Ayla and the Birthday Brawl: (Chap 8)
Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 8
Ayla and the Birthday Brawl
by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)
CHAPTER 8 – The Legendof Amoret, or of Fortitude
The alarm clock went off. It was playing Russian Circles, a band I hadn’t seriously listened to before, except to pick out their album. I liked them. They were alternative rockers, and more or less fit in the category of progressive math-rock. They played nicely complex three-piece instrumental music with a lot of sound overlays. They ran the gamut from heavy metal to soft passages. According to Brian’s brother, their live shows were really lively, with music that was sometimes even more complex than their recorded material.
My nightmares hadn’t been as bad as I had expected. Okay, the BIT-slicer hadn’t worked, but my subconscious was apparently done with it. I didn’t remember having any nightmares about it. I did have a small nightmare about my demon buddy from Los Angeles teaming up with Chou’s B.M. Tong pals, but I didn’t really wake up from it, and I didn’t remember much about it the next morning.
I was still depressed over the failure in the BIT-slicer, but at least I wasn’t crying like a little baby on Vanessa’s chest any longer. Okay, getting to snuggle against Vanessa’s chest is always of the good, but I wasn’t going to embarrass myself again just to try to get her to hold me. I tried to think about other things, so I didn’t have to think about losing yet another shot at restoring my body. Or about what the next attempt was going to be.
It was Thursday. My birthday. I was fifteen years old. Not one of the major landmark birthdays, but it meant something. Next year, I would be able to drive – with restrictions, of course. Two years after that, I would be officially a legal adult, and I could vote. Voting in elections was an important part of my upbringing, along with helping the political system find the right candidates. Granted, most of the elections lately seemed to be a right-leaning idiot with good hair against a left-leaning idiot with good hair. And the candidates seemed intent on ignoring all the real issues: small local businessmen in a global economy, solid waste management, the geopolitical and socio-economic consequences of global warming, fiscal responsibility in budgets, the importance of balancing short-term and long-term goals, and so on.
But political candidates seemed to want to ignore all the ‘little things’ which add up to big things down the line. Like health care. If every child had adequate preventative care, regardless of socio-economics, then there would be lower overall health care costs for the average taxpayer in the long run, because healthier children get sick less often; they get less severe illnesses on average; and they end up with fewer really expensive costs that taxpayers have to absorb through other conduits. But that’s not a popular political position, and it would be difficult to build such a health care system that meshed well with current HMOs. Still, I thought health care reform was important, because small businesses needed it. I knew this was going to become an issue, sooner or later, for people like Jericho and Loophole, no matter how many patent rights they simply sold. The distributed cost of health care was a major issue for any company smaller than a Fortune 1000 corporation in a global economy where other countries were likely to be competing for the same marketing niches, and if your company included some GSD cases, your health care costs could ultimately be substantial. A health care reform that provided proper health care for employees of small companies while costing the company less than before could give that company a leg up in terms of global markets. And that, in turn, could change the national balance of trade, which could affect long-term behavior of our national debt. It was a simple, logical approach that ought to be solidly supported by Republicans and Independents.
It was just like those people who ignored the issues involved in early education. If we let kids get to first grade before they start learning to read, we’ve already lost them. If we don’t build more comprehensive programs for kids with reading and comprehension problems, then we end up paying for their problems for the rest of their lives. I had to wonder if kids like Buster could have been helped by programs like that, or if it would have turned them into more sophisticated goons.
Or public roadwork infrastructure. It drives me crazy that our road repair system is predicated on the old-fashioned idea that all roads are built with 1950’s technology and only last for ten years before more repairs are needed. I personally would rather see a system where more advanced road-building methodologies are used, so that the roads hold up for thirty years at a time, even if those methods take twice as long to build in the first place, or to repair. And then there’s Tarmac, who could probably form a company based around his abilities with tar manifestation: instant road resurfacing and road repair even in inclement weather, plus specialty work for private companies. I needed to talk to that guy before he graduated.
But oil-related products were another commonly ignored ongoing issue. Off-shore drilling and oil transport had added a host of safety developments since The Mentat caused the Exxon Valdez to crash, but even the Submarine Emergency Action League couldn’t handle every potential oil disaster, now that the Atlanteans were occasionally sabotaging oil rigs and trying to sink oil tankers. People were refusing to face the uncomfortable fact that the environmental issues were intricately related to geopolitical ones, particularly when no one knew just who the heck ‘the Atlanteans’ really were.
I also couldn’t understand why right-winger politicians weren’t insisting on adopting global climate change as a key policy. After all, there were going to be winners as well as losers in the big global climate change sweepstakes. America and most of our European allies were going to be large-scale losers. Russia and China were going to be large-scale winners. That meant that countries like Russia and China were going to have longer growing seasons, more arable land, and the ability to feed millions more people. Any hard-line supporter of our national defense ought to be demanding instant responses on global climate change. But no one was making this a significant issue.
Okay, so I’m a policy wonk. So sue me.
I walked into the bathroom, and got a couple ‘happy birthday’ calls from my friends. It was nice. Not as nice as last year’s birthday, or the year’s before that, but still nice.
Okay, last year for my birthday, Father flew me out to Redmond, Washington. We had lunch with Bill Gates at a five-star restaurant in Seattle, and discussed some Goodkind-Microsoft joint computing initiatives. This year? Maybe not such a great present. I decided I was going to count the IPO success as a present.
After I showered, I gave myself another present. I parked myself at the middle sink and took my time, so I got a good look as Nikki and Bunny showered, then dried off. I waited until Nikki was drying her back and Bunny was drying her legs to interrupt them. I said, “Hey Nikki, Jericho says he can go on Saturday. Do you think there’s a chance your little ‘external’ problem with the… umm… hairy critters might mess that up?”
Nikki looked at me and first said, “My eyes are up here, Ayla.” Oops. She sighed, “Anything’s possible. For all I know our ‘external’ problem might mess things up for some of the rest of us.” She glanced over at Bunny. “And why is it that you chose this particular moment to ask me about that?”
Bunny giggled, “Busted!”
I said, “Some of us certainly are.”
Nikki said, “Surely you can find a better birthday present than ogling us in the bathroom.”
Man. She pegged me exactly. Not that she didn’t have empathic powers to help, but still, she had me. I couldn’t help grinning. “Nikki, you’re selling yourself short.”
“Ayla!” she fussed.
I tried an alternative escape. “Come on, you know how hard it is for me not to look. And haven’t I been doing a heck of a lot better than back in September? It’s not like you don’t stare too.”
She glanced over at Bunny, and they locked eyes. Nikki actually blushed, which I should point out was incredibly sexy. “Umm, maybe a little.”
Bunny said, “At least this is Poe. Imagine if we were in Whitman or Dickinson, and we couldn’t stare at all, without getting into a ton of trouble!”
Nikki smirked, “Yeah, and imagine how much trouble Ayla would be in, trying to shower with the girls over there.”
“Don’t remind me,” I groaned. “It’s not like I could shower with the boys in Twain or Emerson, either. Maybe they could find me a nice private room in Hawthorne with a private shower.”
Nikki cooed, “Ooh, and Olympia could be your girlfriend.”
“Oh, thanks,” I replied sarcastically. “We’ll be sure to set you up on a date with Phlegm. We’ll tell him you really like smooching and PDA.”
“Eeewwwwwwww,” about six or seven girls said simultaneously. It was so nice to feel that you had privacy in a place like this.
Since Nikki was keeping an eye on me, I finished up and went to my room to get dressed. Putting on the special protective ‘thong’ and bra seemed a lot more fatalistic after last night’s failure. Not that I was going to give up. No, I was merely reorganizing my priority structure and focusing on my next sets of options. Okay, the next option was frankly intimidating. It was going to require extensive planning and some intricate negotiations first.
Once I was completely dressed, I checked my watch. I still had time for a quick internet search. It was really bugging me that I didn’t get that ‘befriend’ reference.
It took me nearly four minutes of re-phrasing my searches with Google to find out what Billie and Jade meant about ‘befriending’ me. The series was called ‘Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha’, and it was at the ‘asskicking in gigantic battles’ end of the magical girl scale. Apparently, when people in the Nanoha fandom said ‘befriend’, they really meant ‘blast the holy crap out of you with a magical spell that can total a building’. How the heck could a show about a smart nine-year-old be like a cross between magical girls and giant robot wars? Maybe I would have to watch some excerpts on YouTube and find out. I was not going to let Jade and Billie find out I was watching it. And I was REALLY not going to let Toni and Nikki find out. They would never stop teasing me about that.
I headed off to breakfast. I dove down through the basement and flew through the tunnels, since most of the gang had a good head start on me. As I flew, I tried something new. I checked to see if I could hold my bPhone and keep it intangible along with the rest of me. It was small enough to hold in my hand, so I was able to keep it fully light. But it was still powered. I was able to check my email and the stock prices while I flew down the tunnel.
There weren’t any new emails from Ron Perelman or any of his staffers. There were several emails forwarded from Ron’s secretary. It seemed that reporters and market pundits were trying to find ways of contacting me through Ron, so that they could get exclusive interviews, asking me the same tedious questions they had asked other financiers every week for the last decade. This was yet another detail I was still pondering. Not that I hadn’t expected this to happen. No, it was inevitable, whether the IPO was a huge success or not. Any time the primary mover behind a major NYSE stock turns out to be a teenager, people want to hear about it.
But I was no longer a ‘real’ Goodkind. I no longer had a vast organization of lawyers and public relations officers and executive staffers to provide an adequate buffer between myself and some stock market pundit who thought he was the next Woodward and Bernstein combined. I was working on that problem, though. I was already setting up a corporation, and I was already using a high-end search service to help me find the best candidates. I planned to interview the final candidates for the jobs. Personally. The only problem with that was that I was really going to have to wait until spring break to do the final interviews and extend job offers. By then, I would have a company set up, with appropriate building space acquired, and some decent office furniture to use. You couldn’t possibly hire the best people available if they were looking at you across a card table from a folding chair in a vacant lot: they would never accept your job offer. And, if you appeared to be a short, fifteen year old ‘girl’, then they would assume it was a rather annoying joke. No, the proper setting was going to be crucial. I would find ways to stall the industry reporters until then. Dangling choice offers of future interviews would probably be sufficient, since they had no other way to reach me.
The key point was that I needed to be thinking proactively. Now that the IPO was an unquestioned success, I needed to work on the next steps. I needed to try to work out what pitfalls could make the stock drop again, and then plan ways to head things off. At this point, even having Stan Lee pass away wouldn’t affect Marvel Comics, but letting a story writer or editor do something phenomenally stupid, like, say, killing off Captain America or Spiderman, could hurt. Another disaster of movie making, like not getting Spiderman 3 off the ground, could do it.
I needed to look harder into which movies we were going to license, and which ones we were going to shut down. That ‘Iron Man’ movie was actually a damned good idea, now that the special effects were adequate to the task. Come to think of it, I needed to track down whoever had actually greenlighted “Hulk 1809”, and make sure they never again had a more important decision than ‘coffee or tea, sir?’ Well, at least they hadn’t really let Ang Lee direct a Marvel movie. I couldn’t see that working. The man was a brilliant director, but his style was certainly not suited for comic book characters. Maybe I should find out who really came up with that ‘Brokeback Wolverine’ line and offer him my first interview. Some deserving ghost writer could use that kind of break.
I flew up into the Dunn Hall cafeteria, and joined the food line. My stomach started rebelling as soon as I looked over and saw that Sun was back at our table. She was still in her ‘cute little schoolgirl’ affectation, but that didn’t make her any less annoying. It just made it harder to be angry at her in front of everyone else. It’s always easier to yell at a big, ugly guy who’s obviously up to no good, than it is to chew out a cute little sweetheart who looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Even if they are really the same person. The issue may not be your own ability to yell, as much as it may be the reaction of everyone around you when you appear to go postal on a harmless little cutie-pie.
Of course in Sun’s case, there was also the issue that he (or she) could take on the entire school single-handedly. Stupid monkey.
I was considering giving up and going back to the room for a decent breakfast, when I saw Jana looking around for me. Or rather, I assumed she was looking for me. I didn’t know of anyone else for whom the chefs were preparing special treats. I made an effort to be noticeable, and Jana spotted me. Her reaction told me that she was holding something for me. That cheered me up. I didn’t know what it was, but I was sure it would be better than the ‘egg and cheese on English muffin’ travesties which were arrayed on the steam table in front of me. I was sure that the chef who had invented eggs Benedict was rolling over in his grave at these. Actually, if he rolled over in his grave at every Egg McMuffin consumed, he was probably spinning at rates that would cause industrial lathes to melt down. Not that it was impossible to make a good breakfast sandwich; it just required a little care, and ingredients more expensive than people wanted to purchase. Well, there was no accounting for taste… or the lack thereof.
I patiently worked my way through the throngs of omnivores, until I got to Jana’s position. She handed me the plate and said, “It’s a Bakewell tart.”
“Thanks,” I replied as I studied the luscious slice.
She added, “It’s a good thing you didn’t take a whole lot longer. I’ve got to go. I can’t hold this form very long, and I can’t work in this stupid kitchen in my normal form.”
I nodded politely. I really didn’t know what to say, other than a lame apology for something that had nothing to do with me. But Jana could only hold her ‘human’ form for about an hour, which was really inconvenient when in a kitchen as cramped and archaic as these appeared to be. She could stay in her centaur form for arbitrary amounts of time, as far as I knew, but that wasn’t nearly as convenient when dealing with ordinary structures designed with humans in mind. Like restaurant kitchens. Even modern kitchens specifically designed to allow room weren’t designed to allow room for a centaur.
Jana rushed off to change clothes before she reverted to centaur form and destroyed the clothes she was wearing. I put my slice of tart on my tray and looked for some accompaniment for it. I didn’t like the way the ‘fruit cup’ looked, but the orange slices looked fresh. I scooped up half a dozen and slid them into a small bowl. The coffee wasn’t worth my time. I settled on a glass of whole milk. I really should have brewed some decent coffee back in my room while I was rummaging about on the internet for ‘befriending’. I mentally shook my head. I needed to plan more carefully too.
Once I sat down at the Kimba table and touched Nikki’s magic crystal, I ate my orange slices and studied my tart. Sun was enjoying her breakfast, and teasing Chou that she needed to try it. Given what Sun was eating, that seemed rather unlikely. I mean, how could anybody eat an entire large bowl of ‘corn flakes’ dry, with a pound of sliced bananas on top? Yuck! And every time I looked over there, she just gave me a big grin, as if to say ‘aren’t I the cutest thing since the invention of stone monkeys?’ Dry corn flakes. Why did it have to be dry corn flakes?
Toni was busy telling about the phone call she had received last night from her parents and grandmother. Apparently, Uncle Carl had dissed ‘Sun the cute schoolgirl’ and had been lucky enough to get shooed upstairs before Sun showed Carl the error of his ways. Given the impression Uncle Carl had made on Chou during her short visit, I was figuring that Carl had just barely avoided being pounded into goo, and then transformed into op art. It sounded like that guy needed a Dale Carnegie course.
On the other hand, Toni’s parents had needed to spend a couple hours cleaning up after Sun left. He apparently beat up a couple dozen Tong warriors and slammed someone down so hard on Uncle Carl’s favorite chair that the seat was now at floor level. Toni’s dad was sure that it couldn’t be repaired, but Uncle Carl was desperate to rescue his favorite seat. Toni sounded as if she were utterly disgusted that she hadn’t been allowed to participate in the beatdown. Getting to fight side-by-side with the Monkey King was apparently now on her bucket list.
You know, if it wasn’t against the unofficial rules of Hollywood, I would have already been lobbying to get Toni and Chou as stunt women into the next Marvel movie that needed deadly ninja assassins or deadly Asian martial arts masters or anything like that. Even deadly blaxploitation fighters. As things lay, using mutants even as your special effects experts or your stunt doubles was tantamount to treason in Hollywood. Of course, a major reason for that situation was my family. But Goodkinds alone didn’t have that kind of pull. According to my Uncle Theo, it really went back to the first Hollywood studio battle about the use of an Exemplar as a lead in a movie. It was long before words like ‘mutant’ and ‘Exemplar’ and ‘DNA’ were used, but it was back in the days when superheroes were starting to be noticed, and the astonishing beauty of some of the superheroes and superheroines was being noticed even more. Several studio heads had tried to talk some super-beautiful people into taking roles in movies, just as they did – much more successfully – with several famous athletes and war heroes. It had apparently led to an ‘arms race’ that would have destroyed the ‘star system’ of Hollywood back in the days of the Hays Code, so the studio heads had decided that the only solution that wouldn’t cost them too much money was to make movies ‘no super-beautiful people’. As the number of mutants and their newsworthiness continued to grow, the rule changed to ‘no super-freaks in any job whatsoever’. The Goodkind influence to keep things that way hadn’t arisen until decades later, in the Seventies, when it once again became possible for independent studios to make movies good enough to show in theaters. Precisely why Goodkinds had waited so long to press that point was something Uncle Theo had never told me.
While Molly was talking about how her parents thought Dyffud was the nicest, most polite, friendliest, heavily-armed anti-terrorist fighter they had ever met, I inspected my breakfast. The classic Bakewell tart was made with strawberry preserves, and it was normally more of a lunch or dinner dessert. Not that I was complaining. I thought it was possible that I was getting an early sample of something that would be served to the faculty and staff at lunch.
If that was right, then some staffers were going to get one whale of a dessert for their lunches. This was a huge slice of a tart, apparently one sixth of the entire baked product. I would have been happy with a slice half that size. On the other hand, given that Sun Wu Kong might decide to eat most of my breakfast, perhaps I needed a slice that massive.
The tart had a beautifully prepared pie crust that was crisp even underneath the tart, which was where most cooks fell down on a Bakewell tart. Right on top of the crust was a thick layer of marionberry preserves. It tasted rich and tart and tangy, without being overly sweet. It was thick and luscious, with a mouthfeel that made you think of lush, sun-kissed berries. I wondered if it was homemade in the kitchens here, or if they had found a really superb jam maker somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Then, across the top of the layer of preserves was the filling, a soft, light cover like a light cake. The filling obviously had plenty of real vanilla and almond extract. The finely ground almonds in it gave the filling a depth that was matched by the richness of the creamery butter and the whipped eggs. And the tart was baked in an oven clearly better than the ones in Dunn, which I was beginning to suspect were really defective fireplace grates in disguise.
I even got to eat the entire slice without Sun stealing any. However, I spent the entire meal worrying that Sun was going to steal the rest of the tart in the middle of my next bite, which made it more difficult to enjoy my breakfast. Fortunately, I have enough concentration to manage it. So I enjoyed my delicious breakfast treat, along with the cold, crisp milk that was a satisfying accompaniment. Not that a delicious cup of well-brewed tea wouldn’t have worked just as well. It was just that finding a delicious cup of tea in Dunn Hall was considerably more difficult.
I took a long look for Shove and Vox, since I wanted to get the anti-Peeper charms to both of them. On the other hand, I didn’t want anyone else to realize what we were up to, until it was time to spring our little surprise on Peeper, so I wasn’t taking the beads over to either of them. At least, I wasn’t going to take the beads to them that very second. I had done so many entertaining acts in the middle of the caff that people tended to watch me, hoping for the next big floorshow. That had its advantages, as well as its drawbacks.
I also had to admit that there were drawbacks in other ways. For instance, I had made some enemies who were not going to forgive me as easily as, say, Jade after she had tried to squish me by casting Jinn into my shirt, and I had retaliated by stealing her panties in the middle of the Crystal Hall. The Whateley Academy Martial Arts Cheerleaders had a serious hate-on for me, as well as for several other Kimbas, along with Sara. Also, they really hated Hippolyta, although my sources hadn’t been able to find out why. It wasn’t as if Hip had ever stolen a boyfriend away from the Yellow Queen… although it was possible that Hip had put some boyfriend of Patty’s in the hospital.
Then Fantastico and his redneck pals were still out there, and my information network said that they were plotting against me. I really hoped they were going to use the ‘weakness to dark chocolate’ information in my powers testing files. My sources said that Minefield was pretty pathetic in a straight-up fight, but that he preferred not to fight anyone except on the battlefields of his own choosing. Minefield was one of the longtime members of the A-Team, which was Whateley’s own crowd of historical gaming nerds. He had plotted the downfall of Impact last year, and the defeat of the Geodesic-Knightfall team the year before that, so he had demonstrated talents in this area. Both had been efforts that led the targets into a battleground designed to block the target’s best maneuvers and to play to the strengths of Minefield’s team. The most that I had been able to find out about those two schemes was that he had later bragged that he had modeled the first one on the battles of Oliver Cromwell. Assuming that he was plotting against me, I had arranged to leave a couple ‘avenues of attack’ that would appear to be exposed. Minefield had to know that I was going to be hard to pin down, since I could fly away at high speed or dive into the ground to escape. That naturally suggested certain types of traps that he might try to spring on me, much like the one the ‘Lympies had sprung on Chou.
I had to admit it. I was privately enjoying my pre-battle scheming against Minefield. There was no way to be sure how much he could learn about me or my teammates, or even about my holdouts. A lot of that depended on how much intel Ferret could, well, ferret out. So I was making sure to keep track of the little weasel. I was assuming that Minefield now knew Team Kimba had a high-end comm system, since everyone in Team Tactics knew it by now. That almost certainly meant that he would have to come up with a way to separate me from my teammates so subtly that I wouldn’t think to alert anyone, and that he could put together an attack that could take me down faster than Tennyo or Lancer could come to my rescue. I was also assuming that he had some intelligence on my assorted holdouts, given that I had used some of them in a number of campus fights, plus Team Tactics classes, plus martial arts classes. That meant he probably thought I was running around with a live psi grenade, given that I had used one in the fall, and that I had claimed to have a working one when we started using the holographic sims. On the other hand, it was pretty unlikely that Minefield had the connections that the Bad Seeds had, so he probably couldn’t find out the complete list of holdouts that I might be wielding.
There was also the issue of battlefield support. Minefield had more to work with this year than in the past, thanks to the popularity that Fantastico had brought to the Good Ol’ Boyz. In prior years, Minefield had been stuck with little more than Oiler and a couple of the A-Team for his plans. He now had Fantastico, Conduit, Nantuko, Roadrunner, The Man Called Vengeance, and a couple others he could call on. That meant he had a brick I could beat if I really needed to, a speedster who wasn’t as fast as Jay Jay, a mage who wasn’t in the same league as Fey or Charmer, and a blaster who probably couldn’t hurt me when I was heavy. The Man Called Vengeance acted tough, and dressed like he was tough, but he didn’t have any serious martial arts training, and he didn’t have superhuman strength from his Energizer talent. He had energy beams he could blast from his hands. Granted, they were pretty high up in the electro-magnetic spectrum, up near gamma rays, and if he fired them off, he was likely to irradiate whatever he hit. That would be pretty nasty if I were light when I got blasted. On the other hand, as far as I knew, his beams probably wouldn’t have any real effect on me if I were fully heavy. Conduit would be a problem if I depended on energy attacks or psychic attacks, but that wasn’t likely to be an issue for me. On the other hand, Ferret was a deviser, and he had deviser contacts. That meant that I had no idea what he might be able to contribute for an assault on me.
Minefield also had to know that if he launched any kind of attack against me, I had an entire team who would back me up for payback. I thought we had made that point fairly clear against the Young Turks back in December. So he would have to disguise the attack in such a way that it wasn’t clear it even was an attack, or else disguise the powers used in such a way that the assault couldn’t be traced back to the Good Ol’ Boyz. I was fairly sure that not even Fantastico wanted to be on the receiving end of a beatdown from all of Team Kimba. Frankly, I didn’t think that in a fair fight, Fantastico could take anybody in Team Kimba except the J-Team. Not when Chou had her sword and the Tao, and Toni had her Chaka Chaka Bang Bang and her paralyzing nerve strike, and I had other things I could do while light, instead of dropping some food in his mouth. Minefield’s best option, in my personal opinion, was to sucker some other team into taking a shot at me – the ‘sick Counterpoint on Chou’ approach. Frankly, I was looking forward to seeing what he came up with.
A plummy British accent ran my train of thought off the tracks. “Ah, children! I see we have adopted some charming little street urchins!”
“Hi, Belle,” said Fey.
I said, “Hello there, Fagin. Let me introduce you to Jack Dawkins and Oliver Twist.” I pointed at Sun and Molly. Of course, Molly gave me a confused look, while Sun gave Belle her usual ‘admire my intense cuteness’ smile. I had to admit, between Jade and Sun and Molly, the cuteness quotient at our table was dangerously high. I had this mental image of Clover and Aquerna and Dragonrider all coming by at the same time, and causing people at surrounding tables to collapse due to hyperglycemia.
Sun grinned, “Beltane! I’ve heard such wonderful things about you. It’s really a shame we didn’t have a chance to do more the last time I was here.”
Half the table groaned at that. All right, I probably groaned the loudest. All we needed was Sun Wu Kong, the trickster god, to team up with Kendall Forbes, the trickster mutant.
Fortunately, Belle had enough sense of self-preservation to figure out that she didn’t know the cute little schoolgirl sitting before her, which meant that she was looking at some sort of Shifter or illusionist. And she was already in the midst of an ectoplasm war, which she was not winning. If she could only manage a stalemate – so far – in her chosen medium, this particular person might swing the balance the wrong way. So she focused on her intended victim.
She turned my way and said, “I heard from ‘Trode that you wanted to invite me to Boston on Saturday. I can make it, if the invitation is still open.”
“That would be great,” I told her. “Be down in front of Schuster by nine Saturday morning. No presents. Nice casual, so you can skip the Whateley uniform. And no transforming other people’s clothing into clown costumes.”
She grinned wickedly, “You read my mind!”
I added, “But if Jericho shows up in his usual attire, you have my permission to dress him in an extremely dull gray suit with a really uncomfortable – but very boring – tie.”
She looked at me and hazarded, “I’m not going to be that lucky, am I?”
I just smiled.
Sun, realizing that we had concluded our business, put in her two cents. “Beltane, don’t you remember me?”
Tennyo tilted her head back until her hair was brushing against Belle’s blazer. She whispered two words. It looked from where I was sitting as if she mouthed, “Panty thief.”
Belle froze. Team Kimba had told the entire dorm that they had been fighting the Monkey King. None of us had spread the word that Sun had dropped by Whateley primarily to meet Chou, but a few of the other Poesies had heard that tidbit. So Belle knew exactly what Billie’s words meant.
Sun smiled broadly and waved her tail jauntily, making sure that the key at its tip flashed in the light.
Belle gulped. She suddenly burst out, “Oh, I say, I must be going, I’ll be terribly late if I don’t rush off right this minute!” And she split.
“Smart girl,” Hank muttered.
If she was smart enough to recognize the monkey tail and the key, and know what that meant, then she was smarter than most people I knew. And better read. It was also possible that Tennyo’s words had been all Belle really got, but those had been more than enough. Everyone in Poe had to know that the Monkey King was way out of our weight class. Some of us might conceivably be welterweights, but he was up in the super heavyweight category.
Hank subtly pointed to his watch, so most of us rose from the table. As we headed off to Team Tactics class, I asked Chou, “Is it okay to leave Molly there with You-know-who?”
She sighed, “I suppose so. Sun likes her. And if she didn’t want to sit with Sun, she would have gotten up with the rest of us.”
“Oh.” It occurred to me that Molly had admitted getting advice from Sun during Christmas break. It had apparently even been good advice, which just goes to show that you can never trust a trickster. Just when you’re sure they’re up to no good, they do something nice, just to confuse you.
Jade waited until we were halfway to Range Four before she pouted, “Stephen says he isn’t going on Saturday.”
“I thought as much,” I murmured quietly. Of course, as soon as I said it, I realized that I had said it in front of two people with superhuman hearing, and the J-Team. Crap.
Toni immediately helped out. “Aren’t you gonna call him a poopyhead or something?”
Jade frowned, “No. ‘Poopyhead’ isn’t bad enough for this one. He knew I really, really wanted him to come too, and spend time with my friends, and just be a nice guy. But no, all of a sudden, he claims he has a big meeting he has to go to. On a Saturday. Yeah, right. Even I’m not fallin’ for that. He’s a… a… a huge poopyhead! Dammit!”
Billie was floating along instead of walking, so she drifted over to Jade and gave her a one-armed hug. “It’ll be okay. My friend can’t come either, so it’s just you and me. And Jinn. We can stick together. Like on Parents’ Day.”
I complained, “Come on! It’s not like everyone else is going to dump you for their guests!”
“Dates,” Billie pointed out.
I insisted, “Look, every one of these ‘dates’ is one of your friends too. Vanessa. Rip. Bunny. Molly. Lily. And you know almost everybody else. Belle, Jody, Pilar, Jay Jay, Delta, Marty… It’s not like I’m dragging you off to a party where you have to sit in a corner all evening. And you ought to know a lot of the other kids too. This is your chance to get to know Dorjee. Okay, let me think who else we have… Anna. Aquerna.”
Toni butted in, “Oh yeah, she helped me out last week. Rez says she was in Intro to Crim all last term and I didn’t even notice. That squirrel schtick is freaky.”
Billie smirked, “I loved what she did to Buster.”
“Then chat with her about it,” I said. I went down my mental list. “Charmer.”
“Isn’t she one of the Berets?” Toni checked.
“Yes, but she’s nice,” I insisted.
“And she’s gorgeous, with big boobs, so you couldn’t be biased on that,” Hank helped out. Not.
I said, “I got to know her last term in aikido class. Along with Aquerna and Phobos and Prism and a couple other kids.”
“Prism?” Chou asked, with a slightly horrified tone in her voice.
I nodded. “Prism. Rich is a nice guy, he doesn’t play ‘follow the leader’, and he’d be an excellent contact if we have future issues with the ‘Lympies.”
Chou sighed, “Okay. It’s not like he was even at the arena, anyway.”
I told her, “Talk to him about what happened. He might have something he’s willing to tell you. If not, anything you tell him will go a long way toward making the ‘Lympies realize they got played, and you were a victim too.”
“You’re not just using him, are you?” Fey wondered out loud.
I gave her a dirty look. “Thanks for that ringing endorsement of my personal ethos.”
“You didn’t answer the question,” teased Toni. “Politics 101, was it?”
Boy, you get some friends with near-eidetic memories, and do they ever let you forget what you once said? No. “Fine. I’ll answer the question. No, I’m not just using him. But I am inviting a lot of people I know who are in a lot of different groups. Charmer’s in the Berets. Prism’s a New Olympian. Loophole’s now an Alpha-”
“An Alpha?” gasped Toni.
“Yes, an Alpha. And she’s one of my inventors too. Plus, she’s dating Kodiak, so I have high hopes she’s going to be an influence for good.”
“So I guess this means we can’t talk about any of the secret stuff we talk about in your room?” Hank asked.
“No, but we can’t talk about that stuff in public anyway. Although my network tells me that Loophole would just as soon stick a lamp up Sebastiano’s ass as look at him. I don’t have the details, and I’m not asking Elaine unless I absolutely have to.”
“Who else you asking?” Toni asked.
“Aquerna, of the Underdogs. Jericho and Phobos. Outcast Corner. I was really hoping Thuban would come too.”
“Poopyhead…” someone muttered.
I went on as if I hadn’t heard that. “Tabby’s a Golden Kid, and one of the Ninjas. And Prism. Möbius is another of my inventors. He knows Charmer from classes, and he knows Bugs and Loophole and Delta and Jericho from Workshop. Plus, he thinks Jade’s another deviser, so the J-Team ought to chat with him.”
“He’s your source for the utility belts, isn’t he?” Hank asked.
“Yeah, and he’s got some other things we ought to be looking into. Like a storage cube a foot on each side that ought to hold a walk-in closet’s worth of clothing. Or weaponry. And he’s a nice guy,” I finished. “By the way, I’d like all of you to make an effort to be nice to the ‘new kids’ who don’t know as many people as you will. Jericho knows the inventors and most of us, but Tabby only knows me and Charmer, and only met you maniacs when you were waitressing.”
“She offered me a really good deal on next month’s Golden Kids meet!” Jade piped up.
I continued, “Prism knows me and the other aikido classmates. Same for Aquerna. Besides the aikido kids, Phobos only knows me and Chou and Jericho.”
Chou said, “When the Outcasts were rehearsing, Phobos invited one person. You. And it sounded like you were the only person she invited who ever came.”
“That sucks,” muttered Toni.
Fey said, “Yeah, she’s had a totally crappy year, between manifesting like she did, and getting Jobed, and having that fear aura so no one wants to talk to her, and all that.”
I pointed out, “And she’s a receptive empath, so she gets to feel all the fear everyone has around her and her sister.”
“Major suckage there,” agreed Billie.
I finished, “As far as I know, there’s nobody on the list who has a problem with anyone else on the list. We all have problems with people some of them know. But that’s not the same thing. And we can make allies just by being our usual insane selves and having a fun trip.”
Hank agreed, “Well we sure need to start making more allies and stop making so many enemies.”
“So, be nice to people on Saturday, and have fun,” I told him. I pointed at Jade. “And you. Bring the cabbit. That’s always entertaining. Molly and Anna will love it, and probably half the rest of the crowd too.”
Jade looked upward as she thought for a second. “Can the cabbit serve snacks on a tray, like a little serving girl?”
“Sure,” I nodded. “But no maid’s dress and high heels for it.”
“And I thought you liked those maid outfits,” Toni teased.
“Oh, I like them a lot,” I admitted, “Especially on fabulous babes, like Vanessa. But not on cabbits. And I’m not paying for a maid’s outfit for the cabbit, either.”
Jade put her hand in her purse, and a painfully sad cabbit voice rang from inside the depths. “Miiiiiiii-yaaaa.”
Fey asked, “So, are you gonna ask us to play ‘maid’ again next year if you host the Golds again?”
I pursed my lips in thought. “Maybe not. I was really after some subtle intelligence gathering. I think plain girls in plain gray uniforms would work better. And nobody’s ever going to mistake any of you for plain.”
Toni snarked, “And I was figurin’ you were just goin’ for the biggest ‘look what I can pull off’ move of the century.”
“Which reminds me,” complained Hank. “How come nobody brought any of the snacks home for me?”
I looked over at Billie. So did Nikki and Toni. Jade didn’t bother. She loyally said, “Billie needed to keep her strength up, after all her hard work!”
“Sorry,” muttered Billie, staring down at the floor.
I said, “That was my fault. I should have put together a care package for someone to take back to you.”
Toni glared at me. “What is it with you and blame? We all shoulda thought about bringing some stuff back for Hank. And Chou. You had an entire freakin’ party to organize, and all your little schemes to keep runnin’, and the clean-up to take care of, and handlin’ Nikki’s little revenge thang so it didn’t explode in our faces later, and everything else. All we had to do was change clothes. We should’ve thought of it.”
Hank rolled his eyes. “You guys. If I wanted some of the food that bad, I would’ve asked before the party.”
Chou quietly said, “I think that Ayla already spends enough time finding food for us and stocking our pantry. I am sure it all tasted really good, but I did not need any more treats.”
Toni nudged her, “Worried about losing your girlish figure?”
Chou grinned and poked Toni in the stomach. Toni tried to poke Chou in her stomach, but Chou blocked her finger. Chou’s return volley was blocked with one hand. Toni tried both index fingers simultaneously, and Chou managed to block both, although it took her one hand and one forearm to do it. After that, the finger poking began to speed up, until it was little more than a series of flashing blurs between them.
Just about the time that Nikki was raising her hands to do something about the silliness, Chou jumped back and complained, “Shit!”
Toni did a double backflip and crowed, “The winnaaah! And still champeeen! CHAKA!”
Hank just slowly shook his head. “Think you can save some of that for class?”
Chaka gave him a big smirk, “Honey, I am all about class!”
Chou grinned at her and played the overly meek Chinese girl. She turned to face Hank, put her hands together as she bowed, and said, “Of course, Lancer-san.”
Nikki grinned, “You said ‘of course’. Sounds like you’re hanging out with Ayles too much.”
I grinned back. “You said ‘Ayles’. It sounds like you’re hanging out with the Bad Influence too much.”
Toni irrepressibly agreed, “That’s ‘hangin’ with’, not ‘hanging out with’, White Boy.”
Chou glanced mischievously at Toni and then focused on me. “Vanilla Man.”
Tennyo jumped in too. “Snow Guy.”
Jade added, “Paleface Person.”
Jinn contributed, “Milky Man.”
I rolled my eyes as I looked at Hank.
He smiled, “No way, don’t get me involved in this.”
I couldn’t resist saying, “What, don’t we Vanilla Men have to stick together?”
He couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. “Unh-uh. When us Snow Guys stick together, we get mashed up into one bigger snowman, and then someone rips off our carrot.”
“Ouch. That sounds painful,” Nikki said.
“Yeah,” agreed Hank. “And I don’t wanna lose my carrot.”
Toni got an evil gleam in her eyes. “Oh! So when Traduce called Ayla a twenty-carrot jerk, she really meant Ayla ha-”
“Oh Koehnes?” called out Nikki in a sickeningly sweet tone.
“Okay, okay, I’m shuttin’ up, you don’t have to glue my mouth closed! Again!” Toni fussed.
Nikki just gave her roommate a charming smile. Well, ‘charming’ if you happened to be a tigress.
Sometimes it seemed as if my teammates were just a pack of pretty girls, not counting Hank. But then there were moments like this that reminded me that they weren’t. No, they were far more than that.
Nikki looked like a princess. But that appearance was painfully deceptive. She was really more of a warrior queen, especially when Aunghadhail came to the fore. According to Chou and Chaka, the native Indians in the nearby forests were villages of Weres, and they regarded Nikki as something akin to their own personal God. The Grove, which did not want people like me going anywhere near it, not only allowed Nikki in, but eagerly awaited her visits.
And then there was Billie. The Grove, which was officially a Class X site and was capable of warding off an invading army, couldn’t stop Tennyo from entering and doing whatever the hell she pleased. Billie had memories from her other self that went back so far we couldn’t figure out how old they really were. And her body…
One thing I knew was that her body wasn’t like that of any other mutant I had met. Last week, Jade had wanted to test her regen against my Phase-disruption ability. I had been pretty reluctant to try that, just in case she turned out to be a really weird form of Exemplar, so Billie dragged Nikki in as ‘expert witness’ and medic. It turned out that my Phase-disruption worked the same on Jade as on everyone else: a pass through her hand hurt her a lot, although her regen helped her recover from that; and a pass through her spine knocked her out for almost an hour.
But then Billie had wanted to test out my power set. I was definitely worried about that. The whole ‘something like antimatter is sometimes in my blood’ issue came to mind. I didn’t want to burn off any of my extremities, or accidentally cause the room to be blasted into subatomic particles. But Nikki did a scrying and thought it would work, unless Billie got upset. So we tried it out. By which I mean that Nikki used her glamour and Jade used her Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes, and they talked me into it. I waved a Phase-disruption light finger through Billie’s arm. She only felt a tingle. I tried Phase-disrupting a hand through her neck. She felt a sharp pain that didn’t slow her down a bit. Then we let Billie work herself up by imagining someone hurting Jade. It was easy to tell when she was worked up sufficiently, because her eyes starting changing to a threatening red. I passed a finger through her arm while disruption-light… and I got a third-degree burn that Nikki had to heal on the spot. Christ, that had really hurt!
There were times when I was exceptionally glad that my teammates were on my team, and they were all on good terms with me.
We walked, flew, sashayed, and twirled into the classroom. The twirling went with the song Jade was singing. It sounded like J-Pop, and for all I knew was another theme song for “Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha”, not that I was interested in learning enough about the show to be able to recognize every one of the songs.
The sashay was all Nikki and Toni, who were just ahead of me and completely distracting me from the things on which I was trying to concentrate. There were times when I had to wonder if Nikki was letting her control over her glamour slip, because it was just hard not to stare at her. Toni had a completely different style, but that didn’t make her backside any less interesting. That girl moved like leopards wished they could move.
Okay, so falling asleep in Vanessa’s arms and ogling a naked Nikki this morning had certain side effects on me. That didn’t make them things I wouldn’t do again. It just made them things I wanted to do constantly, only with some ‘value added’, as we say in the business world.
We took our usual seats, and looked around as surreptitiously as we ever do. I was trying to look over at the Vindicators while keeping my head facing forward, but Jade was twisting her whole body and craning her neck. There wasn’t a whole lot going on in front of the Vindicators. Diva was being a sullen storm cloud in the midst of the usual Power Cats behavior. But behind them were the Vindicators, who were being their usual ‘soap opera of superheroing’ selves. Kismet was sitting as far away from Dynamaxx and Sizemax as she could manage without actually moving away from the entire team. Sizemax was still apologizing. Dynamaxx looked like he was doing his best to cause trouble between them. Lemure looked like she couldn’t decide between walking out of the room and just putting herself out of her misery. Donner looked like he couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about, although he usually looked like that. And Captain Canada was busily polishing his shield with what looked like ordinary paste wax. That seemed like a huge waste of time, considering what that shield had to endure.
But Team Kimba was sitting in our seats, being good. All we were doing was staring at the other teams and chattering over our supposedly secure comm system.
<(Generator) What’s the deal with Kismet?>
<(Fey) She’s just upset that the team did well without her.>
<(Tennyo) And they always tank with her.>
<(Phase) And Dynamaxx is reminding her of it a lot.>
<(Chaka) Like constantly.>
<(Generator) He is kind of a jerk, isn’t he?>
<(Fey) And he has the worst pick-up lines since the Stone Age.>
<(Chaka) Uggh. Me think you look hot. BONK!>
<(Lancer) Totally not helping here, guys.>
<(Fey) Ugh. You sexiest thing since invention of wheel. Last week.>
<(Tennyo) Ugh. Want to go for ride on Thog’s new mammoth?>
<(Lancer) Guys! Knock it off!>
<(Phase) Or at least check whether Hive is hitching a ride on any of us first.>
<(Lancer) Really not helping!>
<(Fey) I’ve been thinking about the magical runes they use in the helmets to handle Wizard powers, and I think I’ve figured out three other ways for them to bug us while we’re in the holo sims.>
<(Lancer) Okay, that’s probably going to be helpful later, but not really my point here.>
<(Phase) How long will it take you to figure out how to disrupt the wiretapping aspect without damaging the basic system?>
<(Lancer) Come on, we need to focus here!>
<(Fey) I’ll get back to you later.>
<(Tennyo) Good plan, because the boss man is getting cranky.>
<(Generator) Mister Grumpypants!>
<(Chaka) Oh yeah, da Man getting’ ya down, sistah?>
<(Chaka) Oh yeah, Mistah Man, he done think he can keep us sistahs down and…>
You know, Hank has the patience of a saint most of the time. He has to, really, just to put up with all of us. Still, given that Toni was on a roll, I imagine that the only thing that stopped us before Hank eventually blew a fuse was the entrance of the teachers.
Bardue and Everheart stomped in from the door at the front of the classroom. Bardue had a handful of paper, and wasn’t looking happy about it. I idly wondered if Diva’s report was in there. I wasn’t overly curious, because I was sure that we would all find out in the next few minutes. Whether Diva wanted to, or not.
In his usual calm, quiet tones, Bardue bellowed, “CLASS! Today, first we will review yesterday’s runs! Then we will review details on supervillain pursuit and discuss!”
No one needed to reply, since he had probably been heard in New Guinea. I knew we had our internal review in, so I sat back. I didn’t think I would need to say anything, because the entire room knew what Kismet and Diva had messed up.
“FIRST UP!” Bardue bellowed, “Power Cats! You got your internal review in electronically, but your extra assignment is on paper! What did we say about that?”
Diva mulishly insisted, “You didn’t say anything about extra assignments on paper or not.”
Bardue glared at her. “And are you gonna give the internal review for the class?”
Redlight calmly faced Bardue and said, “I’ll be doing that part. I’m the team leader. If something goes wrong, the buck stops here.”
Bardue nodded abruptly. “Good. C’mon up and let’s hear your internal review. Then Diva can come up here and give her extra review before we get around to class review. So everyone else, hold your questions ‘til Diva is all done. Got it?”
He got lots of nods. Okay, I nodded too. There was no point in aggravating him when he was obviously grouchy already. I assumed that Diva had written her report on a computer, and had turned it in on paper as a deliberate statement. She was probably trying to make the statement ‘I will not be cowed by some old baseline with gray hair’, but she was actually making the rather different statement ‘I am not going to be a team player and you cannot make me’. Bardue might have been okay with statement one, given his attitude about self-reliance, but he was liable to go postal on her over statement two. I was just sort of wondering if I was within the blast radius.
Redlight gave a fairly succinct statement about the team’s performance. He thought he might have made the wrong call on Duplex, since she could have duplicated Zip’s powers instead, which would have given them two high-speed pursuers instead of one. He made the point that Zip had been just as effective as Duplex when it came to slowing down The Giant C-3PO. He took the heat for not laying down parameters first, so Diva would have known not to charge into the warehouse on her own, but it was obvious that none of their other teammates was buying that. I certainly wasn’t.
<(Chaka) Man! That dude is as bad as Phase ‘bout taking the blame for everything!>
<(Lancer) Their entire team had to know Diva was likely to go cowboy there. He’s just being a good leader.>
<(Tennyo) You would’ve done a better job of handling her.>
<(Generator) Yeah! Even Chaka’s not that bad!>
<(Chaka) Thanks a bunch, Mini-Me.>
<(Generator) You’re welcome, sempai!>
<(Lancer) If I’m better than Redlight, how come I can’t get anybody to shut up when Hive is probably tapping our comms with her nanites?>
<(Fey) Oh, I took care of that on our way out of the caff. I’ve got her nanites blocked for a good two hours. Well, at least another hour and a half.>
<(Lancer) Not the point, Fey. We have way too much chatter on the comms.>
<(Phase) One, when we’re not in a sim or a real fight, they’re nothing more than a high-end IM with lots of security features. And two, when we are in a fight, our ‘chatter’ is useful intel for us, since we’re on a secure system. If everyone hadn’t been talking away two weeks ago, and you hadn’t gone mute, I never would have been able to figure out who was attacking you, and get you the right help. And three, it really helps me having Chaka smarting off like there’s nothing dangerous going on. And four, it helps me if I can psychologically distance myself from the threat by making lame jokes, so you can just tell Bardue you’re having to deal with another Poe loony.>
<(Chaka) And five, nobody but Phase would be numbering her comments anyway.>
<(Lancer) We still need to keep it under control. You’re not Spider-Man, you know.>
<(Phase) Are you sure? Because I’m pretty sure Chaka is really Deadpool.>
<(Chaka) Hey! I’m way prettier than him!>
<(Fey) And there’s no way Deadpool is anywhere near as wacky.>
<(Chaka) Even my team’s always picking on me.>
<(Phase) Worst Rodney Dangerfield I ever heard.>
<(Bladedancer) That was Rodney Dangerfield? I thought it was supposed to be Fred Flintstone.>
Meanwhile, Chet wrapped up his team’s internal review. I actually had been paying attention. They were talking about equipping Zip with some lightweight weaponry for times like the sim, when he was out there without immediate team backup. The suggestion of titanium tactical batons was undoubtedly from Juryrig. Also, Juryrig had some ideas for better C & C with some modifications to her computer system.
<(Lancer) Shh! I want to hear what Diva’s going to say!>
<(Phase) Me too.>
<(Chaka) Oh yeah. She dissed gettin’ help from you. Not a smart move on a paper.>
Diva stood up forcefully and strolled up to the front of the room. She didn’t bother bringing any notes. She started off with a couple minutes of explanation covering why she should have been able to handle a typical dork in power armor all by herself, thereby saving the team and the police department.
<(Phase) Typical CYA.>
<(Fey) Typical Diva.>
<(Generator) Cover your ass! Tee-hee.>
When Diva wound down on her ‘death to power armor’ spiel, she got around to the main event. She finally admitted that things went wrong. Not that she was really ready to admit she screwed up repeatedly. But she hadn’t expected the armor would be protected against her Siren power, and she hadn’t expected the guy in the power armor would be protected too. Then she hadn’t expected that the armor was tougher than she was, and she hadn’t expected that she couldn’t knock it over with one blow.
<(Fey) Well duh. Three huge tractor treads arranged in a big triangle? That thing would need Lancer to knock it over.>
<(Generator) Or Tennyo!>
Diva kept going. She hadn’t expected the machine gun could track her at her top speed, and she hadn’t expected it could punch holes in her Exemplar skin.
<(Chaka) Extra duh. So what if she’s tougher than .22’s? That thing was like an anti-tank gun or sump’n.>
Then Diva finally admitted that she wasn’t tougher than an energy cannon that caught her dead on at fifteen yards. Bardue helpfully pointed out that she was officially dead well before her corpse hit the warehouse wall and she was blasted out into the parking lot.
Then Bardue made her eat crow by admitting in front of the whole class that she should have waited until the police gave her a go, and she should have listened to her team leader.
Once Diva wrapped up, Bardue opened the floor to external reviews from the class. Eldritch made sure to take a swipe at Diva’s lack of teamwork before she got down to some interesting details on team pursuit strategy. I didn’t know where Caitlin had learned all that, but it sounded like she had gone through a couple courses like this before she got to Whateley. Not that I was going to bust her cover unless I had to. Fey had already hinted to the team that she had some undisclosed intel on Eldritch that she didn't want to spill unless it became crucial. If Fey didn’t think it was all that important now, I was content merely to speculate.
However, given that this was Whateley Academy, the truth was probably way stranger than I had imagined. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if it turned out that Eldritch was really fifty or sixty, and just modelocked into an eighteen-year-old body, much like Jade and that kid Timeless were apparently locked in ten-year-old bodies. That would even make sense in conjunction with the fake background, if the U.S. Department of Defense was using her as a secret weapon, and moving her every few years to some new ‘foster family’ to hide her lack of aging. If the magical eruptions were a new side effect, it would even make sense that they would have to find a way to get her to Whateley for a while, and a military ‘foster dad’ like Bardue would be an ideal cover for that sitch. But I had plenty of other hypotheses, each stranger than the next. Still, as long as Caitlin was an ally to our anti-Voodoo Were team, and a mentor for Chou, I was content to leave her fake cover intact. Now, if it had been The Don who had a fake cover story, I would have taken great pleasure in stripping it off him a piece at a time.
I stood up and made the point that Redlight simply didn’t have enough intel to judge whether Duplex would have been better getting a dupe of Diva or Zip, so whichever call he made was equally valid. On the other hand, I thought she would have done at least as well getting a dupe of Redlight, assuming she had enough experience in using his PDP powers. Flight and PK superman are always useful powers, and if she could dupe his paralysis attack, she could have switched off with Redlight in holding their perp for the cops. One of them could do the PK superman bit, and shield the one doing the paralysis attack.
Dynamaxx actually had a pretty good idea, for a change. He thought Juryrig ought to work at building her own power armor, much like his, instead of going with a beefed-up wheelchair. I thought that might go a long way toward making other people respect her, instead of seeing her as a cripple who needed to be protected. On the other hand, I knew Maxx had put a heck of a lot of money into his armor, and Greta didn’t have that kind of disposable income.
I needed to look into her gadgets and see if there were some marketable inventions that could provide her with some decent income. No, first I needed to get someone like Jericho to introduce me, so Juryrig wouldn’t see me as a Goodkind who just wanted to steal all the profits from her hard work.
Once the room was done pointing out that Diva had demonstrated that her codename was brilliantly apropos, it was time for the Vindicators to get up and do their schtick. I was actually expecting Kismet to get up and claim that Sizemax was just following her orders. If she claimed that her massive failure at the start of the sim was really a brilliant tactic designed to allay the suspicions of the bad guys, I was fairly sure that Everheart and Bardue would chew her up, spit out the pieces, and toss the pieces into a furnace.
Kismet didn’t get up. She just glared furiously at Sizemax, until Lemure elbowed the poor girl and she trudged up to the front of the class. At that point, I was wondering what Kismet was up to.
Sizemax sounded like she felt about six inches tall, as she winced, “Okay, umm, when Sergeant Bardue told us to prepare our, umm, internal review, he said I was gonna have to give it.” She winced slightly. “So this is it.”
“We talked it over, and most of us, umm, figured any plan that depends on Kismet teleporting and everything going right is gonna be really risky, and if there are hostages at stake, we shouldn’t try it. So our first plan was… wasn’t a great plan.”
I could have told her that last term. I had seen Kismet in action in aikido class enough times to know that she had uncontrolled probability Warping consequences most of the times she teleported. Heck, I once saw her take herself out of a spar against Kamuro, and losing to Kamuro was pretty much akin to getting taken out by a junior high girl with a flashlight. On top of that, she got pretty wobbly whenever she teleported, so she might not be able to use her powers effectively at the end of the teleport. To make matters worse, she had done a short teleport right before her big heroic effort, so she had just been begging for something to go wrong.
Sizemax swallowed hard. “So we thought we should’ve used her energy shackle spell to take out the armored car’s engine or axle, so Lemure could’ve flown into the thing and taken over the bad guy. Like she did on our second try. And we thought our best move for the van in back, since there weren’t any hostages in there, was blasting the engine so the bad guys would be stuck inside with no way to get away.”
She went on to list another dozen things they thought they could have done better than they managed in the sim. I noticed that none of them were related to Kismet, and a really unfair proportion of them were related to Sizemax herself. That made me wonder if Kismet had worked on that part of the review, or if Sizemax was just trying too hard to make it up to Kismet. Given the way Kismet was glaring at her, I was guessing the latter. Frankly, after watching their sim, I thought Sizemax was a far superior leader for a group like the Vindicators. She could handle Lemure, Cap, and Donner; Kismet couldn’t and Dynamaxx wouldn’t. She seemed to be a better tactician than Kismet, too. I had no idea whether Dynamaxx was any good at strategy or Tac Ops. But Sizemax was too soft to deal with Kismet’s Type A personality. It was pretty obvious that Korende had run roughshod over Sizemax to the point that Sizemax was constantly trying not to offend Kismet. You could always buy someone armored fists, but you couldn’t give people a spine.
I decided that standing up and making comments like that wouldn’t win me any friends, and wouldn’t really help them. They all knew it, whether they wanted to admit it or not. Dynamaxx obviously knew it, and was enjoying rubbing it in every chance he got. Sizemax knew it, but she wasn’t ever going to say it out loud. Kismet probably knew it too, even if she would never admit it. Lemure couldn’t stand Kismet, so her position was obvious. Cap and Donner had performed much better for Sizemax, and undoubtedly preferred her style of leadership to Kismet’s. Besides, it was entirely likely that half the room was going to point it out.
Once the Vindicators finished the review, it was time for the class to speak up. Eldritch was one of the first people to put a hand in the air. Of course. Still, she had to wait until after Everheart selected Confundus and Jericho.
Confundus said, “It seemed to me that you’re using your team’s powers all wrong. You’ve got a PDP who can do the PK superman bit. He ought to be one of your close-in fighters. You’ve got a mage with spells like that energy shackle thing. She ought to be one of your long-range attackers. You’ve got someone who can float into a target, take over his body, and make him shoot your other opponents – which is like the coolest thing ever – and you ought to be sicking her on every power armor guy and heavy weapon user and brick you hit.”
<(Phase) That was… interesting.>
<(Bladedancer) She is more complex than she looks.>
<(Chaka) She’s a PDP. She likes PDP powers. She wants a PDP up front kicking ass. How’s that complex?>
Then Jericho took his turn. “I don’t see anything wrong with separating out the team leader and strategist positions. Right now, I’m the team leader, but that’s mainly because we’re still working at integrating Eldritch into the team. She’s way better at Strat and Tac Ops than me. We’ve learned just a shi- a ton since she joined us, I figure she’ll be the team leader the second she thinks we’re ready for it. So what’s the problem with Kismet as team leader but Sizemax as Tac Ops?”
<(Lancer) Smart boy.>
<(Phase) Notice he forgot to do the ‘doesn’t know where to look’ bit?>
<(Fey) We already know he’s got something instead of baseline vision.>
<(Chaka) Not that it really makes ya all that confident when he’s waving around one of his BFGs…>
Everheart finally let Eldritch have her turn. Eldritch had three more tactical reasons why Kismet’s plan was a bad idea. She thought the Vindicators needed to work out a large array of attack and defense plans and practice them ahead of time, and then pick one based on the situation… and Sizemax throwing someone at the target didn’t count.
<(Phase) That’s a good point. We ought to have a list of basic attack plans.>
<(Chaka) Team Kimba! Attack plan alpha niner GO!>
<(Phase) Well, maybe not twenty-six times ten different plans.>
<(Lancer) I’ve been thinking about that. We need to talk about it. Later.>
<(Generator) Ooh! Super secret plans! This sounds cool!>
<(Lancer) But later.>
After Eldritch verbally kicked Kismet around a bit more, Everheart turned the floor over to the rest of the room.
Dredz had a helpful suggestion about holdouts, since they still didn’t have any. Okay, I didn’t think anyone in the room really wanted Captain Canada! to have dangerous holdouts he might hurl at someone. Lemure seemed too disinterested to make an effort to get adequate holdouts and learn to use them effectively. Donner still seemed to need work on using his hammer first; I could just see him playing with his holdouts and constantly dropping them on the floor. But Sizemax and Kismet were both good candidates. Sizemax, in particular, could use some decent holdouts to use when she was ‘small’. Kismet was first going to have to admit that she needed some holdouts before she was going to acquire any.
Diamondback had a comment for Kismet about details of her magical spells. After the second sentence, I was having trouble following along. <(Phase) Hey Fey, what’s Sandra’s point here?>
<(Fey) We so need to get you into those magic courses. She’s talking about the difference between the spells Kiz can snap off instantly, and specially-prepared spells she could whip out on unsuspecting opponents.>
That actually made sense. Kismet had about four spells she could throw at a moment’s notice. Her favorites were her energy shackle and her magical fire. Given that Fey had about forty spells she could throw at a moment’s notice, and those spells covered the range from pure offense all the way to pure defense, Kismet needed to expand her repertoire. But it would presumably take a lot of time and training for Kismet to add spells to her ‘instant spell’ collection. So it would make sense for Kismet to consider holdouts which were prepared spells.
Heck, I needed to be thinking along those lines. If Circe was intent on training me to use magic, I was going to need to prepare my spells ahead of time, as well as prepare my Essence collecting systemata. Chou had those little prayer sheets with the intricately-drawn Chinese ideographs that she could empower with her Chi. Jadis had her own approach. I was pretty sure I knew why Jadis was drawing on tarot cards the last time we chatted about books. That gave me an idea. No, actually it gave me two ideas. For the second idea, I would need to visit a magic store. Not a store that worked with real mages, but a store that had things for stage magicians and prestidigitators.
This magic stuff had a lot of potential, but I was going to have to do a lot of studying. Fortunately for me, that was one of the things at which I was particularly skilled. And I knew where Nikki’s magic books were. They were on her lowest bookshelf above her study desk, right next to those incredibly useless books on hypnosis.
Then Juryrig had a technical comment for Dynamaxx about increasing the bandwidth on his C & C link to the police forces, so he could get better intel. She explained how she pulled in some of the information off the police networks, until she realized that she was explained a little too much. I knew enough about the rules on using metahuman assistance that I should have spotted this yesterday. It just wasn’t legal for deputized forces to go into the police networks without permission and pull down information like those traffic camera pictures.
Everheart just said, “By tomorrow morning, I’ll expect a report – at least five pages and electronically submitted – on what legal and illegal resources are available on the police networks, and what is involved in gaining legal access to the normally illegal ones through your liaison. The rules vary, based on locality and level of deputization, so I’ll expect you to do some research on this.”
Juryrig gulped. “Yes ma’am.”
I was surprised she wasn’t making me write a paper like that, too. I should have guessed what Juryrig was doing, based on some of her comments in the sim. After all, their comm system wasn’t isolated, and it wasn’t encrypted enough to keep the sim from decrypting it and playing it real-time over the video of their sim.
Everheart and Bardue wrapped up by berating Kismet for a bad plan, but complimenting her for having a team that could work well when the team leader was taken out. Of course, that was just mean. Kismet didn’t want to hear that ‘compliment’. She looked like it was a deadly insult. For her, it probably was.
<(Phase) Ahem.> I didn’t say anything else, but I gave Lancer and Fey a raised eyebrow. They both gave me tiny nods in return. We all thought the Vindicators were a better team without her than with her.
Everheart took the opportunity to go back over her guidelines for pursuit of supervillains, with a particular focus on situations where the villains had more than one vehicle, and you knew the hostages were in a single identified vehicle. I thought that was fairly logical. You rescued the hostages first, unless there was an overarching need, like the bad guys had a nuclear weapon in one of the other vehicles.
Then it was our turn. Lancer got up and gave our internal review. He was getting noticeably better at public speaking just from all the internal reviews he was giving in this one class. That would probably stand him in good stead some day in the future when he was leading the Justice Brigade or some similar power team. I could totally see Hank in a role like that.
Hank even added, “But I want to point out that we had the chance to watch two other teams first, and that really helped us prep our pursuit arrangement, along with our final assault plans.”
<(Phase) Nice pats on the back there. I hereby nominate Lancer for our official public relations officer.>
<(Chaka) As long as he doesn’t start doin’ that dorky Skyhawk routine.>
<(Fey) Hush already!>
Once we were done with our internal review, it was time for the class to give their reviews. Crimson didn’t have a review, as much as some questions about the way Fey faked that helicopter crash. I had to wonder if Crimson was planning on using that to fake her own death some day, or fake a disaster to cover her tracks.
Diamondback had another question. “We saw you scrying to see where the hovercraft was going to go on the interchange. Couldn’t you have done something similar and divined their plans early enough that Tennyo could have known which route to take?”
Fey cleared her throat, in an erotic little purr. Man, that girl could make picking her nose look sexy. She said, “In theory. But I would have needed a shielded space to perform the rite, and enough time, along with the necessary herbs and ingredients… and it still wouldn’t have been any more accurate than your typical precog could do. If they were randomly choosing their routes until they lost all their pursuit, the rite would have been pretty much useless.”
Diamondback nodded. “I was just wondering. That’s beyond what I can do now, but I was reading about it in class a couple days ago, and I was wondering.”
Fey added, “Well, it sounds better than it really is. It’s hard to get a decent reading, and it’s even harder to interpret what you do get. You might see one or two clear points that don’t make any sense at all until after the events actually unfold. It’s one of the reasons why seers tend to give such weird-sounding predictions. You see an arrow and something like a leap, and it isn’t until you see the arrow on the interstate sign, and then you watch the hovercraft leap from one road onto another, that you know what you actually saw.”
<(Phase) Hmm what?>
<(Chaka) Remember I was tellin’ you all about that weird poem thingy Damballah threw at me? Maybe he sounded all freaky and psychedelic because that was all he was seein’.>
<(Lancer) We’ll talk it over later. Okay?>
Then Kismet wanted to bitch about my doing ‘showoff stunts’ when I needed to do things like speed up or change my direction.
<(Chaka) Kee-rist! Doesn’t she even pay attention?>
I stood up and deliberately sighed. “I thought we had made this utterly clear already. I can’t change direction effectively when I fly. It’s not a PK power that gives me directional control. It’s not flight with a propulsion system. It’s like throwing a rock into the air. Can the rock change direction on its own? No. The only way I can change direction while I’m at zero density is a really, really slow turn. If I’m flying at twenty miles an hour, I can make arcs which are still fairly large. If I’m flying at high speed, the same amount of attitudinal adjustment takes far more distance to make any noticeable effect. If I want to change speed or change direction, I need to change my density and use some sort of trick. If you look back over our sim, you’ll see that.”
<(Fey) Kind of giving away a lot of intel, aren’t we?>
<(Phase) It’s all stuff that’s out in the open already. So it only looks like I’m carelessly revealing secret information.>
<(Chaka) Dude, do you think like this all the time? Never mind, we already know the answer.>
<(Tennyo) Ayla Goodkind, The Mad Thinker!>
<(Phase) I think that codename’s already taken.>
<(Generator) Yeah, but you own it so you can take it away!>
After that, Confundus had a comment. “Why’d you go to all the trouble of shielding the helicopter and doing all that stuff to simulate a crash, when you could’ve done it a lot better with one spell to knock out the missile, and a big illusion to fake the crash?”
<(Chaka) She would go with illusions.>
Nikki thought for a second and said, “Ooh, that’s a good idea. I was pretty focused on keeping the civilians from getting blown up, so I just went with the first idea I had. If I’d thought I had time, I would’ve discussed it with the team over our comm system, because we have some pretty creative people.”
<(Phase) Meaning, ‘pull it out of the ass’ artists.>
Nikki went on, “And I still don’t know what the missile impact should have done, so I didn’t know what the illusion ought to look like. There’s also the problem of masking the real copter well enough that the threats couldn’t spot it. Doing that kind of large-scale illusion either takes an enormous amount of Essence, or else some applications of magical laws that wouldn’t have been possible in that situation.”
Confundus shrugged, “Well, I would’ve gone with the illusion.”
Of course she would have gone with the illusion. She didn’t have anything else. She cast illusions, did a PK supergirl bit, read minds enough for it be a concern, and had some limited PK manipulation abilities. It wasn’t as if she could catch a falling helicopter. A three-ton helicopter with half a ton of people and equipment? That was a lot of weight to hold up. Okay, I was guessing about the weight of that chopper in the sims, based on what little I knew of some of the helicopters Goodkind Security had around the estate.
After a couple more mediocre comments, Eldritch finally got her turn. “I thought you did a good job of keeping most of the slow team members with the faster ones, but you still didn’t manage it perfectly. If the Trapmaster had set up more threats in that warehouse, or had minions in place there, you might’ve needed everybody.”
Lancer nodded, but said, “We absolutely had to save the crew in the chopper. We were just lucky we had one teammate powerful enough to do it on her own, instead of having to divert half the team for the save.”
Eldritch added, “When you said ‘two words’ to Phase, I assume you meant ‘Fastball Special’?”
Lancer nodded again. “We mapped that tactic out last September after our big ‘breakfast brawl’ against the Alphas.”
“Whoa!” inserted Bardue, his curiosity overwhelming his volume. “Your team won that fight with no noticeable injuries, and you still had an internal review afterward anyway? Where’d you learn that?”
<(Phase) Tell him everything. It’s not a secret anymore.>
<(Bladedancer) Except the bit about Carmilla now.>
Lancer swallowed and explained, “We met because it was obvious to us that Solange manipulated the after-battle reports. We told the truth, she lied, and she came out looking better. Temporarily, anyway. I’m an Army brat. My dad’s a colonel. So I’ve seen some of this. I thought we needed a post-op debrief. Carmilla helped us out too. We were still on speaking terms with her back then. Before she ate a bunch of people on Halloween.”
<(Chaka) Nice acting there, Brando.>
Lancer went on, “Anyways, she has experience in reviews and evaluations, so she was pushing for a full review of our battle plan, and our strategy, and our tactics, and our post-battle operations. And then Phase wanted some evaluation. She’s got a completely different point of view on this, but she saw our performance as a loss overall. So that was when we started thinking about overall strategy, battle tactics, and logistics. That’s why we wanted to take this class.”
“Good… good…” Bardue muttered. Everheart looked like she just might be a little pleased with us, for the first time this term. But Bardue looked like we had just walked into his deadfall, and were about to be left forever in an oubliette.
I put my hand up, and Bardue gave me a little nod. I stood up and added, “There’s something Lancer left out. We’re more than just a training team. We know each other, and like each other, and trust each other. That means we can say some pretty harsh things in our internal reviews, and know that we won’t be alienating a teammate. You can’t do a decent internal review like we do without honesty. It’s like a Tiger Team review in business. You have to be willing and able to assess causality, and then fairly evaluate what needs to be changed in future.” I sat back down.
<(Generator) That was really nice, what you said about trusting.>
<(Chaka) ‘Tiger team’? That’s not a ‘Toni’ joke, is it?>
<(Phase) It’s a business term.>
<(Fey) We all know the leopard doesn’t change its spots.>
<(Chaka) Hey! I got enuffa that from Stormwolf!>
<(Tennyo) I thought it was the leopard doesn’t change its shorts.>
I clenched my jaws hard to keep from laughing out loud. I don’t know how Hank managed to keep a straight face.
“Now first, let’s talk about your comm chatter,” Bardue insisted.
I knew that this had been inevitable, ever since we had figured out that Hive had piggybacked on that comm device Generator had been holding, so she had heard everything we said. And really, the comm chatter yesterday had been pretty much all my fault… although Toni had contributed to the noise a little. As usual.
Bardue glared at me, “Phase, would you like to explain why you were yammering on about Goodkind Banking and supervillains?”
<(Chaka) Goodkind Banking 2: Die Harder!>
<(Chaka) Goodkind Banking 2: The Wrath of Con-Agra.>
I clenched my jaws so I wouldn’t laugh out loud, and I explained, “You and the admiral did choose the scenarios, Sergeant. I used to be Goodkind Banking, and the rest of the scenario appeared to be dependent on my knowledge of Goodkind International’s external security issues. So it just seemed like I was being targeted. Personally.”
<(Chaka) Goodkind Banking 3: This Time It’s Personal!>
Okay, that one got me too. I had to try really hard not to laugh. Bardue glared even harder at me. “PHASE! Would you like to explain to the class what’s so goddamn FUNNY?!?”
<(Tennyo) Oh shit.>
<(Lancer) Can we keep it down now that we’re in trouble?>
I tried to make my face as stony as I could, and I said, “I’m sorry Sergeant, I was thinking about all the unnecessary chatter I suppressed yesterday in the sim.”
He yelled, “Well it’s so nice to know we have a goddamn COMEDIAN in the class to entertain us all Perhaps you would care to SHARE?”
I sighed inwardly. “Actually sir, I would rather just apologize. It was situational humor, which is unlikely to come across out of context. And if, by some chance, it did come across, it would disrupt the class further.”
“Well maybe we’ll just have to give you and your little comedy club a sim that won’t be so fu- so damn funny,” he fumed.
<(Chaka) Crap. Sorry.>
<(Phase) Not your fault I couldn’t keep a straight face for ten seconds.>
<(Lancer) Chaka, this one WAS your fault. But you’re not the only guilty party here. I didn’t shut you up. The last time it wasn’t you. The time before that, it wasn’t you. The shoulder angels sure weren’t you. We’re all guilty of messing around in class, or misusing the comms.>
<(Fey) We get the hint.>
<(Generator) I said I was sorry about the angels.>
<(Phase) Look. They’ve got seven teams in here, which is about four teams too many for what they’re trying to do. So they have to map out these sims ahead of time. They were probably planning on hitting us with something nasty anyway.>
<(Tennyo) So now they’ll just make our sim worse.>
<(Generator) But we have you, onee-sama. We’ll still win!>
<(Phase) I think you’ve mistaken us for the Justice League of America. We’re not Superman and Wonder Woman.>
<(Fey) Says the girl with more stuff in her utility belt than Batman.>
<(Lancer) Even the JLA didn’t win every time.>
<(Chaka) Just what was the deal with all those wack supervillains who’d beat ‘em and then put ‘em all in freaky death traps so one of ‘em would have to get loose and rescue ‘em all? Did Lex Luthor have some big bet goin’ on for who could keep ‘em locked up the longest?>
<(Fey) Yeah, I can see that working for us. NOT! The Necromancer finally beats us, and so he just puts me in a big crystal you guys have to bust me out of? Oh sure. He kills people.>
<(Lancer) Can we focus on the class please?>
Bardue finally got off my case about the chatter, but then Everheart was on us about technical details of our pursuit arrangement. Granted, she had some good points. She always had good points. She talked about where our pursuit fit in that 4x5x3 grid of hers, and how really minor details could have easily shoved the problem from our case into a neighboring box for which we wouldn’t have had optimal pursuit plans.
<(Phase) So our best bet would be a computer program loaded with everything Hive knows, and some kind of computer optimization to tell us how to set up our pursuit? That won’t work.>
<(Fey) Why not?>
<(Phase) Law of unintended consequences. Law of incremental advancement. If there’s an official computer program for this, and one supervillain learns about it, then every supervillain can use the computer program to predict what the heroes will do, and then he can make sure that the pursuit for his next crime will be really far from optimal.>
<(Tennyo) And we got a team of supervillains sitting right back there, listening to everything Sam says.>
<(Bladedancer) So we do not go with a computer program, but we remember that grid, and we think about a couple of the neighboring squares.>
<(Chaka) Peter, I’d like the neighboring square for the block.>
Everheart finished up and moved on to her next subject. “Lancer, you’re focusing well on strategy and tactics, but what happens if you’re the first one taken out? The Vindicators demonstrated they had the training to handle a problem like that. What about Team Kimba?”
Lancer said, “Umm, actually admiral, we already worked that one out. We have a chain of command for Tac Ops. If we split up into groups, we know who’s automatically in charge of each group. And if they go down, we know who takes over.”
Bardue admitted, “That’s… damn good.”
Eldritch put her hand up, and Everheart recognized her. “How’d you decide on a chain of command without using something like military rank? Wasn’t there some infighting?”
Lancer glanced over at us and explained, “Actually, no. The team was pretty selfless about it, and we made most of the decisions based on who had already demonstrated tactical skills in the field, and who seemed to be better with picking new tactics under pressure.”
<(Phase) Meaning, ‘pulling it out of our asses’.>
<(Chaka) Yeah. So?>
Eldritch asked, “Do you have a chain of command for Strategy? Do you have other positions allocated, like an intelligence officer, or a supply officer, or a medical team?”
Lancer avoided looking at anyone in particular, but he said, “Yeah, we do. We have a Strat team with a chain of command, and we have all of the other things you mentioned. Half our team has either Healer traits or some kind of medical training.”
<(Chaka) Okay, I know Fey and ‘Dancer, but who’s got the medical training? And don’t tell me Ayla’s a nurse too!>
<(Generator) It’s me! I had ta get certified in first aid and CPR and infant CPR and stuff for my babysitting job! Okay?>
<(Tennyo) And Lancer. He got some first aid training back on a couple of those military bases before he manifested.>
<(Shroud) And me too.>
That was five out of eight of us, which struck me as an inordinately high proportion. It occurred to me that I needed to get some serious medical training as well. Maybe I could hire a first aid and CPR trainer for some private lessons, once I was back home in Los Angeles. I mean, so what if Billie and Jade and Jinn were never going to need it? So what if either Nikki and Chou could magically heal just about anything, and it was only a matter of time before Toni figured out how to use her Ki for healing too? I wasn’t always around them. When I was back home, there were other people who might someday need some first aid.
Everheart used her points about our pursuit to lead into her day’s lecture on supervillain pursuit. In particular, pursuing a supervillain who might have a grudge against you or against someone who would feel wretched if you were hurt or killed. She used the ‘Twelve Jurors’ case as an example.
It got complicated once she opened up her big 4x5x3 table and showed how easy it was to slide from ‘villain who just wants to escape’ to ‘villain who lays lethal traps’. In particular, the Twelve Jurors case was an excellent example of that one, because the supervillain in question had set up the traps in advance. Even a front tail could have been attacked, and there was no way to tell if side tails on parallel streets could have run right into booby traps too. A supervillain who understood about tactical pursuit could have prepared for that eventuality too, and could have even prepared for specific heroes if he or she knew enough about their usual pursuit strategies.
<(Lancer) So we might want to think about three or four alternate pursuit strategies, and tactics for something like this.>
<(Chaka) Yeah, I can see our good buddy Mister Darrow pullin’ sump’m like that.>
<(Phase) He has seen us in pursuit of one of his team already.>
<(Generator) Yeah, but that was before we knew all this cool stuff!>
<(Tennyo) And before I found out I needed to dodge some of the Warpers and go for other opponents.>
Everheart switched to the ‘Skyhawk vs. Cobrafire’ example, and made some more points. “We see here where Skyhawk flies down to save the civilians, leaving Cobrafire to be pursued by a Boston PD chopper. But if Cobrafire had a personal grudge against Skyhawk, what might he have done differently?”
I raised my hand.
Everheart called on Kismet instead. Kismet said, “The civilian vehicle might have been a trap of some sort.”
“Yes,” Everheart agreed half-heartedly. Assuming that she wanted a different answer, I raised my hand again.
<(Chaka) Phase! Do you haveta do this every time?>
“Phase? Do you have a comment?” asked Everheart.
“Yes, admiral,” I said. “Cobrafire’s a flame manifester. Skyhawk isn’t a PK brick. As soon as Skyhawk flew down to save the civilians, his back was turned to the threat. All Cobrafire had to do was drop the net full of hostages and blast the tar out of Skyhawk. Bird-boy wouldn’t have known what hit him.”
Everheart nodded at my answer but then asked, “And how do you know Skyhawk isn’t a PK brick? He has strength and flight, no Energizer attacks, and no Energizer force field.”
I replied, “I know that because I’ve worked with him a tiny bit. In fact, I had the ‘pleasure’ of being accidentally smashed by him through the side of an armored truck and into the Boston sewers. So I also have noticed that he has the tactical awareness of an ice cube.” Someone in the back row laughed out loud.
<(Chaka) Captain Tactful strikes again.>
<(Bladedancer) Captain Obvious, if you ask me.>
<(Fey) And the Omegas are really enjoying the shot at Skyhawk.>
<(Tennyo) Me too.>
Everheart blinked twice, like she was remembering something. I guessed that she was downloading all the files on our trips to Boston, and correlating them with what I had just said. After a second or two, she said, “Let’s try to refrain from ad hominem discussions, Phase. Do you have anything else to add?”
I admitted, “Not really. But Skyhawk really didn’t have a lot of decent options there. The Boston police are competent, but they’re not superheroes. The three other superheroes in Boston don’t work together. Boston is one of the major cities which has outright declined assistance from the Knights of Purity in the past, and their MCO office is woefully small. So he was in a sitch where he essentially had no adequate backup.”
“And what would you have done in his place?” she asked.
“I would have gone for Cobrafire himself,” I said. “The fireballs at street-level targets can be handled by ordinary fire trucks. But he could just keep doing that over and over until someone stopped him. And we already know he’d kill his hostages as soon as he was surrounded or he thought he’d gotten away… However, if I had started out from the same starting point as Skyhawk, I would have either called for paranormal support or else concealed my pursuit so he would think he was only up against baseline opponents.”
Everheart just said, “Or both simultaneously.”
“Yes ma’am,” I agreed, even though I hadn’t really thought it through that far yet.
She moved on with her lecture. She had a couple more examples to show us that were primarily based on modifications of some of her earlier examples. I was happy with all those. I wasn’t happy with her next example.
She popped up footage of our sim against Trapmaster and Cobrafire. “Now suppose that these two supervillains are long-time foes of Team Kimba. How is the pursuit going to have to be adjusted to handle that kind of knowledge? What are they likely to do differently, knowing what Team Kimba can do?”
Of course, Eldritch put her hand up. So did Dynamaxx and Phoenixfire and Jericho. All right, I put my hand up too. There were probably more hands behind us, since I assumed that most of the Omegas naturally thought this way.
He smiled wickedly. “If they know Team Kimba can take on entire traps with individual team members, then they’re likely to try blasting everything in sight, just to occupy the entire team.”
“They’d have to know that they don’t have anything that can stop Tennyo or Lancer, so they’d want to put innocent bystanders at enough risk that Tennyo would have to stop her pursuit just to perform rescues.”
“They’d also have to know they could be tailed by Phase in ways they probably couldn’t spot, so they’d need some sort of energy weapons to use on her when they finally played their hand and Phase made her play.”
Several other people had related comments, but no one picked up on the J-Team. As long as we could keep their full abilities a secret, we would have an ace in the hole, even against opponents who knew us. I could see a sitch like that, where Jade cast into a five-pound ball of knives and chains, or perhaps just the Hello Kitty compact, and let Lancer throw that at the escaping vehicle at two hundred miles an hour. Then we would have a team member along for the ride, and ready to take out the supervillains as soon as they stopped.
Everheart wrapped up her discussion with a bulletpoint list and a display of tables with arrows pointing to likely ‘add in a grudge’ scenarios. I looked at the complexity and made notes. All right, I mainly made snarky comments to myself about the Justice League and the Avengers needing something like this.
Once she was done, Bardue stepped forward. “Teams? S.T.A.R. League Junior is up first. You four had better get going. After they finish, Elite League gets a turn. So you’d better get moving too. And after them, it’s Team Kimba, our class clowns.”
<(Phase) What are we going to get? Cataclysm and Deicide?>
<(Generator) Hey Phase, they can’t do Marvel Supervillain Team-Up without you okaying it first, right?>
<(Lancer) Knock it off, guys.>
Bardue glared at us. “NOW! If you’re done chattin’ away on your super-secret comm system, maybe we can GIT DOWN TA BIZNISS!”
<(Chaka) I thought you said they couldn’t tap us!>
<(Fey) They can’t. I’m sure.>
<(Lancer) Shut up!>
Bardue chewed us out for a while, and as a result, we missed most of S.T.A.R. League Junior’s sim. They had the ‘supervillain pursuit with big grudge involved’ scenario, and it was even set in their hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. When Bardue finally let us go, we rushed down to the holo sim center and got into our sim suits. Still, by the time we got to Room 3 to watch the sim play out, it was essentially over.
It apparently ended really quickly, when Psymod teleported Dredz and Wallflower on top of the target vehicle and they got blasted to pieces with a deviser ray. So the problem was that they needed to try something different from usual, and they got caught when the supervillains anticipated that particular attack. Okay, I had seen Psymod use that same maneuver several times since the term started, but that seemed kind of harsh.
Bombshell, better known as Barb Sheldon when she was being sociable, quickly checked over her team. Accelerator, Golden Girl, Swoop, Spellbinder, and Stretch were all in their sim suits and ready to go. The STARbabies just got their asses fried by doing the same thing they loved to do. Bombshell made a mental note about that, figuring they were going to be facing the same problem. Bardue was about as subtle as a tactical nuclear weapon in the face.
She was glad Sweetheart wasn’t in the group. The girl was being a bitch about getting cut out of this little Alpha-wannabe gang, but Bombshell knew from last fall that Sweetheart did not have what it took to be on a training team. On the other hand, Sweetheart definitely brought some skills to the table. The emotion manipulation talent, and the precog, to name two. Once the term was over, Bombshell figured all she had to do was go to Kodiak, ask to get Sweetheart reconsidered, and everything would be good. Especially with Sweetheart owing her a huge favor once she was back in the running for an Alpha spot, thanks to Bombshell.
Bardue popped an image onto the screen and yelled at them like they were Marine recruits and he was a Drill Sergeant. “Elite League! Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pursue The Carnival after they have just robbed a Goodkind Bank in Minneapolis.”
Bardue suddenly jerked his head over toward the Kimbas and snapped, “Phase! I do not want to hear one damn word about this!” Bombshell suppressed a smirk.
Bardue snapped his head back and pointed at the image of what looked like a group of circus performers. “You do not know the city, but you will pretend you know The Carnival. They’re a theme gang. Strongman is an Exemplar-6 and we’ll assume he’s fought Bombshell to a standstill. Liontamer is an Esper with the ability to control animals, and has four Bengal tigers at her command. Watch out for her. She kills. She uses her tigers, as well as a whip and a pistol. Clown is a gadgeteer, and he’s used poison gas and Brick Glue from his squirting flower, pies with explosives, pies with Ultra-Glue, a ‘whitewash’ bucket of quick-drying liquid plastic, sonic weapons that look like a clown horn, rockets launched from his shoes, you name it. Cannonball’s a specialized Energizer. He takes kinetic energy and uses it to make himself as hard as diamond for a few seconds starting from impact, so if he gets fired at you, treat him like two hundred pounds of diamond-hard projectile. Ropewalker’s an Exemplar and specialized Esper. Her specialties are hand-to-hand and gymnastics, and she likes swinging through the air or flipping off of the ground to bushwhack you. Ringmaster is the leader and strategist. He’s a baseline, and tends to use guns when he isn’t packing something Clown made him. You have captured The Carnival last year – before you got your flightpacks – when they committed a crime on your home turf, and they all spent time in jail, so they are holding a personal grudge against you. Get in your sim chairs. The sim starts in two minutes. You have that long to confer.”
Bombshell flew down the corridor to the sim cubicles, her team right behind her. It still irked her that the damn Kimbas had better sim suits than Elite League. For that matter, the Kimbas had better sim suits than Kodiak and Loophole’s training team. It had to be that damn Goodkind. She’d heard more than one Golden Kid blabbing about their big party last Saturday, and it sounded like Phase spent a frigging fortune on it. She spoke into their new comm system, “Everyone online?”
“Accelerator, good to go,” their speedster said at lightning speed. Bombshell had known he’d talk first. ‘Cel always did. She also knew he was one of the closet Dylans, but she wasn’t going to bust him for it. At least, not until the term was over. She’d seen that a top-notch speedster was damn useful on a team, and she’d find a really good replacement for him before she dropped him. There was bound to be some dork who wanted a shot at the Alphas and could follow orders and was faster than Accelerator. She’d heard that Jetspeed could do a good one sixty or one seventy on a flat surface. Maybe he’d be interested.
“Spellbinder online.” Bombshell was glad ‘Bind was being cool about getting taken out of the leader position. After all, she was a junior, and pretty high up in the Alphas thanks to being one of Hekate’s sidekicks, and now she was stuck with a frosh leading the team. But the team had voted on it. ‘Bind was smart, and a damn good strategist, but not that great about sizing up a sitch instantly and snapping out commands. ‘Bind always had to overthink stuff. Okay, if ‘Bind had enough time, she could figure just about anything out. But in a battle, there wasn’t time for her to take a ten-minute timeout and stew about shit.
The team had given Golden Girl and Stretch shots at command too, and Bombshell had done the best. But that only meant she had to try harder, because a couple embarrassing failures like in their very first holo sims, and she’d lose her spot as leader. And she knew that the leader of this team automatically had a foot in the door toward being the top Alpha in three years.
Yeah, the first couple holo sims had been real ballbusters. The ‘Breakfast Brawl’ sim had sucked rocks. She knew the Kimbas were tough, but those simulated Kimbas were frigging insane. And not insane like The Joker, but insane like Darkseid. The sim Fey had ripped her PK field apart, and then the sim Phase had put an arm right through her chest, killing her when the little bitch phased back to solid. The sim Tennyo had blasted Spellbinder into atoms with a blue ball of plasma, and then she went crazy on Swoop with that frigging magic lightsaber. Kodiak said it was something like anti-matter contained in some kind of special forcefield, but Bombshell wasn’t ready to believe that yet. But the insane Kimbas had killed her entire team in a matter of seconds. Not even Accelerator got away, because the sim Fey had caught him in a magical net that sliced him into chunks when he tried to run through it. And she didn’t want to think about that Dark Tennyo holo sim. She’d had nightmares about that one, two nights in a row.
But the Elite League had gotten better. They’d learned a lot. They’d done extra-credit sims to work out how to fight as a group. (She still didn’t know how the damn Kimbas got their act together so quick at the start of the term, even if people said they’d been fighting as a team or in sub-teams all year long.) They’d gone to Kodiak, who was a huge surprise after The Don, and not a ruthless prick at all. Kody had gotten them high-end comm systems, and some flightpacks some of them now got to use in the sims, and some cool holdouts she suspected maybe came from Loophole. Bombshell didn’t like Loophole – well, she didn’t dislike her either – but she was really bugged about that whole ‘screw the head guy to get in the Alphas’ deal, even if Loophole didn’t seem the type. The girl’s power armor was pretty frigging awesome, though, and what she’d done in the combat finals had been too cool. Bombshell had to admit it. Anybody who could take out the whole frigging arena was Alpha material.
“Swoop online.” Bombshell liked Swoop. She hadn’t ever met a real Indian before. As far as she knew, there weren’t any in the suburbs where she grew up. So Bombshell hadn’t known what to expect from Swoop. But Swoop was just kind of a nice, normal girl. Bombshell didn’t think Swoop had the drive to make it all the way into the Alphas, but that was just one less competitor Bombshell was going to have to stomp over on her way to the throne.
“Golden Girl online.” Now there was a girl who wanted the power. Goldy wanted it bad. Word was that Goldy had tried hard to be the boss in her aikido class last fall and had gotten her ass handed to her by the Goodkind bitch. All you had to do to make her lose focus was bring up Phase. Goldy had a hell of a hate-on for Phase, and would start ranting about the freaky bitch at the drop of a hat. Bombshell thought that was stupid. Sure, you have to figure out who the threats are. But Phase wasn’t a threat to Goldy, because it was obvious Phase couldn’t care less about her. From what Bombshell had been told by some of Kodiak’s contacts, Phase had almost as many enemies as The Don, and Phase was doing a really good job of assessing her enemies.
Also, Aquerna couldn’t stop blabbing about anything back in the dorm, so Bombshell was fully aware that Phase could take Golden Girl out with one cannonball to the gut. While also fighting Kismet and Silverwing. Now that was hardcore. If Phase wasn’t an intersexed Goodkind nutbar, Bombshell would’ve thought more about getting her on the team, because that instantly gave you anything you could buy for the team, plus Golden Kids connections, plus everything else that went with the whole super-rich thing. And the girl could kick ass. If Aquerna was right, Phase had fought Lancer to a standstill for a couple minutes, and that said a lot right there.
“Stretch online.” Bombshell still didn’t know much about Stretch. He had his own circle of friends, and didn’t seem all that focused on getting into the Alphas. Not that he had turned down the chance. No, he had jumped at it. But he wasn’t trying to power-game his way into the Alphas like she and Goldy were. Stretch had been willing to try playing leader, but he wasn’t bummed out when Bombshell was better at it.
Time to be the best damn leader they ever saw. “Okay. We’re supposed to know these clowns, and be ready to fight ‘em. But Bardue said they know us and hate us. So that makes it one of Everheart’s revenge things with sneak attacks. Thoughts?”
Accelerator leapt in feet first without thinking it over. Just like always. “We just do the pursuit, like everybody else. Me as a front tail. You and Gold and Swoop flyin’ after. ‘Bind and Stretch after that, in those flightpacks.”
Spellbinder said thoughtfully, “It won’t be that simple. We have to expect traps. Traps designed for us. And that means they’ll have something – at least one thing – for speedsters. They shouldn’t know we have flightpacks now, so that may give me and Stretch a subtle advantage.”
Bombshell said, “Right. So ‘Cel, you’ve got to assume there’s a couple traps up ahead of you. You’ve got your usual tasks – front tail, clearing civilians – but you have to watch out for the kinds of things Bardue warned us about. You saw what happened to S.T.A.R. League Junior, right?”
“Umm, mostly, I was looking at the Kimbas when they came in.”
Ugh. Bombshell didn’t say anything, but she wanted to give Accelerator a smack in the back of the head. Okay, it was just freaky how sexy Fey was. Bombshell was het. Strictly het. Not even thinking about girls. But just looking at Fey was distracting for her, so it had to be hell on the guys. Come to think about it, Lancer had to be pretty resistant to Psi now, if he could hang with Fey all the time and not be a drooling troll pretty much all the time. She should’ve thought of that before that disaster in the arena last term. Instead of yelling at Accelerator, she just said, “Look ‘Cel, you’ve got to expect traps based on your favorite moves. Okay?”
“Roger that, Big Cheese.”
She ignored him and asked, “Anything else?”
Golden Girl said, “If Strongman’s that tough, we need to stall him until we can take him with team tactics.”
“Good,” Bombshell said. “Really good.”
Spellbinder added, “I recommend Bomb and me, or Bomb and Gold, maybe with ‘Cel helping out at top speed purely on containment, because Strongman is pretty fast too.”
“Okay, that sounds good,” Bombshell said.
Bardue bellowed through the speakers, “Elite League! Close your sim helmets! Sim begins… now!” Suddenly they were in downtown Minneapolis – or what Bombshell was guessing was supposed to be Minneapolis – chasing after what looked like…
“A fire engine? They stole a frigging fire engine?” Bombshell fumed out loud. She snapped her head to check on her team. Her ponytail swung behind her. She kept her blonde hair down to her shoulderblades, and styled it different ways depending on her mood and what she was doing. But for combat, she put it in a ponytail to keep it out of the way. And it even felt like a ponytail while she was in the holo sims.
“I’m a block ahead and moving out,” Accelerator said into the comms.
“Isn’t a firetruck kind of cliché for a clown?” Stretch wondered out loud.
“Exactly,” said Spellbinder. “It’s ridiculously unlikely they just ‘found’ one when they wanted to get away. They stole it ahead of time. So it’s a trap in itself. Or loaded with traps.”
By then, Bombshell had nearly caught up to the rear bumper of the fire engine. Golden Girl was maybe twenty feet behind her, and the rest of the team was maybe a hundred feet or so back behind Gold. Bombshell figured she’d try something new. Namely, ripping the rear bumper and rear axle off the truck and bringing the whole thing to a screeching halt. She figured she was strong enough to do it.
“LEFT!” Golden Girl screeched into the comms.
Bombshell veered to the left as fast as she could. A massive fireaxe slashed into the asphalt right through the spot she’d been a fraction of a second ago. She looked up in time to see Strongman throw two more axes at her. She didn’t know if they could really slice through her PK field, but Strongman was pretty frigging strong, and she’d gotten a nasty demonstration she wasn’t invulnerable, just a month ago. She jerked upward and back, and both axes missed her. One of them, just barely.
Golden Girl watched Strongman wind up with two more axes. He was totally concentrating on Bombshell. Okay! She pushed hard and blasted him right in the face with her force blasts. He went tumbling backward, losing both axes. The fireaxes went flying off to the sides, ripping up a couple cars. Just as she was grinning, she spotted Clown angrily staring at her. “Uh-oh.” Two steel ladders launched off the sides of the firetruck, and both aimed right at her like guided missiles.
Accelerator zipped over to a compact car parked on the street with the side door open. That firetruck would rip that to shreds. He quickly shoved the door closed as he passed… And two buckets of white slop were thrown at him from a gadget that popped out of the trunk of the car. He didn’t dodge in time. And the stuff was hardening way too fast for him to break free or even move away. He yelped over the comm system, “I’m stuck! And I’m in the middle of the street!”
Swoop was feeling pretty frustrated. The new flightpacks were a hair faster than she was, so now she was trailing Stretch and Spellbinder by maybe twenty yards, and the gap was just getting wider. She looked ahead at the fighting going on at the back of the firetruck, and she knew she was going to miss out on it. That was when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, and she dodged. It wasn’t enough. Ropewalker still managed to knock her out of the skies.
Swoop dropped hard to the asphalt, with Ropewalker trying to grapple with her. Ropewalker would have caught her right in the back of the neck if she hadn’t dodged, but the two of them were trying to get each other in judo holds just as they hit the street with a sickening impact.
Bombshell dodged backward away from the firetruck as the ladders launched at Golden Girl. Gold managed to put up a force field to block the direct impact, but the blow had stunned her, and the ladders were twisting and writhing about Gold like they were pythons. Bombshell knew she couldn’t take all The Carnival by herself, so she went for the Gold. She could see Stretch and Spellbinder had nearly caught up. But she could see back where Swoop was crashing to the ground with Ropewalker in a headlock, and she could see what else was back there. She snapped off two commands into her comms.
Golden Girl had just blasted both ladders, but they twisted and angled as they clamped onto her. She was strong, but the metal ladders were wrapping her up like a couple anacondas. And they were squeezing her. “Need… some… help!” she gasped.
Swoop was tougher than Ropewalker, and had managed to twist so her opponent took most of the impact. But she still hurt all over. As she pushed herself off Ropewalker, she heard a noise behind her. She looked up as a full-grown Bengal tiger leapt at her, and another raced at her right behind the first one.
Accelerator struggled to break free of the white stuff, but he could hardly move. And he just knew Bombshell would bitch and moan forever about him not looking out for traps after she told him to. It wasn’t his fault! But the white stuff had hardened into plastic before he could do more than back up a couple yards. So he was frozen from his shoulders down in white mess, except for his left arm and a little patch on the side of his left leg. Plus the crap on the side of his head. And he was glued to the street too. He beat on the plastic with his free arm, but he couldn’t crack the stuff. All he managed to do was really hurt his hand a lot. He had a blackjack in one pocket, but he couldn’t get at it to whack on this stupid-ass plastic shit. “Hey! Help!” he yelled at a couple people over on the sidewalks. But he was nearly in the middle of the street, and everyone could see he was in a supervillain booby trap, and no one with any common sense was gonna try to bust him free. He glanced off to the side so he could look down the street. And he could see the fire engine barreling his way. And he realized he was stuck right in the middle of the street where the damn thing could run over him without even trying. “Oh crap.”
Stretch went flying through the air. The first thing Bombshell had ordered was ‘medicine ball’, which meant he needed to wrap himself up in a ball so she or Gold could throw him at someone. So he’d rolled himself into a ball with the flightpack and his head on the inside, just to keep the breakable stuff safe. And then Bombshell grabbed him out of the air and threw him as hard as she could. And she could throw pretty darn hard without even trying. He just hoped he was going fast enough.
Spellbinder flew past Bombshell and aimed at Golden Girl. Bombshell’s second command had been ‘Bind, help Gold’. So she was working on it. She focused on her spells. She kept four spells handy on a bracelet, and she could hurl them whenever she wanted. But her four instant spells weren’t going to help with those ladders. Spellbinder saw the cannon pop up to launch Cannonball at Bombshell, and she snapped into her comms, “Snag him and throw him straight up!” She didn’t have an instant spell ready for Golden Girl, but she had one for this bozo.
Bombshell looked over her shoulder, just in time to see a massive cannon pop up from the center of the fire engine and aim at her. Cannonball came blasting at her.
Stretch hit the first tiger in the middle of its leap, knocking it off to the side. That gave Swoop enough time to scramble to her feet and manifest those ‘stone feathers’ she could throw. Stretch saw the second tiger take a handful of stone feathers right in the face and forelegs, and fall over. Damn! He hadn’t realized those things were that hard! A third tiger came sprinting at Swoop, but she leapt up into the air and flew out of its reach. Ropewalker started to get back up, so Stretch flew twenty feet up into the air and dropped right on her, bouncing up into the air before any of the tigers could get over to him. The main thing he was wondering was… where the hell was Liontamer?
Bombshell wasn’t as fast as Accelerator, but she was faster than a baseline. and quicker. And way more attractive. She loved being an Exemplar. Best superpower ever. So she was fast enough to dodge Cannonball and grab his foot as he flew past. She whirled him around like a bucket on a rope, and she flung him straight up in the air. She didn‘t know what ‘Bind had in mind, but she trusted her teammates enough to go with the flow. Except Accelerator, who pretty much always sprinted first and thought second.
Accelerator yelped over the comms, “Help! I need help! I’m glued in the middle of the street, and the firetruck’s headed my way!”
Bombshell heard the frantic voice over the comms and darted off to the side of the street, aiming for a row of parking meters. Golden Girl was gonna have to get free on her own, because ‘Cel was in way more trouble. The dumbass.
Spellbinder was still a good forty feet from Golden Girl, but closing fast. She had four instant spells that were already powered up. The only problem with them was she’d let her dumb brother name them, which was just kind of annoying at times like this. She pointed at Cannonball just as he reached the top of his arc, and whispered, “Feather Fall.” He began drifting downward ever so slowly. By the time he reached the ground, they’d be able to pay attention to him, and he wouldn’t have any toughness from landing hard on the ground either. She also had ‘Cloak’, ‘Forget me now’, and ‘Blade ward’ on her bracelet, but she didn’t see any of them helping her with Golden Girl’s crisis.
Bombshell flew past some parked cars and grabbed up a parking meter. A simple tug, and it came out of the concrete like a forklift had been yanking on it. She hurled it like a javelin. Her Exemplar aim was way better than her aim used to be. The parking meter end of the thing punched right through the center of the right rear tire. The concrete-covered end went smashing around in a circle, with the whole fire engine bumping and shaking as the parking meter refused to let the wheel turn properly any more.
Spellbinder had enough time to study the twisting ladders as she flew in to help Golden Girl. She was pretty sure she had figured out the weak points of the things. They were basically robots with ladder-like joints. And Golden Girl just needed enough room to get her hands out and blast the things apart. Spellbinder concentrated on the ladder joint pinning Golden Girl’s right hand against her thigh. She whispered words of power while she used as much of her inner Essence as she thought she could afford in the middle of a battle. The ladder snapped away from the hex, freeing Golden Girl’s right arm.
Golden Girl yanked her arm up and grabbed the nearest chunk of ladder before it could pin her arms down again. She blasted the ladder with everything she had, hurling small chunks of metal and electronics all over the street. Then she quickly blasted the other ladder, freeing her left arm. Just as she blasted the ladders still hanging onto her legs, she spotted Clown. The rear of the truck was wobbling and shaking, but the guy got on his knees and pulled up a big firehose with a huge metal nozzle on the end. Clown pulled the lever on the nozzle, and gallons of thick, white, super-strong glue erupted from the nozzle. Straight at Bombshell.
Accelerator kept beating on the plastic holding him firmly in the middle of the street. He winced as he looked up and saw the firetruck was a hell of a lot closer now, and aiming straight for him. He yelled into his comms, “Help! For Christ’s sake, somebody stop that truck!”
Swoop dipped down low enough to blast another tiger with her stone feather attack. Stretch was zipping around in that flightpack like he was playing with housecats. She wanted to yell at him, but maybe he could take a whack from a tiger. He had to know his own limits better than she did, and he hadn’t acted like a big dork yet. Accelerator was a big enough jerk for most of the rest of the team put together. She blasted Ropewalker with another stone feather attack when the girl tried to get up off the asphalt. But where the heck was Liontamer? She had to be close enough to keep an eye on her tigers, so she could make them attack Stretch but not Ropewalker. Swoop’s superior eyesight paid off. She spotted someone lurking in the shadows under an awning. Everyone else was running away from a superhero battle. Not that woman. Swoop soared up out of the sight of the lurker and put another stone feather blast right through the awning. Liontamer came screeching out, staggering from the attack and firing wildly with a revolver. Oh shit, was Stretch bulletproof from something like that?
Golden Girl cast a golden screen right in front of Bombshell just before Clown could blast her with that glue stuff. There was a hasty “Thanks” over the comms. She didn’t reply. She just veered off to the other side of the fire engine.
Spellbinder watched as Clown went after her with that glue blaster. Clown must have reworked the entire fire engine to make the pump work with glue like that, and to fit that ‘cannon’ in. She murmured, “Cloak.” She disappeared. She focused on Clown and whispered, “Forget me now.” Suddenly, Clown was kneeling on the back of the fire engine, looking confused. Not only was he unable to focus on his target, he couldn’t even remember why he had been pointing his firehose that way.
Golden Girl used the respite to blast off the other back tire of the fire engine. A chunk of axle went with the tire, flinging steel shards that clattered off her golden force field. She flew up and back, as the rear of the fire engine fishtailed wildly. It finally came to a screeching halt barely fifty feet before it would have run over Accelerator where he stood, stuck helplessly to the road by already-dry plastic.
Bombshell snapped into the comms, “Good job. ‘Bind, help Swoop and Stretch. Gold, stall Strongman for a couple seconds.” She had just spotted that Clown had fallen into the middle of the fire engine.
Strongman scrambled to his feet and hurled another pair of fireaxes. Golden Girl blocked one with her force field, and Spellbinder did a quick “Blade ward” to deal with the other. Spellbinder took off back down the street, while Golden Girl closed on Strongman. Gold blasted a quick hole in the side of the firetruck, and white glue came pouring out. She hoped that was enough to knock out the firehose thing.
Bombshell took the opportunity to catch Clown by surprise. He was still struggling to his feet and trying to pick up two covered buckets when Bombshell flew past and punched him in the jaw. He dropped like a rock. She kept flying. She grabbed the top of the fire engine’s cab with both hands, and yanked upward. The entire top of the cab was ripped off, along with most of the windshield. Ringmaster scrambled to get an automatic off his belt. He fired three shots before she flicked it out of his hand. Two of the bullets even hit her. They just bounced off her PK field, and she hardly even felt them. She knocked him out with a casual backhand, and reversed her direction to pick something up from the middle of the truck.
Golden Girl darted backward and up once again. Strongman was stronger than her, and he was faster too. Stupid jerk. He wasn’t able to grab her, so he kept ripping pieces off cars and hurling them at her. She was getting a headache from the impacts on her force field. At least he hadn’t tried throwing something like a javelin. Yet. She blasted him in the face again and made him stagger, but it wasn’t enough to put him down.
Bombshell shouted at Strongman from the back of the fire engine. “Here! Catch!” Those buckets of whitish ultra-glue weren’t doing anyone any good now that Clown was out cold, so she figured she’d make use of them. She nailed Strongman in the legs with the first bucket, and in a second or so he was glued to the street. Then she hit him in the torso with the second bucket, just so he’d glue his arms to something instead of being able to pry himself free.
Golden Girl gave Bombshell a big grin and a ‘thumbs up’. “Nice one.”
Bombshell said over the comms, “Bomb and Gold incoming.” She tilted her head off down the street, where a fight was still in progress a block and a half away. The two of them took off.
Accelerator looked at the front end of the fire engine. It was stopped maybe fifteen yards away, and he’d stood there helplessly watching the damn thing sliding right at him until it finally stopped. He looked out the corner of his eye and saw Bombshell and Gold Girl heading back the way they came. He yelped over his comms, “Hey! What about me? I’m still stuck!”
Stretch watched Golden Girl and Bombshell soar over him. Bombshell gave him a thumbs up and kept going. He had Cannonball all wrapped up. The guy had finally drifted down to the street, and Stretch just hadn’t punched the guy. Instead, he wrapped Cannonball up like Mister Fantastic would, and that was all it took. If the guy didn’t have any kinetic energy to make him stronger, he was as weak as a baseline. The guy struggled some more, but Stretch just held onto him and waited for the team to mop up the last couple problems.
Spellbinder was still cloaked. She stunned another of the tigers, but she wasn’t willing to risk killing the poor things. Still, that meant the tigers shook it off after a little bit and got back up. Plus, Liontamer knew someone was stunning her tigers, and was waving her gun around trying to find someone to shoot.
Swoop soared higher into the air, dodging Ropewalker again. The woman would just not give up. And she was freakishly good with those ropes and things. Ropewalker swung across the street, trying to knock Swoop out of the air once more.
Bombshell assessed the sitch as she flew up with Gold. “Swoop. Make a nice, lazy half-circle in the air, going away from us. Gold, veer off to your right so you can pick off Liontamer. ‘Bind, keep up the good work.” She waited until Swoop arced through the air and Ropewalker swung after her. Once Ropewalker had her back to Bombshell, it was all over. Bombshell shot forward and picked Ropewalker out of the air, tearing off a hundred feet of rope while she was at it. Then she held Ropewalker in one immovable arm while tying the villain up with her free hand. By the time she set down, Ropewalker was struggling frantically to get loose.
Golden Girl darted along the fourth floor of the buildings along the street, until she could dart downward and catch Liontamer by surprise. Liontamer got a couple shots off, but neither hit her golden force field. Instead, Golden Girl did the blasting. She let loose with a golden blast that knocked Liontamer out. Then she flew over and blasted the last upright tiger into unconsciousness.
Bombshell looked at the captured supervillains and nodded in approval. “Good work, everyone. Now we still have to cut ‘Cel out of that plastic.”
Just then, the sim ended.
<(Lancer) Okay team, let’s hustle. You know the drill. We don’t have much time to get into our chairs.>
<(Phase) You know, Elite League’s improving a lot. Their teamwork’s way better than it was at the start of term. This may not be a good thing for us.>
<(Generator) Oh pssht. We could do way better than them.>
<(Lancer) Actually, we have done better than that. Several times.>
<(Phase) No, I mean they’ve been practicing. They’re using team maneuvers, and they had their own ‘fastball special’ move with Stretch.>
<(Chaka) Yeah, but ‘medicine ball’ is so lame! ‘Fastball special’ is a CLASSIC!>
<(Phase) Only you would think something as recent as the Fastball Special could be a ‘classic’.>
<(Chaka) And so speaks the grumpy old man. ‘Back when I was a kid we had to draw our own comic books! And make the ink by wrestling squids!’>
I had to grin. Okay, it was partly because Chaka called me an old man. I didn’t get enough of that around the girls.
<(Lancer) Like I said, I’ve been thinking about the team maneuver thing. We’ll talk later.>
<(Phase) My room, with Nikki’s anti-eavesdropping spells in force.>
<(Lancer) Right. Meanwhile, we need to think about what we’re going to have to do differently.>
Bardue interrupted our private discussion. His voice blared out over the loudspeakers throughout the holo sims, and probably in the classroom back over by Range Four. “CLASS! Your assignment for tomorrow is to go over the pursuit Elite League just did, and think about what sorts of traps would be in place for your team, and how you would evade them, and how you would handle the supervillains! Elite League? Since you just did that sim, you will do the same thing for S.T.A.R. League Junior’s sim!”
<(Lancer) Any comments about that sim, save it for later. We’ve got to prepare for ours.>
We flew down the corridor – literally, in most cases – and clambered into our seats. I put the sim helmet on, but waited for as long as I could before closing it over my face.
Bardue bellowed in his usual subtle style, “TEAM KIMBA! You do NOT have a pursuit sim! You have a time-limited Red Team sim! You have ten minutes ONLY to cross roughly six miles of unknown terrain and attack a hilltop fortress with unknown defenses! There is a baseline opponent in the castle you MUST stop before the ten minutes are up! You may use any level of force necessary to stop said opponent before he launches nuclear missiles from U.S. silos thousands of miles away! DO YOU UNDERSTAND!?!”
<(Lancer) Oh yeah, they had this one prepped for us.>
<(Chaka) Hey, we can do six miles. Tennyo can do it in like…>
<(Phase) Roughly two minutes, twenty-four seconds.>
<(Chaka) Uhh, yeah, that’s just what I was gonna say.>
<(Fey) Of course!>
<(Lancer) Okay, but we have to figure they know Tennyo can do that, and she can carry a couple people. And they have to know we can follow along at about sixty miles an hour if I carry everyone else. So there’s a trap in here. Somewhere.>
<(Phase) Of course. But we have no intel, so we can’t plan for it.>
<(Tennyo) What if we’re supposed to recognize the threat once we’re in the sim, and plan from there?>
<(Lancer) Then we do that.>
<(Phase) I don’t think it’s going to be that easy.>
<(Lancer) Everyone in their places?>
A voice blared from the loudspeakers in the cubicles, “Team Kimba, you’re all ready to go. Please close sim helmets and begin. You’ll have exactly ten minutes from the second you appear in the sim.”
Ayla took a deep breath and closed his helmet. He hated this part of the sim. More than that, he hated his own weakness. How could someone with the power to phase through solid matter come down with claustrophobia? That was just pathetic.
<(Lancer) Tennyo? Grab Shroud. As soon as you spot the fortress, head for it at your top speed. Keep low over the terrain. You’re our point man. And start blasting that fortress as soon as…>
They popped into existence on a rugged rock that stood bare in the midst of miles of snow. Tennyo suddenly zipped twenty feet into the air and looked around. <(Tennyo) Got it. Big old stone thing on top of a small hill.>
<(Shroud) Good.> She leapt up into the air to hover beside Tennyo.
<(Lancer) Then go!>
Tennyo tucked Shroud under one arm and took off at full speed, tearing along at treetop height over a bleak, leafless forest.
<(Tennyo) Okay, looks like maybe two miles of forest. I don’t see anything. No houses, no people, no roads, no weapons, nothing.>
<(Lancer) I’ve got Generator and Bladedancer. Fey, can you get Chaka?>
<(Chaka) I got it. I’ll just surf on your back.>
<(Lancer) Oooooh-kay. If you think you can.>
<(Chaka) No prob!>
Lancer grabbed a Kimba in each arm and let Chaka leap up onto his back. Then he took off at sixty miles an hour toward the fortress. Fey rose and followed him at nearly his speed, while Phase took a couple steps and leapt into the air, catching up fairly quickly and moving slightly ahead of him.
<(Phase) I’m trying to trim my speed enough to match yours, but I don’t have perfect control.>
<(Lancer) Just do your best. Recognize anything?>
<(Phase) No. And that’s what has me worried. Well, it’s one of the things that has me worried.>
<(Lancer) Keep at treetop level. You could even duck into the treetops if you want to.> He watched as Phase took his advice and flew about ten feet below the top of the trees, where anyone else would either crash or wreck an entire forest.
Tennyo looked around as she flew. She wondered how much stuff was hidden under the snow or concealed under camouflage. Maybe Fey could’ve used her powers to spot stuff, because she just knew it couldn’t be this easy all the way to the castle. <(Tennyo) Still nothing but forest.>
<(Lancer) Keep a sharp lookout, because you just know there’s gonna be something nasty.>
<(Shroud) I’m not seeing anything either. So it’s pretty well hidden.>
<(Tennyo) Be good if we had Fey or a high-end Esper looking up here.>
<(Phase) You’ve got J-Team-vision already.>
<(Shroud) But I don’t see anything!>
<(Tennyo) It’s okay, you’re doing great.>
Tennyo looked over at Shroud. She knew there were a lot of limits on Shroud’s ‘vision’. Even a white tarp on the ground would be enough to hide anything from her. Well, it might need a little snow on top to look like the rest of the ground to Jinn.
She cut over the edge of the forest, and found herself flying over a field. There were the remains of dead cornstalks sticking up through the snow, so she figured it was a cornfield during the summer. She darted down to a couple yards above the snow, and kept looking for traps.
<(Tennyo) The forest ends at a big cornfield. Don’t see anything.>
Tennyo got to the other side of the cornfield and abruptly shot straight up to avoid crashing into the trees. There weren’t many of them. They stretched off a ways on either side, but the ‘forest’ was really thin, with a big dip right in the middle for something that wasn’t much more than a really big creek.
<(Tennyo) Moving on to far side of field. It’s another forest, but not too wide. Looks like a river running through it.>
<(Lancer) No jokes, okay guys?>
<(Chaka) I’m busy surfin’ here. This is harder than it looks.>
Phase glanced back at Chaka. It didn’t look hard. It looked impossible. Chaka was balancing on Lancer’s slippery PK field while Lancer flew at sixty miles an hour. And it wasn’t like Lancer was going in a straight line, either. He was moving from side to side, and looking out for traps. Phase figured Chaka was using what she knew about Lancer’s field to get a Ki-powered ‘grip’ on it with her feet.
Phase tried to spot Tennyo, but she was already so far ahead of them that they couldn’t pick her out from the background. Phase estimated she was a mile and a half ahead of the main group, and widening that distance with every second.
Chaka shifted her balance and spread out her arms like she was going down a big wave on a real surfboard. She’d never done it for real, but Rip sure had, and Rip had pictures of herself surfing, and some videos too. Rip was pretty good at it, even before she got her water-control powers. <(Chaka) Surfs up, dooooooods! Hang ten!>
<(Lancer) Try seeing if you can spot anything with your Ki, okay?>
<(Chaka) Already on it, Chief.>
Tennyo darted back down to near the ground as she flew over another cornfield. This one wasn’t quite as wide as the first one. It looked like a pretty big forest on the other side of the field, though.
<(Tennyo) Crossing smaller cornfield. Then there’s a big forest or something on the other side. And…>
She soared up over the trees, and found she was looking at a mix of forest clumps and meadows and stuff… And a whole bunch of military trucks spread all over the place with heavy weapons mounted on them Four of them launched what had to be missiles. They jetted off the trucks on columns of fire, moving a lot faster than even she could fly. And all four missiles aimed straight for her.
<(Tennyo) Oh CRAP!>
Tennyo dodged to the side, flinging Shroud away from her to keep her friend safe. One missile tore past her so close that she felt the heat of the rocket flame burning her side. She dodged straight up, ignoring gravity and inertia in a way an ordinary missile couldn’t. The second missile tracked her mercilessly, trying to curve through the air fast enough to correct its flight path. She hastily summoned a plasma ball and blasted it out of the air. The third missile was coming in low, so she darted upward again. But this one exploded as it passed beneath her. She gasped in pain as shrapnel punched into her body. The fourth missile caught her in the leg. The explosion blew her leg apart and shrapnel tore chunks out of her. Something hit her in the face, and she couldn’t see. She didn’t spot the fifth and sixth missiles aiming right at her.
Phase winced as they watched what looked like a string of anti-aircraft missiles flying up from somewhere over the forests and then exploding, one after the other, on some point they couldn’t make out.
<(Shroud) It’s Shroud! They got Tennyo! She threw me off to the side, but they’re targeting her too fast for her to regen!>
<(Lancer) Tennyo! Can you hear me? Tennyo? Tennyo!>
<(Shroud) I’m gonna try and stop some of the missiles. If I can give her some room, she can heal up.>
<(Lancer) Try and get her to dive down to the ground and take cover.>
<(Phase) I don’t see how Shroud’s going to do that. She can take one missile, but once it blasts her to pieces, what she’ll have left won’t stop a surface-to-air weapon.>
<(Phase) They need me. I can disrupt the electronics and keep the missiles from detonating.>
<(Lancer) Okay. Go.>
They were just breaking out of the forest and crossing the open field. Phase went heavy and dropped to the snowy ground, doing his light-heavy-light flicker to slow down enough that he didn’t bury himself in the plowed soil underneath the snow. Then he went heavy and leapt. He shot forward and aimed at the distant explosions.
<(Lancer) Shroud? Can you hear me?>
The voice that came back sounded horribly distorted. <Shroud) Sorta. I got myself blown to pieces. I can’t stop anything now!>
<(Lancer) Then target the launch points. Take out anyone and anything you can find, and stop those missiles.>
<(Shroud) Oh! Right!>
<(Lancer) I don’t like th…>
<(Chaka) INCOMING!> She dove off of Lancer’s back and fell spread-eagled toward the ground. <(Chaka) MOVE! Now!>
Before Lancer had time to react to Chaka, something moving at supersonic speed punched into his PK field so hard it felt like a hammer against his collarbone. He didn’t notice the other impacts. He veered sharply to his right, and then right again, guessing the snipers or tanks or whoever the hell they were would think he would zigzag.
<(Lancer) I’m hit! Anyone else?>
<(Chaka) Somethin’ fast just missed me by about an inch. Oh shit! Fey’s fallin’, gotta try and catch ‘er!>
<(Phase) Fine here.>
<(Lancer) Anyone else?>
Lancer listened hard, but there was no sound from Tennyo. No one else answered, either. Lancer did a quick visual. Both of the girls in his arms were limp and covered in blood. He dove for the ground, twisting and weaving to avoid more sniper fire. <(Lancer) Goddammit, they got ‘Dancer and Gen too!>
Chaka was mad enough to chew nails, but she concentrated. First she had to get down to the ground. She expanded her Ki until she was falling slowly enough, and then she did a tuck and roll when she hit the ground. She felt the focus of someone else on her. She dodged, and two sniper bullets ripped through the space where she’d been kneeling a fraction of a second ago. She sprinted for where Fey lay face-down in the snow.
<(Chaka) The sniper fire’s comin’ from the stream over there, with those trees screenin’ it. They can’t hit me as long as they gotta aim at me first.>
<(Lancer) Don’t do anything crazy.>
<(Chaka) I’m checkin’ on Fey now.>
Phase listened to the voices on the comms and cringed inwardly. It was bad enough that Lancer was hurt and Chaka was on the loose. What was really making Phase edgy was the total lack of other voices. Tennyo hadn’t called in again since the missiles targeted her. It was possible that she’d been deafened, or that an explosion had taken out her Spots. But it was a lot more likely that Tennyo had been seriously hurt. Perhaps badly enough that she couldn’t possibly reply. Phase hated how cruddy his control was when he was flying at speeds like this. He was going to have to do something drastic to change direction once he reached Tennyo, or else he’d fly past the missiles at three hundred miles an hour, and be utterly useless.
Tennyo gasped at the searing pain. One of the missiles had come in at her head, and she’d managed to blast it out of the air only yards from her. But the explosion had seared off most of her face. She’d been blind and deaf after that, and she’d lost her Spot so she couldn’t even call for help. She hadn’t seen the other missiles coming, so she had just zigged and zagged and darted around, hoping to get enough time to regenerate. If she could regenerate an eyeball, it would really help a lot. But the missiles kept exploding when they missed her and went past her. A missile exploding twenty feet away did a lot less damage than the one that exploded against her leg, but it was still a bomb exploding only feet away from her. And every time she tried to get her Warp field up, another missile exploded near her, or against her, and she lost the field!
Shroud flew at her best speed. She had to do what she could to help Tennyo. She was aiming for the closest missile battery. She wasn’t much more than a couple pounds of metal fragments along with a couple yards of chain and two damaged knifeblades. But she was still alive and kicking. And no one was going to think that a handful of falling metal was a threat. She hoped. If anyone down there had an anti-PK weapon lying around, she was toast. And she couldn’t let that happen. She had to save Tennyo!
Lancer hit the ground just on the other side of a slight rise in the center of the field. He knew he was out of sight of the snipers, unless some of them were up in the trees. But he was in easy range of grenade launchers and mortars. He hastily checked his two passengers. Bladedancer was dead. Generator should have been dead. The bullet had punched through just below her collarbone, passed at an angle through her body, and left a rapidly-healing exit wound at the small of her back. He could barely let go of Bladedancer. The grinding pain in his shoulder told him he probably had a broken collarbone, or worse. He managed to get his arm against his chest, and he tried to use his PK field to hold it like a makeshift cast. He wasn’t sure how well it would actually work, but it was all he had at the moment. But he couldn’t turn his head without a lot of pain, and even taking a decent breath made the bones in his shoulder grind. He knew he was lucky the sniper shot hadn’t taken him out. It must have glanced off his PK field when Chaka bailed off him and he looked to see what the hell she was doing.
Generator opened her eyes and coughed up blood. She grimaced, “That hurt! Those jerks!” She coughed again, but this time a lot less blood came out. “I got myself held together… inside…” She coughed again, and another spray of blood spattered against the snow. “Well, pretty much. But I can’t help anybody. You need to leave me here and let me heal up for a while. You gotta help Tennyo and kick those guys’ butts. And stop the bad guys.”
Lancer admitted, “I’m hurt too.” <(Lancer) I’m injured. Gen is hurt bad but healing. ‘Dancer is dead. We’re pinned down. I don’t think we’re going anywhere until Chaka takes out those snipers. Tennyo, Shroud, Phase: it’s up to you three.>
Phase thought, “Crap!” But he didn’t say it. <(Phase) Copy that.>
Chaka felt another sniper focusing on her, and quickly dodged away. She heard a bullet tear past her. She ran to Fey and… She swallowed hard. Fey’s Ki was gone. It wasn’t Fey anymore, just a lump of flesh that had once been her best friend. She gritted her teeth. It was just a stupid simulation. It wasn’t real…
It wasn’t fair!
<(Chaka) GODDAMMIT! We lost Fey! On my way back now.>
Lancer heard the horrific whistle of an incoming shell. He’d heard it before, back when he wasn’t a mutant and he wasn’t anywhere near the line of fire. <(Lancer) Incoming on my position. Gen, I’m gonna have to haul you out of here, no matter how much it hurts.>
<(Generator) What about Bladedancer?>
<(Lancer) We lost her. And I only have one good arm.>
Lancer scooped up Generator and lifted a few inches above the snow. He slid forty feet off to the side. The shell hit about twenty yards in front of his previous position. He kept moving. He knew the routine. The next shell would probably land just past his position. Then they would have the target bracketed, and they would begin ‘fire for effect’, meaning blasting the holy shit out of everyone. He doubted that even his PK field would hold up to that much concentrated firepower.
Lancer watched as Chaka made a beeline for his old position. <(Lancer) Chaka? Don’t go there. You can’t survive a hit from an artillery shell.>
<(Chaka) Not interested in trying to. I want something.>
Phase strained as hard as he could to steer his body, as he rocketed through the air. He wasn’t doing a good job of it, but at least he was now aiming in the right direction. He could see Tennyo now, dead ahead. And there was already another missile launching at her. Worse, she wasn’t in any shape to defend herself. He didn’t know why she hadn’t just blasted everything that moved with her plasma balls, or pulled up that Warp field of hers, but maybe the missiles had caught her by surprise. At any rate, she hadn’t reacted in time, and now they had a big problem. He didn’t see how anyone else would still be alive. She was missing an arm and a leg, and part of her face, and a nauseating amount of her torso, and even some of her hair. But if he could just give her thirty seconds or a minute, she ought to be able to regenerate enough to protect herself. At least he hoped so.
Phase aimed right for Tennyo’s shape. He wasn’t sure if he could get to her before that surface-to-air missile did. It wasn’t as if he could change his velocity. He could slow down fairly drastically by going heavier, but he couldn’t speed up when he was already light. He couldn’t turn very well, either. So all he could do was race the missile to Tennyo.
Chaka sprinted across the snowy field to where Bladedancer’s body was. Lancer was already carrying Generator off toward the forest behind them, and the artillery guys were tracking him mercilessly across the field. But Lancer was playing it smart. Every time they started zeroing in on him, he started cutting back toward the explosions and messing up their aiming system.
Chaka ducked a couple sniper rounds and slid across the snow on her belly to where Bladedancer was. She couldn’t see Destiny’s Wave, but she knew where it had to be. Draped across ‘Dancer’s back and acting all invisible. She grabbed the hilt and pulled it out of its scabbard. The blade became visible again. She held it behind her back and sprinted toward the thin forest where the snipers were hiding. “You asshats are gonna pay for this one,” she growled.
Phase beat the missile to Tennyo by what looked like a matter of yards. He waited as long as he could to go fully heavy, and he body-blocked Tennyo’s form out of the way. The missile shot past only inches behind him. He hung onto her as he started to drop, and he pulled her halfway down to the ground before he went light again. She just stopped falling, as if she’d forgotten about that whole ‘gravity’ thing again. Another missile was flying their way, and it was correcting its path. He needed to meet it before it got to Tennyo.
Phase flew right at the missile. He let it zoom past, missing him by inches, and he slashed his disruption-light hand through the thing just in time to avoid being roasted by the flame blasting out the back end. He aimed for the next one.
Chaka sprinted for the trees, feeling when someone was focusing on her and veering to the side to avoid those snipers. She was within a hundred feet of the treeline when suddenly it felt like a dozen different set of Ki were all focusing on her. Three different camo tarps were yanked aside, and a dozen soldiers armed with machine guns opened up on her. No matter how fast she was, she couldn’t dodge a hundred bullets a second. Something hit her in the leg like a hammer. A line of impacts stitched across her waist. She dropped to the snow.
Lancer flew as fast as he could, aiming for the trees they had flown over before. He was too easy to follow out in the open, over the field. The artillery spotters had to have him in their sights, or on some sort of radar, because he couldn’t shake the artillery fire. And every time he cut to one side or the other, Generator gasped in pain. He really hated that. If he could get into the trees, they probably couldn’t track him anymore. Probably. But all he was doing was drawing off fire. He wasn’t doing the team any good. He had to depend on Phase and Tennyo doing their end of the assignment.
Shroud let herself fall. It was faster than she could fly. She came down next to one huge truck that was carrying a bunch of anti-aircraft missiles in big launchers. She stopped herself inches from the bed of the truck, and went right for the missile launchers. There was no way she could tear up those launchers. But she didn’t need to. There were all kinds of cables and hydraulics and stuff, going from the cab of the truck where the controls were, back to the missiles. All she had to do was hack up that stuff. She wrapped a length of chain around a cluster of wires, and pulled hard. They tore in half. She sliced through a couple hydraulic tubes with her better knife. The missiles stopped firing, and the huge array of missiles began to sag back down to the bed of the truck. One down, maybe three to go. If she hurried, maybe she could save Tennyo from the other missiles too.
Phase tried to cut off the next missile, but he just wasn’t that fast in the air unless he had a running heavy-to-light start. He thought he might be able to get a disruption-light hand through it. That was enough the last time. He was nearly within touching distance when it abruptly ejected panels off its sides. <(Phase) Oh sh…> The missile exploded in a huge fireball.
Lancer reached the forest just as he heard Phase’s last words. He flew straight into the forest, dodging trees but maintaining a straight line until he was sure he couldn’t be seen any longer. Then he dodged off to the right. The artillery began to concentrate on his flightpath straight into the forest, not realizing he wasn’t still on that path. He quickly gained distance from the explosions. But him staying safe hardly mattered, if they couldn’t achieve a crucial objective. At least Generator was doing better. She was breathing better, and hadn’t coughed up any blood for maybe a minute.
Shroud rushed into the narrow meadow and aimed herself at the missile launching truck. She had to duck behind a bush and wait until two guards walked past. Then she darted forward again. She was just yanking out another set of control cables when the sim abruptly ended.
“Hello Phase,” the overly-cheerful computer voice said. “Welcome back. It is Thursday, January 25th, 2007. It is now 10:19 am. Your team managed to avoid a total party kill with only four dead, but you lost, and the supervillain got away with his attack.”
I was tempted to say some ugly things back at it, but cursing at a computer voice was a waste of breath. Not to mention that Bardue and Everheart were probably listening to everything we said aloud, and quite possibly eavesdropping on our private communications when we were in the sim. I didn’t like losing, and I didn’t like being thrown into a situation where losing was the only possible option.
I refrained from throwing the sim helmet at the wall, and I walked out of the cubicle to rejoin my teammates.
I was feeling like being a really bad sport, but it looked like the rest of my teammates were taking it all in stride. Jade was hugging Billie and making sure she was all right. Toni was asking Chou, “So, you don’t mind me borrowing DW? It was for a good cause, ya know.” Hank was trying to herd them out the door.
Lancer asked, “Four dead? Who besides ‘Dancer and Fey?”
Toni and I uncomfortably raised our hands. Toni sheepishly said, “I know you said not to do anything crazy…”
Nikki grinned, “But when does she do anything that isn’t crazy?”
I admitted, “I never did get Tennyo the time she needed.”
Billie patted me on the shoulder. “Yeah, but you tried. You tried hard.”
“Do or do not, there is no try,” croaked Toni in a really bad Yoda imitation.
“Was that supposed to be Kermit the Frog?” I asked disingenuously. Toni just laughed.
Nikki said, “Oh, Kermit! I thought it was supposed to be Shrek.” Toni stuck her tongue out at Nikki.
“Hey, once you’ve heard one green thing, you’ve heard ‘em all,” Billie contributed.
Lancer said, “More importantly, we failed to prevent Global Thermonuclear War.”
“Would you like to play a game?” I said in my most robotic tones.
Hank rolled his eyes. “Well, the only way to win this sim is not to play, I think.”
“No,” I disagreed. “We could beat this sim. We just needed to know what we were facing before we hit it.”
Hank said, “So, is that our bottom line? That we need good intel, and we probably could have saved the day anyway?”
“Nah,” Toni said. “What they want us to say is we got creamed, and we shouldn’t think we can win all the time.”
“And we need to stop screwing around in class,” I added.
“I think we got the point on that one,” Nikki grumbled.
Billie added, “Yeah, and most of us already knew we weren’t indestructible, and the ones who are pretty close can still get hurt. A lot.”
Hank nodded. “Fine. So we learn from this.”
Chou said, “They threw us into a no-win situation. We did not win. The point is that life often has situations where you cannot win. And sometimes life has situations that appear unwinnable unless you think outside the box.”
Toni smirked, “The old ‘Kobayashi Maru sim’, huh? I don’t think Hive’s gonna let us re-program the sim anytime soon.”
I groaned, “I don’t even want to think about what Hartford would do to us if we screwed around with her code.”
Hank pointed out, “For Pete’s sake. We don’t have to re-program the sim. We just have to know what we’re gonna be hit with! If we’d known about the anti-aircraft missiles, or if we’d known about the snipers and machine gunners…”
Fey finished, “They’d have hit us with whatever the next big weapon is supposed to be.”
I insisted, “I still think I did the right thing. Tennyo’s our big gun. If I could have pulled the fire off her for even half a minute, she could have defended herself a lot better from the incoming, maybe even enough to regen and launch a counter-attack.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jade. “We’re the good guys. We don’t leave our friends behind.”
Hank tried again. “Look, every one of us is vulnerable to something. To a lot of things. Even Tennyo. And all the power Fey has is useless if we don’t protect her from the really long-range assaults or sneak attacks.”
Toni pointed out, “Well, we learned that from Skybolt and Nex. Duh.”
“Yeah. That, and getting shot hurts,” I supplied.
“Well thank you, Captain Obvious,” said Nikki.
“Knock it off,” snapped Hank. “Part of a sim like this is seeing how we react afterward.”
“Yeah,” Billie agreed. “The Kobayashi Maru is a test of character. You have to face losing, or dying, and then see how you handle it.”
“Well, I’m feeling really grouchy about it,” I said.
“And how is that different from every day?” grinned Toni.
Hank looked at me and said, “I think we covered the main points already. Do you want someone else to write up the Elite League sim?”
“No,” I said at once. “I’d be happier writing up both of them. Otherwise, I’m going to end up wanting to proofread the other report, and pissing someone off when I correct their grammar and re-write their paragraph structure.”
Toni said, “Okay, you do way too much stuff for us in the class. But there’s no way I’m ready to have the Grammar Goodkind stomp all over my writing.”
Nikki ruthlessly pointed out, “You could probably benefit from having Ayla go over every one of your English papers after you think you’re done.”
Toni said, “Yeah, but I already hate English class, and I don’t think I’m ready for that level of English class hating.”
Hank dragged the discussion back on topic. “Okay. Elite League sim. What would The Carnival do for us?”
I said, “Pretty much the same things they did to them. Encasement in a solid plastic is a pretty effective way to tackle Tennyo, and she’d probably be our front tail.”
Tennyo grinned evilly, her little fangs poking out at the corners. “But I’ve busted out of stuff like that before.” She looked over at Hank. “Remember the ice back in Boston?”
He groaned. “Remember it? I nearly suffocated!”
I said, “So, assuming we run with Tennyo and Shroud on a front tail, Lancer with Bladedancer and me on their bumper, Chaka on side pursuit, Fey on rear overwatch, and Generator doing C & C behind, I think we can guess what they’d do. First, the same sort of encasement trap they sprung on Accelerator, only bigger and badder. But now Tennyo knows how to bust out of traps like that without destroying the surrounding buildings. Liontamer and her kitties go after Chaka…”
“Right,” encouraged Chaka.
I continued, “…who then tortures them with ‘leopard vs. tiger’ jokes until Liontamer shoots her own ears off.”
Nikki smirked at my comment, and then said, “Okay, Chaka calls for help, runs up the side of a building, and waits for help.”
“Like hell I do!” insisted Chaka. “I do the Chaka Chaka Bang Bang on Liontamer, then I do that and my paralyzing nerve strike on the tigers.”
Lancer insisted, “After you call for help.”
I started again. “Ropewalker ambushes either Fey or Generator, depending on which one goes to help Chaka. Generator looks like an easier target, but she has J-Team vision going for her. Fey has the empath power. So, either way, Ropewalker is going to get spotted before she finishes pulling off her ambush. If The Carnival knows that, then they might up the level of ambush.”
Nikki growled, “Don’t remind me. I just got shot to death in a sim.”
I said, “Lancer and ‘Dancer and I can take the fire engine. I don’t have Golden Girl’s force fields, but I have plenty of holdouts to throw at them. And Lancer only has to lob Bladedancer onto the fire engine and let her do her thing, while we pin down Strongman and Clown.”
Chou said, “But we have to assume that they know we can do that. So we need to plan for their counters.”
Hank nodded. “But remember, we can’t get so tied up in this that we spend all our time in a real battle wondering if the counter to our counter is another counter that we’ll have to counter in turn.”
Toni waved her hands at Hank like she was a showgirl. “Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present Hank Declan as David Xanatos!”
I added, “Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here ‘til Thursday. Try the veal.”
“That’s a really bad Shrek imitation,” Jade mentioned.
We gamed and counter-gamed the Elite League simulation more or less until we got back inside Poe. Then we split up. Chou had fun stuff to go do with Dorjee and Molly, so she changed clothes and took off. I changed clothes and composed two short papers for Everheart. Once I emailed them both to Sam, I checked stock prices while I ate one of the key lime tarts from my fridge.
I thought back over that latest sim. Well, that had been a load of fun. What the hell else was I going to get for a birthday treat? A letter bomb? Sun Wu Kong wanting to pin me to the ceiling and raid my refrigerator while I watched, as a little prank?
There was an odd knock on the door. I walked over and opened it. And I stared.
I think my jaw hit my arm on its way down to the floor.