Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy: (Chap 4)
Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy / Part 4
Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy
by Diane Castle (with assorted angelic and demonic assistance)
Chapter 4 -Malakhim
We arrived at the classroom early enough that we had time to sit down and look around before the instructors showed up.
The Vindicators were putting up with Kismet’s fussing. She was wearing a long cloth coat over her costume this time. She took Donner’s hammer and Captain Canada’s shield away from them, even though Alvin obviously didn’t want to give his up. She had to tug hard several times and glare at him before he finally, grudgingly, gave in. She set the weapons on the floor over by the wall. “And if either of you gets up to pick these up before I tell you, I shall… I shall do something awful! Do you understand?”
“Ya, sher, you betcha,” smiled Donner.
“It wasn’t my fault yesterday!” Alvin complained.
I turned and looked when Outcast Corner variously walked, slithered, and stomped into the room. They looked a hell of a lot better than they had yesterday morning. Jericho and Razorback looked awake, for example. Diamondback looked a lot less on edge. Jericho had the dents in his armor repaired. And Eldritch looked like she was coming out of her fugue state. Since she was still lugging around that M203 and all that ammo, I had to believe that was a good thing. Hank caught me staring, and signaled me over the comms.
<(Lancer) Yeah you could learn some lessons in weapon handling by watching her. That’s a military brat. No question. No one gets that good at that without being around weapons and proper handling drills for years.>
<(Phase) Not really interested in learning how to carry a gun, much less how to shoot people with it.>
<(Chaka) What? Didn’t daddy take you off on hunting trips and stuff? What do rich people hunt, anyway? Endangered species in third-world countries?>
<(Phase) Mostly, we hunted smartasses. Preferably, from the Baltimore area.>
<(Fey) Ladies and gentlemen, it’s “The Most Dangerous Game”, the reality tv version!>
<(Tennyo) Crikey, she’s a byoo-tee! Looka the choppers on ‘er! Tonoit we’re jes gonna watch Ol’ Killer Goodkind as she stalks the wild Chaka in its native habitat. The shoe store. When…>
We all stopped jabbering and sat up straight as Everheart walked in with Bardue. I didn’t get a chance to tell Billie just how awful her Steve Irwin imitation was. I mean, it was worse than Toni’s.
Everheart touched the keyboard of the computer system, and words appeared on the big display screen behind her.
She looked at Bardue and said, “Gunny?”
Bardue stepped forward and said in a near-bellow, “First things first! Everyone has sim-suits taken care of! You four Elite Squad kids have your measurements in. Cecilia Rogers notified us that Team Kimba’s suits’ll be in tomorrow.”
<(Fey) Phase, I told you…>
<(Phase) You didn’t say I couldn’t have Cecilia make them. You only said I couldn’t spend twenty thousand dollars.>
<(Tennyo) So you spent THIRTY thousand dollars instead, right?>
<(Phase) It wasn’t that much. Look, I was going to have to have a custom-made suit anyway, because of my... you-know. And we need something ultra-custom for Shroud, because she doesn’t sense the same way the rest of us do. Cecilia said she could do that for me.>
Everheart looked around the room to make sure everyone was paying attention. She devoted some extra time to eyeballing the Outcasts. I was really hoping Eldritch and Jericho wouldn’t start mouthing off at her. They both seemed like the type who figured the higher the rank, the more entertaining the explosion after they acted up.
She pointed at the screen. “Starting today, we’re going to talk about one of the most common superhero situations. Building entry and room-to-room, in a rescue or in pursuit of possibly-superpowered opponents. First I’ll tell you about the classic military issues, and then I’ll expand the discussion to cover the kinds of advantages and disadvantages you’ll have over what we grunts do.”
Eldritch mumbled something that I didn’t catch.
Everheart glared at her and said, “Eldritch! Would you repeat that for the benefit of the entire room?”
Eldritch just sat up a little straighter and said, “Rules of Engagement. I said all that depends on the ROE.” Everheart gave her a little ‘keep going’ gesture. “The Rules of Engagement, which everyone calls ‘ROE’ for short, are rules your platoon has to follow because of the setting, or civilian presence, or UN oversight, or…” She stopped and sort of got lost in a memory or something. “…whatever,” she ended in a depressed tone.
Man, Eldritch was just a big tangled string-ball of weird. I was really curious about what she had been stewing about over there. Especially since just the evening before, I’d gotten Trin and Macintyre’s latest reports on the intel reports I’d managed to pull out of Security. (Yes, after the crap they had pulled, I was checking every single report I got from Security. So I’m not a trusting person. So sue me.) Their background check had revealed that Eldritch was a fake. Someone really, really good had built an entire history as an Army brat for Caitlin Bardue, but they hadn’t been able to alter some of the off-line databases that were permanently locked off of the internet. ‘Caitlin Bardue’, whoever she really was, had only existed for a couple months, and her supposed parents were complete figments of someone’s fervid imagination. My investigators hadn’t gotten any farther than that. Which meant that Caitlin might have been part of a family in the Federal Witness Protection program, or maybe something even more dangerous. So I was sitting on this for now. But that didn’t keep my curiosity under control.
Everheart snapped, “Exactly!” She touched the keyboard, and a new slide appeared on the screen.
The MOUT environment
She said, “When a superhero team faces this kind of crisis, it’s almost always in urban terrain. So standard MOUT issues apply. As Eldritch correctly pointed out, there may be additional Rules of Engagement for you, due to anything from crowd control problems or hostile crowds, to restrictions placed on you by the terrain or by the forces in charge of the situation. Your powers may be just what is needed, or may be a physical liability in the situation. In some cases, you can be too powerful or too dangerous for a finesse task that is needed.”
A lot of the room turned and looked at Tennyo, who promptly winced.
Everheart stared right at Billie and added, “Or your abilities may be exactly what is required in a given situation. Whether you have enough intel on the situation to tell which is which? That’s another problem.”
She went on, “The usual training on Building Entry starts with strictly organic weapons. Who knows what I mean by that?”
I put my hand up.
<(Lancer) Phase? We talked about this.>
<(Chaka) Oh come on! Don’t be a brown-noser!>
But several other hands were up.
Everheart looked to the middle of the room and said, “Eldritch?”
Well, it looked like Everheart had found a new kid to pick on. I really wondered what the deal was there.
Caitlin said, “You mean the weapons a platoon or squad normally carries. Rifles, automatic rifles, grenade launchers, small arms…”
“Yes. Thank you,” Everheart nodded. “The preferred method for building entry maneuvers is to use a larger weapon to clear the first room. Depending on the make-up of your force, that could be a tank main gun round, a direct-fire artillery round, or a mobile missile. For normal military forces, that usually means something like a TOW, a Dragon, or a Hellfire missile. But you teams are not limited to those weapons. You have the weapons you carry around with you all the time. Everything from magical attacks and Energizer blasts to offensive devises.”
That was when I started making lots of notes, since our team had a ton of firepower that could work in this kind of setting. She talked for a while about the intricacies of MOUT situations, but I only made notes on the parts that applied to us. We had a complete range of power levels from baseline-with-a-sword up to Star Stalker, so we didn’t have some of the limitations she was discussing.
Granted, we did have to worry about things like innocent bystanders and collateral damage. But we’d learned that lesson months ago, on the morning we fought the Alphas and accidentally blew up a bunch of the benches in the Quad. Along with part of the Quad. So I made a few notes while she was talking about ROE and possible “no fire” areas, but I didn’t worry too much about it. I figured that we had that part covered.
When she got into the details of how ordinary military ground forces incorporated not just their organic weapons (which, for her, included sniper weapons - she was a scary woman), but also other weapon systems, it got really interesting again. She spent a long time illustrating how mutant powers could replace not only mobile armored ground forces, but also support aircraft, like the AC-130H Spectre or the AC-130U Spooky or the AH-64 Apache helicopter. Man, what she didn’t know about military tactics wasn’t worth mentioning. I made a lot of notes, particularly about using Tennyo as our ‘support aircraft’ equivalent and using Fey as our ‘long-range suppressive fire’ equivalent. They were pretty powerful, but the more I thought about it, our real long-range weapon was Generator. If we could fire off a weapon that could fly at thirty miles an hour for over an hour, and then have real ‘smart targeting’ at the other end, we had a long-range weapon with which even the snipers and the major Energizers couldn’t compete.
Hmm. Could Lancer throw a Jann-enhanced weapon at 200 mph and let Jann ‘steer’ it at full speed for ten or twenty miles? I’d have to talk to Lancer and Generator about that.
Then Everheart got into teamwork issues, and how we had to coordinate, or use ‘marking systems’ so we didn’t have ‘casualties due to friendly fire’. A nice way to put it. In Team Kimba, it was more a matter of not being blown up by Tennyo’s plasma blasts, and not getting crushed if Lancer threw a five-ton object. Okay, so we had coordination issues we needed to work on. We had learned that in the Day One pop quiz, when we had needed to work out where I would go, and how we could keep me from being blown up by Tennyo and Fey’s suppressive fire.
After that, she started talking about more details of building entry and room-to-room clearing. She finally said, “We’re nearly out of classtime today, so tomorrow I’ll talk about the U.S. Defense Department’s 17-point process for this.”
A seventeen-point process? Jeez! Did they have time to actually invade the building after they worked through the entire seventeen points?
She went on, “We have limited time left before third period, so we’re going to go over to Arena ’99 and have just one team go through this simulation while everyone else watches. We’ll see how one team copes with a building entry situation with terrorists and hostages. And then tomorrow, we’ll see how they did as we look at the 17-point process, and study where they fell down.”
The Power Cats and the S.T.A.R.s both sat up straight with that “I’m all excited and ready to go” vibe. Okay, most of Team Kimba was humming with it too. Chaka could hardly sit still. But that was pretty normal for her.
“We’ll let Team Kimba try this out, since they had so much fun on the range the other day.”
Crap. I looked around the room, and I saw the reactions I expected. The Alphas were smirking at our getting stuck with this. The Omegas were grinning with amusement. The Vindicators and the Power Cats both had ‘why not us’ looks. The S.T.A.R.s and the Outcasts were, frankly, too professional for any of that.
Everheart led all the teams down to Arena ‘99 for the simulation. While she led us into the arena, Bardue was making sure everyone else was seated around the arena where they had the best views and also could watch on the ‘enhanced vision’ screens.
The simulation came up, and we found ourselves on the flat roof of a three-story apartment building, looking down a street on a typical, grungy urban setting.
Everheart pointed at a two-story concrete block building about two blocks away. It had a cheap metal enclosed porch stuck on the front, and not much else. There were a few small windows, but almost every one of them had heavy metal bars set in the concrete and protecting the window. She said, “This is your mission. There are heavily armed terrorists in that building. Number unknown. They have hostages somewhere in the building. At least two. Your mission is to assess whether your team can get in there and rescue the hostages. Give me a go or a no-go, and explain why.”
Okay, I could cope with that.
Lancer stared at the building and said, “Fey, you know what to do. Generator, can you put up two or three of your Spyspeck devises and take a look?”
Generator cautiously glanced at Everheart and said, “I’ve got three working right now, but not any more than that.”
Fey nodded, “I’m on it.” She sat down and began concentrating.
Generator took three tiny pebbles out of a side pocket of her fisherman’s vest, and set them on the roof. She pulled out her Universal Remote, pointed it at the pebbles, and pushed buttons. It beeped and booped convincingly, and the pebbles soared off toward the building.
<(Phase) Nice camouflage, Generator. That really looked like you were programming little devises.>
<(Generator) Thanks. I just watched Bugs working with Sniffer, and copied that.>
<(Phase) Lancer, don’t you want me to go take a look?>
<(Lancer) I think we’ll save that for another time. I’m still waiting until Everheart stops targeting you.>
<(Phase) Great. That may not be until term is over.>
<(Chaka) Relax. If I can sit still over this, then so can you.>
<(Phase) You’re not sitting still, you’re doing backward and forward somersaults.>
<(Tennyo) Hey, for Chaka that IS sitting still.>
I watched with real interest as Fey worked. She was sitting on the roof, eyes closed, concentrating hard. But she had a little bit of broken concrete in her hand. The concrete fragments were all over the roof, so she must have picked some up. She slowly waved it in a horizontal circle, and she murmured something so subtle that it wasn’t being picked up by the comm system. Then she poured the stuff out of her hand. The concrete just collapsed into sand and dust, and sprinkled downward. But it didn’t fall to the roof. It spread out in the shape of the target building, and slowly rearranged itself into interior rooms. Wow. Pretty impressive. I thought the bit with the concrete had something to do with the Law of Similarity, but I wasn’t sure. I so needed to take that Intro to Magical Arts course.
I watched as things formed inside the translucent ‘building’ in front of her. Rooms constructed themselves, and figures moved around inside. Red figures moved around, while two bright blue figures sat back-to-back in one of the upstairs back rooms. There were even red figures showing in what looked like the building’s basement.
You know, I could have flown under the ground and looked around in the basement for the team.
A minute or two later, three tiny pebbles flew back and dove into Generator’s side pocket. She blinked and said, “Okay, I got my report ready.”
Everheart watched with interest as Fey started. Nikki pointed out places on her magical simulacrum as she explained, “The porch is the only entry door. The rear door’s been blocked inside and out. All the windows are barred, except the one over the porch. And there are at least two terrorists in each of the buildings on either side, keeping a watch for someone like us showing up. There are two men with a floor-mounted plasma cannon in the room overlooking the porch, so anyone walking up to the front is likely to get disintegrated. And they have three people in the living room right behind the porch. One has some sort of machine gun, one has a shoulder-mounted anti-tank weapon, and one has some kind of deviser weapon.” She pointed at the blue figures in the upstairs back room. “The hostages are tied up in there, with three people guarding them. The guards have weapons too. And there’s one person in the kitchen, plus three people in the basement, making bombs I think.”
Lancer said, “Very good, Fey. Generator? What do you have to add?”
Jade said, “The watchers in the side buildings are just looking out their windows and holding cell phones. Not real high-tech. No mutant powers, and no magic. The guards in the back room all have submachine guns. Maybe Uzis. The guys down in the basement have a case that says ‘C-4’ on it, and they have over two dozen chunks, all of them about the size of a brick.”
“Shit!” cursed Lancer. “That’s enough C-4 to blow that building from here to Albuquerque! Anything else?”
Jade added, “Yeah, they have some bombs already made, over on a shelf at the back of the room, and they have a ton of detonators and wires and electronic gear spread out on a long table where they’re making the bombs.”
I figured that was that. We had the intel. We knew how dangerous this building would be to attack, and we knew that attacking it would endanger the hostages, not to mention putting most of a several-block radius in danger. We would just explain that to Everheart, give her a ‘no-go’, and we would be done.
Lancer chewed on his lip for several seconds. Then he said to Everheart, “Team Kimba can do this.”
Everheart stared at the teenagers. She directed her comments at Lancer. “Team leader! You do understand you are putting those hostages at risk, right? And you understand you’re running the risk of having those forces in the basement detonate that C-4, right?”
“Yes ma’am!” said Lancer smartly, as if he were reporting to his commanding officer.
She said, “Then why are we a go?”
Lancer paused for just a moment to marshal his arguments, and then he said, “Because nobody else can do the job. Team Kimba has the capability to handle all the outside watchers, the weapons specialists, the hostage guards, and the downstairs bombers. All at the same time. If we don’t rescue these hostages now, who can?”
Everheart said, “Good answer, soldier. Now take that building and rescue those hostages.” Everheart actually looked pleased.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. He almost forgot himself and saluted her. She just had that kind of command presence.
Lancer turned to his team and said, “Okay. Here’s the plan…”
Two minutes later, Tennyo found herself on a different rooftop, watching Fey work. It just wasn’t that interesting. The redhead was focusing intently and chanting in a language that probably hadn’t been spoken in centuries. It was pretty clear when the spell launched. A transparent silvery sheen spread out from Fey, rapidly moving across the surrounding buildings.
Fey opened her eyes and said, “Done.”
Tennyo muttered, “Good. I’m ready to go.” She floated toward the edge of the building until she could see the target building. She could see men through the upper window overlooking that entry porch. She realized that she was looking at the only window in the building that wasn’t barred. It wasn’t even closed. Well, she wouldn’t want to fire off a plasma cannon into a closed, barred window only a foot or two away, and she had Regen. “Can those guys see us up here?”
Fey moved a little farther forward, so she could see the porch. “No. They can’t see us coming, and the watchers in the side buildings will only see the same boring scene they’ve been looking at all day.”
“Even while we’re blowing up their building?”
“Even then,” Fey smirked. “They won’t hear anything, and they won’t even feel the explosions.”
<(Lancer) Everyone set?>
<(Fey) Fey. In position. Privacy spell cast.>
<(Tennyo) Same here.>
<(Phase) Phase. Ditto.>
<(Lancer) We’re all set back here. Phase, you go on two. That gives you only four seconds to drop your targets. We’re going on five. Fey, Tennyo. You launch on six. One… Two…>
Phase dove through the ground and the basement wall, and flew into the basement. Fey’s intel was still good. The three guys were bent over the long table, busily building weapons of mass demolition. He went disruption-light, and flew at their backs.
Phase flew through the three men while disruption-light. Each one seized up and began to topple over. The third man just barely had time to turn and look for the source of the noise before he was unconscious too.
Phase stopped to check that the stuff on the table didn’t look like it would go off. Not that he knew about explosives and demolitions equipment. Maybe he ought to read a book on the subject…
Fey and Tennyo both launched. Tennyo hurled a glowing plasma sphere at the upper window. Fey fired off a massive red bolt at the porch. The plasma sphere and the red bolt detonated at nearly the same time. The upstairs room disintegrated in a huge explosion, just as the entry porch turned from a simple metal-and-glass construction into a cloud of fragments. Both girls then hurled a blast at the living room behind what had once been a porch.
The three ‘guards’ in the upstairs back room jumped to their feet when they heard the massive blasts. The building shuddered beneath their feet. Two turned to face the door, while the third moved to point his submachine gun at the two hostages.
The third guard never got his weapon aimed. The rear wall exploded inward as Lancer flew through it, Shroud clinging to his back. Before anyone could react, Lancer spun and hurled Shroud at the guard aiming toward the hostages.
Phase jumped as the basement ceiling suddenly exploded. The entire front half of the basement collapsed under the force of Fey and Tennyo’s powers. “SHIT!” Floor joists smashed through his intangible body. He dove for the rear of the building before he had to deal with a fireball. Or worse. He flew through the rear wall of the basement and kept on going.
Jann flew toward the target building. She was a tight grouping of three missiles fired from Jade’s arm bracer. She wove between the bars on the kitchen window, punched through the safety glass, and targeted the armed terrorist who was in the kitchen making sandwiches. The three missiles exploded, blowing the ‘guard’ into robotic fragments.
Back in the upstairs room, Shroud fired off a handful of throwing knives at the first two guards as she flew toward the third. With Lancer hurling her, she didn’t have to worry about her usual slow flying speed. She was on top of the guard before he could fire. Half a dozen chains whipped around him and disarmed him before slinging him across the room into the wall.
Lancer didn’t bother to look at Shroud’s target. He aimed at the far guard who was closest to the door. He had flown through the wall at maybe sixty miles an hour, and had never slowed down, so he bodyslammed the guard before the man could turn around.
The third guard spun to aim at the hostages and lifted his submachine gun…
Bladedancer smiled as two quick slices of Destiny’s Wave turned the weapon into pop art. Before the guard even realized that his gun was destroyed, a sidekick from Chaka rocked his head, and he was knocked against a wall.
“We bad!” boasted Chaka to Bladedancer. They had lightfooted in through the enormous hole Lancer had made in the wall, and followed up behind Lancer and Shroud.
<(Lancer) Back-patting later. Clear the building now.>
Lancer grabbed the hostages out of their chairs and flew out the hole in the wall. Chaka and Bladedancer used their lightfoot kung fu moves to dance across to the roof of the next building. Shroud followed, keeping an eye on the downed guards.
<(Lancer) Move back to base alpha, just in case any of that C-4 goes up.>
<(Phase) I DID get those guys.>
<(Lancer) I know. But that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t have a deadman switch, or something couldn’t go wrong, or just maybe, the living room floor’ll cave in on the bomb-making gear. No point in taking chances.>
<(Phase) Uhh… About the living room floor… It sort of already did cave in. In a kind of ‘blowing up’ way.>
The team landed in front of Everheart as the simulation ended. The ‘hostages’ reverted to robots. The ‘constructions’ subsided into the arena floor. Everheart nodded, “Mission successful, team.”
Bardue stood in front of the other teams, who all had enjoyed front row seats for the demonstration. He bellowed, “Class! You all have homework for tomorrow! I want one report from each team on how you would have assessed this situation. What would you have been able to find, and what would you have missed? What types of intel systems do you need to look into, to patch those holes? Would you have been a go or a no-go, and why? If you were a go, how would you have rescued the hostages and avoided having the building blow? Or do you think you would have been a go, and failed in your mission? Honesty is expected in this report, so feel free to surprise me with your honesty.” He turned his head toward the arena. “Team Kimba? Your homework is to figure out what you did wrong. CLASS DIS..MISSED!”
<(Chaka) Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis? What we did wrong? We were perfect!>
<(Lancer) What if the C-4 went off? What if there was a mage concealing himself from us?>
<(Generator) Hey, I would’ve seen if anyone was using magic!>
<(Phase) All right, it would’ve been nice if I knew enough about demolition and explosives that I could make sure the explosives were safe before the Demolition Dames turned the front half of the building into pâté.>
<(Fey) No, I should’ve done that first. If I turned all the detonator caps into constituent elements first, the explosives couldn’t get detonated in the first place.>
<(Tennyo) And I should’ve just flown into the living room and punched those guys into next week.>
<(Fey) Or maybe I could’ve hit them with a ‘sleep’ spell instead of blowing up the room.>
<(Lancer) Good thinking. We’ll remember that for next time.>
<(Phase) Anyone else have any points to bring up?>
<(Lancer) We need to stress that we checked for mutant opponents and magic use. Otherwise they’ll hit us with the ‘what if they had been mutants’ routine.>
<(Chaka) Maybe we could ask for more guys to fight, next time?>
<(Lancer) Yeah. Whatever you do Chaka, don’t say that to Everheart. Okay?>
<(Tennyo) Unless you want to get my combat final scenario. Or something worse.>
<(Chaka) Hey, that would be so cool! Us against a whole city of…>
<(Chaka) Okay, okay, what a bunch of party poopers…>
<(Phase) Okay, if that’s our summation, then I’ll type it up tonight and hand it in to Everheart tomorrow morning.>
<(Generator) Hey, thanks!>
<(Fey) You don’t have to do that, you know.>
<(Phase) Yeah, I know. But writing reports is easy for me. As far as team skills, I should be the go-to guy on report writing. I mean, what would our report look like if Chaka wrote it?>
Greasy had the booth all set up in the middle of the Quad. It was Jobe’s. Jobe had two demo booths and a small demo stage, all of which opened up from a rollable case and folded back down into the case with the touch of a remote control. But Jobe hardly ever used them, and he didn’t want them to get rusty or have any of the battery-powered systems run down. So he loaned them out for dirt cheap, with the understanding that every user had to charge up all the rechargeable batteries afterward, and go through the full maintenance routine, making sure everything was properly lubed, patched, and touched up. Greasy had to admit, it had to be way cheaper for Jobe to make a tiny bit of money off the stuff than it would be to pay some guys a decent wage to maintain the stuff regularly.
Greasy first made sure all the electronic banners said “Shoulder Angels” instead of what they still said from the last person who had used the booth: “Jobe Can Bite Me”. Probably not a satisfied customer.
He no sooner had the gear laid out on the counters and the price sheet posted on the back wall, than Peeper was starting his spiel. “SHOULDER ANGELS! GET YER SHOULDER ANGELS HERE!”
People turned to look, and started strolling over to see what Peeper was hawking this time.
“Shoulder angels! Sexy shoulder angels! You too can get in on the big new fad! Shoulder angels for you to wear! Shoulder angels for you to control! They move! They talk! They look hot!”
Greasy made sure his Fey shoulder angels were balancing on his shoulders, and he checked that Peeper’s Solange shoulder angels were arranged properly on Peeper’s shoulders. Then he took another huge swig of coffee before he set up a dummy torso with the shoulder system and a pair of Phase angels. He didn’t know why Peeper was so rude about Phase. Just because the girl had something extra in her pants didn’t make her bad or anything.
Peeper yelled, “Step right up! Ya want ‘em, ya need ‘em, ya can’t live without ‘em! They’re the sexy shoulder angels you’ve been wanting for days! Fey! Poise! Solange! And some others too! Step right up, step right up!”
Greasy yawned enormously and took another swig of coffee. He was exhausted. He’d been up until five a.m. working on these gadgets, and then Peeper had dragged him out of bed before nine to go get Jobe’s foldable demo booth. He carefully set up the other dummy torso with the Poise shoulder angels, and then laid out its wristband control. He set it to A, then 3, then selected ‘long interactive’. That ought to do.
“Hot, sexy, shoulder angels for you to wear! Where? On your shoulders, dummy!” shouted Peeper, as the first guys started ogling the shoulder angels.
“Wow, these are hot!” marveled one dorky-looking kid who virtually had ‘deviser’ stamped all over his white Whateley labcoat. He had somehow managed to stain the front of an unstainable material with dozens of blotches of what was hopefully coffee. “Will they work under a labcoat?”
“Sure they will!” yelled Peeper, as if his customer wasn’t two feet away.
“Of course we will,” the Poise angel beamed.
Most of the entire crowd, which was ninety percent male, gasped, “Whooooaaa.”
“What’d you expect?” snapped the Poise devil. “We’d just sit around and ignore you?”
“That’s right,” said the Poise angel. “We’d be sure to correct your bad habits!”
“Well, I wouldn’t,” the Poise devil assured the crowd. “I’d make sure you did ‘em a lot more, until there was NO way you’d ever get a date!”
“SHOULDER ANGELS! GET YOUR SEXY STEAMY SHOULDER ANGELS HERE!”
The Poise angel turned and stared at Peeper. “Must he be so loud and rude all the time?”
The crowd started laughing.
The Poise devil turned and looked. “He HAS to be loud and rude! Those are his only good qualities!”
Peeper turned to see why the entire crowd was laughing.
The Poise angel said, “And he isn’t that smart, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad person.”
The Poise devil disagreed, “THAT’S not why he’s a bad person.”
Peeper swatted Greasy in the back of the head. “Hey! Why are your shoulder angels making fun of me?”
One of the guys in the crowd yelled, “I’ll take a pair, if they’ll say that stuff about Peeper ALL the time!”
Someone else called out, “Will the Solange ones say the same stuff?”
The Solange angel on Peeper’s shoulder spun about and looked confused. “Who, us?”
Most of the crowd laughed.
The Solange devil scratched one horn and asked, “Why should we say stuff that Poise says? She’s all smart and stuff!”
“I want a pair of the Solange ones!”
Nate, one of the better-known Underdogs, said, “Not me! The Alphas will come over and crush ‘em! And then they’ll crush me!”
Greasy explained, “Umm, no, they won’t. Every shoulder angel has a technomantic devise from Nephandus. If someone tries to smash your shoulder angel, the devise’ll go off, and it’ll make the attacker sorry he ever tried anything. You’ll be fine.”
“Really,” insisted Greasy.
“Then I want a Solange!”
Peeper turned and yelled at Greasy, “I TOLD you to make more Solange angels! You idiot!”
The Phase shoulder angel looked up and said, “Of course, he’s like that all the time. I don’t understand how Greasy puts up with him.”
The Phase shoulder devil snarked, “Maybe Greasy ought to change his codename to Igor.”
The Phase shoulder angel rebuked her counterpart, “Now now, just because Greasy joined Minions Anonymous last week, you don’t have to torment him.”
The Phase shoulder devil smirked, “Torment? Are you kidding? Devil here! That’s what I do!”
A large hand slapped down some money. “Give me a pair of those Phases!”
Peeper scooped up the money and stuffed it into his pockets. “This is the best idea I ever came up with!”
The Phase shoulder devil sneered at him, “YOU came up with it? Lobotomized platypuses would come up with an idea like this before YOU did.”
Solange thought it was too cold for a ‘little stroll’ across the Quad, but Kodiak never seemed to care how cold it got. Flicker and Fade were all bundled up like she was, even if their parkas were so totally lacking in style. They were like Land’s End or Eddie Bauer or something like that. How anybody could claim to have fashion sense and be wearing something like that was beyond her. Tansy was wearing one of her fur coats. The ermine one made expressly for her by Henri of Paris. With the matching ermine toque.
She went on, “So anyway, how was I supposed to know the little frosh was somebody famous? Daddy took us to Tahiti for Christmas! I wasn’t watching the New York news! And I certainly wasn’t watching lame programs about superheroes and stuff. I have to put up with enough of that around here all the time! So she was on TV at Christmas when she saved a bunch of people? People get saved all the time! And now everybody’s giving me a really hard time about it, and it’s not fair! I didn’t know it would be this hard to be the queen of the Alphas!”
Kodiak smiled and opened his jean jacket. Between growing up in Alaska and gaining the bear spirit, he just wasn’t bothered by the cold. On the other hand, Solange did look incredibly sexy in that fur coat. Maybe this evening, he’d ask her to wear just the fur coat before they did it. He looked at Flicker and Fade. He could see they were never going to muster the nerve to talk back to Tansy. He grinned, “You know, the Alphas need to pull in the big celebrities. You’ll just have to explain that someone, say Sahar, had told you your little frosh said something nasty about you, and you didn’t know they were trying to get you in trouble with her.”
“You mean I have to apologize to the little snot?” whined Solange. “But I’m the queen of the Alphas! Why should I have to apologize to Kersey, or Kelly, or whatever her name is?”
“Kerry,” prompted Flicker. “The Angel of Hell’s Kitchen.”
“Yeah. Kerry. And she’s got some stupid angel codename too, which is just so presumptuous!” insisted Solange.
“Oh definitely,” Kodiak said to the girl who had called herself ‘precious jewel’ for a codename. He managed to suppress a smile.
“And honestly,” Tansy rolled on, “she sounds like she’s from New Jersey. How can you have an Alpha who talks like that? It’ll just be embarrassing!”
Fade chipped in, with a bad New Jersey accent, “Yoo frum Joisey? I’m frum Joisey!” The three girls giggled wickedly.
They walked toward the crowd around the display booth. Tansy muttered, “Oh God, it isn’t Jobe trying to sell more of those pets that weren’t really cats, is it? That was so icky.”
Flicker chipped in, “And those things they made that weren’t hairballs? YUCK!”
Kodiak was tall enough to read the electronic banner facing them and also see into the booth. “No, it looks like Peeper and Greasy in the booth. They’re selling shoulder angels.”
“Good,” snapped Tansy. “Because those cat-things were stupider than… a… a really stupid thing. With stupid fur.”
“Yeah!” agreed Flicker, in her best suck-up tones.
Aries zipped over to the crowd, looked around for a second, then zipped back. He muttered to Kodiak, “This could be a problem.”
“Yeah?” Kodiak encouraged.
But Aries didn’t need to explain. Several guys had spotted the Alphas and were hurrying toward them. Fantastico and Conduit of the Good Ol’ Boyz, Cornerback of the Uber-Jocks, and Peril. Conduit and Cornerback both had little blonde shoulder angels floating on their Whateley blazers.
Fantastico opened the conversation, “Hey there Solange, nice ta see ya with some clothes on.”
Tansy suddenly realized that the shoulder angels were her. Her in naughty lingerie! She squeaked, “Oh my GOD!”
One Solange shoulder angel in white lingerie looked at her, “What’s your damage?”
A Solange shoulder devil in black lingerie waved her arms vapidly, “Well DUH, she’s like all jealous, ‘cause we’re so hot!”
The four boys weren’t even trying not to laugh.
Tansy squealed, “No I’m not! This is sick!”
The other Solange shoulder angel looked confused. “I’m not sick. Are you sick? ‘Cause I didn’t have a flu shot.”
Aries glanced at Kodiak, who gave him a tiny head-shake. There was nothing Alpha about starting a brawl in the middle of the Quad. There were far better ways of handling this. And those shoulder angels were hot.
The four boys wandered off, laughing it up. Tansy could hear the little shoulder angels squeaking in a horrible copy of her own voice.
One shoulder angel fussed, “What’s so funny?”
Another said, “Yeah! I don’t get it!”
A shoulder devil snapped, “Come on, tell us, you big jerk!”
Solange watched in shock as the guys just strolled off. She fumed, “Kody, DO something!”
He smiled wickedly, “You’re the queen of the Alphas, Tansy. Why don’t you do something?”
She glared at him, “Okay, I will. I’ll go... umm... I’ll get someone to beat ‘em up!”
Kodiak just said, “That’s not very Alpha thinking, Solange.”
But she didn’t know WHAT to do! And Kody wasn’t helping. This was so not fair! She looked around at the crowd, and it dawned on her. Ooh, she knew just the person to ask for help!
Once Tansy minced off in a huff, Kodiak leaned over to Aries, “Go tell Peeper he’d better not make or sell any more Solange shoulder angels. And no letting someone else make ‘em or sell ‘em either. Feel free to demonstrate our disapproval, if necessary.”
PEEPER AND GREASY
Mace and G-Force strolled up to the booth. They had seen guys walking around with Fey and Poise and Solange shoulder angels, and they were curious. Mace asked Peeper, “Do you have any Stunner shoulder angels?”
Peeper wondered, “No, why…”
“How about Vox?”
Peeper said, “No, but…”
Peeper tried, “No, but I-”
“Okay, what about Chaka?”
Peeper admitted, “Uhh no, but”
“So all you got is these whitebread bimbos? No sisters at all?”
“Uhh, why would... umm…” Peeper’s voice ran down before he could ram his other foot into his mouth.
“Typical ethnocentric cracker. I oughta…”
“Not in the face! Not in the face!”
Aries zipped up to the booth and elbowed his way to the front of the crowd. He found himself between Tarmac and Mace. It looked like Mace had been just about to entertain the crowd with a little boxing demonstration, using Peeper’s head as the punching bag.
Aries growled, “Hey losers. How many Solange angels are left?”
Greasy held up a pair and whimpered, “Just this one.”
Aries glared, “And how many did you sell?”
Peeper stuttered, “N-nine. Pairs.”
Aries gave him a look that had him about to wet himself. “And was that a good idea?”
“N-no!” Peeper squeaked. “I told Greasy it was a bad idea, but he never listens to me! It’s all his fault!”
Aries snapped, “You know Peep, you’re the worst frigging liar on campus.” A hand snaked out faster than Peeper could react, and grabbed the boy by the front of his shirt.
“Not in the face! Not in the face!” Peeper shrieked.
Aries growled, “Then maybe you’d better smash those Solange puppets right this second!”
Peeper nodded hastily and snatched up the Solange shoulder angels. He held them in one hand lifted his arm to smash them on the counter, and froze.
“Problem?” Aries asked nastily.
Peeper gulped loud enough for the entire crows to hear. “I… Uhh… I can’t! They’re booby-trapped! It’s magical, from Nephandus!”
Aries smirked, “Too bad. Smash ‘em anyway.”
Peeper held the angels for long seconds. Then he shoved them at his partner. “Here! YOU smash ‘em!”
Greasy nervously took the two shoulder angels and tried to figure out what to do. He didn’t want to smash hours of hard work. He didn’t want to find out the hard way what Nephandus’ magical boobytrap charm would do. Most of all, he didn’t want to get Peeper mad at him, or get beaten up by Alphas.
He set the shoulder angels on the counter, pulled his new handheld lightning blaster out from under the counter, took careful aim, and pulled the trigger. The zap was loud. Way too loud. He suddenly felt as if he’d shot himself in the face with the blaster.
Peeper watched in shock as the shoulder angels exploded, and the blast from the handgun sort of rebounded into Greasy’s labcoat and face.
Greasy turned to face Peeper and Aries. His face and labcoat looked charred, and his hair was smoking. His eyes rolled around for a few seconds before he smiled, “Oh. It’s a... sort of... force... rebound... charm… Very... clev-” He tilted to his left and fell against the back of the demo booth before sliding to the ground as if all his muscles had given out.
Peeper nervously brushed off his hands, like he had just finished a tough task. “Well! That’s that! Right?” he said in a lame attempt at a hearty voice.
Aries zipped over the counter so he was looming over Peeper. He looked down at the five-gallon bucket that was filled with Greasy’s tools and spare parts. He dumped it out on the ground and righted it again. He smiled nastily at Peeper. “Hey Tarmac, would you help me out here?”
Tarmac shrugged, and said “Sure. You’re going to help me with that assignment, right?”
Tarmac said, “Okay then…”
Aries didn’t bother to look as Tarmac manifested enough liquid tar to fill the bucket. He just stared at Peeper. He tossed Peeper up into the air and caught him by the ankles just before Peeper landed on his head.
“AAAACCKK!” Peeper shrieked in fear as he flipped upside down and came within inches of landing head-first on the brickwork of the Quad.
Aries shook Peeper ruthlessly. Then he lifted the little loser up and dunked him headfirst into the bucket of tar. He pulled Peeper back up and growled, “And what lesson did we learn today?”
“Don’t make Solange shoulder angels! Don’t make Solange shoulder angels!” Peeper squealed.
Aries dunked the boy again. “And what else?”
“Don’t make Solange shoulder angels, SIR!” Peeper tried.
“Wrong answer.” Aries dunked the boy again.
Peeper guessed, “Don’t make any shoulder angels of any Alphas?”
“Good thought there,” Aries said. “But not the answer I was looking for.” He lifted Peeper for another plunge into the tar.
“NO! WAIT! IgotitIgotit… No making Solange shoulder angels and buying them all back?”
“And making sure no one else makes any Alpha shoulder angels. Got it?”
“Yes, yes I got it, please don’t stick me in the tar anymore please!” Peeper begged.
Aries let Peeper put his hands on the ground, and he let go of the boy. Then he jumped over the counter and took off across the Quad at high speed.
Peeper struggled to his feet. He tried to wipe tar out of his eyes and off his face. The thick black goo coated him from his collarbones up, and was starting to drip down his shirt. He staggered, “Uhh, this booth is now closed until further notice.”
He turned and kicked his unconscious sidekick in the side. He snapped, “Greasy! I TOLD you this was a bad idea!”
I tried to ignore the crowd in the Quad, but the throng was having way too much fun. I had to go peek. Two dorks were struggling to fold down one of Jobe’s demo booths and wheel it away. One looked like he’d been dipped head-first into a tar pit. The other looked like the classic cartoon ‘explosion in the face’ routine. It wasn’t until I realized the ‘all blown up’ guy was Greasy that I figured out that the ‘tar baby’ was Peeper. Heh. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
I stopped one of the watchers and asked, “What happened?”
He explained, “Peeper and Greasy were selling shoulder angels, and the Solange ones pissed off the Alphas.”
“The Alphas poured tar on Peeper’s head and set off a bomb in Greasy’s face? In front of everyone? Sounds pretty much like they’re asking for detention,” I pointed out.
He said, “I pretty much doubt Peeper’s gonna admit it was Aries. And Greasy did it to himself. Their shoulder angels have a bomb in ‘em, courtesy of Nephandus.”
“Charming,” I muttered. I looked at the price list for Greasy’s shoulder angels, and I realized I’d better do something quick.
<(Phase) Is anyone on?>
<(Chaka) Most of us.>
<(Tennyo) Even me.>
<(Fey) And me.>
<(Generator) Hey! Me too!>
<(Phase) FYI time. Peeper and Greasy were selling shoulder angels in the Quad, up until the Alphas took offense and tarred Peeper and let Greasy blow himself up. Here’s the warning. The shoulder angels have a magical bomb courtesy of Nephandus inside. I don’t know what it does.>
<(Chaka) And why would we care?>
<(Phase) Because the four types of shoulder angels were Solange…>
<(Phase) …and Poise and Fey and me.>
<(Fey) Those little worms!>
<(Tennyo) I ought to…>
<(Phase) Yeah. That’s why I figured you’d want the heads-up. No idea how many copies of either of us were sold, or who bought them, or even what they look like.>
<(Lancer) You know if Peeper’s behind this they won’t look like little nuns.>
<(Fey) If any of you see one of the Fey or Phase shoulder angels, hit me on the comm system right away. If I can’t take out a Nephandus toy, I deserve to have jerks walking around with little Fey bimbos on their shoulders.>
<(Chaka) What I wanna know is did anybody get pictures of the gonzo guys after they got it?>
<(Phase) I got both of them with my phone. I’ll show them to you at lunch.>
<(Chaka) All right!>
I went on into the caff and looked around for the possibility of a lunch treat. Jana, back in her centaur form, sauntered out of the kitchen holding a plate. Okay, she doesn’t really saunter as much as canter, but she doesn’t clop across the floors, so she probably has some sort of hoof-covers on. I’ve never checked.
She beamed proudly at the sandwich, “It was my idea! Peter let me make these myself! I have to know what you think about them.”
The sandwich looked really good. The bread looked like a good-quality artisan bread, and I was looking forward to finding out what was inside. I smiled back, “I’ll do that. Give me a few minutes to pick up some other stuff, and I’ll go eat.”
“Sure,” she said. “It’s really Mexican-style, well, an American version of Mexican, and not South American, but if enough people like these, they may let me make some of my father’s recipes.”
I told her, “I look forward to it.”
I slid down the lunch line and picked up a small salad of mixed greens, along with a glass of milk. I didn’t see anything in the dessert area that I couldn’t live without, so I grabbed a couple tangerines for dessert.
By the time I got to the Team Kimba table, Tennyo and Generator were already eating. Jade had her usual small amounts, while Billie had - as usual - opted for the ‘yes my tray counts as a plate’ routine. It was so loaded with food that you could only tell there was a tray underneath by checking for the plastic edges.
Fey sat down with her tray, and Chaka was right behind her. Fey draped her ‘cone of silence’ crystal over the condiments and said, “Hey, getting your own homemade-” She touched the crystal, and her conversation changed. “-the cutest swimsuits for summer, and they’re on sale right now!”
I touched the crystal and said, “I lost the last half of your sentence there. Unless you meant to gush over swimsuits.”
“Never mind!” she said sweetly.
I peeked inside the sandwich first, and then I took a big bite. I chewed slowly, savoring the tastes and the mouthfeel.
“Come on, what’s in the sandwich?” wondered Chaka.
I told her, “It’s a handmade artisan bread, I’m pretty sure, with a nice crisp crust. Really nicely done. The mayonnaise is homemade too, with lime juice and some pureed chipotle pepper. On the other side, there’s a layer of pureed black beans with cumin and sea salt and maybe a hint of ground black pepper. Then there’s thinly sliced tomatoes and avocados, some crumbled cheese I think is queso blanco, some finely-chopped cilantro, and a scattering of thinly-sliced sautéed Vidalia onion.”
She said, “Ya know, that actually sounds pretty good. Kind of a Mexican salad on a bun.”
“Would you like a bite?” I offered.
Her eyes grew wide and she waved me off. “No way, Jose. I learned my lesson with that poison salad.”
I pointed out, “Chou liked that salad too.”
She made a face. “Chou’ll eat anything. She had dinner with Becca Stone in Boston again, and you know what they ordered? Baby octopus! With those icky little Chinese mushrooms! Yuck!”
Bladedancer sat down and touched the crystal in time to get most of that complaint. She gave it her best ‘Jade Empress’ routine and said, “I simply have more refined tastes than some people.”
Tennyo snickered, “Hey, Chou’s been taking lessons from Ayla!”
Chaka grinned, “Chou’s gettin’ that Goodkind ‘tood down now.”
I crossed my arms and carefully said, “I do not sound like that.”
Most of the table snickered, so I decided to re-direct the conversation. I ratted Chou out. “Besides, Miss Refined Tastes over there still eats MoonPies when she can get them.”
“They’re good!” Chou protested.
“Now, with extra moon!” Chaka said, in her best announcer tones.
Tennyo and Jade laughed so hard Tennyo had to put her hand over her mouth to keep the food from flying out.
Lancer shook his head. “Sorry, but my brother once mooned me and some friends while we were eating MoonPies, and now I can’t eat one. I keep seeing the wrong kind of moon in ‘em.”
“Guck!” Fey gagged. “Thank you for that charming image. Now I won’t have to worry about wanting one. Ever.”
Chou said, “Well, there’s still Googoo Clusters, and Colt’s Bolts.”
“Googoo Clusters?” snarked Chaka. “What? Do they come in a diaper? Do ya have to feed ‘em a bottle?”
I subtly cleared my throat. “Remember those chocolate candies you snitched out of our pantry last term? The ones that had you running up and down the walls? And then you went and jumped on Rip?”
Toni blushed. “Maybe a little too much sugar in those things.” She thought for a second, “And a little too much chocolate.”
“Those were Chou’s Googoo Clusters,” I said.
“You know, those were really kinda’ good,” Chaka admitted.
Fey fumed, “Except then I had an insane roommate who kept trying to benchpress me and my chair while I was trying to study!”
“Well, if you’d’ve just held really still…”
“What did you do?” I asked curiously.
She shrugged voluptuously. “Oh, I just put up a barrier between our halves of the room. It took her over twenty minutes to attune her Ki to it and disrupt it. By then, she was slightly less wacko. Maybe down to two times the normal Toni insanity levels.”
“Boy, you do valuable stuff for your roomie, like show her how to lift weights while she studies, and how to use Ki to knock down her magic shield, and you’d think I left dirty footprints on her ceiling or something!” Toni grumbled.
“You did,” Fey said.
“Well, I cleaned ‘em up afterward!”
A small voice from the other side of the table piped up, “What is in one of those MoonPies?” Jade thought for a moment and added, “I never saw them back home.”
“Ya mean besides extra moon?” Toni snarked.
Chou admitted, “They’re just round, so they’re shaped like a moon. Two round graham crackers, with a thick marshmallow filling in between, and then dipped in chocolate. They make other coatings too, but I like the chocolate ones.”
Jade asked, “So really, they’re just s’mores, right? Except the chocolate’s on the outside?”
Tennyo swallowed something massive she had been chewing, and she shrugged, “Sounds like a Scooter Pie to me.”
As the conversation spread to Mallomars and other inedible snack foods, I got up from the table and retreated toward the safety of the food lines. I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not that the anti-eavesdropping spell dropped off me as soon as I got away from the table. I didn’t have to hear about half a dozen things that were bad copies of something like s’mores. I did have to hear the fake conversation, which was about Top 40 teenybopper hits. Gah!
When I reached the food lines, Jana came out to greet me, with chef Peter alongside. “How was the sandwich?” she asked nervously.
“It was excellent. Just the right amount of cumin in the bean purée, and not too much chipotle pepper in the mayonnaise. My only recommendation would be to chop the cilantro less fine.” Her face lit up at my praise. I turned to Peter, “She’s a keeper. I don’t know how you’re going to get her into a top-notch cooking school though, until she can stay in human form for eight hours at a time.”
Jana smiled so broadly it looked like the corners of her mouth were going to knock her ears off.
Peter asked, “How were the onions?”
“Those Vidalias were good,” I said. “They might have worked better if they were crunchier, but maybe not. I think marinating them instead of sautéing might be worth a try.”
Peter nodded in thought. Then he told me, “But they weren’t Vidalias. We were out of Vidalia, but Marcel got us a load of Walla Walla Sweets from Washington, and they’re just as good.”
I admitted, “Hmm. I couldn’t tell the difference. Can you get samples of both so I could do some sort of taste test?”
He worried his lower lip as he thought. “We’d want to get several other varieties too… Texas SpringSweets and Texas 1015’s too, and OsoSweets - they’re imported from Chile… And some Sweet Imperials from California, and Maui Sweets too.”
That sounded great. I said, “Excellent. If Admin balks on the cost, let me know and I’ll cover the costs.”
He gave me a big grin and led Jana back to the kitchen. I wondered how long it would be before an onion sampler appeared.
I spotted Charmer sitting with her friends at the Beret Mafia table, so I headed over that way.
Naturally, Kismet had to start up with Team Tactics. She looked rather grouchy as she said in English, “Did you come over to lord it over us about Team Kimba’s performance in the sims today? We have a PDP, but he is utterly unreliable. And…” She looked down at the table and quietly confessed, “My magic is not as broad in scope as Fey’s, so I am quite concerned about our team’s ability to divine enough intelligence about the enemy.”
“Of course that’s not why I came over!” I insisted. “Frankly, we overdid it. Fey and Tennyo nearly blew up the building. That’s in our report.” She didn’t look any happier. So I suggested, “You know, you could send Lemure through the walls to look around.” She brightened up at that.
I looked across the table and said, “Actually, I came over here to talk with Charmer.”
Dynamaxx wiggled his eyebrows, “Asking her for a date?” Maxx was sitting there with his own shoulder angels, which were posing dramatically. The shoulder angel was a little Iron Man figure, while the shoulder devil was a somewhat larger Titanium Man figure. Neither spoke, but they certainly gestured well.
I rolled my eyes. “No. I wanted her to call her father for me, so I could line up some decent drinks for the Golden Kids meeting.”
His eyes lit up then. “That would be superb! That garbage Traduce served us?” He stuck out his tongue and made a gagging noise. “Hatamoto was much better, but tea? Really.” He turned to Charmer and gave her what I’m sure he thought was his most winning look. “Please, you have to help us. Don’t make us drink green tea again!”
Charmer gave him a slight smile and then turned far enough away from him to give even Maxx a hint. She said, “You wish to speak to my father?”
I smiled, “Yes. I was hoping you could put us in contact directly, so I didn’t have to go through a dozen intermediaries.” That, and I didn’t want to spend the little credit I had with Paul on a couple cases of sparkling non-alcoholic beverage. I wasn’t going to discuss that.
Charmer fished through her massive purse and pulled out a cell phone. She smiled, “We can call Papa right now! Home is six hours ahead of here, so he should be home by now. Let me call him…”
She pulled up her contact list and called. In French, she spoke into the phone, “Hello? Mama, it is me. I just want to talk to Papa for a few minutes. I am doing a favor for one of the Goodkinds… Yes, one of those Goodkinds… She is in school with me… No, she is really quite nice and not at all like that.”
She paused a moment and then began speaking noticeably louder. “Ahh, Papa! Hello!… But no, everything is fine. I want you to talk for a minute with my friend Miss Goodkind… Yes, one of THOSE Goodkinds… She would like to consult with you about non-alcoholic champagnes… Yes, yes, she does know that is technically impossible. Please, just talk with her for a minute.”
She handed the phone over to me and whispered, “Please be nice, he is slightly hard of hearing.”
I dropped into my best French, “Good evening, Mister Villabianca. I’m sorry to bother you at home. I didn’t realize Vera was going to call you outside the office. I’m trying to track down a good quality non-alcoholic sparkling vintage that would mimic a decent sparkling wine.”
Mister Villabianca checked, “You do realize that true champagnes cannot be non-alcoholic, do you not?”
“Yes sir, I do. But your company has access to such a breadth of vintages and varietals that I thought you might know of something that would be a reasonable substitute for a group of teenagers who are all under the legal drinking age here in America.”
We talked for several more minutes before he came up with a Northern Italian winemaker who had turned out a very nice non-alcoholic Prosecco. I said, “That sounds quite reasonable. Would you ship me six cases? Send them to Chef Marcel Duchamps, Whateley Academy kitchens, and you have your daughter’s address. Let me pay for those right now… Oh, I’m sorry, you’re at home. Right. You’ll bill me? Then let me make sure you have my correct address…”
After we wrapped up the call, I thanked Charmer, “That was a huge help. I really appreciate it. You should come to the soirée so people can congratulate you on your father’s taste in wines.”
Dynamaxx backed me up, “Absolutely. After the trash they served when Traduce was hosting, you’ll have people kissing your skirts and begging you not to let them sink back into that horrible…” He looked over at me with a mischievous glint in his eye, “What was that they served?”
I pretended to think it over. “I believe it was kerosene, cut with swamp water.”
“Ah yes,” he agreed. “And it was not even a good quality swamp.”
When we finally got Charmer to giggle, I knew she’d agree to come to the meeting.
Kismet nearly tanked that by insisting, “Yes, you must go. We need more Europeans in the Golden Kids!” I thought, for just a second, that would make Charmer balk.
But Charmer merely said to her, “If you insist, Korende.” Then she turned away from Kismet and rolled her eyes dramatically.
It was nearly time for me to go wandering through the Deviser dungeons in search of Loophole, not to mention a few other people. But I had said fourth or fifth period, and there was no point in showing up too early. It would just make me look desperate. That was no way to handle negotiations. I looked around.
Man, shoulder angels were all over the place. Just about every deviser and gadgeteer in sight had some. The mages were all going with little Dumbledore’d versions. And there were a couple sets of Greasy’s Fey shoulder angels.
<(Phase) Fey, come in please.>
<(Fey) What is it? I’m busy talking with Bugs right now.>
<(Phase) I’ve got sightings on two sets of Fey angels. They’re really sexy, but not nearly as slut-tastic as I expected from Peeper. I mean, the Solange shoulder angels are walking around in lingerie!>
<(Fey) So who has them, and where are they?>
<(Phase) Okay, Nate - you know, one of the Underdogs – is wearing a set… No wait, Aquerna and Kamuro are chewing him out and taking them away from him… I think that set is safe, unless your fan club puts ‘em up in a little shrine.>
<(Fey) Knock it off, Phase.>
<(Phase) Okay, the other set is… No wait, it’s Stalwart to the rescue. Man, that guy must really be in love with you, because he’s risking getting his face punched in right now. All right, we have Success Number Two. He’s pulling out his wallet and buying them. Find out how I can pay him back, because there’s no way he’s getting those at a reasonable price.>
<(Fey) Two down, umpteen thousand to go. Right?>
While I kept an eye out for more of Greasy’s creations, I spotted Chou. She was standing by a far table. When I strolled over, I saw that she was waiting for Molly. Gateway was sitting there gabbing away with Dragonrider. Pern was sitting in Molly’s lap, wiggling to get even more attention. Molly was rubbing him on the tummy while she said something that Dragonrider found unbearably interesting. I had no idea what they were talking about. I just hoped it wasn’t Hello Kitty.
I walked up to Chou and said, “Hi. How’s the Hyperglycemia Festival going?”
Chou closed her eyes in what looked like an effort to regain her center. “Did you know there’s now a Hello Kitty-themed maternity ward in Hong Kong?”
“I think that’s a sign of the Apocalypse, isn’t it?”
She sighed, “If it isn’t, it should be.”
I checked, “Have you seen any shoulder angels we ought to know about?”
She smirked evilly, “I saw a pair of Fey angels, but Destiny’s Wave took care of them before the guy knew I was behind him.”
“Didn’t they explode or anything? They’re supposed to have a magical anti-destroying charm in them, courtesy of Jean-Armand The Useless Twit,” I pointed out.
She grinned evilly, “It appears the charm doesn’t work on a mere baseline. Or else it couldn’t handle Destiny’s Wave.”
<(Phase) Hey Fey, did you catch that?>
<(Fey) Yeah. Three down, untold thousands to go.>
<(Tennyo) Tennyo here. Got an update. Paid Greasy a little visit. Poor guy had most of his synthetic skin toasted by an exploding pair of Solange angels. And Peeper wasn’t too happy to see me. Sort of shit his pants and ran off when I got angry. So I gave Greasy a hand, and got a headcount. They made ten Fey sets and three Phase sets. Seems Peeper didn’t think Phase would be a big seller on campus. Heh. So I got the two Feys and the one Phase that were left, and told Greasy not to make any more of them. He’s gonna have to get a crewcut or something to get all the burnt hair off his head. Unless some Faerie mage might want to drop by and help him out? Maybe have him owe us a big favor?>
<(Phase) So. Eight Feys and two Phases sold. Three Feys either sliced or recovered. We have…>
<(Tennyo) Yeah, five Feys and two Phases left. We can count, you know.>
<(Bladedancer) Let’s all keep watch today, and see what we can find.>
<(Tennyo) Roger that.>
I left the comm system and turned to Chou. “So, you thinking about getting a nice pair of Bladedancer shoulder angels?”
Chou thought for a minute and said, “Maybe a pair of monks would be nice.”
I snarked, “Are you sure you don’t want maybe the Monkey King as your shoulder angel and your ‘uncle’ as your shoulder devil?”
She actually winced. “Sifu Fitzgibbons still will not talk to me.”
I said, “Hey, it’s not your fault he was dumb enough to fight a freaking god. He made a mistake and got his ass kicked. He needs to get over himself and stop taking it out on you.”
She looked down at the floor and muttered, “That is easy to say, but difficult to make happen.”
I smiled naughtily, “Hey, you’re the Handmaiden. Doesn’t that come with an instruction manual on making people do what the Tao demands?”
She was about to make a snappy comeback when Molly got up from her chair and dragged Chou off to the library. I had a feeling the only studying they were going to be doing was human biology, if you know what I mean.
Instead of taking the elevator down to the tunnels, I decided to look around a bit, and take my private route down. I strolled around the caff and only found a couple Good Ol’ Boyz enjoying a pair of Solange shoulder angels that apparently were even less sharp than the real Solange. Which was saying something. I figured the Alphas would deal with that in their own way. Which would probably involve some of: assault, battery, bribery, breaking and entering, theft, extortion, and several other felonies I hadn’t considered as yet.
I walked out into the Quad to see if I could spot any more shoulder angels. Hamper and Damper were stomping around, so I figured anyone with Solange shoulder angels had probably split for greener, less dangerous pastures.
As I looked around, I saw a girl who matched the description of Jo Donner from the intel I’d gotten in December. She was skateboarding across the Quad with a couple of the local Sk8er B0is, probably on their way to their supposedly top-secret skate park area. According to the verification by Trin and Macintyre, she and Paige Donner weren’t really Willard Jennings’ nieces, but they did have bank accounts that ‘erupted’ recently in interesting ways that were probably massive violations of the SEC rules on mutant abuse of the world stock exchanges. I moved to head them off, and Jo suddenly twitched and turned to look at me.
Right. Her files said she had a ‘three-second precog’ ability she was working to master. I had a feeling that would make her a really interesting fighter in martial arts classes. Not that I personally felt a need to try her, but I knew a couple people who would probably be dancing at the possibility of testing their mad kung-fu skilz on a different power.
I let her skateboard over to me, while her skater-punk pals glowered twenty yards off. I smiled, “Hi, you’re Jo Donner, right?”
She frowned, “Yeah. Who are… Oh, you’re Phase.”
I started, “I see…”
She cut me off, “Yeah, that three-second precog makes for weird conversations.”
I tried again, “So…”
She butted in, “I dunno. What are the Golden Kids?”
That was interesting. I almost got out, “Pre-”
She interrupted, “Yeah, precog but not telepathy or clairvoyance.”
I tried again, “Fine. Since you’re pretending to be the niece of Willard Jennings an-”
She insisted, “Hey, I am! It’s in the records… And no, those off-line databases must be mistaken.”
I shrugged, “Fine. The Golds are the rich kids on campus. But not-”
She cut me off yet again, “Oh, good. I’m real glad Tansy Walcutt isn’t in there. I’ve heard all kinds of crap about her... Wait, you’ve lived through all kinds of crap from her?”
I sighed, “This would be more coherent if you’d actually let-”
She interrupted again, “You finish a sentence? Where’s the fun in that?”
I took a breath and pointed out, “But if you want to maintain that fake ‘uncle’ routine, you ought to consider coming to a meeting or two, just to get-”
And she butted in once more, “Oh, no way do you get to say ‘street cred’ when you’re talking about a bunch of rich snots!” I opened my mouth again, and she jumped in before I could get a sound out, “Unh-uh. Not my sister, either. Paige is a Were. A Were-cub. Not a good idea to invite Weres to society shindigs.”
I shrugged, “Fine. It’s y-”
“Yeah, it is my call,” she snapped.
I gave up and let her skateboard off with her pals. Some days it just didn’t pay to try to do nice things for people. I walked partway across the Quad and then dove down into the tunnels to see if I could find Loophole. Hopefully, that would go better.
I made my way toward Loophole’s workbay, although I took my time and looked around for a few other people along the way. There were a few people I hadn’t had a chance to talk to since Combat Finals, and a few gadgeteers had demonstrated some inventions in their Combat Finals that looked to me like they had serious business applicability.
First, I took a detour past the big common-room Workshop area that so many people seemed to want to use. There were five people working away in there. Four were wearing shoulder angels and working relatively close together up toward the front of the room. The fifth was hunched over some small components back in one of the back corners. Mega-Death, working in his usual solitary style.
I stopped to say hi to Wunderkind, who had her force-field shoulder angels working better. At least they looked better, even if they weren’t moving or talking or anything. I told her so, but she just frowned.
Escapement looked up and laughed, “Yeah, don’t get her started on a demonstration, though!” His little clockwork-robot shoulder angels nodded in agreement.
“What’s the problem?” I asked anyway.
She frowned again, and switched into German to better express herself. “It is the power generation system. In order to provide enough power to shape each of the individual components of the complete figure, it has to provide enough energy to get discharge effects. Like this.”
She pressed several buttons on a remote control, and the shoulder angels moved. Suddenly I could feel a massive increase in the static electricity around me, and I could even smell the ozone. Wunderkind’s hair began standing up and sticking out to the sides. Then the tresses on the sides leapt into the little force field angels until they were pulling her hair straight out to the sides.
“Ow ow ow!” she moaned as she hastily shut the whole system down.
Escapement encouraged her, “Hey, look at it this way. At least you have hair. Hazmat’s still tryin’ to get his hair to grow back.” He paused and grinned, “Maybe if he’d stop trying to invent hair-growth serums, his hair would have a chance.”
The two guys at the other tables snickered. One of them, Flywire, looked up and smirked, “At least we get to make fun of those awful wigs he keeps wearing.”
Wunderkind finally laughed too. “Mein Gott, that brown thing that he thought made him look like Brad Pitt? It looked like someone glued a dead cat to his head!”
They all cracked up as they recounted their own personal favorite Hazmat hairpieces.
While they were going strong, I stepped over to Mega-Death’s workspace. He glanced up at me with an embarrassed look on his face. “Uhh, hi, Phase. Look, I should’ve called you right away, but I didn’t. You need to hear this before you see it. Peeper and Greasy are selling little shoulder angels of you. And your friend Fey. And Poise and Solange too.”
I nodded, “Thanks for the heads-up. We’re already on it. If you see any Phase or Fey shoulder angels, don’t try to destroy them yourself. They’re boobytrapped.”
I said, “Just give me a call. We’ve got it under control.”
Mega-Death grinned wickedly. He dropped into a really bad German accent. “Ahh, ve haff vays of making zem squawk?”
I laughed and asked why his shoulder angels were in little pieces on his work table.
He ducked his head in embarrassment and mumbled, “They were going really well, and then I sort of... dricked out while I was programming the chat sequences. So now, when I set ‘em up and run the system, my shoulder devil keeps ranting and raving insanely. And I couldn’t get it to stop. So I had to take them down and start over.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said.
He muttered unhappily, “Thanks. I appreciate you being nice about it. Everybody else thinks it’s a laugh riot that King Drick had to put up with his shoulder angels dricking out at him.”
Crap. I didn’t say anything, but I sure thought it. Why did everyone have to treat him like shit, just because he had a mental disorder?
He smiled, “How’d you like my Doctor Evil routine in the combat finals?”
I admitted, “I thought it didn’t really come across. It was more like a guy in a play trying to act evil.”
He frowned, “Well, I was trying to act evil. Oh. You mean I did a crappy job of the acting. Damn! I’ve got to do something to keep the bullies off my back. If I can’t scare ‘em away, and I can’t depend on my devises to work when I need to defend myself, I’m pretty much screwed.”
I asked him, “By the way, how are the one-hit forcefield smashers going?”
He smiled a little, “I think I figured out what’s going wrong. I may have a couple for you in another two weeks.”
I smiled, “Well, no rush.”
I sauntered back in time to catch one more Hazmat-hairpiece story. “Oh Jeez! That one was really awful! Monty told him it looked like he’d made it out of the fur off Monty’s butt!”
“Dingleberries and all!”
“God, Monty’s just a riot when he wants to be!”
The four of them were laughing so hard that Escapement had coffee coming out his nose.
I waited until Wunderkind was no longer in danger of wetting her labcoat. I slipped into German, so the other inventors wouldn’t know what I was saying. “Greta, do you have a minute?”
She stepped out into the hall, and I explained, “I’d like to hire you to do some specialized work for me. I’d like a Personal Forcefield Generator that would also have the capability that I could phase through it.”
“You can’t pass through standard forcefields?” she wondered out loud.
“Not many of them,” I admitted.
She frowned, “Forcefields are my specialty, but why not hire one of the best devisers on campus? Or one of the best devisers anywhere? You are a Goodkind. You could afford to hire anybody. Even Rubik or Calculus.”
I explained, “I want a gadget. Not a devise. I want a PFG with principles that can then be extended. So I could have them made for a fleet of cars, or every room in a mansion, or a security wall around the mansion, or even as protective gadgets for my household security teams.”
I could see in her eyes when she got it. “Ahh! And if you could pass through the forcefield, when no one else could, then no one could use them against you! And you wouldn’t have to worry about one of your own people trying to assassinate you.”
I smiled, “Those, and a lot more reasons.”
She grinned, “I’ll do it. Let me work on some basics for a few days, and next week or the week after, I’ll start out with you coming down to my private lab area, and we’ll run some tests to see what sorts of frequencies are going to work.”
“Great. I’ll look forward to your call,” I told her.
Calling the collection of deviser tunnels labyrinthine would be like calling the sun ‘a tad warmish’. Daedalus himself would have looked upon the miles of writhing tunnels, gotten down on his knees, and cried out, “We’re not worthy!” I played it safe, and stuck to the corridors that I knew.
I dropped in on Möbius, but he was too busy to talk. And, since he was in the middle of a project - quite literally - that was just too disturbing to interrupt. I mean, he was working on a weird-looking cube that was a little less than a foot on each side, but his entire upper body was way into the cube, leaving only his hips and legs sticking out. Along with a buttcrack ugly enough to get him instant admission into the Brotherhood of Refrigerator Repairmen.
Bugs wasn’t in her private work area. The pink-sequined bunny rabbit on the workspace door told me that when I knocked. It also identified me by my voice. It switched to Bunny’s bubbly voice and said, “Hi, Ayla! Sorry, but I don’t have your you-know-what ready yet! Talk to you later!”
Great. Even inanimate objects didn’t have time for me today. Maybe I should have taken that as an omen and just given up. Or maybe I’m not that smart.
So then I tried Jericho. A month or so ago, Mega-Death had shown me where Jericho had his private lab, so I knew how to get there. I knocked on his slightly-ajar workspace door, and he yelled, “Yo! Dirtbag! What’s up!”
Somehow, I had the feeling he wasn’t expecting me. I cautiously went light and stuck my head in through the door, just in case he was planning to prank whoever he was expecting. “Umm, Jericho, it’s Phase. Can I come in?”
He was hunched over a work table with his back to me. He didn’t even look up, but he muttered, “Sure. Come on in.”
I hadn’t been in his work area before, so it was something of a surprise. Most of the devisers and gadgeteers had work areas that looked like Delta Spike had run in, set off several explosions, and then unleashed one of her galvanomorphs for good measure. Even Bunny’s workroom wasn’t exactly ‘Pinesol clean’, although it usually smelled like patchouli. (Okay, Jobe’s lab looked like the CDC had set up a Level 4 cleanroom for Ebola variants. But he’s an exception to every rule.) Jericho’s work area looked like a showroom. Every surface was clean, and every tool was carefully put away in its own little space.
Oh yeah. A cluttered workshop or misplaced tools would be a problem for the visually impaired, wouldn’t it?
Still, the place looked like Fractious had come through with her purse full of sanitizers and whatever else she lugged around with her.
Jericho didn’t bother to look up. He just muttered, “Don’t move anything. Or else.”
But his shoulder devil looked at me. Harvey had thoughtfully warned me about them, so I was prepared. Back in the fall, when I had realized I might have to meet with Jericho on a regular basis, I had asked Bugs for a visor that would do something to visible light so everything just looked like shades of gray. She’d come up with something that looked like black wraparound visor-style sunglasses. As soon as I saw how the shoulder devil was dressed, I whipped the visor out of my utility belt and clapped it onto my face.
Oh man, that was tons better. Jeez, if Yves St. Laurent ever opened up a store in Hell, that was probably what he’d be selling. It was awful. And it was even worse next to the outfit Jericho was wearing. I didn’t want to see what the shoulder angel was wearing.
I sighed in relief. With the visor on, Jericho and his shoulder angels were simply dressed in gray, light gray, and dark gray. The ongoing stripes-versus-plaids war was still pretty jarring, but in shades of gray I could downgrade it from World War III to a mere territorial incursion.
I walked closer to see what he was up to. That proved to be pretty jarring in itself. He had a microscope with a camera set up so he could work on some miniature electronic components, and he had the camera jacked into his head. I mean, I knew he used that jack in his head for stuff like this, but seeing it in action was almost as disturbing as his wardrobe. Or maybe I was just more squeamish than most of Whateley.
Apparently, he was also using the jack as a control system for some of his tools, because he had a soldering iron with a pinpoint tip in his left hand, a pair of fine tweezers in his right hand, and two hands-free robotic clamps that were moving miniscule components about on a circuit board the size of a dime.
In the best four-year-old’s sing-song tones I could manage, I asked, “Whatcha doin’?”
He didn’t even smile. “Tryin’ to get this cocksmokin’ fucktard ta stop givin’ me this ass-rammin’ frequency breakdown.” He was pissed enough that his usual faint Texas drawl was out in force.
“Ooooooh-kay,” I breathed. “I’ll bug you another time. I just wanted to give you a heads-up on the negotiations for your med-kits. It looks like Mediways is going to be ready with a full contract for you and Diamondback to look over by March, and we may be ready for an official signing ‘round about Spring Break. So you’d better get a suit.”
“Got a suit,” he muttered as he kept working.
“No, I mean a suit your mother would be happy with,” I insisted.
“You are no fun, you know that?”
I said, “You can’t get money out of executives who were blinded by your color choices and fell to their deaths from a twelfth-story window.”
The shoulder devil smirked, “Where’s the fun if you let the bureaucrats live?”
I just said, “I’ll talk to you about this later, when you’ve got time.”
The shoulder angel looked up and smiled, “Coward.”
As I started to leave, Jericho grunted, “Oh yeah. Diamond said I had to tell you she thought your contract was well-written and fair, and a lot shorter than she expected. She said she was expecting some kind of thousand-page thing filled with impossible jargon.”
I grinned, “Well, you haven’t seen the contracts from Mediways or Johnson & Johnson yet, so she hasn’t seen contracts that are completely the opposite.”
As I left, I had to wonder. Did the local pranksters sneak into his workroom and re-arrange stuff? I figured, given Jericho’s rep, the correct answer was ‘yes, but not if they know what’s good for them’.
From there, it was just down a flight of stairs, around two corners, down another flight of stairs, around three more turns, and I was at Compiler’s private workroom. I noticed that the door had been replaced with a much heavier metal one since the last time I had been down this way.
The door was half open, but I still knocked on it. “Babs? It’s Phase. Can I come in?”
“Oh sure,” she said. “I’ll get the do-OOOOORRR!”
I heard the shriek at the same time I spotted the abrupt shift into high-speed motion. I went light just a split-second before she crashed into the metal door so hard it slammed shut. I ended up with my face buried in the door, plus one knee and one hand all the way through the door. At least the door didn’t shatter, and I didn’t get smashed into the opposite wall.
I stepped through the door and walked in. Compiler was lying flat on her back, looking like there should have been little birds chirping and circling her head. I looked down and asked, “Are you okay?”
She blinked and got to her feet. “I hate it when that happens!” she grumbled. She carefully got to her feet and adjusted her labcoat. The way her ‘school uniform’ writhed into place under the labcoat made me suspect she was wearing a nanotechnology uniform too. Great. If someone developed a weapon that disrupted nanites, she’d be paralyzed and naked.
She dusted off her labcoat with a couple quick swipes of her hands. The floor wasn’t dirty. It was just that the place looked like someone had run around in it while being chased by rabid wolves. Half the stuff was either knocked onto the floor, or broken.
Compiler looked about sheepishly and said, “In theory, I ought to be able to control my speed. But I keep having these teensy glitches in the neural pathways…”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll get it fixed before long,” I lied politely. “But I came by to buy some more of those tangle-web loads for the Cobra linear induction firearms.”
“Are they for your friend again?” she asked.
I shook my head, “No, they’re for me.” I just wasn’t planning on using them in a Cobra. I had other plans for them.
She carefully removed five from an elaborate machine attached to the back wall. She smiled, “Here. This is all I have right now. But I’ll have some more in a week or two, I’m sure.”
“Thanks a lot,” I told her as I wrote her a check.
She looked at the amount and gasped, “WOW! I mean, THANKS! Thanks a LOT!”
I grinned, “Generator said they worked better than the classics, so you need to start charging what they’re worth. And you need to develop a faster development system. And you need someone like me marketing them for you, so you can take over the market for tangle-web shots. When you get your builder working so you can crank out ten in a day if you needed to, I’ll start marketing them. I paid you eight times what you were charging at the Weapons Fair. But that’s still only half of what the regular loads cost, and that’s an incredible bargain. You can own this niche of the business.”
I left her as she got lost in DeviserLand, mapping out improvements in her webshot builder. Well, at least that was one meeting that didn’t go too badly.
It took me ten minutes to get to Loophole’s bay in the automotive area. If I’d missed that turn at the Alchemy Labs, it would have taken me a week to get there. The sign I was looking for was completely obscured by the thick purple smoke billowing out of one of the alchemy labs, as two guys who looked like they’d been dipped in aluminum paint were wiping the stuff off their faces and vehemently arguing about why it really should’ve turned into gold this time. The previous time I’d gone down to the automotive area looking for Loophole, I had at least had a native guide: Harvey had been kind enough to stop working on some sort of phase frequency meter (or whatever the heck it was supposed to be) and show me where Loophole’s bay was. I had a suspicion that one of the intro deviser courses was really “How to Find Your Way Around Down Here”.
Loophole was under her car again. I’d seen movies where guys devoted this kind of lavish attention on a classic car or a muscle car, but I’d never actually known a person who did it. Uncle Herb had a collection of really nice Daimlers, but he’d never be the one who was underneath it, changing the oil, or whatever auto mechanics did under cars. She was lying on that sliding board, working away on something in the engine compartment. And whatever she was doing was apparently warm, because she had draped her Whateley labcoat over a workbench.
The other time I had been down here, she’d had her car up on one of those hydraulic lifts, and I had looked underneath to see what she was working on. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was one of those instinctive guy things, like ending up talking over by the large fire where the chefs were preparing the heartier portions of the family picnic. I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at if it had been a normal car, much less something with odd cables and tubes snaking strangely around engine-ish components. This time, there was no way I was lying on my back and trying to squeeze under there.
“Loophole? If this is inconvenient, I can come back some other time.” I said it a bit louder than I needed to, just in case she was overly focused on some invention.
Ringo yelled from two bays over, “If you need to get her attention, just throw a wrench at her!” I could hear distant laughter from some other male devisers.
Loophole rolled out from under her car and snapped loudly, “Ah heard that, Ringo! An’ Ah know where you live!”
He just laughed, so I supposed it was an in-joke, or something she said regularly to keep the testosterone at bay.
She had her glasses off, so she could work under the car, and her hair came out of her ponytail when she yanked off her lab goggles. She had a smudge of grease on one high cheekbone that did nothing to disguise the fact that she was one hot redhead. She wasn’t up in Fey’s class, or Lifeline’s, but she was easily up there in the baseline ‘Hollywood starlet’ leagues. Plus, she was wearing a totally inadequate bra under a t-shirt that had once been white. And the right size. Now it was a dingy gray, and way too tight in the right places. This was a girl who had grown into a woman and hadn’t faced up to it yet. To go with the too-tight t-shirt, she was wearing a skintight pair of jeans that also looked like she needed to buy a larger pair but was refusing to admit it. She looked really good in those jeans. With her red hair falling about her face, she looked like the Hollywood version of ‘the tomboy who is about to be the female lead of a romantic comedy’.
She nodded at me as she wiped her hands on a dirty rag. “Phase. Ah knew you’d be comin’ down sometime today. Glad ta see you didn’t have any trouble findin’ your way.”
I smiled at her soft, sexy Southern drawl. She sounded like some sweet little Georgia peach who ought to be dressed like Scarlett O’Hara and offering you a mint julep. I didn’t understand why the devisers and gadgeteers weren’t flocking around her three-deep trying to get a date. Unless her last big invention was the Automatic Castration System.
She slipped her glasses on and drawled, “Didja come back down ta argue with me about global oil production?”
“No,” I smiled, “I wanted to talk about your CO2 grenade you used in your Combat Final. Bunny said it was a gadget, not a devise, so I wanted to ask you how long it took to make one, and what it cost. It seemed like a ready-made solution to a variety of fire suppression and fire prevention problems.”
“Ah don’t know,” she said. “Ah was thinkin’ about lettin’ the Whateley people help me with the patent on that, and stuff. I kind of owe them, after what I did to Arena ’99 last term.”
I suppressed a groan. “You don’t need a patent on it. You need twelve patents. You need to patent the grenade, and the production system, and every variant of them you can think of, and every variant a top-notch patent attorney can think of, or else someone will walk off with the market when you’re not looking. It happens all the time! You need better patent attorneys than Whateley provides, and better marketing specialists than Whateley provides, and better contract lawyers than Whateley provides!”
She frowned, “Look Phase, Ah appreciate you’re a rich girl who knows all the ins and outs, but that doesn’t mean the Whateley people aren’t competent.”
I just looked at her. I didn’t like being called a girl, but that happened all the time. I really didn’t like being called a girl in a way that more or less implied that I was oppressing the masses.
She went on, “Thank you, but Ah can handle this. Ah appreciate you lookin’ out for mah best interests and all, but Ah really think Ah ought to stick with the people Ah already committed to.”
I shrugged and switched topics. “And speaking of commitments, I just wanted to check on how the exhaust system was going. I had some informal chats over the holidays with some R & D people at Toyota and Honda and Ford, along with a couple other firms, and there’s some interest. Not as much interest as I think there ought to be, particularly in the U.S. markets, but the feeling is that gas prices are staying low, so there’s no point in it unless there’s enough improvement that they can use it as a marketing tool.” I tried to keep the disgust out of my voice, but I doubt I completely succeeded.
We chatted for a bit about her research on the exhaust system. Frankly, she lost me there, but I pretended to look interested. I wasn’t able to change her mind about the CO2 grenade, though. Okay, I could understand that. Plenty of people around Whateley didn’t trust a Goodkind.
I was just not doing all that well today. I thanked her for listening to me, she politely thanked me for dropping by, and then I phase-leapt straight up. I went through half a dozen levels of tunnel system up to the surface, and headed off to martial arts.
THE WHITMAN LITERARY GIRLS
After Phase left through the ceiling, Reverb and Lifeline came out from Ringo’s deviser bay, where they had been hiding.
As soon as they walked into the bay, Loophole asked, “What did you pick up from Phase?”
Lifeline sighed, “You’re not going to like this, but besides some anticipation at first, and then some frustration when you kept saying no, the main thing I was getting was, well, lust. He thought you were hot.”
Reverb corrected, “You mean ‘she’.”
Lifeline shook her head. “No, that was a definite ‘he’ there.”
Loophole thought it over. “Well, Ah told you Ah was pretty sure she - he - used to be Trevor James Goodkind. If he was Trevor Goodkind for his whole life, up ‘til last summer, maybe he’s still a guy.”
Reverb insisted, “But she’s a girl! Well, not the bulge-in-the-pants part, but she’s got breasts, and she’s got hips, and she’s got a waist I’d kill for, don’t you ever tell anybody I said that, and she’s really pretty!”
Lifeline frowned, “And he felt pretty unhappy when you called him a girl.”
Loophole wondered, “Really? Ah didn’t see anything. It’s not like he freaked out over it… On the other hand, Goodkinds are supposed to be really good at that ‘business face’ deal…”
Reverb just said, “Ewww. He looks like a girl and he thinks you’re hot? At least he didn’t ask you out.”
Loophole shrugged, “I heard Phase is supposed to be seeing someone in Poe. Goodkinds - at least the central family - have a reputation for being pretty conservative about that kind of stuff. Some of the side branches are pretty wild, but the main New York group acts like it’s still the 1950’s. They have long engagements, they stay married, they don’t get caught having affairs… Trevor’s dad Bruce Goodkind’s been married to the same woman for way over twenty years.”
Reverb muttered, “You know way too much about society families. That’s just sort of odd.”
“It’s a Southern thing,” Loophole said, for maybe the hundredth time.
Lifeline tried to get things back on track. “Anyway, I didn’t pick up any sort of deceit or sneakiness. Which is kind of weird, since she - I mean he - is supposed to be going around drumming up business right and left.”
Loophole thought it over. “Then either Phase is on the up-and-up… Or someone like Fey did a spell to block Psis and mages from finding his baser emotions and thoughts, to protect him while he did this stuff. And if that’s true, they’re about three steps ahead of us.”
Reverb frowned, “Maybe we’re out of our league on this. Phase made the Good Ol’ Boyz and the Spy Kids look like chumps last term. There’s no telling what he’s up to now.”
Loophole fumed, “Ah don’t like being played.” She thought back to her freshman year, and felt sort of sick. “And all Ah have to do to avoid it is not keep signin’ on for everything Ah invent with her. Him. Phase.”
Lifeline shrugged, “It’s your choice, but if I were you, I’d go along on the CO2 grenade. You’re already onboard with the car exhaust system. I think that’s a good thing. Even ignoring the whole ‘tons of money’ part, it might do the environment a lot of good.”
Reverb rolled her eyes and said, “You know Maggie, that’s your problem. You always think people are trying to be good. You need to remember we’re talking about a Goodkind here.”
Don Sebastiano tried not to move. He tried to ignore the little nightmares that were tormenting him. Even the nurses were finding them entertaining.
The Don Sebastiano shoulder angel sneered into his right ear, “So you screwed up. Shit happens. You should just give it up.”
The Don Sebastiano shoulder devil sneered into his left ear, “You fucked up beyond belief! I’m ashamed to be stuck as a shoulder angel to a loser like you!”
The door swung open, and clicking heels came in, along with booted feet. That couldn’t be a nurse, or that stupid doctor. He didn’t bother to open his good eye. He just said, in as flat a voice as he could manage, “Solange. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
Solange stared at Sebastiano. He was lying there like before, but now he had shoulder angels! His ‘shoulder angel’ was a Don Sebastiano devil, with horns and batwings and a barbed tail. But his ‘shoulder devil’ was a much worse Don Sebastiano devil, with shiny red skin and glaring black eyes and really icky horns like a bighorn sheep, and scary batlike wings.
She turned and asked, “Aries? Why does he have shoulder angels? And why are they both devils? You’re supposed to have one angel and one devil. That’s the rule, you know.”
Aries shrugged, “I doubt he asked for ‘em. Probably, somebody with balls the size of a Guernsey is pranking him.”
Solange watched as the shoulder angels both stared right at her. The devil on his right shoulder sneered, “You know you hate him. Go ahead and hit him. Use the table.”
The devil on his left shoulder sneered, “What a dumbass. Look bitch, don’t do that. Use a plasma cannon and REALLY hammer us!”
Solange blinked in confusion. It was kind of funny, but it was wrong. You couldn’t let people get away with pranking Alphas, and people still thought Sebastiano was connected to her. Plus, it was bothering her more than it seemed to be bothering Sebastiano, which was totally not fair.
And she wanted to ask him for advice, so she ought to butter him up a little. Like when she wanted Daddy to pay for her trip to Paris and pay all for the designer clothes she was going to buy. She turned to Aries, “Grab those things. You know who to take ‘em to. Make sure they’ll find out who made ‘em. Nobody gets to prank Alphas, or even important ex-Alphas, unless we say so.”
Aries grimaced, “Solange, you know what Kodiak said.”
She sighed dramatically, “I know. You have to be my bodyguard until we get all the Solange shoulder angels back, and we’re sure the Good Ol’ Boyz and whoever else didn’t make copies. I’ll just stay here until you get back, okay? Just take care of it.”
Aries shrugged, and then moved. At his top speed, he snatched the shoulder angels off Sebastiano’s shoulders and sprinted down the corridor, before the things had a chance to react.
“Thnx,” Don Sebastiano gritted through clenched teeth.
“Oh sure,” Solange waved her hand blithely. “We can’t have losers pranking us. That’s not okay.”
He gritted, “They weren’t from an Alpha. They didn’t know anything correct about Cav and Sky and Hekate.”
Solange winced. She didn’t want to think about that. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that - sooner or later - Hekate would have done that creepy spell thing to her. Either to keep a rival at bay, or just to get instant access to all her Walcutt billions. Hekate could have gotten herself a complete haute couture wardrobe and a villa near Montmartre. And even worse, Hekate could have made Solange shop for clothes at Walmart! At the thought of being dressed like trailer trash for the rest of her life, Tansy couldn’t help but shudder.
Solange looked at Sebby’s stare and got to the point. “Look, I need some advice. On stuff you’re really good at. I didn’t know this Queen of the Alphas stuff was going to be hard!”
He mumbled, “Go on.”
She explained, “So first, there’s this new girl in Dickinson, and she’s someone important, and everyone says we have to get her in the Alphas, and I didn’t know that, and… I sort of dissed her when she wasn’t really nice to me.” She burst out, “It was totally her fault! If she’d been nice to me, I wouldn’t’ve said that stuff! And nobody told me I had to be nice to her ‘til it was way after that!”
“Seraphim,” The Don grimaced. That bastard Englund had told him to keep away from Seraphim, but no one had said the rest of the Alphas couldn’t do their thing. And it would be a brilliant revenge against the sanctimonious old fart if he let Solange and Kodiak corrupt Englund’s shining little star. Plus, if he worked it just right, Englund would tackle Tansy and Wyatt for him, making it easy for The Don to resume his rightful place in a month or so. He tried to give an evil grin, but his face hurt too much. He settled for a grimace of pain. “Simple. Get someone to pester Seraphim, and then step in, and be the gracious Alpha who helps her out. Then the girl owes you, and you can invite her to dinner or an Alpha meeting when she’ll feel obliged to say yes.”
Solange frowned, “But if I get someone like Aries or Icer to pester her, she’ll know I sent ‘em.”
He explained through clenched teeth, “Always maintain what they call ‘plausible deniability’. Get Bogus to impersonate one of the New Olympians or Good Ol’ Boyz or Golds. Make them look bad at the same time.”
“Oh! I get it now!” she squeaked. She pursed her lips, “There is one other little problem… Shoulder angels. Peeper and Greasy were selling shoulder angels. Fey, Poise, Phase, and... me. And the Solange ones were, umm, slutty. And stupid.”
“Imagine that,” gritted Sebastiano.
“Yeah,” Solange said. “They were totally not me at all, in a really... umm... not-like-me way! So anyway, Kody and Aries took care of stuff after that, well that’s what Aries said, but Peeper already sold a bunch, and everybody saw the Solange ones!”
Sebastiano said, “Have ‘em do the other groups. Majestic. Traduce. Tumbler. Mindbird. Glorianna.”
Her eyes lit up at the idea of passing the pain onto someone who deserved it, like someone who wasn’t her. She cooed, “Ooh Sebastiano, you’re still the best!”
But as she waited for Aries, she worried. Sebastiano really was the best at this. What was going to happen as soon as he was out of his hospital bed? How long was he going to let her remain queen of the Alphas? She needed to figure out what to do! And soon! This being queen of the Alphas was hard! Why did her life have to be so tough?
I dressed in my gi with my utility belt, and sensei Beaumont didn’t seem to give a damn that she was changing clothes only two or three yards from a weird-looking boy. Maybe it was her Continental style. Maybe she was just a lot more mature than I was. I avoided looking over at her, and got out of the locker room with three minutes to spare.
I took the time to get in some warm-ups while Toni and Chou sparred with bokken in the hyperspeed version of martial arts. It seemed like every time I looked over their way, they were going just a little bit faster, and the clacks of colliding bokken were occurring with more force.
Then they started going wire-fu on each other. Without wires. Running up the walls, lightfooting out from there so they appeared to be flying, flipping and somersaulting and spinning in impossible ways… I figured I could do that too. With ninety or a hundred years of hard work.
When Ito came out, we all rushed to sit seiza on the edge of the mat. I whispered at them, “Showoffs!” Toni just grinned like the leopard that ate the canary.
Ito split the class into the same three groups as yesterday. But sensei Beaumont had learned her lesson. She moved our group to the far end of the dojo, so we didn’t have front row seats for ‘Salomé and the Dance of the Seven Meteor Hammers’. And she made sure all of us were standing with our backs to Chaka’s group.
But, as I was working on my sword katas and she was critiquing my foot positioning, she suddenly looked past me and said, “Oh no.”
I looked. It was Toni, of course. But Ito was pouring lamp oil into the bowls this time.
Beaumont muttered, “This is too soon! She doesn’t even know the forms yet!”
And Ito lit the oil on fire. Toni was suddenly a potential fire hazard for half the dojo! Toni just snapped both arms and started whirling both bowls in ferocious vertical circles. Then she rolled her shoulders, and one bowl was spinning around an upraised hand, while the other whirled around her at waist height. She didn’t lose a drop. Thank God.
And believe me, when those things went whizzing around her, they LOOKED like flaming meteors. I had an eerie feeling that dinosaurs once had a view of something not all that dissimilar, about 65 million years ago.
Beaumont didn’t yell at me. She stared and whispered, “Mon Dieu!”
To top that little performance, Chaka then did an impossible somersaulting move that wrapped the chain loosely about her waist, and then she kept both those flaming bowls going without using her hands, while she hula’ed across the floor! Dang! Is there anything that girl can’t do?
Beaumont muttered in French, “That is simply not possible!”
It took sensei Beaumont and Interface a couple minutes to get all of us back on track. It sounded like Ito was getting the rest of his group working on their forms as well. I tried to focus on my sword forms, even if the image of Toni going bananas with that meteor hammer kept trying to reclaim my attention.
“Chaka! Please come over here!” Ito snapped from somewhere way behind me.
Beaumont looked over, and said to us, “Yame!” She admitted, “There is little point in this for the next few minutes. We will all be distracted.”
We turned and watched. Ito had a table with ten candles on it. A couple of the candles were set further back than the others. He said, “Chaka, you can see the numbers in front of the candles. Please try to touch the candles in this order, without knocking other candles down, or damaging the table.”
Beaumont shook her head slightly and whispered a little too loudly to keep it to herself, “This is much too soon…”
Chaka did a back walkover to get her two meteors off of her waist, and then she was whirling one in a tight horizontal circle over her head and off to her left, while she spun the other in a much wider circle a foot higher. She just snapped out those things like she had Jinn guiding them. She didn’t knock over the candles.
She lit the candles, one by one, in the right order. She couldn’t keep the grin off her face.
“Merde!” swore Beaumont, just before she had us all turn around and get back to work.
I did my usual speed-showering routine, so Beaumont and Tolman could have some privacy for their own showers. Beaumont wasn’t bothering to wait, like Tolman did. She just undressed, put her clothes in her locker, and sauntered into the shower area with nothing but a towel in one hand. By the time she was showering, I was already leaving to go get dressed. But it was still pretty damned uncomfortable for me. I mean, she was like my Mother’s age, or older, and she was walking around naked in front of me. Ick!
Then I waited for the rest of the team to stroll out of their shower rooms. Lancer came out and waited beside me. He grinned, “What’d you think of Chaka’s little demo?”
“Oh, you mean Typhoon Toni and Her Lamp Oil of Death?” I complained.
“HEY! I heard that!” someone yelled from the girls’ locker room.
Lancer laughed, as Chaka stomped out.
Of course, Toni couldn’t keep the enormous grin off her face. “You know what? Soke says if I can get the first four forms down by class tomorrow, he’ll let me move to the real meteor hammer next week!”
“Great,” I groaned. “Well, I guess we know what Fey’s going to be complaining about tonight.”
Chaka just gave me her leopard grin. “Jealous!”
“Probably,” I admitted. “I’m never going to be that good with those things, and you’ve been working with them for what, an hour and a half?”
She shrugged, “Well I did work on my forms last night in the basement, and soke let me practice in private for a while this afternoon.”
Bladedancer came up behind us and chipped in, “Oh, so you have worked with it for a good three hours. That makes all the difference in the world!”
Toni just grinned, “Hey, what can I say? I’m a natural!”
“The natural, huh? Just don’t go out on a date with anyone named Harriet Bird,” I snarked.
“What?” Chaka said. “I got enough problems with Rip and Scotty.”
“Never mind,” I muttered.
Lancer said, “At least with the tag-team ref I knew what the heck she was talking about.”
“Amen, brother!” Chaka chimed in.
“Agreed,” said Chou.
I frowned at Chou, “Et tu, Brute?”
Chaka groaned, “We’ve gotta get her out of those Lit classes.”
Lancer grinned, “You can take the preppie out of the Lit class, but you can’t take the Lit class out of the preppie.”
I decided to take the high road and not retaliate.
We gathered up most of Team Kimba, along with Jody and Sahar, and we strolled off to Poe. It was cold taking the aboveground route, but the constant jumping around that Chaka was doing seemed to warm everyone up.
Tennyo grinned, “Oh man, you should’ve seen Beaumont’s face when Chaka did that hula hoop bit!”
I added, “Somehow, I don’t think that’s in any of the usual katas.”
Toni gave one of her leopard grins. “But it was fun! And it’s really easy, as long as you get the chain at just the right tightness around your waist, and you keep enough Ki in the chain so the loop doesn’t slip, and you get the meteors at just the right distances so they go around at the same speed, so the chain holds both of them, and…”
“Like I said,” I muttered.
When we got back to Poe, Molly was waiting for Chou in the common room. Everyone around them grinned as they went all googly-eyed for each other. Then they held hands as they walked upstairs. Man, they are so cute.
Jade suddenly said, “Gotta rush! I got a date for tonight and I gotta get ready!” She rushed past the two lovebirds and dashed off to her room.
I asked, “Isn’t her date over an hour away?”
Fey told me, “It takes girls longer to get ready for a date. I thought you knew that.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “But that just seemed sort of… I don’t know.”
Molly and Chou didn’t make it into the room. They stopped in the hallway, facing each other and staring into each other’s eyes from inches away. I was tempted to say something snotty, but they really were too cute. Instead, I was thinking about cutting through Fey and Chaka’s room to slip into my room, grab a couple books, and slip into the sunroom so Chou and Molly could have some ‘alone time’.
Suddenly, I heard Rythax - or at least a tiny version of Rythax say, “Go ahead and kiss her!”
And then another Rythax said, “Yeah! And do it out here so it’ll be naughty!”
I looked over, and Molly had shoulder angels. Not to mention a completely stunned expression on her face. On her right shoulder was a white Rythax with white wings, and on her left shoulder was a red Rythax with red wings.
Molly looked over at us and saw that she had an audience. She turned nearly as red as the shoulder devil. She stammered, “Th-they’re not mine! I didn’t!”
Chou glared at the shoulder angels and said, “I think everyone on this floor knows who did this.” She thrust two fingers into the shoulder devil and concentrated, but the thing stayed put. It did wiggle and shimmer slightly, as if Chou’s Chi attack were having some minor success.
Molly put out her hand palm out, and a portal appeared. Rythax leapt through, in panther-mode. Which was about all the hallway could take. He took one look at Molly and asked, “What are those simulacra do-”
But the shoulder angels abruptly swirled into chalkdust and sped off down the hall past me.
Molly smiled uncomfortably, “Thanks, Rythax.”
He said, “But I didn’t do anything. I just asked a question. And-”
Suddenly, there were shoulder angels on Rythax. Cute chibi Rythax figures. Rythax swatted the one on his left shoulder, and his paw simply passed through it with hardly a swirl. He said, “We are not amused.”
The chibi angel Rythax fluttered its feathery white wings and insisted, “Well, we are! Maybe I should change into my Hello Kitty form!”
The chibi devil Rythax flapped its black batwings and agreed, “Yeah! That’ll have ‘em gouging their own eyes out!”
Rythax frowned, “Please, have some respect.”
I was the one who lost it. I yelled, “JADE! FOR GOD’S SAKE, NO HELLO KITTY RYTHAXES!”
There was a petite giggle from behind me, and then Jade said, “Okay, okay… Jeez, some people have no sense of humor.”
Chou gently said to Molly, “We all knew it wasn’t you. Why don’t we go sit down somewhere and-”
Suddenly, a little Chou in a saffron-colored Chinese monk’s robe peered from Chou’s right shoulder and said, “The balance must be preserved! Don’t do that, the balance might be ruined!” Chou stopped. “No, don’t do that either! That might ruin the balance!”
Another little Chou in a similar monk’s robe peered from Chou’s left shoulder and shook her head, “Balance and Chaos monkey doodle fandango.”
“What?” Chou snapped.
“Jade!” I growled.
“It wasn’t me!” Jade piped up.
The right-hand monk nodded sagely, “It all makes sense to me. If I am Balance, then she is Chaos.”
The left-hand monk nodded in agreement. “And chocolate automobile hammer walrus.”
The right-hand monk fussed, “No! Not that either! That might also ruin the balance!”
Great. The little monk of Chaos was completely Dadaist, and the little monk of Balance was more obsessive-compulsive than Fractious.
Behind me, Chaka purred fiercely, “Jade, if you know what’s good for you…”
“I swear, this time it’s not me!” Jade insisted.
“Balance froufrou elbow armadillo! And wingnut too!” insisted the monk of Chaos.
Chou glared at it and snapped, “Stop it!”
It looked at her and waved its arms frantically, “Garbanzo elementary coleslaw, or else radical underwear maple! Hardware?”
Chaka strode forward, stuck two straight fingers into the Chaos monk, and concentrated. It popped in a strange way. A small speaker fell to the floor. It was dotted on the back with miniature electronics.
The Balance monk looked down at the speaker and muttered in a different voice, “Bloody hell.”
Chaka stuck her fingers into that one too, and it melted into thin air, leaving another speaker that fell to the floor. Chaka tilted her head back and yelled, “BELLE!”
Fey nodded, “The ectoplasm had to be Beltane, but not the little electrical parts.”
Jade stared at the speakers and said, “Probably Delta Spike.”
Laughter in the stairwell faded as two pairs of feet ran for it.
Jade said, “Okay, this time I really am gonna get ready for my date. I’m not doing any more shoulder angels. Promise!” Then she got a naughty grin and said, “Except maybe for Stephen.”
Well, that meant it was going to be Thuban’s problem, and not mine. So I slipped past Nikki, walked through her bedroom wall into my room, grabbed two accounting textbooks off my desk, and walked through the far wall into the sunroom, all before Molly and Chou slipped into the room for a little privacy.
There were a couple guys studying at the table in the sunroom, so I went light and floated up into the upper hammock. I stretched out and read a couple chapters on payroll system issues before dinner. I started with the introductory chapter and the chapter discussing how laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act affect payroll operations and employment practices. Frankly, it was just pathetic that people treated their employees so shoddily that laws like that were even needed. That was certainly not how Goodkinds did things. After reading for a while, and not learning much that I hadn’t encountered before at Goodkind International, I was bored enough to hop out of the hammock and go see who was up to what.
Jade was driving Billie crazy as she frantically fussed over which of four outfits she ought to wear for her date. It looked like two of the outfits were standing up on their own and participating in the discussion. I had enough sense to stay out of that one. Around the corner of the hallway, Jody was trying to defuse an argument between Stoner and Aggro. I had enough sense to stay several miles away from that one. Then I heard Toni griping about something, so I dropped in on her and Nikki.
Chaka looked over at me and snapped, “And here’s the perfect person.”
“We are glad thou dost recognize Our perfection,” I said in my most mock-regal tones.
Fey giggled, but Chaka was too busy being mad about something. Nikki said, “Ayla, I think you probably want to run like hell from this one.”
Chaka, on the other hand, was ecstatic to have a target in the room. “It’s those Knights of Pleurisy your uncle’s sicking on mutants all over the place. Do you know how often mutants get killed by those jerks? If the cops in any city in America had arrest casualty rates like them, there’d be rioting out the wazoo!”
Well, I should have known Toni would want to vent about the Knights of Purity sooner or later, especially after what Chou had told me about Toni’s little brother drooling over the KoP toys and the creepy supervillains they fought.
She fumed, “They could’ve really hurt Jamal. They could’ve killed him!”
I nodded unhappily, “And he could have killed them too. Hell, you and Chou kicked their asses without trying. What would’ve happened if your pal Jamal had powers like Billie? Or Hank? Or a quarter of the kids on campus? If any police force in America had officers dying and getting hurt at the rate the Knights do, the Justice Department and the FBI would be investigating that city like you wouldn’t believe.”
“That still doesn’t justify the numbers of kids they hurt,” she snapped.
“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed. “Look Toni, I know you’re upset-”
“Damn right I am!” she flared. “Knights of Purity? So who’s the un-pure there? Huh?”
I pushed on, “-But you’re being totally unfair. That name’s nothing but good PR, and you know it. Of course the Knights of Purity have case casualty rates a lot higher than ordinary police forces. But that’s comparing apples to oranges. You can’t compare cases of jaywalking and domestic disturbances and speeding tickets to the kinds of things the KoP get called in on!”
“Now hold on one second, Richie Rich…”
“Let me finish, okay? Just compare the Knights’ fatality rates against U.S. Military battles against mutants, or S.W.A.T. battles against terrorists and hostage crises, or even the arrest casualty rates of plenty of superhero teams! If you make a fair comparison, you’ll see why cities and counties call them in comparatively often.”
“Yeah? Fair by whose numbers? Goodkind PR firm numbers?”
I kept going, “Plus, they have WAY lower numbers on innocent bystanders getting hurt, and collateral damage.”
Chaka glared at me, “Ayla, your problem is you’re still thinking like a Goodkind. You figure your Uncle Herb is behind it, so it must be okay! They’re selling action figures with evil creepy mutants as their enemies! That’s just wrong.”
That was so utterly unfair to Uncle Herb and everything he’s worked so hard to accomplish! I opened my mouth to offer a rebuttal.
But before we really got into it, Fey made us knock it off. And she cheated, since she used a burst of magical force that made both of us mute for several seconds, while she told us that she was going to give us timeouts if we couldn’t take it down a couple notches.
Fortunately, for the peace and welfare of the second floor, Chou came in right then, giving us a welcome distraction. If we’d argued much more, we might have needed a welcome EXtraction instead.
Chou looked at us and asked, “Is this a good time?”
Fey said, “This is an excellent time. Whatever you want. I’ve got to get Wolverine and Sabretooth here to calm down.”
Chaka had her voice back, because she quickly added, “And I’m Wolverine here.”
I snarked, “Nah, you’re Sabretooth, since you’re the one who has to keep shaving her legs.”
Chaka smirked, “Oh yeah, well-”
Damn. Fey let both of us have it with a blinding ball of white light. She snapped, “I don’t want to hear another word out of either of you, or else!”
I couldn’t see what Chaka was doing, but I just stood there, waiting for my vision to come back.
Chou sounded worried as she said, “The tea set I ordered finally came, and I wanted to have a tea party. I have this special green tea I brought back from Christmas.”
Toni sounded decidedly unenthusiastic as she said, “Yeah, that would be good. That tea was awesome.”
I muttered, “Fine with me.”
Fey decided, “Good. How about Sunday afternoon, after everyone gets back from their fittings at Cecilia’s?”
“Works for me,” I grumbled.
“Me too,” said Toni.
I had to wonder if Toni would go through with the fitting on Sunday if she was this mad at me. I had to wonder what else was going to fall apart if she was this mad. But I wasn’t going to back down on this one. It didn’t matter to me whether I was still part of my family or not. The Knights of Purity were an important force for good in the world, and I wasn’t going to back down on that, no matter how ticked off Toni was that her little brother wanted to buy action figures.
He couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he strolled into Twain. There was just something about Jade that made him, well, happy.
Even if there was also something about her that drove him to distraction.
He’d had plenty of girls who wanted him to take them out. Most of them had been prettier than Jade, and much more... mature. After all, they were after him for the Lee family fortune. Jade had less money than any of them, and was fiercely independent. That alone made being with her special. But the other girls had been determinedly complaisant, or ruthlessly manipulative. Often both at the same time. Jade wasn’t. She just liked him.
And there was no getting around the simple fact that Jade was crazy. But in a good way. He had picked her up to take her into Berlin for dinner, and she had shown up in her newest dress. With a pair of Jade shoulder angels. He should have guessed. His intelligence sources had told him that she had even started the current shoulder angel fad, when she was pulling some sort of prank on Phase.
Her shoulder angel was Jinn, in a white minidress and white heels and feathery white wings. Her shoulder devil was Shroud, with added black batwings and horns. They had floated above her shoulders and commented as she hugged him hello.
He had only said, “Jade, I really don’t think those are appropriate for the restaurant I have in mind in Berlin. The restaurants and stores there are sensitive enough about Whateley without us rubbing their noses in our... differences.”
Jade had pouted quite prettily, and fussed almost as much as her shoulder angels, but eventually he’d won, and she had made them vanish into her purse. Then it had taken him quite a while to talk her out of her mood. He wasn’t used to having a girlfriend who expected him to like her peculiarities, instead of a girl who just wanted his money. And Jade certainly had some peculiarities. Like those shoulder angels. Or having the sort of mind that came up with the idea of inflicting shoulder angels on her friend as a prank.
Thuban walked up the stairs past Mirror, who stopped and stared for long seconds. Perhaps he wasn’t used to seeing Thuban looking happy. Or perhaps..
“Hi, Mirror!” said a little angel from his right shoulder.
“What are you looking at?” growled a little devil from his left shoulder.
Thuban stared at his two shoulder angels as he realized that he was wearing two excessively-cute chibi dragons.
Mirror smiled wickedly, “Really nice, Thuban. I didn’t think you’d go with this kind of shoulder angel.”
He simply replied, “A gift from my girlfriend.”
“Yeah, from his extremely cute girlfriend!” added the angel-dragon.
“His extremely cute girlfriend who’s getting even with him for being a poopyhead about dinner,” explained the devil-dragon.
Thuban kept his face as inexpressive as he could, while Mirror snickered all the way down the stairs. Once no one else was around, he whispered to the shoulder angels, “Jinn, when you get back to Jade, tell her I’m not happy about this.”
The cute angel-dragon giggled, “Well duh, Stephen. That’s the whole point!”
He was rapidly changing his mind about the ‘cute’ part.
He walked into his room, to find his roommate Carapace studying. Dai didn’t look up before asking, “How was the date?”
“Just fine,” he started to say.
“It was great!” chipped in the angel-dragon.
“Not enough necking,” volunteered the devil-dragon.
Dai turned and stared at Thuban. The only times he ever saw Stephen frustrated, it was because of Jade. Well, the only times he ever saw Stephen really happy it was because of Jade, so it more than balanced out. But this one was too funny for words. The all-powerful Thuban, stymied by a pair of shoulder angels.
The shoulder angel said, “You should let Jade know how much you liked the date. You should buy her a dozen beautiful white roses. She loves roses.”
The shoulder devil disagreed, “Naah. Go grab her and kiss her senseless. That’s what chicks go for!”
The shoulder angel frowned, “That sounds good, but what if she doesn’t want you to? Or she’s just not in the mood? It could be bad.”
The shoulder devil growled, “Oh, what the heck would you know about boys and girls? You angels are about as sexual as a study desk.”
The shoulder angel fumed, “Oh yeah? Well you’re just a big poopyhead!”
Thuban was tempted to put his head in his hands and groan. But Dai was already straining not to laugh out loud. One more thing, and Dai would probably keel over in hysterics.
Toni wasn’t talking to me, which was fine with me right then. I didn’t feel like talking to her either, until she stopped being so hard-headed about the Knights of Purity. They were just brave teams of baselines, with little more than power armor, trying to protect everyone against potentially catastrophic threats. Of course things happened! Knights got hurt or even killed some of the time. The mutants they were trying to stop got hurt or even killed some of the time too. In most cities, there simply wasn’t any alternative, unless you were going to call in S.W.A.T. teams and shoot the mutants on sight!
I went back to studying in my room. I had more accounting to get through, and a ton more references for Team Tactics, and some Shakespeare plays to re-read. The accounting chapters on current liabilities were actually pretty good. In business, it’s always important to be able to separate current liabilities from fixed liabilities. You can’t properly evaluate a company’s financial health unless you can do that. And companies that try to fiddle the line between current liabilities and fixed liabilities are often the ones that require some major audits.
My computer beeped, letting me know I had a new email message. I floated down from my bunk and took a look. It was from Jon! I hastily opened it and read it.
Trevor (or Ayla if that’s what you have to call yourself these days):
It was good to hear from you. Really good. Some of us have been kind of worrying, ever since you just vanished. Your brother David was about as communicative as a baseball bat. The popular theories were that you were kidnapped; you went insane and murdered someone so the family locked you up in a private sanitarium; or that you turned into a mutant and they had to ship you off somewhere. Kind of ironic that it turned out to be Number Three.
I have already started putting together a GEO expedition. People I’ve never even met, only heard of by reputation, are begging me to come on this quest. This is going to be the biggest thing since Marala’s War.
I looked, and Jon was on-line. I pinged him, and we switched to IM.
BlindSeer: How the BLEEP did you manage this? You didn’t buy all the GEO webservers on the planet, did you?
Trev-uchet: You won’t believe this, but I know Marala.
BlindSeer: You’re kidding me. You know Marala? THE Marala?
Trev-uchet: Yeah. Personally. She’s the best suited person on the planet to pull this off.
BlindSeer: What is she, a real demon?
Oh man, Jon. You so do not want to know the answer to that question. I gave up and dodged the question.
Trev-uchet: Oh yeah, a real demon, spending her spare time *playing* a demon in GEO. You slay me!
We IM’ed for nearly an hour, until he went off to bed. It was so weird realizing that I still had friends outside of Whateley. Weird, but really great.
And really troubling. I had assumed that everyone had written me off, because that’s what Trevor Goodkind would have done. Right? I swallowed hard as I wondered what I would have done if our positions were reversed. If Jon had manifested as a mutant, would I have dropped him like an old kleenex? I just didn’t know. He was my friend. But I had been so damned hard-nosed about mutants. Would I have come around? Would I have accepted him as a friend, even if he manifested? Or would I have been a cold Goodkind and written him off forever?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know, and it was eating at me. Would I have followed the rules and done what a Goodkind was supposed to do? Would I have broken the rules and remained loyal to a long-time friend?
I had spent my entire life - until just a few months ago - believing that mutants were dangerous, and a threat to the safety of the planet. Had I learned a valuable lesson in acceptance and tolerance? Or had I betrayed everything in which I was raised to believe?
Or was it possible I had done both?
It took me hours to fall asleep.
I woke up when the alarm clock started playing Brass Monkey’s “Can’t Diss This”. I was tired and cranky. But a wicked little song about rap singers who respect no one else but expect constant adoration from everyone? That at least made me smile.
I was hoping to have a chance to gauge Toni’s attitude in the bathroom, but she had already showered and left before I got there. I stopped to check on that with Fey, who was in the middle of drying off. I was happy to let her dry her back while we talked.
Okay, I had major trouble keeping my eyes on her face. And she knew it. I think everyone in the room knew it.
So I helpfully slipped past her to go shower. Which meant that I came out of the shower as Vox and Verdant were waiting to get in. Good timing on my part. I even managed to – oh so suavely – help Vox hang up her bathrobe, so I got to be next to her when she was stark naked. She gave me a look that meant ‘I so know what you’re up to’.
And then things were awkward as most of Team Kimba walked off to breakfast. So Toni was still upset at me. Well, maybe it was that I was still upset at Toni. Toni never let things get her down. I, on the other hand, was perfectly capable of getting in a major mood over a grade of less than an A on a paper.
Then I didn’t get a chance at breakfast to see how Toni was taking things, because she got sidetracked with Thunderbird, and I got distracted by a gorgeous plate of aebleskiver topped with whipped cream, powdered sugar, and homemade lingonberry preserves.
Just as I was savoring the tartness of the preserves and preparing to cut into one of the perfectly prepared spheres, a three-ring binder smacked down on the table right next to me. I probably only jumped three or four inches, instead of going right through the table.
The front of the binder said, in big block letters, “REQUIRED AND OPTIONAL PREPARATION ROUTINES FOR WHATELEY HOLOGRAPHIC SIMULATION RUNS”.
Admiral Everheart loomed over my left shoulder and snapped, “Required reading, Phase. Since you’re apparently the intel officer for your team, you’ll be point man on this task.”
I put my face into a big smile and said, “Thanks! This is great. I’ve been wondering about this. Do we have to have it all ready for tomorrow?”
She smiled. A little. “No, you have to have it all prepped by next Saturday. Tomorrow, your team will bring in all its holdouts for scanning, check out the sim suits for fit and functionality, get a talk on filling out the files we need, and get a chance to ask questions about the system. Then, if there’s still time, we’ll let your team do a little walk-through on the ‘Exploring the Whateley Campus’ intro sim. You’ll get to walk around and see how it feels when you’re actually in the system.”
“Cool. Thanks, admiral,” I said.
Apparently, that wasn’t the reaction she expected to get from me. Oh, right. Most students were probably outraged at having to read something new and do homework.
She walked off, and I quickly glanced through the table of contents. An introduction, principles of the holographic system, wearing and using the sim suits, how each of the power categories worked in the holos, files we had to fill out on our intrinsic powers, auxiliary files we had to fill out on our holdouts, processing the files and scanning our holdouts for use in the sims, ‘first walk-through’ scenarios… Man, there was just a ton of neat stuff in here.
I took a couple minutes to skim some of the chapter introductions. Ooh. We each needed to enter all our powers and sensory abilities in a file that would be encrypted with a special password, so the holo system could access the file but no one else could. And we needed to list all our holdouts - and their capabilities - in a separate file that could be updated as we changed our holdouts. We also needed to make sure our powers integrated properly with our suits, so we could replicate our powers in the holos. That would be extra-important for those of us with odd sensory abilities, starting with the J-Team.
I looked up. Most of the table was staring at me. I said, “Look at this. Guys, we need a meeting in my room tonight to talk about a bunch of this stuff.”
Lancer said, “Will we be ready for a meeting by then?”
I nodded, “Oh, sure. I’m ready for a meeting right now. By tonight, I might even be ready for a productive meeting.”
Tennyo frowned, “It looks like it’ll take us about a year to work through all that stuff."
I shrugged, “Most of what we do is pretty standard. I’ll check in the binder. Unless there’s something one of us can do that’s totally non-standard, we ought to be able to use their point-and-click interface to set up our files.”
Lancer caught Jade looking particularly unhappy, and he switched to the comm system. <(Lancer) Look Generator, we’ll talk it over tonight. Relax, okay?>
<(Generator) Okay, but we ARE trying to keep my real abilities under wraps, right?>
<(Phase) No sweat. We’ve got your ‘official’ abilities in the Whateley system, and we can work from there.>
<(Tennyo) How about we save this discussion for Phase’s room tonight?>
Lancer stood up, “I’ll see everybody at the range. Phase? Stop reading and eat.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry,” I muttered. Then I dove into the aebleskiver while Tennyo went back for another fifty pounds of grilled pork products.
My multitasking skills were obviously flagging, because I got lost reading cool stuff in the binder, and hardly finished my food before Tennyo was hauling me off to class. Literally. She carried me under one arm while I kept reading through the binder. I probably looked really stupid, but I got an extra ten minutes of high-speed reading in.
<(Lancer) Earth to Phase, come in, please.>
<(Phase) I’m paying attention! I’m just reading! This is really interesting. They’ve got features for magic, Psi, projective and receptive empathy, seeing in a 360 degree circle around you, seeing ley lines, seeing lines of Ki, even seeing density and being able to see magic and mutant powers, so I think we’re ALL in good shape. I think they’ve got everything we need. They even have stuff like a danger sense, enhanced senses, being able to sense from your hands and feet instead of your head, and Fubar-level psychic abilities. You name it, they’ve got it. It’s pretty awesome.>
<(Fey) The ability to turn water into wine?>
<(Phase) Uhh, yeah, they have that covered too.>
<(Tennyo) The ability to turn dirt into gourmet food for a Goodkind?>
<(Lancer) You have two minutes before class starts, and you need to put the binder down before Bardue and Everheart yell at you.>
<(Fey) But it could be good if Everheart sees you’re reading it already.>
<(Lancer) Okay. Keep reading. When I give the signal, close it fast and come back to the real world.>
<(Phase) Aye-aye, Captain Queeg.>
<(Generator) And you’re missing the real fun.>
I looked up in time to catch the last act of the ‘Kismet and Cerebrex Show’, as Kismet once again tried to wrestle Captain Canada’s shield away from him. The Omega Squaddies in the back were definitely enjoying the floor show in front of them. They were barely managing not to laugh out loud.
I stuck my head back in the binder as the door at the front started to open. Everheart and Bardue marched in. They were wearing what Hank called BDUs, whatever that stood for. I made a mental note to look it up before the next class. As soon as Hank signaled me through the Spots, I closed the binder and looked up.
Everheart got things started by collecting the homework assignments that hadn’t already been emailed to her. Namely, everyone’s but mine. After all, if she had Hive in her, it had to be easier for her to grok an electronic file than to have to read it the old-fashioned way.
She even pointed that out. “Class! Please note that Team Kimba isn’t handing in a paper file. They emailed it to me last night. That will be the preferred method throughout the course. Typed papers will be acceptable.”
She went on, “Every scenario has risks and problems. Nothing is ever the same twice. That’s why we need review afterward. When we have time, we’ll have internal review from the team, then class review from each of the other teams, and finally review from the instructors.”
After that, Everheart read aloud our team report on what we thought we did wrong yesterday. She looked at Fey and asked, “If you could take out the detonators or the explosives first, could you lock all the safeties in place, or just disintegrate all their weapons?”
Fey frowned in thought. “That’s... well, it’s possible, but it might take a long time, maybe days of preparation, because of the problems with the Law of Similarity.”
Everheart nodded, “Thank you, Fey. I’ll take that as a ‘probably not reasonable’ in this situation.”
She then scouted the room before her eyes latched onto Caitlin. “Eldritch! What did Team Kimba do wrong?”
Eldritch looked over at us and paused for a moment. “They did a really nice job for a group with no training and no teamwork on this kind of situation. They gathered intel well, and they constructed a good plan. They pulled it off like clockwork, and they rescued the hostages.”
Everheart stared at Caitlin for a couple seconds before she exploded. “BULLSHIT! Don’t give me that! I want a REAL evaluation!”
Caitlin suddenly drew herself up in a stance that was as tough as Everheart’s. Then she snapped, “They screwed up in a dozen little ways, admiral. All it would have taken was one enemy sniper they missed, and an entire arm of their attack could have collapsed, probably killing everyone because they lost one body. And there are baseline weapons designed to drill even bulletproof exemplar types.
“Dropping the building was perhaps the dumbest thing they did, but the worst thing they did was splitting up the team like that, especially with Tennyo and Fey juicing the hallways too much. They could’ve easily blown through the walls and fried their buddies. And then, any pro group operating there would have a nearby building occupied with counterforce snipers and weapons, so that once you flash your ass... BOOM!”
<(Lancer) We had that first one well-covered with Fey’s spell, but I guess no one could see it. The overkill part? We’ll work on it.>
I looked over, and Eldritch was still standing there speaking like a marine review board. But the rest of Outcast Corner was staring at her like she had Fubar erupting out of her forehead, tentacles and all. I figured she hadn’t done her ‘Military Masterpiece Theatre’ bit in front of them before.
She kept critiquing, “Then they didn’t need Tennyo bombing that upstairs post when they weren’t using the entry and they already had Fey blasting the front of the building apart. They should’ve put her on airborne overwatch to spot unexpected threats. Because what you can afford to drop is the building there's no hostages in.
“After that, they should’ve sent Shroud into the basement instead of Phase. Warpers like that sometimes generate residual electrical charges, and it doesn't take much more than static shock to trip a blasting cap. Then it's all she wrote. So Shroud downstairs instead. They should’ve thrown Shroud through the basement with instructions to cut all the detcords connecting the C4 to the detonation triggers.”
<(Lancer) Phase, are you taking notes? Because these are good points.>
<(Phase) YES. Of course I’m taking notes.>
<(Chaka) OF COURSE she is.>
“Umm, let’s see what else. Fey should have STOPPED firing when the team entered the building, and immediately relocated to a designated position so as to not invite counterfire, not kept going to take out the living room. That way the team can call for pinpoint strikes AS NEEDED. Lancer should never have entered the building except to take cover once the breach was made. He’s their Combat Control and Coordination. The lives of his team are dependent on him not getting his head boiled off by a random mage or microwave emitter. The officers do not lead the charge, they coordinate. That's why God gave us non-coms. Officers and tactical leaders fight only when absolutely necessary.”
<(Fey) Umm, Aunghadhail is agreeing pretty strongly on that one, guys.>
<(Lancer) I agree too. I just don’t see me as the officer here.>
<(Phase) You’re more like Corporal Agarn?>
Caitlin pounded onward, “Sending some of the team in singletons created too much risk of total failure if one angle of attack got blunted.” She stopped at looked at us. “Okay, every single mission, every single op, it doesn't matter whether or not you do everything correctly, there’s always some things you did wrong. Because combat is fluid, not static. So the thing they did right, they made a plan, and they hit it with intent and confidence. That's why they won.”
<(Chaka) Whew. Did we get out of that building alive?>
<(Lancer) She’s right, you know. She’s better at this than some of the sergeants dad worked with. I don’t know where she got all the training, but she got it somewhere.>
<(Phase) And we can learn from our mistakes. Even if some of the things she cited weren’t our mistakes.>
Everheart nodded in approval. Then she said, “All right, would you have taken the Outcasts in?”
Caitlin stiffened and emphasized, “No ma’am! For several reasons. I just joined the Outcasts, so I still don’t have a realistic idea of what the other three are capable of when the shit hits the fan. Second, I know myself and my own limitations, and I wouldn't want to even try that without two more bodies minimum to get control of that building. And finally, it's not my call. I'm not the Outcast team leader. Jericho is. He's been leading the team in sims since they started, and he knows pretty much what Diamond and Razor are capable of doing."
Everheart stared at her for a long second before nodding, “Good answer. And the paper your team turned in is even better.”
She turned and focused on Lily. “S.T.A.R. League Jr. Do you have anything to add?”
She went around the room, but no one had anything major to add to the massive review Caitlin had given. Wallflower wanted to argue that the job of commander for a super-team was more like that of a staff sergeant than an officer, so Lancer had done the right thing. Kismet wanted to get snotty about Fey blowing up half the building, and Bardue stepped on that pretty quickly. Redlight brought up the idea of a paralysis attack against the terrorists, and wanted to talk about the tradeoffs between a psychic paralysis attack and the magical ‘sleep’ spell Fey had suggested in our debriefing paper. Grapple and Eruption thought the demolition bit was excellent, and as long as the hostages were snagged before the building blew up, who cared what else happened? Everheart got on their case about collateral damage and Rules of Engagement, but I doubted that they gave a damn about any of that.
Then Bardue distributed handouts on the official DoD 17-point building entry and room-clearing process for infantry forces, with notes on adaptations for MOUT and superpowered teams. I skimmed through the handout while he was still walking around the room.
Everheart started, “This seems a little excessive and time-consuming, but the devil is in the details. It boils down to some simple concepts. First, preparation: isolating the building, getting intel if you can, and other prep for the building entry. Second, technique for clearing that first room without getting your team killed. Third, extending from that room to the next rooms of the building, until you have achieved your objectives. Finally, consolidation, whatever that might mean in your context.
“We’ll start with prep. In a battlezone, an infantry force might have to do all of the following: establishing a base of fire; suppressing the enemy in and around the building; getting enough intel that they know if they can maneuver; isolating the target building; and arranging fire support for the entry team. That’s a lot of preparation. In a standard urban hostage crisis context, the key points are the features we saw yesterday. Establishing a secure base, gathering intel, isolating the target building, and supporting the entry team…”
She then spent a lot of time going over the points and showing video footage of us to point out where we covered the key points, and where we dropped the ball. The intelligence-gathering and Fey’s isolation spell were apparently her favorite parts.
Since almost half of the seventeen points on the handout were concerned with the building-entry and clearing that first room without getting everyone killed, that made the list a bit more manageable. Everheart read parts of everyone’s reports, and there were an interesting variety of suggested approaches.
The S.T.A.R.s proposed using Psymod to psychically find where the terrorists had positions, with Wallflower using her invisibility bit to slip the entire team inside. They also proposed short-distance teleporting to get around any obstacles or to get behind enemy firepower.
The Vindicators proposed using Kismet’s magic and Lemure’s phasing power to gather their intel. Then Kismet would blast the entry porch, while Sizemax threw Donner and Captain Canada through the porch and into the living room. Ouch. They really seemed to be attached to the ‘Sizemax throws someone’ tactic.
Outcast Corner decided they were a ‘no-go’, but it was pretty obvious from what they had written that Eldritch knew way too much about building entry issues. Where the hell had she learned all that stuff?
The Power Cats proposed using Redlight’s PDP abilities and Juryrig’s devises to gather intel. Then they proposed using Redlight’s paralysis attack and Diva’s sonic stun to take out the terrorists.
The Omega Squad planned to use Confundus’ PDP abilities and Blacklight’s darkness powers to gather intel. Then they intended to attack from all sides simultaneously, with Confundus doing a PDP supergirl bit to burst into the hostage room, and her illusion powers to make the terrorists think the hostages were running out of the room through the door. Meanwhile, Eruption would blast the bad guys in the front of the building, Blacklight would pop into the basement to take out the bombers, Crimson would fly in to blast the guy in the kitchen, and Grapple would hold back for support wherever needed. Everheart and Eldritch both got all over them for splitting their forces like that. I personally thought it was less about splitting their forces, and more about never having a combined force at the start. We had a couple ‘cowboys’ on our team who were perfectly ready to take off after a badguy at the drop of a sombrero, but Omega Squad seemed to be a gang of cowboys with no team.
And the Elite League proposed using Spellbinder to magically gather intel. They decided they were a ‘no-go’. I was privately guessing they made that call primarily because they were lazy dorks. They certainly had enough firepower to rescue those hostages if they needed to.
Once Bardue dismissed us, Jericho made his way over to our group. I figured he wanted to talk to Fey about Voodoo-wolf problems, but he made a beeline for me. “Uhh, Phase? Got a sec?”
I shrugged. “For you? Sure.” He looked really uncomfortable, so I gave him an out. “Boy, that Eldritch sure knows her stuff. Did you know you had Captain Tactical on your team?”
He sort of smiled, “Yeah, that was kind of a shock. I guess we‘re still learning about her, just like she’s still learning about us. So far, I figure she’s had to put up with a hell of a lot more shit from our side.”
I grinned at him, “You? Causing people trouble? I can’t imagine that.” Of course, he was doing it right that second, since he was wearing an outfit that was brutally eye-watering. Between the orange-and-puce plaid kilt and the green-and-red striped shirt and the purple-checked kneesocks, he was a walking commercial for the newest anti-nausea drug. I was going to have to pull out my anti-Jericho visor in another thirty seconds.
He gave me a little grin and said, “Okay, I just came over to apologize. Sorry I was so crabby yesterday in the lab. It’s my goddamn field emitter on my Rafe armor. I’ve fixed it three times now, and it still keeps cooking off.”
I said, “Maybe that’s because you’re hitting it with battle conditions that nothing ought to be able to survive. We are talking you-know-whats here, right?”
He frowned, “No, I ought to be able to make the frigging thing keep working. I’ll get it, sooner or later…” He walked off and joined his team, who had been patiently waiting for him.
OVERCLOCK AND MAKE
Overclock glanced at Make, who was once again geeking out over source code. But in a good way. Overclock really hated that Hartford bitch, but he’d give his left nut to be able to code like her. Word was running around the Workshop that Hartford was going to mentor the new kid, that freaky Were-chick. Paige, or Paget, or something like that. He didn’t know whether to feel really sorry for the kid or to hate her with a fiery passion for getting a mentor like Hartford.
Make looked up and grinned, “Found it!”
Make nodded like a puppy. “Oh yeah. I’d never be able to find it if she didn’t code like… Like… Like she’s the Lady Astarte of programming. But it’s right here. We re-set this to zero, and it’ll disable the ‘chickenshit’ button. Nobody’ll be able to press the release button and drop out of the sim. We’ve got ‘em!”
“Perfect!” Overclock crowed. “Now look at this! I figured out how to read their initial scans into a temporary template for each of ‘em, and then we feed the templates into this here.” He pointed at an array of object calls he had set up.
Make looked it over. “Whoa. You mean we can feed a fake simulation to the control booth?”
“Oh yeah,” Overclock smirked. “The sim monkeys’ll think the Kimboids are prancing around in the Whateley campus ‘baby steps’ sim, and they won’t be any the wiser until long after we’ve totally boned those bitches. I get this up and running today on our power laptop, we bring the laptop along with us tomorrow, and we hook it up into the auxiliary systems circuits. Instant fake-out.”
“That is so cool,” muttered Make.
“And y’know what else?” Overclock smirked. “The plan on Tennyo is a go. She's history. She’ll be batshit crazy after tomorrow, and she’ll be going down for murder. At least one murder. Even if she doesn’t blow up the whole wing and kill all her teammates, she’s gonna be in ARC Black Section for the rest of her frikkin’ life.”
“Dude! You are a genius!”