Ayla and the Mad Scientist, Chapter 4, by Diane Castle
back to Monday, March 5, 2007
I waved Sam into the room and said, “No, once again, we’re running late. Nikki will be in here in a few to do her Gandalf act, and Billie will fly in and start devouring everything organic, and then we’ll get started.”
Nikki and Toni chose that moment to walk in. “My Gandalf act?”
Toni snorted, “I thought it was funny. I was gonna make pretty much the same joke, but I was gonna go with Maleficent.”
Sam suddenly looked like she was choking a little as she attempted not to laugh out loud in front of Fey.
Nikki frowned at her roommate. “Ooh! Knock it off, or I’m going to have Koehnes short-sheet your bed every night this week.”
Toni smiled, “I’ve heard scarier threats from my sisters.”
I contributed, “I’ve heard scarier threats from my sister’s maid.”
Nikki stuck her tongue out at me. “It’s scary enough that your sister even has a maid.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Toni with her biggest smirk. “We’re still waitin’ for you to bring in your valet and chauffeur.”
“No,” Nikki corrected her. “Private chefs.”
“Right, gotta be the chefs first. Then the valet,” Toni agreed.
“Then the litter bearers,” supplied Nikki.
“It’s a palanquin,” I pointed out.
Toni turned to Sam. “See? She even knows what they’re called. She probably has one in the basement. Ordered it from Serfs ‘R’ Us.”
Jade and Billie walked in, with Jinn and Hank right behind them. Jade piped up, “Did we miss anything good? Are we picking on Ayla yet?”
Toni flipped two bags of popped popcorn into the air with a flick of her leg, and they landed exactly where she intended. One bag landed in Billie’s hands, and the other landed in Hank’s arms.
I pointed at the snack tray and said to Toni, “You liked the Gouda last time, so I picked out some similar cheeses so you can taste-test and decide which you like better. I’ve got a good Colby, a nice Edam, and a nice, ripe Cantal.”
Toni smirked, “Kewl. I totally take back the valet crack. And I can’t wait ‘til the chefs show up in person.”
Sam looked my way. “I saw the food the last time, but I didn’t realize it’s like that every time you meet in here. Kane Hall meetings? We’re lucky if someone brings a few donuts.”
“Mmm, donuts,” Toni said in her best Homer Simpson voice, which wasn’t all that bad. It was certainly better than I could manage.
I still said, “The worst Vincent Price imitation ever.”
Nikki jumped in, “I thought it was her Jack Nicholson.”
Jade helped out, “You mean it’s not her Jail Scaglietti voice?”
Toni laughed at that and pointed at Jade. “Homes, I am so gonna befriend you in class tomorrow.”
Jade jumped up into the air and hovered there, her head about a foot below the ceiling. She reached into her purse of holding and pulled out…
Oh crap. Even I recognized that. She had built herself a replica of Takamachi Nanoha’s magical staff. I didn’t know what she was going to do with it, but I figured it wouldn’t be good. “Not in my room!”
She ignored me. She twirled it about her hand and then pointed it at Toni. “DIVINE…” Sparkles began flying around the tip, and the red gem began glowing fiercely. “BUSTAAAAAA!” she yelled.
A cone of pink energy shone forth on Toni… and nothing happened.
She laughed, “Oh the look on your face! I totally got you!”
Toni grinned, “You did, girlfriend. But one of these days, you’re gonna haveta put your money where your mouth is.”
Jade perkily said, “Oh, I will. I figured out what my Raising Heart is gonna do, and it’s gonna be so much fun! It’s going to turn whoever I point it at all pink!”
Billie groused, “Team Wondercute is going to be the death of me. Now they’re watching all the seasons of Sailor Moon on Bunny’s big screen projection system.” She glowered, “Man, I never realized what a gigantic crybaby Sailor Moon is.”
Since Sam was present, I carefully refrained from telling Jade to go get Bunny to build a real weapon into her magic weapon. Instead, I said, “You ought to devise a serious weapon for that thing, too. Then no one will know whether your staff is a threat or not.”
Her eyes grew big, and she giggled evilly. “Ooh! Good idea!” She pointed the staff at Toni again and shouted, “STARLIGHT… BREAKAAAAAAA!” This time the pink light shone on Toni, and when it winked out, Toni was covered in pink glitter.
Great, now I had to ensure she didn’t do that to me. And I was going to have to vacuum pink glitter off my floor after the meeting.
On the other hand, most of the room – including Toni – found Jade’s ‘attack’ funny. Sam didn’t seem to know what to do, and Hank grimaced. But Nikki and Billie and Jinn certainly enjoyed it along with the attacker and the ‘victim’.
I cleared my throat and said, “Do we need a reading of the last meeting’s minutes?”
Toni looked at her favorite hammock, then down at Hank lounging underneath it, and leapt up into her spot. A cloud of pink glitter began to descend all over Hank. Nikki waved her hand, and the glitter siphoned off into a small pile on my desk.
Great, all I needed was for them to get that junk in my laptop.
Hank said, “Thanks, Nik.” Then he looked upward and flipped Toni the bird.
Billie asked, “Can we just have a quick summary?”
I nodded. “Okay, last time we covered the Boston attack.”
“Birthday Brawl,” Toni supplied.
I ignored her, and encapsulated. “Darrow knew we were coming and planned for us. He knew who our heavy hitters are, and he planned traps specifically for Fey, Tennyo, and Lancer. He used a circular spellwork that affected ley lines, and we didn’t know if this was new for him. I assigned homework. We have reports back. Sam?”
Sam straightened a little in her chair and said, “I took this to Delarose and the headmistress. Darrow hasn’t ever used a spellwork like this against Lady Astarte or Ms. Might or Lady Champion. And it’s not in his files in Security’s archives either. And I checked like you asked for the time window between when you thought word might have gone out around here, and when Darrow first posted a contact message for our museum thieves. There’s no evidence that anyone here called Darrow or even a Boston number in the time window you gave me, and none of the numbers called were burn phones or other possibilities.” I didn’t ask how she had checked that, but I had a feeling Hive had used some extra-legal computer resources. “However, according to the records from the phone company, there are seven people who made calls in that window to dummy phone numbers, so they’re all possibilities.”
I said, “I’m one of them.”
She said, “Sorry, seven not counting your call to your fake accounting firm.” I winced a little, because I really needed that firm to hold up to basic investigations. She looked at my face and said, “I had to check everyone listed on their website and follow trails on all of them to find out it’s a dummy firm. It’ll hold up to standard inspections.”
She went on, “The seven suspects are Don Sebastiano, Ferret, Thuban, She-Beast, Nephandus, N’Dizi, and Paparazzi. We can’t narrow it down more than that, even if we have our suspicions.”
I said, “You can rule out She-Beast.”
“No we can’t,” said Hank and Nikki both.
Nikki glanced at Hank, and Hank took the ball in both hands. “You trust her. You like her. That isn’t the same as everyone here feeling confident she wasn’t involved.”
I clenched my jaw and said, “Fine. Leave her on the list. But it wasn’t her. Anyway, we all know who it was.” Based on the rest of our new intel, I was betting on The Don. Not that I had any concrete evidence whatsoever.
Sam pointed out, “The only name on the list who’s really unlikely, given what you told me about that day, is Don Sebastiano. He was cooped up in his hospital room at the time.”
I said, “Unless one of the other phone calls was to him. Or one of his intelligence networkers came by in person to give him the news. I did sort of make a scene in the caff.” I looked at Fey, and said, “Next point.”
She took her turn. “I asked Circe a couple questions, and the answer to this one was she didn’t think Darrow had ever used anything like this before. I asked Sara too. She didn’t know the spell, and she didn’t think anything like it was in the Waite family library. Not that she can check, since the heirs of Michael Waite still have it and a bunch of other stuff tied up in probate.”
“Is it a battle of wills?” Jade smirked.
Once I finished groaning, I said, “And I had Trin & MacIntyre interview a couple of The Necromancer’s regular sparring partners. Not even The Magus has seen Darrow use something like this. I think we have to assume this is a new weapon for him.”
“Oh great,” groaned Billie
“Who said the bad guys get to improve their arsenal too?” Toni pretended to complain.
“Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal!” Hank grinned.
Jade whispered in Billie’s ear, Billie nodded, and Jade burst into giggles.
Nikki said, “So Darrow didn’t teach it to Hekate a couple years ago. She taught it to him, or her teacher did. And recently.”
Hank followed, “So he learned this stuff really recently. He probably either got it from Hekate’s Teacher, or Hekate herself.”
I said, “And he’s one of the few people with the resources to hide Hekate from the curse she’s now under.” I wasn’t about to say in front of Sam that it was Fey’s curse. “Maybe it’s specifically a trade for this kind of working, or maybe it’s a deal with Hekate’s Teacher.”
“Or both,” Nikki said.
Billie grumbled, “So… Hekate is in some super-warded hiding place from the curse, and someone-”
“-or something,” Jade cut in.
“-is out there and has access to Mythos magics.”
Sam carefully said, “The ‘how’ there is the real issue. Usually, humans who get exposed to Mythos sources die. Horribly. Or get turned into things.” I noticed that Nikki winced, and Sam spotted it.
Nikki said, “This was the other question for Circe that Ayla had. She said that whatever we’re dealing with may not be human or even close. In her experience, human mages who tried to translate similar Mythos magics into usable languages tended to go insane, or suffer pretty nasty transformations, or get eaten by things that had their attention drawn to this plane of existence by the magics.”
“And what about the Mythos-tainted drug injector Nimbus had his minion implant in Merry?” I checked.
Nikki shrugged. “Circe didn’t have any ideas on that one.”
Toni complained, “So, are supervillains suddenly in sharing mode? Maybe there’s a Mythos ‘R’ Us opening in a mall near you?”
“In a little shop that wasn’t there yesterday?” Billie tossed in.
I said, “We don’t have enough intel yet. But it’s possible Hekate’s Teacher is teaching people besides Hekate, or selling this kind of heinous Mythos-tech to other people. Or he’s one of several people working for the man behind the curtain, and they’re all spreading this kind of grief.”
Nikki frowned, “This could be ultra-bad. But it could be a link between most everything bad that’s been going on around us.”
Chaka asked Fey, “Hey, you think The Bastard could be behind it all?”
Fey paused for a moment and thought it over. She finally said, “No. The Bastard wouldn’t be selling or trading Mythos magics like this to mere humans, he’d be turning them into monstrosities. Plus he didn’t show any of these kinds of magics when he was fighting me. And there’s no way he’d know how to do the kinds of Mythos-plus-evil-devise things like Nimbus did.”
Hank asked, “Well, couldn’t Nimbus get the Mythos magics from The Bastard and then just devise his way to those things?”
Nikki said, “We researched this one since the last meeting. Ayla kind of nagged us about it. And this kind of magic is not The Bastard. His magics are alien. They’re diametrically opposed to humanity and machinery and technology. They’re nothing like the Mythos magics in Merry’s implants.”
Toni clapped her hands to her temples, “Oh GREAT, so now we have two completely different evil Wizards with Mythos powers running around hatin’ on us?”
I said, “Make that at least half a dozen sets of them. Don’t forget Chou’s Tong of the Bowel Movement: we’re not off their radar, no matter what they claim. And there are the Kellith cultists who tried to turn Sara into an evil hand puppet. Their head priest got fried, but the cultists are still on the loose. Then there was a top-secret thing in Italy over the winter that ended up with NATO dropping an atomic bomb on some sort of Mythos monster: I couldn’t get enough intel on it to be sure, but it might have connections to Sara or Merry. Then there’s my playmate from Christmas.”
Toni smirked, “Mister Unpronounceable?”
I nodded, “Yeah, him. It.”
Tennyo quietly said, “And there’s me.”
Jade insisted, “But you’re one of the good guys!”
Billie sighed unhappily, “Yeah… but what if these things are coming after us because I’m here now? With the Star Stalker in me?”
Toni waved away her concerns. “That thang with The Bastard goes waaaaay before you, homegirl.”
I added, “As far as I’ve been able to find out, Nimbus has been around making really big waves for at least five years now.”
Fey said, “And we don’t know much about whoever’s teaching Hekate these magics, but there’s no question that he’s been teaching her since well before Christmas a year ago.”
Lancer added, “And Chou said the Tong of the Black Madonna’s been causing trouble for Handmaids for centuries.”
I smiled, “So that rules you out, you trouble magnet you.”
The look on Billie’s face was one of… unutterable relief. Jade and Jinn slid over and gave her hugs anyway.
Hank did his usual ‘dad of the team’ bit and changed the subject. “Okay, umm, lemme see… Oh yeah, what about part two?”
I nodded. “I’ve been pestering my contacts in Security, and no one in Third Platoon has been giving The Don or Icer intel since just after Christmas break. That cuts him out of the loop, except indirectly. However, one individual in Security who will not be named is still providing intel to the Good Ol’ Boyz through Ferret.”
I didn’t mention that after Cavalier and Skybolt had made their ‘crazy’ accusations about Hekate and Don Sebastiano, no one in Security wanted to be The Don’s contact without a ton of protected intermediaries, for fear of what might get done to them. Big, brave security guys weren’t afraid of getting shot or getting their lungs ripped out by a rager, but they were panicked at the thought of ending up getting porked by Don Sebastiano.
Sam spoke up after that. She said, “As far as I know, the contact for the Alphas is feeding intel to Hartford and Kodiak, but not anyone else. And no one in Security wants to cross Hartford, so that’s going to stay like that until she says otherwise.”
Hank said, “So it looks like you were right, and Donny-boy is getting his intel through Ferret these days.”
I said, “That will change, sooner or later. Solange has more than enough spare change to pay above the going rate for intel and campus Security reports. And it looks like Sebby is making her his second in command now that she’s been canned from the Alpha pack.”
Sam just said, “You have the contacts in Third Platoon, so you’ll probably find out when she starts paying up, about ten minutes after Buxton hears.”
I didn’t comment, since she was probably right, unless Buxton started playing games with me that would prove to be extremely expensive for him. Instead, I said, “And now class, it’s time for homework assignments!”
Jade grumbled, “I hate this part of Ayla’s meetings.”
I quickly explained that I wanted Sam to share all of our inferences and assumptions with Carson and Delarose. Then I planned to talk more with Circe when I met with her on Saturday. And finally, I wanted Nikki to run our inferences by Sara and see if she had anything new to contribute.
Jade grinned, “So I don’t get any assignments this time! Yes!”
I casually added, “Oh. And Jade has to bake cookies for the next meeting.”
She blew me a raspberry.
I let the meeting break up, and I let Nikki take down her anti-eavesdropping spell. Then I strolled out into the hall as everyone walked or flew out of my room. Tara wasn’t in the hallway eavesdropping, but I had noticed a distinct drop in that behavior since she started hanging around with Alex.
I handed Nikki a note. She stepped into her room to read it. It said, ‘Please check for eavesdroppers again, including Hive.’
A minute later, she stepped to her door and nodded to me. I touched my Spot and called everyone. <(Phase) Don’t get settled. Nikki’s room right now.>
<(Chaka) I was gonna go see if Rip could hang for a bit!>
<(Tennyo) Oh come on!>
<(Lancer) Is this really necessary?>
<(Phase) I’ll explain as soon as everyone is in Fey’s room and we have the anti-eavesdropping up again.>
<(Generator) Oh, okay…>
When everyone was in Nikki’s room and Nikki had her eavesdropping spell in place, I began. “Sorry, but this is something I found out that I didn’t want Sam – or anyone else around here – to know. And I wanted it in here, because it’s about Fey, and Koehnes might have some valuable insight.”
“Thank you!” a squeaky voice piped up from the floor of Nikki’s closet.
I frowned, “When I asked Trin & Macintyre to look into Darrow’s activities, they decided to try a variety of ways to track him. Someone tried tracking him by looking for thaumaturgical or environmental consequences to his attacks.”
“Ya wanna toss that by again for those of us not takin’ AP English?” Toni groused.
Nikki elbowed her. “You know what she means.”
“Well yeah, but she’s so fun to tease.”
I soldiered on, “They found effects from each of our three battles with him in Boston. So they figured they were on the right track. They checked the previous half a dozen Necromancer attacks before we got in his hair. Nothing. So they looked for the consequences and then tried to figure out where he came in. They found seventeen other environmental collapses that looked like they could be caused by magical effects or ley line alterations. The problem is none of them can be traced to Darrow, and most of them can’t be Darrow, because we know he was somewhere else at the time.”
“This doesn’t sound good,” Nikki muttered.
“Eleven of these seventeen have been traced to proximal causes, mainly because we have supervillains taking credit for them. The North Sea oil disaster is a good example. The Atlanteans are taking credit for that one, and S.E.A.L. says they’re sure it really was the Atlanteans.”
Hank asked, “And who the hell are the Atlanteans? They can’t be Darrow?”
I shrugged. “No one knows who the Atlanteans really are. They’re aquatic eco-terrorists. S.E.A.L. says they only operate in seas and oceans in waters that are at least a thousand feet deep, and no one knows why.”
“SEAL is a totally excellent name for an underwater superhero team,” Jade inserted. “The Atlanteans? Lame. They need a cool codename like SHARK or MAKO or SQUID.”
“MEGALODON?” Toni asked with a smirk.
“Too long,” Jade said. “You need something peppy and not too hard to fit words to.”
“So ARCHITEUTHIS would be right out?” Toni grinned.
Jade stuck her tongue out at Toni. So did Jinn. And Nikki. So Koehnes peeped up over the edge of Nikki’s bed and did likewise.
“At any rate,” I said, “There are six that aren’t accounted for, and Trin & Macintyre are pretty sure Darrow isn’t responsible for any of them either. Interpol and the MCO have evidence that he was involved elsewhere on at least four of these. I looked over the list, and I tend to agree.” I handed Nikki the list.
Nikki looked over my list and blanched. “Oh Goddess,” she whimpered.
Hank reached for the list, but Toni Ki-powered it out of Nikki’s hands and grabbed it.
She started reading out loud for the group. “Lemme see… We got the three Boston fights here, and then Ayla’s six, so let’s see…” She dropped the paper from shocked fingers as she gasped, “Oh crap!”
I swallowed uncomfortably as Hank scooped up the paper and held it so Billie could read it over his shoulder. He read out loud, “Okay, Ipswich and Boston Harbor and Cape Cod. These could all be from Darrow. They’re all seen, what? A couple weeks after each of our fights with him? Forest die-off in Ipswich, weird ‘red tide’ in the Harbor, and fish die-off on the cape. Next, you got three grouped out of the country: eastern Zambia, the Himalayas near the India-Tibet border, and northern France. And then…” He looked up at me with horrified eyes. “Fuck.”
Jade flew up over Billie’s head and peeked. “Okay, lemme see. What’s CCD?”
I explained, “Colony Collapse Disorder. Bee colonies completely die off or just vanish and are never seen again. It’s new. People just started talking about it in the ag world.”
Jade kept reading, “So there’s a big patch of CCD outside Kansas City, west toward Lawrence. Hey, that’s going toward Topeka! I live there! And they spotted it… Umm, a couple weeks after we were at Nikki’s house for Christmas.”
She suddenly took on a sickened expression. She looked up at Nikki. “Did we do that?”
“Keep reading,” I said.
“Okay, hikers find a big area of tree blight in the White Mountains after Christmas. Hey, I didn’t have anything to do with that one! I wasn’t anywhere near it!”
Nikki whimpered, “We were. It’s down a major ley lines from where we fought The Bastard’s voodoo-weres.”
Jade read on, “And this one? It’s over on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border and they had a huge tree blight thing that FIA… What’s that?”
“Forest Inventory and Analysis,” I explained. “The part of the Forest Service that goes around assessing forest condition and what’s available for tree cutting.”
She nodded in understanding. “FIA crews found around the first of December, and the cause is still unknown. What’s that one?”
Nikki groaned, “It’s just north of ARC. And it’s two weeks after Belle and Sara and Chou and I stopped Maelstrom’s big jailbreak.”
Billie said uncomfortably, “So the common denominator for all six of these isn’t Darrow, it’s… Fey?”
Nikki threw her hands into the air and sobbed, “Oh Goddess! I’m the worst supervillain in the last two years!”
Hank muttered, “Man. What do you say to that?”
“We’re number one?” tried Toni.
I said, “You didn’t do any of this on purpose.”
“At least you didn’t destroy all of NORAD C,” Billie said.
“Yeah! Billie’s way more dangerous than you!” Jade insisted.
“Totally not helping here, Jade,” Billie frowned.
Nikki buried her face in her hands and burst into tears. Toni scooted over and hugged her on one side, while Jade and Jinn flew over to hug her on her other side. Koehnes slipped over and hugged Nikki around the shin. Hank and Billie and I stood around looking uncomfortable.
Billie looked over at me and Hank, “Wow, you can sure tell who the guys are in this room.”
I just stood there, feeling incredibly miserable, because I wasn’t good with crying girls, and this scene was all my fault. If I hadn’t sprung this horror on my friend, she wouldn’t be crying her eyes out that very minute.
Toni looked over at me and said, “Oh no, you do not get to feel guilty for this one.”
Billie asked, “Why would Ayla be feeling guilty?”
Toni just rolled her eyes. “Like Ayles doesn’t do the guilt trip thing every chance she gets? I can see it in her Ki but I don’t know why.”
Hank said, “Because she’s the one who showed us the paper.”
Billie said, “Well, that’s stupid. You figured it all out before you called us in here, right?” I nodded morosely. “You probably just saved another dozen ecosystems all over the country. You should be patting yourself on the back for this one.”
Nikki sobbed, “How can this be happening?”
I carefully said, “Koehnes? This didn’t happen in the days when the Sidhe wielded power. Right?”
Koehnes squeaked, “No! The queens would never damage their world! And they had to have power in place so that the Powers of Air and Darkness could not do the same!”
I continued, “So there’s no way Nikki could have known this could happen. If Aunghadhail didn’t know, then Nikki couldn’t know.”
And Nikki… changed. It was one of those changes I’d seen before, but this time it was a bit more dramatic. The sobbing teenager stopped hunching over. Her hands came away from her face. Power washed over her, pushing friends away. Her face changed from an unhappy girl to a powerful queen who would never reveal such a weakness. Her posture changed: her shoulders rose and straightened; her legs and hips moved into the posture of royalty; her hands moved from her face to a neutral position in her lap. And Aunghadhail glared at me with enough force to make most humans sink to their knees in abject worship.
Okay, I’m not most humans. Not only has this point been brought to my attention repeatedly for my entire life as a Goodkind, but it has also been rubbed in my face over the last months that I’m not even a typical Goodkind. Not only do I not wilt under a regal attitude, but most people seem to feel that I am the source of most of the regal attitude on campus. Maybe I’m a pushover for her glamour, but the regal ‘tude is what I know.
I clenched my jaws and focused on maintaining the Goodkind face. That calm, unflappable face that Goodkinds are taught to project in public, no matter how many paparazzi have turned up, or how embarrassing one of our relatives’ latest public contretemps might have been. I think Father and Greg started teaching me right after the first time Heather made me cry at the dinner table. I was probably nearly two years old then.
Aunghadhail fumed, “This is Our fault, but it is not Our fault alone. You humans are to blame as well. When We ruled, the world was unlimited power. The World Trees generated power. The ley lines worked with the ecosystems of the world. There was a magical… The phrase the child is thinking of is the Goodkind’s: a ‘food web’. There was a magical ecosystem in place that fed Us and supplied Us with power whenever We required it. But all that is lost. There is not a World Tree still alive. And you humans have so devastated your planet that every ecosystem that still lives is on the precipice of ruin. Even the modest amounts of Essence that this child has drawn in combat have been enough to tip some ecosystems over the edge.”
I asked, “And this is just the Sidhe spells you have used?”
She nodded regally. “Mortals such as you cannot exercise this sort of power. The spells We have wrought can be vastly more potent, and should be fueled by the lifeweb of this world. You humans evolved inside what you could think of as essentially a powered war machine, and somehow you have learned how to skim the surface of that energy, like a tiny parasite, without ever penetrating to the deeper, more powerful levels.” She took a slow breath. “Have We wrought this sort of destruction here at the school?”
Hank gave me a look, so I answered. “Not as far as we know. But we don’t know why.”
Koehnes piped up, “Yes we do!”
I looked at her and said, “Go on.”
She smirked, “It is what The Queen refers to as The Grove. It functions as a strong, self-contained ecosystem of enough power to support You, Your Highness. It is no World Tree, but it is as powerful as anything in this world of today.”
Aunghadhail said, “This is not to be endured.”
She closed her eyes, and… changed. Her shoulders slumped. The regal iciness transformed into sobbing youth. The refined, ageless grace slid into coltish sexiness. The hands moved from a graceful motion into tenseness. The legs slid from a regal position into a young woman’s misery…
And Nikki was back. Tears began streaming down her face once again. “Oh Goddess, this is awful! I… I can’t let this happen ever again.”
I said, “We just have to consider your options and then focus on rational courses of action. First, short term tactics, then medium-range plans, then long-term strategies.”
Toni snarked, “Does everything around you have to sound like a business meeting?”
At the same time, Jade asked, “Short and medium and long term?”
I ignored Toni and said to Jade, “Definitely. In a business like GKI, I’d say short term is the next sixty days, medium is there up to a year, and long is from there through the next four or five years. For Nikki, we need to expand that a lot.”
“Oh yeah,” Jade muttered. “I sorta forgot.”
After all, I was a puny mortal who was going to kick the bucket in sixty or eighty years if I was phenomenally lucky, and a hell of a lot sooner if my luck suddenly ran out. But Nikki was Sidhe. Not just a mutant who looked like a faerie, but true Sidhe. She might live for centuries. For millennia. Maybe a lot longer than that. She needed to make long-range plans that spanned hundreds or thousands of years. For all I knew, she might need to make plans that covered entire geologic eras.
I said, “So now we know what happened. What are the first things we need to do?”
Hank said, “First thing, we bury this, and we deny it if anyone asks us.”
Wow, I didn’t think Mister Straight Arrow would be the one who said that one. Frankly, I was figuring I would have to play the heavy and tote that one out. Maybe it was that whole ‘hunted down like a monster by Army Ranger teams’ issue.
Billie wondered, “Bury it?”
I said, “Of course. If this gets out, we don’t know what the response would be.” I looked at her. “What happened to the girl who accidentally caused the U.S. government to have to nuke NORAD C?”
She frowned, “She got slammed in an empty dorm for a couple weeks.”
“And why was that?” I asked as if I didn’t know the answer.
“Because my mom and dad were trying to keep the Army from locking me up in Mount Prometheus. Or ARC Black section. Or worse.”
I led her along, “And what would happen if word got out that Fey could destroy entire ecosystems without even trying?”
“Eww,” she winced. “It would be… bad.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “At a minimum, she’d be stuck here at Whateley permanently. Or she might end up in ARC Red Section, or their Black Section if Red Section couldn’t contain her.”
Nikki frowned, “They already know Red Section couldn’t hold me if I wanted out. And I don’t think I’d like being a human popsicle forever.”
I pushed, “And that’s just the highlights. What would the Cape Cod fishermen and the Kansas beekeepers and the Kansas farmers all want to do?”
“They’d sue that cute li’l ass off,” Toni contributed.
“For starters. They’d invoke a host of state and national statutes to try and get you locked up permanently,” I pointed out. I ignored Nikki’s wince and said, “And they’d call in the MCO, the DPA, the DOJ, Interpol…”
“The DOJ?” Jade asked.
“Department of Justice,” I explained. I think it said something significant about our lives that we all instantly knew about the MCO and the DPA, but not all of us recognized the DOJ. Yet. I turned back to Nikki. “You’d be in court for the next century, and I don’t want to conjecture about the effects on your family bank accounts or your dad’s job at DARPA.”
Toni cut me short. “Okay. We get it. No rattin’ Nik out on this. Like any of us was gonna. What’s next?”
Billie said, “I have that radiation alarm bracelet. It makes me feel a heck of a lot better about not hurting anyone else. Can you make an amulet that’ll do the same thing for your spells?”
Nikki stared into space for long seconds before she finally said, “Yeah. Aunghadhail knows how. I may have to go into The Grove to do it.”
I asked, “Any other short-term fixes?”
Jade asked, “Can we build some kind of tap in The Grove with a broadcaster so we can transmit stuff to Nikki anywhere she goes?”
I looked at Toni, and she gave me the same look back. I asked, “Are we sure she’s not a deviser?”
Nikki went away for several seconds before she came back and shook her head no.
Toni helped out, “So Unga-Dunga gave you the big refoo?”
I swear, a lot of times I would have no idea what Toni was saying if I didn’t have lots of context.
Nikki wrinkled her nose at Toni and said, “Aunghadhail would appreciate it if you would stop calling her that. And she would like Koehnes to start short-sheeting your bed until you stop.”
“I will start on it at once, Your Majesty!” Koehnes squeaked obsequiously.
“You do, and you’re gettin’ a Ki-powered finger poke, shrimp!” Toni warned her.
Koehnes demonstrated her immense age and maturity by blowing Toni a raspberry while thumbing her nose at the girl. Then Koehnes dove for the safety of Nikki’s closet.
Jade proudly said, “I taught her the thumb on the nose bit!”
“Well done,” I said dryly.
“Can we get back on topic?” Nikki scowled. That was a sure sign she was upset and wanting to get things over. Usually, I was the one who had to play ‘meeting cop’.
I said, “I think one short-term option has to be trying to re-direct any battles so they take place on our home turf. If they’re here, Fey can cut loose with whatever she likes.”
Nikki muttered, “Not everything. There are some spells that even The Grove probably couldn’t power. I need to go through everything I’ve used, and everything Aunghadhail has taught me, and figure out Essence requirements, and then mark some of those spells as ‘not unless the world is about to end’.
Hank said, “That sounds more like a medium-range task. That could take a while.”
Nikki nodded unhappily. “Years. Maybe decades. Aunghadhail knew an incredible assortment of spells and hexes and charms.”
I said, “So another reasonable medium-range task is learning a lot more human-based magic.”
She sighed, “Working on it. Unlike some of us, I don’t have a great big brain with perfect recall. Maybe I do have some advantage with languages Aunghadhail can translate, but it’s not like I can chat with strangers in Latin and Greek and Sumerian.”
“They’d have to be a lot stranger than us to know all that junk,” Toni kidded.
I looked at her and said, “No one’s stranger than this team.”
Jade looked at Toni and said, “We’re number one!”
Nikki said, “Okay, if those are the medium-range things, what do you think are long-range ones?”
I compressed my lips and said, “I think you ought to take on two long-range tasks. The first is working to revitalize all the Earth’s ecosystems.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Never thought I’d hear a Goodkind say sump’m like that.”
I stood my ground. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean someone with Nikki’s powers and connections can’t do it. Not in five or ten or even twenty years, but she should be thinking of a planning horizon a lot farther out than that. Let’s say… she wants to make major inroads on that one in the next hundred years.”
“Only Ayles would say ‘planning horizon’ in a pep talk,” Toni said to Jade.
I added, “And let’s say that the longer-range goal is to restore the world’s ecosystems to where they were two thousand years ago by five thousand years from now.”
“Okay, that’s a lot longer range than I was going for,” Hank muttered.
I insisted, “We’re talking to someone who may be essentially immortal. And she has as friends two more probable immortals. Plus, she has Carson’s help possibly for the next two hundred years.”
“Whoa! Carson’s like seventy already!” Billie said.
I nodded. “And she seems to be aging at about one-third or one-quarter a normal rate, ever since she manifested. Has anyone else ever looked into how long Miss Champion was a ‘teen’ sidekick?”
“Bet you have,” Toni contributed. Pretty much everyone else nodded. Even Koehnes. That was probably a bad sign.
I said, “Based on her appearance, about twenty to thirty years.”
Billie choked, “Holy crap!”
“On a popsicle stick!” added Jade with a grin.
Billie didn’t even look in Jade’s direction. “You mean she still looked like a teenager when she was thirty? Maybe forty? Wow, that would suck.”
Jade asked, “How are you supposed to get a date if you’re forty and you’re looking for guys in their forties, and you look like you’re nineteen? That’s really sucky.”
I nodded. “You have noticed that she’s in her mid-seventies and she looks early- to mid- thirties?”
“And pretty hot for that,” Hank added. Several of the girls stared at him. “What? I can’t look at Exemplar women? I got hormones too, you know!”
Nikki looked at me and gestured for me to get on with it. I said, “So there’s another long-term option.”
“Longer term than the last one? ‘Cause I’m thinking infinity years on this next one right now,” Toni said.
“It may be utterly infeasible,” I pointed out.
“Infeasible. Who else says that?” Toni whispered to Jade. Nikki elbowed her.
I ignored the peanut gallery and said, “We need to look into World Trees. Is there any chance one of them still exists somewhere on Earth, maybe in stunted or damaged form that could be rescued? Or could there be a seed or acorn somewhere that could be used to grow a new one in a few thousand years? Because if you can get just one, you might be able to raise it until it grows some viable acorns or pods or seeds – or whatever World Trees reproduce by – and make more. Even if it takes thousands and thousands of years, you might have that kind of time.”
Billie said, “And with some of the kinds of things we’re already seeing, you might need that kind of power someday.”
Hank said, “That’s a hell of a to-do list.”
I told him, “It all starts with research. On the Sidhe, on their ancient enemies, on where they ruled, on other dimensions they might have stuck their hands into… The whole megillah.”
“What does a gorilla have to do with this?” asked Jade.
“Not Magilla Gorilla,” I insisted. “It’s Yiddish. I’m pretty sure. It’s slang, and it means a long, boring story.”
“Oh, like everything you tell us?” Toni smirked.
Well, I walked right into that one. I asked archly, “So you’d like to hear the complete derivation of the idiom from the original word?”
“No! No no no no no no,” Toni hastily said. “Us dumb folks likes it real short!”
Hank said, “Count me in on that too. With real short words.”
“Me too,” added Jade.
Nikki sighed miserably, “Can we just get on with things?”
I gently said, “I think that’s it. Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news. But I thought we needed to get this one out for you ASAP. And I thought Koehnes could help.”
“Thank you for letting me assist Her Highness!” squeaked a little voice that appeared to be somewhere around Nikki’s ankle.
“I guess I’d better get started on looking through my spells,” Nikki groaned wretchedly.
“Not yet,” I said. “You stay put for a minute. I’ve got something in my room.”
“Well, if Ayla is leaving, that means the meeting’s over. And no homework!” Jade crowed.
“Except you have to read a zillion books on the Faerie and figure out where a magic World Tree seed could be,” Billie teased her.
“Nuh-uh! That’s Nikki’s assignment. I just have to bake cookies for the next meeting,” Jade insisted with a grin.
Hank walked out the door, saying, “But they have to be really, really great cookies. Ayla-level cookies.”
Jade pouted, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make cookies that good.”
I waited a couple seconds until Billie and the J-Team had taken off down the hall. Then I pointed at Nikki. “Stay put.”
I ducked into my room and fished out my backup utility belt. Then I pulled out the contents of the two inner pockets.
I stepped back into Nikki’s room and closed the door. “Here. This ought to help.” And I handed her some of the comestibles I had been hiding from Vamp.
Toni gasped, “Whoa! This is the really good chocolate, isn’t it?”
I opened one bag to reveal a small box that just barely fit in the belt pocket. “These are truffles from a chocolatier in San Francisco. There’s a printed label that tells you what’s what. There are a couple dark chocolate ones, and some milk chocolate, and for Toni there’s one that’s white chocolate – which has no chocolate liquor in it at all so it ought to be safe for you to eat – with a light lemon interior. It’s still loaded with sugar, so Toni may go Speedy Gonzales on us.”
Toni stuck out her tongue, but said, “Thanks, Ayles. I mean it. Thanks a heap. This is really nice.”
I said, “I don’t care for white chocolate myself, so you can have all of it. In fact, I don’t believe white chocolate is really ‘chocolate’. It’s a contradiction in terms. Like airline food.”
“Or jumbo shrimp!” grinned Toni.
“Student athlete,” scowled Nikki. Oh yeah. She’d been bullied back when she was still Nick.
I pulled out my other package. I opened it to reveal a small bag of chocolate-covered hazelnuts. “I got these for Anna, but she’s not speaking to me anymore, so you should eat them while they’re still fresh.”
Toni frowned, “How come you’re havin’ so much more trouble on the Chou thang than the rest of us?”
Nikki didn’t look up from her chocolates, but she said, “Because people want to believe a Goodkind would do something like that. No one wants to believe you’d do anything like that. You’re the girl who went out of her way to make friends with Sahar.”
“Well, Semi didn’t ever do anything ta me or any of my friends, ‘cept Zee…”
Nikki kept going, “You’re the girl who’s trying to be buddies with Thunderbird’s little harem of not-girlfriends.”
“But that just makes sense, ‘cause they’re his friends and training team…”
Nikki ignored the near-continuous stream of interruptions. “You’re the girl who asked Ito to match you up against Chou and Nightbane and Swordmaiden as often as he could. You’re the loony who wants to spar more with Counterpoint! Assuming he ever gets well again.”
“Hey! I’m not a loony! And Ceepee is awesomely good with the moves. And it’s not like he can copy my ice and not total his bad self,” Toni finished.
“Well, I would agree with points two and three, anyway,” I snarked.
Nikki said, “Anyway, the rest of us have completely different reps. Everyone thinks Billie’s crazy enough to just blast Chou to pieces if she wanted her off the team. Everyone thinks Jade’s cute as a button and crazy. Everyone thinks Hank’s Mister Straight Arrow. The Grunts rushed him and liked what they saw. You know the Capes want him.”
Toni nodded. “He’d be a hundred times better’n that putz Iron Star. Or is that Lead Balloon?”
Nikki said, “And everyone seems convinced that Ayla paid us all to be on her team, and she’s the boss.”
Toni grinned and gave me her hippest hip-cock and arm motions. “You ain’t the boss of me!” She finished up with a shoulder roll and side-to-side neck movement that looked incredibly ‘street’ and ‘hip’ and whatever words I should be applying. It was something I obviously couldn’t do unless Vanessa coached me for a month.
I said, “Well, we certainly can’t reveal the real reason we formed up as a team on our first day together. And it’s just luck that we have everything a real superteam wants. Or at least the appearance thereof.”
Toni knew instantly who I meant. “Maybe Jade isn’t a real deviser, but she’s close. And we have Bunny for real inventions, and we’ve got your gear and Jade’s Mary Poppins bag, and more holdouts than most senior teams carry.”
I said, “A really versatile PDP would be good, particularly if she’s got high-end PK with some range and also the Supergirl bit, plus some serious precog. We could do with some warning once in a while. I don’t think we need a speedster when we’ve got a flyer like Billie.”
Toni smiled, “Face it, Ayles. You pulled together an awesome team and paid us just enough to make us stay with the team. Even that was zero cents.”
I scowled at her. It wasn’t too surprising that people believed I would buy off a team to surround me. Come to think of it, I was only really surprised that Solange hadn’t done it now that she had been booted out of the Alphas.
Toni nudged Nikki and said, “So you grabbed one of the top wizards on the planet, maybe the most dangerous blaster too, who happens to have strength and regen and a freakin’ lightsaber… Then you got a major brick who can do one of the unusual brick tricks, a top-notch inventor who’s crazy enough to mix it up on the front lines, an unkillable dead girl full of gizmos, and naturally, the coolest martial artist since Journeyman. And you got the intel and logistics parts down solid. We got the best training team in the whole school!”
I muttered, “And they’ll undoubtedly throw us into the deep end to see if that’s true.”
Nikki said, “We’ll have to let Hank go where he wants when we play the Grunts. And they carry serious weaponry too.”
“Plus, they actually spend time training. Tactics, strategy, combined strikes, all the stuff we only touched on in Team Tactics,” I complained.
Toni waved me off. “So? It’s just sims. I mean, why should we get all that worked up about a bunch of sims with kids we like? We got real threats comin’ after our asses.”
When she put it like that, I realized that she was right. We really didn’t need to kick people’s asses in the sims. We needed to use the sims to study how other teams operated, so we could be prepared to handle threats in the real world. Granted, my competitiveness made it hard for me to admit it.
I walked to the door. “Hey Nikki, if you’re not feeling up to the meeting at five…”
She nodded and said, “I think I’d rather be doing something than sitting around moping. And it’s just a first meeting. Nothing major.”
“C’mon Kimmie, say ‘no big’,” Toni nudged her.
Nikki looked at me and pouted, “Why do I have to get stuck with my own personal Shego?” She took a bite of a truffle and proceeded to have a foodgasm. “Mmm! Mmm mmm mmm! Oh goddess this is good!” she moaned around a bite of chocolate.
“Then maybe I better try that white chocolate one just to make sure Ayles didn’t slip some rayon in there or somethin’.” She turned her head. “Hey Koehnes, doesn’t the queen need her own taste tester?”
Koehnes looked insulted. “We would… never hurt our queen!”
Nikki said, “She wasn’t saying you would. Only that lots of feudal kings and other big cheeses used taste testers to keep from being poisoned by their enemies. She doesn’t know about the structure of the Sidhe houses.”
Koehnes said, “She’s still a big…” She took on a triumphant tone. “Poopyhead!”
I had a really hard time not laughing. Toni fell on her bed in hysterics.
Nikki said, “Koehnes, I would prefer it if you stopped taking ‘modern life’ lessons from Jade.”
“Or any of the J-Team,” I added. Because we all knew Miss Think Outside The Box would simply switch to Jinn or Jann or Jayna to continue the same mischief. And we all knew she could sneak over here more easily as one of Bunny’s miniature speakers than as her physical self. I would have said her ‘normal’ self, but there was nothing normal about that girl.
I walked over to my room and shut my door, because Toni was still howling with laughter. I was glad at least one of us could have a sense of humor about things like that.
After that, I was lucky to have an hour or so to myself. Alex was off annoying someone else, or trying to get into Tara’s panties, or flirting with that dork upstairs. I concentrated on reading textbooks, so I didn’t have to think about how I had messed up the meeting in Nikki’s room, and how there had to be better ways to lead up to the problem, and how someone like Zenith would probably have come up with an ideal solution after staring into Nikki’s brain for five seconds.
I probably should ask Circe about World Trees. Oh well, I had several days before my first ‘class’ with Circe, so I might as well prepare properly for it.
About a quarter of five, there was a knock on my door that apparently came from less than a foot from the top of the door. Given the height of the sound, I guessed who it was.
I opened the door to find Billie floating most of the way to the ceiling. She said, “Come on, Phase. It’s time for our sim team meeting.”
I said, “Let me get my utility belt and baton.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s a meet and greet. It’s not warfare. Unless you really make Gunny mad.” She teased, “Again.”
I just glowered at her, because every time Bardue had been mad at me, it was someone else’s fault. Like her roommate. I fetched my utility belt, made sure I had my new tac baton tucked away in the right pocket, and shrugged on my Whateley blazer.
She was wearing the official Whateley uniform, including a pleated skirt and flats. She looked cute in it. Granted, most people looked at her and only saw ‘Tennyo the Section 33 Nutcase’, but I seldom saw her that way. However, there was no way I was wearing a skirt. I had enough problems the way things already were.
Nikki and Toni were waiting in the hall. Nikki looked a lot better, and she still had some chocolate on her upper lip. I had a momentary urge to go lick it off before I got myself under control.
She looked my way, and her eyes widened in surprise. She winced, “Umm, sorry.” And the desire I was feeling suddenly cut off. I made a mental note right there that I needed a list of the spells I should learn first, and one of them was blocking Psi and Esper effects. And glamours. And lust auras. And… Damn, that list was getting long, and I hadn’t even started it. I needed to re-design my process.
Jade hopped down the hallway. Literally. She looked excited. Toni looked like she was about to go to see her favorite boyfriend. I probably looked like I was being dragged to the clinic for a colonoscopy.
The seven of us went down to the basement and headed through the tunnels for the holographic simulation area. We were nominally ahead of schedule, so we just walked and chatted. No one wanted to talk about Nikki’s little power problem, particularly when we weren’t using anti-eavesdropping systems. So we ended up listening to Hank talking about Lily’s play. The school theater group was putting on another Shakespeare production. I was still trying to talk Vanessa into going to see it with me, but it wasn’t exactly her idea of a good time. At any rate, Hank was glad Lily had landed another starring role, but less than thrilled about the amount of her time the rehearsals were requiring. Apparently, now that Jen Stevens had left, the new director was a little martinet, and didn’t seem to have grasped that he wasn’t responsible for a big-name Broadway play full of professional actors. I figured the director couldn’t really be too draconian, or his actors would have abandoned ship. Or dropkicked him into Berlin.
When we got to the holo sim area, they checked us through the door and ran us past a couple scanners. I was glad to see they were beefing up their security even more, since we really hadn’t enjoyed our first day in the holo sims.
We took our seats in Room 1 and waited for the big cheeses to come tell us what they were going to do to us. Toni was looking forward to it, but Toni was happy pretty much anytime she could get into a battle and flex her Ki. She still thought she could have taken The Lamplighter if she’d had a fair fight.
I was hoping that Sam Everheart would come in and give us a nice, low-key talk as our preparation. But I got to be disappointed once more. Bardue marched in, followed by Sergeant Wilson. While Bardue looked like a Marine drill instructor nearing retirement age, Wilson looked like an Exemplar pretending to be a non-commissioned officer. My sources said that he had been a very good sergeant, but the Exemplar issue had led to his leaving our armed forces and opting to come to work at Whateley.
A year ago, I probably would have argued that mutants shouldn’t be serving in our armed forces. Now I was envisioning Wilson as the kind of soldier the United States ought to be begging to stay. An Exemplar-6 trained in military tactics and skilled with weaponry ought to be able to eat any half dozen Navy SEALs for breakfast. He could wear anything up to tank armor and still be able to move faster than a track star. He could skip the M-1 rifle and go straight to a Gatling gun with three hundred pounds of ammo.
Bardue looked over our group and snapped, “Team Kimba! Welcome to Whateley training team sims. Have you looked over the guidelines?” Hank and Toni nodded. He went on, “They’re simple. You have a team. You can make substitutions not less than six hours out. You can have a teammate out of the sim as long as there’s a reason. You’re expected to work with our schedule, not the other way around. Any questions?”
I had about a dozen, but I figured Bardue didn’t want to hear them. There was probably an official document I could look up on the school intranet.
Bardue said, “Outcast Corner is already in the training sims. Same with S.T.A.R. League Jr. Elite League is joining the training sims this week. Your team was the big hammer in Team Tactics last term, so you’re getting priority movement into the regular sim training against other campus teams.”
He didn’t mention the other three teams from Team Tactics. I doubted Omega Squad was still intact. Frankly, I doubted that they held together past the debrief after the final exam. I suspected that Kismet had to be pushing for her team to join the training sims, but at least one teammate was probably stalling on it and at least one teammate was probably messing things up accidentally. And the Power Cats still had to work out how to handle Diva, not to mention getting Greta into some real armor, not just a wheelchair with gadgetry stuck on it.
Lancer asked, “What do we need to do for preparation, Sergeant?”
Bardue nodded his way. “We work every team into the rotation, but new teams need to get a little experience. You all got some good prep last term, but we still want to run you through some warm-ups, so you can get used to the format and our people can get more used to you.”
Then he turned and stared down at Jade. He growled ferociously, “And no more Radioactive Condor Girl tactics!” I assumed he was trying to cow the smallest team member into obedience. He seemed to be forgetting she was also the craziest team member.
“How about Radioactive Ostrich Girl?”
“Radioactive Emu Girl?”
“Radioactive Pterodactyl Girl?”
“NO RADIOACTIVE BIRDS!!”
“Umm, Bio-warfare Blackbird Gi-”
“NO, NO, AND STILL NO! And if you don’t want to have to clear EVERY SINGLE NEW TACTIC with us ahead of time, you WILL stick to our sim rules! UNDERSTAND?!?!”
Jade just bounced on her toes and said, “Okay, Sergeant.”
<(Phase) Bio-warfare Blackbird Girl? Who do you think you are? Jobe?>
<(Chaka) Ooh, cheap shot.>
<(Lancer) Can we not do this in front of someone who knows we pull this crap and knows to watch out for tells?>
<(Tennyo) Good point.>
Wilson took over. “Different training teams are at different stages of development, and different power levels. They have different strengths and weaknesses. Some teams still need Team Tactics. Some teams have more individual or team experience than average, or less. And some teams have intelligence officers that invalidate some of our training scenarios.” He glared at me. “Phase? What were the two major threat scenarios that we ran our heavy-hitter teams through in fall term?”
I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Your two Carmilla scenarios. I believe your codenames for them were ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Aliens’. Not even the Grunts were successful on the ‘Aliens’ scenario.”
He nodded abruptly. “Did you notify your team when you got this intel?”
“Yes, I did,” I said carefully. “And we later strategized both scenarios, in case we got hit with something similar in real life. As it turns out, several of us have been hit with worse scenarios since then.”
He said, “And your team got a faceful of a ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ equivalent in your first five minutes in the sims. But you beat that one before we could even launch an extraction.” He looked around the room. “How did you know who was attacking Lancer? And how did you know you weren’t facing the real New Olympians?”
Generator stuck up a hand and answered. “Phase knew.” She looked over at Lancer.
<(Lancer) Go ahead.>
Generator said, “I guess it’s not a secret anymore. Phase investigated the New Olympians back in October or November. So she already had the roster and their powers. And she knew enough to spot that the Counterpoint she faced wasn’t the real Counterpoint.”
“And what did you learn from this?” he asked her.
She casually said, “Stuff we already knew from the fall.”
Lancer jumped in to keep her from getting yelled at. “Intel gives you an edge. Strategy matters. Tactics matter. Teamwork matters. How you move your team around matters. We’re just a little more freeform about it than Eldritch likes.”
Wilson said, “So we’re going to start your team with some sims we run all the major teams through. We call it the 'Dark Phoenix' scenario.”
Generator stuck her hand in the air and asked, “Do you have express written permission from Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios, or Marvel Entertainment to use that name?”
Bardue stepped forward and bellowed, “GENERATOR!”
<(Phase) Oh crap.>
<(Shroud) Well I had to get it, they should too.>
Wilson calmly said, “It’s just a nickname. We’re not using it publicly, or making it an official codename for anything.”
I sighed and put up my hand.
“Yes Phase?” Bardue growled.
“I hereby give you explicit verbal permission to use the name Dark Phoenix for the scenarios as long as they remain internal and not a part of any public process.”
“And do you have the right to pull something like that?” he asked.
Several people behind me snickered.
Lancer volunteered, “Umm, Gunny, as of last term, Phase is the largest shareholder in Marvel. If she wants Wolverine to start wearing a pink tutu in the comics, it’s canon.”
Generator piped up, “She got me the codename Shroud! Umm, I mean…”
Shroud went for the save. “Phase got us the codename. I’m the one who uses it, but my sister is part of it too.”
Bardue muttered, “So I take it everyone in this room knows what a Dark Phoenix scenario would be.”
Generator waved her hand in the air. “I get to go evil and my superpowers go pssshhh!” She made a two-handed gesture like the mushroom cloud forming from a nuclear explosion.
Wilson tried not to smile. “Yep. Too many teams in the real world have already hit something like this. Anyone know what I’m talking about?”
I put my hand up and answered, “Mujer Fuerte, in South America.”
Billie said, “Oh yeah. You told us about that one.”
I went on, “Firesnake. And the Gator.”
Wilson nodded at my answers. He added, “And Basilisk. She was once captured and mind-controlled by one of her team's enemies. It happens sometimes. So teams need to learn how to fight when one of their own goes ‘dark’. Not to mention when the team runs up against a power mimic like, say, Mimeo.”
“Ugh,” muttered Fey.
“Yuck,” complained Tennyo.
“Ouch,” winced Lancer.
“Don’t remind me,” I groaned.
Wilson smiled wickedly, "We talked it over and we decided. You won't find out which of your team has gone dark, or why, until the scenario starts. Be back here at a quarter of nine tonight and get your sim suits on. You’ll have a sim run at nine."
“That is all, troops,” Bardue said. They tromped out and left the door open for us to exit.
Toni groused, “Oh man, how are we s’posed to-”
<(Lancer) Comm security. No talking.>
<(Phase) Good point. Any chance Sam’s around to eavesdrop on us?>
<(Fey) Nope. Already checked. We’re clear.>
<(Lancer) Still, wait until we’re out in the hall.>
<(Phase) And far enough away to avoid passive detectors.>
<(Fey) Got ya.>
We walked out and checked out at the door. Then we checked behind us as we walked down the tunnels that led toward the Crystal Hall.
After a couple minutes, the air shimmered as if a transparent blue bubble was expanding away from us. <(Fey) Okay, got it. It’s not one of those spells.>
<(Chaka) Good. So how are we supposed to fight a Dark Tennyo?>
<(Generator) Billie would never do that!>
<(Lancer) She pretty much had a mental breakdown thanks to Overclock.>
<(Generator) But she’d never hurt us!>
<(Phase) I’m not saying you’re wrong. But that doesn’t mean they won’t throw a sim like that at us.>
<(Generator) Billie would never be a badguy!>
<(Fey) Or a Dark Lancer?>
<(Lancer) Oh yeah? What about a Dark Fey?>
<(Chaka) Dark Phase?>
<(Fey) No thanks, I prefer my body without gaping holes disintegrated through it.>
Okay, I really didn't want to think about that one. Not that I hadn’t thought about it a few dozen times too many.
<(Shroud) Dark Carmilla?>
<(Lancer) Plenty of people would say that she’s already Dark Carmilla.>
<(Fey) Really not fair.>
<(Generator) Yeah. She had a ginormous chance to do evil stuff to me, and she wouldn’t even try.>
<(Tennyo) What about Dark Bladedancer? That could be bad. Or Dark Chaka?>
<(Chaka) Hey, just nail me in between kiai shouts.>
<(Fey) Ayla? Why aren’t you saying anything?>
I still didn’t say anything.
<(Chaka) She’s already figured it out! You know, like Batman and the Justice League and the ‘protocols’ and all that!> She stopped using her Spots and asked, “Okay Ayles, how do we stop Nikki?”
I told her.
Nikki just glared at me for a moment. “Eww! You know what? You’re not a nice person.”
I glared back, “You mean it took you this long to figure that out?”
“Okay, what about me?”
Then Hank asked, “What about me?”
I looked him in the eye and said, “First way: Billie punches you through your PK field. Second way: Toni stuns you with a Ki-shout, Nikki uses the time to bust your PK field. Third way: Chou slices and dices, since DW cuts through PK fields. Fourth way: I use my-”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” he grinned.
“Jeez Ayles, over-plan much?” Toni teased.
I just said, “I didn’t get all the way down to the plan where Jade and Jinn and Bunny take him out.”
Toni laughed, “Oh, that’s easy! Bunny just pulls up her top and flashes the high beams. Hank’ll just stand there drooling for the next hour.”
While Nikki complained about Toni’s idea and Jade giggled at Hank’s expression, I just kept quiet. I decided I wouldn’t mention some of the other ways to take Hank down, like with Riptide. Or Mindbird. Or Vox. Or Tempest. Or Carmilla. Or… Well, PK bricks look tough on paper, but they usually have a fair number of weaknesses. Even if they can do Hank’s energy absorption-reflection trick, which most PK bricks never manage. And even if they’ve already learned the hard way not to let an opponent dislocate their shoulder or use their own fist to hit themselves somewhere nasty.
Okay, maybe I do over-plan. A little.