Ayla and the Mad Scientist, chapter 3, by Diane Castle
Mrs. Carson said, “I don’t believe they’ll have the resources, or the inclination. Right now they have to be spending all their time in avoiding legal pursuit.”
Generator turned toward Chou and pushed, “You know, Paige is really cool. I bet if Jet asked her, she’d love to try and track ‘em down and do stuff to their computers!”
I noticed Carson didn’t react to Jade’s comment. And it wasn’t as if Jade had whispered. The entire room had heard her.
Mrs. Carson calmly said, “Ms. Hartford believes that they will be unable to breach the school’s firewalls. If The Palm hasn’t managed, she doubts they can come close. Unless they know any of your real names and are also willing to risk the wrath of the world superhero and supervillain communities, your families…” She looked right at me. “…and your finances should be safe.”
I said, “As far as I have been able to ascertain, the only real name they might know is mine.”
Chaka helpfully added, “And if they go after your fam, those little weasels’ll get just what they deserve.”
Mrs. Carson carefully ignored that comment and asked me, “Do you need to transfer any of your holdings to more secure facilities?”
I replied, “I believe my holdings are as secure as is feasible. While the stock markets are theoretically a point of attack, the cyber-security the government has put in place has stood up to everything short of a Palm attack.”
Mrs. Carson smiled. “Ms. Hartford assures me that the NYSE and the ASE have both been attacked by The Palm, and her countermeasures have been sufficient. So I think we’ll assume Overclock and Make won’t have any success there.”
Chaka just had to check, “And there’s no way those dorks can get in at us here?”
Mrs. Carson gave Toni a very wintry smile. “Amelia Hartford is always eager for old students to come back and… visit her in cyberspace. And she’s always… prepared for visitors.”
I had the feeling that if anyone in the room had been one of the school computer whizzes, there would have been an audible gulp. Then I wondered if there were any of my inventors who needed a subtle hint that playing pranks on the school intranet, even after graduating, might be fraught with peril.
Jericho. I’d better mention something to him. Or maybe Diamondback, since she seemed to monitor his behavior better than he did. Maybe Loophole and Carmen. And Askey. And…
As we left Admin and got far enough away that Hartford couldn’t eavesdrop, Toni hastily asked, “Whadda ya think?”
I surreptitiously glanced around. Several computers were still visible, and I had no doubt that Hartford could capture the webcam atop any of them. Did she have software that could read lips? I wasn’t interested in finding out the hard way.
<(Phase) Security would be good here.>
<(Chaka) Hey, what are Nikki’s crystals for? This stuff!>
<(Phase) Carson didn’t react when Generator suggested cyberwarfare against The Twin Turkeys. She probably has Hartford on the job.>
<(Lancer) She probably can’t keep Hartass OFF the job, given they screwed with her code.>
<(Tennyo) So maybe she’s already hunting down the creeps, even if it might be good for me?>
<(Fey) She took the whole invasion of the sims pretty personally. Her aura really flares every time the subject comes up.>
<(Generator) Oh yeah. She is mucho cheesed off.>
<(Shroud) Lots of anger, some frustration, some embarrassment, a whole rainbow of stuff, but mainly she’s really, really mad.>
<(Chaka) And she’s already on the Dark Side, so we don’t have to worry about where anger leads.>
<(Lancer) Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suff…>
<(Chaka) Man! That is the WORST Bobcat Goldthwaite imitation ever!>
<(Lancer) …ering. Oh never mind.>
<(Phase) You’ve got to be ready to handle the hecklers before you take that comedy routine on the road.> It really wasn’t a very good Yoda imitation.
We took the tunnels back to Poe, only this time we didn’t make everyone dive out of the way. In fact, we said hello to everyone. At least one of us knew every single person we passed. That wasn’t much of a surprise once we got near the Hawthorne tunnel, since we all knew everyone in Poe and most of the people in Hawthorne. I did notice that not very many of the non-Poe people said hello back to me.
Once we got back to our rooms and I checked that Alex wasn’t about to pop in, I called Trin & MacIntyre through our usual blind drops. Once I was through the standard verification suite, one of their staffers came on. “Ms. Goodkind, this is Anne Harris, and we will be recording this for record-keeping and a customer service review to be held in July. Is that acceptable with you?”
She asked, “What may we do for you? Do you need to speak to Ms. Trin or Ms. MacIntyre?”
“No, and I won’t need to speak to one of the senior staff, either. I just wanted to give your agency an alert. Two teenaged mutants, codenames Overclock and Make, were arrested by the MCO in January, and escaped from DPA custody last month, even though their only talents are computer-related. The only two targets they’re likely to attack are Whateley Academy-”
I had to stop for a moment while Ms. Harris had an acute attack of hilarity. I had a feeling she was fully aware of Amelia Hartford’s reputation. Anne finally apologized, “I’m so sorry for interrupting you. It’s just that… well, D33rCr0$$ lives there.”
“How do you spell that?” I checked suspiciously.
“Cap D, three three ar, Cap C, ar zero dollar dollar,” she reeled off.
Deer Cross? Oh. Hart Ford. With dollar signs. Not exactly a subtle pseudonym. Maybe that was her ‘white hat’ pseudonym, as opposed to what she called herself in her black hat and gray hat days. Or maybe she was smart enough to establish herself as D33rCr0$$ the white hat, while simultaneously running ‘black hat’ operations behind the scenes. I wasn’t going to waste my money checking that out, if the entire FBI and NSC hadn’t ever been able to come up with anything that could establish enough probable cause for a search warrant.
I refrained from commenting, and I continued. “The other target they might know to attack would be me. So you’ll want to get MCO and DPA records on these two losers, buff up your computer security as needed, check over mine some more, and one other thing. I would like you to start hunting for these two specific teenaged hackers. It won’t be in the MCO records, but Overclock has a weakness for Mountain Dew and Honey Nut Goodios, while Make prefers Mountain Dew Code Red. I also have some code samples from both of them that your forensic hackers might want to use as templates when they investigate possible Internet sightings.”
“Now that would be very useful, Ms. Goodkind.”
I said, “I’ll email them to your computer security group.”
She made a little ‘hmm’ noise. “Please send them to Carl Watts. Let me send his email address to your phone…”
* * * * *
I spent the rest of the morning dealing with phone calls and emails I hadn’t touched since I left for Miami. There wasn’t anything critical, but there was a lot of chaff to wade through. Plans for meetings for parts of Marvel Entertainment over spring break, drafts of contracts for my inventors, three more documents to run past Diamondback to keep Jericho happy, and a report from Trin & MacIntyre on their first cut for possible hires for a variety of jobs. It was a good thing I had a high reading speed and Exemplar levels of retention, or I would have been working through all that material for a couple weeks.
Alex came in with Tara while I was working. I just waved at them and said, “Sorry, I can’t talk now,” before I went back to the document I was reading. Since I was using my holo-glasses, they couldn’t see anything except a blank screen. I had a pair of ‘sunglasses’ hooked up to the secondary video port of my laptop, and each lens had a tiny prism mounted in the middle. Images displayed at the prisms from the earpieces of the glasses were projected directly into my eyes, so no one but me could see. And I also had some normal vision through the dark glasses, so it was like looking into a really large display screen which was also casting a shadow image of the view behind the screen.
I could still hear Alex rummaging through my pantry. Tara finally whispered, “Are we disturbing her?”
Alex said, “Nah, she’s just really serious about her porn.”
I chose to ignore her. Paying attention to her just encouraged her to keep acting up. I kept working while they popped some popcorn.
Tara finally asked, “Why’d we come in here if we were just getting popcorn?”
Alex said, “Ayla’s popcorn is way better than that dreck in the vending machine downstairs, and her microwave is a lot better than the dorm machine.”
Fortunately, Alex was busy, or she would have put a lot more effort into being annoying and distracting. I think there must have been courses in it in the Boston public school system.
A while later, most of the Kimbas came and dragged me off to lunch, which was a good thing. I was in the zone, and I might have missed lunch before I finished studying all the contracts. I so needed a good PA and a topnotch staff to deal with all these details. A topnotch, trustworthy staff. But I was working on that part too. I just needed some time.
Chaka was going on about her work with Sahar. “I was so close! I could see her Ki movin’, but she just couldn’t get a handle on it. I gotta figure out a way so everyone else can see it movin’ or feel it movin’ or it’s gonna take ‘bout a century to get a normal person ta get that Ki doin’ something icy. Soke’s all ‘do not rush what cannot be hurried’ and all that zen, but it’s not like I got all that long! Semi’s got this term and next year, and then she graduates! How’m I supposed ta teach a lifetime skill in a year and a half? Even ta Sahar?”
I suggested, “Maybe you need to use your Ki skills to make your brain work more efficiently. If Paragons can grok things and counter them, maybe you can use your Ki for the same thing.”
She groaned. “Been there, done that, got the ki-shirt.” Jade and Billie giggled behind us. “I tried that with a couple Paragons on campus, and nada. Zip. Zero. The big goose egg.”
“It didn’t work,” Nikki added.
“That’s what I said!” insisted Toni. “And I hadda put up with Mace hittin’ on me the whole time! They’re not usin’ their Ki at all, and so I couldn’t see how they do it.”
I explained, “I meant that you might be able to work out a way of using your Ki to do something analogous, not that I thought you could do your magic ki-copy trick on them.”
“Yeah, you should just change your name to Mega-Man,” Jade snarked.
“Mega-Woman,” Toni blithely said, easily running with the joke. “Maybe Mega-Sassy-Black-Hottie.”
I just said, “On the other hand, maybe Ito is right and you shouldn’t be trying to rush this. If Sahar wants it badly enough, she can keep working with you on and off for the next decade or two.”
“See?” Nikki said to Toni.
Toni rolled her eyes. “If Ayles is sayin’ it, are you sure you wanna be sayin’ it too? You might end up bein’ Finance Faerie.”
Nikki showed her clear Sidhe superiority and Aunghadhail’s training. She stuck her tongue out at Toni and blew her a raspberry.
Toni cocked her hip and shoulder in a move I couldn’t do if Vanessa coached me for a week. “Homes, I get enuffa that back in the room from Koehnes.”
Nikki archly said, “If you’d stop hunting her down and giving her Ki-assisted finger pokes, she might lay off a bit.”
Toni insisted, “No way. If I let that little brownie start gettin’ what she wants, she’ll just get worse.”
Nikki looked like she was thinking it over for a couple seconds before she finally said, “You may be right.”
“Course I’m right, Kee! That girl is out ta make you get treated like the queen of the whole dorm. And if she ever gets that far, she’ll go for the whole campus,” Toni said.
I rather suspected that Toni was right. It wasn’t as if Sidhe like Koehnes really thought of humans as being all that important, and Koehnes clearly thought Nikki ought to take her rightful place as Queen of the West and Daughter of the Burning Oak, probably with a continent to rule and a house the size of one of the Goodkind estates.
As we walked along the path past Melville and moved down into the bowl of central campus, I spotted some of the Bads and their buds walking down the closer Melville path to get to the Quad. It looked like Jadis was talking to Misty and Kate, while Jobe and Phoebe were having some sort of argument that seemed to involve Jobe’s labcoat and Phoebe’s Whateley uniform skirt. The third drow walking with them was obviously trying to play peacemaker. Thrasher was wheeling his way around them on his skateboard, while Render tried to get the sk8rb0i to stop and listen to something he wanted to say. Phoebe looked our way and pointed at us, and Jobe stopped what she was doing for long enough to see who Phoebe was indicating. She haughtily shrugged us off and went back to her argument.
That just made me think about the last two meetings I had endured with Jobe.
The one in early February had been almost amusing. Jobe had sounded different. Most of the fourteen-year-olds around Whateley were either having their voice change, or had already hit that point. Jobe’s voice had sounded like it had gone a lot higher. And he was trying to pitch it lower, back to his previous annoying tones. My sources around campus had been more than happy to tell me why. It was because ‘he’ was rapidly turning into a ‘she’.
Jobe had been wearing his labcoat like it was a protective breastplate. And he had been wearing sunglasses. Inside. In the windowless underground bio-lab areas. The labcoat had looked oddly padded in front. He had clearly been reaching the point where one didn’t have to look for the obvious; it was nearly unavoidable.
“Jobe, is it true you’ve finished your drow project?” I had asked as casually as I could manage.
He had practically jumped. “Who’s been talking about me?” he had snapped, his voice going even higher.
I had told him, “Almost everyone. The whole campus is talking about a crazy rumor that you finished your drow serum, and then you injected yourself with it, so you’re turning into your own dreamgirl. Most people think you did it on purpose. I think that part’s absurd.”
He had puffed out his once-pathetic chest like he was Stormwolf. “So you recognize the basic manliness that is Jobe Wilkins. Very perspicacious of you.”
I hadn’t told him that I thought he was about as manly as Gotterdammerung. Who was wearing dresses to his classes half the time now. No, I didn’t believe he would deliberately inject himself… because I thought he was a self-centered, arrogant asshole who thought he was due everything. If he had been transgendered to start with, he would have been beating everyone in the face with it, and demanding it as his right. He would have come to Whateley as a girl, since as the crown prince of a country he obviously felt that he could do anything he damned well wanted.
Then I thought about the meeting in his lab at the end of February…
earlier: Monday, February 28
Jobe’s lab deep in the tunnels under Whateley Academy
“Put that down! No, not there! Where it’s supposed to go!” Jobe snapped yet again at Belphoebe
Belphoebe was looking through some of Jobe’s smaller pieces of equipment and moving them to a transport frame on an anti-grav sled. In a fairly good attempt at a posh British accent, she said, “Mater, how can I possibly set up my own lab with the dreck that’s available around here? Do you know what models of PCR analysis systems they think are current around here? It’s a travesty!”
Jobe insisted, “You still can’t have that one. Order your own. Or use the one in our room.”
Jobe turned back to face me. “And I’ll even throw in my lovely daughter over there, if you’ll take her off my hands.”
I carefully said, “No thank you. She’s not a part of the agreement, and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the contract.”
“Yes. Well, that is a concern,” she finally admitted.
Jobe was still trying to revert back to male, and she was still trying to pass herself off as her old male self with some reasonably impressive prosthetics. But there was no hiding those ears, or those gazongas, or those hips. I knew exactly how she felt about being stuck in a female body, so I wasn’t being unkind to her… no matter how tempting it could be.
But here in the privacy of her lab, she was Jobe the Drow. Jet black skin, pure white hair pulled back in a schoolteacher’s bun, bright pink lips that were currently compressed in a moue of frustration at her ‘daughter’ and certain larcenous tendencies that might have been passed down from Belphegor’s thought processes. Or they might be Jobe’s own acquisitive nature when it came to the latest and coolest laboratory hardware. Fortunately, I had yet to be addressed by either of them with regard to any state-of-the-art equipment made by Goodkind Biomedical… assuming either of them even considered Goodkind Biomedical’s equipment to be state of the art, given the kinds of gear to be found around here.
I stopped and thought for a second. Did people have this much trouble with pronouns for me? I decided I would stick with ‘he’ for Jobe and ‘she for Belphoebe, at least when I was talking to either of them. They would both be happier that way.
I also wasn’t going to point out that Jobe was now quite attractive in an exotic way, or that Jobe’s old looks were only attractive if compared to a naked mole rat. Although naked mole rats had a better chin than he used to possess. Now, if Jobe used that artificial skin and then tugged on a wig to hide her hair and pinnae, she would probably hate how attractive she would look. Instead, she had spent weeks trying to pass as Jobe The Dude: she applied really ugly prostheses for her nose and chin, strapped down those hooters, used a prosthetic to change the shape of her torso, and pretended she looked like a normal guy again. She hadn’t really looked like the old Jobe when she had been pulling that ruse.
Meanwhile, thanks primarily to Peeper, the entire campus knew how Jobe looked. There was no fixing the PR issue that Peeper had gone public with the information on WARS while drooling over Jobe’s looks and doing everything short of actually whacking off to a picture of Jobe.
Come to think of it, Peeper probably has that Sierra Club poster of Fey and a blown-up photo of new Jobe side by side on the wall beside his bed. Ick.
I put the hideous notion out of my head and got back to business. “Are you happy with the contract?”
Jobe pouted those pink lips and thought it over, even though she already had an answer. She wouldn’t have called me down to her lab if she weren’t satisfied with the contract. “I assume you’re looking for some perk out of this?”
I shook my head no. “I just want to make sure you’re fully on board with this. No minor reservations, no clauses you still suspect, none of that.” She gave me one raised eyebrow, so I continued, “I like everything in the contract, and I would feel better if I felt confident that you do too.”
“I wouldn’t have called you down here if I weren’t,” she said imperiously.
That was what I wanted her to say out loud. “Good. Now if only our contract team were happy campers. Jadis is still not talking to me.” And that bothered me a lot more than I was willing to admit.
She shrugged, setting off some interesting jiggling. She really needed a bra under that top and labcoat. “Jads will get over it. She always does. She likes me too much to hold a grudge for more than a couple days. She’s still waiting for me to change myself back to my original manly self.”
Wow, the peaks of self-deception here were so monumentally high that they were probably extending out of the stratosphere far enough to threaten passing GPS satellites. On the other hand, Jadis was probably the only female not related to Jobe who tolerated her at all, so Crown Princess Jobe was no doubt re-interpreting that as she saw fit.
“And you reviewed every clause in the contract with a reputable lawyer?” I checked.
“Obviously,” she said in her most scathing tones. Frankly, the new Jobe was much better at ‘scathing’ than the old Jobe, largely because the nasal whininess was gone and the irritating voice had been replaced by a sexy contralto.
I said, “Good, because those special clauses where I get to buy out your dad’s businesses at one cent on the dollar were hard to slip past Nephandus.”
“Oh hah hah,” she sneered.
Belphoebe purred, “I thought it was amusing. Oh, the look in your eyes!”
I admitted, “Look, I just want this to go well. I want you to trust me, at least as far as the contract extends. And I want to feel good about what you’re developing. If we can make this a win-win situation, I’m happy.”
Jobe rolled her eyes and said, “I’m going to trust you as far as the contract goes, because several people who aren’t completely naïve morons vouched for you. So let’s get to work. I have some important tRNA research I don’t want to impact.”
“What do you need from me?” I asked. I was hoping it was nothing invasive, but I wasn’t going to protest unless he asked for something completely unreasonable, like bone marrow samples or samples from my cerebellum. Okay, right then I was seriously considering giving up some bone marrow samples if it would get me back to a male body.
She pointed at a surgical tray on the table. “Nothing much. A blood sample, a cheek scraping, and a couple scans.”
Belphoebe took the blood samples from my forearm while Jobe took the scraping from the inside of my cheek. Then I had to strip naked to stand in the scanner. At least it wasn’t an enclosed bed like a typical hospital MRI system. It was a circular platform with a matching eight-foot ceiling and four devise-studded poles set equiangularly around the platform.
Jobe and Belphoebe watched several monitors while the system did what I assumed were several distinct scans. That was a guess on my part, and I didn’t ask Jobe for elucidation. But I could see the devises light up in sequence. The lights went all the way down to the platform and then back up. There was a pause for several seconds, and then the whole process repeated twice more. So I was assuming I had seen three separate scans.
But Jobe wanted to do more scanning. I had to go light while he did two more scans, and then go heavy while he did yet more scans.
When Belphoebe brought my clothes over to me, she looked toward Jobe and said, “Well, she certainly is better… developed than the Pater.”
I refrained from saying anything, since I didn’t know her stance on her ‘father figure’. Jobe didn’t feel so limited. He said, “Gerbils are better hung than Bel-Fatso.”
Belphoebe giggled, so I assumed she wasn’t a huge fan of the guy, either.
As I got dressed again, I nodded, “Great. If you need anything else, just let me know.”
Jobe just glared at me. “Why would I need anything else that I didn’t already plan for? That would be short-sighted and moronic.”
back to Monday, March 5, 2007
Nikki looked over at the three Drows and growled, “Ugh. It wasn’t bad enough he turned himself into a travesty of the Sidhe, then he got Belphoebe, and now he’s turned Bova into another one. This has to stop.”
I wasn’t exactly a member of the Jobe Wilkins Fan Club, but I still pointed out, “He didn’t create Belphoebe, he just created the serum. Belphegor stole some of the serum and Drow’ed up a cloned body. Jobe just got stuck with the consequences.”
Fey glared at me, letting Aunghadhail out a bit. “But she’s going to make more! Have you seen the application form?”
“Actually, yes,” I admitted. “She has an ego the size of Los Angeles.”
Chaka groaned, “She really thinks girls are gonna want to get all Drow’ed up just to hang with the Jobemeister.”
“Maybe that’s the Jobemeistress these days,” smirked Jade.
“Your German is dreadful,” I chipped in.
“Frau Jobella,” contributed Tennyo. Jade snorted in amusement.
“It’s not funny,” Nikki avowed. “It’s sick!”
I said, “There is something seriously wrong with an essay contest to get turned into a black elf.”
Toni added, “Who just might kick the bucket during the whole transformation sequence.”
Jade mischievously asked, “You mean they don’t just lose their clothes and magically change and get sparkly new outfits? With a magic staff?” Nikki just glared at her. “Okay, okay, I know it’s not that kind of transformation sequence. Can’t anybody take a joke anymore?”
“I thought it was funny,” said Billie.
Toni looked at Nikki. “Okay, were you able to help Bova?”
Nikki’s shoulders slumped. “No, and I really tried. So did Prism. And Cascade, I didn’t think the Dragons would be nice about Bova, but they had her give it a try. And Caduceus has been working with her. Banned Aids even went over and gave it a shot. And I think they brought in Jericho to see if one of his medical devises might help. But we all knew if they couldn’t stop her disease, she’d…” Nikki closed her eyes and shuddered for a second. “Imagine turning into a cow. Really, really slowly, so you know your body is doing really gross stuff, and you can tell when your brain starts doing freaky cow-like things. And you can read the minds of everyone around you while they yuck it up at your expense, or while they pity you.”
Toni pushed a little harder. “So… if Jobe was maybe the only one who could save her, and it just turned her into a sexy dark elf, are you gonna complain?”
Jade chipped in, “She is pretty cute. There’s no way you’d guess she used to be Bova just like a week or two ago.”
That was certainly true. Bova had been over three hundred pounds, and blatantly bovine. Now she was petite and pixie-ish. And happy. There was no mistaking that, even at this distance. She had been a hideous, lumbering monstrosity living under a death sentence, and now she was alive and healthy and beautiful and petite.
I could actually see as Nikki and Aunghadhail took turns controlling her body as they thought it over. Her posture and her expression would change. She would go from teen girl to experienced queen and back. It was even weirder when she was sitting in a chair, because Aunghadhail sat so formally, and Nikki tended to sit in this relaxed, sexy pose that made me think of Catwoman.
Finally, Nikki said, “No, we would be willing to give Jobe a pass for Bova. She’s a nice girl who didn’t deserve this. We wouldn’t condemn a girl to death for this.”
I asked, “What about Freight Train?”
Nikki glared at me. “Don’t tell me…”
I nodded. “Yup. She saw how Bova came out, and she talked Jobe into giving her the serum. My sources tell me she got the injections only a couple hours before Carson came back from a couple days off and instantly went ballistic on Jobe and Belphoebe when she heard. Freight Train’s already changing, just more slowly than Bova.”
Billie complained, “Why’d she want it? She was just… well, kind of huge… and not real feminine, and her face was sort of guy-like… and…”
I interrupted, “There’s more than one reason she named herself Freight Train.” I had made a short list of girls who might be so horrified by their appearance that they would try anything, even if it meant a risk of death, or having to hang out with Jobe for the rest of their lives. But Freight Train hadn’t even made my Top Thirty. So, while I had spent too much time making sure people I knew, like Phobos and Diamondback and Puppet, wouldn’t do something so insane, I had missed the girls who were human-looking but not ‘conventionally attractive’.
Toni got one of her sneaky leopard grins. “So… what about Puppet? She’s trapped in that room maybe forever, and Cantrel says it’s only a matter of time before some more of her organs crap out. And they can’t put transplants in her. Or even the artificial gadgeteer organs they got. Her blood eats that stuff up in no time.”
Before Nikki could answer, I cut in. “No way. Jobe is not messing with my family. We’ll find something to help Melissa without her getting turned into Jobe’s girlfriend permanently.”
Nikki – and this time it really was Nikki, and not Fey with Aunghadhail riding on her shoulder – said, “I’ll agree with Richie Rich. There has to be something better than the Drow serum for Puppet. It’s not like she’s going to die tomorrow if she doesn’t get it.”
Jade teased, “Ooh, you agreed with Ayla last week too. Is this a trend?”
Billie asked, “So how is Puppet doing?”
I shrugged. “I can’t get much out of her these days. I’m not allowed to go over to Hawthorne in person, and videoconferencing isn’t really the same as being there in person. Plus, she’s pissed at me for getting blackballed from Hawthorne, because the only non-Thornies who have been in to visit her since then are Billie and Harvey. And Sara creeps her out when she visits.”
Jade gave Billie a way-to-go hug.
“Harvey? You mean Mega-Death?” Toni checked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Last term, he headed a team that built a new system for her. She’s having almost no leaks now, and it’s working better, and it has fewer side effects.”
“Side effects?” Jade wondered.
“Yeah, side effects,” I said. “The old system was a piston pump system that made her and her tubing constantly rock back and forth like she was sitting in a wave pool.”
Toni asked, “Someone was willing to work with Mega-Death?”
I grinned, “Someone wasn’t given a choice. Workshop winter term class projects. Hazmat and Ergonomic got assigned to work with him. The rest of the class managed to grab onto each other for safety, and they were the unlucky ‘volunteers’. But he didn’t have any drick-outs on the project, and they did so well Mrs. Cantrel invited them to come back and take a crack at someone else’s equipment.”
“The Good Thorne-keeping Seal of Approval,” Toni joked.
I continued, “They built a Halon system for Frostbite so she doesn’t have a water-based fire control system in her room anymore. And it’s not a hundred percent breathable, but it’s a Halon variant that won’t hurt her, even if she inhales it for a minute or two.”
“Wow, that sounds pretty fly,” Toni murmured. “What next? The Foob’s pumps?”
I said, “Cantrel gave them a list. Static Girl, Olympia, Antenna, Plasmoid, Musk, Screech, and five other students are ahead of Louis on it. Not that we’re supposed to know about that. But Harvey thinks that with some luck he might get all the way down to Fubar on the list by next spring, unless fall term adds too many new kids who have needs more pressing than Fubar’s.”
“Did Mega-Death show you the list?” Nikki asked.
“No, but he couldn’t exactly claim it was wrong when I asked him about it.”
Toni smirked, “And it ain’t like that boy’s got a poker face. I could make a fortune playin’ cards against him.”
I pointed out, “You could make a fortune playing cards against pretty much anybody.” But she was right. The look on Harvey’s face when I had showed him the list had been all the confirmation I needed.
When we reached the food lines in the Crystal Hall, I saw Jana casually keeping an eye out for me, and I knew that it was a good thing my friends had dragged me down here. I took the time to prepare a nice salad with a decent vinaigrette dressing, before I strolled over to see what the chefs had for me.
Man, was I glad the chefs weren’t mad at me about Chou. That would have been really inconvenient. I wasn’t sure why Jana wasn’t mad at me when a lot of her housemates were, but I wasn’t going to look a gift centaur in the mouth.
It wasn’t a hamburger. It was a gorgeous Portobello mushroom in between warm halves of a whole grain cottage roll. I hurried up to our table and took a bite before I began studying it.
Mmmm. The bun was still fresh, and then lightly grilled. The dressing was a scrumptious pesto mayonnaise with hints of black and red pepper. The pesto in the mixture had just the right amount of pine nuts to accompany the earthy richness of the mushroom. The grilled mushroom tasted like it had been grilled using a really top quality olive oil. I could just smell the olive richness atop the meaty earthiness of the mushroom. There were strips of grilled already-roasted red peppers too, and fresh leaves of arugula. A nice slice of provolone cheese topped the mushroom and was just melted enough to gracefully accompany the rest of the burger.
“Foodgasm alert!” Toni warned the whole table.
“We already noticed the drooling,” Nikki helpfully supplied.
“And the mmmm-ing,” Jade added.
“Probably has weird stuff in it, like that poison endive,” Toni said, in an obvious effort to get me to give her a bite.
I gave her a smug smile. “This has arugula on top of a big mushroom.”
“Ooh!” Nikki practically squeaked. “More Portobello mushroom burgers? They’re always so good!”
I deliberately cut a wedge out of my burger and carefully placed it on her plate.
Nikki stared at it, looked at her soup and salad, and finally caved in. “Oh what the heck, it won’t be good if I let it get cold.” She snarfed it down in two inelegant bites.
I helpfully added, “Plus, if you looked away for more than a second, Toni might swipe and eat it.”
“Mmm mmm-mn mmp!” she said back. She swallowed. “It’s really good. What’s in the secret sauce?”
I told her, “Part good quality pesto, part homemade mayonnaise. More pesto than mayo. Some fresh-ground pepper for seasoning.”
She cutely wrinkled her nose. “Would it work with store-bought pesto and mayonnaise?”
I shrugged. “Sort of. It wouldn’t be as good. The quality of the final product is affected a lot by the quality of the ingredients.”
“How about specialty store pesto and mayo?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t know the quality you’d find, but some stores carry really high end products.”
Toni pointed out, “Just remember. Ayla’s idea of ‘high end product’ probably isn’t what you’re thinkin’ of.”
Nikki sighed, “Yeah, I’m thinking of a jar of pesto that costs like ten bucks, and she’s probably thinking of a jar of pesto that costs a hundred bucks.”
Billie teased, “So you’re pretty close, by Ayla’s standards on money.” Then she went back to her trayful of over-stacked cheeseburgers.
Is a cheeseburger supposed to be taller than it is wide? Oh well, I didn’t have to eat the things. It looked like every cheeseburger had about seven hamburger patties and fourteen slices of some oozing orange cheese-like substance. Sometimes I wondered how her parents planned to keep her fed over the summer. Maybe cattle rustling. Her mom could probably use those Energizer powers to roast the cows whole.
Toni opted out of trying a bite of my mushroom ‘burger’. She had two reasonably sized cheeseburgers and some healthy side dishes, which was not what most people had on their plates. Most of the room had burgers and fries or onion rings. Or burgers with fries and some onion rings stuck in the bun with the meat. Is this a new food trend I somehow overlooked? I mean, I can see a burger with well-prepared onions on it. Even raw onions, if they’re of a decent quality. Greasy onion rings atop a greasy burger? That didn’t sound so appetizing to me, although it struck me that a properly prepared onion ring could make an interesting accompaniment for a less grease-loaded burger. Maybe buffalo or beefalo meat to handle the fat content without losing the meaty flavor. No, Toni had a salad, a serving of peas and carrots, and a fruit cup. Plus a big vanilla milkshake. With whipped cream on top. Granted, she needed the calories, given the way she worked out every day. It wasn’t as if she were in danger of turning into a butterball anytime soon.
As I walked across the level to go buss my tray, I spotted a hand signal from Jadis, so I casually strolled over to visit the Bad Seeds.
I smiled at everyone. “Good afternoon. So where is my ever-charming roommate?”
Nacht said flatly, “We had a complaint from Michael Jackson’s lawyers about the whole ‘ebony and ivory’ deal.”
Belphoebe said, “It was funny the first time. It’s getting old now.”
Nacht gave her a raised eyebrow and a stare that Wednesday Addams would kill for. “You think Vamp would have told Phase?”
Jadis said, “I doubt Vamp would tell Phase the room was on fire. They seem to be at loggerheads.”
I said, “We just happen to have a demilitarized zone, which is all known space between the two of us.”
Jobe said, “Oddly enough, that wasn’t why I wanted you to come over.”
For once, I was glad of her – his – complete lack of tact and empathy. I replied, “I didn’t think so.” Then I looked past him/her and said to the pretty little pixie sitting between Jobe and Belphoebe, “Bova. I’m glad to see you’re doing so well. Any side effects or complications?”
Jobe muttered, “Side effects? Complications? As if!”
Bova gave me a big, cheerful smile. “None! This is… awesome!”
I smiled back. “Good. A number of people were worried about your illness. To what are you going to change your codename? I could lend a hand if there’s any problems with the process.”
Jadis carefully cleared her throat, pointedly reminding me that my bureaucratic expertise was not going to be needed when the full power of the Bad Seeds was available.
She said, “I’ve decided not to change it. I know it doesn’t really fit now, but it’s meaningful for me. At least for me, it’s going to be a reminder about everyone who ever became a mutant and died of one form of GSD or another. Because I know I was incredibly lucky.”
“Because she was fortunate enough to come to my attention at the right moment,” Jobe said in what she clearly thought was a modest comment.
“Absolutely,” I said with a completely straight face. I looked at her and asked, “How is Freight Train doing?”
Belphoebe jumped in. “She’s doing quite well. Clearly within tolerances for optimal cellular transformation, and her neurotransmitters in her synaptic vesicles are looking very good. She’s just changing more slowly than Bova did.”
I checked, “But you’re not going to change anyone else, right?”
Jobe rolled her eyes. “The headmistress was obsessing about that just this weekend. You’d think we were testing Ebola vaccines on the student body. And there are so many girls I could help with this serum. I still think Jadis would benefit enormously. Just look at her.”
“Jobe, shut up,” three different Bads said simultaneously.
“You see? This is the appreciation that befalls the most far-sighted men of science,” she complained. Now that she wasn’t in his old body, it was much less nasal. Not that it wasn’t still annoying and supercilious. It was just that a hot babe can get away with the snotty replies a lot more readily than a wimpy weasel with obvious delusions of grandeur.
Jobe went on, “But that’s the point I wanted to discuss. I’ve had a small breakthrough on your little problem, and I believe I’ll have stage 1 and 2 testing complete by Thursday. So I’d like to schedule your injection for Friday morning. Can you be at my lab before first period?”
Holy crap, she had a success in about a week. One lousy week! With that kind of genius, maybe she had a right to be this rude and superior. I asked, “Would you prefer before or after breakfast?”
“Before would be fine.”
I gave her a smile. “Great. I’ll see you then.”
I think I managed to walk off as if nothing were going on. Even though I felt like jumping up and down like some of the more manic dancers at that club in Miami.
I caught up with the gang and walked back to Poe with them, but I didn’t bring up my arrangement with Jobe. Everyone on the team had already made their feelings known on the subject. They ranged from ‘you must be crazy’ all the way to ‘you are so whack even Jade wouldn’t do this shit’.
Once I got to my room, I checked that Alex wasn’t around. Then I walked down the hall until I was in the right spot. I checked again to make sure no one was around, and I walked through the wall.
Chou looked up from her desk. “Hi, Ayla. What can I do for you?”
I said, “I just wanted to remind you about the meeting at two.”
She nodded carefully. “I think… that you need to have this meeting without me. If anything important comes up, you can let me know later.”
I checked, “Did you find out anything new?”
She shook her head sadly. “I am sorry, but I have not come up with anything since the last time we talked. I wish I could say I knew more, but…”
“It’s okay,” I assured her. “This sort of investigative work usually goes extremely slowly, except for the occasional information spike when a puzzle piece comes in that’s just what you need. Then you make a big leap forward, after which you go back to the same plodding efforts.”
She smiled sadly, “You make it sound so… exciting.”
I sighed, “I only know what it’s like at my level, and even then I only know about specific investigations. It’s not like a Sam Spade novel.”
“So I don’t have to dress in a cheongsam and be the femme fatale?” she grinned.
“And I don’t have to get beaten up half a dozen times every book,” I added.
She smiled sadly. “I miss having you as a roommate. Ceecee is just so…”
“Happy? Overjoyed? Wacky? Impetuous?” I tried.
“Hmm… I would say ‘inconsiderate’ if I had to. She just doesn’t understand like you do. And she doesn’t listen, either.”
I nodded. “At least you’re not stuck with Vamp. I was hoping you’d get someone good.”
“Thank you, but I… Uh-oh,” she muttered as someone stopped outside her door.
I went light and dove through the floor where it met her outer wall. I flew through the outer wall of the building without hitting a power line, and I hastily dove back into the building so I re-entered through the kitchen window. No one was looking, so I landed quietly on the kitchen floor and took the time to go get some more of my snacks to refill my pantry. Vamp had the appetite of an Energizer, and so I needed a pantry and refrigerator five or six times the size – or a really strong lock. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the room. I made a mental note to ask Möbius if he had that one-foot-cube storage closet ready yet.
I brewed some of the good coffee, popped some popcorn, pulled out some other snacks, and generally prepared for the incoming horde. Nikki dropped by about ten minutes early to start preparation on the magical eavesdropping. And for other reasons.
She sniffed the air. “Is that the… good coffee?”
I nodded. “Got your mug?”
She rushed back to her room and came back with her largest mug and a small carton of skim milk. She held out her mug and grinned, “Please sir, may I have some more?”
“Anyone who quotes Dickens automatically gets refills,” I said.
“Even if I learned it from a musical on teevee?” she checked winsomely.
“Well, I knew it was from another source, because the quote wasn’t quite right. What he actually said was ‘Please sir, I want some more.’ No polite request.”
She said, “You know, ordinary people can’t quote Dickens and Shakespeare and everything.”
Says the uber-mage with an ancient Sidhe in her head. I asked, “Are any of us ordinary people?”
She thought about it for a few seconds. She finally said, “Even the baselines in Security aren’t ordinary people. Maybe a couple of the Underdogs are basically still ordinary people, but even guys like Stalwart have been changed because they have a superpower.”
I thought about what I knew about Jade’s life before she manifested. And Toni’s. “At least for some people, it was a change for the better.”
She frowned. “And for a lot of people, it wasn’t.” She looked right at me. I tried to keep my expression neutral, but that wasn’t particularly useful against a powerful empath.
On the other hand, being with a powerful empath meant that she could tell I didn’t want to talk about how my once-perfect life had been folded, spindled, and mutilated, before being coated in a ganache of suck and then lovingly frosted in humiliation. She set her mug down and said, “Let me get started, so we’re all ready when the locusts descend.”
“Which reminds me,” I said. “Would you like some Brie? While it still exists outside Billie’s stomach?”
“Eww, thank you for that lovely image,” she said. But she sliced some of the Brie and ate it on one of the crackers.
Her eyes fluttered closed and she purred, “Mmm, this Brie is like the best Brie ever. Where’d you get it?” I opened my mouth and she held out a hand. “No wait, don’t tell me. I won’t be able to afford it anyway. And it’s probably a super-special brand made by the Brie-masters of some little cheese monastery in France.”
She wasn’t that far off. I shrugged casually. “Then eat five or six slices of this while you’re doing the preparations. I won’t tell.”
“Won’t tell what?” Toni asked as she bopped into the room.
“I won’t tell you that Nikki’s thinking of replacing her roommate,” I lied. Of course, I knew that Toni could tell just by looking at my Ki that I was making it up. “Vamp’s available. I’ll trade her for… oh… how about some pocket lint?”
Nikki casually said, “Oh, I don’t need someone like Vamp. I’d settle for less. You know, even a roommate like Fractious would be an improvement over Toni.”
Toni laughed and stuck her tongue out at us. I didn’t say anything, because it occurred to me that Nikki might be the perfect roommate for Fractious. Koehnes would keep the room clean enough even for someone with OCD, and Nikki could charm the room to hold up to one of Fractious’ freakouts. And if Fractious didn’t have to worry about cleanliness issues, she would probably be a decent roommate. Plus, Nikki could take care of Risk and Flux as soon as they started playing pranks on Fractious, which was probably inevitable around here.
I asked, “If you had a roommate like Static Girl, could you pull off her energy and use it like lightning for an Essence source?”
She froze for a second and then said, “Ooh, that could be a cool idea! I’ll drop by and see if I can visit her without an insulated suit.”
Toni asked, “So Ayles, how come you don’t drop by ‘Thorne anymore? Antenna mentioned you don’t go hang with him.”
“Slab and Jimmy T paid me a visit. Didn’t I tell you this? I’m blackballed. I’m not allowed to go visit anyone over there.”
Toni slapped her forehead. “Crap, is this still the Chou thing? What is it with those boneheads? We told ‘em it wasn’t your fault, it was a team thing.”
I told her, “I think they need someone to blame for something they see as blatantly unfair. And everyone knows I rule the Kimbas with an iron first.”
“In an adamantium glove,” Toni joked.
Nikki said, “I still don’t get why everyone wants to believe you’re behind Team Kimba.”
I pointed out, “Why else would we have a team on day one? Everyone knows we had the team pulled together before Ninja Night. And we just happen to be a team that’s effective. Really, really effective. Most people figure that indicates planning and personnel selection. That spells ‘Goodkind’ to most of the campus.”
Toni added, “And it’s not like we can up and spill the whole ‘used ta be the other sex’ thang, so why else would we be in Ayles’ superteam?”
I contributed, “I also heard that I made you guys accept the name Team Kimba as a loyalty test, because everyone knows a Goodkind wouldn’t put up with a name like that unless I chose to. And it’s obscure enough that people are figuring I must have been the one to dredge up the name.”
Nikki took another bite of Brie and grinned, “I guess they don’t know Jade very well.”
In my best ‘spooky announcer’ tones I said, “Those who do usually run away gibbering in terror, with blood pouring from their eyes and ears.”
In a much better imitation, Toni intoned, “The fortunate ones are found and locked away where they can’t hurt themselves. After years of shock therapy-”
“Involving repeated exposure to Jericho’s clothing choices,” Nikki interrupted.
“-they may be fit once again for society,” Toni wrapped up.
There was a knock on my doorframe. Sam stuck her head in and asked, “Am I early again?”
I waved her in and remembered the last meeting in my room with Samantha Everheart.
earlier: Sunday, February 4, 3 pm
Chou was brewing up some of her special tea, while I microwaved five large bags of popcorn and put out some assorted other snacks on a serving tray. Hank had already come in. He had politely asked if there was anything he could do to help, and I had admitted that the room was just too small to have three people trying to do food prep around my pantry-fridge stack. So he staked out his favorite beanbag chair on the floor and watched us.
There was a knock on the doorframe, and I looked over. It was Sam Everheart. She looked around the room and asked, “Am I too early? And is this going to be big enough for the meeting?”
I waved her in. “No, you’re not early. The rest of the team is late. And you’ll be surprised at how easily the team squeezes in. So grab a seat anywhere. Hammock, bed, chair, beanbag, whatever.”
“What’s left?” she asked carefully.
Hank supplied, “Billie and Jinn usually don’t sit. They just float around the room. Sometimes Jade does too. Toni and Nikki usually grab the hammocks.”
Sam turned my desk chair around to face the room, and she sat stiffly. “I’m still not sure I should be here for this, because-”
I held up a hand. “Let’s not discuss any of that until we have anti-eavesdropping measures in place.”
She nodded. “Are we going to use that crystal your team uses at meals?”
Nikki and Toni walked in just in time to catch Sam’s comment. Nikki had a slightly shocked expression on her face, which made me grin. It wasn’t like we were all that surreptitious about our security measures when we ate in the cafeteria. In the crowded confines of Dunn Hall it must have been unmistakable to the tables close to us. And Carson had already told me that enough Magical Arts instructors had figured out what we were doing that there were attempts to magically reverse-engineer Nikki’s system.
Nikki cleared her throat and carefully said, “No, we’re going to use something that would be a little more conspicuous if we used it in public.”
Toni popped a slice of apple in her mouth and said around it, “Go ahead and whip out that hoodoo.”
Nikki gave her a glare and went back to work. She stood in the middle of the room with her hands cupped together, and she chanted in a language that reverberated strangely around the room. The words seemed to make the very air before her face waver and pulse. Then she finished her incantation and opened her hands.
The usual translucent blue sphere quickly expanded until it reached the walls of the room and penetrated them.
Toni scarfed down a piece of Gouda and a couple grapes. “Got it?”
“Naturally,” Nikki insisted.
“Sam?” I checked. She was sitting rigidly in her chair, and not moving.
Just about the time I was going to call Nikki for some kind of magical assistance, Sam blinked twice. Then she turned her head and asked, “Was that… your usual kind of magic?”
Nikki shrugged and said, “One kind. Why?”
Sam said, “I’ve seen a lot of your spells in class, but… experiencing that one was different. I couldn’t categorize it or compute what was going on.”
Oh. So the part of her that was a nanite supercomputer just temporarily locked up trying to figure out what the heck we used on her. Lots of luck on that one. I was fairly sure that even if Sam had access to serious linguistic resources along with all her computing power, she wasn’t going to be able to decode Nikki’s language. And I had my suspicions that Nikki’s speech wouldn’t show up on a computer record of the event. So Sam was going to be pretty frustrated if she spent much time trying to understand what she just saw.
Chou sat on her bed and calmly chewed her apple slice. She said to Sam, “It is not always wise to need to grasp at every straw.”
Toni said, “Thank you, Master Po.”
Sam looked like she was already trying to process Nikki’s spell and not having much success. After about five billion nanoseconds, she frowned, “I think I see your point.”
“Hey, you didn’t start without us, didja?” Jade asked as she flew into the room just ahead of Billie, who was only a few feet in front of Jinn.
I said, “No, and there’s popcorn.” I lobbed one bag to Billie and a second bag to Hank. Then I told Billie, “There’s lots more where that came from.”
Toni said around another wedge of cheese, “And keep your moldy breadgrabbers offa my cheese that Ayles hasn’t told me the name of.”
I said, “It’s Gouda.”
“What, I know it’s good. You picked up an Italian accent since lunch?” Toni asked, like she didn’t know exactly what I had said.
“Atsa right, Zeppo,” I told her.
Jade checked, “Your cheese is called goo-da? That’s weird.”
Toni said, “I gotta remember this. Mom would love some of this for a birthday present. What goes with Gouda?”
I said, “Lots of stuff. Try the sliced Bartlett pears with it too. I’d recommend apples, pears, maybe peaches depending on your mom’s personal preferences, and any really good quality crackers.”
Hank said, “If we’re done with Personal Shopper 101, I think Officer Everheart has places to go.”
Sam just said, “Thank you. But this is a really interesting view into how your team works.”
Billie swallowed a mouthful of popcorn and said, “Yeah, and if you ever need expert advice on money or food or anything like that, ask Ayla. She knows an insane amount of stuff about food.”
Sam dryly said, “I had picked that up from the Security reports covering the Crystal Hall. Every time the chefs ordered a small quantity of something unusual, it turned out to be for Phase.” She turned to me and asked, “So… how were those specialty onions?”
I wasn’t about to let her faze me. I calmly said, “Interesting. Despite the claims of the various growers, it seemed to me that the natural fluctuations in the sweetness and bite of any particular variety were wider than the differences between the averages of the varieties. I thought the Oso Sweets had a sweeter taste than the Vidalias, on average, but they didn’t have as much of the onion tang. On the other hand, I’m not as addicted to sweets as some people, so another taster might have a completely different evaluation.”
“So there’s no absolute best sweet onion?” she checked. “It’s a matter of taste?”
“I’m not sure,” I temporized. “I’d like to try some Walla Walla onions grown in, say, Southern California, and some Vidalia onions grown in the Palouse, just so I could try and separate the climate conditions from the breeding stock.”
“Or maybe some of all of them, all grown at the same place,” Toni suggested. “Like my folks’ back yard. And maybe we could make Vince do all the weeding and digging and that.”
Chou snickered at that. She had met Vince when she went to Toni’s for Christmas, and hadn’t been impressed. Toni described Chou’s impression as ‘underwhelmed’. My feeling was that Chou’s impression had been somewhat closer to ‘nauseated’. My personal impression of Vince at Parents’ Day had been more of a normal black teenager trying too hard to be cool, but then I hadn’t had to be one of the girls he was drooling over. Nikki’s presence fortuitously drew all the male attention in the area, much like spilled sugar drawing every grubby little ant near a picnic.
I closed my door and said, “Everybody grab snacks, and let’s get started.” Once the flurry of assaults on the food passed, with Toni merrily juggling Gouda to keep it out of Billie and Jade’s hands, I continued. “I called this meeting-”
“Because one of us is the murderer!” announced Toni, Jade and Jinn, in a rough chorus.
I pretended to ignore them. “-because we have a couple important points we need to talk about, and they’re serious enough I wanted campus security involved. Last Saturday, we ran into some serious problems. I’ve been looking into it, and I’ve asked some people to do a little investigating. Here’s what we know or are fairly sure about. There were three separate attacks, all done at the same time, and we know the Rox C assault had traps very specifically designed for Fey and Tennyo, and one probably specifically designed for Lancer. So the Boston PD are pretty confident that the simultaneous attacks were to make them split their forces, and to make us split our team.”
Toni complained, “Eldritch isn’t gonna come in here and yell at us about splitting the squadron again, is she?”
I said, “Sam might. Except that we all know the assignments were made by the authorizing police department, operating under their best practices.”
“Can you not talk like this is a business conference?” Toni fussed.
I went on, “It appears that Darrow needed some SWAT teams in place around Rox C so he could use a Siren on them. They know it was a Siren, because Trin & MacIntyre brought in some Psi and Esper investigators to check the survivors for me, and apparently Darrow coerced some of the jailers to tell him everything they knew about the jail protections, so he had the opportunity to design an assault that would get around them. Then Darrow and his people walked right into Rox C, wearing the police uniforms of some officers they murdered outside the Roxbury Penitentiary areas. The police are pretty sure that the complete disappearance of Compulsion from the area – there haven’t even been any reported sightings – means that his daughter Obsession was the Siren that Darrow used, but there’s no evidence at all. It’s strictly induction.”
“Great,” Hank muttered. “Is that the same Compulsion that Bardue was talking about when you went all Riddler on the V’s?”
Sam nodded, “Yup. Major supervillain with dangerous Psi powers. But since he was apparently long gone before you guys got there, you’re unlikely to be on his radar.”
Nikki grumbled, “Why don’t we just take out ads asking people to come attack us?”
I went on, “Captain Tilley has some intel he’s not sharing, but it looks like Darrow fed them the right jailbreak, the wrong museum, and the wrong kidnapping. The right jailbreak was to get those SWAT teams in place. The wrong museum was so he could find the mole that has been feeding the police intel on his operations.”
“So that’s how they knew about the robbery and the jailbreak thing back in the fall,” Billie said.
I continued, “And the wrong kidnapping was so the mercs hired to kill our friends could have some time first to take out the SWAT vans that were then needed for the Boothroyd kidnap.”
“I’m really getting pretty peeved at that guy,” Nikki muttered.
I said, “Since we know he pulled that sneaky routine at the museum on our first trip, and he went after Toni’s mithril-exuding buddy the second time, I had Trin & MacIntyre investigate all three crimes. At the museum heist, the boxes that our thieves thought had some evil magic inside them? Nothing. They weren’t even genuine. That whole theft was a bit of sleight of hand, because somehow someone else walked off with one of the scrolls that were stuck behind the reliquaries. No one knows anything important about it, but T & M got the museum’s records staff to come up with a couple photos off the thing.” I handed the pictures to Nikki.
“Son of a bitch,” she swore. “By the…” She swiftly descended into curses that didn’t even sound like human languages.
Sam calmly said, “Fey, could you take a couple deep breaths and tell us what you see?”
She complained, “I can’t read the Latin parts – I bet Phase can – but the indented pieces are old Egyptian, which I can only read because it’s descended from a Sidhe language. There isn’t enough in these pictures to say what these spells can do, but this is really old, really dark magic. This scroll ought to be locked up at ARC, or in the restricted part of the library here, not on display in a public museum. Idiots!”
I grimaced, “So Darrow figured out who his mole was by feeding bad intel to his people and seeing where the cops really went, and he also got a really nasty bit of late-night reading for himself. Now, the Boothroyd emeralds…”
I handed out several pictures of some of the Boothroyd women wearing the necklace and tiara. “Notice anything?”
Hank said, “Don’t they polish their silver?”
“Probably just weird lighting,” Billie said.
Nikki glared angrily, and Toni stopped to stare at her, probably checking her Ki.
Sam stared at one of the pictures for several seconds. She finally said, “Based on the vectors for the incoming light sources and the positions of the objects around them, the reflectivity is all wrong for silver. Either these images are all Photoshopped, or this can’t be real silver.”
Nikki growled, “It’s mithril. The bastard heisted a bunch of mithril.”
Sam said, “It may be worse than that. Based on a quick Fourier analysis of this close-up, I think the metal has to be engraved with some sort of glyphs.”
Nikki slapped her forehead. “Inscribed mithril. Shit!”
I asked Sam, “Can you come up with readable images of the inscriptions?”
She shook her head no. “Not unless you have a much better image than this one. Right now, I’m working at the absolute smallest recoverable detail possible to extract using the pixels available in the image. If there’s an image of the mithril in a studio setting, preferably a close-up, I can do better.”
I nodded. “I already have T & M searching for something like that.”
“Any other good news?” Jade frowned.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Here’s the really fun part. The police have a tiny bit of information from the people who got arrested. Darrow hired the mercs and the museum robbers within hours of word getting around campus here that we were going to Boston on Saturday. So someone here contacted Darrow or one of his people and ratted us out.”
Chou said, “Would that be right about the time you were saying nothing would go wrong?”
“Thanks for rubbing that in,” I mentioned. “Et tu Chou-te?”
Sam said, “You may have the wrong audience for multi-lingual jokes.”
Hank said, “You are talking to someone who’s read a thousand pages of Ezra Pound. And tried to talk about it to her floormates.”
Nikki helped out, “And we all know she’s a Shakespeare fangirl.”
Sam looked around the room and said, “I stand corrected.”
I said, “So now we’re at one of the two points I spotted last Saturday. I was flying back to help Fey when Darrow hit her with a really nasty spell. From maybe a hundred fifty yards away, I could see a flash of red and green magical lights, flashing out from a magical circle on the ground around Nikki.” I looked over at Nikki, so she would know it was her turn to take over the tale.
Nikki said to Sam, “We’d already pulled a little con on Ayla to lure her into a surprise birthday party in Jody’s room. Part of it was scaring the pants off her that there was more of that Ley Line Entanglement circle that Chou and her group managed to sunder just a few days earlier.”
I groused, “And you don’t want to know how much time I spent worrying about ways to take down a mind-controlled Fey and Chaka.”
She continued, “But we – the party planners – didn’t know how much intel on the circle went into the Security files, and we didn’t know how much of that intel Ayla got from… umm…”
I interrupted. “Officer Everheart is fully aware that I have contacts in Security, and she knows who those contacts are.”
Nikki relaxed a little. “Okay, so we figured we needed to make the circle as realistic as possible without it being a viable threat to anything. Chou sketched as much of the thing as she could remember, and I made my copy as realistic as I could. We even used a paint that would show up as a blood red when Ayla looked at it through her facemask.”
Great. So Bunny was in on it too. Was the entire floor in on my surprise party and I had missed all of it? I sucked as a detective.
I took over. “So when I saw Darrow’s Ley Line attack on Fey, I realized it looked just like what Nikki had painted on her floor. And I suspected Nikki got the model for that from Chou. But Darrow’s attack worked, and it worked in a way that reminded me of the effects of the circle here. So I had to face the very real possibility that the thing on Nikki’s floor really did look just like Chou’s circle. Meaning, Darrow was now wielding attacks like the one here just off campus.”
Nikki said, “So Ayla came to me about this after we got back from Boston. After Mrs. Carson chewed us out. Again. I thought it over, and I think Ayla’s right, even if I really didn’t have the time to stand there and admire Darrow’s work at the time.”
I said, “I asked T & M to go back and get imagery on that magical circle attack, but the ground there was torn up by a later spell. They think Darrow put little magical timebombs on a couple of his workings, just to keep people from finding out what he did and fixing them.”
Billie asked the logical question. “So, is Darrow actually Hekate’s teacher?”
Nikki pointed out, “If Darrow was her teacher, why hasn’t he thrown anything like that at us before?”
Hank interjected, “That we know of.”
Nikki frowned, “Okay, we have two options here: either Darrow is the one who’s been teaching Hekate these Mythos magics, or else Hekate just taught this stuff to Darrow.”
“Three options,” I pointed out. “Maybe Hekate and Darrow are now both shopping at Mythos ‘R’ Us. Remember, Nimbus was using Mythos materials in that injector he buried in Merry’s butt?”
Nikki actually winced at that one. She pursed her lips and said, “Yeah. I sort of forgot about him. And then The Bastard was definitely using Mythos magics on those Weres. I figure Nimbus must be pretty heavily involved in the black arts to be able to build something like that and not go stark raving mad.”
Toni groaned, “Oh great, yet another dark wizard. Is this a theme?”
I interrupted, “Maybe it’s a motif, Giff.”
Jade said, “I totally don’t get your jokes, Ayla.”
Toni said, “No prob there. No one gets her jokes.” She turned to me and said, “Hey Ayles, didn’t you get a letter yesterday from Leonardo da Vinci asking you ta stop cribbin’ his ‘A’ material?”
I said, “Yeah, but it was written backward so I just ignored it.”
Billie said, “Okay, I don’t get your jokes either.”
Toni said, “The English Department doesn’t get her jokes.”
I pretended to ignore her and pointed out, “Don’t forget the three dark mages who got eaten in L.A. over Christmas. They were trying to deal with a demon to grant Nimbus a boon. So I’m guessing Nimbus is an evil deviser and a dark wizard.”
“Greeeeeaat,” muttered Hank.
“It’s a floorwax and a dessert topping.” Everyone stopped and stared. Sam suddenly blushed and asked, “I said that out loud, didn’t I?”
Hank said, “It was pretty unfair you were the only one who hadn’t gotten to make a joke in one of our meetings.”
Billie asked, “But how many deviser-wizard combos are there around campus, not counting Jade and Chou?”
Toni asked, “Besides Merchant-Ivory Wardrobe Boy? Dunno.”
I started naming names. “Knick-Knack. Techno-Devil. Technocrat, but he did early graduation this term and he left. He’s going to be doing some kind of top-secret project for the DPA this spring at their high-security headquarters in Virginia.”
“Which is so secret you just happen to know about it,” Hank said.
I went on as if I hadn’t been interrupted. “And also anybody smart enough to avoid getting listed as a deviser-wizard combo on their powers testing.”
“That wouldn’t be smart at all,” Nikki insisted. “Even the best wizards still need to learn how to gather Essence, and how to store it, and how to use it, and spellworking, and control, and a ton of other aspects. I’ve got Aunghdhail to help with all that stuff, and I still need a lot of coursework.”
Jade piped up, “Yeah, and the same deal for devisers. They need all those Workshop courses, even if they’re super-smart already, like Jobe. And even Jobe’s taking a ton of Workshop classes, but he’s argued with the teacher pretty much every day in the Workshop bio course he’s taking now.” She cleared her throat. “Or so I heard from a few people.”
Hank thought out loud. “So our combo kid would have to list himself as a wizard and have a way to get a full deviser background on his own, or else he’d list himself as a deviser and have to have a way to get a full background on wizardry on his own.”
“And there isn’t anybody who fits those criteria on campus,” I interjected. I waited until everyone finished staring my way and Toni got enough eye-rolling in. “I already checked that option. None of the people with wizard backgrounds, like Fey and Hexette and Gypsy and Skinwalker and Majestic, are claiming to be solely devisers. And none of the people with serious deviser backgrounds, like Jobe and Techno-Devil, are claiming to be solely wizards.”
Billie said, “Except She-Beast. She’s taking Wizard courses and she’s got major deviser stuff in her family.”
I said, “It’s not her.”
“Or so you think,” Toni added.
I opened my mouth to rebut that, but Hank got in there first. “And moving on…”
I went on, “Outside of Whateley, we’re mainly looking at a lot of major problems like The Necromancer and Deicide and a bunch of guys who might be deviser-wizard combos, but Interpol and the MCO aren’t sure, like Doctor Pygmalion or Cataclysm. Granted, Cataclysm is tentatively listed as an Avatar/Deviser/Wizard combo, because they don’t really know, and they don’t have any way to find out, and so they’re still sitting around debating about it. The MCO maintains he’s the same Cataclysm as a normal-looking deviser who used to go here, and Interpol thinks he’s some kind of inter-dimensional being with deviser and wizard powers. And those are the two sane theories about him.”
Sam said, “There’s a note in Cataclysm’s files in Security that says the headmistress thinks he’s probably not the deviser who used the same codename when he went here back in the Eighties.”
Jade murmured to Billie, “How come our intel’s as good as Interpol?” Billie just rolled her eyes and pointed at me. I ignored them.
Nikki winced a little. “I don’t want to be dealing with someone like Cataclysm. Or Deicide. Okay, Doctor Pygmalion is probably our level.”
Hank frowned, “Hell, I don’t want to be dealing with Doctor Pygmalion. He may have over half a dozen women who are stronger than Delta, with more powers, and who’d do anything he said, even if they died trying.”
I groaned, “And Delta thinks she didn’t get hit with any of his mind control whammy, but do you really want to have to find out in a battle situation?”
“Oh crap,” Toni choked. Chou and Jade just stared at me with horrified expressions. Sam looked like she was making a hundred mental notes and logging them all into Security’s network. That was fine with me. I had no intention of saying anything in front of her that I didn’t want Security to know about.
I got the meeting back on track. “Now I’ll get Trin & Macintyre to check a few mages who have fought Darrow and see if he’s ever thrown anything like this at them.”
Nikki frowned at me, “Do I want to know how much that’s going to cost you?”
I calmly responded, “No.” Then I went back to my topic. “Now, as I was saying, I’m hoping Sam will help us out by asking Mrs. Carson and Chief Delarose about the same thing.”
This time, Sam frowned at me, “I can’t go behind their backs.”
I nodded slightly. “I don’t want you to. I want this to be completely official. Given the problems Whateley students and staff have had with Darrow, I think this is something that needs to be investigated by Security. Especially if it may lead us to Hekate.”
She thought it over in a millisecond and replied, “That’s more reasonable.”
I pointed out, “I wouldn’t have invited you to the meeting if we were going to be doing anything illegal. And that includes your notifying Security and the headmistress that I’m involving Trin & Macintyre on this.” Then I turned my head to Nikki. “And I want you to check with Circe and anybody else in the Magical Arts Department who might have had a run-in with Darrow, and ask them the same thing. We need to know if this is new for him.”
Hank took advantage of the lull to ask, “So what was the second thing you spotted?”
I admitted, “Oh. That. The Good Ol’ Boyz had intel on our fight at Rox C that had to be from the report Sam filed. But Sam’s report said Tennyo held her own against Mimeo until she was bushwhacked by Darrow.”
Nikki asked, “So? That’s what happened. That’s what we told her.”
Jade loyally grumbled, “She woulda squished that jerk in another minute.”
I nodded. “But that wasn’t what Fantastico was told. His intelligence officer messed up.”
Toni shrugged, “So?”
Hank said, “Everyone knows they use Ferret for their intel. And he’s not as smart as he thinks.”
I nodded again. “And The Don got exactly the same intel, right down to the error on Tennyo’s battle.”
Jade said, “So… Ferret got his stuff from The Don’s intelligence officer?”
I said, “Or else Ferret is now selling out the G.O.B. to Donny-boy. Think about it. Sebastiano lost most of his forces when Kodiak took over, and his primary intelligence officer before that was the guy who later gave him a rectal exam with a lamp. His next best intel source is still hanging with Kodiak and doesn’t talk to Sebby any more. Plus, my sources tell me Hartford is squeezing him out of the Alpha privileges, which include Alpha access to certain kinds of information from Security. He may not have decent intel anymore, until he’s rebuilt his network. But it’s assumed he’s on the upswing, while the Good Ol’ Boyz are plunging ever downward. So Ferret may be trying to hitch his wagon to a star, even if it’s a dark star.”
Jinn looked at me and said, “I like your version better.”
Jade stuck her tongue out at Jinn. Jinn stared back, crossed her eyes, and made her nose tilt up into a more porcine shape. Jade started to put her hand up toward her own face, but Billie reached over and stopped her so I don’t know what she was about to do. I’m sure it would have been astonishingly mature. Not.
I continued, “We may have to assume that anything the G.O.B. hear about us will get funneled straight to Sebby.”
Hank gave me an evil smirk. “Or we might want to see if any disinformation we feed to Fantastico’s gang ends up misleading The Don even more.” I returned the smirk.
Sam suddenly said, “Maybe you should wait until I leave the room before you start discussing some of this stuff. I am Whateley Security, after all. And I’m going to have to report this to Chief Delarose.”
I nodded. “I’m counting on it. The more Delarose knows about Donny-boy’s quaint little machinations, the happier I’ll be. And if we can uncover his intel sources for Security and cause more problems for him, then it’s a win-win.”
Nikki gave Sam a wicked smile. “And it’s not like this would be the first time you left a few nanites on us to listen in, anyway.”
Sam actually managed not to blush.