Ayla and the Mad Scientist chapter 6 by Diane Castle
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
I woke up when the alarm clock went off. Now that I knew Alex didn’t mind Nightwish, it was off the morning alarm playlist. So it was, once again, Brass Monkey.
“You shit! I’m gonna smash that thing wunna these days!” Vamp buried her head under her pillow and tried to get ten or fifteen more minutes of sleep before her own alarm rang.
I quickly turned off my alarm clock and got moving. I only had until Vamp showered and finished drying off to get in all of my morning ogling at the mirror. I made sure I had my bathrobe properly tied. My room was warm, and the bathroom was cozy, but the hallway in between could be fairly frigid. Normally, it wasn’t too bad, but the other week Feral had left her window and her door open for hours in the middle of the night, and the cold had percolated down to our floor and the ground floor. Several of the kids living upstairs in Damnation Alley had complained about it ad nauseam. Of course, Shove was one of them, however she had chosen to yell at Feral instead of complaining to everyone else. No, that wasn’t really true. She had yelled at Feral and also complained to everyone she could. And a few people she couldn’t. I mean, why did she think Jay Jay would stand still for a five minute rant? I couldn’t get Jay Jay to hold still for more than about five milliseconds. As it was, since Jay Jay usually sprinted through the halls on her way to and from the bathroom, she hadn’t really noticed the temperature on that particular morning.
I got in line and started enjoying the view. Pilar was in front of me, and wanted to turn around and talk about her English class and my Spanish class. Not that Spanish was her native language, but she was way better in it than I was. I always enjoyed talking to Pilar, and even more so when she already had her bathrobe off so she could soap up by exuding a clear gel through her pores.
Bunny was just getting out of the shower and slipping into her robe. I sometimes wondered if the Las Vegas casinos knew she was a mutant. After all, her mother was an ex-showgirl who now worked backstage in some sort of role, and her father was still working as a special effects technician. What sort of child did the two of them produce? An incredibly hot Exemplar who was a brilliant inventor. She looked so much like her pictures of her mother that it was fairly unlikely in my personal opinion that her mother was really a baseline. And her skillset was surprisingly close to her father’s occupation, so her dad might be a really low-level gadgeteer. The casinos had to suspect that the Cormick family was taking the ‘no mutants’ general rule for the shows and smashing it into shards. I still thought the ‘no mutants’ rule made sense, even if I was probably the only student at Whateley who did. The natural appearance of the usual stage shows would be completely suspect if people thought that Exemplars might be working as showgirls, or Wizards might be posing as stage magicians, or Shifters might be working as mimics, or Sirens might be working as lounge singers. Being in a room with someone who could really turn a person into a tiger with the wave of a hand? That was a scary thought for a lot of people, and Vegas had a vested interest in not scaring people away.
Conversely, Vegas had a lot vested in not allowing mutants into the casino gambling areas. There were always rumors about big winners at any game, but a long-term analysis commissioned several years ago by the Nevada State Gaming Commission and funded by the Harriet Goodkind Memorial Trust suggested that the average house take was right at the mathematically expected amount for every casino. And the casinos spent a lot of time making sure that the assorted probability warpers, reality warpers, kinetics, espers, Psis, and wizards in the MCO databases didn’t waltz in and cheat the house out of a few million. Although apparently they had a much bigger problem with ‘card counters’ at blackjack, since there were untold numbers of regular people who had read the book “Beat the Dealer”.
You know, an Exemplar card counter would be a serious headache, even with blackjack shoes that held a dozen decks. It was probably a good thing for the casinos that ordinary people who could count cards probably outnumbered Exemplars who would try to count cards about a million to one.
As I was getting out of my shower, Toni and Nikki came in. So I got to watch as they took off their robes and stepped into the showers. This mirror gag was great. It was really too bad Vamp was sharp enough to use it too. Then Vanessa came over and gave me a kiss before she got in line for the showers. So it was all good. I just wrapped up about the time Alex got into her shower, so I didn’t have to deal with her.
It bothered me that I hadn’t really helped Alex prepare for spring term classes. But I also knew we would have been screaming at each other before we had managed to get through five minutes of tutoring. So it was probably better that Alex had gotten her tutoring from Tara and Jody and Hank and Billie and Toni and whoever else Alex had suckered into helping her. At least, I kept telling myself that.
I had also heard that Alex was trying to line herself up as the next cottage fixer after Zoe. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I had wanted to be the dorm fixer in order to make contacts. To have people see me as a friend instead of as a Goodkind. But that was probably not a good use of my time, given everything I had on my plate at the moment. So really, it was better if someone else was willing to take the job. But… Vamp? Would she really be any good at it? Would she take advantage of everyone who needed a favor? There were certainly other people on our floor who would be a lot worse than she would, but that didn’t make her the best candidate for the job. So I still hadn’t figured out whether I needed to take the role away from her. But I knew I still had a year to decide. A little more than twelve months, unless Zenith came down with a case of senioritis.
I dressed in my usual attire, the Whateley uniform with pants, and I made sure I had everything I needed for my first day of the new term. I had my three-ring binder with inserts. I had my utility belt. I had my gymbag ready for aikido class. I had read ahead in every class. In theory, I was prepared. But I think everyone knows my feelings about the difference between theory and practice.
On the other hand, breakfast wasn’t so great. There wasn’t a treat for me, so I made do with a cup of the good coffee and what was available. The oatmeal wasn’t too bad and the croissants were acceptable, but neither was as good as the food to which I had grown accustomed.
Toni elbowed me. “Stop grumbling. The food’s just fine.”
“I’m glad you think so,” I retorted.
Hank leaned forward and said, “Nikki, I thought you were the queen at the table.”
Jade agreed, “Yeah, that was pretty much ‘we are not amused’ there.”
Toni teased, “We are most appreciative that you peons think the food is edible.”
Telling them that I didn’t sound like that wouldn’t accomplish anything useful. In fact, it would just make me sound like a pompous jerk and a whiner. I said, “So I’m spoiled. I don’t hear any complaints when I get delicious food and share it.”
Hank smiled mischievously. “Why would I complain when I get to watch three or four hot girls having foodgasms?”
Toni said, “I still think those poison salads were yick.”
“Yick?” I gave her a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah. Yick. It’s a technical term,” she lied smoothly. “You really need to get up on the jargon we modern food gurus use.”
“Fascinating,” I replied. “Any other technical terms I should know?”
She nodded, “Sure. I mean, of course.” Several people snickered. “There’s ‘blech’ and ‘double blech’. And…” She slipped into a Valley Girl impression. “Like totally barf, girl.” She shook her head from side to side just like Bunny often did.
When we stopped laughing, she moved on to her imitation of the Beret Mafia critiquing the food. For a while, I was laughing so hard I thought I was going to hurt myself. Jade was laughing so hard I thought she was going to pee herself.
Toni was still doing a snooty European food critic when I made myself leave the table. Kismet would have a fit over the routine, assuming she ever found out. And Toni was still on a roll. But I wanted to get to physics class and find a good seat.
I should have left earlier. I should have anticipated something would come up. After all, I was at Whateley Academy, and I was Ayla Goodkind.
I got all the way to the elevator that led down to the tunnels. Yes, I was taking the warm way to class instead of trudging through the great but freezing cold outdoors. That is one of the purposes of the tunnel system. Fresh air is fine; but when it forces you to wear a parka to class with no place to put said parka during the class without getting it all wrinkled and creased and dirty, then I was willing to pass on it.
As I waited for the elevator with two devisers who were ignoring me in favor of a detailed discussion on why they couldn’t get a shrink ray to really work, two students came lumbering along.
Well, it was safe to assume it was two students. The larger of the two was Slab, in all of his bichrome glory. The smaller was only small compared to someone like Slab. It looked like an Alien queen from “Aliens”. Given that it was walking with Slab, that made it Jimmy T.
The two devisers beside me suddenly had that ‘oh my God it’s coming this way’ look in their eyes. There was an audible gulp in there too. The elevator door opened, and they literally dove in before scrambling to their feet and pounding frantically on the buttons. When the elevator doors closed before the monster got a claw in the gap, the devisers cheered wildly. There were sounds that I assumed meant the two guys were yelling in triumph and jumping up and down like maniacs. Did they think that was really an Alien Queen as in the movies? And if so, didn’t they have any concerns about the student they left behind in the hallway, or the students still in the cafeteria? Sometimes I simply don’t understand the thought processes of ‘normal’ people.
I turned toward the two Thornies and said, “Good morning.” After all, they were obviously heading to talk to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what they wanted to say, but I was already blackballed from Hawthorne so their remaining options were limited.
Slab said, “Phase. Can we talk for a minute?”
I nodded. “Of course. Do you mind accompanying me into the tunnels?”
Jimmy said, “Okay.” But that Alien head was definitely not meant for conversing in human languages.
I asked him, “Isn’t this look a little awkward for casual conversation?”
He spoke with difficulty, “I woke up like this. It usually takes me a couple hours to shift back to normal after I’ve slept in a shifted shape for hours. I was planning on looking like me. Or maybe George Burns.”
I nodded. “Well, as long as someone like Pucelle doesn’t try to go Sigourney Weaver on you…”
Slab said, “I’m surprised you don’t want to go Sigourney Weaver on us.”
That wasn’t what I expected him to say. Something interesting was going on. The elevator dinged and opened up. I stepped on and held the doors for the two of them. Jimmy needed more room than usual.
Once the doors closed, I said, “I would have done the same thing to protect my friends. In fact, I have taken steps to protect my friends. I don’t like the decision, but I’m not going to hold it against the people chosen to be the bearers of bad news.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger, huh?” wondered Slab. “Way more mature than we were figuring.”
Okay, I was lying through my teeth. I was holding it against them. I just wasn’t going to say so. And I wasn’t going to act on my feelings that very second. That was just Politics 101.
The elevator opened up, and we hurried off. That was one of the tunnel rules. Get off the elevators quickly, so it can move back to the upper floors without alerting anyone who wasn’t in the know. It was more important on red flag days, which was one of the reasons each tunnel elevator had the little red/green/yellow signal lights above the button panel.
Slab looked at Jimmy T, who nodded back his way. Obviously, Jimmy wanted Slab to do the talking. Or needed Slab to do the talking.
Slab shrugged, which looked odd on his massive body. “Bladedancer came over to visit, and someone told her we blackballed you because we like her.”
I carefully schooled my features, because I suddenly had an idea of what had happened next, and I didn’t want to start laughing like a loon.
Slab said, “She sort of… lost her temper. Seems she thinks you did the right thing, moving her where she wouldn’t get hurt.”
I said, “I didn’t actually want to take her off the team. She’s my best friend in this entire school.” I wondered if those two truthful statements would register as lies if Nikki or Toni were studying me. I was certainly dissembling.
Slab looked singularly uncomfortable. Normally he looked… well… ‘normal’ isn’t a word you could use to describe his appearance, but usually he looked utterly implacable. I couldn’t get a reading off Jimmy, because he still looked like one of those Alien Queen creatures, and his face had all the mobility of a concrete sidewalk.
Slab said, “We talked it over, and you can come back to Hawthorne. If you want to. I mean, if you’re even speaking to any of us after this whole thing. And… I’m really sorry.”
Jimmy made an effort to talk through that inhuman mouth. “Me too. We thought we were doing the right thing, and we were just… doing what people do to us.”
I nodded. “Apology accepted. I’ll come visit. I don’t know when, because my schedule is getting more and more crowded by the minute. I’m taking a full courseload; I’m TA’ing all four Accounting classes; I’ve got special classes on Saturdays; and now I’m getting pulled into these stupid training team sims without notice.”
Slab and Jimmy looked at each other. Slab said, “Cool. Monster Squad looks forward to crushing your team beneath our scary talons and tentacles.”
I laughed. He said it like it was their official team motto. Come to think of it, maybe it was. I said, “In that case, Team Kimba looks forward to driving you insane with our assorted neurotic and psychotic tendencies.”
For the first time since I had met him, I saw Slab grin. He said, “See ya around.” Then they walked off.
Sometimes being a mutant isn’t so bad. I felt like smiling all the way to physics class.
I stopped smiling when I got to class. I wasn’t late, but I didn’t get the seat I really wanted. Pendragon was sitting in the center seat of the second row, and Mister Mystic was sitting next to him. I contemplated sitting right behind them, but they were both a lot taller than I was. Being five-foot-nothing is really a pain a lot of the time, especially when you’re surrounded by Exemplars. Sitting behind Pendragon wouldn’t be as bad as sitting behind, say, Slab. But it wouldn’t be convenient. And sitting next to him would be socially awkward when as far as I knew, the Capes were officially still upset at my ‘treatment’ of my teammate. Man, it was a good thing I wasn’t dying to get into the Future Superheroes of America.
I took a seat three rows behind Mister Mystic so I could see all of the blackboard, and I hoped that someone like Montana or Pyrs didn’t come sit right in front of me. I considered sitting in the front row, but I really didn’t want to call any more attention to myself than necessary. There was a regular intro physics class that Jade had taken. It sounded pretty easy. There was this AP physics class, which would hopefully give me a deeper understanding of the material, and it could also get me college credit. And there was a ‘physics for phreaks’ class. At least, that was the slang name for it, according to Möbius. It was a special Workshop course on physics with a major emphasis on the hands-on part and individual projects. I wasn’t eligible for that.
Okay, technically I wasn’t eligible for this course either. It was supposed to be a junior-senior course to be taken after or concurrently with pre-calc. So I had the prerequisites, even if I was still a frosh. I was assuming that most of the class would be seniors. So I was hoping to keep my head down and not get even more of the campus cheesed off at me.
Dr. Yablonski came limping in, with four more students – including Kodiak – rushing through the doorway right behind him to grab seats before he glared at them. His limp wasn’t really severe right then, but I had noticed that it fluctuated over time. When he had been the assistant to Mrs. Bohn in last term’s Powers Theory labs, he’d had weeks where his leg seemed perfectly normal, and he’d had weeks where his limp was a lot worse than today. I didn’t know why, but I had a couple theories.
He looked around the room, carefully eyeing every student. Then he nodded to himself and said in his usual growl, “You’re all here. Good.” Exemplar memory, probably. He had probably seen every one of us in Powers Theory or the lab for it.
He slapped several stacks of handouts onto the desk before him. Then he growled, “How many of you have cracked the textbook?”
I waited until hands started going up before I raised my hand as well. Ten out of the nineteen students raised their hands.
“And how many of you have read the entire textbook?” he continued.
I was one of six students who had. Pendragon was one of the others. I was pretty sure we were all Exemplars, which gave us a natural advantage in reading speed and memorization ability.
“And how many of you have had at least one term of calculus?” he asked.
I knew several of the students were in my trig class last term, so I knew I wasn’t the only one without calculus. But only eight of the students raised their hands. Of course, Pendragon and Mister Mystic were two of them. Kodiak was another. For some reason, I was surprised that Kodiak had any brains, and that he seemed intent on using them. Maybe I was just prejudiced… against people I had needed to punch. Unfortunately, that list never seemed to stop growing.
Dr. Yablonski said, “You can pick up these handouts at the end of the class. Now here’s a problem that isn’t physics. The answers to all of the homework problems in the textbook have been posted on the web. Along with the answers to all the homework problems in the twenty or so competing textbooks we might have picked. So this white sheet is a list of all the homework assignments for the term. But you will not be turning them in. I don’t need to see that you can copy answers off the internet. Instead, you will be responsible for doing your own work and making sure that you can compute the right answers.
“So the course grade will be as follows: twenty percent for the midterm, thirty percent for the final, thirty percent for your labs, and twenty percent for the short quizzes that will be every Friday except the week of the midterm. The white sheet also has the dates for the midterm, the final, and the AP exam.” He stared at me and said, “The final and AP exam will take place during the week the underclassmen are having their combat finals.”
Crap. Well, I couldn’t see how he could work it any other way. I should have expected that. The trig final in fall term had been on the weekend after my combat final, but that was probably atypical.
He continued, “The green sheet has the details and requirements for every write-up in lab. You’ll find some of it tedious, but trust me, keeping track of all the details is crucial. A number of the labs we’ll have will cover simple experiments. Why? Because people already know physics, and they know the wrong stuff.
“What do I mean? Think about a class like economics or Asian history or French literature. Normally, you go into a class like that having no knowledge of the material. But we go into our first physics class having experienced physics for our whole lives. We know electricity goes through wires from a battery and makes a flashlight turn on. We know that when we throw a ball, it curves and falls back to earth. We know that it takes work to move concrete blocks from the ground up to the third floor of a construction site, particularly if we’re the ones who have to haul them up flights of stairs to get them there.” A general titter of amusement swept through the classroom, and he grinned to show that it was okay.
“Now this means that we end up with our own personal beliefs about how electricity works, and gravity, and acceleration, and forces, and everything else that’s in our textbook. But most of our personal beliefs turn out to be wrong.
“So we’ll spend time in every class working on this issue. I won’t bore you to tears with a tedious lecture. No, I’m going to expect every one of you to have done the reading before class, every single day. Then the class will usually follow these rules: I’ll talk some about the day’s topic and do a class demonstration or two. That will lead into an exercise for you to do at your seat. I’ll hand it out so you’ll have the important information on a single sheet. I’ll help everyone and talk about common mistakes people make when they work on that kind of problem. You’ll compare answers and talk with classmates, and try to resolve any discrepancies. Then I’ll show you at least one way to do the problem, and talk about where people often go wrong. It’s often their concepts they had before they started the course.
“I expect we’ll be able to do this a couple times in every class. But this means you will have to do your reading, you will have to attend every class and participate, and you will still have to go back to your room and do your homework. Any homework you can’t get the answer to, you should talk over with your fellow students, or else come ask me about it during my regular office hours, or else email me with questions. The blue sheet goes over this ‘active learning’ in more detail, and also includes information on my office hours, my campus email address, and your responsibilities as a student in my class.
“Now you’ll need to take notes in class, so you’ll want a loose-leaf binder for that. You’ll also need graph paper. I recommend that you do your lab notebooks entirely on graph paper, which makes creating tables of data and drawing charts easy to do in the middle of your lab report. Keeping everything on loose paper means that you can turn in every lab report separately and not be without a notebook if it doesn’t get graded by your next lab. Now, if there are no questions, let’s start talking about physics.” He said the last sentence in the tones of a man who was not going to be happy if someone still wanted to ask a question.
Not that I had any questions. I was quite happy so far. Having endured the incredible boredom of Powers Theory lectures, I was hoping that Dr. Yablonski’s teaching approach would be enlightening and interesting enough to keep me awake, even if it probably wouldn’t be as exciting as, say, aikido class. Unless Dr. Yablonski grew really upset with me.
He said, “Now before I start talking, let’s arrange the class in workgroups that you will participate in for the rest of the term. We have nineteen students, so I think five groups of three and one group of four will be optimal. Since most of you are already sitting with friends, these groupings will work relatively well. Phase, would you please sit beside Pendragon? Kodiak? Will you move to the other side of the room beside Quarrel? And Harrier, will you move over to the group on your right? There we are.”
I sighed inwardly and held my notebook to my chest. Then I went light and floated through the desks to get to the seat to Pendragon’s right. As I sat, I decided that Yablonski could have really shafted me. Pendragon was probably a lot more studious than Kodiak, and I knew he was a lot easier to get along with than Quarrel. Okay, everyone was easier to get along with than Quarrel, even Fractious and Jobe and Corrosive. Maybe Yablonski was counting on Kodiak’s mass and his rep to keep Quarrel under control.
I acted like there wasn’t a problem. I turned to my right and said to Pendragon, “Fancy meeting you here.”
Mister Mystic leaned forward and smiled at me, “We have to stop meeting like this.”
Pendragon said, “I’m guessing from your performance in World Lit last term that you’ll be a good partner in here.”
I just said, “I hope so. You and I have read the whole textbook and he’s read some of it, so at least we’re well prepared.”
Pendragon said, “And I think we can work together.”
I assumed that meant that I was somehow out of the Official Capes Doghouse for some reason. Perhaps Marty had gone to bat for me. Or maybe word of Chou’s activities at Hawthorne was making the rounds. Or perhaps Slab had talked to one of the Capes. I didn’t know, but I suspected that my intelligence network would find out over the course of the next week or two.
Things were already looking up, and it was just the first day of the term. Maybe next I would find out that Vamp had just stolen Mrs. Horton’s purse and fled to Karedonia, never to return. I had my fingers crossed, metaphorically.
Dr. Yablonski started talking again. “Now, the first things we’ll talk about are matter and motion. When we talk about motion, we need to know how fast something is going, and in which direction. Then we need to know if it’s speeding up or slowing down, and how quickly, and in which direction. And we need to talk about this in three-dimensions, unless you’ve found a way to live in Flatland, or you have the kind of power that is better described by a higher-dimensional construct. For the purposes of this course, we’ll pretend that three dimensions are just right all the time. And in fact, you’ll see that three dimensions is the right number for almost everything we’ll do until you get to Einsteinian relativity or pattern theory or string theory or one of the other interesting areas we’ll generally ignore this term as too advanced to tackle mathematically.
“So I’ll talk about three-dimensional vectors for a few minutes. All of you have seen Cartesian coordinates and worked with them every time you drew an X-Y graph. Positive values of X always go to the right, positive values of Y always go up, and then we have a third direction. Positive values of Z will always go toward you out of the whiteboard, or out of your paper…”
It took him a couple minutes for him to walk us through the three-dimensional version of the vectors I had learned about in advanced algebra class. The Euclidean distance and magnitude still worked the same way, as did unit vectors, addition and subtraction of vectors, and scalar multiplication. I wondered what people did if they couldn’t remember the math they were supposed to know as part of the prerequisites. Then he showed how the vectors worked when you switched to polar coordinates and used the magnitude of the vector and the angles from the axes. Fortunately, I knew all that from fall term’s trig class and the section on spherical trigonometry.
You know, courses like history and literature and economics are like a map. If you didn’t learn about ancient Peru, you can still do fine when studying modern France. Courses like physics and math are like a ladder. If you are missing some of the bottom rungs, you are probably never going to be able to get past them to reach higher on the ladder, and the ladder’s top will remain a distant dream.
I breezed through the worksheet Dr. Yablonski handed out. So did Pendragon. We walked Mister Mystic through a couple points he was having trouble dredging up from his math classes, while he made a couple light jokes about Exemplars and their massive memories. I could hear Quarrel behind us, arguing the entire time, even after Dr. Yablonski walked over and worked with their group for a couple minutes. I was so glad I wasn’t the one stuck with that master debater.
Then Dr. Yablonski talked about vectors for velocity and acceleration, and the appropriate units that went with them. That led into another sheet of classwork. I could already see that notation and keeping track of the details was going to matter as soon as we had to do something constructive with these things. It was like business math: if you didn’t keep straight whether you were working in dollars or Euros or thousands of yen, you were doomed before you started. I could handle the attention to detail: all I had to do was make sure I was always using his notation, and then he’d know what I meant.
He helped the class and then went over the common mistakes people tended to make when thinking about vectors for velocity and acceleration. He also made a big deal about the jargon: he was going to call the vector ‘velocity’ but the magnitude of the velocity vector would be called ‘speed’. And he didn’t care that people didn’t differentiate between the two outside the physics lab.
At least he didn’t threaten to lock us in a dark batcave if we forgot to keep them straight. Or insist, “I’m the goddamn physicist!” Sometimes I wondered if people thought I was like that, only on financial issues instead of physics. But Dr. Yablonski seemed to be like that about everything. I thought the guy needed to lighten up. Toni would have probably said that it was a bad sign if Ayla Goodkind thought you needed to lighten up.
The bell rang, and he ordered us to grab one of each of his sheets on our way out. Since there were only nineteen of us, it wasn’t a problem. I tucked the sheets into the inside pocket of my notebook, and I was off to my next class.
Señor Ramirez was already at the front of the room when I got to Spanish II. Toni and Rip were apparently defending a seat for me, while a couple guys tried to get up close and personal with the two hottest girls in the class. Great, it was Ted Alworth and Carl Jimenez from Spanish I. I remembered them from fall term.
I slid into the seat Toni was saving for me and said, “Thanks. I had to get all the way over from physics class.”
Ted leered unsubtly, “Well honey, I’d be happy to hold your seat. If you know what I mean.”
I asked him, “Is that supposed to be a pickup line, or are you just trying to make every girl in the room think you’re a jerk?”
“What’d you say?” he growled.
I switched to Spanish. “Let me say that in a different way. Are you trying to make every girl in the room think you are the penis of a donkey?”
Toni and Rip burst out laughing. Carl clenched his jaw and tried hard not to laugh.
Señor Ramirez said from the desk, “I am glad to see that we are acquiring new vocabulary, but I think we should avoid using those exact words in class.”
Carl grabbed his buddy and hauled him several rows farther back. I turned and watched them go. I took the opportunity to assess the room. About two-thirds of the class from Spanish I was in this class, along with three seniors who were probably getting the necessary foreign language credits for college. I noticed that Bubble was one of them. She saw me looking, and she gave me a finger-wave. I smiled back. After all, it wasn’t as if I were going to be trapped partnering her on a class project. And I didn’t have to worry about her wrecking the curve, either.
“Who dat?” Toni whispered in her best ‘I am so street’ tones.
“Bubble. Senior. Remember my talking about the airhead in World Lit?”
“Still pretty hot,” Rip whispered across Toni.
I complained, “She makes Solange look like Ada Lovelace.”
“As long as she doesn’t make her look like Linda Lovelace,” Toni smirked.
Rip snickered into her hands until Señor Ramirez told us to cut it out.
Spanish class went about like I had expected. Señor Ramirez liked to conduct the classes in Spanish, and my Spanish was now good enough that I didn’t feel like I was embarrassing myself every time I opened my mouth. Part of that was remembering everything from Spanish I. Part was from reading the first half of the Spanish II textbook and memorizing all the new vocabulary. Idioms were still my weak point. On the other hand, at least I wasn’t the person in the class who said he ate a big breakfast and now he was pregnant.
Being ‘full’ is a pretty common idiom for being with child. I’ve seen it in several languages. It’s one of the common embarrassing errors that our tutors warned us about, back when I was a Goodkind kid and anything we said in public was likely to be recorded and photographed.
After class I walked out with Toni and Rip.
<(Chaka) Uht. Phase, on your three.>
I was glad Toni was wearing her Spot regularly. I was also glad I was too.
<(Lancer) Spanish class, right? I can be there in three.>
<(Phase) Not that big a problem. We’ve got it.>
Rip whispered, “You guys wear those ear things to class too? Jeez!”
I turned and faced Alworth and Jimenez. “Did you want to say something to me?”
Alworth growled, “You don’t just get to diss me in front of the whole room and then walk.”
I pretended to sigh. “Look Teddy, I was trying to save you a world of embarrassment. Apparently, you two are the only ones in the room that don’t know you were hitting on another boy. I’m Phase. The Goodkind. Heard of me?”
“You’re the Goodkind?” Alworth was obviously slower on the uptake than a lot of the school.
“I’m the Goodkind who happens to be a boy with a weird case of GSD. It’s just that instead of looking like I’m in the wrong phylum or the wrong order, I look like I’m in the wrong gender.”
Toni helpfully contributed, “And you really don’t want to mess with her. She beat Tennyo in martial arts class winter term.”
“More importantly, sensei Ito thought I was powerful enough that I ought to be sparring against Tennyo,” I said. I didn’t mention the little fact that I didn’t agree with Ito’s assessment, or that I lost the vast majority of my matches against Billie.
Rip said, “But don’t worry, we won’t tell everybody what you did.”
I finished, “See you tomorrow.” Then I turned and walked off to my next class.
<(Chaka) He’s lettin’ it drop.>
<(Phase) Good. See you.>
Then I headed over to the Magical Arts Department for my next class.
Nikki was waiting for me. “Everything okay?” she checked.
I nodded. “Yeah, even if the guy wanted to cause trouble, I was with Chaka and Riptide.”
Nikki grinned evilly. “Chaka’s been looking forward to trying out her new bluff. We’ve been spreading this rumor that she has this new ki attack where she does something to your lower meridiens and it causes impotence.”
I think I managed not to wince. “How many guys have clapped their hands over their junk and run away in terror?”
“Dunno,” she said. “But everyone knows she’s got that paralyzing nerve strike with the weird name, and she’s Dragonball’ed enough people with that Chaka Chaka Bang Bang strike that pretty much everyone thinks she might just be able to do it.”
I knew Toni better than ninety percent of the school did, and even I thought she might just be able to do it if she put her mind to it.
People were trickling into the classroom, so I said, “I think we need to get going.”
She grimaced and said, “Yeah. If we have to.” She sighed and said, “Well, it could be worse…”
We walked in, and Ms. Grimes strode right over to us. She was dressed in business casual, which just looked weird on her. If she hadn’t looked like Morticia Addams’ sister, she could have made the outfit work. As it was, she looked like one of the Addams Family dressed up for their variant of Halloween. I had a freaky mental image of her explaining her clothing that morning. “Look Gomez, I’m Sarah Jane Moore on her way to try and assassinate a president.”
Not that I really believed her mornings were like that. I knew she was one of the many faculty and staff that lived in the staff housing just outside the ring road and just inside the school wards. They were supposed to be really nice houses and duplexes and apartments, with some sort of secret access to central campus that I hadn’t been able to find out about. It was either a special tunnel that led to somewhere the students couldn’t access, or else it was a portal – either magic or devise – that again led to somewhere the students couldn’t access. Either way, in case of bad weather or a massive assault on the school, people could get where they needed to go without having to walk a mile or two in miserable conditions. And students couldn’t get over to the staff housing without being more obvious about doing so.
Ms. Grimes smiled, “Fey. I’m glad you could arrange your schedule so you could TA for us.”
Fey obviously wanted to complain, but she didn’t. She regally said, “Sir Wallace explained to me that an important part of learning the craft is teaching the craft.”
I assumed that Grimes bought that explanation about as much as I did. No, Westmont had boxed her in somehow. I hadn’t asked, but I was assuming that his teaching her had put her under a magical obligation that she had to discharge somehow, and that he was using that to make her TA the class. Or perhaps he was making sure that she fulfilled her magical obligation in a really trivial way, so that she couldn’t get caught in a magical bind later on.
Ms. Grimes just nodded and said, “Wonderful. Would you take the stack of papers on the desk and make sure everyone has one?”
Nikki looked at me and smiled. “Of course.”
Then Grimes attempted to pin me in place with a stare. She looked over at a girl sitting at the far side of the front row. The girl instantly looked up. As soon as Grimes crooked a finger, the girl left her notebook and textbook and backpack, and skittered over to us.
“Phase? This is Palantir. Palantir? This is Phase. She is one of Fey’s teammates.”
I looked the girl over. She looked about my age, maybe a little younger. Around Whateley, it could be really hard to tell. On the other hand, she didn’t look like an Exemplar or a GSD case, and she was unlikely to be good enough at magical illusions if she was taking this class, so it was likely she was showing her real age. She had bright red hair and an obstinate expression. Frankly, she looked like she wanted to tell Grimes what to do, but didn’t quite have the nerve.
Grimes focused on the girl with a laser-like intensity. “Phase is very advanced in math and has a reputation as a good tutor, so you need to keep on her good side.”
Then Grimes looked at me. “Phase, as one of only two students in here this term who has no official Wizard talent at all, you may need Palantir’s help with some of the classwork, so YOU need to stay on HER good side.”
Palantir stared at me oddly. “So you don’t have any Essence of your own?” I noticed that Grimes smiled wickedly at that.
I admitted, “Not a bit…” I looked at her and exclaimed, “Wait a minute… You’re the one Foxfire was warning everyone about!”
She backpedaled hastily, “Me? No! Totally not me! Or my friends! I mean… Oh forget it.” I decided to re-classify her expression from ‘obstinate’ to ‘obdurate’.
Grimes just turned and walked over to her chair behind the desk. I stared at Grimes’ back and thought ‘thanks a ton, Morticia.’ I very carefully didn’t say it aloud.
Palantir led me over to where she was sitting, and Fey walked by to hand us our copies of the handouts. I quickly scanned mine. It was about what I had expected. It was four pages crimped together, covering the course syllabus, the reading and homework assignments, the dates of the three midterms and the final, the percentages of the final grade attached to all of the above plus in-class work, and a section of class rules.
I slipped my copy into the inside pocket of my binder and then opened the binder to the third section. In some of my other classes I intended to use my bPhone for note-taking. But I couldn’t be sure that a class demonstration or even some student’s magical missteps wouldn’t fry Bunny’s invention. The notebook also made it look like I was serious about taking notes, which I wasn’t. I had already read the entire textbook, so I wasn’t going to bother writing down anything I had already memorized. And I wasn’t going to write down anything that I didn’t need to have in hardcopy.
Irene whined, “This is a ton of work! Why can’t we just get to the good stuff?”
I said, “For the same reason you have to do the work before you get to the good stuff in math.”
“There’s good stuff in math? Are you sure?” she snarked.
I was about to unleash a scathing rejoinder when we were interrupted. A fat boy in a black robe walked over and stared at us. At first, I was expecting to have another dorky guy hitting on me. It happened often enough, even at a place full of Exemplar babes. And this guy was extra dorky. He was even wearing round glasses à la Harry Potter, and he had his hair dyed black so he could comb it over his forehead in the official Harry Potter style, for that all-important ‘pathetic fanboy’ look.
But he was glaring at Palantir. “You! Oh blight of my existence! Bane of my being!”
Palantir snarled, “Oh come off it, Mugwump. It was just that one time last night.”
I didn’t take my eyes of ‘Mugwump’ just in case he was trigger-happy. But I still asked Palantir, “Don’t tell me. You and your two buddies tried to hijack some of his Essence last night?”
“Not him specifically…” she temporized. “We just thought we’d see if any of the new kids were wizards, and Abra spotted a guy in a wizard’s robe and hat, and then Clover had to go see if it was as nice as her hat, and… things just kind of snowballed.”
“Snowballed? Snowballed! You and your fellow leeches attempted to rob me of my very core!” he exaggerated. “You and your freak friend here just stay away from me!”
“Freak friend?” I queried. “I’m not the one who picked ‘Mugwump’ as a codename.”
“As in Supreme Mugwump!” he trumpeted. “I’m getting away from the magic retard sector here before it gets contagious.” He stomped off to the back of the room and struggled to flop down in a school desk while wearing a floor-length robe.
I turned to Palantir and said, “I’m not putting up with that kind of crap from a Harry Potter fan-dork who doesn’t even know what ‘mugwump’ means. Whatever it takes, we’re both going to beat the snot out of him on every single test and assignment this term. Agreed?”
She looked back at Mugwump and glared at him. She nodded firmly, “Agreed.”
I took a deep breath. “So tell me what you need help in, with regard to math. We’re starting ASAP.”
While we were having our little contretemps with Mugwump, more classmates were entering the room. I wasn’t surprised to see Eldritch and Geomancer. Winnie looked around nervously. I could tell by where she was looking and the expression on her face that she didn’t know where to sit. She looked at me, and I gave her a soft smile. She looked over at Eldritch, who was teaching some of Team Chou freerunning and Parkour. She looked farther back in the room.
I have no idea how long she might have stood there doing her Don Knotts impression, when Solange stormed into the room. Winnie took one look at Tansy and hustled over to where I was.
Tansy looked around the classroom. She saw Nikki holding class notes. She saw Eldritch. She saw me. She saw Palantir on the other side of me, and she winced. She looked at several other people in the room. She silently mouthed what I was fairly sure were the words ‘I am in hell’. Then she took a seat as far away from everyone else as she could manage.
Winnie started to sit one seat over from me, and she stopped. “I-is it o-okay i-if I-”
I interrupted, “It’s fine, Winnie. You can sit next to me, if you want. Oh, Geomancer? This is Palantir. She’s the one Foxfire is warning all the mages about.”
Winnie said, “Oh. B-bladedancer g-gave your f-friend Clover some E-essence fall t-term?”
Palantir scowled at that. “That. By the time Abra and Clover stopped saying what they wanted to do with it, they’d exhausted almost all of it.”
Winnie looked over her shoulder and asked me, “W-why’s S-solange in h-here?”
I looked at Palantir, who really scowled then. I said, “I think it’s because Tansy’s punishment details have had her having to watch over Palantir and her partners, and it’s reached the point where Tansy needs to know about magic just to defend herself.”
“It wasn’t our fault,” Palantir insisted. “And I didn’t think potato salad would explode like that even if you tried.” She glanced over at me and hastily added, “Not that we did. Try, I mean.”
Wow. Maybe the whole Solange-and-the-three-little-troublemakers arrangement was a match made in heaven. For everybody else.
Winnie’s eyes widened. “Y-ya mean w-when she c-came back t-to the d-dorm and she had th-that stuff in her h-hair it w-was p-potato salad?” She looked like she really wanted to laugh out loud, but she didn’t dare.
“Class? If you’re done with the chitchat?” Ms. Grimes said, in the confident tones of someone who knows how to quiet a roomful of teenagers, whether they feel like it or not.
She began, “Does everyone have the handout?” She looked around the room and must have been satisfied with the reaction, because she didn’t ask Nikki to take a handout to anyone.
“I expect everyone to take this home, read it, and make notes. I expect you to write these dates down in your calendars. I will require you to have the reading done before the classes on each unit. I will require the homework to be turned in on time, at the beginning of each class. If you don’t get the homework in to the TA on time, you get a zero on the unit. Don’t bother arguing. Unless you have an excuse that the headmistress will sign, you can forget it. And our TA this term is Fey. If you’re stupid enough to think you can fool her with an illusion of valid homework or cast a compulsion on her, then you’re too stupid to pass this course and go further in the Magical Arts Department.
“The final is worth thirty percent of your grade. Each midterm is worth twenty percent. The homework assignments are worth twenty percent. Class participation and in-class work is worth the final ten percent of your grade. Now I want everyone to read the last page of the handout. Are there any questions?”
The last page was her ‘class rules’. They were pretty straightforward. They basically boiled down to a couple simple concepts. Don’t piss off the teacher or the guest lecturers or the TA’s, because you won’t like what they do in reprisal. Don’t do magic in the classroom unless you’re specifically asked to do so as part of an in-class assignment. Don’t try to use magic to cheat, because we’ve seen it already and we weren’t amused the previous times. She phrased it in a number of ways, but those were the basic points.
Of course, I wasn’t planning on doing anything that might violate any of her rules. And I was planning on getting all the homework in to Nikki as soon as I could. And I had already read the entire textbook, so I was ready for class participation. And I was looking forward to watching Solange fail miserably in the course.
She spoke, “This course is more like Art Appreciation than learning to become an expert in an art form, say, painting or sculpture. But this term, there will be aspects of that kind of learning in this class, since we have only two students here who are not at least a Wizard-2. One of them is working with three Wizards already, and the other is going to be taking some of the Magical Arts curriculum anyway.”
I knew she was talking about Solange and me. I just didn’t think that babysitting three pains in the ass counted as ‘working with Wizards’. Perhaps I was unaware of just what Tansy was having to do with Palantir and Company.
She went on, “It’s just that the class focus will be learning about magical arts and magical ‘systems’, even if most - if not all - of those systems will be unlike the type (or types) of magic you work with. Some students don’t even do magic, but have powers with magical connections, so this course is important background for your Powers Theory work and your understanding of your own abilities...” A hand apparently went up somewhere behind me. “Yes?”
A guy asked, “How can somebody have a magical power and not be able to do magic? That doesn’t make any sense!”
Grimes looked at him like he was asking the second-dumbest question known to man. She asked, “Would anyone in the class care to give an example of a student here at Whateley who doesn’t do magic, and still has a power connected to magic?”
I put my hand up. About four other people did too. Not that I looked around to check, but the windows on my left were highly reflective at this time of day. I noticed that Winnie wanted to put her hand up, but was too nervous to do it.
Ms. Grimes pointed to someone behind me. “Yes?”
Tansy’s distinct voice wafted down, “Avatars. Every Avatar has a magical basis for her power, since she’s basically a magical hallow for a spirit of some kind. Even if she doesn’t do magic.” I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised that Tansy knew about Avatars.
The other hands went down. I kept mine up.
“Ahh, Phase. Do you have another example?”
“Actually, I have several. Silver is probably the best example. She doesn’t do magic, and is uninterested in the subject. But she sweats mithril-”
Someone near the back of the room yelped, “Someone sweats mithril? Holy…”
“-which is a magical metal. Then there’s Chaka. She doesn’t do magic, but she sees Ki and can manipulate it. And then there’s-”
“Thank you, I think that’s more than enough for right now. As I was saying, even if you are already able to cast one or two types of magics, this class is an introduction that will give you information about other types of magic, some of which you may someday face. The more you know, the better prepared you will be.
“Now this course has more than one name in the school academic syllabus, because the course material has different relevance to different students in different disciplines. But in all cases, we have to start with a few simple questions. Just what are the ‘mystic arts’? What is magic? How can magic work in a world of rigorous science? We’ll begin with these topics, but we’ll branch off into a horde of related topics. We’ll have a guest lecturer from the Workshop who will talk about an area where there is no agreement: are devisers merely wizards who think they’re scientists, or are wizards simply devisers who don’t know better, or are the two fields completely separate? We’ll have Circe – the Circe – come in and talk about the history of the magical arts over the last three thousand years. That’s another area where the scholars are at each other’s throats. Some of the famous ‘mages’ and ‘seers’ of history may have been frauds, and some historical figures who never presented themselves as mages may in fact have been mystics. There are great traditions of magic that have been taught and passed down with no mutant powers involved at all, but the history of magic in the last hundred years has become inextricably interlinked with the history of mutants. If we are very lucky, we may be able to get Miss Champion to come in and talk about that.”
“Wouldn’t Miss Champion be dead by now? I mean, wouldn’t she be like a hundred something?” one idiot at the back of the room asked.
I raised my hand. Grimes looked my way. “Phase?”
I said, “The woman who used the codename Miss Champion is alive, and is currently in her seventies, and hasn’t used that particular codename in decades because she has used better known ones since then.”
“Like what?” asked Mugwump.
I turned my head and answered Delusions-of-Dumbledore Boy. “Miss Champion became Lady Champion. She was also Ms. Might and Comet Queen. Currently, she’s known as Lady Astarte. She’s still an active superheroine.”
Grimes gave the class a smug look. “Now, if I can get back to my subject… There is another topic I want to cover which seems to confuse a lot of people in this class. How is being able to do magic different from being a mutant with the Wizard power? I want to talk about this a little, but we’ll need to learn about a lot of sundry aspects of the mystical arts before we return to this topic later in the course.
“For now, let’s think about what being a mutant and having the Wizard power really means. Any thoughts?”
“Being able to do really cool spells!” volunteered Palantir.
“Being able to power up for major stuff,” someone behind me contributed.
A bunch of people gave a babble of uninformed answers that told me they hadn’t read the first four sections of chapter one in the textbook. Nikki gave me a look several times, but I shook my head each time. It seemed pretty clear that I was the only person in the class who was interested enough in the subject matter to do the reading we were supposed to be doing as a matter of course. Or maybe I was the only person in the class who had the training in studying as a generic tool for classwork.
Finally, Ms. Grimes said, “You’re all wrong, but you’re all correct in at least one small way. I want everyone to do the assigned reading and come back tomorrow with a better answer.” She looked at me and smiled, “Phase, which sections are they going to want to concentrate on?”
I thought for a second and answered, “Chapter one. The last part of section three, and the first half of section four. But there’s at least one student in the class who has magical abilities that the book fails to cover, so there’s probably a need to expand that definition a bit.”
“Thank you,” she said with a tilt of her head that told me I was pontificating way too much.
Nikki looked like she was expecting me to lecture for another five minutes on errata I had found in the textbook. Maybe I do tend to overdo things. Like the way I was already overthinking a single class comment.
Okay, I stewed about it throughout the rest of the class. I even approached Ms. Grimes after class and asked her, “How did you know I would know which sections to review?”
She gave me a slow smirk. “No, it wasn’t mind reading.” I kept my expression flat, but I had considered that. “Fey told me you read the entire textbook and memorized it. It’s fairly obvious you’re an Exemplar. I believe you and Solange are the only two Exemplars in the class, so try not to rub everyone’s faces in it.”
I said, “I don’t have any reason to believe Solange acquired the Exemplar mental package, so don’t expect great things from her.”
She firmly said, “Oh, I know precisely what to expect from Solange. You don’t need to worry about that.”
I walked over to lunch with Fey. She waited until we were well away from Ms. Grimes and any of the students before she said, “I knew you’d know which sections to read. And I’m pretty sure Grimes didn’t miss your smug expression the whole time everyone was babbling about what the Wizard mutant trait really covers.”
I said, “The textbook still doesn’t cover people like Toni or people like Winnie, and it pretty much glosses over people like Silver and Eldritch.”
Nikki just nodded. She said, “I’m still not convinced Eldritch really is a mutant. I figure the powers testing guys know a lot more about it than I do, but I think Aunghadhail knows a lot more about ancient magics than they do.”
I nodded my agreement. After all, I expected Nikki to take my word for it when it came to technical aspects of finance, so it would be ridiculously hypocritical of me to refuse to accept Aunghadhail’s expertise in certain areas.
She went on, “I was bored stiff for the entire class. I just hope there’s more in-class work so I can do something besides hand out pieces of paper and get stuck grading the homework assignments when I’d rather be doing my own work. Or not doing any work at all.”
I said, “Or you could be stuck wasting your time doing annoying training sims instead. Maybe we’ll get to spend our valuable time facing off against Dark Kismet.”
“Dark Miasma,” she grinned at me.
Ugh. “Yeah, we’ll just pit the J-Team against him.”
She asked, “You really think they could be a lot more dangerous? I saw them in action over Christmas, and they’re already pretty dangerous. And pretty insane. I did tell you she got me out of that trap by firing a bomb at me, didn’t I?”
I said, “Jade deliberately limits herself. Just like you and I do. A real Dark Generator could be a more dangerous assassin than Tinsnip, or a more effective information broker than Thuban, or a few other nightmares.”
She shrugged. “So? You could definitely be a more dangerous assassin than Tinsnip. And you’re already a better information broker than Thuban. Or take Carmilla.”
“Right.” I knew exactly what she meant, given what I had read about The Kellith. We had reasons to believe Carmilla was a goodguy, but without prior knowledge of those reasons, I would probably be siding with Reverend England and most of the campus. Only I would be suggesting locking her in the payload capsule of a Goodkind Space Research Atlas IV lifter and launching her into the sun. Forget that stupid ‘get a Buffy wannabe to stab her with a magic sword’ crap. That probably wouldn’t stop The Kellith for more than a few minutes at best.
Just to be a nuisance, I added, “Or I’m hearing about this weird chick with pointy ears and some sort of ancient Sidhe queen talking in her head…”
She made a hand gesture that seemed to cause the air around her fingers to waver, and so I went heavy. A telekinetic shove bumped my shoulder. I pretended to ignore it.
Nikki grinned, “Between you and Chaka, I’m doomed. I’ve got the wacky roommate and the scheming next door neighbor too.”
“That’s right,” I said. I raised my voice to a decrepit cackle. “And I would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling Kimbas and their brownie!”
“Koehnes is not a brownie!” Nikki hotly insisted. “And furthermore…” She turned her head to look behind us. “Oh crap.” <(Fey) Anyone near the Crystal Hall and wearing their beads? I’ve got Peeper on my ass. Literally.>
<(Phase) You’re not wearing your beads?>
<(Fey) I think I left ‘em on yesterday’s lingerie. Koehnes always rescues ‘em before they go in the wash, and maybe I’ve gotten kind of lazy about it.>
<(Chaka) I’m a couple minutes out. I thought we had that little perv good ‘n done with.>
<(Tennyo) Can’t get to you for a few. Didn’t he learn anything the last time?>
<(Generator) Me neither. But I’m sending you a present.>
<(Lancer) G? Green flag day.>
<(Generator) Oh, got that covered.> I could hear her giggling over the Spots.
Peeper interrupted us, “Fey and Phase! The two great sounds that go together! In my dreams, anyway… So how does it feel to be voted the number one and number fourteen best butts on campus?”
We reluctantly turned around. Peeper shoved his mike into Fey’s face while staring at her rack. Greasy was standing to the side operating a deviser steadycam and lugging all the recording gear around on his back. Completely fair delegation of duties there. Peeper was holding a one pound wireless mike. Greasy looked like he had seventy pounds of gear on his back and one shoulder, and I knew he wasn’t an Exemplar.
Fey glared malevolently at Peeper and said, “Did you get my lawyer’s cease and desist letter?”
“Oh that thing?” Peeper asked casually. “It’s probably not enforceable on land that counts as American Indian territory. Like our beautiful campus. And if it is enforceable, it’ll probably require years of court battles to decide it.”
I slid to the side, and Greasy moved to better frame Nikki in his viewfinder. I took the opportunity to make my hand go disruption-light and pass it through the camera, then the recording equipment.
“Hey!” Greasy squawked as the camera failed on him. “Peep! We got a major malfunction here!”
“Well, fix it! What’s the point in me keeping you around if you can’t keep your gear working for ten frigging minutes?” Peeper snapped.
Since legal threats didn’t seem to register in what passed for a cerebrum in his skull, I moved to something more direct. I threatened him, “Did you like what happened back in the Dunn cafeteria?”
“PEEPER! It’s not working! We’re not recording, we’re not broadcasting, and I think we lost that footage a minute ago, you know…”
“Where you were zooming in on their asses?” Peeper frowned. “How could you lose that? It was primo material! Am I gonna have to get a new cameraman?”
Nikki glared at the two of them, thought for several long seconds while they were fussing about their equipment, and then concentrated. They didn’t seem to hear the words she spoke. To me, it was as if the words drove around inside my head without using my ears as a mode of transportation. The camera started to smoke. The recording equipment started to smoke. The wireless mike started to smoke. Peeper suddenly screeched and yanked his watch off his wrist. Greasy squawked and dropped the camera so he could start yanking smoldering inventions out of his pants pockets.
Aunghadhail flared into a more powerful presence. She lifted off the ground, energy crackling all around her. She glared down at Peeper. “Perverted male. Cease annoying me, or be prepared to suffer my wrath!”
“Eep!” Peeper made a noise like a small mouse confronted by a large cat. There was the sudden sharp urea smell of somebody losing bladder control.
Then the smell changed to something more like paint. Peeper tried to move, and his feet wouldn’t cooperate. He tottered and started to fall backward… and his pants wouldn’t let him. Everywhere he had pissed himself – his crotch, his pants legs, his shoes and socks, the puddle around his feet – had solidified. He was moored in place by his own urine.
Aunghadhail said, “Next time, it may be the urine still in your body. Do not tempt us.”
“Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, because you are crunchy and go well with ketchup,” intoned Greasy.
“Shut up, Greaseball! And get me unstuck! Pronto!” Peeper yelled.
Suddenly, Aunghadhail was gone and Fey was back. She said, “I’m hungry. Let’s go.”
We started off down the walk. I could still hear Greasy on his cell phone. Apparently, Greasy was one of those guys who needed to yell into the phone in case the person on the other end was deaf. “Hey Hazmat! It’s me. Got a chem problem. Can you turn urine into a super-fast drying cement strong enough to hold a guy in place so he can’t even fall over? … Yeah? How would you undo it? … Sure, I can get some of that, but it’ll sting when I pour it down his pants…”
Nikki waited until we were nearing the Crystal Hall before she stopped and cast a small spell. I could see the air waver with the forces coming off her fingertips, and frankly staring at that was making me a little queasy.
I guessed, “You unglued him?”
She nodded. “Well, I hope. It might dissolve his pants and shoes too.”
I tried not to laugh out loud. It almost worked.
A few seconds later, I spotted what looked like a couple hornets buzzing at pretty impressive speed across the grass. They made an abrupt detour when they spotted us, and they flew up to hover a couple feet in front of us.
One said in a J-Team voice, “Guess I’m late, huh? I could still go sting him on the behind if you want…”
The other one said in the same voice, “Or I could sting him right on the weenie. We’ve got a really cool toxin loaded up inside my butt.”
“Pronouns, please?” Nikki pleaded.
I said, “Thanks, but let’s save you two for something really useful. Okay?”
“Okay!” they said in unison. They both lifted their front right leg in a tiny vespid salute, and they buzzed off to cause havoc somewhere else.
Nikki and I looked at each other and just shook our heads. I had been waiting for weeks to see those fake wasps in action, and I was still having trouble believing it.
Once the Wasp Patrol was gone, I asked, “Did you use one of those spells on Peeper?”
She frowned, “Aunghadhail really wanted me to. But I checked the spell out first, and I only used a simple one. It just used the battery power in Greasy’s camera system.”
I said, “I thought transmutation of matter was hard.”
“Oh yeah, it’s a major working,” she agreed. “But tiny changes in chemistry can be pretty simple, if they’re not hard to do in a chem lab. Sir Wallace showed me some cool stuff you can do with simple hydrocarbons. So it wasn’t transmutation of matter, just getting some compounds to go through an easy change. Now I’ve gotta take a couple years of serious chemistry and physics to learn a lot more of these suckers, so I’ll know what I can and can’t do with a low-Essence hex.”
I reminded her, “Well, I’m taking AP Physics now, so I can probably help you on the physics. And maybe we could take AP Chem I together in the fall.”
“Ooh,” she grinned. “Lab partners with the smart kid in the class. Perfect.”
“Ooh,” I parodied, “Lab partners with the hot girl in the class. Perfect.” She smacked me on the arm, but she still grinned.
We joined the lunch line and tried to ignore the guys behind us, who were having trouble with their saliva glands. Either that, or they were looking at Nikki’s butt and drooling all over themselves. Either way, it was gross. I really needed a high-definition recording of Vanessa saying, “Go away.”
All right, I really needed a series of experiments to determine whether high-def recordings of Vanessa’s voice would still carry her Siren power. I had to assume they wouldn’t, or else supervillains like Obsession would be broadcasting themselves all over the planet and enslaving millions.
Maybe I would start wearing my deviser earplugs while I listened to radio and television broadcasts from now on, just to be safe. Not that I was getting paranoid or anything.
Maybe Nikki just needed to spend more time covering herself with glamours so she didn’t look like the hottest thing ever to walk the earth. Even if she could just tone it down to ‘Bugs’ or ‘Vox’ levels it would help.
The big treat today seemed to be grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. There were stacks of them, and people were shoveling them onto their plates like there had been a recent shortage. They were moving even faster than the cheeseburgers.
I opted to stroll over to the salad area and hope something better came along. I decided to try the raspberry vinaigrette, which smelled pretty good. I could tell it had actual raspberry in it, along with a very fragrant olive oil. I got some of the good coffee, and Jana clopped out of the kitchen area bearing a small plate. I worked my way over to her.
She smiled, “We decided to try a special grilled sandwich for you and some of our gourmets on staff. It’s grilled sourdough, black forest ham, and gouda with frisee and caramelized onions.”
“Mmm, sounds good,” I told her. “Thanks.”
“Let me know what you think,” she said.
I took my tray up to our level and sat down with the gang. Nikki was complaining about annoying boys who wouldn’t stop following her around. I touched the crystal, and the words changed, even if the topic was still pretty much the same. I had to wonder how many Exemplar girls around campus had that problem.
“So he spent the whole time following me through the lunch lines staring at my butt!” she complained.
Toni said, “At least it wasn’t Peeper, because he’d be staring at your actual badonkadonk.”
I said, “We had that too.”
Toni asked, “What, you weren’t wearin’ your beads? I mean, don’t leave home without ‘em. I even wear ‘em during martial arts. That boy’s looked me over enough I think he’s probably got ‘Mandingo’ on DVD.”
Hank had just touched the crystal, and he cringed. “Thank you for that totally unappetizing thought. Are we talking about Peeper again?”
Jade and Billie joined us right then. “Peeper? What’s he done this time?”
I explained, “Just the usual. Filming Nikki from behind and announcing her butt is Number One.”
“With a bullet?” Toni smirked.
“Says the reigning Miss Number Fourteen Best Ass On Campus,” Nikki replied.
Hank asked, “How far down does he have them ranked?”
I guessed, “Knowing Peeper, he’s probably got a Top Fifty at a minimum.”
“Top Hundred,” volunteered Jade. “The Workshop’s complaining because he gave Bugs and Widget and Kew lower ranks than they think they deserve… Well, the Workshop guys think, anyway.”
Billie frowned, “Are they crazy? Who’d want to be on that list?”
Jade said, “They’re guys. Inventor guys. They don’t think like girls do. They don’t even know how girls think. They’re totally dorky.”
I knew I didn’t think like the girls on the floor, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have some clue about how girls thought. I didn’t have some of the same interests, and I didn’t have the same focus… but that didn’t mean I was clueless enough to stand around telling some girl that guys were staring at her butt, and ranking her butt, and also that I had a completely different ranking for her butt.
Billie took a bite out of her sandwich. I stopped thinking about the philosophy of thought and the archetype of gender. I focused on what was in her hands. She had taken two grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and used them as the buns for her double cheeseburger. So I was looking at bread, ham, cheese, bread, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, burger, cheese, burger, bread, ham, cheese, and bread. Somehow she was managing to crush the whole mess down enough that she could take bites out of it. Suddenly I was a lot less interested in eating.
Hank watched Billie carefully and asked, “You think that would work with a piece of chicken-fried steak in the middle?”
My stomach lurched.
Billie actually stopped eating and thought it over. “Wow, I never thought of that. Maybe you could do it with fried chicken, like a chicken breast? Or some roast pork?”
Instead of lurching, my stomach tried to do a two and a half gainer. In pike position.
Toni smirked, “So Ayles, how come you’re not telling ‘em how to turn this stuff into new restaurant foods so they can make a million?”
I groaned, “I don’t even want them to do it at our table! I definitely don’t want them doing it all over the country.”
Billie looked at me and complained, “Hey! You’re eating a grilled ham and cheese too!”
Nikki stared at it and said, “That’s not what we have. Okay Ayla, spill.”
I said, “It’s grilled sourdough, with a good quality cured ham and gouda cheese.”
Toni purred, “Mmm. This would be really good with gouda in it.”
I went on, “Plus some frisee and some caramelized onions.”
Billie said, “Wow, that does sound good.”
Toni checked, “Frisee… Is that the yucky stuff that looks like crabgrass?”
I snorted around my first bite of the sandwich, but managed not to laugh out loud and spew food everywhere.
“She’s having another foodgasm!” Jade helpfully announced.
“It is extremely good,” I admitted.
Toni gave me her best ‘big sad puppy dog eyes’, which was one of the expressions she really hasn’t mastered. Nikki opted for politeness and movie references, “Please sir, may I have some more?”
“You haven’t had any yet,” Jade pointed out.
I cut a slice for both Nikki and Toni, and then went back to eating. The rich creaminess of the gouda went marvelously with the smoky seasoning of the ham. The crisp frisee contributed a lovely texture and a slight bitterness, which went well with the sweetness of the caramelized onions.
Nikki made a variety of ‘mmm’ and ‘ohh’ noises and then thanked me.
Toni ate hers and finally said, “That was pretty good, but a little more bitter than I like. Next time you ought to do it with regular lettuce or somethin’.”
After I finished my lunch, I walked down and found Jana. She excitedly asked, “What did you think?”
I said, “I gave some to Fey and Chaka too. I think you hit the right amount of frisee, since Fey liked it. Chaka’s a little sensitive to bitter flavors, and I tend to like more bitterness than most people do. That said, I think you should use a more mature gouda for more creaminess in the texture, or possibly a cantal, and try caramelized regular onions instead of sweet onions, since they come out sweet enough already. I would recommend finely slicing the ham to make the seasonings pop more in the mouth. And the bread was excellent. I think it was definitely a better choice than white or rye.”
“Thanks for the critique,” she whispered. “And thanks for the rest. I had five bucks you’d say that about the onions.”
I didn’t say anything, but sometimes I found it somewhat irritating to be wager material. It was bad enough when the campus bookies were taking bets on me. I gave her a nod and left.
I was sure I had plenty of time to get my gymbag and get to aikido class on time.
On the other hand, maybe I needed to arrange for a couple bodyguards and a personal assistant to handle meetings and requests. The biggest problem with that concept was that only people like Don Sebastiano at his worst did that around here, and I was already having to deal with the whole ‘Goodkind equals evil’ issue as well as the ‘Phase is now a supervillain’ issue.
I did manage to get all the way to Poe and halfway back before the Spy Kidz caught up with me.