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Ayla and the Birthday Brawl - chapter 12

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl

by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)

CHAPTER 12 – The Legend of Talus, or of Fortitude

Saturday, January 27, 2007
AYLA

I woke up when the alarm went off.  It was playing one of my new finds: a band called Don Caballero.  All right, Brian’s big brother had found it, and Brian had then emailed me about it.  I was just listening a little bit.  They played progressive rock that was almost in the math-rock category.  I didn’t like them as much as some of the other music I had been listening to lately, but they were a heck of a lot better than the bland, stupid Top 40 dreck that was playing on most of the radios and MP3 players around here.

I was feeling pretty tired after those damned nightmares, but I couldn’t go back to sleep.  I had a trip to organize.  All the important details had already been handled, but I still needed to oversee all the little details, and those unforeseen difficulties that always crop up.  A year ago, I would have designated one of the staff as an organizer, and left the details to him or her.  But now I was looking at having to hire a party organizer I didn’t know, or else having to hire someone I did know, who had limited or no experience with this kind of activity.

That, and Jody already did way too much for me.  There was no way I was going to dump all this work on her too.  Even if there wasn’t a risk that she was Tansy’s mole inside Poe.

I dragged myself out of bed and slipped into my bathrobe.  I toted my shower gear into the bathroom and got in line behind Toni and Jade.

Toni turned her head and grinned, “I gotta admit it, Ayles.  I never thought in a million years I was gonna be the kind of girl who got to ‘do lunch’ with millionaires and a private plane and a restaurant reserved just for us.”

I smiled back, “I guess you’ve been living right.”

Jade uncomfortably admitted, “I never thought I’d be the kind of anything who got to do this kind of stuff.”

Toni pointed out, “Well, now you’re the kind of girl who’s datin’ a millionaire, and who has a super-millionaire for a friend, and who has a billionaire heiress for a major enemy.  You’re steppin’ up in the world!”

“Billionaire heiress for a personal enemy?  Who’s that?” wondered Pilar from behind me.

“Tansy Walcutt,” Jade scowled.  “Personal enemy of me and Jinn both.  And we’re still pretty ticked off at her.”

Pilar asked, “Is there any badguy around here Team Kimba is not busy having wars with?”

“Probably,” I said.  But I let it drop.  My networks had come up with some vague rumors about some of the kids at school.  There were some smarter players who were staying off the radar, but were probably busy aiming for lives as major supervillains.  I hadn’t been able to confirm those rumors.  After all, these were kids who were too smart to do what Freya did, or what The Don was still trying to do.  They didn’t show off their fundamental evilness in flashy ways.  They stayed off the Security lists, which was something we Kimbas hadn’t managed to do.  That unfortunately suggested that they might be a lot smarter than we were, or at least much better planners.

That wasn’t a good thing, as far as I was concerned.  I preferred my supervillains to be dumb and careless.  Unlucky was good, too.  I was definitely in favor of stupid, unlucky supervillains with obvious weaknesses.  Unfortunately, I was racking up some dangerous, competent enemies.  I wasn’t worried about the Solanges and Tisiphones and Fantasticos of the world.  I was worried about Emil Hammond, and my Christmas demon, and the hyper-competent people who would eventually put me up on their radarscopes as I became more important as a financial and economic force: significant threats like Brigand, or Dr. Diabolik, or Jihad.  People were still talking about Diabolik’s attack on Cincinnati, and – despite the popular view that he lost dramatically – the extensive insurance claims after the fact indicated that his forces made out like Warren Buffett in a bear market.

All around me, girls were chatting about the trip to Boston.  No one seemed to be mad at me about the DFA argument last night.  Okay, Toni basically was too cheerful and effervescent to hold a grudge over previous arguments.  Admittedly, I was the one in the group who was most likely to hold a grudge about something like that.  In fact, I was still really bothered about the entire issue.

And, since everyone was chatting away about the trip, they all forgot to watch out for me.  I zipped through my shower and dried off with my usual trick, so I could get a mirror and watch Toni dry off while simultaneously painting and drying her fingernails.  Then Pilar dried off by standing there naked and secreting something from her pores that made the water evaporate off her skin.  Then Bunny undressed and showered and hopped out stark naked to dry off.  All in all, it was another great morning in Poe.  This was the one thing I was going to miss if I managed to get my BIT repaired.

I hiked off to Dunn for breakfast, with Toni leading the charge and Nikki yawning, “Oh Goddess, I should have hit you up for a cup of coffee before we left.”

“I’ve told you before.  It’s okay with me.  Just give me a couple minutes’ notice so I can brew some up.”

Toni helpfully added, “Or you can just walk in on her, in nothin’ but that little sheer thing you were wearing this morning, and Ayles’ll be real happy to have you stand there while she brews up a batch.”

I glanced over at Nikki.  “Have you ever noticed how incredibly helpful Toni can be?”

“Oh, yes,” Nikki agreed sarcastically.  “Why, she’s so helpful she could replace Koehnes.  In fact, maybe I ought to arrange it so she has to…”

Rather than being properly cowed, Toni laughed.  She replied, “Oh yeah?  And then who would pop all your escaping hobgoblins?”

Nikki unleashed a massive yawn and said, “Sometimes I think you are an escaped hobgoblin.”

“Pretty hard to think of anything more troublesome, unless you count the entire J-Team,” I agreed.

“Oh, I think the whole J-Team plus Risk and Flux,” Nikki suggested.

“And maybe throw in Beltane too,” I said.

Toni turned around to face us, while still walking.  Just walking backwards.  She smirked, “I think you gotta add in at least that Thorn kid too.”

“I’ll tell Belle and Thorn you said so,” I casually threatened.

Toni just laughed, since she knew I had no intention of doing anything like that.  Okay, she was also walking backward and moonwalking at the same time.  And she was probably doing eight other things with her Ki as well.  Perhaps some special Ki-enhanced sinus clearing or something.

We got in the chow line at Dunn Hall.  Although, given the appearance of the food up ahead at the serving tables, it might be Mongolian Chow Chow that we were going to be fed.

A couple of Superior’s pals were behind us in line.  Of course, they had to lip off at us.  One of them growled, “I hope you get your ass blasted off in Boston, bitch!”

I didn’t do more than turn my head.  “Glad to see your Prozac regimen is working so well.”

I didn’t do more than turn my head, because I had the Mistress of Ki and the Sidhe Queen with me, keeping a psychic eye on those guys.  And I really doubted they had the cojones to take on all three of us.  Actually, without Superior egging them on, I doubted they had what it takes to tackle any one of us.

Toni grinned, “Wow Ayles, you’re off to a great start already.”

“Thaaaanks.”

THE NECROMANCER

Darrow leaned over Hekate’s shoulder at the complex working she was still tweaking.  The child was annoying, and self-centered, and extremely irritating.  But she did have a knack for learning the darker magics without going insane or having her brain melt from the inside out.

She sat up and groaned, “There!  I hope you’re happy.  Do you have any idea how many small animals I had to kill to make this work?  My room is a MESS!”

“How could I not know?” he reminded her caustically.  “I was the one who procured the animals.  And this is my library you’ve been befouling!  I expect this completely cleaned up, and thoroughly cleansed with an appropriate scouring spell, before we get back.”

“Can I use the de-sanctification spell out of Balthesiar’s Majicks of Darkest Hew?  I’ve been dying to try it out.”

He closed his eyes and sighed.  “Yes, you may.”  He didn’t want her rummaging in his books, but she had picked a particularly relevant spell and she had all the necessary ingredients already.  He carefully moved the working into a protective etui and left, telling her, “I have other preparations to check on.  Don’t expect me back for a couple hours.”

He closed the door behind him and wondered just how worried she would be while he was gone.  After all, she knew a great deal about the forces he would be facing, and if he failed to return she would be trapped down here, helplessly awaiting a horrific curse.  Perhaps, after he succeeded, he would wait for several hours before returning, just to see how terrified she might become.  Maybe he could stretch it out to a day before he needed access to any of his tomes.

He smiled malevolently as he walked up to his private quarters.  He needed to make some phone calls.

He first dialed a new cell phone.  The cell phone industry did make life simpler for criminal enterprises.  Simply pick up a new phone, buy a hundred minutes, give out the number to your partners, then destroy the phone when you were done.  Instant loss of forensic evidence.  He didn’t need all that rigmarole, since he used a phone system that was magically protected.  But some of today’s contacts did.

“Is the limo ready?” he checked.

Her voice rang through the line, “Yes, Dr. Darrow.  The limo, and the costume too.”

“Excellent,” he said.  “I’ll let you know when to pick us up.”

Then he called the Felonious Four through their newest contact system.  “This is Darrow.  Are you ready?”

“Yes sir.  We went over building blueprints, and we infiltrated their computer system.  We know what room the party’s in, and who’s gonna be there, and how many security men will be outside the party.  We found the best spot for your thing, and it’s already in place under the carpet.”

Darrow reminded him, “Just remember.  Once it activates, your team will only have twenty seconds.  That’s all.”

“Yes sir.  That’s plenty of time for us.  And we’re more than happy with the payment.  For that kind of bonus and this kind of set-up, we’ll be happy to do a lot more work for you.”

“Excellent,” he finished.

After that, he made the least appetizing call.  When someone answered the phone, he snarled, “Get me Sneaky Pete.  Now.”

A few seconds later, a ‘Noo Yawk’ accent came on the line.  “Yeah?”

Darrow boomed, “Pete!  Are you fully prepared?”

“All set.  Just like we agreed.  I got your package and everything.”

Darrow fumed, “Good.  And you had better not screw up this time!  You got in my way in New York, and I let you live.  Do NOT make me reconsider that decision.  Or I’ll rip out your soul and subjugate you in eternal torment!”  Darrow hung up on him before Pete had the opportunity to consider making a snide comeback.

Then it was time to check on his hired mercenaries.  He glanced up at his chronometers.  If they said they would call at a precise time, they would call at the exact second they said.  That was one of several things he liked about them.  Naturally, at the top of his list was their utter expendability.

His external phone system rang at four seconds after his chronometer clicked over to the minute.  He smiled.  Even precision phone-calling had to deal with security numbers and obstructive phone systems.  He pressed the speakerphone button.  “Yes, Major Spaulding?”

The major got down to business in a nicely professional manner.  “Our forces are already in place.  Power armor and body armor are allotted.  They’ve been warned that they’re facing mutant teenagers of unspecified power sets.  And, under your worst case scenario, one of the force leaders is equipped with a deadman switch with plenty of C-4.”

Darrow smiled grimly.  “That’s very interesting, but I wasn’t billed for a deadman switch.”

“No sir,” assured the major.  “But almost all of the men on this force are wanted in countries where getting blown into little pieces is preferable to being extradited and put in the hands of the security forces.  We just wanted to give you a heads-up in case you had any assets in place.”

Darrow almost laughed.  “No, there’s no one who will still be there who I’m interested in.  Feel free to blow the place into the next state.”

“Copy that, sir.”

He smiled ruthlessly.  It appeared that the message he intended to deliver was going to be somewhat more forceful than he had planned.  That was entirely suitable, as far as he was concerned.

Finally, he placed a call to a local number that was probably yet another payphone to be tossed after today’s work.  Not that he cared.  These were just hired muscle.  Men who were willing to work for any supervillain who waved enough green before their eyes.  “Mr. Black?  Are you ready?”

“Yes sir.  We’ve checked out everything.  We got your museum map and all the details you sent on the security systems, so we’ve got the gear to crack it.  We can have those silver things out of there and be long gone before anyone wises up, and we got your magical bag to hold the stuff.”

“Fine,” Darrow said.  “You may keep all the silver, once you have let me extract what lies within.  I would recommend that no one in your group try to open them first.  At least one of them should be lethal.”

“I already briefed the team on that, sir.”

Darrow disconnected and left the room.  ‘Mister Black’.  Honestly.  Did they think he cared enough about them to track down their real names?  He didn’t even care if they succeeded in stealing those fake reliquaries.  They were strictly a gambit.  A ploy.  If they stole the silver and managed to bring it to him, he would simply pretend to perform a spell over the booty and then let them walk off with the loot.  Given that the reliquaries were fakes, the silver in them would just barely pay the minions for performing the break-in, unless they managed to con some wealthy collector into thinking they weren’t fakes at all.

He walked upstairs to find Vamp and Nightgaunt in their usual stand-off.  Nightgaunt was giving Vamp the silent treatment, while Vamp was giving Nightgaunt the ‘anything except silent’ treatment.

VAMP

“Oh come on, Nighty-Night.  Don’t you think that cape makes you look kinda…”  She raised her eyebrows at him and waggled her hand in a gesture that anyone in Southside would instantly punch you in the mouth for.  “…gay?”

He gave her his harshest stare, which lost a lot since it was still inside that stupid face-covering mask.

She sashayed over to him, giving him her naughtiest look.  “Dontcha think you’d do better with the lay-deez if you lost that cape and the faygele belt?”  She gave his belt a tug right in between the two large gems.

He swatted her hand away, and she laughed.  He was pretty fricking strong for a baseline, but she was an Exemplar.  He whipped out one of his escrima sticks and spun it in his fingers.

She leered, “Oh, you’d rather play with your stick than have me pullin’ on your gems?  No wonder you like that fruity cape.”  She gave him a wicked leer and waited to see if he’d take her up on her offer, or take a swing at her.

“VAMP!” Darrow roared at her.

“Yes massa?” she snarked.  She always tried to look insolent, even if he scared the piss out of her.  She still hadn’t healed from some of the burns he’d given her.  Some of those burns, she wasn’t sure she’d ever fully heal up.

“Do I need to remind you that it is dangerous to be too insolent around me?”

She let out a slow breath.  Then she forced herself to look at the floor and say, “No sir.”

“Good, because I have better things to do today than rip out your toenails one by one.  And I’m going to need you to be mobile in a couple hours,” he finished.  “I want both of you ready.  In a little while, it will be time for us to take a limousine ride.”

She pretended to perk up.  “A limo?  Where?  Some place fancy?”

He grinned wickedly, “You’ll see when we get there.”

She pouted at him, like she really wanted him to spill.  But secretly she was really worried.  She’d tipped Skyhawk and Tilley about all three possibles.  What if he was going to hit some other place she didn’t know about?  What if he was just setting her up to find out if he really had a mole?  What if he was setting her up because he was sure she was the mole?  Maybe she’d better get farther along on Official Plan Haul-Ass-Out-Of-Here before he carried through on some of his really awful threats.

MIMEO

“Okay, you in yer chair?”

Mimeo refrained from rolling his eyes.  The guard had a monitor to look through, so why the hell was he bothering to ask?  “Yeah.  Sure.”

Mimeo let the chair clamp shut over him, and he waited for the door to open.  It wasn’t Eddie Delahanty this time, but one of his family.  He wondered if they were already having a falling-out about who got to get clues from The Mark.

The guy set down a large tray and said, “You got extra pancakes and extra orange juice today.”

“Gee, thanks.”  He tried to sound sincere but stupid.

“Thought any more about that stash?”

Mimeo nodded, “Umm, yeah.”  He decided to drop yet another ‘clue’.  “I been thinking.  We might need a pretty hefty truck with really fat tires.  It’s rough farmland, and the gold bars I got there with everything else weigh a couple tons.  Can you get something like that and make it not too noticeable?”

The guy nearly laughed in excitement.  The Delahantys were the greediest weasels Mimeo had ever met, and they were supposed to be some of the good guys.  Huh.

PRISM

Prism looked down the hill at the two shuttles in the parking lot.  Phase and some of Team Kimba were already gathering there.  He could see some Security officers there too.

Imperious glowered, “I still don’t like this.”

Judicator tried to calm him down.  “They’re not going to try to get Prism alone and attack him.”

“How can you be sure?”

She managed not to sigh.  “Because they’re making it too obvious and too public.  They have three Security officers-”

“Two,” Imperious corrected.

“Three,” she insisted.  “Besides the two obvious officers, they have Samantha Everheart down there passing as a schoolgirl.  That probably means Phase is making sure they have enough protection for most threats.  But it also means that Phase is trying to ensure that everyone will be safe if something happens.”

“So, all they have to do is have Fey cast an illusion on the three guards and then they have ‘evidence’ that they weren’t the ones who attacked Prism.”

Judicator disagreed, “They can’t hope to pull something like that off.  They have the Everheart woman, who – according to our informant – has superhuman senses and could possibly be proof against magics like that.  We don’t know.  Plus, they have Charmer along, and she’s too powerful a Wizard to be affected.  They have at least one Avatar going, and they’re usually able to spot magics.  And they have enough devisers that one or more of them are likely to have anti-illusion devises along.”

Imperious muttered, “I’m still not happy about it.”

Prism just said, “Look, nothing’s going to happen.  I’ll go, I’ll have fun, I’ll eat too much – everyone says Phase goes all out when it comes to food – I’ll come back, and I’ll tell you if anything interesting happens.”

Judicator urged, “Try to find out what you can about Tennyo.  We still don’t know if she really is The Scourge.”

Prism glared at her.  “I’m not going to play James Bond for you.  Phase has said that I can report anything I hear.  I’m taking her at her word.  But I’m not going to pry into anyone’s private secrets.  It’s not as if we don’t have secrets of our own we want to protect.”

Judicator nodded.  “Then tell Phase we met about the ‘Bladedancer’ incident, and we decided that N’Dizi was deliberately making Counterpoint angry at her.  Just as he did against Chaka.  We think it has something to do with the fighting between the Dragons and the Tigers, but we don’t have enough information to be certain.  If you’re open about it, they may be open in return.”

Imperious muttered, “That sounds like something Phase would go for.  Knick-Knack says there are an unusual number of devisers going, and most of the Workshop thinks it’s a Phase ploy to get more inventors to sign up with her, instead of going through the standard Whateley patent support.”

Judicator said, “That’s likely.  She apparently is a Goodkind.  Goodkinds think in terms of business organizations and economic power.  She probably is treating her inventors to a good time, so other inventors will want to sign up with her.”

Imperious asked, “You’re sure she’s really one of the Goodkinds?  One of the ‘we hate mutants’ Goodkinds?”

Judicator nodded, “Yes.  No question about it.  Her friends in Team Kimba have no compunction about talking about her in the locker room, before and after martial arts.  Apparently, Phase also pays the chefs here to prepare special food for her.  The first week of term, Phase had an apple and endive salad that she shared with Chaka and Bladedancer.  It was too bitter for Chaka, although Bladedancer thought it was extremely good.  But Chaka made jokes about Ayla the Goodkind and ‘freaky rich people food’ the entire time we were in the locker room.  And her teammates all supported her comments, although they teased her back.  Phase is one of the children of one of the primary Goodkinds, and apparently has more disposable income than all of us put together.”

Imperious nodded.  “We should be able to use that information.”

Prism gritted his teeth.  This was one of the reasons he didn’t want to be in the core group of the New Olympians.  He only said, “Well, I’ll see you later.”  He strolled down the hill from Melville toward the shuttles.

AYLA

I did a quick check.  All of Team Kimba was already here, with Shroud in her best skinpours so she looked just as Asian – and just as human – as Jade.  Samantha Everheart was dressed in khakis and a nice blouse, so she looked like one more student.

Trews and Green had gone for the ‘Men in Black’ look, with black suits, skinny black ties, white shirts, and black oxfords.  They both had earpieces on coiled cords that snaked into their shirt collars, and heavy black sunglasses.  They also had weapons in holsters under their left armpits, and I had a feeling they were carrying something more powerful than a .38 revolver.  I couldn’t see a weapon on Samantha, but I knew she didn’t need one to be effective.  I also knew she was smart enough to make sure than anything she was packing would be invisible to the unaided eye.

Now all we needed were the various contingents from around campus.

Toni strolled over and said, “You know Ayles, you got a whole ‘rainbow coalition’ going on with this thing.  That on purpose?”

I admitted, “No, it’s completely an accident of circumstance.  I’ve got you for a friend and Vanessa for a girlfriend.  Then we’ve got Rip and Pilar, so we have the Hispanic sector covered.”

She added, “And the Native American too.  Rip’s not pure Hispanic.”

I shrugged.  “Pilar probably isn’t either.”

She said, “Then you got the Asian crowd with Chou and Jade and Billie and Dorjee, and the ‘dead’ crowd, with Jinn, and the Sidhe with Nik, and the Europeans with Charmer, and-”

Hank interrupted, “And the white male minority, just to be politically correct.”

Yeah, we were rather short on white males.  Besides Hank – who wasn’t a hundred percent male quite yet – and Prism and Möbius, we were looking at a few ex-males and me.  Jericho was the only other guy in the group.  That probably said a lot about the people with whom I wanted to spend time.  I wondered if this was my male hormones focusing on Exemplar girls, or if it could be something like the female hormones inside me urging me toward unmasculine activities.  On the gripping hand, I couldn’t think of any unmasculine activities that I was doing with all these hotties.  I didn’t think that martial arts and fighting with weapons was going to count as a ‘girly’ activity.  But I wasn’t sitting around watching football with the guys, or anything like that.  Not that I ever had.  I had been to some polo matches, but I didn’t think normal guys watched polo.

I decided to spend my time watching for arrivals, instead of worrying about my already-bizarre psychological issues.

AQUERNA

Anna was so excited she could hardly hold still.  She was lucky she didn’t have to hold still, since they were walking down the path to central campus.  Okay, she’d had a ton of trouble sitting still at breakfast and focusing on eating a good meal.  Because she was so excited about this trip!  She, Anna Parsons, one of the losers back in Zanesville, the girl whose dad worked in a junkyard, was going on a super-fancy trip in a private jet to Boston just for lunch with one of the richest girls in the world!  She knew this kind of stuff only happened in movies.  And teevee programs.  And books.  And romance novels.  And some animes she’d watched.  But it was still so cool!

She was walking along with Molly and Charmer.  And that was great too.  Because they were both really, really nice.  Okay, she didn’t know anyone who was going who wasn’t nice.  Even if Generator and Shroud were kind of weird sometimes.  Not that she was Miss Perfect or anything, but sometimes Generator just sort of did crazy stuff.  And Anna still couldn’t tell if Shroud was a real person or not, since when they sparred, sometimes Anna did stuff that would like kill someone real, and Shroud just acted like it was nothing.  One day, when Shroud was being the ‘pads and things’ fighting dummy, Anna cut her head off.  A kama slice that went right through her neck.  And Shroud just said ‘good job’ like it was nothing.  And when Shroud was being Shroud, sparring against her was like fighting The Terminator, but with buzzsaws and flying knives.  Okay, Shroud was really careful not to hurt you or anything, but still it was pretty weird, even for Whateley, which was saying a lot.

Molly said, “So how are you liking that martial arts class?  Chou says you’re working with fighting claws and the… umm… comma?”

Anna nodded and grinned.  “Yeah.  The kama.  It’s one of those little scythes on a short stick?  You know.  They used their farming tools for weapons ‘cause they couldn’t carry swords around?”

Charmer smiled, “It sounds like you’re enjoying it.  I did all right last term in aikido, but I didn’t enjoy it all that much.”

Anna said, “Well, you don’t need martial arts.  You’re a super-powerful Wizard.  And you got those charms on your bracelet if anyone tries to surprise you.”

Charmer gave her a funny look.  “You are not supposed to notice that these are magical tokens that hold prepared spells.”

Anna shrugged, “Sorry.  But my spirit can feel magic, and it noticed your charm bracelet way before I even saw you using it in class back in the fall.”

Charmer gave her a smile.  “That’s all right.  But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell everyone, because it is one of my ‘surprises’.  Okay?”

“Oh sure!  We’d never tell anyone!  Right, Molly?”

Molly nodded, her long hair sliding in front of her face like she didn’t want you to look at her, even though she was really cute.  “We know how to keep a secret.  You pretty much have to, if you’re hanging around with some people.”

Anna asked, “You mean like Team Kimba?”

Molly nodded.  She said, “You know, Mrs. Carson said this isn’t supposed to be a superhero school, but they’re pretty much the exception to the rule.  Chou spent Christmas with Chaka, and they got attacked by ninjas while Chaka was in a wheelchair, and then they ran out and rescued Jolt – he’s one of the new kids – from a Knights of Purity power armor team.  And then Chou came to visit me for a few days, and we ended up fighting a supervillain trying to steal stuff from a museum!  And if you think that’s bad, you oughta ask Tennyo and Fey and Phase how their Christmas vacations went.”

Charmer said, “I just had a nice, normal holiday with my parents and my brother’s family.”

Anna admitted, “I went home with Rhiannon, and I had a normal Christmas too.  Except when I stopped a robbery.”

Molly said, “Yeah, but anybody would want to stop some creep with a knife from hurting a mom and her little girls.  That’s still pretty close to normal.  Team Kimba is just kind of… it’s like major supervillain trouble comes looking for ‘em.”

Anna wondered, “Wow.  Do ya think something’ll happen in Boston?”

Molly frowned, “I hope not.  It would be nice to just have a normal lunch and some fun.  Not that anything catered for Phase is ever going to be ‘normal’.  It’ll be ‘normal food for a Goodkind’, you know.”

Charmer smiled mischievously.  “I think that if any trouble comes looking for Team Kimba in Boston, it will be in for a terrible shock.  Phase has… what?  Thirty of us along?  Plus Whateley Security?”

Anna agreed, “Yeah.  And Tennyo and Lancer all by themselves can handle pretty much anybody.  They’re awesome to watch in class.”

Anna turned her head to tell Molly that Bladedancer was really awesome in class too, when she spotted someone way back behind them.  “Hey!  Look, it’s Phobos.  Maybe she’s going too.  Can we wait for her?”

“Sure,” said Molly.

Charmer gave one of her European shrugs.

So they chatted and let Phobos catch up.  Anna could feel the fear rising inside her, like she was trying to face down a monster.  Not that someone like her could really face down a real, live monster.  But she knew Phobos had that ‘fear aura’ thingie.  She’d sparred against Phobos and had to try real hard to ignore it, even if she never really totally did it.  But everyone said Phobos couldn’t turn it off, period.  How awful was that?  She pretended she wasn’t feeling afraid.  Even if the squirrel spirit inside her wanted to run up the nearest tree.

Instead, Anna made her face smile, and she waved.  “Hey Phobos!  Come on over!”

Phobos was wearing a pair of those big wraparound sunglasses that only old people wore.  On her it did a pretty good job of hiding the whole deal with her having three eyes.  And she was wearing a long coat that nearly touched the ground, so it did a pretty good job of hiding the thing about her having goat legs and a tail.  Anna guessed Phobos had two of her arms hidden under the coat and the normal two arms sticking out like they were supposed to.  But the sunglasses and the coat didn’t hide her greenish skin.  On the other hand, Phobos had really pretty long hair.  Anna kind of wished she had hair that nice.

When Phobos got close, Anna said, “We’re going down to the shuttles.  Are you going too?”  Phobos just nodded.  Anna kept going, “That’s great.  This oughta be a lot of fun.”  She looked around at the other two girls.  “Okay, you know Charmer from aikido.  This is Gateway.  She’s pals with Bladedancer.”

Phobos smiled wickedly, her fangs popping out of the corners of her mouth.  “Oh, you’re Bladedancer’s… friend.  We really enjoyed her combat final.”

Molly smiled nervously, “Umm, yeah, pretty much everybody liked that combat final.  You wouldn’t believe how many cards and flowers and things she got.  At first, I thought, ‘oh God, Ayla really went overboard on the flowers, there must be like twenty vases’.  But then it turned out Ayla didn’t send any of ‘em.  And more came the next day!”

Anna giggled a little.  “Yeah, it was like when I beat Buster.  Skids had to help me lug all the flowers and stuff down to the sunroom.  I couldn’t believe some of the people who sent me stuff!”

Molly said, “Phase sent her a really, really fancy chocolate assortment, and Tennyo sent her a fruit basket.  Chou says Buster and Negator jumped Tennyo last term, and she’s still ticked off about it.”

Charmer pursed her lips.  “Negator?  Without your powers, you would be very vulnerable to Buster.”

Molly shrugged a little.  “Turns out Neggie couldn’t knock out all of Tennyo’s powers, and she’s really good at martial arts too, so she beat ‘em both.”

Anna sighed, “I wish Buster would learn a lesson, because he’s really mean.”

Phobos said, “At least he has enough sense to stay away from Outcast Corner, because Razor and Jericho are pretty fed up with him, and they’re about ready to turn him into shredded cheese.”

Molly laughed, and said, “Come on, let’s get down to the shuttles.  I’m getting cold.”

AYLA

“Incoming,” Toni sang out.

I spotted the Dickinson and Whitman girls walking together toward us.  I had already spotted Prism chatting with some New Olympians before walking down toward us.  I was figuring he would be coming around the corner of Schuster any second now.  I told her, “We’ve got a lot more coming, you know.  Including the Poe contingent.”

Just about then, Jay Jay came sprinting down a path and screeched to a halt in front of me.  “We’re running a little late but we’ll all be here, we’re just making sure Jody doesn’t get too bogged down, because she’s trying to get Gabriel to apologize to Stoner and that’s never gonna happen, but I’ll be walking with everyone else, so we’ll be here in just a couple minutes, okay?  Bye!”  And she was off again.

Prism turned his head to watch the speedster sprint back toward Poe, and then he strolled over to us.  “Did she forget something?”

I shook my head no.  “She was just giving me a heads-up that one of the Poesies is running late, and the rest of the floor is busy trying to extricate her.”

“Extricate?” said Hank as he walked over.  He kidded, “Is someone stuck in the bathroom or something?”

“No, it’s Jody.”  I explained for Prism’s benefit, “Plastic Girl’s one of the not-crazies on the floor, and she acts basically as a residence assistant and adviser.  She’s trying to adjudicate a little confrontation between Gabriel and Michelangelo.”

Prism asked, “Gabriel’s the guy with the two different PK shells so he’s an angel one day and a devil the next?”

I corrected him, “Well, that’s what everyone thinks.  But really, with him it’s more like ‘prim, uptight angel’ and ‘wild angel on a spree’.  He’s not a bad guy, but he’s having a lot of trouble with his power.  And, like me, his upbringing is really messing with his head when it comes to how his powers manifest, and how he feels about himself.”

I was looking past Prism’s shoulder as Gateway walked over to Chou with Aquerna, Charmer, and Phobos in tow.  I said, “Well, it looks like we’re all getting here, sooner or later.”

Prism turned and looked.  “I know Charmer and Aquerna and Phobos, but who’s the girl in the glasses?”

I said, “Gateway.  Molly’s best buds with Bladedancer.”

He looked a little uncomfortable at that.  He said, “I ought to tell you something about the Bladedancer thing, since you gave Judicator that heads-up.”

I gave him my most insouciant shrug.  “When you feel like it.  We’re not going to hold a grudge, and we all enjoyed the way Counterpoint got even with Cucumber Boy.”

“Who?”

“Cucumber Boy.  That’s one of Toni’s nicknames for N’Dizi.  He picked a really cool-sounding name from an African language.  It turns out it means ‘cucumber’ or ‘gourd’.  Someone gave him some bad advice.”

He grinned, “Yeah, that happens.  I heard that’s how Traduce got her codename.”

I agreed, “Yep.  Back when she was a frosh, and as big a pain as she is now, one of the upperclass girls ‘helped’ her out with a codename.  She hasn’t been able to get it fixed yet.”

Just then, the four Dickinson and Whitman girls walked over.  Anna was just finishing a story.  “…And that’s how I found out they were from Phase!”  Phobos and Charmer giggled, while Molly just shook her head.

I waved them over.  “Hi.  Glad you all could make it.  This is Prism.  I think he knows all of you except Gateway.  And I’ll just warn you ahead of time.  If you start talking about martial arts class, Chaka will appear out of nowhere and jump into your conversation.”

“Hey!  I heard that!” a certain Ki Mistress yelled from the other side of the crowd.

Anna giggled, and then whispered, “She’s really like awesome.  You know those chain-fighter deals with the big meteors on the ends?  Like in ‘Kill Bill’?”  Most of the group nodded.  “She learned how to be an expert with one in like three days.  And she can do stuff with it that sensei Tolman says oughta be impossible.”

I said, “But try not to talk about it in front of Toni, because she’s already got a swelled head about being Miss Fancy-Schmancy Martial Arts Whiz.”

“Hey!  I heard that too!”

I just grinned mischievously.

Suddenly, I heard Toni’s voice again.  “Hey lookit, that can’t be Jericho, those are normal clothes!”

Everybody turned to check out that proclamation.  And it was even true.  Jericho was wearing an ordinary coat, and under the coat he was wearing normal clothing.  A nice pair of gray slacks, some black oxfords, and a snap-button western-style long-sleeved shirt.  Okay, the shirt was a tad unusual for New England, but it was a simple dark gray with pearlescent black buttons.  So he was dressed WAY better than the tourists in Boston.

He was tapping his way across the parking lot with his favorite white cane, as if he couldn’t see.  He was even wearing a pair of Stevie Wonder sunglasses.  In those clothes, he looked completely normal.  Way too normal for Whateley.  He looked stocky, and not handsome enough to be an Exemplar.  He looked like any of thousands of black high school guys who would be considered ‘handsome’ for their school, but not ‘movie star’ gorgeous.  There weren’t that many of us in the group who could really pass as a baseline.  Him, Jade, Anna, and Belle.  That was really about it.  I wondered if I needed to consider including him in some of my contingency plans.

I snarked, “Nice shirt.  I didn’t know you had anything that didn’t burn out corneas at twenty paces.”

Jericho grinned, “Well, I didn’t need to punish the good guys.  And don’t forget, my undershirt is a lethal weapon.”

Phobos chipped in, “Yeah.  It’s a violation of the Geneva Convention.”

Jericho said, “You swiped that from Diamond, so I ignore you.”

Phobos just laughed.

Dorjee walked up at almost the same time, and went straight to Chou and Molly.  I noticed that he didn’t bump anyone out of the way, but he easily wove around people with a sinuous grace that reminded me of Toni.  He probably had enough martial arts training to make chow fun out of someone like me.

I wasn’t going to say anything, but Dorjee looked a bit out of place in khakis and a polo shirt, with a baseball cap concealing his haircut.  I had a feeling Chou and Molly had employed the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes to get him out of his usual ‘I want to be a monk when I grow up’ outfit.

I watched Tabby strolling our way.  She was wearing a short mink coat that was definitely not PETA-friendly.  I wondered if Macrobiotic knew Tabby had it.

Toni strolled over with Nikki.  She looked around and couldn’t resist a quick snarky comment to me.  “So…  Where’s your old pals Jadis and Mal?”

“Opting out,” I replied.

Aquerna suddenly jumped into the conversation.  “Wait a minute, Jadis and Mal?  You mean She-Beast?  And who’s Mal?”

Nikki blithely explained, “Jadis and Malachai Diabolik.  She-Beast and Techno-Devil.”

Aquerna turned my way nervously.  “You know them?  Aren’t they like supervillains?”

Toni helpfully explained, “Oh yeah, Ayla went to grade school with ‘em.”

“And Solange too,” supplied Billie.  Anna made a face as if she would prefer to have to deal with She-Beast over Solange.  But she did have to deal with Solange in Dickinson, so presumably she knew what a creep Tansy really was.

Jericho laughed, “Oh!  Lemme tell you what Mal had to say about Phase when she was little.”

Toni checked, “Is this the book club thing, or is it the lunch room boycott?”

“Lunch room.”

“Okay.  That’s a great story.  Let ‘er rip.”

I just pretended Jericho wasn’t telling a story about me, and I focused on the Poesies who were finally making their way toward the shuttles.  They appeared to be walking in a group, making sure that Jody made the shuttle.

I noticed that Vanessa was in a rich purple minidress that she filled out in all the right places.  And it looked like it would be a great match for her eyes.  Delta and Marty, on the other hand, were the fashion victims.  I was so surprised.  Not.  Delta was wearing another of her ‘naughty adult schoolgirl’ outfits, this one with a checked blue and white pleated miniskirt and white kneesocks.  Marty was wearing…  Wait a minute, what the hell was Marty wearing?  It looked like…  Crap, she was wearing the boots and bodysuit of her supersuit, and a white miniskirt over the bottom part of her costume.  Well, with her looks she could probably pull it off.  At least she had ditched the cape.  I didn’t really know how that worked, since she was generating her body and her uniform as part of her PK shell, but I assumed she had a fair amount of control over how her suit looked.

The rest of the group looked more normal.  Jay Jay was in the outfit we had seen a short time ago: a white leotard-style blouse and tight-fitting black pants, plus running shoes.  I figured she needed something to keep her shirt from flying out of her pants when she ran, and a skirt wouldn’t be a good idea when she was doing over a hundred miles an hour between here and Poe.  Jody was wearing a loose sweater over nice pleated pants.  I wondered if she was trying to hide her weight issues.  Pilar was wearing a tight black top that was so lowcut it was giving Marty’s costume a run for its money.  Given that Pilar was built like Mindbird and was hiding both her normal green skintone and also her two secondary arms, she looked gorgeous.  Bunny was in a tight white dress that looked like it had an Easter egg print pattern to it.  Rip looked like a surfer girl dressed up for a beach party.  Belle looked like a Hogwarts student without the robe, but I just had a feeling that some parts of her wardrobe were probably ectoplasm.  And Lily looked like she had coordinated her outfit with Hank’s.  I had a feeling Hank had no idea about that.

I saw Loophole and Möbius walk out of the side door of Schuster, so they had probably just come up from the deviser tunnels.  Based on their intent expressions and their arm movements, they were probably arguing.  Given that Möbius was making these odd, descriptive gestures, as if he were trying to describe how to pack a horse into a lunchbox, I induced that he was trying to explain how he built his ‘bigger on the inside’ devises.  Based on Loophole’s frustrated expression and intense gesturing, I had the feeling she was trying to tell him why his devises couldn’t possibly work.  I had a feeling this was going to be a very interesting lunch for both of them.

MEGA-DEATH

Harvey stood on one of the hills overlooking the central campus.  It was pretty freaking cold, so it was a good thing he had one of his devises, and it was working like it was supposed to.  The electrical heater vest wasn’t as big a hit as he’d thought it would be.  Polarfleece and some of the gadgeteer fabrics did such a good job of retaining body heat that a self-heating vest just wasn’t all that necessary when you were only outside for anything up to a full day.  And battery-powered heater socks for hunters and sports fans were clunky, but were already good enough that his version wasn’t going to set the world on fire.

He sighed out loud as he watched the kids climb into the two shuttles with the Whateley Security officers.  “It would’ve been really fun to go.”

The other boy said, “You made the right call, Harvey.  Guys like you and me?  We’re a time bomb.”

“And a half.  Still…”

“Come on, let’s get down to the tunnels before I freeze my ass off.”

Harvey didn’t look away from the shuttles.  “You should’ve worn one of my heater vests.”

“Yeah, I thought about it, but I decided I like my nipples unburnt.”

“Oh come on, that was just that one trial, and it was still in alpha test!”

“Well then, you shouldn’t have let everyone else see it blow up.  I mean, how the hell do you make a vest explode?”

Mega-Death glared at him and muttered, “I will not blow up my friends… I will not blow up my friends…  I will not blow up my friends…”

The other boy laughed and said, “Oh come on.”  Together, they stomped off toward the Workshop.

AYLA

I was keeping an eye on everyone when Trews and Green sidled over to me.  Trews asked, “Got a second, Phase?”

I nodded, “Of course.  Although, when we’re in Boston and you’re playing ‘security guard’, you’d probably better call me Miss Goodkind.”

“Got that,” nodded Green.

I turned away from the crowd to face them, even though I knew that at least three of the crowd had abnormally acute hearing, so we weren’t in any kind of privacy.  “What can I do for you?”

Green said, “We just wanted you to know we volunteered for this one.”

Trews murmured, “But then Buxton told us if we let you get killed we better not come back.  So don’t get killed.”

I grinned, “Always one of my top ten priorities.”

Trews added, “Plus, Buxton said the food and perks ought to be worth a hell of a lot.”

I almost laughed that time.  That really sounded like something Buxton would say.  I told them, “Well enjoy yourselves, and don’t bring him anything.”

Green smiled, “That’s the plan!”

Trews added, “Yeah, that and a lot of gloating about the bennies.”

About the time I turned around, Fey was walking over to Phobos.  Nikki blinked at something, then made a tiny hand gesture and walked up to her.  I had a feeling Nikki had just magically blocked Phobos’ fear aura for herself.  I could still feel it and it didn’t feel like it had changed, so I was pretty sure Nikki hadn’t tried masking it completely.

I stepped over to catch the conversation.  Fey said, “Hi.  Do you mind if I cast a small illusion on you so people we go past won’t notice your differences?  I have to use it so people don’t spot my ears, and I’ve used it on Jade.”

Phobos stared at the blatantly normal-looking girl not fifteen feet away.  “Jade?”

Billie contributed, “Yeah, if she can disguise a floating blanket carrying a sleeping Jade who’s snoring the whole way through the train station, she can do this easy.”

Jade instantly pouted, “I was NOT snoring!”

“I gotta hear that story.”

“I was SO not snoring!  Toni, tell ‘em!  I wasn’t snoring!”

“Jade, you have a very cute snore.”

“I don’t snore!”

“I bet Stephen’ll like it when she’s sleeping next to him.”

“Stephen?”

“I don’t snore!  And I’m SO not ready for that stuff!”

“Yeah, she’s dating Thuban.”

“Uhh, isn’t he turning into a dragon or somethin’?”

“Yep.  Jade likes it.  She thinks his scales are cute.”

“And they’re so soft when we’re kissing!”

“Ewww.”

“TMI!”

“And I was NOT snoring!”

“You hardly stopped snoring until we got to Boston!”

“I did not!”

I strolled off, trying not to snicker.  It was definitely not a giggle, despite what Toni and Nikki claimed.

THE WHATELEY CROWD

Molly tugged Chou and Dorjee over to meet Anna.  “Guys, do you know Aquerna?”

Chou nodded, “Hi, Anna.”  She turned to Molly and explained, “She’s in our martial arts class.”

Dorjee smiled gently, “I am Chain Lightning.  It appears from what Chou has said that I am missing out on a great learning experience by not taking the class.”

Anna grinned chipperly.  “Oh yeah.  It’s so cool you can’t believe it.  Well, you know Bladedancer so you know how awesome she is at martial arts, so you already know.  Right?  But I didn’t, so it’s been just amazing.  Watching her spar, and Chaka, and…”  Her eyes flickered over the crowd.  “…Tennyo and Lancer and Phase, and all the rest.  Not that I’m saying anything bad about Generator and Shroud, but they’re not as amazing to watch.  And Chaka learned that meteor hammer in like no time, and it was really hard to practice on my own katas when she was doing all those amazing things…”

Chou grinned, “Sensei Beaumont gave all of us push-ups for peeking at Toni when she was showing off.”

Dorjee beamed, “I hope to see Chaka working out with the meteor hammers some day.  She sounds most skilled.”

Chou laughed, “And Toni loves nothing more than showing off with a big audience watching her.  Unless it’s showing off while fighting bad guys.  You should have seen her when we fought the ninjas on Parents’ Day.  She got to show off in front of the whole school and her family.”

Anna and Molly giggled.

Dorjee said to Anna, “We wanted to thank you for supporting Winnie.”

Anna nodded, “Oh sure!  I mean, she’s my friend.  And Charmer’s really nice to her too, ya know.  But some of the girls are kind of not real nice to her, and Solange’s gang are just really mean to her a lot, for no reason.”

Chou said, “Well, we wanted you to know Winnie’s our friend too, so if you ever need any help protecting her, you can call on any of us.”

Dorjee said, “If you need any help at all, you can call on us.  It’s the least we can do for someone doing what you do.”

Anna shrugged, “I don’t do much, really.  I just try to keep all the Underdogs from getting beaten up and picked on and stuff, and it’d be a lot easier of Nate would stop… umm… passing gas on people.”

Dorjee gave Molly a slightly puzzled look.  She explained, “Miasma.  His power is intense…”  She turned pink.  “…farting.”

Dorjee looked back at Anna.  “That is a power?”

Anna nodded.  “He’s an Avatar.  Low-level, like me.  And whatever spirit he picked up, it gives him… well… did you see his combat final?”

“No, I did not,” Dorjee apologized.  “I missed a number of them because I was studying.”

Molly clapped her hand over her mouth and burst into giggles.  “I’ll tell you all about it later.”

Anna blushed, but still managed to say it.  “He’s got like a poison gas power, and a little bit of jet propulsion maybe.  But he mostly uses it to stink up places, especially if they’re full of people he wants to play a prank on.  So if he… does it to a bunch of Alphas, then they have to bully him back, and then he has to get even, and it just goes out of control.”

Dorjee smiled, but looked confused.  “And this is why girls are picking on Geomancer?”

“Umm, no, not really,” Anna admitted.  Now that Dorjee mentioned it, she couldn’t figure out how they’d gotten from Winnie being picked on to Nate pooting at people.  “It’s just that Winnie’s easy to bully, and so some girls just do it.  And she doesn’t like the other girls to look at her, so it’s easy for the bullies to get her to rush through a shower and then run away without even drying off or anything.”

Molly said, “Probably half the dorm is Exemplars, so it’s hard if you don’t think you’re attractive.”

Anna put in, “Especially if Tansy and her mean friends know they can pick on you ‘til you cry.”  She was still kind of mad about that.

 

Phase said, “But I think you could’ve benefited from this term’s special topics course on martial arts.  I’ve been getting a lot out of it, even if I never intend to use a sword in a real fight.

Phobos frowned behind her sunglasses.  “I don’t know.  My depth perception is weird.  It’s way better than normal – you know, three eyes instead of two – but it takes a lot of getting used to.  And I don’t think I want to learn how to use something worse than the claws I’m already stuck with.”

Prism suggested, “But what about learning to use something less dangerous?”

Phase nodded.  “Aquerna and Shadowolf are working with these fighting claws.  They’d be a lot better than those energy claws of yours.”

Phobos muttered, “Well, it’s not like I’d stop in the middle of going rager and just say ‘oh hey, maybe I oughta go put on my metal fighting claws now’.  You know what I mean?”

Before I could make my point, Toni’s martial arts radar went off and she jumped into the conversation.  “What about sump’m that’d give you enough space to deal with things?  A meteor hammer’s great for clearin’ out space.  And if you want real room, you work the chain with one meteor at your wrist and the whole rest of the chain spinnin’ around you.  Then you get like twenty, thirty feet clear.”

“Oh yeah,” I agreed.  “People get the heck out of the way of a thirty pound steel ball orbiting some Ki-maniac at two hundred miles an hour.”

Toni just grinned.  “You didn’t.”  She turned to Phobos and complained, “There I am, tryin’ to spar against Ayla, and she disintegrated my chain!”

I complained in turn, “Yeah, and then she suckered me into trying it again, and she blasted me across the dojo.”

Toni counter-complained, “But it didn’t stick.  She beat me best two out of three.”

Prism grinned, “I’m not surprised.  The only person Phase couldn’t beat last fall was Lancer.”

Phobos added, “And I really thought she had him a couple times, like when she threw that dart into his leg.”

I said, “Yeah.  Here’s a helpful hint, Toni.  Don’t get Hank pissed off at you in sparring.”

“Hey, I already knew that one!” she laughed.

 

Charmer asked, “Tabby, it’s nice to meet you again.  What can I do for you?”

Tabby told her, “I was wondering if you could get your dad to send me some more of that Prosecco.  Phase said there was still enough in the wine cellar, but I’d like to make sure.  And I’d love to have some of my own.”  She gave Charmer an evil grin.  “And I’d love to drive my mom crazy by showing her the wine I’ve been drinking at school.”

“It is non-alcoholic,” Charmer reminded her.

“Oh yeah, I know that.  But my mom doesn’t.”  Tabby gave her a wicked smirk.  “Plus, my dad is a huge wine connoisseur, and I’ve got a feeling he hasn’t ever tried this.”

“Ahh, I see,” Charmer said.  “Perhaps you could give your father one of my father’s cards.  If he is really interested in wine, Villabianca Exports organizes an annual wine-tasting tour of good new wineries across the Mediterranean.”

Tabby’s smile broadened into a catlike grin.  “You know, he is really hard to shop for.  That sounds awesome.”

Charmer smiled too, although she was thinking about all the new business she seemed to be sending her father’s way courtesy of Phase.  As well as the Golden Kids.  She said, “Plus, your mother could do some shopping in Paris and Rome, and if you did not want to do either, you could come to Monaco and I would show you around.”

Tabby pretended to frown.  “See?  Now you’re making things really hard for me.  I wanna do the winery tour with dad, but shopping in Paris would be unbelievable, and Monaco sounds too cool.  How am I supposed to do all three at the same time?”

“Borrow Troika’s powers?” Charmer teased.

Jade and Jinn stepped over.  Jade said, “I just heard Troika’s name.  I know her.”

Charmer smiled, “I was just teasing Tabby.  It does not actually have anything to do with Troika.”

“Oh, that’s okay.  She’s pretty good in a snowball fight,” Jade said.

Jinn added, “As long as you have someone else making snowballs fast enough for three people to throw.”

Jade said, “Or have Troika making the snowballs, and someone like Nikki firing ‘em off magically.”

Tabby checked, “You seem to have put a lot of thought into snowball fights.”

Jade and Jinn nodded together.  Jade explained, “We’ve had a couple powered snowball fights around Poe.  It’s a lot of fun, but it can get kind of crazy, especially if Belle starts throwing giant ectoplasm snowballs at you.  She hit Ayla with a snowball that was about three feet across.  If Ayla hadn’t gone light, it would’ve smacked her a good one.”

Charmer asked, “Belle?  Do you mean Beltane?”

“Yeah.  Nobody calls her Kendall, just Belle.  She likes Belle way better.”

Just then, Mega-Girl flew in, landing between Jinn and Charmer.  “Jeez!  Y’know, when Supergirl flies around, nobody ever talks about her skirt blowing all over the place.”  She smoothed her skirt back down and added, “Totally does not work for flying.”

Charmer paused and then said, “Or perhaps you need a spell on the skirt, so it stays down no matter what.”

“I never thought of that,” Mega-Girl said.  “I was just thinking about asking Delta if she had a devise to do it.”

“Or you could ask Fey,” Jade pointed out.

Mega-Girl shrugged, “I guess I could.  But I’m happy with a no-skirt look.  I’m just wearing this one today, because Ayla said I couldn’t go in my uniform.”

Tabby drawled, “Well, it would be pretty hard to hide that we’re from Whateley, if we show up wearing costumes and showing off superpowers.”

Mega-Girl frowned, “But I just don’t have a lot of clothes that fit anymore, and they’re really expensive, and…  I can waitress for you next month, right?”

Tabby suppressed a smile and said, “Yes.  And Generator and Shroud too.  But we’re not going to go with those tiny French maid outfits.  I have something more… utilitarian in mind.”

“Oh.  Okay,” Mega-Girl muttered.  “I kinda liked those outfits.  And I did get a fancy date out of it, even if he turned out to be a big jerk.”

Jade piped up, “And Stephen thought I looked really sexy in my outfit!”

Jinn could see the puzzlement of the non-Poe girls.  She explained, “She’s dating Thuban.”

Jade said, “I dunno if Billie would want to waitress again.  She couldn’t figure out if Hatamoto was interested in her, or in Ryoko, or in Ryoko in a maid costume.”

Tabby casually said, “I think we’ll be okay without Tennyo.  I know some other girls who’ll be happy to help out for some easy money.”

Charmer smiled mischievously, “The boys will undoubtedly be disappointed without Fey waitressing in a too-small maid’s dress.”

Tabby groaned, “Yeah, there’s no way you can top a Goodkind party.  My mom still talks about a Goodkind wedding she went to about fifteen years ago.  They rented out an entire island in the Caicos for a weekend.”

“That totally sounds like Ayla,” said Jinn and Jade simultaneously.

Tabby grinned, “Man, you two really are sisters, aren’t you?”

“Sometimes I feel like we’re two halves of one person,” Jinn smirked.

 

Loophole said, “Ah know you’re all friends of Phase, but Ah kinda wondered about how she’s doin’ on profit sharin’.  Ah’d like to know if Ah oughta be lettin’ her handle more of mah work, even if Whateley seems pretty fair to me… so far.”

Möbius smiled, “Well, I’m probably the wrong person to talk to about that.  I’m strictly a deviser.  But on the other hand, she did make me some ginormous profits off my space-Warping pockets.  I’ve got enough demand now, Phase wants me to raise my prices again.  And I guess I’m gonna have to, because otherwise I won’t have enough time to make all the utility belts people are gonna be asking for.  So I guess Phase was right about the whole ‘supply and demand’ thing too.”

Delta grinned, “And on the gripping hand…”  Every one of the Workshop crowd laughed.  Then she frowned, “But I’ve been trying to get ‘venture capital’ out of Ayla, and she’s turned down three of my biomorphology proposals.  She says the problem is with my ‘market model’ and my ‘consequences model’.  But really, what could go wrong?”

Loophole looked at Möbius and Bugs, and decided discretion was the better part of valor, in this case.  She just shrugged as if she didn’t know about thirty-seven things that go could wrong with Delta Spike’s biomorphology experiments.  And that was just off the top of her head.

Bugs said, “I’m really happy with Ayla.  She picked up on two things that I didn’t even think had any real usefulness, but they’re both gadgets instead of devises, and she’s already done the patent work and found me buyers.  One’s a one-time deal with Disney for patent right usage on some of my holographic projection systems, and one’s a huge deal with a toy company for one of my bunnies.”

Loophole wondered, “How much are you getting out of those?”

Bugs pursed her lips.  “I’m not supposed to talk about the details while Ayla does the contract negotiations, but both of ‘em are multi-million dollar deals.  And no one holds my money in escrow until I graduate either.”

Möbius decided he ought to check.  “You said the toy company wants one of your bunnies?”

“Oh yeah,” Bugs said happily.  “I built a little rabbit for fun that paints.  But I couldn’t get the painting part to work for real, so I was using an artificial system.  It looks like a blank piece of paper, and when the brush wipes the catalyst over it, the white changes to the different colors that I already put down and made invisible, so it just looks like the bunny’s painting.  So it’s useless as is.  Except Ayla realized it would make a great toy.  So she’s got I think Hasbro and Goodkind Toys and Mattel in a big bidding war for the rights.”

Loophole’s forehead wrinkled in concentration.  “Maybe I oughta give this some more thought…”

 

“Hey look at the squirrels!”

“Ooh, they’re so cute!”

Anna gasped at the idea of some of her squirrels getting hurt, and she skittered over to see.

It was some of the big, fluffy tree squirrels.  They probably showed up to see what their ‘big squirrel’ was doing.  Anna ran over to see them.  She warned them, “Guys, it’s okay.  But I’m gonna get on the big loud machine and go away until night.

Trap?

“No, it’s not a trap.  It’s something special for big people only.  I’ll be fine”  A couple of them hopped up into her arms for reassurance, and she gently hugged them.  ”You guys are so great.”

Molly led Bunny over.  “See?  They’re like her pets.”

Anna turned her head and said, “No, it’s more like they think I’m in their family.”

Bunny grinned, “They’re really cute.  You think Gadget can talk to squirrels too?”

Anna wrinkled her forehead in thought.  “I don’t think so.  But maybe she can.  But I don’t wanna hurt her feelings by asking and being all rude and stuff.”

Anna heard someone behind her say, “Hey Ayla, good thing you didn’t invite Arachne and have her buddies show up to say goodbye.”

Someone else shrieked, “Eww!”

Jade walked over with her cabbit in her arms, and looked at the squirrels in Anna’s arms.  “That is so cute!”

Jericho must have heard her, because he leaned toward them and teased, “Oh yeah, because nothing says cute like rodents carrying diseases and ticks and fleas.”

Jade had her back to him, so he didn’t see the cabbit stand up in Jade’s arms.  It put its paws up to its ears, wiggled them, and stuck out its tongue at him.  The four girls broke into giggles.

AYLA

Sam Everheart came over to me with a clipboard.  “I’ve got everyone you listed.  They’re all here.  And we’ve already sent the MCO the full MIDs for everyone.  And I made sure the drivers know where to take us.  We should be set when we get to the airport.”

“Great,” I replied.  “Thanks.  I appreciate it.”

She frowned, “Everything’s going really smoothly.  That makes me edgy.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Would you prefer that things were going really badly at this point?”

“No, I just keep coming up with scenarios where the shit hits the fan.”

So I told her about the support I had arranged.

She stopped and stared at me in shock.  “Phase!”

THE WHATELEY CROWD

“So, just as I’ve got him in my sights, Froggy steps in front of him, and-”  Beltane stopped in the middle of her sentence when she heard Officer Everheart yelp at Phase.  “Oh God, what’s Ayla doing now?”

Toni snarked, “Not like you got room to talk, Prankmeister.”

Nikki rolled her eyes.  “Ayla just told her something else she planned for the day.  I didn’t catch it.  Maybe she bought the Boston Bruins hockey team so she can have a skating demo at some local rink.”

Toni muttered, “Gotta say, I could believe that one.  Belle, you know she chartered a fricking jet for this trip?”

Beltane shrugged, “Aren’t some of those business jets big enough to hold thirty?  Regular businesses rent those all the time.”

Nikki and Toni looked at each other.

“One a’ those teeny little things?  Don’t see her doin’ that.”

“Nope, not Ayla’s style at all.”

 

“Oh my God, those little squirrels were like the cutest thing EVER.  And they let you pick ‘em up and cuddle ‘em and everything?” Mega-Girl asked.

Anna shrugged in embarrassment.  “Umm, yeah.  They’re my friends.  They look out for me, and I look out for them.”

“Do you think I could hold one some time?” Mega-Girl wondered.

Anna started to tell her that she could get bitten or scratched, and then remembered.  Mega-Girl got smashed by like a hundred foot tall ice giant and didn’t get hurt.  “Umm, I guess so.”

She hoped Mega-Girl wouldn’t accidentally hurt one of her little friends, but she’d seen her eating regular food in the cafeteria and not crushing everything, so it looked like Mega-Girl was pretty good on control, and if she wasn’t any good at control she’d be over in Hawthorne like Compiler or poor little Diz Aster, which Anna thought was a horrible codename to give someone.

 

Suddenly, Mrs. Carson’s voice boomed over the crowd.  “Get on the shuttles at once!”

“Vox!  Knock it off!”

“Hey, it was funny!”

“Oh man, you jumped about five feet in the air.”

“I nearly peed myself!  It was totally not funny!”

“You gotta hear her imitation of Phase.  It’s hysterical.”

Samantha Everheart walked over to the steps of the first shuttle.  She gestured to Trews and Green to split up, with Green joining her in the first shuttle and Trews taking the second one.  “Okay, you all heard… Mrs. Carson…”  Several people laughed.  “Let’s climb aboard and get down to the Berlin airport.”

The teenagers clambered aboard.  It wasn’t exactly orderly, but it wasn’t complete chaos.  There weren’t enough teenagers for it to evolve into complete chaos.

Of course, Phase cheated and flew through the side of the first shuttle to take his place in the first row.  He sat down behind the driver and said, “Has Officer Everheart briefed you?  We need to go to the back side of the airport, where the private jets are.  Gate 1.”

“Got that,” the driver noted.  “By the way, that breakfast sandwich thing last fall?  Best breakfast ever.”  He grinned wickedly.  “Don’t tell the wife that.”

Phase smiled, “Well, no food on the outbound, but there might be leftovers from the catered lunch on the return.  Keep your eyes peeled.”

The driver grinned, “Hmm…  You know, I bet Jake’d be real happy if I took the return trip back too, and let him off the hook.”

Phase said, “That’s the entrepreneurial spirit.”

 

Beltane sat down and continued her story.  “So then he thought he had me.  But I hit him with a really good shot that curved around his big friend and covered him so he looked like an eight year old girl in a party dress.  He couldn’t get it to dispel, because it ‘felt’ real, so I really thought I had him.  But then he changed the colors and kept it!  He gothed it up and changed from Shirley Temple to Wednesday Addams.  So then he says ‘Thanks!  Nacht’ll love it!’ and he goes flouncing across the Quad like it’s perfectly normal!”

“And how long did it take you to get the Hello Kitty thing off your head?”

Belle quietly grumbled, “About a quarter of an hour.”

“Hey Belle, you’re just lucky Generator and Shroud didn’t see you like that.  They’d’ve wanted one too!”

“Ugh.”

 

“So…  I heard Phase got you and most of Team Kimba to play maid at the Golden Kids thing last Saturday.”

Tennyo blushed uncomfortably and admitted, “Umm, yeah.  It was actually kind of fun.  Even if the outfits were kind of… skimpy.”

Generator piped up, “Oh yeah, they were really sexy!  Stephen had a cow when he saw me in mine!  It was so cute!”

Tabby leaned over, “It was pretty funny.  Thuban’s so ‘Mister Cool’, and he was definitely not cool about Generator and Shroud in their outfits.  I thought he was going to strangle Dynamaxx once.”

Shroud said, “I liked it.  He was all protective and manly and stuff.”

Generator smiled dreamily, “And then he was so romantic after!”

“Isn’t he kind of dragon-y?”

Tabby explained, “He can do ‘human’ when he wants to.  For a couple hours, anyway.  And when he goes human, he’s really handsome.”

Generator insisted, “Well I like it when he’s his normal self.  His s- mmph!  Mmm mmp!”

Tennyo just kept her hand over Generator’s mouth.  “Jade?  Remember our talk?  TMI.”

Shroud muttered, “You’re no fun.”  Generator nodded in agreement behind Tennyo’s hand.

 

“Did you see we got the angel girl from the Christmas fight in New York City?”

“Yeah, she’s over in Dickinson.  Hey Charmer!  Isn’t the angel girl down the hall from you?”

“Seraphim?  Yes.  She’s rooming with Flex, and they seem to be getting along.”

“She seems like she’s pretty powerful.”

Charmer gave her most Gallic shrug.  “Perhaps, perhaps not.  From what she says, she can only perform at her most powerful when she has a massive, very emotional crowd feeding into her powers.  So she might be quite vulnerable most of the time.  We shall see.”

“From what I hear, Phase is hauling all the top froshes into Team Kimba.  They got Tennyo, they got Fey, they got Lancer, they got Chaka, they got that girl who turned Nex into lunchmeat-”

“Bladedancer.”

“-oh yeah, Bladedancer.  They got Carmilla for a while, but it looks like she’s on the outs with ‘em these days-”

“That’s what you get for eating people.”

“-but they got Shroud too, and I hear she’s pretty much unkillable.”

“Okay, but they don’t have Counterpoint either.  Or-”

Prism interrupted, “But there’s really no way they could get Counterpoint.  He’s going to stick with Imperious and Majestic no matter what.”

“Hey, I heard Bladedancer kicked Chris’ cranky ass all over the place a few days ago, and Chaka clobbered him not long ago, and aren’t they like near the bottom of Team Kimba?”

“Well, they sure aren’t at the top.  I’m not sure there are any seniors who wanna take on Tennyo after her combat final.”

“Or after Halloween.  That girl is scary.”

“You do know she’s here, right?  In the other shuttle?  And she’ll be at the party?”

“And she’s really nice, and really polite, and one time I ran down the hallway and my towel flew up into my face and I ran right into her, and she just said it was okay even though I pretty much ran right into her face with my head.”

“Why don’t you just talk to her?  Jay Jay’s right.  She really is nice.”

 

“So then Phase reaches behind her back and pulls this smokebomb out of thin air and lets Kismet have it.”

“That’s nothing!  She’s got a three foot long tactical baton this term.  And it’s made out of adamantium.  No kidding.  And she’s got this utility belt that’s bigger on the inside than the outside, so it looks like she’s unarmed, and then out comes this monster weapon.  I’ve got these shortswords that I put my PK field over so they’re five tons of force on a knife edge.  I tried hammering on that thing, and I didn’t even scratch it.  But it didn’t hold up to Tennyo’s antimatter lightsaber.”

“Well duh, what’s going to hold up to antimatter?”

“You’re not gonna believe it, but Bladedancer’s sword did.”

“Whoa!  No kidding?”

“No kidding.”

“Jeez.”

 

“No really, the Marvel IPO isn’t that unusual.  A standard dot-com IPO with a lot of venture capital usually aims for a minimum of a ten- or eleven-fold increase in the price of the common stock.  We just orchestrated some announcements so the increase happened over a slightly shorter interval than you usually see.”

“Man, you so don’t think like a normal high school freshman.”

“Thank you.  I try not to.”

“Oh, if you think that’s somethin’ you ought to take a business class wit’ him.  I took Accounting I with’ him last term, and he was so far ahead of the teacher it was just scary.  The teacher had him doing TA work within a couple weeks.  Just that half the class was scared to go talk to him because of the whole ‘I’m a Goodkind’ thang.  So what’s he doin’ this term?  He’s doin’ Accounting II, III, and IV simultaneously.  As personal study courses.”

Phase shrugged, “It’s not like I’m having to learn much that’s new.  I’ve interned at Goodkind International in their Accounting Department, among other departments, so I’ve already seen probably eighty percent of this in practice.”

“Okay, now that’s scary.”

 

“No, really, that thing with Montana got totally blown out of proportion.  I just went over to Twain to see Harry and see how he was doing, and Monty acted like I was there to torture Harry – and I guess now we know about what Tansy Walcutt did to him I can see why – but he grabbed me, and all I did was put him in an armbar.  And when Mirror was gonna get mad at Montana I said he was just helping me do a martial arts demonstration so he wouldn’t get in trouble.  But then Monty went and said I attacked him!  And then he cost me my job in the cafeteria when he started throwing food at me!  It totally wasn’t my fault!”

“But that’s why Chaka fought him.  Not just because he’s a big poopyhead.  Chaka was standing up for Tennyo, because she knew Tennyo wasn’t going to challenge him to a fight, and she knew someone needed to.”

“Well, he has been a lot better since he got his furry butt kicked.”

“And hey, it’s not like he’s a fighter anyways.  He’s only on the Monster Squad team because he’s their inventor.  And he’s sort of strong.”

“Not as strong as Slab, anyways.”

“Oh yeah, did you see him against Thuban in that combat final?  Awesome.”

 

Jody finished her story.  “So anyway, I told her the truth.  Her new haircut looked awful.  It’s not like I said mean things about it, you know.”

“Oh God, it looked like some Goths and some Barbies tried to cut it at the same time and only got half of it done each!”

Jody winced, “Yeah, it was pretty bad.  It was Stoner who said it looked like Vidal Sassoon shit on her head.  I wasn’t even thinking anything like that!  But she’s all mad at me now.”

“Well, that’s totally not fair.”

Jody started to say something else, but the shuttle drove past a couple TSA guards onto the Berlin Airport tarmac, and headed for the area for the private planes and the commercial jets.  She looked over at the jets, and her jaw dropped open.  There was no way…

“Holy shit, is that a 767?”

“That can’t be ours.”

“There’s prob’ly a little plane on the other side, we just can’t see it yet.”

Toni sagely said, “We’re talkin’ about Ayla here.  I bet it’s the 767.”

Nikki agreed, “Oh totally.”

“But that would cost like a mint!”

Toni just gave them her leopard grin.  “Yeah.”

Nikki did her best Ayla imitation and said, “And your point would be?”  Toni burst into giggles.

 

Samantha Everheart kept her face impassive as the shuttle headed for Gate 1, where the Boeing 767 was being refueled.  Phase had given her the plane’s identification information and the names of the flight crew and the name of the leasing company, so Hive could verify everything.  But somehow, Phase had neglected to mention that it was a leased 767, rather than a leased forty-seat business plane.  A quick database cross-reference revealed that the information was available if she had looked for it, instead of spending her time looking for suspicious information on the pilots, or problems with the safety record of the leasing company.

She was going to have to watch Phase a little more carefully.  For that matter, she was going to keep a few nanites out in case one of Team Kimba talked about the ‘Radioactive Condor Girl scenario’.  She still hadn’t figured out how Generator had worked out the weakness to camouflage in the spy satellites of the sim.  How had she worked out that the sim was using spy satellites, instead of, say, an AWACS, or a Doppler radar system based in the target fortress?

Maybe Jade Sinclair really was a middle to high-level deviser, and the whole ‘PK manifester’ bit from her early powers testing was all just as artificial as her current DEV-1 rating.  If Generator really had developed those ‘shoulder angels’ using true deviser tech, then she was probably at least a DEV-4.  That was the trouble with computer data.  It was only as good as its source.  Anybody could input data; not everybody would input correct data.  Sam was going to start cross-checking all the intel on Generator, if only to figure out just what Generator’s ratings ought to be, and whether Trews and Green’s talk about Generator’s devises could really be accurate.

 

Phase watched as the shuttles drove up to the foot of the boarding ramp.  An MCO officer in a cheap gray suit and dark glasses strolled out just quickly enough to beat the shuttles to the spot.  Phase let Officer Everheart get off first, and then quickly followed.

Samantha stood rigidly and snapped, “Good morning.  Are you MCO Field Agent Terence Harmon?”

The man stiffly answered, “Yes, I am.  I’m supposed to meet Whateley Security Officer Samantha Everheart.  Can you get her for me?”

Everheart stepped a foot closer.  “That would be me, Agent Harmon.  I’m traveling incognito because of the nature of this trip.”

Agent Harmon slowly reached into his suit coat and pulled out an MCO wallet.  He flipped it open to show his official ID, complete with holographic picture and RFID chip.

Phase kept his face impassive as Everheart studied the ID card.  He really doubted that Agent Harmon had any idea he was showing an ID card to someone who could read the RFID chip in the thing.

Everheart followed suit with her Whateley Security ID.  She checked, “Agent Harmon, could you tell me the fourth and fifth numbers of your Social Security Number?”

He blinked in surprise, but cooperated.  “Four seven.  Are you telling me you know my Social Security Number?”

She nodded tersely.  “Your last two digits are nine and three.  I ran an extensive check on all local MCO agents yesterday, and I memorized some verification data.  We do have a lot of students here, and a little additional security didn’t seem unrealistic.”

He nodded sagely.  “Delarose said you were impressive, and we wouldn’t believe how young you looked.  I thought I would.  I guess I was wrong.”  He paused.  “Now do you have the info sheets for me?”

Everheart handed him the clipboard full of paper.  She said, “All of their MIDs are already on file.  I sent them in myself.”

“Gotcha,” he said.  “I just need to go through and check everyone off.  It won’t take any time at all.”

Phase finally spoke.  “Thank you, Agent Harmon.  You’ll find the sheets alphabetized by codename.  I’m Phase.  With a pee-aitch instead of an eff.  I’ll be assisting on the check-through.”

Agent Harmon glanced over the info sheet for Phase and slid it out of the clip, placing it behind the clipboard so he could keep track of the entire group.  “Thank you.  If you could supply the codenames and help me with any other interesting spellings, we could get done pretty fast.”

Phase nodded and waved people off the first shuttle.  “This is Vox.  With a vee…”

 

“Wait a minute, her picture doesn’t match.”

Phase mentally kicked himself.  Of course it didn’t match.  Phobos was still under Nikki’s illusion.  “My fault.  Phobos is traveling while cloaked under a seeming.  If you look at her info sheet, it will be obvious why.  Let me get our mage to  drop the seeming for you.”

<(Phase) Fey, Agent K here needs to see the real Phobos.>

<(Fey) Oh.  Right.  I should’ve thought of that.  Give me a couple seconds so I don’t have to re-do the whole thing when we get to Boston.>

Phase pulled out his cell phone and pretended to punch in a number.  “Yeah, it’s me.  You forgot to undo the seeming on Phobos.  Can you make it so?”

Phobos apparently metamorphosed from an ordinary young woman into… a demonic creature with three eyes, green skin, and goatlegs.  She waited uncomfortably for the MCO man to over-react, as everyone did.

He checked the info sheet again and nodded at her.  “Okay.”  He looked back at Phase.  “Next?”

“Jericho.  With a jay.  And…  Hey!  Watch where you put that cane!”

“Sorry,” Jericho grinned with a marked lack of remorse in his voice.

 

As he checked off the last two students, Agent Harmon turned to Phase and Officer Everheart.  “Thanks for the cooperation.  I’ll signal Boston that you’re all present and correct, but they may still want a count at their end.”

“Understood,” Everheart replied.

“Well, that’s all.  Have a good flight.”  He turned and strolled off toward the building.

 

“Does anyone believe he really meant that?”

“Well, he’d probably get in trouble if he said ‘crash and die, gene filth’ in front of our Security guys.”

“That’s really mean!  He doesn’t have to be like that!”

“So, do you think he did mean something nice?”

Toni leaned over.  “His Ki said he did.  He actually meant that ‘have a nice flight’ bit.  I was totally shocked.”

“WHAT?”

“Oh yeah, didn’t you know?  Toni can read other people’s Ki too.”

“Jeez!”

“You mean, like a human lie detector?”

Toni smirked, “And it isn’t even covered by the Whateley rules on Psychics.”

“Yet.”

Toni frowned at that.

 

“Good Lord, this plane is huge!”

Anna gushed, “Oh my God, this is like out of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ or something!”

“Do they still run that show anymore?”

Anna admitted, “My mom really likes the re-runs.  It’s kind of corny.”

“This is pretty over the top.”

Nikki leaned back in a comfy seat and said, “Nah, it’s just typical Ayla.”  A couple people goggled at that statement.

“But look at this thing!”

It was pretty large for a group of about thirty kids, given that there was enough room to squeeze in over three hundred people in a 767 like this one.  There were about fifty or sixty lavish seats, most of them arranged in conversation groups.  In the midsection of the plane, there were some seats along the sides, to provide a large open space.  There was even a fancy desk at the back of the plane, complete with a computer and an internet connection and a multi-line phone system.  Behind that was a lavish kitchen.  Four sixty-inch flat panel televisions graced the walls of the cabin, each with its own remote control.  Instead of a utilitarian linoleum-like floor, it had plush carpeting.

Anna wasn’t going to say so, but she was pretty sure it was bigger than her whole house.  Including the attic.

 

Trews took a second look around the interior of the jet.  He sidled over to Green and whispered, “We gotta get lined up with Phase somehow.  Whateley Security pays great, but this kid is living the life.”

Green whispered back, “Hell yeah.  Can you imagine being her bodyguards for the next twenty years?  Flying around like this…  Hanging around while the really good food gets doled out…  Living in some kind of palace…  Vacations all over the planet…”

Trews nodded.  “Yeah.  So we have to figure out how to get in good with her.  And keep Buxton out of it without getting a shiv in the kidney.”

“Got any ideas?”

Trews whispered, “For starters, doing our job today.”

“Gotcha.”  They drifted apart, carefully looking over the jet for any potential problems without being too obvious about it.

 

<(Fey) Hey Phase, you were right.  Trews and Green are seeing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and they want some.  They’re planning on doing a good job for you, for starters, to get that ‘in’ with you when you graduate.>

<(Phase) Copy that.>

<(Chaka) But do you trust ‘em?>

<(Phase) No.  Not yet, anyway.  But we’ll see how good a job they do today.  They are competent.  It’s just that they’re greedy too.>

<(Lancer) Well, if you know they’re greedy, how can you ever trust ‘em not to stab you in the back?>

<(Phase) If their only weakness is greed, you set up a contract so they get a lot more money if they don’t betray you.  One of the popular approaches is setting up a large IRA or 401K that’s essentially in escrow.  If they play it straight, they get a massive payout some time after they quit or retire or change jobs.  Otherwise, all that money goes bye-bye.  So it’s never worth it for them to stab you in the back, because it costs them too much money.  Another approach, which I don’t particularly like, is the ‘mutual assured destruction’ approach: betray me, and my people will hunt you down and do even worse to you.  Or, for some groups, it’s the ‘accepted curse’: you agree to protect someone and if you betray them, the curse you have accepted goes into action.  Given that we know Fey, a lot of people would be pretty damn scared that we could use that option.  But I don’t like the ‘stick’ options when there’s a perfectly good ‘carrot’ option.  If you lay it out right, you get a win-win situation, you can trust your people, and your people can trust you in turn.>

<(Tennyo) Phase, you think WAY too much about this stuff.>

<(Phase) You wouldn’t believe how often Goodkinds have been betrayed by employees or assistants in the past two hundred years.  The whole family has had to deal with the issue.>

Ayla suddenly got an elbow in the side.  Vox complained, “Are you done with the secret squirrel routine, or do I gotta watch you not talk out loud for another five minutes?”

“Sorry.”  <(Phase) Got to go.>

<(Chaka) Hah!  I can see.  You are totally p…>

<(Fey) TONI!>

AYLA

Molly came over with Chou and Dorjee behind her.  Chou looked impressed.  Dorjee looked like he was going into shock.  Molly gasped, “Holy cow, Ayla!  This must’ve cost a fortune!”

Toni flopped down in an armchair near me.  “Totally Ayla.  I’m just surprised we don’t have fancy serving girls totin’ around caviar.”

Marty leaned our way and fussed, “Ooh, isn’t that like fish eggs?  Yuck!”

I smirked, “Well, we’re going to have a serving something toting around drinks.”

Toni snarked, “What?  You don’t have sexy bimbos bouncing around carrying cocktails for us?”

I smirked, “Like I could hire anyone hotter than the girls in here already.”

Vox whispered, “Flatterer.”

Nikki said, “And it is going to be a pretty short flight, right?”

“That too,”

Just then the pilot’s voice came over the intercom system.  “We’re ready to taxi over to the runway.  Can everyone sit down and buckle up?  We’ll be taking off in a couple minutes, since right now we’re second in line for takeoff.  Then you can unbuckle your seatbelts ten minutes after takeoff, when we flip off the ‘fasten your seatbelts’ lights.  We’re not expecting any rough weather along our flightpath, but if we flip the seatbelt signs back on, please take your seats and buckle yourselves back in.”

Toni asked, “Does this guy know we’ve got almost enough superpowers here to carry the plane if it has any trouble?”

I said, “Yes, the pilots and the leasing company do know we’re mutants.  And no, I don’t think we have quite enough powers to keep an entire 767 in the air if it lost its engines.  But we do have more than enough power to rescue everyone on the jet, if we needed to.”

Nikki grinned, “Sure.  We just get Hank to carry all of us around in the comfy armchairs.  Is this real leather?  It can’t be a synthetic, it’s not giving me a rash.”

Once the jet took off and we reached a safe altitude, I got up from my seat and walked over to the front of the plane.

“Thank you for flying Air Ayla.  In the event of a water landing, you may use the nearest Ultraviolent as a flotation device,” called out a certain person who will remain unspecified, even though her name rhymes with ‘phony handler’.

I rolled my eyes.  “Thanks for that opening monologue.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I didn’t let Toni give this talk.  There are a couple points I want to go over with everyone.  First, the objective of this trip is fun.  If you want something and it’s not around, just ask me.  If there’s no food you want to eat at the restaurant, just ask me.  If you don’t like what we’re serving on the jet, just ask me.

“Next, we’re mutants-”

“Oh my God, you’re all mutants?  Why didn’t anyone WARN me?”

I sighed, “Thank you, Belle.  As I was saying, we’re mutants, and we want to hide that fact.  If anyone asks who we are, and why we have so many pretties along, say that we’re actors.  If they pry more, tell them that you can’t talk about the movie we’ll be shooting in and around Boston because it’s still in pre-production.  And if they still keep being nosy, get me or one of the Security officers.

“Then I want you to know we have three Security officers along.  Sam Everheart, Officer Green, and Officer Trews.  Sam over there is in casual clothes so she can blend in.  So you can call her Sam today.  We don’t want to reveal that we’re from Whateley.  So you can call Officer Green and Officer Trews ‘Mister’.  Mister Green and Mister Trews, just like they’re bodyguards.  And remember, they’re still Whateley Security, so if they tell you to do something, do it.  Instantly.  Complain later, but follow their orders first.  Okay?

“And finally, no codenames until we get back to the shuttles.  From now on, we’re just ordinary teenagers.”

“Who have a private jet,” called out Nikki.

“And who just happen to be too darn pretty for our own good,” added Toni.

“And heckle too much,” contributed Billie.

I went back to my topic.  “So let me perform some introductions.  In case you didn’t know, I’m Phase, but from here on out, I’m Ayla.  Let’s start with Toni – because it’s impossible to shut her up – and go clockwise.  Everyone stand up, give your codename and your real name, and tell me one thing you’re hoping for on this trip.”

Toni bounced up onto the balls of her feet and grinned, “I’m Chaka.  Call me Toni.  I’m hoping I get to watch Ayla searching all over for her credit card when it’s time to pay for lunch.”  That got a laugh.

Nikki rose to her feet.  “I’m Fey.  Call me Nikki.”  She put one hand on Toni’s shoulder.  “And I’m hoping someone brought a muzzle for my roomie here.”  That got a bigger laugh.

Bunny stood up next.  “I’m Bugs.  Call me Bunny.”  Several people must have given her funny looks, because she added, “No, really, that’s my real name.  And I’m hoping Jade brought her cabbit along.”  Jade held up the cabbit, which waved excitedly.

Riptide stood up.  “I’m Riptide.  Call me Rip.  Or Elena.  I like Rip better.  And I already got what I was hoping for.  A ride on a real private jet like ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’.  This is pretty awesome.”

Hank got up next.  “I’m Lancer.  Call me Hank.  And I’m hoping for something amazing to eat at the restaurant.”

“That’s pretty much guaranteed,” Nikki grinned.

Lily rose shyly.  “I’m Wallflower.  Call me Lily.  And I’m hoping for a nice, quiet, fun lunch with my boyfriend.”

Then we got to the covey of inventors.  “Ah’m Loophole, and Ah go bah Elaine, but since Delta Spike is an Elaine too, just call me ‘Doc’.  And Ah’m hoping lunch is so great Ah can torment Kodiak and the other Alphas about it for days.”

Delta got up and added, “As Loop already pointed out, I’m Elaine.  And I’m just hoping for no galvanomorphs and no explosions.”  Most of the Workshop crowd laughed at that.

“I’m Möbius.  Call me Bart.”  He paused and held up his hands.  “Yeah, I’ve heard every Bart Simpson joke in creation, and I’d rather not hear another one.  And don’t ask if I can do a Bart Simpson imitation.  I can’t.”

I chipped in, “It’s got to be better than Toni’s.”

“Hey!”

Vanessa threw in a lethally accurate Bart Simpson voice.  “Don’t have a cow, man.”  That cracked everyone up.

Bart finished, “And I already got what I was hoping for.  A chance to sit around and talk shop with people like the Elaines.”

“I’m Generator, one of Team Kimba.  And this is my cabbit-”

“MIYA!” the cabbit squeaked, as it waved its plastic carrot about.

“-well, really, Billie’s cabbit, who wants to serve drinks later.  I go by Jade, and I’m hoping everyone loves meeting my little cabbit.”

“And I’m Shroud.  Call me Jinn.  I’m actually Jade’s big sister.  I’m hoping we all have fun.”

“I’m Jericho.  Call me Joe for today.  And I’m hoping I don’t have to unveil my undershirt of doom!”  Most of the cabin had been subjected to Jericho’s fashion choices at one time or another, so that got a big laugh.

Phobos was sitting over by Jericho, so she went next.  “I figure everyone knows I’m Phobos.  My name is Adrienne.  And I’m hoping there’s really good seafood at the restaurant, since we’re going to Boston.  Back home, Deimos and me never get fresh seafood.”

Nikki called out, “We’re talking about Ayla, so that’s pretty much guaranteed.”

Chou went next.  “I am Bladedancer.  Call me Chou.  And I am Ayla’s roommate, so I get to eat great food all the time.  I just hope we really get to ride in cool limos around Boston.”

Molly stood up.  “I’m Gateway.  Call me Molly.  I’m hoping Chou doesn’t do anything crazy while we’re in Boston.”

Dorjee smiled, “And I’m Chain Lightning.  Call me Dorjee, please.  I’m hoping I get used to these clothes Chou and Molly picked out for me to wear.  They said I couldn’t walk around Boston looking like ‘an escapee from a David Carradine teevee show’.  But they haven’t explained the joke to me yet.”

Vanessa was still chortling when she said, “I’m Vox.  It’s Latin, so you know Ayla came up with it.  Call me Vanessa.  I’m hoping Ayla doesn’t spend all his time running things and organizing, instead of having fun.”

Anna hopped up.  “I’m Aquerna, which is a Middle English word for squirrel, so you know Ayla came up with my codename too.  I’m Anna.  I’m hoping for plenty of cool stuff to tell everyone about when I get back.”

Charmer stood up next.  “I’m Charmer.  My real name is Primavera, but I go by Vera.  Only my parents call me Primavera anymore, and only when I’m in trouble.  And I’m hoping the restaurant will let me look at the wine list.”

When Tabby stopped snickering at that, she said, “I’m Tabby.  Call me Abby.  I’m hoping there’s some really excellent local seafood, because I haven’t had any since I was home over Christmas break.”

“I’m Prism.  Just call me Rich.  And I’m hoping for a trip that’ll make my friends jealous.  And you have no idea how hard that is to do.”

Some of us did know.  But I wasn’t going to bring that up at the moment.

Mega-Girl hopped to her feet.  “I’m Mega-Girl, and my name is Marty.  I’m hoping we have some really cute waiters.”

Belle rolled her eyes as she got up.  “I’m Beltane, but I mostly go by Belle.  And I’m hoping I don’t have to cover Marty in ectoplasm until she looks like an old crone.”  Marty giggled and stuck her tongue out at Belle.

Jay Jay hopped up at high speed.  “I’m Scrambler, not Scramble, he’s a big jerk, and I picked my name first but he wouldn’t switch to another name and we had a bunch of arguments about it but he wouldn’t change so I’m stuck with a jerky guy who has a codename almost the same as me.  Oh, and I’m Jay Jay.  I’m hoping they have some of those fish fillets with the tartar sauce, I really love those.”

Pilar got up.  “Hi.  I’m Verdant.  Call me Pilar.  I’m hoping everyone doesn’t mind when I drift back to my normal shape and I’m all green.”  Jay Jay patted her on the shoulder after she sat back down.

“And I’m Plastic Girl.  Call me Jody.  I’m hoping Ayla will let me help her out some, since she’s obviously got a million and one details to handle today.”

I got back to my feet.  “Okay, you all know each other’s names now.  If you forget, it’s okay to ask.  Not everyone here has an Exemplar memory.  We have several kinds of real fruit juices and fruit nectars on the jet, and we have a fairly wide variety of foods at the restaurant, including some vegetarian options.  And a lot of seafood.  So, no matter how much you want to eat, we have more than enough food.”

“Even if Billie works up an appetite?” snarked Toni.

“Hey!  It’s not like I’m gonna make everyone else starve!” Billie complained.

“Even if Billie works up an appetite,” I replied.  “I ordered a lot of food.  We’ll just take the leftovers home with us.  Any hungry people can snack on them on the ride home, and what people don’t eat, and don’t want to take back to their rooms to eat later, will go over to Poe, where it will be devoured in seconds, more or less as if we threw it into a shark tank.”

“Oh, Billie can eat all of it!” Jade added helpfully.  “Billie can eat anything!”

Billie buried her face in her hands and muttered, “Jade?  Totally not helping.”

I interrupted, “Which reminds me.  Jade?”  She looked my way.  “Time for your cabbit to strut her stuff.”

“Okay!”  Jade jumped up excitedly.

Her cabbit leapt out of her arms and scrambled ahead of her, racing her to the kitchen in the back.  “Miya!  Mi-mi-miya!”

“No!  Bad cabbit!  Wait your turn!”

“Miya!  Pththththth!”

“Naughty!”

Toni leaned over toward me and asked, “Is that ‘AI’ thing supposed to stand for artificial intelligence or artificial insanity?”

In a minute or two, the cabbit came strolling out of the kitchen balancing a large silver tray in one paw over its head.  The tray was loaded with glass goblets of juice.  I suspected that Jade had cast one of the J-Team into the entire tray and the goblets, so nothing was going to spill unless the jet started doing barrel rolls.  Maybe not even then.

Jade announced, “Ladies and gentlemen!”

“And Jericho!”  I was pretty sure that was Adrienne.

Jade giggled and went on, “My little cabbit is going to be serving drinks.  We have real orange juice and real apple juice, plus mango juice and guava juice!”  She paused and added,  “And if you don’t like any of those, there’s like eight other kinds of juice in the fridge back here including one I never even heard of before.”

The cabbit started strolling forward, offering drinks to everyone it passed, with a helpful little “Miya?”

 

Rich walked over to where Bladedancer was sitting with her two friends.  Who were more than just her friends.  He uncomfortably asked, “Can we talk a little?”

Bladedancer looked up at him and smiled, “Yes.  Please.  And remember, I’m Chou.”

“Call me Rich.  Frankly, I’m not sure I’m going to get used to being ‘Prism’.  It’s so… superhero.”

“I’m Molly, and this is Dorjee.”  Molly scooted over on the leather couch, leaving a space between her and Chou.  Then she patted the spot.

Rich sat down and said, “First things first.  I want you to know that Imperious and Judicator wanted me to play spy today.  I’m not comfortable with that kind of behavior.”

Dorjee smiled at him, “That is good to hear.  A lie is a blight on the soul.”

Molly said, “Dorjee doesn’t do the fibbing thing.  We had to hide him away while we were planning Ayla’s surprise party, just so he wouldn’t blow the whole deal.”

Rich said, “I’m one of the New Olympians.  Not one of the core members, but still…”

Chou shrugged carelessly, “Yeah, we know that.  Ayla figured all this stuff out last fall.  We thought she was being anal-retentive, as usual.  But she turned out to be right.  As usual.”

Molly added, “Yeah, Ayla knows way too much stuff about Greek mythology, and ancient languages.”

Rich found himself momentarily dumbstruck.  Phase already knew all of this?  Months ago?  Rich hadn’t gone to the meeting the other night, but Judicator had said one of the Kimbas gave her the information on N’Dizi’s plots.  He sighed.  Well, it looked like Phase was more dangerous than Imperious had let on.  He thought for a second and said, “Well, if Phase knows what I really am, then there’s something you three ought to know about Cytherea.”

Chou gently said, “We know she’s really Aphrodite.”

Rich blinked in shock.  Was there anything the Kimbas didn’t know about the New Olympians?  He told them, “Then you won’t be surprised that she can ‘see’ the links between the three of you.  Not that any of us is opposed to polyamory or homosexuality.”

Chou winced slightly, while Dorjee merely smiled.  Molly admitted, “We aren’t making a secret of it any longer.  But thanks for telling us.”

Chou said, “You ought to talk to Ayla about stuff.  She knows more about the New Olympians than Imperious and Majestic probably want anyone to realize.  But she is not spreading it all over the place.”

Rich sighed, “Majestic is kind of touchy about Phase.  Still.”

Chou and Molly nearly giggled.  Chou grinned, “We heard all about that World Literature class.  I still cannot believe Ayla wanted to take it.  But she really enjoyed it.”

Rich admitted, “I still can’t believe June wanted to take it.  And she enjoyed the parts that didn’t have anything to do with classical mythology.  She really didn’t like the way she was portrayed in pretty much all those epics.”

Chou said, “That probably was one of the clues that tipped Ayla off.”

 

Anna skittered over to where Jericho and Phobos were sitting.  No, she needed to call them Joe and Adrienne.  This was so cool!  She got to call some of Outcast Corner by their real names!

She hopped into the chair next to Joe and said, “Hi, Joe!  Hi, Adrienne!  Isn’t this awesome?”

Joe admitted, “I was really expecting something pretty cramped.  But this is…”

“Massive,” Adrienne cut in.  “Ginormous.  I mean, it’s completely insane for, what, twenty-five teenagers?”

Anna gushed, “I’ve only been on a real plane twice in my life, and they weren’t anywhere near this big, and they were really crowded.  I mean, I took the train to Whateley last fall, and I rode with Ree and her folks over Christmas.  This is…”

“Ayla at her finest,” Joe grinned.  “Did you know she’s been trying to set up a fancy contract with someone like Johnson and Johnson for one of my inventions?”

Anna shook her head no.  She said, “I heard from Jerry that she was working to get a bunch of Workshop people doing stuff with her, but Jerry… umm… doesn’t trust her.”

“Jerry?” Phobos wondered.

Without turning his head, Joe said, “Hazmat.  Anna’s been dating him since December.  Erlenmeyer can’t stop teasing him about it.”  Joe switched back to her and said, “If you really want to know, I didn’t trust Phase all that much either.  I got Diamondback to go over the contract with a fine-tooth comb.  Phase was so far ahead of me she even wrote the damn thing so I could use her funds to pay Diamond to go over the contract.”

Phobos contributed, “And there wasn’t anything bad in the contract.  Diamondback even said so.  And Caitlin really let Jericho have it for acting like that when Phase was doing the right thing.”

Jericho scowled, “She really chewed me out too.  So then, when I’m feeling really bad about doubting Phase, I’m down in the Workshop, and Techno-Devil comes over and tells me someone like Phase is smart enough to hide any trap clauses so carefully even Diamondback wouldn’t know where to look for ‘em.  So now I’m all paranoid again.  So then Jobe overhears Mal, and he sticks his nose in.”

Anna frowned, “I don’t like Jobe.  But he sure is smart.”  Then she realized she just said that in front of Phobos.  She gasped, “Oh my gosh, I’m really sorry!”

Phobos growled, “Not your fault.  And Joe brought it up.  So what did Mister I’m So Great And You Suck Royally have to say?”

Jericho scowled even more.  “He told me if Phase makes me ten or twenty times what Whateley could’ve managed, what difference does it make if Phase skims an extra twenty percent off the top?  I’d still be ahead by millions of bucks.  And that’s the thing about Jobe that really bugs me.  When he’s right about stuff.”

Anna admitted, “He was really mean about my squirrels, but he knew just how to save ‘em, and he knew who could do the chemistry.  Plus, I got a boyfriend out of it.  But Jobe was really icky about asking me about some ‘brow’ thing.”

Joe laughed.  “Drow.  He’s got this thing about creating a perfect wife with a drow body, which would be like a dark elf girl if you’re not a Dungeons and Dragons fan.  And half the workshop is having bets on who’s gonna try it first, and how many girls are gonna kick the bucket before he gets it right.”

Anna gasped.  “You mean die?  He’s gonna test it on people?  Who would be crazy enough to let him?”

Phobos started counting on her fingers.  “Harpy.  Psydoe.  Bova.  Puppet.  Tisiphone.  Grabby.  B-”

“You can stop now,” Anna said with a sick feeling in her stomach.  She suddenly wondered if someone like Winnie might feel so horrible about herself that she’d risk everything to become a sexy drow girl, even if she had to be Jobe’s girlfriend.  Anna didn’t which would be worse.  Dying, or being stuck having to hang around Jobe all the time.

 

Marty said, “No really, it’s like it’s really alive.  Right, little cabbit?”

The cabbit put the tray down and gave Marty a big hug.  “Miya!”

Vera blinked in surprise.  “I thought it was just a stuffed animal with robot parts and maybe some kind of computer brain.”

Marty said, “But it’s really smart, and cuddly, and some times it’s like it’s taking care of Tennyo even more than Jade is.”

Vera wrinkled her brow in puzzlement.  “Tennyo needs taking care of?”

Marty handed her the cabbit.  “Sure.  Tennyo’s pretty powerful, but she’s just like every other freshman girl.  You know, her boyfriend dumped her for some girl Tennyo introduced him to in dance class.  And she got fired from like four straight school jobs because people were being mean to her.  None of ‘em were her fault.”

Vera admitted, “We saw the food fight.  That really wasn’t her fault at all.”

Marty went on, “And people don’t want to be her friend, ‘cause of the Section 33 thing, which is totally not fair, because she’s really nice.  If it wasn’t for the Kimbas and some of the other Poesies and some friends she’s got over in Hawthorne, she’d be having a really lousy year.”

Pauvre petite,” Vera muttered.

“Huh?”

“Oh, nothing,” Vera said.  The cabbit really was extremely cuddly, almost like holding a baby.  A furry baby.  But it didn’t feel at all like a little robot.  Vera wondered how good a deviser Jade had to be to make this work so well.  The cabbit snuggled into her arms and purred “Mi-yaaaa.”  She found herself hugging it like it was a baby.

She suddenly wondered if Jade would make one for her.  She was sure Winnie wouldn’t complain, or tell the other girls…

 

Elaine grinned, “No, I’m okay with that.  And it was real nice of you to go with ‘Doc’ so everyone wouldn’t get us confused.”

Bart tried to be gallant as he said, “There’s no way anyone could get you two mixed up.”

‘Doc’ said in a soft Southern drawl, “Well, Ah’ve been called Doc for a long time, even before Ah got to Whateley.  It’s the ‘E.E.’ in mah initials.”

Elaine asked, “What’s the second ‘E’ for?”

Doc admitted with a frown, “Ethel.”

Bart groaned, “Man, that’s as bad as ‘Bartholomew Clarence’.”  Both girls looked at him in surprise.  “I’m named after both my grandfathers.  My sister is ‘Eunice Gerda’ after our grandmothers.  Talk about asking for trouble in grade school.  Sometimes I wondered why my folks didn’t just name us ‘Beat Me Up’ and ‘No Beat Me Up First’.  At least you got a really pretty first name.  Eunice?  Not.”

 

Billie sat next to Phobos.  “Adrienne, right?”  Phobos nodded.  “It’s nice to meetcha.”

Adrienne frowned, “You don’t have to fib.  You can just say flat out you don’t like my fear aura.”

Billie scratched her head uncomfortably.  “Umm, you see, that’s one of the weird things about me.  I don’t get the auras and stuff people have.  I can’t feel yours, and I can’t feel Fey’s, and I can’t feel Carmilla’s, and there’s a couple other kids who have stuff like that, and I don’t feel theirs either.  At least Hamper and Damper’s stuff doesn’t work on me.  That’s good.”

Adrienne actually grinned.  “Jeez, you have no idea how hard it is to make friends when people are peeing in their pants just being near you.”

Billie sighed, “Actually, I do.  I don’t have an aura or a glamour, but I’ve got that ‘Section 33’ rep, and people pretty much run in the opposite direction when they see me coming.”

Adrienne said, “Well, it looks like your team like you.  I see them with you all the time.  And Ayla wouldn’t have invited you if she didn’t like you, right?”

“Right,” Billie nodded.  “They really are great.  And they’ve stood up for me and stuff.  They all got in a lot of trouble for backing me when I flew off to Colorado at Christmas and they pretended I was still in Poe.  Boy, did I get in trouble for that one.  And Jade’s more like a little sister than a roommate.”

Jade came over and flopped down gracelessly into a neighboring armchair.  “Hi!  Did you say something about me?”

Billie teased, “Well, a wacky little sister.”

“Hey!” fussed Jade.  “I’m not wacky!  I’m a serious deviser with serious stuff around me!”

Billie rolled her eyes.  “You?  Serious?  Lemme see…  The great cabbit chase.  Whack-a-Mole with your lion.  The cabbit prank you pulled on Akira’s gang.  Your Hello Kitty compact attack drone.  The shoulder angels.  Radioactive condor girl…”

“Now wait a minute, Radioactive Condor Girl is gonna work!” Jade insisted.

Phobos was laughing hysterically by then.  “Oh my God, you guys are funnier than Jericho!”

“Hey, nobody’s funnier than me,” Joe insisted as he slid into a seat.  “I’m the clown prince of… umm… something that’s not crime.”

“Toni,” Jade said,  “Toni’s really, really funny.  Sometimes I don’t get the jokes, but I know they’re jokes, because Ayla starts laughing really hard.  And Ayla’s funny too, but I hardly ever get her jokes.”

Billie groaned, “That’s because nobody but English professors gets those jokes.”  She turned to Adrienne and Joe.  “Ayla said this one thing, and nobody laughed, but I looked it up on the internet later, and it took me like ten minutes to track it down, and it was this weird thing out of a thousand-page Ezra Pound poem.”

Joe said, “So if she’d said it in a meeting of the English Department they’d have been rolling in the aisles and wetting their pants?”

“Pretty much,” Billie said.  “But that’s Ayla.  She’s not a normal frosh.”

Joe waved his cane around in the vastness of the 767.  “I think we already got that.”

Jade giggled, “You oughta get Chou to tell you some Ayla stories.”

Phobos realized that Jade had been sitting with them for a couple minutes, and there still wasn’t any fear coming off her.  Just happiness and a naughty anticipation.  What was it with these Kimbas?  Fey wasn’t affected either, she could tell.  And Phase was, but went out of her way to pretend it didn’t bother her.  Not that Adrienne was complaining.  Having people who didn’t mind being around her was the best thing that had happened to her since Outcast Corner had welcomed her and Deimos with open arms.

Adrienne leaned forward and grinned.  “Okay, but let me tell you some Jericho stories first.”

“Hey!  No ratting out the blind guy!”  But Joe couldn’t keep the grin off his face.

 

A goblet of guava nectar in hand, Ayla strolled over to Tabby and Marty and Pilar.  “What’s up?”

Tabby grinned, “Marty’s trying to talk Pilar into being one of my waitresses next month.”

Pilar looked at Ayla and admitted, “I really do need the money, but I don’t want to wear one of those teeny outfits, especially after what Fey and Tennyo said about the horny boys.”

Marty insisted, “But they’re really cute!  And sexy!  And I got to keep mine!”

Tabby finally relented, “Pilar, I’m not going to have my waitresses wear outfits like that next time.  I’m going with simple gray maid uniforms that are below the knee, and flats.  As Marty already knows.”

Marty suddenly burst into giggles.  “The look on your face!  I totally fooled you!”

Pilar just shook her head bashfully.  She didn’t say a thing.  But she was thinking some really creative phrases in Portuguese.

 

Doc walked over to Bunny, who was having a complicated discussion with Bart about whether the egg shape would lend itself well to space-compression methodologies like he was developing.

“Hi!” Bunny smiled.

Doc said, “Ah think Jade programmed that cabbit for you, and Ah got the surprise instead.”

“Really?”  Bart couldn’t wait to hear this one.  Especially after he saw the cabbit doing a little dance that looked like it would be really hard to design.

Doc frowned, “Yeah, really.  Ah walked over to the juice tray, and Ah took some orange juice, and right away the cabbit sets the tray down, leaps into a chair across from me, and does that ‘miya’ thing, but in the exact tones of Bugs Bunny saying ‘what’s up doc’, complete with a carrot in its mouth.  It pretty much skeddaddled after that, so maybe it figured I’d grab it or something.”

Bunny giggled a little.  “Ooh, I’m sorry I missed it.  Yeah, that sounds like Jade.  You ought to ask the Kimbas about the first time Jade animated the thing.  You know, it’s really Billie’s, her brother gave it to her as a going-away gift.  So when the cabbit started running around, they didn’t know what the heck was happening.  Some of ‘em thought maybe Fey accidentally magicked it into a real, live cabbit.  They were chasing it all over the floor, up and down the hallways, and everything.  It was the funniest thing ever!”

Doc checked, “So Jade programs the cabbit for pranks too?”

“Well, not pranks so much, more like really goofy things she comes up with.  That’s just Jade.”

Bart said, “Well, it’s just a good thing Jobe doesn’t whip stuff up for what he thinks would be funny pranks.”

Both girls cringed.

 

Lily said, “But it’s really going to be a lot of fun.  Even the rehearsals have been pretty fun.”

Vanessa grimaced.  “Well, I know Ayla wants to see it, but I’m still not sure I want to go wit’ her.  Shakespeare’s just not my thing.”

Lily pushed, “But you know it is Ayla’s thing, and you know she wants you to like it more.”

Vanessa sighed.  “I know.  But that’s the thing.  I’m not Ayla.  We’re not the same, and we don’t need to be the same.  I think we’re gonna work out better in the long run if I have things I do that he doesn’t do wit’ me, and he has things he does that I don’t do wit’ him.”

It was only after they stopped talking that Vanessa’s exact words hit Lily.  “He?  Ayla’s a he?”

 

Nikki explained, “No, Ayla doesn’t like how she looks.  She didn’t pluck her eyebrows.  They just haven’t grown back.  Her leg hair hasn’t grown back either.  And believe me, we all hear all about this all the time.”

Vera frowned, “I would give a lot not to have to shave my legs.”

Nikki nodded.  “Me too.  So most of the girls just get ticked off when Ayla complains about it.  They’d trade places with her in a shot.  Never having to shave your legs or your armpits again?  Never having to tweeze your brows and check ‘em every day or two?  Not really a downside for most of us.”

“So that hairstyle?”

“I think it’s as close to a guy hairstyle as she thinks she can get away with, and still look stylish.”

“It is rather New Wave.  Maybe it’s a bit much for New Hampshire…”

Nikki did her best ‘Toni’ imitation complete with Toni hand gestures, “But in downtown Boston or New York City, she be stylin’.”

 

Anna picked up another orange juice.  She hadn’t ever tried weird stuff like guava juice or mango juice, and she knew it was a chance to try ‘em out, but what if she didn’t like ‘em?  She couldn’t pour ‘em out in the middle of a big jet!  So she took the orange juice, which was really, really good.  Way better than the stuff her mom mixed up out of the little frozen cans.

She thanked the cabbit, “Thanks, cutie-pie.  You are the nicest little cabbit I ever met.”

“Miya!” squeaked the cabbit happily.  Anna grinned at it.  She really wished she had a magic cabbit devise thing too, but her squirrel friends would probably be totally freaked by it.

Rich came over and picked out a goblet of mango juice.  He nodded, “Hi, Anna.”

She swallowed hard and said, “Umm, Rich, I kinda overheard what you were saying to Chou and Molly.”

Rich looked around at the big jet and obviously wondered how she heard him.  He just said, “Really?”

She pointed at her ear with her free hand.  “Super squirrel hearing.  I hear a lot of stuff normal people don’t.”

“Oh.”

She had to find out, so she got up her nerve and just asked.  “So you and Cytherea… and Imperious and Majestic and Counterpoint?  You’re all really Greek Gods?  For real?”

Rich shrugged carelessly.  “Pretty much.  Some of us take it more seriously than others.  But it’s complicated.”

Anna suddenly got this huge flash of things she had seen over the course of the school year.  Imperious throwing a lightning blast at a guy.  Majestic doing her magic to people.  Counterpoint always fighting people.  Cytherea being all skanky to guys all over campus…  “So you’re… who?”

Rich pursed his lips.  “Well, a part of me is Apollo.  God of the sun and light and medicine and music, and a whole lot more.  Part of me is just plain old Rich.  Sometimes it’s complicated.  Sometimes it’s simple.  Like… both parts of me like doing healing.  I’m planning on going to med school, even if being a mutant is gonna make it pretty much impossible to practice medicine anywhere in the United States.”

Anna thought back to martial arts class last fall.  Rich was really powerful, and stronger in the sunlight, and he was really good at healing.  It all made sense.  “But then… Cytherea is kind of like… your… umm…”

“More or less my half-sister.  In a metaphysical sense.”

Anna gulped.  She’d been thinking really mean things about Cytherea, and now she really needed to go apologize.  Even if she didn’t want to have to explain why she needed to apologize to someone like Cytherea.  Instead, she asked, “And so Counterpoint…”

“Is really Ares, God of War.”

“Oh Jeez,” Anna gulped.  “Umm, that kind of explains why he’s always getting into fights and stuff.  Right?”

Rich grinned, “Pretty much.”  He strolled off.

Anna sat down like her legs had stopped working.  No wonder Rich didn’t have time for someone like her.  He was so far out of her league it wasn’t even funny.  He was Apollo.  The real Apollo.

And she was nothing.  She wasn’t even anything back home in tiny little Zanesville.

 

Ayla casually strolled over to where Bunny was telling Nikki and Jinn a story.  He interrupted quietly, “I hate to burst into things, but I have a need-to-know.”  They turned and looked at him.  He stared at Nikki.  “Did you do another spell on Phobos?”

“No.  Why would I?” Fey wondered regally.

Ayla sighed, “Because I think her fear aura is fading.  Before you cast that seeming, it was just as bad as usual.  Now it’s almost gone.  I walked over a moment ago, and it’s down to a minute discomfort.”

Nikki stood up straight and closed her eyes in concentration.  “It is fading.  I don’t know why.  But I promise you I didn’t do anything, and I can tell Cha… Vera didn’t either.  It’s not a magical effect. It’s just fading.”

Ayla stared ahead as he thought things over.  Everyone knew – or at least, everyone on campus ought to know – that the fear aura got worse as Phobos and Deimos merged, until they became a single entity and their fear aura was intense enough to warp reality in their immediate vicinity.  And now, the further Phobos got away from Whateley, the more that fear aura faded…

Oh God.  His stomach knotted up in revulsion.  He glanced over and saw that Adrienne was at the front of the plane, laughing with Billie and Jade and Molly about something.  Joe was at the back of the plane, teasing Toni.  And vice versa.  He strolled back toward Joe as casually as he could.

 

Toni suddenly realized someone was focusing on her, and she turned her head to check.  Ayla.  But Ayla looked upset.  Her Ki was all over the place.  This wasn’t good.  She said, “Hey Ayles, what’s the what?”

Ayla stopped surprisingly close to Joe and said, “I’ve got a question for Joe, but you don’t have to run off.”  She turned and asked, “Joe, Adrienne’s fear aura is fading away.  The further we get from Whateley, the lower it drops.  So here’s my question.  Is it the distance she moves away from her sister?”

Joe scowled.  “Damn.  I was hoping no one would spot that.”

Toni said, “You can’t hide anything from the Goodkind, y’know.  The New Olympians thought they were so smart, and Ayles figured out they really are the real Greek Gods, and who’s who.  In some way, anyway.  Knowin’ that saved our butts a couple weeks ago.

Joe admitted, “Well, that would sure explain Stygian.  And Counterpoint, come to think of it.  So what’s the deal with Prism?”

Ayla merely said, “Apollo.”

“Damn, that makes a ton of sense,” Joe muttered.  “And Knick-Knack hangs with ‘em too, so that makes him…”

“Hephaestus.  Which also explains his two robot-girl companions.”

Toni said, “If you say so.  Me?  I’m not Greek Mythology Woman, so I don’t get the ref.”

Joe frowned, “Me neither.”

Ayla said, “According to some legends, Hephaestus built two female shells that were in essence powered by two souls he got from Hades.”

Toni gaped, “Oh God, you mean there might be real human souls trapped in those things?”

Joe said, “Jean-Paul isn’t exactly Stormwolf, but I can’t see him doing something evil like that.”

Ayla shrugged, “I have no idea.  We’d probably need to get Fey close to them in order to find out for sure.  But I would just as soon not start a war on a new front.  We have enough enemies on campus as it is.  I’m hoping we can maintain a truce with the ‘Lympies.”  He turned to face Jericho.  “One more question.  Does Adrienne know her fear aura is fading, and why?”

Joe gulped.  “I don’t think so.  I don’t think they could admit that to each other.  They’re pretty much their only support system.  Outcast Corner’s done what we can, but they need each other.”

“Crap.” Ayla swore.  “Okay.  Toni, we don’t talk about this, and we definitely don’t tell Adrienne… until we need to.”

Toni glanced toward the front of the plane, where Jade and her cabbit were making Adrienne laugh.  “Gotcha.”

Ayla looked up as the captain’s voice boomed over the intercom system.  “Hi back there.  We’re approaching Logan Airport, it’ll be time to resume your seats in fifteen minutes for descent and landing.  At that time, I’d appreciate it if you’d buckle up securely.”

Ayla knew it was time to make a phone call.  He caught Sam’s attention.

THE NECROMANCER

Darrow leaned back in the limousine.  The windows were not only tinted, but were now magically screened as well.  He turned to Vamp and Nightgaunt.  “I think it’s time you met our little surprise for Roxbury.”

The inner window rolled down, and they could finally see their chauffeur.  It was an attractive brunette in a heavily-padded blue outfit.  She turned her head and said, “You won’t remember me after this mission.”

Nightgaunt just stared as if he were frozen.  Vamp blinked several times and finally choked out, “What the fuck was that?  What did she try to do to me?”

Darrow smiled wickedly.  “That was Obsession.  She’s our little ace in the hole.  Literally.”  He looked at the woman.  “Get started.  The SWAT teams are in position.”

Obsession gave him a nod and a smile, then she stepped out of the limo to reveal that she was wearing a Boston SWAT uniform.  She piled her hair atop her head and tugged a SWAT helmet on, flipping the visor down.  Obsession slung a SWAT anti-brick shotgun over her shoulder so she looked like any other female SWAT officer, and she trotted off toward a black van two blocks further along the street.

OBSESSION

She wasn’t a big fan of the Necromancer, but if this worked, she’d owe him one hell of a favor.  And she paid off her debts, no matter what it took.  She wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing a baggy, ugly SWAT uniform otherwise.

She rushed up to the shotgun seat of the van and rapped urgently.  The window rolled down, and a craggy police sergeant in SWAT blues looked down at her.  “What the hell are you doin’ outta position, officer?”

She said, “I’m supposed to be here.”

“Oh.  Right.  You’re s’posed ta be here.”  His eyes were already glassy.  Some people, like that vampire chick back in Darrow’s limo, weren’t pushovers.  But most people, and especially most guys, fell for her Siren voice like stupid little dominoes.  She could tell the driver was already voiced too.

She said, “I’m Officer Dresden, your new contact with Roxbury.”

“You’re… officer… Dresden…  My… new… contact…”

“Right,” she agreed.  “So, aren’t ya gonna let me talk to the boys in the back?”

“Oh sure,” the sergeant said.  “You got any updates?”

“Oh yeah,” she lied.  “Somethin’s goin’ on in there.  They want as much support as we can give ‘em, and they want us down in The Pit.”

“Okay,” the sergeant said.  “Lemme introduce you to the guys in back.”

“And then you will need to introduce me to your other SWAT teams.”

He looked at her and said, “You know what?  After that, I need to introduce you to the other SWAT teams.  We need to know who we’ve got at our backs.”

She smiled, “Yes, sergeant.”

AYLA

Before we had to take our seats, I waved Sam Everheart over.  Green and Trews strolled over as well.  I told them, “I want you to hear this call.”  I led them to the business desk at the back of the plane and flipped the phone system there to speakerphone.  Then I called a certain Boston number.

“Captain Tilley speaking.”

Sam gave me a sharp look as she realized just whom I was contacting.  But she didn’t say anything.

I leaned forward a little and said, “Captain, this is Ayla Goodkind.  Phase, from Whateley Academy.  I-”

He burst out, “Fuck!  That’s it!  I shoulda known!”  He quickly explained about the Necromancer’s three-way ploy, where the real target was probably me.

The only problem with his theory was that it made no sense, because my friends had kicked his slimy ass more than once, and this time we were traveling with a small army of mutant power.

Sam interrupted him, “Captain, this is Officer Everheart of Whateley Security.  It’s pretty unlikely the attack is aimed at this party.  In addition to Team Kimba, which the Necromancer couldn’t handle the last time, Phase has invited another twenty-some students from Whateley, and she made sure there are three Whateley Security officers along.  Plus, she’s taken extra precautions.”

Tilley agreed with her and added, “But he’s up to something.  And it could be today.  We got tipped about the restaurant thing, so we’ve got two SWAT vans staked out behind the place just in case.  But maybe he wants us to focus on your group, while he hits one of the other targets.  But probably not Roxbury C.  It’s pretty much unbreakable, and there’s only one way in.  Even the Necromancer can’t magic his way in, and even the Arch-Fiend can’t bust in, and even Nightgaunt can’t jaunt in.  And if he tries anything sneaky, the way in is just coated in magical spells that are supposed to trash any illusions or seemings or anything like that, so I don’t see how he could be aiming for Roxbury.”

I asked, “So where’s the third threat supposed to be?”

“The old Hathaway Gallery,” Tilley said.  “We can’t figure out what he’d be after there, but back in the fall we never would’ve figured out he was after a crappy little fake gold thing, if it wasn’t for you kids.”

“Yeah.  If it wasn’t for us meddling kids and our dog…”  Tilley snorted with laughter.  I said, “That’s because the ‘fake gold’ was something more than a thousand times more valuable than real gold, and no one at the museum knew what they really had.”

Tilley growled a little.  “Stupid museum donor had no idea what he had.  And then the museum director just took the guy’s word for it, because he was an important contributor.”

He shifted his phone enough that he sounded different.  I figured he was holding it against his shoulder so he could write.  “Tell me who ya got that’s deputized for here.”

I said, “Fey.  Tennyo.  Lancer.  Chaka.  Bladedancer.  Me.  Shroud.  Generator.  Riptide.  Bugs.  But Bugs isn’t a front-line fighter, she’s one of our inventors.  You need to keep her off the list.”

“Gotcha,” he muttered.  “I got Speed Queen, Dynaman, and Skyhawk already on alert.  Lamplighter doesn’t play by our rules, so the only way to get to him is through intermediaries that we pretend aren’t really intermediaries.  And there’s no way my bosses would accept his help anyway, since we’ve still got dozens of wants and warrants out on him.  If I need all o’ you too, it’ll be like a fucking Dr. Diabolik attack.”

I sighed, “Well, this is The Necromancer we’re talking about.  The bastard had an army of zombies as backup, the first time we fought him.  There’s no telling what he might pull this time.”

“Crap, that’s right,” he groaned.  “All we need this time is a giant pack of werewolves or something.  Wish I knew why he was playing this game with us.  He’s got to be up to something.  He’s not stupid.  Hell, we still don’t know why he’s still hanging around Boston after all these months.”

I said, “Well, here’s something that can help.”  I gave him a phone number.  “If you need paranormal backup, call that number and say that a Goodkind gave it to you.”

“I can’t just call the Empire City Guard and tell ‘em a Goodkind wants me to call ‘em!” he griped.

“This isn’t the Empire City Guard,” I calmly replied.  “It’s something I carefully arranged as an emergency backup for today.  You can use that number.  In fact, they’ve been given your name, so they’ll respond as soon as you identify yourself.”

I hung up and Sam turned to her cohorts.  She said, “It’s one of Phase’s emergency backups for today.”

Green muttered, “Who the hell are you expecting?  Deathmaiden?”

I ignored that and said, “I just wish I knew what the deal was with this ploy.  Telling the authorities that you’re going to hit three places is stupid.  If you hit any one of them, the cops are going to be waiting.  If you get cute and hit someplace else, you’re in the same sitch as if you hadn’t made the announcement at all, and you look like a dork.  Guys like the Necromancer care about their PR.”

Trews disagreed, “The Necromancer doesn’t care about PR.  He kills people.  He kills lots of people.”

I explained, “Yeah, but he wants that superbad rep.  He doesn’t want to look like a loser.  And he’s a bad manager: the kind of micro-manager who can’t let anybody get away with anything.  He’s busted the Arch-Fiend out of every place the guy got tossed.  I can see him trying to get into Roxbury C, but Tilley thinks it’s unbreakable.”

Everheart knew where I was heading.  “No place is impossible to break into, given enough firepower and enough planning.”

Green asked, “But how is telling the Boston PD that you want to break in going to make things better?  It’s got to make things a hundred times harder.”

“Unless we’re missing something critical,” I grimaced.

Everheart just looked at me.  “This is The Necromancer we’re talking about.  OBVIOUSLY we’re missing something critical.”  She immediately sat down and called Whateley Academy.  I was shooed away as if I were an unruly toddler.  Everheart might be a decorated soldier and a retired admiral, but shooing me away had to be a tactical error.

HIVE

Sam Everheart didn’t like using an unsecured line like this one, but she had little choice while there was no way of establishing any kind of link through cell phone towers.  She dialed one of the special numbers she knew.

“Whateley Security emergency lines.  Please ID yourself.”

“Samantha Everheart.  ID alpha two seven six four nine foxtrot three seven.  I have a possible Code Orange going down while we’re on route to Boston or while we’re in Boston.  Is there a possibility of Whateley backup?”

“Let me see.  Lady Astarte is in another city in an important meeting.  Our heavy weapons team is engaging just off-campus now.  Reverend England caught a couple of the Power Rangers busting into one of the Class X sites, and is holding off whatever it is pretty much single-handed, until we establish support and perimeter.  The Magic Arts Department is already on task for re-establishing the seal there.  That means we can’t get you any support for probably three to six hours, and when we do it’ll be a lot less than you’re already packing.”

She gritted her teeth, but calmly said, “Copy that.  Anything else?”

“Yes ma’am.  We received a note from Mrs. Potter this morning.  It’s apparently for you.  It says quote ‘Samantha, relax and enjoy the food.  Keep an eye out for the cast iron.’  Unquote.”

“Keep an eye out for the cast iron?”

“Yes.  And that’s e-y-e for ‘eye’, and c-a-s-t i-r-o-n for ‘cast iron’.  Exactly what it sounds like.”

“Copy that too.  Everheart out.”  She buckled herself into the nearest empty seat and gave Trews a bleak look.

He looked at her.  “What?”

“You know what?  I really hate precognitives.”

THE WHATELEY CROWD

The jet taxied over to the Logan Airport facilities for private jets, and made its way to Gate 8, one of two gates there with a jetway that could accommodate a 767 without going all the way over to the public transportation concourses.

Sam Everheart made sure she had Trews and Green with her when she opened the hatch and greeted the MCO agent who was awaiting their arrival.  She held out her badge for the man.  “Officer Samantha Everheart, Whateley Security.”

The MCO agent was another cookie stamped out of the ‘Men In Black’ mode.  He was wearing a black suit with a black tie and highly-polished black oxfords.  He pulled out his badge in turn.  “Agent Thomas Christiansen.”

Everheart scanned the RFID chip in his badge and then asked him, “What’s the fourth digit of your MCO emergency code?”

He blinked in surprise.  “Umm, seven.  I didn’t think you Whateley Security folks were that up on us.”

“I do my homework,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.  “Then let me just do this the quick way.  Would you verify that nothing untoward happened on the inbound flight, that all students who were checked in Berlin are still onboard, and that no one new has been added to the group?”

“I will,” she averred.

“Thank you.  Then I’m done here.  I’ll get out of your way, and check you off from the video footage.  Then I’ll check everyone back on the jet when you depart for Berlin later.  Good luck.”

Trews muttered to Green, “Got a feeling we’re gonna need it.”

 

Nearly thirty teenagers boiled up the jetway, with Ayla leading the group.

“Whaddaya think?  A big Goodkind bus with fancy seats and stuff?”

“Nah, this is Phase.  We’re talking fancier than that.”

“So, like what?”

“Oh man!”

“Are those real limousines?”

“Hell yes.”

“Are they for us?”

“Well DUH!”

“All six of ‘em?”

“Oh my God, they look like movie stars ought to be getting out of ‘em to go into the Oscars!”

“Well, I guess that means we have to look really graceful when we get out of them at the party.”

 

Anna gushed, “I can’t believe Ayla got limos for us!  I’ve never even seen a real limo in person before, and now I’m riding in one!”

Molly grinned, “This is nothing.  Well, nothing by Ayla’s standards.  Anyone can afford to rent one of these for a few hours.  That jet probably cost her a hundred times what the limos did.”

“Oh my gosh,” Anna whimpered.

Chou smiled at Anna and said, “Have you looked in the cabinets yet?”

Anna had to admit she was kind of afraid to, but she opened the one that looked like a little black refrigerator.  “Oh holy cow!”  It was a fridge, and it was chock full of sodas and smoothies and juices and all kinds of stuff!  She looked over at Molly and Chou, and gasped, “How can you be so calm about all this stuff?”

Molly and Chou looked at each other and grinned.  “Ayla,” they both said.  Chou gently said, “This is what it is like hanging out with Ayla all the time.”

Molly agreed, “We so have to invite you over to see Ayla’s dorm room.”

Chou said, “If I know Ayla, that pantry over there is full of snacks.”

Anna skipped the maybe-it’s-a-snack-drawer and instead opened a set of hinged doors that swung open and folded out of the way.  “Oh my…”  It was a television set.  A big one.  With a rack of DVDs and a rack of video games under it.  The teevee set was as fancy as the really nice one in Ree’s rec room.  “My friends are never gonna believe all this…”

 

“Man!  Look at all these snacks in here!”

“Hey, don’t fill up on junk, you know we’re going to a big catered lunch.”

“How long’s it gonna take to get there if there’s enough video games to hold us for a week?”

 

“So, when we get to the restaurant, do we get to make the big movie starlet walk out of the limo into the place?”

“Come on, Marty!  It’s just a ride to a lunch!”

“No, you come on.  It’s a ride in a super-duper limousine, to a super-fancy catered lunch, and Ayla probably rented out the whole restaurant for us too.  Plus, when am I ever gonna get the chance to get out of a limo like Megan Fox at the Oscars?”

“Doc, you explain it to her.”

“No way, Elaine.  She’s your roommate, and there’s no way Ah’m gonna get wedged crosswise in between you two on something lahk this.”

Marty thought it over some more.  “I wish I’d known about the limos.  I need a fancy formal dress with a huge slit up one side, maybe with a fancy train…”

“Marty, you couldn’t afford a dress like that if you waitressed for Ayla every night for a month!”

“Do you think Versace makes dresses to fit Exemplars?”

“Marty!”

 

Ayla’s limo pulled up first in front of the restaurant.  Harrison’s was normally closed on Saturdays and Sundays until five, but they did a very nice – if infrequent – business in expensively catered luncheons.

Ayla stepped out and then put a hand out to Vanessa.  He stopped to get in a good look at her legs as she slid gracefully from the limo.  He gave her a naughty smirk, “We should do this more often.”

She suppressed a giggle and said, “You should behave yourself more often.”

Ayla watched as Everheart, Trews, and Green climbed out of three of the limos and visually checked the surroundings before waving students out of the limos.  Teenagers poured out of the other limos, except for the third one.  Ayla watched intently to see what was the problem.

A pair of exquisite legs slowly slid out of the limo.  A gorgeous blonde followed them.  She stood up and waved to her assorted – but invisible – fans.  Then she strolled sexily up to the doors of the restaurant.

Vanessa asked, “Problem?”

“No, just Marty enjoying herself.”

“Well, you did tell everyone to have fun.”

Ayla led the group through the front of the restaurant.  A maitre d’ ushered him and his friends back to the large party room behind that.

The maitre d’ had a hard time keeping his eyes in his head, but he had served movie starlets and Exemplars before.  It just took willpower.  Lots and lots of willpower.  And he was going to go straight into the kitchen and put some ice water on his face.  The blonde in the white miniskirt and the black girl in the purple minidress were bad enough.  The ‘young Elizabeth Taylor’ brunette with the French accent and the green-eyed girl with the jet-black hair in the new wave hairstyle were making it hard for him to breathe normally.  But the redhead with the big violet eyes was making it hard for him to walk.  Maybe he’d better put some ice down his shorts too.

Ayla stood in front of the massive buffet and announced, “Welcome to Harrison’s, everybody!”

“Are you proclaiming there?” Toni asked loudly.

“No, I’m asserting, Word Wealth Woman.”  Ayla went back to his talk.  “Harrison’s is famous locally for its spice-rubbed roasted whole chicken, its bay scallop quiche, and its seafood pie.  So I made sure we have plenty of each.”

“Oh come on, Billie can eat all of that easy!”

“Not helping, Jade!”

I glanced at the half dozen roasted chickens behind me.  “This is only a small portion of what I ordered.  We have forty roast chickens, thirty seafood pies, twenty scallop quiches, and enough appetizers to choke a horse.  No, there’s enough appetizers to choke an entire stampede of horses.  So don’t think you need to hold back.  Any of you.  There’s a lot more where this came from.

“And if you don’t want any of these, we have some meat-eater and vegetarian options too.  We have plenty of their beef pot pies for the non-seafood eaters, along with their broccoli quiche – which is really killer – and their tofu pot pies.  There should be enough for everybody, no matter how hungry a couple of us might be.  And we’ll take the leftovers home with us, where they’ll last for a couple hours.  At most.”

Most of the group laughed.  Ayla looked around and smiled.  Okay, he was really figuring that the leftovers wouldn’t survive the plane trip home, but that would be okay too.  He would just save a little something for the shuttle driver.

He strolled over to Samantha Everheart, while over a dozen hungry teenagers hastily crowded into a line.  He told her, “I remembered you telling us last fall that you have some special dietary requirements, so I checked with the Whateley chefs about them, and I’ve got something for you too.”

Sam just stared.  She didn’t know whether to say thank you, or rake Phase over the coals for prying too much, or both.  Maybe she needed to worry about what else Phase was finding out about everyone on campus…

BOSTON

The Richardson Clarke Gallery looked like any of a couple dozen other high-class Boston museums.  Fancy exhibits set in a tony old Boston building, with an expensive electronic security system and not enough human guards.

That was just the way Mister Black liked his heists.

He was only Mister Black until they were out of town again, though.  Whoever was doing the legwork and running the heist got to pick the team names for the job, and he’d gone with the Reservoir Dogs naming style.  Or was that Pelham One Two Three?  They’d had a long discussion about it two nights ago over some really fine Dutch beers in a little beer garden ‘Mister Brown’ liked to visit whenever he was in town.  Mister Green and Mister White both said they’d come back to the place the next time they came to Boston.  It had been awfully good, with a great ambience and surprisingly reasonable prices.

The last job they’d done had been in Phoenix, and Mister Brown had been running it, so they’d gone with his choice of names.  Monsieur Bleu, Senor Rojo, etc.  He said he’d gotten the names out of an old Matt Helm novel.  The time before that, when they’d hit that antiques specialty store in London, Mister Green had run things, and he had picked names out of English stories like the Sherlock Holmes novels.

He smiled to himself.  This was why he was still working with these guys.  They were fun to hang out with.  They had talents that complemented each other well, so it didn’t matter they were all baselines.  They were smart.  They didn’t showboat.  They didn’t run off and do something utterly psychopathic that brought in SWAT teams or major league investigations.  No, they played it cool and stayed under the radar.  The big city investigative forces were so busy with mutant crime and Syndicate crime and crazy baseline crime that small, efficient heists didn’t get the attention they deserved.  Especially if the criminals were smart enough to leave town right after the crime, instead of sticking around to be tracked down months later.  As long as they didn’t attract the attention of the FBI or Interpol, and as long as they kept changing their M.O., they were golden.

And they changed their M.O. to match every new job they got hired to pull.  This was the first time they had ever gone after ancient reliquaries.  Mister Black didn’t know how old they were, or just what you had to be to get labeled a ‘reliquary’, but he didn’t need to know that stuff.  That was Mister Green’s area of expertise, and it was why The Necromancer himself had hired them to pull this job.  They were really making a name for themselves in criminal circles if a big gun like Darrow wanted to hire them, even if it was for some small piece off to the side of a massive Necromancer operation.  What Mister Black really cared about was the ‘not being near massive death and destruction’ part of the job.  That, and having all the details needed to pull off a nice, clean heist.

This job was going almost as smoothly as he had expected.  The museum was nearly empty at this time on a Saturday, which was the usual status unless it had a major exhibition going on.  The last big exhibition had just concluded a week ago or so, and the museum was suffering through a drop in attendance.  That just made everything easier for his team.

They had all flown in Wednesday night, as soon as they could arrange travel after they got the job.  Mister Green had gone into the museum on Thursday, carefully disguised so he wouldn’t get picked up when the cops looked over the week’s worth of videotapes.  He had verified the reliquaries were in an ArmorGlass case with various scrolls and quartos arranged around them to visually fill up the case.  Darrow had sent them the details on the ArmorGlass and the security system for the case, as well as the information on the video cameras and the guard schedules.  Mister Green had taken a couple hours to tour the entire museum and verify all of Darrow’s information.  Not that they were ever going to tell The Necromancer that they had checked up on what he had told them.  That was asking for trouble.

Then Mister Brown had gone in late Friday afternoon and left a little packet where Mister Green had spotted some wear and tear on the cabling for the video cameras.  It was fiberglass soaked in a deviser acid.  Overnight, the acid ate through the cable and disabled the cameras for a quarter of the museum.  Naturally, the museum curator hadn’t been able to get anyone to come out this morning.  It was the weekend.  So there were a couple extra guards this morning, hired from a local security service.  Mister Brown had infiltrated the team of new guards, and was in the process of incapacitating them with a non-lethal gas.

Mister Black and Mister White slipped inside when Mister Brown hung up the ‘closed temporarily’ sign on the front door and began asking the smattering of visitors to leave because of ‘the possibility of a gas leak of some sort that was making people feel faint’.  Mister Black moved to the room where two guards sat watching video cameras when they weren’t making rounds.  Some more of the non-lethal gas, released under the door into the room, took care of those guards.  After that, he released more of the gas into the curator’s offices.  Mister White was able to move directly into the exhibit room with no guards, no visitors, and no video feed to inconvenience him.

Mister White was the best of the four at the ‘safecracking’ aspects, so he was tasked with opening up the ArmorGlass case without setting off any alarms.  Meanwhile, Mister Black was disabling the primary alarm system and Mister Brown was erasing all the video footage he could access in the guardroom.  Mister Green was keeping watch outside the museum and pretending to make a delivery of flowers, so the fake florist truck was ready for them as soon as they walked out the back of the museum with the reliquaries in a magically protected bag.  Darrow had provided the bag.  Apparently, the Clarke Gallery had no idea that if those reliquaries were opened, really bad things could happen.  All they had to do was deliver the reliquaries to The Necromancer, let him remove the magical badness, which was what he wanted, and then they got to keep a hundred fifty thousand dollars worth of classical silver reliquaries, which together would fit in a shoebox.  Then their plane left Logan Airport at six that evening, and they would be safely in Los Angeles before midnight, West Coast time.

He loved jobs like this.

 

Sneaky Pete slipped in behind two of the museum thieves, and bided his time.  He really wanted to watch the one guy crack that ArmorGlass case, because it looked like he could learn a lot.  The guy was a class act.  But Pete needed to stay far enough back that no one could accidentally spot him or run into him.

He checked the time.  His job was simple.  Well, this part of his job was simple.  All he had to do was let these guys bust the case.  Then he’d set off the alarm at the right time.

It was the second part of his job that he wasn’t exactly thrilled about.  That part could get him killed if he messed up.  Still, dead was better than having The Necromancer after your hide.  And he had the gizmo safe in a protected pocket of his outfit.  He felt better calling it a gizmo, because calling it a magic wand just sounded stupid.  Even if it looked like a wooden wand, and it was made by The Necromancer himself.

 

Henry Boothroyd-Merriman, Senior, was hard at work, even though he was standing still in the Wellman Room of the Threeport Hotel.  Playing the dutiful parent while two dozen spoiled children celebrated his son’s ninth birthday was proving to be a grueling test of his patience.  He was still standing there and still smiling, but only because his wife was occasionally looking over to see how he was holding up.  And also because he knew that he wasn’t going to have to do any of the cleaning or clearing afterward.

There was no doubt in Henry’s mind.  Roger Worthington’s daughters were bigger spoiled brats than Roger’s new wife.  Good Lord, Henry had lost count.  Was Roger on wife number six, or seven?  Maybe eight.  He would have to ask his wife which wife the two girls were from.  He was fairly sure they were both from Tiffani, Roger’s wife number four, but it would be a terrific faux pas if he said something and then found out he was mistaken.

At least Henry Junior’s little friend Jeremy Walcutt was a pleasant surprise.  The boy was a lot better behaved than some of his cousins.  Several of the New York Walcutts were absolute nightmares.  And that didn’t even touch upon the rumor his wife had related over dinner that one of Jeremy’s older cousins had manifested as a mutant and been shipped off to somewhere that could contain her.  He shuddered inwardly.

Henry stepped back as casually as he could, when he spotted little Tommy Carruthers winding up with a piece of the birthday cake.  It looked as if it would soon be flying toward the back of the head of Melinda Thurber’s boy.  Nathaniel?  Neville?  Narwhal?  Something like that.

Fortunately, one of the women his wife had hired for the party stepped over and managed to disarm the little monster while re-directing him enough that he didn’t throw a little tantrum over not being allowed to throw cake at someone.  Henry didn’t think his son was perfect, but at least Henry Junior had more than enough sense and more than enough social grace to know not to do something like that.

He surreptitiously glanced at his watch.  Oh Lord.  There was at least another hour and a half to go.  If only there was a way he could get out of here.  Without his wife making him sleep in one of the guest bedrooms for a week.

 

Cleaver rubbed his hands together.  “Are we ready yet?”

Pointer looked at his wristwatch.  “Yeah.  In… thirty seconds from… now.”

“Great.  I hate waiting.”

Pointer clicked his mike.  “Chopper, this is Pointer.  In ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one… GO!”

Pointer and Cleaver stepped out of the room.  Forty feet down the hall, two security guards looked their way.  Too bad for those losers.  It would’ve been better for ‘em if they’d decided to go take a smoking break out back.

Pointer gestured, thrusting two fingers toward the guy on the left.  The guard doubled over like someone had hit him with a nightstick in the gut.  Pointer followed up with a one-finger stab at the side of the guy’s head.  The guy’s head was brutally snapped against the wall like he’d been hit with a club.

By the time Pointer finished up, Cleaver had already done the guard on the right.  The guard was lying face-up on the floor, looking like he’d just gone three rounds with The Black Cutlass.  At least the guard wasn’t dead.  Yet.  Pointer looked uncaringly at the body.  He guessed the guy would bleed out inside an hour if he didn’t get any medical treatment.  Lucky for him the cops would be here well before then.

They stepped over the guards and crashed the party.  Chopper burst into the room through the back door at the same time.  Chopper had one of his trademark shortswords out, and it was already red with blood.  Pointer nodded with approval.  Nothing said ‘cooperate with me or else’ like a big old bloody sword.

Pointer smiled menacingly and said, “Attention everyone, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is now a hostage crisis.  If any-”

One of the women helping with the party suddenly whipped out a snubnosed .38 and tried to put a couple holes in his chest.

That was the great thing about being a PDP.  He’d picked up her threat the moment they barged into the room.  He was already switching to his PK before her gun cleared its holster.  He even let her snap off a shot, just to let everyone in the room know he was no one to fuck with.  The bullet hit him and bounced off.  He whipped out his arm and pointed at her with his index finger.

This time, he wasn’t screwing around.  He pointed at her throat.  She slammed back against the wall and sank to the carpet, her hands at her neck as she realized she could no longer breathe through a fractured larynx.

“As I was about to say before I was so rudely interrupted, if anyone gives me any trouble, I’m going to let Chopper over there remove a finger.  Every time after that, the number of fingers increases.  If you don’t want to end up being called Lefty for the rest of your life, don’t piss me off!”

One of the other women catering the party had the balls to beg, “Please, you have to do something, she’s dying!”

Pointer smiled nastily, “Then maybe you’d better cooperate fast.  Before she’s dead.”  He walked over and grabbed the man.  It was Henry Boothroyd-Merriman, Senior.  Pointer had a picture of the guy from the society pages.  He lifted the nob up by the suit jacket.  “You.  We want the Boothroyd emeralds.  Bring ‘em back here before the party bitch over there croaks, and we might not decide to take bits and pieces off the kiddies with us when we leave.  Take more than thirty minutes, and we start hacking off fingers and gouging out eyeballs, one every ten minutes.  And we’ll start with your wife and your boy.  Then we’ll move through the partygoers.  I figure we’ve got enough body parts for us to do a siege for maybe twelve days before we run out of fingers and eyeballs.  Maybe we’ll throw in some ears and noses and balls too, if we get bored.  You know, they say variety is the spice of life.  So get us those fucking emeralds, OR ELSE!”

He let Mister Bigshot go.  The guy fell to the floor before scrabbling to his feet and running out the door.

Chopper laughed, “How long you figure before he calls the cops?”

Pointer said, “Thirty seconds.”

His earpiece buzzed, as he got a signal from the bug.  He had put the bug on Mister Bigshot’s suit coat with a little PK, while he had held him in the air.  “Shit, he’s twenty seconds ahead of me.”

From the other side of the room, Cleaver complained, “Ten seconds?  That all?  GODDAMN IT!  That piece of shit Hacker wins the pool again!”

 

Vamp reluctantly pulled on the clothes over her costume.  She hadn’t gotten dressed up in her sexiest costume to hide everything under the clothes of a dead woman.

Vamp had done plenty of bad stuff in her short life, but this was making her feel sick to her stomach.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so grisly if she hadn’t seen Darrow rip the soul out of the woman’s shrieking body.  But it was awful.  And Vamp was getting really worried.  It looked to her like Old Corpse Breath might actually bust everybody out of Roxbury C.  And she still had no idea why Nightgaunt was shadow-jumping around with those packages of explosives.

Vamp was listening carefully as Obsession made some of her voice-slaves brief Ol’ Coffin-Clothes.  Vamp had managed to shake off Obsession’s voice attack, but even Nightgaunt was probably under the chick’s power.  Lieutenant Gregory and Sergeant Craig hadn’t had a chance.

Lieutenant Gregory calmly told Darrow, “Captain Tilley has prepared very carefully for today.  He has all five Metro SWAT teams on duty.  Two here, two at a restaurant downtown, and the last one at some museum.”

“Which museum?”

“No idea,” the lieutenant shrugged.  “Cap didn’t tell me.  I guess he figured I didn’t need to know it for this assignment.  But Cap has Speed Queen on call for Roxbury, Dynaman for the museum theft, and Skyhawk for the hostage crisis.  We don’t put the Lamplighter on call, ‘cause he’s wanted on about thirty or forty warrants.  He doesn’t cooperate with us, anyway.  But everyone in the Major Case Squads knows Lamplighter listens to local news radio.  All we have to do is call up WBZ AM and give ‘em an emergency bulletin, and they go on the air with it in seconds.  He’s on it like a shot.  And we’re covered.  No official request for him to intervene, so no one’s in trouble with the mayor and the city council.”

Darrow smirked behind his mask, “Much as we anticipated.  And we have something very special for the Lamplighter.”

Vamp suddenly began to sweat.  Why was Old Corpse-Face asking which museum?  He knew which museum it was.  He’d told her which museum it was.  Unless there was something tricky going on.  And if it came out that she had given the cops the wrong museum name and they thought she was breaking their deal, then she was completely, utterly screwed.

 

Sam Everheart said to Phase, “Thanks for thinking of me.  But we have bigger concerns than how much chicken I eat.  Lady Astarte is out of play, because Headmistress Carson is in a meeting in another city.  So your back-ups had better be as good as you think.”

Ayla gave her a regal glare and explained, “I already knew Lady Astarte was unavailable.  I checked on that before I cleared the trip with the headmistress.”

Sam looked down at the girl and wondered if that attitude was hereditary or learned.  Probably both.  She said, “Does ‘keep an eye out for the cast iron’ mean anything to you?”

Ayla groaned, “Of course.  We have a mage who’s one of the Sidhe.  She’s vulnerable to cast iron.  Where’d you hear that?”

Sam admitted, “Mrs. Potter left me a message at Kane Hall.”

Ayla’s expressive eyes grew wide.  She swore, “CRAP!”  Then she hustled over to warn Fey.

 

Obsession said to Lieutenant Gregory, “Lead all your SWAT forces down into Roxbury C.  You know how.  Warn your people that the prisoners are dressed as jailers and must be taken down before they can set off any alarms.”

“Yes.  We must go into Rox C at once.  We must contain the jailbreak.”  The lieutenant addressed his teams, “Follow me.  I’ll get us in.  Once we’re down in Rox C, take out everyone in a jailer uniform.  We’ll sort out the real jailers later.”

Obsession let it go.  That was close enough to her order that making him change things would just risk messing things up.  She closed her visor on her helmet, made sure the badge was pinned properly on her body armor, and got in the formation.

Vamp stepped into formation too, right where Nightgaunt pointed.  She had a helmet on too, and a badge.  The helmet fit better than the pants did, but it was all icky.  A policewoman had been wearing this uniform not long ago.  She didn’t know the woman, but it didn’t matter.  She was wearing the uniform of a female SWAT officer who had just been tortured to death before her eyes.  And when The Necromancer wanted to torture you, he knew a thousand ways to make you scream without even breaking your skin.

Lieutenant Gregory led the two SWAT teams into the building.  It looked like a large, two-story, concrete block structure.  It was too small to be a warehouse.  It was too small to house dozens of prisoners.  But it was only an entry point that protected the sloping tunnel which led down into Roxbury C.  The tunnel was a couple hundred feet long, and led to the only level of Rox C, which was set in solid bedrock seventy feet below the surface.  He stepped over to the guards and smiled, “Morning.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but we’ve got to go downstairs.”

The guards had seen Lieutenant Gregory before, but they still made him go through the drill.  He held his visor up so the scanner could check his retinal pattern.  He put his palm on the print scanner.  He spoke the codewords he’d been assigned when he first had to go into Rox C.

“Okay, you and your men are good to go.”  One guard signaled the jailers below, and the first massive metal door swung open.

The SWAT teams trooped in rows of three down the tunnel, which was wide enough for a truck to drive in and out.  When they reached the halfway point, they stopped at the second massive door.  Lieutenant Gregory reeled off the codewords for that door, and then moved his troops through.

When they reached the end of the tunnel, the lieutenant pronounced the codewords so that the men inside would open the last armored door and let them directly into Rox C.

 

Eddie Delahanty leaned over the shoulder of Bob Petersen, the man on duty for the tunnel operations.  He asked, “Are they who they’re supposed to be?”

Bob didn’t like Eddie.  He didn’t like any of the Delahantys.  It was just that normally he didn’t have any of them breathing down his neck.  He wished he knew what the hell was going on.  Maybe, if he was really lucky, the SWAT guys were here to arrest the whole fucking lot of Delahanty weasels, and then this place would clean right up.  He pulled up some of the video footage and zoomed in.  “Look.  See that badge?  That’s Officer Martha Hemlisch.  You oughta know her.  She’s the lesbo your stupid-ass brother hit on until she broke his jaw.  I already checked their badges, you dumbass.  They’re all who they’re supposed to be.  Now get the hell out of my cubicle.”

Bob leaned back enough to watch Eddie walk down the hall.  If Eddie Delahanty was too upset to talk smack to you, something was going down.  Bob wondered if he ought to call his supervisor, just in case.

 

Eddie Delahanty had seen enough.  Two full SWAT teams.  If only he thought that much manpower – or girlpower, since Boston SWAT had some tough bitches in their SWAT forces now – could stop someone like The Necromancer.  He still had a couple aces up his sleeve, though.

He made sure the molly cover was off the alarm button on his belt, and he went to check on the lunch stuff for Mimeo.

 

Obsession spoke to the jailers waiting on the other side of the door.  They fell under her power as easily as all the SWAT forces had.  She moved them to the side of the hall, so her SWAT forces could go to work.

The Necromancer lifted the visor of his borrowed uniform.  It was a tight fit with his regular armor and his facemask, so he’d needed to take one of the larger policemen’s uniform.  But it had worked.  The magical charms on the tunnel walls and ceiling and floor would have destroyed any seeming or illusion.  But he hadn’t used one.  He had merely dressed himself and Vamp and Nightgaunt as police officers and walked in with the rest of the forces.  It would never have worked without Obsession.  A magical mind-control spell would have unraveled in that tunnel.

He tore off the SWAT body armor so he stood there as The Necromancer.  He turned to Obsession.  He bowed as much as his armor would allow.  “Thank you for all your assistance.  You’ve done your part now, and you do have your own personal mission.”

Obsession turned to the SWAT teams and the jailers.  “Team 1 and you men will follow me.  The rest of you will obey the Necromancer absolutely.”

“Yes.  Whatever you wish.”

Obsession cradled the SWAT shotgun in her arms and said, “There’s somebody here I need to take care of.”  She walked down the hall with her mindslaves in tow.

Darrow smiled wickedly behind his facemask.  The massive load-bearing wall on his right would probably be perfect for his next maneuver.  He picked up one of the enslaved jailers, slit the man’s throat with a prepared athame, and held him upside down so the blood would flow better.  He began painting a complex design on the wall with the blood.  Hekate would be utterly envious when he showed her what he had created.

And she would dance with glee when he showed her what he had done with the spell.

 

Henry Boothroyd-Merriman Senior scrambled down the stairs to the hotel’s covered parking.  His chauffeur was waiting for him down there.  He didn’t care about the stitch in his side.  He’d get over that while he was riding to the bank.  He had to get the Boothroyd emeralds out of that safe deposit box, and back to the party.  And he only had…  He glanced at his Rolex.  Twenty-eight minutes left.

He loved his wife, and he doted on his son.  He would never have agreed to endure a birthday party like that, if he didn’t.  He couldn’t let them be hurt.  He knew the rules: you called the police immediately in the case of a kidnapping or a hostage crisis, and then did whatever you had to do.  He was going to give those monsters the Boothroyd emeralds, and see if that was enough to save his family.  If the crooks got away with the damn things, his mother would be furious.  She actually liked the ugly things.  He thought they were garish and tacky.  They were quite old, and extremely valuable, but he had insurance on them.  Maybe not quite enough insurance given inflation, but some insurance.

The Boothroyd emeralds were a fancy engraved silver necklace with emeralds on it, along with a matching tiara and earrings.  But the silver was tainted, and it didn’t polish up properly anymore, if it ever had.  He decided he didn’t care if the emeralds were lost.  His mother and aunt would forgive him eventually.

 

Mister White stood up with a grin.  It had taken him a couple more minutes than he had planned to cut through the ArmorGlass, but he only needed a five-inch diameter hole.  He reached through and pulled out all five reliquaries, carefully placing them in the magical bag The Necromancer had given them.  Now he just had to meet up with the team at the fake florist’s truck and they’d be out of here.

 

Sneaky Pete checked the time again.  He was really hoping these guys would clear out of the place before he had to set off the alarm, but he had a schedule to keep.  He slipped past the guy with the bag and triggered one of the laser alarms.

The alarm started blaring.  The guy with the bag turned and ran.  Pete carefully reached through the hole into the case, and lifted out one of the scrolls at the back.  He made sure he had the right one.  His neck was on the line if he didn’t.

Now he just had to walk out of the museum and wait for some heroes to show up.

 

Marshall Fielder slid his mop across the floor once more.  He didn’t like playing ‘janitor’, but he knew it was one of the best covers.  Nobody ever paid any attention to a janitor, and if you were working on a really nasty job, like emptying trash cans or cleaning up someone’s puke, people consciously looked away.  Hell, you could carry an Uzi on a sling and get away with it, if you were doing something as nasty as scrubbing out public toilets.  Nobody would look your way enough to be able to tell what color your overalls were, or what color you were.

And Marshall’s boss at Trin and MacIntyre had offered time and a half, plus hazard pay for this one.  It had taken him a couple days to do the infiltration, but getting hired as a janitor at Harrison’s Restaurant was a hell of a lot easier than Janice’s bit.  And when he was undercover and not using his real name, nobody was calling him ‘Marshall Fields’.  He was so sick of that.  Like he hadn’t heard that joke about a million times since he was a little kid…

Janice Weisman carefully diced two trays of vegetables and tried not to look over at Marshall.  She knew the rest of the kitchen crew was treating him like garbage, but that was what happened when you played janitor.  She knew that the hard way.  She had pretended to do a lot of really shitty roles in the five years she had worked for Trin and MacIntyre.  Janitor wasn’t even the worst.  The two weeks she had pretended to be a hooker while Crystal MacIntyre tried to protect that rock band?  That was the worst, even if she hadn’t had to screw anybody.  No, Crystal was too smart to let that happen to a good operative.  Crystal just got half a dozen other operatives to drive by and pick Janice up and drive her somewhere for an hour before dropping her back at her street corner.  They changed cars and wore disguises, so it looked like she was one of the busiest hookers on that block.

Working as the lowest cook in the kitchen was a pretty crappy job, though.  A couple of the under-chefs were real bastards about the quality of her work.  Especially that bleached blond bitch Suzanne, who was way too picky about her mince and her dice.  She was damn glad she was going to be done in a couple hours, once the kids finished their birthday party and left.  She was planning on throwing a tantrum the next time Suzanne criticized her fine dice, and quitting in a huge fit.  If the kids hadn’t already made an enormous mess that would give Marsh an excuse to quit, she was even going to kick over that big garbage can, so Marsh could use that as an excuse.  Her eyes flickered over to Meredith, as the girl walked back in to get more silverware and plates for the buffet.

Meredith Johnstone was the youngest member of the Trin and MacIntyre team.  She had only worked for T & M for three years, after getting noticed by a T & M field supervisor when she was working Narcotics in Jersey City.  Anyway, doing waitress work in a nice restaurant was frankly a pretty easy gig.  There was no way she could fake her way through high end cooking, like Jan did.  She thought Jan was pretty amazing in that kitchen, even if that bitchy under-chef Suzanne acted like Jan didn’t know the difference between her ass and a hole in the ground.  All Meredith had to do was say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes sir’ a lot, and keep moving.  And these kids were a hell of a lot less of a problem than she had expected.

She had played waitress like this before, on a couple protection gigs.  A couple Oscar parties, a couple rock star bashes, some high society soirees, a few celebrity weddings…  She had expected the usual.  Rudeness, ass-grabbing, sleazy pick-up lines, too much drinking (whether they were underage or not), illegal drugs getting passed around like party favors, ugly guys who thought they were Brad Pitt…  These kids had surprised her.  Quiet, well-behaved for party-goers, and no hitting on her.

Although some of the guys in the room were so frigging hot she wouldn’t care if they asked her to walk in the restroom and lie down on the counter.  Those two guys, ‘Rich’ and ‘Hank’ in particular.  Jesus, they were just plain scrumptious.  Hell, the blind kid, ‘Joe’, was better-looking than the last two guys she had dated.  And then there was the redhead.  Holy shit, if Marshall hadn’t warned them ahead of time the kids were superpowered mutants, Meredith had no idea what would have happened.  But that redheaded chick with the faerie ears made Miss Universe look like chopped liver.  Meredith couldn’t figure out why the entire room wasn’t drooling down their shirts just from being that close to the faerie babe.  As it was, Meredith had to concentrate hard every time she walked into the room to keep from walking right over to the redhead and doing something incredibly stupid.

 

Captain Edward Tilley scowled at the ceiling.  Lieutenant Buddy Doyle, his second-in-command, spotted it.  “What’s the matter, Cap?”

Tilley muttered, “It’s this party at Harrison’s.  I just talked to some MCO guys I know, and from what they said, the Goodkind girl has enough mutant power on hand to face down Cataclysm.  So what the hell is The Necromancer really up to?  There’s got to be a reason he told us he’s pulling three jobs today.  If we didn’t have our little mole helping us out, we’d be completely screwed.  Nothing like having major crimes committed, and then having to tell the mayor ‘oh yeah, we knew about all three, we just fell down on the job’.  We’ll be fired so fast it’ll make your head spin.”

Lieutenant Doyle frowned, “Well, I still don’t see what else we can do.  It’s not like the city’ll give us more SWAT teams, and they haven’t been willing to let the MCO put bigger forces in place, and you know how the city council feels about the Knights of Purity, and we still don’t have a superteam even if we’re more’n twice as big as Cincy, and…”

“Yeah, well, right now I’d-”

The phone rang, interrupting him.  He slapped the speakerphone button so Doyle could hear too.  “Tilley.”

“Captain?  You were preparing for a hostage crisis, right?”

Tilley recognized the voice and stiffly said, “Yes sir.”

“Well, you’ve got it.  Henry Boothroyd-Merriman and his family, throwing a birthday party for his nine-year-old.  The other partygoers are kids of other prominent citizens, so if you ball this up, we’re all going to be fried.  Here’s the details…”

Tilley looked over as Lieutenant Doyle made frantic notes.  When his boss hung up, he cursed, “What the fuck is the point of lying about a hostage crisis just to pull another one maybe twenty, thirty blocks away?”

Doyle opened his mouth to reply, but the phone rang again.  “Captain Tilley.”

“Captain, we just got a verified alarm from the Richardson Clarke Gallery.  The alarm company immediately called the place for verification, and not a single person’s answering.  Not the curator, not the guards, nobody.  We’re sending a squad car on silent, but we need SWAT for this.”

“On it,” Tilley muttered.

Lieutenant Doyle frowned, “Okay, I don’t get this one either.  Why say you’re gonna hit a museum on Saturday and then hit a different museum?”

Tilley growled, “If I knew how The Necromancer’s brain worked, I…  I’d probably be too crazy to hold a job as a cop.”

He reached for the phone, and it went off again.  “Oh Christ!”  He hastily answered, “Captain Tilley.”

“It’s Lieutenant Gregory, sir.”

“Oh holy mother of God, don’t tell me that bastard’s cracked Rox C too!”

The lieutenant said, “Sorry Cap, but we got something major goin’ on here.  We need some paranormal help pronto.  Are you still sending Speed Queen our way?”

Tilley checked his notes.  “Yeah, she’ll be there maybe two minutes after I notify her.”  He looked at the notes from that phone call.  “And I’ve got some extra paranormal support.  The kids who busted The Necromancer’s chops last fall.”

The lieutenant said, “Well, we’re gonna need whatever you can give us.  This looks really serious.”

Tilley looked over the list Phase had given him.  He still thought it was bizarre that a fucking Goodkind was a mutant.  He said, “You’re getting Tennyo, Lancer, Fey, and Phase.  That’s all I can spare.  I’ve got two other crises too.  It looks like that bastard set us up perfectly.”

“Okay, who are these kids again?”

Tilley took it slower.  “Tennyo.  Beat the Arch-Fiend single-handed.  Lancer.  Knocked down Matterhorn with one punch, and nearly ripped the Anti-Paladin in half.  Fey.  Took the Necromancer out in one-on-one magic duels, twice in a row.  Phase.  Bodyslammed Matterhorn and used his body to beat the crap out of half of his teammates.”

“Damn!” the lieutenant swore.  “Sounds like you’re sendin’ us the freakin’ Justice Brigade!”

Tilley just said, “And they’re deputized.  So don’t shoot ‘em.”

The lieutenant laughed.  “No problem, Captain.  Thanks.”

Tilley turned to his 2IC and muttered, “At least one thing’s workin’ according to plan.”  He sighed, “Okay, I’ll call Speed Queen and Dynaman.  You get that idiot Skyhawk so I don’t have to talk to him.  Then I’ll call the Whateley kids and give ‘em the bad news.”

Doyle winced.  “Cap, are you really gonna send some high school girls to stop a prison break at Rox C?  That’s…”  He swallowed hard.  “They’ll get themselves killed.”

Tilley gritted his teeth.  “Yeah.  Them, and Speed Queen, and all our SWAT guys, and anything Roxbury has left over, aren’t gonna be enough for The Necromancer and everybody they got locked up down there.  But we gotta try.  And I’ve got to go to that hostage crisis.  You get to stay here and coordinate.”

Doyle nodded unhappily.  He knew why Captain Tilley was going to the Boothroyd-Merriman hostage crisis.  Because someone was undoubtedly going to get hurt.  Or killed.  And it would be the child of one of some really important, really rich Bostonian.  And Captain Edward Patrick Tilley would be there to be the department’s official sacrificial goat, who would get hung out to dry and fired and publicly disgraced.  Doyle figured he’d rather be at Rox C and get killed in a blaze of glory.

 

Darrow smiled behind his mask as the lieutenant hung up his phone.  He looked over at Vamp.  “So.  We need to set one extra table setting, because we’re having five for lunch, instead of four.”

Vamp didn’t say anything, but she wondered what Darrow had planned.  She remembered what some of those kids had done the last two times.  She absolutely did not want that vampire babe sticking it to her again.  Well, maybe a little.  But there was no way she wanted that boygirl dropping Matterhorn on her again.  That had hurt.

She went to unlock the next cell.  She already had Sandra out.  They had hugged and grinned, and Vamp felt like hell for being the one who ratted them out and got Sandra caught in the first place.  She didn’t feel anything like that for getting Lycanthros locked up.  That guy needed to be locked up.  Period.

But Old Tombstone-Head was putting together an army of badness.  He’d already released Lady Darke, Lycanthros, the Arch-Fiend, Shadowshell, Matterhorn, Jabberwock, Crater, and Cobrafire.  Everyone said Ironhawk did a crappy job last time and was almost useless without his power armor, so he hadn’t gotten sprung.

And Vamp was really surprised that Mimeo got passed over.  She thought Mimeo was supposed to be a seriously bad kicker of ass.  But Sandra said there was some real bad blood between him and Darrow, so Darrow left him in there.

“Jeez, who are you pulling out next?” Vamp asked.  Frankly, she was a little afraid to find out.

 

Ayla carefully inhaled the delectable aroma of the seafood pie as he cut a careful slice.  He raised the fork toward his mouth.

BRING!  BRING!  His bPhone went off.

He snatched it off his belt.  The screen said it was Captain Tilley’s office.  He had a pretty good idea what that meant.  “SHIT!”

“Hello, Phase?  This is Captain Tilley.  Sorry to hit you with the bad news, but I need every single deputized super you’ve got.  It looks like the Necromancer is pulling all three jobs simultaneously, and maybe he’s even found a way to crack Roxbury C.”

Ayla put down his fork as the bottom dropped out of his stomach.  If the Necromancer busted open Roxbury C, dozens of supervillains were going to be spilling out into the area like bad stock market derivatives after Michael Milken.

Captain Tilley quickly explained exactly what he needed.  Ayla replied, “I’ve got transport covered.  Just provide as much support as you can.  And call that emergency number right now!”

He hung up and rose to his feet.  “Fun time’s over!  We’re on call!  Rip, Chaka, take the first limo.  It’ll take you over close enough to the Richardson Clarke Gallery, which is being robbed by unknown threats, but they apparently took out the entire security force already.  Chou, take the J-Team with you in the second limo.  You’re meeting Captain Tilley and some SWAT squads at the Threeport Hotel, where there’s a hostage crisis.  And it’s little kids as hostages.  Fey, Tennyo and Lancer, you’re with me.  We have a date.  With every supervillain in Roxbury C.”

“Oh fuck.”

Ayla sighed, “Yeah.”

“Hey, we can help!”

“Yeah!”

Ayla gave the crowd his most intimidating stare.  “No.  You can’t.  No one who isn’t deputized goes out on this.”

Several mouths flapped, but no one argued.

Ayla kissed Vanessa goodbye, just in case.  Then nine teenagers strode out of the party, all of them knowing that some of them might never make it back.