Ayla and the Mad Scientist: (Chap 5)
Ayla and the Mad Scientist, Chapter 5 by Diane Castle
Ayla and the Mad Scientist
Chapter 5 - Huis Clos
a Whateley novel
by Diane Castle
Monday, March 5, 2007
After the ‘fun’ of getting glared at by Gunny Bardue, I was hoping that dinner would be a respite of calm. With possibly some delicious treats.
The line was relatively short when we got there, so we grabbed trays and attacked the food. Hank and Billie went straight for the meat, while Nikki headed for the salad bar and Toni zipped over to check out the desserts.
I looked around to see if there might be a treat coming my way before I decided to get near the slabs of stuff that were ‘labeled’ chicken pot pie. There were laws against mislabeling this severe, but I wasn’t sure if they were enforceable here. There was also fried chicken, which actually smelled like chicken ought to, so I was fully prepared to risk my mouth if there wasn’t a main dish treat for me.
I strolled over toward the kitchen area, and I saw Jana hand a plate to one of the kitchen staffers, who followed Jana’s pointed finger and walked over to me. I recognized her from January. I accepted the plate and said, “Thank you, Doris.”
She blinked and then recognized me. “Oh! You’re Phase! I didn’t recognize you out of the kitchen. Sorry.” She gave me a smile and headed back to work.
I watched her go, and I thought about the first time I had to do KP in the kitchens. I still didn’t think any of us deserved to get a punishment, but I knew Carson had to follow the rules. Especially if they were rules she had personally instituted decades earlier. But it was illegal through the United States and Canada to superhero before you turned eighteen. Captain Tilley was skirting that law pretty closely with that deputization arrangement we had in Boston, and for all I knew, according to the Boston municipal statutes or the Massachusetts state codes, he was far enough over the line to get himself and us in serious trouble some day.
Loophole would probably know off the top of her head. I should ask.
At any rate, the Whateley Academy rules explicitly said that we weren’t supposed to be doing this sort of activity. Oh, there were plenty of little loopholes that someone I knew whose last name was Nalley would no doubt argue one day, but they were in place to cover emergency conditions. Threat of injury or death, threats to people around you, the usual. So I would have skated by on the Sparkler incident if I were already enrolled. I was fighting a supervillain to protect my unconscious sister, and I didn’t start it. What my friends did at Harrison’s Restaurant at my birthday party obviously fit into one of the loopholes, given that they were being attacked by mercenaries intent on killing them ‘up close and personal’. But what Team Kimba did at the same time was clearly against the Whateley rules, even if the Boston Police Department was apparently pretty darn happy with our work. Given that Darrow usually left a wake of destruction that made Dr. Diabolik look like a pacifist, three consecutive Necromancer attacks would usually be enough to turn any city other than New York into something that looked like Beirut. Primarily thanks to our sticking our noses in things, they were really only out one superjail. It could have been a lot worse. A museum blown up with ancillary damage, cop killers robbing a bank, one dead group of Whateley students, and a zombie apocalypse. And that was just his first effort.
So I hadn’t complained when I did my kitchen detentions. Okay, I hadn’t complained a lot. Frankly, getting into the better kitchen – not that I was willing to call it the ‘good’ kitchen yet – was less of a punishment for me and more of a reward. And Carson knew it. Every one of her punishments for us was apparently a nasty job that no one would want. The operative word there was ‘apparently’. In fact, I had gotten to eat the better food – in some cases, the good food – each meal for my entire detention.
In point of fact, none of our ‘punishments’ really punished us. Chou hardly had any snow shoveling to do around Dickinson, since Molly was summoning little fire elementals to keep all the walks clear. Toni enjoyed herself building a completely inappropriate snow sculpture that ninety-nine percent of the campus absolutely loved – even the Alphas liked it. Rip got a lot better at working in arid conditions, and even realized that it was probably something she should do regularly to ‘jazz up’ her ability to use her powers, as she put it. Hank got to indulge his ‘Hannah’ side a little without having to admit it. Jade got to convince a couple more people that she was an awesome gadgeteer. Even Nikki didn’t have it too bad. She found out that the Whateley sewers are a font of natural – well, I considered it unnatural – life and ley lines; she used magic rather than elbow grease to do her cleaning, so she did cover herself in muck; she was able to divert the predatory wildlife down there with the twitch of a ley line; and she worked out how to use magic to clean herself off after every tour of duty.
And somehow, Stan and Morrie just happened to have forest green non-synthetic coveralls that were just the right fit for Nikki’s rather curvaceous shape. And waterproof boots with non-synthetic liners, also in her size. I was still claiming that I had no idea who had purchased said clothing, or who had asked Jinn to sneak said clothing into the locker areas.
The real downside of the detentions was that Nikki figured out how to get really clean without showering. That meant that I might be missing out on morning bathroom eye candy in the future.
But as I looked over my dinner treat, I thought back to my first visit to the kitchens for my detention.
earlier: Sunday, January 28
Whateley Academy central campus
I flew through a couple walls, but I stopped in the faculty dining hall. I just assumed that life would be easier if the staff’s first exposure to me wasn’t my leaping through a wall and scaring half the chefs into dropping their work.
I had been expecting to start work that morning, as Marcel had indicated the night before. But with the assorted disruptions going on, I ended up not starting my detention until the dinner shift that evening.
I walked into the makeshift kitchen being used for the faculty / staff dining area. The kitchen, like the kitchen staff, looked overcrowded and overworked and over-stressed. And this was the functional kitchen. Thank God I wasn’t stuck working in the Dunn Hall kitchen.
I immediately noticed that Marcel was hurriedly directing three sous-chefs and trying to fix a disaster that I suspected was supposed to be boeuf bourguignon. One sous-chef was working frantically, while cringing in a way that suggested he was to blame and Marcel knew it. The other two were working on poaching salmon, whipping up what might be the vegetables for some pasta primavera, and managing four or five other tasks on the side. And that didn’t even touch on the people preparing foodstuffs for the chefs to use. The place wasn’t quite bedlam, but it was fairly manic. I had never realized a real restaurant kitchen was like this. How did I not know this?
One of the cafeteria workers walked over to me and asked, “Are you the detention kid?”
I nodded carefully. “Yes. Or rather, I am a student, and I am here at the behest of the headmistress. What would you like me to do?” She opened her mouth, and I hastily raised a hand to stop her. “I had better explain something first. I know nothing. I barely know the difference between a clove of garlic and a head of garlic. I’ll do anything you want me to, but you’ll need to show me specifically what you want me to do. Pretend I’m from Mars, and I’ve never seen an Earth kitchen before.”
She looked at me oddly. “You’re not really from Mars, right?”
“No. I’m from New York.” The relief on her face was obvious. “But my mother never let any of us anywhere near the kitchen. If there really were Martians out there, you could probably find some who do know more about cooking than I do.”
She grimaced. “Okay. Let’s start on potatoes.”
“Okay,” I said patiently. “Just show me what to do.”
She pointed out two separate bins full of potatoes. Even I could tell the bins held different kinds of potatoes. I had no idea what kinds of potatoes they might be, but I could see they were different. She pointed at the left bin and said, “These just need to be scrubbed. We’re leaving the peels on. They’ll be French fries or pan-roasted.” She glanced at me to make sure I was following so far. “The skins actually have a lot of nutrition, so we want to keep them when we can.”
“Got that,” I said. “Show me how to scrub them. Water temperature? Soap? Scrub brush? What about the eyes?”
She sighed as if I had asked her to clean the Crystal Hall dome for me. “Like this.” She did one potato.
I nodded, “Thank you. I can take care of the bin, if you point out where you want me to put them.”
She pointed at the other bin and said, “These guys in this bin get peeled. Don’t bother scrubbing ‘em crystal clean, because you’re peeling them. Here’s a peeler. You just do like this.” She peeled off several long strips. “And this.” She used the tip to gouge out a couple potato eyes.
“Got it,” I commented. “Which do you want done first?”
She turned and called out, “Potatoes?”
“Scalloped potatoes first, Doris!”
She turned back and said, “The peel pile. Quick as you can.”
I nodded and picked up the peeler. I put down the peeler. Using a gadget like that seemed stupid, given my abilities. I grabbed a potato and ran my palms over it, doing a gentle light-heavy-light flicker that hopefully was only skin deep. Literally. Then I tapped into the eyes while still doing the flicker but just with my fingertip. Presto. One peeled potato, with no mess.
I had the entire bin done in under four minutes.
Doris stepped back over, presumably to see why I wasn’t still peeling. “What tha f… How?”
I smiled mysteriously. “Superpowers.”
She looked down into the sink. “Okay, not a speedster, or there’d be peels everywhere from the floor to the ceiling. Magic?”
I said, “I can touch stuff and disintegrate little bits.”
She thought for a second and said, “Okay, you’re getting the carrots and the artichokes. I’ll wash the other spuds.”
She lifted up something that looked like Jobe had crossed a nettle with something out of “Day of the Triffids”. She began, “This is an artichoke…”
back to dinnertime, Monday March 5, 2007
The detention work in the kitchen had been tedious, but not difficult. I had learned a few things that might not ever help me, like how to peel a head of garlic. But that wasn’t the part on which I had focused.
No, what I liked was the food I managed to get at the end of each work period. Including that first day’s boeuf bourguignon, which was still not perfect but was at least well-repaired.
And I was thinking back to that first day in the kitchens again as I looked over the plate. It was a delicious-looking, fragrant chicken and artichoke fricassée with carrots and shallots and what were probably morel mushrooms. I needed to taste them to make sure. Accompanying the chicken was a serving of orzo, cooked in something besides plain water. Perhaps some chicken broth, based on the color. I took a sniff and decided chicken broth with some seasoning, probably the thyme that was on the chicken. I so needed to sit down and explore my dinner.
I grabbed some tea and a salad with a simple oil and vinegar dressing. Then I made my way up to the third level and joined the team.
“That doesn’t look like the fried chicken they’re serving,” Billie probably said around a massive mouthful of something dead and gallinaceous.
I carefully cut a section of chicken off one of the thighs, and inspected it before carefully tasting it. Man oh man, that was good. “It’s not Southern fried chicken. It’s fricassée.”
“Which means exactly what, oh great gourmet?” Toni teased.
“I’m not an expert on the cooking part, but I think it’s been dredged in seasoned flour, then fried in…” I tasted the coating more carefully. “I think extra-virgin olive oil and butter.” I assumed it was extra-virgin olive oil, because it would be absurd to go to this much trouble in preparing the food and fail to use a decent ingredient for the frying. Also, there weren’t any off tastes, so it had to be good quality olive oil and good quality butter. “Then simmered until done.”
Hank said, “Well I think you’re missing out. The fried chicken’s really good tonight. Get some of the really fresh stuff right when they’re bringing it out.”
I considered his suggestion, but I decided to see if I had any room after I ate what was already on my tray. The chicken fricassée was really good. The fresh thyme in the sauce went beautifully with the thinly sliced carrots and shallots. The baby artichoke halves were tangy and almost sweet, thanks to the crème frâiche that finished the sauce. The morels gave the chicken and the sauce an earthy richness that was carefully set off by the sliced shallots and the garlic in the sauce, as well as the dry white wine that had been cooked down in the sauce-making. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought it was a crisp Chardonnay. Plus, the vegetables had each been cooked for just the right amount of time. The carrots were tender but not mushy. The shallots were just right. And the orzo was a delicious accompaniment, instead of the expected rice. It was cooked with some chicken broth and thyme for flavoring, as I had guessed, but it also had something else. Maybe bay leaf. Then it was carefully seasoned with sea salt and white pepper to bring out the wheaty delicacy of the pasta.
Other than some samples that I passed over to Nikki and Toni, I ate every bite. The salad was an adequate accompaniment, but nothing special. I didn’t feel obliged to finish it. Then I walked back down to see whether the Southern fried chicken was worth trying.
When I reached the food lines, I could see a dozen hungry teenagers swarming over the remaining fried chicken like locusts. So I strolled over to the dessert area and perused the selections until I could see fresh fried chicken being brought out.
I didn’t see any desserts I couldn’t live without, although a couple flavors of ice cream looked tempting. They always had enormous tubs of fairly ordinary chocolate and vanilla and strawberry. I would have considered the choices to be distinctly sub-standard, but my weeks at Gracie’s house had taught me that this was actually what ‘normal’ people wanted for ice cream. Chocolate flavored ice cream without enough chocolate and with off-flavors underneath. Vanilla flavored ice cream that lacked, well, everything that I would need in order to call it ‘vanilla’. Strawberry flavored ice cream that tasted about as much like real strawberries as the cardboard container it came in. Besides those barrels of frozen junk, the cooks were providing some smaller containers of less popular flavors, as they did when they could. There was a mango sherbet that looked appealing, and a flavor that was listed as ‘vanilla bean ice cream with a raspberry swirl’. If there were real vanilla beans and real raspberries used in the preparation, it might be worth tasting.
I saw a new tray of fried chicken being hauled over to the steamer tables, so I tried to time things just right. I avoided the big rush as Jimmy T and Razorback and three other heavy eaters practically brawled in a scramble to get at the meat. Then I made it into the second assault wave, before more big eaters clambered down from the upper levels or launched air assaults. I took six breasts, six thighs, and six drumsticks.
When I got back to our table, Hank and Billie were still busy eating, so I disseminated the goodies. I gave everything to them except one golden-brown thigh. And Hank was right. It was extremely good for mass-produced fried chicken. The crust was crisp and tangy, yet not cloying. There was a little more salt in the crust than I preferred, but the pepper was fresh. I could tell that there was some chili powder and paprika in the dredging flour too, even if it was more subtle than the salt and pepper. There were also some more aromatic spices. Some oregano and basil and marjoram, and probably a little sage and thyme in the background, although I wasn’t quite sure. Plus there were definitely flavors of onion and garlic in there too. I was guessing the chefs either flavored the oil first by cooking up a bunch of onions and garlic cloves, or else used some powdered onion and garlic. Since I hadn’t seen any onion rings being served for dinner, I was guessing the latter.
“You just gonna pick at the crust, or you gonna eat that thigh?” Toni asked.
“I’m trying to figure out all the seasonings used in the flour,” I admitted.
“What a surprise,” Nikki said dryly.
“Totally,” Jade pretended to agree.
“Mmm-hmm,” Billie nodded with a mouthful of chicken breast.
“Just eat the darn thing and enjoy it,” Hank prodded.
Let it never be said that I refuse to take instructions from my teammates. I cut a large slice from the thigh and took a bite. The crisp, seasoned crust emphasized the meaty richness of the chicken, and the blazing hot interior made the crust taste even better. I decided I was going to have to eat more of the cafeteria’s fried chicken in future. Even if it wasn’t as interesting or as complex as the fricassée.
We didn’t quite make it back to Poe as a unified group. Nikki was over chatting with Poise before Hank and Billie were ready to leave the table. Then some of the Grunts waved Hank over to their table, and a couple Dragons stopped Toni to talk to her about something. I was going to be shocked if the topic wasn’t martial arts and joining up with a cool team of other martial arts nuts. Jinn was already back at Poe cleaning the room and studying so Jade would be ready for tomorrow. That left Billie and Jade to walk back with me… for all of half a minute.
As we reached the ground level, some of the devisers came over to talk to Jade about assorted insane inventing implementations. I made sure to say loudly enough for most of the devisers to overhear, “Okay Jade, remember. Supply and demand curves. If you don’t know what to charge for one of your fabrications, call me.”
“Yes mom,” Jade pretended to sigh. That got a lot of snickers and chortles from the throng.
I let it drop, since there was no point in pressing my point or snarking back when we were in public. I just turned and walked off toward the elevators to the tunnels. Once Billie and I got down into the tunnels and the path in front of us was clear, we just spontaneously took off. We flew down the tunnels and only had one or two minor problems. Since I could go light through the people who were there – and there weren’t any people through whom I couldn’t pass – and Billie could detour around people like inertia had taken a vacation, we just dodged around (or through) the few people who were there.
We got to the cutoff for Poe, and I had to go solid again so I could make a sharp left turn into the Poe basement.
So Billie just abruptly stopped in mid-air and drifted to the floor. She grinned, her little fangs popping out, and said, “That was fun. We ought to do it more often. Jade and Jinn can fake what I do pretty well, so they could play too. We’d just have to go slower.”
It dawned on me that Billie could probably fly at over a hundred miles an hour through these tunnels, if she felt like it. It wasn’t like she needed to obey inertia or gravity, and if she made a mistake and crashed, she would recover in seconds. If she crashed into someone else, they might not be so fortunate, but that was an entirely different issue. There were a number of people on campus who could take that kind of impact, but there were a lot more who couldn’t. Billie’s weight traveling at a hundred fifty miles an hour? Instant kill on most of the students at Whateley. Maybe we shouldn’t do this more often, until we dealt with the ‘innocent bystander’ issue. Or else we needed to stick at Jade’s speeds, which would keep us between twenty-five and thirty, which would be slow enough for all of us to react to any obstacle.
And why couldn’t I just be like a normal teenager and just have fun, without worrying about the consequences?
Okay, that was strictly rhetorical. I knew the answer. I was still as much a Goodkind as I had ever been. And one of the many lessons I had learned was that everything you did had consequences. Everything a Goodkind did was probably going to end up on the internet and in every slimy newspaper on the planet. People complained about my sister Heather, but no one noticed how seldom she got caught in an embarrassing situation in public, even though she had paparazzi hounding her constantly. Most starlets and pop stars got caught like that sooner or later, even with fewer photographers around.
Life was less exciting and spontaneous that way, but it was also a hell of a lot less humiliating, and far less traumatic for the family. Some of my Maine cousins certainly hadn’t figured that out. They were busy trying to become celebrities by getting spotted being skanks. Every family tree has at least one branch like that, or so I assume.
On the gripping hand, I had Jade around. And Toni. If they didn’t make everything wacky, there was always the tag team of Risk and Flux. Plus Beltane. Who apparently had downgraded her war with that Thorn kid to ‘police action’ but hadn’t managed to move it to ‘cold war’ yet.
I temporarily ignored all of the obsessing and replied, “We should try some of this in one of the holo sims. Then we can see just how fast we can really go.” A spectacularly crazy idea occurred to me, and I wondered just what kind of delta-vee I could achieve with Billie’s help.
Yes, I had started using phrases like ‘delta-vee’ as soon as I cracked my physics text and read the first three chapters. I was going to have to study up on some basic calculus formulas if I wanted to do the supplemental work at the back of each chapter.
No, there was no way I was going to skip the supplemental work. And I knew I could memorize a few hundred calculus formulas without a lot of effort. I started reading further in my math textbook as soon as I got back to my room.
My bPhone rang with a tone I hadn’t heard in a couple weeks. I was wearing another of Bunny’s inventions. It was a throat mike and earphone combo, using an encrypted wireless connection to the bPhone. It looked like I had a black mole on the side of my throat and another one next to my Spot. So I answered the phone and spoke subvocally.
“Ayla. Can you drop by for a minute? Molly and Dorjee are back at their dorms, and Ceecee is off supposedly trying to talk Pendragon into letting her join the Capes.”
“It’s clear here. But what about the hallway?”
“Oh rats. It is not clear. Risk is arguing with Stoner about… something. Marshmallow Peeps? Oh never mind.”
I looked out the window and checked that it was pitch black outside. “I’ll be there in twenty.” I hung up the phone and Phase-leapt through the window. Then I flew around the building while still light, and flew in through her window. It wasn’t foolproof when there were psychics and espers and empaths in the dorm, not to mention people who could see in wavelengths that weren’t technically ‘visible’ light. But it was a reasonable dodge, and even if someone noticed my flying around Poe, they still wouldn’t know where I was going.
Chou still had her ear to her door. “Why would Risk care if Stoner ate a dozen Peeps, and why would Stoner do it? I thought he was trying to lose some weight.”
I said, “Risk is a Peeps addict. He has his mom mail him some every couple weeks. He even got Flux to stop snitching them. Stoner probably did it to be a jerk.”
“Is there anything you do not know?” she asked sarcastically.
“Yeah. How Jody has the patience to put up with all of us. If I had her job, I’d probably be stalking the halls with a tranquilizer dart gun after two days,” I said. “And that would only be because I couldn’t get a good one purchased and delivered any sooner.”
She grinned and sat down on her bed. “I do not know how to get Ceecee to… calm down. She is so happy to be who she is now, and I do not want to be a wet blanket. But… she is going to drive me crazy.”
I smirked, “Maybe this is the Tao testing you. Making you tougher and better able to maintain your calm in the face of stress.”
She stuck her tongue out at me. Then she slowly exhaled. “That is what I should be doing. Treating this as training, instead of a punishment. Is that what you are doing with Alex?”
I rolled my eyes. “No. Oh wait, let me rephrase that. Hell no. I know why they thought they needed to put Alex in with me, but I’m not enjoying it. And I’m not treating it as training. I’ve been trained enough already. I’m just enduring it until the term is over, and then I’m going to find a different roommate for next year.”
“Well, you’re not available, or I’d make sure to room with you.” She nodded unhappily. “So… anybody else. Heyoka. Belle. Electrode. Even Feral.”
“Not Fey?” she smiled naughtily.
“Not Fey,” I agreed. “There’s no way she won’t want Chaka again next year. Same with Megs and Delta. Or Tennyo and the J-Team. And there’s no telling how many changelings we’ll get in the fall.”
“Team Kimba Junior?” she smiled. “Or are you going to start selling off team names in the fall? Young Avengers, the Power Pack, the Runaways, Teen Titans-”
“They’re DC. I don’t own them,” I said, even though I knew she was just teasing me.
But her smile was brittle. “This… has been harder than I thought.” I knew she was talking about her plan and Project Exclusion. “I have had to tell people that I am… useless. A fraud. That I was just lucky two or three times. That I have been beaten in real battles in the real world. That Team Kimba had to cast me out to protect me. Every time I have considered telling someone the truth, the Tao has told me not to. So I am sure we are doing the right thing. But still…”
I wanted to step across the room and hug her, which told me it was probably the wrong thing to do. I said, “Doing the popular thing is easy. Doing the right thing is hard. You may not think much of my family, but that’s what we do. We’ve been ‘doing the right thing’ for decades.”
“Including the MCO and the Knights of Purity?”
“Yes. Including them,” I insisted. “Most of my family isn’t speaking to me, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying to save humanity. I’m not sure anymore that they’re right, but I am sure they’re doing what they think is right.”
She carefully said, “There can be a very large difference between what is right and what you think is right.”
“Oh yeah,” I unhappily agreed. “It seems like all the wars going on right now are two sides, both of them certain they’re in the right.”
She paused. “And speaking of wars, are people treating you any better now? If I had any idea things would go so badly for all of you… I would have found another way.”
I said, “Oh sure, things are a lot better. The first week was rough, but sooner or later, someone else does something horrendous and the gossips move on.”
She tilted her head slightly as she stared at me. Then she stepped forward and hugged me. “Ayla, you are not a good liar. I am sorry things are not going so well for you.”
“I’m fine,” I insisted. There was no way I was going to tell Chou her plan was making my life suck. She didn’t need me to dump all that misery on her. She was stressed enough as it was.
There was a noise in the hall, and Chou jerked her head toward the window. I didn’t need a second hint. I went light and dove through her to pass through the window and fly out of the building. I was flying back into my room in under half a minute.
Alex was just walking in with Tara. Alex smirked, “The stairs too common for a Goodkind?”
“Oh, I’m just establishing an alibi for when you open your locker tomorrow and you find those thirty pounds of fish guts,” I lied. I looked over at the mess on her desk and on the floor all around her closet. I added, “Of course, you might not notice, given the way you keep your parts of the room.”
Tara looked a little worried, but Alex sneered, “Like a Goodkind would get her precious little hands dirty.” Tara looked relieved, until Alex smirked, “No, she’d hire someone else to do it.”
Okay, I have to admit it. The look on Tara’s face was funny. Not that I laughed.
Alex patted Tara on the shoulder and said, “Relax. I’m just teasing.”
I said, “I have an appointment soon, so I’ll be out for perhaps an hour.” I was tempted to say ‘don’t wreck the room while I’m gone’ but I knew that if I did, Alex would feel compelled to trash the place.
I didn’t look around the room, because Alex was looking at me. Instead, I used my memory. My personal computer was turned off, and Alex didn’t have a password for it. My spare utility belt was hidden away, and my desk drawer had a magical lock on it now, courtesy of Nikki. My picture display and music player both had passwords now. So I just said, “Tara, I’ve got some of those Lorna Doones for you in the pantry. Don’t let Alex break the coffee maker again.”
“I didn’t break it!” someone argued as I left.
Okay, so technically she hadn’t broken my coffee maker. She had just ‘explored’ interesting combinations on the programming screen until she had locked it up and I had needed to bring Bunny in to reboot the system.
I knocked on the nearby door, and it swung open. A little face peeked around the door a foot from the floor. Koehnes said, “You may enter.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m glad to see you’re still speaking to me.”
“You aren’t the one she’d like ta stop speakin’ to,” Toni laughed as she looked over a selection of clothes.
Nikki looked at her and said, “Just wear what you have on. We’re going to be in sim suits anyway.”
Toni said, “You gotta make the right statement here. I don’t want these yahbos thinkin’ I’m too excited about doin’ this.”
“You are too excited about doing the sims,” Nikki said.
“But I don’t want them thinkin’ it,” Toni insisted. “I gotta get the right look.”
“What’s wrong with the school uni?” I asked, knowing full well that she had to have a ton of objections to it, or she would be wearing it already.
“Oh no, I’m not havin’ them think I’m another cocoanut, like some black people around here,” she complained.
I pointed out, “Bardue and Everheart already know all about you. And they have to have told Wilson and the rest of their team. If anything, they know too much about us.”
Toni shrugged, “As long as they don’t know the truth about the J-Team, I’m cool.”
“You’re already so cool they measure you on the Kelvin scale,” I teased.
Toni looked at me and said, “Ayles, half the time I got no idea what you said if it wasn’t for what your Ki’s tellin’ me.”
“I keep telling you, you have to shove the little fish in your ear, not in your-”
She laughed. “Okay, summa the time I do get your jokes.”
Nikki said, “Well, if the comedy club is closed for the night, maybe Toni could pick out some clothes so we’re not late to our first training sim?”
“Okay, okay, I’ll just go with this…”
I stepped out of the room while she was changing clothes. Yes, I was tempted to just stand there and watch her undress. I didn’t. At least when I was looking at pretty girls in the bathroom, I knew they were looking back. I knew I wasn’t the only person on campus who thought I looked like a hot girl; it was just that I was the only one on campus who hated that I looked like a hot girl. And most of the bathroom was comprised of girls who enjoyed looking at pretty girls.
Nikki and Toni stepped out of their room just about the time that Hank and Billie and the J-Team showed up. Toni had gone with some ankle boots with low chunky heels, and a top that went with the boots. Or vice versa. Plus the inevitable hoop earrings. If I were the kind of person who wore earrings – which was never going to happen even if Vanessa begged me – I certainly wouldn’t wear earrings that would let an attacker have two big, convenient handles at the sides of my head.
Of course, Toni could probably use her Ki to make her earrings fly out of the holes in her lobes. Failing that, she would use her Ki to slide away from anyone trying to grab her. Anyone else would end up screaming madly while their damaged earlobes bled all over the place. All right, Punch might be able to extend her PK field far enough to cover hoop earrings. I hadn’t ever checked, since she usually only wore a pair of tiny garnet studs.
Hank looked at his watch and asked, “How are we doing on time?” Which was Hank-speak for ‘I think we’re running a little late’.
Billie said, “We can fly if you’re worried about the time.” She looked at me and said, “Ayla and me? We made it here in like half a minute.”
I managed not to groan. “And we nearly knocked down about five people. Maybe we could take it a little slower than that.”
She grinned, “Maybe we could do it up top on a green flag day.”
I gave her a smile in return. “If we can avoid flying into anyone, we can go as fast as you want.”
“She always avoids flying into anyone!” Jade insisted.
Hank pressed, “Well, let’s get down to the tunnels and fly there. I want to be all set early enough that Bardue can’t yell at us about that.”
After that, it was simple. Billie grabbed Jade and Jinn, Hank grabbed Toni, and I flew alongside Nikki. It did take Nikki longer than usual to get moving, but I was fairly certain that was because she stopped to make sure her spell wouldn’t cause any damage along the ley lines. I knew I would be completely paralyzed if I had just found out I could destroy entire ecosystems just by casting a really powerful spell.
“So who’s it gonna be?” Toni called out from Hank’s arms.
“Tennyo? Lancer?” Nikki guessed from alongside me.
“I think it’s gonna be a ton of fun!” Jade chirped.
Billie said miserably, “I hate the whole idea.”
Jinn patted her shoulder. “It’ll be fine.”
I was pretty sure Billie just didn’t want to have to be the Big Bad. She had enough of that in the real world without doing it to her friends in a sim. I knew exactly how that felt.
Okay, I wasn’t looking forward to facing off against Dark Tennyo in Bardue’s holo sims either.
We flew into the holo sim area, and let the security officer scan us and check us in. That took about as long as it usually did, so I made sure Hank went first. He needed a head start to get into his sim suit, since he didn’t have Nikki’s magic finger-wiggling to help.
The rest of us dashed into the women’s changing room and stood in front of our lockers… and waited.
“Whassup, homegirl?” Toni asked. She even gave it some extra arm and neck motion, to be more street. Or perhaps to be more irritating.
Nikki stood there for several more seconds before she finally said, “I just needed to make sure. You know?” Pretty much all of us nodded. “If I destroyed… an entire forest… just to put on clothes or dry my hair…” The misery on her face made me want to step over and hug her a lot more than I had wanted to hug Chou.
Fortunately, Jade didn’t have my peccadilloes. She and Jinn flew over and hugged Nikki.
I said, “Look, if there’s a problem, we can get dressed all by ourselves now.”
Toni said, “Yeah, her mom even taught her how to tie her shoes so she doesn’t have to wear those Velcro things anymore.”
Nikki snorted with laughter, while Jade giggled. Finally, Nikki nodded and said, “This spell is safe. But I’m going to have to make some adjustments to the one I used in Boston to swap out our uniforms. Just in case.”
After that, she hit us with the usual, and when I opened my eyes I was wearing my sim suit. I checked in my locker, and she still wasn’t getting my school uniform hung up properly. I took a few seconds to take care of that and tuck my underwear in my mesh bag instead of leaving the stuff on top of my shoes. It wasn’t as if my shoes were dirty or wet, but it was more the principle of the thing.
That reminded me. I needed to have another talk with Jody. I was pretty sure Vamp was taking advantage of Jody’s jobs for me. Either that, or somehow Alex had decided that she was going to clean her own shoes and shine them the same way Jody did mine. And Jody really didn’t have to get the foodstuffs that were written in Alex’s handwriting. Also, it was fine with me if Jody cleaned up in the room by taking all of Alex’s junk and just dumping it on the floor of her closet so I didn’t have to look at it.
We walked, flew, and bounced – yes, one of us who won’t be named was jumping and bouncing – down the hall to Room 1 for our final briefing before the sim. I knew Hank would catch up with us as soon as he could.
Sergeant Wilson was standing there with his arms folded. “I’ve never seen a team get suited up so fast.”
Toni cocked her hip and said, “We’re just that awesome.”
I said, “Ignore the team wacko.”
“Hey!” said wacko protested.
I looked at her and said, “Oh, I beg your pardon. One of the team wackos.”
Jade complained, “Hey!”
Toni smirked, “That’s more like it.”
Wilson frowned slightly. “You don’t seem to be taking this very seriously.”
Toni shrugged, “It’s just a simulation.”
Billie said, “It’s not like it’s life or death.”
I added, “And we know the difference, as you should know. Every one of us has nearly died a few times just since last summer.”
“Or worse,” Nikki glowered.
Wilson smiled slightly. “And you’re sure you’re not exaggerating?”
Toni asked, “Hasn’t Sam Everheart given you the big debriefing on everything that keeps happening to us?”
He said, “She has mentioned a few things, but most of it was stuff a bunch of range jockeys didn’t need to hear.”
I didn’t really want to get into the ugly details, because Jade’s first near-death experience was nearly being beaten to death by her father. So I said, “Between the various members of the team, we have more near-death experiences than most of the rest of the student body combined. Have Admiral Everheart brief you.”
Hank flew in and gasped, “Am I late? What did I miss?”
Wilson said, “Your team is ready on time. You’re good. Now tonight you’ll have your first Dark Phoenix scenario. Depending on your performance, you’ll find out what your schedule will be for later tonight and tomorrow evening. Clear?”
Everyone else nodded. I just grumbled to myself. I really didn’t have the time to waste playing training sim hero every evening. I had classwork to do and financial research to do and reports to review.
<(Fey) Oh stop grumbling.>
<(Chaka) At least she’s not doing it over the Spots.>
<(Lancer) Can we not use our comms until we’re in the sim?>
<(Phase) And can we remember our comms are compromised once we’re in the sim?>
<(Fey) Phase already asked me to work on this, so I think I can cut out our Dark Phoenix as soon as we know who it is.>
<(Chaka) OF COURSE Phase already thought about it.>
<(Tennyo) Of course!>
<(Lancer) Knock it off, already.>
I stepped into my assigned cubicle and sat in the uncomfortable chair. I put the cube-shaped helmet on and left the faceplate open as long as I could.
Bardue’s dulcet tones blared over the speaker system. “Team Kimba! Going live in ten! Make sure you’re hooked up and close your helmets! Five… four… three… two…”
I closed my helmet and listened as Bardue finished his countdown.
Phase blinked, and he was floating ten feet above the bricks of the Quad. He quickly looked around as everyone else popped into view.
<(Lancer) Who is it?>
<(Phase) It’s G. She’s missing.>
<(Lancer) Fey? Lock her out of the comms.>
<(Phase) What about Shr…>
Shroud reacted when Phase spoke over the comms. She flew at Fey, arms forward. As soon as she started flying forward, her hands transformed into long knives.
<(Lancer) Fey! Your six!>
Fey whirled about and brought up her hands palms out. She made a hasty circular motion.
Phase went heavy and dropped to the bricks, shattering a dozen on impact. He Phase-leapt for the space in between Shroud and Fey.
Shroud darted to one side, trying to take advantage of Phase’s lack of agility while flying.
Phase grabbed one side of Shroud’s costume and went heavy. He dropped suddenly. A third of the costume peeled away, and the rest moved directly toward Fey.
The remains of Shroud hit an invisible barrier of magical energy. The costume exploded.
<(Phase) Fake! It’s a fake!>
<(Tennyo) Shroud can see magic!>
Most of the pieces of the Shroud costume flew through the air and fell to the ground.
One piece didn’t. A length of cable and chain with a knife on the end tumbled through the air, then ducked under the magical shield and dove at Fey’s stomach.
A hand darted out and snatched the knife. Cable wrapped around the hand and tried to slice it in two. Tennyo grabbed the cable with her other hand and blasted it to shreds. The chain darted toward Tennyo’s throat while the knife twisted as hard as it could.
Fey extended her arms and chanted something that Phase recognized as ancient Greek. A yellow light flared around her hands and enveloped Tennyo and the struggling equipment. The knife and chain suddenly sagged and went limp. Tennyo hastily gathered it all in her hands and blasted it into dust.
Fey said, “I think I got it already. The spell ought to knock out her objects.”
Phase nodded. But he still felt queasy thinking about what that knife would have done. A sentient knife with a cable attached? It would have sliced into Fey’s stomach and then carved its way through every organ in Fey’s torso. Nobody thought of Generator as a serious threat, but that was because no one stopped and thought about how easily three ounces of Silly Putty could kill you if it were alive and it forced its way into your mouth. Or into your nostrils. Or…
<(Lancer) Look alive! That was just round one.>
<(Phase) Fey? Can you cast a spell to find more of her objects? She could have armed anything around here, including some of the mud or snow.>
“What was that?” Tennyo asked out loud.
<(Phase) Round two.>
<(Chaka) That doesn’t sound good. And it’s coming from that way.> Chaka pointed off toward where Melville would be, even though it was invisible from where they were.
<(Chaka) I can feel the vibrations through my feet. She didn’t make a T. Rex, did she?>
A voice cut through the trees. It sounded like Generator, only deeper and darker. And much, much louder. “You know how my stuff can only lift a couple hundred pounds and I can only get a few running at a time? Not anymore! We really screwed up when we went down into the Class X site this time, because something was waiting for us. And now I see so much more! I can do so much more! I can make a devise that can lift a ton now! And I can make a new one every few seconds… And best yet, I can synchronize them.”
Three trees were suddenly knocked aside, and it stomped forward.
<(Lancer) What the hell is that?>
Phase stared in shock. It looked like a squat humanoid form, but it was thirty feet high. Chunks of brick and mortar and wallboard and aluminum were visible, but so were what looked like crushed human bodies. <(Phase) I think it’s a part of a building, reshaped into a golem.>
<(Chaka) With all the people still in it? Jeez!>
<(Lancer) I don’t think those are people anymore.>
<(Phase) We need to stop that, and we need to find Generator before she makes more.>
<(Fey) I’ve got task number two.>
<(Lancer) Tennyo, you and I on the building thing. Chaka and Phase, you protect Fey while she does the search.>
<(Tennyo) On it.>
<(Phase) Fey, you locked Generator and Shroud both out of our comms?>
<(Fey) Yeah. Now let me find her before she hits us with something worse.>
<(Chaka) Like some shoulder angels?>
Lancer and Tennyo closed quickly with the giant. Lancer made a feint at its face, and it swung a massive arm at him. He darted backward, out of its reach. But the arm launched off the body of the golem at Lancer.
Tennyo blasted the golem with her biggest ball of plasma, disintegrating a ten-foot hole right through it. But the golem launched its head at her and simultaneously compressed what was left of its body into a smaller monster.
Lancer didn’t react quickly enough, and the arm slammed into him, smashing him to the ground so hard that he was driven into the soil. The arm reformed into a column that leapt upward so it could crush him.
Tennyo threw a warp shield around her just as the head tried to surround her with tons of unyielding matter. The matter tried to surround her in a solid sphere which would leave her trapped.
Phase yelled, “Lancer! Here! It’ll scrag a PK construct!” He hurled what looked like a toy gun toward the massive depression that had Lancer at the bottom.
The matter that had been the arm reformed into a catcher’s mitt and leapt for the gun. It snagged it out of the air and crushed it.
The resulting explosion blew parts of the giant mitt into the air.
<(Chaka) What the hell was that?>
<(Phase) Squirt gun with multiple liquid chambers. And two explosive eggs shoved inside when no one was looking.>
<(Chaka) So you DON’T have somethin’ to take out her stuff?>
<(Phase) Not yet.>
Lancer flew out of the hole holding his left arm tightly against his chest. <(Lancer) Uhh. Got some broken ribs I think. And maybe a broken collarbone. That was more than five tons.>
<(Phase) Tennyo, you’re going to have risk irradiating the place. Blast every bit of golem you can find.>
<(Fey) I found her! She’s due south of us, coming our way from Melville.>
<(Chaka) I can stop these PK constructs too.>
<(Lancer) Fey, Chaka, Tennyo. Start blasting away. I’m not much use on stopping these things, even if they’re small. I can smash ‘em or slice ‘em, but not stop ‘em. Phase, find G and stop her. I’ll backstop you as much as I can.>
“Chaka Chaka Bang Bang!” Chaka struck a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ pose as her Ki blast struck the now-smaller golem, causing it to collapse into a heap of rubble.
Fey unleashed a ball of eldritch white flame that struck the mass around Tennyo and turned it into a pile of disconnected dust.
<(Tennyo) Thanks. I didn’t want to hit it with anything bigger and destroy the campus.>
<(Chaka) Oh don’t tell me she’s got more’a these things!>
<(Lancer) Phase, our part’s more critical now. Let’s move it.>
Phase flew alongside Lancer, who was obviously in a lot of pain. <(Phase) You okay?>
<(Lancer) No, but I can still contribute.>
<(Phase) Good enough. For now. But- Oh crap. Down there on your two.>
<(Lancer) Incoming. Repeat, incoming. G has four, repeat four more golems coming your way. And Melville is nothing but a pile of rubble.>
<(Fey) We read that.>
<(Chaka) We got it here. Aaaand here comes Bubba.>
Another massive golem lumbered through what had been a stand of sturdy trees and attacked them.
<(Tennyo) Bubba the Second?>
The thing charged at Fey. Fey lifted another twenty feet into the air and unleashed another white fireball. The flame hit the golem in the face, and the top half of the thing collapsed in a spray of dust and shards and remains.
The bottom half started reforming, but Tennyo blasted it with a massive ball of blue plasma, which disintegrated it and a big area of sod.
<(Fey) Nope, it’s Bubba Junior.>
<(Chaka) Nah, the first one was Bubba Lee. This one’s Bubba Joe.>
The next two golems lumbered forward and split up, one heading for Fey and the other aiming for Chaka.
<(Fey) Does that make any sense?>
<(Chaka) Hey! I’m not the redneck who named ‘em, I’m just the reporter.>
<(Tennyo) Guys! Focus here!>
<(Chaka) I am focused. I just needed time to pull up enough Ki.> “Chaka Chaka Bang Bang!”
The Ki blast knocked out the legs of the next golem, and the entire creature crumpled into a pile of rubble.
<(Fey) Look out! It’s still live!>
Chaka cartwheeled to the side as a jet of debris shot at her from the middle of the rubble.
Tennyo blasted the rubble pile before anything else could escape. Fey launched more spellfire at the flying debris.
The jet of dust and rock dodged Fey’s attack and swirled around Chaka so she was penned within a ring as wide as a hula hoop but three feet high and half a foot thick. It floated two feet off the ground, so Chaka would have to leap far into the air to dodge it.
Chaka stuck a finger into the rubble and said, “Bang.” She launched a Ki blast into the ring, disrupting the PK construct. The ring wavered and collapsed to the ground. She leapt out of the circle, shouting, “We bad!”
The fourth golem came flying through the air like a wrestler leaping off a turnbuckle. It pancaked Tennyo, smashing her into the ground underneath its bulk.
* * * * *
Phase soared over the trees, and occasionally through one or two. He was light, so it didn’t matter to him. Lancer had to zig and zag a bit to avoid unnecessary property damage of the arboreal kind. But Lancer didn’t need to turn or twist his body to do that, so he was managing.
<(Phase) Really, how bad is it?>
<(Lancer) Can’t move my left arm or take a deep breath. Maybe I’ll only have to fight the one-armed man from ‘The Fugitive’.>
<(Phase) Can the chatter… MAN! Have I waited forever to get to say that to you!>
<(Lancer) Glad you’re entertained becau- Uh-oh, it’s G.>
Phase looked down and gulped. Generator looked like something out of a nightmare. Specifically, Generator looked like something out of a couple of Phase’s nightmares. The nightmares where Carmilla destroyed everything in sight because Phase hadn’t had the guts to destroy her when she was still human enough to kill.
Phase stared in horror at what Generator had become. The petite girl was floating in mid-air. That wasn’t unusual. The glowing solid black eyes without pupils? The hideous corona of black energy sparkling about her? Not usual. And she had even changed into a new costume. A black and purple minidress with matching kneeboots. The minidress had a cleavage so deep Phase was sure Generator’s navel had to be showing.
<(Phase) At least it’s not Hello Kitty.>
<(Lancer) Don’t make me laugh, okay?>
<(Lancer) You know what to do.> He detoured just low enough to rip the top out of a tree with his right hand. He hurled it at Generator as a distraction. He knew Generator would recognize it as a distraction. But she still would have to deal with it.
Phase went heavy and hit the ground with a thud.
Generator looked at him with her madly glowing eyes. “Hey, guess what I bought with that money you loaned me!”
Phase took three steps and Phase-leapt forward, zooming in disruption-light mode to take out Generator. But he wasn’t fast enough. A pair of forcefield projectors snapped up out of the ground and blasted his insubstantial form. He stopped like he had flown into a wall. He screamed in pain as the projectors began ripping him apart, molecule by molecule.
A tree came flying through the air and crushed one projector. Then a small boulder flew through the air at the other. The second projector dodged the rock, but had to stop blasting Phase.
Phase vanished into the ground. He came up behind Generator, even though he knew she would have full three-hundred-sixty degree vision. She spotted him as soon as he emerged from the ground, and she started to turn toward him.
He threw a disruption-light rock through her, and she was unconscious before she could shriek. She dropped to the ground.
<(Phase) See anything else?>
<(Lancer) Hey! We need Fey or Chaka down here so we can check G is really out and she’s not carrying a still-live construct.>
<(Fey) Roger that. We’re still digging Tennyo out, but I’ll send Chaka your way.>
<(Chaka) I sent it… yoooooooour way! Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here ‘til Thurs…>
The simulation abruptly ended. “TEAM KIMBA! ROOM ONE FOR DEBRIEF! ON THE DOUBLE!!”
<(Chaka) Hmm, he sounds pretty happy.>
<(Tennyo) Are you kidding?>
<(Phase) Of course she’s kidding.>
<(Fey) Of course!>
<(Lancer) And can we drop the comm chatter before we get there?>
Generator and Shroud came running out of their cubicles and began hugging everyone, starting with Tennyo. “We weren’t too mean, were we? I tried to win, but we didn’t have a lot of time to plan stuff out ‘cause we didn’t know it was gonna be me until less than an hour ago, and then we only got a few minutes to do the planning.”
“Pronouns? Please?” Phase complained. Shroud stopped and wheeled about so she could give him a hug. “Okay, okay…” Phase griped some more, “I should have known it was you when you were the only one really looking forward to the sim.”
Chaka smirked, “Ooh, nice try, Sherlock.”
Fey tried a Maxwell Smart voice. “Missed it by that much!”
“Worst Paul Lynde imitation ever,” Lancer tossed out.
Shroud went back to hugging Tennyo and saying, “You’re not mad about us dropping the thing on you? I wanted to make it a big pink Hello Kitty monster but Gunny Bardue said no.”
“I need to buy the sergeant a fruit basket for that,” muttered Phase.
“I’ll chip in on that one,” whispered Chaka.
“Me too,” whispered Fey.
Jade pouted, “You know, some of us heard that.”
Phase said, “There’s the royal ‘we’ and the editorial ‘we’ and the authorial ‘we’, but I don’t think there’s a Sinclair ‘we’.”
Chaka grinned, “Is that what all the kings call it? The Royal We? Sounds like a buncha princes fighting over somebody’s gaming system.”
Phase regally said, “Technically it’s called the pluralis majestatis, which is Latin for-”
“-really boring stuff we need to drop right now,” Lancer insisted as he opened the door into Room 1.
All seven team members filed in and sat down in the first two rows. Bardue and Wilson stood stonily beside the podium and glared at them.
<(Phase) Don’t crack. Stay quiet.>
Bardue started off at about ninety decibels. “TEAM KIMBA! WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU DOING OUT THERE?!”
Lancer started out, “Sergeant. We were determining the threat, assessing the change in threat potential, dealing with the risks to bystanders, and locating the primary threat.”
“You were pussyfooting around the whole time!”
Wilson said, “You all were. We gave your red team the opportunity to be a Class A threat, and she wasted it on the people least likely to get hurt or killed.”
Bardue glared at Generator. “And what should you have done?”
She said, “Well, I guess I could’ve dropped a couple tons of junk on Fey and Chaka to start with. If I wasn’t controlling the stuff after I dropped it, neither of ‘em would probably spot it.”
“And then?” growled Bardue.
Generator shrugged. “Then they wouldn’t have anybody who could tell where I was, or what was still a live construct, or if I was really me and not a robot or another construct.”
She shrugged again. “Well, I could’ve hit Lancer a lot harder with something a lot bigger. I got Tennyo down, and I could’ve held her in place long enough to win the sim, but she doesn’t like being cooped up like that…”
“YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO LET THEM GO BECAUSE OF WHAT THEY LIKE!” Bardue bellowed.
Generator didn’t flinch. Compared to cleaning up a Class X site or being stabbed through the heart by a psycho witch, Bardue was pretty far down her ‘scary’ list. She said, “It is only my second time being a supervillain. And you complained a lot about my Hello Kitty toys the other time. And I still think my cheongsam was great for a supervillain. I am Japanese, you know.”
Bardue looked like several veins in his forehead might explode. “You’re not a goddamn stereotype either! And I didn’t authorize that supervillain costume you were wearing this time! What the hell was that?”
She smiled at him. “I put in for a fully adjustable camouflage costume. I didn’t say I was going to keep it in camo colors.”
“Well, you looked like something out of goddamn Marvel comics!” There was a slight cough, as if someone was clearing a throat. “AND CAN THE SEVEN, PHASE!”
Bardue wheeled on the rest of the team. “You ALL slacked off! You ALL took it easy on the opponent! This is why half of Mujer Fuerte’s team ended up DEAD!” He shoved his clipboard into Sergeant Wilson’s hands and stormed out of the room.
Wilson sighed extravagantly and said, “I hate to say it, but Gunny was right. You went easy on each other. But you know that. Now let’s talk about all the things you did right in a scenario with not enough intel and a massive threat…”
After several minutes, he concluded, “…Now you’ll need to be back here at a quarter of nine tomorrow night, too. We’re going to be doing more Dark Phoenix scenarios, and you’re going to need to stop treating each other like you’re made of glass. Good night.”
They walked back to the changing rooms in silence. It wasn’t until they had their sim suits off that Generator whispered, “You think they’re still listening?”
“They better not be watchin’, that’s all I got to say,” Chaka said.
Fey paused and finally said, “No one observing us or listening in.”
Phase said, “Let’s not debrief until we catch up with Lancer.”
Tennyo said, “That guy is loud. My ears are still ringing.”
Fey said, “Yeah. I had to do a blocking spell.”
Phase checked, “How’d you manage that? I didn’t hear you do anything, and I didn’t see anything.”
Fey shrugged. “I just put a little bubble of still air in each ear canal. I thought about trying a bubble of vacuum, but I thought that might make me pretty much deaf.”
Tennyo frowned, “Wish you’d done it for me too. That guy can yell.”
Fey ducked her head. “Sorry. I should have. I just sort of figured you could ignore it. I mean, you’re the one who didn’t mind having her eardrums blown out in Hawthorne.”
Tennyo shrugged. “I didn’t say I didn’t mind it, just that I could put up with it.”
Phase said, “Next time, put in some of the deviser earplugs before you put on your sim suit. Bugs has some good stuff.”
“So, is that what you’re going to do next time?” Chaka asked.
Phase gave her a regal look. “No, that’s what I already did.”
Fey got up and peeked at Phase’s left ear. “Ooh, yeah. That’s tiny. I had to look for it before I even saw it.”
Phase nodded. “There wasn’t much point in wearing something Bardue might spot.”
“Oh yeah, that’d go over big,” groaned Generator.
Phase said, “Yeah, if he’d seen that, their ‘good cop bad cop’ routine would have had a lot more bad cop in it.”
“Is that what they were pulling?” Tennyo asked.
“Oh yeah,” nodded Chaka.
Generator grinned, “Still, it was nice getting a pat on the back for stuff. Way better than getting yelled at just because they don’t like Hello Kitty.”
Once they were dressed, they met up with Lancer in the hallway. Then they carefully checked out and walked back to Poe.
<(Lancer) Are we clear?>
<(Fey) Yeah. I’ve been maintaining a check. They tried to sneak a bug on you at the security post. Little deviser thing that floats under its own power.>
<(Chaka) Yep. I sorta fried it. Turns out if they’re that small and also devises, they’re not all that sturdy. A little applied Ki, and… fzzt. It’s an ex-parrot.>
<(Generator) He’s expired and gone to meet his maker?>
<(Lancer) Can we get back on track now?>
<(Generator) Bereft of life, he rests in peace!>
<(Generator) His metabolic processes are now history!>
<(Tennyo) Stop now.>
<(Generator) Okay. I just had to get in my favorite part about the metabolic processes.>
<(Lancer) Thank you. Now, as I was…>
<(Generator) So, what is the choir invisible?>
<(Phase) It’s a common Christian ref- >
<(Lancer) Phase! Knock it off!>
<(Phase) Sorry. I’ll tell you later.>
<(Lancer) Can we get down to business?>
<(Tennyo) We saved the debrief.>
<(Chaka) Until you could yell at us in person.>
<(Phase) Look, Bardue was right up and down the line. The J-Team took it easy on us. We took it easy on them. No one wanted to go smash their friends into a paste. We need to not be so obvious about it in future, or they’ll keep yelling at us.>
<(Chaka) Heh. I like the way you put that.>
<(Generator) So we can keep being nice about things, we just have to make it look like we’re being hardasses?>
<(Phase) They really did let you have some pretty awesome powers there.>
<(Generator) Yeah, I just wish they’d let me use ‘em on Omega Squad, or some Alphas. Or the Martial Arts Cheerleaders. Or… >
<(Chaka) Or Donny-boy! You could give him a high colonic enema with five pounds of concrete!>
<(Fey) Still-liquid concrete, or already hardened concrete, or broken up into gravel concrete?>
<(Chaka) Hey Phase, which would hurt the most?>
<(Lancer) Don’t answer! Now can we get back to business?>
<(Chaka) Sure. It’s simple. Play hard. They’re gonna keep giving us this stuff as long as they think we’re goofing around.>
<(Lancer) Okay. Now I thought we did a good job of assessing the threat, even when it escalated way past where we were expecting. We caught the immediate threat – good work on that one, Phase – and we stopped the secondary threats. Even if Generator was lobbing softballs at us some of the time.>
<(Tennyo) I didn’t do a good job. I ramped up way too slow. I was thinking about not hurting my friend, and not about doing the job.>
<(Chaka) Hey, you did okay. No one wants you startin’ out at ‘irradiating the entire town’ level.>
<(Fey) I ramped up way too slow too. I was worrying about not destroying the local ecosystems, and not about the task. I need to spend more time preparing lists of spells I feel comfortable using, so I’m better prepared the next time.>
<(Lancer) Good. I was way too slow realizing what Generator’s new powers would mean. I should have stayed back and let the ranged powers tackle that thing.>
<(Phase) Throwing that tree and the boulder? Huge help. She had me with the energy projectors. I need to watch out for that a lot more.>
<(Generator) But that trick with the rock? Cool. I mean, I saw you coming, and I thought I was ready for you, and then… the rock.>
<(Tennyo) The rock?>
<(Phase) Instead of trying to dive through her disruption-light, I threw a disruption-light rock through her.>
<(Generator) It knocked me out, and also Jann and Jayna and Jasmine and Jayla and- >
<(Lancer) You had a couple hundred copies and you still named ‘em?>
<(Generator) Well, not all of them. Just the first… I dunno. Shroud?>
<(Shroud) I think about twenty-seven. The rest of them pretty much named themselves. There was J2D2 and J3PO and- >
<(Phase) Okay, we get the picture.>
<(Shroud) I should have taken five or six copies along with me, for better sneak attacking.>
<(Generator) Ooh yeah! That would’ve been awesome!>
<(Phase) More like gruesome. Having you come apart and having one live person to handle was bad enough. It’s not like you really need more than an ounce of material to kill most of us.>
<(Chaka) An ounce?>
<(Phase) What would you do if three ounces of Silly Putty leapt up into your nostril, moved down your throat, and blocked your windpipe?>
<(Phase) Or if a yard of that nanofiber flew through Lancer’s PK field and into his mouth, and then tried tying off anything it could find, or cutting into things inside him?>
<(Lancer) I do have plenty of PK protection internally too. But yeah.>
<(Phase) So Spinner slices off Tennyo’s head and waits for it to regenerate. A knife bushwhacks me from behind. A shuriken does the same to Fey. Ten pounds of sand attacks Chaka and tries to get in her eyes and into her throat. And nanofibers try to find out how hard it is to damage Lancer from the inside. Clear win for the J-Team.>
<(Chaka) Phase, you are one sick puppy.>
<(Tennyo) And you think way too much about this stuff!>
<(Lancer) Maybe she thinks just the right amount about this stuff. So who are they going to hit us with tomorrow night?>
<(Phase) Probably our biggest guns. Tennyo or Fey.>
<(Lancer) And how are you going to stop them?>
<(Phase) I’ll tell you when they’re not listening.>
<(Chaka) Well, you know, Phase did put the team together and she rules with that iron fist, so I guess what she says goes…>
<(Phase) Off with her head.>
* * * * *
But five hours later, Phase was waking up from a nightmare about Dark Generator. Another nightmare about Dark Generator. He groaned and sat up in his bed.
From overhead, an angry sleep-thickened voice muttered, “Can you shut up? It’s the frickin’ middle of the night!”
“Sorry,” Phase muttered. He staggered out of bed and down the hall toward the bathroom.
He used the toilet, and then splashed some cold water on his face.
A perky voice spoke behind him. “Hey, guess what I bought with that money you loaned me!”
“Agh!” Phase dove through the wall and vanished.
Jade stood there in her brand new white Hello Kitty nightie with pink trim, and the matching fuzzy slippers. She pouted, “Why does everybody hate Hello Kitty so much?”