Odds and Ends (Part 3)
A Whateley Academy Adventure
Odds and Ends (Part 3)
(with contributed scenes and ideas by:
EE Nalley, Morpheus, Bek Corbin, Kristin Darken,
Gen2 author Wasamon, and fanfic author Domoviye)
There are unsmiling faces in fetters and chains
On a wheel in perpetual motion
Who belong to all races and answer all names
With no show of an outward emotion
And they think it will make their lives easier
But the doorway before them is barred
And the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
No the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
"The Turn of a Friendly Card": Alan Parsons Project
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Adam Lambert, more commonly known as Greasy, nervously looked around the arena where he'd just been called to perform his combat final. His eyes went to Gunny Bardue, who had a grim look that made Adam feel even more apprehensive than he already did. Sensei Ito stood beside him with an unreadable expression. And then his eyes went to the other student who had been called for this combat final. Kaiju.
Kaiju was an odd looking girl, with green skin and neon purple hair that was pulled back into a ponytail. Her face pushed out into a slight muzzle, though she still managed to look very cute. She had a long reptilian tail and digitigrade legs which ended in large, taloned feet. But in spite of these odd features, she still had a killer figure that easily drew the attention of boys, though most would never admit it.
Adam only knew Kaiju in passing, though he had a lot of respect for her technical abilities. After all, she took the advanced engineering courses and was a regular fixture of the workshops even though she wasn't a gadgeteer or devisor. She didn't have the benefit of her powers helping her, which as far as Adam was concerned, was quite impressive, though he'd never admit that to his pal Peeper. Peeper would never let him hear the end of it.
When Kaiju glanced at him, Adam quickly averted his eyes so she wouldn't catch him staring. However, in the brief moment before he'd looked away, he'd seen a dismissive look in her eyes.
"Figures," Adam muttered to himself under his breath. Even the GSD girls wanted nothing to do with him.
"Listen up," Bardue announced in a gruff tone that made Adam want to back away. "Your setup is pretty simple. A villain and his crew just robbed a bank and took a hostage on the way out. The villain is in power armor with unknown capabilities. The number of henchmen hasn't been reported, and whether or not any of them have powers is unknown. What is known is that they were just seen entering a large park, and once they leave the park and escape, they'll have no more need for the hostage and will probably kill her. Your mission is to rescue her before that happens."
Adam's eyes widened and he gulped at that, wondering if he could just quit now and accept the F. After all, there was absolutely no way he could do anything to a supervillain.
"At least this time, I have my stuff," Adam muttered, patting the satchel which hung on his shoulder. During the last combat final, Peeper had 'borrowed' all his stuff, which meant that Adam hadn't been able to use it for his own final. "Not that it will much good." Peeper had told him that all his stuff sucked, which was why he hadn't borrowed it this time.
"Your grade is based on how you apply your powers and training to rescue the hostage," Ito said.
"Got it," Kaiju said, using her clawed hands to tie a purple sash-type mask around her head, which made her resemble a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Adam had almost forgotten about the rule that said everyone had to wear a mask, so he scrambled to put on a domino mask, though he thought it was kind of stupid since he was already wearing a mask. He wore a mask every day … a skin mask that looked like his real face, but which hid the skin condition that had earned him the name Greasy.
Just then, the PA came on and announced, "In the next final, Greasy and Kaiju."
As he heard those words, Adam could imagine how everyone would be reacting to this matchup. They'd probably be laughing at him, just like they always did, and everyone would be lining up to bet against him. At least he could count on his best friend Peeper to cheer for him.
"If you have no questions," Bardue said, "Greasy to the south entrance. Kaiju, you get the north."
Adam went to the south entrance of the arena, feeling like he was walking to his execution. He glanced back at Kaiju, who'd already gone in the other direction, realizing that he'd forgotten to ask her if she wanted to work together. He'd watched enough of these spring matches with Peeper to know that this seemed to be an option.
"Too late now," Adam grumbled to himself in resignation. He was going to lose and lose bad.
A minute later, the match began and Adam found himself in the simulated environment of the arena, which was programmed to look like he was outside at the edge of a park. He looked around nervously, knowing that he was supposed to find the bad guys so he could rescue the hostage, though he'd much rather know where they were so he could run the other way.
"Why do I even have to go through this?" Adam muttered under his breath. "It's not like I'm ever gonna be a hero…"
Adam carefully walked through the park, hiding behind one tree after another as he made his way through it. There were several large open areas which contained playground equipment, but he didn't see any sign of the villain, at least not at first.
Before long, Adam heard some men talking, though he couldn't quite make out what they were saying. He moved around until he could see a brief glimpse of some men, who were gathered around a large concrete structure that could be an oddly shaped building, playground equipment for children, or some really odd sculpture. Because of the structure, he couldn't make out how many men there were, or if the hostage was in it.
For a moment, Adam wished he had Peeper's powers. After all, if he could see through walls, then he'd be able to tell how many people were there as well as whether or not they had the hostage. Of course, Peeper would be just as helpless to actually do anything as he was.
Then, Adam had an idea. He dug into his satchel and pulled out one of his tiny robots, along with the remote control for it. This was one of the robots he'd made to help Peeper check out cute girls, but it should work pretty well here too.
Suddenly, a clawed hand grabbed Adam's shoulder, and he let out a cry of surprise, or at least tried to. Another hand clamped over his mouth, silencing him.
"Shhhh," Kaiju whispered as she crouched down beside him. "You don't want to give us away…"
"Then maybe you shouldn't have snuck up behind me," Adam responded in a whisper.
"The way I figure it," Kaiju told him, "we have a better chance working together than by ourselves…"
"True," Adam agreed, trying to keep the eagerness from his voice. He had absolutely no idea what he was going to do by himself, so any help was welcomed.
Before Adam could think of anything else to say, Kaiju picked up his tiny robot and began examining it. "Did you make this?" She poked at it with her clawed fingers. "Not bad at all..."
Adam smiled, a little startled by the praise since he wasn't used to anyone complimenting his work. Peeper frequently told him that his stuff was a bunch of crap, though that never seemed to stop Peeper from using it or demanding that he make more.
"I was gonna use this to get a better look," he told Kaiju.
"Good idea," Kaiju nodded in agreement. "So, I bet this is how Peeper sneaks a lot of those pictures …"
Adam just blushed and turned on the remote. He sent the robot creeping along the ground and around the structure, using the video camera on the robot and the small monitor on the remote in order to guide it. Kaiju leaned over his shoulder to see, making him uncomfortable with her close presence.
"Well?" Kaiju asked eagerly. "How many are there?"
"F … four," Adam answered nervously. "And there's a guy in power armor … and a little girl."
"Okay," Kaiju mused, looking nervous. "A supervillain and four henchmen. We can take them …." However, she sounded skeptical, especially when she looked at Adam.
"So, what do we do?" Adam asked, not seeing much chance that they could do anything. "I'm not a fighter …."
"Me either," Kaiju admitted. "But we have to figure out something, because I have no intention of receiving a failing grade." She pointed to another cluster of trees and added, "I think we'll have a better position over there …."
Adam nodded, and as they began moving, he tripped over a rock and let out a loud yelp of as he fell flat on his face. He quickly got back to his feet, only to see Kaiju staring at him with an angry look.
"What did you do?" she demanded.
"I tripped," Adam responded, slumping over in shame.
"NO," Kaiju snapped, gesturing towards the concrete structure, or more accurately, the four henchmen that were now running in their direction.
"Oh no," Adam gasped, his eyes going wide in terror as he realized that he'd given them away.
Kaiju leaped at one henchman, slashing at him with her claws while snapping at another of the henchmen with her tail. Adam turned to run, though he didn't get far. One of the henchmen leaped at him, slamming him to the ground.
"Got you," the henchman snarled.
"NO," Adam pleaded fearfully. "Let me go. I didn't do anything …."
"You'll make another good hostage," the henchman snarled as he tied Adam's hands together with zip ties.
There was a suddenly flash of light and Kaiju dropped to the ground. Adam finally saw the supervillain, wearing gold and black power armor, hovering in the air a short distance away. His gauntlet was still glowing from where he'd blasted Kaiju.
"Now, what to do with you two?" the villain mused, looking over Kaiju and completely ignoring Adam. That was no surprise to Adam though, as he was used to being ignored by everyone, except his buddy Peeper.
Adam curled up on the ground, afraid and ashamed. Once again, his combat final would be a complete and utter failure, and everyone would laugh at him. But what was even worse was that his mistake meant that Kaiju was going to fail her final too.
"This isn't fair," Adam whined, wondering why he'd been sent up against a supervillain and a bunch of henchmen. This was way out of his league, and it seemed like a cruel joke that the school would make people like him go through this.
Adam struggled against his zip tied hands, wishing he could at least get them loose. Then, he realized that there was a way he might be able to get his hands free. He nervously looked at the villain, who still wasn't paying attention to him. Adam smiled faintly to himself. For once, the fact that everyone ignored him might be something he could use to his advantage.
Even though he was terrified, Adam still brought his hands up to his neck and slipped his fingers beneath the fold of his skin mask. His codename Greasy came from the fact that his skin secreted a substance that was similar to motor oil, and he was so embarrassed by this that he normally covered himself with a thin layer of fake skin to hide it. As with being ignored, this time his GSD might actually be useful.
Once Adam had coated his fingers with his oily secretions, he rubbed them over his wrists, which made it much easier to slip his hands out of the zip ties. As soon as his hands were free, he hesitated, not sure what to do next. Then he remembered the stuff in his satchel.
Adam threw a smoke grenade, which immediately exploded into a thick fog, giving him all the cover he needed to run away. Every instinct screamed at him to run and hide, but instead, he froze, looking in Kaiju's direction. With a wince, and a certainty that he was going to regret this, Adam hurried to her side instead.
"Come on," Adam exclaimed as he shook Kaiju. He'd seen her moving, so knew that she wasn't completely out of it. Unfortunately, the smoke was dissipating even faster than he'd expected. "We've got to run …."
"You aren't going anywhere, kid," one of the henchman snarled, pointing a gun at them.
Suddenly, Kaiju snapped her tail and knocked his feet out from beneath him. As she leapt back to her feet, she pulled a stun gun from her belt and used it on the fallen thug.
"Look out," Kaiju yelped as she threw herself at Adam, knocking him aside just a moment before an energy blast hit the spot where he'd been standing.
The villain was hovering just a short distance away, with both of his gauntlets glowing as he was clearly preparing for another attack. Adam cringed, feeling like he was about to wet himself.
"I was really hoping I wouldn't have to do this," Kaiju stated with a grimace.
With that, Kaiju activated her manifested shell and began to 'monster out'. The quick release fasteners on her clothes all popped loose as she transformed into a seven foot tall reptilian creature, with armored scales, even more vicious looking claws, and jagged spikes all down her spine.
"Yikes," Adam blurted out, instinctively stepping away from the girl who now looked like some kind of miniature Godzilla.
Kaiju didn't hesitate before she threw herself as the remaining henchmen, slashing at them with her claws and tail. However, the armored villain rose higher into the air, out of her reach, and then fired blasts of energy from each of his gauntlets, hitting her in the side.
"Kaiju," Adam called out in horror.
The reptilian girl let out a yelp of pain after being shot, but she didn't go down or even seem to be seriously hurt. However, the villain was charging up for another attack, and he was well out of her reach.
Adam stared at the villain in growing panic, gasping, "What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?"
Though Adam knew that he should run away, he found himself reaching for his satchel instead, desperately thinking of what he had in there and whether or not any of it would be useful. He had his skin repair kit, which if he was lucky, might be able to blind the villain long enough for him to run away. And he had another smoke grenade. And he had… Adam felt a momentary surge of excitement as he remembered what else he'd brought with.
With his hands shaking in fear, Adam threw a round grenade at the villain, though his aim was badly off and he missed. However, when the EMP grenade exploded a moment later, the armored villain suddenly dropped from the sky and Kaiju immediately leapt on him.
"Thanks," Kaiju said, still sounding like herself in spite of her frightening appearance. "That last blast really hurt, and I'm not sure I could have taken many more of them .…"
"Um," Adam blinked, a little startled at being thanked. He wasn't used to anyone thanking him. Ever. "You're … you're welcome .…"
Kaiju looked around, then exclaimed, "Hey … I think we got them all .…"
She sounded surprised by that, and when Adam looked around and didn't see anyone else running at them, he was surprised too. While Adam was still trying to absorb this, Kaiju shambled over to the concrete structure and the little girl who was tied up inside. A moment later, a loud air horn sounded over the PA, signaling the end of the final.
Kaiju let out an excited cheer while Adam just stood there for a moment, feeling completely confused. "Did we just win?"
Several minutes later, Adam was outside of the main arena and standing in the 'debriefing room', still stunned over the fact that they'd actually managed to rescue the hostage. Kaiju came in a minute later, having already turned back to her normal self and put her clothes back on.
Almost immediately after Kaiju had entered, Bardue and Ito did as well. The big marine wore a grimace on his face, the kind of expression that made Adam sure that he was about to get yelled at. The small Asian man had a calm and unreadable expression, though he was just as intimidating in his own way.
"Greasy, you get a C," Bardue said as he handed Adam a folded sheet of paper. "Kaiju, the same."
"A C?" Adam blurted out in surprise. That was the best grade he'd ever gotten on a combat final.
"You did a good job performing surveillance before you moved in," Bardue grudgingly admitted. "And you two worked moderately well together … but you gave away your element of surprise, got yourselves captured, and turned everything into a total cluster .…"
Adam hung his head as Bardue spent several minutes listing absolutely everything he'd done wrong, though admittedly, it was actually a much shorter list than his first experience in combat finals. As far as Adam was concerned, that alone made this whole thing a success.
"And you were both damn lucky that you just happened to have the one weapon you needed to take him out," Bardue finished up before giving them both a faint nod and then leaving with Ito.
"Wow," Kaiju said, staring after the two staff members. "And that was after we actually rescued the hostage. Imagine how much worse it would have been if we'd failed…"
"I'd rather not," Adam admitted with a self-conscious smile. Then he said, "Thanks, Kaiju. I've never done that good in a combat final before .…"
Kaiju smiled at that, which only reminded Adam of just how cute she actually was. "You know," she said, giving Adam a curious look, "you're all right, when you aren't hanging around with that perv .…"
Adam was about to defend Peeper, but Kaiju surprised him by coming over and giving him a kiss on the cheek. Then she winked at him and walked out of the room with a satisfied smirk on her face, and with her tail swishing back and forth behind her.
For a moment, Adam just stood there, touching his cheek where Kaiju had kissed him and feeling stunned. First, he had a somewhat successful combat final, and then he'd been kissed by a cute girl. This was the best day of his life.
"I can't wait to tell Peeper," he started, only to pause and realize that this wouldn't be a good idea. Peeper was his best friend, but he was pretty sure that Peeper would only get jealous. Then with a grin, Adam told himself, "What Peeper doesn't know won't hurt him."
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Arena 99 Grandstands, Whateley Academy
As the combatants of the latest final trudged out of the arena, there was a sudden chorus of buzzes, beeps, pings, and other alerts rippling through the stands. Just as quickly, cell phones were extracted from pockets, purses, and backpacks, and some cheered as they suddenly received a torrent of call notifications and text messages which had been in limbo as long as the arena had had no cell phone coverage.
Booker read the text messages from his 'contact' and frowned; some people were very unhappy that the real-time updates had been interrupted because it made setting odds a much dicier proposition. With the restoration of data, he worked frantically to post the odds for the upcoming final to prospective 'customers', while he also scanned through the backlog of messages, responding to those he thought most critical. He posted his new odds on his cell app and then let the app take care of taking and acknowledging wagers, while he quickly strode to one of the tunnels and dialed a number.
"Tweak? Booker. Cell service is back," he reported.
"Yeah," Tweak acknowledged. "A lot of the gadgeteers have been doing nothing but work on an improvised relay since it went out."
"At least now I can notify our contact of any changes," Booker replied.
"Nope," Tweak cautioned him. "Don't use the cell phones. The relay might be fragile because it was cobbled together so quickly, or it might be infested with parasitic snoops."
"Okay, I'll stick to e-mails to you. But I can't e-mail our contact directly! I bet Hartford is tracking all e-mails from the arena wi-fi hotspots!"
"Yeah, good thinking," Tweak said. "Hey," she said suddenly as a light dawned on her, "give me five minutes and I'll set up a relay proxy. You can send e-mails to the proxy and they'll get forwarded automatically. Since the address is my PC in the labs, no-one would think anything of the e-mails, and if you encrypt the message, she couldn't snoop on that, either."
"Yeah," Tweak replied with a grin. "By the way, how are we doing?"
"Really well. The pairings is where we're going to make the biggest, percentage-wise, but the matches - I figure I'm about five percent better margin than the others - except Hazard. She's actually doing a little better'n me."
"She's a precog," Tweak snorted derisively. "What the hell do you expect?"
Booker shook his head, a gesture unseen on the phone. "I don't think that's it," he reported. "She's on her laptop constantly. I think she's getting data from somewhere."
"You want me to see if I can slip a worm into her system to see who she's talking to?" Tweak asked, a hint of malice in her voice. Hazard had been one who'd most vociferously objected to her membership in the Masterminds, and she wouldn't have objected too strongly to see the girl taken down a peg.
"No," Booker said firmly. "If she's got the best margins, then if someone starts looking, all signs will point to her. We'll let her be our decoy and be satisfied with the percentage we're winning."
"Okay," Tweak agreed reluctantly.
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Afternoon
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Clad in his silver and Kelly-green super-suit, his face properly masked, G-Force waited for the air-horn to signal the beginning of his final. He was looking all around himself in the few seconds he was idle, trying to get tactical awareness of the situation. He was on a corner of an average intersection in an average medium-sized city, just down the street from a Goodkind Bank branch office and in front of a corner restaurant. Judging by the crowd around him and the sun's position in the sky, it was lunchtime, and the smell of food cooking distracted him momentarily, reminding him that it had been quite a while since lunch and he was hungry.
No sooner had the air horn sounded than G-Force began to briskly walk down the sidewalk, all the while scanning around himself. Somewhere in this artificial city, Haywire was going to be trying to steal his grade and rescue the hostages, and Haywire wasn't a Cape. It wouldn't be right for him to allow a suspected member of the Masterminds to win the 'good guy' scenario; the name LeShawn Taylor would be an item of derision in the Capes for the rest of his career at Whateley. The further he walked and the more he thought about it, the more agitated he became. He simply had to beat the scenario.
Around another corner, he pulled up sharply, eyes wide as he looked at the scene in front of him. Two rather large gentlemen in dark suits, their expressions quite menacing, were leaning against a building, carefully watching a teenager as she strode nervously down the street. The whole situation screamed to G-Force that something was wrong here, and that the two men didn't belong, given how shopkeepers and pedestrians on the street kept glancing nervously at the two.
"Jackpot!" G-Force muttered to himself, knowing he'd almost immediately found the lair where the kidnappers were holding the three college-age girls. He leaned against a signpost, trying to look casual as he studied the scene. There had to be more than the two heavies; so far, no final had fewer than three henchmen and a villain, and at least one of those had powers. The pre-sim briefing hadn't given him much information about the villain at all - just that he had a long rap-sheet of quite brutal crimes.
LeShawn gulped nervously; given his powers, it was likely that the villain was quite powerful and experienced and ruthless. He'd seen the sim in which Scintilla had been thoroughly pounded by an exemplar warper; they'd only won because the villain hadn't noticed Scintilla's combat finals foe sneaking up behind the villain while she toyed with Scintilla. And Scintilla was a tough, experienced fighter. Ito and Bardue were certainly pegging the cruelty-to-students meter on this round of combat finals.
So focused on the setup was LeShawn that when he was tapped on the shoulder, he nearly leaped out of his own skin. "Boo!" a voice mocked him from behind.
LeShawn spun angrily, already assuming a fighting posture so he could thrash the person who'd startled him so.
"Calm down, bro," Haywire said with a chuckle as he watched the future superhero try to unjangle his nerves. "I've got a proposition for you."
"What?" LeShawn asked cautiously.
"I don't want to play this stupid game," Haywire replied. "All the fighting and running around. So I've got an idea to rescue the hostage and get our asses done with this stupid simulation."
"And fail?" LeShawn demanded. "No thanks. My grade is important to me."
Haywire laughed mockingly. "Dude, this is high school PE! Three years from now, no-one is ever going to give a crap if you got a C or an A in this class!"
"Well," LeShawn muttered, still glaring at Haywire, "maybe ...."
"Listen up," Haywire leaned closer, speaking softly and conspiratorially. "There's a really easy way to get the hostages. But it's going to require us to team up, and it's ... unorthodox. At least for you."
"Okay, I'll at least listen to what you're suggesting," LeShawn grudgingly agreed.
One minute later, he stood gawking at Haywire. "You can't be serious!" he exclaimed softly.
Haywire laughed. "I'm very serious.
"You know I can't do that!"
"Why not?" Haywire countered. "Is it against the rules?"
"No, but ...."
"Is it against your club rules?" the Mastermind boy further argued.
"It's ... it'd be a bad precedent," LeShawn sputtered, trying to find arguments against the absurd proposal. "I ... I can't."
Haywire simply grinned at the boy. "In team sims, they always do the Dark Phoenix scenarios, right?"
"Yeah, but ...."
"And you'll probably never get a chance to try something like this again," Haywire continued, sensing the weakening resistance of LeShawn.
"Well," LeShawn mouthed softly.
"Besides," Haywire leaned a bit closer, "girls love the whole bad-boy vibe!"
"Everyone, could I have your attention please?" Haywire announced as the pair of boys wearing masks stepped into the main waiting area of the Goodkind Bank. "This is a holdup. If everyone would be calm, nobody will be hurt."
To one side, a security guard reached for his gun, but immediately, local gravity soared to nearly 10 G's, causing the man to crumple helplessly to the floor. Smiling, G-Force picked up the guard's gun and then zip-tied his hands together. Even as he did that, he demonstrated his fine control of gravitic fields by simultaneously pinning the bank tellers helplessly to their crumpled chairs which had been unable to withstand the high G loads he imposed on them. Not a one of them was able to reach the hidden alarm buttons to alert the local constabulary.
"Now, if you would please?" Haywire picked out one teller, the prettiest of the lot, and handed her a pillowcase which the two boys had purchased at a shop just down the street. "I want you to empty the cash drawers and the safe. Large bills." He smiled pleasantly at her. "And no dye-packs, please. I can tell if you put in a dye pack, and I would be most displeased."
LeShawn, still focusing on his G-fields, moved behind the counter and zip-tied the hands of the tellers. Only when all were secure did he release his gravitic field. "Sorry about this," he apologized to an attractive young teller. "Nothing personal."
The girl smiled faintly, eyeing his muscular body displayed through the tight super-suit he wore. "That's okay. Um, you aren't going to hurt us, are you?"
LeShawn grinned. "Not unless you like your foreplay a little rough!" he shot back playfully.
The girl's eyes widened, and then she shivered slightly and a slight smile crept onto her face.
"I bet you can really dance," LeShawn continued smoothly, sliding his cell phone from his pocket. "Give me your number so you can show me how well you dance on Saturday night."
"Enough with the flirting," Haywire interrupted LeShawn. "We've got a sim to win."
LeShawn sighed, and as he turned, he noticed the girl's expression looked a little disappointed. "You're right," he said to Haywire as they walked out of the bank. "The chicks do go for the bad-boy vibe! She gave me her number and ..."
"And it's just a sim, remember?" Haywire shot back at G-Force, shaking his head at how easy it was to become totally immersed in the artificial world of the arena.
The two walked boldly down the street and were intercepted by the two suits who stepped in front of them, glaring menacingly, one holding his hand inside his jacket - no doubt on his gun. "You kids don't belong around here," one of the men growled at them.
Haywire put his hand on G-Force's arm so his temporary partner didn't do something stupid like try to immobilize the men. "We're here with a delivery."
The first man's eyes narrowed. "Of what?"
"The ransom he asked for," Haywire explained. "One million in cash."
The two men exchanged a surprised glance, and then one of them reached into a pocket and took out his cell phone. "Boss, I've got two kids out here who claim to have the ransom. They're carrying a sack of some kind."
"Give it a quick check, and if it's the money, bring them up."
Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy
"See?" Haywire said as the two sat in the briefing room. "I told you it'd be easy."
"I guess," LeShawn said uncertainly. The sim had gone trivially well; they successfully exchanged the money for the hostages and then escorted the hostages to the finish line.
"What the hell was that?" Gunny demanded as he practically exploded through the doors into the room with Ito close on his heels. The two instructors were beet red with anger at the boys' chosen solution to their final.
"You said that we had to rescue the hostages," Haywire said with a grin. Beside him, LeShawn sat meekly, not looking at the instructors for fear of their reaction.
"Robbing a bank?" Ito snapped. "G-Force, you're supposed to know better than that!"
"You never said we couldn't rob a bank," Haywire shot right back. "Besides, it was only a Goodkind Bank."
"You're supposed to be one of the good guys!" Gunny barked at G-Force. "You aren't supposed to be robbing banks!"
"Aw, come on, Gunny," Haywire said with a grin. "Haven't you ever played 'cops and robbers'? Wasn't it fun to be a robber once in a while?"
The two men glared at the boys a few seconds, and then retreated to a corner to converse, which was obviously a very animated discussion. When they turned back, Gunny handed each of the boys a slip of paper.
"B-minus?" Haywire asked, a little confused. "We got the hostages out and nobody got hurt!"
"I'm not really surprised at your chosen course of action," Ito said, frowning slightly, "but you made a few mistakes."
"Mistakes? How? The exchange went perfectly!"
"I meant in the bank robbery," Ito retorted. He proceeded to give the boys a rundown of their performance, highlighting the errors.
"And you gave me a C-minus?" G-Force complained. "How come I got a lower grade?"
"Mostly because your mistake in the bank was worse!"
"But ... you just said ...."
"You let yourself get distracted trying to chat up one of the tellers!" Gunny roared at the boy. "If you're going to rob a bank, focus on robbing the bank, not trying to get a date for Saturday night!"
"But ... but ... but she was really, really hawt!" LeShawn protested. "And she was giving me the eye!"
"Not an excuse," Ito said flatly.
"Aw, come on, Sensei!" LeShawn pleaded to the diminutive martial arts instructor. "You were young once! You can't tell me that you wouldn't have tried to pick up a hottie like her if our places were changed!"
Ito frowned at the boy, and then glanced at Gunny. A silent interchange went between the two as they considered G-Forces plea. After a couple of seconds, Ito turned back toward the boy. "C. And that's final."
LeShawn Taylor nodded, accepting that he wasn't going to do any better, and the two instructors left to go back to prep for the next final.
"Hitting on an ANT! Man, that's just ....!" Haywire chuckled, shaking his head in amusement.
"I ... forgot we were in the arena," LeShawn said by way of feeble excuse. His cheeks reddening with embarrassment, LeShawn glared at the other. "I'm never gonna live that down, am I?"
Haywire shook his head no, a silly grin nearly splitting his face. "Probably not."
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Afternoon
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"Any news?" Hartford's called over the phone to the Deputy Security Chief.
"Nothing new," Sam replied. "It didn't take them long to improvise a repeater and get cell coverage back. So that's a dead end."
"Did you get anything useful while they were out?"
"Blue and Cyberkitty didn't see any change in the traffic pattern off-site. The only thing useful is that the betting houses were slower in getting their odds changed." Sam sounded a little frustrated by the lack of clues she wasn't finding. "How about on your end?"
"I've been looking at the network traffic by source and destination addresses," Hartford replied. "A lot of traffic on the campus wi-fi to and from the arena, but nothing going off-campus. Probably the bookies switching from cell coverage to wi-fi for their betting."
"Yeah, that's what I figured, too." Sam sighed. "If nothing else, maybe we're making them nervous enough to cut out some of the usual shenanigans."
"Hmmph!" Hartford snorted derisively. "If you honestly believe that ...." Even while talking, her fingers continued to dance over her keyboard as she scrutinized the computer display.
"We can wish, can't we?" Sam chuckled in reply.
"What are those two up to now?" Hartford demanded in her usual semi-imperious tone.
"Blue thinks he can get enough data from the gambling houses to see what their margins are for the various bets."
"Looking for one that ...." Hartford's voice trailed off. Both eyebrows arched and she stared at the screen. "Hello," she mouthed silently. "What do we have here?"
"Excuse me?" Sam asked, baffled by the interruption.
"Nothing," Hartford replied quickly. "I had an ... emergency note ... that caught my attention." She paused something on the display. "I presume you're trying to find one or more gambling houses whose margins are slightly better than expected?"
"It's kind of like grasping at straws," Sam admitted sheepishly, "but I'm running out of ideas."
"Well, keep after it. I'll keep watching the networks. We can tag up this evening." Hartford unceremoniously hung up the phone, her attention instantly riveted back on her computer screen. A mesh of network nodes was displayed, each a small dot in three-dimensional space, and on it, lines flickered between various nodes, indicating that a message had been passed. She backed up the display, watching at a high-level, and she noticed something she hadn't seen. Rewinding the data again, she slowed down the display. As it played, and she saw more anomalous events, her fingers typed frantically on the keyboard, changing display parameters and creating data filters. Once more she ran the data, and a wicked smile crept onto her face.
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Afternoon
Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy
Gunny and Ito looked around the room with sadistic smiles, intimidating a few, but not fazing others. "We have an interesting little situation," Gunny began, staring at Poise, the Venus Inc. leader to see if she'd flinch. "Intelligence reports that a terrorist group is planning to kidnap a prominent target who they'll then exchange for their jailed leader." He looked around the room to see if anyone flinched.
Loophole sat nonchalantly in her power armor, smiling pleasantly at the instructors in anticipation. Across the room, Lifeline sat, glowering at Lanie, having been 'persuaded' to participate by Mrs. Carson, the staff of the magic department, and her parents. Between them, Solange, in her stylishly-curvy sleek combat suit, watched Lanie warily. Fey sat near Lifeline, wearing her costume from Team Kimba and looking somber and a little detached. Freeze-Frame, like Lanie, had been invited to participate since she and Lanie were photographers, and thus de-facto members of Venus Inc. Heartbreaker, Chemtrail, and two other girls sat on the edges of their seats, nervously looking between the two instructors.
"We've got a state meeting which involves the German Chancellor, which is ...." Ito trailed off when another girl entered the room.
A collective gasp circulated as Pristine, in a severely-shortened hairstyle and wearing an ill-fitting costume from her sophomore year, marched in, glaring at the two instructors. Noticing the stares she was getting, she looked around. "Don't. Say. A. Word!" she hissed, her voice promising retribution to anyone who made a comment about her sudden, severe haircut or change of suit precipitated by her earlier single combat final.
No sooner had she sat than another girl entered. "Kayda!" Poise called out in surprise. "I didn't think you were going to join us! Solange said ...."
The Native American girl, in her nicely-adorned, Lakota-themed costume, sat down between Lanie and Solange. "What can I say? I'm a sucker for a good fight!"
"Well, you're apt to get one," Gunny interrupted with a wicked grin. "We have at least 3 high-profile targets in the area. The German Chancellor is at a state reception. There's some famous rock star ... Pink or something like that ... performing at a concert venue, and Bruce Goodkind is hosting a meeting of industrialists."
"Let's let them capture him," one of the girls, hidden in the ranks of girls, snarked.
Ito and Bardue glared around the room, silencing the titters and giggles. "There are other, lesser-valued targets," Gunny continued, "and intelligence reports suggest that the terror group may have planned a few diversionary attacks to distract from the main target."
"You've been drafted by the German security forces to assist in protecting the targets and foiling any diversionary attacks," Ito added ominously. "It must be noted that this particular terror group is ruthless and has, in past attacks, caused significant civilian casualties."
"Casualties are to be avoided at all costs." Bardue glanced around the room at the oversized team of thirteen girls. "You have two minutes for a team discussion, and then you will enter the arena. Any questions?" He was met with nervous gulps, even from Loophole and Poise. If they were being given time to discuss tactics beforehand, the sim was certain to be a bitch.
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Gunfire erupted outside the ballroom in which Bruce Goodkind was hosting the business reception; even as the attendees all turned toward the disturbance, five masked men brandishing MP-5 submachine guns burst into the room. The leader's eyes scanned the room quickly, locking onto the well-known visage of Mr. Goodkind, and he barked curt orders in Arabic to his team, who were fanning out to cover exits and herd the industrialists into one group. "Silence!" one of the men yelled in accented English, firing a few rounds into the ceiling to emphasize his point.
Lifeline frowned. "There are too many of them!"
"Team Bravo is under attack!" one of her team shouted into a microphone at her throat.
The girls' speech attracted the attention of one of the terrorists, who swung the barrel of his weapon toward the girls. Freeze Frame, though, was a little quicker, activating a personal field generator at her waist, so that when the terrorist fired, the bullets splatted harmlessly into the energy barrier.
Screams of panic engulfed the crowd at the shots, and a couple of other terrorists panicked, firing into the crowd. "Damn you, Gunny!" Lifeline called as she activated a spell slip she'd slipped into Bruce Goodkind's pocket earlier when she'd been introduced. That might protect him, but the other hundred or so attendees were totally helpless.
"Bravo Team is under attack," Lanie called to her small team. "Let's ...."
A nearby explosion interrupted her. The girls looked around and saw chaos and destruction at a restaurant a couple of blocks away. And even as the debris still fell, staccato bursts of gunfire punctuated the explosion.
"Diversionary attack!" Solange snapped as she broke into a run toward the disturbance. The others followed immediately after her, already preparing to deal with some of the terrorists. "Team Alpha is responding to a civilian attack!" she spoke into her throat mic.
"We've got attacks under way," Poise insisted to the head of security at the state reception. "I suggest you evacuate the Chancellor immediately."
The security detail was already thinking the same; several important VIPs were suddenly surrounded by bodyguards and being hustled toward exits.
"Something doesn't make sense," Heartbreaker interrupted Poise as the dignitaries streamed from the room, her features etched with concern. "They're attacking Goodkind, not us!"
Poise had the same dawning recognition. "Outside - in the motorcade?" Her team sprinted toward the exit, following the Chancellor's security detail.
Outside, dignitaries were being shoved into their armored limos, surrounded by gun-toting, nervous security details. In the distance, the sounds of gunfire echoed, making the scene sound like a war zone. But around the Chancellor's reception there was only the silent but frenetic activity of getting the VIPs away from the scene. If there were to be multiple attacks ....
"It's a trap!" Poise suddenly realized, too late.
Smoke poured out of an equipment room, and the panicked concert-goers screamed as they stampeded toward the exits. Pejuta jumped to the stage, where event security was hurriedly escorting the band to safety. Looking around, she saw the source of the smoke. But something wasn't quite right - the smoke smelled wrong, like a chemical mix, not like burning wood or wiring or ....
"Pristine!" Kayda yelled over the crowd's panicked screaming, "Out front with your shield!" She invoked her own shield spell and fought through the crowd toward the second main exit, a sense of impending doom overcoming her.
Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy
The girls sat at the tables, fatigued, sore, and dejected. "Well," Heartbreaker said glumly, "that sucked." Her words and tone echoed the mood in the briefing room.
"We should have known Gunny and Ito would pull some shit like that," Naomi said wearily. Thanks to her PFG, she was one of the few survivors of the simulated debacle. Pristine, Loophole, and Solange were the others.
"That wasn't as bad as the other two," Kayda commented softly. "At least not until Tatanka got hit."
"At least you remembered your buffalo this time," Lanie chuckled.
"Not so much help when someone's shooting an AK at you," Kayda retorted. "Remember, when he gets hit, I feel it, too!"
Silence descended on the room as the two instructors filed in. "Well, ladies," Gunny said with a smirk, "did you enjoy your visit to Germany?"
Despite being tired and unhappy at the team's performance, Poise sat in her chair in a dignified posture, seemingly unflapped by the whole experience. "I would assume that the city isn't always this ... lively."
"We'll talk Berlin nightlife later. First, let's go down the results." Bardue looked around. "Team Alpha." Lanie perked up with the others on her team. "You spent the simulation chasing around a mobile terror squad. You failed to catch them. Further, you lost a team member. Net result - sixty-two civilian killed, one hundred eighty-six wounded, and you failed to apprehend all of the terrorists."
"They were mobile," Lanie complained. "We weren't."
"And yet, you stayed close to them. Didn't that strike any of you as suspicious?"
"Now that you mention it ...," Solange replied.
"Did it occur to you that you were being led away from the other attacks, and that they were moving slow enough to bait you?"
"But," Ito noted, "you did kill two of the four, and you disabled their vehicle. Net result - the Berlin police apprehended the other two."
"And not all of your team was killed," Bardue said, looking levelly at Solange. A lengthy, detailed, and quite biting evaluation of the team's tactics and errors ensued, leaving Team Alpha feeling like they'd totally failed.
"Loophole, with that power armor and flight capability, you should have been detached from your group as a mobile reinforcement - which would have left you able to support one of the other teams on very short notice. Which brings us to Team Bravo," Ito continued.
"Thanks to your forward thinking, Lifeline," Bardue said, "Bruce Goodkind survived. However," he added immediately, lest the girl get cocky, "sixteen of the world's top industrialists did not, and there were over fifty casualties." He smirked at the girls. "And though he survived, I doubt that Bruce Goodkind's opinion of mutants will be improved by the loss of his wife in the battle where mutants were supposed to be protecting him."
The girls murmured among themselves for a moment as they digested what Bardue had said. The events faced by that team came under equally-intensive scrutiny.
"Team Charlie." The girls snapped their attention back to the Gunnery Sergeant. "I will have to say, Poise, that of all the teams, I expected you to panic least. Thanks to erroneous tactics, three western European governments are in turmoil, having lost their heads of state." Their tactics had been severely lacking; as soon as the motorcades started to move away from the reception, they'd come under very heavy attack, including RPGs.
"In your haste to evacuate the dignitaries," Ito continued, "you overlooked the advice of the German security team to set up a perimeter and hunker down. Once the VIPs started to get in their limos, a very significant security force was split." Indeed, as the girls had watched in horror, four limos were hit with RPGs almost immediately, and machine-gun fire mowed down the security team trying to hastily get them out of the area. The critique continued for quite a while, since, all things considered, the losses there were most critical.
"And finally, not to leave anyone out, Team Delta."
"Yeah, we screwed up pretty bad," Kayda muttered loudly.
"On the whole, yes," Ito agreed. "But ..." he caught the attention of all the girls. "You recognized that the smoke was a diversion to cause an evacuation, and you got shields in the exits as quickly as you could."
"Yeah," Pristine grumbled, "but a hundred-fifty? One-sixty?" The casualty-count had been extreme; the terrorists had set up an ambush to slaughter the concert-goers as they exited. Only the quick thinking of Kayda and Pristine kept the count from being two or three times worse.
"And you remembered to use your buffalo this time," Ito noted to Kayda.
"For all the good he did!" the Lakota girl complained. "He is kind of allergic to machine-gun fire!"
"He provided enough of a distraction that you got two of the attackers at that exit with your bow," Gunny said.
"And he was so weakened it drained my essence, and then I got shot, too!"
The team spent what felt like hours in the debrief, even though it was only about fifteen minutes. "And your team grade?" Everyone groaned, expecting C-minus or D - or even lower.
"Maybe I'm getting ... ugh ...," Gunny shuddered visibly, "generous, but we're giving you a B-minus. Except for Kayda, Lanie, and Solange." He looked at Lanie and Solange. "For you two, five extra credit points."
Loophole frowned. "I thought it was ten points!"
"That was a different situation. Take 'em or leave 'em."
"Five for me, too?" Kayda asked eagerly.
"No," Ito said with a wicked grin. "You got your extra points. For your extra effort," he paused dramatically, "you win a cookie!"
Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Late Afternoon
The Quad, Whateley Academy
Kayda frowned when she saw Sam Everheart on an intercept course with her. She'd had more than her share of encounters with security in the past couple of months, and she was tired of seeing security officers walking toward her or calling her because that inevitably meant trouble. She halted, waiting for the Admiral.
"What can I do for you?" she asked when Sam was a couple of steps away.
"Someone suggested you might be able to help us with a little statistics problem," Sam said bluntly, not wasting time with niceties. She'd learned that Kayda responded best to a direct approach.
"What kind of problem?"
Sam glanced around just enough for Kayda to notice her unease. "Can we go to my office?"
The Lakota girl shrugged. "Sure." She fell in beside Sam as the deputy security chief turned toward Kane.
Once they were in Sam's office and the door was closed, Kayda sat down opposite the Admiral's desk. "What kind of problem?" she repeated.
Sam eased herself into her chair behind the desk. "We've got a security problem and we need to make sense of the data we've been collecting for the past few days."
"Combat finals," Kayda said with certainty.
"You've heard something?"
Kayda shrugged. "Just rumors that some of the students already know who their opponents are, which would imply a security leak."
Sam didn't try to deny it. "Yeah. We're sure that we've got a leak, but we can't prove who's getting the data."
"Maybe," Sam admitted. "I'm more worried about off-campus betting getting the data, though."
Kayda sighed, resigned to helping - if she could. "Okay. What kind of data have you got?"
In response, Sam handed her a memory stick. "Everything we've gotten from watching the bookies' odds, plus what ... a couple of students ..."
"Blue and Cyberkitty," Kayda pronounced with a grin. "I do remember how those two were key in the computer investigations in my little ... incident."
Sam started, and then nodded. "A couple of students have collected odds from the major gambling houses worldwide."
"So you're looking for an analysis of accuracy plus correlation - if it exists - among the various sets of odds, right?"
"And check what our ratings are against what the gambling houses are advertising for the combatant's ratings." Sam scowled. "You do realize that I'm trusting you with access to all the ratings we have for every student who's fought. This could be considered sensitive data."
Kayda smiled. "As if an exemplar with eidetic memory - like Ayla - couldn't memorize that from the MID cards displayed at the start of every match."
Sam's frown caused the Lakota girl to gulp. "This is our testing data from our security files, not necessarily what's on the MIDs." She saw the girl realize the implications. "For that part of the analysis, I'll need you to work in the security offices proper. Not that I don't trust you; it's just that the data you'll be working with is very ... sensitive."
"I understand," Kayda said, nodding solemnly.
"And since you mentioned Ayla, I want you to work with her. Um, him," Sam added. Seeing the puzzled look on Kayda's brow, she explained. "Ayla has a lot of experience with business, which translates to understanding and evaluating data in ways that show patterns. Ayla understands security and intelligence and data gathering in ways you don't. Between your analytical skills and Ayla's other skills ...."
Kayda nodded somberly. "I get it. I don't have the same experience base Ayla has, so you want us working together so one of us doesn't miss something that the other one would spot."
Friday, June 1, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99, Whateley Academy
Alicia rolled her eyes when Long John, her 'opponent' for the simulation, paused after entering the arena to strike a heroic pose. Surely he'd offended Mrs. Ryan when he'd taken Costume Shop, and in reply to his sexist, obnoxious behavior, she'd steered him toward a suit that appeared to have been assembled by someone who was color-blind. Blue and gold would go together normally, but glittering gold lame trim on a neon blue skin-tight suit was beyond absurd. It was almost as if the boy had gotten fashion tips from Jericho. Worse than the lame stripes down the outside of his legs and arms, worse than the lame 'breast plate' with LJ in capital block neon-blue letters, was the neon blue cowl covering half his face, with eye holes trimmed in the ridiculous gold fabric. At least, Alicia thought to herself, he wasn't wearing a cape.
The air horn sounded, and Alicia gritted her teeth, thinking of Louisiana alligators to distract her thoughts from the comical outfit, and walked toward the boy. "Ah assume y'all want to partner, like everyone else has done?" Unlike the boy, her outfit was a simple cat-suit in dark blue, with a wavy moiré pattern in a diamond adorning her torso; simple movements could produce serious optical distraction and even nausea if someone were looking at her chest. A black diamond mask completed the attire, and she'd managed to convince Jade, through Addy, who convinced Ayla, to get her a pair of hair barrettes that had the nauseating strobe effect.
"Yeah," Long John replied simply. "Um, how do you want to do this?"
Alicia rolled her eyes again. "Let's split up and see if we can spot anythin' suspicious. We could cover more ground that way."
"Okay," Long John agreed readily. "I can cover a lot more ground without you slowing me down."
The temptation to use her power and her strobe barrettes on the arrogant, cocky boy was almost overpowering, but Alicia resisted the urge. "Meet back here in five minutes?"
"Yeah. You go that way," Long John pointed to his left, "and I'll go that way," he concluded, pointing to his right. A thought occurred to him. "Uh, what should we be looking for?" he asked hesitantly, afraid that he was looking like a fool in front of this Cajun girl - which he was.
"They gotta have guards around the building, just like every other final Ah've watched have had," Alicia said, shaking her head sadly and sighing at the ineptitude of her partner. "Weren't you paying attention to any of the other finals?"
"Uh, yeah," Long John said hesitantly, but he knew he was lying. He'd been watching mostly to see good fights and to leer at skimpy costumes on curvy girls.
"Look for anything that doesn't seem normal. Guys in suits by a warehouse. Storekeepers who aren't watchin' the store. Someone walkin' back and forth in front of a building. Stuff like that." With that she turned, and the two went their separate ways, Alicia grateful that she didn't have to look at Long John's hideous color scheme any longer. Maybe he was color blind, she thought to herself as she scouted the neighborhood.
Five minutes later, almost to the second, they rendezvoused back at their starting point. "See anything?" Long John asked.
"Yeah, there are two guys that look out of place outside a bakery entrance, and another couple of guys who looks like panhandlers at the rear loading dock," Alicia answered. "You?"
"Nothing, really," he responded. "So it's the bakery?"
Alicia sighed. "That's our best bet. So," she glared at the boy, "how do you want to go at this?"
"Attack the guys at the loading dock?" Long John suggested.
"How resistant are you to being shot?" Headrush asked sarcastically. "Because Ah object to having holes put in me that don't belong!" Too late, she realized she'd opened herself up to response dripping with sexual innuendo. "Don't you dare say a word!" she snapped at the boy, cutting off a response before he could utter a single syllable, while she stomped off toward the bakery, Long John scrambling to keep up with her.
"There are windows on the side," the boy observed as they looked upon the building.
"Too high up." Alicia looked at him curiously. "You're a stretcher, right?"
"I can't stretch that far," Long John replied curtly.
"Then hoist me up on your shoulder so I can see," Alicia replied with more than a bit of condescension in her voice, as if stating the obvious was necessary with this twonk.
Less than a minute later, Alicia jumped from the boy's shoulders to the ground, grateful beyond words that she wasn't wearing a miniskirt on her costume, because she knew that Long John would have been looking up at her crotch. While not as bad as Peeper, LJ was a first-rate perv, perhaps taking lessons from the campus Peeping Tom. "There's somethin' like a storeroom on the left, and a broad hallway, it looks like there are two goons standing at parade rest by a side corridor I could see a little ways down. And there's a large open archway into what looks like the main bakery work area. The suits standin' there might be guards."
"Ah think that side corridor is where our hostage is."
"So we rush a door to get in?" Long John suggested, "And over-power the guards?"
"Not bulletproof, remember?" the girl said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. The two started when a truck horn sounded, and they looked up at a large delivery truck paused in the street, waiting for them to move aside so it could continue. "Hey," Alicia said, grinning suddenly. "Ah have an idea. Can you drive a truck?"
The truck backed up to the loading dock, lurching awkwardly, and LJ, clad in the too-large, 'borrowed' uniform of the delivery driver, clambered out of the cab. He walked toward the delivery door, noticing the panhandlers that looked a little too neat. Pausing to look at a clipboard he'd also liberated from the driver, he waited until both of the panhandlers approached him - which was perfect. Now shielded by the body of the truck, Headrush slipped from the passenger side of the cab and vaulted onto the loading dock itself, startling the two 'goons'. As one turned toward her, she activated a barrette, and the guy staggered, collapsing to his knees and hurling - or at least what ANTs simulated for hurling - at the optical sensory disorientation.
The other panhandler reacted a moment later, moving to push LJ aside to get to the intruder. LJ simply tripped him, and as he went down, grasped an arm and twisted it painfully behind the goon, a knee placed strategically in the small of his back as he rode the goon to the ground, using his additional mass to increase the force of the impact on the concrete. Having smashed his head against the loading dock, the goon didn't move.
Meanwhile, Alicia extracted a tactical baton from a pouch on her leg, swinging it expertly onto the base of the nauseated thug's skull, which caused him to collapse ungracefully to the ground as well.
"Okay, two down. But there are at least the two guards inside," Alicia noted.
"So what are we going to do?" LJ whined. "They'll see us coming if we try to rush them."
"I've got an idea," Headrush said, a wicked grin spreading over her face. She turned to the truck and opened the back, revealing a hand truck and several small barrels, probably containing flour or sugar or other baking supplies. "Help me with this," she ordered as she tackled one of the barrels. Dumping its contents on the floor of the truck, she set it upright.
Looking warily at the girl, even though he understood the plan, LJ helped Alicia squeeze herself into the cramped barrel, and then LJ set the lid on top. At least he didn't seal it, which would have been bad because she had a tiny touch of claustrophobia.
With the barrel on the hand truck and the goons safely dumped over the edge of the loading dock so they couldn't be seen from the door, LJ knocked loudly. A moment later, it opened, and the man in cooking attire nodded at him. "You're late," the man said simply. Without further word, he led the boy down the broad hallway to a plain door. "Put the supplies here," the man ordered before turning brusquely away and going back to his work station.
Once inside the store-room, Alicia pushed up on the lid, catching it so it didn't clatter, and clumsily crawled out of the barrel, covered in flour dust, while LJ sidled up to the open door and scanned down the hallway. They had to get to the short corridor where they thought the hostage was being held without alerting anyone. "Now what?"
Alicia's mind raced. "Go into the bake room and ask a couple of them for help," she commanded. With a dubious look on his face, the boy did as she ordered, and moments later, two of the baking staff were unconscious on the floor courtesy of Alicia's power - with a tap from her baton to make sure they stayed down. As she started to undress one of the bakers, she ordered LJ, "Get out of that uniform and into baker's clothes.
The two kids, now disguised as sloppy cook staff in their ill-fitting clothes, strolled casually out of the storeroom, or as casually as their tense nerves would allow. "Act like we're goin' on break or somethin'," Headrush whispered insistently to LJ. "Act confident, like you own the place and know what you're doin'." No-one in the bake room to the side noticed as they strolled down the hall, trying to be casual even though their nerves were jangled.
"Where are you going?" one of the two suit-clad goons challenged them as they walked down the short hallway.
"We need more cinnamon," Alicia said confidently, while LJ nodded nervously.
The one goon looked at his partner, confused, which gave the two teens enough time to act. Headrush tripped her barrettes, and the two goons fell to their knees, dazed and vomiting. A couple of 'love taps' with her truncheon and the two were in the land of nod. With LJ watching their backs, Alicia pressed her ear to the door.
"At least two people inside," she whispered.
"How do we do this one?"
"Ah'm gonna focus mah power, so y'all might wanna step back a bit," she said. Facing the door, she took a deep breath and concentrated. A few seconds later, there were a couple of soft thuds from behind the door. "Okay, let's go." She grasped the door handle.
"Okay," LJ said, joining her, wobbling a bit. "You need to learn to focus your power more," he suggested in a whisper. "I'm a little lightheaded."
"Sorry," Alicia winced. She yanked the door open and burst into the room, followed closely by the boy.
Two goons were prone on the floor, no doubt victims of her power. A hostage slumped in the chair to which he was tied, while a third goon staggered, fighting the effects of being completely dazed by Headrush's power. On the other side of the room, however, a man in a crisp, designer suit sat, glaring at the two as he pulled a gun from beneath his coat.
Headrush grasped the arm of the woozy guard, flipping him neatly over her hip, while LJ used his stretching power to knock the gun to one side even as the boss pulled the trigger, sending a bullet harmlessly into the wall. The boom, though, echoed painfully through the room. "There goes the element of surprise," Alicia said dryly as she face-kicked the goon she'd flipped and who had rolled to his knees to stand again.
LJ dashed across the room, his outstretched arm holding the gun away from him and Alicia, and grappled the 'boss'. The man, however, was much stronger than he looked, and slowly, he began to pry the boy's arms from around him.
Seeing her partner in trouble, Alicia took a couple of steps across the room and then delivered a combination of punches and a high kick to the boss, who seemed mostly unfazed, but it distracted him enough that LJ got free. The boy wasn't stupid, even though he sometimes displayed an astonishing lack of common sense and decorum; he lashed out at the boss with a vicious side kick to the guy's knee, making him collapse to the floor. Once more, the handy truncheon administered the coup de grace. "Let's get the hostage untied and get the hell out of here!" Alicia insisted. "Before the reinforcements arrive." She bent down and retrieved the boss' gun while LJ untied the unconscious hostage and flipped him over his shoulder.
The two dashed down the main hallway toward their exit, but that path was suddenly blocked by two more thugs in suits - the ones from the front door who were reacting to the gunshot. As one drew his own, Alicia grabbed LJ and tugged him into the main bakery room, where the sound of the gunshot had caused a lot of consternation. Most of the bakers were staring at the doorway. Alicia looked behind her, to where the goons were following her, leveled the pistol, and shot at one; all the years in the backwaters of the Louisiana bayous hunting critters paid off; the first goon went down like a wet sack of cement. She swung the gun toward the second, pulling the trigger, but the gun misfired. "Run!" she barked to LJ. "Find another way out of here!" She focused her power on the onrushing goon, and he staggered a little bit.
The surviving front guard and the two who'd been only dazed in the hostage room crashed into the bake room, one with his pistol drawn. It took him milliseconds to spot the trouble, and his aim swung toward LJ, who was dodging between tables of bakers with the hostage. And Alicia's gun had jammed!
Desperate, having been drilled on distracting a gunman, Headrush picked up the nearest object and hurled it at the goon. Her aim was dead-on; a chocolate cream pie hit the goon in the face with a huge splat. He shot a couple of more times, the bullets going wild because of the pie in his face, and then his gun clicked empty; without a gun, he picked up the nearest object to retaliate against the girl, and he hurled the pie at her.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on point of view, Headrush ducked, and the pie smacked into the face of one of the goons from the hostage room who had circled and was charging at the girl from behind.
Disorientated and unable to see, the goon stumbled forward, right past Alicia crouching behind a work table, and he crashed on the table, right on top of a couple more pies.
One of the bakers, hit with splatter from one of the pies, screamed in rage at his work being destroyed, and he picked up a pie, intending to throw it forcefully at the front-door goon. Unfortunately for him, a colleague tried to intervene and grasped the baker's left arm, which resulted in the baker spinning as he released the pie; it sailed across the room right into the side of the face of another of the bake staff.
The next thing Headrush and LJ knew, the room was full of flying pies; the bakers retaliating for being hit and the goons trying to duck, which resulted in more pies hitting and aggravating more bakers, and another couple of goons throwing pies toward the two kids, who'd rejoined forces.
"There's a door! Let's get out of here!" Headrush said insistently. She saw movement from the corner of her eye, and quickly, she side-stepped the flying pie. As a result, it hit Long John square in the face. With meringue and custard-like filling splattered all over his face and cowl, the boy was a comical sight, and Headrush started to laugh. Annoyed at the cackling girl having a chuckle at his expense, Long John grabbed a pie and swung his arm toward the girl.
Headrush ducked, and the pie hit another of the goons from the hostage-room right in his face. She gawked at him, and then extracted her truncheon and gave the henchman a solid whack on the back of his neck. Satisfied, she smugly turned back toward Long John - and right into a pie that one of the angry bakers had hurled at the pair of kids. This time, it was the boy's turn to laugh.
"Shut up and let's get out of here!" she growled. With pies flying everywhere behind them, making a total mess of the floor, the goons, and the cook staff, the two kids ducked a few pastry projectiles as they dashed out the door, even though they were already messy from the pies that had hit them and the splatter from near misses.
As soon as they got through the doors, the air horn sounded, and Long John started to grin, and then to laugh aloud. "We won!" he cried happily. "We beat it!"
"Yup," Headrush agreed, but her expression was less than joyful. "Oh, by the way," she began, one arm behind her back and glaring at her 'partner'.
"You remember when you were harassin' mah friend Kayda in martial arts?" she queried the boy.
"But ... but ... I apologized!" the boy stammered, dropping the inert hostage to the ground.
"Yeah," Headrush said with a frown, "but Ah don't think you were really sorry." And with that, the pie she'd held behind her back swung out, splattering squarely on Long John's face.
Friday, June 1, 2007 - Morning
Locker Room, Arena 99, Whateley Academy
"I'm a damned mess!" Alicia exclaimed softly as she looked at herself in a mirror.
Her roommate Addy grinned and swiped a finger along Alicia's neck, scooping up some pie filling and meringue, then ate it. "Not bad," she said with a smirk.
"That's 'cause you're not wearin' it!" Alicia countered. She slowly began to peel her costume off, wincing at the amount of pastry cream and such splattered all over her - including in her hair.
"How did you do?" Addy asked.
"Ah got B plus," Alicia said, half-grumbling.
"Only a B plus?" Addy gawked. "What did Long John get?"
A scowl flashed onto the Cajun girl's features. "He got an A-minus," she muttered angrily.
"'E got an A? That is so unfair! It was your plan, not that misogynistic idiot's! If it 'adn't been for you, 'e would have probably failed!"
Alicia winced. "Ah know," she said, nodding slightly. "Ah argued with Gunny and Sensei about it, but they were a bit upset with me."
"Why would they be upset? It was a good plan, and you won."
"They weren't happy that Ah hit Long John in the face with a pie at the end," Alicia said with a sigh. "Even though Ah explained why Ah did it."
"Why did you 'it 'im with the pastry?" Addy asked, her curiosity piqued when Alicia reminded her of the post-fight pie-splat. "Which, by the way, was a very popular action, based on the crowd's response!"
"Like Ah told Ito and Gunny," Alicia drawled, "Ah did it cuz of all the times he was coppin' feels in martial arts. And for what he tried to do to Kayda."
"Well, every girl was applauding very enthusiastically when you 'it 'im," Addy retorted.
Alicia pointed to her phone, sitting on her purse on a bench. "Yeah, Ah know. Ah've already had six text messages telling me one girl or another was goin' t' buy me pizza or lunch in Dunwich, or candy, or stuff like that!"
Friday, June 1, 2007 - Morning
Room 216, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
The door opened with a crash, catching Ayla and Charge in the middle of a prolonged and rather intense kiss, with one of each of their hands exploring the other's breasts. Both flinched like kids caught with their hand in a cookie jar as Toni and Fey charged in with sour expressions, and Fey's eyes burned with anger. "What did you do, Ayla?" Fey demanded.
Ayla winced. "What did I do when?" he asked for a bit of clarification.
"Jade is going on and on about how someone bet on her to win and 'donated' the money to her student account!" Fey explained rather sharply.
"So natch we figured it was you, Ayles," Toni accused, eyes equally furious.
"So one of 'er friends gives 'er a little present," Addy said, not quite understanding the girls' concern and rising to the defense of her boyfriend. "Is that so bad a thing?"
"It wasn't a 'little' present," Toni scowled. "It was more like a hundred sixty thousand!"
Adalie's eyes bulged at the figure, but Ayla looked quite nonplussed, which lent credence to the charge from the two girls that he'd done something.
"I just bet a couple thousand of change," Ayla protested, knowing that the two Kimbas were probably not going to buy such an excuse, "and my executive assistant at AJG was supposed to trickle the money into her account a little bit at a time." Ayla frowned. "How did Jade find out, anyway?"
"Girl had to get a few things for her latest devise," Toni said, staring warily at Charge. "But she wasn't sure if she had enough money, so she checked her account when she got to the bookstore."
"Is she upset?" Ayla asked, a bit worried.
"Upset ain't the word, Ayles," Toni said with a frown. "She told them to send it back, but they couldn't because there's no trace of where the money came from."
"Ayla, you know how Jade feels about taking gifts," Fey said reprovingly. "She needs to feel like she's earning her way."
"Can you not tell 'er that 'er friends secretly took up a collection to wager on 'er winning?" Adalie suggested.
Fey and Toni shook their heads at the same time. "Won't work. And you know why, Ayles, don't you?" Without saying anything to betray their friend's secrets and powers, Toni reminded Ayla that the J-team could read people's auras and would be able to tell when they were lying if she confronted them.
"I suppose you could tell her it's an advance to cover expenses for security and executive assistant duties starting this summer," Fey suggested after a long, awkward pause. "Just like your spring-break trip."
"Or I could tell her that the wager was her advance, which I invested because I knew she was going to win, and it paid better than I'd hoped ..." Ayla countered.
Adalie's eyes bulged noticeably, and her face bore an expression of shock and horror. "Are you suggesting ... that she come with us ... to France?"
"It would make her feel like she's earning the money," Fey noted with one eyebrow cocked over a neutral almost-frown, a look that was obviously learned from her mother, as it inspired a little extra guilt in Ayla.
Ayla sighed heavily, pausing to look at his girlfriend, who had a rather perplexed look on her face. "I suppose I can pay her as a security and executive assistant," he said slowly.
"France is not ready for Generator," Toni deadpanned. "If you take her, they might consider it an act of war!"
"I'd rather have France at war with me than Jade," Ayla said with a grim expression. "Okay, we'll do it that way." He turned to Adalie. "Just be ready for any kind of insanity on the trip, okay?"
"You mean crazier than all the things you 'ave done?"
"Compared to Jade," Toni roared with laughter, "we're all totally sane!"
Friday, June 1, 2007 - Mid Afternoon
Arena 99 Grandstands, Whateley Academy
Harley "Reach" Sawyer was a big fan of numbers, now that her brain was up to the task of higher mathematics. There was an honesty to them, a simple element of truth in the way they worked out. Sure, a guy could twist them this way and that to prove most anything, but if one had the persistence to work through the Gordian knot and see the whole set, the numbers would always tell the truth, and then one would have the mystery or the equation solved. Her new-found facility with numbers had really helped over the past term, but it might not in this exact moment.
It was the fourth day of the Whateley Spring Term Combat Finals, and her number was up.
The notification beeped on her phone, a second before it got passed on to the HUD of her glasses. -Report for final-, followed by the code-number of her partner-slash-competitor for this fun little diversion. Frowning, Reach began to type frantically on her phone, accessing a site which the Spy Kids knew had the combat finals data - although they were still working to figure out from whence it had come. "Merde!" the athletic brunette gulped, hard.
"Qui est-ce?" her girlfriend asked. Geneviève "Spark" Etincelle, Jenny to her friends, looked up at the big display over Arena 99. The blonde girl was a devisor -- creator of the sometimes impossible, as well as a bombshell in every sense of the word -- and had been Reach's one-and-only for six months and counting. A lot of things had happened in that time, starting with Harlan's involuntary transformation into Harley, but they'd made their peace early on. And, Reach had to admit, life was better for her now - with the side benefit that unexpected shifts back to Harlan were very, very rare.
"C'est Razorback. Tu sais, le dinosaure vivant?" One more plus was that she learned much faster now, and six months was more than enough to learn her girlfriend's langue maternelle.
"Hey! Enough of the Frenchy-talk!" snarked Holdout. The members of the Intelligence Cadet Corps -- NOT the "Spy Kidz," no matter what the rest of the school said -- were gathered in that section of the stands, along with various friends and classmates. Most of them had done their combat final already, to varying degrees of success. Ace had, of course, aced his, while Kew and Rez had somehow squeaked by in spite of the idiocy of their respective partners in the exercise. A-plus and Holdout still had to do their finals.
"You know who you've got?" Ace asked quietly.
Jenny's final had somehow ended in a massive explosion, which she declared to be not her fault at all. Seeing as she'd been paired with Harlan's old roommate Glitch, Harley was inclined to believe her.
"They put me with Razorback," she announced, letting her Kentucky accent twang a bit.
"The raptor kid?" Kew squeaked. The little gizmo goddess shook her head. "I know Jericho down in the labs always stands by him, but still...."
"Better you than me," Ace said, clapping Harley on the back. "Go show old scaley-butt what for!"
"Should I tell Kaiju you said that?" Reach teased, just to see his reaction. It was more than worth it.
"You had better get going," said Jenny. "Oh, et je te dis merde, mon coeur."
Reach grinned, kissed her on the cheek, and left without saying merci. It was up to Jenny to explain to everyone else why she'd just wished shit upon her girlfriend. Some things just did not translate well.
Tunnels Beneath Arena 99 Grandstands
It only took a few minutes to get down to the staging area, and even fewer if one was an elastic shifter like Reach and capable of really stretching one's legs. She didn't rush, though. The people running the finals expected a bit of lag between the official summons and the student's arrival, as the call could come in the middle of meals, study sessions, or illicit romantic encounters (because hey, exams are stressful). So far they hadn't had to hunt anyone down for playing hookie, at least.
The short walk was good for her nerves, and it let her check her equipment. Currently she was wearing Jenny's Mark IV body suit, composed of fullerene nanostructures aligned to Reach's personal PK field. On the plus side, it stretched and bent every way she could. On the minus side, it left little to the imagination, even with the equipment vest, utility belt, and short skirt. The catcalls had been annoying at first, but it was rather liberating once she got used to it. And with an exemplar body, Reach knew she had nothing to worry about in the looks department.
It was also highly resistant to kinetic force, heat, cold, electricity, acid, and quite a few other things, while holding some fun tricks in its structure. The vest and belt that went with it carried all of the holdouts she couldn't attach to the suit itself. The fullerene surface was slicker than goose shit, and no matter how tight she cinched the utility belt, she could shimmy out of it in a second.
"Hey, got a sec?" Someone was waiting in the corridor, making no attempt to hide. Not that it would have worked. That eye-watering combination of bright puce paisley on ultramarine was proof positive for most that Razorback's roommate Jericho really was blind. The chartreuse and periwinkle plus-fours clashed with themselves loud enough to wake an entire cemetery of fashionistas.
"What do you want?" Harley asked, suspicious. For all that the guy was officially listed in school records as blind -- and again, look upon that wardrobe and despair -- something had never added up right. She would bet good money that he had ways around his handicap.
"Just needed to pass something along." Jericho felt around in his pocket, then produced a small gadget. "You know about Jack, right?"
"Razorback, you mean?"
"Yeah. He means well, and he'd never want to, but ... if things get out of hand, you might need this. It's a --"
"A sonic disrupter, I know. The whole campus knows he's weak to sonics, and I already got some in my vest."
"Spark's work?" Reach nodded. "Well, not to say anything bad about your girl -- because really, her stuff down in the labs is awesome -- but I doubt she's had a chance to test it against Jack himself. The problem with those things is that you have to get them really well tuned, or you miss the sweet spot where he gets knocked out, and head right to the part where he gets even more pissed off, and then..." Jericho shrugged, sending the paisleys into a nausea-inducing dance. "Look, do it as a favor, okay? Mine are proven to take him down quick, and then he wakes up five to ten later with a headache and a ton of remorse. This final's supposed to be cooperative, after all, and I'd hate to see him end up doing something he'd really regret later."
Reach nodded sadly. "Okay then. Hope I don't gotta use this."
"Me neither." Jericho looked her straight in the face with those perfectly blank white orbs of his. "Anyway, don't let me keep you waiting. Jack's already in there." And with that, he took his awful ensemble away.
Razorback was just as hard to miss as his roommate, but for completely different reasons. Jericho always made an effort to be seen, but Razorback simply was. A six-foot-tall dinosaur with razor-sharp teeth and claws tended to grab one's attention. In the back of her head, Reach tried to assign a name to the species. Jack was way too small to be a T. Rex, and while everyone on campus called him a Velociraptor because of the Jurassic Park movies, he was much too big to be one of those, either. She'd just have to look this up later, now that her curiosity was piqued.
Whatever the species, it was safe to say most dinosaurs did not have opposable thumbs or wear specially designed vests to hold stuff. Razorback had swapped out his usual gear, which was about as heavy metal as one could get, for something in vaguely official blue with a jaunty basket mask over his head. The plume-like spines that ran down his back had been painted a similar color.
"Hello." The voice was creaky and metallic, and came from a little box hanging from Razorback's neck.
"Um, hello yourself." She hadn't known he could actually talk, but she tried hard to hide the surprise.
Not too well, it seemed. Razorback chuckled -- not through the voice box -- then raised his crest, waggled his eyebrows, and grinned a huge, toothy, oh-God!-that's-a-predator grin.
Reach was suddenly very, very happy she wouldn't have to fight him. Probably.
"Okay, you're both here. In good time, too. Thanks for not wasting our afternoons like some people." Sensei Tolman did not sound happy. Reach recognized that tone of voice quite well; old Harlan had heard it often enough from her last fall. Not so much this year, though. "So, you've probably heard the basics of the scenario by now. Cooperating is one of the options available to you. You may fight each other if you so desire, but most students who've had their finals wouldn't recommend it. Your objective is to locate a hostage, free them, and return them to the designated safe zone, which for this variation will be their home. You may use any means normally at your disposal to do this, though some options will obviously impact your grade negatively. Do you understand?"
"What was that, Razorback?"
"Yes, sensei." It shouldn't have been possible, but Jack managed to sound chagrined through his vocalizing gadget.
"Good. Your turn, Reynolds."
Lieutenant Reynolds was one of the Whateley Security officers, and was regularly put upon as the liaison to the Intelligence Cadet Corps. Reach didn't ask what he was doing here, since Security often helped run the simulations out of a mix of amusement and a sense of personal revenge towards the kids they'd been running after all semester. She could wonder, though.
"This way, you two," he said, walking towards the gate. "Since this scenario has more opportunity for role-play, I figured you might appreciate these." He handed them two name badges. The letters FBI were prominent on each. "Break a leg!"
She didn't say thank you to that either, but she did smile.
"Well, ladies, gentlemen, and assorted other! It looks like we're about to begin!" Peeper's voice rang out from the commentator booth. "And what a pairing we've got this time! Beauty and brains, scale and brawn! It's a true lady vs. dragon scenario this time, because it's Melville's own finest artificially remodeled femme fatale, Reach, versus that scowling scaly scoundrel of Twain, Razorback!"
"Um, Peeper, Razor's not really that bad --"
"Quiet, Greasy. Don't you remember the time he and that roommate of his hijacked our booth here? Now! Where was I ... Yes! Weighing in at one-hundred thirty-seven pounds of lithe, supple, and oh-so-flexible flesh, Reach has a lot going for her, but can her curvaceous wiles overcome three-hundred pounds of smelly, scaly lizard meat?"
"They don't have to fight each other on this one..."
"So? Surely they can feel that this is what the public wants: a titanic clash of monster and maiden, his claws raking at her, her suit ripping open, that beauteous body spilling out..."
"They don't HAVE to fight each other ..."
"Oh, yeah, right! You're not impressed by these battling beauties after you had your 'up close and personal' moment with Kaiju!"
"I did not ...."
"Yeah, right! Tell our fans all about how she looks in her costume with a few strategic tears and ...."
"Cutting to commercial!"
"Huh? Greasy, we don't --"
"Let's have some fun with this," Reynolds said once he'd returned to the control room. After spending most of the school year riding herd on the Spy Kidz -- because no one else in Security wanted to -- he'd looked forward to "helping" with all their combat finals. The humor was cathartic. "I know these two. Reach has aspirations of police-work, and Razor's got a reliably short fuse."
"Sounds like the makings of a buddy cop movie," one tech snarked. "You know, 'She's stretchy; he's a dino. Together, they fight crime!' and all that."
"Exactly." Reynolds laughed. "This should be interesting."
"So," Reach asked as they passed into Arena 99. "Work together, or separately?"
"Together. Better for both."
"My thought, too. Here," she said, pulling a tiny gadget from her vest. "This is synced to my comm unit. We need to... hm..." There wasn't a good way to attach it to the voice box, it seemed, and it really hadn't been designed with non-humanoid mastoid structures in mind. "We'll fix this to your mask. You'll be able to hear me, at least. One click for yes, two for no, okay?"
And then they were at the start point. Not one hundred yards away was a stereotypically suburban residence representing a slightly higher than average tax bracket. It was surrounded by police cruisers.
"Let's start this, then." With a nod to Razorback, they walked up to the nearest officer. The man was really an ANT, of course, but the techs had done a good job of making this one resemble an actual human being. His skin had a plastic sheen to it, but that was all. "Excuse me, officer. FBI. What's the situation?"
The faux cop took a look at their IDs, nodded, and began the scenario exposition: "Home invasion. Three perps, all mutant apparently. Still establishing motive, but the father had a panic button with a really loud siren. Perps escaped with one hostage before we arrived."
"A kidnapping, then."
"Yup. That's why we called you guys. Good thing you were nearby."
"Yeah, really. Can we speak with the family?" At her side, Razorback was sniffing the air. "You getting anything?" she asked.
"Maybe," the voice box rasped. "Give me a minute."
The officer ANT shrugged and led them across the line of police tape and into the house. The inside was a mess. One wall was simply missing, while half the windows in back had been shattered outwards. The only piece of furniture still upright was the sofa, and by the looks of it that was only because they needed a place for the witnesses to sit. A family unit of ANTs -- father, mother, and son -- were speaking with another officer. They all turned to look at the "FBI" agents as they entered.
"Fuck this!" the father shouted, jumping from the sofa. "You guys have a fuck-ton of nerve, sending a fucking monster at a time like this." A finger stabbed towards Razorback. "A bunch of your friends did this!"
"Maybe if you hadn't written all those nasty letters to the editor..." the mother began.
"Shut up, Margaret! They're animals, all of 'em, and now... now they got Pamela..." The father slumped back down onto the sofa and wept.
"Razor," Reach said quietly. "Hate to ask you this, but could you go check the perimeter, maybe get a better lock on the perps' scent with that nose of yours? Ain't gonna do us much good with you here."
Sigh. It looked like someone was trying to push some Real Life Lessons™ into this sim. With crest flattened and shoulders slumped, he made such a pathetic picture (for a three-hundred pound dinosaur) that she just had to hug him before he left.
Wiseass gave her butt a squeeze, waggled his eyebrows like Groucho Marx, then slipped out.
Reach turned back to the witnesses. "Okay. Details, quickly. As soon as my partner--" She stressed the word hard. "--finds something, we're going after them. No time to waste."
The officer gave a cursory description of the three perps, which she quickly typed into the arm-mounted computer pad of her suit. It was SOP to report in and see if anyone had anything on file, and it never hurt to ask...
"Are we going to reply to that?" a tech asked Reynolds.
"The instructions did say 'any means normally available,' and I think this counts," came the judgment from Reynolds. "Give her the basic info, but leave out those items marked in red, okay?"
Razorback chirped in right as she was done with her digital request. Found something, all right. What? She'd just have to ask him. "If you'd excuse me," she said to the ANT family.
"Please, bring back Pamela," the mother ANT pleaded.
"Don't let those fucking monsters hurt her!" shouted the father. "ANY of them."
Reach didn't have any illusions about what he was implying. "My partner and I are on the case, sir," she said with her brightest, fakest smile. "And THIS mutant doesn't know when to quit." She was out the door before he could respond.
"Razor, do you copy?"
"Wiseass. Hold position; I'll meet you there." Her computer beeped. "Got some info on the perps."
Three dossiers appeared on her HUD, and she skimmed them in a few quick seconds. Suspect #1: Ratface. Six foot eight, but surprisingly limber. Exemplar 6 rating on physical strength. Suspect #2: Glop. Either an amorphous shifter or a manifester with a bad case of MATD. Suspect #3: Squeaks. Basically the chiropteran version of Ratface. The details were few on the ground, and practically nothing was said of what the hell they could actually do, but it was more than they'd had.
She was rushing this time, using every trick she'd learned from her not-big-sister Zenith when it came to free-running, as well as a few that only a stretchy mutant could pull off right. Thirty seconds after she left through the front door, she was slingshotting herself over a fence to Razor's position. He and the first officer ANT were waiting by a drainage culvert. The grate had been ripped aside.
The sewers. How appropriate. She looked to her partner, and he nodded back.
"Better you than me," the officer said. "Gotta hurry, though."
"I know. Every hour passed reduces the odds that the abductee is alive."
The officer nodded. "That, and someone passed word up the grapevine, and the Knights just sent word that they're en route."
Reach swore. "ETA?"
"About half an hour, I'd say. Best of luck."
"Don't wish us luck," Reach said as she and Razorback went in. "Wish us shit, because we're deep in it."
In the past, Jenny's friend Adalie had made numerous comparisons between Harley and Inspector Javert, the infuriatingly stubborn police officer who stood as the antagonist of Les Misérables. She meant it as an insult, but Harley had seen it as a compliment of sorts. Javert never gave up, always got his man...
And he'd had a climactic scene in the Parisian sewers. Somehow it'd seemed more exciting in the movie.
Reach had her suit's hood up, thankful for the air filters Jenny had built into the thing. These weren't sanitation sewers -- thank God! -- but even rain sewers built up a godawful stench after a while. Her nose burned a bit from the acrid gases. She did NOT want to know how the techs simulated this!
She and Razor took it as slow as they dared. At every turn, she stretched a hand around and used the optic-fiber camera in her pinky to scout. A digital request for sewer schematics went unanswered.
Razor's nose made the difference, more often than not. It was hard to say just what he was picking up -- the perps, or the stuff kicked up in their passing -- but they were making progress.
Through it all, the clock was ticking. She'd started a timer on her HUD, counting down from 30:00, the instant the officer had mentioned the time limit. And a real limit it was, she knew. The people in charge of the sim wanted them to move, not dawdle.
"Gotta give 'em credit," Reynolds drawled. "They're clearing through the sewer maze faster than expected."
"Better than the last pair we put through there," Sensei Tolman agreed. This variation had only been used once so far, early on the very first day of finals. It had taken that long for the arena's self-repair systems to remove the obvious signs of napalm. "I'm curious to see what happens when they get there."
"This is the most boringest combat final ever!!"
"They can't all be flashy duels, Peeper."
"Seriously, Greasy! No fighting, no explosions, no wardrobe malfunctions, no robbing banks to pay ransoms! What do these two think they're doing!?"
"A serious attempt to save the hostage?"
"... shut up, Greasy."
Their ears located the hostage before their feet could. The girl's sobbing and wailing echoed down the tunnels, as did the vague growlings and grumblings of her kidnappers.
Reach swore and waved Razorback to a stop. Switching the lights on her visor to the UV spectrum, she crept up to the corner and snaked a long arm around. The corridor didn't open up for another twenty yards or so, and she was afraid she'd hit the limit of her reach before she found anything.
"I don't like this!" came a voice via her microphone. "We need to get moving!" It was high-pitched and nasal.
"Gloooooop!" This voice was thick and phlegmy.
"Nightfall ain't for a few more hours." The third voice was deeply bass, but with odd tones she'd never heard used in human speech. "I can fly us all out, but we need the cover of darkness to pull it off. And will you shut up!" Now the voice went shrill, like nails on a blackboard.
The girl's sobbing stopped for a few seconds, only to begin anew.
"You all right?" she whispered to Razor. The big lug had gone stiff for a moment.
"Yeah," he replied, once he'd dialed down the volume on his voice box. "Nasty noise, though."
The windows had all shattered outward, Reach recalled. Of course the witnesses hadn't volunteered the most important factoid... and she hadn't asked. Oh well, she'd have to assume this hunch was correct, because she'd hate to find out the hard way.
"Our third perp's a screamer," she whispered to Razor. "I'll go in first. Any objections?"
"Wiseass. Wait for the signal."
Jenny's suit was filled with all sorts of tricks. All one had to do on some of them was to think hard for a few seconds, and the gimmick would go. Right now, Reach was thinking of thick, cold fog. In response, the suit went into camouflage mode. It wasn't quite invisible, but when she spread herself flat against a wall, like only a stretchy mutant could do...
Well, it was still slow going, because speed ruined the effect. In her HUD, the timer clicked down past 12:00.
The three stooges were still talking -- arguing, really -- as she slid around the corner and into the lair. Dumb luck, sure, but she wasn't going to waste it. The room was large enough that it didn't feel too crowded with three large mutants, and they'd set up some lighting, but it was a far cry from the Ninja Turtles' pad.
Ratface was, if anything, larger than described, with a fuzzy physique to rival Bronco, Reach's opponent in last winter's combat final. Pamela was a bit behind him and to the left.
Glop was... accurately named. That one was gathered in a puddle near the far wall.
Squeaks was nearest to the entrance, and his ears swiveled this way and that. "You hear something?" he said in that deep bass voice.
"You said it, Glopster," Ratface agreed. "Prolly a rat. My little cousins are all over the place makin' noise. But if the cops were after us, they'd be blundering and splashing, and we'd hear it loud and clear."
"Dunno. Thought I heard clickin' like nails on brick."
"The kid's screamin's messed with your ears," Ratface asserted.
"Mebbe..." Squeaks squinted his eyes in the lamplight, looking at the section of wall that Reach was now plastered against. "Mebbe not..." The bat mutant opened his mouth wide to scream --
And Reach put a fist right through his nose. Lots of screaming happened, just not the sort Squeaks had intended.
"Move it!" Jack's head went up as the Melville girl's voice echoed down the corridor in stereo with the comm unit. Awright! He hadn't minded playing second fiddle to this investigation -- so far -- but now it was time to have some fun.
His body was built for speed, and it felt soooo good to let it out. The words hadn't finished bouncing off the walls by the time he was in the lair, blinking in the lights, and taking in the scene.
Reach, sweetie that she was, had Squeaks all tied up with her arms and legs, in what looked like a really complicated sleeper hold. Her hands were firmly planted across the bat's mouth.
Jack barely slowed down, barreling straight into Ratface. The mutant wasn't ready for one hundred thirty kilograms of dinosaur -- but then again, who was? Claws scratched at the be-whiskered face, and taloned feet bounced up and down as Jack jumped on the villain's belly.
Ratface howled with rage, and Jack screamed back. Then he pulled a spray can from his little vest and hit the villain with knockout gas. There were benefits to having a devisor roommate. The stuff diffused quickly, but a close-up spray could knock him out. Ratface didn't stand a chance.
That left Glop. The vaguely humanoid mound of muck was slow on the uptake, and hadn't budged an inch so far. Jack obliged with a swift kick to Glop's midsection.
His talons sliced right through, and the cuts melted back together without a trace.
He clawed at that lumpy, melted face with similar success.
Okay... Jack's crest raised in surprise. It was like slicing at Jell-O, and he didn't mean the girl in the sophomore class. As a test, he slammed his tail upside the thing's head, knocking it clean off. Glop's surprised face flew through the air, to splat against the nearest wall and slide down. It immediately oozed back towards the parent body.
"Gloooooop!" It sounded pissed, too.
"I don't think it's a mutant," Reach said. Behind her, Squeaks was down for the count, and now she was cradling a sniffling Pamela in her arms. "Maybe a devisor's creation, or..."
"... or maybe we should get going. Now."
Jack did not need any persuasion. Glop was expanding, engulfing Ratface's unconscious body and ... he really didn't want to stick around to see. There was an exit in the rear, presumably the one the perps would've used that night, and they wasted no time climbing up and out.
"So, how would you rate that fight, Peeper?"
"Meh. Over too fast, and nobody's top got ripped off."
"They can't all be Heartbreaker fights."
"Yeah, I know..."
Arena 99 encompassed a microcosm of a city, which included its own compact version of Central Park. Reach, Razorback, and Pamela had just come up through a maintenance shaft.
The ANT girl was a little doll, in almost every sense: rosy red cheeks, sandy blonde curls, and a blue gingham dress. The only thing she lacked was an off switch for her mouth.
"Oh! Oh! That was so awesome! He went Rah! and you went Grah! and then you whacked him, and I thought Wow! dinosaur! because you are a dinosaur, aren't you? 'cause I always wanted to see a real dinosaur but Daddy never has time to take me to the Museum but have you seen the dinosaurs there I bet you have 'cause they gots T. Rex and Diplodocus and Shantaosaurus and Interceptor and Utahraptor and I bet that last one's your cousin or your brother or something 'cause you really look a lot like the model except you don't really have feathers why don't you have feathers?"
"I'm ... sorry?" Razorback said. His voice box sounded confused.
"Okay," Reynolds asked. "Who's responsible for this one?"
The tech on the far end grinned. "They said they needed a new personality model for that age group, so I sat my daughter in front of a microphone and let her chatter on for a few hours. She's seven and obsessed with dinosaurs."
Reynolds chuckled. "Faithfully reproduced here?"
"Oh yeah. Think the administration would mind if I hired Razorback to work her next birthday party?"
"We really need to get you back to your mommy and daddy now," Reach had to tell the girl.
"Aww..." Pamela was still glomped to Razor's neck.
"I know, I know, but we have to hurry..." The timer on her HUD was reading 4:00 now. "They're worried about you."
The ground shook, and the lid blasted off of the nearest manhole cover. A burst of fetid gas followed, and a voice like an infernal belch welled up: "GLOOOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOP!"
"On second thought... Pamela, sweetie? Would you like to ride a dinosaur?"
"Sorry, wiseass. You're the speedster. Get her home." She knew he could do it. He'd been giving rides to his little brother and everyone else's little brother last Parents Day, after all. As Glop squeezed and squelched up through the sewer manholes, she hoped he was fast enough. Her timer had 2:25 left on it.
"Is this more like you wanted, Peeper?"
"Maiden versus monster? You bet!"
One of Reach's biggest advantages in a fight -- aside from her reach -- was how her body could take kinetic impact. She instinctively reacted by becoming stretchy or rubbery, and the punches just bounced off. The suit increased the defense and slipperiness by a large factor, but she was pretty tough all by herself.
She wasn't used to having an opponent with similar qualities.
Glop sent pseudopods crashing into the ground like spears, and if she tried to punch at them, they wobbled like jelly. Whatever it was made of, it was selectively hard or soft, not to mention very, very slick. The ground was covered in dozens of snotty little puddles ready to trip her up.
What she needed was fire, or energy weapons, and those she did not carry. So instead, she uprooted a tree and slammed its trunk straight through the center of Glop's mass. Perhaps it had a central core or something...
It stared at the makeshift impalement like it was a splinter, then quickly digested it.
But before it could rise up again, ruby red beams of energy lanced through it. Where they passed, Glop's material turned grey and brittle. A few more blasts, and it was immobilized.
"Thank goodness," she muttered, but then revised that opinion. Her Hud was flashing 0:00, and above her a Knight of Purity power armor hovered.
"Threat 1 neutralized." The voice on the communicator could've been discussing the weather. "FBI agent identified. Moving to intercept Threat 2."
"Wait a minute, what Threat 2?" she demanded. "That was the last kidnapper!"
"Negative, miss. Our cameras confirmed that one last perpetrator fled the scene here with the victim. No worries; we'll get it for you. Your bosses can thank us later." She knew the voice was a simulation, but damn if it didn't sound smug.
"One last... you morons! That's my partner!" But the Knight hadn't stayed long enough to listen. "Shit, shit, shit! Razorback!" she yelled into the comm. "You've got company!"
Jack almost got the warning too late. Her voice reached his ears a scant second before the whine of the KoP suit engines did. His feet leapt for him, taking him in a zig-zag pattern instinctively. It slowed him down a bit, but the three craters in his wake were proof that the KoP was using the heavy guns here.
Crap, crap, crap... Normally when he was up against the wall like this, he'd just let go, let the anger out and let it shred everything. He could feel it building up in the back of his head, and his vision was already tinged scarlet.
On his back, Pamela was screaming. She may be an ANT, but what did it matter? Jack was a big brother, and this was just the sort of situation that could come up some day while he was playing at home.
He'd done a lot of bloody awful things while in the grip of a rage episode, a lot of things he regretted, but he'd never hurt his baby brother. That was one fact that had helped keep him sane through the worst of it. In his head, all fogged up with rage hormones as it was, here was a simple connection forged: Pamela = little brother.
When the rage burst forth, it had to go somewhere. His last conscious thoughts were to push it in the direction of the ANT girl's house.
Nobody could run like a stretchy mutant. Reach wasn't a speedster, not even on a purely physical level like Razorback, but when one's stride ate up six yards at a step, one didn't need to be. Her HUD had Razor's comm signal on the tracker, but she really just needed to follow the trail of destruction. The Knights never were known for their subtlety or concern for collateral damage.
She caught up with them less than a block from Pamela's house. The Knights had her partner bottled up in an empty lot. Pamela was no longer on his back, but she wasn't hurt, either. The little girl was huddled up behind Razorback, obviously scared of the big, scary, flying robots. Razor had his head low, his teeth bared, and his crest flared out as much as possible as he faced the KoP like an angry mother hen.
"Razor! Razor! Do you copy?"
The response was a roar. Not even a click from the wiseass, this time; there was only primal rage in there.
"Stand down!" she yelled at the Knight. "This is an FBI investigation that you're fucking up right now!"
"Way I see it," came that smug voice, "we got a dangerous mutant holding a poor little girl captive."
"For the love of..." She launched herself off the sidewalk, swung around a telephone pole for momentum, bounced off the nearest building, and hit the KoP suit just in time to throw its aim off. It torched a tree instead. "I told you, I have this!"
She landed right in front of Razor, who snarled ferally. This would've been monumentally stupid, only she had Jericho's sonic disrupter ready in her hand. Damn, that thing was loud. Her hood protected her, but he hit the dirt hard. Pamela was screaming again, with her hands over her ears.
"Sh... it's okay. You're safe, and he'll be all right in five or ten minutes, promise," she said as she hugged the girl tight. "As for you..." She raised her voice and turned to the Knight. Flashing her "FBI" badge, she said, "You do not have jurisdiction here. I'm taking them both into my custody as of now, and your superiors will be hearing from mine, understood?"
"Whatever you say, darlin'." The KoP suit lifted off. "Just, be more careful with your partners in the future. Hate to see something ... unfortunate ... happen."
Reach didn't take her eyes off the interloper until the suit was completely out of sight. Then she cradled the girl in one arm, lifted all three hundred pounds of Razorback under the other, and walked them home.
Arena 99 Tunnels Outside Briefing Room
Razorback was up on his feet seven minutes after the KO, much embarrassed and desperately relieved to hear that he had not in fact shredded little Pamela while his conscious mind was on holiday. Twenty minutes later, the two of them stepped out of the arena's debriefing room. Sensei Tolman's post-mortem of the final had been brief but very thorough, and Lieutenant Reynolds' own comments had been very on the mark. Harley stored them all in her mental notebook for future pondering and consideration.
"Yo, mi dinomigo! How ya feeling?" Jericho was right there to meet them when they let out -- or there to meet Jack, at least.
"Ô! 'Arley!" And then Reach's own fanbase arrived. Jenny launched herself straight at her girlfriend and landed with an explosive hug. "C'était incroyable, ça! Contre le chauve-souris, et ce monstre exécrable, et même le KoP!"
"She was on edge the entire time, dude," Holdout said, nudging Harley in the ribs with his best you-lucky-guy/gal wink.
"Je craignais que ton partenaire pourrait te blesser, aussi," Jenny whispered against Harley's chest.
"Hey, some of us are passing French this year," Jericho griped. "So don't go badmouthing people just because you think they can't understand."
"Ô! I am sorry, Jericho, Razorback. I did not mean to, but..."
"I am a big, scary dinosaur." Jack's voice box was now set to 'snarky'. "Rar, rar, rar," he added, again through the voice box. It was nowhere near as intimidating as his real growl.
"Euh, oui... Je suppose..."
Harley kissed her on the forehead. "Nothing to worry about, darlin'. Me and Jack got along great. Ain't that right?"
The dinosaur considered for a moment, then spread his crest wide and shrugged. "Crrik?"
"Wiseass." It was worth a round of laughter at least, and once it had quieted down, she continued: "Anyway, see you next weekend, right?"
"What's all this about?" Jericho asked.
"Oh, not much. We were just asked to work at a party next Saturday. Crazy, right?"
"Wiseass," said Jericho, swatting his roommate on the noggin.
"Aw, jealous?" Rez said. "I'm sure you could tag along. Every party needs a clown, right?"
"And you've got the outfit already!" added Holdout.
They cleared out of the hallway to a mixed soundtrack of laughter and grumbling. All in all, Harley figured that it hadn't been a bad day. School was supposed to teach one stuff, and she felt they'd all learned a bit. And they'd both gotten A's. Still, she thought as she walked arm-in-arm with her girlfriend, she was more than ready for the semester to end. She and her Aunt Connie had plans to visit Paris that that summer, for example.
Yes, things were really looking good.
Saturday, June 2, 2007 - Mid Afternoon
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Have you got anything?" Sam poked her head into the office where Kayda and Ayla were working on the data Sam had provided.
Ayla turned and stretched. "Nothing statistically significant so far," he reported.
"You can't find any correlation among the different data sets?" Sam asked, wincing at the thought that her best lead might have evaporated.
"Let me show you," the Lakota girl said, turning the computer monitor so Sam would be able to see. "Look at this," she said, pointing to a bar chart; each cluster of vertical bars had the name of a major casino or gambling facility under it. "See, there's nothing significant," Kayda said wearily.
"Kayda did cross-correlations between each of the bookies and each of the casinos, too," Ayla added.
"What about these two?" Sam asked, one eyebrow cocked as she pointed at a couple of bars that were a little higher than the others.
"Anomalous? Slightly. But not statistically significant," Kayda stated matter-of-factly.
"That's the same bookie, if I read this right. Who?"
"Who do you think it is?" Ayla turned the question around.
Sam frowned. "I suppose that's fairer than me trying to put a bookie's name on a data point. From what I've seen, the one that seems to be doing best is Memo."
Ayla shook his head. "If I were to guess based purely on what I've learned through the bookies, these sets of bars," he pointed to the two higher ones, "are Booker's."
Sam frowned. "Booker? Not Memo? Are you sure?"
Kayda nodded her agreement. "Yeah, those are from the data you collected on Booker."
"My deduction is based on purely on who's asked for backing," Ayla explained further. "Memo has had a few really bad bets. Except for the surprise on Lanie's final, Booker is the most consistently successful of all the bookies in these finals. Not spectacularly, so he doesn't stand out, but consistently successful."
"That's interesting." Sam looked off at the trees for a moment. "Do you suppose if it is Booker, that he's thrown a few to keep a low profile?"
Ayla shook his head. "I'm not going to speculate about something I have no data on," he admitted honestly. "But those lines are Booker's correlations."
"Don't forget that they're very weak correlations," Kayda added before fiddling with the keyboard. "Now here's a different view - correlations among the odds offered by the casinos."
Sam studied the display, and whistled without realizing it. "Yeah," Kayda agreed. "Everything looks reasonably weakly correlated, especially when you see how tight the spread is on the odds, but these two ...." she pointed to two very high data bars. "These two are very highly correlated."
Sam frowned. "Just a sec." she seemed to zone out for a few moments. "Got some data from my ... sources."
"Blue and Cyberkitty," Ayla interjected with a wry smile.
"My sources have data they've ... obtained ... from the casinos," Sam didn't acknowledge Ayla's speculation. "These two are a quarter to a half percentage point higher in their earnings on all the betting so far."
"That sounds like they got some inside data, then," Ayla answered, frowning. "Those are huge margin differences in the gambling industry."
"I think this is convincing enough for Mrs. Carson to talk to the Trustees so they can ... apply pressure where needed." Sam thought a moment. "Why don't you two take a break? You've been on this for quite a while, and you do have studying to do. We'll take another look at the data when we get some upperclassmen finals next week." As the two walked out the door, Sam called after them. "By the way, if you do happen to hear anything ...." No doubt the comment was directed at Ayla, not Kayda.
"I know your number," Ayla said with a nod. "And you can trust me to bring to your attention anything which could impact student safety."
"Thanks," Sam replied. "I wish more students had your sense of priorities."
After Kayda and Ayla shut the door behind themselves, Sam picked up the phone and dialed a number. "Amelia?"
"Do you have something?" the assistant headmistress asked without bothering with formalities.
"Maybe. The statistical analysis Ayla and Kayda did produced nothing solid. Not more than hunches, anyway. But I got inside information about the bookies."
"We can't prove anything about outside contact," Sam cautioned.
"You might want to track any activity on the network and ID tracer for the past few weeks associated with Booker."
"That explains a lot!"
"Excuse me?" Sam asked, perplexed by Hartford's unusual reaction.
"I'm working on an analysis of network traffic, especially during the cell phone outages," Hartford replied enigmatically, "and a certain ID shows up quite a bit in a rather ... unusual traffic pattern."
Saturday, June 2, 2007 - Late Evening
Elevator to Devisor Tunnels, Whateley Academy
"Hold up, please!" Tweak called out toward the elevator. When she saw the doors opening again, she quick-stepped into the lift, which had two gadgeteers already in it. "Thanks."
"No problem. Did you see Tennyo's final?" one of the two, Swordmaster, asked her as the doors closed again.
Tweak shook her head. "Nope."
"I didn't see it either. What happened?" Mechano Man complained.
"Tennyo lost. And you missed it? You owe me a hundred bucks, too!"
"Crap! I was doing detention. Now tell me what the hell happened, or I'm going to beat your ass down," Mechano Man growled.
"OK, chill. So the whole arena was set up like a mountain. They had to use cameras to show us anything. And there were crystals through the entire thing. Tennyo had to stop a bunch of nukes and save a general who had the codes for them."
"That wouldn't be a problem for her. I heard she already took down a mountain," Tweak observed cautiously. She couldn't help but be curious about the anime-girl's final.
"Yeah, that's what we all thought to. But as she went in she got hit by at least five RPG's. She shot her energy balls and we were all thinking she was going to blow them away when it was torn apart and the crystals just ate them up."
"What?!?" Mechano Man sputtered.
"Crystals?" Tweak asked, curiously. "That explains that ...." she said, her voice trailing off.
"Explains what?" Mechano Man and Swordmaster demanded simultaneously.
"Just ... Mr. Paulson was working with the power testing wonks for, well, since last fall, trying to come up with something to absorb her unique energy," Tweak explained. "I guess they figured out something."
"Anyway, she tried a couple of times as her clothes were getting shredded and the same thing happened," Swordmaster resumed his narrative.
"I hope one of you guys filmed it!" Mechano Man said sarcastically. "So what, she can just use her energy sword."
"Not this time, man. She made it and it looked like a strand of spaghetti getting sucked up by the crystals. Finally she started dodging and took out the soldiers with some martial arts. She could still make gravity her bitch and she swooped in like a hawk - even after taking a missile to the face - and she ripped them apart."
"Now that's what I'm talking about."
"But she took too long. By the time they were down, twenty more soldiers had come up. There were so many explosions and dust we couldn't see anything; we just heard what sounded like World War 3 going on. When she finally got through she was naked except for her metal bikini."
"And I missed that?!? Oh that geek is so dead for turning me in."
"Heh, it was sweet. So yeah, she started moving down the tunnel, leaving a trail of gore behind her."
"She was ripping people to shreds?"
"No. Well, yeah. She was beating and breaking anyone who got in her way, but the gore was all hers. She's got that scary-powerful regen, remember? Anyway, the bad guys were using rockets, claymores and grenades on her. Even with her regen, I don't know how she lived through that. But after fighting in the tunnels for ten minutes, she was so mad she was practically glowing. And she had started shooting people from a foot or two away, so even when the crystals grabbed the energy, it still completely fried the ANTs. Then she reached the final door."
"That had to be good."
"Oh yeah. There was a suit of power armor and they went at it hardcore. She was burning away the wires and trying to blast the joints by touching them, and it was slicing into her with plasma blades and tossing frag grenades like they were candy." Swordmaster chuckled. "She almost had it, when an alarm sounded and said there was two minutes left before the launch. She grabbed the suit's head and melted it between her hands. Then she ran for the door."
"She tried beating it down, tapping on the control panel, breaking the control panel, nothing worked. With thirty seconds left she went back to the door put her hands on it and lit up like the fourth of July. The crystals were eating her energy and she was still melting the door. The crystals were glowing and pulsing, some of them were cracking. And then..."
"What man?! Don't leave me hanging."
"Boom. The whole arena shook, and the mountain blew up. The force field almost shorted out and that was with Carson and Circe and Grimes helping reinforce it." The elevator stopped and the door opened to the main tunnel level.
"Damn! I missed that! Where the hell is that little underdog? His ass is mine!"
"Hey where's my money?" Swordmaster said sternly.
"You'll get it!" Mechano Man growled as he marched toward one of the general-purpose labs.
Tweak chuckled. "I'll have to watch the replay. It sounds like it was good."
"Yeah," Swordmaster replied. "I heard she got a C, too, because even though she failed, she found a way to use her power despite the handicap. But she got docked because she used brute force instead of trying to finesse things. There were two other entries to the launch center, she could have taken out the power armor and kept the armor-driver alive so he could have opened the door - she missed some obvious shortcuts."
"I don't think I would have bet on her," Tweak observed. "Anyway, got to work. Later." She turned down a side tunnel toward her private lab, leaving Swordmaster strolling down the main tunnel.
She sighed to herself as she shut her lab door behind her, taking time to set all the security locks and codes. She turned toward her workbench - and started.
"I take it you weren't expecting to see me?" Ms. Hartford said, sitting in Tweak's chair with the wicked grin of a cat that was playing with a mouse.
"Um, no," Tweak stammered; none of her various alarms had sounded to alert her to Ms. Hartford's entry. "Can ... Can I help you ...?"
Ms. Hartford put her finger across her lips to silence the girl, and then she tilted her head to one side to silently indicate that Tweak should follow her.
"I ...." Tweak started to say, but a threatening, silencing scowl from Ms. Hartford stilled her tongue.
The two walked out of the lab, up the emergency stairs, and out onto the campus grounds, but still Ms. Hartford said nothing. Finally, when Tweak thought she could take no more, the pair strode toward the parking lot.
"Get in," Hartford said simply to Tweak. Nervously, the girl looked at Hartford's BMW, and then, with an almost-audible gulp, climbed into the passenger seat. With nary a word, Hartford joined her in the car, and the two drove off campus, still silent.
"I think you'll find," Hartford said when they'd passed through the gates, "that the little recording device you have is rather ... inoperative right now."
Wide-eyed, Tweak stared at her a second, and then retrieved a micro-recorder from her student ID badge holder. She examined it, and then, still goggling at the surreal nature of what was happening, she looked slowly back up to Ms. Hartford.
"Sometimes, it can be very important that your work remain secret from prying eyes and listening ears, wouldn't you agree?"
"What ...?" Tweak's voice cracked from her nervousness.
"Let's just cut to the chase," Ms. Hartford said as she pulled off the road and put her car in 'park'. "You've had access to certain ... data ... that you shouldn't have been able to see, and you - and your partner - sold this data. Right?"
"But ...." Tweak's eyes were about to bug out of their sockets.
Ms. Hartford shook her head. "Don't bother trying to deny it. You aren't as good as you think you are about hiding your fingerprints," she chided the girl with a smile. "I'll admit that you're good, but you still left ... fingerprints. Now, let's have a little conversation about your future."
"But ..." Tweak stammered, "I ... I wasn't trying to .... I mean, it's not explicitly ...." She fought a losing battle against tears. "Please don't expel me!" she finally begged.
"Expel you?" Hartford asked, astonished at the girl's reaction. "Why on earth would I want to do that?" She gave a soft laugh. "I was talking about helping ensure your membership in a certain ... informal ... campus organization, and a possible job opportunity for you for the summer." The girl goggled at her as she tried to understand what Ms. Hartford was telling her. "Miss Fowler," Hartford continued, a little less formally, "I have certain ... friends ... who can always use someone with your skills, rough and unpolished as they may be."
"You're quite talented, but it's raw talent. With the right internship, you can polish those rough edges, which is what you want to do, isn't it?"
"But ... why?" Linda was totally confused.
Amelia Hartford looked at the girl with a gleam in her eye, a knowledge of the game of cat-and-mouse that went with cyber-crime. "Admit it, Linda," she practically purred, "you loved the feeling of danger, the adrenaline rush of trying to stay one step ahead of security, the tension of your data drops and pickups, didn't you?"
Linda flinched; Hartford had nailed precisely how she got a rush out of cracking the computer security and codes. "Um," she tried to sound nonchalant, but it was a losing effort because the Assistant Headmistress' words had stirred those exciting memories. "Um, yeah," she said, blushing more than she ever had when talking about sex. And Ms. Hartford's words suddenly caused her to realize something she'd never considered - she got at least as much of a thrill out of computer hacking as she ever had out of sex.
"Do you know who the advisor for the Masterminds is?"
"Uh, no," the girl replied uncertainly. "There is one?"
"Of course," Ms. Hartford replied with an enigmatic smile. "Regardless of the job opportunity, you'll get into the Masterminds, no questions asked."
Linda's eyes narrowed. Hartford was admitting something to her that wasn't public knowledge and could be used .... She started when she realized that Mrs. Carson probably already knew that. And a lot of others on campus probably did as well. "And?"
"All I want in return for helping you in the club and arranging the internship is for you to tell me exactly how you got the data. And to give me access to your data source, in case I might ever need it."
"Oh." Linda's head spun; this was not what she had expected.
"I'll provide some bullshit cover for how the data was leaked. All you have to do is agree to my terms, which includes checking with me on future deals, to ensure we don't accidentally compromise student security. I'll provide you with a discrete way of contacting me."
"Okay." Tweak's head was spinning; this was a dream opportunity, coming from the last place she'd expected, and under circumstances that made her quite vulnerable to ... coercion.
"And you will take the monitor off my computer," Hartford added, her countenance stern and unyielding.
"Yes, ma'am." Tweak sat, stunned into silence, with a million questions swirling through her brain. "Um, ma'am?" she finally asked hesitantly.
"Yes?" Hartford replied as she pulled off the road and began to turn around to drive back.
"Um, the betting ... off-campus, I mean," Tweak sputtered. "I ... don't know ... who ... the contact is."
Hartford smiled coyly. "But I do."
Tweak thought her eyes were going to bulge from their sockets. "You ... know? And you didn't ...?"
"Stop it?" Hartford gave a chuckle. "Do you know what percentage of the revenue from the wagering and pay-per-view ends up in our scholarship fund?"
"Linda," Hartford chided her like a mother scolding a child, "the world isn't all black and white. It takes money to run Whateley. Lots of money. If we can get that without endangering students, do you think we'd turn it down?"
"But ... all the precautions ...."
Hartford laughed aloud. "Some of the faculty still suffer from the delusion that they live in a black-and-white world, and they need the pretense that they're wearing the white hats. So every term, we go through this little charade where they get incensed about security leaks, and other staff members make sure that no critical data gets leaked to the gambling establishments. In exchange, Whateley gets a generous stipend."
Tweak sat in stunned silence for a moment. "But ... you didn't know we were stealing the data," she protested. "Or did you?"
"I knew someone would," Hartford said smugly. "It didn't take too long to figure out that it was you. And just in case you had failed, I had a backup plan to make sure Whateley got its cut."
Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Mid-Morning
Administration Conference Room, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"It was what?" Sam asked incredulously. Around the table, Liz, Franklin Delarose, and Mrs. Shugendo shared Sam's slack-jawed expression.
Amelia Hartford sat confidently. "There was a combination of debugging utilities in the operating system which are normally left on - to assist with tech support calls. All data from any program sits in main memory, and by invoking the utilities in an unusual sequence, it's trivial for someone to get into the computer and read everything in memory - if they knew where to look."
"Like ... a keystroke logger?" Mrs. Shugendo asked.
"More than that. If a person knew what he or she was doing, they could access the main memory of any affected computer - without having to install malware. If you ran a program on your computer and someone knew how to access the remote debugging tools, they could get to anything that came through memory, even if you never did anything through the keyboard. Print jobs, file transfers - you name it. If you did it on an affected computer, it could have been retrieved."
"You're sure of this?" Franklin said skeptically.
"I double and triple checked it, and ran it past some of my hacking class students. That's the only option I can find which explains how the computers were bugged without tripping any of the magic or electronic bug detectors. And how someone got access to files which were printed through my computer," Amelia said firmly.
"I had the IT department push a new load to all faculty and staff computers this morning disabling those particular debugging tools," Ms. Hartford replied. "And the new student load for next year will have selected debugging features disabled by default when the year starts."
Sam leaned back slightly, studying the people in the room for a few seconds. "If you're certain you plugged the leak ...."
"I plugged a leak," Amelia countered firmly, scowling and peering over the top of her glasses in a quite intimidating manner. "That's not to say we won't have more in the future. In fact, given circumstances, I'd be surprised if we didn't." She looked at Delarose with a wry smile. "Given our student body, I'd bet that we'll find a different leak next term. And every term after that - just like we've plugged two or three leaks every term I've been here."
"Do you know who did it?"
Ms. Hartford shook her head. "It could have been anyone," she answered, answering truthfully, but not revealing the complete truth.
Sunday, June 3, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
Parking Lot outside Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Ah, good afternoon Officer," Booker greeted the man warmly as the security man was clambering into his car, his duty shift over. "Nice afternoon, isn't it?"
Caruthers stood back up, squaring his shoulders and puffing his chest out a little to try to intimidate the student. "Is there something I can help you with?"
Booker smiled pleasantly. "Yeah," he said plainly. "We have our little ... arrangement. It was weekly, if I remember correctly."
"Yes, that's what I remember, too." Caruthers shifted uncomfortably, glancing about himself. "Um, if you want cash, then ..."
"Nah, too bulky," Booker replied dismissively. He slid a business card into Officer Caruthers' hand.
The officer looked at the card. "iPayoff?" he mouthed silently.
"It's easier that way, wouldn't you agree? Your ... contact ... can put the money into the account, and my partner and I will deal with our own split."
Caruthers nodded, already thinking that he could stiff Booker a little, and the poor student would have no clue, and even if he did, he couldn't do anything about it. Nothing like a little extra payola for the middleman.
"I look forward to more future ventures," Booker said, starting to turn, then he stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Oh, and Officer?" Caruthers halted, halfway in his car. "A little birdie told me exactly how much the payoff was for you and your contact," he explained with a pleasant but threatening smile. "If you were to ... forget, or possibly miscalculate ... the percentage you promised to pay my partner and me, I don't think my information source would be very happy."
Caruthers glared at the impudent boy. "Is that a threat?"
Booker put on an angelic smile. "Threat? Oh, no!" he said innocently. "I just wanted to remind you that these kinds of ventures are profitable because we work together. And if something were to happen to that relationship, why, I'd have to find someone else to do business with. And that would be a shame, wouldn't it?"
Caruthers nodded, still frowning. "Yeah. It'd be bad for business." He climbed into his car, holding the door open a few inches. "You might want to check in a couple of hours. I know you'll get your due." He slammed the door, and as he screeched out of the parking lot, Booker smiled. "Nice doing business with you, too ... asshole."