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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 1

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl

by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)

Chapter 1 – The Legend of the Red Cross Knight

THE VINDICATORS

Kismet looked carefully for traps in the room.  The first room – the one with the cute little birds and animals in the fancy cages – had those giant poisonous snakes, and the dartguns in the walls like a bad Indiana Jones rip-off.  The first vault-like door had been boobytrapped, as Donner had found out.  Then there had been the robots…

She raised an abrupt hand.  Her team all stopped as silently as they could.  There was an unfortunate CLUNK behind her that she tried to ignore.

“Sorry,” Donner whispered as he levitated his hammer back into his hand.

Kismet stared at the massive door, surrounded by a solid metal frame.  After long moments of concentration, she admitted defeat.  “I cannot read anything on the other side of the door.  Lemure?  Would you check for traps?”

After two seconds of nothing, she gritted her teeth and added, “Please?”

Lemure tried to ignore the insistent head-tilt from Sizemax.  If Pam hadn’t been twenty feet high at the time, maybe she could have pretended that she didn’t see it.  She sighed as if she had been asked to climb Mount Everest.  In her underwear.  “Ohhh-kay.”

Lemure changed from extra-dense to extra-light and walked through the wall to the left of the door.

“We could yust knock it down,” Donner volunteered as he swung his hammer.

“And how well did that go five minutes ago?” Kismet asked grouchily.

Donner looked down at his burned tunic and his still-smoking boots.  Then he felt his helmet, which had both horns blasted off.  “Not so goot?” he wondered aloud.

After thirty or forty seconds, the massive door swung open.  Kismet could see the complex weaponry embedded in the door and pointing at any intruders.  She tried not to wince at what might have happened if they had tried to smash it open.  “Thank you, Lemure,” she forced herself to say.  Lemure was so touchy about everything.  It was like dealing with a pouty child some of the time.  Typical American.

Kismet also wasn’t happy about having to restrict herself to English, but it was the official language for the team.  Lemure and Sizemax only knew English.  American English, at that.  Captain Canada claimed that he also spoke French, but it was a version no Frenchman would admit to speaking.  Donner spoke Swedish and was hopeless in five other languages including English, in Kismet’s personal opinion.  At least Dynamaxx spoke a reasonable variety of languages, even if he preferred German and Danish.

They moved as quietly as they could down a long corridor.  Captain Canada was on point, while Dynamaxx flew in backstop position, and the rest of the team moved in a simple square in between.  Kismet was smugly pleased as her magic picked up two traps that they avoided.  She was considerably less pleased when Dynamaxx’s toys picked up two that her magic had missed.

They crossed a large atrium.  She didn’t pick anything up, but she just had a feeling…  She stepped back and turned her head.  “Maxx?  Anything?”

“Nein,” he replied without thinking.

Captain Canada asked, “Nine what?”

Before she had a chance to make a scathing reply, the floor vanished from beneath them, revealing a thirty-foot drop to a floor covered in metal spikes.

Dynamaxx had been flying just above the floor, so he didn’t fall.  Instead, he swooped over and grabbed Kismet before she could plummet more than a couple meters.  Lemure was still extra-light, so she didn’t fall either.  Sizemax abruptly grew to her full height of thirty-five feet, so her massive shoes smashed the spikes under her into scrap.  “FOR THE MAJESTY OF CANADA!” Captain Canada screamed, and somehow he managed to levitate himself upward before he hit the spikes.  Donner spun his hammer furiously, and…

“Ouch!”  Donner and his spinning hammer crashed into the spikes, doing more damage to the metal floor than to Donner.

Dynamaxx set Kismet down at the far doorway.  Sizemax reached down to lift Donner out of the pit.  “Oh, dat’s okay, I’m fine,” Donner winced.

Kismet didn’t say anything.  But Donner could levitate his hammer and pull himself through the air behind it.  If he hadn’t been caught by surprise, he would have been fine.  He should have been fine with this trap.  She knew it.  The rest of the team knew it.  She just needed him to pay attention!

Lemure muttered, “Pretty stupid trap, if you ask me.  Who’s supposed to get taken out by that?  The Underdogs?”

Sizemax looked over at Kismet.  “She does have a point, y’know.  None of these traps were really that dangerous.  For us, anyway.  Maybe a bunch of baseline soldiers would’ve been in trouble, but even baselines in power armor ought to be able to get this far.”

Kismet grimaced, “You have a good point, Size.  I just don’t know.  Perhaps our supervillain is just playing with us.”

Donner complained, “Dat blaster burned haff my costume off!”

Dynamaxx pointed out, “All it really damaged was your costume.  And you weren’t supposed to be attacking that door with your hammer anyway.”

“Oh yeh,” Donner muttered.

Kismet didn’t have an answer, so she murmured, “Just keep looking out for more traps.”

“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Lemure tiredly.

They walked into the next hallway.  Niches holding marble statues of ancient Greek warriors lined both walls.  Some of the statues looked familiar, like she'd seen pictures of the originals somewhere, or seen them in a museum.  They walked halfway down the hall before Kismet raised her hand again.  Everyone came to a halt.  Kismet whispered, “I sense some sort of magical trap right here, but-”

With a grinding roar, every marble statue leapt from its niche and attacked.

“JA!!  Dis is more like it!” yelled Donner.

“FOR THE GLORY OF THE GREAT WHITE NORTH!” screamed Captain Canada.

“Oh crap,” muttered Lemure.

Donner shattered the closest statue with one massive overhand hammer-blow, while Captain Canada did the same with the edge of his shield.  Lemure went extra-dense and heaved one statue into its neighbor, smashing both.  Dynamaxx wheeled about in mid-air and blasted apart three statues closing in from behind.  Kismet hit two with magical blasts, ensnaring their legs and making them fall face-first to the floor.  Sizemax was already as big as was reasonable given the size of the hallway, so she merely picked up one statue in two hands like it was a warclub, and started beating the tar out of every statue within her reach.

In under a minute, the Vindicators were standing in the middle of tons of smashed marble.  Donner grinned, “Dat was GREAT!  Can we do it again?”

Kismet groaned, “This is not an amusement park, Donner!”

“Glad I don’t have to clean up around here,” muttered Lemure to Sizemax.

“Shush!” Kismet snapped.

“Yes, mother,” Lemure whispered under her breath.

At the end of the hallway was yet another massive vault-like door.  This one had a rectangle of buttons in a panel to the left of the door.  Kismet marched up to the panel and focused her magics.

Nothing happened.  She closed her eyes to control her frustration, and tried once more.

Still nothing.

She sighed inwardly and unhappily asked, “Lemure?  Would you be so good as to open this door also?”

Lemure shrugged and walked into the wall.  With a flash of green light, she bounced back.  She would have landed flat on the floor, but being extra-light, she sank out of sight.

A couple seconds later, she flew upward out of the floor and returned to her normal density.  She stopped to rub her still-stinging nose and admitted, “I can’t get through it either.  A force field, or magic, or something.”

Kismet grimaced, “Probably magic, as I cannot get through either.”

Dynamaxx gave the two a naughty grin behind his facemask and said, “Perhaps I could try?”

Kismet waved a hand at the door in reluctant acquiescence.  Not that she thought a mere gadgeteer could get through a magical wall that had stymied her.

He stepped up to the panel, put the back of his left hand over the buttons, and let an array of wires spring from a concealed compartment.  He waited while the wires slid into the cracks in the panel, and then he activated his deciphering system.  The lights across the top of the panel began flickering oddly.

After about fifteen long seconds, with Kismet complaining about the waste of time while Donner played catch with his hammer, the panel lights all went green, and the massive door swung open with a soft hiss.  Dynamaxx bowed low - or as low as he could manage while in his power armor - and waved everyone else through.  Kismet harrumphed as she stepped over the threshold.

They found themselves in a vast chamber.  It was maybe a hundred feet across and three hundred feet long.  Along the side walls were massive Corinthian columns rising to the arching ceiling sixty feet above the floor.  The floor looked like real marble with gold inlays, while the ceiling looked like it was covered in elaborate frescoes.  At the far end of the room was a dais with steps rising to what looked like the back side of a throne.

Lemure looked around and muttered to Sizemax, “What the hell is it with supervillains and evil lairs?”

Sizemax looked down from her full height of thirty-five feet and whispered, “Shush.”  She glanced over at Kismet and made sure the warper-witch wasn’t looking their way.  She quietly added, “It is pretty Voldemort-y, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.  ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Pomposity’ if you ask me.”

Sizemax tried to shush Lemure and not laugh at the same time.  Kismet gave her a grouchy glare.

They both looked up as the music started.  Lemure shivered as what sounded like a hundred creepy voices began booming out Latin or something.  The music was coming from all around them.  It sounded like the music a supervillain would choose just before he killed the superhero’s entire family.  And his little dog too.

Donner asked, none too quietly, “What da heck is dat?”

Captain Canada admitted, “Yeah, it’s creeping me out.”  He stopped moving forward, even though he was supposed to be on point.

Kismet rolled her eyes.  “It’s ‘O Fortuna’ from the ‘Carmina Burana’.  It’s supposed to sound scary.”

“Well it’s doing a damn good job,” muttered Lemure.

The throne suddenly moved.

“Look out!”

“It’s starting.”

Sizemax scooped up Donner and prepared to hurl him at the enemy.  Kismet started focusing on one of her better spells.  Lemure went extra-dense.  Captain Canada took a couple steps backward.

The throne rotated, revealing someone cloaked in a hooded robe.  Whoever it was couldn’t be seen.  The robe reached the floor, hiding his feet.  The robe’s sleeves reached to the ends of the throne’s arms, so the guy could have been sitting there pointing a weapon at them or anything.  The lighting behind the throne made the interior of the hood a pitch-black well of menace.

Lemure muttered, “Jeez.  It’s not like we haven’t all seen Star Wars, ya know.”

Over the soaring chorale, the threatening voice whispered, “I’m so glad you all made it this far, so I can kill you all myself.”

Kismet shouted, “Vindicators, avaunt!” as she hurled her mystical shackle spell at the figure.

The roiling energy passed through the body and the throne.

Lemure yelled, “It’s a freaking hologram!”

“Nailed it in one,” sneered the malevolent voice over the hidden speakers.

Dynamaxx suddenly yelled, “Size!  BEHIND YOU!”

It was too late.  Someone in all black had come up through the floor, right behind Sizemax.  It looked like a petite girl in a skintight solid-black costume, but that was obviously a ruse when the ‘girl’ easily grabbed Sizemax by the ankle, lifted her into the air as if she were weightless, and used her to smash Captain Canada into the marble floor.  Sizemax gasped in pain and accidentally dropped Donner.

Dynamaxx fired off an energy bolt and an electrical blast.  The black thing shrugged off the effects and whirled Sizemax around like a golf club, knocking Dynamaxx out of the air.  The armored gadgeteer was knocked across the room to smash into one of the massive pillars.

Kismet tried to launch another of her spells, but the thing whirled Sizemax about like a toy.  Kismet had to teleport away to avoid being swatted like a fly.

Donner struggled to his feet and scrambled back toward Sizemax to retrieve his hammer.  He picked it up just in time to have Sizemax come smashing down on top of him.  Twice.

Kismet struggled not to collapse, as her teleport had left her more dazed than usual.  She tried to gasp out a warning, but the thing swung Sizemax at Lemure.

Lemure went extra-light just in time to avoid being batted into the next state, and Sizemax - an obviously unconscious Sizemax - swept through her to whirl around in a huge circle.

Kismet gulped as tons of teammate came swinging her way and smashed into her before she could teleport again.  That was all she remembered.  She never remembered being hurled the length of the room to crash into the back wall.

Dynamaxx staggered to his feet.  His flightpack was wrecked, and he felt like he had been kicked to death by an entire football team.  And not one of those sissy American ‘football’ teams, either.  He tried to get his energy blaster working.  No luck.  He fired off a massive electrical blast that nearly drained what was left of his power source.

The black thing was whirling Sizemax’s limp body about, and the blast hit Sizemax in the head, instead of hitting the black thing in the back.  Dynamaxx didn’t get a chance to curse, because the next thing he knew, the thing flung Sizemax like Donner’s hammer.  Sizemax came hurtling through the air right at him, and tons of blue-clad teammate crushed him against the wall.

Lemure flew at the thing.  Whatever it was, it was smaller than she was.  She didn’t care about the sitch anymore.  She just wanted to hurt this little bitch for humiliating Pam like that.  Maybe it was strong enough to swing a giant like a golf club.  But that didn’t mean it had any defense against her.  She was going to do the deal she hated.  The deal that had gotten her that codename.  She was going to stay extra-light, walk into the thing, and use her Psi power to take the thing over.  Let’s see how Miss Super-Strong liked punching herself in the face a few dozen times!

She hated doing this.  The last couple times, she’d gotten stuck.  The last time had been the worst.  She hadn’t been able to disconnect from her opponent, and she’d spent a terrifying twelve hours fearing that she’d be stuck inside someone else’s body forever.  She’d promised herself that she’d never ever do it again.  But this was for her best friend Pam.  She leapt at the black girl-shaped thing.

It blocked her right arm and kicked her in the stomach.  Really hard.  Which was impossible!  She was extra-light!  How could some heavyweight brick do that?  Unless…

She went flying backward and landed hard on her butt.  She couldn’t get back up.  She was curled up around her aching stomach, and couldn’t straighten herself out before the thing flew up to her and hit her on the side of the neck so hard it felt like the thing was swinging a crowbar…

“Hello Lemure,” the computer voice inside her sim helmet said.  “Welcome back.  It is Saturday, January 20th, 2007.  It is now 9:42 am.”

“Go ahead,” Lemure growled.  “I dare you to say ‘have a nice day’ or something.  I’ll smash you into splinters.”

The speakers blared in the unmistakable tones of Gunny Bardue.  “VINDICATORS!  Get your asses down to Room 3 for de-briefing ASAP!”

Lemure took off her helmet, disconnected from the sim chair, and met her glowering teammates in the corridor.  They walked over to Room 3, Kismet berating them the entire time.  Like Pam didn’t feel bad enough already.

 
Saturday, January 20, 2007 - 9:42 am
Whateley Academy
AYLA

“Hello Phase,” the computer voice said.  “Welcome back.  It is Saturday, January 20th, 2007.  It is now 9:42 am.  You are the victor.”

I lifted the sim helmet off as quickly as I could.  That brief moment of constricting darkness at the end of the sim still got to me, every single time.  Not that I was going to admit to anyone that I was so pitifully claustrophobic.  Okay, I was talking to Dr. Bellows about it, along with everything else that was bothering me, during my weekly psychiatric sessions.

I wasn’t claustrophobic a year ago, you know.  But between Emil Hammond, and that first trip to Boston, and learning how to use my powers, and some other stuff like that, I’d gotten even more neurotic than I’d been as a baseline.  It was just pathetic.  You didn’t see Nacht walking around being afraid of the dark, or Aquerna going around being afraid of squirrels.  I wasn’t having nightmares all the time about the demon that almost got me at Christmas, but I was regularly having nightmares about Hammond trapping me in that plastic coffin-thing, or being trapped in the Boston sewers, or getting stuck underground with no air, or one of the other entertaining things my powers had done to me since last summer.

I lowered the helmet, the sim suit smoothly moving with me.  The new sim suit was even nicer than the old one.  After the disaster last Saturday in the holos, Cecilia Rogers had needed to make new sim suits for all of the team.  Almost all the old ones had burned out or been damaged by the overload that Overclock had rigged.  The new ones had hidden cut-outs so that if anyone ever tried that on us in the holos again, the damage-feedback part of the suits would just fail, and if we didn’t instantly drop out of the sim, our holos would essentially become invulnerable.  I had just neglected to tell the rest of the team that I had paid Cecilia for eight new sim suits.  I knew each one of them would figure it out eventually, but I could handle their complaints if they came to me serially, instead of en masse.  Boy, I could hardly wait until Nikki figured it out and came over to harangue me about it.  Unless she figured it out while she was showering, and she chewed me out while she was standing in the bathroom naked and wet.  That would be pretty awesome.

Hmmm…  Could I time things so the clue she needed just popped up while she was showering and I was in the bathroom too?  I’d think about that one.

Everheart walked into the cubicle before I got out of the chair and disconnected from it.  Seriously, whose idea was it to have the connection attached to your butt?  She said, “Effective job, Phase.  I want your input at the de-brief.  The Vindicators have a lot of bad habits they need to manage.”

“They’re not going to want to see me,” I pointed out.  “Korende is going to be really snippy about getting stomped.  And Max is the kind of guy who holds grudges.  Not to mention that Lemure totally lost it there.”

She shrugged.  “It’s not unusual for a team that gets badly beaten to be upset about it.  Just remember.  What happens in the sims stays in the sims.”

I frowned at her.  “Not retaliating is one thing.  Not wanting to talk to me at a big soirée in…”  I glanced at the wallclock.  “…a little more than ten hours?  That’s different.”

“Don’t whine, Phase.”  She led me out the door and down the corridor.  “Fey didn’t complain like this when she played supervillain against Elite League.”

I tried not to roll my eyes.  “Of course not!  She probably had a blast ripping those jerks to shreds!  We don’t have any friends in Elite League.  They all hate us.  And I’ll bet Lancer enjoyed hammering those Omegas.  Korie and Max are definitely going to hold this against me.”

Everheart reminded me, “The debrief is going to be recorded.  Codenames only.”

“I know that,” I snapped.  Then I hastily added, “Admiral.”

She didn’t even bother to glare at me.  I should have apologized too.  But I was too busy being upset.  Sometimes I’m such a jerk.

When Sam Everheart and I walked into the de-brief, Bardue was already listening to the Vindicators.  Of course, it was mostly Kismet griping about everyone else letting the team down, and conveniently forgetting about her own mistakes.

When Kismet finally wound down, Bardue looked at me and snapped, “Red team!  Do you have anything you’d like to add?”

I reluctantly said, “Yes sir.  The blue team let themselves get distracted by the environment.  That was why I picked the music, but I really didn’t expect it to be that effective.”

Kismet groaned, “Phase.  I should have guessed.”

Dynamaxx rolled his eyes, “Who else around here would pick the ‘Carmina Burana’ for evil theme music?”

I shrugged, “I was also considering Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, with the holographic bad guy playing a giant pipe organ.”

“What?” asked Donner.

Kismet jumped in, “You don’t know?”

I explained, “The ‘Phantom of the Opera’ music.”

“Oh!” he said brightly.  “I know dat one!”

I said, “I also put several clues in the frescoes on the ceiling.  They’re all copies of paintings on display in the Goodkind Museum of Art in New York City.  All the Greek statuary were modeled on real statues in the Goodkind Historical Museum in London.  And the birds and mammals in the cages in the first room are all native to the Harriet Goodkind Nature Preserve.”

“Phase, you’re not supposed to play The Riddler here.  You’re supposed to play your part,” Everheart complained.

Dynamaxx suddenly slapped himself in the forehead.  “The code for the panel!  It was 20-2-2-17-24-22-1-17.  That’s rot13 for ‘g-o-o-d-k-i-n-d’.”

Everheart gave me another glare.

Bardue snapped, “Kismet!  What would you have done differently if you suspected you were facing Phase?”

Kismet stared at the floor for long seconds before she admitted, “Very little.  We would have at least known to watch for someone who could attack from the floor or the walls.  We would not have known that Phase could lift Sizemax like that.”

Sizemax admitted, “It was like I was helpless.  I didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t even know anyone could do something like that to me.”

I said, “The instructors knew.  Because I’ve done it before.”

Kismet challenged me, “Who have you done that to before?  And why wouldn’t they tell the rest of the school?”

“Because I didn’t do it to another student.  I did it to Matterhorn,” I confessed.

Matterhorn?” Sizemax gasped in shock.  “THE Matterhorn?”

Kismet scoffed, “Oh, naturellement.  And then you used him to pound his teammates like today?”

I nodded, “Well, they were spread out a bit more.  But Matterhorn’s larger than Sizemax.”

Sizemax asked, “Did you do what you did to me?”

“Yes,” I admitted.  “He took a few more smacks before he was out cold, and then I used him like a meteor hammer.  I pounded Jabberwock into the pavement, I smacked the Necromancer into a billboard, I smacked the Arch-Fiend out of the air, I whacked the anti-Paladin a good one, and then I dropped the big goon on Vamp.”

Sizemax and Lemure looked stunned.  Kismet looked utterly unbelieving.  She sneered, “Am I supposed to believe that?”

Everheart snapped, “You’d better.  It’s in every report on file with Whateley Security on Team Kimba’s second trip to Boston.  Team Kimba captured Matterhorn, Jabberwock, Lady Darke, Lycanthros, the Arch-fiend, and Ironhawk.  And they stopped the Necromancer.”

I admitted, “I just swung around a thug-shaped parade float.  Fey and Chaka and Bladedancer did the really impressive stuff.  And Generator’s the one who took out Ironhawk.”  Of course, when I said the magic word ‘Fey’, Kismet grimaced.

Dynamaxx gaped at that.  “Generator?  Took out Ironhawk?”

I nodded, and then I sort of lied, “Yeah, he got close enough to her that she was able to use one of her devises to take over a big chunk of the control system for his power armor.”

“Hmm…”  He suddenly got lost in DevisorLand as he thought about anti-armor systems.  I recognized that look, having seen it on enough inventors.

“Vindicators!  Attention!” snapped Bardue.  Then he focused on me.  “Phase!  You are so far off target you’re missing the goddamn range!”

“Sorry,” I said.  “Anyway.  I thought the Vindicators let the environment mess them up.  Cap should have stayed on point.  Dynamaxx did a good job of staying focused and alert, but he drifted too close to the central group when they stopped moving forward.  They’re still staying too bunched up, and they’re still depending on a small bag of tricks.  If they had spread out more and Sizemax hadn’t picked up Donner to throw him, it would have been a lot harder for me to take them all down without taking some damage myself.  I think they need a wider variety of techniques, and more holdouts.  The only one of them with a holdout is Dynamaxx, and everyone expects him to have things like that in his power armor.”

Kismet grimaced, “Like you have holdouts in your costume.”

“I do,” I disagreed.  “I carry enough weaponry to take on an entire Alpha hit team, if you have to know.”

She sneered, “But of course.  I have seen your costume, you know.”

Dynamaxx interjected, “Kiz, Phase is the backer for Möbius.  Her belt is a full-sized utility belt.  It simply doesn’t look like it.”

“Humph,” Kismet snorted.  She crossed her arms angrily and turned back to face Bardue.

Everheart asked me, “Anything else to contribute?”

“Yes, admiral,” I replied.  “Given the team structure, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think about Dynamaxx building holdouts for the team, and maybe a flightpack for Sizemax or Kismet.  Also, comm systems.  The flightpacks would be expensive, but not insanely expensive.”

“Have you done that for Team Kimba?” Everheart asked, even though she knew the answer.  She was obviously trying to show the V’s that Team Kimba was doing it, and they needed to look into it as well.

“We opted for some really high-end comm systems.  Then we talked it over and decided we didn’t need flightpacks.  Only two of us can’t fly when we want to, and those two can control their Ki to do all those wacky wire-fu moves like leaping up into trees and lightfooting up walls,” I explained.  “But we are all looking into using holdouts and surprise tactics.  Even our big guns.”

Then Bardue really lit into them.  He chewed them out for losing their situational awareness, for not watching their backs, for falling for the oldest tricks in the book, for not being prepared for unusual attacks, for depending too much on one trick, for letting someone spook them just with the atmosphere of the place…  He had a list the size of the Berlin phonebook.  Kismet just kept turning her head to glare at me, like it was all my fault.

Okay, it was my fault that the music had unnerved a couple of them and given me a convenient distraction.  But they should have realized that was what the music would be used for.  Everheart had given me an hour with Larry the sim guy in a little ‘mission planning’ room, and Larry had let me sneak all those little clues in.  The Vindicators should have been ready for me.  They totally weren’t.

Everheart led me back to the locker rooms.  She said, “Get changed.  Red Team debrief in six.  Room 2.”

I politely said “Yes ma’am,” since I’d been rude to her before.

She stopped on her way out.  “Look Phase, if they’re your friends, they’ll get over it.  It’s a part of training.  You have to separate what happens in an exercise like this from what happens in your personal life.  You have to learn that you need to go all out against the ‘enemy’ in the exercises, and then after the debrief you can go have a drink with your pals.”

I sighed, “I can do that.  I think.  I just don’t think Kismet and Dynamaxx can.”  I just kept thinking about how that was going to mess up things between me and the Beret Mafia, and between me and a lot of the Golden Kids.

Everheart didn’t need to look at a clock.  “Red Team debrief in five.”

I hurried.  I went light and stepped out of my sim suit.  Then I hung it up in my little cabinet and hurriedly dressed.  I wanted to be out of there before the distaff half of the Vindicators came in to change.  Once I had my Whateley school uniform on, I cut through the wall to get to the corridor quicker, while I tried to finger-comb my hair into something that didn’t resemble a mat.

I got into Room 2 with a minute to spare.  The ‘Red Team’ exercises that morning had been the classic ‘invading the evil lair’ routine, with an emphasis on building invasion and room-to-room, when the rooms were full of traps.  I could tell that there had been five team exercises, since there were five of us in the room.  Fey, Lancer, and Tennyo were already sitting down and chatting with Diamondback.  I figured that meant that select people from Team Kimba and Outcast Corner were the ‘supervillains’, so our two teams had gotten a pass.  I noticed that Tennyo was holding her cabbit.  I figured I knew what that meant.

“Greetings, fellow evil members of the Evil Hall of Evilness,” I grinned.

“Hey, Phase,” acknowledged Lancer.

“Welcome, Mister Luthor,” grinned Fey.  Well, at least she didn’t call me ‘Star Sapphire’.

Tennyo managed a weak smile, which was just a major improvement over last weekend.  I was glad she was doing this well.  This was the first day she was back in Team Tactics since Overclock and Make bushwhacked us in the holos a week ago.  Those little bastards.  Once I’d found out what Carson had done, and that the two weasels were in MCO holding cells, I’d dropped my own personal plans for revenge, which had really been fairly lame compared to what the Workshop did.  All I had been planning to do was ruin them financially.  Getting turned over to the MCO topped that easily.

Diamondback grinned at Fey, “I have to admit, I thought you’d go for the Gorilla Grodd joke there.”

“Hey!” I mock-scowled, as Fey giggled.  I said to Diamondback, “Just because I’m super-intelligent, you don’t have to get all jealous.”

That got her, because Diamondback’s one of the smartest people on the entire campus.  She just stuck her tongue out at me and grinned.

You know, if it wasn’t for the whole naga/snake thing, she’d be pretty darn good-looking.

Diamondback opened her mouth to hit me with a brilliant retort, but Everheart tromped in before Diamond managed to get out the first syllable.  Sandra was smart enough to close her mouth and let it drop.

Everheart looked us over and said, “Nice work, Red Team.  Five scenarios, five Red Team wins.  Phase had to play with her food before she ate it, but the rest of you did the job you were supposed to.”

Fey looked at me as if she were a mom and I might have just tracked mud across the kitchen.  Or, in the case of my mother, it was the look I’d once gotten when mother caught me eating the Oysters Rockefeller appetizer with the salad fork at Ma Maison.  She frowned, “Phase, what did you do?”

I admitted, “Okay, I took it too easy on the V’s, and all of them made it to the big fight against the supervillain at the end.”

Lancer smiled, “And let me guess.  You gave Sizemax the ‘Matterhorn treatment’ and finished them in a couple seconds.”

I shrugged uncomfortably, “That’s why they picked me for the Vindicators.  Best foe for a team with a size-Warper and a density-changer.  Kismet’s going to be pissed at me for weeks.”

Fey shrugged, “If Kismet didn’t have something to be snippy about, her head would explode…  And maybe she’ll be off my case for a few days.”

Everheart got things back on track.  “Lancer?  Anything to report on Omega Squad?”

Lancer nodded.  “As we discussed, they have zero teamwork.  That’s still their biggest weakness.  They didn’t protect each other as they worked their way through the traps, so only Confundus made it to the final room.  Blacklight’s darkness powers are pretty versatile, but he still needs team support sometimes.  The high-intensity halogens in room two knocked him for a loop, and no one covered for him in the seconds he needed to recover.  Grapple has strength and that contact-Energizer talent, but he’s still vulnerable and flightless, and his team didn’t back him up at the pit trap.  Eruption has the flight covered, and the long-range blasting, but he’s really vulnerable to close-in attacks.  If the two of them just worked together, they’d be a heck of a lot more effective.  Confundus has the usual PDP limitations.  She can’t do her PK supergirl bit and cast her illusions or do her confusion trick at the same time.  And she isn’t thinking tactically.  She attacked the decoy hologram and left herself wide open.”

I didn’t say anything, but I was glad my intelligence network was working.  I’d given Hank the intel on Blacklight’s weakness.  But that was something I had been wondering about, because Nacht had similar powers, but her powers testing said light attacks made her stronger.  So I had warned Lancer that Blacklight’s powers testing ‘weakness’ might be a trap.  Now I had to worry about something else: were there multiple traits that all yielded the same sort of Nacht/Blacklight power set but with different weaknesses?  And if so, how did one figure out who had what weakness without getting one’s ass kicked when your attack only made your opponent a lot stronger?

Everheart nodded sagely.  She’d probably watched the entire thing, so she probably agreed with him completely.  Heck, Hive probably had her jacked into the sim systems so she could watch every sim simultaneously and review details in slo-mo.  She looked at Diamondback.  “What about the Power Cats?”

Sandra gracefully brushed her long hair out of her face and said, “They did a good job of teamwork.  If anything, they focus too much on that.  They spend so much time watching out for Juryrig that they leave the rest of the team open for surprise attacks.  They need to get her into power armor or inside a big PFG, and respect her ability to defend herself.  Diva tends to do the overprotective bit on everyone.  A bad case of ‘Superman Syndrome’ there.  As their big brick, she tends to try to take the bullet for the whole team.  You can tell it really bugs everyone else.  So it was really easy to take her out with the first couple traps, since she was literally leaping into the path of everything that came their way, whether she could handle it or not.  Once Diva was down, the rest of the team were a lot more vulnerable.”

Everheart nodded again.  “I saw that none of them made it to the final chamber.”  She looked at Fey.  “Your turn.”

Fey smiled wickedly.  “Elite League did a pretty good job of teamwork, but I took out their mage first with a magical boobytrap that would only trigger when a mage detected it.  After that, they were in trouble.  They couldn’t spot any of the magical traps until after they were sprung.  Only Bombshell and Stretch made it to the final chamber against me.  Neither has any magical protection, they didn’t have any useful holdouts, and it was pretty obvious they hadn’t worked out two-person team tactics for the two of them.”

Everheart nodded, “Okay.”  She looked at me.  “Phase, do you have anything else to add?  Or are you planning on playing The Riddler in every scenario this term?”

Everyone else stared at me.  So I shrugged a little as I explained, “I left some subtle clues that it was me.  None of the Blue Team noticed.  Dynamaxx figured one of them out during the debrief, once he knew that there actually were clues.  And I didn’t make the traps tough enough.”

Fey gently said, “You’re over-compensating.  You’re worried about losing friends, and you’re not going with your ‘A’ game.  That may make them madder at you in the long run.”

I sighed.  I didn’t really have anything to say to that.  Especially when she was right.  I tried to keep my face under control, even if I couldn’t hide my emotions from a high-end empath like Nikki.

Everheart cleared her throat, “Phase, I’m still waiting on a report.”

“Sorry, admiral.”  I focused, “They have serious teamwork problems.  I don’t think any of them want to work with Kismet, and it really shows with Lemure.  Kismet’s not nearly as good a leader as she thinks, and that causes its own set of problems.  They’re a team with four people who can fly - when they focus - and a teleporter and a giant, but they still cluster together like a squad of six baseline soldiers.  They’d do a lot better with Lemure on point, so she could be farther away from Kismet.  She’s better on her own than Cerebrex, anyway.  Dynamaxx did a good job on their six, but he needs the rest of the team to pick up the slack.  They need new techniques that work better than what they’re using now.  None of them except Dynamaxx have any holdouts either, so when their powers aren’t enough, they’re stuck.”

Everheart nodded, “Good.”  Then she turned to the last of the red team.  “Tennyo?  Anything to report on S.T.A.R. League Junior?”

Tennyo shrugged a little, not that the gesture made her hair or her boobs jiggle.  “I still think Shroud could have played my part again.  She did just fine as me last Saturday night, when Gunny ran that ‘Dark Tennyo’ scenario on Elite League.”

Everheart insisted, “You need to get back into your classes.  We’ve let you slack off of Team Tactics for a week.  I know your team’s been briefing you and keeping you up to date, but you need to get back in the field.”

Tennyo ducked her head a little.  “You’re right, ma’am.  And it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”  The cabbit gave her a little hug around the waist before it went back to pretending to be an inanimate stuffed toy.  “It was kind of fun, except I didn’t like hurting them.”

Everheart said, “They didn’t get hurt.  Not seriously hurt, like in your sim last week.  And we’ve got new safeguards in place so that isn’t going to happen again.  To anybody.”

Tennyo said, “Well, it’s pretty clear they’ve worked together as a team for a while.  They use Psymod as their comm system and their psychic detection system, and that’s also their weak point.  Once he went down, their teamwork and communications really suffered.  Plus they lost the ability to teleport out of traps.  Wallflower was the only one to make it to the final room, and she almost didn’t make it that far.  Then, her invisibility and force fields didn’t hold up to a wide-area assault from my plasma blasts.”

Everheart said, “You hesitated before launching your attack.  We talked about the need to go on the offensive, but you held back.  You need to get over that.”

Tennyo just ducked her head and said, “Yes ma’am.”

Everheart pushed, “You need to get back on track.  Your team’s going to be depending on you.  And you have enough enemies already.  You don’t want to let everyone know you’re not as hard a target as usual.  You don’t want your team to get hurt because you’re holding back.”

“Yes ma’am,” Tennyo said softly.

Once Everheart wrapped up the Red Team de-brief, she sent us on our way.  The Security officer at the door checked us out, and we left.  I didn’t say anything, but I was glad they had decided to augment the security on the holo sims in more than one way.  Our first visit to the holos had not been fun.  On the other hand, it got us out of the rest of the intro stuff, since we’d demonstrated that we were major holo-badasses, even when the other side was cheating like crazy.

And yes, it turned out the second ‘beginner’ holo sim really was Team Kimba vs. the Alphas in the middle of the campus.  According to a couple people I’d asked, the low-level beginner teams had to play ‘defense’ and protect the bystanders from the fight; the mid-level beginner teams got to fight the Alpha entourage (which had Hekate absent and Don Sebastiano sitting it out on the sidelines); and the teams who thought they were hot shit ended up fighting Team Kimba.  Only it was the no-holds-barred completely insane version of Team Kimba: an unstoppable ‘Tennyo’ who ruthlessly hurled plasma blasts like they were spitwads and had no qualms about using that antimatter sword on anyone who faced her; a ‘Fey’ who wielded force fields and lightning and magical blasts like The Magus; a ‘Lancer’ who pounded the snot out of anyone who couldn’t get away from him fast enough; and the rest of the team attacking anything that moved.  Great.  That would probably inspire a dozen campus teams to really go after us in the sims.  I wondered uncomfortably if people really saw us that way: a team of really dangerous nutcakes who might go postal on you if you looked at us the wrong way.

Out in the corridor, Diamondback parted company with us and rushed back to Whitman.  She had a few muttered comments about dealing with her roommate sitch.  I didn’t know who she was rooming with, but I hoped it wasn’t Tisiphone.  Or Fractious.  Man, I’d heard stories about Fractious.  Even Jobe hadn’t gone through as many roommates as that kid.

Okay, to be fair, the word on Jobe was that Oak actually thought Jobe was a really good roommate, and didn’t want to trade.  The bio-engineering Jobe had done on their dorm room was apparently a big hit with Oak.  Everyone else thought it was somewhere between ‘gross’ and ‘horrific’, but Oak liked it.  Plus, Jobe had stood up for Oak a couple times, much to some upperclassmen’s regret.

After Diamond slithered out of sight, I turned back to Billie.  “So, how was your first day back as Tennyo, Red Team supervillain?”

Fey muttered, “Goddess, sometimes you have the tact of a lightning bolt.”  The cabbit stuck its tongue out at me too.

Tennyo shrugged and said softly, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  Really.”  The cabbit hugged her again before settling into the crook of her right arm once more.  “At least Jinn did the Dark Tennyo thing for me last weekend.  I don’t think I could’ve done that.”

“Miya!” the cabbit said gleefully, punching the air in a victory celebration.

Lancer added, “Yeah, the J-Team couldn’t wait to give us a blow-by-blow on it.  Shroud-as-Tennyo really kicked their asses.”

Actually, the way Jinn described it, the Elite League just about wet their pants when they saw Dark Tennyo coming after them.  Not that I blamed them a bit.  Apparently, Everheart had re-programmed the ‘simulation template AI’ code Overclock hadn’t managed to erase, had incorporated some simulation code already in the system, and had set things up so Shroud could manifest Tennyo’s powers in the sim.  I was making mental notes on that, since that meant that someday we could face, say, Deathlist or Cataclysm or Dr. Diabolik in the holos, when it would really be that AI system, or someone like Everheart playing the badguy.

Tennyo nodded, “It’s just… harder knowing that… that I could do things like that.  When I had Wallflower in the final chamber?  I suddenly had a big flashback.  To something the Starstalker did a long time ago.  Something awful.  All those poor people.  Dead.  And I – well, the Starstalker - didn’t care…  Not at all…  I almost couldn’t make myself attack Lily.”

Lancer said, “Billie, just remember.  You’re not the Star Stalker.  The Star Stalker was a conscienceless thing.  You have some of its memories and some of its powers now.  But you’re not that thing.  You’re Billie Wilson, just… with some stuff tacked on.  You didn’t do those bad things, it isn’t your fault, and you won’t do things like that now.  Got it?”

Billie just turned to him, opened her mouth, and froze.  Then she gave him a huge, tearful hug.  I don’t think she was watching her own strength, either.  If she’d squeezed anybody else, she might have squashed him.  The cabbit squeaked “Miya!” and gave Hank a hug too.

Hank grinned, “Hug me all you want, I’m not giving you any carrots.”

“Miya!” the cabbit squawked indignantly.

Fey nudged me and teased, “Don’t they make a lovely couple?”

I agreed, “Yeah, the Tenchi Muyo / Justice League crossover.”

“Hey, I already have a girlfriend,” pointed out Lancer.

“And I’m not interested in Hank,” said Tennyo.

Just to be difficult, I said, “Even if you did just blow up his girlfriend.”

Fey helped out, “Yeah, that’s classic ‘super-powered girlfriend love triangle’ stuff there.  At least you didn’t stuff her body in Hank’s fridge.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” I said.  “Stuff her in Hank’s fridge?  Where’d that come from?”

Tennyo answered, “Green Lantern.”

Lancer supplied, “It’s an old, really lame, Green Lantern storyline.”

Damn.  I really hate it when everyone except me knows what’s going on.

Fey added, “You know Ayla, you need to spend more time catching up on pop culture and less time on ‘culture’.”

Tennyo forced a grin and said, “Maybe you should read ‘Twilight’.  That’d be a good start.”

Lancer groaned, “Oh God, not that.  Phase’ll never trust your opinion again.”

“That one, I know about,” I admitted.  “Jay Jay has that one and the second book, and can’t sit still waiting for book three to come out.  Like she can sit still for anything.  Plus, she’ll ramble about Bella and Edward at the drop of a hat.  I tried to explain to her that ‘Wuthering Heights’ is not a romantic novel, but apparently the author of ‘Twilight’ is too stupid to read the book and understand it.”

Fey pointed out, “You can’t change Jay Jay’s mind once she’s made it up.  I think you’d need a faster speedster than her to argue with her at hyperspeed.”

“Use the Speed Force, Luke,” Hank intoned in his deepest voice.

At least I knew what the ‘Speed Force’ was, even if I didn’t know all about Green Lantern.  I shrugged, “Well, all I have to do is insult the books or the author to get her to stop talking about it around me.”

Lancer added, “They’re really pretty crappy.  The first one, at least.  I didn’t read any others.  And Edward is really creepy.  Not in a ‘demon of the night’ way, either.  More of a ‘creepy overage stalker’ thing, if you ask me.”

We all looked at him.

He waved his arms.  “Look, I wasn’t Hank a year and a half ago, you know!  I did normal girl stuff back when I was Hannah.”

“Probably listened to Britney Spears,” I muttered.  Fey snickered.

Lancer said, “I listen to country-western.  Mostly.”  We all stared at him.  “Okay, I did listen to Britney when I was younger.  Happy now?”

Fey giggled, “It’s always important to have good teasing material.”

I pointed at her and reminded her, “Don’t forget.  Jade got a ton of good stuff on you over Christmas.”

Tennyo said, “And she blabbed all of it she could remember.”

Fey groaned, “Ugh, I knew letting her spend any time near Troy was a bad idea.”

“No good deed goes unpunished,” I told her.

Tennyo added, “And your mom told her a bunch of stories about you too.”

I teased, “I’m helping her organize them all into a biography.  Fey: the Embarrassing Years.”

Lancer put in, “See?  No good deed goes unpublished.”

Fey gave me a look and said, “One of these days, we’ll get plenty of dirt on you, you know.”

I shrugged, “Yeah, like anyone would want to read about how boring I was as a kid.  ‘Ooh, that chapter three on Trevor taking advanced math classes was a real page turner.’  Not.”

Lancer smirked, “I’d bet She-Beast has all kinds of stories about Trevor Goodkind.”

“And Mal does too,” I agreed.  “Mostly they’re stuff you could have guessed.  Like my wanting to sit around talking about books instead of running around on the playground.  I mean, we’re talking about Trevor stories so boring Marcel Proust would be asking you not to jog his memories about them.”

Tennyo shook her head.  “Phase, you have got to learn to update your refs to the twenty-first century.”

“Or at least the twentieth century,” sniped Fey.

Lancer added, “Maybe change it to a Willow Rosenberg ref or something.”

Okay, I knew who Willow Rosenberg was.  But just to be difficult, I pretended to ask, “How about a William Safire ref?  Is that modern enough?”

Tennyo just rolled her eyes.

Fey said, “I was afraid it was going to be another ref about that Ezra Pound loony.”

“Oh, right, the weirdo who got thrown in prison after World War II,” recognized Lancer.  “That guy was nuts, and all I know about him is from what Phase said last term.”

Tennyo said, “Look at the bright side.  At least now we know what English courses not to take.”

Fey hugged her and said, “Billie made a funny!”

That did make me grin.  I hadn’t heard Billie even try to make a joke for a solid week.

Lancer patted Billie on the shoulder and said, “Glad to see you’re on your way back.  I don’t know how much longer I could take those delicious smells drifting down the hallway from your room.”

Tennyo defended herself, “I didn’t ask Phase to keep bringing me food.”

“Three times a day?” Fey put in.

“Hey,” I defended myself.  “A sick girl needs her between-meals snacks.”

Tennyo nearly smiled.  “Five pounds of prime rib and half a dozen baked potatoes don’t count as a ‘snack’, you know.”

I shrugged, “I didn’t think you were eating enough at regular meals.”

Lancer pointed out, “And it’s not like any of it went to waste.  I didn’t even get a taste of that prime rib.”  He gave her a big grin so she’d know he was teasing her.

Tennyo smiled back.  “I would’ve shared, if you’d asked.  There was a lot of food.  And those warming-drawer things kept all the food really hot.”

Fey gave me a glare.  “Warming drawer things?” she asked suspiciously.

I shrugged blithely, “I bought three of them for the chefs in the caff.  They just had to put in the prime rib and baked potatoes, for delivery over to Poe.”

Fey glowered, “And do I want to know how much these warmers cost?”  I grinned and shook my head no.  “Or who was doing all the toting around for you?”

“Mi mi mi!” insisted the cabbit, raising its paw in the air.

Lancer laughed.  “Jinn.  Should’ve guessed.”

When we got down the Hawthorne tunnel to the Poe cutoff, the cabbit went limp in Billie’s arm.  We didn’t even make it up the stairs to our floor before we were mobbed by the entire J-Team.  Plus Vox, Chaka, Risk and Flux, Rip and Bugs, Heyoka, Verdant, Gabriel, Scrambler, Punch, and Jody.  It seemed like almost everyone except Chou and Molly was there to greet us.  The J-Team swarmed Billie, hugging her until you could hardly see any of her except the top of her hair.

Fey smiled, “Jade, I could hear you screaming the news all the way down in the tunnel.”

Chaka gave us her leopard grin and said, “Hey, we were all worried.  Hadda make sure Team Kimba kept its rep intact.”

Lancer smiled, “We were five-for-five, if you include Diamondback.”

I caught Risk’s smirk, so I figured the campus bookies were happy with our performance.

Heyoka smiled, “Who had Elite League?”

I pointed at Fey, even as she raised one hand in embarrassment.  Lancer helped her discomfiture by insisting, “And she crushed ‘em like bugs.”

Chaka pumped her fists and laughed, “We bad!”

Fey gave her a mischievous smile.  “I guess so.  You certainly showed off your stuff yesterday.”

Chaka nodded her head excitedly.  “That was so much fun!  I had no idea Sam would let me be one of the ‘surprise attacker’ bad guys.  And I totally owned the Power Kitties.”

Yesterday, the second half of Team Tactics class had been ‘situational awareness’ drills.  Everheart and Bardue had picked ‘surprise attackers’ for the sims.  Team Kimba had gotten hit with Spellbinder, but that turned out to be easy for us.  Between Shroud being able to see magic and mutant powers, and Fey being able to sense magic - especially distortions in the ley lines - our team spotted her before she had a chance to launch her attacks.  Fey blocked her spells, while the J-Team made several simultaneous end-arounds to take her out.  Between Shroud and Spinner and the Hello Kitty compact and a trio of missiles from Jade’s arm bracer, Spellbinder didn’t have much of a chance, no matter how many carefully-prepared defensive spells she had ready.

The other surprise attackers for the drills were Wallflower, Confundus, Eldritch, Duplex, Lemure, and Chaka.  Eldritch was the worst, in my personal opinion, since she opened up on the Omegas with a sniper rifle, and followed up with a freaking grenade launcher and half a dozen claymore mines!  That girl had ‘psycho Marine’ stamped all over her.  Except the places where she had those mystical tattoos.  Not that I was prying into her past.  If she was here because of the Federal Witness Protection Program or something similar, even prying too hard could jeopardize her cover.  If we ever really needed to know about her background for something important, I’d just ask her.  Or maybe I’d get Jade to ask her.  The Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes hardly ever failed.

Chaka excitedly explained to everyone who wasn’t in Team Tactics class, “Redlight’s a PDP, so they were using him as their detector, so I just closed down my brow chakra and he couldn’t find me with his Psi, and they walked right under where I was hiding.  I dropped right in front of Diva and did my paralyzing nerve strike, and she was toast.  Then I hit Redlight with my Chaka Chaka Bang Bang before he could attack me, and the rest of the team wasn’t too bad.  Zip’s pretty fast, but he can’t do full-speed and dodging at the same time.  And all I had to do was make a move at Juryrig, and he ran to her rescue.  Bam!  Instant takedown.  I didn’t give Duplex time to touch me and do her mimic thing - if you ask me, she shoulda done a mimic of Diva to start with.  Juryrig’s tougher than she looks ‘cause she’s got a ton of weapons in that chair.  And since I got to her last, she had time to rev everything up.  I had to dodge a bit to get out of the way of everything she aimed at me.”

Lancer said, “Diamondback had the Power Cats today.  Same problem.  Diva goes Kal-El at the first sign of a threat, and they all spend too much time trying to protect Juryrig.”

Jade said, “But they’re nice.  I like ‘em.”

I reminded her, “We weren’t doing the supervillain bit because we hate anybody.  Well, except for Fey on Elite League.”  Fey wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out at me.  “Diamond was just doing her job as the red team.  But if you really like them, you ought to have a heart-to-heart with them and point out their weaknesses.”

Lancer said, “It’s not like Everheart and Bardue aren’t telling ‘em this stuff, you know.”

I nodded, “Yeah.  But sometimes it’s easier to accept it if you hear it from a friend than if someone’s screaming it into your face at a hundred fifty decibels.”

Jade worried her lower lip as she thought it over.  “Umm…  Okay, maybe I’ll talk to Teresa and Greta.  They’re really nice.  Diva’s kind of a poopyhead about a lot of stuff, but they’re not.”

Well, duh.  She wasn’t called Diva just because of her Siren talent.

Jinn said, “I’ll go too.  Duplex helped us a lot with the Tansy thing.”

I wondered how that chat would go, since most of Duplex’s help had been kissing Jinn-in-Tansy on that blackmail video.  Not that I was thinking about Solange softly kissing another hot babe.  No way.  Even if we’d watched that DVD about two dozen times.

Okay, I guess I was thinking about it way too much, since I missed the first part of the rest of the conversation.

“-so then it turns out Ayla went all Riddler on the V’s, and planted secret clues all over the lair so they could figure out who they were up against,” Fey was saying.

“Now that’s exactly what I’d expect from Ayla Goodkind, supervillain,” Bugs nodded sagely.

“Hey, ‘Goodkind’ and ‘supervillain’?  Isn’t that sort of synonymous?” snarked Chaka.

“‘Synonymous’?  Wow, I guess all that homework in English class is finally paying off,” I deadpanned.

“So let me guess,” continued Chaka.  “The Goodkind supervillain lair had butlers, maids, fancy statues, and Old Masters hanging on the walls.”

I admitted, “Pretty close.  No servants, though.  But I had a hall of marble statues that attacked them, and the final chamber had a fancy arching ceiling with Greek columns at the sides, and classic paintings on the ceiling as frescoes, á la the Sistine Chapel.  Plus, I hit them with ‘O Fortuna’ and completely creeped them out.”

“That’s that thing you were playing for Chou yesterday?” Fey asked.  “It was pretty eerie just in a dorm room.  It must have been totally freaky in a supervillain lair.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, their point man backed up so far he made their whole team clump together, and then it was pretty easy.”

“Did they do that stupid thing where Sizemax gets big and throws one of their bricks?” asked Chaka.  “They love that bit.  I’ve never seen it work.”

“Oh yeah,” I agreed.  “My sources tell me their old team was lethal with that bit.  They had a brick who had sucky acceleration, but could keep up the velocity no matter what speed he started with.  So if you fired him out of a cannon, he was essentially a brick-shaped bullet.  They kicked ass with that bit.  But they’ve got different personnel now.  Lemure and Sizemax are the only holdovers, and Lemure wants out pretty badly.”

“Got their shoe sizes too?” teased Lancer.

“Nah, Ayla’s going to be trying to find out their bra sizes,” kidded Fey.

Generator looked away from Tennyo long enough to say, “Honestly, Ayla, you’re getting as bad as Stephen!”

I smiled, “I’m aiming for higher than that.  Hopefully, next year people will be telling Thuban he’s nearly as well-informed as Phase.”

Lancer shook his head slowly, “Oh man, that’ll go over big.  Phase, don’t we have enough opponents?  I don’t want to be fighting a war with fifty different fronts.”

I smirked, “Yeah, that didn’t work so well for Napoleon either.”

He rolled his eyes and said, “So don’t add any more fronts, please.”

I said, “I don’t intend to.  Actually, I’m trying to set up more alliances.”

Jade put in, “Stephen said Ayla was really nice when they had their meeting, and not at all a big pain in the, umm, neck like he was figuring.  So, yeah.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “That’s my goal in life.  To not be as big a pain in the ass as everyone expects.  Thanks for that ringing endorsement.”

“Hey, I didn’t say it!” fussed Jade.  “Stephen did!”

I reached over to ruffle her hairdo and said, “Yeah, I know.”

She tried to give me a scowl, but it came across as a cute moue.  I ignored a sudden temptation to give her a hug, and let her get back to worrying about Tennyo.

Risk gave me a massively unsubtle head-jerk to tell me he wanted to talk to me.  So, while Lancer told everyone about playing supervillain on the Omegas, I sidled over to talk to Risk.

He murmured, “Nice going.  Everyone knows the ‘supervillain lair’ scenarios are all heavily slanted toward the villain, since he’s the home team.  Always the odds-on favorite.  But Memo and Hazard said there was a lot of money from Melville and Dickinson on Elite League and Omega Squad.  On the other hand, there was a fair chunk of change from Hawthorne and Whitman and Twain against Elite League, but they got lousy odds since they were betting on the favorite.  Now, if there’s anything you just happen to have heard about next week’s sim match-ups…”

I tried not to grin.  There was just something intrinsically wrong about letting probability warpers run the gambling for your school.  Oh sure, Risk liked to tell everyone that his power was a clairvoyant talent that let him do everything well - a ‘not-quite-a-paragon’ bit.  But his powers testing files said he was definitely an Exemplar and Probability Warper.  Not that I was spreading that around.  Still, he and Hazard and the others were willing to do pretty much anything to help those probability warping talents when it came to hedging their bets.

Now if there was ever a Whateley ‘casino night’ and someone was dumb enough to let Risk and Hazard play ‘dealer’ or ‘croupier’, I might have to warn a few people away from the tables.

I got back to the main group just as Fey was elaborating.  “…So she puts up a magical spell to detect traps, and that was exactly what I had planned on.  That was the trigger for the spell.  Boom!  And the rebound effect blasted her across the room.  Bombshell tried to catch her, but you really don’t want to smash into a solid PK field moving right at you, any more than you want to smash into a concrete wall.  Big ouch.  So with their mage down, they didn’t have any backup to detect magical traps…”

I waited until she finished.  It seemed like the entire room wanted to hear how a bunch of Alpha-wannabe jerks got their asses kicked.  Then I made sure the Kimbas stayed in the room as everyone else trickled out.

Once I had the group down to Kimbas, I announced, “Okay, as most of you know, next week is my birthday.  So I’m taking all of you out to lunch on the 27th.”

“Where?” asked Lancer.

“Is it all-you-can-eat?” asked Tennyo.  Everyone gave her a look.  “Well, I just thought I’d ask!  People get touchy about that kind of stuff, y’know!”

“I know,” agreed Generator.  “When you ate that restaurant out of business at Christmas…”

“Hey!  I didn’t put ‘em out of business!  I just… ate a lot…”

“And we know, ‘cause we were hiding in the backpack,” prodded Shroud.

“You guys so need to invent your own first-person pronouns,” I pointed out.

Lancer added, “And do you have a name for the cabbit yet?”

“Uhh, ‘cabbit’ isn’t okay?” Jade wondered out loud.

“Needs to start with ‘J’,” I snarked.

“Jyo-oki.  ‘Jokey’ for short.” suggested Chaka to a fair amount of snickering.

“With those teeth and claws, I think you ought to call it ‘Jaws’.  But that would tell people about the threat potential,” I pointed out.

“Miya!” someone small and furry agreed as it hugged Billie some more.

“With those fangs, how about ‘Miya Harrow’?” I tried.

Jade frowned at me, while Hank tried not to snort into his soft drink.

Chaka tried, “Miya Feral.”

Fey pointed out, “Feral might not appreciate that one.”

“MIYA!!” someone protested at that idea.

“Miya Ham,” Fey suggested.

Various snorts and giggles filled the room as a small, furry complainer squeaked out a few more “Mi-mi-miya!” noises.

“Miya Hamming-It-Up is more like it,” I muttered.

“I kind of like just plain ‘cabbit’,” said Tennyo softly.  She looked down and gently hugged her cabbit, which snuggled more tightly under her arm.

Everyone sort of stopped.  Although the cabbit turned its head so it could stick its tongue out at me.

Lancer changed the topic, in his usual super-smooth manner.  “Uhh…  Phase!  Yeah.  Phase.  What were…  Umm…  Oh yeah.  What were you saying about lunch next week?”

I went back to my earlier point.  “Right.  Next Saturday.  I already talked Bardue into letting us go next Saturday, while he was feeling really guilty about last Saturday’s fiasco in the sims.  For my birthday, we’re all going to Boston for a big catered lunch at Harrison’s Restaurant.”

Fey insisted, “You don’t throw your OWN birthday party!”

I explained, “In my circles, you do.  If you want an elaborate wine tasting party at a Bordeaux vineyard, you arrange the entire thing.  Or rather, your personal assistant arranges it for you.  Now I’m not doing anything that fancy.  Just lunch together, in a nice restaurant.”

“In Boston,” Lancer pointed out.  “We haven’t had a lot of luck getting out of there without major collateral damage.”

I nodded my agreement, “Yeah, but this time, we’ll go with some Whateley Security officers, and we’ll alert Captain Tilley.  It’ll be just fine.  We just won’t go attack bank robbers that are on the television.”

Chaka rolled her eyes.  “Oh yeah, that’ll take care of everything.”

“Oh, come on!” I complained.  “The first time in Boston was our fault!  We went out of our way to stick our noses in and fight bad guys.  Twice.  Then, the second time we went to Boston, we knew damned well Captain Tilley was going to throw us at the Arch-Fiend, if not a couple of his pals too.  Okay, it escalated beyond that.  This time, we just don’t have to dive into the nearest fracas.  Besides, we can all bring friends.  Or dates.  And maybe that’ll keep some of us occupied.”

“Friends?” Tennyo asked.

“Dates?” Lancer wondered.

“Good grief, Ayla!  Do you know how much it’ll cost to get all those extra train tickets?” Fey fussed.

I couldn’t help grinning at her.  “No train tickets.  We’re going via chartered jet, with a couple limos at the Boston end.”

“Ayles!” Chaka squawked.

“Ayla!” Fey gasped.

“Real limos, like at the Oscars?” gaped Jade.

I grinned, “Yeah, real limos, like at the Oscars.  Except the girls getting out will be cuter.”  Not that I actually sat and watched the Oscars.  I had, however, searched the internet for pictures of the hottest starlets walking down the red carpet.  So I knew that some of them had apparently been dressed by Flem Snopes instead of, say, Balenciaga.

“And better dressed,” muttered Chaka.  “Jeez, the thing Anna Faris was wearing last year looked like a garbage bag.”

“With purple duct tape to hold it together,” agreed Fey.

“Billie could’ve pulled it off,” loyally insisted Generator.

Tennyo wondered out loud, “This isn’t going to be one of those super-fancy places that serves nothing but a mushroom and a green bean on a weird-shaped plate, is it?”

I sighed, “Have I ever subjected any of you to something like that?”

“Well, no…,” she admitted.

Chaka helpfully added, “And anyway, don’t places like that have to have super-trendy, pretentious names, like ‘Les Trois Toilettes’?”

I shrugged, “Oh, there are several places like that in Boston, but I figured things would work better if we had enough food for Billie and Hank.”

“Hey!” quickly protested Lancer.

I grinned, “Relax.  Harrison’s has real food.  Just really high-quality versions.  They have some really popular masterpieces, like their whole roast chicken and their seafood pie.  We’ll have plenty of really good food, plus the privacy to eat as much as we want without all the other patrons gaping at us.”

“I don’t know…” complained Tennyo.

I groused, “Hey, I’d think you’d be thrilled about getting away from here for a meal, after this morning.  Just think what meals are going to be like for the rest of the term.”

“I thought breakfast was just fine!” insisted Generator.

“Yeah,” supported Shroud.

Great.  The one who ate a big bowl of Cocoa Sugar Goodios® for breakfast, and the one who doesn’t eat, were happy with breakfast.  Well, I wasn’t.  The croissants were overdone, and hadn’t been kept warm.  The good coffee was non-existent, and even the fruit assortment hadn’t been up to the usual standards.  And I was looking at that kind of food every day for weeks.  Or rather, I was hoping not to have to look at food like that every day for weeks.

The problem was that we weren’t eating in the Crystal Hall anymore.  Yesterday evening, Kodiak had taken over during dinner.  First, he had Glissade do her Siren trick of broadcasting across the whole Crystal Hall without screaming.  Then, once he had the entire room’s attention, he got up and made his big announcement about the Senior Project.  They were completely revamping the Crystal Hall dining area, turning it into a multi-level showplace, which would also significantly increase the space for seating.  But that meant that the Crystal Hall was going to be closed until the Senior Project was completed.  Ugh.  And it undoubtedly meant that the Alphas would have the primo tables at the very top level, so they could lord it over the rest of us.

Kodiak even had Premier and Pendragon and a couple other big-name seniors at the Alpha table with him when he made the announcement, so he was pulling some sort of power play.  My contacts had told me that he was secretly mending fences with a lot of other major players on campus, and a couple of the Alpha bullyboys were finding themselves out in the cold.  It was possible that he was actually doing the right thing, but it was also possible that he was playing a much more subtle, much more dangerous game than The Don seemed capable of.  Either way, it seemed that we had underestimated Kodiak.

The renovations on the Crystal Hall were already under way.  Apparently, the seniors had been building all the component pieces for the first two weeks of the term, over at Macfarlane, while it was wide-open and still being rebuilt.  There were rumors that they’d have the new multi-level version of the Crystal Hall up and ready to go in three weeks.  I wondered how I was going to survive eating meals in Dunn Hall for that long.  Breakfast had been lame.  The kitchens in Dunn Hall weren’t up to the specs of the Crystal Hall kitchens.  The food for the faculty and staff was apparently being prepared and served in some other building.  So the chefs were stressed out, and I doubted they would be able to get the good stuff to me while we ate in Dunn Hall.  Not to mention that the eating area was a lot more crowded, and so plenty of people who didn’t get along were being pushed together in tight quarters.  I had to wonder how long that would last before a major fight broke out.

Jade didn’t seem to notice my slight fugue state as she piped up, “So, can I invite Thuban?”

“Ooh, Steeeeeeephen,” purred Chaka.

“Jade’s got a da-ate…  Jade’s got a da-ate…”

Amid the giggles and a lot more teasing, I said, “Sure.”  But I was pretty sure Thuban would find an excuse to bow out.  I doubted he’d be comfortable surrounded by ‘the enemy’, even if I knew he was capable of passing as normal for at least a couple hours.  He couldn’t have taken Jade out to the restaurants they’d gone to, if he couldn’t hold his ‘human’ form for long enough to eat at a nice restaurant.

Nikki said, “I’m gonna ask Bunny.”

Hank said, “Can I ask Lily?”  Of course, I nodded yes.

Chaka asked, “How about Thunderbird and Riptide?”

“Both?  No way!”  Fortunately, that was Fey, not me.

“Gotta agree with the elf,” I said.  I earned a violet-eyed glare for that one.

Fey groaned at Chaka, “C’mon, you know this is going to be a big problem if you try to take both.  And it’s not like you’ve told Scott about Rip yet.  Or about anything.”

I added, “Seriously, Toni.  Think about it.  A small mistake up front could explode into a large catastrophe later.”

Chaka frowned at me.  “Are you channeling your roomie now and delivering a secret message from the Tao?”

I rolled my eyes.  “Look, I don’t want to drag Chou into this.  She’s having enough trouble along those lines right now, you know.  Dorjee was just supposed to be for a cover, and now she’s trying to figure out how she really feels about him, and things are really screwed up.  Molly is not exactly thrilled about Dorjee.  So don’t bug Chou about it.”

“Okay, okay…  Sheesh,” Toni groaned.  “Okay, I’ll ask Rip, and I’ll tell Scotty… something.”

“Tell him Phase made out the guest list,” I said flatly.  “Either that, or tell him the truth.  You have another significant other, and you’re trying to do quality time with both of you.”

Chaka groaned, “That would go over SO well.”

Lancer grinned, “Hey, most guys would kill to get in on a little red-hot girl-girl action with two fabulous babes.”

Chaka rolled her eyes, “And Rip would kill me if I even suggested that.  Not that I’m ready for that kinda’ sump’m-sump’m either.”

I looked over at Billie.  “Hey Tennyo, who do you want to invite?”

She suddenly looked even sadder.  “A few months ago, I would’ve asked Harry, but now…”

Damn.  I was sorry I’d asked.  Billie had enough trouble with the ‘being a normal girl’ thing without getting dumped by a guy who looked like Techwolf.  That had to be hard on your ego, even if you still weren’t sure you even wanted to be a girl.  But Harry was still hanging pretty solidly with Hexette.  And my contacts said Hexette came from a long line of real witches, so they were probably a lot more flexible about things like nice but freaky-looking boyfriends than the average American family - even the average American CIA-employed superpowered mutant family, like the Wilsons.

Lancer did his ‘man of the family’ thing and tried to redirect the conversation onto safer ground.  “Who do you have as a chaperone?  You know Carson isn’t going to let us go off to Boston without a leash or two.”

“Or eight,” chimed in Chaka.

I admitted, “I’ve got an appointment with Mrs. Carson, so I can talk about that.  This time I’m asking for some heavy-duty support.  Just in case.”

“Heavy duty?” Chou asked.  “More heavy-duty than Tennyo and Fey?”

“Yeah.  Who you asking for?  The entire Empire City Guard?” snarked Chaka.

I smirked, “Actually, I’m going to ask for something so outrageous that she’ll say no.  I’m going to ask for Lady Astarte.”

Chaka covered her face with her hands.  “Oh, this is not gonna end well.  Don’t try to play a playa like Carson.”

Fey nodded in agreement.  “If you stick us with Mrs. Carson for the entire trip, it’s not going to be a funfest, you know.”

I smiled naughtily.  “Carson has a big meeting in New York next Saturday.  I looked at the public schedule when I made the appointment.  She can’t go.  Unless one of her powers is the Triplicate Girl thing.”

“Troika can do that,” pointed out Tennyo.

“So can one of the new kids, I hear,” I added.

“Then what’s the point?” Jade wondered.

“I’m aiming for enough support that we have a CYA if things go south.  I’m angling to get Hive, or someone even tougher.”

“CYA?” Jade mouthed to Tennyo.

“Cover Your Ass,” Billie whispered back.

Jade covered her mouth and giggled.

Chaka pointed out, “I like Samantha, but she doesn’t look any older than we are.”

I nodded.  “That’s one of the points I’m aiming for.  It provides easy support, since she’ll blend in.  And she can do the Shifter trick for at least a few seconds, whenever we need it.”

Lancer nodded, “Right.  That time in Team Tactics where she showed us what she used to look like.”

Fey pointed out, “Has anyone thought about that?  She’s a reconstructed humanoid body supported by a nanite cloud.”  A couple people gave her looks of surprise.  “What?  Bunny told me.  Several of the devisers and gadgeteers can see the nanites around her.  Anyway, how does that give her Shifter powers?”

Lancer said, “I don’t think it does.  I think the Shifter effect is something else.”

I admitted, “According to Security files, some stuff happened to her over Christmas.”

Fey frowned, “I don’t want to know how you got the Security files on a Security officer.”

That was good to hear, because I had no intention of telling her.  But it didn’t take Nero Wolfe, much less Archie Goodwin, to figure out that Lieutenant Trout and Sergeant Buxton were trying hard to ensure that I got copies of the files on the people they didn’t like.  I didn’t know why Caitlin Bardue was at the very top of Trout’s shitlist - although I was pretty damned curious - but it was obvious why Samantha Everheart would be pretty high on that list.  I was just surprised they hadn’t slipped me the files on Chief Delarose and Amelia Hartford yet.  Rumor had it that Delarose was a baseline with an impressive track record in the military before coming to Whateley.  At least, my intel sources thought that.  But I had my own suspicions.  Pristine had leaked a little of her personal Halloween disaster in front of people who were happy to spread information for the right price - I knew they were double-dipping and getting money from Thuban too - and her story was that Delarose had gone face-to-face with Deathlist.  And lived.  But what got my attention was that Deathlist knew him by name.  I really wanted the backstory on that one.

I said, “Look.  If Sam wants to tell us about it, she’ll tell us.  When she’s ready.  Probably not while we’re still her students in Team Tactics.  But she told us the deal back when she started here, so I doubt she’ll clam up completely unless it’s a confidentiality issue.  In the meantime, she can blend in with us at lunch, and she can morph and be the mature older chaperone if she needs to.”

“Plus, she can kick ass if we get in another battle!” cheered Jade.

“Maybe you can carry a few heavy weapons for her in your purse,” I said.

“Ooh, good idea!” Jade said.  Then she stuck her tongue out at me to show she really did know I was just being snotty.

“One last thing,” I said.  Everyone stopped and looked at me.  “No presents.  It’s not that kind of party.”

Chaka complained, “Oh crud, and I was dying to see your face when you opened the Victoria’s Secret present and found those crotchless panties.”

I rolled my eyes.  Several people giggled.  Not that I’m going to name names.  But two of them are really the same person.

Lancer added, “No wonder she doesn’t want presents from us.”

We agreed to meet up in half an hour at Dunn Hall for lunch.  That gave all of us - especially me - time to do a little invitation distribution.  I left a note on Chou’s bed so she’d know she could invite Molly, and Dorjee too if she needed to for any reason.  Jade immediately rushed off to Twain to find Thuban.  Lancer headed off to the theater, where Lily was rehearsing “Much Ado About Nothing,” which I was really looking forward to seeing.  Tennyo flew off  - literally - to invite one of her buddies.  Chaka and Fey took off to wherever their girlfriends were, to invite them.  And I headed down the hall, to invite Vanessa.

There were a lot of Poesies I was thinking of inviting, even if I knew some of them would find a way to say no.  I was thinking about waiting until the last possible second to invite Jody, just in case she was really our mole.  Then there were our other friends on the floor, and some upperclassers I was thinking about.  We still owed Zenith a big one, even if Chaka had saved her from Nex.  Shrike was one of my first financial clients, so she was on my ‘invite’ list, as was Sahar over in Dickinson.  I was still trying to get Askey to convert his holographic videogame into a pure-gadget invention that we could patent and market, so he was on the invitation list.  Electrode had been a big help more than once, so she was on the list.  Megs and Delta were possibilities, even if I really didn’t want to fund Delta’s forays into bigger and better biomorphology disasters.

On the other hand, Kenny and his boyfriend were definitely off the list, along with Tempest and Push and Michelangelo.  And Gabriel, given his tendencies to go all bi-polar at the drop of a miter, and the way he’d gotten up in Jade’s face a couple times.

I started out by checking Vox’s room.  I lucked out.  She was in there, listening to music and almost studying, while Sharisha was somewhere else.  The door was open, so I could hear the music and see Vanessa dancing in her chair with her eyes closed and getting down with the beat, or some more streetwise phrase that I still didn’t know.

“Very hot,” I smiled.

“Eep!” she squeaked.  She looked over at me, blushing at getting caught like that.  “I sort of… got bored with this stuff.”

I strolled in and leaned over her shoulder to look at what she was studying.  Ugh.  Powers theory.  No wonder she was bored.  The stuff she was looking at had way too many complicated equations for a typical high school freshman to be working through.  And some of those equations looked to me like calculus, or maybe stuff I hadn’t even seen yet.

“You’re supposed to learn all this stuff too?  I thought you had Dr. Hewley, not The Hazelnut,” I teased.

She grinned back.  “You know perfectly well I do have Hewley.  And he’s really nice, even if he overdoes it at lecture time.”

I figured he had to be just as nice as a teacher as he came across when he was doing powers testing, because Vox had told me that a couple days ago in lab, Glissade and Vox had tag-teamed their powers and had shattered every bit of glass, glass-like plastic, and Armorglass in Lab K.  Including Dr. Hewley’s spectacles.  And then Screech laughed, and burned a hole in one wall.  Granted, Glissade and Vox were supposed to be learning to heterodyne their sonics, but I seriously doubted Hewley expected thousands of dollars in damage for ten seconds worth of success.

Vox paused her music and smiled, “What’s up?  Lunch?  A trip?  Help with my ASL?”

I smiled, “Nope.  You’re doing great with your sign language.  And I’m meeting TK over in Dunn in a bit for lunch.  This is next week’s lunch.”

She said, “Well, you said to keep the 27th open, so I did.  I’m free all day.  You gonna take me to Berlin for lunch?”

“Better than that,” I promised.  “I’m taking you and the gang and some other friends to Boston for a birthday party and luncheon.  Chartered jet and limos.”

Her eyes got big.  “You must be yanking my crank…”  She looked at my face and read the resolve there.  “Christ, that’ll cost a fortune!”

I shrugged, “Relax, it’s pocket change for me.  Besides, the more I use this jet service, the lower the rates they give me.  So think of it as helping me out.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Oh sure, like you need us to tag along so you can blow a wad of cash now so you can get better rates later.  Not buying it.  I did take that accounting class, y’know.”

I grinned and added, “One more thing.  No presents.”

She groaned, “I know.  I wish it wasn’t so hard shopping for you!  It’s like you already own everything on earth, so what do I get you?”  Her eyes flickered over to the other side of the room.  “I know what your present is.  I won’t hassle you about inviting Risha too.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “Because this is going to be a Team Kimba and pals group, and Sharisha would be utterly miserable around us.  Even if she didn’t start a fight.”

“I still think Chou shouldn’t’ve put her in the hospital.”

I groaned, “Okay, we’ve gone over this before.  No, she shouldn’t have hurt Sharisha like that.  But she was under psychic attack by a whole army of maniacs, and she just needed to be left alone.”

Vanessa pouted, “Risha’s having a really hard year.”

I sighed, “I know.  And she’s brought a lot of it on herself.  If she hadn’t decided to go to war against TK, she’d have a much better time at Poe, and some of us could have helped her with her other stuff.  I’d bet that Chaka could have really helped her with her powers if they weren’t constantly yowling at each other like two tomcats.”

She just shook her head sadly.  “I just wish…”

I hugged her.  “I know.  But some people can’t be helped until they’ll let you help.”

She gave me a look.  “Y’mean like the way you do the helping thing?”

She was completely right, too.  I was sneaking her into the Golden Kids meeting to try and help Glitch, who clearly wasn’t ready to let anyone help him in meaningful ways.  I gave her another hug anyway, and sank through the floor down to the basement.

I checked my watch.  I had time to walk the long way to Dunn through the tunnels by way of the labs, and maybe invite a couple inventors.  It didn’t take me any time at all to find my way to the most popular Workshop room.

I found Mega-Death working away in his favorite corner of the main mechanical/electrical Workshop room.  It was a sad state of affairs that I actually knew how to get to the main Workshop lab, and how to open the security door when it was locked, and that it was just the mech room.  “Sad and dreary, clothed in sorrow's dark array”, as one of my favorite authors once said about a different subject.  But the main labs for bio-devisers, nanotech-devisers, energy-devisers, and construction-devisers were elsewhere - and far enough away that the usual deviser oops-sized explosion wouldn’t even affect really sensitive experiments.  And that didn’t say anything about the specialty labs, the private labs, the high-security labs, and the illegal labs that some of the devisers had squirreled away (sorry Aquerna, wherever you are) in places where there weren’t even supposed to be labs.  One of these days, some knucklehead Crucible-wannabe was going to tunnel out a big secret lab, and this entire rabbit warren of tunnels would collapse.

Actually, since this far up in the Presidential mountains we were on really shallow soils over ancient igneous rock, that probably couldn’t happen.  All the tunneling was through solid granitic bedrock.  It was probably more likely that some knucklehead Crucible-wannabe was going to tunnel out a big secret lab and accidentally burrow into some sealed chamber that would unleash one of Sara’s relatives, or something like that thing that nearly got Toni and Nikki just before Christmas.  And nothing said ‘fun’ like fighting unkillable demonic horrors that could fry your brain if you merely looked upon them.  Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, had the t-shirt burned right off my skin.

Harvey was back in the far corner, while the rest of the devisers were all in a group up near the door.  Wunderkind was working on what was undoubtedly one of her forcefield generators, even if the gear looked about the size of an outboard motor.  Flywire was at the table on Wundy’s left, fiddling with what looked like a rocket launcher.  I wondered if Flywire and Wunderkind were deliberately scheduling worktime together, or were just ‘accidentally’ finding themselves working next to each other, because I never saw one of them in here without the other one at the very next table.  Kludge was hard at work using one of the handicapped-access tables, which had an adjustable height so he could wheel his wheelchair under it and work on the components of what looked like some sort of helmet filled with micro-electronics.  Lovelace was working on another of her weird semi-organic computer things.  *!x was helping her and programming rapidly on some sort of holographic keyboard that was connected to the main computer body by what looked like a single red beam from the top of the computer screen.  There were even a couple devisers and gadgeteers I didn’t know.  Yet.

I walked past the group, waving hello to the ones who weren’t too preoccupied to look up at the person moving through their peripheral vision.  I figured I still had plenty of time to extend another invitation, so I made my way to the back of the room.  I walked up and stood across the table from him.  “Hi Harvey.”

He lifted his polarized goggles and grinned at me.  “Ayla!  What can I do for you?  I’m just putting the finishing touches on two new forcefield busters.  I’ll have ‘em for you next week.”

I smiled, “That’s terrific.  But I didn’t come by about hardware.”

“Software?” he asked.  “After Overclock and Make, I kind of thought you might want some software security, and I’ve been thinking about what I could build for you…”

I smiled wider.  “No, that’s not it either,” I said.  “I’m taking some people to Boston next Saturday for my birthday, and I wanted to invite you too.”

His face lit up like I’d just invented chocolate.  His reaction alone told me I’d made the right call.  “Me?  Really?  No kidding?”

“Yes, yes, and still yes,” I grinned.

And he froze.  The happiness just slid off his face, leaving a sick misery.  He swallowed hard.  “You can’t take me.  You don’t know how much it means to me that you asked me.  But the best present I can give you is… not going.  You don’t know how bad I can screw things up.  You haven’t seen me really dricking out.  I could…  I could blow up the whole restaurant.  Or worse.  I’ve done some bad shit when I’ve been dricking.  Around here, there’s damage control, and stuff’s built solid enough to stop bricks, let alone me.  In the real world, I’m a… a liability.  And if you did take me, I’d ruin the party just by being there and having everyone wonder how long it would be before I dricked out and ruined things.  You can’t take me.  But… thanks.  Just thanks a heap.”

I tried some more, but I couldn’t talk him into it.  I finally gave up and left him.  As I left the room, I looked back.  His shoulders were slumped in dejection, and his long face looked twice as long as usual.  I felt like I’d just shown him a shiny new toy, the one he’d really wanted for Christmas… and then I’d crushed it under my heel while he watched.  If I was trying to be a friend to Harvey, I was really sucking at it.

Wunderkind and Flywire split off from the group of inventors who had been watching the whole thing.  They caught up with me in the hall.  Wunderkind patted me on the shoulder and gently said, “It is not your fault.”  There was no mistaking her German accent, even if her English was quite good.

Flywire said, “Look Phase, just let it go.  MD needs some space right now.  He just had a major drick-out in the halls getting here, and he’s on the downslope now.  He’s always pretty depressed afterward.  That smile you saw?  Happiest I’ve ever seen him right after a big drick-out.”

Wunderkind added, carefully watching her English, “He has had too many big disasters off-campus in the last year or two.  Carson would not have let him go.  One of these days, they will get his medications repaired-”

“Fixed,” helpfully corrected Flywire.

Danke.  Fixed.  And then things will be better.”

I headed off toward Dunn.  I was fairly sure I could get there from the tunnels, even though I’d never tried before… and even though the tunnels often had all the gridlike structure of a bowl of capellini.

A couple intersections later, I was fairly sure I was going in the right direction.  Then I heard some voices up ahead of me, and I recognized a couple of them.

In particular, I recognized Jericho, only it wasn’t the usual ‘cheerful buffoon’ voice Jericho usually used.  This was more the ‘angry badass’ voice.  I’d never heard Jericho like this.

“…prank that went horribly, horribly wrong.  Remember?  And that’s just for starters what I’ll do to your asses if you ever so much as fart in Eldritch's direction with your fucking mindslave thing again.  And that doesn’t even start on what Gunny Bardue would do to you!”

A faux-insouciant voice that I finally recognized as Nephandus began insisting, “No no no, you’re completely mistaken, there’s no need for anything like this.  It was all a misunderstanding, I assure you.  Really.”

At the same time, a voice I immediately recognized as Techno-Devil was saying, “Look Jericho, you know you can trust me.  Okay?”

Jericho grumpily finished, “I'm glad to hear that you have no such intentions, guys.  I'd hate to have to tell Razorback that you two were planning on hurting one of his friends.”  There was suddenly a horrific silence in the corridor.

I went light and flew up the corridor, and found Jericho, in all his… umm…  What’s the antonym for splendor?  He was in an outfit that would have most sighted people sprinting for an emesis basin.  Between the fluorescent orange-and-green shirt, the hideous red-and-gold-and-purple kilt, the violently blue argyle socks, the pink tennies, and the yellow pop-art vest, he was a walking impulse that maybe Oedipus Rex had the right idea.

I checked my utility belt and found my anti-Jericho sunglasses, which I hastily donned.  Ahhh, that was better.  Jericho’s outfit was still painful in just shades of gray, but it was a ‘slightly tender ankle’ kind of painful, instead of a ‘somebody just rammed some rebar through my lung’ kind of painful.  Techno-Devil and Nephandus were walking with Jericho, but they were being careful to be far enough ahead of him that his outfit wasn’t even in their peripheral vision.  They also had their toys alongside them, so Jericho couldn’t step up and get in front of them.  Nephandus seemed to go everywhere with his standard technomantic raptor, while Techno-Devil had a new robot which was rolling along on three short treads.  I hadn’t seen this version before.  It looked a lot more stable than his usual two-legged robots.  It was much more “Short Circuit” than “Robocop”, but that might be a good thing.  Of course, it might be a really, really bad thing.  I didn’t know.

In the time that it took me to catch up to them, Nephandus had switched to a less dangerous topic and was explaining to Mal, “No, as I was saying before someone interrupted, the ‘bombs’ in those shoulder angels weren’t ordinary explosive.  I used a technomantic devise, so even a PK brick like…”  His voice suddenly dropped several tones.  “Oh hello, Phase.  Care to join us?”

Techno-Devil turned and looked.  He grinned, “Hi, Ayla.  We’re on our way to Dunn.”  He slapped his stomach and added, “Gotta fuel the furnace, y’know.”

Jericho turned to face me and extended his arms so I could get the full technicolor panorama.  He was back to playing the cheerful buffoon.  Maybe his little ‘chat’ with Nephandus was considered private.  I had to wonder how many other little ‘private chats’ he was having, to make people lay off his friends.  He grinned, “Whaddaya think?  Too boring?  Too staid?”

I nodded, “Definitely.  I recommend adding a paintball target right between your shoulderblades.”

He grinned.  Then he smiled evilly, “Hmmm…  Maybe a shirt that looks like a hundred different-colored paintballs hit it…  Where could I get something like that…”

Mal smirked, “Give it up, Ayla.  There’s nothing you can’t say that he can’t turn into something that looks even worse than he does now.”

Nephandus smirked, “As Mal knows, from painful experience.”

Techno-Devil rolled his eyes, “At least I’m not the one that gave him the idea for the red and orange moiré cape.”

Jericho gave a fiendish supervillain laugh at that.  His cohorts carefully suppressed their smiles and kept walking.

Jericho turned his attention to me.  “So…  What are you going to squeeze out of poor little me this time, oh ruthless tycoon-like one?”

“Advice,” I admitted.  “I’m taking some people out to lunch next Saturday.  To Boston.  I asked Harvey, and he was really amped, and then he just…  sort of…”

“Realized what might happen,” interjected Jericho.

“Yeah,” I said unhappily.  “He said the best present he could give me was not going.  He just looked so damned depressed when I left.  It was like I made things worse instead of better.”

“And you want me to go ask Harvey again?”

I shook my head no.  “I want to ask you how I can ask Phobos if she’d go with us.”

He just looked at me as we walked.  “Just ask her.”

I was sure he got the point, but just in case, I tried again.  “What if it makes her upset?  Like with Harvey?”

Nephandus unhelpfully added his two cents from ten feet in front, “No one is like Harvey.”

Techno-Devil insisted, “MD’s okay.”

Nephandus gave an insolent little shrug that made his half-cape flutter.

Jericho tried to ignore them, and answered me.  “Look, no one like you has ever asked Phobos something like this.  She won’t know what to think.  Give her a day or two to think it over.  Then just go with whatever she decides.”

I sighed.  “You make it sound so simple.  It isn’t.”

Jericho gave me an evil smile.  “That’s the thing about people like you and Diamond.  You focus so much brainpower on a simple problem that you turn it into a complicated mess.  Just give her time, and go with whatever she decides.”

“Okay,” I gave in.  He knew Phobos and her sister a hell of a lot better than I did.  Just because I was the only one Phobos invited to that music performance didn’t mean…  Well, it did mean a lot.  It told me a lot about her life outside Outcast Corner.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“Of course,” I replied.  “You’re one of my inventors.  I want you to come to the party too.  Assuming you can find something in your wardrobe that won’t cause the pilots to crash the plane just to get away from it.”

“Pilots?” Mal asked from in front.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Chartered jet to Boston, limos to and from the restaurant, and I’ve got the restaurant reserved for the day.”

Mal grinned, “You really haven’t changed, have you?”

Nephandus asked snidely, “Don’t tell me Trevor Goodkind reserved the playground back in Montessori school?”

Mal laughed out loud at that.  “He would have if they’d let him.  I should tell you about the time he organized a boycott of the food service in the school lunchroom when they refused to serve a better quality milk.”

“Their salad bar was a disgrace, too,” I complained.

Jericho snickered.  “Why didn’t you just have the Goodkind chefs whip you up a tasty lunch in a to-go container with ice packs and everything?”

“I did, for the entire length of the boycott.  But I wasn’t about to switch to packed lunches and leave everyone else at the mercy of those so-called ‘cooks’.  Someone has to look out for those who can’t take care of themselves.”

Jericho pushed, “But weren’t you going to school with a bunch of other rich kids who could also afford anything they wanted?”

Mal smirked, “Trev was all worked up about the consequences of mediocre food on the palates of the other kids.”

I shrugged.  There wasn’t much for me to say in rebuttal.  It was true.  I was only a first grader, so it hadn’t occurred to me that most of the other kids thought the food was fine.  I hadn’t figured out back then that normal children had palates with all the refinement of a starving vulture with a head cold.

Jericho grinned, “You really closed down the school cafeteria?”  I nodded.  “And made them get better food?”  I nodded.  “As a first grader?”  I nodded again.  He laughed.

Mal grinned, “Trev used to have a ‘tood you could’ve sharpened cutlery on.  Jadis used to say she wanted to get Dad and Trev in a small room and let them ‘attitude’ each other into submission.”

“USED to?” Jericho cut in.  “Trev used to have a ‘tood?  You mean it used to be worse than it is now?”

“I prefer to think of it as ‘more focused’,” I put in.

Nephandus snorted in amusement, while Mal said, “Oh yeah, it used to be about two orders of magnitude higher than that.  We’re talking ‘Lord Paramount’ levels of attitude.”

“I don’t think I was that bad,” I interjected.

“Worse,” teased Mal.  “There’s no way Paramount was like that back when he was in first grade.”

“Crap!” complained Jericho.  “You’re like the Queen of Sheba or something now.  What did you used to be like?  Ming the Merciless?”

I refrained from over-reacting.  I just gave him a look.

Mal grinned and pointed at my face.  “See?  See what I mean?  Trev used to be way worse.  ‘We are not amused’ worse.”

“I never used the royal ‘we’ in my entire life,” I defended.

Jericho tried a pompous, kingly voice, “We never used the royal ‘we’ in Our entire life.”

I pointed at Jericho and said, “Off with his head.”

Mal laughed, while Jericho just shook his head in wonderment and Nephandus pretended to ignore it.  Jericho pointed out in a simulated complaint, “I notice you want to invite the hot chick before you get around to the dumpy black guy.”  It would have been more effective as a reproach if he could have kept from smiling.

“Exactly,” I agreed.  “You know me all too well.  And I plan to remind you some day just who used the phrase ‘dumpy black guy’ too.”

He pretended to think it over, but I had seen his reaction as soon as I asked.  He was going to find an excuse to say no.  He finally told me, “Sorry, but the Outcasts have plans for next Saturday.  Band practice, and cruelly forcing Diamond to sing some more.”

I just gave him a raised eyebrow.  He shrugged, “Look, we’ve been trying to get this set up for a long time now.  It’s Diamond’s first chance to get off-campus and go shopping for stuff she should’ve had back at the start of Fall Term.  If next weekend is going to work, I need to be there for her.”

I nodded, “It’s okay.  But check, and let me know either way.  You can change your mind, even at the last minute.  It won’t be a problem.”

He nodded, “I’ll check with the gang.”

I nodded back and let it slide.  I had no idea how they were planning to get a nineteen-foot anaconda-girl around in public, or even if they were planning to be out in public.  But Jericho had talked enough about things he obviously didn’t want to spill, so I let it go.  I just shrugged and said, “Okay, but I’m sure they’d work around you, so you could go to Boston for a birthday party.”  Then I let it drop.  I suspected he just didn’t want to go and leave his friends in the lurch.  If that was really the case, there was no way I was going to change his mind between here and Dunn Hall.

Mal then asked Jericho about his band, and I spent the rest of the excursion listening to an account of the problems of putting together a band, especially when you had a great singer who didn’t want to sing in front of a group.  I put in my own two cents, of course.  I thought Diamondback had a great voice, particularly when you considered that she wasn’t a Siren.

There were already four people waiting for the elevator when we reached it, but that wasn’t a problem.  The elevator was large enough for perhaps fifteen or twenty normal-sized people.  Twenty-five people, if they were really good friends.  The weight limit listed above the buttons was 12,000 pounds.  That really made me wonder what the heck people were moving around using this elevator.

The elevator opened up onto a wall of cacophony.  It sounded like the entire school was in the room across the hall from the elevator.  We walked in, and I revised my estimate.  Probably two-thirds of the student body was crammed into the Dunn cafeteria.  Just as I had seen it that morning, long cafeteria tables with attached bench seats had been unfolded from the walls, so that about two hundred students were sitting within a couple yards of the side walls.  Similar folding cafeteria tables with attached benches were crammed together in rows down the middle of the room, providing rather cramped seating for roughly three hundred more students.  I figured that almost everyone who ever came to eat at the cafeteria could be served at the same time, if it was necessary.  But the result was that everyone was crowded together like sardines.  Very uncomfortable sardines who had no personal space bubble.

I looked around.  Tennyo and Generator already had a table staked out for Team Kimba.  No one was going to argue with Tennyo about seating arrangements… or anything else, really.  Not that Team Kimba was that picky.  There were really only a handful of kids we wouldn’t want to have eat with us, and those few definitely wouldn’t invite themselves over for a crowded meal in here.  The list was reasonably small: the Alphas and their minions, the G.O.B., half of the New Olympians, Bloodwolf’s gang, and a couple more of our personal enemies.  Granted, if Heartbreaker and Jello wanted to sit with us, I doubted any of us would object.  Similarly, if Prism or Cytherea wanted to join us, that would be okay too.  Plus it would be extra funny having Hank blushing furiously while Cytherea tried to get him to tell her why he was so uncomfortable around her.

I figured the table was ours for as long as Tennyo was eating, so I followed Mal and Nephandus over to what was obviously the official ‘Bad Seeds’ table.  Jadis was sitting there watching Nacht and Thrasher argue with Render about something that was aggravating the crap out of Render, while Nacht showed no emotion and Thrasher was breaking out in grins.  Jobe wasn’t there, but Silver Serpent was deep in discussion with Winter and Damien Faust, while Cheese listened in and giggled insanely.  I still hadn’t pegged Cheese.  Depending on who handed me intel, he was either a random loony, or else the most dangerous Bad Seed in a couple decades.  Which was saying a lot, given that Jobe was currently on the loose.

Mal and Jean-Armand dropped their books and things at places at the table, and Mal parked his robot next to his chair.

I took the opportunity to step over to She-Beast.  “Hey Jadis.  What are you doing next Saturday?”

She smiled warily.  “That would depend on what you’re about to ask me.”

I asked, “Okay, what are you doing next Saturday, if you have the opportunity to come with Team Kimba and friends to my birthday party luncheon in downtown Boston?”

“Boston?” she asked uncomfortably.  “Everyone has heard about your team and Boston.  Both times.  I seriously doubt that Carson’s going to let me join in when your next big two-page-spread ‘X-Men Annual’ battle royale goes down.  Not to mention that I really can’t afford to get involved in anything like that, given the number of FBI and MCO goons who will be following me as soon as I leave Whateley.”

Nacht didn’t say anything, but she gave me a slightly raised eyebrow.  For her, that was equivalent to shrieking, “Boston?  Are you guys nuts?

Jadis added, “I really think I’d better say no.  I don’t think your friends would feel comfortable with a Diabolik in their midst.  They all think I’m plotting to take over your family conglomerate or something…  Anyway, I’m somewhat surprised Carson’s willing to let you go, after last fall.”

Nacht had to make an effort not to grin.  I had to wonder if she was glad Jadis had enough sense to stay out of trouble, or if she was just glad to see me getting rejected.

I smiled blandly, “We’re taking a babysitter.”

Nacht said, “I assume you can afford to hire Mary Poppins for a full day.”  She looked at Jadis, who looked back with a smirk.

Jadis grinned at me, “I hear you already have Mary Poppins’ carpetbag along.”

I smiled back, “Well, Jade had to get her babysitting training from someone.”  I didn’t mention that Jadis had a better intelligence network than I did, since we both knew I wasn’t getting intel from the holo sims staff.  I did wonder how long it would be before Samantha Everheart detected that leak and put a plug in it.

I patted Jadis on the shoulder and said, “If you change your mind before next Saturday, just give me a call.”  Nacht gave me a flat expression that told me she didn’t think there was a chance in hell of that happening.

I walked over and got in line for what was supposed to be food.  There was some sort of carbon-based lifeform passing itself off as ham and potato casserole, and a huge tray of something that looked like macaroni, ground meat, suspiciously-orange tomato sauce, and assorted tiny bits of overcooked vegetables.  The people in front of me were acting as if both things were actually edible.  Actually, Silhouette was excitedly proclaiming that the hamburger mess was her very favorite.  Ugh.  I sighed unhappily.  What were the odds that I could lead a successful cafeteria revolt for a third time?  Particularly when the people around me were perfectly happy with the food analogues being served?  It had taken me months to address the cafeteria problem at Chilton, and this swill before me was nearly as bad.  Thank God this was only for a few weeks.

I gave up on the ‘main dishes’ when I saw that the other choices were even worse, and I slid my tray along to the next table.  The pasta looked sticky and overdone, but the best of a bad lot was the linguini.  There was a dense lasagna-like substance in a huge pan, but I decided not to try it.  None of the sauces looked good, and at least one of them smelled desperately over-seasoned from where I was standing, but I made do with a thick red sauce that at least had started with a tomato base, once upon a time.

The ‘vegetable medley’ and the vegan stuffed green bell peppers looked awful.  Both were desperately overcooked, and the vegetable medley was a particularly sad collection of what were probably leftovers from prior cooking efforts.  I gave up and tried a serving of the veggie casserole that was pretending to be ‘au gratin’.  It certainly had over-browned crumbs and some sort of grated ‘cheese food’ over the top.  Perhaps it would even taste like a vegetable casserole au gratin ought to taste.  What the hell, there wasn’t anything that looked - or smelled - better.

I ended up at the salad and dessert tables.  I put together my own salad, since the pre-made salad mix they had in the massive bowl underneath the sneezeguard looked like it had been put together by a Fifties Midwestern housewife: ninety percent iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, and a couple lonely slices of cucumber and tomato looking like Easter Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  It was probably nearly old enough to have been assembled by a Fifties housewife, too.  But even the options for building my own salad were discouragingly limited, compared to the usual salad bar at the Crystal Hall.

The dessert table was just as bad as I feared, but other students were flocking to it as if Brillat-Savarin himself had prepared everything there.  Huge cakes with too much frosting, an assortment of pies which all looked as if the ovens were uncooperative, since the centers looked slightly undercooked, while the crimped crust at the edges looked nearly burnt.  I risked a brownie with what looked like bittersweet chocolate chips mixed in.

I walked over to the Kimba table, wondering how I was supposed to survive on this fare until the Crystal Hall was ready again.  What was next?  Hamburger Helper for dinner?  Gruel for breakfast?  TV dinners?  I knew something about how bad the food might get, because I had eaten at Chilton for two years.  Plus, I had seen what Amy bought for herself when Tiffany and Janet weren’t cooking.

When I got to our table, Tennyo was already getting up to get another tray of food substitutes.  Fey and Lancer were already sitting down, while Chaka was teasing Generator about something.  Walking up, it sounded as if they were having a serious discussion about when to use sparkly blue eyeshadow.  Fey so needed to improve the source materials for her privacy spell.  I sat down, touched Fey’s crystal which was artfully arranged over the salt and pepper shakers, and got an earful of the real conversation.

“…but Stephen doesn’t want me to go to Boston either!” Jade complained.

I could see that happening.  Thuban came from a traditional upbringing, and probably had old-fashioned Chinese views on the role of women in the world.  Lots of luck on that one, given whom he’d picked for a girlfriend.  I had a feeling Jade would have him dancing to her tune as soon as she figured out what her tune was going to be.  I was guessing it would be one of those J-Pop anime theme songs… with extra sparkles.

Chaka couldn’t resist teasing her, “So next, he wants you to stay home and do all the cooking and cleaning?”

Jade smiled, “I’m really good at the cleaning, but I’m still learning on the cooking part.”

I sat down and ate my salad while I listened to Toni and Jade.  The salad was fairly mediocre, but it could have been worse.

“Look Jade, you’re a girl of today!  You don’t have to put up with that crap.”

Jade blushed and smiled for some reason.  Maybe because she was thinking about not really being a complete girl, and only being a girl for a short while.  Or maybe she was thinking about something she’d done with Thuban that I so didn’t want to hear the details on.  Not that I thought I’d get out of it.  I was probably doomed to hear about the entire episode, at length, most likely some evening when we were all hanging out in my room.

Jade pouted, “But I like it when Stephen’s all manly and being I’m-in-charge.  I just don’t like it so much when he’s telling me not to do something I want to do.”

Fey smirked, “So it’s okay, as long as he’s ordering you not to do something you didn’t want to do anyway?”

Jade nodded mischievously.  God, she was already more girl than half the real girls I knew.  Stephen was doomed.  He just didn’t know it yet.

Tennyo came back with an over-burdened tray of stuff I wouldn’t feed to a dog.  It looked like she had about a quarter ton of the macaroni-hamburger-tomato mélange.  I waited until she sat down before I complained, “How can you eat that stuff?”

“Ih ayss ine!” she mumbled around a huge forkful of the stuff.  I was pretty sure she’d said ‘it tastes fine’, but I was just hoping she hadn’t really wanted to say that.

I was about to make another comment about the shortfalls of the food, when Fey suddenly muttered “Uh-oh” and turned to look behind me.  Tennyo looked up too.  She instantly frowned and quickly swallowed.

I went heavy.  The bench groaned underneath me, but didn’t collapse.  I gave a slow turn of my head, since I knew I had plenty of protection around me.

Great.  Just great.  It was Fantastico.  And he’d brought his army along.  I’d been researching him, among others.  He usually hauled Conduit along with him in fights, so most energy and psychic attacks – and possibly a lot of magical attacks too, my sources were vague on that – thrown at him could be thwarted or redirected before they got to him.  This time, he had Minefield and Nantuko along as well.  So he had explosions and some mid-level magic as support.  I figured he thought he was ready for a little war with Team Kimba if he needed to.  Not that I thought anybody in the Good Ol’ Boyz was a serious threat to our heavy hitters.  Even with his ‘heat vision’, I didn’t think the F-Man could take Lancer without a lot of back-up.  In my opinion, Fey was a match for Nantuko plus any other two mages on campus.  Minefield was good at laying traps and planning strategies, but in a stand-up fight, I figured even Generator could probably take him.  And Tennyo could probably take all of them with one hand tied behind her back.

Fantastico looked pissed.  And he was glaring at me.  Lunchtime was just getting better and better.  He snapped, “How come you get to go off to Boston for a party?  What makes you so frigging special?”

Terrific.  Word must really be getting around if the F-Man had heard and then had enough time to gather his team around him before bitching at me.  I smirked, “You could do it too.  Just arrange it all, work with Admin to clear it, pay for the whole thing…  Actually have friends…”

“Shut the fuck up, asstard!” he fumed.

I growled, “Seriously, Bert.  Who would you take?  Everyone knows you can’t stand Oiler and Minefield, and you’re just stalling until they graduate.  And you don’t like Conduit or Ferret, but they’re too useful to throw away.”  Conduit didn’t even react, so either he was a really good actor, or he already knew how Fantastico felt about someone who wasn’t Captain Whitebread.  “And everyone talks about how you don’t like that cheerleader you’re dating, but she’s hot and she puts out.  So who’s left to invite?”

He gritted his teeth, “I mean it, shut the fuck up, freakjob!  Next time you fart off ta me, I’ll rip you in half!”

He stormed off, his little posse in tow.  I decided to wait half a minute before I went back to normal density, just in case Fantastico decided to launch a pre-emptive strike…

Fey interrupted my countdown.  “What was the deal with that?”

Tennyo chipped in, “Yeah!  Were you trying to start a fight with that jerk?”

Okay, when Fey and Tennyo both think you’ve gone ballistic, maybe it’s time to admit you just lost it.  I stared at my food and thought about it.  “I don’t think I was…  Well…  Maybe.  Or maybe I’m just grouchy about the quality of the meals.”  Was I being a jerk?  Come to think of it, I really had gone out of my way to piss the F-Man off.  Sort of…  Okay, pretty much.  Maybe I was way more upset about the food than I’d realized, and I took it out on an easy target.  Not that I was ever going to apologize to Fantastico.

Tennyo frowned in puzzlement, “What’s wrong?  My food’s just fine!”

Fey looked at her and explained, “But it’s not gourmet.  Ayla’s about the only one who keeps trying to avoid the regular food, so she’s the only one who’s really inconvenienced.”

Tortured is more like it,” I groaned.  “The vegetable casserole is just pathetic.  This pasta is seriously overcooked, and the sauce is crap, with too much oregano, and the garlic was over-browned before it went into the sauce.  I can taste it.  Plus, this isn’t real Parmesan cheese, it’s sawdust.”

Tennyo muttered, “Tastes like regular Parmesan cheese to me…”

Chaka looked over at me and smirked, “Well, now I guess we have to go to Boston, just to get some decent spaghetti.”

I opened my mouth to make a snarky comeback, and I froze.  I changed my mind and said, “You know, that’s a really good idea.”  Then I got snarky.  “It’s nice to know you can have one, once a term or so.”

“I always have great ideas,” she smirked.  “You just don’t always appreciate ‘em.”

I pulled out my cell phone - I needed a better name for it than ‘a special cell phone made for me by Bunny’ - and called Vox.

She answered on the second ring.  “Whassup, hun?”

“How about dinner tonight?  Dress nicely.  The party room downstairs.  We’re having Italian,” I pushed.

“Hang on a sec,” she replied.  I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but in about fifteen seconds she came back and said, “That sounds great.  I even have something to wear, if we’re staying indoors.”

I grinned, “Great.  Six pm.  I’ll pick you up at your room and escort you down.”

“Sounds fun.  See ya,” she said before she hung up.

I thought about a variety of Italian places from which I could order.  Vanessa could eat good, reasonably-priced, real Italian food in Philadelphia, so I was looking for something unusual.  Not too unusual, but different.  I considered half a dozen different West Coast Italian-fusion restaurants before I finally picked one.

I called the restaurant “Three Doors Down” in Portland, Oregon.  Father had paid their head chef to prepare a private family dinner two or three times, so I knew the food would be really good.  I spent a little time on the phone arranging for a five-course dinner for two, to be picked up at three o’clock their time.  Then I called a courier service I’d used before, and hired a teleporter to pick up the dinner and deliver it to Poe.  I closed my ‘bPhone’ and looked around at the staring faces.  “What?”

Chaka jumped in first.  “Ayles, you can’t just hire restaurants all over the planet to fix you dinner!”

Lancer argued, “I think she just did.  It’s not like she can’t afford it.”

Fey sighed, “Good point.  But isn’t this going to set a bad precedent?”

I arched one eyebrow.  “You mean, like getting Tansy to eat somewhere far away from us?”

Generator grinned, “That would be a good precedent!”

Tennyo glared at her, “Jade?  Totally not helping here!”

I smiled, “Hey Jade, on the subject of not helping, how’d you like to make some more money before the party?  I could use one of the J-Team as a server at dinner.  No costume needed.  Just put food on plates and put the plates on the table, while Vanessa and I eat.  A hundred bucks for less than an hour.”

“Okay!” she said excitedly.  “Are you sure you don’t need a costume?  Because my maid’s costume is really cute, and it would drive Stephen crazy if he found out I was wearing it at Poe too…”

Tennyo rolled her eyes.  “Let me guess.  You told him about the Golden Kids thing tonight, and he told you not to wear a skimpy French maid’s uniform in front of all those guys, and you told him to stuff it.”

Jade nodded with wide eyes.  “I told him he wasn’t the boss of me, and if he was so worried about what I was doing, he could show up and keep an eye on me.  And he said he didn’t go to the Golden Kids meetings because they weren’t all supporting his Faction 3 projects and were mean to the kids who weren’t ‘the right sort’.  And I said Ayla wasn’t like that at all and he knew that and he was just being a big poopyhead about it because he knew perfectly well he could help with that if he came for Ayla’s party and just acted nice to the pretties for a change.”  She suddenly blushed and beamed, “And then he said he was nice to one of the pretties.  Me.  Isn’t he a sweetie?”

I grinned, “I take it Thuban is going to come to the party tonight?  And Jinn or Jann will do the serving for me at dinner?”

She nodded happily.

“Great,” I told her.  “It doesn’t matter if Shroud shows up, or Jinn in the skin pours, or whatever, as long as she has hands to do the dinner service.”

Jade smiled, and then giggled wickedly.  I had a sudden feeling I was going to regret my last sentence.

Figuring that I should just cut my losses, I excused myself and walked over to the food lines again.  I had eaten two or three bites of the brownie, which wasn’t too awful, considering.  At least it was made with real chocolate, and it wasn’t baked to a cinder.  I managed to catch one of the scurrying cafeteria workers, to ask if Jana or one of the main chefs was in.

Jana came trotting out a minute or two later, and broke into a smile when she saw me.  “Hi, Phase!  What can I do for you?  Sorry I can’t talk much, but everything’s so tense right now.  We’re trying to make do with the same size staff, when we’re doing meals in two different places until they get the new Crystal Hall stuff in place.  Marcel’s trying to get some stupid room over in Schuster functional for a staff dining room and kitchen.  And the kitchen here’s so old we’re probably lucky we’re not cooking over a potbelly stove.  And Peter’s home with a sick wife today, so it’s just been awful!”

No wonder they were having so much trouble.  I resolved not to bitch about the food.  I just said, “Can I borrow one of the warming drawers for dinner tonight?”

She grinned, “You mean your warming drawers?  The ones you bought?”

I shook my head slightly.  “No, they’re yours.  No take-backs.  I just want to borrow one.”

“Do you need ‘em pre-loaded with anything in particular?  I don’t know what we can manage until Marcel gets the Schuster kitchen set up properly…”

“No, empty would be better,” I interrupted

“…And it’s so tiny, I’ll never be able to work in it except when I’m back to human shape, and that only lasts for a little while.  Ugh.  Not that this place is any better, just a bit larger.”  She scowled at the kitchen door.  “Look, drop by here some time between two and five, and I’ll have one ready for you.”

“Sounds great,” I said.  “Thanks a bunch.”

She firmed up her shoulders, figuratively girding her loins, which seemed metaphorically appropriate for a centaur.  Then she trotted back into the headache that was passing for the Dunn Hall kitchen.

 

DON SEBASTIANO

Sebastiano clicked the touchscreen interface resting in his good hand, and hung up his phone.  He might nominally be out of the Alphas, but as long as that puta Solange kept coming to him for help, he still had a finger on the pulse of the clique.  And he still had some of his other contacts.

Like that particular caller, who was still feeding The Don information about campus activities, in the hope of greater rewards when Don Sebastiano regained his rightful place as the leader of the Alphas.  Since said caller was little more than a sophomore bottomfeeder with good eavesdropping and information gathering talents, Sebastiano was unlikely to reward the loser with more than a post as an ‘official’ information gatherer.  Pathetic worms like him would never make decent Alpha material.

Still, the intelligence had been entertaining.  Phase - the Goodkind freak - had sent her friends in the Kimbas to invite some other people to a birthday party luncheon in downtown Boston next Saturday.  One of the Good Ol’ Boyz had overheard someone inviting a friend, and had promptly reported the news to that redneck Fantastico, who had gone out of his way to confront Phase about it at lunch.  Even better, Phase had nearly started a fight in the middle of the Dunn Hall eating area, in front of well over a hundred students.  And there had been no teachers or staff or security anywhere nearby, so it could have degenerated into a ferocious brawl.  Clearly, Phase and Fantastico were both losing it.

Sebastiano stared at the ceiling and thought it over, twisting it and turning it for ways to use the information against the G.O.B. and the Kimbas.  He was still lying in the same hospital bed, but at least his casts had been changed, that hideous catheter had been removed, and he was more comfortable.  He had an earbud tucked in his left ear, and so he could listen to music when he wasn’t listening to European radio broadcasts.  There was little on the American stations that was worth listening to.  And, with a click of the control in his good hand, he could answer his cellphone and have the sound routed to his earbud.

Plus, there hadn’t been a return visit from any of those shoulder angels since the Headmistress had threatened the entire school.  He didn’t like Carson, but he appreciated her for her skillset.  Anyone who could scare the mierda out of an entire auditorium full of superpowered mutants had to be marked as a worthy adversary.  Kodiak had sent Aries by once a day since then, just to check on Sebastiano and make sure that nuisances like the shoulder angels didn’t appear.  The Don knew full well that Kodiak was controlling the Alphas and was making complex alliances behind the scenes; Wyatt’s inability to dominate the campus without needing allies was a clear sign that Kodiak didn’t have what it took to run the Alphas the way they should be run.  But at least Kodiak was protecting his people - all of his people - including The Don.  Even if Kodiak didn’t like Sebastiano.  Which was fair, since Sebastiano detested Kodiak.  If only that stupid bear spirit hadn’t done such a good job of protecting Kodiak from any of the psychic ploys The Don had attempted over the last year or so.

The cellphone rang, in the tone that meant it wasn’t one of his listed contacts.  He clicked the button and answered.  “Don Sebastiano speaking.”

A gravelly voice smirked, “Valensuera.  It is good to hear that you still have a tongue and a larynx, after your little ‘meeting’ with Hekate’s failures.”

A chill ran down his spine… not that he would ever admit it.  With Hekate gone, Sebastiano hadn’t expected to hear from this person again.  Assuming it was truly a human.  He tried to regain the upper hand in the conversation.  “Ahh.  So unexpected to hear from you, now that Hekate has… fled with her tail between her legs.  Without your student, what mentoring do you have to offer?”

The deep voice threatened, “You have nothing we would wish to mentor.  And if you continue to treat us without the respect we deserve, we shall strip you of your powers and abandon you back in the slime from which you arose.  Perhaps you forget why we asked Hekate to introduce us over the phone in the first place…”

Sebastiano forced himself to be civil.  “No… sir.  I have not forgotten.”

He had to play the game properly.  Hekate had been a dangerous force, but this man had scared Hekate so badly that she had never had the wit to consolidate any of the information that she had let slip to Sebastiano after the meetings.  And the information was extensive.  Granted, the information about the appearance of this ‘Master’ was useless.  No one who went to a school full of mages, illusionists, shapeshifters, devisers, and Psis could possibly believe that the image Hekate saw and heard was unquestionably the real person who trained her.  But Sebastiano had made mental notes of the times and dates of the meetings, and the places where each meeting occurred, and everything else that Hekate had dared mention.  On a number of occasions, based on timing and location, this ‘Señor X’ had to have come directly from the Whateley campus, unless he had the ability to pass at different times through The Grove, the Were village, and also some of the Class X sites which littered the Miskatonic Valley landscape around Dunwich.  And the scheduled times were indicative as well.  Sebastiano had spent a great deal of time over the last week and a half, as he lay helplessly in this stupid hospital bed, mapping out the dates and times in his head, and comparing them.  He had come to several conclusions: the times clearly fell into the Whateley daily course schedule; he had eliminated every one of the Whateley Security officers as possibilities for Señor X, due to his extensive knowledge of the security schedules; every one of the Mystic Arts and Psychic Arts teachers and instructors could be eliminated because of at least one conflict with their teaching schedules over the last two full terms; and several more points that were still conjectures.  Strong conjectures, and yet still conjectures.

“Good…  Good…”  The voice went on, “We are still working on our projects with avatars.  Have you moved forward on your own components of those projects?”

“Yes sir, I have earmarked nine avatars as potential experimental subjects, and I have their schedules.  Two of them are having extreme trouble with their spirits, and might even be willing to participate in an effort to strip the spirit from them.  Two others are very low-level avatars and would be easy to capture.  I have verified that their Underdog armbands do not carry any active tracking or signaling technology, so they would be easy to ‘acquire’.  Buster has a distinct grudge against one of them, and so she would be an ideal target: her disappearance would be blamed on him.”

“Which one is she?” asked the voice in a slightly over-casual manner.

The Don silently smirked.  He knew that Señor X had to know who had humiliated Buster in the December combat finals.  Señor X undoubtedly lived in the vicinity of Whateley Academy, if not on the grounds themselves.  And everyone at Whateley had laughed about Aquerna shredding Buster with an army of squirrels.  But two could play this game, and Don Sebastiano could play this game better than some decrepit mage who preferred to scare teenaged girls.  He coolly explained, “It is the freshman girl Aquerna.  She has the spirit of the squirrel.”  He snorted in derision.  “Let us just say that she is not as intimidating as some avatars you might find.”

“Very good.  You still have the dead drop to send us emails.  It is still active and secure.  Send us the intelligence on this Aquerna, and include her schedule, along with at least two plans for kidnapping her from the Whateley grounds and then containing her.  Think of this as our alpha test,” the voice smirked.

Hmm.  Was that the alpha test, or a test of one particular Alpha?  The voice clearly thought it was being amusing.  The Don only said, “That may have to wait until I can walk again, and can gain access to a secure computer terminal.”

“Of course,” the voice intoned.  “In the meantime, I have another task for you.  Team Kimba and some friends will be having lunch in downtown Boston on the 27th.  Call this number…”  Sebastiano carefully memorized the phone number, which had an American area code he didn’t recognize.  “Then use this code to access the system…”  Sebastiano memorized that number too, even if it was significantly longer.  “And give this information to the Necromancer.  Also, tell him that I have determined that Hekate is still safe as long as she remains where she is.”

“Safe from what?” Sebastiano wondered aloud.  He knew Señor X wouldn’t tell him.  It was just necessary to distract Señor X from the fact that he had finally made the mistake he could not afford to make.

“You do not need to know, and you could not understand if I were interested in explaining it to you.  It is a curse so fierce that a mortal such as Hekate may never be free of it,” insisted the voice in its most pompous tones.

“Fine,” agreed Sebastiano smoothly.  He had gotten the information he really wanted, and he didn’t need the magical details.  So Hekate had gotten herself cursed, probably by Fey, and was trapped in a magically protected hideaway of some sort while her protector and her mentor tried to find some way of prying the curse off of her.  That sounded considerably more dangerous than facing the MCO.

Sebastiano let the voice end the call.  Then he lay back and grinned ferociously at the ceiling.  Señor X had finally slipped up.  Along with all the other information that The Don had gathered, this was the next step in unmasking Hekate’s Master.  No one yet had the information on Phase’s party, except some invited students and the students who had heard Phase argue with Fantastico.  That, plus the information The Don had relentlessly reviewed for over a week, was enough for him to deduce that Señor X was in fact posing as a student at Whateley.  Now he just had to figure out which student.

He knew a number of other things about Señor X too.  Starting with the fact that this person was around last year too - he had started teaching Hekate a year ago last October.  That made him (or her or possibly even it) a sophomore or junior or senior.  On the other hand, Señor X was bound to know that no one still at Whateley had as much information on him as The Don did, so if Señor X ever realized that someone was on his trail, that trail would almost certainly lead right back to The Don, which could be very bad for the continued health of one Sebastiano Lorenz Valensuera y Ramirez.

Sebastiano carefully thought it through before he even considered making the phone call.  There was no real reason why Hekate’s Master couldn’t make this phone call himself.  No, this had to be a ploy to draw The Don into further dealings.  Perhaps a ploy to ensure that there was incriminating evidence to make sure that Sebastiano could be controlled, or eliminated if necessary.  Señor X had to want The Don involved, and had to want the avatar-jacking scheme to continue.  Sebastiano decided that he would ‘play dumb’ for the moment, and see if he could lure Señor X into revealing anything else.  If he could deduce who Señor X really was, he could use that in any number of ways, starting with new mindslaves created on demand by the real expert, instead of by a hastily-trained teenaged girl who was not as impressive as she liked to think.

However, contacting a wanted felon was never a good idea.  Contacting a supervillain on the MCO/Interpol list was tantamount to throwing yourself into an MCO cell.  And contacting a supervillain to leave a note for a girl wanted by everyone from Lady Astarte to The Syndicate was even more dangerous.  Which was why he would take precautions.

After all, it was not as if he did not have any contacts of a… less-than-pristine nature.  And he certainly knew how to make such contacts without alerting anyone.  He turned on the pink noise generator app on his phone, so eavesdroppers wouldn’t be able to hear anything of value.  He once again ran the bug-detection app on the phone, and satisfied himself that there were no viable bugs in the room.  He then called the first of several intermediary phone numbers which were solely in place so that calls such as this could not be traced or tapped.  Once he used the scrambler system and made sure that the intermediary system was accepting the encoded phone transmissions, he contacted the next number.  And the next.

He took his time.  Like a fine wine, or a vulnerable girl, these things had to be savored.  He used seven intermediate numbers just to be sure, before he finally sent the call to the number that Señor X had given him.

A professionally-moderated female voice - one that was computer-generated, he was rather sure - answered.  “Good day.  You have reached a private security system.  If you know the code number for the party you wish to speak to, please enter it now.  If you do not, then you have probably dialed the wrong number.  Thank you!”

He grinned and punched in the 17-digit code that Señor X had given him.

A grim voice answered on the fifth ring.  “What?”

“Ahh, Doctor Darrow.  We have never met, but a mutual… acquaintance has asked me to call you with some information,” Sebastiano began.

The voice took on a more threatening tone.  “You know who I am.  Identfy yourself!”

Sebastiano smiled ruthlessly.  “I am known as Don Sebastiano.  I-”

The Necromancer cut him off abruptly.  “Hekate’s playmate?  You fool!  I don’t know how she got you this number, but you have probably compromised both of us!”

Sebastiano calmly insisted, “It was not Hekate.  It was Hekate’s Master.”

The line went silent.  Deathly silent.

Sebastiano continued, “And he has information that he wanted me to impart.  Both you and Hekate will be interested in this.”

“Ahh…  Yes?  Go on.”

The Don noted a certain intimidated bluster in the man’s voice.  Very interesting.  How could a mere student be able to intimidate a threat like The Necromancer?  He would have to think about this.  Later.  He explained, “We have just learned that Team Kimba…”  He pretended to ignore the guttural growl from the other end of the line.  “…and some of their friends will be coming to Boston for lunch next Saturday.  Phase - the one who pounded Matterhorn - is throwing herself a birthday bash.”

“The Sidhe Queen.  And her protectors.  Yes…  That is most interesting.”

Once he had given the Necromancer the rest of the message, and the Necromancer had abruptly hung up on him, Sebastiano lay back and contemplated the annoying ceiling once more.  That intimidation factor had to be important.  Who could possibly intimidate someone like The Necromancer?  Could Hekate’s Master secretly be Fey or Carmilla?

No, it couldn’t be Fey.  That made no sense, considering the whole business in Kansas City over Christmas.  Carmilla?  No.  Unless…  But Hekate’s Master had been around Whateley since at least fall 2005, when he had first contacted Hekate.  Carmilla didn’t show up until late fall 2006.  Unless that was a scam and Carmilla had been lurking around for a year setting things up.  Sebastiano decided that he would have to find a way to verify Carmilla’s whereabouts for the past two years.

Sebastiano thought some more.  Whoever Hekate’s Master was, he knew some truly dark magics that scared even Hekate.  From what the teachers let out when they tried to grill The Don a couple weeks ago, even they didn’t know such magics.  If Circe and Al-Fayez didn’t know of such workings, then that made the magics very old and very dark.  And Carmilla had some sort of connection to the supposed Great Old Ones, even if Sebastiano didn’t understand how that could be true, or even possible.  But there were other possibilities among the students on campus, starting with that sanctimonious England’s pet student Residue.  Yes, if he could prove that it was Residue, and force the Reverend England to his knees at the same time, that would be so sweet…

But Residue was only one of many possible options.  There were several students who came from long lines of witches and other occultists, like Gypsy and Hexette.  They could not be ignored.  He would have to consider any student who could be an avatar or channeler for an ancient force, like Majestic and Stygian.  Hell, all of the New Olympians had to be considered.  The more he thought about it, the wider his pool of suspects grew.  He decided he needed to investigate this and find whoever it was.  He decided that he needed to lure someone ELSE into doing the footwork.  There was no point in getting himself killed - or much, much worse - when he could set up some loser to take the risks instead.

Sebastiano began turning possible plots over in his mind, looking for ways to lure some so-called detective into doing the investigations in his stead.  She-Beast and Phase both thought they were so smart… they might be susceptible to a lure if he ‘accidentally’ dropped a couple clues.  Perhaps one or two of the Secret Squirrels could be lured into it.  He suddenly grinned wickedly as he had another idea.  If he could trick Stormwolf and Mindbird into doing the investigations, no one would ever believe that their foe Don Sebastiano was behind it.  And if they were then captured and enslaved by Hekate’s Master, so much the better for Sebastiano… in every possible way.

 

AYLA

I took the opportunity to invite a few people after I finished eating the lunch-like substances on my plate.  Not that I cleaned my plate.  The brownie was edible, but I wasn’t going a whole lot farther than that.  Janet baked better brownies.  I assumed from the uneven texture that the problem was the ovens, rather than the cooks.  But still, that was not something I wanted to be eating for the next several weeks.

I didn’t see Jody anywhere, but I had changed my mind.  There was no point in not inviting her as soon as I saw her, since the whole school would know about the Boston trip once everyone went and told their friends about my little ‘chat’ with Fantastico.  There probably wasn’t anyone who wouldn’t have heard by dinnertime, except some of the shut-ins like Puppet.  Which reminded me: I ought to go say hi to her and tell her about it, and let her know I wished she could go too.

I looked around the lunchroom and decided I’d have better luck strolling back through the deviser dungeons on my way back to Poe.

 

THE NECROMANCER

Dr. Darrow stormed down to the bottom level of his newest lair.  The level wasn’t deep enough for his purposes, but it was all he had been able to get, given the circumstances.  It turned out that the little bitch Hartford over at Whateley actually cared what happened to those pathetic children under her purview.  And held grudges.  He wasn’t sure how she had done it, but the construction company he’d hired to rough in the lowest-level tunnels and construct the special rooms had been hit with a legal order to cease all work in the state of Massachusetts; and then all their electronic blueprints and spec sheets had been corrupted, so they couldn’t transfer the plans to another company.  The woman did have contacts, and she did have abilities with a computer that were… well, he was not going to use the word ‘impressive’ in conjunction with her, but her talents were certainly adequate to the task.

The bottom level of his lair had a specially-warded room.  Some of the wards were his, and some had been contributed by Lady Jettatura to repay a debt she owed Darrow, and some of them had been bestowed upon him by Hekate’s Mentor.  Darrow tried not to think about that.  He preferred to think that he was the best in his field.  An ‘A-’ level supervillain in the Top 50 threats worldwide.  But the wards contributed by him were comprised of magics so dark that Darrow could feel the throbbing hunger of otherworldly beings just by touching the wards.  He tamped down his feelings of jealousy.  He touched the massive, heavily-warded door.  The wards recognized him and encompassed him, letting him walk through the door without opening it.

Inside, the room was divided into two unequal parts.  If his lower levels had been completed, he would have been able to separate his personal library from Hekate’s living quarters.  He had no such option now.  That meant he had to endure the child any time he wanted to consult his tomes, and - even worse - that he couldn’t keep her out of his most-prized occult works.  Just as annoying, the protections bestowed upon her by her Master meant that she hadn’t burned out her eyeballs or had her brain melt out her ears from reading the tomes.  And those hexes were some of his best spellwork too.  He smiled wickedly as he remembered what had happened to Lord Raphael Pheere when he had stolen several of Darrow’s most cherished tomes back in the Fifties, and had then attempted to read them.

Hekate’s living quarters were rather sparse and cramped.  Even Darrow had to admit that.  Her space was a single area in the right-hand third of the warded library space, with a magically-reinforced partition giving her some illusory privacy and separation from the rest of the room.  She had a narrow bed, a flat-screen television on the wall, a small desk, a tiny kitchenette, a small chest of drawers, and a ‘bathroom’.  The kitchenette was nothing more than a mini-fridge with a microwave on top of it, and a small pantry on top of that - her meals were usually brought down from the main kitchen after Darrow had eaten.  When her clothes were dirty, she had to wear them again, or wait for Darrow to take them to a laundress.  The bathroom was a Gizmatic Port-A-Bath™ 2400, which was adequate but hardly luxurious.  It was hardly larger than a port-a-potty.  It provided a self-contained composting toilet, a sink, and a handheld shower.  The water recirculated through an osmotic filter so it was always clean and potable, but even prisons and military boot camps provided better facilities.  The Port-A-Bath series were designed for short-term or emergency use, such as in dropships, bomb shelters, and escape subs.  Darrow knew that Hekate was looking at having to live in this cramped space and use this tiny Port-A-Bath for the rest of her life, unless he and her master found a way to unravel the curse that the Sidhe Queen had cast on the little twit.

Hekate looked up from her seat at the library table.  Darrow angrily wished she would stop reading his tomes without asking permission first.  He did have a large number of spells and enchantments on those tomes, but the heavy wards currently encompassing the room made almost all of them useless.  It wasn’t as if his spells protecting his personal copy of the Necronomicon were of much use when lung-devouring devils couldn’t be summoned through the room’s protections, and portals to hurl the reader into dark dimensions could no longer be opened.  The magical protections on the room were so stringent that you couldn’t even get Internet access through them, because it was theoretically possible to identify the user from the site access.  It had taken three days of spellwork just to get the cable television operable through the wards, and the girl had nagged him constantly the whole time.  If he didn’t owe Hekate’s Master so much, he would have just sat back and watched the Sidhe’s curse ravage the girl.  Perhaps while enjoying a large bowl of buttered popcorn.

He growled, “How many times have I told you?  Ask before touching my books and scrolls!”

“Sorry,” she said unapologetically.  “I meant to ask first, but I just got carried away.  This is really interesting!  You know, the copy I’ve seen in the restricted section at Whateley is completely missing these last dozen folios.”

Darrow watched her study the book.  He wondered what sorts of protections she had.  Most people who studied more than a few dozen pages in the Necronomicon and really focused on the images tended to have brutally unpleasant side-effects.  Like vomiting up their intestines, or mutating into a sub-human monstrosity, or any of a dozen other results of exposure to these kinds of magics.

Darrow just said, “I had an interesting phone call.  It was from your friend Don Sebastiano.”

Hekate suddenly went white.  “Oh Goddesses!  Are we compromised?  Can you get me someplace safe?  I didn’t give him your phone number, I swear!”

Darrow rather enjoyed her sudden panic.  She was really frightened about having to leave her warded room and face that curse.  There was no way she would risk that to contact one of her compatriots.  He finally said, “Your Master gave him the number, and the codes.  And the boy took adequate protections when calling.”

Hekate rolled her eyes.  “That is one of the few things Sebastiano is careful about.  Protecting his own ass.”

Darrow smiled nastily, “It is a shame that he’s so careless with everyone else’s well-being.”

Hekate muttered angrily, “He thinks he’s the next Chessmaster.  If only he would stop overestimating his own skills and underestimating everyone else’s.  The intelligence I received on Generator is a perfect example.  She’s this teeny little deviser girl who’s ranked number 263 out of all the freshmen and sophomores.  She was supposed to be a helpless pawn when I faced Fey.  Instead, she turned out to have an inhuman pain threshold, and apparently the ability to return from the dead.  I don’t know, but she may have turned half the base’s personnel into her zombie slaves by the time she was done.”

Darrow grinned evilly, “Her.  I received quite the little report on her from the Syndicate.  Apparently, they take the complete destruction of major urban bases rather seriously.  And they managed to save a lot of video footage of the debacle.  I warned them that the Sidhe would probably destroy their base-”

“I remember,” grumbled Hekate.

“-but I have to confess, I didn’t anticipate her little friend could destroy an entire base on her own.  Did you know Generator knows ancient Sumerian magics that even I have not been able to work?  I have my own ways of re-animating the dead, but not like that.  It’s something the Sidhe queen must have prepared for her.  Because the zombies obeyed the girl as if she was their queen.  I’ll have to show you the video footage, once I get it onto a laptop rugged enough to survive passing through these wards.  The Syndicate people think she’s undead, perhaps a vampire, based solely on very sketchy evidence, but that’s their problem.  Oh yes, and she took your athame, attached several devises, and turned it into a flying, spinning wheel of death.  Quite the accomplishment.  She must be a fairly high-level deviser or gadgeteer.”

“That isn’t what it says on her MID,” Hekate hissed.

Darrow grinned maliciously.  “Oh dear, lying to the MCO and the Whateley powers testing morons.  Who would have imagined anyone would ever stoop to such a thing?”  He snickered sadistically.

The noise made the hair on the back of Hekate’s neck stand up.  She didn’t like Darrow.  She thought he was a crazy old lunatic.  But she also feared him, despite the promises her Master had made - not that she would ever admit that to the Necromancer, or anyone else except possibly her Master.  She wasn’t sure she really respected Darrow, although she now had a much better idea of what Fey and Team Kimba could really do.  Despite everything she had done, despite weeks of preparation and the support of dozens and dozens of heavily-armed Syndicate thugs, despite a carefully-laid, unbreakable trap, Fey had routed her, destroyed her work, and put a curse on her that scared her badly enough that she was hiding inside a bomb shelter.  A magical bomb shelter, but still a bomb shelter, with a hideous toilet and the worst shower in history.  She had to confess.  She had been defeated by Fey and one tiny little girl, while the Necromancer had faced Fey plus all of Team Kimba.  Hekate had almost been able to take Fey by surprise, but there was no way she could have taken Fey plus Tennyo and Lancer and all the rest of them, when they were prepared to face a superpowered foe.  Frankly, the thought of facing off against Tennyo made her stomach clench.

Darrow went on, “I imagine you have quite the list of reprisals you would love to instigate against them and their friends.  So you’ll probably be quite interested in this.  The message was that Fey and her friends are coming back to Boston for a luncheon.  Next Saturday.  At Harrison’s Restaurant downtown.  And they’re bringing friends who are more vulnerable.”

Hekate looked up from the book.  The light in her eyes might be described as a fiendish anticipation.  “And since they’re deputized in this area…”

“Exactly,” smirked Darrow.  “I still have that mole who has leaked information about my operations.  I don’t know whether it’s one of my cadre here, or one of the ones in jail.  It could even be Lycanthros, playing some deep game of his own.  I just don’t know.  Either way, you’re the only one I can trust.”

And he knew that he could trust her.  At least, he could trust her now.  The only thing maintaining the wards around her was his good will.  She knew that if he was captured or killed or forced to abandon his goals in the Boston area, the magical wards of the room would decay in no time, and she would be essentially unprotected from the Sidhe queen’s curse.

He said, “Vamp has been surprisingly helpful with ‘Bullethead’ and his family.  She may not support murder, and I am sure she would not wish to further either of our plans if we were foolish enough to reveal them to her, but she certainly is a vengeful little girl.  She blames him for everything that happened to her, and she quite enjoyed cracking him like a chestnut.  Him and his whole corrupt little family.  They’ll get us into Roxbury and down into Block C, where the most dangerous superpowered criminals are held.  They undoubtedly plan to double-cross us, but their plots are patently obvious.  And once we’ve unleashed the power of a couple dozen supervillains, such plots will be the least of their problems.”

He added, “So you can help me plan this.  I’ll explain our false plan to Nightgaunt and Vamp here, and then I’ll have our new pawns take the false plan to Lady Darke and Lycanthros and the Arch-Fiend.  We’ll wait and see who reveals the plan to our enemies.”

Hekate smiled malevolently.  “Or we could tell each person a slightly different plan, and warn them not to reveal it anyone else.  You’ll tell each one that-”

“-he’s the only one I really trust,” grinned the Necromancer.  “Excellent.  I can see that having you here will be more than worth the effort.”

Hekate said, “I can do a lot more than that.  I fought that bitch too.  She’s tough.  Tougher than she looks.  She can do things that nobody except The Magus should be able to do without days - or weeks - of preparation first.  But what if we both fight her at the same time?  From different directions?”

“You can’t risk leaving this room,” the Necromancer frowned.

Hekate nodded unhappily.  “But I can still prepare spells and cast hexes… and create charms that would let a non-wizard unleash them.  You can have someone scatter them behind Fey so my works can attack her from behind when she’s fighting you and has no ability to defend herself on a second front.”

Darrow grinned evilly.  “I can see that having you here will be worth far more than the effort of building these wards.  And if we can enslave Fey, then we can force her to redact the curse and free you.”

Hekate grinned malevolently at the thought and asked, “So…  Next Saturday?  The 27th?”

Darrow returned the smirk.  “Yes.  You know, I think the 27th would make an excellent day for a major crime.”

Hekate asked, “Which one?  Breaking your minions out is going to be a lot harder if you have all of Team Kimba’s heavy hitters to deal with.  Sebastiano may be a self-centered fool, but he assessed their capabilities well enough that he wasn’t going to tackle them head-on, even with every Alpha he could muster.  The folio might be a lot easier to get.  And you don’t even know where the inscribed mithril is kept.”

Darrow stared unseeing at a bookshelf.  “But if the Boston police had to cope with three crises simultaneously, while Team Kimba is here in town…”

Hekate made a little gasping noise as she realized what he was thinking.  “Yes!  If the problems were all big enough that Boston police had to call on them, and there were enough of them that Team Kimba had to split up for… say… three separate emergencies…  But they would still send Tennyo and Fey and Lancer to the superjail crisis.  They would have to.”

“Yes,” smiled Darrow evilly.  “I think that is exactly what we should plan for.  We know that Lady Darke can stop Lancer, and then Vamp can finish him.  You and I can handle Fey if we work together.  And I think the entire remaining contents of Roxbury’s Block C can handle Tennyo with ease.  The rest of Team Kimba will be off dealing with our other two crises, and we can arrange for something to happen to each of them.  Lycanthros, in particular, is eager for something quite unpleasant to befall the black girl you said was called Chaka.  I’ve worked up something very special for her.”

Hekate thought about the problems that Chaka had caused, and she grinned with anticipation.  She wasn’t going to ask the Necromancer what he had planned.  That was what he wanted her to do.  No, she would bide her time, until he couldn’t wait any longer to reveal the breadth of his power and the depths of his fiendishness.  She expected it would be well worth the wait.  A really good present always was.