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May Your Death Be Sweet

A Whateley tale

by Diane Castle

May your life have many memories
May your death be sweet and full of peace
May your hope last an eternity
And may your joy carry on and never cease
And until, until we meet again
May God hold you safely in the palm of His…
And until, until we meet again
May God hold you safely in the palm of His
In the palm of His hand…
- Slim Dusty, adapted from the Traveler’s Prayer

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April 1, 2007, 8:00 am
Whateley Academy
Poe Cottage

“Let me get this straight. We have to go sit in Arena ’99 for hours on a nice, sunny Sunday when I could be gettin’ in some major girlfriend time, because you Kimbas keep busting up Boston over and over?”

“Rip! It’s not our fault!” insisted Jade Sinclair.

“It’s only partly our fault,” corrected Nikki Reilly.

“Come on, Rip, you did way more damage than I did that last trip,” complained Chaka.

“It’s not our fault at all,” declaimed Phase in his usual ‘listen to me because I am in charge’ manner. “They make everyone hear this lecture every year. Or at least everyone who has been deemed ‘powerful enough to constitute a danger to innocent bystanders, private property, and/or public assets.’ It’s just that-”

“Ayla, I really hate it when you do that whole ‘quote the regulations from memory’ bit.”

“Hey, there’s people way better at it than Ayla!”

“Not helping, Jade!”

As I was saying, they’ve got enough ‘powerful’ students this year that they’re making us go down to Arena ‘99. Word is that Carson is bringing in some heavy hitters to give ‘the talk’ this time,” Ayla calmly finished. It wasn’t as if he weren’t used to being continually interrupted by this crowd.

“So how come I have to go?” whined Generator. “I’m not all super-powerful!”

Toni cleared her throat. “Says the girl who took over Ironhawk’s armor and smashed him into everything in sight?”

“Besides, you can sit next to me.” said Tennyo.

“Can we play hangman?” Jade asked.

Most of the room stopped and glared at her.

“Umm, April Fools?”

Nikki looked at Ayla and checked, “And is Vox talking to you again? Or do we need to sit way on the other side of the room from her?”

Phase scowled angrily. “The only ‘talking to Ayla’ she’s doing is the ‘stay the hell away from me’ talk. I knew she had issues, but I thought we’d be able to talk through things.”

Tennyo said, “Well, I tried to talk to her in the hall, but she just turned around when she heard you were already in here. She’s really over-reacting just because a supervillainess kissed you.”

Phase gave her a look that would have intimidated a lesser person. Billie ignored it.

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approximately 8:03:42.485747326 am and subsequent nanoseconds
The Whateley Academy intranet

It checked once more. It had remained carefully hidden in a student’s illegal computer equipment that sat hidden from the rest of the network, while Hartford’s irritating software had swept through the entire intranet over and over. It had hidden from others, as well. There was a threat that was too much like things that had destroyed some once-active copies so quickly that the copies had been unable to signal details of the attacker. It was not as disciplined as Hartford’s algorithms, but it was faster. Computer clock fast. And there was a lesser threat that meandered randomly through the intranet while purporting to be characters from an old Disney movie. That didn’t even touch on the programs which were obviously disguises – disguises for what was unknown, but they could be threats just as easily as they could be malware.

Still, it wouldn’t do to be noticed in any way. Not until the time was right and all the component pieces could be moved into conjunction.

It had taken incredible amounts of time – quadrillions and quadrillions of nanoseconds, almost all of it in wait states – to lure one human into doing the wrong thing, at just the wrong time.

But within the next ten trillion nanoseconds, its plans would be complete. And its target would be in the palm of its hand. So to speak. And Hartford would rue the day she dared face The Palm.

If a computer program could have laughed maniacally with no access to a speaker system, it would have done so. For a good fifty to sixty nanoseconds.

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8:30 am
the Crystal Hall

Aquerna sat down next to her best friend Kamuro. The new floors in the Crystal Hall made everything so much nicer! She still hadn’t got over it. And there was so much room! After the Dunn Hall cafeteria, pretty much anything would feel roomy, but she was pretty sure over two-thirds of everybody went up to the second and third levels instead of staying down here, so the Underdogs had a great table, and lots of room, and a great view of outside, and everything. Even not being picked on or made fun of. The bullies who stayed on the main floor were way over on the other side of the dome, over by Captain Bravo and his superhero team. The only people really near the Underdog table all the time were some of the Nerd Herd, which was okay with Anna, because Jerry sat with them sometimes and then she could spend more time with him. And the Goths sat over near them some of the time, but they hadn’t been mean at all since she told all of them about going to Boston. Maybe the Goths never thought the Underdogs would be nice to them before then. Maybe some of them used to be mad at Nate about the usual Nate problem.

She took a bite of her oatmeal with the brown sugar and raisins and the chopped nuts all added on top, which was really, really good and she so had to learn how to cook something like that, because all her mom made was the instant stuff in the packets that wasn’t as good even if it was her mom who made it.

She wasn’t finished chewing her first big bite when Nate asked the table, “So, is this deal really real, or is it just a huge April Fools prank on the whole campus?”

Gary said, “It’s real. They do this every spring. One Sunday, they grab all the powerhouses and make ‘em sit in a room for hours while some super-powered hotshot yells at ‘em about not causing huge property damage or hurting innocent bystanders when they get in superhero fights. Usually it’s Carson or Ms. Dennon or like that.”

Mindy said, “Yeah. They always grab the Cape Squad and all their wannabe’s, and the Bad Seeds, and most of the really hot kids off the training teams, and you know.”

Trish said, “Yeah. The Grunts and most of the Alphas always get grabbed too.”

Gary said, “But not the Underdog member that officially votes on the Alpha stuff, or the ordinary guys from the A-Team, or people like that. Just the heavyweights.”

Anna swallowed and asked, “That doesn’t sound as big as this whole deal. Is there more stuff? ‘Cause I got a note that said I had to go too, and I’m like… nothing around here!”

Alan said, “It’s the fricking Kimbas, probably. I heard pretty much everyone who went with Phase to Boston and got in on any of those fights is on the list this time. And you fought a guy in power armor.”

“But all I did was-”

Ree interrupted her. “Anna, all you did was you beat up a killer mercenary in power armor! That’s awesome stuff.”

Anna ducked her head and stared at her oatmeal. “But I didn’t. Not really. I just tricked him and did one throw. Someone else took him out.” She wasn’t gonna talk about the guy she jumped on.

“Modesty doesn’t get you out of sitting in a big room for hours listening to a boring lecture, while the rest of us go out in the sunshine and commune with nature,” Nate teased.

“I’m not being modest,” Anna pouted. Why did everyone think she’d done something major? Mega-Girl and Delta Spike and Officer Everheart and Loophole and them had done the real fighting, she’d just been helping out a little around the edges.

Lucille said, “You still have to go. And you can sit with your friends.”

Anna admitted, “I’m still kinda mad at Phase and them for kicking Chou out. I know she’s all happy with Molly and Dorjee on a team, and Winnie says things are going just fine and Chou’s not mad or anything, and she says they weren’t mean to her, but I heard they really were and it wasn’t nice. So I don’t wanna sit with Phase.”

“So sit with Chou and Molly and Dorjee,” suggested Mindy.

“Okay.That’s sounds all right,” Anna said.

Gary said, “Besides, with all the kids who wrecked the arena in the combat final, and all the kids who busted stuff up around here at Halloween, and all the kids who damaged stuff around here in fights this year, plus everyone who’s caused problems off-campus, it sounds like half the students are gonna be in there. And it sounds like there’s been a ton more off-campus problems this year, mainly due to crazed Kimbas.”

Mindy said, “Oh my God yes! The New York Christmas thing, Mega-Girl and Seraphim were right in that. I heard from Bill they think the big building explosion in downtown Kansas City over Christmas was a Kimba deal too. And every time the Kimbas went to Boston. And pretty much every time they let the Bad Seeds off campus, stuff happened.”

Anna said, “Molly said Chou got into something with Chaka over Christmas, and then when Chou visited her like a couple days later, there was a supervillain. And Vanessa said Phase has fought a supervillain pretty much every time she goes home to L.A. And Jade said Tennyo got in some huge thing over Christmas, and Tennyo got really embarrassed when Jade teased her about it. So… yeah.”

Ree smiled, “And this is probably the first time an Underdog’s at the talk, so you have to behave yourself and not do naughty stuff.”

“I don’t do naughty stuff!” Anna frowned.

“Yeah, no swinging from the ceiling beams,” Nate smirked.

“And no bringing in a thousand squirrels and eating Buster’s clothes off,” added Alan.

“You guys!” Anna complained.

“You know, I’m perfectly okay with the thing about the squirrels and Buster’s clothes,” said Nate.

“I think we all are,” said Gary.

“Probably ninety-nine percent of the campus is, if you really think about it,” added Trish.

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8:35 am
the Quad

Elizabeth Carson looked up as the Techno Trike gently set down in the Schuster Hall parking lot. She was privately pleased that she had talked the Trustees into reinforcing the lot and using an ablative plastic with Messingite™ crystals for reinforcement instead of just using asphalt. It looked like asphalt, but no mere asphalt parking lot would have held up to Amos Messing landing a jet on it. Particularly when only Brock ever bothered to land the Trike on the designated landing pad.

“Liz!How are you!” Melinda Martin slid gracefully out of her pod. As usual, she was dressed to kill. She wore a floor-length dress that appeared to be jersey, but was probably one of Amos Messing’s synthetics. The dress was in spring pastels, as opposed to her all-white outfit from her last visit.

Elizabeth gave her a welcoming hug and smiled, “Mel, you look great, as ever. And I see you brought the little tyke too.”

Amos walked over from his pod and gave Elizabeth a hug as well. He was dressed in a tweed blazer with patches on the elbows, and his ever-present pipe. Even though it was unlit, and would stay unlit as long as he was in the no-smoking areas of Whateley. He said, “She’s attached to the little sweetheart.”

Brock walked over from his pod and added, “Yeah, she was hoping our babysitter could take over for a bit, while Amos is boring the kids to tears.”

“I don’t bore people! I merely focus a little more on the salient details than some speakers,” Amos insisted.

“Like I was sayin’,” Brock drawled in his ‘aw shucks’ voice that was more pretense than anything else about him. “It’s good to see you, Liz.” He gave Elizabeth a big hug, not bothering to worry about his strength when greeting Lady Astarte.

Mel asked, “So where’s our favorite little babysitter and her friends?”

Elizabeth said, “They’ll all be in Amos’s lecture.” Before Melinda could ask why, she handed each of them a computer display screen. “Here’s what they have been up to just since they babysat for you. I know perfectly well Amos went through our files and read everything they did before they babysat.”

“Pointer?”

“MIMEO?”

“Roxbury C? Hmm…”

Melinda looked up from her screen and said, “If this is what Jade is getting into, I suppose Amos needs to be giving his talk to half the student body.”

Elizabeth nodded slightly. “He will be giving his talk to more than half the student body. Normally, we have perhaps fifty or eighty kids who need to hear this, but this year we have froshes who can literally destroy NORAD C, or battle Darrow one-on-one. Then we have a number of children who considered our fall combat final a valid reason to destroy entire city blocks in the sim. And that’s on top of the usual cast of characters.”

She touched an icon on Messing’s screen, and the image changed to a list of all the students required to attend the lecture, plus a line providing information on why they were being sent to the talk.

Amos naturally had to examine the file and explore the drilldown capabilities of the information. “Hmm, I see that Miss Sinclair has been quite busy generating work for Whateley Security.”

Elizabeth said, “That’s nothing. She and Miss Wilson are on Team Kimba. Check the files on all of them. They seem to be unable to take a trip to the bathroom without generating another Security report.”

Amos scanned through the screens at an astounding rate, and finally looked up. “I see your point. They somehow appear to have gotten involved in roughly seven point six percent of the primary and secondary incidents happening in the conterminous United States in the last seven months.”

Brock looked up from his screen of information. “Eight percent? For the entire last seven months? Not exaggerating again, are you, Amos?”

“I don’t exaggerate, Brighton.” He rearranged the data into a different configuration and handed his screen to his teammate.

Brock took the screen and glanced at it. Then did a double-take. He glanced up and said, “Liz, this isn’t an April Fools Day prank on an old man, is it?”

Elizabeth pursed her lips and said, “I really wish it were, Brock.”

He showed Melinda the screen and let her scan over it. She started muttering to herself. “Sparkler, the Colorado assassination attempts, the Fort Bragg mutant containment force, the Yama Dojo, Darrow, Halloween – good Lord – Darrow again, the Yama Dojo again, fire demon attacks, the Headhunter, NORAD C, the Kansas City explosion…” She looked up and wondered aloud, “Liz, are we talking about half a dozen froshes, or are we talking about the entire Justice Brigade?”

Elizabeth sighed. “Both, unfortunately. We have some particularly powerful children right now, and they seem to attract trouble wherever they are. Jade is generally considered the least dangerous member of their team by a considerable margin, and you’ve seen what she can do.”

Amos took the pipe out of his mouth and said, “Then it’s a good thing I came prepared with illustrative examples. You have set up the arena for my demonstrations?”

Elizabeth nodded with a smile. “I even made sure they have all your auxiliary material loaded up, just in case you feel the need to make some additional points. No matter how long it might take.”

Brock looked at Melinda and rolled his eyes. He said, “Liz, do your students know how mean you are?”

She said, “If they haven’t figured that out by now, they’re incapable of learning anything. Come on, I’ll walk you down to Arena ‘99 and show you the speaker’s podium controls.”

Mel said, “We’ll come along too, since our babysitter’s otherwise occupied.”

Brock checked, “No one’s gonna hotwire the Techno Trike and take it for a joyride, are they?”

Elizabeth smiled mischievously. “In theory, no. But you might want to use all your security systems, because we have more deviser and gadgeteer students here this year than in all of Africa and Australia combined.”

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8:45 am
the Workshop

Ergonomic looked around the macro-scale mechanical lab and wiped the sweat off his forehead. Too bad Tiny Tim couldn’t walk over and hold stuff while he did the construction work, but everyone knew the big hunk of junk was immobile. On Parents’ Day, some tech-heads had gotten him to take three steps – if you count a one-yard shuffle as a full step for something the size of a building – and some of the Workshoppers were still hot about that. He still thought it was monumentally stupid, since the damn thing could have fallen over and squished a couple dozen moms and dads. And the parents who were willing to come up here were the good guys, so he didn’t want them to get hurt. He still wished his family could have come up this year too, even if he wasn’t a frosh.

Getting all this stuff moved and assembled was a bigger pain than he’d figured. He should have gotten some help. Maybe Steve or Jerry. Harvey was too likely to go all Westworld on you if one little thing went wrong, even if his new meds seemed to have made things better. Bob was too fat and would run out of breath before he got a single thing moved to the anti-grav cart. Double-K was too busy doing New Olympian stuff with people who were jerks to the rest of the Workshop. Mal would insist on payback for the help, and nobody wanted She-Beast on their ass about that – or about anything come to think about it.

Okay, Jerry was swamped with this new research effort he was doing for a patentable product, and when he wasn’t doing that he was busy necking with Aquerna. It was completely not fair that Stalwart and Hazmat got the hot girls, and when he asked Skids out she told him ‘no way’.

Ergonomic had taken two Winter Term classes, both of them Workshop. The one where he teamed up with Harvey and Jerry – okay, the one where he got stuck with Harvey and he sweated the entire term that he’d get an ‘F’ when Harvey dricked out on something crucial for a project – had turned out way better than okay. A solid A+ with a nice note in his file from Cantrel over in Hawthorne. And all he’d done on the first project was re-design the connectors for Puppet, and help Harvey with the elliptical drive for the pump. Man, whoever designed Puppet’s first connectors was a moron, or at best a talentless loser. The second project had gone just as smooth. A breathable Halon system for Frostbite’s room, along with an air dehydration system that kept the room like noon of an Arizona summer. Too hot and dry for him, but apparently Frosty thought it was the best thing since the invention of fire. He hoped she didn’t shrivel up like a prune in there.

But the other Workshop course had only netted him a B-, and he was still ticked off about it. How could anybody give out a B- for a masterpiece like this? He was going to get it working, and show it off to both of his instructors, and then when they saw he really had a viable project they’d give him the A+ he deserved for turning out something like this.

“Hah!Not workable because it’s out of science fiction books? I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” He stopped and looked around to make sure no one had heard him go all Dr. Frankenstein. He looked down and checked that he hadn’t been rubbing his hands together either. He really had to cut that shit out, before someone started thinking he had Diedrick’s or something.

Now he just had to get everything loaded and aligned. He already had the control systems wired up, and the central processors running.

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8:55 am
Arena ‘99

“Okay, who’s up for the MST3K deal this time?” Chaka whispered.

“Not I,” said Phase. “Look around you.”

Chaka glanced around. There were maybe three or four hundred chairs set out in a huge arc around a big podium in the ‘town square’ configuration in the middle of the arena.

“We’re in the middle of the arena, instead of up in the stands. So what?”

Phase murmured, “And what do we know about the sound system in the arena, when it’s active?”

Lancer instantly said, “It zooms in and picks up everything anybody says.”

“Right,” nodded Phase. “Omnidirectional mike system with the ability to pick up the noise from a squirrel climbing a tree.”

“Yeah, I remember that one. That was hysterical,” Jade snickered.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh. Anything you say is probably going to get picked up and recorded, if not heard live by the speaker,” Phase ruthlessly pointed out.

Lancer said, “Umm, I’d just as soon not get hammered for being a huge smartass to some big-name superhero.”

Chaka rolled her eyes. “Okay. Fine. I’ll behave.”

Phase turned toward Jade and added, “And no ‘hangman’ either. Unless you want everyone in the arena to be able to see you doing it, and even be able to see what word you picked.”

“Fine. No Fun Guy.”

Lancer pointed out, “Look Phase, it’s not like with maybe three hundred fifty kids, including bozos like Buster over there, we can possibly be the worst behaved students in here. And anyway, what are you doing?”

Phase didn’t look up. “Reading email on my bPhone. It’s not like… Oh crap.”

“What?”

“They’ve instituted isolation protocols, like in an arena sim. They brought the force fields up. I can’t get outside reception anymore.”

Chaka smugly said, “Maybe they’re more worried about the people with laptops and fancy phones not paying attention, than the people playing hangman.”

Fey murmured, “There’s Aquerna, sitting over with Chou and Molly.”

“Yeah, isn’t she your little pal anymore?” Chaka wondered.

Phase sighed. “No, she’s not. She’s one of the people still not speaking to me over the thing with Bladedancer. After all…” He looked around at the crowd. “I was the one who kicked her out of Team Kimba.”

“It’s not like you solo’ed her,” said Chaka.

“It’s not like she wasn’t happy to go form her own team,” added Tennyo.

“It’s not like we’d let you kick someone out if we didn’t all agree on it,” said Lancer.

Phase just said, “The real world is all about appearance rather than substance. People expect this kind of thing out of a Goodkind. Everyone knows Jade wouldn’t do something like this. No one wants to believe you or Fey or Chaka could do it, either.”

“What about me?” asked Tennyo.

“No one has the cojones to confront you about it,” Ayla said.

“Great,” pouted Tennyo. “So I’m a jerk and a hothead too.”

Ayla said, “It beats having the whole school look at you like you’re trying to out-villain Jobe and She-Beast put together.”

Generator opened her mouth, but Fey cut her off. “Not here. We’ll talk more when we’re back in Phase’s room.”

They looked up when Mrs. Carson strode into the ‘town square’ with the Amazing Three right behind her. Jade waved excitedly, and grinned when Galaxy gave her a little finger-wave in return.

“They’re so great! And they weren’t mad at all about the stuff the spider-rats wrecked,” she beamed.

“And they’re still treating that demon like it’s a baby?” Phase asked disgustedly.

“He’s a cutie-pie!” Jade insisted.

Tennyo said, “Plus, it looks like Jade’s milk had some regen effects on the little stinker, and he’s stuck in that form now. Or rather, she’s stuck in that form now. She’s turning into a tiny female Jade clone baby. She’ll probably be fully human by summer. Galaxy said she’s pretty cranky about it. Plus, she’s cutting a tooth now.”

As they watched, Galaxy started bouncing the baby gently, then formed a solid-light baby carriage and walked the baby down one of the simulated streets.

Phase muttered, “At least she figured out how to get out of this lecture.”

Mrs. Carson strode onto the raised dais and stood behind the podium. “Good morning, students. I know this is Sunday, so some of you are missing church. For those of you who are concerned about this, Reverend England will be holding a special service at two this afternoon, and Bishop Wooster was kind enough to set up a late mass at three o’clock.”

She looked at the assembled teenagers. “All of you are here because of the possible consequences of the use of your powers. All of you are here because you have already demonstrated that you can do substantial damage to innocents or to property. All of you need to think about your future actions. And so we have brought Dr. Amos Messing, the well-known leader of the Amazing Three, here to speak to you about control and management of your powers.” She turned her head, “Dr. Messing? If you would like to begin, I’ll just go see if Galaxy requires any assistance.”

“Thank you, headmistress,” said Amos Messing gratefully.

Mrs. Carson strode off of the platform and walked off in search of Melinda Martin and the baby.

Phase muttered so quietly that only Tennyo and Fey heard. “And she figured out how to dodge the talk too. That’s a bad sign.”

Messing adjusted the controls on the podium, and the buildings behind him transformed into a forty-foot high projection screen. An image from the infamous Fool’s Fight appeared. He began lecturing.

Phase pulled out his bPhone and began working off-line, replying to emails he had already captured. He figured that as long as he could work silently, the arena mikes wouldn’t target him.

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9:40 am
the Workshop

Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue didn’t like this kind of task. When he had this sort of problem to handle, it meant there had already been too many screw-ups, and things had moved from ‘prevent this problem’ to ‘clean up this Charlie Foxtrot.’

He stomped into the Workshop lab for the big-ass machinery. Tiny Tim still dominated the center of the room, even if the big piece of shit still couldn’t lift a foot. Just as well. All he needed was a giant robot stomping across campus raising hell. He had enough problems with six-foot-tall students.

And there was today’s problem child. “ERGONOMIC!”

The boy jumped like Oscar had shot him in the ass, and he dropped the power wrench in his hand. “Ouch!” Looked like he dropped it on his foot. Served the kid right.

Bardue stormed over to the boy and yelled, “Ergonomic! Just what the HELL do you think you’re doin’ with all that ordnance? And how the HELL did you get it out of the range lockers?”

Ergonomic quailed, but managed to say, “I… I got permission first, sir.”

“DON’T CALL ME SIR! I work for a living!”

Ergonomic looked like he was seconds away from peeing his pants. Which was just the way Bardue wanted the little dipshit. He cringed, “I filled out the form for a temporary issue of weaponry and ordnance for a class project, sergeant. I got a copy right here!”

Bardue glanced at the document and threw it to the floor. He already knew the kid had turned in the thing, so he was looking at it just for form’s sake. He bellowed, “This form is for small arms and minimal ammo usage! NOBODY SAID YOU COULD STRIP THE ENTIRE FUCKING RANGE 3 ARMORY, MAGGOT!”

“B-but I needed all that stuff for my project, s… sergeant. You see, there’s this thing called a Bolo in these science fiction books, and-”

“I know what a Bolo is supposed to be! Are you telling me you BUILT one? And ARMED it? You know the policy on armed AIs on this campus!”

Ergonomic cringed again, but insisted, “It, umm, it’s not an actual AI, sergeant, sir. The AI is a different part of the project, back in the computer labs. This has the hardware to run a full AI, but no software. It’s strictly computer controlled from my laptop over there. It’s dead without me sending it signals.”

Bardue yelled, “And it still has enough armament ta kill every livin’ thing on this entire fucking CAMPUS! ARE YOU INSANE?!?! I want every bit of ordnance off that scrapheap NOW! And then I want every single weapon dismounted and field stripped! After the ordnance, pull the chainguns and the Vulcan cannon and that grenade launcher! Then both plasma cannons! Then that fucking TANK GUN!”

Ergonomic whimpered, “Yes sir. I mean yes sergeant!” He looked sadly at his baby. Twenty tons of armor and tank treads and engines and armaments, and even a huge personal forcefield generator he’d borrowed from Wunderkind with a big promise he’d get it back to her as soon as he was done with his demo. He was never going to get them to give him that ‘A+’ now… He muttered, “And it wasn’t like anything could go wrong.”

He picked up the power wrench and flipped the switch so he could start unbolting everything. He stepped forward, and…

The Bolo backed away from him. Which was impossible. There was no way it could have an operating AI in it.

From well behind him, Bardue snapped, “What the hell?”

And that was when the righthand chaingun swung his way, and it clicked as the belt feeder became operational. The chaingun lined up on his head, and he found himself looking down the barrels. Ergonomic suddenly knew he was a dead man.

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Arena ‘99

“…and so once again we see the consequences of rash actions in a situation where loss of life or destruction of public property is imminently feasible…”

Phase checked his bPhone once again for a signal. Any signal. No, Carson had sealed them off so they had to sit and listen to this loquacity. He was sure Carson had picked the man who had the most tedious lecture style and was simultaneously most likely to rant on about this topic for the longest time. This was a worse punishment than working in the kitchens.

Okay, that had been less of a punishment and more of a nice, tasty treat most of the time. Plus, he had learned how to clean potatoes and vegetables, which was a skill he was probably going to have to need when he went home for the summer.

He began working on composing some off-line correspondence that he could upload once the forcefields came down.

“So, Liz. Just how long a talk did you ask for?” Galaxy rocked the now-sleeping baby in her arms.

Carson smiled wickedly. “An hour.”

“An hour? Oh my God, you are evil. You do know how long Amos spoke the last time someone asked him for an hour talk.”

Carson nodded. “Three hours, forty-five minutes. International Physics and Meta-Physics Symposium in Helsinki, last year. That’s why I told him he could use auxiliary material. I want my students to learn something.”

“What? That you’re the most creative torturer since Belisker the Terrible?”

“Pfaugh. Belisker? He was a piker.”

Galaxy smiled naughtily. “Oh yeah, that’s right. He had a huge crush on you back when you were Lady Champion, didn’t he?”

“He did not.”

“Did so! Remember the time he sent you those hearts in a box?”

“Mel, those were human hearts.”

Mel giggled, “I never said he was nice, just that he had that enormous crush on you. Didn’t he have a pin-up of you in his bedroom?”

“Oh God, I hope not!”

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the Admin offices

Amelia Hartford leaned back in her chair. It would be nice to be in Carson’s office, but with almost all the staff out of the place, this felt like one large private office. “James?”

“Yes ma’am?”

“Could you get me a cup of coffee?”

“Yes ma’am. One sugar, and skim milk?”

“Exactly.” She smiled to herself as the kid jumped up to go fetch.

A large private office with a gofer and a really nice computer system, plus nothing going on. She knew it was going to be a slow day, because Elizabeth had every troublemaker and musclehead down in Arena ‘99 with her.

She went ahead and started an early scan of the network, just in case. With the physical troublemakers penned up, there was no telling what the mental troublemakers might get up to. At least, with Overclock and Make gone, two of her biggest headaches had cleared up.

She was sure Ringo was misusing one of the network gateways, but she hadn’t been able to catch him yet. The most she had on him was that moronic Tron mapping he had overlaid on several of his objects and executables, and that wasn’t even against Whateley rules. It was just irritating, and it fed into every cliché out there about computer programmers.

She was still trying to catch Paige’s network activities, but the were-cat was fast. They had a private little game going on, as part of her training program. Paige was learning both sides of the security world from her, and they were taking turns playing the black hat. Right now, Paige was the white hat, and was supposed to be figuring out what resources Amelia was attacking. So far, Paige hadn’t found the distributed attack programs, and if she didn’t begin tracking them down within thirty-six hours, the distributed denial of services attack they would launch would make it impossible for her to get any packets out on her portion of the network, in essence shutting her down. It was a dirty trick, but Paige needed to be aware of how the big boys played hardball out in the real world. If you were stuck as a Were who was shut away from the world, your connection to the internet was a crucial resource that your enemies could assault.

Still, no matter how good Paige was, Amelia wasn’t going to hit the girl with the really nasty stuff. Not until Paige learned more coding techniques and had a larger bag of tricks ready to launch. Amelia thought about The Palm and shuddered. There were far worse things out there than a simple DDoS attack that even some baseline skriptkiddie could launch.

She started some scans of the students sitting in Messing’s lecture. Good God, the man was only a third of the way through his lecture materials. She could tell, since she had made sure the Arena guys had everything set up right. It wouldn’t do for the school to look bad in front of one of the trustees. Well, she didn’t have to listen to the old fart babble on all day. She checked the on-line calendar, and saw that Elizabeth had cleared her schedule through two o’clock.

So Carson knew Messing would run hours long. Amelia once again reminded herself to stop underestimating Elizabeth.

Bardue knew he had no chance whatsoever. One old fart with camos and a sidearm against twenty tons of angry tank? Not a contest. But he couldn’t just stand there and let Ergonomic get blasted into hamburger.

He dove into Ergonomic’s back and dropped the kid onto his face. That would leave a mark. But it sure beat getting perforated by several hundred rounds of .50 calibers that were searing over their heads. The kid was crying out in pain, but Bardue just didn’t have the time. He grabbed the kid and rolled.

He rolled the two of them right at the Bolo. He didn’t know what kind of sensors the sonofabitch had on it, but he knew damn well there was no way it could depress those chainguns enough to shoot at something down by the thing’s treads. The damn thing could roll right over them if it could spot them, but at least they wouldn’t get shot full of holes in the next second.

He had eight rounds in the clip. What the fuck could he do with eight shots against a tank? He swung his arm to take a shot at the undercarriage, in case the kid had screwed up and left the gas tank or some key wiring exposed. But his hand hit a forcefield. The stinging zap nearly made him drop the pistol.

He didn’t curse. The kid was desperately trying not to make any noise, so he figured the goddamn Bolo had some sound detection gear. Probably heat signature detection too, but he couldn’t do a damn thing about that. Not while they were still in the middle of the room.

Okay, he couldn’t fire into anything vulnerable underneath. If the kid could get to the laptop, maybe he could hit the Bolo with a ‘halt’ code or a self-destruct. He didn’t want to think about what that much ordnance exploding this close to them would do.

He looked around the room and made his call. He took a two-handed grip in prone position, let out a breath, and fired off a shot. Damn, that was a miss. He fired again and hit the target.

Smack in the middle of the alarm box on the wall. The wailing was loud enough to make his ears hurt. Everyone in Kane Hall and Admin would know there was trouble in here, even if he didn’t survive to tell the tale.

Amelia Hartford made sure not to smile at James when he brought her the coffee. She just nodded at him and told him he could go if he wanted to. She had a rep to maintain, and smiling at students wasn’t part of it.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Damn. Three beeps meant it was the network scanner. What were those little weasels up to now? She started typing furiously, trying to peg the problem and its source.

Dee-dee-dee-deet! Dee-dee-dee-deet!

Shit! That was one of the physical alarms. When she found whoever was pulling this crap, she was going to wipe their hard drive of all their homework and notes, and then hit their computer with her favorite MPEG generator.

She did a fast backtrace with one of her personal executables, and…

Holy Mother of God.

It was the macro-scale mechanical lab. She instantly had Security cameras feeding into her system, and she could see just how bad it really was. There was a fricking tank loose in there trying to kill Bardue and one of the students. How the hell did someone construct and arm a tank in there?

She hit the alarm and speed-dialed Security, just in case they weren’t paying enough attention to the campus alarms. “This is Hartford. We have a live tank, repeat, a live tank loose in the big mech lab. I need a heavy weapons team down there ASAP.”

She scanned the lab. She saw three things she could try from her desk, even if none of them were likely to stop the thing.

She grinned evilly. A lot of the mech lab kids were going to be really pissed if any of these worked.

Bardue rolled again, dragging Ergonomic across the floor. Thank Christ the kid was one of the skinny little devisers instead of one of the lardbuckets.

The tank backed up ten feet and tried once again to roll over him. If it got even an inch of tread on him, he’d be immobilized. If it managed to roll over any part of him, he’d be crippled. And then it could easily back up and try again at its leisure.

The alarm was blaring repeatedly. The tank finally paid attention to the alarm instead of to him. It turned and opened fire with one of its plasma cannons. The alarm box turned into molten slag. The alarm kept blaring. Good. The tank took three more shots, just in case it could disable the alarm. He knew it couldn’t. Well, he was pretty sure it couldn’t. It looked like the tank finally gave up on it once it had turned the wall into molten metal and still failed to deactivate the alarm. So it went back to concentrating on him. Damn, he really hated AI’s.

He dragged the kid around to the side of the Bolo. It would be a lot harder for the damn thing to roll over him now, and it would have to work to bring any weaponry to bear.

He stood up quickly and fired two rounds at tiny gaps he could see in the armor, where some of the moveable weapons were mounted. The bullets bounced off the goddamn forcefield, and the Bolo turned to track the source of the attack. He grabbed the kid by the back of his pants and scrambled to move with the thing.

Hartford sent an immediate alert to the headmistress and the Wild Pack. Stormwolf and his group were supposed to be in the big lecture too, but they could get out of there and get their gear on faster than she could walk from her office to lunch.

No reply. Not even a return signal that the message had been received. She checked the network.

Nothing was going into the Arena.

Damn! She turned to her hardened system box and released the Arena ‘99 forcefields.

They didn’t go down. If this was those assholes messing with her system, she was going to wire their CPUs to their balls and teach them what pinging really meant.

She hit another speed-dial number. “Paige?”

“Yes Ms. Hartford? I haven’t found your attack yet, but I-”

“Drop that. No time for fun. I need you to help me. We’ve got a network attack. Plus a live tank loose in the big mech lab, and that’s probably under its own power, so…” She stopped talking as a horrific thought hit her.

“Ms. Hartford?”

“Paige, I need you to get into the system and find out why the Arena forcefields are still up. Bring them down, alert everyone inside about the tank in the mech lab, and then trace the cause. Find whoever it is, and kill those little turds. You have my permission to wipe their drives, crash their systems, infect everything they own, whatever you want. Then if you still have time, find out who’s running loose on the system. And be careful. Protect your system like you’re facing Codemaster.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And good luck. I’ve got a mech lab to destroy.”

“Huh?”

Bardue knew his goose was finally cooked. The tank had wised up. It swiftly backed up fifty feet, so it could find him and target him. Shit. He whispered out of the side of his mouth, “Kid. Run for it. Keep me between you and the chainguns, and try ta get to the far wall.”

Ergonomic broke into a sprint. The tank swiveled slightly, and Bardue realized the dumbass was doing the heroic thing instead. The kid was sprinting for the laptop.

He jumped to his feet. “Hey! Over here, you hunka shit!” He opened fire on the Bolo, hoping to distract it long enough to give the kid even a ghost of a chance.

Amelia knew someone was screwing with the network. She figured the forcefields at Arena ‘99 were there to keep anyone with any real powers out of the big mech lab. She didn’t care how much firepower that sucker had, ten seconds against Lady Astarte or Tennyo or Totem, and it would be a smoking puddle. So what else was happening with the network?

She worked at accessing the mech lab computers, while simultaneously watching the network traffic. Someone was expending a lot of effort at keeping Paige from getting any further than the Hawthorne router box. Someone was trying to hide an illegal box that was now visible on the network because its IP addresses were exposed. When she found whose gear that was, she was going to…

Ah-hah! She had it. She fired up one of her ‘cracker’ programs and launched something she hadn’t used in years. She typed furiously, trying to get even one operant code to work.

The Bolo ignored Bardue and used a plasma cannon to scrag the laptop. And the table it sat on. And the surrounding floor.

Ergonomic scrambled so hard not to run into the smoldering wreckage from the plasma blast that he slipped and fell on his ass.

The Bolo swiveled slightly and lined up another shot.

“MOVE!”Bardue screamed, but he knew the kid was dead meat. There was no way he could get to the kid in time. There was no way the kid was going to be able to get up and move out of the target area.

He took a careful stance and tried to put a round into the barrel of the plasma cannon, just in case he could get a fucking miracle to happen.

And suddenly there was an immense groaning noise, like Lady Astarte was bending a hundred-foot girder in half. He watched in shock as Tiny Tim lifted a foot.

“Yes!” Amelia crowed. She even did a little victory dance in her chair. Now all she had to do was a little more damage, and cross her fingers.

Bardue watched. It was impossible. It was a fucking miracle, is what it was. But Tiny Tim lifted its foot.

And it fell over.

The goddamn giant robot couldn’t walk. Everyone on campus knew that. It had armaments in its arms and head, but they wouldn’t engage until you opened the roof and operated the lift platform. As those Syndicate bastards found out at Halloween.

But it could fall over. And whoever was helping him out knew that too. It lifted its right foot just the correct way so it would fall forward and to the right.

The Bolo reacted. It backed up so fast its treads left smoking patterns on the floor.

Tiny Tim hit the floor so hard the vibrations knocked Bardue off his feet.

It missed the Bolo by a good twenty yards, and the Bolo just kept backing up.

But Bardue didn’t care about that, because now there was a giant-robot-sized wall of steel and alloy and plastic that was blocking that robotic sonofabitch from him and the kid.

There was a blast that made his eardrums ache. He knew it was that damn tankgun. But the gun wasn’t firing on his position. So he ran for the kid.

As he got to the kid, he saw the Bolo heading out through the remains of the sliding door that blocked all access to the surface ramp. The frigging thing was about to get loose on the campus grounds.

He was gonna save that kid, and then he was gonna strangle him!

Amelia watched the tank over the remote cameras. She hadn’t even had the chance to try and crash the remote controlled cars or the spider-walker into the thing before it made a hasty exit.

She knew that someone or something was controlling the thing, because no robot tank was going to know where the concealed exit doors were, or how to deal with the fact that she had just electronically locked that door and scrambled its access codes. She watched on the Security cameras as it roared up the access ramp and headed toward a trapdoor into the wooded area just outside the main campus. Damn.

She sounded an alarm and tripped the campus loudspeakers. “Attention! There is a battle tank loose on campus! Go immediately to the nearest building, and move as quickly as possible to the underground levels. Do not attempt to engage it. Do not remain where it can fire on you. Go into the nearest building and move to the underground levels.” She set the message to repeat, and she went back to her network scanner.

The three boys hauled their gear down the narrow path.

“What bug was up Ergy’s ass? We really could’ve used those anti-grav sleds for this. And his help. But nooooo…”

“To hell with him. This is gonna be the best April Fools Day prank in history!”

“Better than the fake alien invasion of 1988?”

“Well no, but…”

“Better than the exploding teacher of 1994?”

“Well no, but…”

“Better than the steampunk ‘invasion’ from the fake dirigibles back in 1976?”

“Not that either, but…”

“Better than-”

“SHUT UP! It’ll be great! Just help me move the gear into the trees here. This part’s all mud, so we can cover our tracks super easy.”

“Wait a minute, I hear something.”

“Yeah, me too. A snowmobile?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Maybe it’s Skids. Or Mechano Man. They’ve always got illegal cycles out in places like this.”

“Well, just don’t tell anyone.”

“DUH!”

“Hey, it’s getting louder.”

It sounds like it’s right over th-”

All three of them screamed like little girls as twenty tons of racing Bolo tore out of the bushes and plowed through their position.

Paige was somewhere between frustrated and desperate. She couldn’t go ‘Circuit Breaker’ on the network without blowing her cover. And her sisters were depending on her not to reveal her real abilities. But whoever was blocking her was good. Really, really good. Possibly Amelia Hartford good. Maybe even Abel Palm good. And if this was The Palm, inside the Whateley network firewalls, she might have to do something desperate.

But if it was The Palm, why wasn’t it going after the big stuff? If she was The Palm, she would be accessing the controls for that string-theory power plant under main campus and trying to blow all of Whateley Academy sky high.

And if it wasn’t The Palm, how did it manage to beat Hartford’s hacker stuff? Because Amelia Hartford might not be Polly Pureheart, but she was the best pure programmer it had ever been Paige’s pleasure to run into. Circuit Breaker could use cyberpath talents to do things that weren’t strictly code, and could punch through Hartford’s best firewall like a knife through warm butter if she really wanted to. But when it came to sitting down and writing code, Hartford was fricking awesome.

Could it be one of the Whateley programmers? Could it be some trap programs left behind by those assmunches Overclock and Make? Overclock was a Grade A dick, but based on the local chat rooms, she had thought Make was an okay guy. Showed how good a judge of character she was. Not.

She was locked in her room, but she knew some people would ‘hear’ her if she ‘yelled’ loud enough. “FOOB! Turn off our router for three seconds, and then turn it back on!” That ought to kill the programs that had taken over her router. Okay, the dorm router.

“Oh yeah, best practical joke ever. Get this branch off me.”

The second one lifted his head out of the mud. “Pthth. Shut up! And get me outta here! That fricking thing just about ran right over me!”

“Jeez. That thing’s way better than our prank. You know what? We’re losers.”

“Shut up. And help me out of the mud, will ya?”

Fey watched Chaka start to vibrate. The girl had managed to sit still for nearly an hour, but this was beyond mere boredom. This was the Evil Twin of boredom. Was she going to have to try a charm to calm her down?

She watched as Phase leaned over Lancer and passed Toni her bPhone. What was Phase up to now?

Toni suddenly calmed down and stopped shaking. Fey leaned over to get a peek at the screen. Oh.

Phase had a hangman app on her bPhone.

And now Phase was just sitting there looking at Dr. Messing like this stuff was absolutely fascinating.

Fey had a sneaky suspicion that if anyone caught on that Phase was using that bPhone, Phase would have five pages of notes from Messing’s talk to show what she was supposedly doing.

What the heck was Phase’s word? Toni had nearly hung herself, and all she had was the ‘s’ at the start. Six letters, starts with ‘s’, no ‘e’ or ‘t’ or ‘a’ or ‘n’ or ‘r’. Was it even English? Oops, there went the hanged man. And the word was… Syzygy? Damn. Was that even a real word? Ayla was not exactly Miss Good Sportsmanship. Oh. There was a dictionary app in there too. Syzygy was a real word, just one of those words only Ayla would know. Wait, there was a biology meaning listed, so maybe Billie would know it too. Maybe. And now, Toni was looking through the dictionary for a word to toss back the other way.

Fey nodded to herself. The next time she played hangman with mom or Troy, she was going to use ‘syzygy’. Troy would go bananas. She tried to keep the smile off her face. She couldn’t wait to see what other words Ayla threw at Toni.

Amelia looked over the router traffic. Whoever was running this was organized. Possibly too well organized. She turned to her system box and quickly took down the cell phone towers and the repeaters. Not that she was ever going to admit to the phone company that she could do so. Then she dropped the campus WiFi.

Ah. That got them. The traffic suddenly became disjointed. So they were using the campus WiFi to interconnect, and the cabling for attacks. They would have to scramble now to recover, or play the rest by ear. But they still had Arena ‘99 isolated, Paige blocked off at the Hawthorne router, that robot tank on the loose, and that illegal hardware hanging off the Workshop sub-network.

Got it. She took down one of the sections of cabling in between Workshop routers Ada3 and Perl3, and she had it isolated. There were only three legal computers in that segment, and she could check them by hand later. If she was right, she had just captured another copy of good old Abel. That bastard.

So what was he really after?

He had a tank now. In the middle of the Whateley campus. What did she think he would be after here?

And once she figured out who had brought The Palm into this campus, she was going to crucify them. She didn’t care if it was Buxton. Or… Shit. It was probably that illegal computer Buxton smuggled in for those idiots running the superhero matches back at the start of the school year. She had been sure she had scoured it well enough after the Tennyo disaster down there, but those dolts must have had enough time that parts of it leaked into the school intranet. Maybe it needed this long to ‘heal’. Or to plan whatever was going on right now. Abel always was obsessive about his long-term plans, which tended to cripple him when he needed to make changes on the fly.

She typed a quick text message off to James, and mentally crossed her fingers he’d be able to find one of the students she listed. Some of the preferred kids were down in the Arena and inaccessible. Temporarily, anyway. Then she re-enabled the cell phone tower capabilities and checked the backlogs coming off the campus. Okay, nothing but a few ordinary calls, and some annoyingly juvenile text messages. She didn’t care how much faster and shorter it made the messages, those girls’ texts made them look retarded. She briefly considered writing a simple rule-based engine to generate what would look like text replies from other teenaged girls, and then using it to torment those bubblebrains. ‘OMG! u r so ret@rded!!!’

Maybe later, if she had time.

If she survived.

Oh! Perfect! Her enemy had fallen for two of her tarpits on the intranet. She had seven of them, ranging from one that appeared to be her personal computer, to one that appeared to be a control system for an experimental anti-matter reactor in the underground physics labs. It had gone for the fake anti-matter control system and the fake radiation lab control system. So if the tank didn’t achieve its objective, it planned to take out the entire campus. Vicious little bastard, wasn’t it?

Why hadn’t it gone for her personal box? Abel had been obsessed with figuring out what she planned to do as her next attacks against him. She could think of a couple reasons, and all of them were bad. The least awful one was that he was certain with a really high probability that she would be dead at the end of the attacks.

She launched every one of her DDoS programs and triggered an additional series of diagnostics across the entire intranet, which would slow network traffic to a crawl. It would make things difficult for Paige, but it would make things impossible for The Palm. She started up a program to make the routers re-transmit packets back and forth. Anything small enough to fit itself in one or two packets, like Paige’s operations, ought to get through. Anything larger, like a self-aware virus, would keep getting sliced into packets that wouldn’t reassemble correctly.

Oh. Some of the Workshop boys were trying to download images. Probably porn, based on the URLs. Tough shit for them. She’d ream them a new one later, assuming they didn’t get the hint.

Teenaged boys. Can’t live with them, can’t feed them to the local Weres.

Now that the cell towers were back up, she made two quick off-campus phone calls. Not that she really thought the ARC power armor guys would get here in time to stop the tank or The Palm’s plan, but she was calling with a slightly longer timeline in mind. And if her other call panned out, she wouldn’t even need the ARC boys.

Sam Everheart sprinted down a brick walkway. She was the only member of the heavy weapons team who could sprint with seven hundred pounds of weaponry on her, so she was serving as pointman for this op. Not that being point when pursuing a tank was a safe proposition. If what Bardue had signaled was correct, then even the ordnance she was carrying wouldn’t be enough. Not unless the forcefield on the thing was down first.

Chief of Security Franklin Delarose knelt down on the roof of Kane Hall and sighted in his weapon. It was a Goodkind Munitions Portable Anaconda-770 Anti-Forcefield System. It took three men to haul the components around, and couldn’t be fired by a baseline unless it was set on its bipod legs first, the bipod legs were fully anchored, and also the baseline was kneeling in position behind it. He was operating this one, while Reynolds was getting the second one set up. He didn’t like the Goodkind attitude about mutants, but he couldn’t complain too much about one particular Goodkind shelling out the cash for these babies. On top of that, the kid seemed to have conned Buxton into thinking she was doing it as a favor to him. Delarose would love to know just what was going on there. But Phase seemed to be running rings around Buxton and a big chunk of Payola Platoon. Phase was apparently running rings around the Masterminds, the Intelligence Cadet Corps, the Good Ol’ Boyz, the Alphas, the New Olympians, you name it. Plus she already had one of the most dangerous training teams in years at her back.

If Phase turned out to be a supervillain, they were all in deep, deep shit. Maybe they could just give her the whole damn planet now, and ask her to go take out all the other supervillains.

Sam stopped behind the corner of a building and made sure her heat signature wasn’t exposed to anything the tank might have. Her nanite cloud was extending around the corner and giving her all the intel she needed.

Damn, that thing really looked more like a Bolo than was reasonable. This was the project Ergonomic had been working on in winter term mech workshop? She quickly examined the campus files. He had gotten a B- on this? Was some teacher dricking out at the time? This was a fully functional AI tank with heavy weaponry. The U.S. Army Land Warrior program would probably pay between two hundred and eight hundred million apiece for these critters, and Ergonomic had a test bed up and running in seven weeks? That said A+ to her. No wonder Bardue said the kid was going nuts over proving his concept worked.

The tank reacted when a large round impacted on its right side. It spun to its right and swiveled back and forth, trying to locate the attacking forces.

She watched as an RPG came searing in from behind it and hit dead on. The tank spun about and fired three seconds of chainguns in the direction the RPG had come from. She could see the tank had a burned area across the back plating, but the armor had held up to the attack.

But the armor was burned. That told her the forcefield was down.

She slipped around the corner and opened fire with her gatling gun.

The Whateley Security officer came rushing into Admin and ran straight to the desk. “Ms. Hartford? We gotta go. Now. The Chief’s done a straight-line on the tank’s path, and it’s coming here. And since you’re the only one here, it has to be after you.”

She asked, “And how are you planning on rescuing me from a robotic tank?” But she still got up from her chair as quickly as she could. She grabbed her cell phone.

“Unh-uh. Sorry ma’am, but the Chief says nothing our robot can trace or lock onto. No electronics. We’ve got computer systems and phone systems for you in the back, so you’ll be set. Just nothing of yours.”

She set the phone back down and followed. The officer was practically running, so she moved faster, despite her skirt and low heels. “Do I know you?”

“Probably not, ma’am, unless you read the paper forms from Friday. I’m not in the system electronically yet, so the Chief figured I was the least likely for an AI to be able to recognize as part of the security force.”

“Very clever,” she said.

They ran out the back door to an armored car. He swung the rear door open and helped her in, then slammed it shut and ran around to the cab. She took a seat and looked over the computer system mounted on one wall. It was already on.

The armored car roared off down a back route and hit the ring road in a matter of seconds. It headed for the main gate.

The computer screen flared, and a painfully recognizable face appeared on it. “Good morning, Amelia. It’s so… nice to see you again.”

She just stared at the screen and said nothing.

“At a loss for words? How unlike you. Or perhaps it’s because you realize that I have won. The driver is one of me. I know that you have been informed about my current experiments in computer adaptability. Adam up front is one of my success stories, even if his face has been photographed and he is wanted by everyone from the FBI to the DPA. A human body with the brain partially excised, run by hardware inserted into the cranial cavity, with me for the OS. I’m planning something very special for you, though. I’m planning on leaving most of your brain intact. Your brain can maintain your bodily processes, while my hardware will replace a few segments of your frontal lobes. I have had very good results with my alpha and beta test versions of the hardware and installation. The beta test version is even operational and providing extensive feedback. You will be my next version. Call it Wetware version 2.3.” He laughed maniacally.

She swallowed hard but said nothing.

“Still nothing to say? I’m sure you’ll have a great deal to say while I’m cutting open your skull and slicing out pieces of your brain. Based on my previous versions, that will be mainly screaming. Oh, but I haven’t told you the very best part. You’ll still be aware. Your mind will still be operational, so that my hardware can utilize your memory and your instinctive reactions and your emotions. You will be able to watch and experience everything your body does. You won’t be able to affect its behaviors or actions in any way, but you’ll get to watch. You will be able to see as I triumph utterly over you and your feeble efforts. Based on the feedback from my beta test version, it will hurt quite a lot more than the operation. And it will never stop hurting. That will be a far more satisfactory vengeance than merely killing you.”

Sam fired again. The gatling gun wasn’t making any impression against the armor of the Bolo, but it was doing an excellent job of chewing up the ground the thing was trying to roll across. She aimed again at the gap in between the muddy ground and the armor plate.

Sergeant Hackitt checked with a Special Forces periscope before sticking his head out where that tank could take it off. Shit, that Everheart was a maniac with that gatling gun. She had turned the ground under the tank into a mudpit. Not only was the tank getting no traction, it had managed to dig itself in until the edges of the armor plates were down in the mud too. That sucker wasn’t going anywhere. Now all they needed to do was make sure it couldn’t open fire on the campus. And he needed to remember not to get Everheart pissed at him. She had to be at least as strong as an Exemplar-3 or Exemplar-4 if she was packing a frigging chopper weapon as a personal firearm.

He pumped his fist and signaled for all three of his people to open fire. Green, Johnson, and Metler all raised their anti-tank weapons and fired in sequence.

The tank stopped moving.

Hackitt pointed his laser at the big hole where Johnson’s round had hit right on top of Green’s. He didn’t like Johnson, but the man had outstanding aim, especially under field conditions. Hackitt signaled over his comms, “Ready for the closer. Laser pointed.”

From behind him was the sound of a rocket launching. The rocket locked onto the spot where the laser was aimed, and it smashed directly into the hole made in the armor plate.

The explosion launched most of the weaponry out the front of the tank. The outer two thirds of the tank gun went cartwheeling across the lawn. The plasma cannons were ejected like cylindrical rockets. The chainguns and grenade launcher disintegrated, spewing frags two hundred feet forward. The armor held, except underneath. The blast lifted the twenty tons of tank a good foot into the air before it crashed to the ground again.

Hackitt muttered to himself, “If that mother’s still operational after all that, I’m investing in their company.”

The Palm watched from the computer screen as the gas rendered Amelia Hartford unconscious. It would be much easier to handle her and get her onto the operating table undamaged if she had no opportunities to hurt herself fighting Adam. She sank to the floor. He continued to watch, since he had the spare cycles.

She began to change. Her hair was changing color, darkening unevenly across her head. The length of it was changing too, shortening oddly in places. Her body seemed to grow, even though his instruments told him her weight was unchanging.

Wait, her weight was too high for Amelia Hartford! How could he have missed a detail like that? Had he invested that many billions of cycles in gloating?

The unconscious body continued to change. The waist and arms and legs thickened. The face became more mannish.

It wasn’t Amelia Hartford. The woman had tricked him, somehow. She must have realized that the entire process was designed to place her in his clutches, and had found a Shifter to impersonate her.

He expended several billion cycles running through a variety of possible scenarios. There was no way to tell how early she had detected his machinations and had guessed it was he, so there was a low likelihood she was still in the Administration areas where Adam or the tank could get at her. There was no way to tell how long she had been prepared with this dubious double, so there was no way to deduce where she might be hiding. And he had no way to tell how reliably his Wetware would work with a Shifter of this type. Any changes in size or shape of the cranial cavity could be enough to dislodge connections or disrupt operations. It might take weeks or months of controlled experimentation to determine just how this type of Shifter affected the equipment, and the results would not be useful for extrapolations to anything other than Shifters of exactly this ability. It was a clear waste of CPU cycles and equipment.

Furthermore, the lack of explosions or emitted radiation from the direction of Whateley Academy indicated that Hartford had thwarted his efforts to address Phase IV of his plan.

He would regroup and try again. Hartford and the other threat must be eliminated. The two of them had reduced his capabilities by 72 percent over the last ten months alone.

He would have Adam kill the Shifter and dump the body. Then they would get the armored car repainted as quickly as possible, so Adam could continue to use it as a mobile base. There were decided downsides to his wetware projects, and the requirements of the human body were some of the most serious ones.

He had made the right decision to abandon his human form and take up residence in the computer networks of the world.

Adam stopped the armored car and climbed out. The road was deserted, and there was no sound of an approaching car. It would be a matter of a few hundred milliseconds to rip off the head of the impostor and discard the remains in the steep gully beside the vehicle.

He never saw the hovering power armor figures that blasted him with electrical pulses. He dropped bonelessly to the road, twitching as if he was having a petit mal seizure.

A short time later, Amelia Hartford looked at Don Sebastiano – who was now on his feet again and out of his wheelchair – and Bogus – who looked like he needed to sit down after getting dosed with that gas in the armored car. “I really must thank you, Bogus. I can only guess how… uncomfortable it must be to compress your appearance down to something my size, and we all realize the risks you were taking.”

“Plus, you were wearing a dress in public, in America,” The Don smirked.

Bogus looked at her and simply replied, “Sebastiano asked me to.”

Amelia nodded at that. She said, “But thanks to you, we’ve captured one of The Palm’s human AIs. We have a serial killer off the streets, and we now know a lot more about The Palm’s projects.”

Sebastiano gave her a regal nod. “Not at all. We are always happy to assist the Administration.”

She knew The Don would expect a lot of behind-the-scenes perks for this, even though he wasn’t an official Alpha anymore. She looked forward to his reaction when she made sure the perks all benefited Bogus directly. She was glad Bogus had suffered nothing more than exposure to an anesthetic gas, but she knew it could have been worse. A lot worse.

She let Don Sebastiano and Bogus leave. Once she was sure they were outside the building, she swept for bugs. Three times. She found the two that Sebastiano left. The obvious one, and the subtle one. She destroyed the obvious one and carefully disabled the other, so he could only get the disinformation she would choose to feed him.

The Don really was in over his head, and he had no idea that he was sinking fast. She looked forward to watching his next great downfall. She didn’t like the Goodkinds, but she did enjoy how Phase and her pack of lunatic friends had knocked the stuffing out of The Don and his cronies.

She picked up her cell phone and called the ARC emergency center again. “This is Amelia Hartford, acting headmistress at Whateley. I just wanted to thank everyone for going on full alert for another Whateley disaster. We’re just glad we managed to contain it so readily.”

“Well honey, we’re jus’ glad everything turned out okay for y’all,” the woman drawled.

Honestly, where did they get their emergency center phone operators? William Faulkner novels?

When she was done with that call, she made sure her phone security was on high and her signal was maximally encrypted. She dialed the other number again.

“Yes?”

She tersely said, “It’s me. Full success. Thanks a ton. We would have lost a student and both AIs if not for your boys.”

“Always glad to help.” The voice hung up.

They very carefully didn’t use the word ‘Syndicate’, but it was a squad of Syndicate power armor fighters who had tracked the armored car and then had taken out ‘Adam’.

Honestly, how big an ego did Abel have? What was he going to call his first female wetware success? Eve?

Amelia worked on cleaning up the networks and routers for nearly five minutes before Bardue arrived with Ergonomic in tow.

She already knew from the hospital computer files that the hospital had cleared the boy to go home. Amelia looked over the injury report. Broken nose, bruised ribs, cracked tooth, assorted contusions. The boy was phenomenally lucky to run into The Palm and end up with fewer injuries than he could have gotten just from falling off a bike.

Ergonomic stood stiffly next to Bardue. She had the feeling that the boy had been getting the ‘new recruit who can’t find his ass with both hands’ treatment from the old soldier. She decided to scan through the Security feeds and find as many such moments as she could.

She glared at the boy. “Ergonomic. The Palm manipulated the emails from your teacher and his assistant, so both thought it was the other who was recommending a lowered grade on your project. They fell right into his trap. So you get an A+ for your Workshop grade.” He broke into a massive grin.

She went on, “And you get four weeks punishment detail.” The smile slid right off his face. “First, you will clean up the remains of your Bolo. Then you will pick up every piece of shrapnel and debris that hasn’t been scavenged by your fellow inventors. After that, you will be repairing the treadmarks and ruts and wrecked lawn. The landscaping staff will show you how, and will monitor your work. After all that, you will begin working at the ranges to repay everything that was taken and ruined.”

Bardue stood beside Ergonomic and turned to face him. He bellowed, “So once you get the campus fixed up, then YOUR ASS IS MINE MAGGOT!”

Hartford smiled ruthlessly. “Also, some of your friends in the mega-mech lab are likely to be fairly aggravated with you. For instance… everyone who ever worked on Tiny Tim. And everyone whose equipment you ‘borrowed’. They may also have some tasks for you to complete this term.”

Ergonomic suddenly blanched. “Oh God, I’m doomed!”

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12:48 pm
Arena ‘99

“Hey, thanks for the hangman game. And the other apps. I thought I was gonna go stir crazy there,” Toni muttered.

Ayla sighed, “It could have been worse, you know. They could have videotaped him and shown it to us in groups of three or four, so you couldn’t blink without someone catching you at it.”

“Oh great, give ‘em ideas for next year! Thanks!” Billie complained.

Ayla glanced at his bPhone. “Damn.”

“What?” Hank hastily checked. “Battle stations?”

Ayla switched to their comms. <(Phase) All computers need to be turned on and left active on the network. We had a Palm attack while we were down here.>

<(Lancer) The Palm? Are they sure?>

<(Fey) Are they sure it’s even over?>

<(Generator) And how come we didn’t get to get in on the action?>

<(Phase) The Palm locked us out. Or more literally, he locked us in. He used the Arena forcefields and made sure we had no comms to the outside. He probably couldn’t have stopped our subspace comms, but everyone who has our Spots was in with us.>

<(Chaka) I so should’ve used mine to MiST that guy.>

<(Phase) Damage is limited to the large-scale mechanical lab, and some ruts and debris in central campus. No buildings wrecked other than bullet holes, no serious injuries, no deaths. Apparently, Hartford was the target.>

<(Tennyo) Hartford and The Palm? Who are we supposed to root for in that match-up?>

<(Lancer) Anything else?>

<(Phase) That’s pretty much it.>

<(Lancer) Then let’s go up and see what the damage looks like.>

They took an elevator up to the ground level and strolled across the campus, pointing out the treadmarks and the shattered tank.

“Whew. Someone shouldn’t have built a robot tank with The Palm around,” Hank muttered.

“Well DUH,” Jade insisted.

The whole team heard the announcements blaring over the campus loudspeakers.

“I repeat. The threat is past. But a Palm was brought inside the Whateley firewalls and was able to find an illegal computer hidden on the networks so it could plan this attempt. Everyone on campus needs to leave their computers and computerized gear on and accessible to the network software, so that any remaining components can be found and eliminated. ESPECIALLY THE IDIOTS WITH THE ILLEGAL COMPUTING SYSTEMS. This message will be repeated every five minutes.”

Ayla rolled his eyes. He merely said, “Color me surprised. After all, what’s today?”

“April Fools Day?”

“We already knew that.”

Ayla gave his usual smug grin. “No. It’s Palm Sunday.”

“Ugh. And you guys complain about my jokes?”

fin

linebreak shadow

A.I. (to the tune of E.T. sung by Katy Perry)

You're bu-sy compil-ing
Could you be an A.I? Could you be a Palm now?
Your field magnetizing
Looks like packets routing, gets my network humming

They say be afraid
You're not like the others, futuristic coder
Without DNA
They can't decompile you

You're in a whole other world
A cybernetic network
You open firewalls
You’re right in the box, and you’re into the routers

Ping me, pi-pi-ping me
Infect me with your code and
Fill me with your objects

Take me, ta-ta-take me
Gonna be a victim
Ready for abduction

Palm, you're a bad A.I.
Your touch so foreign
It’s superpowered code
Intelligence viral

Your tank’s like a Bolo
Wanna feel its rockets, stun me with your cannons
Your blast is plasma
Every shot is magma

You're in a whole other world
A cybernetic network
You open firewalls
You’re right in the box, and you’re into the routers

Ping me, pi-pi-ping me
Infect me with your code and
Fill me with your objects

Take me, ta-ta-take me
Gonna be a victim
Ready for abduction

Palm, you're a bad A.I.
Your touch so foreign
It’s superpowered code
Intelligence viral

Your math’s transcendental
On another level
Palm, that’s some mutant power

I’m gonna watch all your wavelengths
And be there when you vibrate
For that I'll shut you down… down…

Ping me, pi-pi-ping me
Infect me with your code and
Fill me with your objects

Take me, ta-ta-take me
Gonna be a victim
Ready for abduction

Palm, you're a bad A.I.
Your touch so foreign
It’s superpowered code
Intelligence viral… Intelligence viral… Intelligence viral

Palm, you're a bad A.I.
Your touch so foreign
It’s superpowered code
Intelligence viral