User Rating: 4 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Inactive
 

A Whateley Academy Adventure

Odds and Ends

Part 1

by ElrodW

(with contributed scenes and ideas by:
EE Nalley, Morpheus, Bek Corbin, Kristin Darken,
Gen2 author Neomagus, and fanfic author Domoviye)

There are unsmiling faces and bright plastic chains
And a wheel in perpetual motion
And they follow the races and pay out the gains
With no show of an outward emotion

And they think it will make their lives easier
For God knows up till now it's been hard
But the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
No the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card

"The Turn of a Friendly Card"
: Alan Parsons Project

Friday, May 11, 2007 - Late Afternoon
"The Flying Blue Squirrel" Pub, Teachers' Residences, Whateley Academy

"Is Liz coming?" Tatsuo Ito asked, glancing around the table to read the reactions of his table-mates, Assistant Head of Security Sam Everheart, Assistant Headmistress Amelia Hartford, Dean of Students Michiko Shugendo, Gunny Bardue, and Staff Sergeant Ryan Wilson. Far from the décor of the conference rooms of the offices, this was a relaxed, informal setting, more like a small restaurant or a pub, and not on the main campus but in the teacher's residence area - a cluster of apartments and houses with a few amenities like the 'pub.' The residence area, known to the residents as "The Village," was separated from the main campus and cottages to give the instructors a break from the on-campus antics of over six-hundred students.

Amelia Hartford, hair down and having shed her harsh, librarian-style glasses, shook her head. "No. She's on a telecon with Roland and Ty."

"Is it something we should be concerned about?" the wily Japanese martial arts instructor asked the question on everyone's mind.

"The MCO is bringing three new agents into the Berlin office - Marlene Clinton, Jim Whells, and Vanessa Brown," Amelia replied, the news causing her emotional control crack just enough that she displayed a momentary look of disgust.

"Problems?" Gunny Bardue was a crusty, old, retired Marine, but deep down he was very protective of the students at Whateley; he just had a funny way of showing it.

"Maybe," Ms. Hartford answered with a few worry lines wrinkling her features - features that were usually hidden behind her stern librarian façade but were in reality quite pretty. "Since ... someone ... got some MCO crypto keys to Ty, the DPA has been taking full advantage of their ... ahem ... security breach and by now they have pretty good records of MCO personnel. They're briefing Liz on what to expect from the newcomers."

"Anything we should know about?" Sam asked, worried about troublemakers like the last agents.

"Clinton seems pretty clean. Brown is new, so they don't have any info. Whells?" Amelia rolled her eyes. "I think he's going to be a problem based on his past record. Hopefully not as bad as Haustin."

"Well, let's get on with this, and I'm sure Liz will call one of us to give her a summary briefing." As head of the combat finals organizing committee - a position he'd been drafted into by missing the initial organizing meeting - Sensei Ito had to concern himself with all aspects of the finals.

"Apart from the pairing," Amelia switched into business mode, "which the team will handle, the biggest issue we have is the betting ..."

"More specifically," Gunny interrupted, "you're talking about students betting on their own finals and throwing them, right?"

"We think we can control the on-campus bookies," Mrs. Shugendo replied cautiously, "since they have money at stake ..."

"We have to keep them from getting the pairings and scenarios in advance," Gunny said. "We thought we had it last year by meeting two days before, but somehow, the match data still got to the bookies and outside to Vegas!" There could be no doubt that Gunny was disgusted that they hadn't kept the match arrangements secret.

"I'll double-check the firewalls before you input the data," Amelia said confidently, "and we'll have the offices swept for bugs again - both conventional and magic."

"You'll have to get my office, Gunny's office, and the arena control center," Sergeant Wilson added, "since we'll be inputting the data."

Bardue nodded. "And it's going to be tough organizing the data this term. We have to have the matchups and the associated scenario, and then document our expectations for each student in the match." He shook his head, frowning to express his distaste. "I do not like this set of scenarios. They're going to be a huge challenge to grade."

"And it will take several days to get all that figured out and documented," Ito said, shaking his head as he contemplated the task before them.

"Everyone who voted for this challenge is going to help!" Bardue growled.

"Once we start, the data is in the system and vulnerable," Ito added. "Nothing personal," he glanced apologetically at Hartford, "but I don't trust any firewall or computer defense to keep these kids away from the data."

"What if we use student ID numbers instead of names?" Michiko suggested.

"Too easy for them to figure out," Ito replied quickly. "Every student knows his or her ID, and they know the coding scheme we use."

"But if a different identifying number was randomly assigned," Hartford suggested, a wry smile on her face, "then there would be no easy correlation between the combat final scenario and matchups."

"Unless someone intercepts the ID list." Bardue threw an icy dose of reality on the idea.

Ito, though, knew what Hartford was driving at. "We'll work from hardcopy only."

"And we can have the house-parents distribute the student numbers the day before finals begin - Monday, the twenty-eighth for the freshmen and sophomores, and Sunday, the third for the juniors and seniors," Shugendo caught on quickly.

"That won't slow down the bookies," Wilson noted. "We give the students half an hour to report to the arena, and that's plenty of time for them to work."

"It should slow the off-campus betting, though," Hartford noted. "We don't allow much time between when the students' names are announced and when the match begins."

"And we'll let the bookies know that there is a zero tolerance policy to off-campus wagering," Shugendo added. She had a questioning look. "If you can monitor the internet connections?" She directed the question to Amelia, knowing the answer would be affirmative. As expected, Hartford nodded. "What about cell phone traffic? Or landline phones?"

"Everything from the landlines goes through the central switch so I can set up a program to track all outgoing call destinations."

"That leaves the cell phones," Ito said.

"That's tougher," Hartford replied.

"You tracked it for Pejuta's hearing, didn't you?" Wilson interjected.

Hartford shook her head. "We tracked a pattern of data usage that confirmed video had been sent from campus," she corrected the Sergeant. "We had to get the video directly from the gambling houses' data servers in Vegas." She saw the man start to speak. "And Mr. Paulson has tried putting blocks and limiters on channel usage to the area cell relays. The signal frequency hops and compensates too much to jam or track."

"So all we can do is narrow the window of betting?" Ito asked. Hartford nodded grimly. "We'll take what we can get." He turned his attention to Hartford. "How soon can you get us a master student-ID list?"

"I'll have it in your hands half an hour after I get back to my computer," Amelia answered confidently.

Saturday, May 12, 2007 - Morning
Lillian Dennon's Apartment, Whateley Academy

The door opened and Lillian Dennon's face appeared. "Ah, Billy," she said warmly when she recognized the person. "Do come in." She opened the door wider and stood aside, making way for her guest.

"I'm sorry I'm late," he apologized to the gathering of instructors seated around the living room; it was most of the martial arts department. "I had an urgent call from HPARC."

"Not a problem," Amanda Tolman said with a smile, gesturing to an open spot on the sofa. "We were just getting started. Drinks and snacks are on the kitchen table; help yourself."

"We'll have barbequed brisket and fixings delivered for lunch, so don't worry about that," Sensei Ito added.

Billy grabbed a coke from a large cooler full of ice and soda. "Sounds good. How much do I owe?"

Lillian chuckled. "This is planning for school activities. It's expensed, so don't worry."

"The only time anyone said anything," Harry Junzo added with a grin, "was a few years ago when we had a couple of working lunches catered with prime rib. Mrs. Carson was ... not happy."

"I would imagine not."

Staff Sergeant Ryan Wilson cleared his throat. "As I was about to say, we have significant randomness in this year's finals because of the scenario, which is hostage rescue ..."

"I still think it's a bad idea," Gunny Bardue grumbled.

Wilson ignored the irascible old Marine. "...set up in a way that the students almost certainly must cooperate to accomplish the rescue. Part of their grade will be how well they work with their opponent ..."

"Or try to cooperate," Ito added.

"And part will be based on how they use their powers," Wilson continued.

"Later ones are going to learn from the earlier sims," Chester Fitzgibbons frowned.

Wilson and Bardue both shook their heads. "Not likely," Wilson said, smiling. "We'll program six different scenes, each of which will have three different hostage locations. Each hostage location will have a primary access point and will use one of two different secondary escape routes. That gives us thirty-six settings to work with."

Ito picked up the explanation for the committee. "There will be five different levels of villain, and we can vary the number of henchmen as needed to provide suitable challenge. Part of the difficulty will be how well we camouflage the henchmen. In total, we could run over one thousand different combinations."

"We figure if we rotate through the scenes and the hostage locations, we should surprise everyone except maybe a few exemplars, and that's only if they have eidetic memory," Wilson added.

"Like Phase?"

"And that would be only if their matches were late enough and they had watched every previous match." Wilson smiled smugly. "On top of that, we'll be getting those students in the sims very early, so their memories won't do them any good."

"We'll use Larry and Cliff's program to analyze the scenario and adjust the difficulty level for the particular match," Sergeant-Major Burlington-Smythe, the formal head of the ranges, added.

"Who do we have lined up for team simulations?" Genevieve Beaumont, the karate instructor, asked.

Bardue looked at a small notebook he had opened. "The Grunts," he began.

"Naturally," Kasai Tetsuko scoffed. The Junior ROTC cadets loved to fight as a team.

"Wondercute," Bardue continued, although he cringed visibly at that one.

"Put them last," Wilson said, scowling. "We'll need time to rebuild the Arena when they get done."

"That and we'll need to crank up the difficulty to eleven!" Smythe added sarcastically.

"And Venus Inc."

"What?" Genevieve Beaumont's eyes were ready to bug out. "You're kidding!"

Bardue shook his head. "No. Apparently, Poise wants to go out with a bang, so she volunteered the club for a group simulation. And we got a special request from an outside party to do a crash with Star League Junior," he added.

"One of their parents, no doubt."

"No doubt."

"The Bomb scenario?" Lillian Dennon asked, an evil twinkle in her eye.

"Bomb scenario?" Kayda's tutor Billy Two Knives asked, a little puzzled.

"Lots of booby-trap bombs, and the hostage is wired with an explosive vest," Bardue explained, grinning. "It's fun. And they've never seen that one before."

Ito's impassive expression held a hint of a deep secret. "Let's hold on Star League Junior for a bit. I've got a better idea. How about we give the Bomb Scenario to the Capes?"

"Sounds good to me. What about the Grunts? Are we giving them a crash again?" Tolman asked.

"I feel like spreading the love," Bardue said with a wicked grin. "Yeah, let's hit the Grunts with something badass."

"I've got a special twist on the SWAT standoff," Wilson beamed. "The hostages' are some of the bad guys, and so are several 'innocents' on the street, like some of the cops."

"Evil."

"I haven't gotten to the really nasty part yet," Wilson chuckled. "It's a trap. When they move in, they'll be hit from behind - hard."

"That'll put Mule and Bunker in two finals," Fitzgibbons worried. "Unless they're not doing individual finals."

"What about Venus Inc.?" Dennon asked, curious about how they'd torture the beauty queens.

"Who all did Poise volunteer for that?"

"Poise, Solange, Heartbreaker, Pejuta, Fey, Lifeline, Loophole ..."

"Now there's trouble!" Genevieve Beaumont said with a scowl. "There's some serious friction between the two of them."

"And Fey isn't exactly at the top of her game," Lillian added needlessly. Everyone knew how Fey was moping and depressed, and her class and magic and modeling performances were lackluster. "She's ... kind of coasting."

"Hit her hard to snap her out of it?" Bardue suggested.

"Might work," Lillian replied. "Or it'll break her and possibly unleash her pent-up frustration and anger."

"No breaks for the princess," Ito said, his face impassive. "She gets hit just like everyone else."

"How about this for a scenario: multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks, all with potential kidnapping victims - but only one is the real target?" Smythe offered a suggestion. "The rest are all distractions."

"They'll have to split their force," Ito observed, and then an evil smile grew. "Works for me. Poise wanted a challenge? That'll give her one."

"You're a cruel man," Genevieve Beaumont chuckled.

Ito nodded, a wicked grin on his face. "Thank you. I like to think so."

"Now for Wondercute."

Bardue and Ito exchanged a glance that worried the other instructors, no matter how hardened they were by years of combat final planning and execution. "Let's give them to Star League Junior. That ought to be fun." Wicked, approving grins spread through the room.

"That's not fair," Wilson cautioned.

"No, it isn't."

"I'm not talking about being unfair to Wondercute," Wilson explained.

"Neither am I," Ito said with a malicious grin.

"How about hitting the new guys with one? The Ghost-Walkers?" Fitzgibbons suggested.

Bardue shook his head. "Pejuta is already in a solo and the crash with Venus Inc. We're trying to torture her, not kill her!"

When the chuckling died down, Beaumont spoke up. "So, where do we start with the students?" In past combat finals, the individual matchups were done purely at random. In theory, the student had an equal chance of being set against a deadly enemy, their closest friend, an arch-rival, someone who was almost perfectly their equal, a mere acquaintance, or someone they’d only seen in passing.

In theory.

In practice, the instructor team was far from adverse to ‘crocking the crash’, or carefully choosing a particularly difficult opponent for a student who wasn’t living up to what the instructors thought was their potential. Or one they thought was gaming the system. Or they thought needed to be taken down a peg. Or one who’d just pissed them off a bit.

Sergeant Wilson rose and began passing out stapled bundles of paper. "Tatsuo and I have penciled in a few of our ideas," Bardue said.

"I really don't like your third pairing," Amanda Tolman said, frowning. "That's a disaster waiting to happen."

"Do you have a better idea?" Ito asked calmly. "The goal is to have unlikely pairings that would be unlikely to cooperate."

"She'll try to kill him," Amanda replied. "We all know that."

"These are supposed to be a challenge," Bardue reminded her.

"And from what I've heard, since she started dating Nitro, she's a lot less ... volatile," Ms. Beaumont added. "It'll depend on whether she remembers her meds or not."

Sergeant Wilson frowned. "Gunny, do you think Phase is still feeling so guilty about the whole thing that she might not defend herself against Tisiphony?"

Gunny winced, the first outward display of emotion for the day. "I don't think so, but we have to find out sooner or later. In the arena, we have a little control. On campus and in the tunnels? Not so much."

"I have a student who really needs to be taken down a peg," Kasai Tetsuko, the Aikido instructor and the mostly-unseen and unacknowledged supervisor of many of the Sims missions, said. "She-Beast. Jadis smartass Diabolik."

"What?" grunted Gunny Bardue, "Are you still pissed at how she played the Secret Squirrels and that little nutcase Nemesis just before Spring Break? I thought that you won that bet."

"That’s not the point!" Kasai said a touch too sharply. "You saw how she gamed that duel with Nemesis! She-Beast tricked her into precisely following She-Beast's battle-plan."

"Tetsuko-chan," Ito-sensei objected, "what is that, but good tactics? I spend most of my time trying to hammer it into plate-steel skulls that strange powers are not the best solution, but that planning, preparation and information are. You want to punish one of the few students who already understands that?"

"She gamed the duel system to discredit the Spy Kids and almost got Nemesis expelled," Kasai maintained firmly. "She needs to learn that she can’t manipulate everyone and get everything her own way."

"Ah, Tetsuko?" Wilson drawled, " everybody knows that if she isn’t a clinical high-functioning paranoid, she could still fool 7 out of 10 Sophomore Psych majors. So, you want us to bushwhack a high-functioning paranoid with control issues, to teach her the lesson that she can't be in control of everything?"

"Actually, Ryan," Sgt. Major Burlington-Smythe, the firing range honcho, drawled, "What I think the lady means is that when toffee-nosed little barracks-lawyers weasel their way around the letter of the regs, it’s bad for the general discipline. When this happens, it often falls to those of us in the trenches, who aren’t quite as bound by the letter of things, to pound it into their pointy little heads that cunning tricks with words do NOT change the way the world works."

"Yeah," Wilson grunted, "if we don’t do something, people will say that we’re scared of her dad or something. So, who do we stick her with? The obvious thing is to put her in a position where she’ll have to cooperate with Nemesis, but that’s just a tad too obvious."

"What about Loophole?" Burlington-Smythe offered. "I’ve heard that there’s bad blood between those two, and if anyone could out-lawyer She-Beast, it’s Loophole."

"Bad idea," Bardue said flatly. "Remember that ‘Wicked’ affair that 'officially' never happened? After that, Loophole and She-Beast may not be going to any sleepovers together any time soon, but for a good grade they’ll cooperate to the point that it won’t be a matter of how well they do; it’ll be a matter of whether we’ve got a stopwatch fast enough to time them."

"What about Iron Star or Magni-Girl?" Wilson offered. "In the past couple of weeks, the Capes and the Seeds have been getting pretty bitchy and nasty toward each other."

Kasai snapped her fingers and grinned evilly. "Not Iron Star or Magni-Girl. The fix would be too obvious. No, there’s a Cape who also needs to learn a thing or two about taking dangerous situations seriously."

"That’s almost ALL of them," Bardue sneered. "Exactly who are you talking about?"

"Do you remember that big smash-up in New York on the Spring Break, with the Drow and the Karedonian Imperial Jewels?" Kasai asked rhetorically. "Well, according to my information, She-Beast was in that mess up to her hips - as usual. Also, according to my source, Mega-Girl -"

"That little blonde airhead in Poe that the ECG is always complaining about?" Wilson asked.

"Right. Well according to my source, Mega-Girl somehow got She-Beast arrested and almost thrown in a cell without a key. When the dust settled, She-Beast walked, but the District Attorney was throwing roses at Mega-Girl. She-Beast swears up and down that she got reamed, but the Cape Squad has been beating her over the head with it ever since."

"So we throw them in the crash together," Bardue summed up, "and either She-Beast spends the time pounding Mega-Girl and trashes her own GPA, or she competes against Mega-Girl to rescue the hostage and still trashes her own GPA, or she figures it out and has to help someone she’s furiously pissed at." He nodded. "Not our best work, but it works."

"The important thing is that She-Beast understands that we can lower the boom on her," Kasai said sturdily.

"And now for the really important part," Ito said. He laid a $10 bill on the table. "I’m putting ten on She-Beast to mop the floor with Mega-Girl."

Saturday, May 12, 2007 - Noon
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Work study on Saturday morning really sucked, but a job was a job, and Whateley was an expensive school, so a student did what a student had to. In this case, it was light janitorial duties in Kane Hall that occupied the boy. He'd just finished sweeping the second floor classrooms so he carried the broom back to the janitor's closet, checking his watch as he did so. Seeing it was lunchtime, he sighed with relief at being finished with the week's tedium.

Inside the broom closet, he snapped on the light, and with a quick glance up and down the halls, he pulled the door shut after himself. The shelving unit that held cleaning supplies was a heavy-duty model, which was perfect for his intended use; he scrambled up like he was climbing a ladder, turning so he was sitting on the top shelf. He twisted his body toward an air vent and undid two thumbscrews, popping the vent cover off and setting it beside him. Reaching inside the vent, he found a small irregularity in the metal, which he used like a thumb catch, opening a hidden panel in the side of the vent.

He'd done this so often that he didn't need to look; instead, he reached in, pressing a finger into the opening left behind the panel and depressed a button. Released from its cradle, a small removable hard disk, measuring about two and a half inches by four inches by one half inch, slid straight out from a receptacle an inch or so; the boy grasped it and slid it the rest of the way out with one hand, while the other hand dug in a pocket of his cargo pants and pulled out an identical drive. The electronic connector on the rear mated with the connectors inside the socket, and the boy pressed the device home, hearing and feeling a faint click as it seated.

From there, it was a matter of seconds to replace the vent liner, screw the vent cover back into place, and scramble down the shelves. Solidly on the ground, he slid the disk he'd retrieved into his cargo pants. Satisfied, he went back to his original chores of putting away the broom and dust-pan.

Finished with his work-study, he took an elevator from the second floor down into the tunnels, looking about cautiously but not nervously; looking nervous was a good way to arouse suspicion, or so he'd been taught. His tutoring by an unknown mentor also included watching around himself at all times while appearing casual.

The boy walked into a lab, pausing to greet friends, and went to a particular bench where he spent a little time idly chatting with Widget, a girl he made no secret of admiring and wanting to get to know better, but she was still obsessed with Thunderbird so he wisely didn't press, staying a friend until such time as Widget realized that Thunderbird wasn't going to dump Chaka and race to her, her heart would be broken, and he'd be there to comfort her. A rebound relationship didn't scare him at all; it was better than nothing, which was what he had.

As the two kids talked, the boy glanced surreptitiously around the room, and satisfied that everyone was heads-down into their own gadgets and work, he slipped one hand down, taking the hard drive out of his pocket and sliding it unnoticed into a convenient receptacle underneath Widget's bench. Then, when Widget was looking away, he turned a small latch on a cabinet.

As usual, he asked Widget if she was going to lunch, and no matter how many times she said no, he was still a little disappointed. With a pleasant farewell, he trudged back to the tunnels and to Schuster - where lunch awaited.

Monday, May 14, 2007 - Late Morning
Lab beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

The girl walking past the lab glanced inside, as was her habit, and she did a quick double-take. Her course reversal was so abrupt that she nearly collided with Chelsea Horton, better known as Little Bee, who was, as usual, fiddling with a piece of her latest gadget as she walked down the halls. The precocious eighth-grade gadgeteer looked up at the last second and started.

"Sorry, Tweak," Chelsea, little sister of the better-known Yellow Queen, Patti Horton, said contritely, "I didn't see you there."

Linda Fowler - Tweak - smiled pleasantly. "No, it's my fault," she apologized. "I cut back and almost hit you because I wanted to have a quick word with Widget." She looked at the ... thing ... in the girl's hands. "What are you working on?" For several minutes, time which was well spent camouflaging her true intentions, Linda listened to the excited junior high girl from Whitman go on and on about her latest prototype. Because of the age difference and living in different cottages, Tweak seldom had much interaction with Little Bee, despite them both being 'labcoats' and sharing some interest areas in their gadgeteering focus. Finally, Tweak smiled. "I need to catch Widget, and then I've got to get a bite to eat."

Little Bee gawked at her for a moment. "Oh, yeah," she said, looking at her watch, "it is lunchtime." Still holding her creation, the younger girl scurried off toward Schuster.

Tweak wandered casually to Widget's desk. "I'm almost done modifying the PID controller for you. When do you need it?"

"Next week should be fine," Widget answered without looking up from her workbench.

"Oh, good!" Tweak sighed with relief, and that wasn't an act. Gadgeteers and devisors helped each other out, and trading favors was a sacred obligation. If a gadgeteer or devisor promised something to another gadgeteer or devisor on Tuesday, they had better deliver on Tuesday. And not at one minute before midnight, but at a reasonable hour! Otherwise, the one who failed to fulfill an obligation would never be able to get a favor from anyone else in the labs.

"That'll give me time to finish up my video encoder/decoder prototype before I get to your controller."

"I probably won't need it before Wednesday," Widget said, still not looking up from her work. "I suppose I could wait ...."

"No, I'll have it for you Tuesday noon at the latest," Tweak promised. Her hand slipped down to the hidden cache, and she slipped the small hard drive out from under Widget's desk and into a pocket of her labcoat. "You going to lunch?"

"No," Widget answered. "I'll just get something at the snack shack."

"Okay. Catch you later." Tweak sauntered out of the lab, working hard to suppress her smile. Taking the elevator down, she turned to her private lab, a perk of having two patents on electronic equipment that was being used by Security. Of course, they hadn't really considered that using her equipment opened them up to whatever hidden capabilities she'd installed. Considering that she'd aspired to joining the Masterminds from practically her first day on campus, it wasn't surprising that's she'd included some surprises. It was only surprising that no-one had bothered to search for undocumented 'features' in her equipment.

At her lab, Tweak went through her ritual check for unwanted intrusions, snoops, and bugs, and then she sat down at her workbench and took the small storage device out of her pocket. "What do we have today?" she asked herself with delight.

The previous spring, she'd managed to inherit a very sophisticated spy system from Farsight, a genius optics gadgeteer who'd graduated in 2006; sleeping with him was a small price to pay for the surveillance system she'd gotten out of the tryst. And using sex? After a romance a senior fin the fall of 2005 had brought her out of her shell, she'd begun to learn the wily ways of playing the femme fatale, and sex was just another tool in her arsenal. And the payoff? Farsight's system was the only one on campus which fooled all electronic and magical sweeps because the active components were located far away from the passive sensor head. Farsight had managed to invent nearly perfect, lossless, coherent fiber-optic cable which allowed him to build a fiberscope over fifteen meters long instead of the usual one meter length of fiberscopes. With the image-processing electronics located so far away, there was nothing in a room to trigger an electronics detector and since it used no magic, those detection methods failed as well. Further, he'd made an optic crystal that turned vibrations into light pulses, so one of the fibers in his scope was a passive microphone. The result was a high-resolution fiberscope which was almost impervious to being caught by standard 'bug sweeps'.

Farsight's system had passive sensor-heads at several locations on campus - sensitive locations that students were not supposed to routinely observe, including Gunny's office, Hartford's computer, Ito's office, the security monitoring office, and the control booth of Arena 99. The remote electronic component at the sensors tapped into the campus network and sent the data in irregular, disguised streams to a central data collection and reduction component located, of all places, directly above security in Kane Hall. For a little spending money, a student swapped a fresh storage unit into the system and did a dead-drop of the full one, which Tweak had just retrieved.

Tweak plugged the removable hard disk into her computer. One file at a time, off-the-shelf freeware did scene identification, such as when a person came to a desk and sat down or left, and an easy recognition program identified which of the scenes had a person in them. That cut down on the raw data by well over two-thirds. From there, it was significantly more labor-intensive to scan the video - at very high speed - to see when the person was actually using their computer. From that, scene markers were selected and the process was turned over to a program she'd gotten from Askey for a little customization of his gaming computer. Of course, he didn't know the real purpose, and she'd added many modifications, so when she fed the resulting software a scene that included a computer screen, it essentially copied every character typed - a very passive and sophisticated key-logger.

Fifteen minutes after the program started digesting data from the sensor that looked down on Ms. Hartford's desk, it spat out a file. In the meantime, Tweak had identified several more scenes to feed the program.

The girl's brow furrowed when she began to examine the first output file. It looked like Ms. Hartford was working on a program; Tweak scanned the resulting file - a relatively simple program to read records from an input file and output four fields appended with what looked like a random number. She frowned; without the seed number, which was generated from the system clock, it'd be nearly impossible to recreate the number sequence. What was more puzzling, though, was why Hartford was messing around with such a simple program. It had to be something important.

Linda mentally filed away the program and began to look at the second file. A second program looked equally simple - take inputs from two files - one of which had five fields, and do a search against two fields of a second input file; if there was no match, the third, through sixth fields of the first input file were output, but if the fields did match, only the third through fifth fields of the first input file were output.

"What the hell?" Tweak asked herself. Two very simple programs to assign a random number to all data items in a list, and then strip the number from some of those items? It made no sense to her.

And then the mystery deepened; the output recording of Hartford's computer showed that she ran the first program against the student records database, and filtered it with a second file that was also an output from the student records, but with a query with a specific flag set to "True". All the results went into a file on Hartford's computer, which was behind a very sophisticated firewall that Tweak was definitely not going to attempt to penetrate.

Tweak leaned on her elbows, staring at the computer monitor through steepled forefingers. There was something very intriguing going on, a level of mystery from with student files that she'd never seen before. But she also knew that, absent a screen print of whatever the file was, she was not going to be able to reproduce the output file.

Suddenly, Tweak started; she noticed movement in the captured screen images. Bolting upright in her chair, she focused, not on Hartford's computer, but on the printer to its side where paper was spewing out, sheet after sheet of data. Could it be whatever data file Hartford had created? She grabbed her mouse and clicked on the screen, zooming in on the face-up pages as they emerged into the printer tray.

"A list of students by codename?" she asked herself, perplexed. "And numbers?" As she scanned the image, puzzling over its possible meaning, she noticed a few student names that had no numbers beside them. "This doesn't make any sense."

It only took a few minutes for Linda to modify her original program and to focus on the printer. The difficulty was translating the oblique view of the paper into something that her character recognition program could actually digest, and then she had to manually sort through the image file to find when the printer started and stopped. As soon as she started to run the program, a list of code-names, class, and a number scrolled up her monitor. Some of the names, as she expected, had no number by them.

Despite her growing curiosity, her computer interrupted her with a beep and a popup warning at her, informing her that the program wanted more data. Sighing, she turned her attention back to scene identification and selection. Someday, she told herself, she was going to have to automate more of the process. For the moment, the mysterious list of numbers and names was filed in the back of her mind for later consideration.

The answer to the mystery would come, of that she was certain. She just had to be patient, like she had been when analyzing the data feeds from the remote security cameras. Given enough data, the riddle would unfold practically by itself. She continued scanning through the files, marking them for her computer to chew on, while in the background, a software program of her design monitored both the video and her selections. With enough time, the expert system would acquire enough training that Tweak could turn over the entire task to a fully automated system. Then her ability to monitor events on the campus would be constrained only by her ability to replicate Farsight's scopes. And that wasn't really a challenge, since after one particularly enthusiastic round of sex which had left him totally exhausted, she'd copied the entire contents of his computer's hard disk, giving her all of his secrets.

Saturday, May 19, 2007 - Very Early Morning
Office, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

After flipping on the lights in the darkened office, two technicians flopped the bulky cases they were carrying onto two empty chairs and opened them with a practiced ease that spoke of much experience. Sensitive electronic equipment was extracted from the specialized compartments in foam-lined cases and assembled with a bored ease that bespoke of much experience.

"What's the deal this time?" one of the techs asked as he powered on his equipment and let it warm up and self-calibrate. "Daily sweeps in several offices? They're acting like they're dealing with top secret stuff."

The other technician shook his head as he placed 'samples' around the room. "Nope. I dealt with that shit for six years when I was in. This is worse. Sweeps every morning, random sweeps other times during the day. I heard magic is right behind us doing magic sweeps, too."

The first technician nodded his agreement. "I know they always get ginchy at finals, but this year it's nuts." He pulled out a walkie-talkie. "Security, team Hotel Four, request you deactivate camera Bravo-November Four-One. Clearance code ..." He glanced at a device that resembled a pocket watch. "Code Niner Six Three Niner Eight Zero Two." He released the 'talk' button.

"Hotel Four," a bored voice sounded from the walkie talkie, "code confirmed. Camera Bravo November Four-One powered down."

"Comm unit is going cold for ten minutes." He released the button and put the walkie talkie and the pocket-watch into one of the cases, closing it and latching it shut. "Clear."

With that, the tech holding the equipment began to scan the room, pausing to call out each 'target'. "Got 'em all," the second tech replied as he collected the samples. It took less than a minute to lock them away in the shielded case so they wouldn't interfere with the scan for real monitoring devices.

For the next five minutes, the tech scanned the room, his pattern familiar and quite routine. He paused at the security camera; even though it was powered off, the electronics still absorbed the RF energy of the scanner and involuntarily radiated it back, giving a signal to the detector. In the same way, any electronic bug would stick out like a candle in a dark room. But like all electronic equipment, it had a known 'signature' in the scanner. Any deviation would be noted and the equipment would be investigated for unauthorized 'modification'.

"Clean," the tech reported as he powered off the scanner and began to repack it.

As his partner was stowing the scanner, the other tech took out the walkie-talkie. "Security, Hotel Four. Check complete. Reactivate camera Bravo November Four-One."

"Hotel Four, confirmed. Reactivate Bravo November Four-One."

"Range control next?" the first tech asked, latching his case shut.

"Sure. Then we'll do Laird before we get Schuster."

"Ten bucks we draw Laird for the random check this afternoon."

"You're on."

Overhead, in a tiny hole in the acoustic ceiling, one of millions of similar holes in all the panels, photons from the room lighting traveled into a miniature lens and thence into nearly a million almost microscopic fiber cables, each only a couple of microns in diameter and all gathered into one very small cable bundle. The gathered light sped through the nearly flawless fibers across the ceiling, a few meters down a hall, and into a janitor's closet, where the fiber bundle ended in a small electronics box hidden in a small ceiling cavity. Photo-detectors converted the light into electrical signals, and the resulting image was compressed and then sent out another cable into the Whateley network.

Packet upon packet of data, all disguised by the converter box into seemingly innocuous and normal network traffic, passed through the complex maze of cable runs in the tunnels until another box - hidden in the second floor of Kane Hall, accepted the internet packets and stripped out the valuable data, performing further compression and then sending it to a tiny, removable storage unit.

None of it had been detected. Not one of the sweeps had picked up the purely passive optical monitoring device, and no network sweeps had ever noticed the disguised data. The advanced fiberscope continued to monitor the room, its lens focused on the computer monitor on Gunny Bardue's desk.

Saturday, May 19, 2007 - Morning
Gunny's Office, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Gunny glared at a large jelly-bean jar beside the monitor atop his desk. "Damn techies," he growled.

"What now?"

"Bastards have been after my jelly-beans again," the former Marine complained. "Probably during their last sweep."

Tatsuo Ito examined the jar. "How can you tell? It doesn't look any different to me than last night."

"I can tell," the Gunnery Sergeant replied.

"How? Did you name them all and do a roll call?" Ito chuckled.

"Very funny!" Gunny retorted. "If it was your jelly beans, you'd be pissed, too!"

"Okay, so you expense some jelly beans to the combat finals," Ito said. "Let's get this data in the computer." He shook his head wearily. "I wish we didn't have to go to these extremes and could just give this to your range-rats to input."

"Yeah, I know," Gunny said, nodding. "But Sam and Liz think the odds-makers in Vegas are getting too close to compromising our students' names. Liz is serious about finding and plugging the leak before one of the kids gets identified and hurt."

"We've never shut them down before," Ito countered, shaking his head. "So we work our asses off in a fool's errand and lose a few weekends?" He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly to center himself, to regain his focus. "I suppose if we get sandwiches and work through lunch, we might get the evening free."

Gunny chuckled. "I take it you didn't hear the change of plans?" Ito frowned, a sense of dismay overtaking him. Bardue continued. "Billy Two Knives got a big chunk of bison, so he and Amanda have had it on the grill smoking since last night. Everyone else is getting fixin's - potato salad, cole-slaw, sodas - so we're getting together for lunch."

"That sounds like a nice change."

"Plus, I figure if we get through Thursday's matches, we can take the rest of the day off. It's a nice day and I haven't been fishing for quite a while."

"Then let's get going. I'll read 'em off and you type?" Ito offered.

Bardue logged into his computer and started a program, then opened a file. "Okay," he prompted the other man. "I'm ready when you are."

"Students five-one-three and zero-eighty-six," Ito recited from a notebook.

"Five-one-three and zero-eight-six."

"Scenario C two-one." Ito read the code corresponding to the simulator set design number, the hostage location on that set, and the exit combination.

"C two-one. Difficulty?"

"We decided on a seven for them."

Bardue frowned a little, then clicked on the application and typed in. He scanned the screen. "We haven't used the Wiz and Energizer combo yet."

"Sounds good. Five-one-three is a Wiz-2," Ito read off his notebook. "The other one is a brick."

"Six baseline henchmen, Wiz-4, En-4?"

Ito nodded, a satisfied smile on his face. Students would not have been surprised to see him seeming to enjoy torturing the students in their combat final settings.

"Okay," Bardue finished that entry. "Next?"

Overhead, a very small, undetected seeing-eye watched Bardue's computer screen, while its brains several meters away dutifully recorded every second of every image that flitted across Gunny's screen.

Saturday, May 19, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
Control Room, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Larry yawned as he stretched back from his control console, his arms extended over his head. "Damn," he swore to himself. "It'd be easier if I'd have gone to Hollywood to do set design."

"No, it wouldn't," Chuck, sitting beside him, chuckled. "Been there, done that. It really ain't fun when you've got a director screaming at you to do one thing with a set, the producer screaming to do something different, and the money guy screaming that you've already blown the budget."

"Instead, we get a psychopathic ex-Marine screaming at us to make the sims harder," Goldie, the lone woman in the control room, chuckled. "And Ito fussing about how realistic it all looks." She was no beauty by even non-Whateley standards, with unkempt brown hair, a large-ish nose, and several extra pounds beneath her Whateley labcoat, but she was well-respected, and even desired a bit by her nerdy male co-workers.

"Yeah, we get spared the screaming money-man," Chuck laughed, "but we get the same impossible deadlines."

"At least on a movie set, you're only doing one production at a time," Larry grumbled. "Not doing a regular sim schedule and doing sim design for finals!" He shook his head. "It's all the weird extra stuff we have to put in that makes this such a pain in the ass."

"Suppose we'll have to get another hundred-fifty squirrels again?" Goldie asked warily.

"It's not on the list ... yet," Chuck said, scanning a computer file of 'extra' set dressing besides the hydraulically-operated building levels.

Each ten-foot by ten-foot section of the simulator floor could be raised independently up to four stories in height, complete with intermediate floors, stairways, and elevators, so the set could be rapidly changed from one configuration to another. Some partitions between the sections were fixed; others were the new hard-light hologram system that they'd just installed. While it was a power-hog and still a bit finicky, it greatly simplified dressing the sets for simulations. The real heart of the simulations though, as far as Chuck and Goldie were concerned, was the detailed 'dressing' of the set, the extra bits that made it seem realistic. And despite their grumbling, the trio - indeed the entire team of simulator technicians - took great pride in the way they 'personalized' each simulation so it didn't seem dull or lifeless, but was as realistic as they could achieve within their budget and time constraints.

The door of the control room opened, startling the trio; they spun almost as one to see who was entering, relaxing a bit when they saw four of their compatriots. "You guys are jumpy," Cliff Moffet chuckled, leading in KC, Jack, and Ted.

"You would be too if you had security popping in every couple of hours to do a bug sweep," Larry grumbled. "Every time they do, it sets us back half an hour."

Cliff shook his head. "In all my years, I have never seen security and the administration so paranoid about security with combat finals."

"Yeah, well, it's a pain in the ass, and the way I figure it, we're behind schedule."

"Well," Jack said with a wry smile, "you guys can pick up again after we run the afternoon sims."

"Who have you got this afternoon?" Goldie asked. "Anyone interesting?"

"A lot of the usual. Got the Grunts, Kimbas," KC read from the schedule. "Oh, this one should be fun. Wondercute against the Vindicators."

"Ten bucks on Wondercute!" Larry offered a wager quickly.

"That's a sucker bet," Goldie scoffed. "No-one is going to take you up on that."

"Generator is either totally insane, or a genius," Chuck guffawed. "Be glad she's not a power fighter like Stormwolf!"

"With her head on his shoulders, they could wreck civilization," Goldie deadpanned, which elicited knowing laughter from all the techs. Generator had a reputation for schemes that were utterly impossible and so mad that they couldn't possibly work - and yet they did with a track record of success that had to cause Gunny heartburn.

"Let me finish another couple of details, and then the room is yours." Larry turned his attention back to his console. In less than five minutes, he stood up after saving his file. "Let's go guys. Much as I'd like to stay and watch Wondercute drive you all nuts, I'm in need of a little rest after hours of sim design."

"I'm with you," Goldie said, stretching in a way that displayed rounded bumps beneath her labcoat and not really aware that all the control room nerds were gawking at her. "See you in the morning?"

"Yeah," Chuck said grudgingly. "I guess so. Unless you'd like to go get a drink in the pub. Or in Berlin."

Goldie smiled, ignoring all the other techies gawking that Chuck had found the nerve to ask her out. "Sounds good."

Cliff, KC, and his team sat down in still-warm chairs, taking over the consoles as they began to configure the simulation systems for the day's run. Unlike combat finals, the afternoon simulations would use the full-immersion virtual simulators, but they'd tie up the consoles and computers so that Larry and his team wouldn't be able to continue their data entry. Besides, after nearly ten hours, they were all shot anyway.

As the trio wearily filed out of the control room, a tiny fiber-optic eye watched, it's main focus on the computer screens. And like its compatriots in strategic locations on campus, it dutifully fed its data to a master unit, where it could be stored until the system owner could digest its contents.

Friday, May 25, 2007 - Late Evening
Private Lab beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

The frown on the girl's face seemed to be permanent as she stared at the computer screen, the displayed image unwilling to give up its secrets no matter how much Tweak scrutinized and mentally analyzed the data. She had file after file of raw data, but the information underlying it was hidden, obscured in cryptic letters and numbers.

She knew that Gunny and Ito had to be working on the combat final pairings. But it made no sense. She had no clue who was being paired with whom and in what scenarios. There had been rumors that this spring's finals were a big change, but that was all anyone had - rumors and idle speculation.

Tweak thought hard. Ito and Bardue were always in charge of running and grading the simulations. She cued up a marked file from Ito's desk, and the frustrating image showed nothing sensible. Just numbers and letters in a meaningless pattern. And a check of the simulation schedule compared to the files being worked on in the sim control room were most likely simulation scenarios, but again, they were cryptic little sequences of numbers and letters and simulator control inputs.

Weary, in a brain fog from having concentrated on the puzzle so long with no results, Tweak shut down her computer after locking away the files in a doubly-encrypted disk, and then she trudged through the tunnels toward Dickinson cottage. There had to be an answer. She was dead certain of it. And she had a lot riding on tickling out that answer; an anonymous contact from security was desperate for the data, offering a substantial sum for the combat final pairings and scenarios.

As she prepared for bed, brushing her teeth in the girls' bathroom, Washout entered, humming to herself in a happy tone that, given her frustration level, was irritating to Tweak. "Oh, hi, Linda," she chirped happily.

"Hi, Mindy," Tweak answered unenthusiastically, her mind focused elsewhere.

"Are you okay?" Mindy asked as she hung up her robe to shower. "You look like something's wrong."

Tweak shook her head. "It's a technical problem I just can't get my head around," she replied.

"Oh, speaking of that," Mindy turned and pranced to the sinks, ignoring the fact that she was buck naked. "You know a few things about computer programming, right?"

Tweak resisted the temptation to roll her eyes in disbelief at Mindy's stupid question. Of course she knew about computer programming! She was a wiz at it! "Yeah," she answered, trying not to sound snarky or sarcastic.

"We've got finals coming up, and I've got a programming assignment, and I just don't understand something." Mindy said, sighing heavily. "I have to get it right on the program, and I just know it's going to be on the final!"

Tweak sighed. "What is it?"

"It's direct and indirect addressing," Mindy said unhappily. "I get direct addressing - when I have a variable, it's whatever it is." She shook her head. "But I don't get indirect addressing! It doesn't make sense to me."

Tweak closed her eyes a second. She'd explained this over and over to countless students in her nearly two-years at Whateley, and some of them still didn't get it. "Okay," she said, going through the rote explanation again. "Say you're dealing with different kinds of fruit. I have a container with something in it, okay?"

"Yeah?"

"You open the box and you see an orange."

"Okay."

"That's direct addressing. The container has the actual item in it. Does that make sense?"

"I think so."

"Now if I want to tell you 'apple' instead, I have to throw away the orange and put an apple in the container instead, right? In either case, the box has the actual piece of fruit in it." She saw Mindy nodding her understanding.

"Now what if I scatter the fruit around the room, and instead of the actual fruit being in the box, I put in directions to where you can find the particular piece of fruit?"

Mindy scowled as she thought. "But ... how ... I mean ...." She thought a bit. "I ... think I get it .... It's like ... a set of directions to the answer?"

Linda nodded. "Instead of the answer, it's ... a ...." She got a far-off look in her eyes, and her jaw dropped. "That's it!" she mouthed softly. "That's IT! It's an indirect reference!"

"What?" Mindy was totally confused by Tweak's behavior, and even more so when Tweak dashed out of the bathroom, leaving her toiletries. Mindy followed her out the door, watching as the gadgeteer dashed down the hall in her flimsy nightie, robe, and fuzzy-bunny slippers. Shaking her head, she went back to finish her night-time chores. It wasn't the strangest thing she'd seen a labcoat-type do.

Completely oblivious to how she was dressed, and not realizing that she was minutes from the curfew, Linda ran to the nearest elevator down to the tunnels, and then dashed as fast as her feet would carry her to her lab. For the first time in a long time, she stood impatiently by the door, tapping her foot nervously as she waited for the electronic locks to recognize her code and thumbprint. No sooner had it opened than she darted through the door, not even looking to see if it had closed behind her, and she powered on her computer. She never ignored her own security protocols, but then, Tweak had never had a real Big Idea moment like the discussion with Mindy had inspired.

"Come on, come on," she softly urged her computer over and over, waiting for the system to boot. Finally, her fingers danced rapidly across the keyboard; two files opened, and she gawked at the data as she compared it. "I GOT it!" she screamed happily. "I got it!"

Another hunch paid off when she compared yet another file the first one. "And the scenarios!" Tweak started laughing maniacally. "This should be worth a fortune!" But then her expression soured; she didn't know the right contacts on campus that could give a big payoff. Sure, she knew a couple of bookies, but what they'd pay was chump-change compared to what such data would be really worth. What she needed was an information broker for both on-campus and off-campus sale of her data. She knew someone who could get her such a contact, but did she want to play that card, especially when she wasn't yet officially in the Masterminds? No, she figured, it would be far better to present it as a fait accompli as further proof of her worthiness.

Saturday, May 26, 2007 - Before Dinner
The Quad, Whateley Academy

"Linda," a rather nondescript boy of about five-eight said by way of minimal greeting as he sat down at a bench beside the gadgeteer girl. "Nice day."

"Yup,' Tweak replied easily. From having scanned her surroundings, she knew how few people were nearby. "I thought about asking Cueball on a picnic tomorrow. But he's got some project going on."

"Too bad," the boy said. "Shall we continue the small-talk and pleasantries?"

"Direct," Linda laughed. "I like that." She casually glanced around once more. "I've got a hypothetical for you, RJ," she said lightly.

"I'm listening."

"Suppose someone were to get some real sensitive information that would have real significant value to ... outside parties. And they needed to find a way to get this information to a buyer."

Booker arched an eyebrow. "Depends on what kind of information that person might have," he replied cautiously.

Tweak smiled. "It's very ... hot ... information. If it were to fall into the right buyer, odds are they could use it in very profitable ways."

The boy's eyebrows shot up as he homed in on her choice of phrasing. "If it were me, I'd want to understand the pedigree and value of the data," the boy replied.

"Fair enough." The girl thought a moment. "What would you do in a combat final if, let's suppose, your opponent were someone like Quyen Nu?"

"She hates me!" the boy snapped angrily. "And she's a freakin' brick! Given a chance, she'll try to kill me!"

"Yeah, that's what I figured, especially after you called her on throwing a sim," Tweak chuckled. "So ... I can tell you even more details if you're interested. How much would that be worth - to you, or to anyone else who's in a combat final?"

Booker's eyes widened. "That information is a veritable gold-mine," he whistled. "Any one of a number of students would pay ..."

Linda nodded, cutting off the boy. "Yeah, yeah," she said dismissively. "Chump change. I suspect that there are others - not necessarily on campus - who would pay a small fortune for the data, right? I mean, the matches always end up on pay-per-view and there's a lot of betting on the results."

"Hmmm ," Booker thought for a moment, scratching his chin. "I can make contact with a party that has a great interest in wagering," he mused.

"And how much are you going to extort from me?"

"You wound me!" the boy protested with a pout. "That word is so ... negative!" A moment later, he put a smile back on his face. "No, actually, I was thinking more of a business arrangement, a partnership as it were. Say ... forty-five percent?"

"Get real!" Tweak snapped at him. "I own the data! Fifteen."

"But you don't have a contact that can pay you it's true worth, or we wouldn't be having this discussion! Thirty-five?" Booker counter-proposed.

"Twenty-five, and that's my final offer. And I get twenty percent of your proceeds from your ventures."

Booker gawked at her a moment, and then closed his mouth and nodded. "Deal," he said, holding out his hand. "I don't know who the head man is," he whispered conspiratorially after glancing around, "but Carruthers in the Third Platoon is my contact to get things to and from Vegas betting."

"I'll leave it in your capable hands then," Linda said with a smile, standing up. "Since it's a nice day, I think I'll get my books and study in the quad." She started to walk off, but then she suddenly turned. "By the way, since you're my partner on this ...."

"Yes?"

"What the hell does RJ stand for anyway?"

The boy cringed. "Royce Joshua," he said, an expression of disgust on his face. "I was named after my two grandfathers,"

"Royce Joshua Woodruff?" Linda couldn't help but smirk. "No wonder you go by Booker or RJ!"

"I trust that my partner can be ... discrete ... about certain things?"

"Just like I know you wouldn't dare stab me in the back or try to short me," Linda commented with a smile as she rose and walked off.

RJ - Booker - leaned back, and it was only then that he noticed that Linda had left a paperback novel on the bench where she'd been sitting. He scooped it up and started to rise to chase her down, but then he reconsidered. Opening the book, he discovered a hollowed-out pocket containing a thumb drive. He let the book close and then stood, smiling.


Saturday, May 26, 2007 - After Dinner
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Sergeant Clay Buxton wearily climbed into his pickup. His shift hadn't been too eventful, but he was tired nonetheless. The ignition key bounced off the switch when he tried to insert it, and he cursed loudly. Just like the fates to mess with him when he was leaving work. He tried again as he leaned to his right, to see why his key wouldn't fit.

In the center of the ignition switch was a small thumb drive, adhered neatly over the key slot. With a glance around to see if someone was watching him, he jerked the offending device off the switch and shoved it into his pocket, then resumed his normal routine of starting his truck. He didn't know what someone had left for him, but he'd soon find out

Twenty minutes later, he pulled up to his house, shut off his truck, and trudged inside. After a perfunctory kiss to his wife, he walked into his 'man cave' and sat down at a computer. Logging on, he typed in a web address from memory. A series of challenge codes and fictitious IDs got him logged into the site, and then he uploaded the sole file that was contained on the thumb drive. After a confirmatory pop-up, he logged off the site, cleared his browser, and moved to his easy-chair, automatically turning on his TV as he did so. The data was now in the hands of his contact, and he was going to get a piece of the action. Of course he'd have to pay off Caruthers, and whoever he got the data from, but that was routine business.

Monday, May 28, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Private Lab, Beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

After a brief stretch and yawn necessitated by a long period of sitting in one position hunched over her computer, Tweak opened a new browser window and typed in an address from memory. It took a few seconds for the website to come up, and when it did, the very first thing it displayed was a request for a user ID and password. No sooner had that been entered than the browser navigated to a second site, which again prompted for login credentials. Only after that was done - the second anonymizing server in a chain to help protect her identities and activities, did the girl direct the browser to the main page of iPayoff, a far less common website for money transfers than that other one, but transactions were nearly impossible to trace, and being overseas, it avoided all potential 'requests' for information from the government and law-enforcement agencies.

Tweak typed in her user-name - a totally random mix of characters to ensure there was not even a vestigial hint of her real name, initials, code-name, or anything else that could identify her, and then typed in an equally obscure password.

Linda couldn't help but smile as she read the popup declaring 'you have received money'. Clicking on that notice opened a window displaying recent transactions, one of which was highlighted in bold, so she clicked on that.

"Fifteen hundred?" Linda chuckled to herself. She read the information, and seeing what was obviously a student ID, she opened yet another window on her PC to display a list of student names and ID numbers. A quick scan brought up the name she was looking for.

That student name was quickly translated into the random number, and that was indexed into her illicit combat finals lists. "Okay," she muttered to herself. "Fantastico - you've got ..." Tweak did a reverse lookup to find his opponent, "Traduce?" She chuckled to herself. That should be an interesting match. She began to type a response note. "Wednesday, June 6, two P.M. Hostage rescue," she muttered aloud as she typed. "Too bad you're so cheap, or I could have given you all the details!" Fantastico hadn't met her price for all of the details, which were considerably more verbose - the number and types of henchmen, their positions, the powers of the villain, and so forth. With a flourish, she hit the 'send' button. "Nice doing business with you," she chortled to herself, thinking about the money she'd already banked - a tidy nineteen grand. It was a good start - no doubt as the finals went on and word of her information stash spread, the demand would increase, and with it, her profits.

Of course, not all of her 'customers' wanted to pay for the full package. Overload, for example, had tried to get cheap and bargain the price down, and then got pissy and bought only for the 'economy package' - just name of his opponent. And then there was Render - who'd paid a premium for not only all the details, but had included two grand to wager against himself, when the odds clearly favored him over the underdog he'd drawn. Tweak hoped he wouldn't be so stupid as to be obvious throwing the match, but then again, it wasn't her problem - so long as she didn't get caught. With all the precautions she'd taken, that was hardly likely.

Monday, May 28, 2007 - Afternoon
Woods west of Laird Hall, Whateley Academy

Admiral Sam Everheart glanced up, noting the figure hovering around the treetops, which brought a frown to her face. Knowing who she was dealing with, she wasn't surprised. A few dozen steps put her beside a person who was obviously waiting for her. "Good evening, Phase."

"Good evening to you, too, Admiral," Ayla Goodkind replied casually.

Sam glanced up again at Tennyo. "Is she really necessary?"

"I think so," Ayla answered. "When money is involved, some people will go to extremes. I'd prefer to be cautious and alive."

"You won't get an argument from me on that," Sam chuckled.

"Now, you didn't ask to meet with me to discuss philosophies of personal security," Ayla got to the point. "I presume you're about to tell me what interests you."

Sam couldn't help but smile faintly at Ayla's deductive reasoning. The young mogul was very, very sharp, and seldom could anyone put something past her. Him. Damn, but it was always confusing to talk to Ayla; despite looking like a really hot girl, Ayla was very much a boy and preferred to be addressed as such. "Take a look at this and tell me what you think," she said, unfolding a paper and handing it to Ayla.

As Ayla read the paper, his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched involuntarily. "This looks like gambling odds for a series of contests." He handed the paper back, looking up. "Mutants, from the power listings, and scenarios and odds. Combat finals?"

"That's what we think," Sam agreed, nodding grimly. "We've gone to great lengths to keep this data secret this year, and we've still got a leak."

"That would explain the magic department and the electronics techs scanning offices daily, and sometimes multiple times daily," Ayla postulated.

Sam suppressed a chuckle. To students like Ayla, the daily 'bug sweeps' would be very noticeable. "And Hartford watched the network traffic as well as double-checked every single administrative and faculty computer for malware. And they still got it." Sam was clearly very highly frustrated.

"I didn't see anything that's harmful," Ayla said cautiously.

"If the pairings and scenarios are known, a student could throw a match after wagering on it. That compromises the integrity and purpose of combat finals."

"I could see that."

"And last fall, we came perilously close to having personal identifying information about students get out with the combat final data. You know what that would mean, don't you?" Sam didn't have to ask; blanched at the thought of outsiders - like Uncle Herb or the MCO - getting their hands on student information.

"Liz wants it stopped before some student gets hurt or killed by a data leak."

Ayla nodded, more appreciative of the administrations' and security's logic than most students his age should have been. "Okay, I'll see what I can find out - starting with the bookies. If there's anything funny going on with on-campus gambling, they'll know."

"Have you got a line on what Thuban knows?"

Ayla shook his head. "No, but I don't need to." She saw Sam's eyebrows rise. "Thuban is an information broker, but he seems to have a strong sense of honor. He'd never sell it to outsiders. If you were Faction 3 and wanted to know who you were fighting? Sure, he's the one to go to." He shrugged. "But outside campus? Not likely, because it would be a threat to all students, including Faction 3. He's very protective of Faction 3."

Monday, May 28, 2007 - Mid-Afternoon
Private Lab, Tunnels Beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

The cell phone buzzing in her pocket annoyed Tweak - right up to the moment she saw the originating phone number. In yesterday's disk exchange, she'd used the opportunity to 'push' a new filter to the data collection computer - now, it did the pre-sort with a motion-detection algorithm and a default 'blank scene' template for each of the cameras - if someone wasn't in the picture, the video would be discarded. And if there was no motion in a scene - not even the faint motions of hands on a keyboard or of a display on the computer changing, the video would be discarded.

So when the collection unit reached out to 'phone home' and announce that it had a good-sized set of data to be collected, it surprised Linda. After all, this was a three-day weekend and the teachers were trying to take a break from the normal school insanity. With upcoming combat finals, academic finals, and grading, the data on the disk was going to get increasingly valuable.

Tweak sat down at her computer and called up a very small program which did one tiny, innocuous little thing - it sent a few cryptic but critical characters to one of the servers, which in turn reacted to the message. The message was short and simple: pick up the laundry, please. The recipient would never know from whence it came, whether it was received by e-mail or by cell phone text message, and he didn't need to know. The only thing he courier had to do was swap the full hard disk in the collection unit for a fresh one, and then drop off the full disk in their drop point, picking up a fresh, clean disk for the next time and pocketing a small "finder's fee."

Forty-two minutes later, Linda strolled past Widget's lab, noticed the tell-tale sign, and casually went in to visit Widget, using the excuse of checking up on the control unit she'd provided to the other gadgeteer. Ten minutes after that, her computer sat happily digesting the video she'd retrieved. She idly started to read the output file.

"No way!" she exclaimed suddenly, eyes bulging at what she was reading. "No freakin' way!" she continued to mouth over and over again.

Her next action was completely predictable, at least to someone who knew of her dealings. She pulled out her phone. "Booker," she replied when the other end picked up, "get down to my lab ASAP. I've got something huge!" She hung up the phone, still goggling at the computer screen. "Everyone knows she hates Lanie!" she muttered to herself. And it was a commonly known fact - the two former best friends were now bitter enemies, at least since Kayda got the redhead that bear spirit. Even the administration couldn't be so blind as to miss that! So what the hell was Ms. Hartford doing personally changing the combat final lineup - at the last minute, too - to put Lifeline and Loophole in the same sim?

Monday, May 28, 2007 - Late Evening
Room 216, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Phase sat back in his chair, pondering the information he'd received - or not received - from the bookies. Yes, they were making book on the combat finals, both with wagers on individuals' opponents and on a 'bracket' of all Freshman/Sophomore pairings, which was totally unsurprising. But none of them had any information about the pairings.

And yet ... something seemed odd. Of all the bookies Ayla had met with, two seemed a little more confident of the odds they were offering. Shaking his head, Ayla sighed. - a hunch and a gut feel weren't enough to give to Sam. And all of his information sources were coming up dry, which was incredibly annoying. There had to be a source that would tell him what was going on, because he very strongly suspected that someone was brokering information about the combat finals. They always did. It was too lucrative for someone to not get involved with.

And not finding that source annoyed Phase - greatly.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

With Cueball at her side, where she wanted him, Tweak sat with a huge throng of other students in the stands at Arena 99, safely protected from the arena floor by a powerful force-field. The arena floor was dressed like a city-scape - a medium city with two- and three- and four-story buildings tightly packed together in several city blocks. It was all stage-setting; the 'buildings' were clusters of ten-foot by ten-foot platforms hydraulically raised from beneath the arena floor, with all the intermediate floors in place and 'decorated' with appropriate interior details such as walls and stairways and doors. The sets were further adorned with holographic imagery, giving the uniform building blocks the character of whatever set the simulation required.

In a neat row at the top of the force field were several large displays on which the simulation team could project views from any of the multiple cameras covering the action so observers in the stands could see the entire simulation, no matter where it was on the arena floor.

At that moment, the stands were pretty full, it being the first simulations of the first day of combat finals; every student wanted to get an idea of what the week held, hoping and trying to discern anything which could give them a slight edge in their own final. Most held out hope that they'd see people they'd rather not fight in the arena with someone else.

Beneath the grandstands, in a tunnel that opened into a concessions area and restrooms, the campus bookies were holding court, taking final bets on the 'lineup' brackets and all waiting for the mad rush of wagering that would occur as soon as the lineup for each final was announced. Booker glanced around, a smug smile on his face. He had spent long hours the previous few days and nights - including much of his time on the holiday - studying the simulation scenarios and pairings to figure the odds of each fight. And unlike the others, he was already prepared with basic options for each fight, in two categories: the two contestants went it alone, or they cooperated. If they went it alone, the possibilities were that contestant one would win, contestant two would win, or neither would win. If they cooperated, the team would either win or lose.

All the bookies knew they were in a contest with each other to have the most accurate odds so they'd attract the most betting and would consequently have the biggest payoff for themselves. The intel that Booker had gave him a huge edge, but once the basic premise was announced and a few finals were held, it wouldn't take long for the other bookies to figure out what he already knew - that cooperation was the only way to win. And knowing the pairings, he thought with a smug smile, very few of the contestants would choose to cooperate with the known rival with whom they'd been paired.

Gunny Bardue and Tatsuo Ito strode from the side of the grandstands along a broad walkway between the stands and the force-field, stopping in the center of the grandstands. Of course, as soon as they made their appearance, the raucous chatter in the stands hushed to a muted roar and then slowly ground to a halt when the two stopped and Gunny picked up a microphone. All eyes were focused on the sadist twins, every ear cocked and listening to get information about the combat finals about to happen.

Gunny cleared his throat, and what few whispers among students that had remained died instantly. "Good morning," Gunny boomed in a commanding Drill Instructor voice. Though the words were a polite greeting, no-one dared to reply. "Welcome to combat finals for Spring, 2007. This term, the theme of the finals is Hostage Rescue." He paused letting the words sink in and giving the students a few moments to mutter questions among themselves. "You will have some variation of that theme in your individual finals. Of course, as you all know, in the crash scenarios, anything goes." He smiled a most evil grin, and between his and the matching sadistic smile on Ito's face, nearly every student gulped nervously.

"The hostage takers are apt to be armed. When confronted, they may kill the hostage or flee at the first sign of trouble; you don't know which."

Ito leaned toward the microphone. "For those of you deprived of logical thinking skills, the death of the hostage is a very undesirable outcome."

Bardue nodded his agreement, still with the smug, sadistic smile that made the students increasingly nervous. "The hostage takers may have a few or many henchmen. The hostage taker may or may not be super-powered. The henchmen will be primarily baselines, but some of them might be super-powered." He let those details sink in; if asked, he and Ito would swear that they heard over three hundred nervous gulps.

"Your goal is simple," the former gunnery sergeant continued. "Rescue the hostage and deliver him or her to law enforcement. How you achieve this rescue is up to you. Any strategies short of damaging or manipulating the simulator systems are fair game. If in the course of your simulation you damage the simulator systems in any way, you will fail immediately and will be called to a disciplinary hearing where you may attempt to justify your continued presence at Whateley Academy."

Several students craned their necks, looking down the bleachers to a particular tall redhead who was sitting nonchalantly next to the hulking senior Wyatt Cody. Elaine Nalley's 'solution' in the fall finals was well-known, and now explicitly forbidden in the combat finals.

"The administration and faculty are well aware of the tradition of betting on the outcomes of the finals. Please note that this is very strongly discouraged as noted in the student handbook," Gunny continued gruffly. "As all of you Freshmen and Sophomores know, you were given a code number yesterday by your house parents or academic advisor. This number was randomly assigned, by the way. Unlike in the past, students will be summoned thirty-minutes prior to their final by that number. Approximately five to ten minutes before the final begins, the students will be identified by code-name and MID projected on the displays and shown throughout campus."

"We are not so naïve as to believe that we can stop all on-campus wagering," Ito chimed in. "But in the past, off-campus betting has become quite problematic and could pose a threat to the personal security of our students. The measures we are taking should hopefully minimize the ability of off-campus enterprises to wager on the finals."

"As in the past, costumes and / or masks are absolutely required," Sensei Ito said solemnly. "Despite our best efforts, we have never completely eliminated illicit video feeds, and the pay-per-view gaming industry makes significant revenue from these matches, which means they are going to significant ends to broadcast the video feeds."

"No matter where you are on campus," Gunny growled, "you must report to the arena within thirty minutes of your name being called or you will fail your combat final. Is that clear?" He waited a few moments for that to sink in - just in case anyone didn't realize the enormous importance of being prompt.

"Are there any questions?" Gunny asked in his booming voice. Of course, there were none; he was such an intimidating presence that few dared to question him.

"Very well." With that, he handed the microphone to a nearby flunky, then he and Ito strode back to their lair.

Overhead, the loudspeakers blared to life. "Students four twenty-six and one-seventeen report to the arena. Students four twenty-six and one-seventeen, report to the arena."

Several students scrambled to look in their wallets or purses, extracting a paper to see if either of the numbers belonged to them, while others had simply memorized their numbers. There were many sighs of relief, but two of the multitude rose and slowly trudged toward the main tunnel that led to the concessions and restroom - and the locker rooms. A throng followed, and moments later, the rumors spread through the stands like wildfire - the matchup was Hippolyta and Belphegor.

Beneath the stands, in the bookie's area, Booker smiled to himself, being careful to look as studious as his compatriots as they calculated odds. After a few moments, he turned to a whiteboard behind his head and scrawled up numbers. Immediately, a throng of students crowded around his table, eager to place their wagers. It was times like this where having an eidetic exemplar memory came in handy; he remembered precisely all the odds he'd painstakingly computed and had committed to memory so there were no telltale traces of notes or other records which could, if things went to shit, compromise his and Tweak's entire little arrangement.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Cyberspace, Whateley Academy

<Is that what you're looking for, Boss?>, Blue asked from his usual cyberspace hangout. Before him was a display created out of nothingness, on which appeared several distinct groupings of data.

Sam sighed to herself. <Yeah>, she replied, staring at the numbers as if by sheer willpower she could tease some sense out of them.

<Six places have odds on some kind of mutant battle>, Blue reported. <Do you think it's our combat finals?>

Sam nodded grimly. <Yeah.> She scowled at the board. <I can't see any kind of pattern that would reveal inside information. They're all kind of nebulous.> Reaching out, Sam touched the display and zoomed in on one area. <Look at this one, for example. There are five 'power ratings' for each contestant, and three outcomes - A wins, B wins, Neither win.> Sam shook her head. <Three of the groups look like this. The others are variations on the theme. And none of them have anything that would point to a leak somewhere.>

<So ... we don't have a leak?> Blue speculated hopefully.

Sam shook her head. <Can't rule it out, either.> She thought for a moment. <Can you look at international sites? Macau? Paris? Monaco? St Martin?>

Blue nodded. <I'll see what I can find.>

<Just ... get the odds. No need to break in,> Sam reminded the boy.

<Okay.> Blue sounded a little disappointed that he wasn't going to get to snoop.

<What have you heard from Cyberkitty?>

Blue's avatar shook his head. <She's watching everything she can. You know Hartford's not happy....>

<Is she ever?> Sam chuckled. <File all the data; I want to see what changes when the code-names and MIDs get out.>

<Hunch?>

Sam nodded. <If one set of odds doesn't change, it might be a clue that they had inside information.>

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Snarling and glaring like she wanted to rip Belphegor apart before they even got into the arena, Hippy stood, hands on hips, ostensibly listening to Sergeant Wilson briefing the two contestants, but no-one really thought she was paying attention. From her mood - angry and sullen ever since the disappearance of Sara - it looked like Hippy wanted to do nothing more than go into the arena and tear the shit out of anything in her way, and since she was a powerful brick, that was precisely what Belphegor feared.

Masked, with Belphy floating in his hoverchair, rolls of fat spilling over his belt at the sides and onto his lap in front, the two entered the arena, being led to their starting locations. And then the air horn sounded and the simulation began. Hippy stomped toward the fat devisor, who decided running away was better than fighting the angry brick, and when Belphy scooted away on his chair, she stalked around the arena by herself, looking for anything that promised a fight.

A gasp went through the crowd when the students recognized the villain as Titan, holding his hostage on an upper floor of a new office building in an area being developed or renovated; there were signs of construction all around the arena. The Amazonian girl spotted a group of construction workers who seemed focused on the office building and were definitely not on the adjacent construction site - very likely henchmen for the kidnapper. With an angry growl, she charged headlong into the goons by the building entrance, hitting one so hard that he was very unlikely to be any further threat.

Around her, the other goons raced toward the berserk Amazon girl, drawing their guns and shooting at her, but being a high-level exemplar, the bullets had zero effect, simply bouncing off her tough skin. Ignoring the pesky henchmen chasing her, she dashed into the building. Another guard by a bank of elevators didn't have time to draw his gun before he was literally torn in two, and then the girl ripped open an elevator door, reached through the opening, and tore the cables in two as if they were weak thread instead of high-strength steel cables. One of the goons, having emptied his gun at her, tried to grab Hippy, but she shrugged him off, tossing him into the elevator shaft only a fraction of a second before the plunging elevator car, no longer fastened by the cables, squashed him like a bug. One by one, alternating mechanical and human destruction, Hippy tore up the other two elevators and dismantled the goons trying to stop her.

Outside, Belphegor was using his chair to 'fly' up the side of the building, peeking through the windows to try to locate the hostage. As he looked through the third-floor windows, the raging girl burst through the stairwell door onto that floor, tearing the door from its hinges and running headlong into a very large man, bowling him over, before charging at the villain - Titan. Scowling with increasing anger, Hippy charged at him, but the villain easily absorbed her charge and grappled with the girl.

As this was going on, Belphegor rammed his chair through the huge plate-glass windows of the floor, and as the remaining henchman turned toward the new threat, the devisor shot some kind of energy ray, which caused the goon to freeze, immobilized. It also hit the hostage, which the fat kid scooped onto his anti-grav chair and darted back toward the shattered glass.

Realizing finally what was going on, Hippy turned to see the hover chair zipping out the side of the building, and in that moment of distraction, Titan smashed into her, knocking her through the glass.

Screaming in a mixture of rage and terror, Hippy plunged three stories, and by ill fortune landed on a partially-completed concrete footing with four steel re-bar pieces protruding up. Her scream of agony startled everyone in the arena and in the stands as two pieces of the steel impaled her - one through the chest and one through the neck.

Several students lost their breakfast at the gruesome sight, while the medical teams scrambled to her assistance. Even two healers from the audience dashed to the scene. Under the stands, the bookies, normally a relatively unemotional, detached sort that seemed rather heartless, cringed at the sight of Hippy with re-bar sticking up through her body.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

"Admiral, this is McGraw," the radio spoke.

Seated at her desk, studying her computer, Sam Everheart thumbed the mic button without looking or even thinking. "Go."

"Ready to copy the final numbers?"

Sam didn't bother to put her hands near the keyboard; her nanite Hive would interface with her computer far more quickly and efficiently. "Yeah, I'm ready."

Security Officer McGraw recited some numbers that she'd written down from all the bookie tables. "Got 'em, or do you need a repeat?"

"I've got them," Sam replied. She'd sent Officer Robin McGraw, an officer she knew beyond a doubt was honest, to the area under the stands by Arena 99. McGraw's job was to watch for anything unusual and to report what the bookies were offering for odds. It was a long-shot, but Sam was hoping to find a pattern that would suggest that someone had access to information and had adjusted his or her odds appropriately. "Anything strike you as unusual?"

"A couple of things maybe," McGraw reported. "Booker had lower odds on Hippolyta winning ...."

"No surprise there," Sam said, shaking her head even though McGraw wasn't actually present. "She's been itching for a fight since Carmilla disappeared. She'll take out her anger in the sim."

"...and he had a little higher odds of Belphegor actually winning."

"No surprise. Belphegor is a sneaky one. Probably figured that he'd take advantage of Hippy's work when she got tied up in a fight. Anything else seem odd?"

"Negative, Admiral," McGraw reported back almost immediately. "The betting was spread among the bookies pretty evenly, and the odds they offered were all over the board."

Sam scanned the numbers on the computer. "Yeah, that's what it looks like to me. We'll have to watch and see if a pattern emerges. Everheart out." Sam stared at the number a bit longer, shaking her head. This was a game that was going to require patience to see if patterns emerged, but with the potential safety of the students on the line, Sam was having a hell of a time remaining patient.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Room 216, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

The French girl sat in Ayla Goodkind's lap, arm around the teen mogul's shoulder, leaning her head against Ayla's, a very contented look on her delicate, classically-Gallic features. "Oui, Papa," she spoke toward the desk, where a speaker-phone connected them to a phone in France. "I have reviewed the numbers with Ayla, and I think they are conservative projections."

"But at such a price?" the elder Vitesse, on the other end of the phone in Chaniers, France, asked incredulously.

"Our research suggests that even with a ten percent price premium over the most similar competing brand, an advertising campaign which highlights the awards your cognac has won will attract significant market attention and demand," Ayla cited the data he'd gotten from AJG Premium Beverages, the subsidiary to AJG Consolidated of which Ayla was the chair.

"It all sounds so ... impossible!" the elder Vitesse commented disbelievingly.

"The novelty of a new brand will help attract attention," Ayla replied, ignoring the fact that Adalie was nibbling his ear playfully. "And the quality will keep the 'curious' customers, while word of mouth among the elite customers will further increase the Vitesse brand's reputation and demand."

Ayla and Adalie Vitesse could almost hear her father's look of surprise followed by a wry grin. "You know the market and your business skills."

"I don't like surprises when I do business, Monsieur Vitesse. I am looking forward to meeting you in person in July to finalize a deal," Ayla offered. "I'll have my firm send you the proposed contract and some ideas they've worked up for a marketing plan."

"I look forward to meeting you in person," Jacques Vitesse said warmly. "In the meantime," he added almost as an afterthought, "I trust you will take care of my little butterfly, non?"

Ayla's eyes widened in surprise at what Jacques had said, and he gawked at Adalie. "Oui. I will take care of her. Au revoir, Monsieur Vitesse," he said, not taking his eyes off the girl sitting on his lap.

When the phone clicked dead, Ayla scowled at his girlfriend. "How much have you told him?"

Adalie flinched. "That you are my very special friend," she admitted. "Nothing more."

At that moment, Ayla's SPOT tactical communicator - the tiny dot which Bunny had invented and which all of Team Kimba wore just in case - sounded at the same time a popup window appeared on his computer. <Ayles?> It was Toni.

<Go ahead,> Ayla replied, reading the popup.

<You've got number three-eight-one, right?> Toni asked, referring to the random number all students had been assigned and which Team Kimba had shared with each other so they could alert one another if their final was called.

<I just got a popup on it. I'm up for a final, right?> Ayla asked. <Any idea who I'm against?>

<You ain't gonna like it, Ayles,> Toni said cautiously. <You got your flame-proof underwear? Cuz I think it's Tissy.>

<Crap! Why do I always get the crazy fire-bitches?> Ayla sighed, which Addy noticed and perked up, looking at him with concerned. <I'm on my way.>

"I got called for my combat final," Ayla reported with a very tightly-schooled expression.

"But ... we were 'aving fun ... studying!" Addy pouted. She sighed and shook her head, her hair dancing temptingly about her pretty face. "Well then, I shall 'ave to give you a kiss for luck 'ere, before we walk to the arena, non?" She didn't wait for Ayla's response, but instead gave her boyfriend a very passionate kiss.

Less than five minutes later, Addy and Ayla quick-stepped into the tunnel outside Range 99. "You'll do just fine," Addy said warmly, giving Ayla a huge embrace. "Bon chance!" she added, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

As Ayla turned toward the locker room, he saw Team Kimba arrayed before him. "Be careful," Fey fretted. "Your opponent is confirmed to be Tissy."

"Is it a hostage rescue scenarios like the rumors postulated?"

Hank shrugged. "The first one was Hippy and Belphegor, and it was a hostage rescue, but ...." He shrugged. "Might have been a crash for Belfatso. Didn't you watch it?"

Ayla shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. I was in a business discussion with Adalie's father. The time-zone difference constrains our telephone calls, after all."

"Uh, yeah, Ayles," Toni said with a knowing grin, "business!"

Ayla frowned, and then accepted 'good luck' hugs from Fey, Toni, Jade, and Jinn, then walked briskly into the locker room.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Tunnels beneath Arena 99 Stands

"Interesting odds you've got there," Lanie said calmly, looking at the whiteboard on the wall behind Booker.

Booker smiled wryly. "That's the way I figure it," he replied.

"You're the only one who has odds of mah friend bein' hurt by Tissy," Lanie sounded a little upset by Booker's speculation. "And two-hundred to one on them cooperatin'?"

"You tell me the odds are higher? Or lower?" Booker laughed. "We all know she blames him, even though she started it. And she's off her meds about half the time."

Lanie grinned. "You're forgettin' that Ayla helped her out with a date night for her friends and TNT," she reminded him. "And since she and Nitro have been hookin' up, she's on her meds a lot more regularly."

"Rumor is that she's not on her meds today," Booker commented.

"What?" Elaine Nalley gawked at him in disbelief. "I've got to tell Sergeant Wilson!" Lanie turned away, determined to stop the sim and protect her friend Ayla. Before she could move, the air-horn sounded, signaling the start of the match.

"Too late now," Booker said with a shrug.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Wearing his costume - a blocky-looking design with dark gray arms and legs with a light gray torso, trimmed in black with a white belt and his special mask, courtesy of Bugs - Ayla trudged into Room 3, the general briefing room. He halted in the door, recognizing instantly the two most sadistic instructors at Whateley - Ito and Bardue - and also his opponent, Tisiphone. She glared at him with pure hatred in her eyes; Ayla - Phase - couldn't help gulping nervously. Tissy was a little nuts, and she blamed him entirely for her condition - GSD that made her look like a red demon with batwings and scaly skin. Her lips were curled up in a disdainful sneer at him, and everyone on campus knew that Tissy wanted nothing more than painful revenge upon the young mogul.

"Be seated," Bardue said in his usual tone, which was somewhere between an angry growl and a stern order. Obediently, Ayla sat down at behind a table, as far from Tissy as he possibly could. Satisfied that he had the attention of the two bitter foes, Bardue continued. "Mega-mage has kidnapped the mayor's son and will kill him unless the mayor releases his three partners from the prison. Mega-mage's known associates include a lower-level brick and a telepath, and it is suspected that he has hired four or five henchman. The gang is holed up somewhere in the neighborhood in which you'll operate. Mega-mage's deadline expires in fifteen minutes, at which time he will kill the hostage. Your job is to rescue the hostage from Mega-mage. Apprehending the villain is secondary to the hostage's rescue and safety." Bardue looked back and forth between the two. "Any questions?"

Ayla shook his head, but Tissy, still glaring at him, growled, "You're going down, Goodkind!"

"Okay, if there are no questions, to your places." Ito and Bardue walked out a door toward the simulation control room while assistants escorted the two combatants out of the locker room. As they walked past the milling through of students, the voices of TNT - Truck, Tissy's boyfriend Nitro, and TK - and her friends of the Furies - Alecto and Megaera - were easily discernable cheering on the demon-girl, and letting loose a stream of hateful invective and ill wishes against Ayla. There were times that having a large number of enemies was less than encouraging to the Goodkind, and this was one of them. On the exterior, Ayla shrugged off the insults, but inwardly, it still hurt. He was definitely not going to give them the satisfaction of seeing that they were getting to him. Straightening his shoulders and schooling his features, he marched past them into the arena.

Inside the arena, behind the force field and out of sight of each other, the two waited, alone in their thoughts and plans and schemes, until the air-horn finally sounded to start the simulations. Immediately, Ayla went 'heavy' and did a quick scan of his surroundings. Seeing nothing, he started scouting around, looking for both the bad guys and Tisiphone.

Coming around a corner, Ayla noted a man in a dark suit, which was very out of place in the run-down, lower-middle-class neighborhood. Pausing and sidling up to the side of a building, Ayla continued to scan the scene. Almost immediately, the very observant tycoon noticed another man who didn't fit in the scene, a storekeeper who was a little too large and bulky and who had a noticeable bulge beneath his shopkeeper's apron. More out of place, the latter man was paying no attention to the customers behind him checking out his wares, but was carefully scanning the street.

Figuring he'd circle the block and enter through other buildings by going light, Ayla rounded the corner, and ran headlong into Tissy. It took both of them a moment to recover from their surprise, Tissy by winding up to torch Ayla, and Ayla going light and diving through the side of a building, barely avoiding the fireball which Tissy had thrown at him.

"Come out and fight, you coward!" Tissy screamed at him, throwing fireball after fireball at the wall. "You're going to pay, you bastard!"

The angry girl's screaming attracted attention, but not from Ayla. One of the men in the street - the suit - called out to some cohort, "Supers!" Immediately, two others came out of the building to join him and the trio dashed down the street toward the girl who was beating on the locked door of the building Phase had disappeared into.

A shot rang out, and a projectile smashed into Tissy's shoulder, causing her to scream in pain. She turned, and as she fought the agony radiating from her wound, she tried to focus her energy, letting loose a fireball at the man with the gun. He went down in a heap of smoking ash, but one of the two others stopped abruptly and stared at her, not bothering to reach for a gun.

Suddenly, Tissy's vision wavered, and then she saw a group of schoolkids playing on the street. She hesitated before letting loose with another fire attack, and as she tried to puzzle out the sudden change, a man suddenly appeared as the children vanished, the mental illusion broken. The brick which Gunny had warned the two about smashed her into the side of the building. She heard and felt bones cracking from the massive blow, no small feat for the villain to accomplish against an exemplar-3. Fighting pain, she manifested a curtain of flame between herself and the brick, then turned and hobbled down the sidewalk away from the two villains.

Ayla, still light, dove through another wall inside the building and found himself in the store, behind where the out-of-place storekeeper had been standing. Pausing, he saw the storekeeper still in front, back to the interior of the shop, head swiveling up and down the street with an oddly-shaped pistol in his hand.

Knowing that the opponents were ANT-simulated people, Ayla launched himself toward the front of the store, then adjusted to 'disruption light' just before he hit the storekeeper, passing through the man and dropping him like a stone as all the electronics in the ANT were shorted out by Ayla's phasing power. Going heavy again, he dropped to the street and was immediately scanning up and down the street.

A scream from around the corner caught his attention; it sounded like Tissy was in trouble. For a moment, Ayla considered using Tissy's distraction to rescue the hostage, but Ayla couldn't do that. No matter how much Tisiphone hated him, no matter that she'd tried to kill him several times, he simply couldn't let her be hurt. He raced to the street corner, and his jaw dropped when he saw Tissy hunched over, obviously in pain, her costume bloody. Her eyes darted around wildly like she was totally confused. A large man was reaching for her, and a second man stood bit back, focused intently on the girl.

The large man was a brick, no doubt, and the one standing back was probably the telepath Gunny had briefed them about. He didn't hesitate, but went light and launched himself toward the probable telepath. As he flew rapidly toward the one who was confusing Tissy, the brick got ahold of the girl, dodging a fireball launched in desperation, and threw her over his hip to smack very hard onto the ground.

The sound of her hitting the arena floor with a sickening thud made Ayla wince. He went disruption light just before he hit the telepath, and that quickly, the second ANT was down.

The brick heard or saw something, and spun toward Ayla, who was settling to his feet, one hand in a pouch at his side. As the brick charged, Ayla went heavy and tossed a large ball-bearing at the man even as his left hand pulled out and extended his tactical baton from another pouch. The ball bearing, still temporarily heavy and flying with significant velocity, smashed into the brick, knocking him back. As he staggered to recover, Ayla darted forward, the baton swinging. With Ayla in heavy form, the bat hit the brick with the impact of a tank round, knocking him down. A second and third blow ensured that the brick stayed down.

Satisfied that the threat was neutralized, Ayla turned to look at the broken girl on the arena floor. She was bleeding heavily, her lower leg was bent at an unnatural angle, and one of her wings was folded in a way that it shouldn't have. There was no hesitation on Ayla's part; he scooped up the injured girl, cringing at the cries of pain from her as he moved her, and began to trot toward the simulator exit.

Every step was agony for Ayla; Tissy was in severe pain, and every little bump and jostling made her cry out. On top of that, Ayla had turned his back on the simulation goal. By getting his enemy to medical help, he was risking losing the sim match, and Ayla hated to lose.

Handing off the barely-conscious girl to the medics, Ayla turned and ran back to the scene where he'd first spotted the hired help. Making a logical deduction, he ran into the shop and up the stairs in the back of the store two at a time. Going light, he ran through the walls and rooms, and finding nothing, ran quickly up to the third floor, repeating the search.

In the second room he searched on the third floor, Ayla found plenty of evidence that the hostage had been held there - pizza boxes and take-out food bags strewn about a very sparsely furnished apartment. Two cots, a small table with a half-played solitaire game on it, and four wooden chairs were all the furnishings present, and on the floor were the remnants of what had probably been restraining cords on the hostage. A dark hood with no eyeholes was also left behind.

Cursing inwardly, Ayla went light and sank back to the ground floor, catching himself and going heavy just in case. Fingers in a pouch at his waist, Ayla ran toward the back of the store where a door stood ajar.

No sooner had Ayla emerged into the alley than a goon, who'd obviously been waiting, swung a pipe at his head. Had he not been heavy, he would have been seriously injured. As it was, the pipe bent, stinging the hands of the henchman as if he'd hit it against a pole. A hit from Ayla's taser glove put that goon down for the count.

With two possible directions to leave the alley, Ayla made a quick guess that most people tended to turn to the right, so he sprinted down the alley that way. Emerging into the street, he looked both ways, and seeing nothing, frowned. Again speculating that the villain would have run away from the front of the store, he dashed to his left. At the next street intersection, Ayla paused, looking in the three directions the villain could have fled, but there was no trace of the villain or the hostage. Unable to stand around doing nothing, Ayla trotted down the street to the right, hoping to find some kind of hint to where the villain had run.

The blast of the air horn hit Ayla like a hammer; he realized suddenly that he'd truly lost the combat final. Hanging his head for a moment as the reality of failure sank in, he shook it slowly in frustration, sighing heavily at the bitter taste of defeat. It was a taste that he'd always hated and strove so hard to avoid.

Feeling unusually weary, he trudged toward the exit, toward where he knew all his detractors would be jeering, mocking him for his very public failure, to where he knew Ito and Gunny were going to rip his performance to shreds. As he neared the portal in the force field, he steeled himself and narrowed his focus tightly so he wouldn't see or hear anything as he walked through the gauntlet of mockery to the locker room. He was so focused that he didn't notice a very eerie quiet in the stands, or see the faces turned toward him, not ridiculing him, but with expressions of surprise, and perhaps even a few looks of respect.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Late-Morning
Doyle Medical Complex

The irony abounded as Ayla peeked through the crack in the very same door where; so many months ago, he'd seen Alexis - Fireball - in this same room, in the same bed, looking in horror at what his 'disruption' had done to the girl as his disruption had altered her BIT, changing her from a very pretty redhead into the semi-demonic thing she now was. Now she was there again, and once more Ayla felt like it was his fault. If he hadn't been paired with Tisiphone in the combat final, she would have been able to focus on the mission, not on revenge.

The hand clasping his shoulder startled the young Poesie; he'd been so focused on his guilt - both past and present - that someone had walked up to him without him noticing. Ayla turned, automatically going heavy as he expected some kind of unpleasantness from one of his many detractors.

Instead, he found himself looking up into the face of Nitro. The boy looked nervous. "Um," he stammered, "thank you." Ayla goggled, and Nitro continued. "Why?" he asked simply, clearly not understanding why

Ayla stared at him, trying to figure out for himself what the answer was. But before he could say anything, a faint voice called out from the room. "Nitro?"

Nitro pushed past Ayla into the room. "I'm here," he said as he scurried to Tissy's bedside. "I was just talking to Ayla in the hallway."

Through the partially-open door, Ayla saw the girl stiffen, anger suffusing her expression as she turned a hateful glare toward the doorway. "Did you come to gloat?" Tissy snarled when she saw him, startling both Ayla and Nitro by the ferocity in her voice. "Or to tell me that we're even because you saved my life?"

Ayla, standing framed in the opening, shook his head slowly. "No."

"Then what?" Tissy demanded. When Ayla didn't reply, she continued, "Gunny and Ito came by to give me my grade and tear into my performance. They told me that you lost because you rescued me." She frowned angrily. "You could have won. You should have won! Why the hell didn't you?" She was starting to get a little agitated. "I didn't ask you to rescue me!"

"No."

"They why did you?" Tissy demanded, still very angry though also with some confusion tinging her voice.

Ayla lowered his gaze slightly. "Because I owed it to you."

The demon-girl glared at Ayla. "Damned right you do! After what you did to me!"

"Don't you think I know that?" Ayla shot back emotionally, his voice choking, something few at Whateley had ever seen. "Don't you think I feel guilty enough over what happened? That I'm not constantly tortured trying to figure out how I could have handled that without doing ... this ... to you?"

Tissy was winding up for a fierce rebuttal, but Ayla's words stunned her into silence.

"How the hell am I supposed to ever make up to you for ruining your life?" Ayla turned away sharply so the two wouldn't see the moisture in his eyes. "All my life, I was taught that Goodkinds fix things. But I can't fix this. Even if you did start it by trying to kill me, it doesn't mean I can wash my hands of what I did!" Ayla wiped at his face, still looking away from the two stunned teens.

"You ... you feel guilty that ... that you hurt me because you were defending yourself?" Tissy asked softly, her tone a far cry from the anger of only seconds before. Ayla simply nodded, still unable to look at the girl.

"Dr. Bellows wouldn't tell me anything," Tissy finally said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "I ... was under the impression that you didn't care."

"Now you know otherwise," Ayla replied woodenly, trying desperately to control his emotions so as not to display them to Nitro and Tissy.

The silence was long and awkward. "We're not even," Tissy finally said firmly. "Every time I look in the mirror, I hate you for what you did to me." There was a nervous pause in the room. "But ... maybe I'm starting to accept what Dr. Bellows has been telling me - that it was my fault, because I started it."

Ayla turned, shocked at the words that had come from her mouth, unsure what to say.

"I guess what I'm saying is," Tissy continued, "you don't have to watch your back; I'm not going to try to kill you anymore." When Ayla nodded, Tissy growled, "Now go away before I change my mind."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Late-Morning
Cyberspace, Whateley Academy

Sam frowned as she watched the replay of the final, and after deliberating with herself for a few moments, let the Hive slip into cyberspace.

<Blue?> Sam called out on the campus internet.

<Yeah, Skipper?> the boy replied milliseconds later.

<Took you long enough,> Sam teased the boy.

<Sorry, boss. I was getting data from Macau.>

<Just kidding. What have you got?> Sam queried.

The boy's cyberspace avatar frowned, shaking his head. <Not much. I got the odds you asked for. Each house had some generic description of the contestants, as well as possible outcomes, but there's nothing in the information that looks sensitive.>

<Keep collecting data. And watch to see who puts up what data at what time. If someone leads the pack, it might be because they have inside information.>

<Will do, Skipper,> Blue answered with a sloppy salute. <Oh, and since I'm doing all the on-line work for the administration, do you think you could see your way clear to get me a pass for my final?>

<C'mon, Blue,> Sam said with a scowl, <you know I can't do that.>

<Had to ask,> the boy chuckled.

<But I can and will make a report to your comp sci instructors,> Sam added.

<Thanks!>

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

"... and Mule! " came the announcement over the PA system. The group of Kimba-ites looked at Ayla, who allowed his lips to curl into a wicked grin as he pulled out his phone, before Jade's friends burst into laughter and began dancing around a bit in their seats. Their eyes turned back to the arena to watch Jade take the field as Ayla stood and stepped away to make a call, "Yes. What odds can you give me on Generator?" His grin widened as he walked further out of their hearing, "Really? I would like..."

The girls chattered quickly among themselves as the two opponents took the field at different points in the map. The hostage rescue scenarios were all relatively similar and they knew Mule's capabilities as well as he knew theirs, from Team Tactics. Of course, what Mule didn't know is that the team had given Jade permission to cut loose. Their pint sized lunatic had been more upset by her low combat ranking than people outside the group knew, and if they were going to go into stealth mode as a team for a while to take attention off themselves, this was Jade's last chance to fix that minor misunderstanding.

"Is anyone else worried," Hank interrupted, "that Mule might not be a tough enough opponent to survive what she has planned?"

A half dozen light hearted smiles smoothed out into worried frowns as Generator began her set-up routine.


As the countdown clock hit zero, Generator began a magical girl transformation with flashing lights, cloth and paper streamers, glitter and confetti. The PA system even played some sort of 8-bit soundtrack with 80's power chords loudly enough to announce her location to anyone who might be within about four blocks, which was most of the sim area. The light and sound spectacular drew the focus of every eye in the arena and was heard by every simulated person in the scenario. Innocent civilians looked out office windows and stopped on the streets to look her way.

It took almost a minute for the girl's street clothing to be completely replaced with the frilly costume she had designed to team up with Wondercute. Everything that she had been wearing was now tucked away in her utility belt, which held more than a score of special compartments for materials, components, and gadgets of one sort or another. Mule was just arriving as she took her final pose in the spotlight shining down from the most recent version of the Hello Kitty compact.

Jade squealed, arms up, jumping up and down expectantly.

"Generator?" the large boy growled, "What are you doing?"

"Are you going to pick me up?"

"What?! No. Did you have to do all this... noise? They're all on heightened alert now."

"Of course they are. Aren't you going to carry me?"

"Why would I carry you?" While it was well known that Mule was impervious to most Psi and Magick attacks, more than a few people in the audience took careful note that he was also oblivious to puppy dog eyes.

"On your shoulder?"

"No. Look ... you Kimbas might not care about your combat rankings and play around in sims, but you should at least care about your grade." That got him a sour pout, but he dug in his heels and pressed on, "Stick close and I'll try to... "

Generator's attention shifted away from him as a cloud of glitter settled in her hair and on her shoulders. She seemed distant for a moment, as memories settled into place. The transformation had been effective, she had been able to get both clouds of glitter near enough to watch as all the mercenaries took position and checked their weapons. The instructors had even slipped a mutant into the merc team, acting as a hidden reserve. The clouds had remained to achieve their objectives and then returned with intel. It might have seemed like a waste of a minute... but Ayla had showed them all the value of good intel.

Then Jade glanced back at Mule, took in the sniper rifle resting on his shoulder and gestured at him with her scepter. Four strings of neon pink goo with all the appearance of silly string shot out to wrap in band after band around Mule. He struggled for a moment, clearly expecting to be able to break it or slip free, before toppling to the ground with a sharp huff as the wind was knocked out of him. The Gadgeteer who had created the goo rated it effective up to low PK-6, but hadn't found a good way to deploy it... short of just splash webbing someone. But for someone with TK or an ability to move around objects as if they were your own body? Perfect! And it was silly string! Everyone loved silly string!

She quickly checked the lines covering his mouth to make sure he could breathe and then stepped up on his chest, gesturing forward with the scepter, "Charge!" The restrained body beneath her rocked and strained a bit but didn't move. "Oh, right," the small girl noted, pulling a stylized toy pistol from her belt. She pointed it at Mule's chest near her feet and assured him, "Don't worry, this won't hurt at all," evoking a muffled cry of shock from her captive as she pulled the trigger. The pistol ejected a disk about the size of a quarter which hit the bindings around Mule and stuck solidly. The shout cut off abruptly as Mule realized that he really hadn't been hurt... and in fact, hadn't felt anything through his PK shell at all.

Generator gestured with the scepter again, and they moved forward quickly, Mule sliding down the street on his PK shell and the silly string bindings. The flying Compact kept pace, keeping the spotlight on Generator, sparkles flashing off the glitter on her hair and costume. The disks, of course, were another gadget her research had dug up. They were created by a TK/Gadgeteer named Handler who, like Jade, was limited by her mass capability. Her solution had been to produce mass displacement anchors. Supposedly, the current variations that Handler used personally were able to displace more than 90% of the mass of an object; the schematics of the versions that were available in the Whateley database were limited to just under 50% displacement and burned through their battery charge in about ten minutes. The effect was to temporarily take a large mass like the boy under her feet from too heavy to move down to something that she could drag around all day... or at least for the ten minutes that the battery on the disk lasted. Next time, he'd know to just carry her on his shoulder like she had asked.

Mule skidded to a stop beneath her feet and Generator looked up into the fire escape of the building on her left. The first sniper shot missed completely. A gesture with her scepter put a pink soap-bubble-like dome over them, just in time for a second shot to come through it and rapidly slow down like it was flying through some sort of kinetic gel... which, in essence, it was. She returned fire, using the pistol with the MD disks. The first shot missed, wide by almost eight feet, but then seemed caught in the wind and took a hard right directly onto the shoulder of the first shooter.

A moment later, the man tossed his rifle off the escape and appeared to be dancing the macarena. While his partner watched, jaw hanging open, Jade's second shot caught him square in the forehead, snapping his head back and dropping him to the ground unconscious. "Oops," she muttered to Mule. "I guess one dance partner will have to do."

After waving the scepter around to disable her soap bubble defense, Generator tucked the pistol back in her belt long enough to pull a clear glass-like wand from another loop. She waved it around, dancing on Mule's back for a moment, before pointing it in the direction they were heading. An enormous burst of glitter exploded out of it and flew out ahead of them. She replaced the wand in its loop and recovered the pistol just as they approached a building guarded by several armed men.

The girl gestured with the scepter, several strings of goo blasting forward in unlikely arcs to immobilize the guards. Several triggers were pulled but none of the firearms fired. Green silly string quickly strung the guards into marionettes, though not before they attempted to report that their position was lost or that they had been captured. Generator used her small pistol to hit each of them with one of the disks and then waved a hand as several sets of strings combined into control ropes and marched guards through the door into the building as puppets.

She turned a few steps of a ballroom dance and the marching guards stopped to match her moves. As her entourage danced its way into the building and Jade followed along on her contrived sled, the sounds of a ranting fanatic filled the place. A cloud of glitter settled on her, the sparkle reflecting throughout the room.

Under other circumstances, any one of the interior guards would be focused on making her life as painful as possible. Instead, each was checking his firearm for a misfire. Unfortunately for them, a cloud of extremely sharp metal fragments posing as glitter and under the control of an intelligent mind had already made its way through the room. Firing pins were damaged, ammunition was compromised, and even explosive devices had been disabled. While their focus was on restoring their weapons to service, several gift-wrapped guards were tossed into the room to provide further distractions. In moments, it looked as if the marionette controlled guards were trying to ballroom dance with the uncaptured guards.

Generator stepped off Mule and went straight for the fanatic and his hostage. As she did, she tucked away the scepter and the tiny toy pistol. In their place, she pulled out her Cobra and shot the Pyrokinetic on the balcony with a stun load before the woman even realized that her position had been compromised. As the young rescuer shot the known mutant opponent, the ranting fanatic tried to shoot her. Of course, that was to be expected... so she grinned teasingly at him as his weapon, like all the others, failed. Then, for the first time in the scenario; Jade got a bit of a surprise. The fanatic, still calling her things that the sims team should probably get in trouble for putting in a scenario for freshman girls, leapt forward at speeds far exceeding what a baseline should be capable of.

He picked her up, not difficult given her size... but the way he picked her up suggested that she had almost no weight at all to him. He was a paranormal... but not one that she had been able to see using speck-vision when she'd done the initial reconnoitering at the scenario start. And after a quick shake that would have seriously rattled anyone... he threw her... through the front wall of the building. In the air, she pulled the wand from its loop and pointed it. Even without any of the fancy gestures or dancing, it fired. She wasn't really a magical girl, after all. The cloud of metal shavings blasted forward as she went through the wall in a huge explosion of plaster and wood splinters.

The Hello Kitty Compact, to this point seemingly repurposed to spotlight duties for the entire scenario, seemed to do something of a double take, looking through the hole and out into the street and then back at the fanatic; who was turning back to grab the hostage. The devise whipped through the air, spinning at crazy speeds, passing the cloud of metal shavings, and went around the man's outstretched forearm in a quick spiral. Several pieces of limb dropped in place, the man roaring and pulling back a stump.

In the next moment, the cloud of glitter hit him. Like a swarm of bees... or piranha... the fanatic was torn apart in an explosion of tissue. One moment, he was a threat; the next, the largest pieces were just reaching apogee before beginning their last fall to earth amidst a rain of blood. The cloud and Compact hit the ground a second later, no longer motivated by an unseen force.

Generator walked back in, stretching as the last of her injuries repaired itself. She knelt down and patted Mule on the forehead as she passed, evoking an unintelligible yell from him. Then she approached the hostage, disconnected the remains of the explosives device and freed the man. A few mercenaries were still up and actively moving, mostly still trying to avoid being swept into the ballroom dance; but it was clearly over. The instructors must have agreed because a moment later, the air horn blew.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Tunnels beneath Grandstands, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

As soon as the rush of people placing bets for the next match had died down, Booker, with a huge grin, pulled out his cell phone. A few wagers were still trickling in, but most were past the cutoff time. Once he'd taken care of acknowledging the legitimate bets, he leaned back against the wall and dialed a number. When the phone on the other end picked up, he said simply, "So far, so good."

"Still five for every correct guess?"

"Yup," Booker said simply, aware that some would be trying to overhear his conversation. They weren't talking singles, either; Tweak knew the payoff from the two gambling houses would be five thousand dollars for each correct match they provided. "We'll have to figure out something there," he added. They couldn't readily transfer those kinds of sums without arousing a lot of suspicion. "I've got a few ideas."

"How are things going with your betting?"

"I can't complain," Booker answered with a smug smile. "We cleaned up on this one. Everyone, and I mean everyone, bet on Mule. Except Team Kimba and some of the Wondercute girls."

"Really? What were the odds on that match?" Tweak couldn't help but be a little curious.

"I had sixty-to-one against her winning solo. Boxcars and Hazard were a little higher; Risk was a little lower. A few people made out like bandits."

"Are we doing anything with the outsiders?" Tweak asked, certain she didn't want to gamble her money away but also more than slightly tempted by the inside information she and Booker had.

"Nope." Booker glanced at a monitor. "Gotta run - they're about to start the next match."

Tweak was silent for a moment. "Pejuta and Bladedancer?"

"Yup. Should be interesting. You ought to drag yourself up out of your lab and watch a few. Might get a few tips for your own final on Friday."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99 Grandstands, Whateley Academy

"Do you know where she went?" Adrian asked Evvie and Naomi, frustrated because Kayda had just invoked her ghost-walking spell in the simulator and had disappeared.

"Nope," Evvie replied, "I don't know."

"Probably doing stealth recon," Laurie speculated, sitting next to Adrian with her arm around his waist. "They're supposed to rescue a hostage, and she's probably trying to avoid Chou and find the hideout."

"Boring!!" a student further down the seats shouted as everyone watched - nothing. He was joined immediately by a chorus of catcalls and boos.

"There she is!" Naomi called excitedly, pointing at the simulator.

"Where?"

"There! Didn't you see? The pedestrian just ... bounced off something!" the girl said.

"So .... wait a sec!" Evvie interrupted herself, her eyes narrowing as she focused on the simulation. "I think that's the hideout!" She could almost feel the quizzical looks she was getting. "Look there - that man by the deli? The one leaning against the wall?"

Naomi's stared at the man. "Yeah, he does look kind of fishy." She looked around some more. "Hey, shouldn't the grocery store guy be watching his store instead of looking up and down the street a lot?" she observed. "That kid just swiped some apples, and he didn't even notice!" The group continued to study the little assemblage of humanity, looking for those they suspected might be accomplices.

"Who else?" RPG after scanning the crowd. "Is man giving shoeshine normal in small city?"

"Nah, he looks okay," Laurie replied. "But ... his customer maybe?"

"Oh, hey!" Adrian called out, pointing down the street. "Here comes Chou!"

"I knew the guy getting his shoes shined looked suspicious!" Laurie replied as the man rose and walked very deliberately to intercept the girl.

"And ... we missed one!" Naomi lamented. "The guy from the steps." She shook her head. "Chou's in deep shit right now."

"What?" Evvie asked in astonishment, looking away from Bladedancer. "What the hell is Kayda doing?" The group turned as one, following Evvie's stare and pointing, to where Kayda was walking happily along toward Chou, acting like she didn't have a care in the world.

"Maybe she is going to take advantage of Chou's distraction?" Vasiliy speculated. The crowd began to murmur when Kayda 'rescued' her opponent from the two goons and then led her around the corner. Moments later, the two shook hands over something.

"Oh, no!" Evvie said in dismay. "Now they're really going to get it! Just like Loophole and Sizzle last fall!" She was speaking of the disastrous attempt by Loophole in the fall combat finals to avoid fighting entirely, which had ended with Gunny turning the sim against both of them. Brutally so. After some lengthy - and sometimes animated - discussion, Chou nodded, and Kayda cast spells on both of them, causing them both to disappear.

When things started happening, they happened fast. Almost simultaneously, the two girls dispatched two 'rear guards' in an alley behind the store. Several seconds later, Chou suddenly appeared, bow in hand, quickly firing four arrows toward the goons they'd identified. Three were immediate kills; the fourth guy - the man by the deli - ducked just enough to only be wounded. Chou's bow was dropped and she charged across the street, drawing her sword as she ran, while the man reached for and retrieved a weapon.

A glance at the screen showed Kayda charging through a rear door, and suddenly, surprisingly to her, she was visible again. A large gorilla of a man was reacting to Chou's disturbance out front when Kayda rushed in. He turned, just in time to be hit with a vicious combination attack by the Lakota girl and her tomahawks.

Out front, Chou discovered to her dismay that her remaining opponent had not a gun but a reinforced nightstick which he was using expertly to parry blows from her sword. If that wasn't enough, he was also counter-attacking with martial arts with his feet and his free hand.

"No! Third floor!" Evvie and her friends chanted loudly as they watched her kicking in doors and scanning empty rooms in a vain search for the kidnapper and hostage. Precious seconds ticked away, while Chou fought the man in front, Kayda cleared the second floor, and all the spectators saw the villain grab the hostage - a small child - and carry her to a window.

"He's getting away!" Laurie cried helplessly at the scene unfolding in the arena and on the display screens.

The Lakota girl charged up the steps - right into a hail of gunfire from yet another henchman who'd been waiting for her, alerted by the noise out front and on the first floor. Miraculously, she emerged unscathed, and her weapons quickly ended that threat. She dashed through an open door, surveyed the room, and ran to an open window. One could almost sense her frustration to see the villain on the second floor fire-escape landing kicking his way through a window to the interior of the room.

In front of the building, Chou finally removed the fourth threat - just in time to be attacked from behind by yet another stooge, receiving a side-kick in the kidneys which made her sprawl forward to the ground.

"That's just too cliché!!" Adrian snorted. "I mean, c'mon!"

Chou rolled to her feet even as she was hitting, but shoeshine man tossed something at her face, temporarily blinding her. He followed up with a kick to her legs which made her collapse again, this time dropping her sword.

In the rear of the building, Kayda dropped off the second-floor fire escape to the alley and dashed in the rear entrance, stopping and gawking at the big goon who was pulling himself up from the floor, his wounds having mostly healed.

"Shit, a regenerator!" Naomi growled at the complication.

Kayda let the goon have another quick attack and then dashed toward the stairs. The villain, with the kid under his arm, stood at the base of the stairs, glancing out the front of the building and seeing and hearing the commotion of Chou's battle. He turned instead toward Kayda, who being focused on him and the hostage, missed seeing the gorilla-goon rise yet again as she shoulder-blocked the villain while simultaneously scooping the child from his arms.

She turned to escape out the alley, but pulled up short at the sight of the monster of a henchman stomping angrily toward her. A cry of pain arose when a shuriken embedded itself in her arm, tossed by the villain.

Kayda was lost in a flurry of activity as she wheeled, punched, and chopped at the two opponents who had her boxed in, and just when it looked like she would escape out the alley, the villain teleported in front of her, a large gun in his hand pointed at her face.

And then the hulk smashed into her from behind, pushing her into the villain; all fell in a tangle of bodies just as Chou entered the building from the front. Seeing her partner, Kayda practically threw the girl to her, screaming at her to save the kid while Kayda stabbed the big guy with her knife, then turned, disarmed the gun-wielding villain, stabbed him, and then dashed out the front of the building, the regenerating hulk hot on her tail.

"They're gonna win!" Kayda's friends began to cheer as Chou ran toward the 'finish line', a police station down the street, with Kayda limping along behind her and the hulking bad guy chasing her.

The air horn sounded when Chou entered the police station and Kayda slowed. A moment later, the big hulk of a stooge crashed into her, having launched himself just as the air horn sounded. Kayda went down hard, her face contorted in pain and most likely screaming in agony.

As one, the crowd rose to its feet, angry screams and boos directed at the control booth because of the late hit on Kayda. Evvie and Naomi dashed down the steps two at a time toward the portal in the force field, concern etched on their faces as they watched, helpless, while a medic tended to their hurt friend. After a couple of minutes, the medic helped Kayda to her feet, one arm in a sling, and escorted her to the portal, to where her room-mate awaited to carry the stricken girl.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Security Offices, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Sergeant Buxton's frown was deep as he glared at the two video feeds. One was fixed on Arena 99, while the other showed what appeared to be an electronic info board displaying gambling odds. With a growl, he dug his cell phone out of his pocket as he rose and walked outside, glancing around to be sure he was alone. From the way he dialed, he was obviously very familiar with the party he was calling.

"Hello?" he snarled. "Yeah, it's me."

"You know you aren't supposed to call ...."

"Listen!" Buxton snapped, interrupting the man, "This is an emergency! You pinheads are blowing it!"

"What?" The person he was talking to seemed quite startled.

"I was watching your feed at the same time I watched the arena. You idiots had info from the MIDs up before it was displayed on the arena screens!"

"What?"

"Any idiot with half a brain is gonna figure out that there's a serious leak, and then trace it! Are you trying to get me caught? Is this the thanks I get for getting you the inside info?"

"Er, um, I'll look into it and make sure it doesn’t happen again."

"It fuckin' well better not!" Buxton snarled. "Oh, and for this little fuckup that I had to fix for you guys, I expect a little bonus!" Angrily, he hung up and slid the phone back in his pocket. With a couple of deep breaths to cool his outer demeanor, Sergeant Buxton walked as casually as his anger would let him back to his desk.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Tunnels beneath Grandstands, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

"Hey, Gateway! I hear you won," Booker called out to Molly as she practically skipped from one of the bookie's tables.

Molly turned at the sound of her name. "Yeah," she grinned broadly. "A little."

"And you didn't do business with me?" the boy said with a mock pout.

Molly shrugged, blushing a little. "Boxcars gave me better odds against them cooperating."

"A little inside information, since you all train together after classes?" Booker asked wryly before glancing around and seeing the other bookies all staring into space or into laptops or smartphones. "Thanks to your friends, I have to redo my strategy! I was sure they were going to get smacked hard by Gunny for cooperating."

"They still might have," Molly replied. "We don't know their grades yet."

Booker chuckled dryly. "Yeah. For all we know, they might have failed for that stunt."

"But they beat the scenario, and I won my bet!" She paused only a moment. "I'm going to see how Chou is doing. Catch you later."

"Yeah, later." Booker watched the girl practically skipping toward the locker rooms. She had to have had some foreknowledge that Chou and Kayda would cooperate. Campus rumors were rife that the two were bitter rivals on the training field.

As he took bets for the new round, Booker noticed a commotion on one of the video monitors. He frowned as he focused on it. "What the hell?" he mouthed to himself.

As everyone watched the 'set' being built, murmurs of disbelief circulated; this looked like the setup for Operation Eagle Claw - Lord Paramount's rescue of the hostages from Tehran, and one of the nastiest simulations Gunny had unleashed on unsuspecting students. It was most definitely not on the schedule! This scenario was going to eat Lifeline and Loophole for lunch, even if they did manage to somehow put aside their sudden dislike and cooperate.

"The setting is Operation Eagle Claw, and more specifically, the attempted rescue of Colonel Athem," the loudspeaker announced from overhead, "and the combatants are Loophole, Solange, and Pejuta."

"Loophole is fighting with Tansy and Pejuta!" An audible buzz spread around the stands faster than the speed of sound, circulating among the bookies and causing everyone, Booker included, to scramble to get new odds calculated as the gamblers flocked to their tables. This was most unexpected, and Booker was as lost as any of the bookies.

"Pejuta again? She's injured!" Risk said unhappily.

"What the hell is going on?" Boxcars demanded. "How are we supposed to get odds for this?"

Booker thought a moment, then scribbled on his board. Gone were all the options of who might win in what combinations. In their place were two simple options: win, and lose, with his estimation of the odds posted. Based on the odds, he was not expecting the trio to win. Neither were the other bookies.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Security Offices, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Buxton's phone ringing was not unexpected; he'd seen the lineup on the monitor and he was as baffled as Whateley's bookies were. This was not on the schedule; while he wasn't an exemplar, he had memorized the crash scenarios, and this was not supposed to be one.

"Hello?"

"What the hell is going on there?" the voice demanded

"I don't know. Last minute changeup, I guess," Buxton answered softly.

"What do you expect us to do now?"

"Just a sec," Buxton tried to buy a few moments. He picked up the hand radio. "Caruthers? Control."

A moment later, the radio was answered. "Caruthers."

"Are you near Arena 99?" Buxton asked impatiently, knowing that real money was riding on the information he desperately needed.

"Right by the bookies," Caruthers answered immediately.

"Gimme the odds they've posted." For a couple of moments, Buxton wrote as Caruthers dictated. "Good. Out." He picked up his cell phone again. "It's a changeup, and a crash. The bookies here are basically in a win/lose proposition. You want our odds?"

"Can't hurt."

Buxton recited the numbers, keeping his voice down as he did so and glancing around nervously. He really, really hated doing business like this because it was too easy for unwanted eyes and ears to see and listen. "And the third girl is still injured from the last round," he added.

"Okay, that gives us something to start with." The phone clicked dead.

Dammit! Buxton swore to himself. If Ito and Bardue pulled too much of this crap, it'd ruin his credibility, and with it, his rather lucrative income stream.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Arena 99 Grandstands, Whateley Academy

"What the hell?" Evvie asked, slack-jawed in astonishment. "Is that what I think it is?"

"Why are they making Kayda go into another combat final?" Laurie asked, angry and shocked at what she was seeing.

"What's going on?" Evvie asked again, dumbfounded. "Unless ...."

"Unless what?" RPG prompted.

"Didn't Lifeline go down about the same time as Loophole?" Evvie queried. "If she was supposed to be with Loophole, you don't suppose ..."

"... that maybe she refused, and Tansy and Kayda volunteered?" Adrian speculated.

"That would be just like Kayda - even if she is hurt," Naomi lamented.

"And Lifeline is really hating on Loophole since she got her spirit," Laurie observed.

"That girl's gonna be the death of me!" Evvie grumbled. "She's openly carrying her bow into the sim? This is a crash, then."

"We have a bit of a changeup here, folks," Peeper's annoying voice crackled over the loudspeaker. "There's no mistaking Loophole's bear form - with its ginormous ... lungs!" Peeper said that with an audible leer thrown in, "and there's no mistaking her part-time lover and co-star of a film we'd love to get our hands on, the star of the last final, Pejuta ..."

"I'm gonna rip his lungs out!" Evvie snarled, starting to rise before Naomi and Adrian pushed her back to her seat. "Asshole!" she spat distastefully.

"... but that third curvaceous delight is Solange? Greasy, have you ever seen her in that outfit?"

"Tansy? No!" Greasy sounded almost frightened to be pronouncing the bitch-goddess' name; after all, she had nearly killed him earlier in the year.

"I wanna know who made that skin-tight suit that shows off every curve and bump on that luscious body of hers - and have them make one for every girl on campus!" He gave a wolf whistle in appreciation. "So what kind of surprises do our resident sadists have for this delightful trio of womanly curves? Maybe they'll get into a three-way, winner-take-all wrestling match in a wading pool full of jello?"

"Someone should put a silence spell on that little asshole," Laurie griped, glaring in the general direction of the radio booth. She turned and watched as the three girls walked gracefully through the portal into the arena, which was done up like a middle-eastern or Persian city.

"They're in serious trouble," Adrian said, shaking his head and grimacing.

"Yeah," Laurie agreed, nodding with a worry-wrinkled brow. "Kayda's hurt. Look - she's limping."

No sooner had the air-horn sounded to start the sim than the whole arena heard the sound of distant gunfire and explosions. On the projected horizon, plain for all to see, were palls of smoke rising from other action in the incredibly lifelike simulation of Tehran.

The girls, scanning around themselves for trouble, approached a large warehouse-like building. For a moment, it looked like Loophole was going to simply rip the door open with wicked-looking hand-razors attached to her hands, but Tansy fished out some tools, and in moments, she'd picked the lock and opened the door. In the stands, others stared at Tansy, either astounded or wary that she was far more capable than everyone had understood.

No sooner had the girls entered the warehouse than a group of about a dozen Iranian soldiers who started to attack them. Before they could do anything, while Kayda stood, shocked, Tansy and Loophole tore through them like a buzz saw. Kayda did some type of incantation and vanished. Because they were inside the simulated warehouse, most of the action was from cameras, and surprisingly, while two cameras remained focused on Tansy and Loophole, another display seemed to be following something, cutting from camera to camera.

Naomi snorted. "Looks like Ito finally remembered to put the beacon on those who could become invisible."

"What?" A couple of the group were surprised by her words.

"Last year, a few students used invisibility spells or charms or devises, and no-one could see what they were doing or where they were," Naomi explained. "They quickly made a couple of beacons that the students would wear so cameras could always track them and us lowly spectators would know where they were."

Adrian snorted. "Yeah, and in Kayda's first combat, they must have forgotten to use them."

"What's going on, do you think?" Laurie asked; as a healer, she really wasn't knowledgeable in tactics.

"Kayda's using her invisibility spell to do recon," Evvie answered as if it was obvious, which to her, Vasiliy, and Adrian, it was.

The camera view tracked through the lower floor of what seemed to be offices, and then up the stairs - where, to some surprise and with great viciousness, Kayda dispatched an officer in the hallway and six soldiers in a barracks room. Then she investigated the warehouse, apparently from catwalks, and then returned to Tansy and Lanie's position. From the reaction in the stands, it was evident that some had underestimated Kayda's capacity for violence.

"Do you suppose they're planning their attack?" Laurie asked unnecessarily as the girls huddled. Suddenly, they looked up toward the main warehouse area; a few sharp words from Tansy led to Kayda re-casting her invisibility spell.

The two visible girls strode confidently toward a circle of light in the cavernous warehouse, stopping to gaze at the three men. On the stool, the colonel sat, bearded and with scruffy hair from long captivity and clad in a bare uniform, hands tied behind his back. One of the captors stood confidently, almost arrogantly, sneering at the two girls and waving a pistol toward the colonel's head, ordering the girls around disparagingly.

The second man, looking like a caricature of an Arabian Knight, suddenly drew an oversized scimitar and leaped toward Tansy, but Lanie was faster, intercepting the sword-wielding brute and slashing him viciously with her razor-claws. The man, however, seemed to ignore it and pressed an attack on Lanie, his wounds closing even as the students watched in shock. A high-level regenerator would be a tough opponent for anyone - except maybe Kodiak.

The man with the pistol began to rant at Tansy, waving his pistol toward the hostage, while Tansy stood calmly, smirking at him.

And then Kayda appeared by his side, her tomahawks flashing as they cut into the opponent. Her first blow literally cut the man's hand off, it and the pistol clattered to the floor before he could react.

Every male in the crowd winced, involuntarily crossing their legs and letting their hands drop across their lap as Kayda slashed upward with a tomahawk into the man's crotch, viciously splitting the man's groin open in a spray of guts and blood. He had no time to react, however, as the hilt of her other tomahawk bashed into his forehead, knocking his head back in time for the blood-covered first tomahawk cut the exposed neck hard enough to decapitate the man.

"Holy fuck!" Vasiliy exclaimed loudly as he winced from the spectacle, echoing what nearly every other student in the stands was thinking. Naomi looked a little green, and more than a few students dashed frantically toward the restrooms, holding their hands over their mouths to try to forestall vomiting in the grandstands. Only the ultraviolents cheered at the brutal spectacle, demanding more bloodshed.

In the arena, after freeing the hostage, Kayda hustled him to the stairs and up toward the roof while Tansy and Lanie tag-teamed the strong regenerator. Even as Kayda dashed up the stairs, the focus of students was drawn to the roof, her destination. Atop the warehouse and a few adjoining buildings were soldiers armed with AK-type assault weapons and several RPGs. Groans of dismay rippled through those left in the stands.

"No way they're going to get through that," Adrian said sadly.

"After that snake demon?" Laurie asked in response. "You think a few soldiers and RPGs are going to stop her?"

On the ground floor, Lanie and Tansy continued to battle the hulking regenerator; Lanie was bloodied and starting to get fatigued. One side of her suit glistened with fresh blood - and quite a bit of it - from a serious cut. Backing away from their opponent, Lanie suddenly took Tansy by the hands and slid her along the floor directly between the man's legs. Her force pistol blasted him upward - literally - and as he fell, Lanie swooped in, decapitating the man with her razor claws.

On the roof, Kayda and the colonel burst through the doors, Kayda shooting magically-enhanced exploding arrows at the remote soldiers, while Colonel Athem shot nearby Iranians and then scooped up their AK-47s and continued to fire. In moments, the soldiers realized they were under attack, and the colonel pulled Kayda down behind an air conditioner on the warehouse roof to avoid gunfire. Kayda popped up to quickly shoot her bow, but the second time she popped up, her face contorted in agony, and the shot went wild as her shoulder gave out.

Most of the spectators groaned; the trio was so close to their goal, but now things had gone south. And then a huge shadow passed over the scene, and a Vindicator air-assault vehicle swooped in, its Gatling cannon barking as it shredded the enemy groups on the nearby rooftops. A moment later, the door opened and Tansy half-carried Lanie onto the roof.

The stands erupted in wild cheering as the air horn sounded, signaling the end of the simulation. Against impossible odds, with injuries and never having worked together, the unlikely trio had beaten the scenario. Evvie, Naomi, and Kayda's other friends leaped to their feet, cheering loudly, clapping each other on the backs at their friend's success. It took a couple of minutes for them to realize that Lanie's boyfriend Wyatt, the big senior and leader of the Alphas, was in the middle of the celebration, whooping and shouting and celebrating along with her group.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - Morning
Tunnels beneath Grandstands, Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Sam Everheart strolled casually through the crowd of students, some dashing to or from the restrooms during the break in combat finals, some milling around the bookies placing bets or getting their payoff, some by the small concession stand getting snacks. She was interested in none of that; instead, her eyes scanned the small displays the bookies all had, diligently letting the Hive record all the displays, both of the completed final with Tansy, Kayda, and Lanie, and the upcoming one.

A couple of the bookies noted Sam's presence and her attention on their actions, but continued their business. Eventually, as the contestants came out of the briefing room to the arena, the throng thinned considerably as the students raced back to their seats.

"How are you doing, Risk?" Sam asked, approaching one of the bookies, an exemplar boy from Poe who was notorious for being accurate with his odds-making.

The very good-looking blonde-haired boy smiled, shrugging. "Meh. Some good, some bad."

"It looks like you guys were a little, um, shall we say surprised by the last final?" Sam prompted, leaning against the wall beside Risk.

He shrugged. "I didn't do too badly. Some of the others? Not so much."

"You only offered win or lose?"

Risk chuckled. "With three of them, including Pejuta who'd just had a final and was hurt? I didn't really have time to figure odds for anything but that."

"What else?"

"Tansy's been holding out all these years," the boy laughed. "I think that took everyone by surprise. Fortunately," he lowered his voice, glancing around as if afraid to be overheard, "with Kayda's injury, Tansy, and the whole thing with Elaine and Maggie, there weren't many people who wanted to bet on them winning."

"Who were some of the winners?"

Risk shook his head, laughing. "Come on, Admiral," he chided the deputy security chief, "you know I won't give out the names of my ... clients."

"I could look at the security footage, and then question the students," Sam challenged.

"And ask them about what?" Risk countered. "If I recall correctly, betting is merely discouraged, not banned."

Sam glanced around, then leaned a little closer, back still against the wall casually. "Risk," she said softly but urgently, "I need to find a security leak that we think is getting combat final data to outside bookies - before it ends up compromising a student's identity and causing somebody to get hurt."

"I understand and sympathize," Risk noted, glancing at the video display to see the progress of the ongoing combat final, "but that's security's concern, not mine."

"It might become your concern," Sam warned, but seeing that her words had no effect on the boy, she changed tacks. "Is there anything ... unusual about the odds? Like maybe someone has inside info? Or has more accurate odds?"

Risk laughed out loud, causing a bit of a stir. "Admiral, I'm too busy calculating my own odds and figuring payoffs and profit to worry too much about everyone else's problems." After thinking a second, he shook his head. "Sorry, I can't help you out here."

Shaking her head, the betting data captured by her Hive nanocomputer, Sam pried herself off the wall and walked to the locker area, going straight to the control booth where Gunny and Ito were supervising the ongoing final.

The old marine noticed Sam's entry. "Good morning, Admiral," he said in his usual gruff voice.

"Mind if I borrow a computer?" Sam asked. When Gunny simply pointed to a vacant machine, Sam sat down and interfaced to the computer and thence to the network. She could have let the Hive read the data directly from within the machine, but she was puzzled and allowed the data to show on the display.

"Something bothering you, I take it?" Sensei Ito asked from his chair, barely turning from the arena.

Sam sighed heavily. "We think we have a data leak somewhere, but I can't see anything that would help us track it down."

"Combat final data?" Bardue growled. "Even after all we did to keep it secret to the last minute?"

"Yeah. That's what's frustrating." She thought a moment. "The last final - was that a change-up, or a planned crash?"

"Last-second change. Lifeline refused to fight Loophole. Why?"

"It drove our bookies crazy. Their odds were all over the place. I'd expect the same from Vegas and the other gambling sites, but I don't have the background in statistics to even begin looking for a correlation."

"You wouldn't have a big enough data set to be statistically significant yet, anyway," Bardue said gruffly. He felt the eyes of the other two on him. "What?" he complained. "So I took a statistics class while I was active duty. So sue me."

"Can you help me figure this out?"

Gunny shook his head. "Negative. A, it was one class, and B, I'm kind of busy right now."

"It was a thought."

"And not a good one," Gunny chuckled. "Check with the math department and find someone who knows statistics inside-out and backwards. Or maybe Kurt Anderson, the survival teacher. He is damned good with odds and statistics."

(to be concluded in part 2)

Comments   

0 # Isodecan 2016-01-26 02:59
Lots of cool matches, including a few I would not have predicted, plus different points of view on a few that we have seen before.

Very Nice!
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # jneko 2016-01-26 04:28
I was completely expecting jade's final to be a noodle incident... If Jade and madcap ever join forces the world shall be doomed.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # Rebeca_Lynn 2016-01-26 05:04
Very Good and Funny. Along with interesting. It gives a good mix of behind the scene and what is going on. Great Job.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
+1 # Arcanist Lupus 2016-01-26 05:34
Generator lives up to her promise! That was great fun.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
+2 # rampaging-poet 2016-01-26 07:25
Great story so far! I'm glad we got to see Generator's final - I thought it would be a noodle incident like Chaka's - and having a plot outside the pile of combat finals really helps pull things together.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # Mazaki 2016-01-26 19:13
Really happy to Jade's final, it was a blast, only sad that I missed seeing the review the instructors gave her and Mule. After all Mule had an important place there as her perch. I am wondering if in finding out the one behind the spying on the final, if they will uncover Hartford's actions and if that leads to anything. Her and Tansy's actions pushed someone into a very serious vow and has already hurt others.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # Stickmaker 2016-01-26 21:56
I am liking this and anticipating reading the next part. However, I have nitpicks about two things which appeared close together. Elevators have had safety systems to lock the car to the rails since the late Nineteenth Century. Modern commercial buildings in the US (most of the world, actually) use safety glass, not plate glass.

Trust me; I'm an engineer. :-)
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # elrodw 2016-01-26 23:31
Quoting Stickmaker:
I am liking this and anticipating reading the next part. However, I have nitpicks about two things which appeared close together. Elevators have had safety systems to lock the car to the rails since the late Nineteenth Century. Modern commercial buildings in the US (most of the world, actually) use safety glass, not plate glass.

Trust me; I'm an engineer. :-)

Yeah, I know - and so am I. But I HAD to squash a goon with an elevator. It's just too good a moment to NOT do, and while saying 'plate glass' is technically incorrect, most readers probably don't really care much.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
+1 # gpoetx 2016-01-27 03:40
That was great. The whole thing and who ever wrote the the battle with Generator? Brilliant! I had to keep going back a sentence to keep track of the insanity. It was like an acid trip.
Oh and I like the introduction of Whells...Guess we'll be seeing a certain new Sidhe soon...
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
+1 # elrodw 2016-01-27 05:10
Yes, Whells is a setup for Absinthe.

Kristin is responsible for the insanity of Generator's final. So she gets all the credit - and well-deserved it is!
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # gpoetx 2016-01-27 23:31
Also loved the dynamic changes between Charge & Ayla. Gotten cozy quickly enough.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # Nivek 2016-03-17 08:19
Can somebody tell me if Generator's combat final "turned into a Ballroom Blitz" deliberately or if I'm finding the lyrics to the song in the scene by coincidence?
Seriously, listen to the song and pay attention to the lyrics and then re-read the part with the fanatic screaming "everyone to attack" or Generator making sure that "no-on could ignore her"
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # Kristin Darken 2016-03-18 04:41
Quoting Nivek:
"turned into a Ballroom Blitz" deliberately or if I'm finding the lyrics to the song in the scene by coincidence?

I can neither confirm nor deny that such a thing would happen... but if it were true, the author would probably be rofl'ing that someone figured it out. Of course, the author would probably rofl'ing if it had happened by 'coincidence' and someone pointed it out, too... so it may be hard to work this one out. :)
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # DieselDriver 2016-03-19 06:30
Were her eyes as red as the sun? Can she kill you with a wink of her eye?

I have that song on my "Favorites" playlist. That one and "Little Willie". Jade is also a bit like Willie, you can't push her around either.

I've read through the fight scene at least a half dozen times and cannot find the phrase "Everyone to attack" in the Fanatic's lines. Am I blind or is it not in there?
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # MarkReed 2016-01-27 17:57
Team Wondercute sure got a lot of fear from the instructors and general populace. Are there any stories in which Team Wondercute sees combat? I know there was a story introducing them, but I don't recall them doing any simulations.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
+1 # Schismatism 2016-01-27 23:39
I've yet to see such a fight, but let us consider that the team was put together by Jade. Existential dread is only the beginning.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # Schismatism 2016-01-27 23:37
Tapping Anderson for a check on the stats is a damned fine idea, judging from what I saw over in Merry: the man lives and breathes math.

Many of these we've seen before. Generator's, not so much. That was equal parts hilarious and terrifying: how the hell did she get rated 263 before the first finals? Phase and Tisiphone should've been expected, but it was still incredibly touching: verifying the sanctity of a teammate should have gotten more points from Gunny. And, really, Belphegor deserved to shine just once, even if it's with a greasy, oily sheen instead of what he thinks it should be.

STAR League Junior vs. Wondercute? I think someone's going to have to requisition the brain bleach, and I think that's going to be Gunny.

Oh! And lastly, it was really great to see Blue and the rest of the techies again. I'd wondered what was going to happen with them.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
0 # DieselDriver 2016-02-16 18:19
I've always been a fan of Jade and I laughed my head off so much that I kept losing track of what was going on. I'd sure like to see a lot more of her. It should be a given that anyone who thinks outside the box like she does and wins like she does should be approved of much more highly than she is apparently. This was just so marvelous. it actually made the rest of the chapter a bit down for me. I'm going back to read it again because it's so much fun. Bye.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote