Tuesday, March 5, 2007
Aries took a deep, slow breath and tried to figure out when things got so goddamn complicated.
Okay, he knew the answer to that one. The day he met Don Sebastiano. Or maybe the day he let Don Sebastiano talk him into joining the Alphas. Oh, not as a full-fledged official Alpha, but as part of the ‘inner circle’. He didn’t realize back then that only meant ‘Don Sebastiano’s private goon group’. But he should have known it meant something sneaky and underhanded.
Back when he was in junior high school and just another overweight farmboy wearing something that wasn’t what the townies wore, he knew the townies were the ‘in crowd’. Everybody knew that. The coolest townies went out of their way to keep their status as the in crowd, and they went out of their way to make sure all the ‘shitkickers’ knew it. The only farmboys who ever got close to being one of the cool kids were the guys who used their size and strength as athletes. The biggest guys on the offensive and defensive lines were almost always farmboys. The strongest guys on the basketball and baseball teams were almost always farmboys. The wrestlers at the higher weight classes were usually farmboys. The guys who threw the shotput and the discus and the javelin? Usually the farmboys. And the farmgirls who got close to being one of the cool kids? Usually the really pretty ones with the big hooters. The ones who became cheerleaders or who became homecoming queens or who dated the coolest guys. From what he’d seen, they were pretty much the same girls.
He hadn’t gone out for football back when he was in junior high, because his dad needed him to work on their dairy farm. Farming was a tough life, but dairy farms were hard. His dad was part of a big cooperative of dairymen who had a long-term contract with a dairy, but they still struggled. The money in dairy operations was in the large-scale dairy operations, not family-owned farms.
He hadn’t expected to turn into a mutant right after the junior high graduation. And he sure hadn’t expected to turn into a mutant who had powers that were useful on a dairy farm. Maybe it was crazy to have superstrength and superspeed, and just use them to round up cattle or do the immunizations or repair the tractors. But that was what he did the summer after he graduated from junior high.
Normally, immunizing the cattle was a huge pain in the ass. You had to round all of them up and get them all into the big barn, then feed them one by one into the chute when they didn’t want to go, then use the pens to clamp each cow in place so it was safe to give them the shots in their flanks. Most years, his dad had to hire an extra four guys to help do it.
Not anymore. He was strong enough to grab a cow in one arm and give her the injections. And he was fast enough to do it before the cow knew what the heck was going on. Instead of it being an exhausting, expensive all-day task, it took him under two hours and they didn’t have spend two days getting the pens set up first. They didn’t have to hire the extra labor for eight or ten hours. The only cost was the syringes and vaccines from old Doc Weller, their vet.
Repairs on the barn roof? Not a problem that summer. Not when he could carry hundreds of pounds of corrugated steel up a ladder and then hammer a 10’ by 10’ sheet in place faster than his dad could fish out a hammer.
Operating the augers on the two silos? His dad had to send both motors in for repairs, and so he just cranked the augers by hand instead. It wasn’t like he couldn’t put a heck of a lot more torque on those augers than the motors could, and since his dad could wait to have the factory do the repairs instead of having to pay someone to come out and do the work at the farm, they saved a small fortune. At least it felt like a fortune to them.
By the middle of that summer, he was running faster than his dad could drive the car down the gravel road that ran past their house. He was a lot better at rounding up the cattle than their collies Brownie and Blackie. If one of the cows didn’t want to cooperate, he could grab her and shove her where he wanted her to go. Because he was strong. Really, really strong. He could lift the front end of their biggest tractor with one hand. His dad started calling him ‘Clark’ and ‘Mister Kent’ as a joke. But only in private. They didn’t want everybody to know what had happened. Maybe the H1 crazies weren’t all over, like in some places, but who wanted to ask for trouble?
By the end of the summer, he looked like a young Greek god. He could lift more than their big tractor weighed. He could run faster than his dad’s car’s top speed, so he was running over a hundred twenty miles an hour easy.
But as far as the town was concerned he was still another loser farmboy. He was still ‘Arnold Ziffel’ or ‘Arnold the Pig’, as Mike Ford and his jerk friends kept calling him. He really liked Cindy Denson, who was really pretty and on the junior high cheer squad and a sure bet to be on the high school cheer squad in a couple years. But he knew there was no way she’d even talk to him, since he was a ‘shitkicker’ and she was a townie. A townie whose dad owned a nice store.
The few times he went into town with his mom or dad, he still had to put up with the jerks who lived in town and thought they were better than the shitkickers. But he didn’t have to put up with the pranks they used to play on him, or the things they used to say about him, or the way they treated girls he knew just because they were farmgirls who were working all summer and wearing work clothes.
The first time Mike Ford slapped him on the back that summer, he ducked down an empty aisle so he had time to check his back. Sure as shooting, Ford had slapped a ‘kick me’ sign on his back. Again. He waited until Ford and his laughing friends were walking out of the store, and he sprinted as fast as he could past their backs.
“Did you feel something?”
“I think they got the air conditioning blasting in the doorway.”
“Yeah, maybe that’s it.”
He didn’t know how long it was before they found out that Mike and his sidekick Ed both had ‘kick me’ written on the backs of their shirts in magic marker. He was just sure they wouldn’t believe ‘Arnold the Pig’ had done it. Not the big, slow-moving, lardass farmboy they loved to taunt and play pranks on. They probably wouldn’t be able to figure out how it was done. After all, no one but his mom and dad knew he was a mutant.
His hair was still black and curly. His eyes had gone from a dark brown to basically black, but only his folks had spotted that. But he was a lot taller, and a lot better looking. All the fat he’d piled up from a heavy meat-and-dairy diet was burning off and turning into muscle. He figured no one except his folks was noticing that, since he was still wearing the kind of overalls and baggy shirts he’d always worn for working around the farm.
But that was the day he figured out he didn’t have to put up with those jerks anymore. He didn’t have to put up with anyone treating him like crud, or treating his friends like crud, or treating the other farm kids like crud.
The next time he was in town with his dad, they stopped in Maude’s Diner for ice cream sundaes before driving back to the farm. What his mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, right? And there was Mike Ford and Ed Wilson and two townie girls, picking on Edie and Gretchen Farber. Edie and Gretchen weren’t thin and gorgeous, but they weren’t bad people. They didn’t deserve to have a bunch of townies laughing at them and making moo noises because they weren’t supermodels.
He wanted to walk over and throw those two jerks right through the wall. His dad put a hand on his wrist and said, “Arnie? You can’t.”
And he knew his dad was right. He was strong enough to get thrown through a wall and just shake it off. If he did that to those two jerks, it’d kill them.
He said, “Dad, I need to go for a walk.”
His dad just nodded, figuring he was going to leave the diner and go cool off for a few minutes.
He walked behind Mike and Ed and the two girls. No one saw him touching the stools at the counter. After all, a lightning-fast hand movement wasn’t anything you’d spot, unless you were really looking for it. And just touching one of those stools wouldn’t do anything. Unless you were so strong you could bust the welds on the struts of the stools with one quick press.
He was already out the door before Ed’s stool gave out on him and he fell backward with a crash. Then Mike leaned back to see what was going on, and his stool gave out too, dumping him on his shoulder. The two townie girls, Marie Harris and Anna Beth Johnson, were already starting to get up when their stools gave out, so they both just sort of fell on their butts.
His dad chewed him out on the way home, since he knew it had to be Arnie, even if he didn’t know how. But anybody who could grab a full-grown dairy cow in one hand and give her three injections before she knew what was happening probably wouldn’t have any trouble wrecking a diner stool in the blink of an eye.
So he didn’t go into town when his mom did the weekly grocery shopping a couple days later, even if she would’ve liked to have his help hauling groceries. And his dad wouldn’t have taken him into town the next week, except he needed to load over a ton of feed supplements into the back of the pickup, and that was something Arnie could do without breaking a sweat.
So he was loading hundred pound bags into the bed of the pickup when one of Mike Ford’s jerk pals started hassling him. It was Pete Moody. Pete had a cushy job at Denson’s Feed and Seed. It looked like he just walked around helping old ladies figure out what to buy, and then ringing it up. Pete was supposed to run a forklift of the bags over to where Arnie could load them into the truck, but Pete was screwing around with the forklift on the loading dock, moving it back so Arnie had to go way over and then carry the bags over to the truck, and then moving it forward and trying to nail Arnie in the back of the leg with the pallet of bags.
He could’ve just punched Pete in the mouth so hard he’d be crapping teeth for a week, but that would get him and his dad sued. He could’ve gone over and told Mister Denson that Pete was hassling him, but Pete was Mister Denson’s nephew and Denson would definitely believe Pete’s story. He could’ve picked the whole forklift up with Pete on it and hurled it into the lumber area. That would really get him in trouble.
He watched Pete maneuver the forklift around. Brake, gas, clutch, steering. Pretty simple. Nearly foolproof. He decided what to do.
He let Pete nudge him with the pallet, and he went sprawling off to the side of the forklift. He moved as fast as he could, and he wedged a chunk of wood under the brake pedal, then shoved down hard on the gas pedal with his hand before rolling to the side. The forklift leapt forward for a moment, which was enough to put it in danger of going over the edge of the loading dock. Pete stomped on the brake, which didn’t do any good with that wood keeping the pedal from going down. Pete just stomped a couple more times, then yelped as the forklift went forks-first over the edge.
The forklift fell three feet and crashed to the roadway, the pallet of bags taking most of the impact. The forklift nearly rolled, but Arnie quickly put out one hand and balanced the whole forklift on the forks and the top of the lifting mast. Pete had already done a header into the hydraulic cylinder alongside the mast.
He jumped off the loading dock and looked into the cab. “Moody! Hey Moody! You okay?” He made a fast grab and yanked the wood out from under the brake pedal and tossed it into the pile of crushed wood that was all that was left of the pallet. By then, Mister Denson and a couple other workers were running over.
He said, “Hey, we better call 9-1-1 in case he hurt his neck or something. I told him to stop messing around with that thing.”
Pete lifted his head up and said, “I’b fide.” His nose was busted from where he hit the steering wheel, and he probably had bruises from falling onto the inside of the forklift’s cab.
Mister Denson stood up on the loading dock and yelled, “What the HELL happened?”
One of the lumber guys said, “Pete was screwin’ around with the forklift and knocked the kid over and lost control and drove off the edge.”
“That’s what it looked like to me,” said another guy.
Arnie looked at Mister Denson and said, “I’m pretty much okay. Just a knot on my shin where he nailed me with the pallet.” He didn’t really have a knot, since he had dodged the forklift. But even if the forklift had nailed him a good one, he wouldn’t have been hurt like a regular person. And he’d already found out by accident that he healed up stupid fast when he had that accident with that nailgun.
He went on and loaded up the pickup, pretending he was limping as he moved bags. He let the chaos reign around him. The forklift was busted. Pete was going to have to explain to his parents how he owed Uncle Joey a whole new forklift. Mister Denson was apologizing to Arnie’s dad and trying to get him not to sue the store. And Pete was sitting there with a cold rag on his nose, insisting the brake pedal stuck and that was why he ran off the edge of the dock.
The drive home was okay. Since everyone knew Pete had been trying to whack Arnie a good one with the forklift, his dad pretty much let it drop after Arnie said, “If I wasn’t a mutant, I’d probably have a busted leg now. Or two. It’s just I was fast enough and strong enough I could get out of the way while I was carrying a hundred pound bag on my shoulder.” That much was really true. He just didn’t mention the bit with the chunk of wood.
And his mom didn’t give him a talking to, especially when his dad explained they got the whole load for free because Denson’s idiot nephew was trying to break Arnie’s leg with a forklift.
The rest of the summer went pretty much the same way. He was still growing and still filling out. And still getting stronger and faster. He stayed out of trouble mostly, and got every repair done he could think of, and did as much preparation as he could so his dad wouldn’t have to hire too much help while he was off at Whateley.
His folks were pretty happy with him and weren’t mad about him turning into a mutant, which was a good thing. He’d seen some pretty scary stuff about mutants and families on the television. But back at the start of the summer, when he was suddenly breaking stuff and his eyes changed, the whole family knew what it was. His mom drove him over to this testing lab way over in Minnesota and they said ‘mutant’. They even helped his mom fill out this big application to a school for mutants, along with a bunch of stuff to get him a scholarship so they could afford to send him.
At the end of the summer, he took the train to Dunwich. He had two big suitcases that might as well have been empty for all the trouble he had moving them. Plus he had a big backpack that had everything he needed for the trip and his first day or two at Whateley Academy, just in case. Clothes, sandwiches and apples and some wheels of cheese, his dop kit, a couple books, an MP3 player he’d speed-swiped out of Mike Ford’s coat pocket when no one was looking and Mike was giving him more crap, his old Nintendo with a couple used games he’d picked up cheap from Frank’s Electronics in town, an inflatable pillow for going around your neck so you could sleep in airline seats, his battery powered alarm clock, and some other junk like that.
He didn’t take a sleeper car or eat in the fancy dining car, because he was trying to save money. Whateley Academy was expensive. Super expensive. And they had a house and a farm and two cars and a couple tractors and some other expensive equipment, but they didn’t have tons of spare cash lying around loose. He was a ‘scholarship’ student with the school covering over ninety percent of all the costs, so he was assuming he was going to be getting a lot of crap from the cool kids about that.
He just wasn’t planning on taking a lot of crap from the ‘cool kids’ anymore. He knew everyone at Whateley was a mutant with superpowers, but how many of them were as strong as he was? Or as fast? Some of them probably had magic powers or psychic powers or blaster powers, but if campus jerks wanted to push him around, he was going to push right back. Hard.
When he got to the Dunwich depot, he found out he was just one of a horde of abnormally cool guys and truly hot babes, although there were some ordinary-looking kids too. He wondered why there weren’t any of the freaks he saw on the news and teevee programs. He didn't know then that they came in on a different day. The place looked like it was a casting call for a show called ‘The World’s Sexiest High Schoolers’.
But he had changed clothes on the train, so he was blending in. For now. He wasn’t going to lie about who he was or where he was from. If some people didn’t like that, he’d find some kids who did. There was probably a Future Farmers of America club here, even if everyone was a superhero. Or supervillain. After all, not everybody in the room could have grown up in New York City.
He talked to a few people while they all waited. There were supposed to be some buses dropping people off, and another train. Plus some guys were sure there would be plenty of kids being dropped off by their folks, and those kids probably wouldn’t get dropped off at the Dunwich depot.
So there were some stuck-up guys and some snotty babes there. A couple European types were sitting together talking in what sounded like French, which he didn’t know, so he was just guessing. But it sounded like it. But there were other kids who wanted to meet new people and find out who was who. He’d decided it back on the train, but he didn’t want to be ‘Arnold the Pig’ for four years. He told people his name was Arn. That wasn’t close to a weird name in that room. Especially when there were kids who already had codenames picked out.
There were a few shuttles to get everyone and their luggage to the school. He helped a bunch of people with their luggage. He figured it couldn’t hurt. Some of the hot girls obviously didn’t need any help at all, which was good with him. He could punch through a wall. He didn’t want a girlfriend he was going to be afraid to hug.
But when they got dropped off in front of Melville Cottage, he just stared. It took him a couple seconds and some teasing from some of the other kids to get his mouth closed.
This wasn’t a cottage. It was a mansion! A super-fancy hotel! There was no place anything like this back home. There was hardly even a building like this in Minneapolis.
After the tour and meeting his roommate, he thought he would just settle in. But no, word got around that he had stood and gaped at the dorm with his mouth open.
His roommate Blake said, “Maybe we should call you ‘Hayseed’ for your codename.”
He decided that it was time to start letting people know he didn’t want to be bullied anymore. Blake was a PK superboy and could lift two tons with his little finger. But someone had pointed out that Blake couldn’t lift more than that no matter what. Two tons was his max.
Arn moved at his top speed and slammed Blake into the floor. Hard. He said, “Two tons is nothing. I can do that all day. And I don’t like being teased. If you want to give me crap, you’d better be prepared to get it right back.”
Blake groaned in pain and floated up off the floor. “How the hell did you move so fast?”
Arn said, “I’ve got superspeed too.”
Blake rubbed his back and groaned. “Oh, no way man. Guys with the strength don’t do that Energizer superspeed thing too.”
Arn didn’t know exactly what Energizers were. He’d skipped most of the ‘mutant powers’ lessons in Health class his seventh grade when his dad had needed him on the farm for two solid weeks in the middle of calving season. Calving season was really predictable, since they used artificial insemination on the cows. It was too damn dangerous using live dairy bulls. But he missed the ‘mutant powers’ part of the class and he just let it slide. He never thought he’d really need it, after all, how many mutants were there in the whole state of Wisconsin? But he bluffed his way through, “Except for me.”
Blake shook his head and said, “Look, hicks like y-”
Arn dashed over and slammed Blake into the floor again before Blake could react. “Stop calling me names. No ‘hayseed’, no ‘farmboy’, no ‘hick’, none of that. Unless you want me to keep slamming you into things. Or maybe I’ll just punch you and break that face.”
Blake groaned, “Go to hell. Shit, that hurt. How much can you bench?”
Arn said, “Nearly five tons.”
Blake frowned, “Goddamn, so you’re like an Exemplar-5 or so, and a speedster too?”
Arn nodded. “And I’m really tired of getting picked on. So I’m starting out right off the bat, hitting back.”
Blake said, “That’s not gonna go over big here.”
Blake said, “Look Arn, there are real heavyweights around here. The Alphas mostly live in Melville, and they run things.”
He said, “Yeah, the cool kids. Who always have some hook so they can get away with crap.”
Blake said, “Yeah. My big brother’s a senior in Emerson, and he told me about it when I manifested a few months ago. Don’t get on the wrong side of the Alphas. They’re an official school club and they have a school advisor they can go complain to, so they can rat you out. And they get the best rooms in the dorm, and the best seats in the cafeteria, and all that shit.”
He decided he’d play it safe for a while. But he had Blake put out the word that he wasn’t going to put up with any teasing.
He tried to just be a normal high schooler. He got a schedule of classes that were okay. He started his scholarship work, operating some of the heavy equipment out of The Shed that was pretty close to stuff he knew from the farm, like the tractors with mower attachments. He made a couple friends around the dorm and in classes. He got some help coming up with a codename he could live with. Aries was close enough to ‘Arnie’ that he could live with it. If someone called him Aries, he noticed it, and if someone ever called him Arnie, he was going to pretend he thought they had called him Aries. And it just happened to be his sign of the zodiac, not that he believed in astrology or other weird New Age crap.
And things worked okay for over a month. He went through powers testing and found out he was an Exemplar-5 and an Energizer-3. He found out that superstrength with superspeed was a pretty rare combination. He found more ways to play pranks on the big jerks who liked to pick on the regular kids at school. It turned out that superspeed with superstrength pretty much let you pull sleight of hand tricks like you were a real Wizard. He found out there were stronger kids on campus, but not many of them, and none of them were speedsters. He found out there were faster kids on campus, but only two of them, and neither was that much faster than him, and neither had any other powers.
But somehow he ended up on the radar screen of a couple Alphas in the dorm. He didn’t know how it happened, or whose fault it was, but Alphas were calling him 'Arnold Ziffel'. He really hated that name. And people were playing pranks on him. Really annoying pranks that were all about pigs. He talked to his advisor, who was no help. He talked with the dorm parents, who said they would look into it… but nothing helpful ever came of it.
He finally did something about it. He waited until he could catch Blake letting a couple Alphas into his room to wreck more of his stuff in stupid ways. Then he waited until they were leaving. He sprinted in at his top speed and clotheslined the girl who he was pretty sure was a Wizard. Then he kicked the boy who he thought was a Warper. He kicked the guy right in the balls hard enough that the guy smacked his head on the ceiling. Then he sprinted into the room and broke Blake’s arm with one savage punch right through Blake’s PK field.
Then he called Security and the dorm parents. It was pretty obvious what they’d been doing. His bedsheets were ruined. They were pig pink with pig shapes cut into the blanket and comforter. His poster was ruined, with a pig head pasted over the model’s face. And he’d warned Blake a couple times, but the jerk was still helping the bad guys.
Well, all three of his ‘victims’ had to go to the hospital. So he got in huge trouble, even though they had just trashed his room and he’d been trying to get help for weeks. If he’d dragged Security up to catch them coming out of his room, he wouldn’t have gotten in trouble. But he knew that would just give him a reputation as a whiner and a ratfink, and lose him the few friends he had in Melville.
He had to go see Mrs. Hartford, and everyone knew she was the advisor for the Alphas. He figured she’d really lower the boom on him. But he was not going to back down. He told her everything. She gave him some detention out at The Shed. But that was where he was already doing his scholarship work, so that was nothing. He’d expected something really nasty. So he didn’t know what was going on.
Back at Melville, he got moved out of the room with Blake. Blake and the others had to buy him new sheets, a new blanket, a new comforter, a new picture for his wall, and some new clothes to replace the stuff that had been ruined over the last two weeks. Even though Arn was pretty sure it had been other Alphas who had done the clothing damage.
So he had a single, for a while anyway. Everyone told him that he and Blake would get the new kids when they showed up late in the term, or in winter term. He didn’t care. As long as he didn’t have to look at Blake again.
But he knew that having a single would mean the Alphas could attack his room with pretty much anything. And he knew they had a teleporter helping them out. So he decided to strike first.
He started spreading rumors that he was putting a couple bear traps on the floor of his room for the next time the Alphas decided to prank him. That got him called in to one of the dorm parents’ offices. He said, “Hey, you can check in my room anytime you want. There’s no bear traps. That would be crazy. I can’t help it if the Alphas are spreading crazy rumors about me just because I didn’t let them get away with wrecking my half of my room.”
That still didn’t do the job, and he was wondering if some of the dorm parents were in cahoots with the Alphas in the dorm. But at least he had better sheets and a better blanket and a much better comforter than the stuff he brought from home. And he didn’t have a backstabbing jerk for a roommate anymore.
That was when he first really met Don Sebastiano and Hekate. He’d seen both of them around, and he’d heard the rumors about both of them, and he knew both of them were trying to push their way into the Alphas. But he hadn’t done more than said hi to Sebastiano in the showers, or opened a door for Hekate. Hey, she was gorgeous. Opening a door for gorgeous girls just made sense. Even if they wouldn’t talk to you, you got to stare at them from a couple feet away, and then when you walked through the door yourself, you were looking at her butt. Hekate had a great butt.
He opened his door at the knock, and Hekate smiled at him. “May we come in for a minute?”
“Sure.” He wasn’t going to slam the door in the face of a hottie like Hekate, even if he trusted the two of them about as far as he could throw them. Well, as far as he could throw them if they were already in a truck. Not that either looked like they had ever touched a truck. They both had that fancy European ‘I am so much better than you’ thing going for them.
Sebastiano said, “I understand you’ve been having trouble with some of the Alphas around here.”
He shrugged. “Could be worse. Since they got put in the hospital, I think you might want to phrase it the other way around.”
Hekate said, “We were thinking we could put in a good word for you, and maybe help you out.”
“Why?” He wasn’t dumb enough to think he’d just discovered two saints.
Sebastiano smiled, “Why, to help ourselves, naturally. Freya is running the Alphas. She’s interested in increasing her power base with people who can help her. So if we can broker a ceasefire here, it helps you, it stops the idiots who are making the Alphas look bad, and that makes us look good. It’s a win-win situation.”
He asked, “And what’s the downside? I get blindsided later?”
Hekate said, “I think we can ensure that doesn’t happen. We’re not without… resources of our own.”
Sebastiano said, “And you can depend on us trying to prevent it, because if we can’t we look like failures. It will be bad for all of us. You can probably fight off someone who attacks you, so you won’t be too bad off. We will. So we’ll try harder to stop anything than you would.”
He said, “Okay. We can give this a try. But I’ll need to see some sort of effort from you.”
Sebastiano and Hekate looked at each other. Arn really didn’t like the way they were smiling. Hekate said, “Yes. I think we can arrange that.”
He figured they were bullshitting him. But the very next day, Blake came by, still with his arm in a sling, and apologized. He looked like he didn’t really want to, but he did it.
The day after that, this cute frosh came by and introduced herself. “Hello, I am Conjure. Hekate asked me if I would help you out?”
Conjure was pretty cute, so he invited her in. And she had a sexy accent too. It turned out that Conjure was good at… conjuring. Duh. She summoned up a spirit to guard his room for him. And it wouldn’t do anything to him or do weird stuff. It was just going to guard the room, in case anyone tried getting in, even if they teleported in or warped through the wall.
At that point, he was ready to ignore all the crap he’d heard about Don Sebastiano and Hekate. They were helping him out when no one else was. Okay, Sebastiano seemed to have a lot of trouble keeping a girlfriend and each time it ended up being messy. Arn wondered if maybe he could help Sebastiano out in turn, and explain about American girls. Not that he was some super-duper stud or anything. But Sebastiano was a good-looking Exemplar guy and charismatic. He shouldn’t be having this kind of problem.
Looking back on things, Aries could only conclude that he was a moron. He had seen all the hints and still messed up.
Things were still looking up, when about four days later, his room phone rang before he was dressed for classes. It was Sebastiano. “Aries? Don Sebastiano here. I have failed you. I apologize abjectly. I believe that several Alphas are going to attempt to ‘teach you a lesson’ on your way to breakfast this morning. I do not know all of them, but I am fairly sure Hardtack and Crustal will be among them.”
He said, “Umm, I don’t even know those guys.”
Sebastiano said, “Hardtack is a manifester. He forms a metallic skin around himself, and it is usually covered in short spikes like tacks. He’s stronger that way, but not as strong as you. Crustal is a terrakinetic.”
Sebastiano said, “Oh dear, we should make an effort to get you into the Power Theory course next spring. The more you know about what your opponents can do, the more effectively you can kick their asses.”
Well, he knew that was sure true.
Sebastiano said, “Crustal can manipulate rocks and soil. He often hangs out with Lasertag, who-”
“-shoots lasers out of his hands,” Arn finished.
“Right,” Sebastiano said. “So Lasertag might be involved in this too. I don’t know who else, but I will try to find out.”
He thought it over and decided it was time to let people know not to mess around with Aries. He walked off to breakfast by himself and deliberately took the long path down to central campus.
He was on a nice, isolated section of pathway when Hardtack and Flyboy stepped out onto the path forty feet in front of him. He did a lightning-fast glance behind him, and Crustal was back there with Lasertag.
Hardtack manifested his spiky armor and walked right at Aries, saying, “Little boys need to learn to behave.”
That guy had a lot of nerve, considering Aries was the tallest one out there. He was maybe 6’5”, and nobody’s ‘boy’.
He turned sideways so he could keep an eye on both sides. He figured Hardtack was pulling a ‘Mike’. Mike Ford loved this bit. He’d make a big noise and swagger around, getting the attention of his victim, while Ed or Pete or one of his other jerk buddies came up from behind and did the dirty work. Maybe it was just pouring ice down your back. Maybe it was pantsing you. Maybe it was worse. But Lasertag could shoot lasers and Crustal could hurl rocks, so this probably wasn’t going to be some ice cubes down your shirt.
He saw Lasertag lift those arms up and point those palms his way. He moved. And when a speedster moved, it was quick. He darted to the side at his top speed, and Lasertag missed. A couple nasty-looking laser bursts went shooting past him. He cut back but moved down the path too. He grabbed Flyboy and slammed him against Hardtack’s chest. Flyboy screamed in pain.
Hardtack pushed Flyboy off his ‘tacks’ and went to move at Aries, but Aries was behind him and using Hardtack as a screen. A couple laser blasts hit Hardtack as Lasertag and Crustal closed in.
Aries spotted a rock the size of his head winging his way, and he sprinted over to a nice iron bench by the side of the path. He swatted that rock like it was a baseball, driving it right into Hardtack’s gut. Hardtack keeled over with a loud “Oof!”
Aries spun once with the bench and flung it like a hammer in a track and field meet. It went flying right at Crustal and Lasertag. Lasertag yelped, and Crustal pulled up half the walkway, building a rock and dirt wall. The bench smashed into the wall. Then the rock wall exploded outward.
Aries wasn’t there any longer. So Hardtack and Flyboy got creamed by the flying rock and dirt.
He wasn’t counting on Hardtack staying creamed, but he figured he had a few seconds. And at his speed, a few seconds was all he really needed.
He circled around at his top speed and came up behind them before they realized they hadn’t smashed him into the path. Crustal tried to spin around to face him, and got a fist in the jaw for his troubles. Then Aries smacked Lasertag in the back of the head with his palm. Hard. They both went down.
Aries sprinted over to where Hardtack was struggling to get up again. He didn’t want to try and punch a guy covered in tacks with the points out. He picked up a rock and smacked Hardtack a couple times until the guy stayed down. Then he dusted off his hands and ran down to the Crystal Hall.
He moved to the center table, where Don Sebastiano and Hekate were standing talking to a bunch of older students. He knew Freya and Kodiak and several others, but not to talk to. He stopped beside Don Sebastiano and said to Freya, “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your hit squad needs some medical care pronto.” Then he left and got himself a really big breakfast.
He was expecting to get in big trouble for this one, but nothing happened. No one ordered him off to Ms. Hartford again, no one came by and threatened him, nothing.
But two days later, Don Sebastiano came by. “Can I come in, just for a minute?”
He said, “Sure.”
Sebastiano smiled, “Nice work. I used up a lot of my credit, but I got you cleared. Security doesn’t have this incident on their books. The Alphas aren’t going to launch a counterstrike or two. Instead, I got you an audience with Freya this afternoon. If you pull it off, you’re going to be part of an Alpha team.”
He frowned, “Maybe I don’t wanna be a guy who goes around picking on people.”
Sebastiano waved his hand carelessly. “Not a problem. I’m putting together a team to protect people from the bullies. You wouldn’t mind the chance to go kick some bully’s butt from here to Berlin, would you? You’d be doing pretty much what you’re doing now, but you’d be protected by the Alphas. Think how much good we could do for the campus if the people in power were the ones protecting the outsiders.”
And Aries said yes. He didn’t know the quote back then, but the road to hell really was paved with good intentions. And he had just taken a step down the wrong road.
He met with Freya and a couple members of her court. Don Sebastiano and Hekate introduced him and pointed out he singlehandedly took down Crustal’s entire gang.
Freya was a gorgeous blonde, but when she gave him that big smile and told him what a great job he’d done, he just wanted to… Well, he wasn’t really sure. But right then, he would’ve done anything she wanted. Marry her. Beat up Crustal again for her. Stab himself in the leg for her. Whatever she asked.
It was most of a year before he learned that she had hit him with a psychic effect she liked to call her Brisangamen Effect, and by then he really didn’t care anymore.
It was over a year before he finally realized just what monsters Don Sebastiano and Hekate really were. He was pretty sure it was the moment he realized that The Don had completely brainwashed Skybolt and Cavalier. Somehow. It was the single most terrifying moment of his life.
But by then he was trapped. At first he had worked with Icer and Crustal, along with whoever Hekate sent to help out, usually Spellbinder but sometimes Conjure. At first it was stopping bullies and helping Freya out with tasks. Then it was beating up whoever The Don singled out. Sebastiano always made it sound convincing, and Freya would give him one of those smiles, and he would just go do it and be happy about it. But step by step, he moved into darker and darker territory. Pranking the pranksters. Then pranking troublemakers. Then pranking some students who had dissed Freya, even if later he realized it was only The Don’s word for it. Then pranking whoever The Don pointed him at.
And one day it all came to a screeching halt when Aries realized he was a hired thug working for a supervillain. The moment that Sebastiano showed off Skybolt in his bed and ordered her to suck his dick… and Skybolt happily did it with no hesitation at all… while Cavalier just stood there and smiled…
It was all Aries had in him to stand there and not run to the bathroom to puke. He was trapped. And he knew it, and Don Sebastiano knew it, and Hekate knew it. All he could do was keep doing the stuff he had been doing, and hope that Don Sebastiano didn’t decide to do that to him too. Sebastiano had security footage of Aries that could get him shipped off to the MCO for years. Sebastiano could turn him into a mindslave like Cavalier.
And there was no one to go talk to about it. Not when he was a badguy. Not when he had no friends left. Not when he was a monster who deserved whatever he got.
By then, every nice person he’d ever known around Whateley was busy hating his guts. And who could he talk to about this mess? Maybe Conjure. Maybe Kodiak. Maybe… Maybe there wasn’t anyone else. There had been people who had been his friends a long time ago, but The Don had made sure he was cut off from them now. There was no way he could go talk to Shrike or A-Plus or Ace or any of them now.
He stewed about it for days. Weeks. But there wasn’t much he could do. Especially not when the entire school couldn’t figure out what Sebastiano had done to Cav and Sky. Considering how Sebastiano had turned him from a farmboy who hated bullies into an Alpha who was the worst bully on campus, Aries was really afraid Sebastiano had just completely mindgamed them. The same way Sebastiano turned Peppercorn into one of his minions. The same way Sebastiano had crushed Bogus into a little minion-shaped Play-dough mold.
Aries sweated about it for a long time. Was there anyone he could go to for help? If no one could or would help Cav and Sky, did he have a chance? If anything he said would just get pointed at Hartford, he was trapped. Hartford loved her Alphas and would do pretty much anything for the head Alphas. If he went to Security, who could he trust there? He knew Sebastiano and some of the others had paid informants in some of the Security platoons, so going there for help was like sticking his head in a loop of rope and hoping it wasn’t a noose.
He finally decided he’d just be the good little minion and hope Sebastiano couldn’t crack his Exemplar-5 mental protections. He had to hope Hekate couldn’t magically read his mind either. He figured he only had two and a half years of this crap to go. And he deserved all of it for being so fricking stupid. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that Sebastiano was behind those first Alpha pranks that had started the whole thing. Sebastiano was probably behind the fight with Crustal’s gang. Sebastiano had played him just to have the best muscle on campus at his disposal, and probably as some kind of gambit to get into the core Alphas.
Aries realized he was a tool. And all he could do was pretend to be nothing but a tool.
If Sebastiano said to go prank some kid, he did it. If Hekate told him to go fetch something, he did it. He watched Kodiak try to get out from under The Don’s power. He watched Conjure and Spellbinder squirm helplessly under Hekate’s thumb. He figured he was doomed.
But Sebastiano and Kallista never caught on. Maybe they weren’t bothering to poke inside his head anymore now that he’d been a good little minion for so long.
He was so glad to go home that summer. No matter what his dad asked him to do, he did it without complaining. Nothing at home was as hard as just getting by back at Whateley. He just worked all day, watched teevee with his folks, and wished he didn’t have to go back to Whateley in the fall.
But he was back at Whateley for the start of his junior year, and things were just as bad as he expected. Until the froshes. Everything changed, thanks to one little team of loonytoon Poesies. And it started with the Goodkind. He didn’t really expect she would be able to stand up to a full Alpha hit squad, but she stuck it out after the first time, and she outsmarted them the second time. He finally got detention. He felt like he deserved every second of it, after all the things he had done. And when she gave him the chance to work for her behind Sebastiano’s back, he leapt at it. Even if she was just as snotty and superior and ‘I am the queen of the world’ as everyone said she would be.
He had to be really careful, though. When The Don wanted to put out hits on Team Kimba, he hadn’t had a chance to go tell Phase. Okay, he was sure he didn’t need to. Nex against Fey? Get real. He’d seen what Fey could do when she wanted to, and she was a heck of a lot more dangerous than Hekate. And he had no idea Fireball was eavesdropping and going after Phase. Not that he needed to warn a powerhouse like Phase about a nutbar like Fireball.
Then it was the ‘breakfast brawl’ as some wit named it later. He and Wyatt got their butts handed to them, and he didn’t even mind. Heck, when the anime chick rammed him into the ground, he didn’t even try to get back up. It was impossible, but half a dozen froshes beat the snot out of the Alphas. Okay, Hekate wasn’t there and The Don couldn’t be bothered to get his fingers dirty. But these kids were too young to have proper combat training, and they still won.
And things just kept getting better. The Don kept digging himself into deeper and deeper holes in his attempts to get back at Team Kimba. Hekate spent more and more time planning whatever weird witchiness she was up to. He only had to do enough pranks and bullying to keep Icer and Hamper and Damper from ratting him out to The Don. And he used any excuse he could think of to get out of that shit, including running away from Razorback, which was risky because sooner or later someone was going to realize that he was a lot faster than Razorback. He just kept telling himself that things might get better, and he could tell Phase if things were about to get worse.
He went home for Christmas, and he went to church with his folks for Christmas Eve services. And he really prayed. He didn’t expect anyone would answer his prayers, because he was the last person who deserved that kind of miracle.
But he got his wish. He got back to Whateley, and Hekate was gone. Flown the coop. Wanted by the FBI, the DPA, the MCO, and even Interpol. She was never ever coming back. And whatever hold The Don had on Skybolt and Cavalier was gone. They did everything except disembowel the bastard. Kodiak took over, and started running the Alphas the way they were supposed to be run, including kicking Solange out on her sexy butt.
Incredibly, it was Phase who finally told him what he needed to know. It wasn’t Sebastiano who had turned Cav and Sky into mindslaves. It was Hekate, using magics so black even the school wizards didn’t know them, and it was a spell that had to be renewed every year right after the winter solstice. It hadn’t been renewed because Hekate bit off more than she could chew somewhere else, and so Cav and Sky were finally free.
When he went and told Kodiak that information, he also pointed out, “Wyatt, you know you need to clean house. And that means throwing me out too.”
Kodiak just grinned and took him up to ‘the bear cave’. At least, that was Kodiak’s nickname for his room. Kodiak pulled out a couple beers, and they talked.
He hadn’t realized how sneaky Kodiak could be. Wyatt said, “You’re staying. I need someone to watch my back. I’m not worried about Oiler, and Imperious has bigger fish to fry.” He made a gesture like he was hurling a lightning bolt at the ground. “Nah, it’s Sebastiano. He’ll be back, like a high school Doctor Doom.”
Aries nodded unhappily. “He’s bad news. Even if he was just using Cav and Sky after Hekate did all the serious evil, what he did was… really bad.”
Kodiak asked, “And when he comes back, what’s he going to do? We already kicked him out of the Alphas.”
Aries said, “He’ll try to work his way back in. He’ll start with his own squad of people he can boss around. Bogus and Peppercorn, especially. Icer. Maybe Hamper and Damper if they can’t get back into the Golds. Solange, if she can’t control Venus Inc.”
Aries nodded again. “And me. He’s pretty sure he’s got me locked up.”
Kodiak said, “And that’s why you’ll be the perfect double agent.”
Aries looked at him and took a deep breath. “I already am. I’ve been feeding Phase information whenever I had something on Sebastiano.”
Aries admitted, “Since I was in detention in Hawthorne. Phase waltzed right in, past Security and Cantrel and Fubar and everyone else, and gave me the offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Kodiak nodded, “Well she is a Goodkind. High school fights are probably way below her level of expertise. Let me know what stuff she’s interested in. If we can let her take care of Sebastiano for us, we’ll look better. And when Sebastiano squeezes you to join his team and spy on me, act surprised, then think it over. Then accept.”
Aries said, “You want me to be a… what, a quadruple agent?”
“Maybe a triple agent with a side contract.”
He shook his head slowly. “This is never going to work.”
Kodiak just said, “You’ll be surprised. Sebastiano always thinks he’s too smart for the rest of the world. He was out of his league with Hartford, and WAY out of his league with Carson, and now he’s out of his league with Phase. We won’t have to do anything except keep tabs on him.”
And Kodiak was right. It was less than two weeks after that before Solange was talking Aries into going and meeting with Sebastiano in his hospital room. Sebastiano said, “You know they’ll kick you out next. Unless you find a way to make Kodiak think you’re valuable. Like being his spy in my camp.”
Aries tried to play dumb, even though he wanted to twitch like he’d just been shocked. “How’s that supposed to work?”
“Exactly as we’re playing it. You got an invite into my room. I asked you to join my group. You thought it over and decided to say yes, so you can relay any useful information back to Kodiak.”
Aries frowned and acted like he was thinking it over. “So… then I’d need stuff to tell him so he’d think I was really informing on you.”
Sebastiano smiled malevolently. “Very good. Very, very good. That’s exactly what you’ll do. Every couple times you meet with us, I’ll give you some dirt to go tell the big musclehead. We’ll make sure it’s verifiable whenever you need it to be. Then he’ll HAVE to keep you in the Alphas, because he can’t risk losing you. And you’ll be my spy in his camp.”
“That’s pretty complicated,” Aries hedged.
“Naturally!” Sebastiano insisted. “It has to be complex enough that Kodiak’s people won’t wise up. This will work perfectly. For both of us. You’ll get the big perks, since you’ll be in the Alphas now, and you’ll stay there when I eventually take over again.”
“Hmm. Sounds like a win-win for me,” Aries muttered.
“Exactly,” The Don nodded confidently.
So now he was spying on The Don for Kodiak, while pretending to be a double agent for The Don, while spying on The Don for Phase.
He took a deep, slow breath. “When did things get so complicated?” he asked.
“Right about the time you decided to come tell me all about your career as a super-spy,” said Chief Delarose. “Now I want you to keep doing what you’re doing, but…”