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A Whateley Universe Story

The Final Trump

By Bek D Corbin

 

Part 2

 

At Gran’Pere’s estate at dinner that night, Nick explained, “When the Magnificent Five learned that ‘Captain Ransack’ was going to raid the Yerunkle, Golden Eagle stepped in and had the exhibit replaced with facsimiles, and the real treasures stored. I was expecting him to place them all in the Yerunkle’s vault, but that was already full with another exhibit, so Yerunkle security put it all in an unmarked semi-trailer, figuring that no one would notice it!” Nick finished with a snicker.

Gran’Pere arched one snowy eyebrow. “And how did this allegedly magnificent Five learn of your maneuver?”

“Oh, I have my ways of letting Golden Eagle learn things,” Nick said chipperly. Then his good mood dropped. “But then, as Ace and Kage were driving off with the boodle, they ran into seven goats, killing them. One at a time, each a block apart. The goats, which shouldn’t even be there, simply jumped in front of the truck, just in time to be killed. When we opened the truck, all the cases had been replaced by boxes stuffed with junk.”

“It’s called ‘bilocation’, Nick darling,” Mara explained. “It’s easier to replace a mass with an equal mass than it is to simply move a large mass from one place to another.” She paused. “And the hanged woman who was dressed as me?”

Nick shook his head. “No clue. Though, from the state of her arms and teeth, and a few suggestive scars and so on, I’d guess that she was one of those women that biker gangs hand around like washcloths.” Nick spared a look at Asha, who was following this with the glazed combination of confusion and boredom of a child listening to matters far out of her comprehension. Gratified at that, he continued, “Luke says that she died by strangulation from the hanging, and she was tripping from a particularly nasty hallucinogen when she died. Oh, and she had a brand-new tattoo of a goat’s head on her shoulder, along with a string of characters in a language we couldn’t identify.”

“Akelarre…” Gran’pere drawled ominously. He started to form a snide quip regarding Nick’s reaction to the nasty prank, but he saw that Nick was not in the mood for it. There are things simply not the material of sparkling badinage. Covering for his near faux-pas, de Maugris said with severe earnestness, “Sacrificing the goats, linking their deaths to the movement of the truck as to facilitate the goods’ relocation? Blood magic is nasty stuff, but nothing that I haven’t done myself. But the woman, no matter how depraved or lowly, murdered to prime the effect? No! For once, we are squarely on the side of Justice and Righteousness in opposing Akelarre. Nicholas, do whatever you must to stop this! Nothing but pain, misery and the vilest corruption can spring from whatever she plans. She deals with the Pit, and we would ill serve the Mother Church’s absolutions of our past sins if we were to condone this in any way! Indeed, if anything one might argue that this could be considered a form of penance for deeds yet unconfessed…”

“Mom,” JJ asked with concern in his voice, “does the fact that the woman that Akelarre killed was dressed at you have any significance?”

‘Yes dear- it means that Akelarre has a nasty sense of humor; something that is hardly news to me.”

“Mara, m’love, I owe you an apology,” Nick said. “I admit, I didn’t take your feud with her that seriously. But I was wrong. That Akelarre bitch is dangerous. However, JJ, she did leave a little something for us.” Nick reached into a breast pocket and produced a sheaf of brown paper. “Yet another poem-riddle. See if your streak with these things holds.”

JJ reached for the folded paper, but Mara snatched it from her husband’s fingers as he handed it over. Wordlessly, she passed the paper over one of the candles. As one end started to catch fire, she pulled the paper from the flame and smelled it. “No scent of infernal corruption. And the paper is simple parchment; given the scribe, it’s most likely goatskin.”

Even so, JJ gave the paper a slightly squicked look as he took it from his mother. He unfolded the paper and scanned it over. Then he looked carefully at the message, and asked, “Mom, Gran’pere… do either of you remember whether Akelarre was classically educated or not?”

Mara let out an amused snort. “Let me guess… she’s packed it with torturous allusions to obscure works of minor writers?”

“ah… let me put it to you like this: I recognize the name ‘Athena’… but that’s just about IT.”

“JJ, ma crevette,” Mara said indulgently, “Akelarre grew up poor and uneducated. Like many self-educated people, she’s rather vain about her accomplishments, and flaunts them at the slightest opportunity. I doubt that anything she references will be more recent than the 18th Century, and she has a special passion for the Greek poets. I think that researching all that will be good for you, but feel free to come to me for the more obscure passages.”

“That’s her way of saying that you can’t do it, and she’ll have to do all the real work,” Vic said brattishly. Then he let out a yelp of pain “Mom! JJ kicked me under the table!”

“JJ! Manners!”

Gran’pere gave his obstreperous grandchildren a chilling glare (which Asha seconded with a haughty *humph!*) and tried to steer the conversation into more constructive venues. “It strikes me that Akelarre may have blundered. She was so intent on being clever, that she may have overlooked something that a better educated Mage would have never ignored.”

“Well, that has rather been Akelarre’s besetting sin,” Mara murmured.

“Nicholas! How much did these crates that Akelarre transported from the lorry weigh?”

Nick racked his brains, converted the weight from Pounds to Kilograms, and said, “Well, I’d say a little over 1,500 kilos, assuming that they weren’t packed in Security containers. Closer to 2,000 if they were.”

“Ah!” Gran’pere smacked the table and beamed. “Greed always was another of her shortcomings.”

“Yes, now that you mention it, Akelarre was one of those fools who think that if they’re not running off with everything, then they’ve lost,” Mara commented. “I won out over her more than once by simply giving her the option of trying to take more than she could carry.”

Gran’pere nodded. “I believe that we may be able to track Akelarre by her miasma.”

“She stinks that bad?” Vic asked incredulously.

“ah, No,” Mara took over. “Miasma is, er… let me start over, children. There’s a strange concept that magic is mag-er, miraculously clean, that you can do things with magic and leave no trace.” JJ started to say something, but Mara shushed him. “But that’s a mistake. There is a Law of Balance that says that there’s a cost for everything. When you use magic, besides other side effects, you leave a trace of miasma, a kind of noxious smoke that’s left behind. It’s invisible, but you can feel it slightly. Some people who have well developed psychic gifts can smell it, which is why it’s called ‘miasma’, which means ‘bad smell’. Some of the most accomplished Witch Hunters of the Middle Ages and Renaissance trusted their noses more than their eyes.”

“So, you’re saying that you can track Akelarre by her smell?” Nick asked.

“Not quite,” de Maugris hedged. “You see, there is a reason why witches’ circles, and wizards’ towers and other places where magic is repeatedly worked are shunned. You see, if the miasma isn’t cleansed thoroughly and immediately, it can sink into places and objects like a stubborn stain. And worse, unclean, predatory beings are drawn by the scent of miasma, like sharks to blood in the water.”

“Also, besides ways of cleansing the taint of miasma, there are other ways of coping with it,” Mara said. “Miasma is a manifestation, and like most manifestations, it can be concentrated and made more solid. The more solid forms don’t attract as much attention, and can be stored. The more concentrated, the more compact of course, and the less of a ‘scent’ it leaves that can be followed. Dross, the most compact form, appears to be a stone of some sort. A dross stone the size of a pea would fill an entire football stadium if reverted to its gaseous form of miasma.

“You know that classic old bit of folklore that has covens of witches using magic to make milk cows go dry, or crops fail, or make people have bad dreams? Well, while there are those that say that they’re serving Satan’s ends by bringing misery upon the righteous, what they’re really doing is foisting magical waste at some level off on their neighbors. And if those neighbors were as righteous as they’d claimed, then they never would have irritated the Witches into dumping their waste in their back yards!”

“There are things that you can do with dross,” de Maugris continued. “All of them nasty. One damned alchemist made dross look like ruby, fit it into a ring and gave it to a man he wished ill on. Poor fool caught the eye of a particularly nasty specter, which followed that ring for decades, until DeLusigne got his hands on it.”

“What’s miasma’s most easily concentrated form?” JJ asked intently.

“A nasty liquid, somewhere between a thick syrup and runny tar,” Mara said. “It’s called ‘faex’, which is a Latin term for ‘waste’.”

“What’s the most easily handled form of Miasma?” Nick asked, clearly thinking something through.

“Faex,” Mara answered. “While Miasma is noxious in almost every form, Faex is its deadliest form, as it’s concentrated enough to be toxic, but not locked in a crystalline form, so it can penetrate the skin.”

“Though wearing the crystalline form for any length of time can have nasty effects,” Gran’pere added. “Jealousy, greed, spates of uncontrollable anger and hatred, insanity, feeblemindedness, and if worn long enough, illness, decrepitude and death. Most people have the simple intuitive good sense to be repulsed by crystalline dross, but there are those poor damned fools who become obsessively drawn to it.”

Nick nodded, concentrating furiously. “And how much miasma would you say was generated by this ‘bi-location’ of the exhibits from the truck?”

“Precisely my point,” duMaugris nodded with a rare approving chuckle in Nick’s direction. “Relocation of gross, inanimate matter is a very straining endeavor. Moving between 1500 and 2000 kilos of inanimate matter would create massive amounts of miasma. Throw in the human sacrifice, the Infernal implications, the fact that the lorry was moving, the fact that it was done at considerable range-”

“And don’t forget that the exhibits were inside a metallic container when it happened,” Mara pointed out.

“Indeed,” duMaugris nodded, also calculating furiously. “On the most general estimate, I’d say roughly… 3 liters in the faex form per kilo.”

“Six… thousand… liters?” Nick gulped. “That’s a LOT of nasty goop!”

“Precisely my point!” Gran’pere repeated himself. “And that’s just for this one admittedly extraordinary effort.”

“She’s storing it somewhere,” Nick caught his father-in-law’s point. “Dumping it would cause too many problems, which would generate too much attention, which she can’t afford. It would most likely be disguised as some sort of dangerous chemical. But still it would most likely be detected by any mystic looking for it…” then the penny dropped. “But not if it was stored where it would confuse the lines of force that you’d use in a scrying! They’re using it to confuse Mara’s scryings, turning a liability into an asset!”

Gran’pere sat back, his snowy eyebrows high with the approval of a teacher whose student has figured out the lesson.

But as du Maugris opened his mouth to say something, JJ cut him off, “I wouldn’t, Dad.”

“Wouldn’t what?”

“You’re thinking of finding Akelarre’s caches of dross or faex or whatever, and using them to find her.” JJ said. “Bad idea.”

That stopped conversation dead. Nick sat back and gave his son a curious look. “Oh? Why?”

“Because it’s a game. I dunno if she’s setting this up as chess or checkers or Gō, or what, but she’s trying to finesse you into playing this game with her.”

“And?”

“And what was it that Sun Tzu said? I forget the exact quotation, but it went something along the lines of ‘never fight unless you gain something from it’. By letting Akelarre suck you into playing a game by her rules, she distracts you from the real issue: her Great Quest. She has real power invested in the Quest; this game with the faex caches is just a distraction. Even if you do find the ‘center’ of the pattern she’s weaving, there’s nothing that says she’ll be in that center. You’ll waste time, effort and manpower tracking down a wooden medal.”

“But if I-”

“Why would she place it where you could find it?” JJ asked sharply. “It’s a foreseeable move. VIC could see that move coming!”

“HEY!”

“But your mother-”

“So do it the hard way!” JJ insisted. “That’s what she doesn’t want, for you to track her down using mundane, conventional methods! You know the area better than she does, and you know what to look for. So, she and Dr. Thirty will try to give you bogus tangents to go off on. For instance, that track computer paper that the riddle-poem clue was printed on? Why do that? Because Dr. Thirty wants you to waste time tracking down the few remaining sources for track paper. Hel- er HECK, he might eve throw in an old school ambush!”

“That was very well reasoned out Jesse,” Gran’pere said. JJ beamed, but his pride was punctured when Gran’pere dropped his approving tone and continued, “BUT it does NOT excuse you for disrespecting your father at my table! You will leave the table now! There will be no dessert for you!”

“What? But I-”

“Leave!”

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As the ‘Phantom Highwayman’ rose up out of the rooftop, JJ sat there, arms folded, brow beetled, a look of sharp disapproval on her face. Or appearance of face. JD started a snide comment, but JJ cut him off sharply. “Did you do that?”

“ah… do what, Squirt?” JD hedged, taken more than a tad aback.

“Don’t ‘Squirt’ me!” JJ snapped. “When Dad pulled off his heist, it turned out that Akelarre had switched out the contents of the truck with just using magic-” JD started to say something, but JJ cut him off, “-magic powered by a human sacrifice! They found a woman dressed up like Mom in her Black Swan rig, hanging by a rope! JD that’s WRONG! We’re Supervillains, we’re Outlaws, but we’re not EVIL! Dammit, there are things you JUST DON’T DO! So, JD, Did You Do That?”

“NO!” JD reeled, “Jeezus, What makes you think I’d do THAT?”

“For the magic to work, the woman would have had to die inside the trailer, by hanging. And not the quick drop, of a broken neck; that kind of magic needs the short drop, of slow strangulation, which takes hours of horrible agonizing suffering. The trailer was sealed, as per Montauk SOP; nobody went near the trailer for the hours between the time it was sealed and when Ace drove off with it. There was no sign of any forced entry, and the trailer was checked by experts. Moving the woman into the cab by magic would have taken more energy than it was worth and created a contextual conflict. A technological teleportation would have required some sort of beacon that would have remained with the body. BUT, with your powers, you could have ghosted her into that trailer, strung her up, and left without a trace. So? Is that what you did?”

“Dammit, bro, cut me a break!”

“I AM cutting you a break, Bro,” JJ said with real steel in her voice. “I’m not presuming flat out that you did it, and giving you a chance to explain yourself. I COULD have told Mom and Dad about this meet, and Latigo could have taken you out with a sniper round the second you turned solid, or Mom could have cast some sort of capture spell.” JJ arched one eyebrow over cold eyes. “So? Explain yourself.”

“NO, I didn’t do it!” JD yelped. “Akelarre had me wrangling those stupid goats of hers, so they bounced in front of the truck on cue!”

“Then who DID do it?”

“Well, Dr.XXX was talking about using some sort of ‘breaching’ system- dunno the details, he didn’t spell it out in boring detail, for a change- but moving everything out of the trailer with it would have taken at least 15 minutes, more than time for Security to spot it. But stringing up a woman light enough to be mistaken for Mom? Five minutes, and most of that would be tying the knot.”

JJ nodded. “Yeah, that works. It’s probably some application of that displacement effect that Thirty uses for his teleportation scheme.” JJ gave her brother an apologetic smile.

“So! Any sign of our mole?” JD asked, clearly steering the conversation off the sticky tangent it had derailed onto.

“No,” JJ grunted out grudgingly. “The problem is that between your disappearance and the ‘Phantom Highwayman’ and Akelarre and Dr 30 getting up in Dad’s grill, everyone’s all stressed out! Even Asha and the Diabolical Duo have picked up on it. The only one who’s acting normally is Viv, and that’s because she’s all wrapped up in who’s going to take her to the Sophomore Prom.”

“But Viv’s only a Freshman.”

“Like that’s gonna stop her?”

JD waved that aside. “Okay, we’re gonna have to do this the hard way. Squirt, yer gonna have your work cut out for you.”

“Nailing down which of the cadre had the opportunity to assist Dr. 30 get the body into the trailer?”

“No, in tracking down translations of the works of these Never-Heard-Of poets that Akelarre insisted on citing.”

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“JJ dear, you wanted something?” Mara asked as Nick, Luke and Juliet followed her into the spacious family library that JJ had more or less commandeered for several hours.

“Yeah,” JJ said, looking up bleary-eyed from the stack of books on the desk in front of him. “I think I’ve found what Akelarre was trying to slip past us.”

“Oh?” Juliet asked as she sat down and motioned for the maid to bring in tea. “Why didn’t you bring it up at dinner?”

“Because I didn’t want Vic to hear about it until after the fact.”

“Oh?” Mara asked, raising one eyebrow. “Why not?”

“Because it involves Dr. Helen Smart, and Vic has a fanboy crush on her.”

“I DO NOT!” came from under one of the couches. Juliet dug Vic out from under the couch while Nick dragged Bart out of his hiding place on top of one of the bookcases by his ear. Mara gave each of them a resounding swat on the backside and then shoved them out the door.

When Mara sat besides Nick on the couch, Luke asked, “Why do you think that Dr. Smart is Akelarre’s next target? All of her targets so far have been in some way mystical in nature, like calling like and that mumbo-jumbo. Why would one of Akelarre’s ‘shards’ lodge anywhere near anything that Dr. Smart has?”

“Yeah, that puzzled me too,” JJ nodded. “But then it registered that Akelarre doesn’t tell the shards where to fall; she just ‘throws them up in the air’ and they land wherever suits them the best. And just because Dr. Smart doesn’t practice magic doesn’t mean that she can’t be studying some relic or object that has mystical properties.”

“Did you track down all those references that you said Akelarre littered her poem with?” Mara asked.

“Yeah. And you were right: Akelarre definitely went for the Lit Wonk on this one. I think she’s going for the ‘neener, neener, I’m better read than you’ angle. She didn’t even go for the big names of 12th Century, like Jean Bodel or Benoît de Sainte-Maure!

“No, she had to reference poets like Hernando de Acuña, Tyburce Dyariferos, Nicole Estienne, Ginés Pérez de Hita, Leandro Fernández de Moratín, Bernardino de Rebolledo y Villamizar, and Benjamin Rudyerd! I mean, who ever even heard of these bozos?”

“Then how did you trace the allusions?” Nick asked.

“I set a pack of wonks to catch a wonk. I went onto a Haut Literature website and put up all the citations as a challenge to the regulars. It took them three hours to nail down Benjamin Rudyerd, and the rest didn’t even take that long.”

“Then why did you spend all those hours here in the library?” Juliet asked.

“Do you honestly think I trusted that pack of ding-dongs on anything this important?” JJ shot back. “Besides, I had to nail down one thing.”

“Oh?”

“Nowhere in Classical Mythology does the goddess Athena, either as Pallas or Minerva, nor in Medieval or Renaissance or Enlightenment or Victorian or Modern revisions of her myths, have a ‘jewel of enlightenment and destruction’.”

“And there IS one in Akelarre’s poem?”

“Yep!” JJ took a bolstering sip of tea. “I’ll spare you all the references. What really nailed it for me were the allusions to ‘her pet scorpion’, obviously an allusion to the Astrological sign of Scorpio.”

“The Stinger!” Luke blurted out.

“The Stinger?” Nick echoed back to his brother incredulously.

“One of Dr. Smart’s claims to fame- besides a well-earned reputation as an Adventuring and Investigative Scientist- is that she has developed one of the most versatile and effective handheld energy weapons ever devised! The Stinger is basically a very versatile vari-phase plasma weapon, but she’s rigged it somehow so that it has functioned as a high power laser, maser, photon accelerator, neural inhibitor, sonic weapon, vibratory agitator, gravity modulators and even a molecular cohesion inhibitor!”

“So, basically, you’re saying that it’s the Cat Gun from ‘Courageous Cat’, a deus ex machina with a pistol grip,” Nick said snidely.

“It’s not that bad,” Luke protested. “But like I said, that thing is the most insanely versatile energy weapon in the game. DARPA has been on her to share her operating theories behind it, but she says that it’s still a work in progress. It’s been a ‘work in progress’ for 12 years.”

Pointedly dragging the discussion off the tangent it had taken, JJ said, “Yeah, I make the ‘Stinger’ as Akelarre’s ‘scorpion’. And the boat that Dr. Smart uses as a mobile base of operations is named the ‘Athena’. And the quotations that Akelarre used were largely from poems about the Argonauts, despite the fact that Athena is rarely mentioned in the Argo saga, but she’s the main feature in the poem. There were a few other references that I managed to track down, but they were just nails in the coffin. But Uncle Luke- do you know of anything that Dr. Smart has that would qualify as a ‘jewel of enlightenment and destruction’?”

“Why would I know?” Luke asked back.

“Well, when I asked ABBY to do a Grade 10 shielded internet search for details about Dr. Smart, she told me that you were already possibly the foremost authority on her, outside her family. That you could tell me everything you knew about Dr. Smart that I could need to know, without setting off any tattletales that she might have set out on the Net.”

Mara looked at Luke curiously. “And why have you taken such an interest in Dr. Smart?”

“Well, she completely trashed my underwater heavy metals extraction operation off the coast of Grenada two years ago,” Luke hedged. “She ripped right through it! She shouldn’t have been able to do that! She even managed to do it in a way that avoided polluting the surrounding waters!” Luke paused and admitted, “Which was one of the things I was counting on, that any do-gooder who’d object to anything as piddly as unlicensed mineral extraction would avoid polluting the ocean on principle. But she just shut me down! Anyone who can pull that off is someone to keep track of!” He pulled out a PDA, hit a connection and a hard-light screen popped up, showing a GIF of an attractive and athletic brunette woman combining tearing down ducting while evading large burly minions in red-and-black jumpsuits and uniform ‘devil’ half-masks and several of ‘Dr. Lucifer’s’ trademark drones.

But even through invisibility and the limits of that emotive mask, Nick could read his brother like a paperback novel. Some forty-odd years and that alleged truce melted off, suddenly he was an 8-year-old again, teasing his little brother. “Why LOO-key! Do you have a CRUSH on Dr. Smart?” he asked, with sparkling eyes and a big smartass grin on his face. Juliet swatted her eldest, reminding him to mind his manners.

Fortunately, that emotive mask didn’t show blushes, and Luke managed to retain some of his years and dignity. Posture, face and voice stiff, he responded, “Why wouldn’t I admire Dr. Smart? Besides her obvious athletic abilities, she is a skilled marital artist, an experienced covert operative, a respected academic, and she holds eight Master’s degrees, five Doctorates, and a Ph.D.!”

“And she doesn’t fill out those cargo pants badly either,” Nick leered at the GIF as it rotated through its cycle. This time, it was Mara who swatted him and gave him a warning glare.

Luke cleared his throat and said, “Well, what do you want? I’m a grown man, why wouldn’t I be interested in an attractive, intelligent, widely educated, dynamic woman? After all, YOU managed to catch the only sorceress worth the effort!” Mara shot Luke a ‘well played’ smirk. “You were always the one with all the luck with the ladies, Nick, and it’s not like I can go to a singles bar like this…” he grumbled sourly.

“Well, I for one am quite gratified to learn of this normal, healthy interest,” Juliet said with maternal warmth. “Mara, maybe when this kafuffle with Akelarre and Dr. 30 is over, you might lend a mystical hand in this direction?”

aaahhhh… YEAH,” JJ honked, not sure what to make of this tangent on the part of his elders. “Anyway, according to ABBY, Dr. Smart’s ship, the Athena, a converted Expedition Cruise liner, was quietly moored at a remote wharf up in Montclair, and then a week ago, moved to a wharf in Clinton. Before that, she was docked in San Diego. According to ABBY, at the same time, the Intrepid, the mission ship for Dr. Miles Havoc-”

“THE EYE OF LEMURIA!” Luke snapped to, a revelation clear on his face (or at least mask). “Nine months ago, Dr. Havoc’s wife, Gloria Garland, the big noise at International Disaster Intervention, went up against this complete nutcase, I forget what he called himself, but he was psychic, and he thought that he was some sort of ‘Mind Priest of Lost Lemuria’ or something, and he was trying either to raise a sunken island that he thought was Lemuria or open some sort of dimensional gate- I’m not really sure what they were trying to do, reports are all over the place on that one. But the point is that this whack-job was using this large transparent crystal with a blue dot in the center as some sort of psychic focus, and he had hijacked all the communications bands in Djakarta to draw the attention of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians to the ‘Eye’ as to focus their psychic energies to raise the island or open the gate or knock on heaven’s door or whatever… Anyway, it was a huge mess… superheroes, magical girls, rival supervillains, criminal scientists, magicians, snakemen, demons… it seems like everyone in Southeast Asia was trying to get in on that action. After it settled out, the Havocs were smelling like roses, and the Indonesian government wanted that Eye as far away from them, and as far out of local affairs as they could, so they gave it to Dr. Havoc to examine. My guess is that ‘Miles of Documentation’ finally gave up trying to figure out that thing, and handed it over to Dr. Smart.”

“Or maybe he got tired of the Intrepid being the target of Fourth Reich hijacking attempts,” Mara said. “I happen to know that an alleged ‘Mind Priest’ of Lemuria happens to have ‘acknowledged’ Madam Cailleach, a, ah… colleague… of mine as the ‘Reincarnated Queen of Lemuria’, and has attached himself and his followers to her entourage. I also happen to know that dear Kayley recently remarried, and is now Baroness Blitzen.” Mara paused and said, “If the Athena was moored in Montclair when Akelarre cast her opening spell in her Great Quest, then the Eye would have drawn the shard to it like a magnet drawing an iron filing. The magic could have caused Dr. Smart to relocate closer to the center of the working, or the Athena could simply have been in Clinton when the scattering was cast.”

Nick had been listening closely to this, and paused in mid-sip of his tea. You could almost see the penny drop for him. A sparkle entered his eye and a knowing smirk spread over his face. “BART! VIC! Go find your sisters and get them down to the briefing room! We’re having a family outing!”

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The Briefing Room was a scaled-down lecture hall seating arrangement facing a large high-rez screen. Besides the assembled Harrow family (less JD), the entire cadre was there and a handful of senior minions. Luke gave them a detailed rundown on the physical and security layout of the wharf where the Athena was moored and the ship itself. “Any questions?”

“Yeah, I got a question,” Vivian said peevishly as she raised a hand from the third row of seats. “Namely, what are WE doing here?” She waved a finger around, indicating her younger sibs and, far more importantly, herself.

Nick got up from the first row and stepped up to the lectern. “One of the FIRST rules, put one way or another by every sage and author on the subjects of Strategy, Tactics, Warfare, Politics or Subterfuge, is ‘know your enemy and tailor your tactics to fit their weaknesses.”

Asha let out a confused squeak and Bart explained, “Know where they hurt and hit there.” Asha responded with an ‘oh’ noise.

“Dr. Helen Smart,” Nick opened, bringing up a headshot of the good doctor.

“A mistress of Hak Moon Suk style of kung fu, practices Tae Kwon Do and Jujitsu, speaks five major languages and three dialects of Javanese, holds degrees in the usual hard sciences, and degrees in Anthropology, Archaeology and Sociology, and earned a Ph.D. in Higher Mathematics with a ground-breaking thesis on Interdisciplinary Nexial Data Field Translation and Interpretation!” Luke cut in.

“She styles herself as a ‘Renaissance Scientist’,” Nick resumed. “Among her other gigs, she’s the person that other Adventuring and Investigative Scientists go to so that their information jibes with each other. Her weakness is that she’s very big on being a role model, for other scientists, for women…” he paused for effect. “and especially for girls.”

“What?” Viv yipped, “You mean you want me to dress up like some bookworm geekette and go fangirl at her?”

“No, I want you to dress up like a girl scout, and lead a small troop of them to go and fangirl at her.”

“And where are we supposed to find the rest of the girl scout troop?” Viv demanded.

“Why do you think I asked Asha and your brothers down here?”

Asha made a glad noise at being included, but JJ, Vic and Bart all bleated “WHAT?” in perfect unison and the exact same tones of dread and horror.

“The five of you will board the Athena with your grandmother as your adult chaperone, and be appropriately dazzled by Dr. Smart’s confident, dynamic, liberated, actualized, bla-bla-blah… and when the vile horrific supervillain attacks, you will doubtless be instructed to find safety. This is of course, a gold ticket to make yourselves scarce as Dr. Smart and her associates all rush to repel the boarders. Viv, you and Mom will use your clair gifts to find the exact location as to where the Eye is. If not, JJ can use that pendulum to give you a hint. When you find the vault where the Eye is being kept, between them, Mom and JJ have the conventional security covered, and Luke can prompt Vic for the more exotic measures via a secure link. If it’s an issue, Bart or Asha can assist with the really fine work. You five kids will form a star and draw a summoning pentacle that your Mother can use as a beacon for a guided teleportation in. I’m no expert on Magic, but even I can see the mystic significance in using her children to draw a mother to a location! Whether she’s needed to extract the Eye or not, your mother will use the gate she creates to evacuate the Eye. Once the Eye has been removed, Mom will evacuate you kids the civilian way with no incriminating bundles to explain.”

aaahhh… PROBLEM, dear ol’ Dad of Mine!” JJ raised his hand. “I’ve been seen at the site of TWO of Cap’n Ransack’s strikes! Even if the UV scrambled my image at the Gnostisophist’s place, not only was I seen at the Yerunkle Pavilion, but my NAME, my real name was connected with that! Isn’t that pushing the family luck a bit?”

“Not to worry, JJ!” Nick breezed. “It’s time for Cap’n Ransack to take a well-deserved breather. This… is a job for…” Nick snapped to, his posture rigid, his head set squarely, his left arm tucked behind his back, his expression set in frigid disdain, and his voice went flat and staccato, with a nasal Prussian accent, “PANZERMECH!” On a cue, the image of the Panzermech armor displayed on the screen behind Nick, with the bogus ‘brain in a jar’ turret popped open, for the deliberately misleading impression that Panzermech was a full-conversion cyborg with only a disembodied brain remaining of the original human. The turret with the ‘brain’ would retract into the recess, but still, there would some who’d target that hatch, hoping to take out the brain.

Seeing his graceful way out wither away, JJ tried his next ploy. “All kidding aside, there is no way that the three of us in Girl Scout uniforms will look like anything but boys in dresses!” Vic and Bart vigorously nodded their heads in a rare show of fraternal unity.

“This isn’t a problem!” Mara said as she stood and addressed the troops. “I’ll simply cast a minor masking effect that will make you three look like feminine versions of yourselves! And I’ll also cast versions that will make Lark and a few other female minions appear to be smaller and younger. After all, FIVE is a tad small for a Girl Scout troop, No?”

“Gee… THANKS, Mom…” JJ, Vic and Bart grated out in sour chorus.

Luke cleared his throat censoriously. “A simple plan, most likely one that will go awry. If it does, let Mom, Lark and the minions deal with it. If and when it goes wrong, you kids find a safe place, contact your mother and begin the summoning ritual to get her there. You’ll just have to improvise the rest.

“But no matter what, there are three things that you kids should know.” Luke brought up an image of a large clear irregular crystal. Inside the crystal was a large brilliantly blue dot. “THIS is the Eye of Lemuria. In real life it is slightly larger than a football.” He brought up images of a person and a football to provide context. “The blue ‘eye’ also has a dark ‘iris’- that’s the black part in the very middle of the colored part, Asha. Whatever you do, DON’T look into the iris. Looking into the iris creates a sort of ‘mind lock’ effect that forces people to stop whatever they’re doing and just gawp into the crystal. If you manage to get the crystal out of the vault with nothing else happening, just keep it in the sheath that Dr. Smart has it in.

“Next,” Luke put up the image of a very athletic, good looking young man, somewhere in age between 18 and 22 with a long regular face and short dark hair, wearing a tight short-sleeved shirt with a utility harness over that, light jeans with a utility belt, and a pair of climbing shoes with shin and knee guards. “This is Dennis Hawkins, Dr. Smart’s current assistant. He is so far the only assistant that she’s had who’s lasted more than 3 months, let alone kept up with her. And he has. Despite the fact that he’s supposed to only be an undergrad without any special training. Young Mr. Hawkins shows familiarity with free-climbing, parachuting, SCUBA diving, rotor aircraft, single and double-prop aircraft, explosives, civil engineering, Police and Security procedures, search and survey procedures, hostage situation protocols, and several other fields that would be more suitable to a Special Forces Ranger than someone who hasn’t even started on his Bachelor’s thesis yet. While he doesn’t show signs of any specific martial arts school, he has displayed a mastery of a very formidable mixed bag of fighting techniques. As I said, he’s managed to keep up with Dr. Smart in academic, tactical and conflict situations. Think about that for a minute. He’s become Dr. Smart’s right-hand man, to the point that his record shows that Dr. Smart has gone to great lengths to effectively Zero this guy’s records. No doubt to protect his family or some such. Dr. Smart values him very greatly. So, if you see this guy- TAKE HIM OUT. Hit him, club him, stab him, shoot him, taser him, throw him off a catwalk, chuck him over the side, throw acid in his face… whatever! Just… take him out!”

“I think someone’s jeellll-uuusss!” Nick sing-sang with a puckish expression.

Luke shot his brother an exasperated glare. “As I said, Dr. Smart values him. She has shown a willingness in the past to discard important matters to protect or rescue her assistants in the past. Given the intensity of her demonstrated bond with this Hawkins guy, any material threat to him would most likely have her drop coping with any of you to come to his rescue.”

Luke took a cleansing breath and gave his brother another annoyed look. “And finally,” he brought up an image of a blocky computer peripheral with a thick card stuck into it. It animated, removing the card, which had eye-raping neon orange and yellow diagonal strips on it, and putting it next to a paperback book for comparison. “For those of you who remember those, this is just a 16 Pettabyte Zip Drive. For you kids, it’s basically a really bulky thumb drive. The reason that it’s so large is that people won’t just tuck it away in their pockets. Or at least, to make it very difficult to do so. These ‘candy cards’ are Dr. Smart’s preferred data storage system for her more sensitive files. They’re fireproof, and as EMP resistant as she can make them, which is why they’re so large. That and the fact that she doesn’t want people just walking off with them.”

“So if you see one of these lying around, GRAB IT!” Nick said with a droll grin.

Luke just shot his brother a ‘you got it!’ finger. “Helen Smart has one of the largest private collections of research files from criminal, renegade and mad scientists in the world. She has research files on Professor Reaper! Yes, your primary objective is snagging the Eye of Lemuria, but if you can-”

“Grab it, so Luke can use it to wrangle Dr. Smart into a date,” Nick said with a snide smile as his brother glared at him.

linebreak shadow

“Very well, let’s see how you look!” Mara told her children. Vivian, JJ, Vic and Bart all trudged in with equal lack of enthusiasm, but Asha bounced in with zest.

“I’m a Brownie!” she cheered at her mother, twirling around to show off her iconic brown-and-blue uniform, all-too-aware that she was absolutely adorable in it.

“Yes you are, darling,” Mara cooed at her youngest. “And Bart, what are you?”

“I’m a Junior Girl Scout,” Bart droned out, his arms folded and his shoulders hunched to silently communicate that he resented wearing the green skirt, with the matching patch-studded vest and white blouse. “And this will probably cost me thousands of dollars for therapy lessons later.”

“Well, everyone needs a hobby, dear,” Mara replied with a no-nonsense firmness. “Vic, why are you holding up that cell phone?”

“It’s projecting a strong UV light,” Vic said in a tone almost identical to his younger brother.

“Why?”

“To blur any pictures that anyone might try to take,” he answered shooting his older sister a venomous glare.

“There’s an app for that?” Viv asked, pulling out her own smartphone.

“JJ, what are you?”

“I’m a Cadette,” JJ answered, indicating his own gray skirt and vest. “An obsolete, sexist term for an obsolete and sexist organization devoted to-”

“Save it for Social Justice Warriors, JJ,” Mara said snappishly. “Vivian, who are you?”

“I’m Mindy Coughlin, a Senior Girl Scout,” Vivian showed only slightly less distaste for her role than her brothers, “and I’m working on my Total Suckup badge, and my father pulled some string to get me to talk to the big deal Dr. Helen Smart for my badge, and for some inexplicable reason, I’m dragging the rest of my feminist fascist phalanx along for the ride.”

“Tell me about it,” Lark grumped as she and three other female minions walked into the circle, also wearing versions of the Girl Scout uniform. “I used to mug girl scouts for their cookies!” A nostalgic smirk passed over her face. “mmmmm…. Sniiickerdooodless….”

“That’s quite enough,” Juliet said crisply as she stepped into the circle wearing a matronly version of the Troop Leader’s uniform. “Now, who are we?” The ‘girl scouts’ recited the troop number, locale and other designations of a real girl scout troop in the area. “Now remember, people- even trained observers like Dr. Smart- tend to see what they what they expect to see. And more to the point, what they want to see. Dr. Smart and her people want to see a gaggle of hero-worshiping do-gooders in training. If they DON’T see a gaggle of hero-worshipping do-gooders in training, it may shred that veil of preconception, which is exactly what we don’t want! So perk up and let me see those starry eyes of abject adoration!”

“Won’t Mom’s masking spell take care of that?” Bart whined.

“Magic can only do so much!” Juliet snapped. “And a good actor can make anything seem credible, on sheer presentation! So give me those big puppy dog eyes!” After coaxing the required expressions of reverence even from Vic, Juliet coached Vivian on the technical details of the science paper that she would be questioning Dr. Smart about.

“Howcome I don’t do that?” Vic asked. “I actually understand all that!”

“Because Dr. Smart will be focusing on Vivian,” Juliet explained. “Vivian doesn’t have to understand the Science involved, but she has to be a completely convincing girl. Also, she has awakened her telepathic gifts, so she’ll know what Dr. Smart is expecting and will be able to give it to her.”

“So you want me to pick her brains about the passcode, access protocols and other security measures while we’re doing our little nerdfest?” Viv asked.

“It’s tempting,” Juliet admitted, “but Dr. Smart is a Science hero, and Science heroes have the most bizarre luck when it comes to mind control, telepathy and other forms of influence. I have no idea how they do it, but playing mind games with a Science Hero is playing on their home ground; something I have very painful memories of. No, keep it simple, and play your role. Your job is to establish a rationale for all of us to be there when the horrid supervillain Panzermech shows up. When he does, we scream and duck for cover. Or at least appear to, until they’re too busy fighting your father and the drones to pay attention.”

Vic raised a hand. “Those ‘candy cards’ of Dr. Smarts- if she’s really worried about people walking off with them, wouldn’t she have them bugged or tracked somehow?”

“Very good, Vic,” Juliet said warmly. “We considered rigging up isolation sleeves disguised as Girl Scout manuals, but Dr. Smart is security conscientious enough to scan everyone, regardless, when the go onto and off her ship, and anything that would block every possible bandwidth or frequency that she might use to keep track of those drives would be bloody obvious either way. And let’s be honest: I sincerely doubt that we’re the first ones to think of the Girl Scout dodge. Your mother will take the Eye out, but that’s the prime objective; we’re not going to risk it by wasting time to filch any of those ‘candy cards’ for your uncle.

“So,” Juliet presented a gray painted hover drone about the size of a basketball, “as Panzermech, your father will have a flock of these backing him up, along with Ace and Latigo in those fool power frames. Your uncle Luke will also be in a power frame, but he’ll be piloting these drones and providing them with broadcast power from that frame. Besides tactical information and some air support, they have these.” She touched a stud and a hatch popped open. “If you DO get a drive just slip it in here,” she mimed doing so and shut the lid, “and your uncle will take it out when they retreat. If the situation prevents you from summoning your mother, we’ll inform your uncle and he’ll send in one of these drones to take it out.”

“What is Panzermech supposed to be raiding Dr. Smart for?” Bart asked.

“The Stinger,” Mara answered. “That energy weapon of Dr. Smart’s that Luke was in such a tizzy about. It’s obvious, it’s credible, it forces Dr. Smart and her people to focus on that instead of us, and… who knows? They might even be able to take the fool thing!”

“What’s the ‘pick up a souvenir’ factor on this job?” Lynx asked.

“NIL,” Juliet said firmly. “The entire idea of this is that Dr. Smart has to think that she’s won. Mara will be bringing along a bogus Eye of Lemuria to be placed in the vault. We don’t want you to be connected to the theft in any way. We want the confusion, as to the time that the Eye was taken, to be optimal, so we don’t want them doing any inventories. Which they will do if someone gets sticky fingers. Also, we can’t afford the chance that we might be searched on our way out; as I said, we’re not the first ones to think of this Girl Scout dodge.”

“I know,” Juliet said, looking at Lynx, “We’ve been taking it in the chops all through this, all the operating costs with nothing to show for it. Normally, I’d say ‘take everything that wasn’t welded down’, but again, we can’t risk the children being connected to this in any way.” Lynx gave a resigned nod.

Mara briskly clapped her hands. “Very well, into the circle!” The diagram consisted of two interlocked pentacles, with the Harrow children standing in the points of one pentacle, and the adults standing in the points of the other. The adults would provide details that would disguise the children and make the boys appear to be girls, while the children would provide a gloss of youth, which would make the adults appear to be much younger. Well, most of them anyway.

Mara placed her Book of Shadows on the lectern, lit the brazier, carefully added the ingredients one at a time, checking everything off as she did so. JJ tried intently to follow each step, as Vivian checked her nails for any sign of chipping. Then a thick fog arose over the circle, and when it settled:

  • Asha’s hair was more dirty blonde than golden
  • Bart’s face and figure were subtly different, his freckles more pronounced and his reddish hair was now the color of new pennies, done up in a pair of pigtails with green bows on them.
  • Vic looked like a bookworm, with chocolate brown hair in a soupbowl pageboy with bangs, large glasses, and a pipecleaner figure and legs. His sash was suspiciously well-stocked with badges.
  • JJ looked disturbingly as she did on her special secret trips, only with her hair up in a high perky ponytail. Ponytail? Why would she wear a ponytail?
  • Viv now had chestnut brown hair, a stronger chin, a longer nose, and her eyes were now brown.
  • Lark was definitely the girly-girl of the group, with obviously bleached blonde hair that was a carefully tended mass of curls, and a clear face that she probably spent an hour making sure there were no pimples.
  • Lynx was shorter, more slender, and her hair was now an unruly mop of black curls. And she now had a bandaid on one knee. She was clearly the problem child of the group, on her best behavior for meeting the famous Dr. Smart.
  • The two other minions had dark hair that they kept back with ponytails, but their faces were liberally studded with acne
  • Juliet had shed maybe 15-to-20 years, and now appeared to be one of those ‘there’s no reason for me to just give up because I’m middle-aged’ type of women, with short blonde hair that had every trace of gray carefully removed, and every wrinkle smoothed over, but not surgically removed.

“Hey!” Vic objected with a higher-pitched squeak than would normally come out of his mouth, “Howcome JJ gets to be the babe?” JJ just shot his ‘sister’ an ‘Are you effing KIDDING me?” scowl.

“Yeah!” Viv agreed “And howcome I got this shade?” she held out a hank of hair.

“Because that’s the coloring that the real Mindy Coughlin has,” Juliet said in her best ‘quashing the mutiny’ tones. “Very well, does everyone have what they need?”

There was an explosion of instrumentation as the ‘girl scouts’ showed off multi-tools, gadgetry and weaponry hidden inside Smartphones and personal electronics, gadgetry and weapons built up from innocuous objects- and a teddy bear.

“And what’s this, Asha darling?” Juliet asked.

“The head is a disguised gas mask,” Vic answered, “the arms are plastiform gas grenades, the legs are memory plastic restraint and ascender straps, and the body is stuffed with a non-aromatic guncotton variant with a built-in igniter.”

“Very good, Asha dear,” Juliet said approvingly.

Then Asha whapped Vic with the teddy bear.

“What was that for?” Vic demanded.

“You even think of doing that to Musette, and I hurt you,” Asha said with more menace than a 6-year-old angel should be able to project.

Vic started to react, but JJ just tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a weary warning shake of the head. “Don’t. You will regret it. I speak from painful personal experience.”

Juliet clapped her hands briskly. “Very good girls! Now, everyone into the van!”

“Juliet?” Mara stopped her. “Accent? You didn’t call them ‘Girl Guides’, but not by much.”

Juliet nodded, focused for a moment, and adopted the voice and inflections of a woman whom she regarded as a quintessential American: Vivian Vance, better known as Ethel Mertz from ‘I Love Lucy ’. “Okay, girls, into the van!”

The security cordon for the Athena was competent enough for a stopgap measure. If ‘Troop 2407’ hadn’t been expected and expedited past the really exacting scans, they might have been rumbled. But Dr. Smart herself met them at the gate. “Mindy?” she asked, scanning the troop (as though she hadn’t done a background check on the entire troop, and gotten a profile on Mindy Coughlin). Viv stepped forward, duly all abuzz at meeting the Great Heroine.

Not that Dr. Smart wasn’t worth a bit of buzz. Tallish, athletic, confident, and more handsome than pretty, she was practically an illustration of the Feminist Ideal. Or at least the Second Wave of Feminism. She didn’t bask in the adoration of the ‘Girl Scouts’ as much as take a hold of it, as an orator or great performer might. The tall young man at her back, was half-a-head taller and significantly brawnier than she was, but for all that, she was clearly in charge. She took the ‘troop’ on a tour of the Athena, talking directly to ‘Mindy’ but speaking to the entire group, bringing in the others one at a time, asking their names and generally being empowering as all hell. Vic didn’t need to feign being jazzed and Asha was a natural (or just six years old), but the rest found themselves swept up in the excitement. Juliet had to give Vivian a sharp telepathic snap to remind her that they were there on business. As they toured the drone and sensors bays, Dr. Smart told them the story of how she’d rescued an Alaskan Expeditions cruise from the Ice Kraken, and how, after her rescuing over 500 people, the cruise line company had defaulted on their fee, saying that the ship was ruined. So Dr. Smart commandeered the ship as abandoned and refitted it as the Athena.

After a brief and very superficial tour of the research section of the ship- where they’d practically had to pry Vic off a compact Warp Synthesizer- Dr. Smart asked Viv, “So Mindy, why did you decide to write a paper on ‘hard light’ formation?”

“Well, it’s making a lot of buzz on the upper ends of the Popular Science scene, so I know that it won’t be over the head of my Science teacher,” Viv said, prompted by Juliet, who was getting input from Vic. “But at the same time, it’s still something fresh that could have a lot of impact on the near future. How ‘hard’ IS ‘hard light’? Are we talking commercially available force fields? What are its potential applications in High Beta Fusion? What about filtration in sewage treatment and desalinization or electro-chemistry applications? Are there secondary effects to the immediate atmosphere?”

Then Vic broke in and gushed breathlessly, “Oh, Dr. Smart, can we see the STINGER? How can a plasma weapon create rippling gravitic cascades? Most anti-gravity flux modulators are HUGE, and require Terra-watts of power! How can the Stinger DO the things it does with a power-plant that can be carried on your hip?”

Dr. Smart gave a chuckle and shook her head with a rueful grin. “WHY do they always want to see the Stinger?”

JJ mocked Mythbusters’ Jamie Hyneman, droning, “Jessie Wants Big Boom!”

As Vic blithered along at top speed in tech-geek, Dr. Smart indulgently showed the girls past yet another security screen. Juliet telepathically informed her son that they were within striking distance. And JJ and Bart shared a look that silently discussed the ribbing potentials implicit in Vic’s spaz-out.

Dr. Smart took the troop to a bulky, clearly armored cabinet and waved a hand over it, making a gesture as lights waved over her hand. Juliet got the distinct impression that Dr. Smart had combined biometrics with some sort of hand-signal code for a very complex ‘combination’ that was probably as simple as breathing to her. With the last fillip, a holster arm sprang out of the console, and extended to present an odd electronic device of some sort that was only a gun in the most general terms. Rather, it was a rack for an array of components that could be swapped around and combined in various ways to achieve a range of effects, with the constants of a targeting system and a trigger. Dr. Smart took the Stinger from the rack with one hand, and connected a power cable from a disk-like gadget on her utility belt. “Now, I can’t tell you everything- some of it you just don’t have the education to understand, some of it is still very hush-hush, and some of it is stuff that even _I_ don’t understand- but the active principle at work here is versatile redundancy. Okay, I can see that you don’t have the background for that, but it’s really very simple: the components in most energy weapons, indeed in most electronics, have A. Single. Solitary. Function. Period. BUT, in the Stinger, each component has several different functions, though it only does one thing in a particular setting. For instance, the default configuration is a plasma weapon: the plasma ignition chamber in this setting might be a primary chemical preparation chamber in adhesive gooper or chemical spray settings, and the plasma acceleration barrel might be the cohesion chamber in a laser setting, and I find that the post-launch coolant system does an excellent job of being the primary unit for a freeze gun. So, each component does a different thing in a different arrangement.”

“So each component is designed specifically to perform multiple functions,” Mindy/Viv cut off Vic’s next spate of tech-babble, primed by her grand-mother. “But in technology, specialization breeds efficiency. Something that does many things tends to do them poorly. How do you get around that?”

Dr. Smart chuckled and said, “And that’s where it becomes hush-hush. I do have an end-run around that, but it’s not perfected yet. Let’s just say that with the Stinger, there’s a lot more going on than ‘point, pull the trigger and something goes-”

 

BOOM!

 

The ship shook, the ‘girl scouts’ shouted in surprise, and Asha let out a very real squeal of terror. Alarms went off and red lights started flashing. Dennis Hawkins immediately had a cell phone to his mouth, and stated a scant few minutes later, “Men topside report that we have multiple armored hostiles who have landed, with four heavy bipedal drones, three light quadruped drones, and an entire fleet of very light armed flying drones. One man reports Nazi insignia.”

“Not again!” Dr. Smart shifted the configuration of the Stinger with a few practiced flips and added a couple of things from her belt. “Tell Marley, Code: Whiskey Uniform Alpha. He has my Go to enable all exterior and interior defense systems.”

“Excuse me,” Juliet cut in, having an easy job of appearing to rein in a panic, “but where can we get these girls to safety? We don’t want to get in the way of your inner defense stuff!”

“Dennis, have Marley disengage the interior defense systems for research bay 1A.” Then Dr. Smart showed the troop through the ultra-max secure door to the Athena’s main lab, which they would never have even been able to look through the door of normally.

Research Bay 1A was a large chamber that took up a significant part of the Athena’s length, a good 90 feet and three stories deep. The bay was actually a collection of work and storage bays on either side of a central atrium, which was dominated by a system of overhead rails that allowed heavy gear to be moved from one side or the other, down the length of the bay, and up and down the flights, so that various projects could easily use the gear as needed. Besides the heavy gear on delivery slides, the RC waldos, and an impressive assortment of cables and hoses, there were several free-hanging loads suspended by chains and cables. Which was only what you could expect from a scientist of Dr. Smart’s reputation. However, given Dr. Smart’s reputation, you’d expect that big chunks of her research staff would be lusty young braves all-too eager to grab a weapon and help repel the boarders. But it seemed that there were a few less hardy souls on the staff. A group of five people in various colored clean-suits were clustered around a workstation. Juliet gave the ‘troop’ a brisk nod and they carefully advanced on the clutch of worried scientific talent.

Seeing that the researchers barely registered their presence, Juliet gave ‘Vickie’ his cue, and Vic cobbled together four electronic devices from bits and pieces that he had on him. When he was finished, he gave two each to Asha and Bart. They clambered up blind spots in the main bay’s security observation layout, to clamp those gimzos on wiring bundles, effectively giving Uncle Luke complete control over what the cameras saw happening in the bay.

When Asha and Bart were back with the troop, Juliet led the charge. “Excuse me!”

The Lab Rats jumped with surprise, “Who ARE you? How did you get IN here?” gabbled one of the men.

“We’re Girl Scout Troop 4207,” Juliet said with the proper hauteur. “Dr. Smart was giving Mindy here some help with a paper for school and-”

“COOL!” ‘Vickie’ gushed with entirely unfeigned enthusiasm as she leaned into a tangled mass of high-energy gear to closely examine a pair of gleaming gold tapered tubes. “Are those power bracers? Whose are they? How’d you get them? What’s the MRI scanning? Have you isolated the 4th dimensional bleed band?”

“Get OUT of there!” One of the Lab Rats peeled himself away from the monitor to pull ‘Vickie’ out of the project before she started fiddling with the power leads. Which with Vic, however dressed, was a very real concern. Once the Lab Rat had his hands full of faux girl scout, Juliet could see that they were watching a monitor that showed the battle going on up on deck. She recognized the burned-out hulk of one of the heavy attack drones as an enforcer project that her son Luke was working on for a client. And Luke didn’t believe in flimsy shoddy work.

Then she noticed that there were several of those ‘Zip Drive’ peripherals about; peripherals that were curiously missing the ‘candy cards’ that she’d seen in them when they first got there. One of Juliet’s prime rules, one that had served her well during the Cold War and the nasty wars of the Shadow Nations, was, ‘take charge of the situation, or the situation will take charge of you.’ She cleared her throat and said, taking charge of the situation, “Well, as long as we’re down here, we might as well make the most of it. Dr. Smart would say ‘don’t bother worrying about what you can’t control, just figure out the best that you can do, and do it!’” One of the reasons why Juliet had chosen Vivian Vance’s voice and manner was, besides that ‘quintessential American’ factor, for roughly 50 years Americans had tacitly been trained to regard that as the voice of a friend, a trusted confidant, and more importantly, the voice of reason when opposing Lucy’s harebrained schemes. With her ‘Ethel’ voice, Juliet was taken far more seriously than she normally would. Without realizing it the highly-educated researchers of the Athena ceded a measure of authority to her, simply on the basis that ‘it sounded like a good idea’.

“Ah, Yeah! Good idea!” the Lab Rat in Lemon Yellow walked over to the project that Vic had just been yanked out of, drawing everyone’s attention as Juliet fished around in a drawer, found some blank ‘candy cards’, and inconspicuously started shoving them in empty slots. “Anyway, these bracers belong- or belonged, at least- to a supervillain who calls himself ‘Captain Wun-Darr’. He claimed that he was an advance scout for an interstellar empire, here to gauge Earth’s defenses. He claimed that most of his super-powers came from those gauntlets, allowing him to fly through space without an environment suit, lift up to 6 tons, blast and even travel interstellar distances.”

“From your tone, I think that you don’t take that too seriously,” Juliet noted.

“Well, while there are absolutely NO records of his existence anywhere and he was in absolutely perfect condition- aside from having the hell pounded out of him by Champion, he still has the exact number of teeth as a normal human in his head- no cavities or fillings, but the teeth are dead normal- he has a coccyx, he has little fingers and toes, the hairs on his back slant inwards toward the spine, and he speaks colloquial American English,” the Lab Rat in Cherry Red explained. “So, the odds are that he’s either completely nuts or lying.”

“And what about that?” JJ asked jerking a thumb at a dull orange oval maybe 16-inches long and 8-inches in diameter.

“THAT was taken from a man who stumbled out of the jungles in Bolivia,” a woman dressed in a Lime Green clean suit said. “He claimed that he was part of an expedition that had gone up into the hills with Professor Wilde.”

“Which Professor Wilde?” Lark asked. “I mean, that family produces Ph.Ds. the way the Kardashians turn out tabloid headlines!”

“THE Professor Wilde. The founder of the dynasty.”

“But… that Professor Wilde DIED in the 1890s!” Juliet protested.

“Yeah, but this guy was a dead ringer for the pictures of Horace Burkett, a guy who accompanied Professor Wilde on the second of his five expeditions to Bolivia. Burkett was described as ‘lost; went down the wrong passage’. And this Burkett guy was found with clothing that had absolutely no synthetics or modern touches at all, and he had 1880’s American paper dollars and Bolivian pesos on him, and almost $10,000 worth of silver and gold coins, all contemporary to about 1887!”

“What was the currency value of the coins?” JJ asked.

“Oh, just under 30 bucks.”

“Okaayyy… and what IS it?”

“We’re not sure. But we think there’s something alive in there.”

“And what’s THAT?” Juliet said brightly in the manner of someone pointedly changing an awkward topic, and pointed at another project.

The ‘that’ was a flat gold disk maybe an inch and a half thick and 5- or 6-inches wide, that was clamped in a frame and had lights dancing over it.

“Huitzilopotchli.”

“Gesundheit,” Beth/Bart said reflexively.

“Huitzilopotchli was a Mesoamerican deity of the Sun, War and several very unpleasant religious practices,” the Lab Rat in Tan explained. “That disk is supposed to be the sacred talisman of a Pagan revivalist cult in Mexico near the Guatemalan border. We’ve been trying to do a spectroanalysis on it.”

“Trying?” Viv prompted him.

“We’ve been trying to analyze that thing for three MONTHS!” the Lab Rat snapped. “We’ve been running laser scans of that thing 24/7 for three months, and the readings still don’t make any sense! It’s not even getting WARM!” By this time, he was roaring, red-faced, at the amulet.

“And what’s this?” JJ pointed at a refrigerator-like construct with a large open roughly rectangular armored chamber with odd disks set flush against the top and bottoms of the chamber. It had a sliding door and a set of rather cryptic lights and buttons.

“Ah, to be honest,” said the other female Lab Rat in light blue, “we don’t know. A few weeks ago, a criminal scientist in the area got busted by the Police, and they sent his gear here to figure out what he was up to.”

“aahhh… okay, and what about THAT?” Juliet pointed at a large rough-hewn grayish stone that somehow suggested a rearing dragon, and was surrounded by electronic pylons.

“That’s… the Lloigor stone. We, ah, don’t talk about that.”

By this time, Viv had gotten tired of all the dancing around. Between clairvoyantly scanning the place, and some careful picking of some very boring brains, she had a rough idea as to where the Eye of Lemuria was being kept. Unfortunately, there was absolutely NO WAY that they could stealth that thing with those Poindexters hanging around and they had less chance of gating in Mom. Still, she had an idea for turning the whole thing on its head, and might get the ‘rents off her back about the sacred family traditions and shit.

Viv quietly ducked behind a panel and took out her cell phone. Using a touch of telepathy to find one Lab Rat’s name and telephone number- and a few other pertinent details (for someone who was supposed to be a Scientist and all logical and shit, his mind was a real rat’s nest)- Viv used a feature on her Smartphone that Steve Jobs never envisioned. It prompted a Caller ID response that identified her as Dr. Smart. “Ernie!” she snapped, probing his mind for how he thought Dr. Smart would react under the circumstances. “We’re having a hard time repelling these boarders! They want the Eye of Lemuria! Prep it for a stealth evacuation under fire!” She finished with a mental prod that this was indeed Dr. Smart, and that she was entrusting him with a vitally important mission.

Ernie snapped to, said, “Yes Ma’am!” and all but saluted the phone. “Kelly, Pete, break out Project 8! Max, Emily, prep a sub pod for immediate launch!” Ernie spoke into the phone again, “What destination do you want us to program into the pod?”

Viv thought frantically for a moment and answered, “Have it head down-river for about an hour or so, running silent and deep. Then have it return right here. It doesn’t need to go anywhere, it just needs to not be here for a couple of hours.”

“Understood!” Ernie hung up and started pounding keys on a workstation as Kelly and Pete opened up a panel, revealing a hidden safe. Unseen by the boffins, Viv sent her grandmother a ‘oh yeah, I’m slick’ smirk.

JJ watched over Ernie’s shoulder as he programmed the submarine drone. This annoyed Ernie, but nowhere near as much as it would if he’d known that ‘she’ was sending images of his work to ‘her’ Uncle Luke with her Smartphone.

As Kelly and Pete opened up the safe, Emily rushed over to a remote control board and started manipulating the controls. Down two levels below, a drawer opened up, and a tubular device that looked a lot like the one-man submersibles that oceanographers used for deep water research. It was rigged to operate as a one-man sub or as a remote drone. As Emily brought the submersible up, Max jumped onto a nearby equipment arm and using the manual controls, rode it down to the very bottom of the bay. There he carefully opened a small dock set well below the waterline of the ship’s hull, and with excruciating care filled it with river water.

When Emily had the submersible pod open and ready to accept a payload, Kelly and Pete opened up the safe and pulled out a cylinder about 2 feet long and a foot in diameter. It was covered with a canvas sheath. Pete pulled at the sheath and started to peek under it, but Kelly stopped him. “Remember what happened the last time?”

Emily helped Kelly and Pete load the Eye-pod into the sub-drone and secure it. When they were done, Pete rode along with the drone and helped Max lower it into the water. When it was properly set into the launch chamber, Max pulled the cover closed and Pete secured the latches on the hatch. They double-checked the drone’s status and opened the exterior hatch. When they were sure, Max gave Ernie a big thumbs-up. Having completed the navigation instructions, Ernie hit the launch button. The light for the exterior hatch flashed green for a successful launch; the drone had left the chamber and was on its way.

Ernie let out a gusty breath and said, “They also serve, who don’t get their asses shot off. OKAY EVERYONE!” he added loudly to the entire room, “We can’t be sure that Dr. Smart will be able to keep the boarders out for very much longer! Em, show these girls to the main panic room. Guys, there isn’t enough space in the panic room for all of us, so we’ll have to make do. Leave the Eye safe open for the raiders to find. Maybe if they realize that we got the Eye out of here, they’ll waste time ripping off the other projects, and they won’t look for where we’re-”

Then there was a thud that rattled the entire ship.

“Someone’s docked at one of the other underwater launch hatches!” Max yelled up from that part of the bay. “But WHY? There’s no exterior lock and-” Max was cut off by an explosion that blew the hatch off that launch chamber. Max and Pete were thrown back by the force of the blast. As he shook his head to clear his mind, Max had a bad flashback to the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope. A heavy mist covered the hatch to the launch chamber, and a powerful figure with a helmet, a cape and a glowing sword strode out of the mist. The thought flashed through Max’s mind that Darth Vader had come for him.

But while the man who stepped into the bay carried an energy sword, he wasn’t dressed all in black. Rather he wore royal blue with lots of gold: a golden winged helmet that bared the lower half of his face, gold bracers, a golden belt with a large swastika on the buckle, a golden horn that hung on the belt, a gold-tone cape that draped from his shoulder, and there was a large gold-cloth ‘V’ on his chest. “Sichern Sie das Gebiet!” he shouted. “Tun Sie nicht, jemand zu verletzen, es sei denn Sie unbedingt haben müssen!”

In response, men who weren’t Stormtroopers, but not by much, wearing coalscuttle helmets and heavy body armor vests, and carrying SMGs boiled out of the hatch in squads of three. One squad immediately overbore Max and Pete, while the others rushed up the stairs of the bay to take control of the bay. The man in blue and gold flew up the central atrium, and spotted the boffins and the ‘girl scouts’, who hadn’t had the chance to make it to the Panic Room. “YOU!” he thundered in slightly accented English. “DO NOT MOVE!”

Ernie started to make a move to get to the bay door, or at least a place where he could call Dr. Smart, but the man in blue cut him off with a bolt of energy right into his path.

Mr. V kept them in place for the time that it took the U-Marines (after all, calling Marines who operate off a Submersible ‘Sub-Marines’ would be confusing) to secure the research bay. When they had men at all the proper points, ‘Mr. V’ landed and addressed the thoroughly spooked researchers (and not spooked but acting like they were terrified faux Girl Scouts). He had a brief ‘Girl Scouts? What are Girl Scouts doing here?’ pause, and did everything to change his prepared script shy of pulling out a printed script and editing it with a pencil. He cleared his throat threw back his shoulders and launched into his spiel. “Do not be alarmed. We are not the monsters that the Jewish-run Hollywood propaganda machine would lead you to believe. We are not thieves and murderers. We are honorable soldiers. We are not here to harm any of you or take you as hostages. We are here to recover the rightful property of Sthagaas-ags-Mnaghuul, the Mind Priest of Lost Lemuria, a righteous ally of the Fourth Reich.”

‘Oh Christ,’ Ernie thought to himself, ‘he’s a kinder, gentler Sith Lord.’

“I am VOLSUNG Give me the Eye of Lemuria, and we will leave you safe and unharmed. When we leave, we will take measures that our uncoupling does not cause the hatch to breech, possibly sinking the ship. We are in control of this situation. Do not make it harder on yourselves, let alone endanger these young girls by attempting some pathetic show of mock heroism. We control this situation entirely. Nothing can stop us, we are-”

 

CRASH!

 

One of the armored covers on the skylight of the research bay ripped off, and a swarm of ‘Panzermech’s’ drones streamed into the atrium area between the separated side galleries. The drones opened up on the U-Marines, who returned fire. Volsung bit off a Germanic curse, turned and aimed one hand to blast at one of the drones. But as he stepped away from the not-quite hostages, something under his cape, at the small of his back, exploded. It shredded his cape, ruined the flight rig that the cape hid, stunned him, and sent him flying into the railing at the edge of that bay. He hit the railing in the perfect place to knock the wind out of him, and he went tumbling over the railing to drop to the bottom of the bay.

Emily just stood there, gawping, totally boggled by this turn of events.

As the U-Marines reacted to this, Lynx sprinted into the middle of a squad of them and knocked all three off their pins with an ‘Iron Broom’ spinning kick. She took the SMG from one of them and threw it to Lark, who made sure of the round, took cover and opened fire on another squad of U-Marines.

Kelly dove for cover and tried to make sense of the chaos.

Viv invisibly ‘mind-locked’ the U-Marine closest to her, ran up to him, mashed in his nose with a face-palm strike, and took the SMG from his stunned hands. Before his comrades in that squad could react, she also made sure of her weapon and opened fire on them. Juliet invisibly used her PK to pull the pin on the ‘potato masher’ hand grenade on the belt of one of the U-Marines who had taken up the ‘pivot’ support position. It was only a flash-bang grenade, but at that range it still scattered the three retro-Nazis. With that opening, Juliet scooped up Asha and pulled her over to the cover provided by one of the sturdier bays. Looking at where Volsung had gone over the railing, she wondered aloud, “How the Devil did THAT happen?”

Asha gave a wide evil grin, eyes sparking in a way that would have someone from almost any other family seriously considering major therapy, and giggled, “Teddy Go BOOOMMM!” Then Juliet noticed that Asha was only holding onto the legs of her teddy bear; the rest was missing.

As Viv, Lark and Lynx took care of the U-Marines on that side of the bay JJ and Bart leaped onto the nearest gear slides and took over with the manual controls.

‘Vickie’ got to a workstation, blew past the access controls like they weren’t there, and gained control of a set of RC ‘Waldos’. He used that to grab one of the drones and pull it down to where he was. As the melee spun out of control around them, he touched the stud he’d been shown during the briefing, and loaded a 5-inch thick block of ‘candy cards’ into the hatch. He closed the hatch and used the waldos to get the drone back among the swarm. Then he used the waldos to grab Volsung, who was flying back up from the bottom of the bay. Vic yanked Volsung up to the top of the bay and then slammed him back down to the bottom as fast and hard as he could make the waldos go.

Ernie was just standing there, twisting about in place, frantically trying to make some sort of sense of it all.

JJ paused to reset a general utility laser to the visible light band and recalibrate it to a general dazzling strobe. He tried it out on a wide-angle spray, but that only irritated the U-Marines, and spoiled their aim for a bit. Still, that gave Lark and the two minions (whose names JJ never had a reason to learn) an opening to shift their positions for better shots. JJ decided to go for completely negating a single target, rather than just inconveniencing a raft of them. He tightened the beam on the laser, and took an educated guess as to the wavelength and strobe frequency needed to induce vertigo. He got a good general reaction from the U-Marine he tested it on. But then Volsung came screaming up from the floor of the bay, all pretense of gentility and warrior honor cast aside in his rage. His eyes and hands were blazing with a bluish energy, and he was definitely looking for someone to vent that rage on, be it boffin, girl scout or cute fluffy bunny.

JJ nailed Volsung squarely in the face with the vertigo- well, maybe not projector, but simply project- and the retro-Nazi *ahem!* ‘hero’ paused with confusion for just a moment. But that moment’s pause was just enough for Bart to loop a pulley cable over one shoulder and under the other armpit. Maybe Bart meant to get that hold, maybe he was going for a possibly neck-snapping noose; who knows? Give the kid a break, he’s only Nine years old!

Bart used the cable’s pulley system to try and use Volsung as a wrecking ball against the U-Marines on the far side, but he just couldn’t quite get the jazz of the swing, and just flailed him around a little. Then two of the U-Marines managed to snag onto Volsung and begin trying to get him out from that. Well, JJ couldn’t let that happen! He skipped off the slide arm with the laser, and picked his way over to the slide arm on the alley for where Volsung and the U-Marines were. Making the best of his selection, JJ thrust the heavy-duty vacuum cleaner at them, and managed to clamp onto the face of one of the U-Marines and set it on full power. The U-Marine flailed around, but JJ felt that by and large, that effort was a miss.

Ernie looked around, taking in what the Girl Scouts were managing to pull off. At first he was astonished, but then he was awestruck, and then inspired. Hell, this was the sort of thing that he’d signed on with Dr. Smart to do in the first place! And instead of being upside with Dr. Smart, he’d hidden down here, where he thought it was safe! But now he knew what he had to do! He spotted a dangling cable, and grabbed it to swing to the other side to take the fight to the enemy!

Which is a lot easier to do in an old Errol Flynn movie than in real life, thank you very much. Ernie’s grip wasn’t anywhere near as good as he thought it was, and he was very lucky that he just slid down to the bottom of the cable and landed in a painful heap, instead of losing his grip entirely and falling that entire distance.

As Bart worked his manual controls furiously, JJ saw that a couple of the U-Marines had figured out that he and Bart were more dangerous than the girls firing at them and were targeting Bart. Oh crap, Mom would skin him alive if he let Bart get so much as a paper cut on his watch; God alone knew what she’d do if he let the little psycho get shot! Leaving the vacuum cleaner as more interesting than effective, JJ hopped over and hit the jackpot- or at least a good solid win. First, he hit Volsung and both the U-Marines that were helping him and the ones that were targeting Bart with a high-pressure gush of water. Then he stepped over and down to the next slide, and jammed the industrial-scale electrical welder into that mass. Fresh water is actually a pretty poor conductor, but with the voltage that he was using, he still zotzed the U-Marines all to hell.

But then the drones that had been keeping both Volsung and the U-Marines off balance suddenly peeled off and started streaming back out of the skylight they’d come in through. Viv and almost all the bogus girl scouts paused and wondered ‘why is Luke leaving us in the lurch like this?’ Viv looked around for any of the remaining drones for some clue. And she got one that she didn’t like. The very last remaining drone was attaching a large piece of folded paper to the door of the safe where the Eye had been kept. A brick of ice forming in her gut, Viv pelted over to the safe as the drone left. She tore the paper from the safe. Even without opening it up, she knew what it was: it was that stupid green-and-white track computer paper that Dr. XXX had left at that stupid Gnostiwhatevertheywerecalled place. With a decided sense that things had gone seriously off script at the last second, Viv sent a telepathic message to her grandmother to get Dad or Uncle Luke or someone on the phone, ‘cause they needed a nice quick exit BAD!

Without the drones dividing their attention, the retro-Nazis were able concentrate on getting Volsung out of Bart’s snare and pinned down Lark and the minions with gunfire. JJ and Bart dropped to the bottom of the bay, and JJ hadn’t even been able to use that fire-fighting foam like he’d wanted.

Once he was free of the cable, Volsung was PISSED! With a snarl, he levitated himself across the gap far more slowly and less gracefully than he would have before (his flight rig having been trashed). He landed among the ‘girl scouts’ and started dealing with them in a very efficient- if hardly chivalric- manner. He cornered Lark and looked as though he was warming up to hand her a massive ass-whupping, but Lynx jumped in. She started off with a roundhouse kick, and showed that her kung fu was better than his. Unfortunately, when your target is tougher than a brick wall and able to bust through one, kung fu isn’t that much of an advantage. Volsung got in one good hit, and that was about it for Lynx.

Once Lynx was down, Volsung broke out his energy sword, and the other ‘girl scouts’ parted to give him as much space as they could. “Enough of this foolishness!” Volsung roared, “JUST GIVE US THE EYE!”

There was a very tense moment as the awkward fact that they couldn’t DO that, even if they wanted to, registered around the bay.

 

BANG!

 

They all looked to main bay’s Secure Door, which had just been blown off its vault-like hinges. Dr. Smart, the Stinger in hand, smoking from recent use, stepped through the secure door. Instead of the look of an amused teacher and role model, her face was the mask of an enraged warrior goddess. Close behind her was Dennis Hawkins, a pair of brass-knobbed extending fighting batons in his hands. “GET! AWAY! FROM THEM! YOU NAZI SCUMBAG!” she snarled, pointedly reconfiguring the Stinger into a presumably deadlier mode.

“Another overeducated female who doesn’t have the wits to realize that a woman’s place is in the kitchen…” Volsung grumbled. Dr. Smart went to the railing, set and let off a plasma round at Volsung. Volsung batted the bolt aside with his energy sword. Dr. Smart fired more plasma bolts at him, which he swatted aside as he stepped forward. Dennis took advantage of this to leap over the railing, catch a cable and swing across the atrium to land in the middle of the U-Marines. He made a much better showing of it than Ernie had, and he did far better in the scrimmage than Ernie would have, tearing into the U-Marines with his batons.

Volsung took this in, but decided that he’d deal with the boy after he’d taken care of the mouthy bitch with the energy cannon. Taking a step each time he deflected an energy bolt, he advanced on Dr. Smart. Either she’d realize that her over-publicized zap-gun was useless against him and bolt, or she’d be too stubborn to realize the obvious and stand there until he could cut her in two, and then take out her lover. Either way, Volsung knew that he was in control of the situation.

Then with a war whoop, JJ thrust the gear slide that he was on up to the top level, spun it around so that it struck one of the dangling bits of gear, an engine block that could have powered a cruise liner, knocking it so that it swung dangerously. As the slide hit, JJ jumped onto the engine block and rode along with it. Volsung halted with surprise, just in time to see the huge block of metal come straight at him. It hit him square on, and knocked him off his feet and into the coffin-like chamber of the ‘refrigerator’-like construct mentioned before. Just before the block hit Volsung, JJ leapt off again. As Volsung reeled from the impact inside the chamber, JJ grabbed the sliding door, pulled it shut, pulled down the sealing latch, and slapped a series of lights, making them go from amber to green.

This development took everyone by complete surprise. But Dennis took advantage of the U-Marines’ shock, at the sudden change in their fortunes, to really tear into them. Lark and the minions added some SMG fire to Dr. Smart’s surgical removal with her Stinger of U-Marines too savvy to be out in the open where Dennis could get at them. When there were only two of the original 18 retro-Nazis left, they showed a measure of good sense by throwing down their guns and surrendering.

As Ship’s Security rushed into the research bay to take those two savvy survivors into custody, Dr. Smart turned to ‘Troop 4207’ and gushed, “That! Was! Magnificent! How on earth did you girls get machinegun training good enough to hit trained troops at that range?”

Viv held up the SMG and improvised, “Hit? I wasn’t trying to HIT anything! I was just giving those creeps something to hide from!”

Lark beamed all hero-worshippy (as per orders), “You mean, I HIT something?”

Dr. Smart turned to JJ, “And what’s your name again?”

“uhm, Jessie?”

“How did you ever manage to pull that stunt off?”

“I ah, just asked myself what Dr. Smart would do in a situation like that, and I, ah, just DID it!” JJ finished off with a big ‘I did good?’ smile.

“How did you DO that?” Emily demanded, waving a hand at the ‘refrigerator’, “We’ve been trying to figure out what that thing is for WEEKS, and we never even got lights to go on! How did you figure it out, just like THAT?”

“What ‘figure out’?” JJ asked with a wide Italian-style ‘waddya want?’ shrug. “It was obvious! I mean, it’s an armored chamber for restraining people for some reason, you can see that from the shape of the chamber! The door slides shut, ‘cause that’s the most secure way of keeping prisoners inside the chamber.”

“Then how did you figure out how to turn it on?” Kelly asked, looking at the displays.

“It turned on by itself!” JJ maintained. “I just slapped the buttons that were amber until they went green. Hey, it’s built into the design: door closes, one amber light goes on; when you slap it green, the next amber light goes on, and so on until you’re finished. It’s all right there!”

“Then why didn’t the lights ever go on before?”

“There wasn’t anyone inside the chamber before,” JJ said with a ‘duh!’ “Why would the lights go on, if there wasn’t anyone inside to keep?” she added with a ‘doy!’

Emily wiped the imaginary egg off her face, but Kelly demanded, “What does it DO?”

“Hopefully, keep that asshole IN there, until the National Guard gets here!” JJ answered with another ‘doy!’

“But what’s its FUNCTION?” Kelly all but screeched.

“You’re asking ME? I never saw that thing before!” then there was a ‘ding!’ from the machine and another green light went on. “Whatever it is, I think it’s done.” Vic cut in front of JJ to examine the light, but ‘Jessie’ simply shoved ‘Vickie’ aside and looked over the panel. After doing a little hands-on investigation, JJ found a hatch that swung down, revealing a metal cylinder roughly the size of a regulation fire extinguisher with a glassine tube filled with some pale blue liquid running along the side. Gingerly, JJ lifted the cylinder out and held it. “What is it?” JJ asked Dr. Smart.

“Good question…” Dr. Smart ran her Omni-Meter over the cylinder. Then on a wild ‘might as well, nothing else is working’ hunch, she randomly ran the controls through the entire spectrum that the Omni-Meter scanned until she got a hit. “GAH!” she gasped, smacking herself on the head, “Of COURSE!”

“Okay Boss-Lady, you got me interested,” Dennis, who’d joined them after securing the remaining U-Marines for the FBI, “What IS it?”

“It’s a Proto-Spirit!” she said as though that explained everything. “We know that Dr. Geisten was researching proto-spirits along with other preternatural phenomena, so this must be a device he invented to extract proto-spirits from their hosts, so he could examine and experiment on them.”

“Oh-kaaayyy… since it’s clear that everyone but ME knows exactly what you’re talking about, I’ll ask,” Viv said with completely unfeigned befuddlement, “WHAT is a ‘proto-spirit’?”

Dr. Smart nodded at Viv, acknowledging the point. “You’ve heard of Champion’s ‘Champion Force’, that gives him those amazing powers? Well, ever since the 1960s, there’s been a very quiet but very nasty race to see who can create an artificial ‘Force’. All of them involve stealing a shard of the Champion Force and working from there. Well, except for the Fred Force- don’t ask, we’ll be here all night!- but as an entirely serendipitous byproduct of those failed experiments, most of which tend to boil down to ‘let’s throw weird stuff into a blender and see what happens’, you sometimes create what they call ‘proto-spirits’ that are these weird… ahhh… ‘homogenized ectoplasm product’ type things that aren’t Forces, but have various weird properties.”

“Like… giving guys super-strength and other super powers?” JJ jerked a thumb at the ‘refrigerator’, indicating Volsung.

“Yeah, for the past five- going on- ten years, there has been a wave of superheroes and villains powered by these things,” Dr. Smart nodded.

“So… if that thing is designed to extract proto-spirits…” Vic was clearly putting things together, “And Volsung is inside there, and there wasn’t any sign of this thing before… then inside there, Volsung doesn’t have super powers anymore?”

There was a brief pause as that train of logic connected around the room, and in near-perfect chorus, everyone in the bay said, “Awww… what a SHAME!” with near-perfectly matching snide smiles of schadenfreude.

“Speaking of which…” JJ hefted the canister, “Where do I put this?”

Dr. Smart nodded, and indicated to Dennis to take it. But JJ insisted that she put the canister away. Dennis led her to an Ultra-Secure locker, opened it, and let her place the canister into a cubbyhole.

When they got back to the group, Dr. Smart had a picture taken with her arm over JJ’s shoulder. Then she addressed the entire ‘troop’. “Girls, you did GREAT today! The GSA is going to FLIP when they hear about it! All of you, this will nitro-boost your careers, whatever career you go into. Forget worrying about getting into the college of your choice, start thinking about which scholarships you want to accept!”

“aaahhh… there’s a problem with that!” Juliet stepped forth, working her ‘Ethel, everyone’s best bud’ voice for all it was worth. “Girls, I’m so proud of you all that I could pop a button… but we can’t let anyone know about this.”

“What?” Dr. Smart yelped.

“Dr. Smart, think about it,” Juliet said, working the ‘voice of reason’ angle as much as she could, “A Nazi Supervillain named after a major Germanic hero, and a squad of what I’m guessing are as elite troopers as they’ve got, just got their asses handed to them by a troop of Girl Scouts. Dr. Smart, those Fourth Reich types’ big card is that they’re these big badass boogiemen. If any word of this got out, they’d be laughingstocks! They’d HAVE to kill us, ALL of us, AND our families, just to stay in business! Yeah, it would be great PR, for us, for you, for the GSA, for Women in general- but it wouldn’t do us a lick of good, if we’re all DEAD.”

Dr. Smart wilted and gave a deep sigh, but gave in to Juliet’s logic. Such is the power of Ethel Mertz. “You’re quite right, Mrs. Updyke.” She let out another long sigh. But then she bucked up again. “But Girls! We may not be able to tell anyone about this, but WE, here on this ship know what you did just now! You REMEMBER this! You remember that you faced off against trained killers and came out on top! You figured out a piece of exotic technology that had our best researchers stumped, just like that! You can do all of this when you put your minds to it! You all have it in you-” Dr. Smart started to twirl the Stinger on one finger like a gunfighter in an old Western. But before she could utter another empowering, life-affirming cliché, a green streak rose up from the floor of that deck, snatched the Stinger from her finger and took it through the nearest wall, not to be seen again.

linebreak shadow

At the debriefing Nick groaned, “What a debacle! My Panzermech armor shot up, we lost two heavy backup units, Luke lost THIRTY drones… and we didn’t get ANYTHING for it!”

“You’re certain that you can’t find Dr. Smart’s sub-thingie with the Eye-thingie inside it, anywhere?” Viv asked anxiously. After all, it had been her idea.

“Oh, we found the sub-pod,” Luke rasped. “EMPTY.”

“What about Captain Wun-Darr’s omni-bands?” Vic asked. “And the Hweetzi-whateveritsnamewas medallion? And Professor Wilde’s amber egg? I saw your drones tear those things out of the frames that Dr. Smart had them in. I mean, that medallion alone is a major find!”

“Those drones never got back,” Luke said grimly.

“WHAT?” Vic yelped, “What about the ‘candy cards’ that I shoved into that drone?”

“It never got back.”

“ah, Uncle Luke?” JJ raised his hand. “Exactly WHY are you giving me the hairy eye? I mean, that bit with the sub-pod wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t have anything to do with the candy-cards or those weird- ass ‘projects’ that got ripped off.”

“No, you just gave away a proto-spirit!” Luke snapped. “A precious, irreplaceable resource, and you just handed it over, just like that!”

“I thought we’d WON!” JJ shot back. “I didn’t know anything about the Eye or the drones or any of that! I figured trying to take that protospirit would have been pushing our luck! Besides, the plan called for us to get out of there without Dr. Smart wising up to us! And we DID that!”

Neither Luke nor Vic could argue with that logic, but both of them snarled at JJ with jealousy at ‘her’ having her picture taken with Dr. Smart.

“Enough of that,” Juliet said with flat authority. “Besides the question as to how Dr. 30 managed to hijack both the sub-pod and the drones on the fly, there’s another, even more dangerous question that we have to answer. Mara? Does Akelarre have close contacts with the Nazis? Either the original Nazis or the current crop?”

Mara sat back and thought it over closely. “Well, Akelarre is a Spaniard, but she was never very intimate with the Fascists. And from what I know of her movements just before, during and after the War, she was never very political. Mercenary, but never really political.”

“Then do you have any idea as to why those Nazis showed up just in time to completely banjax our play?”

“As a matter of fact, Juliet, I do.”

“Oh?” Nick looked curiously at his wife, prompting her to continue.

“As I see it, there are two material points: the first is that the driving force in this matter is Akelarre’s Great Quest; not Akelarre, but the Great Quest. She set it in motion, she pointed it at its target and she defined the terms, but she doesn’t control it. A Great Quest is beyond mages of our scope. The second is that Volsung’s power derived from an essentially magical source; namely, a proto-spirit. But from how you describe him, Volsung didn’t realize that his power was magical, or that using magic has costs. If he had realized that, he certainly wouldn’t have styled himself as ‘Volsung’, a mythic figure whose primary achievement was being murdered. To him, it was simply a superpower that did as he willed it to. What I think happened was that Volsung was influenced by the Great Quest to attack when he did; not because we were there- or at least you; my presence there probably would have affected the way the Great Quest reacted- but because Dr. 30 and the Highwayman were there.”

“Wait a minute,” JJ stood up, “You’re saying that the Great Quest has already gained enough power that it can draw someone like Volsung into this mess?”

Mara nodded. “Yes, I’m rather surprised myself that it’s gotten to this level already. Akelarre must have a major working underway; that, or there’s a major factor in all of this that she’s managed to hide from me.”

“Dad, Mom…this is getting WAY too big!” JJ said intently. “We can’t keep dragging Pinky and the Brain and Asha into this! DAD, there were NAZIS shooting MACHINE GUNS at us!”

Bart let out an annoyed whine. “Aw, will you GROW a pair?”

“No, Bart, JJ’s right on this one,” Nick said with a weary sigh. “I brought you kids into this, hoping…” He shook his head and waved that aside. “I didn’t see you kids getting SHOT AT. Viv, it was a good idea. It just didn’t work. It happens, kiddo! Bart, good job! Vic, you outdid yourself! Asha… GREAT JOB with the teddy bear!”

“Ah, Dad?” JJ asked hesitantly, “What about me?”

“Oh of course. Viv, give JJ that clue that the drone left. Let’s see if his streak holds up.”

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“Okay, Jay-Dee, WHY did you steal Dr. Smart’s Stinger?”

“Jay-jay, it was a primo prize, and just snagging it is all kinds of bragging rights,” the ‘Phantom Highwayman’ said with a chuckle.

“JD, you know that the best scam is one where the mark thinks that they’ve won,” JJ pointed out tersely, tapping the toe on her Maryjane shoe as she did. “You could have made Dr. Smart’s flunkies suspicious, and they might have asked questions that would have gotten very sticky for us. So why did you snag the Stinger?”

“Dr. 30 wanted it,” JD said solidly. “And it was very necessary that I have something that Robo-Pimp wants badly.”

“Why?” JJ asked suspiciously.

“Because things are getting very… tense…” JD pulled a cell phone from the cuff of his greatcoat and hit an Ultra. A few minutes later, a plain black limousine pulled up to the mouth of the alley they were meeting in, and a door opened. “VERY tense,” JD said. He waved JJ into the car.

The limousine was a town car, not one of those ostentatious stretch vanity jobs. The passenger compartment was luxurious and hushed. JD kept the privacy screen between the passenger and driver’s compartments up. But even so, he shushed JJ every time she tried to ask him anything. They drove out of the center city section where they’d met, out to an outlying region, the kind that puts the lie to the commonly held notion that suburbia is uniformly affluent. The neighborhood consisted of scabby little single-story dwellings with rusting hulks of cars and appliances in the ill-tended yards, and wide, weed-choked vacant lots between them. The glossy black limo driving through this neighborhood was only slightly less conspicuous than a circus parade, but the locals gave it scarce notice. Indeed, if anything, they seemed to pointedly ignore the car.

Then the limo turned out to a stretch of woods, and pulled onto a bumpy dirty road. It went down that ‘washboard’ road for a bit and pulled into a small weedy field. There were several goats grazing on the selection of weeds. JJ studied them carefully, as they were very large for goats and they had long coats of silky brown and white hair. JJ couldn’t peg the breed, and that bugged her for some reason. The limo drove toward a cluster of cars- no, not cars, one of those nasty, sleazy not-even-Carny level ‘kiddie ride’ operation that eke out a meager living on the margins, the kind that gave up on the rusting ‘spinning cup’ rides for inflatable ‘bouncy ball castle’ attractions and a few sorry ponies. There weren’t even any ponies but there was a sign saying ‘Goat Cart Rides’. There were a couple of rusty old Ford trucks, a wide-load trailer, a blue plastic tarpaulin stretched out for cover and most curious of all, an actual old-fashioned wooden gypsy wagon. The Rom have almost completely forsaken the picturesque old painted wagons for modern automobiles and trucks. This wagon was not gaily painted, but was rather a very sedate brown, and blended into the woods nicely.

JD had the limo stop a hundred yards or so away from the shabby caravan. They got out and started walking towards the wooden wagon. As soon as they were a couple of feet away from the limo, JD muttered to JJ, “Play it by ear. You’re my agent inside the Harrow house. You’ve got some beef with the family. I didn’t want to cramp your moves with too many details.”

JJ started to grumble, when she realized that she and JD had been surrounded by those goats. The goats were large, maybe four to four-and-a half feet at the shoulder, with long thick horns that swept back across skulls that had remarkably high frontal domes. They gave JJ and JD very sour looks. Then the biggest one reared back, and somehow reconfigured his body into a humanoid form that towered over both of them. As if on a cue, the other goats all reared up, standing around the two, surrounding them. The big Buck let out a deep guttural bleat that carried all the nuance of a guardian’s challenge.

JJ just pulled out his ‘flintlocks’, didn’t point them at anyone, and said, “We’re expected.”

There was a brief ‘drop trou and see who’s bigger’ session, but the big goat stepped back and let them pass. JJ wondered in passing whether those were were-goats or goats that been changed so they could do that. Either way, she doubted that Akelarre would go to all that bother for normal, run of the mill, superhero fodder minions.

As JJ and JD approached the wagon, the door in the back of the wagon opened, and a thirty-ish dark-haired woman wearing an apron over jeans stepped out. She nodded to the Phantom Highwayman and waved them inside. Inside was a cramped living space that was well rid of the usual ‘gypsy fortuneteller’ schlock. The woman showed them past that room to a door at the back. That door led to a cramped stairway, which went up well past the point where the roof of the wagon should have been. The door at the end of the stairway opened up into a wide, well-apportioned room that was half-again as high as the wagon, and at least 4 times longer and 5 times wider. There were rich carpets on the hardwood floors, and large bay windows lined two of the walls. There was a standing harp in one corner and a spinning wheel near a chair in another part of the room. Most suggestive was a curving grand staircase that led up to at least one more floor.

The servant led them to a heavy dark wood double door with a grandly decorated doorframe, and knocked at one of the doors. There was an answer on the other side of the door, and they were allowed in. It was a library, but it was a library that would have done an Old World college (maybe not university) proud. The vaulting cathedral-like chamber was at least three stories high, with mezzanines for more ladders to get at even higher shelves, with brass spiral staircases for going from one mezzanine to another. The floor level was separated into three areas, with rows of high bookcases in the middle. A massive dark wood desk with various brass instruments, of varying sort,s on it dominated the area closest to the doors. On the far side of the bookcases, where the servant showed them to, was more open, a vaguely circular solarium of sorts with high arching windows of magnificent stained glass. Dominating this section was a large fieldstone fireplace, which was going full blast. Sitting in an overstuffed brown leather wing chair, that was surrounded by stacks of books on the floor and tea service on a cart, sat the lady of this house.

At least JJ assumed that this was a ‘lady’; she of all people would know better than to rely on appearances in this matter. The woman (presumably) showed off a very nice set of curves, but she was covered from head to toe. She was wrapped up in a long-sleeved wine-red silk gown that touched the floor. Her graceful hands were encased in leather gloves with rings and bracelets slipped over the leather. Her head and shoulders were encased in a slightly darker red shawl that covered her head in a cowl. Around her waist was a girdle of braided bands of gold cloth, from which various small satchels and oddments hung. Her face was covered with an exquisite golden mask set in the sleek features of a rare Spanish beauty.

As JJ and JD walked up, she looked up from the book that she was reading. “Well, Akelarre, here’s my source within the Harrow house.”

Akelarre chuckled and said in a lovely liquid dulcet that made music of her Spanish accent, “Really Fantasmo! THIS is your fearsome ally?” As she spoke, the mask moved with her words in a fluid naturalness that made it seem that she was only wearing gold face paint. Even Uncle Luke’s emotive mask was stiff and artificial compared to it.

“Yeah?” JJ sneered back, “And who are YOU?”

“I am called Akelarre,” she responded stiffly, not used to being addressed in that manner. “Do not strain your pedestrian education trying to figure out the source and meaning of that. And what is your name, little one?”

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your name ‘Akelarre’, means ‘goat meadow’,” JJ said clinically, “and is a reference to the Spanish folk belief that Satanists gather in goat meadows on certain nights to summon the Goat of Mendes, a form of Baphomet, who may or may not be a really nasty demon. I’m not stupid enough to give my name to a stranger who’s connected with THAT.”

“But you are foolish enough to come into my domain,” Akelarre said with a puckish expression.

“HE’s here to protect me,” JJ jerked a thumb at JD.

“HE works for ME,” Akelarre said with a smug cat-playing-with-a-mouse smirk.

“I thought you said that you were an independent operator!” JJ snapped at JD.

“I AM,” JD said levelly. “We’re partners.”

“You’re a Junior partner,” Akelarre retorted to him.

“But still partners,” JD countered.

Akelarre waved that aside. “Very well. And what quarrel have you with the Harrow family?” She looked with magnificent lack of concern at JJ.

“I don’t,” JJ said simply. “Okay, they have a ‘tood, all ‘oh, I’m a mutant and I’m just so much cooler and together than baselines’… but to be honest, if I had their powers and stuff, I’d be the same way.”

“Then WHY are you acting against them?”

“I want to be a supervillain.”

Akelarre just gave JJ an ‘and that’s a reason WHY?’ glower. “And WHY do you want to be a supervillain?”

“Because they’re the only ones who’re really free in this world,” JJ said. “Everyone else is just working for the Banks and the Tax Man.”

JD cut through the repartee, saying, “She’s my pipeline into the Harrow house. I’ve been feeding her the targets and locations of our strikes, so Harrow will know when and where to pull off his little costume party outings, so those stupid poem-riddles that you insist on will get them to the church on time.”

“And how do you keep the Harrows from simply reading your mind to know that you’re betraying them?” Akelarre said with an imperious arched brow.

“The Harrows don’t know anything about me,” JJ said. “They think that their second oldest son, JJ, is some big shot deductive detective in the making. But JJ has been sweating bullets that he hasn’t shown any of the family psychic gifts, and, well, like I said, the Harrows have a ‘tood about things like that. Fantomas over here feeds me the answers to the riddles, JJ tells his folks, and he gets a little breathing room from being a squib.”

“And you pass these along to him HOW?”

JJ just made a coy smile and swung her hair a little, suggesting that she was playing the teenage temptress. “JJ never had a girlfriend, and you know how boys that age are…”

Akelarre chuckled appreciatively. “Very good.” Then her amused smirk faded and her expression went as cold and hard as, well, a gold mask. “And what do YOU expect from this?”

“Like I said, I want to be a supervillain,” JJ answered. “The Harrows were the only supervillains that I had any access to, and trying to shake them down for, like, a power ring or something would be suicide. But I have an understanding with HIM,” she pointed at the Phantom Highwayman, “that my end will be covered.”

“And HOW can you be so certain that he’ll cover his end of the bargain?”

JJ just smiled evilly. “I’ve got it covered.” Akellare started to ask how JJ had it covered, but JJ just cut that off with a look that said, ‘do you really expect me to tell you?’

“You never confront the elder Harrows directly?”

“What am I, stupid?”

Akelarre quirked an amused smile at JJ’s naivete. “Well then, as long as you understand that your compensation will come out of HIS end, not MINE, I think we have an understanding. I think that our conversation is at an end.”

“Not Quite,” JJ corrected her.

“OH?” Akelarre’s question was a cold and hard as her mask.

“While I’m here, you might as well explain to me what the fuck this stupid riddle that you left at the Athena means.” JJ pulled out the green-and-white paper with the riddle printed on it.

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“Not bad, JJ,” JD murmured as they walked past the men-goats to the limo. “Nice touch with flat-out refusing to tell the Goat Witch anything real. Nothing sells like an unwillingness to sell. You may just have the chops you think you do.

“That’s nice JD,” JJ muttered, “but can you get me to a restroom FAST?” She added with a low squeak, “I need to change my underwear.”

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“You’ve figured it out already, JJ?” Juliet asked as her grandson showed them into the library. “But from what I saw, it was an utter shambles! Torturous doggerel in four different languages, probably citing poets that even Goethe never heard of!”

“Yep!” JJ said smugly, “And that’s the trap! I’m even willing to bet money- not a lot of money, only a couple of bucks, but still money- that those things are just something that she made up, so we’ll go nuts trying to track them down in time! They don’t mean anything!”

“But for the Great Quest to work the way she wants, Akelarre must ‘play fair’,” Mara objected. “Otherwise the magic may twist events to make her lying clues mean something after all. It has happened, and it was very nasty!”

“Oh, she ‘played fair’,” JJ said with an evil grin. There are how many refrains in that thing? And what does each refrain begin with?”

“The old ‘spell it out with the first letter’ gag?” Nick said aghast, citing an old Victorian trope. “Let’s see… B- A- P-”

“BAPHOMET!” Mara blurted out, it suddenly becoming clear to her.

“Okay, it obviously means something to you,” Luke said dyspeptically. “Why not spell it out for the rest of us?”

“You may remember that back in the 14th Century, the Knights Templar were accused of all sorts of vile wickedness, mostly by Louis the Just- a misnomer if there ever was one- who owed the Templars a LOT of money. Besides the usual tripe, they were accused of worshiping a brazen head that spoke and answered questions. That head’s alleged name was ‘Baphomet’.” At that point, Mara faltered. “Which is all very interesting, but how-”

“Mom, what were the other names that Baphomet went by?” JJ prompted her.

“Oh, let’s see, Baphomet. Mahamart, Occitan Baffenti, Aolzian, the Goat of- THE GOAT OF MENDES!” Mara blurted out smacking herself on the forehead. “That idiot ‘devil goat’ that Ephias Levi foisted off the Victorians. The next sign in her Zodiac is Capricorn! It has to be Akelarre’s doing; she’d rather disembowel herself with a power tool than let either the Highwayman or Dr. 30-” then another penny clearly dropped for Mara. “The Stony Mill Devil!”

“The… Stony Mill… Devil…?” Nick prompted her with a pained questioning tone.

“Back in 1890-something, in a small town in rural Illinois, a farmer was digging a well, and accidentally found what they think was a Mound Builder burial site, and among the other usual junk, they found a gold-clad goat’s skull.”

“Let me guess,” Luke said dryly, “there was a big hue and cry that there was a devil-worshipping cult in the area, and a big witch hunt broke out.”

“Well, you can’t blame them,” Juliet said defensively. “I mean, I know that animal skulls are reasonably popular as ritual elements for First Nations animism, but I can’t recall anything about the Tribes coating them in gold.”

“Yes, but there’s more to it,” Mara said. “The Stony Mill Skull has stubbornly resisted all attempts to date it. They’ve tried chemical tests, carbon decay tests, the roster goes on and on, and still the estimates as to its age range from thousands of years old to a modern (or at least 19th Century) hoax. Also, the horn conformation doesn’t fit any known breed of wild or domesticated goat, there’s something I don’t understand off about the teeth, and more recent scans suggest that the goat whose skull they used wasn’t any known breed.”

“Okay…” Luke allowed, “That’s weird…”

“And where IS this ‘Stony Mill Skull, precious Anthropological and Zoological unique that it is, right at the moment?” Nick asked.

Mara started to say something, but locked. JJ covered for her by saying, “It’s being held at the State University Anthropology department. A couple of years ago, there was some sort of dust-up between the Osage and some other tribe whose name I don’t remember, and the University of Chicago over it, with the issue that goats aren’t native to North America as a major sticking point, and it was transferred here as some sort of nonpartisan escrow.”

“But even so, then what is Akelarre’s REAL target?” Juliet asked.

“I have no idea,” JJ admitted. “We’re not talking about some museum or exhibit with a manifest; we’re talking about the State University’s Anthro warehouse! I did a little checking, and it’s a rat’s nest in there! Besides the Anthro and Archaeology departments, they share space with the American and World History departments. They have First Nations stuff, Meso-American stuff, Colonial stuff, and there’s a mess of stuff that Gilded Age millionaires bought on tour in Europe, the Middle East, India and China, which their kids promptly chucked in the attic and forgot. And let’s face it, the guys who served in World War One and Two weren’t exactly shy about bringing back stuff in their duffle bags either. God Alone knows what’s in there! I get dizzy thinking about some of the crap that that shard could have gotten stuck in!

“AND, let’s face it, there’s nothing that says that Akelarre might not be on the up and up this time,” JJ pointed out. “After all, if everyone’s expecting you do go Riddler on them-”

“Then it’s the perfect time to do the obvious,” Nick said, nodding. “But JJ, could you-”

“DAD…” JJ drawled, nearly whining, “It’s the State University! They’re not gonna let a Middle School kid go rummaging around their holding areas with a pendulum!”

“JJ, I wasn’t going to ask you to do forward observer work,” Nick said placatingly.

“No?”

“No, I have something FAR more dangerous that I need you to take care of. I need you to take Vic and Bart to the park when we go to raid the University, and if necessary, SIT on them to keep them from going all Jonny Quest over this!”

“You… don’t have any unexploded bombs that you need defused, do you?”

 

To Be Continued