“Dee! Your hands are clean already! Let’s go!”
“Just a minute…” drifted the voice of the Whateley Academy Literary Club’s resident Obsessive-Compulsive over the sound of running water. Elaine ‘Doc’ Nalley rolled her blue/green/gold eyes in amusement as she let the door to the restroom close and returned to the clutch of her friends near by.
This segment of the Literary Club had carved out a place of relative solitude from the press of humanity moving through the world’s busiest airport by hugging a wall. On the third busiest travel day of the year the airport was, at least to the eyes of four teenaged mutants, far beyond its capacity. It’s been said that to get to Heaven or Hell, you have to go through Atlanta. Today was certainly living up to the joke.
Doc maneuvered her way back to her friends and was thankful she wasn’t claustrophobic. “Third wash?” drawled Maggie ‘Lifeline’ Finson with a rueful smile as her dorm-mate arrived, just a hint of Topeka twang in her voice. Lifeline was a striking young woman, a wild halo of ash blonde hair with red highlights around a tanned oval face dominated by a pair of doe-like blue eyes. You would think her a classic California beach girl until that Midwest twang came out of her mouth and the ‘tan’ became Native American ancestry.
“Nails, Ah think,” reported Doc with a sigh. “For the life of me Ah don’t know how that girl has any skin left…”
“Thanks for inviting us to your parent’s place for Christmas, Doc,” Renae ‘Reverb’ Greist interjected with her usual unsubtle approach. The younger freshman’s oval face was lit up in obvious gratitude, an unruly mop of dark auburn hair with faint highlights of ebony framing it. Reverb would never be a good poker player as her emotions generally marched across her face, but then guile was definitely not her strong suit.
“Mah pleasure, Renae,” Nalley replied. “Ah know how tough it is to have stuff fall apart at the last minute. Mah folks are always happy to make another place at the table.” Doc would have continued, but was cut off by Maggie frantically elbowing her in the side.
“Beefcake parade at three o’clock…!” she whispered urgently, causing the trio of girls to turn and look. A group of young servicemen, all obviously in the flush of their youth and uniformly attired in the brown camouflage of BDUs were returning from the Middle East and on their way to one of the double dozen baggage carousels. Despite the loose fit of the uniforms, sleeves and chests swelled with muscle, close hair cuts and berets showed off manly jaws and strong chins and each wore dazzling smiles happy to be home.
“Ya know,” whispered Elaine as she stared while doing her best to not look like she was staring. “Ah don’t think even Simone would have something snarky to say right now. Lord have mercy.”
“You did not just say that, did you?” demanded Maggie with a sideways glance at her roommate.
“Ya’ll can scoff at mah linguistic idiosyncrasies all ya’ll like, but what Ah wouldn’t give for a bowl full of that for breakfast…!” Doc returned with a smile. The trio broke into a fit of giggles as their fourth member carefully weaved her way to them through the crowd, being careful not to come into physical contact with anyone as she did so.
“Man,” she breathed in relief as she arrived. “I was worried for a minute I wasn’t going to get out of there, it was so schmutzik, I mean, you know how many people use public restrooms and don’t wash their hands, but then this flight attendant came in and…what’s funny?”
Seeing the frustration on their friend’s face only brought the girls into another fit of giggles. “Don’t worry about it,” proclaimed Renae who was the first to recover herself. “The nymphos were man-watching and you just happened up at the right moment.”
“Hey!” protested Lifeline and Loophole in chorus.
“I’m not a nympho!” continued Maggie while planting a hand on her hip in protest.
“We just have healthy appetites,” affirmed Nalley, while trying and failing to set her face into a frown. “You freshmen will understand someday.”
“Oh, swell,” muttered Dee. “On top of my other issues now I have to worry about turning into a sex maniac on my 16th birthday. Wonderful.”
“Excuse me,” interjected a deep voice, causing the girls to turn with a start to be face to chest with a small mountain of muscle in a uniform. As one, the girl’s heads lifted to take in a rugged, honest face with a smile that could melt a glacier. “The fellahs and I couldn’t help but notice you ladies noticing us, so we thought a picture would last longer.”
In his hand was a four by six glossy of the crowd that was currently chuckling by the baggage carousel at their friend’s quirky sense of humor. They were clustered around a tent in a sand dune, grinning into the camera, most smoking cigars, one or two hoisting heavy looking weapons without apparent effort.
None of them had a shirt on.
Doc accepted the photo with clumsy fingers as Lifeline’s mouth opened and closed without talking. “Welcome home…” squeaked Doc as the soldier winked at them and returned to his fellows.
“Sophomores,” muttered Renae as she got Maggie and Doc moving towards the security checkpoint again with Dee’s help. The somewhat stunned pair scrambled for their bags as the soldiers waved goodbye and Doc slipped the photo into her purse. “You’re going to keep that?” Reverb demanded sardonically.
“Ah certainly am!” the red head enthused. “Ah shall sleep better at night knowing men like that are keeping me safe! Ah’m going to have it framed…” she added wistfully
“Oy vey,” complained Dee with a shake of her head as Doc and Maggie broke into another giggle fit. “Yes, yes, they’re very…fit…”
The girls were having a grand time until the got to the security check point before the escalators and elevators down to the tunnels that connected the main terminal to its five gate concourses. Here the crowds were split off into sections to pass the security checkpoint, Domestic with its longest lines, International, US Citizen Paranormal and Foreign National Paranormal. The girls became more self conscious as they made their way to the empty US Citizen Paranormal line to the surprise of the three bored looking men that were manning it.
Each could feel the eyes from the longer lines as they did so, some envious of their short wait, some of their genetics and some with fear. The uniformed TSA guard got to his feet, a smile on his face. “You ladies are in the wrong line, aren’t you?”
Elaine raised her chin a notch as she cautiously shook her head and reached into her purse to produce her MID. The guard’s smile didn’t waiver as he took the offered card and turned to the other uniformed man there, this one wearing a Mutant Commission Office field uniform. “Loophole,” he greeted in a cordial tone, “I’m Sergeant Booker Hadley, MCO, the goon in the suit is Special Agent Max Twining with the Department of Paranormal Affairs.” Max only chuckled and said nothing. “We’ll be conducting your security screening today. Your friends also registered?”
“Yes, sir,” Elaine replied automatically.
“Could I see your MIDs, please, ladies?”
The girls began to dig into their purses as Elaine felt a pair of eyes on the back of her neck. She turned to see a pair of young boys staring, obviously having never seen a ‘mutant’ so close before. They didn’t stare long, as their mother snatched them up protectively and went to the end of the line furthest from the Literary Club. “Some people,” sighed Sergeant Booker as he collected the MIDs.
“You’re not going to call us ‘gene filth’ or some other interesting alliteration?” demanded Lifeline with a raised eyebrow.
“Gene filth isn’t alliteration,” murmured the sergeant with a winning smile, “and more to the point, I wouldn’t dream of committing what could be construed as a hate crime or denying you ladies your civil rights in sight of a representative of the Federal Government.”
“Don’t believe him for a second,” drawled Agent Twining from his perch. “He has a weakness for pretty girls and you four perfectly fit the bill.” Max looked over the passengers waiting in the line, most of whom were staring at the activity in the unused line and its four mini-celebrities. “Why don’t we step over into the office to deal with the formalities, girls?”
Without further comment, the Fed ushered the girls through the metal detectors, raising an eyebrow as it squealed loudest for Loophole and let them to the Transportation Safety Administration office that was near by. It was a fairly drab space, taken up by a larger baggage scanning unit and a series of waist high tables where bags could be gone through. Twining joined Booker behind the counter and settled in front of the group’s resident redhead. “Anything to declare?” he asked in an amused tone.
Elaine sighed as she opened her jacket to reveal the pistol that hung under her left armpit. “Ah do have a permit for this…”
“I’m sure,” Max replied. “Do me a favor and clear the weapon and place it on the table, please?” Doc carefully did as instructed, locking the slide to the rear after removing the magazine and catching the round that was already present in the pipe. “Anything else?”
“Ah’ve got an ASP baton right where Ah can get at it…”
“I trust you won’t need to beat me about the head and shoulders anytime soon, so leave it in its keeper, please,” the agent chuckled. “Ok, let’s deal with the paperwork: ticket and permits please.” These were produced and quickly run through a reader on his side of the counter. “Alright, Loophole, you’ve flown from Hartsfield before, so you know the drill. For form’s sake I’m offering you the choice of checking this weapon or serving as a volunteer Air Marshal as I see on record you’ve passed Paranormal Law, Rights and Responsibilities of Good Samaritan Law Enforcement and received a passing grade on your Citizenship and Government class, and you’ve been signed off on by the Range Master at Whateley. What is your choice?”
Doc sighed. “Ah’ll volunteer for this flight.”
“Raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
"Volunteer Air Marshall?" demanded Maggie as the group left the office and were standing on the long escalator that was carrying them deep into the Georgia bedrock. "They have such things?"
"Technomancer vs. The Transportation Safety Administration, 2002," quoted Elaine with a smile. "He didn't feel like it was fair for Energizers and other flashy paranormals to get to keep their powers on a flight while he had to check all his toys. So, he sued, and the Supreme Court held, rightly so in my humble opinion, that a devisor and a gadgeteer's gear are basically extensions of their power, in the same way that, oh Sizzle's fire aura is an extension of hers. But, there was a twist, as ours can be taken away, we get the choice of volunteering to serve as an Air Marshall or we still get parted with our gear." She shrugged. "That's one of the reasons I loaded up on all those law classes last year."
"And here I thought my roomie the rules lawyer had plans to join the Bar," chuckled Maggie.
"There's no reason to be insulting," sniffed Elaine while her grin widened. "Actually, Ah'm not really sure what Ah want to do after graduation."
"Well, there's college, of course," put in Fractious. "I mean, I'm going to Tulane, provided I don't get anything below a C for the rest of the year and I can maintain at least a B- for my sophomore year, then..."
"Dee," interrupted Elaine softly. "What's the point? College 'of course'? Ah read Alan Tribble’s Princeton Guide to Advanced Physics, last semester. Ah found three math errors in it! What could Ah possibly learn in college?"
"What are you thinking of doing?" asked Maggie pointedly. "More inventor work? After what Dow Chemicals bought kevra for, I'm sure they'd love to have you on staff."
Doc considered this for a long moment then shook her head. "No, the CEO has an issue with paranormals. The whole time Ah was in the meeting he looked like somebody cut the cheese right next to him, but he's too polite to say somethin'. Ah dunno, Mags, really, Ah'm sixteen, 'bout to be kiss'n seventeen..."
"March 10th," supplied Reverb's photographic memory.
"Thank ya'll, Miss Greist," she replied with a chuckle. "Ah own a patent that sold sufficiently for me not to have to work again. But everybody at Wha...school is on one of three tracks. Ah'm going to take over the world, Ah'm going to save the world, or Ah'm going to get lost in the world. Surely we have more choices than that?"
"What has you so pensive?" asked Maggie softly, concern on her face.
"Ah had a weird run in with one of the Kimbettes right before break," Doc replied.
"Which one?" Renae asked, with a noticeably subdued tone. "The demon?"
Elaine shook her head. "No," and she paused to look up and down the escalator to be certain they weren't being eavesdropped on. "Phase," she admitted finally.
Lifeline pondered that for bit. "Well, word around campus was she seemed to be putting together some kind of holding company to promote and develop the more reliable gadgets and devices into marketable products. Makes sense she'd come see you, being the schools expert on reverse engineering. What did she want?"
"That's where it gets weird."
December 18, 2006
Devisor Lab (Vehicle), way under Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Hell fire and damnation," muttered Doc to herself as she finally got the fill point lug on Baby Girl's rear differential free and began to ratchet it off. Based on the amount of difficulty the bolt was giving her, it quickly became apparent this particular bolt hadn't come off in quite some time. "How could Ah have been so stupid?"
"Closing up shop, Doc!" called Mr. Donner's voice from the far side of the shop.
"One minute, please, sir!" she shouted back.
The mustang hung over her head, nearly six feet off the floor, safe in the cradle of a hydraulic lift that gave her easier access to the rear 'pumpkin' as the differential was sometimes called. It was a vaguely oval series of gears that transferred rotational energy along the center line of the car from the drive shaft into rotations at right angles out to the wheels. Doc had been in the process of deciding what the car's final color would be and finally getting into the cosmetic work that was left, when she'd noticed a stain on the immaculate shop floor, directly under the pumpkin. So she promptly got the car in the air and began getting the bolt off, cursing herself as she did so.
Finally the bolt was free and she dipped in a latex-gloved finger. The blue glove came back with nearly-black, foul-smelling gear oil in which floated several silver specks. "Shit!" she yelled in frustration.
“I take it this is a bad time?” a voice behind her asked. The words seemed right, but the soprano voice had the tone of someone who expected to be obeyed. It sounded like the President was asking you why you were taking so long to fix his personal car.
Doc turned to take in a waif of a girl who was trying the punk look on for size. Close, spiked black hair framed a heart shaped face that was dominated by a Cupid's bow mouth. She was wearing jeans whose strategically torn holes had probably cost extra, under a rock band tee shirt Doc had never heard of. "Miss Goodkind, to what do Ah owe the pleasure?"
She carefully and needlessly ducked her head under the car, for a moment reminding Elaine of how Dee Castle might have made the same gesture, trying to be polite, but averse to the filth under the car. Assuming, of course, that Fractious could ever work up the nerve to come down here in the first place. "Having some trouble?" she asked.
Doc sighed as she rolled the waste lubricants drum under the pumpkin and began to try and loosen the drain lug. "Just a stupid mistake," muttered Doc as she sized up her odd visitor. "Better'n doubled the horse power of this motor and Ah totally spaced on checking the engineering specs to see if this differential could handle that much torque." She paused as the lug came loose and fell onto the screen that kept it and other debris from falling completely into the barrel, followed by a stream of the foul-smelling oil. "Or do ya'll need that translated?"
"I'm going to guess that the stress damaged this gear box?"
"Dunno yet," Doc admitted. "But there's metal shavings in the fluid so Ah have to drain it, remove it and inspect it. But Ah'm sure auto shop 101 isn't why ya'll are here."
"No," Phase replied, drifting forward to the nose of the mustang and the silver box that stood out on the firewall. "Actually, I wanted to talk to you about this 'afterburner' of yours. I understand that - in addition to all that extra horsepower - the fuel efficiency of the motor went up?"
"Yes," Doc replied as she followed the smaller girl and wiped off her gloved hands on the shop rag from her back pocket. "Emissions went down, too. Baby Girl could be registered in California right now, age waivers notwithstanding; she beats the specs for a new car. Why?"
Ayla met her gaze with bright green eyes that could not be natural. "You don't think that's worth something, given the ecological problems we may be facing over the next decades? Or the national security risks involved in continually paying billions of dollars to shore up countries and religions that are inimical to modern American business?"
Elaine snorted out a laugh. "It’s nice to know somebody else understands that security hole. Ah had you pegged as one of those tree hugging, elitist types who rolls around in a limo while bleating about ‘peak oil’."
The green eyes rolled in disbelief. "I didn’t think I had that bad a reputation, do I? Come on, everyone knows the Hubbert curve is misused constantly.”
“Worse, it’s not a true Gaussian distribution according to any statistician worth a damn,” countered Elaine.
“Now it is an accurate term for the scale it was originally intended to cover…”
“Individual oil wells and fields,” both girls said in chorus. Loophole looked down on the smaller girl for a moment before a grin spread across her face.
“Ah do believe Ah’ve misjudged you, Miss Goodkind.”
“Call me Ayla,” the other replied. “There are lots of reasons why my last name won’t buy me any favorable press here.”
Loophole shrugged her indifference. “Ah wouldn’t know, seeing as Ah’ve only been a mutant for a year and a half and neither of mah folks are.” Ayla’s eyes were far away for a moment, reliving a painful memory. Most probably would not have noticed, but Loophole allowed her a moment before looking back at the afterburner that had brought her strange visitor.
“So, what about mah little afterburner brought you down here? Ah mean, there’s more oil in ANWR than in all of Saudi Arabia. When you throw in the outer continental shelf, oil shale, the north shore fields off Alaska… Well, it’s not like gas is four dollars a gallon or something stupid.”
“Be that as it may, long term views are how successful businesses are run. No sense being wasteful with a product we know will eventually run out.” Phase looked up at the device and back at its inventor. "You’ve got a product here that solves a major automotive stumbling block, power and fuel economy, and you don't think this is worth anything?" Doc shrugged again.
"Ah didn't say that. But there are problems and it doesn’t exactly solve all of those stumbling blocks. Right now, it's engineered to work with a carburated, leaded gas engine. It could be re-engineered for fuel injected unleaded, but it won't be as efficient. The lead helps lower the flash point of gasoline, that's why it was added in the first place. If you want to try and get leaded gas available again from the EPA, well then, you do like to set your sights high."
"I see your point," the girl finally said after several moments thought. “The question is do you see mine?”
Doc considered for a long moment, her eyes making rapid jerking movements as if she were asleep, though her eyes were open as her mind called up a schematic of the system and began to try and solve the issue. “Ah have a couple of ideas that might work, but Ah’d need a regular car to test the prototype on. Ah’m not made of money, and what Ah have is wrapped up in a trust fund.”
“I’m sure something could be arranged,” Ayla replied. “How much time would you need?”
Elaine placed her hand on the afterburner for a moment as she thought. Ayla’s sharp eyes caught the glow around them but she said nothing. “Two, maybe three weeks to prototype and maybe another month for fine tuning based on what it does to the car.”
It was only the training that had been drilled into Ayla since she could talk that her jaw didn’t drop. Despite months of being around mutants, devisors and other kids that broke the laws of physics without thinking about it, to be told by a sixteen-year-old girl she would solve a problem that had plagued automakers since Henry Ford in a few weeks as casually as if she were making an appointment to have her nails done was mind boggling. More so as, based on what Ayla had heard about Loophole she’d accomplish it. “I'll get a contract to you ASAP. I'm setting up some stuff for Winter and Spring terms, depending on who wants the patents. Get a nice suit in case we have to meet with Ford or GM execs…”
“Ah do actually clean up nice...!” Elaine replied placing a hand on her hip in friendly annoyance, which drew the T-Shirt she was wearing tighter across her chest. “How about you? Ah think the grunge look is out with the executive set…”
Ayla licked her lips and forced her mind off the lovely pair of breasts she was nearly at eye level with. “New wave,” she corrected, “But yes, I’ll dress for the occasion too.”
"Let's go, Doc," interrupted Mr. Donner. "Quit'n time."
"Yes sir," Elaine replied. "Alright, Ayla, Ah'll put some thoughts on paper and get back to you."
Phase smiled again. "I'll look forward to it."
"She was sizing you up," stated Maggie instantly after Elaine wound down from her story. Doc nodded slowly.
"Ah thought it was just business at first, but the more Ah think about it, and some of the other stuff that’s happened on campus, the more worried Ah get. Mah guess is they found out about that bit with Queen Bee and Chaka."
"Oy," cursed Dee softly. "But, why would they be mad about that? We got Chaka off the hook...!"
"Who says they're mad?" asked Reverb. "Maybe they're trying to figure out what they 'owe' us. Why else send the Goodkind? They don't want somebody to have a marker on them they can call in, so the rich kid got sent to buy off Loophole."
Lifeline rubbed her chin in thought as the group finally got to the bottom of the ten-story escalator and began walking down the mile long tunnel that linked the separate concourses. A pair of light rail trains ran the length of the tunnel, but the girls were still feeling the eyes of the normals that knew about their secrets from the security check point, and decided to use the moving sidewalks that also ran the length of the tunnel. "Did we ever find out which Goodkind Ayla is?" she asked at last. Elaine looked at her sidelong in surprise.
"Lord above, Mags, Ah didn't even know that was a question! Ayla is or was, Trevor James Goodkind, the old man's younger middle." Several bags simultaneously hit the moving sidewalk in surprise. Doc looked at her friends in confusion. "What?"
"How do you know that?" hissed Reverb as quietly as she was capable of.
"Isn't it obvious?" Elaine shot back. "Trevor dropped off the face of the Earth just before the start of last semester. One minute he's the boy genius and at the old man's side at every photo op, then late July… poof! He up and vanishes like a fart in the wind. Now, Ayla Goodkind shows up at school, and she's certainly not shy about saying she's one of THE Goodkinds. Except she doesn't exist until she shows up at school."
"You follow the Goodkinds?" asked Maggie slowly.
Doc shrugged. "It's a Southern thing. Ah can tell ya'll more than you'll ever want to know about the British Monarchy too. Ah'm serious, none of the New York Goodkinds had a daughter named Ayla, nor the Chicago branch they don't like to talk about, or the third and fourth cousins up in Maine that are desperately trying to outdo the Bush Twins and Paris Hilton for Slut Rich Girl of the Year. So, either Trevor Goodkind underwent a mutant activation event that also changed his gender, or she's some kind of genetic experiment they turned loose to find out what us dangerous mutants are up to. Which sounds more likely to you?"
"That can happen?" demanded Dee fearfully. "You could, you know, start growing things or...?"
"Didn't you read the application to the school, Dee?" demanded Lifeline with an amused chuckle.
In a flash Renae had her PDA out and was linked to the school's website. "Here it is, questions 42 and 43, ' Gender, Male, Female, Complicated' and 'My powers or incidents associated with them are transforming/have transformed me: to have no gender, to become more feminine, to become more masculine, to exhibit characteristics of multiple genders.' Now, how many kids must have done a gender swap to have them put a question about it on the form?"
An idea began to quietly nibble on the back of Loophole's brain. Out loud she said, "Come to that, Ah've had a couple of weird run-ins with the Kimbettes. A month ago the little Oriental girl came into the weapons lab when Ah was helping out Dredz."
"The black guy with dreadlocks and the weapon fetish?" asked Reverb. "He’s one of the S.T.A.R. League Jr. crew, right? Why were you helping him? I thought you shied away from weapons projects?"
Doc shrugged. "Normally, but it was a friend of a friend thing. 'Sides, he's pretty cute."
Fractious rolled her eyes. "I thought you were pining away for the soldiers a few minutes ago?"
Maggie and Elaine shared a giggle. "We're young and our options are open," Nalley replied. "Waste of time, really, he's got it for Chaka pretty bad, but she won't give him the time of day. What was weird though was Dredz introduced us and told her, oh, what's her name?"
"Stop pretending you're not an Exemplar and don't have a photographic memory," chided Maggie.
Elaine grinned sheepishly at her best friend. "Fine, Generator then. Anyways, he tells Generator what mah power is and she goes white and beats feet away from me like Ah'm a leper or something."
"Maybe she thought you'd hit on her," sniped Renae with a chuckle.
"Naw, not mah type," Elaine shot back. "And waaaay too close to jail bait."
"So," Dee said quietly, "first they send the innocent to see what you're made of, but for whatever reason she's not up to it, then one of their heavy hitters. Was this before or after your Combat Final?"
"They may think you're the weak link," Maggie opined out loud. "Or the easiest one to deal with."
"With mah rep?" Doc replied in disbelief. "Ah'd have figured Ah'd be the last person someone would think would be easy to buy off with no strings."
"You do tend to complicate agreements," Reverb agreed. "But that bit you came up with for Foxfire to use against Queen Bee was pretty tight. No way she'll wiggle out of it when we call it due."
"That and the fact Ah got the whole thing on video tape," Doc said with a self-satisfied sigh of scam pulled off. "Still, Ah imagine Ah'll be able to find out more as Phase moves this thing along." As her friends stared at her, Elaine shrugged and continued. "It's not like this problem is going to go away on its own. Besides, if little Miss Goodkind thinks techies are an easy mark Ah have a beef with that. If she's on the up and up, she's got nothing to worry about. Either way, we find out more about Team Kimba."
"That's a pretty dangerous Xantos Gambit to play," Dee remarked quietly.
"You know what a cautious girl Ah am, Dee," chided Elaine.
"Yes, and I remember that incident in Crystal Hall with Freya taking a bath in your sweet tea." Maggie corrected quickly. "I thought for a minute we were going to have the fight of the century on our hands."
Doc blushed as her encounter with the former Queen of the Alpha's was brought up. "Oh, Ah just got clumsy is all. Silly freshman stuff, and that bath let Freya know that the 'diamond' Sebastiano gave her was just spun sugar and a devisor long polymer to hold it together. Ah got invited to every Alpha shindig for the rest of the year."
"And not one since she graduated and The Don took over," Maggie reminded her.
"Yeah, Freya was a real piece of work."
Dee considered this for a long moment before turning back to the redhead. "Why don't you work on weapons, Doc? I mean, I thought just about every techie did something along that line, like it was a rite of passage or something...?"
Elaine sighed and looked off down the tunnel. "Long story, Fractious. It's a long story."
Doc stormed into the Melville common room in a rage of biblical proportions. Her face was so flushed it was difficult to see where skin stopped and her brilliant scarlet hair started. "Freya!" she screamed as she entered, drawing every eye in the room. The object of her ire, the tall, shapely queen of the Alphas, turned without a care from her chess game by the fireplace, her ice blue eyes coolly regarding the enraged freshman that had burst into her court.
Icer was the first on his feet and rushed the enraged freshman. While the rest of the room had trouble seeing exactly what happened, Freya watched an expandable baton appear in Loophole's hand as if by magic. Her sharp gaze caught the glow around her hand before Icer was lying unconscious at her feet, minus a tooth that sailed across the room. "You bitch, you set me up!"
Friedeslinge 'Freya' Larssen slowly came to her feet and gave the crowd of stunned Alphas a calm gesture. "Leave us," she commanded, just a hint of her native Norwegian accent in her delicate voice. "Take Matthew with you. Elaine and I have a lot to discuss."
"Freya..." started Sebastiano, but he was waved to silence.
"Don't beg, Lorenz," Freya ordered him with a chuckle. "It's undignified." The Don considered that for a moment before deciding to reduce his losses and left with the others, vaguely wondering if the walls would soon be covered in blood. As the door to the common room was closed again, Freya made herself comfortable on one of the leather sofas that displayed her magnificent figure to its best advantage. "Loop, you're obviously upset, what's the trouble darling?"
"Ah just had mah ass chewed for three hours by Carson and half the Trustees! Ah nearly got expelled! The gun Ah made for you is what Snapshot used to kill himself!"
"Was it?" Freya exclaimed in very mock alarm. "How disturbing!"
"If the coroner hadn't ruled it a suicide and Ah hadn't had five witnesses plus Mr. Donner putting me in the Devisor Lab, Ah would've been expelled and probably taking the fall for a murder rap!"
"And what were you doing in the Devisor Lab?" Freya purred. "Was it the tune-up on my Porsche I asked you to do?" Doc blinked in surprise at the question and worked her mouth several times, but no sounds came out. "Imagine that!" the queen went on. "Five witnesses and a teacher. And while my little Loophole is many things, she can't be in two places at once."
"I am the reason you have an alibi." Freya continued as she stood and walked over. "I am the reason you were never in any danger of being expelled." She delicately relieved Elaine of the ASP and casually collapsed it with her bare hands as if it were a telescoping pointer. "Yes, I commissioned the pistol and you did a magnificent job, my dear, a masterpiece. Alas, Snapshot was a little boy in a man's body playing a man's game. None of his blood is on your hands, darling."
"You used me," she whispered.
"Everyone uses everyone, Loophole. You wanted to be popular, and I invited you to our parties. Everything has a price." Freya rubbed Elaine's cheek with a practiced motion some might mistake for affection. "If you need me to tell you I'm sorry Carson had to play the villain and berate you, then I am. Her growls are just to instill fear in you and keep you in line. As you get older you'll understand their posturing and it might even amuse you. As it is, you are a freshman and still somewhat malleable, or so our beloved headmistress believes. Don't hold it against her, it's just her job."
"You knew Snapshot was unstable and you pushed him over the edge, didn't you?"
"Don't obsess, Elaine," chided Freya. "Gadgeteers like you are already prone to Deidrick’s so there's no sense tempting fate." She favored the younger girl with her perfect smile. "Now, our Spring Social is in a few weeks, if you'll tell me who you fancy, well, I'll make sure the suggestion is planted in the right ears."
"A boy is dead, Freya, and you're thinking about a party?"
Freya smiled again. "Life is only enjoyable if you bother to live it, Elaine. Why don't you get some rest? I'll see that you aren't disturbed for a bit and my Porsche can certainly wait until you've put this terrible matter behind you."
“Well, we’ve got about an hour and a half before the flight is due to depart,” Maggie announced as she returned from one of the concession stands further down the concourse. “Sweet tea, no lemon,” she announced, presenting the cup to Elaine. “Decaf latte, extra milk, extra sugar,” heralded the cup sliding into the eager hands of Reverb. “And a bottle of water, still sealed, with two wet wipes,” chuckled Maggie as she gave the items to Dee.
“What?” the younger girl demanded as her friends snickered at her while she vigorously wiped down the bottle. “Do you want me to tell you how many people probably touched this and how many do you think washed their hands first?”
“Nope,” declared Elaine after a long sip of the tea. “Ah plan to enjoy mah beverage, thank you.” Maggie settled in with her own coffee and took a sip.
“Sorry I brought up Freya,” she told Elaine in a soft aside. The redhead shrugged around another sip of the tea.
“Ah can’t help but wonder what she would have made of Team Kimba.” She snorted a laugh. “Icer and his lot probably would have been looking for another gig as the Alpha’s enforcers. Can ya’ll imagine the humiliation of being replaced as chief leg breaker by a group of freshmen?”
“Who is Freya?” demanded Reverb quietly.
“She had The Don’s spot as head Alpha last year,” supplied Maggie, “and all three years before that from what I understand. Freya was something of a phenomenon, even for… our school.”
“Somebody could keep The Don under control?” Dee asked in amazement.
Doc snorted another laugh. “That ain’t the half of it. Ah was kind of an honorary Alpha last year, and Ah’m here to tell ya’ll, The Great and Powerful Don pissed his pants at Freya’s say-so.” The two freshmen looked at each other in amazement as their world view was altered. "Ah'm not a fan of the movie by any means, but Qui-Gon had it right, 'there's always a bigger fish'."
"Now we're swimming with sharks," muttered Renae glumly.
Maggie laughed and took a cautious sip of her coffee. "Welcome to high school." The group sat in companionable silence for a moment broken only by the sounds of the crowd around them; half-heard snatches of conversation, tinny music from headphones being listened to at too high a volume, the cries of infants expressing their displeasure at the changing pressures inherent in air travel. Finally, Renae's eyes were caught by a business man in an ill-fitting suit; one whose antics were too bizarre to ignore.
"Check it," she remarked to the others, pointing with her drink. "This guy has it worse than Dee does."
The man was bobbing and weaving through the crowd, moving from tile to tile in an order that made sense only to him or a child under six determined not to be the cause of his mother's broken back. He was mumbling incoherently to himself, desperate not to come within a foot of anyone and was sweating profusely. "Poor guy," sympathized Maggie as she joined her friends at staring at the man. "That must be tough to live like that."
"You have no idea," Dee put in, hoping and praying she wasn't looking at her own future.
The man's jerks became more and more erratic until the pattern he was following in his own mind caused him to bump into a young boy of six or so who was busy with a bit of mobile nasal hygiene. Once he'd realized what he'd done the mumbles became screams of horror. "No! No!" he bellowed at the top of his considerable voice. "Mutants! Filth! Blood! Blood!"
He turned sharply on his heel and charged at the amazed quartet of the Literary Club. "What the hell?" snapped Maggie as she and Elaine quickly jumped to their feet to protect the younger freshmen from this sudden attack. Seeing this, the man tried to change his course, but his dress shoes offered him no traction.
"Get them out of my mind!" he screamed as the skid lurched him against the plate glass window that overlooked the tarmac and the airplanes coming and going. The glass gave way in a shower of pebbles and the man tumbled out, his screams coming to a sharp stop a few seconds later.
"Jesus Christ!" swore Elaine as she and the others rushed to the window. "Maggie..." she started but the view that etched itself into her mind assured her the man was beyond Lifeline's ability to heal.
"That's when he hit the glass and it gave way," Elaine told Special Agent Twining as she finished up her statement. "He fell out and..." she trailed off, coming upon her first reason to wish she didn't have a photographic memory.
"You didn't provoke or challenge him?"
"Ah didn't have time," protested Doc. "One second he's charging us, next out he goes." The agent nodded and gave the four girls a compassionate glance.
"I'm sorry you girls had to see that," he told them sincerely. "With the investigation your flight won't be able to use this gate. The rep tells me they've moved you down to gate 4 at the end. Go ahead and catch your flight. If we need anything else we'll contact the school." The girls nodded somberly and began to gather up their things from where they had been waiting.
"That's so creepy," Renae remarked quietly as they began to walk up the concourse. "I mean, we've seen stuff worse in the simulator, but I've never seen anybody die before."
"I bet he's happier," Dee replied. "You don't know what's like, no offense, guys. The worst part is you know you're messed up but you can't stop." She began to play with a lock of her hair after getting her purse situated on her shoulder. "I mean, I was getting better until my meta-gene complex activated and I manifested, and now nothing’s working. Dr. Shandy has tried five different variations on my meds but my body adapts so fast..."
"What's that?" asked Maggie as she caught sight of a glint in the hair that Dee was worrying over. She slowly reached up and plucked a pebble of the window from her hair, much to Dee's horror. "It's a piece of glass from the window..."
"Oh! Oh! Gross!" Dee exclaimed. "It's got dead guy bits on it! I have to take a shower! Where's a restroom?"
"Easy girl," Renae cautioned as she handed her a can of spray sanitizer that Fractious began to liberally spray on her head. "Hey, that looks like car glass. I didn't know they used that in buildings."
"It's called tempra-glass," muttered Elaine as she took the piece from Maggie and began to examine it. "And they don't. Tempra-glass is designed to shatter on a pointed, blunt impact; makes it easier to get victims out of a car crash. That window should have been made out of safety glass and that man shouldn't have been able to just fall through it..."
Doc drifted over to one of the nearby windows of the concourse and began to stare intently at the seal the glass was mounted in. She compared this with the fragment in her hand for a moment, while her friends watched her. Finally she walked back over, digging her phone out of her purse as she did so. "That man was murdered," she announced as she arrived. "And we're going to prove it."
The trio exchanged looks for a moment before Dee, the resident crime fiction fan, tossed the empty can of sanitizer into a handy trash can and asked, "Ok, so they used the wrong kind of glass, that doesn't prove he was murdered. What did you just find out at the window?"
"The other windows on this side of the concourse are twice the thickness of this shard. Nearly three times," Doc replied as she began to dial on her phone. "Tempra-glass will shatter on a blunt impact, but it has to be focused. They make special tools for it you can buy in most auto parts stores. Our victim hit the glass almost all at once and it still shattered."
A click in Doc's ear told her the line had connected. "Carmen, Ah don't have time for your sass, now shut up and listen. Five minutes ago a man died at Hartsfield Airport. Ah need to know who he was and everything else you can find out about him."
"Who was that?" demanded Renae in a puzzled voice.
"Campus fixer who's good with computers," Doc replied after a moment of thought as she returned the phone to her purse. "She'll get back to us as quick as she can. Now we have to figure out who killed him and Carmen will give us the why."
Maggie raised an eyebrow. "Oh, as simple as that, huh? And all before our flight leaves?" Doc grinned at her and reversed her course back down the concourse towards the crime scene.
"Oy vaysmeer," muttered Dee as she fell in with her friends. "What are we doing after lunch?"
The quartet of girls made their way past the crime scene by not making eye contact with the investigators. They arrived back at the central elevator and escalator hub back down to the tunnel as Doc and Maggie began to look around. The two freshmen stared at them for a moment before Dee set her hands on her hips and demanded, "What are we looking for? Somebody in a black ninja suit? Or maybe a couple of generic bad guys from central casting wearing T shirts that read 'I did it'?"
"Cute," Maggie replied. "If you see somebody like that let us know, it will speed things up."
"So, what are we looking for?" demanded Renae.
"We're all writers, right?" asked Elaine with a sardonic smile. "What do you see?"
Renae frowned, as she spun in place for moment. "A Burger King, a chain book store I've never heard of, an information desk manned by a bored looking forty-something woman with a bad dye job, hundreds of people with no fashion sense, two mutants and Nancy Drew's biggest fan," she declared with a generous helping of sarcasm.
"Bonus points for the snipe," chuckled Maggie as she turned to Dee. "How about you? What do you see?"
Fractious looked about, struggling to control her disorder as she did so. "I see smoke in the smoker's lounge, but nobody's in there, so someone must have just left because of the fans in there. I see twelve, no sixteen security cameras, but only five of them can see the window we were next to. I see a man trying to repack his bag by the stairs down to the tunnel who must have seen the killers!"
"What?" demanded Renae, "How could you possibly know that?" Maggie and Elaine shared a triumphant grin.
Dee explained, "The victim’s last words were, and I quote, 'Get them out of my head'. Ninety percent of all Psi talents must have direct line of sight to the victim for their powers to work. The other nine percent require touch and only one percent of all psi talents can work through electronic devices."
"Our mentalist is a smoker," piped in Elaine, "as the lounge is next to the stairs down to the tunnel, which was his escape route. The lounge gives him or her perfect line of sight to our window, but is out of range of every camera in the area."
"And he was in such a hurry he ran into that man and knocked his bag out of his hands, spilling it!" Dee added with a triumphant grin.
Renae shook her head as she followed her friends over to the hassled traveler. "I swear, I'm trapped in USA Network’s new break out cop comedy hit," she muttered under her breath. "Mystery Mutants; only on USA! Characters welcome!"
"Pardon me, sir," Elaine greeted, flashing the badge Agent Twining had given her. "Federal Officer, what can you tell me about the person or persons who knocked down your bag?"
"How old are you?" demanded the man as he looked up angrily from stuffing the bag.
"Old enough to give you a wonderful afternoon of body cavity examinations with a TSA officer," Loophole shot back. "Now, Ah'm trying to apprehend a murderer and you, sir, happen to be a witness. Ah'd be very grateful for what cooperation you could offer."
The man looked between the four girls staring down at him as he finally got the bag closed. "This isn't some kind of school prank is it? I'll be honest honey, I don't have time for..."
Loophole sighed raggedly and turned to look over her shoulder. "Ah never thought Ah'd be in a hurry to be older," she muttered. "Special Agent Twining, could you come here please? Thank you." The fed wondered over, confusion on his face as he did so. "Ah so hate to bother you, but Ah feel Ah have to tell you that your investigation has moved from accidental death to murder."
"It has?" he asked with an amused expression.
"Yes sir, you see, this is a shard of glass from the broken window and you'll of course notice that's it's not even half the thickness it should be. Now, when Ah noticed this Ah couldn't help but realize that we were dealing with paranormal criminals which made the victims last words make so much more sense. Now, in the intervening minutes mah friends and Ah have been able to deduce that the killers ran into this gentleman while making good their escape down the tunnel, and he doesn't want to believe that Ah am a duly sworn federal officer and as a witness to a felony is being very uncooperative when all Ah really want is a description of the killers to give to you so they won't escape. Would you be so kind as to take this gentleman into a little room and employ whatever rubber hose techniques you like to convince him to give us this vital information? Thank you, thank you so much!"
Max considered that for a moment, glancing between the shard of glass Elaine had dropped into his hand and the bewildered traveler before finally making up his mind. "Five to central,” he said into the radio he produced. “I'm declaring a code twelve. Get me the video of the Concourse C hub cameras to interrogation one please. Come with me, please sir."
"You're kidding me!" the man exclaimed in disgust.
Twining winked at the girls as he collected the man's elbow and began to lead him off. "Nice work, Officer," he complimented.
"What was that?" demanded Lifeline once the girls were alone once more.
"Kyra Sedgwick is mah hero," Elaine proclaimed with a grin.
"Where do you think you're going?" demanded a sneering baritone rounded in a British Public School accent. Elaine sighed and turned to face Matthew 'Icer' Halloway. She'd known all over the summer break that a showdown would be looming over their tussle last year, now that Freya had graduated. It was, unfortunately, coming much sooner than expected.
"Ah'm going to the party with all the other pledges," she told him, her tone carefully neutral. "Look, Matt, for what it's worth Ah'm sorry about last year..."
"It's not worth much," Halloway declared. "What's more, I've checked, and I don't see any psychotic mechanics on the pledge list."
Nalley's face pulled into a frown. "Perhaps Ah got lumped in with you, did you check under flaming asshole?"
A film of frost began to form around Icer's fist, but he noticed someone behind Doc and quickly stepped back before a voice that seemed to vibrate up from the bowels of the Earth itself demanded, "What's going on here?" Elaine turned sideways, keeping Icer in her peripheral vision, to be towered over by Wyatt 'Kodiak' Cody.
"Just taking out the trash, Cody," snapped Halloway.
"You talk like that to a lady again and I'll stuff you into a can myself," the huge senior replied. "Elaine is one of us, if you can't remember what Freya said then..."
"Freya isn't here any more," interrupted the oily voice of the Don as he stepped out onto the steps of the Cottage, Cavalier, his constant shadow, behind him. "I'm top Alpha now, Cody, and I don't want to have to remind you again." The larger boy cracked his knuckles ominously but said nothing. "Ah, Freya's little pet rules lawyer. I remember you, and now, at least with that bitch gone I can laugh at your face instead of behind your back like we were all doing."
Loophole’s mind spun at this new development. Getting into a group as political as the Alphas can be meant a fair bit of planning had gone into this meeting. But all of it had centered around Kodiak being top Alpha, as everyone had expected last year. Thinking quickly, she decided to play the one card she had on The Don. "You weren't laughing when Ah got you out of detention for..."
The Don sighed tiredly with much affectation. "Yes, yes, you had your uses Loophole. However, things have changed. We don't invite the help to our parties any more. If we have something that needs doing, gear head, we'll come to you. Cody, show this pathetic little wannabe out."
"No need," Doc declared, using every actors’ trick she knew to keep from bursting into tears. "After the stink of this place, Ah could use some fresh air!" She turned on her heel and stalked off, back rigidly straight.
Kodiak watched the redhead depart, shaking his head. "What?" the Don demanded. "You can't think you'd want..."
"You know, Sebastiano, if you were half as smart as you think you are, you might actually be worth a damn. Freya kept her because..."
The Don shook his head, tired of the conversation. "I am well aware of Freya's little pet projects, Cody. And as eager as little Loophole is, she'll jump at any chance to be included so we get all the use out of her, without having to actually have her around. Brilliant, no?"
Wyatt drew himself up to his full height, towering over the Don. "No," he snorted in disgust and stalked off after the departing young woman. The big senior was forced to trot to catch up to the speed-walking sophomore, but it was quickly apparent she didn't know where she was going as she was half way to Poe, in the opposite direction of her own dorm. "Elaine," he called out. "Hold up."
She spun suddenly, tears streaming down her face and a pistol pointed mostly at Kodiak's head in her hand. "What?" she screamed at him. "Did you finally come up with a good putdown line and had to rush out to use it before you forgot it?!"
Wyatt brought himself up short, not worried about the pistol himself - being fairly bulletproof had its advantages - but he didn't want to go through the headache that would follow if she got lucky. "No," he said evenly. "But then you know one-liners aren't my strong suit."
"Then what do you want, you big ape?" she shouted once more. "Look! Ah'm crying! Isn't that what ya'll wanted? How can you possibly bring me lower?"
"Put down the gun," Wyatt ordered softly. "You can't hurt me with it and there's no sense hurting someone else." Doc's eyes narrowed as her grief and humiliation made the switch to murderous rage. Her thumb snapped up and cocked the hammer back.
"Is your fucking eye bulletproof, tough guy?" she snarled. "And don't you think for a second Ah can't dot both of them for you before you can lay a finger on me!"
"You are a stone cold bitch," he drawled out, a semblance of a smile creeping onto his face. "I love that about you."
The pistol wavered for a moment. "What?"
Cody chuckled to himself as he cautiously walked over to a bench by the path and sat down. "You are," he continued with a contented sigh as his weight settled. "You stood up to Freya about Snapshot, you knocked a damn tooth out of wonder boy's head, and you've got the stones to put a pistol in my face. I respect that."
Several different emotions marched across Doc's face as her mind furiously tried to correlate what she was hearing with what she was expecting. As she did so, Wyatt let his eyes wonder over her form, showcased nicely in the party dress she'd put on. Somebody blossomed over the summer, he thought to himself, now even more irate with The Don for being a self-indulgent idiot. Sure, she wasn't in Skybolt or Solange's league, but then few were. More to the point, Loophole would probably be grateful about it and far lower maintenance. Pity, really.
Fierce, the part of him that Wyatt had long since dubbed his inner bear whispered. She'd make a good mother.
Wyatt rolled his eyes at his own id, and continued as Doc struggled to process this odd conversation she found herself in. "Look, Elaine, you know I don't apologize, but not everybody thinks like that smarmy ass, Sebastiano. If he hadn't pulled whatever he did with Cav and Sky, I would be top Alpha. And you, girl, would not be pledging tonight, but being pinned. Freya knew you were Alpha material the moment you dumped that glass of tea on her and I haven't seen anything to make me think otherwise. The Don's gonna trip up sooner or later, guys like that always do. Mean time, you keep your head down."
He stood and walked carefully walked over to her as the pistol dropped to her side, limp in her hand. With the cuff of his sleeve he dried her face and gave her his most winning smile. "And when he does trip up, you should have this," he told her, handing her a small red velvet box. As their hands brushed to exchange the gift, Cody used the closeness to lean down and kiss Elaine softly, before he turned to trudge back into his own personal hell.
Damn shame, he thought, his fantasies of the fierce she-bear under his hands keeping him warm as he went.
The strident voice of Reverb finally broke through and brought Elaine back from her memories of the first week of the semester. Looking up at her friends who were busy snickering at her she forced a sheepish grin and shook her head. “Sorry, Renae, what were you saying?”
“Where were you?” asked Lifeline with her usual reading of her roommate.
“School,” admitted Elaine finally. “Ah had an interesting run-in with Kodiak first week of the term is all. Sorry Ah’m so lost in thought, it’s the holidays. What were you asking, Renae?”
“I was wondering if you knew how long the flight would be delayed with this Code Twelve thing Agent Studly called. All the girl at the counter will tell me is that all out-bounds are delayed to a quote ‘facility problem’ unquote.”
“Oh, that,” Doc replied. “Honestly, Ah wasn’t expecting Agent Twining to do that. A Code Twelve halts all traffic out of the airport and puts a guard at all the entrances. It’ll last until they catch the guy, unfortunately.”
“Maybe one of us should call the school to let them know we may be delayed…” thought Maggie out loud. “We may not be back in time.”
“Our flight isn’t for another hour,” Dee piped up. “How many places could they be hiding?” Renae snorted in amusement and pointed out the window.
“See all those planes out there? First they’ll search all these concourses, then they go out to each plane and check them. Meanwhile all those planes up there have been waiting to land and they might be running out of fuel. Ours is probably one of them. But if you thought the lines through security were bad, imagine how much worse it will be with airplanes that can’t take off.”
“Zeit meshugge?!” the young girl gasped.
The opening sound track to the Tron 2.0 video game began to drift from Elaine’s purse. “What…?” started Dee as Doc dug the phone out. “That’s a cool phone, Doc, where…?
“One sec, Dee,” Elaine answered as she accepted the call. “Yes Carmen?”
“I will say this for you, Miss, you never ask for anything less than the miraculous, do you?”
“Only of those who can accomplish them,” Doc shot back with a smile. “What do you have for me?
“Your victim is Oliver Wendell Platt, attorney at law. He was a member of the Law Firm of Donaldson, Fielding, Mitchell and Stern, a New York based concern specializing in Paranormal Patents and holding companies to exploit them,” the computer replied. “The school’s cell site switch tells me that firm is one of four that specialize in Patent Law which have been contacted by Miss Goodkind’s cell phone.”
“Phase?” demanded Doc, causing a worried glance to be shared amongst her friends. “She’s wrapped up in this?”
“I can’t say, Miss. Only that her phone was in contact with this firm and three others specializing in this area of law. It is not outside the realm of possibility that she had loaned her phone to someone else on school grounds for these calls.”
“Yeah, and Ah might be a member of the Swedish Bikini Team in disguise,” snapped Doc. “Find out if Phase had any direct contact with our victim, Carmen or any other suspicious activity before or after any such calls. Text me the spreadsheet once you have the data compiled.”
“Need I remind you, Miss, this hardly counts as circumstantial evidence….”
“Yes Miss,” the computer replied before hanging up, a tone of weary acceptance in its voice.
“Phase is in this somehow?” demanded Lifeline.
“Never mind Phase!” snapped Dee. “Cool phone! Where can I get one?”
Doc chuckled as she offered up the device to the eager freshman. “You can’t for about six months. This is a final production prototype. It’s called an iPhone. Last semester in applied electronics we had a guest lecturer, one Steve Jobs of Apple, and we had to come up with applications for the device when it hit commercial release. The top five got a prototype. Mine was number three.”
Reverb’s eyes glazed over as she watched Dee play with the phone. “I must have one…”
“So, Phase is involved with our victim somehow?” asked Maggie, steering the conversation back onto its original topic.
“Our victim is a Patent Lawyer,” Doc replied, collecting up her phone and returning it to her purse, much to the dismay of the two freshmen. “His firm was contacted by Phase’s cell phone at the school. She also contacted three other firms. Ah’ll know the details of how many and when once Carmen shoots that text message over to me.”
“Well, we knew that she was putting together a holding company,” Reverb interjected. “It makes sense she’d be talking with lawyers and law firms, trying to get the best rates…” She trailed off at Elaine’s raised eyebrow.
“One of them is worried about a couple of thousand bucks in difference between this firm and that firm?”
“You don’t get rich by spending money,” Maggie chided her. “She’s probably vicious in an after-Christmas sale too. It is odd this connection all of a sudden, but we don’t have anything yet that links our vic to Phase.”
Elaine chewed on her lower lip in thought. “No, and it’s highly unlikely we’d get a chance to paw through his personal effects to find a connection. The real question is, why did someone go to the trouble of hiring paranormals to kill him?”
Dee glanced around to make certain the girls weren’t being eavesdropped on. “She is a Goodkind. Maybe it’s all about making mutants look bad?”
“They’re cutthroat,” mused Maggie as she shook her head. “But they’re not that cutthroat. No, somebody wanted this guy dead, and right now there are only two people in the world who know why; the guy who hired the assassin and the assassin himself.”
“So,” declared Elaine as she stood up. “We have to find the killer first.”
In a quiet corner of the concourse, Elaine led the group to a camera that was minding a clutch of vending machines in an alcove. There Doc made something of a show of leaning against the wall under the camera, out of its range as she dug into her purse. She removed a stick of gum and began to chew it while continuing to rummage. “Anybody look’n, Maggie? Dee, buy something.”
“I don’t want anything out of a machine! Do you know…?”
“Buy me a Coke then, Ah’ll drink it, just don’t look suspicious!”
“All clear,” managed Lifeline around her chuckle.
While Dee fed the machine a dollar as if it would bite her, Elaine finally removed a small box from her purse. “Been look’n for a place to field trial this,” muttered Nalley as she dug the gum out of her mouth and pressed it to the bottom of the box. “Reverb, a little luck would be nice here.”
“What are you trying to do?” as the girl, her eyes never leaving the device.
“Video travels as a series of pulsed electric signals through coax cable,” Doc replied, flipping a switch on the side of the box and looking up at the camera. “There’s always some bleed through in the cable. Ah’m gonna try and get this box to stick to that camera, right next to the cable. This is just a receiver that will then re-transmit the signal of the cable to mah phone.”
Renae licked her lips and concentrated. “Throw it,” she ordered.
A soft toss had the box stuck to the camera right next to the cable. Doc took the Coke from the machine as Dee was hesitant to touch it. “Thank ya’ll, ladies. Now, let’s see if we can put a face to our killers.”
In the most private corner they could arrange, a tall, pale man and a tall, paler woman in matching leather trench coats tried to be inconspicuous. The man was in his thirties, with slicked back Nordic blond hair and oversized sunglasses that were supposed to be ‘European’ styled. His partner, a lithe, raven-haired ice queen in a severe pony tail kept a watch as he dialed frantically on his cell phone. At last the line connected to a very angry baritone that dripped a Sicilian accent. “What are you doing calling me?”
“There’s been a complication,” the man hissed into his phone. “The airport is locked down and all the flights have been delayed.”
“So you’re an idiot, what do you expect me to do about it?” the voice demanded.
“The officials have photographs, and the only way they would know who and what happened is if other paranormals are involved.”
The line was quiet for a long moment before the voice returned. “Ok, so, what, you’re activating the clause? You know that cuts your fees in half?”
The man sighed and nodded. “Yes, I know, and at this point I don’t see any way around it.”
“Is it done?”
“Yeah,” the man declared, a bit of wounded professional pride creeping into his tone. “It’s done.”
“Fine. You’ve got twenty minutes. Don’t get caught.”
A quartet of school girls clustered around a prototype phone, viewing a small screen display of a security camera watching the comings and goings of a smoking lounge. The girls watched overweight businessmen puff cigars and frazzled housewives in the midst of holiday travel chain smoke cigarettes, until a couple in trench coats and oversized sunglasses made their way to the clear plastic wall and stared intently at the far end of the concourse while the female made a production of smoking a clove cigarette.
“Wow, why don’t they just wear t-shirts that have ‘international hit men’ written on them?” observed Reverb.
“There goes Oliver,” murmured Loophole as the woman made a flat palmed gesture at the wall then quickly snuffed out the cigarette. The two rushed out, the man piling into their witness, spilling his bag and exchanging a few sharp words as he did so. “Yep, Boris and Natasha here are our bad guys.”
“Well, they’ll be easy to find, that’s for sure,” chuckled Maggie. “But how do we convince them to spill the beans to a collection of boarding-school girls? Between the four of us I’d say we’ve got all the intimidation factor of a soaking wet poodle.”
“One thing at a time,” replied Doc softly. “Ah’m guessing the woman is a telekinetic and the man is our package deal psychic. Let’s see what Carmen can find out about these two first, then we’ll figure out how to deal with them.”
“What are we doing after lunch?” asked Dee pointedly. “These two are killers and you know how much trouble we’ll get into with Mrs. Carson…!”
“Our beloved headmistress need never know about our involvement,” soothed Doc. “And, if we’re clever, neither will Boris and Natasha here.” Doc made an adjustment to the phone and held it to her ear. “Carmen, I’m uploading the pictures we got of the killers, Ah need…”
Doc would have continued but the computer hastily cut her off. “Miss, I have new information on your victim. You will need to know this at once!”
Elaine frowned and took the phone from her ear and activated the speaker phone feature after a quick glance around to insure privacy. “Alright, Carmen, Ah have you on speaker, what’s this new information?”
“I was able to get access to Mr. Platt’s personal computer at Donaldson, Fielding, Mitchell and Stern. I can find no evidence that Phase ever spoke with him directly, however a variety of emails between Mr. Platt and senior management at the firm indicate a number of suspicious activities.”
“Like what?” demanded Dee. “Are they cooking the books or something?”
“It is actually far more dangerous, Miss Castle,” the voice on the phone replied. “Donaldson, Fielding, Mitchell and Stern have a number of questionable business dealings with companies that are known to the FBI as being front companies for Organized Crime. Worse, the patent Mr. Platt was most recently trying to acquire was patent 4857376345-2006, short titled A Chemical Process to Detect the Status of a Subject’s Meta-gene Complex and Neutralize It.”
“What?” the girls demanded at once.
“Indeed,” the computer replied. “Now, from what I have been able to find out in the emails, this process has not been successful in neutralizing or deactivating an active meta-gene complex. Well, not without killing the lab mice it has been experimented on. But it does reliably detect whether a sample of blood has an active meta-gene complex. Further, I surmise that the process, as is, could be weaponized without much difficulty.”
“I can see why the Mob would want to get their hands on something like that…” muttered Lifeline. “Every hero in the world…”
“No, Miss Finson, you’re incorrect,” the Computer interrupted. “The Firm is actively involved in suppressing the patent. Further, I’ve been able to ascertain that the inventor, one John Holman of Genetix Labs, which is a subsidiary of Goodkind Industries I might add, has been found murdered in his Sacramento home. It was also ransacked and the police have not recovered any computer equipment from the crime scene.”
“Why would the Mob suppress something like this?” demanded Reverb almost to herself. “They could use this against heroes for their heists…”
Elaine shook her head. “Escalation,” she replied, cutting off further musing. “The Mob uses a lot of paranormals as leg breakers, enforcers and other straight up soldier work. If they got their hands on it, then so would Law Enforcement as a matter of course. That makes their paranormals less effective if Joe Cop can go toe to toe with someone like, say, Strongarm and have a lethal deterrent that evens the playing field.”
“But, if this thing is suppressed and disappears, the Status Quo remains unchanged,” Maggie interjected, picking up where her roommate left off. “Now imagine this thing entering public domain and somebody like Jobe starting to tinker with it?”
A collective shudder ran through the girls. As they considered this, Carmen’s voice drifted from the phone. “Just a moment. Miss, I think you should be aware that I've picked up a security alert on your Concourse at Gate 2."
"What kind of alert...?" Elaine started to the confused looks of her friends, but the answer was lost by to the distant sounds of screams and gun fire. Doc's head snapped around to take in a dozen men in black paramilitary-style uniforms and ski masks bursting from one of the doors that led down to the tarmac. The crowd between the door and Elaine slowly became a mob as the people in it perceived the threat and began to panic to get away from the danger. "Get up against the wall, now!" she shouted, quickly suiting actions to words as she and Maggie got the two freshmen pinned into a corner between the gate counter and the glass wall that looked out onto the tarmac.
"Ah count twelve bad guys with automatic rifles coming up from the tarmac!" Loophole informed her partner as the pistol appeared in her hand as if by magic. Renae quickly glanced out the window and struggled to remind herself she wasn't in the school's combat simulator.
"Two SUVs and a step van outside and at least eight more down there," she panted. "No escape that way."
"What have we got to work with?" demanded Maggie over the rising panic of the mob that was rushing past the girls and their patch of relative safety.
"My probability manipulation means luck will be on our side and your powers will work better," Reverb reported instantly. While she was generally one to charge in head first in a simulation, the flood of adrenaline into her system and the cold reality that Lifeline and Loophole had a whole year on her to master their powers told the rational part of her mind her best chance for survival was to follow their lead as much as she could. "And I've got the force field generator Loophole made for me in my bag."
"Mah pistol and twenty two bullets," piped in Loophole. "Ah've got mah ASP and some odds and ends in mah purse. Reverb, get me that generator." As Renae scrambled for her purse, Elaine locked eyes with Dee and rubbed her arm in encouragement. "Take it easy, Fractious. Keep your head and we'll still make that flight, right?"
Dee's eyes were wide with fear, but she didn't flinch at being touched and nodded quickly. "Su...sure. Do, do we have to get involved? We're not that far from the tunnel..."
Elaine shook her head. "Ah swore the oath, Ah have to. More to the point, if they're herding people that way, there could be more of them. Never get into a mob. Lifeline? What have ya'll got?"
"Nothing magic wise I can cast quickly, even if I had my gear. I do have my power, but you know I hate using it that way."
"Here!" announced Reverb as she clamored back with a device that resembled a large flash light.
"Can't be helped, Lifeline," Doc told her. "Fractious, Ah want you to count to one hundred slowly. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, then Ah want you to use your power on that step van. See if you can make it explode, ok?" Dee swallowed nervously several times before she nodded. Elaine checked the device and handed it back to Reverb. "This will run for twenty minutes, minus a bit for every hit it takes. It'll stop anything Ah saw these guys having, but don't turn it on till you have to. You keep Fractious safe and try to focus that good luck on Lifeline and me."
“Hey, Gene, got some customers that want to talk with you,” Mitch shouted over the din of Led Zeppelin’s The Immigrant Song that was echoing through the multiple bays of the business, still easily picked out over the din of air tools and a cacophony of other sounds of the thriving concern. A painfully-thin, balding man with a pony tail extracted himself from the engine compartment of a Toyota with a blown head gasket among its other woes, to look into the customer lounge beyond his ‘customer service agent’.
Mitch had that movie-star quality that made people trust him and what he told them, and the entrepreneur had done well to keep a fair mechanic clean and out front to work the new customers. Standing behind him were a matched pair of suits and sunglasses that screamed ‘government agents’. Gene did a quick mental check list and was fairly confident nobody in law enforcement was looking for him, so that probably meant the IRS had taken exception to a couple of his deductions. Wiping his hands on the rag from his back pocket that did nothing to clean the thick layers of engine grease on his hands, the businessman went to see what having the attention of his government was going to cost him this time.
“What can I do for you boys?” he asked guardedly as he reached conversational distance. Neither agent offered to shake hands, and of the two, the black guy seemed to be the chatty one.
“That’s what the sign says,” growled the mechanic.
“I’m special agent Vincent, and this is my partner agent Dent,” he said producing a badge. “We have some questions for you, is there somewhere private we can talk?”
The mechanic dug into his overall pocket and produced a cigarette from a pack of camels, which he proceeded to light as he leaned on the door frame between the lounge and the shop proper. “Unless you boys have a warrant, we can talk right here. And if you don’t have a warrant you better talk fast because I’m about to tell you to get out of my place of business.”
Vincent and Dent shared a glance. “Do we need a warrant, Mr. Nalley?”
“Son, I’ve been intimidated by professionals, you and Tweedle-dumb there aren’t even playing triple-A, so if you’ve got something to say, spit it out.”
It seemed that today Agent Dent was playing Good Cop, and he stepped forward, all smiles. “Mr. Nalley, we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here. Agent Vincent and I are with the Department of Paranormal Affairs. We’ve got some good news about your daughter’s education.”
“And what, pray,” drawled the mechanic around his cigarette, “does the Mutant Department have to do with my daughter?”
“Department of Paranormal Affairs,” corrected Dent with a glorious smile. He held up a brown mailer type envelope with several voided post marks directing it to NASA HQ in Houston and, in red, a much larger stamp of Top Secret. “Do you recognize this, sir?”
Gene took in his daughter’s pinched, precise hand writing and sighed. “God damn kids,” he swore, before turning and yelling into the shop with considerable volume. “Elaine Ethel Nalley!”
The seventies power ballad went silent along with the rest of the shop, so that from the far side could be heard a small voice that muttered, “Oh shit.” A grease-stained face peered over the fender of a rusted out hulk. “Yes sir?”
“Git your greasy butt over here!” A slip of a girl in jeans and t-shirt appeared from around the wreck, tall and awkward for her age, and obviously self-conscious about it, hurried over wiping her hands as she did so. “Now, Elaine, I’ll admit I’m getting on in years and my memory isn’t what it was, but did I not expressly tell you that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was not interested in a fourteen-year-old girl’s opinions about their new booster system?”
The girls head, surrounded in a halo of bright red hair, bobbled in the affirmative. “Yes, sir, you did, sir.”
“Then perhaps you could explain to me how these nice government agents have your thesis on man’s next space system in their possession?”
Seeking something to do with her hands, Elaine subconsciously held her left index finger between her right index finger and thumb. It struck Agent Dent as something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and it was all he could do to keep in a chuckle. “Ya’ll didn’t say Ah couldn’t mail it, Daddy, just that they weren’t interested…”
The mechanic clenched and unclenched a fist, and visibly counted to ten in his head, obviously used to this. “What have I told you about nitpicking, Elaine?”
“Actually, Mr. Nalley,” interrupted Dent before what was obviously an old feud between father and daughter could erupt. “It turns out NASA is very interested in these ideas. They forwarded the findings to us and based on our research, it would seem your daughter is remarkably…gifted…for her age.”
The girls’ face relaxed in vindication and a furtive glance at her father silently told him, told you so… Her father on the other hand traded glances between his offspring and the government men. “Are you telling me my daughter is a mutant?”
“That would be subject to testing,” Vincent replied, cutting back into the conversation. “But the fact that she wrote out an engine design based on a non-classified article in Popular Science that omitted certain key details and still managed to significantly increase the efficiency of the motor certainly points that way.”
“Your government is understandably anxious that talents like your daughter’s are nurtured,” Dent added. “There are special schools…”
“My government was forcibly overthrown one hundred and fifty some odd years ago,” the mechanic replied. “And it’s very touching that the Federal Government is so interested in my daughter’s education now that they see a way to exploit her…”
“The school we’re talking about is actually a private school and unaffiliated with the United States Government, sir,” Dent interrupted. He opened the mailer and pulled out a glossy catalogue of an ivy-covered brick building in spring with a geodesic dome behind it, emblazoned with the words Whateley Academy 2005-2006 School Year Course Catalogue.
“Looks expensive,” muttered Gene as he watched his daughter eagerly flip through the book. “Advanced Topics in Antimatter Power Systems?” he demanded, raising an eyebrow at the two agents after one of the classes caught his eye. “They teach that stuff in high school?”
Dent allowed himself a chuckle. “I think you’ll find there isn’t a finer school on the face of the planet, sir. And as far as the costs involved, our superiors have included some forms from the Ty West Scholarship Foundation and we’ve been assured your daughter would qualify.”
The older man mulled this over, one eye watching the excitement with which his only daughter flipped through the catalogue. He’d always known she was smarter than he was; this he’d always attributed to her mother. Now he knew there were deeper genetic issues than simply marrying a woman who was more intelligent than he was. Still, despite her quirks, Gene loved his only daughter, no matter what label some over-educated labcoat put on her. Grinding out the cigarette, he locked eyes with both agents. “Elaine, why don’t you go call your mother and give her the good news?”
After she’d rushed off, practically skipping in excitement, the mechanic speared Dent with a greasy finger, ruining the man’s suit. “Now, you listen to me son, and you listen good. If anything happens to my daughter, if she suddenly goes missing, or has an ‘accident’ or any other smart little term boys like you have for disappearing folks, if you hurt a hair on her head, I will hunt the two of you down and I will kill you in the worst way I can come up with.”
“As we’re all Southern Gentlemen here,” Vincent replied, lifting the finger off his partner’s suit and using the gesture to shake the father’s hand, despite the grease. “I can tell you on my honor sir, anyone who brings harm to your daughter will have all three of us to answer to.”
Loophole’s heart was pounding as she crouched by the counter where she and her friends were hiding. She was breathing deeply, mentally preparing herself for what she was about to do, trying to ignore the distant cries of battle in her mind. A glance at her steely-eyed best friend let her know she was not alone in the coming conflict, and that helped with the fear.
The glance also told her that the crowds had stampeded their way back into the tunnel except for the unfortunates being held captive by the gunmen: there were no innocents who would be harmed. Only her allies and her enemies, other human beings she was about to employ deadly force against.
Finally she knew it was time.
Taking a deep breath and cursing the laws that cost her the element of surprise, Loophole yelled at the top of her lungs, “Federal Officer! Throw down your weapons and put your hands in the air!” Jeering laughter and a hail of machine gun fire was her only response to the required challenge. Fortunately, the counter had been very sturdily constructed and none of the rounds penetrated.
“Here goes nothing,” she muttered as she looked out with her power. Ten feet away were a double clutch of metal-and-vinyl chairs to wait at the gate, then another twenty feet of open corridor, ten feet of chairs, and five feet further up the walkway was the next counter and place of cover.
Geometry danced behind her eyes for a moment, then her legs unfolded from the crouch into a dead run. Her head snapped down the concourse as she picked out her first target, the goon closest to the counter she was running for, as her feet counted the steps. He reacted late, the three rounds he got off ten degrees behind her present position and widening, as her legs ate the distance in slow motion. The pistol barked in her hand exactly on mark, the .45 caliber bullet slamming into the man’s right shoulder, its angle perfect to arc into the ball joint between shoulder and arm, shattering it.
The force of the round spun him away from Elaine, and once his back was turned the pistol barked again, this time entering the back of the man’s knee. The joint exploded in a shower of bone, gore and meat as the round over-penetrated and sank harmlessly into another airline’s counter. The man was thrown to the ground, his rifle sailing from his hands and landing exactly where Elaine’s diving tumble brought her to a stop.
“Gene filth!” screamed one of the other gunmen over the agonized screams of his fellow as he promptly emptied the machine gun fruitlessly into the counter. Lifeline seized the distraction her partner had given her, creeping behind the counter until she was only a few dozen feet from the man.
With all of his attention as well as that of his compatriots focused on Loophole, Lifeline darted from the cover and charged. The force of her momentum allowed her to bowl him over as both hands caught hold of him and her power sucked the life force from him, augmenting her own. The sudden increase in strength allowed her to pick up the now-wizened victim and fling him across the huddled and terrified hostages. His body absorbed the bullets meant for Lifeline as she dove behind the counter for cover. “Throw down your weapons and you’ll live to face trial!” she shouted over the gunfire. “This is your last warning!”
Elaine shifted her pistol to her off hand and picked up the fallen M-16 with her right. Outside of a war film, she’d never seen one before, let alone handled one. Her power reached out once more, wrapping itself around the weapon, letting her understand the system, the care that its designers had poured into it with the intent of protecting American Ideals, and their dismay at its misuse. Her vision quickly cleared from visions of rice paddies in Southeast Asia, as she grasped the system.
A woman screamed as one of the gunmen snatched her up and held a pistol to her head. “Anybody pulls anything else and this bitch is dead!” he screamed. “Now, you two freaks surrender right the fuck now or I’m going to redecorate in brain matter!”
Fractious found her teeth, chattering in fear, came to a sudden halt as she heard the threat to an innocent woman. She found her thoughts drifting back to the great lengths the Nalleys had gone to make her feel welcome in their home over the holiday, their rushing out to buy a menorah for her to light, and even the abysmal latkes Mrs. Nalley had made just for her. Suddenly the stories of battle that the holiday held for remembrance were not just stories, but horrible realities her ancestors had experienced just like what she was going through now.
She looked over and saw her friend crouching behind a countertop, preparing herself to do battle again, and felt a tremendous feeling of pride - and shame - well up in her. She turned to the window. She had never felt so focused in her entire life. While barely thinking about it, reality split around the step van as her power reached out and altered it. The gas tank ruptured, and the van was engulfed in a massive fireball that cracked the window with the force of the explosion.
As the explosion lit up the concourse, Loophole seized her chance. Rolling out of the cover of the counter, she brought the rifle up as a hundred experts whispered to her muscles, telling them how to move. The rifle spoke once, and the hostage taker’s head opened like a watermelon, yanking him backwards and pulling the woman down with him unharmed.
Bullets ricocheting around her, Elaine rolled back into the cover of the counter. “Who else wants to play rough?” she shouted as she frantically replaced the magazine in her pistol with a fresh one. “Ya’ll still have a chance to live through this!”
One of the hostages, a soldier on his way to a duty station with his hands behind his head, chuckled softly. “Maybe you guys ought to consider giving up?”
“Shut up!” snarled the new leader, trying to divide his attention between the two counters. “You two, rush the unarmed one!”
As she heard the command and the footsteps to carry it out, Reverb swallowed her stomach and clicked the flashlight shaped device on. She stood up and let her own power reach out to mimic Lifeline’s new strength. Picking up a loose stool from behind the counter she yelled, “What makes you think there’s only two of us?” and hurled it at the two who were advancing on Lifeline’s counter.
The metal stool crashed into the side of the head of the nearest one, the metal bending in an earsplitting screech, the man’s head collapsing in an unrecognizable jumble of mangled bone and flesh. The impact pulled him off his feet and had him fall into his partner in a heap. Loophole’s M-16 spoke four times, assuring neither man would move again.
Grinning in triumph Reverb watched the bullets vanish harmlessly into Loophole’s force field before she sank back behind the counter. As she did, she saw a murderous rage light in the eyes of the man firing at her. “Loophole, one’s going to shoot the hostages!” she screamed, realizing as she did so that Elaine had no shot.
It was the smell of coffee brewing that woke up Elaine from a fairly sound sleep. Since her combat final, she was having trouble keeping up with how her body was changing. Most distressingly she’d lost the ability to sleep in, one of her few vices, but her body seemed adamant about only needing five to six hours of sleep a night. A look at the clock beside her bed told her it was nearly six, which meant Mom was up and brewing the coffee.
Her being a school teacher had meant that Mrs. Nalley had an excuse to be up at what Elaine had always thought an un-Godly hour. Elaine lay in her bed for a few moments, listening to Maggie snoring on the cot before deciding to rise, giving a playful rub to her bedmate - a plushy frog she’d had since she was a little girl - that her friend had teased her mercilessly about.
Doc pulled on a sports bra before pulling her halter top back on and added a bath robe to ward off the early morning chill. Her bunny slippers kept her feet warm as she crept by her brother’s room. The loud snores from within assured Steve wouldn’t be up for hours. Creeping downstairs to the kitchen, Elaine found her eyes adjusting far more rapidly to the bright lights there as she found her mom in the middle of laying out several dishes and melting butter in a frying pan.
“Good morning!” Mrs. Nalley called cheerfully, as she paused to force her daughter into an embrace and pulled her taller daughter down to kiss her forehead. “Sleep well?”
“Coffee,” muttered Elaine with a lopsided grin as she disentangled herself towards the pot. “What are you cooking?” she asked as she poured into the NASA mug Dr. Allen had sent last Christmas from the Cape. “Smells like Johnny cakes…”
“No, no,” Mrs. Nalley enthused as she turned back to the food processor. “This is a Jewish dish for your friend Dee. They’re called latkes, but they’re fairly similar. I’ve made a couple of alterations though, if she wants to keep that beautiful skin clear she should avoid deep fried anything.”
Elaine heaped sugar and milk into her mug. “Ah don’t know, mom, seems like traditional food and ‘Ah made changes’ wouldn’t go together.”
“Oh, it’s nothing substantial,” her mother replied over the angry buzz of the appliance. “Just pan frying over oil and I’m going to use corn flower instead of wheat.”
Doc looked over the recipe for a moment while taking that welcome first sip of coffee. “So, you’re really making Johnny cakes and you’re just going to call them latkes?”
“Hush,” her mother scolded with a smile. “How are things at school?” she asked, turning back to the stove. “Your last email mentioned something about new classes? Isn’t awfully late in the semester for that?”
“Classification,” corrected Elaine around her snort of laughter. “They changed their minds about what kind of mutant Ah am.” She took a gulp of coffee and managed not to burn her tongue as the caffeine began to work its magic. “They were pretty darned sneaky about it, too.”
The frying pan hissed as Mrs. Nalley poured the pancake-like batter onto it. “So, what is this new classification? You’re not a, what did they call it? Gadgeteer any more?”
“Ah am,” Elaine affirmed. “What they can’t agree on is how they’re going to rank it. Officially Ah’m an Esper-3g, Deviser-1, and an Exemplar-3.”
“Would you care to put all that into English, dear?” her mother replied, idly poking at the edges of the cake to keep it from sticking. “Or Latin if you’d rather. I’m always happy to help you with your Latin.”
“Well,” Doc drawled, ordering her thoughts to words that she was sure her mother would understand. Not to say that Mrs. Nalley wasn’t intelligent, more that she was not as up to date on mutant terminology. “Under the Yerunkle-Corbin system which is what is in use now, Gadgeteering is just a specialization of the Esper trait, or the ability to pre-cognitively perceive an end product and reverse engineer the device from the vision.”
“So, they start with seeing the end product and then make it?” asked her mother as she flipped the cake. “Didn’t one of those Science Fiction authors you read so much say something like that?”
“Isaac Asimov who said, ‘Seeing something done is halfway to doing it yourself,’” she replied.
“And they don’t like that idea?”
Elaine shrugged her shoulders and took another sip of coffee. “It’s not a question of like or dislike, Mom, just specifics. Now, Dr. Hewley and Dr. Aranis in the Powers Theory department are working their own classification system in which Ah would be a Gadgeteer-6e with Gadgeteer being its own power classification along with Deviser being its own.”
“Elaine,” sighed her mother from the stove.
“Sorry, sorry, Ah haven’t had much coffee yet. Anyways, the new part is the Exemplar-3. An Exemplar is a super human, better muscles, better reflexes, better recall and memory and such.”
The cake came off the skillet to make way for the next. “I thought you looked a good bit more filled out. From what I read, these exemplars are supposed to be spectacularly good looking.”
“It’s the BIT, the Body Image Template, and yes, mamma, Ah’ve got one.”
“Well, don’t let it go to your head,” her mother cautioned. She turned and Elaine had learned years ago that from the expression on her face a lecture was coming. Fortunately, it was headed off by a sleepy-eyed Dee Castle wandering in, rubbing sleep sand from her eyes.
“I thought I smelled something burning and I was worried there was a fire,” she muttered, obviously not a morning person.
“You’re just in time, dear!” exclaimed Mrs. Nalley as she picked up the plate that had the cake on it. “Happy Hanukah! I made you some latkes to have something special.”
Dee’s face lit up until her eyes made contact with the obviously over-cooked patty. As if it would bite her she picked it up and took a cautious nibble. As her taste buds informed her brain that what she was eating only bore the most cursory resemblance to the traditional food, Dee fought to keep the look of unpleasant surprise off her face. Elaine only just suppressed a snicker at her dilemma as Dee frantically told herself, It’s the thought that counts, it’s the thought that counts!!!
Loophole launched herself from her hiding place, knowing as she did so she was probably sealing her own fate. She thought of all the things she had yet to say to her parents, or how they would deal with her own death. She regretted the grief she would cause her family, but even though she didn’t know these people she knew she could not stay hunched down and safe while they were slaughtered.
Bullets popped near her ears as they missed their mark but broke the sound barrier within her hearing. The distance opened up as the counter no longer blocked her sight to the madman Reverb had screamed about. Time slowed to a crawl as her arm came up, desperate to at least stop this last one before the ferryman of the River Styx came to collect another passenger.
Elaine’s legs pumped but already the logarithms playing out in her mind told her there was no way she would make it to safety. The inches ticked away in lifetimes before at last the muzzle of the .45 was in the right alignment. It barked a final time as another of the terrorists’ knees was destroyed. He toppled right as he finished squeezing the trigger, the rifle’s muzzle spitting death in an arch that took it away from his intended victims and across two of his compatriots. The three fell as time suddenly seemed to snap back into normal. Loophole grinned defiance at her executioners, oddly at peace with herself and ready to die.
Suddenly she was enveloped by a powerful set of arms and spun about as the bullets meant for her bounced harmlessly off the gleaming gold and jade armor of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Picked up as if weightless, Loophole was carried to the safety of the far counter behind which Fractious and Reverb were crouching. “Stay here,” a deep voice rumbled from over her, “We’ll handle these trouble makers.”
Elaine scrambled around in time to see a woman who resembled the bust of Nefertari come to life make a gesture, and the hostages were surrounded in a dome of softly glowing light. The man who had just saved Loophole’s life, a tall, dark-skinned, hulking wall of muscle waded back into the remaining terrorists, bullets bouncing off armor and skin alike while his fists felled his enemies like wheat before a scythe. “It’s the Golden Scarab and the Atlanta Guardians!” she exclaimed, her eyes glued to the tremendous beating the leader of the group was handing out.
“There’s four more outside,” Fractious added, her eyes glued to the carnage. “That looks really painful!”
As quickly as it started, the fight was over, the surviving terrorists moaning in pain from either beatings or wounds Lifeline and Loophole had inflicted. In short order the leaders of the Atlanta Guardians had them in handcuffs and the girls rose from their places of safety to trade glances with the two heroes. Walking over from his task of securing the men, the Scarab set his hands on his hips and his expressive mouth pulled into a frown. “What possessed you girls into trying to put a stop to this?”
Loophole sighed and pulled herself up to her full height to face down the hero. It didn’t help much. “Title 16 Annotated Code of the United States,” she snapped, “specifically 16-421-389a, which states…”
The Golden Scarab’s frown deepened. “You’re an Air Marshal?” he demanded, his keen Exemplar mind calling up the referenced code of law. Loophole presented her badge.
“On behalf the Federal Government allow me to thank ya’ll and the other Guardians for your assistance, Golden Scarab, Nefertari. And, as the senior agent on scene Ah declare your assistance necessary, prudent, and in good faith as pertaining to subsection 21j.”
A grin split across the hero’s face and he roared with laughter. “Well, thank you very much and pass along to Mrs. Carson for me that she gave you the perfect codename, Loophole.”
Nefertari rolled her eyes and pointedly elbowed her husband in the ribs where the armor wouldn’t protect him. “What my husband is trying and failing so spectacularly to say is that you girls took an awful risk and worked together beautifully. The school should be proud of all of you, and I will make certain my husband sends a letter to that effect to the school.”
“Thank you!” gushed Reverb in obvious relief.
“I have healing powers,” Lifeline volunteered. “Should I…?”
Once more the scowl returned to the Golden Scarab’s face. “We won’t find anything on them for proof, but I’d bet my life these idiots are from Humanity First! That being the case, no, we should respect their feelings and make sure they feel every little second of agony rather than use mutant powers on them. It’s only right.”
In the solitude of the Men’s Room, the man known to the Literary Club only as ‘Boris’ was frantically changing his shirt from a sedate white linen into a one whose colorful floral pattern made his stomach churn. His partner ‘Natasha’ was in the ladies room next door, also changing into the fashion victim cliché known as ‘tourist’. The Bluetooth headset in his ear was telling him who it was that had destroyed their perfect record and gotten their photographs posted all over creation.
Still, a professional planned for these types of set backs, and Boris prided himself on being a professional. Both he and his partner had several different identities they could assume based on the circumstances, and the contacts to get out of whatever scrapes they got into.
Right now, one of them was telling the Hit Man something that made his teeth grind in frustration. To have an operation as well planned as this one had been be upset by a quartet of schoolgirls. Firmly in his new persona, Boris disconnected the line as he and his partner linked up to boldly walk towards the MARTA station at the far end of the terminal. From there, they’d simply catch a train to make their escape while the airport security fruitlessly searched for two people who didn’t exist any more. Boris’s hair was now black and he seemed to have gained ten years and fifty pounds, while Natasha had changed into an equally horrid off the rack outfit and was suddenly nine months pregnant.
The two plastered smiles on their faces and boldly got into the line to get into the rail station. “Did you find out who we’re going to kill for this?” Natasha growled around her smile.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he grimaced back through his own gesture. “The only other mutants to come through the concourse today were four schoolgirls from Whateley Academy.”
“Schoolgirls?” she hissed in disbelief. “No, no, whoever it was must not have flashed their MID…”
“Howdy,” greeted ‘Boris’ as he helpfully let his ‘wife’ precede him through the checkpoint. The officer only nodded as he glanced at the printout on his clipboard and unknowingly waved the two fugitives through. “I wish I were,” he hissed, once they were on the escalator up to the train platform. “But this was far too White Hat for someone creeping through without scanning their MID. If that were the case, they wouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place.”
Natasha considered this for a long moment as the commuter train pulled into the station. “All right, who are these soon-to-be-dead girls?”
“Fractious, Lifeline, Loophole, and Reverb,” Boris replied. “I already have my contact making in-roads into Whateley to find out more on them.” Natasha smiled a cruel smile as she heavily sat in the formed plastic seat and the train pulled out of the station.
“Good,” she purred her mind full of unpleasant plans. “Good…”
“This is your Captain speaking, on behalf of the crew we’d like to thank you for choosing Delta this afternoon. We’ve reached our cruising altitude of twenty two thousand feet, and we expect to be landing on time at Logan International at 6:36 this evening. I’ve turned off the fasten seat belt sign so you’re free to move about the cabin and make use of your electronic devices. Again, thank you for choosing Delta and enjoy your flight. Flight attendants will be serving refreshments shortly.”
Elaine got a bit more comfortable in one of the massive leather seats she and her friends were making use of in first class with the gratitude of the airline. She smiled broadly. Life was definitely good. It was only a matter of time before Agent Twining caught the assassins that were doubtlessly trapped somewhere in Hartsfield, and the letter of commendation he’d be sending ahead to Whateley would cut off any ire Mrs. Carson might have about the incident in the concourse.
Of course, being told what a great job she and her friends had done by a hero of Nefertari’s stature was just icing on the proverbial cake. If the two businessmen they were sharing first class with were upset to have a group of chatty schoolgirls in their private domain, the little bottles of scotch the flight attendants were handing out should ease their troubles. “I could get used to this,” murmured Lifeline beside her over the creak of the leather. “It sure beats the tar out of how we got to Atlanta.”
“Coach wasn’t that bad,” chided Elaine.
“Compared to this?” her friend shot back.
“Point taken,” laughed Doc. “And it’s nice that we’ll get some props back at school.”
“You know Carson’s going to have kittens about this,” Maggie warned her.
“There’s nothing she can do about it,” Elaine drawled back around a sip from her coke. “The regulations clearly state we’re only subject to disciplinary actions for things that occur off school grounds if school is in session and we’re on a pass. School isn’t in session until Tuesday, and we were nine hundred some odd miles away from campus. And we’ve got official letters of thank you not only from the Atlanta Guardians but the Department of Paranormal Affairs and the TSA saying what a great job we did! There’s nothing she can do!”
Maggie swirled her ginger ale in her hand as she locked eyes with her best friend. “You know, I trust in your power just like I trust in mine, but you know Carson will find something to say. She has to have the last word.”
“Well,” groused Doc, “For once Ah hope it’s ‘nice job’.”
Dee and Renae wandered over from their seats, Dee clutching Doc’s iPhone that Elaine had loaned to the two to play with. “Doc, you got a text message from Carmen,” Dee started as she presented the phone.
“Oh, it’s probably just that spread sheet Ah asked her for, you can ignore it.”
“No, you might want to see this,” Dee pressed, offering up the phone. Frowning, Doc took the device and scanned the cryptic document.
FYI. Finished trace work on DFM&S. Found numerous xfers between them and Grand Cayman Island banks. Cross checked and found same w/J. Holman. USPO has rejected 4857376345-2006 as UNPROVEN. Carmen
“What does that mean?” asked Renea as she looked from face to face of her friends.
“Patents depend upon reproduction of results,” supplied Elaine softly. “You have to demonstrate that what you’re getting the patent for actually does what you claim it does.”
“I don’t understand,” replied Renae. “If the patent doesn’t work, why would the firm be so eager to suppress it for the Mob?”
“And why would the mob kill the inventor after he filed the patent?” wondered Dee. “I mean, once it’s out, all you have to do is pay to make use of it.”
“Not to mention all the publicity this is going to generate for something that doesn’t work,” snorted Maggie.
“Doesn’t work,” Doc muttered, thinking back on the events of the day. “If it doesn’t work, there’s no need to suppress it. But the mob was paying to have it suppressed and all that money was going to off shore banks…”
“This was revenge,” whispered Renae. “The Mob caught on that the firm and this inventor were bilking them and this was a message to anybody thinking about following suit.”
Doc’s fingers danced on the touch screen, tapping out a text message to Agent Twining and the Golden Scarab. “Chances are good the mob has hits out on all the other partners on this firm. Ah’ll make Agent Twining aware so he can get them into protective custody. This might even be the break the FBI needs to turn some of these idiots against the Mob. This was a real poison pill.”
Dee broke into a snicker as she looked at her friends. “Not a pill,” she managed around her laughter. “A patent! This was The Case of the Poisonous Patent!”
Maggie rolled her eyes and jocularly hit the young freshman with one of her seat cushions. “Now that sounds like a bad piece of Internet fiction!”
"Ugh, what a trip," moaned Maggie as she and Doc entered their dorm room once more. "Murders, and getting shot at, and terrorists; boy it's nice to back at school where most of the danger is make believe."
"Yeah," muttered Doc as she dropped her suitcase onto her bed. "Now all we have to worry about is Fairy Queens, Demonic Princesses and wannabe super villains."
"Thank you so much for putting that into perspective for me," Maggie chided. "I'm gonna go grab a shower and wash this day away. Dinner at Crystal Hall?"
Lifeline paused as she was digging out her toiletries from her bag and turned to look at her roommate. "Hey, you ok?"
Doc shrugged and forced a smile. "Sure, why shouldn't Ah be? Enjoy your shower and Ah'll see you at dinner." Maggie stared for a few minutes more, but knew her friend well enough to know that she would get nothing further out of her. She finished gathering her supplies and paused for a moment at the door before quietly pulling it to.
Alone with her thoughts, Doc's eyes drifted to a small red velvet box on her night stand. It was half covered with the winter term schedule she had yet to go over, last month's bill for her cell phone and the notes for a story that had seemed so important last year.
Without willing it to, her hand reached out and plucked the box from its place, brushing the papers aside as she did so. "If you think the Alphas give a whit about you you're not as smart as I thought you were!" whispered the echo of Becky Corbin's voice in her memory.
"You didn't kill Snapshot, Elaine," Maggie's voice answered as Doc watched the light play off the crushed red velvet as the lid slowly swung up.
"Everyone uses everyone, Loophole," added Freya's.
Elaine's face lit up from the light reflecting on the script capital letter A cast in silver that was nestled in the red silk of the box. "We don't invite the help to our parties any more. If we have something that needs doing, gear head, we'll come to you." Once again Elaine's face flushed and her blood boiled as she wanted to rip the hateful smirk off The Don's face.
"Carmen, are you online?" she asked softly, watching the light play off the silver broach for a moment.
"For you, Miss, always," the computer told her.
"Have you been able to access the security feeds from Hartsfield-Jackson yet?"
The screen was filled with smaller moving pictures of the fight in the terminal from a myriad of different angles. "The Atlanta Police have done an excellent job of suppressing the footage of you and Miss Finnson, if I may say so," the computer's warm contralto told her. "Even the 'leaked' footage is completely useless for identifying either of you. I have access to all but three of the cameras, but I believe I have sufficient coverage to give you a proper account of the incident."
"Analyze and critique," Elaine ordered as she ran a finger over the upright of the A.
"Forgive me for pointing this out, Miss, but the 'Batman' approach is not working for you. Despite the limits of what you can carry on your person you did acquit yourself well in the skirmish. You were also nearly killed on three occasions and it is only by the wildest strokes of luck that you were not harmed."
Doc chuckled quietly to herself in gallows humor. "Reverb's probability manipulation. How close were they?"
"I am still wondering why I do not find myself on the way to Central Supply for format and reload to await a new user," the computer replied without emotion. "Or why you chose to engage a larger, well organized force with no protective measures whatsoever."
"It was the right thing to do," Elaine whispered.
"I wonder if Snapshot felt the same way."
"God damn you Ah told you not to mention him again!" she shouted at the computer.
"Throwing your life away on a whim is every bit an act of suicide as eating a pistol," Carmen shot back. "You entered into a fire fight, out of your costume, without armor, in what amounts to a fishbowl as far as your opponents were concerned! Further, if you don't want my honest critique, then may I ask you to refrain from asking for it?"
Elaine sighed as the computer's words struck their mark. "What do you recommend?"
"As a sophomore you are now entitled to enter Applied Defensive Technologies this semester. The end of term project is an operational power suit."
Doc sighed noisily and snapped the box shut. "We've been over this, Carmen, power suits are bulky, impossible to conceal and, more to the point every other gadgeteer and deviser makes one!"
"Your points are valid and well thought out as always, Miss, however we are talking about your life here. Ambitions of popularity aside, your power set gives us few options. If I may direct your attentions to my screen, I think I may have answer for you."
Doc carefully replaced the box on her night stand and walked over to the laptop on her desk. Her eyes took in the flow of information on the screen and possibilities began to turn in her mind. "Where did you get this?" she asked softly.
"Someone has opened a back door to the School’s main Administration Server in Schuster Hall. While the records within were only marginally interesting, as they concerned Team Kimba I made copies for your review later. However, I was able to use this server as a jumping off point which gave me access to most of the Schuster Hall network. The results speak for themselves."
"Tell me you weren't traced," whispered Elaine as she continued to read.
"Give me some credit, Miss," the computer replied with a hint of pride in its tone.
"Open project file Iron Maiden and compare this."
"Done, there are twelve anomalies, eight of which center around Generator. However, this has deeper ramifications, if you'll look here," she said calling up the file the computer felt was her ace in the hole.
"Carmen, if you had lips, Ah'd kiss you."
"Modesty forbids, Miss," the computer replied, humor in its tone. "Shall I sign us up for Applied Defensive Technologies then?"
"Hell yes..." muttered Doc as she took in the numbers. "Hell, yes..."
* finis *