing ‘Not-brain’ off every chance she gets, making things even worse.
“All right, Miss Grimes can cope with that. Even if it makes the room about as cozy as a warzone. But a bunch of the Goths are in there too. Wyrd and Residue and Arachne, and a couple I don’t know. Residue all by herself is enough to bring down the whole room. The ‘death of the party’, that’s her. Plus Hekate’s little henchmen Conjure and Spellbinder are in there. Plus Bluejay and Damballah. All the Alphas and Alpha wannabes are pissed at me. Spellbinder and Conjure keep glaring at Bluejay like he turned their witch hats into pink yarmulkes. I have no bloody idea what that’s about. And Damballah acts like he hates most everyone else in the room. I’ve got to put up with this for two periods every single day!
“Grimesy starts out talking about how necromancy breaks the great cycle of life and death and rebirth, so it’s fundamentally violating the soul of any nature-based magics. So far, so not-so-bad. But then Wyrd raises her hand, and things start going downhill. She says, ‘Well, is it okay just to call up spirits of the dead to talk to them?’ Grimesy says no, because that disrupts the cycle. And before she can start explaining, Conjure is in on the act. She starts harping on Stygian, in this whiny little voice. ‘Ooh, it’s so not fair, ooh, Stygian gets to have spirits of the dead hanging around with him all the time!’ Like that’s a GOOD thing! Bleedin’ Alphas…”
She put her head in her hands and went on, “Not that Stygian’s there to defend himself, even if Grimes said he’s registered for the course. The Rob Roy’s too depressed to go to classes most of the time. Shrike says she heard from some of the Melvillavellis she knows that some of the time the ghosts around him are the only thing keeping him going to classes and eating meals and such.”
She had to stop talking while I fell over laughing at the ‘Melvillavellis’ ref.
“Christ, Phase. It wasn’t that funny.”
I picked myself up and said, “But it’s so perfect. I just wish I’d thought it up.”
She frowned, “Well, it’s probably decades old. So it’s not like you’d’ve been the first person to come up with it. Them, the Whitmaniacs, the Poesies, the Emersonsabitches… There’s rude names for all of us. Most of ‘em probably popped up long before the school went under back in the early Sixties.”
“Hmm. So I take it the Necromancy class didn’t right itself after Conjure chipped in,” I not-so-subtly prompted her.
“Oh God no,” she moaned. “Damballah started complaining about the creepy skulls and blood rites and stuff in necromancy. So then, Wyrd and Conjure and some of the other losers started this whole routine about how maybe they could do it without the skulls, and not call it ‘necromancy’, and if they had a better name people wouldn’t be all hateful about it. So then they ended up wasting most of the class arguing about why ‘post-mortem interaction’ wouldn’t be an okay substitute for the name of the thing, if they weren’t really doing anything really bad. Ugh! And now I’m stuck in this stupid class, and a big chunk of the class wants to LEARN how to do necromancy! What the bleeding hell is WRONG with these people?”
I patted her on the shoulder and said, “Well, I’m sure Grimes will whip those losers into shape in no time, and the class will be just the way you were hoping it would be.” It wasn’t really a lie. Even if Ms. Grimes looked like she probably performed necromancy for fun and profit when no one else was looking.
Okay, Elyzia Grimes looked like she was Morticia Addams’ sister. And she looked like she’d perform necromancy even when you were watching, and maybe even with you as the intended sacrifice, so I didn’t really have a lot of hope that the class would really go the way Belle was hoping.
I opened the door to leave, and we heard Delta Spike in the hallway. “No, really! Shoulder angels are gonna be the next big thing around here, I’m just hopping on the bandwagon early!”
“Oh hell,” muttered Belle as she got up to take a peek.
We looked down the hall, and there was Delta, in full superheroine garb. She was in the usual white outfit with black cape hiding her power harness on her back. But she had shoulder angels this time. Her right angel was an ‘exalted DS’ figure in an all-white superhero garb with gold trim and gold boots. It had a gold cape that fluttered heroically behind her, and a gold halo. It also had a glowing white nimbus about its body. Her left angel was a ‘dark DS’ shoulder devil in an all-red supervillain costume with black trim and a black cape. It didn’t have a white glow about its body. Instead, it had glowing, solid-black eyes. And red horns sticking out of its forehead. And a swishing red tail tipped with a nasty-looking barb.
The shoulder angel agreed, “Yeah. We’re devises.”
The shoulder devil disagreed, “No we’re not. We’re real.”
“Why do you have to disagree with everything I say?”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes you do.”
“No I don’t.”
“See, you’re doing it again!”
“No I’m not!”
“Yes you are!”
“No I’m not!”
Delta grabbed a control panel on her wrist and grimaced, “I just can’t seem to keep them from getting into this argument loop…”
She pushed a couple buttons, and said, “Ahh. That ought to do it.”
Both shoulder angels started sparking.
“OH SHIT! RUN FOR IT!” someone screamed.
The hallway emptied. I would have stepped back into Belle’s room, but she slammed a wall of ectoplasm up across her doorway. I took the hint. I went light and sank through the floor into my own hallway.
On the upside, I didn’t hear any explosions, so maybe Delta’s devises didn’t self-destruct. I let Vox watch her tv programs, and I got in over an hour of reading. Most of the Team Tactics references were available on the internet, so I downloaded PDF files and read about a quarter of them before Vanessa’s shows ended.
I was going to have to think about some of this stuff. The classic military tactics for things like street-sweep and room-to-room needed to be drastically upgraded for Team Kimba. And some of the tactics didn’t make much sense in a non-military setting when at least our side was going to be superpowered. Face it. If your opponents are armed and are in a series of trenches, that’s a major problem when you’re an ordinary army unit on flat ground. It’s not so big a problem when your team has flyers and some truly frightening suppressive fire and you-name-it. We didn’t have to fight World War I all over again, we just had to do what we did this morning.
Well, maybe we would want to take it a lot easier than that on real opponents.
Then Vox came down and kissed me goodnight. For a long time. I never did get to the Accounting II and Accounting III textbooks. Or anything.
Would you mind if I killed you?
Would you mind if I tried to,
Cause you have turned into my worst enemy,
You carry hate that I feel, it’s over now,
What have you done?
I woke up to Within Temptation singing “What Have You Done?” I shut off the radio and muttered, “Damn, Jericho is really a bad influence on me. Next, I’ll be putting Metallica and Nightwish on my alarm-clock playlist.”
As I got out of bed, I thought back to that night. The night that Phobos had shown the raw guts to invite a pretty - a fucking mutant-hating Goodkind if you asked most people around here - to come listen to some music with her. Diamondback had an amazing voice. I wondered if Gracie could get Sandra a few jobs doing back-up vocals here and there. If no one saw Diamondback except a couple techs on the other side of a glass window, it might work. Of course, ever since those two Russian sirens had posed as lesbian schoolgirl rockers and nailed a couple major hit singles in Europe, the entire international music industry had been really sensitive about mutants doing anything involving recording. But Diamondback wasn’t a siren… And who the hell would believe a mutant on that score?
I could still ask. The worst that would happen was Gracie would tell me ‘no’.
I slipped on my bathrobe and made my way to the bathroom. It was extra-crowded. I hadn’t figured on that, even though I should have anticipated it. The reason why was simple. It was much warmer and more pleasant in the bathroom than it had been for a couple months.
Over Christmas, I had bought some high-end flat-panel infrared space heaters that were designed to work in moist conditions like bathrooms and shower rooms. They’d cost a lot more than I’d expected, but I figured they were worth it even if they only lasted until late spring. They had arrived Monday, and I’d talked Bugs into installing them. Well really, she was eager to install them, once I showed them to her. I had just needed to talk her into accepting some money for installing them, and I’d really had to do some persuading to keep her from taking them apart first. But the heaters were up and running, and working like a dream.
I hardly had a chance to look at how Bunny had mounted the panels before Chaka was pointing out, “Here she is! You just know who shelled out the bucks for these things!”
Jade piped up, “Well, it sure wasn’t me!”
Someone called out, “Yeah, we knew that when we saw they weren’t Hello Kitty heaters!”
“Or pink!” I recognized Chaka’s dulcet snarkiness in that one.
“What’s wrong with pink?” Jade fussed.
Bunny stepped out of a shower and admitted, “Well, I got them up last night with a little help from Jody, but Ayla bought them.”
I chipped in, “And I got her to not take them apart first before she put ‘em up!”
Fey added, “Why? They’d probably work even better after she fiddled with ‘em a bit.”
Bunny explained, “It’s because some of the internals are hermetically sealed to keep the moisture out, and if I opened things up, I’d break the seals. It’s a warranty issue. Ayla’s kind of picky about stuff like that.”
“KIND OF?” a bunch of people called out simultaneously. I caught Vox doing it too, which was undoubtedly why the room sounded like forty or fifty people were saying it.
I’m sure there were some people in the room who weren’t saying it.
Fey stepped over and gave me a hug, “Thanks, anyway. It was really nice of you, and the bathroom is just toasty. For a change.”
Jay Jay zipped between a couple people and gave me a lightning-fast hug too. “Yeah thanks ‘cause it’s so much warmer than it always is and I just hate it when I forget my towel and it’s freezing cold in here and this is great, and…” She was still talking as she zipped out of the room to go get dressed.
Tennyo looked around and finally admitted, “Umm, I hadn’t noticed the room was warmer. But thanks a lot, Ayla.”
Pretty much everyone thanked me. Even Sharisha. She looked like she was having to rip out her own molars, but she did it. I wondered if Vox had made her. I got several more hugs, and a shy thank-you kiss from Verdant, and a tricky low-five from Chaka. I swear, sometimes it seems that girl puts more effort into being ‘homegirl Toni’ around me than she does around the entire rest of Whateley.
Vox waited and caught me as I was leaving the bathroom. She wrapped her arms around me and purred, “I thought I better give you your thank-you out here, where it won’t create a problem…” Then she kissed me senseless.
When she finally slipped out of my arms and sashayed down the hall, I had a boner you could have used for diamond mining. “What do you mean ‘won’t create a problem’?” I complained to her back.
I went into my room, where Chou was changing her clothes. Which, of course, meant that she was putting on a clean mandarin top and yoga pants. I waited until she was done, because she didn’t like getting exposed to the ‘ICBM launch’.
“What is the matter?” she asked politely. Her eyes flickered over me, and then jumped down to the projectile that was covered but not hidden by my bathrobe. “Oh,” she muttered with some embarrassment. “Thank you. I do not know why it bothers me so much. It is not as if I didn’t see this a lot in the locker room at school, back when…” She sort of trailed off.
“Yeah. I know,” I supplied. Chou didn’t like thinking about what she’d lost, and the boys’ locker room was definitely an ‘Alexander’ memory.
She jumped to a different topic. “The bathroom was very warm this morning. I assume the gift of the new heaters was from you?”
I shrugged, “Yeah. My bathroom in L.A. was nice an warm every morning, and I didn’t see why I couldn’t have the same thing around here. Besides, you know me. I’ll do anything to keep naked hotties hanging around in the bathroom longer.”
She just stared at me. “Yes. I’m completely sure that was your main motivation,” she said in her best ‘utterly disbelieving’ voice. She went on, “So, what is next? The water heaters are much better since they fixed the building after Halloween. Do you have something else planned?”
I admitted, “I have some new bathroom hardware coming in around the end of the month. Hydroflux is going to install it and show everyone how to use it.”
“Hydroflux? I don’t know her.”
“She’s a deviser over in Melville,” I explained. “You’ve heard of ‘Bed Bath and Beyond’? Well, Hydro specializes in the ‘Bath and Beyond’ part.”
“And these things are going to be good?”
I grinned, “Let me put it this way. Unicorn and Automa-tech nearly got in a fight over one.”
We walked off to breakfast through the tunnel, since it was particularly nasty outside. I wondered if Tansy had native bearers carrying her to class. Or maybe the Alphas made a bunch of warpers teleport their bigshots over to central campus so they didn’t have to walk in the snow.
Fey was walking with Bugs. There were no shoulder angels in sight. Maybe there was a ‘mutually assured destruction’ pact in place. Nikki calmly asked, “Ayla, how much did those heaters cost?”
I recognized that tone of voice, so I was on guard. I shrugged, “Not that much.”
She pounced, “Because I went on-line, and I couldn’t find anything close to what Bunny put up, for under a hundred thousand dollars.”
I blithely said, “I got ours at cost. If they work well and hold up, the company knows I’m going to order enough more to outfit all the shower rooms in Poe.”
Nikki looked aghast. “AYLA! You can’t spend a million dollars on bathroom heaters!”
I waved her off, “I promise I won’t spend anything like that on the heaters.”
Chou ‘helpfully’ added, “No, she has something else in mind for the bathroom.”
Chaka jumped in, “So Ayles, what I wanna know, is why didn’t you have these up sooner, back when we were freezing our asses off in the bathroom?”
I pointed out, “Well, they probably would have been up yesterday, if Bugs hadn’t been so busy with holographic shoulder angels instead…”
“No, I mean back in December,” she explained.
“I know,” I admitted. “It took me a while to find a company that had exactly what I was looking for.”
Bugs added, “Yeah, these come from a company in Switzerland that I’ve never even heard of.”
Don’t ask how I found them. Don’t ask how I found them. Don’t ask how I found them. Don’t ask how I found them…
“So how did you find ‘em, Ayla?” Tennyo asked.
Damn it. I so didn’t want to explain that I paid a professional tech shopper to hunt them down for me. They’d be all over me about spending too much money again. “Lots of legwork,” I sort-of-explained. Which was technically true. It just wasn’t my legwork.
Someday I was going to have to set the entire team down and give them a lecture. A lecture they wouldn’t want to sit through. But it was important that they understand that this was merely money. Money wasn’t something you stockpiled so you could have more when you died than Mister Smythe-Bigbucks did. What was the point of that? No one since the ancient Egyptian pharaohs had really believed you could take it with you when you died. No, money was something you used to help people. Preferably, it was something you fed into the system in subtle ways that helped people help themselves. You accrued money so that you could be sure you remained one of the people who helped others, not one of the people who needed help. So, given that, what was so bad about my helping out other people in the dorm, with a few small purchases?
Hank finally broke through my crankiness by ruffling my hair and grinning, “Hey, if the girls want to complain about those heaters, maybe you could get Bunny to move ‘em into my bathroom.”
“Whoa there, Hulkster,” said Chaka. “I never said I didn’t like ‘em.”
Chou agreed, “They’re really very nice.”
I frowned, “You messed my hair up, doggone it!”
“Not that anyone’s gonna be able to tell,” helped Chaka.
At least breakfast was a distraction from the Ayla-spends-too-much-money issue. The New Olympians had taken over a table near the center of the caff. They hadn’t made a play for the Alpha tables, but they had grabbed a primo spot on the opposite side of the central fountain. That was pretty obviously a power play of some kind. I was dying to see how the Solange and Kodiak Show reacted. Plus, Majestic was showing off a pair of magical shoulder angels. They were pretty much just her. Her in a clinging white robe standing on a pillar as ‘pleased Hera’, and her in a clinging white robe standing on a plank as ‘angry Hera’. Huge surprise there. Her shoulder angels weren’t as good as Nikki’s. Well, maybe I was prejudiced on the subject, since Majestic was such a pain in the ass.
While I took my time going through the breakfast line, I tried to keep an eye on the center tables, in case open hostilities broke out. Of course, outright violence wasn’t Tansy’s style. She was more likely to sleep with Imperious to make him do what she wanted, or to hire someone to get back at the New Olympians. Kodiak seemed more like the kind of guy who’d invite Imperious to step out back to settle who was Mister Big around here. That might actually be worth watching. Kodiak got caught with his pants down when the Alphas fought us last term, but he had a rep as a guy who liked to see who would stand up to him, and who would chicken out. But both were Exemplar-5’s, and both had extra powers. Imperious was a lightning Energizer, and Kodiak had those powers from his bear spirit. Might be a good match. As for Majestic vs. Solange? Hmm… Was it possible to root for the referee? Nah, it was pretty obvious that in a real face-off, Majestic would cream Tansy.
As I walked past the food tables with the meat products, an attractive girl in sous-chef clothes walked out. I didn’t recognize her until she deliberately made eye contact with me. I moved over to take the plate she was holding. “Jana?”
She grinned, “Hi. Chef Marcel made these.”
I took the plate from her and admitted, “I didn’t know you could do the non-centaur thing.”
She rolled her eyes. “I can, but it’s really hard, and it only lasts for a little while. The centaur form kind of gets in the way in most kitchens, but it’s really the best for me around here if I’m in for more than an hour, like most days.” She glanced at the clock and sighed, “I’m going to have to go change clothes now. It’s pretty embarrassing if I change back to my centaur form and ruin all my clothes from the waist down. See you.”
I made an effort to get back to the Team Kimba table fairly quickly. These smelled like hot pork patties, and I didn’t want them to get cold. They were rich with aromas of onion and garlic and rosemary, plus something sharp, so I knew they’d be good.
They were. The coarsely ground pork went really well with the red pepper and sautéed onion and garlic and rosemary. There was also some kind of whole-grain mustard that I couldn’t identify. I slowly savored the patties, while Tennyo ate about fifteen pounds of ham and Lancer wolfed down enough scrambled eggs to feed a militia.
I looked around as I enjoyed my breakfast. Sara was sitting at the table behind Tennyo, and her shoulder angels were a lot more.. well.. palatable. The shoulder angel was the same, but now her shoulder devil was just ‘naughty Sara’. It was cute and playful, as opposed to run-for-your-lives horrific.
The deviser angels were getting better too. And there were more of them. I noticed a couple non-devisers wearing what looked like deviser shoulder angels. And then there were.. alternatives. Igneous had two things on his shoulders. They looked like granite versions of the classic ‘comedy and tragedy’ faces, except I could see they were moving. Talking, probably. But I was too far away to make out what they were saying. He was sitting with Kludge, who had two shoulder angels that were both in wheelchairs. I couldn’t make out any more detail than that from where I was sitting. I figured that Kludge was making shoulder angels for his friends at Twain, and that was where Igneous got his.
I was thinking about going over and getting a look at Kludge’s work, but Lancer was anxious to get the whole team over to the ranges for Day Two of “classes where the teachers are pissed off at Phase”. I could hardly wait.
On the way there, Chaka pointed out, “Hey Jade, you’re a trendsetter! You see all those shoulder angels?”
I butted in, “I didn’t think Majestic’s were that hot. Nikki’s were better.”
Jade said, “I was thinking about some shoulder angels for dinner with Stephen…”
“Girl, you shouldn’t be thinkin’ about shoulder angels when you have a date!” insisted Chaka.
Nikki asked Tennyo, “Are you sure she isn’t a deviser?”
Billie shrugged, “Sometimes she seems more gadget-focused than even Bugs or Delta.”
Lancer pointed out, “Well, it certainly adds to her cover story.”
Chou said, “She does seem very convincing.”
Jade bubbled, “And the ‘Intro to Fabrication Techniques’ class looks like it’s gonna be so cool!”
I muttered, “Your point exactly.”
Shroud added, “If I’m going to be a walking pile of gadgets, I’d just as soon be a walking pile of really good gadgets.”
I wasn’t surprised that we weren’t the first group in the room. And I wasn’t surprised that the Alphariffics - oh pardon me, the ‘Elite League’ - were in uniforms this time. I had gotten a phone call from Cecilia Rogers while I was in sixth period martial arts the day before, so I knew the Alphas had sent them in for fittings. The Elite League were all in matching uniforms of white and black, with white as the main color and black as the accent color. I had to admit it; Bombshell and Golden Girl and Swoop looked pretty damned good in those outfits, and even Spellbinder looked sharp. The guys probably looked good in their outfits too. I wasn’t paying as much attention to them.
I also noticed that the Vindicators were in early, and they were all in their costumes. Alvin was in his usual ‘Captain Canada’ costume, complete with his big round shield with the big red maple leaf on the front. I was glad no one at Marvel had insisted that I rat out all the copyright violations I saw, because his uniform was such a blatant rip-off of Captain America that half a dozen Marvel lawyers would be chomping at the bit to send him a ‘cease and desist’ notice.
Next to Captain Canada was Kismet, in her favored costume. A green one-piece strapless swimsuit with what were probably some Wonderbra components to give her more cleavage, a matching cape, and low-heeled calf-height boots. She was playing with a green hairpiece that sat in the front of her hair and came down on either side of her face. She looked like she was freezing her ass off in the air-conditioned briefing room. That cape looked way too lightweight to keep her warm, even if she was huddling in it.
On Kismet’s right was Dynamaxx, in his full power armor. It was a bright titanium-looking metal except where he’d added gray and black detailing. He’d been working on it since before he got to Whateley, so it was looking pretty good by now. Still, it didn’t look like it was designed for sitting in a chair. He had managed the sleek 1980’s ‘Iron Man’ style pretty well, even if that meant that one of his blasters was mounted on his right shoulder and the other was sticking up from his left forearm, since there wasn’t room for devises like those inside the armor. I remembered that he’d bought the shoulder-blaster and its attachment system at the Whateley Weapons Fair. The front half of his helmet was open, with the faceplate sitting in his lap. He didn’t have a big ‘Iron Man’ chest beam, but he did have a thick jetpack-looking harness on his back. It wasn’t hard to miss, since it was keeping him from sitting back in the chair. While I watched, he gave up and turned his chair sideways so he could sit relatively normally.
Behind them were Lemure, Donner, and Sizemax. Sizemax was in a cheerful blue supersuit complete with attached neck and headmask so you could only see her face from her nose down, and nothing else. The outfit had crimson gloves and boots, plus crimson styling in a big ‘V’ that covered her torso. It looked pretty good on her. Next to her was Donner, in a costume that I would have described as ‘if superheroes wanted to look like Vikings but didn’t do the research’. It was a gray supersuit underneath fake Viking boots, fake Viking tunic, fake Viking arm bracers, and a fake Viking helmet. He kept swinging his sledgehammer by its handle-strap, although Sizemax kept elbowing him to make him stop. On Donner’s other side was Lemure, who was wearing what looked like the top half of a white supersuit, which meant that it was pretty much of a heavy white long-sleeved pullover.
Kismet stood up and turned around to face the row behind her. “Donner! Put that hammer down before you drop it. Again. And Lemure! Do you call that a costume?” Lemure looked at her with an uncaring expression. “Where is the bottom half of your costume? Where is the cape I got for you? And those… Those are Whateley uniform pants and penny loafers!”
Lemure shrugged, “It’s in the wash.”
Kismet shivered and wrapped herself in her cape. Then she re-asserted herself, “So you’ll have it tomorrow!”
Lemure yawned, “I sent it out.”
Kismet tried again, “So you’ll have it in two days?”
Kismet glared, “Donner! Stop playing with your.. hammer! Now. Lemure. As I was saying…”
Lemure rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. “Mom said she’d wash it herself and mail it back. Check back with me in a couple weeks, Kiz. Maybe she’ll get to it by then.”
Kismet looked like she would have exploded if she’d been warm enough. “OOOH! This does nothing for the great reputation of The Vindicators!”
Lemure flatly said, “Like I give a flying f-”
“CLASS! SIT DOWN!” bellowed Bardue.
I had been so busy enjoying the byplay that I hadn’t noticed Bardue and Everheart walk in from the front of the room. I wasn’t the only one. A couple of the Omega Squaddies were still chortling and whispering at the back of the room.
Bardue opened his mouth to bellow out another instruction, but the back door flew open a little harder than normal, and whacked loudly against the wall. He glared back there, as a combination of trudging boots and scratching noises and slithering dragged into the room.
I turned and looked. It was Outcast Corner. And they looked like death on a cracker. I mean, they all looked utterly exhausted, and all of them except Razorback looked like they had been run through all the death traps in Crucible’s now-defunct lair that Belle had been jabbering about on Monday. Of course, with Razorback’s incredible Regen, he could have been put through a paper shredder yesterday and he’d look fine today. But Razor looked utterly exhausted. I had never seen him looking so completely ready to collapse. He was dressed in his usual black armor, and he was moving like it was ten times heavier than usual.
Diamondback was helping Eldritch into the room. Diamond was in her Whateley uniform - plus a fancy snake jewelry piece like a bracer about her upper arm - but she was shedding. It looked like she had hundreds of tiny cuts all over, and she was apparently shedding around every one of them. Eldritch looked worse. First off, she was sporting a bunch of weird tattoos. They looked like cobalt-blue metal fused to her skin. Instead of her usual super-wiccan goth clothes, she was wearing a forest-green camo outfit that was pretty close to Hank’s ‘urban badass’ look from fall. I could see she had some wicked cuts on her arms, and the cuts were stapled closed. Ouch. She wasn’t moving too well, and Diamondback was leading her to a seat. If you asked me, it looked like Eldritch needed to be in a hospital bed instead of here. Diamond had to let go now and then, since Eldritch was doing her usual ‘sparks of magical death’ routine. Eldritch looked like she had parked her brain somewhere and couldn’t find it, but she was expertly carrying some sort of military rifle.. thing. Plus a ton of magazines for the thing, in case she needed to ‘go Columbine’ on us.
Oh crap! Diamondback’s snake jewelry was alive! It was some sort of real snake!
Behind them, and helping to get Eldritch into a chair, was Jericho in his Rafe armor. And his armor looked like he’d just taken on a small war party, since it had bullet-sized dents that he hadn’t had time to hammer out. Along with the armor that I had seen before, he had a massive octagonal shield on his right arm. It had to be a yard across and an inch thick. It was painted white with a big red cross on the front, but I didn’t know what it was. I was willing to bet it wasn’t tinfoil.
<(Chaka) Hey Fey, what’s with the big red sigils and stuff on Jack’s armor?>
<(Fey) They’re meaningless. They’re just there to make him look scarier.>
<(Phase) He needs something to look MORE frightening?>
<(Fey) Knock it off, Jack’s okay.>
<(Bladedancer) Phase is just being difficult. She went to one of Razorback and Jericho’s music sessions last month.>
<(Phase) What I want to know is what the hell is Eldritch lugging around?>
<(Lancer) It’s a ‘203.>
<(Chaka) You wanna say that in English?>
<(Lancer) It’s an M203. An M16A4 with that tricky scope on it, plus a one-shot M203 grenade launcher. We call the whole thing an M203. Looks like she’s got more than a dozen extra magazines, plus a satchel of 40 mm grenades.>
While we were talking over our comm system, everyone else was peeking at the new kids in class. I watched as the Vindicators oh-so-subtly turned to give the Outcast Corner Kids a look. As soon as Alvin turned far enough to get a good look, he bonked Maxx in the shoulder and dropped his shield with a loud CLANNGG! That startled Donner enough that he dropped his hammer. CLUNK! Kismet covered her face with her hands and groaned in embarrassment. Lemure rolled her eyes so hard her entire head moved.
Bardue snapped, “Outcast Corner! You turned in your class paperwork late! And where the hell were you yesterday?”
I looked over at them. Caitlin was just staring at the seatback in front of her, and mumbling to herself in a way that probably would have had Charles Manson whimpering in fear. Jericho looked too exhausted to talk.
Diamondback twitched like a cobra and started out with a hiss, “It wasn’t our fault! We didn’t want to miss class, but those BASTARDS-”
Razorback put a hand on her arm, and she got hold of herself. Jesus, what was with them today? Normally, Diamondback was the calm, logical one. And normally, you couldn’t keep Jericho from smarting off without resorting to unnecessary violence. Even that wouldn’t keep Caitlin under control. Something freaky was going on over there.
Razorback pressed his vocoder against his upper chest and ‘spoke’ for the team, “We were pulled in by Security. A little something that happened to us over Christmas.” It was pretty obvious that Razorback was having major problems with that gadget. Things had to be bad if he was using it instead of letting the other talk.
Diamondback made a huge effort to get herself under control. Her whole body shook, down to her tail. She angrily added, “The Australian MCO had to brief Delarose on it in person instead of just calling him, and they wanted us to be there so they could yell at us some more.”
Bardue still chewed on them some more. But they just sat there and took it. Which was totally unlike the Outcasts I knew.
<(Phase) What the heck is going on?>
<(Fey) Voodoo-wolf attack. Last night. Late.>
Of course Fey knew about it, if it was voodoo-wolves. But that meant the Outcasts had to sit there and let Bardue yell at them, because we couldn’t tell the whole school about the voodoos. Not to mention that Everheart and Bardue probably had to chew on them, even though they knew what had really happened. This was so unfair.
<(Phase) Can we do anything to help?>
<(Lancer) You definitely can’t, unless you want Everheart on your ass even more. Keep quiet. This will be over soon. We’ll help them later, if they’ll let us.>
Once Bardue was done yelling at the Outcasts, he started off, “First, everyone who needs training on the holographic simulators will have to be at the simulator base station at 0800 Saturday. Got it?”
We all nodded. I looked around. It looked like we were the only full team who was nodding at him. Bombshell, Golden Girl, Swoop, and Accelerator were nodding too. Great. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to go through the training while sitting next to them.
He added, “Anyone new to the sims will need to have his or her complete measurements provided to us by classtime tomorrow, so we have time to get a sim-suit set up for you. Understand?”
<(Chaka) Great. Another thing we’ve got to mess with.>
But we all nodded again. It occurred to me that Team Kimba had an alternative. Every one of us now had measurements on file with Cecilia Rogers. Between the trips some of us had made last term, and the Christmas gifts I had bought everyone, we were covered. And so all I had to do was call Cecilia. If she couldn’t make sim-suits for us, she could certainly forward all our measurements, in more detail than they probably wanted.
<(Phase) Cecilia Rogers has all our measurements now. Lancer, you did go in like you were supposed to, right?>
<(Lancer) Yeah, I did.>
Boy, you could certainly get a lot of ‘grudgingly’ into this comm system.
<(Phase) I’ll call her. If she can’t make the sim-suits, she can send in our measurements. We’re covered, either way.>
<(Chaka) Good idea.>
<(Fey) Just don’t blow twenty thousand bucks on suits for us!>
Everheart took over from Bardue. “Today we’re going to be talking about yesterday’s pop quiz. What was done well, what was done poorly, and what got overlooked. Now the first thing I hope all of you got out of this exercise was learning that bricks are NOT invulnerable. Not even close. A PK brick who can take a five ton impact doesn’t fare well against an anti-mutant round designed to provide a ten-ton overpressure on contact.”
She put her hand on the control panel, and a montage of video images started scrolling on the big screen behind her. Lancer getting ‘killed’. I winced. Then Bombshell and Farrago getting it. Then a long succession of other students getting ‘blasted’ and their vests going red. At least Team Kimba only had one loss. When she showed most of the Vindicators getting ‘blasted’, there was another loud CLUNK, followed by some angry whispers.
She said, “I hope we learned the most important lessons yesterday, so we don’t have to go through this every time. Lesson One: lack of teamwork kills. Lesson Two: lack of intel kills. Lesson Three: lack of planning kills. The teams that had better strategy and tactics did better. The teams that assessed the enemy did better. The teams that worked together did better. Does anyone disagree with that assessment?”
No one said anything. There was some embarrassed squirming here and there, but no disagreement. The loud CLUNK wasn’t disagreement.
“Donner! Stop messing with your hammer!” hissed Kismet loudly enough to be heard across the entire room.
Everheart gave the Vindicators a look that could have melted Donner’s sledgehammer. Or at least set his stupid fake Viking helmet on fire.
She started again, “Don’t die. Don’t get so badly injured that your team has to protect you instead of achieving tactical goals. The next time, your mistake could get someone else killed too. As General George Patton said…” She stopped and looked around the room before her eyes focused on me. “Phase! Since you know so much that you can play with shoulder puppets, why don’t you tell the class what Patton said on this subject?”
I cleared my throat. “I think the quote you’re looking for is ‘No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.’ Or something like that. I’ve seen several versions.”
“Thank you,” nodded Everheart. She said, “That’s the point. Everyone who made a ‘heroic sacrifice’ yesterday shouldn’t have done it. If your team is over-matched in a scenario like yesterday’s, what should you do?”
Everyone had the sense to keep their hands down.
Everheart’s eyes drifted past me – I stared intently and lifted my arm like I was ready to put my hand up – and she decided to move on to the Vindicators. She said, “Vindicators. What should you have done yesterday?”
Alvin was so flustered he dropped his shield, and it rolled off to the side until it hit the wall and fell with an enormous CLANG. Kismet looked like she wanted to say something, but the shield distracted her, and then behind her there was a loud CLUNK followed by an angry “Ow!”
Kismet hissed, “Stop it!” but the entire room heard her.
Lemure hissed back, “He dropped that damn hammer on my toe!”
“You should have worn your uniform,” hissed Kismet smugly.
“My uniform boots don’t have steel toes either,” Lemure hissed back.
“LADIES!” bellowed Bardue. “Do you have anything to contribute? Lemure?”
CLANG! Alvin dropped his just-retrieved shield again when he tried to turn to see Lemure and managed to hit Dynamaxx in his armored chest with the shield.
Lemure groaned, “Yeah, we should’ve run awa- retreated. We should’ve retreated.”
“And why do you say that?” asked Everheart.
Lemure thought for a second and said, “We were outgunned. We didn’t know what we were facing, and we didn’t have a giant forcefield to hide behind. Like Fey’s.” That got an angry hiss from Kismet.
Everheart stared at her for a second and replied, “Good answer. Some of the time, your best option is not engaging the enemy directly, but evading or retreating or moving toward indirect engagement. The epic battle looks good in a comic book, but in reality it wrecks cities and endangers lives. Not to mention it gets you real dead a lot more often than in a comic book…” Suddenly, she snapped her head to the side. “RAZORBACK!”
Razorback snapped back up into a near-sitting position. He nodded tensely. I figured he’d dozed off in class and been caught. As I watched, Jericho reached to the side of his armor.. and pulled up a big thermos mug of coffee. He took a big hit and slid the mug back in place.
That figures. Only Jericho would build power armor that had a coffee cup holder on it. Caitlin needed something other than coffee. She was mumbling to herself and staring at the wall as if it were mounting a frontal assault against her. Meanwhile, Diamondback was sitting there like she wanted to bite someone.
Before Everheart could ream out the Outcast Corner gang some more, Wallflower put her hand up. Brave girl. “So in the real world, would we have tried to avoid walking into that situation and found another way to engage the enemy?”
Everheart nodded. “If you can be pro-active enough to thwart the offensive, you’re better off than having to fight your way through it. And you protect innocents, and you still have the opportunity to capture any of their hardware that might be useful in some way later. This is old knowledge. Even Sun Tzu wrote about it.” Then she looked around the room before her eyes came back to our little area. “Phase? Do you happen to know what Sun Tzu said on this subject?”
<(Tennyo) Totally not fair.>
I looked Everheart right in the eye and said, “Yes admiral, as a matter of fact, I do. Quote: ‘Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities’. Unquote.”
<(Chaka) DAMN girl!>
She didn’t blink. “And how do you know this?”
I admitted, “I downloaded the on-line course references last night and started reading them. The first thing I read was the Lionel Giles translation of Art of War.”
She just said, “Then you’ll be ready to provide more quotations and reference materials, as needed throughout this term.” She turned to Omega Squad and began critiquing their performance.
<(Lancer) Phase, maybe you should stop now before you piss them off even more.>
<(Phase) But I knew the answer! And they’re trying to make me look bad!>
<(Fey) Phase, you don’t have to win all the time, especially in a classroom.>
<(Phase) Look, I can’t let this go, all right?>
<(Chaka) It’s not her fault they’re still pissed about the shoulder angels.>
<(Tennyo) Leave Ja- Generator out of this, okay?>
<(Bladedancer) Phase, what did Sun Tzu have to say about winning the battle at great cost and thereby losing the war?>
<(Phase) Okay! Next time, I won’t answer the question, I’ll just sit here and let everyone think I’m a fracking moron. All right? Are you happy?>
<(Lancer) This isn’t about being happy. It’s applying tactics where we need to. I don’t like that you’re the one who has to jump on the grenade.>
<(Generator) Fine! The next time she asks a question, I’ll answer and say something stupid. How’s that?>
<(Phase) Just as bad. You don’t have to.>
<(Generator) The shoulder angels were my fault.>
<(Phase) And half the team knew they were there before Everheart spotted ‘em. I say we take the hit as a team.>
<(Fey) Phase, maybe we could all just calm down a bit.>
Well, I tried to calm down. I don’t think I did a good job. But I did pay attention to the reviews as Everheart and Bardue raked a couple groups. The Omegas had a big let-down on teamwork, which was totally surprising. Not. After all, they were presumably planning on being individual supervillains, not a superhero team.
When they got to Team Kimba, I paid attention and prepared to shut up if - make that when - Everheart called on me again. But they wanted to talk about our comm system. They knew we were using one, which was a flaw in our system as far as I was concerned. They said that we were spending too much time gabbing, and we needed to work on shorthand signals.
Bardue smiled like a shark and said, “I’m sure Phase can download signal sets and teach ‘em to all of you.”
I kept my mouth shut.
Lancer looked him right in the eye and said, “I’ve already learned a lot of those kinds of signals, sir. I’ll work on that with the team.”
Everheart then pulled up an image of Tennyo taking about a dozen hits and just getting angrier. Her eyes were glowing, and she was firing off plasma balls like they were spitwads. She said to all of us, “You also have a ‘collateral damage’ problem. Tennyo put enough effort in, starting about here, that the entire right side of the range from here to the weapons platforms is now radioactive. We can’t risk that happening anymore in this class.”
Billie choked, “Y-you mean I haveta leave the team?”