A Whateley Academy Adventure
Kayda 10 - There's No Place Like Poe
(with contributions from E.E. Nalley
and Heather O'Malley - aka poetheather)
Saturday, September 1, 2007
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Evvie, Naomi, and Chou razzed me when I was summoned to Mrs. Carson's office on Saturday, after the Headmistress' address to the school. I was actually kind of interested by the speech, since I'd missed the fall, 2006 speech. It didn't help that every one of my friends had heard the speech, and so were doing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 cut-up thing, but I found it interesting. I also found it sobering, because she noted that Whateley was dangerous, and listed the students who'd died the previous year, which was a very sobering revelation to many of the new freshies. I'd been at Whateley for a couple of those; I would never forget finding Apathy's body, nor the pictures of Heyoka, who I knew personally. Some, of course, heckled and joke a bit, as if it was just a wild tactic by the administration to try to scare the students into behaving. My group noted that they'd change their minds when they had their first freshman casualty - which was going to happen sooner or later.
Right at that moment, though, I was a little distracted from the talk; while everyone else was going to a picnic in the quad that the Alphas - meaning Wyatt Cody - had decided would be a good introductory mixer for all the school, I was stuck sitting in the outer office of the administrative office suite. I wasn't overly surprised at that some of the staff were working; they'd been at Mrs. Carson's address a bit earlier, and I figured that they'd stick around for the mixer as part of a 'meet and greet'. But in the office instead of out on the quad? That seemed a little more serious. A lot more serious.
Strangely, Ms. Hartford occasionally glanced at me, and she had a peculiar expression that wasn't disgust or disappointment - which I was used to - but something more akin to an amused curiosity, with a light dusting of approval. Given that she'd bailed Lanie, Tansy, and I out of our little misadventure at the start of the summer, I couldn't help but shudder whenever I saw her observing me. Where was the mean, bitchy Assistant Headmistress who'd tried to railroad me in the spring?
My concern heightened when Mrs. Shugendo walked into Mrs. Carson's office, and it really peaked when Mr. Lodgeman went in. And when I glanced, at Ms. Hartford, she had a bemused smile. That was the one thing that was most unsettling.
After what seemed an eternity of waiting, even though the clock said it was less than four minutes, the phone on Ms. Claire's desk buzzed, and after answering, she simply told me to go into the conference room. I could have done without the wisecrack that I should know the way pretty well by now.
"Sit down, please," Mrs. Carson nodded toward a chair opposite her desk, which was a lot more intimidating than the more casual conversations where she sat in the casual furniture group. Mrs. Shugendo and Mr. Lodgeman sat on either side of the brobdignagian edifice of supreme power, giving them all visible and symbolic positions of authority over me. To my shock and horror, Ms. Hartford came in behind me and sat down beside Mrs. Shugendo.
"Would you care to guess why you're here?" Mrs. Carson asked, looking over the top of her glasses with gaze that was at best neutral, and quite possibly cross.
"Um," I couldn't help but wince inwardly, "Is it the Musee de Histoire Natural in Bordeaux?" I asked hesitantly.
"Among other things." The corners of her mouth curled, and with her eyes narrowed, she took on a quite intimidating demeanor. "Although, we should probably start with your little ... adventure ... with Miss Nalley and Miss Walcutt."
"I ... I didn't have anything to do with starting that," I protested, feeling a little weak-kneed at how Ms. Hartford seemed to be deriving pleasure from my being on the hot seat. "We were just driving along, minding our own business, when we came to a scene of some kind of attack ...."
"So you felt like you had to jump in?" Mrs. Carson asked wryly.
"Our concern," I protested, although my protest was weak because I was quite intimidated, "was to help the other bystanders get out of the line of fire. Then Tansy directed me to start healing some of those who'd been injured, and I kind of lost track of what she and Lanie were doing."
"And you got taken into custody by the military police from Ft. Bridger?" Mrs. Shugendo asked with raised eyebrows, sounding as if she thought we could have prevented being questioned.
"We ... they were just there, and they were heavily armed, and they just took us in," I said defensively. "What would you have wanted me to do? Resist and have another fight? With the possibility one or more of us could have been hurt?"
"Based on the reports I got from Ft. Bridger's MPs," Ms. Hartford unexpectedly interrupted, "the girls did manage to not kill anyone, and Kayda is credited with saving several lives with her healing." My jaw dropped that she seemed to actually be defending me!
Mrs. Carson looked evenly at me. "Did it occur to any of you that being taken into custody could have resulted in you being turned over to the MCO? Or disappeared?"
The cold chill that ran up and down my spine was exactly like the one I'd experienced when Tansy and Lanie talked about possible consequences after Ms. Hartford sprang us. "We ... we didn't think of it then, but we talked after."
"Did either of them mention 'The Talk'?" Mrs. Carson asked.
I nodded, paling slightly at the memory. "I ... I looked it up on YouTube when I got home." I thought a moment. "I ... I can't believe she really said that!"
"She did," Ms. Hartford acknowledged with a solemn expression. "I suppose that little fact assuages your guilt over wrecking the museum in Bordeaux?"
"Why would it?" I asked, confused.
Mrs. Shugendo was trying to keep a straight face, but she failed, and her smirk put me at ease - a little bit. "Because the Musee de Histoire Natural was a signature property for the Foundation for Human Science Advancement, a scientific trust owned by Helen Goodkind International."
"Oh," I said successfully managing to almost keep in a very inappropriate giggle.
Ms. Hartford studied me for a moment, and then she smiled faintly. "You knew that, didn't you?"
"I think I may have read something like that on the dedication plaque at the entrance, but I'm not completely sure ...." I was doing an awful job at pretending to be innocent.
"That's what I thought," Ms. Hartford said with a smug smile. A faint smile, but a smile nonetheless. At least that's what I took her facial expression to be.
"Sensei Ito and Gunny are both anxious to get an after-action report from you," Mrs. Carson added, but her smile was a little smug.
"I wasn't on school grounds!" I protested, but I realized it would be a waste of breath. "From which one?"
"Both. Eight to ten pages each, double-spaced, due two weeks from yesterday. After your sims with The Nations last spring, you know what Gunny expects."
"Yes, ma'am. Is that all?" I asked, hoping that was all she wanted to talk about.
"No. We have the matter of your battle with Unhcegila's son," she continued.
"Same thing? A report?"
I was surprised when they all went into a discussion of the battle, including tactics, my wisdom at asking for help, making sure Addy and Alicia stayed safely out of the fight, and purifying the remains after the battle so no-one was accidentally exposed. They weren't happy, though, that I hadn't managed to stop Danny from participating in the fight, and I got chewed out a bit for not being emphatic enough with my instructions to him.
We discussed the rest of the summer, with most of the discussion centered on the battle in my hometown. Every mistake I made was discussed at length, which was kind of unnecessary, since I'd long since learned how to dissect my tactics and actions after all the training I had in the spring term. And both Mrs. Carson and Mr. Lodgeman expressed concern that the People might want to get me involved in the politics of their plight and of dealing with the BIA.
"Is that all?" I asked after a rather painful hour of discussion.
"No, Kayda," Mrs. Carson replied, and from her stern countenance, I could tell that she'd saved the worst for last. "Do you recall some instructions I gave you after the little ... excitement ... with Miss Nalley?"
"Um, yeah?" I winced, knowing exactly what she was going to say.
"And yet, you bound a spirit to a Lakota boy."
"It's a traditional role for a shaman," I argued. "I'm supposed to help people get spirit guides." She was winding up to argue, so I quickly added, "And the boy is ... well, Wakan Tanka said that such a binding is much less than an Avatar-1. He didn't get any powers from it!"
"And that makes it okay?"
"It's my role with the People!" I glanced at Mr. Lodgeman, who had an inscrutable expression. "Mr. Lodgeman knows a shaman's role!"
"Nevertheless," Mrs. Carson stated, "you had instructions, and you violated them." She sat back, elbows on the table and steepling her fingers. "I'd like your opinion on what it's going to take to get you to follow instructions!"
I winced because Mr. Lodgeman sat watching me, not commenting at all. "Mrs. Carson, I know what you told me, and I haven't used that spell with any other person from Whateley. But it is my role with the People, and I have to! The People expect it. Wakan Tanka expects it."
"Even if doing so forces me to expel you?"
I swallowed hard; I loved Whateley and my friends here, but I knew what the Ptesanwi's role was to my People. Grim-faced, I nodded slightly. "I have to be Wakan Tanka's messenger for my People," I replied, feeling like I was cutting my own throat.
Mrs. Carson studied me for several agonizingly long seconds. Then she opened her mouth to speak; I expected to be instructed to get my things and leave Whateley. "I hope you can understand why I asked the way I did," she started, "I had to be certain that you were acting out of conviction, and not just because you enjoy defying authority."
I had to pick my jaw up out of my lap. "You ... you mean ... you're not going to expel me?" I asked hopefully, not quite believing my ears.
Mrs. Carson smiled. "No, Kayda. But let me ask one thing - would it impact what you have to do as a shaman if I asked you to consult with me or Mr. Lodgeman before you do any more of these spirit bindings?"
"No." I couldn't help but wince; it felt like being a kid having to ask his parents for permission to do anything.
"No bindings of anything that would require Avatar-level of power unless one of us approves? And absolutely no binding of any kind on campus without permission and supervision?"
She nodded. "Good. We'll talk more about this in your special class on Extradimensional Phenomena. Now there's one more very important thing I want to discuss with you."
"Yes, ma'am?" I asked, nervous about what I feared was coming.
"I got a report from the Attorney General of South Dakota regarding the plea bargains for your attackers. Everyone in town was surprisingly cooperative, much more than I would have expected."
I gulped; I already knew what she was thinking. "I didn't have anything to do with that."
The quartet of administrators peered skeptically at me, causing me to want to shrink down and hide in the chair cushions. "Are you certain of that? You are a mage, after all."
I nodded weakly. "No, ma'am," I replied nervously. "During the negotiations, I ... I fell asleep, so I don't know what they talked about."
"Surely," Ms. Hartford stated as she stared at me with a neutral expression, which was unlike the piercing gaze and intimidating scowl I expected, "the AG told you what happened? Perhaps a threat of your magic on the boys and girls to get them to cooperate? It wouldn't be the first time the threat of magic has helped coerce a plea bargain."
"Did you threaten the kids or townspeople in any way?"
I shook my head, kind of shocked that they would accuse me of such a thing. "No."
"Not even a hint of a threat?"
I grimaced. "Well, in the armory, the warriors were very angry and claimed that they had the tribal right of vengeance. I guess I said something to the effect that I had more reason to hate them for what they did to me, but revenge was my prerogative, not theirs. And I individually called each of them - to their faces - rapists and murderers."
"But no threats?" Mrs. Shugendo asked cautiously.
"I said something like I couldn't let my People be destroyed in a war that was started because of me."
A lightbulb went off in Mrs. Carson's head. "So logically, you were talking about the Lakota, and not the people of your hometown, right? And it's thus likely that the townsfolk heard and understood precisely your intent, which was that the Lakota are more important to you?"
"Yeah, probably." I scowled defiantly. "I meant every word of that, but there was no threat involved at all."
"Did you think that they might have misconstrued that as a threat?" Mrs. Shugendo asked, stunning me. I'd never considered that possibility.
"Do you know the charges that are being filed?" Ms. Hartford asked, and then proceeded to explain without letting me guess. "The doctor is being charged with conspiracy to commit murder, the Sheriff is already in trouble, but he's got that charge added to his problem list. The boys and girls have one or two counts of attempted murder. The second group has a charge of rape and conspiracy."
"And Rich? The one who admitted his guilt?" He was man enough, unlike the others, and I didn't think he deserved the same fate.
"Two counts of simple assault." I nodded acknowledgement. "Several townspeople, including the kids' parents, were charged with conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice."
Holy shit! That's a lot more than I expected. "And ... what's going to happen? I mean, I suspect there's some plea bargaining."
"And that's not counting the federal civil rights violations," Ms. Hartford added with a smug smile.
"The plea deal was that most of the boys and girls would be convicted of assault and rape, with five years deferred adjudication on the rape charge." Seeing my confusion, Mrs. Carson continued. "That's probably the longest deferred adjudication I've ever heard of - basically, they're on parole for five years. If they commit any felony, the charges become active again, and they'll face punishment and will become registered sex offenders for life. If they keep their noses clean, which incidentally includes a protective order banning their presence within one hundred yards of you - and you are free to move as you wish, so they have to accommodate you."
"Wait - you said most?"
Mrs. Carson nodded. "Scott Hollings and Jeremiah Jackson are the sacrificial lambs for the whole town. They were taken into custody today on felony convictions of conspiracy, attempted murder, and rape. After they're processed through the courts, they won't go to prison, but their convictions and being registered sex offenders are going to stick with them forever."
I nodded dumbly and then without warning, the dam which had held back all my emotions at the rape and beatings burst suddenly, overwhelming me. Slowly, my head lowered into my hands, and I started to sob and shake, to the point that Mrs. Shugendo and Ms. Hartford slipped around beside me and held me while I had my emotional release.
"It's ... it's finally ... over?" I stammered once the tears abated enough that I dared look at Mrs. Carson.
"Yes, dear, it's over." She smiled. "I want you to spend time this week talking with Dr. Bellows about this news. No doubt it's a reminder and a release, and I think he can help you keep things in perspective."
I nodded again, not quite sure how I felt inside, and realizing that Mrs. Carson's directive was right - I needed to talk this over with someone like Dr. Bellows. "Yes, ma'am."
"Now go enjoy the picnic. And remember, the four papers due in two weeks."
"Four weeks?" I asked meekly, begging for more time.
"Three. Now run along."
Saturday, September 1, 2007 - After Lunch
Vehicle Shop, Whateley Academy
The small flock of gearheads standing around a car was an amusing sight; in the last few weeks of the spring term, Lanie had convinced me to spend time in the shop, and every time a new project car came in, they'd be attracted to it like moths to a flame.
I couldn't help but chuckle; the car they were gawking at was a blue 1957 Chevy 2-door station wagon, better known as a Nomad. Rare birds, indeed, and to find one in the shop was something no self-respecting gearhead could resist. Of course there were a few rust spots, and the paint was faded, and the upholstery - vinyl of course - was almost totally trashed, and the drivetrain lay in pieces in crates, but the unique body style of the 57 Chevy was irresistible.
"Whose is it?" Murphy asked as she stared at it.
"I dunno," Montana replied with a shrug.
"Is it a restoration, or a hot-rod build?" Hardsell continued the speculation. "It'd be bitchin' to see it as a hot-rod."
"Is that a 400 small block?" Skids asked as she peered at the engine block in the crate of parts that I hadn't yet unpacked. "Or a 350?"
"If it was mine, I'd put in a 454!" Booker opined.
"If it was yours, it'd be rusted to pieces by now!" Skids chuckled.
Murphy saw me leaning back against a workbench. "What are you smiling about?" She glanced at the car. "Unless that's yours."
"Yup. It was my grandpa's, and he gave it to me," I grinned back at her.
"What'cha gonna do with it?" Skids, having overheard, shuffled over to join the conversation. Everyone, in fact, had tuned their ears to my conversation with Skids.
"Blueprint the engine, put in a variable-valve-timing system, and go to multiport injection so I can get rid of the stupid quadrajet carb Chevy fitted on that engine. I'd like to put in an all-wheel-drive like in a Lambo, so I'm going to have to rebuild the frame with a multi-link suspension. In any case, I want to mod the suspension because Chevies of that era couldn't turn out of their own way!" I replied, smiling.
Skids whistled, her brow winkled. "That's a tall order!"
I shrugged, enjoying the hell out of the attention I was getting. "More than you know. I've got a design for a variable-split transfer-case and front diff - all in one, so I'll have to fab that, and since I probably won't be able to find a Lambo drivetrain in a salvage yard, I'll have to do a lot of adaptations, which means more fabs."
"If you need help ...?" Hardsell volunteered eagerly, and Threadbare and Booker joined in. Threadbare had his own project car, but the trio helped everyone just for fun.
"Just make sure you watch out for Belphegor," Mr. Donner's voice called from the door of his office. Seeing the grimaces of disbelief, he nodded. "Yeah, he joined, so he'll be here at times."
"Shit," Montana growled. "Now we'll have to lock up everything from that thief!"
"What does he want with motor shop anyway?" Murphy demanded angrily. "Unless he's building a Belphatso-mobile?"
"I thought we had a rule against tacky and ugly!" one of the boys said sarcastically. "What's he going to do - disguise it as a weiner-mobile?"
"He'll probably put in an automated hot-dog cooker and prep center!" Skylar Howes laughed. "With some kind of automated deep frier?"
"He might steal those bits from Japanese vending machines!" Murphy commented acidly.
"And a nacho cheese dispenser, with a secret emergency stash of tortilla chips?" Skylar laughed. Belpho's tendency to overeat junk food was no secret on campus, and most students had great fun at his expense due to his corpulent body which he could barely move without his anti-grav chair.
"At least if he's working, Phebes might come around from time to time!" Ringo said, waggling his eyebrows. A few of the guys nodded appreciatively, but all Ringo got as responses from the girls were dirty looks.
Mr. Donner walked toward our little gaggle, carrying a laptop. "I saw your plans, Kayda," he said, setting the laptop on a workbench. "You've been busy this summer!"
"Yeah, and I even found time to work on my car project," I chuckled. "I suppose you brought out the laptop so I could play show-and-tell?" When he nodded with a smile and called up my drawings and notes, I hosted a little tech talk. To be honest, I was nervous as hell, because, as I'd feared last spring with Lanie, I half-expected people to tell me what I was doing wrong and how things should be done. Fortunately, there was none of that, but the discussion was long and in depth and there were a lot of suggestions, some of which were quite useful, and when Mr. Donner closed his laptop, I realized exactly what he'd done - by having me explain and answer questions, I'd had to confront all the assumptions in my designs, and as a result, I felt more confident in some decisions, while I also realized that I should spend more time thinking about some aspects of the project. And not once had anyone told me how to do anything!
As people were starting to drift back to their projects, Kate - Nacht - came into the lab, looking as much an emotionless void as always. Last spring, I'd been surprised by her entire snarky Wednesday Addams philosophical bent, thinking it was just a put-on, but I soon realized it was her way of dealing with everything. Whether that was from hiding some inner angst or from having gotten a fatalistic outlook on life was not clear.
After looking around a bit, she spotted Murphy and walked solemnly toward her. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to Nacht if she ever displayed a happy or joyful emotion. Maybe it would be a harbinger of a coming apocalypse. If she did so in the caf, people would probably run for cover.
"I thought we were going to lunch," she said simply to the Alaskan girl.
"I got a little distracted," Murphy replied with a smile. "Kayda's project car."
"That's all we need," Kate said, rolling her eyes, "another car-obsessed lab-coat-clad tunnel denizen talking ad infinitum about gears and prop shafts and all that other boring minutia!"
"Well let's go to lunch then," Murphy chuckled. "If you're still hungry."
"As long as I don't see that overgrown tub of lard shoving whole hot dogs in his corpulent, slovenly body!" Kate feigned a shudder, and not well. "Watching him eat puts me off my food."
Several of the crew laughed aloud. "I know what you mean," Skids replied, "but now we've got to put up with him in our beloved car shop, since he joined."
Kate cocked an eyebrow. "That sneaky rat is up to something!"
"Yeah," Murphy agreed, taking Kate's arm to lead her from the lab. "But we know to watch out for him, and if he tries anything funny ...." The two stepped out of the lab into the tunnels.
I went to the crate of engine parts and began to re-inventory them, just to make triple sure that nothing had been lost in transit. I was bent over, not really visible, when I heard a familiar voice. "Hey, has anyone seen Lanie?" A chill went down my spine; it was Tansy - again.
"Mr. Parker called her to help check some cameras in the Venus Inc. clubhouse," Skids answered, her voice icy. In the few short days we'd been back, I hadn't seen anyone whose attitude toward Tansy had changed to match what she said were her own attitude changes.
"Thank you," Tansy replied, graciously ignoring Skids' tone. "She's helping me with a ... special project, so if you see her, could you please let her know that I'm looking for her?"
After Tansy left, I paused, feeling a bit sick to my stomach as if I'd been gut-punched. Mr. Donner came over about that time. "Do you want me to set up time with Mrs. Choudhari in the materials lab for you to fabricate some more samples of your ceramic-metal-composite matrix, so we can test it for machinability?" When I didn't reply, he noticed that I was quite distracted.
Skids also noticed , and she came over. "Are you okay, Kayda?" she asked, beating Mr. Donner to the punch.
It took a second for her words to penetrate my brain. "Um, yeah," I stammered. "I've ... I've got to go. Um, to find my brother Danny." It was a feeble excuse, and I know it sounded quite lame, but I didn't care. I suddenly didn't feel the slightest bit like working on my car, and watching over Danny gave me an excuse to flee the labs, heading back toward Poe, although with Lanie as my RA, I feared I was going to get a lot of reminders about her and Tansy.
Sunday, September 2, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Near Whateley Academy
Everyone from the Ghost Walkers gathered for another picnic, like we had in the spring for our Armistice -Veterans-Victory-Memorial day picnic. As expected, Ayla was with Addy at least for a bit, and weather cooperated quite nicely, even though it was a little cool due to our latitude and the altitude of Whateley in the Presidential Mountains of New Hampshire. We'd hauled quite a feast from Crystal Hall, enough so that we could feed a few upperclassmen who'd noticed our barbeque and wanted some of our surplus food - which we'd brought for just such an eventuality.
"Hi, Kayda!" a girl said as she and her boyfriend strolled our way, her arm wrapped possessively around his waist and her head on his shoulder, not that he seemed to mind. "Hi, Ayla," she added, still smiling, having evidently forgotten her anger and vindictive vow from last year. From the silly grin on her face, it was pretty obvious what had changed her mind about the inadvertent BIT mangling Ayla had done to her.
"Hi, Tissy," I said warmly. The change in Tisiphone since she'd started going steady with Nitro was nothing short of amazing, of the same magnitude as Tansy's change. At that thought, I blanched momentarily. "How was your summer?"
The two sat down as if they were glued together at the hips. "It was wonderful!" Tissy purred, still clutching Nitro.
"I ... stayed at the Waldner's," Nitro said with a bit of a blush, while Tissy grinned at the comment.
"At graduation, Nitro stuck up for me when his family was saying bad things, and he kind of got disowned," Tissy explained.
"Bigoted assholes!" Nitro spat vehemently. "I don't want to ever deal with them again!"
"Anyway, Mommy and Daddy invited him to stay in our guest house, and Daddy got him a job with Waldner Heavy Industries."
"So what else did you do besides work?" Laurie asked. It seemed that she'd pulled Adrian closer when the two lovebirds came, as if to demonstrate that her relationship was at least as good as theirs.
"Um, not much," Nitro said, blushing furiously and leading to the supposition that most of their activities had probably been of the nocturnal mattress mambo type.
We talked more, and after they had a bite, Tissy excused them because she had to find her 'posse' - Alecto and Megaera - no doubt in the company of TK and Truck. Then we chatted about our summer adventures, comparing notes about who had the most interesting summer. I won, which wasn't exactly an honor because it meant that I'd had the most dangerous summer, too. Everyone was in stitches when I described Jade's and my 'Night at the Museum.'
Amelie, having tagged along with Addy, grinned and nodded, occasionally interjecting details and color commentary as I narrated the insanity; it was clear that she was fitting in quite nicely already. When I had to take a potty break to the little bathhouse near the shore, a legacy of a previous class, Amelie mysteriously tagged along.
"Can you tell me more about your frere," she asked timidly. "'e is cute, non? Does he 'ave a ... a ... a special amie? Are there other girls interested in 'im?"
I chuckled softly. "I suppose you adore his 'kitty-boy' form, too?"
"What? What kitty-boy form? Is 'e a shifter or something?" Amelie seemed suddenly more intrigued. She asked more questions, and I tried to answer honestly, biting my tongue about his brattiness; if Amelie was really interested in him, I wasn't going to sabotage that for him. Damn, I hated having to be nice to my pesky younger sibling.
When we got back, the team was looking oddly at me. "What?" I asked, baffled.
"We were talking about your charm," Evvie confessed, beating all the others. "Do you think that maybe we could get some made for the whole team?" She sounded a bit nervous about asking.
I grinned as I plopped back down. "I've got to make one for Danny to help protect him from bullies, and I figure I've got enough material for probably twenty or twenty-two charms, depending on how big I make them." I looked around the group. "So what do you want a charm to do?"
"Ghost walk," Alicia said immediately. "That is our team name!"
"True," I said, "but maybe I should put some healing magic into Laurie's?"
"I hadn't thought of that," Laurie said.
"Maybe we need to think about what spells we put in the charms? Like, imagine Adrian with a speed spell and a shield? He'd be like an aerial battering ram!" Evvie suggested.
"Do you want a suggestion?" Ayla asked, finally daring to interrupt our little team discussion.
"Take some time to list your various powers, and then look at what happened last spring with the snake-demon. You might arrange a couple of simulations to help you identify where you're weak, and you could talk to Gunny or Ito or Admiral Everheart for their advice."
"Everheart!" everyone said quite emphatically and understandably. So far, everyone's impression of Gunny and Ito was negative and unapproachable, so Sam seemed the logical choice.
"And naturallement, Ayla will 'elp us with our analysis, n'est ce pas?" She looked up from where her head rested on Ayla's shoulders, her eyes wide and innocent and pleading. She was not nearly as good as Jade, but she was good enough.
"Oui," Ayla said before bending his head a bit to kiss her.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Dream Space of the Ptesanwi
Deb and I cuddled at the fire circle, enjoying the time together, even if it was only dream space. I hadn't been here long and I already couldn't wait for my next break so I could go home, because her physical presence was so much more than the time we spent dream walking.
"How was your first day of class?" she asked, while across the fire, Wakan Tanka tended to a pot of tea.
"Okay, I guess. Magic is going to be pretty intense, and the special class with Mrs. Carson is not going to be fun. Or easy."
"Well, you knew that after your little misadventure last spring." She looked a little puzzled.
Tatanka interrupted as he plodded into camp. "You have visitors coming. The Kodiak and his host and Grizzly and her host."
"Um, I'm ... I'm really tired," I said with a grimace. "It's been a long day, and ... um ... all I want to do is rest."
"You did agree on tutoring and study in dream-space," Deb reminded me. "I think Lanie and Wyatt are counting on you for this."
"I know," I replied unhappily. But the last thing I wanted was to deal with Lanie; she'd probably bring Tansy, or would talk about all the stuff she did with Tansy, or all their plans. "But ... I had a long day." I looked pleadingly at Tatanka. "Tell them ... I'm too tired and I need to rest." To emphasize the point, I got up and walked into 'our' tipi, lying down in the furs, back to the entrance.
After a bit, probably long enough to talk to Lanie and Wyatt, Debra came into the tipi and cuddled up behind me, draping an arm over me. "They ... understood," she said cautiously, and from her tone, I got the impression that they hadn't understood, but that she'd made excuses for me and wasn't happy about doing so. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked gently.
I didn't deign to answer, but instead just sulked. Any feelings of cuddling or romance were out the door; once again, just the mention of Lanie with Tansy made me feel almost physically ill.
"You need to talk," Deb insisted. "What's wrong?" She turned me over so I was facing her. "We're going to talk about this, because you're very unhappy about something."
"I ... it's ...," I started, then my emotional dam burst, and I pulled myself into her chest, bawling. "It's like third grade," I blubbered. "I ... I thought ... I thought I was ... a special friend to her, that we were best friends." I couldn't shut off my tears. "But ... but she's ... shutting me out! She's spending all her time with ... with Tansy!"
"I think you might be over-reacting," Deb ventured cautiously.
I wasn't listening. "I ... we shared something ... special! At least it was ... to me! But ... but Tansy .... And ... and I'm all alone again! Just like third grade!" I was really bawling.
"What about Addy and Alicia? Or your roommate Evvie?" Deb asked. "And you enjoy training with Chou and Molly, right?"
"They're ... friends," I reluctantly agreed, "but ... but it's not the same! Addy and Alicia are each other's best friends!"
"Because you and Lanie had sex?"
I nodded weakly. "It's ... it's never been just sex," I tried to explain. "It's ... it makes ... I've always ...." I didn't quite know how to put things. "I ... I guess whenever ...."
"For you, maybe you let them steal a little piece of your heart? And you still care very deeply for ... anyone you've been intimate with?"
"Yeah," I agreed, not showing my face. "Even ... like Julie back home. She's ... she's special to me, too."
"You haven't had sex with many partners, have you?"
I shook my head. "No."
"You know you can't hide in your room and avoid Lanie all term," she cautioned me. "You should talk to her. You need to talk to her."
I shook my head, then I had a thought. "Don't you talk to her for me!" I looked up into her gorgeous eyes, and saw that I'd guessed what she intended to do. "Promise me?"
"Promise me!" I said much more insistently. "I ... I'll work it out ... I guess. Somehow."
"Okay." She didn't like having to make such a promise to me, but she did, then pulled me close and let me cry in her arms until I fell asleep.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007, mid-morning
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"Okay, girls," Mrs. Carson sounded positively chipper after our first 'field trip' in her magic class, "your first impressions?"
Tuesday, she'd told us to bring gear for a field trip, but we had no idea what she planned. Neither of us had prepared in the slightest for the sojurn, and from her expression, Mrs. Carson had both planned it that way and had found it quite amusing.
"I ... couldn't accumulate essence very quickly," I said weakly. I was exhausted; we'd been 'camping' in an alternate dimension for three days' time, or what was to us three days. A grueling three days too - between fighting, trying to sleep, or being lectured or corrected by Mrs. Carson, we'd had almost no time to talk about anything, and the couple of times Lanie asked if I was okay or if something was bothering me, I'd skirted the subject.
One can imagine our shock when Mrs. Carson finally ported us back to Whateley and we discovered it was still only Wednesday, and we'd been gone less than thirty minutes of Whateley time.
"It wasn't fair that Ah couldn’t get mah armor," Lanie complained.
Mrs. Carson just smirked at us. "When you get pulled into an alternate dimension, you don't always have time to be fully prepared. Now what else did you observe?"
"The time dilation was ... interestin'," Lanie volunteered.
"I didn't like fighting ... whatever it was we fought," I complained.
Another smile greeted my complaint. "You two were the ones who wanted to experiment with extradimensional space and beings," she replied. "I warned you last spring that things could be dangerous."
Lanie and I couldn't help looking at each other - we both bore evidence of some of those dangers and the fights that had resulted. Our uniforms were torn and stained, our hair disheveled, and both of us had cuts and bruises, although Lanie's were well on the way to healing. And no doubt we both stunk from sweat and the smelly guts of whatever we’d had to kill. And eat. That was an unpleasant reminder in itself; with no food, we had to scavenge, and roasted abomination was not something that I ever wanted to eat again. Or that I'd ever make an enemy eat.
"Ah didn't regenerate in that dimension," Lanie pointed out needlessly.
"Were we ...," I began hesitantly, not sure I wanted to know the answer but I had to ask the question, "were we in real danger?"
Mrs. Carson's expression grew serious. "Absolutely. Extra-dimensional spaces and beings are almost always very dangerous."
"Why couldn't you have warned us?" Lanie asked, her voice a little angry.
"I find that a laboratory experiment with first-hand experience is a far better teacher than any textbook," Mrs. Carson replied. "Most extra-dimensional encounters are seldom done with enough time to prepare, so you needed a ... a wakeup call on that point." She smiled at the two of us. "Now if you girls hurry, you should have just enough time to run back to Poe and get cleaned up for your next class."
"Yes, ma'am," I replied, not wanting to argue at all.
"And for tomorrow's homework, I want a four to five-page essay on the threats and challenges you experienced on this first field trip. Now, run along, girls." As we left the classroom - a small classroom, since Lanie and I were the only two students - Mrs. Carson did some quick incantation, and the last I saw of her, she was once more fresh and neatly attired in her tailored business suit and Pradas, not a hint that she'd spent three days with us.
"Do you think she'll pull another field trip tomorrow?" I asked Lanie once we were safely out of earshot. "Or will we get some classroom time?"
"Which do you think would be worse?" Lanie snorted. "Because Ah think extra-dimensional things can't be as demanding as Mrs. Carson."
I had to chuckle; she was probably right. All in all, though we'd had to kill probably a lot of demonic things, we'd had a pretty good trip. Standing watch during the night and hiking had been physically demanding. "I don’t know. I think I'd rather take a test from Mrs. C than face another of those hell-hounds!" The nastiest nasties we had to deal with were some kind of demon-dog that looked like a bald, overgrown mutant Great Dane with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth and six legs tipped with nasty claws. After the fact, Mrs. Carson warned us that the hell-hounds were probably venomous, but she was prepared in case we were poisoned.
"Yeah, those weren't any fun!" Lanie agreed with a grin.
"Now I suppose you're going to tell me that you've got meaner dogs back in Georgia?" I teased.
"Meaner, yeah, but not uglier!" Lanie chuckled. "But you have to admit that smacking around the Pac Men was a hoot and a half!"
"One or two, yeah," I agreed. "But a pack of a dozen or more?" I shook my head. "Not so fun." The 'Pac-Men' were nothing so much as a giant mouth on a sickenly-green, slimy ball-shaped head/body combo, nearly split in half with a huge mouth full of shark-like teeth, and with a pair of short legs to enable them to scramble around. They were easy to kill - one-on-one. In packs? Not so much.
"Did you notice that Mrs. Carson was basically on overwatch to make sure we weren't hurt, but she was otherwise letting us fight ourselves?"
She was about to reply when I heard someone call out, "Lanie!" I recognized the voice instantly, and a shudder went up and down my spine. "Kayda!
My stomach knotted up as the blonde trotted up to us, and I managed to bite my tongue and not say anything snarky about how Tansy had actually found time to greet me along with her best buddy.
"What happened to you? You look like you went five rounds with Champion," Tansy asked in shock as she came between Lanie and me, laying a hand on Lanie's arm and the other on mine. Her nose curled up as the smell of us reached her olfactory senses. "Phew! You stink, too!"
"Ah had a little disagreement with a hell-hound," Lanie chuckled. Even though her response was light-hearted, it cut my heart; I'd probably taken more cuts and bruises from the damned demon-dog than she had. And now, she was bragging to Tansy that it was her fight. "We did," she corrected herself. "And a whole bunch of slobberin' walking mouths!"
I pulled one of the pac-man's teeth - more like shark teeth - out of a pocket. "Mrs. Carson said these are interesting, but we'd have to figure out why."
"How is it that it's only the two of you in the class?" Tansy asked Lanie. "I was talking to Marla Fontaine last evening, and she was a little miffed that she couldn't get in!"
"I bet that's what you were talking about!" Lanie laughed, which caused Tansy to blush a little and me to wonder what they were talking about.
"We're in the same history class," Tansy said defensively, "so we were talking about ideas for the term paper we have to research. We ended up teamed with Firecat, so it wasn't anything like what you're thinking in your dirty mind!" she playfully slapped Lanie's arm.
It was more than I could take. "I've got martial arts training next period," I said by way of excuse, "and since I keep a spare uniform and shower supplies in my locker, I'll just clean up there." Before they could say anything, I turned and scurried off to Laird. The good feeling I'd had from our field trip was gone, and I fought the moistness in my eyes.
Wednesday, September 6, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Devisor Tunnels, Whateley Academy
Lanie and I were walking back from the auto shop, and surprisingly to me, she was holding onto my upper arm, as if she was either feeling affectionate or she feared I would run off.
"God help me, but Ah like your Chevy," Lanie said with a smile. "It's not as nice as Baby Girl, but ...."
"When I get done," I said with a smile, "we'll just have to see, won't we?" Seeing that she was about to reply, I added, "And we won't just have a drag race! We'll race on a road course, too."
"Well, then, Ah might have to tune Baby Girl's suspension, then."
I couldn't help but smile. "You may have six hundred horses, but you can't put all that power down through just two tires, no matter how fat they are." We walked toward an elevator up to Kane so we could walk back to Poe; it was a gorgeous early fall afternoon, and it seemed a shame to spend it in the tunnels, but the more time I spent in the warrens of the gadgeteer gang, the more convinced I was that some of them were allergic to sunlight and fresh air, or at least believed they were.
"You wanna eat with us tonight?" she invited.
"The Alpha table?"
"No," she replied. "Ah thought it would be nice if you joined us for a change. Y'all have been ...."
"Us?" I wasn't sure if I wanted to know the answer to that.
"Me, Wyatt, and Tansy," Lanie replied casually.
"Fucking dykes!" Eruption spat vehemently as he walked past us, going the other direction.
"At least girls find me attractive - which is more than I've heard them say about you!" I called after him. He almost missed a step, and his shoulders tensed; any empath in the area would have felt a burst of hateful emotions, and for a moment, it looked like he was going to turn for some kind of confrontation. My hand shot up to my charm - just in case.
After he continued walking, accompanied by a few chuckles from Sonex, who'd evidently found my put-down amusing, Lanie continued. "Ah heard you had an exciting summer!"
"Well, it certainly started with some excitement!"
"What Ah heard is that y'all hunted feral hogs at night with your tomahawks, killed another snake demon, tore up a museum in France, and stopped another Indian war," Lanie said, raising an eyebrow as she spoke.
I shot her a questioning gaze. "Where'd you hear that?"
"Ah noticed that you didn't deny it," she chuckled. "So did you fight another snake demon?"
"It was no big deal," I didn't want to make anything of that - since I'd already had my fight dissected by Mrs. Carson.
"Ah'd say it was a big deal if you got Fey involved." I think my jaw dropped to my neckline. "And hunting feral hogs? That's something Ah'd only do in my power armor!" she chuckled.
I just shrugged.
"There's more that you aren't telling me, isn't there?"
"Nah. See snakey, kill snakey, get more snakey-hide." I cocked an eyebrow. "You want a leather skirt? Maybe a new purse?"
"Ah'm always in the market for a new skirt!" She replied with a smile. "Maybe mid-thigh or so, show off mah country mile of legs!" Her smile faded and she became serious. "So what's the deal with the Indian war?"
I was getting a lot of practice shrugging. "A few warriors wanted to get Lakota justice for the guys who ...," I couldn't say the word 'rape', even having had lots of counseling and time to heal, "when the county courts wouldn't. I ... kind of stopped them."
"That's not the way Ayla told the story," Lanie said.
"Would you two just get a room or something?" Tweak spat as she walked past us with Jetstream, both scowling heavily. "Too bad you didn't get kicked out," Tweak added under her breath.
"Hey, Tweak," Lanie called in that faux serious tone of voice I knew she used when she was about to be snarky. Tweak stopped and turned, scowling, but Lanie just continued with a smile on her face. "You might want to wash those pants."
Obviously Tweak had expected something else and looked down at her pants confused. "What? Why?"
Lanie's face went feral." Because they smell like pee. Weren't you wearing those pants when mah man put you in your place and you pissed yourself, you little bitch!" Tweak started to launch herself at Lanie, but Jetstream grabbed her and held her back.
"You're going to get yours, you fucking Dyke!" Tweak shouted at her, but Lanie's form blurred and suddenly she towered over all of us in that monstrous bear form Grizzly gave her.
"Come get some!" she snarled, teeth bared and claws out, and I wasn't sure if it was Grizzly or Lanie that was speaking. Either way I knew I had to act quickly to keep us both from getting into serious trouble.
I quickly interposed myself between Lanie and the other two girls, grabbing a hold of her as if my puny strength could stop her. Over my shoulder I cast a little fear cantrip into my voice. "Run, you idiots!" I shouted. Between the fear aura Lanie's form radiated and my spell, Jetstream and Tweak fled.
"Uh, Kayda, you can let go now," she said. I turned and looked at her because of the odd tone of her voice. Lanie's breasts in her human form were quite large, but this way they were positively gigantic. I had not been particularly precise when I grabbed her; I realized that my left hand was full of her right breast.
I blushed from the tips of my toes to the top of my hairline and snatched my hand away as if burnt. Her head turned down the trail where Jetstream and Tweak had run and I could tell she was contemplating chasing them. "Let them go," I told her. "It's just words. Isn't that what you told me?"
The Bear cracked her knuckles ominously. "Yeah? Well maybe I just want to break some bones?"
"What would that get you, besides detention?" I demanded. She snarled in the direction Jetstream and Tweak had run off in, then shrugged expressively. I suddenly realized that her school uniform had expanded somehow and here was this almost comical now vision of a seven foot tall anthropomorphic very female bear wearing a schoolgirl uniform. "Why didn't your bear form rip your uniform to shreds?" I demanded.
"Ms. Rogers made it for me," she replied. She closed her eyes and concentrated, then shrank down back into her human form. "Back to mah original question, Ayla said the snake fight was a big deal, that you flew Fey out special."
I had told the story about a dozen times, and to be honest I was getting sick of telling it. So I shrugged and started walking on towards Poe again. "Oh, it was really nothing." She looked at me sidelong and arched an eyebrow.
"A snake demon was nothing?" She demanded. "So much nothing that you needed Fey? For what? Makeup advice?"
"Hey, Lanie, Kayda," Delta Spike said as she and Cueball came down the walkway toward us.
"Hi, Elaine," Lanie said warmly, turning a moment to give her a hug of greeting. She looked somewhat askance at Cueball. "Afternoon, Chet."
"Elaine, Chet," I greeted them in turn, saying Cueball's name warily, as if it were toxic or distasteful.
"Have either of you seen Linda?" Chet asked quickly, not certain what to say. "She's got a new lab, and I'm supposed to meet her there, but we," he glanced at Delta Spike, "can't find it."
I turned and crossed my arms solemnly in front of me, in a classic Hollywood Native American pose. "Them go ... that way," I spoke seriously, pointing a finger in the appropriate direction. Lanie burst out laughing, and Delta Spike chuckled. Even Cueball grinned.
"Thanks," Chet Winters said, sounding actually appreciative. He started to turn down the tunnel, but then paused. "And ... I don't think I said that I'm sorry for ... what happened." He couldn't meet my eyes. "I'm ... I'm not a bigot like some of them, and ... and your personal lives don't matter to me. But I'm sorry it got out and made things difficult for you."
My throat suddenly felt a little choked up. I had not expected anything like that from him, not after his part in humiliating me by releasing pictures and video of Lanie and me having sex in the sweat lodge. We had the excuse of lust-demon serum, but he had no excuse for spreading nasty gossip.
"Thanks." There wasn't much more to say, so we turned to go our direction, while Cueball and Delta Spike went the other way.
"Anyway, that's not the way Ayla told the story," Lanie said.
"I thought about you a lot during the summer." I decided to ignore her comment. "Except for the little battle thing, the road trip was fun."
"Yeah, we had a good time. Tansy and I enjoyed the rest of our trip, and then Tansy paid for Wyatt to come down and visit."
"And?" The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach was back.
Lanie shrugged. "We ... had fun. Sailing, lounging around. It's too bad you weren't there."
We were passing by the statue of Noah Whateley, and before I could respond to my redheaded friend, I heard her voice cut through the background noise of students. "Lanie!"
Tansy was coming down the steps of Schuster Hall towards us, which set my teeth on edge. "Hi, Kayda!"
"Hi, Tansy," I answered with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, then icily reciprocated the welcoming hug she gave me.
She turned to Lanie, and the two wrapped each other in warm, genuine, friendly hugs. Or more, I suddenly thought. It reminded me of the way Lanie and I had hugged last spring. After the 'event', and before ... I started when the facts snapped into focus ... before Tansy started hanging with Lanie.
"Oh, so now there are three of you?" a guy sneered as he walked toward Crystal Hall. "You girls just need a good man to set you straight!"
"Now Ernie," Lanie said, breaking from the hug and putting her hands on her hips in a disdainful pose, "Ah do like men, or hadn't you heard that Ah'm dating Wyatt? Ah like my men big, strong, and well-hung, like Wyatt, and ... you're none of those!"
Ernie Schuler practically bared his teeth, snarling in anger and unable in his rage to think of a snappy comeback. After the gears in his mind slipped a few times, he shot us the evil eye and stormed off toward his destination.
"Nicely done," Tansy chuckled.
"Ah just enjoy puttin' idiots like that in their place," Lanie grinned.
"Lanie, Ms. Hartford wants to see us both," Tansy got back to the subject which had caused her to interrupt us.
Without a glance at either of them, I picked up my pace towards Poe. As usual, Tansy had priority on Lanie's time, and I choked as I realized that I was at-best second fiddle. Third counting Wyatt. Maybe not even that, because who knew how many other, better friends Lanie had.
"Kayda?" Lanie called after me, her voice questioning, and a little ... urgent?
I picked up my pace even though my eyes filling with tears made it difficult see. "I have to change, for ... for a meeting ... after dinner!" I shouted a lame excuse as I fled from my heartbreak.
Wednesday, September 6, 2007 - Early Evening
Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy
"Do you all understand?" The inquiry from Gunny was delivered in his usual very gruff tone that was almost a dare to someone to pose a question.
All of us had been in the arenas for combat finals, but my teammates still looked a bit nervous and uncomfortable, except Adrian. We were all in some attire suitable to disguise our appearances, and in a few cases, like with me, Evvie, Naomi, and Adrian, our outfits had some degree of functionality. I made a mental note to talk to the others about getting suitable protective suits.
Gunny looked us over skeptically. "This is a simple training scenario," he informed us in a voice that could have hardly been more disdainful if he'd told us we were going to read kindergarten books. "We don't expect much out of you, because you haven't had any work in team tactics, and some of you," he glared specifically at me, "spend time on fanciful, historical, native scenarios that have no bearing on the twenty-first century!"
I heard Gunny's snarky comment, but I really didn't feel like taking the bait, so I simply shrugged.
"This is a game of 'capture the flag.' Your opponents are ANTS - this time - so your mission is simple - find the enemy's flag and steal it while defending your own!" He smirked. "Of course, you have to find your flag first before you can defend it. Pejuta, is your team ready?" Gunny asked, frowning at me as though he was angry that I hadn't rebutted his comment.
To be honest, I really didn't want to do this sim; on the way through the tunnels, I'd seen Tansy going into Lanie's lab. She was spending so much time with my best friend .... My brain stumbled at that thought. Was Lanie my best friend? Had she ever been? And had I ever been her best friend?
"Pejuta?" Gunny roared at me, breaking me out of my depressing thoughts.
"I guess," I replied unenthusiastically.
"You guess? You guess?" Gunny rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "You're either ready or you aren't. And it's too late to worry about whether you're ready or not. Get your sorry asses into the arena.
If not for the buildings behind us, we could have been at the lake near campus. It was very much like one of the settings from the combat finals the previous spring - two- and three-story buildings, mixed shops with apartments over them; naturally the sim team would reuse the scenario and scenery. I suspected that we were going to see those a lot. That would be helpful to those with exemplar memory who'd seen all the spring combat finals and knew all the dozen or so set variations they'd used.
"Okay, what do we do?" Evvie asked bluntly after she'd looked around for a few seconds, like the rest of us had.
I shook my head slightly, trying to clear the fog and focus, which for some reason was kind of difficult. "Um," I stammered, "I ... we've got to ... to find the bad guys' flag."
"We need to find our flag first," Harrier interrupted, giving me a somewhat puzzled frown.
"Yeah," I agreed quickly. I should have noted that point. What the hell was wrong with me? Why was I having trouble focusing? "Um, split up in teams. Freezeframe, you're with ... um ... RPG. Nursing, with Punch. Headrush, Charge - you're together."
"And you and me?" Harrier asked uncertainly.
"No," I said hesitantly. "You ... um ... go airborne. I'll go with ... um ... Charge and Headrush."
"Okay. I'll scout and report," Harrier sounded like he was taking over, which should have upset me, but since I didn't really have my head in the game, I shrugged it off; someone had to take charge. "Everyone - comms on?"
"Check." "Okay." "Yes." "I'm on."
"Pejuta - I suggest you keep your shield up while you scout." I nodded at Harrier's suggestion. "Okay, if you run across the enemy, report it immediately. Until we find our own flag, if we encounter the other side, we've got to either avoid contact or hit fast and hard and get out before they can call reinforcements."
Addy, Alicia, and I set off to the right side of the arena / cityscape. Adrian took to the air. Evvie and Laurie set out for the center of the town, while RPG and Naomi and Laurie moved left.
I thought Lanie was my best friend. She had been my best friend in the spring, and that wasn't even counting our little coerced rendezvous. Through all of my misadventures, she was right beside me, sometimes comforting me, and always with a smile and a hug. What happened to our 'soul sister' bond? How could she forget that? Or had she really meant it? Was it really just words to make me feel better?
"Kayda! On your right!"
Alicia's urgent voice snapped me back to the arena. Too late, I saw the blurred motion coming at me from my right side, and as pain shot from my shoulder from impacting the ground, I realized way too late that I hadn't put up my shield spell. I tried to roll from under the large, man-sized weight, but it was heavy, and I barely managed to finger my charm before a massive fist smashed down at what would have been my face if not for my shield.
"I see our flag!" Harrier called over the comm gear. "Punch, Nursing - ahead of you, approximately sixty degrees to your right, roof of a flower shop adjacent to the alley!"
Addy dodged an attack and was wailing on one ANT with her tomahawk, while Alicia was, like me, down. As the second ANT, the one that had hit Alicia, drew back an arm to put Alicia permanently out of the fight, Addy dodged in underneath it and hit it with a vicious uppercut with her weapon. Meanwhile, I invoked a spell I'd learned from Clover - high-voltage surged through my fingertips, discharging in a massive burst of static electricity. The ANT atop me shuddered and collapsed.
"We're taking fire!" RPG called out. "Sniper somewhere north of us!"
"Copy!" Harrier called. "I'm on my way! Pejuta, Charge - can you assist RPG?"
"We've been hit!" I cried into my comm unit. Damn, but I needed some kind of situational HUD. The situation had gone to shit really fast, and it was hard to get a mental picture of what was happening, and where. "About two blocks west of the lake!"
"Freezeframe is down!" RPG called. "Freezeframe is down! Someone get that damned sniper off us!"
I threw the dead weight off myself and charged at the ANT that was rushing at Addy, who'd been occupied dealing with the ANT on Alicia. A brutal combination attack with knife and tomahawk took it out almost instantly.
"Headrush, Charge, can you move?" Harrier called. "I'm taking ground fire!"
"Two ANTs converging on our location," Evvie called urgently. "Need some backup!"
"Kayda," Alicia called urgently as she pulled herself painfully off the ground. From the way she was moving, she was going to need a trip to Doyle. "Go get the sniper off RPG!"
"But ...." I stammered. I couldn't leave them.
"I'm not going anywhere fast!" Alicia snapped. "We'll fall back to the flower shop."
I took the charm off my neck. "Take this, then," I insisted. "I've got my magic, and it might help you!"
Addy nodded, taking my charm and handing it to Alicia. "Let's go." Alicia touched the charm as soon as it settled around her neck, and she vanished. Since Addy had been holding her up, Addy vanished too.
I quickly invoked my spell, and then dashed toward where I thought RPG was.
"I see their flag!" Harrier called out. "Four blocks west and a block south of the flower shop, in a small park!" He cried out sharply. "Damn! Someone get that fucking sniper!"
I followed the direction of explosions - if it was me in RPG's shoes, I'd be blasting anything that might be cover for the sniper.
Didn't our tryst mean anything to Lanie? Or that kiss in the hot tub, the memory of which still tingled my toes? Could she discard me for a new best friend so easily after what we'd shared? Even though it wasn't on purpose? After spending the night in Sioux Falls cuddling with Deb and me because I needed reassurance of her love and friendship? And if she could cast me aside so easily, how long until Addy was too busy with Ayla to be my friend? Or Alicia? I'd be all alone - again, just like the start of the spring term!
"Kayda, go for the flag!" Harrier called again. "Go for the flag!"
I shook my head to clear it again. Harrier had said something to me, but I'd been thinking of other things - again. Ahead of me, I could see RPG hunkered down in an alley behind a dumpster, looking away from me and up at the upper floors of the buildings ahead of him. A few of the buildings were rather the worse for wear.
I was scanning where RPG was looking myself, and I almost missed the motion to my left. Two - no three - ANTS were moving in toward RPG, circling slowly to ambush him from behind.
Angrier than I should have been, I ran screaming at the new threat, still invisible from my ghost-walking spell. The ANTS had little time to react before I decapitated one, and the second was trying desperately to block my flurried attack. No doubt it could sense something - maybe my magic or the EM radiation of my comm unit, but it seemed to know where I was enough that it was managing to slow down my assault. Then again, my heart wasn't really in the fight.
"Four ANTS converging on our location!" Evvie called out desperately. "Need some help here!"
A massive explosion hit the third ANT from behind, close enough to me that the concussion threw me across the alley into the wall. Though I was shielded from the worst of the blast effects and I didn't hit the wall directly, the blow against my shield transmitted some of the force to me and my already aching shoulder, eliciting a sharp cry of surprise and pain. Without focus, my spell fizzled, and as I collapsed to the ground, something went splat a few inches from my head.
"I'm hit!" Harrier called. "Going down!"
A gelatin projectile splattered against the brick wall, just to the right of my head. If I hadn't been moving in pain, it would have added to my agony and put me out of the game. Belatedly realizing what had happened at the first shot, I rolled myself into a doorway, hopefully shielded enough from the sniper's position.
I wasn't completely out of the line of fire - a round smacked into my thigh - hard! Damn! If they'd been real bullets, I'd be heading to Doyle. As it was, I was probably destined for the medical center anyway.
The sniper firing at me was the opening RPG needed. With a characteristic 'whoosh', he discharged his energy projectile, and a building window two blocks away exploded in a shower of debris and bricks.
And then the horn sounded. The match was over. I somehow knew that we hadn't won.
Arena 99 Briefing Room
Gunny glared at me as I sank into a chair in the briefing room. We all looked the worse for wear; no doubt Laurie, Alicia, and I were going to Doyle when the briefing was over. And probably Adrian, too. We hadn't just lost, we'd been stomped.
"What the hell was that?" Gunny barked at me, before turning his patented scowl of disapproval on all my teammates. "I give you the easiest goddamned scenario we've got, and you can't even handle that!" He glared at me again. "What makes you think you should be a training team?"
"We have to start somewhere," Adrian protested unhappily.
"We were outnumbered!" Evvie snapped.
"By baselines!" Gunny retorted angrily. "There were eight of you, and eleven foes. The only thing they had was one sniper!"
"We didn't have any ..." I started to counter.
Gunny didn't let me have a chance. "You outgunned them, you could outfight them, and you had your comm system to coordinate. Which you didn't do!"
We all grimaced at his tongue-lashing, but he wasn't done.
"And your spirit - that buffalo of yours!" He glowered at me.
"Tatanka?" I already knew what he was going to say.
"Where was he? Why didn't you use him?" I started to answer, but he cut me off. "And don't tell me you forgot - again! You can manifest a buffalo that can shred a brick, and ..."
"He's psychic protection for me!" I protested, starting to get a little angry at his ongoing diatribe.
"Bullshit! I read the security reports from your incidents last year. You know how to call him back if there's psychic intrusion! You've done it before."
He wasn't done. "You summon that white monstrosity for piddly little fights you can handle on your own, and then you forget him when the shit hits the fan! Get with the program, Pejuta! You've got a manifested, PK-shredding white buffalo in your arsenal. Use him!" He still wasn't done. "You've got a quiver of exploding, fireball arrows - why didn't you use those? Or any magic?"
That one got me. "I ... I don't know any offensive spells," I grumbled. Now I felt totally worthless. Not only had I neglected ranged weapons, which I'd trained heavily with, and my buffalo, but I was supposed to be a mage, and I didn't do that part well, either.
Debra was going to really ream me for our performance. If she didn't turn away in disgust. And Lanie? She already had one good reason - a shapely, attractive blonde reason - to turn her back on me. I was a disappointment as her best friend, I'd taken her special gadgeteering power from her, and now I was a crappy leader. No wonder she'd turned to Tansy. In fact, in our combat final, when I'd volunteered to help her, Tansy had been a lot more help, and I'm sure Lanie noticed.
"Pejuta, you had the tools at hand to take the enemy's flag. Why didn't you?"
I started, realizing that I hadn't been paying attention. "Um, when?" I asked, baffled.
"As soon as Harrier located the flag!" Gunny barked at me. "You had speed, in Charge. You had your invisibility and shield spell and charm, which she could have used. Your opponent hadn't located your flag at that point, and you had a brick guarding it in any case. Why didn't you attack?"
I winced; I knew the point he was making, and it was at my expense. "I ... um ... I didn't think of that," I admitted sheepishly.
"Did you ever hear the saying that the best goddamned defense is a good offense?"
Ashamed of my lack of leadership and mistakes, I looked down, feeling embarrassed, and even a touch humiliated. "Yeah," I admitted softly.
"Pejuta, your team is going to enroll in team tactics this winter term. You guys need to learn how to work together, instead of that sad excuse of a performance you just gave!"
I hadn't done well as a leader for The Nations, either, at least not the sim team. We'd gotten our asses kicked almost every time I'd led a sim. We were going to have elections soon - maybe I shouldn't even try to lead that group anymore.
"You'll find the videos on the arena website. Before your next sim, you'll do a ten page paper with a full analysis of your simulation - your tactics, or lack thereof," Gunny continued his ranting diatribe, "your teamwork, each combat situation, each decision, every opponent. I expect this to be a team project."
"Yes, Gunny," most of us muttered, in something vaguely resembling harmony.
"Pejuta, you'll also do ten pages on the following topics: a) tactics for using your white buffalo both offensively and defensively, b) tactics and situations for using your ranged weapons, again offensively and defensively, c) how to use the magic you do know, both offensively and defensively, and d) finger-wiggler spells you need to learn to be effective in combat. Got it?"
"Yes, Gunny," I replied glumly.
"Your head was definitely not in the game!" He stared at me until I looked up at him. "You need to figure out whatever the hell is distracting you, and the next time you come in this arena, you better leave it at the goddamned door! Got it?"
"Fights don't wait for you to be in the mood!" He looked around the room. "Any time, at any place, any of you could end up in a fight for your life!" He stared at me again with his patented Marine DI glare of intimidation. "Did that snake demon wait for you guys to be in the mood?"
"No," most of us replied.
"You have to learn to switch into your 'warrior mode' in an instant, forgetting everything except the situation you're in and the opponents you face. If you're at a picnic, let the ants get the food while you fight. If you're on the crapper, make an appointment to wipe later and get your focus on the battle!"
After more brutal Q&A, we were dismissed, and we walked through the tunnels. "That was kind of harsh," Addy said, discouraged. "And he said that was an easy scenario?"
Adrian nodded glumly. "If he wanted to be brutal, we'd have faced the Grunts, or the Outcasts, or even Wondercute."
"Eeep!" several girls said simultaneously, cringing at the thought.
"We've got a lot to learn," Evvie mused, "before we're even half ready for Wondercute."
"I heard your brother is joining Wondercute!" Naomi interrupted.
I simply shrugged, not feeling like conversation, especially when I noted Lanie and Tansy cross in front of us, walking down one of the many cross tunnels. Every time I saw Lanie, it seemed she was with Tansy, possibly even more than she was with Wyatt.
When Evvie, Naomi, and I got back to Poe, they wanted to start working on the analysis, but I begged off. Instead, I went to my room and flopped on my bed, then I curled up in a little ball, feeling totally dejected. So far, this year was not going well - not at all.
Wednesday, September 6, 2007 - Late
Dream Space of the Ptesanwi
"What troubles you, Wihakayda?" The voice called from above, with a bit of a screech in it, and I recognized immediately who it was. I could feel the air spirits as Wabli the eagle circled above me, riding the invisible rapids of the winds that flowed through and around and over the mountains of the Black Hills, Paha Sapa.
I didn't bother to look up at Wabli, instead staring from the top of a granite spire across a valley to the pine-forested mountains beyond. "Nothing," I relied without even the vaguest notion of enthusiasm.
"Nonsense," Wabli called down to me. "When you're troubled, you seek out this perch, this lofty spire, to be alone and to think." I heard a strange chuckling sound, tinged greatly by the eagle's screaming voice. "You are getting predictable, Wihakayda."
I pulled my knees closer to my chest, chin resting on them, my arms holding them close against me. "I'm ... I'm just ... thinking," I muttered unhappily.
"Do you not usually get advice from Wakan Tanka or Tatanka when you think?" Wabli asked, circling yet again. When I didn't answer, he screeched out his eagle-cry, getting my attention. "Are you going to make me circle up here all day, or are you going to let me perch?"
I looked up at the bird, which I knew was a mistake, because with his snow-white head, brown plumage, and golden-yellow legs and feet, Wabli was a spectacular creature to behold, and I knew I wouldn't be able to hold a frown. "I suppose." For Wabli, landing on a narrow ledge without a good hold for his talons was a bit tricky, so I held up my arm, letting him land and grasp me, and then I lowered my arm to the rock.
"Why are you alone here?" Wabli asked me.
I reached into my pouch, the left one, not my medicine pouch hanging on my right side, and pulled out a big piece of buffalo jerky, which I handed to Wabli. "It's ... quiet," I mumbled. "It's ... I don't know. I just feel like being alone right now."
Wabli held the jerky under his talons and tore off a bite, swallowing it whole. "Is it that you want to be alone?" he asked sagely, "or that you feel like you're alone?"
"I'm better off alone," I grumbled angrily.
"Does that include your wastelakapi? Your beloved? Or would you take yourself from her, leaving her alone, too?"
"That's different!" I found myself fighting tears for some reason. "I'm bound to her, and she to me! She can't ... she can't ..." My head tilted forward into my hands, my eyes watering. "She can't ... betray me ... like everyone I thought was my friend has done!"
"You have many colapi," Wabli chided me. "You have many, many friends."
"I ... I don't have a best friend!" I cried. "I've never, ever had a true best friend! Every time I think someone is a special friend, something happens! They ... they betray me, betray my trust and my friendship! They just hurt me!"
"What about the two Gauls? The ones called Adalie and Alicia?"
"They're each other's best friend," I sobbed.
"You need to stop and think how many friends ...."
"And even Deb - she probably wouldn't be my friend if I hadn't accidentally bound us," I continued on my self-pity parade. "She ... she probably regrets having me for a friend, but she can't do anything about it!"
"Wihakayda!" Wabli snapped at me. "Stop!"
"I don't ever want another friend!" I cried into my hands. "I don't ever want to get hurt by someone I was supposed to be able to trust! I wish ... I wish I'd have never gone to that stupid hot-tub party!"
Thursday, September 7, 2007 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"Did outline," Vasiliy said as he sat down. "Posted for everyone to look at."
"Surprising that you found time for that," Laurie snarked, glancing at Chat Bleu, who sat down beside the ruggedly-handsome Russian boy.
Chat Bleu looked down her nose at Laurie, and then at the rest of us, since we were snickering at her reaction to Laurie's comment.
"See," Adrian smirked, "Persistence pays off!"
"What did you have to give her so that she'd be seen publicly with you?" Naomi chuckled.
"Are jealous, da?" Vasiliy smirked at Adrian.
"He has no reason to be jealous at all!" Laurie shot back, putting down her fork so she could wrap her hands possessively around Adrian's arm and lean on his shoulder.
"What she said!" Adrian kicked in, leaning his head against Laurie's.
"That answer should get you some nookie tonight!" Evvie waggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Or at least some serious tongue-fencing!"
Adrian blushed, looking down away from the giggling girls, confirming that their supposition was probably correct.
"Outline is posted. Nobody read it?" Vasiliy returned to the topic he'd introduced, finding it probably safer than the rest of us high-school girls gossiping and speculating about the two 'couples' at our table.
"Yeah, I read it," I admitted. "It's pretty ... thorough. But it doesn't help with the extra assignment Gunny gave me," I added bitterly. "I spent an hour with Mr. Lodgeman after classes, and I've got a meeting schedule tomorrow during lunch period to talk with Ms. Grimes about my magic and what I can do for offensive spells." I sighed, shaking my head. "It's going to take quite a while just to learn what I should be able to do, and then it'll be months before I know the spells well enough to actually use them!"
"And in the meantime, you've got to practice using your buffalo more," Alicia reminded me, accidentally rubbing in Gunny's harsh critical words.
"Yeah," I said with a scowl. "And he told Ito and Tolman and Mr. Two Knives. So guess what Ito has me doing in Advanced Martial Arts?" I didn't feel like letting them guess, so I answered my own question. "I'm going to be sparring two-on-one or even three-on-one, and I have to use Tatanka to help fight!"
"I thought you were training with Mr. Two Knives," Laurie asked, puzzled.
"She is," Alicia answered with a grin. "Advanced Martial Arts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Tuesday and Thursday, a few of us train with Mr. Two Knives, and he's going to make her use Tonka Trucka, too!"
I shot her a glare, then stuck out my tongue. "You've been listening to Chaka, haven't you? His name is Tatanka, not Tonka Trucka!"
"Whatever!" Laurie giggled.
I sighed; the group was trying to be insufferable, and it was my lucky night to be the butt of their feeble attempts at humor. Then I perked up, and the glance at the door turned into an attention-riveted stare. The others noticed, and their heads turned to see what I was looking at.
It wasn't so much what as who. Lanie and Wyatt were making an entrance, and with Wyatt' commanding and intimidating physical presence, calling it an entrance was an understatement. From across Crystal Hall, he was visibly alert and relaxed, gregarious and serious, friendly and threatening, a walking paradox. His grin was nearly constant and infectious, but behind it, his eyes had laser-like focus and scanned his surroundings constantly, alert to what was around him. There was no hiding his powerful build, even in casual, loose-fitting clothes, and he carried himself like a barely-restrained coil of fury, but his motion was fluid and casual.
And then there was Lanie. Her smile was a ray of sunshine that warmed my heart, and she looked confident and sexy - but I thought I noticed something in her gaze that seemed out-of-place, like a haunted or pained feeling buried beneath a carefree façade.
And then, when Cody paused to hold the door, my heart sank, for the next person through the door, clearly part of the little coterie centered around Wyatt, was Tansy Penelope Walcutt. Her. Blonde, curvy, extremely pretty exemplar. And she was smiling, saying something, though I was too far away to hear and I didn't read lips. Lanie reacted to what was obviously a joke; the corners of her mouth turned up in a smile and her mouth opened just so to let out a chuckle.
Laurie's eyes narrowed, her gaze darting back and forth between me and Lanie.
"Would have never believed that Solange and Loophole would be friends," Vasiliy noted dryly.
"Yeah. After Solange pissed her off and Loophole humiliated her?" Adrian noted. "I guess it just goes to show that life is unpredictable."
Evvie noticed Laurie's expression, and she, too, noticed both Lanie and me. Sitting beside me allowed her to lean closer. "Are you okay?" she whispered.
"I'm fine," I whispered back insistently.
"Are you sure? It looks like there's something going on there."
"No, really, I'm okay," I tried to assure her, then I straightened a bit and stood. "I'm going to get some dessert," I announced to the group. "Anyone want anything?" I wasn't about to let them know how much their commentary about Lanie and Tansy stung me.
If I was hoping for relief in the dessert line, I was mistaken. It felt to me like everyone was looking at me again as I walked to the serving area as everyone contemplated Lanie and Tansy and Wyatt - and then me. Wordlessly, I picked up a small dessert plate then slipped into line, still watching the trio as they laughed and joked, and it seemed to me - although I knew it was just my imagination - that Lanie and Tansy were being a little more affectionate than I thought friends should be, even after I tried to factor in how girls were more 'touchy-feely' than boys.
"Can you blame her?" The voice ahead of me was loud enough that I couldn't help but overhear, but when I looked, the trio of guys - I think they were sophs and juniors - were staring at Lanie and Tansy.
"Yeah, but Tansy fucked a lot of guys last year! She was a total slut!"
"Yeah, and both Wyatt and Lanie hated her guts!" another added.
"Well, from the looks of it, she changed teams," the first guy said with a chuckle.
"She's probably screwing both Lanie and Wyatt," the second guy snorted. "Lucky Wyatt!"
"Well, I can't say as I blame Loophole!"
"What do you mean?" Several people were gawking at the trio, listening in on the conversation.
"Simple! Tansy is a damned sight prettier than the Buffalo Gal! It just shows that Loophole has some kind of taste!"
Suddenly, I wasn't the least bit hungry, but instead heartbroken and quite hurt by the commentary. I simply set my plate down, then turned toward the door.
Wyatt's booming voice was easy to identify. Reflexively, I turned at the sound of my name, only to see a grinning Cody standing next to the two seemingly inseparable girls.
"Hi, Kayda!" Lanie said cheerfully, waving with a huge smile. Tansy, too, smiled at me, but I suspected her smile was more a smug grin of triumph than a warm, friendly one.
The moisture in my eyes was starting to blur my vision; I bumped into a few people as I quick-stepped out of the line and ducked behind the waterfall. Ignoring the startled people who I'd bumped and who were glaring at my rudeness, and the others who were simply curious about the minor commotion, I fingered my charm, and after a silver aura popped up around everyone, signifying that my ghost-walking spell was active, I dashed through the crowd, not caring if I bumped anyone, pushed open the door, and sprinted away from the cafeteria, still trying to fight against the inevitable and overwhelming flow of tears.
Thursday, September 7, 2007 - After Class
Fabrication Shop, Whateley Academy
The labs were more chaotic than I expected, but at the same time, there was something reassuring about the noise of machinery and the background technical chatter that was reassuring. I was in my own element here - grease and intricate machinery, parts and technical drawings - and I'd very quickly felt at home, like I'd never left the shop. The unfamiliar part, which was at the same time very welcome, was the extensive equipment in this and other Whateley labs. The Fabrication shop was equipped with micro-furnaces for smelting and casting and forging raw alloys, milling machines and lathes, drill presses and a variety of metal-cutting saws - indeed, there were some metal-working machines that I had no clue as to their purpose, and I thought myself quite technically competent. And that was only on the fabrication shop. Another shop had everything needed to work on electronic circuits, including fabricating semiconductors and components! Not being into bio-engineering or chemistry, I hadn't investigated those lab areas yet, but I suspected they were no less thoroughly equipped.
The only downside to the noise was that every so often, when the background chatter hit a lull, and the machinery was off, some of the hushed side-commentary was audible. Dyke, rug-muncher, lesbitch, and pervert were some of the more polite comments made about me. Some of the guys made blatant jokes among themselves that they were studly enough to 'turn me' to the right team, while some of the girls - like Tweak - were catty as sin. Every so often, I had the feeling of being stared at, and given the commentary, no doubt other students were occasionally taking a moment or two to gawk or gossip or otherwise focus their attention on me.
"Ignore the idiots," Mrs. Choudhari said with a chuckle, having obviously noticed that I was tensing whenever I heard some rude comment. She was helping me figure out a couple of minor problems with my carbon fiber metal-ceramic material, which had a couple issues I hadn't yet solved.
"It's hard to ignore them," I said defensively.
"That's true," she replied with a smile, "but you answer to your goddess, not them. If she thinks you're okay as you are, then you have no reason to be ashamed."
"Yeah, I know," I replied with a half-hearted smile. "Anyway, I don't want to just let the hydrocarbon chain just naturally oxidize when I machine them and break some of the bonds, but I don't know how to avoid that." Changing the subject was a better option than talking about my private life.
We talked at length about options - her first thought was I could passivate them with a teflon chain, which would give the surface some lubricity, which in something like a transfer case, would prevent the buildup of sludge, but she agreed it'd be a problem with machined holes for press-fit bearings or bolts. Plus, natural oxidation would happen nearly instantaneously on a conventional machine - unless I could figure out how to replace the oxidized chemical bonds. She'd arranged a computer simulation, which confirmed my fears that the dangling hydrocarbon bonds would be natural stress-risers in the material, which would weaken it and make it prone to cracking.
"You need to regrow the matrix to span where you've cut the polymer, basically replacing the material with an inner layer of the polymer," she finally concluded.
"Yeah. But that's not a trivial task."
"The way I see it," she continued, "you've got three options. You can work with a chemical gadgeteer or devisor to find something to use as a lubricating bath while you're machining it, to prevent the oxidation. That won't recreate the matrix, but it might reduce the stress-risers. You can work with a nanite expert like Compiler to add a passivation feature to your nano-mill. You can work with a bioengineer like Jobe to ...."
"No! Not Jobe!" I retorted before she could finish.
"A bioengineered material might be your best bet."
"Best bet for what?" Lanie's voice was chipper and friendly.
"Solving a surface passivation problem," Mrs. Choudhari replied.
"I'll talk to Compiler and Hazmat to see what they think," I said, aware that the chatter had died down and many of the students were openly staring at Lanie and me.
"If you have any other questions, let me know," Mrs. Choudhari interjected before turning toward other students, who no doubt had their own issues that needed her help.
"Your ceramic material?" Lanie asked.
I nodded. "Minor issues with surface passivation." I shrugged, trying to ignore all the others.
Lanie looked over my shoulder at my computer. "Is that your nano-machining idea?" she asked, pointing at one of the icons, labeled, obviously enough, 'nano-mill'.
"Yeah." I replied, sighing. Tapping the icon, I brought up the drawings. "It should be straightforward," I said, half-disgustedly, "but the prototype," I glared at a very-large-scale implementation on the shelf of my bench, "isn't working." I sighed again. "There's no reason it shouldn't work - the simulation runs are perfect!"
Lanie winced. "If Ah had my talent," she mused sadly, "Ah could help you diagnosing it."
A cringe of regret and guilt smacked me hard; I was surprised I wasn't knocked over by the intensity of the emotions. "I'm sorry!" The words were soft, filled with regret, and a little mumbled because my eyes were misting and my lower lip trembled.
"It's okay," Lanie tried to reassure me. I looked up, into her soft, compassion-filled gaze, and I felt a little better. "Besides, it's kind of useful not having that power; Ah couldn't teach electronics and basic gadgeteering to Tansy if Ah did things the easy way!"
There was that name again. My teeth clenched, and I turned sharply away, feeling like a knife had been plunged into my heart again. "Well, I have to learn to debug things myself anyway," I snapped. Every time I turned around, Tansy was being thrown in my face. Without another word, I closed and locked my tool drawer, pulling out the key, and then closed my laptop. "Excuse me," I said stiffly. "I have to go meet with the Tribal Council to organize The Nations meeting tonight."
I turned away, but Lanie caught my arm. "Ah'm not blaming you," she said quickly. "Ah was only making an observation. It's coming back - slowly."
"Good." I took another half-step toward the exit, or rather, I tried, but still she held my arm.
"Ah was the one who asked you to bind Griz to me," she reminded me. "It was mah choice, not yours. If it's anyone's fault, it's me, not you."
"Yeah." I didn't think I sounded too convincing.
I wasn't. Lanie turned me toward her and wrapped me in an embrace. "It's not your fault," she reassured me, "and Ah don't blame you." She backed up a few inches, then after she wiped tears from one of my cheeks, she lifted my chin so I had to look into her eyes. "Mitaka ki." Then she pulled me into a tight embrace.
I wanted to believe her. I really, really wanted to. I saw the sweet, caring face that had helped me so much in the spring term, the one who had helped more than I could ever repay. But I couldn't get rid of the doubts, the indelible image of her laughing, joking, spending time, and doing things with Tansy, while I seemed to have been relegated to second-string. She was spending far more time with Tansy than she was with me - in fact, it seemed like she almost never had time to spend with me.
Friday, September 8, 2007 - Before Dinner
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Chou looked over at me and snickered, "My summer? You want to know about my summer? Ho boy ... sit down. You’re gonna need it."
I sat on my bed and looked at Chou worriedly. Sure rooming with her would be fun, but Chou seemed far more engaging than she had been, far more open. I wondered what had happened over the last several months.
"So... remember when I told you that MCO was interested in offering me a two week internship with them?"
"Vaguely. I think the general response everyone had was to laugh at it."
"Yeah, well Ayla made me realize that this was a hell of an opportunity and I shouldn’t waste it. So I said yes."
"You said yes to the MCO?" I partially bolted from my seat.
"I’ll get there. Let’s just say that my Christmas holiday was tame compared to this trip."
Remembering the stories I'd had been told by both Chou and Molly, I was instantly worried. The world was still here, so how bad could it really have been?
"I stayed with Molly’s family for that first week back and it was lovely. We saw a few movies, went on some picnics, you know... dating type stuff. She wanted to send a Tanuki with me when I was heading in to the Boston field office of the MCO but I talked her out of that. It was a good thing."
"Yeah, they have some sort of defense on their buildings against summoned creatures. They take their security very seriously. But when I got there things were... interesting." Chou looked thoughtful a moment before she smirked and shook her head. "Let’s just say that my good relationship with the Boston PD really paid off."
Chou pulled up a card holder from under her shirt and pulled free her MID before tossing the card to me. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, but then I noticed something I'd never seen before. "You have an MCO waiver?"
"Yep. You are talking to a junior member of the MCO, with all the responsibilities and rights that entails."
"Are there any other junior MCO members?" I asked, a little concerned after my experience with the Sioux Falls MCO. Then again, Agent Eisenbach in Chicago had been a good guy.
"From what I was told by Agent Leads, no. They have a few people they have been looking at but no one is really ready to do anything, especially when compared to me."
"Right? I teased him mercilessly over that name but he didn’t care. He’d heard them all before. He was the supervising officer for my Intership. They pretty much were making it up as we went along, which was in my favor." Chou beamed at that. "Honestly it was rather interesting. I toured a few of the metahuman holding areas, went on a few ride-alongs when dealing with some issues, got my concealed carry, got in a fight with a meta."
I sputtered, "What?"
Chou stopped and looked at me. "Which part?"
"Gun? Fight? What?"
Chou shrugged and pulled her USP CT from her bag, "Yeah, I’m legally authorized to carry and have qualified. Of course I never mentioned who trained me or what that training consisted of."
"Who?" My head was spinning. Was Chou really an MCO agent?
"Caitlin Bardue. She said I could tell people I trust, and I trust you. I’ve been training with her in secret since after Christmas. It’s been pretty brutal, and I've learned a lot."
"Right ... Caitlin. And the fight?"
"Oh ...," Chou blushed. "It was more a bad choice by the villain than anything else. It was a brief moment of violence followed by lots of paperwork."
I perked up at this. If Chou was that embarrassed, then it had to be good. "Spill."
Chou looked like me was going to protest before she sighed and said, "Fine. I was at this store trying on some new lingerie - I grew a good bit in the spring and early summer, as you can tell." She stretched out her arms so I could see that her breasts had developed quite a bit. "And there I was, standing in my panties in the changing room, topless, and trying on a few bras before checking out a few skirts for my Chinese trip, when this guy crashes into the room. Before I could respond, he scrambled behind me and held a hand to my head. A few cops came in, blushed, but held steady. It turned into a bit of a hostage situation, until I saw Captain Tilly. He just saw me, groaned, and then walked out waving his hand like he giving me permission. I broke the guys wrist and threw him into a wall, which ended up breaking and puncturing a lung." She winced a bit. "I felt bad about that."
I was trying to not giggle and failing miserably. "Wait, wait, wait... you were a topless hostage until the head of SWAT gestured for you to take him down?"
Chou blushed more, "Yeah. I was trying to avoid combat but this guy was talking about getting a plane and flying to Karedonia or some such and I was going with him and I didn’t want to and I was annoyed that I was topless, so I broke his wrist."
"And he was a super?"
"Apparently he could shoot plasma out of his hands, but he was only like a two and not even an exemplar, so he was kind of stuck robbing things. He had pulled a heist and ended up in my dressing room running from the police."
"Well, did you get the bras?" I was curious; after all of that, I had to see if she'd be embarrassed by a 'girly' question.
"Oh yeah, they were free because the managers were so embarrassed for me and wanted me to give them a good review, so it worked out. But then I had to fill out a ton of MCO and SWAT paperwork. Blech. And my whole MCO Junior Agent thing ... totally made things worse for the guy. So it worked out."
"And this was just the start to your summer?" She was obviously competing with me for the most 'interesting' summer - not that I wanted to win, but still, it would give me bragging rights for a while.
"Oh yes. It got much worse after that." Chou’s smile faded. "You see, I had been invited to China by the Cultural Attaché over Christmas. It was decided that I should go, to find out what was going on, since there was a compulsion spell on the pamphlet inviting me."
When the knock sounded on our door, I glanced at Chou, who simply shrugged at the interruption. "Come in."
"Hi," Evvie and Naomi said almost in unison as they came in. "Got time to talk about the paper before we go to dinner?" Naomi held a red loose-leaf notebook and her laptop under one arm.
"We were just comparing notes on our summer adventures," I explained. "Someone," I shot a smirk at Chou, "is trying to give me competition for the most interesting summer."
"It's a long story," Chou said with a shrug, "so go ahead. I know how demanding Gunny can be with those reports." She looked at the clock. "Besides, I'm supposed to meet Molly and Dorjee in a bit."
I flipped my notebook shut. Every one of the books had been adorned with a different design, all of which were Lakota in theme, and with the different colors, it helped me keep my subjects organized and made my notebooks so uniquely me that they could hardly be mistaken for anyone else's. "Speaking of meeting, how about if we talk about the paper later? I already made plans to have dinner with Lanie."
Naomi shot one of 'those' looks at Evvie. "Oooohhhhh!" both of them cooed simultaneously. "One of those dinners!" Evvie added.
"Are you taking her to 'Truffles'?" Evvie asked with her eyebrows waggling suggestively.
That last comment threw me. "Truffles?"
The two girls exchanged a look. "Oh, you haven't heard?"
"Heard what?" Chou asked, beating me to the question.
Evvie winced, then turned back to me. "I'm not supposed to say, but ... with the remodel, there's a secret in the sub-basement."
"You know how Ayla was always arranging dinner dates?" Naomi whispered after closing the door behind herself, as if she was discussing a state secret. "During the remodel, we heard that some funds and materials got ... diverted."
I gave them my best 'What'chu talkin' 'bout Willis?' look - because I was confused. From her expression, so was Chou.
"Ayla had someone build an exclusive, couples-only fine dining restaurant called Le Bistro for 'date nights' for people - you know, Hank and Lily, Tissy and Nitro - couples. It's kind of a secret - apparently you have to know somebody who knows somebody to get on the reservation list! And Poe got its own little fine-dining eatery, because of, well, because it's Poe. It's called Truffles."
"And you know this how?" I asked.
The shot each other somewhat guilty looks. "Well, we kind of went there the other night," Evvie admitted.
"No wonder you weren't at the caf!"
"Yeah." Evvie grinned. "So naturally, we figured you were taking Lanie to Truffles!"
"Or, since you two are a known item, maybe Le Bistro?" Naomi added with a wink.
"Hardly," I answered with a bit of a huff. "We're just going to the caf. Nothing like ... like what you're suggesting!"
"Methinks thou doth protest too much!" Evvie giggled, which got Naomi and Chou giggling as well.
Shaking my head, I saw them out and went next door to knock. A moment later, Lanie opened her door a bit and peeked out.
"Ready for dinner?" I asked with a confident smile.
A look of profound embarrassment flashed onto Lanie's features as she winced. "Oops," she apologized quickly. "I ... kind of forgot!"
A cold knot formed in my stomach. "I see," I said in as neutral a tone as I could manage.
"Hi, Kayda!" Tansy waved from a chair behind Lanie, where she sat looking rather elegant and more than a touch smug.
"I'm helping Tansy ... in the labs," Lanie continued. I couldn't tell if she was acting or if she really felt as bad as her expression and tone of voice indicated. "We were going to grab a bite at the hamburger stand on the way."
"I ... I ... I understand," I managed to stammer. "It's ... okay. You've got ...."
"Why don't you join us?" Tansy suggested awkwardly, interrupting me as she stood and approached the door. From the way she spoke, I got the distinct impression that she'd much rather I didn't join them for dinner.
"Um, no," I stammered, trying to think up some kind of excuse. It seemed like they felt obligated to include me, and that was the last thing I wanted - to be included like a bothersome younger sibling out of necessity. I wasn't convinced in the least that they wanted to have me join them. "I'm ... I'm going to work on ... on studying ... some magic spells. I'll ... I'll talk with you ... later." I turned and, feeling more than a touch dejected, walked toward the main staircase, with Evvie and Naomi gawking behind me.
"Kayda?" Lanie's voice rang out behind me, but I didn't stop.
"Kayda, wait!" It was Tansy's voice calling now.
I ignored her, too, turning down the stairs just as Destry and Gorgon came down from the third floor. "Hmm, did Lanie turn Tansy to the correct side?" Gorgon speculated in a more than slightly-suggestive tone as the two upperclassmen gawked at Lanie and Tansy.
"Must have," Destry chuckled. "Lately, those two are always together!"
Despite Lanie and Tansy coming after me, and getting tangled in the rush of girls coming down the stairs heading toward dinner, I kept going, ignoring their calls after me. Fighting a swirl of negative emotions, I trudged wearily to Crystal Hall, where I skipped the main the serving line and just grabbed a takeout bag, and then headed out the back doors toward the Fixers' Patio. I glanced over my shoulder toward the main entrance, spotting Evvie and Naomi as they came in; it looked like maybe they were searching for me.
Instead of heading back toward Poe, or down to the labs, I slunk across campus, finding myself drawn like a magnet to one of the small hills which seemed to be where I usually ended up sitting when I was upset or needed to think. At that point, I wanted to be alone, I wanted to think, and I was more than a little upset. It was as good a time as any for me to go to 'my' hill.
There really was no sensation of time as I sat, alone, not even trying to eat the food which was long-since cold. I just felt abandoned by the girl who was supposedly my best friend. Forgetting that we were going to dinner? Making plans with Tansy instead? Despite what she'd said the night before, I was more convinced than ever that Lanie had abandoned me as a friend, or at the very least, replaced me with Tansy as her best friend. And where did that leave me? I wasn't sure, but I really didn't like the thought of losing my best friend. Slowly, my eyes moistened and tears trickled down my cheeks.
Friday, September 8, 2007 - Dusk
St. Lawrence River
The great, monstrous beast shambled onward, following the scent of a shaman, which was getting stronger. Occasionally, he felt a much lesser shaman nearby - and as his hunger grew, he allowed himself to be distracted from his path to feed.
A few Oneida tribes of Ontario's First Nations were now without their shamans, although he found the last two had been with defenders who fought with strange weapons, spears they never threw but which spat tiny darts at him. At first, they stung a lot, but then he realized that by flickering very rapidly between the spirit world and the real world, the sting was lessened, and only the shamans could fight him in the spirit world. And they were no match; their magic was useless. The shaman-hunter reveled in their suffering, in their panic and fear as they realized - often at the last moment - that they were helpless against him.
Kitagilik paused as he neared a great river. He had to cross - the shaman he sought was on the far side, but he was used to the north, where rivers he crossed were frozen into ice. He stepped onto the water uneasily, and summoning the power from within, he let it flow into the liquid, freezing it instantly so it would bear his weight.
Friday, September 8, 2007 - Late Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Got a sec, Mrs. Horton?" I asked, peeking in our house-mother's open door as I knocked on the door jamb. As usual, her door was open for us, and unless she had business or personal guests, we were always welcome to come in. Once in a while, several of the students would gather in her apartment for classic movies, but tonight, only Zenith was present.
"I can come back later," I muttered when I saw the senior. "It's ...."
"No, come in. We were just chatting," Zenith said quickly, standing "I've got to go do my homework anyway."
Mrs. Horton seemed to read my mood; once Zenith had left, she closed her door. "Do we need to go to my office, or is this more casual?"
"I don't want to trouble you," I said by way of excuse. Lately, I'd felt more than a little self-conscious, like I was an unwelcome intrusion on other people. "It's ..." I sighed, taking a deep breath and steeling myself. "I'd like ... I'd like your help transferring," I blurted out, forcing the words that seemed too reluctant to come out on their own. "To the third floor," I added quickly.
Mrs. Horton's eyes widened a bit. "I see. That's ... a pretty serious change from the other day." She gestured for me to sit down on the sofa as she eased herself gracefully into a wing chair. "Is there a problem? I thought you and Chou ...."
"No, it's not Chou!" I retorted quickly. "Or Molly or Dorjee visiting a lot," I added.
"Then what?" She had the same expression that Mom always had when she was 'politely' interrogating either Danny or me; she knew there was a problem somewhere and was determined to find it.
"It's just ... well, I'm ... I'm ...," I stammered, trying to find words that didn't sound petty or childish or trivial. "I'm a junior, and ... I ... I just belong on the third floor."
"What's the real problem?" Mrs. Horton asked, bypassing my feeble, half-hearted, lame excuse. "
"There isn't one," I tried to rebut her question. "It's ...."
"Is it someone else on the floor?" Her eyebrows rose incrementally as she considered other sources of problems. "Ayla? Alex? The new girl Lina?" Her expression turned apologetic. "Not surprisingly, with the rush on the construction, we're having problems with the bathroom in the freshman girls' wing, so you're having to share with them. And I know Lina might be ...."
"No," I assured her. "She's ... probably more embarrassed than me, and if I can deal with ... Ayla and Alex ...."
Mrs. Horton's eyes narrowed again as she considered my unspoken reasons. "Is it, perhaps, your RA? Are you and Elaine having problems?"
"No!" I denied almost instantly.
"Kayda?" Mrs. Horton was more than a little skeptical of my snap answer. "What's going on?
"Nothing," I replied uneasily. It was feeling more and more like an interrogation from Mom, who never stopped questioning until she got to the root of the problem.
"Then why would I have a note from Mrs. Carson that she thinks you're behaving a bit cool toward Elaine in her class?"
I shook my head, avoiding her piercing gaze. "I'm ... just busy."
From the rather pregnant pause, I hoped she bought my weak excuse. "Kayda, what's going on? You two are best friends!"
That was the crack that broke my emotional dam. All the feelings I'd bottled up for days came pouring out. "We were!" I bawled, covering my face with my hands. At some point, she'd moved to the sofa, beside me, but as distracted as I was by my woes, I hadn't even noticed until she wrapped me in a motherly embrace.
"But not anymore!" I blubbered. "She ... she ... Tansy came ... and ... and took away ... Lanie! She took ... my best ... friend!" I cried on her shoulder for a while before I could even continue. "She ... she was ... my ... my soul-sister!" I lamented through tears. "I ... I thought ... she said ... said we ... we were ... we'd always be ... special friends!"
After several minutes - I really had no idea how long - I managed to lift my head off Mrs. Horton's shoulder. "I ... I want to transfer ... to another wing! Please! Any wing!" I know I sounded a bit desperate. "Or ... who do I talk to about transferring to ... to another cottage if I have to! It's ... she doesn't care anymore! She never has time to spend with me! She ... she doesn't even ... notice me!" Somewhere, more tears were found in my eyes, despite feeling like I was spent all my tears. "It's ... it hurts too much ... to keep seeing her ... doing stuff, and forgetting about me!"
I don't know how I missed the intoxicating smell of peanut-butter cookies baking, but a timer went off, and Mrs. Horton winced. "I've got to get a pan out of the oven," she apologized. "Maybe a fresh cookie will help some? I've got some soda in the fridge, too, if you'd like. If I remember, you prefer root beer floats?" When I nodded, mutely, she helped me sit up straight and then scooted into the kitchen. A few moments later, she re-emerged with a plate of hot, fresh cookies and some napkins, which she set on a coffee table. "I'll be right back with drinks," she said pleasantly.
Having mostly skipped dinner, I found the aroma of the cookies nearly irresistible, and I took one. It was as tasty as it smelled, and I realized I was hungrier than I'd thought when I took my second cookie.
No sooner had Mrs. Horton handed me a glass than her apartment door opened and Lanie walked in, surprising me, but judging from Mrs. Horton's reaction, it didn't surprise her at all. Somehow, she'd found time to call Lanie, but it baffled me how she'd known that cookies were needed - unless she always had cookies baking in expectation of some visitors needing some motherly love.
"Hi," Lanie said, eyeing me warily. Without asking, she sat down beside me on the sofa and picked up a cookie. "Is something wrong, mitaka ki?" she asked, looking at me with her big, soft eyes and a caring expression on her face.
The tears which had stopped broke out anew and I turned away from her. "I thought ... I thought ... we were best friends!" I bawled. "I thought you cared for me!"
Lanie put her hand on my shoulder, probably to comfort me or something. "We are!" she started to say.
"You never have time for doing anything with me!" I wailed. "It's always Tansy! Tansy this, Tansy that! She's always with you!" Before she or Mrs. Horton could react, I bolted from her apartment, took the steps two at a time, and ran into my room, locking the door behind myself and then I flopped onto my bed, curling up around my pillow as I cried and cried.
The knock on the door went unanswered because I was too absorbed in my grief at not only losing my best friend, but having her totally clueless about it. She had no idea how much she was ignoring me, or how much it was hurting me; instead, she seemed to be acting as though there was nothing wrong.
After another more-insistent knock, the sound of the lock mechanism acting slightly disturbed me; at that point, I wished I could teleport like Fey, because I knew it was most likely Mrs. Horton, coming to check on me, since Chou was studying with Molly and Dorjee. All I could do, though, was to clutch my pillow tighter.
"Kayda." Mrs. Horton's voice was caring, expressing significant concern for me. "You and Lanie need to talk, hon." She sat on the edge of my bed and rubbed my shoulders. "You two need to resolve this. Running away to another wing or another cottage won't help you. You will bump into each other on campus a lot."
"Not if I move to another cottage!" I wailed.
"What about your class with Mrs. Carson?" she asked. "Or Team Phoenix? Or the Gearheads?" Damned her logic; I couldn't refute that.
"I'll ... I'll go back home! I'll ... go to school somewhere else!" I blubbered.
The next thing I knew, Mrs. Horton rose from the bed and the redhead sat down, taking over rubbing my shoulders. She gasped and flinched when I pulled away from her touch.
"Go on, dear," Mrs. Horton encouraged her. "You and Kayda need to talk through this." She gently closed the door behind her, leaving Lanie alone with me in my room.
"What's wrong, mitaka ki?" Lanie asked again. This time, she sounded a little hurt, like having to ask the question was painful to her.
"Don't call me that!" Without moving, I snapped back at her - unfairly. "I'm not your sister! You don't act like it anyway!"
"What?" There was astonishment in her voice and on her face.
"You never have time to do anything with me!" I bawled. "It's always Tansy! You're always with her! You even forget things like dinner with me!" I turned my head, glaring as nasty as I could at her. "Go ahead and say it - she's your new best friend, isn't she? Your new soul-sister? I'm just another ... nobody!" I flopped my head back on the bed, facing away from her.
"Kayda, do you have more than one friend?"
I started at her question, surprised. "What?"
"Adalie? Alicia? Evvie? You have more than one friend, don't you?"
I was so angry and hurt that I didn't want to admit I was being irrational or illogical, but I couldn't deny what she'd said. "Yes."
"So Ah can have more than one friend, too, right?" There was a slight tremor to her voice, something ... unusual ... that I couldn't place. Maybe my words had hurt her?
"I suppose," I muttered. "Yeah."
Lanie rolled me over and sat me up next to her, wrapping an arm around me and gently pulling my head onto her shoulder. "You are mah soul-sister!Ah'm not just saying that! Think back to the hot tub party. Ah know when we first saw each other, there was something that ... Ah don't know, it clicked. It's like ... parts of our very souls clicked, like we were meant to be friends. Or sisters. Definitely very close!"
I blushed a bit at the memory - when that happened, she was stark naked, a vision of red-haired beauty. And I wasn't exactly modest myself. But ... she was right. In that look, there was something that I felt, deeper than anything I'd felt before or since - except for Debra.
"You're a gearhead! You're a gadgeteer! We click!" she continued. "Or don't you remember how easily we talked, then and after - and about more than cars? And it's way more than ... the sweat lodge!" She laughed when I blushed scarlet, and then she kissed my forehead. "Although Ah'm not going to ever complain about that ... special time!" She grinned at me. "You're the sister Ah never had."
"And you're ... you're my ... cuwe," I said softly. "I'm just ... afraid!"
"Of being pushed aside," I sobbed, fighting tears. "Of losing my best friend."
"Mitaka ki, you'll always be mah soul sister!" she said, lifting my chin and kissing me rather deeply - more than a 'friend' peck on the cheek. Definitely way more.
When she finished kissing me, I leaned my head back on her shoulder, this time embracing her as she held me.
"But you're not mah only friend! Just like Ah'm not your only friend. Tansy is a friend, too. And Ah know that she's kinda short on friends. Ah bet she'd be happy to have you'd as a friend, too."
Friday, September 8, 2007 - Midnight
St. Lawrence River, Canada
The captain of the freighter sat on the bridge, bored nearly out of his mind. He'd made the trip up and down the seaway so frequently that it was completely routine, and with the radar showing only limited shipping traffic, he could afford to relax some. The night sky was dark, moonless, and without any light reflecting off the dark waters, he and the helmsman had to rely on the electronic eyes to navigate the broad, deep river.
Without warning, the ship lurched hard, as if it had struck something. As alarm bells began to ring, the intercom was suddenly full of chatter, notes of distress from his engine room. "We're taking on water, Captain!" came a frantic call from below.
"What did we hit?" he demanded of both the helmsman and the engine room.
"I can't tell," his engineer reported. "But we're holed pretty badly."
"Seal the compartments!" The captain noticed with alarm that the ship already had a couple of degrees of list.
"All sealed, but sensors indicate water in three holds, and we've already lost one engine room!" the engineer on duty reported immediately, his voice somewhat frantic. "Too many compartments are holed. The pumps can't keep up."
"You mean the ship is sinking?" the captain demanded, astonished. And yet, he knew the answer, because the list had increased another couple of degrees.
"Yes! Most likely she'll capsize to starboard!" The last report was emphasized by the ship's starboard list increasing.
The captain snapped on an intercom. "Man the lifeboats!" he ordered, feeling his gut knot up. "Abandon ship!" He grabbed a microphone from its holder, leaning against the increasing list, and thumbed the button. "Mayday, Mayday! This is the freighter Havet Engel! We have collided with something and the ship going down." At the same time as he spoke, he flipped a cover on an instrument panel and pressed a button, activating an automatic Inmarsat distress beacon. "Mayday, Mayda! This is the freighter Havet Engel! We had a collision! The ship is sinking!" The captain glanced out of the window, looking in vain at the dark waters, searching for any clue of what they'd hit. His jaw dropped as the ship's running lights reflected off what looked like a massive ice floe.