Ayla and the Mad Scientist, chapter 1, by Diane Castle
Monday, March 5, 2007, early morning
I woke up when Brass Monkey started singing their tragic lament “High School Fun.” Ahh, the joy of fine music…
“Turn that frickin’ shit off!”
“Sorry,” I said unsympathetically. I turned off the music and listened as Alex grumbled under her breath for two solid minutes. Ahh, the joy of fine music and simultaneous irritation of annoying roommates. Vamp had adopted classical as her music of choice, which meant she had nothing with which to annoy me in turn. I happen to like classical music. I was raised with it.
I thought back to the day I was saddled with Alex O’Brien, AKA Vamp, AKA Miss Pain In The Ass of 2007…
earlier: Monday, February 19
Mrs. Horton called me down to her office and said, “Phase? This is our new st-”
“VAMP?!?” I gasped.
Mrs. Horton frowned, “I take it you know of her.”
“Know of her?” I growled. “I fought her. So did Ch- Bladedancer. And Carmilla. She’s one of the Children of the Night! She’s a wanted criminal!”
Vamp smirked, “Yeah, I was in the Children of the Night - as an undercover mole for the Boston DA’s office.” She went off on a rant about the incompetence of the Boston police, while I waited for her to stop and breathe. She finally stopped raving, and she stared at me. “And what do you mean, you fought me? When? Third grade or sum’thin’? ‘cause I am seriously NOT pegging you, and I got a real good memory…”
I cleared my throat and tried to do the sexy purr she’d tried on me in Boston while I was using Matterhorn like an oversized flail. The one that had led to an abrupt and humiliating finale, when even a perverted supervillainess was freaked out by my stupid body.
“That was you? Shit!”
Mrs. Horton frowned at her, “Alex, language please.”
Vamp fumed, as she undoubtedly remembered how I had polished off that little tête-à-tête. She finally said, “Well I still’d rather hang with the redhead. She was hot.”
I managed not to smirk. Too much. “Next door.”
“Whaddaya mean next door? Next door where?”
I explained, “Next door to my room. Fey and Chaka the black girl who kicked Lycanthros’ furry butt are in the next room. Generator the girl who took out Ironhawk is down the hall rooming with Tennyo that’s the Ryoko look-alike who shredded the Arch-Fiend. Lancer the one who punched out Matterhorn and clobbered the Anti-Paladin is down the hall the other way. And Bladedancer the Asian girl you slammed facefirst into that car is the roommate I really liked that I’m losing so you have a place to stay. She’ll be just down the hall, and SO happy to see you again. Plus, Carmilla, who actually is Darrow’s niece believe me, that’s one creepy family is downstairs some of the time, and in a neighboring dorm some of the time.”
“Huh? She gets two separate rooms?”
“Oh, it’s way weirder than that.”
“Ayla, since you’re so ready to impart your knowledge, perhaps you could show Alex around the campus for her official tour. Then…”
I didn’t say ‘oh crap’ at the time, but I certainly thought it all the same. Repeatedly. It would have been extremely convenient if I could have used the ‘I have to go study for an exam’ excuse or the ‘I have to go to class’ excuse, but Mrs. Horton was way ahead of me. She knew I was already pulling an A+ in my Shakespeare class and that sensei Ito would let me out of martial arts if she wrote a note to him.
The essential problem was that I felt that I needed to do a good job as Vamp’s tour guide, simply because I wanted the job for next fall. I was still somewhat miffed about Beltane’s treatment of my misery on that first tour of the campus. The kids who are thrilled to death about their gender change aren’t the ones who need the understanding tour guide. If I had been a lot less resilient, her reaction to my situation could have been traumatic. As things were, it merely made me angry. And less than fully coherent. The latter bothered me more.
So I listened to Mrs. Horton’s points and carefully consented. Then I gave Vamp the tour, including the visit to the official picture of Lord Paramount in the Homer Gallery. It turned out that Vamp knew a great deal about vampire lore, which really shouldn’t have surprised me, given how she looked and what she had picked as a codename. She wasn’t as well versed about a lot of other topics, which didn’t surprise me a bit.
After we did the obligatory parts of the tour, I showed her around. The classrooms were just classrooms I was sure she had seen a few at some point in her life, even if she gave off that ‘I hate school’ attitude whenever we approached anything the least bit scholastic. However, the tunnels were more interesting. I showed her Tiny Tim, and the string-theory power station, and Arena ‘99. I couldn’t take her into the holographic sims or some of the other highly-secured areas, but I did mention a few places in passing. Then we made our way back to the dreariness that is Dunn Hall by way of a few Workshop areas.
All right, it was completely my fault that we didn’t get to the cafeteria in a timely manner. I stopped in to see Hazmat, and Aquerna was there visiting him. Or possibly bringing him dinner if you can call a mediocre hamburger and French fries ‘dinner’, particularly when they were in a container that wouldn’t keep anything hot. We ended up listening to Anna’s questions about ‘the cool experiments’ and ‘the new girl’ I was showing around, instead of getting a useful update from Hazmat on his progress with product testing. I had no excuse for letting Anna derail the conversation, except that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Irrelevant tangential discussions are never a good idea in any meeting, particularly ones with time requirements.
By the time we reached Dunn Hall, the cafeteria line looked like it comprised roughly three-fourths of the entire student body. And some of the obvious heavy eaters, like Slab, were ahead of us, scouring the food tables clean as they went, like giant mutant-powered locusts. Way to make a good impression on the new kid. So I made a desultory suggestion that there was an alternative, if necessary. And that was the moment when I realized what I was facing for the rest of the school year. When given the choice between eating in Dunn Hall and sponging off the rich roommate, Vamp had instantly gone with ‘mooch’. I sighed inwardly and led her back toward Poe. Then she dove into my refrigerator like Tennyo after a major battle. For a while there, I was wondering if Alex would start chewing on the refrigerator shelves and the insulation.
After thinking over my options for a bit, I used the Spots and called all of Team Kimba into the room to meet Alex, simply because I didn’t want anyone seeing Vamp in our building and starting a superhero battle that could wreck the place. All right, I still didn’t like Alex, and she really had this way of getting under my skin and making me want to drop a multi-ton giant on her again but I didn’t want Billie getting a murder one rap for atomizing someone in the hallway when said someone wasn’t technically a wanted supervillain working for The Necromancer.
<(Phase) Emergency meeting in my room ASAP. The mole working for the Boston Police Department was Vamp, and now she’s going to be attending Whateley.>
<(Chaka) Vamp? That bitch that had Chou kissin’ windshield?>
<(Fey) Didn’t she try to clock you in the back of the head with twenty pounds of concrete? Let’s tell Sarah and give the girl a ‘surprise’.>
<(Lancer) What’s the threat level on this one?>
<(Phase) Is there a level of green that’s just really, really irritating? Because that’s it.>
<(Chaka) Hospital wall puke green.>
<(Generator) How about neon poison green? Because my roomie said the skirt I liked on that website would even make Jericho wince.>
<(Tennyo) Hey! I was being sarcastic!>
<(Phase) At any rate, my room ASAP. Because guess who got stuck with Vamp for a roommate?>
<(Tennyo) Oh Jeez.>
<(Chaka) Girlfriend, you really are a trouble magnet, you know that?>
<(Phase) I figured that out when I got stuck with you as the wacky sitcom next-door neighbor.>
<(Generator) And Tennyo still has a whole tray of food to eat. She’s only had two or three. Maybe four or five. But she has to keep her strength up!>
<(Tennyo) Thaaaaaaanks. Phase, we’ll be over pretty soon.>
Alex had managed to stuff her face with comestibles from my pantry and fridge before I was done chatting over the comms. I swear, you’d think they held her in protective custody in Malawi. She looked up from what would be her desk once she unpacked, and asked in an irritating sing-song voice, “Whatcha doin’?”
I said, “Getting the team together so you won’t be disintegrated or turned into a slug the first time you walk down the hall to use the bathroom.”
“And who’s gonna be pulling something like th- Oh fuck!”
And that was when Fey came floating into the room, giving Vamp one of those ‘wrath of the Sidhe’ looks. Okay, I am willing to admit it: I really need to work on my intimidation factor. The best I had managed all day was getting Alex to produce an eye roll. One second in the room, and Fey had Alex thinking about diving out through the window and running for cover.
The group trickled in one or two at a time, with Billie and Jade and Jinn last. Billie still had Jade under one arm, as if they had just flown over from dinner. That was substantiated by the turkey leg in Billie’s other hand, which she was still devouring.
As soon as the team piled into the room and flew or clambered into their usual spots, I turned back to Alex to make the introductions. She looked around uncomfortably… and went for a joke. It fell flat.
I began, “Alex? This is Hank, codename Lancer. Toni and Nikki, AKA Chaka and Fey, next door. Billie and Jade and Jinn, AKA Tennyo and Generator and Shroud. And my former roomie, Chou AKA Bladedancer.” I turned to the group and pointed, “Okay, this is Alex. Don’t kill her on sight. Yet.” Toni instantly demonstrated the proper way to snark, but Alex pretended to ignore her.
Vamp muttered under her breath, “Well, thanks so much for that warm welcome.”
I casually reminded her, “Oh, and that thing Mrs. Horton said about not blowing the cover of everyone in Poe? If you wreck that, not only will every single person in Poe hurt you, starting with the people in this room, but every single gaybasher on campus will zero in on you.”
Nikki frowned, “And Ayla knows how much fun that is from personal experience.”
Hank added, “And then Carson will fry you.”
Alex looked unimpressed. “Why should I care about some old biddy headmistress? What’s she gonna do? Smack my hand with a ruler?”
I rolled my eyes. “Anyone want to field this one?”
Jade grinned, “Our headmistress? A little scarier than Nightgaunt and your other pals.”
Hank asked, “Think about it. Who would you pick for the headmistress here at Mutant Central?” Wow. Who knew Hank could do the Socratic Method?
Alex sneered, “What, Charles Xavier not available?” She actually used her little gray cells for a second and said, “Well, if I could choose anyone, I’d pick Champion or Lady Champion or someone like that.”
Billie said, “Good call. Our headmistress is Lady Astarte.”
Vamp’s jaw dropped most of the way to the floor. “You’re fucking kidding me.”
I said, “The woman who used to be Lady Champion.” Her jaw dropped the rest of the way to the floor. “And it’s worse than that. She’s smart. When you do something and get caught-”
Toni interjected, “And you will get caught, ‘cause there’s more security and monitoring ‘round here than in Goodkind International headquarters.”
“-thank you for that uncomfortable example, Toni. As I was saying, when you get caught and sent to the headmistress, she doesn’t just slap you on the wrist using her super strength. No, she likes to get creative.”
Vamp shrugged in her typical nonchalant style. Or lack thereof. “I’ve been getting punished by the Necromancer every time I pissed him off. No way she’s gonna top this.” She turned her back on us and lifted her hair out of the way.
Crap. There was a burn back there. A horrific burn. It looked like a red-hot metal hand had gripped her nape, probably more than once. Nikki offered to do some Healing, which Alex blew off. I offered to introduce her to Banned Aids upstairs, and she acted like she never even heard me. No, she made this big, impassioned plea for keeping her burns as some sort of memorial to the pain she had endured. Was she nuts? Maybe she was just going for the ‘pity me but I’m not asking for pity’ maneuver. I was guessing the latter, since her performance was really pretty over the top. I assumed that Phelps Carruthers had paid for her to take some lessons from the William Shatner School of Overacting.
Lily dropped by, skirting around someone in the hallway near the doorframe who was probably X-O, our official floor snoop. Not that I could blame the girl, since she was stuck rooming with Jay Jay, and even hanging around in Poe hallways had to be better than trying to hold meaningful conversations with Scrambler. Of course, as soon as Alex saw Lily squeeze into Hank’s beanbag chair with him, The Vampster had to make a flirty pass at Lancer. I was surprised she hadn’t made a pass at Fey… other than that whole ‘angry Sidhe’ display that had nearly made Alex spot her shorts.
Finally, Billie asked the question that had been bugging me ever since we got Captain Tilley’s big briefing on the Children of the Night. “So… Why did Darrow go to all that fuss, just to recruit an unwilling follower?”
She shrugged, and then went into an angry rant on the subject. She had three or four wacky guesses why Darrow might have forced her to join his little cadre, but not really any sound ideas. Apparently, Darrow had been less than forthcoming. How surprising. He murders her sugar daddy, frames her for it, coerces her into joining his team of lunatics, tortures her whenever she pisses him off, and then decides not to trust her with secret information. Wow. What a surprise. My personal guess was that Darrow was planning on using her for a very specific sacrifice to some Dark God in the near future, not that I knew enough about dark magics to make a useful induction on the subject. I made a mental note to ask Carmilla when she had the time.
Ultimately, we still gave her the basic rundown on us and our powers. I noticed that no one gave her any of the really important intelligence. That told me that none of my team trusted her any more than I did.
On the other hand, I did let Alex switch to the top bunk. It wasn’t as if it mattered to me, and the thought of having a one-ton roommate dropping on top of her in the middle of the night did seem to make her a little edgy.
I also learned the hard way not to let Alex shoulder-surf while I worked on my computer. I went to the bathroom and locked my computer… or so I thought. But I got distracted when Nikki and Toni came in to wash their faces and brush their teeth. It wasn’t my fault. They were both wearing these semi-sheer babydolls and no bathrobes. And Nikki bobbles when she brushes. The Playboy Channel would kill to get footage of her just brushing and flossing. By the time I got back, Alex had been working on my computer for almost half an hour. She had picked up my password just by watching me type it, and I don’t hunt-and-peck. There are times when I really don’t like the Exemplar power set. When I came in and caught her, she claimed she was only writing up a FAQ on her career as a supervillain. Like I believed that. I changed my password as soon as I got her off my machine. And I made her leave the room before I changed it.
I still don’t know all of the files she looked through, but at least she didn’t leave a virus or a Trojan or a keylogger on the system. And she didn’t download anything. Yes, I checked. Thoroughly. She called me ‘Goodwhine’ and ‘Goodkvetch’ the entire time I was running security programs to make sure.
back to Monday, March 5, 2007
Chou had moved to her new room a couple weeks ago, and I still hadn’t adapted. All right, perhaps I hadn’t tried to adapt. I didn’t want to adapt, and I didn’t want to have to adapt. I had already had to make way too many adaptations in my life, ever since the morning last summer when I woke up and found I had inadvertently changed sides in the battle against the worldwide mutant threat.
Then there was the fact that I liked Chou, and I liked having her as a roommate, and I liked her friends. I liked the fact that she put up with me and my assorted peccadilloes. I hadn’t liked her plan to leave Team Kimba, and I hadn’t liked her moving down the hall.
I really hadn’t liked having to act like I wanted to kick Chou out of Team Kimba, but that was the role I needed to play in her little theatrical production. The problem was that her production was of “Richard III” and I got to play the eponymous king. Well, at least I didn’t have to pretend I was a hunchback. It would also be nice if my subconscious would stop reminding me that I was a better-than-average fit for the part, since I was a younger son of the modern equivalent of royalty, and an obnoxious overachiever at that. And we had certainly had a ‘winter of discontent’ after a fairly problematic summer and fall.
There was no way anyone was going to believe that Jade or Toni or Nikki or Hank would be such a huge jerk as to kick a friend off their training team. What, Jade the sweet and ditzy deviser? Or Toni the sexy sister who wears her heart on her sleeve? Or Hank the stalwart and true hero type? Or Nikki the perfect goddess? No, only the Goodkind could be that big an asshole. Everyone already knew what Goodkinds were like. Or rather, assumed that they knew what we were like, based on hearsay and even less reliable sources… such as television news. On top of that, it was getting fairly well known in certain circles that I was the logistics and intelligence officer for the team, so those people would have expected that I would be the one being the hardass.
earlier: Sunday February 18
Poe Cottage, my room
Chou had already asked us to help her leave the team back on Thursday the fifteenth. We had a host of tasks to do before we could begin the project, but we got it started the following Sunday morning. I had to put my foot down about the project name. “I think we should make sure there isn’t a name. Then we can’t slip up and talk about it in public.”
Jade insisted, “No, we need a cool name!”
Billie agreed, “It’s traditional.”
“Somethin’ like Project Shitcan!” Toni suggested from her hammock. I think I managed not to groan.
“Project A-Ko,” said Jade.
Hank tried, “How about something like Project Saffron, so nobody can tell from the name what we mean?”
“Project P?” Nikki said. “No one’s going to guess it from one letter.”
“Project Pee? Sounds like you gotta hit the little girls’ room,” snarked Toni.
“Project Chou-em-up-and-spit-em out!” Jade grinned.
“Can we be rational about this?” I moaned.
“Certainly not, Miss Goodkind! We’re Team Kimba. We don’t do rational,” Toni insisted in what was an obvious parody of my mannerisms. Even I could tell. The fact that Jade and Billie had giggle fits told me that everyone else could tell, as well.
“Of course!” Nikki snickered.
And of course, ultimately I was overruled as usual and it was named Project Exclusion. Which meant that anyone could figure out what it was. But why bother listening to the one person in the room who actually had experience with project naming? Father had let David and me be involved with some of the Goodkind International project naming, ever since we spotted that the new ‘healthy snack foods’ initiative had been named Project M.A.I.R.D. by the food sciences techs. We managed to get that changed long before it was announced, because it would be a PR nightmare if the company announced the new project for healthy foods was a homonym for the French word for shit.
So, despite my complaints, we started Project Exclusion first thing Sunday morning. We didn’t walk with Chou to Dunn Hall. At breakfast, Chou and Molly ate with Dorjee, instead of with us. Since we sat in the middle of the cafeteria, a lot of people noticed. Chou and Molly didn’t eat lunch or dinner with us, either.
That evening, we helped Chou move to her new room. Having a wizard and the J-Team along is definitely the way to do moving. Hank, Billie and I lifted the few heavy objects and toted them down the hall for Chou. Hank took the entire clothes rod down to Chou’s room and switched it with the empty clothes rod in the new room. Billie scooped up Chou’s books from her desk shelves and put them on the shelves over Chou’s new desk. I took Chou’s fully made mattress and switched it with the mattress in the new room, so Chou didn’t have to make up her bed either. Nikki bespelled Chou’s laundry basket and dresser drawers, along with the shelf over Chou’s clothes rod, so all the rest of Chou’s clothing followed down the hall and tucked itself away where it was supposed to go. And the J-Team grabbed everything else except Destiny’s Wave and its stand. So, by the time Chou moved DW and its stand, along with her Robe of Midnight, we had the entire room ready for her.
Hank carefully closed the door so X-O wouldn’t be watching, and we all gave her what amounted to goodbye hugs. As I left, I looked over my shoulder. Chou was standing in the middle of the room and looking resolute, but her eyes looked like she was about to burst into tears.
Afterward, we had a secret Team Kimba meeting in my room, complete with magical eavesdropping protections, and we shared. Every one of us except me had been asked by at least one person what was going on with Chou. Even Billie had gotten a couple questions. Techwolf and some of her fellow librarians had asked her.
By the following morning, word was out. The gossip mill at Whateley which was really less like a mill and more like a large factory complete with loading docks and rail lines for optimal transmission of goods was saying that I had kicked Chou out of Team Kimba, and the rest of the team was going along with that. Oh, there were other rumors. That Chou had gotten seriously hurt in Boston and had quit the team like a big crybaby. That Chou had decided she was tired of getting in trouble with Carson just for being on our team and getting dragged into team shenanigans. That the team voted her out in a Survivor-esque tribunal, with a clear majority wanting her gone. And my personal least favorite: Chou had gotten tired of being my personal geisha love-pillow and had bailed. I managed not to cringe when I heard that one. But the most popular rumor was that I had given Chou the axe and had persuaded or coerced the rest of the team to accept my decision.
As if any Kimba other than Hank ever listened to what I had to say. As if any Kimba including Hank followed my directions when they didn’t want to. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a campus-wide belief that I had formed Team Kimba as my ultra-dangerous backup, and that I ruled it with an iron fist. In an adamantium gauntlet. Seriously, how could anybody talk to Toni for more than ten seconds and believe that one? How could anyone know anything about Billie or Nikki and think that was rational? And how could anyone on campus think Jade the mistress of the shoulder angels and all-around crazygirl would go along with something like that for more than a couple hours before she went off on one of her own unique tangents? It would probably be easier to get Deadpool to go along with that.
But it meant that people wanted to talk to me at breakfast. And right before breakfast. And after breakfast. And throughout the day.
The people who didn’t want to talk to me stared at me with suspicion and anger. In other words, for me it was a lot like most days on campus.
The Bad Seeds had obviously used their various intel sources and were drawing their own conclusions, because after some urgent conversation amongst themselves, Jadis turned and gave me the eye. I murmured to Hank, “Looks like our first customers.” I stepped out of the food line and strolled over to see what the Bads wanted.
Jadis was sitting between Dragonrider and Nacht, and ignoring that Dragonrider was scratching her pet’s belly on an eating surface. Mal was sitting next to Nephandus and arguing about some detail on a blueprint. Cheese was building some sort of tower with his bacon strips, and was giggling madly at his progress. A number of the usual suspects weren’t present, but a quick glance revealed that Thrasher and Render were still in the food line, and Silver Serpent was sitting at the Pan-Asia table. Dunn was unpleasantly overcrowded, but it did make things easier when you were trying to spot someone.
I strolled up to the table and casually sat down next to Dragonrider. “Hi, Lindsay.”
She didn’t say anything to me. I didn’t expect her to. Since Molly was her roommate and friend, I was expecting her to be mad at me. Based on Pern’s size, I was assuming Lindsay was reining in her emotions. Pern was still roughly the size of a large housecat, instead of, say, the size of an angry cougar.
I smiled down the table at Jadis. “You rang?”
Jadis glanced my way and said, “Yes. Lindsay and Laurel had some… concerns, and several of the group thought they were worth looking into.”
I’d just bet some of the Bads wanted to look into it. I said, “As Lindsay can tell you, Chou isn’t on our team anymore. We figured it would be better if she had her own team, with Molly and Dorjee, and some additions like Winnie. I gave her some recommendations.”
Jadis raised an eyebrow. I still wasn’t completely used to those gold eyes. I liked the old brown ones, to tell the truth. She asked, “Is this really necessary? This is still high school, not the Justice Brigade.”
I pursed my lips and lied, “Yes. Anyone who looks good in one combat final but fails badly in the real world shouldn’t be playing with trouble magnets like me. Or Tennyo. Or Fey. In our first fight in Boston, she got trashed by Vamp, and had to be rescued after she got slammed face-first into a car. Considering it was Carmilla who did the rescue, do we really want to have to depend on that sort of intervention the next time? Of course not. Over Christmas, she had to be rescued by a girl in a wheelchair. Granted, it was Chaka, throwing cans of food, but still. Our second time in Boston, she spent the whole fight chasing Nightgaunt and never did catch him. He’s a baseline, and we were dealing with Class A threats, and she was off doing her own thing instead of helping Lancer, or helping Tennyo, or helping the people Darrow had trapped in that little cage. And then this last time, she nearly died. I mean, Generator had to jump in and save her. Generator! She needs to find another team, where she’s not a liability.”
Mal said, “That’s odd, because most people are guessing you dumped her to improve your sim team.”
“Why would I care about how our sim team does?” I pretended to shrug. “We’re fine as a sim team. Our team has to prepare for real life problems. And we already have one martial arts nut. But Bladedancer’s hit her peak already. Chaka’s still growing, and improving. Now eight people is fairly unwieldy in a sim team, but it’s just manageable, so we’re keeping her with us through the Team Tactics course. And we could keep her around for the sim team, if that was the real issue. No, the real issue is Bladedancer looks better in sims and combat finals than out in the real world. And that’s what actually matters.”
Render had just sat down along with Thrasher. And he had obviously gleaned the wheat of the conversation from amidst the chaff. He said, “If you wanted to keep her around, you could have put her with your power armor minions.”
“I don’t have power armor minions,” I said staunchly.
Thrasher grinned, “Says the chica who brought two Knights of Purity teams to a superhero battle.”
“Knights of Purity units do not count as power armor minions!” I insisted.
Render said, “They do when it’s a Goodkind bringing them to the fight.”
You know, I hate it when other people are right. And I hadn’t even talked about the Trin & Macintyre power armor team I had hired for the restaurant situation. Minions in power armor. That really did sound like a supervillain.
Thrasher looked at me with a smirk, “Dudette, you can’t stage a hostile takeover of the Masterminds and not have people think you’re totally planning on being the next Big Bad around here.”
“Or take over the school betting ring,” Nacht added in her best Wednesday Addams tones.
“Or get cozy with Payola Platoon,” Render pointed out.
Nephandus looked up from the blueprints. “Or put together the first viable team with a Section 33 on it since Deathlist was in school here.”
Mal inserted, “Or orchestrate the first private cabal of inventors since Gizmatic.”
“It’s not a cabal,” I insisted calmly. “It’s individual inventors who have patentable products.”
Jadis contributed, “Or take on hit teams from the Alphas… and win. With no measurable consequences.”
“Oh, there have been plenty of consequences, I’ve just been dealing with them,” I grumbled.
“Or have their own private war with Hartford and survive it.”
“It’s not a war of any sort,” I persevered. “Amelia’s just upset because my older sisters weren’t nice to some of her cousins. It’s a petty little grudge with negligible consequences to either of us thus far.”
“Even if she’s gone after Tennyo?”
I explained, “That’s part of Hartford’s grudge with Charles Lodgeman, apparently. Tennyo and Techwolf both got caught in that crossfire. Word is that Seraphim and Skinwalker might have the same problem some day.”
“I heard Seraphim has the Reverend’s protection too, so she’s safe from Hartford,” Jadis disagreed. “Temporarily, anyway.”
I really didn’t like it when someone else had better intel than I did. Even if it was Jadis.
But that was only the first sally of the day. As I walked through the breakfast lines, several of the Golden Kids cut in line to chat with me. At least it gave me something to think about other than hillocks of inedible yellow egg-like substances, and huge warming pans of things which as far as I could tell only came from a pig based on hearsay evidence. There were also brown disks which were supposed to be either pancakes or frisbees, although it was hard to tell which.
Tidewater and Pearlescent slid in line behind me. Macrobiotic stepped in line in front of me with several quiet ‘excuse me’ and ‘pardon me’ noises to the rest of the line.
Macrobiotic started, “Phase, I’m sure you only did this out of your concern for others, but I’m worried about how this is going to be perceived by the rest of the school!”
Pearlescent said, “Don’t you think this is carrying that ‘win at all costs’ concept too far?”
Tidewater chimed in, “Are you sure this is something you want to be associated with for the rest of your years here?”
I dryly said, “I assume this is about Bladedancer?”
“Yes!” Macrobiotic pushed. “Everybody is saying the worst things about you!” She took a breath and murmured, “When Traduce and Corrosive were saying things about you, I just ignored it, because, well, you know how they can be when they’re… upset at someone.” She stopped and gave me a worried look. “But then I heard essentially the same thing from, well, everyone. All my friends in Dickinson are talking about it, since Gateway lives there. And I knew there had to be some awful misunderstanding. But Gateway insisted you really did make Bladedancer leave the team! And Angel says you made her change rooms too! Please, tell me I’ve got this all wrong.”
Tidewater said, “There really has been a lot of gossip about this. There seems to be a big lull in things to talk about right now.”
Pearlescent cut in, “Mostly, Team Kimba hasn’t gotten into a major fight for a couple days. With the Alphas behaving and Don Sebastiano still out of action, things must be too dull for everybody around here.”
Macrobiotic added, “I think it’s the cabin fever thing, too. With everyone all cooped up, people are just talking more and gossiping more.”
Tidewater said, “The most common theme is that you waited until Bladedancer was heavily involved in planning that Chinese New Year party, and then you backstabbed her and got the rest of the team to kick her out.”
Pearlescent added, “Most of the school’s pretty impressed that you managed to get her out of your room too, since that’s pretty much impossible without divine intervention.”
I explained, “Oh, I would have been happy to keep her in the room. She’s a great roommate. Quiet, considerate… The dorm mother asked us to split up so each of us could mentor a new kid.”
“But would she want to stay in your room after you kicked her off the team?” Macrobiotic wondered.
I said, “It wasn’t a backstab. She was really badly hurt on our last trip to Boston. As in ‘came within seconds of passing out from blood loss and then dying’. If Generator hadn’t worked up this bizarre little medical devise and brought it with her, Chou might have died before the paramedics got her out of there and to an ER. She had a broken rib that punctured a kidney and she was bleeding internally. I think it scared her to realize she could really die doing this kind of stuff.”
“So she wanted out?” Tidewater asked.
“And we wanted her safe,” I continued. “She’s looked pretty good in one or two very visible battles, but winning in a combat final isn’t the same thing as winning a street fight against a supervillain in real life. She’s also gotten her ass kicked in some less public battles around here. Thunderdrake roughed her up pretty badly, and he’s not exactly Champion. Vamp hammered her in our first trip to Boston, and then Chou wasted our second Boston battle chasing Nightgaunt all over the battlefield. And he’s a baseline. She’s had a couple lucky showings where her power kicked in, but she’s massively outgunned when it doesn’t. Okay, so she’s good at martial arts. But she has already maxed out, and our team is now in the crosshairs every time we step off campus. Hell, we’re in the crosshairs a lot of time while we’re still on campus. We needed to sideline her.”
Macrobiotic asked, “Is that really fair? I mean, you still have Generator, and she’s down as number 263 on the lists.”
I deliberately rolled my eyes. “First off, let me just say that is so incredibly unfair that she ought to track down those dorks and show them up close and personal that she doesn’t deserve that ranking. But she thinks it’s funny. And she thinks it gives her a major advantage in fights, since everyone underestimates her. But we’re talking about a girl who should have beaten Electrode in the combat finals. Electrode! She has personally fought half the Ultraviolents. Pardon me, half the other Ultraviolents, since she insisted on registering herself as one. You know the jobs no one wants to do as their work study? The sewers and Hawthorne. What’s her work study job? The sewers.”
“And she loves visiting Hawthorne.” I went on, “She thinks rooming with Tennyo is fun. When all of Team Kimba got bushwhacked in the sims start of winter term, who saved the day? Generator. Not Tennyo, not Lancer, not Fey, not me. Generator. Who had the instructors freaked by the end of Team Tactics class? Not Tennyo or Fey. Generator. That girl is a hell of a lot more dangerous than people realize. She doesn’t need protection from badguys. Badguys need protection from her.”
“But… she’s so tiny!” Tidewater whined.
“BIT problem,” I said. “As far as we can determine, she should be the same size as Shroud. And, as you should know, size has nothing to do with skill as a deviser.
Pearlescent said, “I still think you’re making a mistake kicking Bladedancer off your training team.”
I nodded, “We might be. But if we’re not going to let her hang with us when we go on trips, she might as well be able to do what she wants and form her own training team. Plus, that means she gets to spend a lot more time with her boyfriend and her girlfriend.”
Pearlescent frowned, “Didn’t that weird you out? The whole girl-girl thing? Or the threesome thing?”
I said, “They aren’t actually at the hot, nasty sex part of the relationship yet. They’re still at the early dating and nervous kissing part. And why would I mind seeing two extremely hot girls necking?”
“Tide? Tide…” Pearlescent looked over at her boyfriend, who – based on his glazed eyes and slack expression – was lost in ‘lesbian porn land’ as he fantasized about Molly and Chou. “Tide!” She covered her arm in a shimmering PK field and smacked him on the arm hard enough that he was nearly knocked to the ground. As plenty of people on campus have noted before, there are serious hazards to having a PK brick as a significant other.
“Sorry,” he muttered, rubbing his arm.
Fortunately for me, that was enough to completely derail their little intervention. Pearlescent was seriously ticked off, Tidewater was ruefully embarrassed, and Macrobiotic was apologetic for Tidewater acting like a guy.
But that didn’t end the interrogations. No, that was just the start. At breakfast, I spotted several tables of people who were staring my way but glancing away as soon as they thought I spotted them. Great. It was like eating in a restaurant with my family. If we didn’t have a private dining room all to ourselves, we had peepers and gawkers. If my sister Heather was eating with us, we also had oglers and droolers, because Heather never went out in public without the full supermodel hair-and-makeup-and-clothing treatment, just in case she was spotted. At least this time I didn’t have paparazzi swarming all over the place taking annoying pictures that would be appearing in newspapers the next day, and in magazines the next week.
I pretended that the stares and whispers didn’t bother me. But obviously they did, because afterward I couldn’t remember whether my breakfast had tasted good or not. Lancer and I bussed our trays while Billie wolfed down another bushel of foodstuffs and the J-Team kept her company.
When I walked past some of the usual tables, I noticed that several Underdogs were sullenly glaring my way. Not that they were going to confront me about my supposed mistreatment of someone. Chou was trying hard to be Winnie’s friend, and it wasn’t as if the Underdogs had all that many people going out of their way to be nice to any of them. I groaned inwardly as I realized that Anna and Rhiannon might stop talking to me. It wasn’t as if I had that many friends, and they had trusted me back when most of the school regarded me as The Primary Threat To All Of Whateley.
I reminded myself – not for the first time – that doing what was right was a very different thing from doing what was popular. The Goodkinds had worked at the former for decades, while trying to use politicking and PR to convince others that they were doing the latter. But it didn’t change the fact that thousands – no, make that millions – of ordinary people hated the Goodkinds for doing the right things to protect mankind and the planet. If there was nothing more the entire might of Goodkind International could manage, it was probably absurd to expect that I could sway the opinions of the other students with no resources other than myself.
Once again I thought about hiring someone on campus to handle my Public Relations. If only I could find someone who could do an excellent job first time, with no mistakes. But I also had to worry about finding someone who wouldn’t be using Psi or magic to accomplish my goals, and who wouldn’t be suspected of using Psi or magic to brainwash most of the campus. I had considered hiring Zenith, but Zoe didn’t really trust me, even when she could use her Database technique on me. And if I were to hire her, I would have the problem that lots of people would believe she was using Sahar’s darker powers to sway people.
It looked like my best option was still a campaign of disinformation. Granted, I was already working on that. But telling individuals our ‘official’ version of the story enough times to convince even a small fraction of the student population was liable to be a long-term effort.
So I was back to having nearly the entire student body hating my guts. Why did I think high school was going to be a great experience?
Oh, right. I didn’t. I hadn’t, even before I turned into a revolting freako intersexed mutant. I had viewed high school as a stepping stone into a top university and a top M.B.A. program. Even with a couple good friends at my side at Chilton, I had still been considering skipping my last year or two of high school and starting college early.
Granted, I had a dozen good friends here, and I could handle the campus enemies I had made. But perhaps I should look harder into taking extra courses and graduating as early as Carson would allow.
On the way out of the cafeteria, half of Pan-Asia had wanted to have a little chat with me. Fortunately, I had Lancer and Tennyo and Fey with me, so I wasn’t worried that they would try anything. But they weren’t buying the ‘we did it because we were looking out for Chou’ story either. Hatamoto was giving me the ‘I can’t believe you would do this’ look. Gunkan was giving me the ‘you are such an asshat’ look. A couple were giving me the ‘watch your back from now on’ look. Great.
We trooped on toward Team Tactics as a group. Sans Chou, of course. She was going to meet us there, and leave without us, but she was going to stay in the course with us through the final exam.
Jade seemed to be her usual exuberant self, although that could have been due to anything. The rest of us? Not so thrilled. Even Chaka seemed a little discouraged.
After Team Tactics class, which included Bardue really getting in my face about team structure for some mysterious reason, we all headed back to Poe. Well, all of us except Chou. I was already hating this plan. I liked Chou, and now I couldn’t even hang out with her anymore.
At least, not openly. Great, I was going to have to exercise industrial espionage techniques just to have chats with my friend.
Lunch was more of the same, and then I only avoided a continuation of the pattern because I had to spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening dealing with my new roommate. And having to deal with Vamp was even less fun than being interrogated by the campus cliques.
That gave me a minor break. But Tuesday, we were back to the old grind. Majestic and Imperious wanted to do the big staredown with me, but had to rush off because of the crap Counterpoint had gotten himself in, and Judicator was dragging them off to intervene. I didn’t know what was behind that, since as far as I knew they should have been ticked off at Chou, and not at me.
And that was pretty much how Tuesday went. At lunch it was Thunderdrake and some of his pals from the Dragons. Then I didn’t make it all the way to sixth period martial arts without another meeting. Pendragon and Gloriana swooped in to talk to me, with Iron Star in tow.
Gloriana started, “Phase, we’ve been hearing some really disturbing rumors about you and Bladedancer…”
Since I was still walking to martial arts class and I did not want to be late, I interrupted her. “Yes, we did ask her to leave the team. No, we don’t care about the training team issues. No, I didn’t get her moved out of the room, that was the house mother setting things up so Chou and I would each get a new kid to mentor. Yes, Chou nearly died during the last trip to Boston, and the team as a whole thinks she’s maxed out on her potential while everyone else is still improving. Yes, she beat Nex very publicly, but he’s over-rated and he did himself in by being his usual overconfident stalker self. No, she isn’t very dangerous under most conditions, and so she needs to be out of the battlezones when Team Kimba is off campus. Anything else?”
Pendragon frowned, “Still, taking her off the team is a rather non-FSA act. I would expect it from The Don, not from you.”
“Ooh, burn!” contributed Iron Star.
I ignored him. I said to Pendragon, “Look, you have to make this kind of call all the time when newbies want into the Capes, so you should know what it’s like. We all like Chou. She’s a great roommate, and I really didn’t want to lose her. But she’s a baseline. She’s not improving anymore, and her best now is not good enough to keep her safe. This is the best thing I can do for her.”
Gloriana pointed out, “There’s a big difference between not accepting someone into your club, and publicly humiliating them by kicking them out of your training team.”
I said, “In our case, it was a matter of life and death. That’s more important.”
Gloriana and Pendragon took off, but Iron Star waited a moment so he could get in the last word. “Major dick move there.”
Wow, when pricks like Iron Star think you’re making a dick move, you’re really failing on the public relations front.
Then that night, I had some Poesies from the upper floors drop in on me to tell me that booting Chou out of an all-TG team so she had no support system was a Don Sebastiano level backstab. I gave them the official story and sent them to talk to Chou, but I still had Electrode and Shrike totally pissed off at me.
And the fun just didn’t stop. Wednesday morning, after we finished breakfast and were hiking on the paths to Team Tactics class, I got another visitor. Before we were out of sight of Dunn Hall, Billie gave me a little hand signal. It was the American Sign Language gesture for the letter ‘M’. ‘M’ as in ‘meeting’. So I once again faked a phone call and then flew off to my little glen with Tennyo in tow. After Aquerna busted up Minefield’s big revenge plan in that little glade, the team had been a lot more insistent that I only go there with serious backup. Tennyo counted as somewhere between ‘serious backup’ and ‘drastic overkill’, at least as far as campus clods were concerned. It wasn’t as if I were about to run into Mimeo and Cataclysm on my way to make a phone call in central campus.
As I expected, it was just Aries. He was field-testing yet another flight pack for Elite League. This one was a little too bulky and awkward for effective field use, in my not-precisely-expert opinion. Still, I thought it had enough fins and exhaust nozzles sticking out that it would probably be quite easy to knock out of commission, and just as easy to target, given its bulk.
Well, I didn’t have to use the thing; I only had to look at it while I talked to Aries. “Anything new?” I asked, as if he hadn’t desired a meeting.
He nodded. “There’s enough craziness going on with all the rumors about your team and Bladedancer that Sebastiano wants some hard intel. He’s planning on ransacking someone’s brain. Namely, one of the Kimbas who’s susceptible to Psi. Since Lancer scared the piss out of Sweetheart, the list of Kimbas who could be read is now down to you and Generator. But she’s usually hanging around with Tennyo.” He tilted his head in her direction. “So The Don’s not likely to risk getting incinerated to do that. And he’s looking into your schedule today. So expect he’s going to arrange an ‘accidental’ meeting with you somehow so he can pick your brains on the deal with Bladedancer.”
I nodded carefully. “Thanks. And if you want, you can tell him one of your sources told you that Bladedancer wanted to get moved off the team because she nearly died on the last trip. That ought to mesh with what he’s heard of the Security reports on the trip. And tell him I’m most vulnerable on my way from lunch to English class. Every other class is chock full of Kimbas.”
“Huh,” he muttered. “I’ll see if I can work that.” He lifted off and headed back toward Melville.
Tennyo watched him go and asked, “Do they really think the only people on the whole team who they can read are you and Jade? That’s crazy.”
I reminded her, “Lancer and Fey did that whole routine on Sweetheart back in December. She told all the Alphas he was unreadable now. And the Security reports said he beat Lady Darke one-on-one, which is bound to make people think he now has major resistance to Psi.”
She snorted. “So Sebastiano thinks the only weak links Psi-wise are you and Jade?”
I replied, “You and Fey and Shroud are nearly untouchable, Chaka can block anything she sees coming, and they have bad intel on Lancer. That leaves me and Jade.”
“So? Avoid him,” she said.
I frowned, “I don’t think so. If I don’t handle this, he’ll eventually try for Jade. And if that fails, he could go for Bunny. Or Molly. Or Rip.” Billie winced. “I’d rather handle this on our terms.”
“And what are ‘our terms’ here?” she checked suspiciously.
I explained, “I get Nikki to do her temporary mindblock spell on me, and I go deal directly with Sebby. I tell them it’s a new devise from Generator, and then they’ll figure out on their own that any of our friends could be protected from telepathic probing at any time, even if they get results off one of them once or twice.”
“Yeah. Them. Sebby’s out of the Alphas now, and Kodiak’s not going to let him back in. Word is that Kody’s already working with other campus groups to ensure Sebby isn’t allowed back in next year, either. We can help with that. But Sebby’s putting together his own pack. Solange, Bogus, Icer, Hamper and Damper, Peppercorn, and as many intelligence assets as he can acquire, since he’s short on them now.”
“Plus your pal Aries,” she smirked. And when Tennyo smirks, her fangs pop out at the corners of her mouth, making her look particularly dangerous. My smirk is simply not in her league.
“And anyone else I might not yet know about,” I added.
After Team Tactics ended, I walked with the gang back to Poe. Then I followed Fey and Chaka back into their room and explained, “You know the short-term mindblock spell you did on Hank when we were dealing with the Young Turks?”
“Ye-es,” Nikki said warily.
I said, “I need you to drop that on me after lunch when I’m on my way to English class. I think Sebby and Tansy are going to ‘surprise’ me so they can figure out what the deal is with Chou. And I don’t want them going on to tackle Jade or Bunny or Molly, or someone else we can’t protect.”
“Ayles,” Toni complained. “You can’t be everybody’s mommy! ‘Sides, we haven’t spilled to anybody.”
I insisted, “I still don’t want Donny-boy ransacking our friends’ brains for tidbits about us. Or doing worse than that.”
“Well, yeah,” she said. “Who would? I just think you’re goin’ all Goodkind on this. You don’t have ta fix everything in the world, no matter what you think.”
Nikki frowned prettily. “Well, I’ll do it, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. And it will only last a few minutes after you move away from me. And I don’t want to do it every couple minutes until Donny-boy does whatever you think he’s going to do. It takes a big spell, with some hard-to-find ingredients.”
“Okay,” I said. Which didn’t mean that I was acquiescing to her demands, only that I wasn’t going to bother her for more castings of the spell that very second.
I left Nikki’s room, only to find Jade waiting for me outside my room with a gigantic smile and a bounce in her feet that told me she was up to something. Again. Or perhaps that should be ‘as usual’.
“Billie told me what you’re up to,” she smiled mischievously. “So I got a fake psiblocker for you to wear!” And she pulled out…
Oh my God.
I didn’t say it out loud, but I was certainly thinking it. Imagine Hello Kitty meets the steampunk genre. As a pendant on a frilly necklace. With extra pink.
I groaned, “No thank you. Just… no.”
“You’re sure?” She gave me the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes.
She added in a pout. “You’re really, really sure? Positively?”
She giggled and then said, “Billie bet me fifty cents you wouldn’t wear it no matter what. For a second there, I thought I got you.”
She shoved the ugly bit of kitsch into a pocket, and I thought she was done. I really should have known better. After all, this was Jade Sinclair. She smiled, “So I got this for you if you didn’t want my Hello Kitty necklace.”
She handed me something almost as bad: a necklace made of pink and lime beads, with a bizarre pendant that looked like it had been forged out of blued steel by angry Smurfs.
I told her I would think about wearing it, just to get her to stop offending my eyes with these displays of… well… the word ‘tackiness’ didn’t begin to describe them.
After lunch, I left the cafeteria with Fey. She led me to an empty classroom on the first floor. She had a little spell circle laid out on the floor on a plastic tarp, so she could fold it up and walk off without leaving any traces. I stood in the center of the circle, while she crushed several ingredients between her fingers and sprinkled them into a shallow silver bowl. Then she pronounced an incantation in a language I was sure I didn’t know. It was one of those magical languages which resounded oddly and did its best to reverberate through your head without using your hearing to get in there.
Fey finished her incantation, and the ingredients vanished from the bowl. Suddenly, I was hit with a pain so sharp that my first thought was that someone had struck me on the top of my head with a mace. A mace with really sharp spikes. The pain was nearly blinding. How the hell did Lancer put up with this agony last fall?
Fey said, “All done.” Then she looked at me and asked, “Ayla? What’s wrong?”
Oh. Right. Empath. “I now have a huge headache to go with my Psi block,” I complained.
She frowned in puzzlement. “That’s weird. Do you want me to cancel the spell?”
The intense pain was making me consider it. A lot. I checked, “This is going to vanish in a few minutes, right?”
“Right. But it shouldn’t be giving you that much pain,” she insisted.
I stubbornly said, “I’ll be fine for a few minutes. I’ve been hurt worse.”
You know, there’s something wrong with your life if your head hurts that horribly, and yet you can say those words without lying.
I Phase-leapt through the wall and off to classes, where I could casually walk down the hall while keeping a lookout for The Don. A casual walk was about all I could manage, anyway. My head hurt so badly that just going light and jumping through the walls had nearly had me puking my guts out.
At least I wasn’t enduring this intense pain for naught. From the direction of my classroom came my targets. Tansy was pushing Sebastiano in his wheelchair.
I figured I might as well play along. I waited until they had a really clear view of me. Then I pulled Jade’s piece of schmatte out of my utility belt and carefully draped it over my neck.
Tansy smirked, “Why, that is so you.”
I made myself smile. “You can’t get the Generator devises without the Generator choices in fashion. You should have seen the steampunk Hello Kitty thing she’s working on.”
Don Sebastiano looked up from his wheelchair. My sources at the clinic told me he was now getting physical therapy and was walking well, so I knew this was part of his con game. He was a higher level Exemplar than I was, and the school had more Healers than Jade had J-Teamers. He asked, “And the purpose of the devise is…?”
“It’s a Psi blocker. Not that I don’t trust the two of you implicitly, but it does put the discussion on an even footing.”
The Don looked up at Tansy, and she shrugged, “I’m not getting anything either.”
I said, “Why not simply ask me?”
He smiled. I’ve seen a warmer smile. From a Gila monster in a zoo. “That is reasonable. As we all know, I would never do anything that might be against the Whateley rules for psychics.”
“Oh deff,” Tansy nodded with a smirk.
“Absolutely,” I pretended to agree. “Just as I would never do anything that might wreak economic ruin on someone in untraceable ways.” Neither one of them even flinched. I doubted Tansy believed there was any way she could be attacked economically, other than temporary inconveniences like swiping her credit cards.
The Don said, “It struck me as amazingly Alpha of you to boot your own roommate off your training team and then get her kicked out of your room.” Tansy nodded in agreement.
I made sure I didn’t show my feelings, but when people like Don Sebastiano and Solange thought I was demonstrating Alpha traits, that was a deadly insult. I said, “As your intel sources have no doubt informed you, I didn’t have any say in the room arrangement issue. As for the other, we didn’t kick her off the sim team as much as we moved her far away from the front lines.” I gave Tansy a wintry smile. “Some people are still targeting us, and she’s already topped out. She got lucky once or twice here on campus, but she’s failed abysmally out in the real world. She didn’t like almost dying in Boston. We didn’t like it either. So she doesn’t get to play with the big boys and girls anymore. And let’s face facts. She’s a baseline. She was able to face off against Counterpoint because she had nothing for him to mimic. She was able to beat Nex because he spent so much time toying with his prey that she got a chance to attack him. And Nex is vastly over-rated if he doesn’t get a chance to launch a sneak attack. Right, Tansy?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she insisted calmly.
I went on, “We’re talking about a guy who got schooled by Chaka when she deliberately withheld all of her major attacks. A guy who was embarrassed by Stalwart after he ambushed Fey. Seriously, if you’ve been thwarted by Stalwart, you need to re-think your career as a supervillain. Nex is so over-rated it’s not funny. He couldn’t even take Erik Mahren when he got in a sneak attack first.”
The Don tilted his head slightly. “I hadn’t heard any details about that particular incident.”
I shrugged nonchalantly. “Oh yeah, he attacked Mahren from behind in an effort to get into the secure weapons storage over at the ranges. Mahren handed him his ass, but he got away without leaving any evidence. My sources say that Mahren had to go to the clinic for a punctured kidney. So Nex stabbed a baseline from behind, punctured his kidney, and still couldn’t take the guy. Too lame for words.”
Okay, I had inside information there, because Caitlin Bardue had used it as an example one morning in Team Tactics class when she was once again arguing for her ‘don’t split up the squad’ dogma. Where she found it out, I didn’t know, because there were far too many possibilities, including hearing it directly from Mahren, or overhearing Mahren telling Bardue, or having Bardue tell her during a big, angry, dad lecture.
Once they realized they weren’t going to get any real intel out of the meeting, just the things I was willing to tell them, they wrapped up.
The Don said, “We really must go. I’m not at full strength yet, and even these little outings are… tiring.”
Tansy said, “It’s interesting. Generator’s devise seems to work really well. But it’s so tacky.”
I agreed, “Yet another insano devise from the House of Jade. It’s really too hideous for me to wear very often. And frankly, it gives me a horrific headache.”
I watched them roll off and made sure they were really gone before I let my guard down. The spell finally died shortly after I got into the classroom and took a seat. The feeling of relief was nearly overwhelming.
Well, I felt relieved right up until Silver Serpent and Quyen Nu walked in. They took one look at me and sat in a different row. Crap.
Before martial arts class started, I checked with Hank. He told me he only had a weird tingling feeling in his sinuses above his eyes. I sighed in frustration and let the matter drop. But I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to go with that psiblocker spell again.
But once I changed into my gi and warmed up on the mat, I noticed that Anna was avoiding me. She wouldn’t even look at me when I looked her way. Great. Just great.
And then, just to make everything extra sucky, Jimmy T and Slab caught up with me on my way to dinner that evening.
Slab said, “We heard about what you did to Bladedancer. We like her, and she’s been good for a lot of Thornies. You’re not welcome at Hawthorne anymore.”
I tried to keep my face a mask. “You do realize that several of your housemates may not agree with you.”
Jimmy said, “We had a vote. Chou won by a big margin. Don’t come by again.”
I refrained from sighing. “Puppet may not agree with you. Or Static Girl. Or Antenna. Or Frostbite. Or-”
“We took a vote,” Slab reiterated. “You lost.”
Jimmy snarled, “Everyone was saying you weren’t a typical Goodkind, and then what do we get? This! Turns out you’re as big an asshat as Solange.”
I tried, “Why don’t you talk to Chou about this? Or Molly.”
They ignored me. Slab said, “Someday when Team Kimba kicks your ass off the team, maybe you’ll realize what a dickhead move you’re pulling.”
Then they stomped off. And if there are two people on campus who can stomp off when they want to, it’s those two guys.
back to Monday, March 5, 2007
But those hadn’t been the only people who had something to say to me about Chou. Or who had nothing to say to me about Chou. Anna and several other kids like her just weren’t talking to me anymore. Several gadgeteers with whom I was hoping to form partnerships just avoided me. Silver Serpent and her galpal stopped talking to me in English class. The New Olympians just grew surlier whenever I saw them. Man, I hoped this paid off for Chou, because it wasn’t paying off for me in any way, shape, or form.
The only convenient aspect of the whole process with Chou was the ‘new kid’ Mrs. Horton warned us about, thereby giving us a legitimate way to move Chou to a new room and not deal with the complicated issues that would surface if people noticed that I was still rooming amicably with Chou when I was supposedly ‘kicking her off the team’.
At least, it should have been convenient, except for the small fact that I got stuck with a supervillainess for a roommate – and an idiotic one, at that. Alex actually thought Phelps Caruthers had something on the ball. Having met the man twice on occasions when Father took all of us to Boston for business, I was of the opinion that his valet had to make sure he put his socks on before his shoes. But no, Vamp thought her ‘Pip’ was a charming, suave man about town who liked her for her mind. Honestly. Was she really that uncultured and gullible? Maybe she really did have a thing for him and couldn’t evaluate him when her hormones were engaged. Either way, I wasn’t impressed. And since he had to be nearly as old as Uncle Theo and Vamp had been thirteen or fourteen at the time, not to mention a hermaphroditic mutant who had a serious case of albinism and also looked like a vampire, let me just add this. ICK! With an à la carte order of EWW! I didn’t care how much shapeshifting she could do, it was revolting.
If I really had been committing such a venal act as booting my friend off my training team for a tiny potential advantage in some future holo sim, then I would have said that getting stuck with Vamp for at least spring term, if not longer, was karma. I hadn’t met Chou’s new roommate yet, but if karma came into play, then she would probably get a quiet, thoughtful, considerate roommate who would be a pleasure to be around.
One of the many great things about Chou was that she didn’t complain about my alarm playing Brass Monkey to wake me up in the morning. Okay, she didn’t complain about that because she awoke hours before I did and was out of the room when my alarm went off. Alex was even less of a morning person than I was. On the other hand, Alex didn’t listen to boy band crap and modern country-western, like Molly did. Molly was a bad influence on Chou, musically speaking. I hadn’t managed to find a musical genre that Dorjee liked, before Chou moved out. Everything that I tried would be greeted with that same gentle smile, and a vague comment like ‘that is… interesting.’
Vamp definitely complained about my morning alarm music. But she complained about a lot of things. She hated Brass Monkey, and had no qualms about saying so. Repeatedly, and at great length.
Okay, she’s far from the only one who hates Brass Monkey. Why doesn’t anybody like such a great group? Are my tastes just that sophisticated? Well, it wasn’t like I could get anyone to try that brodetto, either. I am never going to understand ‘normal’ people.
In my brief experience with Vamp, she bitched a lot. My music was too weird. I didn’t share my food treats with her often enough. The amenities around Whateley Academy were not up to the standards that ‘Abby Carfax’ was used to. Dunwich was a dump compared to Boston, or any place in America that had a Starbucks and a real Italian restaurant.
Although this morning, she primarily bitched at me about not getting to go to Miami with me. As if there were any reason on earth for me to take her along so she could leech off me like Preston Galloway did in second and third grade. Preston had been a rather painful lesson in dealing with life’s sponges and remoras, and I wasn’t all that interested in repeating that particular bit of edification.
Come to think of it, the general stupidity and illiteracy of the hoi polloi never ceased to amaze me. All of Boston had been looking for Vamp, the vampire jailbait of the Children of the Night, and yet no one ever noticed that a young woman named Abby Carfax was wandering around playing debutante while having no family in Boston society. Hadn’t these people ever read ‘Dracula’? Hello? Abby? Carfax? Carfax Abbey was the name of Dracula’s lair outside of London. And what did Vamp look like, and use to model her behavior? Vampires. Duh. I had a feeling that Alex had probably smirked every time she used that name.
I floated out of bed and carefully phased out of my new pajamas. I did not want to wreck a brand new pair of Pierre Cardin silk pajamas due to a little carelessness. This particular shade of red was a specialty silk that wasn’t available to normal customers. Not that Goodkinds would order it, since it was a silk that came from deviser-bred silkworms that naturally produced colored silk thread. For historical reasons, this particular color was called ‘mulberry’, even if I felt it wasn’t quite the right shade of red for the name.
The now-solid pajamas fell right into the dirty clothes basket. As far as I knew, Vamp wasn’t raiding my pajamas yet. Not that it would surprise me any. She had used my computer without permission. She raided my fridge and pantry. She had tried to borrow my utility belt more than once. I had been forced to tell her she could not make coffee in my Krups, and she needed to ask me to make it for her. I was just glad she had her own clothes and her own Whateley uniforms.
I floated over to my bathrobe and went normal. Then I put it on, grabbed my gear, and headed down to the bathroom for my standard matutinal maneuverings. Since Alex had arrived, we had managed to work out a truce in a number of areas, and the bathroom was one of them. We both wanted to ogle the hotties. We both liked using the bathroom mirror to do so. We both knew that two people blocking the sinks was going to be unworkable, since there were only three sinks. So we just showered at different times. That meant that at most one of us was hogging a sink at any time in the morning. If one of us was already up and moving toward the bathroom, the other simply waited a minimum of ten minutes before taking his or her turn.
I knew what was likely to happen in the bathroom, given that pretty much the entire floor knew about the trip to Miami. I managed to get two steps into the bathroom before girls started looking my way.
“So… How was break week? How was Miami?” Toni couldn’t have squeezed much more lurid interest into that second question without using an industrial strength lurid-interest compressor.
I focused on stock market derivatives, because I knew that as soon as I started thinking about my four-day vacation, my emotions would be exposed for half the bathroom.
Like I wasn’t leaking emotions to said bathroom sharers that very second. Between Nikki and Evvie and Toni and the entire J-Team, I might as well walk around with big flashcards so I could wave my private feelings about in the air. And that didn’t even begin to touch on all the normal female intuition surrounding me, or however much empathic abilities Sharisha had from her PDP power set.
Still, I couldn’t help thinking how my vacation with Vanessa had gone…
earlier: Thursday, March 1
somewhere over New York state
I turned to Vanessa and said, “I hope you don’t mind the jet.”
It was small. This LearJet had only one seat on the port side and only two seats on the starboard side, with only fifteen rows for the whole plane. We were sitting together on the starboard side, in the first row. That gave us a little more legroom, even if Vanessa couldn’t put her purse under the seat in front of her. Still, with no one else on board, we didn’t exactly have to worry about pickpockets. On the other hand, since the jet was basically a pencil with wings, it didn’t have a lot of headroom either.
She looked at me like I had lost my mind. “Ayla, are you crazy? You’re flyin’ me to Miami. In a LearJet! I’d be impressed if you were just buyin’ me a ticket in coach on El Cheapo Airlines. This is… this is whack. The two of us, with the whole jet to ourselves? At least as awesome as the 767 to Boston.”
I smiled a little. Sometimes I tended to forget how I looked from the outside.
She said, “Don’t tell me we’re also stayin’ someplace insane.”
I shrugged slightly. “The Miami Hilton. It’s within easy distance of two of the clubs we talked about, and we have the Presidential suite.”
“Suite? You got the two of us a whole suite?”
I said, “I didn’t want to pressure you about… bedtime. This will make things easier. You’ll have your own bedroom with a private bathroom. I will too. And the suite has its own kitchenette, so you don’t have to deal with rising and shining for breakfast, if we were out late the night before.”
“Ayla, this is crazy. I heard about other kids goin’ to Miami or Fort Lauderdale or like that for spring break, like college kids, and they pile like six girls in a car and drive down and split payin’ for the gas, and then they split one cheap room wit’ maybe two queen beds and a couple sleeping bags, and they can’t afford anything else. You’re… You’re not even on the same planet.”
I shrugged. “I can’t help what I’m used to. You’ll just have to learn to live with my assorted foibles.”
She grinned and rolled her eyes at me. “And like that. When we’re out clubbin’, try ta talk like normal girls.”
I tried my best imitation of Bubble. I opened my eyes wide and burbled, “Ohmygawd, that was like so totally awesome, and they were all no way, and I was like yes way, and like that!”
She laughed and said, “That wasn’t what I meant. Like you already knew. I mean, talk more like Nikki or Billie, not like the ditziest white girl in Florida. Just not like the Queen of England. Or the Queen’s speechwriter.”
We had a great flight down. The pilots didn’t have an ETA by which they had to live or die, so they had time to detour around a couple storm systems. That meant we had a really smooth trip. And there wasn’t a stewardess on board, just a stocked kitchen, so we helped ourselves whenever we felt like it. Vanessa teased me about the champagne and wines I would be ordering as soon as I turned twenty-one. And when she started doing the French accent, I couldn’t stop laughing. Some Sirens really have an amazing ear for spoken sounds. Her imitation of Glissade complaining about the western European students was hysterical.
We landed about half an hour after the projected arrival time, but I didn’t care. The careful avoidance of bad weather was easily worth the time. We caught the limo over to the Miami Hilton, and a bellhop took our luggage up to our penthouse suite.
I think Vanessa was a little overwhelmed by the service and the attentiveness. The bellhop acted like a well-trained bellhop should, wheeling all our luggage up and placing it where we asked. I arbitrarily assigned the lavender room to her and the celadon room to me, based on color preferences. There really wasn’t going to be much to distinguish the rooms otherwise, since I trusted that they would all be up to the Hilton standards. The maid for the penthouse suites came in behind the bellhop and helped Vanessa put her things away. Then the bellhop pointed out all the amenities to us, including the snacks in the pantry and the treats in the fridge. It was just what I was expecting, but Vanessa looked like her eyes were going to pop out.
I let the maid put away my things in my closet and dresser, and then I made sure to tip her and the bellhop. Vanessa waited until they left, and asked, “Is this ordinary? For penthouse suites and stuff?”
I shrugged casually and said, “It’s what I’m used to. I am a Hilton, on my mother’s side. So it’s possible we get better service than some people.”
She slowly shook her head. “I never heard of anybody gettin’ that kind of service. You are so… different.”
I let her look in the fridge and pantry before I showed her the whole suite. Four bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and den. A couple storage areas, a large living room and dining room area with their own half bath, and an office area off to the side. I thought it looked reasonably nice. Vanessa got a Diet Coke out of the fridge and looked around as if she might be evicted at any moment.
“Would you like that in a glass?” I checked.
“You mean a fancy goblet and probably fancy ice cubes and maybe a twist of lime on the side?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, a glass. I’m sure there are some adequate goblets in the cupboards too.” She just rolled her eyes.
We spent the rest of the evening just exploring the suite. Granted, I ordered a late dinner for us, and the staff served us in the dining area of the suite. The brochettes of beef were perhaps a hair overdone, but the well-prepared port wine sauce made up for the oversight. The brown rice red – rice mixture was just the right doneness, and the mélange of winter vegetables was a fairly good mix. I assumed they were using some vegetables grown locally that wouldn’t currently survive outside at this time of year in New York or New Hampshire. After we ate and the staff cleaned up, Vanessa had to play with the jacuzzi in her bathroom, then the big screen television and game system in her den.
She kissed me good night and murmured, “I dunno what to say, honey. You’re so good to me, and you’re not askin’ me to put out… I just feel like I ought to…”
“Give me another kiss and then go get some sleep?” I interrupted.
She shook her head slowly and did what I suggested. By the time she stopped kissing me, I needed to go sit in my jacuzzi for a bit.
In the morning, we took our time about getting ready. We had a nice breakfast of Belgian waffles from room service, with Vanessa complaining that she was going to be four dress sizes larger when we got back to Whateley. Then we took a leisurely tour of the city in a van the hotel arranged for us. I took her to dinner at the Versailles Restaurant after the hotel assured me we could get in just as the chefs were pulling the pork roast out of the oven. That actually matters there, since their lechon asada is much better that way. We shared that and an order of their ropa vieja, which is their classic Cuban-style garlic-enriched beef simmered with onion and bell pepper until the beef is in tender shreds. The food was really good, and the wacky décor didn’t detract from the quality of the fare. I mean, the place looked like it was decorated by Riptide while taking advice from Jade and Jay Jay. The movers and shakers of the local Cuban-American community often ate there, but there was no one I knew personally.
We were careful not to eat too much, because after that, Vanessa took me out dancing. I had managed to find the Blue View a couple months earlier, when I made an effort to find places I could take Vanessa that would address all my concerns: they needed to allow underage teenagers; they needed to allow non-heterosexual relationships; and they needed to allow mutants. They third one was really the deal-breaker for most places. Lots of clubs were going to allow hot lesbian babes who were dancing together, even if Vanessa and I didn’t strictly count as ‘lesbian’. Lots of clubs handled the underage issue, either by selling only non-alcoholic drinks or by careful carding. Not too many clubs could afford the risk of mutant superbattles. I had located five such clubs in New York City and the environs, although two of them were open-air dance areas that wouldn’t be all that great in February of a really bad winter. I assumed that an open-air dance club was automatically easier to insure, since there were no walls or ceiling to ruin, and the ‘dance floor’ might be concrete instead of expensive hardwoods.
There was only one such club in Miami, possibly because Florida didn’t have the mutant population of New York City or Los Angeles. The Blue View was built in a refurbished warehouse in an area of town that was obviously working on some serious gentrification. And they handled the ‘cost of mutant customers’ issue via the tried and true method: high cover charges. Vanessa choked when she saw what they were charging. I didn’t tell her I had been in clubs that were a lot more exclusive, and a lot more expensive.
We strolled in, and the pounding beat made me wish I had brought earplugs. Deviser earplugs, so that I could hear everything important, while keeping the pulsing techno to a nice, sane, non-eardrum-rupturing volume. I momentarily wondered how painful it would be for someone with abnormally good hearing, like Nikki or Anna or Billie. Toni? She’d just figure out how to use her Ki to control her hearing. Then I wondered if exposing Hank to places like this would be good training so his PK field could ‘learn’ to protect him from sonic weapons.
The first thing Vanessa had to do was go to the restroom, and I got dragged along too. I looked around as we walked. There was a balcony area with glitzy private sections. There were four sections that were in heavy use. One looked like a bunch of pro basketball players partying down. Either that, or a lot of extraordinarily tall, thin guys in NBA jerseys were conning some skanky young women. Another looked like a couple heavy-set middle-aged white guys liquoring up some significantly younger platinum blondes. The third looked like my conception of gangsta rappers or maybe local drug dealers partying up a storm. Unfortunately, I had no idea whether real drug dealers or real rap stars really looked like that or acted like that. The fourth section was a group of guys leaning toward each other and having a conference around a table. I wondered why someone would try to have a conference here, with all this background noise.
Vanessa just wanted to check her makeup, so I stood there and waited as patiently as I could manage. I just checked out the rest of the female clientèle, like the sultry brunette who wasn’t wearing any underwear at all underneath that clingy black slipdress. Or that slutty bottle-blonde in the lace-up red patent leather top… who had an automatic and a leather folder in her matching patent leather purse. I could just see the top of the contents of the purse when I looked in the mirror while she freshened her sparkly red lipstick.
Okay, it looked like I might have to pay more attention to my surroundings.