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Diane \ Ayla \ Ayla and the Birthday Brawl \ Part 4

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl

by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)

CHAPTER 4 – The Legend of Cambel and Triamond, or of Friendship

Monday, January 22, 2007
AYLA

I woke up in the morning, feeling pretty good.  Refreshed, and excited, and adventurous.  I hadn’t even had a nightmare last night, although I had enjoyed the heck out of one really weird dream where Chou was playing goalie in a superpowered soccer match.  It undoubtedly said a great deal about me that I wasn’t having nightmares about the big IPO, even though I still had regular nightmares about the Christmas demon, and Emil Hammond, and Fireball, and zombie attacks, and pretty much anything claustrophobic.

All the women in the bathroom were happy with me, primarily because of the new features in the showers.  There was a lot of teasing about having to wait until 9 am to use the ‘special features’, and Verdant came in for some kidding from some of the girls who had heard about her little slip-up the night before.

And, with all that joviality, most of the room forgot that they wanted to keep me from staring at their naked, nubile bodies.  I did my best to concentrate on thoughts of amusement, so that hopefully Fey and Punch wouldn’t spot my intense feelings of hummina-hummina.  Rip was having an excited conversation with Bugs about the showers, and they were both standing there stark naked as they kept getting distracted from drying off.  Fey was waiting impatiently at the head of the line for the showers, and her semi-sheer babydoll really wasn’t concealing anything.  Chaka was shaving her legs in nothing but a coral-colored lace thong, and putting more gusto into it than was safe for ordinary women.  Jay Jay was ahead of me in the line, and once again she had forgotten to bring her towel or her bathrobe.  She was buzzing away, whirling her shower tote around in her hand and inadvertently making her breasts bobble like a burlesque star on crack.  When Jody stepped out, Jay Jay buzzed in so fast she accidentally whipped the towel out of Jody’s hands.  Generator stepped out of the next shower, and when she saw I was next in line, she reached back in for a second.

I was pretty sure I knew what that meant.  I let Verdant go ahead of me, and I took the shower from which Fey was just emerging, like Venus emerging from the sea.

As I stepped past a naked, still-damp Nikki, Verdant suddenly squealed from her shower.  “Ooh!  Oh!”  The water snapped off, and she yelled, “Who switched the shower over?”

Jade winced, “Oops.  Sorry.  I thought I was gonna get Ayla.”

I turned on the water, and found out that Fey had done the same thing, only presumably with magic instead of using the J-Team.  Erotic bursts of water tormented my female breasts, but a pulsing jet of water came up at an angle and punched me right in the balls.  “AAAGGHH!  Oh Christ!”

I sagged to the floor, holding my pummeled privates and trying not to whimper out loud, and I had the extra-humiliating entertainment of the shower door whipping open and half a dozen heads gaping at my misery.

Vox shoved half of the heads out of the way and got right in Nikki’s face.  “What the FUCK did you to my BOYFRIEND?!?!”

Nikki glanced down again to where I was curled up on the shower floor and said, “Umm… sorry?”

From somewhere back in the back, Jade piped up, “It was supposed to be funny…”

Billie floated up over everyone else to get a look and said, “Umm, Ayla was so interested in the whole thing, and, well, we thought…”

Nikki said apologetically, “It wasn’t supposed to be on hard enough to do that…”

Vox reached in and turned off the water.  “Some fuckin’ friends you got there.”  She knelt down and asked, “Do ya need a hand getting outta here?”

Nikki said, “This is my fault, I can fix it.”  She reached past Vanessa and put her hand on my inner thigh.  Ordinarily, having Fey put her hands down near my privates would have been a red letter day, but not while I hurt so much.  She said a few echoing words in Latin, and the pain felt like it was washing down the drain.  “You okay now?”

I nodded and tried to clear my throat enough to talk.  “Yeah.  Thanks.  Way better.”

Toni called from over on the bench, “I told ya this wasn’t gonna be funny!”

Nikki whispered, “I’ll tell you later what she thought would be funny.  You’ll want to throw something at her.  Something heavy.”

Vanessa helped me to my feet, and I switched the shower back to normal.  Then I showered.  In a much less boisterous bathroom.

When I got out, Chou was putting up yet another sign.  This one said:

NO SWITCHING THE SHOWER

CONTROLS ON ANYBODY!

“Are you okay?” she asked worriedly.  “If they had told me what they were up to…”

“It’s okay,” I muttered.  It was just supposed to be a little prank, after all, and Nikki had taken care of the pain.

Okay, I was still upset about it.  And fairly pissed.  But at least I wasn’t going to be limping around all morning, and they weren’t going to do it again.  To anyone.  As soon as I dried off, I left the bathroom.  No chatting, no tooth-brushing, no flossing, no ogling.

I got dressed in my room and decided my teeth would survive without my brushing one morning out of a thousand.  And if I had bad breath, then tough.  I’d just sit next to Nikki and Jade.

Okay, I knew I was being a bad sport about what was supposed to be a funny little prank.  But that had hurt.  And I hated being humiliated, like having a roomful of hot babes staring at me while I curled up in the fetal position and tried not to vomit.

I could hear shuffling and muttering outside my door, so I was utterly unsurprised when I opened it and found all of Team Kimba waiting for me.  Jade and Shroud and Nikki were in the front, looking suitably chastised, while Chou and Toni stood behind them, and Hank and Billie floated behind them.

“Sorry,” the whole front row murmured.

“I know.”  I swear I was trying not to sound sullen.  Really.

“It wasn’t supposed to be on that hard,” insisted Nikki.

Hank finally asked, “What are we talking about?”

Chou angrily muttered, “They punched him in the balls!”  Hank winced on one side of his face, which actually looked worse than a full wince.

“It was supposed to be funny.”

“It was just a little prank.”

Hank said, “That doesn’t sound like a little prank.  That sounds like felony assault.”

Toni contributed, “Okay, my idea wouldn’t’ve been any better.”

Nikki explained, “I used my magic to flip the shower head over to the new setting, only I didn’t get the volume right on the low spray.”

“A little trouble with the control on the mumbo-jumbo?” asked Toni unhelpfully.

It was Fey who nodded, rather than Nikki.  “We tend to forget that magic is not a toy,” rumbled Aunghadhail regally.  “The Rule Of Three is returning the pain to her three-fold.”

Oh yeah.  I suddenly realized that a powerful empath had gotten smacked in the face with my pain when she probably didn’t have any shields up.  And she was having to feel how upset I still was.  Not to mention how bad she had to feel about it.

Toni came to Nikki’s defense, “Oh, come on, Ungy!  Give her a break!”

Then Nikki was back.  She pouted, “I don’t deserve a break.  If that volume had been up higher, Ayla could’ve gotten really hurt.  And I knew I didn’t have that good a fine control over it, since it was something I was just whipping up on the spot, instead of something I was carefully preparing.”  She sighed and stared at the floor.  “You all think I’m just wiggling my nose and snapping off these spells with no prep time and no magical cost, but that isn’t the way it works.  Most of the time, it’s either a spell Aunghadhail has prepared and is using my stores of Essence, or else it’s something I’ve already worked up with Sir Wallace, and I’ve got the Essence all ready to go, and I’ve got it ready to fire off.  When I try to whip new stuff up with no prep time, things go wrong most always.  And I knew that, and I did it anyway.”  She gave me a huge hug and whimpered, “I’m really, really sorry.”

“Me too,” said Jade and Jinn simultaneously.  They hugged me too, but Jinn’s hug sort of jabbed me in the shoulder with something metallic.  “Sorry about that,” Jinn whispered.

Okay, it was really hard to stay crabby at them with an armful of cuddly Nikki and the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes simultaneously.

Hank said, “Okay, maybe we’re all good now, but I wanna say something.  If things were reversed, and Ayla played a prank on Nikki and Jade like that, and they got smacked in the hamdinger, would anyone think that was funny?”

Toni broke the silence.  “Gee Mister Cleaver, we’re really sorry, and we’ll never tie Beaver to the bumper of your car again, okay?  Can we go eat now?”

She winked at me conspiratorially, and I gave her a grin in return.  She wrapped an arm around my shoulders and steered me in the direction of the stairwell.  “C’mon, Ayles.  Let’s go eat, and I’ll tell you what giggety I was talkin’ about doin’ to you, and then you won’t be mad at them at all.”  I had a sudden image of me as Elmer Fudd, angrily chasing Toni all over campus, while she bounced crazily off everything and hooted, “Hoo-hoo!” over and over.

Okay, Nikki was right.  Toni’s idea was a lot worse.  The big difference was that Toni was telling it, so it was about twenty times funnier than it would have been in real life.

By the time we reached Dunn Hall, I had decided that - given the amount of crap they all have to put up with from me, or because of me - they deserve a lot of slack. 

And some day I was going to casually mention Nikki deliberately putting her hand on my bare privates, right when it would be the most embarrassing for her.  As for Jade, if Pilar wanted to get even, I was going to help out.

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Of course, they also say ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’, which shows a phenomenal lack of understanding about basic microeconomics.  But I was hoping something decent might still come my way.  Last night’s dinner had been terrific.

Things started looking up as soon as I saw Paloma was standing in the kitchen doorway, obviously waiting for me to arrive.  She ducked back inside as soon as she saw me, and I had to make an effort not to smile.  I moved slowly through the line, ignoring the dense, food-like substances that everyone else was shoveling onto their plates.

Paloma rushed out with a plate and a paper cup.  I let her slide them into one of the warming tables right in front of me, and I slid both onto my tray with a quiet “Gracias.”  Then I casually slid down the food line until I could slip off to the official Team Kimba table.

It was interesting how after only a couple days we already had the entire school sorted into their slots.  Even the square pegs had been crammed into the various round holes.  There were tables along the far side, where the important people held sway.  The New Olympians had their own table, as did over a dozen Golden Kids, and the Bad Seeds, and the Capes, and several other ‘important’ or dangerous groups.  Fortunately, there were other people interspersed, because it would not have been a good idea to have the Capes sitting next to the Bad Seeds at every meal for several weeks.  The Good Ol’ Boyz had slid down the food chain and were sitting in an area with some of the other wannabe people.  The Yellow Queen and her buddies were on one side of the G.O.B., and the A-Team were on the other.  I was betting that Fantastico was spitting mad about that.  We were in a middle area that was more or less the ‘we chose to sit here so fuck off’ people.  Outcast Corner was fairly close by, as were the Beret Mafia, and some of the tougher Thornies, and the Asians with whom Silver Serpent tended to hang when she wasn’t with the Bad Seeds.  (The word was that their super-team, Pan-Asia, was one kick-ass gang, and they’d nearly beaten the still-undefeated Grunts in a neutral sim.)  Off toward the food line and the main entrance door were the less desirable tables that had all the foot traffic passing by, where a lot of people like the Underdogs and the Nerd Herd were sitting.

The Nerd Herd was a nickname a bunch of the devisers and gadgeteers had given themselves.  They had a few private names for themselves that they didn’t share, even if my sources had told me about a couple rather interesting meetings.  They might be squishy compared to, say, Lancer, but that didn’t mean they weren’t packing twenty different PFGs and enough weaponry to level the whole building.  A lot of the underclass inventors hung out with the older inventors, who had learned what to haul around when they weren’t in their labs, and who had also built said gear.  I noticed Mega-Death was sitting in their group and talking with Flywire about something Flywire was holding up.  I couldn’t tell what it was, but from where I was sitting, it looked like a Waring blender had done the nasty with a Skilsaw and had forgotten about safe sex.

“Hey Ayla, what’d you do to your Egg McMuffin?” Hank asked.

“Huh?” I wittily replied.  I was eating my treat.  A pair of expertly-made eggs Benedict, with a fresh Hollandaise sauce that had just the right amount of lemon juice, next to a small slice of carefully-seasoned potato quiche that would be perfect for scooping up the remnants of the eggs.

“Your Egg McMuffin!  You ripped it apart and dumped that yellow stuff on it.  Where’d you find Egg McMuffins?”

Okay, he had me.  I couldn’t think what an ‘egg mac muffin’ was supposed to be, unless it was an egg and a muffin and… maybe something from MacDonald’s.  Which I wouldn’t walk into on a bet.  Well, not unless Hazard had to run around the campus ring road stark naked if she lost the bet.

Chou saw the ‘deer in the headlights’ look I probably had, and whispered, “MacDonald’s.  Breakfast.  English muffin, Canadian bacon, fried egg, other half of the muffin on top.  You know!  It’s a breakfast sandwich, like the ones the chefs made for us when we went to Boston.”

“Oh,” I managed.  I suddenly remembered the ‘prison food’ I had been thrown, in between Emil Hammond’s Happy Fun Ball and that Con-Air flight to Los Angeles.  Oh my God, that was real food?  That was what millions of people ate every day at MacDonald’s?  No wonder people had no taste buds left.

Man, that Egg McMuffin thing sounded like it was to well-prepared eggs Benedict as Lovecraft’s creepy fish-men of Innsmouth were to normal human beings.  Just a hideous corruption of reality that ought never be allowed to see the light of day.  I glared at Hank and said, “Knock it off.  You’re ruining my breakfast.”

“Huh?”  This time he was the one who was confused.

At ten ‘til eight, I flipped on my bPhone and started scrolling through my subscription at eClip.  I was particularly interested in anything related to my IPO, and there were dozens of pages of possible links the service had found, ranging from a detailed analysis of the implications of the corporate merger, all the way down to video of a joke Dennis Miller had done about it on Bill Maher’s show last night.  Fortunately, they were ordered by relevance.  I still had my head buried in my bPhone, when I heard someone.

The sing-song voice interrupted me, “Whatcha doin’?”

I looked up with a grin, “Reading excerpts from my clipping service, Toni.”

She smirked, “Is that your own personal clipping service?”

And Jade chipped in, “What the heck is a clipping service, and how do you clip stuff on a phone?”

I explained, “It’s an internet service.  Decades ago, they were real clipping services, with an agency of people clipping relevant articles out of newspapers and magazines for rich people and busy corporate execs.  Now it’s a computer service that scans a wide variety of internet news sources, news collection agencies, blogs, zines, webpages, newsletters, and similar sources - some of them subscription only - and creates a tailor-made file of stuff that you want to read.”

“Comics too?” Hank checked.

I rolled my eyes.  “Yes, you could ask them to collect comics for you, too.  But you can get most of those on an RSS feed, so it’s a big waste of your money to have the clipping service do it for you.”

“So, is it your own personal clipping service?” Toni asked again.

I gave her a slow smirk.  “Why yes, it is.  Or, at least, I own a big chunk of it.  You don’t think I do venture capital just for the gadgeteers around here, do you?”

Nikki said, “I thought the computer companies were pretty high risk on that stuff.  Isn’t that what you told us last term when you were trying to milk us for cash?”

I refrained from reacting.  “First, I wasn’t trying to milk anyone.  I just wanted my friends to get a shot at the gold ring with me, since I can’t be expected to put together a successful conglomerate with a major IPO every term.  And second, I think that I have a better idea of what teenagers and other major users of computer software are likely to want, than some sixty-year-old banker who thinks that Skype is the noise he gets when he kicks his dog.”

Billie pointed out, “You’re not exactly a normal computer user, y’know.”

I nodded, “Right.  But I’m surrounded by hundreds of teenagers who are.  I’m ignoring the computer devisers on that, of course.  But look around you.  What’s everyone doing with their computers?”

“Facebook.”

“YouTube.”

“MySpace.”

“Friendster.”

“God, Friendster is so last month!”

I ignored that last comment and moved on.  “So investing in them, or in useful apps for them, is hardly high-risk.  Plus, I do my venture capital a little differently than most VCs, because I really don’t want to spend my life micro-managing someone’s development team or management staff, or shredding companies to maximize the dough I can squeeze out when I do get an IPO going.”

“So, how is your IPO going?” Chou checked.

I scrolled back up to one graphic, and I showed her.

“SHIT!” she cursed.  And suddenly, everyone had to see.  At eight o’clock, the stock had opened at 20, and immediately jumped as buy requests from overseas flooded in.  Then Ron Perelman had made his big announcement to a televised press conference right at eight, explaining how we were re-vamping the comic distribution network, and fixing the corporate model, and working with movie studios to reconstitute the Marvel Universe on film.  Once he had finished speaking, the stock promptly jumped again.  It was only 8:10, and the stock had already soared to 28 1/2, and it looked like it was rising steadily.  Then I showed them that Sony and Universal were already getting tag-along effects because of their picture deals with Marvel.

Jade said, “Oh!  Now I get why Stephen was talking to Hatamoto about Sony stock.  They knew it would go up too.”

I told her, “Hatamoto’s family has a lot of Sony stock, too.  Plus, they’re invested in the IPO.  So they’re doing well on this.”

Nikki scowled, “I bet my mom is jumping up and down squealing about this.  I just wish she’d told me about it.”

Toni said, “Yeah, my dad too.”

I told Billie, “And don’t forget to rub it in with your folks that they missed out on this.”

She grinned wickedly, the little fangs popping out at the corners of her mouth.  “Oh, you can count on it.”

“So what’s next, oh Grand Poobah of Stocks?” Toni asked.

I smirked a little as I said, “We’ve got Sam Raimi in New York City right now, and at 8:30 he’s going to release a statement to the entertainment press that the Spiderman pictures are back on track with Sony, and he’s directing them, and it’s a three-picture deal.  Marvel and Sony stocks will skyrocket.  Then, at two our time, eleven out in Hollywoodland, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are going to make a public announcement in another press conference that they’re on board for the next three Spiderman pictures, now that Sam Raimi is happy with things.  So there should be another big jump in the stock price in the half hour after that.”

“Jesus!”

“You’ve really got this choreographed pretty tightly, don’t you?” said Nikki.

I nodded.  “Ron Perelman’s team has been really good about this, and the Spiderman creative people were thrilled to death when we ganked the studio execs who had been making Sam Raimi’s life a living hell.  Plus, we should get some really good movies out of it.  So it’s a win-win for everyone… except the two or three guys who were screwing up the movie production with their stupid ideas.”

Hank said, “Well, you gotta put that away while we’re in Team Tactics.”

“Oh yeah,” I said.  “There’s no way I want Sam jumping down my throat in class again.”

“I said I was sorry about that one,” Jade pouted.

Still, I kept checking the clippings as we walked down to class.  The stock price was moving like a rocket, and the trading volume just kept increasing.  I read a quick report from one of the market bloggers, who was wondering where the heck all the overseas volume was coming from.  I had to grin, because I could have told him if he had asked me.  Thuban’s family, Hatamoto’s family, Dynamaxx’s family, Automa-tech’s family, and probably a dozen other families with kids in the Golds.  This was, after all, what a club like the Golden Kids was really supposed to do.

We took our seats in the classroom.  <(Lancer) Last chance, Phase.  Check it again and log off until class is over.>

<(Chaka) What’s the stock now?>

<(Phase) Hang on…  Okay, last ticker says 36 ¼.>

<(Fey) WHAT!?  It was at 28-something just a few minutes ago!>

<(Phase) Almost fifteen minutes ago.>

<(Fey) I am so asking for a really cool car when I get home this summer.>

<(Lancer) Come on, Phase.  Log off before we get chewed on.>

<(Phase) Roger that.  Already logged off and closing down.>

I looked over and Dynamaxx was giving me the big thumbs-up, so I knew he was following the stocks too.  Kismet was busy smacking him on the arm… and hurting her hand, since he was wearing his power armor.  She probably thought he was consorting with the enemy, after Saturday morning.

Bardue and Everheart tromped out and took up position.  I noticed that Everheart was looking over to the Vindicators with a puzzled expression on her face.  No doubt she was trying to figure out why Kismet was grimacing and holding her hand in her armpit.

Bardue smiled evilly.  “Good morning, class!  And Admiral Everheart tells me that four out of our five red teams got their internal reviews turned in electronically already.  Does our fifth team have anything for us?”  Of course, he said it in a tone that promised hideous retribution if said team did not have their internal review ready.  Confundus got up from her seat in the back row and sashayed up to the front with Omega Squad’s review.

Let me just add one thing: that girl can sashay.  And she was showing off a Bugs-class ass in that skintight uniform.

In his drill sergeant voice, Bardue blared, “Now then children, the first order of business is debriefings!  We are going to spend some of today’s class going over what our teams did right… and what they did wrong in their ‘evil lair’ scenarios.  Remember!  The point of the exercise was supposed to be room-to-room and trap avoidance!  Some of you seemed to think the exercise was trap triggering…  Omega Squad!  Why don’t you all go first this fine morning?”

If that wasn’t a clear lesson on the importance of getting one’s review in on time, and in an electronic form that Hive could grok, I didn’t know what was.

Confundus wiggled her way back up to the front, and read her review to the class.   It seemed pretty obvious from what she read aloud that they knew they were supposed to do this strange thing called ‘teamwork’, but they really weren’t all that interested in finding out what it was, much less how to implement it.  Man, I could have done a better job of pretending I wanted to eat at MacDonald’s.

So Bardue showed highlights of their sim exercise to the class.  Then he had the ‘red team’ stand up and give his review.  Lancer, of course, tried to be helpful about it, and he even told them why they needed to support each other more.  Confundus did everything except yawn, or look away and do the ‘talk to the hand’ routine.  So then, Eldritch really chewed on their asses about their tendency to go cowboy constantly.  Okay, Eldritch found another dozen problems with their moves, most of which apparently hadn’t occurred to Hank.  That girl knew an insane amount about military tactics, to the point that I was beginning to wonder if it was some sort of bellicose Esper trait.

After that, Bardue and Everheart got on their case.  Then, just to rub in how bad a job Omega Squad did on their review, Bardue had S.T.A.R. League Jr. go next.  Dredz got up and gave their internal review.  Frankly, he did a better job than I thought he could.  Apparently, he doesn’t have to be Gangsta Guy all the time.  Okay, when he finished, he still stopped and gave Chaka some kind of gangsta street gesture.

<(Chaka) Jerk.  Like I’m gonna date him in the middle of class.>

They did such a good job in the internal review that there wasn’t that much for everyone else to say.  Eldritch had a couple comments about team support and changes they might make in team armament.  Bardue had a comment or two as well, but that pretty much wrapped things up.

After them, Bardue picked Elite League, and then the Power Cats.  I had to admit, Elite League did a really good job on their review.  And Bombshell did a good job of presentation.  Maybe we hadn’t given them their due.  And maybe they would soon be a lot more of a threat than we were expecting.  They were learning from their mistakes.  This course might actually be really good for them, which meant it might have severe ramifications for us some day.  The Power Cats didn’t do as good a job of their review, but they clearly were getting the key lessons.  And Juryrig had a new PFG on her chair, so they wouldn’t have to defend her as much.  The key point for their future sims would be whether Diva could stop being such a diva.

Bardue snapped, “VINDICATORS!  You’re up!  Team leader, what did your team do right, and what did it do wrong?”

Kismet stood up and read her report.  Of course, she didn’t see anything wrong with her own performance, or her leadership.  Lemure did everything except bury her face in her hands.  Fortunately, they had all my comments in their review already, so all I had to do was get up and point that out.  Eldritch had some brutally salient points about their point personnel and their formations.  Then Everheart made some more points about their lack of concentration and focus.

Bardue made sure to point out, “What about the fact that your supervillain planted clues all over your sim?”  He turned to the class and bellowed, “Class!  Pay attention!  Do not expect real supervillains to be so obliging!  Not even the legendary Compulsion planted clues to his identity on every one of his jobs, and that was before he was caught by the Justice Brigade!”

Everheart wrapped up the whole discussion by going back to her first two lectures and pointing out how similar the rules were for ordinary grunts doing room-to-room in a house, and for a super-team that had bricks and blasters when they were moving through a supervillain lair.  She spent about a quarter of an hour going over the DoD regs, and pointing out applications of concepts like proper room entry, watching for traps, avoiding exposing yourself or your teammates to enemy firepower, and tactical focus.  I thought I had gotten the messages from the first week’s classes, but I found I was taking notes again.

The next bit of big fun was Everheart tossing Outcast Corner into a sim run, while Bardue rushed off to do something administrative.  We had time to watch Jericho lead them through a tough Red Team exercise, and then listen to Everheart’s points about it, before Bardue came back, looking somewhat harried.

And, just when I was thinking I knew what was coming next, Bardue stepped forward.  “CLASS!  Since Team Kimba got to play the red team so much on Saturday, today’s next sim is Team Kimba up against a real supervillain lair.”

It seemed like most of the room was staring at us.  Half the people staring seemed to be hoping for a little payback after Saturday.  Of course, that may have been my overactive imagination.

He went on, only at much higher volume, “Team Kimba, you need to get over to the holo sims and suit up!  You have ten minutes before you’ll be invading Crucible’s lair…”

CRUCIBLE?!  THE Crucible?  The supervillain who was ranked as an ‘A-’ level threat whenever he turned up?  Holy shit, was Bardue crazy?  Or just a sadistic old bastard?

<Crap!>

<Fuck!>

<Big poopyhead…>

“…in the south side of Mount Thielsen.”

Mount Thielsen….  Mount Thielsen…  I knew that one.  It was a volcanic mountain in Oregon, somewhere in the Cascades.  Wait a minute.  The Cascades?  That could mean…  I held my breath for a moment.  Could we really be getting a break for a change?

As we scrambled to our feet and hurried off to the tunnels, Fey was already grumbling.

<(Fey) Crucible?  Is he kidding?>

<(Lancer) We can do this.  But before discussion, make sure Hive can’t eavesdrop on us.>

<(Phase) Good point.>

<(Fey) Hang on a sec…  Okay…  Got it.  Go.>

<(Bladedancer) We have seemed overconfident lately.>

<(Phase) Yeah.  But we can do this one.>

<(Chaka) Wait.  Why’s Miss Pessimism so upbeat about this one?>

<(Generator) Crucible’s a major league badguy!>

<(Phase) This is probably the lair Delta Spike told us about.  Remember ‘Evil Lair 101’?>

<(Chaka) What, you sat there and listened to that girl?>

<(Phase) Um, yeah.  I turned her down again for venture capital, and I kind of felt like I had to listen to her talk for a while.>

<(Lancer) One of these days, you’re going to have to tell her the truth.  That you think she’s too dangerous, and you don’t want her to build that shit.>

<(Phase) Umm, well…>

<(Fey) Back to our test, okay?>

By then we were racing down the final tunnel to the sim center.  Hank, Billie, Nikki, Jade, Jinn, and I were all flying, while Toni and Chou were doing their usual Ki-powered super-speed sprints.  Plus, Billie had a hand out on each side for Jade and Jinn, so she was towing them along at about sixty miles an hour.  Fortunately, no one was blocking the halls, or we would have run over them like a jagganath over pilgrims.  Before we got to the holo sim entry, I explained some more.

<(Phase) This really sounds like the lair Delta was talking about.  Even if it isn’t, it ought to have a lot of similarities in style.  Here’s what I know about Delta’s example.  Hidden doorway in a cliff wall, with hidden weaponry all around it.  A special room at the front to knock out mages and psis…>

<(Fey) Great.>

<(Phase) ANYWAY, a huge chamber that’s got lava below it.>

<(Tennyo) Big deal.  We just fly over that.>

<(Phase) Not that easy in real life, Tennyo.  Delta told me about it.>

<(Lancer) What else?>

<(Phase) Delta also said something about a long hall that crushes intruders.  And the final chamber has a special alcove with a teleporter for Crucible to use as his escape hatch.>

<(Lancer) Okay, we need to remember those, but not forget that we may not get those particular threats this time.>

<(Chaka) And let’s make sure Hive is riding along with someone, just so we can’t get bushwhacked like last weekend.>

<(Bladedancer) Again.>

<(Phase) Amen.>

<(Chaka) You’re supposed to say ‘Ay-men brutha!’ you know.>

<(Fey) Like your family goes to a church like that.>

<(Bladedancer) Wouldn’t surprise me if your Uncle Carl does.>

<(Chaka) Nah, you couldn’t get Uncle Carl’s big fat butt off the couch on Sunday when there’s sports to watch.  But his ex went to a church like that.  Man, it was almost as bad as what white people think black people do in church.>

We hastily checked in with the security guard at the front door and ran back to the locker rooms.  I started to phase out of my clothes, just as Chaka started making her clothing fly off her body.

Fey snapped, “Hold it!  All of you!”  She lined us up in front of our lockers, closed her eyes, and said five complex-sounding polysyllabic words in a language that had probably been considered dead for millennia.

Suddenly it felt like my clothing was alive and trying to climb over every inch of me.  I concentrated on ignoring the intensely creepy sensation, which frankly was making me think of Stephen King stories.  Once it passed, I realized I was standing there in my sim suit.  Everyone else was in their sim suits.  I checked in my locker, and all my clothes were in there.  The boots were on the floor, the underwear was on top of them, and the Whateley uniform was piled on top of that.  I quickly hung up the uniform and dropped the underwear in my mesh bag that I had stuck in my locker just for that purpose.  The mesh bag had a big magnet attached to the handle so it hung on the side of the locker.

Fey looked at me while I hung stuff up.  She switched to a Maxwell Smart voice.  “Sorry about that, chief.”  Then she added, “I thought the spell would handle that too.  I’ll work on it.”

I shrugged, “Hey, you did great.  You saved me maybe five or ten minutes, and we sure don’t have ten minutes.  But you guys are definitely watching too much Nick At Nite.”

Generator said, “Or you’re not watching enough.”

Chaka started herding us out.  “Let’s get a move on, team.”

Bladedancer asked, “What about Lancer?”

Fey frowned, “Damn!  I knew I forgot something!”

“Missed it by that much!” chipped in Toni.

“You guys are really watching too much Nick At Nite,” I complained.

Shroud said, “But it’s really funny!”

Chaka snarked, “Just show her what Agent 99 looks like, and she’ll be sitting there every ep.”

Fey and Bladedancer snickered, while I pretended that I was above such comments.

Okay, I had seen episodes of “Get Smart” with Paul some of the times when Uncle Theo was showing us classic television stuff.  So I’d seen what Barbara Feldon looked like back then, and that was a definite drawing card.  Not that I was going to admit it.  Instead, I said, “It’s never on at a time that’s convenient for me.”

Chou gently pointed out, “If you weren’t taking three courses, PLUS doing the reading for three complete accounting courses, PLUS trying to read everything Everheart sends our way, PLUS helping Vox with her coursework, PLUS doing all that work on your investment things, you might have time to do something fun.”

Chaka added, “Like breathe or eat.”

By then we were already out of the locker room and moving down the hall.  Chaka made sure to yell into the boys’ locker room at Hank, and then we were rushing to get to our sim cubicles before we ran out of time.

Everheart was waiting for us at the door into the sim cubicles.  “Well, that was fast,” she said.  “You still have two minutes and forty seconds.  How’d you change so fast?”

I pointed at Fey.  So did Chaka and Shroud and Tennyo and Generator.  Fey raised her hand up to her ear in an embarrassed gesture.

Everheart nodded, “That’s good.  I may not understand magic, but I can see it obviously has tactical advantages for your team.  Being able to quick-change an entire team can give you strong advantages in real-world battles.  Now go get in your seats and check in, while I go see what’s keeping-”

“I’m here!” called out Lancer as he flew – literally – into the room.

“Good,” Everheart nodded.  “Get in your seats and get going.  I’m going to ‘tag along’ with one or two of you if there’s no objection.”

Tennyo put her hand up.  She tentatively said, “I- I’d kind of like you to tag along with me this time.  You know.  Just in case.”

Man, after her experience in the holos last Saturday, I thought that was a damned good idea.

Generator looked at Tennyo and said, “Then me too.”  She looked at Sam and checked, “It’s just some nanites, right?”  Sam nodded with a slight smile.

<(Lancer) Okay.  Remember.  Our comm system is now compromised for the duration of the sim.>

<(Chaka) Gotcha.>

We trotted down the hall and found our rooms.  I stepped into my cubicle, picked up the sim helmet, and carefully sat in the chair.  The connectors engaged with a sticky clicking at my butt.  I put on the sim helmet and left it open.  I was going to keep it off my face for as long as I could.

“Phase, we have you.  Initializing now….  All green.  Please close your helmet.”

I took a deep breath, closed the helmet, and slowly let my breath out as I tried to ignore the suffocating darkness.  Darkness that wasn’t really suffocating or absolutely without light; it just felt that way at the start of every holo sim.  The sim system came up, and…

TEAM KIMBA

Phase quickly glanced around.  It seemed as if he were floating in mid-air in front of a sheer mountain cliff.  Tennyo was already hovering there holding Chaka, while Lancer held Bladedancer.  Shroud and Generator were hovering side-by-side and keeping a supposedly-surreptitious eye on Tennyo.  Fey popped into being on the other side of Lancer.

<(Lancer) We’re all here.  Let’s begin.  Fey?>

<(Fey) Okay, there may be anti-magic traps, so while I’m trying to find the way in, I want Generator and Shroud looking out for magic and mutant powers and devises.

<(Generator) On it.>

<(Shroud) Ditto.>

Phase heard Star Trek noises behind him, and turned his head to peek.  Generator had pulled what looked like a ‘The Next Generation’ tricorder from her purse, and had it hanging over her shoulder on a strap, while peering around through her holographic eyepiece.  Phase turned back to his job, but didn’t bother to suppress the smile under his mask.  Brilliant.  Generator absolutely looked like a deviser in action; of course, she was getting a ton of good ideas from that “Intro to Fabrication” class she was taking.

<(Lancer) Chaka?  ‘Dancer?  See if you can spot anything targeting on you.  Tennyo and Phase, you’re heavy support.  Watch our perimeter, including up and down.>

Chaka flipped out of Tennyo’s grasp and balanced casually on Tennyo’s right shoulder.  Not that Tennyo seemed to notice the weight.  Tennyo carefully summoned in each hand a small sphere of glowing blue energy.  She looked over the side of the mountain, then turned to check out the heavily-forested areas below and behind them.  There could be anything hidden in that much uninhabited forest.  She couldn’t even see a decent road within five miles of the place.

<(Tennyo) I’ve got down and left.  I mean, Fey’s left.>

<(Phase) Okay, I’m checking up and Fey’s right.>

<(Lancer) I’m checking our six.  Be prepared for anything.>

<(Phase) The files say Crucible likes devises and gadgets and a small cadre of workers, instead of magic and armies of redshirts.  So we may not be able to pick anything up ahead of time.>

<(Fey) I found the entry.  I think.  No obvious way of opening it, and it could be booby-trapped.>

<(Lancer) Good work.  Phase, you’re up.  Fey, move back, take over Phase’s perimeter position, and see if you can hunt for surprises.>

Fey switched places with Phase.  She called on her power and reached into the vast forested expanses below.  She pulled in more than enough Essence to hold a strong force field around the team, while at the same time she tried a spell to locate any other entrances.  She made sure the force field was one-sided, in case her teammates needed to go out through it.

Phase looked at the large rectangle Fey had demarcated with glowing purple lines on the rough cliff face, so that the lines formed two rectangles, each about thirty feet high and twenty feet wide.  If that was an opening, it was two large doors that probably swung open to the sides to reveal a bay large enough to launch a fleet of one-man attack craft.  Or perhaps one really large, really nasty devise.  He picked a spot about twenty feet to the right of the opening.  He took a deep breath and went disruption-light.  Then he floated into the rock.  He figured he would float in twenty or thirty feet, and if he hadn’t come out in an open area by then, he would float to his left until he found the tunnel on the back side of that door.  He didn’t like holding his breath and moving blindly through solid rock, but that was his task.  He really wished Rubik would get him that rebreather devise so he didn’t have this problem anymore.  Of course, then he’d still have this stupid claustrophobia, which was just plain embarrassing as far as he was concerned.

<(Fey) Heads up.  My spell found two smaller doors about fifty feet up, over our heads, and another two about three hundred feet down and off to the sides, hidden somewhere behind those trees.>

Phase drifted out of the rock and into the corridor.  It was wider than the doorway, and well-lit.  Which wasn’t surprising given the squad of badguys who were scrambling to repel invaders.  Crap.  And he’d read that Crucible didn’t usually go in for big armies of goons.  So much for reliable intelligence data.

<(Phase) Shit.  Twenty, maybe thirty mooks.  BIG energy cannons on both sides of the doorway, ten suits of power armor all with heavy weaponry, and a freaking weapons carrier in the middle of…>

<(Fey) OOF!>

Fey lurched as an energy beam at least a foot across erupted out of the mountaintop behind them, punching into Fey’s force field and turning a fifteen-foot radius of it into a flickering green fractal.  Bullets began pinging off the underside of the force field as half a dozen armed men with jetpacks soared upward, while the top side of the force field trembled under the onslaught of several explosions.  Three or four anti-grav robots were moving out of the upper openings and bombarding them from above.

<(Lancer) Incoming!>

<(Tennyo) I’ve got up top.>

<(Chaka) Okay.  I’ve got the Rocketeer and his pals.>

<(Shroud) I’m with Chaka>

<(Bladedancer) Throw me at the doorway.>

<(Phase) …never mind.  I’ve got the interior goons.>

Lancer spun around, slinging Bladedancer at the cliff face and turning to face the energy beam.  He didn’t know if he could take on an energy beam that powerful, but he figured he’d better give it a shot.  Tennyo and Generator might regenerate like crazy, but if there was nothing but ash left afterward, how could anyone regen from that?  And Fey had her hands full with the force field.  He aimed for the beam and took it right on his chest as he passed through Fey’s field.  Shit.  That thing hurt.

Phase aimed for the massive energy weapon mounted on his side of the corridor.  Whatever the energy cannons were, they had to be powerful, because the power armor guys were all taking positions on either side of the weapons carrier and making sure they were well behind the things.  He came out of the wall just far enough to wave one disruption-light arm through the control panel and also the operator seated behind the Armorglass shield.  Then he ducked back into the wall before anyone noticed him.  He hoped no one noticed the unconscious thug… at least until he could get behind the power armor forces.

Tennyo soared up through Fey’s force field.  Another explosion went off right beside her, burning off the right leg and arm of her costume, and peppering her right side with shrapnel.  She cursed under her breath at the pain and focused on the incoming bombardment.  This time, she wasn’t going to sit back and depend on her regen.  She’d already had enough of robotic attack drones to last a lifetime.  She began firing off plasma spheres as she rose.  She picked off two of those anti-grav things before they could target her.

Bladedancer hit the cliff face and used her Chi to hold herself in place.  Fortunately, Lancer had a soft touch, because hitting the cliff with five tons of force would not have been fun.  She looked at the glowing lines from Fey’s spell, and concentrated on the line down the middle where the massive doors would open.  She ran up to the top of the line and sliced into the rock with Destiny’s Wave.  Her sword slid into the rock face like it was butter.  She released her Chi grip on the cliff and slid downward, easily slicing through anything holding the two huge doors together.

Chaka grinned as she fell.  She expanded her Ki until she could slow her speed.  Man, this rocked!  She’d wanted to try something like this for months, but she hadn’t had a chance.  And screwing up while falling a couple hundred feet had a major downside.  ‘Major downside’?  She was hanging with Ayla too much.  She couldn’t fly, but if she used her Ki just right, she could control her fall like she had one of those fancy aerobatic parachutes.  She lightfooted her way sideways as her target spotted her and tried to fly out of the way.  She landed right across Rocket-boy’s shoulders, making him dip head-first toward the ground.  “Yee-hah, li’l dogie!” she laughed.

Shroud dove as fast as she could.  Normally, she could only fly about thirty miles an hour.  But she could drop like any other rock, if she just didn’t hold herself up.  She didn’t know how fast she was falling, but she was moving faster than Chaka, and had already passed her.  Behind her, she saw Chaka land on one of the rocketmen.  Shroud was already aiming at the lowest rocketman.  That guy tried some evasive action, like she was a falling rock.  She jerked to the side, and as she flew past him, she snaked three chains out from her side.  Using her chains like really long fingers, she grabbed the guy, stripped him of his rocketpack, and slung him around her body to hurl him at the cliff face.  If he hung onto the rocks, someone would probably rescue him later.  She pulled the rocketpack toward her back, pushed the small joystick on the little hand-control, and used its thrust to target the closest rocketman.

Phase cut across the rear line of goons, going disruption-light through them and dropping them in their tracks.  He reversed direction and took out the next line of goons.  That left the shellheads, the entire weapons carrier, and the right-hand energy cannon.  No one was paying any attention to him.  Not when everyone was watching that weapon as it sliced through the massive locks holding the cliff doors together.  That was good for him, but bad for the team.  If they got the doors open before he had a chance to drop the rest of this squad, some Kimba could be in for a really nasty surprise.  <(Phase) When you have the exterior cleaned up, don’t open the doors until I give the okay.>

<(Lancer) Roger that.>  Hank pushed forward against the energy beam.  He didn’t know what it was, but it was powerful enough that it was really making his chest hurt.  He tried to release the energy back at its source, that peak maybe a mile and a half south of their position.  The blast of energy that erupted from his chest struck the mountain maybe two hundred feet below the energy cannon.  He tried again.  This time, he was maybe fifty feet high and to the left.  Goddamnit.  He tried again.  Another miss.  Fuck!  Well, at least something exploded.  Something tiny.  And the beam didn’t even waver.  He tried again.

Chaka laughed with excitement as she Ki-jumped off the back of the unconscious rocket-jock with a double backflip, and used her fighting chain to ‘lasso’ the last rocketeer.  She could sense Shroud moving her way at high speed, so she merely swung the mook around in a helpless circle.  The guy went face-first into Shroud’s fist.  Before Chaka could fall, Shroud grabbed her and held her in mid-air.  Then Shroud quickly helped Chaka slip on the stolen rocketpack.  Chaka grinned broadly.  Trust the J-Team to be grabbing devises and stuff.  The control pad looked really simple.  She wiggled the toggle with her thumb and blasted upward.  “OH YEAH!”  <(Chaka) This sim ROCKS!>

Tennyo targeted the last intact anti-grav robot.  Instead of trying to attack her, it fired off a bomb at Fey.  Tennyo blasted the bomb out of the air with her plasma sphere and then sliced the robot in half with a slash of her anti-matter sword.  She fired a big plasma blast into each of the two open doorways, in case there were more anti-grav weapons waiting to attack.  Massive explosions erupted out of both openings.  Then she spun about and zoomed back down to help out.

Bladedancer lightfooted her way up to the top of the left edge of the cliff doors.  Any hinges for the left door were likely to be down this edge.  She let herself slide down the cliff face while Destiny’s Wave sliced through rock and everything else.

Phase watched as something - either Tennyo or DW or a spell from Fey - sliced easily through the hinges and electronics holding the right-hand door in place.  That gave him no time to operate.  He went for the massive weapons carrier.  He phased through the back of it and found himself in a small high-tech chamber with three men operating elaborate controls.  He made sure only his arms were disruption-light, and he knocked out all three men.  Then he went normal for a moment.  The controls looked easy.  The front guy had a viewing screen and a joystick for steering.  Phase shoved the joystick forward, and the weapons carrier lurched forward at what felt like two miles an hour.  Phase leaned the unconscious guy against the joystick to keep the carrier rolling forward, and he phased out through the right side, aiming for the right-hand energy weapon. 

<(Phase) You’re about to drop the right-side door.  I still haven’t gotten all the weaponry.  Ignore the weapons carrier and let it roll forward.  Concentrate on the power armor.>

Phase went disruption-light as soon as he was out of the weapons carrier.  But the unexpected movement of the thing meant that everyone was now looking at him.  Crap.  He tagged two of the power armor suits on his way through the big energy cannon.  All the other power armor opened fire on him as he dove into the wall.

Fey focused, and used a minor spell that merely aimed Lancer’s reflected force.  The burst of energy erupted from Lancer’s chest and hit just below the beam of the energy cannon.  The beam winked out, and a small amount of smoke drifted up.  <(Fey) Well, that was disappointing.>

<(Lancer) Yeah.  I was expecting a huge explosion.  I’ll try harder next time.>

<(Chaka) Forget that!  Check this out!>

Lancer flew over to the left-hand door, which was now threatening to fall off.  He put a hand on the upper edge and pushed it back into place until Phase gave the okay.  He watched as Chaka jetted up past them with an immense grin plastered across her face.  <(Lancer) Phase?  Whenever you’re ready.>

Phase ducked back inside the wall, as weapons blasted chunks out of the wall where he’d been a second ago.  He could phase through the heavy-caliber bullets, but the energy blasts would cook him while he was light.

<(Lancer) Phase?  Answer!>

<(Fey) Phase?>

<(Tennyo) Let’s get in there and help her!>

Phase held his breath inside the wall.  He couldn’t get air.  He couldn’t even talk over the Spots, since he couldn’t exhale into a solid object while he was still light.  Not being able to breathe just sucked, particularly when his claustrophobia was making his body crave air.  He darted off to his left, figuring the power armor jockeys would have no idea he was moving.  He could duck down the corridor and come out fifty feet away from those blasters.  As long as he didn’t get lost inside the rock walls, or hit a power line, or worse…

<(Lancer) Phase can’t respond.  ‘Dancer?  Take that other door down.  Tennyo?  Hold it in place.  We’ll drop both doors at once, and Fey’ll hit the power armor guys with something to knock ‘em out.>

<(Fey) Phase?  Get out of the way.  I’m going to use a ‘sleep’ spell, and I don’t want to nail you while you’re in a wall or something.  Do you copy me?>

<(Phase) Whew.  Air!  Okay Fey, copy that.  I’m a hundred feet down the corridor and moving away from you.  Man.  Breathing.  It’s a good thing.  Highly recommended.  There’s about eight power armor jocks left standing.  They’re all yours.>

Bladedancer easily slid down the right-hand edge of the doors, while Tennyo pressed against the top of the right-hand door with both hands.  Lancer was just floating there with one palm against the top of the left door, making it look easy.  She looked at him and grinned to herself.  Must be nice to be able to exert five tons of force with your pinky.

<(Lancer) Tennyo?  On the count of three, pull your door outward and let it drop.  Then move up above the opening, just in case.  Fey?  As soon as the doors start to go, hit the armor jocks.>

<(Tennyo) I copy that.>

<(Fey) Roger.>

<(Lancer) ‘Dancer?  Out of the way?>

<(Bladedancer) Yes.>

<(Lancer) Okay, everyone follow once Fey says the armor are down.  One…  Two…  Three!>

Lancer flew up just above the door and used a fingernail to catch the upper edge of the door.  Then he tugged.  Five tons of force was more than enough to tip the already-unstable door out of its frame.  He watched as Tennyo’s door followed.  A translucent white ball of energy blasted in through the opening, and the sound of falling armor came up to his ears.

That was when he realized the weapons carrier was running.  And it was still moving forward.

<(Lancer) Phase? Are you sure you got the weapons carrier?>

<(Phase) Oh yeah.  It’s on auto-pilot, so to speak.  Ignore it.>

<(Lancer) Okay team, you heard her.  Let’s go.>

The front of the weapons carrier rolled out through the opening, until the front wheels fell off the edge and it crashed onto its undercarriage with a grinding, sparking crunch.  Lancer flew through the opening to the left of the carrier, while Tennyo – Bladedancer tucked under one arm – flew in on the other side.  Fey followed Lancer, while Generator and Shroud followed Tennyo.

Chaka did a couple barrel rolls before flying in over the top of the weapons carrier.  <(Chaka) This is da bomb!  I so need my own rocketpack!>

<(Phase) Maybe if you ask really nicely, Generator will build one for you.>

Chaka stopped long enough to think before she snapped off a reply.  Phase knew Generator wasn’t really an inventor.  But the comm system was compromised.  Right…  <(Chaka) Hey Generator, how’s about a really keen flightpack for me?  Pretty please with sugar on top?>

<(Generator) I’ll think about it.  You’re gonna have to be really nice to me.  And my roomie.>

<(Chaka) How about a couple Ki-powered foot massages?>

<(Lancer) Ladies? Pedicure negotiations later.  Shroud, Tennyo: you’re on point.  Move past Phase and send her back this way.  I want her as backstop.  Chaka, up front, monitoring for attacks.  ‘Dancer, ditto back near Phase.  Fey?  With me.  Magic detection.  Generator?  Behind me and Fey, watching for mutant powers.>

<(Phase) I got that.  On my way.  There’s a simple sliding firedoor ahead.  I peeked through it, and it opens into a large atrium with a big water fountain in the center.  No mooks, no visible weapons.  That seems suspiciously innocent for a mountain fortress that had a small army at the doorway.>

<(Tennyo) Shroud and I are on point.  The firedoor looks like plain steel.  But it seals all around the edges.  Somebody doesn’t want something to get in.>

<(Lancer) Or get out.  Okay, you two won’t be hurt by poison gas, so go ahead.  Fey?  Can you scry for poison gas or knockout gas?>

<(Fey) Dunno.  I haven’t tried it before.  Hmm…  Maybe it would be easier to create a simulacrum and send it ahead to check.>

<(Lancer) Okay, give it a shot.>

Fey sank down until she stood on the floor.  She closed her eyes in concentration, and spoke words which echoed oddly off the walls.  A shimmer formed around her, and a ghostly ‘Fey’ image moved forward in a sexy stroll.  The real Fey sank down into a Lotus position.  <(Fey) Whew.  That took more Essence than I expected.  Good thing we’re in the middle of a big forest.>

The Fey simulacrum walked up to the firedoor.

<(Lancer) Tennyo, open the door for our ‘detector’.>

<(Tennyo) Roger that.>

Tennyo slid the door open and let the simulacrum stroll in.  Fey started to get back up.  The simulacrum walked slowly toward the fountain.

<(Shroud) There’s something mutant-powered in the middle of the fountain.  It’s glowing really bright purple, almost ultraviolet.  And it’s got weird tinges of bright red through it, like it’s holding some magic inside it.  I don’t know what that means, b…>

FLASH!

A silent explosion of arcane energy erupted from the fountain.  The simulacrum disintegrated as if it were in front of a nuclear blast.  Tennyo only blinked at the bright burst.  Shroud shuddered and collapsed onto the floor in a limp pile of junk.  Fey staggered just as she was nearly erect, and collapsed backward onto the floor.  Bladedancer and Chaka both reacted as if they were attacked, spinning to face the doorway.  Phase started to rub his eyes before remembering he had a mask on.

Jade just stared in horror.  Whatever that thing was, it had killed Shroud!  Was that really possible in one of these sims?  But Shroud was a limp pile of gear, and Jinn hadn’t come back to her.  She had to bite her lip to keep from sobbing in fear.

Then she realized Fey was still lying on the floor.

<(Lancer) Fey?  Fey, get up.>

<(Chaka) FEY!!>

Fey finally opened her eyes and tried to sit back up.  <(Fey) Goddess!  What was that?>

<(Generator) I…  Uhhh… Some kind of psi bomb, I think.  I could see the energy.>

<(Chaka) It looked like a big wave of Ki to me.>

<(Bladedancer) To me, also.>

<(Phase) Well, whatever it was, I saw it too.>  Phase didn’t want to say anything else, since Sam was listening in on the comm system.  But he’d seen lines of green and red blasting down the hallway.  And the only times he had seen anything like that before were the first day at Whateley, when Fey tried looking in his head, and the time at Christmas, when that demon had nearly killed him.  Which pretty much meant it was high-end magic of some kind.  Or high-end Psi, since it looked like it had ‘killed’ Shroud.  And Generator looked pretty spooked.  He figured Generator could use some backup.  <(Phase) Generator.  Generator?  Did that thing knock Shroud out of her equipment?>

<(Generator) Yeah!  That’s it!  It… uhh… knocked her right out of the… uhh… components.  But I… I think I can get her back in if you give me a second.>

Generator ran over to the costume that lay limply on the floor, and put her palms on the leotard.  She prayed really hard as she tried to ‘cast’ into the costume.  The costume and gear suddenly popped back into the shape of a girl.  Generator sighed in sheer relief.

<(Lancer) But Shroud’s okay, right?>

<(Generator) Yeah.  She…  She’s fine now.>

<(Shroud) A-okay.  I think it just… umm… knocked me out.>

<(Lancer) And the simulacrum seems to be toast too.>

<(Fey) Well duh!  That had to be some sort of large-scale anti-mage weapon.  I’m guessing from everyone else’s reactions that it would have knocked out our mages, our Psis, and maybe even our Ki-girls.>

<(Lancer) Nasty.  Tennyo?  Shroud?  Check that the thing isn’t still active.  Shroud, get ready to dodge to the side of the door if it even looks like it might fire again.>

<(Shroud) It looks the same as before, just not quite as bright.>

<(Tennyo) Looks undamaged.  Nearly untouched, except some water splashed out onto the floor.>

<(Lancer) Tennyo?  Take.  It.  Out.>

Tennyo floated a few feet into the room.  She concentrated.  Her hands, a foot apart in front of her chest, began to glow.  A blue plasma sphere swelled until it filled the space between her hands.  When it was almost a foot across, it began glowing brighter and brighter.  Tennyo launched it with a slight outward flick of her wrists.  It flew straight for the base of the fountain.

This time, the explosion was anything but silent.  It pounded through the room and back down the corridor, making everyone’s eardrums throb.  The flash of light was gone long before the cloud of dust drifted to the floor.

<(Lancer) Whew.  Nice job, Tennyo.>

There was nothing left.  Not even the water.  There was a thirty-foot sphere of dust-laden air where there had once been a fountain and splashing water and floor.  The floor was cut as smoothly as glass.  Even the wires and conduits hidden under the fountain were sliced so cleanly they shone.

<(Tennyo) I don’t like doing that kind of stuff, even in a holo.>

<(Lancer) I know.  But this was an ongoing threat, and no people involved.>

<(Phase) And it’s in a holo, so it’s not even a real water fountain.>

<(Tennyo) Well, it just reminds me of…  Never mind, we’ll talk later.>

<(Lancer) Okay team, let’s move forward.  Don’t assume we’ve cleared the room either.  Shroud and Tennyo?  Point.  ‘Dancer?  Behind them and checking.  Fey?  Do you need help?>

<(Fey) Ugh.  I could use a hand.  I still feel like I’ve been Tasered and dropped down a flight of stairs.>

<(Generator) Got her.>  Generator put a small flashing disk on Fey’s shoulder, and suddenly Fey floated upward about four feet and drifted along beside Generator.

<(Chaka) Good thing Fey wasn’t in the room when that trap went off.>

<(Fey) You too, ya know.  I think it would’ve wiped out anyone who sensed Ki.  Along with Psis and PDPs.  And maybe any Energizers who can sense energy flow.>

<(Chaka) This guy does not play nice with other children, and ought to have someone take his toys away.  I say we go slap him into a timeout.>

They cautiously moved through the atrium, making a wide detour around the gaping hole where the fountain used to be.

<(Phase) Not to be a pain or anything, but is there a radiation problem we should watch for?>

Tennyo flew over the spherical crater and nervously waved her wristband about.  <(Tennyo) No.  Thank heavens.>

<(Phase) Sorry to be bugging you.>

<(Tennyo) It’s okay.>

<(Lancer) Can we save this for later, because we’re still smack in the middle of an evil lair, and…  Shit!  HEADS UP!>

The sliding firedoor slammed shut behind Phase, as swarms of bees erupted from dozens of vents on the sides of the room.

<(Chaka) Oh man, what now, killer bees?>

<(Phase) Africanized bees.>

<(Fey) Thank you, Captain Pedantic.>

<(Lancer) Science lesson later, please!>

<(Shroud) I can see some sort of mutant energy at the back end of each bee.>

<(Phase) Great.  Expect really nasty poisons, or something like that.  He’s probably using the bees’ natural attack instinct to deliver the payload.>

<(Lancer) Fey, Generator, Chaka, ‘Dancer.  You’re the most vulnerable here, so watch it.  Phase, see if you can KO these things.  Tennyo, avoid as much contact as you can: regen doesn’t mean they can’t hurt you.  I’m assuming they can’t get through my PK field.  Shroud, anything you want to do is good.  You’re the least vulnerable one in here.>

<(Fey) I’ve got a protective spell around me and Gen.>

<(Generator) I’m unleashing Spinner.>

<(Chaka) Okay!  Then let’s rock!  I’ve got the bees over this way!>

And with those simple words, the room devolved into chaos.  Thick swarms of bees went for anything that moved.  Tennyo darted to the left side, a warp field glittering into shape around her as she fired off a series of plasma blasts at the incoming swarms.  Lancer moved to the opposite side of the room, pulling out his paper swords and spinning until he was a razor-edged top.  Shroud spun madly, in near imitation of Lancer; however a dozen chains rotated around her at different heights until she looked like a stack of spinning horizontal buzzsaws.  Phase flew into the swarms coming from the left rear portion of the room, bees dropping to the floor as soon as they ‘touched’ his disruption-light form.  Chaka began firing off Ki blasts as she spun her fighting chain about her.  Bladedancer began ducking and dodging, as her sword sliced through the air with inhuman speed.  Spinner jinked and juked, slicing through anything in its path.  Generator and a pink Hello Kitty compact flew around Fey, guarding her inside a glowing purple sphere ten feet in diameter.

Fey concentrated on her sphere.  She watched as swarms of bees flew at her, only to drop to the floor insensate as soon as they encountered the edge of the magical field.  The glowing sphere slowly enlarged.  She was feeling better, so she handed Generator’s blinking ‘devise’ back.  She smiled to herself - it was pretty handy having the J-girls working like this in the sim.

Tennyo unleashed a plasma sphere from each hand, blasting the vents to her side.  The wall erupted in flame.  The vents exploded into tiny pieces, revealing much larger cavities behind the wall.  Ten times as many bees poured out of the now-huge openings.  <(Tennyo) Oops.>

<(Phase) Did Tennyo just say ‘oops’?>

<(Fey) At least it wasn’t me.>

<(Tennyo) I think I made things worse over here.>

<(Lancer) People!  Pay attention!  Tennyo, just concentrate on your task.>

<(Chaka) Ouch!  I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat.>

<(Phase) Heh.  Good one.>

Phase looked around as the bees swarmed at him.  All the bees that touched him while he was disruption-light dropped to the floor.  He pulled out several eggs from his belt pockets, and he held them almost a second, until they were about to change back to normal density.  Then he threw them into the vents around him.  The two ice eggs exploded and condensed the moisture in the air into bee-filled blocks of ice blocking the vents.  The two flame eggs exploded, shooting fire out of the mouths of the vents and frying most of the bees nearby.  He leaned against the mouth of another vent and let bees swarm against his insubstantial torso.  Stunned bees began falling through his body to land heavily on the floor beneath him.

Lancer concentrated on maintaining his rate of spin.  The bees couldn’t get through his PK field, but that didn’t do anyone else any good.  His spinning move with his arms outstretched was wiping out hordes of the little bastards.  Most of them had just splattered on his field, but now he was in a new swarm that was actually exploding with each impact.  Fortunately, even a hundred of the little explosions wasn’t enough to get through his PK field.  <(Lancer) Heads up, some of these bees have little bombs on their stingers.>

<(Phase) You’re kidding me.  Bee butt bombs?>

<(Chaka) This guy so needs some new hobbies.>

<(Generator) That’s just gross!  And how would you even engineer them?  Nanotechnology?>

<(Fey) It doesn’t scry like magic, so it’s got to be some kind of devising.>

<(Chaka) Hey, they’re stinger missiles!  Get it?>

<groan>

<(Phase) That wasn’t me!>

Generator looked around at the room.  Fey’s purple sphere was now maybe fifteen feet in diameter, and growing.  She could see it growing now.  The more bees that hit it, the more it grew.  The pile of unconscious bees under the sphere was growing too.  She could see that Spinner was shredding a swarm of bees at the far end of the room.  Tennyo was putting up a big warp field, and bees were self-destructing against it, with little fiery flashes where the explosion-bees detonated.  Lancer and Shroud looked like spinning blades of bee-damage.  And what the heck was Phase doing?  Was she just leaning against the wall?  Oh.  She was wiping out everything that came out of that vent.  The pile of bees underneath her just looked… blech.

Chaka ignored another sting on her legs, and kept swinging her fighting chain.  She was having a lot more luck with her Chaka Chaka Bang Bang.  Her Ki-blasts were knocking these guys for a loop.  She just needed to keep her chain moving fast enough to keep most of the swarms at bay.  She really didn’t want to get stabbed with some of those bomb-stingers.  Stinger missiles.  Heh.  That was a good one.  She blasted a thick swarm trying to emerge from a newly-opened vent, and she dropped into an Austin Powers imitation.  <(Chaka) Oh, bee-HIVE!>

<(Phase) That is the worst Roger Moore imitation I’ve ever heard.>

<(Fey) Roger Moore!  I knew you could do a pop culture ref if you tried!>

<(Lancer) People!  Could we focus on the deathtrap, please?>

Bladedancer concentrated on the swarm emerging from the vents before her.  She had already been stung several times on her right arm, and it was beginning to hurt horribly.  It felt like someone had shot her in the hand and wrist with a gun.  Over and over.  She switched Destiny’s Wave to her left hand and tried once again to summon the Tao.  It didn’t come.  The pain began to seep its way up her forearm.  She concentrated on the swarm.

<(Lancer) Does anyone have an idea?  I don’t think we’re winning by attrition here.>

<(Fey) I’m almost ready.  I’ve been gathering Essence from the bees themselves.  Give me another twenty seconds…>

<(Bladedancer) That’s good to hear.  I am not exactly winning over here, and I’ve been stung.  Several times.>

<(Chaka) I’ve gotten nailed a few times too.  But I am kicking some serious bee booty over here.>

<(Lancer) Chaka, ‘Dancer.  Retreat inside Fey’s sphere.  Now.>

<(Chaka) Ooooo-kay.  If you insist.>

<(Fey) Ready.  If this makes anyone feel funny, tell me instantly.  Okay?>

<(Generator) I’ve been inside this the whole time, and I feel okay.>

Suddenly, the purple sphere about Fey and Generator trembled.  It pulsed.  And then it grew rapidly, expanding to fill the room and move past the walls.  Every bee that the sphere touched instantly dropped to the floor.

<(Lancer) Is everyone okay?>

<(Tennyo) A couple more holes in my uniform from those stupid explosions.  The poisons aren’t bothering me.>

<(Chaka) I… umm…  If ya really wanna know, I don’t feel so hot.>

<(Bladedancer) I was stung half a dozen times on my right arm, and it really, really hurts.  It’s taking a great deal of Chi just to control the pain.>

<(Generator) Chaka!  You’re bleeding!>

<(Chaka) Damn.>

<(Lancer) Fey?  Do you have enough Essence to handle the healing, and also be ready for the next assaults?>

<(Fey) Sure.  I pulled a lot more Essence out of the bee swarms.  That’s why they all dropped.>

<(Phase) You just did a spell that sucked all the Essence out of the lifeforms around you?  Crap!>

<(Generator) You didn’t kill all the bees, did you?>

<(Fey) No!  I just pulled out enough Essence that they all lapsed into a sort of hibernating state.  They’ll be out for hours.  Probably longer.>

<(Lancer) Still, we need to keep you at full strength.>

<(Fey) Not a problem here.  I’m getting Essence from the ley lines all through the rock.  A mountain's all natural, you know.>

<(Phase) Chaka, you’re really bleeding an awful lot.>

Chaka used her Ki to sweep an area of the floor clean of fallen bees.  Then she sat down.  Hard.  She really did feel faint.  She looked at her legs.  For maybe a dozen bee stings, there was way too much blood leaking out onto her gi pants and her shoes.

Fey put her hands over Chaka and focused.  “This is serious.  It’s spreading through her entire body.”

Phase hovered nearby.  He added, “Probably some sort of hemotoxin.  You need to check and make sure her heart doesn’t stop.  Could be worse.  Neurotoxins can disrupt the entire nervous system.”

Bladedancer asked quietly, “Is… that… why… I’m… having… trouble… breathing… too?”

Tennyo looked at Phase and rolled her eyes.  “You just had to say it, didn’t you?”

Fey frowned in concentration.  “Get ‘Dancer over here.  I think I can heal both of them simultaneously.”

<(Lancer) Phase, check on the other side of the far firedoor.  Tennyo, if you’re sure you feel okay, open the firedoor we just went through, and check behind us.  Shroud, you’re with Phase.  Generator, you’re with Tennyo.>

Lancer floated over and hovered by Fey, standing guard while the rest of the team moved out.  He still felt a little dizzy from all the spinning and maybe even Fey’s purple sphere, but he wasn’t going to complain when he had two teammates down.  He watched as Phase and Shroud checked the far door.

<(Phase) No obvious latch or locking mechanism.  I’m going to step through and check from the other side.>

<(Lancer) Roger that.  Be careful.>

<(Tennyo) Same thing here.  The door’s sealed shut from this side.>

<(Generator) I have something that may trigger the locking system.>

<(Lancer) Go for it.  But be careful too.>

Phase checked the heads-up display showing before his right eye.  Bunny’s inventions seemed to be working.  At least, the holo sim version of them was working well.  The ‘high-voltage line’ detector was a nice, safe green.  He went light and felt carefully through the metal of the door anyway.  No high-voltage wires fried his fingers.  No one opened fire on him from the other side, either.  He silently grumbled to himself as he fumbled about.  ‘Man, I so need a periscope.  I need to talk to Bugs about additions to this mask.  Which reminds me.  Rubik’s put me off for another couple months on the rocket shoes and stuff.  Not to mention that freaking Sin d’Rome site still owes me another psi grenade; I’m sick and tired of having nothing but a dead one on me.  Is everybody just putting me last in their queue when they see my last name?’

He took a breath and leaned forward until his face vanished into the door.  As soon as his eye came out on the other side of the door and he got a look, he ducked back.

<(Lancer) Problem?>

<(Phase) No, just being paranoid.  It’s an empty corridor.  Do you want me to move through and scout on my own, or should I wait for backup?>

<(Lancer) Wait.  Sending you ahead when we have no way to support, like with those cliff doors, that’s risky enough.  There’s no reason for you to go yet.>

Tennyo and Generator inspected the other firedoor.  It was completely smooth on the inside.

<(Generator) I’m attaching a devise to the door and we’ll see if it works.>

She didn’t really have a devise.  Now that she had Spinner back, and the fake lifter she’d used on Fey, she had several charges to cast into things.  She didn’t like showing how her powers worked, even if she was faking it in the sims with fake devises.  But somehow, she could touch things in the holos and ‘cast’ into them.  She didn’t understand how, but then she didn’t get the whole ‘simulations of powers’ thing either.  Maybe it was the way Phase had set things up, or maybe the holos were treating this like a real devisor power.  But the weird part was she could cast into things and still be in contact with herself.  She had Jann in her sim suit, and so Jann basically worked like a flying power plus psychic vision, plus maybe some lightweight body armor.  If she cast Jeannie into Spinner and sent Spinner around the room, it worked like it was supposed to.  But, since her cast was still really inside her sim suit, she was also able to keep in psychic contact with her extra self, which wasn’t the way it worked in real life.

So, when she put the blinking (but fake) disk on the firedoor and cast Jeannie into the door, she still had contact with Jeannie.  Which was really kind of neat.  The metal part of the door was just small enough that she could cast into it.  So she could ‘see’ how the locking mechanism in the door worked, and she could ‘watch’ as Jeannie turned the tumblers and threw the bolts on the door.  It slid open easily.  As soon as Tennyo had a grip on the door, Jeannie released her grip on the door and returned.  Jade pocketed the fake devise in her fisherman’s vest and peered down the hall.

<(Tennyo) Not a sign of trouble.  The power armor guys at the far end look like they’re still down for the count.  That purple spell didn’t suck anything out of them, did it?>

<(Fey) No.  Now shush.  I’m trying to concentrate.>

<(Chaka) Well, whatever you’re doing, it feels a heck of a lot better.>

<(Fey) Shush.>

<(Phase) Lots of luck getting Chatty Cathy to hush.>

<(Fey) You too.>

<(Chaka) Yeah!>

<(Lancer) Guys, could you let the mage do her stuff?  We don’t know how little time we have before some more brown stuff hits the spinning blades, ya know.>

Phase took another peek through the firedoor.  Nothing.  Just a long corridor.  Nothing visible on the sheer rock walls.  Nothing visible on the ceiling or floor.  The lighting seemed to come from some sort of glow inside the walls.  The far end had some sort of vault door set flush with the wall.  He didn’t believe the thing was trap-free, but he couldn’t see anything obvious.  He’d feel better once Shroud took a look with her J-Team-vision.

<(Phase) Lancer, I can’t spot anything, but I can’t see the kinds of things that Shroud can see.  So what do you think is next?>

<(Lancer) What do you mean?>

<(Phase) Well, if the outside threats were to pick off power armor jockeys, and the fountain should have taken out our mages and espers and psis and PDPs, along with maybe some of our energizers, and then the bees should have taken out anyone left who didn’t have a force field or rock-hard skin, then who’s left?>

<(Lancer) I think the outside threats were supposed to take down everyone. The big weapons inside the main doors could’ve been for anything.  Maybe they were supposed to take out any bricks that were still standing.>

<(Phase) So who’s left to take down?  Besides Tennyo?>

<(Fey) That reminds me.  Tennyo?  Come on over here.>

<(Tennyo) I feel fine.  Really.>

<(Fey) I know.  But I have enough Essence that you don’t have to look like you got your uniform out of a dumpster.>

<(Tennyo) It is kind of burned up, isn’t it?>

Tennyo stared down unhappily at her costume.  The right arm and leg already got burned off outside the lair, along with those rips and tears from that shrapnel.  But those stupid bees with the bombs had blown about fifty little holes all over her outfit, and every one of them was an inch or two across.  Good thing the explosion-bees hadn’t gotten to Generator.  Or Chaka or Bladedancer.  As it was, there were parts of her showing that she really didn’t want to have peeking out of her outfit.  Maybe she really did need a better costume.  Maybe she’d let Fey patch it up a bit, or whatever Fey had in mind.

<(Lancer) Fey, how’s the healing going?>

<(Fey) Nearly done.  They’re not at a hundred percent, but they’re not in danger anymore.>

<(Chaka) I really do feel a heck of a lot better.>

<(Fey) But you probably need a blood transfusion to replace what you lost, and a day or two of rest, before you’ll be good as new.>

<(Bladedancer) I feel much better, too.  I can breathe just fine, and the pain in my arm is nearly gone.>

<(Lancer) Okay.  Then let’s do this thing.  I want Shroud and Tennyo as support for Phase.  Phase, once you go through that firedoor, keep talking so we know you’re okay.  If you stop, or you call for help, I’ll rip the door off and Tennyo will come through full-force.  If that happens, get out of the way.>

<(Phase) Sounds good here.>

Phase took a breath just to get through the door, and he went light.  The firedoor presented no problems, and he floated through it into the oddly-lit corridor.

<(Phase) Still looks good.  On this side, the firedoor is recessed in a tiny flat alcove maybe two inches deep, and there aren’t any obvious controls for the door.  Maybe Generator can slap a devise on it and pop it open.  Still no sign of any threats.  Just a hundred feet of polished rock corridor.  Which is completely pegging my Distrust-O-Meter.>

<(Lancer) Okay.  Keep talking, so we know you’re all right.  Generator’s going to have the door open in a couple.>

<(Phase) Good.  I’m still searching for traps, but I’m not finding anything.  Yet.>

Phase looked around again.  No slits in the walls or ceiling or floor for weapons to fire through.  Nothing.  Just that creepy white glow from the walls.  He stared at the ceiling.  Could this be the thing that crushes the invaders?  They definitely had found the room that took out mages.  The rock ceiling met the smooth walls in a clean edge that reminded him of a drop ceiling.  That looked normal.

Except a tunnel hewn out of solid rock shouldn’t have a corner like that.  He made sure he was disruption-light, in case the entire ceiling just dropped on him.

<(Phase) I don’t trust this.  I’m going to check above the ceiling.  If there’s nothing there, I’ll be silent for a couple seconds.>

<(Lancer) We don’t have any way of providing backup, Phase.>

<(Phase) Yeah, I know.  If you don’t hear from me for twenty seconds, see if Fey can magically drag my sorry butt back to safety.>

<(Lancer) I really don’t like that option.>

<(Phase) I’m not liking it a whole lot either, if you really want to know.  Going up through the ceiling now.>

The infra-red light on the side of his mask was working just fine.  But inside the solid rock, there was no place for the light to go.  At first.  About ten feet up, he suddenly found himself looking at a vast space filled with machinery.

<(Phase) Phase here.  The ceiling’s maybe ten feet of solid rock, but on top of that, there’s what looks like a long row of hydraulic presses.  Big ones.  I mean, ‘Girl Genius steampunk madboy size’ ones.  This looks like it’s designed to squash Power Pork.  Or maybe Bruce Banner and Clark Kent.>

He ducked back down into the corridor.  There had to be something he could do to make sure the ceiling couldn’t drop down on them…

<(Phase) Hang on a second.  I’m using some throwing stars and throwing spikes to make sure the ceiling stays in place.>

<(Lancer) Gotcha.  Generator?  Get that firedoor open.  Everyone?  Wait until Phase gives the all-clear.>

Phase held an assortment of his weapons in his right hand.  He took a throwing spike and pinned it carefully into the wall at the juncture of the ceiling, before letting it go normal.  He flew down the hall and across to the other side, and repeated the process.  When he ran out of throwing spikes, he started using throwing stars, each one placed perpendicular to the wall and ceiling so it was half in the wall and one-quarter in the ceiling.  <(Phase) I hope this is unnecessary.  Come on in.>

The firedoor slid open, and Phase watched as Generator pocketed one of her ‘devises’.  He couldn’t get over how well they worked in the holo sims.  Granted, the sim had to handle all kinds of weird devises, but this just seemed to work too well.

The team came through the doorway.  Phase noted that the two martial artists were looking a lot better, even if there was still way too much blood on Chaka’s pants leg.  And Fey must have magically repaired Tennyo’s costume, because it was back to normal.  He pointed up at a couple of the throwing weapons embedded at the corners of the ceiling.  “I doubt they’ll hold for long, given the hydraulics over our heads.  So let’s get going.”

Lancer nodded.  “Tennyo, Generator, get that far door open ASAP.  Shroud and Fey?  Look for additional traps.  Everybody?  If the ceiling starts coming down on us, I want Tennyo and Fey blasting the ceiling apart at the far end.  Bladedancer?  Cut through it to the topside if you can.  Phase?  If the ceiling starts moving, I want you at this end, ripping up the hydraulics.  I figure if it presses down unevenly, it may wedge itself at an angle and get stuck.  If not, we’ll at least have a clear area at the far end.”

“Got it,” Phase nodded.

“On our way,” said Tennyo as she darted at top speed to the far end.  Fey was close behind her.

Tennyo got within twenty feet of the far door when suddenly the wall lights flickered and forcefields sprung up in front of both doors.

<(Phase) Well, that was predictable.>

A fierce mechanical groan came from overhead, and one after the other, the throwing spikes shattered under the intense stress.

<(Lancer) Everyone, go!>

The throwing stars shattered or simply twisted like putty under the immense pressure of the ceiling.  Nothing stopped the ceiling, which moved smoothly down the walls.

Phase was already light.  He pulled out his tactical baton and snapped it open.  He hastily rammed it through the wall just under the steadily-dropping ceiling, just before the baton went back to normal density.  The ceiling hit it and suddenly stopped.  Groans echoed from above, and the baton began biting into the ceiling as the rock was forced to make way for the unyielding adamantium.  At least the ceiling had slowed down pretty drastically.  Instead of coming down at more than a foot a second, it was coming down at maybe an inch a second.

<(Chaka) Phase, what the hell is that?>

<(Phase) An adamantium tactical baton.>

<(Chaka) Christ!>

<(Generator) You’re not gonna bring that to martial arts class, are you?>

<(Phase) Heh-heh-heh.>

<(Lancer) People!  Focus on the deathtrap for a few seconds, PLEASE?>

<(Chaka) Sorry.>

<(Phase) Me too.  Got to go.>

<(Tennyo) Fey, I’ll get the forcefield and the door.  You open up a hole in the ceiling for us.>

<(Fey) Roger.>

Tennyo focused on the forcefield protecting the vault door from invaders.  She produced her antimatter sword and slashed all around the field until the field generators collapsed.  Then she tried to get the massive door open.  It wouldn’t open.  It didn’t want to budge.  She didn’t want to try to cut it open with her sword, that took so long!  She turned and yelled, “Generator!  Can you get this thing unlocked?”

Fey focused on the slowly-descending ceiling.  Solid rock.  Ten feet thick, if Phase was right.  And Phase had a really annoying tendency to be right.  Blasting through that would be a headache.  Transmuting a thousand cubic feet of rock?  That might be doable.  She concentrated.

Bladedancer stepped to the middle of the corridor and lightfooted up the wall.  Then she focused.  Destiny’s Wave slashed out three times, and a huge chunk of the ceiling dropped to the floor.  She moved to the side and repeated.  She figured that she could cut fast enough to get through the entire ceiling and up into the space above it… if she had maybe two solid minutes.

Phase stayed light and floated up through the rock.  He turned on his ‘masklight’ again so he could see.  There weren’t any simple electronics in sight for him to fry.  But the massive hydraulic cylinders looked vulnerable.  He took an explosive egg out of his utility belt, floated up another thirty feet, and hurled it at the base of the first cylinder.

The explosion blew out a chunk of the cylinder that was maybe a foot across, and oil - or something like it, he really didn’t have full visual acuity with just this red light - came pouring out.  That had to knock out the hydraulics on that one.

<(Lancer) Phase?  What did you do?  We heard an explosion, and now there’s oil or something leaking down the walls at your end of the hall.>

<(Phase) Just what it sounded like.  One of Bunny’s bombs.  I blew open a hydraulic cylinder.>

<(Lancer) Roger that.  As long as you’re okay.>

<(Phase) Yeah, but I only have two more blast eggs and two fireball eggs.>

<(Lancer) How many hydraulic cylinders total?>

<(Phase) Looks like twelve.  So one every eight feet.>

<(Lancer) Take out the first four.>

<(Phase) Roger, Roger.>

<(Chaka) Over, Oveur.>

<(Lancer) Guys?  Save it for after the deathtrap?>

Tennyo looked up at the ceiling.  It was still coming down, even if it was now moving slowly enough to be one of those really stupid deathtraps like Indiana Jones faced.  She didn’t know what the heck Phase’s baton was made of, but if it could slow up something like this, she’d have to find out if it would stand up to her antimatter sword.  She’d love to find a new sparring partner, and Phase was pretty decent for a martial arts noob.  Generator was trying to unlock the heavy door, but it looked like the massive door swung outward toward them, and if the ceiling came down another foot, the door would be blocked.  She decided she’d better cut it in half horizontally, just in case.

Fey floated up and put her hands on the rock ceiling.  It felt like ordinary rock, just smoothed down until it looked polished.  And volcanic rocks were mostly silicates.  She thought about what Sir Wallace had been saying about applications of the Law of Similarity.  A law-of-similarity transmutation spell Aunghadhail had taught her came to mind…

Lancer watched as Bladedancer hacked out another chunk of ceiling.  This one was four feet across, three feet wide, and was cut at an angle so the thickness went from half a foot at one side to almost two feet at the other side.  He caught the falling rock in mid-air and carried it to the other side of the hall, where he was stacking everything she sliced out and setting them on their sides.  He turned this one on its side too, and stood it on top of some of the other chunks.  If the wall came down another three inches, it would start pressing on his towers of rock.  It would have to break all these rocks before it could become a threat to his teammates.  He looked at the ends of the hall.  Generator was working on opening the big door, while Tennyo cut the thing in half.  Fey was doing something to the ceiling, too.  At the other end, Chaka was concentrating on the forcefield back into the bee-room, while Shroud was waiting to get at the door.  They could take that door down, in case the team needed to retreat.

Phase flew downward after the third cylinder ruptured.  No more bomb eggs.  Time to go with something else.  Maybe he just needed bigger pockets.  It would be really nice to have a magic utility belt like Batman’s that only carried the exact items you needed for the day’s plotline.  He’d talk to Möbius about more pocket space.  Later.  He stared at the hydraulic cylinders.  The liquid inside had to be under phenomenal pressure.  And the fireball eggs only needed a sudden pressure to activate them.  Hmm.  He went light with one in his hand and flew by the next cylinder.  He waved his hand through the cylinder as he flew past, and he dropped the egg inside the cylinder.  Then he flew straight up and ducked around to the other side of the next cylinder, just in case.  A second later, there was an explosion of flaming oil that blew out several feet of cylinder.

<(Phase) Shit.  My bad.  I just took out the fourth cylinder, and set fire to the oil.>

Phase pulled out both his ice eggs and let them start to go solid in his hands before hurling them down into the flaming mess.  Most of the oil froze solid, and the fires went out.  But the room was filled with thick, choking smoke.  He moved toward Tennyo’s end of the room, but he still couldn’t see clearly.

<(Phase) I may have made things a lot worse.  The oil fires could eat up all our oxygen and fill the place with smoke.  Let me know if it gets down to your level.>

<(Lancer) Roger that.  We’ll keep an eye out.  Fey?  Can you handle things if the fire comes down here?>

<(Generator) Can she handle fire?  Oh heck yeah!  She can handle a fire like you wouldn’t believe!>

<(Fey) If my fan club is done, then let me say this.  Yes.  But not the fire and the ceiling both.>

<(Generator) Pthththth.>

Phase moved further toward Tennyo’s end, still worrying about the smoke and the risk of a recurring fire.  He looked down.  Wait.  Was the rock ceiling starting to bubble at the end there?  Uh-oh.  He moved upward, toward the tops of the hydraulic cylinders.

<(Phase) Something’s going on with the ceiling over Tennyo.>

<(Lancer) It’s Fey.  Stand clear.>

<(Phase) Oh yeah, you can count on that.  I…  Shit!>

Suddenly, a ten-foot cube of the ceiling flared with a blue light, and something like a tone rang out from it.  The solid rock sort of bulged upward, and then erupted in a dense cloud of what looked like sand.  It sprayed upward and over about forty feet of the ceiling.  Fey gracefully floated up through the gaping hole, a white light coruscating about her and lighting up much of the once-dark room.

<(Fey) Whew.  That was harder than I thought.>

Phase looked around.  Cubic yards of dark-colored sand lay all about the hydraulic cylinders.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what the hell Fey had just done to a huge block of igneous rock.

<(Lancer) Well, rest up and get your energy back.  We’re not done yet.>

<(Generator) I got the door unlocked, but I’m gonna need Lancer or Tennyo to pull it open.>

<(Lancer) Phase, would you check what’s on the other side of the door before we open it?>

<(Phase).  Sure thing.>

Phase flew down through the gaping hole under Fey.  He took a look around.  Tennyo had sliced through the door in a horizontal cut that had turned an unbreakable vault door into a handy Dutch door.  Bladedancer had hacked a hole in the ceiling that looked almost as big as Fey’s, while Lancer had stacked the resulting boulders like they were wooden blocks.  Shroud and Chaka had shredded the forcefield at the far end and ripped open that firedoor too.  This team rocked.

Phase floated through the bottom half of the vault door, avoiding the still-hot slice across its middle.  He came out in…

<(Phase) It looks like an airlock.  A clear wall in front of me maybe four inches thick, with a clear airlock door, and another room on the other side of it, with another clear wall, and…  Holy crap!  On the other side of that, there’s a magma chamber!  It’s a lava trap!>

<(Chaka) Has this guy been playing too many video games or sump’m?>

<(Tennyo) So we fly over it.  So what?  I can carry ‘Dancer, and Lancer takes Chaka.>

<(Chaka) What? You don’t love me any more?>

<snerk>

<giggle>

<(Phase) Won’t work.  This isn’t a video game.  The air above that lava has got to be hot enough to burn you to a cinder.  Even you probably can’t survive flying over it.>

<(Tennyo) Then how about Lancer?>

<(Lancer) If it’s that hot, the air’ll fry my lungs when I try to breathe.  Assuming the air doesn’t go straight through my PK field and burn me to death first.>

<(Shroud) How about me?>

<(Lancer) How’d you do in the furnace in Hawthorne?>

<(Shroud) Umm…  I kinda’ burned to a cinder.>

<(Chaka) Okay, I’m not gonna try lightfooting it over that.  So don’t even bring it up.>

<(Lancer) Well Phase, you were wondering what Crucible had for bricks.>

<(Phase) I’d like to know how he gets over this.>

<(Fey) Asbestos underoos?>

<snerk>

<(Lancer) Fey?  Can you build a magical bubble strong enough to protect all of us from the heat?>

<(Fey) I don’t know.  Maybe.  There’s a ton of ley lines coming from that direction.>

<(Lancer) Well, let’s at least try the airlock.  I’ll pull the bottom half of the door open, and everyone step on through.>

Phase turned and watched as half of the vault door swung open.  The upper half stayed put, not even sagging a little.  Tennyo and Generator flew into the first airlock room.  Lancer and Bladedancer followed, with Fey behind them.  Chaka and Shroud came last.

Chaka looked at the back side of the door, grinned, and whinnied, “Wiiiiiiiillbuuuuur, you ooooopened the wroooooong half of the doooooor.”

Even Lancer grinned, as he said, “Could we maybe save all the one-liners for the debrief, and just MiST a tape of the exercise?”

Fey put her hand on the clear plastic wall leading to the next part of the airlock.  “Warm, but not blazing hot.  Phase?  Could you check the temperature in the next room?”

Phase shrugged, and put a hand through the wall.  “Feels toasty, but not too hot.  It feels like sauna temperatures.”

“Just don’t go through the wall after that one,” said Lancer.

“Oh yeah, you can count on that,” agreed Phase.  “Really not interested in finding out what it feels like to be burnt to a crisp.”

Phase stepped through the wall into the second room.  The hot air was breathable.  He’d been in hotter saunas.  The one time Father had taken everyone to Kuwait to meet with the emir about financial management of the country’s infrastructure rebuilding, it had been hotter outside than it was in this room.  But the far plastic wall, which looked about a foot thick, gave a terrifying view of a half-melted shelf of granite, leading to a two hundred foot drop-off into a lake of roiling lava.  He couldn’t see upward very well, due to the overhang above, but he wondered if it might be possible to escape through the magma chamber and get out through the summit of the volcano.

He stared across the chamber.  It had to be three hundred yards to the other side.  There was definitely a chamber on the other side, and a fancy airlock there too.  So how did Crucible get across this thing?  Or did he?  Maybe Crucible built it as a test, but had his own ways in and out of his fortress.  Phase wished he’d thought to contact the West Coast League and ask how they had raided this lair, after Delta had told him about it.  Like he knew them well enough to pester them with phone calls about irrelevant garbage.  They’d hang up on him.  And he’d deserve it.

Fey looked at the airlocks and thought about how to do this.  The protective bubble would need to go outside that second airlock, and let the airlock door open into it.  Then she’d need enough Essence to float all the way over to that far airlock.  Hopefully they could get through it and into a safe area.  She wished some of her teammates weren’t enjoying themselves so much.  She could feel that Phase wasn’t enjoying herself, so her snarky comments were just her usual defensive behavior.  But some people…

It took Fey five or six minutes to build the protective bubble she wanted.  There was more than enough Essence around her, but there were also plenty of problems.  She couldn’t form a bubble on the other side of the airlock and start off with air that was too hot to breathe.  She didn’t know how hot it would be, but if it was the same temperature as molten lava, it might be thousands of degrees.  So she had to start with a magical wall flat against the outside of the airlock, and let Generator unlock the airlock door enough that she could get the hot-but-breathable air from their airlock chamber into her bubble.  Then she had to strengthen the bubble enough to take the mass of all her teammates, and make sure it could stand up to the air over the boiling lava.  She figured that with her luck, she’d probably get a big explosion of lava too, so she built a flat barrier underneath the bubble as a protective screen, just in case.

She finally called out, “Okay!  Everybody aboard!”

<(Chaka) What is this, Amtrak?>

<(Fey) Oh hush, or I’ll make you ride in the baggage car.>

<(Chaka) Okay, nobody better make a ‘ride in the back of the bus’ crack!>

<snicker>

<(Phase) That wasn’t me!>

They all stepped or flew through the outer airlock into the bubble.  Lancer took Bladedancer and Chaka by the hands so they wouldn’t have to stand on the bottom of the bubble.  He really didn’t want Chaka trying out the rocket pack inside the bubble either.  Everyone else floated pacifically.  Fey sealed the bubble closed behind them, and focused.  The shimmering bubble separated from the wall and floated toward the far airlock.

“Wow!  Look at that!” gaped Generator.  “This is so cool!  I can’t believe it!  We’re looking at lava!”

“Technically, I think this still counts as magma,” said Phase.

“Thank you, Captain Pedantic,” muttered Tennyo.

Phase went on as if he hadn’t heard the comment, “We’re still within the volcano, and this looks like it’s still part of the magma chamber.  I just don’t know how Crucible can make these airlocks stand up to this kind of heat, and not melt.”

“We’ll let Bugs give you a full report when we’re done,” smirked Chaka.

“Could you guys keep it quiet?” Fey hissed.  “This is taking a lot of concentration, if you really have to know.  The heat’s doing bad things to my sphere of protection.”

“Great,” groaned Phase.

“Look Fey, you’re doing great,” encouraged Lancer.  “Incredible, really.  I mean, who else in the whole school could get a team across this?”

“Besides Wallflower, maybe?” asked Tennyo.

“Probably only one or two of the PFGs in the whole school could take this kind of stress,” said Bladedancer.

“And I don’t think any of them can fly too,” added Generator.

“Bluejay could teleport the entire team across,” said Shroud.

“Yeah, we need more intel on him,” groused Phase.  “He’s a major Warper.  That guy’s the most dangerous Alpha they’ve got, and they don’t even seem to realize it.”

“Not now, Phase,” Lancer reminded.

“Sorry.”

Phase studied the area above them.  “It looks like there’s a clear shot out to the sky from the middle of the chamber.  If we’ve got to retreat, we could come back here and go straight up.  What do you think, Fey?”

“Sounds reasonable.  I’ll just park our bubble at the airlock and leave it in case we need it,” she replied.

Lancer asked, “Do you have that much Essence?”

She nodded, “Oh, sure.  With all the ley lines here, I’m more than good.”

Generator suggested, “And maybe you could get some fire elementals to come over and guard it.”

“Mmm, no,” Fey frowned.  “I’d have to, well, do the dance and stuff.”

“The dance?” Phase asked lewdly.

“You know, the dance she was telling us about.  Christmas.  Bet you’d like ta see Fey get her groove thang on,” Chaka smirked.

“That dance,” Phase acknowledged.  “One of these days, I’ve got to see that dance.”

Generator scowled, “You really don’t wanna be in a sitch so bad that she has to do it.  I mean, they killed me, and then I nearly died about half a dozen more times!”

“Comm security, people,” Lancer reminded them again.

The magical bubble touched the airlock on the far side of the cavern, and slowly deformed.  The bubble kept moving forward, but the front flattened out against the airlock door until the flat area was larger than the entire doorway.  Generator slapped another of her ‘devises’ on the lock, and in a few seconds the door popped open.  They stepped into a hot room and hastily moved into the second airlock chamber, where the air was only a little above room temperature.

Once they stepped out of the airlock into the cool hallways, Lancer took over again.  <(Lancer) Assume positions, people.  I doubt we’re done with deathtraps and other surprises.>

As they set out, Ayla wondered aloud, “What next?  I mean, we’ve seen a small army with heavy weapons, The Water Fountain Of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Ceiling of B-Movies, and a videogame lava trap.  I thought Crucible was supposed to be original.”

They turned a corner and found themselves facing a stretch of hallway where the walls, floor, and ceiling were apparently plastered with what looked like LED lights.  Dozens of the little lights were firing out thin red beams that crossed the hallway at odd angles.

Fey groaned, “Oh my God, it’s the laser hallway bit.  Isn’t this so passé?”

Tennyo looked back at Phase and muttered, “You just had to ask, didn’t you?”

Generator smiled, “So?  We just send my Hello Kitty compact between the beams to turn it off on the other side.  Right?”

Phase said, “But we can see the beams.  Real laser beams aren’t visible from the side.  These look more like Fantastico’s heat vision.”

Lancer frowned, “And real laser beams aren’t normal security systems.”

“How’d you learn that?” asked Chaka.

Lancer looked slightly abashed.  “Mythbusters.  They said ultrasonics and infrared and microwave and gadgeteer systems work way better.”

Tennyo asked, “You want me to just fly through?”

Phase offered, “Or I could go.”

Lancer thought for a second and said, “Why don’t we give Generator’s devise a chance?”  Tennyo and Phase both shrugged in agreement.

Generator took her compact out of her fisherman’s vest.  She set it on the floor and pointed her Universal Remote at it.  After half a dozen boops and beeps, the compact flashed its lights in a careful pattern and rose into the air.

Generator stood there while her Hello Kitty compact moved toward the first energy beams.  She wasn’t saying anything, but she had an unfair advantage in these holo sims.  She could communicate with her compact like it was Jasmine sticking a finger into her mind.  She figured it was because the charge really went into her sim suit, instead of into the compact.  But the sim acted like she had mental contact with the compact.  Which meant she could see what the compact could see.  And the compact could see her color vision and see the red laser beams too.  Normally, her copies couldn’t see color, and they couldn’t see ordinary energy like light.  So her compact could dodge the beams, and she could think and tell it where to go.  Which was really cool.

The Hello Kitty compact rose slightly to avoid one beam, and dodged to the right to avoid another.  As it moved around a third beam, there was a sudden twitch in the energy beams, and they began moving.

“Darn!” Generator whispered.

“That’s not good,” Tennyo muttered.

Generator tried to steer the compact away from one beam, but another swept in from the side.  The energy beam sliced through the compact like it was made out of toilet paper.  The compact fell into two halves and dropped to the floor with a clatter.

Jasmine jumped back into Generator’s head, and Jade realized that she had done the smart thing.  It was better to hide their real capabilities and make everyone outside Team Kimba think it really was a simple devise that could be disabled with a cutting beam.

The red beams kept moving for several more seconds, before freezing in a new pattern.

Phase muttered, “Okay, a microwave or ultrasonic system, with death rays as the dummy system.  That is pretty original.”

Tennyo added, “Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t try to fly through there.”

Chaka asked, “So what do we do?  Let Fey whack the hallway with a big ol’ magical stick?”

“Thanks, roomie, I love hearing complex magics described as a big stick-whack,” complained Fey.

Phase said, “I’ve got it.”

Lancer reminded, “You can’t go light through energy beams like that, and you may not be able to go heavy enough to keep from taking damage.  I’d probably better take it.”

Phase rolled his eyes behind his mask.  “No, I’ve got it.  You’re making this too hard.”  And he flew up into the ceiling.

Generator watched Phase disappear, and after a second, she piped up, “Oh!  Right!”

About ten seconds later, Phase flew down out of the ceiling on the other side of the beams, and settled in front of the control panel.  He went heavy and punched the panel.  It smashed into plastic splinters.  The energy beams sputtered out, and the LEDs dimmed.

Lancer admitted, “That was simpler than I figured.”

Phase shrugged.  “I just went far enough up that I didn’t have to worry about hitting all the power lines in the trap.”  He didn’t bother mentioning that he could judge the locations of the major power lines using the system Bugs had built into the mask.  He figured he didn’t need the whole school to find out, if the other Team Tactics groups heard about it and blabbed.  Instead, he added, “You know, I was really hoping to see Chaka do one of those laser-hallway dances, like in ‘Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back’.”

Generator piped up, “Or Kim Possible!”

Chaka smirked, “You wish!”

Lancer murmured, “Maybe Catherine Zeta-Jones…”

Fey elbowed him in the ribs, which did nothing, and she grinned, “Looks like someone’s losing focus over here.”

<(Lancer) Let’s move out, in formation, without giving anything else away.  Okay?>

At the end of the hallway was a forcefield blocking everything from wall to wall.  It was strong enough that it was completely opaque.

<(Lancer) Okay, if Tennyo can’t take it down in twenty, Fey gets a shot.  If she can’t, or if she says no, Phase tries an end run.  Tennyo?  Go.>

Tennyo took a deep breath and made a fist.  A blue light began glowing from inside the fist, until it was forming a painfully-bright ball about a foot across.  She slid forward through the air and punched the forcefield.  Her fist went right through it.  When she pulled her hand back, there was an explosion from the other side, and the forcefield flickered into nothingness.

On the other side of the forcefield, it was obvious that she had unleashed one of her plasma blasts.  There was a spherical blast area, and everything within about fifteen feet of where her hand had been was blackened rubble.

<(Phase) Whew.  I can’t top that.>

<(Tennyo) Well, I wish you could, because my radiation monitor’s going nuts.  We need to get through this area pronto.  I kind of irradiated the crap out of it.>

<(Chaka) Hey, no big.  As long as it isn’t MY home.>

<(Lancer) People!  Full speed through the blast zone, anyone with a forcefield, I want ‘em up.  Phase, go heavy, I don’t want to find out the hard way what this much radiation’ll do to you while you’re light.>

Fey formed a glowing green bubble about herself, and Generator slipped inside it before Fey moved through the blast zone.  Phase sprinted through, while Chaka and Bladedancer lightfooted their way over the ruined floor.  Shroud, Tennyo, and Lancer quickly followed.

<(Lancer) Back to standard formation, people.>

They hardly had time to change their arrangement before they were moving through a large doorway into a huge room about the size of a basketball gym, with rocky gray walls everywhere.  There, on a gray rock riser at the far end of the room, was a man in white meta-ceramic power armor.  His face was impossible to see, since he had a white-tinted visor completely covering it.  It was Crucible.

Behind him stood three alcoves, each one a semicircle about twelve feet high.

<(Phase) Fey, block the middle alcove.  If our intel’s right, that’s his teleporter chamber.>

<(Fey) On it.>

Crucible put his armored hands on his hips and tilted his helmet to better glare at the invaders.  “You dare to pit your powers against Crucible?  Then be tested!”

Robots suddenly came pouring out of the left and right openings.  Humanoid robots.  Tank-like robots.  Robots on wheels.  Robots on tracks.  Four-legged and six-legged robots that looked like animals.

<(Lancer) Heads up!>

<(Chaka) Transformers!  More than meets the eye!>

<(Phase) Ah’ll be bock!>

<(Fey) Number Five is ALIVE!>

<(Generator) Yuusha-Oh GaoGaiGar!!>

<(Bladedancer) All we need now is a Buffybot.>

<(Lancer) Guys?  Focus please?>

<(Tennyo) Rats, I had like ten anime robot refs to use.>

<(Lancer) Later.  After the debrief, you can have a bot-off.  Tennyo and Phase, right side.  Fey, left side with me.  ‘Dancer, Chaka, and Shroud, take Crucible.  Generator, wherever you’re needed, and guard our six.>

The bigger tank-like robot snapped open its upper part to reveal a massive energy cannon which fired off a pulse of red light.  The burst hit Tennyo and burned a two-inch hole right through where her left kidney would be if she were still Bill Wilson.

“Dammit!  And I just got this uniform patched up!” she shrieked.  She glared furiously at the tank-thing and fired off a blue sphere that slagged the center of the thing.  “Take that!”

<(Phase) Tennyo, take the alcove and make sure nothing else gets out.  I’ll disrupt the junk in front, while you work back towards us.>

<(Tennyo) Roger.>

<(Lancer) Good plan.  Fey?  Ditto on our side.  Generator?  Break anything coming up on our six.>

Chaka grabbed the control for her jetpack and flew over a low-slung robot that was wielding four wicked-looking sawblades on segmented arms.  Shroud followed right behind her and to her right, just like a wingman.  This flying stuff was so freaking cool!  She couldn’t figure out why Phase and Lancer and Tennyo weren’t lording it over the rest of them.

Bladedancer watched the sawblade-bot try futilely for Chaka’s flying form.  She slid forward in a glide-step that put her in reach of the blades, and she performed a kata Destiny’s Wave had showed her several weeks before.  The four sawblades dropped to the floor, and the robot fell apart, cleanly sliced in half.  She wove her way forward toward Crucible, slicing up anything that got within three feet of her.

Crucible just stood there like a mannequin.  Chaka pulled up as much Ki as she could while she was in mid-air, and unleashed her Chaka Chaka Bang Bang as she zoomed at him.  Nothing happened, as far as she could tell.  He just tilted his head in her direction.  Maybe she had his attention now.

Which was when the energy beam ripped past her head.  Suddenly, energy weapons were popping out from hidden emplacements high up on the walls, and blasting away.  She watched as an energy beam punched through Shroud’s chest.  She juked to the left, and another beam just missed her ribs.  She looked back to see Bladedancer deflecting a blast with her sword.

<(Chaka) Got a problem here!>

<(Lancer) Shroud, take the weapon emplacements.  Phase, you too, on your side of the room.  I’ll tackle the ones over here.  Tennyo and Fey?  You’ve got the robots with no backup.  Chaka and ‘Dancer?  Crucible.  If he’s directing the weapons, we take him out and stop the firepower.>

<Roger.>

Lancer leapt into the air, aiming at the furthest-back gun emplacement on his side of the room.  He ripped it off the wall and hurled it as hard as he could at a tentacle-armed robot trying to sneak up behind Fey.  The weapon ripped through two tentacles and smashed the center of the robot to pieces.  By then Lancer was already ripping the next weapon out of its socket.

Phase saw what Lancer was doing and copied him, Phase-leaping to the far back corner of the room.  He couldn’t fly and simultaneously be strong enough to rip armored weapons out of the walls.  Instead, he momentarily went heavy and kicked off the back wall, then Phase-jumped forward at high speed and disruption-light density.  A horrific pain seared through his arm as he passed it through every weapon on the wall, but they all burned out.  He went heavy just in time to kick off the front wall and head for the weapons on the ceiling.

Shroud watched as Lancer ripped weapon after weapon from the left wall.  She couldn’t manage that.  If she’d been in Jade’s body, she was sure she would’ve been envious.  Instead, she just felt sort of inadequate.  She managed to slide some thin blades into the workings of the back ceiling gun and slice enough cables that it went dead.  She pulled the blades back into her body and went after the next one.

Tennyo went ahead and hurled the two blue plasma spheres she had.  The right-hand alcove erupted in flame, toasting several robots still trying to get out of it.  Then she pulled out her antimatter sword in her right hand, and focused a glowing blue light about her left fist.  What didn’t get sliced in half was going to get punched into pieces.

Fey tossed a force field about her as the first three robots opened fire on her position.  Two had blasters, while the third had some sort of heavy machine gun that would have turned her into tiny, bloody Nikki-pieces.  She used the momentary respite to launch two attacks.  One was a blast of what looked like blue-white lightning that shorted out the front robots, giving herself a metal wall protecting her from the guys behind them.  The second was a spell like what she had thrown on her first day of Team Tactics class.  It seared through the air and turned the robots emerging from the left-hand alcove into scrap.

Chaka tried to time her attacks to team with Bladedancer’s movements.  But every time Bladedancer tried to move in to slash with DW, she had to dodge more of those energy blasts or fight off Crucible’s pulsing energy field that pushed her backward.  Chaka couldn’t get through the energy field either, and her Chaka Chaka Bang Bang just got sucked up like the field was a big Ki sponge.

Suddenly a massive red pulse seared under Chaka’s legs and punched right through the energy field to hit Crucible in the center of his armored chest.

<(Generator) Hey guys, guess what I figured out how to override?>

Chaka took a split second to peek back over her shoulder.  She nearly laughed out loud.  Generator was floating next to the big blaster on the back wall, hugging the barrel and holding a blinking disk against the base of the system.

Two more red blasts burned into Crucible’s armor, as he stared back at Generator’s form.  For a faceless man in power armor, he pretty much radiated frustration, as he failed to regain control of his gun emplacement.  He suddenly flew into the air and aimed for the center alcove.  He got within three feet of the archway and hit a magical wall.  He struggled against it, but he seemed to be glued to it.  He punched it, and it flared into green fern-like fractals but refused to release him.

<(Fey) They check in, but they don’t check out!>

Suddenly, he stopped moving.  A red timer appeared on the wall, showing two minutes.  And a voice blared over the room’s speakers.  “Release me at once, or we’ll ALL die!”

The timer clicked to 1:59 and began counting down from there.

<(Fey) Bluff?>

<(Phase) Not worth taking that chance.  NONE of us can survive a volcanic eruption from the inside.>

<(Lancer) Can we use the teleporter to escape?>

<(Fey) Looks wrecked.>

<(Phase) Crap.  What happened?>

<(Fey) Well, it looks like a big blue plasma ball disintegrated half the room.>

<(Tennyo) Oops.>

<(Lancer) Plan B.  Phase?  KO him so he stays out and his armor’s fried.  We’ve got Fey’s magic bubble.  We retreat in formation, and ride that out through the top of the volcano.>

<(Phase) Sounds good here.  On my way now.  Fey?  Let him go when I get to him.>

Phase flew down and landed right in front of Crucible, who suddenly was able to right himself and land on his feet.  Phase extended his right hand in a handshake and said, “You have yourself a deal.”  Crucible strode forward, suddenly reaching for Phase’s throat.

<(Chaka) Look out!>

<(Tennyo) Phase!>

Phase didn’t move.  He merely thrust his hand through the center of Crucible’s chest.  The armored villain abruptly froze in place, as Phase’s disruption-light form knocked him unconscious and simultaneously fried a section of the armor’s circuitry.

<(Phase) Because I completely trust a supervillain who’s killed more people than Dr. Diabolik.>

<(Lancer) You had me worried for a second.>

<(Phase) I had me worried for a second.  If he had managed to get another PFG over his armor, I was going to be bouncing off like a bullet.>

Lancer flew down and grabbed the unmoving form of their foe.  <(Lancer) Okay team, let’s move back to Fey’s bubble.  Top speed.  We have…>  He looked up at the huge counter on the wall.  <(Lancer) Damn!  One minute, twelve seconds… and counting.  Tennyo?  Get Fey to that bubble ASAP.>

<(Chaka) So let’s move!>

Tennyo took the lead, towing Fey and Generator with her.  At her top speed, she tore down the corridor and into the airlock in seconds.  Fey began empowering the bubble as everyone else came rushing in.  Phase was next, followed by Lancer, who had Crucible’s form in one arm and Shroud in the other.  Chaka and Bladedancer came sprinting after, their speed Ki-enhanced until they were running nearly as fast as Lancer could fly.

“Everybody in.  We don’t have much time,” Lancer directed.

“We got that,” muttered Phase.

The bubble detached from the wall and began flying upward.  They could see the sky far overhead, up a long column that appeared to open into the caldera of a volcano.

“How fast does this thing go?” Lancer asked.  “We’re under a minute, and I have no idea what Crucible’s idea of a self-destruct is gonna be.”

Fey said, “Hang on a sec.  I got an idea.  Tennyo?  Can you push against the top of the bubble and go full-speed?”

“Can’t hurt to try,” Tennyo murmured.  She took a deep breath and pushed upward at the top of the bubble.  The bubble suddenly began flying faster.  And it kept increasing its speed.

<(Chaka) Going up!  Next floor, ladies’ underwear and gigantic explosions!>

They accelerated until they were moving at Tennyo’s top speed, and they flew out of the volcano’s crater to veer sharply off to one side.

<(Generator) Ulp!  I nearly puked there!>

<(Phase) Hey, I’m the one wearing a mask.  Tennyo?  No making the teammates all hurl, okay?>

<(Lancer) We needed that detour, so we’re not in the line of fire if->

Suddenly there was an enormous roar, and the volcano erupted.  Lava blasted a thousand feet into the air.

<(Lancer) –damnit!  Do we have this covered?>

<(Fey) I think the bubble can take this.>

<(Phase) We need to watch for a pyroclastic cloud.  Three, four hundred miles an hour and burning hot.

<(Chaka) Oh, way to make everyone feel safer!>

<(Lancer) Let’s keep moving away, and if anything comes our way, let Tennyo take it with her warp field first.>

After another minute, they were over two miles farther away, and nothing was blasting their way.  Everyone let out a collective sigh of relief…

AYLA

“Hello Phase,” the computer voice said.  “Welcome back.  It is Monday, January 22th, 2007.  It is now 10:28 am.  Your team is the victor.”

I quickly got that headgear off and stood up from the chair.  I hadn’t been sitting that long, but I was seriously thinking about some sort of padding for the chair that wouldn’t interfere with the connections.  That probably meant I hadn’t done enough in the sim.  Even in the sim on Saturday, I’d ‘exerted’ myself enough that I felt some mild aches for a few minutes after the sim ended.  And I didn’t want to think about how I’d felt after the previous Saturday’s sim run.  Overclock had better not ever need a favor from me.

Before I was even out of the room, Bardue’s dulcet tones came roaring through the speakers.  “TEAM KIMBA!  Your INTERNAL REVIEW is due by START OF CLASS TOMORROW!  DON’T FORGET!”

Was there a sound level higher than ‘deafening’?

Okay, I was asking a rhetorical question there, because Bardue really hadn’t managed to get up to ‘jet engine’ levels, or ‘erupting volcano’ levels.  It just seemed like he could bellow loud enough to give Screech a run for her money.  And I could hardly wait to have him and Sam tell me how many ways I screwed up in that sim.

I met up with the gang in the hallway.  “Performance reviews.  Great,” Fey fumed.

“What do you have to worry about?  You didn’t blow up our escape route out of the lair,” mumbled Tennyo.

“I think we all have points we need to work on,” I insisted.  “I have a list of about half a dozen, starting with: needing to breathe inside walls, not being fast enough when my teammates needed it, barging out of that tank-thing without thinking about my next step and nearly getting my ass shot off, starting that oil fire and nearly asphyxiating my entire team…”

“Bees.  Why did it have to be bees?” grinned Chaka in a really bad Indiana Jones imitation.

“Bees.  My God,” said Fey in the best Batman imitation she could muster.

Lancer said, “Let’s change clothes and then talk it over on the way back to Poe.  We ought to be able to debrief before we get up to our rooms, and then Phase can put together our ‘internal review’.  And you know what Everheart and Bardue are going to say.”

“And Eldritch,” pointed out Bladedancer.

“Hey, I thought we were awesome!” chipped in Generator.

Chaka said, “Yeah, and that rocketpack was the jams!  I so need one.”

Generator started, “Well, you just need to go talk to B-”

“Comm security!” barked Lancer suddenly.

Fey said, “Hold on a sec.”  She closed her eyes in concentration and then whispered something that seemed to make the air shimmer.  “Okay.  All nanites taken care of.  And no eavesdroppers anywhere else.”

Tennyo checked, “That isn’t gonna hurt Sam, is it?”

Fey paused for a second.  “Umm, I don’t think so.  She’s got thousands of the little things.  Maybe millions, I don’t know.  Losing half a dozen isn’t going to make a difference.”

“Okay, so it’s safe to talk now?” Chaka checked.  When Fey nodded, she went on, “Okay, I know who to talk to.  I just don’t wanna be luggin’ that shit all over campus 24-7 for the one time a month it’s worth havin’.  I mean, I can’t believe Delta packs that harness all over the place every time she puts on her supersuit.”

I put in, “And she’s got a ton of gear hidden in the supersuit too.”

“Where?” wondered Lancer.  “It looks like that thing’s sprayed on as it is.”

I admitted, “It’s not quite as thin as it looks, and she’s a better deviser than her rep would make you think.”

Bladedancer muttered, “As long as her suit doesn’t explode all the time…”

Lancer frowned, “Can we get back to the debrief?  Phase has a laundry list, as usual, and she needs to remember ‘too much chatter’.  You just know they’re going to be on my case about that.”

Generator said, “Yeah, you asked us to pipe down about a jillion times.”

“And did it do any good?  No,” Lancer reminded her.  “Okay, you and Tennyo and ‘Dancer were a lot better about the chatter, and Shroud was excellent on comms, but everyone else…”

I admitted, “Sorry, but I just…  Well, it’s a protective tactic.  I’m not…  Well, it’s what the shrinks call ‘psychologically distancing myself from the threat’, even if the threat is entirely simulated.”

“It wasn’t last Saturday,” complained Tennyo.  That was followed by a horde of muttered agreements.

Lancer said, “And you need to work on that.  We all do.”

I continued, “But if I’m smarting off, you can’t expect everyone else to keep quiet.”

Chaka snapped at me, “Look girlfriend, no matter how much you like beatin’ yourself up about stuff, you don’t get to go takin’ credit for mistakes I’m makin’.  Got it?”

“Got it,” I mumbled.

She looked over at Lancer.  “Okay, I was havin’ a blast.  That was fun.  I don’t care how serious it’s supposed ta be, I was havin’ fun, and I’m gonna keep havin’ fun.  We’ve got the best comm system, period.  I mean, it’s better than what the S.T.A.R.s have, and theirs is psychic.  Even Phase couldn’t buy anything better for us.  We don’t have to keep up on comm security.  Nobody’s monitorin’ us unless we let ‘em.  Even Hive can’t.  And even if someone figures out some super-smart way of finding our signal in subspace or wherever, they still can't decode it.  So I say: what’s the harm?”

Fey muttered, “I just like tweaking Aunghadhail, and it bugs her that we talk in battle.  I’m not gonna do anything that would seriously hurt us.  But I think Chaka’s right.”

I said, “I’d like to think she is.  But we probably ought to talk to Sam and Bardue about comm security, and whether our comm system alters some of the rules for us.”

“We should talk to Caitlin too,” Bladedancer pointed out.  “She knows a great deal about modern military tactics.  Perhaps even more than Destiny’s Wave knows about ancient military tactics.”

“Yeah, how does she know so much stuff?” wondered Generator.

I wasn’t going to volunteer anything, but Lancer said, “Army brat.  Or in her case, I’d say Marine brat.  And she obviously worked a lot harder at it than I did.  She handles that ‘203 like she was born with it.”

“She really is extremely experienced with firearms,” contributed Bladedancer.

I shrugged, “Gun safety is pretty basic, really.  Everyone ought to know it.  Especially pipsqueaks who run around with dangerous loads in their Cobras.”

“Hey!” protested said pipsqueak.  “I took the gun safety course and everything!  And I got a really good score on the test!”

Lancer cut in, “Okay, I think everyone wants to hear Phase’s story about gun safety, but first let’s finish the debrief.  Okay?  Tennyo?  Would you like to go next?”

Tennyo ducked her head a little and softly said, “I need a better uniform.  And I need to stop letting the other side take potshots at me first.  And I need to be more careful.  I mean, I blew up the teleporter when we might’ve really needed it!”

I pointed out, “We needed to take Fey’s bubble out anyway.  We had no way of knowing whether Crucible had that thing booby-trapped.  Not even you’d survive if it teleported all of us straight into the magma, say a mile below the surface.”

“Ewww,” winced Fey.

“Ouch,” agreed Chaka.

Lancer turned his head.  “Fey?”

“I needed to give Phase more of a heads-up when I transmuted the granite block.  She could’ve gotten blasted.  And I need more protective spells ready, just in case.  And I need to think more strategically, so I have the right spells ready.  Like the sleep spell when we faced those goons.  That means a lot more prep time and gathering Essence beforehand.”

“Good,” Lancer said.  “I need to plan better, too.  We were too disorganized at the start, before we got into the lair.  And we weren’t ready for Crucible throwing stuff at us from every direction, which I should’ve expected.  So I need to do more strategy before the sim, and we need battle plans that we all know, so we can leap into things without having to talk it over first…  We already heard from Phase, so how about Bladedancer next?”

“We need to think more about the overall objectives, and less about reacting to what comes in the next second,” she intoned.  “We should have thought about alternatives to fighting our way through the traps that Crucible wanted us to face.  Were there better ways into his lair?  Were there ways to force him out so he had to face us on a battlefield of our choosing?  Did we even need to face him then, or were there better long-term strategies?  Time and time again, I reacted to the immediate threat without thinking about alternative actions.”

Fey muttered, “Yeah, Aunghadhail really agrees with that.”

Lancer nodded, “Good.  Very good.  Chaka, can you top that?”

Chaka grinned, “Face facts.  We don’t need to top that.  We need to write up about the homegirl goin’ cowboy too much.  ‘Cause you know Eldritch is gonna be all over our case about that.”

“Oh yeah,” I muttered, along with half the group.  We all knew Eldritch would be all over us about strategy and tactics and her ever-popular ‘stop splitting up’ rant.  Not to mention that Sam and Bardue would both be all over us about all the chatter on our comms.

Lancer told her, “You did what we asked you to.  We needed to defend our position outside the doors, and that meant sending teams after the rocket-jocks below us, and the robots above us.  No one got out of comm range, or even out of visual range, except Phase, who was on point.  Shroud went with you for support.  And everyone except Phase was easily close enough for immediate support if they needed it.  So I’m saying you were well within your identified tasks.”

“Thanks, Boss-man,” Chaka smiled.  “But I pushed my luck too far with those stupid bees, and those rocket-jocks should’ve nailed me with all the weaponry they were lugging around instead of watching me fall, and I need to figure out how to use my Ki to block attacks like that fountain, and…”

“And what?” Lancer pushed.

“And I really would’ve tried the ‘laser hallway’ dance if Generator hadn’t tossed Jann into it,” she blushed.

“Ooh, I bet that would’ve been hot,” I teased her.

Lancer nodded and went on.  “And last but not least, the J-Team.  Comments?”

Generator nodded.  “Umm, yeah.  I don’t wanna say anything about how I can see what Jann and Jasmine and Jamie are doing, but that’s a secret advantage I got in the sims that I just don’t have for real.  I couldn’t have gotten Jasmine that far through the laser trap without it.  So I don’t know what we’d do for real in a case like that, because Jasmine can’t see light, and those death rays would’ve been invisible to her.”

Lancer asked, “Anything for our debrief that’s for public consumption?”

She shrugged unhappily, “I dunno.  That anti-magic, anti-whatever attack from the fountain killed us.  That really scared me.  We gotta work on ways of protecting ourselves from attacks like that.  We’re really a lot more vulnerable than a lot of people think.”

I pointed out, “You’re supposed to be a deviser.  They’re supposed to be squishy.”

Shroud said, in the exact same tones as Jade, “I thought that thing murdered me there for a couple seconds, and then I didn’t know what the heck happened, ‘cause I was just, well, it was like I was trapped in a black box.  And then I was back in the sim, and Jade was touching me, and she looked so scared…”

Lancer looked at me and said, “Make a note in our report.  More effort in protecting our weaker members without compromising our battle structure.”

“Gotcha,” I said.  “I can put all this together and email it off to Sam before lunch.”

Lancer smirked, “Even if we all pile into your room and you tell us that ‘gun safety’ story?”

“Yeah!  Phase and her phaser!” Chaka snickered.

If it had been an embarrassing story, I would have rolled my eyes, or tried to weasel out of it.  But it was just… a part of my family life that was long gone.  Something meaningful to me that was utterly irretrievable.  I figured it wouldn’t hurt too much to tell them about it.

HIVE

Samantha Everheart stood patiently, while the last class members trudged out of the viewing room.  She checked for eavesdroppers as well as she could, since she still didn’t have a way of detecting magical snoopers.  Then she walked down to where Bardue was waiting for her.

Bardue grinned at her, “Well, admiral?  I can tell something’s up.”

She pursed her lips.  “Gunny, I checked the specs on the original sim.  There was no army of thugs, and there was no trip across a magma chamber.  Crucible had a side corridor that veered off to the center of the mountain and dead-ended with a magma trap.  You added those pieces in.”

Bardue grinned evilly, “Right, Admiral.  That kind of attention to detail’s why I asked for you to take over as my number two in the sims.  You’ve really stepped up, from day one.  But this is another lesson.  Sometimes you’ve got to make it harder, just so they learn they’re not indestructible.”

Everheart frowned, “But they still beat the sim.”

Bardue groaned, “Yeah.  There is that.  I really didn’t think the Kimbas would think it through before someone got ten-zeroed.  And I really didn’t think they’d figure out a way to get across our lava trap in one piece.”

Sam nodded, “Well, if they’re learning situational awareness and strategic thinking, then they’re actually getting something important out of the course.”

Bardue agreed, “Hell yeah.  I just hope they’re also learning that they’re not indestructible.  And I hope they’re learning it before some of them get killed for real.”

Sam shook her head sadly, “I don’t think so.  You heard them.  They think Tennyo can regen from anything, and Generator apparently died over Christmas break.  It sounds like they think some of them really are pretty much indestructible, or at least unkillable.”

“Great,” groaned Bardue.  “Just fucking great.  Those are the kind of kids who end up getting killed off a few weeks into their first superhero gig.  We’re gonna have to think this through and come up with a scenario that’ll teach them what they need to learn.”

Sam stared at the ceiling for several seconds before she gave Bardue an evil smile.  “I just ran through all the team combat scenarios we have on disk, and I think I know just what we should try on them.”

AYLA

We had hardly gotten into my room before Lancer was saying, “Okay, now I want to hear about that gun safety story, Phase.”

I took a deep breath and started.  “I haven’t always been Ayla, you know.  Back when I was Trevor, I was part of a family with some very long-standing traditions.”

“Like slavery?” Chaka snarked.

I didn’t think now was the time to get into the fact that some of my ancestors had indeed owned slaves, and that one of the big-name ones, Colonel Edgar Gabriel Goodkind, was a well-known slave-catcher for over a decade in the early 1800’s.  I ignored her jibe and continued, “Like hunting.  Nowadays, Goodkinds try to be responsible hunters.  No flying off to Africa to shoot endangered species.  We try to focus on wildlife species which have excessive populations and need to be trimmed back anyway.  And not those populations which are subject to debate, like the bison in Yellowstone National Park.  Clearly excessive populations that states are trying to address with increased hunting.  For example, whitetail deer in Maine.  I wasn’t allowed to go along with Father and Paul and Uncle Theo, until I passed the rifle safety course that our rangemaster gave me on our gun range, and until I demonstrated that I wasn’t a threat to put a .270 Winchester in someone else’s butt, and until I worked enough that I could hit where I was aiming.”

“Your own private gun range and your own personal rangemaster.  Why am I not surprised?” muttered Fey.

I went on, “So I’m a decent shot with a rifle.  Or at least, I was.  I don’t know how good - or bad - I am now.  Probably a lot better than before, given the Exemplar skillset.  But I don’t like guns.  I especially don’t like the idea of pointing a gun at a person, and maybe having to pull the trigger.  The first time we went hunting, I shot a nice buck.  I was just lucky.  It walked right out into my zone.  It wasn’t an especially long shot, and the buck dropped within seconds.  But when we got up to it, it was still alive.  Alive, and in a lot of pain, and lying on its side scrabbling helplessly.  I…  I had to put it out of its misery.  It was lying there, whimpering horribly, and bleeding, and struggling, and… I killed it.”  I stopped and swallowed the lump in my throat.  “So I’ve killed something with a gun.  It wasn’t all neat and clean, like on tv.  It wasn’t a big splatter of fake blood and a corpse, like in a horror movie.  It was violent, and revolting.  I didn’t complain about it, but I didn’t go hunting with them the next year, either.  And this year I manifested, so there was no way on God’s green earth they’d put a rifle in my hands again.”

Generator softly said, “So get one of these Cobras.  They’re great.  Go with non-lethal loads.”

Lancer said, “I’m decent with a rifle, but not a crack shot like some people around here.  If you’re better than me, you ought to think it over.  You, with a Cobra 40000 linear induction rifle and non-lethal loads, flying ahead into overwatch position and providing long-range support for team movements.”

“I can’t hide a rifle,” I pointed out.

“I can!” chirped Generator.  “We can keep it in my purse.”

“Or in my bag of holding,” suggested Bladedancer.  “I too have been looking into firearms, particularly since no one expects the Oriental martial artist with the sword to consider such a thing.  Eldritch has been most helpful.”

Lancer said, “Okay, I want this in the report too.  We’re looking into long-range support, including magic, devises, and rifles.  At some point, when Bladedancer and Phase are both ready, we’re going to have a team shoot-off and see who the best long-range shooters are.  We’re never going to match Deadeye or Hive, but this might give us an anti-flyer weapon or a long-range threat the other team will have to worry about.  Then we’ll worry about what rifle, and the loads we want to use, and who carries it where.”

“How long a range?” Tennyo asked.

Lancer looked up at the ceiling in thought.  “Depends on who we’ve got and how accurate they are.  Word among the Grunts is Hive has a Barrett sniper rifle and can shoot the wings off a fly at a mile and a half.  Deadeye might be even better.”

I shook my head.  “There’s no way I could hit something the size of a person at a mile and a half.”

Lancer looked at Generator.  “What if Generator cast some of the J-Team into your cartridges?  Then the bullets would have their own steering and correction.  The only questions are: can the J-Team hold onto a bullet and not lose velocity; and can they steer at a target at that kind of speed?”

Generator shrugged.  “Maybe we oughta find out,” she said with a somewhat manic gleam in her eye.

Lancer nodded.  “Okay.  We keep our personal plans under wraps, but we tell Sam and Bardue that we’re looking into long-range support mechanisms.”

It wasn’t until I finished the story that I realized we were all still using codenames.  I usually called them by their real names, at least a lot of the time.  It was the sim.  We’d been so focused on it that we’d stopped being students and become superheroes.  At least temporarily.  I made a mental note to switch back.  Right after I composed our internal review and emailed it to Sam.

 

SIREN CLASS

Vanessa hadn’t been this tense in her combat final.  She leaned forward, fists clenched, and concentrated.  What the hell.  She decided to throw in a prayer too.  God wouldn’t be mad at her for praying for this.

Chorale was even more nervous.  Vox watched her intently.

Dr. Hewley asked, “Ready?”

Screech was in position at the front of the ‘firing range’ in Lab K.  She nodded abruptly.

Ligeia whispered to her, “You can do this.  I know you can.”

Glissade nodded her support.

Dr. Hewley smiled gently, “Okay Screech, I think you’re ready to try this.  Just breathe out slowly, breathe in, and focus on what we’ve been working on.”  Screech nodded nervously.  “Now just take your time…”

Vox moved to a couple yards behind Screech, and she glanced at Chorale.  Chorale and Glissade looked as anxious as Vox felt.  If only this worked…

Screech stared at the suit of armor before her and carefully said, “The… rain… in… Spain… stays… mainly… in… the… plain.”

Nothing happened.

The suit of armor remained untouched.  No blast of PK force ripped it asunder or melted it into slag.

The place went nuts.  With Vox and Glissade and Chorale and Ligeia all cheering, it sounded like a basketball stadium full of choirs was yelling in harmony.

Screech was crying with happiness, the tears streaming down past her enormous grin.  She just stood there, astonished that the armor was still in one piece, while Ligeia hugged her, then Vox, then Chorale, then Glissade.  Even Doctor Hewley said ‘congratulations’, but he didn’t hug her.  Not that she wanted a hug from an old guy.

Vox looked at Screech and figured this would make a world of difference for the girl.  She could talk again, and have a way more normal life.  Maybe she’d even give up those stupid Goth clothes and stuff.  Vox thought to herself, “But what’s with that stupid phrase she had to say?  I’ll ask Ayla.  She’ll know.”

Screech stared at the armor and let the tears come.  It was the first time in a year she’d been able to say a word without destroying everything in front of her.  Suddenly her life looked totally different.  She could join that Wiccan group now, and not have to worry about killing someone just by praying to the Goddesses.  She could start thinking about practicing those dark spells now!  Bloodworm would be so proud of her.  She let out a small hiccup of grief, and it melted the upper half of the armor.  She stared at the wreckage in disgust.  Fuck, she was going to have to really practice this shit until she had it down cold.

But then she was going to show everyone who ever told her she couldn’t do the dark magics Bloodworm had shown her.  She’d show them.  She’d show all of them.

 

AYLA

Once I finished our internal review, checked it for spelling and grammar errors, and then emailed it off to where Hive could absorb it, I was ready for fun.  I pulled up my clipping service on my laptop and started scanning news articles.  Of course, it had a lot more than news articles, now that the IPO was making such a huge splash.  Bloggers were all piling on, primarily with the most insipid comments you could imagine.  Ezines couldn’t crank out vapid articles quickly enough.  And, now that Sam Raimi had made a televised press conference, it was all over the entertainment news and YouTube.  Fortunately, eClip had good filtering software, and it gave each of its finds an ‘acceptability’ rating.  The YouTube junk was consistently getting acceptability ratings of 10% or less, except for news videos of the original press conference.  I watched that, just to make sure Mr. Raimi didn’t get carried away and say a few things about certain studio executives who had the combined IQ of a rabid opossum.

One pro-Marvel blogger had written that the brain trust who had released such ‘masterpieces’ as “Hulk 1809”, “The Punisher”, “Elektra”, and “Man-Thing” had nearly put Marvel Studios into the red, so this was great news for Marvel Comics fans and movie fans.

Even better was a video clip from CNBC.  A Hollywood pundit looked into the camera and said, “at last we no longer have to fear Marvel giving us Ang Lee directing ‘Brokeback Wolverine’.”

After I stopped laughing, I opened my door.  “Hey Toni!  Nikki!  Get over here!”

They both popped in, although Toni made it in half the time, in part by using the walls to make her turns.  She was already seated in a chair next to me by the time Nikki walked in.  Nikki looked at Toni’s innocent ‘where were you’ expression and stuck her tongue out at her roomie.  I showed them the clip, once they stopped ribbing each other.

Once Toni stopped giggling, she said, “Oh man, why didn’t I think of that?”

Nikki said, “What’s the stock price now?”

I pulled up my chart and pointed it out.

“SHIT!”

I smirked, “That’s because the stock jumped up past 60 after Sam Raimi made his press conference announcement.”

Toni said, “Dad is so gonna have to buy me a hot sports car when I turn sixteen!”

I had a mental image of Toni, with her reflexes hyped up to ungodly levels thanks to her Ki, driving a high-end sports car through the crowded New York interstate system at two hundred miles an hour, and I manfully managed not to wince.  I just said, “Wait and see what happens when Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst make their own announcement in L.A. later.  That’s two our time.”

Nikki walked out, telling Toni, “Man, the next time mom tells me I can’t go clothes shopping because of how much I spent the time before, I am so letting her have it about this stock!”

“Oh yeah,” agreed Toni.  “I’ve got to find a way to rub Vince’s nose in this one.”

I checked my watch and figured I had time to make one circuit around the floor before I had to head out to lunch.  I had a lunch-hour appointment I couldn’t afford to miss.

I finally caught up with Heyoka, who was looking oddly feminine.  She had long green hair that smelled more like grass than hair, and a curvy body I would have pegged as pregnant if I hadn’t known better.  I’d seen enough Shifts on Jamie’s part that I was going to guess she’d had an encounter with some sort of ‘earth mother’ sort of spirit in the last day or so.  She looked at me and smiled, Hi, Ayla!”

Boy, she even had a motherly tone in her voice today.  I smiled back.  “Hey Jamie, a bunch of us are going to Boston on Saturday for lunch – it’s my birthday party – and I wanted to know if you wanted to go too.”

She gave me a warm look and said, “Thanks for inviting me, but since Sara can’t go, I think I’d better stay here.”

I tried, “Are you sure?  Because there’s at least one of Sara’s ‘people’ living in Boston already.  Your showing up won’t be a declaration of war, or anything.”

She gave me a mysterious smile and said, “I’m sure.  But thanks for asking.”  Then she rubbed her somewhat bulging belly and strolled off to her room.

There was a gust of wind in the hallway, and Jay Jay came to a screeching halt next to me.  “Hey, what was that about?  Doesn’t Jamie look weird today?  I never saw her like this before, and it’s really different, okay it’s a lot better than that big bear thing with the huge wiener and the claws and everything, but I like it when she’s just looking normal.”

When she paused for a picosecond, I turned to her and said, “I was just making the rounds again, asking people if they want to go to Boston with me and the gang.”

“Oh I heard about that it sounds really cool but aren’t you gonna get in trouble because you’re going after the last couple times and they were kind of big fights and stuff.”  She finally stopped talking at ninety miles an hour and looked at me expectantly.

I grinned, “Yeah, so I thought I’d invite you too, this time.  Then you can get in trouble with us!”

“Me?  Really?  Ohmygod that’s so cool, IdontknowwhatI’mdoingSaturday, letmecheckwhatImsupposedtodo, canIgetbacktoyou!”

And she was gone, zooming down the hall to her room and nearly knocking Pilar off her feet in the process.  Jody leaned out of her room, stretched out one arm, and caught Pilar just enough for her to regain her balance.

“What was that about?” Verdant wondered aloud.

Jody stepped out of her room and said, “Probably the same as usual, Pilar.”

I said, “It’s my fault.  You know about my Boston trip?”  Both nodded their heads.  “I just invited her, but she had to check her schedule.  And I’m inviting both of you too.  Got any conflicts for Saturday?”

Jody frowned in thought.  “I don’t know.  Day before Sunday?  That’s the day Gabriel usually goes off…  Well, I could ask someone to keep an eye on him…”

“Yes!  I can go!” squealed Verdant.

“Jody kept thinking out loud.  “…and Michelangelo…  Well, if a lot of the floor is away, then that’s less of a problem…”

“Oh wait!  I don’t know if I have anything to wear!” worried Verdant.

Jody stared at the ceiling.  “…Flux now…  Maybe I can get Risk to take him over to that card game thing…”

Hmm, the bookie ring hadn’t told me about any card games, which undoubtedly would have some gambling in there somewhere if Risk and company were involved.  I told Pilar, “Casual clothes.  Nice jeans or khakis, something better than a t-shirt, whatever you like.  You can even wear your Whateley uniform if you really want to, but it’s not necessary.”

Jay Jay came sprinting back down the hall and screeched to a halt in front of me, completely blocking Jody’s face.  “Icango! Icango! IcheckedandIcango!”

“That’s great,” I told her.  “Can you slow down a...”  But she was already gone again.

Jody finally wound down.  “…and Sharisha ought to be fine with all you girls gone, so I think I can go.  I’ll check with Mrs. Horton just to be sure.”  She looked at the huge grins on our faces.  “What’s so funny?”

“It is nothing,” smiled Pilar.

Jody gave me a big smile.  “Okay then.  Is there anything I can do to help out?”

I told her, “Maybe when we’re actually traveling back and forth.  I’ve got everything else already taken care of.”

“Okay.  That sounds great.  Now did you say something about casual clothes?”  Pilar burst into giggles, as I explained about the plan for ‘nice casual’.

I checked my watch, and I still had a few minutes.  So I went upstairs and checked on Marty and Elaine.  I hardly finished my knock when Marty was flying over and yanking the door open.  Her face fell when she saw it was just me.

I said, “Wow, you sure know how to make a guy feel appreciated around here.”

Marty miserably muttered, “C’mon in.”  She put a huge pout on her face, floated back over to her bed, and dropped onto the bedspread.  She had a book open, but she wasn’t really paying much attention to it.

Elaine turned from where she was working on the harness of her uniform.  Again.  “She’s kind of upset.  Her date went real well, right up until she didn’t want to put out…”

“Oh, I wanted to,” Marty fussed, “But it’s not like I can yet!”

Elaine went on, “He said he’d come by today and talk to her, but…”

“Oh.”  He hadn’t come by.  And she was looking at perhaps another year or so before she’d be far along to even think about going that far with a date.  Poor Marty.  I said, “Okay, I can’t make up for that, but I was hoping you’d both come to Boston with us on Saturday.”

Elaine nearly jumped out of her chair.  “Really?  That’s great!  We’ll both come!”

Marty stared at her bedspread and muttered, “I dunno…”

Elaine stared at Marty.  “You’ll want to go with us by Saturday, even if ‘General Jerkface’ doesn’t wanna take you out anymore.”

I tried, “Look Marty, if he only took you out because he thought he was getting super-nookie out of it, he’s not worth it.”

She whined, “Why is it every guy I really like doesn’t like me back the same way?”

Elaine stared at the ceiling and pretended to answer her.  “Umm, let’s see…  Because they’re high school boys who have all the emotional maturity of your old gym socks?”

I snickered, but Marty was too upset to laugh.  I told them, “Look, it’s going to be nice casual.  Good jeans or better.  Something nicer than a t-shirt.  But no super-suits, no dress-up outfits, just ‘nice casual’.  Okay?”

Marty really pouted then.  “You mean I can’t wear my uniform?”

I pointed out, “We’re going to be in a nice restaurant in downtown Boston.  No superhero costumes.”

“It’s not like I got a lot else to wear, ya know,” she sulked.

Elaine whispered, “We’ll find something for her to wear.”

I nodded.  I knew they’d already gone to Zoe for help on clothes before, so they would be able to find something to wear.  I just kept wondering what they would wear to the luncheon, given some of the things I had seen them wearing around the dorm.  Maybe I could ask Zoe to sort of make sure they didn’t stray too far from what I had in mind.

I checked my watch again, and I figured I still had time to make a quick check on Askey.  I stepped into the hall and went up through the ceiling into the hallway above.  Then I walked a few doors down the hall to knock on Askey’s door.

He opened the door while still wearing a full-head VR system with an opaque plastic visor that reminded me of Cobra Commander.  “Hello?  Is someone there?”

“Askey, you’re still wearing your VR system,” I pointed out.

“Oh.  Right.”  He pressed a button on the side of the ‘helmet’, and the visor shimmered into transparency.  “Oh!  Phase.  Hi.  You here about the game again?”

I smiled, “No, not this time.  I wanted to know if you wanted to come with us to Boston for a luncheon-slash-birthday party on Saturday.”

He frowned.  “Saturday?  This Saturday?  Hmmm…”  He did something with his controls on his left forearm, and a couple small rectangles appeared on one side of his visor.  From my side, one looked like a calendar, and one looked like a Day-Timer page.  “Uh-oh.  Can’t make it.  I finally got some time booked on Lovelace’s latest computer, and The Splat’s gonna help with some programming.”

My curiosity got the better of me.  “The Splat?”

“Umm, yeah.  You know *!x, right?”  I nodded, even though I only knew who he was.  And that he pronounced his codename ‘Star-ix’.  Askey went on, “Well, some of us comp-sci types call him ‘Splat-bang’ just to tease him.  So he’s ‘The Splat’.”

“Oh.  Okay.  And look, if you don’t want to mess with trying to turn that into a pure gadget, I understand.  I just thought it would make a game so cool it would make GEO look lame.”

He grinned at that.  “You a GEOde too?”

I shook my head no.  “I don’t have the time to devote to it.  I hear you really need to devote a ton of effort to it if you want to have decent characters with decent-level skillsets, and I’ve got too many other things going on.”

He said, “Yeah, that’s what I hear.  Automa’s been goin’ on and on about how you’re tryin’ to hook her up with some major European corporations.”

Once he went back to his VR world, I looked at my watch again.  I decided I was out of time.  Since it was a green flag day, I just flew through the floors to get to my room.  I grabbed my gym bag and flew down through the Hawthorne tunnel, so I could stick the bag in the locker the women instructors were still letting me use.  Then I flew over to Dunn Hall and cut through the walls, rather than taking the doors and hallways.  That gave me several extra minutes to pore over the lunch offerings.  Which in this case, were more like sacrificial offerings.  There was probably a difference between the intestines of a sacrificial bull and the beef ‘casserole’ on the ‘hot food’ table, but I wasn’t going to do a taste testing to determine it.

Instead, I skipped over to the sandwich selection.  I grabbed a couple rollups and a pita bread sandwich.  I figured one of them had to be edible.  Okay, I was crossing my fingers that one of them was edible, because I didn’t have time to check.  I had a meeting with Lady Astarte, and I was not going to be late.