An odd little vignette, intended as an introduction. Don’t expect it to go anywhere, although in the end, it goes everywhere.
It was a scene straight out of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. It was Durin's Bridge, a narrow span “without kerb or rail” that stretched perilously across a bottomless chasm. Unlike the movie, a castle awaited them on the far side, with gates yawning wide in welcome. The castle seemed to ooze the very concept of invincibility, with its rough grey stone and reinforcing bands of black iron.
“Medieval theme today?” Nephandus asked. As always, he was accompanied by a technomantic construct the size of a Doberman. The black-and-green thing looked like either a cartoony velociraptor, or a very mean Pokémon.
“Yeah, but Faust is an old fart, isn’t he?” Techno-devil answered.
The boy was one of the youngest of the group but distinctive – his spiky mullet was shaved on the sides to show off the implant jacks at each temple. There was also the fact that his left eye was a glowing red cybernetic implant. The red theme with continued in the fire-truck-red lab coat he wore, and the paint job on the quarter-sized “ED-209” robot that clumped along clumsily behind him, slightly smaller than the Pokémon.
Techno-devil’s older sister, She-Beast made a half-hearted swat in her brother’s direction. “Be nice! It’s not like any of the senior Seeds gives us much attention. And if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t even have this base!” She wasn’t in her black bestial form, so she looked like a typical female student in her black pleated skirt and blazer. Her white hair was distinctive, though, as were her forelocks. A lock of hair curled up and around on each side of her forehead. Together, they almost formed a heart shape. But anyone who’d seen TV news in the last decade would recognize the near-trademark horns associated with Dr. Diabolic. Jadis often tried in vain to conceal hers. Her brother, on the other hand, dyed his red so they’d stand out.
Behind the first trio came another three students. Jobe and Cheese had come together from Twain. Jobe most resembled a greasy weasel in preppie clothing and a lab coat, while “Cheese” was young, small, and scrawny, but already sported the unkempt Einstein hair that proclaimed either “genius” or “lunatic.” Cheese’s ever-present grin did not lend strong support to the “genius” interpretation. With them, and at first glance dominating the scene, was the much taller Rosethorn, who was more beautiful than handsome. His long, red hair cascaded down to his shoulders, his blazer was hand tailored, and the cravat at his throat looked entirely proper.
They passed through the towering gates and continued in to the conference room, For such a gigantic room, it had an oppressive feel. There was a conference circle in the center, but the room seemed wider than a football field. Around the distant circumference, shadowy, hunched, cloaked figures worked on complex control panels, performing incomprehensible tasks. Large monitors above them displayed glimpses of world capitals, or occasionally military bases and industrial facilities.
In the center, a circle of extremely plush chairs already held several students. The chairs circled an open pit that seethed with formless white fog.
As the newcomers took their seats, it became apparent that most of the sitting students were young, with only a pair of juniors and a single senior. The senior now stood.
“I’m not going to wait any longer. You’ll have to pass the message on to the rest of them.”
He had the clean profile of a James Dean or a young Michael Landon, further emphasized by his white T-shirt and black leather clothing. The half-day’s growth of beard only added to him image as a young motorcycle rebel.
Now he gestured, and the pit of white vapors cleared, transforming to a shrunken image of the campus during the Halloween attack of a few days earlier. Miniature drop ships descended on campus, while ant-like figures scurried about in panic.
The senior, Damien Faust, began to speak.
“About two-thirds of you showed up to the party we held, here in The Lair. As I recall, every single one of you objected, strongly, when we closed the doors and sealed you inside.”
Techno-devil raised his hand. “For the record, I just want to say that the defensive suite in here is both impressive and cool.”
“I didn’t even know we had a defensive suite,” Nephandus admitted.
“The defensive suite does more than protect just us,” Faust explained. “As you know, we’re located beneath Shuster Hall. This complex lies about halfway between the Homer Gallery, above, and The Vault, below. Our defenses help protect both of them, and improvements to our gear are automatically replicated at both sites. We maintain such a prime position because our parents were among the founders of the college. You’ve seen Guzman’s ton of gold, up in the gallery? Of course you have. That gold belongs to us, as much as anyone. It’s proof that this is our school, and that our school wishes to display certain valuables and messages. Anyone who tries to steal that gold is stealing from you, and it’s your duty to stop them.”
“Um,” Nephandus admitted, “I didn’t even know the school had a vault.”
“A couple,” Faust admitted. “There’s another under Kane Hall. But I’m straying from the point. The point is that we had a very brief warning on what was coming, and we chose to use it to save as many of you as we could, sealing you in here with us while chaos descended on the school.”
“Why?” Winter asked. “If this school belongs to us, why not defend it? Why protect us? Why not warn the school? Or was the attack your doing?”
“None of us were involved in the attack,” Faust insisted. “Not in any way. But there was… disagreement. Some felt that the other students deserved it, some felt it wasn’t a significant danger, and others thought we wouldn’t be believed.”
“There’s only three seniors,” Techno-devil pointed out. “How much disagreement could there be?”
“Well, at least five different points of view.”
“Christ,” Winter cut in. “You guys got issues.”
“Yes,” Faust agreed, “yes we do. Which is why I called you all together here. The three of us, the seniors, we’re abdicating. We’re passing on The Lair early. We may drop by from time to time, but as of today it’s all yours.”
“Are you serious?” Nephandus yelled. “Access codes and everything?”
“Hot damn! I want to make the place into something cool! An underage bar, or a disco club, or some sort of place you can hang out in with chicks!”
The combined glares of his comrades killed that idea quickly.
“Just one other thing,” Faust said, “and then I’ll go. The seniors – all three of us – really messed up during our time here. We didn’t have plans, we just sort of drifted through doing things our own way. And… that didn’t exactly work out for any of us. So unless you want to end up like us, I suggest you really think about what you want to achieve here, rather than just drifting into it, the way we did. That’s all.”
And with that, Faust rose and walked out the door.
There was silence for a moment, and then Cheese observed quietly, “You notice that he forgot to pass on the command codes?”
“Over-dramatic presentation,” Jobe said. “Ever seen video clips of his father? Same way.”
They sat around for a minute, then Techno-devil got tired of looking at the hologram replay of Halloween.
He pulled out a small jack, connecting one end to his temple and the other end to a jack in his chair. A moment later the scene switched to a live battle display from Good and Evil Online. Tiny medieval figures now hacked and slashed at each other.
One of the two juniors, Laurel Hua, spoke up. “I’ve known Damien for almost three years now. I’m sure it cost him a great deal to admit those things to us. Can’t we at least bring ourselves to discuss his point? We don’t have to be unanimous. We could start with our personal goals. Perhaps we will find areas of correspondence, or unexpected alliances.”
“Yeah, we can,” She-Beast said, leaning forward. “Okay, first off, I’d like it if there was some way to keep everyone from thinking that I’m some sort of carbon-copy of my father, you know?” She said it half-humorously, be she was staring intently at her brother as she spoke.
“Hear hear!” “You said it!” “I wish!”
“And number two, I wish there was some way to get my roommate to just chill, you know?”
“Want me to hit on her?” Nephandus asked.
“What, assassinate her? Are you nuts? I just want her to chill out.”
“What he means,” Rosethorn explained, “is, should he ask her for a date? That threat might be enough to force her into line.”
“Yeah!” Nephandus agreed. “Wait, threat? You meant ‘reward’ didn’t you?”
“What’s the problem?” Lindsey Fellows, a.k.a. Dragonrider, leaned forward, the cat-sized dragon on her shoulder duplicating the movement.
She-beast sighed. “I’m rooming with another groupie. Vipra has the idea that if I could just introduce her to Dad, he’d instantly see her magnificent qualities and take her on as his chief lieutenant and enforcer.”
“Really?” Jobe said. “I was under the impression that the good Dr. Diabolik usually operated with a fairly minimal staff, working through contractors and cutouts whenever possible.”
She nodded. “He does, except for the last minute when something big is about to go down, like that whole stupid ‘conquer Toronto’ thing.”
“My father employs a large staff, Sheebs,” Jobe pointed out. “You could send her over to me.”
Jadis sighed, as if trying to gather her patience. “I want her to chill out, not get mutated into some sort of slug-thing. She is not to be considered a subject for experimentation, you hear me?”
Jobe tried to mask his irritation. “What about a cat-girl?” he begged. “Everyone loves cat-girls.”
“No! If there’s one thing this campus doesn’t need, it’s another cat-girl! Besides, she’s allergic to cats. She’d never forgive me.”
Jadis settled back in her chair. “Anyway, that’s my ambitions for the moment. Pretty modest, huh? So how about you, Victor?”
The youngest and smallest boy of the group was having trouble keeping a straight face.
“Uh oh,” Jobe said.
“Whenever Cheese is amused, it’s a bad sign. Very bad, believe me.”
Render was skeptical. “How bad could it be?”
“Riiiight,” Nephandus agreed, skeptically. “So, I’ve been wondering. ‘Cheese?’ What’s with that?”
The boy managed to control his giggles. “Would you prefer Victor Alexander Maria Stieglitz-Von Maas?”
“Got it,” Nephandus agreed quickly. “Cheese it is! So… got anything on the burner? Any nefarious plans, grand moves of vengeance, that sort of thing?”
“Wellll,” the young boy began, “I’m not exactly a whiz kid, like some of you here. I don’t devise or invent, but I do like to take advantage of the flow of inventions that trickle through.”
Nephandus rubbed his hands together. “Right! A little appropriation of the old intellectual property?”
“No, I like to help the old creative juices. Prime the pump, you know?” He was giggling almost continuously now. “I like to start early, with a germ of an idea, an investment, if you will. I supply money and expertise and just the right contacts, and basically unblock the pipes. Sometimes (hee hee) I help with the books or (ha!) paperwork. You know you’re in trouble if you see red!”
Cheese’s odd manner seemed strange to everyone. Everyone but Jobe, who was cringing. Von Maas spoke with the tones of a child, but the vocabulary of an adult. And his constant titters left everyone making unflattering comparisons with the old comic-book villain, The Joker. Nephandus, though, could be persistent when he scented advantage.
“So… any investment opportunities coming up soon?”
“Soon? Maybe. Very possibly.”
“Well, there’s a super-strong construction supplement. We could use it on the walls and doors of banks, maybe, to protect against bricks. This stuff is expensive, but strong enough that even a pretty good brick can’t break through it.” Cheese’s giggles seemed to subside as he spoke of this.
“I’m not so sure I like that idea,” Render mused.
“I’m also working with a nanotech infusion that protects against poison.”
“Now that could be useful,” Jobe decided. “How’s it work?”
“It improves kidney output.”
“Ah, altering the osmotic balance.”
Jadis waved away the conversation. “No tech-geeking, please. How about you, Laurel? You’ve been pretty quiet. Is there anything you’d really like to do here?”
The girl known as Silver Serpent looked demurely down and gave a modest smile. “My father has tasked me with making certain contacts for business and alliance purposes among the students here. There are some who may be receptive to our ideals. Recently however, there have been developments which cause such thoughts to recede into the realm of unimportance.”
“You mean Halloween, and the Syndicate attack?” Render demanded.
“No. Why would that be important?” Render was too dumbfounded to reply, so she quietly continued. “The first event was the evidence of sidhe at the school. Of course, many have claimed relation to the Ancient Ones, but if these are truly of that race, they predate the very founding of the Middle Kingdom and eclipse it in power. If their claims are true, I must initiate contact as a respectful envoy.”
She paused in consideration for a moment. “The second event causes even that to recede in priority. There is the remotest possibility that the Living Embodiment of Balance walks again amongst us. However, it is must be obvious to even the most naïve practitioner that no direct action need be taken in such a case.”
“The living embodiment of balance?” Thrasher asked. “Are we talking about some sort of tightrope walker here?”
Chu Lan, who used the name Laurel in the west, tried to correct him gently, but it was difficult when faced with such ignorance. “Not a tightrope walker except in a metaphorical sense. A westerner might better call her the Hand of Fate. Or perhaps simply, Death. She is the one who walks always in balance, correcting where necessary.”
“Uh, correcting what?”
Render spoke up again. “Sounds nasty. I can see why you want to stay away from him.”
“Her. The Handmaiden is always female. And it is not a matter of staying away. When and if it is appropriate, the Tao will see to it that we meet. My wishes and actions would be inconsequential. When the Tao moves, it will become merely a matter of ensuring that I act with the balance, rather than in opposition. Even my father would bow before the Handmaiden.”
Techno-devil was a freshman. He’d only been a member of the Seeds for two months. Still, the encyclopedic reference in his implant contained plenty of details on both Silver Serpent and her father, The Iron Dragon. “Hold on. Isn’t your dad the same guy that’s been trying to destroy both Europe and North America for like, the last hundred years?”
“You forget Russia.”
“Oh, right, that too. So, isn’t he retired? Like, for good? And why would a major heavy like that listen to some punk-ass little girl?”
Laurel closed her eyes, as if in pain. “He is in retreat, at the moment. And he would listen to that … I cannot repeat your rude words. He would listen to that girl, because if she desired she could bring about all that he strives for. Conversely, if she stood against him, he would know his course for futility and remain in retreat for as long as necessary.”
Techno-devil snorted. “Right. Watch out, guys. There’s a little girl out there who’s going to destroy the whole freakin’ world.”
“Do not trouble yourself with it. The possibility that this is the true Handmaiden is exceedingly remote.”
“Okie, dokie,” Thrasher said, butting in. “If we’re just about done with inscrutability? Cause I gotta say, between Cheese-boy and the inscrutable one, I don’t think I understood a single word since we were talking about roommates. So, I say, let’s move to something a little more concrete.” He snickered at that. “And my big wish? First, I want to blow up Shuster, and Kane, and every other building. Except the cafeteria. That place is okay. And next, I want a flying dump truck. HUGE. And it pours the concrete over everything. Except the cafeteria, like I said.”
Everyone waited for more, but Thrasher just smiled, obviously done.
“That’s it?” Jadis asked.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Thrasher held out his hands and a sparkling field of force materialized, the size and shape of a snowboard, and frictionless on one side.
“Skate park! MEGA skate park. And free eats forever!”
“Okay,” Jadis summarized. “We’re the kids of some of the biggest villains in the world. Wealth and power undreamt of by mortal man. And so far our ambitions include solving roommate problems, patent development, the possible destruction of the world, and covering the campus in concrete to turn it into a giant skate park.” She sighed. “Next?”
The weasel-faced boy in the lab coat leaned forward. “Serpent… about the sidhe, I think we may have common ground there. I believe that something of an alliance may be possible.”
Jobe nodded. “Yes. You want to know whether these sidhe are real, while I need a sample of their genetic code. If you have anything, even ancient artifacts, that have skin oils, or hairs, or flakes of dead skin, I can analyze those for traces of the ancient sidhe DNA. I’m currently trying to obtain DNA from the … let’s call them ‘new sidhe’ on campus. We compare the old and new DNA samples, and presto, you have your answer.”
Laurel Hua peered at the devisor suspiciously. “You can do this? I believe we may have some samples, but they would be immensely old.”
Jobe shrugged. “If there’s still DNA, even partial and incomplete, I’ll amplify it and categorize it. Same with the kids on campus. I can then run a cross-comparison, and isolate the specific genes that code for elvishness.”
“Is that even a word?” Nephandus wondered.
“Elves?” Cheese asked. “Fairies? You mean like Peter Pan’s little friend, Tinkle Bear?” He began to giggle.
“Will you shut up?” Jadis demanded.
“Why would you help me?” Hua demanded of Jobe. “Where do you profit in our association?”
“I have a … project,” Jobe revealed, “that requires elven genetics. To do that, I have to isolate and identify the genes specific to the elvish condition.”
“And what exactly is this project?”
Jobe sighed with the put-upon theatrics of someone who has been dragged into talking about his favorite obsession. “Well, if you must know…” He handed a small memory card over to Techno-Devil, who was still jacked in. “Malachai, if you would?”
The miniature medieval war in the center of their circle vanished. A moment later, A life-sized girl appeared, naked except for digital fog added in at chest and hips. She was black. Not the black of a typical African-American. Not even the deep purple-black of an Ethiopian. She was pure black, like coal or ink, a color not seen in any human race. In contrast, her hair was stark white, as were her eyebrows and eyelashes. Her lips were hot pink. Her eyes were over-sized, and of an elvish cast, and her ears were pointed. Her figure, plainly visible, was a bit beyond “superb” and edged a little toward what the female audience would have called “cartoony.”
“Fuckin’ aye!” Render called out. “A drow! Hell of a looker, too. I’d do her in a second.”
“A whole second?” Jobe asked, with a sneer in his voice. “Oh, that’ll leave her satisfied. But I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head when you’re speaking of my wife!”
“Not this again,” Jadis complained. But apparently no one heard her.
As the suspended image rotated, DNA spirals and gene sequences appeared in the air beside the woman. Info boxes began to appear, with detail zoom-ins pointing out features and design details all over the subject. They began highlighting aspects of the woman’s eyes, and ears, and something inside her mouth. More details began flashing about her skin, fingertips, and private areas.
“You designed a wife?” Winter asked, in disbelief.
“And why not? Can you think of what better wedding present I might offer than enhanced senses and strength, eternal life, eternal beauty, and a capacity for intimate sensation that would make all the rest of us seem like half-dead zombies? Why shouldn’t my wife be the best?”
“I see.” Privately, Winter was impressed. The very idea had more than a touch of the Mad Scientist to it, but the offer was an interesting one. “And who, exactly, will the lucky woman be?”
“Ah!” Jobe spoke with the confidence of the truly ignorant. “That’s Phase II, once I finish the design. I’ll need to weed through volunteers. I expect a considerable list of applicants, once I announce the pay-off.”
“How are you going to transform the winner?” Malachai wondered. “Full-body nano transforms are still pretty dicey.”
Jobe made a rude sound. “Pthht! Nanotech is so crude. Oh, I’ll admit, it’s nice for cellular surgery, maybe a little chromosome alteration, but full-body reconstruction? There’s lots better ways, biologically.”
“What? Cloning, and memory transfer?”
“No!” Jobe ranted. “A transform in place, with regenerator cells! I inject her with stem-spores, and nature does the rest!”
“Awful high chance of brain-wipe.”
“That just means that I’ll need more volunteers!”
While Jobe and Malachai exchanged technical details, Lindsey leaned forward, the dragon on her shoulder echoing the movement.
“Um,” she began, “so I guess that most of you, sort of, knew what kind of business your parents were in, right? I mean, ever since you were little?”
“Yeah,” Jadis admitted. “We, Malachai and I, were raised in an apartment just off Central Park. Nannies and governesses, mostly. But ever since we were old enough to keep a secret, we knew who Dad was and what he did. Mal and I used to love seeing him on TV.”
“I grew up in the Secret City,” Hua Chu Lan admitted, “where my father is worshipped like a god. I was trained from birth by the masters of arts so secret that westerners have never even heard of them.”
“Jobe’s dad is the Emperor of a little island in the Caribbean,” Jadis admitted. “Weasel boy grew up thinking he was a prince—”
“I am a prince!” Jobe said, breaking momentarily away from his technical discussion.
“—so whenever he’d visit us up in New York, or whenever Mal and I went down to Karedonia, Mal took it as his solemn duty to acquaint Jobe with his common roots. Usually through some sort of blunt object applied to the head, if I recall.”
Techno-Devil shrugged. “Hey, Jobe’s a friend, but I defy anyone to spend more than five minutes with him, without wanting to bash him over the head.”
“See, the thing is,” Lindsey continued, “I didn’t know. Not until two years ago.”
“You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to,” Jadis told the younger girl.
“No, I want to, I think. I need to talk about it to someone, and you guys seem best…”
Nephandus, sitting next to her, reached out to gently take her hand. “There, there. I know these things can be harsh, but we know where you’re coming from here. You can trust us not to judge you by your past. Besides, a cute young thing like you should never be under such a burden. So tell us about it.”
Lindsey looked questioningly at her hand, then at Nephandus, who was still holding it. Finally, she looked toward her friend Jadis, who was motioning with a finger down her throat.
“Well…” She left her hand in the boy’s grasp. “…Dad was always just this eccentric college professor, you know? He teaches at … I’m not sure how this works. Maybe I shouldn’t say. We had a pretty quiet life. But… I think I was in seventh grade. My little brother – can I tell his name? – my brother Buster got one of Dad’s ‘Hollow Boxes’. That wasn’t exactly what Dad called them, but it’s what Buster had been calling them ever since I can remember. So Dad would go on these business trips for the college, every couple of months. And when he’d come back, he’d sometimes bring these little box things back, and other stuff too. But we were never supposed to touch them. Dad kept them locked up, and told us they were very expensive, and some of them had old germs and stuff on them.
“But anyway, Buster got one, and opened it somehow, and this… thing came out. And it was huge! Bigger than a man, from that little box. And it had claws, and fangs – we had to replace the carpet, from where it dripped on them, and it saw Buster…”
Without realizing it, Nephandus had pulled his hands back. “Your father is Devilmaster?” he squeaked in alarm.
“Um, yeah.” She looked at her abandoned hand and sighed. “Anyway, he appeared in full regalia, and sent the thing back into the box. Buster was okay. And Daddy said he loved us, and hadn’t wanted to bother us with it, but … well… you only had to see this thing to know that Daddy has been calling up the powers of Hell for years! Maybe since before I was born! He said that nothing had changed, and he was still our same daddy, but…” She trailed off.
“Devilmaster? Shit! You never cross that guy! He’ll have things tracking you down for the rest of your god-damned life, always following, always waiting in the dark!”
“Thank you so much for those comforting words of support, Nephandus,” Jadis said, with a double-helping of scorn.
“And now, I’m worried about myself, too,” Lindsey continued. “I mean, I don’t want to hurt anybody. But since I found out, I just get so mad sometimes.”
Nephandus seemed to be coming down from his shock. “I can deal with this. Sure! And while this might seem a foolish statement in a place like Whateley, you don’t seem like you could cause all that much damage. What do you do? It isn’t like Jadis’ creepy ‘beast skin’ is it?”
“Oh, no. I made Pern here.” Lindsey reached up to her shoulder and gently picked up the small winged creature. “I was so worried about everything with Daddy, and that frightening devil, or demon, or whatever. And I’d just read these great books. That’s where I got my name, Dragonrider.”
The house-cat-sized winged lizard opened his mouth and issued a small flame, like that produced by a cigarette lighter.
Nephandus reached out and Lindsey gently handed over her pet. Nephandus put it on his lap and awkwardly tried to pet it.
“Did you make this the way Jobe makes things? You know, beakers and genetics and stuff?”
“No, I just sort of needed him, and imagined him, and then he was there, you know?”
“Oh. He must be a manifestation. So, is he stable? That’s pretty rare.”
“I guess. I’m still kind of new to all this stuff.”
“Still, I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Nephandus decided. “Your pet’s obviously no danger, and in a school like Whateley, even if you did get pretty mad I don’t think you’re going to be hurting anyone.”
“Nephandus!” Jadis sang out. “Her pet? It grows.”
“Jadis!” Lindsey scolded, “Don’t spoil this!”
“He’s going to find out. Besides Lindsey, you’re good folk. You can do lots better than Nephandus, believe me.”
The boy in question sprang to his feet, yelling in outrage, spilling the lizard from his lap onto the floor. The creature make a sort of disturbed “chirrup” sound, and began to grow. And grow. And GROW. In moments, it was fifteen feet long and filled the entire center of the conference circle, with wings that spread over the crowd like a roof, and a large head that pressed against the ceiling. Its claws raked gouges in the floor. It turned a head that was nearly four feet long and peered at Nephandus with angrily whirling prismatic eyes.
Lindsey whistled. “Here, Pern! Come on, boy! He didn’t mean to startle you like that!”
The dragon’s eyes changed to a glow that clearly radiated love, as it turned toward its mistress. It shuffled for a moment, then pounced at her, shrinking in mid-air until it was again no larger than a cat, and landed in her welcoming arms.
“Stupid fucking school!” Nephandus muttered.
“I’ll tell you what I want!” Cheese announced out of the blue. “I want a drink! Anyone care for lassi?”
“What?” Render asked.
“Lassi,” the young boy with the crazy hair explained. “An Indian drink, sort of a salty, spicy, yogurt mix. A lot of people think I’m just about cheese, but nothing could be farther from the truth.”
“The only thing cheesy about him is his sense of humor,” the weasel-faced Jobe warned. “Remember that I warned you. No lassi for me; I’ll have a coke.”
“Lemonade,” Render quickly decided.
The rest followed, ordering more conventional fare.
“Suit yourselves,” Cheese announced, then snapped his fingers.
A robot, roughly the size and shape of a wastebasket, trundled out of a door bearing a tray filled with beverages.
“Mmmm, lassi!” Cheese reached forward, his hand seeming to disintegrate or disappear. It was like he was reaching into an invisible bag. A moment later, he pulled back out of the bag, holding his drink.
“Good trick,” Render decided. “Must make you a pretty good pickpocket.”
Cheese nodded manically. “I can also un-pick them!”
“Good old R2-Dimwit,” Render commented, plucking his own drink off the tray. “When I graduate, I’m going to have to get me a personal staff. This whole mastermind thing has grown on me, these last few years.” He frowned, studying the young boy. “So you’re about Cheese and yogurt and stuff? Hard to see how that’s so evil. Or powerful. Or anything. Even if you can pick pockets.”
“No, no, no!” Jobe yelled. “Don’t you get it? His codename is a joke! He’s got a different explanation every single time! And if there was some truth behind it, you can bet it would be far beyond the capacity of anyone like you to understand.”
“Watch your mouth, lab boy,” Render said, half rising from his chair. “’Round here, stupid little freshmen don’t talk to juniors like that.”
Render paused to chug down his drink, then slashed his finger down the glass. With a brittle ting! sound, the glass split into two clean halves with razor-sharp edges. He picked up one half and crushed it into sharp fragments in his left hand. In his right hand, he held the other half while it melted into molten glass, then spilled it out onto the floor, where it splashed and solidified.
“You should know who you’re talking to, unless you want to get Rendered down, understand?”
With no expression on his face, Jobe reached into an inside pocket of his lab coat. When his hand emerged, he was holding a shiny, platinum-silver object that everyone recognized immediately: an American Express card!
“And you should know who you’re talking to. I could buy you, your father, and your entire family out of petty change and still have enough left over to pay for shipping up Dad’s private army. Unless you think that Emperor Wilkins hasn’t come up with ways of dealing with TK-superman types.”
“Big threats, kid. You willing to back it up with an offer of lifetime employment, a pension plan, and a guarantee that I’ll see plenty of action?”
Jobe smiled. “Talk to me when you’re a senior. In Karedonia, we have Big Plans for the Future.” The way he said it, you could tell it was an advertising campaign somewhere.
“Hmph. At least Jobe is connecting up,” Winter said, with sarcasm evident in her voice. She looked around the seats. “As for the rest of us, even if we wanted to listen to Faust’s suggestions, I’m not sure we have that much in common aside from the fact that our parents are sort of in the same business. As for me, I’m not even sure I want to follow in the path my beloved parents have so generously laid out for me.” She glanced at Lindsey. “You look like you’re having the same doubts.”
The younger girl just shrugged, uncertainly.
“Anyway,” Winter admitted, “I’ve been playing with the idea for a while now. Everyone knows that a bad girl turned good makes the absolute best heroine. I’ve been floating my précis over with the Future Superheroes, but I haven’t gotten any bites yet.”
“Really?” Lindsey asked. “I was wondering how they’d feel about… you know.”
“Yeah.” Winter waved her hand in dismissal. “Mom’s career as an arsonist has been pretty successful, and Dad’s still drawing top dollar for his mercenary work. So maybe I did a couple of gigs with them when I was younger. Big fucking deal. The capes are going on like there’s something wrong with me. So… I don’t think I can let this go. I’m going to have to keep trying until I force them to admit me.” She looked around the circle. “So if anyone’s got any good suggestions…?”
“How about if someone pays me to do a hit on one of ‘em,” Render offered. “Then you show up to stop me right before it goes lethal? They’ll be grateful.”
“A little too transparent,” Winter said.
Cheese suggested, “What if you show up with a gift? I’m thinking of a really big wheel of Jarlsburg. Everyone likes that! Or maybe,” he began to giggle again, “you could bring them lemonade snow-cones!”
“Maybe, if you were just friends with them?” Lindsey suggested. “Even if they never let you in, it wouldn’t be bad to be friends, would it?”
“Naw,” Winter decided. “I need something quicker. And that ‘even if they never let you in’ bit is right out. They will let me in. One way or another.”
“I think you should reconsider,” Rosethorn said.
The sophomore was almost too pretty for a boy. His long, dark red hair tumbled down to below his shoulders. Looking at him, it was obvious that no zit or pimple would ever dare mar that perfect face. His nose was thin and straight, and his teeth were perfect and pearly. Even his movements were graceful.
“Winter, I appreciate your need for acceptance, particularly since you seem to have been unfairly tagged with your parents’ reputation.” He offered her a sad, sympathetic smile. “We both know about that, don’t we? But you can’t force instant understanding. Lindsey’s suggestion is a good one. The only way you’re going to make a real impression on people is to let them see the real you, and the only way to do that is simply to be there with them and get to know each other under a variety of circumstances.”
“Screw that,” Winter said. “I could care less about them knowing the ‘real me.’ I just want into their stupid little good-guy club. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s just so I can honestly say I was a member.”
“Well, good luck, I guess.”
“Thanks,” Winter said. “So what about you, pretty boy? What are you looking for? Any grand schemes waiting in the wings?”
Rosethorn shook his head in the way that people in shampoo commercials do. The world almost seemed to go slow-motion for a moment. Then he carelessly tossed his perfect hair back in a move that was either a brilliant demonstration of unconscious grace, or the most cynical and practiced maneuver ever.
“I…” He paused in thought. “I just want to get out from Mother’s thumb for a while. I want time to discover myself, and to learn that my own goals really do belong to me, and that they aren’t just reflections of her.”
“Wow,” Lindsey breathed. “Who is she? Or – is it impolite to ask?”
Rosethorn smiled and the world took notice. “I don’t think it’s rude. Someone can always refuse to say. My mother’s real name is Claire Laclavar. She’s a Whateley graduate, too. Exemplar, with an occasional flash of precog. Her alias is ‘Lilith.’”
Lindsey scrunched up her face, then had a look of sudden enlightenment. “Oh, yeah! I’ve heard of her! But, is she really a super-villain? I mean, she was wanted, but I got the impression that she was more of a, I don’t know, lady adventurer or something.”
Rosethorn sighed. “Yeah, that’s mom. You’ve met her, Jads. What was your impression?”
Jadis shifted uncomfortably. “Uh… sort of an amoral Laura Croft, with wardrobe issues.”
“Really? Mom always saw herself as more of a Modesty Blaise.”
“Modesty Blaise didn’t shop at Fredrick’s of Hollywood, ‘thorn.”
“So,” Nephandus summarized, “by and large, this group is looking pretty pathetic. Where are the grand schemes? Where’s the danger? Where’s the fear that will keep people in line when the bricks want to pick on us?”
Jadis groaned. “If you’ve got issues, Nephandus, go ahead and vent.”
Cheese giggled. “Let loose! Let go!”
The slender blond stood. “You want me to vent? All right, I’ll vent!”
Nephandus was attractive, but not quite as beautiful as Rosethorn. His face was both classical and perfect, but a little too sharp to be considered beautiful. Still, he had style in abundance, between the long perfect braid that hung down to his waist to the tailored clothing appropriate for a European court. Nephandus favored a half-cape and walking stick that would have been the height of style a century earlier, and now merely marked him as a fashionable eccentric.
“I’ve had a year at this school to analyze our problems, and I think some of you freshmen could stand to benefit from what I’ve learned. First off, any mastermind worth his salt has three things: a base, an organization, and a master plan. Now, we have the base here in The Lair. Clearly, our various master plans are in some disarray. Nothing surprising there, we’re all heading in different directions. But what each of us lack is an organization! We need lackeys, foot soldiers, troops and spies! We need servants and manual labor!” He gestured emphatically with his walking stick. “We need bodyguards!”
“Hold up,” Jobe said, raising his hand to halt the rant. “You live in Twain, on the floor above me. Are you telling me you don’t have servants? For god’s sake, why not?”
“Jobe…” Jadis explained “Nephandus isn’t rich.”
“But good servants pay for themselves! Why, with the time I’ve saved, the extra patent filings alone—”
“Jobe! Give it a rest, okay?”
But Nephandus’ interest had been attracted. He focused his efforts toward Jobe. “I’m talking about more than just a domestic staff. I’m talking about real lackeys and henchmen. Thugs and bodyguards and our own private army! Enough so that no stupid brick will ever even dream of threatening us!”
“I don’t think you understand what’s involved in maintaining your own army,” Jobe began. “It’s not just the salary and equipment, it’s the logistics and training and facilities—”
“JOBE!” Jadis yelled. “Cut it out!”
“But he asked…”
“Put a lid on it!” She turned to Nephandus. “And you! We are not going to start a private army at Whateley! Not going to happen. Headmistress Carson would land on you so hard! Picture her spiked heels, right on the top of your pointy little head! So just forget it!”
“Oh.” The boy deflated at that. “What about lackeys then?”
Jadis sighed heavily and rubbed her temples. “Look, if you would just read the stupid school handbook! There’s an entire section devoted to lackeys, groupies, followers, and sidekicks. It clearly lays out details of monetary and other compensation, equipment transfer, magical, psychic, and spiritual support.”
“Well… yeah,” Nephandus agreed. “And I’ve probably read that about a dozen times. But the thing is, you’re restricted to only recruiting other students. And they’re all, like, mutants.”
“Your point being?”
“Well, look. The point of lackeys is to make you look bigger and tougher, right? But you can’t get lackeys unless you’re big enough and tough enough to attract some. But if you’re that tough already, why do you need lackeys? See?”
Malachai, laughed. It was more of a giggle, really, though not nearly so disturbing as a cheesy titter. “That’s why you don’t recruit lackeys, you build them!” He gestured, and his two-foot-tall ED-209 clumped forward.
“Been there, done that.” Nephandus gestured as well, and his imp-creature slithered forward. “Igor is the first thing the bricks stomp. They don’t even get in trouble for stomping him.”
“Exactly!” Malachai agreed. “They stomp him, and they don’t stomp you. That gives you time to set up your counterattack, or retreat, or whatever you want.”
“But I keep having to re-summoning and repairing him! And they won’t let me put in any of the enhancements that I really want.”
“That’s because this is just high school,” Malachai explained. “Sure, you have to stop down your plasma guns. But the tricky part is the movement algorithms, targeting software, and the gunner heuristics, right? Scaling up is pretty simple once you have all that worked out. So high school lets you perfect the basic design, and streamline the production process, which you have to, cause it’s getting stomped so often! So when you go out into the real world, you’re ready for the scaled-up model at full strength, and you already have an efficient, streamlined production process, not to mention a design that is robust and has all the bug worked out. You’re ready to make your army,” he glanced at Jobe, “and the training has already been handled.”
“Hmmm,” the weasel-faced geneticist mused in interest. “Karedonia’s robot police could stand some upgrades. You wouldn’t believe the clunky things Dad is using today.”
Nephandus sensed that he was losing his audience. “We’re getting off track here. I’m telling you, there are still plenty of good reasons to have lackeys, and they’re cheaper in bulk. Now, if we invested, as a group, we could own a lackey pool and maybe, I don’t know, time-share them out.” He looked around wildly, but didn’t see much support. “Huh? Whaddya think?”
Render had pulled out a jack-knife and was using it to pick his teeth. “The idea is an insult to lackeys everywhere. Anyway, you shouldn’t even be thinking of people at Whateley as lackeys. I admit, there are a few of us interested in extra-legal career opportunities. There was some talk of forming a union, a year or two back. Nothin’ much came of it. But we did decide that we preferred to be called ‘command staff’ and ‘empowered associates’. Don’t you never call someone with powers a lackey. Not unless you want him buggin’ out on you, just before the roof falls in.”
“Fine!” Nephandus huffed. “So we don’t stick together. Well don’t expect my help when they come to pick you off, one by one.” He crossed his arms and dropped back down in his seat.
“I understand,” Cheese said. He was trying to sound sympathetic, but his giggles ruined the effect. “Who knows what led to it? Maybe you trusted someone, but there was a leak. Now: You’re in trouble! God knows, I get in deep sometimes! And why should you have to abandon all your hard toil? It runs counterclockwise to everything you know. But unless you’re flush with cash, you’ve got to just let it go.” He was desperately trying to talk with a straight face. “That’s my advice. Just let it go. If you try to hold stuff like this in, some day you’re going to explode! And frankly, I don’t want to be around when you finally let loose.” He paused to wipe a tear of mirth from his eye. “I’d give you more dependable advice, but my suggestions wouldn’t be more than a drop in the bucket.”
He was finally overcome by chortles, and had to stop talking.
“Hey, you know what we really need?” Malachai said, his red cybernetic eye glowing brightly. “A pact! Like the Hell’s Angels had. ‘Take on one of us, and you take on all of us!’ Hell, even someone awesome, like my main man Render here, you have to have some weakness, right? Psychics or something. But if we had a pact… we could call it, the Vengeance Protocols! If we had that, then when some stupid mage casts a spell on you, then my sister casts a counter-spell. Or Nephandus does. Or maybe Lindsey calls up her dad—”
“I don’t think I’d really feel comfortable with that,” the girl squeaked.
“Whatever. The point is, by sticking together, we don’t have to give anything up. It must makes us all stronger! No one would dare mess with us.”
Cheese almost couldn’t talk through his giggles. “I’ll… pass.”
“Problem,” Jadis said. “The handbook already covers that. Feuds, Vendettas, and Revenge Strikes. It clearly states—”
“Don’t be a dweebette, sis. We’re the bad guys! That means we don’t have to follow the student handbook.”
“Point of order,” Jobe said, raising his hand again. “I’m not a ‘bad guy.’ In fact, I’ve probably already performed more good than every cape this school will ever graduate.”
“How exactly do you figure that?” Winter asked, obviously curious.
“Last year I created a more effective dysentery vaccine. Donated it to the Gates Foundation. It’s projected to save about 700,000 people a year. Admittedly, I developed it as a project using Karedonian convicts, but still, that’s a lot of lives.”
Reaction to that was powerful: “You? Donated it?” “Involuntary human testing?” “What, do you think the ends justify the means?”
Jobe sighed. “Look, in order. It’s not like a dysentery vaccine is worth anything to first-world countries, so it’s not like there was a real profit to lose. Second, you don’t get many volunteers for dysentery testing. You gotta know, human test subjects really speed up the research. And third, if your ends don’t justify the means, you’re working on the wrong project.”
Jadis appeared to be about to lay into Jobe about something, but with an obvious effort she closed her mouth and sat back down in her seat. “Not worth it,” she muttered. “Not going to say a thing.”
“Well, that just proves it!” Malachai continued. “About the Vengeance Protocols, I mean. So, Render, let’s say some creepy mystic casts a spell of impotence or something on you. You tell us, and Jobe gives them dysentery.”
Jobe mused. “Hmmm, doable.”
Render seemed a little shaken. “A spell of … on me?”
Jadis couldn’t contain herself any longer. “Look, there are just so many things wrong with that scenario that I can’t even count them! Like Render would go telling everyone. Like that spell is easily detectable!”
“You mean there really is—?”
“Like Jobe isn’t already the number-one suspect for any disease or poisoning that happens on campus, like we could manage to identify the caster, like—”
“Okay then,” her brother bulled through. “Then maybe Nephandus hits ‘em! He ambushes them in the dark, striking from behind! Blammo! One very sorry mage.”
Nephandus suddenly looked a bit paler. “Well, about that…”
The Victorian fashion refugee trailed off, and no one sprang up to continue.
Malachai was clearly disappointed. “So that’s it? No master plan, no organization of thugs, not even the Vengeance Protocols? How are we supposed to take over the world, if we can’t even get together on something simple?”
“Hey,” Render said defensively, “it’s not like the other side is any better! I mean, you seen those guys? They get in fights with each other at the drop of a hat. And some of them do wear hats.”
“Yeah, I know.” Malachai swung his legs, dispiritedly. It was heartbreaking to see, a fresh new villain, full of sound and fury, suddenly confronting the harsh realities of the real world. Today a youngster lost a little bit of his childish naïveté. “It’s just, I thought there would be these big conspiracies, and maybe a secret organization of evil. Was it too much, to want just one fiendish plot?”
“That sounds like my cue,” Cheese announced. He held up his arm, displaying a wristwatch. “Time to go! I’ve got a test coming up on my new projects, so I can’t stick around.”
He rose from his chair and headed for the door.
Jobe looked up. “I’ve been thinking. That kidney enhancer thing of yours? Watch out for dehydration effects. If you’re not careful, you could kill your patient.”
Cheese smiled back at him. “True. Fortunately, it only runs for a brief period, and it doesn’t activate until it receives the proper sonic trigger.”
As if the thought had just occurred to him, he looked up. “Oh, you were worried about Faust handing over the access codes to The Lair? Don’t worry. He gave the codes to me.”
“He did?” “What are they?” “Why didn’t you—”
But at that moment, Cheese’s watch emitted a surprisingly loud beeping sound. “Sorry,” he called, as he headed out the door. “That’s it. I really have to go!”
The main entrance to The Lair clicked shut with a disturbing finality.
“Hey,” Nephandus observed, “he forgot to give us the codes, too.”
Then his eyes went wide, as a more immediate problem became apparent. It was wee issue, and he suddenly found himself under great pressure to solve it.
At the same moment, Render rose. “Uh… I’ll be back in a minute.” He headed for the bathroom.
But the door was locked. Render rattled the knob, but nothing happened.
“You too?” Silver Serpent asked, coming up to the door. She looked distressed.
“All four of us!” Lindsey said, holding her legs tightly together. She began to dance around. “Hurry up!”
“The front door’s locked!” Nephandus called, in rising panic. “I can’t get out!”
“Cheese!” Jobe yelled. “This is his fault! Hmmm, drow note: larger bladder. She’ll thank me for it.”
“He couldn’t!” Jadis begged. “He wouldn’t!” Then she remembered the boy’s last line, before he slipped out the door. “He DID!”
In an instant, she suddenly converted into a bestial devil creature. Alongside Render, the creature pounded on the bathroom door. To no effect.
“That’s impossible,” the female beast rumbled. “No piddling little door can stand up to both of us! Not unless it was incredibly … reinforced.”
Lindsey came hopping by. “Could you not use words like ‘piddling’? Please?”
Malachai was clutching at his crotch and squeezing hard. “It can’t be Cheese! How did he even…?”
“Oh, think about it!” Jobe hollered. “Nanotech infusion to increase kidney output. Master pickpocket. ‘Let’s have drinks.’ Sound triggered? Helloooo! Didn’t I warn you all? But did anybody listen to me?”
“But he’s testing that stuff elsewhere,” Rosethorn protested, with watering eyes.
Jobe was pulling his greasy hair at this point. “No he isn’t! He implied that! But all he said was, ‘Time for my experiment, so I have to leave.’ Get it?”
Malachai was now running pointlessly back and forth, still clutching his groin. But there was a tiny gleam of admiration in his eyes as he said, “You gotta admit, it’s nefarious!”
Render’s frustration had pushed him to the bursting point. “I can’t get in to the bathroom? What am I supposed to do?”
“Tie a knot in it or something!” Jadis yelled back. “You’re a guy! It’s easy! Use a tourniquet, for God’s sake! But what are we girls supposed to do? Damn, we could open this if we just had the access codes!”
“The body is under control of the mind,” Hua Chu Lan chanted. “The mind is in control. The mind is in control!”
“Hey,” Nephandus noticed, “is that a potted plant?”
“Where?” Jobe demanded.
“Far side of the room. See?”
“I don’t think I’ll make it!”
“The mind is in control! The mind is… oh… I… eeeeEEEEEEE… aaaahhhh!”
And so, in the end, it was Victor Alexander Maria Stieglitz-Von Maas, better known as Cheese, who accomplished what nothing else could. He took the Bad Seeds and united them behind a single cause. They had learned that the largest and most powerful is not necessarily the number one villain. And now the Bad Seeds thirsted for revenge. They had been pushed beyond the limit, driven over the edge. They had gone where no man had gone before. Like Napoleon but without a waterloo, there would be an accounting for this evil reign. As surely as a river flows to the sea, their wrath would wash over their target like an unstoppable tide.
They required redress! Because every single one of them … was pissed.
-- Fin --