A Whateley Academy Story
-J. G. Ballard
“YOU ABSOLUTE IDIOT!” Peeper screamed, tearing Greasy’s book from his hands and glaring down at him with eyes of Cerenkov blue. “LOOK AT ME!”
Greasy had already scrunched back in his chair, reflexes forcing him into the cowering posture that shielded his most vital and precious bits from the assaults of Whateley girls and his best friend. “Please, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, he made me...” he babbled, the words his litany and singular protection against blunt-force trauma.
“Shut UP!” A hand, slick with a substance that reeked of bananas grappled with his chin, pinching his lips into a fish-face as Peeper forced him to look up.
Greasy’s eyes bulged at the sight of the other boy, covered from head to toe in yellow glop. “This is NOT what I meant by CREAM PIES!” A high-pitched titter came from Peeper’s banana-cream-covered jacket; he reached into a pocket to pull out...
A mouse. One of the white-furred, pink-tailed ones you see in laboratories, with dark red eyes that flashed like tiny rubies as they spotted Greasy.
“Dad!” it cried out in a high and tiny voice. “Hi!”
Oh, crap. Greasy ducked his head. He’d been working on the fuzzy little drones for most of the year before Peeper had demanded to see what was taking up so much of his time and equipment budget. Self-repairing and incorporating a heuristics synthesis engine of his own design, they were able to learn and adapt, sneaking through even the most intensive countermeasures sweeps he could devise.
Don’t you remember? he thought, pleading silently. How you smiled when you saw them, curled into tiny sleeping balls?
Peeper threw the mouse to the floor in front of him, crushing it with his foot and grinding it into the carpet like the butt of an electronic cigarette. “Junk those pieces of crap,” he growled, “before I do.”
Greasy only moved after the other boy had left, picking up the pieces with fingers that shook with leftover tension. He’d put so much work into them, and now Peeper had just thrown them out like worthless trash.
Well, I’ll show him. His fingers closed on the pieces of synthetic fur and crushed electronics until sharp metal edges pricked his hand. I’ll show him what I can do.
I’ll get rid of these, and make something even better. Something he’ll love, and because I made it, he’ll be happy with me. “Greasy, my friend, you’ve done a wonderful job!” he’ll say. “These are absolutely exceptional, and nobody could do any better...”
His gloom evaporating, he dropped the pile of scrap on his desk and turned on his computer, humming softly to himself as he loaded the drone software and sent the callback signal.
Several hours later, Greasy slipped out of his room, making his way down the shameful path to the Workshop disposal bins. He carried a stainless-steel briefcase in one hand, looking nervously over his shoulder as he walked; it was almost curfew, and being late wouldn’t be the most pleasant of things, either at the hands of Security or his roommate.
He set the case on the ground, then went about levering the heavy cover off the disposal bin, panting and huffing as he shifted it aside and tried not to breathe the corrosive miasma welling up from the open container.
Letting out a sigh, he picked up the briefcase, lifting it over the bin... and then a waft of acidic vapor curled up his nose. Coughing, he let go of the case, listening to it clang off the titanium walls of the container and clatter to a halt on a pile of shifting junk.
Well, that’s it then. Time for a fresh start... I wonder what Peep wants now?
As he left, he realized that he’d just wasted a perfectly good briefcase and let out a soft groan, pounding the heel of his palm against his forehead.
God, I’m such a screwup. At least Peep’s my friend...
Several minutes after he had left, the sound of clicking heels came from down the hallway, approaching the Workshop.
Almost a week later, he and Peeper were packing their bags for Christmas break; Greasy listened to his roommate with a certain tired resignation.
“Cabo! Maui! Aruba! The world’s our oyster, Greaso. It’ll be Denuded D-day, storming the beaches of Nude-mandy! We’ll be little men in little boats, adrift on a sea of... of...”
“Fish tacos, sir?”
“Exactly! Me and you and that photography equipment? We’re going pla-”
Peeper broke off as the hallway door opened and two members of a Security team came in.
“Greasy?” one of them asked.
He managed a stiff nod.
“Chief Delarose wants a word with you. If you’d come with us, please?”
Greasy took a halting step towards them, about to take another when a hand grabbed his arm and squeezed, digging nails into his skin. He turned his head, looking into a pair of eyes that glowed the cool blue of sunlight through glacier ice.
“When you get back,” Peeper whispered harshly, “we are going to have words, greaseball.”
He shoved Greasy towards the door, then went back to packing as the pimpled boy left with Security.
Greasy’s head spun like a blender loaded with questions and panic as he followed the two men over to Kane Hall. What had he done? More importantly, what had he done without Peeper? They were a team, after all; everyone referred to them as ‘Peeper and Greasy’. One didn’t go without the other, and they took the hits for each other - well, actually, he took the hits, but that’s what friends did, wasn’t it?
One of the security escorts knocked on the door to Chief Delarose’s office, the sound shattering his train of thought and setting his pulse racing.
There was a muffled “Yes?”
“Chief? We’ve got the other one.”
Greasy looked between the two, confused. Other one? But Peep’s still in our roo-
“Bring him in and go.”
The officer opened the door, ushering him partway inside before using the door to push him in further as it closed.
Greasy didn’t bother looking around. When you were in the Chief’s office, you looked at The Desk.
Chief Delarose sat behind The Desk, elbows propped on the scratched and pitted mahogany Desktop, chin cradled on his hands as he watched Greasy. Worse than watch; he stared, in that fashion that teenagers everywhere recognize as Big Trouble.
As Greasy sidled in, the chief inclined his head, nodding at the two chairs in front of his Desk. Someone was already sitting in one of the chairs; Greasy saw the shining curves of a hairless head that looked like it was made of cloudy white jade, with more of the same material over the neck and shoulders, continuing down until it was hidden by a dark blue dress and the back of the chair.
He swallowed back bile. Oh, god... not her. Not Medley.
He’d seen her in the workshops, heard the rumors; hell, he’d even acquired a copy of her schematics, in case Peeper ever got interested. Greasy wasn’t bothered by what she was.
It was what she did.
The stories about Halloween, the filking that only ended when Security was called in... and that combat final. He shuddered as he sat down, trying to keep her in the corner of his eye.
Once he’d gotten settled, Chief Delarose coughed to get their attention.
“Now that we’re all here, I have something to show the two of you.” His tone was calm, almost conversational, but it had an edge to it that Greasy had never heard before.
He spun in his swiveling chair, turning to a safe behind his desk before spinning the combination dial to unlock it. Inside the safe was a smaller safe, this one with a electronic biometric scanner. The chief opened it, pulling out a box and setting it on his desk.
Greasy watched as he unlocked and opened that box, revealing ...
Another box, this one made of what Greasy recognized as reinforced ballistic hyperglass. Chief Delarose gingerly pulled it out, setting the sealed container on the desktop.
Inside was a mouse, darting back and forth as it nosed around the scratched interior. Just an ordinary, white-skinned, red-eyed mouse.
Oh, no. No, no, no nononono...
It wasn’t long at all before the mouse looked up at the two of them, dark beady eyes flicking back and forth as it watched them. Greasy could’ve sworn it smiled and winked at him right before squeaking in a high, shrill voice:
“Mom! Dad!” A moment later, it added a belated “Hi!”
Greasy looked over at the crystal-skinned girl in confusion, and found that she was already looking back at him, the featureless curve of her face impossible to read.
What the hell did you do?
They turned to stare back at the mouse, who waved at them.
Simultaneously, they said “Oh, hell no.”
There was a moment of silence before they both started shouting, her bell-like tones overlapping his grating whine.
“-did I do? What did you-” “Hi!”
“Hi!” “-all your fault-”
“Hi!” “-I’m not the one who-”
All of them fell silent, even the mouse; they watched the flushed security chief as he took a breath, then slowly let it out.
“I already knew the two of you were involved in making these... things,” he said, spitting out the last word. “But if you’re willing to dig yourselves a deeper hole, I can always use more evidence.”
Greasy swallowed, nervous tension gnawing at his gut like a puppy with an expensive shoe. “E-evidence?” he squeaked. “Evidence of what?”
Delarose raised an eyebrow, looking at him with a vaguely puzzled expression. “With you, Mr. Lambert? There’s always evidence. In this case, enough to bury both of you.”
He reached out, tapping a thick, blunt finger on the top of the sealed containment unit. The mouse squeaked, backing into a corner and glaring up at him.
“Do you realize how often Maintenance calls us, asking for backup?” His voice carried an edge of grim amusement. “Never. They handle down below, and we handle up above.”
The chief flipped open a folder, flicking through pages as he watched the two students. “We thought it was a joke, at least at first. Intelligent prankster mice making-” he coughed “-’lipstick assaults’ is not something you call Security for. Just in case, we sent a squad down.”
The single puppy in Greasy’s belly had grown into a litter, yanking his insides back and forth like they were playing tug-of-war with a piece of rawhide.
He turned over a page, looking down and frowning. “Simpkins managed to get separated from the rest of his squad; it took four of these little buggers less than thirty seconds to remove his pants, light torches, and go-” he coughed again “-’delving for the reliquary of Saint Gere.’“
Greasy’s lips twitched, a tiny squeak of hysteria slipping out. Chief Delarose lifted his head, looking at him soberly.
“One of my men is in the infirmary with second-degree burns and psychological trauma. I hope you’re not finding this amusing, Mr. Lambert.”
He shook his head, the nervous laughter that had been bubbling inside him slinking away to hide in a dark corner. Delarose watched him for a moment longer, then lowered his eyes to look back at the file.
“That was three days ago. Since then, they’ve been getting into infrastructure all around the school; I’ve had to pull teams off their normal patrols and send them into the tunnels to handle hordes of these little beasts.”
Hordes? But I only made five...
“To be honest, we haven’t seen anything this bad since that incident with the non-newtonian weasels back in ‘93.” Disapproval was written across the chief’s face as he looked over at them. “You’re very lucky nobody’s been seriously injured or killed, because that’s the only way you could be in worse trouble than you already are.”
The chief’s words grated at Adam as he sat here, trying not to squirm. This wasn’t my fault! I threw them out like I was supposed to, and now I’m taking the blame because she- he looked over to where the pale-skinned girl was sitting, arms crossed and shoulders tense -had to go diving for scrap!
He opened his mouth, about to say something until Delarose snapped the file folder closed.
“As it is, you two are looking at multiple counts of assault on school personnel and property, vandalism, sexual harassment, petty theft, possession of contraband under Whateley guidelines, invasion of privacy-” Greasy cringed as the chief gave him a Look, “-manufacture and distribution of mataglap-class unbounded replication technology and hardware, unauthorized usage of workshop and lab materials...”
He sighed, the creases on his face deepening for a moment as he sat back in his chair. “There’s at least another three pages of assorted offenses, but I think you get the point. I push this through, and the two of you are easily looking at expulsion and criminal prosecution on both the state and federal level.”
He paused for a moment, letting it sink in.
Greasy felt his throat tighten, sweat prickling on his forehead as he heard the sound of wood creaking from the chair next to him.
Oh, god. They’re throwing the book at her... at me... and it’s all because of her. It isn’t fair! If she hadn’t been an idiot and played with my gear, I’d already be off-campus with Peeper, keeping pace with him on the sandy beach as we fled a howling mob...
Delarose interrupted Greasy’s train of thought. “Of course, you two already know that I could never make those stick. Not without making myself look like a damn incompetent fool.”
His lips pressed tightly closed, compressing to a pale line as the corners of his mouth worked. Greasy looked over at Medley, finding her dark and glossy eye-covers gazing right back at him as she lifted one shoulder in an almost-invisible shrug.
“The thing is... I have a problem.” Chief Delarose took a sip of coffee, setting the cup on top of a stack of papers as the two looked back at him. “And I seem to have an answer to it: the two of you.”
The world stopped.
Is he asking for help? No. He’d never ask for help. Not unless things were really, really bad.
He watched the chief’s throat bob as he took another drink of coffee, grimacing slightly and looking down into the mug.
“I am not an exterminator, boys and girls. I am not your maid, and I have better things to do than waste time and manpower on chasing pervermin through the underground.”
Delarose leaned forward, glaring at the two of them.
“Now, I expect you to get out there and clean up your mess, because you do not want me doing it for you.”
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the creak of the chief’s chair as he leaned back, his thumb drumming a slow beat against the desktop.
“I’ll even make you a deal. Get rid of the mice before the headmistress comes back from her holiday, and I make all these charges just... go away.”
Greasy let out a quiet sigh, shoulders dropping. It’s just like on all the cop shows. Rough up the louse on the street, threaten him with the law, and make him save his own skin. He prodded at a thumbnail, watching as the pink flesh underneath bleached to white, then pink again as he let go.
It’s not like I even have a choice in it, he thought with a certain edge of bitterness. Maybe if Peeps was here, he could get us out of this, but he’s not here, and that means...
He looked up from his hands and found Chief Delarose looking back at him, his expression unreadable yet oddly expectant. Greasy just nodded, and the chief nodded back, looking over at Medley.
She sat there for a long moment, just staring back at Delarose as one crystal foot clicked against the other with metronomic precision.
God, just say yes already!
She finally spoke, her voice rich and musical... and yet cool and distant, almost as if a symphony orchestra was phoning in a performance.
“Do you have any idea how much I want to say no to you?” Her head tilted slightly to one side as she watched his face, her voice taking on a lilt that was colored with vicious amusement. “The look on your face would make up for any punishment you could devise.”
Astonishingly, Chief Delarose smiled at her, a tight little sneer that looked like she sounded.
“Honey, you’ve got it all wrong.” Now he sounded like she did, the deepness of his voice throwing that petty viciousness right back at her. “When Headmistress Carson comes back next week, she’s going to be the one putting the fear of God into you, not me.”
Greasy found his shoulders tensing as he hunched into himself. With my luck, I’ll probably get brought in, too.
He sat back, watching her as she sat there, still as a statue. Finally, she spoke, using that cool, distant voice.
“One condition. I want-”
“No.” He opened another file, starting to read.
“No means no.” He didn’t look up. “You’re riding in my car now, and that means you either follow my rules or you get the hell out. No concessions. I don’t care if you want me to peel a grape or give you back that sonic chainsaw, it’s not going to happen.”
She hesitated for a beat, then spat “Fine, your rules.” The chair screeched underneath her as she stood up, heading for the door on feet that cracked like gunshots.
Greasy watched her go, only turning back when the door closed behind her. Delarose didn’t bother to look up.
“Seven days until the end of the world, Mr. Lambert. Best get working.”
He nodded, his mouth suddenly dry as he got up and made his way over to the hallway door. There had always been the hope that this was all some elaborate prank, but that was fading quickly as he pulled the door open.
“Oh, and Greasy?”
His heart skipped a beat, head whipping around fast enough to crackle the cartilage in his neck. “Y-yes?”
Chief Delarose watched him from his desk, one eyebrow arching at the hopeful tone in the boy’s voice. “Catch,” he said, frisbeeing a CD towards him and watching as the boy fumbled to catch it, then turned it over in his hands.
“Security incident reports. You get a copy, Medley gets a copy. Anyone else sees these and I will hang your ass out to dry, deal or no deal.”
Greasy’s face flushed hotly and he nodded, backing out of Delarose’s office and closing the door with a quiet click. Then another, and another, even though the door was already closed.
Click. Click. Click.
It was Medley, one finger clicking impatiently against her upper arm as she waited for the elevator. Greasy stood there for a moment, painfully aware of the disc slipping through his sweat-slicked fingertips.
He did say she should get a copy... it can’t hurt to ask. At least, not too much.
He cautiously padded over, reaching out to tap her shoulder. ‘Uh-’
She spoke just before he touched her. “Don’t.”
Greasy jerked his hand back like he’d been about to touch a live hotplate. “W-wha?”
“Don’t. Just... don’t. I don’t want to deal with those things. If I’d known they were your work, they’d be back in the bin and I’d have pushed the purge override myself.”
She kept going, building back up to the same angry tone she’d used back in the office, turning to face him. “And, I don’t want to deal with you.”
Greasy was only half-listening by this point, the majority of his attention focused on two things: making sure she wasn’t going to hit him, and the indignation growing inside him with each of her words.
I do good work! Peeper likes what I do, even if you don’t!
“-need a sycophantic lackey getting in my way-”
“Fine!” Heads turned at Greasy’s shout. “If I’m so worthless, you can just fix this all by yourself!”
The two of them glared at each other for a moment, then another, the silence building between them until the elevator interrupted with a quiet ding.
“Fine,” was all Medley said in response, the heat in her voice gone as she stepped backwards into the elevator. “Maybe I’ll do that, then.” She impatiently tapped the CLOSE button, stopping only when the doors slid shut between them.
Greasy listened to the elevator descend, letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding before turning and walking out of Kane Hall, down the stairs to the snow-covered campus quad, and back towards Twain.
The shakes finally hit as he cut through a small copse, forcing him to lean against a rough-barked trunk and breathe in wheezing gasps.
What the hell had he been thinking? He never talked back, not ever; mouthing off to someone who was going to hurt you just made it worse. But why had he?
He pressed the palms of his hands to his temples, shaking his head in an attempt to clear it.
Peeper. I gotta talk to Peep, he’ll know what to do.
Greasy carefully pulled himself to his feet, brushing dead leaves off his pants before making his way back to his room.
Peeper wasn’t there.
Nor were his bags.
Nor were Greasy’s bags, for that matter, but there was a yellow sticky-note plastered to his computer monitor:
minion: ur late. had 2 get tomcat 2 move bags (broken = ur fault).
call when u get this.
It wasn’t signed, but that didn’t matter; Greasy had spent enough time duplicating his friend’s handwriting for writing assignments that he could have written the note himself.
With shaking hands, he fumbled his phone from his pocket and misdialed, redialed, then lifted the phone to his ear. It rang once, then again.
Oh, please don’t let it be his voicemail, pleasepleasepleas-
“Minion!” Greasy sagged in relief at the familiar sound of Peeper’s voice.
Peeper cut him off. “How soon are you going to be here? I overheard some of the TSA crew talking about strip-searches, and I. Want. Pictures.” He cackled with perverse glee.
Greasy swallowed, trying to get rid of the tight, scratchy feeling in his throat. “I-I’m not coming.”
The cackling stopped abruptly, leaving a silence so deep that he could hear the chime of the airport PA over the phone.
“What?” It was more of a demand than a question.
“It’s Security, I-they want me to stay-”
“You selfish little...” Peeper snarled, any trace of geniality gone from his voice.
“We had this trip planned, and now you go spouting your oily bullshit about Security not letting you go!”
Greasy whimpered. “I’m sor-”
“Sorry? Sorry is you shifting those butterballs of yours out here so we can make our flight!”
“But they’ll kick me out of school!”
Peeper’s voice lowered to a dangerous hiss. “If you don’t get over here right now, you’ll wish you were expelled.”
Greasy moaned softly, shaking his head. “This... this is real bad, sir... I - they won’t even let me leave, I think.”
When Peeper spoke again, his tone was almost kindly. “How many friends do you have, huh?”
Greasy swallowed, sniffing through his nose. “One?”
“WRONG!” Peeper shouted into the phone, his temper flaring until Greasy couldn’t help but flinch. “Now you’ve got NO friends, because you’re a worthless IDIOT!”
It was getting hard to see; Greasy tried to blink away the blurry stinging in his eyes as Peeper continued.
“How long do you think you’re going to last, you little shit? Without me, you’re going to be the chewtoy for everyone from the Underdogs on up-” He broke off, voice going faint as he pulled away from the phone.
“No, I’m not going to hang up - wait, I’m not fini-”
The line went dead, but Greasy just held the phone to his ear for another minute, unable to move.
His chest hurt - no, it ached, and he brought the phone down from his ear, pressing it against himself until the plastic casing creaked in protest. Sliding to the floor, he felt his face twist in on itself-
-and very, very, quietly, Greasy began to cry.
Greasy’s animal keening continued uninterrupted for several minutes; either nobody was around to hear him, or (more likely) they knew better than to investigate mysterious noises from Peeper’s room.
He finally found himself sitting on the floor, the collar of his shirt damp with tears. The ache in his chest was gone, replaced by a choking emptiness and for the first time in months, he didn’t know what to do.
Then he saw the disk that Chief Delarose had given him, lying on the floor where he’d dropped it earlier.
For a moment, he watched the play of light on metal and plastic, his mind stubbornly trying to cling to that comforting blankness even as an idea drifted to the surface of his thoughts:
I can get him back.
Of course, everything was his fault... but what if he could fix it? What if he could get rid of the mice?
Security would let him go. They had to let him go. And when they did... he could go find Peeper.
It was like a little sun burning in his chest, a tiny spark of fire belching incandescent helium to warm him and lift his spirits. He picked up the disk, stiffly moving over to his desk and sitting down.
I’m getting him back!
Greasy began to work.
In this case, ‘work’ involved finding a flywheel power storage system and wiring it into the backup WARS repeater, then pulling out all the FCC-mandated limiters and a couple of other electronic bits.
The end result was a backpack-mounted HERF projector, capable of spitting out high-energy radio waves that could fry electronics like a directional EMP. The fact that it looked like something out of Egon’s wet dreams didn’t help matters, either.
A thought struck him, and he pushed the pack aside, plugging it in to a wall socket to let the flywheel spool up a charge before he started pulling open drawers, tossing aside papers until he found the EM pulse grenades that he’d made for Peeper’s combat final.
Sometimes you didn’t want directional in your arsenal.
Weapons are all fine and dandy, but unless you can find something to shoot at, they’re worse than useless. Greasy riffled through papers until he found some of his old project notes, and started getting together some components - paraclectic interocitors, diphase flensing arrays, even an old Ward-Cotillion interpreter left over from a failed experiment in haptics-enhanced erotic holography, and started building a mouse detector.
Greasy woke up the next morning in a pool of sunlight and saliva, feeling the prickle of electronic components stuck against his cheek. He blinked once, then again, his brain creaking into gear as he watched dust motes drift in the morning sun.
It’s morning. Realization set in and his head snapped up, scattering transistors across his desktop. It’s morning! Shit!
He pawed a clinging bit of wire off his cheek, feeling the bite of panic as he scrabbled through the junk on his desk. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
The detector was almost finished, only needing a few additional connections soldered in place before Greasy slapped the cover in place, flicking the power switch to let it warm up as he checked the charge on the flywheel.
Green. Awesome! He unplugged the backpack from the wall, shrugging the straps onto his shoulders and staggering a little at the awkward weight. Once he’d gotten his balance, he pocketed a couple of pulse grenades, snatched up the detector as it bleeped its cheerful readiness, and headed out the door. His earlier panic was gone, replaced by a burgeoning sense of almost alien confidence.
I’m going to do this. I’m really going to do this! I’m gonna go out there and kick some mouse ass and get Peeper back!
His back and neck were sore from sleeping at his desk, he was starting to itch under his synthetic skin, and he hadn’t had his morning coffee.
It didn’t matter. Greasy ran for the elevator down into the tunnels, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.
I’m getting Peeper back!
Several hours later, Greasy sagged against the tunnel wall, wiping a hand across his sweaty forehead as he caught his breath.
I’m so screwed.
It had all been so simple in his head: go down into the tunnels, find the mice, destroy the mice, then get Peeper back.
He hadn’t considered the sheer size of the tunnels, nor the fact that the concrete and steel rebar dampened the range of his detector - assuming the detector even worked, and that the mice hadn’t switched to a new frequency domain or transmission protocol.
Greasy shrugged off his pack and sat down on the concrete floor, tugging at his shirt to get some airflow between the sweaty fabric and his skin.
Just a little rest, he promised himself. Just a little breather before I keep going.
He leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes and trying to think about something more pleasant than his sore shoulders and aching feet.
The girls were hot, the kind of bombshell looks that should only be found in the airbrushes of a fashion magazine or a blockbuster movie. Greasy peeked over the top of his copy of Eclectic Electronics, covertly watching as the three of them walked down the length of the railroad car...
...and stopped at the quad of seats he was sitting in. Greasy promptly buried himself in a editorial on Zener diodes, madly flipping pages without reading them.
He looked up, and found one of the girls was inexplicably smiling at him. Instinct took over and he found himself smiling back.
She waved at her friends. “Can we sit here?”
Greasy struggled to talk around the viscera that had lodged in his throat, managing only a strangled nurk before nodding frantically and starting to consolidate the mass of scratch paper he’d been using for project ideas and random doodles.
The girl giggled softly, and he flushed at the sound of matching laughter from her friends. “Thanks. Oh, we also have someone else coming, so do you think you could move?” She gestured at a table on the opposite side of the car.
Why don’t you just sit over there?
Despite his unvoiced thoughts, Greasy found himself shoving papers into his bag and hurriedly getting up. With a very quiet “Sorry,” he scuttled over to the other table, dropping into a empty seat and hugging his backpack to his chest.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. You should’ve just told them to go sit somewhere else.
“-some,” one of the girls was saying. “Did you see the look on his face when you asked if you could sit down? I think the little geek just about spooged his pants.”
“I think maybe he did. What’s that stuff on the seat?”
Greasy groaned softly, feeling the oil-soaked denim of his pants. Oh, great. The skin split again - I thought I had the mix right this time, too.
He was more than willing to sit there, huddled in his misery and watching the scenery pass outside the car window, until one of the girls said “Oh. My. God. Look at the spaz who just came in.”
The boy was almost nondescript, aside from the black wraparound shades he was wearing and the cheaply-printed t-shirt with a picture of a buxom woman sitting on a bartop with the words I’LL TAP THAT printed underneath.
He looked over at Greasy, dismissed him after a moment, turned his head, saw the girls - and froze for a moment, just staring at the three as they sat there. They stared back; one of the girls nudged her friend and whispered something that was followed by giggles.
Finally, the boy moved, walking towards the girls as he started to smile - no, he sneered, radiating an impossibly confident attitude that reminded Greasy of a cat closing in on a cornered mouse.
Even the girls had bought into it, their laughter falling silent as the boy came closer... and then sat down, planting himself in Greasy’s old seat.
Greasy watched, gaping a little
That kid is either awesome or crazy. Maybe both, he thought.
For a moment it looked like there would be another staring match, until the boy looked down, the tilt of his head just screaming Yes! I’m looking at your tits!
One of the girls coughed uncomfortably after a few seconds of scrutiny. “Uhm. What’re you doing?”
His head lifted, looking at her face for a moment as his grin widened, then looked back down at her chest. When he finally spoke, he said only two words.
The girl flushed. “What-” she started, flustered.
He cut in before she could finish, his grin shifting to a perverse leer. “Nice tits, too. You want t-”
The slap was like a thundercrack, her hand launching the boy from his seat to the floor of the car.
There was dead silence as the three girls and one boy stared at the figure on the floor, then-
“OhmigawdJen!” One of the other girls tugged at her arm. “You said no hitting!”
Jen’s face was a study in scarlet as she pulled her hand free and stared at the boy on the floor, sputtering. “He... he...”
“Jen, we gotta go!” The other girl tugged at her hand. “Before someone comes!”
Greasy stared, wide-eyed as the other two girls tugged Jen into the next car. When the door had slid shut behind them, he got up, moving to crouch next to the other boy.
“Dude?” He reached out with a trembling hand, prodding the other boy’s shoulder. “You okay?”
Peeper rolled over, sunglasses knocked askew to reveal one glowing eye. “Querp...” he cackled, lips curling into a viciously satisfied smile. “Querp querp querp-”
Greasy started, banging his head on the wall as he scrabbled for the squawking detector, turning off the alert and thumbing on the display. He checked the readouts, then checked them again, astonished: there was a signal coming from somewhere nearby, far stronger than the background noise he’d been picking up earlier.
Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes! They are down here!
Greasy scrambled to his feet, struggling with his pack for a moment before getting it on his shoulders. Setting the detector for audio feedback, he pointed it down one tunnel, then another, then set off at a shambling run, his sore feet forgotten in the thrill of the chase. The sound of his footsteps and the querps of the detector dwindled to inaudibility as he disappeared into the tunnels.
The detector sped up as Greasy followed the signal trace, the sedate Querp Querp Querp speeding up to a Quer-Quer-Quer-Quer, then to a clicking stutter as he ran, rounding a corner and smashing into something cold, hard and girlishly curved.
She was fast, faster than he could have ever imagined. Greasy had barely taken hold of the HERF emitter before her hand swatted it free, then covered his mouth as she pushed him against the tunnel wall. Air whistled through his nose as he stared at her wide-eyed; Medley stared back at him, and from her body language, she was just as surprised to see him as he was to see her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” She sounded annoyed rather than angry, looking him up and down.
Greasy wheezed through his nose, looking at her pleadingly.
“Oh. Right.” She pulled her hand away from his mouth, wiping it on her dress; Greasy leaned against the wall, taking a deep breath as he looked down at the floor.
Huh. She wore that dress yesterday. Guess she was up all night, too...
“So.” He looked up as she spoke. “What’re you doing here? Last time I saw you, I thought your big plan was to go and run off with Peeper and leave me to clean up by myself.”
Greasy flushed, cringing a little at the memory of Peeper’s earlier rejection. That anger he’d felt back in Kane Hall surged up again, carrying words that spilled from his mouth before he could stop them.
“Never send a machine to do a human’s-”
She slapped him before he could finish his sentence, pressing him against the wall until her faceplate was just touching his nose. Greasy tasted blood and whimpered, trying to push her away.
Oh god I don’t want to die please I didn’t go pee earlier-
“Don’t you dare,” she growled in a voice made from broken glass and rending metal. “Don’t you ever-”
She suddenly stopped talking, head whipping around to stare down the tunnel.
Someone’s coming! Greasy opened his mouth to shout for help and was promptly muffled by a crystal hand. “Shh,” she hissed.
You’re about to kill me! Screw that! He kicked her in the shin, and whimpered as his toes crushed themselves against crystal.
“Shut up.” Her hand clamped down on his mouth, pressing on his cut lip until it started to sting. “Listen.”
Greasy nodded frantically against her hand and obediently started to listen.
He didn’t hear anything at first besides the thud of his heartbeat and the snuffling as he breathed... then he heard a snatch of song.
No, not song; scales, a squeaky mouse-voice singing the “Do-re-mi” scale in a voice so deep as to be almost ludicrous. Medley’s head swiveled to look back at him, lifting a finger to where her lips should have been as she pulled her hand from his mouth. Greasy swallowed, then stopped breathing as the mouse finished with the scales and broke into song, still using that impossibly deep voice.
“A pair of nice boobs with matching implants!”
Medley jerked her head, motioning towards the tunnel intersection. He nodded, following along behind her as they stealthily crept over and peeked around the corner.
“A john at the bar who wants a lap dance!”
Greasy stared at the mouse as it pranced and danced its way down the hallway. Lord knew where it had managed to get the tiny red fishnets and the feather boa, and he could’ve sworn that he saw a splotch of red lipstick on the mouse’s white muzzle.
“My pasties might not have creamy filling,
but those and the beard get me top billing!”
He cautiously set a hand on Medley’s shoulder. “Did you teach them that?” he whispered.
Her head turned, glossy eyeplates glaring at him. “What?” she hissed. “God, no! I thought this was you!”
“Lookit me! I’m the queen of Whateley!
The mouse stopped abruptly mid-pirouette, tumbling back onto its rear as it stared at them. Greasy winced. Forgot how sensitive I made the ears on those guys.
For a long second, the three of them stared at each other... and then things began to happen very, very quickly.
“MOOOOOOOM! DAAAAAAD!” the mouse shrieked, flinging the tiny boa at them before dashing away down the tunnel. Medley cursed, feet scraping against the concrete floor as she sprinted after the fleeing rodent. “You little-”
“Wait!” Greasy stared at the two as they rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. Great. He heaved a sigh and shifted the packstraps on his shoulders, then started jogging after them.
Even at a jog, there was no way he could catch up to the other two. Their footsteps began to fade, and he slowed to a walk, then to a stop, panting for breath. Damn, lost them.
Greasy stared down the tunnel, the weight of despair easily adding another twenty pounds to his backpack.
Just like I’m going to lose Peeper.
The thought hit him like the back of Medley’s hand.
No, I’m not. I’m not going to lose him.
His hands found the straps of his pack, tightening them down as he broke into a jog, a single thought marking cadence for his trotting feet:
I’m. Getting. Him. Back!
Greasy’s jog broke into a full-out run, shoes slapping against the tunnel floor as he charged past locked doors and intersecting corridors. Breath burned his throat as his heart spasmed, frantically trying to keep up with the pace he was setting.
Sweat burned at the corners of his eyes as he followed the sounds of pursuit. He caught a glimpse of white turning a corner and charged, feet pounding and sparks whirling in the periphery of his vision as he rounded the corner-
-and plowed right into Medley’s back, sending them both tumbling against the steel door at the end of the corridor.
Greasy lay there for a moment, gasping for air as Medley shoved one of his legs off her, getting to her feet and leaning to take a look at the door.
He swallowed, the hallway suddenly quiet without his rasping breath. “W-where did-” he started to say before Medley cut him off.
“Under the door. Now shut up and let me work.”
Greasy scowled at the back of her head and started to move, creeping over to the wall like a half-crushed inchworm and slumping against it. Cataloguing his hurts was almost old hat for him by now; there were the bruises, and the scrapes, and one knee had that hot watery feeling that meant he’d landed on it wrong.
Nothing serious. I can deal with it later. He relaxed against the wall a little, breathing shallowly as his ribs started to protest. Maybe a little sooner than later. First things first. He sucked at the torn skin on one of his palms, tasting blood and bitter oil as he watched Medley gently tap at the door, listening for a moment before giving the handle a quick rattle.
“Unbelievable.” She gave the door another rattle, then stepped back in disgust. “There’s no way I can unlock this, not with what I’ve got on me.”
Greasy sullenly spat blood and oil onto the floor next to him. “You could hit it or something.”
Medley glanced at him. “It’s quarter-inch steel composite. I could cut through it, if the chief had given me my gear back, but all I’d do if I kicked it is scratch the paint and break my foot. Not to mention that the lock is electronic, so I can’t pick it...”
Greasy tuned her out, thinking. Electronic lock... how do you bypass an electronic lock? I guess you could crack it open and do a modified cold-boot, or bypass the authentication hardware entirely-
He looked down at the HERF emitter for his backpack. Or you could just blow the hell out of it.
Medley looked over at him as he struggled to his feet, then hurriedly backed away as Greasy pointed the emitter at the door. There was a warning placard pasted at eye level, but it looked like it had been defaced with a mix of permanent marker and lipstick:
Greasy blinked, then looked down at the emitter, tuning the bandpass gap to something a little more suitable.
“This is a bad idea.”
Medley’s words brought a surge of savage glee to Greasy’s heart as he made some final adjustments. “You wanted to cut through the door.”
“But at least that’s contained! There’s a warning sign on there, and you have no idea what’s inside!”
She kept talking, but Greasy tuned her out, aiming at the door lock. I know what’s inside. Peeper’s inside. He pressed the firing stud. And I’m getting him back.
The only sign that the HERF emitter had fired was the lightest flicker of blue light, followed by the lock’s click-chunk as the failsafes released. He waited a moment for the doorhandle to cool, then put a hand on it, looking back at Medley as she stood in the tunnel, looking more than a touch nonplussed. Now, look who’s useless.
He smirked at her, turning the handle. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a job to do.” Hefting the emitter in his other hand, thumb on the firing stud, he opened the door and charged inside, letting it swing closed in his wake.
Several screams and weapon discharges later, the door opened again and Greasy clawed his way out, pulling the door closed and sagging against the frame as he gasped for breath. His shirt and skin were torn and scratched where the straps of the backpack had once reached over his shoulders, and the tiny cuts stung with his sweat.
Medley was leaning on the other side of the doorway, arms crossed as she pointedly refused to look over at Greasy. “Where’s your gun?” Her words had the singsong tone of ‘I told you so’ to them.
“Mice,” he wheezed, his voice raw. Stupid, stupid, stupid...
“The mice... took your gun.”
“Yeah.” He coughed.
“Bullshit.” She reached over, opening the door and leaning in to peek inside, then quickly slamming it shut as an eye-searing blue beam shot out over her head.
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the muffled sound of squeaking laughter. Greasy felt a breath of air pass over his legs.
“They took your gun,” she said, sounding surprised and horrified as she stared at him.
Greasy nodded, swallowing saliva in a vain attempt to soothe his throat.
“How did they-” Her gaze drifted downwards and froze. “Oh, god. Where’re your pants?”
He stared at her, horror stirring inside him as another breeze brushed around his calves. Oh, no. No, no, no... He looked down-
-and found himself looking at his boxers, the lucky red-and-blue ones with Superman emblems all over. Sighing in relief, he sagged back against the wall. Oh thank god. At least I wasn’t wearing the ones with stars and rocketships.
There was a muffled, mocking snort. Greasy looked up to find Medley staring at him, one hand pressed against where her mouth would be. Their eyes met, and she started laughing, her gleeful chuckling echoing from the walls until he could feel his face redden and burn.
“Your face...” She shook her head, her blank face lending a disturbing note to the laughter that echoed off the walls. “Classic!” From the tone of her voice, this was the funniest thing she’d seen in a while.
Greasy hurriedly turned away, trying not to think about the pressure of her gaze on his back or the squeaky laughter that had begun to echo hers. She doesn’t really mean it... it’s just some humor subroutine or something...
“Oh, come on!” she chuckled. “All they did was take your pants.”
She’s right. Out of all the things they could’ve done, all they did was take the gun, the backpack and my pants...
Medley was quieting down, her laughter softening. “And... you didn’t even notice...”
Greasy tried to tune her out, focusing on why his mice would want to take his pants.
I can understand the gun. Lots of metal, lots of energy, lots of little shiny bits and destruction. My pants? None of those...
“So freaking fast, too... you were in there for what, five seconds?”
Closer to ten, he thought sourly. But she has a point. Ten seconds, and all they did was take my pants. But that’s stupid. Sure, they’re mice. They’re kinda dumb, even when they’re networked, but not completely stupid.
“...like little furry ninjas. I still don’t get why you threw them...”
Okay. Square one. They took my gun. Guns are metal, they’re weapons... mine was high-tech and shot microwaves.
My pants don’t do any of that.
Unless... it was something in my pants. Something like...
He swallowed. “We need to go.”
Her laughter stopped for a moment, then resumed as she looked from him to the door and back again.
“You’re kidding, right? You practically ran in there and gave them a death ray and your pants. You can run back to your room for a change of clothes, but I’m going to stay right here and see what the little guys come up with next.”
Greasy shivered a little at the tone of her voice, carrying wicked amusement... and a troubling note of pride. God, I do not need to be stuck down in the tunnels with a SHODAN knockoff and her vermin spawn...
“What they come up with next? They took my pants. You know what was in my pants?” He cringed a little. Didn’t mean it quite like that...
Medley laughed, a light tinkling giggle as she moved over to the door,spreading her fingertips wide and pressing them against the rough steel. “I’ll bite. What’d you have in your pocketses?”
He couldn’t help adding a twist of savage glee as he spoke. “Pulse grenades.”
The laughter stopped as if he’d flicked a switch, her hand falling from the door as she turned towards him, staring in mute surprise - then the spell broke, and she ran, the echoing clatter of her crystal feet the only sound she made as she fled down the tunnel.
Greasy watched her run, the warmth of satisfaction cooling to nervous worry, the feeling that something was very, very wrong -
- and then the tunnel lights flared, then guttered and strobed, the flickering flashes catching her limp form in midair -
- and then the lights went out, and all Greasy could hear was the sound of her crystal skin, grating against the tunnel floor as she slid to a stop.
Oh, God. I just killed the robot girl.
After a few seconds, the emergency lights came on, bathing the tunnel and the fallen figure in that bleached-red glow that Greasy remembered from old submarine movies.
Medley didn’t move, not the tiniest bit, and Greasy found himself moving closer, to - what, check on her? See if she really was dead? How the hell can something be dead if it was never alive in the first place?
Medley had tumbled as she fell, the contents of her pockets strewn around her; Greasy stepped carefully over a battered postcard, resting a bare knee on polished concrete as he put a hand on her gleaming, pink-tinged shoulder. “Hey-”
The words choked in his throat as a cold hand clamped over his, hard crystal fingers squeezing until his joints creaked and popped.
“I’m not dead...” she hissed, a low, thick sound like a cat facing a snake. Her head began to twist around in jerky fits and starts, looking up at him with coal-pit eyes. “You fucker...”
He tried to free himself, and her fingers tightened until he could feel hard crystal grating against bone, squeezing until he was clawing at her fingers, trying to pull away as someone whimpered in animal panic-
-and then he felt something tear in his hand, followed by the slick sickening sensation of his own skin sliding off his fingers as he jerked himself free, scrabbling away from her until he was pressed against the far wall of the tunnel.
Medley didn’t move for a little while, aside from the slow movement of her fingers as her hand clenched into a fist around the scraps of skin he’d left behind. Greasy swallowed as he heard a squeezing pop, like the sound ice makes when you chew on it wrong.
Oh, oh, oh god. I think I made her mad.
Her fingers slowly relaxed, letting the torn skin fall to the tunnel floor. Greasy froze as her head haltingly turned towards him, the dark, flat gloss of her eyes flatly accusing as she looked at him.
And looked at him
“I’m sorry?” he whimpered, flinching away from her black glare and looking down the less-threatening length of the tunnel that stretched away from them.
There was the scraping of crystal on concrete.
“I’m sorry!” he yelped, cringing into a tight ball as he waited for the hammerfall of her fists.
When no blow came, he let curiosity get the better of him, peeking out between his fingers. Medley had rolled onto her hands and knees, and as Greasy watched, carefully began picking up the scattered contents of her pockets. There was the jingling of a keyring, scooped into her palm and soon followed by a pen and pencil.
I almost killed her, and all she does is roll over and start picking things up?
He watched her fumbling as she tried to lever a postcard off the smooth tunnel floor, blunt crystal fingers scraping at the concrete.
Maybe she’s broken.
That was a chilling thought. Greasy was uncomfortably reminded of one of the Workshop Video Lectures, titled Artificial Intelligence: Techniques, Protocols, and Best Practices. Most of the devisors affectionately referred to it as either Rampancy 101 or John Connor’s Guide To Life; Greasy had even gotten together with the other lab geeks and watched it over popcorn a couple of times, laughing at the hackneyed warnings of ‘This computer blew a fuse... and now it MUST KILL ALL MEN!’
It didn’t seem so funny now, sitting just feet away from a robot he’d just hit with an EMP and listening to the scraping sound of fingers on concrete... which he wasn’t hearing anymore, actually. Greasy looked up, cautiously lowering his hands as he saw Medley, sitting with her back against the opposite tunnel wall and staring down at her hands. She didn’t move as he watched her, sitting there like a statue or a porcelain doll.
“H-hey...” he offered, swallowing nervously. “You okay?”
He thought he saw a trace of movement, and tried again. “Are you all ri-”
“I’m fine.” She sounded almost tired, strangely enough; but even through the fatigue, Greasy could hear the implied fuck off and die in the tone of her voice. He closed his mouth, leaning back against the wall.
Okay, fine. So I went and screwed up again. You don’t have to rub it... what the hell?
Medley was cringing, curling up on herself until her knees were pressed against her chest. If Greasy had been inclined (or if Peeper had been around), he could have easily looked up her dress, but there were more important matters than robot panties. Things like why was she freaking out? and what the heck is that sound?
The sound itself was pretty easy to identify: the high-pitched whine of electronics, groaning with overtones of stress and strain that made a little part of his brain wake up and say you know, that thing’s probably going to explode soon-
-and then it did, the now-screaming whine ending in an ear-splitting CRACK!, followed by the sound of metallic shrapnel pinging off the inside of the nearby door. Greasy cringed as Medley slowly lifted her head, looking right at him.
“Brilliant. Electronically stabilized flywheel, and you decide to carry around pulse grenades. Did your daddy smoke at the gas station or something?”
Embarrassment burned across his cheeks at the bite in her voice, and he looked away, staring down at his bare, knobbly legs. At least I was doing something, he thought. His eyes flicked up, glancing at her for a moment. She didn’t even bring anything. What was she going to do, talk them to death?
Greasy could have gone on in that vein for quite a while; as a matter of fact, he did, his silent whinging interrupted only by Medley lifting her head and twisting to stare down the tunnel. Following her lead (and her gaze), Greasy looked and saw nothing save the empty tunnel and the piping on the walls, still washed in the red glow of the emergency lights.
That’s when he heard the footsteps- no, footfalls, the fast and heavy sound of booted feet pounding towards them. Greasy’s eyes widened as the security team rounded the corner of the tunnel junction at a dead run, the point man lifting oh sweet jesus that’s a flamethrower-
The man halted about twenty feet away, the rest of the squad skidding to a stop at his upraised fist. He peered down the tunnel at Greasy, squinting in the red gloom before lowering the muzzle of his flamethrower an inch or two. “You kids okay?” he called softly, eyes flicking up to watch the shadows between the ceiling pipes.
Greasy looked over at Medley, then back at the lead man as he nodded. “Yeah, we-”
“Great. Kid, I need you to hold real still right now.” Greasy’s mouth snapped shut as the flamethrower’s muzzle came back up, its holder waving another man to stand next to him, then watching as he pulled out what looked like a rolled-up magazine, taped to a length of cord.
The two men shared a look, and then the one with the magazine threw it underhanded down the tunnel. Greasy watched as it wobbled in the air, cord trailing in the air until it tumbled and skidded to a halt in front of him, the curled pages unrolling to reveal the PLAYBOY legend. He looked at it blankly, then leaned in to pick it up. What the-
“Kid, don’t fucking move.” Greasy started to look over, then froze at the sight of the foreshortened muzzle of the flamethrower, aimed right at him.
The man holding the magazine cord watched him with critical eyes, then began tugging, pulling the magazine back in a series of uneven jerks that put Greasy in mind of someone teasing a cat with a feathered lure. The tunnel was silent save for the sound of rustling pages as the magazine twitched and jumped, dragging its way back to the man reeling in the slack on the cord until he bent over and picked it up.
“Bait’s clear. Go.” He waved the others up, booted feet clumping as they leapfrogged along the tunnel to surround the two children on the floor.
“Yeah, we’re at the disturbance,” one of them said into his radio. “No Mickey, but we did find Greas-” He listened to his earpiece, looking over at Medley. “Yeah, her too... they look pretty out-”
“Sir!” Everyone looked over, and Greasy groaned softly at the sight of one of the security team standing beside the warped and dented door. He gestured at the fried lock. “This one’s been forced.”
Things began to happen very quickly. Flamethrower stationed himself by the door, and on a three-count, his squadmate yanked the door open.
“Jeeeeezus, what happened- oh, FUCK!” The roar of the flamethrower drowned out anything else he might have said, and Greasy found himself sitting back against the tunnel wall and watching red and yellow fireflicker silhouette the man inside the doorway.
Yeah. I think I’m screwed.
The trip back to Kane Hall was mercilessly brief as the security team hustled them back through the tunnels and into the chief’s office. Delarose watched them with dark, hooded eyes as he sat behind his desk.
He only spoke after they had been sat down and the door clicked shut. “Let me get this straight. You found some of the mice, but rather than using typical devisor problem-solving methods, you brought along...” Paper rustled as he flipped through his notes, “...a ‘death ray’, which the mice then stole from you, along with Greasy’s pants... which were filled with time-fused EM-pulse generators. Does that sound about right?”
Medley snorted.”Those are typical devisor problem-solving methods.”
“For dealing with armored vehicles and rampaging bricks, yes.” Exasperation was slowly building in the chief’s voice, and Greasy decided that it might be best if he kept quiet.
“What did you want us to do? Lay out traps and cheese?”
“If it works, YES!” He gave Medley a hard look, then turned it upon Greasy. “You two are both smarter than this, and despite both of your... personal issues that keep bringing you back here to my office, I know better than to believe you two are daft. So, Greasy... Medley. You’re devisors, or close enough to being one. Solve the problem, or be confined to your rooms until Carson gets back from Christmas break.”
Silence filled the room after he finished, and Greasy shared a quick look with Medley before looking back at Delarose, finding his voice. “Uhm. What if there’s another...” Words failed him, and he flapped his fingers to indicate some apocalyptic incident.
Delarose’s chair creaked as he leaned back. “Then I call the headmistress back to campus from her little engagement, and sweep the tunnels with all of my on-and-off-duty personnel. I’m sure all of my Security officers would love to give up their Christmas time with family to hunt down your little mouse problem, and I’m quite sure Carson is going to enjoy the fruits of your labors.”
Greasy swallowed loudly. Silence returned to the room as Delarose watched his computer monitor for several moments, then spoke.
“The clock is ticking, children. Why are you still here?”
A faint smile quirked his lips at the scuffle and clatter of feet, then the click as the door opened, then slammed shut.
There was a loud CLACK as something fell onto his desk. Chief Delarose looked down at the tiny wooden shoe that had been painted a stunning shade of hot pink, then up at the neatly-gnawed circular hole in the ceiling tiles above his desk.
Two furry heads looked back down at him.
“Hi!” one squeaked.
The other squeaked “Beware!”
“Beware?” the first mouse chirped, looking at the other.
“VIBROCLOG,” the other mouse intoned in a manner that would have make Simpkins’ toes curl.
Delarose looked back down at the shoe on his desk as it started to vibrate, jittering on his blotter as another mouse popped its head through the foothole and glared at him.
“Doooom!” it shrilled. “Dooooooom of the VIBROCLOOOOOOOG!”
Chief Delarose sighed and started to look for something large and heavy.
Greasy fled the office in a rush, sneaker soles slapping against the floor as echoes of the chief’s words chased after him.
-solve the problem-
-the clock’s ticking-
Gotta solve the problem, he thought. Solve the problem, scrap the mice, no screwups or the headmistress comes back and-
-and I lose Peeper. The thought didn’t hit Greasy quite the same way as it had originally; there was still that sharp spike of panic, but it had been dulled, blunted by the sickening feeling he’d get when he screwed up and Peeper hadn’t found out yet.
But that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to lose Peeper, not ever! I’m going to get him-
He slowed, then stopped, staring numbly down the hallway. -get him back.
It wasn’t the thought itself, but that he’d thought the same thing before, felt that mad rush of certainty, of knowing that this would work... and then blowing everything in yet another greaseball screwup.
And he couldn’t blow it. Not this time, not after Delarose had so graphically illustrated the consequences of failure.
I can’t screw up... but I always screw up, so... He looked back over his shoulder at Medley.
She was still standing outside the chief’s office, one hand on the doorknob like she was ready to open it again. Greasy cringed as her head turned, those blank dark eyes following him as he walked over.
For a moment, there was silence, and then Greasy spoke.
“I...” He swallowed. “I need your help.”
Medley laughed, a rich, full sound, and Greasy felt heat bloom across his cheeks until he couldn’t take it anymore.
“I get it!” he finally snapped. “I’m a screwup! Now I can go off by my lonesome and keep getting in your hair, or you can keep me around so you know what I’m going to screw up next!”
Medley had stopped laughing and was staring at him again with those unreadable eyes... but there was something in the way that she held herself, a sort of dismissive ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass’ attitude that she’d wrapped around herself like a cloak.
Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the hair thing.
Greasy glanced up and down the hallway, then back at Medley as she watched him with cool, detached disinterest. There was only one thing to try, one of the few things he was any good at.
He swallowed, a single nervous bob of his throat. “Medley-” he started, doing his best to ignore the dry, sticky taste of fear in his mouth. “Medley, I need your help.”
Medley didn’t move, simply staring as Greasy felt sweat start to prickle on his head. “Please,” he whispered, lowering his gaze until he was looking at her feet.
The only thing he heard for a while was the beat of his pulse, and then Medley broke the silence with a begrudging “Fine.”
Greasy blinked and looked up at her. “What?”
“I said, ‘fine’.” It was her turn to look up and down the hallway. “Don’t rub it in.”
He stared at her, dumbfounded... and then he felt it, that swelling of mad, gleeful hope, the realization that now he could get Peeper back. Of course, relief was mixed with shame; the quickly-budding guilt of knowing that he couldn’t have done it himself, that he needed someone else to get Peeper back.
Ends justify the means, he thought. As long as I get Peeper back, it doesn’t matter how I do it, or who helps me. All that matters is getting him back...
Greasy found that he was grinning like a loon, and Medley was watching him, and he just didn’t care.
“So...” He briskly started rubbing his palms together, then realized he was getting oil everywhere and stopped. “I’ve got all the project documentation and errata back in my room - there’s some old prototypes and materials down in the workshop, and I figure we can grab all the stuff from my room then head dow-”n to my workshop bay...
It took him a few seconds to realize that while his mouth was moving, words weren’t coming out. Medley watched as he faltered to a stop, then spoke.
“I don’t think so.” Her voice was cool and dry, but Greasy could hear a bubbling undertone of amusement. He opened his mouth to protest, but she quickly cut him off. “I said I’d work with you, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to be seen with you. All I need right now is some rumormonger running off to your boyfriend with stories about how you’re ‘exchanging schematics’ with me.” Greasy blushed.
“No,” she said finally, looking towards the elevator. “I’ll meet you after curfew, down in the workshop biolabs.” After a moment she added “Nobody ever comes down there, anyways.”
He nodded. “So, down in the workshop, after curfew-”
She cut him off. “And if I see you before then, I don’t know you. Try and chat me up and I’ll take you down.”
Greasy ignored the threat, having heard far worse from far more intimidating people. She’s going to do it! She’s going to help me get Peeper back! He felt his lips spread into a grin, and impulsively stuck out a hand for her to shake.
Medley just stared at his hand and the torn skin drooling oil onto the floor, and started to walk towards the elevator. “After curfew, Greasy. Try not to screw-” She burst out laughing, shaking her head as she walked. “Zapatos otra vez,” she chuckled. “Classic!”
He watched the elevator doors close behind her, then went back to his room to wait for the evening.
Greasy found that waiting wasn’t something he was good at.
It was different when Peeper was around; Peeper always wanted to do something, even if it was dumb or dangerous or detention-worthy, or even all of them at once. Peeper was motivated, and Greasy could certainly use a little motivation right now.
What would Peeper do? he thought, turning in a slow circle as he looked at the room. Scraps of skin littered the desk from the patch job he’d done on his hand, and he’d filled a satchel with all the material he’d need for later in the workshop.
It was a ridiculous question, mostly because Peeper never did anything; Greasy was always around to do what he wanted. So, What would Peeper do? became What would Peeper want?, and as Greasy’s eyes roved over the jumbles of clutter that filled their room, he thought he had a pretty good idea.
Several hours later, Greasy slumped back into his chair, regarding Peeper’s side of the room with weary pride. He’d reboxed most of the sample posters that Peeper had been reviewing, thrown all the dirty clothes in the hamper for when he did laundry, and even backed up some old pornography in the offline drive he kept stashed under his bed.
Of course, everything he hadn’t been able to organize or stow away had ended up on his size of the room, piled on top of his bed and slowly sliding back down onto the floor, but he could deal with that later. For now, he’d done a good job. He’d done what Peeper would want him to do. He-
He stared at the clock on the wall over Peeper’s bed.
He was going to be late for dinner.
The kitchens of the Crystal Hall generally produced passable fare (opinions of certain gourmands notwithstanding). Like any cafeteria, its goals were simple: Great quantities of nutritious fare, easily made, easily served, and easily eaten with a modicum of enjoyment on the part of the partaker. The Christmas holiday turned most of these ideals inside out, shook them vigorously, then hanged them up to air out.
Dinner consisted of stew – at least, it had resembled stew when the kitchen staff had set it out. By the time Greasy got to the Hall, previous diners had picked out all the bits of meat, leaving only vegetables that had slowly simmered into wet, grainy slush. For a side there was cornbread, left under a heat lamp for hours until it resembled upholstery-quality foam-rubber with a styrofoam crust.
Greasy fell upon it like it was his last meal, a whole day’s appetite catching up with him in a dizzying rush of hunger. For a few minutes, he managed to distract himself from everything that had been happening.
Then he heard the door into the Hall open, soon followed by a wash of chill air. Greasy didn’t look up, at least not until he caught a glimpse of the white figure moving in from the door, marble-white skin shining under the Hall lighting – and then he lifted his head from his meal, looked a little more closely, and found it was only Alabaster, making her slow way from the door to the food line.
Greasy sighed, then looked around the dining area, at the sea of empty tables and scattered atolls of people: clusters of maintenance staff and faculty, the Thornies and Twains and Whitmans who couldn’t make it home because it wouldn’t be safe to transport them or it was too dangerous to stay there.
But no Medley.
Greasy shook his head and bent over his plate, but he found himself distracted with each opening of the door, the rush of cold air scattering his thoughts, save one: Where was she?
After all, Greasy was pretty sure she ate; at least, he’d seen her in the dining hall before, and since she was usually squirreled away alone in some corner or other, she certainly hadn’t been there for the company. So why isn’t she here now?
He looked down at the remains of his meal, and for the first time that night, didn’t feel much like eating. He bussed his tray, then took the tunnels back to Twain.
Back in his bedroom, Greasy paced like a caged cat, watching the clock. His thoughts mirrored the tread of his feet, circling around the thing that had been bothering him since dinner.
She had to have a reason for not coming to dinner, and it wasn’t because she didn’t want to be around him; hell, she already said that she’d treat him like normal, which meant that she had expected to see him at some point (presumably dinner), but if she hadn’t been there either something was wrong or-
He shook his head. No. Stoppit. There’s some stupid reason she didn’t go. Maybe she came earlier, maybe she only eats once or twice a week or maybe she got takeout or she’s busy or...
...or she’s not going to be down there tonight.
Greasy swallowed, then went over to the bags he’d left on his bed, unpacking them, sorting the contents, making sure he hadn’t missed anything... then angrily shoveling it back in before starting to pace again. On his next pass by the bed, he did it again; unpacking, sorting, repacking... and then he heard a sound that sent a chill down his spine. It was very faint, almost at the edge of hearing.
And it was going squeesqueesqueesquee...
Very, very carefully, Greasy put the bag back down on the bed, then stealthily picked his way across the room towards the door. He turned the knob, pulling the door open a little ways and listening.
Squeesqueesqueesquee... It was a little louder now, coming from further down the hallway. Closing the door behind him, Greasy crept down the hallway, following the sound across the carpet. Light flickered under one door sill, and that faint squeesqueesquee had turned into a soft, warbling squeal as he drew closer.
He reached out, gingerly turning the doorknob as he felt the latch slide back. They were ready last time. Not going to be ready this time- With a grunt, he pushed the door open and stepped into the doorway, one finger raised in the vengeful wrath of a judging god.
There was a blur of motion by one of the desks, the pale flash of an upraised palm... and then all Greasy could see was the bright red of arterial spray, spraying in his eyes and mouth with the horrific intensity of a slaughterhouse pressure washer. He brought his hands up, trying to block the geysering blood... which quickly shut itself off, leftover drops pattering down on the carpet.
“Greasy?” It was a boy’s voice, sounding first surprised, then horrified. “Oh, shit. Let me get you a towel...”
Greasy shook his head, spitting as he tried to scrub at his eyes with a gore-spattered arm. “Heem-” There was the rustle of fabric, and rough terrycloth draped itself over his head. He grabbed it, scrubbed his face, then turned his red-rimmed gaze on Haematid, Twain’s resident blood manifester. “What the hell?”
The other boy flushed, his cream-pale face mottling and marbling into something that resembled fresh, raw meat. “I’m not the one making with the sneaky-creepy, dude!” he hissed. “Don’t you two usually do that sorta thing in one of the other cottages?”
Greasy felt his ears heat. “I was-I heard something... squeaking,” he stuttered.
Haematid looked at him with bloodshot eyes, adjusting his thick, black-rimmed glasses... and then inexplicably grinned. “No way! I should’ve guessed you were an analog guy, hey?”
“Analog... guy?” Greasy stared at the other boy, helplessly lost. And where is that squeaking coming from?
Haematid nodded. “Yep!” He scooted his chair back from his desk, revealing a small stereo system with two cassette tape players. “I pulled some strings and convinced Harry to make this one. Of course, it’s not vinyl...”
Greasy felt his face begin to settle into a masklike grin, only partly due to the blood drying on his face.
“...they do keep a lot of the character of the original audio intact...”
Greasy sighed. “Heem?”
The other boy beamed “Yeah?”
“Why is it squeaking?”
“Oh! I’m making a mixtape.” A scheming look crossed his face. “Say... you know Loophole, right? The one from finals, blossomed into womanhood amidst fire and battle?”
Greasy scratched flakes of dried blood off his hand. “...I guess?”
“Cool! When I get this mixtape done, you can help me leave it in her locker or something...”
After a hasty retreat from a one-sided discussion of the independent music scene, Greasy sprinted for the showers in an attempt to get the slaughterhouse stench out of his hair; his skin wasn’t a problem, as it handled blood the same way it did oil.
Just as he finished getting dressed, his alarm softly cheeped and flashed the time. After a moment’s frantic search, he snatched his bag off the floor and threw it over his shoulder, rigged a bueller on the door so der Hausvater wouldn’t think him missing, and slipped into the hallway, closing the door behind him.
Greasy had set his alarm for an hour after curfew, and Twain had mostly quieted down, aside from the sounds of people getting ready for bed or watching movies in their rooms. The hallway lights were on, but dimmed low, and he had no trouble making his way towards the elevator in the gloomy half-light.
Everyone knew about the button-code that let the elevators access the tunnels under the school, but only a select few knew about the extended instruction set that provided for mechanical settings beyond normal tolerances; ones that had been given nicknames like ‘The Dead Drop’, ‘The 8-Gee Push’, or “Limbo”.
Greasy didn’t have anything special planned; fingers danced over the call buttons in rapid staccato, shifting the elevator into a quieter, low-powered mode, without any of the chimes or indicators that might attract attention from passerby. The doors slowly pulled open, and he slipped into the darkened cab, fumbling for a moment before punching for the tunnels.
The elevator doors closed, cutting the light from the hallway down to a strip narrower than Greasy’s little finger; and soon, even that was gone, swallowed up by the dark as the elevator lurched and began its slow descent.
While the elevator was dark and silent, Greasy’s head was anything but. As the cab inched its way down the shaft, anxiety whirled between his ears. This is taking too long. What if someone’s trying to use the elevator and they get suspicious? Oh, god, what if they’ve already got a Security team waiting for me down in the tunnels?
Oh, god. What if there’s a psychic who can hear me-
Greasy felt the elevator slow to a jerky stop, and quickly wedged himself into the corner by the doors as they started to open, the harsh fluorescent lighting from the tunnel casting onto the back wall of the cab. He listened for a moment, then another, heard nothing and peeked out-
-and saw only an empty tunnel. No security personnel, mindreaders, or impatient people waiting for a ride up to the cottage. Greasy breathed a sigh of relief, shouldered his bag, and headed for the workshop at a somewhat-stealthy jog.
Behind him, the elevator’s lights flickered to life as its doors slid closed, returning to the ground floor.
The Workshop biolabs were located in a separate subcomplex from the rest of the project areas; when Greasy had asked about it at the start of the year, his guide had simply muttered something about ‘containment’, then distracted him with a convenient giant robot. As he looked at the heavy blast door set deep into the tunnel wall, he had to wonder: What the hell needs that kind of containment?
He took a step forward, and the door began to hiss and shudder, mechanisms and pneumatics slowly towing the chunks of steel composite back into the walls. Greasy hesitated, then slipped through once there was an opening large enough for him to walk through.
It’s clean, he thought as he stepped inside. Polished linoleum under his feet, white walls that looked like they’d been painted yesterday, white light with a bluish tint -probably UV sterilizers-; hell, the place even smelled clean, cool dry air laced with the bristling tang of ozone that uncomfortably reminded Greasy of Delta Spike’s ‘projects’.
Behind him, the door closed with a rapid hisssss-snap! that made Greasy jump. Taking a shaky breath, he started walking down the hallway, looking from side to side at the lecture halls and offices, all dark and locked for the holidays. Meet in the bio labs, she said. If she could’ve given me Mapquest,I’m gonna be pissed...
Up ahead, the hallway split into three branches, each labeled with a small sign. To the left was MICROBIOLOGY, to the right, MACROBIOLOGY, and straight in front of him was LARGE ANIMAL STORAGE, to which some joker had appended in red permanent marker HERE THERE BE DRAGONS. He stood at the juncture, unsure which path to take... until he heard humming, soft voices raised in harmony.
The sound was coming from the darkened interior of Large Animal Storage. Well, at least she’s not in Microbiology with Jobe’s stuff. He shifted his bag on his shoulder, and walked into the shadowy interior.
Aside from the darkness, the first thing Greasy noticed was the smell: rich and musky and humid, the watered-down wet-dog smell of animals that had been somewhere for a long time. From around him, heard the sounds of breathing and gentle movement, the hiss of heaters and coolers and gas-exchange systems for things he didn’t really want to think about-
And the humming, crooning low and slow from somewhere in the dimness ahead of him. Greasy followed the sound past isolation labs and around blind corners, finally finding himself standing by a large tank, almost as tall as he was and tinted red by the darkroom lamps that were studded around it.
Medley sat on the lip of the tank, feet resting on a stepladder and a metal pail in her lap. She’d changed out of her dress into what looked like jeans and a flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled up as she picked silver-red fish from the pail and flicked them into the pool with soft splashes. She didn’t look up as she stopped humming, then spoke.
“You’re late.” Her voice was flat.
Greasy flushed, suddenly glad that the light down here wouldn’t show. “You didn’t specify a time. Or give me a map.”
“I thought you’d still have the brain cells to find your own way.” She tilted the bucket over, pouring the fish into the water in a series of chunky splashes, then slid down the stepladder. “The fact that you got here without someone holding your hand is... well, you get a gold star.” Greasy felt his cheeks burn as she hopped off the edge of the tank with a clatter, carrying pail and ladder off to a dark corner. “Did you bring the stuff?”
“ I... yeah, I brought it all.” He took a deep breath, looking around the dimly lit lab and belatedly realizing how badly it smelled of fish. “Is there an outlet or something? Where I could plug in?”
There was the clatter of metal against metal. “Huh?” There was more clattering, then the shifting sound of someone trying to wedge something in place. “Oh, this isn’t mine.”
He looked uneasily at the tank. “Okay...”
“Just-” she grunted, and there was a scraping, grinding sound. “Just taking care of feeding.”
“Feeding what?” It was a big tank, and on closer inspection, looked like it might actually go down into the floor.
“ Fish?” There was amusement in her voice, and Greasy gritted his teeth. “What kind?”
“Big fish.” Greasy heard a splashing sound from the tank, and took a few steps back before Medley reappeared, wiping her hands on her thighs. “It’s not far. C’mon.”
‘Not far’ ended up being an exercise in sheer mockery. Greasy stumbled along behind her in the near-dark, the glow of instrumentation barely enough to keep him from breaking his neck. As it was, only Medley’s hand yanking on his collar saved him from blundering into a giant beehive that smelled of patchouli and cloves.
“Can’t we turn on some lights?” he whined, hurrying to keep up with her even footsteps. Behind them, the narcobees settled back into slumber with a drowsy hum of Ommmmmm...
Medley shook her head. “Nope. Lotta stuff down here’s asleep for the holiday – saves on feeding, I guess.” With a laugh in her voice, she continued “We could implant glowing beetle larvae in your face. I hear the scars heal pretty quick.” After a moment’s thought, she cheerfully added “At least, I think they do.”
Greasy forced himself to laugh as he followed her through the dark and clutter of the lab. God, please let her be kidding... I just want Peeper back, all right?
It couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes until Medley stopped him with a quiet “We’re here.” Greasy looked around, then squinted as she reached over and turned on a worklamp, harsh light glaring down on what was presumably her workbench. Greasy stared, speechless. This is it?
It looked like more of an afterthought than an actual workspace: a neglected corner of the lab with some old folding tables, scarred and stained from years of chemical abuse and spills, jury-rigged hardpoints for power and water, and several large plastic garbage cans, ringed with belts of electronics and tightly sealed.
Medley gestured in the direction of a folding chair, crudely upholstered with chunks of foam rubber and duct tape. “I need to get another chair. Start getting your stuff out.”
Greasy bridled at the tone of her voice, opening his mouth to retort... but she’d already vanished into the dark. She might not have been kidding about those larvae, either. He sighed and gingerly sat down, resting for a second before opening his bag and starting to unpack. You know, this chair’s pretty comfy...
Getting everything ready didn’t take too long; some of the older documentation printouts went onto the table, along with his laptop. He eyed the electrical hardpoint and decided to run his laptop off battery power. Maybe she’s willing to plug into that without a GFI, but not me...
It didn’t take long at all for Greasy to empty his bag... and Medley still wasn’t back yet. He sat there for a minute, fidgeted with his notes and computer... then started snooping.
There was something about those garbage cans that caught his interest, something almost familiar about the component arrangement and the modules that were plastered around the curves of the container. Curiosity got the better of him, and he started loosening one of the lids, gripping the handle and peeling the seal open. In the crack he’d opened, he saw dark liquid, a still pool that nearly filled the trash can-
-and then the smell hit him, the sharp smell of cat pee but a million times worse, burning up his nose as he gasped and scouring the inside of his sinuses with little wire brushes-
He pushed the lid back down, tears welling in his eyes as he fought down the urge to gag, then blindly made his way back to the chair. Oh god. Oh, GOD. What the hell was that stuff? God, I don’t want to puke, ‘cuz then she’ll know what I did and she’ll be pissed since I was snooping in her stuff oh god I think I’m gonna throw-
Thankfully, he didn’t, although it was mostly the consequences of doing so that kept his dinner inside him. I piss off Medley... she won’t help me, and that means I won’t get Peeper back.
“ Oh, hell.” Greasy tensed at the sound of Medley’s voice and the clatter of her hurried footsteps. Oh god she’s going to-
A cool hand touched his shoulder, then pulled back. “Shit.” Greasy heard her move and felt an office-sized wastebasket pressed to his chest. “Here, if you need to...” He shook his head, swallowing another heave before he looked up at her with watery eyes.
She was half-sitting on the edge of the folding table in front of him, and he heard her sigh as she looked over at the garbage cans. “I’m sorry... I try to keep the vats sealed tight, but sometimes they vent, and I can’t tell-”
How do you keep a fish from smelling? Greasy thought in a burst of morbid humor. At least she doesn’t think I did anything... or if she does, she’s not telling. He coughed, then cracked a weak smile. “It’s okay,” he rasped, waving a hand at the table. “Got... stuff.”
Her head swiveled back to look at him. “All right,” she finally said, her voice quiet. She pushed herself off the edge of the table and bent over, pulling out her laptop and authenticating before opening some files and hesitantly pushing it over by Greasy. “That’s all the code and stuff I got off the disc I found with them, plus the stuff I modified.”
What, you couldn’t put it on a CD or a flashdrive? How the hell am I supposed to run a diff on this?
Medley went back for her chair, and Greasy sighed, pulling his laptop alongside hers and starting to check things by hand. This is going to be a long night...
Greasy had just started getting into the swing of things when he heard something that even he found disturbing: the sound of Medley going awwwwwww like a Lisa Frank fetishist who’s seen her first live unicorn. He looked up from his laptop and froze.
Medley had a binder full of documentation and technical specs open in her lap; at least, that’s what it had been when he’d packed it. She held one half-turned page between her fingers, and Greasy could see her coat through the confetti-edged hole that something had chewed in it.
As Greasy leaned over, he could see the hole that had been gnawed straight through the binder pages, like one of those secret-book compartments; and, naturally, the mouse curled up inside, fat and sleepy after a hefty meal of paper and printer toner.
He started to get up, then stopped as Medley waved him back. With one pale finger, she reached into the binder, nudging the mouse – no, petting it, running her fingertip down its white-furred spine.
The mouse made a soft, contented sound, and Greasy finally found his voice. “What the hell are you doing?!” he hissed at her.
Medley glared at him, but before she could say anything, there was a sleepy-sounding “Mom?” from her lap.
Both of them looked back down at the mouse that was rolling over, sitting up in the hole it had gnawed. “Mom!” It turned its head, spying Greasy
“ Da-” the mouse began, only to be interrupted by a sizable belch. Once it had finished, the mouse squeaked out another “Dad! Hi!” before heaving its tiny bulk out of the binder and toppling to the floor in a decidedly leisurely escape attempt.
Greasy lunged, grabbing the mouse with both hands and turning it over so he could see its beady eyes. “Gotcha!” he crowed, squeezing his fingers as the furry machine wriggled and squirmed in an attempt to escape.
The mouse opened its mouth, a strangled squeak emerging before Greasy was blinded by a foaming torrent of grey paper-pulp. He felt the mouse deflate and slip free of his grasp, and blundered after it, lunging again and grabbing...
That doesn’t feel like fur. And it’s the wrong size for...
He pawed at his face, scooping pinata afterbirth away from his eyes and looking over at Medley. She held a frantically-flailing mouse by the tail, sounding somewhat amused as she watched him clutch at her ankle.
Greasy felt his ears heat, and he let go of her ankle like it had suddenly turned into a snake. Medley pulled her legs in and got to her feet, watching the mouse as it swung from side to side like a poorly-maintained pendulum. “Now, what are we supposed to do with you...” she mused.
He snorted a laugh, pulling his bag over and rummaging inside. “Well...” he grunted, then pulled out a thin cable. “I have an excellent idea.”
The mouse looked at him. Then the cable. Then Medley. “Mom? Mooooom? MOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM!”
Medley held the mouse as Greasy approached her, interface cable pinched between two fingers. “...is this safe? I mean, jamming wires in them like this. Couldn’t you use wireless?”
Greasy squinted at her as he moved closer, then focused back on the mouse. “Well, I could have built them like that, but who designs surveillance drones so they can be reprogrammed by any hacker with a laptop?”
“Given the current situation... someone intelligent?”
He scowled at that, starting to push the end of the cable into the mouse as it squealed a frantic “Nee! Nenenenenenenene-”
The cable clicked into place as the mouse hiccuped, then purred a sultry “-oooooOOOoooohhhhh...” before curling up into a tiny furball and shutting down.
Medley let the mouse drop onto the table, then scrubbed her hands against her jeans. “I’m pretty sure that’s your fault.”
Greasy snorted, making sure the other end of the cable was seated in his laptop before opening the interface software. “Well, I guess we’re just going to find out, aren’t we?”
He almost missed it the first time around; a single alteration down in the replication polling routines, the value change of a single variable: $MAX_MOUSE_REP.
His was 5.
Hers was -1.
“Oh, hells,” he whispered. “What the hell did you do?”
Medley looked up from one of his printouts. “What?” He pushed the laptops over so she could see the offending lines. “Oh, yeah. What’s wrong with it?”
Her tone was almost gratingly innocent, and Greasy gritted his teeth. “You mean besides assigning a negative value to that variable?”
“Well, I didn’t want them making extra copies of themselves, so I-”
He broke in, “-could have set it to zero-”
“-except in computer systems, zero usually means one, right? So I set it to negative one, and that kept them from making more copies.” She sat back, clearly pleased with herself.
Greasy felt a whimper bubble up in his throat. “...no,” he finally whispered. Peeper leaves me and I get stuck with a robot who doesn’t even know computers...
“ No?” She set the printout aside, leaning in to look at her laptop screen; for the barest flicker of an instant, Greasy had the urge to just grab her pale neck and slam it against the keyboard as hard as he could. “What’s wrong with it?”
He looked down at his hands, squeezing them into fists, tighter until his knuckles blanched white as bone.
“The compiler I was using uses a... unique version of twos-complement for its virtual architecture... if you don’t properly wrap negative values, they get misinterpreted.” He swallowed. “As positive values. That line of code says that the total number of mice should max out at two to the thirty-second, or...” he did some quick figuring, “about four billion.”
For a moment, there was silence, save for the hum of the two laptops.
“Oh?!” Greasy exploded, turning to face her. “You do realize that those mice will make more of themselves? And more? And MORE, until they reach that population limit you specified? Do I have to do the math to show you how deep we’re going to be in the things?”
Medley just sat there and waited for him to finish, one fingertip picking at a rubber band she’d wrapped around the tip of her thumb. “I can do the math,” she said, her voice quiet and cold, “and given when I first noticed them missing, we should already be hip-deep in the little guys.” She looked around Greasy’s feet, and her voice took on a sarcastic edge. “Given that they’re not spreading like wildfire, I think your doom-and-gloom routine is a little over the top.”
Greasy met her eyes with his. “Wildfires- fires, even -have three elements to them. Oxygen. Heat. Fuel. Limit one or all of those, and you limit growth.” He took a breath. You’d know this if you ever took a proper safety course. “Same thing goes for the mice, only their fuel is parts and components. They’re not nanotech, so they have to scavenge from what’s around-” Realization struck.
His mouth was dry. “I just figured out where they’d go first. The largest collection of compatible components in the workshop.”
In silent accord, they both began to pack; Greasy closed up his laptop and crammed it back in his bag along with the deactivated mouse, then turned to find Medley pulling on a faded blue lab coat, embroidered with what looked like sea otters and dolphins.
“You get cold?” he asked after staring for a few seconds.
“No.” She settled the coat on her shoulders, then stuck her hands in the pockets. “Anechoic lining.”
“Soundproof.” She opened one lapel, revealing a thick inner lining of what looked like felt. “Means I don’t have to listen to your sniveling.”
The ‘proper’ workshop was only a short run away; in Greasy’s case, it was an even shorter run, followed by a fast walk to the accompaniment of wheezing breath. They came to the doors of the workshop, and Greasy slapped the activation pad. The twin doors hissed and rumbled as they slowly began to open, and the two of them cautiously looked into the main workbay...
...and found nothing. The workshop’s main shaft was dark and silent, cubbies and alcoves lightless and still. “I don’t think they’re here,” Greasy whispered.
“Then why are you whispering?” Medley hissed.
Greasy turned his head slightly, glaring at her from the corner of his eye. “Because I don’t know if anyone else is around?”
After a moment, she nodded. “Better get to your lab, then,” she said quietly. Greasy nodded, starting to walk across the workshop. The quiet dark that settled around him was almost eerie; every time he’d been in here before, there was always the sounds of machinery and arcing electricity, kids yelling back and forth over the noise... but now, there was nothing but the sound of Medley’s footsteps and that high-pitched ringing you hear in an empty room.
They rounded a concrete partition, and Greasy breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his workbench, everything locked away for the holidays... and no mice. Okay. They haven’t been here. Maybe this isn’t going to be too bad.
Greasy started as Medley’s elbow bumped against his bag. “Go check your stuff. I’ll keep watch.” He nodded, digging in his pocket for his keyring as she looked out past the opening of his cubby. At least I’ll be able to tell if that asshole Belfo’s been pawing through my gear and grubbing for ‘kit’...
He opened one drawer, then another, checking the contents against his memory. Everything looked like it was the way he’d left it... He opened the next pair of drawers, the ones where he’d been keeping some of the old mouse-parts for recycling... and was greeted by the sight of bare metal and empty component trays.
Oh, crap. He pulled the drawers all the way out, and something inside him cringed at the sight of a roughly-gnawed hole in the steel backing of the cabinet. Not not not not not good... “Medley?”
“ Med-” He half turned, then froze as she sssshed him again, the sound almost menacing. Very slowly, he closed the drawers, then looked over. Medley was still perched at the edge of the concrete partition, but her body language was stiff, almost frozen; like she was listening...
I can’t believe I’m doing this... Greasy listened as well, straining against the dead silence, then tensed as he heard a long, slow scraping, the sound of rough metal shuffling against concrete... then silence.
It happened again a second later, then again. Almost like footsteps... He swallowed at the drawn-out moan that followed them. This is- The moan came again, and he could hear words in it...
Something scraped against the concrete right next to him, and Greasy whirled, eyes wide and white until he saw Medley. She held a finger up to her faceplate, then cupped the side of her head, right where her ear would have been. Listen, right. He nodded, slowly moving up to the edge of his cubby.
There was more shuffling now, and another moan, pitched differently from the first. “Hoooooooters...” it wailed. “HoooooooooooooooooTERS!”
Medley leaned to one side, tilting her head so she could see out... and pulled back so quick Greasy could hear the back of her head scrape against the wall. “Greasy?” she hissed.
He gulped. “Yeah?”
“If we get out of this, I’m going to fucking maim you.”
Greasy looked at her quizzically, peeked around the corner, and froze at the sight of three power frames-Jericho’s, I think-slowly shambling towards him like some bizarre crossbreed from Terminator and Dawn Of The Dead... and all with tiny, furry mice wired into their control nexus. One raised a shaky arm, steel manipulator unfolding to point right at him.
“GOOOOOOOOOOOGLE!” it shrieked, and Greasy whimpered as the scrape-shuffle of their footsteps quickened.
Cold fingers grabbed his collar, pulling him back to face Medley. “Figure us a way out,” she growled, looking around and grabbing a long metal pole he’d had mounted on the back wall. Greasy winced. “What’re you going to do?”
Medley rolled the pole in her fingers, found a stud, and pressed it. With a screech of metal, the ends shot out another two feet, and she gave it an experimental twirl. “Stall,” she said, then rushed around the corner.
Greasy tried to ignore the clatter and tumble of metal against metal (and several cries of “Mom!”), yanking open drawers as quickly as he could unlock them and scrabbling through electronics in a frantic hunt for something with offensive capability -without being obscene, he thought. Cameras, recorders, storage, bugs... why the hell can’t I just be a normal devisor with rayguns and things?
“Hey!” His head snapped up. “Hey, Greasy!” It was Medley, and she sounded... happy. “I think we’re okay!”
What? He dropped the projector he was holding onto the workbench, then rushed for the corner and peeked out.
Medley was standing in front of three toppled power frames, all weakly stirring. One tried to get to its feet, and she poked it in the chest with the pole, forcing it back to the floor. “This is a pretty killer staff, by the way,” she added offhandedly.
Oh god oh god... He ducked his head, mumbling “It’s a stripper pole.”
“I said, IT’S A STRIPPER POLE!”
For a moment, there was silence. Then the mice squealed in mad glee, moving with horrifying speed as they started to clamber to their feet, despite Medley’s attempts to keep them down. She was forced back a step, then another as they pressed closer...
...and then Greasy found an adjustable titanium stripper pole shoved into his hands as she started to run. He stared after her. “Where the hell are you going?” he yelled.
“Real weaponry!” she yelled back. “Hold them off!”
Greasy turned back to face the mice, hefting the pole. She wasn’t having any trouble with them, right? I could totally do that! He gave the staff a twirl, then adopted a stance he’d seen in a fu-flick. “HA!” he yelled, swinging as hard as he could.
All too soon, he found himself pinned back against his workbench, frantically batting at their metal gripper-claws as they snapped at him. One of the mice grabbed the pole, pulling it from his sweaty grip and tossing it to one side.
The mice were silent until the pole clattered to a stop... then they began chanting, and Greasy’s heart slammed into a mad dance of fear.
“Friendorenemafriendorenema...Friend or enema, friend or enema...”
One of the mice pulled out a disturbingly large turkey baster, loaded with a thick gel that glowed the yellow-green of a industrial-strength glowstick.
“Friend! Or! Enema! Friend! Or! Enema!” they squealed in the mad glee of beserkers toking helium, baster raised high as they advanced on Greasy again.
Oh, God. Gotta stall them, need to make them stop... He swallowed, trying to grin. “H-hey, guys? It’s me! Dad! Remember?”
“DAD!” they chorused. “Hi!” Greasy relaxed a little. I can’t believe that worked.
The frames turned slightly as the mice looked at each other, then seemingly came to a decision. “FRIENDLY ENEMA!” they cheered, continuing to advance. Oh, crap.
Greasy blindly felt through the gear he’d tossed onto his workbench, frantically hunting for something, anything... and then he felt the heavy weight of the projector. Yes!
“Hey, wait!” They didn’t. “You guys like boobies, right?”
They stopped, and one of the three chirped “Boobies!”
I’ll pretend that means yes. The projector was more of a prototype than actual hardware; a small holoprojector, power supply, and data storage, all in a damage-resistant, easily-washable casing. He’d originally planned on calling it ‘Peeper’s Porno Pack’, but Salvation seemed like a better name for the moment.
Greasy punched a few keys, then held it up for the mice as a two-foot tall image of a blonde girl in a very short blue-white nun’s habit appeared... and began doing yo-yo tricks. Whoops.
The mice didn’t seem to mind, one of them lowering itself to look up those long, slender legs. “Booooooooooobies,” they crooned in rapturous communion.
Greasy grinned. Finally, something’s working out. He balanced the projector in one hand, then shotput it out into the main workbay with a grunted “Go get it!”
As the mice scrambled after the hardware, Greasy turned back to his workbench. Now, I just need something to keep them down... Inspiration struck, and he started rooting through his drawers, tossing aside low-yield lasing units and socket wrenches until he found a small container he kept spare change in. Perfect.
He left the zombies where they were, pawing at the flickering image of a clingfilm-clad girl as she enthusiastically explained the history of the Ming Dynasty, and ran for one of the main corridors that connected the main core of the workshop with deeper subsections.
He whistled, the swift rise-and-fall that you’d use to call a pet as he shook the spare change in its container. “Ronto!” he yelled. “Ronto, come!” And Ronto came.
Ronto had started out as a Selectivend combination vending machine; at least, until he’d been the target of a Workshop class project several years back. After he’d been given tank treads, an agreeable AI, and a set of vicious countermeasures to prevent fraud and tampering, the general consensus had been to keep him.
The vending machine came a-rolling, booming “RON-TO COME!” in a cheerful monotone, then stopped with a creak and clatter of treads, along with a ponderous “RON-TO HERE.”
There was a “Aww...” of disappointment, and Greasy looked over his shoulder in time to catch the holodisplay wink out. Well, it was just a prototype. He looked back at Ronto, then bent over to punch in a combination on his keypad. S-2,C-6,P-1... god I hope this works...
To his relief, the vending machine’s lights flickered through a testing cycle, and then it boomed “RON-TO ORDER?”
Yes! Greasy didn’t bother fighting down the grin that bubbled up. “Ronto...” he bawled, spinning to point at the power frames that were slowly getting to their feet, “SMASH!”
With a crackle of ozone, Ronto’s defensive grid arced with electricity as it began to trundle towards the mice, quickly picking up speed. “RON-TO SMASH RON-TO SMASH RON-TO SMASH,” it bellowed over and over, a dull mantra of mechanical mayhem as it guided itself to the first frame, colliding with the most satisfying of crunches.
It must have been a piece of wreckage, torn free in the collision and tangling in the vending machine’s treads; unable to steer or direct itself, Ronto tilted, inertia carrying it forward even as treads continued to grip the workshop floor... and then it toppled, landing on top of the power frame with the crunch of broken glass.
“HELP HELP HELP,” it blared after a moment. “RON-TO FALL.”
Oh god. Greasy took a step back as the other two mice began to move forward. Can’t run, they’re too fast; if I hide, they’ll find me... and it’s not like I can fight them. What the hell am I supposed to do?
It was then that Greasy heard the clackity-clack of Medley’s footsteps at breakneck speed, and half-turned just in time to see her blow past him, coat flapping and a long, white blade in one hand.
What Greasy watched wasn’t a fight, but a brawl; Medley chopped and hacked like a novice butcher, that pale blade cutting and crippling the joints on the frames until they were rendered immobile and the mice abandoned them for the promise of escape.
The two of them stood there, amidst the wreckage of vending machines and power frames, spattered with green-glowing sludge... and Medley spat something in what sounded like Russian.
A little while later, Greasy echoed her sentiment. “We’re so screwed.”
***end part 1***
Several hours later, Trews looked around the corner into the workshop and the scene of chaos within.
He stared at the fallen vending machine.
Ronto’s monotone took on a wheedling edge. “RON-TO CAN-DY...”