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Insanity Prerequsite Part 4 – Reincarnation

By Dr. Bender

With the Whateley Universe Gang

Chapter 9 - Triage

Wednesday, 1st November, 2006 10:43pm

“All right, once more from the top,” the suit growled, dropping back into the chair opposite Sara, “you waited in your room all day…”

“I really don’t see how going over this all once more will help the proceedings,” Sara sighed, shifting her wrists so that the handcuffs bit into a different part of her skin, “if your objective is to catch me out in a falsehood…”

“Do you admit to lying to us?”

“…then you’re out of luck because I have told you the truth over and over again, without censorship. This line of inquiry will be fruitless for you. I honestly don’t understand why you’re wasting your time.”

He nudged the photos on the stainless steel desk between them, “Three dead and you’ve already admitted to killing them.”

“In self defense. I believe I told you that too, if you’ll care to remember. If you also check with the witnesses, I believe they’ll bear out my assertion that they shot me first.”

“None of the witnesses are reliable. They’re all like you.”

Sara smirked, “They’re all mutants, you mean? Tell me, what lobotomized rodent decided to place you in charge of this inquiry? Do you both come from the same lab?”

His eyes darkened, “Cute. But your kind doesn’t run America just yet…”

“Oh, dear, it’s worse than I thought.” Sara shook her head.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“Kings die and Empires crumble.”

“What?”

“Nothing lasts forever.”

“Is that a threat?”

“No, an observation. You’re probably not familiar with them.”

His punch knocked her off the chair. For a moment, everything was silent then a slow chuckle wafted up from under the table as Sara slid back into her seat, her lip dribbling purple blood. Spitting onto the table, a metallic blob skittered over the photographs, leaving a trail of demonic ichor in its wake. Picking it up, the officer peered at it for a moment before the shape became familiar to him. It was a rifle slug, the manufacturer’s marks still imprinted on the base.

“There’s your fucking proof.”

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Transcript of taped MCO interrogation of Sara Waite
Wednesday, 1st November, 2006 11:15am
Temporary HQ at Whateley Campus

TAPE ON

C- This is MCO Interrogation Officer William Clay, conducting interview of Sara Waite. Session starts eleven-fifteen AM, approximately ten hours since the incident.

S- I believe that I am supposed to have a responsible adult or guardian present, I would like to remind you that I am only a minor.

C- Shut the fuck up. You have no civil rights in this room; you are now under MCO jurisdiction.

S- You have no authority over me, the only reason I am here is because I wish to help your investigation out of generosity and a desire to see justice done.

C- Do you admit to the murder of three humans in the last twenty-four hours?

S- No, I merely acted in self defense.

C- Interrogator is now showing suspect…

S- Actually, I would class myself as the victim here.

C- …three evidence photos from the crime scene. Look familiar to you?

S- Oh, yes. This one shot me in the chest, I think the bullet’s still in there somewhere.

C- So you shoved your hand into his gut and then up under the rib cage?

S- I panicked. He had such a big gun.

PAUSE

C- What about her?

S- She stabbed me in the back twenty-seven times.

C- So you ate her larynx?

S- It seemed like a good idea at the time. The neck is usually the weakest point in any armour.

C- And the third…

S- He’d left the knife in my stomach, so it was handy.

C- That’s an awfully cold explanation.

S- It’s not like he has any use for it now, does he?

C- There are just some things you don’t do to a man…

S- As soon as he attempted to kill me, he stopped being a man as far as I am concerned. Besides, the wound shouldn’t have killed him.

C- He bled to death.

S- It was better than he deserved.

C- You don’t seem awfully sorry…

S- Spare me. If someone tried to shoot you, would you hesitate to shoot them first?

C- I am a police officer with a mandate under the law…

S- But you weren’t there, were you? I’m sure you would be most pleased to be investigating my own murder rather than a triple justifiable homicide.

PAUSE

C- All right, let’s start at the beginning. You claim that you waited in Poe Cottage all day?

S- No ‘claim’ about it, I was there. I have about thirty or so witnesses.

C- You stayed in one room for more than twelve hours?

S- Oh, yes. I was already wearing my costume, so I didn’t want to get it ripped or dirty. Besides, it took that long for my friends to get into all their costumes.

C- Ah, yes, this Team Kimba, of which you are a member?

S- No, your information is false. I never joined.

C- The information comes from the security division here at Whateley.

S- So? They’ve been wrong before.

C- Yet you call them your friends? Boston police say you fought The Necromancer as part of this Team Kimba a while back.

S- Do you always agree with all of your friends? Team Kimba are nice people, but they do have a lot of romantic ideas about the way the world works. Besides, they’ve got a full contingent, they don’t need me. The whole Boston thing was a mistake, one of them invited me out of charity and then Chaka pushed us headlong into a conflict we had no business getting involved in. The whole thing was a cluster-fuck. Besides, you’ll note that they all went to the dance in a Tenchi Muyo theme, I got left out.

C- Ok, but you left with Team Kimba.

S- Only because the House Mother didn’t want me going alone. Someone HAD been trying to kill me in the last few weeks, you know. And they’re the new hot shit on campus, so they got the duty.

C- Ok, ok. So, you got to the McFarlane Stadium without incident and you split up.

S- That’s right. I had to go backstage to get ready with the other acts. It was all pretty confusing, backstage was a mess, until Mr. King arrived with the new schedule…

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McFarlane Stadium
October 31st, 2006 7:13pm

“All right, all right, uh-huh, settle down,” Mr. King hopped up onto one of the tables behind the stage, waving a piece of yellow paper in the air over his head, “I know things look a little confusing now, yeah. But it’s aaaaaall just part of show business, babes, get used to it. After careful consideration of the line-up, there has been a change ‘o plans. After reviewing your bills, Sara and Axel will be going last. End the night with a bang.”

Sara sighed and rolled her eyes at Axel as the rest of the crowd started to mutter. In the case of a ‘battle of the bands’ like this, last place was really pole position. Quite a few of their peers flashed them both dark looks.

“All right, uh-huh, all right,” King shouted them down, “don’t be so quick, dudes and dudettes, they haven’t practiced for weeks with Sara in hospital. Think of it as a handicap, ok? Which reminds me, Sara, I need to talk to you about your grades. The rest of you can go mingle for a bit, I’ll call you up when we’re about to start. Right? Dismissed.”

Sara couldn’t help but hold her breath as she stepped forward, an annoying habit from her former life that she still hadn’t broken herself out of. Axel joined her but pretended to be more interested in the paint chipping off the walls. A deliberate ruse, but one well appreciated.

“Ok, ‘lil dorlin’,” Mr. King drawled, “what’ve you got for me tonight?”

Sara blinked, not understanding the question, “Mr King?”

“I was looking at your bill here, uh-huh,” he whipped a small, folded, piece of paper out of his sequined jacket, “nice list, lotta Manson tunes. Somehow, I knew you’d be a fan.”

“That a judgment, Sir?” Sara snickered humorously.

“One thing being a mutant in this world teaches, little girl. Everybody judges everyone around them, twenty-four seven, three-sixty five. My point is, girl, you gotta pull back a little. I know this is Halloween and all, but Manson’s not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Space it out a bit. I’ll let you have one on the bill, but that’s it, understand?”

It took a sizeable portion of Sara’s self control not to snap at him. “Mr. King, as you pointed out, I’ve been in hospital for…”

“You goin’ to try and tell me these are the only songs you know?” King snickered, “pull my other leg, Sara. One Manson tune and one only. I know you’ll work it out.”

With that, he twirled away, short cape fluttering behind him.

Sara swore at his back as he flounced away. “I’m open to ideas.”

“And here I thought you already knew everything.” Bluejay chuckled, popping into existence at her elbow. Axel took a few steps back, glaring at the newcomer. Bluejay just smiled back. Neither looked away.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Sara scowled, “I thought the Alphas had a private booth.”

“We do,” Bluejay answered, “it’s got one of those projection systems and a private bar too. I just thought it’d be more fun to pop down here, seduce you, drag you into one of the storage rooms and ravage you on top of an old grand piano.”

Sara rolled her eyes. “So tempting. Do you get to be the boy or the girl?”

His eyes flicked away from Axel’s for a moment, surprised at the question. “Maybe I could sandwich myself between you and Axel here. You be the bread, I’ll be the meat.”

Sara smirked at her fellow band member. “Interested?”

“I’d rather stick my dick in a paper shredder than fuck an Alpha,” Axel whispered. He didn’t even blink.

“How rude,” Jay grinned but it was a wolfish baring of teeth that let you know he was wondering exactly how you’d taste.

Sara stepped between them. “Dump the testosterone, guys. Bluejay, if you want to fuck something, why don’t you fuck off?”

“What is it you have against men, Sara?”

“What?”

“You’ll crawl into Hippolyta’s bed in a heartbeat but not in mine…”

“She’s sane compared to you.”

Whatever he was about to say, that stopped him. His mouth worked open and closed like a fish stranded on dry land. A moment later, he popped back out of existence without so much as a farewell.

Chuckling, Sara leaned into Axel’s slender, yet well toned, body. He draped one arm over her delicate shoulders and flashed a grin of his own. “What’re you smiling about?”

“You were tempted.” She accused lightly, lowering her voice so that the milling performers couldn’t hear.

The grin slid off his face like a melted clock from a Dali painting. “How?”

Sliding one hand up his inner thigh, she caressed his crotch gently. “I’m a creature of lust, remember? It’s my job to know these things. I know how you act when you’re around me is just an act; the roses, the kisses, all the rest. You’ve never once taken advantage of me and I have offered.”

“You don’t have an inflated opinion of yourself, do you?” He muttered darkly.

Sara curled one claw in his hair and licked his cheek. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite happy to play along, dear, if only to keep Bluejay off my ass.”

Axel stared down into her eyes, almost glaring. “You’re not upset?”

“We’re both using each other. Nothing to be upset about.”

He breathed deeply again, his body remembering that he had more lung than it was using. “Thank you. If you don’t mind, will you answer one question?”

“Sure,” Sara shrugged, slightly perplexed.

“Do you really like men at all?”

She blinked, bewildered by the query. “Yes, of course I like men. What on Earth…”

“You don’t act like it, that’s all. You’ve got what? How many real girlfriends?”

She didn’t answer the question, he’d made his point. “More out of opportunity rather than planning.”

He nodded. “Because you’re shacked up at Poe.” Sara opened her mouth to protest but he interrupted. “Don’t bother with the spiel, I know about Poe. One month here, and I cracked to my counselor. He offered to get me a transfer but it’d break my Dad’s heart if he knew, so I declined. But it’s not like the Poe boys are the only men on campus, in fact picking one would greatly help the illusion that it’s not the cottage for perverts.”

From anyone else that might have been an insult but Sara couldn’t point that out as he’d just admitted being one of the ‘perverts’ himself. From a psychological point of view, however, it was an interesting choice of phrasing. She took a half step away from his body and hugged her arms over her blossoming chest. It took a while for her to answer, but it finally bubbled out of her throat of its own volition. “I’m scared, ok?”

It was his turn to blink. “Scared?”

“Yeah, scared.” She wanted to shout into his ear that Michael had never looked at another man with a mind for lust in his life. Instead she admitted: “The idea of penetration scares me.”

He blinked again. “Ok… then…”

“Yes, I’ve done it with Hippy, but it was… it wasn’t… I mean…”

“It wasn’t a dick?”

Sara flinched. It was one of those statements that was at once blunt, crude and totally correct. That combination always seemed to be the most shocking; it’s far easier to deny a sweet lie.

Reaching out, Axel stroked her back, “It’s ok, I understand.”

“Do you?” Sara raised one eyebrow.

He came very close to scowling but fought very hard to keep it off his face. “Yeah, I do. I’m still a virgin, y’know? Easy for a guy to think about stiffing a girl, harder to imagine being stiffed without having… reservations. It implies a level of trust that most guys… just don’t understand. When I do lose it, I don’t want to regret it later.”

Sara smiled. “I can’t lose it. But I know what you’re saying.”

They stood together in silence for a time, simply touching. Nothing sexual, just mutual contact with someone who really understood.

“I hate to be a killjoy,” Axel twitched nervously, “but I think we better discuss our bill…”

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“Where the hell is Golden Girl?” Foxfire stomped her foot, trying to jar some life back into her feet. “She’s always late!”

Staring at her compatriot from the corner of her eye, Arachne didn’t wonder the girl was cold. Of all possible anime characters, she had insisted on dressing as ‘Beldandy’ from ‘Oh My Goddess’, complete with robotic streamers that waved as if caught by the wind. The skirt was long but left her legs bare underneath (nice legs too) and the ‘shoes’ were more like socks with the toes cut out. Not exactly practical wear for a cold winter’s night.

“Don’t ask me why we’re still out here,” Arachne sighed, sweeping loose strands of her wig out of her face before it smudged her make-up, “she’s a big girl, she can take care of herself.”

“I know, but… Oh crap.”

Arachne glanced over to where Foxfire was looking. The object of her attention looked like a parade from the 18th century, or before that even. The Alphas had chosen the regalia of the French aristocracy, which was certainly poetic in more ways than one. The Don was in the van, side by side with his slut, Hekate, who gave the old Greek goddess a bad name.

Arachne felt the jibe coming out of Foxfire’s mouth before the other girl could speak but only rolled her eyes before it came out.

“Off with their heads!” Foxfire grinned as the Don was about to pass. He didn’t stop but Hekate did, his hand entwined with hers so that he had to falter and stop lest he pull her over into the mud. The rest of the Alphas had to draw up to a halt so fast that they banged into each other to avoid bumping Hekate. The only person who didn’t know better than to piss her off was Foxfire, Arachne sighed inwardly.

Hekate smiled at the Don and kissed his hand regally. “My King, why don’t you go on ahead up to our box? I’ll be with you shortly. I’m just going to have a chat with the peasants… maybe feed them some cake.”

“Oh, ouch,” Foxfire clutched her heart, “I felt that one.”

The Don kissed the back of her hand before letting go, the rest of the Alphas following him with the exception of Hekate’s two personal ‘handmaidens’, Spellbinder and Conjure, who formed ranks behind their ‘Queen’. Even when it came to a straight out bitchfest, numbers were still an advantage.

Hekate ignored Foxfire and smiled at Arachne. “Simone, how are you this fine night?”

“Things were looking up before you came along.”

“Ah. So you’re with her,” Hekate arched her eyebrow and looked Arachne up and down, “I would have thought Cruella Deville would have better taste.”

Arachne swept her fake Dalmation cloak up over her shoulder. Her eyes went glassy for a moment and she glanced off to one side. “Not now,” she growled into thin air.

Conjure turned to look where Arachne was staring. “Who the hell are you talkin’ to, freaky bitch?”

Blinking, Arachne leveled her gaze at the other girl, fangs starting to grow out of the bridge of her mouth. “Shelob thinks we should eat you now, I was just telling her no.”

Foxfire stepped forward to attract more attention while Conjure took a step back in surprise. “So, Hekate, I have to say that it is tragic the way you committed to the Don’s theme. I had the perfect costume for you: the Wicked Stepmother from ‘Snow White… you know, the one with the apple.”

“Quaint,” Hekate smiled, raising her nose so her opponents had to look up it into her disdainful eyes, “come, girls, lets ignore these buzzing flies and leave them to their fresh turd while we dine upon high as superior beings. Later, peasants.”

“Yeah, later peasants,” Spellbinder giggled.

“Flies!” Conjure shot back at Arachne as she flounced away.

“Come into my parlour,” Arachne whispered to her back, showing only a hint of fang.

Foxfire growled. “Gawd damn it. Hey, Simone, you’ve got some venom on your chin.”

“Oh, phooey,” Arachne sighed, fishing into her purse for a handkerchief.

“Man, that girl really burns my buns,” Foxfire groused, “just once I’d like to get one over on her, you know?”

“I’d call that one a tie, myself. Besides, she didn’t get to be queen bitch of the universe by being easy,” Arachne murmured as she dabbed her chin dry, ever so careful not to smudge. “Just be patient. I have a feeling that she’ll get hers someday. Mark my words…”

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Private Higgins knocked on the Chief’s door politely. “Sir? There’s a student at the front desk claiming that you assigned her to detention here?”

Chief Delarose looked up from his paperwork and smiled. “That I did, son. Send her right on in; I’ll take her on the tour myself.”

The girl he ushered into the room was pretty in the way that only an Exemplar 5 could be pretty. In other words she was goddamn gorgeous, even at the tender age of 15. People would often describe her as ‘cat-like’ but the cliché didn’t do the real thing the proper justice. Felines have a way of movement based on precision, speed and efficiency that can mesmerize the viewer; this girl had the same quality of grace built into even the smallest movement. Her body was also sleek and trim; the play of muscle clearly visible as she walked inside.

A cat, however, would have walked into the room with complete confidence and an air of disdain. The girl was too nervous and embarrassed to pull it off, allowing her long, void-black, hair to fall across her face to help conceal her blush. She wasn’t wearing any make-up, which was unusual for this specimen of student, and her clothes were such a far cry from her usual flamboyant style that Delrose had to wonder if she’d bought them especially for this detention. She wore charcoal grey coveralls over a black tank top with hard, steel-capped, military boots that seemed to have been laced properly.

“Crosley,” Delarose greeted the girl with her last name in a deadly tone. He pointed to the chair across his desk, “sit.”

Christine Crosley, aka ‘Pristine’, slipped into the chair knees together and back straight as if she were about to play a grand concerto on his desk for a full house. She couldn’t look him in the eye, however. Her crime hadn’t been anything serious, littering on the grounds during recess. She only had two strokes of bad luck. Her first was being seen by Mrs. Shugendo, the Dean of Students. Her second was talking back. Delarose had passed by the scene and threw his oar in, the upshot being that the girl was now his problem. He didn’t mind, she was a good kid, or would be as long as he didn’t let some group like the Masterminds sink their claws into her. She had the bad girl attitude that is at once so popular and so dangerous for kids of her age group.

“All right, listen up. I know you’d much rather be hanging out with the rest of the kids at the dance but your being here now is your own silly fault. Better here, however, than cleaning out a Hawthorne toilet, right?” Delarose grinned.

Pristine sighed. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry.”

“Good,” he smiled, “no reason to make this any more unpleasant than it already is, then. I’m going to put you on the camera desk, out of the way a little. You’ll be under my supervision but all you really have to do is watch the monitors for suspicious activity and give me a holler if you see anything. I doubt you will; everyone’s at the dance anyway. Still, if I catch you sleeping tonight I will drag you over the coals, understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ok, allow me to show you to your cell…”

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“Excuse me, coming through, make way for the shortie,” Shroud giggled as her other, more biological, self struggled to get through the crowd.

Jade growled. “Remind me not to be such a smart ass. I mean, self degradation’s one thing… OOF!”

A tall brunette paused over the little girl she’d just knocked over onto her butt. “Hey, watch it, squirt! You almost rumpled my dress!”

Looking at the outfit, it certainly was elaborate, impossibly so one could say. The cloth looked like it’d been spun out of liquid gold. Glittering ribbons polished to a mirror sheen flowed like rivulets out of her hair to wash over her shoulders, entwine about her waist and flow out over the semi-transparent gauze that billowed out around her legs, yet fully showed off those magnificent pins. Her feathered mask glittered in blues and greens like peacock feathers mimicking the sky, while her dress was deep forest greens and earthy browns to imitate a lush landscape. The effect made her look like a goddess of nature clothed in Nature itself.

Shroud wasn’t as impressed. “Hey, that’s my little sister!”

The girl leveled her gaze at Shroud. “And who might you be?”

Shroud glared right back, which she did a lot better as her ‘eyes’ were dark, soulless pits. “They call me Shroud.”

“Really? They call me Majestic.”

“Among other things, I bet,” Jade groused.

“Only behind my back,” Majestic sneered down at her before turning back to Shroud. “If she’s your sister, then you should teach her better than getting in other people’s way. It’s not healthy.”

With that, the older girl glided away, poised gracefully on eight inch heels that seemed to be made out of carved rubies.

“Who’s she dressed as?” Jade allowed Shroud to help her up. “Dorothy’s evil twin?”

POP! “She’s not the only girl who takes liberties with her costume for the sake of appearances,” Bluejay grinned, appearing out of thin air.

Jade looked up at him warily. “What do you want?”

“Oh, nothing,” Bluejay winked, “I thought you might enjoy this little trick, though, right Winky?”

Holding up his left hand, Bluejay revealed a little puppet from behind his back. “Oh, gosh, birdbrain, just get on with the show!”

Bluejay rolled his eyes. “If you insist.” Snapping his fingers, a shower of pink sparks rained down to the ground at Jade’s feet. “Bipitty, bopitty BOO!”

The sparks shot upwards, whistling like an incoming mortar shell from TV, before plunging back towards its target, and striking Majestic between the shoulder blades about ten feet away. There was a puff of green smoke as her clothes dissolved into thin air, flaking away as if they burned in a fire that wasn’t actually producing heat.

This left Majestic blinking and coughing in the center of the crowd wearing nothing but a set of ‘Aunt Tillies’, thermal underalls with wooly socks and mittens for the hands. To add insult to injury, they had ‘Hello Kitty’ faces stamped all over them.

Majestic shrieked and ran for the bathroom, followed by the crowd’s derisive laughter.

Jade couldn’t but help join in. Shroud kept an eye on Bluejay but was having a hard time keeping a straight face.

Bluejay bowed. “And for my next act, a disappearing trick! Aruv-” POP! And with that, he popped out of existence again.

Jade shook her head. “Weird guy. I thought he was an Alpha?”

Shroud nodded and shrugged. “He is. Don’t ask me.”

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“Taking Majestic down a peg’s fine by me,” Hekate sniffed at her companion, “but why the show for that little Kimba runt?”

Bluejay looked at Winky. “Gee, I don’t know… why did we do that, Winky?”

“’Cause you wanna close escrow on Sara Waite and getting in with her friend will help you bump uglies with the Demon Princess if the runt’ll put in the good word for you.” Winky answered.

Bluejay tisked his puppet. “Bad thoughts, Winky. I heartily approve.”

Hekate laughed.

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“Testing, testing, one… two…” Chaka mumbled under her breath, tapping the small adhesive spot behind her ear. The new subspace communicators, distributed courtesy of Bunny and Sara just before they were all ready to leave for the dance, took the form of a tiny elastoplast spot sort of like a small band-aid. Placed behind the ear, the communicator used some sort of widget (widget being a highly respected technical term) called a ‘sub-dermal vibration system’ that actually worked by using the skull as an amplifier. The microphone was sensitive enough to pick up the faintest mumble in the throat, so that you could speak without vocalizing or moving your lips, though that took a bit of practice. The subspace transmitter/receiver was, thanks to Bunny, the size of a human hair. The rest of the bulk housed the encryption, subspace and radio tuner, 60GB hard disk (capable of playing MP3s, naturally) and chameleoline skin that matched the surface color and texture that it was applied to. Though the whole suite was voice activated, Bunny had wisely installed a wireless connection that would, in the future, be able to handle any modular add-ons she’d care to design. Chaka had already requested an external directional microphone for spying, which had naturally led to the idea of larger external hard drives and pinhead video cameras. As it was, they’d have to make do with ‘The Spots’, as Bunny had named them, which was enough for this mission.

McFarlane Stadium wasn’t packed, it was entirely too large for even a few thousand students to crowd it, and Whateley’s three lower grades combined only added up to less than five hundred - not all of whom had come to the party. A crowd had still formed, however, around the stage and dance floor, with a connecting stream of teenagers walking to and from the canteen usually reserved for sporting events. The dance being a special occasion, the canteen was now being used as both a buffer and a choke point against the perpetually ravenous teenage mutants demanding sustenance. Chaka only hoped that none of her peers got hungry enough to try and eat each other in desperation. The watchful teachers would put a stop to it, but it would be an inconvenience.

“Copy, Chaka, try to keep it down.” Bunny whispered back. It was almost like telepathy, only harder on the throat.

“Sorry,” Chaka gasped back, still trying to get the hang of it as she moved in between the milling students. “Anyone got an eyeball on Scott?”

“Ooooh,” Phase answered, “gonna get some sugar before the fight, kitten?”

Chaka scratched at her costume irritably. Of all the assorted characters in Tenchi Muyo, none of them were black. The closest anyone could get was someone called ‘Adult Ryo-Oki’, which happened to be the Cabbit’s adult humanoid form. It was also only ever depicted furry and naked with a gigantic shock of white hair that puffed out like Tennyo’s. Fortunately, Jade had discovered a thick material like a cross between spandex and real skin that was hairy, form-fitting and breathed like cotton. It had apparently been designed by some ‘yuffie’ fetishist. Chaka still hadn’t gotten right exactly what a ‘yuffie’ was and didn’t really want to find out. It didn’t really itch but her subconscious was expecting it to, hence the scratching.

“Even if I have to pry him from Tesla’s cold, dead, fingers.” Chaka snarled, only half joking.

“Copy, Chaka,” Fey cut in, “I have an eyeball on Scotty. I hope you have some extra strength pest repellant, he has four flies, repeat, four flies buzzing around him.”

“Fey,” Hank sighed, “cut it out; we’re not playing army here.”

Fey giggled back at him in reply.

“Where are you, Fey?” Chaka asked pointedly.

“Left side of the stage under the two fliers with the blue glow rods.”

“Lucky them,” Sara snickered.

You could feel the faerie queen’s disapproval in the utter silence that followed, even through the intercom. “We’ll talk later, Sara.”

Looking up, Chaka spotted the fliers pirouetting like anti-gravity ballet dancers. It’s easy when you ignore gravity, but it looks good. She had to barge through a few people but finally she got a glimpse of two small groups in the midst of the general mayhem. The first group, which Chaka turned towards, was Scotty surrounded by his harem of wannabe girlfriends. The second group included Fey dressed as Ayeka from Tenchi Muyo and thus accompanied by two special effects ‘floating logs’ from the same series that just floated along behind her like guards. Between the logs and her fey charisma, the crowd gave her and her dancing partner a bit of leeway. It was her dancing partner that made Chaka chuckle into the communicator. “Stalwart buy you a ring yet, Nikki?”

“He has his merits,” Fey snickered back, “nice, polite, handsome, honorable… lack of four other girlfriends I have to fight with for his attention…”

“Ok, that was below the belt.”

“Good thing Hank and I are the only people who actually have something below the belt that’d hurt.” Ayla interjected.

“Phase, remind me to give you a hug,” Jade giggled.

“Huh? Wh… oh… oh, yeah, I forgot.”

“Make that two hugs.”

“Isn’t there a law against older selves having relations with younger selves?” Tennyo snickered.

The problem was that the two characters Phase and Jade had chosen (where ‘chosen’ was something of a euphemism on Ayla’s part) for their costumes were ‘Tsunami’ and ‘Sasami’ respectively. Due to an accident in which Sasami was severely hurt, Tsunami (a powerful tree spirit that acted as the engine for alien spaceships) chose to merge with Sasami in order to heal her. Though they could be said now to be the same person, their integration would take time, thus Tsunami appeared as the older version of Sasami when she chose to manifest (and yes, it’s a lot less confusing when you see the Anime).

“Actually, there is,” Bunny chirped, playing the role of Washu, intergalactic science genius, to the hilt. “After State vs. Peterson, any and all possible future selves must maintain a discreet distance from their former selves.”

“What happened to Peterson?” Chou asked. The Handmaiden of the Tao had been lucky to fit the role of Kiyone (of the Galactic Police) so perfectly that she’d hardly needed any make-up at all. For that she was eternally grateful. Riptide had been (un)lucky enough to nab the part of the bubble-headed Mihoshi, Kiyone’s partner, but she was keeping silent. The whole Scotty thing was grating on her.

“Peterson was a Devisor who managed to make a machine that brought one of his possible future selves into the past when he was twelve. Let’s just say that the particular future self he brought back didn’t turn out to be very nice.”

“Well, there you go,” Tennyo chuckled evilly, “no hugs for you two.”

“Where’s a Dimensional Hammer when you need one?” Jade muttered.

Casually gnawing on the plastic carrot, Chaka wandered around the party while listening to her teammates chatter. Given that a significant portion of the student body had plans of taking up positions on one side of the superhero/supervillain line, it made sense that the Whateley kids took Halloween very seriously. It was understood that NO ONE was coming as their ‘future super self’. There was a definite schism regarding the classics. It was either ‘Oh, YEAH! Wolverine!’ or ‘OMG… are you kidding? Wolverine?’

But Halloween was THE big holiday for the Gadgeteers and Devisors at Whateley. One guy (at least Toni thought it was a guy) was clanking around in a suit of ‘Dr. Doom’ armor that would have put the suit in the movie to shame. And the ‘Dr. Octopus’ was waving around a set of arms that would have given the CGI movie set a run for their money.

“Toni! Toni, is that you?” Chaka steered over to the sound of the voice, which happened to be coming from one of four Champions of Truth, Justice and the American Way™.

“Scott? Is that you? And who IS this obscure, flash-in-the-pan trivia question that you happen to be dressed as?”

Scott assumed the classic fists on hips pose, red cape back, his manly chest proudly displaying the red ‘S’ in a pentagonal shield and laughed. “Very funny! I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

Toni copped a pose that made the best of her dark brown body stocking, and made as to flip the brown and white headdress. “What? You don’t recognize Ryo-Oki-chan?”

“Ryo-Oki-chan?” Scott asked, clearly out of his depth.

Toni sighed. “I don’t blame you. You may have heard that Tennyo, one of my teammates, is a dead ringer for Ryoko, a major character in Tenchi Muyo, a classic Anime. Well, Bugs, a friend of ours, got the wind up her skirts that Team Kimba would do a Tenchi Muyo theme. The whole team. And since she insisted that I be involved, they had to come up with someone for me to be. There ain’t a lot of Black in Anime, and the closest one that was in the main cast who had dark skin was this bubble-head blonde, and well, I just would NOT go there!”

“I’m amazed that you went along with it.” Tesla commented airily. She looked comical wearing the classic Wonder Woman outfit with that face, not to mention the fact that she was built like a rake and had to be one of the shortest kids in school. Next to her, was her buddy, Widget, who was making a much better showing wearing the ‘white tee-shirt/ denim miniskirt’ animated series version of Supergirl.

Chaka ignored them both and pressed herself against Scotty. “You’ve obviously never had Bugs ask you pretty-please for something. That girl has Level 10 Big Puppy Dog Eyes.”

Scotty was only 5’ 10” (but that was forgivable at 15) and athletic. He’d dyed his hair black for the occasion. At first he was startled by Chaka’s boldness, but that faded the moment he realized that he had a very, very sexy girl in his arms. A girl he thought of as his girlfriend. “Hey, kitten, need a scratch behind the ears?”

It was corny but Chaka gave him a smile for the effort anyway. “Better not, this wig’s not exactly attached. I’ll take a kiss, though…”

Scott was happy to oblige. Their kiss, which quickly built up into one of those sessions that appear to outsiders like an adult bird regurgitating food for its chicks, was interrupted by a ‘pop’, quickly followed by a splash. Looking up, they both saw Aztecka standing nearby, her fist dripping around a crushed Styrofoam cup.

“Problem, Az?” Scott glared at her.

“Feels like crushing a human neck,” growled the tall Hispanic girl, dressed in an another ‘Wonder Woman’ outfit and making a much better showing of it than Tesla. Though her words were for Scott, here glare was all for Chaka.

“Hey,” Chaka grinned back up at Scotty, diverting everyone away from Aztecka’s anger, “where’s Sizzle? Not that I’m not feeling overcrowded already…”

Scotty didn’t get the hint. He never did. “Oh… uh… Sizzle’s…”

“Mecscuse meh,” a muffled voice interrupted, “mutt cud yoo please git out off ma fashe?”

Blinking, Chaka turned towards the voice, unknowingly extracting Sizzle from her wig’s fibrous mass. “Oh, sorry Sizzle, I didn’t realize you were so close.”

Sizzle spat the last of Chaka’s wig out of her mouth and pulled another boy close to her. She was dressed in green with a red wig, trying to do a good impersonation of Poison Ivy and not succeeding. “Have I introduced you to my new boyfriend, Bruce?”

Bruce was, naturally, dressed as Batman. Or, more precisely, his costume seemed to have been mostly painted on over latex so that he appeared to have come straight out of a comic book. Adding depth to the idea, he also appeared to be completely 2-dimensional, like he was the tragic victim of a steamroller accident. He shrugged, embarrassed at the sudden introduction. “Uh, sorry, I’d shake your hand but it takes forever to get it back in shape again. I crinkle easily. They call me Flatman… hence the costume. Funny thing is, my name really is Bruce, though I’m a Darling rather than a Wayne. I’m from Australia too, which some people seem to find funny for some reason and… uh…”

“You’re waiting for me to make a flat joke aren’t you?” Chaka asked, deadpan.

“…well, uh, yeah, I guess, yeah. Most people seem to; I like to give them a chance to get it out of their system.”

“Honey,” Sizzle interrupted, “why don’t you go over and get us some more drinks?”

He smiled beatifically at her. “Sure, be happy to.” He took everyone’s orders before leaping into the air and gliding over the dancers on the ground towards the canteen.

Scotty smiled at Sizzle. “Awful nice of you to take the poor guy out, Sizz.”

Sizzle beamed at him.

Tesla leant in close to Chaka’s ear to whisper. “She’s running out of options.”

Chaka grinned at Widget. “Oh, I *love* the costume! And so fitting!” She leaned in and whispered, “After all, Scotty does think of you as the little sister that he never had.” Widget’s lip curled, so before it could get nasty, Chaka switched the topic. “So, howcum you didn’t let Aztecka know that Widget was going to be wearing the same outfit?”

Widget made a more genuine sour face. “And what makes you think that we didn’t?”

Chaka gave a wince of understanding before turning to grab Scotty by his big red ‘S’. “Come on, you, I need a dance.”

But, before they could step out into the dance area, a figure in a large, looming purple & green suit of power armor stepped up, blocking their path. It wasn’t the sleek, almost form-fitting power armor of Iron Man, or the near-chivalric armor of Dr. Doom; it was the clunky, high-collared armor of Lex Luthor, which still showed the wearer’s face. A boy of maybe sixteen leered out from them. For some reason, despite the fancy high-tech power armor, he was wearing a cheap gag-store ‘bald wig’. “Halt, Kryptonian!” He raised one oversized gauntlet and blasted Scott squarely in the face.

Scott wiped the shaving cream foam from his face. “Hello, Plague,” he said grimly, “Nice to see you.”

“Ah, lighten up!” ‘Lex Luthor’ said cheerily with a punch to the shoulder that would probably have broken a normal man’s collarbone. “Here! I’ll help you clean up!” Plague stepped back and a white projectile flew. Suddenly, Scott was draped in toilet paper.

“How thoughtful of you,” Scott replied in a dry tone. He tore off the toilet paper and used it to clean off his face.

“Anything for a pal,” ‘Lex’ beamed a smartass smirk at him. “And who’s this, in the Ryo-Oki-chan costume?”

“Toni,” Scott said with grudging politeness, “‘Lex Luthor’ here is Plague, an… acquaintance of mine from Emerson Cottage.”

“Yes, his family generously lets me have a room there,” Plague cut in snarkily. “And it’s P74gu3.”

“Yeah, like he said,” Toni shot back, “‘Plague’.”

“No, P74gu3.”

“It’s ‘Leet-speek’,” Tesla explained with a sigh. “It’s spelled ‘Pee-seven-four-gee-yew-three’,”

“Like I said,” Toni went on serenely, ‘Plague’.”

“You didn’t say it in Leet,” P74gu3 said pettishly.

“How do YOU know that?” Toni shot back with a grin.

“Plague,” Scott proceeded on with dogged good manners, “this is Toni, or ‘Chaka’ from Team Kimba, over at Poe.”

Toni draped an arm over T-Bird’s shoulder. “We’re bf and gf- and we were JUST heading out to dance when you clumped in, so if you’ll pardon us?”

The entire body politics of the small group changed. Plague leaned in, eyes dancing. “REALLY? Well then, Supergirl,” he held a gauntlet out to Widget, “care to dance with me as well, and take a chance on reforming the hardened villain?”

“Yeah, go on, dance with him!” Sizzle said with an evil purr.

Widget gave both Plague and Sizzle an arch smile that anyone with a gram of understanding would have known meant, ‘Go eat shit’, and said, “Well, I’d love to Ethan, but I don’t think that I can risk it. Your costume may work, but all that I have in this thing is a flight pack. Do you really think that you can run the risk of losing control of that thing out on the floor?”

“WELL, why don’t we let you two thrash that out?” Toni cut them off and tugged on Scott’s shoulder. “See you, Plague!”

As they walked out onto the floor, Plague yelled, “Hey, Superman!” and launched a flight of eggs at him from a pop-up launcher. With a single swoop of her hand, Chaka caught all eight of them and threw them back in rapid fire. As usual, Chaka hit the one unarmored spot on the Luthor armor - the exposed face.

As Plague, wiped the egg off his face, Scotty smiled and said sotto voce, “I’ve wanted to do that for years.”

“Uh, guys,” Hank’s voice came through the comm, “I’ve got a little situation here…”

Chaka swore, glancing around suddenly towards the last spot she’d seen Hank. He was still there, but there was also a knot of students surrounding the area. “Guys, we’ve got a code orange, everyone converge on Lancer’s position.” Turning to Scot, she sighed, grabbing his arm. “Sorry, Scotty, Hank’s gone and got himself tangled up in something.”

Scotty just let himself be pulled along for the ride. “Not that I mind saving a friend of my girlfriend’s, but I can walk by myself without getting lost, you know.”

“Oh, no you don’t, I’m getting that dance even if I have to fight a posse of homicidal ninjas… again.”

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‘Malificent’, the evil fairy from Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ walked into the dance with a dour black cat on her shoulder. She walked up to the table where ‘God’ (as played by Fubar playing George Burns), ‘Mercy’ (as played as a dichotomous angel by Dr. Tennant), and ‘the Devil’ (as played by Jimmy T playing Elizabeth Hurley) sat. “Checking in for duty,” she said with a resigned tone.

“Hello, Lyz!” ‘Mercy greeted her fellow Mystic Arts faculty member, Elyzia Grimes. “Hey, you look GREAT! But I thought that you were coming in your usual ‘witch’ outfit? Not that I mind, it did rather perpetuate some rather foul stereotypes. And that headdress really does suit you.”

“Thank you,” Grimes responded with a pained smile. “But somehow my hat went missing, and that hat was what really pulled the look all together. Unfortunately, Walgreens stopped carrying that hat some ten years ago, and I can’t find whoever made it. I went looking for a replacement, and found this,” She finished by striking a pose with the tall golden, sphere-topped staff that went with the scalloped robe.

‘The Devil’ asked, “Didn’t Malificent have a raven as a familiar?”

Grimes turned her head to speak to the cat. “See? I TOLD you that it was an essential part of the look!” Merlin just gave her an ‘I am NOT amused’ glower and yowled. “Well? He’s a cat, and therefore MUST stand on his dignity. It is beneath him to pose as food.”

Tennant checked the duty roster. “Okay, we have you slated for making sure that the p-manglers don’t get too close together.”

“Of course. How are they dressed?”

“Well, Hazard followed through, and is doing DJ duty up in the booth, so she’s not an issue. Kismet is dressed as Galadriel from the ‘Lord of the Rings’- that’s her over there,” Tennant pointed out a girl in a rather over-elaborate white dress speaking with a boy dressed as a Mountie and another dressed as Marvel’s Mighty Thor™. “And Risk is dressed as Evel Knievel.” She indicated a boy in a red-white-and-blue jumpsuit with matching helmet.

“I’m impressed that he even knows who Evel Knievel WAS,” Grimes said. “Has Al-Feyez shown up?”

“No, I’m afraid that he made good on his threat, and found that he had an important previous appointment tonight.”

“Well, Feyez always was smart,” Grimes remarked. She gave a gusty sigh and said, “Ah Well! Time for my annual penance!” She strode into the crowd with regal disdain.

“If she finds these parties such a chore, why does she show up?” Jimmy T asked.

“Actually, she rather enjoys these parties,” ‘God’ said, waggling his cigar. “THAT’S her penance.” Fubar pointed with the phantasmal cigar, indicating the gaggle of Goths who collected worshipfully around Grimes. “Grimes can’t stand the Goths, and they’d buy pin-ups of her, if she ever allowed any to be printed. But, she’d come anyway, even if she didn’t enjoy the parties.”

“Why?”

“Because she really IS doing a penance.”

“A penance? For what?”

“I don’t know.”

Tennant regarded the manifestation next to her. “What’s this? She asked with a snarky grin. “I thought that God was supposed to be All-Knowing!”

‘George Burns’ grinned back over his cigar. “I USED to be All-Knowing. Now, I’m tactful.”

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Among Europeans, Belgians are regarded as being fussy, demanding, perfectionist neat-freaks. And Korrende ‘Kismet’ Mitterand was nothing if not a stereotypical Belgian. “This is ridiculous!” she sputtered, looking from her own elaborate silver-on-white gown to Alvin ‘Captain Canada’ Cuthbert’s Royal Canadian Mountie outfit, and then to Pers ‘Donner’ Gundersson’s ‘Thor’ outfit. “We AGREED to come as a ‘Lord of the Rings’ concept party! Look! THEY got the idea!” she gestured at Max ‘Dynamaxx’ Dynesen’s ‘romantic cavalier’ outfit, and Pam ‘Sizemax’ Henry’s ‘princess’ outfit, which while not character specific, were at least in (general) genre. “You were supposed to be Aragorn!” she snapped at Alvin. “What is THAT supposed to be?”

Alvin adjusted the iconic red tunic of the dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “Well, Aragorn is supposed to be a ranger, eh? Well, I figured that why settle for being a Texas Ranger, when I could come as a Mountie? A living symbol of the grit, determination, and backbone, balanced with integrity, fairness and commitment to fair play that helped for forge a harmonious confederation out of-”

“A ranger, a FORESTER,” Kismet hissed. “Like… Robin Hood! And what about YOU?” she shifted her ire to Pers. “Nobody said anything about a superhero!”

“Aye didd’n come as a soopa-hero,” Pers said defensively in a voice that was almost, but not quite a vaudeville ‘comic Swede’ accent. “Yew wanted me to come as Gimli, and this waz de bezt I kewd dew!” Pers struck a pose. At least, he came as the more ‘Viking’ Walt Simonson version of Thor. Pers looked at Max. “Aye thot dat yew was comin’ in yer Iron Man owtfit.”

Max preened in the handsome well-tailored outfit, which had been made at Rogers’ with a thick knit ‘hauberk’, treated to resemble chainmail, while still being light and soft enough to party in. “I was, but then it occurred to me- almost every arrested social development case in the Workshop was going to come in some form of power armor. Why compete with the nerds for the booby prize? And why deny the ladies the pleasure of dancing with me? Besides, where’s the fun in dancing with a girl, when you’re wearing power armor?” He flicked a stray strand of blonde hair back, and he was almost perfect.

“At least they TRIED,” Korrende growled at Simone ‘Lemure’ Billings, who was ‘costumed’- if that’s the word- in a ‘ghost’ outfit obviously thrown together at the last minute with sheets.

“I must not have gotten the memo,” Simone said in a voice that clearly indicated that she didn’t give a rat’s ass.

“We AGREED.” Kismet hissed.

“NO,” Lemure contradicted her severely. “YOU decided. The rest of us thought that a ‘theme group’ was stupid, but YOU kept harping on and on about it until you got your way.” Simone left ‘as usual’, unsaid, but clearly understood.

“Hey, so what?” Pam breezed. “It’s a GOOD thing that we didn’t sign up for the ‘group costume’ contest! I mean look at Team Kimba! Tennyo is a frickin’ body double for Ryoko, the kid pretty much IS Sasami, and Fey can pull off Ayeka like a dream! How the heck are we supposed to compete with THAT?”

That lighthearted take, no matter how valid it may have been for the rest of the ‘Vindicators’, was exactly the wrong thing to say to Kismet. Korrende regarded Team Kimba in general, and Fey in particular as, as a personal insult. She’d gone to great lengths to muscle her way onto the Vindicators team, only to have the once top-ranked team fall to ignominious disgrace. Somehow, the fact that she, Max, Alvin and Pers had displaced the teammates who had helped make it a top ranked team never really registered with her. The fact that she could barely control either her magic or her probability warping power, whereas Fey seemed to be able to pull incredible magical effects out of thin air, grated on Kismet’s soul like Brass Monkey on the ear of an opera diva.

“Listen up!” Korrende hissed, “We are going to be the toasts of this party! I don’t know HOW, but tomorrow morning, everyone will know that the Vindicators are the number one team, and Team Kimba has just run into the end of a long lucky streak!”

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Sara slipped out from behind the curtains and smoothly joined the distracted crowd. The knot around Lancer was bunched so closely together that she had to use her shoulder and tentacles to barge and push. She gave an extra hard push to anyone in her way who decided to yell ‘fight’ at all. The last thing anyone needed was a brawl before the main event.

When the last of the gawkers parted, the situation she suddenly found herself in was almost comical. Hank, naturally dressed as Tenchi in the character’s fuzzy-buttoned war outfit being the only male member of the team, was being shoved by a second Tenchi in a similar fuzzy-buttoned outfit that was nowhere near the same quality. Lily, the girl known as Wall Flower, and a second Ayeka stood between the two, each holding one of the boys back away from each other. The second Tenchi, however, had twenty pounds of muscle and three or four years on Hank. That, and Hank was obviously trying not to hurt the guy. In addition, Tenchi 2 was backed up by a Washu, Sasami and Yosho (also known as ‘Grandpa’ in the series) of his own.

Ayeka 2’s costume was perfect; in fact it was too perfect to be real. The Jurai Guardians (floating robotic stumps with big Japanese characters emblazoned on the front) that followed her, however, were causing trouble for the rest of the crowd. They wandered rather than floating in place, bumping into people by accident even when they were supposed to be still.

Washu and Sasami 2 were decently done… the only problem was that they were both guys. And certainly nowhere in Jade’s class when it came to hiding it, or even having the ability to hide it. Washu 2’s main disadvantage was that he was too big for the role, not just in height but in the width of his shoulders. Second only to that was the fact that his hair was natural and spiked but nowhere near big enough to give the same impression as Bunny’s wig. Sasami 2 was just… wrong. Not only was he almost as big as Washu, though much skinnier, he was black. Worst of all was that the particular iteration of Sasami’s costume that he had chosen used all pastels, topped with the long neon-blue bangs.

Sara could forgive all of this; after all, she had her own lock of red hair that just refused to be hidden on account of a costume. But she couldn’t forgive the travesty that was ‘Yosho’. It wasn’t that his face was wrong; his features were fine and his expression pleasant. He was Hispanic and dark-haired, so his olive complexion matched with the character’s, particularly with a little light make-up. It wasn’t his height, at six foot he was about right. It was the muscles. He was so ripped that his white robe was straining at the seams, the neck open right down to his rippling abs. Pleasant to look at but definitely NOT Yosho.

“What’s a FROSH like you doing wearing MY costume? HUH?” Tenchi 2 was shouting and pushing at the smaller, at least in breadth, Lancer.

Lily was using her force fields to keep the two apart. “Shove off, Akira, there’s no rule saying anyone has to get permission…”

“Akira, there’s no need for this…” Ayeka 2 had to throw her whole body into pushing Akira’s chest just to keep him at bay.

‘Yosho’ grabbed his friend by the arm. “Simmer down, pal, you’re hurting Nahga...”

Akira just brushed him aside like the big man was a gnat. “Get off! They’re stealing Ryoko, you twit!”

Tennyo hovered above them. She gave Sara a helpless shrug. “I don’t wanna make this worse…”

“A-SIDE, please!” “Make way for the lady, people!” Chaka and Thunderbird finally got to the scene, bursting through the ring of students. “Ok,” Chaka made a production of being out of breath, “what’ve you done this time, Hank?”

Akira used the distraction to launch himself at Hank again. Lily and Nahga were almost crushed between the two a moment before everyone leapt into action. Chaka and Thunderbird tried to grab him. Scotty’s grip was firm and sure but the large boy brushed Chaka aside as if she were weightless. The black girl kept her feet where others would have been hurled into the crowd but Sara reached out to steady the girl by reflex.

“You ok?” Sara asked.

Chaka nodded. “That was a pretty good shot, even if it was a little CHEAP.”

Akira glanced her way, which was just enough time for Scotty to get him in a body lock and pull him backward with an assist from ‘Yosho’. Thunderbird’s face resembled his namesake for a fleeting moment as his muscles seemed to bulge unnaturally. “Not so hot against your own power, huh big guy?”

Nahga raised her hand, floating crystals of ice falling like snow from her palm, glaring at Scotty angrily. “Leave him alone! We can handle this…”

‘Sasami 2’ pulled some small plastic spheres out from behind ‘her’ back, one half of each ball was red, the other white. ‘Washu 2’ flicked her wrists and seemed to pull a pair of weird-looking guns out of thin air, brandishing them horizontally and copping a ‘John Woo’ attitude.

Tennyo landed between the two groups, spreading her arms wide to shield Thunderbird. Sara and Chaka stepped in behind her. “Stop this,” Tennyo admonished, snarling, “there’s no reason for…”

“What’s all this about, then?”

Everyone turned as the deeper voice interrupted calmly from the edge of the circle. Mr. Lodgeman stepped forward, Fey and her ‘Jurai Guardians’ cleaving a clear path through the crowd close behind. Thunderbird let go of Akira, who busied himself straightening his overcoat and rearranging his furry buttons. “Nothing, Sir. Just a little misunderstanding.”

Lodgeman stared him down until he started fidgeting, finding something very interesting about his shoes. “All right,” the teacher relented, “you five, come with me. If any one of you strays out of my sight tonight, it’ll be detention at Hawthorne for a week, are we clear?”

They nodded glumly, saving the dark glares at the rest of Team Kimba until his back was turned.

“Doesn’t bode well, does it?” Chaka mumbled to Sara as the party re-started around them.

Sara sighed. “I’m starting to get used to it.”

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Pristine cradled her face in her hands, watching the monitors that displayed the dance from multiple angles, occasionally using the joystick control to zoom in on certain areas of interest. Two boys snogging in an out-of-the-way corner; one of the Goth girls dancing with twins; the Alphas living the high life up in their own VIP box, complete with big screen TV, bar, leather lounge and spa, not to mention the robotic waiters, one of which was giving Hekate a foot massage.

Of particular interest was her boyfriend, Spade, milling about near the canteen like a lost puppy. He was white, the codename coming from his uncanny perception and knack for investigation as in the ‘Sam Spade’ detective in those old movies. Even on camera, he looked so dreamy. Lustrous dark hair, big brown eyes, square jaw, slightly unshaven, which was fine considering that he’d gone as Sam Spade anyway. Zooming in further, she sighed when she noticed that the shirt underneath his trenchcoat was slightly open at the neck, his muscular chest framed by the tie that hung around his neck like a noose…

Just then a white blur slammed into him, causing him to rock backwards on his heels.

“You bastard…” Pristine stood up, watching furiously as he cradled Solange in his arms. The kids around them cheered as he leant over to plant a lingering kiss on her lips, movie style.

Fishing through the pockets of her overalls, Pristine finally recovered her phone, hands shaking with rage. It took her two frustrated tries to punch her boyfriend’s preset and initiate the call. She watched him attempt to extract himself from Solange’s suction with some difficulty to answer.

“Hey, Spade here.”

“Hi, Spade honey, it’s me,” Pristine’s voice was as sweet as pie.

“Oh, uh, ah, Pris, hey, how’s it going? I didn’t think you’d be able to call…”

She watched him try to push Solange’s face away from his ear. From the looks of things, she liked the taste of earwax. “You could try telling her that it’s not hygienic, dear. Then again, I hear she’s got herpes, so what’s she got to lose?”

He froze. “Uh, Pris, where are you?”

“I’m watching you through the cameras, Spade.”

“Uh, look, uh… it’s not what it looks like… she kissed me!”

“I’m going to gut you like a fish, asshole!”

“Babe, I…”

Pristine ripped the phone away from her ear as it burst into static. “Men,” she snarled, “the world would be fucking well better off if everyone was a woman. Just procreate by masturbation and get it over with…”

There was a flash on one of the monitors, less than a second of white and static before the picture was back. Pristine stopped dead still, staring at the monitor. The picture was of a small building in the middle of a clearing studded with small antennae and a satellite dish. The caption underneath read ‘Comms’.

She picked up the mic and thumbed the stitch. “Uh, hey out there, this is Pristine, I’m on the monitors here at HQ… we just got some weird static on the camera out at the Comms station, the regular phone lines seem to be down, can anyone swing by and check it out? Er, over.”

“Roger, HQ, patrol 2 heading out to Comms, probably just some gadgeteer trying to mess about while they think we’re distracted by the Dance, over.”

Pristine continued to stare at the monitor. She wasn’t psychic, she wasn’t a precog, but she still had that feeling…

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The outfit was an indignity. Someone, and she wasn't sure who yet, had dressed her as Hello Kitty, complete with Hello Kitty head and these stupid gloves. She had tried and tried, but they wouldn't come off, no matter how hard she pulled. Even Galaxy was unable to help get them removed. Her original plan had been to come dressed as some sort of barbarian but now she was stuck in this atrocity. Miyet was pissed, very very pissed. Someone was going to pay for this.

The head was uncomfortable in it's size and raised her body temperature quite a bit making her drowsy. Galaxy hadn't done it, she was sure as her roommate was too nice to do something like this. Someone else had the temerity to inflict this upon her. She was going to shred someone's pillows all right, maybe even their bed and maybe their clothes as well, for good measure.

She was wondering about getting something to drink, maybe some punch, if she could figure out how to make it to her mouth, when someone short ran up to her. The little girl came up and was making big calf eyes at her, which made Miyet feel a bit uncomfortable. The girl was dressed in some sort of wierd almost-Japanese type of outfit. Maybe it was one of those anime things, she wasn't sure. The girl stood there, looking up at Miyet in her hideous costume, bouncing a little and obviously wanting to say something. "Yes?"

"Hello Kitty.. you.. you look awesome." Jade Sinclair was entranced by seeing her favorite character in the whole wide world standing before her. It was like meeting your hero in the flesh. She felt bowled over in joy. If only Team Kimba had agreed with her idea and done Hello Kitty, then she could have dressed as her hero, which would have been the only way that this could be better.

"Uhm.. thank you. You look pretty cute yourself." That was a safe answer. Miyet was confounded that someone actually cared about this monstrosity of a character.

"Is anyone here as Chococat or Keroppi?" The girl was bouncing one her toes, wide eyed, obviously hoping for a specific answer.

Miyet had no idea what the girl was talking about. Were those other Hello Kitty characters? "Uhm.. not that I know of."

"Can.. can I get a picture with you? Please?" The puppy dog eyes that she gave Miyet were powerful weapons, and try as she might she had no choice but to give in. Even though there would be pictures of her indignity existing out there, at least it would make this little girl happy.

Jade hugged her idol and used Jann to make the Hello Kitty camera float up to take the picture of the two. Miyet was certainly surprised when the camera started floating, but this was Whateley after all, and she had to agree to herself that it was one of the least strange things she had seen since she had gotten here. After a few pictures, Jade waved bye and skipped off into the crowd. Miyet growled. Somebody's pillows were definitely going to get shredded.

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“Allri’ everyone, uh-huh, settle down now, settle down,” Mr. King’s booming voice echoed throughout the stadium. The stage mic was in his right hand, the other hand was hooked through his gaudy belt. The rest of his body was festooned with sequins, his neck was bent from the weight of his golden chains and his feet, naturally, were encased in blue suede shoes. “We’ve got some fresh faces for you tonight. An’ make no mistake, it takes a lot of guts to get up on this stage and perform for you all, so stay outta their faces and keep it clean…”

Screech sighed silently, glancing over her shoulder at the huddled masses, pouring herself another soda. The label said ‘pumpkin flavor’ but it still tasted like orange. Her fellow students looked so pathetic, staring up at the stage like monkeys on two legs or hamsters staring at a feeder waiting for their next hit. Anything to distract from the pain, to forget that they’re all stuck in a cage and loving it.

She couldn’t forget Bloodworm and she couldn’t forgive herself. Forgive herself for not missing him, that is. Separation was taking its toll on her feelings, eroding her love piece by piece. The twins worshipped the ground she walked upon; it was such a change from being taken for granted; the cuts on her arms given time to heal, for once.

The first chords of the music cut through her body in a barrage akin to a wall toppling over her. The crowd loved it. Screech just poured herself another soda.

Mutant, did you want to be found?
I said, mutant, why did you come around?
I said, mutant, we’re gonna have a beat-down!
And we’ll make you feel so crappy.
Mutant, there’s no place you can hide,
I said, mutant, you’ll be hurting inside.
I said, mutant, you will wish you had died.
While us norms all have a good time.
You have to ask yourself: Why MCO?
You have to ask yourself: Why MCO?
Preserving the race, they’ll use any ploy,
And mutants they prefer to destroy…
You have to ask yourself: Why MCO?
You have to ask yourself: Why MCO?

Vile Age People indeed. Their second song, fortunately, was better.

Welcome to your life
There’s no turning back
Even while we sleep
We will find you
Acting on your best behaviour
Turn your back on mother nature
Everybody wants to rule the world

At that moment, there was a ruckus around the entrance, the crowd sweeping back to allow the newcomers through. Hekate caught up with Don Sebastiano just in time to be led through the crowd on one arm, the man dressed in an immaculate tux. Hekate was buried inside a gaudy ballroom gown, complete with corset, made from gold and royal red cloth while the rest of the Alpha girls were relegated to silver or less warm colors. Each of them carried a mask that could have been imported from Venice on slender white sticks.

Screech sneered. Their likeness to the French aristocracy was all too easy to see, she hoped for their sakes that nobody had a guillotine somewhere in the wings. Looking about, she saw a few of the cliques, the Betas in particular, were probably thinking the same thing from the looks on their faces. The group didn’t deign to mingle with the hoi-polloi, instead moving straight for the stairs and the private box above. Exactly how they’d gotten their hands on it, the Goth could only guess at.

Only one of the Alphas peeled off from the rest of the group: Bluejay, the teleporter. Screeched watched him ask a shapeshifter, currently in the form of Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil from the movie Bedazzled, to dance. The two cut a mean couple on the floor, envious eyes looking on from the crowd around them. They even stayed on for the next song the Vile Age People cranked out, this time a reasonable version of a song from ‘The Killers’.

Cause heaven ain't close in a place like this
I said heaven ain't close in a place like this
Bring it back down, bring it back down tonight
Never thought I'd let a rumour ruin my moonlight

Well somebody told me
You had a boyfriend
Who looks like a girlfriend
That I had in February of last year
It's not confidential
I've got potential

They said a few words to each other before when the music was done and then went their separate ways, vanishing into the mass of humanity around them. Scowling, she turned back to the soda machine to get another sugar hit. The twins were late and she certainly wasn’t sweet enough on her own without help.

Speaking of substance abuse, she noticed a few of the Dylans, Whateley’s sorry excuse for Stoners, ducking out the back exit while Mr. Lodgeman wasn’t looking. Shrugging, she sipped her own drug of choice for the night. If they wanted to wreck their brains, what business was it of hers?

The decision made to leave well enough alone, she turned back to the stage to listen to the music like the rest of the sheep…

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Near the stomp stage, amid the throng, two hippies resplendent in bad leather and Tie-dye wandered through the crowd of students, drawing shocked and horrified looks from those who knew them. The awful odor of patchouli wafted off the two, simultaneously amusing some while sending others running. Erik Mahren, the Range Bastard, and Cat McQuiston, or Backdraft to her students, stumbled and rocked, laughing, seemingly stoned out of their minds.

Erik was taller than most of the kids at Whateley, at 6’2” and burly. He had a hard time pulling off the hippie look, but he’d given it a go anyway. With the blonde wig down to his shoulders, tye-dyed T-shirt and a hideous brown leather vest with matching pants completing the ensemble, someone had drawn myriad peace symbols in eye liner right down his arm. The effect was only moderately disturbed by both the golden Medallion of St. George around his neck and the tattoo that wasn't quite covered up by the T-shirt on his right arm. The word ‘Hijacker’ was clearly visible in sharp, angular letters.

Cat was shorter, only about 5’5” but with a compact, athletic build that belied her size. She was wearing a thick red wig that fell to the base of her ass, practically uncontrolled by a multicolored headband that was just tacky. Her brown jacket was lined with little leather tassels that were beaded, and it was buttoned just enough to show a hint of cleavage. The pants, of course, were bell-bottomed blue jeans that didn't quite cover up the platform shoes she was wearing.

The pair were looking completely dazed and happy, but were watching the crowd like hawks for signs of trouble, or signs that some kids' affections went a bit too far beyond discrete. Most of the kids just moved out of their way, although they did duck around more than one or two to get to their objective.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Cat yelled, mildly amused. The racket from the music and stomp stage was drowning out anything resembling normal conversation. “Last time you did the stomp stage thing you got bumped by a brick and broke your collarbone.”

“I'm aware. Come on Cat, we got time, the kids are calming down. God, Mercy and Lucifer are judging the costume contest, and we need a bit of fun too.” Erik hollered over the noise.

“If you get hurt again I'm gonna kick your ass.”

“Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Erik grinned, kissed his fiery little fiancée on the lips quickly, then darted up the ladder to the top of the stomp stage.

“I’m going to kill him.”

Erik got to the top and waited for a minute, listening to the thunder of the bricks all doing their own paces, making a racket that could deafen God with earmuffs. Erik fully intended to make it worse. He felt it was his personal mission in life to get the stage so riled up that the rattling caused Schuster Hall to collapse. Cat shimmied up beside him and grinned. The two began stomping in tandem, got a rhythm, then split off.

Each time they got to one of the ultra-dense or TK brick students, they'd get their attention, by tapping, hollering or just by dancing with them, then moving on when their marks hit the proper beat. It started small, but as more and more bricks were moving to the same rhythm, the rest started falling into the beat. With over fifty feet laying down several tons of force apiece to the stage, the whole thing roared with each stomping beat, sounding like a thunderclap and rattling the stage. The noise was deafening.

Erik, grinning like a maniac, caught Cat dancing with Mule, one of the Grunts. He snatched Cat away and gave Mule a mock-glare, then dragged her away from the stage. With each passing moment the vibrations were getting more and more violent, and soon the two of them would be in danger of being tossed airborne and probably over the edge.

At the bottom, they continued their rounds as if nothing had happened.

“You are bound and determined to use that stage to destroy all the buildings, aren't you?” Cat was chuckling, though he couldn't hear it over the noise. The stomp stage had a good, loud, rhythm going down.

“I plead the fifth amendment.”

“The Fifth Amendment gets you jack with me, bucko!”

“Can I get you instead? Jack's a real downer, always bitching, always making puppy eyes at you...”

Erik gave her another kiss to shut her up before she could respond.

“So our shift's about up, and I imagine Smythe and Bardue are both already home.”

Erik smirked. “And Wilson's out boozing and trying to chase women, so we don't have to put up with any of them.”

“What are you thinking, Erik?”

“You, me, some nice music and naked acrobatics in my weapons locker.”

Cat gave him an acid look. “You really think I'm that easy?”

“Hey if you were easy I’d have never given you the ring. I’m willing to work for my scooby snacks.” Erik put an overdone ‘come hither’ look in his eye.

“Range four, huh?”

“Hey I’d suggest range two but Delarose would get a free show. I just have a buncha sensors on the gun racks.”

Cat gave Erik a winking smirk. “Tell ya what. If ya catch me, you can keep me. If I beat you, I own you for the night.”

Cat broke away and shot straight up over the crowd and off towards the ranges. Erik stared for a second at the flying woman, then started running as fast as his legs could go, darting in and out of the crowds of kids and teachers like a greased weasel. There was no way in hell he’d beat her, unless she stopped to taunt him. But then again, win or lose, they’d both still win.

Besides, he had the only key to the bunker.

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He was smiling as the two of them danced. Adriane was so happy to be in the princess dress that he was wearing that he was in a sense besides himself in joy. Kayleigh had decided to do the classic gender swap for Halloween and Adriane couldn't stop smiling because of that. Thankfully, so far no one had figured out who the two of them were and that was fine. As long as no one figured out he was the one in the dress all would be well. Just to be able to dance in this beautiful dress and to feel its skirt billow out as he spun was more than he ever wanted, ever dreamed possible.

Kayleigh gave him a look and he knew what it meant. She wanted some ‘alone’ time and that would be more than great. Having such a beautiful girlfriend who actually wanted to be with him was beyond any of his expectations. She took his hand and was leading him from the stadium, his heels clicking on the floor. They passed close by the judges’ table and Elizabeth Hurley, dressed as her character of the Devil in “Bedazzled”, gave them both a wink. Both of them blushed but kept going out of the building. They wove through the crowds, and Adriane was thrilled with the feel of the dress. If only he could wear things like this more often. He felt free, released, himself. To be able to feel this way everyday would be the best thing in the world.

Sunshine looked over her shoulder at her boyfriend and smiled at him. He was positively glowing and that made her happy. That her boyfriend was blissful while wearing a dress didn't faze her at all, as she knew a few transgendered individuals back at home. The energy in his eyes seemed to be swirling happily and that was all that really mattered to her.

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“Woah,” Fey smiled as her almost-too-attentive partner tried to pull her into another dance, “Stalwart, I’m sorry, but I need a break. Think you could nab us a drink?”

Smiling, he took it all in stride, puffing up his chest. “Milady gives one a quest, and it is his duty to…”

“Stalwart,” Fey pressed her finger against his lips, trying not to blush, “shush. Just the drink, please.”

Taken aback for a second, Stalwart nodded, blushing furiously. “Uh, yes, of course. Drink, your wish is my command. Yes…”

Fey almost felt bad as he rushed off on his ‘quest’. Almost.

“Oh… my god! You’re Fey, right?”

Fey blinked, turning towards the voice. A small group of girls had gathered around her in a semi-circle behind her. Blinking furiously at the look in their wide eyes, Nikki stuttered. “U-uh… yeah, I’m Fey…”

“Oh my god! I… we are such big fans…” the leader spoke so fast that she was stumbling over her own words.

One of the other girls grabbed the sleeve of Nikki’s costume and started rubbing her cheek against it. “Oooooh, your costume is so cool, Ms. Reilly! You look like a princess!”

One of the others slapped the girl’s hands away. “Don’t DO that! You’ll ruin Fey’s costume!”

“Uh,” Fey could feel her feet trying to edge away while she avoided eye contact with any of them, “Who are you guys?”

The brunette on the left started to hyperventilate. “Sh-she wants… to know… our names!”

The leader grabbed the girl by the lapels and gave her a slap. “Keep it together, girl! We don’t want ‘er to think we’re freaks or nothin’!”

“Um, Ms. Reilly,” the one who hadn’t spoken yet stepped forward and curtseyed, keeping her eyes on Nikki’s shoes, “We’re your fan club. The Faerie Queen Appreciation Society. We just wondered… if it would be possible… if you want to… I mean, not that we’re worthy…”

Nikki felt her eyebrow start to twitch as the girl’s voice got smaller and smaller the more she spoke.

“Wejustwannatakeapicturewithyou!” The one who’d grabbed her sleeve babbled all at once. “Please.”

“Uh… just a picture? Sure, I don’t mind…”

They all stared at her. “You will?” The leader asked.

“Sure,” Nikki gulped.

With a great sigh, the panicky one collapsed into the leader’s arms.

“Oh, cr… uh, fiddlesticks,” the leader switched the words around with a glance at Nikki.

“Uh, is she ok?” Fey asked as they all began fanning the unconscious girl.

“All the excitement… she’s anemic,” the leader apologized.

The others dragged the girl over to a table so she could sit down. Nikki followed with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment. “Uh, I hate to ask again, but who are you?”

The leader scratched the back of her head. “Uh, yeah, sorry, let’s start again. We don’t all have codenames. I’m Sue, the touchy-feely one’s Rhiannon, and Anna - she’s Aquerna - is propping up Lucille.”

Nikki nodded. “Nice to meet you all, but… um… what’re your powers?”

Sue winced. “Well, we don’t have much. I’m an Exemplar 1… Rhiannon can make sparkly things come out of her hands, Anna’s a low-level avatar with a -cough- squirrel spirit and Lucille’s… uh… Lucille’s a sort of psychic. She can sculpt things with her hands, like, without tools and stuff.”

Anna beamed up at Nikki. “It must be so cool to be able to throw lighting bolts about and stuff! I wish I could do that!”

“Uh,” Nikki blushed, wishing Stalwart was back with the drinks, he was usually so good at the whole Deus Ex Machina act, “it’s not that good, really. Sometimes, I lose control of it and…”

“Yeah, we heard about the squirrels,” Rhiannon giggled, “sounds like a fun drawback to me! Better than Nate’s uncontrollable flatulence…”

They all winced.

“I’m sorry,” Lucille muttered weakly, “did I let one go?”

Anne giggled. “No, silly, we were just sympathizing about Nate. You ok?”

“I think so… did you take the picture yet?”

“Not with you dead to the world. Uh, why don’t we take it here? You mind, Ms. Reilly?”

Nikki shook her head. “Not at all, and call me Nikki, please! Ms. Reilly makes me sound like a teacher.”

The girls all giggled like she’d actually made a good joke. At that moment, Nikki decided that fans were creepy.

“Just a sec, I’ll get someone to take the pic,” Sue scanned the nearby crowd for someone she could trust. “One sec, I’ll be right back.”

Nikki sat next to the girls and looked them over. They weren’t bad looking, but she had to admit, they were positively normal compared to the average Whateleyite. “Um… if you don’t mind me asking, why are you girls… uh… here?”

Rhiannon sighed. “Here at Whateley you mean? Well, we’re not high level mutants but we’re still mutants. Our powers could get better… or we could burnout… or… oh, heck, who knows? My Mom and Dad made me come here ‘cause it’s safe for our kind here. Norms like to pick on us Underdogs.”

Nikki blinked. “Underdogs?”

“That’s what we call ourselves. Too aberrant for the norms, not enough for Faction 3, not powerful enough for the rest… but there’s a lot of us about if people’d care to notice us. With no norms around, we’re the next best target for some of the others, so we sort of band together for mutual protection. Therefore, we’re the Underdogs.”

Fey blinked. She hadn’t thought about what the weaker kids did against the likes of the Alphas or Nex or the Ultraviolents or any of the other cliques, except for running and hiding behind a stronger mutant. She flashed the girls a genuine smile. “Better an Underdog than an Alpha.”

They all grinned back just as Sue arrived leading a large student towards them by the hand. “Fey, I’d like you to meet a good pal, Razorback. Razor, this is Fey. He’s mute, so he can’t say ‘hi’ other than in hand signals, but if you can’t read them, I can translate fine. The other one’s Diamondback, they’re not relations despite being scaly.”

Nikki’s jaw dropped. Razorback had a very sick sense of humor. He was wearing a big, fuzzy, purple, ‘Barney the Dinosaur’ costume. Only this costume was covered in dried blood. A sign around his neck, tied on with bloody barbed wire, said ‘I love you, you love me’ scrawled in more of the bright red stuff. Capping off the picture was a small arm hanging out of the costume’s mouth. Diamondback was a snake-girl, complete with fused legs for a tail. She had come ‘au natural’ for the most part, except for a black corset and fake rubber snakes for hair, obviously going for the Medusa from “Clash of the Titans”.

Razorback signed something and Sue nodded, handing him the camera. Fey was almost spun about as the girls rushed to get into frame around her, big cheesy grins plastered across their faces. Diamondback ignored the scene, busy licking her nails with a forked tongue. Nikki was so fascinated that she almost forgot to smile before the flash went off.

“Thanks, Fey,” Sue blushed, shaking the faerie’s hand, “this means a lot to us… hope you have a nice party, we won’t bother you any more, though, thanks bunches!”

Nikki couldn’t get a word in edgeways before the group disappeared into the crowd, taking their camera with them and leaving her blinking into the crowd. Razorback signed something at Diamond, who nodded. “Yeah, he says weird girls.”

“Understatement of the century,” Nikki shook her head in bewilderment.

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Near the back of the stage, in a shadowed corner of the stadium, Chou found herself pinned against a door, her arms held slightly above her head, the steel sign pressed against the back of her head reading ‘staff only’. Molly’s lips held her against the unyielding surface with tender force, her body molded perfectly with the martial artist’s as if they’d been purposefully made to compliment each other’s curves. The contrast of the musculer and softness of their bodies was something that Chou really appreciatated.

If anything, Molly had become a sneaky ninja-kisser, and used those skills and her magic to kiss her as often as possible without thier getting caught. This time they’d been walking surreptitiously around the edge of the crowd sort of avoiding attention when the smaller girl had ducked under Chou’s defenses and pinned her against the wall, hands roaming almost as soon as they were out of plain sight. Chou moaned some in pleasure, as Molly seemed to touch her in the right way everytime. She leaned her head back and enjoyed things.

“What’s this then?”

The gruff, deep voice startled them both apart. Chou felt the heat of embarrassment rush to her face, her feelings mirrored in her girlfriend’s cheeks. Both were looking at the floor, trying to avoid the teacher's eyes.

“HA! Gotcha!” Ayla grinned. “I think this is the right position, but maybe the others are hoping that you’ll pay attention, rather than neck in the corner… OW!”

Molly punched her in the arm again. She glared with a menace she didn't really have. “Never interrupt a snog, you could have caused a lip blowout on the backsuck!”

Chou blinked, staring at her girlfriend, what had she just said. “Huh?”

“It’s called a joke, sweetie.” Molly rolled her eyes at her, teasingly. The blush had already faded from her face yet Chou's face still burned.

Ayla scrutinized the Chinese girl’s face. “Yup, glazed expression, wide eyes, open mouth, pale skin… she’s going into post-match shock, nurse, stand back and give her a little air.”

Chou glared at them both as she pushed past. Sometimes she didn't know why she even bothered anymore. “Come on, we’ve got a job to do.”

“Hey, if you two wanna kiss on duty, don’t mind me.. and the camera… OW! Stop that!”

Molly scampered away and caught up to Chou, sticking her tongue out at Ayla.

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Feral slugged back another cup of red punch. “And another thing, she doesn’t appreciate anything I do. I bust my butt trying to figure out who attacked her and do I get so much as a hello, how ya doin’, thanks for a job well done? NO!”

“Oh, no, don’t even get me started about Chaka,” Riptide snarled, keeping pace with her drinking partner, “she bounces from boy to girl to boy again faster than you can say ‘bi’. It’s like being with a hyperactive kangaroo on speed.”

“She ignores me completely!” Feral returned fire. “One night of absolutely mindblowing sex an’ I don’t see her for days and then she gets hurt and it’s not like she’ll let little ol’ me run to her rescue like a knight in shining armor. Sometimes I think she’s really a guy in drag. Never writes, never calls, never cuddles afterwards…”

“You think YOU’VE got it bad! No matter how many times she disses me, there’s something about her that makes me go back time and time again. She can be so sweet some of the time but the rest of it she can be SUCH a jerk! Look! Look at her! Plastered all over that.. that.. guy! Every time I see that my skin crawls for days! I don’t know how I can bear to touch her after seeing something like that…”

“Hey, Rip,” Hippolyta nodded to the younger girl as she dipped her cup in the punch bowl, pointedly ignoring Feral’s hostile glare, “you two getting.. acquainted?”

The two girls looked at each other for a moment, stunned at the suggestion. Both turned away at the same time, covering up their blushes by taking another sip of punch.

“Not goth enough,” Feral murmured.

“Not black enough,” Rip sighed.

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Dropship, somewhere in the sky near Whateley

The man known as the Chessmaster took a deep cleansing breath and let it out slowly, bringing himself to the state of clear lucid focus that he would need. It was time, and he was ready. He adjusted the fit of his Nehru jacket, shot the cuffs, and left his stateroom. He pointedly avoided noticing anything outside of the tight, narrow, almost obsessive window right in front of him. It was too easy to get lost in a fog of potentials. He marched into the Tac/Ops room of the dropship and went straight to the ‘chessboard’. His assistants were busy confirming and double-checking pertinent facts:

  • Fubar was in his tank, and his attention was focused in Manchester.
  • The special distraction unit was primed, ready, and had its targeting set.
  • Carson was at her on-campus house and not expecting anything.
  • Deathlist’s special ‘Antagonist Response Prediction’ program was updated for Carson’s latest data, and the computer programmer said that it had been thoroughly de-bugged.
  • Reverend England was holding up his end of the deal, distracting Security.
  • England’s team of junior-league monster hunters were prepped, ready and willing to cooperate with the Sabretooths.
  • All the Alphas were prepared to cooperate with the invading forces, thus moving several threats to his side of the chessboard.
  • Scans of Security broadcasts suggested no unusual activity or extra preparation.
  • Sgt. Buxton was overseeing perimeter security for Whateley.
  • Target A was slated to sing on a stage, where she would be neatly separated from most of the other students.
  • She was last on the bill, with three numbers to sing. Let her sing two numbers, and attack during the third number, when she’d be too wrapped up in the song to react quickly.
  • Targets B through F would be traveling in a group with a ‘costume theme’.
  • The theme for their costumes was a Japanese cartoon show, ‘Tenchi Muyo’. Images of the expected characters had been scanned and distributed to the Chessmen.
  • The Senior Class was holding a separate celebration in another building.
  • Sound baffles and other measures to keep the Seniors from becoming aware of what was happening outside were in place.
  • Primary, Secondary and Tertiary measures for preventing the Seniors from interfering, in case the isolation measures failed, were in place.
  • Primary Anti-Interference Device loaded, primed and ready to be deployed.

The Chessmaster placed his special Augmented Reality glasses on, and immediately information - information that wasn’t directly related to the figures on the hologram relief map spread out in front of him - displayed for him. The ‘Chessboard’, as it was invariably called, wasn’t merely an affectation, a reference to his nom de guerre. No, it was a vital part of his method. Most people thought that ‘seeing into the future’ meant that you would see the one, lone, inescapable future that must come in a crystal clear vision. Hardly. Mind you, there were lesser talents who did occasionally perceive brief glimpses of something, and then unconsciously made steps to make that outcome real. Usually, when they were trying to escape it. He was so used to the data display that he didn’t even have to read it anymore, he just immediately sucked it up and was able to use it. He looked at the figures on the board, took it all in, and then the possibilities unfurled before him. People thought that precognitives had visions of one, true, inescapable future. Balderdash. Some precogs, the really limited ones, saw futures that might be. High-functioning precognitives, such as himself, saw all the myriad possible outcomes, with everything factored in.

Well, everything except for Random Chance, Free Will, and Probability Warpers.

The Chessmaster pulled his focus back in to the here-and-now. The trick was to pare down all the possibilities, to guide the situation as it developed, ensuring this event, preventing that event, until the only outcome was the one that HE wanted. To do that, he needed to know where everyone and everything was, and what they were doing. He needed to know concretely; using his clairvoyance tended to get the images mixed in with all the flowering possibilities.. and his own desires. That was what the ‘chessboard’ was for. It was constantly updated with confirmed intelligence. This unit there. That target there. This target secured. That target terminated. It allowed him to guide his resources as to ensure that the only outcomes were the ones that he wanted.

The secret to imposing order onto all that chaos was to identify the ‘nexial points’, the causal lynchpins around which he saw potential crucial matters revolving. The ‘Queen’ pieces, as he liked to think of them. They were the points from which the most dramatic and critical potentials flowed. Thanks to the exquisite timing, almost all of the enemy ‘queens’ were not only in one place, but gathered together in a tight group. Where an equal-sized group of Pawns could take them out.

Then one of his assistants informed him that the drop-ships were just outside the Whateley perimeter, and there was no sign that Whateley Security had spotted them.

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Pristine picked up the mic again. “Patrol 2? Patrol 2, come back.”

All that answered her was static.

“Trouble?”

She jumped, turning about to find the source of the masculine voice leaning in the doorway. “Chief Delarose, patrol 2 went out to check on a camera disruption at Comms but I can’t get them on the radio anymore.”

“Disruption? Where?” Delarose walked up to the television banks.

Pris pointed to the monitor. It flickered again. “See, there.” Glancing across to the feed from McFarlane Stadium, she noticed that the bands had started already.

Delarose started counting down the seconds. “One… two… three… four… five…”

Flicker.

“One… two… three… four… five…”

Flicker.

Delarose blinked. “Someone’s wired the camera.”

Something shook the entire building. Not sharp enough to be an explosion, too short to be an earthquake. Delarose drew his sidearm and began spouting orders through the mic in his wrist. “All squads, all squads, if you can hear this we are under attack, repeat, under…”

Another jolt rocked the building violently enough to knock them both off their feet.

“What the fuck is that?” Pristine squealed, rubbing her hip as she picked herself up off the floor. The monitors were starting to blink off one by one.

“Shit, Comms is down.. but that’s…” Delarose punched the floor, trying to focus his thoughts. He flicked a few buttons on his wrist communicator, switching over to the building’s PA system. “All personnel, this is Chief Delarose. We are under attack, retreat to the armory, retreat to the armory.” Glancing in Pristine’s direction, he hesitated before grabbing her arm. “Come on, stay right behind me and do exactly as I say.”

She nodded and ran after him when he didn’t even pause to see her acknowledgement. Security, like many such buildings, was built like a maze. Narrow, twisting corridors wound around small rooms at bizarre angles designed to confuse escaped criminals, or invaders as the case may be, while giving maximum cover to the defenders.

“Chief Delarose, come in…”

Delarose stopped abruptly at a corner and quickly glanced around it before answering. “Delarose. Report.”

“Sir, I’ve managed to re-tap into the building’s telecom network and restore communications inside this building only. Someone in the Comms building is subverting the network; they’re good but not good enough. I’ll have the shell cracked in forty minutes…”

“Too long.”

“Best I can do, sir. Whoever they are, these guys are Special A-class. Maybe low grade mutant, probably not. Six of us are holed up in this room; we’ve got weapons, good cover and an exit strategy. We should be able to hold them off until you can get reinforcements down here.”

“Roger, soon as we’re able. Over and out,” Delarose sighed. “Fuck me, forty minutes…”

He stopped in mid sentence. Pristine opened her mouth to say something but he mashed his finger against her lips. Then she heard it, the faintest creak of hard leather coming from around the corner. Security didn’t use leather, their equipment harnesses and boots were all carbon fiber and Kevlar weave designed by senior student Gadgeteers as a Legacy gift.

Delarose held his breath as the stub-nosed barrel of some sort of bullpup rifle slowly inched around the corner, a black leather-gloved hand grasping the underbelly grip.

The chief moved like lightning. His gun hand swept the bullpup rifle upward in an arc as he stepped out around the corner; the body of the gun hammering against the concrete wall a moment before it went off, discharging harmlessly into the air on full auto, shards of roofing material raining down into the corridor as the gun chewed up the ceiling. Delarose’s automatic pistol went off once. The gunfire stopped.

Pristine peeked around the corner a second later to find the chief kneeling next to the body, keeping one eye on the hallway ahead as he searched its pockets. The body wore some kind of special armor, painted red with black stripes mimicking the coloration of an Asian tiger. The protection hadn’t helped him. A bullet hole in his neck was leaking blood that soaked into the cheap carpet. She gulped in horror, trying to keep her dinner down.

“No ID tags but I know the armor,” Delarose murmured, “Syndicate mercenaries, Tiger Guard, probably one of the Sabretooths. Elite special ops force for dealing with extranormal military threats. Real psychos…” He held up one of the man’s knives for effect. It was serrated on both sides and sharp as a fisherman’s scaling knife.

“What sort of gun is that?” Pristine whispered, trying to keep her voice steady.

“Who knows? Custom job, probably precision crafted from a thousand different parts. Haven’t seen anything like it since I was in Delta.”

Pristine glanced around, checking behind them. “Just one guy? Where the fuck are the rest?”

“Believe me, for most people, one would be enough… but you’re right, there have to be more around. A lot more. Maybe he got separated and lost in the corridors. My boys and girls aren’t slouches at this job either. Come on, we’ve got to keep moving.”

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Terror stepped through the hole in the wall, quite a long step considering the wall had been more than three feet thick. He had to bend over to get the barrel of the .50 cal Barrett sniper rifle slung across his back through the breech. Two of his brothers waited with their master while he brushed the gray debris off his pinstripe suit.

“Ah, Terror,” Deathlist smiled down at his silent prodigy, “take these two, secure the roof and co-ordinate our efforts with the rest of the Tiger Guard when they arrive. Watch for fliers but do not engage them, report any sightings back to me…”

Terror slapped his chest angrily.

Deathlist’s smile turned into a vicious grin. “All right. If something pops up that the Guard cannot handle, take care of it. But a kill with your toy doesn’t count unless it’s over fifteen hundred yards.. and no bonus points. Guns are too easy.”

Terror nodded dejectedly and thumbed his blades, truly his preferred weapon. In a matter of skill with the short blades, he was at least on par with his master, if not better.

“You’ll get your chance, son,” Deathlist patted him on the shoulder in sympathy, “you’ll get your chance. We’ll go hunting in New York, rack up a few real kills, make a holiday of it.”

Nodding again, this time with enthusiasm, Terror practically skipped out of the room, heading for the stairwell with his two brothers in tow. Deathlist watched his boy, not his biological son but certainly a being of his own creation, with pride. His moment of nostalgia over, the death machine turned and negligently ripped through yet another concrete wall as if it were tissue paper.

Sentiment gone, the only thing left in his eyes was the joy of impending murder.

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Sara fidgeted in the wings behind the curtains, tugging on the ribbons that held her hair in place. The music was deafening, the sound probably echoed down the whole Miskatonic river valley and perhaps deep into the Earth. In a flight of fancy, she wondered if Tsathoggua was enjoying the performance down in the black gulf of N’kai.

Applause, some part of her subconscious made her aware of the cheering. She’d been daydreaming again; the whole act had passed her by.

“Sara,” Axel asked again, “are you all right?”

“Just nerves,” she shrugged, clenching her fists to try and regain her focus. Looking out over the crowd, she knew that somewhere there were people waiting to kill her. Maybe hiding in the crowd, maybe somewhere in the stands, maybe under the stage or even overhead… it was impossible to predict the enemy’s plans. Even for hardcore fanatics, assassinating her in front of an audience would be an audacious move and such a brash opponent wouldn’t be easy to read.

Then she saw Reverend England. He stood at the edge of the stadium across the other side of the field, beyond the crowd near the canteen. He was staring right at her, piercing gaze focused with undeniable intent even from such a distance. They were the eyes of a zealot.

Sara gave him the finger behind the curtain where nobody but Axel could see. England tipped an invisible cap in her direction in return, before leaving the stadium through a nearby fire escape. Let the games begin.

“Sara, we’re on,” Axel reminded her.

Sara nodded. “You first, give me a good entrance.”

He smiled back and stepped out onto the stage to thunderous applause, enhancing the sound of each of his slow footsteps until they echoed throughout the stadium. Axel already had fans, apparently, particularly among the girls. He had that effeminate face that attracted a certain type of human female, the ones who preferred their men to be cuter than they were, or at least just the same. He started the music with a single strum of his guitar, one note fracturing into an entire orchestra of sound. The tune started with slow, long, low notes rising sluggishly in tone towards Sara’s cue.

Sensing the notes, Bunny’s holographic light show began. Illusory blood began to drip upward from between the floorboards of the stage, pooling in midair as Axel built up the pace. The dark, floating, blobs danced as if affected by the sound waves, blown away from the guitarist as if an invisible breeze emanated from his skin. As the music built, the blobs joined to form a standing wall of blood, the waves forming face-like protrusions that seemed to scream at the audience before disappearing back into the mass.

What's the world come to

Sara began to sing before stepping out onto the stage, walking slowly towards the audience concealed by the wall of blood. As she stepped through it, the holographic liquid clung to her skin and clothes, making it appear as if she were rising up through the pool.

When everything's going the way of the gun

The blood began to slide off her body, dripping back into the vertical pool behind her, revealing Sara’s cool white skin. Red spotlights faded up, causing the floating droplets around her to glow bright red as her skin took on the same color, blending into the background until even Axel, in his dark clothes, appeared to be made out of blood.

What's the world come to
If life is a shadow of what has been done

I want you to know
Don't take it slow
Just come undone
And the sin will take hold
I can't hold it back
It's too much to ask
You know the way
You're up to the task
But please don't ever say

Sara paused, allowing her voice to echo through the stadium. Even the holographic blood stilled for the moment, lights dying down so that her white skin shone in the sea of dark red. She reached out one dark-clawed hand as if imploring the audience as she began the next line.

What's the world come to
When bullets are all that you can understand
What's the world come to
When all that I touch will leave blood on my hands

I want you to know
Don't take it slow
Just come undone
And the sin will take hold
I can't hold it back
It's too much to ask
You know the way
You're up to the task
But please don't ever say

Another, momentary, pause, and the light on Sara faded out completely. The next part was for Axel and the audience.

What's the world come to?

Axel launched himself into a five minute solo as the spotlight turned to him. The music was only loosely based on the original notes, he had to improvise something more like dance music, but it worked. The crowd went wild. The floating droplets of blood floated out over the audience, allowing the fliers above to play with it, let it spatter over their skin or roll between the droplets and scatter the illusion in their wakes.

Rather than the spotlight coming back onto Sara, she stepped into Axel’s spotlight, circling him as she sang, flirting with him. Nothing big, just small touches, sliding her claws over his strong biceps and shoulders, smelling his long hair, just enough to get the hormones flowing.

What's it all come to
Nothing to see through
It's all been spoken
Shattered and broken
Give it to me

Don't tell me
What's the world come to


(What’s the World Come To; Zak Belica)

The crowd cheered as the blood fell to earth with the end of the music, fading out of existence before it hit the floor.

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Pris found herself running toward gunfire, happy for the unnatural grace afforded to her by virtue of her Exemplar powers. Delarose may have been an old man but he knew how to move. Her grace was natural and effortless; his was the result of decades of intense training.

They came around a corner and ran straight into a war zone. Three dead bodies in Security uniforms slumped into the corners of the hall, two more injured were trying to staunch the flow of blood from their own bodies, seven more returned fire in two directions using corners and doorways for cover. Pristine recognized Private Higgins from before, taking cover from a hail of bullets that was slowly chipping away the concrete.

“Pleased to see you, Sir,” Higgins nodded to Delarose when they got close enough to hear him shout over the battle, “as far as we can tell, we’ve got two short squads trying to box us in and cut off the route to the armory. Heavy machine gun emplacement at corner R-14 is keeping us from advancing and as you can see, we’re running out of concrete. The second squad is trying to push us into the HMG’s line of fire but we’re holding them off.”

Pristine shrugged. “Let’s take the invitation, then.” She stepped out into the HMG fire before either of the men could stop her.

Heavy caliber bullets whizzed through the air around her, sparks and shrapnel zooming by her head… but nothing touched her. Concentrating, hands outstretched, Pristine shoved her power outwards against the torrent of lead, pushing her way forwards.

Christine Crosley had earned the codename Pristine because the personal force field that surrounded her body wouldn’t allow even the smallest trace of dirt to sully her, neither clothes nor hair nor skin. The same forcefield protected her from harm. Bullets careened from the invisible barrier of force that extended from her body, forming a shield that filled the hallway ahead of her and providing the perfect defense.

“MOVE IT!” Delarose ordered, pushing Higgins ahead of him while advancing right behind. The rest of the guards followed, watching the rear. Grabbing a grenade from one of the fallen Sabretooths on the floor, the Chief pulled the pin and pitched it over Pristine’s head, bouncing it off the roof to fall right next to the heavy machine gunner.

Pris was blinded by the explosion, though she hardly even felt the dull THUMP through her feet. When the dust cleared, there were only pieces left. She tried to ignore it, swallowing several times to avoid throwing up. Training, even in the holographic simulators, couldn’t prepare you for the full sensation, the smell in particular.

Delarose grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and pushed her forward, still using her shield as cover as they advanced up the hallway. Higgins followed his lead and pitched another grenade behind them at the flankers, more as a distraction than actually hoping to do some damage. Turning a few more corners, the others following Delarose, Higgins bringing up the rear, until they came to the steel doors of the armory at the end of a cul-de-sac.

“Pris,” Delarose ordered, “go back with Higgins and give him cover. I’m counting on you… and remember to fill the hallway, I don’t want any grenades getting through.”

She nodded and did as she was told, re-erecting her barrier in the hallway behind them, paying special attention to extending it up to the roof. It was an amateur mistake which she cursed herself for. It could have gotten everyone killed just as easily as it’d saved them, if not for Delarose’s quick thinking.

Higgins patted her shoulder. “Don’t sweat it, kid, you did good. First time under fire, I pissed my pants.”

“Thanks,” She blanched at the image but smiled. The smile faded in a full second. “Oh God, Spade and the others!”

“Shhhhh,” Higgins put his finger to his lips, “they’ll be ok, they’re all mutants and they’ve got thirty or so teachers with them who used to eat these sorts for breakfast back before they retired. Me, I’m worried about Fubar. He should be here by now.”

Pristine blinked. “Fubar?”

Just then, Delarose managed to get the vault door open and started ushering the others inside. “Come on, grab everything you can carry, take spares, we need to resupply everyone on campus. Higgins, Pris, pull back to the door and keep us covered.”

Higgins grabbed her by the collar and started edging backward, pulling her along. Pristine let him as she had Delarose, it was standard technique for forcefield generators cooperating with regular military personnel, though it did smack of a terrorist holding the mutant in question hostage.

Things didn’t go to hell until they were halfway down the hall.

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Sara waved to the crowd, stepping away from Axel. “All right! Thank-you, everyone. I’d like to dedicate this next song to the Alphas!”

The clapping and cheering abruptly died, more than half the students too stunned to even react. It took a moment for the wannabes to make up for the lapse by redoubling their cheers though their efforts sounded decidedly thin.

Axel started the music up with a knowing grin plastered across his face. Each stroke of his fingers started the heavy drum beat that led into the song. Some of the metal-heads in the audience recognized the tune and started applauding again, to the confusion of the rest of the audience. Bunny’s holographic program kicked in again, but there was no blood. Large doll parts rolled onto the stage from the wings in waves, moving jerkily as if animated by stop motion. The parts slowly formed, clicking together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. There was a gasp from the crowd as a line of giant, cracked and ragged Barbie dolls stood up from the writhing pile like grotesque skeletons. Axel chimed in again with something that actually sounded like guitar chords, heavy to match the drum beat.

Sara couldn’t help but smile as she began.

And I don't want you and I don't need you
Don't bother to resist, or I'll beat you
It's not your fault that you're always wrong
The weak ones are there to justify the strong

The beautiful people, the beautiful people
It's all relative to the size of your steeple
You can't see the forest for the trees
You can't smell your own shit on your knees!

The eruption from the audience rocked the stage. The giant Barbie dolls danced in the background, mimicking Sara’s movements as she worked the crowd.


There's no time to discriminate,
Hate every motherfucker
That's in your way

Hey you, what do you see?
Something beautiful, something free?
Hey you, are you trying to be mean?
If you live with apes man, it's hard to be clean

As the music got ever more energetic, and Sara’s dance followed suit, pieces of the Barbie dolls started falling off. An eye here, a finger there, plastic dust clouding the stage. Laser-like lights shot through the fake cloud, tracing kaleidoscopic patterns in the air overhead without endangering the fliers.


The worms will live in every host
It's hard to pick which one they eat most

The horrible people, the horrible people
It's as anatomic as the size of your steeple
Capitalism has made it this way,
Old-fashioned fascism will take it away

Hey you, what do you see?
Something beautiful, something free?
Hey you, are you trying to be mean?
If you live with apes man, it's hard to be clean

There's no time to discriminate,
Hate every motherfucker
That's in your way

The beautiful people
The beautiful people (aahh)
The beautiful people
The beautiful people (aahh)
The beautiful people
The beautiful people (aahh)
The beautiful people
The beautiful people (aahh)

Hey you, what do you see?
Something beautiful, something free?
Hey you, are you trying to be mean?
If you live with apes man, it's hard to be clean
Hey you, what do you see?
Something beautiful, something free?
Hey you, are you trying to be mean?
If you live with apes man, it's hard to be clean

By this time, the dolls were nothing but rotted shells of their old selves, the last remains crumbling into nonexistence as the music died.

The beautiful people

The beautiful people

The beautiful people

The beautiful people

The beautiful people

The beautiful people

The beautiful people

The beautiful people

(Marilyn Manson; The Beautiful People)

The last notes faded out and the last of the dust fell into the floor and went away. Sara took Axel’s hand and bowed deeply to the audience, riding the wave of their applause and the stomping of feet.

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Somehow unseen by the Syndicate troops - and blissfully unaware of the intruders as well - three small figures sneaked through the darkness. “Pally,” Abra asked, “WHY are we doing this?”

“Hey, there is NO REASON why I can’t go to that Halloween party!” Irene snapped back. “I’m fourteen too!”

“But we can’t go IN,” Clover whined. “And I’m missin’ the Halloween party that Mrs. Nelson was throwin’ for all us junior high kids!”

“Oh, that’s just baby stuff!” Irene maintained stiffly. “The really COOL stuff is goin’ down in MacFarlane! All we gotta do is sneak in! I mean, everyone’s in costume! How’s Grimsy gonna know that it’s US?”

“Well,” Abra drawled, “she MIGHT have a clue, when she sees SOMEONE wearing her HAT!” she glowered at Clover.

Clover grabbed the hat by the brim and said, “But it’s my WITCH hat! You can’t expect me to go out on Halloween without my WITCH HAT!”

“It’s NOT a Witch hat!”

“Is Too!”

“It’s from Walgreens!

“So? Walgreens sells everything else, why not Witch Hats?”

The other two didn't have a response to that.

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“Well, If I had any reservations about all of this, they just died,” Don Sebastiano muttered through clenched teeth and furiously adjusted the bow tie of his tux while Cavalier cleaned the shards of his broken glass off the floor. He looked over at Bluejay, who was still clapping with a beatific smile on his face, probably just to annoy everyone. “Will you stop that?”

“Now, now,” Hekate pulled his chin back to her with one finger, “that little display really was quite petty and beneath our notice. Besides, it all won’t matter in a few minutes…”

The door burst inward, kicked down a moment before parts of the ceiling collapsed on top of the Alphas milling around the enormous TV. Men in tiger-striped armor began pouring into the room, both through the door and the roof, at least three for every Alpha. Bluejay popped out of existence before anyone could secure him. The Don had to grab Cavalier and Sky before they could try to defend him. “WAIT! NO ALPHA MAKE ANY MOVE! DO AS THEY SAY, DON’T TRY TO BE A HERO!”

A gun was suddenly poked into his face. “You in charge here?”

The Don nodded to the man in armor.

“Right, tell everyone to lie down on their stomachs and put their hands behind their backs.”

He did; then complied himself. The soldiers cuffed their hands with some high-tech looking manacles and then another soldier checked that they were on securely.

“All right,” the leader addressed the Alphas while the rest of his men secured the room, “everyone stay calm and you’ll all walk out of this. Those manacles nullify or dampen most powers, however if any of you so much as move we will respond as if you are fully powered. That is, the man behind you with the big gun will place a bullet inside the back of your head. If you’re feeling particularly lucky, please go ahead and try it, we get a bonus for every mutant we put down today.”

“Nobody move,” Sebastiano growled from his position, “this isn’t the time to be a hero. Anyone who moves and survives will be kicked out of the Alphas so fast they’ll need to be admitted to hospital for whiplash.”

The leader nodded to him. “Listen to your pal, kids, and this’ll all be over soon.”

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Dropship

The Chessmaster smiled as he saw the second Queen move from her position. Languidly he reached to the command button, and hit the toggle for the personal bandwidth. “Dearest,” he cooed, “your Halloween treat is coming!”

[Perfect] came the private reply.

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The wall directly behind Pristine on her left next to the armory door exploded outward, great chunks of concrete skittering down the hallway in all directions. One of the chunks, a block the size of her head, smashed into the girl’s back and knocked her down.

Higgins’ body fell down beside her, headless.

“PRISTINE!” Delarose’s scream was partly drowned out by a booming shot. A second later, there was silence.

Pristine pried her eyes open and bit her lip, bucking up enough courage to look over her shoulder. Between her and the doorway was a huge figure wearing a dead black pinstripe suit. He was at least eight feet tall, about the same size as the hole in the wall next to him. His suit was ripped as if from a great blast, showing glistening silver through the material rather than proper skin. His head was encased in a matte black carapace that showed only the face at the front, a pale, veined and wrinkled thing, the very flesh suffering from its dependence on synthetic fluids to stay alive. Black blades sprouted from his hands and forearms, made of the same material as his body, the edges glistening with the same blue steel color that showed through the hole in his shirt. The other hand casually held Higgins’ dripping head.

“How rude,” the towering cyborg tsked, “this was one of my favorite suits, Chief Delarose.”

“You should have worn something more suitable for combat then, Deathlist.” Delarose snarled, cradling an automatic shotgun, probably requisitioned from the armory, in his large hands.

“Ah, but combat fatigues are so common. I didn’t think them appropriate to address such distinguished members of the mutant community such as the faculty of Whateley Academy.”

“Well, fuck this witty banter,” Delarose shrugged, taking the opportunity to reload, “why haven’t you killed us all yet?”

Deathlist shook his head. “My dear De-La-Rose. You and your children are no challenge at all. No, you aren’t my prey, you’re my bait! Ms. Might will come and we will do glorious battle!”

Pristine couldn’t help but cringe away as the cyborg shuddered with ecstasy, as if he were having an orgasm right there in the hall.

Suddenly, he stopped, eyes clearing. “Of course, I expected her timely arrival long ago. Perhaps age has dulled her hearing? Maybe your screams would bring her that much faster…”

The death machine was interrupted by the boom of Delarose’s shotgun, the burst function now active, spraying the Cyborg with a hail of slugs. Deathlist laughed, stepping forward slowly as the rest of his suit was ripped from his body in pieces. Some sort of force field stopped the slugs from penetrating his face, but the rest of his metal body took the shots in their stride. Pristine counted Delarose’s shots, knowing the exact ammo capacity for that particular model of combat shotgun.

She didn’t think as the last shot rang out. If she thought, she’d have taken a second thought, and then a third, until hesitation and fear paralyzed her completely. It was not the moment for fear; Deathlist would massacre everyone between him and his target. She moved, hopping to her feet as she’d been taught in Martial Arts class, spinning to get as much extra momentum into her leg as she could before delivering the flying spin kick into the Cyborg’s side. The power of her Exemplar body and the strength of her PK shield would have crushed a regular man, or even torn him in half. Deathlist, however, was merely rocked to one side, his arm going straight through the concrete wall as he reached out to balance himself. Pristine rolled past him, taking advantage of his lapse, and threw her most powerful shield up into the corridor, blocking the enemy off from the vault.

Delarose threw the shotgun away. Someone further inside the vault handed him an energy weapon, but he shoved it away, grabbing a larger, shoulder-mounted cannon from a rack on the wall.

“Well, well,” Deathlist smiled with glee, extracting himself from the wall by tearing more of it away with his free hand, “that was quite a blow, little girl. I congratulate you for taking advantage of my lapse; that will teach me not to underestimate your kind anymore. I take it that this field is impenetrable?”

Pristine grinned. “You bet, fuckhead.”

Deathlist grinned back, his right hand shooting up, fist clenched. His forearm sprung open, revealing a long tube-like device with a small dish pointing straight towards her heart. A moment later, a wave of pain threw the girl backward into the vault door, arching her back in violent spasms. “Force Field 101, little girl, if the generator can speak or breathe through it, the field is pregnable to air pressure and sonics. Drop your weapon, Delarose, or I’ll set my weapon to lethal and you’ll be scraping your student off the walls with a sponge.”

Delarose took careful aim with the cannon. “If I blow your head off, it won’t matter.”

“Go ahead… if you’re sure that thing will work.”

Pristine screamed in agony.

“FUCK!” Delarose dropped the gun. The rest of the guards followed suit.

“Wise choice. My dermal armor is impervious to the X-113 Eliminator™ Personal Assault Cannon, Chief. If I could die that easily, someone would have killed me a long time ago…” He babbled, switching off the sonic gun. He bent over and picked up Pristine with one hand, claws ripping her clothes, and lifted her off her feet. “Tell me, little girl, are you virgin meat?”

“Are you going to rape me?” Pristine squeaked.

“No, he’s not,” Delarose interrupted, “he’s gay, Pris.”

“Yes, that’s right, little girl,” Deathlist confirmed, “I may rape the Chief there later if I get the chance, just to see the look on his face, but not you. What I would love to stick inside you are these…”

He lifted the fingers of his left hand towards her face. Blades flicked out from under his fingernails like switchblades, the scalpel-like tips ending a mere quarter inch from her eyes. She jerked back, which seemed to delight him.

“...will these scar you, little Exemplar? Will that pretty face grow back if I rip it off? You won’t die, you know, Exemplars are fun to torture. You’ll survive things, all kinds of things. Once, I cut a superheroine’s arms and legs off and gave what was left of her body to my soldiers as a sex toy… we kept her alive for months.”

“Pristine,” Delarose interrupted, “don’t let him scare you. He can’t get off unless you’re afraid.”

“I’m telling the truth, you know,” Deathlist added, stroking the flat of his blades down the line of her tears.

Pristine spat in his face. “Evil fuck!” She tried kicking him, but she didn’t have any leverage and his body was like a solid wall of titanium.

“Oh, yes. And do you know who made me, dear?” The cyborg grinned. “Delarose wasn’t here back then, neither was Carson. But the teachers taught me a lot about killing people. I had to learn how to control my Cyborg body after my own parents drugged me and had me crushed with a trash compactor… that was when I was still a flesh and blood mutant. I learnt my lessons so well that I even managed to kill Champion once, Champion IV to be exact. He squealed like a pig when I stuck him…”

THOOM!

Something came through the floor like a thunderbolt. Pristine felt herself wrenched from Deathlist’s grasp, flying into the vault as the psycho was hurled back into the hallway, through yet another wall, by a blast of sparking blue force. Delarose and the rest of security dived for their weapons then crawled into cover. When her eyes readjusted to the light, she found herself hovering in the air next to a gaping hole that led into the basement. Floating over the hole was a being from modern myth. Athletic and curvaceous, short blonde hair blowing in a breeze that came from nowhere, she looked like an Olympian goddess bathed in the mystical blue light that emanated from the rod in her hands. The shapeliness of her form was highlighted by her skin tight outfit, not a costume, costumes don’t have the functionality of a proper superhero outfit. The night-black stretchable cloth reflected the light of her power and refracted it into a galaxy of color, as if her body were made of stars.

“Miss Champion,” Deathlist’s voice rumbled from under the rubble, debris scattering as he rose out of the pile like a vengeful ghost, his voice containing a mixture of effort and unholy glee, “Ms. Might. Lady Astarte. Headmistress Elizabeth Amelia Carson, I have been looking forward to this.”

“You always were stupid, Deathlist.” The Headmistress rebuked, flashes of mystic energy in her corona of power highlighting her angry glare and dreadful tone.

The death machine laughed. “Yes. Yes. YES! YES!! That is what I WANT! Defy me, hate me, FIGHT ME! I killed Champion IV, my lady, the man to whom YOU passed on the Champion Force! Do you remember his face? Do you remember how proud he was when he received the power? Have you seen his look while I was searching for his more important organs with my own hands?”

“He died a hero, sacrificing himself for others,” Carson intoned proudly, “I have no regrets and neither did he. His legacy lives on in every hero that will follow him.”

Deathlist grinned. “The definition of a hero is someone destined to die by my hand. Come, heroine, let us dance. We can hear your student’s music from here.”

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The stage went dark after Sara’s second number, allowing some time for her and Axel to get into position in the middle of the stage. It was the only other show aside from ‘beautiful people’ that they hadn’t had to scrap when Mr. King changed plans on them, giving Bunny more time to finish designing the fourth and last holographic light show.

“This song is for my best friend, Jade.” Sara breathed into the microphone.

Axel started the music slow while they were still plunged in darkness. As prerecorded, a red and gold Easter egg rolled into view from stage right, eventually coming to a halt in front of them, still the only thing visible on the stage. After a moment of suspense, it started to wriggle, eliciting a breathless gasp from the audience. Several cracks appeared in the egg, then suddenly POP! A small cabbit jumped out of the shell. “NYOW!”

The audience laughed; cries of ‘So cute!’ echoed through the stadium from some of the female members of the crowd.

The music crashed into full life, along with a blinding flash from the whole stage floor, causing the audience and the holographic cabbit to jump, a rumble of sound rolling over everyone as whole solar systems and galaxies exploded from the stage, filling the air. Beyond the stars, Sara appeared a huge, glowing, translucent projection that towered over everything.

Did you know that I am a pioneer
I'm out on a secret mission
I travel the galaxy and far beyond

Sara reached out over the crowd, the dark shadow of her hand falling over the audience. Thousands of cabbits flew out over their heads, orbiting the fliers and chasing after carrot-like asteroids.

Can't you see that I am a pioneer
Unlocking the greatest myst'ries
My key is a fearless heart
So pure and strong
People laugh when you are a pioneer
Not walking the straight and narrow
They tell you the way things are
They swear you're wrong

The original cabbit hopped back towards Sara as the characters from Tenchi Muyo, all altered slightly to resemble their respective Team Kimba members, stepped into existence around the two band members. Sasami/Jade looked up at Sara and smiled, the Demon Princess kneeling to sing directly to the holographic image.

You can't be a hero
Hiding underneath your bed
Got to live the life
You create inside your head
So I opened the window
Caught the wind one night
Now I sail with the birds in their flight

If you're tired of ev'rything
Come hitch a ride with me
You'll cry out with joy
When you realize you're free
It's a trip like no other
For your heart and mind
Leaving all but the future far behind

Some will say you're safer here
Never mind them - be a pioneer!

The whole stage seemed to rumble under their feet a moment before the boards exploded upward, lifting them all up into the air on the back of a giant spaceship with several large ‘prongs’ sticking out of a saucer-like shape, the spitting image of Ryo-Oki’s spaceship form. Sara continued to sing from atop the new stage, or seemed to.


Can't you see that you are a pioneer
Not one of the endless talkers
Who tell you the same old rules you've heard before
I can tell that you are a pioneer
You want to be facing danger

The crowd went wild again as Axel hit his guitar solo, Sara’s giant image behind them replaced by his, white streamers floating around him blown in an ethereal wind as if he were some timeless god of the universe. Axel continued to play as Sara took up the song again, building the tempo toward the climax.

You can't be a hero
Hiding underneath your bed
So we'll live the life
We've created in our heads
We'll wake up ev'ry morning
In a whole new place
On a road reaching out into space

Some will say we're safer here
Never mind them - we are pioneers!

Hand in hand we'll journey as pioneers
Unlocking the greatest myst'ries
Don't listen to anyone
Who says we're wrong
They can't stop you when you're a pioneer
For truth is your greatest weapon
Out there in the cosmos
Where we both belong
A place for pioneers
Like you and me

Through the ages we will be pioneers
We'll go out on secret missions
We'll travel the galaxy and far beyond
It's our destiny to be pioneers
We'll always be moving forward
Our courage is what we will be counting on
We will be pioneers forevermore

(I’m a Pioneer; Theme from Tenchi Muyo, Full Version)

The holograms faded to reveal Axel and Sara still standing in their places on center stage, bowing graciously. The roar of approval that washed over them almost matched the rumble of the music a minute before.

“Thank you!” Sara shouted into the mic, trying to get the audience back under control. “Thank you! We have one more number for you tonight. This one’s for all of you.”

They hushed as Axel began, mixing piano strokes with heavy rock guitar. Sara began the song slowly, a holographic backdrop of New York at night fading into existence behind her.

City lights are calling
Slowly coming back to life
Speeding in the fast lane
Mama let us waste no time
Devil in the doorway
Selling any kind of hell
We´re just coming out to play the game

Axel exploded into motion, switching the tune immediately over into heavy rock as the moon over the cityscape burst into a flaming sun. Recognizable heroes and villains from all the major comic books leapt out into the streets from telephone booths, doorways and windows to do battle.

We never cry for love
We´re superheroes
We are back where we belong
We never cry for pain
We´re superheroes
Make a stand where we belong

Way too long I´ve tried to be
What I could never be
For too long you´ve rolled the dice
But you can´t control me
I ain´t talking about romance
You may fiddle I may dance
Anyway it’s just a game we play

And we never cry for love
We´re superheroes
We are back where we belong
We never cry for pain
We´re superheroes
Make a stand where we belong

You gotta move to stay alive
We´re gonna rock the bash tonight

And we never cry for love
We´re superheroes
We are back where we belong
We never cry for pain
We´re superheroes
Make a stand where we belong

(Superheroes (metal plus epic version); Edguy)

The crowd was cheering. Sara was grinning with joy as Axel hugged her fiercely, pumping his fist in the air for the crowd as they cried for an encore. Flashes were going off like crazy as people took pictures.

She felt something sting in the back of her shoulder as time seemed to slow around her. The sting progressed through her skin and into her body, expanding as it tore through her. It exploded out of her breast and into Axel’s shoulder a moment before she pushed him away, down onto the floor. Another moment and she heard the sound of the gunshot.

Then the enemy were all around her: a girl brandishing a golden sword, and a boy covered in black fatigues with a high tech gun and mask, accompanied by soldiers in tiger-stripe armor. Confusion reined in the stadium, teachers barking orders.

The shouts gave way to real screams when the audience started falling to the floor, clutching their heads in pain. Sara felt the floor vibrating through her bare feet, though she had no idea what sort of effect it was having on her more normal compatriots. She saw Axel stagger. The students in the front rows before the stage were suddenly falling to the floor.. clutching their heads in agony.. screaming in pain.. vomiting uncontrollably… The fliers started dropping out of the sky, some dropping like rocks, some spiralling down helplessly, one hurling up his dinner over anyone unfortunate enough to be under him. One even whizzed out of control and crashed head-first into the stands. Teachers and students alike, suddenly unable to even stand, were felled by the invisible attack.

Sara glanced back at the soldiers a moment before they opened fire. The hail of lead and steel tore through her, shredding clothes and flesh, filling the air so that she simply couldn’t dodge every projectile even with her enhanced sense of time. A stray bullet hit Axel in the leg, prone as he was. Coming to a decision, she leapt backward, ripping through the curtain at the back of the stage and tumbling across the rest of the stadium grounds towards the fire exit, drawing the live fire away from the other students.

They took the bait, bullets skipping from the ground and walls around her as she barged through the fire escape and into the bowels of the stadium.

 

Chapter 10 - Death
Wednesday, November 1st, 2006 10:51pm

The door to the interrogation room burst inward. Sara had to smile at the look on her interrogator’s face when the Headmistress entered the room like an oncoming storm. Almost unnoticed behind her, a short, thin, weasel-faced man in a respectable black suit pottered through the door and closed it behind him.

He tried bluster first. Big mistake. “By what authority do you…”

“ZIP IT!” Carson barked. “I am not in the mood. My grounds have been torn to shreds, my students are traumatized, huge numbers of my Security people are dead or injured, and your unlawful detention of Sara Waite during the chaos that followed is both unprecedented and shameful to your entire organization!”

Next, he tried reason. “I apologize for my outburst but you still have no authority to lecture me, Ms. Carson. The MCO has a mandate from this country to curb the threat of mutants who have proven themselves dangerous and a threat to national security. As such, we operate more as a branch of the intelligence services and are thus not subject to civilian or even military law. Please leave.”

The weasel-faced man stepped forward. “I believe that’s my cue. Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Allan K. Rogers of Gordon, Kinnison, Rogers and Associates. We specialize in Mutant and Superhero Law and I am afraid that your interpretation of the MCO mandate is incorrect in this instance. Whateley grounds are designated neutral ground since it falls under tribal law rather than being under state or federal jurisdiction.”

“Some what’s and a who?”

“Tribal Law,” Rogers enunciated slowly, carefully and clearly for the officer, “Whateley Academy and the surrounding lands are all owned by a small Native American tribe. In fact, I do believe that the rent Whateley has paid to them over the years has done more for the standard of living for Native Americans than our government has ever hoped to achieve in reconciliation. In addition to your unlawful arrest on tribal territory, you have also detained the head of a well established and properly licensed minority religion and persecuted her unlawfully. Would you treat the Pope with this much disrespect?”

“She ain’t no Pope,” the interrogator turned away from the lawyer to face Carson, pointing his finger at her chest. He had to reach up to do it. “And you called us in.”

“As a courtesy only,” Carson said calmly, “we have made it very clear to your superiors that our acceptance of the mutant identity card was an olive branch to show how the mutant community at large wishes to co-operate and live peacefully inside the law. Likewise, we called upon your organization in order to inform and involve you in a situation that will impact on your operations, again to show our willingness to co-operate with the law. You and your team have abused our hospitality and persecuted the victim of a deadly and premeditated assassination attempt.”

“She’s a murderer. I don’t care about tribal law, I don’t care what religion she is, she is NOT just walking out of here and unless you’re willing to kill me, you ain’t takin’ her no place. Understand?”

Just then, his pager beeped. Carson smiled. “You better answer that. It’ll be your superiors.”

Grumbling, he reached for the wireless phone curled around his ear. “Clay. Evening, Sir. Yes, they a… I was just telling them where to stick it, Sir. Huh? But she’s.. we can’t.. no, Sir, I don’t want that. Yes, Sir. Bye, Sir.” He pressed the stud on the earpiece once more and glared at Carson. He might have been less pissed off if she hadn’t been smiling. “Go on then, take her. We’ll pack up and be off campus grounds in under an hour.”

“Satisfactory. Come on, Sara, we need to have a long talk.”

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Tuesday, October 31st, 2006 08:03pm

Screech ducked under the food tables just in time as the fire exits burst inward, several tall, darkly armored, cyborgs battering their way through the heavy doors without even a pause. Men and women in tiger-striped armor followed, spreading out to cover the area. She almost jumped out of her skin when they just started firing but the sound was strange. The report sounded more like a squirt, only deeper, as their guns fired a jet of sickly white nets of goo, like gigantic spiderwebs. The tiger-striped ones carried tanks on their backs that seemed to feed into the weapon, while some others with stranger weapons still refrained from firing and simply covered their fellows.

The cyborgs, however, weren’t carrying strange weapons. Their guns were familiar and supremely functional, small submachine-gun style weapons, belt fed with bullets the size of fingers from large drums on their backs. They paused for a moment to cock their guns before the leader turned to one of his men. “Team Kimba,” the robotic voice crackled through a cheap electric voicebox, “search and destroy. Upload likeness of ‘Tenchi Muyo’ characters from server.”

“Search and destroy,” the rest replied in that same passionless voice, “orders confirmed. Mission data uploaded. Moving out.”

It took all of Screech’s might not to so much as squeak, clamping one hand over her mouth as she crawled down to the end of the table closest to the stage. All around her peers were screaming and writhing from some sort of invisible weapon but one sound from her mouth could shatter the table over her head into splinters.

“Target acquired.”

Screech whipped her head around towards the monotone voice. One of the cyborgs was approaching two large, log-like, hovering things that must have been props for some sort of costume. It was hard to see beyond the bodies piled around the table. The Cyborg cocked its weapon, which seemed to disturb some of the nearby tiger-soldiers.

“Hey,” one of the men in striped armor stepped in the cyborg’s path, “no-one’s to be harmed, we’re under orders…”

“Chessmen have different orders,” the cyborg simply battered the soldier aside without slowing its clunky pace, “complete your mission, we will do ours.”

The cyborg lifted its weapon and started blasting, riddling the logs with holes.

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Several moments before, Fey was having a hard time just seeing straight. The world in front of her eyes twisted and lurched in and out of focus, making it impossible to see and almost impossible to keep her lunch in her stomach. Aunghadhail’s hissing at her to get up wasn’t helping either, it just added to the headache that lanced into her skull through the eyeballs.

In sudden moments of hyperfocus, all she could see around her was chaos. Students and teachers alike huddled on the floor and screamed, clutching their heads in pain, unable to focus on anything. Some of the ones lucky enough to have the power of flight attempted to take off the ground but either wound up flying face first into the ground or whizzing around the air like a burst balloon before impacting with a wall. Some were too busy retching to take notice of anything.

“Target acquired.”

The phrase cracked through the barrier of fuzziness that encased the Sidhe Queen’s mind. Aunghadhail began yelling, panicked. Then gunfire erupted. The reports echoed through her skull as if it were hollow.

Then someone screamed. For a moment, Fey thought it was her but it was too loud and piercing. Looking up in another stark moment of hyperfocus, she saw a Goth girl she thought she recognized standing next to the food stalls, mouth open in a wordless scream that seemed to be directed towards something. The power emanating from the girl’s mouth was enough to bend light in its path, causing a sort of heat haze effect in the area of the blast. Following that path with a flick her eyes, she saw a figure literally melting away from the waist up, a hand holding a gun had fallen to the ground, cut clean off.

Lying on the ground in front of the figure was Nahga of the Power Rangers, huddled behind her two robotic logs, both of which had seen better days. Getting the right idea from the scene, Fey closed her eyes and lurched away, crawling with all her might behind her own logs. Something vaguely bothered her about the idea, but she simply couldn’t put her finger on it…

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Totally unwittingly, two of the Tiger Guards did something that almost totally undid all of the Chessmaster’s careful planning. Without Grimes or Tennant to prevent it, they unwittingly brought Kismet and Risk into close proximity. The sonic disorientation didn’t keep them from using their powers of Probability Warping. Indeed, their ‘fight or flight’ reflex was kicking in, and though they didn’t know it, between them they were mangling probabilities right and left.

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Closing her mouth to cut off the tiniest whisper that she’d been forced to inflict, Screech stood in utter horror when she saw what she’d done. It was almost beyond belief. Flesh and metal had liquefied and evaporated, leaving only a smoking torso that still stood on its own two feet. Without warning, she felt two studs of cold, hard, metal pressed against the soft flesh at the back of her neck. Then pain lanced through her entire body, giving way to a numbness that overtook everything.

“Well, the stunners work,” one of the Tigers flipped a short black rod with two rounded metal prongs at one end over in his hands, hovering over her. “Man, she’s sorta cute. Hey, Sarge, what’s the policy on having some fun on this op?”

“Keep it in your pants, asshole,” a second soldier slapped him on the back of the helmet, “more of them might not be… UGH!”

A light pink and pastel blue blur bowled both of them over, comet-like, before snatching up the girl and whisking her off into the air.

“If you can hear me,” Tennyo growled through gritted teeth, “hang on if you can!”

The spiky-haired girl did a barrel roll as nets of webbing shot into the air around them, peeling off to the right as she turned towards the stage in an evasive maneuver usually seen done by fighter jets. Swapping Screech over to her left arm, squeezing the Goth tight around her slender waist, Tennyo dipped again as they passed over the stage, fishing Axel off the ground with her right hand, leaving a trail of blood in their wake.

“OOF!” Tennyo grunted as one of the nets tagged her foot, sticky tendrils dragging her backwards with the flow of air. “Oh crap! Hang on, guys!”

Diving sharply to avoid the flurry of gooey nets that came much closer with their reduction in speed, Tennyo hurled herself back-first through the window of the commentator’s box, shielding her passengers with her own body as they crashed through into the box.

As a legacy gift to the Academy, McFarlane Stadium had several interesting features installed. Though the budget wouldn’t allow proper impact-proof glass, they did install a unique type of tinted safety plastic that blobbed into marble-like pieces when shattered. So it was that Tennyo, Screech and Axel tumbled across the floor in a long, smooth, slide courtesy of a linoleum floor covered with the equivalent of ball bearings.

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Dropship

The Chessmaster watched his board with his face clenched like a fist in anger, confusion and frustration. His vision of the flow of events wasn’t that reflected by the chess pieces. He’d lost a major gambit when the Queens scattered before he made his move. Now, his men were searching the building and the reports were.. confusing, to say the very least. The Chessmaster lost another major gambit, though he never realized it, when he let his focus settle for too long and too hard on one development. He never noticed the deviations building up in the dance room.

Then, he was sure of one of his Queens. He selected the proper unit. “Unit #32, ready the Spassky Reversal gambit.”

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Keeping low behind a bunch of tall green plastic bins, Shroud slipped through one of the fire exits with Jade in her arms. Her other self was crying, eyes screwed shut and covering her ears with both hands. Tucking her underneath a stairwell, Shroud reluctantly tucked her under a concrete stairwell out of sight. “Charge.”

Shroud had to repeat herself, pulling one of Jade’s hands away from her ears for a moment, but the little girl bravely nodded and gave her a fresh jolt before letting the dark figure go. Snaking across the floor back out into the grounds, Shroud was just in time to see Tennyo crash through the window into the commentator’s box to her left, at least 200 feet away.

“Identification: Confirmed,” one of the nearby cyborgs said to no one in particular, “Tennyo, Super-A class threat. Terminate with extreme prejudice. Use of Vulcan cannon authorized. Squad A, engage. Squad B, continue search for Team Kimba.”

“Roger, Roger.” The rest of the cyborgs replied in unison, a full thirty of them peeling away from the fire exits to head toward the commentator’s box.

Shroud didn’t know what a Vulcan Cannon was, but it sounded bad. Fortunately, Bunny had had the foresight to install one of the communicator patches onto the Shroud frame near her ‘voice box’. Strangely, she could still hear the subdermal amplification system with the patch planted on her metal skull. “All members of Team Kimba, this is Shroud, what’s your situations? I’m near sector 3 Fire Escape, Jade’s in a safe place, over.”

“Shroud,” Tennyo’s voice came back, “you’re not affected either? Thank God! Axel and Screech are in pretty bad shape but they’re operational.”

“Tennyo, you don’t have much time, they’re sending about thirty cyborgs at your position, and they’re breaking out something called ‘The Vulcan Cannon’! We’ve gotta figure out what they’re doing to us! Fey, Chaka, Bunny, Sara, anyone, come back?”

“This is Chaka,” the martial artist’s voice came through, “I’m as weak as a kitten but I can move a bit. Guys, it helps if you screw your eyes shut… I know it’s not much but it’s something. My sense of balance is all messed up, even with the Ki abilities. Whatever they’re doing it’s like the world’s doing flip-flops.”

“Chou here, same problem. Ayla’s having trouble focusing on her power, bits of her keep doing weird stuff. Molly doesn't look so good. We’re hiding under the stage, over.”

“Fey here… Can’t.. cast.. can’t.. hardly.. breathe…”

“Fey, this is Hank, where are you?”

“Under.. logs…”

Chaka swore. “She’s a sitting duck! Hank, can you get to her?”

“Crawling… I can’t open my eyes very long but my field’s still up. I can give her some cover when the time’s right… Are you ok, Chaka?”

“I got rid of the wig. These cyborg guys…”

Chaka’s channel was interrupted suddenly by a barrage of gunfire that echoed through the stadium.

“Chaka!” Riptide hissed.

“I’m ok; they just shot the wig, I hid it behind one of the fire doors. These ‘borg guys are looking for people dressed as Tenchi Muyo. Ditch the costumes if you can.”

“Crap,” Hank muttered, “what about that idiot Akira and the Power Rangers?”

“They’ll just have to take care of themselves for a little bit…”

“Guys,” Tennyo interrupted, “Axel thinks he knows what’s going on!”

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The odd mass on the tiled floor undulated in the same manner road kill does after the maggots start eating away at it. Then the mass started to bubble and shift, pulling away from the tiled floor, leaving the ceramic tiles scarred and smoking as it did so. Overhead, a dim light stabbed down from the distant ceiling as the mass shuddered and congealed in upon itself, the raucous buzzing from the gym above echoing unpleasantly in the echoing chamber.

There was a distinct pause as the flesh reformed. Several mouths appeared in various places, giving vent to a howling chorus of pain and indignity. Bare instants later, eyes appeared and just as quickly vanished as the odd creature continued its metamorphosis. An occasional spark from the vicinity of the ceiling bespoke of high voltage power lines that were now missing their protective coverings.

As the flesh doubled and reformed upon itself, a humanoid shape began to emerge as the mouths were slowly sucked back into the mass. Black shoes appeared where feet would normally appear. They were aged, and one seemed to have an odd crease along the sole almost as if a something was hidden there. Then, with growing haste, a pair of argyle socks appeared and then were partially hidden as grayish-blue pants started to form, racing up to the waist where a black belt appeared.

Rapidly, a darker blue jacket started to form. Then a white shirt was glimpsed through the open jacket. A black tie shot down from the neck of the suit and was neatly secured by a golden tiepin. Slowly the face appeared, jet-black eyebrows rising up as the eyes opened and closed, then black hair brushed out in a style famous for use in the government - well, in the sixties that is.

Sitting up, the figure sighed and looked over at the pool that was inches away. “Would you believe… I missed it by that much?”

“Okay Jimmy, enough goofing around,” the figure that looked exactly like Maxwell Smart said, as he nimbly jumped to his feet. “Next stop, Control.. or what passes for it around here.”

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Erik pulled Cat into a kiss up against the bunker wall outside, while trying to punch in the code to get the blast hatch open. Sure, it was cheating; having locked down the outdoor range for heavy weapons and blasters, but then again his motto had always been ‘if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying’. He got the correct code after the second attempt and the hatch popped then slid back and away on the heavy rollers. A foot of titanium-alloy steel would usually be enough to stop all but the most dedicated lunatics from getting into the control area and the heavy gun racks that stood in a cage towards the back end of the structure.

Cat pulled him through the entryway and he slapped the lockdown button, causing the immense door to roll closed and lock into place. He pushed her against the cage, drawing her into another kiss while she wrapped a leg around his waist and began clawing off his vest. The wigs came off, thrown into a corner along with the vest and her jacket. Bra and T-shirt landed somewhere on a control board for the targets out on the range.

He picked her up and she wrapped her legs about his waist, still kissing him as he hauled her into the weapons cage. He set her down and threw down a blanket on the floor then turned to look at the love of his life. Her short, pixie cut, blonde hair and crystal-green eyes framed her pretty face. She wasn’t an exemplar. He didn’t care, he wasn’t either. Besides, she had big breasts, which was a bonus. All of this was packed into the tiny firebrand of a woman he’d grown to know and love over the past six years.

Cat had her own view of the burly ex-marine she’d said ‘yes’ to four months before. His buzz-cut blonde hair and steely blue-grey eyes were the eyes she’d looked into the first day they’d met and seen a good man behind, one who loved her from the word go and wasn’t afraid of being the baseline lover of a powerful mutant. He was well-muscled and fit as hell, having to work constantly to even make a pretense of keeping up with the students, usually beating them handily at ranged combat games. Of course he cheated mercilessly, as was alluded to by the tattoo on his right arm, a highly detailed depiction of Saint George slaying a dragon that matched the golden medallion around his neck, with the word “Hijacker” immediately below it in stark relief. He’d never told her why he had those things. She smirked and resolved that she wouldn’t catch fire when she orgasmed this time for him.

Cat squealed as he wrapped his arms around her and swung her around effortlessly, dropping her gently onto the blanket. They never spoke during sex, each knew by both instinct and experience what the other liked and both had a will to give it to the other. With a quick, well-practiced move her pants were left hanging off of a machinegun barrel. He wasn’t nearly as slick about getting his own pants off, and she giggled when she realized he’d been going commando again. He tore her panties off and began leaning forward, caressing her body, kissing her all over, and doing his level best to make sure she was happy before going in.

Their lovemaking was interrupted just as he was about to push into her, when a crackling voice came through on the bunker comm system.

“All squads, all squads, if you can hear this we are under attack, repeat, under…” It was Delarose's voice, and it was cut off by the beginnings of what sounded like an explosion in the background.

Erik and Cat stopped, staring at each other for a moment then over at the comm system. “Did he just say what I think he just said?” Cat asked.

“No, no, no! Delarose, if this is another goddamned drill I'm gonna kill you while you sleep!” Erik was already up and moving towards the comm system, both he and Cat rapidly coming down from the ecstatic rush and beginning to feel frustrated and pissed off in equal measure.

Cat got up and began gathering clothing when she heard him swearing at the screens, rapidly building up to yelling.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK! Comms is down, sensors are down.”

Cat looked over his shoulder. “That's impossible.”

“Fuck, nothing's impossible. This, however, is retarded. Cat the Range’s ‘REACT’ heavy armor is in the back of the cage, at the vault door, code is 7, 5, 5, 0, 2. When the light glows green say ‘As I walk through the Valley of the shadow of Death’.” Erik was frantically punching controls on the range terminal, looking for any sign of what the attackers were.

Cat darted back into the locker, punching the code. The light popped green. “As I walk through the Valley of the shadow of Death.”

“I shall fear no evil, for I have a BFG and unlimited ammo.” Intoned the solemn reply from the machine.

“Erik what the fuck is wrong with you? That response is retarded!”

“Sue me, I had a hangover when I programmed it!”

Erik ran back and joined Cat in the locker, helping her strap on the heavy Kevlar and ballistic plating of the Whateley version of the Land Warrior armor. Hers was more lightly armored, not to mention heavily insulated against heat and fire. His looked rather akin to a humanoid tank. There were no motors or muscle assists, but his Heavy Weapon rig was obvious, as well as the heavy ballistic plates, and a slew of weapon hardpoints.

Caitlin rolled out a pair of Marine-style rocket launchers along with the reload tubes and rockets then began strapping tubes to Erik's back while he prepped his machinegun and AEGIS loaders. All in all he had eight rockets strapped to him, four HEAT and four HEAP. The Launcher was strapped to his right leg; six spare barrels for the heavily modified 240-Golf machinegun he cradled in his hands were on his left thigh. Erik was the heavy firepower specialist of the Range crew, so his armor was built to accommodate.

Cat’s armor was much simpler. Three HEAT rockets were strapped to her back just in case, the launcher slung across her back. She didn’t pick up any other weapons. As a level 5 Manifestor, she was more than capable of being her own weapon.

She put on the heavily insulated and tricked-out helmet before handing Erik his as he walked towards the hatch. He looked like a mad Space Marine when he stopped, glaring at the phone hanging on the wall for a moment before he picked it up and dialed.

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Delarose tackled Pristine out of the doorway a moment before the two titans made impact in the hallway outside, one a giant ball of energy, the other a gnashing mass of razor-sharp claws. The battle aura of both combatants meeting forcefully was enough to blow down walls and throw everyone in the building to the floor. A flash of lighting and fire later and they both jumped straight up through the roof as if the floors above them were less than an inconvenience.

“Damn,” the chief swore as he picked himself up off the student, “I haven’t seen Carson go all out in a long time. What are the rest of you still doing on the floor, we’ve got asses to kick and names to take!”

Suddenly, the phone on the wall rang. It was such a surprise that everyone just stared at it in stunned silence. Delarose answered it on the third ring. “Hello, Swiss cheese security, our building’s full of holes. Delarose speaking.”

“Uh, Chief Delarose?”

“Who is this?”

“This is Erik, I’m on the gunnery range. We got your distress call before comms went down but the direct line seems to be just fine. We’ve got a locker full of heavy weapons here, do you need assistance?”

“Um, let me thin… HELL YES! I COULD KISS YOUR ASS!”

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“Well, look what we have here,” said a voice partially masked by odd filtering, from around the corner Jimmy-Smart was moments from turning.

Hesitantly, Jimmy mashed up against the corner. A finger lengthened, then it eased around the corner as an eye formed at the end of it. The scene it beheld was slightly comical.. or deadly serious if you considered the armed men were facing a trio of girls dressed as the Saber Marionettes, Lime, Cherry and Blood Berry. The two groups, one seemingly frightened, the other militantly hostile, regarded each other for a timeless moment.

Jimmy paused briefly, and then his features blurred. They reformed into that of Otaru from the same series, though he appeared more cartoonish compared to the girls.

Smiling he paused and called out, “Oh Cherry, Lime, Bloodberry… where did you go!”

Counting to himself, he paused and boldly stepped around the corner, just in time to stop with a machine gun poking him in the belly. “Lime, erk.”

“Looks like another straggler,” opined one of the Tigers as he appraised the cartoonish figure.

“Actually,” Jimmy-Otaru said slowly, “I was just on my way to find my friends.. and now, since I have your attention…”

There was a pause while the Guards froze as Jimmy pointed behind them. “I draw your attention to the fact that either something big and nasty is behind you, or I am just messing with you.. but go ahead and look.”

As one, the three mercenaries spun to see the briefly-ignored girls, now smiling tightly. “Oh Otaru!” giggled the girl dressed as Lime, as she started to flicker with a garish red light while she rested her hands on her friends’ shoulders.

“Freeze, we do not wish to… urk!” started the Tiger, as Jimmy slammed downward onto his helmet with what appeared to be a boulder.

Laughing, the two other girls stepped forward, one a ghostly apparition of unearthly sensuality, the other wreathed in greenery and roses. Together the two stepped in measured cadence as Lime smiled and merely glowed while they advanced on the Tigers. Then as one, they appeared to shimmer and dance between the two standing Tigers. Lime grinned in savage fury as the two girls’ powers seemed to mesh.. and then they struck.

Dropping to the floor, Jimmy-Otaru watched in mild fascination as the two girls sent both of the heavily armored men sailing into the walls. Ceramic and steel crashed harshly against the concrete walls. The air seemed to waver as Lime waltzed up to the disoriented Tigers, and with a move worthy of Tag-Team Wrestling, sent them sprawling helmets first to the floor. Laughing lightly, the two other girls paused to lift the two hapless Tigers before using them as wrecking balls on the last Tiger who was trying to stand up.

“I told you Reverb, don’t steal so much juice!” said Cherry as she gave the pile of soldiers an amused look.

“Sorry, but it looked like Otaru there… errrr Jimmy? I mean, he was going to steal all of your thunder,” protested Reverb as she adjusted her wig and costume.

“Well jeeze, just because you can ramp up on everyone’s power…” muttered the other girl with a huff, as vines started to appear and bind the soldiers in a mass of flowering vines.

“I’m really sorry, I thought you could use the diversion,” Jimmy-Otaru said as he eased past the wall of vegetation growing up from the Tigers.

“Oh it was timed well,” said Blood Berry as she checked her hands. “Damnit, I broke a nail!” There was a pause as she kicked the mass, making it rise up to the ceiling and drop painfully to the floor. “Do you know how much I paid to have them done!”

“Um, they are down… You should…” Jimmy-Otaru paused and then ducked his head at the glaring girls, “I’ll be going now.”

“Smart boy,” said Reverb as she chuckled darkly.

“He’s almost trainable…” said Cherry with a thoughtful look on her face.

“Um, I’m taken…” Jimmy-Otaru quickly said as they started to walk towards him.

“Damn, all the good guys on campus usually gay or taken… Why am I going to school here?” asked Lime-Reverb as she sighed in disgust.

“You and Sonic Youth breaking a few million dollars of glass in a ‘discussion’? Ring any bells?” asked Cherry as she gave the Tigers another ride to the ceiling and back to the floor.

“If that loud mouth had kept his big mouth shut…” Reverb said with a sigh as she shook her head. “Hey let me give them a few kicks too, I suddenly have an anger issue I need to resolve…”

“Oh look, they’re trying to crawl away…” said Cherry as she tagged Lime-Reverb into the ‘ring.’

With a sinister-sounding giggle, Lime-Reverb’s voice changed in pitch slightly to where it nearly mimicked the character she portrayed. “It’s good when it twitches.” With that, she used a sweep to drop the struggling Tiger back to the cement.

Jimmy-Otaru cautiously eased past the girls while shaking his head, “I’ll be going…”

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“You all go over the other side,” Nightbane ordered, “I’ll flush her out. You keep her distracted and I’ll finish her off.”

“We don’t take orders from you,” the Tiger Guard’s voice crackled through the speaker in his helmet.

The Sergeant, a woman, stepped in between them. “We do.. for now. You,” she pointed at Ecto-tek, “follow us. If you can’t keep up, you’ll be left behind.”

The chain of command established (for now), Nightbane slowly opened the fire door; making it beat against the wall behind it to be sure the Demon wasn’t hiding there. Inside, the fluorescent lighting flickered down a long hallway that cut a clear, straight, path through to the outer wall of the building. Several doors stood in the walls that led to fire escapes from the upper levels and basement.

Sara leapt downward from the roof above, pushing off with her feet and thrusting Nightbane’s shoulders down into the floor. The other girl managed to tuck her shoulder down at the last moment, however, tumbling them both into a roll and using the twist of her torso to swipe out at the Demon Princess.

The strike hit concrete brick, showering the combatants with sparks as Sara hopped off the wall, dived over the Buffy wannabe and adroitly flipped onto her feet. “I cannot believe you fell for that one twice.”

Nightbane shrugged. “Don’t expect it’ll work a third time.” Raising her sword hand into a fencing stance, she stepped forward with her right foot and thrust the tip toward her opponent’s throat, edges horizontal to the floor. Sara just barely dodged her head far enough to the right. The golden sword sliced through Sara’s hair, sending a shower of broken strands to drift toward the floor. Without pause, Nightbane sliced sideways, aiming for the neck. Sara rolled her body from the torso as she saw the blade coming, ducking underneath, hopping backwards as Nightbane followed the spin, and lashing out with several tentacles that sprouted from her back.

Changing the angle of what would have been a spinning stroke at Sara’s heart, she slapped the tentacles aside with the flat of her blade. The impact hissed and popped rather than delivering a solid thwack, smoke billowing out from where the metal made contact with Sara’s flesh. The Demon Princess reeled backward, almost stumbling as the pain lanced up the appendages and into her body. “SHIT! An Orichalcium sword, eh? Where’d you get something like that on such short notice?”

“Hey, we’ve got connections.” Nightbane smirked under her hood. Crouching down, she raised her sword back up into the vertical, holding the hilt up near her shoulder in a Kendo stance. “Prepare to return to Hell, bitch.”

“Sheesh, who writes your dialogue?” Sara stalled, slowly sliding backward holding the burnt tentacles in her hands, drawing the other girl further down the hallway. “Seriously, it’s hard to move with all this cheese in the air.”

She raised her eyebrow, following Sara’s movements cautiously as she eyed the red rags that used to be the demon’s costume. “Well, I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me that outfit could get MORE sluttish. I never thought there was enough of it to blow holes in.”

“Don’t get angry with me because you like what you see,” Sara snickered.

Two things happened at once. Nightbane attacked without even a warning growl, lifting her blade to deliver an overhand chop to the opponent’s crown. Sara reached even more quickly out to the side, to rip one of the fire extinguishers off its mounting. She raised the heavy red canister up into the path of the descending blade and felt the edge cleave into the metal through the impact shock in her hands. Sara, through her enhanced perception of time, got a momentary glimpse of Nightbane’s horrified face.

Then the extinguisher exploded.

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“Whoopsie,” Clover said in an awed whisper as two flying figures exchanged blows and blasts, any one of which would have shredded a main battle tank. Palantir and Abra looked around in subdued panic, as they were suddenly all too aware of all the dropships that shouldn’t be there, hovering over the school, and guys in armor with guns running around. Almost reflexively, Abra sketched magical power into the spell slips with her prank spells written on them.

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Lady Astarte, aka Elizabeth Carson, met Deathlist’s jet assisted charge with her own magically enhanced uppercut. The cyborg, unlike most of his kin, was neither slow nor inexperienced in dealing with those on an equal level. He grabbed her by the wrist with one claw, trying to dig the spiked gauntlets into her flesh to no avail due to the resistance of her soft-armor enhanced costume. His other hand, however, sprouted blades like a bouquet of knives, which he shoved straight at her face.. only to be parried by the magical rod in her free hand.

Both simply ignored the concrete they were rocketing through, one propelled and protected by his metal body, the other immune to the impacts due to her corona of blue energy that disintegrated the stone on contact. They burst out from the roof into the open, starry sky, still hurtling upward.

Carson had been in this situation before, but her finely honed combat brain didn’t even pause to consider the memory. Instead, she rolled backward like the two of them were on the mat practicing Judo, using his grip on her wrist to control his movement. Somersaulting in mid air over his shoulder, practically rolling onto his back, she planted her feet on at the top of his hips and shoved with all her might back towards the earth.

Seeing the solid ground approaching fast, Deathlist cut his booster rockets a moment before impact, taking the blow to his shoulder and rolling to bleed off his momentum. Coming to his feet, the death machine ran sideways a moment before a bolt of energy blew a smoking crater in the grass and cracked the pavement a few feet away. More blasts from Carson’s rod battered the ground around Deathlist as he dodged, laughing maniacally before finally diving behind a high stone wall, a heritage from one of the old buildings that had once stood on the grounds long ago.

Not taking the bait, Carson blasted the wall with a red, laser-like beam that demolished it as if it were a giant wrecking ball, punching though and blowing it to pieces.

Deathlist wasn’t behind it.

“FORE!”

A great stainless steel street light, freshly ripped from the side of the road, swung around in a great arc aimed at Carson’s head. She only raised a shield of magical force between herself and the skull-cracking blow a moment before impact. The power of the blow was still enough to bash her into the side of the building, the wall behind her back crumbling into a cracked, circular, depression, drawing a short scream of pain from her lips.

“Holographic decoy combined with adaptive camouflage,” Deathlist bantered as he emerged back into visibility at the other end of the street light, “never leave home without it.”

Without pause, he pitched the sharp, twisted, end of the streetlamp straight at his airborne opponent. Carson dodged easily, the metal pole burying itself seven feet into the wall where she had once been. Her return blast lit up the night sky, a stream of balefire that turned everything in its path to cinders, peeling away vegetation to melt the dirt underneath into a glassy substance.

Deathlist jumped, took two steps up the wall of the security building before kicking off and swiped with his blade-studded right arm as he hurtled past. The slash missed, but forced Carson to cancel her spell and swoop higher into the air. Grinning on his way down, spinning to face her, compartments in the cyborg’s hips, back and shoulders popped open, several mini-missile pods deploying and locking onto their target in a moment. In less than a millisecond, the smart missiles had Image Recognition, Heat Signature, and Electromagnetic Lock. In the next moment they fired, streaming white smoke like threads into the night sky.

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“I can feel it through the floor,” Axel explained, pressing both hands tight against his wound to stop even more blood loss. He was already pale and shaky from shock. “There’s a vibration, subsonic. I think it messes with the inner ear, mucks up your sense of balance. Fine motor control would be impossible, vision would be completely fucked, it’d give you a headache like someone took a pickaxe to your skull, any movement at all would make you wanna hurl…”

“Chaka says check on all points,” Tennyo relayed through the comms, “Why aren’t some people affected? Why would Fey be totally trashed?”

“Sensitivity, powers and training,” Axel continued. “I’m immune because I can dampen the effect around me with my power. Screech is probably immune because she’s immune to her own Banshee ability, otherwise she’d kill herself. You I don’t know about…”

“I think I’ve got that one covered,” Tennyo muttered, “and Sara. What about Chaka and Chou?”

“Martial arts, right? Ki’s all about being centered and shit.” He gulped, looking quite pale despite Screech’s best ministrations. “They both have better control of their bodies than most so they can adapt themselves to the environment, especially Chaka. On the other end of the scale, Fey’s sensitive, I rather doubt those ears are just for show. I read somewhere that the Sidhe-types have finer senses than baseline norms… same deal for anyone else with sensitive hearing or vision, they’re gonna be totally trashed after this. It’s like riding a roller coaster that’s about to go off the rails.”

“Ok, how do we stop it? You’re Soundman, right?”

Axel snorted. “Copyrighted already. But yeah, I can nullify the effect if I can get enough amps to work with. They must be using the whole stadium to transmit the waves, like one big subwoofer.”

Screech slid forward, pointing at herself frantically, making motions like something was coming out of her mouth.

“Yeah,” Axel nodded, getting the gist, “that’d be plenty of energy. But you’ll have to hum continuously; if you falter the box will hit us again. Tennyo, someone will have to find and destroy the weapon. It’ll be attached to the building, probably on the roof. That’s where I’d put it at least, use it like a wobble board.”

Screech nodded enthusiastically. Tennyo tapped the communicator again, “What’s a wobble board, by the way?”

“Don’t ask.”

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“I told you, the Whateley Blood Bank can only be only be opened with a special code.” There was a pause followed by the sounds of flesh striking flesh. “Also, I regenerate at an insane rate, much faster than you can hit me. And while I do enjoy some pain, you really don’t have any technique where I can get into the mood and enjoy it.”

The figure that was easing into the stairway leading up into the depths of the clinic froze. Then it started to melt.

A few moments later the odd dialogue continued, “Seriously, knives… How trite.” The voice paused, “Oh look, you managed to trigger the secondary alarm system.. and no, that drill isn’t going to make me talk either.”

Blood-red goo washed up the stairs, then up the walls of the stairs, and finally a low moan echoed unpleasantly in the staircase.

“Oh no, you’ve done it now,” said the voice with a sinister laugh, “you have awakened the Guardian… You are so doomed.”

“You there, come out with your hands up and you won’t…” the semi-digitized voice paused in alarm, and then started shooting frantically into the shambling mass as it lurched up the stairs.

“Guns won’t work on it, it’s already dead…” The voice paused and giggled insanely as the other Tigers rushed to aid their comrades. “Do-OO-oomed.”

The guns illuminated the bloody staircase, as the figure took one slow step upwards after another. The muzzle flashes seemingly stopped time, as things dripped down the walls and in turn crawled back up the stairs. Time took on a unearthly quality as the man howled in hideous laughter to the sounds of breaking bones behind the Tigers.

“I told you that you wouldn’t like me when I was angry,” said the grey, overly-muscular figure just before it struck one of the Tigers, catapulting him down the bloody stairs.

The Tiger nearly reached the bottom of the stairs before it was hauled upwards, kicking and screaming in bloody terror. A moment later, there was a sickening thud that was soon followed by chewing noises, and then a deep belch. A moment later, the hellish figure on the stairs resumed its slow climb, one step at a time.

“I think, if you are really, really lucky, if you surrendered, stripped off your armor and begged for mercy… it might let you live,” said the large grey humanoid as it gave a mighty laugh. “But then again, maybe not.”

There was a horrible pause as the figure on the stairs shifted, seeming to look upward, its bloody face melting and reforming as it gave a piercing screech. “Yes, I think you may be lucky if you died quickly.. so what will it be? Tick-tick, time is wasting and frankly I’d rather get done feeding you to it and get back to my research. Tick-tick,” the brutish thing said as it smiled unpleasantly.

The figure on the stairs beckoned imploringly as if wanting to be fed. Then, as one, the Tigers dropped their guns and slowly raised their hands. “We surrender! Don’t feed us to that thing!”

The large figure sighed, and then picked up the guns, warping them as he did so. “Congratulations, you have chosen wisely. However, should you decide not to strip to your underwear…”

“We’re stripping! We’re stripping!” shouted the Tigers as they started to ditch their armor and clothes. It took less than a minute for the Tigers to reduce their attire to skivvies, and in one particular instance, nothing at all.

“A pity, now if you will precede me, I have a nice linen closet you may wait in, until the authorities come for you,” the towering figure said as it smiled unpleasantly.

The thing on the stairs paused, and then took a meaningful step upwards as the Tigers hesitated. Surging upward, it screamed in outrage, sending the nearly nude men into a panicked frenzy as they fell over each other trying to get into the closet. As the last Tiger crammed himself screaming into the closet, the large gray man closed the door with a grave-like chuckle and then locked it.

For a long moment the two monsters in the hallway regarded each other.. and then they started laughing. With a sickening rush the thin layer of bloody material that had coated the lights, walls and stairs thickened and slid into the figure on the stairs, shifting color and hue until Elvira stood there. She beamed grandly as the gray man applauded.

“I knew I was different,” Jimmy-Elvira said sweetly, “but not that different.”

Guffawing loudly, the gray man nodded and said, “I knew you were knocking around down there Jimmy, the idiots ignored the video cameras near the vault.”

“Gee Dave, I don’t think I’ve seen this side of you before,” Jimmy-Elvira said with a wave of shiny black fingernails.

“My therapist says I have anger management issues… I don’t really. I get angry, I break things, and I get over it… No issues at all.” Sighing, the large man added, “It’s back to the drawing board I fear.”

“Ah you might lock down the research until the invasion is over,” Jimmy-Elvira said with a worried look as the building trembled slightly.

“Invasion… Hmm… I suppose I should check in upstairs, lend a helping hand or a discouraging one,” Dave said with an annoyed grunt.

“I’m on my way to Hawthorne, Louis isn’t answering,” Jimmy-Elvira said as she sauntered toward a large corridor.

“Damnation, I can see nothing will get done tonight,” Dave clenched his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. “I’ll see to any interlopers in the clinic, and then send help to Hawthorne.”

“Thanks Dave, I gotta run,” said Jimmy-Elvira as she turned and stepped quickly away.

“One moment… The other soldier?” asked Dave quizzically.

“Urrrpppp! What soldier?” asked Jimmy-Elvira as she embarrassedly covered her mouth.

Smiling thoughtfully, the huge man nodded, “What soldier indeed.”

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“There’s one,” one of the Chessmen pointed its gun and fired a moment before Akira managed to flop through the doors with all the power and precision of a dead fish. Fortunately the fire doors, like most of their ilk, were designed to open outwards with the slightest provocation.

Within seconds, the doors were a holey mess, riddled by the bullets that zinged and thwumped over the boy’s head. Unable to stand, Akira crawled down the long hallway that seemed to extend away from him the further he moved.

He tried to ignore the doors behind as they burst open, one of the Chessmen bashing the remains into splinters on its way through. Despite his best efforts, Akira wasn’t fast enough. The cyborg stomped one metal foot down on his back, slamming him into the floor and pinning him here while it reloaded.

“Extermination order confirmed, executing.”

Akira felt the gun being pointed at the back of his head. His powers had failed him, it was too late, death was assured.

WHAM!

The fire door next to them burst open, slamming into the cyborg’s arm with enough force to throw its aim off, the burst of lead slamming into the floor next to Akira’s head. Chaka followed through, slamming both feet into its back and, with her Exemplar strength, drove its face into the wall opposite. Letting go of the lintel above the door, she hopped forward into a spinning heel kick that disarmed the thing, followed by a punch as she came out of the spin that bent the armor plate on its back six inches into the body. There was a meaty crunch before the cyborg collapsed as if someone had suddenly kicked the legs out from under it.

Kneeling down, the black girl smiled benignly at the boy she’d just saved. She took a moment to scratch underneath her improvised blindfold, a strip of her furry costume from her sleeve. “Hey, Akira. I think that this means that you officially OWE me one.”

Akira gurgled.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“Get off… my back…”

“What? Didn’t your mother teach you better manners? Why, I aughtta…”

“No… you’re on… my back…”

“Well, beggars can’t be choosers, you’re jus… oops, sorry sugar, I’ve got a phone call, excuse me for a sec.”

His gurgles rose in pitch as she rocked back on her heels. “Hello again? Oh, Tennyo, sorry I had to switch off for a sec. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. You just cover them; once you’ve finished off that squad you can rejoin the rest of us. Don’t worry, she’s perfectly suited for the mission. She’s the only one actually in position. Yeah, I know it’s not ideal but it’s the best we can do. All right, I know you’re worried, I’ll see if I can cook something else up. Allright, gotta go.”

Chaka sighed, bobbing up and down in frustration. Akira seemed to like it. “Sorry, honey, I just have one more call to make. Be right back with ya. Hey, Bunny? Ten-four Bunny, you reading me? If you can’t reply, beep once for yes and twice for no… ok, thank God, you had me sweatin’ for a moment there girl! I know you’re hurtin’, Bunny, but you gotta do something for us out here. If you’re still in the computer control room, I need you to set off all the holographic programs all at once, ok? Just whatever you can do to give us a distraction, the bigger the better. Wait for my signal. Sorry, dear, I gotta get this lug head under cover, hope you can help. Chou… oops, sorry, not you Chou. Yeah, bye. I’m sorry, Akira, where were we?”

“Glargle!”

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Dropship

The Chessmaster grinned savagely as the errant Queen stumbled face first into his Spassky Reversal. He looked into patterns beginning to gather and converge on the dance floor of the arena. It had been a little hairy there for a while, but his superior gamesmanship was showing, and he’d shepherded all the wandering queens and knights into their proper positions. Now, all that he had to do was wait for the oh-so-clever queens to commit, and then initiate the Lasker Flanking gambit, and he’d have them where he wanted them. In bodybags.

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“Life forms detected,” the lead Chessman droned as the squad approached the commentator’s box from both sides, “three identified. One, designation Tennyo. Two other expendable. Lethal response authorized. Room entry pattern zero-two-al…”

Tennyo opened the door and stepped into the middle of the hallway, smiling like a lunatic and waving as if she were saying hello to a good friend on a bright sunny day at a picnic. “Hi! Did you miss me?”

“Designation Tennyo! Execute!” Unimaginative to the last, the two Chessmen on either side of the spiky-haired girl raised their guns and fired in unison.

Tennyo ducked.

Bullets from both guns tore dermal armor and flesh to shreds. Cut off from their control system, their cybernetic fingers clamped down tenaciously on the trigger until the only action to be heard was the ‘click, click, click’ of the hammer hitting an empty chamber. “Malfunction… Malfunction… Errrrrrr…”

Flying forward, Tennyo slapped the first cyborg aside before it could collapse, grabbing the second by the neck and wrist, planting her foot on its smooth, armored, codpiece, rolled back and flipped the one-ton metal man into the line behind her. Sailing head over heels, the Chessman impacted with his fellows upside-down, setting off a chain reaction much like the effect of lining up a stack of dominos then flicking the one at the end.

Not bothering to stop and laugh, Tennyo flitted into the air by force of will, spun end over end, and punched the next Chessman in the face. Its head rocked back and returned like a punching bag, despite the loud crunch, a fist-shaped dent clearly visible on its cheek a moment before it, too, decided to keel over.

The element of surprise over, yet another Chessman stepped back as it lifted its weapon, firing at the same time to try and catch the girl in his line of bullets as recoil lifted the gun by itself. Again, she was too fast, flying in, grabbing the gun hand, pulling and slamming her back into it at the same time, she tore the arm right off in a shower of oil and beat him over the head with it, shattering what remained of the forearm and denting yet another head.

“Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!” The last of the cyborgs barked in unison, putting up their guns and shambling back down the corridor with surprising speed. Even the ones that had been knocked over managed to get up and stagger back the way they’d come.

Tennyo grabbed the closest one, twirled it around and gave it a backspin kick into the ground for good measure, fuming and growling so hard there should have been steam coming out of her collar. “Oh, OH! You’re QUICK when you’re running away! GET BACK HERE!”

Flying headlong down the corridor, smashing one straggler out of her way with a casual backhand, she rounded a corner and barged down the next door just as one of the Chessmen managed to slam it shut behind him, scratching yet another off her list. “I HAVE TOO MUCH FRUS.. TRA.. tion…”

If one could actually make a noise by stopping suddenly in mid air, like a car screeching to a halt, Tennyo would quite possibly have done so. Standing before her, surrounded by the remaining Chessmen, were two ten-foot-tall specimens carrying what looked like five-foot-long chainguns with ammunition the size of milk bottles.

“Oh, shi…”

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Pieces of shrapnel peppered Sara’s legs as the gasses inside the pressurized tube burst fourth in a spray of freezing white cloud. Without bothering to check on Nightbane’s state, she used the cover to turn and run, barging down the fire door that was in her way.

“There! Blast her!”

Sara didn’t have a moment to get her bearings as the air around her zinged with bullets and sizzled with some sort of white energy bolts that left burning craters in the grass around her. Leaping into the air without looking back, she left the gunfire well behind her for a moment, buying herself a moment to think. The first available cover that caught her eye was the trees dead ahead, an arm of the forest that clustered around a small stream down a muddy ditch.

Ducking as the bullets caught up with her, the Demon Princess ran across the ground on all fours, even using some of her tentacles to give her an extra burst of speed, heading straight for the ditch that wound into the darkness of beyond the treeline.

“SHIT!” One of the Tiger Guard swore as their target disappeared into the trees. “She’s so fuckin’ fast!”

“I’ve seen speedsters faster than that,” Ecto-Tek shrugged.

The Sergeant glared at him, he could tell even through the woman’s tinted visor. “You didn’t manage to tag her either, so shut the fuck up. Our mission’s still the same; we’re going in after her…”

“Hold up,” Ecto-Tek shook his head, grabbing the Sergeant’s wrist, “we need Nightbane. Her sword’s the only thing that’ll finish it off.”

There was a silent pause. Ecto-Tek couldn’t sense the impending violence in that moment and thus the rifle butt that hit his face seemed to come out of nowhere. The hit rocked him back on his heels as he toppled into the grass, unconscious before he could even realize that his nose was broken.

“As I was saying,” the Sergeant continued, “we’re going in after her. Stick close to each other and watch your backs.”

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Pulling himself back over the edge of the building, using his overly long sniper rifle for leverage, Terror stopped to catch his breath for a moment before taking up his firing position once more. The other two Sabretooths hadn’t been so lucky, catapulted ten feet into the air and over the edge by the blast as his Master and his Master’s Prey exploded up from below, buckling the entire roof from the sheer force of the impact.

Between the entry holes the Sabretooths had blown in the outer walls and all the internal damage both sides had done, the building was starting to fall apart. Occasionally, a piece of the roof would collapse into the lower floor, gunfire and screams echoing through the gaps from below. It was just like what Terror thought Hell would be like. The idea put a smile on his face.

He had to look through his scope to catch the battle between Carson and the Master, their running battle taking them far across the campus. Lady Astarte was being chased by the Master’s mini-missiles while Deathlist himself drew two huge guns into his hands seemingly out of thin air, firing bolts of superheated plasma at his opponent while she was distracted.

Terror had to tisk under his breath as, ducking and weaving, the Headmistress tried the old ‘pull up hard just before the building’ trick. Rather than impact with the building and explode, the missile’s jets shut off as the antigravity thrusters kicked in, flipping them ninety degrees into the vertical before the rocket motors kicked back in. The move gained the Headmistress less than a second’s lead on the tenacious ‘Hound’ missiles that were a special invention of Chessmaster himself.

Terror jumped as loud, jingly, heavy metal music blared through his earphones, high enough to make the speakers squeal like nails down a chalkboard at the top of the range. Biting down hastily, he tried to switch to the alternate frequency but the noise was on that one as well. Snarling, he shut the thing off altogether. Someone had gotten hold of one of their comms systems and rigged up a jamming device, but who…

The report of a gun in the distance from around the Hawthorne Cottage area caught Terror by surprise. Someone was actually fighting back against the mop-up teams, someone who knew what they were doing if they were responsible for jamming their comms. Turning the rifle to point in the proper direction, he began scanning the campus for targets…

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Jimmy-Elvira stood there, looking at the collapsed tunnel, her nose wrinkling with distaste as the sewage openly poured out from a large, ruptured, blue pipe. For a time she peered at the mess and then looked back the way she had come. The tunnel was only lit by emergency lights, and none of them seemed too stable.

“Oooh, I just hate sewers, why is it in all the comics all they ever show is someone coming out of a faucet?” she asked the air as she peered up and around the pipe.

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Delarose peeked around the corner just long enough to see where the fire was coming from. Holding up his hand to the rest of his team, he pointed to the left, held up three fingers then to the right and held up another four. The rest nodded, even Pris who was watching their backs. He’d drilled the signals into her skull thoroughly in the five minutes they’d had getting the gear together.

Wilson, the kid directly behind Delarose, took his position at the corner and raised his grenade launcher up in a ready-fire position. Everyone checked their earplugs and lowered their tinted goggles over their eyes. The launcher made a short, hollow, ‘thook’ sound when it fired. The grenade itself bounced once before exploding into a ball of white light and smoke.

A flash-bang is designed to blind and distract an enemy that is occupying a small space, usually a room. They are, therefore, ideal as an opening for a sudden assault on a defended position. This time, they had the opposite effect, demonstrated by a fusillade of small arms fire that chewed up the hallway around the corner.

“Photoreactive visors?” Wilson snickered.

“See, this is why I hate urban combat,” Delarose growled conversationally, “the enemy digs in like ticks an’ all you can do is root the little buggers out an’ everyone gets killed trying…”

“I wish I could see the look on their faces when…”

BOOM!

A flash-bang-boom is a newer invention designed by a Whateley alumnus who ‘majored’ at Kane Hall. He noted in his senior year that injuries inflicted in experiments were always worse if the subject made a loud noise and then paused before exploding into flesh-tearing shrapnel. Seeing a similar principle used in the field with the ‘Knock-knock’ (an M16 mounted with two under barrel grenade launchers), he was able to optimize and time an explosive to inflict maximum damage based on his hypothesis.

It worked.

Delarose went first, the others passing Wilson in single file while he reloaded, except for Pristine who eventually followed Wilson around the corner after he slung the launcher in favor of his MP3 submachine gun.

Ground zero was a mess; the explosive charge had shattered doors and disintegrated walls, the dust still settling over broken furniture. The squad didn’t bother cuffing the still bodies of the Sabretooths, they just put more bullets into them as they passed. Nobody had time to spare or the inclination to have to look after prisoners that could probably kill you with just their teeth.

Delarose took cover out of sight of the doorway the defenders had taken cover behind. There was a long hallway in front of it and a short set of stairs that made charging the position awkward, not to mention providing additional cover. “Hey, down there! This is Chief Delarose, identify yourselves!”

“Chief?” A voice replied, as if the owner couldn’t believe his ears. “Chief, this is Lieutenant Reynolds! God, it’s good to hear your voice, sir!”

Delarose stepped out into the open to find the Lieutenant peeking around the corner with his rifle still trained on the hallway. Stepping down the hallway with his hands out, the Chief approached cautiously with a friendly smile on his face. “Good to see you made it, Reynolds. Report.”

“I have two of my combat teams with me, the third is still somewhere out on the grounds. Myself and four others are ok, but we’ve got three wounded and two casualties. We rendezvous’ed here for weapons and ammo but the bastards boxed us in, this was the best place we could find to defend from.”

“Good work, Lieutenant,” Delarose nodded, “gather your men, we’re taking this facility back. Wilson, hand out the toys to these kids…”

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Chaka peeked around the corner at the main dance floor at where the armed goons had most of the kids at bay. The partygoers were NOT having a good time. Almost all of them were in some level of discomfort, ranging from ‘annoying ringing in the ears’ to ‘I’ve hurled everything I had, and now I’m tasting bile’. There were quite a few disgusting puddles on the floor, and no few ruined costumes. The guys in the tiger-stripe armor were doing the bit where they kept adjusting their positions, making planning for jumping them harder. Toni touched her ‘spot’ and whispered, “Chaka. In position. Everyone set?” The others all sounded off. “Billie? I didn’t get a hark-back from you. You okay, Billie-hon?” But just then, there was a sound that thundered ever over the ear-rattling whine, a staccato report that was punctuated by very loud explosions.

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There was a flushing sound, but not the good kind… And then there was a sound similar to that of toothpaste popping past the dried paste. The sound that usually occurs when you forget to put the cap on and are forced to squeeze too hard, shooting toothpaste everywhere. This sound was followed by bubbling sounds that were similar, but not quite like that of an office water cooler gurgling. Then there was swearing, as a wet figure lurched out of a stall and to the sink, pausing only to rip the soft soap dispenser from the wall and drink it.

Moments later, the figure was heard gargling and spitting several times from a dozen mouths. “Ugh. ‘It’s just proteins and fluids, your immune system can handle it…’ Bastards, gah I feel so unclean.”

“And just where the hell am I?” asked Jimmy-Mario as he looked into the mirror sickly. Then with a lurch he weaved his way to the doors, all the while not quite humming the ‘Super Mario Brothers’ theme song.

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Dropship

The Chessmaster watched his board intently. Yes, it was all coming together nicely. But timing was of the essence. Too soon, and they’d just bolt and scatter again. Too late, and well, they might as well all go home.

The Chessmaster looked at his board and he saw it all. He saw all the possible outcomes. He saw the desired effect: Target A dead, Targets B-through-F either dead or neutralized, Carson dead, and Hartford installed as the headmistress of Whateley, with significant blackmail incriminating her in the attack that got her the job. He also saw the worst possible outcome: Targets A-through-F all alive and well, Carson alive and furious, England shot by enraged Security guards, Buxton disgraced or even dead, and Hartford either dismissed from Whateley or enraged at the Chessmaster’s attempt to suborn her. He also saw all the other possibilities spread out in a fan of ever changing, almost fractal, combinations as each decision, action and incident created new permutations: Target A wounded and flees Whateley. Target A killed, Gothmog summoned, the enraged Demon Prince then kills everyone in a ten-mile radius. Gothmog enraged, but killed by Carson, England, or Target C. Target A killed, Gothmog not summoned, but Target C kills all Syndicate troops in retaliation. Target B killed, England becomes aware of it in time and turns his troops against the Syndicate enforcers. Target C killed, which triggers some sort of incalculable effect that destroys an area 300 miles in radius and causes a nuclear winter that lasts for three years. Target F killed, Target C kills all Syndicate troops in retaliation. Carson not killed but wounded, continues on as Headmistress. Carson not killed but crippled, retires, uses clout to prevent Hartford from succeeding her. Carson killed, Hartford succeeds her, but refuses to accede to the Chessmaster’s demands…

Unfortunately, he was too wrapped up in observations of the movements of the ‘Queens’ to notice the strange ripples in the flow of probabilities caused by Kismet and Risk being too close together.

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Reflexes are a bitch. Tennyo knew that she should have charged right in and slagged the two mini-guns before they were able to fire, but her knee-jerk reflex to flee at the sight of the two BFGs gave them the opening. The huge rounds tore into her, blowing away her left leg just above the knee, her right hand in the middle of her forearm, and knocking a bowling ball sized chunk out of her side. She managed to get a protective force shield up, but she was reeling. The two mini-gunners firewalked forward as their weapons rattled off a hail of metal that could have ripped a main battle tank to shreds. The rest of the Chessmen chambered grenades into the launchers on their weapons and started to set their aim.

Then five concussion grenades all landed at one time at the feet of one of the mini-gunners. The blast scattered the Chessmen, knocked the other mini-gunner off his feet, and pretty much trashed the first mini-gun. The guy who had been holding it didn’t look very good, either. The Chessmen responded to the new threat faster than they had any real right to, but the team of three digital-cammo-clad teenagers opened fire and kept the cyborgs pinned. Ignoring the incredible pain that she was feeling, Billie reached inside herself, screamed and launched a deceptively small ball of pale blue energy from her surviving hand. The tiny point of light flew at the remaining mini-gunner, who disappeared in a blossom of plasma, scattering the other cyborgs even more. Eyes glowing red with rage, Tennyo gave a savage “Hyyyaaaggghh!” and dove at the remaining Chessmen with a berserk fury. Her right hand - which should have been utterly destroyed - filled with her light-sword, and she carved into the Chessmen, ignoring the incoming fire from the Security team. When the last cyborg fell, she allowed herself to regain control of her emotions.

As she calmed down, Jade’s voice came to her through the din. “Onee-san! Are you all right? Billie-san? Onee-sammmaaa!

The note of hysteria in Jade’s voice snapped Billie out of her berserk. She looked around for Jade, but couldn’t find her. Then she realized that Jade was calling her on the ‘spots’. She centered herself with a few deep breaths and touched the spot. “I’m okay. I ran straight into a trap.”

“Are you okay?” Jade’s voice asked breathlessly, sounding very small and scared.

“I’m okay, I’m okay…” Billie insisted.

“Billie? Can you still hold up your part of the plan?” Chaka asked.

Billie looked up. “There’s a drop-ship hovering right over the arena.”

“The dropship either is projecting the Reverb-wave, or it’s protecting the Reverb generator on the roof,” Bunny guessed.

“Gotcha. Either way, I gotta take it out,” Billie said.

“Wait!” Chaka snapped. “I’m not in position yet. If I’m not there to make sure that the kids react right when the reverb-thingie goes down, this could still turn into a cluster-fuck! Wait ‘till I give the signal!”

“Who died and made YOU boss?” Billie snapped.

“Just DO it, okay?” Ayla groaned. “This reverb-thing is doing strange stuff to my warping! Not to mention my stomach!”

“Just wait for Chaka’s signal,” Lancer said stolidly. “Then cut loose.”

“Right, right,” Billie grated. The reverb thing wasn’t affecting her powers, but it was getting on her nerves. Or maybe it was the itching sensation that she had in her left foot. Which had been blown off by the mini-gun.

“What are you up to?” snapped the lead kid, a harsh, weaselly-looking boy carrying no weapons.

“Not to worry,” Billie said with a brave grin. “Team Kimba is on the job, and we have a plan!”

“Oh. Christ. We are SO fucked.” Bomber’s hands lit up blue-white as he began whipping searing plasma like explosive baseballs toward the Chessmen who were trying to flee. “Slappy, Bunker, gimme some cover!”

The three Grunts that the Sabretooths hadn’t caught began once again laying down a withering pattern of fire, trying to secure the entrance while Billie contemplated her next move.

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Chaka signed off and adjusted her costume. Or at least, what was left of her costume. Hopefully, the Tiger-stripes weren’t quite as trigger-happy as the Checkerboards were. Or at least, that they were so busy keeping the Whateley kids on a leash that the rather ragged condition of her body stocking wouldn’t register. She waited until one of the Tiger-stripes was in position, and she made her move to ‘escape’. “HALT!” the Tiger Guard shouted, just before he launched his netcaster. Chaka had to throttle her reflexes enough to let the net hit her, and to refrain from ripping out of it like toilet paper when it wrapped around her.

“TONI!” Scotty called out, and he surged forward.

“Hold it right there, Superman!” Two of the Tiger-stripes cut him off with their weapons, keeping him with all the other students.

Two of the Tiger-stripes dragged Chaka to the main group of students. “LOOK! We are NOT here to hurt you! Our mission is to take out ONE particular party! WE are here ONLY to see to it that you don’t try to interfere! All that you have to do is STAY PUT and not do ANYTHING until we’re finished, and you’ll all be OKAY!”

The Tiger-stripes threw Chaka into Scotty’s arms. “Toni? Are you okay?”

“Right as rain, Sweetie,” Chaka said, using her Ki to pitch her voice so that it would carry over the dentist’s-drill whine and everyone in their little group could hear, but it wouldn’t carry to the guards. “My team has figured out what’s going on, and we’re ready to move. When I start giving out orders, you guys just jump on these assholes, and make them wish that they’d gone to the Rocky Horror Picture Show instead.”

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Razorback wasn’t conscious anymore, not coherent, his world was full of piercing agony as every fiber of his body shrieked in protest from that maddening sound. The beast within was in a full fury, trying desperately to kill the source of the accursed noise as he ripped a toilet stall door off its moorings and slammed his body into the porcelain edifice within, shattering it beyond any prayer of recognition. The berserk shriek that erupted from his throat as he slammed to his left and tore through the thin sheet metal divider into the next stall was piercing and terrifying, a long, ululating hunting howl that would leave no doubt that Whateley’s top ultraviolent was beyond reason to anyone who had heard it before.

He wasn’t even conscious of the Sabretooths that had penetrated the spacious bathroom he’d become trapped in, unable to even figure out a door handle. All he saw was red with dark, moving shapes. He tasted blood, felt claws tear leather and flesh, felt piercing agony that dulled the burning horror of the sonic assault on his body as bullets ripped through him, healing very slowly by comparison to the norm for him.

The six Sabretooths had heard the shrieking noise within the room and entered, intent on pacifying whatever was destroying the room within. They weren’t expecting to see the spined, velociraptor-like form from the top of their priority targets for incapacitation, nor were they expecting the rager boy to move so fast. Three of them died in the first two seconds, torn apart by claws and fangs of a creature that was fully capable of running at a hundred miles per hour on sheer muscle power alone.

The last three only had time to scream and fire wildly into the mottled, black and yellow nightmare as it proceeded to eviscerate and dismember anything which came within reach. Not even the urinals and sinks were safe, as the room began rapidly flooding from the furious, raw destruction the pained boy inflicted on his surroundings.

The last Sabretooth almost managed to get out of the restroom. Almost.

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“Holy mother of God!” the Tiger Guard sergeant howled as he desperately tried to slam the door to the bathroom shut on the muzzle of the beast rampaging inside. The shrieks from inside the bathroom had been as blood-curdling as they had been brief, and he’d seen the last Sabretooth, Deathlist’s elite, try to flee the room only to have three hundred pounds of dinosaur land on his back and drag him inside, shrieking.

The Tigers had stood, stunned, until the Sabretooth’s severed arm had been flung into the hallway by the beast’s murderous rampage. Now they were desperately trying to keep the wounded thing inside the room, while it tried to get out.. at them. Even riddled with slowly-closing bullet-holes it took all five of them to keep it from coming out. One of the Tigers pushed the muzzle of his assault rifle into the room and fired, only to have powerful jaws clamp onto his arm and drag him screaming into the flooded, blood-slicked, and spattered room.

They didn’t try to save him, opting instead to slam the door shut and hold it closed while their unfortunate companion was introduced to the full horror of a wild animal attack. The screams coming from inside didn’t abate for almost twenty seconds as Razorback’s nightmarish rage continued to lose ground to the sonics and his wounds, turning the Tiger’s last seconds into a kaleidoscope of pain and terror, rather than a swift, if savage end.

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Ito cursed as another pack of Sabretooths peeked into the gym area. He’d been inside the building when the shooting started, trying to finish writing his evaluations of the students’ progress so he could speak to the parents during the ‘Parents’ Day’ that was to happen in a few short days. He had been pinned inside ever since. The gyms and practice mats weren’t a great place to get caught in during an attack, but any port in a storm.

Skilled Sensei Ito was, but stupid he was not. Crossing the school grounds alone when faced with enemies carrying assault rifles didn’t top his list of wise maneuvers, so he settled for defending his bailiwick from the oncoming aggressors. He’d acquired a Syndicate assault rifle to complement the Kusari-Gama he preferred to use when armed.

He set himself up in the Brick room - a wide gym space with lots of heavy obstacles - and aimed at the one entrance, fully intent upon killing any of the attackers who slipped through the door. Every attacker he took down was an attacker that Delarose and the kids didn’t have to worry about.

Thrasher almost got himself shot as he came sprinting into the room at full speed. Ito held off pulling the trigger as the camouflaged green form of Whateley’s king Bad Seed sk8er punk immediately dove for the detritus of the brick room, bounding over obstacles like they didn’t exist before running straight up a wall to catch the ledge of the upper balcony and pull himself up, demonstrating his skill as one of the school’s Parkour Hooligans. The boy turned back to the door, conjuring up one of his shimmering planes of psychokinetic force. Ito had to wonder how Thrasher had managed to keep the Drill Sergeant hat on his head the whole time.

The first two Sabretooths through the door went down as Ito let rip with the automatic rifle he’d stolen. He slipped out of his hiding space to sneak his ninja-like Japanese ass into another good attack position. Giving the Sabretooths a static opponent was a good way to get outflanked and killed.

He despised using guns, but he wasn’t going to turn down the blatant long-range advantage they provided. Gunny Bardue had cured him of that when the old black man had point-blanked him with splat-caps from a .45 during a sparring session.

Thrasher hit the next two Sabretooths with frictionless planes of psychokinetic force whipped as fast as his mind could send them. The return fire forced him to run, duck and jump his way backwards to cover before he surfed down the wall on yet another of his PK ‘boards’ as he sought to link up with his unseen ally.

Ito smiled grimly as he shot another Sabretooth. This was going to be sticky, but at least with Thrasher in play he had someone to watch his back.

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Sara looked down on the soldiers as they advanced through the forest below. Despite the darkness, she could see almost as if it were daylight. Again, it was the little things that caught her off guard since her rebirth.

She knew what she had to do. Gunfire echoed weirdly through the trees from McFarlane Stadium. Her friends were running out of time, she herself was running out of time. There was nothing for it.

They had to die.

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Jimmy-Mario paused at the strange sight of a very full-looking dragon, which lay across the sidewalk in front of Dickinson. It was big, and it was green - well most of it. The belly of it, which was swollen and oddly distended, was yellow. Post-it-note yellow, in fact. Every now and then it would belch slightly, giving off a gentle puff of smoke and a soft whine of complaint.

The Indian girl petted it gently, making soft noises to it as it suffered. Then she spoke in a soft alto, "Never anger a dragon, for you are crunchy and good with, eh what ever..."

One of the girls that regarded the girl and her dragon spoke in a worried and yet relieved tone of voice, “But Dani, I thought you hated violence...”

Dani nodded. With a soft tap, she eased the dragon over onto his back and she started to rub its large belly. “I do, the dragon I created would have just stayed there bothering no one, it was 'peaceful'.”

Another girl, one sounding a bit more distressed said, “But it ate them...”

Dani nodded slowly the odd golden mark on her forehead briefly catching the light. “They will get over it.. in time, after all this too must pass.”

Still in evident disbelief, the girl looked from the dragon to Dani, “But it ATE them...”

Visibly annoyed Dani turned to look at her, “What? They could have just left it alone... It’s not like it was doing anything.”

Shouting, the girl pointed at the dragon with a shaking hand, “But it ate them!"

“It’s a Dragon, of course it is going to eat what annoys it.” Dani paused and shook her head, “A peaceful dragon is ‘still’ a dragon after all. And it is not as if the attackers were hurt.” She patted the dragon’s belly and called out, “Were you hurt when my dragon ate you?”

A host of unhappy voices called out from inside the dragon. “Look, we’ll say whatever you want if you just let us OUT of here!” “C’mon honey, please! We’re really really sorry! And I gotta take a wicked piss!” “When I get outta here I’m gonna fry you and your fuckin’ dragon!” “Hey, shut the hell up, man!” “Look, just ‘cuz I can’t hurt this fuckin’ monster don’t mean I can’t fill YOU fulla holes!” “Shut up!” “OWW!” “Okay, now we’re all really really sorry and we weren’t hurt. Is that what you wanna hear? Can you let us out now?”

The other girl turned with eyes wide open to look at Dani, “I think I am happy you are a pacifist.”

Jimmy-Mario blinked a few times visibly, and as he jogged around the scene he said in a hesitant voice, "Meee tooo."

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Terror shuddered with glee as the scope of his rifle displayed the falling chunks of what used to be a Whateley Security officer. The .50 cal he was using had destroyed the former human, now falling chunks of meat. He took out the unfortunate man’s partner while the partner stared for a brief second too long at the fate of his compatriot. The thunder of the Barrett made a delightful announcement of the man’s sudden demise.

Terror squirmed a bit, happily, settling into a more comfortable firing position as he scanned for more targets. What he saw through his scope made him stop, watching with rapt fascination, and more than a little arousal.

The primary target, the demon, was locked in combat with a squad of Sabretooths, who were trying to gain the upper hand as the men in their striped leather armor bolted about her helter-skelter, in a manic non-pattern, while peppering her with assault rifle rounds. Every time she would get ready to leap at one she would get hit from the side. It was joyous, watching the mutant demon-thing fall to the tactics of the Sabretooths as surely as any human.

Sara escaped the worst of the damage while dancing in Terror’s crosshairs. He knew that the light assault rifles couldn’t destroy the demon, the briefing had warned of as much to begin with. It was truly a joy to see a killer, surrounded by killers to share in the joys of bloodshed. He did not pull the trigger.

The shifting of the battle’s tide came abruptly, when the girl seemed to split open, tendrils lashing out and hooking two Sabretooths to rip them apart. It was a disappointment that he could not witness her feed before she died; to watch one being consume another was a true joy. Terror often watched joyously as his father’s prisoners were fed alive to any manner of wild, starved creatures. The pigs were his favorite.

With the slackening of fire, the demon became a blur of motion, interrupted by a flash of blood spraying across the trees and lawn on the border of the academy. The Sabretooths died in truly visceral fashion, rent by the seemingly innocuous girl’s claws, or torn asunder by her tentacles that erupted from her body. Terror shuddered with anticipation, watching each death with the eye of a true aficionado. Unfortunately the blood and carnage did not last long, and the angry girl stood alone, watching carefully to see if any of her victims had survived.

Terror gave one last shudder of joy before his body went still. He breathed out, and did not inhale, watching the crosshairs rise to meet Sara Waite’s chest as the air left his lungs.

He caressed the trigger like an old lover, gently drawing it back until the Thunder crashed once again. The exultation of yet another hit, perhaps even a fatal one, shot through his very being as he watched black ichor paint the treeline.

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Sara felt the bullet drive through her like the finger of a god, felt a chunk of her body semi-disconnect as her leg went numb. Idly she considered the fact that she was airborne, spinning and whipping through the air like a rag doll, to abruptly slam into the trunk of a tree. She flopped to the dirt at the roots of the plant, not moving as she tried to figure out what the hell had hit her. The crash of thunder didn’t sound until after she had been in the air for almost a full second.

When she was able to compose herself and try feeling about, she realized her hips were twisted, as her torso seemed to be half-severed. She saw an arm lying a few feet away, and as the shock passed she dully realized that it was hers. The sensation she felt could conceivably be called pain, but rather than incapacitating her, it told her that a large chunk of her upper torso was gone, her shoulder detonated, a jagged rent almost splitting her in half as her body tried to put pieces back together that were scattered across a hundred yards of forest.

She tried to drag herself towards her own severed limb, but the effort only seemed to tear her body up worse. She semi-propped herself against the tree she’d crashed into and settled in to wait until her body recovered enough from the hydrostatic shock of an anti-tank round to move without causing more pieces to slough off and be lost.

The others would have to carry on without her for a little while.

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“Cat back off, back off! Do not assist me! If you do you kill us both!” Mahren howled into his comm system while ducking and dodging the incoming fire as best he could. The Sabretooths were juking and bolting around him in an eerie mirror of the scene with Sara across the school.

Erik snarled and smashed a Sabretooth who got too close with the butt of his machinegun, knocking the man down long enough for Erik to unload twenty rounds into his chest. Erik dove, rolled and came up to his knees, firing the machinegun into another Syndicate soldier, tearing the man to ribbons, as he felt the muffled impact of the occasional bullet on Devisor-built body armor.

“Erik are you insane? I’m coming to help...” Caitlin McQuiston’s voice held an edge of panic as she rushed to her fiancée’s aid.

“Fuck!” Erik twisted and ducked behind a couple trees, briefly slowing bullets meant for his ass. “Goddammit Cat, don’t fucking argue! Find the goddamned heavy weapons team or my ass is toast! Inside four hundred meters! Burn ‘em... FUCK!”

Erik dove forward as the rocket shrieked through the space he’d been occupying. He rumbled into a full sprint for the trees, smashing another Sabretooth aside as he ran for the Range Four impact area. “I’m out of time Cat!” He smashed his combat boot down on the man’s crotch and drove his weight in, crushing the man’s tender bits, and eliciting a pained wail of agony as he sought to get clear of the five remaining nutjobs trying to keep him corralled.

He didn’t even bother trying to keep his footing as he dove down the slope towards the loose targets and holographic projectors below. He rolled and came back up, sprinting for the old halftrack that was a designated target for the kids. He didn’t have time to watch his feet, even though the impact area did have some lethally dangerous unexploded ordinance there.

A grenade landed less than seven feet to his left. Erik dove right and almost kissed dirt when the short-fuse grenade went off. The REACT armor’s flash and sound protection kicked in, even though he was thrown a few feet more than he’d intended, dropping the machinegun.

An over-eager (or bloodthirsty) Sabretooth dove on top of him, trying to find a chink in his heavy armored plates. Erik yanked the Ka-Bar knife from its sheath and jammed it into the other man’s gut, jerking hard to open up his intestinal tract.

“No means no, asshole!” he scrambled back and grabbed his gun, blasting two more of the leather-clad maniacs into the ground. More bullets ricocheted off his armor as he turned and dispatched the last two enemies. His breath seared in his lungs as he took a knee to take a breather, scanning for more enemies.

In a school full of mutants and superheroes, Erik Mahren was still a baseline, even if he was extremely well-trained and conditioned. He had to blink a few times as the distant sounds of battle rattled against his memories, threatening to bring back old battles and old scars. He shook his head and tried to control his breathing, desperately hoping to stave off the panic-induced berserker state that had seen him booted from the Marines in the first place.

“Erik goddammit answer me!” Cat’s voice held an edge of panic in it.

It took him a moment to respond. “I’m here Cat, had to take a breather. That was too close for my comfort.”

“Jesus Christ don’t ever do that to me again! I thought you were dead!”

“Had to catch a breather, Angel. I haven’t had a chance to take my meds today. I started seeing Columbia there for a second.” Erik stood and began hiking back up the slope. “You find that weapons team?”

“Yeah, how did you know they were there?”

“Fucking Sabretooths are trained to mimic Dragonslayers. The Sabres just suck at it.”

Cat landed next to him and began pacing him. “Are you telling me those psychos are real?”

“About as real as you can get Cat.” Erik raised his visor so he could spit. “They’ve just been out of circulation for a while now.”

“There’s a story behind this.”

“Yeah, tell you what, if we live, I’ll tell you the story.” He dropped his visor. “For now, let’s get moving. Delarose needs our help.”

“So what’s the difference between the Sabretooths and the real thing?”

Erik shrugged through his armor. “Sabres don’t have the right mindset, and they’re not creative enough to make it stick. They also have a self-preservation instinct, which screws it, so the Syndicate has to field ‘em in large numbers.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have to be completely bugfuck insane to use those tactics.”

“So have you actually met the Dragonslayers?”

Erik never got a chance to answer. A bullet hit his chestplate, and rocked him back on his heels for a second. Cat reacted first, spraying flame in the direction of the attack, to be joined by Erik’s roaring gun seconds later. The time to talk was later.

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Kayleigh was on her knees struggling to keep from vomiting and not really succeeding. Something had happened and it was not good. She was dizzy and her stomach kept lurching. She could barely stay focused on anything. But Adriane was there, so she wasn't as worried. She could tell that he was carrying her somewhere. The nausea faded some but her head still spun.

After getting his girlfriend to safety Adriane headed back to the gym. He had already taken out two of the Chessmen, maybe he could take out more? He didn't seem to be as messed up by whatever was going on and he needed to do this.

After clearing the door and ripping his dress, he was grabbed by the worst person in the world for him to run into. Oh shit! He was going to die!

The fear of the Chessmen, who were opening fire on several students inside the building, drove them all out and away from the building. What the hell was going on?

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Delarose swore profusely as Lloyd fell back from the corridor, his head destroyed in a shower of red. The Tigers had them pinned inside the armory vault, and that irony did not escape him, given how hard his hodgepodge team had fought to get INTO the edifice to begin with. “Wilson you got those guns together yet?”

“Just about... Grenade!”

Delarose turned to see the black metal device skidding down the hallway towards them. It stopped abruptly and exploded harmlessly against the shield Pristine threw up hastily. Not for the hundredth time, Delarose thanked whatever Gods had seen fit to gift him with this girl on this day.

“Smile assholes!” Wilson howled from behind them as Pristine got out of the way. Four popping thumps sounded, immediately followed by the crashes of four impact-fused grenades shredding the hall intersection that the tigers had staked out.

While Delarose was thinking about the company of mutants, he desperately wished he had the other Wilson, the Range crew Exemplar of Doom, along for this particular party. But all in all he would take what he could get.

The Chief scrambled back and collected a piece of hardware that had been placed in the armory for the range REACT crews, should Schuster Hall have been the closest armory point. The KLM-132 Ripsaw was a unique piece of machinegun hardware that had been introduced by Mahren shortly after he arrived at Whateley. Delarose would have loved to know how the range nazi had managed to acquire five of the insanely illegal “brick-buster” machineguns. Right now he could have cheerfully funded ten more from his own pocket, even if they didn’t quite live up to the title. Fortunately they were more than adequate for killing Tigers.

“Wilson, if you would...” Delarose grinned grimly, “...plow the road.”

Wilson simply fired the revolver-like grenade launcher down the hallway at the intersections, putting enough shrapnel into the area to piss off the Pope. Before the echoes of the explosions fully ceased, Delarose and his remaining security force were moving down the hallway, seeking the upper floors so they could leave the building and go to the kids’ aid, where they should have been to begin with.

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Laying face down in the special box, Hekate nudged Don Sebastiano’s foot. Knowing that Hekate wouldn’t bother him with trivialities at a time like this, he initiated a telepathic link. *Sebastiano, I sense a turn in the tides. Things are not turning out as planned.*

*I understand, Dulcita. In that case, we’d best put the best face on this that we can, no? Fortunately, I did prepare for this. Remember the ‘Plan B’ spells you didn’t want to waste all of yesterday preparing? ALPHAS! Change of plan…*

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Dropship

This was it. The Chessmaster willed himself with gritted teeth to not trigger the Lasker Flanking gambit too soon.

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Commander Dan ‘Spacemonkey’ Jackson looked once more around his bridge. He was proud that he’d been chosen to lead the Second Wave. The First Wave was more exciting and prestigious, but at least he didn’t have Chessmaster breathing down his neck and second guessing every order he made. He had to admit the all-out assault idea that most of them had considered a fit of madness was actually working much better than they’d thought. Then again, no one was expecting such a thing in the middle of the United States. Including whoever was in charge of the defense of this school.

While the defenses were adequate to handle small-scale assaults, the necessary manpower and equipment to handle a strong and well-planned large-scale military assault like this one would have to come from outside. By the time any of the outside forces could put together anything more than a piecemeal and futile counterattack, Chessmaster would have taken the school and then cleared out with the students and anything else they thought would be valuable. Crazy genius, but still genius.

The First Wave had already taken control of key CCC points and locked down the potentially-troublesome students. Now they were securing the school for the next step. Reports so far indicated things were proceeding as planned, with no major hitches. Now all he had to do was get his thirty dropships - and the men and equipment in them - to the campus. The last report had stated that the primary landing area was ready.

A great deal of planning and preparation had gone into this part of the operation. From securing and concealing a base in the nearby mountains, to carefully providing the men and equipment in a way that wouldn’t set off any alarms. Of course the movement of so many dropships and so much equipment in a tactical strike like this one couldn’t be concealed. By now the various organizations monitoring such things were probably having kittens. A smile touched his face as he thought about what the Russians and Chinese must be doing. Much less the U.S. Military and other watchdog task forces far closer to the operation.

“Sir!”

A quiet call from one of his watch officers pulled him up from his study of all his available options. “What is it, Harris?”

“We’re in sight of the school. You wanted to be alerted when this happened.”

“Very well. All units! Prepare for immediate action!”

“Do you want us to release our CAP?”

“No. Not yet. They don’t have the endurance if we need them after the first action. Have them prepped and ready to go on my signal, though. When we need them we’ll need them fast.”

“Aye Sir. T minus two minutes to target zone. All hands report active combat stations.”

“Good work. Let’s get this over with and get home to a well deserved celebration. Activate the holographic decoys also.”

“Sir? Are we expecting resistance?”

“No. But it doesn’t hurt to be safe, and if any of the defenders see a hundred dropships coming in to land they’ll be that more likely to surrender.”

“Aye Sir! Decoys deployed. Activating in three.. two.. one. Decoys activated.”

“Good. Now let’s go have some fun before the First Wave gets it all.”

The thirty camouflaged dropships suddenly became one hundred in the blink of an eye. Anyone seeing the second wave would freeze at the terrible sight of so many armed forces descending on them.

These were top-of-the-line troop and material transports. They looked rather like a somewhat pointy-ended shoe box with large handles sticking out to the sides. The bottoms were bare of anything except armor, landing skids, and reinforced drop doors by which supplies and troops could exit and enter the ship. One ship could carry up to fifty soldiers and their basic equipment. Or some combination of men and vehicles depending on the need. Some could be specially equipped with supplies to support the other ships, as three of his wave actually were.

Armor and a strong force screen protected the pontoons and the bottom of the ship. The upper portion was less heavily shielded, but had dual-purpose cannons and chain guns - for protection, along with troop support purposes - in three hardpoints. They also had dispensers for smoke, flares, and gas.

Attached to each ship were four small combat aircraft known in the fleet as sleds. These were delta-winged, rocket engine powered, and about the size of a small acrobatic stunt plane. They had minimal armor, and relied on a force screen and maneuverability for protection. They were usually equipped with a chain gun and two multi-purpose rocket pods. They also had two points where additional pods could be attached for more firepower or other tasks. They were called sleds because the pilot would fly in a prone position, using controls and a seat similar to a motorcycle’s.

These sleds could be dropped while the ship was in flight, launched by small catapults when landed, or if they wanted to shorten the time in the air they had limited VTOL capability. Under the right conditions they could even reach mach 1. Their major disadvantages were their lack of protection and the short range of operations because of the limited space for fuel. To be effective they had to have ready access to a supply of fuel. Three of the dropships had been specially fitted to act as fuel depots and launchers for this operation. Five others were carrying heavy transports. Essentially, tanks fitted to carry troops and also to support the lighter transports carried in the other ships.

No force the school could come up with could possibly resist the might of ten tanks, forty-four lighter vehicles, and seven hundred and eighty soldiers being carried thirty to a ship; except for the three carrier craft and the five heavy transport ships which had an additional one hundred and twenty men between them. Especially with the one hundred and twenty aircraft for support. Especially after being broken up and disorganized by the First Wave’s smaller surprise attack. Overkill, but success was usually only assured by judicious overkill.

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“I’m in place, and I have my leaders set,” Chaka said as she touched her ‘spot’. “GO!”

“Okay, are you ready?” Axel gasped, sweat running down his face.

Screech nodded, lips tightly pursed.

“Right, just do it like we said. In five, four, three…”

They counted the last two beats silently in their heads, as if they were in the sound studio in music class.

Two.

One.

Her lips parted as she raised her head toward the ceiling, partly to direct the vibrations toward the target and partly to get Axel out of the direct line of fire. The walls shuddered, cracks snaking through the concrete as the material was torn by sheer sonic power. The wave hit Axel like a hammer blow, almost knocking him across the floor. Screwing his eyes shut in concentration, he felt the resonance, extending his unique sense through the air itself. Clamping down on the waves, he squeezed them with his own power, sculpting and reshaping the energy as if it were clay.

The whole stadium shook. Tiger Guards ducked for cover as the seats in the stands popped rivets, hurling dangerous shrapnel high into the air. The plastic seats ruptured or burst moments before glass cracked and shattered.

On the roof of the building, six Tiger Guards sprinted away from the Anti-Gravity Personnel Carrier, which held a large black box that crackled and smoked, arcs of electrical energy chasing them between jets of fire as the surrounding force field overloaded.

Screech built up the power, both mutants hand-in-hand feeling the black box’s power failing, swiftly reaching her crescendo. But her lungs were starting to run out of air and she could feel her breath rasp against her throat. A slow, warm, trickle told her that blood was leaking out of her nose; a dribble over the edge of her lip was immediately vaporized. The world went grey and the edges of her vision were going black when…

The ‘black box’ exploded, rupturing the hydrogen fuel cells that powered it, showering pieces of itself across the roof and into the grounds as if it were raining fire. The roof itself buckled sharply, the air pressure underneath enough to buckle the knees of anyone that managed to remain standing down below.

There was a moment of complete silence in the aftermath as those who could stared upward at several tons of glowing red metal that arched overhead.

A moment later, all thought was drowned out as the stage exploded into a riot of light and white noise.

Tennyo launched herself at what was left of the dropship before it could escape. She ripped open the side of one of the ‘pontoons’ that she guessed were part of the ship’s suspension mechanism. The drop ship canted off to one side and began to list off in that direction. Billie set her shoulder into the ship and helped it drift away from the arena. When the ship was well away from the arena and building up speed in its list, she let off a really BIG blast and completely trashed part of the crippled ‘pontoon’. ‘Okay’, she thought to herself, ‘if the crew doesn’t have the good sense to put everything that they have into keeping that pig up in the air, then they DESERVE to crash.’

Brushing her hands off, a vicious grin plastered across her face, she turned in the air to look out over the campus grounds…

Just in time to see a hundred more dropships crest the treeline as swarms of APCs converged on the stadium. Tennyo blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“Oh, crap!”

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Dropship

Yesyesyesyesyes!’ the Chessmaster cheered to himself, ‘this is IT!” He set his arm to hit the button that would set every part of his masterstroke into operation, and take ALL the pieces!

Then all the audio on his headset died, and his Augmented Reality glasses were full of the image of a merry-faced grand-motherly looking woman who said cheerily, “Why HELLO, Elton!”

“Mrs. POTTER?” he not so much asked as gabbled.

“Yes, dear, how GOOD to see you again!”

“What are you doing on this line?”

“Well it IS Halloween! I just thought that I’d give you a buzz and see how you were doing?”

“How did you get into this band?”

“Really! Is that any way to treat an old teacher, who’s interested in how her students are doing? So, have you kept up with your chess, dear?”

With a scream, the Chessmaster tore off his AR glasses and stabbed at the button that would trigger the Lasker Flank, but he could tell that the band was being monopolized.

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As soon as the Tiger-stripes registered that the shrieking had died down, Chaka attuned her Ki to her voice, so that it would both carry and also penetrate psychological barriers. “LISTEN UP! If you don’t have a team, Bricks and Invulnerables, form a wall! Protect everyone who can’t fight! If you can’t fight, head to the center! Then, find your team! Blasters and Gadgeteers, pick a target and HIT them!” As Chaka spoke, Thunderbird ripped the netting from her, and placed himself between the Tiger Guards and the girls. With barely a moment’s hesitation, Aztecka joined him in shielding the others.

P74gu3 looked around, his brain drawing a blank. Then he felt something take him by the hips and lift him. “You heard what she said, P74gu3,” Widget said with obvious relish. “Invulnerables form a wall!” She hauled P74gu3 so that he stood next to Thunderbird and then shoved him forward at the Tiger-stripes.

P74gu3 goggled as the hardened mercs reflexively pointed their weapons at him. With a wicked grin of her own, Tesla sent a charge at P74gu3. She didn’t have enough control over the energies that she could use that she could carefully manipulate the devices in his armor, but she could just suddenly make them all turn on. And she did. Every prank and joke ‘weapon’ in P74gu3’s ‘Luthor’ armor turned on, sending a barrage of toilet paper, eggs, seltzer water, ink, shaving cream, glue and grease in a wide arc as he tried to regain control of his armor.

Sizzle gave Widget a sour look. “A super-strength function, probably built in as a side function of a force field generator.”

“Hidden under my cape,” Widget confirmed happily.

“I thought that you said that you didn’t have a protective field built into that thing.”

“So, I lied.”

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Fey felt herself wrenched out from under her logs a moment before they hit the floor right where she’d been lying. In whipping her up into the air, however, her benefactor toppled backward and the young Elven Queen landed roughly atop his hard, chiseled, torso straddling his hips.

“Uh,” Hank murmured, trying not to look down her open, kimono-style shirt, “think you could get off me, Nikki? Before Lily sees us?”

Fey looked down into his eyes for a moment with a half-glazed expression on her face. Then she turned to one side and emptied her stomach in a single, long, Technicolor yawn.

“Geez!” He protested. “I’m not that bad!”

Anything else he might have said was drowned out as the stage exploded into a riot of light and white noise.

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Ayla struggled to her feet. God, she felt like Emil Hammond had put an electrified icepick through her head and then spun her a few thousand times at high speed. She realized to her horror that she had accidentally disintegrated most of her costume, a huge chunk of the flooring, and parts of the stage supports. She could have accidentally killed someone while that thing was hammering her!

She fell to her knees, and tried getting up one more time.

As she grabbed something and forced herself to her feet, she saw four of those big cyborg Chessmen taking aim at two kids hiding under a table. They looked like two of those annoying Power Rangers dorks who had showed up dressed like Team Kimba was.

“Tenchi Muyo characters identified. Targeting.”

Crap.

She moved two yards to her right, so all four Chessmen were almost in a straight line. Then she went light and ran at them. She screamed, hoping she could get them to shoot at her, instead of the table of kids.

It worked. All four Chessmen turned.

“Sasami identified. Target.”

The Chessmen split apart so that all four could fire at her without hitting each other.

Crap, that was exactly what she hadn’t wanted. Why did she have to get the competent badguys?

All four Chessmen were putting bullets right into her chest and face. But all the gunfire was passing right through her. She had to stop these jerks before they figured that out. She changed direction slightly so she could get three of them. She went disruption-light so she could phase-KO the bastards. They looked like cyborgs, so they ought to be extra-vulnerable to her. As long as they didn’t have decent force fields or high-voltage electrical internals. She mentally crossed her fingers.

She ran right through the first one. He seized up and started to fall face-first.

The next two finally realized that she wasn’t solid, and tried to spin out of her way. She spread out her arms and managed to pass an arm through the second one’s chest. She just managed to get a hand through the third one’s elbow as she raced past. “Tag! You're it!”

She skidded on the floor as she stopped. When she turned back, the second Chessman was down too. The third Chessman was on the floor, convulsing as if all his systems were starting to short out.

But the fourth Chessman had turned and focused on the kids under the table. She had no time to get back to him.

He pointed his machine gun at the kids.

She went heavy and leapt. In mid-leap, she went disruption-light and rocketed forward.

Conservation of momentum would tell you that going from over a ton and twenty-some miles an hour to essentially zero mass ought to put you at relativistic speeds. Her power didn’t work that way, because she wasn’t really staying in the three dimensions everyone knew and trusted. Still, she went from about twenty-five miles an hour to well over three hundred.

She ripped through the cyborg before he even knew she was close. He seized up, and fell to the floor without firing a shot.

She went heavy again as quickly as she could, just in time to keep from zipping completely out of the building. She found herself twenty feet up, and almost at the far wall. She dropped conveniently onto two heavily-armed Tiger Guards, and smashed them to the floor.

“Next!”

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Nitro vomited again. There was nothing in his stomach, just like there hadn't been the last three times he heaved. But the whatever-it-was was making him feel worse than he had that time his dad took him on that Tilt-a-Whirl when he was eight.

He was against the wall, with no way of getting to his pals Truck and Tee-Kay. He’d heard some bossy bitch telling everyone to get to their team or to safety. He couldn’t even get up.

He heaved horribly once more. Which drew the attention of two of those armed maniacs. They whirled toward him, weapons at the ready.

He was dead. He knew it.

Suddenly some girl with brown hair leapt out of nowhere, over both maniacs, and grabbed him, slinging him over her shoulder.

The two maniacs tried bracketed him with weapons fire, so whichever way the girl went, he'd end up full of holes.

The girl made an insane leap with him on her shoulder, and then scrambled fifteen feet straight up the wall. Before the maniacs could target him - oh yeah, and the girl too - she leapt again.

She came down exactly between the two maniacs, and landed perfectly. Her left foot came down right in the center of the left-hand maniac’s face, and her right foot came down on the side of the right-hand guy’s neck. Both maniacs went sprawling. And then the girl was making another impossible leap, clearing the wall of Bricks, and landing safely inside.

She set him down, and was gone.

He looked up. Tee-Kay and half a dozen other guys were all staring at him in shock.

Finally one of them burst out, “You had to get saved by the Squirrel Girl?”

He buried his face in his hands.

Oh God. He was NEVER going to live this down.

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 Sergeant Dalton looked over at the eight dead or wounded men under his command, then at the unconscious forms of the two defenders of the gym.  The ID scanner tagged the old Japanese man as Ito, one of the martial arts instructors.  Far from all of the Kung-Fu  movies where the sensei simply trashes the men with Guns, the old man had liberated another Tiger’s weapon and proceeded to use it with ruthless efficiency.

The boy in the Drill Instructor outfit had been a nightmare to take down.  Identified as Thrasher, the Tiger swallowed hard as the ID scanner told him exactly who the boy’s mother was.  While not nearly as powerful as mommy, thrasher had pretty much been the hardest of the two to pin down, moving through the obstacles of the gym like they were flat ground, at a dead run.  Dalton had never seen anyone move like that, and he found himself wondering who had trained the boy.

Tempted to simply shoot both of them, he had the captives zip-tied and duct-taped.  Their near-mummified bodies were left on the gymnasium floor as they slept off the impact of four stingball, and three concussion grenades.  The two of them were lucky they weren’t hurt worse.

Dalton signaled the remaining three tigers under his command and began moving out.  Apparently two of Whateley’s pet maniac REACT troops were moving on Hawthorne.  He fully intended to stop them.  After all, the prohibition was against killing the kids and teachers, not the security personnel.

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Jericho was smiling beatifically at his captors, who held guns pointed at his and Sandra’s heads. The screaming, nausea-inducing headache was gone, and the pair of them were recovering slowly. He could hear the commentary about him being a faggot through the helmets, and Sandra made them nervous. You would be too if you had almost nineteen feet of diamond-scaled anaconda woman waking up near you, obviously angry.

“Somebody is going to pay for this migraine.” Diamondback pulled herself up on her hands and began looking around.

“Quiet kid, don’t make any sudden moves.”

“Oh don’t worry. I doubt she’ll have to do much of anything.”

“I said shut up!” The invader turned his gun on the horrifically-dressed, dreadlocked blind boy. Jericho’s spectacularly horrible drag drew the eye, even when you desperately didn’t want to.

“But you’ve got a…”

The Tiger clicked off the safety. “Last warning.”

Jericho nodded and grinned, then began waving good-bye. The Tiger stopped for a second to process the motion, and the other four began exchanging looks. Then the once angered Tiger looked behind him.

Jericho almost felt sorry for the three Tigers - almost - when a flash of brilliant blue-white vaporized the one who’d pointed the rifle at his head. “Like I was saying. Bomber’s here to rescue me!”

The other four Tigers turned to face the new threat, and paid for their mistake dearly. Diamondback snapped forward like a rattlesnake, grabbing one and sinking her fangs in his neck. Jericho snapped two metal rods together and jammed them into another tiger’s back, electrocuting the man and dropping him to the floor like a wet sack. Sandra had already grabbed another Tiger, coiled him up in her tail, and squeezed, as Slapdash put a bullet into the remaining enemy. There was a short shriek and a sickening series of pops as the tail uncoiled, leaving a crushed mass of former human in bad leather next to his buddy. The one she’d bitten was on the ground convulsing, as the potent neurotoxins in her venom proceeded to tear his body up.

“Good to see you two aren’t losing your touch.” Bomber almost sneered as he flicked a bit of plasma between his fingers.

“Yes, well, Bomber we have had plenty of practice messing with your heads, now haven’t we?”

“Yeah, we got bigger problems than comparing dick sizes, guys.” Bunker looked further down the hallway. “We got caught out at Range Six, The ROTC cabin. Mule’s sorta.. out of action, and we ain’t seen hide nor hair of the seniors, so Deadeye and Breaker are a no-go.” She looked down the hallway, and raised her pistol.

“So where are you all going?” Sandra was clutching her still-aching head as she spoke.

“To the main party, dollars to doughnuts SOMEONE needs medical attention in there, and you two are better at that than you are at fighting.” Slapdash used simple logic to try and get Jericho to go his way.

“If they’re better at doing THAT, then what, you do brain surgery on weekends?” Bomber was slightly incredulous.

“Nope. I’m Jobe’s study buddy in Devisor shop,” Jericho grimaced.

Even Bomber’s face got a slightly revolted look.

“All right, we’re armed, you two stay between us. We’ll cover you.”

Jericho nodded and pulled a small device out of his purse. When he triggered the control, his travesty against fashion vanished, replaced with his ballistic-armored EMT uniform and medical satchel. Oddly, the Core Ejector rifle he’d gotten from Slapdash appeared as well. At the horrified looks everyone gave him, he grinned, “Just in case someone tries to finish off the wounded.”

“Slapdash, why the hell would you give a blind man a goddamned anti-tank rifle?” Bomber practically yelled as he whacked the Grunts’ team Devisor.

“Seemed like a good idea at the time…”

Sandra took a moment to shatter the helmets and necks of two more Tiger Guards with fast punches as they ran up to the group, not realizing that they were too exposed.

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As soon as Scotty ripped off the netting, Toni hand-springed through the mob of students trying to obey her commands, to get to Nikki. With a single fluid motion, she leveraged one of the ‘Jurian Guardians’ away from Nikki and sent it on a lob into a 5-man grouping of Tiger-stripes. The ‘log’ landed with a crash, righted itself and started skiting around unpredictably as the Tiger Guards tried to figure out which threat to deal with first. Chaka righted the other ‘log’ and set it to block any fire as she got Nikki back up. She leaned over and checked Fey’s Ki, which was still all over the place. She set a finger on the Sidhe Queen’s brow, helping her to focus and concentrate. “You okay, Nikki-hon?”

“I will be, as soon as the ringing in my ears dies down.” Nikki shook her head once the sonic interference trailed off, nodded when her ears stopped ringing, and looked things over with a frown. “I at least heard what you had planned so far. Uh-oh...”

In the distance a squad of Tiger Guards had spotted the pair, and were beginning to raise their weapons. Nikki moved slightly away from Toni and her eyes filled with the familiar glow that signaled the coming of Fey. “I've had about enough of these guys.”

Red hair streaming in a wind only she could feel, Nikki narrowed her eyes, and raised a hand just as the bad guys fired their weapons. An intangible-looking green wall formed between them and their intended targets. The vague green mist brightened as they fired, flashing a multitude of eye-searing fractals that pulsed as each round hit it, lost its momentum, and clattered to the floor. The Tiger Guards in that squad were momentarily blinded even with the light reactive visors in their helmets.

“Now it's MY turn you dickheads.” Fey, in all her glory, growled as her other hand made a throwing gesture, and the wall of force moved forward to slam into the Tiger Guards, tumbling them to the floor and shoving them so hard into the far wall that the building shook.

“There.” Giving the now incapacitated Tiger Guards a satisfied look; Nikki returned her attention to Toni. “Let’s find some more of these assholes. It’s payback time.”

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Chou exploded out from under the stage, taking down a Tiger Guard with her surprise attack and a focused, Chi-enhanced strike to the chest. Molly was staying put, and for that she was glad. The survival classes her girlfriend was taking were not designed to help you fight but rather to survive something like this. In this situation Molly might just not make it and that was simply not an option. Two of the Chessmen noticed her and her Tenchi Muyu outfit. "Kiyone target acquired."

Chou felt the rush of the Tao fill her as she moved to fulfill her part of Chaka's plan. She could feel where the cyborgs were going to aim. She could feel that she could do this. She could beat them and that would give the other students a chance at escape. Her smile was almost feral as she closed on the two cyborgs.

The Handmaid of the Tao slid up to them, zigzagging her way to them, using her senses to dodge shots before they were fired. Her Chi was focused and she could feel that strength fill her. She snapped one of the arms of the nearest Chessman, making the arm bend at an unnatural angle and drop uselessly. She then drove a palm strike into its midsection, her hand sinking into the armor plate a bit. The thing flew back five feet, collapsing onto its back, electricity crackling and a faint burning smell evident.

Gunfire tore the air where she had been. She slide-stepped again, bullets just missing her, and drove a powerful double palm strike to the Chessman's chest. It flew back as well, falling onto the other. The smell of ozone and the sound of electricity sparking seemed to indicate that they were both down for the count. Now to move on…

She felt the impacts, hard and sudden against her. They spun her in the air and she collapsed against the stage, panting to catch her breath. Molly gasped as her love slammed into the floor. A Chessman neared her, smoke coming from the barrel of the gun, as it strode inexorably forward. "Target acquired."

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The Tiger Guards kept their weapons trained on the two tall strapping twins in Goth bondage gear. Fools. They should have been watching the tall, dark, elegant woman they were ‘protecting’, who was dressed all-too-appropriately as ‘Malificent’, complete with flowing black robe, horned headdress, tall golden staff and glowering familiar. As soon as the distracting sonic weapon was cancelled, she threw the cat at the Tiger Guards. In mid-toss, the cat grew to the size of a panther and began mauling the Tiger Guardsmen. The second that ‘Merlin’, her cat, was in the air, she set her staff spinning in circles and sent it to trip the guards not being mauled. Two of the guards used netcasters on her, which she deflected with negligent waves of her hands, and sent them back to ensnare the guards that fired them. She brought her hands together, and pulled them apart with a fiercely sparking burst of electricity arcing between them. She used the lighting as a whip, driving the Tiger Guards back.

Two other students took advantage of this. The one dressed as Cruella DeVil wrapped up one of the Tiger-stripes in webbing, and bit him through a chink in his armor. He screamed in agony, and then stiffened. The one dressed as Beldandy from ‘Ah! My Goddess!’ encased another of them in dramatic large bands of ‘iron’ that glowed with pale blue fire. Romulus and Remus sprang forward and tackled the two remaining guards.

“WOW, Miss Grimes!” the girl dressed as Beldandy gushed, “That was GREAT! How did you conjure up lightning that quickly?”

“LATER, Bekky,” Elyzia Grimes said with forced tolerance, “We’re in the middle of a BATTLE, remember?”

“Yes, first things first!” Jean-Armand ‘Nephandus’ St. Michel-du Chantraine nattered from his position of safety behind Miss Grimes. “Go! DEAL with those thugs! I’ll stay here and protect M’mselle Grimes.”

Miss Grimes silently wondered if she hadn’t missed her chance by not throwing HIM at the Tiger Guards, instead of Merlin.

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Dropship

Screaming like a wounded eagle at his assistants, the Chessmaster finally managed to free up the command frequencies. Frantically, he looked at the board and tried to make some sort of sense of the pandemonium that was displayed there.

The two pawns that were wreaking havoc on the outskirts of the board came to his attention, as he realized that they weren’t pawns anymore. One was now a Knight, the other a Bishop. No matter how he looked at the problem, he saw only one solution. Both needed to die, or else his tenuous control over the probabilities might slip entirely. He saw the Rook representing Terror and clicked a couple controls, moving his pawns into position.

“Rook takes Bishop first.” When he set the sequence and moved on, he failed to notice the whole section of the board warp. The bishop remained the same, but the Knight became a gray Queen then vanished, followed by three pawns, each one out of the game, following suit, changing color to gray, becoming queens, then disappearing. He never knew what happened, even after things went to chaos.

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“So you think these fuckers’ll like my present?” Cat snickered gleefully behind the faceplate of her helmet. She was referring to the jamming device they’d left in Kane Hall not a moment before, rigged up to pump Pantera through all channels except for Security’s. They couldn’t work something for subspace, too many possible channels, but a quick eyeball of some of the dead Tiger Guards’ equipment had shown that they weren’t using subspace. Too expensive, most likely.

“There’s always time for rock and roll.” Erik's HUD flashed with target acquisition markers of another squad of Tiger Guards.

“These Syndicate assholes do not know with whom they fuck!” Cat’s whole body flared up and her hands shot flames, which formed into two large, humanoid figures seemingly made of molten fire that roared forward towards the loose squad trying to flank them. The two elementals tore into the men mercilessly, clawing and burning, even as Cat sent fireball after explosive fireball into the mix. Her Codename wasn’t Backdraft for nothing.

Erik grinned like a maniac and turned back to his own problems. There were at least fifteen Tiger Guards along the ground a hundred meters away, and he was keeping them busy with raking fire that tore through their ranks like a razorblade through a sheet of paper. The machinegun had been heavily modified for maximum firepower and minimum fuss. Recoil absorption, HUD link, superior cooling, the works. Normally the weapon would pump out 650-950 rounds per minute at the cyclic rate but, with the retooling and the AEGIS loader, the gun was shrieking like a banshee to the tune of 1500 rounds per minute without pausing to reload.

“You not done yet?” Cat turned around just as he finished tearing the last target to bloody rags.

“Hey, I’m used to fighting guys that outclass me by an order of magnitude. These easy targets are throwing off my groove.” He snapped the handle on the barrel up and shoved the red-hot, glowing thing onto the ground, where it continued to sag and melt. He tore one of the spares off his hip and snapped it into place.

“Cocky bastard. You take any hits?”

Erik checked. “Looks like one or ten, armor deflected it as advertised. These assholes aren't packing heavy enough rifles to penetrate.”

“Be glad the Devisors like you.”

“No they don't. I had to pay through my nose to get this outta ‘em.” Erik scanned the area. “Hawthorne’s four hundred meters ahead… I can see the roof. Getting some kind of background noise… filters are pushing it out.”

The pair began moving forward, Cat pacing Erik's lumbering run speed. The armor was many things, but it was SLOW and it was HEAVY. The only upshot was that anything short of a .50 caliber rifle would get stopped without so much as a by-your-leave. Theoretically it would reduce a shot like that to a few broken bones, but Erik knew just how often theory and fact coincided.

“Sonics, has to be.” Cat muttered.

“That would explain why Cthulu Plushie’s not in play.” Erik marked three bad guys, but Cat burned them down before he could bring his gun to bear.

A thundering shot erupted from the top floor of Hawthorne and ripped overhead into something behind them. The sound of men shouting as they dived for cover was unmistakable as Erik and Cat simultaneously turned and cut loose, letting fly with fire and lead. Two more shots erupted from the window, but didn’t connect. A few moments later, the screaming stopped.

“Who's shooting?” Cat demanded.

“Has to be Stella. Only her aim could be that off.” Erik replied. “Hey, what the fuck is that on the roof?”

“Lemme get a better look.” Cat leapt skyward and hovered a moment before darting in and returning. “I dunno how they’re doing it, but the noise is coming from that black thing on the roof. The sonics are overloading my helmet filters starting at about a hundred meters.”

“FUN! Break out the HEAT rounds, Backdraft, it’s time to have us a Bah-bee-kyew!”

As Erik spoke the four High-Explosive-Anti-Tank rounds detached from his back and dropped to the ground. Cat did the same with her three. They took up the launchers and loaded, aiming. Cat’s fire blasts were powerful enough to obliterate a car, but they weren’t taking chances. Erik gauged the distance at two hundred meters. Well within range.

The two rockets exploded from the tubes on contrails of fire. The two range maniacs didn’t bother to watch as they began reloading. The two rockets got withing ten meters.. then exploded harmlessly.

“Fuck! Force Field!” Cat was snarling as they let fly again and reloaded. Again, the force-field absorbed the impact.

“Last one, if six Anti-Tanks don’t overload that shield then we’re shit outta luck and Fubar will have to hang on till we can get the cavalry.” Erik fired, and Cat fired an instant later, hoping the staggered impacts would destroy the shields and the device. No such luck.

“Fuck!” Erik ranted. “All right, let’s go to Security. We’re doing jack and shit here. Hope Fubar’s doing better than we are. Those sonics can’t be happy underwater.”

“If Fubar dies...”

“Then I’m gonna find the prick who invented those black boxes and torture him to death over a month.” Erik’s words were snarled out as he thought about his chess partner’s predicament. Cat re-strapped the last rocket to Erik’s back again. Without the extra six rockets’ weight he’d be significantly faster.

“Contact!” Erik and Cat shared more love with the pack of Sabertooths that erupted from the areas alongside the trail, burning and blasting with abandon, never realizing that they could have killed the device with just one more rocket...

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Turing the corner, Jimmy-Mario paused in his mad dash to Hawthorne as a series of rockets flashed up and at the top of the building. He hurried forward as the people launching the rockets moved away from Hawthorne and into a nasty-looking firefight with too many Sabretooths to track.

The flashes from the fires and explosions lit up a sight that made him gulp. An oddly-shaped vessel moved down into position atop the building, as if it wanted to protect the thing on top of the Hawthorne roof. That had to mean that someone needed to smash that thing, whatever it was.

Numbly, Jimmy-Mario processed the odd bits of the battle as it flowed around the campus. Gunfire chattered and barked, echoing away from several places on campus, and while the area he was in seemed momentarily calm, he could almost feel eyes watching him. In the dim light of the moon he watched in disbelief as a statue erupted and turned into rubble as barely seen figures grappled.

In the seeming lull of that battle, Jimmy raced to the front steps of Hawthorne, only to wobble and fall back on his butt as the nearly visible waves of sound distorted the area around the building. Clutching at his head, he forced himself to back out of the worst of the strange energies, weaving and careening off of bushes and trashcans. For a time he seemed to stand there, seemingly uncertain; as the windows that were not already cracked or shattered outright were vibrating in counterpoint to the waves from the devise the vessel guarded.

Jimmy knelt on one knee and inhaled sharply, closing his eyes. His features at first took on a soft, gentle, female form. Then his pretty face turned fiercely angry. A helmet formed and then re-formed several times in succession on the female form, before vanishing completely along with the woman’s ears. The woman was only dressed in a large sheet-like robe, one that was belted upon her nude form with a length of rope.

Her head dropped chin-first to her chest, and her face lost all expression as the woman’s body briefly shrank.. and then started to shift and grow. At first, the change in size was not immediately noticeable. Then, as the figure inadvertently crushed and cracked the cement underneath as it grew larger, its pace accelerated. Faster and faster yet, the woman shifted and grew, her head rising upwards in a defiant shriek of stress and exertion that was reflected in her trembling muscles.

For a moment the impossibly tall woman knelt in evident pain, and then her eyes snapped open as she looked around in brief wonderment. Her face hardened into an angry scowl. Rising to both feet, she paused and heedlessly crushed a bicycle rack under her foot as she unsteadily strode towards the besieged building, her cry of anger and exhilaration seemingly stirring the occupants inside the odd vessel to open fire.

Great gouts of flame erupted from the defensive turrets on the vessel, drawing lines of fire up and down the giant woman’s torso. Rocking back, the woman clutched at her chest as she fell backward to be cruelly spitted by a pair of mostly-decorative pine trees. For a moment the streams of fire saturated the giant before stopping just as abruptly as they started.

Silence hung heavy in the gunsmoke that drifted lazily out and away from the vessel. For a long moment the figure, seemingly dead, lay there. Then there was a pair of ominous cracks as the pine trees appeared to break and fall on top of the woman. A gargling growl was accompanied by a loud rushing hiss, as the trees seemingly melted and flowed into the woman’s body. The woman’s features were awash with pain and anger, as it clenched and unclenched her fists. Then…

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Sara’s fingers wrapped gingerly around the severed limb that the sniper had so thoughtfully removed from her with his rifle. She could hear whoever it was firing with what might as well have been a cannon while she allowed her body to knit itself with slowly increasing speed.

“Mental note: don’t get shot with a fifty ever again.” Sara nodded to herself as she pressed the arm against the wreckage of her shoulder.

Flesh and tendril met as the still-healing meat absorbed the missing piece of her back into itself. It wasn’t a perfect healing job, the shock of having a half-inch bullet pass through her body at supersonic speeds had liquefied the very cells around the wound and damaged nearly all of them in her body.

As she finished reabsorbing her arm, she heard the sound of breathing, of human life. A quick glance showed the silently-creeping forms of more Tiger guards creeping through the bushes. She stopped for a moment and considered. If she ate something, she’d heal faster.

Fortunately those syndicate soldiers definitely counted as ‘something’.

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Lady Astarte skimmed up the side of Twain Cottage, pursued by a cluster of robotic homing rockets and a cyborg death machine. Deathlist wasn’t making her life easy, taking pot shots with his dual plasma casters, leaving lines of scorched craters in her wake. Clenching her teeth, the Headmistress veered sharply toward the building, smashing through a window and into the dorms. One of the missiles, unable to turn sharply enough, exploded impotently against the wall, shrapnel taking one of its brothers down with it.

Streaking through a bedroom, she turned once again down the main hallway, battering several Tiger guards into the walls on her way through. A second sharp turn and she soared upward, corkscrewing up the stairwell. Confused, the tiny robotic brains in the missiles simply couldn’t handle the computation of her motion, the stairs, the walls, the hand railings, the central column and each other. What ensued might have been funny in a combat simulator.

Utterly bewildered, two of the missiles collided, filling the stairwell with flame and blowing out several doors. Momentarily blinded, another forgot where the handrails were and, attempting to take the shortest route to its target, impacted with the steel tube. The last wobbled in the shockwave for a moment before its tiny brain fried itself with a little help from the heat of the three previous explosions. Fizzling out, the guiding fins locked and the missile skittered across the floor, deflecting off one of the demolished doors and out into the fourth floor hallway, spinning like a firework.

Taking a quick look over her shoulder to be sure she was safe (from the missiles at least), the Headmistress didn’t bother with the door, simply battering her way through the ceiling in a shower of concrete and tiles.

A millisecond later, debris still clouding her vision, Deathlist rammed her in the chest, his personal jet propulsion system burning white at maximum power.

The two titans grappled in mid air, Deathlist using his prodigious weight to grab the Rod of Astarte in Carson’s left hand, blasts of sorcerous power scarring the landscape as she fought to bring the weapon to bear. Her efforts were futile, however, as her right hand was busy at the cyborg’s other wrist, keeping his monomolecular blades from tearing her apart. The shifting forces caused their flight to twist and turn, dipping below the treeline several times to buffet the two near-invulnerable creatures harmlessly.

Carson didn’t need to glance back to know that Poe Cottage was looming up behind her far too fast. Deathlist cackled with glee right into her face, holding her to take the full brunt of their impact. Screaming an Amazonian battle cry, she kicked him solidly in the thigh, hoping to deflect his jet boots and alter the angle of attack.

It worked, almost.

Out of control, they veered downward, skipping across the ground like a smooth pebble across water. Pummeled and battered, Lady Astarte looked up to see the building loom overhead a moment before she hit, back first. Her body was made of tougher stuff than bricks and mortar, even the specially-reinforced walls of Whateley cottages. The wall caved in before her bones could come close to breaking. Then the wall collapsed, the two bitter enemies crashing through the armored inserts in the walls, and downward through reinforcing that was supposed to be nigh impenetrable. Bursting into the cottage’s private trophy room, their last obstacle to demolish was the suit of power armor in the center of the room.

Alarms broke through the noise of the impact, flashing red lights popping out of the walls as green gas spewed into the room through the air vents. Both beings immune to the sedative inhalant, they continued their struggle without pause. Dented and covered in chunks of grass and earth, Deathlist grinned with ecstasy, high on adrenaline and endorphins, bloodlust clear in his eyes. Yet another compartment popped open on his forearm as he pressed forward, pinning Carson to the ground, revealing a small short-focus laser that ignited a thin stream of plasma like a tiny blowtorch.

Heat washed over them both as the cyborg put his full weight down on his wrist, the deadly implement inching ever closer to her face. The power armor next to her ear began to melt, sagging like wax.

“I’m going to ruin that pretty face of yours, Betsy,” Deathlist drooled, “I’m going to burn it away…”

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Molly crawled out from under the stage and saw the cyborg closing in on Chou. She tried to focus, to bring Rythax out, but the sound of the combat and her worry was making it hard to focus. Tears were streaming down her face, as she worried about her girlfriend. What could she do to help her love?

As the cyborg neared, Bladedancer erupted into action, with a powerful sweep that snapped the legs of the thing. Then her axe kick drove in the thing’s face. She looked around angrily for more opponents. Molly could see several holes in her beloved's costume.. but no blood. What had just happened? Was she really alright? The tears of fear turned to ones of relief. Maybe se could actually get Rythax out enough to help?

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Terrified, Palantir, Abra and Clover watched as the horrible machine-man battered at Mrs. Carson. Finally, Clover couldn’t stand it anymore and let out a steam-whistle scream. Her scream was accompanied by the sweet, sweet mental cry of the fear, confusion and dismay of an innocent soul, Deathlist’s favorite treat. It would have been against his basic nature not to break his attention to find the source of that absolutely delicious pain. Not really realizing what they were doing, Palantir wrapped one of her magic balls around Deathlist’s hand, capturing the flame inside of it, and Abra threw all of her spell slips at him. The plasma within the ball reached critical temperature and exploded, destroying his hand and the plasma projector. If you’d asked him later, Deathlist would have said that that was the deciding factor in his fight with Carson.

But he would have been wrong. No the real place where his luck went sour was the spell slips that he hadn’t even noticed. You see, no one effect really did anything to him. But collectively what they HAD done, was they’d bollixed his big ace-in-the-hole. Before he went into any battle, Deathlist had the Chessmaster compile a program that matched all of his opponent’s known moves and reactions, analyzed them, projected what they’d do in the middle of a fight, and suggested suitable countermeasures. This ‘Antagonist Response Predictor’ was a major reason why he was so deadly in a fight. But Abracadabra’s spells had ever-so-slightly crocked the equations, and now his ace-in-the-hole was a marked card.

Carson took advantage of Deathlist’s distraction to collapse a section of wall on top of him. Palantir, Abra and Clover took advantage of that to run back to their cottages as quickly as they could. Clover took advantage of that to hide under her bed until morning.

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[Peacekeeper Team One, where are you? We have a crisis going down here!]

“Oh, Ya THINK?” Diana ‘Thunderfox’ Ritter snarled into her communications uplink. “We’re in Branch Tunnel #3-West, between Whitman and The Workshop! We’re under fire by ten to fourteen armed men in Grade 3 personal armor with special weaponry. They were laying for us. They took out Stormwolf and Stonebear right off the bat, and they almost got Mindbird on shot number three. We’re holding them off for the moment, but Mindbird says that both Stormwolf and Stonebear are really out of it. So far we’ve taken out three-”

“FOUR!” Firecat corrected her, as he heard a yelp when one of his flame bursts connected.

“FOUR of the attackers, but they’ve tried to deploy crowd suppression canisters. Mindbird threw them back at ‘em, but they have gas masks and it’s getting pretty smoggy down here. We need some security backup down here NOW!”

[You and everybody else! We were hoping that YOU could back US up at Entrance #12!]

“eeennn… Possible… Can you get to Tunnel Control and at least get the venting system going on this, maybe bring down a few Crowd Control barriers to make things easier?”

[Sorry, Thundy, no word from Security Central. Assume that whoever pulled this managed to take out the central board somehow.]

“Crap. Okay, I think that we can make it. Maybe. If we ain’t there in five, just remember that I want to be buried next to Johnny Depp.”

[Johnny Depp isn’t dead.]

“I’ll wait.” Thunderfox signed off. “No joy,” she told Mindbird and Firecat, who were doing their best against the entrenched attackers. “But we have possible, repeat possible backup and reinforcement at Entrance 12. But we gotta get there on our own.”

Dale ‘Mindbird’ Townsend, who was dressed as Princess Amadala, nodded. “Okay, I think that this calls for Extraction Tactic-”

“Let’s just RUN, okay?” Bob ‘Firecat’ Shih, who was dressed as Han Solo snapped. He erected a huge blazing wall of fire that completely blocked the vision of the attackers.

Thunderfox, who was dressed as ‘Slavegirl’ Princess Leia, levered Stormwolf (who was dressed as an Obi-Wan) and Stonebear (Wookie) onto a shoulder each. As the group started running, she groused loudly, “Hey, I said ‘Let’s go in costumes that actually have armor value, maybe a few weapons, just in case someone decides to do something stupid, and we have to break it up’. But Big Leader Man says, ‘HEY, it’s HALLOWEEN! Dupraeve is nowhere near the school this time! Let’s just kick back and relax and have fun for a change!’ I’m supposed to be the smart one on this team, but does anyone ever listen? NNNNoooo...!"

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Terror adjusted the focus on his sights, following the train of black-and-yellow striped bodies toward their executioners. Some had been charred beyond recognition but plenty had been riddled with bullet holes.

He found them moving from cover to cover towards the Security building, and he swore. Neither would be worth any points at such close range, even if they were armed and armored to the teeth. One was a man, wearing heavy armor and carrying a heavily modified machine gun with gyroscopic recoil stabilization. The other was female, wore lighter armor and seemed to be on fire.

A mutant. Perfect.

Breathing in to steady himself, he counted down to release his post-hypnotic suggestions, stilling his entire body. Even his heartbeat slowed as he leaned into the stock pressed tight against his shoulder…

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“...list is… Rea... Extreme Cau...” The comm signal was stronger and clearing up fast, but Cat and Erik still couldn’t understand a damned thing the person was saying.

“Say again, you are still broken, repeat, still broken.” Cat’s voice was clear as a bell, but that probably had a lot to do with the fact that she was transmitting from ten feet away.

That changed abruptly when the comm cleared. The frantic female voice began chattering. “Deathlist’s on the loose somewhere! Carson’s fighting him, but we don’t know where the hell he went!”

“OOH-RAH! I got a HEAT rocket with that fucker’s name on it!” Erik crowed on the comm while spraying yet more Tiger guards with a stream of lead.

“Erik, there’s more of those Saberfucks heading for the building, twenty of ‘em!” Cat’s voice was urgent. There was still over 1600 meters of ground between them and Security.

“Fry ‘em Cat. I got these asshats here covered.” Erik kicked it into high gear and didn’t bother with finesse, instead shredding the trees and rocks the Tigers were using for cover until the bullets punched through and killed the targets.

Cat exploded into fire, her whole body becoming a molten, flaming, humanoid form as she shot into the sky like a human supernova. Erik had only seen her push herself like this twice, both as demonstrations to her manifestor students during the opening of one school year or another. She alternated between the range and the manifestors with each period.

More targets died as an explosion erupted above him. The faceplate polarized to filter out the blinging light of the fireball that exploded from her body, disgorging masses of large and small fire elementals and imps, which began bolting across the landscape shrieking in unholy fury as Cat began raining fire and death from above. The Sabretooths never stood a chance against the blazing hell that erupted around them, or the ephemeral monsters of living fire that closed the distance impossibly in seconds, tearing their flesh and burning them to the bone. Erik could count off any number of ways he’d rather die, and marked off for the millionth time the mental note to never piss Cat off.

The last Tiger guard fell, body torn apart by the belt-fed engine of death Erik carried. He looked up and grinned. He saw a flash out the corner of his eye, on top of the Security building, but it didn’t register until too late. Even if it had, there was nothing he could have done. His grin died when he saw her lurch backwards as if hit with a Mack truck. He heard the thunderous report of the .50 caliber rifle, as Cat’s body exploded for the last time, sending burning waves of searing heat and fire to touch the ground even a hundred feet below. He looked, desperately ignoring the heat, trying to see any sign of her. There was nothing left.

When the charred and shattered launcher she’d been carrying fell almost at his feet, Erik’s mind finally teetered over the precipice, then fell, blanked of anything but despair and rage.

They heard his scream of fury almost a mile away as he began spraying bullets at the roof of the Security building, trying to silence the sniper who’d killed his love. He didn’t see anything but his enemies, and if it moved, it died. He began chasing the sniper, when he saw the little bastard leave his murder-nest and bolt.

Erik was gone.

Hijacker raged.

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Pristine winced as another hand grenade peppered the force field blocking the hallway with shrapnel, while Delarose barked orders to the remaining Security Officers. They had gotten as far as the junction that led to the lobby, but there were Tigers in all three of the halls, setting up a murderous crossfire that they couldn't break through, so Delarose had Randall and Sanderson circling around to hit the tigers from behind.

“So what do we do now?” She asked tensely.

Delarose looked over at her. The poor kid was frantic, shell-shocked and definitely feeling the stress. Each fight, each blind ambush increased the butcher’s bill and eroded her restraint. She was already losing her control of her strength, slipping damned close to the point where she would kill anyone she contacted, and Pris wasn’t a killer.

“We need backup, or one of these damned halls to clear. Barring that I’ll take a fucking miracle from on High.” Delarose was getting frustrated. They ALMOST had it! All they needed was control of the lobby and they could break the security boys loose to rock and roll outside these damned close quarters, which were absolute murder on his boys and the enemy in equal measure. To top it off, the Tigers were entrenched, and someone had been blazing away with a heavy gun at the upper floors from the outside.

“I think miracles are in short supply right now!” Pristine’s voice had a frantic edge to it.

Apparently the Lord worked in mysterious ways, as no sooner did the words exit her mouth than the sound of glass shattering down the hallway to the right was followed by a deafening explosion, followed by a shockwave that almost caused her to lose the shield in the hall. Not more than twenty seconds later a not-quite-human roar of rage could be heard, then was drowned out to the tune of somebody letting loose with an honest-to-god heavy machinegun indoors in the lobby, not one of the lightweight SAW knockoffs the Tigers were using.

“HOLY SHIT!” Delarose and Pristine both managed to yell at the same time as their heads cleared a bit.

After a time the thunder abated, then a stream of tracers and bullets unseen tore across the hallway, carrying with it the two shredded bodies of the Tiger guards who had been in the hallway immediately to their right, followed by a black-armored maniac who charged straight across the hallway where the beleaguered security force was huddled.

“Shit chief, that was one of the Range REACT armors!”

“Thank you, Lindon, for your remarkable grasp of the obvious,” Delarose said dryly at the shaken guard.

The maniac in black came back dragging a Tiger, half holding the man up by the shoulders as he punched the man across the helmet. The machinegun was slung, and he ignored the incoming fire from the hallway while it ricocheted off the heavy ballistic plates.. and as he pulled the pins off the grenades in the Tiger’s harness. The maniac kicked him down the hallway towards his fellow Tigers, charging down the hallway, seeming bound and determined to fight his way through the building the hard way. The explosion was impressive.

“Fuck! Erik’s off his meds again,” Delarose muttered. “All right people, we have an opening! MOVE!!!”

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A spotlight snapped on from the vessel, and it traced a slow path up the woman’s legs. At first it seemed to illuminate a leg worthy of a centerfold, much like a youth would hide under his or her blankets to peer at purloined porn. Then, as it seemingly caressed the woman’s body, it froze and then retraced its path as the flesh took on a scaly-rough texture. Washing back to the foot, it illuminated a woman’s sculpted foot as it began to melt and distend, turning a shade of green much darker than a pine tree’s.

As immense ivory talons flowed out from the scaled foot, the searchlight snapped upwards to reflect off of the darkly glowing red eyes that appeared. As if panicked, the strange vessel erupted forth in weapons fire, slewing back and forth across the changing body. At first it seemed as if the weapons were doing some damage, blowing great holes into the expanding features of the beast.

Earth shaking bellows of pain thundered out from the massive mouth, showing mountains of jagged teeth. As the wounds closed and then sealed, the giant stirred, turning over, shielding its face from the sundering fire. A long thick mass fell back as it lengthened and flailed about, snapping trees and power lines with careless abandon. Then the figure started to swell and grow once more, though its pace was slow and seemingly deliberate.

Where the bullets and fiery shells once tore long tracks of gaping wounds, the bullets now sunk in or glanced off the figure’s immense armored hide causing little damage. The heavier ammunition seemed to only annoy the impossibly large reptile. Slowly, the horrific figure started to arise from its repose.

As the engines of the vessel seemed to catch and then begin a starting cycle, the eyes of the beast snapped open and a roar famous only in theaters rocked the nearby building, shattering more windows. Snapping to its full height, the bipedal lizard-like figure turned with a swiftness only seen in its much smaller cousins. The giant figure’s mouth opened, revealing a chasm easily capable of swallowing the smaller vessel - and part of the building - as it lunged down and forward.

In a timeless moment, the seemingly tiny vessel was surrounded by a corona of electrical discharges as the Godzilla-sized reptile snapped on it. Angered, the beast took a second and third punishing bite at the vessel before its shields failed with the sounds of massive transformers exploding inside. There was a momentary scream of metal as it gave way to the massive pressure the jaws of the beast delivered.

The beast, screaming in both pain and evident triumph, shook the crushed vessel like a cheap plastic straw, before grinding at it furiously with its teeth. With a defiant toss of its head, it sent the ruined vessel crashing down to the ground, and easily swept the once-untouchable box off the roof of Hawthorne. The black box exploded against the ship, adding to the wreckage. Seemingly not content to end its destruction on the vessel, the monster leapt briefly skyward before crashing first one foot, and then the other upon the ever-shrinking mass of metal. As the ammunition and the fuel from the vehicle protested its destruction, a series of explosions rocked the giant lizard-like form, sending it crashing backward, further destroying the grounds around the building.

Bellowing in pure rage, the beast arose again and continued its dance of death upon the remnants of the vessel. As the moments of rage seemingly washed out of the giant lizard, it seemed to shrink and fall in upon itself. Slow seconds passed, as the mass withered and boiled violently, distorting its form until all that lay upon the ruined ship was a gooey mess that slowly filled the crater.

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As Deathlist reacted to the explosive loss of his right hand (and the plasma projector that he’d been threatening to use to disfigure her) Carson looked around the room for anything to use as a weapon. For a fleeting second, she thought that somehow Deathlist had knocked her into the Homer Gallery. But as she looked for a familiar weapon, she realized that it wasn’t the Homer Gallery. It must be one of the smaller trophy rooms that the dorm cottages had for personal honors and such. Oh no! Not only wasn’t there anything they could use, but they were ruining the kids’ precious memories! Too late, that incredible psychotic had brought up a micro-gun and was shattering a case full of awards while trying to get at her.

Odd, she dodged that blast easily…

Knowing from long experience that the only thing worse than falling into an enemy’s trap was passing on a perfect opening on the chance that it might be a trap, she pressed her advantage. She executed a handspring-double kick that knocked him back out of the brick exterior wall.

Damn, he was too well prepared, and he knew her moves too well! She needed something.. an edge! If this had been the Homer Gallery… The Homer Gallery… ‘Okay, bad boy…’ she thought, ‘let’s see if you can keep up with the old lady...'

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Squirming around in her bed, Nightbane couldn’t help but feel like something was wrong. The wrongness drew her up out of her sleep until she was wide awake from the sensation. Something was inside her, something long, thick, and hard. Still half asleep, she wriggled to try and make it go away, but the movement against her inner walls only made her gasp.

Eyes flying open, she reached down to throw whoever it was off of her.. but no one was there. The room was empty. Just her in her dorm room on her own bed under the covers. Tentatively reaching down to check, she couldn’t find anything sticking into her from the outside, even with a visual examination. Reluctantly, she lay back and spread herself open, careful not to touch anything that would stain her perfect record…

She squeaked when she saw it. Just inside her outer lips was a bulbous, reddish-purple, head with a fleshy opening at the apex. Just like pictures they’d shown in sex education.. only for the wrong gender. The sight made her jump, which was a bad move as it hardened, making a shock of pleasure leap over her skin. She froze and the momentary disorientation passed, but something else was wrong. As if her movement was the catalyst, or perhaps the cool air brushing over the tip, the thing started to grow, pushing its way out of her lips.

Nightbane could do nothing but shudder on the bed as the member’s bulk slid over her clitoris on its way out, drawing moans of tormented ecstasy out of her throat. Her back arched and muscles clenched in orgasmic waves, squeezing the penis into the open until the great mass towered over her at least two feet long and four inches thick, glistening in the warm, soft light overhead. The sensitive skin of the shaft prickled and itched in protest, she tried to grab it but the new flesh burned in protest at the roughness of her hands, smooth as they were. The tip throbbed and ached with the need to penetrate, robbing all other thought from her mind.

Turning her head as if some giant puppet master was pulling her strings, Nightbane saw that someone was, indeed, in the room with her. Sara lay on the ground, naked, where she hadn’t been a moment before. The Demon Princess lay unconscious on the ground, breathing lightly.

Overtaken by raw need, Nightbane crawled out of the bed carefully, trying desperately not to disturb the huge rod sticking out of her hips. It was impossible, but she managed to minimize the pain. Kneeling between the demon girl’s legs, she grabbed Sara’s knees and spread the thighs apart. She didn’t have to guide herself inside as she pressed her hips forward, forcing her way into the cool, dark, recesses of the other’s body. It was like leaping into water on a scorching hot day as Sara’s moist young body doused the fire in Nightbane’s flesh.

But it wasn’t enough. Before she knew it, Nightbane was pumping the girl, ramming herself until their hips smacked together. Sara groaned and moaned in her sleep, seemingly blissfully unaware that Nightbane was riding her, stabbing her over and over…

Something else changed.

Nightbane shuddered as Sara’s insides began to move, caressing her shaft and licking over the bulbous head. It was getting harder to pull out, like she was being sucked in…

Tentacles sprouted from the floor all around her, forming from the very matter that made up her carpet. In no time, she was entangled, unable to move, unable to do anything other than her rutting. The rubbery limbs dragged her down onto her back, Sara taking her place on top, pinning her wrists against the floor. Looking down her body, Nightbane’s eyes widened when she saw that what was between Sara’s legs wasn’t a simple slit, it was a mouth, complete with lips, tongue.. and teeth.

“Mmmmm,” Sara moaned, “mine.”

Nightbane screwed her eyes shut as the teeth bit down but there was no pain. It was as if the penis had just been glued on with soft, sticky resin that came away easily when pulled, swallowed up into Sara’s torso. An overwhelming sense of loss filled her, bringing tears to her eyes.

Sara smiled as an enormous forked tongue slid out of her lower mouth, the tips making Nightbane scream with delight. “Give us a kiss, lover…” Sara jeered as she thrust her hips forward burying the tongue deep inside the slayer…

“AAAH!” Nightbane screamed as she lurched upright, her body still tingling from the memory of the dream. For a moment, she couldn’t remember what had happened. She was sitting on freezing cold concrete, all her bones ached, and she had little cuts and scratches everywhere. Her clothes were also covered in white gunk.

The sight of the fire extinguisher, or what was left of it, jogged her memory. She used her sword, the blade still unblemished, to help pull herself to her feet before shaking her limbs to get the circulation going again. Staggering outside, the grassy forest was peaceful except for the faint sound of gunfire in the distance. The only incongruous element was the body of Ecto-tek, who was busy bleeding from the purplish mass that used to be his face.

“Ecto!” Nightbane stumbled next to him, dropping the sword to check his pulse and lightly slap his face. “What happened? Where’d she go?”

“Uuggh…” Ecto-tek groaned, shifting slightly. “Cut it out, that hurts. She jumped past us… Couldn’t get a proper bead on her. Too damn fast. She went into the woods. I tried to tell them that we needed you but the bitch knocked me down.”

“Can you walk?” Nightbane cut through the small talk.

“Yeah, I can move.”

“Pull back to the safe house, then. You’re no good to me like this. I’ll finish her off and be back for dinner.”

Ecto-tek snarled. “Give the bitch who hit me some of her own, okay?”

“Forget it,” Nightbane shrugged as she walked off into the forest, golden sword in her gloved fist, “they’re already dead.”

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Staring down at the blood on her kimono, Sara pouted. She’d read about the problems with explosive exsanguination through pierced arteries but the reality was rather more violent than she’d expected.

The three Tiger Guardsmen were dead, their bodies bleeding and whole rather than simple piles of blue ash. Eating them might have been simpler, and yet…

She lifted her blood soaked hands to her face and began to lick them clean. They were sticky, the living fluid coagulating quickly in the chill air. It tasted stale and unappetizing. I’ve eaten better people before, the thought rose unbidden. The DNA was too ordinary; nothing could be gained in absorbing them. It wasn’t a comfortable thought.

I mean, how bad is your life when a demon turns down your soul because it’s not nutritious?

An explosion of light and sound erupted from the stadium, lighting the forest for miles around. In the stark world of light and darkness that surrounded her, Sara picked out the two shadows at the base of the hill through the brush. Rapidly deducing that Nightbane was awake and in pursuit, Sara scanned the rest of her surroundings for more tactically advantageous ground.

Deeper in the woods was a small valley occupied for the most part by a creek that eventually meandered its way into the Miskatonic. Next to the creek sat an abandoned mill that had been left to rot into the ground.

Glancing over her shoulder, the demon saw that the shadows were gone. Nightbane was coming. Turning back to the mill, she skipped down the path toward it with a smile on her face, making her tracks as clear as possible.

“If you come down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise,” she sang under her breath.

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Being as cautious as she could, given that she was floating far above the stadium roof, Tennyo studied the incoming dropships. There were simply too many of them. Even assuming that they were equipped with State of the Art Stealth and Counter-Detection equipment, you do NOT fly a hundred fucking airships over US air space and not have it be noticed. They might have managed a quick and dirty entry from orbit… Billie vaguely remembered reading that some really high end superbaddies like Typhon and Dr. Diabolik did just that… But the approach vector was all wrong. If they were doing that, they’d drop right out of the sky on top of the school, instead of hugging the treeline that way. Also, they were in too close a formation. That tightly packed, every pilot would have to be an absolute ace to avoid foiling any of the others. Billie formed balls of plasma in each of her hands and sent them in a flurry at the approaching ships while they were still a couple of miles off. About a third of her little pinprick attacks flared on protective force fields. But the others merely faded into the mass of the dropships without any sign of the ship being affected in the least.

Decoys. Probably holograms. Equal parts diversion for any counterattack and psych-out for the defenders.

But even so, thirty dropships full of reinforcements…

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Nikki watched the chaos in the arena for a few seconds, taking in with a glance what most people would spend minutes assessing. Tearing off her costume, then blithely standing there in nothing but her underwear, she turned her attention to a group of the lumbering cyborgs moving purposefully across the arena. Towards her and Toni. “Heads up, Chaka. Company coming and they aren’t here to say nice things about us.”

A pale glow flickered into being around the redhead, then grew into a scintillating envelope of light and energy even as the Chessmen began targeting the pair of girls.

“Tenchi Muyo targets confirmed. Fey and Chaka. Extreme prejudice authorized.” One of the things’ monotone voice rose.

Chaka spun away trying to drag Nikki with her, but Fey was in full glory and in a cold, quiet rage that was far more frightening than Nikki’s usual tempers. “Stand behind me, Toni. I’ve got this one handled.”

The glittering aura around her expanded, moving towards the cyborgs in waving tendrils disturbingly reminiscent of Sara’s tentacles. Shots fired either fell to the floor or sizzled and evaporated once they reached the mist-like tendrils of power.

“Eat this you bastards.” Nikki growled as the tendrils shot forward to wrap around each of the Chessmen moving towards her and Chaka. “Or rather, feed it.”

“Uh, Nikki just took out a group of the cyborgs.” Toni subvocalized into her ‘spot’ for the rest of Team Kimba while trying not to get sick at what her roomie had done to the Chessmen. “I guess she’s okay now, but I think I’d better watch her back. She’s in a mood here.”

The elf girl gave a halfway annoyed, half amused glance to a few students and teachers staring raptly at her lingerie clad form, then gestured and was again clothed in forest green leather armor with metallic mail over that. The usually fastidious girl strode uncaring through the mess of dissolved organics, melted metal, and the occasional intact hand or other body part that were all that remained of the Chessmen she’d targeted.

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For a time, the mass lay there, seemingly content to dissolve the odd bits of biological residue that remained. Then tendrils arose and flowed out toward the torn and ruined vegetation, consuming them as it crept up to the steps of Hawthorne, and melting a neat hole in the wooden frames of the doors as it inched its way into the building.

The old and slightly worn tile cracked and hissed as it dissolved under the questing tendrils. Finally the mass turned and slunk along the baseboards, chewing at them as it did so. Then a questing limb eased into the stairwell, bypassing the stairs and drooping lazily down the stairway shaft. As the mass plopped egg-like onto the basement floor, the rest of it followed, slowly at first and then pouring down the shaft much like hot maple syrup.

Time paused as the mass jelled and then reformed into a clay-like figure that lurched and weaved down the hallway. Seemingly blind, the figure crashed from wall to wall drunkenly as it focused on a destination. Then, stopping briefly at the ruins of a door, the golem roared its outrage as it viewed the scarcely-stirring monster within the tank.

A flicker of movement outside of the tank gave the clay-like thing only a moment’s pause. It had evidently surprised two figures. The one of them who held an odd harpoon stared in shock, as the thing launched itself across the room and plastered itself across them. Unnoticed, the harpoon - still glistening with both blood and water - crashed against the side of the tank, sending a bell-like chime deep into its contents.

Inside the tank, the many-tentacled and oddly-limbed figure thrashed violently to its newest indignation. The water, clouded by both blood and a fresh injection of protective ink, seemed to boil as the figure surfaced briefly to scream before falling back into the tank. Scant instants later, the battling trio were lifted and then driven though the wall, out into the soil next to the buildings foundation.

The odd, clay-like being seemingly liquefied as its body sought to repair itself. Finding a ready supply of food, autonomic reflexes kicked in and nutrients flooded back into the mass. As the two bodies seemingly deflated within their armor, the melted mass firmed and then flowed out of the crevice it had been plunged into. Cautiously it flowed towards the tank, and then slowly and carefully re-formed into a familiar pattern. A boy not too unlike the form of Jimmy Trauger.

As the features flowed back into familiar states, Jimmy T. groaned in evident pain and clenched his stomach, “I think … I am me.”

Slowly one eye in the tank opened and regarded the youth, “What?” asked a digitized voice as its eye slid closed.

“The campus.. has been invaded.. can you get us.. help?” asked the youth as he seemed to struggle to speak coherently.

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“CHAKA!” Billie all but screamed, “We have MORE unwanted company! At least 30, probably more, dropships, full of yet more goons!”

“So? Blast them out of the sky!”

“In order to do that before they made landings and discharged their troops, I’d have to KILL every single man aboard those ships, and I ain’t going there!” Billie shot back.

Chaka snarled as she looked about the havoc in the ballroom. “Okay, okay, I can see that. What do you need?”

“What do I need? I NEED BACKUP! Get some people up here STAT!” With that, Billie decided that the incoming ships wouldn’t be quite so eager to advance if they thought they were under fire. She warmed up a plasma ball between her hands, built it up to a small sun, and then crammed it down to the smallest speck of pure bright light imaginable. She breathed in, and put everything she had into throwing the lightspeck. A long moment later, a huge fireball burst into full blossom, taking out one of the dropships and causing the others in the armada to reconfigure for a defensive advance.

Down on the ground, Chaka calmed herself, took a deep breath and yelled out, lacing her words heavily with Chi, so people would be hear and pay attention to what she had to say, “HEADS UP, PEOPLE! We got multiple incoming ships, and we ain’t talking high flyin’ trick’er treaters! We need as many fliers UP IN THE SKY as we can afford, to take those mothers OUT before they land any MORE of these yoyos! GO, people GO! Get UP there! The rest of you, cover them!”

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“Sir!”

Commander Jackson looked up from his tactical plots again. He quickly scanned his screens as he listened to what the watch officer was saying.

“One minute to landing zone. Do you have any more orders Sir?”

“No. Carry on as planned. We…”

He was interrupted by several small energy blasts coming from below them. Most passed through the decoys with no effect, but at least three impacted on ships, making their screens flare brightly as they dispersed the energy.

“Where’d that come from! Report!”

“Sir! There appears to be one of the students below us. Climbing rapidly up to us. The energy blasts are coming from there.”

“I thought the students were incapacitated.”

His communication officer broke in. “Sir! A communication from the First Wave Commander. Some of the students are breaking free. We can expect some resistence from them.”

“Now he tells us. Threat assessment! Now!”

“The student appears to be the one called Tennyo. Orders are to kill on sight. Known powers are flight and energy projection.”

“I can see that for myself. What kind of threat is she to us?”

“Unknown Sir. But it’s hard to imagine her being able to blast through our screens.”

“Holy sh...”

All eyes had turned to the large screen showing the picture of a small, grayish-blue haired girl in some kind of unusual dress. She was flying toward the lead ships. A very bright energy ball had formed in her hand. The girl had thrown this forward, to pound against a screen which flared brightly under the assault. There had been a sudden arc of energy between the spot where the energy touched the shield and the armor of the craft. Everyone on the bridge watched the amazing internal destruction of a multi-million dollar piece of equipment. Short seconds after the arc of energy, flame and smoke had come roaring out of the upper hatches. In moments they watched the flame engulf the entire ship, which then began to arc slowly towards the ground, picking up speed as it fell. Rescue pods popped out shortly after the first blast, and streamed away while the ship was on its way down.

Realizing he could no longer see the girl the Commander quickly scanned the other screens. He could see the girl turning her attention toward another of the dropships.

“Launch CAP! Now! Launch CAP! Don’t let her get close to another ship!”

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Dropship

“Sir! They’re sending fliers to intercept the dropships!”

The Chessmaster gave a snarl of pure frustration as he tried to make some sense of the chaos represented by his board. It was hardly the optimum solution that he preferred, triggering the Lasker Flanking gambit was the only thing suitable that he had arranged. He slapped the button, triggering the automatic dispatch mechanism. “Alert the dropships to expect interference, tell them to deploy the gunships, but keep the close interceptors ready in case the gunships don’t keep them at bay. Be sure to remind the ships that we are still at ‘Code Ochre’: have all systems set for ‘Capture’ or at least ‘Non-Lethal’; we’re going to catch enough shit for this as it is, we don’t need any more trouble than necessary. But shoot the lead gunship pilot the specs for Targets C and E. Tell him that he gets a $10,000 bonus a head for taking out those two. Lethal Force REQUIRED with those two targets. Alert all ground troops, we are implementing the Malmedy Enclosure maneuver, followed by a general retention and specific elimination by Chessmen.”

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Don Sebastiano could hear the activity down on the gymnasium floor. It didn’t take a psychic to tell that the tide was turning. Students were reclaiming the gym. That pain in the neck Chaka was commanding the entire gym of students, as if she were the leader. As if she were the head of the Alphas. He was not going to take that lying down.


Even if he was lying down right then.


If the Alphas did nothing, then they would lose all of their little remaining credit, after what those little insects in Team Kimba had done to them this term. And there were only five guards, all baselines, no threat at all. So there would be no penalty for removing those nuisances.


He concentrated, *Cavalier, it’s time for plan B. Tell everyone to strike as soon as I cough. Warn Hekate to have her three spells ready. Make sure Bluejay knows what not to do.*

He coughed lightly.

The guards looked at him for a split second.. and it was too late. All of them were suddenly too confused to remember what they were supposed to be doing. They struggled to focus, but they couldn’t think. And what was happening before them was unthinkable.

One of the redheads burst into fire, burning her restraints to ash. One brunette melted her restraints with a bolt of electricity that shot backward and knocked a guard against the wall. The blue-haired kid vanished, his manacles falling to the ground as if he had never been there, and suddenly was behind two guards, who had their helmets fly up into the air, turn upside down, and smash down on their heads hard enough to knock them out. Another kid had his restraints shatter, as he rolled over and glared at the guards. The last two guards snapped their heads backward and folded like a pair of dropped marionettes.

Cavalier looked around and used his PK to rip everyone else’s wrist restraints apart.

Don Sebastiano stood up and adjusted his costume. He calmly said, “We’re now moving to my plan B. Does everyone know what to do?” They all nodded. He brushed a speck of dust off his cuff.

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Once he had a sense of the new pattern of battle, Chessmaster gave a smug grin as one of Mrs. Potter’s queens attempted to rally the disarrayed pawns. Good. Good. It was no fun crushing mere rabble. He had planned for this. He would wait just a couple more seconds, until the crowd was about to commit to the queen’s plan. Then it would be time for the Lasker Flanking gambit. He had hoped to save all of his ‘Rooks’ for a different maneuver, but this would work almost as well.

He was so intent on Mrs. Potter’s side of the board that he failed to notice that one of his own pieces had just become un-attuned. It was no longer ‘his’ piece.

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Chaka turned as she felt the Ki behind her shift oddly. A six-foot-tall dalek-thing popped into existence only five yards behind her. It was shaped sort of like a chess rook, but no ancient castle tower ever had that kind of weaponry jutting out of every opening. And it was hovering two feet above the floor, too. And it was shimmering all over. She could tell by the way the Ki in the room wavered around it that the thing had some kind of force field all over it. It pointed two machine guns, a grenade launcher, and two different kinds of ray gun at her and the wall of bricks on the other side of her. Damn.

Then the next one popped in beside it. And the next.

Then a force of four popped in at each corner around the ‘Brick’ wall of students.

And eight more appeared in a flanking line across the wall beneath the skyboxes.

“Day-um!”

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For a long moment, the only sound in the room was the sound of the pumps that kept the figure’s tank aerated and clean. “The local lines are cut,” stated the digital voice of Louis after a moment, “so tired.”

“I hear you, but you can’t rest yet, can you dial out from Berlin?” asked Jimmy as he lay there trying panting and to ignore the growling sounds emanating from his belly.

“So tired…” Louis briefly opened his eyes, “I hurt.”

“I know buddy,” said Jimmy as he eased upright and then turned to rest his head against the tank, “but I can’t let you relax and rest, too many people are counting on us.”

“Tired Jimmy,” was Louis’s audio rejoinder, along with a rumbling cry from inside the tank.

“You just have to dial ARC, and then say ‘Whateley is under attack, send help’ a few times when someone at ARC answers,” Jimmy cajoled tiredly.

“Can’t,” protested Louis as his body slumped to rest on the floor of the tank.

“Bullshit!” yelled Jimmy as he thumped his hand hard on the tank’s walls. “If I have to pound on your tank, and get thrown through walls over and over, you are going to make the call Louis!”

“Ow,” was the only rejoinder from Louis.

“I mean it Louis,” yelled Jimmy as he stood up and braced one hand against the tank. His other hand clenched and drew back as if to strike.

After no response, Jimmy struck the tank several times in succession. Tears of pain and frustration rolled down his face. “Damnit fish lips, I am not letting my friends die because you are hurting a little!”

“Stop. Stop. Stop,” said the digital voice before a louder concussive force rent the air with “ENOUGH!” as Jimmy was blown backward.

Smeared across the wall, Jimmy fell to the floor and slowly reformed. His face wavered slightly before firming up. “So?” he asked, “Ready to make that call? If I have to climb into your tank and…”

“Stop speaking, it hurts,” said a more normal voice from the air itself. “I’ll do it,” said the voice.

Jimmy nodded, and then waited quietly for a minute that seemed to hang upon him like a battleship’s anchor. “Well?”

An eye opened briefly, and then the air gave vent to a protesting screech of outrage, “Quiet, please.” Another long minute passed as the two stared at each other… Then, “It is done, can I rest now?”

“Are there any more…” Jimmy sighed as the figure in the tank shuddered.

“Help the kids Jimmy, I only stunned the soldiers taking samples,” Louis seemed to shake and sob slightly in the tank, “too tired, tired.”

Visibly suppressing a groan, Jimmy nodded. His face turned an alabaster white, as a parody of a clown’s face grew and shifted until it was that of Brandon Lee’s in the movie, ‘The Crow.’ “It can’t rain all the time…”

“No killing, please?” asked Louis with a moan, “All that pain just washes down here.”

“These kids are our family Louis, what little time we have with some of them…” said Jimmy-Draven as he stopped at the door, “and there is no one coming except maybe Doc Brunner, us monsters are the only ones who care.”

Silence cast a dark pall upon the room as the two looked at each other through the tank walls, “Not true.”

“Then where are they?” asked Jimmy as he lurched to the doorway, “Where are the freaking heroes?”

“Busy, I fear,” groaned Louis as he forced himself upright. “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Jimmy paused and then replied, “Is it better to out-monster the monster or to be devoured? Yeah I read that book too, and well… If I have to be a monster to save my friends, my family, I’ll be a ‘perfect’ monster.”

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Ayla stopped punching the clown in power armor. Christ! Teleporting, anti-gravity, weapons platforms? Double plus ungood. She slung the guy in her grip right at the closest platform, and the guy just bounced off the forcefield covering the thing. Crap. She was going to have to do something. But she had no idea what she could do to take down force fields like those things had.

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Nephandus peeked out from behind Miss Grimes, and gulped. “Oh shit.”

Elyzia Grimes drew herself to her full height and admitted, “Oh shit, indeed.”

Typically, Nephandus dove back behind Elyzia Grimes’ skirts.

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“NO ONE MOVE!” the ‘rooks’ blared in menacing robotic tones that were freakishly synchronized.

Fey glared, “What, doesn’t Doctor Who enforce their copyrights?”

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Commander Jackson looked up from his Tac 3 screen. “Lieutenant.”

“Yes sir?”

“I think we have to reassess the threat that girl represents for us. How many of the CAP launched?”

“Uh, all of them Sir. We didn’t specify and the pilots took the opportunity to get out of their docks.”

“Understandable. But it will complicate things. Make setting up the refueling and launch stations a priority when we’re down. If I’m not mistaken the ship that went down was one of the three set up for that task. We can’t afford to lose more. For now make sure that girl doesn’t get another shot at us and..”

The ship rocked violently and the screens flared, as a blast hit it.

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Chessmaster shrieked in outrage as the four gray Queens materialized back onto the board. The four weren’t under anyone’s control and he wanted to know where they had come from. They were hazy, and indistinct, not quite there, and they seemed to be quite content to tear across the forces he had arrayed with gleeful abandon.

The first one was pure rage, trapped somewhere, locked away. The heart of Fury burned bright enough to sear his mind’s eye.

The next two, a Shaman and an Angel, were concerned with life, occasionally fighting, but mostly keeping to the fallen.

The last one was a threat. The last queen was chasing his Rook, running straight into a cluster of pawns that he could not afford to lose! This Queen was a murderer, someone who was not new to taking lives…

And he’d already planned his tactics and moved into his strategies. All he could do was wait and pray that his gambit played out the way he needed it to.

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The window of one skybox exploded in a burst of spherical plastic pebbles, and something out of an X-Men graphic novel erupted from the opening.

Half of the Alphas flew down at the Chessmaster’s Rooks. Skybolt unleashed her most potent lightning bolts, which didn’t fry any of the Rooks, but clearly knocked out two of the Rooks’ force fields. Cavalier used his PK to slow his fall, and he summoned up his PK ‘sword and buckler’ at the same time. Phoenixfire burst into flame and manifested a five-foot flaming sword.

Five Rooks in the flanking line wheeled and pointed their weapons up at the incoming threat. Three other Rooks teleported directly into the space in front of the flying opponents.

The rest of the Alphas were suddenly teleported to the gym floor below the window of the skybox. The closest four Rooks of the flanking line spun to train their weapons on the new threat.

The three Rooks in front of the flying Alphas opened fire, and suddenly found themselves overwhelmed. Cavalier blocked a hail of gunfire with his PK buckler, while also using his PK to redirect another Rook’s grenade from Skybolt to the third Rook. The explosion shook it in mid-air and caused its force field to blink for just a second. A second was far too long when a flying fire-girl with a sword of manifested flame was within attack range. The Rook was sliced in half before it had time to react. As it exploded, its two partner Rooks hastily teleported out of the way.

The Don looked around as soon as Bluejay had teleported them to the gym floor. He simply said, “Hamper? Damper?”

Hamper focused on the closest Rooks, and suddenly the robots couldn’t seem to locate their targets. They swung back and forth, helplessly struggling to focus on targets that their onboard computers could no longer make sense of. Damper strode forward and pointed his hands. The two closest Rooks suddenly had their force fields flicker out.

Bluejay knew just what to do with these playtoys. He teleported to the corner on his left, where a squad of four of the robots were re-training their weapons from the crowd in the middle of the floor to the Alphas by the wall. He smiled mischievously and reached out toward the two in the back. He vanished with both of them.

Hekate unleashed one of the three spells that The Don had asked her to prepare. She softly chanted, “ingravesco quispiam quod haud diutius officina!” The half dozen machine guns and grenade launchers trained on her group suddenly malfunctioned. Machine guns jammed. A grenade launcher failed spectacularly, the grenade going off inside the robot. Three of the forcefields flickered, and two of the robots lost their anti-grav systems, crashing to the floor.

Bluejay reappeared just behind the far right squadron of Rooks. The two Rooks he had ‘borrowed’ suddenly reappeared. In nearly the same space as the rear two Rooks of the righthand squad. The brutally intersected Rooks began sparking and burning. Bluejay grinned, “Alas, for the king’s tower hast fallen!” He teleported out moments before ammo inside the wreckage cooked off and the mangled remains exploded.

The Don seldom used physical force, even if he was an Exemplar 4. It was so lacking in style. So lower class. But there was a time and a place for everything. He picked up the Rook which had fallen on its side, and he smashed it base-first into another Rook which had lost its force field. He turned his back on the two damaged Rooks and strode back to his place of command. He was content with that.

And he knew that Skybolt had strict instructions to fry anything he hit, just to make sure it would stay down.

Magnificently ignoring the shots from the Tiger Guards and Rooks still in play, The Don copped a posture and trumpeted, “Well? What are you waiting for? Fliers, TO THE SKIES! Teach those squalid invaders what it means to trespass on Whateley, even on All Hallows’ Night! GO! Unleash the STORM!”

Skybolt lifted off, blasting a hole through the canopy covering the Holbrook Arena as she flew. Thunderbird/Superman was quick on her heels, followed almost immediately by Widget/ Supergirl. Other fliers joined in, raggedly at first, but then in a flood, up through the hole in the roof. Some of the gadgeteers and devisors called for vehicles, which made up a significant second flight. During all of this, the Tiger Guard and Rooks tried to stop the fliers, but only made themselves easier targets for the students still on the ground. Don Sebastiano strode about, loudly directing the students in their battle, occasionally taking advantage of a cinematic moment when he’d break from issuing orders to heft a Tiger Guardsman or Rook unit over his head and dramatically hurl it at another opponent.

Chaka was busy with a few ‘Tiger-stripes’, but occasionally she’d pause and give the strutting Don a sour look. There was a zipping noise behind her, and Toni heard Sizzle purr mockingly, “Oh, and you were doing so well, too… Oh Well!” Sizzle finished merrily, and zipped off.

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Chou wasn't sure it would work, but she certainly needed Destiny's Wave if she were going to be able to do anything against these robots, and letting the Alphas take all of the credit wasn't a plan worth considering. She reached out and tried to do that ‘sword summoning’ thing that Luke Skywalker did in Empire. Nothing was happening. Gunfire caused her to abandon that plan and try to find another quickly. Tossing an unconscious Tiger Guard toward one of the Rooks was the best she could do. The sizzle was nice and the movement kept the Rook from firing at any other target. The down side to this plan was that there weren't all that many Tiger Guards lying on the floor to be used that way.

There were no weapons that would help in this, but if she focused on the other Chessmen and such, would that enable Bricks to join the fray against the Rooks? That might just be a good plan. She used the ground-eating slide step and folded a Tiger Guard before he could bring his weapon to bear. The wet snap told Chou that the joint had broken, but she couldn't really find it in her to care. She spun the rifle weapon into her hands and took aim at another Guard, who was busy fighting with another student. "Down!"

The Guard was flung away from the student, one of the Underdogs, who seemed really relieved. Chou moved on and did what she could without her sword.

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Jericho blasted a hole through the Rook moving towards Doc Tenant, who was still bedecked in her Mercy outfit and tending to the injured kids. Diamondback dragged another unconscious student to the small but growing group in the chaos, as her partner spitefully shot the Rook two more times, reducing it to slag with the magnesium-sheathed burner rounds that Slapdash had designed. The guy was a semi-Diedrick’s gun-nerd, but when he built a weapon, it delivered better than anything the rest of the current crop of devisors could concoct.

Jericho immediately dropped to his knees next to another student, crushing back his panic at the open combat as he began pulling out field bandages and patching up the girl. He didn’t have time to freak out.

Diamondback went over to the fallen students and began forcing her breathing under control to spark the healing trance she was going to need to do anything for them. Her method wasn’t fast, but it was effective.

Jericho didn’t bother getting Ophelia’s attention, simply tossing a smaller field medical kit to her side. The woman snatched it up and continued working, as Jericho grabbed the Core Ejector and began blasting away at three more Rooks coming toward the impromptu triage area.

“Get away from my wounded, you goddamned cock-smoking motherfuckers!” He slammed a button, and twenty arachnoid metal monstrosities flashed into existence. They began tearing or blasting at incoming Rooks and Chessmen. The blind devisor boy was screaming bloody murder as he stood sentinel, for once not in the thick of the medical work that was his love, but protecting the ones who needed it. There was no one else nearby to do it.

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Tennyo was squashing another Sun-Ball down into a launching speck when she was joined by an 18th Century noblewoman, then Superman and Supergirl, with a curvy female ‘Green Lantern’, ‘the Scarlet Witch’, and a rather tattered-looking Marine in his dress blues. Right behind them were Lancer and Wallflower on either side of Phoenixfire, with more on the way.

“So, where’s this horrible armada that’s supposed to be headed our way?” Skybolt asked dismissively.

“Over… THERE!” Billie let the sun-speck go and the assembling fliers watched the flicker of light until it exploded against an approaching dropship.

“Jeeeeezzee- ZUZ!” somebody gasped.

“It’s not as bad as it seems,” Billie said loudly enough to be heard by everyone. Her ‘drill sergeant’ voice carried over everyone. “Most of them are hologram decoys. Look, we don’t have to take them all out - all that we really have to do is keep them from landing on Whateley grounds and deploying their troops inside the school’s defense perimeter. If they have to slog through the school’s exterior defenses, they’re TOAST. They’re basically airborne landing craft, so all their defenses will be biased against ground assault. The unit that I took out-”

“You already took out a dropship?” someone asked in shock.

“YES!” Billie yelled in irritation. “All the weaponry and extra lift gear was stashed on the roof. That means that anyone going at them from above will face concentrated fire from that direction. So, we meet them beyond the school perimeter face full on, using the dropships as cover for fire from the other ships. Bricks form phalanxes of five and go straight for the ships. Blasters, fly air cover for the bricks. These are reinforcements, people, they’re coming in expecting resistance, so they’ll have some sort of air cover of their own, either fighter escorts of some sort or ship based interceptors. Bricks, leave the interceptors for the Blasters, and focus on damaging the main ships.”

“PARDON?” Skybolt complained, “Exactly WHY are we supposed to let a Poe nutcase plan strategy for us? Just GO at them and forget all the silly maneuvering!”

“It’s good basic strategy, from someone who’s seen the opposition!” Bomber in his Marine costume barked. “You heard her, people! Form up some ranks and let’s take this fight to THEM!”

As the kids formed up the ranks and started moving, Billie heard Mega-Girl’s voice ask, “You went as yourself?

Then she heard Iron Star’s voice say defensively, “Of course not!” In a more subdued voice, he confessed, “I came as Captain America, but my costume didn’t survive my armoring up.”

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Kneeling in the dirt, Nightbane shifted some of the grass aside with her fingertips. The demon hadn’t so much left tracks as carved a bloody path down to the abandoned mill.

She hefted her sword and moved toward the mill. She knew the demon was laying a trap for her. That was what demons did. But she one of the forces of the light, and she was not going to let that monster invade Whateley. She took a deep breath. She promised herself that only one of them was going to return from this fight.

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Fantastico didn’t like a fight that wasn’t heavily in his favor. And he didn’t like being just ‘one more brick’ in a line. But this was more his style. He had Conduit protecting him from energy beam attacks, and Roadrunner zipping around tripping up any of the armored soldiers that tried to draw a bead on him. All he had to do was show why he was Fantastico.

He had lost the sunglasses that were part of his ‘Power Man’ costume, but his leather jacket was still in good shape. He wanted to look good if he was going to have to fight these pricks in front of the whole stadium.

He grabbed a damaged robot-thing and lifted it over his head to hurl it into a row of the armored soldiers. The next robot-thing was in pretty good shape. He punched it as hard as he could, denting the shell but not busting it. So he used his heat vision. The frigging thing turned its machine gun on him, but the barrel was already melting and warping under the energies from his eyes. The robot opened fire, and the shells exploded in the barrel.

He felt a couple energy blasts being diverted off to the side, and the blasts punched holes into the robot-thing. Good thing Conduit had his back, those blasts would’ve hurt like hell. Maybe really busted him up. As it was, they just totalled the robot, which seized up and sparked pathetically.

He turned on the robot-thing that had tried to blindside him, in time to see Conduit divert another couple energy blasts from the thing. This time, the blasts curved in mid-air and took out a trio of armored badguys. Roadrunner zipped over to the fallen enemies, scooped up a rifle, and opened fire on the robot.

It tried to use its grenade launcher on Roadrunner while facing Fantastico. ‘Bad move, Robby’, thought the F-man. The robot hadn’t noticed that Roadrunner had already zipped past and wedged part of a table leg in the barrel of its grenade launcher. The grenade went off inside the robot with a terrific bang.

Fantastico made for the big cyborg aiming that machine gun at some of the other Bricks. He used a chunk of concrete to knock it out of the cyborg’s hands. The cyborg whirled and grappled with him. He grabbed its left hand with his right and tried to sucker-punch it with his left. The damn thing grabbed his left with its other hand.

They strained fiercely, neither able to completely overcome the other’s strength. Fantastico groaned, “Pretty.. strong.. there.. fer.. a.. Borg… Ya.. forgot.. one.. thing…”

He used his heat vision to melt the armor over the thing’s chest, and burn a hole right through the circuitry underneath. It collapsed in a shower of sparks. He dusted his hands off and muttered, “Rather wrestle with Seven of Nine any day, if ya ask me…”

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Dynamaxx ducked back under the punch table when a round of bullets came his way again. He muttered to himself angrily, "Oh, don't wear that power armor, where's the fun in that, how can you slow-dance with a girl when you're in armor? WHAT A STUPID IDEA!" Next time, he was wearing his full power armor. AND bringing an energy cannon! And maybe an entire teleportation system.

A tiny voice piped up from his fake 'chainmail' shirt. "What a stupid idea? Hey! It was a good idea!"

He looked down at where Sizemax was lurking. She had shrunk down to six inches high, and was hiding where she wouldn't get stepped on. Her 'princess' costume made her look like a doll or something.

He growled, "Shut up. Tinkerbelle. It was YOUR stupid idea, and if we both get out of this alive, I'm not speaking to you."

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Nikki sidestepped a blast from one of the Dalek things, waited for it to fire again, then wrapped the strongest spherical shield she could manage around it. Given the amount of power she was drawing from the nearby Ley lines, it was strong enough. Barely.

As the thing’s weapons fired, the shots bounced from her force field to its own, then back and forth until the Rook’s force field collapsed in a shower of sparks. The still active beams and projectiles it had aimed at Nikki bounced off her shield one last time. The mechanical monster went up in a fountain of flame, sparks, and spinning parts that would have been a hit at even the most jaded group’s fireworks display. Though the way the thing’s force field had reacted gave her another idea. She had a very good idea of just how the Dalek things’ forcefields worked now, and more than the glimmering of a solution to putting those out of action, and maybe even the anti-grav fields the things used.

“Not bad for a frosh.” A voice behind her interrupted the epiphany she was having with grudging respect in it. “But you’ve already used that trick haven’t you?”

Nikki turned to see Don Sebastiano nodding at her and gesturing towards the boiling chaos in the auditorium. “Though that thing you did to the cyborgs was quite disgusting, and effective.”

“You talk too much.” Fey answered and aimed a bolt of something like plasma at another of the animated and deadly chess pieces. “But thanks.”

“Carry on, my dear.” Sebastiano magnanimously waved her on. “Confusion to the enemy!”

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Phase watched Fey briefly speaking with Sebastiano after making a spectacular mess of one of the rooks. The young mage stepped away from the Alpha with an unimpressed shrug then made a fearsome gesture, and a shower of red energies poured from her hands at the Rooks in the corner. The Rooks suddenly shuddered, and their force fields collapsed. Three of the four lost anti-gravity power too, and clunked to the floor. Perfect.

Phase took a running start as she went heavy, and then went disruption-light. She ripped through two of them, trashing them completely.

Unfortunately, by the time she went heavy again, she was through the wall and forty yards out into the campus.

“Damn it to hell!” She turned and flew back toward the building.

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The Rook certainly hadn't expected the cat-girl to suddenly manifest armor and a kopesh, nor for the blade to be felt through the Force Field. Nor had it expected the shield, which had appeared fast enough to catch the blast aimed there.

Miyet was flying backwards, glad for the shield. She twisted and landed gracefully on her feet. Maybe that part of being a cat was okay. The girl part still chafed, but maybe just maybe the cat bit was okay, especially once she had gotten rid of those damn Hello Kitty things. Why that little girl had liked her looking like that was beyond her.

::Because my Kitten, you looked adorable and the girl could see that.:: added Bast, not helping things at all.

"Gah!!!" yelled Miyet, which had nothing to do with any of the combat going on around her. If only she could strangle the Goddess… But barring that, she would have to get comfort from somewhere else.

The Rook’s computer system noted that the cat-girl's eyes had glowed an odd red briefly, just before the frenzied attack that was slowly battering down its shields.

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Tempest watched enviously as the Bricks flew up to take on the bad-guy planes. She was a big PDP. She was supposed to be able to do stuff like that. But she couldn’t make her powers do that. No, her powers were ‘unreliable’, as that white asshole Dr. Yablonski said. Not anything close to stable. She oughta be able to fly, and put up force fields, and all that shit.

It wasn’t fair. IT WASN’T FUCKING FAIR! That bitch-boy Chaka was bouncing around like fucking Jet Li on speed or something, and she was stuck here with a team who didn’t even like her, watching everyone else get into the action. She was so angry she could’ve chewed nails. She was so angry she felt like she was going to explode or something.

She didn’t see the three Sabretooths rushing up behind her and her team. She didn’t notice when all three Sabretooths suddenly grabbed their heads and keeled over like they’d been clubbed.

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Aquerna herded Rhiannon and Lucille into the middle of the crowd, where they’d be safest. If the ceiling didn’t fall on them or something. It wasn’t easy. Her friends wanted to scoot over to the edge of the battle and watch Fey fight the bad guys. Having nearly had her butt shot off, she wasn’t quite as excited about the idea as they were.

She rushed off, rounded up two more Underdogs, and brought them to the center of the crowd. Rhiannon was gone. Uh-oh. It didn’t take a super-genius to figure out where. She pleaded, “Luce, please stay here, and please make sure everyone else does too. I’ll go get Rhee.” She waited until Lucille reluctantly nodded yes, and then she moved.

She leapt over a couple crowded spots, and - sure enough - there was Rhiannon, peeking between a couple upperclassman Bricks to watch Fey taking out pretty much everything in front of her. She had to get Rhee back somewhere safe, before something happened…

There was an insistent tap on her shoulder. She turned around and gulped.

TNT was facing her down. Truck, Nitro, and Tee-Kay were side-by-side and looming over her. This wasn’t a good thing.

Truck growled, “You saved Nitro’s ass back there.”

She nodded nervously. “Well, uhh, yeah. I couldn’t just leave him there, when-“

“GRENADE!” screamed Rhiannon in a shrill voice.

Aquerna glanced over and saw a pair of grenades bouncing their way. Maybe she could get to one before it blew up, but there was no way she could get both, and…

Tee-Kay made a negligent wave of his hand, and both grenades soared rapidly up through the hole in the ceiling, to explode above the building.

Aquerna gulped. “I..uhh… I think we’re even now.”

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Lemure wandered around in the mayhem looking more like a lost soul than her cheap, thrown-together-at-the-last-minute-out-of-sheets ‘ghost’ costume really should have warranted. ‘I have been with this loser pack WAY too long,’ she mused to herself. ‘My instincts are totally shot. I should be distracting fire, or suddenly going super-dense and getting in some serious smackdown.’ She stuck one hand into the side of one of the Tiger Guards who was ignoring the obvious ‘ghost hologram decoy’, and waved it. While it didn’t disrupt him or knock him unconscious, like it did with the Vision in the comics, it did mess with his inner ear, causing him to blow chunks inside the gas mask of his helmet.

Watching with satisfaction as the man went down, furiously working the catches of his helmet, Lemure smiled. It felt GOOD to be effective for a change. There’d been a time, last year, when the Vindicators had been a name to respect. Nobody messed with them, in or out of the Sims, except maybe Freya. And then that idiot Bardue decided that it would be a good idea to cycle some of her friends out of the team and bring new losers in. Losing Larry had been hard, but they’d managed to keep up the standards. Then they cycled out Grace, and things started going down hill. Now, there was only her and Pam left of the old team. And worse, the yutzes that they’d gotten stuck with had decided that they didn’t need to listen to the ones who’d actually managed to WIN. She didn’t know who was worse, that sleaze Max, or that posturing bozo Alvin, that oaf Pers or that screaming bitch Korrende. Thinking about it pissed Simone off enough that she went heavy, picked up a Rook that had strayed too close to her, and chucked it at one of the Tiger Guards.

Surprisingly, for a person who really didn’t like violence, Lemure found that she felt better. It felt GOOD to just do the simple, effective thing, without getting all wrapped up in Korrende’s or Max’s over-complicated messes, or having Alvin or Pers screw up something that a three-year old should be able to manage! She waded intangibly through one of the Chessmen’s gunfire and disarmed him. Now she knew what she had to do. Getting the old Vindicators back together was out of the question: Larry, Grace, Bill and Mike were meshing too well with their new teams to ask them to get back together. But she could transfer out of the Vindicators onto a new team, and with any luck, maybe she’d manage to get Pam to join her eventually. Then they’d let those idiots stew in their own incompetence, without having her or Pam to blame anymore

She'd been putting it off because the Dickinson house fixer, Poise, refused to go against Bardue. But she’d heard that She-Beast over in Melville would do favors for anyone in any house, for a reasonable favor in return. The word was that She-Beast was the daughter of a big-time supervillain, so a favor owed her could be dangerous. On the other hand, if she was the daughter of a supervillain, then she would know ALL the dirty tricks, now wouldn’t she? And the word also had it that She-Beast was very good about keeping her promises. Okay, first thing tomorrow, she’d find She-Beast and get the ball rolling. So long, Loserville!

Then Lemure heard Korrende/Kismet's shrill shrieking, calling for her. A moment later, she was blindsided while she was still solid, and she quickly lost track of what was happening to her. But from long experience with the way that everything was going berserk in a five-foot radius, she knew that Kismet had lost control of her ‘hexing’ power again. She found herself at the bottom of a groaning heap of students and thugs and wrecked equipment. Kismet shrilled, “Lemure, why didn’t you do what I told you to? THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!”

‘Classic,’ Simone grumped to herself. ‘There goes my good mood. But at least now I’m sure who I hate the most in the current roster.’

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Mega-Girl gave out a snarl of frustration as she tried to batter her way through the dropship’s force field. The problem was that if you pulled back and took a flying ram at it, a deflection screen popped up and batted you aside. If you stood there and just whaled away at it, the foundation field just resealed itself after you pounded a hole in it; it was like trying to dig a hole in quicksand. At least the other flying bricks weren’t having much in the way of luck that way either. Even Phoenixfire wasn’t doing anything with her big-deal whoop-de-do fire scimitar, since the plasma was just bouncing off the force field. Megs tried to use the opportunity to get closer to Iron Star, but Magni-Girl was already there in her Phoenix costume, keeping him distracted.

Then a ‘Green Lantern’ in skin-tight green spandex swooped down from the mass of flying blasters who were providing air cover from the dropship’s top-mounted guns. “Hey guys!” Marty recognized the voice of her roommate, Delta Spike. “I got an idea!”

“Oh, WONDERFUL!” Powerhouse groaned. “Just what we need, another Delta Spike idea!”

“Oh!” Delta squealed, “That is SO uncalled for! Like you’re doing so much good!”

“Hey, give her a break,” Hank said as he adjusted the fit of his ‘Tenchi’ costume. “I mean, what could it hurt?”

“It’s Delta Spike,” Lady Liberty groaned. “The mind boggles!”

“Well, we’re not doing much good as it is,” Widget said as she flew up. “And Spike’s ideas may not always do what they’re supposed to do, but they always do SOMETHING. I mean, as it is, all we’re doing now is just slowing these things down.”

“THANK you, Widget,” Delta Spike gloated. “I think. Anyway! Powerhouse, I want you to make another long run at this thing.”

“All that’s gonna do is get me bounced again!”

“I KNOW! That’s the idea!” Delta Spike said, getting into it, “When the Deflection Screen comes down, Magni-Girl, Lady Liberty and I will use our magnetics to latch onto it. Then, everyone push against THAT!”

“SO WHAT?” Phoenixfire blurted out. “We STILL won’t be able to get through the freaking force field!”

“So, who says that we have to get through the force field, hmmm?” DS gave a pussycat grin. “We can push this dropship into one of the other dropships. Either the fields will merge, and the suspension pontoons will interfere with each other, OR the fields will repel, and we can tip this ship over on top of the other ship. I got a good look at the top before, and these things have a centrally mounted Anti-Grav coil. If we bring one down upside down on top of the other, the two coils will interfere with each other. OR the anti-aircraft weapons that have been giving us so much shit will detonate, destroying the coils. The Anti-Grav coils displace at least half of those things’ weight, so there is NO WAY that the suspension coils or lift jets can lift that. Any way it goes down, these things are going DOWN!”

The flyers looked around at each other. Thunderbird shrugged. “It sounds like a plan to ME.”

“Somebody wake up the Pope,” Magni-Girl groaned, “A miracle just happened. Delta Spike actually had a GOOD idea.”

Powerhouse did as instructed, and Delta Spike’s plan went ahead as described. The assembled flying bricks indeed found that the fixed deflection screen did offer them better traction, and pushing the dropship turned out to be like moving around a Macy’s Day Parade balloon: awkward but not backbreaking. The dropship shoved against one of the others, and with a good deal of hefting, managed to tip over on top of its mate. There was a racket as jets caught and rockets exploded, but the two stacked dropships didn’t drop. Instead, they shuddered for a second, and then shot way up into the higher atmosphere like a rocket.

“OR,” Delta Spike corrected herself, “instead of interfering with each other, the Grav-Coils could heterodyne, effectively making both ships weightless, and then providing too much lift. I did NOT see that coming! Must have been a very good design. Hey Marty! If we just rip off the Gravity Coils from these things, I’ll bet I could resell them and pay off-”

“PAY ATTENTION, Delta Spike!” Thunderbird roared, “Okay people, we have a plan that works, let’s see how many of these things we can stack before they catch on!”

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Zenith and Sahar had gone as Kim Possible™ and Shego©, with an eye towards fulfilling a few Fan/Ship fantasies later. But, like a surprising number of other costume choices that night, their outfits had turned out to be remarkably well suited for hand-to-hand combat. They were perfectly synchronized twin tornadoes, whirling among the Chessmen, Sabretooths, and Tiger Guards, keeping them off balance and setting them up for the more powerful students to take out.

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Aztecka grabbed one of the Chessmen by his arm and hefted him over her head in her best ‘Wonder Woman’ style. Unfortunately, she hadn’t taken into account the fact that Wonder Woman is a comic book character, and as such doesn’t need to take special care to keep her chest from popping out of that strapless bustier. This had the sad side effect of drastically distracting five boys when they should have been watching the Tiger Guards, who managed to slip past them. Sizzle showed an uncharacteristic amount of Girls’ unity by zipping up and pulling Paloma’s bustier back up.

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The Chessman reacted to the ridiculous fact that he’d just been hit in the face with a Boston Cream pie. Then he reacted as his metabolism told him that his bloodstream had just been supersaturated with paranoia-inducing hallucinogens, and he started screaming and swatting at the ‘tarantulas’ that were suddenly crawling all over him. Beltane smirked and then made the situation even worse for his comrades as she created a patch of ‘ice’, sending the thrashing figure careening among them.

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Commander Jackson whirled around as his watch officer gasped, “Sir! More incoming!”

“What? Where!”

“At three o’clock. Looks like some kind of.. flying motorcycle?? It’s.. Launching missiles! Transport 14 is targeted! Repeat, it’s launched two missiles!”

Commander Jackson snapped into his comms, “Transport 14. Evasive action, immediately! Transports 17 and 12, launch countermeasures!”

“Too late!”

The two missiles struck moments afterward. The first exploded harmlessly off transport 14’s forward screen, but it did set the screen up for the second missile.

“Sir! Forward penetration screen down!”

Jackson calmly replied, “I can see that. Where’s our CAP!?”

“They’re screening us from the flyers, sir, especially the Tennyo threat.”

“All of them? Get some back here now! Transport 14’s unprotected. Where’s that bike now?”

“Yes Sir! ASAP! The bike broke off after launching the missiles and headed back undercover in the forest. I don’t know where it went from there, but… Wait!”

“What is it?”

“Movement!”

“Where?”

“There! Near Transport 14. Three figures. Dropping fast into the forest.”

“I see them. Why didn’t we see them before?”

“Not sure, sir.”

The man on tac ops offered, “I think it must be some kind of camouflage, sir.”

“Fine. But why were they leaving so fast their camouflage wasn’t working anymore? Unless…”

Three simultaneous explosions tore Transport 14 apart as they watched.

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J.J. ‘Scrambler’ Jendleschmidt caromed off of five of the Rooks in succession, rather like a pinball, trying to use the powerful magnetic field that she generated as a side effect of her speeding to confuse the robots. Instead, when she was knocked into a refreshment table, all the flatware was magnetically drawn to her, covering her so thickly in stainless steel flatware that she couldn’t get back up.

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Three Chessmen and a Rook appeared to have Chaka cornered. But when they started firing, the bullets went right through her. As one of the Chessmen put a hand through Farrago’s fading manifestation, Silver Rose wrapped up the other ‘Pawns’ with her vines. Talos distracted the Rook and let a few bullets careen off his bronze-looking carapace, while Glissade ran through a sequence of tones that badly scrambled the Rook’s orientation system.

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Montana roared in frustration as he tried to get past the Rook’s force field. He kept grappling it, but his hands couldn’t find purchase through the slippery repulsion field. But his outrage was total when he saw a couple of ‘Dr. Octopus’ arms penetrate the force field from below and rip out something that made the Rook fall to the floor, immobile, but not harmless. Monty followed the arms back to where he saw Belphegor, dressed as Dr. Octopus, cringing behind an overturned table.

“HEY!” Monty bellowed, “I HAD DIBS ON THAT ANTI-GRAV COIL!”

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Commander Jackson turned to his watch officer, “Get me Chessmaster. We need more information on how well the dropzone is protected.”

“Aye, sir! I... AAAAHHHH!”

Sparks arced around the cabin, as a huge apparition like a giant bird made of lightning seemed to appear in the middle of the dropship formation. For a moment the Commander was sure he could see the apparition’s eyes looking straight into his, and the anger and hate he felt shook him to the bone. Then it was gone, leaving cooked electronics sparking all around the bridge to remind everyone of its existence.

For a moment, everything was unnaturally quiet. Then a roar of thunder pealed throughout the formation. The sky seemed to have suddenly emptied a great deal. Commander Jackson was momentarily afraid he’d lost his entire command. Then he realized that most of his ships were still flying.. but all the decoys had disappeared.

“Sir! Comms are down! All our decoy projectors are fried too!”

Commander Jackson snapped, “That’s it! Divert to Landing Site Baker. Tell half the CAP to keep those students where they are. Once we’re down they can’t attack us from below. Get the others around us now! Let’s not lose any more ships to sneak attacks.”

“Aye, sir. Secondary landing site it is. Signaling other ships visually. Comms are still down. We can’t tell anyone else what we’re doing.”

“They’ll see soon enough. Get us down. We’ll sweep through them all as soon as we’re down and can unlimber our equipment. Get the gas projectors ready with stun gas. I don’t want any surprises when we land.”

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‘Oh, fricking CLASSIC!’ Rip steamed to herself, ‘I finally get in a situation where I can show off my stuff, and the humidity is, like, ZERO!’ She was having to settle for misting over the faceplates of the Chessmen and making some patches of floor slick. And where was the brag factor in THAT? Then she spotted just the thing. She managed to make her way across the floor to the water spigot. Just as she managed to turn the handle, a hand grabbed the back of her neck roughly, and she was hauled up into a classic ‘hostage shield’ position with a serrated knife edge against her throat.

“Back OFF!” the Tiger Guard snarled, “I’ll GUT her, if you don’t back the fuck OFF!”

Rip recognized Shadowolf and Grenadier from the Young Turks as they paused. Then she sensed that she had enough moisture to work with, and clobbered the goon. “Thanks, guys!” she said brightly. She had what she needed, and she was getting more all the time. “Time to Rock and ROLL!”

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Vanessa growled with frustration, as she hid behind an upended table. Her more subtle ‘Siren’ effects were useless in this chaos, and just belting out with ear-splitting shrieks would hurt the home team more than the invaders. And while she was an Exemplar, she wasn’t one of the real muscle-bending exemplars. And she didn’t have phat moves like Chaka. But she couldn’t just sit there and do NOTHING!

Then one of the Tiger-stripes fell to the floor near her. She saw that he had a weapons belt full of the ‘contain and restrain’ stuff that they’d been using. She reached out and snatched the weapons belt. Maybe she’d just been over-thinking it…

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When Pilar heard that she was going to be taught ‘martial arts’, like in the Chinese movies, she had been very excited. She knew how to fight, but only the nasty, bite-them-where-it-hurts fighting that she’d learned in Rocinha, one of the nastier slum in Rio de Janero. Not like the beautiful, sweeping, graceful kung fu of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. She’d been rather disappointed that Master Ito had insisted on simply refining her nasty, gutter-rat fighting reflexes, instead of teaching her a whole new way of fighting. He’d said that the point of all fighting was to make the other person hurt, and her way of fighting did that very well. There was no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ as he put it.

So be it. Pilar ducked between the Sabretooth’s legs, clamped her mouth over the part of his inner thigh where his main artery should be, and formed her canines in to needle sharp fangs. She bit him, injecting a potent toxin into his blood. As the paid murderer screamed in pain, Pilar reflected that maybe the little man knew what he was talking about.

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Adjusting the configuration of his wheelchair, Kludge sprang onto the ‘back’ of the Rook, using his Energizer trait to penetrate the force field. He found the maintenance hatch and furiously spliced into the main control unit. There! Now this bad boy was HIS bitch! Taking a spare moment to get an idea of the control protocols, Kludge absolutely gloated. HAH! Let’s see that halfwit bitch Juryrig top THAT! Just because she was a paraplegic energizer with a gadgeteering knack, like he was, she thought that she could do anything that he could! HAH! Let’s see her match THIS! He rode the Rook, sending sprays of plasmic death at the Sabretooths who were trying to form a protective cluster against a bunch of enraged students.

Just when he was going to call out to Juryrig and dare her to top this, he heard her unwelcome voice gloating, “HEY KLUDGE! TOP THIS!”

He turned to see her glaring at him, flabbergasted and aghast - from the back of another Rook, where she’d converted HER wheelchair into a control mechanism. “YOU BITCH!

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Betty ‘Britomart’ Archard confined herself to gesturing at various targets menacingly with the sword that she’d manifested. She knew that she’d never actually HIT anyone with the stupid thing. She was just suckering the gunmen into wasting their rounds against her shield. The bullets kept knocking away at the shield, and she just kept reinforcing the shield. But what really got her goat was the fact that she’d spent WEEKS putting together an absolutely gorgeous, to die for, fairy princess gown.. that had promptly gotten ripped to shreds when she manifested her icky pseudo-insect armor. And worse, the odds were that everyone would remember this armor a lot longer than they’d remember her gown.

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Hey, Bubba!” Silo, grown to 40 feet high, kicked the Rook over to Bronco.

Bronco intercepted it in mid-flight with his foot, shattering the high-tech weapons platform like an overripe pumpkin. “Yaaaaaa…HOO!” Bronco cheered. “Now THIS is FUN! Man, we ought have one’a these EVERY YEAR!”

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Paulie ‘Mauler’ Molliard knew that foot soldiers were heading into a dark time when he first saw the movie Aliens. Time was, no matter how anal-retentive, micro-managing and glory-obsessed a control freak your officer was, at least you could get the fuck away from them in battle. But now, thanks to micro-cameras and close-range links, the fucking officer could be right there, over your shoulder, directing you onto new and more egregious heights of glorious idiotic control-freakiness, without ever having to leave the safety of an armored transport. Even up in his sleek, deadly Anti-Grav gunship, Paulie wasn’t safe from his temporary CO. Not only was the Chessmaster an anal-retentive, micro-managing, glory-obsessed control freak with a chess fixation, but he was an anal-retentive, micro-managing, glory-obsessed control freak with a chess fixation WHO NEW EXACTLY WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT! And Jeesuz! The updates and corrections! Constantly!

He managed to stifle a groan as yet ANOTHER instruction came from the HQ dropship. [Mauler, we have a priority instruction] ‘Ooohh… surprise, surprise…’ [Whateley students are flying your way to prevent the reinforcement ships from landing. Support the ships, but don’t hurt the students too badly] ‘Typical. Conquer mercilessly, but don’t make any enemies doing it.’ [With two exceptions. Your orders are to terminate two of the students with extreme prejudice] ‘Finally, some orders that would make sense- IF I knew which two to take out.’ [Transmitting images of the two targets. Be aware, the CO has stood a $10,000 a head bounty for both these targets] ‘Of course, in the modern battlefield, coordination and best information IS the name of the game.’ Mauler hit his link with the rest of his flight. “Lilienthal Flight, heads up. We have multiple flying hostiles approaching. They are Whateley students, and we’re not supposed to hurt them if we can help it. Don’t bother with the missiles, at any safe deployment range, they’d just knock them out of the sky,” he said as he armed his Hellfire missile pod, setting it to proximity detonation. “Use the plasma cannons, not the Vulcans,” he instructed as he checked his ammo hopper. “They’re conveniently arranged in two tiers. Aim for the targets in the upper tier. We’re 2,000 feet up; anyone that we could knock out with these weapons would die from the impact if they dropped. So, we’ll let their buddies on the lower tier catch them, dealing with two targets at once.” Mauler used the ship’s cameras to scan the faces of the small figures that were growing quickly as he approached. There was no way that he could tell the guy from any of the other guys in the bad light, especially with those stupid costumes. But the chick with the blue hair was a quick ID. He turned on the recorder, so he could prove that she was his kill. Well, no need to tell any of the others about the bounty…

The upper tier was busy dealing with the sky-cycle interceptors that each dropship carried, so Mauler’s flight came at them from One o’clock in a sweep. Mauler waited until his target was about a foot away from the outer reaches of the Hellfire missile’s backlash zone before he let loose with both of them. The line of fliers rocked with the concussion and a few were knocked out of the sky. The trail of plasma bursts spattered on the protective screens that some of them put up, but several of the fliers were knocked out of line. Mauler pulled a half-Immelmann and hovered right over his bunny, shooting 0.25 rounds straight down at her. The line of blasters retreated from Blue-hair a bit and she looked up. She shot up, and Mauler imagined her saying something corny like ‘Oh, you wanna PLAY, hunh?’

Flying air cover for the Syndicate is all about fighting superheroes (or supervillains or other ‘secret crime organizations’), and Mauler pretty much had fighting superheroes mapped out. As a rule, fliers are either fast or maneuverable, but very rarely both. The Germer-Dorn Anti-Gravity gunship was both. It was designed along the sleek basic lines of the AirCobra or Apache attack helicopters, only it had a Germer-Dorn AG coil and shorted versions of the magnetic suspension system that the dropships were using, instead of rotors. It could use a maneuver called ‘gravitic caroming’ to cheat on inertial effects, to pull off fifty degree and sharper turns without reducing speed. Mauler knew how to use maneuverability against the speedsters and speed against the agile. And best of all, he had the kill zone over the dropships going for him. With the right moves, he could get bunny-girl between him and the kill zone. It didn’t matter whether he cut her to bits himself, or if he forced her into the kill zone where the anti-aircraft defenses would make mincemeat out of her; either way, he got paid.

After making sure that his blue-haired target was well separated from the rest of the pack, Mauler began a corkscrew assault - which only an anti-grav gunship is even capable of - to get an idea as to whether his target was a speedster or a dodger. But instead of either zipping out of his targeting range or setting up an evasion pattern, she started whirling around until there was a cloud of baseball-sized glowing balls of plasma swarming around her. She didn’t rise to his bait, and she headed straight into the kill zone over one of the dropships. The dropship’s point defense guns were busy trying to hit all the other snotwads, so the ship’s defense officer was using the missile racks to try and take her out before she hit anything important.

The missiles just detonated off the whirling cloud of plasma as the bitch just floated towards the huge 20-megaton displacement Germer-Dorn AG coil. If she took that out, that dropship would drop like a bathtub thrown out of a plane. Mauler stopped corkscrewing around and went to the very edge of the kill zone and started pumping as many 0.25 rounds into her as he could without hitting the AG coil. She threw a big ball of plasma at the coil, but it just rebounded off the AG field. He wasted 2,000 rounds before he realized that she was using the ship’s own AG coil field to protect her from his bullets. He waited and watched as she did.. something.. and suddenly the ship’s coil just tore itself off the ship and went flying upward.

The ship shuddered and the magnetic suspension system shifted over to ultimate lift and the rotor blades almost tore themselves apart, but the ship went down like the Titanic. The target drifted away from the dropping ship, and Mauler was all over her. He closed and he used both the Vulcans and the plasma guns.

And he nailed the bitch. His bullets whittled away at her cloud of plasma balls, and he had her. He got his crosshairs on the small of her back and just pumped bullets into her. She staggered and tried to get away, but he had her now, and he just kept shooting.

But she didn’t drop.

She should have dropped by now.

He must have put at least 500 pounds of fucking bullets into her!

God dammit, Champion would have dropped by now!

Hell, Superman would have dropped by now!

She turned and now she was heading right at him. He could see the bullets tearing into her, splattering and shredding her flesh. She looked like she was in pain, but she just kept coming! She plowed through the rain of steel-jackets like a man making his way through a fire hose spray. Goddammit, there shouldn’t be enough of her to even hold together, let alone FLY! And then she was so fucking close that he could make out the expression on her face- she wasn’t in pain… she was pissed!

And then there was a flash of light like a sword made of fire, a horrible crashing, tearing noise and his gunship fell apart all around him.

Then he found himself 2,000 feet up, dangling from her hand. She snarled at him, and said something in a voice like an angry buzzsaw as she gestured at the tatters of her outfit, which flapped around her, “Do you know how long it took to MAKE this outfit?

And the Mauler knew true fear.

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Soon the entire second wave was adjusting approach to move to Landing Site Baker. It was a large series of athletic fields just outside the central campus.

“Sir!”

Unconsciously flinching at the thought of more bad news, Commander Jackson turned to the watch officer.

“There’s something happening on the ground near the fields.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know Sir. But it looks like large doors opening in the ground. Look at screen C.”

The Commander looked, and saw what looked like a huge toy robot rising out of the ground. It stopped rising as soon as the chest was exposed. The head turned and looked at them.

“It’s a giant robot! How in he...”

Alarms suddenly went off. “Alert! Alert! Targeting radar is trying for lock! Repeat! Someone is trying to target us!”

“Launch all counter measures! Get ready to...”

“Missile launch! Missile launch!”

Three plumes of smoke were rising towards them. Both the fighters with them and their own ships opened fire, destroying two missiles quickly. But the third got through and another transport ship exploded. Then the robot raised its arms. Fortunately for the observers the cameras couldn’t project the truly blinding brightness of the beam coming from the weaponry in the robots arms. But the ship that the beam hit literally exploded in midair, leaving only flaming debris to mark the spot.

Jackson yelled, “Was that a proton cannon!?! Where the hell did they get that? New orders! Get us out of here! Divert to Landing Site Charlie! Now! We’ll take them on the ground. Be sure to set down in a protective ring we can operate out of. C’mon! Move it. It’ll take at least a minute to recharge that cannon. Let’s not be where it can hit us before then.”

“Aye aye Sir! Landing site coming up!”

“Land now! Don’t give them another shot at us.”

“Yes Sir! Carrier and heavy transport ships in the center. Standard transports as a perimeter defense. We should be unloaded and ready to lift out the First Wave and any prisoners shortly after that.”

“Good! It’s about time things turned around for us. Set up a perimeter. Nothing gets in to disrupt operations. I want all transports and heavy assault vehicles prepped immediately and get our CAP up and solid. No more surprises.”

“Yes Sir! Immediately!”

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If anyone attending Whateley had harbored doubts about the pure, raw power Fey could channel and make devastating use of, they no longer doubted. Outlined in a nimbus of power and throwing spells she just seemed to pull out of nowhere at Tiger Guards, Sabretooths, Chessmen, and Rooks with equal fury, Nikki simply ignored most shots taken at her. Those exploded harmlessly on adamantine but intangible looking shields, veered away from her, or simply stopped and fell to the ground.

One Rook got in close enough to her to grapple. That turned out to be a tactical error. Snarling, the girl literally ripped a glowing sword out of somewhere over her shoulder that no one else could see, neatly sliced off the metal appendage that was trying to grab her then cleanly diced the thing into a number of very small pieces.

The sword, Malachim’s Feather, seemed to take no notice of the Rook’s force field at all as it dismembered the thing.

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Hovering over the blue planet Earth in low orbit, the ARClight Military Space Station moved along with the rotation of the planet below, thus appearing still, fixed in the sky. Likewise, the view down to Earth under Corporal Warrick’s feet never changed but it was still peaceful to view from afar. America, Canada, Mexico and South America filled most of the orb below, aside from wide expanses of ocean.

“All right ladies and girls, listen up!” Mongo's voice tore across the room of ARClight. “We got us a Code Red from Whateley Academy. Looks like some jackasses finally decided that a school full of mutants was too good a target to pass up.”

Theodore ‘Bandersnatch’ Tyson nudged his teammate’s arm as their leader lumbered into the room. It was rumored that Sgt. Mongo was actually a gorilla once subjected to Devisor experiments and then strategically shaved. He defined the word ‘stocky’, indeed it was a wonder he could squeeze himself into a command suit.

“There’s nearly six hundred kids and a buncha teachers under threat and they’re barely holding on by the seat of their skirts, so we got the call. We’re going in hot and heavy. If it’s shooting and it’s not a student, civilian, or broadcasting a Whateley IFF code you blow the fucker up. Now, suit up… and watch that first step, it’s a dooooozy!”

“SIR!” The team saluted before dropping down the injection chutes studded across the walls.

Warrick punched Theodore’s shoulder before she jumped down, pulling herself bodily over the lip by the bar overhead and falling feet first. No words, no time for words.

Theodore, or Theo as he preferred, slipped down his chute a moment later, slipping down the perfectly smooth steel and impacting softly on the bicycle-like padded seat that would probably be jammed up his crack for the next 12 hours. The ARCHammer Powered Armor System was designed for mayhem, not comfort. The hatch closed automatically behind him, locked and sealed air tight.

He began running the system check on his ARCHammer Power Armor as the techs in the station began the drop checks. ARClight Station was in orbit approximately a hundred miles off the stratosphere, and the station held both research and fast strike groups ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

“All Units call in your status.” Mongo sounded too calm over the commlink, as always, like dropping into a heatstorm was an everyday thing.

“Tundrastalker, go.”

“Drowning Man, go.”

“Breakfall, go.”

“Jabberwocky, go.” Warrick’s voice sounded. She was Theo’s ‘wingman’, a little Italian woman from the worst parts of the Bronx, manical out of the cockpit… and mostly in as well, though Theo would never ask for anyone else at his back.

“Bandersnatch, go.” He called out his status, meaning he was set to fly.

The rest of the strike team called in ready, and Mongo came back over the horn. “All right, launch in thirty seconds. Jabberwocky, Bandersnatch, you’re on point as usual, so secure the drop zone and frag any motherfuckers who get in the way.”

“You got it, Chief.” Jabberwocky called in gleefully.

“I aim to please, Boss.” Theo felt somewhat less eager as the gravity generator began ramping up to compensate for the raw G-forces he was about to endure and thus keep him from liquefying while the gel packs inflated to become shock absorbers. This was the part that made 50% of applicants drop out of training; claustrophobes, agoraphobes and necrophobes need not apply.

“Launch in Ten... Nine... Eight...Seven...Six...Five...” The control tech’s voice was monotone and annoying.

“Nervous, Bandersnatch?”

“You know what they say Jabs, lead, follow, or get the HELL OUTTA MY WAY!” Theo screamed into the comm as the Rail Gun fired, launching him towards the serene sphere below.

There wasn’t much thought involved in a drop. All the ARCHammer systems were set to automatically guide the headless and vaguely gorilla-shaped armor to its destination. At fifty miles the jump pack fired, beginning to slow the armor to safe re-entry speeds while the auxiliary force field deflected most of the residual heat. At one mile, the excess heat began to pour through as the friction on the ferro-ceramic armor caused the surface of the monstrous battle-rig to glow until it looked like a falling meteor, streaking down like the finger of God. It wasn’t unusual to lose a few moments just before landing as mind-bending forces acted upon the body.

Theo came fully back to reality as his fourteen-foot tall armored suit crashed into the treeline, making a small crater upon impact. He disengaged the grav field as the gel packs deflated, their excess weight ejected through the waste disposal system, and quickly routed all power to the weapon systems. Jabberwocky hit the ground as he marked four targets in Tiger-striped leather moving toward the campus a ways off. He fired the underslung combat laser on the Power Armor’s rifle, sweeping the beam of light to shear the four bodies in half and set them aflame.

Jabberwocky was less subtle, sending a short burst of 30mm explosive rounds into a small group of the Tiger idiots. The two fanned out and checked the drop zone.

“Holy shit! Bander, check this motherfucker out!” Jabberwocky sent him the feed. He saw a lone Whateley IFF charging right at the drop zone.

The guy didn't even slow down as he started firing into the trees away from the power suits, and rapidly crossed into the danger zone as the rest of the team came crashing to the earth. Whoever the guy was, he completely ignored the armor, like he didn't care if he was crushed, lumbering around two of the suits and between the legs of the third before he continued on. Exiting the drop zone like a man on a mission, he unlimbered a rocket laucher and loaded it on the run as he did so.

“Jesus Christ, either that guy’s fearless or he’s fucking insane!” Theo said. “Maybe both.”

“What you got, Bander?” Mongo came through.

“Boss I just had a lone Whateley guard go straight through the drop zone while you were coming down, wearing the heaviest nonpowered armor I have ever seen, and armed to fuck all. He looks like he's on a mission.”

“Roger that Bander, follow and cover that asshole and report back if he’s onto anything. The rest of you fan out to campus, by the numbers, on the bounce.”

Theo groaned. Mongo had been reading Starship Troopers again. This was going to be a long night.

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Deathlist was torn between confusion and rage. Rage was his natural state of being, but confusion wasn’t. He had Carson pegged telepathically, he knew what she was up to, and his Antagonist Response Anticipator had her tracked. The only real advantage that Carson had was that she knew the layout of the school like the back of her hand, while he was working from only virtual maps, GPS, and Hostile Locations blips.

When Carson had lured him away from the confined spaces of the private Poe gallery, his Antagonist Response Anticipator had correctly deduced that she had a plan, and that Deathlist needed to cut her off before she could reach the required components to make her plan operable. Dear Betsy, predictable to the bitter end. But her knowledge of the campus had given her tactical advantages that were difficult to counter with only computerized mapping software. She had beaten him to the Homer Gallery. But he had pursued her quickly enough that she hadn’t been able to get the weapons she sought. And his Antagonist Response Anticipator had signaled the top five potential trophies that she might be seeking.

Now Carson was dodging around the Homer Gallery, using the Adamantite glass cases as cover, but Deathlist knew exactly where she was going and what she was after. He knew exactly when she would break cover, and fired his whirling blades. The blades should have tracked up the side of her body starting with the thigh, and going up until they hit her hands, forcing her to drop her power scepter. Instead the blades just barely missed her and thunked into a case, spider-webbing the glass. That shouldn’t have happened.

He knew exactly what she was going for: the Tartarus Projector that was on display near the wax dummy of that big dummy that Carson worshipped so much. Once she had the Tartarus Projector going, Deathlist would be forced into a pocket dimension outside Time and Space, where the rest of the world would be safe from him. SAFE? FROM HIM? NO! There had too much pain and misery that the world still owed him! There was no way that he’d allow himself to get stuffed into some cosmic trash heap.. trash compactor.. crushed.. discarded.. like so much garbage!

No! He couldn’t let the sweet little evil things of the world get away with all their simpering, vicious.. oh, that was it! As he popped up a grenade launcher and sent a volley of smart grenades - Carson wasted time wrapping them up in power cocoons (couldn’t let the precious momentos get trashed) - Deathlist realized that he was letting himself be distracted by those three little girls. The sweet sound of their fear, the delicious taste of anguish, the rush of innocence being torn away and shredded! He promised himself that he’d savor that. But later. He didn’t have the luxury of time to make them pay now. Saving their images to the semi-organic processor grafted to his human brain, he knew there would be other times. To find those three and truly enjoy the defilement of their sweet, intoxicating innocence…

But for now, he had to utilize all his remaining resources simply to survive.

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Elizabeth Carson hated Deathlist with a passion that she wasn’t really comfortable with. She hated him for being a murdering monster. She hated him for killing one of her children. She hated him for killing Wayne Sotherby, who had served nobly for fourteen years as Champion. She hated him for ripping Lyla Foster - the woman who had helped adapt his crippled, mangled body into his first cyborg chassis - apart in front of her eyes. She hated him because she had gone out of her way to help him when he was just a poor, helpless cripple.. and he’d made a sick hobby out of repaying her kindness by attacking those she loved at every opportunity. She hated him for playing on her sympathy again and again, crying out for help and then turning on her when she extended a hand in forgiveness. She hated him for mocking her every time that she did the right thing, no matter how painful it was. But most of all, she hated him for making her accept the hatred as a part of her life.

With a flick of her wrist, she used the scepter to plaster three of the smart grenades against the Adamantite glass that housed the Tartarus Projector. “NO!” Deathlist screamed as he pushed malfunctioning jump-jets to power him over the exhibits to get at the grenades before they freed the Tartarus Projector.

With a speed and surety that people of her raw physical strength rarely bothered cultivating, Carson lashed out, grabbed his wrist and twisted his leap so that he smashed chest first into the Adamantite plate, shielding her from the blast. Deathlist looked down for a second at the smart grenades as they counted down the last zero-point-eight-three seconds. He tried to wrestle away, but Carson was using that never-sufficiently-damned scepter of hers to create a force wall that plastered him against the blast.

Deathlist took the blast directly against his chest, and even felt the concussion in the small coffee-can sized vessel that contained his few remaining biological support organs. Internal diagnostics showed that his Wexlerite© exterior protective carapace, which had already been reduced to 67.42% effectiveness, was now down to 23.71% effectiveness, and that his chassis’ superstructure had taken severe damage. Still, what was good for the gander, and all that… “Missuz Wells?” he said in a confused little boy voice. “Missuz Wells? What’s going on?”

“Nice try, Deathlist,” Carson said in a cold-blooded voice. “But you won when you killed Lyla. I admit it. You’re evil. It took me a long time to admit it, but I concede; you’re a mad dog who needs to be put down for the good of all.”

“What?” Deathlist tried to keep her busy as he got his sensors back online to figure out where that damned Tartarus Projector was. “Isn’t that against your superheroic code? Aren’t you obligated to just put me away where I won’t hurt anyone?” He chuckled acidly. “That is, until I invariably escape and start killing MORE of the people you love… By the way, I seem to remember hearing that you have grandchildren… How ARE they?”

“You don’t need to goad me, Deathlist,” Carson said with a calm even voice that was more chilling than Deathlist’s acid. “I’m going to kill you anyway. I don’t need to be motivated.”

“What? No big moralizing speech about how everyone is worthy of redemption, even a miserable murdering wretch like me?”

“I’m not a superhero anymore, asshole. I’m a School Mistress. And my first priority is to make sure that vicious animals don’t hurt my students.”

Finally, his tertiary optics made out the surreal Dali-esque lemniscate form of the Tartarus Projector. “Oh Dear! I’m DOOMED!” Deathlist jeered. “All I can do is.. THIS!” He lunged through the pebbled remains of the glassine plate, grabbed the Tartarus Projector, and twisted around, aiming its aperture at Carson. He gleefully pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

“WHAT?” Carson grinned. “Did you honestly think that we’d keep the Tartarus Projector on display HERE? That’s just a mock-up.” She brought up a futuristic-looking device that Deathlist recognized as Professor Ripper’s Quasar Gun (circa 1977). “Now this isn’t.” Still grinning, she triggered the device, sending an unending stream of blue-hot plasma bolts into Deathlist’s midsection.

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Almost every junior officer daydreams about some disastrous stroke of good luck that wipes out her superior officers (never her fault, of course), leaving her in complete command of her unit in the field. What they rarely factor into these fantasies, is that when such things happen, they invariably happen when the shit is hitting the fan by the truckload. Irenia Stanislova suddenly had a number of unpleasant things happen in that way.

Though she was a mere captain of infantry, she discovered she was now in command of the Syndicate’s ground force Tiger Guards when her comm beeped and gave her access to the command channels. Without explanation, of course. Though compressed briefings regarding the situation were instantly available to her. Tac/Ops HQ listed the Ground Commander, Deathlist, as out of action, and it listed the Sabretooths (overrated nutjobs in her opinion) as being in disarray. Insertion dropships A and B were pulling back to a safe distance, dropships C, E and F had been knocked out of the sky, and dropship D was being.. chewed on. The second wave carrying the sorely needed reinforcements had met with powered resistance in transit, and dropship captains were signaling that they were pulling back. Oh, and from what she was able to make out, that snotty know-it-all Chessmaster was going totally batshit.

To sum up, her new command was utterly screwed. Only one thing for it. “Tiger Guard! Execute Tactical Maneuver ‘Breslowe’! Drop the babysitting equipment and pick up gear from dropped Chessmen! Leave the dead and wounded, we have enough on our plate!”

“But the Chessmen’s stuff is all borg guns, hardwired to their heads!” A sergeant objected, “What good’s that?”

“There are manual overrides!” she snarled. “Just GET it, and form the Breslowe configuration! We move out to Rally Point Three.”

One of the Tiger Guard took a look at the Whateley students trying to prevent the Guards from forming up and decided that discretion was the better part of survival. He bolted for a door. Before he got three steps, Irenia drew a heavy bore handgun and put a bullet right in the chink between his helmet and neck guard. “Anyone ELSE want to break formation?” she snarled, her Georgian accent suddenly thick enough to cut borscht. “Pull together! Breslowe configuration! Mass and withdraw!”

“What about the Chessmen and the Sabretooths?”

“Let them fight their own way out! We have enough to do!”

The Tiger Guards managed to pull themselves together into a huddled mass with their guns bristling outwards. A hastily prepared demolitions pack made a hole in the wall before the students could respond to the maneuver. As the students reacted to the blast, the Tiger Guards melted through the hole in a withdrawal maneuver that managed to get all their remaining forces out smoothly without giving up fire cover. They lost men to the odd energy blast or missile, but those that were still standing managed to get out.

“AFTER THEM!” Don Sebastiano thundered, “Don’t let them get away!”

“STOP!” Miss Grimes overrode him with equal authority. “Don’t follow them! They’re doing just what we want them to do! They’re leaving! Focus on the ones in power armor and the cyborgs! I want all injured students taken to the coatroom for triage! Ophelia, take care of everyone you can until we can get them to the infirmary. Grunts, Spy Kids, Ninjas, Masterminds! I want you to scout the building for snipers and explosive devices. Everyone else, either find a safe place to hunker down, or take the fight to the remaining forces! First, we clear the building, and when we contact Security, THEN we clear the grounds! GO!”

Don Sebastiano glared at Grimes for a moment. She gazed back calmly. There was a sense of a clash of wills, and then The Don relented. “Go,” he said, waving them on. The students scattered, each to their generally appointed task.

As Don Sebastiano carelessly adjusted the set of his elaborate coat, he heard a purring voice behind him gloat, “Oh, and you were doing so well…”

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“We aren’t giving up. Or running.” Stephan DiVries told the four Sabretooths he had left with him.

This ‘high school’ had turned out to be a real adamantine wire trap for the attackers, but he had himself and four others, in the most feared outfit the Syndicate fielded. Every one of them could easily qualify as being bugnuts insane. But they considered their insanity before perpetrating it. At least momentarily.

“Keep the hostage in front.” DiVries told the others. One Sabretooth roughly grabbed the little girl and held her in front of him.

“Move out.” Divries told the others.

An apparition that managed to frighten even the elite Sabretooths entered the room. The last thing any of them heard was a sweet little girl voice saying, “Kitty Compact! Activate!”

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The Chessmaster watched in sick horror as all his positive potential outcomes dropped like flies. Suddenly, he had to face the rapidly-increasing probability that his massively dangerous, horrifically expensive, and politically endangering ‘master stroke’ was turning into a horrific rout. And beyond that, beyond the immediate crisis, beyond the intermediary complications and entanglements, beyond all that, to a point only a few short years away, he saw all the possibilities dropping away for everyone and everything, replaced only by a huge blank spot on this place. And that blank spot filled him with a mortal dread that chilled him to the bone.

Tearing his point of view back to the immediate, the Chessmaster tried to make out some sort of sense of the chaotic mess on the board, and what his foresight told him. Then, possessively checking one special figure on the board, his blood ran cold. Carson had Deathlist on the ropes! Somehow, that leaky bitch got the best of his precious! Deathlist’s chassis was in tatters, his batteries shattered, his servos mangled, and his base support canister in peril. The whore had put aside the energy weapon and was pounding at Deathlist like a piledriver with her bare hands. His foresight saw one thing: that Deathlist had finally, after many years, managed to drive Carson to the point of killing. No last minute mercy this time. No speeches about letting The Law handle him. No sudden spates of sympathy or remorse. This time, Carson was going to pull Deathlist out of his cyborg shell and mash his soft tissue to paste with her boots.

“PRECIOUS!” he shrilled. He flipped up a part of the chessboard, and slapped the big red ‘Bug Out’ button as hard as he could. The ‘Bug Out’ button triggered a wide variety of automatic functions for a quick and efficient withdrawal. Including one very special function.

It had been amazingly cathartic for Liz, battering away at Deathlist like this, feeling each blow pay for one death or crippling or bitter insult. But she had a responsibility to the school and the world. Time to put this mad dog down, once and for all. The skull and head plates were too well reinforced. But the pitiful little packet of support organs.. now that was another thing. It had been designed to be protected by all the exterior carapaces, so the actual container was biased toward cushioning the organs inside, not shielding them. She ripped open the last protective plate, found the cylinder, and aimed her fist for the deathblow. She only hoped that watching him die wouldn’t be.. fun. This was a duty, not a pleasure.

Then there was a high pitched keening whine… The cylinder and the head that was attached to it disappeared in a blinding flash of light.

Liz let out a wildcat screech of rage and frustration. As she screamed, she picked up the Quasar gun again and peppered the interior of the cyborg chasis with plasma fire. Because suddenly teleporting back into a seemingly abandoned shell and attacking her from behind was precisely the sort of thing that Deathlist would do.

Then she heard her suit’s communicator beep. “Carson? Carson? Are you on this frequency?”

“Carson here,” she responded, far more calmly than she really felt. “Delarose? Is that you?”

“Yes’m. Ma’am, we got a Grade A-One situation here.”

“Oh? Y’think?”

“BEYOND the obvious. Ma’am, Cat’s dead. And Erik’s… Well, Cat’s dead, what do you THINK Erik’s doing?”

“Oh SHIT.” Carson, a woman reared in a time when respectable women didn’t ever curse, said softly. “I’m on it. Set up a search protocol, STAT. Maybe we can get to him before he sets off a nuke.”

“That would kind of dampen my good mood, considering that we’re turning this fight around.”

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Molly dragged the boy who looked like Jet Li out of the way, desperately moving him to the clear area where she saw Doctor Tenant. What else she saw absolutely mystified her for a moment: more than a dozen spider-like robots assaulting Chessmen around the area and showing no mercy, and in the center of it all was Jericho, for once not dressed like a one-man assault on fashion. He was decked out in EMT garb, although the cannon-like blaster in his hands ruined the image.

Molly hauled her charge forward, and Jericho came running. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know, he was unconscious when I found him! I checked for neck injuries like Mr. Anderson showed us…”

“I got him, get cover and help the Doc!” Jericho picked the boy up and pitched him over his shoulder, far more easily than she would have expected from his doughy-looking frame. Jericho ran the kid back through the crowd, diving towards Doc Tenant.

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Erik was still chasing the little sniper fuck through the woods. The bastard was bleeding, leaving him a lovely trail to follow with Infrared. He’d seen the things fall from the sky, noted the odd shape and the big guns they carried, but he didn’t care. The conscious part of his brain wanted to cry, fall down, mourn, kill, die. Unfortunately the conscious part of his brain wasn’t in control. That function was left to the psychotic in him, a remnant of too much combat with things well beyond his ability to cope. Simple adrenaline overload that led to a chemical imbalance which rendered him incapable of anything but violence and rage. He’d meant to get the antipsychotic prescription refilled, he really had, but he hadn’t had the time or the energy.

He loaded the rocket launcher on the run, dropping a HEAP round - a High-Explosive-Anti-Personnel round - into the back of the launcher. The HEAP rounds would explode violently, sending shrapnel helter-skelter for about a hundred meters and killing anything within thirty meters more or less instantly.

The mass of gunfire nearly took him, but for the grace of god and some extremely durable armor. He stopped, aimed and fired, sending the rocket shrieking into the crowd of assholes between him and his objective. The devastation would have been satisfying had he the presence of mind to consider it.

He found the Landing Zone the attackers were using for their angular attack ships. He saw the sniper limping into the back of a matte black, smaller ship as it took off and seemed to ripple and vanish. A howl of primal fury ripped from his throat and he fired the rocket at the nearest attack ship, blasting the cockpit to scrap.

At this point the Tiger guards were beginning to react, but the second HEAP took the assault boat right in the engine port as it lifted, blasting the vehicle into a flip-over that brought it to the ground, belly up. The last rocket he fired at a ship that was just lifting. The one remaining HEAT round struck the armor, burned through and superheated the atmosphere inside. The overpressure and the heat forced all of the air, as well as the liquified crew, out through a hole no larger than an apple. The attack ship teetered, tilted, and crashed to the deck with a fiery explosion that took several Tigers with it.

Erik tossed the now-useless launcher and charged one of the grounded ships, spraying lead all over when the AEGIS loader finally malfunctioned, dropping a bad round into the breech and blowing the bolt of the gun out through the feed tray cover.

He staggered a moment and reached down to pull a Ka-Bar combat knife from the boot sheath. He charged again, running up the ramp and tackling the Tiger guard desperately trying to shoot him down. The weapon went flying and the razor-edged blade slipped through the man's ribs and promptly got stuck.

He charged forward and grabbed the pilot as he came out of the cockpit with his sidearm. Erik didn’t even bother to think. He simply grabbed the man’s gun arm, twisted, and slammed his forearm into the man’s elbow, shattering the joint. The screaming stopped when the enraged ex-marine slipped behind, wrapped his arms around the man's neck, lifted to make the vertebrae separate painfully, then snapped the man’s head to the side, snapping his spine the right way.

Time for the Hijacker routine once again. Erik jumped into the seat, not bothering with the safety restraints as he began studying the controls. A picture formed in his mind - a clear picture of how the controls operated the craft - then he slammed the controls, fired the engine, and caused the vehicle to lurch skyward. He always did have an easy time figuring out machines.

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“Mongo, this is Bandersnatch. My boy here just ran straight into an LZ, fragged three attack vehicles and hijacked another. There ain’t enough birds here to account for all the assholes on the ground.”  Bander checked his sensors as he watched the Syndicate anti-grav gunship lurch off the deck, rotating and spraying 20mm tribarrels and rocket pods into the syndicate forces on the ground.  “”Yeah boss, this guy’s either highly motivated, or he’s the most bloodthirsty SOB I’ve seen in a while.”

“Roger Bander, engage and regroup. Mark that ship so we don't shoot the crazy SOB down.”

“Copy that. Engaging.”

Theo kicked off all the safety interlocks and began to rock and roll while the stolen gunship began to dance with the troop transports, blasting holes in everything that was in the sky.  He found himself praying that civilian air traffic was nowhere nearby, as he was beginning to doubt this odd ally would be able to tell the difference between an Apache and a 747.

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The ‘Bug Out’ button issued a series of computerized commands that operated under the assumption that the guys in charger were either dead or too freaking busy saving their own bacon to take care of all the things that need to be done right in a screaming hurry. General retreat orders were issued, co-ordinates were agreed on for pickup, anti-pursuit measures were initiated, and there were also certain other ‘tidying up’ measures.

Chaka had disarmed this Chessman, and was experimenting with the interesting flow of Ki in his cybernetically augmented body. Then the Chessman stiffened and simply toppled over. Toni knew immediately from the change in his Ki that he was dead. She looked around and said defensively, “I didn’t do it.”

All around the stadium, the Chessmen had stiffened up and were either dropping or simply not getting up again - ever. Students poked at them, but the cyborgs just lay there, and started to give off a foul reek.

The Rooks on the other hand, got very, very lively. All the units that were in anywhere near operating order started giving off yodeling bleats. Kludge and Juryrig gave nearly identical ‘Acks’ and clambered off their armed perches. There was a loud whirring sound, and some of the Rooks started sparking furiously. Someone yelled, “THEY’RE GONNA BLOW!” and all the students got as far away from them as they could. Those Tiger Guards and Sabretooths who could move did the last thing that anyone expected. Ignoring the students, they rushed toward the nearest Rook and grabbed onto one of the two railings that girded the units. When the Rooks gave a ten-bleat yodel in unison, most of them simply disappeared. Two units exploded in a shower of sparks, doing even more damage to the men clinging to each. And one unit disappeared, only to reappear a second later as a twisted, fused mass of metal, plastic and flesh.

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A large, barely-organized group of Tiger Guards sprinted for Bugout Point Charlie. They could see two dropships, side by side, awaiting them with open drop doors. The transports seemed to be a couple hundred yeards closer than expected, but no one was going to complain. Everyone put on a burst of speed and dashed into the ships.

The drop doors slammed shut behind them, but the dropships didn’t move. Instead, a cruel female voice laughed, “Welcome, and thank you for flying Air Ultraviolent.”

The lightning blasters hidden in the ceilings of the fake dropships rendered every Guardsman unconscious. No one noted that the energy requirements made the holographic projectors on the outsides fail, revealing that the ‘dropships’ were little more than cargo pods on wheels.

The same female voice snapped, “We got ‘em, now we have to get ‘em all to the playrooms before the ARC apes spot us.”

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Two seniors managed to pry themselves apart and clamber out of the secluded clump of bushes. They hadn’t made it to the big Halloween party in the stadium. They had seen each other on the way to the big bash, and something had taken over.

The young man was still in the shredded remains of an early ‘90s Batman costume, down to the utility belt that was no longer around his quite bare waist. His cape was lost. Most of his chest armor was sliced away, revealing that some of the slices had scratched his chest fairly throughly. There was little left of his pants, either. Only his cowl and his boots remained undamaged.

The young woman had once been wearing a Catwoman costume. Not the ugly zip-up leather ‘current Catwoman’ costume with the creepy goggles, but the hottest Catwoman costume, at least in her opinion. The skintight royal-purple leather outfit with the black boots and gloves. The gloves had once had razor-sharp claws, but they were long gone. The catsuit was long gone, except for what was pooled around the tops of the thigh-length boots. She still had her facemask on, though.

She looked at the guy. She still didn’t know who he was. Granted, he was better built than she’d figured before she’d lost control and sliced his chestpiece apart. Still, she couldn’t understand what had come over her. They’d just met on the pathway and smarted off at each other. She could still remember exactly what they’d said.

“Hold it right there, Catwoman. You’re going down this time.”

“I’m going down? We haven’t even gotten to the first date, so I think you’re pretty presumptuous.”

“I’m not letting you get away this time. Is this going to be the easy way, or the hard way?

“Just how hard do you want it to be, stud?”

And then suddenly she’d been all over him. He’d been all over her. They’d been ripping each other’s costumes off as if they really were Batman and Catwoman, finally consummating a relationship that had run for years. She still couldn’t believe it.

He stood up and started to brush off his costume. But there wasn’t enough costume left to brush with anything bigger than a toothbrush. He’d just been flirting with this incredibly hot babe, when something connected between them. Something sparked. And then… The greatest sex of his life - which, speaking as a handsome senior Exemplar who got action on a regular basis, was a pretty spectacular testimonial. And he still didn’t know who she was.

She looked around. What the fuck had happened? The dorm on her right had huge gaping holes blasted through it, like Champion had been mixing it up with Major Pain or something. The forest on her left looked like it had been plowed by Ms. Might. The whole place looked like a disaster area.

The boy looked around, shock in his eyes at the devastation that they had somehow completely missed, and she couldn’t resist. She slipped back into Catwoman’s purr, “Did the earth move for you too, Caped Crusader?”

Suddenly the boy stiffened. He moved as if he had suddenly grown denser. More dangerous. He put his hands on his nearly-bare hips and growled in his best Batman voice, “You think this is a joke, Catwoman?”

She purred, “Oh come on, you’ve been dying to do this ever since you first laid eyes on me robbing a jewelry store.”

He graveled, “We can’t do this. You’re a thief. A criminal.”

“Pffft,” she hissed. “You’re a nut who dresses up like a bat. You’ve got a lot of nerve classifying me.”

“You can’t distract me again,” he insisted. “This time, you’re going down.”

And suddenly, once again, the passion flared inside her. She couldn’t explain it. She stepped forward boldly and purred, “If you insist, Dark Knight…”

Then they were once again tangled together, falling back into the privacy of the bushes, completely missing the Tiger Guards who charged past them, firing frantically at the ARC forces on their heels…

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Don Sebastiano seized the opportunity. The Rooks were teleporting away, the Chessmen were no more, and the few remaining Tiger Guards were trying their hardest to make strategic retreats. He looked over at Cavalier, who pulled out the bullhorn The Don had made him fetch for this very purpose.

There was a pile of rubble near the center of the stadium. It had once been a substantial piece of the roof, and now was a triage site for the people willing to play medic. Several massive lights had been turned on it to provide help to Dr. Tenant and her minions. Cavalier threw the bullhorn, and he snatched it out of the air. He ran to the top of the rubble and called out through the bullhorn, “My fellow students, we've done it! We’ve won!”

The crowd erupted in cheers. Even the injured below him were yelling in excitement.

“We have bested the enemy, and driven them off in disgrace! Never again will anyone dare to attack our school, since they now know what will happen to them!”

Everyone applauded and yelled. He smirked to himself. Not everyone was applauding and cheering, but those who were not applauding knew that he had also bested them this evening. He stopped just long enough to give that negrita Chaka the smirk she deserved.

He called out, “We must follow up this great victory! Take this to the campus! Drive the enemy off! Show them what Whateley students are made of!”

The cheers and yells of the crowd only increased as students ran out of the stadium to drive off the invaders. He could look up through what was once the stadium roof to see that the fliers overhead had also met with great success. He would make sure that his people got the credit for that victory as well.

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“Carson, I’m in contact with the ARCHammer crew, they’re tracking our boy in one of their own gunships.  Apparently he’s rather gleefully massacring the Syndicate bastards trying to escape.  Follow the fireballs in the Northwest.”  Delarose spoke into the comm. Quietly considering the scenes of pandemonium around him, Delarose began barking orders into the comm., rallying the remaining security personnel into something resembling a fighting force.

Pristine stood nearby, shaking, suffering from shell-shock as the girl surveyed the damage nearby.  To the young woman’s mind, the bodies of the Tigers, Sabretooths and chessmen scattered about hither and yon seemed multiplied somehow, the carnage far worse than it actually was.

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Commander Jackson wheeled on his 2IT and snapped, “How are we set for fuel?”

“One fuel supply ship taken out, sir. The other two have more than sufficient fuel for the operation. We were planning to spread out the refueling stations, but Landing Site Charlie is too constricted for that. We’ve centralized the two ships and will operate our CAP from there. Anyone trying to disrupt them will have to get through the outer perimeter and the heavy equipment. Whateley has nothing that can do that.”

The Commander snarled, “Whateley had nothing to take out a drop ship, either but we lost plenty on the way in. Don’t take anything for granted. Now I want to inspect the site. The Chessmaster won’t appreciate what’s happened so far, and I want to be able to assure him we’re on top of things. Are communications up yet?”

“No Sir. Whatever that bird thing was, it did a number on the more delicate electronics. We’re having to replace most of the suite but I expect it up and running in a few minutes.”

He nodded, “Let me know as soon as they’re up. What do we know about the current situation on the campus?”

“Receivers are functional. It was the transmitters that fried. The surprise has worn off. The students and Security forces are fighting back. The suppressors have been taken out somehow, and the resistance is getting more organized. The sooner we can hit them, the better our chances to wrap this up quickly.”

He conceded, “Very well. What’s the condition of our CAP?”

“We’ll be able to get it back up shortly. We need to get them refueled. The fight with the students destroyed a lot of of them, and the rest used up most of their fuel. We’ve had to ground them until we can get the fueling stations going. We’ve made that a priority, and the fuel blivets are already out. Fuel lines and pumps are attached. We’ll be able to fuel twenty at a time. In ten minutes, we can have at least thirty ready for patrol duties, and the rest prepped shortly after that.”

He nodded and said, “Good work there. How many sleds do we have?”

The watch officer looked uncomfortable but continued without pause. “We lost forty three getting here.”

This shocked the Commander, but with only a slight hesitation he continued. “That many?”

“The students proved far more dangerous than originally thought. I strongly recommend we equip the remaining sleds with gas projectors and sweep the campus before we begin our assault. We should also shoot to kill any who continue to resist us after that.”

The Commander replied, “Noted. I’ll recommend that to Chessmaster when communications are back up.” He looked over the organized chaos that was a combat unit preparing to move out. There was a mess of small fighter sleds around the fuel blivets as crews tried to fuel them and move the fueled ones to the launchers to get them out of the way. Something about what he was seeing bothered him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

The feeling started to grow to a dull dread as he suddenly noticed a runner approaching at a sprint. With the radios still not operating well, many of the messages between his commands were now being handled by runners given either written or verbal communications. This runner had combat armor and was probably from the perimeter units.

Even as the runner approached, he became aware of the sounds of heavy combat in the distance where the runner was coming from. As this was a direction away from the school, he couldn’t help wondering who could be engaging his troops. He didn’t have to wonder long.

The soldier quickly divulged his information even as he tried to catch his breath. “Sir! We have engaged heavy mobile infantry. They don’t appear to be from the school.”

The watch officer snorted. “There can’t be too many of them. Probably a squad or two from the MCO. They’re likely to have some around here on call. Nothing to worry about.”

The Commander shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. Where’s our CAP?”

The watch officer looked uncomfortable. “Uh. Due to the early release, they were running out of fuel. We’re trying to get them airborne again right now, sir.”

A spike of fear shot through the Commander. “Damn! That means these could be ARC Fast Reaction Forces! The CAP was supposed to keep them off our backs, but if they weren’t up to shoot them down as they came in... Did anyone report seeing chutes near us?”

The watch officer shrugged. “No one has reported anything like that, sir. Besides, there can’t be too many of them. Our people on the ground can handle them.”

None of them could help stepping back a bit as the Commander snarled. “Fool! ARC FRF carry mortar rockets in launchers on their backs! If they see what’s going on here and realize we haven’t got a screen worth stopping spit up yet…”

His voice trailed off as he watched several rocket trails climb into the sky from the direction of the battle sounds. Those gathered around him followed his gaze. An idea of what he meant showed on their faces as they watched the trails start to curve towards them.

“Sir?” The request for orders didn’t need any elaboration.

The Commander didn’t hesitate even though he knew the orders probably wouldn’t save them. “Shoot them down. Shoot them down! All anti-air try to shoot them out of the sky. Everyone else.. evacuate! NOW!” He stood there, watching the belated and useless efforts to knock down the several descending mortar rounds, and the frenzied attempts to get out of the area by those who had nothing to contribute to the effort. He had a brief moment to actually feel grateful to the ARC soldiers. At least he’d never have to explain this defeat to Chessmaster or any of his superiors.

The resulting explosion rattled and broke several more windows at the school. A huge fireball rose over the area, leaving some who saw it to wonder if someone had used a nuke.

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Erik was screaming when the attack ship in his sights exploded from the missiles he fired into it. He spun the ship about and began strafing the Tiger guards on the ground with heavy guns and rocket pods, failing to note the missile lock warning.

The missile exploded aft of the ship, and he felt something sharp tear into his back while he desperately tried to line up another shot. He screamed, he swore, he raged, he was going to die. He didn’t care. He’d be with Cat again, his Angel of Fire.

He got just enough control to line up on another attack ship rising a bit away from the Landing Zone he’d found. He punched the throttle, as the canopy tore open above him and a pair of hands tore him from the pilot seat. He found himself airborne, screaming, raging, tears rolling down his cheeks as he hung suspended off the ground, trying to escape.

“I have you, Erik,” Elizabeth Carson said, as she began flying the crazed, chemically-impaired man back toward the campus.  The suddenly unmanned gunship began an odd tumble, crashing into the earth and somersaulting into the woods before splitting, burning and exploding.

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Jimmy essayed a slight wave as Delarose came into view. “Hi Chief, you come to check on us monsters finally?”

Delarose paused in his walking to take a slow, and then more critical look at the building and the state of its exterior grounds. “Oh shit, Louis did this?”

“No, I did,” Jimmy said with a belch.

Delarose looked at Jimmy for a moment. Then he looked at the lump of flesh next to Jimmy’s foot, “Uh Jimmy, do I want to know?”

Jimmy shrugged and kicked the lump into the shadows, “Probably not.”

Delarose nodded slowly as if hearing something, “Louis says you could not help but feed…” He paused as the youth stood up.

Glaring back at him, Jimmy gave vent to a barking laugh of disgust, “So now what, are you here to take the monster away?”

“You’re not a monster, you just had to make the hard calls with no one there to back you up, emotionally or physically,” Delarose said quietly as he walked over and sat next to him on the steps. “In a war all men become monsters, they have to in order to survive. You turn off your humanity, your feelings, you lock away the horror you witness or commit. After a long enough time in that environment, you either go a little crazy or a lot, sometimes your mind refuses to accept it and death seems the only good option for you to accept willingly.”

“Right,” said Jimmy with a look back up at the building.

“You’re angry right now. It’s natural. It lets you to function when your mind really wants to cry, scream, or just crawl in a hole and not come out again,” Delarose said. He motioned at himself and then Jimmy, “We’re survivors Jimmy. Instead of crawling in ourselves and hiding, we take action. When faced with hard choices and harder decisions, we make ‘em. Sometimes you have no response or choice in the matter, you kill or be killed. Worse yet, if we don’t kill and later the innocent suffer.”

“I don’t want a sermon, there was no one here!” Jimmy slapped soundly at his chest, “It was ‘just’ me!”

Delarose paused and then nodded, “You resent us for not being there for you?”

“Yes! No… Maybe,” Jimmy admitted with a growl, as he lifted a fragment of masonry and heaved it away angrily.

“I understand.” Delarose stood up and then he sighed, “I understand all too well, Jimmy. If, when you need to talk, my door will be open.”

“…yeah whatever,” said Jimmy as he looked away.

“When did you last eat?” Delarose asked quietly.

“I had a bit of that ham there,” Jimmy said with a belch, but ‘it’ tastes like pork and the ham didn’t set well with me.”

“The cafeteria is open, go get some steak, pie, something else,” Delarose said with a slow thoughtful nod, “Eat until you can’t eat anymore, and then try to get some sleep.”

“Can’t. Mrs. Cantrel’s down at the infirmary, and Louis is.. trying to recover.” Jimmy shook his head, “It’s just me.”

“I understand what you’re saying. I’ll send someone with food so you can keep watch,” Delarose said as he patted Jimmy on the shoulder, “and coffee?”

Nodding slowly, Jimmy said, ”Yeah, dawn is far from here, and this night has to end.”

“Do you know where your tracker is?” Delarose asked after a moment.

“It’s somewhere,” Jimmy said with a shake of his head.

“Stop by and get a new one please in a day or so, people are going to be bothered by…” Delarose said and then sighed, “tonight.”

“I think they have problems, and my diet isn’t an issue,” Jimmy said as he stood up.

“Yes, though I expect we’ll hear more about your diet than anything else,” Delarose said with a resigned frown, “just ignore the crap as best as you can.”

“We get invaded and you think they’re going to freak over my diet?” Jimmy asked in a tone of voice filled with both contempt and disgust. “What bullshit.”

“People are largely sheep Jimmy, most of them can’t comprehend the toll of war,” Delarose said as he took a careful step down the ruined stairs, “but they do understand what a wolf is.. and they fear the hungry ones.”

“I’d shift into a wolf and howl for you, but I’m too hungry for bullshit theatrics,” Jimmy said as he looked with hollow eyes out at the darkness. “Go away Chief, I don’t want to think anymore.”

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“Chief? What do we do with the naked Tigers we found in the basement?” asked Reynolds over the radio, with what sounded like a chuckle.

“What naked Tigers in the basement? Which basement, and how many?” asked Delarose quietly.

“Umm, six, and Hawthorne. They all seem to have acid burns of some type as well,” replied Reynolds with a chuckle, “some of which are fairly nasty.”

Delarose paused and counted the six helmets among the armor that was strewn about the front of Hawthorne, “Just when I think I have that kid figured out…” He paused and keyed the radio, “Ok Reynolds I’ll have a medic come and check them out, just keep them there for the moment.”

“Right, Reynolds out,” was the quick reply.

A brief moment later his radio crackled again, “Ah, Chief, we found another Tiger… He’s minus a few limbs and he’s screaming about being eaten by what sounds like a movie monster.” There was a pause as the radio continued, “Ah, and you may want to see the security tapes from the Clinic…”

“Secure the Tiger and the DVD’s… I’ll look at it later on,” said Delarose as he shook his head tiredly and clicked off the radio.

“Louis?” he asked the air. A moment later a familiar apparition appeared.

“You rang?” asked the wincing figure.

“What am I going to do with Jimmy?” Delarose asked quietly.

“Give him a job?” asked Louis with a pained smile.

“You know what I mean,” said Delarose as he pointed to the lights searching the campus grounds.

“Frank, the kid is dangerous, I’ll grant you that.” Louis paused and waved a flickering hand to indicate Hawthorne behind them. “But the truth of the matter is that while everyone was looking out for the rest of the kids.. Jimmy was the only one looking out for the kids stuck in here.”

Delarose stood quietly for a moment, “And his appetite?”

“That may not have been something he could control, have you reviewed all the security footage?” asked Louis tightly. “He was first a giant woman, then he was a movie lizard the size of Godzilla, after which he crawled his way down to my tank and forced me to function.”

“I saw that bit,” Delarose admitted quietly.

“Then you know I killed those men and very nearly Jimmy?” asked Louis unhappily.

Delarose sighed and then shook his head, “I doubt the review committee will see it that way.”

“Screw them,” advised Louis angrily, “the kid deserves a medal.”

“Easy Louis, I’m just saying there will be repercussions,” Delarose hastily said as he motioned for the other man to relax.

“Oh I am sure there will be…” said Louis with a feral smile.

“Yes, but in the end it will boil over into politics.. and policies,” Delarose said, as he rubbed his neck with both hands.

“Very likely. I need to get back to the kids. They’re still shaken up from the Tigers that tried to collect ‘samples’ from them.” Louis seemingly snarled, and the helmets lying in front of Hawthorne flattened abruptly. “Jimmy may be a monster, but he’s our monster, and I for one can live with that.”

Delarose regarded Louis for a moment, and then nodded as the other man faded out. He took a second to look at the oddly-illuminated campus and the hurriedly-placed caution markers around the large, reptilian footprints circling the building. “What does a ten-story lizard eat? Anything he wants… Anything he wants.”

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The smallest group of Tiger Guards, five of them, were forced into the center of a crude pit. The Tigers were mostly intact, though their armor was no longer pristine or even useful. Some of them realized that they were conveniently numbered. Instinctively they huddled up with their backs against the other soldiers.

Not one of them had any illusions of what was about to happen.  When the lot of them had been collected from the false drop point, there had been thirty of them.  Of that twenty-three had been shoved into cramped, torturous cages.  Each one remembered the screams of their fellows as the damn-near skintight restraint cages had been welded shut, with a tiger inside.

The kids who had collected them had taken great pleasure in treating them like animals led into a slaughterhouse.  Most of them had felt the cattle prods used to force them into the pit.  Colton had resisted, Deke did too.  The kid called Tagger had used his laser-edged rapiers to slice deli-meat pieces off Deke, rendering the shrieking man into very thin slices of human meat while commenting on how he needed to improve the frequency stability of the laser-blades.  Then he fed the slices to the blob-girl, Flayer.  The slices of human meat could be clearly seen through her translucent “skin” being digested and absorbed while Deke was forced to watch.  Even when he stopped screaming, tagger continued, and didn’t stop until the last bit went into Flayer.

They fed Colton to the giant, slithering, worm-lamprey thing they kept as a pet.  The thing simply grabbed him with those four tentacles around its mouth, then sucked him into its gullet, alive and whole, his six-foot frame vanishing into its twenty-foot, worm/slug/snake body.  Colton screamed for three minutes after it swallowed him.  The whole time, that psychotic devil-bitch, Seline and Gore stroked the flesh of their beloved pet.  Fluffy always needed food.

When the last of the terrorized soldiers was in the pit and the exit was blocked, a lanky, blood-covered, and beatifically smiling youth stood up from his perch on the pit’s edge. "Ladies, gentlemen, and 'others', welcome to tonight’s entertainment!" The lanky youth smiled at the jeers, and tapped his armband with a knife, the prominent UV warning symbol blinking softly in the light. "As you know, our earlier entertainment managed to off themselves before the entertainment really kicked off." There was a long period of boos and jeers, as the youth simply dropped down into the pit to look at the terrorized men and women closely.

Seemingly transfixed, the Tigers watched with wide eyes as the youth placed the knife he was carrying point-first firmly into the soil, then he dropped a pile of bandages to the ground as well. "As you can see, there is one knife, and eight of you." He seemingly climbed back up to the top of the pit like a spider and turned to look back into it. "There are also seven of us, not the best odds for any of you I am afraid."

"Can we start yet?" whined a lanky, jittery kid fondling a pair of five-inch knives.  He was only a freshman and hadn’t quite gotten into the whole pecking order because he couldn’t sit still, much to the irritation of the others nearby.

"Now, now, we must be sporting about this, otherwise it would be over too fast." The lanky youth smirked and then said, "We are going to play a game of Joints. The rules are simple: one at a time, I select a hunter, then I select a prey, and a joint of the body. The Hunter will then have a random amount of time to remove that joint or limb from the prey. When time is up, the hunter must exit the pit, with or with out the piece of flesh."

"As you might guess, decapitations are dead out. The prey may help other prey, but you are not allowed to seriously injure any of them, other than the prey I select." The youth smiled, showing a set of perfect, pearly teeth. "Now for the first joint, I think the tip of the left foot, little toe, will serve nicely." He looked across the pit to where Gore and Seline and Flayer stared hungrily into the pit. "Seline would you be so kind as to bring me that bit of flesh from little miss number two?"

"It's always ladies first with you isn't it Systemic?" asked Gore with an unhappy grunt.

"My pit, my game, my rules… Now unless you want to face me over the issue?" asked the youth, as his eyes started to simmer with an unhealthy yellow light.

"N-no," quickly replied Gore as he glanced into the pit, "I'm just looking forward to seeing their faces when I twist bits off them…"

Laughing, Systemic nodded, "Understandable, I'm awaiting my fun too. Seline, your time starts… NOW!"

There was a brief shocked pause as Seline dropped into the pit, and then the screaming started.

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Chapter 11 – Resurrection

Sara sat across from Reverend England, Lodgeman in between them on one side of the table, Carson opposite him. The Reverend looked pale and drawn, his resolute glare tempered by a looked that screamed ‘what have I done?’ Sara sat calmly waiting for the Headmistress to start.

“Now that we have the two of you at the table, I just want to let you both know that I’m not going to tolerate any name calling or shouting. Whateley is neutral ground and it will remain neutral ground. Both of you have a right to remain here. However, just to clear the air, I’m going to give you both one chance to set the record straight with each other. After that, we field ideas for you both to co-exist, agreed?”

They both said yes.

“Good. Reverend England, exactly what is your problem with Sara being a student here?”

Darren England drew himself together, perhaps sensing that he still might have a chance at swaying the Headmistress to his point of view. He started out slow, his tone low and level. “I understand how some members of the Faculty could be confused by my hatred of Sara Waite. Many have put it down to ‘she’s a demon, he’s a priest’, like mixing oil with water and lighting it. Some of them ask, however, why I don’t pursue the more hardcore members of the Ultraviolents with the same vehemence, if stopping evil and violence is my concern. The first theory belittles my point of view while the second misunderstands Sara’s nature. The Bible tells us, as the Word of God, that He created an ordered universe. He is the Father of us all, and loves us infinitely and perfectly, even if he must beat us with a stick to punish us for our misdoings. An Ultraviolent is still human, a part of God’s elegant design, what does it matter if he created it in seven days or a billion? The beauty of it is all around us.. but for a few pieces of the puzzle. There are things outside God’s design that have buckled the pieces and slipped through the cracks, formless entities of pure Chaos from which God made the world and all things in it that SUBVERT holy reality and perfect order for their own ends. Sara Waite is one such being, her very existence is an obscene blasphemy that has woven itself into the tapestry of creation and must, eventually, be expunged lest God’s grand design be driven off course. That is the entirety of my reasoning.”

Carson’s eyes turned to Sara, the Headmistress’s expression blank. Smiling back, Sara chuckled. “I’m sure that pointing out that I am, in fact, partly human would be a waste of my time. However, Reverend, you have raised some interesting points that have concerned me in days long past, so I do have something to say on the subject. Faith is an excellent virtue as long as it is not blind. You can have faith in your nation but that nation’s resources can be turned to evil and selfishness, at which point good people should stand up and say ‘no’, because if they do not then they are guilty of the same evils that are perpetrated in their name. If the bible is indeed the Word of God and not the political tool of a bunch of long dead Romans, then we have a quandary. You see, from what scripture tells us, God is omnipotent. To the average person, all this means is that God is really big and he needs big words to describe exactly how big he is. For someone of greater intelligence and imagination, the word omnipotent implies a whole host of other possibilities. To an omnipotent being, concepts of time, space, indeed ANY limitation is immediately overcome. You know everything, past, present and future. You can foresee any event, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, across all dimensions. Any event that you set in motion always goes exactly as planned because you always know exactly how to set it in motion so that your desired results are achieved. In short, you can’t win against God, he’s already made the winning move.

“Of course, that implies that the world as we know it is exactly how God wants it to be. Famine, plague, ignorance, death, war, murder, rape, evil, torture, all of it is God’s plan. Therefore, by extension, God is the root of all evil. Every time a small child sets fire to a puppy, it’s God’s fault. When an Ultraviolent attempts to cut one of his fellow students into bloody chunks, God’s hand is behind him, pushing him on. With one hand, God gives, with the other he takes. Omnipotence is the ultimate actualization of Free Will, any concept that God can conceive of, he can do. Looking on it this way, God also created the Demons that plague humanity, so could they not also be said to be Holy?

“Demons and other spirits aren’t like humans, however, they are concepts brought to life through the formation of patterns in the intellectual ether. Free Will is denied to them, they cannot, without significant evolution, say no to their own natures. They are sentient but limited to a very narrow purview of existence, more like natural disasters or diseases than real living beings and it is only basic survival instinct for humans to exterminate them. However, lumping myself in with those creatures is a mistake of cosmic proportions.

“The creatures that you term Class X entities are complicated in the extreme. Reverend England has made some very insightful observations about their nature intruding into a cage that was meant to hold them out… or was it? As we’ve already discussed, God is omnipotent, he knows that things from this other place are going to leak into the universe; indeed he designed it that way. I would also like to point out that God MADE the universe out of the same formless chaos; in fact some of my relatives have important jobs keeping the universal machine ticking over properly using a very delicate and intricate law of balance.

“Of course, I don’t believe in the Bible being the Word of God, though I do believe in a Creator. I am sentient and I have Free Will, the choices that I make are mine and mine alone just like any human.. or mutant if you really wish to separate the two into different species. I only want two things: to be judged fairly by my own actions, and to survive. Anyone can be forced into extreme action for the sake of survival, all of us at this table see that every day and live it out branded as something outside of society’s definition of normalcy. There have been accidents, I will admit, but if having an accident was the only catalyst for this sort of antagonism, then you’d have to execute everyone at Whateley eventually. Call Humanity First! in, they’ll be happy to do the job.”

“You sent a teacher into the nut house!” England burst out.

Carson was about to say something when Sara touched her shoulder lightly. “No, he’s right, Headmistress. It was an accident. I had no idea that my test paper would do that, or could do that. The people at ARC will take good care of him, however, and I will do whatever I can personally to make him better if I am ever allowed near him again. I regret what happened and I am more sorry than I could ever make you believe. For a while, even I thought that I’d be better off dead than end up hurting everyone around me, but despite everything, I still want to live. And like any animal, human or otherwise, I will do whatever I have to in order to ensure my survival. I really don’t want it to come to that, however, which is why I’m sitting here and willing to listen to the terms of my want-to-be assassin to see if we can actually arrange a treaty between us.”

“Lodgeman,” England turned to the man on his left, “Charlie, surely you understand my position. We’ve chewed some of the same dirt…”

“I don’t agree with assaulting students, Darren,” Lodgeman shook his head, “your folly brought Halloween down around our ears, intentionally or unintentionally. People are dead, co-workers; you don’t seem to be the least bit sorry about it either. The only reason you haven’t been handed over to the authorities is the little matter that none of us can prove you were behind the attack. However, if you had been a little less obsessed with expelling Sara and could have accepted the idea of restricting her movements and keeping an eye on her, we might have come to a more amicable arrangement.”

Sara didn’t miss the glimmer of hope that sparked in England’s eyes. She also didn’t miss the single eyebrow tic that undermined Carson’s impassive mask.

“Sara Waite is a demonstrated danger to the student body,” England began with renewed gusto, “my terms are that she be removed from Poe and placed in Hawthorne where she can be observed during the nighttime hours by both scientific and magical staff. In addition, I also want her placed on the UV list with the armband to be worn at all times in addition to a permanent tracking device. I also want the Lovecraft Room to be marked hazardous and a restraining order placed on her so that she cannot come within a hundred feet of any member of Team Kimba.”

“Ok, Darren,” Carson sighed, “I’ll let you get away with that wish list considering that Christmas is around the corner…”

“I refuse to wear a tracking device and the restraining order is simply too impractical,” Sara interrupted, “other than that, I am willing to comply.”

That made everyone else at the table stare at her in disbelief.

“What?” Sara raised her fingers to tick off her reasoning. “One, the Lovecraft Room is hazardous. Two, I have killed before in self defense; I believe that can actually get you on the UV list, if I remember the charter correctly, if only to serve as a warning to others that your powers are dangerous if provoked. That is true in my case as well. I really don’t have any reason for staying at Poe, even if it is a nice place. Hawthorne’s a nice place as well so I’ll have no regrets. The tracking device isn’t just insulting for an otherwise law abiding student who has been the victim of an assassination attempt; it could also be used to hunt me down by unsavory elements who wish my demise. Not to mention that it violates my right to privacy and is certainly a more suitable punishment for someone who has willfully committed harm to another with purpose of malice. On the other hand, I’d violate the restraining order just by going to class. The campus isn’t that big, at least the main school area isn’t. Not to mention that I have to go to Crystal Hall to be fed, so I’d have to violate the order every lunch. As I said, impractical and unreasonable.”

Lodgeman interrupted England before the Reverend could say anything in reply. “Darren, I think three out of five is a good thing, considering the current opinion the rest of the Faculty has for you at the moment. The Board of Trustees doesn’t need evidence to dismiss you from its membership; we’re already discussing downgrading your responsibilities in the school.”

The Reverend glared at both Carson and Lodgeman for a moment, his already gaunt face going a lighter shade of white. “All right, you win. I’ll leave it at that.”

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“DAMN IT!” England punched the concrete wall once he was in Lodgeman’s office after the meeting. He wasn’t a Brick, so he didn’t even mar the paint, but he wasn’t cradling his hand afterwards either. Lodgeman knew his old friend was a tougher stick than that.

“I think it went rather well, Darren,” Lodgeman shrugged.

“That thing acquiesced to my demands far too quickly and too reasonably. I’m telling you, Charlie, the only reason she submitted is to buy herself some time!”

Lodgeman glared at him coldly. “Darren. Sit down and stop flapping your lips for a minute.”

England glared back at him and threw himself into the chair petulantly without saying a word.

“The only reason you’re not in jail right now is because nobody can tie the assassination attempt to you. You took a big risk, traumatized the entire school… Hell, you’re lucky none of the STUDENTS were killed.”

“I didn’t ask for Deathlist or the rest of his psychos,” England protested, “I didn’t even know he was there! My job is to destroy Evil, not bring it right to our doorstep!”

“Deal with the Devil, my friend, and expect to get burned.”

The Reverend slumped. “A shaman preaching to a Reverend. I’d lose my license if anyone found out.”

“You don’t seem to be awfully sorry…”

“I hold no regrets because what I’m doing is right,” England stood back up, wringing his pallid, long-fingered, hands, “she’s not a mutant, she’s not human, she is Demon and it is the job of all good Christians to fight Evil in whatever form it takes. She is lascivious, immoral, selfish, murderous… Her influence will corrupt our beloved students, even our MOST beloved student, Charlie!”

“Cirque is dead…”

“NO! NO, Charlie! You and I, we see her every day! She tortures us by gliding past without a word! It is God’s test for us that we must endure having her so close again and yet so far away, just out of reach!”

Lodgeman stood up as well to face the other man on more equal footing. “Nikki Reilly is NOT Cirque! GET IT THROUGH YOUR THICK SKULL!”

“Her ways were not, ARE NOT, ours! She COULD have reincarnated, Charlie. She could have sent her soul to a new body before she died.”

“Maybe Sara isn’t the only person who needs a restraining order,” Lodgeman snarled.

England sneered at him. He tried again, “I’m no pervert, Charlie. She is young and I am aging far too fast. God has given me this torment to strengthen my resolve and faith, I will not fail Him. Likewise, I will not see such a pure innocent corrupted by the Evil that seeks to turn her power to its own ends. I will not see her DEBASED and DEBAUCHED by anything, Charlie, ANYTHING! And if you still cared about her, you wouldn’t try and stop me!”

Lodgeman didn’t flinch but his gaze became more deadly. “The only reason that I’m not expelling you from this school is because I agree with you. There are a lot of good kids out there that don’t need Sara to make them more confused about the realities of this world, not just Nikki. For some, this is the only place they’ve ever known as home, your reckless endangerment of that faith in us might have killed something inside them that will never heal. Sara Waite shouldn’t be here but we both knew the policy when we signed on that dotted line. Right now, we have a stalemate, Darren, a four year stalemate between Kellith and us until she graduates. Once that happens, we can roast her on a spit whenever we feel like it. Until then, we’re on damage control… Now get out of my office before I kill you.”

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Carson poured herself a glass of wine and offered a second glass, but Sara declined. “Never could stand alcohol and now I don’t need to drink. Besides, it’s illegal to give hard drink to a minor, right?”

“We both know you’re hardly a minor, Michael.”

“Michael’s dead,” Sara shrugged, “I’ve let him go for good.”

There was a long pause as Carson took a long sip. When she returned for air, the Headmistress sighed. “I want to apologize for everything that has happened to you. Whateley is and will always remain completely neutral…”

“But you don’t really understand me at all and sort of wish that I’d get out of your hair, if it wasn’t for your stubborn streak that’s prodding you to fly in the face of the so-called ‘conventional moralists’ who seem to be picking on someone who hasn’t really done anything wrong yet other than a bad habit of killing in self defense.”

“Think you have me all read, do you?” Carson smiled archly.

“Everyone knows who you are, Headmistress,” Sara sighed, “the perception of being a paragon of virtue must be nice and all, but some of us don’t really have a choice about the path they take in this life.”

“Me? A paragon of virtue? Sorry, dear, I gave that up for Lent. Two husbands, countless boyfriends, so many dead friends… You learn in this business that things aren’t always what they seem. I’ve known villains who performed great acts of kindness and redemption, and heroes who slowly slid down the slippery slope to become truly evil. I’ve known others who couldn’t get good press to save themselves no matter how hard they tried to save others; or those who work so far behind the scenes that they never get any credit for the good deeds they perform every day. All the while, we work for governments that care only for the continuation of law and order and the acquisition of wealth over any form of morality that are opposed by Machiavellian dictators who at least seem to consider morality as an important aspect of life in general. If the villains have any good points, at least they are truly equal opportunity employers. Heroes tend to look down on anyone whose moral code differs from their own.”

Sara chuckled. “I didn’t peg you as a champion of comparative morality.”

“Morality can’t be compared because it doesn’t have a solid definition,” Carson shrugged, “one solution never applies to all similar situations. It amazes me how my colleagues will chuck a hissy fit over teaching a Demon on campus while they don’t bat an eyelid teaching the hardcore Ultraviolents who just happen, by an accident of birth, to be human. They’ll have to excuse me if I see a little more sex around the place as a lesser of two evils in a school full of already horny teenagers with supermodel bodies going at it like rabbits.”

“You still call it a lesser evil, though. Don’t you feel obliged to stop me?”

“I’m the school’s Headmistress, not the children’s mother. Let them make their own mistakes and learn from them, like all children have throughout history. Ignorance is not a virtue, and there are plenty of children out there who need someone like you in their lives if only to help with their self esteem. You’re not like Solange or Hekate, or at least I trust you not to be. The people at ARC speak very highly of you and I trust their judgment, as well as my own. I think you’ll make the right choices.”

Sara kicked back in her chair and cupped the back of her head in her claws. “Life’s a funny thing. You have infinite choices, yet only a few paths ever present themselves. I could fight for acceptance with the ‘good guys’, but frankly primary color spandex gives me a headache. Besides, they’d never accept me. I honestly don’t know what puts such a bee in their bonnets about ideals, as if there’s one road map to happiness or that anything can actually be perfect. People who delude themselves into believing the Earth or the Universe is good and kind, that it actually cares about them, I just can’t understand that point of view. It doesn’t care, it’s just a merciless engine that continues to revolve and build and destroy itself over and over and over for all time. Nothing cares and all the lives on this planet are too short to matter in the long run. Ironically, this is what makes the people around us more important, because they actually do care, they actually do listen and some few will even help. I don’t expect that anyone will ever thank a Demon wench like me for what I do but I hope that they’ll still need me even if it is just as a reminder of the things that actually matter. Sex is less than nothing; it takes a truly twisted mind to make it into something more or less than what it is, humans just happen to be that twisted in general. You see, for a human, love is a selfish, possessive, emotion. If you love someone, you must obtain them, brand them and own them exclusively… I plainly don’t understand that reasoning, if I love someone all that I want is for them to be happy without any strings attached. But I have to wonder how many others there are out there like me who slip through the cracks of what humanity collectively calls ‘conventional wisdom’. I’m sorry, I’m rambling, my point is, however, that while I know I’m not normal, I don’t believe I’m sick. I don’t know if that will assuage your fears but right now it’s all I can give you.”

Carson smiled. “If you gave me a guarantee, I’d be less likely to trust you. Whateley is and will always remain neutral. I don’t care what you or the Cult of Kellith does out in the world, as long as you don’t start trouble in my school.

 

Epilogue

Erik sat on the bed in his small apartment, unmoving, uncaring. He stared at the wall, still shocked and disbelieving.

Cat was dead.

That simple fact rocked him to the core of his being. He’d expected to have her for the rest of his life, be the father of her children, and get burned alive during accidents while making love for years to come. The room felt empty, dead without her. The silence was terrifying.

He held the bottle to his lips with shaking hands, barely able to breathe. It had happened dozens of times before, the post-fight shakes. He was always barely able to hold it together even today after so many times on the firing line. He threw up on the floor by the bed, shaking as the memory of her dying flashed through his mind a thousand times over.

Cat was dead.

He looked at the bottle, a full fifth of bourbon whiskey, brought out to dull the pain that wouldn’t go away. Not enough and he’d still feel. Too much and he might die.

After a moment he upended the bottle and downed the entire bottle in seconds, throwing the empty glass to shatter against the wall as he lay down crying. He didn’t care if the alcohol killed him.

He wanted to die, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it directly. Maybe the booze would do the job. Maybe not, but without her, his life was in upheaval.

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Phase casually strolled across the campus, chatting with Vox as if there was little of interest going on around them. But Phase was intensely interested in the activity. Somehow, Carson and the Board of Directors had gotten clean-up crews and construction companies on-site in less than twelve hours after the attack had started. The crews were cleaning up debris and patching walls before Team Kimba even got to breakfast.

Vox had been willing to walk with Phase, once Phase explained what she wanted Vox to do. Vox had been really shaken up last night, and finding something constructive for her to do was probably therapeutic. Not to mention that Phase liked having Vox with her, and Vox had a talent that Phase could use today. Phase figured the two large pebbles in her coat pocket would see plenty of use too.

They started at Poe. The hole in the wall that drilled down into the Poe private trophy room was being cleaned up by two guys with construction devises and one guy who was clearly a mutant. Replacement girders and walls were being built on a tricked-out flatbed truck behind the dumptruck that was taking delivery of all the debris. Ayla wondered about the trophies that had been in there. Walls were replaceable. Some of those trophies were not.

They watched as a team of men worked with a massive backhoe to dig a ditch from the Poe basement wall toward where Ayla knew the Hawthorne tunnel lay. Ayla asked a man who looked like a foreman what was going on. The guy waved her off. She nodded at Vox, who had already been briefed.

Vox stepped over to the well-dressed white guy holding the rolled-up blueprints. She smiled prettily, “Ooh, this is so exciting. Can you show me what’s going on?” When the man was cearly about to brush her off, she did what Phase had asked her to. She ‘voiced’ the guy. “Please show us the plans.”

The guy smiled broadly at the two pretty girls and unrolled the blueprints, showing them the new tunnel that was going to be built, and the damaged spots in the Hawthorne tunnel that were being repaired, and the new cables for the sensor grid that were being laid down at the same time. He didn’t think about the fact that he wasn’t supposed to show the plans to anyone who didn’t have clearance.

Vox gave the guy another smile. “Thanks so much. That was so sweet of you. Forget that you showed us the plans.” They strolled on.

Phase whispered, “Nicely done, Nessa.”

After they dropped by Melville and looked at the damage there, they walked to central campus. Kane Hall looked like it had been used for target practice. By several battleships. They couldn’t get close enough to see what was being done for repairs, because several Security officers were keeping all the gawkers away.

Phase looked down and murmured, “Okay Jeannie, Jamie, it’s your turn.”

The two large pebbles in her coat pocket leapt out, somehow managed to nod at her, then swooped off past the officers, to dive into the holes in Kane Hall and explore all the construction work being done for Security.

Vox leaned against Phase and muttered, “So, we’re your own personal espionage corps? I’m Mata Hari, and Jade - or whatever you’re calling ‘em, I don’t get that freaky name dealie - is your undercover operative?”

Phase grinned, “Nah, you’re my Kim Possible. The J-Team is Rufus, the naked mole rat.”

Vox giggled and said, “I’m gonna tell ‘em you said that.”

Phase smiled, “Just wait until after Jade gives me the de-briefing.”

Vox nodded, “Okay. Now what’s next on your list?”

“Twain. The Homer Gallery. Then MacFarlane. I heard the martial arts areas got shot up, so I’d like to check them out too. We’ll check Hawthorne on the way back to Poe, and then give Team Kimba a debrief in my room.”

Vox shrugged. “Okay. But what I wanna know is how is it all this stuff got blown to hell, and the Crystal Hall is still looking perfect. It doesn’t have a single scratch on it!”

Ayla frowned, “They had really good intel on all of us. Whoever was behind this had inside information. I’d bet that dickhead England was behind some of it, but there was no way he’d know some of it. Like the costumes Team Kimba were going to wear. Someone had inside information on us - not just on the campus as a whole but on Team Kimba in particular - and they tried to get us killed. I can see why England has a hate-on for Sara, but why all of us Kimbas? It may be a long time before I get all the answers, but someday, somebody’s going to answer for that.”

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“Sweatshirts! T-shirts! Hoodies! Boxer briefs! Come and get ‘em!”

“Louder, Greasy, you mindless minion!” insisted Peeper.

Greasy turned up the volume on his sound system. “You got through last night! So show everyone else how tough you really are!”

Several juniors crowded around Peeper’s cart. “What do you have, Peeps?”

“I’m glad you asked,” insisted Peeper. “These are just the display versions. We have sweatshirts, hoodies, short-sleeved t-shirts, long-sleeved t-shirts, and.. boxers! In a wide variety of colors, and all sizes, from Sizemax all the way up to Sizemax!"

“Lemme see,” growled one musclebound guy. “Hmmm. ‘I fought Chessmen and Sabretooths, but all I got was this rotten T-shirt’. I like that!”

"Hey, look at this one!” The girl held up a sweatshirt that was emblazoned in black lettering: ‘You think YOUR Halloween was scary?’

Another guy picked up a red t-shirt that said ‘I expected to fight organized crime’ and then underneath, in smaller letters, ‘just... not all of them at once.’ He grinned, “Oh-KAY! Peeper, you finally came up with a good idea! How much?”

Peeper pushed, “Here’s a complete price sheet, with size and color that you choose, and it’s all available from our website, but if you order today, you’ll get a ten percent discount!”

“What else ya got?” asked another boy. “Got something for my girlfriend?”

Peeper oozed, “I’m glad you asked. Just look at these babies over here…” He lifted up a flat basket from under the counter. “The same great slogans, but in women’s clothing! Baby tees. Booty pants. Crop tops. Bikini tops. Camisoles with lowcut necklines… Uhh…”

Peeper had just noticed that Hippolyta had forced her way through the gathering crowd, and was staring at the women’s clothing with something like distaste. Okay, it was more like ‘I will gut you like a fish and dance on your intestines until you die!’ than ‘distaste’. He watched in terror as she pawed through the stack of baby tees.

Her nostrils flared as she held up one baby tee from the bottom of the stack. Unfortunately, it said in huge block letters ‘I SWALLOW’.

“Uhh, I can explain,” he backpedaled. “It.. it.. it’s all Greasy’s fault! Yeah! Bad ordering when he placed the orders with the store! They're Vietnamese and Greasy's language skills suck! That's all! Wait! NOT IN THE FACE!"

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November 1st, 1:00pm

The living corpse shambled towards the fence. Fieldstone walls were no match for the power of its will. He walked in a dreamlike world of hazy green grass and trees. His limbs didn’t seem to work as well as they used to, muscles stiffening with the onset of rigor mortis. In fact, everything hurt to do, he’d had to cut himself on his palms and the soles of his feet to allow his blood to drain out rather than pool.

Far across the void, the great pseudopods that pulled his strings stretched across the vastness, his new purpose flooded into his mind. With a mighty leap it cleared the fence and the crumbling tarmac road on the other side, his tattered robe of black ribbons fluttering in the wind, landing amid the bushes and shrubs on the other side.

“Misk-you,” he burbled, driven towards his goal, “..nomicon.”

 

THE END of Insanity Prerequisite.