There's a sign in the desert that lies to the west
Where you can't tell the night from the sunrise
And not all the king's horses and all the king's men
Have prevented the fall of the unwise
Oh, they think it will make their lives easier
And God knows, up till now it's been hard
But the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
No, the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
But a pilgrim must follow in search of a shrine
As he enters inside the cathedral
"The Turn of a Friendly Card": Alan Parsons Project
Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
Devisor Tunnels beneath Kane Hall
The phone ringing interrupted Tweak; frustrated, she pushed aside her keyboard and punched a button on her phone. "Tweak."
"Hey, partner," Booker's voice came through the speaker-phone. "Just thought I'd update you on things."
"Did you see anything on changes or such?" Booker asked bluntly.
"Just that someone put Loophole against Lifeline," Tweak replied, a little impatient.
"Yeah, I got that. And then it ended up being Loophole, Tansy, and Kayda." Booker gave her a quick recap of what had transpired. "We got hammered on that one. Everyone down here did!"
Tweak sighed. "You can't blame me. Nothing was posted on it as of last night, and I haven't gotten anything from today."
"Well, maybe you should go check your ... sources ... for today so we can stay on top of this! Our contact is going to get pissed if this crap keeps happening!" Booker growled.
"I'll push an update to the system so it'll notify me immediately."
Tuesday, May 29, 2007, Late-Afternoon
Fixer's Patio behind Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
The girl with spiky black hair walked casually, but a knowledgeable observer would note how carefully she payed attention to her surroundings. As she walked, she noticed a white-haired girl seated casually at a table, studying a book, or at least to the casual observer, she was studying a book. Ayla changed course toward Jadis' table.
"Good afternoon, Ayla," the white-haired daughter of the supervillain said, her dulcet voice friendly and warm.
"You're missing the finals," Ayla said as he sat down across from Jadis Diabolik. "There've been some good ones."
"Including yours?" Jadis asked, arching an eyebrow. She saw the tiniest of emotional responses from the Goodkind. "You do know that Jayne switched out Tissy's meds so she'd be ... a little unstable."
"So I heard," Ayla replied calmly. "I'm not surprised, considering she'd actively disliked me from last fall."
Jadis' laugh was soft and pleasant, despite the subject. "I'd say that's the understatement of the day."
"So how much did you make on my final?"
Jadis laughed again, her smile warm as sunshine. "Touché," she replied.
Ayla tried to frown, but considering his long-standing friendship with Jadis, it wasn't convincing. "You knew I'd be matched against Tissy, you knew Jayne would do something like that, and you knew Tissy would get reckless," Ayla accused.
"If I'd have thought you were in danger, I would have given you a hint or two. As it was, the only question was whether you'd rescue her from her own stupidity and anger."
"Which you no doubt bet on." Ayla scowled at his friend. "What kind of odds did you get?"
"Good enough." One of the Diabolik girl's eyebrows arched. "What happened with Aquerna? I missed it, but it sounded like Jayne got pretty rough."
"That's another understatement," Ayla snorted. "I didn't think she was so petty that she'd transfer her anger at me to Anna just because Anna is my friend."
"For a while, I was worried that you weren't going to patch up your friendships after that mess with Chou. I'm glad this isn't like that unpleasantness at Franklin Academy all over again." Jadis smiled pleasantly to soften the reminder. "So what happened?"
Ayla shook his head sadly. "As soon as they started, Jayne went vertical and found Anna. She tried to torch the park area so Anna couldn't do what she did to Buster."
"At least she demonstrated that she can learn from others' mistakes," Jadis commented dryly.
"Anna dodged several of Jayne's energy balls, but Jayne wasn't trying to hit her. She was herding Anna away from the park into a dead-end alley. Once she was trapped with no way out, Anna got hit pretty hard. Jayne must have figured she was down, because she left her and went looking for the hostage to rescue."
"That's how most students figure the finals will go - knock out the opponent and then take on the villains."
"But you know otherwise," Ayla said wryly, watching for a hint on Jadis' face which was not forthcoming. "Well, it hasn't worked out well for anybody except Generator," Ayla chuckled. "The word is that the scenarios are set up to require cooperation."
Jadis smiled pleasantly instead of confirming Ayla's supposition, which was not out of character. No matter how good of friends they were, Jadis and Ayla each had their separate sources and both knew the value of information as well as when to share and when not to share that info.
"Jayne took out three henchmen on the ground floor with her energy attacks, and a sniper atop another building. When she went into the building through a second floor balcony, the main villain hit her with an energy cannon."
"I was told that she was hurt worse than when I hit her with a heavy ball bearing last term. In addition to the energy blast, she was hurt pretty badly by the fall," Ayla reported, wincing at the memory of how badly he'd hurt Golden Girl in martial arts.
"That had to hurt her grade," Jadis said with only a tiny bit of sympathy in her voice. If one wasn't in Golden Girl's social circle, she would be at best rude, if not downright nasty. "So they both probably failed?"
"No," Ayla replied with a grin. "I think Anna ended up with a good grade. Jayne left her down, but Anna's tougher than she looks. She climbed up a building to scout around and stumbled into a second sniper position. After taking the sniper out while he was trying to get a shot at Jayne, Anna used that rifle against the main villain while he was gloating over hitting Jayne."
"Did she take him out?"
"No, but she put a hurt on him and had him at a standoff where he couldn't get back to the hostage without exposing himself to more fire, but she couldn't move from her cover because of his energy weapon. She ran out of time." There was more than a hint of pride in Ayla's voice at how his friend had acquitted herself in her final.
"She hasn't taken any firearms classes, though," Jadis sounded a little skeptical. "How could she ...?"
"Apparently, Anna's dad ..." Ayla started to say, but he paused when, from the corner of his eye, he saw Sam Everheart approaching. He shrugged and finished his thought. "Anna's dad thought handling firearms was a very important skill for his children. She surprised a lot of people with that talent, Gunny and Ito most of all." Ayla turned slightly. "Good evening, Admiral."
"Good evening, Ayla," Sam responded. "Jadis."
"If I were to guess," Ayla said circumspectly, "I'd say you're rather concerned about something security related and you'd like to know if I've heard anything helpful." He watched Sam's eyebrows arch, while Jadis sat unperturbed; if anything, she was slightly amused by the fact that the deputy chief of security was about to ask Ayla for information.
"Reasonable inference," Sam replied, acknowledging Ayla's deductive skills.
"And as it's time for Spring Combat Finals," Jadis decided to join the conversation, "it stands to reason that there's concern about the security of the information relating to said combat finals, true?"
Sam shook her head, chuckling. "It's easy to see why so many adults around here underestimate you kids." She nodded. "Okay. Let's suppose - hypothetically - that certain external concerns who capitalize on wagering on our combat finals were to get ahold of information about the matches and the powers of the contestants for each match. How much do you suppose said information would be worth?"
Jadis didn't take the bait, but Ayla had no reason to not cooperate with Sam. "Based on what I uncovered for our fall finals, I'd estimate that the total cash flow for these two weeks is in the neighborhood of twenty to twenty-five billion dollars, counting pay-per-view and direct gambling, not counting the international casinos and betting houses."
"Billion?!?" Sam's eyebrows both arched nearly to the top of her head. "Okay, so it's a lucrative business."
"Margins are pretty thin, though," Ayla cautioned. "Gambling runs two to two-and-a-half percent margin for the house."
"More like three and a quarter," Jadis corrected him. When Ayla cocked an eyebrow at her, she shrugged. "But close enough for your point."
"So we're talking about over half a billion up for grabs."
"Anything that would tilt the odds in the house's favor, even a quarter of a percentage point, is millions of dollars of potential profit."
Sam sighed. "Enough of an upside to pay off someone for the data?" she asked rhetorically.
"And it'd be very difficult to prove conclusively," Ayla added. "You're talking about finding small differences in profits and showing a statistically significant correlation between the odds offered, the house profits, and the match pairings. And then you'd have to prove the leak of data and that said data altered the odds in the house's favor."
Sam nodded glumly. "How are your skills in statistics?"
"You're asking if I could do an analysis of whatever data you're collecting?" Ayla looked a little surprised by the implied request. He shook his head. "I haven't had statistics yet. You'd be better off asking the Math Department."
"I already did. With class finals, they're overloaded right now." Sam noticed a little smirk on Jadis' face. "What?" she asked, a little miffed.
"Hypothetically," she began, "if someone were to have cracked the extra security this term, they'd need a contact to feed the information to one or more big-ticket bookies. So it's doubtful that you're talking about a single individual acting alone. Otherwise, they'd be dealing with small sums of money."
"What are you suggesting?"
"Purely hypothetically," Jadis cautioned, "if the data was compromised, it could easily have been picked up by multiple parties. Not everyone would be well connected, so someone might sell the information to various ... interested students that could afford to pay for data about their finals before the fact."
"Which could lead to the leak," Sam concluded. "While it wouldn't necessarily finger the contact with the gambling houses, it would help us plug the leak."
"To do that, you're going to have to work with Sensei Ito and Gunny to compare expectations versus actual performance, and also try to trace all communications and money transfers among student accounts, and also track down the wagering," Ayla added with a grim expression.
Jadis nodded her agreement. "You won't be able to plug the leak this term, but if you find the source, you might - might - be able to stop it for future finals."
Ayla rose. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going back to the Arena to meet my team-mates and see if there are any more interesting finals."
Sam Everheart rose as well. "I'll walk over with you, Ayla."
Jadis nodded, a knowing expression on her face. "Catch you later, Ayla," she said simply.
As soon as they were out of range of Jadis, without losing a step or slowing, Sam asked, "What's on your mind, Ayla?"
"Am I getting predictable?" Ayla asked, cocking an eyebrow.
"To the observant, yes," Sam chuckled.
Ayla bit his lip for a moment. "Someone knew that I'd be fighting Tissy," he said hesitantly. "Jayne swapped out her meds - probably hoping Tissy would barbeque me. You don't maybe have a leak; you definitely have a leak."
A serious grimace flitted across Sam's features before she could properly school her expression. "That confirms what we suspected - that despite our precautions, somebody somehow got the data."
Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Early Evening
Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy
Miasma jogged to the waiting room, almost bouncing with excitement. His combat final was the last of the day. They'd probably want to air out the arena overnight after he was done getting a B- this time, especially with all his new tricks. He'd been happy with his C- in the fall combat final, but just like Sensei Ito and the Gunny Bardue had recommended, he'd taken Survival Class, and had followed his own advice for holdouts. He'd begged Fixx and Bluescreen for some help with the holdouts and they'd come through for him - after he promised to lay off any beans, chili, salsa, and soda for a month. Under his coat were four gas grenades, each one holding a concentrated dose of his worst flatulence. The one time they'd set off the prototypes, the range staff had needed to decontaminate Range 5. These weren't as strong but they were still impressive. He also had a few other tricks involving sparks and flames; he was going to be one dangerous underdog now.
When he opened the door he was greeted by a shout of dismay.
"You have got to be joking!" the pretty sophomore model Pristine shouted. "You've teamed me up with him?"
The old sergeant smiled. "Think of it as a fairy tale, like beauty and the stink. Here's the situation, we have a supervillain in a tech lab with the head of research team being held hostage. They need him to gain access to the vault, which will take no more twenty minutes. Once they've completed that the hostage is of no further use and will almost certainly be killed. There are an unknown number of henchmen in the building, with weapons starting at light machine guns and going up from there."
"Please tell me," Pristine interrupted, almost pleading for mercy, "who did I insult to get him as my partner? I swear I didn't mean to do whatever it was I did wrong. Do you know what he did to the February Venus Inc. meeting? He melted eight rolls of film with one fart and I had to throw out a five hundred dollar top because I couldn't get the smell out. There has to be someone else I can do this with!"
Ito, who had remained silent up to that point, smiled; it was an evil little smile, and Miasma saw Pristine lean back gulping noisily. "There is one student we've had trouble placing. I'm sure Peeper would be very happy to work with you if we call him now," the evil little midget said.
Pristine didn't even blink, a dazzling smile came to her lips as she turned to look at Miasma. "So, my dear comrade in arms, we... should definitely... work together, right?"
"Uh, yeah sure," he agreed, never having a beautiful girl, or any girl really, smiling so nicely at him. Best combat final ever, he thought, as he let one rip making everyone in the room recoil in disgust.
"Now that you lovebirds have that out of the way, you have to get the hostage out of the building and to the police to win. Pris you're at the south gate, Miasma you're at the north one. Get going," Sergeant Bardue gasped.
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Running along the street, Miasma saw that Pristine was already outside the tech lab crouched down in an alley; she'd stripped out of her regular clothes revealing a skin tight cat suit underneath. She wasn't doing a very good job hiding, considering that the suit she was wearing was a brilliant white, while the shoulders and upper arms had a blue and white square pattern done up in beads, with a beaded blue and red belt set at an angle on her hips At least his suit didn't stick out, being a pair of tough jeans and a leather jacket with a simple domino mask. It was also more comfortable then his old gas mask he'd used in the fall finals.
Crouching down beside her, he looked over the building and tried to figure out the best way in. No ideas came to him; they hadn't covered running into a building full of henchmen in survival class. He knew how to run out of a building, but that was about it.
"Do you have any holdouts?" Pristine asked, almost afraid of what he might answer.
"Four gas grenades, a couple of sparkers I can throw to blow up the gas or blind people, and a lighter," he told her.
"Don't throw those unless we absolutely have to, and warn me first. I'm going to go in the front door. My force field will protect me from almost anything they should have. I want you to go around to the other side and in the back door when you hear gunfire. The hostage is probably near the top floor, so make your way up there as quietly as possible, and I'll keep the attention on me. Got it?" she asked.
"Shouldn't we stick together? In horror movies, when you split up bad things always happen."
"You're power is definitely one where working alone is better. Now get going. In one minute I'm going in."
He took off at an easy run.
Pristine sighed with relief as her... partner took her advice. She might lose some points splitting up, but at least she wouldn't have to smell him, and there was a remote chance that he'd be able to actually do something useful coming in from the back.
When she touched a button on her wrist, the time appeared through the fabric. She waited precisely one minute before she leaped to her feet, her force-field surrounding and protecting her as she dashed across the street. There was movement inside the lobby and she saw the muzzles of some guns. She gave a silent 'thank you' when she saw that they appeared to be normal weapons - no sonics, lasers or gases; she still had nightmares about Halloween when she'd learned how limited her force-field really was against energy weapons. With a well-trained spin kick the door was knocked off its hinges thanks to her exemplar 3 muscles.
Bullets tore through the air at her, only to stop dead and fall to the ground a foot away from her body. Smiling at how easy this was going, she pushed her force-field forward, pinning the nearest henchman against the wall, while ensuring she was still protected. Walking up to him, she slid the invisible wall to the side and punched the man in the face before he could react, breaking his jaw and sending him to the ground out of the fight.
Without waiting, she walked as gracefully as if she were on a runway towards the other shooters.
Miasma heard gunfire echoing inside the building, which was his cue. Without looking he opened the door and involuntarily screamed when a bullet almost took his head off. Leaping to the side, his fart - released accidentally from fright - temporally drowned out the guns and the call of the henchman for backup. He fumbled in his jacket for his first grenade. Pulling the pin, he tossed it through the door; a moment later came the sound of a hundred farts, and even he gagged for a second at the smell.
Stepping into the hallway he stepped over the pool of vomit and the unconscious simulated henchmen. The hologram that gave it shape on the ANT body flickered and died as the circuits corroded from the noxious and potent gases. There were cries for air from the stairs and two more henchmen fell holding their throats while trying to cover their mouths.
He made a mental note to thank his friends again for making the grenades.
Jogging up the stairs he wondered if it would all be this easy.
Pristine looked at her watch; there was only five minutes left, and even though she was moving more quickly now, the henchmen had slowed her down. Reaching the top floor, she saw Miasma coming up the other way. His clothes looked dulled and worn out, even threadbare in places, and paint on walls and doors peeled as he walked past.
"What took you so long?" she demanded.
"I had to deal with some guys," he said apologetically, but then he grinned as he moved toward her. "But my gas grenades work great."
From fifteen feet away, she smelled him. "Oh God! Stay back!" she shouted, trying not to throw up.
She grabbed a mask from her belt, clamping it over her mouth and nose, and happily drank in the filtered air. Once her lungs were clear again, she clipped the mask on to her cowl to free her hands. Despite her watering, stinging eyes from what little gas penetrated and overwhelmed her gas mask, she could handle being near the stench engine.
"All right, they have to be holed up behind that door," she said pointing at a large metal door. "I'll go in first. If and only if we meet a lot of resistance, use your gas, but I want you to grab the scientist and run the first chance you get," she ordered him.
She kicked the door open and spread her force field outwards, shoving anyone waiting to shoot back as fast and as hard as she could. There was just enough time to yell as a laser beam struck her in the chest from across the room.
Miasma watched Pristine go down like a limp rag. She was still breathing, but her suit was ripped open, revealing the armor underneath the outer layer. He panicked as the laser turned on him, and tossed his last two grenades as quickly as he could.
Before they went off the laser fired again missing him by inches, but the red beam was moving in his direction. With a scream of terror, he threw a small flash-bang grenade that was supposed to stun an enemy for a second or two as well as create a spark to light his gas.
Miasma didn't realize just how potent two of the gas grenades were, or how volatile the gas was. All three gadgets exploded at the same time. The last thing he saw before a ball of flame filled the room was Pristine raising her hand and shouting something he couldn't make out over the roar, but it sounded very similar to 'You idiot!'
Every window on the top floor of the building exploded outwards with a mix of greenish brown smoke and flame. The audience watching from above screamed in horror, and the arena portals opened almost immediately to let medics run in; close on their heels were every available healer in the arena.
They all came to a screeching halt just outside the building, overcome by the smell from the wave of gas that overtook them, turning their clothes a sickly yellowish-brown and making it almost impossible to see.
From the choking, noxious brown smoke staggered a figure holding two people over her shoulders. The usually graceful exemplar Pristine looked terrible. Her suit was scorched, the white turned to a greenish brown, her eyes were bloodshot and her hair was smoking.
With a growl Pristine gave the unconscious Miasma to the medics. Stumbling to Sergeant Bardue she handed over the simulated hostage that was still functional. Barely. "Here's the hostage, He's alive," she rasped.
"Good job." Like everyone else, Bardue was trying not to breathe too deeply.
"I don't care what grade you give me, just Get. Out. Of. My. Way!" she demanded through clenched teeth. "My hair is ruined, I have to burn this suit, and I need a very long shower."
Bardue hastily moved to the side holding his hands up defensively; even a tough gunnery sergeant knew when not to provoke an incensed exemplar girl.
"I should have taken Peeper as a partner!" Pristine growled as she left.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - Morning
Tunnels beneath Bleachers, Arena 99, Whateley Academy
The sight of four approaching security men caused a ripple of noise and then slowly silence descended on the crowd of students in the tunnels. At the head of the group was Admiral Everheart. She meant business about something.
"May I have your attention, please?" Sam called out, heard clearly in the silence. "Per fire code, congregating in the tunnels is considered hazardous because it might block fire exits. For that reason, you are asked to keep these tunnels clear. Is that understood?"
Immediately, the murmurs of disappointment and disgust filled the corridor, but the students began to shuffle to back into the arena bleachers or away from the area.
"Well, shit!" Risk grumbled as his 'customers', muttering under their breath, walked away from his area.
"That means you, too," Sam said firmly to the boy.
"You know, you're making it really hard to do business," Risk complained.
Sam shook her head. "Not my call. Someone higher up the chain wanted to make sure we adhered to safety rules, especially with so many students watching the finals." She suddenly had a thought; if she played 'good cop' with Risk, she might get some useful information from him.
"And they want to shut down gambling, too, right?" Risk asked sarcastically.
"It is discouraged in the handbook." Sam replied with a knowing smile.
"But not prohibited," Risk shot back. "And they're going to anyway. We all figure that the administration lets us do this to try to keep a handle on betting."
Sam simply shrugged. "Could be. That's not my call, either." She looked at the other bookies clearing the tunnel; most were going into the bleachers, where there would still be students congregating around them to wager.
"So what are you going to do now? Take betting in the stands?"
Risk shrugged again. "I don't know. I'll figure something out."
"Tweak? Booker." The bookie spoke softly into his cell phone around the corner from the main tunnel and restrooms. "We got a minor problem."
"Security shut down the betting in the tunnel."
"So what are you going to do?" the girl asked.
"Got an idea. How fast can you whip up a cell phone app that'll let me push odds to potential customers and take bets from them?"
"Hmm," Tweak stroked her chin for a couple of seconds. "Got a couple of apps I think I can cobble together and modify for what you want."
"How long?" Booker sounded desperate.
"Twenty, maybe thirty minutes."
"Do it. I need to get ahead of the betting, and I know from experience that it's too hard in the stands."
"How are we doing overall?" Tweak couldn't help asking.
"Pretty good. I've thrown a couple so it looks random, but I'm probably fifteen percent ahead of any other bookie. You get me that app and I'll pretty much own a few matches until someone else gets something equivalent deployed."
"I'm on it. I'll let you know when it's ready. Bye." Tweak hung up the phone and turned back to her computer.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
"What have we got, Bomber?" Deadeye demanded of his comm unit. With the exception of the flier, the Grunts were huddled near the police command post a block away from the cordoned-off city block where a notorious villain named Grosse Knall had twelve hostages in an office building and had provided video to show that they were all wired with explosive vests. Grosse Knall was a high-level gadgeteer specializing in explosives and pyrotechnics.
"No movement outside; just the police barricades and a few snoopy reporters."
"Any idea how many opponents?"
"Seven known accomplices, all inside. Reported to have squad automatic weapons and grenades," Breaker, huddled down with the group, echoed what the briefing had told them.
"Anything else you see?" Deadeye demanded.
"Buildings Bravo 2 and Delta 4 look like good sniper positions with a good view of most of the area and into the hostage area."
"Yeah, I was looking at Delta 4. It's probably got the best battlefield view." Deadeye looked around his compatriots.
"You're going to have to take out the villain before he can detonate the bombs," Mule said casually. "If we rush, he'll have time to blow the building to kingdom come."
"Do see the armored car?" Deadeye asked. As part of the demands, the villain had demanded an armored vehicle, which the police had provided to buy time.
"By the loading dock."
"Okay, here's what we're going to do. I'll get to the sniper post. Mule, Bunker, Slapdash, you're Alpha team; get in position on the north side. Lancer and Breaker, Bravo team, and you've got the south. When we're all ready, I'll take out Grosse Knall. That's the signal. Bomber, take out the armored vehicle when you hear the shot. The other two teams, standard breach and enter. Alpha, take out the elevators and then ascend the north fire stairs. Bravo, up the south fire stairs. And remember, we've got three guardsmen in power armor suits on the cordon line to help if we need them. Any questions?"
The team had worked so well together for so many sims that they knew precisely what each would do. "Okay, let's do this."
"In position," Deadeye reported. "I've got a clear shot at Grosse Knall, and it looks like one of his henchmen is with him."
"Alpha team, ready to breach."
"Bravo team, ready."
"High cover, ready whenever you are."
"Everything looks clear," Bomber replied easily.
"Okay." Deadeye lined up his rifle scope on the villain's head. It was almost too easy; the villain had picked a spot that was very, very visible to his sniper post. "In three," he took a deep breath, "two," and exhaled, holding it out, "one," and squeezed the trigger.
No sooner had the first shot been fired than Deadeye swung the rifle slightly to align on the man by the villain who was carrying a submachine gun. Another trigger squeeze, another round sent on its way, and another opponent was going down.
The crack of a rifle shot was the signal Alpha team needed; Bunker put a concussion grenade from her missile launcher into the entrance. Mule and Slapdash were running toward the shattered glass door even before the round went off. Their vantage point had a clear line of sight to the bank of elevators; a minor adjustment in aim and Bunker sent two RPG-like rounds into the elevator doors; the resulting explosions almost totally destroyed the elevator cars.
As soon as Bunker's first grenade exploded, Lancer and Breaker dashed to the entrance. There were henchmen inside the door, but they were a little dazed by the trio of explosions, and before they could fire, Breaker sent a concussion wave at them, bowling them over. Lancer's M-4 carbine made sure they couldn't get up.
The uneasy feeling that something was wrong really tugged at Deadeye; his two shots had been way too easy. And then, from the corner of his eye, he saw a streak of light and smoke rising into the sky. It only took a moment for him to recognize the signature trail of a surface-to-air missile.
"SAM - five o'clock, Bomber!" he cried frantically, even as the roof around him erupted in smoke and debris from a lethal hail of gunfire. Too late, he realized that his position was being fired on from a taller building - behind him and the rescue team. With a sickening feeling, he understood what had happened.
Bomber was lining up on the armored car when by pure luck he noticed a white smoke trail. For a moment, he was transfixed, and then he broke hard to his right to hopefully evade the missile he knew was rising toward him.
Slapdash was knocked forward by a massive hammer-blow to the rear of his armor. Stunned, he rolled as soon as he hit the ground, just in time to avoid several more high-caliber rounds which impacted the ground. "It's a trap!" he cried into his mic.
Nearby, Bunker had taken shelter behind a car, which was being ripped to shreds by gunfire - from behind them. "Taking fire from the rear," she reported, her voice a little strained. "I'm pinned down."
After being knocked over by heavy fire from the rear, which hadn't penetrated his TK shield, Mule turned and began to return fire to the attackers. It was haphazard; the attack was coming from multiple windows of the building to their rear. He allowed himself a brief bit of hope when he saw two suits of power armor clomping down the street, but that hope was extinguished the moment he realized that they were firing on Slapdash.
"Deadeye," he spoke in a calm voice that belied the situation. "Deadeye," he repeated twice more. "Bomber?"
"I'm taking ground fire," Bomber retorted immediately and frantically. "Missiles and machine guns!"
Lancer recoiled from the brilliant flash as an RPG exploded at point-blank range; if it hadn't been for his PK field, he'd be quite dead. A glance to the side showed him that Breaker hadn't been so lucky; he was down.
"Breaker is down! Breaker is down!" he reported urgently. "Taking fire from all sides."
"So are we!" Bunker replied. "I think Deadeye is down, and Bomber is busy with triple-A!"
"Get inside the building and find cover!"
Mule, with his nearly impervious TK shield, waded into the oncoming swarm of para-military thugs, ignoring their attempts to shoot him while his own weapon barked and mowed down a dozen or more attackers. Realizing that Bunker was still firing from her position, he began to back up toward her, still angrily shooting the oncoming mercenaries.
When a can sailed over his head, he ignored it; a grenade had no more chance against his field than rifle rounds or RPGs. But the can bounced and erupted in a cloud of thick white smoke which drifted toward him. He turned to run, but already tendrils of the neuro-paralyzing gas were seeping through his shield - one of its few vulnerabilities - and he got no more than a couple of steps before he was immobilized.
Lancer hung in the air helplessly, an expression of pure shock on his face, as the man before him, wearing a silly mask, taunted him. Clearly, the man was a telekinetic, and as he was dangling in the air, unable to get a purchase on any surface and unable to fly away, Lancer had few options. He took one that he knew of; reaching slowly behind his back, his hand grasped the pistol tucked in a back waist holster.
The look on the telekinet's face was something Lancer would never forget. In milliseconds, he went from gloating and taunting to sheer horror, and then his facial expression froze as the .45 caliber bullet smashed into the opponent's head.
Instantly, Lancer fell as the telekinet's grip on him failed, and Lancer had a fraction of a second to realize what had gone wrong. With no purchase on a solid surface, the recoil of the 1911 pistol had him spinning end-over-end and twirling, which disorientated him enough that when the telekinet released his grip, Lancer wasn't ready to fly himself, and when he fell, it was head-first. Even though he was only ten or twelve feet high, and even though his PK field protected him against shock, the concussive force on his skull and neck as he hit the ground knocked him out.
With Mule down from the paralyzing gas and with two power suits closing on him, and his own powered armor damaged from a barrage of energy and kinetic weapons, Slapdash knew that the situation was hopeless. Still ....
"Get in the building to the hostages," he barked at Bunker. "I'll cover you." He looked quickly to both sides, to the single suit approaching from his left and the pair closing from his right. "What was that line?" he asked himself rhetorically. "I always wanted to fight a desperate battle against impossible odds?"
Bunker raced up the stairs, knowing in her heart that the mission was blown, that it had all been a trap, and that the team was gone - except for her. Still, she could get to the hostages; surely that would count for something! She burst through the fire door onto the third floor, onto an open office space where a dozen or more people sat by the walls, each wearing a vest. In the center of the floor were two bodies, shattered by the sniper rounds from Deadeye.
"Are you here to rescue us?" one of the hostages, a meek-looking woman in her fifties asked.
Bunker nodded slowly. "Yeah."
"Good," the woman sighed with relief, a sound which echoed around the hostages. And then she smiled curiously, wickedly. Too late, Bunker realized that something in the situation was very wrong. From the woman's waist, a large-caliber handgun appeared, and the business end swung to Bunker's face. "And so ends our pesky little hero team."
The gun barked, and darkness closed around Bunker.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - Mid-Morning
Tunnel beneath Arena 99, Whateley Academy
When she saw the bookie heading for the restroom, the deputy security chief saw an opportunity to pry for more information. "Hey, Risk, can I talk to you?" She was still focused on the 'good cop' approach to the Poesie.
"Sure. What's on your mind?"
"How long did the Grunts last? I was tied up on a security call."
Risk chuckled. "Two minutes, thirty-eight.
"So my wager of two minutes thirty ....?"
"You're within the fifteen seconds. Is it okay if I drop off your winnings at your office at the end of the day?"
"You didn't have some inside information on that, did you?" Risk's question could have sounded snarky or accusatory, but it came across as light-hearted, as he'd intended.
"Who, me?" Sam guffawed. "I knew who was fighting whom, but not the details of the scenarios, so I was as much in the dark on that one as anyone. Speaking of the Grunts, how did you do on that one?" Sam couldn't contain her curiosity.
Risk winced visibly. "Not good. Everyone knew that Gunny was going to hit them hard, so my odds were heavily against them winning. But I got a little optimistic that they'd last longer."
"Nah," Risk shook his head. "Ayla's covering me, and besides, I'm way ahead for the finals anyway."
"How did the others do?"
Risk shrugged again. "Boxcars got taken to the cleaners. Booker did okay - maybe a little better than me. Memo had it pretty nailed; she cleaned up I think."
"You think she had inside info?" Sam asked, eyebrows arching.
"If she did, some of her other odds would be red herrings, because she's blown several of the matches," Risk countered.
Sam nodded, and then walked away, thinking to herself. Betting wasn't against regulations, even for staff, and it did get her a little closer to the bookies and their action. But so far, those efforts had been for naught; despite winning quite a bit of money on the wagers, she hadn't learned anything or seen any patterns in the odds offered by the bookies.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - Late afternoon
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Feeling like her whole body was trembling, Adalie forced herself to walk down the street toward her opponent, who stood in an intersection grinning with anticipation.
"I see y'all decided to get it over quick this time," Armadillo sneered.
"I am not 'ere to fight you," Adalie replied, her voice quavering.
"Just like last time, I see. Gonna run away? Or did you bring a white flag to surrender?"
"I am not 'ere to surrender, either," Adalie stated.
"Oh no?" The ultra-violent boy, in his manifested armadillo-armor, punched suddenly at the girl.
Only she wasn't where the punch would have landed - at least not when it should have hit her. Dodging to one side, Addy used the boy's momentum against him, flipping him over her hip just like she'd learned the hard way in basic martial arts.
Armadillo was experienced enough to roll back to his feet. Slowly, rage suffused his expression. "Y'all are gonna get a beatdown for that!" Using his telekinetic power, he held the girl firmly and pulled her toward him, fists cocked and ready to apply a lesson in pain.
What he didn't expect was for the girl to be grinning. As he swung, she ducked under the wildly-flying arm, grasping it and pulling herself to his side. Her motion interrupted Armadillo's concentration, and his telekinetic grasp of her vanished as she flung him once more to the ground, this time with one arm twisted painfully. In her other hand, to Armadillo's immense surprise, was a tomahawk just like everyone knew Kayda carried. Adalie's arm was bent and ready to deliver a nasty blow to the boy. He goggled at her, stunned and a little frightened by how easily she'd turned the fight against him. He was more experienced, but he'd made a possibly fatal error in underestimating her; after the fall combat final, nobody, including him, ever expected her to fight well and to carry some rather lethal holdouts.
Adalie grinned when she saw him staring at the raised tomahawk. "Oh, I bet you and your friends did not know that I 'ave been studying this ... interesting weapon with Kayda and 'er tutor. If you will listen to me, I will let you up. Okay?" She thought a moment before adding, "And in case you intend to deceive me, I do know 'ow to throw this quite well, just like Kayda does."
Still startled at the rapidity with which the girl had so effectively subdued him, Armadillo nodded. In response, Adalie lowered the tomahawk and released his arm, pulling herself very quickly out of his range should he change his mind.
"Aren't you gonna fight to see who gets to rescue the hostage?" Armadillo asked cautiously.
"Are you blind as well as dumb?" Addy declared in exasperation, frustrated and stupefied by his attitude. "'Ave you not been paying attention to the other finals?" she asked, shaking her head slightly. When he gave a tiny nod, she continued. "They you will 'ave noticed that the ones who try to fight alone never win! Only when the two fight together do they even 'ave 'alf a chance of succeeding!"
Armadillo gazed at her, puzzling her statement as he considered the previous finals. "Wait, so you're sayin' y'all think we should team up?" he finally asked.
"If you want a good grade like I do, oui! But if not, I can fight back. I can just run out of range of your TK, and then either avoid a fight or take you by surprise." She glared at the boy. "So which will it be? A fight on my terms, or try for a good grade?"
"I s'pose we ought t' try for a grade," Armadillo finally answered, sounding a little subdued and quite unsure of himself.
"Then let's see if we can't find out where the 'ostage is being 'eld."
"'Ow are we going to approach the 'ouse?" Addy asked, her voice echoing her sense of hopelessness and frustration. The two stood by a building at the edge of a small field; the target' house where the kidnapping victim was being held was in the center of a very open area; the villain and his henchmen would have no difficulty spotting anyone approaching via the street near the house or across the open fields.
Armadillo grinned. "I got an idea. Come with me."
Perplexed, Addy followed the boy around a corner. Glancing around, he pulled something out of a pocket and jimmied the door of a car open. Another tool yanked the ignition key cylinder out of the steering column, and he had the motor started. Total time, start to finish - under twenty seconds.
"You do know how to drive, don't you?" he asked somewhat sarcastically.
"But of course," Addy replied.
"Then here's what you're gonna do...."
The henchmen were a little more vigilant when a car drove down the road in front of their lair, but it wasn't out of the ordinary. At least, not until, with a loud pop, one of the rear tires blew, pulling the car out of control. It careened through a wrought-iron fence that surrounded the house, coming to a stop against a tree.
Inside the car, Addy wondered how Armadillo had caused the tire to blow at the critical time, but she was grateful. Now, she had to play the role of a banged-up, helpless girl. She slumped forward against the steering wheel, one eye open a crack as she watched two goons approaching.
The two were good, Addy had to admit. They circled the car from different directions, guns in hand, looking carefully in the back seat and on the passenger floorboards for any unpleasant surprises, one stopping on the passenger side while the other peered into the drivers' side. Seeing an unconscious girl, the one goon opened the door to check on the crash victim.
At the rear of the car, Armadillo gently eased the trunk open an inch or so; he couldn't see the house but he could hear two - no, wait, make that three - thugs. The third was farther away, probably near the house. He glanced down again at the inner fender of the car, now torn apart by the manifested claws of his armadillo shell. It had been trivial to rip that open and then, at a strategic time, use those same claws to shred the tire and cause a blowout. It wasn't as much fun as a good old-fashioned beatdown, but it still gave him a little satisfaction.
Now, though, it was time for some serious head-bashing. Popping open the trunk, he rolled out to the ground, coming up on his feet. Even as the startled goon at the passenger door swung his gun toward the boy, he used his TK to yank the gun from the thug's hand. The hired goon, open-mouthed in shock, was watching his gun mysteriously fly away, and only turned back to the boy just as Armadillo's claws tore half his face off. A fraction of a second later, the boy finished disemboweling the thug.
As soon as she heard the trunk open, Adalie grabbed the arm of the goon looking in the window, pulling inward even as she crashed herself against the door and into the henchman's body. Before he could even think of aiming his gun at her, she had him disarmed and landed five or six hard blows at his head. She let the thug sink to the ground, unconscious.
Seeing Armadillo having a little extra fun beating up the one goon, Adalie turned toward the house and saw a guy charging her way, a gun in his hand. The tomahawk she'd borrowed from Kayda - without telling anyone that it wasn't part of her normal gear - flew straight and true, embedding itself in the goon's chest. He dropped like a wet sack of cement.
"You go in the front," Addy said urgently to Armadillo. "I'll go around the back - in case they try to escape that way."
Grinning with anticipation of another fight, Armadillo charged into the house, right into a bulky goon. Instantly, the two were engaged in battle, the boy grinning malevolently as he let loose his violent side.
Adalie ran swiftly around the house, and when she saw two guys - one holding a hostage - running from the house, she kicked into high gear. At nearly ninety miles an hour, she ran in an ever-tightening circle around the two, one of whom made the mistake of trying to watch her. A few shots rang out - and all were way behind her since she was going so fast and the goon didn't lead her enough. He wobbled, and Addy swooped in, knocking him over before she administered several rapid blows to his head.
The head villain was backing toward the house again, the hostage in one hand and a gun in the other, pointing at the hostage's head. "One move and he's dead!" the villain hissed. Slowly, he backed up toward the house that was strangely devoid of the noise of a violent fight that had been so pronounced only moments before.
Addy looked helplessly at the hostage, knowing she'd never be quick enough to intervene before the villain pulled the trigger. "You should let 'im go," she said to the villain. "You know the police will be 'ere in moments to arrest you."
"Not while I've got a hostage!" the villain sneered, still backing toward the safety of the house.
And then from behind him, Armadillo yanked the gun away, tearing the villain's arm half-off in the process. Ready from having seen him in the doorway, Adalie darted in toward the hostage, yanking the kid free of the villain's arm even as Armadillo tore into him again. The air horn sounded, while the ultra-violent boy continued to pound the simulated villain, with simulated guts and blood spraying everywhere. Only when he realized the goon wasn't fighting back did the rage recede from Armadillo's mind.
"What ... what happened?" he asked, semi-dazed and covered in blood spatters.
Adalie swallowed hard, fighting her nerves. "I think we won."
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - Late afternoon
Room 3, Range 99, Whateley Arena
"That was interesting," Sensei Ito commented unemotionally as he and Gunny Bardue walked into the room for the debrief. "It seems you learned something of fighting after all, Miss Vitesse."
Addy sat in a chair, trembling. "I do not like fighting like that," she said, ashen-faced. "I 'ate it!"
"Nevertheless," Gunny said, "you were able to fight when you needed to."
"What was the worst part?" Ito asked.
"I ... I was terrified!" Addy confessed, her eyes misting. "The men, and the villain - and even that ... 'e ... might turn on me." She glanced at Armadillo as she spoke the last bit.
"But you acquitted yourself reasonably well." Bardue handed Adalie a folded slip of paper.
"An A?" the girl asked, stunned. "I got an A?"
"You managed to convince Armadillo to team with you," Ito said, and then he arched an eyebrow, "although your method of persuasion was a little unorthodox. You worked reasonably well together. You showed some unexpected skills with Pejuta's tomahawk ...."
"It is my tomahawk," Addy replied sternly. "A gift from Monsieur Two Knives. So I could protect myself if needed."
Bardue nodded and then turned to the boy, handing him a paper as well.
"A minus?" Armadillo asked, stunned.
"You were resourceful in hotwiring a car, although I can't help but be curious as to where and why you learned such skills," Ito said wryly. "You partnered to perform the rescue, even though it was admittedly under duress. But you allowed yourself to be distracted a little because you were enjoying a good fight."
After the instructors left, Armadillo looked at Adalie. "Thanks."
"For helpin' me get an A-minus. I ain't never had a grade that good before."
"It was my grade, too," Adalie said humbly.
"Sometime," the boy said eagerly, "I'd like to fight you - one-on-one, like the fall combat final."
"Non," Adalie said firmly. "I know 'ow to fight, and I can defend myself, but I 'ate it."
"That's too bad," Armadillo replied wistfully. "Coulda had a hella fun fight."
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - Late Evening
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Sorry about the time," Sam apologized toward the speakerphone.
"It comes with the territory." Liz Carson's voice sounded a tiny bit fatigued; the surprising thing was that she didn't sound even more tired given all the unusual events that normally transpired during finals. "Who have you got with you?"
"Just the Chief. Gunny and Tetsuo are still busy closing up the arena and doing prep for tomorrow," Sam answered immediately.
"I assume this is about the betting and our security breach?"
"Well, we'll get word to them when they finish if we need their help on anything. Amelia is in the office with me. What have you got?"
Sam couldn't help shaking her head out of reflex, even though Liz and Amelia couldn't see. "Nothing so far."
"You didn't find any disruptions in the betting patterns when you disrupted the bookies?"
"No. Blue and Cyberkitty were pulling data from the casinos the whole time. There was no discernable change in odds or betting for the two finals before our bookies were back in business in any major way. By the way, Amelia," Sam added, "you owe me fifty."
"Oh?" Amelia Hartford's voice echoed with curiosity.
"Booker was first on-line on the smart-phones in forty-seven minutes. Hazard took the longest at one hour thirty-five." Sam permitted herself a thin smile. "You said it'd take at least fifty-five minutes for someone to get on-line."
"I knew you wouldn't keep them out of action for long," Amelia sounded amused by the creativity of the students, even though she'd lost a small wager.
"I'd like to try something a little more extreme tomorrow."
"What?" The curiosity in Liz's voice was almost palpable.
"I'd like to take the cell phone relays in the arena off-line tomorrow."
"You didn't get anything this time," Amelia cautioned Sam.
"As soon as they're off-line," Sam added, "I want to have Gunny and Tetsuo pull a changeup."
"You have a hunch?" the Chief asked, one eyebrow cocked quizzically.
Again, Sam nodded. "The only data point that's ... unusual ... is the one from Loophole's final."
"Where Lifeline bailed, and Solange and Pejuta joined her in the crash?" Liz sounded like she already had a grasp of Sam's thinking.
"Yeah. The betting pattern before that was a little more complex - combinations of winners, losers, cooperation, injuries, and the usual. On Loophole's final, everyone, and I mean everyone, changed odds to simple win or lose. I know we caught our campus bookies flat-footed, but we caught the external gambling houses by surprise as well."
"You're hoping a changeup will flush out a rat, and that limiting communication channels will make it easier to track?"
"Yeah. And to be sure, I want security watching all the landline phones near the arena."
"Don't have to," Amelia Hartford interrupted. "I'll have Cyberkitty 'adjust' the phones so we record everything from those lines. If someone makes a phone call, we'll know about it in real-time."
"Okay," Liz agreed. "That sounds reasonable. And Sam?"
"You don't need to run everything past me. You've got carte blanche to find and plug this leak. I'll let Gunny and Tetsuo know that if you make a request, they need to honor it as best as they can."
"Yes, ma'am." Sam reflexively stiffened, and it looked like she was repressing an instinct to salute at the phone.
"Keep Amelia informed. She can help a lot with IT resources."
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Morning
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Buxton," the security Sergeant said curtly, already sitting bolt upright behind his desk because his phone had displayed the source number.
"I need the odds on the changeup," a familiar voice demanded.
"Changeup?" Buxton was a bit puzzled. "What changeup? I haven't got any reports of anything," Buxton said, already extracting his cell phone.
"The lineup isn't what we were promised," the deep somber voice said menacingly. "I thought you had fixed things after that last little fuckup."
"Hold a sec." He punched the 'hold' button on the phone and frantically dialed a number on his cell phone. It range three or four times without an answer. "Dammit!" he swore to himself. In a heartbeat, he was on his feet dashing toward the ops center. Without a word, he grabbed a hand radio. "Caruthers?" He patently ignored the duty officer and stormed back to his office.
"Caruthers. What is it, Sarge?"
"I had a report of a disturbance at the arena. Go check it out."
"A disturbance? What kind?" Caruthers wasn't quite sure what Buxton was up to.
"Odds are it's nothing, but go check it out pronto and report everything you see," Buxton snapped.
"Ah," Caruthers' voice had the 'eureka' tone in it. "I'm on it."
"Call me - on my cell."
"Copy." The radio clicked off, and Buxton put down the mic. What the hell else could go wrong this morning? His customer did not sound happy.
"I'll be in my office," Buxton growled at the desk officer.
He hadn't even sat down when he picked up the phone. "My man is checking on things now."
"He better hurry."
A moment later, the other line on the phone rang. "Just a sec." Buxton impatiently pushed the other button. "Buxton."
"Sarge, cell phone service is out."
"The relays are out in the Arena. So I had to get one of the landlines. The odds ...."
"Shut up!" Buxton snapped. "Sensitive info; we don't want ... students ... listening in," he thought quickly. "Double-time it over here." He started to hang up, and then thought again. "No, wait!" he practically shouted into the phone. "Get your contact on line and get me the data immediately, using the campus wifi and code Bravo-Seven. You know the contact point."
"Yeah, now move it! Our friends are waiting!" Buxton snarled to himself; this was a full-fledged Charlie Foxtrot, and his customers were not happy. There had to be a reason for the cell phones to be out. He punched the other phone button. "We always have a few changeups," he said smoothly, "and it just happened that we have a technical difficulty with our cell phone service in the arena. I've got my men working the issue." As he spoke, his fingers danced over his keyboard, opening his browser and going to a particular site. The seconds ticked by like hours until finally, some data popped up on the screen.
"Okay, here we go." He recited the data, making sure he didn't mention student names but only their powers, as well as the odds that Caruthers had found."
"Keep this up and your payoff is going to suffer!" the voice on the other end snarled.
"Hey," Buxton snapped right back, "I can't control what the schedulers do, and I sure as shit can't control technical stuff. I'm getting you the data as soon as I can!"
"It's hitting our bottom line!"
"I know that!" Buxton retorted angrily. "And I'm getting you everything I've got!"
"Well, it'd be better if you didn't have these surprises."
"Yeah, well sometimes life sucks. I'll let you know the moment anything changes." He hung up the phone, glaring at the offending instrument. It wasn't his fault that Ito and Bardue were changing things, although he was starting to suspect that the cell phone outage was not a coincidence.
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99 Grandstands, Whateley Academy
"Okay, so do we think we've seen all the variants of the basic hostage scenario?" Jadis asked the other Bad Seeds.
"I think that they're using the basic templates from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School," 'Cheese' said as his fingers flickered over the keyboard of his laptop. "The bad news is that if they're using the particular set of templates I think, then they're using a 'plug and play' variant with six different scenes, each of which will have three different hostage locations. Each hostage location will probably have two different escape routes. They'll probably have 6 different Bosses, varying sets of Minions, Hostages, Settings, and Obstacles, which can be combined in a very wide range of ways, mostly to confuse students who're watching and trying to figure out how to beat the scenario, but also so they can switch things around to make them harder for specific power sets. My best guess is they have 36 basic settings to work with."
"Personally, I'm just digging on seeing the telepaths having to cope with ANTs they can't read or control," Winter said with a wide jeering smile. Romeo gave her a censorious *ahem!* that barely dented her schadenfreude.
"We've got a problem," Jean-Armand commented, frowning at his cell phone. "I can't send the setup data to Hazard. Cell service is out for some reason." There was a minor scramble as the other Seeds quickly checked their phones, only to come to the same conclusion.
"Do we still have wi-fi?" Mal asked immediately.
Cheese nodded. "Yeah."
"Send it to Hazard encrypted e-mail, marked extremely urgent," Jadis directed. Though she wasn't technically leader of the Seeds, she nonetheless had a lot of cachet within the group, and they almost instinctively followed her lead, since she had an annoying habit of almost always being right.
"Do you guys always put this much effort into these combat finals things?" Vamp asked from where she was seated, possibly the only one of the group without a pair of binoculars or video camera or sensor or some other form of surveillance gear trained on the arena. Since helping Jadis with that big mess in New York during Spring Break, Vamp was generally considered as having 'made her bones' with the Bad Seeds, but she still wasn't quite up to speed.
"Well, you have to understand that they got it set up so that the grades from these bust-ups accounts for roughly a third of our Grade Point Average for PE or power-type classes for the semester," Mal, Jadis' brother, explained as he carefully adjusted the controls for the tri-barreled sensor arrangement he was aiming at the arena. "And Jadis is all about the grades."
"Hey, I have a good chance of getting an A on my Mystic Arts final this year," Jadis rebutted, never taking her eyes off the area. "I don't want anything to spoil that."
"Besides," Nacht, who was peering through what looked like a monocle on a stick with a triangle set within the circle of the monocle's rim, "Hazard is cutting us in for a percentage of the points she's getting from her contacts in Vegas, so we're feeding her as many factors as we can, so she can figure the odds better."
"You mean, bookies off-campus are betting on this? And the Administration is allowing this?"
"Nope," the assembled Bad Seeds said as one.
"Okay, we're getting a definite idea as to the next setup," Cheese interrupted them, staring intently at his laptop. "A Mantis unit with blasters for the boss, a bunch of armed red ANTs for mooks, three black ANTs with Impact patches for hostages, a simple slap-together reinforced concrete panel 'hut' with Messingite™ roof panels, a reinforced cinderblock wall covering the 'back' and a collection of 'boom barrels' out front. They're using the disposable villains for this one, so they're expecting the students to get rough, but the Mantis is equipped with a vox-box, so negotiation is an option on this one.
"What the hell?" Jay-Arm had a puzzled look on his face as he gawked at his laptop screen.
"What?" the group demanded in almost perfect unison.
"Hazard says that her contact doesn't need the setup data!" Jay-Arm reported in astonishment. "Her buyer isn't buying!"
"Impossible!" several of the Seeds echoed.
Jadis, however, frowned. "Maybe someone already sold them the data. Remember, despite the paranoid secrecy about the finals this term, someone is selling information about combat finals matchups through the SyndiList website with payment through iPayoff," Jadis reminded them. "So someone got the data and apparently they sold it to the Vegas interests first."
"Even with all the bug-sweeps and magic sweeps?" Vamp gawked at the implication that someone was powerful enough to defeat both magic and technology.
Jadis nodded slightly. "Yes, in spite of that."
"You know who it is, don't you?" Jay-Arm about half-demanded.
"Let's just say that I've got a very strong suspicion about who got the data and how," Jadis replied with a knowing smile.
Then there was a chime to inform the students that this arena was ready, and the contestants had been chosen. "Okay, let's see who the next two vict-" Jadis started to say, but stopped when the PA interrupted her.
"The next two contestants are numbers sixty-two and three eighty-seven."
Jadis scowled. "Sixty-two is me, but who am I up against?" She glanced at Mal, who was intently studying his cell phone, but Nacht tapped her on the forearm. Jadis followed Nacht's pointing arm, and her jaw dropped in shock.
"According to my source," Mal said, not looking up, "you're paired against Marty Penn."
Cheese had been watching, and when he heard Jadis acknowledge her number, he smirked and he sneaked his hands onto a video camera and had it ready. Whether it was Mal's comment or Nacht's pointing at Mega-Girl, he was perfectly positioned to catch a priceless moment of Jadis' expression as she realized she'd been paired with the girl who'd stolen her moment of glory in New York a couple of months earlier.
"Mega-Girl?" Jadis rose, anger suffusing her features for a brief moment before she schooled her expression, blank-faced with only her eyes darting back and forth to show that she was anything but completely stunned by the pairing.
Then she stood up and glared across the arena at where the Cape Squad had been sitting, some of them obviously closely watching what the Bad Seeds had been doing. "MEGA-GIRL!" Jadis shouted across the arena. When she looked, Jadis simply pointed two fingers into her eyes, and then pointed those fingers at Marty 'Mega-Girl' Penn, giving her the Horns of Malediction.
Marty, who was sitting there in her blue-and-white superhero suit, turned unheroically pale, and gave a wide-eyed gulp of barely restrained panic.
"C'mon, Marty!" Stronghold pulled Mega-Girl up to her feet. "The teachers must have decided to give you a chance to show what really happened in New York over the Spring Break!"
"What?" Marty bleated at him. "How would me going into the arena with She-Beast show anything?"
"Marty, this is not the time to be modest!" Stronghold said as he hustled her down the corridor with Lady Liberty and Magni-Girl following close behind. "She-Beast has been bitching and moaning that you copped all the glory for what happened with Miss Liberty and the Witch Queen and the Federal Reserve thing! Now's your chance to prove that she should have been left in that cell to rot!"
"Yeah!" Lady Liberty gushed, "You saved Miss Liberty!" Despite the similarities in their codenames- or maybe because of them, or maybe the other way around- Libby was a huge fangirl of Miss Liberty, the New York City superheroine that Mega-girl had met during the big mess with the Karedonian Crown Jewels. Well, 'met' was sort of overstating it. Yes, Marty had run into Miss Liberty, but all that she'd said to Mega-Girl was, 'Get out of my way, kid; you're spoiling my aim.' But she had spoken to Marty!
"And maybe if you show up that bitch She-Beast for the loser she really is, then Gloriana will stop pestering us to rush her, or that other weenie crap," Magni-Girl said. "I mean, Nightlord said that She-Beast tried to kill a little kid, and nobody says anything about it!" In stark contrast to the Miss Liberty thing, which was a lot less than it seemed, Marty knew that there was a lot more going on with that thing with the kid than it seemed. Not that Marty had anything to be ashamed of; she'd held her own against an A-List Supervillain! Or at least her henchmen…
But Jadis had gone toe-to-toe with the Big Cheese herself, and for some reason, the news media never said anything about that…
Then it registered with Marty: Jadis had gone toe-to-toe with a woman who had seven superhero kills on her sheet! Okay, she'd gotten her ass handed to her, but she not only walked away from it, but she got what she wanted! And then Marty remembered that she'd had Powers Theory with Jadis, their Freshman year, and Jadis got gotten an A. Marty, on the other hand, had been lucky to stay awaken long enough to scrape by with a D. They both had Psychokinetic based powers, but Jadis knew a lot more about how they worked… and she was really pissed about the DA making a big deal about Mega-Girl, mostly so they wouldn't have to give Jadis any credit. But why was Jadis so mad at her about what Magni-Girl and Iron Star were saying? She'd tried to get the others to listen, but as per usual, nobody was listening to her!
Marty was in mid-blither when they got to the entry portal to the arena. Jadis was waiting there with two of her Bad Seed buddies. Somehow Jadis had already changed into her red-and-black 'Madam Hydra' knockoff outfit, with the jackboots and long gloves- and utility belt- with the deck of magic cards- and whip… The part of Jadis' face that wasn't covered by the visor was calm and impassive, but her eyes… How do you glare daggers at someone through a visor? Was that something that her mad doctor father taught her?
As soon as Steve, Steffi and Libby- oh, and Jadis' two buddies- left the staging area, Marty started spin-doctoring for all she was worth. "Oh Come on, Jadis, it is not my fault! It's Magni-Girl and Iron Star, and you know how they are…" Jadis shot her a bitter glare and Marty hared off on another tactic, "Hey, you've got a great grade point average, Jadis. But is it so good that you can just blow off a third of your average? Especially to kick around someone who didn't do anything to you, and wouldn't prove anything?" Jadis just scowled at her, pulled a deck of cards from her utility belt, and started going through the cards. Marty kept nattering at Jadis, hoping to get her to listen to reason for both their sakes, but Jadis just ignored her, focusing on the cards. Then the light flashed, saying that the other combat final was over and the instructors were ready for their test.
WARS Broadcast Booth, Arena 99, Whateley Academy
"Okay, Campers, we're going over to Arena 99, for a classic battle of Beauty and Beast. And don't give me any guff, that's her codename, she picked it - what was she expecting? It's Mega-Girl vs. SHE-BEAST! Yes, the catfight that's been brewing ever since Spring Break has finally come to a head!"
"It might not be a catfight, Peeper. Remember, the competitors DO have the option of cooperating, which is a much surer way of getting the hostage out in one piece and getting a better grade. Not that you'd know it, from the way that last pair acted."
"Of course it's going to be a catfight, you doltish minion! The mission briefing says that there's ONE hostage, which means that only ONE lethal lovely's going to get the props for dragging it out!"
"But fighting each other before going in is stupid! Everyone who's tried to take out the other guy before taking on the big bad has gotten chewed up. Even making a race of it is like going through a threshing machine!"
"SO? That just means the chances of Mega-Girl's outfit being terribly, horribly shredded goes way up!"
"And the countdown's beginning. Mega-Girl's still trying to talk to She-Beast, but the Devil's Daughter isn't listening."
"For those of you listening in on WARS, She-Beast is wearing her usual red sleeveless leotard with black boots, long gloves, visor and utility belt. Oh, and she's brought along her WHIP again! And Mega-Girl is wearing that blue legless bodysuit with the white mask, cape, boots and gloves thing that she's always wearing. Not that I'm complaining… except for one thing: Megs, you're just wasting a great opportunity by cluttering up the space on that chest with that stupid 'M'! That is just SO Old School! C'mon, Power Girl is where it's at! Think about a nice keyhole or other cutout there! You'll thank me! God knows, all the guys will!"
"AND there's the bell! She-Beast is right out the gate with her whip!"
"Yeah, but she WASTED it! Instead of ripping Mega-Girl's outfit off, she just snagged Megs by the arm and is slamming her against the ground! What's the POINT?"
"I think for She-Beast, that IS the point, Peeper. Now She-Beast has thrown Mega-Girl against the, ah… house, for want of a better word. Mega-Girl is getting to her feet, but- wow! She just barely dodged one of the boom-barrels that She-Beast threw at her. That one didn't do anything. Another boom-barrel, Megs dodges it too. Just chemicals out of that one, I think that Megs is pretty glad that it didn't go off…"
"Yeah, but WHY didn't it go off? They're supposed to be BOOM barrels, right? That's half the fun of watching these things! So why didn't it detonate, Minion? That's supposed to be your JOB, remember?"
"Well, there's you answer, Peeper! Ja- er, She-Beast just barely missed Mega-Girl with a barrel, and it looks like the explosion blasted the front door right off its hinges! And Mega-Girl is stealing a march on She-Beast by ducking inside the door that She-Beast has so nicely opened for her!"
"OR, that little blonde wimp is just running away from that nasty old She-Beast as fast as she can… Can't say that I blame her."
"Okay, now we have to rely on the big screen showing off what's happening inside."
"Peeper, the rest of us can't see through four inches of Messingite™."
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
The second that Marty ducked around the corner, she immediately saw a group of red ANT units with energy carbines gathering into formation to attack. But Marty's first reaction wasn't, 'Oh crap, I'm in trouble'; it was 'More cover!' Mega-Girl scrambled, pulling the ANTs out of position so they'd shield her from whatever Jadis threw next. She didn't think of them as opponents, she thought of them as furniture, and that made all the difference, as she just barely got them arranged for optimum effect when another barrel came flying in the door. It hit the floor and exploded in a spray of resinous smelling mist and liquids. Marty managed to avoid getting splashed, but the ANTs weren't as lucky. The liquids and mists mixed, fizzed, bubbled, and were suddenly covered in a dull amber foam that quickly collapsed in on itself and turned into an off-orange gel that thoroughly trapped the ANTs.
For the briefest of minutes, Marty wondered if Jadis did that intentionally, just so that she could get at Marty, or if she'd just lucked out. Why was she so damn pissed? Then, realizing either way, her best chance of getting out of this thing with a face that wasn't pounded into hamburger was to beat Jadis to the hostage, put all the Boss' forces between the two of them, and let Jadis and the Boss keep each other busy. Marty ran around a corner, and found herself in a large central open room which probably took up the majority of the 'house's' area.
The area was cluttered with packing crates, most of which were probably empty, as there was also a lot high-tech looking junk scattered around the place, which was probably brought in the crates. There were also a lot more ANTs around than she remembered being marched in; the instructors probably hid them in more of the crates, in case the kids were watching. But what really got Mega-Girl's attention were the BFG and the Mantis. The 'BFG' was a large 'send to Special Effects' type energy weapon on a RC tripod that was hooked up to some serious power cables. The 'Mantis' was a tall, centaur-configuration encounter drone, a more elevated version of an ANT. While ANTs were supposed to represent everyday civilians or bottom-run thugs, Mantises were supposed to fill the niche of 'superior opponent', specifically 'acrobats' and martial artists. They were quick, agile and mobile, but like the ANTs, they were designed to fall apart if you hit them hard enough. The Mantis' mantid-style striker forearms had been replaced by energy carbines, and a speaker box had been added.
The ANTs began to move to surround Marty, and the Mantis started to say something. But far more importantly, the BFG had targeted her and appeared to be tracking her. Ignoring whatever it was that the Mantis was trying to say, she ducked behind one of the crates, lifted it, and flew right at the BFG using the crate for a shield. The ANTs reduced the crate to splinters with their energy carbines, but Mega-Girl still managed to get to the BFG before it unleashed its charge at her. She got behind the weapon, and saw that it was basically a standard energy emplacement gun that had a targeting sensor and aiming servo attached; the manual trigger and sight were still in place.
Well, Wilson went to all this trouble of putting a perfectly good blaster where she could get at it; he'd only just yell at her if she didn't use it. Tearing off the remote control unit, Marty turned the BFG around and aimed it at the Mantis. She waited for it to jump and reach the topmost part of its arc and then pulled the trigger.
A jarring, tooth-rattling vibration shook Marty, scattering her wits and knocking her back. The first thought that came to her mind as she snapped out of it was, 'I should have known that Wilson would never put anything cool where I could get my hands on it!'
Then Marty felt at least 15 points knock off her final score as she got hit by the Mantis' energy weapons. They hurt, but what really mattered was the fact that she got hit in the first place; that and the thought of one of Ito-sensei's 'In the real world, you would be on the floor bleeding to death!' rants.
Shrugging that off, Mary hefted up the bogus BFG and used it as a weapon in the only way that would actually work: she threw it at the Mantis. The drone nimbly jumped out of the way, and a fast-paced game of 'Tag' ensued, with the Mantis and ANTs none-too-covertly trying to keep her away from one corner with what appeared to be a significant control panel. On the panel was a large red button behind a plastic flip-up shield; the label read "Emergency Power Shutoff." She thought only a brief moment; if she could shut down power, the defenses would fail and the henchmen would flee in fear, and even if the Mantis didn't make tracks as well, she could still take it out hand-to-hand and find the hostage before the time ran out. Well, anyway, it beat getting zapped into an F, and still failing!
The problem was how to get over there without getting zotzed halfway to death, safety setting or no safety setting…
The entire building shook. Looking to the source of the crash, Mega-Girl saw that Jadis Diabolik had somehow knocked a perfectly circular hole in the wall that blocked off the main area from the door. Marty briefly wondered what had taken her so long. Jadis held up a deck of cards and did the '52 card pickup' spray with them, sending the cards all over the room. While the ANTs opened fire, the cards seemed to play havoc with their targeting systems. Trust a sneaky little witch like Jadis to have a dirty trick like that up her sleeve. Still, Jadis hadn't seen the Emergency Power switch yet, so there was no time like the present.
Using the distraction provided by Jadis and picking up the crate she was hiding behind, Marty ran for the control panel. She heard She-Beast yell, "Mega-Girl! No!" But even weighted down, Marty still smacked two ANTs out of the way, darted past three more who were confused about target selection between her and Jadis, and made it to the control panel, dropped what was left of the crate, and smashed the lid to push the button.
But instead of a warning klaxon and some flashing lights, there was a loud, rather rude *bthrrrppp!!* noise and a message flashed on the panel: 'SUCKER!' A pair of thick curved transparent doors snapped out from the sides of the panel, joining into a semi-circular tube that sealed Mega-Girl inside. Marty pounded on the lid, but it didn't budge; it must have been made of Wexlerite™… or Messingite™… or Hazardite™… or one of those other super-strong stuff things made by scientists with egos that demanded they plaster their name all over everything. Helpless, Marty watched through the not-glass as Jadis dashed around the storm of flying cards, grabbing ANTs and throwing them, and somehow setting off traps like a drop-net, a huge ball that swung down from a rope, a thick metal sheet that slid out, and a metal claw that dropped down, all the while scooping up up several ANTs. How was she doing that?
Then the Mantis did a 'supervillain copping a pose' bit and said loudly, "STOP! You will answer this riddle, or I'll fill that tube with a lethal gas!" It pointed at Marty, who had a chilly moment that it was serious, which faded, which was almost immediately replaced by a panic when she realize that if she 'died' in the test, she'd get an automatic F!
Jadis folded her arms across her chest and let out a mocking laugh. "Will I get extra credit if I finesse the bad guy into removing my competition?"
The Mantis visibly paused as the AI system that was guiding the drone tried to figure out how to get around that one. Jadis gave the Mantis the 'gimme a moment' gesture and sauntered over to the cabinet. She rapped on the glassine door and snarked, "So, how's the air in there, Megs?" Marty growled at her through the glass. Jadis leaned on the door, with one finger idly stroking at the juncture of the two tube halves. "You know what I want, Marty…"
Mega-Girl let out an outraged squeak and snarled, "This is not the time, Jadis!"
"Oh, I think that it's the perfect time, Marty."
"We don't have time for this!"
"Oh, I have plenty of time. But then, I'm not the one in the airtight booth."
Mega-Girl made a 'chewing glass' expression and finally growled out, "Fine! Be like that! Okay, so I wasn't the one who saved the entire frickin' Global Economy, it was You! You took on the A-List Supervillain, you saved Miss Liberty! And I didn't arrest you, it was Bronze! And it was totally bogus, it wouldn't have stood up in any court, that ADA guy Garfield was just messing with you! And you- okay, I still don't know how you got out of that, but Garfield said that it was kosher! And the only reason that the New York Times said all those nice things about me was 'cause that Prescott guy was fucking with you! And I never said that I did all that, it was Iron Star and Magni-Girl, and I would'a said something but it's the first time that they treated me like anything but a stupid tagalong! There! Are you happy now?"
"Happy?" Jadis grunted, "Meh. But it's the best that I'm gonna get."
"Jadis, please! With my grades, if I fail this exam, I'll have to take this year all over again!"
"Marty, with your grades, that might be the best thing for you. But …" Jadis gripped the curved slates of apparently impervious glass and effortlessly pulled the two halves apart with a minor pop of air equalization. "I do pride myself on keeping my promises, even the tacit ones. Well… usually…"
There was a loud "AHEM!" as Mega-Girl walked out of the booth. Turning around, they saw the Mantis and the ANTs, all with their blasters trained on the two. From its voice box, the Mantis said, "Now that you've got that out of the way, let me point out this: even if the two of you could batter your way through my minions and me, can you do it in time to… save the hostage?" A wall pulled back revealing three 'black' (as in not 'red', or civilian instead of threat) ANTs tied to chairs, which were suspended ten feet off the ground from a rafter by cables, which were supported by pulleys and anchored to the ground. An LED panel was ticking off what appeared to be a 3 minute countdown. "But, I will give you a clue! If you can solve this riddle-"
"Ooohhh… Gimme a break!" Jadis groaned loudly.
"If you can solve this riddle, you'll know which of those three is the real hostage!" the pilot of the drone continued with an annoyed tone.
"Let me guess," Jadis droned, "you worked real hard on this riddle, and you're going to use it, no matter what, right?"
"One evening-" the drone pilot started. But Jadis cut him off with a sharp whistle.
"Before you get into all that, I have a very important question."
Jadis strolled up the Mantis with the Wexlerite™(?) panel tucked under her arm. She looked directly into the Mantis' main sensor pod. "My question is: Do you honestly think that I'm that stupid?" With that, she put up her 'beast-skin', whipped out the Hazardite™(?) panel and scooped up the Mantis (or at least its energy carbines) in the panel. Then she shoved the Mantis back to one particular cabinet along the wall and pinned it to that wall with the panel. Next, she hit one component on the cabinet, and a secret door opened up. Jadis nipped into the door and did something. Just as the Mantis was freeing itself from the panel, Jadis popped back out, grabbed the Mantis and shoved it into the door. The door slammed shut and a red light went on.
"Jadis, what did you do?" Mega-Girl shrieked as she dodged frantically, taking out what ANTs as she could. "Now we'll never figure out which of those things is the hostage!"
"Oh?" Jadis dropped her beast-skin and pulled out her expanding whip. With a snap to get the range, she used the whip to sever the cable holding up the ANT in the middle.
The anchoring base shattered, and there was the briefest of moments as the supporting mechanism stuttered before dropping the 'hostage'. Mega-Girl let out a 'gleep!' and launched herself at the fake hostage. She caught it a bare foot off the ground. As Marty gave a sigh of relief, there was another crash. Looking around, she saw that She-Beast, her 'beast-skin' up again, had ripped open another panel in one of the walls. Not bothering to put the torn-off panel down gently, She-Beast cast it aside casually as she pelted over to a large sheet of metal that had been one of the traps activated only minutes earlier. She ripped it off its rails and used it to block the rain of blaster fire that the red ANTs were shooting at her. Then she lugged the sheet over to where Marty was still holding the 'hostage' in its chair. "What are you doing?" Marty demanded.
"No, the question is, what are you doing?" Jadis demanded back. "There's our escape route; what are you waiting for?" Mega-Girl gave her a 'Huh?' look. "Did you honestly think that I'd blow my chance at a straight-A grade point average, just to knock you around some?"
Mega-Girl, still confused by Jadis' strange attitude, was smart enough to see an out and take it. She flew through the escape route door carrying the ANT still in its chair with her. Jadis followed, holding the sheet of metal between her and the red ANTs, and used it to block the escape route behind her.
Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy
"And what the hell was that?" Gunny Bardue demanded.
"We, um, improvised?" Mega-Girl answered with a slightly too-eager smile.
"Diabolik!" Wilson snapped. "You picked off 7 out of the 9 traps that we had built into that scenario, and trashed so many red ANTs that we only have five still functional out of the 30 that we allocated for that final!"
"What? You mean I missed two? Nertz!"
"How did you spot all those traps?" Ito demanded in his deceptively calm, and thus intimidating voice.
"Okay," Jadis started off, and Mega-Girl had a feeling that she was in for the long haul, "from what I spotted while you were setting up and your Mission Briefing, I had four basic problems going in- 1: Figure out where the hostage is. 2: Locate the escape routes. 3: Find the hidden traps and snares. 4: figure out the 'Gotcha' that I knew you were gonna throw at us. But I already had a good idea of what the 'Gotcha' was going to be-"
"How?" Kasai interrupted her.
"You made a production of showing us the three black ANTs with the shock indicators going in," Jadis pointed out, "but the Mission Briefing said there was a single hostage. The 'there can only be one' gag was almost a given; I'm guessing that you were going for the 'if you'd been paying attention, you wouldn't have been caught by surprise' angle. Well, I was paying attention.
"And, letting the kids run out with the wrong 'hostage', so they can fail the test is a little raw, even for this crew. So you'd booby-trap the two bogus 'hostages' to clue them in, even as their scores dropped.
"So my biggest problems basically boiled down to finding hidden things that were traps and hidden things that weren't traps." Jadis pulled out a playing card. "As you know, I usually carry a deck that's been spelled with a range of various useful effects. But most of those effects would be useless against robots and drones, so prepped my deck with two kinds of cards: ones that had been charged with the Sigils of Saturn and Ares, and ones that had been charged with the Sigils of Saturn and Hermes."
"What?" Burlington-Smythe bleated. "What does that Astrological hooey-"
"In orthodox Thaumaturgy, Saturn is associated heavily with Secrecy," Jadis started to lecture, and Wilson and Bardue let out martyred groans, "and the Sigil of Saturn factors heavily into concealment and detection of concealment spells. Hermes, besides being the Messenger of the Gods, is also associated with travel and Passages. Do I have to explain the associations for Ares, as in Mars, the God of War? So, Saturn plus Hermes equals 'hidden passages', while Saturn plus Ares equals 'hidden traps'. When I sprayed the room with those cards, they sought out hidden doors and traps. That's how I found the secret exits, the booby traps, and the two bogus 'hostages' - they all had card stuck to them."
"Would you care to explain why you didn't simply listen to the riddle that the 'Boss' was trying to tell you?" Kasai asked sharply.
"First of all, the First Rule of Being a Supervillain Kid:" Jadis reeled off, "Never let the other side set the terms.
"Second, I already knew which one of the ANTS was the 'hostage': the one without a card sticking to it. I didn't need to answer the riddle."
"Why waste the time, or put the hostage in any more danger?" Marty piped up in support of the person who apparently wasn't psychotically angry at her after all.
"And third," Jadis firmly took back the train of conversation, "you keep telling us to treat these things like they were Real Life. In Real Life, taking a hostage is major. It's like using a gun in a crime - it bumps up the legal consequence big time. Anyone serious enough to take a hostage wouldn't just hand them out like prizes at a carny. So, he had to be pulling a fast one. And, in Real Life, the one people who do pull the 'Riddle Me This' gag are flakes, psychos, cranks and wiseasses, none of whom are what you'd call dependable."
"But," Marty cut in, "since you seem to be so keen on telling us this riddle, how about this? You tell us the riddle; if one of us guesses right, we both get an A; if neither of us get it right, then we get a C."
"What?" Jadis yelped.
"No," Kasai said with an evil grin, "If you can answer the riddle, the two of you get A's. Not She-Beast. You."
"Okay!" Marty said chipperly.
"Hey, I did not agree to this!" Jadis complained.
"Now you know how it feels, Diabolik!" Kasai said with smug triumph. "Okay, here it goes: One evening there was a murder in the home of a married couple, their son and daughter. One of these four people murdered one of the others. One of the members of the family witnessed the crime. The other one helped the murderer. These are the things we know for sure:
1. The witness and the one who helped the murderer were not of the same sex.
2. The oldest person and the witness were not of the same sex.
3. The youngest person and the victim were not of the same sex.
4. The one who helped the murderer was older than the victim.
5. The father was the oldest member of the family.
6. The murderer was not the youngest member of the family.
Who was the murderer?"
As Jadis sputtered, Marty paused, visibly thought it over and answered: "The mother." She smirked at Jadis for the briefest of moments, and then explained, "We know from (3) that the youngest person was not the victim, from (4) that the youngest person was not the helper and from (6) that the youngest person was not the killer. The youngest person can only have been the witness."
"That works!" Jadis blurted out, gobstopped. "The youngest had to have been the witness, it was the only role that she hadn't been disqualified from by the six points, and it follows that she was the daughter, since the youngest was not the same sex as the oldest who was the father, and from there, it sorts out that the mother murdered the son, with the father helping."
"That's right," Kasai said, frowning angrily with disappointment. "How did you figure that out?"
With a smug grin, Marty explained, "My Dad's a NYPD officer. Do you know how many 'Riddler' wannabes come through the Five Boroughs in a year?"
"Z-Listers," Jadis said with a snerk.
"Okay, your grades."
"We get A's, right?" Marty asked warily based on the tone in which Ito had spoken.
"Mega-Girl, you get an A," Ito replied with a nod to her. "You may leave now." It was abundently clear that Marty was dismissed, so with a nervous glance at Jadis, she rose and stepped from the room.
Once the door had closed, Ito turned to Jadis, his expression hardening. "As for you, She-Beast, F."
"What?!?" Jadis exclaimed in shock and disbelief. "But ...."
"You made it abundantly clear that you wanted no part of Mega-Girl's wager," Kasai said with a smug grin. "So in keeping with your wish, you do not benefit from her solution to the riddle. And an F is the usual grade for cheating."
"Cheating?" Jadis sputtered.
"Would you care to see the video that shows you in the grandstands identifying Mega-Girl as your opponent when only the random numbers had been announced?" Bardue prompted.
"But ... that's not prohibited!" Jadis said defensively. "There's no rule that I can't get information like that ...."
"It's the same as if you found an answer key for a test lying around and you memorized and used it," Kasai smirked. "It's still cheating."
"Perhaps ...," Ito said reflectively, thinking aloud as he gazed toward the line separating the ceiling from the wall. "Perhaps there's something ...."
"Miss Diabolik," Bardue said with a wicked grin, his laser-like gaze fixed on Jadis,"perhaps we can come to an accord."
"You want to deal ... for my grade?" Jadis asked warily.
"You no doubt know of the extra security precautions we've taken in the interest of protecting student data. Perhaps if you were to help, with, shall we say, information about your source, we could come to terms about your grade."
Jadis glared daggers at the three men. "That's blackmail."
As expected, Marty was waiting outside the briefing room, and she winced at the expression on Jadis' countenance, "Well?" Marty asked simply. :"What did they want? What did they end up giving you?"
"I got an A," Jadis growled.
"Then what was all ...?"
"They were messing with me," the white-haired girl grumbled, "hoping I could tell them something related to their security leak."
"So you told them?"
"I do not want to talk about it!" Jadis muttered angrily. The two walked a few yards down the hall before Jadis spoke again; clearly she did want to vent about it - to someone. "The source is so many steps removed from whatever leak they have here that it probably won't do them any good - even if they can get past the three anonymizing routers." Marty understood why Jadis was telling her - it wouldn't help her standing and mystique if word got out that she'd been successfully blackmailed by the faculty.
Jadis hastily changed the subject. "I have to admit, Megs, that I'm impressed. My GPA is nicely secure, even though the instructors are still honked off at me. I'm feeling good enough that I'm not gonna play the recording that I made of your confession in that deathtrap for your Cape Squad buddies."
"Oh?" Marty said. "That's ... generous of you." She wondered precisely what Jadis was up to, and that in turn got her thinking about the entire simulation. "And what was with all that with the yelling and the attitude?" Marty mimed glowering at Jadis and making the Horns of Malediction. "You got me so rattled that I was bumbling around like an idiot in there! Why were you gaming me like that?"
"Oh, I wasn't gaming you, Marty," Jadis said as Vamp and Nacht walked up. "I was gaming the bookies. So, Alex, how did it go?"
"You wouldn't believe the odds they were giving for a Tag-Team Victory," Vamp smirked as she handed Jadis a wad of bills.
"You were fixing the odds for our match?" Marty asked, looking at the thick fold of money. "Won't the local bookies get mad?"
"Not the local bookies, Marty," Jadis corrected her. "The bookies in Atlantic City and Las Vegas; the guys who aren't even supposed to know about this, let alone be making book on it." Jadis handed Marty the money. Marty looked surprised at the money in Jadis' hand and made a squeak of confusion. "I gave Alex here a couple of grand to put down on a bet for you. I knew that it was going to be a little raw, and you'd deserve more than just a B average GPA for going through that. And, you're always complaining that you need money, so…" Marty looked at the money, unsure. "Hey, I'm still making out. Hazard's getting us some major points on the spread for the Drows' matches."
Marty took the money. "The Drow?" Marty remembered some of the moves that Jobe had made during that mess with the Karedonian Crown Jewels. But the Media had portrayed the Drow, let alone Jobe herself, as just weird exotic, slightly kinky socialites… "Any chance that I could get in on that?"
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Lunchtime
Cyberspace, Whateley Academy
<Blue?> Sam called out in the vast, blue-and-silver domain that was cyberspace, her Hive doing all the work of interfacing her physical body to the network.
<Yeah, boss?> Blue answered, his cyber-avatar appearing almost instantly beside him.
<Is Cyberkitty here?>
<She's out there somewhere> Blue replied.
Sam's avatar frowned. <She knows we've got a tagup scheduled.>
Another avatar drifted down one of the glowing silver pathways to join them. Ms. Hartford looked around, although, compared to the others, she seemed to be moving in slow-motion. <Where's Paige?>
<Right here,> Cyberkitty's voice rang out as her avatar drifted toward the trio.
Unlike the plain slightly girlish avatar she usually used in cyberspace, this avatar form closely resembled Paige's 'fuzz' form, partially between human and panther, enough to be a very cute kitty-girl. Amelia wondered briefly if she wasn't going to have to have a chat with Paige about cyber-flirting, which she seemed to be doing more and more with Blue.
<Have you got anything?> Sam asked bluntly. No sense wasting time.
<There was a drop of volume through the nearest cell relays> Blue reported immediately.
<The network traffic picked up by a few hundred messages, but there isn't anything on the mail server or the packet sniffers that looks overly suspicious. I've got the filters triggering on a lot of possible keywords, but the only ones that have triggered are innocuous, plain-text messages between the arena and other parts of campus.> Amelia added.
<That's what I was afraid we were going to find,> Sam replied in a somewhat-dejected tone. She turned to Cyberkitty. <Did you find anything?>
<The odds-makers were scrambling this morning at the changeup,> the kitty-girl answered.
<How about timing?> Sam asked. <How fast did they change their lineups and odds?>
<Most of them reacted pretty quickly when the new lineup was announced.>
<Most?> Amelia picked up the key word immediately. <Not all of them?>
Cyberkitty reached up, opening what looked like a 'bag of holding' in the cyber-realm, and a moment later, some data was displayed. <Here's the time-lapse of the odds.> Slowly, second-by-second, the odds for each establishment appeared in thin air, like a computer holographic display, and then suddenly, all of them jumped and fluctuated wildly.
<Stop!> Sam called, and immediately, the data froze in mid-air. What's the red mean on those two?> Sam asked, looking intently at two of the rows of data.
Cyberkitty and Blue shook their heads. <I don't know,> the girl answered.
Amelia Hartford, though, was scowling. <Hmmm,> she muttered to herself, staring at the red numbers hanging in space. <Paige, can you access the volume of betting on each of those?>
The girl nodded, puzzled. <Yeah. Admiral Everheart asked me if I could get any other data on the wagering, so I kind of sneaked into their systems and found their gambling data.> She reached into the 'pocket' in cyberspace and began to pull out data packets.
<Get a cumulative total versus time for each establishment,> Hartford directed without explanation.
Giving her advisor a quizzical look, Paige reached into the 'pocket' with both hands and fiddled around with the data. In mere seconds, she extracted a file. <Done.>
<Display that, along with the odds.>
With a shrug, not quite understanding why, the girl caused the holographic display that was in existence to vanish, and another took its place. Slowly, the data ticked through time, and then the odds for the two houses turned red. Still, time ticked on, and as they watched, Hartford nodded in understanding.
<That's what I thought,> she announced. <The betting is frozen at these two houses. Notice that the totals on the others keeps rising, but these have held steady?>
Sam started to answer, and then the lightbulb in her head lit. <They're not scrambling for new odds like the others. Because they know they're going to get better data so they're reducing their exposure by freezing the betting?> she asked, but it was no idle speculation; Sam and Amelia knew the answer to that question was definitely yes.
<So there is an inside source,> Amelia said grimly. <And that source is getting them data in real-time.>
<It's not through the cell relay,> Sam said in a disgusted, frustrated tone. <We know that.>
<And not the landlines,> Amelia added. <We checked every outgoing number from the monitored phone lines and ran voice recognition software to get transcripts of everything, just in case a call went to a VOIP relay.>
<That leaves the network,> Blue said, stating the obvious.
<And there's no plain-text traffic relating to gambling,> Paige reported. <But someone could easily use an anonymizing intermediate server to relay messages, and a lot of the e-mail is encrypted so I can't read the content.>
<So we're right back where we started,> Sam said in disgust. <We know we have a leak, but we can't find it. We have strong circumstantial evidence that two gambling houses are getting direct data, but nothing that'd stand up in a court of law.> Sam shook her head. <Damn!>
To Be Concluded