Ayla and the Birthday Brawl: (Chap 6)
Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 6
Ayla and the Birthday Brawl
by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)
CHAPTER 6 – The Legend of Calidore, or of Courtesy
The Monkey King was back again. I had a sudden, cowardly temptation to go sit at another table. I didn’t give in to it. I walked over and sat down. I gave Sun a brief nod and focused on my dinner, even though she was busy tormenting everyone.
I tried to concentrate on my calzone. I carefully cut a piece and took a careful bite of the hot cuisine. Oh man, was that good. The calzone was crisp and flaky on the outside, carefully baked to perfection. In a decent oven. Inside, it was stuffed with coarsely chopped Portobello mushrooms and Italian sausage, all blended in a rich red sauce full of basil and fennel, with just enough basil and oregano to really emphasize the sausage and mushroom both. And the amount of sauce was just right. All too often, calzone are made with either so little sauce that accompanying sauce is needed so it isn’t too dry, or else so much sauce that the calzone sits in soggy dough and is in danger of falling apart. This was just right.
I took a second bite and slowly savored it.
And when I looked down, the rest of the calzone was gone. I glanced across the table, and Sun was stuffing the last of it into her mouth. “Mmm!” she grinned at me.
Goddamnit! Stealing girls’ underwear was one thing, but taking my culinary treats was totally unfair. “Sun!” I meant it to be calm, but it came out as more of an angry snarl. “That was my dinner!”
“And it was delicious!” she giggled. “You should get some more!”
“There isn’t any more,” I growled.
“Sun…” hissed Chou.
Sun beamed at me, “That does not sound like good planning.”
Oh shit. I hastily got a forkful of the meringue tart just before it vanished off my plate.
“SUN!” I fumed. She just smiled at me, chewing a large mouthful.
I ate the lone bite on my fork before she had a chance to steal that too. Oh God, it was delicious. The meringue top was toasted just right, so it was crisp but not hard or friable. The filling was a deliciously tart lime that was creamy and smooth. The pastry was light and flaky, and it was subtly sweetened to offset the tartness of the rich lime filling. And that one bite was all I got. Crap.
I stood up and said to her, “Since you ate all my dinner, you can take my tray back as well. Just remember tonight. At some point, you may need my help. Behavior like this is going to count against you.” Then I sank into the floor and flew down into the tunnels.
I should have stayed in the caff and helped out. Chou and Molly really didn’t need Sun, on top of everything else going on in their lives. They probably needed all the team support they could get. Instead, I got mad and flew off to have a private snit.
Okay, I flew off to have a decent dinner. I flew through the tunnels and back to my room, where I heated up some leftovers out of the fridge and made myself a little reward for not leaping over the table and trying to throttle that little snot. Of course, since Sun Wu Kong probably would have paralyzed me in mid-air and then stripped me naked in the middle of the caff, it was just as well that I kept my temper just enough not to throttle the stinking little troublemaker. Some day…
While I was putting my plate and flatware aside for Jody to get later, my bPhone rang. The Caller ID system said it was Zenith. I hoped she wasn’t going to complain about my going to Boston too.
Zoe said, “Hi. I don’t hear any background noise. Are you still in the cafeteria?”
“No, I’m back in my room already.”
“Hmm, that was fast,” she said, just trying to get me to say more.
It would serve her right if I did tell her the Monkey King was back on campus. She’d end up lying awake all night long, worrying about having every bit of lingerie stolen out of her room. Instead, I lied, “I had stuff I needed to get to.”
“Well, do you have a few minutes to come up here? Shrike just looked at the stock prices, and she’s going wild.”
Well, there did seem to be some yelling in the background, now that she mentioned it. “I’ll be up in a few seconds,” I told her.
I stepped into the hallway and went light, floating up through Damnation Alley into Zenith’s hallway.
She was already opening her door as I shifted to normal density and walked over. She smiled, “I figured you were speaking literally. Come on in.”
Shrike hopped over to the door and waved, “Yeah, come on in.”
Well, this was interesting. Usually, Shrike was Miss Tall, Dark, and Snarky. Today, she was ebullient. She literally danced over to her bed before she exuberantly threw herself onto the bedspread. She beamed at me and shrieked, “It worked! It really worked!”
Zenith teasingly translated, “She finally got up the nerve to check how your IPO is going. When she saw the stock price, she started screaming like a maniac.”
Shrike gave her a glare. “I did NOT start screaming like a maniac. Just because your girlfriend was doing somersaults and screeching like a banshee…”
Zoe smirked, “Sahar was pretty psyched when she checked the stocks yesterday morning. She’s been following the stock market news on GNN ever since.”
Shrike interjected, “That’s your family’s network, right?”
I nodded a little. “Goodkind News Network, GBS, GNN2, GSPAN, GSPN and GSPN2 and all the spinoff channels, and about ten other networks, including a really lame food channel I was really going to do something about, back before I manifested. Not that they’re really my family anymore.”
Zenith got the conversation off the touchy subject, and back on track. “But Shrike and Sahar are both very pleased with the success of the IPO.”
I shrugged. “That’s what IPO’s are supposed to do, if they’re constituted properly and marketed in a way that draws the interest of the Exchange.”
Shrike wondered out loud, “Did you really beg Warren Buffett to invest in it? That’s what one guy was saying on the news.”
I shook my head, “No. Okay, Ron might have, but I didn’t. Warren tends to use Berkshire Hathaway as the nine hundred pound gorilla, and that means you end up having to do things his way. I’m not really interested in that sitch.”
Shrike goggled at me. “You know ‘em all in person?”
I shrugged a little. “My parents introduced us to Warren about… umm… eight years ago. Then, after I asked Father to work with him on some cable network buyouts, Warren sent me a Ferrari for my twelfth birthday.”
“A remote control car? They’re expensive,” Shrike said.
Zoe coughed slightly. “I don’t think that’s what Ayla meant.”
I admitted, “No, it was a candy apple red Ferrari Enzo worth about $800,000. I was a real asshole about it. I wouldn’t let anyone drive it unless I was along to make sure it didn’t get scratched up before I was old enough to drive it myself.”
Shrike asked, “Where is it now?” while Zoe hastily made hand gestures in a vain effort to get her to shut up.
I managed to keep my face impassive as I told her, “Probably sold off or scrapped. When they kicked me out, I didn’t get to keep any of that stuff.”
“Umm, sorry,” Shrike winced.
I sighed, “It’s okay. We all hit rough spots when we manifest, right? Even the kids who were granted a miracle, like Toni, still have problems here and there.”
“Toni? Rough spots?” Shrike scoffed.
“Oh sure,” I insisted. “Didn’t you hear? Over Christmas, she had to have her pelvis surgically broken in four places, so it would grow properly and it wouldn’t crack under the stress of everyday life. How’s that for a Christmas present? And then, while she was in a wheelchair and Bladedancer was visiting, they got attacked by ninja assassins.”
“So it was Rear Window meets Double Dragon, huh?” Shrike snarked.
Zenith just shook her head, “If that nitwit Nex hadn’t targeted me a couple months ago, I’d be wondering if you Kimbas go to a completely different school from the rest of us. Have you guys gotten through even one month without some sort of fight?”
“No,” I confessed. “And there have been weeks when one of us was in some sort of fight every single day. But then, I’ve been a pretty big target around here, being a Goodkind, and visibly intersexed too, so I didn’t have to go looking for trouble. Trouble came searching for me with ground-penetrating radar.”
Zenith said, “I’ve heard rumors that some of the campus powers suckered people into attacking you last term.”
Well, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she knew. She was one of the more effective dorm fixers on campus. I replied, “Oh yeah. My sources tell me that the Good Ol’ Boyz and the Alphas were behind most of them. I still don’t know who lured the Goths into going after me, but it might have been Solange. Or it might not have been anyone. Maybe they really just hated my last name that much.”
Shrike guessed, “Was that back when Bloodworm was still around? Major looney-toon there. I can see him going after you with no prompting at all.”
Zoe smiled into her hand and said, “I don’t think that’s quite the reason I asked you up here.”
Shrike gave herself a headslap and said, “No. I really wanted to thank you a ton about the stocks. I mean, a few months ago I was looking at living at home after Whateley and going to the local community college, which is like Morons ‘R’ Us, and hiding being a mutant, and working my ass off at a burger place to afford to buy books and stuff. But now I… I can go to college! A real college! This is so great!”
Zenith smiled at her roommate and said, “Sahar’s gonna want to thank you too. In person. I know you’ve had some hard times, but you really can’t imagine what having some money means to her.”
Shrike gushed, “I mean, this is enough dough for four years at USF! I always wanted to go there, but my folks have two other kids to put through college, and then there’s grad school on top of that…”
Zoe and I let Shrike gush for a while about the miracle of available funds. Zoe whispered, “Della’s dad is an engineer, and her mom is a patent attorney, but that means they’re having to cough up big cash dollars to Whateley, and they live in a fairly expensive part of the Bay Area too. She’s been worried there wouldn’t be much left for her college fund, after her folks spent a fortune on sending her here.”
“Yeah,” I murmured. “The full tuition bit for Whateley kind of makes Harvard and Yale look like Bertha’s Beautician School.”
“Like you’d know anything about that,” Zoe chided me.
“Hey, my friend Tiffany’s working as a waitress and saving up money to go to a trade school like that,” I told her.
“… and I could live off-campus in a nice apartment, maybe share a place with some other coeds…”
Zenith just looked at me. “And why aren’t you paying her way?”
I groaned, “Children’s Services. I really wanted to pay for her SRS, and they made such a stink you’d think my guardians were buying her a membership in the Narcotic Of The Month Club.”
“Is this IPO gonna change that?” Zenith asked.
I growled, “If it doesn’t, I’m going to go behind their backs and find ways to funnel some investment income into it anyway.”
“…and food! Mom said she ate Ramen all the way through law school, but now I can afford real food, and…”
Shrike was still rambling about college when I left. Normally, she was such a wiseacre, so it was kind of nice to see what she was like underneath the hard exterior.
Zenith ushered me out into the hall and murmured, “Della went through a really rocky transition that took a long time, so she isn’t exactly sympathetic to the ‘oh look I turned into an Exemplar beauty overnight’ gang.”
I nodded. “Maybe you ought to introduce her to Jade. Generator’s having an even harder time with the transition than you’d think. It might do both of them some good.”
Afterward, I was feeling pretty good about things. I had done something good for two people who needed the help. They were seeing me as a good guy, and not some evil, anti-mutant fiend. I was grinning as I flew down the stairwell to my room.
I stopped grinning as soon as I unlocked my door and walked in.
Sun Wu Kong was sitting at my desk, playing on my supposedly password-protected computer. I really hoped she was just playing a computer game, and not wrecking the operating system. She was wearing a pair of my best silk pajamas, and there was now a hole in them, through which her tail waved jauntily. So much for the bottoms of those pajamas. “Goddamnit!”
“Hi, Ayla!” she giggled. “You don’t mind if I use your stuff, do you?”
“Of course I mind!” I fumed.
“Oh!” she snickered. “Would you have said yes if I asked first?”
She just grinned wider. “In that case, I guess it’s a good thing I forgot to ask!”
Then I thought about something besides my own self-interest. “Excuse me, but does Chou know you’re here?”
She grinned, “No, but she will!”
Oh great. Just great. Then I thought about the little visit we had the other night from the BM Tong, and I checked, “Does Whateley Security know you’re on campus?”
She nodded, “Oh yes. I even had a lovely little chat with your headmistress today. That was really fun too!”
Okay, everyone was entitled to their own definition of fun. I just pointed out, “All right, but don’t forget what happened the last time you were in this room.”
She nearly leapt out of my chair with excitement. “Oh, that was great! Do you think we could do that again tonight?”
Oh God. Well, bringing that up had just proven to be a huge mistake. “No. Definitely not. I need my sleep.” Not to mention that she had slammed me into a wall so hard I had left an Ayla-shaped dent. I wasn’t interested in a repeat performance.
She smiled mischievously, which immediately made me worry even more. She said, “Since I ate your dessert, I brought a little something to make amends. It’s in your refrigerator.”
I rushed over and yanked open the door, expecting to find… something. I didn’t know what. Maybe miniature polar bears eating everything in sight, and pooping all over the interior.
There was a small, clear plastic box holding half of the lime meringue tart. The tart was cut precisely in half vertically, and was facing me so I could see just how gorgeous the construction was.
No, wait a second… There were some more things behind the tart. I slid the tart to the side and checked. There were 5 more boxes, each of them holding half of one of the lime meringue tarts. There were three entire lime tarts in my fridge, just waiting for me! Despite my anger, I was already salivating.
“I brought you something else, too,” Sun said.
I closed the fridge and watched her. She pulled out a small silk pouch. It was white silk, embroidered in gold and green with a Chinese dragon. It had a drawstring closure, and it looked about big enough to hold a small chicken egg.
She tossed it to me. It felt so light that I wondered if it could be filled with anything, other than a handful of feathers. But I trusted Sun about as far as I could throw her. No, less than that. I trusted her about as far as I could throw a bus. I gingerly opened the knot in the drawstring and tugged open the pouch…
A wave of sensuous fragrance assailed my nostrils, and I knew immediately what was in the pouch. It was more of Chou’s special tea blend. I pulled the pouch open as far as it would go, and the tea seemed to expand to fill the enlarged pouch. “Just how much tea is in here?” I asked suspiciously.
Sun pretended to think it over. “About fifteen kilograms.”
Holy crap! There were thirty or so pounds of the tea in this teeny bag? Thirty-three pounds of loose tea leaves would be a huge volume of tea! I stuck my index finger into the bag, and my hand just kept sinking in, and sinking in, and sinking in. I stopped when my wrist was buried in the tea leaves, and there was still no feeling that I was nearing any sort of bottom.
Sun smiled naughtily. “There’s a spell on the bag. It’s far larger on the inside than on the outside.”
I carefully slid my hand out, brushing stray tea leaves back into the pouch. The scent was making me think about brewing up a teapot that very moment…
Oh man. I couldn’t believe I was letting that little snot bribe her way back into my good graces. But that tea! This was just what I wanted for my birthday!
I cautiously asked, “If I take the tea out, can I still use the pouch to store things?”
She smirked, “Oh no, once the tea comes out of the pouch, the inside will get smaller. The pouch will always be just large enough to hold the tea, and the tea will stay perfectly preserved until it comes out of the pouch. But once the tea is all gone, the pouch will be no more than a tiny silk bag, without any magic.”
“Oh.” Yeah, I had been imagining my own personal ‘bag of holding’. I’d just have to make do elsewhere. I pulled the drawstring tight again and put the bag in my pantry. Then I turned away from Sun. Not that I thought she couldn’t pick up on my end of the conversation I was about to begin.
<(Phase) Bladedancer? Are you on?>
<(Bladedancer) I am here. I am walking back to Poe. Alone. Is there a problem?>
<(Chaka) A problem?>
<(Lancer) I’m on. Need help?>
<(Phase) Not as such. I wanted to give ‘Dancer a heads-up. Sun is in the room, waiting for my roomie.>
Hank unleashed several choice phrases that impugned the Monkey King’s ancestry, family heritage, sexual proclivities, and recreational interests. Obviously, Hannah Declan had learned more from her time on Army bases than how to shoot firearms.
<(Chaka) Wow! Do you kiss your mamma with that mouth?>
<(Lancer) I can be there in five seconds.>
<(Phase) Not needed. Yet. Right now, Sun is trying to make nice.> Chou groaned. <(Phase) But there’s no telling what will happen in a couple of minutes.>
<(Tennyo) I’m here too. But let’s see if we can keep this under control, at least as long as she’s inside our dorm. We couldn’t take her the last time. And I really don’t want to turn our home into a radioactive pile of rubble.>
<(Phase) She even brought me a bribe or three.>
<(Fey) Ooh! Bribes? What you do bring to bribe a Goodkind? Just for future reference, you know…>
<(Phase) She brought three of the lime meringues I didn’t get to eat at dinner, and a lot of the special tea, in a bag that keeps it magically fresh.>
<(Chaka) Is it magically delicious?>
<(Bladedancer) I am coming up the stairs now. Let’s see if we can keep this from turning into a fight.>
And we kept it from turning into a pitched battle. Even if Chou wasn’t all that happy to come home after a crappy day to find the Monkey King waiting to give her big hugs. Okay, it would have been hysterically funny watching someone get forcibly cuddled, if it had been someone else. Someone who deserved a little embarrassment. But, knowing what a crappy week Chou had been through, I just wanted to tie Sun’s tail to something heavy. Perhaps a fuel tank on that Goodkind Space Research test of Project Asterix, about fifteen seconds before launch. We went to bed, with me trying to ignore Sun. Okay, Chou was trying to do the exact same thing, with somewhat less success.
At least the nightmares weren’t as bad as the night before. The one where I came out of the BIT-slicer looking like Nikki – and then I had all those horny guys fawning over me – was gross. But it still wasn’t as horrible as the one with my coming out of the BIT-slicer looking like I was half-Jobe. And I don’t mean the new Drow-babe Jobe that people are joking about, but the old weasel-faced I-do-so-have-a-chin Jobe. Yuck.
You also have to add in that “Incongruity” nightmare for an extra fun evening. My life was so much simpler before I knew that the novel “Incongruity” was real, and was actually the First Book of the Kellith; not to mention that my life was a hell of a lot less threatening before I picked up my own personal demonic nemesis.
And it would have been nicer if I hadn’t already had a near-perfect memory back when I read “Incongruity”. Knowing precisely what was in that book, and now knowing what it really meant in terms of The Kellith and Sara… Christ. No wonder Michael Waite had been one of the three best-selling horror authors on the planet. I wondered if Stephen King or Dean Koontz had any non-human blood flowing through their veins. I wondered if H. P. Lovecraft really had seen mind-rending horrors here around Dunwich, or elsewhere in the Miskatonic Valley.
I wondered if I was ever going to get a decent night’s sleep again.
Wednesday January 24, 2007
I woke up feeling less than fully rested, but not utterly exhausted. I went light and shoved my face down through my mattress to check on our overnight guest. But Chou and Sun were both gone. I wondered if Chou had woken up to find Sun still being a pest, or if Sun had taken off during the night. Either way, they had been quiet enough that I had slept through it.
And, thinking about that subject, I flew over and checked whether my underwear had vanished during the night. No, it looked like everything was still there.
Then I checked my fridge and pantry, just in case. No, the lime meringue tarts and the ‘teabag of holding’ were still there. So I checked my computer. Still working. Whew. I decided to run the self-diagnostics and anti-virus software, just in case. Not that I was feeling paranoid or anything, you understand.
I even checked the silk pajamas that were now folded up in my laundry basket. There was no hole in the crotch of the bottoms, so either Sun had magically created the appearance of a hole, or else she had magically mended an actual hole. Either way, I was glad I hadn’t lost a pair of good pajamas. After all, they were hand-tailored, so it took weeks to get a new pair. I still figured they needed to be laundered. Not that I thought Sun had fleas, or had gotten hair all over them, or anything like that. I just didn’t like the idea of wearing them again without having them dry-cleaned.
I put on my bathrobe, grabbed my shower caddy, and headed out to clean up. I wasn’t expecting any more problems from Sun this morning. On the other hand, I wasn’t expecting any extravagant indulgences. Actually, I was really just hoping I could remain groin-attack free this morning.
I didn’t have Jade or Nikki lurking ahead of me in line, so I was figuring the family jewels were fairly safe. Also, I was still wondering where the heck Hank got the word ‘hamdinger’. Was that Army slang for women’s privates? Or Southern slang? Maybe I could find it on the internet.
Verdant was in front of me in the line, and she was perfectly willing to turn and face me before chatting away. Which was fine by me, because Pilar was a really striking young woman, with a lovely face and a terrific rack. And she had her towel wrapped about half an inch above her nipples. So what if she had two smaller arms she kept hidden under towel, not to mention a tail? She was learning how to shift those things away. Anyway, It wasn’t like I was exactly Mister Perfect Body. And frankly, since I had found out just how freaky Gerald really looked with his cap off, I was putting Pilar as the third-oddest body on the floor. Maybe fourth, since Aggro was unhealthily thin for his height. But then, Poe was nearly as much of a Pretty Central as Melville or Dickinson was. Sometimes I wondered if some of the LGBTI kids with severe GSD had been shuffled off to Twain and Whitman, given that their GSD was probably a much larger problem in their lives. Not that I had enough of an intelligence network to find out… yet.
While Pilar and I chatted about her classes, the line moved forward. She was taking one of the intensive immersion language courses, and so she was having to get special permission to skip out on Saturday. I remembered reading that the immersive language courses ran for three hours every afternoon, even on weekends. I figured that most mid- and high-level Exemplars could learn to speak English pretty fluently in a single seven-week burst of effort, just from hearing enough idioms and phrases. Hippolyta seemed to be able to pick up new languages faster than I could pick up new financial clients.
I said to Pilar, “Look, if you’re having trouble getting permission, let me see what I can do.”
“Oh no, I got permission. I just have to be prepared to talk about the trip on Sunday or Monday,” she reassured me.
I nodded. “Well, that shouldn’t be too bad. Your English was pretty good to start with, but it’s really noticeably better since the start of term.”
She beamed at the compliment. “Really? You think so? I’ve been practicing a lot. Even in my American Civics class. There isn’t much else to do in it, because it is really, really boring.”
I admitted, “Your English is definitely better than my French or Japanese or German, and light-years better than my Spanish.”
She frowned in puzzlement. “That is something I have been wondering about. Why are you the only American I know, except the Hispanics, who speaks a second language?”
I thought it over. “Do you mean why don’t Americans learn a second language? Or do you mean why am I different?”
“The second,” she said. “Is it a Goodkind thing?”
I shrugged. “In a way. It’s more of a ‘fancy prep school’ thing. Plus, most Americans have never been outside the U.S.A., and they’ve never had to deal with a community of foreign-language speakers. I’ve been to a couple dozen different countries, and I’ve tried to learn how to engage in financial dealings in most of them.”
“Have you ever been to Rio? That’s where I grew up.” She didn’t say any more, but we all knew she grew up poor, in a really bad part of the city. Her life had been better than Sahar’s, but not a whole lot better. Of course, saying that your early life had been better than Sahar’s was like saying you were younger than most redwoods. Or Ronald Reagan. Same thing, really.
I told her, “I’ve been to Brasilia for a couple days, when I was tagging along on family business. Uncle Herb had some meetings with some government officials. But I’ve only been to two cities in South America in my whole life.” I decided it would be better all around if I didn’t toss out the fact that Uncle Herb had been meeting with Brazilian officials about modifications to the country’s MCO charter.
She gave me a grin. “That’s one more than me. Up until I turned into a mutant, I had never been out of Rio. There’s still lots of Rio I’ve never seen. It’s a big city.” She looked a little uncomfortable as she said it, so I figured she and her family only got to go to the nicer areas of Rio if they were working crappy jobs for rich people.
You know, sometimes I really didn’t appreciate just how good I had it. Even being stuck in Gracie’s basement was bound to be light-years ahead of what Pilar’s life had been from day one. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go from being a slum kid in Rio de Janeiro to being a mutant in a cushy dorm at a high-end prep school. This was probably like some sort of fantasy come true for her.
She took off her towel and hopped into a vacant shower, so I focused on other things. Like her rear end, which was almost as good as Vanessa’s, despite the green color and the tail. Or Rip trying to dry herself off without a towel.
I checked, “Hey Rip, you haven’t quite gotten the hang of it, have you?”
She frowned at me. “I’m tired of you Kimbas all comin’ up with fancy ways of drying off, when I’m the one with the water powers. It just takes a little concentration…”
Suddenly, all the drops of water on her body flew up into a ball, and then flew right at my head.
I went light just in time, and the ball of water flew through me. It hit Jody right in the vee of her bathrobe. “Rip!” she squeaked.
“Oops. Sorry,” Rip muttered. She hurried past me to pull most of the water out of Jody’s robe. I didn’t mind, because she still hadn’t bothered to put anything on. Well, I didn’t mind as long as she didn’t pull the water out and hit me in the back of the head with it.
This time, when I got in the shower, I checked that the showerheads were set on ‘normal’. Okay, I checked twice. So I can be a little paranoid. It’s not really my fault after Monday morning. And, when the water came on, I flinched. Really heroic, huh? I was so not cut out to be a member of Team Kimba.
Well, the water was set correctly, and I had a nice, normal shower. Actually, I had an excellent shower, because the additional arcana that Hydroflux had added into the water lines really helped with the temperature and pressure control. It was almost like having a proper shower back at the estate, except that the shower itself was much smaller, and not in my personal choice of Italian marble. I probably should have noticed this on Monday. Or Tuesday. It really wasn’t a good sign that I was getting this many distractions just in the bathroom. It made me wonder what else I was overlooking.
I made sure to spend plenty of time at the sink, looking in the mirror. After all, I had two entire days of ogling to make up. Rip put on a bathrobe before styling her hair, but not everyone else covered up. Verdant dried off completely before wrapping her towel around her torso and strolling off to her room. Bunny was busy shaving her legs and giving herself one hell of a sexy trim. It looked like a tiny, furry landing strip when she was all done. Billie flew in and hovered naked while Jade hung up their towels and got out their assorted shower junk. Not that I thought it would make any difference whatsoever what Billie used on her skin and hair. But I noticed in the mirror when Billie’s shampoo and soap and washcloth followed Billie into the shower on their own. That meant one of the J-Team was inhabiting them, and so the J-Team’s emoto-vision was on the loose again. They’d know I was feeling lust. Again. Boy, I could hardly wait to find out what repercussions this would eventually create. I didn’t think anyone on campus was going to forget those shoulder angels anytime soon.
Once I got back to my room, I put things away and got dressed. I didn’t really like wearing a bra, but then I didn’t really like wearing a tie either. As my father had said more than once, if you want to play the game, you have to be willing to wear the uniform. Of course, he was talking about putting on a good suit and an appropriate tie, along with focusing on all the details, like polished wingtips and a stylish haircut. Still, not wearing a bra caused more problems than it solved, even if I was only an A-cup. And not wearing a properly-protective bra in martial arts classes was doubly bad. So I put on the bra.
Most of the time, I wore the panties too. They felt nice, but then so did my guy underwear, which had been Pierre Cardin, and silk. The only problem was that no one made men’s underwear that fit my stupid body. Instead, lately I was going with menswear-styled women’s underpants. That solved most of the real problems, even if it didn’t make me completely happy with how things were going. I was hoping that tonight would solve that issue too.
But I was wearing one of my protective bras, so that meant one of the slightly more ‘full figured’ uniforms. And also I was wearing one of Cecilia’s protective ‘thongs’, which were padded enough to protect my junk. In fact, they were so heavily padded that they completely hid the fact that I even had guy parts down there. Ugh. But when I needed to be able to change into my Phase uniform by walking out of my Whateley uniform, that’s what I needed. I pulled on the uniform bodysuit, tugging it up my legs and squeezing my arms into the sleeves. The back zipper came with a detachable hook on a cord, so it was a lot easier to zip up the tiny zipper that the uniform had. Then I checked that I had my headmask and my utility belt. Once I was ready for Team Tactics class, I put on one of my ‘larger’ Whateley uniforms over the superhero costume.
The Whateley uniform was still in the plastic covering from the dry cleaner. It looked good. It looked like it had been pressed twenty minutes ago. I was happy with that. I couldn’t always get that just-pressed look. And I was thinking about it, because Nikki’s uniforms were conspicuously neater, now that she had her little Brownie working for her. Not that I was going to dump even more work on Jody. She did enough for me, and she had her hands full with all the goofballs we had on the floor. Instead, I was thinking about ordering another half dozen uniforms from Cecilia, so I could rotate them more rapidly through the dry cleaner. However, I was definitely waiting until after tonight, just in case I was no longer shaped like a five-foot tall girl with a guy-package. Man, if I could get Peril’s shape, that would utterly rock.
I finished getting dressed, and I started my Krups coffee maker. I figured that I needed to make my own morning coffee until the Crystal Hall was open again, because the availability of decent coffee in Dunn was a crapshoot. And not at one of those trustworthy craps tables, but one that Hazard and Risk were rigging in their favor.
I pulled out my anti-snooping security before I made a phone call. It took me a minute or two to get someone high enough in the chain of command at Trin and MacIntyre to talk about everything on my mental list. I used the time to adjust my tie and blazer. I said, “First, I wanted to check on the family protection I requested the other night.”
“Ahh yes, Ms. Goodkind. We managed to get full teams in place with no one noticing, although we had to give one of the Harringtons’ neighbors the ‘you may already be a winner’ scam.”
I knew what she meant. One simple way to get a house full of people out of the way without legal repercussions was (in theory) to ‘notify’ them that they had won an all-expenses-paid vacation, and then actually give them that vacation. As long as you really paid for the vacation, and you made sure there was no evidence left behind after you used their house while they were gone, you usually had no problems. But it was relatively expensive, and it would be on my bill. What the hell, I could afford it.
She went on, “We’ve bracketed each of the homes, and we’re ready in case of any trouble. We also set up a trio of agents in Boston, like you asked, and set up a squad for backup, so we should be all prepared on Saturday.”
I smiled, “Excellent. Thank you. I’ll check back in when I have more news on either situation.”
“Very good, Ms. Goodkind. I’ll let Ms. MacIntyre know you called.”
I finished my coffee. Then I checked the knot in my tie, and I walked out to catch up with the rest of the crew. They were going to eat breakfast. I was probably going to choke down some sort of ort that some one-star restaurant might think constituted a breakfast.
As we walked, it was hard to ignore how chipper everyone else was. Okay, Nikki was as chipper as she got at this hour of the morning, until she had her coffee. But everyone except me was looking forward to breakfast. Sometimes I really worried about the tastebud abuse these kids had suffered in their early lives.
We walked into the caff, to find a crowd trying to get food. The hot food table was buried under a small hillock of pancakes. Each pancake was about eight inches across. By the time I had a tray and a bowl of fresh fruit, Billie already had three massive stacks that each had to be a foot high. I didn’t want to think about the amounts of margarine and artificial maple syrup that were going to be dumped on there.
I decided to risk it. I took two pancakes. Call me crazy. They looked properly cooked, but I had no hope whatsoever that they would be anywhere near as good as Hermione’s special buttermilk pancakes back at the estate. There wasn’t any real butter by the pancakes, and the syrups all smelled at least mostly artificial, so I skipped them. I walked over to the bread table and found a couple pats of real butter. That would do, when I only had two pancakes. Well, at least it ought to suffice. I had my doubts. I made do with some pre-packaged cherry jam as a replacement for some real maple syrup.
I sat down next to Nikki. She had a stack of three pancakes and a bowl of fresh fruit. On the other hand, Billie had added a pound of margarine and a hot tub’s worth of ‘syrup’ to her three giant stacks. She also had an entire plate of bacon and sliced ham as a side dish. She was attacking her food like we hadn’t let her eat since the start of term. She turned to Jade and said, “Now this is what I call a breakfast!”
All right, that was my interpretation of her words. What she actually said was more like, “Now iss iz uh I caw a mrehfuss!”
Jade nodded, “Oh yeah, I love pancakes!”
Hank nodded his agreement, but didn’t attempt to say anything, which was a good thing in my opinion, considering he had about a pancake and a half crammed into his ravening maw.
I dabbed on some of the jam and tried a small bite. Fairly ordinary. Lacking in any sort of richness or piquancy. Not nearly enough buttermilk in the batter. Not as light as Hermione’s pancakes, not that I was ever going to be able to enjoy them again. But they weren’t heavy, and they weren’t dry, and they weren’t undercooked or overcooked. I was giving them about a C+ or possibly even a B-, which was apparently a solid A or A+ on everyone else’s scale, based on the rate that they were all inhaling the things.
I swallowed and then asked Nikki, “I’ve been wondering. How’s your little helper Koehnes working out?”
Nikki sighed a little and finished chewing before she answered. “Koehnes is just fine. Aunghadhail thinks she needs another dozen helpers just like her, but she’s more than enough help for me. I mean, do I really need my skirt pleats pressed every morning? I can do that with a little spell, if they need it. But no, Koehnes has to do it. And she has to make sure I know she did it.”
I admitted, “Well, the reason I asked is… I was sort of worrying about a possible ‘Jody’ sitch.”
Nikki looked at me with a mixture of amusement and alarm. “You mean you’re worried she could be a spy, or a saboteur, or something like that?” I nodded uncomfortably. She snorted, “We so need to get you into that Intro to Magical Concepts class. You have to understand about the magic that empowers her. She was made to be a servant to the queens of the Five-Fold Court. That makes her completely trustworthy, and safe from the kinds of spells most mere humans could do.”
Toni leaned over and smirked, “Oh, Ayles is just jealous she doesn’t have her own magic servant too.”
I groaned, “Oh yeah, like I want someone sneaking up behind me and dumping dirty clothes on my head.”
“She only did that once!” Toni insisted.
I felt somewhat better about Koehnes after talking with Nikki. And it was pretty funny how Nikki kept correcting Toni’s pronunciation.
“That’s what I said! Kay-ness!”
I thought about getting another pancake. Right up until Billie came back with another three separate foot-high stacks, fake butter and fake syrup drooling down the sides and puddling horribly. My stomach decided it was done for the morning.
I bussed my tray and walked out of the caff. I figured that I had a couple minutes to check my eClip service and my phone messages, and maybe even my email. But I had an interruption.
Sahar was rushing up the hallway, and she was making a beeline for me. Okay, she wanted to catch me about something. But the alarm in her eyes didn’t look anything like a ‘thank you for helping me’ look. It looked more like a ‘Syndicate dropship on the horizon’ look. Given how hard it was to rattle someone like Sahar, that didn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy. I went heavy and prepared to call for reinforcements on my Spots.
She looked around nervously and gasped, “My stocks dropped!”
Okay, she had my attention. I really doubted the stocks could have dropped more than a fraction of a point since the market opened, and there was nothing I had heard that would cause a problem. I flipped my bPhone to the stock market app, which was already set to pop up the Marvel stocks first.
She insisted, “They dropped a TON! Overnight! What happened?”
I took a look. It was immediately clear what had happened. “Okay, first, take a deep breath and relax. It’s okay.”
She stared at me, and I concentrated as hard as I could on stock market derivatives, in a probably-hopeless effort to block her psychic powers. She finally said, “You’re making this really hard, Ayla.”
“Well, good!” I snapped. “You’re not supposed to be rummaging around in other people’s brains!”
She stared at me again and whispered, “Oh.”
Damnit! She had gotten past my defenses! Again. “Do you want me to explain it now?”
She thought for a second and said, “Yes. Please. I can do Zoe’s Database technique, but mine is just not as good as her version.”
I said, “The stock price did drop overnight, because corporate decided to do a stock split. Ron must have gone to the NYSE yesterday and set it up. The stock price did jump more than we planned.”
“But why didn’t you know about it?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Why would I need to? Ron and I worked all this out months ago, in case he needed to organize a stock split or distribute dividends or one of half a dozen other possibilities. It doesn’t affect the market capitalization any, so it doesn’t really matter.”
She worried, “Does everybody do this?”
“Heck no,” I told her. “Some companies split at the drop of a hat, and some never do, but most companies are in the middle on this. Berkshire Hathaway’s probably the worst on that. I don’t think they’ve ever had a stock split. Warren’s just like that. But it means that sometimes ordinary mortals can’t afford a single share of BH.”
“Whew,” she sighed. “I think I scared the hell out of Solange when I screamed.”
I said, “I hate to say this, but Tansy could have explained this to you. She’s not the shiniest stock certificate in the safe, but she knows the basics of corporate stocks. You can’t spend your whole life around people like her father and not pick up something.”
She rolled her eyes. “Solange and I do not speak to each other unless she needs something from me.”
Wow. That sounded even grimmer than I thought her situation was. I didn’t know what I’d do if Chou wasn’t speaking to me. Still, Sahar was spending a lot of time with Zoe, so it wasn’t as if she had nowhere to go but her room.
Although, from what Toni had said, Sahar had managed to get herself into just that sitch by the middle of last term. There was undoubtedly a moral in there for me. Considering what Sahar had been doing since she arrived at Whateley, there were probably ten or twenty morals in there.
I decided the first moral was that I had better alert Toni and Nikki about the stock split before one of them had a coronary. Sahar, completely reassured after committing industrial espionage in my cerebrum, strode off. I turned around and headed back into the chaos of the Dunn Hall caff.
As I walked through the caff, I realized that I had five emails from Ron Perelman and his staffers, and a missed phone call that had come in while I was chatting with Trin and MacIntyre. Crap. I needed to pay more attention to what was going on around me! I scanned the emails while I moved back to the Kimba table, and – sure enough – Ron was first trying to check with me, and then giving me the heads-up that it was a done deal. Doh!
I sat down next to Nikki again. “Hey Nik? Toni?”
“Whassup, dawg?” Toni said. She even gave me a little hip-hop body language. Did she save this up just to give me shit?
I told them, “I just wanted to give you a heads-up. You just made more money on the Marvel IPO. But they did a ‘stock split’. They doubled the number of stock certificates you own, and cut their values in half, just to keep the market capitalization level.”
“Whoa there, Mister Wizard!” Toni gasped. “You wanna explain that one in English, for us humans?”
So I explained about stock splits until Hank dragged us all off to Team Tactics. I was pretty sure Toni had the basic idea down, but she was playing dumb to drive me crazy; she was doing a hell of a good job at it, too. Hank scooped Toni up and tucked her under one arm, saying, “Okay, anyone else who doesn’t get moving right now is gonna end up under the other arm.”
Toni didn’t try to fight against his strength. Instead, she retaliated verbally. “Yeah, and you don’t want that, because this boy is funk…EEE. Hank? Did you use any underarm deodorant this morning?”
Hank just smiled and messed up Toni’s hair.
“Hey! Not the ‘do!” Hank laughed and tossed her up into the air. She did a double somersault before landing on tiptoes on the table in a perfect dismount. “Do NOT mess with the ‘do!” she insisted, even if she wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping a straight face.
Billie said, “C’mon, let’s get going. At least today, we’re not the ones getting yelled at.”
“Oh yeah, I can’t wait to hear them yelling at the Omegas,” Jade chipped in.
“Don’t remind me,” Chou muttered darkly.
Nikki nudged Toni. “Did he put his hands anywhere?”
“Naw, the Hulkster’s getting’ better on that. Course, he’s got his own girl to put the hands on…”
“Hey!” protested Hank.
“Yeah, the roaming hands. We ought to ask Lily about that,” said Nikki.
“Hey! Leave Lily out of this!” tried Hank.
Toni agreed, “Definitely.” They started walking out without us, still talking about Hank. “At least he never did the ‘grope and throw’ on me.”
“Hey!” insisted Hank. “That was one time! And it was an accident! In the middle of the night! When I couldn’t see!”
Toni and Nikki kept teasing Hank all the way to Team Tactics class. There was a valuable lesson in there. Messing with the Dynamic Duo always carried a high risk of verbal retaliation, at a minimum. All right, come to think about it, messing with just about anyone I knew at Whateley carried some kind of risk. But with some people, the risk levels went up to DefCon 1.
I finally said, “Time to stop giving Hank shit, unless you want the other teams to pick up some psychological weaknesses to use on us.”
Tennyo muttered darkly, “Yeah, trust me, you really don’t want that.”
Everyone remembered how our first day in the holo sims had gone, so Nikki and Toni hastily stopped. Hank whispered a quick thanks, and then got us into the classroom. He even held the door for Nikki and Toni, which was a lot more than I would have done after five minutes of grief. Okay, he usually held doors for girls, and other polite gestures that made it seem like he had been a polite boy his entire life. He even remembered that I didn’t want him to hold doors for me, even if I had long ago given up and just let everyone use feminine pronouns for me. After all, we had enough pronoun problems on the team just dealing with the J-Team and Hank’s roomie.
Which reminded me. “How’s Jamie doing? Still the green-haired earth mother look?”
Hank smiled uncomfortably. “No, that’s pretty much gone. He’s nearly back to normal again. Thank God. It’s one thing when his stupid protector spirit gives him those feathers and that weird ‘reverse talk’ thing. But when he goes really female, it’s just awkward sharing a room with him. Way easier sharing the room with a big, hairy, half-bear guy. And he looked like a thirty-year-old preggo for like half a day there. I mean, eww! He said it was an earth spirit from the native American reservation just off campus. But I think he liked being sort of pregnant for just a little bit.”
I nodded. Jamie had talked enough about his past that I knew he had liked being a girl. But the problem with Shifters who don’t have control over their shifts is that they have no chance of carrying a normal baby for nine full months and giving birth. They have very little chance of getting pregnant and staying pregnant even long enough to realize that they’re actually pregnant. And Jamie still remembered girl-Jamie’s dreams about being a wife and mother. I knew exactly how that went. Trevor Goodkind had just assumed that he would be growing up male and following in Father’s footsteps: finding Miss Right, marrying her, having a happy marriage, and having a house full of kids. If I couldn’t get my body back to a male form, I had very little chance of making all that work out for me. On the other hand, I at least had a reasonable chance of finding Miss Right and having a family: in fact, I was kind of hoping I had already found Miss Right. Jamie had pretty much zero probability of finding Mr. Right and having his babies.
We settled into our usual seats. S.T.A.R. League Jr. and the Power Cats were already in their usual spots, while the Vindicators and Outcast Corner came trickling in right behind us. Jericho was doing more trickling than anyone else, since he was pouring coffee down his throat. As usual. He needed a coffee machine as a backpack attachment for his armor. Okay, no he didn’t. The coffee mug holder and thermos clip on his Rafe armor were bizarre enough. I had this mental image of a supervillain holding him at bay by holding his coffee mug hostage: “nobody move, or the ceramic gets it!”
The Omegas came trailing in while everyone else got seated. It looked like they were the only team not arriving together. That seemed strikingly appropriate. The last Omega strolled in just about the time Bardue and Everheart were ready to begin.
Bardue smiled ruthlessly and said, “It seems like one of our blue teams from yesterday didn’t get their internal review in yet…”
Everheart gave him a quick glance and said, “They got it in five minutes before classtime. Just under the deadline.”
And with Hive helping her, she could read the email and turn it into an overhead presentation in a couple seconds. I wondered if the Omegas realized that.
Bardue gave the Omegas an evil smile. “So they’re no doubt ready and eager to come up here and give us their review.”
I looked back. Confundus got up and sashayed her way up to the front. She gave Bardue a smile cold enough to freeze lava. Then she didn’t react at all as a bulleted presentation of their review appeared up on the screen. She smoothly switched from the paper in her hand to the bullet points. The last bullet was ‘Improve Teamwork’, but that was clearly inserted as a palliative, because all the other bullet points were egocentric, highly-personal goals. Grapple wanted some long-range attacks. Eruption wanted a PFG and some close-range attacks. Confundus wanted some personal holdouts. Blacklight was looking into magical and deviser protections against bright light. Crimson was looking for heavy weapons that wouldn’t spoil the look of her outfit.
It seemed painfully obvious to me that the Omegas were just determined not to learn any teamwork. I had this mental image of them sitting around arguing about who was going to have to help whom first. “No! You help me and then I’ll help you!” “No way! You help me first, or no deal!”
I didn’t need to say a thing, because Eldritch and Chou and Bardue all said it for me. The Omegas could do so much better if they just covered each other’s backs. Not that I intended to tell them any such thing. If they really were interested in becoming supervillains, then the less cooperation and teamwork they learned, the better for everyone else on earth.
After the Omegas wrapped up and Confundus wiggled her way back to her chair. it was Diamondback’s turn to wiggle up to the front of the room and talk. Man, after enduring the Omegas, Outcast Corner was a breath of fresh air. Diamond was a good speaker, even if she was obviously nervous about public speaking. I knew that was really quite normal. I had gone through debate training and public speaking courses, so I was more used to it than most people. But it still seemed strange to me that people who were willing to tackle Voodoo Weres or Bloodwolf could be worried about talking in front of a couple dozen students.
And it was really obvious that their internal review was a team effort. There was no mistaking Eldritch’s military focus on their tactics, or Jericho’s attention to detail, or Razorback’s need to protect the rest of the team, or Diamondback’s concentration on possible lapses in her magical efforts. It just felt like the complete opposite of the Omegas’ review.
When they were all done, I gave Diamondback a subtle ‘thumbs up’, and she smiled as she slithered back to her seat.
Bardue stepped forward. “Red team! Do you have any comments you want to add?”
Jade stood up and gave him a big smile, as if he had just asked if she wanted ice cream after class. “Yep!” She turned to the Outcasts and said, “You guys were so sneaky! I had some cool devises I was gonna throw at you early on, but you were too careful about staying behind stuff. And then you totally slagged my poor little Hello Kitty junkyard doggies before they had a chance to do anything. And Eldritch absolutely did the right thing shooting that little girl who obviously wasn’t supposed to be in a supervillain lair. It was Shroud, in some fake skin and a wig, and carrying a bomb. If you’d let her walk up to you, she would’ve self-destructed. But it worked out, because everybody else freaked out, so that gave me the perfect moment to launch everything.”
Bardue looked over to Outcast Corner for comments. Jericho added, “Generator’s right. We aren’t used to Eldritch enough, and she’s not used to us enough. She did the right thing, but we weren’t expecting it.”
Caitlin said, “I knew it was a trap, but I didn’t have time to explain myself to my teammates before everything else targeted us. After we were dead in the sim, it was too late. But now we know more about each other than we did. Which is good.”
Frankly, I didn’t know which was scarier. Someone like Eldritch, who had no qualms about taking out what was probably a trap but could have been a real kid, or the wacko who put the fake kid into the sim in the first place.
Then they moved to the external comments. I pointed out that half of Jade’s traps would have failed against a team that had flight abilities, and Jericho was capable of building flight harnesses of several types for his team. Naturally, a couple other people in the room thought I was forgetting about the cost of decent flight systems. Oddly enough, some of the Elite Leaguers thought so too, and I knew they were going to be getting flight harnesses from the upper-level Alphas. Were they hypocrites, or schemers, or were they just unaware of the presents they were soon going to be getting? Of course, it was possible they were being fair, and I was underestimating the resources involved. After all, Rubik was apparently having a hard time with my heavy-density, Warper-proof, small-form flight system.
Everheart wrapped up the reviews, and then moved on to the lecture for the morning. Pursuit of supervillains. I already knew this was one of the touchiest areas of the superhero business. The Flying Bulldozer made himself famous by doing more damage pursuing supervillains than the supervillains had done in the first place. There were plenty of examples where the pursuit of the supervillain killed far more innocent bystanders or put far more people at risk than the original crimes. Not that this was all that different from high-speed pursuits by regular police, especially if the police had to pursue a supervillain in a gadgeteer vehicle.
She put up a slide on the screen and explained, “Once again, it all boils down to the ROE – the Rules of Engagement, in case you forgot – in the MOUT. What are you allowed to do? What actions are deemed safe, and what actions are unsafe? Are you working with the local police, or a federal agency? Or are you on your own, for some reason? Are there innocent bystanders anywhere near, or property you don’t want to destroy? You have to know all the answers before you know what you can and should do. Now let’s start out with a couple classic examples. Most of you probably know about the Flying Bulldozer, so his pursuit of Doctor Debt is usually used as a bad example in this field. Doc Debt stole twelve million dollars in bonds from the Chase Manhattan Bank, by timing a bomb threat and a fake fire inspection with the delivery of the bonds from a Goodkind Security truck. At that point, there were no weapons used, no hostages, and no civilians endangered.”
She then ran some police footage of the pursuit. It was hard not to wince. Doctor Debt was using a rocket pack, which placed him above the innocent bystanders. But the Flying Bulldozer was trying to slow the villain down… by hurling cars at him.
“The Flying Bulldozer did manage to stop Doctor Debt, and in fact put him in the hospital. Eighteen innocent bystanders were seriously injured. Thirty-five cars were destroyed. Cars thrown into buildings did an estimated two point three million dollars in damage. Civil suits were brought against the Flying Bulldozer, the city of New York, and the state of New York for a total of one hundred ninety-four million dollars. And it came out in courtroom hearings that the Flying Bulldozer did not have police permission to engage in pursuit.”
She stopped the footage and went back to the overheads. “There have been worse disasters in villain pursuit. Loss of life has been a lot worse. When the threat is someone like Cataclysm or Deicide, it’s highly unlikely the bystanders would have survived anyway. Still, no one wants these kinds of disasters on their conscience.”
She switched to another scene of police footage. “But there are worse situations. This is some footage of the Twelve Jurors pursuing a team of Lady Hydra’s people through Copenhagen in 1958. Notice how sharp the film footage is.”
The footage was brutal. Every camera shot was yet another trap, going off behind the bad guys and taking out one or more of the Twelve Jurors. There was plenty of property damage too, along with civilian casualties.
She continued, “The reason the footage is so sharp is because Lady Hydra’s people set up the cameras and edited the footage for later distribution, just to make the point. Apparently, she was pissed off at the Twelve Jurors for messing up one of her operations the previous year, so this operation was little more than a feint to draw them into a pursuit they shouldn’t have undertaken. Final toll: three dead Jurors, five other Jurors so badly injured they had to retire from the biz, and the remaining Jurors injured to one extent or another, with only one of them not requiring immediate medical attention. Also, fifteen civilian fatalities, fifty-three civilians hospitalized, somewhere around twice that treated for injuries on the scene, and all the property damage. This was the end of the Twelve Jurors.”
She switched to much more recent film footage. I could tell from the still image that it was downtown Boston. “And then there are supervillains like this one. Cobrafire. Exemplar and fire Manifester.”
She ran the footage. It was Skyhawk, facing a guy sheathed in flames, who was flying maybe a hundred feet in the air. But Cobrafire was holding a twenty-foot cable in one hand, and at the other end of the cable, four frantic people were trapped in a net. Then Cobrafire did the ever-popular ‘choice of two evils’ bit, and launched a fireball down at a bus full of passengers. Skyhawk swooped down to rescue the bus, and Cobrafire took off.
Everheart said, “Skyhawk was working with the Boston PD, and knew there was a police copter in the air overhead. So he was doing what he was supposed to do. Unfortunately, Cobrafire is one of those guys who doesn’t care about human life. He roasted all four hostages when Boston SWAT trapped him in a warehouse. So ask yourself. Are you prepared to let a supervillain go, in order to save hostages? And if you do so, will he let the hostages live anyway? Supervillain pursuit is not for the faint of heart.”
She put up a new overhead, and I made rapid notes on my bPhone. “Note that the ROE should be dictated by intel provided by your police or agency liaison, along with any intel that you can provide to them. Cooperation is key, and good C & C is crucial. So let’s break this down into a 4x5x3 grid of cases, and talk about how we modify our pursuit and tactics, based on these issues.”
It got fairly complicated, since it involved the levels of pursuit the super-team was allowed to use, and the known tactics of the supervillain in question. Some villains were runners, just trying to get away. Some liked the hostage sitch, either stationary or moving; some had a rep for releasing the hostage later, and some had a rep for killing the hostage even if they got away. Some supervillains liked to set up a secondary base or a holding position in advance, or even to design traps for regular opponents.
When Everheart wrapped up, Bardue straightened up and snapped, “All right! We’re doing fine on time today, so today’s pop quiz is pursuing a superpowered bank robber! Power Cats, get down to the holos and get suited up pronto! Vindicators, you have a green light after that one. Team Kimba? You’re up as soon as they’re done. Let’s hop to it!”
<(Generator) Do you think Greta needs any help getting her sim suit on?>
<(Phase) Hey, good idea.>
<(Chaka) OF COURSE IT’S A GOOD IDEA!>
<(Phase) Fey? Can you do your quick-change for Juryrig and Duplex both?>
<(Lancer) What about Diva?>
I rolled my eyes. <(Phase) Are you kidding me? There’s no way Diva’s going to go along with that.>
Fey looked over at the Vindicators with an evil light in her eyes. “Yeah… And maybe I’ll offer Kismet the same deal!”
I laughed. I think we all did. Like there was any way in hell Kismet would say yes to accepting a favor from her arch-enemy Fey.
Hank said aloud, “Then we need to hurry and catch up with them.”
Fey smirked, “Hey, all we need to do is let Billie carry me there.”
“Me too! Me too!” Jade jumped frantically and waved her arms.
Billie picked up Nikki under one arm and Jade under the other. Then she did her usual ‘oh I forgot about inertia and gravity’ routine. She abruptly shot up five feet in the air, did an impossible mid-air direction change at what looked like 50 g, and shot out the classroom door like a bullet.
“Man, I’m about ready to puke just watching that,” I groaned.
Toni agreed, “Hey, we’ll be able to follow ‘em just by looking for all the places Nikki blew chunks.”
Hank said, “Maybe we should get a move on. Who wants a ride?” He scooped up Shroud, and the rest of us followed in hot pursuit.
All right, if you have to know, I cheated and cut through the walls.
THE POWER CATS
Juryrig blinked, and they were all in the sim. They were in the back area of a large police helicopter with the door open, and the noise was ferocious. The copter was just barely above tree level, and she could see an interstate roadway about a hundred yards off to her right and twenty feet up. She checked her comm system. She knew her end worked right, because she built the system. But that didn’t mean everyone else even bothered to wear theirs, much less wear them right so they could hear and speak both. And Diva had blown out three of the mouthpieces with PK sound blasts. Juryrig hoped this model would hold up better. She had some special heterodyning software in Diva’s system to compensate, and she had used some of Hazmat’s absorptive plastics for the outer cover, even if they were still pretty experimental.
“Juryrig here. Sound off.”
“Duplex. Loud and clear.”
Admiral Everheart was sitting facing all five of them, only she was in the uniform and body armor of a SWAT captain. She said, “Power Cats. Thank you for agreeing to help out the Los Angeles Police Department. We have a runner. Unidentified supervillain in power armor. He robbed the Santa Ana branch of Goodkind Banking, and he’s racing up I-5 heading our way. Current estimates are that he’s doing maybe a hundred miles an hour. He’s already shot up three police cars and blasted an LAPD copter out of the air. Two television copters broke off pursuit at that point, so we’re going on distant pursuit by police vehicles. We know he has power armor with treads instead of legs. He has some sort of large-caliber firearm, and some sort of energy weapon. We don’t know what else he has. We’re keeping well off to the side and below the level of the interstate here, because anytime he starts shooting, there’s an enormous risk of someone getting killed, not to mention all the collateral damage. He should be passing here in under a minute. Will you take the assignment?”
Diva instantly said, “Sure we will.”
Admiral Everheart smoothly said, “Great. What’s your plan?”
Juryrig watched Diva’s face. Naturally, Diva didn’t have any plan other than ‘run right in and go Wonder Woman on someone’. Juryrig burst out, “I’ll need a connect to your systems, so you can monitor us and give us heads-ups. I’ll be the team C & C.”
Redlight spoke up, “We need to pursue our robber so he doesn’t know anyone is still in hot pursuit. Zip, that’s your job. If he tops out at a hundred, you can outrun him easy. Stay ahead of him and keep us notified on his location.” Chet turned to Duplex. “You and Diva are going to be our pincers. Get a copy of Diva’s powers. You two will be side pursuit. Stay well off the interstate, so he has no idea you’re coming. Don’t worry about not being fast enough, just follow. ‘Rig will keep you moving in the right direction.” He looked at Juryrig. “Right?”
“No prob,” Juryrig nodded. She would’ve agreed to just about anything right then, since Chet had pulled their butts out of the fire, after Diva tossed ‘em right in. Again. “I’ve got GPS in the new comm system, so I’ll keep everyone ringed around our robber until he’s someplace safe enough for us to tackle him without excessive collateral damage.”
Admiral Everheart nodded. “Sounds good. Keep us in the loop too, so we can bring up SWAT teams for support.”
“Gotcha,” Juryrig said.
Redlight finished, “I’ll be flying in long pursuit, coming up behind Duplex and Diva. We’ll keep this guy boxed in, and hopefully he’ll never be the wiser.”
Admiral Everheart listened to her earpiece and nodded. “Our boy’s rolling past right about… now.”
Juryrig used her chair’s computer system and the LAPD connection to tap into some traffic cameras on the interstate. The guy was in a chunk of power armor that looked like Number Five had really bulked up over the years. It looked like the guy was seated in a pod inside it, with an opaque bubble over the top, from his shoulders up. Three small tank treads were spinning furiously, rolling down the interstate at what the traffic cameras were pegging at ninety-four miles an hour. Zip was a lot faster than that, but no one else on the team came close to mid nineties. The power armor had four arms, two on each side. The lower set of arms looked like regular robotic arms. The upper set weren’t. The upper left ‘arm’ was some sort of energy cannon. The upper right ‘arm’ looked like a belt-fed high-caliber firearm.
Juryrig said into her comm system, “Okay, Diva and Duplex. Watch out. His weapons look like they’re tougher than either of you can handle. We’ll need to coordinate the final moves pretty carefully first. Zip, you need to get going and get out ahead of him. I’ll keep you up to date using the… Oh damn.”
She watched in disgust as an entire stretch of traffic cameras went off-line. “Okay, this guy knows about the traffic cams, and knows how to get into the system and take ‘em out. Not good.” She looked at their liaison. “Can you take this copter up high enough that you can watch our perp without him knowing you’re there?”
“Probably,” Admiral Everheart nodded. “But all of you except Juryrig need to get out and start your pursuit.”
Juryrig gritted her teeth. She hated everyone – especially Diva – treating her like she was helpless just because her legs weren’t so great. She said, “I’m fine.” She lifted off and flew out the side of the copter.
Not that doing that was such a smart move. Her anti-gravs dropped her maybe twenty feet before they compensated properly. Fortunately, she was still a good fifteen feet above the ground when she stopped dropping. The copter dipped until it was a couple yards off the ground, and everyone else bailed out.
Redlight used his PDP powers for his PK Superman bit, and he flew up to the interstate to follow the perp at a distance. Zip took off at top speed, to get in front of the perp and do a ‘front tail’ if he could. Diva and Duplex split up to bracket the perp from the rear. It was pretty obvious even from Juryrig’s viewpoint, but Duplex couldn’t get a perfect dupe of a power as high-level as Diva’s. Duplex wouldn’t be as fast or as strong or as tough as Diva. Duplex might have as good a sonic attack as Diva, but Diva had a lot more experience using that. Juryrig hoped Duplex didn’t try too hard and hurt herself.
Juryrig flew up to the interstate and flew along the road mere feet above the asphalt, tracking their perp with everything she could latch onto. The LAPD was sending in accident reports and GPS readings from OnStar crash reports, plus triangulations on every 911 call they got. She was adding in GPS readings from her teammates. She had the perp bracketed in a 1.5 mile segment of the interstate.
“This is Zip. He just knocked two cars down one of the off-ramps. That armor’s stronger than it looks.”
“Diva here. I can’t catch up like this. Are you sure I can’t use the interstate?”
“Redlight here. Diva, stick to the plan. You can’t catch up to him on the interstate, either. He’s going way over your top speed.”
Zip cut in again, “Oh shit! He just blasted a semi in his way! That cannon’s some kind of plasma ball launcher or something!”
Diva audibly complained, “Great. Now he’s got ‘Tennyo In A Tube’ too. Just fucking great.”
“Redlight here. Let’s stick to comm security. He may be picking up police bands and such.”
That gave Juryrig an idea. She contacted her liaison. “Juryrig here. Can we put out some false announcements on the police bands that we’ve lost him? We think he might be tracking you using your broadcasts.”
Everheart came back on the comms. “Will do.”
Juryrig monitored the police bands from her computer, and watched as the LAPD supposedly ‘lost track’ of the robber.
Within two minutes, Zip announced, “He just took the exit behind me, off to the right. I gotta double back and try to catch up with him.”
Juryrig switched over to the LAPD traffic cams. She couldn’t find the perp, but she could track him as a block or two of traffic cams would suddenly go off-line for thirty seconds or so while he rolled through. “Juryrig here. Diva, you’re coming up on him pretty fast. Slow down. Duplex. Cut over to your right for a few blocks, then go north again. Zip, you’re catching up now. Don’t overdo it. Redlight, you’re pretty much aimed right at our perp. Make sure you keep your elevation low, so you don’t get spotted.”
She hated being the ‘slow’ member of the team, but when Duplex was doing a dupe of Zip or Diva, it was pretty much inevitable. Chet’s top flight speed was only a little over forty, but she still hadn’t managed to rev up her chair to more than thirty-three. Okay, thirty-two point six. She needed better hardware, but she hadn’t been able to afford it yet. And now she was hearing a rumor that Jericho was getting all the money he needed for his Rafe armor! It wasn’t fair.
She wondered if she could get a loan from the Goodkind kid too. Man, if she could soup up her chair and blow the doors off Kludge’s chair, that would be the most awesome thing ever! She so needed an upgrade. Or two. And maybe a better PFG, and a new anti-missile jamming system, and…
“Zip here. He’s gone to ground in a huge warehouse due east of me. Sign says ‘NorSouth Storage’ on the building, but the gate says ‘closed for bankruptcy hearing’.”
“Juryrig. Got your coordinates. I’m uploading them to the LAPD now. Diva? Four blocks north, and seven blocks east of your position. Duplex? Ten blocks north and eleven blocks east of your position. Redlight?”
“Redlight here. Duplex just passed under my position. I’ll follow her.”
“Zip again. Diva’s coming full speed up the street. Has anyone told her not to bust her way in?”
“Nobody tells me what to do, Zip!”
“Diva, this is Redlight. Do not, repeat, do NOT, engage. We contain, until LAPD units are in position.”
Zip winced, “Umm, Zip again, she just plowed through the chainlink fence… Damn! She just ‘screamed’ a couple guard dogs and laid ‘em out. I think they’re down for the count. And… there she goes. She just ripped open a garage door and went in.”
Redlight snapped, “Rig! Notify LAPD that one of us just went in after the perp!” Then he yelled into the comm system, “DIVA! Diva, retreat! Don’t go in there without support!”
“Gotcha,” Juryrig acknowledged. Dammit. Diva was easily the strongest member of the team, even when Chet was using his PDP powers for strength. And Diva was fast. Only Zip was faster, and he didn’t have anything except speedster. And Diva had that PK Siren power too. But she wasn’t a team player. “Admiral Everheart? Our brick Diva just broke orders and went in after the perp on her own.”
“Call her back!”
Juryrig sighed, “We ordered her not to go in, and then she ignored Redlight’s order to retreat. She’s not going to come back out until she’s beaten up your perp.”
Juryrig was trying to ignore the other noise coming over the comm system. But it sounded like distant gunfire – with a really big gun – and explosions. And she was pretty sure it was coming from Zip’s comm system. It didn’t sound good.
She knew when she was close. She could hear the battle sounds better without the comm system. She rounded a corner, and there it was. A grubby old warehouse with a couple large holes that had just been blasted in the walls. Redlight directed the team to move so they could keep an eye on all four sides of the warehouse, while they waited for the LAPD.
An LAPD squad car and an LAPD SWAT truck came tearing up to stop nearly underneath her. “Juryrig? This is Sergeant Sciabelli of LAPD SWAT. Do we have a hostage situation here?”
Just as Juryrig opened her mouth to admit she didn’t know, there was another explosion. A huge chunk of warehouse wall blew out, with glass and metal flying everywhere. In the middle of the flying debris was a body. “Oh God,” she gasped.
The body hit the ground and rolled a couple times before stopping. Juryrig stared in horror at the unmoving corpse. It was Diva, horribly-burned and missing part of one arm. “Oh God. Guys, it’s Diva. I think she’s dead.”
A voice broke in from the police band. “Hey Sarge, it’s not a hostage sitch anymore.”
Juryrig winced. Did they have to be so unfeeling? She said, “Redlight. Diva is down. I don’t know if she’s dead, but if she’s not, she’s really bad off. We need to clear the area and get a med team to her stat.”
“Redlight here. Understood. Notify LAPD that we still have two bricks, a speedster, and a deviser on call.”
“Duplex here. Any ideas?”
Redlight said, “Yeah. Attack two.” Juryrig thought that sounded like a good idea. Their ‘attack two’ meant that their bricks and speedsters would distract the foe while Redlight came in from behind and hit him with a paralysis attack. It was a good approach against anyone with armor or strength, but limited protection against Psi. Diva hated it, because she had to play ‘distraction’. Diva liked ‘attack one’ where she got to be the big superhero and the rest of the team provided support for her.
Juryrig notified their contacts. “Juryrig here. We don’t know what kind of capabilities our perp has, but we’d like to try a psychic assault. We’ll distract him while Redlight comes up from behind and paralyzes him.”
“Sciabelli here. Will that stop him? He’s in power armor.”
“We don’t know. Anything he operates by hand, or with foot pedals, will be off-line. Anything he controls mentally will still be operable. Probably.”
Just then, a huge chunk of wall exploded outward, and the power armor came rolling out over the debris.
“Perp emerging this side. Repeat, emerging NOW,” Juryrig barked.
She watched as the SWAT team and the police officers from the squad car opened fire on the perp. They had rifles, handguns, a police shotgun, and one heavy weapon. None of them appeared to be doing anything. She wasn’t surprised, since the armor had apparently held up under an attack from Diva.
“Sciabelli here. Let’s give your plan a go. We’re not slowing him down a bit, and he’s gonna overrun our position as soon as he picks his way out of that junk.”
She said, “Roger that, Sergeant.” Then she said, “Redlight? We have a go.”
Redlight snapped, “Roger. Duplex, you’re our brick now. Hit him from your side with something heavy, but be ready to duck back around the corner. No getting hurt.”
Redlight went on, “Zip, same thing. Anything you can hit ‘im with from your side, do it. Just don’t let him tag you with anything.”
Redlight added, “Juryrig, you’re the only one with a PFG, so you need to protect the police. I don’t know if your PFG will hold up to the gun or the blaster, but if he tries to take out the LAPD guys, you have to try.”
Juryrig swallowed hard and said, “Roger.”
Redlight finished, “Then everyone… GO!” And he flew up over the top of the warehouse. so he could come down behind and above the perp, in what he sincerely hoped would be a blind spot for the power armor.
Duplex sprinted around the corner of the warehouse at her top speed. Well, her top speed while carrying a quarter ton of broken steel girder. She ran straight at the perp and did her best to throw the steel like a javelin. The perp spun on his tank treads and opened fire. She dove behind a big triangular stack of railroad ties, while a long burst of heavy bullets pounded into the stack so hard she could feel it on the other side of the pile. “I’m pinned down.”
Zip sprinted around from the other side of the warehouse. He came up behind the power armor and rammed a ten-foot length of rebar into the closest tread. Then he sprinted like mad for the safety of the dark warehouse. It took him less than half a second to run across the debris-covered asphalt and through a huge hole, then he zigged off to one side in case the perp decided to blast away at nothing in the hope of tagging him.
Juryrig said, “Duplex. Retreat now.” She could see the perp was struggling with his robotic left arm to get that rebar out of the tread. She could see that was what they needed to do to pin the guy in place.
Redlight came down behind the perp just as the guy managed to tug the rebar out of his tread. Redlight was a PDP, so he couldn’t fly or use his power for super strength when he was using his Psi paralysis knack. That meant he was really, really vulnerable if his teammates didn’t support him. He concentrated as hard as he could, while Duplex hurled a chunk of concrete from one corner of the warehouse and Zip sprinted away toward the other corner as a blatant distraction.
Then Redlight felt it. When he managed to get the paralysis knack working, he got this feeling sort of like he was holding a huge spring in both hands and squeezing it until his hands were nearly touching. He focused on holding that feeling. “I got him. But I don’t know how much of his armor is knocked out.”
Juryrig watched carefully. The power armor looked frozen… except for the weapons. “Red, it looks like the treads and robot arms are out, but the blaster and firearm are still active. Their mobility may be limited, but I can’t tell.”
Redlight concentrated so hard he felt the sweat running down his forehead. “Okay. Duplex, try sprinting in, and if he can’t bring anything to bear, get up on his armor and rip the weapons off. Or at least damage them. Zip, once she gets that, stick as much rebar in those treads as you can, while Duplex tries to rip the treads apart.” He concentrated harder, as his teammates moved.
Duplex wasn’t as strong or as fast as Diva, but she took directions a heck of a lot better. She sprinted in and leapt onto the back of the power armor, ripping the ammo belt apart. Then she tried to tear the plasma cannon loose from its mount. There weren’t any exposed wires or cables for her to attack, and she couldn’t budge the weapon. She leapt down and said into the comm system, “Hang on, I got an idea.”
While Duplex ran over to the debris, Zip was ramming a couple dozen pieces of rebar and warehouse wreckage into the three tank treads that the armor rolled on. He grinned, “That ought to hold him.”
Duplex came back with a railroad tie, from the pile she had ducked behind earlier. She moved around behind the armor and then ran about fifty feet out in front of it.
“Du! What are you doing?”
She frowned, “Trying to knock out that plasma gun.” The rifle thing seemed to be jammed, but the energy gun was swinging her way and trying to lock onto her. She sprinted at the thing, letting it point right at her. But she was only covering fifty feet, and with a portion of Diva’s powers she was pretty frigging fast. She covered the distance in under a second… and rammed the end of the railroad tie right into the barrel of the plasma gun.
She kept running, moving behind the armor and looking for some shelter. “I hope he’s not stupid enough to fire that thing n-”
The explosion told everyone that the perp was, in fact, just that stupid. The plasma cannon exploded, knocking the power armor over and shattering the clear shell atop the perp’s pod. The perp hung unconscious from support straps, bleeding from the head and shoulders.
Redlight snapped, “Duplex. Get him out of there pronto. Zip get over and check whether Diva’s still alive.”
“Roger,” said Duplex, just as the sim ended.
We were all sitting in our sim suits, watching the Power Cats on the big screen in Room 3 of the holo sim center. Team Kimba was on the left side of the room, and the Vindicators were on the right side. Kismet was sitting as far away from us as she could, since she was still being snippy about Fey doing a really impressive piece of magic for Juryrig and Duplex, and then offering the same magic trick to the V’s. I was pretty sure the other teams were still sitting in their places back in the classroom.
The rest of the Vindicators looked like they couldn’t care less about Fey making that offer. Okay, Lemure looked like she couldn’t care less if someone set the room on fire. And Dynamaxx looked like he couldn’t stop thinking about my teammates in tiny French maid outfits. I hoped there was really inadequate room in his sim suit for that kind of thing. Maybe even painfully inadequate room.
“VINDICATORS! You’re up! Get in your assigned seats NOW!” The halcyon tones of Gunny Bardue echoed off the walls.
They hurried out, although Kismet took the time to glare at Fey and make a little “Hmph!” noise.
Hank waited until they were out of the room before he went to the Spots. <(Lancer) Okay team, what did we learn?>
<(Chaka) Lemme guess. The cowboy ends up buried on Boot Hill?>
<(Phase) C & C matters. Intel matters. Cooperating with the authorities matters.>
<(Generator) And cops can be really snotty about superheroes getting hurt!>
<(Bladedancer) We need to assign roles for basic pursuit situations.>
<(Fey) And whoever flies with Tennyo needs to carry a couple air sickness bags!>
<(Tennyo) I said I was sorry…>
<(Lancer) People! We only have a few more seconds before the V’s do their stuff. Suggestions?>
<(Phase) I thought the Power Cats did the right things. Fastest person in a front tail, rapid pursuit out of sight so the threats didn’t know they were there, good C & C, distant pursuit with more force.>
<(Lancer) Anything else?>
<(Tennyo) Yeah, I think I… Oh hell, it’s starting.>
We all turned to watch the Vindicators do their stuff.
Lemure sighed exorbitantly as she looked around. They were all in their ‘official’ uniforms. Even her. Okay, her uniform was a little mask, a long-sleeved leotard, leggings, and low-heeled ankle boots. Not too different than real clothes. At least it wasn’t plain embarrassing, like Kismet’s outfit. Not that Kiz was fat or dumpy, but really, there was like no way Kiz could compete body-wise against all the campus hotties, like Fey. Or most of the Kimbas, for that matter. Hell, even the Goodkind kid was better-looking than Kiz, and everyone said Phase was really a boy with weird GSD, and he had boy-junk between her – or maybe that was his – legs. But who the hell really knew around here? Weirdness was the new black. It went with everything. Look at her. She was stuck on a team with a stupid Swede, a crazy Canadian, a dirty Dane, and a bitchy Belgian. And poor Pam was still trying to make nice with everyone.
It looked like they were on a second-floor balcony facing a busy street. On the other side of the street she could see a sandy beach and an ocean. And the Everheart chick – there was no way Lemure could think of a girl about her age as an admiral – was in front of them dressed like a SWAT cop, complete with a ‘Fort Lauderdale Police Department’ badge.
Lemure tried not to be too obvious about her disinterest, while Everheart played tough cop. “Vindicators. We have a situation. The Machinist and about fifteen of his minions just robbed the Fort Lauderdale branch of GB. They have an armored car and a truck.” Everheart put up a holographic image of three young women being shoved into the back of the armored car. “We have security camera footage of the escape. The Machinist and two minions and his driver have three tellers hostage in the armored car. Another dozen minions are right behind them in this truck.” It looked like a big U-Haul van to Lemure. She wondered why anyone would be dumb enough to let themselves get loaded in the back of something like that. “They’re coming up Atlantic Boulevard right now, and they’ll be passing us any second now. We need your help.”
Kismet looked down the road and pointed. “Vindicators, avaunt!”
Lemure muttered, “Not again.” Pam elbowed her.
Dynamaxx spoke into the comm systems he had distributed to the team Monday morning, after Kismet had such a fit about their lack of communication in the Saturday holo sim. “What’s the plan?”
Kismet teleported to the ground near the road and waved everyone else onward. She used her comm system, “It is simple. Donner will fly over and land right in front of the armored car, forcing it to stop. Cap will attack it from the outside, while I teleport inside to rescue the hostages. You, Lemure, and Sizemax will stop the van behind it.”
Everyone moved. Lemure made herself follow along, even if she didn’t think an armored car would stop for Donner. Dynamaxx flew alongside her, while Sizemax grew to thirty-five feet tall and raced toward the road. Lemure concentrated on her job. She went light and flew right into the van.
The van screeched as it struggled not to ram into the armored car braking in front of it. Lemure went heavy and punched the two losers closest to her. The rest of the van turned to face her. And the van was pretty much crammed full of bad guys. “Oh shit.” Three of the guys in the van were sitting in chairs with what looked like huge weapons that would fire out the sides and back of the van. The rest were focusing on her. She threw one of the losers into three guys struggling to point guns at her. “Look out, they’ve got guns mounted in these things!” she yelled into her comm system.
The van crunched to a halt, and Dynamaxx said into the comm system, “Lemure, go heavy. I’m attacking from above.”
She was already heavy, so she just said, “Roger” as she kicked another thug the length of the van, knocking down another four thugs as he crashed through them.
The roof at the back of the van suddenly exploded inward, knocking everyone but her to the floor. She took the opportunity to punch a couple guys who were trying to get back up.
Dynamaxx flew into the gaping hole and slammed a couple more thugs together face-first. Then he kicked the back doors open and waved a couple cop cars up to them.
Lemure went light and moved out through the side of the van. Sizemax had grabbed the front of the van and turned it into something even a junkyard wouldn’t want. Unless you counted Generator’s junkyard from yesterday. That kid was wackier than the Animaniacs.
On the downside of things, Donner was picking himself up off the asphalt, Captain Canada was climbing back out of the roadside ditch, and Kismet was out cold in the median. The armored car was burning rubber as it hauled up the road.
Lemure groaned, “I knew it.”
Sizemax asked into the comm system, “What happened?”
Cap groaned, “I thought the armored car was going to stop, but then it sped up again and knocked Donner into the air. It blasted me with an energy pulse.” Lemure could see the burned area across most of Cap’s shield. Wow. That could’ve been nasty if he hadn’t blocked it. He went on, “Kismet tried her teleport, but she missed when the car sped up, and she came out right behind the car and to the right. They blasted her with another energy gun before she even hit the road.”
Sizemax said, “We have to stop that car.”
Cap arched his back in pain. “Yah, but it’s not a normal armored car.”
Dynamaxx said to Sizemax, “And you’ll have to be team leader.”
“Wha?” Sizemax choked.
Dynamaxx rudely explained, “It’s either you or me. Face it, Donner and Cap can’t do it, and Lemure won’t do it.”
Lemure hated that he was right. The jerk. She said, “Do it, Size.”
Sizemax stared at her feet for a good second before she straightened her shoulders and said, “Okay. She looked at the armored car disappearing into the distance and said, “We all pursue. Maxx? Have the police take care of Kiz. Donner and Cap, you use your powers to fly after that car. Maxx? You’re carrying Lemure and me. Lemure? Go light enough that Dynamaxx can carry you easy, but not so light that you fall through his armor.”
Dynamaxx looked up at the thirty-five foot giant giving him orders and said, “There is no way I can even lift you now.”
Sizemax shrank down to under a foot and said, “This any better?”
“Much,” nodded Dynamaxx.
Lemure picked up Sizemax and held her protectively. Dynamaxx scooped up Lemure in both arms and took off. Donner spun his hammer and let it loose, flying through the air behind it. Cap held up his shield and screamed, “FOR THE GLORY OF THE GREAT WHITE NORTH!” He lifted off the ground and followed Dynamaxx through the air.
Lemure hung onto Sizemax and tried to shield her from the wind. Dynamaxx was going pretty fast. Not fast enough to catch up to that armored car if it made it to the interstate, but fast enough when the car kept having to fight its way through traffic. Cap was still behind them, and Donner was moving farther ahead. She asked over the comm system, “Size, gotta plan yet?”
Sizemax thought for a while, and then said, “Yeah. I’ve got a plan. First we have to catch up with that car.”
Dynamaxx said, “My computer says we’ll catch up in two to four minutes, depending on the traffic and the traffic lights they hit.”
Sizemax said into the comm system, “Okay. Everybody. Detour off to the left. We’re gonna hide behind these hotels, so the armored car won’t know we’re in hot pursuit. Then we need to stick together. I’ve got a plan, but it’ll take teamwork.”
“I dunno…” Donner said.
Lemure rolled her eyes. But Sizemax didn’t get all bossy, like Kismet, or grouchy, like Dynamaxx got with Donner sometimes, or even whiny. Sizemax gently said, “Donner, I know you can do this. I have faith in you. I’m not gonna ask you to ram into an armored car and stop it cold, okay? You can do this…. And Cap, I know you can do your part. We’ll make this work. As a team. Okay?”
And then she calmly told them what she wanted each of them to do. Lemure whispered to her, “Size, you’re a genius.”
It took them almost the whole four minutes to catch up with the armored car, and then swoop in from around a tall hotel to catch the car by surprise. They hoped.
The three flyers zoomed in side by side, angling in from behind and above. Sizemax waited as they got closer…
Dynamaxx dropped Sizemax and Lemure, and jetted forward. He put out one arm and fired off an energy blast that punched down through the hood of the armored car to trash the engine underneath. Sizemax grew to her full height and landed on the roof so hard that the back tires both blew out. Lemure went fully light and fell through the roof to find one supervillain pointing a raygun at three sobbing women, and two minions trying to operate weapons at the sides of the car. Cap hit the back of the armored car, nearly tearing one door off with his shield. She felt it as the car screeched to a helpless halt, thanks to a wrecked engine block, and she felt the impact as Donner took out the driver, right through the side of the cab.
She did her signature move. She dove into the badguy and took over his body. She didn’t have to know how shocked he had to be. She’d seen how horrified her targets looked when she took control of their bodies, and she hoped she didn’t have to see this guy’s face in sim footage tomorrow. She yanked his gun hand up and over. Then she fired a raygun shot into each of his loser sidekicks before she threw the gun out the now wide-open back doors. She stepped out of the guy’s body just as Cap came flying into the car and punched the guy’s lights out.
Cap hauled the bad guys out of the back, while she went heavy and ripped the ropes off the weepy bank tellers. “You okay?”
All three of them managed to nod, as she helped them stand up and climb out of the armored car. She hopped out behind them and found herself next to her giant teammate.
Lemure looked up at Sizemax, and smiled. For the first time all year long, not only did she feel like smiling about the team, she couldn’t keep from smiling.
Size looked down from her height and said, “Great work, everybody. I knew you could do it.”
Phase watched the Vindicators wrap up, and he complained, “Why is it always Goodkind Banking?”
Lancer pretended to ignore that. He stood up, “Let’s move. Bardue’s going to be talking to us-”
“Screaming at us, you mean,” interrupted Phase.
“-and so we ought to be moving to our assignments now,” he finished. He switched over to the Spots, as the team rushed out of the room. <(Lancer) I want Tennyo on fast pursuit in front. I want her carrying Shroud, so we have more manpower…>
<(Lancer) …girlpower ahead of the perps, where they won’t know what we’ve got. And if the perps are fast enough, I want one of our Ki girls riding up there too.>
<(Bladedancer) I will do it.>
<(Chaka) Good here. I’d rather burn off some energy with a chase.>
<(Lancer) Gen? You’re going to be our C & C. You get the liaison duties, and you cast the J-Team into whatever hardware they give you, so we can hear them if we want, and they can’t hear us when we’re running off at the mouth. Phase? You and I are the aerial pursuit. Chaka’s the ground pursuit. Fey and Generator follow at their own pace. We’ll mod the plans as stuff comes up.>
“KIMBAS!” Bardue bellowed through the speaker system. “Are you in place yet?!”
Hank calmly said to the thin air, “Yes sir, we’re entering our rooms now.”
Everyone scrambled to get seated and jacked into the sims. Except Ayla, who grimaced as he sat in the chair, and waited as long as he could before closing the helmet over his face…
* * * * *
Team Kimba found themselves on a helipad on what looked like about a twenty story building, with taller glass-and-steel skyscrapers in the area. A security phone was in Lancer’s hand. Lancer looked at it and then instantly handed it to Generator. Generator pressed a small disk of blinking lights to it, and then nodded.
<(Chaka) Where the heck are we?>
<(Phase) Dallas. Texas. Downtown.> He pointed at a freeway half a dozen blocks away. <(Phase) If I’m right, that’s the North Central Expressway.>
<(Generator) Hey! Over there! It’s the building from ‘Dallas’! I saw it on TVLand last week!>
<(Phase) That’s the Trammell Crow building.>
<(Fey) Do we even need to ask how you know all this?>
Phase didn’t bother to turn around. He pointed at a massive black glass skyscraper behind him. <(Phase) Goodkind Dallas Headquarters.>
<(Chaka) OF COURSE!>
The phone went off. “Good morning, Team Kimba. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to stop Cobrafire and Trapmaster. They just robbed the downtown Dallas branch of Goodkind Banking.”
<(Phase) Why is it always GB?>
“They took five hostages – three tellers and a mother and baby – and they’re moving east toward the North Central Expressway in the Trapmaster’s hovercraft. Do you have intel on that?”
<(Phase) Yes. Usually open-air with a serious PFG over the top instead of a roof, can hover at up to twenty or thirty feet above a solid surface, top speed usually around a hundred or so. And armed. He’s used trap-nets, high-caliber machine guns, target missiles, and energy weapons in the past.>
<(Chaka) DA-yum, girl!>
<(Fey) Gotta agree. How do you know so much about some random crook?>
<(Phase) He makes a habit of hitting Goodkind properties. Classically, superhero responses are really slow once they find out about the target, giving him time to make his getaway.>
<(Lancer) We won’t do that. Especially if he’s got Cobrafire along.>
“Good to hear, Kimbas, because Cobrafire has a habit of not letting his hostages survive, no matter what. They were just spotted moving east on Commerce Street, heading toward an expressway on-ramp. Do you need directions?”
Lancer nodded, even though Phase was already pointing out where to go. Generator spoke out loud, “I’ll be C & C. That’s a ‘yes’ on directions.” Lancer led the whole team to the southeast edge of the helipad.
<(Lancer) I got you, Phase. But just in case, let’s let our liaison do her job.>
<(Phase) Fine! Be like that… By the way, everyone watch out for the drivers in this town. Our chauffeur says they’re worse than New Yorkers.>
<(Chaka) Good to know, if I’m gonna be on foot.>
“Team Kimba? They’re now moving south on the North Central Expressway.”
“Roger that,” Generator said.
<(Lancer) From this height, we all fly down. Tennyo? As planned. Shroud and ‘Dancer both, and get well ahead of them. I’ve got Chaka and Gen. Phase and Fey? Keep with me.>
Lancer scooped up both girls and dove off the edge. Light flared around Fey, and she took off alongside him in a wind no one else could feel. Phase took a couple steps at a trot and went light, quickly catching up with Lancer. Tennyo gathered up her two teammates and made an effort to accelerate at a reasonable rate.
<(Phase) Big interchange ahead of them. They can go any direction.>
“Dallas PD here. Pursuing officers lost them at the I-30 interchange. They used the hovercraft to take an exit, and once the police pursuit committed, they jumped ramps. They’re on I-30 going west now, but we have no pursuit for a couple minutes.”
<(Lancer) Tell her we understand, and are pursuing.>
Generator said, “Team Kimba reads that, and we are in pursuit.”
<(Phase) Tennyo? Head to your right. We’re basically going south now, so they should be cutting in front of us now. We should be able to bracket them effectively, even if you’re the only one who’s moving faster than them.>
<(Lancer) Phase? You can go faster than me. That’ll put you in effective pursuit, even if the rest of us are lagging behind.>
<(Phase) Okay. Changing speed now.>
Lancer watched as Phase aimed for what looked like a fancy city hall building. Phase landed on the roof, took a dozen steps, and took off again, this time moving visibly faster. He wondered if the teams watching them would be able to figure out what Phase was really doing.
<(Phase) Phase, under way. I’m trying to stay out of their sight, because Trapmaster has a history of launching crap at pursuing police and heroes, and if you don’t take it out, it takes some civilians with it. If he doesn’t see any pursuit, no such problem. I hope.>
<(Chaka) Pretty damn convenient we got the one guy in the world Phase has the whole down-low on, if you ask me.>
<(Phase) I figure Sam’s doing it on purpose. Trappy isn’t the only guy who prefers anti-mutant targets, and lots of badguys just want to hit where the money is. Which is us. Goodkinds. We maintain detailed intelligence on maybe a hundred crooks who prefer Goodkind-related targets. I think it’s another test. They want to know how much intel I’m gathering. And… oh shit, another huge exchange, and they’re probably going to play musical chairs on this one too. And I can’t change direction all that well at this speed.>
<(Tennyo) I’m already moving north on… Umm… Okay, the sign says 35E. I’ll double back if I have to. But I can’t stay still and let ‘em see me.>
<(Lancer) Phase, take the route as straight ahead as you can. You can change direction later if you need to.>
<(Phase) Good calls, both of you. We’re about to hit a big stretch of greenbelt, so they’ll be able to see any pursuit, either in the air or on one of the bridges. If you’re over the greenbelt, they’ll spot you.>
<(Lancer) Tennyo, if they don’t go north on 35E, I want you flying west along the far side of that bridge up there.>
<(Phase) West Commerce Street. It runs parallel to I-30, then gets closer to the highway in maybe a mile, and then crosses over. Easy approach for you.>
<(Lancer) And if they go with the southbound highway, I’ll tell you when you can fly down through the greenbelt area and start catching up.>
<(Fey) I’m scrying too. Aaaaand… they’re doing something screwy at the interchange. Survey says… It’s I-30 west.>
<(Lancer) Okay. Phase, you’re on track. We’re pursuing. Tennyo, you have directions.>
“Team Kimba? We have inbound from due west. It’s a Fort Worth TV station’s traffic copter, trying to get video footage, even after we warned them off.”
<(Lancer) If that chopper gets shot out of the air, it’s gonna be nasty. Fey? Can you close on the chopper and protect it?>
<(Fey) Okay, but if I block any attacks, things’ll get worse, because Trappy will know supers are in the vicinity, and then… Wait… Umm… Okay, I got an idea.>
<(Lancer) Roger that. Try and catch up when you can.>
Fey veered off toward the chopper she could just make out in the distance. She quickly visualized the spells she was probably going to need. She hadn’t ever tried a force field and a flight spell and two other effects this large before. She’d need more preparation than usual. She started pulling in more Essence while she focused on preparing the spells.
<(Tennyo) We’re nearly where our road cuts under the interstate. We’ll keep flying alongside the interstate out of sight, or maybe underneath it when I can. You tell me when I need to change direction.>
<(Lancer) Roger that.>
<(Phase) I’m fifty yards off to the side and behind them. I’m on the outside of the freeway railing, so they can’t see me. I hope.>
<(Lancer) Damn, they’re firing on the chopper. Fey, you’re up.>
<(Fey) Got it, big guy.>
Fey flew in an arc to come up behind the chopper, hoping that she might be overlooked by supervillains focusing on a guided missile and a helicopter full of civilians. At least it was a small missile. It looked like it was only a few inches across, although it was hard to tell, since it was moving pretty fast. Too fast for the chopper to dodge. She put up a forcefield between the missile and the body of the chopper, locating the forcefield as close to the chopper as she dared. Then she hoped that the blast didn’t take her out either.
There was a nasty explosion that concentrated all of its energy into a narrow cone right in front of the missile. Ooh, that would’ve punched a hole right through that chopper. Time for step two.
She unleashed her carefully-prepared wind spell, and suddenly a downdraft sucked the chopper straight down. She hoped that it looked like the chopper was falling helplessly after its engine was blown apart. The hovercraft was zooming past, and the freeway was elevated, so she figured she could probably fake a crash. All she had to do was: first, drop the chopper so far that the hovercraft up on the freeway could no longer see it; and second, catch the chopper if the pilot couldn’t recover quick enough; and then third, fake a big explosion right afterward.
At the last second, she canceled the wind spell and activated another forcefield, this time underneath the chopper to help catch it if the pilot couldn’t get things going in time. But she lucked out. The pilot had a fully operational chopper, after all. He just had to pull up in time, so the chopper didn’t smack the ground. The pilot stopped the chopper a good ten or fifteen feet before hitting the parking lot below him, and had the good sense to go straight down to the ground in case the chopper wasn’t going to stay in the air much longer.
Fey unleashed her final prepared spell. She produced a huge flash of light and sound, as if the chopper had just crashed and exploded. She hoped that would fake the bad guys out, but she wasn’t really sure what a real chopper would look like if it crashed, and she didn’t have much confidence in movie crash scenes.
<(Fey) Whew. Just about out of Essence after that one. But the chopper’s landing safely. May be some brown pants in there, but they’re okay.>
<(Lancer) Good. Perps are still heading west. Get more Essence and follow. Good job.>
<(Chaka) Yeah, you know there can’t be any superheroes chasin’ these guys, because superheroes always go rescue the idiot reporters.>
<(Phase) Yes, Lois.>
Less than a minute later, Phase was back on the comms. <(Phase) I don’t know if they spotted me, but they’re slowing a little and moving away from me. Oh crap, they’re jumping the median and cutting across the other lane!>
<(Lancer) Looks from here like they’re jumping off the freeway. There’s a two-story high warehouse. They’re sliding straight onto the roof.>
<(Phase) If this is where they drop the hovercraft and switch to an unmarked car or something, those hostages have about twenty seconds left.>
<(Lancer) Agreed. And now they’re skidding off the roof and down to the ground, and going inside through a huge garage door that just opened up. Everybody, converge on that warehouse. Phase, I want you with me when we go in. Tennyo? On my signal, break in from the backside. You’re the distraction.>
<(Phase) You have a plan.>
<(Lancer) Phase? Two words.>
<(Phase) CRAP! He’s a flame manifester!>
<(Lancer) I know.>
<(Phase) You better have Fey ready to do some serious healing.>
<(Fey) I’m less than a minute behind.>
<(Tennyo) I’m about ten seconds out. I’ll drop my two and blast a hole in the wall.>
<(Lancer) Give me a countdown from three on that.>
<(Tennyo) Roger that.>
Phase couldn’t turn tightly enough while flying that fast and being light, so he fudged a little. He went partly heavy just before he would have flown through a support column, and he kicked off it in the direction he wanted to go. Then he went light before he really started falling. He flashed under the freeway and across the top of the warehouse. He went heavy again, and dropped nearly vertically, before doing his light-heavy-light flicker to eat up nearly all his speed. He dropped the last ten feet in front of the warehouse, beating Lancer to the spot by a good three seconds.
<(Lancer) Phase, get that door unlocked.>
<(Phase) Roger.> He carefully stuck his face through the aluminum door and spotted the alarm system. And the booby trap, which was aimed right at anyone busting down that door. He watched as the Trapmaster landed the hovercraft next to an old Lincoln Continental with tinted windows. Phase didn’t know regular cars, but even he could spot the shape of a Continental’s trunk.
Phase kept an eye on the badguys as he worked. He reached through the door and disconnected the tripwire for the booby trap. Then he pulled the magnetic alarm off the side of the door and unlocked the deadbolt. He slipped back and reported. <(Phase) Door’s ready. Targets are dead ahead.>
<(Lancer) Roger. Tennyo? We’re just about out of time.>
<(Tennyo) Okay. Dropping passengers now. Three… Two… One!> Tennyo’s little blue ball blasted a fifteen-foot hole in the wall.
Phase went slightly heavy. Lancer grabbed him in one hand and kicked the aluminum door. It didn’t just fly open. It ripped completely out of its frame and went cartwheeling across the floor. As soon as Lancer spotted Cobrafire, he threw Phase right at him. Phase went disruption-light, and his velocity suddenly jumped from about forty miles an hour to around four hundred miles an hour.
Cobrafire jumped when the wall exploded, and turned to look. He didn’t have time to react to the crash on the other side of the warehouse. He was already sheathed in flame. He turned to fry as many of the hostages as he could, and-
Phase shot right through Cobrafire’s body so rapidly that the villain never had the time to blink. Phase screamed in pain as he shot across the warehouse and vanished through the far wall. Cobrafire’s flame winked out as he collapsed in a heap.
“What the…” Trapmaster suddenly realized he was in a very bad situation. His muscle was lying unconscious on the floor of the hovercraft. An angry flier who could blow holes in walls was coming his way at high speed. At the other side of the warehouse, a brick who could knock door frames apart was flying at him fist-first. An Asian girl with a sword was slashing up all his traps on one side of the place, while on the other side of the room, a black chick in a leopard-print ninja costume was knocking out all those traps with throwing stars and throwing spikes and pieces of the trap she had just kicked apart. He put his hands up and surrendered, “I gi-”
Tennyo punched him hard enough that he went flying out of the hovercraft. Lancer carefully caught him before he landed on the concrete floor.
<(Lancer) Check these cages aren’t boobytrapped before we spring the hostages. Gen? Get your liaison on the line and direct ‘em here. We need something to hold a flame manifester. And a medic for a really badly broken nose.>
The sim ended, and I hastily yanked open the front half of the helmet.
“Hello Phase,” the computer voice said. “Welcome back. It is Wednesday, January 24th, 2007. It is now 10:21 am. Your team is the victor.”
I was still feeling singed over about a quarter of my body, from where I did my suicide dive through a frakking flame manifester. Why did the sim have to do such a good job?
“Team KIMBA! Report to Room 3 ON THE DOUBLE!” Bardue’s shout just about blew out the speaker on the wall.
I got up, trying to ignore the sticky feeling as my butt came out of the chair. I walked into the hallway, to find the rest of the team chatting away.
Chaka was agreeing with something Generator had just said. She added, “Yeah, why do they get like Stilt-Man, and we always end up with Galactus?”
Chou said, “Maybe they think we are showing off.”
I said, “Or maybe they think we’re the best team in the class, with the largest array of powers, and they’re being fair about power levels for opponents.”
Fey chipped in, “Yeah, they’ve done, what, a dozen ‘supervillain lair’ red team exercises in less than a week, and who played supervillain all but about three times? Us.”
Chaka helpfully added, “And Phase was so freaky they aren’t ever gonna ask her back.”
I crossed my arms and said smugly, “Exactly as planned.” Not that I had really planned to be such a pain that I would get blackballed from playing sim supervillain anymore.
“Heh,” Billie snorted. Jade giggled.
Nikki grinned, “I thought you weren’t watching all that anime with Jade and Billie.”
I shrugged, “I’m not watching it. I have been in the sunroom studying a few times when the TV’s on.” I paused just for timing and added, “I usually leave as quickly as I can.”
Billie tried out her own smug tone. “Exactly as planned.” Jade giggled harder.
We walked into Room 3, to find the Vindicators back where they had been sitting before, and the Power Cats sitting on our benches. Hank pointed out the back row of benches, and we spread out there.
Bardue was busy chewing out Diva. “And WERE you able to beat the perp?”
“Well, no,” Diva reluctantly admitted. “But how was I supposed to know my sonic scream wouldn’t knock him out?”
On the other side of the room, Kismet was insisting to her team, “But I am the one who put this team together, and I am the leader, and I am responsible for the tactics!”
Bardue bellowed at Diva, “Why do you think we call this class TEAM TACTICS, missy?”
Sizemax was at her normal size, but she was sort of shrinking in her seat as she told Kismet, “Does it matter who gets the credit, as long as the team wins, and the team learns new stuff?”
Diva talked back at Bardue, “But I COULD have taken that loser all by MYSELF!”
I looked over at Hank and asked, “Are we like this?”
Toni gave me a friendly elbow in the ribs and grinned, “Nah, just you.”
Dynamaxx wickedly added, “But Kismet, it really was Sizemax who did all the work. She got Cap and Donner working with everyone-”
“I chose them!” snapped Kismet.
“-and she came up with the tactics…” Maxx kept pushing.
Bardue got in Diva’s face, “Obviously, YOU DIDN’T! And I want a ten page paper from you TOMORROW, on all the attacks you have, and why none of ‘em would work on that particular power armor, and then WHAT YOU SHOULD’VE DONE!”
Wow. That shut her up. The threat of term papers. Far scarier around here than, say, a fight against a madman in power armor.
Kismet still kept complaining, “Just because I sacrificed myself in a hostage rescue does not mean…”
Bardue looked over at us and said, “Kimbas. Internal report due before class tomorrow. And you did a better job on the comm chatter. But you still need to improve!”
Once Bardue dismissed the class, we all headed into the locker rooms to change clothes. I only needed to change for long enough to get back to the room and put on my regular uniform. But I had time. It wasn’t as if I had a class to get to right after this one, like some people did. And I had other reasons for heading back to the room.
I just hoped the Monkey King wasn’t lounging around on Chou’s bed, causing more trouble. Chou had given me a full report of Sun’s activities at Molly’s house over Christmas break, so I knew the furry little snot was fully capable of driving us crazy without needing to do anything. Hell, she was driving me crazy, and she might not even be in this hemisphere anymore.
I stepped out of my sim suit and started getting dressed. Nikki took the time to go over and help Greta, which was nice of her. I had a feeling that it was murder for Greta to get her legs in and out of her sim suit, and that Greta would rather kiss Kludge than admit it.
<(Lancer) Quick debrief, guys. I thought we did most of the right things. We planned our pursuit, and we didn’t need a lot of adjustments on it. We had excellent intel, and really good C & C. We saved the news crew and made it look like a crash. We did better on chatter. We teamworked well at the warehouse. Anything else?>
<(Phase) No one went cowboy. Everybody stuck to their roles.>
<(Bladedancer) Our overall strategy was good, and we divided up the team well for the pursuit sections.>
<(Generator) Our C & C went fine. But I think they slipped some of Sam’s nanites in that ‘communicator’ they gave us, so they still heard everything we said.>
<(Phase) Great. So we need some improvements on our anti-snooping systems.>
<(Fey) Hang on, I’m still helping over here… Okay. I have something to add. We need to prepare better for things like innocent bystanders and nosy reporters. I saved the chopper, but I used up so much Essence I was useless the rest of the sim.>
<(Tennyo) Yeah, it’d be nice not to have to throw a teammate through a fire manifester.>
<(Phase) I’ll say. My arm and face still feel like they’re sunburned.>
<(Chaka) And we were great on those traps. Did you see the one that was like a hundred gallons of bubble gum?>
<(Generator) What color? Was it pink?>
<(Chaka) No, it was a lime green.>
<(Generator) Eww. Never mind.>
<(Lancer) Guys? Can we get back to the subject?>
<(Fey) In a sec. I wish you could see this. Lemure’s trying to talk Sizemax into letting me magic her sim suit off, and Kismet’s about to blow a fuse.>
<(Lancer) Is there anything else?>
<(Phase) Probably not. We learned from everyone else’s mistakes, right?>
<(Lancer) Okay, then if no one else has anything to add, we’re done. Phase can write up our internal review and send it to Hive.>
<(Chaka) Can we go tease Diva about getting stuck doin’ a ten page paper in a combat class?>
<(Tennyo) How about we leave her alone? She’s already mad.>
<(Phase) How about we help instead?>
<(Lancer) That would be your area of expertise, Phase.>
<(Phase) Already figured that one out.>
I was dressed by then, so I adjusted my tie in the mirror I had mounted on the inside of my locker door, and then I strolled over to the Power Cats, distaff section. They were two rows over, and they were mostly dressed when I got there.
Greta was saying, “I know! I just don’t need any help, okay? Fey made the offer to us as a team, and frankly, it was pretty cool.”
Theresa said, “I was kinda wondering how they got changed into their sim suits so fast Monday. Now we know.”
Greta said, “I hope my new system managed to record the energies she used, it would be cool to be able to build a devise to do the same th… Oh hi, Phase!”
I casually said, “Nikki won’t mind about the recording, but you’d probably do better learning enough magic to do it the traditional way.”
Theresa defended her friend, “Jury’s not a Wizard.”
I shrugged blithely. “Neither am I. I’m still taking the Intro to Magical Concepts course next term, and then taking some of the magic curriculum after that.”
Diva snapped, “You’re not allowed if you’re not a big fancy-dancy magical type.”
I corrected her, “Not exactly. You’re not allowed, if you can’t learn to collect and wield Essence in some way. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it the same way baselines do. Beltane’s not a Wizard, and she’s taking those courses now.”
Diva frowned, “Did you just come over here to see if Juryrig is doing anything illegal?”
I gave her a slight smile. “No, I came over because I thought you might want a little help with that ten page paper.”
“I don’t need any help!” she all but snarled.
“Deev, come on, this is Phase!” Greta pushed.
“I know who she is.”
Greta tried again, “She’s the one Bubble was laughing about. You know, the one Majestic was so pissed off at. She’s really good at papers.”
Diva allowed part of her face to break into a smile. “Anybody who can piss off the high and mighty Majestic is okay.” Then she glowered, “But I do not need any help!”
I shrugged, “Fine. I just thought I’d make the offer.”
Duplex said, “She’s Exemplar-6. She can do it in no time.”
I agreed, “Yeah, I know. But writing a coherent paper is a learned skill. It’s not just being extraordinarily fast and having a great memory.”
When Diva didn’t budge, I left. As I walked off, I said, “Oh, Theresa? Jade and Jinn said ‘hi’. You ought to drop by and see them some time.”
I caught up with some of the other Kimbas on my way out of the sim center, and we trekked off to Poe through the tunnels.
Chaka was gigging everyone. “So ‘Dancer, how was the ride on the Tenn-ya-Whirl?”
Tennyo fussed, “I was careful!”
“Yeah,” chorused Shroud.
Chou said, “It was fine. Actually, it was really fun. It was kind of like… racing in NASCAR, but with the roof off.”
“See? I told you,” echoed Shroud.
I pointed out, “Well, it did work better to have all of us dragged along, so we could do the real teamwork where it counted.”
Fey purred, “Hmmmm… I think I have an answer on that one. Let me do a little study first. Okay?”
“Sure, Nik,” Chaka said. Then she helpfully added, “Whatever Unga Dunga’s got up her little mithril sleeve.”
I said, “Flight packs might be the way to go. Even Jade and I could use some help on that.”
Jade said, “Yeah! I’m tired of being the slowpoke!”
I added, “And I’d like to have some flight capability when I’m heavy. I’m working with a deviser on that right now, but it’s not a trivial problem.”
“Who?” Hank wondered.
“Rubik,” Fey told him.
“Whoa!” he said in astonishment. “Doesn’t he cost like bazillions?”
“We are talking about Captain Bazillions here,” Chaka snarked.
“That’s General Bazillions to you, private,” I announced.
Jade snickered. “You have privates!” She snorted some more in a way that I really can’t describe, except by conveying the image of Beavis and Butthead metamorphosed into ten year old girls.
I went back to the earlier discussion. I told Hank, “If he can build a really good flight system that has good propulsion and good acceleration, even when I’m weighing over a ton, plus significantly better angular stability than I have now, plus acceptable flight time, all in a compact form that can stand up to my warp field when I change density, then it’ll definitely be worth every penny.”
“Privates!” someone snickered again.
“Oh, grow up.”
“I’m trying already!”
Once I got back to my room, I walked out of my outfit, hung everything up, and got dressed in normal clothes. Well, normal for me. A boy should not have to wear lingerie and a blouse. At least, no one was complaining that I was wearing pants for my Whateley uniform. I was just hoping that tonight’s run through that BIT-slicer would fix me… and not in a ‘trip to the vet’ way, either. Okay, I was also hoping the BIT-slicer didn’t screw me up completely, and that I didn’t go postal on myself like Jade did.
I made sure I had my utility belt, and then I went to work. First, I checked eClip and read stock prices and some related reports. There were already nosy reporters who thought they were the next Nelly Bly, scurrying around trying to find out about this financier ‘Ayla Goodkind’.
Well, I had planned for this eventuality. I looked over the eClip articles for some particular features. There was the press release Ron Perelman and I had written with his PR people. According to that, I was a California girl who had a flair for finance and wealthy private school connections that let me put together the Marvel business structure. Then there was the press release from Goodkind International that Paul and I had discussed. Nice.
And, barely an hour after those were released, there was what I had been waiting for. Ron Connolly of the L.A. Times was announcing his big scoop. He had obtained from unnamed ‘trusted sources’ the fake birth certificate and fake liability settlement we had planted – even though he knew it had to be illegal to get at least one of those. So I was ‘officially’ revealed as the child of two hippies who had taken the last name ‘good kind’ because they liked the sound of it; and my original funds were ‘officially’ revealed as the settlement from a lawsuit after my parents were killed in a traffic accident.
Since that matched up with what Ron told the reporters, my real parents would probably be relieved to officially have me off their hands. God, that was a depressing thought.
I wondered how long it would be before the rumors were swirling around Whateley. I figured that some people might even be swayed by the news stories. However, most kids here would be smart enough to know that a mutant Goodkind would be written off by the family somehow. Not that I really cared. My friends all knew the truth.
Okay, I did care. I had loved being a Goodkind. I had spent my whole life working toward being the best Goodkind I could be. Now I wasn’t a boy anymore, and I wasn’t a baseline anymore, and I wasn’t Trevor James Goodkind anymore, and I wasn’t even a family member anymore. My eyes were burning, and I was having trouble reading the screen of my bPhone. There must have been some mold or dust in the air conditioning ducts, because I was definitely not crying.
When I stopped feeling so choked up that I couldn’t talk, I finished wading through the associated news stories. I made some coffee and had half a cup, so I was sure my voice was okay again. Then I made a phone call to Ron Perelman.
His executive secretary Susan put me right through to him. From the background noise I could hear, I figured he was in a car. “Ron, sorry to bother you when you’re commuting around town,” I said.
“No, no, this is fine,” he insisted. “I’m putting this on speakerphone. Jeff’s driving, and Terry’s here too. We’re just on our way to another meeting with Marvel Comics. They seem to think we’re going to strip the editorial control and give it to…”
“To someone crazier than Deadpool,” Jeff interjected from the front seat.
“Exactly,” Ron said.
I said, “Well, it sounds like Jeff can speak their lingo, so you have things well in hand.”
Ron muttered, “I hope so. Stan’s being reasonable, so far anyway, but Joe thinks we’re some sort of LuthorCorp combine, out to destroy the company.”
“Riiiiiiight,” I said. “Because spending millions of dollars to buy a company just so you can then devalue it and bankrupt yourself is such a rational thing to do from a financial standpoint.”
Terry said, “He’s a comic book guy. He doesn’t have any background in high finance. For all we know, he can’t even balance his checkbook. Everything he knows about corporate finance probably comes from Doctor Doom and The Kingpin.”
“Good point,” I admitted. “Okay, try to convince him we’re more like Stark Industries instead.”
Someone snorted in amusement. I couldn’t tell who.
I said, “I know you need to get back to detailing for the meeting, but I wanted to call and personally apologize for not getting back to you sooner. There are a few personal projects going on at this end, and I didn’t even see the emails about the stock split until after you had to initiate.”
“Oh, no problem.” He kidded me, “I’m just glad you’re not trying to emulate Buffett.”
I laughed and said, “I think we’d have to wait a pretty long time to get Marvel stock up over a hundred K a share.”
He said, “No, I agree with our analysts. As long as people who read Marvel and watch Marvel might want to buy Marvel stock, it’s in our best interests to keep the share value low enough for penny stock players.”
I said, “Of course, we may have to set up another stock split at the rate we’re going this week.”
He sighed, “I’m hoping not. I mean, I’d rather the stock shot through the roof and stayed there. But the Commission boys said they don’t want us to push for another split for at least a month.”
I said, “Well, we can keep tabs on things. If the stock climbs enough, we can do a one-for-three split, or a one-for-four split, in a month.”
“I’d love it if the stock climbed enough that we needed to do that.”
After we wrapped up the call, I made sure I was all ready for Shakespeare class and martial arts both. Then I grabbed my gymbag and backpack both, so I didn’t have to come back for the gymbag later. I found the usual suspects waiting for Billie in the hallway, so I walked with them to lunch. Or what some people called ‘lunch’, but might turn out to be dense, sandwich-like plastics.
On the way to lunch, Jade was singing more J-Pop anime theme songs, or whatever the heck they were. Jade’s Japanese was usually pretty rough, but some of what she was singing was just bizarre. I mean, there was no way the lyrics in Japanese really said ‘beyond the cellophane sea and forest’. Or ‘gather the lemon-colored drops of the moon’. Gah. I wondered what the real Japanese said. Not that I was interested enough to go watch a couple hours of anime with her. It would probably be something worse than that “Sailor Moon” stuff she was watching with Billie the other day. Sometimes they were so girly I was surprised they hadn’t gone with a pink unicorn motif for their room.
I muttered, “Can’t you sing something better?”
Jade just looked over at Billie and said to me, “Maybe I should befriend you.”
Billie snorted with laughter, so I knew there was an in-joke there somewhere. I just had no idea what it was. And I really hated not knowing stuff that everyone else already knew. On the other hand, having to watch several weeks of Jade’s favorite anime shows to catch up on any possible jokes seemed like a bigger downside. I mean, how can ‘magical girl’ shows be interesting when you live next to Fey, and you room with Tennyo, and you have superpowers of your own?
Lunch was both good and bad. Good part? No Monkey King. Bad part? Dunn Hall food. Out of sheer desperation, I tried some of the ‘chicken pot pie’, even though the two foot by four foot pans didn’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling about any potential down-home goodness. I also tried some of the baked mixed vegetables. Then I made myself a salad, even if I had to use a base that was primarily iceberg lettuce – and not fresh iceberg lettuce, but lettuce that had some leaves which were drying out or browning at the edges. The salad dressings were seriously lacking, so I made do with some olive oil and white wine vinegar. It wasn’t the best olive oil ever, but it didn’t smell of any off-odors. And the white wine vinegar was probably only ‘white wine’ in the sense of Ernest and Julio Gallo. At this rate, I was going to start having meals delivered again.
I brewed myself some Earl Grey ‘tea’, or what pretends to be tea when it comes out of little teabags. At least these teabags were foil-sealed. I was pretty sure it was a biomechanical process Goodkind International had under patent, but I wasn’t going to tell anybody around here. They would probably refuse to carry the brand anymore.
Maybe I should start brewing my own tea back in my room, and carrying it with me in a thermos. I had enough in my little magic teabag of holding to last me for months. At a minimum. If I brought my own coffee in the morning, and my own tea at other times, the limitations on the beverage choices wouldn’t be so painful.
Or I could just give up and have all my meals delivered to Poe for the next couple weeks.
I sighed and made my way over to the Team Kimba table. When I got there, the conversation was apparently on summer fashions. Really girly summer fashions. Apparently, hankie hems were no longer in. You know, there are some things that I just don’t care if I’m the only one who doesn’t know about them. I could guess what a ‘hankie’ hem’ was, but I wasn’t going to waste my time looking them up. On the other hand, I might waste some time trying to figure out that ‘befriend’ joke. From the way she said it, it sounded like a synonym for ‘kick your ass’ or ‘turn you into a toad’, but I couldn’t see any logical connection with friendship there.
I reached in and touched the crystal, just praying the real conversation wasn’t about clothes. Particularly not ‘hankie hems’. And if any of them tried to get me to wear hankie hems, I was going to find out what ‘befriend’ meant, and then I was going to befriend the tar out of them.
I was finally in luck. No one was gushing about fashion trends suitable for pre-teen bimbos. Instead, everyone was trying to cheer Chou and Molly up about the business with the Tong of the B.M. From what Chou was saying, it sounded like the school was pulling out some heavy hitters to deal with the bad guys. That made me feel somewhat less stressed about the sitch. Plus, we still had our ace in the hole: the Trin & MacIntyre agents secretly protecting Molly’s parents and Toni’s whole family, just in case.
The tea was acceptable. A bit better than what I was expecting from sealed teabags. The food wasn’t that great. The chicken pot pie actually had chicken in it. I’ll give it that. The crust wasn’t too soggy, and the sauce was relatively close to creamy. But the vegetables in the mixture were bland and boring. The sauce was flat. The entire mélange needed a more creative mix of vegetables, a sauce with more flair and piquancy, and a little less sauce so the crust would be crisper. Plus a better oven, even though I had spent some time picking out a piece that looked properly baked. The baked vegetables were slightly overdone, and the selection was remarkably plebeian, with a hair too much salt and not enough oregano. The lettuce and stuff? Well, I’m sure it counted as a salad according to someone.
After I stewed over the lack of edible comestibles for a while, I ate a bit of each and let Billie eat the rest. There was no point in throwing away stuff other people thought was fine. In fact, Billie had about ten pounds of the pot pie, so she – and most of the room – thought it was great. I gave up and had some dessert, just to have something in my stomach.
I tried some of the soft serve ice cream, and a small slice of the apple pie. The vanilla ‘ice cream’ didn’t have enough real vanilla flavor, and it had some slight off-tastes of refrigeration and preservatives. But it wasn’t too awful. The so-called ‘chocolate ice cream’ bore as much resemblance to good chocolate as Cytherea did to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. It was cold and thickened. I was willing to grant that much. The mouthfeel wasn’t quite right for a decent soft ice cream, either. I gave up and tried the pie. The crust was adequate, and the apples weren’t overcooked. There was too much sugar in the filling, and not quite enough cinnamon. But it was the best of a bad lot. I ate all the pie and most of the vanilla. I passed the chocolate down to Billie, who inhaled it as if it were actually tasty.
I went back for another piece of the apple pie, since I was still hungry and it was better than nothing. I got a glass of milk, and a small wedge of cheddar cheese that at least smelled like cheddar ought to. The cheese was actually okay. Not topnotch cheddar, but better than I was expecting.
As I finished the cheese and pie, I noticed Phobos and Deimos trying to catch my eye. So I took my tray and headed over to the Outcast Corner table. I started concentrating before I got close, because Deimos and Phobos were sitting next to each other, and their fear aura was pretty uncomfortable.
Deimos grinned, “We’ll go! I mean… She’ll go. And I’ll go with Diamondback. It’ll be good. Right?”
Phobos smiled, “Yeah. And you’re sure I don’t need to bring anything?”
I smiled back. “Definitely not. The last thing I need is a present from Jericho. Probably be a purple, green, and yellow miniskirt that makes people vomit at twenty paces.”
Jericho looked up at the ceiling. “Hmm… A purple, green, and yellow miniskirt…”
Razorback glared at me and signed, ~This is going to be YOUR fault when he gets it and wears it around campus!~
Diamondback shook her head, “Honestly, Phase. You ought to know better than that by now.”
“Sorry,” I said, even if I didn’t manage a lot of contriteness.
Jericho said, “Well, I’m going too. Diamond threatened to make me buy all her tampons and minipads if I didn’t.”
“Ooh, a fate worse than death,” I said unsympathetically. After all, I had bought tampons for Janet before, and it didn’t kill me.
He added, “And she won’t let me help pick out some new blouses for her! I don’t know why…”
Everyone else sitting at the table rolled their eyes. Phobos and Deimos rolled all three of theirs. Even Razorback rolled his. I pretended to give Jericho a sympathetic look and asked, “Why not? A big ‘Hot Topic’ vs. ‘Abercrombie and Fitch’ disagreement?”
He smirked, “Oh yeah. Diamond in a Hot Topic store. That would be funny.”
“Not on your life!” Sandra hissed. “All those Goth wannabe’s, either wanting to touch my skin, or freaking out about it… I don’t know which would be worse. And the crap they carry! Even if I liked that stuff, it’s way too expensive.”
“And you’re not exactly Dark Emo Girl, anyway,” I added.
Jericho looked over at the Goth table and wondered aloud, “Yeah, why hasn’t anyone taken that as a codename yet?” He copped a superhero pose while still sitting in his chair, and announced, “Halt, evildoer! Or the aura of my angsty depression will make you sad and miserable for weeks and weeks!”
Caitlin slapped her hands to her face and gasped in mock horror, “Oh no! How will I be able to enjoy my ill-gotten gains if I’m all depressed and mopey!”
Jericho pressed his advantage. “That’s right, criminal! And you’ll end up spending all your loot on frilly black outfits!”
Caitlin pretended to sob. “And I don’t even look good in black! Woe is me!”
Phobos looked at her sister. “Do you know these crazy people?”
Deimos shook her hair, “No way. I only sat here because you did.”
I left the lunchroom grinning for a change. I was still lugging my gymbag in addition to my regular bag, so I was headed over to my unofficial locker when I saw Hazard and Boxcars casually strolling my way.
I walked to the elevator and waited until they caught up with me. “Oh, hi Phase,” said Boxcars in a really bad imitation of casualness.
Hazard, who was far better at dissimulation, grimaced at Boxcars’ performance and said, “Yeah. We’d like to chat with you a moment, but somewhere a bit more private.”
So we took the elevator down to the tunnels, and I strolled off toward Eastman with two bookies in tow. I asked, “Anything new on the bets?”
Boxcars said, “Oh, no, nothing on that. The line over at Melville’s actually dropped a little.”
Hazard said, “Tidewater and Pearlescent are having a big bet on the ‘Kimba battle’ betting line, but they’re doing it between themselves, and we haven’t been able to get any of that action.”
Boxcars added, “But it’s Tidewater and Pearlescent we wanted to talk to you about.” I just waited patiently. She said, “It looks like both of ‘em want in on the big poker games Saturday afternoon. Texas Hold’em.”
Like I really cared about the exact style of gambling involved. I said, “Well, neither of them has precog or Psi talents, do they? So what’s the problem?”
Hazard explained, “We think they’re going to try to break the bank. We’re already setting up rules to control most of that, but we wanted to make sure you knew about it, and you could cover for us.”
I nodded, “Right. No problem. You’ve got whatever you need.”
“Whew,” Boxcars sighed. Hazard just gave me a smile, since she had probably used her precog talents to figure out I would say ‘yes’.
I asked Hazard, “Isn’t anyone a bit squeamish about playing poker against you? Or Risk, for that matter?”
Hazard shrugged, “No one’s going to let any of the bookies actually play. We’re not even going to be dealing or shuffling. We’re just organizing it. Out of the goodness of our hearts.”
Yeah, right. I wondered how long it would be before the Catholic Church got around to canonizing Saint Hazard, the patron saint of swindlers and pickpockets.
She looked at my expression, or picked up something psychic, and said, “Okay, so we get a cut off the top, and depending how the games play out, we might make a tidy profit.”
Boxcars complained, “Setting all this up is a lot of work! We deserve something for our efforts!”
“I’ll grant you that,” I told them both. I didn’t blame them for wanting some reward for setting up something this complex. I was fully aware that even legitimate non-profits like charities often had enough overhead that the CEO could make a million dollars a year, and the upper-level executives could have lavish ‘conferences’ in exotic locales. That was one reason the Goodkinds had their own charities, so that we could guarantee that almost all the contributions went to the needy, instead of into someone’s new eighty-room mansion.
And I really didn’t want to think about how complicated running a poker tournament at Whateley could be. What did they do about all the precogs and espers and psis? What did they do about Peeper, who could probably look through the backs of cards? What did they do about empaths, who could read people regardless of the lack of tells? How did they handle devisers and gadgeteers, who might have built a little something to ‘help out’? For that matter, just being an Exemplar could be a major advantage, since careful card counting and mental math skills would facilitate computing the correct odds on finding what you needed in the river. And I didn’t want to think about what some of the campus Wizards could do with a deck of cards.
I made my way over to the Eastman Annex and stored my gymbag in the locker so I was ready for sixth period. I could hear that there was someone showering around the corner, so I left as quickly as I could. I mean, all I needed was another angry martial arts instructor looking to bust my chops. And if Lillian Dennon had some supervillainy in her background, she might not be quite as relaxed about my using the women instructors’ locker room as, say, sensei Beaumont.
I really wished I knew whether Beaumont was blasé, mildly curious, or simply amused at my condition. At least Tolman didn’t stare at me. On the other hand, Tolman had some sort of psychic abilities, so it was entirely possible she could watch me without using her eyes.
I walked off to Shakespeare class, wondering if the class discussion was going to be better than it had been last week. At least we didn’t have Bubble in the class. I still had to endure the two guys who always wanted to talk about the dirty words in the play. I had this mental image of Beavis and Butthead as Elizabethan playgoers. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. He said ‘country matters’. Get it? Country. Uh-huh.”
I got to class later than I had planned, so once again I had to take a seat farther back than I wanted. This time, I settled for a spot in the sixth row that wasn’t too far from the center. Silver Serpent and her Pan-Asia pal were dead center in the second row, which was an excellent viewing spot. I wondered how early they had gotten here to land those seats.
The teacher set up the movie projection system, and then started the class. “Now today, we’re going to watch Act V. Does everyone remember what happened in the first four acts, on Monday?”
Of course, no one put their hand up and admitted utter ignorance. She looked around, apparently checking for signs of confusion or embarrassment. There must have been some, because she put her hands together and said, “So why don’t we first have a quick recap of the first four acts? Phase? Could you quickly recap the main points of Act I?”
I made a note of the operative word in her sentence. ‘Quickly.’ Okay, I could take a hint. “Act I sets the scene for the following acts. We meet the main characters for the play, and we see how the two plots are going to inter-relate. Beatrice and Benedick are constantly sniping at each other, to the point that it’s pretty obvious there’s a ton of history between them, and strong feelings. Claudio finds Hero desirable and starts thinking about marriage. But we also see Don John, who is clearly going to be the bad guy. As the misunderstandings begin to fly, it’s Don John and his servants who know what is really going on, and decide to make trouble.”
Then Silver Serpent was selected to summarize Act II, and a couple more of the better students were tabbed to summarize the next two acts. Silv did a nice job, too. Considering how sharp she was on literature that was set in languages that weren’t anything like her native language, I had a feeling she would be awesome in a class on classical Chinese literature. If the opportunity to take a class like that with her ever came up, I was going to go for it. I would be risking getting a much lower grade than she got, but it might be worth it to hear some of her insights. Or maybe I could just talk to her about classical Chinese lit. If we didn’t have the issue of the Handmaid sitting in between us like a bottle of nitroglycerin on top of a Jenga tower, that might even be workable.
I sat forward to watch the last act of the play. I had been fairly impressed with the actors. Most performances of Shakespeare’s comedies focus more on the Shakespeare than the comedy, but the Ashland Shakespeare Festival seemed to understand the point was to present a comedy. I also tried to ignore Beavis and Butthead, who were sitting only two rows behind me.
Darrow carefully checked the spell on the laptop before he carried it through the wards. There was no point in wasting a perfectly good laptop if he didn’t need to.
Hekate looked up and asked, “For me?”
“No, it’s not for you,” he growled. She was so self-centered most of the time. He said, “I could have piped this into the room through that cable connection, but I wanted you to be able to watch this with more detail.”
“What is it?” she wondered.
He smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “It’s video footage of the Fey/Generator disaster at the Syndicate hardsite in Kansas City. Once you’ve studied the footage, you’ll see why I went to this much effort.”
He let her view the DVD for a while, as he worked in his library. First, he put away two of his tomes that she had left open. The girl had no respect for bindings, which was phenomenally stupid when there were eldritch tomes that could unleash serious problems if the bindings weren’t properly preserved. Then he did a small working to see which tomes she had really been looking at. Hmm. It was just as he suspected. She wasn’t really interested in the personality-altering spells of Astramudius, or the water manipulation spells of Berodi the Younger. She had been spending time working through some of his darker tomes, looking up vengeance spells and studying how they worked.
He glanced over at her. That was intelligent of her. Just what he would have done, if he had been fighting off a Sidhe curse. The more she learned about such curses, the more likely it was that she might find a way of counteracting the curse, or at least ameliorating it. Sometimes she surprised him.
And sometimes she did not.
After about an hour, she called him over. “I’ve looked over everything on the DVD. There’s nothing in the main area once Fey began fighting back against the flamethrowers. Whatever she did completely fried all the surveillance systems. And the shrimp did her zombie animation spell half a dozen times. Pretty impressive for someone who’s not supposed to have significant stores of Essence. I can’t figure out what source she was tapping into, given how I had Fey locked up.”
He frowned, “And why do you think I have taken the trouble to put this on a DVD in a laptop, instead of sending it over the cable? So you can study it! So you can slow it down, and replay it, and examine the details!”
He turned the laptop toward him and quickly moved the footage to the one point he had wanted her to study. “Watch Generator in action here. In slow motion.”
She went over it three times before she gave up. “Okay, what is it?”
He ran it a fourth time, at its slowest speed. He pointed at the upper right corner of the screen. “There. Watch that corpse, and watch her mouth.”
Hekate focused carefully, and then sat up with a start. “He’s moving already!”
Darrow nodded pompously. “Exactly. In slow motion, you can see right there that Generator has already animated the corpses before she finishes her ‘spell’. The spell is a decoy. She’s using PK or a devise instead of magic.”
Hekate said, “Probably a devise. That is what she does.”
Darrow shook his head again. “Not necessarily. If she has lied about her deviser skills, why wouldn’t she also lie about her other ratings? What if she has PK or Manifestor talents as well? Maybe Avatar, for all we know.”
Hekate shrugged off the issue of the little girl’s powers and wondered, “So, are you going to alert the Syndicate that she’s not really some sort of undead zombie princess?”
He smirked, “Why should I? They won’t hire me to take out some little deviser. At my rates, they’ll only hire me to kill her if they really think she has necromantic powers that require someone like me to intervene. And if they put a price on her head, it will be far higher if they think she’s an undead, unkillable, zombie-raising vampire queen, and not some lame tech-head with a good gimmick.”
“Some lame tech-head who took a mallet to the knee and laughed it off, and then took a knife through the heart and survived it!” Hekate complained.
Darrow nodded. “I think you have missed the key point. She was undeterred by a broken knee. Perhaps she is used to such damage. Perhaps she is a high-level regenerator, instead.”
“But a knife through the heart?”
Darrow smiled smugly. “You mean, a knife through where a heart might be in a normal person. She’s a mutant. She obviously has some sort of BIT issues or GSD, given she’s listed as fourteen and she looks like she’s locked into the form of a ten-year-old. Why should she have to possess normal internal organs too?”
Hekate glowered. “You mean… When I stabbed her and she died… She was using me? She used getting stabbed through the chest as a gambit to make her escape? Aaargh! I’ll kill that little bitch!”
Darrow smirked, “You mean, you’ll try to kill that little bitch. You may have to disintegrate her to do that.”
“A complete disintegration spell. Hmm… Not that hard in theory, some complex preparation required, then the right ingredients – that could be fairly time-consuming, one or two are fairly tricky, but it ought to be possible – then some fresh blood from the intended victim, and a hell of a lot of Essence to power it… I can do that,” Hekate assured him.