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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 5

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl

by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)

CHAPTER 5 – The Legend of Artegal, or of Justice

Dunn Hall cafeteria
OUTCAST CORNER

Jericho watched Phase rush through the lunch line and then dive through the floor.  He wondered if she was going to have to avoid the caff as much as possible until the Boston trip was done.  That reminded him…  He looked over at Diamondback.  “Hey Sandra, you had time to work your way through that loan document Phase sent me for my Rafe armor project?”

“Oh, sure,” she replied.  She gave him an evil grin, “I even read it twice.”

He managed not to laugh out loud.  He figured Jack was the only other person who knew what Sandra really meant by that.  He pushed, “So.  How many traps did she stick into the thing?”

Eldritch glared at him and muttered, “Why would she stick any traps in it?  She’s trying to get you to work with her, not hate her.”

Sandra glanced at Cait and explained, “It’s pretty straightforward, except for a couple little things.  But Phase was right.  I had to go over to the library and look up a couple law textbooks and a finance textbook, just to make sure I had all the jargon straight.”

“And…?”

“Well, the interest rate, it’s not zero percent, but it’s pretty close.  There’s no way you’re going to get anyone else anywhere to give you a rate like that.  And there’s no balloon payments or hidden fees or penalty clauses.  Still, it’s not zero percent, so it’s worth your while to pay it off if you don’t have any higher-rate loans out.  And she’s allocated five times what you thought the Rafe armor would cost you to develop it.”

Jericho stared down at his soup and salad and jello.  “Five times?  I don’t get it.”

Diamondback said, “I think she’s figuring she knows more about long-term costs on R & D projects than you do.”

“Freaking…”

“Joe!” Phobos complained, before he could say anything else.

Diamond went on, “And I think your cost estimates are too low.  Even if you’re dead on, you don’t have to use the full amount set out in the document.  It’s set up so you can take out additional chunks of cash that are multiples of 10% of your original estimate any time you need to.”

Jericho frowned, “Anything else I need to know?”

Sandra nodded.  “There’s a clause so you can use some of the money to pay a contract lawyer or ‘unlicensed paralegal support’ to go through the loan document and review all the loan covenants.”

“Unlicensed paralegal support?  Which means what?” checked Eldritch.

Sandra looked at her, “I’m pretty sure it means Phase knew Jericho was going to run it by me, and she put in a clause so he could pay me to do the work.”

Jericho looked like he might be blushing.  “I… umm… might’ve suggested I didn’t trust her a thousand percent and I wanted someone trustworthy to check stuff for me…”

Razorback glared at his friend and signed, ~ASSHAT!~

Caitlin looked at Phobos and said, “Okay, I know why she’s gonna invite you, but why in hell would she invite him?”

 

AYLA

I trotted over to Admin with my food in a to-go bag.  I decided not to eat anything before the meeting, just to make sure I didn’t have bad breath or lubs in my teeth.

I really liked these lunch-time meetings, particularly when Amelia Hartford was out of the Administration offices getting her own lunch.  I wondered if Mrs. Carson scheduled these for a similar reason.

That kid Timeless was back on duty again.  According to my sources, it bugged the shit out of his roommate that he was up all night, because part of his mutation was that he never needed to sleep.  So he spent all night doing homework, taking extra-credit courses, and playing GEO.  I wondered if he’d ever considered the late-night magic courses.  He contacted Carson on his speakerphone, and sent me in.

Elizabeth Carson was sitting behind her desk waiting for me.  She was wearing a crisp white blouse with a cameo pinning the collar closed, and a good-quality pinstripe blazer.  It wasn’t a designer outfit or anything, but I figured she had gotten Cecilia Rogers to tailor it to fit her figure, because Carson still had the superheroine physique that normal women – even normal supermodel women – just didn’t have.  She looked over her glasses and said, “Ms. Goodkind.  Please sit down.”

I complied and started off, “Thank you for seeing me.  I’m sure you’ve been told that I’m taking some fellow students off to Boston for lunch on Saturday.  I’d like to take some Whateley support, just in case something goes wrong.  I was thinking about Hive, or sensei Ito, or sensei Dennon… or even Lady Astarte.”

Carson gave me a faint quirk at one side of her mouth.  “Lady Astarte?  That would be a ‘no’.  And I think the Lamplighter would be a problem if we sent Ms. Dennon into Boston.  He’s still angry about her attack on Carruthers Industries, even if that was decades ago.  I’ll check with Chief Delarose and see if Samantha Everheart and one or two other officers can be attached to your group for the trip.”

I gave a wicked grin, “I did tell her I would ask about having her sent along on my birthday celebration, and she was sure I was kidding.”  I made a mental note to get some investigating done on the subject of Ms. Dennon attacking Carruthers Industries some decades ago, because that sounded like supervillain activity.  And Carson was obviously not going to talk more about it.

Carson calmly said, “I seriously doubt that Admiral Everheart takes anything around here as ‘mere kidding’.  Now, if that was all…”

“No, it wasn’t,” I quickly interjected.  “I want to make an offer to the school, and I want to do it now, so no one else knows about it.”

Carson gave me a slight arch of an eyebrow.  “What sort of ‘offer’?”

I went for it.  “I’d like to pay for renovations to Poe and Hawthorne, to be done this summer.  Rather than gutting the buildings, which would be a problem given the people who live in Hawthorne year-round, I’m going to suggest doubling the length of the buildings.  We leave the current structures as is, but take off one wall and extend the hallways.”

She steepled her fingers and said, “That sounds rather self-serving, Miss Goodkind.  Particularly the expansion to Poe.”

I nodded, “I know, it looks that way.  But we both know the numbers of new mutants are increasing every year, and the numbers of LGBT mutants are increasing faster than that, and the numbers of potential Hawthorne cases may be increasing at least as rapidly as that.  I’ve been looking at numbers of students for the past six years.  You’re getting roughly an increase of twenty to thirty new freshmen every year over the previous year.  You might possibly break two hundred froshes for next fall, and you could be up close to two-thirty the fall after that.  At the current rate of change, Whateley’s going to need to expand in just two years.”

She gave me a slight smile.  “I’m glad someone else is looking toward the future.  Still, I’m going to guess that you’re performing simple linear extrapolation in your models.”

“Of course,” I agreed.  “But simple linear extrapolation is rational for a two-year or three-year projection, given the nature of the data.  I grant you, it isn’t reasonable for long-term predictions.  Still, I think our bottom line is the same.”  I didn’t say that over the longer term, given the rate at which the mutant population had grown since the 1950’s, it was more likely that the rate of increase was going to be more than linear.  She knew as well as I did how unreliable the long-term models were.  “I think you need to look at dorm expansion, and classroom expansion, and maybe even constructing new dorms or a whole new classroom facilities building.  So I’m willing to cough up whatever it takes to expand Poe and Hawthorne this summer.  If you can’t raise enough money through other sources, I’ll back expansions to Whitman and Twain next summer.”

She separated her hands and laid them flat on her desk.  She gave me the ‘stern headmistress’ look.  “And what are you getting out of this, besides the name Goodkind plastered all over the dorms?”

I tried not to wince.  I think I succeeded.  “Actually, I’d rather you buried that part of things.  I don’t want people thinking I’m trying to buy my way into things.”

She raised that eyebrow again and pointedly asked, “But aren’t you?”

You know, I hate it when people ask me the really hard questions.  I looked her in the eye and said, “I don’t know.  Maybe.  A lot of it is just the Goodkind way: we help people who need help.  And a lot of the people around here need a lot of help.  As for the rest of it...  I just don’t know.  Maybe I’m overcompensating.  Maybe I don’t feel like I fit in.”

Apparently, that was the answer she was looking for.  She let up on me and asked, “Are you going to insist on participating in building committee meetings?”

I managed a smile.  “Definitely not.  I’d rather you just say that you have donors who choose to remain anonymous.”

She gave me half a smile.  “That’s something I know how to work with.”

I had a feeling she had plenty of ‘anonymous’ donors who were using ill-gotten gains to support the alma mater.  In fact, the Feds were probably dying to know who all her anonymous donors were, and how much they were contributing.

Once I left her office, I finally had a chance to eat what was going to have to pass as my lunch.  I crossed my fingers and opened up my to-go bag.

The pita bread sandwich had too much mayonnaise in the turkey salad, and too little rosemary.  The first rollup had some really lackluster ham sandwiched in between some decent romaine lettuce and some sadly mediocre seasoned cream cheese.  The second rollup had over-cooked chicken strips, a dressing that was zesty but in dire need of some chives or something, and some shredded iceberg lettuce that had all the flavor of packing material.  I forced myself to take a couple bites of the ham rollup, since it was the best of a bad lot, and I wasn’t going to have a chance to eat anything else for hours.  Then I threw the rest of the stuff away as I made my way to Shakespeare class.

I was late enough to class that I couldn’t get a good seat.  Since Miss Devlin was going to be showing a movie, the center seats in the first five rows were already full.  I had to settle for a decent seat in the seventh row.  We had worked through ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ last week, and we were doing ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ this week.  Of course, I’d already read it.  Along with all the critical reviews reserved in the library.  I’d already read all the critical reviews for all the plays, as soon as they were available for check-out.

But for today, we were watching film footage of the Ashland Shakespeare Festival performing the play.  We didn’t have time to watch the entire play, but we made it all the way through Act IV before Miss Devlin stopped the tape and dismissed class, “And remember, we’ll watch Act V on Wednesday, and I expect some good class discussion!”

I managed not to laugh out loud in Act II when Beatrice went on her big rant about not being able to find Mister Right, and she said, “What should I do with him—dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman? He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.”  That sounded just like some people I knew in Poe.  Not to mention that there was a big in-joke in there: ‘Beatrice’ was already a guy in women’s apparel, because the female parts were played by boys back then.  That whole scene just seemed funnier now that I was wearing women’s clothing most of the time, and I hung with a group of TG’s.

At the end of class, while everyone else was streaming for the exits, I walked down and turned in my paper: “Classical Sources behind Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’”.

Miss Devlin looked at the title of the paper and grinned at me, “I’m looking forward to reading it.”

As I walked out, Silver Serpent said to me, “Have you already turned in your first paper?  I thought I was going to be the first.”

I grinned, “It’s not a contest.  I did it on last week’s play while my roomie was out doing stuff with friends.”

She seized up.  Her face froze like I had just sprung Tennyo The Destroyer on her.  She cleared her throat and said, “Would you tell… your roommate that I gave her message to my father?”

Uh-oh.  I tried to sound casual as I said, “You can tell her yourself.”

Silver Serpent backed away, “Oh no!  No, just give her the message.  Please.”

I tried again, “Silv, Chou isn’t a maniac or anything.”

She glared at me, “Do you not understand who your roommate is?  What she can do?  Do you not grasp the significance of her weapon?  She is the Handmaid!

Well, the cat was out of the bag.  “Oh.  That.”

I looked at her expression, and it dawned on me.  The Handmaid of the Tao had paid a little visit to the daughter of the Iron Dragon and had given her a ‘message’ to deliver to daddy.  Christ.  Team Kimba just kept stepping up into the major leagues and swinging at the fences.  One of these days, I had a feeling there was going to be a strikeout and a pulled groin muscle.

I said, “Look, I understand about that.  I’ve even had a couple demonstrations.  But she’s still a person.  And she’s a really great roommate.”

Quyèn Nũ stepped over and said something in a language I didn’t know.  I had managed to find out that she was Vietnamese and a PK brick, but I didn’t know her language.  Given that Silver Serpent obviously knew it, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t any dialect of Chinese I’d ever heard, I was guessing they were speaking Vietnamese, rather than Chinese or one of the ethnic minority languages of Vietnam.  And I could tell the moment when Quyèn Nũ grasped the main point.  Her eyes grew huge, and she took an instinctive step backward.

Quyèn Nũ turned to me.  “The Handmaid of the Tao walks the earth again?  And she is your roommate?”

Yeah, that was kind of bizarre when you got down to it.  I’d found it oddly coincidental, along with a number of other strange things connected with Team Kimba.  But it was true.  I nodded, “Think about it.  Where would the Handmaid go in today’s world, if not to Whateley?  Particularly when the Immortals selected an American this time?”

The two Oriental girls exchanged looks. Quyèn Nũ asked, “Could it be the demon girl?”

Silver Serpent frowned in thought.  “Perhaps it is Carmilla.  But it might also be Tennyo, or one of the New Olympians, or… one of the other mutants here.  It could even be someone who has not yet arrived at Whateley.”

Great.  They were already trying to figure out just whom the Handmaid was going to have to gut like a fish.  Okay, I frankly had spent some time trying not to think about that particular subject.  Chou had talked to me about some of the stuff that was being dumped on her, and it was entirely possible she had been sent to Whateley to deal with someone I knew.  Maybe someone I knew and liked.

And it was still possible that she had been sent to Whateley to deal with me.  I really didn’t want to think about that one.  But if things ever went to hell and I went Dark Phoenix on everybody, I’d rather someone like Chou took me out before I hurt someone.  Okay, maybe I had thought about that one way too much already.

They switched back to Vietnamese - or whatever it was - and walked off, deep in discussion.  It wasn’t particularly comfortable to know they were talking about who my roommate might soon be turning into sashimi.

Then it was time to rush over to martial arts, since I was running late after that discouraging little conversation.  I didn’t even have time to check stock prices or eClip or anything, since I really didn’t want to find out what sensei Ito and his cohorts would do if I were late to class.

No one had messed with my gymbag, so I stepped out of my clothes and quickly dressed in my protection and my gi.  Plus my utility belt, which I was not leaving behind as long as that sadistic little midget was running the class.  Okay, I wouldn’t have left it behind if Tolman were running the class, either.  Beaumont?  The utility belt, an armored bra, and a really good cup.

When I came out, I realized that I was nearly the last one out on the mat, which was not a good sign.  I Phase-leapt across the mat and got in seiza maybe half a second before Ito got down to business.

We divided up as usual, but Beaumont didn’t move the swordsmen away from the other groups.  Apparently, despite the distractions from Chou’s instructor Dyffud, Chaka had still managed to learn what Ito wanted on all the different meteor hammers, and so the distracting performances were over.  At least, she thought so.

Instead, Ito was starting Chaka on the kama and the fighting claws.  He had Shadowolf and Aquerna and Shroud and Força moving through the kata that they had learned, and letting Chaka try things out.

The next time I was in a position to peek at Chaka, she was going nuts with a kama in each hand.  It looked like she’d picked up several of the kata Anna had demonstrated, and was going through them at about a hundred miles an hour.  Jeez, she looked like Bruce Lee over there.  I was still learning the bokken.  Which I would still be learning next year, and the year after that, and so on.  There was no way I could learn martial arts moves like Toni could.

After a lot of practice on the old kata and Beaumont teaching us two new ones, it was time for sparring.  As usual, the instructors had three sparring circles set up on the mat, with one instructor per circle.  That meant that six students were on the mat at the same time, and five or six rotations were enough to run through the whole class.  The matches were typically best two out of three, unless the instructors signaled otherwise.  So if Lancer broke your arm, you didn’t have to get up and fight him for the second fall.  Not that Hank had broken anyone’s arm.  He was always really careful to step up his efforts slowly, so he wouldn’t crush anybody.  He was still impossible for me to beat, but at least he wasn’t maiming everyone in the room except Billie.

Ito pointed to Beaumont’s sparring circle and called up two students.  Then Tolman’s.  He then stood beside the third circle.  “Phase!  Bring up your bokken.  Interface!  You may leave your bokken where it is.”

Damn!  I didn’t like the sound of that.  Interface was a brown belt, and he was really experienced, but he wasn’t an Exemplar.  I just felt like the match was really unfair.  Maybe Ito was testing Interface’s skills.  Maybe this was a more subtle test for me.  So I asked, “Am I supposed to remain at normal density?”

Ito gave a tiny twitch around his eyes that might have been a smile.  Or not.  “No, you should use everything you can.”

I nodded carefully, “Hie, sensei.”

Interface gave me a big grin and then got down to business.  He was fast.  Not as fast as I was, but fast for a baseline.  And he was well-trained, which meant he recognized the katas, and their counters, and he reacted really quickly.  I went heavy and tried several standard sword katas on him.  He expertly avoided the first one.  On the second one, he blocked me at the wrist and got in a couple kicks.  I blocked the kick to my ribs, and just accepted the one to my knee.  He sort of bounced off my leg, since I was fully heavy right then and braced properly in the correct stance.  Kicking me right then was probably as much fun as kicking a steel statue.

Interface was really good.  It took me three tries to get in a single decent blow.  Still, if I had been fighting him for real, I wouldn’t have wasted my time whacking at him with a piece of wood.  He wasn’t an Exemplar or Shifter, so I would have faked a sword strike and gone disruption-light right through him.

The third time, I whacked him across the side, and he rolled with the blow.  Still, he got up slowly enough that I worried I’d really hurt him.  He kept going, but it didn’t do him a lot of good.  He couldn’t disarm me, because at my maximum density I was a lot stronger than he was, and rock hard.  So he couldn’t hit my wrists and arms hard enough to dislodge the bokken.  But I had a heck of a time taking him out, since he was better-trained and more experienced than I was.  Okay, maybe I was too worried about hurting him by accident.  Still, he had a slight limp and was rubbing his side when we went back to the edge of the mat.  Damn.  I hoped he was okay.

I decided as we sat that it had been a subtle test for me.  Ito was probably checking my ruthlessness when I faced someone who wasn’t a Lancer or a Golden Girl.

I avidly watched the next trio of sparring pairs.  The center of attention was undoubtedly Chaka with her meteor hammer, against Aztecka with a sword.  Aztecka was a high-level Exemplar who didn’t hold back in a fight.

Tolman started them, and they moved.  Aztecka tore through a kata at eye-watering speed, but couldn’t land a blow on Chaka.  Then Chaka went wire-fu on Aztecka, which was just wild to watch, in part because Aztecka was fast enough to block everything Toni did.  At first, Aztecka was visibly faster, but the difference quickly shrank as Toni kept jazzing up her reflexes with her Ki.

Chaka finally got in a blow, but it did nothing.  Aztecka was a hell of a lot stronger and tougher.  On the other hand, Az couldn’t lay a finger on Chaka.  She couldn’t lay her sword on Chaka either.  Chaka managed to bonk her with that meteor hammer - one without spikes, thank God - in the ribs, and then the thigh, and after that, the upper arm.  But none of them were enough to take Az out, or even slow her down.

I figured Toni was smart enough not to try wrapping Az up with the meteor hammer, since Aztecka’s EX-6 strength would probably let her break those chains.  But Aztecka was also slowly losing her temper, which meant that Chaka had a chance to strategize.  Finally, Chaka lured Aztecka into a combo of swordstrikes that ended up with a wicked vertical slash that missed badly and put the tip of the sword down near Aztecka’s feet.  Apparently, that was just what Toni had been working toward, because Toni instantly wrapped Aztecka’s ankles and the end of the sword up in the meteor hammer’s chains just long enough to do that paralyzing nerve strike before Az could rip her way out of the chains.  Ito had to call the match, since Aztecka couldn’t move.  Boy, did she look pissed as Toni carried her paralyzed form off the mat and tried to unfreeze her.

In the next trio, the match I was watching was Shroud vs. Aquerna.  I had to admit, that was pretty cool too.  Aquerna was getting pretty good with those kama, and she didn’t have to worry about hurting Shroud.  On the other hand, nothing she did stopped Shroud.  On days when Shroud was wearing her ‘person simulator’, she was covered in gray pads that turned red if you hit them hard enough… or if you ripped them off her body.  So someone like Anna could win one of those matches just by slicing deep into Shroud’s neck or hacking into one of the ‘priority’ pads with those kama.

But today wasn’t one of those days.  Shroud was Shroud, and Aquerna was effectively up against a Terminator.  Even slicing Shroud’s head off wouldn’t stop Shroud in the slightest, so I didn’t see how Aquerna could win.  Shroud was using half a dozen knives, and a dozen chains, and a series of aikido attacks, with the chains attached to her body and the knives sort of moving around her on their own.  Even worse, Shroud could attack from any position, even with her back to Anna, so some of Anna’s trickiest moves were worse than useless.  She tried her ‘run up the person and slide down the back’ move, and Shroud simply stood still.  Chains erupted out of her back and ensnared Anna before she hit the ground, for a quick win.

But Anna hadn’t given up, and was back at it on round two.  It looked like the only thing that kept Anna from losing outright was her quickness and her leaps.  She managed to jump out of Shroud’s range about half a dozen times before Shroud finally wrapped her up in several chains again and dropped her to the mat.

On the other hand, Lancer vs. Judicator was just plain brutal.  She was an Exemplar, and she obviously had a lot of experience using her preferred weapons.  But she couldn’t hurt him with her spear or her strikes.  She also couldn’t block his attacks with her shield: he just knocked it out of the way.  And her PK armor definitely wasn’t enough to withstand a five-ton blow.  Once Hank figured out how hard he could hit her without really damaging her, he took her down.  Period.  Then round two took about five seconds.  He already knew how hard he could hit her, so he knocked her out of the ring with his first strike.

Then Ito called me to the mat again.  What, was I on his shitlist because I kept trying to watch Chaka train?  Everyone was doing that!  He even added, “And you may leave your bokken.”  Crap.

Sensei turned his head and said, “Força?  Please face off against Phase.  You may use your weapons.”  Crap!  “Phase will be using anything she has in her utility belt, so be prepared.”

Okay, that didn’t sound too bad.  Besides, I’d watched Força before, and I knew what he had.  He did capoeira, was a medium-level Exemplar like me, and could project force beams from his hands.  He was also getting pretty good with his knives.

But I had learned a couple valuable lessons from last term’s martial arts class.  If I didn’t want to get blasted across the mat, I needed to be at maximum density.  Last term, I had been caught with big Energizer blasts while I was in between normal density and fully heavy, maybe half a dozen times, and every one of them had hurt.  A lot.  Golden Girl and Prism had both toasted me more than once.  And it was even worse if I was less than normal density.  Plus, getting blasted twenty feet through the air was not my idea of fun.  On the other hand, I had been practicing going light and heavy a lot since then, and I was a lot faster on my transitions.  Also, I was a lot better at making just part of my body change density.  I’d been doing it for a long time, starting a little before I learned I could make my arm go light and sweep it through a bookbag to take chunks of textbooks and notebooks with me.  But I hadn’t been really good at it for a long time after that.  As the Goodkinds have said for decades, “Practice makes better, and perfect practice makes perfect.”  Plus, I just didn’t like doing things that I couldn’t do well.  I’d been practicing a lot.

I went heavy before Ito even started the match.  It was a good thing, because the first thing Força did was to whip up his hands and blast me right in the chest.  Damn!  Right in the boobs, too!  That hurt.  I was damned glad I was wearing that sports bra with the kinetic gel protectors in the cups, even if it made my boobs stick out more.  I staggered back a step and regained my balance just in time to block as he came at me with knife in hand.

Since I was fully heavy, I could use my bare arm to block his knife like it was his hand.  I think that caught him by surprise a little.  He was slightly overextended, so I tried to grab his wrist and pull him into a hip-throw.  He blasted me again and got loose.  Damnit, I hated being on the defensive in situations like this.

He dove to my right and landed on his hands, going straight into the capoeira dance-bit around me.  I blocked one flying foot as it swung toward my head, and I stepped back out of the way when he cartwheeled back the other direction to try to kick me with both feet.

The step back gave me a split second before he closed in again, cartwheeling and somersaulting around me.  I whipped out my new tactical baton from Harry.  It was heavy, since it was right out of my utility belt.  I popped it out to its full three-foot length and immediately whacked him as he cartwheeled back at me.  Exemplar or not, getting hit by a fully heavy density-changer who was wielding an indestructible one-hundred-twenty pound club was going to hurt.  He went flying across the mat and landed out of the circle.  First point to me.

The baton stayed heavy with me for a full second before it began losing its heaviness from the tip on down, as the density ‘eroded’ along its length.  I collapsed the baton before Força was back up, and made sure it was heavy again.  Then I waited.

He tried blasting me with a double hand-blast and going right into an attack.  I couldn’t block the blasts, but I could get one arm up in front of my boobs, so it didn’t hurt as much.  The force knocked me back, but I managed to stay in my stance.  If I hadn’t weighed over a ton, I would have been flying through the air and crashing out of the sparring circle.

He was already moving again, faking a slice to my blocking arm and diving to my left in another capoeira movement.  Man, he was fast.  And tricky.  But he could only do his force blasts from his hands.  So, while his hands were holding him up, I made the upper half of my body go light.  I managed it just in time.  His feet whirred through my face, one after the other.  While my head was still light, I made the rest of my upper body heavy again.  Then I punched him in the kidney as his feet whirred through my head.  He gasped in pain and dropped to the mat.  Ito stopped the match right there.

Damn!  This was just what I’d been worrying about with Interface!  I dropped to my knees and asked, “Are you okay?”

He sat up and nodded.  “Yes.  I will be fine.  You just caught me in surprise.”

“By surprise,” I instinctively corrected him.

“By surprise,” he grinned.

I put out a hand and pulled him to his feet, which was pretty easy when I was still heavy.  He rubbed his lower back, but walked normally over to his place off the mat.

Sensei Ito nodded to me, “Phase, I see that you have been working on your skills.”

I carefully nodded back.  “Thank you, sensei.”

He added, “We shall have to find more interesting opponents for you in future.”

SHIT!  That little bastard was screwing me over again!

I did my best to keep my face impassive, and I just nodded, “As you wish, sensei.”

I sat down and tried to concentrate on the matches.  If he was going to throw one of the really good students at me, I needed to learn everything I could about them before I had to face off against them.  Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Chaka giving me a thumbs-up.  Which made me think.  Maybe Ito thought I really needed to practice against tougher opponents.  Toni sure thought that way.  She couldn’t wait until the next time she got to spar against that Dyffud guy and get the crap knocked out of her.

Maybe the problem was that I didn’t like hurting people.  Okay, I really didn’t like other people hurting me, and I did need to learn more ways of self-defense.  But beating people up wasn’t really my style.  It was a good thing I had powers that let me avoid a lot of opponents.

After I showered and dressed, I grabbed my gymbag and headed back to the mat, to wait for everyone else to come out of their locker rooms.  I needed to talk to Chou.

Of course, Chou was busy chatting away with Toni and Billie about fighting styles and Dyffud Harraz and new martial arts.  So I trailed along behind them for a while, talking with Hank about Team Tactics and the New Olympians.  It turned out I had to wait until we got back to our rooms before I had a chance to talk to Chou in private.

I shut our door and said, “I saw Silver Serpent today.”  Chou just raised her eyebrows and looked at me.  “She wanted me to tell you that she gave your message to daddy.  I think she’s scared to tell you in person.”  Chou just pursed her lips and nodded.  I added, “And she told Quyèn Nũ about you.  That’s someone else who now knows the truth about you.”

She took it better than I did, if you really want to know.  She sighed slowly and said, “It is inevitable.  The Handmaid has always become known, often through prophecy before she was ready to face threats.  In this case, it is better.  If people like Iron Dragon know The Handmaid is ready to face them, then that may make it easier for me to do what needs to be done without violence.”

I shrugged, “Okay, it’s your secret identity.  But I wouldn’t be too happy having them knowing about it.  By tomorrow, the whole Pan-Asia team will know, and Christ only knows how long the Bad Seeds have known.  Not everybody around here is Saint Stormwolf, you know.”

She nodded calmly.  “It is the will of the Tao.”

Well, there was no point in arguing with Chou when she copped that attitude.  She instantly became more immovable than Hank and Diz put together.  So I gave it up and reminded her that she had a lot of support other than the Tao, and she’d better call on us the next time, or she’d have some pissed-off friends.

And no one wants a pissed-off Tennyo.

Okay, a pissed-off J-Team was bad enough.  And I didn’t even want to think about a pissed-off Lancer.  All we needed around here was our own personal red kryptonite-affected Superman running amok.

I told Chou, “See you later.  I’ve got some more invitations to extend.”  That sounded a lot better than actually saying out loud what I was thinking: “When you’re all ‘Handmaid’ like this, I can’t make you see reason.”  Or maybe the problem was that Chou was right, and I just couldn’t see it.  After all, there was no way a mere human was going to be able to see the long-range plans of the Tao, assuming there even were such things.  Of course, it was even possible we were both wrong.  Not that I was going to concede that I was wrong without a lot of substantiating evidence against me.

On my way out, I called Vanessa to see if she wanted to have dinner with me again.  But she had other plans, since her homegirls were all grouchy about her ditching them two nights in a row.  I decided to go with the flow.  After all, I liked her because of her independence and intelligence, so I could hardly blame her for exercising them.  I decided I would go over to Hawthorne for a visit, and then extend some more invitations at dinner in Dunn Hall.  It wouldn’t be private, but I was having pretty discouraging success at running into people at convenient moments.  I had figured on getting a chance to talk to Aquerna before or after martial arts this afternoon, and that plan had been blown into fragments by Silver Serpent’s little bombshell.

I dove down into the basement to get to the underground cutoff, and I flew through our airlock doors into the Hawthorne tunnel.  I started concentrating as hard as I could on stocks and bonds, and market volatility, just because I was so sick and tired of Fubar reading my mind like I was a pre-schooler.

You know, in all our interactions, I had never asked Louis what his codename was before he had his H.P. Lovecraft moment and turned into what he was now.  Someone around the school had to know.  After all, not everyone was as self-centered as I was.  I went back to concentrating on stock prices.

I flew into Hawthorne and made my way up the stairs to the lobby.  Louis flickered into existence in front of me, this time in a really sharp three-piece navy suit that could easily have been tailored for him at one of the better haberdashers in New York City.  To go with that, he was wearing a matching homberg – indoors, no less – and highly-polished wingtips.

I smiled, “You didn’t have to get all dressed up just for me.”

He gave me a big grin.  “A lot of people have been really excited today about your stock market stuff.  I’ve felt it.  And I feel a lot better since your roommate and her friends broke that spell the day before yesterday.  Please let her know I appreciate it… even if you still think she should have gone in with enough muscle to smash the Children of the Night and the Black Legion combined.”

I really hated it when I was that transparent.  I just gritted my teeth and concentrated on stocks again.  I said, “Nice homberg.  You don’t see that kind of style much anymore.”

He said, “Well, Fey’s been telling me not to pull out my old-fashioned costumes for her anymore, so I thought I’d work on some newer looks.”  Then he looked upward and added, “I already told Mrs. Cantrel you were coming, and she said you can go see anyone you want.  She’s got Frostbite and Static Girl in the personal progress math course this term, so they’re going to be in better shape next term.”

“Actually, I wanted to drop in on Puppet and talk to her about my birthday party.  I know she can’t go, but…”

“But she’ll be glad you wanted to talk to her about it anyway,” Louis finished.

I grinned.  “Good.  Anything I need to know before I go in to see her?”

He shook his head no.  “Mrs. Cantrel will be waiting for you outside her room, and she’ll tell you what you need to wear today.  We haven’t had an accident for a couple days, so the room’s pretty clean.”

As I started to walk off, he added, “By the way, the answer’s ‘Brainteaser’.”

For a moment, I didn’t know what he was talking about, and then it hit me.  His original codename.  So he had been reading my mind again.  Damnit!

He smirked, “But you’re doing better on the psychic blocking.  Really.  Don’t worry about it.  If you ever get to the point where you can successfully block me when I’m really trying – without using magic, I mean – you’ll be doing better than 99% of the psychics I know.”

“So you know about Circe, and what I’m doing in the spring, and everything else?”

He shrugged.  “Circe put out the word to the other teachers that she’s dragging you into the Magical Arts curriculum even though you’re a WIZ-0.  You’re not the first.  There are a decent number of students around here who’ve done that, like your friend Beltane.  Just remember.  It’s no different than going in to learn something like calculus when there are people like devisers in the class who have a strong advantage over you before you sit down.  That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, just that you might have to work harder than some of the class.”

“Thanks for the advice,” I told him.  Then I made my way up to Melissa’s room.  The advice was nice, but it would have been nicer not to feel like my brain was an unlocked filing cabinet.  Maybe I could learn enough magic that I could put up my own mental shields when I wanted to.  I decided that I needed to put together a list of my Top Ten magical requirements, and the top spells I wanted to learn before I left Whateley.

Just as advertised, Mrs. Cantrel was waiting for me in her floating wheelchair.  “Phase!  Come on over here.  We haven’t seen you since Tuesday.”

“Well, I had a busy week,” I admitted.  “A lot of homework.”

She smiled, “Well, we’ve got something new here.  One of the Workshop classes is running team projects, and Mega-Death volunteered his team to help with problems in Hawthorne.  So we sicked ‘em on Puppet’s machinery first.  Haven’t had a leak since they installed it Thursday morning.  Mega-Death, Hazmat, and Ergonomic.  Hazmat came up with the plastic for the new tubing, Ergonomic came up with better connectors, and Mega- oh, I hate that name.  Harvey came up with a new pump design.  So everything’s clean as a whistle.  Just take this gasmask, just in case, and put on a pair of these booties to keep things clean.”

I pulled on the booties, which looked like a cross between galoshes and green cloth surgical booties.  Then I hung the gasmask by its hook from my utility belt.  I stepped in and took a look.

The floor and walls looked spotless.  The machine in the middle of the room looked a heck of a lot nicer, and half the size of the old one.  It wasn’t even making that sickening pumping noise that made Melissa lurch back and forth like she was in a wavepool.  The hoses running from the machinery to Melissa were a weird purplish color, and they weren’t pulsing, thanks to the new pump design.

And Melissa was looking more comfortable.  “Hi, Ayla!  Look at my new stuff!”

I marveled at it and told her how cool it looked.  She grinned, “Yeah, it’s the best stuff yet.”

I asked, “Did you watch them putting it all together?”

She frowned, “No, I don’t get to watch that kind of stuff.  They have to sedate me and put me on the emergency backup machine while they make the big changes.  I was out cold.  But Harvey came back to check on me, and he was real happy about how it’s working.  He said if people can figure out solutions for people like me, then maybe there’s hope for people like him.”

I said, “You know he’s one of the Arizona Calloways?”

She shook her head no.  “You never said he was in the Golden Kids.”

“He isn’t,” I confessed.  “He got blackballed his freshman year when he ‘dricked out right in the middle of their invitation to come to the first meeting of the year.”

“Well that sucks,” she muttered.

I said, “I’m hoping this deviser course on mutant mental illnesses they’re running this term will come up with something good for him, and then I can get him back into the Golds.”

She suddenly looked shocked.  “Oh shit, he’s not letting those whackjobs experiment on him, is he?”

I had to laugh.  “That’s almost exactly what I said when I heard about it.  And someone said it to Bugs’ face, and got chewed out for it.  Bugs made it pretty clear that no one’s experimenting on people, and it isn’t that kind of course, and the objective is to develop potential treatments that can be properly, legitimately tested, so that someone like Harvey can get better medical treatment a few years from now.”

She wondered, “Have you heard anything about how that course is going?”

I shrugged, “Only a little.  I figured it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye out for Harvey, just in case.  But they’re still primarily at the ‘studying current research’ spot, and all they’ve done with Harvey and a couple other kids is PET scans on the medical equipment over at the hospital.  The ‘fun’ part was they accidentally got Olympia to ‘drick out during her PET scan, and she completely trashed the room and all the gear, and nearly put a couple devisers in the hospital too.  So they’re having to re-think some of their study protocols.”

“Eww.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “If the most useful study methods involve looking at changes in brain chemistry during an episode, they’ve first got to find a way to monitor an episode without losing all their monitoring gear.”

She asked, “So how do the real scientists do it?”

“Not very well,” I told her.  “There’s a history of this, especially with Diedrick’s and some related disorders, where the best they’ve done is caught someone in the middle of an episode, tranked ‘em, gotten blood samples and serum samples as quickly as they could, and then worked from there.  It doesn’t really work all that well.”

“How do you know all that?”

I grinned, “Goodkind Research Labs.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Of course.”

I went on, “There are several seminal papers on the subject that came out of our labs.  I also asked Dr. Hewley.  He said they’ve got an induction sensor devise down in the powers testing labs, down in lab I, that lets them get dramatically better brain chemistry readings.  That’s how they were able to label Harvey and Olympia as definitely being Diedrick’s cases and not some similar syndromes.  They’ve got the best data so far on the neurotransmitter dysfunctions in Diedrick’s Syndrome cases, but the data come from devises, so they’re considered ‘questionable’ in the medical literature.”

“Wow, you’ve really been studying this stuff, haven’t you?”

I shrugged a little.  “Well, some.  I read a couple papers, and looked at some stuff Dr. Hewley had.  Boy, when Harvey ‘dricked out under their devise, his brain chemistry went all over the place.”

She pouted, “Yeah, they said Harvey’s too dangerous to be left alone in here with me, and they had Stormwolf in here monitoring him the whole time.”

“I bet that was a laugh and a half,” I said sarcastically.

She grimaced.  “He’s not exactly a fun guy when he’s busy being Mister Protector.  Some of the time I didn’t know whether he was protecting me from Harvey, or protecting Harvey from me.  That really made me feel great.  Not!”  She looked over her shoulder at the pump and asked, “Did you find out any more about a sim suit for me?”

I frowned, “Yeah, but it’s not all good news.  Cecilia Rogers is pretty sure she could make a suit you could wear.  It would have to be something you stepped into, and then it strapped around each of your limbs and your torso, to handle all the connectors and tubing.  But the sim guys said we would have to figure out a way to set up a sim chair and all the immediate sim gear here in your room, and then figure out a way to get a high-enough bandwidth channel from here into the holo sim area.  But that’s a major problem, because they’re off the campus grid, and this would break the isolation they’ve got set up to protect everyone in the holos.”

I looked over the pump and hoses and tanks and said, “Maybe, if we can get all this down to something smaller and portable, we could get you into a special cubicle in the holos, so you could hook in.”

She sighed, “Okay.  I asked Ergonomic about a robot I could use as a mobile me, if I could hook up to it through something like the holo simulator system.  He thought it might work, but it’d be pretty fragile.  It would have to have a huge ‘exposed bandwidth’.  He said that meant Energizers could knock it out without even trying, and it would be easy to sabotage.  He said even if we had a highly-encrypted connection, people could still just jam the signal and freeze it long enough to do awful things to it.”

I admitted, “You are a Goodkind.  A lot of people would target you.”

“Yeah.  Ergonomic said I’d probably get a lot of nasty pranks.  Like having the thing go offline for a couple seconds and then find it’s naked in the middle of the Quad.  Or face-down in the mud.  Or worse.”

I just nodded.  I could think of a lot of worse things.  Like coming back after fifteen seconds offline to find you’re being molested by Bloodwolf.  In front of half a dozen videocameras.

I said, “Well, we’ll keep working on the problem.  There’s got to be something we can do.”

We talked for a while longer, before I needed to get over to the caff for dinner.  She wished she could go with me to Boston for the birthday party, but we both knew she couldn’t.  We both knew she probably couldn’t ever go to a restaurant like that in a crowded city without being a bigger danger than Doctor Bubonic and Influenza put together.  Some people’s lives sucked a lot worse than mine.

I got to the caff before the main Team Kimba invasion, so I walked around and took care of business.  I started with the Underdogs, who were all clustered around their table, in between a bunch of devisers at the Nerd Herd table and some depressed Goths glowering at the table of dark emo suffering.

I strolled over and said hi.  “Hey Winnie, I hear you did a great job for Chou and Molly.”

She looked at me and just gulped.  I mean, I could hear the gulp over the background conversation.  Anna and Rhiannon encouraged her to say something, but Winnie looked like I had just threatened her with Billie.  “I-I-I…”

Lucille glared at me.  “Stop scaring her!”

“Little ol’ me?” I tried.  Boy, I so needed a refresher in that Dale Carnegie course.  Of course, as long as my last name was Goodkind, a lot of mutants were going to take one look at me and react instinctively.  Unfortunately, the people I wanted to befriend had a tendency to wet their pants and run away screaming, while the people I wanted to intimidate had a tendency to try punching me in the face.

Anna perkily said, “Hi, Ayla!  Thanks for the chocolates.  They were awesome!”

Several people chipped in with agreements, so I gathered that Anna had shared the chocolates among her friends.  Well, it had been a rather large box.

One of the upperclassmen, who I didn’t know, grinned, “Yeah, who does she have to beat up this term to get another box of those things?”

I laughed, “Oh no, no chocolate-abetted assault and battery, please.”  I turned to Anna and said, “Anyway, I didn’t have a chance to talk to you at class today, so I thought I’d ask you now.  I don’t know if you’ve heard I’m going to Boston on Saturday-”

“With a hundred people!”

“In your own 767!”

“And you rented out Boston Garden!”

I grinned at the wild guesses and kept my focus on Anna.  “Not quite.  But I wanted to know if you wanted to come too.  It’s Team Kimba and friends, with a couple Outcast Corner kids and some deviser types, so you probably know a bunch of them already.  Including Gateway and Charmer.  Maybe Phobos and Jericho, I don’t know yet.  So do you want to come?”

She literally trembled with excitement, just like a hundred-pound squirrel.  “Yes!” she squeaked.  “Oh God, what do I wear?  What kind of presents do we have to buy, I don’t have a lot of money, and I…”

She finally stopped, even though I had been holding my hand up since she started.  I insisted, “No presents.  At all.  I mean, all I need is to give the practical jokers a chance to get going.”

“Oh yeah, you know Beltane and Generator, dontcha?” said a girl I thought might be Washout.

I was tempted to point out that I knew a few other crazies, like Toni and Nikki and Elaine, but I figured they would take that statement more literally than I wanted.  I just continued, “And the dress is ‘nice casual’.  Nice jeans or better, no t-shirts, but you don’t have to go all out.  Something more casual than the school uniform, unless you really want to.  There may be one or two kids in Whateley uniform.  But nothing fancy, and definitely no supersuits.  We’re eating lunch at a nice place in downtown Boston.”

I didn’t mention that my ‘nice casual’ was going to include my utility belt, and a package so Nikki could transform me into my costume if it was absolutely necessary.  We were officially deputized within the Greater Boston area, even if I doubted anything would require my skills.  I could see Captain Tilley calling on Tennyo, or possibly Fey or Lancer, but I doubted he would want me for anything.

Anna grinned, “It sounds great!  Where do we meet!  When?  Do I need to bring anything?”

I explained, “We’ll meet at Schuster at nine.  I’ve got transport to the Berlin airport.  And all you need to bring is a hearty appetite.  We’ll zip down there, have a fun luncheon, and we’ll head back.”

Anna looked nervously at her friends, who knew what was bothering her.  Rhiannon nudged her with an elbow.  “Go!  And tell us all about it when you get back!”

One of the upperclassmen said, “Yeah.  And snitch some of the food for us.”

Another one looked over at Miasma and said, “As long as it isn’t chili!”

Miasma groaned, “Why does everybody always pick on me?”

I didn’t answer that.  Everyone who had seen his combat final knew the answer to that one.

It suddenly occurred to me that I needed to warn the chefs not to serve chili until we were out of this cramped little oubliette and back in the Crystal Hall, unless they had an environment suit into which Miasma could be crammed at a moment’s notice.

“I’ll see you tomorrow in class,” I said as I walked off on my next mission.

Most of the New Olympians were sitting regally at their ‘official’ table.  Cytherea was over with the Beret Mafia today, and there was no sign of Counterpoint, but Judicator and Prism had joined the others for dinner.  There wasn’t a lot of room elsewhere.  I had been looking for a chance to invite Prism, so I was going to have to make do with this opportunity.  After all, having Counterpoint out of the loop made it a felicitous moment.

I strolled over and immediately got the usual from their top dogs.  Majestic gave me the ‘what the hell do you want this time’ look, and Imperious gave me the ‘hey hottie, how about coming back to my place for the horizontal samba’ look.  Okay, he had to know by now that my Crackerjack box had a surprise inside.  It wasn’t exactly a secret, and Majestic undoubtedly pointed it out after he made that unsubtle pass at me a week ago at the hospital.  Perhaps he was really enough like Zeus that he wasn’t too bothered about the sex of the mortal on whom he used his lightning rod, if you know what I mean.

I knew how pompous they were, so I went for ‘polite’.  “Sorry to interrupt dinner, but I wanted a word with Prism.”

Since it didn’t have anything to do with Majestic, she shrugged me off and went back to her dinner.  Imperious was curious, but pretended to ignore me.  Judicator looked at both of them and apparently decided she didn’t need to get involved.

I said to Prism, “So, Richard… doing anything Saturday?”  Majestic tried hard not to react, but it was obvious that everyone at the table knew what I was talking about.

Prism flicked a glance at Imperious and Majestic, but calmly said, “Why no.  Do you have room?”

“Oh, sure,” I told him.  “Meet us in front of Schuster at nine, and we’ll leave from there.  Nice casual, no presents, and you don’t need to bring anything.”  I glanced over at Majestic.  “Oh, and everyone knows about it.  So you can tell your friends all about it when you get back.”

Majestic looked like she was dying to ask something, but she’d rather eat a live peacock than admit it.  Judicator glanced her way and asked it instead.  “Is Cytherea going?”

I tried to repress a smile.  “No.  Although she did try really hard to get me to let her go along.”  Judicator rolled her eyes at that.  “By the way, how’re you liking martial arts?”

Judicator thought for a moment before she answered.  “I’m picking up some interesting techniques.  But some of the students aren’t really at my level.  I’d rather work against more sword and katana wielders.  Although Chaka’s meteor hammer looks like an interesting challenge.”

I grinned, “Better you than me.”

By then, Team Kimba were taking their usual table in the cafeteria, and Outcast Corner was busy loading up trays in the food line.  Perfect.  It looked like Diamondback and Razorback were going for the Hungry Carnivore Dinner, with a stack of steaks on each of their trays, while Jericho was aiming for the Guy Diet Buffet, with a couple squares of jello, a big salad, and a bowl of soup.  Well, at least he had enough sense not to try to invent a deviser diet pill and then test it on himself.

I went through the line myself, trying to time it so that all the Outcasts would be seated just before I was done selecting my dinner.  I was assisted by Paloma, who slipped out at just the right moment with a wide bowl of soup for me.  One deep inhalation told me it was some sort of brodetto, a classic Italian fish stew.  I could smell the garlic and lemon, along with the onion and tomato in the soup base.  There was fresh chopped basil scattered over the surface, mingling in with the clams and calamari and chunks of fish.  It smelled so good I almost went straight to the table and wolfed it down, instead of exhibiting some patience.  Paloma also had a couple fresh-baked hard rolls for me, so I grabbed some butter – some real butter, not the yellow lard that passes for margarine – and a mug of herbal tea, then made my planned detour.

I caught Outcast Corner just as they were digging into their dinners.  Okay, I had wanted to catch them just a few moments earlier, but this would have to do.  As usual, I had to concentrate to block out as much of Phobos’ and Deimos’ fear aura as I could, and then ignore what I couldn’t block.  “Hi, Phobos.  Hi guys.”

Razorback had a mouthful of meat and just gave me a nod, but Diamondback started chewing faster so she could give me a proper reply once she’d swallowed.  Eldritch nodded, and Jericho looked up from his soup to say hello.

Phobos smiled, “Hi, Ayla.”  Her sister gave me a little wave.

I said to Phobos, “I came by to invite you to the Boston lunch I’m hosting.  I have no idea if Jericho’s going to get off his butt and make a decision either way, but you don’t have to wait on him.”

Diamondback swallowed and said, “Joe’s going with you.  I mean, can you see him being any help at all when I’m looking for ‘feminine hygiene’ products?”

Jericho muttered, “I haven’t decided yet.”

Eldritch joked, “I can see him now, on the other side of the store, with his hands over his eyes, yelling, ‘If you need any help, just let me know!’  And all the salesclerks are sprinting to the bathroom to be sick, because they’ve seen his clothing.”

“Hey!  I resemble that remark!” grinned Jericho.

Razorback signed something at Jericho.  I had been working with Vanessa on ASL, but some of the things he signed didn’t make any sense to me.  Part of it looked like ‘Tell her’ and ‘go’ and the literals for ‘DICKHEAD’.  But some of it looked like gibberish.

Eldritch caught me staring.  “It’s sign language.”

I said, “I know.  I’ve been learning ASL to help Vox with her Sirens course.”

“Why would Vox need to learn ASL in a Sirens course?” wondered Deimos.

“Screech is in there too, and this way everyone can talk with Screech.  More importantly, she can talk back and they can understand it.”

Diamondback nodded, “Ooh, good idea.”  She looked at me and said, “Razor started in Australian sign language, and we’ve been working him into ASL.  But we’re pretty much a hodgepodge of the two.”

I signed at her in straight ASL ~Your own personal sign language?~

She grinned and said, “Yeah.”

Jericho grinned at me and signed ~That was pretty good.  For a N-O-O-B.~

Razorback glared at him and signed ~That was pretty rude.  For an ass-hat!~

The rest of the table was suddenly snickering into their food.  I managed to keep my face impassive.

Jericho managed to suppress a smile and said to me, “Okay, I’ll go.  But just to get away from this horrible abuse for a few hours.”

I said, “Great.  And I’m sure Toni and Nikki aren’t going to give you any grief.  Because they’re always well-behaved.”

Diamondback interjected, “You’d better give him guidelines on clothing, or you’ll get something like what he’s got on now.”

I was sure he had already told them about my ‘nice casual’ guideline, so I lied, “Not a problem.  I bought Scrambler a couple industrial paint sprayers.  If he shows up in something inappropriate, she’ll just spray him from head to toe in a nice neutral beige.  Maybe taupe.”  I turned to Phobos.  “I need to get going before my food gets cold.  Dress code is ‘nice casual’.  No presents.  You don’t need to bring anything.  And you have until we leave at nine Saturday morning to make up your mind.  See you.”

I sauntered over to the TK table and got busy enjoying my brodetto with the fresh, still-hot bread.  The soup was redolent with a really good white wine that had been cooked enough that the raw alcohol taste was gone, and the calamari were perfect.  All too often, rings of squid like this get overcooked, so you have rubbery little tires for Tonka trucks instead of perfect little morsels of seafood.  And the whitefish were done enough that you could taste the richness of the cod and haddock, without overcooking them into mush.

“Ayles?”

“Yes?”

“You’re havin’ another foodgasm.  What’s in the soup?”

I grinned, “Toni, are you sure you want to know?”

She rolled her eyes, “No, I asked so I could get dissed in public.”

“Yeah, I wanna know too!” Jade piped up.

Several other heads leaned in to hear the details.  So I told them.  “It’s brodetto.  That’s a classic Italian fish soup.  This has a tomato and white wine base with sautéed onion and garlic and lemon zest in it.”

“Lemon zest?  Ick.”

I went on, “It has chunks of carefully-cooked white fish, mostly cod and haddock I think, although it’s pretty hard to tell, plus some clams-”

“Gross.”

“-and these are squid.”  I held up a spoon that had a nicely-cooked little ring sitting in the broth.

“Blech!”

“You must be kidding!”

“And you wanted to eat that stuff?”

“Jeez Ayla, and you’re complaining about me eating the hamburger-and-noodles casserole?”  Well, Billie still had a couple forkfuls of the stuff in her mouth, but I’m pretty sure that’s what she said.

Toni put her fork down.  “Okay, I really didn’t wanna know what was in that soup.  Now I don’t even feel like finishing my spaghetti.”

I slowly popped the squid into my mouth and chewed it up.  “Mmm!”

Hank said, “Ayla, you’re grossing out Tennyo.  That’s gotta be like the food world’s answer to Jericho’s clothing.”

I just gave him a slow smile and went back to my brodetto.

I did make sure that I told everyone to come to my room after dinner.  Chou wanted to get going, because she was still trying to work out her ‘have your cake and eat it too’ relationship triangle.  Not that Team Kimba had any room to talk.

But I wanted to check out my new adamantium tactical baton against some of the team, so I started with Chou, before the rest of the gang showed up.  She pulled out Destiny’s Wave and I rested the extended baton against it.  Then I retracted the baton, went heavy with it, and extended it so it was momentarily heavy.  I touched that to DW so it could study the baton while it was extra-dense too.

After a couple moments, Destiny’s Wave said to Chou, “This is interesting.  Will you try several light attacks against this metal staff?”

Of course, Chou obliged.  I was feeling like I would regret this, but I went along.  I held the baton in a defensive stance and let her take a couple light whacks at it.

After the fourth whack, Destiny’s Wave said to me, “This is interesting.  It will hold up to us in sparring.  If we ever wish to, we will be able to slice through it, even when you are ‘heavy’, as you call it.  But it is sturdier than most materials.”

Well, that answered a couple questions.  DW wasn’t going to cut it up.  Unless Chou really had to come at me for keeps, in which case it was probably just as well that I couldn’t stop DW.

After Chou raced off to find Dorjee, the team started trickling in.  Nikki and Toni came in first, with Hank a few seconds behind them.  Billie flew into the room just after Hank settled himself in his favorite beanbag chair.  Jade flew in right behind Billie, trying to mimic every one of Billie’s moves.  With Jinn (or Jann or maybe even Jasmine, I had no idea) giving her flight, she managed to copy Billie’s moves pretty accurately, even if she couldn’t really pull off the ‘no concept of gravity and inertia’ motions that Billie routinely did without thinking about it.

Once everyone had settled in, I reached behind my back and pulled my baton out of a utility belt pocket.  I smiled, “The reason I called all of you in tonight is because one of you is…”  I whipped out the baton and let it snap out to its full length.  “… the victim!”

Chaka grinned, “It’s Miss Green in the bedroom with the pipe!”

Fey pretended to frown.  “Damn!  I was sure it was Mister Cyan in the deviser lab with the plasma cannon.”

Lancer smirked, “I thought it was Miss Diamond in the cafeteria with the squid soup.”

I waved the baton about.  “You all saw what it could do in a sim.  I already tried it out against Destiny’s Wave, and it held up.  Okay, Chou can slice this baby up like a Cuisinart if the Tao ever wants her to.  But until then, it’s DW-safe.  So I wanted to test it out a little more.  First up, Jade.”

“Me?” squeaked Jade.  “But I can’t do anything!  You mean you want me to cast Jann into it and try to bend it?”

“No,” I explained.  “I want you to see if you can hack it up with Spinner.”

“Ohh,” she said.  “Now I get it.  Gimme a second.”  She dashed out of the room.

“So who’s next after the Popeil Pocket Spider-rat Chopper?” snarked Nikki.

I pointed at her with both index fingers.  “You.  And your scimitar.  I want to see how it holds up against your mithril.  Then Hank’s PK swords.”

Billie checked, “And then my sword?”

I managed not to wince.  “That would be a ‘no thank you’.  No matter how amazing the molecular cohesion of adamantium, it’s still just ordinary matter.  And your sword’s antimatter.  So I think that counts as ‘testing to destruction’.  I don’t know if it would get just a little damaged, or cut right through, or if it would end up melted down to the handle.  I’d rather not find out unless we have no choice.”

She shrugged, “I thought it looked pretty darn tough in the sim today.”

I shrugged, “Okay, it’s stronger than granite.  I don’t think that’s much of a comparison, when we’ve got your super-weapon, and Chou’s magical brick-slicer, and Nikki’s mithril scimitar, and Hank’s PK shortswords, not to mention what he can do with a baseball bat.”

Toni smirked, “We so gotta get Hank into a softball game against some suckers.  One PK field over a softball bat later, he’s a homer machine.  Every contact?  Whammo!  One softball launched with five tons of force!”

Nikki rolled her eyes.  “Because no one’s gonna spot that one,” she said as sarcastically as she could.

I pointed out, “Miele’s Hardware vs. the State of Illinois.  1987.  It’s illegal to sneak mutants onto your team, even in a parks and rec league.”

Billie goggled, “Christ, Ayla!  How do you know all this stuff?”

I shrugged uncomfortably.  “Interning in Goodkind International’s legal and accounting departments, and reading Goodkind Research Labs reports that Mother wanted us to see.  That, plus an abnormally good memory for a baseline.”

Toni bounced, “So we get all your secret expertise for free!”

Hank said, “Yeah.  Their loss.  If they weren’t such loonies about mutants, they would’ve realized you were the best resource they’d had in years.”

“Thanks,” I muttered.  Unfortunately, the only way they had wanted to use this particular resource was as a lab rat, so I really didn’t want to talk about that idea.

“I’m back!” chirped a happy voice from the doorway.  “And Spinner’s ready to go!”  She put out her hand, and the bladed disk leapt from behind her to land on her outstretched palm.  She pointed her Universal Remote at it…  “Just keeping in practice, y’know.”  …and four beeps later, it hopped up into the air and began spinning furiously.

I held up the baton and went heavy.  “Nikki, you might want to put up a force field, in case we get any metal fragments ripping off from this.”

Hank nodded, “Good idea.  Ought to be like tossing a piece of rebar into a lawnmower.”

Several people winced at his simile.  Come to think about it, that was a really good analogy.  Possibly ‘running a lawnmower over a hidden metal pin’ might be better.

Spinner zipped over to me and halted in front of the baton.  It checked the baton out like a hesitant puppy, and finally moved in enough to make contact.  There was a searing metal sound not unlike the crash of lightsabers in a Star Wars movie, and then Spinner jumped back a few inches.  It didn’t look like there was a scratch on the baton, and Spinner was spinning too fast for me to see if it had taken any damage.  I peeked to the side, and Jade was standing there looking tense and uncertain.  Spinner slowly moved back in, and I tightened my grip.

It dodged in sharply, and, with a screeching grind, came to an abrupt halt.  I felt the impacts through the baton, but the baton held up.  Spinner didn’t.  Everyone could see the steel blades were bent and chipped.  Spinner jumped into the air and fled back to Jade, where it dropped into her hands.  Jade looked at it, then pouted at me, “It’ll take me hours to beat all these dents out and sharpen it up again!”

Hank grinned, “Toss ‘er here.”

So Jade did it.  She threw a razor-sharp steel weapon at someone without even thinking twice.  Yeesh.  Of course, it couldn’t get through Hank’s PK field, but it still looked bad.  Hank caught it like it was a frisbee and used his fingers to press the dents out.  Then he ran his thumb along the blade and bent it back into shape.  Man.  Sometimes I forget just what it means to have five tons of force at your beck and call.

At least Hank didn’t throw the thing back.  He said, “Hey Nik, your turn.”  He held it up on his palm, and Nikki Gandalf’ed it back over to Jade.

“Ooh!  Thank you thank you thank you!” she cooed.  “This is great!  It’ll save me a ton of time!”

Toni checked, “Hey Ayles, any damage on the Phase-pole?”

Hank smirked, “That’s not the Phase-pole.  That’s just a tactical baton.”

Nikki gave him a look.  “God!  You really are a boy now, you know that?”

Hank just grinned back at her.

I looked over the baton, and there wasn’t even a scratch.  There were a few minuscule shavings off Spinner at the join between two of the tubes, but I carefully brushed them off into a kleenex that I put in the trash can.  I really didn’t want steel shards lying on the floor, or stabbing Jody when she emptied the trash.

“Okay, I’m up next, right?” asked Nikki.

I nodded, and she clambered out of her favorite hammock.  She reached over her shoulder and pulled out her scimitar.  I wasn’t saying anything aloud, but this test really mattered to me, because I couldn’t phase through mithril.  If my baton couldn’t stop something like Nikki’s weapon, then that opened up a whole host of extra weaknesses I needed to address.

I held out the baton, and Nikki tapped it with Malachim’s Feather.  Tink!  She tapped a little harder, and then harder still.  Finally, she wound up and really hacked at it.  I went heavy as soon as I saw her wind up, just in case something went haywire.  She brought the scimitar down on the baton as hard as she could.  Clank!

“Ow,” she complained.  She looked over the blade, which was untouched.  Then she slid it back into its magical pocket and massaged her hand some.  “That’s sturdier than it looks.”

I had already looked over the baton while she was inspecting Malachim’s Feather.  It didn’t have a scratch on it.  But it hadn’t scratched the scimitar or dulled its blade.  Okay, I figured I should be really happy to have a draw against a magical mithril weapon.

Hank got up and grinned, “Okay, I’m next, right?”  He fished his paper swords out of his pocket and snapped them unfurled.  Then he concentrated on them for a second.  “Ready for action.”

I raised the baton into a defensive position and adjusted my stance.  Then I grinned back at him.  “Bring it on, Paper-boy.”

I slowly swung the baton toward him, so he could take a whack at it.  He made a downward slice with his left hand, and hit the baton.

Man, it felt like someone had dropped a boulder on it.  Fortunately, I was fully heavy, because otherwise the baton would have been ripped out of my hands.  Or maybe my shoulder would have been dislocated.

Hank said, “Huh.  That stuff’s tougher than I thought.”  And he took a harder swipe with the knife in his right hand.

Jesus!  I deflected part of the blow, but it still felt like someone had rammed a car into me.

He tried a couple even stronger attacks.  I had to actively defend myself, because he was hitting the baton hard enough to knock over a pickup truck.  But the baton didn’t break.  It looked like it would stand up to him in sparring.  On the other hand, if I set it on the floor so it had to withstand his full five-ton force on a razor’s edge with no chance to bounce back, it might not do quite as well.  I wasn’t ready to try that one for keeps yet.

“Okay, we’re all done testing for the night.  I think I’d like to keep my arms attached to my shoulders.”

Hank said, “Sorry.  I thought you were gonna tell me when to stop.”

I smiled, “I just did.  I’m okay, and the baton’s okay.  I’m just not as strong as you are.”

Then Chaka had to try out the baton a little.  She whipped it around like she had been practicing with it for a few months.  “Whoa!  This sucker feels heavy!  Whatcha got in it?  Lead?”

I told her, “Osmium.  Denser than depleted uranium, and easier to work.  Just a lot more expensive.”

She grinned, “Osmium?  So, what’d this little baby set you back?”

I admitted, “Including Harry’s fee and the components for the adamantium?  Approximately two hundred thirty thousand dollars.”

Fey gulped, “Are you insane?”

I rolled my eyes at her.  “I hang around with you and Toni, don’t I?  That answers that question.”  She just gave me a look.  I said, “It’s just money.”

Toni insisted, “It’s just a shitload of money!”

Hank said, “Ayla, even Bruce Wayne keeps his bat-toys to a budget, and he’s fictional.”

I told him, “Yeah, but he doesn’t have a weapon that’ll stand up to Fey’s scimitar or your PK swords.”

Jade said, “Yeah, all he has to do is carry around a chunk of kryptonite!”

I added, “And he didn’t even pay for that.”  Nikki rolled her eyes.  I explained, “Look, you’re acting like money is this sacred goal, and you have to accumulate it like Scrooge McDuck or something.  You certainly need to make sure that it accrues quickly enough that the fundamentals of life are covered.  Room and board, caring for your family, those kinds of things.  But once you’re past those limits, you don’t need to keep hoarding it like Hetty Green.  You need to make your money work for you.  If that means investments and planning for retirement, then fine.  If it means helping others, then that’s even better.  But once you pass a certain point, it’s rational to use small amounts for things like this.”

“Small amounts?” Toni complained.

“By whose definition?” Nikki chipped in.

I snorted, “Look.  When the NYSE closed today, Marvel was at 93 3/16.  It opened this morning at 20.  Do you know how much profit I made today?”

Nikki thought for a second and said, “This may sound stupid, but I come up with four hundred million dollars.”

“No way that’s right, Nik,” chipped in Toni.

I nodded, “Actually, I made a bit more than twice that.”

Hank choked, “Eight hundred MILLION dollars?  In one day?”

I said, “It’s because it’s my stock and my company that everyone was trading.”

Toni shook her head slowly, “Shee-it!  I guess a little tiny quarter-million toy is okay.”

I said, “You’re still looking at it the wrong way.  We need to keep raising our game.  We’ve pissed off a lot of people, and we’ve gotten great big targets slapped on most of our backs.  It’s important to me that I don’t let you guys down.  Half of you are so far out of my league that it isn’t even funny, and the other half are still improving fast enough to catch up with me if I don’t work at it.  I need to do this so I can keep improving too.”

We were all going to hang around in my room and maybe take turns playing with my new toy, but I got a phone call.  I looked at the screen and saw who was calling.  It was Thuban.  “Phase here.”

“Phase, this is Thuban.”  I knew that already.  “We’ve decided to run you through the BIT-slicer Wednesday night.  Please be down at the lab with your BIT-donor at eight pm.”

“Thanks,” I told him.  I was suddenly seized with simultaneous feelings of bubbly excitement and utter dread.  Maybe everything would go right, for a change.  Maybe things would go horribly, horribly wrong.

“Who was that?” Jade asked.

“Thuban,” Nikki groused.  “Ayla’s going through that damn BIT-slicer Wednesday night.”

You know, sometimes having teammates with super-hearing was just a pain in the butt.

Jade and Toni winced.  Billie didn’t, but she had probably heard just as much as Nikki did.  She said, “Watch out for ‘em, they’re a bunch of perverts.”

Jade whimpered, “Please, be really, really careful.”

Hank looked their way and then turned back to me.  “And whatever happens, let us know first, okay?  No going crazy if things go off-track.”

“Roger that,” I told him.  I was pretty sure Jade’s case was an object lesson I was going to remember as long as I lived.  “I may be pretty grouchy if things don’t work out, though.”

“How would we be able to tell?” Nikki snarked.

“Hey, I was gonna say that!” complained Toni.

Billie smiled, “I think we all were.”

I ignored the byplay and said, “I need to call my BIT-donor and set this up.”

“Okay.”

Hank asked, “Who?”

“Peril,” I said.

Toni wondered, “Mister Hey-somebody-ripped-my-dick-off?  He good with this one?  Because Jade said it hurt.  A lot.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Yeah, he thinks this is the next big amusement park ride.  He can’t wait.”

Nikki said, “Well, he was crazy enough to test out an exploding jetpack, so I can see that one.”

After everyone – even Jade – told me I was nuts to be trying out that BIT-slicer and they all filed out, I called Peril.  He was somewhere between excited and manic, and wanted to meet in person, so I flew on over to his dorm.

He was waiting at the place we had picked for our prior meeting, and he was alight with excitement.  At first, I thought he was just over-exuberant about the BIT-slicer run, but I realized that wasn’t it as soon as he started talking.  “Oh man, I can’t thank you enough!  Mom and dad called me about the company!  This is the greatest thing EVER!  Mom’s going crazy planning out the expansion, and they think they’re gonna end up taking over all the floors in the whole building!”

I tried to calm him down a bit.  I said, “Yeah, when we mapped out the distribution network for Marvel comic books, we figured out that using New York as the sole distribution point was just stupid.  We could electronically transmit four-color files to nine other printers around the country, and save a ton of money on distribution.  But our network analyst said we needed a mid-South printer, and our options were basically Memphis, Nashville, or Atlanta.  I opted for Nashville.”

“You mean, you opted for my folks.  I really owe you a big one for this.  My mom is crying she’s so happy.  Just a few months ago, they were afraid they were gonna have to declare bankruptcy, and they hadn’t found any reasonable way to grow the business in years, and then you drop this in their laps.  They think it’s a gift from God.”

I smiled, “No, it’s just some self-serving machinations from a Goodkind.”

He ignored that.  “Dad said you bought the whole building, so they have room to expand for this.”

I admitted, “I bought the building next door too, in case they need further expansion in a few years.  We can get that building re-conditioned floor by floor as we juggle renters, so if anything goes wrong with your folks’ building, we have a backup plan.”

“Whew,” he whistled.  “You think way bigger than my folks do.  We’d never try that in a million years.  How could we ever afford it?”

I told him, “Think of it as economies of scale.”  Then I changed the subject, because I really didn’t want to get into a discussion of exactly what I was doing with the network of printing companies that Marvel was going to be using.  “So, we’ll meet here Wednesday night about 7:45, and I’ll take you down into the deviser tunnels to Knick-Knack’s lab.  Then we do whatever they want about changing clothes and stuff.  It may be gross.  They painted stuff on Tennyo and Generator’s privates.  Tennyo still thinks they’re a bunch of pervs.”

Peril laughed.  “Boy, they must have a hell of a lot of nerve to do that to Tennyo!”

I smiled a little bit.  “She’ll put up with a lot of crap for her roommate.”  I wasn’t going to say more than that.

He nodded, like I had said something profound.  “Well, okay.  I can hardly wait.  This sounds more fun than testing that jetpack!”

Ugh.  Hadn’t he been badly burned in the explosion and then fallen a couple hundred feet in that test?  Not a good omen, if you asked me.

Once he trotted off to his dorm, I flew home.  And walked into a maelstrom.

The door to my room was open.  There was an entire team from Security in there with Chou and Chief Delarose and Circe.  Circe?  What the hell was going on in there?  My first thought was that something horrifically magical had happened, and it was the thing Circe had foreseen when she told me to take the Magical Arts curriculum.  My stomach tied itself into a knot.  Maybe some sort of really painful knot you only learned when you were an Eagle Scout.

Lieutenant Reynolds popped out of the room to head me off.  “Hold it one sec…”  Then he recognized me.  “Phase, right?”  I nodded.  He explained, “We need you to wait for a minute.  We’ve got a Security violation we’re investigating.”

“In my room?” I asked suspiciously.

“As a matter of fact,” he started pompously.  Then he remembered something, and his voice changed to a more cautious tone.  “We shouldn’t be discussing this.  Why don’t you wait here for a few minutes, and someone will explain things.”

Officer Wilkinson came dashing upstairs and reported.  Reynolds led him into my room and shut the door behind them, so I had to press my ear to the door to hear the conversation.  “Yes sir, Mrs. Horton says whoever it was, he popped the Poe wards, and was gone in about five seconds.  Same as what we got from the school boundary wards, and from Fubar’s astral team.  He cut it pretty close, since he popped in about a minute and a half before Bladedancer called us.”

I recognized Delarose’s voice.  “Yeah, he must’ve ported in and out seconds before Bladedancer walked into the room.”

The door handle twitched back and forth, so I hastily stepped back.  Circe opened the door with a small smile that told me she knew I had been listening.  Which meant she had twitched the doorknob just so I would have time to move away from the door.

I had just enough time to hear Lieutenant Reynolds boasting, “… any longer than that, and we would’ve swarmed in here and caught him red-handed!  They knew they were pushing their luck when…”

Circe closed the door behind her and stepped over to me.  She said, “Your roommate is all right.  But her enemies sent someone into your room via magic, and left a threatening note.”

I growled, “What the hell is it with these people and extortion notes?”  She raised one patrician eyebrow at that, and I explained, “I received an extortion note myself, back in September.  We eventually figured out it was from Tansy Walcutt, in a fundamentally stupid plan to drive a wedge between me and the rest of Poe, just to be a bitch.  But our evidence isn’t substantive, so I’m withholding it until some point when I can use it to better advantage.”

She just nodded.  Then she closed her eyes and concentrated.  After a few seconds, she said, “You will want to gather all your team in a moment, so that all of you can accompany Chief Delarose to speak with the headmistress.  She will explain what you need to do, and what you need to avoid.  In the meantime, I want you to do something for me.  You have seen Fey do magic.  You have felt her do magic.  I want you to stand by your door and see if you can feel the magic that was used to get into Poe tonight.”

Frankly, that sounded way outside my scope of work.  But if Circe wanted me to try, then I was willing to try.

She positioned me against the wall beside my door.  “Now relax.  You’ve had training in concentration.  Concentrate on what it felt like when Fey did powerful magics near you.  Feel for that same sensation.”

I opened my mouth to say something sarcastic, and she cut me off.  “And no, I will not say ‘search your feelings’.  No Star Wars jokes.  I have heard every one of them.  Hundreds of times.”

“Sorry,” I muttered.  I tried to find that weird feeling that Fey’s magic left.  That shimmer in the air.  The way some of her spoken spells seemed to do something no noises should be able to do.  I concentrated…

Ugh.  There was something thick and unpleasant there.  A sort of slimy magical miasma.

She nodded, “Yes.  That is it exactly.  That was very good.”  She waved her hand and whispered something I couldn’t catch.  I felt the unpleasant sensation just fade away.  She explained, “That is the feeling you should expect when you find necromantic rituals.  It’s a violation of the cycle of life itself.  These mages of this Tong are skilled in necromancy, and have no qualms about sacrificing as many lives as they want.  This gives them immense threat potential, as well as severe vulnerabilities.  We will have to deal with them.”

I checked, “You said ‘we’.  Was that the royal ‘we’, or ‘we’ as in Team Kimba, or ‘we’ as in Whateley resources?”

She smiled.  It wasn’t a nice smile.  In fact, it was the smile of an apex predator.  “Excellent question, Ayla.  In this case, it will turn out to be all of the above.”  And, for just a brief instant, I actually felt sorry for those stupid Tong bastards.

She looked at me and said, “Now would be a good time to round up your team and have them ready when Chief Delarose wants to escort all of you to see the headmistress.”

I took that as a directive.  I went straight to Nikki and Toni’s room, and I knocked quietly.

Toni whipped the door open.  “Hey, ‘sup dawg?”

Nikki complained from where she was reading in bed, “What is it with you when Ayla comes over?  You were being perfectly normal just two seconds ago.”  Then she looked at me.  “This is about the thing in your room, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.  Get dressed fast.  Whateley uniforms.  Delarose is going to take us to see Carson in a couple.”

Nikki groaned, while Toni bounced excitedly.  Toni was zooming over to her clothes before Nikki even set her book down.

I gave Jade and Billie the same message.  Since Jade was in a too-short Hello Kitty nightshirt and a really embarrassing pair of pink Hello Kitty panties, plus some fuzzy slippers that I was deeply afraid might be Sanrio bunnies of some kind, it was a good thing I gave them time to change clothes.  Then I gave Hank the same heads-up.

We were all dressed and waiting tensely in the hallway with Circe when Delarose opened my door.  He was saying to Chou, “…get all your team toge-  Oh.”

He looked at all of us, looked at Circe, looked at me, and finally looked back at Circe.  He nodded to her, “Thank you.”  Then he went right on as if this were all part of the plan.  “So let’s all go pay a nice little visit to the headmistress.”

Chou looked awful.  I mean, awful, in the sense of ‘supermodel in a movie playing the part of the distressed, angry teenager’.  She looked upset enough to burst into tears, as well as angry enough to whip out Destiny’s Wave and turn a few dozen Tong members into moo goo gai pan.  She filled us all in on the extortion note, while we walked ahead of Chief Delarose to the Admin building.  If we hadn’t been under the direct eye of the Chief of Security, a couple of us might have taken off and gone after the Tong personally.

Okay, maybe that had to include me too.  I was certainly working out details on things like the feasibility of renting a dropship so Team Kimba could go tackle those pinheads mano a dirtbaggo.  And details on security measures that would be manageable for Toni and Molly’s families.  And means of tracing the economic and political connections this Tong depended on.  Since Delarose knew all about Tennyo’s escape back at Christmastime, and how half the team had covered for her, he was probably being particularly cautious with us.

Then the meeting with Carson was hardly a bundle of laughs.  Molly was there too, looking really scared.  Looking at her, I suddenly wondered why Lois Lane never had to worry about threats against her family in the comic books.  But Carson knew exactly what we wanted to do, and she was about three steps ahead of us.  We were not allowed to go after those Tong todgers, and she was willing to hit us with some extremely severe punishments if we disobeyed that one.  We were not allowed to go off-campus at all for forty-eight hours, and our Boston trip would be cancelled if we couldn’t agree to that.  We were not allowed to hire high-end mercenary teams to make unilateral strikes at any Tong members.  I have no idea why she was staring at me when she said that.  There was no way I would do something that blatant.  And traceable.  She told us we were supposed to follow her lead, and let her put the fear of… well… Carson into these jerks.

Like I was surprised to hear any of that.  At least she was adamant that this was a clear violation of Whateley neutrality, and would be dealt with summarily.  I was sure she was going to make a few phone calls.  If you can reach out and touch someone – with a sledgehammer – from thousands of miles away, why do it the hard way?  I just wished I knew whom she was going to contact.

Chou wanted Molly to spend the night with her.  I was fine with that.  They both looked like they needed comforting.  I waited until the three of us were alone in our room, and I motioned for them to keep silent.  Then I turned on my music system and added in some pink noise to foil eavesdroppers.  And I hooked up some earphones so Chou and Molly could hear the conversation.

I made a phone call through my usual dead drops.  “Good evening!  Trin and MacIntyre, Planetary Investigations!  How may we help you?”

“This is Ayla Goodkind.  Passphrase: ‘to be or not to be, that is not a question’.”

“Thank you, Ms. Goodkind.  Let me see…  Today’s test-and-response code is ‘green alpha seven’.”

I stopped and thought for a second as I mentally summoned up the tables I had memorized.  “Yellow delta four.”

“Thank you, Ms. Goodkind.  Ms. Trin and Ms. MacIntyre are not in the office now, but if this is a priority emergency, Ms. MacIntyre is on call.  Do you need that level of response?”

“Yes.”

“Then please hold.”

I waited for about half a minute before a recognizable voice came on the line.  “This is Crystal MacIntyre.  What can we do for you, Ms. Goodkind?”

I said, “I need some very high-level help.  The Tong of the Black Madonna has just threatened us.  I want as much intelligence on them as you can dig up, especially any economic or political weaknesses.  They claim to know where the relatives of two friends live.  They may only have the names and are willing to try a very dangerous bluff, but I don’t want to risk it.  I’d like maximal stealth protection on both households.”

“For how long?” she asked.

“For as long as this takes.  Possibly forty-eight hours.  Possibly a couple weeks.  If this runs longer than a couple weeks, we’ll have to consider moving them into a protection program.”  Molly cringed at that.

“Can we have the names and addresses?”

Chou handed me a piece of paper with Toni and Molly’s home addresses, along with names of family members.  I noticed that Chou had even written in Toni’s Uncle Carl.  I read it all off to Ms. MacIntyre, and let her read it all back to me for verification.

She finished, “We’ll get right on this, Ms. Goodkind.  You’ll get the usual monthly billing.”

I told her thanks, and hung up.  I turned to find two pairs of eyes bulging at me.  “Usual monthly billing?” Molly gasped.  “How much is this gonna cost?”

I shrugged.  “For you?  Nothing.  For Chou?  I may make her throw a match in martial arts.”  Then I grinned at Chou so she would know I was kidding.

Chou said, “Ayla, what you are talking about is extremely expensive.  I know you have money, but…”

I waved her off.  “But nothing.  This is what money is for.  Having the right contacts, so I can do something like this, and having enough money that I don’t have to worry about the cost.  If you want to do something to make it up to me, then contact your sponsors and arrange some more of that tea for me.”

Chou just gaped at me.  “But… but… there is no way a bag of tea can pay for all… this!”

I tried again.  “Look, if you knew my family – my family in L.A. – was in danger, you’d do anything to help, right?”  She gave me a ‘well, of course’ look.  “So why is this any different?  I’m only doing a little something here.  Something I can easily afford to do.”  It still took another ten minutes to convince them this wasn’t ridiculous.  I figured it was a good thing they hadn’t seen the estimated bill for the party on Saturday.

I tried going to bed after all that.  I had done everything I could to protect our families.  I had done everything Carson would let me do, and maybe a little bit more.  And I was as prepared as I could be for the BIT-slicer.

But my stomach was doing gymnastics every time I thought about things.  If my gut wasn’t flipping, it was spinning.  What if those Tong morons hurt Molly’s family, or Toni’s family?  What if they came into Poe and went after Chou again?  What if Carson and her connections couldn’t stop the Tong?

And what about the BIT-slicer?  What if this didn’t work?  What if it did?  What if it did something even worse to me?  What if I got to be a guy again for a couple days and then it slowly faded away, as it did for Jade - would I go gonzo on myself, or on everyone around me?  What if it worked, and I was a guy again, and Vox didn’t like it? What if it worked, and I was a guy again, and I got kicked out of Poe?  What if…

Man, it took hours for me to fall asleep.  And then I had the nightmares.

Toni hugging her dead parents and screaming at me that I should have stopped it…

Me staggering out of the BIT-slicer and finding that I was half-Jade…

Chou and Molly screaming at me that my stealth bodyguards couldn’t keep Molly’s parents alive…

Me staggering out of the BIT-slicer and finding out that I was half-Jello, and helplessly oozing all over the floor…

Nikki and Hank yelling at me that I let the whole team down…

Me staggering out of the BIT-slicer and finding that I was half-Fubar, with my lungs no longer working in air…

Oh God.  After the Fubar one, I had to go splash some cold water on my face.  And I was sure I woke Chou and Molly up a couple of those times.  Molly wasn’t as good at pretending to sleep through stuff as Chou was.  Like they needed any more stress.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ugh.  The alarm was blaring, and all I wanted to do was bury my head under the pillow.  I must have gotten some sleep in between nightmares, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

I dragged myself out of bed, grabbed my stuff, and flew down the hall to the shower.  It took less energy than walking, and I definitely felt like my batteries had run down.

Then the showers were just the perfect place to deal with Sharisha, especially after last night.  She got in my face and started, “So, rich boy, you don’t look so-”

I instantly demonstrated that I’m Mister Mature And Rational.  I completely lost it, and I screamed in her face.  “Shut the hell up!”  She was so shocked she actually froze with her mouth open.  I turned my head just a hair, not taking my eyes off the potential threat, because Sharisha actually had a pretty impressive rating as a PDP, even if she was having trouble getting her act together most of the time.  “Vanessa!”

“What?”

“Get her out of here NOW!  Before Chou or Toni or Billie get here.  Team Kimba got death threats on our families last night.  And if you think Chou was nasty last term, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  A Chinese Tong threatened Molly’s parents.  Chou’s gonna be on a hair trigger this week.  And Toni too.  And you can bet Billie and Jade and Nikki aren’t gonna take this lying down, so just keep Sharisha away from all of us, or else I can’t guess what’ll happen this time.”

Vox looked really upset.  “Death threats?  On your families?  That’s not allowed!”

I snorted.  “Tell these Tong assholes in China that.  They know where Toni’s family and Molly’s family live, and they’re threatening ‘em.  Everyone’s tense enough to explode.  And right now, I don’t feel like holding anyone back.”  I turned back to Sharisha.  “So just don’t get into it with any of us this week.  Got it?”

Vanessa promptly dragged Sharisha off to the other side of the room, and I hopped into a shower.  I’m sure there had to be someone ahead of me in the line, but whoever it was got out of my way.  I must have been a lot more upset than I realized, because I don’t even remember who was showering or drying off, or anything.  And I think I forgot to floss.

After that, breakfast was just a load of laughs.  Even after touching Nikki’s anti-eavesdropping crystal, we were all still paranoid about spies and Tong allies and whether anyone in the Whateley administration or Security forces might be behind the leaked intel.  My sources had let me know that the people who killed Folder and nearly got a couple other students killed were sleeper agents on campus, which meant that we couldn’t necessarily trust anyone.  So we were in a great mood when we went into Team Tactics class and Bardue wanted to lead off with a review of our performance in yesterday’s sim.  I was just hoping it didn’t degenerate into a full-fledged fight right there in the classroom.

It started out just fine.  Everheart had our internal review, and she put up a bullet-point presentation using the projector.  So that highlighted the points we wanted to address.  Well, the points that we were admitting we wanted to address.  Then Lancer had to stand up and defend our team performance once the class got into it.

Kismet sniped, “I don’t see how they could have known ahead of time about the dangers of the lava trap.”

Lancer pointed at me and said, “Our intelligence chief knew about magma and magma chambers.  That was all we needed to know.  We work as a team, and we listen to our team experts.”

Confundus attacked from the back of the room.  “So that’s why you called her Captain Pedantic in the bee chamber?”

Lancer snapped, “Our team has enough real-world experience to be somewhat casual about some threats.  So we have a tendency to kid each other in these sims, just like we do normally.  If you noticed that much, then you noticed that we still took her advice.”

Then Eldritch had to start.  We all knew what she was going to say.  Okay, her first two points about team strategy were pretty good.  But then she started in on her traditional complaint about the tendency of certain team members to go cowboy and split off from the group.  She pointed out that we did this so much that we had inadequate support some of the time.

Hank argued with that one.  “We talked about this in our internal review, and we think that we made the right decisions for the tactical sitch.  Outside the cliff, we needed team members to focus on separate threats.  We couldn’t support our point man until we took care of the outside threats, and she was the one who needed the most help right then.  Chaka reacted quickly, and that was exactly what we needed right then.”

It must have been obvious to the rest of the class that Lancer was getting pissed off, because no one else added anything else.  It looked like Wallflower was sitting on something that she didn’t want to bring up, and Kismet usually wanted to bitch at us more than she had so far.

Then it was time for Everheart and Bardue to get on us.  They started on teamwork.  Then they moved to strategy and tactics.

And Everheart let Hank have it about his aim with that energy beam.  “You were aiming at a target maybe fifty feet across at a range of eight thousand feet.  How accurate would you have to be to hit that if you were trying to hit it dead center?”

<(Phase) Way under one degree.>

Hank said, “I don’t know, ma’am.”

<(Phase) Damnit, I just told you!>

Sam went on, “About two tenths of a degree.  Are you that accurate?”

Hank staunchly replied, “No ma’am.”

<(Fey) Phase, how did you know that?>

<(Phase) Trig class.  It’s a tangent.>

<(Chaka) Everything she says is a tangent.>

<snerk>

Everheart glared, “Then what did you need to do?”

Lancer calmly answered, “I needed to get Fey to augment my aim, like she finally did on her own.”

“Exactly.”

Bardue then tag-teamed Lancer.  “AND… you need to step up as a leader when you have this much chatter!  KEEP your team focused!  If you can’t keep your forces from runnin’ at the mouth and losing focus, then maybe you are NOT the leader this team needs!”

<(Generator) That is SO not fair.>

<(Phase) It’s my fault.>

<(Chaka) It’s OUR fault.>

<(Tennyo) We were focused!  We focused a lot!>

Before we could mount a team assault on Fort Bardue there, they switched targets.  They got on Tennyo for not doing enough to avoid damage in her first and last encounters.  They got on Chaka for going cowboy on the rocketmen and not teamworking enough with Shroud on them, and then going cowboy again when we faced the bees, and yet again when she faced Crucible.  They got on all of us for constantly chattering instead of maintaining radio discipline.

Then they focused on me again.  Bardue said, “Phase!  Once you found the hallway was a trap, why didn’t you disable the trap before letting your team walk into it?”

“I should have known the stars and spikes couldn’t hold against pneumatic pistons that large.  I should have been sticking them into the pistons, right through the places where the casings overlapped, so they would tear holes at two different levels when the piston moved,” I admitted.  Hindsight is always 20/20.  Actually, that’s not true either.  Most people’s hindsight seems to be oddly near-sighted.

Everheart jumped in, “Lancer!  Why didn’t you re-direct your teammate?  And why didn’t you hold your team back until the hall trap was disabled?”

Lancer said, “I thought we had it under control.  It turned out to be a little more complicated than I thought.”

Bardue switched targets.  “Fey!  Tennyo!  Why didn’t either of you suggest blasting holes in that ceiling first?  Did you think about going up at your end, traversing the entire ceiling, and then blasting a hole at the far end?”

Fey gave Bardue one of those ‘Aunghadhail’ looks and said, “I did think about it, but only when I was already blasting a hole at the far end.  It was too late then.”

“Tennyo!”

Tennyo sort of winced.  “I was kind of worried about turning everything into a radioactive wasteland if I tried too hard.”

Bardue snapped, “Good answer!  Control matters here!  But not letting your teammates be squashed into jelly matters too!”

It took a while before they finally admitted we had done anything right.  Then they touched on a whole series of points where they weren’t too pissed off at us.  Nikki’s protective field at the start.  My taking out most of the troops before our entry.  Nikki’s wide-field sleep spell.  Billie’s taking out the anti-mage weapon, Nikki’s anti-bee spell, and her healing talents.  My diagnosing the hall trap.  Jade and Billie manhandling the vault door.  Nikki’s awesome floating sphere across the magma chamber.  Hank’s tactical moves in the final battle.

Everheart snapped, “Class!  The other five teams have another assignment for tomorrow!”  Everyone sat up and started taking notes.  “Assume Phase has just given you full intel on this supervillain lair.  Can you get all the way to Crucible?  Where will your team have problems?  What do you need to work on to overcome those limitations?  In this exercise, it is allowed to request additional superhero support.  Real superhero teams do this all the time.  Who would you need to add to your team, and why?”

Then Everheart got on our case some more about tactical organization.  So the whole team was pretty grouchy when the class finally moved onto the day’s lecture topic: pursuing a villain in a public chase while avoiding collateral damage and protecting innocent bystanders.  Once again, it boiled down to the ROE (Rules of Engagement) in the MOUT.  Alphabet soup isn’t automatically bad when it conveys a lot of information in a short time, but the DoD seemed to live for acronyms.  On the other hand, Everheart had a phenomenal grasp of what that meant in applications, and how to apply it to a supervillain pursuit.  Did you have personnel who could overtake or cut off the target?  Did the target represent a significant threat to non-combatants if confronted?  Should the pursuit be close or long-distance?  How did you decide when it was safe to engage the target, and how did you apply your forces to minimize risks?

Damn, she was good.  I took notes on my bPhone for emailing out to the team later, while I privately wondered if the Pentagon had a big office full of weasel-faced nerds who sat around making up acronyms and validating everyone else’s acronyms.  “No sir, you can’t use that, it sounds like the French word for shit!”

When Everheart wrapped up her talk, Bardue stepped forward and announced, “All right, pop quiz time again.  In the holos.  Outcast Corner?  You’re up first.  Get suited up.  Omegas?  You’re up second.  Get down there and be ready to go as soon as we signal you.”

They all scrambled out of the room and headed toward the holo sim center.

Bardue waited for a count of twenty before he gave the rest of us an evil grin.  “Generator and Shroud?  You two get to play with the Outcasts in that lair you girls designed last week.  Bladedancer?  You’re up after that.”

The J-Team was up and chattering at each other like they couldn’t wait to go wreak mayhem and insanity.  Oh, wait.  It was the J-Team.  They probably really couldn’t wait to unleash their own version of mayhem and insanity on everyone.  Chou, on the other hand, looked as if Bardue had just told her she had to go fight her weight in Africanized bees.  In her undies.  After the bees had been tampered with by Jobe.  It was a good thing she was up second, because it took me a while to talk her into it.  My pep talks aren’t exactly up there with Vince Lombardi’s.

But she was ready to go before we got to watch Outcast Corner taking on their evil lair.  Everheart had presumably used Hive to activate the necessary hook-ups to the sim center, before she escorted Chou over there and helped her get her sim up and running.  The screen in the front of the room, as well as the big monitors on the two walls, lit up with images from the simulation.

OUTCAST CORNER

Jericho did a quick electronic check of his Rafe armor.  Everything looked ready to go.  He scanned the surroundings and checked his teammates.  Razorback was ready to go in his armor with the fake sigils.  Diamondback was checking her spells.  Eldritch was doing an expert inspection of her gear, including some sort of touch drill to make sure she knew exactly where everything was on her harness for instant access in a firefight.

It looked like they were on a city street, in the middle of a run-down industrial district.  And they were standing in front of what looked like the supervillain lair version of a junkyard.  Instead of an eight foot high chain link fence topped with a couple strands of barbed wire, there was a twenty foot high wall out of a prison movie, with what looked like laser beams along the top.  Instead of a chain link gate that slid to the side, there were massive steel double doors with a padlock the size of a microwave oven.

Jericho activated the comm system in his armor.  “Able here.  Team?  Sound off.”

Eldritch adjusted her earpiece and throat mike.  “Baker here.  Loud and clear.”

Razorback touched his vocoder.  “Charlie.  Here.  Clear.”  He hated his vocoder because of the ultrasonics no one else could hear.  But he was wearing it for the comm system Jericho had added to it.

Diamondback touched her earpiece and said, “Delta here.  Loud and clear.

Jericho said, “No intel on this place.  Are we ready?”  He got three quick agreements.  “Baker, you’re on point.  Check the gates.”  He moved to where he could cover Eldritch.  He watched as Diamondback slithered to his left, so she could provide some magical cover if Eldritch needed it.

Eldritch stayed low and used a line of parked cars as cover.  Then she slid up to the gates from the side, making sure to stay out of the line of sight of the one security camera she could see.  She tested the gates.  Not moving.  She pressed as hard as she could.  Still not moving.  She grabbed the padlock and pulled.  “Baker.  Entry problem.  Should I use the C-4?”

Jericho thought it over and said, “Let Delta try.”

“Roger that.”  Eldritch stealthily withdrew, making sure she wasn’t exposed to enemy fire any more than necessary.  Then she took up position with her M203 and prepared to lay down a covering fire if Diamond needed it.

Eldritch watched with approval as Diamondback made her way up to the gates.  Sandra had been paying attention.  Plus, she could slither along approaches that would be a problem for normal soldiers.  Diamondback slid upright in front of the gates and pulled some pieces of paper out of her backpack.  Eldritch might be the Artificer, but that didn’t mean she could do the spell-slinging that Diamondback could.  Diamond murmured soft words that echoed oddly around the street, until she threw a square of heavy paper at the huge padlock.  Eldritch hastily lifted her M203 and checked for enemy threats.

The paper flew through the air and plastered itself against the padlock.  Nothing happened.

Two seconds later, there was a flash of blue light, and the padlock fell open.

Jericho activated his comm.  “Delta, retreat to a defensive position and prepare to cover.  Charlie, open the gate and prepare for our entry.”

Once Diamondback was in position and ready with a spell, Jericho said into his comm, “Go.”

Razorback sprinted at his top speed to the gates and knocked the padlock out of the chains before heaving on the doors and sprinting off to the side.  Eldritch put a 40 mm grenade into the area on the other side of the doors.  At the same time, Diamondback launched a fireball spell at the other side of the area behind the doors.

As soon as the grenade exploded, Razorback was up and sprinting at a hundred miles an hour to the gates, to get a quick peek at the forces they would face.

He touched his vocoder.  “Nothing.”

Jericho hadn’t gotten to be his age without learning a little caution.  “Delta.  Check for a magical trap.”

Razorback sprinted into his assigned position and let Diamondback move up.  She signaled, “Still nothing.”

Jericho sighed.  He had a feeling about this one.  “Bounding overwatch.  Baker, lead off.”

Eldritch sprinted through the gates, moved expertly around the edge of the open area, and dove to the ground behind a junked car.  “No sign yet.”

Razorback sprinted past Eldritch and leapt into a position on the other side of a long aisle that was made of stacks of junked cars.  He used a hand signal to give the ‘clear’ message.  Diamondback and Jericho moved up into position.

Suddenly, they all heard it.  Up ahead, moving their way, was the clattering of metal on metal.  They all prepared for combat.  And then they moved to where they could see around the next corner.

Diamondback stared in horror.  "Oh.  My.  Gawd."

The team was facing three massive robotic ‘Hello Kitty’ junkyard dogs.

Eldritch muttered, "We are dealing with the purest evil I have ever seen..."

Razorback signed, ~And I thought his clothes were as bad as it could get.~

Jericho said, "Awww, they're so KYEWT!  I WANT one!"

“You would say that,” Diamondback complained.

The three junkyard ‘Kitty’ robots were big.  About the size of a full-grown female lion.  Each one had massive metal claws on its paws, and a mouthful of metal fangs.  Jericho was suddenly extremely glad he was in his Rafe armor.

Jericho watched the robots move toward them and directed over his comm, “Baker.  Left one.  Delta.  Center.  Charlie.  Right.  I’m backup.”

He had hardly finished speaking when Eldritch snapped her M203 into position and blew one of the robots into little white fragments.  The other two Hello Kitty dogs instantly leapt at them.  The rightmost one opened its mouth and extended its front claws, only to find that Razorback was way ahead of it.  A sudden flurry of movement, and slashing, tearing raptor claws turned the robot into shredded metal in no time.

The leftmost one leapt at Diamondback before Sandra had a chance to set up the spell she wanted.  So she smacked it in the side with her tail instead.  It went flying into a stack of junked cars.  Eldritch put a quick burst of ammo into it, just as Jericho hit it with a heat beam.

“Positions!” Jericho snapped into his comm.  They quickly found cover and prepared for another wave of attackers.

“Uh-oh,” muttered Jericho.

“What?” snapped Eldritch into her comm.

“There isn’t enough gearing and circuitry in these things for them to be gadgets.  We’re up against a full-fledged deviser.  Be ready for anything.”

They moved out in bounding overwatch, jumping from cover to cover, until they came to a wide yard that looked like a sandy arena surrounded by walls of junked cars.

“Trouble ahead,” Eldritch barked into her comm.  “There’s three circles out there, maybe six feet across each, and it’s something.  I can see it.”

Diamondback came back, “It’s not magic.”

Jericho frowned.  He couldn’t see anything except the sand, even checking it out with infrared.  “Devises.  Baker, put a couple salvos down.”

Eldritch popped up from her cover and put a quick burst into the closest circle.  The bullets vanished with leaving any sort of trace on the surface.  She expertly lobbed a grenade to within a couple feet of the far circle.

The explosion sent frags all over the area.  They all took quick peeks, and found there was now a gaping black hole where the ‘sand’ had been.

“How deep is that?” Jericho asked.

Eldritch ripped a piece of metal off the junker behind her.  She lobbed it right into the pit, and it fell out of sight.  They waited for the sound of it hitting bottom…

“I don’t hear anything.”

“They can’t be truly bottomless.”

“They can be deep enough it doesn’t matter.  Baker, mark the other pits.”

Eldritch popped up and fired a short salvo that scattered the ground around the first pit.  She ducked down and waited for Able’s signal, then she marked the second one.

Jericho took a quick peek and launched a remote from his armor.  He’d have full aerial vision plus his own vision, for as long as it hovered overhead.  He reported, “I can’t see anything el-  Wait a minute…”

From around one corner came a shadow.  A pixie-like voice chirped, “Hey, you guys are really noisy!  You woke me up!”  A cute little blonde girl of maybe eight, in a pretty pink party frock, stepped out and began skipping toward them.

Eldritch quickly moved into position and double-tapped her.  One shot in the heart, one in the head.  The child went down.

Diamondback froze in mid-movement.  “What the hell?”

Razorback stopped and stared.

Jericho stood up and shouted at Eldritch, “Jesus Christ!  You just shot a kid!”

And before Eldritch had a chance to say anything, the traps were sprung.  Shroud dove from the top of a pile of cars and grabbed Razorback from behind.  He spun in her arms and clawed her furiously, but nothing he did seemed to hurt her, or even encouraged her to let go.  Eldritch snapped off a couple shots into Shroud’s body, but Shroud seemingly ignored them too.  Shroud dropped Razorback, and he had just enough time to make a desperate, animalistic shriek before he vanished into one of the bottomless pits.

As soon as Razorback was grabbed, Diamondback tried to move to help him.  She didn’t spot the spinning metal disk behind her.  She tried to react when Jericho yelled, “Diamond!  Behind you!”  But the thing sliced into her neck and she dropped.

Something the size of a pink hockey puck soared up and knocked Jericho’s remote out of the air.

Jericho began firing his heat gun and his lightning blaster, as both the spinning metal disk and Shroud tried to get him.

A series of linked metal pipes leapt out of a junked car and assembled itself in mid-air into a metal cage.  Eldritch saw it coming for her, and dove to the side in an expert roll.  The trap just veered through the air and dropped over her.  Eldritch ignored the cage for long enough to stick the muzzle of her M203 through the bars and give Jericho some supporting fire.  The pink hockey puck tried to jab her with a needle, which just bent on her skin.  She blasted the spinning disk out of the air, while Jericho launched some sort of energy wave that dropped Shroud.  Before she could rip the cage apart, it slid sideways, dumping itself and her into another of the damn pits.  She fell, and fell, and fell…

Jericho struggled to get back up.  He’d nearly depleted his power reserves blasting Shroud, and he needed the remaining power just to move in the armor and lift his shield.  He suddenly found Generator standing in front of him, in a ‘dragon lady’ costume complete with a bright red cheongsam and high heels.  Her domino mask and pinned-up hairstyle just made her look even more Oriental than usual.  He switched everything he had over to his lightning blaster, as she reached out and slapped a small blinking disk onto the side of his helmet.  She grinned, “Tag!  You’re i-”  He put everything he had left in his emergency backups into a lethal lightning blast, just as the armor of his right arm suddenly refused to obey his commands and it smashed him in the head with his adamant shield…

 

“Hello Jericho,” the computer voice said.  “Welcome back.  It is Tuesday, January 23th, 2007.  It is now 10:23 am.  Your team achieved a tie.”

He popped open his sim helmet to find his team opening the door to his cubicle and looking in on him.  He frowned, “It was Generator!  We got pwned by a noob!”

AYLA

Once Jade’s sim was over, Everheart switched straight over to Chou’s sim.  It was getting late, so she didn’t have time to make her usual forty-two points about the lessons learned.  But I thought the obvious lesson was that if someone had enough time to prepare for you, your ass was grass, regardless of the relative power levels.  Nobody would consider Jade a match for any of Outcast Corner – not even Jericho once he was in his Rafe armor – but in a ‘supervillain lair’ scenario, pretty much anyone playing the supervillain had a chance.

We sat back and enjoyed the sim.  Chou ate the Omegas alive.  Well, not in the Jimmy T sense of the phrase.  She had all the intel we had compiled on them, including their utter lack of teamwork and their known weaknesses.  So she hammered them one by one, leaping out of the darkness like the monster in a Wes Craven film.  While we were watching her in action on the viewscreens, I totally wished I had some popcorn.  Hot, popped the right way, with real butter and sea salt.  Okay, the blood and gore was pretty off-putting. but it wasn’t nearly as bad as some slasher flicks I had seen.  It looked like the subsonics were doing a better job of creeping out the Omegas than the special effects.

You know, it’s a good thing the Omegas have zero teamwork, or they might be a real threat.

After class, we walked over to the sim center to pick up our triumphant supervillains.  Jade was her usual self, but Chou looked pretty shaken.  That didn’t look good.

It turned out that Chou was even more upset than I thought at first glance.  It was a good thing she had a team for support.  I couldn’t imagine going through the things we were going through with a team like the Omega Squad.  I could see it now.  “Oh, you’re upset?  Well, I feel fine, so it’s not important.  See ya.”

It took us a bit to calm her down.  Fortunately, after last weekend, Billie knew just what to do.  She had already gotten more help.  Caitlin was talking to Chou.  She chased all of us except Billie out.

I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave Chou, but Toni grabbed my arm and convinced me to go.  So, while Chou was getting support from Caitlin, the rest of us escorted Jade back to the dorm.  Jade made sure to pout, “Well, I wanted to win too!  I was so close…”

Fey said, “Hey, at least you didn’t gloat all over the place, like Ayla did Saturday morning.”

I insisted, “That wasn’t gloating.  I was merely attempting to enhance the atmosphere of the sim.”

Toni grinned, “Hey, you should’ve given Jericho the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes.”

Jade muttered, “Y’know, they don’t work on blind people.”

Fey snorted, “Yeah, he’s really blind… like I’m a brunette.”

Okay, I’d seen him in action too.  I didn’t believe he was totally blind either.  He had some sort of sensory abilities, even when he wasn’t jacked into any camera systems.  I just hadn’t gotten his powers testing files yet.  I had more important targets to learn about first.  Jericho wasn’t even in the top two hundred students in my list I’d given Hillary.

On the way back to Poe, I split off from the team and went in search of yet another invitee.  I still hadn’t had a chance to ask Loophole, since she was too busy Alpha-ing and such these days.  I was still hoping she was going to be a good influence on the current Alphas, instead of their being a bad influence on her.  I just wasn’t sure if Kodiak had latched onto her as the next notch on his already heavily-scored bedpost, or if he had more permanent designs on her.  I hoped it was the latter, since she deserved better.  My sources informed me that Loophole was the first girl Kodiak had pursued who actually had an IQ above room temperature, so maybe Wyatt had decided it was time to pick out a Mama Bear, so to speak.  I had my fingers crossed, since I wanted Loophole to do well.  Plus, someone like Loophole would be a great influence on the Alphas for the next couple years, as long as The Don was properly excised, like the cancerous little tumor he was.

She wasn’t down in her bay in the automotive area, and Ringo pointed me toward her private lab.  So I gave him a hand lifting a massive plasma cannon barrel into the back of his vehicle.  Ergonomic was over in a nearby bay working on something that looked like the mating of a Sherman tank and one of the Great Pyramids.  I didn’t say anything, but it looked less than ergonomic to me.

Of course, Loophole’s laboratory door was different too.  Instead of a blank door with a nameplate, or a door with a fancy whiteboard, Elaine had a rectangular computer monitor mounted on her door.  It was displaying the message:

LOOPHOLE IS: IN

STATUS: BUSY BUT AVAILABLE

KEYCARD USE: PERMITTED

FOR OTHER ACCESS, TOUCH WINDOW BELOW

There was a flashing yellow frame demarcating the touch window.  Just in case it could read and store fingerprints, I touched the window with a knuckle.

The monitor display changed to a computerized image of a face.  It definitely wasn’t Elaine’s face.  It smiled and said, “Hello.  May I help you?”

Well, there was no reason not to treat this as any other personal assistant.  I said, “Yes.  I’m Phase.  I’d like to know if Loophole has two or three minutes to spare, to talk to me.”

The face asked, “Does this relate to current patent applications as previously discussed between you two?”

“Only very indirectly,” I said.

“Then what does this relate to?” it asked.

I said, “That should be ‘to what does this relate’.  Just for your information.”

The face smiled and said, “Thank you!  I do try to make my speech sufficiently colloquial, but it is nice to know that there are some people with whom I may be more… correct.”

I added, “This has to do with my party in Boston this Saturday.”

The face blinked and the eyes grew large, as if it were really sentient, and really aware of the implications of my statement.  I was impressed by the programming Loophole had obviously done.  The face excitedly said, “Please hold on for between five and twenty-three seconds!”

After about ten seconds, the door swung open, with an exasperated Loophole complaining, “All right already, Carmen!  Ah’m answering the dang door!”

This time, the computer voice sounded from inside the lab, chiding her, “I would not have been so insistent if you didn’t need to address this at once.”

She saw me and broke into a grin.  “Why hi, Ayla.  What brings you down to this neck of the woods?”

Boy, I could listen to that sexy Southern purr of hers all day.  I smiled back, “I can see you’re busy, but I wanted to invite you to my birthday luncheon Saturday.  We’re flying to Boston for a nice luncheon at Harrison’s, and then coming back.”

“See?” smirked the computer voice behind her.

She turned and snapped, “Hush, Carmen!”

I checked, “Is that an AI, or just an incredible simulation?”

“That’s a really bad pun, Ayla,” she grinned.  “Carmen’s an AI, but Ah’m tryin’ to keep her abilities under wraps.  And no, before you ask, she’s not gonna be under patents, and Ah’m not gonna be copyin’ her for other people.”

“Well, good,” insisted the computer voice from inside the room.

Elaine rolled her eyes.  “That’s the problem with AI’s.  They’re either too much ‘artificial’ and not enough ‘intelligence’, or too much ‘intelligence’ and not enough ‘artificial’.  Then you got the professors writin’ papers at MIT and Carnegie, and they basically all say if you can get it working, it must not be all that intelligent.  Ah think after The Palm and some of his ilk, nobody’s gonna trust an AI as smart as Carmen for a long time.”

I said, “After last week’s problem with Overclock and Make, I don’t think I’m ready to trust computer programs all that much.”

She winced a little.  “We all heard about that.  Ah didn’t like what they did, but Ah didn’t like how all the Workshop went crazy when they heard about it.”

I shrugged, “Well, there are a lot of Workshop people who like us.  Starting with Bugs and Delta Spike and Techwolf, and working down from there.”

She said, “Ah heard Harvey completely ‘dricked out when he started talkin’ about them messing with you.”

I think I managed to avoid blushing.  “Harvey doesn’t have a lot of friends.”

She drawled, “Well, Carmen thinks Ah oughta go and have some fun.  But you need to know you’re invitin’ an Alpha.  Anything Ah see, Ah might talk to someone about.”

I shrugged carelessly.  “Good.  We’ve already got one New Olympian, a Cape and a Cape wannabe, a Beret Mafioso, a couple Golden Kids, at least one Outcast, a couple Security auxiliaries, and all of Team Kimba.  And you’ll be the sixth inventor on the list.”

“Who else?” she wondered.

“Generator, Bugs, Delta Spike, Jericho, and Möbius.”

She smiled a little.  “Sounds like you’ve got one heck of a cross-section there.”

I said, “Not really.  No Thornies.  No Faction Three, unless Thuban comes.  No Ultraviolents or Dragons or Tigers or G.O.B. or Dylans or several other groups.”

She asked, “Aren’t Bladedancer and Chaka in those martial arts groups already?”

I sighed, “No, and they’re all making a big stink about it, too.  The Tigers want Chaka pretty bad, and she’s mad at their head guy.  Since he nearly took a swing at Chaka’s grandmother on Parents’ Day, I think you can figure Chaka’s going to hold that grudge a long time.  And Bladedancer doesn’t like having both groups fighting over her like she’s a trophy, so I don’t think she’ll side with either.  But you can talk to them about it on the trip.”

“Okay, I’m in.  It sounds fun,” she said.

“Great.  Nice casual, so just something better than t-shirt and worn jeans.  No presents, no anything.  Meet everyone in front of Schuster at nine Saturday morning, and we’ll take a couple shuttles to the airport.”

“Whoa.  The airport?  We all have to get tickets?”

“Umm, no.  Sorry,” I said.  “I chartered a jet.  No tickets, no standard airport security line, nothing.  And we have Whateley Security along to interact with the MCO and TSA.  In theory, it should go smoothly.”

She suddenly grinned, “Ah still remember what you said about theory versus practice.”

“Well, there is that.”

As I left, her AI said, with a surprisingly smug tone, “I told you that you should talk to Phase.”

As Loophole was closing the door behind me, I distinctly heard her say, “Carmen, nobody likes a smarty-pants.”

So I had to wonder.  Was this an act that she did, either to fool people or to entertain herself, or was ‘Carmen’ really real?  Just how smart was Carmen?  And, if she was an AI inside the Whateley intranet firewalls, just how far could she reach?  Just what could Carmen do, if she wanted to, and just what sort of attacks could she unleash?  I decided to let Bunny upgrade the internal firewall on my personal laptop.  Again.

When I got back to Poe and walked up from the basement, Beltane was looking especially shifty as she lay in wait for someone at the base of the stairs to the second floor.

I carefully floated up behind her and then, in my most annoyingly childish sing-song, I asked, “Whatcha doin’?”

Belle demonstrated that she had nerves of steel.  Not only did she not jump straight up or scream, she didn’t even flinch.  She casually turned around and said, “Ahh, Phase.  So… nice to see you.  What makes you think I’m doing anything?”

I refrained from smiling.  “Umm, let me see.  The crouched, lurking position.  The suspicious location for said lurking.  The mad cackling and hand-rubbing that reminded me of old John Carradine films.  Shall I go on?”

She swept a hand down over her body, and she ‘changed’ into Professor Moriarity from the old Basil Rathbone ‘Sherlock Holmes’ movies.  “Curse you, Holmes!  Now I’ll never manage to rob the Bank of England!”

I laughed, letting her off the hook.  “Okay, I don’t really want to know who you’re planning on pranking, as long as it isn’t me.”

She smiled wickedly.  “Actually, I was going to…  Shit.”  Her face fell as she looked behind me.

Okay, I looked behind me.  Even though this was Beltane.  So sue me.

It was Electrode.  I was pretty sure Electrode and Beltane were rooming together this term, although there had been that weird span last term where Feral went through about three roommates, and they kept rotating people around trying to find a compatible roommate.  Electrode and Beltane had been involved in that mess.  But Feral kept sneaking out in the middle of the night, leaving the room window open regardless of the weather, to go hunting or Sara-boinking or whatever the hell she was doing.  And then Feral might show up in the morning, leaving a trail of animal blood or feathers or something even worse all over the room.  Which was why she now had a single, and she had a gadget on the outside of her window so she could open and close the thing from the outside, even if she had shifted into something without opposable thumbs.

Electrode was not her usual smiling self, though.  The three-foot-wide bird’s nest lodged atop her hair and the massive, multi-colored Easter egg in the nest probably had a lot to do with that.  Jackie snapped at Belle, “I thought you told me your little prank war with Thorn was over!”

The thirty-pound egg started to tremble, and Belle hastily dispelled the ectoplasm before the rest of Thorn’s prank could make itself known.  Belle stared at Jackie for long seconds before morphing herself into a five-and-a-half-foot tall Bugs Bunny with foot-high ears.  “Of course you know, this means war!” she announced, complete with carrot-chomping.

“Oh crap,” muttered Jackie.

Bugs Bunny stormed out on floppy feet before I had a chance to stop her.

Electrode shook her head sadly and muttered, “Crap and a half.”

I asked, “Is this really with that new kid Thorn?”

Electrode nodded, “Yeah, he’s probably gonna have to fix that codename too.  But Belle’s gotten into this Ectoplasm War with him.  At least this time it’s just a bird’s nest.  Last time, everyone around them ended up looking like Pokemon.”

I checked, “Do you think she’ll say yes if I ask her about Boston?”

“Oh hells yeah,” Jackie insisted.  “She’s been going on about that ever since we heard you invited Marty.  And Elaine.

“What is it with you and Delta anyway?”

She just scowled.  “Don’t wanna talk about it.”  I opened my mouth and she cut me off.  “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard the whole deal from Zenith.  TG Togetherness.  Pink Power.  I don’t like how Delta does things, and I don’t like how she did things to get the way she is, and I don’t like how she thinks she can make everything go her way just because she wants ‘em to.  So don’t even ask me if I want to go to Boston.”

I admitted, “Well, I really was going to ask you, and…”

“No.  No way.  Not a chance.  I don’t even wanna be on the same floor with her.  No way I want to have to act like I don’t mind being at the same party.”

I tried, “Well, Marty likes rooming with her, and…”

“Yeah, well Marty has pretty bad taste in her men, too.  Iron Star?  Christ!”  She stomped off up the stairs, looking like she wanted to shock the shit out of somebody just to relieve some frustration.

“Well, that went well,” I muttered to myself.

I got halfway up the stairs when I ran into Shove.  She was frantically looking all up and down the stairwell.  Judging by the jab I got in my stomach, she was checking out everything in sight with her PK too.  Before I could complain, she grabbed me by my blazer lapels and with a wild-eyed look, begged, “Please, you gotta tell me!  Is Belle down there?”

Oh.  Suddenly, Beltane’s behavior became self-explanatory.  I told her, “No.  She was downstairs, but she rushed off to go battle Thorn.  Again.”

Shove sighed in relief, and sagged against the railing.  “Thank God.  I can’t go on like this.”  But before I could ask what Belle was doing to her, she ran down the stairs and out of the dorm.  Man.  Were all the dorms this insane, or was it just us?

I walked to lunch with Hank, who wanted to talk about Team Tactics class and pre-simulation strategizing.  I thought he had a couple good points, but there really was no way to do much strategy for simulations where we had absolutely no prior intel.  We had managed to do a lot of quick strategy and tactics for the Crucible sim, but only because we had some prior knowledge.  And most of what I had heard from Delta turned out to be vital.

Hank agreed, “Oh yeah.  If you hadn’t heard about the anti-mage trap, we would’ve lost Fey, and probably Chaka and ‘Dancer too.  And maybe Shroud for keeps.  And we would’ve walked right into the lava trap.”

“Magma trap.”

He grinned, “Relax a little.  Okay, the magma trap.  And that hallway really did turn out to be a ballcrusher.”

All right, I laughed.  So I’m a teenaged boy.  So sue me.  “Okay, we had a unfair advantage in that sim,” I said.  “The real question is whether I can come up with that kind of intel if we’re facing a real threat in real life.”

Hank just grinned.  “I figure whatever you do after Whateley, you’re gonna be putting together an intelligence network that’ll make The Syndicate’s look like a couple kids with tin cans and string.”

“Tin cans and string?” I repeated.  “Do any kids still do that?”

He said, “Sure.  Not all of us get high-end Goodkind cellphones before we learn to talk.”

Then lunch was once again the extreme weirdness that seemed to follow Team Kimba like a vulture following a limping deer.  Chou was doing better about running that Team Tactics supervillain scenario, but she had a lunch guest.  It was the Monkey King.

Yes, that’s right.  The god-like Sun Wu Kong of legend was sitting at our table, giving Chou and Molly shit.  Does this stuff happen to anyone else?  What was next?  Tennyo getting her own Ryo-ohki?  Oh wait, she already had one, when the J-Team felt like it.  Okay, what about being captured by supervillains?  Oh wait, we’d had that too.  Umm…  Okay, Hank hadn’t been asked to join DC Comics’ Justice League of America.  Although, now that I thought about it, his girlfriend’s parents were bigshots in S.T.A.R. League, and he might end up being invited into that.

Damn!  Why were we getting such incredible weirdness in our lives at every turn, while most of the rest of the campus was having a (relatively) normal high school experience?

I managed to avoid getting too much Monkey King trouble coming my way, which seemed like a really good thing, considering what he’d done to the entire school back in the fall.  On the other hand, there weren’t any special treats for me to eat.  I had to make do with a remarkably bland turkey rollup, and a pita bread sandwich with about five times more mayonnaise than it required.  I doctored the rollup with some stone-ground mustard I obtained from the hot dog condiments, along with some oak leaf lettuce and red bell pepper strips and shredded pepperoncini I picked out of the salad bar.  The chicken salad in the pita bread was hopeless.  Not only did it have way too much mayonnaise, but the celery and onion pieces would have worked a lot better if they hadn’t been minced to the point that you needed a jeweler’s loupe to identify them.  Also, the seasoning was apparently done ‘to taste’ by someone with a bad head cold.

So, I was one-for-two on lunch.  On the other hand, I got out of the cafeteria with my underwear still on my body, so maybe that made me two-for-three.

I spotted Risk loitering in the hall outside the caff, so I made my way over to him.  “Hi, Brandon.  How are you doing?”

He casually looked around and replied, “Oh, pretty good.  I wanted to know if you’d talked to Flux about the stuff Belle’s doing.”

But he was pretty intent on leading me over to the elevator and down into the tunnels.  I went along, because I was one of the few kids who couldn’t be hemmed in within the tunnel network.  Of course, Risk knew that.  But I was banking on his having a different sort of ulterior motive,

And sure enough, after we took the elevator down, he led me down a tunnel to where Hazard and Boxcars were loitering.  I had been waiting for this moment for a while now.  Ever since I made that little deal with the Masterminds, I had been hoping I could get some really valuable intel out of the bookie network.  Specifically, I had been hoping that they really would give me a heads-up if there was betting on something or someone connected to me.  So far, they had only talked to me about bets I didn’t need to hear about (like who would be Jobe’s first highly-illegal Drow test case) or bets I wouldn’t want to influence (like whether or not Majestic would find out that Imperious was trying to get Attributes to handle his lightning rod before or after Attributes got bolted a couple times).  Things like that, plus some ‘bookie bank’ issues.

Hazard straightened up when Risk and I walked up.  She and Boxcars led us into a side room.  Hazard took one quick glance up and down the hall before she got down to business.

She cleared her throat uncomfortably.  “We, umm, had a vote, it wasn’t unanimous, but it came down on your side.  So the three of us got tagged to tell you.  There’s betting going on right now.  On you.”

“Is that ‘you’ as in Ayla Goodkind, or ‘you’ as in Team Kimba?”

She looked at her partners and said, “Both, really.  There’s a pretty solid line in every dorm on campus that Team Kimba’s going to be in a super-battle in Boston this Saturday.”  She looked a little more uncomfortable as she added, “And there’s a line running in Melville now that at least one of the partygoers doesn’t come back.”

She looked at me to see how I was going to react.  I just crossed my arms and raised one eyebrow.

She explained, “Not a lot of money.  Not enough that I think someone has inside information, or anything like that.  It certainly doesn’t feel like it, any way.  It’s just enough cash to point out that plenty of people in Melville don’t like you.”

I warned them all, “Everyone in Team Kimba, as well as Bugs and Rip and Carmilla, got deputized when we were there before.  If anything superpowered goes down in Boston while we’re there, we’re likely to get asked to assist.  That first one may be a sucker bet.”  Hazard just nodded, in that irritating, ‘I’m getting some sort of precog hint that I’m keeping to myself’ way that she sometimes had.

I headed back to Poe to get some work done.  If I couldn’t help Chou any further, then I needed to concentrate on some real tasks, so I would stop stewing about it.

I was finished with Accounting II and most of the way through the Accounting III and Accounting IV textbooks.  Chou and Molly both thought that was more or less insane.  I saw it as mostly refresher material, although there had been some interesting material on the GAAP, as well as some material on marketing I hadn’t seen before.  My younger brother David had been the one who interned in the sales and marketing divisions of Goodkind International, which frankly suited his outgoing nature a lot better than it did my own.  Connie had spent time in the Human Resources division, but hadn’t liked working in it.

So I pulled out the two textbooks and worked on Basic Goodkind Knowledge Part 5, also known as business combinations and acquisition methods.  That was pretty much essential dinner conversation back when I was a…  Well, back when I wasn’t an intersexed freakazoid mutant.

I already knew about things like the Measurement Principle for acquisitions, which basically said that you had to have realistic and fair ways of assessing the assets, liabilities, and noncontrolling interest using the acquisition date fair values.  And I already knew all of the exceptions: reacquired assets, assets held for sale, assets and liabilities arising from contingencies, share-based payment awards, income taxes, employee benefits, and indemnification assets.  In my personal opinion, the employee benefits were the most important, because one of the key components of the goodwill recognized by the acquirer needed to be the goodwill of the employees toward the employer.  If you could maintain or improve that, then you could enhance your production and reduce things like cost overruns.  But far too many people only concentrated on customer goodwill, which was fairly shortsighted of them.  On the other hand, I didn’t know the complete details of the Impairment of Assets test out of IAS 36 in the International Financial Reporting Standards, because that level of detail was usually left to the lower-level accountants involved in any such financial arrangements.  Since I didn’t have a multi-national corporation at my disposal any longer, I figured I was going to have to learn all the details too.  Granted, I had learned a lot of this material when I was interning at Goodkind International.  But I hadn’t seen everything yet.

My alarm on my bPhone beeped, and the synthetic voice reminded me, “Time for martial arts class.”  It was just a normal synthetic voice, but I was thinking about Carmen, and I realized that I should have asked for a sultry female voice for my message system.  Why hadn’t I thought about that when Bunny set up the system and programmed it into the phone?  I was pretty sure that it wasn’t a Political Correctness move on my part, or an unwillingness to bring up the subject with Bunny.  I just hadn’t thought about it.  Which sounded way less masculine than I really wanted to consider.

But I didn’t have time to stew about my sexuality, when some evil little midget might consider lateness a hanging offense.  I grabbed my gymbag, held it close to my chest, and went light.  Then I flew off to class.

When I reached the Eastman Annex, I flew through a couple walls to save time.  Then I did my usual quick-change routine, while sensei Beaumont adjusted her gi and unashamedly watched me get dressed.

Beaumont waited until I had the belt of my gi properly knotted.  Then she said in French, “That is an interesting way to undress.  Can you dress using the same powers?”

I replied, “No, sensei.  I have examined the possibilities, and I would need some PK or some magic to hold the clothes properly for me to walk into them.”

She nodded and headed out to the mat.  I checked my utility belt one more time, and followed her.

The first part of the class went really well.  Beaumont showed us two more new sword katas and then worked our little butts off on a slew of previously-learned ones.  I was pleased by how much my Exemplar memory and kinesthetic skills were helping me.  It was obvious to me that mid-level and high-level Exemplars had a serious learning advantage over non-Exemplars, assuming we applied ourselves properly.

Then it was time for sparring.  Chaka went nuts on Swordmaiden with those kama.  Swordmaiden was damned tough, and really good with that sword, but she couldn’t land a blow on Chaka, and Chaka was double-wielding.  Not to mention that she dodged one of Swordmaiden’s combinations with an insane cartwheel while holding the kama, essentially using the blades like stilts for her hands.

Judicator demonstrated that she’s really extremely dangerous.  She took on Sledge and won.  Sledge has more martial arts skills than you would think, and he has Energizer powers that he has used both to make himself stronger and to attune his sledgehammer.  But Judicator knocked him around with her spear and shield, and won two points to none.  Okay, so she’s not ready to take Lancer.  Who is?

Then Ito announced, “Phase, with me.  Please leave your bokken and utility belt behind.”

I nodded and complied.  Even though I was thinking some fairly nasty thoughts about the sadistic little midget.  Okay, who was he going to throw at me?

“Blitz?  You may use all your weaponry.”

That shrimpy little bastard!  Just because I clobbered Força yesterday, he was tossing me at Blitz.  And it was the standard format.  Best two out of three, unless someone is incapacitated.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Chaka was practically jumping for joy.  Oh yeah, Blitz had been giving Chaka grief for months now.  So that meant that I knew all about Blitz and her ‘tood and her powers, because Chaka had griped about Blitz maybe once a week ever since Blitz first targeted her back in the fall.

Wait a minute, the powers that were still giving Chaka so much grief in hand-to-hand weren’t the kinds of powers that gave me trouble.  No wonder Chaka was so excited.  She’d already worked this out.

Blitz was a mid-level exemplar with contact electrical powers.  Which meant that when I was fully heavy, I was about as fast as she was, definitely stronger than she was, and probably immune to her lightning touch.  But she had a lot more martial arts expertise than I did, and she was wielding a rope dart made out of copper cable.  Yikes.  Well, it looked like I was going to find out about that immunity really quickly.  Like as soon as she hit me with that ‘cable’ dart.

I went heavy well before Ito started us, while Blitz made sure she was ready to go with her cable dart.  Sure enough, her first move was a throw to wrap the cable dart around my legs.  I jumped out of that, but I wasn’t fast enough to dodge her follow-up.  She spun around, snapping the cable back and then swinging it behind her to launch another attack.  Her cable dart wrapped around my right bicep before I got back into a decent stance, and she hit me with every watt she had.

I was expecting a searing zap that would last until I freed myself or I fell over.  I was wrong.  I was fully heavy.  It felt more like that big snap of static electricity after you’ve been shuffling along the rug in your socks.  I shook that off a lot more easily than I had anticipated.

I shook it off a lot more easily than Blitz had anticipated.  I grabbed her cable dart with my free hand and heaved as hard as I could.  She was yanked completely off her feet.  She came flying at me, still trying to shock me unconscious and unable to right herself while she was tumbling through the air.  I didn’t give her the chance.  I leapt forward and gave her a strong sidekick before she hit the ground.  She landed well outside the sparring ring, even if she came up in a graceful roll.

“First point to Phase.”

She scowled angrily and moved back into position.  Okay, I had caught her by surprise the first time, so she was going to be more cautious this time.  She went for a grapple-and-shock combo.  But she hadn’t sparred with me before, and she still wasn’t prepared to wrestle a density-changer.  At a little over a ton, I wasn’t nearly as easy to toss as she was used to, and her electrical powers still weren’t having much effect on me.  When she couldn’t quite pull me off my feet because of my weight, I had the time to reverse her throw.  I used my full weight, and I tossed her halfway to the edge of the mat.

Ito calmly said, “Second point and match.”

Chaka all but did a victory dance at the side of the mat.  If she hadn’t been sitting seiza at the time, I’m sure I would have gotten the hip-hop version of something like “We Are the Champions”.

Blitz was clearly angry about losing.  But when she saw Chaka’s reaction, she decided to be the gracious English lady.  She put on her plummiest tones as she congratulated me on my win.  “That was well done, Phase.  I haven’t sparred against a density changer before.  I see that I need to work on that.  Perhaps you’ll accommodate me some time in the future?”

So I gave her the same.  I shook hands politely and smiled, “I’m always willing to learn more.  I look forward to it.”

Ito immediately let me know I was in for more trouble, “That is good, Phase.  We shall have to test you more thoroughly.”

I merely nodded to him and moved back to my spot.  As I sat down, I tried to figure out some way I could get that evil little midget.  I was sure he was going to throw me at someone way out of my weight class.  There were plenty of them in here.  And he already knew I couldn’t come close to taking Lancer.  I started making mental notes of all the people in the class whom I didn’t want to fight.

After I showered, I waited for Toni, who was chock full of smug excitement.  She couldn’t wait to tell me the helpful advice she had given Blitz.  “Oh yeah, I told her she ought to be sparring with you and Hank all the time, just to up her skills.”

“Oh, thanks!  Thanks a lot!” I grumbled.

Hank joined us from the boys’ locker room.  “What’s wrong with that?” he asked.  “If she can’t shock you when you’re heavy, and she’s not as strong as you either, then she’s gonna have to go on technique.  She’s got a bunch of it.  She just wasn’t figuring on needing any of it against a martial arts newbie.  So you can learn all kinds of stuff she knows.”

“Says the indestructible guy who can beat up the whole class with paper swords,” I complained.

“Oh come on,” he grinned.  “The whole point of this is learning new stuff.  You can’t do that if you don’t have any challenges.”  He turned to Toni, “So… how are you gonna spar with Blitz now she’s got that electrical cable?”

Toni rolled her eyes.  “If we’re not having to start with contact, I’ve been doing my Chaka Chaka Bang Bang on her.  But that rope dart complicates things.  And my meteor hammer conducts electricity too.  Steel chain.”

I pointed out, “But your kama have wooden handles.”

“And?” she checked.

“Wood doesn’t conduct electricity.  You can safely hack up her ‘cable dart’ with your kama and then slide in for a quick but insulated kill…  Not that I want you to really kill her.  I mean metaphorically.”

“No, no, I got you,” she said, even as she got lost in thought.  The evil grin that eased across her face told me she was already thinking of moves she could pull on Blitz with her kama, or maybe with a meteor hammer made of nonconductive metal.

After class, I waited for Chou, but she was off to meet with Becca.  Okay, that sounded good.  I was sure Becca could do a much better job of calming her down than I could.

So Team Kimba and friends started hiking back to Poe.  I was all for taking the tunnels, but I was outvoted by The Martial Arts Human Highlight Reel and the J-Team.  I swear, I don’t know why everyone else just accepts that Jade gets as many votes as she has talking forms.  Billie and Hank didn’t care which way we went, since they’re not affected by the cold like most of us.  I gave in relatively graciously, and I went heavy so the cold wouldn’t bother me for a lot longer.  As we trudged back – okay, a couple of us were bouncing around like manic superballs – we were talking about Chou and the Tong of the Black Madonna.  Most of us were all for flying to Baltimore, tracking down the Tong operatives keeping an eye on Toni’s family, and giving them the smackdown.

I said, “I can get us a chartered jet, and my people ought to have those Tong dorks under surveillance by now, but I don’t think we can get there, perform a surgical strike, and get back undetected.”

Toni said, “Oh, come on!  Fey can whip up an illusion to cover us for a couple hours.”

Hank insisted, “Not a chance.  We already know Mrs. Horton’s got those wards around the dorm.  She’d spot us in a second.  And we promised Carson we’d give her a chance to handle it.  I say we stick to our word.”

Toni muttered, “Okay, but if she doesn’t give us some good news soon, I’m jumpin’ out of Ayla’s jet Saturday, and hitchhiking home to do it myself!”

Hank said, “Look, Ayla already admitted she’s got super secret agents keeping an eye on your family.  Can we just not get her into trouble with Carson by blowing this wide open?”

I said, “Don’t worry about me.  I’m technically in compliance.  But I’ve been thinking this over, and I think Carson has a hell of a good chance of pulling it off.  Think about it.  These dorks have to depend on the Oriental crime infrastructure to survive.  But Carson can call on the Golden Lions, the Iron Dragon…”

“The Iron Dragon?  No way!” Billie said.

“Yes way,” I replied.  “Silver Serpent?  The daughter of the Iron Dragon himself.  I figure the Bad Seeds alone give Carson enough pressure to kick the crap out of the Tong of the Bowel Movement.  Iron Dragon, Doctor Diabolik, Gizmatic, Devilmaster, the Troll Bride, Major Threat, and maybe a dozen other wanted supervillains all have kids here right this second, and they all depend on Whateley neutrality.  And half the Syndicate has to owe Lady Astarte one hell of a favor after Halloween.  Plus, the families of Hatamoto and Gunkan and Thuban have to have connections that can squeeze the shit out of the Tong’s economic constraints.”

“Economic whats?” piped up Jade.

“Economic constraints,” I repeated.  “Whatever these bozos are, they need food and water, and roofs over their heads, and a hundred other things.  Almost everyone has economic bottlenecks that can be exploited by a wealthy and sufficiently ruthless enemy.  What if they suddenly found out their food supplies were interrupted?  Or if their water supply was somehow tainted and they couldn’t get outside supplies?  Or if they were threatened with eviction from their hideout?  Or if someone stripped them of their supply of victims for those necromantic rituals they seem to like so much?”

Billie said, “You know Ayla, sometimes you’re pretty scary.”

Hank agreed, “Yeah.  Remind me not to piss off any Goodkinds anytime soon.”

Toni muttered, “I’d still rather beat the snot out of ‘em.”

But before we could get any further in our discussion, we had an interruption.  From behind us, a thick Southern drawl boomed out, “Hol’ on there a second!”

We all turned to check out the voice.  An Exemplar kid flew in and landed right in front of me, smiling like he was auditioning for a toothpaste commercial.  “Hah there, little lady.  Ah’m Monolith, the new superhero around here.”

He was big.  ‘Stormwolf’ big.  And he had muscles on his muscles.  I mean, he looked like a Rob Liefeld cartoon of an Exemplar, except he had the boyish, freckled face of a young teenager.  He had bright green eyes and a mop of crimson hair to go with the youthful face.  I figured he had to have girls all over campus drooling over him.  I just couldn’t figure out why he was targeting me.

He was wearing a hodgepodge of supersuit pieces.  The combat boots and the camo belts looked old, but the white supersuit and gold gloves and yellow cape looked right off the shelf of the Whateley store.  I wondered if they had been laundered yet: the cape still had that sheen of spray starch and anti-static chemicals that the still-new capes had so they fluttered more effectively in the breeze.

He put out his hand in a welcoming handshake, and I took it.  I figured that I had more than enough backup if he started anything, and he probably didn’t know what I could do.  He took my hand gently, like I was some sort of delicate flower, instead of a one-ton brick.  But his handshake told me what I needed to know.  His skin had the slippery feel of a TK field.  That made him an Exemplar / TK brick like Hank or Bombshell.

<(Phase) Exemplar and TK brick.  Maybe something else too.  Tennyo, if he tries anything, knock him out.>

Okay, so I wasn’t as trusting as I was trying to appear.  But I didn’t have any intel on him.  He had to be newer than the students who started at the beginning of the term.  Which almost certainly meant that he met one or more of the half dozen official criteria to get someone in during a term.  He might be late starting the term for some reason, like Chou had been.  He might be targeted by outside agents, like Sara had been.  He might be a danger to himself, or a danger to others, or a danger to his surroundings.  Those options didn’t look very likely, given his current level of control over his powers, and the fact that he wasn’t in Hawthorne.  He might have just been busted by the police or the MCO, and had opted for Whateley over jailtime.  Or he might have connections: Whateley connections, or powerful sponsors.

He grinned, “A lovely lady lak yourself ought ta have a strong man lak me alongsad ‘er.  Maybe you’d do me tha honor of lettin’ me take you out ta dinner tonaht.”  He reached behind his back and handed me a single red rose on a long stem.

My so-called friends were being their usual supportive selves.  Toni and Jade were desperately trying not to laugh out loud.  Hank and Billie were gaping in shock.

“No thank you,” I tried.  I kept my hands behind my back, so I didn’t have to accept a rose from a guy, either.

He tried again.  “Ah’m sorry, a lovely lady lak yourself must have hundreds of invitations.  Perhaps we could pick out some evenin’ when you’re free, and…”

“No,” I cut him off before Toni fell on the ground in hysterics.  “I’m not interested.  I’m not ever going to be interested.  Didn’t anyone tell you about me?”

“Way-ull…  Mah sistah did tell me this crazy tale about you bein’ a boy, but thar’s no way a beautiful young woman lak yerself could be a boy.”

Oh God.  Toni was snorting into her hands.  Jade was biting her lip so hard she was about to draw blood.

“I am a boy.  I just have a really bizarre problem with my BIT, if you know what that is.  Now, do I need to expose myself in public to convince you I have the same thing between my legs that you do?”

He blushed.  Hard.  “I… umm…  No.  I wouldn’t ask anyone ta do that.”

“AWK-ward!” Toni sing-songed behind me.

I figured that I needed to check on the other thing he had said.  “And your sister?”

“Elaine.  Elaine Nalley.  Ah’m Steve Nalley.”

Oh crap.  A sudden iciness gripped me around my diaphragm.  Now that I was looking for it, there was even a little family resemblance.  Just a little, mind you.

<(Lancer) Elaine who?>

<(Phase) Loophole.  He’s Loophole’s little brother.  Probably just manifested.>

I tried again.  “Look Monolith, you’re hitting on a guy.  This is just embarrassing, and it’s not going to do your rep any good.  So why don’t you just drop it, and I won’t talk about.”

He was red with embarrassment, but he didn’t lash out or go ballistic on me.  He apologized about five times, and then he flew off back toward central campus.

Chaka waited until he was out of sight before she began singing, “Ayla’s got a boyfriend…  Ayla’s got a boyfriend…”

“Oh grow up!”  I stomped off to Poe, feeling even crabbier than usual.  All I needed was some dimwit guy trying his hardest to be Cyrano to my Roxanne, or Romeo to my Juliet.  Or even worse, having him go all Heathcliff on my friends.

Or, more likely, he probably thought in terms of ‘Edward and Bella’.  Ugh.  I did need to find out what his powers were, since some day in the future, I might have to beat the snot out of him just to make him leave me alone.

Come to think of it, that hadn’t worked for Fey.  Stalwart had more or less stalked her, until she needed a rescue.  Maybe I would have to talk to Zenith about the best ways of discouraging boys from pursuing me.  Or Hippolyta.  I would bet she had some interesting stories.  Most of them probably ended with ‘and now he walks with a limp’.

You know, sometimes I really, really hate my stupid body.  I would be willing to bet there wasn’t one other het guy on campus who had a male admirer hanging around him, asking him out on dates and trying to get into his pants.  But no, I had to look like supermodel Heather Goodkind’s hotter little sister, and I get this crap.  Double ugh.

I stormed back to my room and brooded while I did some desultory studying.

After the travesty that was lunch, I wasn’t expecting much out of dinner.  But I went because I was still worried about Chou and Molly, and I wanted to show some Team Kimba solidarity.  I was rewarded for my good intentions.

Jana had a beautifully done calzone for me, and Paloma had a small meringue tart with expertly swirled meringue that had been toasted to perfection.  I really doubted that either had been made in the ovens in Dunn: they were too well-prepared.  I thanked both ladies and hurried to get a mug of tea, so I could enjoy what promised to be an exciting meal.

Then I saw who had joined us for dinner.  Oh crap.