Ayla and the Mad Scientist: (Chap 19)
Ayla and the Mad Scientist, the 9th Phase novel by Diane Castle, Chapter 19 – Candide
Ayla and the Mad Scientist
CHAPTER 19 – Candide
a Whateley novel
by Diane Castle
Officer Metler led me and my ‘bodyguard’ out of the maze of twisted hallways that made up the back areas of the Security offices. I could easily have walked out on my own, since I had paid attention to the route when we entered.
I said, “Thanks for getting me the food and the drinks. I was starving after working all afternoon with Circe.”
He said, “Sure, Phase. I know you like really good food and stuff, but that was all I could manage on short notice. And Buxton won’t be pissed off when he finds out the looie used his chocolate for a good cause.”
I lied, “It was fine.” Then I added, “I appreciate your trying.”
He said, “Delarose was personally gonna march you over to see Carson, but I got Lieutenant Trout to ‘volunteer’ me, so you got some backup, no matter what goes down.”
I said, “I appreciate it, but I think things will be okay this time.”
He put his hand on the door out to the main entry area, and he said, “With Carson, you can never be sure. She’s a lot sneakier than she looks.”
We walked out to where Toni and Jade were waiting for us.
Well, at least they were out there. Whether they were waiting for us was a different issue. They appeared to be having a juggling contest. Half a dozen Security officers were pretending to work as they watched. Three students were sitting there enjoying the show.
Toni was juggling a paperweight, a book, a stapler, a radio, and one of the heavy steel chairs. I assumed that she was cheating by using her ki to manipulate at least one of the objects.
Jade was juggling four squeeze balls and a vase. A clear glass vase full of water, with flowers still in it. I knew she was cheating, because the vase stayed perfectly vertical the entire time, and the flowers never fell out.
“Hi, Generator!” said Jinn, even though it was unnecessary.
Jade caught the vase in one hand and the balls in the other hand. Toni danced around the room, returning her objects one at a time as they fell to her left hand. Then Toni finished up by doing a flip so she ended up sitting in the chair just as the chair clunked into place in the row of chairs against the wall.
While Jade returned all of her juggling objects with quiet ‘thank you’ and ‘thanks a ton’ and ‘see I didn’t hurt ‘em at all’ comments, Toni lounged in her chair and gave me that leopard grin. Toni finally purred, “So… Ayles, looks like we get ta go over to Admin and watch the fallout. Should be a blast.”
Jade trotted over to Jinn and touched her hand, saying, “Hey, where have you been?”
I watched carefully, but there was hardly a flicker in Jinn’s shape as Jade recharged her. The J-Team was getting really good at this. Jinn said, “I’ve been keeping an eye on Phase.” As if Jade didn’t know everything Jinn had been doing as soon as they did their little recharging trick.
So Officer Metler ‘escorted’ us over to Admin, while Jade asked me questions about my afternoon with Circe, and Toni juggled the J-Team. I was really wondering how much weight Toni was tossing, since both Jade and Jinn were capable of flying or just holding most of their weight up. I figured I was going to have to wait until after the meeting with Carson to ask.
Jade went flying fifteen feet into the air. “Was Circe nice?”
“Well, as nice as a mentor is going to be. It’s not like she gave me a pat on the head and a Fey-sized ball of Essence as a present.”
Jinn came down and was once again tossed into the air. “So she’s not gonna give you wads of Essence?”
“Tell them what they’ve won, Don Pardo!” Toni crowed as she skillfully juggled the J-Team.
I explained, “Anybody can get some Essence, but unless you’re a mutant with the Wizard trait, you don’t automatically-”
“Automagically,” Toni insisted.
I pretended to ignore her. “-have a means of collecting and maintaining that Essence. Even beginning Wizard mutants tend to lose the Essence they collect unless they’re careful. The Essence that Bladedancer gave Clover? It seems that Clover and Abracadabra and Palantir started talking about what they could do with it, and wishing they could perform powerful spells, and losing their focus in dozens of ways, and they frittered away the entire thing before they got a chance to use any of it.”
“Sorta like tryin’ to carry water in your hands?” Toni asked.
“Right,” I agreed. “Without training, I would be leaking Essence all over the place and losing it all before I was ready to use it effectively. So my first lessons are all going to be really tedious material that people like Fey and Majestic never even have to consider. And it appears that I’m too mentally rigid, so I’m going to have to learn to adjust that.”
Toni laughed, “I coulda told you that!”
Jade reached her own personal apogee again and began descending. “Me too.”
Jinn was flying upward and added, “Me three!”
Jade went flying upward and asked, “Is Circe really tall and impressive?”
I said, “She might have been considered tall when she was a teenager, but she’s only about five foot two. But she’s still pretty impressive.”
“So how old is she really?” Jinn asked, doing a slow sideways somersault as she looped through the air.
I carefully said, “A gentleman never asks, and a lady never tells.” Metler covered up a small laugh with a forced cough.
“Rigid,” Jinn said to Jade.
“Yep, that’s what Vox said,” Toni smirked.
While the J-Team giggled, I gave Toni a glare. My personal life was not open to discussion in front of strangers, and doubly so for my private life. Even if that particular comment was interpretable as something other than a sexual innuendo.
When we got to the steps into Schuster Hall, Toni tossed both of the J-Team into the air, and both soared backward to land on their feet facing us at the top of the steps.
Metler grinned, “Nice act. Too bad the school doesn’t do a lot of talent shows and stuff like that.”
Jade asked, “Would it help if we both said ‘ta-da!’ at the same time?”
Metler snorted with laughter and led us into Admin.
Stormwolf was standing officiously in the middle of the waiting area, glaring at assorted miscreants, as was his wont. Said miscreants were doing their usual customs as well. Greasy was sitting there with his head down, looking like someone was going to hit him in the near future, no matter what he did. Peeper was right next to him, as usual. Majestic was sitting as far away from the two guys as she could without leaving the room, and she was glaring at Peeper like she wanted to eviscerate him. Peeper was showing a soupçon of common sense, and was turned so he wouldn’t look at her. I assumed that she had expressed her revulsion at having him stare through her clothing, and had probably offered to turn him into a slug, or something else he wouldn’t enjoy.
I casually said, “Hi, Adam. Hi, June. Long time no see.”
Stormwolf stiffly said, “My codename is Stormwolf, if you don’t mind.”
Majestic gave me a glare that clearly meant ‘you do not have my permission to call me by my first name, and if Stormwolf weren’t standing there monitoring my every move, I would do something drastic about it.’
I looked at Stormwolf and said, “I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I was in a meeting with Circe, and I couldn’t exactly walk out.”
Majestic didn’t quite flinch at the mention of Circe’s name, but there was a little tremor in her right eyelid that suggested she wasn’t happy with Circe, or possibly my meeting with Circe. Considering that I still had no idea how the Greek gods were ‘sealed away’ thousands of years ago, this was of potential interest, at least as far as I was concerned.
Stormwolf just said, “Having Circe take an interest in you is not recognized as a good idea around here. You might want to look up a former student named Gleaner.”
I acted like he was being helpful and sympathetic. “Thanks for the tip.”
“Oh, for…” Majestic reined herself in, and then said, “Gleaner was a former apprentice to Circe. He didn’t even make it to his graduation. He died fighting some manner of incursion from a Mythos realm. All of Circe’s students end up dying like that. Anyone stupid enough to apprentice herself to Circe deserves exactly what she’s going to get.”
I added, “And some of his articles of clothing that were left behind are still too dangerous for the psychometrists in the Psychic Arts department to handle. Yes, I know about Gleaner. And most of her apprentices of the 1900’s. I’m not going into this blindly.”
Stormwolf looked at me like I was being extremely dense. “And yet you’re apprenticing yourself to her anyway.”
I said, “Not yet. Not until I can evaluate an explicit sorcerer’s contract between the two of us, and make sure that it doesn’t bind me in ways I’m unwilling to accept.”
Majestic suddenly had to repress a nasty smirk. Was she pleased that Circe might run into trouble with me, or was she pleased that I sounded overconfident, suggesting that I was going to dive into waters that were over my head?
I told him, “She had a vision about me. That means I can ignore her offer of training, and be completely unprepared when things happen, or else I can accept her offer and hope I’m better prepared when events unfold. Either way, I have to deal with a vision of my future.”
Stormwolf just said, “Not all visions come true. And not all visions can be interpreted. Precog is notoriously complicated.”
I knew that. I had even read a couple papers on the subject.
Majestic growled, “Can we ignore the vision quest, so I can get out of here sometimes before the term ends? We’ve been here for hours!”
Stormwolf staunchly said, “You have no one to blame but yourself, Majestic.”
Headmistress Carson walked into the room, looking her usual self. Immaculately dressed, prim and proper, and probably a little too prim for someone who looked to be in her early- to mid-thirties. At least she didn’t go in for the Amelia Hartford ‘evil librarian’ look. And she had yet to put her reading glasses on, for that ‘glare over the top of the glasses’ technique she liked to use when she called students on the carpet.
She opened her office door and said, “Mister Ironknife, you may go. Thank you for spending a large portion of your afternoon on campus security tasks.” She looked over our group. “Miss Sinclair and Miss Sinclair, you may wait out here until your friends are done. The rest of you, come in and sit down.”
She stalked into her office and took up her rightful place behind the sturdy desk. I strolled in and took a seat off to the side. Toni bounced in, and I gestured at the seat next to me. She gave me a raised eyebrow and then decided she would risk it. Majestic gracefully strode into the room, and sat in front of the desk off to one side, where Carson indicated with one pointing finger. Peeper and Greasy slunk into the room like dogs who had peed on the carpet and knew they were in for a big punishment. Carson made Greasy sit in between Peeper and Majestic, which wouldn’t be any fun for any of them.
Carson glared ferociously at the three of them. “Do any of you know why you’re here now?”
Peeper whined, “I couldn’t help it! I’m sorry!”
Greasy burst out, “It’s not my fault! I didn’t know it would be Phase! And I didn’t know Jobe was involved!” He looked like he was ready to burst into tears.
Majestic calmly said, “I have no idea why you think I am involved in anything these two slimeballs might be doing.”
Greasy said, “It was an anonymous tip! Someone routed it through the Bad Seeds’ anonymizer, so I couldn’t backtrace it. It just said we should get over there right away so we could catch a campus hottie showing off her jugs! I didn’t think it could be Phase! I thought it would maybe be Attributes or one of her homegirls, and they don’t mind!”
Peeper insisted, “They like it! They pose for us, and everything! Attie even asked if we could do studio shots she could use for a portfolio!”
Carson ruthlessly said, “This has nothing to do with the personal preferences of Attributes. This has to do with the fact that you threatened to grope Miss Goodkind, and then you did so. Since you have skirted the law repeatedly this year, perhaps you should learn some. In this case, it means that you committed assault and battery. In front of a campus security camera, and before witnesses.”
“I didn’t hit her!” he whimpered.
“That is not what assault and battery means. I suggest you look it up, because you may face a trial over this. And, in case you’re interested, that would mean felony charges. As tried by the local native American tribe… who are Weres, and take a very dim view of any sort of attack on women.”
Peeper tried to answer, but was unable to make a sound. His mouth flapped loosely, and for several seconds I wondered if he was going to soil Carson’s chair. He finally burst into tears. “I didn’t mean to! I just… They were so big.. and round… and perfect.. and sexy… and she dared me… and I couldn’t help myself!”
Carson ruthlessly said, “And should I expect that is the defense you plan to use when you are of legal age and you commit heinous crimes against women? Do you intend to start out now with sexual molestation, and gradually move up to far worse crimes?”
“No! I wouldn’t! I… I’m really sorry.” He sat there and sobbed like a four-year-old.
Carson mercilessly said, “That’s a completely inadequate legal defense. I suggest you re-think things. Because this is already out of my hands. Phase filed a formal complaint on the assault and battery charge, and may file further charges after she speaks to the tribal representatives.”
“Th-they’re not gonna eat me, are they?” he sobbed.
“No,” she instantly replied. “They will not eat you, or turn you. They may, however, institute penalties that will be in force through the rest of your stay at Whateley.” She turned her head and glared at Greasy, “And you, young man, are probably guilty of aiding and abetting a felony. What do you have to say for yourself?”
His gulp was loud enough to hear over in the Crystal Hall. “Me?” he squeaked. “I didn’t do anything!”
“You stood there with a camera, filming the entire time. You gave him the information that put him in that spot. You didn’t stop him when he crossed the line from attack journalist into molester. And your punishment is in my hands.”
Greasy just whimpered.
Carson said, “You are hereby prohibited from working with Peeper in any fashion, or working for him in any fashion. You may not make equipment for him, or acquire equipment for him, or help him do so. You may not carry any equipment for him, or let anyone else carry equipment for him. All of these are in place until you leave for home at the end of the term. And if you break any of these rules, I have some more stringent rules, including separating you two so you can’t room together or eat together or even hang out together. Is that understood?”
He nodded miserably.
She said, “You two may leave now.”
They scrambled out of their chairs and fled like an entire American Indian tribe of werewolves were after them.
Majestic asked, “And is there any point in my being here, other than the entertainment value you provided? I hope those chairseats are waterproof, for your sake.”
Carson gave her a shark-like smile. “Miss Summers. You’re usually far more careful when you do something like this.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Majestic said.
Carson continued, “You really should have thought through the consequences of placing that spell at the intersection of those walkways.”
Majestic said, “You can’t prove I did anything.” I smiled to myself, because she wouldn’t be saying that unless she really had done it, and she thought Carson couldn’t pin it on her.
Carson said, “Ahh, but I can prove it. You and Imperious walked through that very spot only seconds earlier, and nothing happened. You planted it.”
Majestic said, “Or else someone out of sight of the security cameras cast it. Or the spell was designed to trigger when a particular person walked there. Or one of several other possibilities.”
Carson said, “That occurred to me, as well, which was why I had several people investigate as soon as I could manage to collect them. You inadvertently left a magical signature on the brickwork when you cast the spell. However, we can’t prove that you had someone send Greasy that message, so you will walk on that charge. So you’re only responsible for the cost of Miss Chandler’s coat and the sweatshirt Miss Goodkind had borrowed.”
Majestic sniped, “Did you see the trash that Chaka was wearing? It couldn’t be worth more than $2.99 at a G-Mart.”
I hastily put a heavy arm on Toni’s shoulder and pushed her back down into her chair.
Majestic gave her a vicious smile, letting her know how much she had enjoyed getting a rise out of her.
Carson simply said, “Oh, pardon me. My error.” She waited while Majestic turned and faced her. Then she lowered the boom. “According to the relevant clauses in the handbook, you’ll have to pay for whatever Miss Chandler buys as a replacement. I think you’ll have some difficulty explaining all of this to your parents if she decides to buy a genuine mink coat as a replacement.”
“Mink? Please,” I objected. “I think we’re talking about a replacement coat made of genuine Russian Barguzin sable. I think I saw a three-quarter length coat going for roughly $150,000 last year.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Majestic hissed.
Toni gave her that leopard grin, and then said, “No fur for me, Maj.”
“Don’t call me Maj!” said former god hissed.
Toni purred, “But since I’m not a fur kinda girl, you’ll be gettin’ off easy. I figure Ayla could find a way to make that coat cost five or six times as much. Me? I’m just gonna go back to Cecilia’s shop in Dunwich and get a coat that’s exactly the same. And I’ll have her charge it to you.”
I said, “I’ll have Zenith bill you for a replacement sweatshirt, since I don’t even know who owned it, much less the cost. Still, that was really kind of petty. I expect more from you.”
She had an odd expression on her face, as if she couldn’t decide whether I had insulted her, complimented her, or managed both simultaneously.
The headmistress wrapped things up. “Miss Summers, you can go now. And try to remember that your actions do have consequences, no matter who or what you once were.”
Majestic stiffly rose to her feet and walked out as if there was a parade float waiting for her.
I moved over to the seat June had been in. I would have taken the center seat, but I wasn’t really convinced that Greasy hadn’t had an accident in it. I asked, “Why would Majestic and Imperious bother with a stunt that cheap? Do you think they were trying to keep me from getting to Circe on time?”
Carson said, “I think that speculating on matters like that is not going to be productive. You got everything you wanted out of this, except possibly apologies. And I suspect that you could get that when the case you engineered goes to trial.”
I had enough sense not to react to that. I wasn’t going to pretend I had no idea what she meant. I wasn’t going to incriminate myself. And I certainly wasn’t going to sit there and say ‘you cannot prove I did it’ like a murderer in a bad tv show.
Toni asked, “Do you think Maj cast a compulsion on Peeper?”
Carson frowned and said, “No, Chief Delarose and I looked at the security footage, and I think your friend’s actions were more than enough.”
I said, “I don’t know why you keep accusing me of malfeasance. It’s not as if I planned on ending up half-naked in the middle of central campus.”
Carson said, “You’re an Exemplar-3 with excellent control over your density Warper trait and fair control over your gravity Warper trait. You’re faster, quicker, stronger, and tougher than him, and you can fly or dive into the ground to avoid attacks. There is simply no way you were unable to avoid his hand, so it’s not surprising to me that you just happened to be at a level of density that let you administer the maximum damage without moving an inch.”
I said, “Even if all of that imaginative conjecture were true, it still wouldn’t alter the fact that he threatened to grope me, and then, when I ordered him not to, he reached out and grabbed me in an utterly inappropriate place.”
“Udderly?” Toni asked. “Is that supposed to be a pun?”
Carson ignored Toni and said, “It is only that last fact that is causing me to let this go through to the tribal court system. However, I intend to let the tribe see all the footage and hear my conjectures before this goes any further.”
I merely said, “I don’t mind that at all. And I appreciate what you did for Greasy. Someone needs to do something nice for him.”
She looked at me with a flat expression and said, “I have no idea what you mean.”
At least she didn’t say ‘you can’t prove it’ as her response.
We walked out and joined up with the J-Team, who were sitting in a suspiciously patient manner. As soon as Toni gave them a casual greeting, Jade blinked and then started giggling.
Jinn said, “WHAT? What is it?”
Jade reached over and touched her. Jinn did a tiny flicker as she got a new charge, along with Jade’s current awareness. And then Jinn started giggling too.
I asked, “Did you go with a spyspeck, or did you use something larger for better visuals?”
Jade actually answered me, instead of denying all knowledge of my accusations. “Jamie Anne. We figured anything bigger and someone would spot it.”
I groaned to myself. Yeah, trying to sneak a large eavesdropper into a room with Lady Astarte and Majestic? That wasn’t going to go well at all.
Toni blithely treated it as all part of the J-Team experience. She grinned, “Yep, nicest thing she could have done for Greasy.”
“You think it’ll help him?” Jinn asked.
I said, “Can’t hurt. What would really help is getting him some friends other than Peeper. And splitting them up with different roommates next year.”
Toni said, “And we got to watch the whole show. It was more fun than a barrel of J-Teamers. Or juggling a barrel of J-Teamers.”
Jinn smirked, “And Ayla’s gonna do something good to Majestic!” I glared at her, and she unrepentantly said, “Oops, I wasn’t supposed to tell that, was I?”
“Not here, where the headmistress might overhear, or Hartford might have listening devices planted, or a webcam on one of the computers might capture it.”
“Oops,” Jade said.
“We really got to remember that,” Jinn said.
But they were both smiling, so they knew perfectly well that Hartford or Carson might find out. After all, it wasn’t like I was going to do anything illegal, or against school rules.
Toni grinned, “And I got to call her ‘Maj’ to her face! She just about exploded!”
The entire J-Team giggled merrily. And I wasn’t just including Jade and Jinn. There was someone giggling from inside Jade’s purse, and the Hello Kitty compact buzzing around the room giggled too.
Jade asked, “Didn’t there used to be these commercials with a really annoying beauty salon lady named Madge? For dishwashing soap or something?”
Toni snorted in amusement. I didn’t say anything, because I had no idea what she was talking about. I figured I wouldn’t look it up until later, because I didn’t want them to catch me at it and realize just how incredibly out of touch with normal people I really was.
All right, they already knew I was incredibly out of touch with normal people. I just didn’t want them to have extra opportunities to remind me about it.
Toni looked up at a wall clock and said, “Come on, there’s not really time to go back to the dorm. Let’s go over to the campus store and see if they have anything Ayla can wear.”
Jade said, “Ooh! Shopping!”
At roughly the same time, I said, “Oh no.”
Toni took me by the hand and said, “Oh come on, Ayles! Aren’t you tired of wearin’ a bikini top all day long?”
I said, “Of course I am. But it’s adjustable, and I may still be growing. Ventrally, at least.”
Toni shook her head and rolled her eyes. Jade gave me a look of confusion before her eyes drifted down to my chest and she uttered a soft ‘oh’.
Toni helped her out with a decent Homer Simpson imitation. “Doh!” Then she turned back to me and said, “You gotta have something to wear, even if it’s only gonna hold up for a couple hours.”
Jinn said, “This doesn’t sound like the Ayla Goodkind I know.”
I admitted, “Okay, I just don’t like shopping. I never have. And this is worse. Having a valet assist me while someone brings in racks of clothing and mother goes through them picking out what she wants me to try on? Less than exciting. Having to go into a regular store and try on things other people might have tried on already? Eww.”
Toni said, “First off, nobody likes gettin’ dragged around by mommy in a store like you’re still four. Not even the clothes horses like Nikki and Bunny. And you got to get over yourself. You’re not livin’ in the big palace anymore, and you’ve got to deal. Goin’ to Cecilia isn’t dealing, it’s avoiding, and you know it. What are you gonna do all summer long when you need something new to wear? Ask big sis to go buy something for you and hope it fits right? Because women’s fashions have to fit a lot better than men’s fashions, so rotsa ruck on that. And ordering online? Sizes aren’t the same across makers, so no happys on that one either.”
Jade said, “Come on, it won’t be so bad. And we’ll keep you from buyin’ something really tacky. Like hotpants.”
“Bell bottoms,” added Toni
“Nehru jackets,” Jinn chipped in.
“Dresses with empire waists,” Jade contributed.
“Homes, you’re doin’ way too much sewing if you know names for stuff nobody wears,” Toni said.
Jade said, “I can wear an empire waist dress. It just means you’re flat as a pancake so you can wear a dress with an extra-high waist.”
Toni said, “Oh, that. Yeah, the high-waisted pants. Don’t look good on Exemplar girls with the big curves. Did you see Taser wearin’ those canary yellow high-waisters the other day? That girl needs more help gettin’ dressed than Attributes ‘n Coreolis.”
Jade said, “Not a good look for her. You need to be built like me for stuff like that. Or Alex. Taser? She looked like there was something freaky with her butt.”
Toni said, “She looked like Jobe crossed Tweety Bird with a hooker.”
Jade said, “Even the Yellow Queen thought they looked bad.”
Toni said, “Had a total meltdown about ‘em.”
As we walked along and I listened to them, I had to wonder. How did I miss this? Okay, I actively avoided girltalk about clothing and that sort of thing, but where was I when everyone else was catching Patty having a screech-out?
I listened to the rest of the conversation and figured it out. The incident happened at early breakfast the other morning while I was getting an injection from the drow conclave, and Patty had even made Taser go change her clothes before she was suitable to be seen in the presence of the Yellow Queen. Like Patty’s posse was even that high up in the school cliques. Granted, they had been doing a lot better in terms of perception when Don Sebastiano was running the Alphas like his own personal mafia. And I also had to consider that several public humiliations at the hands of Team Kimba could have had something to do with their team’s loss of face.
There were more than a couple groups who had suffered that fate, and I had a list of them. After all, I had to assume that one or more of them would be only too happy to help Team Kimba take a fall. And right now, I was the team member who was the easiest target. Maybe that was what the New Olympians had been up to. Or maybe they were taking advantage of the situation to see if there was an easy way to wreck my apprenticeship with Circe before it got started.
I was going to have to keep an eye out for them, as long as I was apprenticing under Circe. Well, it wasn’t as if they weren’t on my list already. Between Chou’s battle with them, and Toni’s fight with Counterpoint, and the team’s sim battle against recreations of the New Olympians, and my making Majestic look bad in lit class, and half a dozen other conflicts, they were quite aware of us as a potential problem for their status. And maybe Majestic was being petty because Fey had, without even trying, supplanted her as the most impressive magical student on campus.
I also wasn’t going to forget that Imperious had thought about slipping me the old lightning bolt, if you know what I mean. And he was a guy who never had to take no for an answer back in the day, which didn’t augur well for his future behavior. Hell, it wasn’t as if this version of the guy was all that monogamous right now, and he hadn’t had a chance to get out from under Majestic’s sight yet.
Somehow, I ended up being dragged over to the campus store. I know, I know, I could have ditched all of them if I wanted to. I could have gone heavy and just refused to move. I could have gone light, and been impossible to grab. But I wanted to hang out with them more than I wanted to avoid a couple racks of clothes. That, and I really needed something to wear besides that stupid bikini top.
The store was open, of course. It was open most of the time on weekends, so that kids who slept through breakfast (or lunch) could go buy candy bars and bottled flavored waters instead of eating something nutritious. And so that visiting parents could buy t-shirts and sweatshirts and coffee mugs with their kid’s school crest on them. And so that teenaged girls could go clothes shopping without having to schlep over to Dunwich.
Frankly, I thought the clothing selections were more varied than in all of Dunwich’s clothing stores combined, as long as you didn’t count Cecilia’s boutique. What little I had seen of the other options in Dunwich could be summarized with three of the small number of Yiddish words I knew: schlock, dreck, and bupkiss.
We flew up to the second floor of the store, where all the clothing was. Toni had to go on foot, but she couldn’t do anything the normal way either. She took the stairs by running up one handrail.
The boys’ clothing section was nearly deserted. The girls’ clothing section was much larger, and was full of giggling, chatting girls looking things over, and trying things on, and discussing fashion. Ugh. I went straight into the lingerie section.
Holy crap. How had I missed this? Some lingerie stores and lingerie sections had poster-sized color photos of models in lingerie plastered on the walls to get women to try on and buy more lingerie. Or maybe it was to get men to come in and buy their girlfriends lingerie like that. But Victoria’s Secret models in skimpy lingerie? I’m there.
I was there, but I wasn’t interested in actually owning a lot of the advertised fashions. Push-up bras and Wonderbras? Not on your life. Not before, when I had those A-cup nuisances, and definitely not now, when I was toting around a pair of soccer balls. And plenty of the panties looked like their primary purpose was to make sure at least half your butt was exposed. Not that I objected to looking at the pictures, but I wasn’t interested in wearing the things. And thongs. Really. On the other hand, Nikki insisted they were more comfortable than they looked… and who was going to argue with Fey in a thong? Not me.
Toni showed me where each brand and style of bra had a sizing chart. A quick mental comparison told me that European sizes and American sizes were radically different, and even within a country, different manufacturers might have different ideas about what a size really meant.
The downside of Exemplar memory: I now had seventeen different brassiere size charts completely memorized for all time. I dreaded the day I had to read another Joseph Conrad book. Or what if I was stuck somewhere and was so bored I read a Stephenie Meyer novel? I would be trapped with that in my head.
Oh my God, what if I had to read and grade college student essays some day? I shuddered at the thought. I had seen what some of the other people around Poe thought were adequate essays.
Jade fished a cloth tape measure out of her purse. I looked at it and asked, “Did you bring that just for me, or do you always carry it?”
She thought for a second and said, “I oughta carry it all the time. I’ve got some sewing things in here for fixing rips and tears, so it would be good to have along. But I could do the ‘Mister Ollivander’s tape measure’ trick with it!”
Toni said, “That would be hilarious.”
Since I actually knew what she was talking about this time, I just reminded her, “We just claimed assault and battery on someone, so be sure you don’t do anything with it that Carson can turn around and use against us the same way.”
“Jeez Ayla, sometimes you really are No Fun Guy,” Jinn complained.
The tape measure coiled up like a cobra ready to strike, and it said, “I’ll say.”
Jade said, “Now let the nice snake – I mean, tape measure – sneak up inside your clothes and take your measurements. Okay?”
I rolled my eyes and said, “Okay.”
Toni contributed, “She means ‘of course’.”
Even if I had been bothered by snakes, I don’t think having a cloth tape measure slither up my leg would have been all that scary. I just put up with it, because having one of the J-Team do it under the cloak meant that I didn’t have to undress to have my measurements taken.
The store had three different makers of brassieres with really big cup sizes. Granted, most of the bras were for the – ahem – plus-sized girl. Then we had to go through the annoyance of different measurement systems, since one manufacturer was French, one was Australian, and the third was American. The American company’s bras fit my cannonballs a bit better, so I picked out one in taupe. I was now a 32HH. Goddamn Jobe. Goddamn saboteurs.
Toni said, “Okay, let’s see if that really fits you.” I gave her a suspicious look. “Oh come on, Ayles. You already saw these things are all over the place on sizes. Let’s just check things.”
So I had to take off the cloak and put on the bra backward. Toni checked that the band was right for my chest. Then she said, “Okay, now I’m gonna teach you something my mom showed me. And boy, was she unhappy about having to teach her second boy how to check a bra for fit. So unhook it and put it on, but don’t fasten it.”
I followed directions. She said, “Now we call this the swoop and scoop. Lean forward and let those puppies fall into the cups. Then hook the bra so it feels right and isn’t too tight, but takes some of the weight.”
It took me two tries to get the bra hooked right, even though I was figuring it would take me half an hour. Hooray for Exemplar flexibility and kinesthetic abilities.
“Okay, good. Now stand up. Use your left hand to slide your right breast into the cup. Then right hand and left breast. Then run a finger along the top edge of the cup and make sure it’s not loose or saggy, and you’re not spilling out of the cup.”
I had to adjust the shoulder straps a little to give myself a bit more slack, but when I was done, the bra actually seemed to fit. And the band was taking some of the weight, so not all the stress was on my shoulders. I said, “Thanks. I’d rather have someone like Cecilia fit me personally, but this is better than I expected.”
Jade said, “And I’d never heard of the swoop and scoop. This is great!”
Jinn said, “It’s not like it does me any good.”
Jade looked at Jinn and argued, “But it’s stuff girls ought to know!”
After that, finding a loose-fitting shirt wasn’t too problematic. They didn’t have a lot of options for overly large breasts that didn’t also incorporate overly large bodies on overly large women, unless you were willing to go with the skintight look. And there was no way I was going to go with a shirt that clung to me like it was painted on me. But Jinn found something on one of the top shelves that fit loosely over my boobs without being too baggy everywhere else. So I went with that shirt and the fitted bra, under the cloak.
After I paid and we walked out of the store, Toni checked, “You always carry your credit cards around in your utility belt, batgirl?”
I said, “Only a couple. I’m also carrying a notebook and graph paper in the belt, and my bPhone, and a couple pens and pencils. Plus the other gear.”
I didn’t mention that I was putting together a small emergency packet I was going to keep at the bottom of one utility belt pocket, just in case Ayla Goodkind couldn’t put in an appearance. A couple fake IDs and matching credit cards. A couple saleable diamonds, a couple valuable but not ultra-rare stamps, and a couple limited edition proof Krugerrands, just in case I needed the ready cash. It would be better to have the packet on hand and never need it, than to need something like that and not have it.
I had to admit it, the bra was a hell of a lot more comfortable than the string bikini top. I was just hoping I wasn’t going to swell up any further. I still kept the bikini top, just in case.
By the time we got back to Schuster Hall, it was dinnertime. I was glad, because I was hungry again. And really thirsty, once more.
What a surprise.
Nikki met us near the door into the Crystal Hall. Hank and Billie had already gone on ahead to load up their trays. And start stuffing their faces. She asked, “What took so long?”
I complained, “Some people thought I needed to go shop for clothes.”
Toni said, “Our girl’s still tryin’ ta get by with that stupid string bikini from Princess Jobette. You know, that whole ‘I’m a Goodkind so I can ignore chafing’ deal.”
I admitted, “The bra really feels a lot better than the bikini top. I need to come up with a substantive way to thank Toni and the J’s for dragging me over there kicking and screaming, and putting up with me.”
Jade said to Nikki, “She wasn’t really like that.”
Nikki said, “OF COURSE!” Everyone except me giggled. She pompously insisted, “A Goodkind wouldn’t throw a hissy in public. She’d just have her bodyguards throw you out of the building.”
Jinn said, “She just stood there and felt really unhappy. And frustrated. And mad. But she’s been mad all day, and she didn’t look any madder.”
Toni slid into a mad scientist voice and announced, “She’s mad, I tell you! Mad! Mad!”
A couple people actually turned their heads and stared at us. After all, at Whateley, when someone made noises like that, you had to worry there was about to be some ‘dricking going on around you, or an eruption of insane devising, or maybe even something worse.
Jade said, “We need to get Ayla some food. She’s really hungry again.”
Toni turned and knifed her way into the throng, using her ki to work her way through. Nikki rolled her eyes and simply got in line. We waited patiently – all right, impatiently, in my case – while Nikki cast a small spell to get guys to stop staring our way.
Toni came back grinning. “Hey Ayles, they got something under one of those metal hot food keepers that’s gotta be for you. So get a move on.”
I waited in the line just long enough to get to the trays and flatware. Then I headed over to where Jana was ‘casually’ standing around and pretending not to be looking for me.
She looked at the massive bulges under my cloak and said something rude under her breath. In Portuguese, so I only got part of it. If I hadn’t had most of a year of Spanish, I probably would have gotten none of it. Then she forced a smile and said, “Phase, when we heard you were having problems because of Jobe, the chefs decided you needed a treat. Or two. So enjoy this, and then come back for dessert.”
“Thank you,” I told her. “And thank everyone else too.”
I put the plate on my tray and then peeked under the metal cover. It was a plate of orrechiette tossed with porcini mushrooms and rapini. The rich aromas also spoke of fine olive oil, hot Italian pepper, freshly-grated Parmesan cheese, and garlic. I hastily clapped the cover back over the plate and hurried to get some more dinner.
With the cloak and my new boobs, I had to carry the tray a little farther away from my body than usual. But it wasn’t as inconvenient as I had expected. Feeling like I needed two glasses of water and two glasses of milk? That was somewhat inconvenient.
It seemed that the main dish for the night was spaghetti. The massive haystacks of spaghetti looked overdone, but there were several options for sauces, and I could see that lots of the heavy eaters were opting to dump on top of their pasta some breaded chicken cutlets – at least I assumed it was chicken – covered in a red sauce and molten mozzarella. I procured a small plate of the spaghetti with a tasty-smelling pesto. I was feeling peckish, so I dared risk one of the cutlets as well.
In the vegetable section there was the usual ort, but I found a tray of thinly-sliced zucchini sautéed in olive oil with sliced onions and oregano. I took a serving and moved upstairs to our table.
I was the last one to the table. Hank and Billie were already devouring mounds of spaghetti and sauce and cutlets. At least Hank was using a knife and fork, and putting bite-sized pieces into his mouth. Billie was essentially spearing a cutlet with a fork and then seeing if she could get the entire thing into her maw in only three or four bites.
Toni said to me, “Hey, you must be starvin’ if you’re eatin’ what the plebes are.” She gave me a big, naughty grin as she took a bite of her cutlet.
I said, “Are you sure you want to start using words like ‘plebe’? Next thing you know, you’ll be using ‘plebeian’ in sentences.”
Nikki complained, “Let me guess. Next you’re gonna get her a ‘word for the day’ calendar.”
I just gave her a nefarious smile. Not that I could execute the maneuver as well as a lot of people on campus. But I was working on it. Then I tried the cutlet and the spaghetti before I worked my way over to the orrechiette. The cutlet was adequate, even if the sauce was pretty boring and the mozzarella was ordinary. The spaghetti was definitely not al dente, but the pesto was well made, with lovely proportions of pine nuts and walnuts.
The orrechiette, however, was excellent. The mushrooms were rich and earthy. The rapini was nutty and pungent, with tastily bitter tones. The Italian parsley was peppery, and the hot pepper added extra zing to the dish, along with the rich garlic. The cheese gave the dish an added depth of flavor, so I just wanted to devour every morsel.
“Hey, Ayla’s havin’ another foodgasm,” pointed out Jinn helpfully.
“Is this worth trying?” Nikki wondered.
“Oh, definitely,” I said. “Toni will hate it, because the rapini has bitter tones, and the dish is spicy. You might like it.”
Toni said, “I just didn’t like the surprise spicy salad. I don’t mind spicy food.”
Billie asked, “What are those little bowl pastas?”
“They’re orrechiette, which literally means ‘little ears’,” I explained.
Toni said, “I can see that. But ‘little bowls’ is really more like it.”
“Feel free to complain to some long-dead Italian people about it,” I said.
Jinn said, “I’d rather eat a bowl than an ear.”
“You don’t eat,” Jade objected.
“Who asked you?” Jinn groused.
“Kiss my grits, Mel,” Jade countered.
“Stop it,” Billie said.
“Boy, you guys are no fun,” Jade muttered.
“Yeah,” Jinn agreed.
I said, “As the official No Fun Guy, let me just say this: now that I have taken over the minds of our teammates, you’re doomed! Neener neener neener.”
They both stuck their tongues out at me in a display of synchronized annoyance.
Nikki said, “If the Doublemint Twins are done, could I have a taste of your pasta?”
“Me too?” Billie asked.
I dished some up for each of them. Billie liked it, and Nikki thought it was worth learning how to make for herself.
Toni said, “No thanks. I’ll skip the poison green stuff.”
“It’s not that bitter,” Nikki insisted.
I cleaned my plate, drank all four glasses of liquid, and still wanted more. So I headed down for my dessert treat. One of the cafeteria ladies was standing near the dessert area, just waiting for me. She passed me a large plate with a metal cover, only this plate was cold.
I took off the cover and saw what they had made for me. I handed the cover back to her with a fervent ‘thank you’.
I was looking at a good-sized bowl made of dark chocolate and melted onto the plate to hold it in place. In the bowl were half a dozen piped spheres of mousse. Two were a rich dark chocolate, two were a gorgeous milk chocolate, judging by the color one was probably semisweet chocolate, and the last was a lovely white chocolate ball. It looked like it belonged on the cover of Gourmet magazine. I put the plate down just long enough to fish out my bPhone and take a picture of it. Then I hurried up to the table so I could pig out.
As I sat down, Nikki said, “It’s a good thing you got back, because I have news. We have a return match against the Grunts to… Goddess! Where did you get that?”
Toni said in a sing-song, “Somebody li-ikes Ayla.”
Hank said, “Wow, I wish I had chefs liking me that much.”
Jade asked, “Is that bowl chocolate too?”
I nodded as I savored a lush spoonful of the dark chocolate mousse. The rich, earthy chocolate taste was a dense burst of flavor. “Mmmmm.”
“Oh, next she’s gonna be drooling.”
Toni looked at my dessert and said, “I haven’t missed chocolate this much since that triple chocolate cake thing she had the other week.”
I said, “You could have a bite of the white chocolate mousse.”
“Can I? Oh great, thanks!” she grinned. She rushed off to get a clean spoon.
Nikki asked, “Can I have a bite of the middle real chocolate one?”
“The semisweet chocolate?”
“Yeah, if that’s what it is. I mean, the totally dark chocolate is a little too dark for me,” she said.
“Of course,” I told her.
She said, “I’ll just go get a spoon, and…”
Toni was back, with a handful of spoons.
I said, “Someone’s been thinking ahead.”
Toni grinned, “Maybe they’re all for me.”
Jade asked, “Can I have a taste of the milk chocolate?”
Hank said, “Me too. I’m not a dark chocolate guy.”
Billie looked at me and said, “I’m good. I’m just gonna go get a big bowl of the chocolate pudding they’ve got.”
Blech. Instant chocolate pudding is to perfectly made chocolate mousse as freezer-burned fishsticks are to perfectly prepared tuna sushi.
I dished out spoons of mousse while I devoured my treat. Then I started work on the bowl too.
Nikki said, “Like I was saying before I got interrupted by Great Desserts of the Western World, we have a rematch against the Grunts. Tomorrow at three in the afternoon. But when I heard back, they said Bardue and Everheart are letting the Grunts pick the general scenario.”
“That’s good for us,” I said.
“Wait a minute! How can that be good for us?” Jade frowned.
Lancer said, “Let me guess. You know what they’re gonna pick.”
I said, “More or less. They have three favorites they’ve gone to in the past. Capture the Flag, the Tet Offensive, and Urban Guerilla.”
Nikki asked, “Do I want to know how you found this out?”
“No,” I told her. “Not in the least.”
Hank said, “Well, we know Bardue didn’t tell her.”
Billie said, “Sam wouldn’t talk out of turn about stuff like that.”
Jade said, “Sergeant Wilson’s a major hottie, but he’s all Exemplar all the time. I can’t see him ratting them out.”
Toni said, “So that leaves one of the sim jockeys. Probably one of the ones who peed himself over that combat maser.”
I refused to react. “Has it occurred to anyone at the table that this is the worst place possible to be having this conversation?”
Jade said, “In the sims would be worse.”
“I stand corrected,” I said. “The second worst.”
Hank said, “I don’t care who her source is. I want to know what the three scenarios are.”
I said, “‘Capture the Flag’ should be obvious. They have a flag they defend by letting Mule guard it. They snipe or bomb anyone trying to get at it. Then they use the rest of their team in tactical movements to sweep in and take the opponents’ flag.”
“Okay, that makes sense, and it plays into their strengths,” Hank said.
I continued, “‘Tet Offensive’ is a jungle warfare sim where one side has to defend multiple strongpoints and the other side gets to attack whichever ones they want. It’s a large-scale strategic sim that most training teams are utterly unprepared for. And the ‘Urban Guerilla’ sim is just that. Lots of house-to-house and room clearing, which are also their strengths because they’ve trained for it, and not that many other teams have even thought about it.”
Nikki started at me. “So which one will they hit us with?”
I said, “They probably know we kicked ass on house-to-house and building entry in Team Tactics, so it’ll be one of the other two.”
Billie smirked, “And you just happen to have strategies in mind for both of them, right?”
I licked off my spoon and smiled back. “Could be…”
Hank said, “Okay, but we still have to be prepared in case it’s something different. Agreed?”
“Roger that, Hulkster.”
Jade just giggled for a bit. She finally admitted, “I’ve already got something in mind.”
Toni laughed, “Those poor, poor Grunts.”
I said, “And I have some things to discuss back in my room.”
“Does it involve more chocolate mousse?” Nikki teased.
“Not even close,” I retorted.
Since I wasn’t going to talk about team secrets out in the open, our walk home primarily consisted of Jinn and Toni recreating Peeper getting his ass handed to him by Carson, and then Majestic getting chewed up by a better predator. Granted, Toni is an excellent storyteller, so it was hilarious. It was a shame Whateley Academy didn’t have a comedy club; she would have killed on open mike night.
When we got back to the dorm, we found Vamp was in my room with Tara, so we moved into Jade and Jinn and Billie’s room instead. Less food, but fewer headaches. As long as you didn’t count the J-Team.
It was warm in the room, so I took off my cloak while Nikki did her usual anti-eavesdropping spell. When she was done, she turned around and stared at me. “Ayla, that has to be the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen you wear.”
I frowned, “I don’t like the shirt either, but I needed something that fit over my gazongas and didn’t drape on me like a yurt. And I didn’t want to go for one of the skintight numbers Toni found.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault you’re hard to shop for,” Toni defended herself. She couldn’t keep a straight face, though.
Billie asked, “Is this gonna take long? I’ve got homework I gotta catch up on because of all the stupid sims we’ve done this week.”
Hank said, “Apparently they bombed Outcast Corner like this back at the start of fall term when they had the chance. Lots of teams didn’t like getting hammered with Razorback.”
I said, “This ought to be quick. I got an update on Chou’s circle from Circe, and I found out a couple things I hadn’t thought to ask about before.”
“Okay, sock it to me,” Toni said.
So I explained what Circe had told me about the remains of the circle, and how an unknown human was Hekate’s mentor. Then I explained that the Mystic Arts department couldn’t figure out how some human got that kind of Mythos knowledge without turning into something even the voodoo-Weres wouldn’t want to get near.
Fey asked, “So she figured the likely suspects were me, Sara, and Billie? Great.”
I pointed out, “She’s pretty cognizant of the types of magics the ‘Lympies have used, and this isn’t their style. But we have to consider any of the Mystic Arts department as suspects. Circe’s the oldest mage we know of.”
Nikki said, “Grimes looks like she ought to be like that, but she isn’t, And she doesn’t have the connections. She and Earth Mother are both off the list.”
Billie asked, “What about Hexette? She’s kind of nice, even if there was that whole thing with Harry, but she comes from a long line of witches.”
I said, “She’s on the list of suspects. Same for Skinwalker and Stormwolf. They both have a long line of shamans in their family tree. And any of the Bads with mages in the family, like Nephandus.”
“Stormwolf? Pfffft,” Jade expressed her disbelief. “Seriously?”
Nikki pointed out, “Really, it could be anybody with a Wizard talent. All they’d need is their own mentor to teach them how to do this kind of magic. And not having their brain melt out through their ears, or turning into a gibbering mass of tentacles and fangs.”
“Sort of Sara Lite?” Jade snarked.
“We need some way of cutting down the suspect pool,” Hank said.
“I’m working on it,” I told him. “I’ve got Trin & Macintyre checking Hekate’s history so we can find out if she could have gotten lessons from her mentor somewhere other than here at school. If not, we’ve cut it down to some of the faculty, a subset of the staff, and the students older than freshmen.”
Nikki said, “And only the ones who are wizards or who took mystic arts courses when they were students here.”
Toni said, “That’s still a lotta people.”
I said, “And I’ve got T & M checking a number of them out already.”
Billie asked, “Okay, is that it? ‘Cause my homework isn’t gonna do itself.”
Jade said, “Umm some of it could, if you’d let me.”
“No way,” insisted Billie.
I said, “Just a couple things, but I can talk to Nikki in private about them.”
“Ooh, that sounds juicy!” grinned Jinn.
“Yeah,” agreed Jade and Toni.
So I explained, “Two points that Circe brought up, so I thought I had better check. One, trading or giving away Essence invokes some sort of implicit sorcerer’s contract, so I wanted to know if Chou or Clover was suffering from any after-effects of their trade back in the fall. And two, I wanted to find out what it would cost to get an Essence loan from Fey.”
Hank said, “Okay, I want to hear about Chou.”
“Me too,” said Toni.
“Me three, four, five, and six,” said Jade.
“We all do,” said Nikki. “I checked after I realized what had happened. It’s pretty much okay. I think it lessened Clover’s powers for a few weeks, but I’m not sure. Chou’s fine.”
Hank asked, “What did Clover and her pals do with that Essence anyway?”
Nikki rolled her eyes. “They wasted all of it talking about how they’d use it, and wishing they had more, and all kinds of stupid things you have to learn not to do so your Essence doesn’t leak away as fast as you can collect it.”
Billie asked, “What about the other thing?”
Nikki frowned, “It’s a really good question. Taking or borrowing Essence from one of the Sidhe implicitly invokes the classic Sidhe sorcerer’s contract, which is really unfavorable for the borrower. If you write an explicit contract, you have to cover every single point in the implicit contract, or the relevant clauses of the implicit contract are in place. That means you’d have to work with me for about a year to put together a comprehensive contract that wouldn’t have any loopholes that would let the implicit clauses take precedence, because most of them are really dangerous.”
The room went silent. For about two seconds, before Toni asked, “What if I just want to borrow a pencil?”
Nikki scrunched up her nose and stuck out her tongue at her roommate.
Hank finally said, “Okay, I think we all get it. Sorcerer’s contracts: major screwjob unless you write ‘em yourself, and then you have to hope you don’t screw up. Why are you asking?”
I explained, “I was considering borrowing enough Essence to start my own Essence savings account and get my Essence from that.”
“Only Ayles would turn magic fundamentals into a business case,” Toni smirked.
“Only Ayla would think that finance was a good analogy for basic Essence gathering,” said Nikki.
“Only Ayla would think finance was a good analogy for anything,” said Jade.
The team meeting broke up, and Nikki undid her anti-eavesdropping spell. Billie complained about the lack of snacks, even though it was her own room.
When Toni opened the door, there was a post-it note waiting for us on the other side of the door. Specifically, it was for me, from Jody. It said please drop by when you can, and was signed with her usual script ‘J’.
So I walked down the hall to see her. She was having a chat with Sharisha, and Sharisha didn’t look happy about it. So I stayed out in the hall until they wrapped up. Sharisha walked off toward her room looking unhappy but resigned. It would have been handy to have Jinn or Nikki or Toni hanging around to tell me what Tempest was really feeling.
I slipped into Jody’s room and asked, “Do you have time now? Or should I come back later?”
She said, “Oh sure, now’s fine.” She looked at my chest and sighed, “Oh Ayla! I was really hoping things would work out for you, even if it was Jobe.”
I shrugged, which made my hooters bounce. I said, “It turns out someone sabotaged Jobe’s serum before I got the injection. So I was doomed from the start.”
“Oh no! That’s so unfair,” she fussed.
I said, “And it’s a good thing I didn’t borrow your sweatshirt. Majestic shredded the one I was wearing. I’ve got to go upstairs and apologize to Zenith for ruining it.”
She said, “I think you could just call her.”
I disagreed, “I’ll feel better if I apologize in person.”
“Okay,” she said. “I really just wanted to let you know Jinn told me about you getting really hungry and thirsty from this thing, so I went and re-filled your fridge and your pantry. And I put some extra bottled water in your room, even if you don’t like the whole ‘bottled water’ idea.”
Rather than complain about the waste that bottled water represented, or the likelihood that your own tap water would be better for you, I just thanked her. She had to deal with enough crap as it was. The only perk she received was a single room, and she didn’t even have a significant other to make that a worthwhile benefit. I didn’t want to think about how frustrated I would be if I had to counsel Sharisha all the time. Tempest, Gabriel, Stoner, Risk and Flux, the J-Team, Gabriel… The list was long enough to make you wonder if Poe really was the nuthouse dorm.
I merely said, “Jody, I really appreciate it, but I don’t want you doing more than we agreed. Or else I’ll have to give you a substantial raise.”
She giggled and said, “That’s not exactly gonna discourage me.”
I stepped into the hallway and flew straight up into Zenith’s hallway. Then I drifted down and knocked on her door. For once, she wasn’t making out with Sahar. Not that I have anything against an unbelievably hot blonde and an unbelievably hot brunette getting steamy together.
Zenith opened her door, looked at me, and let her glance slide down to the melons in my top. She sighed, “I told you this was a bad idea.”
I said, “A little break-in and sabotage seem to be contributing factors.”
She gaped. “Someone was stupid enough to break into Jobe’s lab? Has she turned them into an aardvark yet?”
I just said, “I came by to apologize. That sweatshirt the team borrowed for me? Majestic turned it into dust.”
She nodded. “I heard about that. Risk and Hazard already have a betting line on how long it’ll take you to wreak vengeance.”
“Already done, but don’t tell them,” I admitted.
She asked, “How much trouble am I going to be in as an accessory before the fact?”
I said, “Not illegal, not harmful, and not against Whateley school rules.”
She broke into a huge grin. “I’d ask you what you did, but I’d rather wait and be surprised.”
I flew down through the hall floors to my own hall, and made my way over to my room. Vamp was sitting with Tara in one of the beanbag chairs, and they were sort of doing homework. You could also say they were sort of not doing homework. If it had been someone other than Alex, I would have said it was kind of cute.
They weren’t being loud, and they didn’t have Alex’s radio on, so I pretended they were being quiet. I hung my cloak up and took off my sandals before slipping on a pair of heavy socks. I would have gone with my handmade houseshoes, but they no longer fit properly. I grabbed my pre-calc textbook and lay down on my bed to see if I could get something useful done.
I pretended to read out of the book, while I concentrated on Circe’s meditation exercises. One advantage of being an Exemplar, at least for me, is the ability to recall things. I didn’t have to break the meditative focus to concentrate on remembering the words. I could recollect Circe’s speech as if I had listened to it a thousand times.
One disadvantage of being me is my innate persistence. Some people would categorize it as stubbornness. However, in my experience, the difference between stubbornness and persistence is whether the speaker likes you. I just could not dodge past my years of training as a logical financial expert and make the transfer to the right mindset.
All right, the snuggling and giggling and other distracting noises from the beanbag chair might have been more of a problem with my meditation exercises than I wanted to admit. After all, if I couldn’t do what I needed to when there were distractions or stressors, then my work wasn’t good enough.
I worked at the meditation exercises for almost an hour before I gave up and actually read in the textbook. That led to more frustration, as I hit several places where I was just lost, and I was going to need to pay a lot of attention in class, and maybe even ask embarrassing questions. Some have said that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but they’re wrong. There is no doubt in my mind that far too many questions asked in classroom settings are not just stupid, but embarrassingly stupid.
I gave up and hit the fridge, since I was getting hungry and thirsty again. I chugged a couple of the bottled waters and ate five of the yogurts. You can’t get good yogurt in a sealed plastic container, but you can at least avoid getting horrible yogurt, if you make an effort. Granted, the yogurts I had Jody pick up for me were a lot more expensive than the little things full of fats and sugars that the girls kept buying back at Gracie’s house.
Seriously, ‘low-fat yogurt’ should not be allowed to have more grams of sugar than Twinkies. And the fact that such a thing could happen indicated to me that there were enormous flaws in the rules for package labeling.
And don’t ask why I have been exposed to horrors like the words on a package of Twinkies. There are some things I would like to be able to forget. And anyone who knows Team Kimba should know who’s most likely to be eating Twinkies and then talking about them. With their mouth full.
Unfortunately, I could feel that my bra was getting uncomfortably tight. My boobs were getting even bigger. Were they just going to keep growing until they outweighed the rest of me? I had no control over their size, and I had no control over Jobe’s progress, and I had no control over my incredible frustration at not being in control of things. The only thing I had control over was a minor prank I had already instituted, so that wasn’t very reassuring.
I went light and floated down to the bathroom, so I could check the bra without collecting a flotilla of derisive remarks from my roommate. One look in the mirror with my shirt off was all I needed. My boobs were trying to ooze out of that bra. They were bulging at the tops of the cups. They were trying to sneak out at the sides, under my armpits.
They were still growing. Damn it.
I hooked the bra on the very last hooks and loosened the shoulder straps, to give me a little more time. The bra wasn’t fitting properly this way, either. But it was better than nothing. I should have bought one of every size they had. It was my fault. I had been too busy being disgruntled, and I had been too anxious to be done with shopping. I couldn’t see why changing clothes surrounded by hundreds of mindless shoppers was supposed to be enjoyable, and I certainly didn’t enjoy trying on clothes I disliked just because my body was once again betraying me.
I put on the shirt and floated back to my room. I decided it was time for a phone call. But Vamp and Tara were still in my room, so I wasn’t going to make the call in there. The sunroom was still full of studying students and television addicts. The bathroom wasn’t private, since even when it was empty it usually didn’t stay that way.
I put on my cloak and walked out into the hallway. Then I pulled the cloak tightly against me so I could make sure it went light with me. I flew through the bathroom wall and out into the cold. The roof was a lot more private than many alternatives, and I also knew from prior experience that I would get excellent cell phone reception up there.
I dialed a number I was really getting tired of calling. I suspected they felt exactly the same way about being called.
Rich British tones answered. “You have reached the local lab of Princess Jobe of Karedonia-”
“Don’t call me that!” someone shrieked from across the lab.
Belphoebe relentlessly continued. “-who is being too surly and childish to answer her own bloody phone, and-”
“I’m BUSY!” Jobe yelled.
Belphoebe finished, “-can’t be bothered to fix her bio-computational answering system, just because someone accidentally broke it.”
“Was it Freight Train?” I wondered.
Belphoebe sighed, “Yes. It was completely accidental. She still has her powers, and they’re fluctuating slightly as her body adjusts to its new shape and abilities.”
That was more explanatory than I expected from the drow. Freight Train had a PK ‘cowcatcher’. If she charged forward, she could create an invisible PK wedge that would punch through most ordinary objects, as long as they were vulnerable to several tons of force. She could knock a car aside, or blast through an ordinary wall, but she couldn’t charge through the solid granite that the Workshop tunnels were hewn through. And if her PK wedge was fluctuating in any way, just walking across a room could be a problem for her, not to mention anything directly in front of her.
I also wasn’t sure I wanted to know what Jobe’s idea of a bio-computational answering system was. An organic slurry that mimicked a computer chip? A prion-based quantum computer? Bits and pieces of human brains, hooked together with an artificial larynx to speak and record messages? With Jobe, there was no telling. There was also no wanting to find out the horrible truth, because with Jobe, the reality was usually worse than one’s own imagination. Or Stephen King’s imagination. The ‘tumor beef’ came to mind. As did his ‘ork miners’ and his razorspinners. Razorspinners. Seriously, who besides Jobe would think it was a good idea to create a type of spider that could spin a ‘web’ which was capable of killing anything up to and including an elephant?
I replied, “I understand. And I’m sorry to be bothering you when you have important work of your own to do, but I just wanted to get an update on Jobe’s progress on my problem.”
Belphoebe said, “I believe that is why she’s being so cranky and infantile this evening. She refuses to give up and admit she can’t reconstitute the contaminants in your serum, so she’s taking it out on everyone in the vicinity. She’s being so wretched that Freight Train refused to come back for her eight o’clock evaluation.”
“So there’s not much chance she’ll be able to find what I was given?”
She admitted, “I believe your real question was ‘can she fix me?’ And right now, I’m going to have to say ‘no’.”
“I can get this to work!” Jobe shrieked from across the lab.
Belphoebe said, “It looks like you’re just going to have to live with what you have. But on the bright side, we’ve determined that your Regen has gotten a spike. According to the tests we ran, you’re now a Regen-3. So any injuries you suffer should heal up noticeably faster than before. According to your BIT, naturally.”
“Of course,” I groaned. Regen-3. Great. Just fucking great. I said, “Thank you for your time.” Then I hung up.
Regen-3 meant that my body would heal up faster than at my old rate. As an Exemplar-3, I had roughly the healing rate of a Regen-1. So now I wasn’t up in Billie’s ‘insane regeneration’ rate, or even Jade’s fairly intimidating ‘get your hand blown to shreds and be fine in a few hours’ rate. But if I decided to get these gazongas surgically removed, I was going to have to be willing to do it repeatedly. Probably every couple weeks. For the rest of my life.
And the higher your Regen was, the more likely that you would eventually develop a tolerance for any drug you took regularly. For Billie, that meant that all the medicines she had accumulated for that time of the month just didn’t work on her anymore. Since Billie had apparently stopped having that time of the month, it wasn’t as big a problem, but she now had virtually no drugs that could help her if she was in pain. Jade was getting to that point, too. If I went for the ‘breast surgery every two weeks for the rest of my life’ route, how long would it be before the anesthetic of choice no longer worked on me? Before the pain relievers the doctors prescribed no longer worked on me?
I went light and stepped off the roof. Then I floated down to my window and drifted through it into my room. The light was off. Vamp had taken Tara back to her room, or somewhere that had more privacy than a shared dorm room.
The darkness suited me just fine. I took off my clothes and got in bed without flipping on a light. I had to lay on my side, because laying on my back meant that I had gallons of jello weighing me down. And there was no way I could lie down on my stomach now.
I lay there on my side, trying not to curl into the fetal position and suck my thumb. Were these stupid boobs just going to keep growing and growing, until I had to be placed in Hawthorne like Melissa? Was I going to be able to live anything like a normal life? Was I going to be able to be a useful part of Team Kimba again?
Had I just screwed up everything? Again? Could I just control myself enough to stop fucking up everything?
By the time I was ready to fall asleep, I was weeping in misery over the wreck I had made of my life. Again.
* * * * *
Alex quietly sat up in her bed. She glanced over at her clock. Midnight. The classic time to start a really good prank. And Ayla was asleep.
Except Ayla was crying in her sleep. Big, tough, snotty Ayla Goodkind was bawling like a girl over her new look.
Vamp hopped out of her bed and stood there, looking down at the girl. She thought about her own life. Her hopes when she was just some pathetic mostly-boy who had been mutilated as a baby in the hospital. The way her family had treated her when she was growing up. The way people had treated her for looking like a freak.
to be continued