Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 10
He had to move back into the fucking security chair so they could bring in his dinner. He was good with that, since he was getting hungry. And he was utterly unsurprised that it was one of the Delahanty brood who brought it in. There was even several extra hamburgers on the tray, and a much larger jug of milk than usual.
This time it was Eddie Delahanty, the ringleader of the whole group. Ever since Mimeo started playing along and acting like he might let them at some secret stash of money, the Delahantys were checking up on him, and bringing him extra food, and making sure they were the ones who handled his meals, and even asking if he wanted anything special.
Eddie Delahanty started right off, “I only got a second, but I wanted to check. You thought any more about that stash of money? New Hampshire isn’t that far away from here.”
Mimeo lied, “But it’ll take a while to drive on the gravel back roads to get to it, and then to hike way out to the middle of the farm to the three trees, where I got it buried.” He watched as Eddie perked right up at the new details. He hadn’t added in the ‘gravel roads’ or ‘three trees’ pieces before. He was damn sure they were supposed to be comparing notes on what he said. And he was damn sure they were all keeping information from each other. Eddie and his family were probably each hoping Mimeo would spill enough that Eddie – or whoever got the secret information – could find the place on his own and find the stash of money and screw over the rest of the family.
Mimeo had no intention of telling any of them that there was no farm, and there was no stash of money. All his money was in property and investments and liquid assets, and all of it was in Europe, and all of it was under aliases. Except a decent-sized bank account in Karedonia, which was under his real name. Why the hell would you bury money on some hick’s farm in the middle of East Buttfuck, New Hampshire? Maybe some small-time New England-based hood might consider it, but big-time supervillains like Mimeo had better things to do with their income.
Mimeo pretended to think about the money. He said, “I thought about it, all right. But I don’t know if I can trust this chick. She might just shoot whoever you got to go with her, and keep the cash. She ain’t exactly Miss Manners. And she’s fucking deadly with a handgun.”
Eddie said, “I think we can handle that problem.”
“I dunno…” Mimeo muttered. He had already found the weakness in the Delahanty gang, and he was going to exploit it for all he was worth. All he needed was one extra-greedy jailer. If one of them thought they could get him to draw a map, or one of them wanted to talk to him for too long, he could escape. After all, he was a high-level Shifter too. Taking on the shape of a jailer was child’s play for him.
He smiled to himself, since taking on the shape of another person was one of the first things he had done once his powers came on, back when he was just a kid. So it really was child’s play for him. And once he looked like, say, Eddie Delahanty and had Eddie’s clothes and security pass and stuff, he could just walk right out of this hole. And since he was Mimeo, there were more things he could do than just depending on that working for him.
Eddie said, “I’ll be back for the tray in an hour. I’ll have a little more time to talk then.”
Mimeo lied, “Great. I’m lookin’ forward to it.”
We were still standing in the hallway, with Hank and Billie telling me that I wasn’t going to get away with my ruse, when a bunch of the Bad Seeds strolled out of the cafeteria. Hmm. What would be a reasonable collective noun for the Bad Seeds? A packet? A harvest? A planting? Some day, I’d ask Jadis if she had any thoughts on the matter.
There was a bubble of space around them, as the kids in front of them scurried to get away, and the kids behind them slowed down to put some room between themselves and people like Jobe.
Of course, Team Kimba didn’t bother to get out of their way, like a massive proportion of the school did. We are so predictable. Our powerhouses like Billie and Hank didn’t see any threat. Toni, if anything, would have been thrilled to find some new people to fight. I personally didn’t see that I had anything to worry about. In fact, I was planning on talking with a couple of the Bads. And our lower-level members were protected by their buddies: Jade didn’t bother to move, but Molly took a step closer to Chou.
Render walked past us close enough to brush against Toni, who didn’t budge. Instead, she closed her eyes in concentration, and Render just sort of slid around her, as if she had a PK field like Slab’s. I didn’t know whether Toni had done some sort of Ki trick, or Render had done some sort of ‘look I’m not touching you’ thing. If it turned out that yet another guy had fallen for Toni’s charms, I was going to ask Nikki if Toni was using her Ki as some sort of electrical pheromone power or something.
Oh God, maybe I had better not. If Toni ever got the idea for using her Ki to ensnare people the same way Cytherea used her lust aura, we were all doomed.
Thrasher walked past and gave Nikki a thumbs-up. “That was so radical!”
Mal grinned at me and asked, “Devise or magic?”
“Magic,” I replied, tilting my head slightly in Nikki’s direction.
“Awesome,” he nodded. Then he looked at Nikki. “I’m guessing something non-intrusive, like an illusion?”
Nikki smiled regally, “Oh yeah.”
Winter purred, “I wish I had thought of it first.”
Granted, Winter was hot enough that Peeper had probably harassed her too, even with her rep and the company she kept.
Jobe sneered at her, “You couldn’t do magic if it came in a little kit with cups and balls.”
She gave him the slight turning away of the head which meant ‘get lost, dork’. I doubted Jobe even noticed. She smugly said to Nikki, “I wouldn't do the magic myself, I’d get someone to do it for me.”
I had a feeling that she would have no qualms about persuading any of half a dozen campus mages – extremely lonely male campus mages – to whip up such a charm for her, in exchange for the chance to have her smile at them.
“Could I have a word with you?” I asked Jobe.
Winter smiled icily at me, “I’m rather busy at the moment, and you’re so not my style.”
I flatly said, “I was talking to Jobe, not you.”
She looked affronted. “Why would you want to talk to him?”
Jobe was his usual helpful self. “This isn’t about that same old BIT problem you’re still whining about, is it?”
I could see that half my team was about ready to jump on me and drag me away from Biowarfare Boy himself. I turned to them and said, “I’ll catch up with you guys in a few. My room. Okay?”
Jade put a hand on my blazer and said, “Sure. Don’t take too long. We got a birthday present for you.”
I felt a little movement in my blazer and blouse, so I knew I had a little company, just for protection. I should have been pissed at her for presuming I didn’t know what I was doing, or thinking I couldn’t protect myself. Instead, I actually felt… well… touched.
Nikki touched my hand and said, “It’s nearly as good a present as dinner.” I felt the tingle at her touch, and I figured she was putting some sort of protective spell on me.
Hank grinned, “Wow, that ought to get her sprinting back to the room.”
They strolled off together, Tennyo giving one fierce look over her shoulder before floating alongside Jade.
<(Phase) Thanks, you guys. But this isn’t anything risky.>
<(Lancer) Yeah, sure. But better safe than sorry, y’know.>
I walked alongside Jobe and said, “Why yes, it is my dreary old BIT problem. And your problem as well.”
He twitched and his voice broke as he asked, “What have you heard?” The rest of the Bad Seeds tried not to smirk.
“Oh, nothing much… You know how the people around here gossip. It’s so destructive…”
And then he was Crown Prince Jobe once again. “Oh, naturally. Jealous people will make up the most ridiculous rumors about me.”
I nodded, as if I actually believed that. “See? We’re not so different after all. And we can clearly benefit from some joint initiatives.”
“Such as…?” he asked warily.
“Well, it seems to me that you could use some external information related to BIT repair and BIT alteration. Fixing my BIT would give you a lot of that kind of information. You could ask Knick-Knack about my BIT, just to get a feeling for how unusual it is.”
He sneered condescendingly, “And even assuming that you’re correct, when you have no background in biology or meta-biology, what makes you think that I could trust a Goodkind to live up to her end of the bargain?”
I was expecting this kind of behavior, so I didn’t react. But it struck me as almost laughable that he was worried about having to trust me, when all I could do would be to hassle him while he worked, or complain loudly afterward. He might accidentally turn me into a one hundred pound slug. The most I could do after that would be to get some slime on his shoes.
I suggested, “I think the optimal approach would be an intricately structured contract that would protect both of us, and would spell out precisely the clauses to which we would both adhere.”
“Oh, naturally, the Goodkind approach.” He said it in the same tone of voice most people would say ‘the Nazi approach’. He asked, “And who would prepare a contract like that? Your personal lawyers? Who might insert anything into a sub-clause or an addendum?”
I didn’t complain about his attitude, which would have been counter-productive, as well as pointless considering that I was dealing with Jobe. I said, “No, I was thinking a joint team, comprised of people you would trust and people I would trust. I’m thinking Nephandus, She-Beast, Diamondback, and Zenith.”
He paused for a second. “You know, that’s considerably more reasonable than I expected from someone like you. Two barely competent people I would agree to, and three people you might even trust to support you.”
I disagreed slightly, “I think we can both count on Jadis to put in an effort to make this fair for both of us.”
He pointed out, “But Diamondback and Zenith will definitely not make any effort to support me.” Well, that went without saying. No one except for a handful of Bad Seeds was likely to make any effort to support him, whether he fully realized it or not. I was fairly sure that most of Twain wouldn’t support him unless they absolutely had to.
I casually asked, “Is there a fifth person you would want for this little group?” I suspected that he wasn’t on good terms with some of the Bad Seeds, and that he wouldn’t be looking any farther afield than that. I wasn’t going to agree to Damien Faust, but I had a couple other Bad Seeds with whom I would be satisfied if Jobe suggested them.
He thought for several seconds and finally said, “At this juncture, I doubt that I could be certain that Thuban would be working in my best interests, and not those of his little girlfriend. Damien has already come down with a bad case of Senioritis. I’ll ask Silver Serpent if she would be willing to be our fifth.”
I kept my face impassive and said, “Silver Serpent? The daughter of the Iron Dragon? Hmmm… Okay, I’ll agree to that, if she will.” Given what I knew about Silver Serpent, I was fairly sure I could work with her as our fifth arbitrator. And it was entirely possible that she would be far more congenial to me than to Jobe.
He asked, “How long are you prepared to let this negotiation process take?”
Well, I had figured he would ask something along these lines, sooner or later. It wasn’t as if I were dealing with the Flying Bulldozer. I told him, “As long as both of us need. If you need a week before you’re satisfied with the contract, then we take a week. If you need a year, then we take a year. There’s no point in rushing into a contract that doesn’t do what we both need. When we’re both happy with the contract in toto, then we’re done with contract negotiations.”
He nodded, “That’s a far more intelligent attitude than I expected from you, Phase.”
Man, he sure knew how to win friends and influence people. Not that I was going to say so, until long after our joint project was satisfactorily concluded, if then. One thing that I knew, which Jobe had apparently never learned, is that offending the person on the other side of the negotiating table was never a good idea if you needed his good will in order to complete the project. I merely said, “Then let’s start contacting our potential negotiators, and see if we can get them to take our contract. If any of them want pay for this, I suggest a flat fee, and I’ll cover it.”
He shook his head. “Oh no! We’ll each cover half of any fees.”
“Of course,” I agreed. I should have known that he would be jumpy about anything that might appear to give me an advantage in the contract negotiations. And it was rude – not to mention stupid – of me to think that I needed to cover the expenses of the Crown Prince of Karedonia.
Jobe said, “I’ll talk to Pretty Evil Boy and Silver Serpent.”
Mal grinned, “I’ll go tell Jadis you two want to lure her into a horrific contract war, so she can go hide for several weeks.”
I replied, “If it looks like it’s a contract war, then we’ll just drop it. The whole point is to maintain friendly negotiations and work through the process so that everyone’s happy with the results.” I turned to Jobe and said, “Clearly, that leaves Zenith and Diamondback for me to contact. Let’s see how the process looks after we talk to our five negotiators.”
He gave me a regal nod and walked off. Mal gave me a subtle thumbs-up for my negotiation skills, and probably for not punching Jobe in the mouth.
As they walked off, I distinctly heard Render ask, “Are you SURE she’s not a supervillain?”
Winter airily said, “She is a Goodkind, remember?”
I sighed to myself. As Jadis had pointed out more than once, having the name Goodkind at Whateley was akin to having the last name Hitler while attending the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Once the Bads were all gone, the buttons on my blazer buzzed oddly, “Gee, that was easier than I figured. I thought you were s’posed to have like a war, ‘cause they’re the bad guys.”
I patted my blazer and said, “You can go give Jade the low-down and tell her I’m on my way back to Poe.” The blazer relaxed, and I assumed Jann was gone. On the other hand, I was assuming Nikki’s protective charm was still active, because I could still feel an odd almost-tingling sensation where she had touched me.
<(Phase) Everything’s A-okay. No horrific attacks by Bad Seeds. No building-destroying battles. Just a chat. And I sent the J-Team back too. See you in a couple.>
<(Lancer) Copy that. We’ll still take precautions until you’re back in Poe.>
<(Fey) Like my spell.>
Given the person with whom I was negotiating, it was nice that the team was worried about me. But it was annoying, too. It wasn’t as if they were wiping my nose and making sure I was wearing clean underwear before I went out, but it was still in the “we’ll just look out for you” category. I wondered if they thought I was like that to most of them.
Okay, I probably was like that a lot of the time. I was working on it. Really!
I flew over to Poe at a more reasonable speed than I had with Jann, and so I was able to curve in a gentle arc to line up my approach. I flew through the outer wall and right into our hallway. Then I went normal and trotted to a halt. I couldn’t help grinning. I actually managed to end up within twenty feet of my room. Man, flying was definitely one of the cool powers… when you could make it work.
By the time I got into my room, the whole gang was lounging about and sharing a couple bags of the microwave popcorn. I still thought it was orders of magnitude worse than real popcorn with real butter, but it was always a big hit with everyone else.
“Hey Ayles! Ya know, this ‘extra butter flavor’ popcorn is da bomb,” Toni said from her hammock.
“I’m glad you like it,” I said truthfully. I didn’t need anything else to eat after dinner, but half my team seemed to have the appetite of a great white shark. Granted, that was fairly normal for growing teenagers, but some of my teammates took the concept to new depths.
From behind a mouthful of popcorn, Billie said, “Umm, I think we ate your last three bags of corn. Sorry.”
I waved aside her concern. “No prob. I bought a case of the stuff. I can get some more right now, if you’re still hungry.”
Billie shook her head. “Oh no, I’m fine.” Her stomach rumbled in blatant disagreement. She looked down at her stomach as if she couldn’t believe it would lie like that.
Jade piped up from her blanket, where she was floating a couple feet from Billie. “Just tell me where it is, and we’ll go fetch it.”
I had a pretty good idea what she meant by that, but I still said, “I think it’s still in Jody’s room, but it could be down in the storage room by now.”
She nodded and said, “Gotcha.” She moved her arm, and Billie’s cabbit leapt out of the blanket. It flew over to the door, wrestled with the doorknob for a second, and hurtled headlong down the hall.
“You brought the cabbit along?” wondered Toni suspiciously. “What else you got in your blankie?”
Jade admitted, “Pretty much everything that isn’t inside Jinn.”
Jinn said from her beanbag chair, “I’ve got the metal box, and the chains and knives, and Shielder and Spinner.”
Only the J-Team would haul around a ‘devise’ that didn’t really work. Oh wait, I still had that used psi grenade in my utility belt. So only crazy people like Jade and me would do such a thing.
Jade grinned, “I’ve got Kitty Compact and the other stuff with me.”
Nikki gently pointed out, “You do know you’re not going to get attacked inside Ayla’s room, right?”
Jade pouted, “Hey, it could happen. Stranger things have happened to us.”
“I can’t argue with that,” I admitted.
Toni grinned, “When do weird things not happen to us?”
“Bedtime?” Jade tried.
“Sun Wu Kong,” Chou muttered miserably.
“Showers!” tried Hank.
“Ayla,” teased Toni.
“Water blasts in the balls,” I pointed out.
“Man,” Billie groaned. “There must be some time when weird stuff isn’t happening to us.”
“Tell that to my holiday planner,” complained Nikki. My mom’s still upset about the Syndicate hardsite thing, and boy, when she told my dad, he blew a gasket. And it’s not like it was my fault! We were just defending ourselves!”
Most of the room groaned at that. “Yeah. Don’t remind me about Christmas break,” I frowned.
“Me either,” Billie muttered.
“Or me especially!” frowned Jade. “I got in trouble in two different cities! And I had to make all new stuff for the cabbit. They made such a big deal about it, just ‘cause it was all radioactive and stuff…”
“Okay,” Hank admitted, “Maybe Jade has a point.”
I checked, “Is there anyone here who doesn’t have a weapon or two on him? Or her? Right now?”
We waited a few seconds, but Billie was the only one who raised a hand.
Jade finally said, “But she has us, and we’re armed.”
“How true,” Nikki chimed in.
I added, “You know Billie, you really ought to get your own utility belt with weapons. Then you’d at least have some non-lethal responses on hand.”
“Well, you know, they’re not cheap,” she fussed. “Somebody made ‘em super-expensive, and mom’s trying to make up for Christmas, but she’s not gonna give me fifteen thousand bucks for a belt. Even the CIA doesn’t do deviser utility belts that hold an arsenal.”
I shrugged. “How about I get one for everybody? Think of them as early Christmas presents.”
“No way, Jose!”
“Ayla, you can’t just throw money at everything!”
“Just say no.”
Chou just said, “No thank you, I am quite happy with my bag.”
I held up my hands in surrender. “Hey, I don’t want to push anyone into anything crazy, like, say, being properly prepared for something major…”
Toni and Nikki laughed out loud at that. Hank rolled his eyes. He wasn’t in a laughing mood.
I asked, “Hey Hank, what’s the matter?”
Toni said, “I already asked. His Ki’s all over the place.”
Nikki added, “And he’s been grumpy since before we met to go to dinner.”
Hank frowned, “I had a little talk with Mule, and he kind of rubbed my nose in how bad I screwed up in the sim. The fact is, I’m supposed to be the Strat officer. I’m supposed to make the right calls. When no one spotted any traps, I guessed the time limit was the trick, and I threw Tennyo at it. I didn’t even think about massed Red Team forces.”
“Neither did anyone else,” I pointed out. “We were all still thinking about supervillain pursuit and stuff, and we were completely unprepared for anything else. And it wasn’t anything like what they’ve lectured on yet.”
He glared at me, “But I’m the one who’s supposed to be thinking about this stuff. And I got half the team killed, and the other half shot up. I split up the team, when we know Bardue’s always on us not to do it.”
“And Caitlin,” Billie added.
He nodded. “I should’ve had Fey doing protective barriers from the first second.”
Fey said, “I should’ve done it without being told.”
“Me too,” Billie contributed. “I didn’t even think about putting up a Warp field until they already blasted me to pieces.”
I said, “And I should have gotten a couple PFGs for the team already.”
Jade asked, “Does anybody around here even have a PFG that’ll stand up to a super-high-end sniper rifle that can take out Lancer?”
I shrugged. “Possibly not, but I can always buy from outside the campus.”
Toni pointed a finger at me. “But no Gizmatic stuff! I don’t trust Jobe, and I don’t trust his old man.”
Hank said, “But I didn’t scout the area. We needed intel, and we knew it.”
Nikki raised a hand. “That’s my job. I let you down on that.”
“And my job too,” said Jade. I was with Billie, and we flew over the whole area, and I didn’t spot anything. It’s my fault you thought it was safe.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jinn.
I pointed out, “We didn’t have the time to do any decent scouting. We didn’t have five minutes for Fey to mystically create a map of the enemy defenses, even assuming she could do a spell that would cover six miles of rough terrain.”
Nikki admitted, “I don’t know if I can. Aunghadhail says we could, under the right conditions, scry and see a lot farther than that, but not in a matter of seconds. And it takes preparation.”
Billie said, “See? It’s not all like it’s your fault.”
Hank shook his head no. “Well, here’s something nobody but me screwed up. When we got ambushed and I saw Chou and Jade, I should’ve realized we were in a killzone and done the right thing.”
I muttered, “When Bardue went over that last week, there was nothing like this.”
Hank went on, “A KZ like that? I should’ve tried to punch right through to the treeline. You heard what Bardue said last week. Standard ground-based rule on ambushes is to break the kill zone by charging the place they’re firing from, unless you can break the KZ by going 3-D.”
I pointed out, “But you did break the kill zone. You got to a blind spot and then retreated where they couldn’t see you. And since they had those artillery guns, if you charged the ambushers the artillery guns would have destroyed you. You know they had to be expecting you to go for the treeline, and they undoubtedly had that area all sighted in with their guns.”
Hank muttered, “That blind spot could’ve been a huge trap.”
Jade said, “And crashing into those guys at the trees could’ve been a huger trap!”
Chou said, “I would also like to point out that you got shot. And you had two dead girls in your arms.”
“Almost dead!” insisted Jade.
Chou went on, “The first time I was confronted with something that horrible, I too froze. It is natural. You are not an emotionless machine. You are not a trained soldier. I thought you did very well, once the snipers started shooting us.”
Jade quietly said, “You saved me. And you sent Ayla to Billie and nearly saved Billie too.”
Billie complained, “And I wouldn’t have needed saving if I hadn’t frozen for a second there. If I’d gotten my warp field up, or just blasted everything they threw at me, or both, or cut through the trees instead so I was too low to track…”
I said, “I think our Red Team had to have an AWACS plane or a geosynchronous defense satellite overhead to track all of us and coordinate attacks, so cutting through the trees might not have done any good.”
Nikki said, “Then a good illusion spell might have taken care of that. But how were we supposed to know about satellite defenses?”
I said, “We have to know something before we get thrown into a sitch like that. If we knew they had AWACS or a geosynch’ed satellite or overhead dropships or whatever, we might have had a better idea what to do.”
Nikki patted her lower lip with one fingertip. “Hmm… Illusions to trick satellite tracking…”
Toni asked, “Why don’t we just ask Bunny for something ta jam the secret missile launching codes, and be done?”
I sighed softly, “Because they won’t let us take it into the sim with us. It’s not ‘official holdouts and systems routinely carried’. And it would have to be powerful enough to knock out a completely unknown comm system – which might be subspace comms or a line-of-sight laser or anything, we just don’t know – from miles away.”
Hank said, “Let’s check with Bunny anyway. She may have some ideas we overlooked. And let’s think about several ways we could tackle this sim. I want to do it again, only I’d like to win with minimal casualties on our side.”
Billie muttered, “Well, I’d like to know how those stupid missiles tracked me like that. I threw a couple plasma balls, and the missiles didn’t track ‘em, so they weren’t heat-seeking.”
Toni pointed out, “And it’s not like they were tracking you by all the metal you’re made of.”
Jade wondered, “Yeah, and how did they know to blow up when they missed you?”
I grumbled, “And how did that missile know to bypass me and fireball me when I was light?”
Toni asked, “Ya think they cheated? They could’ve programmed the things to blow up when they were as close as they could get.”
Hank shook his head. He said, “I doubt they cheated. That doesn’t strike me as a Bardue kind of approach. I think they just did something legitimate but sneaky.”
Nikki growled, “You mean like those snipers?”
I told Hank, “Look, we all messed up. Well, except Chou.”
Chou immediately said, “But the only reason I didn’t mess up is I did not get a chance to. I was already killed.”
Hank fumed, “Well, I should’ve done better!”
Billie pointed out, “You’re not superhuman, you know. Other than the flying brick and Exemplar stuff. You’ve got to learn how to do all this stuff before you can pull it out at a second’s notice.”
Toni smirked, “Does Lily know you’re pulling it out at a second’s notice?”
While several people giggled, Hank casually gave her the finger.
I interrupted the byplay, “Look, if someone around here has beaten that sim, it was probably the Grunts or the Wild Pack.”
Jade agreed, “Ooh yeah, the Betas!”
Billie thought out loud, “Stonebear can teleport, and Stormwolf’s as fast as a speedster, and they’ve got Mindbird for a PDP, and Thunderfox for a gadgeteer. They would rock in that sim.”
I said, “So I could probably ask a couple people, and find out what else the Red Team forces get to throw our way.”
Billie said, “Yeah, and find out if we can blow up the whole castle and win, or if that’ll set off the missile launches.”
Hank groaned, “Good point. They can make this a lot harder, y’know.”
I said, “They can make it arbitrarily hard. They can make it too hard for the entire Empire City Guard. But I don’t think they will. I think they’re trying to teach us lessons related to the class.”
Nikki snorted at that. “Well, that would make sense.”
Toni asked, “SO… how does this hook up with the attack plans you wanted to talk about? Y’know, this morning, when you shushed us up on the way to us getting’ our asses kicked in the sim?”
Hank floated off his beanbag chair and said, “Yeah. That. We need some code words for our battle tactics. Just ‘fastball special’ isn’t enough. I figure we’ve had enough fights already that we can use our old battles as our secret attack names. If I say ‘first sim’, then everyone knows we need to switch off on our opponents. If I say ‘breakfast’, everyone knows we need to protect our breakable teammates first. If I say ‘Halloween’-”
“We all know to run for the hills,” snarked Toni.
Hank rolled his eyes. “Y’know, I figured Ayla would be the first one to say something like that… Anyway, ‘Halloween’ means support our tanks. Billie or me. Maybe Ayla too. She’s gotten into trouble and needed help.”
“Oh yeah,” I groaned. “Repeatedly. Other than the second trip to Boston, I’ve needed help in pretty much every one of our fights.”
“You so didn’t need help against the Alphas,” Nikki insisted. “You protected me from Skybolt until I was ready to fight back, and then you pounded the crap out of Kodiak.”
Hank nodded. “Okay. So ‘Boston 1’ means we’re up against more firepower than we thought, and we need to support each other a lot more, maybe re-group or retreat to holding positions. ‘Boston 2’ means hot pursuit, with Billie and a passenger on lead.”
“What about ‘Boston 3’?” asked Chou.
“Oh God,” I muttered. “I’m still hoping this time’s going to be a nice, quiet luncheon. Lots of fun, and no fights.”
Hank said darkly, “We’ll assess ‘Boston 3’ after Saturday.”
Jade piped up, “What about combat finals, and NORAD, and Kansas City, and all the other stuff?”
Hank nodded, as if he were hoping someone would ask that. “Thanks for getting us back on target. ‘Sara sacrifice’ is gonna mean we need to focus on blocking the enemy’s key objective, regardless of everything else going on. ‘Finals’ means we need to split up and tackle objectives individually.”
Fey interrupted, “Can we call that one the anti-Caitlin?” About half the room laughed.
Hank grinned, “Okay. That’s the ‘anti-Caitlin’.”
I scowled, “Given that they threw most of us into the Crash, and they’re likely to do it next term too, if not regularly, I think ‘finals’ ought to mean we need to look for surprise opponents.”
Toni sat up in her hammock. “And ‘Crucible’ can mean we have to watch out for lots of traps!”
“Good idea,” Hank agreed.
Nikki scowled, “I want ‘Kansas City’ to mean we need to go in and rescue teammates.”
You know, there are really not many people who can make a scowl look sexy. Nikki sure managed it.
Jade said, “Yeah! That’s good. And ‘NORAD’ can mean we need to go in and rescue someone who isn’t on the team but they’re a hostage someone’s trying to use against us. Like Billie’s folks.”
I added, “Beauty pageant. That means we’re up against someone or some thing that’s way out of our league. It would have been really nice if I could have called on the Spots and summoned you guys. I really didn’t think the West Coast League had what I needed.”
Hank pointed out, “The Spots don’t broadcast that far, anyway. Bunny thinks she’ll need to build some repeaters or a satellite boost before we get more than five or ten miles out of them.”
Bladedancer said, “And since we usually are only a few hundred yards apart at most, that is not really an issue for us. Yet. Once we leave Whateley, we may need an international subspace network.”
I glanced over at Billie and added, “Maybe even an inter-galactic one.”
“Yeah!” cheered Jade. “We’re gonna be space pirates!”
“Ja-ade!” groaned Billie.
Jade went on, “And we’ll call Akira all the way from Neptune and go ‘neener neener neener’!”
Jade kept going, “Or maybe we’ll fly our spaceship right over his house and go pthpthpthpth!” She blew a raspberry and thumbed her nose at an imaginary Akira.
“The FAA and the Air Force will love that,” I murmured.
“This is Foxtrot Niner Niner,” growled Nikki into her hand in an attempt to get a sound like a pilot in a jet fighter. “Kkkkkkhh. We have found our UFO. It appears to be Ryoko flying a giant cabbit spaceship. Kkkkkkkh. Please advise.”
Toni helped out, “Foxtrot Niner Niner, this is Alpha Dawg. We advise you to stop drinking the jet fuel.”
I asked, “Don’t you think Akira is loony enough without you two making him think he really can leave Earth and go be Gao Gai Gar?”
Toni said, “And speaking of loony, I wanna talk about the real stuff. Ayles, just one little question. Are you outta your mind? You don’t go askin’ Jobe to mess around in your DNA! That’s crazy stuff! That’s crazier than… than Jade takin’ scalpels to herself when she didn’t stay all girl!”
Said scalpel-girl complained, “Hey! I was upset!”
I nodded, “Yeah, I know, going to Jobe is Desperation City. But I need to give it a try. And I believe I can put together a contract that will protect me, while keeping him happy. If I can just get in some clauses saying that if anything that goes wrong, he has to try the serum on himself, then I think I can feel safe enough to risk it. And believe me, if I don’t feel safe about it, there’s no way I’m going to let him inject bio-deviser craziness into me.”
Hank glared, “Do you really think you can get a contract put together that’ll make you and Jobe happy?”
I shrugged, “If our negotiators can’t, then we just don’t move forward. It’s as simple as that.”
Toni asked, “And who’re these genius negotiators you’ve got to come up with a contract like that?”
I smiled slightly. “Zenith and Diamondback for me…”
“Ooh, good call,” said Nikki. “Sandra’s really brilliant. A lot smarter than you’d think.”
Billie chimed in, “And Zenith can win at anything. If she can beat Hartford at her own game, she can take Jobe’s negotiators easy.”
Chou asked, “And who does Jobe have?”
I replied, “Nephandus and Silver Serpent and Jadis.”
Hank checked, “Jadis? Your old buddy you go and chat with for hours? Who sits as far away from Jobe as she can at the Bad Seeds table? And Jobe thinks she’s gonna work on his side?”
I admitted, “She’s known Jobe a lot more years than she’s known me. And things would probably get pretty sticky at home if she shafted Jobe. Among other things, I get the feeling Dr. Diabolik has a timeshare in Karedonia.”
“A supervillain timeshare? Oh Goddess, now I’ve heard everything!” Nikki groaned.
Chou wondered, “Silver Serpent?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I figure that after your little chat with her about her dad-”
“Whoa! What about a chat and her dad? I didn’t get this one,” said Billie.
I looked her way. “Silver Serpent is the first known mutant child of the Iron Dragon.” Hank whistled in surprise. “Chou had to go do Handmaid stuff and tell Silver Serpent to give a threatening message to daddy. I figure Laurel’s not going to do anything that might piss off the Handmaid, like, say, screw over her good old buddy and roommate Ayla. So I think Jobe’s not exactly protected on that front, either.”
“But he still has Nephandus,” muttered Jade.
“Isn’t he supposed to be an idiot?” checked Toni.
Chou managed to suppress a smirk. “There was that incident with Caitlin. He ended up duct-taped head-down in a toilet.”
I completely failed to suppress my smirk. “And a few other highly publicized failures where he completely overreached himself. The attempt on Seraphim’s power. That thing last term with the magical orbs. But he’s pulled a couple other things off and gotten away with them, so he’s not a complete loser. And he’s got major Bad Seed cred. His mother is the Troll Bride.”
“Holy crap on a popsicle stick!” gasped Jade.
I added, “And his dad is Hexmaster. Maybe he’s not Cataclysm, but he’s not a patsy either. He’s supposed to be really, really good at contracts, particularly demonic contracts, which was why Jobe was happy to have him included in the list. But he’s also in my corner. He doesn’t like the Spy Kidz, and he really enjoyed watching me make them look bad last fall. He also doesn’t like the Good Ol’ Boyz. Or Belphegor. So he’s been rooting for me in several situations. I think that means I have a negotiation team of two people exclusively working for me, two people trying to do a fair job for both of us, and one person who isn’t interested in messing me up. That means that Jobe is at a serious disadvantage before the contract negotiations even start.”
Hank asked, “But will he stick to the contract if he signs off on it?”
“Oh yeah,” I nodded. “He’s smug and egotistical and eminently punchable, but he adheres to the letter of the agreement. You just have to make sure it’s the agreement you want. Or rather, an agreement we both want. That way, I have a reasonable chance of making this a win-win situation.”
“And what’s he gonna get out of it?” Jade wondered.
I grinned ferally. “Heard any rumors about Jobe lately? Any really weird, extremely freaky rumors?”
Nikki said, “Well, everyone knows he wants test subjects for his drow serum.”
Toni said, “And there’s this weird rumor from some guys I know that he shot himself up with the serum and he’s turning into a drow chick himself.”
Billie said, “I heard that. Someone said Jobe must wanna be a girl real bad to do that.”
I said, “He doesn’t want to be a girl. He’s not transgendered in any way, shape, or form. And he did get stabbed with the serum, and he is changing into a drow girl.”
Nikki fumed, “It’s a disgrace. It’s an abomination, is what it is!”
“How do you know all this, Mister Wizard?” snarked Toni.
I explained, “First, if Jobe was the slightest bit TG in any way, what would he have done when he enrolled?”
“Ooh, right,” said Jade. “He would’ve checked the boxes on the form!”
I nodded. “There’s no way someone with his level of self-absorption would be concerned about anyone else’s opinion. If he was TG, he’d be here. In Poe. With us.”
I added, “And, as the odd one out on our first day, I would have ended up rooming with him. So I’m just incredibly glad he isn’t TG.”
I went on, “But he did get injected. Somehow. This part I don’t know. I don’t see a lab accident. His lab is so immaculate and structured that the CDC could take lessons from him. And I don’t see a deliberate assault. He’d seek a really horrific revenge, and we don’t have any victims from that lying around campus screaming for help. But something happened. My contacts have heard plenty. And Jobe confirmed it when I talked to him this evening.”
“Oh! Right!” squeaked Jade. “He totally freaked out when you mentioned ‘his problem’. I could see it. He was scared and worried and panicked and really curious, I guess about how much you knew. And angry too. So I guess maybe he really doesn’t like turning into a drow girl.”
“Exactly, Holmes,” I told her with a grin. “So I’m offering this as a chance for him to learn more about transforming BITs and dealing with Exemplar regen syndromes. I think he’ll jump at it as soon as he thinks he’s safe from the problems I would cause.”
“Okay, that’s the part I don’t get,” said Billie. “He can turn you into Phobos and Deimos, or worse. You can… what? Hit him with a lawsuit?”
“I’m a Goodkind. An evil, mutant-hating, untrustworthy Goodkind. He trusts the other Bad Seeds more than he trusts me. So, whatever he’s worried about me doing to him, we cover it with the contract until he feels protected. And then we adhere to the contract.”
Toni spoke up. “About that whole ‘evil mutant-hating untrustworthy Goodkind’ bit. There was somethin’ about that in that whole weirdo prophecy thing from Damballah.”
Nikki groaned, “To-ni! We went over that whole thing like four times already. Like I told you, we don’t have enough information to puzzle it out! Precognitive statements are just like that. They see something. Maybe something that makes no sense to them. Then they try to tell it to you, when they’re not really able to interpret it to start with, much less explain it to someone else. So it comes out sounding like nonsense.”
Toni replied, “Yeah, but we got the Goodkind right here, right now. Plus everybody else. So maybe we can make sense out of it if we all look at it.”
Nikki groaned, “Oh, all right.”
Toni seized the moment and dashed out of the room. Nikki said, “She already wrote it all out, so she’ll be r-”
“They’re ba-ack!” Toni called out in a high-pitched, girlish voice. “Got it right here.” She brandished a piece of legal paper.
Jade eagerly said, “This oughta be good!”
Toni tried her best dramatic voice, while Nikki rolled her eyes:
When it was obvious she had finished, I stood up and applauded. “Brava! Brava!” I turned to Hank, “hey, do we have any flowers we can throw onto the stage?”
“Thank you so much, my pathetic but loyal fandom,” said Toni with a sweep of her arms.
Hank said, “Hey, at least no one’s throwing tomatoes.”
Jade spoke up, “Hey, can I read that? I can’t remember everything you said, you know.”
“Me too,” said Billie as she flew to where she could look over Toni’s shoulder at the paper.
Toni put the sheet down on my desk, so everyone could cluster around it. Hank, Jade, and Billie floated high above it, while Jinn stayed put. The rest of us stood around the desk and stared.
“Well, Nik and I figured out the first line already,” Toni pointed out.
Jade asked, “Does that mean it’s supposed to be Ayla, or does it mean it can’t be Ayla?”
Toni muttered, “See? You can’t get a straight answer from ‘em on anything. What is it with these precogs and their freaky prophecies anyway?”
Nikki said, “It means we’ve got a ‘false friend’ somewhere. Or we will have one some time in the future. As for the ‘neither good nor kind’ part, it could be anything.”
I really frowned. “It could refer to me. It could be one of my relatives. It could be someone who’s only pretending to be a Goodkind. It could be an in-law, since they wouldn’t really be a Goodkind. Or it could be someone who’s trying to make it look like it’s me or another Goodkind.”
Nikki insisted, “Like I said. We have to watch for a false friend. Anything else? Take a wild guess.”
Toni said, “We know it’s not Ayles. For one thing, she sucks at the whole Psi-protection thing, so we know what she’s up to.” I glared at her. “Okay, you’ve gotten a lot better since September. But you still don’t do squat to mask your Ki.”
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically.
She looked me up and down. “No point in getting’ all upset and pissed off just because you’re doin’ the exact same thing as everybody else. Just ‘cause your Ki’s kinda weird doesn’t mean I can’t read it. I mean, if I can read Nikki’s Ki – when she’s not doin’ that anti-snooping spell – and sensei Ito’s Ki, you can’t be takin’ it personally.”
“Who can’t you read?” Hank wondered.
“Well, the Foob,” Toni admitted. “No Ki there at all. Same for Jinn. Chou, when she’s concentrating. A couple of the Tigers and Dragons. N’Dizi’s a pain in the ass, but he’s got the whole Ki thing locked down tight. Zhong Lau too, but maybe it’s that dragon spirit. A couple of the Avatars, and some of the other Wizards ‘sides Fey. Some of the Manifesters when they got their shell up. Carson, when she goes all Lady Astarte on us.”
Hank said, “Well, if there’s someone you ought to be able to read, and you can’t let us know. Okay? Just in case.”
Nikki said, “All done with line one? Because we’ve got twelve lines total, and this is the easy one. I looked up lamb’s blood, and it isn’t used in any sort of chain spell or binding ritual.”
Billie said, “Maybe it’s talking about Ayla’s chefs. They’ve cooked lamb for her before.”
I said, “More likely that it’s referring to the classical meanings of the word. Sacrificial lamb, or the Lamb of God, the innocent lamb.”
Toni shook her head, “Doubt it. Damballah’s Cold Brutha thing doesn’t strike me as the ‘classical lit’ kind of guy.”
“Anything else?” Hank checked.
Toni muttered, “If Damballah was white, I woulda figured the ‘Zulu warriors’ bit was a shot at the black girl. But I got nothing.”
I said, “As far as I know, we don’t have any African students from the Zulu tribes or anything related.”
Chou asked, “Do you think ‘double terror’ could be Phobos and Deimos?”
“So what does that mean?” Toni wondered. “Once Ayla gets herself Jobed and she turns into another Fury Twin, they’ll be triplets and they’ll all be magically happy?”
Nikki said, “Maybe they have a younger brother or sister who’s gonna manifest in a year or two, and come to Whateley, and her powers’ll interact with the Fury Twins in a good way, and fix things.” She looked at the skepticism in the room and added, “Or not.”
“You see?” Toni complained. “Stupid prophecies. You can make ‘em sound like anything.”
Jade said, “I wanna know about the burning hind. Is that like Miasma?”
I sighed, “Hind. Not ‘hind end’ or ‘hiney’. A hind is like a deer.”
She pouted, “Well, a deer on fire sounds really nasty.”
I pointed out, “It’s probably not a real deer really on fire. It’s metaphorical.”
“It still sounds nasty,” she said.
We made increasingly wild guesses about the various parts of the prophecy. Nikki felt that since the prophecy had been made to Chaka that most of it had to center around her, not Team Kimba. Which meant that even the ‘neither good nor kind’ line might not be about me. And we wouldn’t know until we had a lot more information, at which point it would probably be too late to use large parts of the prophecy for anything other than a collective groan.
Jade asked, “Well, could any of it be about the Team Tactics sims we had this week, since Toni got shot in one and played badguy in one, and got stung by bees and poisoned in another, and all that stuff?”
Nikki thought it over and said, “I… don’t think so. The thing about prophecies like this is they usually become clear once the event plays out. And then all you can do is slap your forehead and groan.”
“And say ‘wow, I coulda had a V-8!’” grinned Toni.
Chou muttered, “I would feel better about the holographic sims if I could ever get in touch with the Tao. I ought to be able to tell what is the right thing to do, but I cannot find my way inside the sims.”
Billie wondered, “Well, since it’s a simulation, and you can’t really get hurt or make a difference in the real world, wouldn’t the Tao just kind of ignore things?”
Chou shrugged. “Most likely. That is what Rebecca suggested. But it is still… uncomfortable.”
Toni grinned at me, “So, Ayles, when you gonna buy Hartford out and start marketing that holographic sim thing all over the country? You could make a mint off it. I mean, another mint.”
I shook my head no. “First off, a lot of it is magical and devises. Not reproducible at all. Second, it requires a phenomenal amount of computing power and bandwidth, so it’s not easy to replicate the gadgets side of it. And third, it takes some really highly-trained, highly skilled programmers and gadgeteers to make it work and keep it running.”
Toni just stared at me. So did Billie and Chou.
Nikki gasped, “Oh my Goddesses! You have looked into buying it and selling it!”
I shrugged. “Well, I considered it. It has a lot of potential applications, but none of them are worth the cost yet. The ‘killer app’ so far is these combat sims, and the United States Department of Defense already has its own simulators and combat simulation concepts.”
Toni said, “What about a sim where baselines got to ‘be’ mutants for a day and find out what it’s really like?”
Nikki said, “I don’t see that changing anyone’s mind.”
Hank said, “The people who hate mutants wouldn’t try it anyway.”
Billie said, “A simulated space walk. That would be so cool!”
Chou said, “Or simulating being able to swim through the ocean and explore an underwater world.”
Jade asked, “Hey Ayla, what’s the big simulation kind of thing people use on the internet?”
“Porn,” I admitted. “Simulated women for really lonely dorks.”
“Sim porn? That’s be gross!” complained Toni.
Hank said, “And obvious. So tell me. How long before some dork deviser hijacks the scan details on the hottest babes at Whateley, and builds his own VR app, which, naturally, is going to be a sex sim?”
I smirked, “And, of course, the hottest girls at Whateley means the women in this very room.” I looked around and reluctantly added, “Except for you, Jade. Nothing personal, but you’re not one of the twenty hottest women on campus.”
Jade smiled, “Oh, I know that. As long as you have Billie on your list…”
Billie frowned, “Hey! I don’t wanna be on a list like that!”
Chou scowled, “Neither do I.”
Chaka helpfully pointed out, “Oh come on, you two are both smokin’ hot! You just know you’d be on the list if some pimply geek puts together his own private Twilight Bone.”
Nikki smirked, “And that list has to include you too, Ayla. Whether you want to admit it or not. I can see it now. In that sim, there’s you, in this teeny-weeny babydoll that’s almost see-through, and you’re wiggling toward our voyeur, and you’re saying in a really-bad-acting voice, ‘oh look, somehow I have become fully female… now if only some big strong man would make me fully a woman…’ Oh, stop making that face, you know it would be that tacky.”
While several people got over the giggles, I admitted, “Yeah, it would. If anyone could do it. But I’ve been checking on the sim security ever since… you know. Two Saturdays ago.” Billie winced. “It used to be feasible, but not anymore. The word in Security is some deviser geeks did pull this off a couple years ago when the tech-heads were working on the final code for the current system. Hartford was the head programmer and code depository Nazi, and she spotted the theft. She tracked those guys down through every computer on campus, found their stuff, and jacked with their code. The next time they hooked themselves in, they started screaming and couldn’t get back out of their porn sim. Their dormmates rushed in and yanked them off the computer. They kept screaming. Insanely. They got hauled off to the clinic. They screamed for two solid days. Then they were gibbering wrecks for a couple weeks. My sources tell me those guys have graduated, but now they spend all their spare time watching Animal Planet and hooting at the female gorillas.”
“You made that up.”
Toni asked, “Is that the deviser equivalent of the campfire story about the guy with a hook for a hand?”
I shrugged, “Maybe. But the guy who told me about it believes it. I’m pretty sure of that. This is supposed to be one of the reasons the Security guys fear Hartford like she’s something out of a Stephen King novel.”
Billie said, “That’s it! She’s Pennywise. I knew there was something extra-creepy about her.”
Hank said, “Nah, she’s more like that badguy in ‘Storm of the Century’.”
“Or Randall Flagg,” Nikki added helpfully.
I suddenly had a mental image of Hartford as Annie Wilkes in ‘Misery’, looming over that poor kid Paige who was supposed to have Hartford as a mentor this year, and pounding on her arms with a sledgehammer while shouting, “The cockadoodie code has to be smoother than that! You killed my code! YOU KILLED MY CODE!”
Okay, I admit it. I cringed. I didn’t tell anyone about my thought, because I didn’t know who else on the team had nightmares, and there was no way I was going to give Jade a nightmare like that. Frankly, I was just hoping I didn’t have a nightmare like that.
Toni performed a hasty intervention. “Hey, who wants to think about the Wicked Witch of the Keyboard, when they can think about presents!”
I looked around. Nikki was smirking. She knew what this was. Jade was about to burst into giggles. She knew too. Billie looked like she wanted to cringe. I was listing that one as ‘accessory after the fact’. On the other hand, Chou and Hank looked about as clueless as I felt.
Toni held out her hand and crowed, “Ta-dah!”
And a gift-wrapped present flew through my doorway, into the room, to land gracefully on Toni’s outstretched palm. It looked less than an inch thick, and roughly the size of a book. So I was wondering why they were making such a big presentation out of a book. It wasn’t as if this were going to turn out to be a first edition worth millions. I was really wondering what they were up to. Did they find something weird and wacky in one of those creepy bookstores in Dunwich?
I shouldn’t have asked. Toni handed it to me, and I removed the wrapping paper. All right, I used my powers to do it. I ran my finger nail through the transparent tape while I did the light-heavy-light flicker for just my finger, effectively slicing the tape. Then I opened the wrapping paper.
It was a book. A new hardback. The lurid cover was a large picture of a manly, shirtless Texan wrapping his arms around a petite, sexy beauty with big green eyes and short black hair.
And underneath, in an opulent font, was the title: “Ayla’s Story”. Goddamnit! I clenched my jaw and concentrated on remaining calm.
Okay, I clenched my jaw and concentrated on appearing calm.
Jade wiggled excitedly and giggled, “Open it! Open it!”
Toni bubbled, “Yeah, come on and do some dramatic readings.”
Chou groaned, “You must be kidding me.”
Nikki said, “Oh come on, it’ll be fun.”
I put the book on the desk behind me and said, “There is no way I’m doing any kind of readings from this… Heyer-esque horror.”
Of course, I forgot one fundamental issue. I was talking to a mage, a master of Ki, and a girl capable of casting herself into an object. In this case, I didn’t think about the fact that Jade had already cast herself into the book, and might not have let go yet.
Right about the time I heard Hank mutter “Uh-oh”, I realized that the book had sailed off my desk and was opening itself as it landed in Toni’s hands.
Nikki grinned, “It’s a ‘personalized’ romance novel. Anybody can order one! You just go online, and you fill in all the details about you, and your appearance, and what you like, and your dream guy, and your fantasy encounter… and you get a book back with your romance fantasy in it.”
Jade chipped in, “Yeah! Nikki found the ad, and I looked over the website, and we got Toni, and she thought it was great too, and the three of us filled it all in, and we chipped in all the money to buy it for you!” She looked at her roommate and said, “And I got Billie to chip in some when the book came.” Billie didn’t look as happy about the book as The Terrible Trio did.
Eww. And they had done it for me. Or rather, to me. Didn’t they get how much I hated the whole idea? And hadn’t they already seen what a bad sport I was?
Okay, it meant something to me that Jade had coughed up who knew how much of her exceedingly limited funds to buy something for me. But didn’t she realize how much I would hate this idea?
I decided that I needed to keep them from doing any dramatic readings out of the book. I strode forward, planning to pull it out of Toni’s hands, or as a last resort, put my hand through the book and disintegrate most of it. But I walked right into an invisible barrier. I went heavy and slugged the barrier, which flashed into a fern-like fractal pattern in forest green.
I glared at Nikki, who merely said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be fun! Really.”
Toni bounced in her seat as she said, “Ooh! Here’s a good one!”
I winced, but she still went ahead. As if anything were capable of slowing down the H.M.S. Chaka, short of a continental-sized iceberg.
She dropped her voice to a husky tenor. “His strong, chiseled, bronzed, masculine hands touched her soft, ivory, feminine ones in a brief caress, then drifted away as his lean, hard, muscular, powerful, sinewy form made the erotic movements of love only inches away from strong but graceful hips that teased and gently taunted him.”
“Ooh, that sounds naughty!” Jade grinned.
“It sounds like it was written by an AI that just had a new adjective module added in,” I groused. Not that it stopped them.
“Okay, my turn,” said Nikki. The book lifted from Toni’s hands and floated into Nikki’s. She turned a couple pages, while Hank and Chou tried to talk her out of it.
“Oh! Here’s a good one!” she crowed. She read in a sexy purr, “A brilliant, cascading burst of basic, electrical sensation ripped from deep inside her shaking form and spread outward, as a million startlingly bright lights exploded behind her bright green eyes.”
Yes, it was crap. But Nikki reading it like that turned it into the kind of crap that gave guys throbbing erections. Which just added frustration to my disgust and crankiness.
“Can you stop now?” I softly pleaded.
The book flew over to Billie, who said, “Umm, no thanks, I think we oughta stop.”
“Oh come on, where’s the fun in that?” grinned Chaka. “Gimme the book.” It promptly flew over to her, and she skimmed through it looking for a suitably inappropriate passage.
“Okay, here’s one… She had never in her exciting and modern life seen a body so sculptured, so muscled, so strong, so virile, so manly… and when the soft, slik-covered bed creaked beneath his powerful weight and he joined her, she ran her delicate, ivory hands over his chiseled torso in a fevered, perspiring, excited delirium of pure, undiluted delight.”
“God, that’s awful,” I complained. “Even if I had fantasies about guys, I’d still hate the writing style.”
“Ooh, here’s another one! Lemme see… Her gorgeous, green eyes closed in pleasure, she surrendered to the twisting, turning labyrinth of raw emotion, dancing heedlessly… recklessly… on the lapping fringes of a swirling, intoxicating whirlpool… then the heady, heavy waters of powerful passion were swirling seductively below her, urging her to jump.”
Jade whispered to Billie, “Does that mean what I think it means?”
“Wow. This is like porn for girls.”
I complained, “There’s no ‘like’ in there. This is porn for women.”
She cleared her throat and read dramatically, “She matched his powerful, thrusting movements, angling herself to receive each deepening thrust, encouraging him frantically with her small but passionate sighs of pleasure until, with a cry of triumph and one final thrust, he too became shipwrecked on the shore.”
“Can we stop now?” I begged.
Nikki frowned, “Okay, you don’t have to be such a spoilsport, you know. Let me read just one more.” She closed her eyes and waved her left hand over the book in an odd way. The book popped open, pages fluttering to the left until it stopped open at a page late in the book. She looked down and giggled, “Okay, this is the best one.”
She cleared her throat and read, “He was a rich, powerful, Shakespearean sonnet, the very essence of love. He was a fine, heady cognac sipped in a tall easy chair before a warm fire. He was a mighty, threatening peak swathed in the first bright blush of spring green. He was a light, airy cake bathed in rich, creamy custard, a sensuous perfume created just for her.”
Toni snickered, “Shakespeare. Now that sounds like Ayles.”
“You guys…” I groaned through gritted teeth.
When the get-together finally wrapped up and people started leaving, I reminded Toni and Nikki, “You know what they say about payback.”
Toni looked up at the ceiling and disingenuously said, “Oh yeah, it’s something about forgetting whether or not you already got your money back for a daypass, isn’t it?”
Nikki nudged me and grinned, “Oh come on. It was a load of fun. You just need to lighten up.”
“A lot,” Toni added.
Jade looked at me through wide eyes and said, “I thought some of them were really were romantic and exciting.” She paused and grimaced. “But some of ‘em were just really dirty.”
As Hank left, he whispered to me, “Look, you just gotta roll with the punches sometimes, Ayla. I know you hated it, I woulda hated it too, but they had a great time.”
I waited until everyone except Chou was out of the room. Then I turned on the pink noise generator and my other anti-eavesdropping precautions. I called one of the usual dummy drops to get a secure line with Trin and MacIntyre, and then I went through all the usual security protocols.
Once I was through to someone who had access to my files, I said, “It’s time to initiate some protocols. I’d like you to launch Fey A-2, Chaka A-3, and Generator A-1. And I’d like them ready and in place tomorrow morning. Early tomorrow morning.”
The guy at the other end of the line acknowledged, “We have them ready to launch, but getting them in place by early tomorrow morning will require some extra effort.”
I refrained from nodding. “I know. Just put it on my bill.”
“We can do that, Miss Goodkind. I’ll ensure they’re in place there before six ack emma your time.”
“That would be excellent,” I replied. “Please be sure to go through Whateley channels too, so the dorm mother isn’t surprised or anything.”
“Not a problem, Miss Goodkind.”
Once I hung up, Chou mouthed, “Protocols?”
I had trouble repressing a smirk as I whispered, “Nothing bad. Just a little reminder that pranks go both ways.”
I had a little trouble repressing a smirk as I brushed my teeth. I didn’t want any of my targets realizing that I was up to something. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. Nikki was a powerful empath. Toni had her Ki-reading ability. Jade was likely to be equipped with J-Team vision, which let her ‘see’ emotions. Okay, I had more than once gotten Jade to describe how it worked and how it ‘looked’ to her, but I still didn’t grok the subject matter. I had the gist of it, but Jade tended to give descriptions of her J-vision that were somewhere between ‘babbling vagueness’ and ‘completely off the meds’.
Vanessa caught up with me as I was walking back to my room. She looked really tense, which was not a good sign. I had been hoping that the next time I saw her, she would be effervescent and cuddly. Okay, I had really been hoping that the next time I saw her, she would be naked and oversexed. I asked, “What’s the matter, honey?”
“Can we talk? I mean, just talk?” She couldn’t look me in the eye.
“Sure.” I led her over to my room and peeked in. “Chou? Could we have fifteen minutes? That’s all. I know you need your sleep too.”
Chou sighed, but nodded. She pulled a bathrobe around her pajamas and grabbed a book. Then she walked over to the sunroom.
Vanessa sat on my desk chair, instead of on the bed or in a beanbag chair. Okay, I got the hint. I sat opposite her, on Chou’s bed. I tried, “Are you okay?”
She shook her head no, and tears welled up in her eyes. “I… We… We shouldn’t’ve done it today. I wish we hadn’t.”
Well, that hurt. I said, “Look Nessa, I’m sorry you feel so bad about this, but I have to be honest. I’m not sorry we made love. It was the greatest day of my life. I’m never going to forget it, if I live to be a hundred. I’d be happy if we could do it every day. And twice on weekends. But I’m a guy, and guys think that way. But if you don’t want to make love, all you have to do is say no.”
She sobbed, “I don’t wanna hurt your feelings, but I tol’ myself I wouldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t fall inta the same trap my mom did, and my aunt, and tons of other girls I know, and then I went and got all horny and jumped your bones just like I was some stupid ho! I don’t wanna be that girl! I don’t wanna be that person. I… I want to get through high school. And I want to get through college and get an M.B.A. And I want to be a big success in business and help the people I grew up wit’ who needed help and there was no one to help ‘em…”
I went a little heavy, and I scooped Vanessa up off the chair. I sat down with her in a beanbag chair and held her. “Honey, you’re not that girl. And you’re not going to be. You’re doing great in school, and you’re going to have terrific grades, and you’ll get a scholarship to college, and everything. You made one little slip… and your jerk boyfriend didn’t have the willpower to say no.”
“You’re not a jerk. And I really, really enjoyed it. I mean, everyone says the first time just sucks, because you’re not ready, and he’s not ready, and he doesn’t know what to do, and he can’t hold back long enough to make it good for you, and all that stuff. But it was great. I just wish I’d waited to have a great afternoon. Wit’ you. But when we’re older.”
I checked, “So I guess you’re not going to be happy when you get all the roses I bought you?”
She jerked back to stare into my eyes. “Oh my God, you can’t order roses this time of year!”
I smiled a little, “Well, you’re going to be getting them tomorrow.”
“Real roses?” She sighed, “Have I ever mentioned that you don’t play fair?”
I told her, “I’m a Goodkind. Didn’t you get the message? We’re all ruthless, manipulative bastards who do whatever it takes to get our way.”
She giggled a little. “An’ that’s why you’re lettin’ me cry all over your pajamas instead of gettin’ more nookie?”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “I’m just a long-range planner, and I’m manipulating you so you’ll still want to be with me when we’re out of grad school.”
“Ass.” She buried her face against my shoulder, and I just held her for as long as I could.
Chou gave us half an hour, which was damn nice of her, considering she had wanted to get some sleep. But when Chou checked on us, Vanessa clambered out of my arms, kissed me soundly, then slipped back to her room.
Chou got into bed, and didn’t ask what that was all about. I found that deeply suspicious. Right up until I realized that I had been making love with Vanessa for hours that afternoon, and Nikki had probably heard way to much of it. And if Nikki hadn’t, Koehnes undoubtedly had. So the entire team had to know about it. Crap. At least they were keeping it quiet.
While Brass Monkey wailed their classic pastiche of Fifties rock, I yawned and stretched. And smirked. This morning, I was going to have to get done in the showers early enough that I would be downstairs before any of the Terrible Trio found out they had mail. If the courier had properly alerted Mrs. Horton, she would have already posted notes, so they would see them on their way to breakfast. And I didn’t want to miss the entertainment downstairs, no matter how entertaining the showers around here tended to be.
So I ditched my pajamas, slipped on my bathrobe, grabbed my shower caddy, and then casually strolled down the hall as if nothing were going to happen.
I made sure to stare at Toni’s butt while she dried off and did her hair simultaneously. She spotted my attention and gave me a look, but I just smiled and turned back to the mirror. Even with some time ogling Bunny and Rip, I still managed to leave before Toni did, and before Nikki even dragged herself into the showers.
I got dressed for Team Tactics, and floated through the floor to check that the notes about their mail were all on the morning sheet. Then I drifted back up into my room and hung around in the hall until Toni finally had Nikki moving out the door and down the stairs. Billie and Jade were only seconds behind them. The timing was just working out beautifully.
I didn’t even have to direct anyone over to the morning sheet, because Toni bounced her way over there while a desperately caffeine-deficient Nikki dragged her way across the room. Toni even cut Nikki off and re-directed her toward the mailboxes.
When Jade and Billie were about to walk out, I mentioned, “Hey look, Nik and Toni both got mail.”
So Jade quickly took a look, checking to see if Billie had mail first, of course. When she saw her name on the list, she trotted over to see who had sent her something. Since it could have been Thuban, she was obviously excited.
I took a couple steps their ways, and I was just in time to hear Toni complain, “Hey! Who the hell subscribed me to ‘Nouns and Verbs: the New Magazine for English Lovers’?” She stood up straight and spotted my attention from halfway across he room. “AYLA! ‘Fun With Irregular Verbs’? You must be kidding!”
I smiled evilly at her. “Maybe they’ll tell you how to conjugate ‘to prank’. Ooh! Look at that one! ‘Action Adjectives You Can Use’. Wow, this is so you.”
Nikki pulled her surprise out of her mailbox. “Damn it Ayla, how’d you get this in my mailbox already? The ‘Meat Lovers’ Menus’? Who wants a magazine that’s nothing but cooking meat? Ten New And Exciting Ways to Cook Sweetbreads? UGH!”
I pointed to a different blurb, “I prefer this one. Make Your Own Headcheese.”
Nikki made a gagging noise. “Oh Goddesses, I don’t think I can eat breakfast. In fact, I may never eat again.”
I pressed my luck and pointed to another blurb. “Oh, and look! ‘Bear Tartare: Is It Worth The Risk?’ Yummy.”
Jade piped up, “Icky. At least I didn’t g-” She touched her mailbox, and winced. I was sure she had charged one of the J-Team into it and found a present inside. She unlocked the box and opened it up as if there were spitting cobras inside.
“What’d ya get?” Toni asked.
Jade pouted as she held up the magazine. “The Player’s Guide to ‘Dragonslayer III’? That’s not funny!”
Toni snorted as she tried not to laugh out loud. “Kinda is.”
Jade frowned, “Who wants a video game where you kill dragons? That’s sick!”
Nikki complained, “Oh my Goddess, this says it’s a two-year subscription! You mean I’m stuck getting these things every month for two years? Ayla, you so don’t play fair.”
Toni stared at the cover of her magazine and then gave me a wicked little smile. She asked, “So… Ayles… How long ago you set this up? You had to have it all planned out and everything, just so you could get all this done overnight.”
I just gave her an evil leer. “Remember way back when you told me I spent too much time worrying about what powers people had, and planning for stuff that was never going to happen? Mwa-ha-hah.”
Jade mentioned, “That’s like the worst evil laugh ever.” She paused and grimaced, “Secret Tricks So You Can Raid the Blue Dragon’s Lair? That’s so yucky.”
Toni’s eyes gleamed and she checked, “What’d ya get Billie?”
I lied, “A year’s subscription to the Tenchi Muyo manga for each of the Power Rangers.” Then I shook my head no. “No, just kidding. Billie wasn’t enjoying the prank as much as you guys, so she doesn’t get a present. Yet.”
Jade glared at me. “Don’t be mean to Billie!”
I calmly said, “What about ‘don’t be mean to Ayla’? That ring any bells?”
Toni told Jade, “Relax. If you can’t take a joke, don’t start playing pranks on people.” She smirked my way and added, “Besides, I bet Ayla can get us a couple copies of ‘Dragonslayer’ and ‘Dragonslayer II’, so’s you can practice wrestling with Steeeeeeeephen.”
“That’s not how I wrestle with Stephen.” Then when everyone started giggling, she realized how that sounded. “I mean, we don’t do that kind of stuff! We’re not at the ‘wrestling’ stage! And definitely not with swords and stuff!”
“Swords? Ooh, kinky!” teased Toni.
“We’re not doing anything kinky!” insisted Jade loudly enough to draw the attention of most of the Poesies within fifty feet of us.
Jade blushed a bright red most of the way to Dunn Hall. I’m sure it had nothing to do with all the subtle teasing she was receiving.
When we got to the breakfast line, I found out that the morning’s special was ‘french toast’. It looked like it was a big hit with the crowd, who were grabbing it four or five slices at a time. As unappealing as that was, the subsequent slathering in margarine and fake maple syrup was downright horrifying. Well-prepared French toast – real French toast – didn’t need additional butter, much less fake butter, and it certainly didn’t require quarts of sticky brown stuff on top.
Not that my thoughts on the matter deterred Billie. She piled about thirty or forty pieces of the stuff on one tray, then added enough margarine that the state of Wisconsin was probably considering picketing her. After that travesty, she poured fake syrup over everything. At a guess, I would estimate she poured on somewhere between a gallon and an elephant-full.
Watching everyone crowd in for more of the stuff, I felt my stomach lurch. I decided I would opt for some fruit instead. That was when I spotted Jana, loitering with intent over by the cereals. I moved that way as subtly as I could manage.
She had a plate for me. A plate with some real French toast. Real French bread, cut so the slices were nearly an inch thick, and soaked in a proper mixture. Not pieces of Wonderbread with some egg on them. And I could smell this wonderful aroma of vanilla and orange and butter. I murmured, “This smells delicious. Thanks.”
She grinned, “It’s one of my father’s recipes. It has Grand Marnier and grated orange peel in the egg mixture.”
I accepted the plate with its two slices of French toast, and the little cup of real maple syrup – already warmed up, of course – from her, and let her get back into the kitchen. Then I grabbed a glass of milk and headed for the table. I figured I could eat fruit or yogurt or whatever later. I didn’t want this to get cold.
I sat down next to Chou, who was chatting with Molly about their French toast. Molly was saying, “My mom’s is way better than this.”
Chou replied, “I thought so, but I never got fancy breakfasts at home, so I did not know if all French toast tasted that good, or what.”
Molly peeked past Chou at my plate and murmured, “Hey, that’s not the same French toast everyone else has.”
Chou whispered, “Ayla does this all the time. Do not make a big deal about it.”
Molly countered, “Yeah, I know the part about the treats, that mousse was to die for, but she gets special versions on regular stuff too?”
“Whenever she can,” Chou explained.
I admitted, “It’s subject to the availability and the cooperation of the chefs, plus it depends on what’s being prepared for the staff, so it’s irregular.”
Molly looked at Chou and asked, “So we might be getting beef stew, but she’d have a bowl that looked like ours but it might have some kind of secret French cuisine beef stew thing and we’d never know?”
Chou smiled mischievously. “Oh, we always know. She stops grumbling about having to eat cruddy stuff.”
Toni jumped in, “And, if that isn’t a big enough hint, she has one of her foodgasms and drools all over the table.”
“I do not drool,” I pointed out, to Toni’s unconcealed amusement. “And I do occasionally share with people who are actually considerate, instead of making fun of my quest for superior cuisine.”
Toni mock-whispered to Molly, “Just watch out for the poison salads.”
Molly giggled and whispered back, “I already found out about them.”
Chou said, “That salad was really tasty. Unusual, but tasty.”
Molly argued, “It was too hot.”
Chou said, “Billie would have liked it. She likes spicy food.”
Toni rolled her eyes. “Billie’d eat a Gila monster if you put enough hot sauce on it!”
“Hey!” complained said eater, as she sat down with an entire tray covered in stacks of French toast with quarts of margarine and fake syrup on top.
Hank helped out, “Roast Gila monster. Mmm-mm, there’s good eat’n.”
Billie thought for a second and said, “I think they’re supposed to be poisonous to eat. Not just their mouth, either.”
“Oh, you could eat ‘em! You can eat anything!” Jade encouraged her.
While the rest of the table tried pretty hard not to laugh – with varying degrees of success, I might add – Nikki looked down at her French toast and fruit, and swallowed uncomfortably. She finally looked up at me and said, “I think that stupid magazine’s put me off my feed.” She did look a little green around the gills.
You know, that’s an expression I really need to excise from my vocabulary. Given the number of kids at Whateley who didn’t have normal skin colors, or who could actually have gills, that wasn’t a good phrase to wield. I knew I would be fairly upset if someone said that to torment Puppet.
I told Nikki, “Don’t worry, most issues don’t focus so much on ‘exotic’ meats. I’m sure the next issue will be chock full of cuisine like beef fajitas and pork loin with applesauce.”
“Eww,” she groaned. “That’s not really making me feel any better.”
“All right, then how about this?” I cut her a piece of my French toast and passed it to her.
Toni looked up from her magazine. “Proclaim. ‘He proclaimed his innocence.’ I like that. I hereby announce that I am proclaiming all day long!”
Hank rolled his eyes and muttered, “Ayla, this is all your fault.”
“Of course it is,” I replied smugly.
“Quaff! Look, I’m quaffing my milk!”
Hank just slowly shook his head.
I smiled, “Look at it this way. Her grades in creative writing will probably go up.”
Nikki glanced over at Toni to make sure Toni was listening, before she added, “I’m just worried that her grades in creative annoying are going to go up.”
Toni hastily looked through the magazine article before she broke out into a huge grin. “Exasperate. I am almost as exasperating as Ayla!”
“True dat,” Hank agreed. Most of the table broke out in snickers.
Toni looked down his way and said, “You are way too white to be allowed to say that. But… I hereby proclaim that you are a Designated Brother for additional exasperation today.”
Just to be a pain, I said, “I quaff my milk in a toast to Hank’s heretofore unknown brotherosity.”
Nikki put a piece of my French toast in her mouth… and froze. Her eyelids fluttered shut, and she began having a foodgasm. “Mmm! Mmm! Oh my Goddess, this is good!”
Toni checked, “Ayles, whadja give her?”
“Oh just a piece of my French toast, he averred.” I gave her a big smile.
Toni leafed through her magazine. “Aver! Do I have ‘aver’ in here? Damn. Okay, I’ll have to add that one in.”
Nikki said, “If I had food like that every day, I’d weigh two hundred pounds by the end of the year. How come you’re not fat as a whale?”
I explained, “First, I was drastically underweight when I got to Whateley in the fall. Second, I’ve got exemplar traits working for me. And third, I’ve been eating food like this my entire life, so I do have some self-control.”
Hank pointed out, “But don’t all those famous chefs end up being fatsos?”
“A lot of them do,” I agreed. “Some of them manage to control their weight.”
“What about that Cajun chef who’s like a sphere with a beard?” Toni asked.
“You mean Paul Prudhomme?” I asked.
“Yeah. Him,” she nodded. “Isn’t he kind of a heart attack waitin’ to happen?”
I sighed, “Probably. But there’s always the possibility he’ll get some help. It is possible to eat a rational number of calories, even if you’re one of the best chefs on the planet.”
Nikki murmured, “Ooh, this is incredible! What’s in it?”
I explained, “Better quality bread, better ingredients, special additions to the mixture like Grand Marnier and orange peel for that citrus goodness, and real vanilla for the richness. Plus, more attention to detail in the cooking process.”
Nikki said, “If we’re not on the same team when we grow up, you’ve got to promise to invite me over for meals. A lot.”
Toni smirked, “Just offer to let Ayles watch you shower, and you’re guaranteed a bunch of good meals.”
“To-NI!” Nikki squealed.
Hank said, “Well, now we know how to defeat Ayla in the future. We just lure her to someplace that only has MREs. She’ll starve to death in no time.”
“Or just a Denny’s,” chipped in Toni.
“Or Chuck E. Cheese,” added Nikki, with an evil grin.
“Hey, I like Chuck E. Cheese!” complained Jade.
Billie nudged her, “She knows. That’s why she said it.”
Jade stuck her tongue out at Nikki and went back to her French toast and fake syrup. Jade had found some powdered sugar somewhere as well, and as a result, looked somewhat more childish than usual. The smattering of syrup around her mouth was now coated in powdered sugar, so she looked as if she had fallen face-first into her tray.
Timeless walked over our way, and handed me a note. Mrs. Carson wanted to see me ASAP. I nodded, “Thank you, James. Please tell her I’ll be over in a matter of minutes.” I looked at my watch and added, “And then I’ll need an excuse for being late to class.”
Hank frowned, “I told you last night you weren’t getting away with this one.”
I grinned, “What makes you think I’m in trouble for that activity? I’ll have you know I’m a multi-talented troublemaker.”
Nikki looked over at Toni’s magazine and said, “I’ll say.”
Toni grinned, “I proclaim that Ayla is almost as good a troublemaker as Jade. Or me.”
“Oh, go quaff your milk,” I grinned at her.
Hank said, “Try not to be too late. You just know Bardue and Everheart are gonna hold it against you.”
I nodded, “Right. Just tell them I got yanked out of the caff to go talk with the Headmistress about campus activities.” I finished my French toast and coffee, then bussed my tray. Once I was done with the mundane tasks of breakfast, I Phase-leapt through the wall, out of Dunn, and over toward Admin. My aim was even good enough that I hit Schuster Hall.
I managed to go heavy in one of the downstairs hallways of Schuster, so it took me very little time to get over to Carson’s office. I walked up to Amelia Hartford’s desk, and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I believe Mrs. Carson is expecting me.”
She clicked a small keypad in front of a secondary monitor and glanced at the screen. She said, “She’s on the phone right now. I’ll let her know you’re here, once she’s off the line.”
I just stood in front of her desk and replied, “That’s fine. That gives me time to talk with you.”
She gave me an icy stare. “Why would I want to waste my busy work schedule talking to a student?”
“Because I have tons of annoying questions that only you can answer,” I explained. I even managed to keep the smirk off my face.
She glared, “And why would I want to answer them?”
“Because they could be worth several million dollars to some lucky programmer.”
She paused for a moment and said, “Okay, you have my undivided attention for thirty seconds. Ask away.”
I said, “My questions are simple. Who designed and implemented the AI system that’s behind the on-line math tutoring system? And why hasn’t Whateley helped them turn it into a national math tutoring system for every junior high and high school student in the country?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s not an AI. It’s just an expert system.” She added scathingly, “There is a huge difference, you know.”
I ignored the jibe. “The expert system is nice, but the functionality and breadth of the lessons is the important feature. That probably represents far more hours of work than the coding for the expert system.”
She admitted, “It’s the ‘expert knowledge’ that makes the difference in systems like this. Anyone can code up a test to check if you understand quadratic equations and ellipses. Being a good enough teacher to write up a lesson plan for anyone who needs the help? That’s beyond the capabilities of your typical programmer.”
I pushed, “So who did all the hard work? And why haven’t they tried to capitalize on this system, now that it’s functional?”
She gave me a look that undoubtedly meant ‘typical Goodkind jerk’. She said, “It’s not fully functional yet. They’re still working on about ten percent of the study lessons, and they’re looking at feedback on the other ninety percent.”
“And when it is functional?”
She said, “There are going to be a lot of ownership issues to sort out. The expert system was kludged together from several years of Comp Sci 172 projects. The lesson plans and lessons are a slew of special credit projects the math teachers have been assigning for the last eight years, and then tweaking, or writing themselves to fill in the gaps.”
I nodded. “So it’s a consortium issue.”
“Naturally,” she said.
I suggested, “Have you considered a model like linux?”
She rolled her eyes. “Naturally. The problem is getting everyone who was ever involved in any of the pieces to sign off! A lot of people who find out the system as a whole might be worth something won’t sign away their rights, even when we’re talking about releasing it as a free software system.”
I rolled my eyes in turn. “So they’re expecting to get a tenth of a percent of zero? Smart.”
She nodded in agreement. “All the business skills of a rabid weasel.”
She suddenly stopped, as she realized that she was having a civil conversation with me. She stopped and said, “So it’s not workable. Drop it.”
I found that I was feeling exactly the same way. I should have been trying to build bridges, and instead I just wanted to tell her that I trusted her about as far as I could throw Make and Overclock and their entire dorm rooms all lumped together.
We stared at each other for long, uncomfortable seconds. She finally looked to the side and said, “She’s off the phone. You may go in.”
“Thank you,” I managed.
I knocked on Carson’s door and walked in when she called out, “Enter!” It was really weird, feeling relieved to be walking into Carson’s office just to get away from Hartford.
She was sitting behind her desk, and wearing one of her usual power suits. I sat in the chair she indicated and gazed back at her. I wasn’t about to lead off by incriminating myself, or pointing fingers at my friends. I asked, “You wanted to see me? It’s not about the funding for the renovations to Poe and Hawthorne, is it? Because I would really rather discuss that when I’m not missing classes.”
“No, Miss Goodkind, this has nothing to do with your potential donations.” She gave me several more seconds to throw myself upon her mercy and confess everything. I just sat there.
She finally said, “This morning, I found the most interesting report from Security on my desk.”
I said, “Since you’re talking to me about it, I’ll assume that it’s the report I called in about Peeper. Is this meeting because I refused to file a written complaint about him?”
“Not… quite,” she said stiffly. “This meeting is because you and your friends used a subtle but still noticeable magical attack on him. It was enough to drive him screaming from the cafeteria.”
“I beg to differ,” I insisted. “There was no magical attack.” I watched as one exquisite eyebrow rose in doubt. “We did use magic. But it was strictly a defensive charm. The handbook clearly states that the use of non-visible magical charms for purely defensive purposes is allowed, and if they create no visible effects, they may even be permitted on yellow flag and red flag days, on a case-by-case basis.”
“Have you been talking to Miss Nalley about the guidelines on this?”
“No ma’am,” I said. “Although I may offer her a set of the beads, since she is one of my inventors, and deserves protection.” I did have an idea why she had asked that question. Elaine wasn’t codenamed Loophole for nothing.
“And were you aware, when you had these charms created, that they could have an effect on your victim such as he actually experienced?”
I carefully explained, “First, he is not a ‘victim’. The women on this campus are victims, because of him. He has the power to look through thin layers, such as clothing. He has clearly been violating the Whateley rules, specifically the ones in Section 37, paragraphs 3 and 6, to peep at women’s private regions through their clothing.”
“And what evidence of this behavior do you have?” she asked.
I said, “He looked through Fey and Chaka’s clothing and was able to ‘see’ the illusions the charms create.”
She pursed her lips. “You do realize that your reasoning is circular?”
“Yes ma’am,” I told her. “If it was more substantial, there would have been a point to filing a complaint in person, over in Kane Hall. But the fact remains that the charms are purely protective, and are only of any use against an individual using powers or inventions to look through women’s clothing in ways that are illegal, and would be prosecutable if they could be proved in a court of law.”
She checked, “Are you sure you haven’t been talking to Miss Nalley about this?”
She slowly shook her head. She didn’t say anything, but I felt sure she was wondering how long she would have to put up with me, Loophole, and the other campus pains. If she was focusing on rules lawyers, I assumed that list included Jadis too. Ferris Bueller wouldn’t have stood a chance in this school.
She lectured me a while about the lessons to be learned at this school, including how to keep one’s powers concealed well enough that not everyone on the planet knew you were a mutant. “And Miss Goodkind, you do not exactly have a reputation for low-profile activity. Particularly in the cafeterias.”
“It’s all part of my plan for my adult life,” I lied. “High-profile activities that are completely innocent, in order to mask any low-profile, surreptitious activities I want to keep hidden.” Which, come to think of it, wasn’t a completely irrational strategy, if I was going to have my financial dealings appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, next to Goodkind International and Berkshire Hathaway.
She frowned at me and said, “Remember, no matter how much personal protection you have, or can buy in your case, you simply cannot protect everyone you care about, if you don’t keep certain things secret. As I can tell you from personal experience. I would very much prefer that no one in this school ever has to go through some of the things I have gone through. Or that Doctor Alexander, Whateley’s first headmaster, went through before he became headmaster.”
I didn’t say anything, but I knew exactly what she meant. Back when she was Ms. Might, a supervillain learned her secret identity, killed her husband, and terrorized her two small children. Before that, Doctor Alexander was a major Wizard who had no secret identity, and had no privacy whatsoever when he wasn’t off in another dimension fighting monsters and demons. And in between her reign as headmistress and Doctor Alexander’s reign as headmaster, Whateley Academy had chewed through eight headmasters in three years. The headmaster job sounded worse than actually being a superhero.
Heck, it sounded worse than Goodkind International vice president in charge of Goodkind Europe.
Carson gave me one of her Grade A glares and said, “Now you and your friends are not going to persecute any particular students, through the use of these charms, are you?”
I looked right back at her and said, “That isn’t my intention. In fact, I have already talked to Beltane and asked her to refrain from an ectoplasmic revenges she might be planning now that she knows about the beads.”
Carson closed her eyes in frustration, but kept her face a mask otherwise. “And do I want to know what Miss Forbes’ plans would be?”
I said, “No ma’am. However, you can guess. If ectoplasmic penises begin haunting Peeper, I think it would be safe to assume Beltane was involved. Unless Thorn decided to do something drastic about Peeper’s treatment of his friend Seraphim… Or, even worse, if the two of them decided to call a truce in their little ectoplasm war and join forces against Peeper.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend, do you mean?”
“I think you could construe it as such.” I added, “Although I don’t find that old saw particularly true. But, given that they’re merely playing ectoplasmic pranks on each other, in this case, it could evolve into a friendship.” I didn’t say anything to her about how horrific that could be, given that they seemed to be the school’s two most creative pranksters. She had an imagination. She could stew about it on her own.
Carson admitted, “I have already had your victim – and his associate – in here for a little lecture, and I believe he now understands the consequences of his actions. I am hoping for some improvement in his behavior, and I am expecting more appropriate behavior on your part.”
I reminded her, “He’s not my victim, he’s the perpetrator. He’s been doing this for months now, and you’re the one with the access to his powers testing records, and yet you didn’t do anything about his behavior until he was hoist with his own petard.”
She raised an eyebrow at my metaphor and said, “Somehow, I prefer not to fully visualize that image. But I take it that you are inferring something about my handling of student behavior?”
I exhaled slowly. If I were going to deliberately stick my hand into a beartrap, it would be nice to do it carefully enough that I still had a hand afterward. And Lady Astarte was no one to aggravate heedlessly. I carefully said, “I’ve been asking a few questions. According to school documents and Mrs. Linford – who, by the way, is perhaps a little too chatty about school history, in my opinion – you’ve always been very supportive of the GSD kids, and you’ve always been very tough on bullying. Up until last year, when The Don started running wild and thinking he had his own private fiefdom here. Then suddenly, most of the anti-bully measures are being enforced less ‘effectively’, let us say. Peeper’s freedom to harass schoolgirls seems to be part of that. Although I have thought of an alternative hypothesis, wherein Peeper’s behavior is simply not being punished as much as possible, in an effort to prepare students for life on the outside as a superhero, or at least as a known mutant. So, is it possible that there’s something going on besides The Don’s connections with the avatar-jacking issue?”
She frowned at me. “I would rather not discuss that last point, except in our most secure conference rooms. And I will insist that you not discuss it except under similar circumstances, such as under the aegis of Fey’s anti-eavesdropping crystal.” She looked at me and said, “Yes, the magic faculty is well aware of Miss Reilly’s inventiveness. More than one of the faculty has taken the fundamental ideas and started… reverse engineering the crystal. In a magical sense.” She went on, “There may be some reasons why this school’s insistence on no bullying has been… suppressed, but I am not going to discuss this with you. Let me just say that I would not be a party to it if I didn’t think that what is being done is crucial in a larger context, and I expect you to let it drop until such time as that context becomes apparent.”
Whoa. Was she actually saying there was a reason for all this bullshit? But if I could figure it out, perhaps I could provide some external support, and…
“No, Miss Goodkind. I do not want you investigating, or playing Sherlock Holmes, or hiring more of your outside investigators to look into it, or anything like that. You have more external resources than any other student, and I need you to not invoke them.”
I tried not to wince. “Umm, about the whole thing with Molly and Toni’s families? Sorry, but I really felt a need to protect them.”
She nodded slightly. “And you did. Ms. Trin was most understanding when I spoke to her, and your forces were most helpful in following the combatants who survived the two battles. They led us to several more bases of the Tong, and we were able to point them out for the DEA and thus inflict even more damage on their financial structure. But please check with me the next time. All right?”
“All right,” I conceded. Even though I was still trying to figure out how to look into the whole bullying issue so that it wouldn’t be obvious, even to Carson and Whateley Security. I added, “Has it occurred to you that Thuban might not be creating Faction Three if it weren’t for the bullying going on?”
She pursed her lips and said, “I believe Mister Lee would be doing this regardless of the level of bullying. There’s always someone who wants to look out for those who aren’t ‘pretties’ and form them into his own protectorate, and occasionally that person even has responsible goals and wholesome motives. Unfortunately, several very dangerous supervillain teams and terrorist groups started precisely that way too.”
Great. Just great. So she wasn’t going to tell me whether she thought Stephen was one of the good guys or not. Not that it would make much difference as far as Jade was concerned. Jade was more likely to listen to Jinn and Jann than me. Hell, she was more likely to listen to Jay Jay than me. Particularly on something like her sweetie. Which meant that all I could do was keep an eye out, and make a save some day when she needed a little assistance. I still suspected that Stephen was seriously underestimating her, even if he did know her real power set.
Once Carson finally let me go, I headed back to class. I took the shortcut, Phase-leaping through her window and across campus toward the ranges. <(Phase) Incoming. Carson finally wrapped up. I miss anything?>
<(Chaka) Yeah. Lancer gritting his teeth to not say anything while the STARs got chewed on for messing up in their sim. Eldritch was really tough on ‘em.>
<(Fey) And the review on Elite League. Bombshell took the heat for Accelerator not doing what he was supposed to. She’s serious about the leader deal.>
<(Phase) She would be. Leader of Elite League automatically gets a foot in the door for upper Alpha-hood.>
<(Lancer) If she learns to be a good leader and take care of her people, then that’s a win-win. Now stop gabbing and get in here before they start on us.>
<(Tennyo) I took notes for ya.>
<(Bladedancer) Oh. They just said Caitlin was our Red Team.>
I landed outside the building and then went light again so I could fly through the walls and take all the shortcuts. I flew through the classroom door and stood on the floor before going to normal density. I looked at Everheart and said, “Sorry I’m late, admiral. But Mrs. Carson requested my presence.”
She stopped for a split second, and she blinked oddly. Then she said, “Very well. Be seated, and make sure you get notes on the earlier classwork.” I was guessing she had let Hive link to the school system so she could tell I really had been meeting with Carson.
Bardue growled, “Okay Team Kimba, now that your whole team is here, maybe you’d like to get up here and give your internal review.”
Hank got up, as usual, only this time he had a sheet of notes too. When Everheart popped some bulleted points up on the screen, Hank started. And he had more material than was in our electronic review. All the points he had been fussing about last night were in there, along with a couple more.
But still, when he was done, the hyenas pounced. Kismet wanted to know why Fey hadn’t put up a protective barrier. Wallflower had the same question for Tennyo. Dynamaxx had the same question for Generator, since everyone in school had seen her Shielder robot.
And then Eldritch asked, “Actually I want to ask the same question, but for Phase. She’s buying an adamantium tactical baton and a high-end utility belt. She ought to have a high-end compact personal forcefield generator with her other gear.”
There was no way I was going to explain what I was up to with Wunderkind, so I just said, “You know, that’s a really good point. I’ve had some problems with forcefields and changing my density, but I ought to be able to find something here on campus that would work pretty well.” Frankly, I figured I could find something in the next couple hours, if I made the slightest effort. Jericho had a good forcefield system for his armor, as did Loophole. Spark had a powerful PFG that was self-contained and very portable. Then there were Mal, Harvey, Widget, … The list was fairly long. So I lied, “I’ll see if Generator can whip one up this afternoon.”
<(Generator) Hey, I can’t really do that!>
<(Phase) I know. But if I go buy a PFG this afternoon, what are all our classmates in here going to think?>
<(Generator) Oh. Right.>
<(Lancer) Good idea.>
<(Chaka) That’s right, Number One. Make it so!>
<(Generator) Was that a Star Trek joke?>
<(Phase) It was definitely a Star Trek reference. Whether it counts as a joke is another issue.>
<(Lancer) Hush. Everyone.>
Everheart pointed toward the back of the room. “Eruption?”
The Omegas didn’t contribute as much as some groups, so I turned to watch Eruption speak. Since he was their inventor, I wondered what he was going to say.
Eruption stroked his chin like he had a goatee and said, “So when Lancer got caught in the killzone, he had to know someone like you or Eldritch was running the sim. So he had to know that you were expecting him to charge the assault line. So wasn’t his tactic a good idea?”
Everheart let Eldritch go first. “Umm, yeah, I was expecting him to charge the sniper line. I had some firepower backing them up, and I had the sectors right in front of the trees already targeted in with the heavy artillery. But I had the whole KZ mapped out, so dropping into cover at one spot wasn’t a good idea. It just let us target his location. He moved away before we got him, but it was close.”
Then Everheart added, “Standard military response in a KZ is to break the KZ. Usually, your best bet is punching through the closest assault line. But – as I talked about last week – someone like Lancer or Phase or Psymod has extra options that regular soldiers don’t. Lancer can go 3-D. He can fly up out of the box at an angle, making it hard to target and track him until he’s clear. Psymod can teleport right out of the box, assuming he can ‘port to a destination that’s safe. Phase can go light and go straight up, or even straight down. And once she’s under the ground, there’s almost no monitoring that can follow her. A large team of baseline mercenaries or a military squadron isn’t going to have anything that can track a zero-density flier moving underground, until Phase pops back up somewhere unexpected.”
<(Phase) But we have several people who can track someone doing that under us.>
After Caitlin did her usual ‘don’t split up the squad’ lecture, Bardue took over. The first point he wanted to make was that intel is crucial. We didn’t have any, and we didn’t stop to get any. That cost us. But we had already figured that one out.
<(Fey) Next time, I’ll go in with a mapping spell ready, so we can get some intel in a couple minutes. If I can get it in under three minutes and Tennyo can reach the target in under three minutes even with a couple detours, that still gives us four minutes to blow it to pieces.>
Then Bardue added, “And this sim should make you think about the difference between education and training. Education gives you new things to think about. Training gives you the ability to not have to think about them when you don’t have the time to sit around and plan.”
Then Everheart popped up a new screen on her projector and said, “Now. Why did we run Team Kimba through this particular scenario right after the other two? Further education. This scenario is really just the next step up from a simple pursuit where the supervillain has a grudge. What do you think it’s like for Lady Astarte, or The Magus, or Champion? Every supervillain they face knows about them already, whether they’ve met before or not. They’re famous. Everything they’ve ever done, or not done, is on-line and searchable, whether they like it or not. Just the fan websites have enough intel to be a problem, and that doesn’t begin to deal with the websites hosted by the other side.”
She didn’t bother to take a breath as she continued, “From the undamaged computer memory we were able to retrieve from Deathlist’s cyborg components, we were able to determine that he had files on Lady Astarte, and he had a predictive computer model running so he could ‘guess’ what she would do next. Some of you in this room may have the potential to move up to those ranks some day, and if you do, you will face this problem. Everyone who attacks the Justice Brigade has this sort of thing in mind, even power mimics like Mimeo – who has fought them a number of times, and won almost every single time. This is why the Justice Brigade changes its line-up so often, and brings in lower-tier supers so often. It gives them the element of surprise when a supervillain has just planned an attack that turns out to be optimal… for last month’s line-up, but now has a massive flaw in it. If you do the same maneuvers over and over, expect that – sooner or later – someone will anticipate your next move and blow you out of the sky.”
Once Everheart wrapped up tying in our sim with the week’s lessons, Wallflower put her hand up. When Bardue acknowledged her, Lily asked, “Has anyone beaten that sim? I mean, anyone at Whateley?”
Bardue said, “Well, the Grunts have. On their third or fourth try. The enemy force is allowed to move around and adjust their weaponry in between runs, just like a real Red Team.”
<(Phase) Great. Just great.>
<(Lancer) We already know what they have to throw at us. That’s what matters. So we know they can move it around a bit. Not as big a deal.>
<(Phase) Assuming we do know everything they have to throw at us.>
<(Chaka) Pessimist much?>
Redlight asked, “How did the missiles know how to target Tennyo and Phase? That looked really sophisticated.”
Everheart looked over at Eldritch, who explained, “They’re modified Sparrowhawk IV missiles. Every time a missile launched, there was a high-bandwidth link connecting the missile to a trained remote pilot steering and operating it. That gave them that AI look-and-feel without needing a billion dollars worth of ruggedized computer hardware in every missile.”
<(Lancer) That link’s a weakpoint, if we can target it or jam it.>
Once Everheart wrapped up with our sim, Bardue took over. “We need to talk some about C and S. Cordon and search ops. We’re going to be spending a lot of time on them next week, so I want to get all of you started today.
“Cordon and search ops have become one of the most frequent
operations in Military ops and in Law Enforcement too. You all worked on the supervillain pursuit operation this week. But, as soon as your perp jumps a fence and hides in a forest, your pursuit just turned into C and S. As soon as he ducks into that huge warehouse, or an office building, it’s C and S. Law enforcement has this problem all the time with regular perps, even when they can track with a copter. It’s become way too common for military forces too, especially in urban areas.
“This type of operation involves isolating the target area, and then searching suspected quadrants or buildings to capture or destroy the targets, whether they’re insurgents or bank robbers or just plain contraband. So you can think of a C &S as a movement to contact, or a raid, or a deliberate attack, or even as an area reconnaissance. Which one makes the most sense depends on your intel, and the accuracy of the available intel.”
I started taking notes. I had been reading ahead, so to speak, and I had already read the three on-line documents the course had for cordon and search operations, but Bardue was summarizing it a lot more effectively than the reading materials did.
He pointed at an image on the screen. “A C& S works real well in a complex environment where plenty of classic military forms don’t. So we may need these skills to rescue hostages, or seize opposing personnel, or even capture key materials that an opponent may want to utilize. This means a full-scale C & S is likely to involve your team working with large numbers of baselines: police, SWAT, paramilitary organizations, or even military forces. Why? Because a six-person super-team can’t do effective C&S all by itself on anything bigger than a single, isolated building. And not a large building, either.
“So organization is crucial. Not just task organization for your team, but organizing how your team will interact and cooperate with the baseline forces, who will outnumber you by a lot. Regardless of size, figure you’ll be looking at a Command Element, a Security Element, multiple Search and/or Assault Elements, plus a Reserve Element to deal with the unexpected. The Command Element is crucial here. The team Commander needs to be able to coordinate and synchronize the entire team during the operation. They need to be close enough to the action to be able to keep control, but not so close they get in the way and become a burden on security. Now expect the main force is not going to let your Tac Ops and Strat people take over their op. But they may accept an adviser in their Command Element, and if they want to get their command up close and personal, they’re likely to want to use some of your team as part of the Security Element, providing immediate protection for the command.
“Depending on the setting and the super-team and its working relationship with the baseline forces, there are a couple dozen different scenarios for this kind of intermix. In general, don’t expect the baseline forces to let your TacOps and Strat people do anything more than act as muscle, and maybe make a couple suggestions. Do expect them to want your fliers as overwatch, particularly if they’re more maneuverable or less vulnerable than their helicopters and unmanned recon craft. Most often, they’ll want to use your team, maybe split in two or three groups, as part of the Reserve Element, taking station with their other Reserve Element forces. In rare cases, like the working relationship the West Coast League has with the city of Sacramento, some members of the team may be part of the Search/Assault Element too. Now let’s look at some film footage of several well-known super-teams assisting in C & S with police forces and SWAT teams. Next week, I’ll show you how all these pieces fit together…”
Bardue then had some really interesting videos to show us. The West Coast League working closely with some Sacramento Police Department SWAT teams. The Empire City Guard working as reserve elements for the NYPD. And the Boston Pee Dee having a confrontation with the Lamplighter that messed up their C & S op. That seemed to run the gamut of levels of cooperation.
Finally Bardue turned the lights back on and announced, “Okay! We’re out of time for a sim run today. But your assignment for Monday is reading up on C & S over the weekend, because we’ll be doing a lot of C & S sims next week. There are a lot of different ways that super-teams get used, and we’ll want to look at as many as we can squeeze in, in just five days.”
Once the class ended and everyone started walking out, Hank moved straight for Bardue. We all followed him to the front of the room.
Hank asked, “Gunny? Is there any chance Team Kimba can run that sim again on Monday?”
Bardue wondered with a slight smile, “You think you got that sim cracked already, Lancer?”
Hank shrugged. “I wouldn’t go that far, Sergeant. But I believe we can do a lot better than we did the other day, now that we’re not flying blind straight into a KZ.”
Jade piped up, “And I got it all figured out! We just need to put Tennyo in a radioactive condor suit!”
“WHAT?” Bardue choked.
Everheart stepped over to us. “Did I hear you correctly? A radioactive condor costume?”
“Yep!” Jade grinned excitedly. Billie buried her face in her hands.
<(Phase) Isn’t anyone going to stop her?>
<(Chaka) Are you KIDDING? No way! This is fresh!>
Bardue looked like he didn’t know whether to burst out laughing, or go into shock. “How is a condor suit going to help here?”
Jade insisted, as though it was obvious, “We put Tennyo in a super-radioactive condor costume, and then have her fly over the fields and forests. No one’s gonna shoot at a condor. They’re on the endangered species list.”
Everheart said, “Generator, condors don’t live in the area where our sim is running. Our detection systems will spot it.”
Jade just nodded. “Right! Especially ‘cause Tennyo can fly super-fast! And that’s why it has to be a super-radioactive costume, so she can fry the electronics on everything you guys send at her. She puts up her warp field, and she works hard enough that she puts out EMPs all over the place, and she fries all the missiles coming her way! See? It’s simple! A radioactive condor suit. It’s the perfect attack.”
I said, “Come on Jade, don’t give away all our secrets before Monday.”
She did a little skip and walked out with the rest of us.
I opened my mouth to make a scathing comment, but Nikki held up a palm. She focused for a second, and the conversation between Everheart and Bardue began playing over our comms.
“...is she supposed to be on any meds?”
“Not according to her medical charts, Gunny.”
“Cuz that was either a brilliant tactic for this sim, or the craziest thing I ever heard, and I can’t figure out which. Maybe both at the same time.”
“Well, with Tennyo’s upper-level capabilities, they might be able to get away with it if all we had were the snipers and the missile launchers.”
“A radioactive condor suit. I gotta tell Wilson that one.”
“Wilson? I’m warning Delarose and all of Security, just in case.”
Nikki let her spell dissipate, and she grinned wickedly. “Nice job sowing confusion there, Jade.”
“What confusion?” Jade puzzled aloud. “It’s a great idea! No one’s ever gonna expect a radioactive condor suit.”
Billie just shook her head. “Jade, there is no way I’m dressin’ up in a giant chicken suit.”
“Not a chicken, a condor! A majestic giant condor, swooping across the skies!” Jade insisted.
“I look forward to seeing your new costume, Radioactive Condor Girl,” I smirked. “Especially the fluffy feathers.”
“RADIOACTIVE CONDOR GIRL!” boomed Toni. “Swooping through the skies and frying crime!”
Nikki tried a ‘little girl’ voice. “Gee, Radioactive Condor Girl, thanks for rescuing my kitty. How come she’s all black and burned? And how come the tree’s on fire?”
Toni wrapped up, “Tune in next week, for another exciting adventure with RADIOACTIVE CONDOR GIRL!”
Billie groaned, “You guys!”
Chou asked, “Is there a problem… Radioactive Condor Girl?”
“Snrk!” Hank had to turn away and bite his lip to get himself back under control.
Shroud said, “Can I be Radioactive Condor Girl if Billie doesn’t want to be it? It sounds like fun.”
I looked at Hank. “You know, Jinn could animate a condor simulacrum well enough to pass for a real condor, unless you sicked a biologist on her. There ought to be something really wild we could do with that.”
Hank said, “I was thinking about what they were saying about the Justice Brigade. What if – instead of bringing in new teammates all the time – we just had Jinn impersonate a new teammate, maybe with some gadgets to fake whoever’s powers. Not someone major like Lady Astarte, but someone like-”
“Like Anna!” Jade burst out. “Aquerna’s got some cool powers, and we could probably fake ‘em, okay we might have to make some razor-sharp claws…”
Jinn said, “Sounds good. I miss all the good stuff in the cabbit.”
Jade fussed, “I’m working on it!”
Nikki asked, “Is there a reason you’re having an argument with yourself?”
“Just askin’, ya know,” added Toni.
I was going to make a comment of my own, but my phone buzzed in my pocket. “Hang on, I’ve got a call.” When I saw who it was from, I didn’t bother to move away from the rest of the team. I listened to the message, and turned to tell the team.
Nikki gaped at me, “By the Goddesses!”
Oh yeah. Acute hearing. Tennyo was grinning, so I figured she had overheard as well. I explained for everyone else, “Remember my chat with Judicator, and what I was predicting?” I received multiple nods and a couple grins. “Well, N’Dizi has been taken over to the hospital. A couple of the Tigers found him beaten and out cold in the middle of their dojo area. Whoever did it beat him unconscious, turned him on his side, and carefully stuck a spear through his left buttock and into the mat, so they had to cut it free to carry him over to emergency.”
Hank smirked, “Sounds like Counterpoint’s taking a page out of Cavalier’s book.”
I explained, “This was just through the muscle. No rectal damage or anything like that. But Cucumber Boy’s not going to enjoy sitting down for a while.”
“Teensy Tiny Cucumber Boy, if you ask me,” muttered Toni.
Nikki grinned, “Sounds like Ol’ Bowling Ball’s gonna need a lot of pillows for a while.
Chou said, “So N’Dizi probably sicked CP on both of us. The big jerk.”
Toni said, “I figure the Dragons’ll take this as breaking their deal.”
Chou muttered, “Yeah, but we do not want them to break the deal. I got pounded hard just so the Tao could make that deal hold up.”
“So who’s Number Two in the Tigers?” I asked.
Toni said, “Bowling Ball’s definitely full of number two, but I dunno. Maybe Sledge. Stunner’ll know for sure. God, I hope it’s not Kaz!”
I said, “Maybe we can get their second in command to go to the Dragons, explain about Cucumber Boy breaking the deal for personal reasons, and we could try to maintain a truce.”
Chou sighed unhappily, “It might work. Now that the hex is broken, it is much easier to get people to see reason.”
I smirked, “Gee, it’s a shame we can’t get Cucumber Boy sharing a room with Sebastiano. They’d get along like-”
“Like a wildcat and a pitbull.”
“Like Phlegm and Fractious.”
“Hey! Phlegm’s a nice guy!” Jade complained.
“Well, it’s not like Fractious is a jerk or anything,” Nikki pointed out.
“She has gone through an insane number of roommates,” I told her. “I mean, more than She-Beast. More than Jobe.”
Hank went back to the original subject. “I’d love to hear the two of them arguing over whose butt is hurt worse.”
Toni laughed out loud. “Now that’s comedy!”
Billie snickered, “It could be like the ‘show your scars’ scene in Jaws, but with asses.”
Chou glowered, “They deserve each other. Totally.”
I detoured off to see if one of my Workshoppers had a nice PFG I could buy. Billie handed me her hand-written class notes, so I could add them into my own memoranda. I scribbled notes as I walked into the tunnels.
Once I had the gist of Billie’s notes incorporated, I started making phone calls. I started with Wunderkind and Spark. Wundy was busy in class, but Spark had a good PFG ready for sale over at her private lab. I already knew where that was, since it was just down a long hallway from Jericho’s lab. I had already walked past it several times.
I knocked, and she opened it within seconds. “Oh! Phase. I didn’t realize you would be here so soon!”
I switched to French, to see if I could alleviate some of her obvious worry. “Were you waiting for Reach? I would be willing to wait until she arrives, if you prefer.”
“Your French is quite good,” she smiled. “Much better than that of Reach.”
I shrugged, “I have been learning the language for years. And speaking it in France helps as well.”
“Oh, truly? Where have you been?”
So we chatted in French about various places in France I had visited, and places Spark thought I should go see when I had the chance. We were still talking about Paris when Reach finally arrived. “Well, Ah see Ah’m runnin’ late.”
Spark asked, “Can you try that in French?”
Reach sighed a little but gave Spark a big smile and tried. “Pardon me, but I see that I am a little late.”
I’m sorry, but French spoken with a Kentucky accent is just plain wrong.
Spark smiled back, “We really must work harder on your accent. But that is much better.”
Reach asked me, “So, what’s the big deal that Ah had to rush all the way down heah?”
I said, “I don’t think it’s a big deal. I just wanted to buy one of Spark’s PFGs for personal protection. And use in the sims. Hopefully, more of the latter than the former.”
Spark looked at Reach and said, “I wanted you here so everything would be transparent.”
“Clear,” Reach inserted.
“Yes. Clear.” She turned to me. “What I have is mostly devise. It may not work for you, so you will have to test it out before you buy it. And it is not repeatable.”
I assumed that she meant reproducible, but I wasn’t going to pick at her English in the middle of a business negotiation. I said, “I understand.”
She added, “And I do not want you to try to reverse engineer it, or mass produce it, or anything like that.”
I tried to reassure her, “I don’t have any such intention. And I’ll even give you a written guarantee that I won’t do it, if you want. Anyway, mass marketing of a PFG would be problematic, for a lot of reasons, starting with the supervillains who also sell PFGs, who would come after me for interfering with their market base. All I would need to cap my freshman year would be having Gizmatic send a robot army after me.”
At that point, Spark was satisfied. But Reach was considerably more cautious, and let me write out a three-paragraph disclaimer that I was not going to make replicates of it, and I was only going to use it for the protection of myself or loved ones or teammates or innocent bystanders. Okay, I did put in enough language to cover a variety of uses.
I signed it and said, “You forgot the part about ‘the express written consent of Major League Baseball’ in there.”
Reach laughed, and Spark looked confused. Reach whispered, “I’ll explain it later.”
Then we had to do some testing, to make sure that it would actually work for me. I cleared out a pocket of my utility belt and put the PFG in, then took it out and made sure it worked after being in the belt. I fixed it on my utility belt and made sure it would work if I turned it in while light, normal, or heavy. I made sure it would keep working if I changed density. And then we did a little semi-destructive testing: Reach pounded on the forcefield with several baseball bats. By the time we were done, she had broken all the bats over the forcefield, and Spark was bemoaning the clean-up that would be required to ensure there were no wood splinters lying about anywhere.
I smiled, “It seems to do everything I wanted. How much do you want for it?”
She cautiously asked, “Is five thousand dollars too high?”
“Not at all,” I shook my head. “A really good PFG is worth a lot more than that. In fact, if you were one of my inventors, I would recommend that we investigate current cost/power ratios and determine an optimal market price. I’m going to write you a check for ten K, and when you get another one made, I’ll buy that too. I have a teammate who needs more protection, and Generator’s PFGs don’t seem to work for her.”
She smiled, “Oh, some devises are very fragile. Generator’s devises seem to work only for her. She is not the only one who has that problem.”
Reach checked, “When do you think you’d have the second one ready?”
Spark smiled at Reach, “I can probably get it finished in Workshop this afternoon.”
“Good,” I said. “That sounds really good.” I slipped my Whateley blazer on over the PFG, which I left hanging on my utility belt. Then I headed home.
I got all the way back to my room before the next problem emerged. Molly and Chou popped open our door and dragged me into my room. Chou hastily held up a finger to her lips to keep me quiet. Molly showed me a note: ‘something funny going on in Fey room’.
Chou quickly wrote another note. ‘want you to have headmask along for infrared just in case.’
I wrote my own note. “What the hell is going on?”
Chou wrote: ‘do not know. go look.’
I grabbed my headmask and stuffed it inside my Whateley blazer. Then we oh so casually walked next door. I was already wondering if this was related to Beltane’s aborted prank on Shove. Had she pranked Nikki or Toni also? I didn’t think it was related to my little revenges of the morning, but it was possible.
Chou knocked and said, “Hi Nikki. Can we come in?”
“Oh sure!” There was the sound of hasty scuffling. “Hang on one second, I’m just cleaning up.”
Chou and I just looked at each other. That was a really obvious lie. Ever since Koehnes showed up, Nikki and Toni hadn’t had to do a lick of cleaning – except when Koehnes dumped something on Toni’s head. And lately, Nikki’s Whateley uniforms were looking suspiciously like someone had pressed them just before Nikki put them on.
Finally, the door opened. Nikki said, “Hi. What’s up?” I noticed she only opened the door halfway, and she blocked the opening with her body.
I lied, “Oh, it’s Beltane. Again. She was up to something. Was she doing anything to you?”
“Oh no,” Nikki said. “Like Koehnes would let her.”
A little voice piped up from behind Nikki. “Thank you, Mistress!”
Nikki whispered, “Some people don’t have much sense of humor if the pranks aren’t being done by them.”
Chou smiled, “Are you talking about Koehnes or about Beltane?”
Nikki said, “Look, I need to go check on something I asked Toni to help with.”
She squeezed through the half-open door and pulled it shut behind her. She gave me a smile with too much glamour attached. “I’ll be back in a bit. Okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
Chou waved as Nikki walked off, then dragged me into our room. She hastily wrote ‘koehnes has good hearing too. something is going on in there.’
I wrote, “Do you want me to stick my head through the wall and peek?”
Chou and Molly both nodded yes. I pulled on my headmask for added infrared vision, and I stuck my head through the wall just enough that my eyes and nose were on the other side of Nikki’s wall.
There was a large pentagram drawn on the floor. A circle surrounded it, along some odd little scribings that led off from the circle. Some of the scribing was in an uncomfortably deep red. I jerked my head back as soon as Koehnes lifted her little head from whatever she was doing.
Chou and Molly gave me raised eyebrows, and Molly made a ‘come on already’ gesture.
I drew what it looked like to me, and wrote underneath, “There are lots of details I could not make out.”
They looked at each other, and Chou scribbled, ‘we are going to Security now. then Dorjee. then Circe. do nothing until we get back.’
Oh crap! Was this another pentagram of evil, like what Team Chou had fought on Saturday? And if so, what the hell was Nikki doing with it? After all, that had to be the real Nikki. An impostor couldn’t hit me with Fey’s glamour that easily.
What if Nikki was being controlled, or tricked? We didn’t really know anything about Koehnes, except what Nikki had told us. And if Nikki was under some sort of mind control, that information was useless. Worse than useless.
But there wasn’t any way I had of checking on Koehnes, except possibly through someone like Circe, who was already going to be brought into the loop.
Ugh. I so needed some magic courses, just so I had enough information to know what to do in cases like this! One thing was for sure. I wasn’t going to let Team Chou tackle this one alone. I was going to drag Tennyo into it as soon as I found out what was going on.
So, given all that, it wasn’t too surprising that lunch was freaky. We didn’t have Nikki’s anti-eavesdropping crystal, since Nikki and Toni didn’t come to lunch. That, in itself, was suspicious. Toni missing a meal? Not a very likely happenstance. She didn’t pack it away like Hank and Billie did, but Toni ate a lot. She was an Energizer too, and she worked out a lot harder than most fifteen-year-old girls, so she needed the calories. But Chou and Molly didn’t want to talk about it in public. Okay, that was a good protocol when we had no adequate protections against snoopers.
The big seller in the lunch line was something that was labeled beef pot pie, but I had my doubts about it. I really doubted you could cook an adequate beef pot pie if you prepared it in three foot by four foot pans… in the worst ovens still operating at Whateley.
At least I had a really delicious lunch. Paloma had a plate waiting for me. In Spanish, she explained, “Chef Peter sent this over for you. This is beef bourguignon, and these are grilled onion scapes topped with a hazelnut aillade mayonnaise.”
She also had a hand-written note for me, from Peter. It read:
I knew you would be interested in the process. We coated the onion scapes in olive oil, grilled them, and seasoned them to taste with sea salt and a coarsely-ground five pepper blend. The hazelnut aillade is dark-roasted hazelnuts, fresh garlic, salt, white pepper, and just enough water to blend it in a food processor. Then hazelnut oil added until it’s smooth and soft. Then we mixed that one-to-one with a freshly made mayonnaise. Enjoy, Peter.
And, as an extra bonus when I was eating a vegetable dish that might not be to everyone’s taste, there were no Chaka comments about my food.
While Hank shoveled in the beef pot pie – or what Mrs. Lovett had probably claimed was beef pot pie – he asked, “Hey, where’s Chaka and Fey? More stuff with that Dyffud guy?”
Chou gave me a kick under the table to keep me quiet, and said, “I do not think so.”
Billie said, “At least this way, I only have Ayla giving me grief for eating so much.”
I made an effort not to rub my shin, and I replied, “Hey, you’re just a growing… orca.”
She grinned through a mouthful of food. “I should’ve known not to give you a straight line.”
I shrugged, “Hey, look at it this way. Toni would have had a lot more to say than that.”
She said, “You know, eating this much would bother me a heck of a lot more if my mom wasn’t exactly the same way.”
Jade insisted, “Oh, no way, you eat tons more! You kicked her butt in that eating contest on Parents’ Day!”
“Not helping here, Jade,” Billie muttered. She looked at me and complained, “You know, Risk and Hazard and Boxcars were trying to rope me into an eating contest. Me, Jimmy T, Razorback, Bova, a couple other kids.”
“Bova?” Hank checked. “She’s the cow-girl, right?”
“Yeah,” Billie nodded.
I didn’t say anything, but I knew Bova was another of the Whitman GSD cases. My sources said it wasn’t strictly GSD, but one of the other bizarre mutant issues that always get lumped under the umbrella of ‘GSD’. And she wasn’t a rope-them-dogies cowgirl. She was a cow. She was bigger than Igneous, and she looked more like a cow than a human. And, just to make things suck extra hard, she was a telepath, so she had to know just how many people made fun of her.
Jade encouraged, “Oh, you could win that one, easy!”
I said, “Probably not. Bova may have four stomachs, and she weighs probably three or four times what Billie does. And Jimmy can cheat. He can just keep enlarging his stomach as much as he needs to.”
“Oh yeah,” Jade murmured. “He did that awesome Godzilla thing last year.”
“At least twice,” Hank pointed out. “That we know of.”
I pointed out, “Yeah. Imagine how much someone with a stomach the size of Godzilla’s could eat if he wanted to. Besides, you know the campus bookies wouldn’t go for a contest they couldn’t rig in some way.”
Hank wondered, “Aren’t they your bookie network now?”
I shook my head no. “Not a chance. They only come to me when they need to, like if they need a loan.” Okay, they had come to me with some intel. But it wasn’t like I had been surprised people were betting on us getting into another super-battle. I was even taking a few precautions this time.
Once we left the cafeteria, Chou and Molly subtly signaled me that they had something to tell me. I followed them down into the Hawthorne tunnel. Once we were alone, Chou explained, “We talked to Security. If you hear something next door, do not over-react. It ought to be some Security staff with one of the Magical Arts faculty.”
I pointed out, “I’ve got Shakespeare for the next two periods. I won’t be there.”
Molly said, “Okay, that’s probably good. And we’re going to try to get Winnie in to look at it too, if we can make sure Nikki’s not in there.”
I said, “Get someone to check out Koehnes. She could be behind the whole thing, you know.”
“Good idea,” said Chou.
Molly said, “I’m sure they’re already on it. I mean, Security doesn’t like the idea of some total stranger showing up and just claiming she’s here to be the Queen of the Fae’s new maid.”
“So what should I do?” I worried.
Chou said, “I think we should spend some time away from the room, so Security can do their job.”
I didn’t really like that idea. If Nikki and Toni were in danger, we needed to do something. But if Security was already tasked with this, then we might be getting in their way. Ugh. I just reminded myself that Stormwolf would have known exactly what to do… and it would have turned out to be a hundred percent wrong.
But I already I had my gymbag and my bookbag, so I didn’t need to go back to my room for three periods. I reluctantly put my trust in Whateley Security, and I headed over to Shakespeare class, where I knew I would stew about this for two solid periods while I was supposed to be concentrating on a play.
After a quick detour to the Eastman Annex to stash my gymbag, I managed to get to class early, for a change. And Silver Serpent was waiting outside the classroom with her pal Quyèn Nũ. I idly wondered if DC Comics had any idea how many mutant girl bricks had codenames in foreign languages which translated roughly to ‘super girl’ or ‘power girl’.
Silv led both of us to some second-row seats smack in the middle of the row. She looked around to make sure we weren’t going to be disturbed. Then she said, “I – that is – both of us received the invitations to the Chinese New Year celebration. It appears that you and Bladedancer have invited most, if not all, of the Oriental students at Whateley.”
I pointed out, “We do know the difference between China and other countries. Chou just wanted to include some more people, just to make it more fun.”
Silv looked at her friend and said, “We assumed as much. It is not as if Fantastico had planned the party. Or Bubble.”
That one cracked me up. “Oh my God, can you imagine what Bubble’s idea of a Chinese New Year party would be?”
Quyèn Nũ muttered, “We would all be expected to get under a big paper dragon and march around campus.”
Silv groaned, “Lots of fireworks. I am quite sure it would involve many, many fireworks. That would probably be American red white and blue.”
I snorted with laughter. “Are you going to come? It ought to be fun.”
She nodded. “Hatamoto said your Golden Kids party was somewhere beyond ‘spectacular’.”
I smirked, “That might be because I had Fey and Tennyo in maid costumes. Hatamoto was very intrigued.”
Quyèn Nũ murmured, “He keeps talking about Tennyo in a tiny French maid costume with high heels. How on earth did you get Tennyo to dress up like that?”
I shrugged carelessly. “I just asked. Her roomie and several of our friends were doing it, so she decided to join in. It’s not like she’s a rampaging maniac. She’s just a normal teenaged girl trying to adjust to her GSD and being a mutant.”
They looked at each other. Silv said, “Historically, the Whateley Section 33 cases are not referred to as normal teenaged anythings.”
I said, “If you got a chance to meet her, you’d find out she’s shy, and she likes to read, and she likes ballroom dance. I think that pushes her pretty heavily into the ‘nerd’ camp. Sure, she has a temper when she gets pushed hard enough, but don’t we all?”
Silv talked some more about the Chinese New Year celebration, but I was getting an odd vibe off her. It was slightly strange, since she was usually so calm and collected. It was as if she simultaneously really wanted to come, and also wanted to avoid the whole thing. Or perhaps I was misinterpreting her body language because she wasn’t an American girl. It would have been really handy if Chaka and Shroud could have looked her over and told me what her emotions were really doing.
As more students trickled in, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “Phase? Are you really serious about this contract with Jobe?”
“Yes. Of course. I wouldn’t deal with him if I weren’t deadly serious about it.”
She warned me, “It is far more dangerous to be involved in a Jobe experiment than you realize.”
I nodded, “I know. I do peer over the edge before I leap into the abyss. I’m fully aware of how badly a Jobe experiment can go. But I do trust that Jobe will adhere to the letter and spirit of the contract, if we write up a fair contract that he likes.”
She carefully said, “The only thing more dangerous than a Jobe experiment that fails is a Jobe experiment that succeeds.”
I smiled slightly, “Jadis told me the same thing.”
She admitted, “I’m sure I can work with Jadis, and I believe I will be able to work with Zenith, but Nephandus can be a problem. And I don’t know Diamondback.”
I assured her, “Diamondback is highly intelligent, and her closest friends trust her to do things like review contracts. Plus, everyone knows she outsmarted Hekate in front of the whole school.”
Silv smiled wickedly. “I rather enjoyed that one. Designing a ploy that depended on your partner being a backstabbing bitch? Ingenious. Still, I don’t know how she’ll handle what might be weeks of frustrating negotiations.”
I said, “If the contract negotiations get that bad, we’ll simply stop. The objective is building a contract with which everyone is satisfied.”
She looked at me oddly. “Do you really believe that is even possible?”
I pointed out, “It only needs to satisfy Jobe and me. But I would be happier if the negotiators didn’t find it a trying experience. After all, I did nominate friends of mine, not company lawyers being paid to endure the misery.”
She looked at me consideringly. “I will… bear that in mind.”
The class discussion was considerably less interesting than that chat. ‘Beavis and Butthead’ in the back row seemed to think Beatrice and Benedick were essentially Ross and Rachel in funny clothes. I had to clench my jaws from making responses when a Don John fangirl started babbling inanely about his role in the play. He’s the villain, for Christ’s sake! He virtually condemns an innocent girl to a fate worse than death, just because he doesn’t like the guy who wants to marry her! He’s a scheming, lying creep. But the actor who played Don John played him as a smooth, debonair villain, and so our little fangirl was swooning for him.
I managed not to say anything on the subject, although I nearly had to bite my tongue. Twice. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person in the room who thought Super(fan)girl had a screw loose.
Ugh. After that ‘discussion’, I was actually glad to get out of the class and head over to martial arts.
I walked out of my clothes and dressed in my gi and utility belt. I hoped I had it properly prepped for hen Ito threw Judicator or Lancer or Aztecka at me. Then I joined the other students at the edge of the mat, just before Ito and Tolman came out to start class.
We started with the usual fun warm-up tortures. Then we worked on counters to moves by different weapons. I was having a small problem, because my best counters were usually depending on knowledge of the opponent’s abilities. For example, if someone came at me with a spear, I could go light and let the spear got through me, before going heavy and disintegrating a section out of it. Except that I couldn’t do the same thing if it was Judicator’s PK spear, or if Chaka was wielding the spear and preparing to hit me with her Chaka Chaka Bang Bang, or if Counterpoint was wielding the spear and also wielding an Energizer attack. So I needed some foreknowledge of the attacker and his methods, which wasn’t going to be practical in the real world. That meant I was usually ending up resorting to less optimal methods, like going fully heavy and taking a spearpoint off my hide. Ouch.
Sparring started off in its usual way. Redlight fought off Shadowolf until he had a chance to do his paralysis attack and freeze Shadowolf in place for the win. Chaka and Sahar started off dodging everything the other threw, until Chaka did something – she probably closed her brow chakra, based on things she has talked about with the team – and then suddenly Sahar couldn’t dodge anything coming her way. Aquerna and Força had a pretty good match, since he was a lot stronger than she was, but she managed to jump out of reach of just about all of his attacks. It occurred to me that she could probably develop a really freaky version of capoeira if she worked at it for a few years. There were a number of interesting matches that I watched carefully.
Then finally, sensei Ito called, “Phase! With me, please.”
I hopped up and moved to the sparring circle where he was judging. Then he turned to the other students and called out, “…and also Tennyo.”
TENNYO? SHIT! That evil little bastard! Goddamnit!