Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy: (Chap 5)
Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy / Part 5
Ayla and the Great Shoulder Angel Conspiracy
by Diane Castle (with assorted angelic and demonic assistance)
Chapter 5 - Hashmallim
I had managed to skim through all the highlights of the binder, and so I was relaxing with a delicious lunch before moving off to Shakespeare class and martial arts. As far as I could tell, the secret was that the sim designer had already set up pretty much every superpower you could think of - at least, the observable effects, if not the underlying cause. So all of Aquerna’s power set was in there, even if no one had specifically said “okay, here’s what to do if you have the spirit of the squirrel.” They even had GSD features, and other potential power downsides, in their files. Plus, they had a secure on-line point-and-click interface on the Whateley intranet that we could use to set up the files. All I had to do now was talk the team into going along with me on this.
Oh yeah, like that ever worked.
Well, I’d try not to worry about that before the meeting in my room tonight. I had plenty of stuff to address before then. Starting with the salad from Chef Peter. The greens were a lush mixture of tastes and textures. The mix was about half baby spinach, maybe a quarter arugula, and the rest was a variety of baby lettuces with some frisée and radicchio tossed in as well. On top of that bed of greenery were a scattering of coarsely chopped toasted walnuts, some crumbled Gorgonzola, and quartered figs. I was pretty sure they were Calimyrna figs or a similar variety, and they had been poached in port wine and then quartered. On top of all that was a warm port wine vinaigrette. I was guessing from the rich mouthfeel and density of the dressing that the base was a port reduction. Then Peter had obviously used extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar with the port. And I was pretty sure there was a little added sugar in there too.
They also had buffalo burgers on the menu, in addition to the usual wad-of-cow-on-a-bun, and so I was enjoying a half a buffalo burger on a Kaiser roll with some stone-ground mustard. I had picked up some oak leaf lettuce and sliced Roma tomatoes from the salad bar, instead of using the rather blah fixings that came with the burger. Just as I had skipped the ketchup and mayonnaise, and opted for some hot tomato chutney from the vegetables table. The burger was really good - the buffalo was rich and meaty, without being gamey or tough - but it was more than I wanted to eat. So I gave Tennyo the other half. She inhaled it with a quick ‘thank you’. Along with about ten sandwich halves and a logjam of burritos. I think it took her longer to say the thank-you than it did to wolf down the burger.
As we ate, I looked around at the shoulder angels all over the caff. It looked like the Alphas had put pressure on Greasy to build some different models, because Solange and her posse had their own little Barbie-doll shoulder angels that definitely weren’t Solange or Fey or me.
Before I could say anything, Lancer murmured, “Hey Fey, can you scry the Alphas and then pipe it through the Spots again?”
Fey sighed, but did it.
Suddenly, we could hear what Tansy and her buddies were saying. And what their shoulder angels were saying. Solange had a pair of snotty, bitter Majestic shoulder angels that were spending their time complaining that not enough people wanted to worship them. Flicker had a pair of bickering, nasty Traduce shoulder angels that kept threatening to fire each other for incompetence. Fade had a pair of stupid, clumsy Tumbler shoulder angels that kept whining things like ‘ow, I think I pulled my groin!’ and ‘I fell down and hurt my heinie!’ The Alpha girls were giggling madly at the antics of their shoulder angels.
Man, at this rate, there was going to be open shoulder-angel warfare around here by dinner time.
Tennyo stopped to swallow, and asked, “How much trouble are the Alphas getting Greasy into? The Golds and the Uber-Jocks and the New Olympians are gonna be after his ass for this.”
I said, “I think I can protect Greasy from the Golds. Except for Traduce herself. She’s not exactly Miss Manners, you know. She’ll probably try to hire someone to go punch him in the mouth. Of course, knowing Traduce, she’ll probably piss off her hired muscle so bad that he’d rather punch her in the mouth.”
Lancer frowned, “I really doubt anyone can protect him from the Olympians. Maybe not even Thuban.”
Generator said, “I’ll tell Stephen anyway. He listens when I talk, unlike some people.”
Chaka couldn’t resist saying, “Huh? Did you say something?”
Fey giggled, while Generator frowned at Chaka.
On my way to Shakespeare class, my cellphone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and glanced at the screen. It said ‘Admin’ and was showing the symbol for ‘Encryption Level 3’, but this was my Bunny-phone from Toni, and it was smart enough to also be flashing a little red bar that said ‘redirect’. So this call was not coming from Admin.
I answered in a fake secretarial voice, “A. J. Goodkind and Associates, Financial Management. ‘Management that makes sense in a modern world.’ How may we help you?”
A voice I recognized said coolly, “May I speak to Ms. Goodkind?”
I couldn’t keep the grin off my face as I said, “I’ll connect you immediately, Mr. Lee.”
I paused, dropped into my normal voice, and said, “Phase here. Is this Thuban?”
Thuban answered, “Nice, Phase. You almost had me fooled. You should try putting some harmonics on your phone when you do that ‘secretary’ routine, so voice-ID software won’t match it as your voice instantly.”
I couldn’t help grinning. “I doubt I’ll bother. It’ll be simpler just to hire an executive secretary. I only did it for a little fun, because I could tell you were re-routing the call through Admin to cover your tracks.”
Thuban said, “You should think about re-routing your calls too. Anyone with a decent hacker on his payroll can tell who you’ve been calling. All the Whateley long-distance calls go through the Berlin system, and its phone records are pathetically insecure. Their security is so bad that I can't even tell how many times people have hacked their record system.”
I grinned again as I walked. I fibbed a little, “That’s fine by me. All my calls are on the up-and-up. If some of the devisers want to check up on me, I want them to be able to see that I’ve been playing fair. If they’re worrying about whether I’m trustworthy, then I want them to see that I’m dealing with real patent attorneys and real financial management entities.” I didn’t bother to point out that a couple of my calls were to uninteresting companies that were actually dummy entities, so no one could track my calls about the upcoming IPO, or my dealings with Trin and Macintyre.
Thuban said, “I want you to know that I will meet with you after all. Jade was rather... persuasive. Come into Twain the usual way, right after sixth period.”
I told him, “First, I’ll be there ten or fifteen minutes after sixth period ends, because I need to shower and change clothes before I rush over to Twain.”
So I said, “And second, you need to have Knick-Knack at the meeting.”
He paused. “And why is that?”
I frowned, “For the obvious reason, which I’m not going to say over the phone. I’m not playing a game or trying to be subtle. You need Knick-Knack there, so we can have an efficient discussion about one of my major points.”
He said, “I’ll see if he is available then.” Which meant he would think about whether or not to ask Knick-Knack to be there.
I tucked my gear into the locker in the women instructors’ locker room before I headed over to English class. And, just as I closed the locker, there was a firm little “ahem” from behind me.
I slowly turned around, making sure not to make any moves that might be interpreted as hostile. A slim Japanese woman who looked mid-thirties - not that that meant anything around Whateley - was glaring at me with a frown that promised instant death in the very near future. “Who are you? And what do you think you are doing in this locker room?”
I said, “I’m Phase.” I figured I had better not tell her my real name. “Sensei Tolman and soke Ito have given me permission to use the showers in here, because… Well, I’m intersexed. I have male privates between my legs, so I can’t really use the girls’ showers.”
“Ahh,” she nodded in understanding. “You’re the ladyboy Amanda was talking about.”
Ladyboy? I tried not to wince. Didn’t ‘ladyboy’ mean that I was trying my darnedest to go from a boy to a girl? I politely asked, “And you are…?”
“I am sensei Tetsuko,” she said firmly.
“Ahh,” I said. “Chaka and Bladedancer said you teach Kempo and Kyudo.”
“Chaka and Bladedancer?” she said with interest. “You are one of the Team Kimba.”
I wondered who was talking about us. I hoped it wasn’t Carson. I switched to Japanese, “Yes. We seem to be attracting attention from many different directions.”
She smiled at that. “Amanda did say that one of the new students spoke Japanese quite well.”
“For a gaijin,” I shrugged. “I know enough to make some polite conversation, and conduct a little business, but I’m hardly fluent.”
She smiled a little at that. “And so you are in the locker room because…”
“Because I need to leave my sixth period stuff here now. I have an English class for the next two periods, and then I won’t have enough time to run back to my dorm to collect my gi and other things.”
She cautiously said, “That makes sense.”
Okay, I was a Goodkind. I could be up to all kinds of nefarious anti-mutant naughtiness. So I showed her the gi, the reinforced sports bra, and the athletic cup. She stared in confusion at the combination of a bra and an athletic cup, until she remembered my ‘physical challenges’, so to speak.
At least I got out of the locker room without getting pounded into a gooey pulp, or being shot full of arrows by a Kyudo master. After that, I felt confident that Shakespeare class would have to be an improvement.
I sat down near the front of the room with Silver Serpent and her friend Quyèn Nũ. I’d taken the time to look up the words, and I was sure it was her codename, and fairly sure it meant something like ‘Power Lady’ or ‘Power Girl’ in Vietnamese. A good name, as long as it didn’t set off the legal staff over at DC Comics.
By the time Miss Devlin came in with an armload of handouts, the class was pretty well situated. It looked like a couple of the whiners had dropped the class, which was fine by me.
Miss Devlin started passing out the handouts, and she gave us a big smile. “Now then. Shakespeare was considered to be one of great comedy writers of his time. Sort of the Neil Simon or Joss Whedon of his day. But finding that humor is difficult, because we have to break a barrier. Not the sound barrier, but the language barrier. Everyone says that Shakespeare wrote English, but what he wrote isn’t modern English. Not quite, anyway.
“He wrote in what the linguists like to call Early Modern English. For us, that means that there are basically three factors that make life hard for today’s reader. There’s his use of what are now obsolete words; there’s a handout listing most of the ones we’ll see in our six plays. There is the order of sentence wording; the second handout is on Early Modern English grammar, so you can see how his sentence order can be flipped around into something closer to our modern sentence order. And finally, there are the tons of puns he used. A lot of these puns don’t come through to the reader anymore. That’s because, just like today’s puns, his puns usually depended on the meanings of words, the pronunciation of words, and the connotations of words. You have a handout on Shakespearean puns too.
“So today I’m going to talk about these three factors, and you can read over these handouts this weekend. If you learn some of the Early Modern English word meanings, sentence structure, and puns, then you’ll be able to understand these plays more, and better appreciate Shakespeare's work. And note that a lot of the word meanings and puns relate to certain body parts and doing naughty things with those body parts.”
Then she spent the rest of the class going through large parts of the handouts, explaining the concepts for the Shakespeare newbies. My favorite of her ‘word meaning’ examples was the classic line from ‘Hamlet’ Act I, where Hamlet says, “I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!” That makes a lot more sense if you know that back then, ‘let’ meant ‘hinder’, instead of ‘allow’.
She had a lot of bad puns on the ‘puns’ handout. Well, there are a lot of bad puns in Shakespeare. The first couple were easy. She started with the opening of ‘Richard III’: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York,” which becomes a bad pun as soon as you know that king Richard III was the youngest son of the Duke of York.
The puns gradually grew more complex. The line from ‘Henry IV, Part One’, “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion” works as a pun once someone explains that the word ‘reason’ was pronounced ‘raisin’ in Shakespeare's day, because it hadn’t evolved that far from the French word ‘raison’.
Then the puns and wordplay got to the bawdy areas. Several guys at the back of the room started paying more attention. She started out with the classic “get thee to a nunnery” from ‘Hamlet’; she went past Sampson spouting “Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt”; and even covered a couple bits of naughtiness using words that no longer have anything to do with sex, like ‘time’ and ‘dial’.
By the time she ended the class, some of the guys in the back were even focusing on her lecture. As she dismissed us, she reminded everyone, “In addition to the handouts, read ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by Monday. The literary criticism papers are now available in the library. Read them after you read the plays.”
At the rate I was going, I was going to have to map out a schedule just to have enough time to get the handouts and literary criticisms read.
After the highlights of English class, martial arts was a downer. Sensei Beaumont made us move to another dojo to practice our forms, so I couldn’t see Toni cranking it up with the meteor hammer. I hated to say it, but that was a smart move on Beaumont’s part.
Once class was over, I rushed to get showered and changed. Then I headed down into the tunnels. The access tunnel to Twain was more convenient than walking the cold, snowy paths. I just made a phone call.
“This is Thuban. What is the problem, Phase?”
“Oh nothing,” I said. “I just wanted to give you a heads-up that I was on my way, and that I was taking the tunnels.” I had to keep the smile off my face at his effort to control the conversation.
“I’ll have Carapace meet you at the tunnel entrance.”
“Oh, that’ll be fine,” I replied. I found it really amusing that Mister Must-Control-Everything had acquired a girlfriend who was pretty much the opposite of that. I even knew about the shoulder angel prank on Thuban last night, since Jade and Tennyo had been arguing about it at breakfast.
I caught up with Kludge, who was motoring back to Twain, and I chatted with him about his shoulder angels. I noticed that one of them had fired off its little missiles, but he didn’t want to talk about whether he had managed to blow up Juryrig’s shoulder angels. I figured that meant ‘big lose’. Juryrig probably had some anti-missile gear in place.
When we got to Twain, Carapace was waiting for me. I grinned at him, “Hi. Did you have any entertainment after Thuban’s big date?”
He broke into a huge smirk. “Jade tell you all about it?”
I admitted, “No, but she was arguing with Tennyo about it this morning. Seems Tennyo thought she went too far, but you know Jade. The only fun is big fun.”
He murmured, “Try not to bring it up. I sort of laughed. For a really long time. Really loud, too. He’s a little touchy about it right now.”
Since the Twain tunnel opens into the Twain basement, we only had those few seconds before Carapace was opening a basement door into a room that couldn’t possibly fit in the Twain basement. Jade had refused to talk about Thuban’s power set, but I had gotten Thuban’s powers testing information from Hillary Newman. He was a really high-end internal/external size Warper. And I had seen Jade using her purse of holding. (Not that I didn’t trust Thuban completely, or anything. Just because I was meeting him on his own turf, with no back-up…)
So the meeting room was a high-ceilinged room that was about sixty feet on a side. Assuming Thuban could achieve roughly the same scale of ‘expansion’ as Möbius, this could have started out as a janitor’s closet.
I looked around casually. He had a big-screen television off to one side, and several tables folded up on the other side of the room, next to some stacks of chairs. But the room was currently set up for The Power Meeting. He was sitting in a tall wingback chair that was only a little gilding away from being a throne. Knick-Knack was in a less impressive chair off to Thuban’s right. And in front of the ‘throne’ was a chair.
A massive chair. It looked like the chair they used for Igneous and Montana. It looked like it was built out of industrial steel, with minimally-padded surfaces. The chair arms were about five feet apart, and the seat was about three feet above the floor. If I sat in it, I’d look like a third-grader. Which was undoubtedly the whole idea.
I went somewhat heavy as I walked up to the chair, and I said, “Thuban. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I know you didn’t really want to.” Then I turned and looked at the chair and pretended to see it for the first time. “Oh! A couch? For me? Thanks!” I hopped into the chair and stretched out, my head nearly touching the right chair arm, while my feet just rested on the left chair arm. I put my hands under my head and said, “This is great. You’re not going to ask me to tell you about my childhood traumas, are you?”
Thuban said, “No, and I seldom charge a large fee, since I don’t have a degree in psychiatry.”
I grinned at him. “That doesn’t stop a lot of practitioners. Did you know that Dr. Laura’s Ph.D. is in physiology? She’s as much of a doctor as Filbert Quintain.”
He looked like he wasn’t getting the reaction from me that he had wanted. But it was pretty hard to tell, since he didn’t give away much. I said, “I’ll make this succinct. I have several subjects I want to discuss, but the reason I wanted Knick-Knack here is that I want a chance in the BIT-slicer.”
Knick-Knack looked surprised. Thuban gave me the Great Stone Face. He snapped, “No. The BIT-slicer is not for pretties like you. It’s for Faction Three!”
I went on, “If you consider me a ‘pretty’, then you have a pretty narrow view of the world.” Thuban just glared at me. “Look, I already have an Exemplar in mind. I already know that the trial with Jello didn’t work, and the trial with Generator was... horrible. I don’t know who else you’ve tried it on. I also know that there may be a problem you haven’t yet analyzed.”
Knick-Knack latched onto the technical part. “What problem are you talking about? We know about the fast reversion in Jello’s case, and the long-term reversion in Generator’s case. What do you think we missed?”
I pointed out, “If you have film footage of the audience during Tennyo’s Combat Final, you’ll see something strange. Jade felt the impact when the simulation put a large-caliber round through Billie’s shoulder. She felt the pain! And so did Jinn! Which ought to be impossible! I think your BIT-slicer made some sort of long-term connection between their BITs, so that Billie’s pain actually transmitted across that connection. Which could be very, very bad for anyone else using your BIT-slicer.”
Knick-Knack thought it over for long seconds. “I’d have to check the film footage and see if I can verify that. But I really doubt that’s what happened. We’ve tried six BIT-slices, and no one else has had that problem. I think it’s a lot more likely it’s related to Tennyo’s non-human physiology, or possibly even something else about Tennyo we don’t understand.”
Oh God. What if it were related to the Starstalker thing? I wished I knew more about that, and not just some unfounded rumors I’d heard from untrusted sources.
I pushed on, “So. Six trials. Who else besides Jello and Generator?”
Thuban glared at Knick-Knack for a second before he started damage control. “That’s not really relevant here. And I respect the privacy of my clients.”
I smiled, “Let me see. It’s been months since you tested this on Eleanor and Jade. Both were technically failures. So you’re still in beta-test mode on this device. Let me guess. You had four more dismal failures, and you’re still trying to solve problems.”
Thuban didn’t give anything away. Of course.
Knick-Knack did. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted his reaction. I caught his expression. He wanted to discuss the progress of the invention, and he wanted to talk about what went wrong. He didn’t want to defend his program’s track record. So I was figuring that my guess was correct.
I pretended that I hadn’t been looking for that confirmation, and I explained to Thuban, “You see, the numbers are indicative. If you were having successes, you’d be running every Faction Three kid with a bad BIT through that devise. Igneous and Tisiphone would be walking around looking like Stormwolf and Mindbird. If you were even running a success rate of twenty or thirty percent, you’d still be trying to fix as many kids as you could. But I haven’t seen anyone around here who’s changed. You have no successes yet.”
Thuban still didn’t react. Man, I’d hate to play poker against him.
Knick-Knack burst out, “You see, it’s related to the accessibility of the BIT. I think we’ve proven that it can’t be maintained solely in the DNA, or even in a locally compact subspace around the person, or we could have changed it. We’ve run enough power through the system to change every DNA strand in Paris, and we still couldn’t effect a permanent change. In fact, we still haven’t figured out why Generator’s change stuck for more than a couple hours, and then changed back so drastically.”
I told him, “Generator and Tennyo may be an exception to the rule, for more than one reason. There’s a real possibility that the reason Generator suddenly lost her physical form is - not because of a problem with the BIT-slicer - but because she had a very nasty encounter with Hekate.”
Knick-Knack looked grim. “Hekate.” He said the name with the loathing that most people would use when they said ‘Hitler’. “I’m glad she’s no longer around. Back in fall term, Majestic was talking about having a problem with her and perhaps having to deal with the little witch.”
So Majestic was talking to Knick-Knack. Or at least talking in his presence. Which suggested that I was correct on one of my stupid ideas about the little group Imperious and Majestic had put together. I’d think about that when I had time. But not now.
“Yeah, well it wasn’t Majestic that got rid of Hekate,” I told him. I wasn’t going to tell him what had actually happened.
Thuban tried not to lean forward in interest. I wasn’t going to tell him either. I’d let him spend a lot of resources prying into Whateley files. I already knew that none of the relevant details were in there.
Knick-Knack said, “Hmm. The trials we did with-”
“STOP!” insisted Thuban. “I don’t want you giving her any further information!”
“Why not?” I asked. “I can find out who your four other test subjects were if I want to expend the resources. We both know that. But it shouldn’t matter. I only want you to try it out on me. You were willing to let Jade take a spin in it, and we both know she has a problem like mine.”
He insisted, “Jade’s case was... different. I wanted her to do something for me, and the BIT-slicer was... a bargaining chip.”
If he didn’t want to tell me the whole truth about him and Jade, that was fine. I got TMI from Jade all too often. I really didn’t want to hear his side of things. I replied, “So let me move to the next subject. Bargaining chips. I think this is where you thank Knick-Knack for coming, and ask him to leave.”
He figured it out just as quickly as I expected. He turned to Knick-Knack and smoothly said, “Ahh, I believe that you are not going to want to be present for the next part of this discussion, so you are free to get back to work.”
Knick-Knack nodded, “Good. I have a really full task list right now, and meetings like this just waste my time.” He limped out and closed the door behind him.
Thuban turned back to me and demonstrated that he knew exactly what I had meant. “I would like to separate all discussion of funding for Bio-Regenetics from our discussion about the BIT-slicer. At least for the moment.”
I agreed, “That’s fine with me.” He just didn’t want to be blackmailed into letting me use his toy. I could understand that.
I told him, “Jade and Billie talk too much around their trusted friends. As you already know. So I know that you can use a lot more funding for Bio-Regenetics. Based on what I know of the pharmaceutical industry, even with Igor Gellmar running your project you can expect to need one to three more years of research on the principles, another one to five years of research on effective delivery methods, up to five years more on animal testing and human trials, and then a minimum of one year in the FDA’s process before they give you an okay. Plus additional FDA work for every new delivery system Bio-Regenetics invents. So you’re looking at somewhere between four and sixteen years before this pays off. Granted, once it pays off, everyone on the planet is going to want it. You’ll be incredibly wealthy. But in the meantime, you have bills to pay. And my people tell me that you’ll be financially stretched if this runs longer than five years. You need venture capital. From me.”
He didn’t like my summation, and he didn’t like hearing that I could collect that kind of information on him. His face didn’t show it, but he took too long to answer me.
He sounded calm as he said, “No. I don’t want to be trapped in the standard venture capital contracts.”
I nodded, “Smart man. A typical venture capitalist would hit you with a term sheet that would take you a month to read, and he’d be ready to fire you as soon as things looked rough. Not to mention that a VC would replace you with a well-known pharma executive as soon as Bio-Regenetics moved to the trial phases, or the post-FDA marketing phases. We both know you need maybe forty million dollars over the next eight years, and probably four times that over the following eight years. There’s no one on earth who’s going to cough up that kind of capital without taking over your company, not to mention your soul. Except me.”
“And why would you want to put that kind of money into my company?” he asked suspiciously.
I told him. “First, I want to make sure that Billie and Jade are protected. If you go belly up, all their work - and all their worth - is worth nothing. Someone else comes along, walks off with Gellmar’s research and the remains of the buildings, and cheats all of you out of what you deserve. Second, you have most of what classic VC’s are looking for. They want a proven team, with proven technology, in a proven market. You have the proven research team in Gellmar, even if you don’t have a proven management team. Which, frankly, is going to be a major problem for you in two to five years. You have the technology and the tech development staff. And you have an obvious market. Every person on the planet will want this, even if they haven’t gotten hurt yet. Plus, I can afford to lose forty million in a failed company.”
He said, “I agree so far. But you haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know.”
I nodded. “Then let me simplify. Here’s my complete list of requirements in order for you to get my forty mil.”
I pulled the envelope out of my utility belt and tossed it to him. He frowned as he opened it and began reading. It was extremely short, so I knew it would only take him a couple seconds.
He looked up and asked, “This is it?”
He insisted, “I was going to do this anyway.”
I said, “I was hoping you were, but I just want to have this down, so Jade’s protected.” My requirements were really simple. First, as much as he could, he should keep Jade from getting hurt in the regen tests. Second, he shouldn’t dump her for some bimbo. And third, he needed to hire appropriate management and oversight for the trial and marketing phases.
He said, “I assumed the BIT-slicer would be one of your demands.”
I shrugged a little. “What would be the point? You could just tell Knick-Knack to fake a run-through when I was in the machine. Or you could use it to kill me in a ‘really tragic accident’. There’s no point in trying to force you into something like that.”
He looked at the paper again. “I accept. We’ll need to draw up a legal document that satisfies all parties.”
“Of course,” I nodded. “I’ve already got some people working on it, and once I have it back, you can forward it to your lawyers for review and amendment.”
He stared at the paper again. “Agreed.” He took a deep breath and said, And you’ll be able to try the BIT-slicer in a week or so. I let you know when.”
I didn’t leap up and do a victory dance. I didn’t scream or anything like that. I just said, “Thanks. I appreciate it.” I just kept reminding myself that it hadn’t worked for anyone yet, so the odds of a success in my case were ridiculously low.
Instead, I tried to focus on the rest of my private agenda. I asked him, “Have you thought about coming to the next Golden Kids soiree? It’s the 20th. I’m hosting.”
He frowned, “I don’t think I’d be welcome, and I certainly don’t think I would enjoy it.”
“Well, you’d be a lot more welcome if you’d stop snubbing everyone else,” I pointed out. Then I pushed, “And you might want to come, just to make sure Jade’s okay, since she’s going to be doing the set-up and break-down, plus waitressing… In a really cute French maid’s uniform.”
He really glared at me, obviously figuring I was taking advantage of Jade to get at him. But he didn’t say it out loud. He just thought it really loudly.
I smirked, “Or you might want to come and see Megs and Delta in similar outfits. And Toni and Vanessa. Plus, Billie and Nikki might do it too.”
“Tennyo?” he gasped. “You’re letting her loose in a Golden Kids meeting?”
“Why not?” I shrugged as blithely as I could manage. “They’re my friends. They’re doing it as a favor.” I slipped into a confidential tone and said, “Actually, it’s a cover. We’re slipping Vanessa in to see if we can ‘voice’ Glitch out of drinking like a fish for the night.”
I watched the wheels spinning behind his eyes. He was trying to figure out what part of that was a lie, and why I was lying to him about it.
Was this what people thought I was like? Come to think of it, was this what I was like? I sure seemed to spend a lot of my time trying to out-think and out-maneuver a lot of people on campus. Maybe I needed to get out more.
We ended up talking a lot about Tansy’s new rule of the Alphas. Thuban didn’t believe they really had turned over a new leaf. I had to agree with him on that one.
He grumbled, “The Alphas are already after me to keep ‘my uglies’ away from their big party.”
I snarked, “Isn’t that the whole Faction Three concept? Your own private world where you don’t have to put up with the scorn and hatred of the pretties?” Okay, I shouldn’t have said it. I know.
He frowned, “Not exactly.”
I said, “Yeah, I know. They’re herding you into a big pen where you can’t scare them.”
He nodded angrily, “And they’re pretending to cut back on what they like to call ‘pranking’. That makes it sound so innocent and harmless.”
Now that got my interest. “Have they cut back?”
He gave me a tiny nod. “For now. I have to wonder if it’s a ploy to trick everyone so they can pull something on a lot of students all at once. Or something worse.”
I told him, “I have the same suspicions. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”
“And why would you do that?” he snapped in a tone that clearly indicated that I was a ‘pretty’ and there was no reason I would do something for one of the ‘uglies’ without an underlying reason.
I gave him a nasty glare, but I answered anyway. “Three reasons. One, Jade really cares about you, and she’s my friend. Two, I expect reciprocity in any agreement I make. And three, I still haven’t thanked you for screwing over the Good Ol’ Boyz so thoroughly with that recording of me and Jadis.”
“A recording? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he insisted calmly.
I smiled, “Of course not.”
On my way back to Poe through the tunnels, when no one was anywhere nearby, I did give in and do a little victory dance. I was getting my hopes up. I knew it. This was stupid. No matter how many times I told myself that I had an absurdly low chance of a success with that BIT-slicer, some part of me kept shouting that at least I had a chance. I finally had a chance!
It took forever to get the grin off my face. I was nearly back at Poe before I felt like my facial muscles were doing what I told them to.
By the time I skimmed through the holographic simulations binder for Warper powers and used the on-line system to create a file for my own powers, it was time to go eat dinner. I trooped over with the gang, and we mainly talked about the shoulder angels.
Because the stupid things were all over the place. Devisers and gadgeteers were all wearing them. It seemed like half the campus was wearing a set of the invented shoulder angels. And it seemed like most of the rest of the campus had their own shoulder angels. Fey was wearing a set of her ‘Queen of the Sidhe’ shoulder angels that were intimidating the crap out of anyone who came near us. But as we crossed the Quad, I saw those TNT idiots wearing shoulder angels and getting into an argument with Bravo and his Pinhead Patrol, who were also wearing shoulder angels. They launched into a brawl before we got into the Crystal Hall. Since the Quad was one of the most-monitored areas on campus, I knew Security would be there ASAP.
In the caff, it was armed shoulder-angel warfare. The Alphas were sitting at their table, and they were all wearing Majestic or Traduce or Tumbler or Glorianna shoulder angels. Several Good Ol’ Boyz and Uber-Jocks were wearing Solange shoulder angels. Majestic and Imperious were wearing their Greek Gods shoulder angels and pointedly ignoring what was going on around them. A Security officer was talking to a grouchy Uber-Jock who was facing off against Farrago, and two Security officers were on the other side of the caff, trying to calm down what looked like a shoulder-angel disagreement between one of the Good Ol’ Boyz and one of the Berets. It looked like it was only going to take one more ill-timed snark from someone’s shoulder angels to start a small war all across the Crystal Hall.
I tried to ignore all the shoulder-angel hostility as I made my way through the food lines. But it looked like Kludge and a couple of his pals were about to declare open warfare on Juryrig and a couple of her pals, starting with the launch of shoulder-angel ICBMs. I just hoped I could get my dinner before it became too dangerous for the workers to serve the food.
I saw Chef Peter waiting for me at the doorway to the kitchens, so I headed his way. He had a plate of six gorgeously-browned miniature empanadas for me. I remembered his discussion with Marcel and André, so I was already sure the empanadas would be stuffed with red cabbage, blue cheese, and walnuts. I just didn’t know what seasoning they had chosen.
Peter smiled as he handed me the plate. The empanadas were arranged in pairs, with a different-colored toothpick for each pair. He murmured, “We couldn’t decide on the seasonings. Try them, and then come back and tell us which ones you liked the best. Okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed. I couldn’t help grinning at the prospect. I took the plate and made a beeline for the beverages, where I got a large glass of milk and a cup of green tea as palate cleansers.
On the way to our table, I had to go light with my tray to avoid a couple guys who were about to get into it over their shoulder angels. The Alpha wannabes with the vicious Traduce shoulder angels were about to start blasting the Golds wannabes with the slutty Solange shoulder angels. Or perhaps vice versa.
I tried to ignore all the tension in the caff while I did my taste testing. The vegetarian empanadas with the green toothpicks had a little jalapeno pepper and a dash of horseradish for seasoning. Very tasty. The ones with the yellow toothpicks omitted the horseradish, but added a dash of allspice and cumin. Muy bueno. But the ones with the blue toothpicks had cumin and just the right amount of dried canela. They were excellent.
Once I finished my dinner, I walked back to have a little conference with Chef Peter. He hurried out to ask, “Okay, which ones were the best?”
I tried not to smile as I told him, “I remember what you three were talking about yesterday, so I know the ones with horseradish were yours. They were really good, as were Marcel’s, but the ones with the dried canela were the best. At least, I thought so.”
He frowned a little, “Damn, that’s ten bucks I owe André.” Then he added, “Not a problem. We’ll go with André’s version for the meeting.”
I said, “That would be great. But really, any of the three would be terrific.”
Before I could say more, there was a sudden yell a couple tables behind me. I went light before I even turned around. A table of Emerson guys were yelling at some Twain boys who had two holographic projectors, and were putting naked shoulder angels on some of the Emerson shoulders. Apparently, the naked shoulder angels were girlfriends of a couple Emersonians, and it wasn’t a popular choice.
It was a good thing I was light, because it erupted into a wicked foodfight. A piece of chocolate cream pie went right through my blazer and smacked against the food table. Peter ran for the kitchen, while I dove through the floor to come up on the other side of the affray. Then I stayed light, just in case some more food came flying my way. It wasn’t like I was Mister Popularity with some of those guys.
Fey put up a magical screen around our table, while Tennyo and Lancer finished eating. Fortunately, even Tennyo had eaten enough, because the foodfight was spreading rapidly. We got out of the caff only seconds before two Security teams ran past us.
On the way back to Poe, I saw three - count ‘em, three - serious fights, all of which seemed to involve shoulder angels. One of them was N’Dizi and three other Tigers, fighting four Dragons. And most of them had shoulder angels. The Tigers had ‘stupid dragon’ shoulder angels, and the Dragons had ‘grungy tiger’ shoulder angels, so they were settling things with fists and feet. A Security team was running up to stop it before Team Kimba had much of an opportunity to intervene, so we let things go.
Way off to our left, there was a tangle of Whitman girls getting down and dirty with Dickinson girls, while their shoulder angels egged them all on. The Betas were breaking that one up.
And then there were three Ultraviolents with competing shoulder angels who were fighting each other. Fey hit them with a ‘stun’ spell that dropped them before they killed each other.
That didn’t even count what looked like Aquerna scrambling up a tree with Nate over her shoulder while a couple Uber-Jock bullies yelled at Nate about his shoulder angels. Lancer and Tennyo flew over and intimidated the crap out of those guys, and we moved on toward Poe.
This was getting out of hand in a major way. I wasn’t the only person who was thinking that. Chaka muttered, “Hey Jade, I thought Sara was supposed to be the great evil on campus.”
I agreed, “It looks to me like you’re going to get first prize in that category this term.”
“Hey!” Jade squawked, “I just had one funny idea! I didn’t make people beat each other up over this stuff!”
“Yeah, lay off,” said Tennyo protectively.
When we got into Poe, things weren’t a whole lot better. Mrs. Horton was separating Delta Spike and Electrode, who were having a yelling match about Delta’s shoulder angels. Which were sparking angrily as the yelling continued. It might have been that the sparking was what started the argument.
We convened in my room, and I started some microwave popcorn, while Fey did her Gandalf bit so the room was magically secure.
Chaka waited a couple seconds before snarking, “Chief, I demand the Cone of Silence!” I snickered, while a couple people gave her confused looks.
Once I had two bags of popcorn for the heavy eaters, with a third one nuking in the microwave, and Chou finished distributing the tangerines, I started the conference.
Chaka opened her mouth again, so I pointed at her and insisted, “No, one of us is NOT the murderer.”
Fey snarked, “Well, I’ll try harder next time.”
While two people tried not to laugh with a mouth full of popcorn, I explained, “Everheart gave me the Big Book O’ Holo Sim Fun, and I’ve been reading through it.”
Tennyo swallowed popcorn and then said, “Yeah, we sort of noticed that, when I had to carry you to class.”
I went on, “The binder is huge, but I think we’re in really good shape for tomorrow. We’ve all done the other arenas before, so we understand what we’re facing. We have special suits that’ll be ready for those of us who need special accommodations.”
“Isn’t that what they say about handicapped people?” Lancer asked.
I nodded. “In our case, that means making sure Shroud and Generator can use their J-Team vision, Fey can use her empathy and see ley lines, and Chaka can see lines of Ki. Between the special stuff Cecilia put in the J-Team suits, and the visors they’ll have for us, we should be set on those. Not to mention that Cecilia said our suits would look better than the standard suits.” I added, “There isn’t anything in the manual for sensing the Tao. Sorry, Chou.”
Chou shrugged, “It is not as if the Tao will come and aid me in a simulation, Ayla.”
I said, “But we ought to talk to Everheart about it, because you can’t have a meaningful simulation if you can’t ever sense the flow of the Tao, or get empowered by the Tao, or any of that stuff.”
She shook her head no. “I do not think that a holographic simulation is the way I should be training anyway. I suggest we drop this.”
“Okay. For now,” I gave in. Sort of. “But we just need to fill out the on-line forms they have for powers and disabilities, and we’ll be halfway ready for tomorrow. The other thing we need to do is have our holdouts - that includes Destiny’s Wave, by the way – with us at the sim center in the morning, so they can scan everything and verify an ‘auxiliary’ file for each of us.”
“We have two different files?” checked Tennyo.
“Yeah,” I said. “One for our intrinsic powers. The stuff that never changes. That goes into a high-security file that nobody can peek in. And one for whichever holdouts we’re lugging around. That’s a less secure file that we can mod every time we do a holo sim.”
Lancer asked, “So what if someone loads his or her file with everything under the sun? You know. Warper-7, Regen-7, PK-7, PDP-7/7/7, Wizard-7, and so on?”
I smiled, “That’s where the oversight comes in. We send these files off, and Everheart does the verification, then encodes them so no one else gets to study them.”
Tennyo grumbled, “My power set probably won’t even fit in the thing.”
I smiled, “According to the section on the format of the files, it ought to.”
“You read the section on the file formats?” Generator gasped.
“Damn girl, you need to lighten up a little,” Chaka added.
“That does seem a bit much,” Chou agreed.
I turned on my computer and logged onto the intranet site with the forms. The binder had directions for getting to the right webpages, and negotiating the complex security measures someone like Hartford had put in place. That included three passwords that were in the binder, plus a test-and-response check that it was really me, using information off the Admin files for me. This time, the question was “what is the first name of your roommate?”
I pointed at the screen. “See? It’s easy. Here’s mine, all done. I marked down Exemplar 3, and Warper 4. Then I checked the Exemplar part here where you list problems with your BIT. Under the Warper tab, I marked down my three categories; what I can do with them; external, internal, or both for each of the categories; the power level for each; and there’s a notes field where I added the part they didn’t have in their checklist, about wrecking other people’s BIT some of the time. That’s all there is to it.
“Then I filled out the ‘holdouts’ section: uniform features go here, power armor features go here, list of devises here, list of gadgets here, ordinary weapons here, and ‘other’ goes here.”
Chaka looked over my shoulder and murmured, “Shit, you’ve got a lot of stuff in that utility belt!”
Fey smirked, “Bruce Wayne, eat your heart out.”
Tennyo added, “Where’s the bat-grappler with the bat-launcher that shoots it a quarter mile, and the 2000 feet of super-strong bat-cable?”
Generator supplied, “And the full-sized bo?”
“The bat-bo!” Chaka grinned.
“Well, I’m working on that right now. Or at least Harry is,” I confessed.
“Bat bo, bat bo, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you…” Chaka sang. She was doing a little hip-hop motion in there too. I didn’t know what it was called. I just knew I couldn’t do it.
Chou smiled quietly, “That should be an interesting surprise for someone in martial arts class.”
Lancer asked, “Okay, but does it cover what Chaka and Chou can do, charging up their speed and strength using their Ki?”
I nodded. “The thing is, you just put down the effects, not the underlying cause, so there’s a spot where we can enter that. It’s actually under the usual Energizer traits like what Sledge does, but it’s still the same power feature.”
I fired a copy of my two files off to Everheart, and I started on Chaka’s. Toni was insistent that I put together all her holdouts, including her new ‘power gloves’ from Chou. When she admitted what she had picked for her power-up phrase, half the room laughed. “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a classic like ‘It’s clobbering time!’”
After that one, we did Lancer’s. That one was easy, since his powers were pretty standard. Even the thing he’d started doing since Combat Finals, where he could absorb directed energy attacks and then re-direct them. That was common enough for PK bricks that it was just a checkbox. Even his paper shortswords weren’t a problem, since there were other PK bricks who had similar weapons.
Then we did Tennyo’s. Since she topped out the Regen tab, we had to add in some special notes. And it took a few minutes to go through every Warper category and make sure we had all the things she could do. Some of her high-end reality-Warper stuff she didn’t even want to think about. We put some of that and the radioactive-threat stuff under the ‘power limitations’ tabs.
Fey’s took a while, since she could do so many magical things, and she could draw Essence in so many different ways. Plus, we had to define Malachim’s Feather and its magical hiding place, over in the auxiliary file. That was sort of complicated. Fey was worried that she wouldn’t be able to sense emotions or see ley lines in the sims. I just kept assuring her that the binder said they had that covered with the right headgear.
While we filled out Chou’s forms, we finally got into the argument I had been expecting.
Jade worried, “But we can’t put down stuff about my real power! We’re trying to keep that one secret!”
“Yeah, what about that?” pushed Tennyo.
Lancer said, “I don’t think you want to handicap yourself unfairly in the sims. That could be a problem too.”
I said, “I’ve been thinking about that, and I think you’re safe. We’re only putting down effects, not causes. We don’t have to say you’re a Manifester. We just put down what you can do, and we list it under the WIZ-1 classification. That’s not an unreasonable mage ability, even if it’s unusual for a level 1 mage. We just have to define it right, so you can spawn off Jeannie or Jujube-”
“Hey, I’m not naming myself ‘jujubee’!”
“-or whatever, and keep the copy with you, and get the sensory effects right. You might end up being able to see what Jeannie’s doing in real-time, instead of having to wait for her to come back. But I don’t think that’s an unfair advantage.”
We tossed it around for a while, and the team as a whole decided that we could hide Jade’s power under the wizard category, or maybe as part of her connection with her sister. It probably wouldn’t ‘look’ right to Jade or Jinn when Jade spawned off another self while sitting still in the sim suit, but her power would probably work the way it was supposed to for the holos.
By the time we wrapped up our meeting, it was nearly curfew. So Chou and I went to brush our teeth and such. We met up with Fey and Chaka when we were on our way to the bathroom. But before I had a chance to talk to Chaka about our argument and stuff, we had another interruption.
Risk and Flux came up the stairs and walked past us. Chaka instantly said, “Whoa! Dudes! What happened to you?”
Both of them looked like their clothes were torn, and Flux was sporting what looked like the genesis of a serious black eye. Risk looked like his shirt was scorched, and there was a suspicious reddening on one side of his face, slightly above the scorchmarks.
Risk and Flux looked at each other, and then laughed. Risk grinned, “Hey, you should see the other guy!”
Flux smirked, “Ya know, some people have no sense of humor.”
Risk added, “You put one little pair of shoulder angels on some pompous dork and have ‘em say he’s insecure because his dick is so tiny, and BAM! People start trying to blast your balls off.”
Flux looked at Risk and said, “Hey, not our fault his dick is so tiny.” They laughed and high-fived each other.
I just shook my head as I walked into the bathroom. Man, was this stuff just going to keep escalating? I decided that a nice, quiet morning in the holographic sims, far away from all the violence, was just what I needed.
Tear the muffles off your ears,
Take the bridle from your mouth,
Put the lid upon your fears…
I woke up when Brass Monkey started singing the lead-in to their song “Question Authority, Except For Me”. I hopped ed out of bed and floated over the laundry basket so I could drop off my pajamas. Then I floated down to scoop up my bathrobe and bathroom gear, before heading for a nice, refreshing shower.
My shower was way more than just nice, because Nikki was standing there stark naked as she magically adjusted the water temperature for her shower. And Toni was drying her back while she argued that using magic for your water temperature was ‘cheating’. Nikki responded by using the traditional forensic debating technique of giving her the raspberry.
As I was getting in another shower, Tennyo flew in and executed a bizarre little ‘hop in the air’ maneuver so she ended up going backward over the shower door of the last shower, and diving in feet-first.
I called out, “Hey Billie! Inertia! It’s not just a good idea, it’s the LAW!”
Nikki giggled quietly, while I could almost hear Billie ignoring me.
Then I got to watch Billie dry off, while I brushed my teeth and did my hair. So it was a good start to the morning.
We all met up in the basement, and walked to breakfast together through the Hawthorne tunnel. Which was probably a good choice, given how many fights had been going on last night.
<(Lancer) Show of hands. Everyone have their Spots? Everyone have their holdouts ready to show Everheart?>
All our hands went up, both times.
<(Chaka) Take it down a notch, Sarge. This is just intro stuff today, and a walk-through. We’re not gonna get attacked walking across the Quad.>
<(Tennyo) It’s happened before.>
<(Chaka) Okay, bad example. But Scotty said they just do the intro walk-through on the first day. The big surprise attack scenario comes in the second week, when you think you know how the holos work and you’re all smug.>
<(Phase) Oh great.>
<(Chaka) Hey, we’ll know it’s coming! Who can they sick on us that can clobber Team Kimba?>
<(Lancer) The Grunts. They mind-bash you with Bunker, shoot you full of holes from long-distance, blast you with Bomber’s plasma bombs, then they sweep up your atoms in a leetle teeny-weeny baggie.>
<(Phase) One of Lady Astarte’s super-teams. A royal ass-kicking.>
<(Fey) The West Coast League.>
<(Phase) Actually, I think we can take them. They’re tough, and they’re good on teamwork, but I’ve seen them in action. We could probably take them.>
<(Tennyo) Assuming you can keep your face out of Valley Girl’s cleavage.>
<(Phase) I’ve seen her gazongas up close and personal, remember? I think I can manage.>
<(Lancer) Up close and personal? Just how ‘up close’?>
<(Fey) Hey! I’ll tell Lily on you!”
<(Lancer) Just wondering. For, umm, technical purposes. In case we ever fight against them in the holos.>
<(Chaka) Yeah, suuuuuuuuuure.>
We took the elevator up to the Crystal Hall, and walked into a demilitarized zone.
There were nine Security officers scattered around the room, enforcing a peace slightly more tense than the Middle East. It looked like all the major players were being kept far enough apart that they couldn’t hear what everyone else’s shoulder angels were saying. And everyone was glaring at the shoulder angels riding on members of other cliques. Man, at that point I was actively looking forward to getting over to the holo sims, even if we had to sit with the Elite League jerks for our lessons.
One of the Security officers looked up from a clipboard and headed straight for us. Oh crap, it was Officer Johnson, the secret H1 spy. Of course, he was such a secret that virtually everyone in Security, plus Team Kimba, plus Christ only knew who else, all knew he was reporting to Humanity First! agents in his off hours.
<(Tennyo) Red alert!>
<(Lancer) I’ll take point. Tennyo, just casually drift toward the rear. ‘Dancer, you might be of help on this one.>
Lancer moved to the front of our group, with Bladedancer smoothly sliding between me and Chaka to join him. Johnson’s eyes drifted past me, jerked away from Tennyo’s general area, and fixed on Lancer.
Officer Johnson stopped and said, “Good morning. You’re Team Kimba, right?”
Lancer smiled politely, “That’s right, sir.”
Johnson glanced again at his clipboard. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could your group sit a little further toward the outer edge today? We’re having some problems, and some of them might involve the Fey and Phase shoulder angels that have been seen.”
Lancer nodded, “We’re always happy to help Security in any way. If there’s something more we can do, just let us know.”
Johnson tilted his head slightly. “We appreciate that. Really. But - given why we’re having problems - that may not work out.”
Lancer said, “Okay. Is there anything else?”
Johnson paused and said, “Yes. There is.” He looked to the back of the group and said, “Tennyo. Miss Wilson. I just wanted you to know that this doesn’t have anything to do with you. And I’d like to apologize for my behavior last term. I know there’s no reason you should accept my apology, but I want to offer it. That’s it.” He turned and walked off.
<(Fey) He didn’t feel sincere.>
<(Shroud) His color was more... untrusting.>
<(Phase) Maybe he’s just trying to keep from getting fired. Remember the top secret stuff I told you that we can’t even think about in public?>
<(Fey) That would do it.>
<(Lancer) How about we eat and get out of here before things go haywire?>
<(Chaka) Yeah, no point in getting in a big fight and being late to stuff.>
I just stayed with the group. I grabbed some of the homemade oatmeal, plus some fresh fruit and the good coffee. Then we sat down and touched Fey’s crystal so we could talk.
Lancer leaned forward and teased, “Hey Tennyo, didn’t you already eat one breakfast?”
Tennyo did a really lousy job of pretending not to know what he was talking about. “Umm, what do you mean?”
Generator immediately jumped in with her usual ‘help’, “Oh sure she did! Jinn saw her a couple hours ago.”
Tennyo cleared her throat and hissed, “Don’t rat out your roomie! Remember our little talk?”
“Oops,” Jade said, looking completely unabashed.
I asked, “Tennyo, if you ate a couple hours ago, why didn’t you give us a heads-up about the sitch in here?”
She blushed and admitted. “Umm, when I ate, there were only five other students in the whole caff, so there wasn’t anything going on, and I sort of... well... rushed through the line with a big to-go box and ate it all on the way back.”
Chaka called her on it. “You mean you got up just to eat and then you went right back to bed?”
Maybe we all should have followed her lead on that, as the caff was about as fun as a mammogram. Between the grumbling cliques glaring at each other, and the tense Security guys watching for the big outbreak of trouble, it was like taking a refreshing lunch break… in Beirut.
I was pretty glad when Tennyo finished her fourth tray of food and Lancer led us off to the holo sim training. As long as Elite League wasn’t parading around with little Phase and Fey shoulder angels, it was bound to be an improvement. Lancer led us downstairs, through the tunnels, past Arena ’91, and to a set of security doors that said:
DESIGNATED TEAMS ONLY
We waited in front of the doors until a voice crackled over the intercom system. “Team Kimba? Come on in. Go to Room 3, please.” The door unlocked with an electronic snap, and we walked in.
At first glance, it was pretty disappointing. There was a narrow corridor that ran straight ahead, with three labeled rooms on either side. Past the corridor, the hall branched off to both sides in a ‘T’ shape, but we couldn’t see where either branch went.
We trooped down the hall to Room 3, which was just a small room with six rows of bench seats, in front of a speaker’s dais and a large projection screen. Sam Everheart was waiting for us. She was togged out in full Security officer gear, including the big handgun sitting in its holster on her right hip.
She caught our stares and explained, “No, this outfit doesn’t have anything to do with today’s training. I’m on duty in case Security needs extra staff.”
Lancer offered, “Can Team Kimba help? Four of us are security auxiliaries.”
“I know,” said Everheart. “I’m going to say ‘no’ right now, but I’ll notify Chief Delarose of your interest. The big problem we’re expecting this weekend is something you’re already involved in, and your appearance might make things worse. Or might set things off.”
“Shoulder angels,” I muttered.
“Yeah, we know that,” Chaka whispered from behind me.
Everheart had us sit down on the uncomfortable benches and lectured, “Since all of you have specially-made sim suits, we won’t spend any time talking about how to get a sim suit and make sure it does what you need. And since you all got your powers files in last night, we’ll skip the presentation on how to build your powers files and your auxiliary files.” She looked at us, “I noted that all of you except Tennyo turned in auxiliary files. Tennyo, do you want to fight in the sims wearing a Whateley school uniform?”
“Umm, no ma’am,” Tennyo said.
“Then while we’re scanning everyone’s auxiliary gear, you’ll want to enter an auxiliary file with your uniform, and any special features it possesses.”
“What if it’s just a costume with nothing special?” Tennyo asked.
“That’s acceptable,” said Everheart. “That’s easy enough to enter into the system.”
<(Tennyo) Phase, if you say ‘I told you so’…>
<(Phase) Okay, I won’t say it.> I’d just be thinking it.
Everheart pointed at the screen and said, “So you won’t have to sit through the ‘Creating Your Profile’ video. But you’ll still be getting the ‘Intro to the Holographic Sims’ video. It’s only fourteen minutes long, so you can survive it. After that, we’ll go to Room 5, and I’ll check your auxiliary gear. There were some comments from the techs when they saw the files you uploaded, so I’ll be verifying you have all the gear you listed, and checking that it does what you say. After that, we’ll go back into Wing A, and you’ll get a chance to check your sim suits for fit and function. If we’re still on pace, you’ll get to do the standard introductory ‘Walk Around Whateley Campus’ sim. And since you’re so far ahead, we ought to have time to do the second-level simulation, which we like to call ‘The Breakfast Brawl’.” She gave us an evil grin.
<(Phase) Oh God, don’t tell me WE’RE the second-level simulation!>
<(Lancer) Relax. Maybe it’s the Alphas. Or maybe it has nothing to do with us last term, and she’s yanking our chains.>
<(Chaka) Dibs on Donny-boy!>
<(Lancer) Take it easy. We assess the sitch on-site. If it really is last term’s Alphas, Tennyo takes Skybolt first, Fey takes Bluejay, Chaka gets Cavalier. Unless things have changed. We work the rest out there.>
<(Phase) Can I hit Tansy? Please? Pretty please with sugar on top?>
<(Generator) Only after I do. YOU can throw her across the arena at Hamper and Damper.>
<(Lancer) I think we need to aim Phase at The Don and sick Bladedancer on the twins. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.>
<(Chaka) Hey Phase, feel free to turn Donny-boy into a slime monster.>
<(Phase) Could you not mention that? I still feel sick about Fireball.>
<(Chaka) It’s a sim! You can do whatever you like! You’re not really hurting anyone!>
<(Fey) It’s still set up like the real world. We have to watch out for innocent bystanders and property damage. It’s not a video game.>
<(Chaka) I’d still like to see if I can give someone we know another ‘lamp enema’.>
Everheart growled, “If you’re all done chatting over your comm system-”
“-we can start the video. TRY to pay attention, will you?”
Sam Everheart watched Team Kimba for thirty seconds before she decided they really were paying attention. She stepped out into the hallway and buzzed Bardue on her commlink. “Gunny? If you can talk now, I have a minute.”
Bardue’s voice came back. “Got time right now. Only have four FNG’s to train, and the sophs helped ‘em a lot already. Already have their profiles in. I’ve got ‘em watching the ‘Intro to the Holographic Sims’ crap.”
Sam explained, “Team Kimba’s profiles all checked out, even if some of their auxiliary files are pretty suspicious. I’ll check those pretty soon. So they’re watching the intro video too. Let’s keep them split from the Elite League, since we know there’s some bad blood. I’ll do the gear check with them next, and you can do the sim suit check on Elite League. Then we’ll switch rooms.”
Bardue said, “Works here. I’ve got the techs set up so they’ll run two completely separate sims at the same time, and we can run both groups through without any contact.”
Sam agreed, “Good. Meanwhile, I’m monitoring the activity up top. I’m computing that right now there’s a 42% probability that Delarose is going to have to call me in for another set of campus fights. If that happens, I’ll try to move Team Kimba to a holding position, so you can alternate back and forth between the two groups.”
Bardue finished, “Sounds good here. Over and out.”
OVERCLOCK AND MAKE
Overclock waited until the light on the security camera blinked from green to red. He patted Make on the shoulder, and they hurried down the corridor with their partner. They stopped once they were past the camera, and they waited for the next security camera to fail for a few seconds. Then they ran on to their next position.
Whoever was behind this was playing the security system like Dave Welsh on a guitar. He was going to have to find out what software they were using, and lift the good parts out of it.
They moved up to the security door into the holographic simulation center. That door wasn’t going to be so easy. He knew. He’d hacked the Whateley systems enough to know the controls for that door and everything behind it were off the grid.
He wasn’t expecting Farrago to open the door for them. Farrago put a finger to his lips in a ‘keep quiet’ gesture, and led them down a short hallway to a ‘T’-shaped branch. They went off to the left, until they reached an unmarked door that was standing ajar.
Farrago whispered, “It’s a utility closet. You can tap into the entire holo system from in here. Need a light?”
Make said, “Nah. I’ve got a couple booklights, so we’re good.”
Farrago told them, “Get in there and get ready. Bardue told our group that Team Kimba was going to be ready almost as soon as our group. They got their files done last night, and they’re already on the system. Everheart’s going to be checking their sim suits and their auxiliary files real soon.”
Overclock choked, “Fuck! You said we’d have a couple hours to get things working right!”
Farrago just glared at him. “I didn’t say any such thing. You assumed it. Just get to work. Monitor their progress, so you’ll know where they are. And stop being such a pansy about it. If the Kimboids are that far ahead, they’ll probably be lined up to do the second sim after the intro one. You can nail them on that one if you have to wait.”
Make nodded, “Yes sir.” He tilted his head at the third member of their group. “And we’ll need his sim suit.”
Farrago looked at the third person. He said, “Hell, I wasn’t expecting you. I’ll try to get your sim suit out of the locker areas, but it’s going to be a bitch.”
The boy stared unhappily at his feet. “If you can. I can probably manage without it.”
Overclock insisted, “No, dude! You need that suit! You promised you’d wear it and let us jack you into the system and everything!”
The boy sighed miserably, “Okay.”
Farrago rolled his eyes. “I’m closing the door. Don’t come out without checking the monitor cameras first. I don’t want this whole op blown because you couldn’t remember to see who was in the hallway.”
As Farrago closed the door on them, sullen boy muttered, “I can check even if you can’t get into the system. If I have to…”
Overclock said, “Let’s get to work.”
Make smirked, “Nah, let’s sit around drinking coffee and bullshitting.” Then he frowned, “Sure we’re going to get to work. You think I want to get caught here?”
Overclock got the wiring cabinet open. The lock was too tough for him to pick, so he pulled the hingepin and took the whole door off. He put on his headset with the monocular visor and single earpiece, and he plugged it into Make’s laptop. Then he plugged the lineman’s clips and the mini-jacks into a USB port and started checking the connections. With any luck, he’d find the security camera connects in a matter of seconds. With the headset on, he’d see the hallway in his visor as soon as he was jacked into the right connection.
Make was busy working with the patch cabinet on the other wall. In a few minutes, he’d have their power laptop patched into the system, and then they’d need to use the codes they had snagged so they could convince the holo systems that the laptop was one of the trusted boxes on the system. After that, they had to upload the programs and templates, take over the three key computers on the system with the passwords they already had, and then get to the hard part. They had to re-program several modules so they could over-ride the system and lock out the sim-monkeys.
Make tried not to look at the third member of their team. The guy was so depressed it was unnerving. Not to mention the three ghosts who were now visibly trying to get the guy to leave. When Overclock had come up with the plan, the idea of some stranger they’d never met ending up dead didn’t seem so horrible. But now that he was seeing this guy, and watching him be so miserable, it was going to be awful to let him go get killed by Tennyo. The guy was suicidal. That part was obvious. But that didn’t mean you let him commit suicide. Even if he was committing ‘suicide by cop’. Make didn’t think he could go through with it.
Make decided he’d let Overclock handle that part.
I thought the video would never end. It couldn’t be any more boring if they brought in Professor Quintain to do the voiceovers. Not to mention that it was insulting. Thuban would have a cow if he saw it. Hippolyta would have a herd of cattle is she saw it. Five Exemplar ‘pretties’, four macho guys and a wholesome, Britney-Spears-sexy girl, learning how to use the sim suits and sim chairs, so they could participate in a wholesome holographic simulation. Naturally, the Exemplar girl was the one who whined, “Ow! That really hurt!” After which, the announcer got to explain in patronizing tones that you really did feel sensations through the sim suits, including feeling pain if you got hurt in the sim. There were perhaps ten seconds of useful information in the entire thing, even if you’d merely skimmed the introductory pages of the chapters in the binder. For me, it was a major waste of time.
I already knew there was a devise in the back of the visor-helmet that more or less ‘hijacked’ your neural responses. That way, if someone like Hank or Billie did a spinning kick, it clobbered the holographic opponent in the sims and didn’t destroy the sim chair. You stayed in the sim until it ended, or you ‘died’, or your team lost, or you just ‘bailed out’. The bail-out – which probably had a quaint nickname among the sim operators, like ‘loser button’ – was simply thinking of dropping a red rubber ball from your off hand.
Each sim chair was in its own separate sound-proof room, so that you couldn’t just yell for your teammates if your team didn’t have a comm system. It also let people like Tennyo and Breaker and Killstench participate to the full, without irradiating or blasting or poisoning all their teammates. I knew from reading the appendices in the binder that the sim center had thirty-one rooms for holo participants, and the center could run one massive inter-team battle, or up to seven separate simulations at a time.
Man, a battle with thirty-one students and who knew how many artificial characters? What was that like? Trying to wrest Karedonia away from Gizmatic and his robot armies? I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that someday there would be ‘Halloween 2006’ simulations that might need that many people.
The lights came back on, and Everheart smiled, “Well, I see that no one lapsed into a coma from sitting through that. Let’s move to Room 5 next door, and we’ll check in your gear and verify your auxiliary files are correct.”
We followed her into the hall and right into the next room. It was about three times bigger than the lecture room, with half a dozen scanning systems on a long table that made up the far wall. A row of computer desks were on the righthand wall. And there were half a dozen small tables in the middle of the room. Four of them had techs waiting to check us out. Since all four techs were male, they were already checking us out, if you know what I mean. All four of them were staring at Fey like they’d died and gone to heaven.
Everheart glared at the techs until they retrieved their eyeballs, and then she pointed four of us to the tech stations. She sent Tennyo over to a computer while the four of us with the trickiest auxiliary files had to get checked out first. Of course, those four were Generator, Shroud, Bladedancer, and me.
Generator marched right up to her tech, gave him a big smile, and started pulling things out of her purse. The first thing she pulled out was a floorlamp. A floorlamp that was brightly lit, even though it wasn’t plugged in. The second thing she pulled out was a flowered hat. Then she pulled out a full-length mirror. She beamed at the stunned tech, “Oh this stuff? I just have it along for babysitting.”
Tennyo laughed so hard she was rolling on the floor.
I got a thirty-something guy who looked like the crooked computer programmer in “Jurassic Park” who gets eaten by the Dilophosaur. Of course, that put me completely at ease. He checked his clipboard and said, “You’re Phase?”
He said, “This list of auxiliary tools is all supposed to be in your utility belt? Did you bring it?”
“Yes, and yes. I’m wearing it.” I took off my Whateley blazer and draped it over the back of the chair. Then I pointed out the white belt I was wearing around my waist.
He frowned, “And is this a devise, or something created by an external size Warper? I don’t see how it would work otherwise.”
“It’s a devise. Möbius created it for me. Ready to start checking off the contents?”
He nodded. I was about to start when one of the other techs called out, “Admiral?” Everheart stepped over to talk to Chou about her sword.
I started pulling out toy after toy. I had deliberately over-packed it for just this situation. I had about twice as much stuff crammed into the pockets as I normally did, just because in the real world, I had to find my weapons before I could use them. In the holographic sims, I only had to think about the gizmo and reach into the correct spot for it to pop into my hand. At least, that’s what I gathered from reading the manual.
I started with the throwing knives, just because they were the largest things I was carrying. Then I worked my way through my gadgets and devises. I did peek now and then as Bladedancer was demonstrating that Destiny’s Wave could cut through anything Everheart could find. I couldn’t wait to watch Everheart go through the same deal with Malachim’s Feather and Tennyo’s antimatter sword.
The tech finally stopped me when I pulled out my psi grenade. It no longer worked, but it was only a matter of time before Sin d’Rome filled my order and sent me a new one. In theory, at least. He looked up and called out, “Admiral?” Everheart was over in a flash. The tech gave her the cube.
I said, “I’d be extremely careful with that, ma’am. If it triggers here, it might wipe out your nanite cloud for up to half a week. If what Techwolf said about you is true, that would probably kill you. It would also do a hell of a lot of damage to Team Kimba.” Okay, I was lying about it being a working psi grenade. But I figured I’d have a working one before too much longer.
Everheart stared at it and said, “It’s in your Security reports that you used one of these against an Alpha hit team last term. But this is too dangerous. I’m going to disallow it. You can’t be wielding something like this in every sim for the next four years.”
That was SO not fair! I didn’t yell it, but I came close. I tried not to growl as I said, “I paid for it. I actually have it. Why am I not allowed to use it?”
Everheart just gave me a look. “We didn’t let one of the Bad Seeds log in a tactical nuke two years ago, either. You read the manual. You know that Sim Central is the judge on whether or not anything is allowed. I’m Sim Central right now, and I say ‘no’.”
“Fine,” I said. “What about my one-shot forcefield buster? It’s a devise, and I’ve used one of them too.”
“We’ll allow that one,” said Everheart. “Even if it wasn’t officially used anywhere a Security officer saw.” Oh great, they knew all about the Whateley Weapons Fair too.
I was going to argue some more, but another tech called out, “Admiral? Could you look at this?” That time, Everheart had to go over and check out one of Jade’s ‘devises’. I had to wonder whether Everheart’s nanite sensory arrays were going to figure out what Jade was really doing.
In the meantime, I had more gear to pull out. “Okay, here’s my taser glove, and the matching glove with the spikes on the back. Careful, this is a pyrolant grenade, and this is an ice grenade. Both devises.”
“You have egg-shaped weapons?” He couldn’t keep the smirk off his face.
I nodded uncomfortably. “From ‘the House of Bugs’. Bugs makes all her stuff look like this. I’m just glad I don’t have a uniform designed by Bugs. It would probably be in shades of pink, with sequins on the front.”
I was still pulling stuff out of my utility belt when Everheart finished with the J-Team and had the other techs look at the gear lists for Fey, Lancer, and Chaka. Apparently, Jade didn’t have as much stuff crammed into her purse as I had in my utility belt. And Chou was only carrying spell slips and healing herbs and throwing weapons in her ‘bag of holding’.
Everheart came back over and checked with the tech. “Aren’t you done yet?”
The tech said, “Sorry ma’am. We haven’t emptied the utility belt yet.”
I snarked, “I still have the anti-tank missiles and the Bat-cycle to go.”
Everheart held up my spent-uranium throwing dart and stared at it for several seconds. She frowned, “Where in the world did you get DU? And how did you get it machined into a dart? There isn’t U-238 all over one of the Workshop floors, is there?”
“No ma’am,” I answered. “I used my Goodkind contacts. It was made at Oak Ridge National Labs for me.”
“And how effective is it?” she asked.
I told her, “I can throw it through the field of some of the toughest PK bricks on campus. I haven’t tried it on Sirrush, so I don’t know if I can penetrate his PK field. But ask Lancer. I nailed him with it in a sparring match last term. Since then, I’ve gotten it tipped with a fast-acting neuromuscular blocker.” Which was why the tip was covered with a plastic cap.
She studied the tip, popped off the cap, touched a finger to the coating, and stared intently for about three seconds. She looked up and said, “Allowed.” She looked at the tech and said, “Harrison? This is an acetylcholine inhibitor. Level 5 intensity, dose level 2. Don’t scratch yourself with it.”
She stared at me and said, “Has it ever occurred to you that this is a really dangerous thing to be carrying around? Someone who isn’t a Regen 5 or an Exemplar 5 could die from this before they got proper treatment.”
I reached into another belt pocket and pulled out an emergency syringe. “Neostigmine. The antidote. Or rather, one of several antidotes. Just in case.”
She checked out the syringe. “Has it ever occurred to you that high school freshmen are not required to have more gear than Batman?”
I shrugged, “I’ve needed most of this equipment. Just since September. And the few times I didn’t have my utility belt around, I more often than not ended up regretting it. I think that means this I am required to have more gear than Batman.” Then I gave her a smirk. “Besides, I have more money then Bruce Wayne, so why not?” That wasn’t true anymore, but I was planning on fixing that issue eventually.
“Are you saying that you plan to fight crime in your spare time? Even though you’re under age, and not deputized as a civilian auxiliary in any city-”
“Except-” I interrupted.
“-Except the Boston Metropolitan Area?” she continued.
“No,” I insisted. “Not a chance. I just need enough gear to protect myself for all the times when trouble seeks me out. I have a giant bullseye on my back. Several, in fact. And when people aren’t targeting me, I seem to have this Peter Parker-esque ability to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
She stared at me. Okay, she was staring way past me. “The ‘Sparkler’ incident in Los Angeles, two trips to Boston, the incident over Christmas break…” she rattled off as if she were listing the Security files on me. Oh right, she was probably jacked into the Security computer network 24x7. So she probably was listing Security files.
“Yeah,” I admitted, “I haven’t been able to get any farther than Dunwich without walking into one nightmare or another.”
She raised an eyebrow. “It seems as if all of Team Kimba has a knack for tracking down the closest source of trouble, and then engaging in a frontal assault.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that a couple of us have that Clark Kent issue and need to go rescue victims and fight bad guys. But not me,” I asserted. “Yes, I got roped into the second Boston thing. But the deal with Sparkler? Not a chance. Janet just walked into a bank for a simple transaction, and when the bank doors blew off, Gracie ran right into the line of fire. I just got blasted by an insane mutant fruitcake, when I didn’t even have a grasp on my powers yet. The first trip to Boston? I got trapped in a sewer. A sewer full of zombies. Try to convince anybody that Ayla Goodkind, spoiled rich kid, would willingly go into a stinking sewer with no light and no air, and fight hundreds of horrific dead things. The Christmas thing? Janet and Gracie dragged me into that theater. There was no way any of us could have known The Headhunter was in there, much less that it was really a demon planning on eating everyone in there. And I couldn’t get out of that one either! I’m cursed, I tell you! Cursed!”
She thought for a second. “The odds of all of those things happening are simply too small to accept. You must be doing something to change the likelihood of the events.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps telling me,” I snorted. “Next time I go to Boston, why don’t you come along? Carson probably won’t let me loose without a handler, anyway, and a Security officer who can blend in with the group is as good a handler as any.”
She rolled her eyes, “Right. If you ask for me, Delarose will just drop my duty cycle and send me off on a shopping trip, or whatever you do.”
I made up my mind right then that I was going to pick a nice Boston restaurant for my birthday party, and that I was going to ask Carson to send Everheart as a guard. I just didn’t say anything out loud, because Sam would immediately jack into the system and find out that my fifteenth birthday was only twelve days away.
Once I was all checked out, then I had to move to the next step. The techs scanned every piece of my gear, so the simulacra in the sim would feel right. While we did that, I listened to the conversations behind me.
“Is Ayla not done yet?”
“Hey Tennyo, what’s your costume look like!”
“Onee-sama! It’s beautiful!”
“Oh come on, Jade. It’s just a Ryoko pirate costume.”
Then Jade asked, “Admiral, how often can we change our auxiliary files?”
Everheart said, “Generator. You’re the team deviser.”
“Just one of them,” Jade admitted.
“Well, you can change your auxiliary file up to four times a day, and you can make changes up to thirty minutes before the start of a holo sim.”
Lancer thought out loud, “So if we don’t know who we’ll be facing in a sim, and we see them in the hallway here, we can’t make changes in our holdouts at the last second.”
“Right,” Everheart agreed. “But given that Phase has that utility belt and Generator has that purse and Bladedancer has that bag, I think your team can carry anything they might need, as long as it’s smaller than a tank.”
Okay, it had been pretty darn funny when Jade had started pulling that Mary Poppins stuff out of her purse. Not that Everheart was going to admit it.
Everheart said, “I need to make a quick call. Sit tight.”
She stepped away and turned her back on us. Lancer gave Fey a raised eyebrow, and Fey concentrated with closed eyes for about five seconds before shaking her head no. I thought about it and guessed that Everheart was using her Hive abilities to jack directly into some sort of communications system without needing to talk into a mike. Or maybe she had some decent anti-eavesdropping or anti-magic countermeasures. Whichever she was using, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t tell me about it.
Everheart turned back to us and said, “Everyone make sure they have all their gear. We’re going to walk out of here in two minutes, and go to Room A4, the suit locker areas. The Elite League will be coming in here next, and anything that gets left behind will be marked as ‘Lost and Found’. If it doesn’t get damaged or stolen. And that includes the floorlamp.”
“Oops. I forgot about that,” Jade muttered.
“Why don’t you leave it behind?” I suggested. “Set it on the big scanner, and maybe the Alphas will think it’s one of our top-secret devises and spend a few weeks trying to figure out how it works.”
Everheart cleared her throat loudly and glared at me.
“Or not,” I amended.
Fey smiled, “Some people around here are just no fun.”
Farrago casually let Bardue lead Elite League from the sim suit locker rooms over to the devise-scanning room. He walked a little slower, until he was well at the back of the group.
It had been easier to smuggle out the sim suit than he had expected. Accelerator had distracted Bardue with a hyperactive string of annoying questions, while Stretch slid tendrils into the openings of the kid’s ‘locker’ and unlocked it from the inside. The charm from Spellbinder made the sim suit invisible as long as Farrago was touching it. So he had the suit draped over his shoulder, and no one could tell.
He touched the door of the utility room, and tapped out the agreed-upon code. The door swung open a couple seconds later.
Make whispered, “Got it?”
Farrago looked in. Overclock was typing like a madman. The other kid was sitting there looking like someone had just killed his favorite pet. Farrago whispered, “Here!” and lobbed the suit into the air. As soon as it left his hand, it became visible. The kid caught it. Not that he looked any happier about it.
Make whispered, “Things are looking good. We’re into the key systems, and we might be ready for the Kimbas’ first sim run. If not, we should definitely be ready by their second one.”
Farrago nodded and closed the door. Then he hurried to catch up with the rest of his team before Bardue wised up.
We all looked up at the strong knock on the door. Okay, Fey had looked up a couple seconds earlier, probably because she felt their emotions coming down the hall. Everheart opened the door and let Bardue lead Elite League in.
I noticed they were all in sim suits. Not just their freshmen, but all of them. I figured the sophs were going to do the walk-through with the froshes to help them out. But the sim suits were tight gray full-body suits that covered them like my Combat Final uniform, except that there were openings for the eyes, mouth, and nostrils. The froshes were in suits that looked velcroed together at the seams and sides. Even the sophs’ suits didn’t look all that immaculate or velcro-free. That made sense, because the alternative was a custom-made suit for every person, like what I had arranged with Cecilia Rogers.
Everheart led us out of the scanning room and down the hall. At the ‘T’ juncture, she turned left, and led us past several widely-spaced doors. This corridor was a lot longer than the one where we came in.
We walked into a ‘reception area’ of couches and chairs. On the far wall were two doors, one saying ‘MEN” and the other ‘WOMEN’. On either side of us were doors labeled ‘A4-1’ to ‘A4-4’.
Everheart turned and explained, “This is where we start. As you can see, we have locker rooms for boys and girls. Lancer? You’ll be alone in the boys’ locker room. If you have any problems, just walk back here and yell for me. Phase? Your suit is in the girls’ locker room. Mrs. Horton said that would be appropriate. Don’t cause any problems.”
Why do people always think I’m going to cause the problems around here? Do I have a big ‘I Hate Mutants’ sign floating over my head?
She continued as if she hadn’t cheesed me off. “Once you have your sim suit on, please come back out here and meet me in Room A4-1. The four rooms here are all ‘fitting’ rooms. We use them for individuals and teams to gather before holo sims. You’ll be using the room this time to check for fit. Once everyone’s satisfied with fit, we’ll go to Wing B and get you situated in sim chairs, so we can check for function. Then, once we’ve worked the bugs out, you’ll be ready to take our introductory simulation. It will look and feel just like you were walking around the campus, starting with the Quad. You’ll be able to explore nearly anywhere on campus. You’ll be able to stick together or split up. You’ll have the chance to test out the full abilities of the suits and the simulator.”
“Sounds fun!” Chaka grinned. “Let’s get to it!”
“Oh yeah,” I said flatly. “Definitely more fun than humans should be allowed to have.”
Tennyo asked, “You said ‘test out the full abilities of the stuff’. Do you mean I can try some of my big stuff?”
Everheart nodded. “Yes. We have simulations of a host of cars and trucks set out on what will be Range Four in the sim. So, when your team is ready, you’ll all go out to Range Four and blast everything in sight using your powers. You’ll be able to see if everything works properly. If not, we’ll tweak your profiles and get those things fixed before you try your second sim run. Okay?”
Tennyo grinned nervously. “Okay. So I really can cut loose, and I won’t blow up the room I’m in?”
Everheart frowned a little, “Yes, you can cut loose. You won’t blow up the room you’re in, as long as you’re in the sim suit and hooked into the sim. As soon as you come out of the sim, you’ll have to curb your powers. Just like they explained in the video you just watched.”
Tennyo looked at the floor. “I... uhh... just wanted to make sure. There are a lot of things that work on everyone else, but don’t work on me. I didn’t want to blow up the sim chair and find out the hard way.”
Everheart told her, “Then start small, and work your way up to your largest effects. You’ll feel a lot more confident once you’ve played in the sims enough to know what you can safely do.”
Tennyo sighed and gave in. “If you say so. I just feel sort of... nervous about cutting loose, after some of the stuff that’s happened.”
Everheart thought for a second and asked, “Like your Combat Final? Or what happened over Christmas?”
“Ye- HEY! How do you know about Christmas?!” Tennyo bellowed.
Everheart was totally undeterred. “Briefings and reports went to Chief Delarose. He filed some of them electronically. I read one as part of my job as the computer validation executive. I don’t know everything that happened, but I do know some of what you must be worrying about. If anything serious happens, just remember. You can drop out of the sim just by imagining that you’re dropping a red rubber ball from your off-hand. If anything goes wrong, the first thing that will fry is the electronic connection from the sim suit to the chair. It’s deliberately made fragile enough that any sort of energy surge or large Warp effect should sever it instantly. And the chair has dozens of systems to cut you out of the sim if there’s any sort of power feedback or power disruption that comes out of you instead of being broadcast in the sim. Trust me, people have been working on this system for years. And one expert has been keeping all the software under control, so there aren’t weird side effects or bugs. It really works. If it didn’t work, do you really think we’d let Warpers use it?”
Fey asked, “Do you let probability Warpers use it?”
I tossed in, “Probability Warpers with magical powers too?”
Everheart gave us little grin. “Yes. We’re well aware of what people like Kismet can do. The worst that will happen is she’ll accidentally knock herself out of the sim, and end up with a suit or a chair that needs a little repair work. Happy now?”
Fey shrugged. Chaka nodded like she couldn’t wait to get started. Tennyo sort of gave Everheart a half-hearted agreement. Well, I couldn’t blame her. If I could do the things that Tennyo could do, I’d be pretty damned worried about the consequences too. But the sim designers had to have all of this under control. Otherwise, every brick on campus would be ripping the equipment apart as soon as they sat in a sim chair and flexed their muscles. Not to mention what Energizers and Wizards and Warpers and Avatars and everyone else would do to the equipment.
At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
Everheart explained to Hank where his locker was in the boys’ locker room, and he headed off in search of his sim suit. Then Everheart led us into the girls’ locker room.
Which was huge. The lockers were small, maybe a foot wide. But it looked like there were five rows, with lockers on each side, and room enough for… I did a quick estimate and came up with about four hundred lockers. Given that there were only about three hundred girls (and girl-like weirdos, like me) in the whole school, and lots of people didn’t run the sims (like some excited maniacal friends of mine were waiting to do), this seemed like overkill. I noted that the showers at the back of the room were wide open to the locker area, which was likely to be a problem for me, sooner or later. I could just see how well it would go when we kicked the holographically-simulated asses of some group like Elite League or the Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleaders, and then had to shower with them afterward. Girls like Bombshell and Spellbinder and the Yellow Queen would so not appreciate having me showering with them.
Everheart showed us a small section in the far back in the leftmost row, which had all our names on little plastic placards, carefully mounted on locker doors. At least I’d be getting dressed - or undressed- while surrounded by Kimbas, instead of someone less thrilled to see me. Especially to see me in the buff.
I walked over to where Everheart was impatiently waiting for us to get dressed. She gave me an interrogative eyebrow. “Is there something wrong?”
I asked, “Is there any chance that I could change clothes or shower somewhere a little more private? Girls don’t normally want to undress or shower next to some freak with a penis hanging out.”
She said, “There’s a showerhead at each end of the shower area that has a curtain you can close around you. You’re not the only student here with problematic physical features, so there’s some accommodation. If you need more, then wear a bathrobe from your locker to the shower and back. That’s what some of the Whitman girls do.”
“Thank you,” I said. Then I went back to our little locker area.
Chaka was already starkers and working her way into her sim suit. Fey was carefully hanging up her skirt and blazer. Everyone else was somewhere in between. Except Shroud, who was holding her sim suit and waiting patiently for Jade to help her. Frankly, I had expected that Shroud would just put the suit on over her costume, but it looked like the J-Team had something else in mind.
I went to work. I went light and stepped out of all my clothes, then quickly hung them up in my narrow locker. There was just enough room for my Doc Martens to stand side-by-side in the shoe area underneath the main section. I sat down on the narrow bench and began tugging my sim suit on.
The sim suits were designed like scuba-diving drysuits. At least, ours were. You had to slide your bottom half into the suit through the opening in the back. Then you slid your arms in, followed by tugging of the headmask over your head. Once you had all that done, you could stand up, wiggle the rest of your torso into place, and zip the back closed. I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as it sounded.
Tennyo was sitting across from me, and had both legs in the suit up to her thighs. She gritted, “This is worse than putting on pantyhose!”
Fey snorted, “And when have you ever worn pantyhose?”
Tennyo claimed, “Well, I did try some on. Once.”
Generator helpfully added, “But she ripped them apart while she was tugging them on.”
“Thanks ever so much, Jade,” Billie said dryly.
“You’re welcome!” Jade chirped in a mischievously cheerful tone.
Meanwhile, it looked like Fey and Chaka had discovered the secret to putting the suits on. They were sort of sliding into their suits as if the suits had come alive and decided to cooperate. Which, in Fey’s case, was probably not too far off the mark. She was probably using magic in some way to facilitate the process. Just as Chaka was undoubtedly using Ki in some way. Maybe she could fill the suit with her Ki and attune it so it slid on easier. I had no idea.
Jade finally noticed that Shroud was just standing there. She nodded circumspectly, and checked to make sure that Everheart wasn’t looking. Shroud slid into the tiny space of her locker, and suddenly went limp. Jade reached in, touched the sim suit, and it inflated as if Shroud had suddenly leapt into it. Which, come to think of it, was pretty much what had actually happened.
I worked the thick material up my legs to my crotch. The suit was about a quarter inch thick all over, except that mine was extra thick all through the crotch. I checked with my fingers, and sure enough, there was a place in there to shove my male privates. Jeez! Just how realistic was this sim supposed to be?
By the time I worked my dick and balls into the tight cavity designed to hold them, Chaka and Fey were already dressed. They were zipping each other up. I started wiggling my arms into my sleeves. Since there were gloves attached at the ends of the sleeves, this meant extra work.
Tennyo muttered, “I keep worrying I’m going to rip the stupid thing apart.”
I told her, “Probably not a problem. Cecilia knows how strong each of us really is. You just know she’s going to make your suit a lot tougher than Jade’s.”
“Yeah, well, they don’t call me Demolition Dame for nothing,” she murmured unhappily.
She already had her lower half in, and her arms, so she tugged the headmask on. Just like Chaka’s and Fey’s, her headmask fit tightly, like a Spidey headmask, except that it had openings for her eyes and nostrils and mouth. Even with her distinctive hair temporarily pressed flat under the headpiece, there was no mistaking those cat-eyes or those little fangs. Not to mention her fairly distinctive body, which was quite nicely displayed by the tight material.
Jade fussed, “Hey, does your suit have a thing that’s pressing against the back of your neck?”
I pulled my headmask on, and I could feel it too. “Like a piece of steel pressing right at the base of your skull?”
“Yes, me too,” agreed Chou.
I looked over at Everheart, who was walking over to see what was keeping us. She explained, “That’s the devise that makes the holo sims work. It picks up on the messages you’re sending down your brainstem and re-routes them to your simulacrum in the holos. Otherwise, you’d be ripping the suit and the chair and the room apart, instead of ripping the monster in the sim apart.”
Fey asked, “If that handles the physical aspects, how does the suit handle the magical aspects? Or Psi and Esper features?”
Everheart scrunched up her nose in thought. “I, umm, don’t really understand magic, but as it’s been explained to me, it works through a series of runes inside the headmask that re-direct the magical or Psi energies.”
I watched her wrinkle her nose. You know, when Everheart isn’t busy being a hardass, she’s really pretty hot. I wonder how she’s handling that. She had decades of experience as a macho guy: soldier, husband, father, the whole spiel. And she seems to be coping with all this better than I am. Maybe some day, when she’s not my instructor for a course, she’d be willing to talk with me about it.
Fey wiggled her fingers, and the zippers for my suit and Jade’s suit and Chou’s suit all zipped themselves closed.
“Thanks, Nikki,” I said.
Everheart looked us over, “It looks like you’re all ready for step 2. Let’s go meet Lancer and see how impatient he’s gotten while waiting on girls.”
Hank was pretty much a hundred percent boy between his ears, but I was pretty sure he remembered enough not to tell a roomful of girls that they’d kept him waiting while they got dressed. Especially not this roomful of girls.
Everheart led us into the atrium again. Hank joined us as we walked into the side room.
Fey batted her eyes at him and teased, “We didn’t keep you waiting, did we?”
Lancer sort of scratched the back of his neck in embarrassment and admitted, “Uhh, no, it took me forever to get the thing zipped up in back.”
Chaka took a look at him and gave him a wolf whistle. “Whoa, Hulkster, you’re looking good in that thing!”
Lancer blushed hard enough that we could see it reach his eyeholes. “It is kind of... umm... tight.”
I glanced over just to see what Chaka was talking about, and I realized that Hank was slowly bulking up. I wasn’t interested in guys, but it was no wonder the girls were ogling him. At the rate he was going, he’d have a Stormwolf physique in a year or two.
Not that the girls were doing all the ogling. Their outfits were tight. I got to see all of them naked on a regular basis, and still I thought they looked pretty damned hot in those sim suits.
Everheart said, “Your suits need to be comfortable enough that you can sit in a sim chair for five or ten minutes without problems. Would you sit down in the seats and see how the suits feel? I’m going to step out for a minute and check in.”
As soon as Everheart moved toward the door, Chaka gave a leopardly grin and did a back walkover in her sim suit. Then she moved from there into a one-handed handstand, and she flipped into a split. “Gotta hand it to you Ayles, these suits are probably a hundred times better than what those Alphas are stuck in.”
Fey added, “Even if you did spend WAY too much on these things.”
Tennyo complained, “You’ve got to stop wasting money on things like this!”
I fumed, “Look, this isn’t a waste of money.” I nearly got sidetracked, as Chaka started doing a hip-hop dance routine in her sim suit. I re-focused, “This is a good investment. If we’re in the sims as much as I expect we’re going to be, we’ll need good gear like this.”
Fey countered, “Okay. Fine. I’ll give you that one. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy everything!”
I almost missed what she said, because Chaka was doing a dance routine that would have been absolutely obscene if there had been a pole in the room and if she had been wearing just a g-string. I managed to say, “Fine, if you don’t like it, pay me back. But you need to understand something. You act like money is this super-special Holy Grail. It’s not. Money is just a tool you can use to help people. You only need to create adequate financial structures so that you can make sure you’re always someone who can help others, and not someone who needs the help. And furthermore… CHRIST!” I completely lost the thread of the conversation as Chaka did an impossible move that - under completely different circumstances none of us would ever be in - would have had men begging to shove money into her garter.
Hank was goggle-eyed as he murmured, “Gotta agree with the rich kid.”
Fey rolled her eyes, “Toni? I think you just passed your bar exam. Assuming it’s a nudie bar.”
“HEY! Don’t diss the dance moves!” Toni insisted.
“I don’t get it,” complained Jade.
“Sshh. I’ll explain it some other time,” said Tennyo.
“Yeah, when you’re older,” smirked Shroud. Although how an empty suit could smirk is beyond me.
“You mean, when we’re older,” Jade said.
“Pronouns please?” complained Fey.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Why is it that devisers spend months building lightsabers that don’t work right, but they can’t be bothered to construct a decent library of pronouns for the J-Team and Heyoka? And me, for that matter?”
Fey pointed out, “Not to mention that these suits are way too tight. I mean, look at this thing. It’s nearly a quarter inch thick, but it might as well’ve been sprayed on me.”
I had to admit, she had a point. The suits had to be tight enough to make contact everywhere. And on a body like Fey’s, that was tight enough to make parts of my suit way too tight. If you know what I mean.
Bladedancer agreed, “I wish this wasn’t so... revealing. At least we’re not an embarrassment. Imagine what someone like Belphegor would look like in a sim suit.”
Okay, that took care of my ‘tightness’ issue instantly. It also made me want to heave up breakfast.
Jade growled, “Thanks! Now I’m stuck with that image in my head!”
Fey made a gagging noise that was liquid enough to rile my gag reflex. “Could someone go fetch a bottle of brain bleach and a scrub brush?”
“Did you have to say that?” I complained.
Chaka smiled, “Look at the bright side. We don’t have to look at any tubbies. We get to look at some seriously fine bods. Like the Hulkster here.”
Lancer just laughed. He flexed and posed like a bodybuilder. Then he changed his posture to something more unusual and sang, “Spiderman, Spiderman…”
I grinned. The whole team had sat together and watched Spiderman cartoons on tv one Saturday afternoon back in December. Well, mostly we’d spent the tv time heckling Spidey as he tackled a supervillain in the stupidest way possible. So we’d all heard the song. Not that it was new for me. My uncle had shown the old Spiderman cartoons to me and Paul and Day years ago.
Chaka instantly jumped in, “Does whatever a spider can…”
Tennyo grinned and spread out her arms, “Spins a web, any size…”
Fey trilled, “Catches thieves just like flies…”
I stole the next line from Chou (who had her mouth open to sing), “Look out, here comes the Spiderman!” And I did a Spiderman imitation. I went light and leapt at a high point on one of the walls. Then I went not-light just enough that I didn’t go through the wall, and I quickly switched back to light so I could float in mid-air. I appeared to be clinging to the wall by my palms and soles.
“Cute, Ayles,” Chaka grinned.
“Showoff,” Tennyo said. But she couldn’t keep her grin off her face. We could see it even inside the sim suit.
Generator insisted, “I can do that too!” She charged Jann (well, one of the J-Team, I just didn’t know which one) into her suit and did the same ‘leap and cling’ that I did. Shroud moved almost at the same moment, and moved in exactly the same way. They ended up side-by-side on the wall, in matching spider-poses. Man, sometimes it was really clear that the J-Team were all the same person, just in different shapes.
As soon as Lancer saw the J’s pull their double-maneuver, he grinned and did a spider-leap that was pure PK flying. He went for a Spidey-pose in the corner. So Tennyo had to do it too. She ‘leapt’ to the wall and ‘stuck’ there upside-down. Not that being upside-down meant anything to never-heard-of-gravity girl. Fey gave us a big grin, wiggled her hands strangely as she chanted, and then she ‘leapt’ to the wall as well. I had to wonder how much Aunghadhail was complaining about Nikki using her powers for fun.
Chaka looked at Bladedancer and said, “You’re not gonna let them have all the fun, are you?”
Chou looked at me and grinned, “Of course... not.”
Okay, so my speech patterns are an easy target. That didn’t mean everybody had to snicker.
After they finished giggling together, they lightfooted their way over the chairs to the wall. I didn’t know how they managed to stick like they did, but I was sure it was some sort of Ki/Chi thing.
Chaka looked at Bladedancer’s back and smirked, “I see you’ve got your Spidey-jian ready too.”
Chou nodded, “You didn’t think I was going to leave it in that little locker, did you?”
Before Chaka had a chance to snark out some reply, Everheart walked in and caught us. She stared at us and snapped, “Is there a point to this?”
With a perfectly straight face, Lancer said, “Just testing out the new suits, admiral. We hadn’t had a chance to try them on or check for flexibility.”
She sternly said, “You don’t have to worry about flexibility. You sit in a chair and let your simulacrum do all the movement.” She gave us a little quirk of the lip. “And don’t people already say Team Kimba is off the wall?”
Chaka replied, “Hey, we’re on the wall!”
So we got off the wall. Some of us leapt, some of us floated, and some of us flew. Only Chaka did a double back somersault into a one-armed handstand. Everheart didn’t say a word, although she did shake her head a little.
She led us out of A Wing, down to the ‘T’ junction, and into B Wing. There were lots of utility closets and locked doors with security access systems. I knew from reading the binder that some of these rooms had to hold the computers and computer maintenance and computer techs needed to run a holographic simulation this complicated.
She led us into Room B-3. It wasn’t really a room as much as a parallel access corridor. There were seven doors in the opposite wall. One of the doors in front of us and off to the left had a removable placard that read ‘Elite League’. A door in front of us and way off to the right had a similar placard that read ‘Team Kimba’. Everheart led us to the Team Kimba door. She put her hand on a scanner pad that checked her out. Then she said, “Everheart.”
A computerized voice said, “Everheart, voice accepted. Authorization code B-7-4-G-K-2.”
Everheart instantly replied, “Reply code J-8-D-5-7-C.”
I wondered if she was using a test-and-response system that only a computer with specific knowledge could replicate. If so, I wondered what the regular people around here used.
The door clicked and clacked, as a couple different bolts unlocked. She swung the door open, and we strolled in behind her. It was just a straight hallway with ordinary doors along one side. The doors were only about a dozen feet apart, so those rooms had to be small.
The first door had a little plastic nametag already slipped into place. “LANCER.”
Everheart said, “Lancer! You’re up first. Let’s show everyone how it’s done.”
He nodded crisply, “Yes ma’am.” Then he walked right in.
The room was a little 12’x12’ cubicle with wallpaper over what was supposed to be soundproofing boards, which in turn were over what was supposed to be brick-proof construction materials. The wallpaper had magical runes inscribed, so mutants couldn’t fudge in the sims. Mages and Psis weren’t supposed to be able to peek through the runes, Warpers weren’t supposed to be able to teleport through the runes, and density-changers weren’t supposed to be able to pass through the runes.
Okay, so I’d read all the appendices in the binder. So sue me.
Lancer walked right over to the sim chair. It looked like a steel throne, with some minimal padding tossed in for some rather spartan living. The back of the seat had jutting electronic fingers that stuck up like a porcupine had been there a few minutes ago. Lancer just sat right on them.
A voice crackled over a speaker set in the ceiling. “We have full contact, Lancer. Please put on your sim helmet and verify that you have full sensory integration.”
Lancer cooperated. He took the helmet, which was like a plastic cube cut in half and put back together with a fancy hinge. He fitted the back half onto his head, then lowered the front half over his face. He put his arms on the armrests and seemed to relax in the chair.
Suddenly, we heard Lancer’s voice over the speaker as well. “Okay, I’m in the sim. I appear to be right in the middle of the Quad.”
The speaker crackled, “Roger that. Try walking across the brickwork… Excellent. Now try flying… Okay, now fly over to one of the benches and smash it… Excellent. Did you get full sensory feedback?”
Lancer voice came over the speaker instead of from his body. “Yes. It felt like a real metal bench.”
“Very good. Disengaging holographic functions. Please open your helmet.”
Lancer’s muscles seemed to start working again. He went from that loose slouch into his usual stance, and he lifted the front of the helmet. He grinned at us, “Wow! That was great. Hurry up, you guys! I want to take the Whateley Tour.”
Everheart directed him, “Okay Lancer, just stay put there. We’ll leave the speaker system on so you can hear everyone as we get them set. Then we’ll turn it off, and you’ll be strictly on the sim system. That means verbal contact only when you’re near each other or using that subspace commo your team likes.”
You know, it was bad enough when she and Bardue knew we had a comm system. I didn’t like them also inducing that it was a subspace band system. I had to wonder if they could intercept any of our transmissions. If they could do that, could Hive’s CPU resources crack our encryption? I needed to talk to Carmilla and Bugs about that.
The next room had Tennyo’s name on the placard. Tennyo sat down in the chair and got situated. Once again, the voice from the speaker told her when she had electronic contact with the system, and once again, the voice told her to put on the helmet.
OVERCLOCK AND MAKE
Overclock typed feverishly. “We’re not going to make it, buddy.”
Make was too busy typing on his system to look up. “We only need another couple minutes to get the templates running. Can we stall somehow?”
“Don’t see how. The system says they already have Lancer logged in, and they’re gonna have Tennyo logged in, any second now.”
Make thought for a second. “Okay, I’m going to introduce a glitch in the sim initialization routines. They’ll have to log her out and re-initialize. That’ll give us maybe four minutes. Is that enough?”
Overclock typed away. “It’ll have to be. It’ll just have to be.”
Make muttered, “I hope so. Sorry it took so long to override the security components and unlock the doors for our little surprise.”
Overclock grunted, “Not your fault. We allowed fifteen minutes for that. You got it in under nine. And he’s safely hidden in room nine down that hallway. As soon as that bitchlet Everheart leaves, we signal him, he moves into Tennyo’s cubicle, and plugs into the auxiliary connect in the front of her chair. Once she’s out of control, we release the power control on her, and her energy blasts don’t go into the sims anymore. BOOM! He’s toast. The room is toast. Everyone around her’s toast.”
Make nodded. “Just as long as we’re out of here before then. Not really interested in being at ground zero.”
“We’ll be out, don’t worry,” Overclock smirked. “Last time that bitch ever eats my Honey Nut Goodios…”
TEAM KIMBA: TENNYO
Tennyo pulled the helmet closed over her face. She blinked as the darkness clicked into a scene she knew well. She was standing right in the middle of the Quad! “I’m in the Quad.”
The speaker voice said, “Roger that, Tennyo. Try walking across the brickwork.”
She took a tentative step. No problem. She walked a few feet and then did a little hop. “No problems so far.”
The speaker voice said, “Excellent. Now try flying around.”
Nothing happened. She just stood there. She tried again. “Umm, guys, I seem to be grounded.”
The speaker voice said, “Roger that, Tennyo. We see it on our monitors too. Let’s try a simple adjustment… Larry? What about the backup system? No? Okay… Tennyo? Could you try again?”
She didn’t move. She was just standing there in the middle of the Quad, like a big doofus. “I can’t get any altitude. Is it me?”
The speaker voice said, “Umm, no Tennyo, we don’t think it’s you. It looks like we have a small failure in the initialization routines. It happens once in a blue moon. But that’s why we have initialization routines. So we know everything will work once you’re in the sim. We’re unlocking now. Just lift your helmet and wait until we tell you to try again.”
She lifted the front of the helmet, to find most of Team Kimba standing there with Everheart. Ayla was complaining, “And just what is a blue moon supposed to be, anyway?”
Jade smiled, “Have fun in the Quad?”
Tennyo grinned, “Yeah, at first anyway. It’s really just like walking around in the Quad, like it was back in September. Kind of makes me wish spring would get here.”
She sat there for a couple minutes, as the technical guys did whatever computer rebooting they had to do. Most of the team stayed and chatted with her, while Ayla walked over to check on Lancer and Fey walked next door to look at the room she’d be in. So far, things were pretty boring. Which was the way she liked it. She’d had way too many non-boring things in the last year. It seemed like her life didn’t have any middle gears any more. She either had ordinary days, or else she had life-threatening catastrophes going on around her.
Finally, the ceiling speaker crackled again. “Sorry that took so long, Tennyo. Ready to try again?”
“Sure,” she answered.
“Okay, same as before. Close up your helmet, walk around a bit, then try flying around the Quad.”
“Roger,” she smiled.
This time, things went way better. She walked around the Quad with no problems. Then she lifted off the ground and moved about easily. It ‘felt’ just like normal. It really seemed like she was flying around the Quad.
The ceiling speaker directed her, “Excellent. Now try your energy sword. Make it, fly down and slice something in half, then collapse the sword.”
She gave it a try. The anti-matter sword easily formed in her hands. She swooped down and tried it out on a tree trunk. It sliced through with no problems, and she watched as the tree toppled to the ground with a crash.
“Excellent, Tennyo,” cheered the ceiling speaker. “Now try a small energy blast at anything you want.”
“Okay, if you say so,” she nervously agreed. She formed a small blue sphere in her hand and hurled it at the nearby pond. The water exploded impressively where the sphere hit, sending up a blast of water droplets along with a cloud of steam. “Hey! That worked great!”
“Check your radiation monitor, please.”
She hastily glanced down at her wrist. To her immense relief, it was still showing a nice, safe green color. “Whew.”
The speaker crackled once more. “Is there anything else you’d like to test out while we’re here?”
She thought it over and decided, “No, I think I’m good for right now.”
“Roger that, Tennyo. We’re disengaging holo functions. Please open your helmet.”
The Quad in front of her vanished, replaced by utter, enclosing darkness. She opened her helmet and found her friends standing there smiling.
Chaka led off with, “See? Nothing to worry about.”
Tennyo grinned, “Then you don’t mind that I flew over to Poe and blew up your room, do you?”
“Hey! Not the room!” Chaka grinned irrepressibly.
Everheart cut in, “If you two are done, we have six more people to get situated.”
Chaka rolled her eyes, “Okay, I can take a hint. Am I next?”
Everheart said, “No. Fey, then Phase, then you.”
Fey said, “Okay, then let’s get going. Tennyo, I’ll see you in the sims before long.”
OVERCLOCK AND MAKE
Overclock didn’t look up from his typing. “Lookin’ good here, buddy. That distraction you threw ‘em gave me enough time to get the templates ready.”
Make murmured, “It also let me get into the security protocol boxen without anyone noticing. I’ll be ready in maybe five minutes.”
“Perfect,” whispered Overclock. “They’ll need a quarter hour to get six more of them into the system, even if nobody needs a little adjusting.”
“Shit!” Make watched in horror as the security systems reset, and warning notices began scrolling through one of the windows on his laptop.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know! I haven’t seen this before!”
TEAM KIMBA: FEY
Nikki sat down in her chair. It wasn’t all that comfortable, but she wasn’t going to complain. She found herself sitting more stiffly than usual, as Aunghadhail paid more attention to the setting. She felt the interest of her team, as well as an odd, almost-metallic sensation from Sam. She carefully closed the helmet over her face, and the darkness instantly gave way to light. She suddenly appeared to be in the Quad. And it was the Quad as she remembered it, not the Quad as it looked to most people. The Quad was alive with ley lines. Lines that connected her to the earth and the trees and the plants. Lines that showed where people had walked. Even the ley lines from the animals in the area. She could see a cluster of ley lines from small animals, all on top of a human ley line. Hmm. Probably Anna and her squirrels.
She called out, “Hey! I can see the ley lines!”
“Excellent,” responded the guy running the sim. “Try walking around a bit, then see if you can fly.”
She grinned inside her helmet as she strolled across the Quad, making sure to avoid the iron benches. She didn’t know if she could get a simulated burn from cold iron while she was in the sims, but it seemed pretty likely. Then she tried pulling Essence from the ley lines around her. It felt like it was working, which was really strange when the ley lines she was looking at were completely fake.
She murmured the words, softly chanting in a language long dead, and gravity reshaped itself at her command. She lifted off, the wind blowing through her hair and energy crackling all about her. This was awesome. “Okay, I’m flying. Everything seems to be working right.”
“Excellent, Fey. Can you try a few other spells?”
She hovered in mid-air as she cast a magical barrier, then several magical blasts which blew up two lampposts, a section of brickwork, and that statue of Noah Whateley that she had never liked.
Careful child, let us not get carried away in this artificial dimension.
She silently rolled her eyes and drifted back down to the ground. She said, “Okay, everything seems to be checking out.”
“Good,” said the guy. “Disengaging holo functions. Please open your helmet.”
She popped open the front half of her helmet to see her friends grinning at her. She beamed, “This is so cool!”
“All right, my turn to see if I can bust something,” said Phase pessimistically.
That girl so needed to lighten up.
OVERCLOCK AND MAKE
“Wheeeeewww.” Make blew out a long breath of relief.
“Man, I thought we were screwed there,” muttered Overclock. “Good thing it was just the system initializing security routines when the Alphas started their sim.”
Make nodded in agreement. “But it’s a good thing. For us. If Elite League hadn’t started first, we’d never know what the security resets look like until we started panicking. Now we’re ready. When the Kimbas start up, we’ll see the stuff, and we’ll be good to go.”
Overclock said, “And I’ll have our power system logged out of the system in another couple minutes.”
Make nodded. “So, as soon as the Kimbas start their sim, I enter the codes here and switch them into our sim. Then I can disconnect, and we can get the hell out of here. And once they’re fried and their sim ends, all the software in RAM will erase itself, leaving not a bit of evidence.”
“This is going down so perfect. We totally rule.”
Ayla seated himself on the chair. It really wasn’t comfortable. He couldn’t see why they couldn’t supply better padding for the seat and back. But no one else was complaining, so he was keeping his mouth shut about it. It wasn’t like the sim would last that long, anyway. He followed the directions from the computer-jock. He took a breath and closed the helmet over his face. He tried to ignore the brief claustrophobic feeling, not to mention the sudden recollection of being trapped in that damned plastic coffin in Emil Hammond’s lab.
He didn’t even have time to swallow hard before he was suddenly standing in the Quad. Man, that was so much better. Sunlight, air, everything. Okay, the wind didn’t quite feel right. He could feel it on his face, but not around his eyes or his mouth. He knew why. Those were the parts of his skin that weren’t covered by the sim suit. Still, it was pretty damned convincing.
He went through the process for the computer jocks. He walked around, his Doc Martens tapping realistically on the bricks. He went light and flew into the air. Then he dove down into the brickwork just to check that the sim was treating his powers correctly. He popped back up pretty quickly, because the claustrophobic sensation was uncomfortable real. He tried sticking his arm into Noah Whateley’s chest and disintegrating a cylinder out of the statue. That stung convincingly. He’d have to remember that he could sting himself pretty painfully in this simulator if he wasn’t careful.
When he was done, the sim guys disengaged the sim and he opened his helmet. He definitely didn’t like that second of intense, confining darkness. He watched as Chaka gave him a thumbs-up and jumped out of the room to go try things out.
He tried to sit back in the uncomfortable chair and be patient. Even if that wasn’t one of his strong points.
Chaka excitedly clapped the helmet closed over her face. She could hardly sit still as the Quad appeared before her eyes. She looked around. She was there. She was in the Quad. This was so slamming! She crowed, “I can see Ki lines, so I’m ready to rock!”
“I can see dead people,” snarked Ayla’s voice from somewhere. Chaka figured the speakers were all live, and Ayla didn’t know she was on Candid Mike.
“Excellent, Chaka,” came the voice. “Now try walking around.”
She walked around. She lightfooted it up into one of the trees. She used her Ki to speed herself up and then run up the side of Schuster Hall. Yes! She stopped and did a little dance move to celebrate. She wasn’t ready to stop exploring when the voice told her to open up her helmet.
Shroud closed her helmet, and waited as something other than light buzzed around her. Suddenly, it seemed that she was standing - or maybe floating - in the middle of the Quad. She could make out all the features that were supposed to be there. “I can see too!” she gasped. “This is so cool!” She hadn’t really believed they could simulate the way she really saw, even if Ayla had quoted way too much stuff from that binder at her. Maybe the way she saw wasn’t all that different from the way some of the other kids at Whateley saw the world. She wondered if there was a way to find out who else was listed with this type of sight for the sims. Maybe they could have a little get-together and talk about stuff!
Ayla. Ayla would know where to go to find out that kind of information. That girl was getting to be as nosy as Stephen.
Bladedancer closed her helmet, and suddenly she was standing in the Quad. She could see, and she could touch things, and she could hear. But she couldn’t sense the Tao. She admitted to the computer people, “I’m not sure I would ever be able to sense the Tao properly in the sim. But it may not come at all, no matter the situation, since this is only a simulation.”
Generator cast Jann into her body before closing the helmet. She looked around at the Quad. Amazingly, she had her regular vision, and she also had Jann’s all-around gray ‘vision’. She walked around the Quad, her Mary Janes clacking prettily against the brick. This was really neat. She pretended to press a couple buttons on her Universal Remote, and she used Jann to lift off the ground. “Anti-grav components working,” she fibbed.
She quickly checked that the Spots were working. <(Generator) Are we live?>
A chorus of agreements came back.
<(Generator) Okay, I charged Jann into me and I can see her view too. It’s working like it’s supposed to. I just don’t like having the information out there.>
<(Phase) We’ve already shown our cards to Everheart. That Hive nanite thing, remember? She’s got full access to all computer files, plus she saw Shroud wasn’t solid back when Shroud worked on her apartment.>
<(Chaka) Phase? Not helping here.>
<(Lancer) Look, Generator. Just keep reminding yourself: we only put the effect in the files. No one can tell you’re not using a devise or your WIZ-1 traits or something about your link to Shroud to get the effect.>
When the simulation guys turned stuff off, she opened her helmet and gave Sam a thumbs-up.
Everheart smiled at her, “Good, Jade. You stay put. I’m going to close up all the doors, and once I’m in the control room we’re going to turn off the intercom system. Then we’ll put you and your team into the intro sim. Give me half a minute.”
“Sure!” Jade said.
Sam quickly closed all eight doors and moved down the main hall to the ‘Core’, as the sim guys liked to call it. She put her hand on the scanner, let it read her fingerprints and EEG for verification, and slipped into the room.
Every wall of Simulator Central was covered in monitors and telltales. Each wall had a row of keyboards mounted on long computer desks, with switches and control panels in between. She took a quick glance at the block of monitors for Elite League. They were moving around Schuster Hall, and chatting away with each other. Bombshell was flying just over the others, while Swoop was soaring around the group. Farrago was explaining to the newbies how things worked. Good. Cliff had his eye on those monitors, while he studied some telltales on his right. She knew from experience that Cliff was really good with the new kids in the holos.
She turned back to the monitors that would show Team Kimba, and moved to the ‘command chairs’ in the center of the room. Bardue was already seated in one of the chairs, relaxing with a cup of coffee while watching Elite League move through the sim. Larry was typing away, loading up a separate instance of the intro sim for the Kimbas.
Before she had a chance to tell Larry to start up Team Kimba’s simulation, her commlink went off. It was Whateley Security. If they were buzzing her, that was bad. “Everheart here,” she said.
“It’s Chief Delarose. I need you at gridpoint Delta-Four. We’ve got two Ultraviolents mixing it up with Counterpoint over those goddamn shoulder angels, and too many supporters are in the area. The Security people who are there just got blasted with some sort of energy ray Counterpoint’s throwing around.”
“On it, sir,” Everheart snapped. She looked over and said, “Security emergency. I’ve got to go.”
Mark, the head tech, said, “No problem, ma’am. We’ll have them monitored right here.”
She looked at the eight LCD panels. They were still blank, but once the sim started, they would display the view seen by each of the Kimbas. It was a good thing the sims were run separately, because she wasn’t sure one of the students wouldn’t start a battle with the other team inside the intro sim.
She nodded, “Good.” She turned her head and said, “Gunny? Sorry to drop this on you.”
He gave her a big grin. “So get goin’!”
She took off.
Gunny watched the admiral on the security camera. She sprinted down the B-Wing corridor at a speed he could never have matched, even in his heyday. “Larry, you better get that security door unlatched before she gets to it and busts it down.”
“Done already, Gunny.”
Bardue said, “Okay, Elite League’s already moving on their sim. Let’s get Team Kimba started. And keep a close eye on them. Don’t be surprised at anything they pull.”
He pulled the other mike over and flicked it on. “Team Kimba? This is Bardue. Everheart had an emergency, so I’ll be running your sims today. On my mark, everyone close your helmets. Three…”
Larry typed in the commands on his keyboard. Mark flipped the switches for the security system.
Larry gave him a thumbs-up. Mark nodded.
“One. Close helmets.”
All eight monitors lit up with a scene of the Quad in fall. He watched as the Kimbas looked around, then checked each other out. One of them was definitely checking out the girls, starting with their hooters. Oddly enough, it wasn’t Lancer. Oh. It was Phase. Well, Everheart had briefed him on Phase, so he knew what was going on there. Well hell, if he was a teenager and had Fey and Tennyo and Bladedancer and Chaka on his team, he’d be checking them out too.
It took a while to get used to the disorientation as some screens seemed to look at other screens, and the monitor views jumped around with the more hyperactive kids. The first time they’d had this system up and running, he’d nearly lost his lunch watching six kids looking around and at each other.
Lancer looked around. He was back in the middle of the Quad, after waiting for what seemed like half an hour for the rest of the team to get set. Only this time, his team was with him. And they were all in their costumes. Well, Shroud was always in her costume. He hadn’t seen Tennyo’s costume, so he had a hard time not smiling. She looked so much like Ryoko the Galactic Pirate that it was tough not to laugh. And Generator’s bright pink costume looked like it had been designed by Jade and Bunny after too much sugar. He decided not to say anything about that thing. He just said, “Everyone good?”
“Five by five.”
“Whatever that means.”
“Knock it off, Phase.”
He nodded, and switched to the Spots.
<(Lancer) Okay. Let’s take our little tour. Anything anybody wants to test, this is the time. Holdouts, devises, tricks, anything. We don’t know what they’re going to throw at us in the second sim, so we might as well get as ready as we can in this one.>
<(Fey) Got it.>
<(Chaka) Do we stick together, or split up?>
<(Lancer) Let’s stick together for a while, and after we work out at Range Four, we’ll split up just enough to test things out and check comms. Okay?>
<(Tennyo) Sounds good here.>
<(Generator) Fine with us.>
<(Phase) Pronouns, please?>
<(Chaka) Oh, stop being such a grouch, Phase! This place rocks!>
<(Lancer) And we need some other checks. Let’s move toward Kane Hall, and I want sensory checks. Fey? Generator? Shroud?>
<(Fey) Things look good here. I can see ley lines all over the place, and I can even sense emotions. Chaka is all excited and impatient. Phase is feeling sort of nervous and uncomfortable.>
<(Phase) I can’t help it. I’m feeling kind of claustrophobic, even out here in the Quad.>
<(Generator) We can see the energy in each of you. It really flared around Fey’s head when she was doing her empath thing. And I can see everyone’s emotions too.>
<(Shroud) Me too. This set-up is pretty amazing.>
<(Lancer) Fey, give Generator and Shroud a little magic to look at.>
<(Generator) Ooh! I can see it! It’s like the flame in her hand is a big, flickering tangle of magic!>
<(Shroud) Check on that. I see it too.>
<(Phase) There’s no smell. That’s just sort of... bothering me. No taste either.>
<(Chaka) Hey, you wouldn’t like it if you had to shove stuff up your nose and into your mouth, would you?>
<(Phase) Definitely not. I wonder what they do for someone like Bloodwolf.>
<(Shroud) Don’t know. But whatever it is, I hope it’s really uncomfortable.>
OVERCLOCK AND MAKE
Make clicked the mouse, firing off the last string of commands. “Okay, that’s it. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Overclock nodded, “Hallway’s clear. We can go as soon as you have your laptop free.”
They peeked out around the door at the empty hall. Then they ran.
Make asked, “How long before security cams are off that loop?”
Overclock gasped, “Thirty seconds. We gotta be out of here before then.”
But they were already running past Room 1. The security door was already unlocked. They yanked it open and ran down the hall, Overclock panting from the effort and promising himself he’d get in shape Real Soon Now.
They didn’t stick around long enough to hear the security door relocking itself.
Overclock gasped, “I’m gonna die from all this running.”
Make looked over his shoulder for a second. “Come on. Just keep reminding yourself you have a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew waiting in our lair.”
For a second, he thought the screens had flickered. He must have blinked too much. Probably not enough coffee. He checked, “Any problems there Larry?”
“No sir,” Larry replied. “They’re just taking one of the usual paths. Most people go to Schuster first, but they’re making for Kane it looks like.”
Bardue nodded. “That makes sense. Half of ‘em are Security auxiliaries.”
“Aren’t they all freshmen?” Mark wondered. “I thought they hardly ever let froshes be Security aux.”
Bardue smirked, “Well, these aren’t your ordinary freshies. They’re more like the X-Games version of freshies.”
Larry didn’t take his eyes off the monitors as he confided, “I heard they’re like the only thing keeping that Waite chick from eating half the kids on campus.”
Bardue grinned to himself. “Well, they do seem to have a knack for finding the biggest trouble around, and inserting themselves smack in the middle of it.”
Lancer looked around. What the hell had just happened? A second ago, they were all walking up to Kane Hall. Now he was all alone, and back in a Whateley uniform. This wasn’t even anywhere near Whateley.
<(Lancer) HEADS UP! I’m isolated!>
He was facing a fancy five-story building. The words ‘Neiman Marcus’ blared at him from where he stood on the sidewalk. The hot sun was shining on the left side of his face. It looked like a popular, high-end mall. But there wasn’t a person in sight. Or a car. Or anything.
He knew what that meant. Trap.
Chaka spun around, checking for signs of Ki as well as anything visual. She was alone. Definitely not Whateley. And she was in a Whateley uniform, instead of her new ‘leopard ninja’ outfit. Someone had decided to screw them over in the middle of their ‘intro sim’. Were Everheart and Bardue really that pissed at Phase? Because it so wasn’t Ayla’s fault. Even if she couldn’t keep from answering everything in a classroom.
<(Lancer) HEADS UP! I’m isolated!>
She looked around. She was in shadow, and the place still seemed really hot. She was looking at a ginormous mall.
<(Chaka) Me too.>
She shook one shoulder to release her manriki-gusari. If someone wanted a fight, she’d give it to them.
Her chain wasn’t in her blazer. Her holdouts weren’t where they were supposed to be, either.
Phase blinked. What? Where the hell was he? He was looking at a huge mall. The words “GALLERIA” in enormous block letters ran across part of the building. He was standing in the street right in front of one huge entrance to the place. He went light and looked around to make sure he wasn’t about to get hit by a truck. But there was no traffic. No people. No shoppers.
This was not good.
And he wasn’t in his uniform. He was in a Whateley uniform. A goddamned girl’s Whateley uniform. Including a short pleated skirt and kneesocks. And low heels! When he found the people doing this, he was going to tear them a new one!
Crap! He didn’t have his utility belt anymore, either!
The blistering sun on the back of his neck helped him pull up an old memory.
He heard Lancer and Chaka over the Spots, so he spoke. <(Phase) Ditto. I’m on the south side of the Houston Galleria. Look for a giant mall.>
Tennyo stared. She hadn’t felt any change, but the world had changed around her. She was in the middle of a huge shopping center. One even bigger than the Park Meadows Town Center over in Littleton. There was an ice skating rink the size of a pro hockey rink, and she was standing right in the middle of it. She lifted off until she was a dozen feet above the ice, and she looked around. No threats. But no people either. Maybe six floors above her was an enormous skylight that ran the length of the ice rink.
She listened to her teammates and added <(Tennyo) I think I’m inside your mall.>
<(Lancer) I’m think I’m on the east side, looking at a Neiman Marcus store.>
<(Chaka) Maybe north side, I’m shady.>
Why the hell were they in Houston at an empty shopping center? She smelled a trap. A big trap. She decided to move toward the skylight.
Fey quickly looked around. What had happened? She’d been talking to Chaka just a fraction of a second ago, hadn’t she? Now she was in a huge jewelry store. She couldn’t see a window to the outside. She couldn’t see doors leading out of the store, either. But there were tall display cabinets and partitions all over the place, blocking her view. And the rest of Team Kimba was gone.
Prepare yourself, child! This is some sort of trap!
“I figured that out already, thank you,” she muttered under her breath. She immediately tried to pull in more Essence for defense or attack. She couldn’t.
That was when she realized that there were no ley lines anywhere in sight. No sources of power. Even the ceiling lights seemed distant and powerless. It was a trap especially designed for her. She heard her teammates over the Spots.
<(Fey) I’m in a giant jewelry store somewhere, and there aren’t any ley lines. I could use some help.>
Bladedancer spun on the balls of her feet, expecting an attack. But there was no one. She couldn’t feel the currents of the Tao, but she didn’t expect to be able to in a simulation. So she couldn’t know what that meant for her. She reached for her sword.
It wasn’t there.
She checked again. No Destiny’s Wave. No bag of holding. No weapons at all. She was in a Whateley uniform with no sword and no holdouts. Not even her usual yoga pants and Mandarin top, but a stupid girl’s Whateley uniform with a skirt! She looked around, trying to figure out where she was. It was all concrete, with concrete ramps going upward on the far side of the area. Except for a narrow opening with simple gates, the whole area was surrounded with concrete blocks in odd patterns that let in light and air, while leaving no way in or out.
She heard her teammates and added, <(Bladedancer) I’m in a parking garage. Unarmed.>
<(Phase) West side, if it really is the Houston Galleria.>
Shroud looked around her without moving. But there was no sign of anyone. No signs of mutant energy or magic, either. She was in some sort of large furniture store. She couldn’t tell where. There were flat panels far off to the side that could be windows. She couldn’t tell.
She knew this wasn’t part of the simulation. It was some sort of trap, or else some sort of special training program. Possibly even both. She listened to her friends talking over the comm system and spoke.
<(Shroud) In a huge furniture store, I think. I can’t see out.>
Generator found herself standing on a narrow grass median in the middle of a street. There weren’t any cars or anything. There weren’t any people either. The hot sun overhead was blazing down on the right side of her face, and she was facing a huge multi-story parking garage. A big white sign pointed around the right side of the building, saying, “Galleria Parking: $8.00 / hour; $50.00 / all day”.
She was back in her Whateley uniform. She didn’t have her special purse, or her fisherman’s vest, or her arm bracers, or her backpack. She didn’t have anything. She heard her friends talking over the comm system and spoke.
<(Generator) I’m outside the parking garage. Unarmed.>
She put her hand on a shiny metal utility box next to her. And she yanked her hand back as quickly as she could. The box was so hot from the sunlight that it had just burned her. And when she yanked her hand back, the corner of the box slashed her hand open. The blood was pouring out. Her hand was badly burned. She knew it would heal really fast. But it had hurt! It had hurt way more than it ought to!
She concentrated on dropping a red rubber ball from her left hand.
Nothing happened. She was still in the sim. She was still watching her hand healing itself.
She tried again.
<(Generator) I can’t drop out of the sim!>
<(Phase) I can’t either. We’re in a trap.>
<(Chaka) We move toward each other for support. Aim for Tennyo inside. Right Lancer? Lancer?>
Tennyo whirled around, waiting for her teammates to come pouring in. She didn’t like having Lancer drop off the comm system. What the hell could take out Lancer that fast? Maybe a Psi? A really strong Psi?
She didn’t like knowing that no one could drop out of the sim, either. That spelled trouble. And trap.
Suddenly, a boy was on the ice below her. It was Stygian. She recognized him. And shadows were forming all around him. Shadows that were rapidly becoming ghostly figures. The ghosts were coming for her.
She recognized them. Not she, Billie Wilson, but another part of her. And none of the ghosts were human. Most of them were not remotely human.
Phase turned toward what ought to be the west. Should he go with Chaka’s call, or should he move toward Bladedancer and Generator? Meeting up with Tennyo was good. Leaving a defenseless Generator and an unarmed Bladedancer to fend for themselves was bad. Plus, Phase was pretty sure he knew how to get from the parking garage to the center of the Galleria. He decided to sprint for Generator first.
He was still light when the energy weapon burned into his back, dropping him as he screamed in agony.
Fey focused, trying to use the Essence within her to summon up a protective force field. It wasn’t working well. There was something about this trap that was leeching the Essence out of her body. The harder she tried to summon any Essence, the less she had to work with.
Fine. No magic? She’d been practicing for months on things that didn’t use magic. She reached over her shoulder for Malachim’s Feather.
She was utterly unsurprised to find that it wasn’t there.
The lightning bolt that smashed through her feeble shield to slash into her spine? That was a surprise.
She fell to the floor, unable to scream, unable to do more than shudder and spasm uncontrollably.
Chaka focused. She knew this was a trap. She knew this was going to get real bad, real fast. Lancer had dropped off the comms. That was definitely Phase screaming. Chaka was damn sure every single one of them was being attacked, or would be in seconds.
But there was no one around her. At least, no one she could spot. She couldn’t see anyone, and she couldn’t pick up anything using her Ki. She sprinted toward the mall. She figured anybody would expect her to run fast, right at that big entrance. Not happening. Mama Chandler didn’t raise any fools. Except for Vince.
She sprinted all right. She quickly shifted her speed, going from about thirty miles an hour to nearly sixty. And she ran at a big set of picture windows that were way closer than the entrance. No one was going to expect her to use her Ki to shatter those windows and then jump into that store, instead of cutting over and using the regular doors.
The clear blue wall jumped up in front of her so fast that she nearly ran into it. But she’d learned her Whateley lessons, starting with what those ninja idiots hadn’t done right the night before school officially started. She ran up the wall and used her Ki to cut horizontally across it.
Which was a damn good thing, because the huge blast of fiery reddish energy would have fried her ass if she’d crashed into the wall or just rebounded off it.
As she sprinted along the magical wall, she took a split-second to look around. She was trapped in a huge magical cylinder. And there was a lid on it, so she couldn’t run up the side and jump out. And she recognized the glowing figure at the center of the cylinder.
She was so screwed.
Generator screamed as the energy blast caught her in the small of the back and threw her hard against the hot metal utility box. But she was tougher than she looked. She’d been hurt before. She’d been hurt way worse than a big burn on her back. She already had Jann charged into her body, so she did a ‘flip’ over the box to use it as a shield.
The second blast just barely missed her as she went over the box.
She peeked around the box to see a guy who hadn’t been anywhere in the neighborhood just two seconds before. It was Prism. Colored lights were swirling and flashing all around him as he drew on more power. He didn’t bother to walk toward her. He just unleashed another blast of radiant energy.
This one melted its way through most of the utility box, which was metal and four feet on a side. His next blast was going to cremate her.
Shroud didn’t sense anything until the girl rezzed into being right behind her. Shroud’s vision wasn’t limited to what was in front of her, and she didn’t have to face someone to fight them. She flung a set of throwing knives out the back of her costume, and leapt to the side.
The girl had already generated her PK armor before the knives struck. They bounced harmlessly off the hoplite shield and Greek armor. She lifted her PK spear, even as she tilted her head.
Shroud’s wrap-around vision saved her again. She saw the couch off to her left suddenly leap into the air and fly at her. She dodged it and closed with the girl. Shroud and Generator had both seen Judicator working in martial arts, so there was no doubt who this was, even when the girl was wearing that stupid Greek helmet thing.
Shroud whipped half a dozen chains out and began spinning them furiously. If Ayla was right, Judicator was a PDP and an Exemplar, so there might not be anything Shroud could do to stop her. But she was going to try.
Bladedancer looked around the parking garage for a way into the mall. She was looking at concrete block walls built with openings for light. She could see flashes a ways off through the openings. She hoped that wasn’t another threat. She figured the doors into the mall had to be on the other side of the solid concrete wall in the middle of the garage.
She turned, and suddenly someone was in front of her. A muscular, bronze-skinned bully with a malevolent smile on a hawkish face. His red eyes gleamed wickedly.
“Counterpoint,” she breathed.
He smirked, “Yeah, and I came prepared just for you, honey. You kicked Nex’s ass, so no PK crap for me. Just Exemplar so I’m way stronger than you, speedster so I’m way faster than you, and blaster so I can keep you pinned down until I get your powers. Now let’s-”
She didn’t wait for him to make the first move. She didn’t wait for him to finish talking. She used her Chi to speed herself up, and she launched into a series of kicks designed to drive him back, or incapacitate him if she was phenomenally lucky.
She wasn’t lucky. He was so fast that his arms were a blur as he blocked every one of her kicks. The impacts against her legs felt like she was being hit by a crowbar. He grabbed her ankle and slung her across the space. She smashed face-first into the solid concrete wall. She grunted in agony as pain seared across her face and chest. It felt like she’d just broken a rib.
He laughed as he zipped up to her, “Come on! Where’s the power? I’m not getting anything from you. I’ve got another slot just for your stuff, and I’m still waiting!”
She tried a tiger kick, which he easily blocked. But it let her push off from the ground and jump back up into a fighting stance. “I don’t have any mutant powers. Didn’t you see my MID?”
“That’s bullshit,” he insisted. “You’ve got ‘em. You couldn’t beat Nex without ‘em. And I want ‘em! NOW!”
She tried sprinting around the inner concrete wall to give herself some fighting room, but he was too fast. He cut her off and blasted her with a bolt of yellow light that caught her in the left leg. She struggled not to scream in pain as the energy blast burned through her skin, and she tumbled across the concrete floor.
Tennyo stared in horror as memories came flooding back with the ghostly forms. Memories that had nothing to do with any human named Wilson. Memories that were themselves older than Man.
The first ghost to reach her was an alien woman. A woman in once-regal clothes that were now rags. A scarred, ravaged, bleeding woman in brutal chains. A woman who shrieked at her, “WHY? Why did you do this to me? Why did you torture me? Why did you murder me? Why did you destroy my world? What did you hope to achieve? Or are you nothing but The Destroyer?”
Tennyo felt the blood drain out of her face. “P-princess Arlon?”
“YES! WHY DID YOU TORTURE ME? WHY DID YOU MURDER ME? WHY DID YOU DESTROY MY WORLD? WHY DID YOU DESTROY OUR ENTIRE STAR SYSTEM? WHY??”
Tennyo couldn’t move. She couldn’t flee. She couldn’t stop the horrible memories that were flooding through her brain. All she could do was scream in agony.