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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 3

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl

by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)

Chapter 3 – The Legend of Britomart, or of Chastity

AYLA

I looked down.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was looking at a huge pair of boobs.  Delta Spike sized boobs.  Compiler sized boobs.  And they were bulging up out of the obscenely low neckline of a naughty French maid’s costume so risqué it belonged in a porn movie.  I looked in front of me at the wall mirror.

Oh God.  It was my face, but with all the makeup I had worn when I was trapped posing as a beauty contestant.  And that gorgeous, sluttish face was under a cascade of shimmering platinum blonde hair that curled over my shoulders and down my back.  The French maid’s outfit was so short that the petticoats made it flare straight out at my hipbones, so my butt and my crotch were completely exposed.  The sheer black panties didn’t help either.  All they showed was that I was fully, completely female between my legs.

And the tight garters were holding up sheer black nylons that led down long, sexy legs to a pair of black patent leather ankle boots with six-inch spiked heels.  There was no way I could walk in heels like that.

Suddenly I could hear uproarious laughter behind me.  I turned around, and everyone was laughing at my humiliation.  All the Kimbas and Vox were in the front row, laughing so hard they were nearly doubled over.  All the Golden Kids were behind them, howling with laughter.

I struggled to get the heels off.  They wouldn’t budge.  I tried to get the awful dress off.  It wouldn’t come loose either.  I tried pressing the flaring skirt low enough to give me some privacy, but it wouldn’t yield either.  I screamed for help, but that just made everyone laugh even harder.

I had to use my powers.  I tried to go light and step out of the shoes, but nothing happened.  I couldn’t phase out of the dress.  I couldn’t go light and fly away.  I couldn’t seem to make any of my powers work!

The crowd parted, and I gasped in horror.  Dr. Emil Hammond stepped forward, hands urging him toward me.  He grinned evilly, “And now you can’t get away.”

I turned and ran.  I ran as hard as I could in those awful skyscraper heels.  But every time I looked over my shoulder, he was closer.  And closer.  And closer.

He grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around.  I tried to phase through his hands, but I couldn’t go light.  I tried to go heavy and smash him.  I couldn’t do that either.  I tried to use my aikido, and my hands struck him with all the force of a wet napkin.

He said, “There’s only one place for a freak like you…”  And he threw me backward.

I landed in a coffin at the bottom of a six-foot hole.  A lid slammed on top of me, trapping me in there.  I screamed for help.  I beat on the lid inches above my face.  I tried to use my powers, but nothing was working.  And then I heard the noise.  Shovels of dirt splashing across the lid, burying me alive.  I screamed…

I woke up in a sweat.  I frantically checked.  I was still me.  My boobs were still Ayla-sized.  My johnson was still down there.  I was in my silk pajamas, in my bed, in my room.

I floated out of my bed and down the hall to the bathroom.  I splashed cold water on my face until I felt better.  Then I went light again.  I slipped back through the wall and above my bed before going normal density again and sliding under the sheets.  I tried to go back to sleep without waking up Chou.

It felt like it took forever to fall back asleep.

 

 

Sunday, January 21, 2007
7:30 am

“If I could cheat,
I would skip to the end,
And decide if it's worth going through with,
Skip to the last paragraph, just before we start,
To see the happy ending, or the broken heart.”

I woke up to the Futureheads wailing their song “Skip to the End” from their second album, “News and Tributes”.  Great stuff.  Not as good as Brass Monkey, but still powerful.  Four-part vocal harmony, ruthless post-punk guitar work, and ferocious rhythms.  They so needed to get Brass Monkey touring with them as an opening act.

I didn’t feel exhausted - even though I expected to be tired after that goddamned nightmare in the middle of the night - but I still felt decidedly sweaty and crappy.  Why couldn’t my subconscious take a break once in a while?  I floated out of my bed down to the floor, and switched from pajamas to bathrobe.  Then I grabbed my shower gear and strolled off to enjoy a nice, hot shower.

The only problem was that I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I had hoped.  As soon as I stepped into the bathroom, I was getting verbal abuse.

“Phase!  Just ‘cuz you’re rich doesn’t mean you get to treat everyone else like a slave!”

“You got a lotta nerve making Poe girls work as maids for your goddamn rich-bitch party!”

“Fuckin’ rich asshole whitey!  Usin’ sisters as your servants?  In case you didn’t get the memo, that went out like a hundred fifty years ago!  What makes you think it’s okay to start havin’ black slaves again?”

“Nice to see you too, Sharisha,” I said tiredly.

“Don’t gimme that politeness crap!  You can’t go making my homegirl Nessa be a fuckin’ slave for ya!”

I raised one eyebrow and calmly pointed out, “And that would be why they were paid more than computer consultants?”

“Yeah, I saw what kinda consultants they were, in those sleazy outfits an’ all!”

“Risha, come on, we talked about this already,” insisted Vox, as she tried to drag Tempest away from me.  But Tempest was a PDP, so if she didn’t want someone with baseline strength to be dragging her anywhere, she wasn’t going to move.  “Risha, please!”

It took some wheedling, but Vox finally got Sharisha to shut up.  But Sharisha wasn’t the only girl on my case.  And, just to make it extra annoying, Bunny and Rip and some of the other girls got on my case because I’d picked someone else instead of them, as if I were implying they weren’t pretty enough.

I finally snapped at Rip, “Oh my God, are you kidding?  Bugs not pretty enough?  Or you?  Maybe you haven’t noticed that I stare?  Of course you’re hot enough.  I just figured the TGs would want to wear something like that in front of a bunch of guys, and you wouldn’t!  Look, I’ll probably be hosting a meeting or two next year too, and if you want, I can easily get maid’s outfits for you.  A hundred dollars an hour for easy work.  But you’d have guys ogling you for the whole evening.”

“Ewww,” chipped in Bugs from the side.

I rolled my eyes.  “Like I said, that’s why I asked the TGs and not the lesbians.”

On the upside, having incredibly hot girls in hardly any clothing get up in your face is not really a hardship… as long as no one was punching me, or blasting me, or making my brain melt out through my sinuses.  And Riptide’s towel was slipping down every time she gestured, until her nipples were showing.  Beautiful girls showing me their breasts from a foot away?  I’m there.  The best part was her last insistent gesture which completely dislodged the towel so it fell to the floor.  A buck naked Elena is always of the good.  Have I ever mentioned that she has a red stripe in her hair?  Or that the carpet matches the drapes?

I finally got a chance to take a shower, and everyone was done hassling me by the time I got to a mirror.  That meant that I got to fiddle around at the mirror, using my favorite stalling tactics like flossing my teeth, while hot girls were walking around naked in the mirror.  Verdant was standing naked while she waited for a shower, and she was practicing some private shapeshifting.  First, she changed from her normal green color to a dusky olive skintone that really accented her South American looks.  Then she worked on concealing her two vestigial arms and her tail.  And the entire time, her breasts were sticking out, jiggling away as she moved.  Which was a real treat for me, since she’s about as well-endowed as Vox.

I got out of the bathroom without getting yelled at any further, and I got dressed in my room.  Chou was long gone, as usual, since she seemed to be spending a lot of time trying to make Molly happier about the Dorjee thing, when she wasn’t up ridiculously early to work on her tai chi.  Or doing that stupid thing she and Molly and the others did yesterday.  I was still upset about Chou getting hurt in that fight, not to mention Molly getting hurt.  I mean, for Christ’s sake, Molly’s not a front line fighter!  I’ve heard good things about Dorjee’s abilities, but he got hurt too.

Of course, if I could use my Chi to magically make me warm enough that standing around in the freezing cold wasn’t a pain, then I might be outside exercising too.  Or not.

I trekked through the cold with Fey and Generator and Tennyo.  We were off to Dunn Hall for something that some people claimed had a passing resemblance to breakfast, even if I was still pretty skeptical about it.  Meanwhile, my crabbiness was slowly being eroded by a heaping helping of happiness.  Jade was so happy about making fifteen hundred bucks in one night that she was skipping, and twirling, and just generally being the cutest thing since Shirley Temple hung up her ringlets.  It was made even worse because I was afraid that the song she was singing was by Hannah Montana.

Far worse was realizing that I might be able to recognize that it was a Hannah Montana song.  This was a lot worse than picking up some songs from Jericho.

Tennyo just watched Jade for a bit.  She finally smiled a little, “Y’know, four hundred bucks for four hours work is really pretty nice.  I can buy a lot of stuff for that much money.  Something nice for my mom’s birthday…”

Fey smirked, “What are you gonna get TB for his birthday?”

Tennyo thought it over and said, “Maybe the GEO expansion pack.  He’d probably really like that.”

I teased, “What?  You changed your mind on mailing him that dead skunk?”

“I never said I was gonna mail him a dead skunk,” she insisted.

I gigged her a little more, “Oh come on, don’t tell me you weren’t thinking about it a few times since September.”

She admitted, “Okay, back then, I definitely would’ve done it.  If I’d known Sue back then, I’d have tried to get her to really stink up maybe a baseball, then wrap that up in plastic and seal it, and mail it to him.  Or something worse.  I’m still pretty mad at him some of the time.  But some of the time, it just feels like this is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I don’t know if I should strangle him or give him a really big hug.”

Fey suggested, “Maybe you could give him a really big hug… and accidentally crack a couple of his ribs just as a little reminder that he’d better not cross you again.”

“Yeah!” cheered Jade.  “Or you could drop one of my centipedes down his shirt and we can give him a super-wedgie!”

I thought about Peeper getting one of those back in the fall, and I had to laugh out loud.

Fey flatly said, “Oh look, Jade.  You just ruined Phase’s perfect grumpiness.”

Tennyo added, “Yeah.  It might take her like two or three minutes to get it back, too.”

I said, “No, as soon as I look at the simulated ‘food’ in the breakfast line, my grouchiness will come back full force.  Trust me on this.”

Fey tried, “Come on, Ayla, it’s just for a couple weeks.  You must’ve had to put up with less-than-perfect food before.  What did you do when you were in elementary school?”

“Really want to know?” I checked.

Tennyo guessed, “Ummm…  Had the family chefs pack you a catered lunch every day.”

“Good guess,” I admitted.  “I instigated a boycott of the cafeteria food until they improved.”  They goggled at that.  “You can check with Mal and Jadis, if you don’t believe me.”

Jade asked, “You did that in like first grade?”

I nodded.  “And I did something similar to get the food improved at my other schools.  It never did improve to my complete satisfaction, but everyone else was happy with it, so it was obvious I wasn’t going to get further improvements.  After a certain point, you have to think about marginal utility.  At Chilton, I started arranging for little ‘care packages’ from home.  My own private salad dressings, some special chutneys for the meats they served, real shredded cheeses, some decent desserts, that sort of thing.”

Tennyo just shook her head.  Jade said, “Didn’t everybody else think that wasn’t fair?”

I shrugged.  “A lot of the guys had care packages coming in now and then.  Mostly things like cookies and candy and stuff.  Mine was just higher end, with less emphasis on the baked sweet stuff.  Nobody paid a lot of attention to what I was doing, except my friends, and they all knew me well enough that it wasn’t exactly a huge surprise.  Everyone let it slide.  Except for Jon.”

“Isn’t he the blind guy?” Tennyo asked.

“Yeah.  And he was usually sitting next to me at the table.  He could smell what I was eating.  But he was nice about it, so I usually gave him a taste or two if he asked.”

We walked into Dunn, although Jade was really bouncing along, rather than walking.  I was pretty sure she was doing some Jann-assisted leaps.  And she was singing something overly saccharine in Japanese, so I was guessing it was J-Pop.  Maybe an anime theme song.  The lyrics didn’t make much sense, so it was either a really stupid song, or else I wasn’t catching the subtleties of the lyrics.  Of course, it was possible Jade was just singing what it sounded like to her, and not the actual words.  I figured that was at least as likely, since her Japanese was a lot worse than mine.  I thought about calling her ‘Lady Mondegreen’, but I didn’t think she’d get the joke, and having to explain jokes to Jade was almost as painful as listening to her singing Hello Kitty songs.

We moved over to the breakfast line.  As I watched Tennyo pile about an Imperial ton of ‘western omelet surprise’ and hash browns on her tray, I decided that I’d settle for a glass of whole milk and a decent pastry or two.  Then perhaps I’d go back to my room and brew some decent coffee while I ate a couple good-quality yogurts out of my fridge.

Just in case, I looked over the yogurt selection while I got my milk.  Ugh.  Low-quality brands, and not even a decent selection of flavors.  I decided to pass on the exciting choice of either boysenberry or chocolate.  I liked chocolate, but it simply did not go with yogurt.  And this was probably overly-sweetened milk chocolate.  Ugh and a half.  I’m not going to mention the so-called ‘lite’ yogurts with the artificial sweeteners for extra nastiness.  If people wanted to eat something nutritious and low-calorie, what was wrong with just plain, unsweetened yogurt?  Granted, the low quality of the subtending yogurt became a lot more obvious when there wasn’t any dreck floating on top.

While I was still scowling at the yogurt choices, Chef Marcel spotted me and walked over to the food line.  He frowned and immediately began in French, “Ah, Phase, after last night I am so sorry we cannot provide a better breakfast.  There is none of the good coffee here, and I recommend that you skip the croissants for this morning.  These ovens are a nightmare!  The kitchens of Dunn Hall are suitable only for frycooks and the makers of fast-food!”

I replied in my best French, “But yes, I know you are doing the best you can with a bad situation.  But it is only for a few weeks, and I will manage in the meantime.”

He shrugged and said, “Jana did tell us about your request to borrow one of your warming drawers.  So we noticed that you were not in the dining hall for the dinner last night.”

I admitted, “I ordered a dinner from a very good restaurant in Oregon.”

Marcel was clearly embarrassed at that.  He sounded rather upset as he promised, “I wish that such a thing had not been necessary.  I assure you that there will be something for the lunch, and we will arrange that something good will show up at your room for dinner this evening as well.”

I couldn’t help grinning.  I lapsed into English as I insisted, “Look, that sounds great, but you don’t have to do that just for me.  You’re having to work in a broom closet over at Schuster, and with that ancient junk back there, so I understand why things aren’t perfect.”

He shook his head and switched to English too.  “No, I want to do this.  You’ve been so kind, and you’ve helped in ways you don’t even know.  Having someone who cares about the food… someone who understands about food, and can taste the difference between food and cuisine…  It has given us something to aim for.  This year has been the best year since I came here.  I want to do something for you for meals.”

I couldn’t help smiling, “Okay.  But as soon as it’s inconvenient, just say so.  I mean it.  I can always get a courier service to grab me something at a moment’s notice.”

He really didn’t like that idea, but I finally got him to let it drop.  With all the problems they were having with the kitchens and the cooking, they couldn’t take time out just to fix me treats, no matter how much I wanted them to.

I found that the granola didn’t look too bad.  I decided to risk it.  I took my danish and my milk and my granola over to the table, where I had to touch Fey’s crystal to stop the horrific discussion about Hannah Montana, so I could hear the real discussion…

Oh God, they really were talking about Hannah Montana.  For this, we needed a special magical crystal to defeat eavesdroppers?  Jade and Molly were trying to convince the rest of the table that Hannah Montana was really great, and they should listen to it.  The conversation was so awful that I managed to eat all the granola without thinking about how it didn’t really meet the usual standards of the school chefs.  I even had to concentrate on keeping my mouth shut, since Chou and Tennyo both admitted they liked listening to the stuff.  I managed to stay snark-free, but Toni filled in the deficit with plenty of entertaining comments about white girls and cheesy bubblegum rock.

The cheese danish was edible, and I ate almost two-thirds of it.  I’m giving it that much.

I finally got the conversation back to where I wanted it to go.  Last night’s soiree, and the intelligence my maids gathered.  It wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped.

“Well, about all I found out is that your Golds are just as horny as every other teenager on campus, and Dynamaxx has the worst pickup lines ever,” Nikki complained.

Toni added, “Yeah, and those white boys are dorks!  Beats me how Macrobiotic puts up with some of ‘em, but that girl has the patience of a saint.  There she was, sounding all nice and polite, and I could see by her Ki she was pretty cheesed off at somebody.”

Billie said, “And Hatamoto has a thing for anime girls, I think.  Plus, he’s recruiting for that Pan-Asia team, I think.”

Nikki said, “Glitch thinks he can talk Charmer into getting him a pipeline right into Villabianca Exports.”

Toni said, “A bunch of people thought you were way over the top, and everybody pretty much expected it ‘cause you’re a Goodkind.”

Billie said, “Traduce was being a total bitch and saying really horrible things about the food, but she ate a lot of it.”

Fey muttered darkly, “That wasn’t all she was being a bitch about.  She’s lucky I didn’t tell you what she said.”

Jade contributed, “And Stephen’s really cute when he’s all jealous!”

I rolled my eyes.  “Is there anything I didn’t already know?”

Jade said, “Some of the guys don’t know whether to ask you out or not because they’re all freaky about you having a boy-package sticking out.  One of ‘em had to tell his roommate you’re not all girl when he wanted to ask you out.  And Uproar thinks you ought to be in the Golds because you can kick the asses of a bunch of people if they try to take over.”

“If who tries to take over from whom?” I checked.

She shrugged.  “I dunno.  But he was kind of loud about it.”

Well, Uproar was always loud about something.  And everyone was talking about his next big plan to take over the Alphas.  Apparently, he came up with at least one a term, but ever since he got his ass handed to him by Freya, no one in the Golds was interested in following him.

I tried some more questioning, but there wasn’t much to get.  No guy was interested in gossiping around Fey when he could stop and ogle her.  I hadn’t thought about that.  There was a similar problem for pretty much every one of my maids.  Maybe next time, I would go with the J-Team in skinpours and some average-looking girls I could trust.  So I found out that the food was a big hit, and everyone at the party was ignoring what Traduce said.  And a lot of Golden Kids thought I was an intersexed freakjob.  So much for my carefully-planned intelligence gathering.  I couldn’t wait to find out what Elaine and Marty picked up.

As I took my tray over to bus it, and quietly thanked Chaka for getting all over Miley Cyrus’ alter ego, five girls came striding up to us.  I managed not to sigh out loud.

It was Patty Horton and her pack.  The Yellow Queen and her clique, the Whateley Academy Martial Arts Cheerleaders.  I hadn’t gotten any Security files on any of them, but I’d made an effort to find out more about their powers and their teamwork.  It made sense, given that I had already had a couple run-ins with them, and they had to still be really mad at me.  Not to mention that Little Bee was involved in that disaster with Chaka and the robot, and their whole group had also tangled with Sara.  And Jade.  Oh yeah, and Hank had beaten the snot out of all of them.  We had to be their least favorite people ever.

I turned toward them as I went heavy.  I tried to take my tray with me, just in case I needed an extra weapon.  “Why, Patricia.  How unexpected to see you here.”  Chaka tried not to snicker, and failed abysmally.

Patty gave me her best ‘regal stance’, while her teammates stood on either side of her in support.  She glared, “Why do you get to go off to Boston?  You guys already messed up when you went there before!  And you’re not Alphas!”

I just said, “Have you ever considered that you’re playing a losing hand?  Your so-called ‘Alpha’ playmates are a gang of thugs and losers who won’t be important once they’re out of high school.  And you know what?  They’re not even important now.  Hekate’s gone, and is probably going to be locked up for the rest of her life.  Excellent role model there.  The Don’s still laid up in hospital.  Kodiak’s fired most of the hit squad goons.  Solange has bitten off more than she can chew, and she’s still paying for it.  So think about it.  By the time you get any further up the Alpha ladder, you’ll graduate.  And then you’ll be nothing.  The Golden Kids will have all the money.  The Capes will have the cool superhero gigs.  The devisers and gadgeteers you’re ignoring now will be the rich nerds with the big houses.  Start thinking about your future, Patty.  Where are you going to be in three years?  Do you want to grow old, sitting around and thinking ‘junior year of high school was the best year of my life, that was when Solange didn’t spit on me’?  Because your life is truly going to suck if the best thing you can think of is being an Alpha cast-off in high school.”

The Yellow Queen gaped at me and couldn’t think up a snappy rejoinder.  Then she frowned at me and couldn’t think of a suitable insult.  Finally, she gathered up the tattered shreds of her cheerleader dignity and swished out of the cafeteria with her head held high.  Little Bee was right behind her, but had a miserably worried look on her face.

We watched them storm out, and Chaka grinned, “Nice beatdown, maestro.  You really got a thing for doin’ this in the caff, don’t you?”

I sighed, “It just seems that way.  You have no idea how many times I’ve had confrontations like that outside the caff, and not in your hearing.”

She gave me her leopard grin and said, “Sure I do.  It’s not like you don’t come back to the dorm and bitch about it every time.”

I wondered if I was really that loud.  I’d certainly complained to Chou about pretty much every confrontation and fight, but Chou was complaining to me about her life, so it tended to even out.  I was fairly sure I hadn’t groused about every encounter to Toni, but she did live right next door, and a lot of us tended to leave our doors open…

Oh yeah.  Toni had a roommate with extra-sensitive hearing.  Maybe I needed to be more considerate about someone’s pointy little ears.  I didn’t think I’d been that vociferous.

I was about to reply, when Toni gave a little “mmp” noise of warning and turned in one swift movement.  I went heavy just in case, and looked.

It was Hazard, coming our way.  Toni must have felt someone focusing on us, and reacted.  I wondered what Hazard wanted.  If she wanted to talk about bookmaking, she was usually a lot more circumspect.  And I really doubted she wanted to bring up Masterminds business in public.  Not to mention that Stopwatch was too much of a micro-manager to let her do anything like that without him monitoring and controlling the sitch down to the microsecond.

She gave me a big smile, and then hit me with her best ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ accent.  “Hello, Phase.  I heard you were gathering a group for a little trip to Boston on Saturday?  Risk was talking about it, and it rather caught my interest.”

I smiled back, but not as broadly.  Even though Hazard is really a striking young woman, and she was giving it her Exemplar best.  I really didn’t want to take her along, because of things I had heard about her from Risk and Boxcars.  Not to mention that she probably wouldn’t mesh well with the group I had already selected.  So I said, “Oh, that probably wouldn’t be a good idea.  Lancer and Wallflower are going, and some of Wallflower’s pals may come too.  I’ve heard you aren’t on good terms with them.”

Her smile slipped just the tiniest bit.  She didn’t know just how much I knew about the ‘variable interface’ incident, but she certainly wasn’t on speaking terms with the team who had caught her and gotten her into a massive amount of trouble.  She saved face by saying, “Oh.  Them.  I haven’t thought about them in ages.  I was just curious about the trip.  I wanted to rub Stopwatch’s nose in it, since he’s so sensitive about Boston.”  Then she turned and strolled off.

Chaka stood next to me and gave me a massive smirk.  “You’re really the master of the social snub, y’know that?”

I murmured quietly, “I really didn’t want her along, because Risk told me she has a little problem keeping her hands off other people’s property.  Shoplifting, picking pockets, that sort of thing.”

Chaka teased, “I figured it had to be something good, because you don’t turn down the flossy hotties for no reason.  And… mmp!”

Oh, not again!  I turned to see what had gotten her attention this time.  And, survey says…

It was Stormwolf, with Mindbird and Stonebear in tow.  And they were all wearing their Wild Pack uniforms.  Great.  I could envision exactly how this one was going to go.  I decided to be difficult.

I gave Stormwolf a huge smile.  “Adam!  How nice to see you again.  If you guys are here to apologize to Tennyo for falling down on the job on that whole ‘protecting the innocent’ thing, you just missed her.  She’s probably off to see the school psychiatrists.  Again.”

Stormwolf just stared down at me and said, “That’s not why we’re here.  We…”

“Well, it should be,” I interrupted.  “We’re lucky she’s not in ARC Black Section right now.  Hell, this school is lucky there’s not a smoking crater where the holo sims used to be.  The Wild Pack ought to be taking their responsibilities more seriously.”

“Phase…”

“She’s just trying to derail you,” Mindbird said.  “She already knows why we’re here.”

Stormwolf frowned, “And how do you know that?  We only decided to come over here about five minutes ago.”

I looked at Mindbird, but she was waiting for me to answer.  I told him, “It’s obvious.  Politics 101.  Everybody is focusing on my little plan for Saturday.  You wouldn’t want to give me the ‘only Alphas are worthy’ speech.  You wouldn’t sink so low as to try to cadge a free trip to Boston and free food off of me.  So you must be here to give me a warning about the risks inherent in going to Boston again.”

“Yes.  Well, it is a risk.  The Necromancer is believed to still be in the New England area, and your group does have a history with him,” Adam intoned.

“Yes, we’re all well aware of that,” I said as blithely as I could manage.  “And while he does strike me as the micro-manager type of supervillain who can’t let any slight slide by, he’d have to get his gang of goons out of prison first before he’ll be ready to tackle us.  We put his heavy hitters and all his mercenaries in Roxbury, so he’s a little short on backup right now.  And, since Fey has been able to kick his ass in single combat, and Tennyo pretty much squashed the Arch-Fiend and suffered only some clothing damage, he’s pretty outmatched for the present.”  Okay, I was exaggerating, since I really did think Darrow was a maniacal micro-manager who would be plotting to get even with us, but I didn’t see him casually walking past Harrison’s Restaurant, spotting us inside by pure chance, and being armed heavily enough to tackle us on the spot.

Adam opened his mouth for the three-minute rebuttal, but Mindbird just gave him a shake of the head.  Which probably meant she knew I had my mind made up.  I focused on her and thought, “Aren’t you violating the Psychic Canon of Ethics?”

She said, “I’m not probing.  You’re projecting your emotions.  I’m just making some assumptions based on what you’re projecting.”

I turned back to Stormwolf and said, “Now look Adam, I’m not inviting you along, because you’ve been fairly unhelpful to a number of my teammates, particularly when they needed your aid the most.  But Theo and Bob and Dale are all invited.  If you’re worried about problems, why don’t you send them along to watch over us?”  Plus, Dale had a body that even Fey couldn’t match, although Fey had plenty of other winning attributes.

Stonebear gave me a thin smile.  “Thanks for the invite, but I think we’ll pass.  We stick together as a team.”

Mindbird gave me even less of a smile.  She whispered, “And you’re really way too young to be a dirty old man.”  They turned as a unit and strolled off.  Dale’s stroll was really more of a sashay.  That girl had a great ass, and she was in that skin-tight uniform too.

Chaka smiled, “I noticed you didn’t turn down that hottie.”

I didn’t bother to shrug.  “I like Dale, and she’s hot.  Bobcat’s a fun guy, and word is Stonebear loosens up a lot when he’s not hanging with Captain Stick-up-the-ass.  Plus, we’ve all heard them do the ‘stick together as a team’ routine.  There was no way they were going to say yes if I didn’t invite Adam too.”

She gave me that leopard grin.  “So you got to stick it to Adam, tellin’ him you like everyone else better, and you didn’t have ta invite any of ‘em for real.  I am so gettin’ you to handle the invitations when I throw a big party.  And… oh crap.”

I turned and looked where she was staring.  I muttered, “Great, just great.”  It was Horrorshow and his band of dorks, coming our way and trying to look like they weren’t aiming right at us.  Which was pretty typical of them.  My intel on him was that he was behind a big chunk of the pranks at Emerson, particularly the creepy and stupid ones, and that was about all he was good for.  The rest of the dorm called him and his pals ‘the Losers’.

Now, with a name like Horrorshow, you’re more or less giving away your big schtick before you even begin maneuvering.  His magical effects were rumored to be several orders of magnitude below the school’s bigtime mages, so I wasn’t too worried.  Plus, I had an ace in the hole right next to me.  I pretended I hadn’t noticed him and his troop, while I looked around to see if anyone else was moving in on us from another direction.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Horrorshow trying to move behind us while sending his distraction team in front of us.  This guy so needed some Team Tactics training.

His lackeys Runestrong and OMAG did the ‘distraction’, if you can call it that.  Frankly, it was an embarrassment to diversions everywhere.  OMAG is a big guy who trades pretty heavily on the ‘burly Scots tough guy’ image.  Runestrong is rumored to be a decent-level mage who just isn’t personally up to competing in a school like Whateley.  He was probably a tag-along and ‘C-’ student back before he manifested, and now he’s a chubby dork in a school full of Exemplars.  A guy who’s a tag-along in a group that’s known as ‘The Losers’.  OMAG does the Triplicate Girl bit, but can do more than three copies.  My sources didn’t have a max on his capabilities, but they’ve seen him do four.  He did his ‘split’ into three, and the copies went sideways.  One bumped into Runestrong, who stopped and yelled at OMAG.  All three copies of OMAG turned and yelled back.  They argued lamely, while Horrorshow did whatever he was going to do, and we supposedly stopped to watch two dorks argue about who bumped into whom.  I did notice that OMAG’s copies seemed to be having a hard time working together.  Troika’s copies functioned a lot better than that.  Unless he was deliberately making himself look incompetent so no one would wonder why all his copies were just standing there acting like grade school children.

Chaka cleared her throat when it was time for me to do something.  <(Chaka) Hobgoblins at ten o’clock.  I think we’re supposed to scream like little girls and wet our pants in front of the whole caff.>

I went heavy and stepped backward.  There was a brief feeling like I was stepping on a balloon.  Chaka summoned her Ki and used her foot to ‘pop’ whatever was behind her.

<(Chaka) Hardly-show is makin’ a run for it, leaving The Two Point Five Stooges behind.>

Runestrong and OMAG wound down and finally realized they’d been abandoned.  Runestrong made the best of it and said, “Fine!  Just forget it!”  Then he stormed off toward the cafeteria door.  OMAG recombined and trailed along after.

<(Phase) Man, the quality of pranks around here is WAY down with The Don in traction.>

<(Chaka) Ugh.  Don’t mention Donny-Boy.  Anyway, T-Bird has to put up with these lamers ALL the time.  He said their idea of a good time is talkin’ Zap into doing the dumbest thing known to man, and sittin’ around watching it while they laugh their asses off.>

<(Phase) Well, thanks.  And good work on the hobgoblin popping.>

<(Chaka).  No prob.  These are a hundred times easier to pop than Nikki’s.  And… shit.>  She suddenly sighed and turned the other way.

This time, it was Haywire.  Christ, was the entire school going to come try and wheedle an invitation or else bitch at me, one at a time?

Haywire did, indeed, try to wheedle an invitation, with a lame explanation that he’d heard about the trip from Stopwatch.  I just reminded him that he couldn’t pass the FCC regulations for a class C electrical system, and so he shouldn’t be flying on unprotected aircraft.  Technically, I didn’t turn him down.

But, by the time he left, Cytherea was wiggling by, trying to get on the gravy train.  She even turned up her lust aura, which gave me a miserably painful erection.  But it wasn’t like I hadn’t been hit with much better lust auras for months.  Hers was pretty powerful, but not really on a par with Sara’s or Nikki’s.  Thank God.  Otherwise, I would have needed Toni to throw a bucket of ice water on me.  I had to remind Cytherea that Stygian was still in the hospital, and hint that perhaps Majestic and Imperious were both unhappy with me.  I found it really interesting that she wasn’t that concerned with Majestic’s feelings.  Maybe she had some sort of arrangement or treaty with Majestic.  Or maybe she was concentrating on taking Imperious away from Majestic.  I didn’t have enough intel to begin to speculate on the inner workings of the New Olympians.  At any rate, I had to concentrate on blocking that aura.  She really wasn’t being that discriminating, because the guys at the table behind me were beginning to drool and babble.

Okay, it was worse than that.  I think two of the guys actually popped their corks.  In the middle of the cafeteria.  Yuck.

I finally got rid of her, and Chaka was tapping me on the shoulder.  This time, it was Coreolis and her galpal Attributes.  It took me at least a minute to get rid of them.  Okay, I wasn’t trying all that hard, because Coreolis is another major Exemplar hottie on top of her Energizer powers, and her friend Attributes is stacked like there’s no tomorrow.

Then it was Cutlass, about whom Jadis had given me a full briefing, even if she hadn’t said just what Dr. Dad had done to Cutlass.  I was guessing he showed her exactly what one of his loyal minions was expected to endure if said minion had to ‘take one for the team’.  Dr. Diabolik did have an extremely frustrating reputation in the national police organizations: he protected his people religiously, so none of them ever squealed on him or testified against him… and then said minions just somehow got the best legal representation you can imagine, or else were sprung in ingenious jailbreaks.  But I wasn’t going to ask Jadis.

By then, Chaka and I were just concentrating on getting the hell out of there.  I mean, was there a giant neon sign advertising that this was a good time to harass Phase?  I wasn’t going to say that out loud, though.  Not when I lived in a dorm with Beltane, Delta Spike, Jade, and Fey.  Any one of them might take it as a challenge, and all of them could create what looked like a big neon sign that would follow me around.  Not to mention the fact that Jade had gotten Bugs to help her out on pranks, or the fact that Tennyo had gotten Risk and Flux to help her prank Belle in retribution.  Those merely presented extra incentive for me not to say anything like that aloud.

But apparently, EVERYONE was blabbing about my little birthday trip.  Several people were obviously pointing my way and discussing it as I passed.  Not that I was an accomplished lip-reader, but I was fairly sure some of them mouthed the word ‘Boston’.  I was looking for it, along with the more common phrases, like ‘rich bitch’ and ‘fucking Goodkind’.

I parted company with Toni and dove through the floor to get away from a couple more people headed my way.  I flew down into the deviser tunnels and aimed for some of my inventors whom I had yet to contact.  Möbius had already given me a vigorous yes, while Jericho was in the midst of finding a way to say no without admitting he just didn’t want to ditch his Outcast Corner friends.  Bugs had said yes, and MD had given me the most pathetic ‘no’ I’d ever seen.  But I still wanted to ask Triaxial, Automa-tech, Loophole… and several inventors I had yet to persuade to work with me.  No one had told me I couldn’t use my birthday party as a selling point for the undecided inventors.  After all, it was a classic technique.  It provided a subtle way for an undecided inventor to chat with happy clients and see a variety of the benefits of engaging in a working relationship with me.

 

OUTCAST CORNER

Jericho watched as people kept walking up to Phase and hassling her, undoubtedly about the Boston party.  He finally admitted to Diamondback, “No, I haven’t made up my mind.  Yeah, she asked me, and she said she’s gonna ask Phobos too.  But…”

Diamondback frowned, “Don’t tell me you’re going to say no because she didn’t ask me!”

Phobos leaned forward and checked, “You told me that, but are you sure?  I mean, she’s a Goodkind!  And she’s got the Poesies, and the Golds, and the Kimbas, and a bunch of people.”

Jericho said, “And who’s the only person you ever invited to our jams who actually came with you?”

“Well, okay…” she considered.

Razorback signed, ~You dodged the question, asshat.  Are you going to say no?~

Eldritch leaned forward and said, “Jericho.  Look at me.  This is not a snub to the rest of us.  And you’d better not act like it is.  Phase isn’t just some random pretty.  She’s a Goodkind.  And you’re not thinking about what that means.  We’re talking the power elite.  And not the elite at a high school, either.  We’re talking the power elite of the whole fu… freaking planet!  She’s investing in your work, right?”

“Right,” Jericho admitted, however reluctantly.

“And she’s working hard to get you big-time contracts with major corporations, right?”

“Right.”

Caitlin gave him a hard stare.  “Look Jericho, Ayla grew up in a different culture than any of us.  Old money families like that tend to draw certain groups to their parties: other old money, friends they grew up with who aren’t socially repulsive, and the people they believe are worth the investment of their time.”

Jericho stalled, “Meaning...”

Caitlin pushed, “Meaning she’s invested in your work, she thinks you have a lot of potential for the future, and she’d like to get to know you better.  After all, regardless of you and the others playing tag with those demon-weres, how often did you hang out with the Kimbas?”

“How did you...”

But Caitlin cut him off.  “Don’t ask, and don’t think about it too hard.  She’s not excluding the rest of us, she doesn’t KNOW us.  She knows YOU.  Besides, you think Diamond and Razor are really shallow enough to hate you for having the audacity to go to a birthday party?  Please.  Getting GSD doesn’t mean you abruptly become petty too.”

Jericho looked up from his tray and asked, “Why does it feel like I’m being chewed out by my dad whenever you start talking about something like this?”

Caitlin gave him a grin.  “Probably because he’s a very wise man.  Go, have fun, we don’t need you to tag along while we try to hunt up clothing, electronics, occult-y crap, and feminine hygiene products for Sandra.  And if you drop out, that frees up a spot for Deimos.  Covered.”

Jericho grimaced, “I just don’t feel right leaving Sandra and...”

Caitlin dropped the grin.  “If you go all martyr complex on me, I will smack the shit out of you.  Me’n Razor have it covered, you nitwit.”

Jericho opened his mouth to debate the issue, but Diamondback cut him off.  “Don’t be an ass.  I can shop for bras without you hovering around, annoying the salesclerks.  I appreciate you want to be there for me, but honest to God, you can’t ditch everything else in life.  Go!  Have fun!  Eat more than you’re supposed to, and come back and tell us how great the food was.  And if you aren’t sold yet, think about this.  Phobos will be there without any support if you stay here.”

Razorback finished the discussion with a string of sign language.  ~And you better believe I will be massively pissed at you if you ever pull this crap on me!~

 

THE NECROMANCER

Charles Darrow carefully moved through the wards into his private library.  He preferred to think of it as his library, rather than Hekate’s home.  Hekate’s temporary home.  After all, the room was created as his library.  The original protections were all for his library.  And it was still two-thirds library… unless the little witch had once again slid the room divider a few more inches away from her wall.  If she hadn’t had such a powerful protector, Darrow would have considered placing a few hexes on the divider as a special surprise for her, for the next time she tried to enlarge her territory.  Lebensraum was one thing – he had been most supportive of that, even der Fuhrer had said so.  Expanding into his territories was another.

No, it appeared she hadn’t moved the divider.  But she had moved the reading dais over to the edge of the library space, so that she could sit in her own space and pore over his private tomes.  He was really beginning to dislike the little sprog, not that he had ever liked her to begin with.  If only she didn’t have that protector.  If only he hadn’t owed said protector such a massive favor for such a long time.  If only she wasn’t being so extraordinarily useful in this scheme.

Oh well, if everything ran according to plan, he would have the Sidhe Queen under his control, Hekate would have her curse lifted, and she would be out of his hair.  On the other hand, if things fell apart, he could blame the little bitch, use that to cover the favor he owed, and just possibly get to watch a real Sidhe curse enfold its victim and exact its toll.  That sounded like a winning scenario either way.

He thought back for a moment about the groundwork they had already laid.  He, Nightgaunt, and Vamp had terrorized Vamp’s personal enemy, the guy she still called ‘Bullethead’.  Joseph ‘Iron Joe’ Delahanty was supposedly a tough guy who stamped out crime in the Boston school where he worked, but it appeared he couldn’t handle anyone more threatening than an unarmed teenager.  In fact, he hadn’t been able to handle one unarmed mutant teenager who wanted very badly to rip his balls off and make him eat them.  He had cried like a little girl when he realized just who Vamp was, and why she hated him so much.  After that first encounter, Darrow had had no trouble with the man.  Vamp had really enjoyed squeezing him for information on his entire family.  Now they had enough information to blackmail the Delahanty family into giving them the key to Roxbury Jailblock C.

Hekate looked up from her studies.  “Are we set?”

Darrow nodded.  “Stages one and two only.  I’ve managed to ‘leak’ the information to all our possibles, even the ones inside Roxbury.  So SWAT will be staking out Roxbury and the Goodkind luncheon, and lining up the local super-morons for paranormal support.  I told our suspects different museums, so we’ll know who the mole is as soon as we see which museum the SWAT teams stake out.  Not that any of them is our target museum.  And I’ve lined up the hired help for the museum and the real hostage crisis, plus some very special assistance for Roxbury, and our extra-special surprise.”

She frowned, “I know this always looks really impressive in movies, but isn’t tipping off the police and superheroes going to make it that much harder to get into Roxbury?  Even with the Delahanty family under your thumb?”

He slowly shook his head.  He really had assumed she would have worked this one out already.  “No.  Roxbury C is unassailable.  There are only two ways out, and only one way in.  I was able to use a lovely little Akkadian hex to get one of the Delahantys to babble everything he knew about Roxbury C while he thought he was being a tough guy and resisting me.  The cellblock is set on a single level, seventy feet underground, in solid rock.  There’s a single tunnel slanting downward from the surface, with three unbreachable gates along the route to the level.  An invader would need to get through all three gates.

“The tunnel and the gates and the entirety of Roxbury C have anti-mage runes on every exterior surface, along with runes to stop any teleporters, density changers, or devisers trying to pass through those walls.  Other than the main tunnel, there’s a single two-man elevator in the head jailer’s office which can only be accessed from the lower level and can’t reach the surface without setting off a series of explosive charges to allow the elevator to come up in the bottom level of Roxbury Jailblock B.

“It’s almost certain that the Delahantys will double-cross us by letting us in through the first gate, and then trapping us in the tunnel.  It’s the logical thing to do.  They can then claim that they tricked us and lured us into their trap, rather than that we blackmailed them.  Each gate is warded, protected by a forcefield generator, and weighs tons on its own so it can’t be opened without the machinery of the cellblock.  Meaning, it cannot be opened without the cooperation of the jailers down in the cellblock.

“There are forty-three supervillains down there, not counting my Children of the Night and my mercenaries Matterhorn, Jabberwock, and Ironhawk.  There are twenty jailers, and each one of them can activate the alarm systems, the sedative gas systems, and the robot counter-measures, with but a thumb-press on an alarm trigger.  There is no way we can invade that cellblock, even with the complete obedience of all the Delahantys, which we most certainly do not have.  So my plan takes all of that into account.  We will get the Boston Police department to help us.  By leaking the idea, we thus move units into place so that we can execute a more intricate plan.”

He finished, “I believe we are ready to begin the next stages of preparations on our Plan A, including further detailed preparations for each of our superheroes.  Starting with the Sidhe.”

Hekate looked up at him and smirked, “Yes.  In fact, I’ve been working on something very special for them that I want you to take a look at.”

Darrow leaned over her shoulder, reviewed her work, and gave her a reluctant nod.  He had to repress a wicked grin.  Hekate might have fallen down in her encounter with the Sidhe Queen, but she was certainly an ‘idea girl’.

 

VAMP

Vamp did her most casual stroll over to Nightgaunt, who was busy working on some sort of weapon.  “Hey there, Nighty-Night.  Having fun?”

He didn’t answer her.  He just turned so he could ignore her better.

She grinned to herself.  “Oh, don’t be like that.  It’s not like I’ve got anything to do down here.  So I’ll just help you with this.  Okay?”

He glared at her through his faceless mask.  Which wasn’t as impressive as he thought.

“So…  What does this do?”  She reached out to touch some tiny parts which looked particularly fragile.

He slapped her hand away and marched her into the ‘rec room’.  He pushed her into a chair, turned on the television and the game system, then slapped the controls into her hands.

She stuck her tongue out at him as he vanished into the closest shadow.  It had been pretty frigging easy to get Nightgoon to push her right where she wanted to be, in a way that pretty much guaranteed he wouldn’t be coming back to snoop on her.  And he still hadn’t figured out that she’d done anything to the thing.  So she could still use the gaming system as her secret communicator to Skyhawk.

She didn’t know who Old Skull-Head was hiding downstairs, or why.  Just that he had someone in his ultra-secure, super-warded library room downstairs, where she wasn’t allowed.  She’d been down near there once, and just getting within a few yards of the door made the hair on the back of her neck stand up and try to run away.  She’d settled for lobbing an apple at the door.  It hit something a foot in front of the door and instantly shriveled up.  It turned to dust before it hit the floor.  So there was no way she was going near that place.

She didn’t even know where their hideout was, since Old Coffin-Breath still didn’t trust her that much.  But he needed her help with those asshat Delahantys, so she knew the plan.  They’d break everyone out of Roxbury, along with gathering up some new hired help.  And he was going to use that as a distraction so some mercenaries could commit two other crimes for him, a museum robbery and a kidnapping.  She even knew which museum, and who was going to be kidnapped.  She didn’t want to be involved in the kidnapping, that was for sure.  Old Grave-Butt was under some wacko delusion that some hired thugs could snag some rich-ass dork mutant, and use her as a hostage to get something out of that redheaded Faerie mage who had kicked his armor-plated ass twice in four weeks.  She was sure that was going to go south as soon as the Faerie mage and her friends showed up.  Vamp was personally convinced that it was the same group of teenagers who gave them the beatdown both times back in the fall.  The redhead and her ‘Ryoko’ friend were too damn distinctive.  And if she never again ran into that vampire chick who sucked her dry, or the girl-boy who was strong enough to bodyslam fucking Matterhorn, it would be too goddamn soon.

She routed the message through the lair’s security system, which was the same make and model as the last lair’s, making it a pretty easy job.  She fired it off to Skyhawk, and then got down to the serious business of GEO.  She’d been playing this dark elf warrior for long enough to get a decent rep and level up a few times.  She figured she had this demon Marala’s attention now, and she was either going to get a job offer really soon, or become lunch for something really horrific.  Knowing Marala, maybe both.  At the same time.  Still, Marala was someone who was on the way up in the world of GEO, and Vamp figured she might as well be one of the people who benefited from that.

 

AYLA

The expedition into the bowels of the deviser dungeons hadn’t gone according to plan.  I had found Automa-tech in her usual position, reigning over some gaggle of younger devisers, and offered her an invitation.  She gave me the same routine about upperclassmen needing to ditch the underclassmen or risk looking ultra-lame.  Then I managed to find Triaxial, which took longer than I expected.  He had a family weekend thing planned with the rest of the Hewleys, so he bowed out.  He at least appeared willing to go, if he hadn’t had a prior commitment.  At that point, I had given up on the devisers, and had headed for Hawthorne.  Sara had been in, but had informed me that she had been ‘requested by the authorities’ not to return to Boston anytime soon.  Like anytime in this millennium.  Then I got back to Poe and found out that the sum intelligence-gathering from Mega-Girl and Delta Spike was that the Golden Kids guys were ‘really fun to flirt with’, and Dynamaxx knew even more lame pickup lines than I’d heard about from Team Kimba.  That, and four different guys had made one lame joke or another about handing Delta’s ‘empanadas’.  Ugh.

So I was hanging around the front door of the cottage well before Hydroflux came motoring up in something that looked like an electric golf cart with a forcefield bubble in place of the upper canopy and rollbar.  For some reason, it reminded me of the goofy ‘futuristic’ flying cars from ‘The Jetsons’.

She parked it in one of the spaces reserved for the maintenance crews, and turned it off.  Then she started lugging two heavy duffel bags out of the back of the cart.

I walked over and told her, “I can get those.”  I went heavy and lifted them out without any trouble.  Then I ushered her into the dorm and let Mrs. Horton know Hydroflux was there to do a little work on the showers for me.  I carried the bags up the stairs, leading her toward the bathroom.

She noticed the stairs groaning a little under my weight, and she figured it out.  She said, “Oh.  That’s right, they said you did the density Warper deal.  Do you know Lemure?”

I groaned, “Lemure?  She is so pissed at me right now.”

“Right, you’re one of the Kimbas,” she said.

I admitted, “And I’m the one who beat up the Vindicators in the red team simulations yesterday.  Kismet’s still not speaking to me.  As far as I know.  Although she’ll probably make an effort to tell me just how much she isn’t speaking to me.”

That cracked up Hydroflux, who explained that she knew about Kismet from Lemure and Sizemax’s point of view.  She said, “It may take a while to get everything installed, because I’m probably going to have to do a lot of incidental work.”

I nodded, “You already mentioned that back at the Weapons Fair.  So I’ve got some assistance.”

“Who?” she asked.  “I’d rather not let some random deviser wreck my hardware.”

I smiled, “Not a problem.  I’ve got a really good fabricator ready, and she’s extremely cooperative.”  Hydroflux gave me an impatient look.  I added, “Generator.”

I already had Jade lined up to help Hydroflux install her gadgets.  I just used the Spots to contact her, instead of using my bPhone.  <(Phase) Generator?  Ready for you, when you can get over here.>  Then I said out loud, “Generator will be here to help with the installations in just a minute.”

Hydroflux shrugged, “I doubt she can help me that much.”

I gave her a smirk.  “I think she can.  Just show her an assembled system, and let her handle it.  It’s part of her deviser abilities.”

Hydro tried explaining in that irritating ‘you may be a moron but I will give this one try’ tone, “Yeah, but her file says she’s only like a DEV-1.”

I smirked, “Let her try, and then tell me she’s only a DEV-1.”

“Who’s a DEV-1?” asked Jade, as she hopped in wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt and pink capri pants that did absolutely nothing to substantiate the case I was making for her.

“Generator?  This is Hydroflux.  Hy?  Meet Jade Sinclair, deviser for Team Kimba.”

Hydroflux looked at her and admitted, “Oh, right.  You’re the one who invented the shoulder angels.  Pretty impressive work, from what I heard.”

Jade shrugged, “Well, the holographic ones I built with Bugs were the best.  Peeper really didn’t like how well they worked.”

Hydroflux snorted in laughter.  “Oh!  Those shoulder angels.  I know a bunch of girls that really enjoyed an excuse to throw food at that jerk.”  She looked at me and said, “Okay, I’ll give her a try.”

Hydroflux started pulling all manner of components out of her bags.  Then she pulled out three clear plastic ‘parts caddy’ trays.  Each tray had a clear lid that locked shut, and was divided into 24 rectangular compartments.  They held bolts and nuts and washers, plus a huge variety of arcane minutiae for assembling her systems.  She explained in mind-damaging detail how the devises worked.  Jade sat there wide-eyed, nodding intently at the techno-droning while Hydroflux did the assembly on one unit.

“There!  Now it’s all assembled, and we only need to remove the current shower heads and attach these in their place.  Think you can build one of these now that you’ve seen it?”

Jade picked the assembled system up and concentrated.  I figured she was casting herself into the system to get a Jinn’s-eye view of the process.  After about three seconds, she chirped, “Oh, sure!  I can do this.”  Hydroflux looked somewhat shocked at Jade’s confidence.

And, just to rub salt into the wound, Jade had the second assembly completed well before Hydroflux had the third one done.  Hydroflux let her take over on the third assembly, and moved onto some gadgets designed to handle the temperature and pressure maintenance for the showers.  Okay, Hydroflux was using ordinary human abilities to assemble the stuff, while Jade was casting the J-Team into everything to aid in the construction efforts.

I stepped over to the showers and gave Hydroflux a hand by unscrewing the shower heads and temperature controls.  It was easy to do when I went heavy; I just had to be careful not to damage the pipes.  I lied to Hydroflux, “Don’t worry about it.  It’s just one of Generator’s deviser traits, along with some high-end machining and fabrication abilities.”

Hydroflux muttered, “She so needs to get re-tested.  That’s got to be DEV-3, or maybe some serious Gadgeteer.  Or maybe some psychometry added in too.”

Generator looked up from her work and grinned, “I’d rather be listed as a DEV-1 and have everyone underestimate me.”

I helpfully mentioned, “Oh, and she’s crazy too.  Who else do you see with an Ultraviolent armband and a pacifist armband, and switching off on alternate days?”

Jade fussed, “I do not switch off on alternate days!  I use a stochastic process each morning to decide which armband I’m going to wear!”

I didn’t tell Hydroflux that Jade just flipped a coin each morning, or that the jargon came from Bugs.  After all, it furthered the impression we wanted to make.  Instead, I gave Hydroflux a look and said, “See what I mean?”

The look in her eyes told me that I’d successfully convinced yet another inventor that Jade Sinclair was one of them.  Hydroflux watched as Jade tightened up some connections, and said, “Okay.  That went way faster than I figured.  I’ll be back at one for the demo.  Make sure all the girls are here.”

I just nodded.  I had already arranged the time with everyone.  All I had to do was to wait until nearly one and then make sure that some of the more scatter-brained floor members didn’t space it off.  Or dash off at a hundred miles an hour for something unimportant.

Jade waited until Hydroflux was out of the building.  Then she grinned, “That was easy!  She has such cool toys.  Jann could see just how the pieces work together inside, and that made putting ‘em together way easier.”

I nodded, “I figure you’re going to have to work your way into a niche of being the go-to girl for intricate machining and fabrication, like what you did with your ring.  Then you can ‘be’ a deviser and have a market niche here on campus where you might be able to make some money at it.”

“Ooh!  You really think so?”  I could almost see the dollar signs in her eyes.

“I really think so,” I iterated.  “You’ve got the talents, and they look like real deviser skills.  So you need to use them to boost your street cred, and using them ought to be worth something.  Either money or devises in trade.  Both would be good.”

“So…  How do I get into all this?” she wondered aloud.

I was still explaining my thoughts on the matter, starting with the fabrication work she did in front of Techwolf last term, and how we could expand from there, when we left for lunch.  Tennyo and Chou and Molly came with us – after Chou really gave me a glare for possibly messing up all her efforts at infiltrating the Goobers by inviting Sara along to Boston.  Oops.  Nice going there, Goodkind.  I apologized and explained that Sara had already said no.  Then I quickly changed the subject.  Of course, none of them wanted to hear a lecture from me on micro-economics as applied to a deviser fabrication network.  So I let them change the topic.

Okay, I grudgingly let them change the topic, because I was afraid it was going to go back to Hannah Montana.  Or something worse.  Like the Jonas Brothers.

No, the conversation didn’t veer off into the horror of the Jonas Brothers and their teeny-bopper fans.  It went somewhere worse.  Molly got Jade all excited about Jesse McCartney.  I didn’t even know who this guy was, and I already hated his music.  I quietly teased Chou, “Your girlfriend is a bad influence, you know that?”

Chou naturally defended her girl, “It’s not Molly!  It’s the marketing.  Every fourteen-year-old girl in the whole country’s heard of him.”  I gave her a raised eyebrow.  She blushed, “Okay, me too.  Molly has a bunch of his stuff on her iPod.  He’s… not all that bad.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Let me guess.  He’s Exemplar cute, in a wholesome, All-American, Disney way.  He specializes in harmless bubblegum-rock with a catchy beat.  And he looks like he could be the right age to date pretty much anyone in his music’s market niche.”

She groaned, “Ayla!  You’re such a cynic!”

I just said, “I take it that’s a resounding ‘yes’.  And I’ll wager Destiny’s Wave doesn’t like his music either.”

She just gave me a look.  We both knew Destiny’s Wave didn’t actually like any music that hadn’t been around back when she was alive.

Tennyo dragged me away, saying, “Okay, you can stop teasing them for being normal high schoolers now…”  But as soon as we were a decent distance away, she whispered, “Aries.  Meet.  Now.”

I pretended to pull out my phone and answer it.  “Ayla Goodkind speaking…  No, this isn’t a good time…  Oh, all right.  Give me one minute and I’ll call you back on this number.”  I turned to the rest of the group and said, “Business call.  I’ll join you in a couple minutes.”

Tennyo said, “I’ll go with you as backup.  We’re getting way too many ambushes and stuff lately.”

“Thanks,” I told her.  I took a trotting start and flew off to the glade, with her flying alongside me.  She had to go way under her normal speed, since I was only going about seventy or so.  I really couldn’t peg my speed that accurately.  As we flew, she told me that she’d spotted Aries and he’d given her the signal.  Well, I’d figured that out already.

Aries was waiting for us when we landed, although he was hovering several feet in the air thanks to some sort of anti-grav system he was strapped into.  Well, I landed in the snow, and Tennyo floated easily about six inches above it.  Once I had snow down in my shoes and up my pants legs, I realized I should have stayed light and floated above the snow like everyone else.  I focused on Aries and tried to ignore the cold creeping through my socks.

Aries sighed, “First thing.  Tennyo, I’m sorry about the Saturday thing.  I had no idea you guys were gonna be attacked, or about the sims, or anything.  I mean, all I did was play messenger boy.  I just passed an envelope on to Farrago for the Alphas.  It was in my inbox in the Alpha clubhouse.  Anyone – well, any of the Alpha elite - could have put it there.  I just assumed it was from Tansy or Kodiak, but it might not have been.  It just said ‘Deliver to Farrago’ on it, and that was typed.  Or printed on a printer.  I dunno.  But frankly, it could’ve been The Don working through an intermediary, or one of the top Alphas who were laying low last term, or even Farrago running some sort of gambit to make himself look like a pawn in the whole thing.”

I knew it wasn’t Farrago.  He had been subjected to a mindscan because of the Section 33 ruling on Tennyo.  So I knew it wasn’t him behind it all.  And I knew Aries was telling the truth, because he had been pulled in for a mindscan too, and he hadn’t gotten any punishments out of it.

He finished, “I’ve been nosing around for a week now, ever since you called me and asked me to, and no one knows anything.  Silver Rose knew Farrago met with those two computer dorks, but she had no idea what they were gonna be able to do, and she’s pretty sure Farrago didn’t.  She told me that if Farrago had known what those asswipes were trying, there’s no way he would’ve just sat in a chair not ten yards away from where Tennyo could’ve gone postal and blown up the whole sim center.”

Okay, I had to admit.  That was a pretty convincing argument.  No one who had seen Tennyo’s combat final would want to be within a mile of Ground Zero if she really went ballistic.  I checked, “Could it have been Hartford?”

Aries shrugged, “Well, I guess so, but she never bothers to come down to the Alpha clubhouse, and I don’t even think she has keys for it.  Who knows?  But why would Hartford jump you guys in the sims?”

I admitted, “I have no idea, and if it were really her, she could have done a much better job of it than suckering Farrago into hiring Make and Overclock.  I mean, we’re talking about a woman who could code up a fake attack by The Palm if she wanted to.  But I just thought I’d cover all our bases.”

Aries shrugged again, “My guess is Don Sebastiano, doing an end-around to screw over Kody and Solange, but I haven’t been able to find out anything more.  By the way, Tennyo scared the holy hell out of ‘em in that private sim.”  He checked his watch and added, “Okay, I gotta go.  I’m field-testing this for the non-flying kids in Elite League, and I gotta get it back to the labs.”

He lifted off and zipped off toward Schuster, while Tennyo and I lifted off.  I took the time to stay light and empty the snow out of my shoes and pants, while Tennyo grinned.  Then we headed back to the caff in Dunn.  Tennyo turned her head toward me and said, “Ayla, it’s kind of scary seeing how powerful your intelligence network’s gotten in just a couple months.”

I just said, “It wasn’t good enough to give us a heads-up last Saturday.”

She disagreed, “You knew all about the New Olympians and who’s in their group, and what their powers are.  Jade told me you figured out Cytherea had to be the one on Lancer without any evidence.”

I refrained from shrugging, because that could wreck my angular momentum if I wasn’t careful enough, and I hated it when I went spinning off like a pinwheel.  I told her, “I had a lot of evidence.  I knew it had to be the New Olympians, and I knew it wasn’t Knick-Knack or Counterpoint or Prism or Imperious or Judicator or Majestic, because they were accounted for, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t Stygian.”  She winced.  Damn, I wished I hadn’t reminded her of that.  As we landed outside Dunn Hall, I quickly finished, “It had to be another New Olympian, but it also had to be someone who could Psi-attack Lancer and keep him from using the comms.  That made it Cytherea.  Who’s gorgeous, but a low-level Exemplar, so I was sure Jade could bushwhack her.  At worst, Jade could sucker-punch her at thirty miles an hour and take her out long enough for Lancer to shake it off and finish her.”

Tennyo nodded.  “I don’t care what Chaka says, you just keep investigating everyone.  I really appreciate not being insane and locked away in ARC forever.”

I gave her a grin, and we walked into the caff.  I wasn’t expecting much in the way of comestibles at lunch, but Jana was watching for me when I walked in.  That was a good sign.  She ducked back into the kitchen area, so I took my time picking out a decent-looking pita bread sandwich.  I was rewarded when Jana came back bearing a salad bowl.

She smiled as she handed it to me.  She whispered, “It’s some of the spinach and bacon salad we’re serving in the other room, but this is a hot bacon dressing.”

“Thanks,” I told her.  It did look really good.  It certainly looked several orders of magnitude better than the stuffed pita bread.  I got a mug of herbal tea and sat down at the Kimba table between Chou and Jade.  The conversation was apparently on how to get the ‘Taylor Swift’ makeup look.  I reached out for Fey’s as quickly as I could, just to make it stop.

Chou was actually saying, “…my ribs still hurt, and Dorjee really needs to spend some more time with a Healer.”

Molly was saying, “Okay, so Winnie isn’t a front-line fighter.  I’m not exactly Swordmaiden either, if you wanna get down to brass tacks.”

Chou rolled her eyes, “I’m SO glad you’re not Swordmaiden!”

I complained, “I’m just glad you guys aren’t lunchmeat.”

Molly added, “And anyway, Winnie did the back-line stuff you needed her to do, even if we had to cover for her a lot.”

I let the conversation move on without me, while I sampled the salad.  It was beautifully layered, with fresh baby spinach leaves, then sliced raw mushrooms, and a scattering of pine nuts.  On top of that was the hot bacon dressing, and over that were layers of crumbled bacon, diced hard-boiled eggs, and freshly shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.  The dressing was a little bit of the bacon drippings, reduced with what was probably a good-quality white wine vinegar to get the cooked-on bacon bits off the pan, with sugar and salt and coarsely-ground black pepper to taste.  Then there was a fragrant virgin olive oil and some soft oil.  Perhaps canola.  It looked gorgeous, and it tasted wonderful.

It certainly outclassed that pita bread sandwich.  I had one bite of that, and decided someone must have mixed up the canned tuna fish with canned tuna-flavored cat food.  I couldn’t think of any other reason why the ‘tuna’ in that sandwich would be so unlike real fish.

And, perhaps because the lunch salad had been so great and my karma was constantly trying to balance out, I was once again besieged by people who had heard about the Boston trip.  I solved part of the problem by moving around the table and sitting next to Billie.  No one was going to come by and bitch about my out-Alpha-ing the Alphas when they had to face Tennyo the Destroyer at the same time.  That took care of Glissade and Talos, who were obviously dying to confront me.  It even stopped Pyrrhic, who had a reputation for being willing to get crushed, if he also got a chance to charbroil his opponent.  Thinking about the Talos/Farrago faction, I privately wondered if Vox could ask Glissade to lay off me.  I just didn’t know how close they had gotten in that Sirens class.  I rather doubted that a Russian teenager trying to get into the Alphas would waste her time with an American black girl, given all the stereotypes other countries had about blacks in America, but I made a mental note to ask Vanessa anyway.

That still didn’t stop the protectors or the gold-diggers.  I spotted a couple of the Capes coming our way.  They weren’t making any effort to hide it.  Pendragon and Mister Mystic strolled over to our table, with Iron Star in tow.

I was pretty sure what they wanted, so I played nice.  I smiled, “Hi, Arthur!  How are you?”

He smiled back, “Pretty good, Phase.  Pretty good.  And how are you?”

I thought it was interesting that Mister Mystic was apparently content to play the good sidekick, but Iron Star was chafing at the bit.  Not to mention that he was staring at Billie’s boobs, which was not a smart move.  Okay, I did it too, but I at least tried to be circumspect, and I did it in the shower room.  I had to wonder if Pendragon realized that his heir apparent to take over the Capes was this big a schmuck.  Or maybe Pendragon was smart enough to realize that Powerhouse was an even worse choice, and any of the girls who flirted with Iron Star would be a bad choice simply because of the love quadrangle issue.  If it weren’t for that, I personally would have opted for Magni-Girl as the next leader of the Capes.

I gave Pendragon the opening he was seeking.  “Oh, I’m well, even if planning this trip to Boston without personal assistants is a drag.”

He said, “Yes, that’s why we came over.  We just wanted to remind you that your trip might put you and your friends at risk, given what happened the last couple times you went to Boston.”  That might be why he was there, but I was guessing Iron Star was there only because he had been told to accompany Pendragon as a learning experience.  That, and ogling opportunities.  Damn!  He was leering at my chest too!

I pretended to ignore Iron Star, and faced Pendragon.  “I’m planning on taking a Cape or two already, plus a contingent from Whateley Security, just in case.”

Pendragon shook his head and said, “Just be careful.”

I replied, “I always am.”  I didn’t say what else I was thinking: that I’d been dragged into some crises by other people, and that sort of problem was still a risk.

After Pendragon led his group out of the cafeteria, Powerhouse got up from the Cape table and made his move.  He swaggered over and leaned over the table to better face me.  “Hey there, Phase.  I don’t believe we’ve met.  I’m Powerhouse.  I figure you told Pendragon to go pound sand, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take someone like me along for protection.”

I had heard a lot about Powerhouse, including the fact that the codename was one of the Whateley ‘legacy’ names.  This guy was perhaps the sixth or seventh person to use the name since Whateley became Xavier’s Academy, version 2.0, back in the Sixties.  Okay, technically, Whateley Academy predated Professor Xavier’s comic book school, but you know what I mean.  Powerhouse was also the kind of guy who made Iron Star look like a good choice for a leader.  Still, that didn’t mean he wasn’t a dangerous opponent in a fight.

I just turned to Tennyo and asked, “Can you take this guy in under twenty seconds, or over twenty seconds?”

She looked him over like a tiger evaluating a sirloin.  “Under ten.”

I gave him a big smile.  “All taken care of.  See?”

But he was a toughguy, so he didn’t wilt under Tennyo’s glare.  He just shook his head and strolled off like he had been in control of our chat.

Still, he wasn’t the last moocher to weasel his way over in my direction.  It finally got to the point that Tennyo said, “I can’t believe these people!”

I just said, “If you think this is bad, ask Toni about breakfast.”

“Oh God!” she gasped.  “You’re kidding me!”  She looked at my face.  “Please tell me you’re kidding.”

I shook my head no.  “Welcome to the big leagues, Billie.  This is what my life’s been like since I was about six.  Being a Goodkind in a school like Chilton meant I either had to surround myself with a protective cadre, or else I had to put up with stuff like this more or less continually.  My sister Heather?  She’s in Hollywood now, so when she’s out in public, it’s a hundred times worse, and that includes paparazzi following her everywhere, trying to catch ‘candid’ photos of her.  She can’t even use a public bathroom, for fear of invasive photographers.”

“Ewww,” she said.

“Ick!” added Jade.

I told them, “My brother Paul’s in college now, and he goes everywhere with a bodyguard, just in case.  The bodyguard wears a wire with a video camera, because conmen and morons will try to claim that Paul shoved them or insulted them or otherwise assaulted them.  Or else it’s bimbos trying to claim that Paul groped them, or propositioned them, or got them pregnant, or promised to marry them.  When you’re a billionaire, there’s a never-ending string of coprophages trying to make a fast million at your expense.”

Jade muttered, “Boy, being rich sure doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”

I said, “There are real advantages to it.  But you have to be prepared for all the people who think that your money would fit very nicely in their pocket.”

Chou said, “Don’t forget the jerks who thought robbing Ayla’s computer was a good idea.”

Billie frowned, “Y’know, I used to think that huge mansion your family has, and all that land, was just showing off.  Now it’s starting to sound like a really good idea for protection.”

I told her, “We also have to have a large security force in place, to keep people off the estate and out of our airspace.  And that force has to be prepared to fight off angry mutants, because we’re The Goodkinds.  Ever since Dr. Diabolik raided a Goodkind Research lab, Westchester County has decided they might as well house their SWAT teams in buildings just outside the perimeter of our estate, just to keep certain types out.  The family built the county new buildings for that purpose, and deeded them to the county for police purposes.  They’re certainly nicer than the old facilities for their SWAT forces, and cheaper, so it’s good for the county too.”

Billie asked, “Don’t you have a bunch of Knights of Purity there too?  That’s what they said on the news.”

I nodded, “Yeah, there’s also a large KoP training facility just outside the estate, so there are maybe ten fully-armored KoP teams available at the drop of a hat.”

Chou frowned, “That’s a lot of money tied up in just protection.”

I nodded, “We – I mean they – have a lot of money.  It’s a worthwhile investment.  And it’s been needed a couple times over the last three decades, so there’s no way they won’t maintain it.  Or even beef it up a lot, now that I turned into the ‘mutant menace’ right in front of them.”

After that unamusing little revelation, the team somehow felt the need to form a convoy around me and escort me safely through the sharks and shoals of the cafeteria.  It might have been the sight of Tennyo on my left and Bladedancer on my right, but no one else came up and tried to mooch a free trip to Boston as we left.

We got back to Poe a good ten minutes before one, and I started rounding up all the girls for the big demonstration.  Hydroflux was already in the bathroom, running a final check on all the gear.  As it turned out, I wasn’t allowed to attend the demo.  I went off and reminded Jay Jay about the demonstration.  She gasped out a high-speed ‘thanks’ as she sprinted over to the bathroom.  But when I got to the bathroom, Jody and Nikki shut the door in my face.  On the other hand, I could still hear a lot of moaning and whimpering.

Bugs ran out after a few minutes and dashed into her room.  In under two minutes, she came rushing back with a cart full of gear, and disappeared back into the bathroom.  Three minutes later, there was suddenly a deathly silence.

I grumbled under my breath as I stalked back to my room.  Great, the deviser has to slap a Cone of Silence over all the showers, so I can’t even HEAR the fun.  All right, they obviously needed that noise-dampening gear.  And I didn’t buy all that shower equipment for myself anyway.

Okay, I left my door open to listen for anything that might be of interest.  Other than Risk and Flux trying to listen at the bathroom door with stethoscopes.  Low-tech surveillance was probably a good approach given Bugs’ Sniffer eggs, but not a brilliant idea when two powerful receptive empaths were in the room.  Nikki angrily opened the door, blasted them with some sort of spell, and slammed the door in their faces.  Three seconds later, each guy grabbed his gut, clamped his thighs together, and scrambled for the boys’ toilet.  Judging by the noises their gastrointestinal tracts were making, they didn’t get there in time.

I made another mental note not to piss off powerful mages.

While I waited, I made a few phone calls.  These phone calls weren’t for general consumption, so I routed them through a transparent dummy site, used the maximum encryption the other end of the line could handle, and used one of Nikki’s crystals so no one who hadn’t touched the crystal could hear the real conversation from my end.  First, I called Ron Perelman’s people, to talk about the Marvel IPO.

“Ms. Goodkind, it’s good to hear from you.  Is everything okay at your end?”

I said, “Yes.  As a matter of fact, I may have managed to drum up some more large-scale interest in the IPO, which may make the stock price jump a bit more over the first couple days.  Also, the Sony execs who survived their little housecleaning are likely to be a bit more supportive of Marvel’s plans.”

“Good, good…  That’s good to hear.  We finalized all the details on Thursday, and the NYSE is good with the corporate statements.  Ron met with the Marvel people this week, and we’re hoping he’s got them turned around, so Marvel Studios won’t be such a problem anymore.”

I agreed, “That’s what we’ve been talking about.  What about our ‘strategic initiatives’?”

“All on track, as of Friday afternoon.  Mister Raimi was very excited about getting full creative control over the screenplay process.  And, once we fired Hosmerson and Prentice and Yukimori, he was willing to write out his statement ahead of time and let us review it.  Our legal eagles say it’s very good, with nothing about Prentice that’s going to get us into a slander lawsuit.”

I muttered, “Prentice is a moron, and ought to be banned from studio executive work permanently.  So he’ll probably be back in a position of authority in no time.  I just hope it’s not one of our co-dependents.”

“Well, we still have three studios that we’re targeting with our strategic initiatives.  Marvel’s had trouble with them, and we don’t have any leverage at present.  They’re all on our list.  We’ll see how much the stock jumps, and how much power that gives us in buying back the Marvel characters they’ve got locked up.”

I frowned, “I still think it was a stupid idea to license key Marvel superheroes off to studios.  They managed to lose control over the fundamental base of the corporation.”

“I don’t think we’re going to bother with the rights to Man-Thing and the Punisher.  They’re not on our list of development projects, and the studios that have their rights are likely to be the biggest headaches.”

I agreed, “Right.  Focus on the core concepts.  In this case, the Marvel superheroes we actually want to have in movies.  Not the ones that were made into box office bombs that made the company look bad.”

“That’s what we’re working on.  And I’ve got email from Mister Raimi that Tobey and Kirsten are definitely on board, and are keeping quiet until Monday morning.  They’ve agreed to our timetable, and Ms. Dunst even agreed to use the announcement our people wrote for her.  Mister Maguire wants to write his own, but he’s willing to forward it first to Mister Raimi and our contacts, for some last-minute review.”

I sighed, “I expect that’s the best we could hope for.  Play it that way, and make it clear to him that we respect his abilities and we trust him to say the right things.  Whether you really do or not, tell him we do.  If we piss him off, he can say anything he wants at that press conference.”

“Right.  We’ve got that under control.”

I said, “It looks like everything’s ready for Monday.  I hope you’ve got some money invested in this too, so you can get something out of it.”

“We all do.  Ron’s been really good about that.”

I signed off, “Good.  I’ll talk to you or Ron later in the week.”

After that, I called Gracie and Janet.

“Ayla!  It’s so good to hear from you!” gushed Gracie.

“There isn’t anything wrong, is there?” worried Janet.

“No, no, nothing wrong,” I insisted.  “I just wanted to check in with you and make sure everything was okay at your end.”

Gracie said, “Oh no problems.  The security company got the installation done at night, so no one knows we have it.  And your friend Doctor Arcturus-”

“He’s not really a friend.”

“-came and did that thing, it looked like real magic, and so we’ve got that warding our yard too.  I think that ought to be plenty.”

I sighed, “I hope it is.  But Monday morning, when the Marvel IPO hits, some bright boy or girl is bound to work out that an Ayla Goodkind lives there, and has the money to be THE Ayla Goodkind.  Once that happens, your privacy and security may vanish.  I’d feel better if you went ahead with Plans B and C too.”

Janet said, “That seems like a huge waste of time to me.”

Gracie said, “I’ve got some time before my next gig, so I’ll get on it.”

I nodded, even though they couldn’t see me.  “Good.  I’d rather have a little time wasted and not need it, than to need it and not have anything ready.”  I gave my best wishes to Amy and Tiff, and I signed off.

Then I called Paul on his personal cellphone.  I didn’t want to risk getting him in trouble with Father and Goodkind International by calling him on his corporate cellphone.

He answered the phone, “Well, if it isn’t the corporate raider.  How are you doing?”

I laughed.  “Pretty well.  I assume the family can’t get involved with the IPO, given my mutant status.”

He said, “No, but I talked with Legal, and we have a statement all prepared, stating that we have never named a child in our family by a non-family name like Ayla.  True, precise, and weasely enough to get past the reporters.”

“Good,” I told him.  “We’re taking the position that my last name is coincidental.”

Paul said, “I built the background you asked for.  Anyone who investigates you and Gre- Gracie will find hippie parents who changed their name to Goodkind because they liked the sound of it.  They were killed in a car accident, and you’ve used the settlement money to found your own little empire.  Father will be impressed, when it crosses his desk.”

“Good.”

He went on, “Oh, and I got your MCO records fixed.  There may be something funny going on in the L.A. office, so I gave Uncle Herb a heads-up just in case.  And I passed on your message about the mess-up with the Knights in Baltimore.  You say you know the mutants who hammered that team?”

I admitted, “Yeah.  They both have experience against serious opponents, so your boys were just overmatched.”

“How ‘serious’?  Are we talking street crime, or Whateley Academy level, or pro?”

“One of them beat Lycanthros to a pulp.”

“Whew!” he whistled.  “The Necromancer’s goons?  That is serious.  So, is the kid they rescued okay?”

“Yeah, he’s already dropped by to say hi, and they already have a wacky nickname made up for him.”

He laughed.  “That’s good to hear.  Uncle Herb said the Baltimore PD completely over-reacted, and that’s not a sitch the Knights like to be in.  Strictly lose-lose, no matter what happens.”

I changed the subject.  “Oh, thanks again for the Christmas presents.  They were great.  Just don’t get in trouble with Father and Mother over them.”

He said, “I’ve got that under control.  Connie and I are taking special precautions on that.  And speaking of special precautions, thanks for the tip about the security on the dongles for those Goodkind Computing security products, too.”

I said, “When I found out about the dongle-cracking going on, I had to let you know.”

He groaned, and I could just imagine him rubbing his right hand over his forehead.  “Damn mutants…  Oh, sorry.”

I shrugged, which was stupid when we were having a phone conversation.  “Not your fault.  It’s the way we were brought up.  And it is a damned mutant who’s causing problems.  This guy lives for swiping other people’s work and adapting it to new things.  In his own way, he’s impressive.  But since he steals all his components and lies about it, he’s also a big, fat creep.  We can keep an eye on him.  Anyway, he’ll probably be in prison six months after he graduates from here, and it won’t be our problem anymore.”

Paul changed the subject.  “I’m glad you’re on top of things there.  I sure could’ve used you last week.”

“Why?”

“It’s Project Asterix again.”

I sighed, “What is it this time?”  Project Asterix had been a major headache for every Goodkind who had gotten involved in it since it had first been suggested.  The idea was simple: build and test an affordable, workable anti-meteoroid defense system to protect the planet in case we were ever faced with another asteroid that could wipe out everything on earth.  After over three years of trying to get cooperation from NASA and the ESA, every single person in Goodkind Space Research was about ready to commit suicide or homicide, depending on which pinheaded bureaucrats they had been trying to handle.

Paul explained, “We finally put together a really excellent proposal.  It’s the epitome of the KISS principle here.  Unmanned, small enough to launch on any modern booster, no devises, no gadgets.  Just a kinetic impactor and a gravity tractor.”

“That sounds like someone combined our proposals baker and foxtrot,” I replied.  A kinetic impactor and a gravity tractor sounded really sophisticated and high-tech, but it wasn’t.  The ‘kinetic impactor’ was a big weight that would get fired at high speed at the right point on the meteoroid.  Then, the ‘gravity tractor’ was just the rest of the system, sitting close enough to exert a tiny gravitational effect on the meteor, but not so close that the tractor couldn’t drag the meteor into a slightly different orbit over the course of several months or a couple years.  The gravity tractor then only needed a tiny onboard computer, an uplink to Earth, lateral nozzles to keep from pushing against the meteor when firing the rockets, and enough fuel to occasionally fire the rockets and keep it from being pulled down onto the meteor.  “So what’s wrong now?”

He said, “NASA and ESA are both digging in their heels.  Again.  The current proposal isn’t using any of their high-tech devises, so they’re both throwing temper tantrums.  We’re giving up on cooperation from either of them, and launching the alpha test of the anti-meteoroid system out of our own pocket.  We have a better launch site than either of them, and we already have a couple boosters ready to take the payload.  Our people say they’ve got four potential meteoroids to do the tests on, and we can have the system loaded into a launch capsule by May, as long as we ignore the whining from government bureaucrats about not having funding for protecting the planet from meteoroids.  I just wish we could make this more of an international cooperation process.  It would sell better.  Now we’re going to have to put up with a thousand reporters and conspiracy theorists all over us while we set up the payload and launch the damn thing.  It’s going to be a nightmare.  We’ve got Brenner and Cohen from GSR on it already, but it’s going to get spin-doctored into everything from ‘Goodkinds launching weapons to threaten us all’ to ‘Goodkinds trying to wipe out life on earth’.  I don’t want to think about what Whateley Academy’s spin on this is going to be.  Just…”

“I know, expect the worst, and be pleasantly surprised,” I finished for him.

Paul said, “That’s my little brother…  Oh shit, I mean…”

“It’s okay, Paul,” I said.  “I can’t keep it straight either.  And I’m trying to go back to being your little brother, if you really want to know.  The only problem is I need to trust some bio-devisers who have the ability to turn you into a slime mold if you piss them off.”

“Oh, great.  Cheer me up,” Paul muttered.  “Thank God that Mother isn’t hearing any of this.”

I decided it was time to give him a little push.  “So, thanks a lot for fixing my MID and my MCO records.  But I think I need some additional fake IDs, just in case.”

“More than the one you’ve got?” he wondered.

“Definitely,” I said.  “After the thing at Christmas, I realized I’m really on my own now.  No Goodkind protectors anymore.  And stuff’s happening around me.  It might be really helpful someday if I had some disposable IDs.  Just in case I got caught in another super-fight, or I end up dealing with the MCO or the DPA from the wrong end of the gun, or I just run into some conmen who think a Goodkind with no protection is an easy target.”

Paul thought it over for a few seconds and pointed out, “You’ll probably want a variety of IDs with slightly different statistics, so you can’t be computer-targeted.”

That made sense.  We’d done that with several special operatives in Goodkind Security before.  I agreed, “Yeah, maybe one that puts me at 21, and one that puts me at 12, and several in between.”

He laughed, “You?  Twenty-one?  I don’t see that one.”

I shrugged, “Okay, but let’s say a variety of hair colors, eye colors, and ages, maybe twelve up to seventeen.  I’m sure I can pass for seventeen if I have to.”

“Okay…”  I could hear his grin over the phone.  “Upload me a couple pictures of you, and we’ll let the experts Photoshop them and then we’ll get you some new IDs.  I just hope you don’t have to use any of them.”

“Me too,” I muttered.  “But the way things have been going since August, I just don’t see me getting that lucky.”

“Speaking of days, what’s happening with your birthday?” he asked.  “I assume you’re doing something, but not getting Father to fly you out to eat with the head Microsofties.”

I sighed, “Yeah, that was a great birthday present.  And Bill was really cool.  Not in a ‘Joe Cool’ way, but in an ‘applied intellect’ way.  Looking back on things, we probably ought to wonder if he’s a low-level Gadgeteer.”

He fumed, “For Christ’s sake, don’t even JOKE about that around here!  Mother’s doctors upped her meds again just the other day.  Things are really stressful at home.  Connie’s about to tear her hair out.”

“Sorry,” I said.  “Well, I’m taking some friends to Boston for a luncheon.  I’m sorry I can’t have the family there too.  I really miss everyone.  Well, maybe not Heather.”

Paul sighed, “Of course.  Still, the family wouldn’t want to be at a party for mutants.  And I rather doubt that any mutants would be happy to see a real live Goodkind anytime soon.”

The shower demo lasted over an hour.  I got a lot of homework done in the dead silence.  The hush was occasionally interspersed with guys dropping by to ask what the heck was going on.  Lancer looked really impressed, but he probably remembered enough about being Hannah to really grok the whole thing.  Risk and Flux came by later, wearing new pants and shoes, and looking kind of pale.  They looked like they really wanted to try and sneak a remote-controlled camera – it looked like a Greasy special - into the girls’ bathroom to watch the festivities.  I threatened them with Fey plus Tennyo, and they suddenly remembered somewhere else they needed to be.

The guys were long gone before the girls began to emerge from the bathroom.  I could tell when the demonstration ended, because sounds began filtering from the bathroom again.  Most of them were whispers, although there were some moans and whimpers.

Then the bathroom door opened, and girls began emerging.  They either looked awed, or they looked like they’d just had the best orgasm of their lives.  Given the latter, I could understand the former.

Vox staggered up to me with dilated eyes, and kissed me like I’d been gone for a year.  “Thank you, honey.”  Boy, it was a good thing I wasn’t tucked, or I would have broken something.  Or ripped a hole in my trousers.

Then Scrambler zipped up to me and gave me a big hug, and about seventeen lightning-fast kisses all over my face.

Then Rip rushed up to me and kissed me.  Right on the mouth.  With tongue.

Then Bunny kissed me hard and pressed her breasts against mine until I thought I might hurt myself.

Fey and Chaka both hugged me.  Chou gave me a thank-you hug on her way to her bed.  Verdant kissed me smack on the mouth until Vox smacked her on the butt.  Then…

Man, maybe this WAS a present for me.  Tennyo floated up with this dreamy expression on her face and gave me a hug that would have broken something if I hadn’t gone heavy first.  Then Plastic Girl gave me a thank-you kiss, and Punch, and even Tempest looked like she was thinking about it.

Finally, Jade came by and said, “Wow, thanks!  They’re really comfortable, and get you really clean!  And they look nice, too.  They do kind of sting on my boobies, though…”

Chou sounded exhausted as she lifted her head from her bed and said, “Go check out the new signs in the bathroom.”

So, once I ushered Hydroflux out of the dorm and thanked her for all her efforts, I made a beeline for the bathroom.  And there were signs posted on the showers.

NO USING HYDROFLUX HARDWARE
BETWEEN 6 AM AND 9 AM.
WE HAVE TO GET TO CLASSES!
ALWAYS TURN ON SOUND CANCELLATION
SYSTEM BEFORE USING HYDROFLUX HARDWARE -
YOU KNOW WHY!
THE FIRST RULE OF HYDROFLUX HARDWARE
IS YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT HYDROFLUX
HARDWARE.

Okay, I laughed out loud.  So sue me.

I let Chou get in a forty minute nap before I started working on preparations for the Sunday tea party.  We had decided that we ought to try it this week in the privacy of our own room.

As I prepped Chou’s teapot and got out some nice teacups, I made some more mental notes.  I didn’t have to get a haircut this week.  I had done that last Sunday.  I had been getting a trim every two weeks to keep my hair cut at just the right length.  And the place Jade had found in Dunwich was really pretty good.  Phenomenal, for a one-stoplight burg like Dunwich.  Fey really liked the fact that they burned the trimmed hair and nail clippings, which was important for all of us who ever faced magical threats.  I’d started to worry a lot more about that issue, ever since Christmas.  Between Hekate and my own personal demonic nemesis, I had a feeling I needed to pay a lot more attention to details like that.

The downside was that I knew my hair was growing on top of my head, and not coming back anywhere else.  I still had smooth legs, and no body hair except for a dainty little pubic triangle.  Even my goddamned eyebrows weren’t growing back at a noticeable rate.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe three eyebrow hairs had re-emerged.  At most.  At that rate, it might be years before my brows were back to normal.  Maybe I’d have to wait that long on my legs and arms.  I told myself that, because the alternative completely sucked.

Well, maybe my turn in the BIT-slicer would fix all that.  If it didn’t, I still had other options, and I was being proactive on those…

I woke Chou up early enough that she could change clothes or clean up a bit if she wanted to.  But she was fine.  She woke right up, whereas I would have been about as easy to awaken as hibernating bears.  And she looked fine as soon as she got out of the bed, while I would have needed to wash my face to get all the goop out of my eyes, and repair my bedhair.  At a minimum.

Everyone piled into the room, dropping onto beanbag chairs, hopping into hammocks, floating carelessly, sliding onto the beds, and one person doing a two-finger handstand on the back of my desk chair while balancing it on one leg.

I looked at Toni and asked, “Aren’t you forgetting about the part where we hold still and relax while the tea steeps?”

“Heck no!” she told me.  “I figure doing this balancing is the only way I can hold still that long without going bananas.”

Fey said, “Girl, you went bananas a long time ago.”  Molly and Jade giggled, even though Molly was trying hard to stop.  Most of the rest of the room just grinned.

I figured that Toni was actually capable of balancing like that for nine or ten minutes.  So I got started on other stuff.  I handed out tea cups while Chou brewed the tea.  That rich smell filled the room.  The tea was earthy yet light, slightly spicy yet calming, complex yet simple, smooth yet possessed of a rich second flush.  I so needed to find a way to get some of this tea on a regular basis – but without being a huge pain in the ass to Chou and her sponsors.

So we just hung around, and relaxed, and drank tea, and talked.  Yeah, it doesn’t sound like much.  But it was great.  The room was filled with that rich fragrance from the tea, and even Toni seemed calmer.  Although calmness is always relative with a girl who usually vibrates like a cesium atom in an atomic clock.

We talked about how much fun some of us had had playing ‘maid’, and what horndogs some of the Golden Kids were, and how Hatamoto really seemed ‘interested’ in Tennyo, although that was perhaps partly in an anime otaku way that kind of wigged out Billie.  Sure, she liked “Tenchi Muyo”, but she didn’t want some guy to be hot for her just because she looked like Ryoko.  The whole room agreed that a wigged-out Billie was not of the good, and that it should be my job to find out whether Hatamoto thought Billie was cute, or if he had a jones for Ryoko and was going to use Billie to satisfy it.  I thought the easiest way would be for Billie just to go out on a date with him and listen to him: after all, if he ticked her off, she could just ditch him and fly home.  Everyone else thought Billie needed us to protect her.

Okay, after last Saturday, I was thinking the same way.  Maybe the problem was that I liked Hatamoto and had business dealings with him.  No one else knew anything about him.

Jade piped up, “I know!  I can impersonate Billie and go on the date for her, and when Hatamoto gets all creepy and stuff, we’ll turn into Shroud and chop him up!”

“Pronouns, please?” Fey groaned, beating me out by less than a second.

Billie said, “Absolutely not.”

Vox said, “The whole point of a date is having fun with a guy, not sending someone else off to interrogate him while you sit at home being miserable.”

Molly said, “Yeah, they don’t even do that in the ‘Sweet Valley High’ books.”

Several people nodded in agreement.  Okay, I had to admit I at least knew what the Sweet Valley High books were, and that there were twins in them, so I had a rough idea what Molly was talking about.  Jay Jay and her roomie had about twenty of the books, and Jay Jay had a tendency to leave them wherever she happened to be whenever something came up.

It took a while to get off the Tennyo-dating topic, and then we were on to violence.  Team Tactics classes, and simulations, and martial arts classes, and special classes with that guy Dyffud.  That spell that was screwing up the entire campus, and what Chou’s group had needed to do.  Why someone just had to have that little issue with Counterpoint, who in my personal opinion made Olympia look stable.

Finally, we got onto calmer stuff.  The senior legacy, and how awesome the Crystal Hall would look when they were all done.  How cool the ‘Introduction to Fabrication’ course was.  How much Vox was enjoying the Sirens class, and how bad she felt for Screech, and how funny it was the day Dr. Hewley brought in a whole cart full of cream pies and had the Sirens practice voicing the powers testing professors to hit themselves in the face with a pie.  How much I was enjoying the Shakespeare course, even if no one else in the room would ever want to take it.  How much fun the trip to Boston was going to be.  How cute it was that Thuban was so obviously jealous when Jade was having fun in her naughty outfit at the Golden Kids soiree.  How nice it was, just to get together and spend time talking, without being in the middle of another disaster.

You know, Trevor Goodkind had three really good friends.  Over a dozen friends, a lot of acquaintances, some great family members, and a slew of financial connections, but only three people who were really that close to him.  Ayla had a roomful of people who would literally risk their lives for him.  Sometimes I wondered if I deserved them.

I was enjoying the afternoon when my bPhone went off.  Since it was on my desk and I was floating over near my bed, Toni beat me to it.  “Goodkind residence, this is the downstairs maid, how may I help you?”  I rolled my eyes while most of the room giggled into their tea.

Toni nodded and said, “Yes ma’am.  Let me transfer you to Miss Goodkind’s personal assistant.”  And she tossed the phone to Nikki.

I winced as the phone flew through the air, but Nikki waved both hands, and the phone stopped in mid-air right in front of her chest.  She snagged it and said in her prissiest voice, “This is Miss Goodkind’s personal assistant Agatha.  How may I help you?”

After a few seconds, she said, “I believe Miss Goodkind is having her daily massage.  Let me transfer you to her personal masseur.”  And she lobbed the phone to Hank.

“Come on, guys!” I groaned.

Hank lowered his voice and tried a bad French accent.  “Zis is Pierre, Miss Goodkind’s personal masseur, ‘ow may I ‘elp you?”  He listened, as the entire room – except for me – tried to keep their giggles down to a low babble.

“Oh, I am most sorry, but zee madame is not here, I believe she is wiz her personal trainer.  Let me transfer you.”

He looked at Jade, and when I swooped in that direction, he tossed the phone to Chou.  She cleanly snatched it out of the air and answered in a thick Chinese accent, “Hello?  This is Miss Goodkind’s sensei.  How may I help you?”  She listened for several seconds and finally said, “Ah, no, Miss Goodkind completed her sword training already.  I believe she is in the steamroom.  I will transfer you to her personal maid.”

She handed the phone off to Molly, who suppressed another giggle and said in a sprightly tone, “Miss Goodkind’s maid Helga!  How may I help you?”  She listened for a few seconds and then said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss Goodkind is already dressed in her tennis whites and down at her private tennis court with her personal tennis instructor.  I will transfer you right away.”

Of course, everyone who hadn’t gotten to play yet was waving their hands to get Molly’s attention.  I was getting ready to cut in front of Tennyo to attempt an intercept, when the door opened.

Bunny walked in, with her phone to her ear and an enormous grin on her face.  She looked at Molly and said, “Never mind, I believe I know just where Miss Goodkind is now.”

Tennyo complained, “Rats!  I wanted to play the Russian tennis coach!”

Vox laughed and said in a thick Russian accent – and a tone so low that one had to wonder if this female coach had a steroid problem – “Da!  Ve play ze tennis for KEEPS!”

Jade fussed, “I wanted to be the personal chef!”

Friends.  You can’t live with them, and you can’t silence them with a good muffling spell.

Unless you’re Nikki.

I put a calm expression on my face and said to Bunny, “I’m sorry I couldn’t answer the phone.  I hope it wasn’t time-sensitive.”

Bunny giggled, “Oh no.  And I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.  You’re all so funny!”  She looked at me and added, “I wanted you to come over and check out the new headmask.”

“What’s it got?” Toni asked.  “Gold-plated eyes?”

“Laser beams?” guessed Billie.

“That’s fricking laser beams!” chortled Hank.

I told everyone, “Just the things we’ve talked about.  A power line detector, a way of finding ‘up’ if I get lost underground again, and a light source for the next time I’m trapped in a sewer.”  I paused and added, “The laser beams are in the next iteration.”

Vox did airquotes with a deadly-accurate Doctor Evil imitation.  “Lay-zer beams.”  Pretty much everyone cracked up.

I said, “It’s a good thing you said that one, because Toni’s Doctor Evil impression sounds like Halle Berry with a speech impediment.”

“Hey!” complained Toni.  “I do a great Doctor Evil!”

Nikki cleared her throat.  “Oh yeah, it’s almost as good as your Chris Berman.  Or was that Chris Rock?  They all sound the same.”

Toni pretended to pout at her roomie.  But let’s face facts.  Pouting was not one of Toni’s strong points.  And her imitations were still better than mine.  It really wasn’t fair to compare her to a Siren.

While everyone teased Toni about her lack of skill as a voice mimic, I followed Bunny over to her room.  I walked in and looked around at Sniffer and all her other paraphernalia.  I couldn’t resist filking, “…you are the egg girl, this is the egg room!  Goo goo gatchoo!”

She giggled and said, “I ought to write that whole song up, and get Vox to sing it like the Beatles, with instruments and everything.  Then I could play it on my speaker system whenever I want some ‘alone time’.  Rip doesn’t like the Beatles, you know.”

I grinned, “So, Doctor Evil, what diabolical device do you have for me today?”

“Mwa-ha-ha-hah!  Beware!” she gloated, in what was a really unintimidating voice.  It wasn’t her fault that she had a voice that made her sound like a bimbo.  Even Paris Hilton sounded smarter, if all you heard was the tonality.  So she sounded like an airhead pretending to be a mad scientist.  After you got to know her, you learned to ignore the bubbly high-pitched tones.  But at times like this, her voice was hard to overlook completely.

I just smiled and waited.  She reached over to her workdesk and said, “Ta-da!”  And she held out what looked like the same old headmask I had given her a couple weeks ago.

She burbled, “Okay, I started out with the idea of a simple artificial horizon indicator and compass, but they’re both pretty brute force normally, and they’ve been around for ages.  But there really isn’t room for a standard magnetic compass or a weighted vertical measurement system in the thickness of your headmask, plus they’d force us to add rigidity to an area around the face for the equipment.  So I went to a high-tech solution instead.  There’s a miniature gravitometer and magnetometer built into the frame around the lens to accomplish the same thing.  When you have the headmask on, you’ll have what amounts to a HUD in the upper right-hand corner of your right lens.  A compass heading in neon blue.  Right under that, a white arrow that always points upward regardless of your physical orientation.  And the masterpiece…  Under that is a simple dot.  Right about here in the room, it ought to look blue, indicating no dangerous voltages but significant electrical sources within a few yards.  It’s an LED that shows you the magnetic flux density, which is done using three miniature magnetometers around your mask, and a differential evaluator.  If you’re in the middle of nowhere, it ought to scale all the way down to deep purple.  Near a cable running house current, you’ll get green, then greenish-yellow.  As you get closer and closer to really dangerous electrical sources, it can scale up into the oranges and reds.  But really, don’t ever get near anything that’s a red.  Ever.”

She handed me the headmask, and I tugged it on.  I could breathe just fine and it didn’t feel overwhelmingly claustrophobic, which was more important than I wanted to admit.  The lenses didn’t look tinted or red, so she had done an impressive job there.  In the corner of my vision were her little indicators.  At the top, I had a tiny blue ‘NE’ that changed as I slowly turned my head.  It changed to ‘NNE’ and then ‘N’ and ‘NNW’, followed by ‘NW’ and ‘WNW’ and ‘W’.  I stopped and checked out the ‘up arrow’.  I went light and floated until I was upside down.  The white arrow kept pointing toward the ceiling.  And the blue dot stayed blue until I floated over toward one of her wall sockets.  The closer I put my head to the socket, the more the blue dot shaded into green.

“Sweet,” I said.  “This is really awesome, Bunny.”

“And you haven’t checked out the IR light source yet!” she bubbled.  “The lenses look normal - okay, they’re polarized and they have fast-reactive polymers, so that ought to help if you get attacked by light-based weapons - but the lenses shift certain E-M bands enough that the wearer can see near infrared too.  And there’s an LED near-infrared flashlight just outside your right eye, so no one with normal vision can see it.  All you have to do is press lightly on your temple.”

She flipped off the light in her room and lowered the shade.  It looked fairly dark.  I pressed my right temple, and suddenly a beam of red light lanced out ahead of me, illuminating an area of the room.  Everything looked like it was in similar shades of red, but I could see everything in front of me.

Bunny grabbed a pair of complicated-looking, really thick goggles, put them on, and adjusted the dials at their sides.  After a few seconds, she grinned, “Perfect!  Locutus of Borg, eat your heart out!”

I turned off the IR source and waited while Bunny flipped the lights back on.  She frowned, “This is pretty simple.  A lot of cameras and such can see a near-infrared light source, so you shouldn’t use it when you don’t need to.  And a few mutants can see IR, or at least near-IR.”

I asked, “Can you dream up a light source that isn’t so easy to read?”

She nodded, “Oh, sure.  But translating the light into something visible is the trick.  If you want to stick to something in a simple lens, then I’d have to re-think the design.  If you want to go complex, you could go with a pair of goggles like these.  They’re a devise, so I don’t know how well they’d work for you, but they’ll translate most regions of the E-M band into visible light if you adjust them so they find your band.  Then you could go with a gamma-ray flashlight and a switch to flip right to that wavelength.  But that would be more gear you’d have to pack all the time.”

“Hmm, I’ll think about it,” I told her.  I was already short on storage space, so that didn’t sound too workable.  Particularly when it was for the kind of sitch that had only arisen once so far.  When I was inside a solid, it was useless.  When I was in a normal tunnel or room, there were already light sources.  Still, the claustrophobic in me was very happy to have a light source for the next pitch-black sewer I was cast into.

I wrote her a check to cover her time and materials.  She insisted it was too much, so I had to stop and convince her that her time was a lot more valuable than the typical teen working some dead-end minimum wage job.  Given the quality and reliability of her work, I couldn’t see why four hundred dollars an hour was unreasonable.  I would have paid her millions of dollars if I could have suddenly had this back in Boston, when I was slammed through the wall of the armored car and into the ground.  I was lucky I hadn’t died that time.

And, while I was thinking about finely crafted gadgets, I decided to check with Harry to see if he had finished my tactical baton, before I took this headmask over to the holo sims to get it registered.  I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to make sure I had everything registered with the sim computers, in case I wanted to use the stuff this week.

“Techwolf here.”

I said, “It’s Phase.  I was on my way to the holo sims, and I thought I’d check to see if the tactical baton was ready yet.  If not, it’s not a problem, but since I was going this way anyway, I thought I’d check…”

I could hear his smile over the phone.  “Oh yeah!  I just got the last casings out of the fission system, and they look great.  I ought to have it all assembled before you get here.”

“Terrific,” I said.  “I’ll be there in five or ten minutes.”

“Look forward to seein’ you, Ayla.”

I took Bunny’s notes on the headmask and put them into a compartment of my utility belt, then slipped the headmask into a second compartment.  It just barely fit on top of the stuff already in there.  Man, I really needed more compartments.  I was about out of room, and I had ideas for another twenty or thirty items to lug around.  I needed to talk to Möbius again.

Once I cleared out another pocket of the utility belt so I had room for the tactical baton, I flew down through the floor into the Hawthorne tunnel and off to the deviser dungeons.  Fortunately, Harry’s work area wasn’t as hard to find as a lot of the labs were.  I was pretty sure that was partly because the vehicle maintenance nazi for whom Harry worked on his scholarship liked having Harry accessible, so job-related work could get hauled over to his bay for extra refinement.  The word from one of my intelligence contacts was that Harry was doing really well at his job: he had good work habits and kept everything neat, which was just the way his supervisor liked things.

When I got to Harry’s lab, the door was open, and a low growling was coming from inside.  The hair would have stood up on the back of my neck, if I had any hair on my nape.  Okay, so there were still things about Whateley that scared me.  There wasn’t another person in Team Kimba that would have thought twice about strolling blithely into the room, but I had to swallow hard before I made myself walk in.  Intellectually, I knew I could take Harry in a fight without breaking a sweat.  But I was still nervous.

Harry was bent over a work table with his back to me, and he was twisting his wrists in an effort to get something to do something I couldn’t see.  He was growling with the effort.  I tried my best to sound calm as I said, “Hi, Harry.  Anything wrong?”

He sighed and stopped growling.  He turned around, holding a complex series of small pipes that weren’t fitting into each other.  He said, “No, not really.  I’ll get this, sooner or later.  I just need about twelve hands, with maybe ten fingers on each hand.  I can’t figure out how they got it together in the first place, but it needed to be cleaned out.”

I gave him a smile.  “Then call Jade.  Generator’s top-notch on stuff like this and fine detail work.”

“Oh yeah,” he said thoughtfully.  “That was one fine piece of fine-scale machining she did on that ring.”  He splayed out his hands and said, “Giant wolf fingers aren’t really suited to some of the detail work.”

I nodded, “I can see that.  Well, there’s no reason to drive yourself nuts when Generator can probably get that put back together in no time.”

He agreed, “Okay.  Well, lemme show you what I put together for you.”

He moved to another workbench.  I noticed that the one where he was working was littered with parts and tools, but every other workbench was clean, with tools put away and junk swept up.  Even the floor was swept, probably with that wet/dry shop-vac that was sitting near the messy bench, just waiting to be used.  Maybe it wasn’t up to Jericho-level standards, but it was still a heck of a lot better than most of the deviser and gadgeteer bays I had seen.  And then there were the disaster areas, like Compiler’s lab, and Delta’s, and Triaxial’s.

Okay, there were real reasons why Babs and Elaine had disaster-area labs.  There was no excuse for Jim’s lab to look like Fractious and Phlegm had just had a fight in it.  Jim was just too absent-minded to remember to clean up his workspace, and every time he thought about it he got sidetracked with a new idea.  On the other hand, I had heard that some of the other labs looked a dozen times worse than Compiler’s or Triaxial’s.  I could hardly wait to meet those guys.

On the clean workbench was a plastic case about a foot long.  Harry opened it up and pulled out what looked like a tactical baton.  The thing was about seven inches long, and the extensions were all retracted inside a sturdy plastic grip.

He handed it to me.  “Here.  Try it out.  The button that sits under your index finger is the release.  The other button should lie under your thumb.  Press hard on it, and it’ll unlock the casings and make it snap shut again.”

“Kewl.”  I took it from him and held it for a second, turning it about to look at it.  The grip fit my hand beautifully, and the buttons naturally lined up where they were supposed to.  It was about an inch thick, which felt right in my hand.  If I’d had larger hands, a thicker system might have worked, but I was a shrimp with tiny, feminine hands.  It felt heavy.  I was guessing it weighed a whopping six pounds, which was pretty impressive considering its size.  I carefully pointed the end away from my face and Harry both.  I pressed the release button, which moved smoothly.

SHING!  It snapped open with a metallic sliding noise.  I had to use my wrist strength to hold it in place, because the weight was in the end extension, and the baton suddenly wanted to swing downward.

“Extremely cool.”  I looked it over.  It was three feet long.  The adamantium casings had to be really thin, because it didn’t taper sharply the way normal tactical batons did.  The adamantium shone with an odd glint, in the same way that titanium alloys often look like they couldn’t be made of simple steel.  I waved it around.  With the weight concentrated in the tip, it felt like a three-foot club.

“I got some osmium for the weight.  Try it out,” Harry encouraged.  He pointed to a steel test bench with one of the tough plastic tops that the devisers around here often needed.

I swung into a kendo stance and swung the baton down as hard as I could onto the test bench.  It hit with a satisfying impact that sent shocks up into my hands.  The super-hard plastic surface cracked.  The baton was untouched.

“Whoa!” gasped Harry.  “I couldn’t do that!”

“Exemplar-3 here,” I reminded him.  “Now let’s see what I can do when I go heavy.”

“This should be good,” he murmured.  “Mind if I turn on some monitors?”

“No.  Go right ahead,” I told him.  I was interested in the details too.

I pressed the thumb button.  I had to press it hard to unlatch the mechanism, and it just felt like the pressure from my thumb was needed to retract everything back into the handle.  Then I went heavy, making sure that I took the baton with me.  I popped it open and immediately smashed it down on the test bench.  The surface splintered, and one steel leg gave way as the bench fell to the floor.  I wasn’t too surprised.  After all, a super-dense mutant had just smashed it with a 120-pound club.

I retracted the baton and made it go heavy again.  Then I pressed the release button.  After about a second, the baton began to go normal on me, starting with the tip and moving back toward my hand.  It took about three seconds for the whole baton (except the part in my grip and within a couple inches of my hand) to go back to normal density.  But I could feel the change, because I was holding the baton out and it got progressively lighter, as well as easier to hold at an angle.  I figured I had about a second at full heaviness, followed by maybe another second at near-full heaviness, and then after two or three seconds I was back to a normal weapon.  A normal adamantium club with an osmium weight in the tip for extra force.

I looked over as Harry studied the outputs and did some computations on a sheet of lined paper.  It looked like I was generating enough force to hurt someone like Silverwing, but not enough to bust Lancer’s PK field.  Which meant I still couldn’t stop someone like Bombshell.  Damn it.  On the other hand, Aries was going to be in for a nasty surprise if he tried any double-dealings.

Oh wait, he was already double-dealing.  Well, if he became a triple agent and I caught him at it, I was prepared.  Except that I didn’t have a good counter for his speed.  I was going to work on that.

“Thanks, Harry.  A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: its loveliness increases.”

He frowned, “I thought it was ‘a thing of beauty and a joy forever’.”

“No, that’s a misquote,” I told him.  “It’s a poem by Keats.  But this is a thing of beauty.”

He gave me an enormous, lupine grin and said, “Glad you like it.  No one else is working with adamantium this term, and they didn’t think I’d be able to get the resins and components to coalesce properly.  But I had a 60% success rate on the casings, which is like about ten times better than most guys around here get, so I got an ‘A+’ on it.”

I grinned back.  One of the things that makes adamantium such a bitch to manufacture is that it involves a very finicky process that usually has an agonizingly low success rate.  Then the required materials are phenomenally expensive, and they’re ruined when you have a process failure.  On top of that, the process doesn’t lend itself to automation.  I knew that Goodkind Research Labs had done a project with the U.S. Defense Department four years ago.  The goal was to crank out thin adamantium skins for fighter jets.  But the best scientists and engineers they could get were only getting a three percent success rate on small segments of the skin, which then had to be put together in titanium alloy frames because they couldn’t work the adamantium anymore.  They estimated that ten times as many people as they had on the entire project team could get the entire skin of one jet done in seven to ten years - assuming nothing went wrong and an increase in manpower didn't lead to a decrease in the success rate - for the cost of four fully-armed aircraft carriers.  Yeah.  Not other aircraft.  Entire aircraft carriers.  And the jet would still be vulnerable, because the hundreds of seams between segments would be wider than a .50 caliber bullet and just as vulnerable as the skin of any other jet.  That didn’t even cover the openings in the skin, or the plastic of the cockpit, or any of the other weakpoints.  There had still been a chance to move the project forward, right up until some Pentagon pinhead had started writing memos about the ‘adamantium gap’: there were other countries which had easier access to some of the rarer ingredients in some of the necessary resins and components.  As far as I knew, that project was still shelved.

I tucked away the baton in the pocket I had cleared for it, and I made sure I had Harry’s signature on his documentation.  That got folded up and slipped into the same pocket.  Then I was off to the holographic sim center.

I called up the sim center as I made my way through the tunnels, and I lined up someone to do the registration of new gear for me.  I had checked the holo sim schedule ahead of time, so I knew there were computer guys available.  In fact, based on a brief study of the published schedules, it looked like weekend days were probably the best times to drop in with a request like this, since their sim workload was apparently lower than on weekdays, with fewer sims being run and more scheduled maintenance work.

I buzzed in at the security door, and a security camera panned down to make sure I was who I claimed to be.  A voice checked that I was still Phase, even though there was no verification code or anything, which meant that plenty of Shifters, mages with illusion spells, and/or devisers with imagecasters could still beat this level of security.  Given what had happened only one weekend ago, that didn’t fill me with any warm fuzzy feelings.  You’d think a school with as much experience as Whateley would be doing a better job on this kind of stuff.

I was slightly reassured when the door opened, and I had to walk through a scanner of some kind.  I still suspected that someone like Fey could probably beat that thing nine times out of ten.  Unfortunately, a mage like Hekate or Majestic could probably do the same thing, with a bit more preparation.  That thought didn’t exactly cheer me up.

There was a Whateley Security guy standing there too.  I didn’t know him.  It occurred to me that I ought to make sure I knew every single Security person, what squad they were on, and what that squad’s schedule was.  Sooner or later, someone like Bogus was going to set up someone I knew by pretending to be a Whateley Security officer.  It was just too easy.  If a Security guy walked up and told one of us to report to, say, Range 4, we’d do it and walk right into a trap.  If I knew the guy personally and he didn’t ‘recognize’ me, I would have plenty of warning.

Larry came strolling down the hall and said, “Hey, I got it.  Phase called down and arranged for registration of new gear.”

The Security guy looked at an electronic screen on the wall and said, “Yeah, I got it here.  Mike put it in the queue when the call came in.”

Larry nodded, “Great.  Then I don’t have to do it.”  He waved me on down the hall.  “Come on, I want to see what new gadgets you’ve got.  The ones last time were awesome.  Man, I so wanted to get to code up a psi grenade blast for the sims.”

He led me down the short hall to Room 5, where they had the scanning technologies.  While I pulled out the headmask and the baton, along with the documentation, I asked him how his week was going.

He shrugged, “Pretty good.  The Team Tactics sims yesterday morning were a blast.  I got a warning from Gunny and my supervisor over in IT for letting you put all those clues in your sim, but other than that, pretty good.”

Damn.  That was just what I didn’t want to hear.  “Sorry about that.  I didn’t think you’d get in trouble for it.”

He just shrugged, “Screw ‘em.  It was the most fun thing I’ve done in days.  Most kids just wanna kill everybody.  Boooooring!”  He looked up at me with a big smirk.  “And this registration dodge means I get out of some of the code maintenance crap we’re doing today!”

I made a mental note.  This was yet another reason to drop by on weekends for this kind of stuff.  While he scanned the baton and the headmask, my cell phone buzzed in my pocket.

I stepped to the other side of the room and answered.  “Ayla Goodkind speaking.”

“Phase, this is Wunderkind.  I haff the ‘research equipment’ ready.  Can you come by my private lab today?”

I looked over as Larry popped open the tactical baton and swished it around like he was fighting off Zorro.  “Yeah, I think I can be there in twenty minutes or so.”

“Wunderbar.  I will be prepared before then.”

I hung up, and went back over to the scanning area before Larry conked himself on the head with the tactical baton.  “Having fun?”

He grinned, “This is great.  I hardly ever get to play with any of this stuff, you know.  Maybe I’ll get my own tactical baton.  How much did this one cost you?”

I said, “You don’t want to know.”  He opened his mouth, and I cut him off.  “No, you really don’t want to know.  The adamantium refining alone would bankrupt you.”

“Ooh, good point.  Maybe I could get a normal one instead.”

I nodded, “They’re available over the internet.  Then talk to someone in Security about some training on how to use one.”

While he scanned the lenses of the headmask, I gave him a little suggestion.  “Maybe you could file a report with your boss.  I think a mage could beat your hallway scanner.  Ask for a test or two with someone from Mystic Arts.  That might make up for the warning you got.”

He wasn’t all that interested.  Apparently, he got warnings from Bardue or his supervisor fairly regularly.  But as long as they didn’t dock his pay or keep him from having fun doing programming, he didn’t care.

I managed to get to Wunderkind’s private lab area within nineteen minutes after her call.  The fact that I had written documentation on the equipment went a long way toward speeding up the registration process.  That, and Larry had seen adamantium before, so he actually believed what Harry’s note said.  I privately wondered how many students tried to convince the powers testing guys that they had mithril or orichalcium equipment.

Wunderkind peeked out into the hall to see if anyone was watching, and she waved me into her lab.  She had a duct tape ‘X’ on the floor, in the middle of what looked like the remnants of one of her larger forcefield generators, along with an array of measurement gear and computers.

Then came the fun part.  I got to go light and then stand on the ‘X’, while she spent almost half an hour trying different frequencies and harmonics and combinations.  She managed to zap me about two dozen times in the process.  “All right, hold still, while I try this new adjustm-”

“Ouch!”

“Oh!  Tut mir Leid!  I mean, sorry!  Let me try this instea-”

“Ouch!”

“Sorry!”

It seemed like a really long time before she decided we were finished.  She pointed at a computer screen with a color graph full of spikes and background noise, and said, “This is good.  We have a large possibility list now.  I will put together some hardware to simulate as many of those as I can, and we can try things again in a week…  Now you are sure that I will need to overlook the patent?”

I nodded, “That’s the idea.  I’ll pay you under the table, and we’ll pretend you didn’t invent it.”

She sighed, “Ach, well, it will work out in the end.  I have trust in you.”

I smiled, “And I have faith in you.  So it all works out in the long run.”

I checked my watch on my way back to Whateley.  Damn, how was it that my weekend days were busier than my weekdays?  I hastily called Chef Marcel.

“Ahh, Phase!  I was wondering when you would call.  We have both dinners all prepared.”

Inwardly, I sighed with relief.  But I didn’t let any sound pass over the phone connection.  I didn’t want him to think I had doubted him in the least.  I kept the conversation in French.  “Thank you.  If you can have them packaged separately, I’ll have someone come get them very soon.  It will be Shroud, but she may look like an ordinary Japanese girl, or possibly even nothing but six white gloves.  It is very difficult to guess what Generator is next going to build for Shroud.”

“But yes, I have seen her sitting with your friends many times, and she does often look very different from the previous appearance.”

I grinned, “Yes, the dreaded scourge of… creativity.  Where would we be without it?”

He answered, “André and I look forward to your comments on our own creativity.  Tonight, you are getting French fusion.”

“It sounds delicious,” I said.

I ended the call and made the next one.  “Jade?  It’s Ayla.”

“What?  What what what?  Is it big?  Do I need to get Billie?” she gasped frantically.

I rolled my eyes.  “Calm down.  If at all possible.  If it had been anything big, I would’ve used the Spots and called everybody.  Okay?”

“Okay,” she breathed out.  “Is it the dinner stuff?”

“Yes.  You sure you want to play waitress again?”

“Oh yeah!” she insisted.  “That was fun!  And you paid me a ton!  I mean, if I could work for you full-time for that kind of money, I could pay my own tuition!”  She paused a moment and muttered, “I think…”

Well, Whateley tuition was somewhere between ‘high-end’ and ‘you must be out of your mind’.  It made the tuition for Chilton and Choate look like chump change.  Hell, it made the tuition for Harvard and Yale look lightweight.  Of course, there weren’t that many kids who were paying the full tuition.  A phenomenal percentage of kids were on full or partial scholarships, all the way from kids like Toni and Nikki, whose parents were coughing up a major percentage of the tuition, to kids like Jade, who were a hundred percent scholarship.  Fortunately, the alums and governing groups contributed millions every year to cover the remaining costs.  And considering the costs of upkeep and rebuilding around here, not to mention salaries and auxiliary costs, it certainly seemed necessary.

I told her, “Okay, if you want, I’ve got some stuff for you.  There are two separate dinners waiting for me at Dunn.  Whoever you send, tell ‘em you’re Shroud.  The French cuisine goes downstairs to the private dining room.  The other one goes off to the private room down the Hawthorne tunnel, for Chou and Molly.”

“Molly’s really pretty,” she cooed.  “I like her.  And Rythax is just the cutest little thing EVER when he’s in little cat size.”

I teased her, “Oh, you’d like her no matter what she looked like as long as she had Rythax.  Like with Lindsay and Pern.”

“Lindsay’s nice!” Jade insisted.  “And she likes Hello Kitty!”

I refrained from saying that those two things seemed antithetical.  I just told her, “After you drop Chou’s stuff off, you can do the serving for them, and send Jann off to do the serving for me and Vanessa downstairs.  The six white gloves and speaker disk are what I want.  They worked really well last time.”

There was a long pause.  “Umm, you know I just did that as a joke, right?”

I couldn’t help grinning.  “Yeah, but they still worked really well.  We’ll go with them one more time.  Okay?”

“Oh-kay…” she said hesitantly.

I had the feeling she liked them a lot better as a joke than as a real version of her.  Maybe I shouldn’t have asked her to cast herself into anything that exposed her spirit as much as those disconnected gloves.  I tried, “Look, if you’re uncomfortable about it, just put Jann – or Jinn or whoever – into the skinpours as a regular waitress.  And don’t bother with a waitress costume.  Just her regular class uniform.”

“Umm, I’ll think about it,” she finally said.

I made my way down the Hawthorne tunnel and up into the ground floor of Poe.  I heard a noise, and I looked up just in time to go light.  A carefully-made-up, beautiful, busty, blonde tornado in a tiny LBD flew past me, gushing, “Sorry!  Gotta run, I can’t be late for my date!”

It was Megs, zooming off, presumably on the date she’d snagged last night at the Golden Kids soiree.  I did notice that her minidress wasn’t really covering much more than her costume normally did, and this outfit didn’t have a cape.  Plus, her hair looked really nicely done, and at the speed she was flying, she’d probably ruin the style.  On the other hand, the makeup would probably stay in place, which her date would appreciate, because she looked HOT.

Elaine rushed down the stairs after her, only to find Marty was long gone.  Her shoulders slumped, and she cursed, “Dammit!  And after all the time I spent doing her hair and makeup!”

I smiled, “I see that the waitress gig is already paying dividends.”

She grinned, “Oh yeah.  We couldn’t get the dress she really wanted, ‘cause it won’t be here for three or four days.  We ordered it this morning when Marty found out you already put the money on her debit card.  Thanks on that, by the way.  But Zenith knew someone who could loan her a dress that would fit, so we’re good.”

It occurred to me that if I was going to be a fixer, I’d better find a way to know every girl’s measurements and preferred colors, for special occasions like this.  I’d ask Zoe about it one of these days.  Instead, I told Elaine, “Hasn’t anyone explained to Marty that girls are allowed to be late getting ready for their dates?”

Elaine just grinned.  “She’s too excited.  This is the best thing that’s happened to her since she got hung up on that dork Iron Star.”

I went into the private dining room and made sure everything was ready.  The J-Team had washed the plates and silverware and goblets, so they were good.  The ice cube trays had been re-filled and were ready.  The mineral water was chilled.  A bottle from my private case of the non-alcoholic Prosecco was already chilled.  And someone had set up a devise for my painting: a small light was mounted on the wall above my painting to illuminate it properly, but a quick check told me that the light was also a lightweight forcefield to keep the painting clean.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the forcefield could also serve as a burglar alarm.  Not that I was worried.  It wasn’t an original work of art.

Once ‘Jinn’ came downstairs with the food, and I showed her what to serve when, I was set.  I walked upstairs to check on my date.

Sharisha yanked the door opened and glowered at me.  “You better be treatin’ her right, after that shit last night.”

I sighed, “Didn’t Vanessa explain all this?”

“Yeah, and it sounded like total bullshit,” she snapped.

I tried one more time.  “I needed someone like Vox, because we have a kid with a drinking problem.  Same reason I needed someone like Generator.  So we could swipe the champagne bottle once the drinker was distracted.  It even worked.”

She snorted, “Yeah, sure.  Rich whiteys get to drink too much in public, and what happens?  Not a fuckin’ thing.  Someone like me drinks in public?  I’d get hassled by cops and thrown in jail.”

I was not going to argue about this, in part because I thought she was right.  Glitch was getting away with stuff that no fifteen-year-old ought to be doing.  Of course, fifteen-year-olds all over the country were doing it, but that didn’t make it legal.  Or right.

Instead, I looked past Sharisha’s shoulder and grinned, “Vanessa!  You look great!”

And she did.  She wasn’t in an elegant dress, like last night, but she still looked terrific.  She was wearing a pair of stretch denims that showed off her curves, and a baby tee that fit tightly to her breasts while showing off her taut tummy.  It was a good thing I wasn’t tightly tucked, or I might have hurt myself.

She checked, “I’m not too underdressed, am I?”

I waved her off, “No, of course not.  You look fine.  It’s just a private dinner.  And then we’ve got the movie afterward.”

“Yeah, that oughta be good,” she agreed.

I figured it would be.  Vanessa hadn’t been interested in watching last week, but this week Chou and Molly had picked out the movie.  It was the action-comedy “Shaolin Soccer”.  With subtitles instead of dubbing.  I personally thought the best option was learning the language, but of course that wasn’t reasonable for just one movie.  I had noticed some discussions going on between Molly and Chou about dubs vs. subs, and apparently Molly had lost the argument.  For this film, anyway.  If we switched to Japanese anime sometime in the future, I had a feeling the argument would get revisited.

Of course, if we switched to Japanese anime, we’d also have to make room for Jade and Billie in my room.  And probably half a dozen other Poesies.  Oh well, there was always the big television in the sunroom upstairs in “Damnation Alley”.

I escorted Vanessa down to the food.  Jinn already had the plates and silverware and goblets laid out, and she whisked the water goblets onto the table as soon as I seated Vanessa.  The speaker disk soared up toward my head, and she whispered in my ear, “Here.  This was in the box.  If it’s instructions on serving, I can’t read it.”

I took a look.  It was French.  I reassured her, “No, it’s okay.  They’re just the names of the dishes.”

“Oh.  That’s okay.”  And the white gloves flew off to get the appetizers.

Vanessa gave me a little smirk.  “They gave you the names of the dishes?  And they’re all in French?”

I grinned back.  “The whole note is in French.  Dinner is a French-Asian fusion.  They’re experimenting on us.  Here’s what we have.  The appetizers are venison and chicken, with a spicy Asian sauce in crisp lettuce wraps.”

“Mmm, that sounds good,” she said.

I went on, “Then we have a salad of roma tomatoes and fresh fried mozzarella, with a balsamic vinaigrette.  Dinner is crab cakes with a hoisin sauce and seasonal veggies.  And dessert is a mango ice cream in crisp bowls that are made out of a sweet ‘fortune cookie’ dough.”  I looked up and added, “However, unlike most fortune cookies served in restaurants, I expect these will be edible.”

She snickered at my comment.  “Yeah, a lot of fortune cookies are pretty bleah.”

The gloves whisked our appetizer plates onto the table.  Each small plate had two right triangles that faced each other to form a loose rectangle of crisp green.  A fragrant reddish-brown sauce had been drizzled diagonally over both triangles.  I said, “Hey Jinn, nice presentation!”

The speaker disk soared up near my head and explained, “They had a picture I could see, so I knew how to do it, and they sent a squirtie-bag of the sauce so I could do the decoration.”  She held up what looked like a cake decorator’s icing bag, still partially filled with more of the sauce.

“Ooh, this is good,” Vanessa purred.

I cut into the crisp lettuce and took a bite.  The sauce was a rich veloute, but spiked with Chinese goodness, including what was probably Five Spice Powder, even if I couldn’t be sure.  It smoothly enveloped the chicken and venison, and played off their differences without overwhelming the chicken.  That was probably due to the mellowness of the venison, which was milder than some that I’d had.

The salad was good too, although it would have been better fresh from the kitchen, when the cool tomatoes, sliced in half and arranged about the plate, would have contrasted with the still-warm fried mozzarella.  It was never going to work in the cafeteria, and I had my doubts about it working out well in the faculty dining area.  But for a private dinner, it could be excellent.

The crab cakes were superb.  The spiciness of their sauce was nicely offset afterward by the cool scoops of the mango ice cream in the crunchy bowls.  The ‘fortune cookie’ dough was really delicious, with subtle hints of lemon and lichee nut to accentuate the mango in the ice cream.

Vanessa finally sat back and patted her tummy, “Oh God, I ate about twice as much as I should’ve.  You’re gonna make me as fat as a cow.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” I told her.  “You’ll always be beautiful.”  And I meant it.  She was an Exemplar, after all.  Her body would burn this food off.  And if I could get her to take martial arts with me in the spring, she’d be getting enough exercise that she wouldn’t worry about it.

After Jinn whisked away the dinner dishes and started cleaning up in the other room, we just sat and talked for a while.  After all, there was no rush.  We knew Chou and Molly weren’t up in my room yet.  When Jinn finally came back and told me everything was put away, we decided it was time.  I pulled out her chair, and kissed her as she stood up.  We walked hand-in-hand up the stairs. 

The romantic part of the evening shattered as soon as we walked through the common room and had to scoot past the argument between Shove and Tempest.  Apparently, one of them was a pushy white bitch, and the other was a fat cow who was giving the dorm a bad name.  I refrained from adding my own thoughts to the matter, and I kept Vanessa from intervening.  I knew Mrs. Horton would step in at any moment.

There was also the obvious fact that neither was mad enough to use her powers, so I had some hope that they’d wind down in a couple minutes and just refuse to talk to each other for a while.  If I were really in luck, neither of them would talk to me for even longer.

And, just in case that wasn’t sufficient to break the mood, someone was taking a shower on our floor.  Without the sound cancellation system.  We could hear the moaning and gasping from halfway down the hall.  Risk and Flux were standing outside their room enjoying the entertainment and making lewd comments with Gabriel.  Vanessa stormed off down the hall and into the bathroom.  Five seconds later, all the sound stopped.

When Vanessa walked out of the bathroom, Flux complained, “Oh, come ON!  We don’t get to use the things, and Billie says they won’t even work for guys, and now we can’t even listen?  This is no fair!”

I asked, “When did Billie tell you that?”

“Umm, no time in particular…” Flux waffled.

Risk tried, “We just sort of ran into her, you know, and the topic came up by accident…”

I frowned, “You guys must be the worst liars on the whole floor!  Jay Jay could come up with a better story than that.”

Vanessa chipped in, “Hell, Jade could come up with a better lie.”  Ooh, burn!

When neither of them was forthcoming, I looked at Vanessa and said, “I’ll just ask Billie.”

“NO!  You don’t need to do that!” Flux gasped.  He blushed a little bit and admitted, “Well, maybe we were sort of overly curious, and…”

I filled in the blanks.  “And Billie caught you sneaking into the girls’ bathroom to check out the new toys.”

Risk rolled his eyes at Flux.  He told me, “Yeah.  And she was kind of ticked off, even though we made sure the place was empty first.  She said… umm…”

Flux snorted at his partner in crime.  “She said if we tried it again, she’d take a couple of the showerheads and show each of us how it felt to be The Don.”

“Ouch,” I put in.  Frankly, my anal sphincter sort of puckered up just thinking about that threat.

Vanessa snapped, “Well it serves you right.  Just leave those girls alone!”

About five minutes after Risk and Flux talked Gabriel into going upstairs to watch television, an incredibly embarrassed Verdant snuck out of the bathroom.  She looked at Vox and winced, “I thought I had the sound thing on!”

Vox just nodded and said, “It’s okay, Pilar.  You won’t be the only one who messes that up.”

Verdant turned a bright red from her hair down into her towel.  And I mean she turned a candy-apple red that you couldn’t duplicate without fingernail polish.  Or Shifter powers.  She scampered down the hall to her room, her tail just sticking out below her towel, and curled up in mortification.

I smiled naughtily, “If you’re going to forget to turn on the sound cancellation system, give me a heads-up first, okay?”

She hit me on the arm and grinned, “You’re so bad!”

By the time we got into my room, Chou and Molly were already there.  Chou had my laptop open on my desk, the DVD ready, and the projector carefully positioned.  Molly was sitting on Chou’s bed, kicking her heels and looking excited.

I said, “And we have two more coming t-”  And there was a knock at the door.

Sara opened the door with one hand and pulled Hippolyta in afterward.  Sara grinned, “We’re not too early, are we?”

Chou said, “No, you are right on time.  All we need is for Ayla to start up her laptop and start the movie.”

Sara gave Hip a stare I wouldn’t have the nerve to try on her, and warned her, “Okay, you know the deal.  If you make even one crack about the Kimbas, you’re going to get banished.”

Hip frowned, but agreed, “I already promised you, didn’t I?”

I didn’t know if Sara meant banished from my room, or banished from Sara’s presence, or some really serious magical banishing that only Sara could do.  I decided I wasn’t going to ask.

I turned on my computer and checked that the WiFi link with the new projector was working.  Chou already had the projector set to show the movie up on the wall opposite the bunkbeds.  The wall wasn’t solid white, but this projector had a scanner that could encode the wall color and gamma-correct the projected image so it looked like it was displayed on a white background.  Vox and I sat together on my bed, Chou and Molly snuggled on Chou’s bed, and Sara sat in Hippolyta’s lap on one of my beanbag chairs.

We didn’t get more than a minute into the movie before someone complained, “This subbing is awful.”  The shocking part was that it was Hip who complained.

Chou agreed, “Yes.  But it’s still better than dubbing would be.  I’m sure of it.”

Molly whispered, “Shh!”

When I thought about it, I realized that I shouldn’t have been surprised that Hip knew Chinese that well.  She was an Exemplar-6 or 7, presumably with the mental memorization package that went with it, and lots of exposure to any number of languages she didn’t know as a kid.

Sara must have sensed my curiosity, or perhaps read my line of thought.  She murmured proudly, “Hippy already speaks fourteen languages fluently, and she’s learning Urdu, Italian, and Russian now.”  Was Hip blushing?

Damn.  I hated feeling outclassed in anything, and that was so far over my language abilities it was sick.  I stopped thinking about that when Vanessa kissed me.  I could only focus on so many things at a time, you know.

Pretty soon, a couple people couldn’t resist commenting.

The reporters on the screen asked, “Hung, your Evil Team has won the title for the last five years…”

Chou laughed, “Your ‘evil team’?  That is such a bad translation!”

I had to agree.  I only knew enough Chinese to engage in some simple business meetings, but even I knew that was lame.

Hip put in, “More like ‘vicious team’ if you want a decent translation.”

“Shh!”

But, after that, Chou and Hip re-did some of the dialogue whenever they thought the subbing was particularly awful.  And it was really funny, as neither one of them could act worth a darn, and most of the main characters had distinctly male voices.

On top of that, Vox could imitate every character on the screen, so she occasionally heckled Chou and Hip in the voice of the actor they were correcting, with a “Hey!  Who do you think you are to change MY lines?” or an embarrassed “I meant to say that!”  Given the basic silliness of the movie, it was all good.

When the movie was over, Sara hugged everyone goodbye and even refrained from sneaking in any tentacle gropes.  I was a lot more surprised when Hip gave everyone hugs too.  And she didn’t crush anyone either.  She grinned, “This was a lot more fun than I thought.  What’s showing next week?”

I admitted, “We haven’t gotten that far yet.”

Molly giggled, “Whatever they pick, we’ll probably change it once we see what goes wrong at the party!”

I rolled my eyes and chased her and Chou out of the room.  Then I got down to the serious business of kissing Vanessa.