Ayla and the Mad Scientist, the 9th Phase novel by Diane Castle, Chapter 12 – La Dame aux Camelias
Thursday, March 8, 2007, morning
I woke up feeling tired. Not as awful as I did on the nights when I had nightmare after nightmare, but still tired. And I didn’t like those dreams of Fey with her glamour constantly turning me into an aroused puddle of hormones. All right, Fey was hot. Incredibly hot. But I didn’t like thinking of myself with no self-control. I didn’t have much that was left of the real me, other than my intellect and my will.
I looked over at my alarm clock. It wasn’t going to go off for another seven minutes. I could remain in bed like a useless layabout and try to get seven more minutes of sleep, and then enjoy Vamp’s irritation with another serenade from Brass Monkey. Or I could get up and go enjoy extra minutes of naked beauties in the bathroom. Gorgeous femininity, or irritated roommate. Tough call. Of course, I could go enjoy the girls and leave my alarm clock on, but that was crossing the line. And I would come back to the room only to find my music player in tiny fragments.
I turned off the alarm and headed to the bathroom. Forget the aroma of a perfectly-brewed cup of coffee. The best part of waking up in the morning was a parade of naked and nearly-naked Exemplar beauties who were gorgeous enough to make Playboy centerfolds run screaming for another plastic surgeon.
At least, that’s what I was thinking right up until I stepped out of my shower and found one of those minimally-clothed hotties glaring at me like she wanted to kick me in the crotch.
Vox was in nothing but a towel, which normally would have made me a very happy boy. But she looked furious. She growled, “What’s this about you an’ Fey last night?”
“What?” Did I miss something after I went to bed?
“You! And HER!” Vox snapped, pointing at an equally-confused Nikki.
I said, “You mean, other than her nearly killing me about half a dozen times, minimum?”
“Wha?” Vox asked. “That’s not what Tennyo and Shroud were sayin’.”
I sighed. “Okay. Take a deep breath. Tell me what insanity the J-Team was up to this time.”
“Hey!” a member of said team squawked at me. “We’re not insane! We’re just pleasantly wacky! Like in a sitcom.”
“My point, exactly,” I muttered. “Vanessa, please calm down and tell me what they were saying.”
She looked like she was about to burst into tears, but she said, “They said you and her, and her glamour, and you were just starin’ at her, and they hadda poke you a couple times ta get you to snap outta it.”
I glared at Jade. “Did she mention she stabbed me? In the ass? Repeatedly?”
Vanessa stared at me open-mouthed for long seconds, then stared at Jade, then stared back at me. “What the hell were you crazies up to last night?”
Jade helpfully said, “Fights to the death!”
“Holographic simulation battles. They’ve decided that Team Kimba is the new ‘in’ thing, and we were drafted into the training sims. Now they’re running us through some standard preparations they save for the really high-end teams with future superheroes who could end up on real superteams. And that includes having one of your teammates go evil and try to wipe you out. Last night it was Dark Fey. The night before, it was Dark Tennyo. Tonight, if they haven’t gotten tired of watching us blow shit up, it’ll be Dark Lancer.”
“Wait, they can’t just make you go into the training sims, right?” asked Bunny.
I explained, “No. There are over a dozen loopholes for this in the Whateley handbook, and the easiest way out is simply to declare yourself an Underdog or a non-combatant member of the Workshop. But there are lots of other ways to get out of it if you don’t want to. Most kids on campus want to, since it’s a status thing and it’s completely safe in the holographic simulator. Still, they don’t usually grab a frosh team. In fact, you’re supposed to have a fair number of non-freshmen on the team before you’re even eligible, but we did so well in Team Tactics class that they’re using their own loopholes to squeeze us in.”
“How else can you get out of it?” asked Rip. “I mean, it sounds pretty fun, but what if they won’t let me have water to do stuff with?”
I said, “Just look it up in your handbook. A note from one or more parents, or your sponsors, or even from Admin will do. Traditionally, the Alphas have used an excuse from Admin to duck out whenever they wanted to skip out on a tough battle. Religious grounds, but you have to prove it. Conscientious objector, but you have to prove that, and if you ever punched anybody on campus they won’t buy it. Section 33’s and Thornies and disabled students can get out just by asking. There are lots of ways out of it.”
“What if you don’t have a training team?” asked Sharisha uncomfortably.
I said, “First, they don’t normally do this until you’re a soph, or older. If someone is low-powered, they might wait until junior or senior year. And they usually take the kids who don’t already have training teams and organize them into training teams. That’s what they did with Electrode. They gave her a PK brick and a mage and a speedster, so she has a decent team under her. But-”
Vanessa interrupted, “I don’t care about that, I wanna know what Generator was talking about!”
Jade piped up, “Well, after Chaka got killed, Fey went for the big wipe-out. She froze everyone freeze-able with her glamour on super-hot, then killed Shroud and squashed me flat. I mean, she blew out my flight system and my armor, and I pancaked from like fifty feet up. Face down, blammo! Onto a tile floor. So then she locked up Tennyo and tried to banish her, so I had to do something, and Lancer was totally frozen, I mean he was bowing to her and everything!” She sulked, “And anyway, I can’t get through his PK.” But then she perked back up. “So I jabbed Phase in the butt and she blasted the snot out of Fey and Tennyo got loose and we sprung our big surprise on Fey and killed her!”
Vanessa just stood there gaping at Jade’s tale.
Sharisha said, “Christ, you really are crazy, you know that? Your whole fucking team.”
Jade smiled at her. “The sims? They’re the most fun you can have just sitting in a chair. You won’t believe how awesome they are until you try ‘em.”
I said, “We blew up the Quad, destroyed the Crystal Hall, wiped Dickinson off the face of the earth, and wrecked a bunch of forest in between.”
Jade added excitedly, “And that’s nothing! When Tennyo got to be the badguy, we wrecked a city!”
Billie winced and said, “Not helping, Jade.”
I said, “Actually, in one of our trials against Dark Tennyo, we wiped out the eastern United States.”
The room went completely quiet.
“You’re shittin’ me,” murmured Vanessa.
“No way,” whispered Sharisha.
“A really big antimatter explosion?” asked Bunny.
Billie muttered, “Turns out Phase can kill me. If she has to. Only some of the time, there are really bad consequences.”
Jade complained, “Yeah, turns out Phase knows lots of ways to get rid of her.”
Fey said, “Well, what they pulled on me last night was Phase’s Plan B, so she probably has a lot more ways.”
Toni added, “And she had what, like forty ways to take out Lancer? That’s whack.”
Jade grinned, “We should start calling her ‘Batman’!”
I rolled my eyes and walked over to the mirror to finish up. And get in some serious ogling time.
“Batgirl? Batwoman? Batlady?”
Billie finally said, “Jade, just go shower.”
Toni ‘helpfully’ said, “Yeah. Leave Money Maid alone already.”
About half the bathroom snickered.
“I thought that was Military Industrial Complex Woman,” Billie smirked.
Nikki said, “Oh yeah. You didn’t see the monster gun she pulled out and shot me with last night. What was that, a laser rifle?”
“Combat maser,” I admitted. The illegal registration part was something I didn’t want to discuss in front of just anybody, but I did need to explain to the team. Instead, I said, “Can we not get Hank in huge trouble with Lily over Fey’s glamour?”
“Oops?” squeaked Jade.
“You know, I really hate it when one of us says ‘oops’. It’s never a good thing,” I grumbled.
“Jade?” Billie asked in a growl.
“Umm, maybe I sent one of me over this morning and we teased Lancer in front of Wallflower before I came back to me, and so maybe Wallflower already knows?” She gave us the ‘I am too cute to be reprimanded for naughtiness’ look.
Billie frowned, “If Wallflower gets mad about this too, you are going to apologize. And you are going to make it up to Lancer.”
Toni insisted, “Yeah. How would you like it if one o’ us said somethin’ in fronta Stephen that made him pissed off at you?” Jade frowned furiously. “Right. So don’t do it to other people.”
“Remember the Golden Rule,” I added.
“Which is, ‘Phase has all the gold so she wants to make all the rules’,” Nikki teased.
“Ain’t that the truth,” grumbled Sharisha as she stepped into an available shower.
I pretended to ignore the comments at my expense, and I focused on the important issues. Like Vanessa’s backside as she dried off. And Nikki, stepping out of the shower sopping wet, using her magic to dry off without a towel. And Ceecee flying in to shower and forgetting to bring a towel, so she ended up showering then flying back to her room stark naked and dripping wet. Important issues like that.
All right, I admit it. There are times when looking like a pretty girl has awesome bonuses associated with it. Rooming with Chou certainly had been one of them, but I no longer had that option. Dating Vanessa was definitely at the head of the list. But getting to shower in the hottest bathroom in all of Whateley Academy had to be counted as well. I had seriously considered it, and I had decided that our bathroom was unquestionably the top of all the frosh bathrooms, and probably the sexiest across the whole campus.
The downside of that was Peeper. He was annoying and horny and pushy, but he knew hot girls when he saw them. If he ever got his teenaged-boy urges under control, he might someday be a valued talent scout for a modeling agency, although I still thought it was more likely he would end up a pervy creep who was a valued scout for a pornographic webzine. At any rate, he knew our floor – and in particular Team Kimba and auxiliaries – was a campus hotspot. That meant that when Venus, Inc. wasn’t holding meetings, he was scoping us out. Still. Even after Nikki’s trick with the beads.
Goodkind International Headquarters
Office of the CEO
Paul Goodkind sat in front of his father’s desk. His Uncle Herb took one of the other chairs. He looked at his father and asked, “What’s so important that we can’t discuss it in the regular meeting in…” He glanced at his Rolex. “…an hour and fifty minutes?”
Uncle Herb sagely said, “Bruce, I take it you don’t want the veeps and the board to hear this.”
Bruce Goodkind nodded uncomfortably. “It has to do with… our family problem.” Paul refused to wince.
Uncle Herb said, “I have something to introduce first. I don’t want this going outside this room and a couple people in Finance, but some of the 6S people we’ve been funding at MIT finally have some good news. But it’s not ready. They want a seventy million dollar grant to expand what they’ve got and turn it into a viable product. We finally have a shot at a personal forcefield generator that might be able to compete with what the mutants keep throwing at us. If any of our enemies get wind of this, they’ll steal the product. Or just kill the scientists and blow up the lab. So we need to keep this sub rosa until we have a working product we can roll out from at least two different facilities, and plans that we’ve duplicated and secured in several different data vaults.”
Paul asked, “Only seventy? Sounds a lot cheaper than any of the DoD projects. By an order of magnitude or so.”
Uncle Herb grinned, “Exactly. They’ve had a breakthrough, and they want to work with us, rather than risk having this on the open market and having Doctor Diabolik or someone coming after them.”
Paul watched as his dad grumbled, “Right. We still don’t know if Abrams and Stenberg at Cal Tech really had a viable prototype for their combat laser.”
Paul nodded. That had only been a year and a half ago. Saul Abrams had given a paper on their work at an international conference, and attracted a lot of attention. A lot of the wrong attention. Abrams and Stenberg and all their grad students were killed by Doomstrike and his mutant minions, and their lab was blown to pieces. Along with all their houses, apartments, cars, and Abrams’ office in the Cal Tech Physics department and Stenberg’s office in the Physics Engineering department. There weren’t any traces of the research left anywhere. And mutants weren’t the only threats out there. There were plenty of sinister organizations out there, ranging from the Bavarian Illuminati and the Brotherhood of the Bell, all the way to groups that he wasn’t going to be told about until he turned twenty-one. So anyone with any sense would be keeping their research really quiet, and making sure the right people got the fruits of their labors.
Uncle Herb muttered, “Goddamned mutants. Well, if we keep this quiet enough, we should have a working PFG that could revolutionize the Knights of Purity, and maybe even put them on equal footing with mid-level Energizers and Devisers. It looks like they’ve come up with a forcefield projector that will be cheap enough to use on at least one or two Knights per team, with enough stopping power to make them worth the cost. Now we’ll have to see about the power requirements, but Knight teams have broadcast power input. They’ll have to really do something impressive to make the battery life good enough that we can offer them to the DoD.”
Paul’s father nodded and said, “I’ll have Peterson in Finance here at three. I’ll get the grant and make sure it’s eyes only.”
Uncle Herb said, “Great. I appreciate it. Now what about our family problem?”
Paul started, “You know about Trevor. But Trevor’s been providing us with intel. Cousin Melissa was turned into a mutant, possibly in the same way Trevor was, so Trevor warned us to step up personal security on all family members including cousins. This could be the threat you warned me about.”
Father frowned, “I didn’t want to tell you. We have a family rule. Only the family who show the willingness to work in the company, and only when they turn twenty-one. But with the family problem, you needed to know at least that part of it.”
Paul said, “Trevor also wants us to look harder into the Springfield Slasher. He thinks a large part of that may have been targeting the Goodkind who was killed, and he thinks there may have been black magics involved.”
Uncle Herb said, “I’ve got some people going over that again.”
Father said, “Unfortunately, we can’t keep the Trevor problem quiet any longer. People have been nosing around for months, but a reporter finally got close enough that he found our hoax. We did the usual. Some Goodkind lawyers asked him not to go public, but he ignored them, just as we anticipated. We’ll let him publish and then sue the paper over breach of privacy issues, so everyone will believe him. As of tomorrow’s news, Trevor James Goodkind will officially be ‘paralyzed after a near-fatal mutant assault’ and in a high-security private hospital in Switzerland.”
Uncle Herb cautiously asked, “How’s Helen handling this?”
Paul watched as his father nearly broke down. “She’s not. Ever since summer, she’s been on increased medication and in intensive therapy. Now she’s having a break with reality. She really believes we have Trevor hidden away in a foreign hospital with some of our Swiss medical teams. I… I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Paul was deeply afraid that there was nothing anyone could do for his mother. It had been bad enough when Trevor changed. His mother hadn’t been willing to believe that the mutant in Hammond’s lab was really her son Trevor. All right, he hadn’t believed it either until presented with some hard evidence, because that thing looked nothing like Trevor. Paul believed in God, but he didn’t understand why God would put someone like his mother through this kind of hell.
The breakfast theme for the morning was ‘pancakes’. There were stacks and stacks of the things, ranging from thousands of little dollar pancakes to hundreds of plate-sized extra-thick monstrosities. There were plain pancakes and buttermilk pancakes and chocolate chip pancakes. There were gallons of fake maple syrup, and quarts of real maple syrup, and pints of oddly-colored syrups that were probably ninety-nine percent high fructose corn syrup. There were bushels of pre-softened butter and margarine. There were shakers of powdered sugar and cocoa powder and things I didn’t want to find out about.
I managed to pick out a couple nicely-browned buttermilk pancakes. I put some real butter atop them, and found a small cup so I could have some of the real maple syrup on the side. Then I sought out some decent coffee and some fresh fruit.
As I picked out some grapefruit slices, Nikki swung by with two rationally-sized pancakes and a big bowl of mixed fruit with shredded coconut and miniature marshmallows. It looked like someone had tried to make ambrosia based on only a vague knowledge of the recipe. She caught my glance and said, “I figure I’d better get something really sweet, or the maple syrup’ll make it taste like bleah.”
I nodded, “That’s why I’ll eat my grapefruit first.”
She grinned, “So… how many pancakes will Billie have?”
I grinned back. “How many stacks of those giant pancakes can you get on one tray?”
It turned out the answer to my facetious question was six. Billie had six stacks of the largest pancakes, and each stack was about eight inches high. It looked like margarine and fake maple syrup were oozing out of all the stacks. I hastily averted my eyes before I completely lost my appetite.
Jade had six little saucer-sized plates, each with two dollar pancakes. Dollar-sized chocolate chip pancakes. The pancakes all had margarine smeared across their tops, but each plate had a different-colored syrup. I touched the crystal and caught her explanation. “No, it’s because I got all six different syrups! This one’s regular syrup, but this one’s blueberry, and this one’s raspberry, and this one’s cherry, and this one’s boysenberry, and this one’s plum.”
Fake boysenberry syrup on chocolate chip pancakes? Okay, my appetite had officially fled and sought asylum in a neutral country. While the rest of the table inhaled the pancakes like a vacuum cleaner attacking dustbunnies, I ate my grapefruit slices and then had about half my pancakes. At least the coffee was good. It wasn’t that the pancakes were bad, they just weren’t excellent.
I admit it. I’m spoiled. I wanted the best pancakes our chefs were capable of making, and that simply wasn’t going to happen when they had to crank out thousands of the suckers. Every twenty minutes or so.
Jade wiped bluish-purple syrup off her mouth and said, “Hey Ayla, you still need to tell everybody about your new supergun.”
Toni said, “Yeah, the J’s said somethin’ about it in the showers but I was already dead when you whipped it out.”
Billie said, “Toni, you might wanna be a little…” She made a ‘tone it down’ gesture. “When Fey killed you last night, I think Phase broke down and cried.” She looked at me and said, “I could hear you sniffling inside that mask, y’know.”
I just clenched my jaws and said nothing. But it did occur to me that even though I was a guy who was making a big deal about not being a girl, I was undoubtedly the biggest sissy on the whole team. I was the one who didn’t want to get hurt. I was the one who didn’t want to punch people. I was the one who cried over a fake body in a holographic simulation. What a wuss.
Hank did his ‘dad of the family’ bit. “Well… uhh… hey, about that gun you got…”
I said, “This isn’t for public consumption. I managed to acquire a real Goodkind Defense Industries CM019A one-shot combat maser.”
Billie whistled to show she was impressed. Jade grinned and said, “Wowsers!”
I continued, “It’s the size of a flashlight and fits in my utility belt. The sim jockeys all wanted to see it, so I had to bring it in to get it registered. They gamed the system as a thank you. What I have in the sims is a CM019B. It’s the size of a rifle.”
Jade said excitedly, “It’s the size of a Super Soaker rifle. It’s got a barrel like a mailing tube, and it’s got an underslung battery bigger than Eldritch’s M203, and it’s got another battery in the stock so the stock is about ten times the size of a normal rifle stock. And it’s got a totally awesome scope on it.”
Nikki contributed, “And it’s powerful. The second shot went through the shield I was putting up and burned a hole in my chest above my armor. The third shot just about boiled my face off.”
I said, “So I have an advantage in the sims that I can’t actually use in the real world, which makes it… a nuisance. We can’t afford to depend on it in any of our sims, because we can’t get used to depending on it when we get in a real battle.”
Hank asked, “So, how long before you can get a real CM0… whatever the hell it is?”
I frowned, “CM019B. Maybe one to three years. It’s still in the test phases, and if they can’t get the cost down or the battery capacity up, or else find another way to power it, the thing’s not going to be worth the money. Right now, you could mount a GDI combat maser on a main battle tank and use a significant fraction of the auxiliary electrical power for it, but you’d still be well below what the tank’s main gun can do for no extra cost. A light anti-tank weapon or an RPG-7 is way more cost-effective.”
Hank said, “So Jade has a secret advantage in the sims, and now Ayla does. We just need to make note of ‘em and not call for ‘em in real fights.”
I grimaced, “And we have to keep Vamp from screwing with it while it sits in the charger in my room.”
Nikki smiled evilly. “I think that one’s manageable.”
Billie asked, “Anything else? Because I need some more food.”
Toni looked at Nikki and said, “Yeah, I think we’re gonna have a lunch guest. Chou’s been tryin’ to talk sense into Ceecee’s teeny little head, but I think that girl needs ta hear some white girls sayin’ it before it’s gonna sink in.”
“What is it this time?” I asked.
Toni shrugged. “Dunno.”
Nikki said, “It’s something crazy. Chou seemed to think Ayla was the person Ceecee needed to talk to.”
Toni nodded, “See? Typical white girl solidarity.”
“There are no typical white girls on this team,” I replied.
“Never have been,” Hank insisted.
“Nope, we be the baddest of the bad,” said Toni in her most ‘street’ accent.
“Especially when it comes to your bad English grades,” teased Nikki.
“I aver that you are outta line with that crack,” Toni grinned. “We be down wi’ da nounage and that stuff.” She even added this two-handed gesture where she pointed forward with both index fingers and then circled both wrists inward to point down at the floor with both hands, so she could look extra-cool. Where the heck do regular people learn this kind of thing?
“Go quaff your milk,” I told her.
I was on my way to physics class when I received the bad news. As soon as I saw that the call was from Paul’s personal cell phone, I flew over to the little glen I liked to use for phone calls. I just stayed light and kept my bPhone in my palm so it would stay light with me.
“Paul? What’s up?”
“Hi, Ayla. It’s bad news, and I thought I needed to tell you in person.”
I gulped. “It’s not mother or father, is it?”
“No, no, everyone’s… okay,” he said. “Mother’s not holding up well, but there isn’t any change. And Aunt Marsha is complaining again about Uncle Herb’s cholesterol count, but that’s it.” He swallowed. “It’s you. Or rather, it’s Trevor James Goodkind.”
My heart sank. “How bad is it?” I had realized some time ago that sooner or later the family was going to have to deal with the sudden disappearance of one of the more prominent scions of the family.
He sighed, “Back in October, Father set up something with GKI and Goodkind Europe, just in case. I was hoping you might find a cure for your mutancy or something before it came up, but an investigative reporter came up with it already. The London Times will report in their next issue that Trevor James Goodkind is in an exclusive private clinic in Switzerland because he was attacked last summer by mutants and is still paralyzed. Then we’re going to sue them for breach of privacy, which probably won’t hold up in the British courts, but it will definitely convince everyone that they’re correct and we’re trying to cover it up.”
I felt sick to my stomach. I knew conceptually that they had to have made preparations to deal with reporters and other snoops trying to figure out what happened to one of the primary heirs to the Goodkind fortune. But hearing it, and knowing that it would isolate me even further from the family? Painful.
I knew it would reaffirm my position as Ayla Jane Goodkind, teen financial wizard who was not related to THE Goodkinds. It probably wouldn’t cause many problems around campus. The people who might actually believe the news article would probably be glad to know I wasn’t one of those Goodkinds. But most people would probably realize that an anti-mutant family like the Goodkinds would have to have some kind of cover story to explain what had happened to one of their children. I told myself this was a good thing.
I was so depressed I hardly paid any attention to the first part of physics class. I had to make a real effort to concentrate when it was time to work on the in-class assignment with Pendragon and Mister Mystic.
Mister Mystic finally whispered, “Phase, are you all right?”
I admitted, “I just got some really bad news from home. It will be all over the news tomorrow. I just need to concentrate on classwork.”
Being guys, they weren’t prepared to cope with an emotional crisis so they let it drop. Man, I could just imagine if Gloriana had been in their place. She wouldn’t have let it drop until she could handle the emotional issues properly, and maybe get me to ‘talk it out’.
Which reminded me. I needed to give the team a heads-up on this in a way that would prevent enormous amounts of girltalk. And I needed to tell Vanessa.
I dragged my way through classes and made it all the way to lunch. Nikki could see something was bothering me, but she didn’t say anything in class. I think Grimes knew something was wrong, simply because I wasn’t putting my hand up in the air to answer all the questions. I think that by the end of the class, even Palantir had noticed.
Nikki stuck by me as we walked to lunch. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Eventually, yes. But not here.”
Perhaps I should have phrased that differently. Nikki latched onto me like a remora, accompanying me through the food line and not letting me out of her sight. She walked me up to our table and sat down next to me, draping her crystal over the condiments in the center of the table and waiting until I touched it too.
“So what’s the matter?” she asked. “You feel awful.”
I said, “I’d like to wait until the full team is here, so I only have to go through this once. And then I’d like to let it drop.”
“You are such a boy,” she said, shaking her head.
<(Fey) Hurry up, Phase has something to tell, and she’s feeling pretty miserable.>
<(Tennyo) I’m still getting chicken sandwiches. I’ll be there in like two minutes.>
<(Chaka) This isn’t still about me gettin’ killed last night is it? Because I like her and all, but not that way.>
<(Phase) Hah hah. It’s something new. It’s not a threat; it’s just personal.>
<(Lancer) I’m on my way… and we’ll have to postpone. A certain comet’s on her way to the table.>
<(Fey) Oh great.> She picked up the crystal from the table and slipped it back into her purse.
<(Phase) Never mind. It’ll wait until after classes.>
Ceecee plopped her tray down and sat opposite me and Nikki. “Hi! Where’s everybody else?”
Hank sat down at the end of the table and said, “Ceecee, what’s up?”
Ceecee looked at him and said, “I asked Bladedancer about this, and she didn’t really know, but she said Phase knew everything, so I figured I’d better ask her.”
Toni sat down next to Ceecee and asked, “What’s the what, homes?”
Ceecee beamed at her, “You are so cool. Nobody I knew back home is anywhere near as cool as you.”
Toni gave her the standard leopard grin. “Goes without sayin’, girl.”
Jade and Billie sat down on the other side of Ceecee. “Hi Generator! Hi Tennyo!” Ceecee took a bite of one of her chicken sandwiches and asked me, “So what I gotta know is… is Vamp a real vampire?”
I managed not to choke on my salad.
Ceecee went on, “I really gotta know. Because I don’t wanna stake her if she’s not. But she’s really being mean, and she has fangs!”
I pointed out, “You have noticed she walks around in broad daylight, haven’t you?”
She pouted, “Well duh, but she’s paler than Edward, and he can walk around all day in the daylight, even if he sparkles. And she says she can’t handle tons of sunlight. So maybe she really is a vampire.”
Nikki carefully said, “You do know Edward Cullen is fictional, right?”
Ceecee rolled her eyes. “Well DUH. But I was just usin’ him as an example. I mean, there’s like a billion made-up types of vampires, and it’s not like I figure I can stab Vamp with a piece of wood and just watch her go whoosh and turn into a pile of dust. Even if I’d really like to. She told me my costume was so skanky even Attributes wouldn’t wear it! There’s nothing wrong with my costume!”
Jade asked, “Why would she even know what your costume looks like?”
Ceecee said, “I was showing Plastic Girl and asking her if the school had superstrong stuff I could get a suit made out of, but it couldn’t be expensive ‘cause I don’t have tons of money, but I just flexed a couple times, and the tie for my bustier nearly busted.”
I said, “You could switch to one of the standard supersuits. They provide them for free if you take the right courses. They’re probably more durable than what you’re using right now.”
She shrugged, “But I like my costume. I made it myself. Even if mom totally had a cow when she saw it.” She took another bite of sandwich and said around it, “So that’s why I gotta know if Vamp needs a big stake through the heart or not. And Bladedancer said she wasn’t even sure if there really were real vampires or just things and people that look vampire-y. Like Carmilla. Or Succubus. Or whatsername, that girl over in Dickinson with the I-vant-to-trink-your-blud accent.”
Nikki slipped into Aunghadhail’s tone a bit and said, “There have always been creatures that humans would think of as vampires. Class 2 entities that came over from outside what you might think of as your world.”
I said to Ceecee, “Hate to break it to you, but Nikki’s right. And Vamp isn’t a real vampire. Or rather, she isn’t one of the assorted types of real vampires.”
Toni smirked at me and said, “Go on, professor. I know you’re dyin’ to…” She stopped and thought for a moment. “… elucidate.”
Nikki glared my way. “You just had to give her that magazine subscription, didn’t you?”
I looked at Toni and said, “Precisely, my dear Watson.” I re-focused on Ceecee. “This wasn’t something that I knew about before, but due to the people you’ve spotted, plus a few more problems, I had some people I know do some research for me.”
“Of course,” said Billie and Jade nearly simultaneously. They smirked and high-fived.
I pretended to ignore them and began explaining. “There are vampire-like mutants, and maybe mutant-vampires, just as there are mutants who look like all kinds of animals and all sorts of Class 1 and Class 2 entities. That doesn’t make them true vampires. Alex has an eclectic set of talents that combine to give her these abilities, but all that doesn’t make her a true vampire. And her ability to be a giant pain in the ass isn’t vampiric at all.” I waited until the assorted snickering died down.
I explained, “There are vampires who are living humans, and there are vampires who are mobile corpses. Now these are all completely different things, and my researchers said that there was some disagreement over whether all of these are real. There may be some other types out there for which my researchers didn’t find enough evidence to include in their list. But there are vampires who are corpses possessed by a demon or a spirit. Those are two different things, and The Magus insists that they’re separate entities, with somewhat different powers and strengths and weaknesses. She ought to know. Then there are living people who are vampiric: people possessed by predatory spirits; and sorcerers who practice vampirism for dark magical purposes. And then there are two relative newcomers to the vampire biz. The Amazing Three have fought what Doctor Amazing calls a ‘symbiotic vampire’. Very tough, but very susceptible to their few weaknesses. Doctor Amazing has hypothesized that they’re a non-sentient silicoid extraterrestrial lifeform that parasitizes a human.”
“Whoa! You mean we got vampires from outer space now too?” complained Toni.
I nodded. “Doctor Amazing thinks that the first ones came to earth in meteors in the late Sixties. Then there are what have been called ‘viral vampires’. Doktor Horrifikus is considered the expert on them.”
“Isn’t he a supervillain?” checked Hank.
“Yup,” I agreed. “The Justice Brigade thinks he’s been experimenting with them for years, trying to create a super-soldier serum. All he’s been able to get so far are insane, super-strong, super-tough bloodsuckers who get occasional extra powers. The Justice Brigade claim that he lost his last three lairs due to his own experiments, and now he’s pretty much broke with no evil lair to go hide in.”
“AWK-ward!” laughed Toni.
“So he’s pretty much Resident Evil without the creepy corporation?” Billie asked.
Ceecee asked, “So which is Vamp? Because she so needs a stake through the heart. Or maybe a holy relic. Or something.”
I said, “Sorry, but I don’t think she’s any of the above. Although, if it cheers you up any, there may be other types of vampires out there.”
“As long as they don’t sparkle,” muttered Hank.
Ceecee said, “Well, if she’s alive, I can’t kill her. That wouldn’t be heroic. But she’s gonna get one of my comet-blasts one of these days if she keeps being mean.”
I pointed out, “She’s an energy absorber. She can suck power out of you, since you’re an Energizer. And she may be able to absorb one of your Energizer blasts. I don’t know. So you might want to just avoid her.”
“Oh, I try to avoid her! A lot! But she’s a real pain in the… neck!” Ceecee complained. “And I figured Bladedancer and Gateway would want to team up with me and fix her wagon, especially after she said those mean things about Bladedancer and Gateway and naked sex. I mean, it’s kind of weird knowing they do stuff when they’re both girls and they have that thing with Chain Lightning too, but it’s not like they do it when I’m around or talk about it around me or anything.”
She stopped and took another bite of chicken sandwich. “And how come they don’t want to be my sidekicks? I mean, they called themselves ‘Handmade Zone’. How dumb is that? I mean, a zone is like ‘no parking in the red zone, the red zone is for loading and unloading only’. They’re not a zone! And they don’t have anything made by hand, unless you count Geomancer’s scarves and knitting and hair ribbons and stuff, and who wants a superteam named for a sweater? Even if it’s a really cute sweater. I totally have to talk her into teaching me how to knit.”
While the rest of the table tried not to laugh at Ceecee’s name for Team Chou, Ceecee just whined for a while about people like Chou not realizing they needed to be her sidekicks.
All right, I was thinking about it. Chou was trying to be surreptitious by running a team that was supposedly low-level. But would she be better off playing incompetent sidekick to a Cape wannabe like Ceecee? Nothing said ‘loser’ around Whateley more than hanging out with a super who was a laughingstock. Bravo Company came to mind, as did the Emerson Losers. I would have to talk to Chou and give her the option: being a laughingstock and knowing it would hurt. But it would put her in the position she was seeking.
At least thinking about Chou’s problem gave me enough separation from my own problems that I could focus in aikido class. Not focusing in there inevitably led to being spotted by Ito or Tolman and getting my ass kicked in some embarrassing way.
After we learned two new forms and practiced them enough for the Exemplars to get it down, it was paired practice time. Sensei Tolman paired me up with Phobos, who looked a little uncomfortable. Usually, it was everyone else who was uncomfortable around her. Or else simply scared senseless because of her fear aura.
I had to focus in order to do what I could to control my response to her aura. I couldn’t simply block it or turn it off or ignore it, like some of my teammates could. Unfortunately, I had a good guess about why Phobos might be uncomfortable around me.
I said, “You go first.” I didn’t say whether I wanted her to practice the forms first, or to talk first. I expected her to do both. I went fully heavy.
She moved, and attacked. Hand strike, punch, counter my block, trap my forearm, joint lock, and takedown. Perfect for her, since as an Exemplar-4 she was faster than me, and strong. Also, she didn’t have to learn how to adapt her legs to kicks, which was always a problem for her. And with four arms, she could get in some extra grappling or blocking. She just had to adjust to my increased strength and my extra weight.
I let her take me down, and she was careful about it. While she held me, she whispered, “Did you really kick your roommate out of your room? It’s what Deimos heard from Harpy.”
We stepped back, and it was my turn. I stepped through the movements, only I had a different set of issues with which to deal. In both senses of the phrase. Instead of increased strength and weight, I had to deal with increased speed and extra arms.
I stayed fully heavy and I moved. Hand strike, which she blocked. Punch, which she blocked. I had to move extra quickly to trap her upper forearm, and I had to ignore a shot to the ribs from her lower arm. I managed to obtain the joint lock, and I executed the takedown. At that point, I also had to block any strikes from her legs, which were designed to kick behind her.
I whispered, “Of course not. Why didn’t you just come and talk to me about this? I thought we were friends.”
She took her turn and worked on the second form. Since the second kata had two kicks in it, she was having to work on a special version Ito had dreamed up for digitigraded students. “I thought so too, but then everybody was saying you kicked her out of the team and threw her out of your room and… I didn’t know what to think!”
I took my turn. With her extra arms and enhanced quickness, she did a good job of fending off my kicks. Then I whispered, “What did your friends say?”
She took her turn. Then she whimpered, “Diamond said I wasn’t thinking it through. Jericho just made a stupid joke. Eldritch just said to go with my gut feeling, which was even less helpful. Razor said I should talk to you. My sister said I shouldn’t talk to you, because you’re a Goodkind and you’d twist everything around.”
And she depended on her sister more than everyone else combined. Even I could tell that. I took my turn and whispered, “Take Deimos and go talk to Chou and Molly. I didn’t kick her off the team, and it’s impossible to get a roommate moved. I should know, because now I’m stuck with a supervillain.”
She took her turn and then said, “Yeah, everyone’s saying you bought off Admin to get a supervillain minion you could boss around.”
I gritted my teeth and took my turn. Then I hissed, “Like that’s possible. You can’t buy off Lady Astarte, and Hartford’s a multi-millionaire and an heiress. No, Admin stuck Vamp with me because they were worried she’d run roughshod over anybody else. So Chou and I got split up when we didn’t want to split, and we’re both stuck with roommates we can’t stand.”
She winced and then took her turn. “So… are you mad at me for being a really crappy friend?”
I took my turn. “No, but I am pretty frustrated that you were scared to come talk to me about it.”
“I wasn’t scared, I…” She took a hasty glance around and then carefully took her turn. “I wasn’t scared, I just… I didn’t know what to do, okay?”
Then it was time for sparring. Apparently, Ito thought Jobe was a biohazard threat anytime he stepped into the sparring circle, because he matched Jobe against Britomart. Apparently, Britomart felt the same way, because she armored up as soon as she heard who she would face. I knew from an entire term of aikido in the fall that Britomart didn’t like having armor that formed so closely to her skin that sometimes she had to be peeled out of it. The poor girl didn’t have a hair left anywhere on her.
Once Britomart was armored up, she was stronger and tougher. She was safe from Jobe’s weapons and toxins, which appeared to be what she was worried about. But she wasn’t much stronger than Jobe, and she wasn’t quite as quick. More importantly, she wasn’t anywhere near as good a martial artist. Jobe demonstrated some very nasty moves, and pinned Britomart twice in under two minutes. After the second one, Britomart was holding her right shoulder like Jobe had hurt her through that armor. And then she had a heck of a time peeling the armor off afterward. I knew from experience in aikido classes that it wouldn’t de-manifest until at least a few minutes after she had it peeled off. I kept an eye on her, in case she needed some help.
After several more turns in the sparring circles, I was paired up with Belphoebe. As we walked to the mat, I asked, “How do you want to do this? Powers? Holdouts? Both? Neither?”
She asked in that slight ‘fake upper class Brit’ voice that she still retained somewhat from Belphegor’s memories, “Really? You’ll stick to what I choose even if you’re losing?”
“Of course,” I insisted.
“Then neither. I really need to work on my skills, so I don’t have to trail behind the mater. And taking this course twice would be… embarrassing. It’s bad enough that we’re working with this little martinet who’s working our asses off every morning and evening.”
Now that bit of news didn’t surprise me at all. I couldn’t see Jobe stopping her research for as long as it would take to get Belphoebe and Bova trained. Furthermore, Jobe still thought like a crown prince. Why waste time doing something repetitive and uninteresting, if you could order some peon to do it for you? It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that she made her old martial arts teacher fly out from Karedonia to do her bidding.
We took our places and waited until sensei Tolman started us. I went into a defensive stance and let Belphoebe make the first moves. I wanted to see what she had, and what she could do. It fairly quickly became obvious that she was trying hard, but she didn’t yet have confidence in her abilities or her movements. As far as I could tell, she was as strong and as fast as Jobe, but with only a small fraction of the training. And her brain was probably still telling her that she was a fat lardball who couldn’t fight his way out of an elementary school playground.
I knew exactly what it was like to have your brain telling you one thing while your body was trying to tell you something else. After most of a year, there were still times when the old ‘Trevor’ part of me was interrupting. That was probably part of the reason why I was taking it easy on her.
“Watch your stance,” I whispered.
She gave me a minuscule nod and dropped into a low stance with her front foot really far forward and her hands up. I swept her front foot out from under her. She had to roll onto her back and push herself up into a neutral stance again. I let her, instead of crowding her and sweeping her leg before she was balanced again.
When she concentrated, she could whip off one of the forms she had learned, and execute it pretty well. I knew enough to block pretty much everything she threw my way, but she was still pretty strong. Not strong enough to power through my blocks, but strong enough to put the hurt on a baseline.
“You’re telegraphing your moves,” I whispered, when she started leaning into her punches and kicks. I grabbed a wrist and pulled when she didn’t snap her punch back quickly enough, and I pulled her over. She rolled to her feet again, but didn’t quite manage to stay inside the sparring circle.
I waited until Tolman started us again, and then whispered, “Don’t lean so far forward that you’re unbalanced. Watch your stance.”
She carefully adjusted her stance, leaving me a massive opening I refused to take. She tried a double kick that I slapped aside hard enough for her to realize that she wasn’t ready to try that move for real. She ended up catching her balance in a neutral stance, but she was turned about forty-five degrees away from me, where she would have been an easy target if I wanted to go on the offensive.
I whispered, “Stick with what you’ve worked on enough, and keep it simple. Focus on balance and movement.”
She concentrated on a series of punches and strikes, trying to move me backward to the edge of the sparring circle. She was better with the punches than the kicks, but she was still overextending a little. I waited until she had me reasonably close to the circle, and I pivoted on the ball of my front foot, grabbing her fist with my back arm so I could get an armbar on her with my forward arm and flip her. I didn’t have to toss her any farther than a baseline would, so it didn’t hurt her. She landed better than I was expecting, but she was still half out of the sparring circle.
Tolman called the match while Belphoebe was still getting up. She tugged her gi straight and said, “Thanks, I suppose. That was… instructive. And humiliating. I am never going to be ready in time.”
I whispered, “I think you’re doing extremely well for only… what? A day and a half of training? Keep it up, and you’ll make it.”
She went and sat down next to Jobe. It looked like they were having an intense discussion, probably about me.
As soon as class was dismissed, I started toward the locker room. But I didn’t get there. “Phase, if I may have a moment of your time?”
“Of course, soke. I have a free period today after this, so I’m not in a rush.”
Tolman glided into the conversation, taking up a position on my right so I was feeling crowded and trapped. I pretended I was fine.
Ito gently asked, “What were you doing with Belphoebe?”
I stood my ground without moving into a martial arts stance. “She needed the practice on her forms and sparring, not being pushed into a quick battle that would only teach her she needed more holdouts.”
Tolman asked somewhat more harshly, “And you believed her when she said that?”
“This time,” I admitted. “I knew what she wanted. This week, anyway. I’m not going to assume that forever.”
Ito softly asked, “And do you think that you know enough to be teaching someone else now?”
“Of course not,” I insisted. “I don’t even think Chaka knows enough for that. Yet. On the other hand, I could be mistaken about that part.”
Ito nodded, “And would you be willing to do the same with Bova tomorrow?”
“Of course. But she’s an empath, so she’ll recognize what I’m doing.”
Tolman said, “Everyone already recognized what you were doing.”
Ito said, “Very well. But perhaps you should consider that going easy on an opponent can have drastic consequences.”
I nodded tersely. “I’ve seen it. If a major demon hadn’t been so busy taking it easy on me and then gloating over my broken body, it would have won. Easily. Instead, I’m still alive, and it’s been banished back to its hell dimension. I don’t go easy on opponents in the real world. But the dojo is where I need to work on my aikido skills, not work on crushing my opponents with every weapon I’ve got.”
He asked, “When do you plan to practice with your new weapons?”
I was completely surprised he knew about that. Not. I figured he had major pipelines from Security, the sims, the ranges, and the powers testing lab. I just said, “I planned to arrange something with the range staff fairly soon. The key problem is that one of my weapons can only be fired once, it lacks the standard aiming conventions, and the recharge time is probably measured in portions of an hour. That severely limits what I can do in terms of practicing at the ranges.”
“That sounds as if you would do much better with a simple simulator. Perhaps even a games system,” he said.
I assumed that meant that he knew I had connections with a slew of devisers. I nodded carefully. “Thank you for the advice, soke.”
Tolman just said, “Get going on your shower, Phase.”
“Hai, sensei.” I stuck to Japanese as I said, “And thank you for the opportunity to speak with Phobos. It was most helpful.” After all, I was pretty sure Ito had done that deliberately, and told Tolman not to get on our cases when she spotted us talking between turns.
Some day in the future, I was going to have to get that old conniver something special. I just couldn’t decided whether it should be something like a rare museum-quality Japanese katana, or something more like one of Beltane’s annoying pranks.
Both. He definitely deserved both after some of the crap he had put me through in class. Besides, once I bought him a ten million dollar katana, his guard would be down for the prank.
I showered, but I wasn’t showering as fast as on days when I had physics lab, so Tolman was already walking into the showers while I was drying off using my power.
I turned away from her, to give her a little privacy. All right, it was to give myself a little privacy too. And I desperately didn’t want to get caught staring at her when I was naked in the showers and my ‘interest’ would be obvious.
She said, “If Genevive can ignore things, then I can just get over myself.”
I apologized, “Sorry. I should have hurried more. You shouldn’t have to deal with something you have to ‘get over’, whether it bothers sensei Beaumont or not. Personally I think it amused her.”
She turned the water on and stepped into the spray. “Do you always talk like that?”
I sighed, but only inwardly. I straightened my shoulders and admitted, “Yes. Sometimes I’m worse. It’s how I was raised. You can kick the mutant out of the Goodkinds, but that doesn’t mean you can kick the Goodkind out of the mutant. I know Chaka is in your sixth period class. You could ask her for some of the stories she’s heard about me from some of the students here who went to school with me before Whateley. Or you could ask any of Team Kimba, or Jericho, or probably Diamondback. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jobe had heard the stories too, but I doubt she would cooperate with you.”
She didn’t say anything, and I had my back to her so I couldn’t tell if she was shaking her head in disgust or rolling her eyes. It didn’t really matter. I didn’t expect to change her opinion of me – or that of Goodkinds in general – just by chatting uncomfortably for thirty seconds in a shower.
I walked out, dressed, and headed out of Eastman Annex. I had well over half an hour to kill before math class, so I headed for my room. I dropped off my gymbag with Jody so she could load it with clean clothes for tomorrow, and I tried to concentrate on homework.
It didn’t work. I just kept thinking about Trevor James Goodkind and that news report. Even if Jobe pulled off a miracle tomorrow, they wouldn’t let me rejoin the family. I was a mutant. I was the enemy. The mythical Trevor would just ‘waste away’ in that hospital, and at some point the Goodkinds would just announce that their beloved son Trevor had passed away after months or maybe years of life support. I would be someone else. Someone they didn’t know and wouldn’t recognize – in any sense of the word. I would never get to go home again. I would never again get to eat with mother, or talk with father, or spend time with Paul, or watch movies with my uncle. I would never again get to play with David or laugh with Connie. I would never again spend time talking to Heather.
All right, that last one might be an upside to the whole mess.
I sat there and stewed about it for a long time. I still didn’t have a single physics problem worked when my bPhone buzzed and let me know I needed to hurry off to math class. I put my textbook and notepaper away, and then I dove down through the floor into the basement so I could fly through the tunnels to class.
I got to class a good two minutes before the bell rang, and I sat down with Electrode. Unicorn rushed in on my heels. She murmured across me to Electrode, “Well, I asked Hexette, and now she’s upset about the Techwolf thing. Seems she did pretty much steal Tennyo’s boyfriend and Tennyo just sort of teared up and said Hexy was better girlfriend material than her and took off, and hasn’t spoken to her since. Hexy’s in tears and maybe we shouldn’t bring it up at the training team meeting.”
I said, “Tennyo’s not used to looking attractive, and she wasn’t a girly girl before, so she’s completely confused over the whole thing. Some of the time, I don’t think she even wants to be attractive, and some of the time I think she just wants to fly straight up and never come back down. It’s a good thing she’s in Poe, because she had a really rough fall term, what with Hartford gunning for her, and Montana ruining her life, and then she couldn’t see her own family because of problems with some supervillain assassins or something. I wish people would be nicer to her.”
Electrode muttered, “Why does everything in high school have to be a freaking soap opera?”
Says the girl who still wanted to scratch Delta’s eyes out. Not that I was going to say that out loud. Although it did occur to me that watching a big naked argument in the morning showers between ‘Trode and Delta would be a lot easier on the eyes than watching Sharisha argue with, well, anyone on the floor. Okay, Fey had enough hotness that Fey plus Tempest would still beat Electrode plus Delta Spike; but Sharisha had just enough sense not to get into it with either Tennyo or Fey.
I figured that in a real fight, Delta would probably win. Granted, it wouldn’t be a hair-pulling, eye-scratching catfight. No, it would probably be a wicked blaster-on-blaster aerial dogfight. Electrode might have more experience in that kind of fight, but Delta was able to take more punishment and had a supersuit with a lot of protection. Plus, Delta was likely to have a variety of holdouts and enhancements. She might be a running gag down in the Workshop, but she wasn’t a pushover.
The pre-class discussion was, unfortunately, more interesting than the class. Mrs. Bell was still making sure that everyone was on the same page. That meant that she was still writing algebra and trig problems on the board, and still preparing the slackers of the class for tomorrow’s quiz. I was so bored I only took out my bPhone so I could work on the physics problems I hadn’t done when I was back in my room. I didn’t bother to volunteer for a single problem, which made Electrode ask me after class if anything was the matter.
I admitted, “It’ll be all over the news tomorrow.”
“Ohhh,” she said. “Goodkind stuff.”
I sighed, “Yeah. We’re already playing it like I’m some financial whiz whose last name just happens to be Goodkind. So this is the logical sequel.”
She patted me on the shoulder and let me hurry over to the Accounting IV open session. I was already dreading it. Once again, Mister Marley greeted me and handed me the class roster. There were only seven students: six seniors and one junior. None of them were Workshop kids. None of them were students I knew personally.
Mister Marley said, “I’m seeing a lot of work from these students already, so we may not have anyone show up for the open session.”
I said, “And if anyone does show up, he or she may be just as hostile towards me as everyone yesterday and the day before.”
He frowned and said, “That part is… a problem.”
I told him, “I’m willing to come to the Monday open session too, but I think that given the numbers, you’ll be under-utilized in the Accounting III and IV open sessions even without me around.”
He nodded. “I guess so. But what if I needed to miss a couple days?”
“Say… between now and April 15?” I guessed.
He nodded, “Right. Do you think you could take the open sessions yourself for the last week in March and the first two weeks in April?”
“The first week in April only,” I reminded him. “The second week in April is Easter break.”
I said, “I can certainly cover the open sessions for you, but you may get back on the sixteenth and find out that a number of students decided to stall until you finished with tax season.”
“Do you really think things could get that bad?” he wondered.
“Yes,” I asseverated. “There are students who have attacked me because my last name is Goodkind. There are a couple students here who have tried to kill me.”
“Surely things can’t be that bad…” his voice trailed off as I glared at him. “Oh… dear.” I was pretty sure the word he really wanted to say started with ‘c’.
“Look, I’m willing to give this a try,” I told him. “I just want you to know ahead of time that there are likely to be bigger problems than you’re seeing. Just so you know how things may play out while you’re gone.”
He pursed his lips and said, “Let’s give it a try, shall we?”
I sighed, but only inwardly. “Let’s.” So we chatted for a bit about problems with auditing when people were trying to inflate their intangible assets. By the time we were supposed to start, there was no one there.
A minute after that, a nerdy senior stuck his head in and asked, “Am I in the wrong room?”
He wasn’t. But he was the only person who showed up close to the correct time. A frowning girl with curly red hair dropped by about eight minutes late and immediately began complaining.
Mister Marley calmly said, “Miss Dailey, you knew what this course involved when you signed up.”
She fussed, “Yeah, but that was before I found out how much time my Industrial Arts class project is gonna take!” She pointed at me. “And you’ll need the whole hour every time to get some little frosh up to speed! When am I gonna get time to ask you stuff?”
He tried again. “Miss Goodkind here isn’t one of the students. She’s my TA.”
“GOODKIND?” Miss Annoying shrieked. “SHE’S the Goodkind? She’s a psycho! She turned Fireball into a monster! She ripped Peril’s dick off in front of the whole school!” She grabbed her backpack and rushed out, yelling, “I quit! I don’t need this shit!”
After a long, deadly silence, the guy asked, “So, I guess this means I get all the question-asking time I want?”
After ‘Mister Randolph’ asked about a dozen fairly stupid questions for someone taking Accounting IV, he grinned nervously and left.
Mister Marley cringed a little and asked, “About what Miss Dailey claimed…”
“Not quite, and not quite,” I temporized. “Fireball tried to kill me, or maybe just give me horrific burns over most of my body, and I knocked her out. She had a burnout. We still don’t know if it was from what I did, or from her overuse of her powers. At any rate, she did have a burnout, and it turned her from a pretty Exemplar into a scaly demon-girl with bat-wings. She blames me, of course, and she’s still trying to get even. As for Peril, he helped me pull a con on the whole school so people would be afraid to attack me anymore. As you can see, it worked a little too well.”
He cleared his throat and said, “Well, I suspect Miss Dailey was merely using that as an excuse to back out of the class.”
Well DUH on that. Granted, she obviously didn’t like me, even if I had no idea who she was. She apparently hadn’t known who I was before she walked into the room. But she had certainly seized on a prime opportunity to quit the class in a dramatic style. I wondered if she had taken any acting classes. If so, there was a possibility that Lily knew her.
I said, “I’m still willing to work with the Accounting I and II classes, but I don’t think there’s going to be enough work to go around at the higher-level courses. And I’m willing to cover for you while you’re gone the three weeks before April 15th, but I’m going to have a security camera recording all those classes, just in case someone like Miss Dailey decides to cause trouble for me.”
He frowned for a few seconds, and then smiled at me. “Some of the students might consider a camera on the class as sort of a protection against you doing anything wrong.”
“I’m content with that,” I said.
“Well. Then. I, umm, I’ll see you Monday. Afternoon. Have a good weekend.”
I nodded and let him leave. I deliberately didn’t say what I was thinking, which was that I was expecting it couldn’t be any more unpleasant than this class had been.
* * * * *
He was trudging along toward the main Workshop lab. And yes, he meant ‘trudging’. He had spent a month of hard work repairing his anti-grav chair after that little bitch Phase had humiliated him in the combat finals. He had still received a grade that was barely adequate for someone of his brilliance, but it had taken what felt like an eternity before the Betas rescued him. And then that thug Bardue had turned him over to Security. Oh, the humanity!
It turned out that some people had no concept of sharing, or devise integration. Jericho, Mega-Death, and two other Worshoppers had sworn out complaints against him alleging that he had stolen their work. Harvey even dricked out in front of the Security slobs while trying to explain about his stolen work. As if someone like Harvey could even remember what he’d been working on a month earlier.
Still, he had been allowed to repair his chair after that. But when he had tried to… ahem… persuade Chaka to let him run some tests on her, he had ended up getting… tested himself. His anal sphincter puckered uncomfortably at the memory. Why did people have to be so difficult with him? Didn’t they understand that he was a genius? Didn’t they understand that he could do things with their trash that they could not? Didn’t they understand that he could do great things if some pinheaded bimbo like Chaka would just let him perform some comprehensive tests and evaluate her ability to collect and store Qi energies? The little chit was literally a walking, blithering battery. With that kind of power source, he could demonstrate once and for all that he, The Great Belphegor, deserved to be treated with respect! That he deserved proper recognition! That he should be rewarded for his efforts, not denigrated and oh-so-unfairly punished.
But did Chaka cooperate? NO! Instead, she sicked some of her idiotic friends on him. The bloody cow. He had seen Tabby – she was unmistakable when in her animal form – and he had spotted Rez of the Lack-Of-Intelligence Cadets. And he knew who had to be responsible for that attack from those squirrels. Someday soon, that twit Aquerna would regret that. Once he was properly recognized as the premier inventor of Whateley, he would have that dolt Hazmat dump her. Publicly. In front of her friends. That would teach her.
And, as if he had not been humiliated enough in that incident, the headmistress had instituted additional punishments. He had lost his chair until finals weeks of spring term. He had lost his private laboratory. And Mal had repossessed the secret lab that he had rented from the Bad Seeds.
Why wasn’t he allowed into a group like the Bad Seeds? Oh no, people like She-Beast and Silver Serpent couldn’t accept that he was a natural for such an organization, even if both of his parents were boring, law-abiding citizens who had never acquired more than a speeding ticket. Someday, he would show them as well.
Meanwhile, his life was cruel and unfair. He had to walk everywhere. He wasn’t allowed to use his chair or build a new one. He had to lose ten pounds by the start of finals just to get his chair back. He had to work in the main Workshop room until next fall, so that everyone could see whether he was adapting others’ inadequate technologies into new and brilliant works of the deviser’s art. He had to do ten hours of brutal labor in the miserable outdoors. Every. Single. Week. And if he refused to cooperate with those louts, they were threatening to make him work in the sewers instead. He shuddered in horror. He had seen some of the things that had been hauled out of there.
He wasn’t allowed his chair, but he had managed to construct a masterpiece of synergistic design, so he had a system that trundled along beside him. It lacked an anti-gravity structure as yet, until he could procure or – if absolutely necessary – buy the components. But it had six powered wheels, and had extension jacks on all the wheels so it could level itself on slopes and climb stairs when necessary. It was the size of a large rolling suitcase, and carried what he needed. He had several offensive and defensive weapons in the top and sides. He had surveillance systems in it, so people couldn’t sneak up on him. He had three different toolboxes in the lower portion, all of which could be snapped out and lifted to a working height for him. He had a special secret compartment concealed between two of the toolboxes, in case he found any other particularly interesting technology that he could adapt far better than the idiots around him. And he had a few special surprises for anyone who thought him easier prey without his heavily-armed chair.
Before he stepped into the main Workshop lab, he stopped and checked his surveillance systems. He had been hit by paintballs, which were surprisingly painful. He had been hit by water balloons. He had been attacked by what looked like a swarm of hornets. There was no end to the indignities heaped upon him. Life was so unfair.
But that was why he was stopping before he reached the doorway. He checked his surveillance gear once more and listened to the conversations going on in the room.
“You really think he’s found a cure for that drow stuff?”
“This is Jobe we’re talking about, dummy. He could cure cancer, if he thought it was worth his time.”
“I bet he’ll be glad when he’s not some sexy black elf with big tits anymore.”
Belphegor hastily retreated. He had to do something. If his arch-enemy Jobe found a cure for that utter humiliation, and then had Belphoebe and Bova to use and degrade as someone like Jobe undoubtedly would, then… then…
Surely life couldn’t be THAT unfair!
He knew precisely what he needed to do.
* * * * *
I managed to get a reasonable amount of math and physics homework done, since Alex was being so annoying that I was easily able to overlook my own emotional turmoil. You wouldn’t think that writing a simple five-paragraph paper on a subject of one’s own choosing would require several hours of whining and griping. Five measly paragraphs? A subject one was allowed to select? Why was this taking Alex more than twenty or thirty minutes total? With a keyboard instead of a pen, I could probably complete the assignment in five to seven minutes.
I didn’t say anything, even though she was really intensely irritating. All right, I did offer to read it over once she was done, and mark her spelling and grammar errors, along with providing a little critique of her paragraph structure and overall format. She reacted as if I had offered to set fire to her clothing and then reformat her hard drive. Honestly, did she assume that the point of rooming with me was simply to take advantage of Jody whenever possible?
I was well ahead of the Friday and Monday assignments when I stopped for dinner. Of course, I stopped because my teammates were making so much noise in the hallway. Several of them were loudly announcing that they were particularly hungry. As if several of them were ever not hungry.
I checked that I was ready, and I stepped out of my room. “Is someone proclaiming their need for dinner?” I asked Toni with a smile.
She laughed. “I aver that I need some serious calories after sixth period.”
Billie grinned, “You should have seen her. She was sparring against Carmilla and Alakazam both, and you know how fast Sara can move when she wants to, and Alakazam can do that smoke cloud poof thing. Chaka was racing all over the mat while they tried everything they could to pen her in or herd her into a trap. It took her about five or ten minutes, but she ended up tying Alakazam up in Sara’s tentacles.”
Jade giggled, “Which was the funniest thing in class since she made someone’s clothes fall off in the middle of a match!”
Hank flew up the hall. “Talking about Chaka’s latest martial arts technique?”
Jade said, “Yeah. I think it’s called… Monkey Hogties Bird With Octopus Tentacles.”
Toni said, “Yeah, ‘Zam was screechin’ like I put ice cubes down her back. Okay, so maybe Carmilla did make with the slime there at the end. I didn’t make her do it.”
Billie said, “She scrubbed in the shower like you poured paint all over her. I think she might be mad at you.”
Toni rolled her eyes. “Like when is that girl ever not mad at me?”
Nikki grinned at her roommate. “And it’s not like it’s ever your fault.”
Toni looked my way and said, “OF COURSE not.”
Nikki looked at me and asked, “Is it time to talk about that thing?”
I said, “After dinner. My room.”
“What about Vamp?” Jade checked.
“Doesn’t matter,” I shrugged. “It’s going to be all over the news tomorrow.”
Nikki paused for a second. “Oh. Goodkind news.”
“Ugh,” groaned Toni. She looked me over and said, “You’d be a lot better off if you’d stop lettin’ ‘em make you upset about every little thing.”
I said archly, “Like you’ve stopped letting .44 Mag Vin get under your skin?”
“There is that,” she muttered. She switched to a ‘little old black lady’ voice that sounded rather like her grandmother. “That boy ain’t got the sense God gave a banana.”
Hank smirked, “And he’s so smooth with the ladies.”
Toni laughed. “He’s lucky Chou didn’t yark all over his shirt the way he was hittin’ on her.”
Nikki said, “He’s lucky I didn’t yark all over his shirt.”
“Yark?” I queried.
“Yeah. Yark. Half yuck and half barf. Get with the program, Ayles,” insisted Toni.
“Yeah, you are so last year,” said Jade, who was wearing a Hello Kitty skirt and so had no room to cast aspersions.
“I am extremely hep, daddy-o,” I said, in my squarest tones. I even added in some annoying nasal overtones, aiming for some of that ‘pre-drow Jobe’ irritation factor.
Billie began snorting with laughter. “We’ve gotta show you Urkel.”
“Urkel?” I checked.
“Steve Urkel. The classic black nerdboy,” she snickered. “Makes Kludge look like Denzel Washington.”
Toni muttered, “I hate that show.” I looked at her and raised an eyebrow. “Started out fine. Even had a black fam that wasn’t all gangstas and abuse. Then white people loved Urkel so much the producers changed it into the ‘Urkel and Some Neighbors’ show.”
“The Beverly Hillbillies,” I complained.
“Oh yeah, that one really got up in your grill, didn’t it?” Toni smirked.
“There are always shows designed to appeal to some large demographic that will piss off rational people,” I groused.
Toni nodded, “I be down with that concept, homes.”
“Are there any shows that your family liked?” Hank asked me.
“Ooh, I bet you guys really hated Dynasty,” said Jade. “And Dallas.”
I replied, “Yes, and just to add insult to injury, the building they always used for wide shots as the Ewing headquarters building?”
“Oh! Yours!” laughed Nikki. “You pointed it out in that sim last term. I didn’t spot it then, but Marty was watching one of the ‘old tv show’ channels and I saw it.”
Toni said, “She laughed so hard I thought she was gonna wet the couch.”
“Me?” Nikki complained. “When you got it, you laughed so hard you almost rolled right off the couch.”
“Hey, I wasn’t laughing that hard, I was just avoidin’ the giant pee flood from the faerie chick with the weak bladder,” Toni retorted.
After that, most of the trip to dinner was comprised of my efforts to get everyone else to stop making pee-related jokes. Especially Jade, who wanted to continue long after even Toni quit. I finally had to pull out the big guns. “All right, anybody who makes a pee joke from here on out is not going to be allowed to have any of my dinner treat.”
“Prob’ly gonna be more of those poison salads,” Toni teased.
“Ooh, that pear salad was awesome,” drooled Nikki.
“Maybe it’ll be one of those desserts,” dreamed Billie.
Jade agreed, “Yeah, those are always great. And the food at the Golden Kids parties is so good it’s worth waitressing just to eat stuff on the side.”
I pointed out, “That’s not always true. There have been several soirees this year that were definitely lacking in fine cuisine.”
Jade nodded, “Oh yeah, I heard a ton of complaints about Traduce’s party. She was totally peeved that your party was way better. And Corrosive was just egging her on. I think she was trying to get Traduce to go all catfight on you.”
Toni said, “Well, that’d be the shortest fight on record. Traduce is, what? Non-combat Esper powers and nothing else? Phase’d have to go out of her way to make that fight last more’n three seconds.”
Jade smirked, “Yeah. Even if she just ate a ton of dark chocolate and didn’t have her Warper powers.”
<(Lancer) I still can’t believe anybody fell for that.>
<(Chaka) Why not? We got kids whose big weakness is sunlight, or dirt, or rayon in their undies, or…>
<(Generator) Or squirrels!>
<(Tennyo) HELP! SQUIRRELS!>
I think we all cracked up at her Buster imitation. It also re-directed a certain persistent pest away from her potty humor. As soon as we started getting into a crowd of other people, we switched to the Spots to make more snide comments at Buster’s expense.
And I was in luck. While the main dinner option that night was vast flocks of roasted and broiled chickens, Chef Marcel was loitering with intent over by the dessert area.
He smiled, “Good evening. We have lots of chicken so Peter and I decided it would be an excellent time to try these.” He handed me the plate. I could tell they were perfectly-browned chicken livers on a bed of risotto.
“I am sure you already recognize the recipe, but just in case, these are fegato di pollo alla finanziera.”
I smiled, “Mmmm. I’d better hurry up and get upstairs before anything gets cold.”
I grabbed some green tea and a side plate of baby salad greens topped with a raspberry hazelnut vinaigrette that smelled tasty. Then I hurried up to our table and sat down.
Hank and Toni were already there. I was assuming that Jade was hanging out while Billie tried to pile six or seven whole roasted chickens on her tray. Nikki came up behind me and sat down with a plate of some sort of vegetable casserole and a bowl of fruit salad.
Toni said, “That looks like somebody dumped some chicken livers on a pile of rice. I think you got ripped off tonight.”
Billie and Jade sat down while Toni was speaking. Jade asked, “Those aren’t really chicken livers, are they? The liver and onions I saw was a great big flat thing.”
Billie said, “That was cow.”
I said, “Probably calf’s liver. Maybe beef liver The primary reason why people hate liver is badly-prepared, badly-cooked beef liver.”
Hank said, “What mom made us eat wasn’t nearly as bad as the venison dad shot and brought home. Deer liver? Seriously gross.”
I lectured, “First of all, this is risotto, which is to ordinary rice as chocolate mousse is to one of those pudding pops Jade was eating the other day.”
“Hey!” Jade complained. “You didn’t try one, you don’t know how they taste.”
I continued, ignoring the peanut gallery. “You have to use real Arborio rice, plus a really good chicken stock. Then you cook the rice in the stock, stirring regularly, until the rice absorbs all the liquid and it’s perfectly al dente. If you do it right, you get a rich, creamy risotto which is just a little too thick to pour.” I scooped up a forkful and demonstrated. It was smooth and velvety, with exactly the right amount of chewy mouthfeel. The full-bodied, stock-filled flavor was set off perfectly by the tang of the cheese that was mixed in.
I took a small bite and added, “Then this is seasoned with white pepper and probably sea salt, and mixed with a really good Parmigiano cheese. Freshly-grated.”
“How can you tell that?” Toni wondered.
“Because it would be a waste to spend this much time making a perfect risotto and then dump crap into it. Of course they’re using a topnotch cheese and grating it fresh.”
“Of course,” teased Nikki.
I cut a tiny piece of one of the livers and took a bite. The flavor was marvelously rich and dense. The liver was as velvety smooth as a paté. I said, “These livers were perfectly browned, I think in butter, and then cooked in chicken stock and a Marsala wine until they’re soft and smooth and creamy.”
“Creamy?” Hank asked suspiciously. “Because the liver we got was tough and you had to carve it up with a steak knife.”
“As I said before, badly-prepared and badly-cooked.”
“You are such a food snob,” Nikki said.
I looked around the table. “Who has the raw courage required to risk trying… fegato di pollo alla finanziera?”
“Something of chicken a la financiers?” guessed Toni.
“Yep,” I agreed. “Chicken livers, banker style.”
“Who else would get food banker style, except Ayla?” teased Jade. “But doesn’t pee come out of those things?”
“That’s kidneys. Or bladders,” I insisted. “Not livers.”
“So what comes out of livers?” she asked.
“Bile!” smirked Toni. “Mmmm, that’s good bile!”
“Bile bile bile bile, bile bile bile bile, lovely bile, wonderful bile…” Hank sang. Well, I use the word ‘sang’ in only the very loosest of terms.
“Can it,” complained Billie.
Jade laughed sharply. “Can it!” She looked around. “What? Spam. In a can. Can it. Get it?” All she received for her efforts were some stares. “Sheesh.”
Toni grabbed the top of her blouse like she was adjusting her tie and muttered, “Tough crowd, tough crowd.”
I asked again, “Now then, who has the nerve, the daring, the sheer audacity to try some of my food?” I looked around the table, stared at Hank, and said, “I double dog dare you.”
Toni and Billie laughed, while Hank said, “I didn’t know rich kids even had double dog dares.”
“We don’t,” I corrected. “I’ve just seen child actors say it.”
Toni said, “Well I’m not gonna back down from an official double dog dare. Especially from some rich kid who doesn’t know what they are.”
“Me neither,” grinned Jade.
“Oh, what the hell, it can’t be anywhere near as bad as that deer liver,” muttered Hank.”
“Okay, me too,” said Billie.
Nikki shook her head no. “Not a chance. Strictly vegetarian here.”
Toni said, “Yeah, the Knoxville girl probably wouldn’t touch it either.”
Jade groused, “Anybody who’ll eat octopus’ll eat anything.”
I cut up some of the livers and gave each of them a little piece atop some risotto. Then I sat and enjoyed my meal while everyone ate.
Hank finally said, “I gotta admit, that’s about a hundred times better than the liver and onions mom makes. About ten thousand times better than that deer liver.”
Jade said, “And the rice is really creamy! How come they don’t make it like this all the time?”
“Because it takes a lot of work, and you have to do it by hand in what would count here as small batches,” I explained.
Toni said, “And if Ayla says it’s a lotta work, you just know it’s like insano amounts of work.”
I said, “There’s no reason you can’t learn how to do it, and make it when you want to. I’ll bet Stephen would be impressed.”
“Yeah, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” said Nikki sagely.
“Same for Billie,” I added.
Toni said, “Way to Vince’s heart is through a magnifying glass, ‘cause you’re not gonna find it otherwise.”
Nikki said, “I was afraid you were going to go for a penis joke there.”
“Thought about it, girlfriend,” smirked Toni. “But it would have to be a very tiny joke.”
Jade laughed so hard I thought she was going to spit food all over the table.
After the main course, I went back and found a tasty-looking apple pie. I cut myself a reasonably-sized piece and ate it while Billie had a ‘piece of apple pie’ that looked like most of one of the pies. She also had a massive piece of cherry pie, a humongous slice of fudge cake, and a couple dozen assorted cookies.
After dinner, I flew back to Poe to see if I could round up Vanessa and get rid of my roomie. I lucked out. Vamp was somewhere else, and Vanessa was just getting back to Poe herself.
“Hi, honey,” I said. “Can I talk you into coming up to my room for a couple minutes? I’ve got the team coming over, and I need to give all of you a heads-up on some news that will be all over the place tomorrow.”
“All over campus?” she asked.
“All over the international news,” I admitted.
“That doesn’t sound good.” So she dumped her stuff on her bed and walked with me into my room. Then she sat with me on my bed and held my hand while I tried not to look nervous.
All right, it was all I could do not to get up and pace back and forth across the room. This was really bothering me.
The entire team crowded in. Jade chirped, “We all waited for Tennyo and Lancer to finish dessert, and then we all walked back together!”
“Thanks for coming,” I said, as Hank closed the door behind him.
Nikki asked, “Do I need to do the anti-eavesdropping spell?”
I shook my head no. “This is going to be all over the news tomorrow. Paul called me and warned me this morning. Reporters have been looking for Trevor Goodkind for months now, and one of them found the hoax that the family set up for this. Trevor James Goodkind was horribly injured in a mutant attack last summer and is paralyzed. He’s in a secluded, exclusive clinic in Switzerland.”
Hank pointed out, “Well, you’ve already been doing that ‘Ayla Goodkind is not one of THE Goodkinds’ bit for a while now.”
Toni muttered, “So now they can just kill you off whenever they want, right? And they can get a ton more anti-mutant mileage out of the whole stinking deal.”
Vanessa argued, “But they didn’t say he was dead. So maybe they’re leavin’ an opening, in case Ayla gets cured, like wit’ Jobe, and goes back to looking like he’s supposed to?”
Nikki said, “Maybe this’ll be a good thing. Maybe people around here’ll start treating you like anyone else, just someone with an embarrassing last name.”
Billie asked, “Is there anyone around here this could be a bad thing for? Really. Even your inventors will be happier if you’re not one of the bad Goodkinds.”
Jade said, “Worst I can think of is that dorkface Uproar trying to get you kicked out of the Golden Kids.”
Hank said, “I think pretty much everyone around here is gonna figure out the Goodkinds would have to pull this shit whether you’re Trevor or not. I’m not seeing it changing anything.”
“Except how you’re feeling,” added Toni. “Your Ki says you’re way more upset about this than you’re sayin’.”
Nikki said, “I wasn’t gonna bring that up.”
“Me neither,” chimed in Jade and Jinn.
“Whoa, burned by the J-Team. That’s gotta hurt,” I contributed.
“Seriously, Ayles,” said Toni. “If you wanna talk to any of us – except Hank - about this, just drop by. We’re here for ya.”
“Thanks,” I managed.
And then, once everyone trailed out, Vanessa sat in my lap and ‘made it all better’ for a while. A long while. I didn’t realize how long it was, until there was a knocking on my door and Toni’s voice called out that it was time to get over to the sims.
Vanessa kissed me one more time and murmured, “Go beat up imaginary stuff in the sims, and maybe you’ll feel better.”
As before, we had to get to the holo sims about ten or fifteen minutes early, just so some of us could sit around in sim suits while the sim jockeys talked to Hank about Dark Lancer.
So I was sitting in the uncomfortable chair when Bardue and Wilson slipped into my cubicle. Wilson grinned, “Well Phase, this time it’s gonna be Dark You.”