Ayla and the Mad Scientist: (Chap 2)
Ayla and the Mad Scientist, chapter 2, by Diane Castle
Ayla and the Mad Scientist
CHAPTER 2 – L’Etranger
A Whateley Universe story
By Diane Castle
Vanessa took me out on the dance floor, and she showed me that I had no idea how to dance. I mean, I knew ballroom dance, and I knew what ballet steps looked like even if I couldn’t move like that. But Vanessa could dance. She had a grace and fluidity and style that I had no hope of copying. I could have watched her dance like that all night long – I just couldn’t do it myself. She gave me some help at the start of every song, and she pointed out some lame white girls who were doing moves I should avoid. And yet I still felt like I was floundering around like a dorky white guy.
On the upside, my Exemplar stamina was keeping me from wearing out. And I didn’t need to punch guys out to get them to leave us alone.
Oh. at first I was fairly concerned about that part. Guys were watching us. Guys were ogling us. I was fairly sure that a few guys were drooling. There were plenty of guys who thought Vanessa needed to ‘go party’ with them. There were a disgusting number of guys who thought that I needed to ‘go party’ with them. All right, I could see why that was happening, since Vanessa was the hottest woman in the entire club, and I was reluctant to admit it, but I could have been the second hottest in the club even though I was wearing no makeup whatsoever.
And my frostiest ‘go away’ was met with the kind of macho attitude that I didn’t like back when I was Trevor and I never had to endure guys looking at me that way. But I had Vanessa with me.
Vox just voiced them into leaving. Some of them she told to find other girls to hit on. Some of them she told to go home. And, of course, there were a few guys with whom she had to be a little more specific.
There was this one guy, Jake, who looked like he was around eighteen, although he could have been a year or two older or younger. He was handsome. Maybe he was even in the lower Exemplar classes. And he obviously was used to girls melting as soon as he smiled at them. Unfortunately, he would just not take no for an answer, and he had decided that I was going to be his party girl for the evening. Ugh. Even if I were actually female, and if I were attracted to males – which believe me, is never going to happen even if I live to be a thousand – I would not have been attracted to his type. Which was apparently Times New Roman, because he was treating me like he was born a couple thousand years ago. Granted, I had faced weirder things than that in the past year.
Vanessa handled it with aplomb. She simply voiced him. “You just realized she’s too gross to put up with.”
He promptly turned and dragged his wingman off to hit on some other girls.
I complained, “Too gross? Oh thanks, Vanessa.”
She smirked at me. “I was gonna say ‘her perfume makes you sick’ but I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t puke all over us if I did.”
That was when I stopped and thought about how powerful her Siren power was sometimes. “Eww. Good point.”
So we had to put up with guys trying to cut in on the dance floor, and guys trying to buy us drinks – like there was any way in hell I was going to drink something I hadn’t monitored ever since it was opened – and guys trying to lure us upstairs to party with the big boys. There was no question in my mind that the creeps urging us to come upstairs and meet someone ‘famous’ were fully aware that we were both well under twenty-one.
And finally, there was one guy – one sleazy guy who was so fugly I wouldn’t go out with him even I were an ordinary baseline het female of the right age group, who had also had five or six too many vodka shots – who thought both of us would go with him and do him simultaneously. The fact that we were obviously underage, while he was in his late twenties or early thirties, didn’t bother him at all. He just assumed we’d do pretty much anything for free cocaine. What a charmer.
I whispered in Vox’s ear, “Voice him and make him go offer coke for sex to the blonde at the bar. The one in the skimpy red patent leather top.”
She did it, and carefully waited until the guy was over hitting on the blonde. Then she asked, “What’s the deal wit’ that? You pimping out strangers now?”
I smiled evilly. “She’s a cop. Probably vice or narcotics. She’s got a gun and a badge in her purse. I spotted them when we were in the bathroom.”
She began giggling into her hands. “Oh my God, you are so sneaky!”
Sure enough, the blonde led him off to one of the back hallways, and then into the door on the right of the hall. We casually made our way back that way, and didn’t even try to get past the ‘bouncer’ who was blocking the hall. I led Vanessa a little to the right, and into a dark area. Then, while she stood watch, I went light, stuck my head far enough into the wall to hear what was going on, and eavesdropped shamelessly.
I pulled my head back and grinned. “Bingo. Our buddy is now under arrest for possession of an illegal drug and soliciting prost. They’re checking for wants and warrants. Then they’re going to take him to the precinct and see if he also gets charged with using, and if he’s carrying enough to bump the charges up to dealing.”
She grinned, “Man, crimefighting sure is a lot easier when the badguys will go hit on the cops.” I snickered most of the way back to the dance floor.
We got back to the hotel fairly late, so we slept in the next morning. Rather than go tour some museums, Vanessa opted for a leisurely brunch from room service, followed by an afternoon on the beach. And that was awesome, even if I was wearing a tank top and shorts. Vanessa was wearing this incredibly teeny bikini that clearly demonstrated she was the hottest thing for miles around. She wanted me to wear a bikini too, but there was no way. Seriously. No way. Not even when she kissed me to try to persuade me. Not even a bikini top and shorts.
We showered after the beach, and decided on dinner. After my stubbornness about beachwear, I was willing to relent on dinner. She wanted to go to eat at Joe’s Stone Crabs. I had been figuring on dressing up a bit and taking her to the Palme d’Or in the Biltmore Hotel down in Coral Gables. The stone crabs were good, and eating with Vanessa automatically made anyplace better.
We made sure not to overeat, and then we went back to the club. This time, we both had a better idea of what we needed to watch. Or perhaps I should have said ‘who’ we needed to watch. The bouncer at the door and the receptionist just inside seemed to remember us. Or perhaps the bouncer remembered Vanessa, and the receptionist remembered my credit card. I was using one of my ‘Ayla Goodkind’ cards just in case we ended up needing to show our MIDs, and the name Goodkind meant something.
Vanessa wanted to dance, and so we went straight to the dance floor… via the women’s room of course. The skanky blonde was back, this time in a too tight black top that looked like latex, but I didn’t see her and her gun in the ladies’ room. Instead there were two bleached blondes who were giggling about a party of NFL hotshots upstairs. While they took off their panties and stuffed them in their purses. Eww.
We got out on the floor and shook our groove thang. Well, Vanessa shook hers, while I tried not to look too dorky. Even after the lessons of the previous night, I still felt utterly inadequate at the kind of dancing one did in a club like this. It was Saturday night, so the party atmosphere was even worse, and the upstairs areas were being used even more heavily. Or perhaps that was ‘abused’ rather than ‘used’.
This time, we were both better prepared. As soon as guys came over and hit on one of us, Vanessa sweetly turned them down.
“You feel like leaving.”
“You are going to stop asking us to dance.”
“You are going to stop hitting on underage girls because you realize it’s sick and whack.”
She whispered to me, “Ugh, that last guy? I shoulda made him go kiss that bouncer on the mouth. That’d teach him.”
I tried not to laugh, even though I knew that would get us in trouble. People remembered what Vanessa said after her ‘command voice’ wore off.
After we got back to the hotel and showered – separately – we watched a little television in my den area before bedtime. We kissed goodnight, and Vanessa left the room.
But I was hardly in bed before there was a knock on the door. “Ayla? Ayla? Can I change my mind?”
She slipped into my bed and kissed me harder, and I never got around to saying any words on the subject.
We were quite late to the airport the next morning. Fortunately, with private planes you get a lot of leeway, even if your plane is likely to get shifted farther back in the takeoff order. So we got back to Whateley fairly late at night, but I really didn’t mind…
back to Monday, March 5, 2007
I gave Toni a false smile and said as flatly as I could manage, “Miami was nice. Warm and sunny.”
Vox chimed in from behind me, “It was awesome! Best vacay ever!” I hadn’t realized Vanessa had walked in. But if Vanessa was here, then it was inevitable that…
Sharisha grudgingly admitted, “Yeah, she can’t stop talkin’ about the hotel, and the jet, and the restaurants, and the dance club, and friggin’ everything.”
Toni had to ask, “So, how’s our Ayla on the dance floor?”
I groaned, “Just as bad as every dorky white guy you’ve ever seen.”
Vanessa said, “Ayla’s not that bad. Better’n most of the white girls out there, but no Shakira.”
I insisted, “I was bad. Vanessa gave me a ton of help, and I still was lame. Now she was spectacular. The hottest thing in the entire club. Guys were hitting on her all the time.”
She snorted. “Guys were hittin’ on us. Ayla doesn’t want to admit it, but she was the hotness out there. So, the two hottest girls in the entire club, and they’re gettin’ down on the dance floor and they’re obviously inta each other. Every guy in the whole club was wantin’ summa dat.”
I couldn’t help scowling, but I knew she was right. I grumbled, “And plenty of them didn’t care we were underage, and plenty of them weren’t interested in taking no for an answer.”
“You didn’t get in any fights, did you?” Billie asked.
“Me?” I protested. “I don’t start fights!”
Nikki pointed out, “Then this would be the first time you didn’t get into a fight when you went off Whateley grounds since… what? August?”
I glared at her. I just said, “I had a Siren running interference.”
Jade piped up, “Ooh! Did you make ‘em do anything funny? Like wet their pants in front of everybody? Or go give themselves the Don Sebastiano treatment?”
Vox reminded her, “Not a good idea. People remember what I tell them to do.”
Jade asked, “Even if what you tell them to do is not to remember what you told ‘em?”
Vox said, “We tried that one in Sirens class. Didn’t work.”
But Jade was undeterred. “But you could voice ‘em to go do something crazy and then knock themselves out, and the concussion would probably take care of the short term memory issue!”
“Jade!” Billie snapped.
I said, “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Generator is the most dangerous deviser at Whateley.”
“No gentlemen in here ‘cept you, Ayles,” Toni smirked.
“And if she was a gentleman, she wouldn’t be gawkin’ at us when we’re showerin’,” Sharisha pointed out grumpily.
You know, I really hate it when the people who are right about me are my enemies.
Vox wiggled her eyebrows and smirked, “Oh, I dunno about that, Ayla was like a perfect gentleman, what wit’ doing everything I asked…”
I think I managed not to blush, because the things she asked for last night after she slipped into my bed weren’t anybody’s business but ours.
Half the room stared at me and smirked. Nikki, Evvie, Toni, Jade, and even Sharisha did. Damn empaths. Bunny and Rip looked at Nikki’s face and smirked as they said, “Ohhhhh!”
Fortunately, Vox came through with a save right then, because she launched into this story about the penthouse suite, and the room service, and the Versailles Restaurant, and…
She was still chattering away when someone new came flying literally flying into the bathroom. She was flying horizontally, with her arms straight out in front and her hands in fists, which was a good way to crash into someone in a hallway and injure at least one person. She was also nearly naked, and surrounded by a sheer red capsule of energy that trailed off behind her into a faint, rapidly-thinning tail.
“Psst. Who?” I whispered out of the side of my mouth at Toni.
The girl righted herself and landed smoothly on her feet. The red capsule faded out, revealing a busty blonde whose body said ‘twenty-something porn starlet’ while her face said ‘young teens’. So Exemplar and Energizer, at a minimum. Possibly Exemplar and PK brick, or Exemplar and Manifestor, or a few other combinations. Avatar and Wizard seemed unlikely, and there was no sign of any invention. So I was going to go with Exemplar and Energizer.
The girl, who was wearing nothing but a sheer red babydoll nightie with matching sheer red panties, announced to the entire bathroom, “Hi! I’m Bladedancer’s new roommate!”
Toni whispered back, “Cecile.”
‘Cecile’ fisted her hands and put them on her hipbones with her elbows out at the sides. She made sure her feet spread slightly wider than her hips, just as if she had been taking dorkiness lessons from Skyhawk. Then she announced, “I’m the Crimson Comet! But everyone can call me Ceecee when I’m not in uniform.”
Sharisha growled, “Fuckin’ crazy white bitches” and turned away to dry off.
I just said, “It’s a red flag day. You can’t show off your powers outside, or even inside if there are any relatives in the dorm.”
She pouted, “That’s totally not fair!” But she didn’t change her stance.
That was fine with me. She was wearing next to nothing. It was pretty clear from what everyone in the whole bathroom could see that she was all girl. And that she had given herself a Brazilian and done a less than professional job of it. But she was rooming with Chou, so that made her one of us. I was guessing she was still in the ‘I only want to shop at Frederick’s of Hollywood and Victoria’s Secret’ stage of her transformation. I could hardly wait until she met Marty and Elaine, and they started trading fashion tips. That said, she was a dynamite Exemplar blonde with big boobs, so watching her flaunt herself in the bathroom was hardly a hardship.
Of course, everyone else in the bathroom also knew what the room assignment meant. Sharisha suddenly fumed, “Wait! Yer roomin’ with Chou? Oh great, another fuckin’ boybitch!”
Ceecee looked over at Sharisha with obvious confusion written across her pretty face. She asked the room, “Aren’t we all supposed to get along and be friendly? You know, a secret shared is a secret… umm… something?”
Toni and I took ‘Our Friend the Comet’ aside. I whispered, “Chou and Sharisha had a huge fight last fall – with superpowers – and Chou put her in the hospital. So we’re not all one happy family around here. Just leave her alone, and she’ll leave you alone. Probably.”
Toni snorted, “Prob’ly not. Sharisha’s got a mad hate-on for girls like us. But other than her, the rest of the girls on the floor are great. Most of the guys are good, too. Just watch out for Risk and Flux, ‘cause they’ll prank anybody. Same for Belle upstairs.”
“Oh! I met Belle already!” Ceecee proclaimed excitedly. “She gave me my big tour and all.” Then she pouted, “And she played a big prank on me too.” She gave Toni a smile. “Thanks for helping me out!”
Toni mouthed at me, ‘explain later’ and just patted Ceecee on the shoulder before moving over to a sink.
I merely pointed out, “By the way Ceecee, you might want to wear a bathrobe in the halls, since guys live on this floor too. And there might be a father or two helping move kids in today.”
Ceecee grinned, “Nope, I’m the only new girl. Or boy. Or anything. Here, anyway, because I met the other new kids already, and they’re in different dorms.” She paused for a second and looked down at her clothes. Or lack thereof. “But the bathrobe’s a good idea.”
I added, “And a towel. And your bath gear. And whatever else you might want, like toothbrush and toothpaste.”
Bunny said, “Maybe your hairdryer and brushes too.”
Rip asked, “Do you have a bag or a kit for your stuff? They sell ‘em at the school store.”
Ceecee said, “Ooh, I didn’t think about all that. I’ve got a lot more stuff than I used to. And… Oh hey, will they have tampons too?”
Toni said, “Three hundred superpowered girls with superpowered PMS and super-periods? Oh girl, they got everything you need.”
Nikki gently asked, “Have you… had a period yet?”
Ceecee glanced around and then said, “Umm, not yet? I’ve only been a girl for a couple weeks. If I hadn’t busted up a bank robbery they maybe wouldn’t of told mom and dad to send me here.”
Oh shit. First time supers who went ‘superhero’ right after mutant manifestation had painfully high rates of injury, property damage, injury and death of innocent bystanders, and death rates on the bad guys. As I knew from personal experience, since I had wrecked an entire street fighting a supervillain, and I had been lucky I didn’t cripple or kill Sparkler when I finally stopped her. Hell, I was lucky my sister and I hadn’t been killed. And first time supervillains tended to have even worse stats. It was no wonder so many cities wanted the Knights of Purity to back up their SWAT teams.
But Ceecee was still amped about her first foray in crime fighting. It sounded like she hadn’t even done that much damage to the bank or the bank robbers, which was probably a minor miracle. But it was clear from what she wasn’t saying that the police and her parents had been somewhat less than thrilled with her efforts.
She finished up as she finally got into a shower, “So can I eat breakfast with you? Because Bladedancer said you really know a lot about the classes, especially some girl named Phase, and I think she’s gotta be wrong about some of this stuff.”
Nikki just told her to meet up with us outside my room when she was dried off and dressed, and she had her hair all done. Because Ceecee looked like the kind of girl who needed to have her hair done right before she could set foot outside her bedroom, and if she was new at this sort of thing, it would probably take her longer than most real girls would require. Perhaps a lot longer.
It did take a while. I watched Vamp go off to breakfast with Tara and a couple of the upperclassers. I watched Chou go off to breakfast to meet up with Molly and Dorjee. I watched Risk and Flux sneaking around with a video camera to catch peeks of Ceecee flying back and forth from the bathroom wearing only a towel that didn’t hold up to whatever prank they then pulled. That led to a sudden surprised squeal, some male laughter, and a couple red energy blasts that quickly led to a not-quite-manly yelp and some heavy shoes running down the other hall.
When Ceecee finally showed up, properly dressed and coiffed for spring in Los Angeles if not for March around here, her first question wasn’t about Risk and Flux. “How come it’s so much warmer in the bathroom? Back home, our bathroom’s way colder.”
“Well Ceecee, that’s one of the many important things you have ta learn about around here,” began Toni in her attempt at a ‘wise old sage’ voice.
“Along with rules like ‘never listen to Toni’,” added Nikki.
“Or ‘never follow anyone who says I have a cunning plan’,” Hank chipped in.
“And ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia’,” smiled Billie.
“Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” Jade contributed triumphantly.
“Oh! The Princess Bride! I love that movie!” Ceecee smiled. Then she pouted, “My dad hates when I watch it. He says it’s too girly.”
Nikki asked, “How long have you been one of us?” Ceecee looked at Hank and me. Nikki explained patiently, “Yes, Ayla too. And Hank’s one of us, just going in the other direction.”
“Oh. Well, this is Monday, so lemme see…” She started counting on her fingers. “My eyes changed fifteen days ago on a Sunday, and it took me three really sucky days to turn into me, and I felt really rotten the whole time, but then I was okay again Wednesday morning.” She gave everyone a happy smile.
I got the feeling that several of my teammates would have liked to wring Ceecee’s neck at that moment. Nikki had taken roughly a year to change fully, and Jade was still trying to get where she wanted. Toni had gone through months of change while having to share a room with an obnoxious big brother. Hank went through months and months of really uncomfortable changes in front of most of an army base. And, unlike some people I could name, Ceecee had even gotten the change she wanted. She had no idea how lucky she was.
I found I was actually looking forward to being around Alex if it happened to be the moment when Ceecee bounced in and Alex verbally slamdunked her. I think that says something important about me. On the other hand, I refrained from browbeating the girl, despite the intense temptation. On the gripping hand, I did imagine for several seconds the fun of introducing Ceecee to Jadis and Kate.
Thanks to Ceecee’s questions, we managed to stroll off to breakfast without a lot of additional chatter about my experiences over break. Maybe my intense unwillingness to discuss it was a tiny tip-off for the crew. Instead, Ceecee got us started talking about class schedules. Once again, most of the team was taking sixth period aikido, while I was taking it fourth period.
I explained once again, “I don’t have a choice. There’s only one pre-calculus class, and I need to take that.”
Toni shook her head. “No way, you don’t need to take it. You just want to. What you need ta take is aikido with the big girls.”
Hank cleared his throat meaningfully.
Toni smoothly corrected herself. “I mean, with the big girls and boys. You aren’t gettin’ nothin’ out of sparring against Aquerna and Kamuro. Your only chance ta learn how to fight in the big leagues is here. You can take college courses anytime.”
I said, “There are going to be plenty of good opponents for me in fourth period. Just because you’re not in there doesn’t mean there’s no one who’s any good.”
Hank said, “No, I think Miss Motormouth is right.”
He went on, “You need to be sparring against the serious powerhouses around here. You ought to be doing sixth period aikido, and you ought to be in sensei Dennon’s brick class.”
I insisted, “There’s more to life than P.E.”
Of course, my reluctance to take Dennon’s class could also have had something to do with Poise’s comments about the girls having to pass a test where they had to spar while wearing a tight skirt and high heels, and carrying a cup of tea. I really was planning on taking that course, but I was counting on being able to do so after I got my body fixed. Wearing a tux? Not as big a personal problem.
He shook his head. “We’ve got too many heavyweight enemies out there. You need to be preparing for major nastiness. Look at what happened to you against Sparkler because you didn’t know how to fight. Look at what happened to you against Mimeo. Or those demons at Christmas. Or-”
I interrupted, “I see your point. But I can merge academics and self-defense into the same schedule. And pre-calc is important. I can’t take calculus or advanced physics without it. Trust me on this, but business calculus is a joke. I’m interested in studying serious economics and econometrics, and I need a real math background for that.”
Ceecee wondered out loud, “You need calculus for economics? The econ courses I looked at don’t have any kind of math as a pre-req.”
Billie gave her a look. “Home Ec doesn’t count as economics.”
Hank cut into that discussion. “Look, we made a big enough splash in Team Tactics that we got moved into the sim battles. And that’s why we have that appointment down in the holo sims at five this afternoon.”
“CRAP!” I complained. “When did that happen?”
Hank blew out a deep breath. “While you were off partying in Miami, and we were all sitting around helping get Alex ready for spring term classes.”
I checked, “I thought the Whateley guidelines said that teams weren’t eligible for the battle sims unless they had at least one-third sophomores or upperclassmen, and then only on a case-by-case basis.”
Billie muttered, “Technically, Nikki and I are both old enough to count as sophomores. If someone wants to.”
Hank added, ticking courses off on his fingers, “And you placed out of Latin I through III, intro English, and Algebra I and II. Plus Geometry. Then you did more than a full courseload, and you went through all four Accounting courses like they were ‘See Spot Run’. So Admin says they can count you as a sophomore too, if they choose to.”
Ceecee looked at me and gasped, “Wow, she was right, you are a genius at this stuff!”
Several of us were still staring at Hank, so he explained, “I got a complete rundown on your scholastics from them when they told me you were technically one of the ‘sophomores’ on the team. That puts us over the thirty-three percent rule.”
I groaned, “So they’re using semantics and rules-lawyering to get the hot frosh team into the battle sims.”
“Maybe they took some lessons from Loophole!” Jade chirped mischievously.
Toni said, “Well, maybe, if some team smartasses hadn’t figured out three different ways to stomp the snot outta that killer sim in Team Tactics-”
“I told you Radioactive Condor Girl was a brilliant idea!” Jade and Jinn both insisted.
“Pronouns, please?” Nikki groused.
Toni ignored the byplay and continued, “-they wouldn’t have thought we were too cool for school.”
Nikki said, “Well, what did you expect? You don’t get a great big ‘A’ in Team Tactics without getting a bullseye painted on your butt.”
Toni just grinned. “Yeah, about that. Thanks, Ayles.”
I grumbled, “With all the work we did, we should have gotten an A+ in that course.”
Hank said, “You mean with all the extra credit work you turned in.”
I calmly insisted, “I didn’t do any extra credit work that didn’t involve at least half the team.”
Hank rolled his eyes. “No, you just did all the collation, re-structuring, writing, proofreading, and typing.”
“And your point is?”
Toni said, “Give it up, Hunk. Our girl’s happier not lettin’ us screw up her grade point average. Can you imagine what our briefings would’ve looked like if I wrote ‘em? Or Jade?”
Hank said, “I don’t think they were grading on grammar. Or whether we submitted ‘em on electronic letterhead from Hello Kitty.”
“Hey! I only sent those to you once! Well, maybe twice.”
Jinn interrupted, “Four times. Remember the two I sent?”
“Oh yeah,” Jade agreed. “I wasn’t gonna count those.”
I said, “When you guys are done arguing with yourself, I’d like to make a point. I can organize and write a three-page paper in less time than it takes to get all my notes printed off and annotated for someone else to write up. And I would still want to read your paper, edit it, and check the final copy before you sent it off. So figure it would take Toni or Nikki five times longer than I need to write it up, even using my notes, and add in time for the editing cycle, and I think we’re looking at needing eight times as long to do it your way as my way. I’d end up spending at least twice as much time, and I’d be less happy with the outcome.”
Toni groaned, “And what could be less fun than having Ayla leaning over your shoulder correcting your punctuation and complaining about how you organized your discussion?”
“Talking to Jobe?” Jade tried.
“I dunno,” Toni smirked. “Watching that boygirl tryin’ to hide those boobs was pretty damn hysterical for a couple weeks.”
Nikki changed the subject back to the earlier topic. “So what exactly are you taking if you can’t make time for sixth period? Not that I’m complaining. I can’t do it either. I’ve got Hagarty kicking my ass then, which can’t be any less fun than getting thrown around by Hank.”
I said, “AP Physics I, Spanish II, Intro to Magical Concepts-”
“Grimes got Sir Wallace to make me do the TA thing in there. Ugh,” Nikki complained.
“-Aikido II, Physics lab, Pre-calc, plus I’m doing the TA jobs for Accounting I through IV, so that’s my free afternoons Monday through Thursday. And I’m starting weekly lessons with Circe on Saturday afternoons.”
“Overdoin’ the whole school deal, Ayles,” Toni said.
“High school is supposed to be fun, y’know,” Jade insisted.
“I think the operative phrase there is ‘supposed to be’ because if it wasn’t for all of you and Vox, it would be pretty much unbearable,” I admitted.
I really didn’t want to think what things would be like if the highlight of my day was coming back to the room and having to endure more Alex. Even with the might of the Kimbas behind me, I still had regular ‘oh my God it’s a fucking Goodkind’ moments around campus, and that was never going to go away. I was still trying to tone down my attitude, which even people in the Golden Kids thought needed some downward adjustment. That didn’t touch on the humiliating ‘chick with a dick’ problems, because a lot of the guys who didn’t want to hit on me hard because I looked like a hot girl, wanted to hit me hard because I looked like a hot girl. Then there was the whole issue of all the other threats who were trying to kill me or put me in a hospital bed. A lot of the time, I felt like there was a bullseye painted on my back. Or perhaps on my butt.
My life was really a lot better before I turned into an intersexed, mostly-female, widely-hated freakazoid mutant with an unfortunate ancestry and a minimum of security forces around me. Even if it meant that I had my blinders ripped off, so that I had learned the truth about some important aspects of reality.
Ceecee, on the other hand, was busy working the system to do the minimum amount of work in the easiest courses. She was asking, “So which is easiest for science: marine science, earth science, botany, or biology?”
Billie said, “None of the biology or botany classes are on the slacker track, and they’ve got some really amazing biology classes if you have the interest and the aptitude. So if you’re looking for the slide classes, marine science and earth science. But they’re not going to help you for college like normal biology and chem and physics.”
I had somehow managed to forget that Billie was really, really good with biology. Or at least I hadn’t thought about it lately. She was still struggling with math, but she just grokked biology. She had really enjoyed the bio class she had taken fall term, which – from what she had talked about – was mostly grad-level theoretical biology and biochemistry.
Not that Ceecee was interested in details like that. She was still grappling with a new class schedule in a new school with new people. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t really dealt with her own mutant manifestation and her accompanying powers. She had pulled a Toni, though. She had gone from a miserably unhappy ugly duckling to a sparkling swan. A swan with superpowers. I wondered how she was going to deal with plebeian concepts like school and homework.
I wondered how I would have dealt if I hadn’t turned into a freak and my family hadn’t been terrified of me. Would I be another Stormwolf, swaggering around with a stick up my ass? Would I be another Tidewater, busy being a Golden Kid? Would I be another Fantastico, using my money and prestige to hit on every hot woman who crossed my path? Or would I be even worse?
“OOH!” Ceecee’s voice cut through my little fugue. “Wow, it’s even cooler than it was last night!” Ceecee was staring open-mouthed at the Crystal Hall.
I had to admit it. The new Crystal Hall really was improved. Instead of a huge geodesic dome with a single floor and a phenomenal amount of wasted space, it was now the same geodesic dome, but with an additional two levels added. Each new level was still a large disk with a high ceiling, so no one was feeling cramped. The upper two levels didn’t touch the sides of the dome, so there was enough space to fly around the level, if you were so inclined. There were already a couple students who had opted on green flag days to fly up to their level rather than taking the stairs.
Every level had great views. The seniors had re-designed the central waterfall and pools so the system reached up higher than the current top level, and each level had some waterfalls and some pools. Three tall, slender trees rose up through openings in the upper floors. As if that wasn’t enough, the plantings on each level tended to be thematic. There was one elevator, plus a winding staircase that coiled around the central waterfall. There were also two up escalators and two down escalators, a pair on each side of the dome.
The ground floor was a now-larger food area plus the same eating areas. The specialty foods were more separated from the main food lines for a little privacy. The vent-fan area was still there, thank God. All we needed was Killstench or Musk or Miasma turning the entire dome into a toxic waste dump.
Since each level was a little smaller than the level below it, we weren’t actually increasing the seating area by a factor of three, but it was reasonably close since there were no food tables on the upper levels. That meant that there was a lot less crowding, and a massive reduction in tension. Well, anything would have been better than cramming ninety percent of the student body into the Dunn Hall cafeteria three times a day. Not to mention that the food was back to its usual quality.
Once the Alphas announced the re-opening of the Crystal Hall at the end of winter term, the self-proclaimed big cheeses had instantly jockeyed for positions. The Alphas had, of course, taken one of the central tables on the top level, near the uppermost portion of the waterfall. The New Olympians had taken another, on the opposite side of the waterfall. The Golden Kids and the Cape Squad also took tables near the center of the top level, a fact which surprised no one. The rest of the top level was mainly comprised of groups who wanted a nice seat and didn’t feel like fighting for the center of the top level, but were too tough to kick down to a lower floor. Team Kimba was up there, in what I considered to be a primo spot where we had a nice view of the waterfall pools and also of the great outdoors. Hank and I had made sure we were also far enough away from the elevator and the stairs that we would be hard to bushwhack. The Grunts, the Bad Seeds, and the Pan-Asians were on the same level. I thought the Bads showed a great deal of maturity and forethought when they decided to sit out toward the windows, so they didn’t have to put up with the Cape Squad three times a day. I suspected that Jadis had needed to argue with a number of Bad Seeds to get them to see reason.
We could have forced our way closer to the center, but none of us saw the need. And none of us wanted to sit next to the Alphas or the ‘Lympies. It turned out that Venus, Inc. was on our level and had appropriated a table relatively near us, which meant more pulchritude for Hank and me to enjoy. Okay, that was also more pulchritude for Nikki and Toni to enjoy as well, since they were still playing on both sides of the park. Jade didn’t have eyes for anyone other than Stephen, and Billie simply didn’t look at other teenagers – male or female – the way most of us did. I really wished I knew whether that was a sign that she was still a lot more depressed than she wanted to admit, or if it was a sign of something a lot more disturbing, such as the possibility that she wasn’t all that attracted to humans anymore. Outcast Corner was on our level too, but Hank and I had made sure the waterfall was between us and Jericho’s clothing.
The Dragons and the Tigers had both wanted a prestigious spot for their table. They had ended up having a sparring contest during exam week of winter term, because neither wanted to be on the same floor as the other, but neither wanted to be stuck on a lower level than their rivals. The contest was big enough that they had held it in the dojo with sensei Tolman and sensei Ito as judges. Toni and Billie had dragged most of us to see it. I had to admit that I was impressed. There were eleven matches, each of them best two falls out of three. The Dragons had won the contest 6-4, since one match had ended in a double knockout and had been judged a draw. N’Dizi was a gigantic jerk, but he was a tough jerk: even with a still-healing spear puncture through the butt, he won his match against one of the Dragons’ toughest members. The primary consequence of the match was that the Dragons had a table on our level and the Tigers had one only one level down. That worked out well for us. Toni didn’t have to deal with N’Dizi every day, and Chou didn’t have to look at that lamebrain Thunderdrake.
Chou’s team was on the next level down, almost right underneath us, where Team Kimba could lend some subtle tactical assistance, if Team Chou ever called for it. After all, I could dive right through the floor and hurl a couple weapons at any troublemakers, and Fey didn’t even have to do that to lend a helping hand. Then the J-Team could swarm over the edge of the level and inward to help out Team Chou in any of a dozen different bizarre ways, including as a swarm of hornets.
Yeah, Jade had five dozen little plastic hornets with nasty payloads in their stingers, in a plastic box inside her purse of holding. Not that I had needed to deal with the things yet. I just knew about it because she had gone to Bunny for assistance, and Bunny had come to me for a few expensive components. Jade had gotten the idea from one of our sims last term, and had run wild with it. So I knew that anyone might suddenly find a cloud of hornets attacking them with everything from knockout injections to tracking devises.
Knowing Jade as I did, I was sure that someday, some jerk would yank her purse away from her, open it up to look inside, and get a faceful of angry hornet surprise. Hell, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if someday some jerk opened up her purse to look inside and got a faceful of her best mimicry of the facehugger from “Alien”. I was just hoping that a surprise like that didn’t happen while I was eating nearby.
Of course, the Underdogs and the Nerd Herd were down on the bottom level, over where no one could pick on them without obviously going out of their way to do so. The Losers, Horrorshow’s dorky buddies from Emerson dorm, were down there too, as were some of the GSD kids who didn’t want to use the escalators or the elevator.
The Goths were down there too, as were some of the bullies who had been taken down a peg or five over the course of the year. My sources told me that the Capes and the Betas both had made sure that Buster and his buddies knew where they were going to be sitting for the rest of the year. They were just seated as far away from the Underdogs and the Nerd Herd as was feasible. The only potential problem I had heard about – so far – was that Bravo Company was sitting not too far from the bully tables, and Bravo kept trying to lay the verbal smackdown on the ‘known offenders’, warning them in his usual Skyhawk-esque way to straighten up and fly right, or else. Hazard and the other bookies had several lines running on this: how long it would be before there was a mealtime fight between Bravo Company and some of the bullies; who would get hurt; how serious the injuries would be; how much property damage would happen; and even whether a pack of squirrels would get involved. Risk wouldn’t tell me who was betting on the pack of squirrels. He claimed he had no idea.
The middle level held most of the middle of the school’s pecking order. The Beret Mafia was in there, which really pissed Kismet off immensely, but she couldn’t get any support from the rest of the Berets to battle their way up to the top floor. The Whateley Academy Martial Arts Cheerleaders were there, and several of them complained loudly about how unfair that was, every chance they got.
The G.O.B. had been consigned to the middle level; their luster was a bit tarnished now that they had suffered several consecutive failures, all of them on a very public scale. It had consequently impacted the hotness of the dates that Oiler and Minefield could get, and the number of hot girls who would go out with Fantastico. I knew perfectly well that Fantastico was holding most of that against me, and my contacts told me that Minefield was trying to find a way to get back at Aquerna. I wasn’t going to let that happen, even if Anna was still mad at me. But no one who spent time plotting against one of the Underdogs was going to be taken seriously around Whateley. Well, no one who had their big revenge plans scuttled by one Underdog was going to be taken seriously around Whateley.
On the other hand, lots of students just sat where they wanted on the lower two levels and had meals with their friends. The Crystal Hall was large enough that the entire student body could be seated on the bottom level, if chairs and tables were brought down and squeezed in. Vanessa just sat wherever her homeys were sitting, and that seemed to change from day to day. Some of the time, they were up with the Tigers, and some of the time they were over with a bunch of the Dickinson girls, and some of the time they were wherever they could get the most privacy.
By the way, I think that I need special dispensation in order to utter the word ‘homey’ in ordinary conversation. There are plenty of things that Vanessa and Toni say that I am never going to be able to say without looking like the biggest dork since Vanilla Ice.
But some of the students still weren’t using the Crystal Hall. My sources told me that Thuban was still mainly having private meals over in his secret lair in Twain. A number of the devisers and gadgeteers didn’t remember to eat while meals were being served: my sources told me that Anna was occasionally using her highly limited pocket money to buy Hazmat a burger and fries, and she was getting it to go. There were a couple scroungers who ran food for a number of the Workshop kids, tacking on a standard percentage to recoup their investment of time. Some of the Thornies never left their dorm, and the ones who did seemed to cluster off toward one side on the bottom level, where they were out of the way and could be undisturbed. Of course, since Jimmy T and Slab were usually in that group, no one sane was going to go over and pick on them. In fact, the Thornies were more likely to cause some of the problems on that level, particularly when Olympia ate with them. Apparently, she said the phrase “Are you looking at me?” more often than Travis Bickel, with roughly the same consequences, only she yelled it out in Greek. My contacts had informed me that Jimmy T and Slab had already had to separate her and Bravo, along with Bravo’s loony girlfriend Pucelle. Vamp really got under my skin a lot, but she had excellent nicknames for Pucelle, and she traded snarky nicknames with Toni enough that I had heard most of them. My personal favorite so far was “Jeanne d’ork”, but I had a feeling Vamp would come up with more gems before spring term was over.
But all the jockeying for position and the changes in seating options meant that we Kimbas were usually left alone. We didn’t have to look at Jericho’s clothes, and we didn’t have to watch Sara consume a cage full of bunnies, and we didn’t have to put up with annoying twits. We could have a nice, enjoyable meal. Except when my own tablemates were keeping me from enjoying my meal.
We went through the food lines. I was still reminding myself every day to be thankful we weren’t stuck in the dank oubliette that was the Dunn Hall cafeteria, with their hillocks of ort that everyone else was content to eat. I made a small detour past the dairy area to take a plate from Jana. At least Jana was still talking to me. And hopefully not spitting in my food before she brought it out.
The plate held two nice-sized cinnamon rolls. I could tell just by looking that the glaze wasn’t the usual dreadful ‘all sugar all the time’ icing that cinnamon rolls usually wore. I made sure to get a cup of the good coffee, and a bowl of a tasty-looking citrus fusion that a lot of other kids were avoiding because it clearly had two kinds of grapefruit in it. Well, what they didn’t know wasn’t going to hurt them, but it was certainly going to improve my breakfast.
I watched as Ceecee rode up the closer escalator with Nikki. So did most of the other guys and maybe a third of the women. Granted, some of the women were trying to size up the new competition, because it was obvious Ceecee was an Exemplar, and if she was already hanging out with Fey, that apparently put her fairly high up in the Whateley pecking order. Still, Fey wasn’t just a ‘10’, she was the ‘10’, and Ceecee was a good 9.5, even if the Bulgarian judge was giving her a low score for pairing that miniskirt with those heels. Watching them going up an escalator was just one of the pleasures of Whateley.
I made a small detour so I could put a disruption-light hand through Greasy’s recording gear as Peeper tried to get him lined up on Nikki and Ceecee’s buns. As the videocamera started to smoke and sizzle, Peeper turned to glare at Greasy, like the poor guy had done it deliberately. I took advantage of the moment to move around on Peeper’s other side and pass a disruption-light finger through Peeper’s wireless microphone and the recording/editing hardware he had slung over the shoulder closer to me. Then I casually walked off to the escalator while Peeper started banging the mike on Greasy’s shoulder. Like that was going to get it working again.
I rode up to the top level and checked out the place as I walked over to our table. Kodiak was having some sort of discussion with Pyrrhic, while Loophole tried to get everyone to calm down. Imperious was talking with Majestic, and apparently making fun of the Alpha table. Cytherea was sashaying to the New Olympian table while her Toy of the Week carried her tray for her. Jericho was showing off his new shirt, and making most of the Outcasts wince. Diamondback was turning around and facing away from him while she ate, which I supposed was easier to do if you had a serpentine torso. Over by our table, Poise was showing something in a magazine to Lifeline and a couple other Venus Inc. girls. Jade was interested in it too, which was all I needed in order to be sure I would not be interested.
I sat down between Toni and Hank. As soon as I touched the crystal… nothing happened.
Hank murmured, “Don’t bother.” He tilted his head toward our guest. Ceecee was sitting at the table between Nikki and Jade. Unfortunately, Fey had to keep mentally switching the crystal on and off, since Ceecee wanted to keep chatting with everybody, but she hadn’t bothered to touch the crystal.
It wasn’t as if Nikki didn’t do this regularly, since she had to turn off the spell most of the times when people walked over to talk to one of us, but I could see she was getting frustrated. And without the crystal, we had to watch what we said. Okay, we would have had to watch what we said even if we were using the crystal and Ceecee had touched it, since she appeared to have all the discretion of Scrambler on methamphetamines. Not that I had ever seen Scrambler take drugs, or ever come across any suggestion that she did. Word was that some of the speedsters had trouble ever slowing down to normal speeds, so they drugged up just to deal with the rest of the world. Scrambler didn’t appear to be one of them. And from what I had been able to find out, the speedsters who were druggies were usually hitting the downers or pot or designer drugs, not chemicals that made their perceptions worse. One of my sources thought that the reason Bombshell had booted Accelerator out of Elite League was that he used. A lot. Not that booting their speedster out of the team would leave a gaping hole, since a lot of Alpha wannabe’s and Cape wannabe’s were apparently trying to get a slot on that team. And my evaluation from Team Tactics class was that Accelerator was the least useful member of the team, because of his behavior and attitude. That was probably going to be a headache for Team Kimba at some point down the line, particularly if they picked up some of the more dangerous talents as replacements.
I took a slow bite of one of the cinnamon rolls, and managed not to drool on myself. Oh man, those were good. The perfectly-baked dough was rich and buttery and yeasty, and the filling was a deliciously buttery crhme of cinnamon and brown sugar, with just a hint of cardamom. The glaze wasn’t a thick, cloying glob of overly sweet icing. It was a rich cream cheese topping, with just the right amount of vanilla and sugar to make the cinnamon of the rolls really sing in your mouth.
Ceecee looked over and asked Toni, “I didn’t see any cinnamon rolls. How come Ayla has special food? Is she on some kind of fancy diet plan? ‘Cause she totally doesn’t need to be losing more weight.”
Toni grinned at me and said, “Umm, yeah. A diet plan. You could say that.”
I refrained from sighing. “It’s technically not a diet plan. I just…”
Lancer said, “She has such a refined palate that the chefs here use her as an expert taster for the food they fix for the faculty and staff.”
I said, “That’s not strictly correct. I just prefer to eat something other than corndogs and Big Macs.”
Ceecee nodded. “I totally get you. Those Chicken McNuggets are way better, and I like the Quarter Pounders more. Big Macs are so nineties.”
Toni snorted into her milk but somehow kept from making whatever smartass comment she was thinking.
But before I could correct her, Ceecee was off on another tangent. “So anyways the reason why I wanted to sit with Team Kimba today was I wanted to ask you if Chou was right about my classes. She’s telling me I need to take martial arts too, and I just don’t get that. I mean, I’m super-strong! I don’t need P.E.”
Toni said, “I think Chou’s right. And the martial arts they teach are really pretty cool.”
Ceecee pouted, “Superman never takes karate, ya know, he just punches people. Or… hits ‘em with trucks! Hey, can you hit guys with trucks in karate class? ‘Cause that would be my special move. The guy goes hi-ya! And I go ‘TRUCK!’ And the match is over.”
Hank casually asked, “Can you pick up a truck?”
Ceecee frowned, “Well, no, not like a dumptruck.” Then she perked up again. “But I can pick up a compact car.”
Toni patiently said, “Look Ceecee, you’re not the strongest kid at Whateley. So if you want to be a superhero when you grow up, you need to learn how to fight people who are just as strong as you. Or stronger.”
Ceecee insisted, “Hey, that’s what I got my comet-blasts for! And my comet-shield! And my comet-flight! I so don’t need comet-karate too. And anyways, I got regular classes to take like what I’m supposed to be taking this year! I mean, I got signed up for English and pre-algebra and marine science and global studies and Intro to Superpowers with that lab.” She looked around the table. “Because learning about superpowers is really gonna be good when I’m fighting supervillains! But English? And math? Stupid. Maybe global studies can help me, so I’ll know about Karedonia and Interleague and stuff like that.”
I tried again, “Ceecee, there is more to life than fighting badguys. You’ll have to get a job when you grow up.”
“Crimefighter!” she smiled.
“I meant a job that actually pays the rent.”
“Crimefighter on a superteam,” she extrapolated.
“Lots of superteams can’t pay a living wage. You’d still have to have a real job,” I explained.
“I’ll be a model!” she said perkily. I could actually hear the slap as Nikki facepalmed. “Chou said there was a modeling club, I’ll join them too.”
I did my best to let her down gently. “You’re talking about two groups that have a ton of applicants every term. Do you really think you’re better qualified than, say, the top half a dozen people in the entire senior class?”
She pushed out her lower lip as she thought it over for several seconds. “Okay, then I can wait to join when I’m a senior.”
Toni said, “Look Ceecee, martial arts isn’t just a bunch of Bruce Lee wannabe’s screamin’ at each other and breaking boards with their faces. It’s people like Hank and Billie learning how to leverage their powers and be more effective. Most of the big guns in the Cape Squad have had at least a year of martial arts, if not a lot more. Maybe you don’t take aikido this term. But I really think you’d get a lot out of it if you took it next year.”
Hank said, “And you’d not just learn how to fight people stronger than you. You’d learn how people weaker than you might fight you.”
Ceecee shrugged, “How can anybody weaker than me fight me? I’m superstrong, and I got forcefields too!”
I took over. “Hank’s roughly twice as strong as you are. He’s a PK superboy. He can hit you with five tons of force with just his little finger. The lead teacher for the aikido class is a baseline. An old man. He beat Hank on the first day. He used as many tricks as he could, but he still did it. Once. And that’s all that it takes in the real world. If a supervillain uses a couple tricks on you and beats you just once, that may be it. You may end up dead, or too severely injured to play superhero ever again. That’s why this sort of class is important.”
And yes, the pure hypocrisy of my statements, so soon after I refused to switch to sixth period aikido, did in fact leave a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I was ever going to admit it, when Toni was sitting there wearing an enormous, smug smirk.
At any rate, I still thought I could learn as much aikido in fourth period as in sixth period, even if I wasn’t going to be fighting Toni and Hank and Billie. Also, I thought life would be easier if Chou and I didn’t have to spar anytime soon, since people watching us spar would be expecting some anger management issues, and a lot of people would probably be rooting for Chou to slice me up into tiny slivers of sushi.
Okay, if Counterpoint was in fourth period aikido with me, then that was going to be a problem. Even though he was still pretty horribly mangled from his big fight with Jobe and Belphoebe, and whatever Jobe had injected into him was still doing a number on his ability to regenerate. I was anticipating that he wouldn’t be taking any martial arts this term, since he was a lot more likely to be spending most of the term in a hospital bed. Or, if Jobe’s serum did what some of Jobe’s secret formulae could do, Counterpoint might be spending the term in a terrarium. Or a pet bed.
Back in fall term, there had been four periods for the introductory aikido class taught by Tolman and Ito. This term, there were only two classes: fourth period and sixth period. I had a feeling that the Counterpoints of the school would want to move up to sixth period so they could fight the heavy hitters of the freshman class, while everyone else still taking aikido would be in fourth period, so even if Counterpoint did manage to get back on his feet later in the term, I didn’t think he would be my problem. Toni and Chou and Jade’s problem? Unfortunately likely. And it wasn’t as if Sara would just get fed up with him and eat him.
I did try to convince Ceecee to take a better science course than marine science, which was one of the slide courses, along with earth science, which was known around campus as ‘Rocks For Jocks’. But the more Tennyo talked about the biology course she took last term, the more intimidated Ceecee became. Granted, Billie’s class was a really poor example for a high school science course, given that her teacher had been getting them to study some cutting edge research on introns.
Just to make matters worse, Jade started talking about force and power in physics, and how the formulas made no sense for a lot of what she and the J-Team did. That just convinced Ceecee to skip physics and stick with her current schedule. It convinced me that Jade hadn’t been paying attention some of the time in her class, or else was doing a really poor job of explaining how classical physics wasn’t able to explain mutant powers like pattern theory could. Not that I understood pattern theory, or even thought I could learn even the fundamentals of it without years of study. No, that was the kind of work that I hired people to do for me.
Suffice it to say that by the end of breakfast, we hadn’t convinced Ceecee to make any changes whatsoever, except that Jade had convinced Ceecee she could probably wear even higher heels, since she could fly when she wanted to. And Nikki had given up completely on stealth, and had simply turned her crystal off for the morning meal.
Oh, and it turned out that Poise and her friends were focusing on what would be the in colors for fall this year. I suppose someone has to care about that, as long as it isn’t me. If Vanessa wanted to talk about it, I’d point her at Poise. Or Jade. Or Fey. Or even Alex, as long as I didn’t have to sit and chat with her about it.
When Billie finally finished her third tray of breakfast, we all got up. Ceecee was fine with bussing her tray, since she was used to that in school. But she pouted when we had to remind her it was a red flag day so she couldn’t fly over the edge of the level and down to the ground level with her tray. I did notice that she ate a lot more than a fashion-obsesssed teen would normally eat, but she was an Energizer. I figured that it was a relief for her to be able to eat five servings of scrambled eggs and a plate full of Canadian bacon without anyone gaping at her. After all, no one was likely to notice that as long as she was sitting next to Billie and Hank, the human vacuum cleaners. Ceecee had two full plates of food; Billie had three full trays.
Then Ceecee pouted when Jade insisted on taking Billie’s tray too. Toni spotted it before I did, and teased her, “Oh yeah, didn’t anyone mention this yet? The younger roommate has to buss the table for the other roommate. So I guess you’re gonna be bussing Chou’s tray all term long.”
“Oh no! That’s not fair!” Ceecee squeaked.
Jade helpfully added, “Oh yeah, and so every time Molly or Dorjee eats with you guys, you’ll have to buss their trays too.”
“That’s totally not fair!” Ceecee pouted.
Nikki started to tell Ceecee, “Oh, and you’ll probably have to fetch napkins and flatware-”
But Jade lost it. She burst out in a long series of giggles that made Toni snort with laughter too. That made everyone else grin. Except Ceecee, who pouted, “You…. You sneaks!” She paused for a second and checked, “I don’t really have to get Bladedancer’s tray every meal, right?”
“Right,” Hank surrendered. “They were just teasing.”
I supplied, “Jade’s always trying to do stuff for Billie because she feels like she owes Billie a bunch of favors.”
Billie looked over Jade’s head and mouthed to Ceecee, “She really doesn’t owe me anything.”
Jade said, “And this is why I keep my devises going all the time. I really do owe her a ton. And she’s the best roomie ever. And she puts up with me and all my stuff.”
“The J-Team,” I mentioned.
“The J-Team?” Ceecee checked as we went down to the main floor.
“Right,” Toni nodded. “All Jade devises can be grouped together under the collective noun ‘the J-Team’.” She stuck her tongue out at me and said, “See? I did so get something out of that stupid English class.”
I pretended to agree. “Yes, and the collective noun for a group of Jade’s inventions is a ‘wackiness’ of devises.”
We teased each other as we strolled back down the brick path to Poe, pointing out important landmarks, like the snow sculpture of Don Sebastiano getting anally probed with a desk lamp. Whoever had cast magics on that thing had done a great job. It wasn’t showing any signs of melting yet.
So Toni started telling Ceecee stories about Sebastiano. And Toni really is a great storyteller. For a while there, Ceecee was laughing so hard I thought she was going to have to run off the path into the bushes so she didn’t wet herself.
We had just barely gotten back into Poe and watched Ceecee sprint for the half-bath down the hall, when Mrs. Horton caught us in the entryway. “Girls? Hank? Mrs. Carson needs to speak with all of you as soon as you can get over to her office.”
<(Phase) Crap. What is it this time?>
<(Generator) We didn’t do it! And no one can prove it!>
<(Lancer) Phase, are you sure it isn’t something YOU did in Miami?>
<(Phase) We didn’t do anything wrong, and if we had, Carson would be calling me and Vox on the carpet, not all of Team Kimba.>
<(Tennyo) Well, let’s get over there and find out. Keeping her waiting won’t do anyone any good.>
<(Generator) Are you sure we can’t maybe take a nap first? I’ve got some laundry I’ve gotta do…>
<(Lancer) Move out.>
<(Phase) The tunnel. Then we can fly.>
<(Chaka) What makes you think we want to get there early?>
But Billie scooped up Jade and Jinn under her arms and abruptly spun around in mid-air to head for the stairs. Hank grabbed Toni, scooping her up under her back and knees. I looked at Fey, and we flew after our teammates.
It only took us a couple minutes to get through the Hawthorne tunnel and up to Admin. That could have had something to do with the fact that Billie was leading our team through the tunnels, and very few people on campus wanted to have a showdown with Tennyo the Destroyer. Several people simply got out of her way, but two guys just dove to the floor, and a few other people flattened themselves against the walls as if we might attack them if they didn’t clear a path for us.
Have I ever mentioned how much I detest the reputation that Poe has, and the Kimbas in particular? I don’t enjoy being considered crazy, or having people think I surround myself with crazy people. It might help if we weren’t constantly doing crazy things that made the campus gossipnet because they were so much more interesting than anything else going on around the school. But when people talked about the crazies at Poe, Team Kimba tended to be Exhibit A of late.
At least Jade didn’t manage to destroy the entire school with her shoulder angel concept. Although the Halloween disaster was still linked with Team Kimba, since we had been Sara’s ‘bodyguards’ that night. Lots of people assumed – correctly – that we were expecting trouble. The fact that we were only expecting another attack from Nightbane and her pals, and not a massed invasion force, didn’t change a lot of attitudes about us.
I wasn’t surprised to find Hartford sitting at her desk looking surly and glaring at a couple monitors. I was surprised to find Chou patiently sitting in one of the visitors’ chairs. Oh man, I was really hoping this wasn’t about Chou leaving the team.
No, wait. If it wasn’t about that, then it was probably about our latest battle against Darrow and his associates. Or one of the other little disasters into which we had managed to step. Or one of our other supervillain nemeses. Or…
Maybe it would just be about Radioactive Condor Girl.
Hartford seemed to be keeping an eye on us while we waited for Carson to get off her phone. Hartford seemed to have an eye on Chou and me, and I wondered if she was anticipating a fight or at least a little trash-talking. From the headmistress’s office came some indistinct noises. It sounded like Carson was yelling at someone, even if the soundproofing made it hard to make out details.
<(Phase) Fey, can you tap into that?>
<(Fey) They have really good wards up around her office. I can’t make the sounds clear enough to understand.>
<(Generator) Can you pipe them to Bugs so she can record them and run them through some filters later?>
<(Lancer) Too late.>
The sweet sounds of Mrs. Carson yelling at someone other than me had stopped. A red light at the top of Hartford’s deskphone flickered.
Hartford looked at Hank. “You can all go in now.”
Hank managed to smile politely. “Thank you, ma’am.”
We walked in and took up positions. At least, it seemed that way. Hank and I sat front and center. Nikki and Toni flanked us. Chou sat behind us and to my left with Billie. Jade sat next to Jinn behind us and to my right.
I was expecting Mrs. Carson to begin with her usual ‘do you know why you have been summoned’ routine. Instead, she rubbed her palms together as if she was uncomfortable.
“I have some unfortunate news, and I wanted to make sure all of you heard it. I was just notified less than an hour ago about something that happened over three weeks ago, and should have been reported to us promptly. Granted, they had a reason for not telling us at once, but this is a potential problem, and you have the right to know about it.”
Over three weeks ago? That moved it back toward a timeframe when Team Kimba hadn’t been up to much.
She continued, “I suspect that all of you know the Department of Paranormal Affairs took steps against the Berlin MCO office at the end of January.”
Several of us nodded. It wasn’t as if the entire campus hadn’t known. Someone had leaked intel to WARS in time for them to cover the surprise arrests in downtown Berlin, and there had been a number of parties on campus celebrating the event. As far as I had been able to tell, the DPA had been very careful not to leak news of their op ahead of time, since plenty of people in the Justice Department would have ratted them out to the MCO. That meant that the leak had to have come from a mutant-friendly source in the DPA itself, even if I hadn’t been able to find out how high in the chain of command the leak was.
“There were several mutants being held in the MCO security cells at the time. When the DPA finally closed all investigations in the building, they moved the mutants out. The intended destination was the DPA secure facility in Virginia.”
Ooh. I didn’t like the way that last sentence sounded.
“Make and Overclock escaped while in transit.”
Chaka fussed, “Oh come on, how could those two dorks take down a couple men in black and bust loose? Overclock? That tub o’ lard couldn’t take down my Uncle Carl! Heck, he couldn’t take down my Grammy!” She paused as if she were actually thinking it over. “Nah, Uncle Carl would be easier.”
And I realized the sickening truth. I had a sudden impulse to lean forward and bang my forehead on Carson’s desk. I didn’t. I just sighed. I said, “The DPA has special transport vehicles for powered prisoners.”
Fey just looked at me with one eyebrow raised eloquently. “Aaaaaaand?”
I told her, “They’re designed so none of the DPA officers can get hurt in a breakout. They’re… robotic.”
Tennyo actually screeched. “WHAAA?!”
Generator gasped, “What? They put the master computer crackers inside a computer? With wheels?”
Fey groaned, “Goddess! Even Arkham Asylum isn’t that stupid, and they’re in a comic book!”
Lancer pleaded, “Please, tell me our government isn’t really LESS competent than the freaking MCO!”
Generator turned her head and complained, “I told you. You should’ve let me give them super-wedgies!”
Tennyo murmured, “Jade? Totally not helping here.”
Bladedancer took a calming breath and asked, “So. Mrs. Carson. How long can we expect it will be before they attack us again?”