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The Big Idea

A Whateley Academy Adventure

by Bek D Corbin

Author’s Note: Je m'excuse abondamment à mon audience francophonic (vous deux). Les portions françaises de cette histoire ont été traduites par le traducteur libre de l'AOL et j'ai peur que j'aie reçu la qualité pour laquelle j'ai payé. Je comprends que le Français fait attention très mutilant de leur belle langue et je m'abats sur la mutilation inévitable de la grammaire et idiome.

Friday, November 25th

Harlan ‘Reach’ Sawyer squirmed through the ventilation duct as only a stretcher can. Even so, the duct was too cramped for anything other than the bare essentials. There was certainly no room for a rope of any length, let alone a grappling hook or a grapple gun.

But Harlan didn’t need either a rope or a grappler. When he finally came to the right duct (which is a lot harder than they make it look in the movies!), he carefully removed the grating and took careful aim at the overhead water pipe. One of the advantages to being bunched all together was that it gave him enough, for the want of a better word, compression to pull off something that he normally couldn’t. His hand shot out like a grapple from a gun and snagged the pipe. He made sure of his grip and slowly pulled himself out of the ventilation duct, like toothpaste from a tube.

Now, it got hard. The pipe was a good 15 feet away. His normal stretching distance was 11 feet and change, depending on a passel of variables. The further he stretched, the less his effective strength was. And even at normal, he was only as strong as any reasonably athletic 15-year old boy was. Perching himself as best he could, Harlan used one foot to secure himself on the grating and then ‘climbed up’ his own arm like a rope. He used the foot lodged in the grating to keep tension on himself so that he wouldn’t drop to the floor, which had a pressure alarm. Once he was securely on the stout pipe, he pulled in his leg with a snap. Even contracting his leg with everything that he had, his foot just barely missed hitting the floor.

Harlan took a moment to get feeling back in his tingling arm and leg. Damn, Mr. Fantastic© makes it look so easy in the comic books! Once he was sure that his legs were up to it, he locked them around the pipe and swung upside down over his target. The locked case below was eight feet below him. If he dropped down, he should be well within his 11 feet optimum range. He pulled the lock pick tools from his harness and put them in his teeth, making sure that he had a secure grip on the override patches. He slowly, cautiously, lowered himself to the case, carefully stopping himself on the Plexiglas casing. Then he used the override patches to be sure of the electrical alarm in the case. When the patches had all blinked green, he took the tools from his teeth and started to work on the lock.

When the lock finally clicked open, he raised the case and removed the object of his quest: A single Extra-Large raw egg.

Harlan secured the egg in a nylon pouch on his harness, where it wouldn’t be damaged by his return trip through the duct. Then he put the case back down and removed the patches.

Perfect. Now to get out of there. Reach concentrated on pulling his legs in to raise him up to the water pipe.

Problem. His legs weren’t contracting. Harlan realized that he had somewhere in the neighborhood of three-quarters of his body weight dangling from his legs. They didn’t have enough strength to lift him! He tried climbing up his own legs, but the leverage was all wrong.

Thinking quickly, he started swinging back and forth, hoping to catch one of the cabinets with his hand. He did. But the cabinet wasn’t secured enough for his weight, and Harlan only succeeded in tipping it over. The cabinet came crashing down, and took Harlan with it. His feet came undone from the pipes, but kicked the sprinkler on the way down, setting off the water. Harlan landed like a sack of wet oatmeal, smashing the egg in his harness and setting off the pressure alarms in the floor.

As the alarms went off, the door to the room opened and six figures in dark clothing walked in. Harlan looked up at them from the wet floor. “Well Reach,” Interface said mockingly, “at least you didn’t wind up with egg on your face. Everything else, but not your face.”

Harlan pulled himself together- literally- and rose to his (rather numb) feet. “Well, that wasn’t bad for a first run.”

First run?” Ace asked in his trademark ‘Clint Eastwood’ rasp, “What makes you think that we’d let you make a second run?”

“But I had to-”

“If this were a real situation, right now security guards would be taking you into custody. That is, if they didn’t just put a bullet in your head.”

“Ace, this is only high school!”

“So what?” the de facto head of the Intelligence Cadet Corps (What, you thought they called themselves the ‘Spy Kidz’?) asked rhetorically. “Harley-”

“Harlan,” Reach corrected him.


“My name is Harlan, not Harley. Harley is a girl’s name.”

The second point was debatable, but Ace didn’t let himself get suckered onto a tangent. “Harlan, the entire point of this exercise wasn’t to test your stealth or burglary skills. It was to test your ability to analyze a situation, collect information and figure out a way to achieve your goals.”

“Such AS?”

“Well,” Rez said, “You could have studied the power schematics of this building, turned off the power and just walked in the door.”

“Or, you could have practiced that maneuver until you were sure that you could have done it.” A-Plus offered.

“Or, you could have used some mechanical advantage,” Holdout commented. “Used some pulleys or something to help you when you overextended yourself.”

“OR, you could have asked one of the guards to go into the room and get the egg for you,” Ace pointed out.

“What?” Harlan blurted, “But the challenge was to get the egg out of the room without being spotted!”

“NO, the way that I worded the challenge, it was to ‘get the egg out of the room without setting off the alarms’. Also, while your stretching ability would be a real asset in a B&E situation, it’s not really all that much use in a straight out investigation. Also, you really should pay more attention to mastering your abilities. For instance, you seem to have problems with maintaining support when extended, and with contracting from full extension.” Ace gave a sigh. “Harlan, you seem to have a devious mind; maybe you should consider rushing the Ninjas or the Masterminds?”

“WHAT?” Reach almost screamed, “But I don’t want to be a Thief, I want to be a Cop!

Ace looked up at the ventilation grate. “You have a funny way of showing it.”

Harlan left the room dejectedly. And stretchers can really look dejected. Holdout gave Ace a hard look. “Laying on the Dirty Harry a little thick, weren’t you?”

Interface made a rude noise. “Please! If anything, the Ace went easy on the noid.”

“Look, I’ll agree that Reach is a nice guy, and he means well and all that,” Ace admitted. “But the boy’s got problems. In Basic Martial Arts, Tolman is always yelling at him that he’s tripping over his own feet. He’s fighting himself for some reason, and we can’t have that on a mission.”

“So, in other words, you’re saying that he’s a loser,” Holdout said very matter-of-factly.

“Hey, you said it, I didn’t,” Interface said lightly.

“Besides, we haven’t blackballed him,” A-Plus pointed out. “This is a test of a invaluable trait for an investigator or spy.”


“Resolution,” Ace answered. “If he keeps coming back, we’ll give him another shot.”

“Maybe,” Rez sounded as if she didn’t quite believe them, “but I think that you’re going to be surprised.”

Kew, the team’s resident technical expert and gadget goddess, asked, “Oh? Why?” She was rather surprised that Rez was kicking up such a fuss. Rez was both the new kid on the team, and she’d sort of gotten on the squad because she was dating Holdout. Well, maybe Kew was being a trifle defensive- Rez was rather intruding on Kew’s niche as the team tech-head.

Rez smiled. “Because I’ve seen him in action. And Harlan is one of the most dogged and stubborn people that I’ve ever seen. Once that boy gets his teeth into something, he simply does NOT let go.”

“Oh? What makes you say that?”

Rez smirked. “He’s trying to date Spark.”

Harlan trudged down the access hall, beating himself up a lot worse than any bully could have. ‘Dammit, I screwed up AGAIN! Maaannn… why did I think that the Spy Kidz would take on a loser like me?’ Harlan pulled himself up. ‘No! Can’t think like that! You’re only a loser if you give up! A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins!’

Psyching himself up furiously, Harlan focused on how he could prove to the Sp- er, Intelligence Corps Cadets that he wasn’t a complete waste of time. Well, from what Ace had said, they weren’t very impressed by breaking and entry-

Then Harlan stopped in mid-scheme. Down one of the side tunnels, a petite girl wearing a Whateley lab coat with a large pair of goggles pulling back her dark blonde hair was struggling with a pushcart overburdened with high tech equipment. She was trying to get the awkward cart out of a storage room, and the cart was being difficult.

“Hey! Jenny!”  He hurried over to Genevieve ‘Spark’ Etincelle.

“ ‘Arley?” she asked with a distinct French accent, as she adjusted her eyeglasses to peer at him with her large round green eyes. “What are you doing here? And why are you dressed like that?”

Harlan didn’t correct her about his name- Jenny was too shy to take things like that in stride- and gave a wide embarrassed grin. “Ah, well… same answer to both. I was over in Kane Hall, tryin’ to beat a rush challenge. My sleeves and pants weren’t quite up to keeping up with my stretching- as per usual.” He fiddled with his sleeves a little, to make a better impression.

“A rush challenge?”

“Yeah, ‘rush’, like a Fraternity, only for one of the cliques. I’m tryin’ to get into the Intelligence Cadet Corps- or was it the Intelligence Corps Cadets?”


“The Spy Kidz.”

“Ah.” Jenny mulled this over for a second. “And how did you do?”

Harlan’s face fell. “I, ah, blew it.”

An awkward silence fell between them. Harlan was pretty sure that Jenny knew that he was interested in her. But she was so shy that he had absolutely no idea as to whether she was too shy to let him know that she was interested too, or if she just wasn’t interested and was too shy to let him know. The only time that Jenny really opened up, was when she was talking about her projects. And Then she absolutely blossomed. She smiled, and her eyes sparkled, and she absolutely bubbled. Harlan wished that a girl would get that excited about him. “So… ah…” Harlan decided to move the conversation into Jenny’s comfort zone. “Wha’cha workin’ on here, Jen?”

“Nothing right at the moment,” Jenny opened. “Right now, I’m just trying to get this equipment to my new secure workstation bay. Normally, Romy or Adalie would help me with this but …”

“Would your sense of modern feminine empowerment be diminished if I offered to lend a hand?”

“Why would I be diminished by you lending a hand?” Jenny asked.

Harlan took hold of the cart and secured some of the top-heavy gear with his off hand. “Well,” he said as they started to wrestle the cart in the right direction, “my Aunt Connie told me that some women take a lot of pride in doin’ everything all on their own. Some others don’t mind a little help, as long as it’s offered polite-like. And some expect men t’do everything for ‘em as their natural-born right. And she also told me that it’s dangerous to try and guess which way a woman will jump, so it’s safer just t’ask.”

“She sounds like a very wise woman.”

“I always thought so.” Between the two of them, they managed to herd the cart down the hall and into one of the cargo elevators. “How come you’re movin’ your projects into a secure bay?”

Jenny scrunched up her face in irritation, which Harlan thought made her look even cuter. “Oh, nothing that doesn’t happen in the Workshop all the time. Someone stole my prototype Engram Neurologique Imprinter yesterday during Lunch- or gymnasium- or English. I usually make two of everything that I’m building, just in case of things like this, but this is such bleeding edge work that I couldn’t spare the attention.”

“Ah-hah. And what,” he asked, realizing that he was talking to someone who was vastly smarter than he was, “is a… Neurological Engram Imprinter?” Jenny flushed at the implied compliment. As she started to fluster, Harlan added, “It’s cool, I really like smart girls.”

Jenny almost went beet red. When she had composed herself, she said, “An ‘Engram’ is a pattern within the nervous tissue of the brain, possibly the overall nervous system, which stores a bit of a memory or reflex or behavior.”

Harlan blinked. “Y’mean, like the BIT that they keep talkin’ about in Powers Theory class?”

Exactement!” Jenny cried, “We think that the Body Image Template is a collection of engrams that Exemplars- and to a lesser extent, Shifters such as yourself- use to mold and control their bodies. My  overlays a recorded pattern onto a suitable subject, creating a new BIT. That, along with my réponse de psychokinetic attuner, could combine to produce an état de exemplar inducer!”

“A what?” Harlan asked confused. “Jenny, honey, y’gotta remember, I’m only a Freshman- I haven’t even finished high school French! I got the psychokinetic response attuner- whatever that is- but what’s a état de exemplar inducer?”

“An Exemplar State Inducer,” Jenny said, eyes glittering. “If I can get the pépins, ah, ‘glitches’ out of my Engram Neurologique Imprinter and the réponse de psychokinetic attuner, and get them to work together, I think that I might even be able to turn a normal person into a functioning Exemplar!”

By this time, the lift had gotten to Jenny’s floor, and they wrestled the cart off the platform and down the hall. Jenny opened her new bay, complaining about how many hoops she’d had to jump through to get one (competition for secure bays was fierce), and they started to unload the cart.

“Ah, Jenny, as a friend, I gotta warn you,” Harlan said carefully. “I mean, I know that you’re a devisor, an’ probably a legitimate genius an’ all, but I gotta say that what you’re talkin’ about sounds major league dangerous! I mean, even forgettin’ about turnin’ yourself into an Exemplar, this bit about a ‘psychokinetic response attuner’ sounds risky as all hell!”

“Oh, je suis d'accord!” Jenny chirped innocently. “That’s why I’m testing it out with this second project and working out all les pepins before I go any further with it.” She loaded a large 50-gallon-sized glass drum onto a rotisserie and activated the spin. The drum was full of a exceedingly fine, almost liquid, black powder. As the dust turned and tumbled in the drum, a flickering purple light was beamed onto it.

“And what is THAT?” Harlan asked.

Jenny’s eyes sparkled as she went into discussing another of her projects. “Oh this? This is the basis for an exodermal symbiot!”

“A what?”

“A symbiot! Oh, like on Xora!”

“Xora?” Harlan beetled his brow. “Oh, you mean that HBO show with the babe with the latex-kinda suit that she wears that changes shape and forms stuff, like in Witchblade or that Venom guy in the Spiderman movie?”

Precisement!” she said getting into it again. “Each mote of dust in this drum is a hollow carbon-based dodecahedron based on the fullerene model-” she saw that Harlan wasn’t getting it. “It’s like a wire cage ball, with twelve facets. But when it’s attuned to psychokinetique energy, it will respond to cues by either expanding in all directions by a factor of 64, or stretching in a single direction by a similar factor. Each mote also adheres or repels the other motes along the facets to provide motion and stability. This will cause the symbiot to move, to form things, to become rigid in some places and flex in others.”

“And… how does it know to do this?”

“Well, it won’t have to! You see, I don’t see normal people using this- at least not any time soon. No, this will be a way for psychokinetiques, or Exemplars, or shifters such as yourself, to have an armoring, assisting symbiot, such as Xora has!”

“Will it give me a hard time, the way that Titantia does to Xora?” Harley twitted.

“Of course not!” Jenny started and then saw that Harley was teasing. “The actual guidance and force will be provided by the wearer. The symbiot merely gives the force motile context and support. It will take the user a while to learn how to use the symbiot effectively, but it should be worth it to have personal armor that adjusts to any situation and can provide assistance in things like climbing and so on.”

“I’m not arguing with you,” Harley insisted, “I’m just a dumb country boy trying to keep up!” Actually, Harley was from Louisville, Kentucky and hardly a ‘country boy’ but with his accent, he found it a useful ploy this side of the Mason-Dixon line. “So, when are you gonna test it?”

“Oh, I still have to breed enough of it to get enough of it for multiple failures.”

“Breed?” Harley flinched.

“Yes, in this drum,” she picked up another glass cylinder and started setting it up, “is my breeding proto-culture. The crystals in this proto-culture take near liquid carbon and form them into the fulleroid dodecahedrons that I need. I have to be careful- someone stole my prototype Engram Neurologique Inducer. That, I can rebuild with time. But I took out a large loan to have the initial crystals formatted; if someone stole this, I would be ruined! I’m hoping to recoup the loan by selling bred crystals here in the Workshop. I would feel far more secure, if I knew who stole my ENI. Then, I would know that I could get this back, if he stole this as well.”

“Theft a big problem, here in the Workshop?”

Jenny shrugged. “People are always ‘borrowing’ tools or taking projects to study them. It’s part of the game here. But my ENI has just *poof!* disappeared! No one knows, no one will say anything! Things DO just ‘walk off’ occasionally, but I NEED that ENI to help Knick-knack with his project!”

“Oh? What’s she doing?”

“He.” Jenny corrected Harlan. “Knick-knack is like a GOD in the Workshop! He has the touch in trumps! He and a few others are trying to develop what he calls a ‘BIT Splicer’, which will be able to transfer the BIT of one person to another.”

“Aaahhh … ‘Scuze me fer talkin’ out’a place, but that sounds like a cheap horror movie just waitin’ to happen.”

“Oh, if done wrong, quite right! But you see we have the perfect preliminary subject. Her code-name is ‘Jello’, she’s a Shifter, but she doesn’t HAVE a BIT for some reason, and it’s been absolutely HORRIBLE for her!”

“Ah, Jello …” Harlan winced. “Quiet girl, usually about yea tall, looks like she was made out of wet clay most’a the time?”

“You know her?”

“She comes in as a demonstration for Powers Theory class. Believe me, y’don’t forget seein’ someone melt right in front of you- not soon anyways…”

“You see?” Jenny asked in vindication. “She NEEDS help! And she’s tough enough that she’ll survive any mistakes that we might make. And, once we’ve figured out how to help her, we can take what we’ve learned, and use it to help GSD cases.”

“Hold on- from what I remember from Powers Theory, isn’t GSD s’pozed to be genetic, they actually have genes that grow this, that or the other? How would a BIT splicer or an ENI thing help them?”

Jenny nodded, “Oui, c’est ca, that’s the textbook definition of GSD. But, to be honest, most people think that it means any mutant who looks strange. What we’re trying to help are those Exemplars whose BIT goes wrong, and instead of looking like something out of a fitness club ad, they wind up looking like something out of an old horror movie. There’s nothing really wrong with them, they just need to have their BIT adjusted.”

Reach chewed on that for a minute. “Okay, I can see that. But why can’t you just rebuild your ENI thing from scratch?”

Spark gave a very Gallic shrug. “I COULD, but that would just be waiting for the same couchon to come back and steal IT, just in case I made any improvements. The old prototype that I built showed some promise, but it was only a small improvement on the one that Knick-knack built.”

“And you really want it back?” Jenny gave Harlan a look that almost melted him. “Tell you what, I think that I can help you with that. I need a way to show the Spy Kidz that I got the right stuff- maybe if I find your ENI and get it back for you, that should show them what kinda guy I am.”

“Would you?” Jenny’s eyes were huge in her owlish face behind her glasses. “How?”

“Well, I dunno right off the bat but-”

“I would be very grateful,” Jenny said, folding her hands in front of her, looking up at him.

Harlan saw his chance to get a promise of a date out of Jenny, and was about to make his move after months of stubbing his nose on Jenny’s wall of reticence, when there was a terse “Ahem!” at the door of the bay. At the door with a sour expression on her face was Adalie ‘Charge’ Vitesse, one of Genevive’s best friends, and just behind her was Romy ‘Migraine’ Kumler, the third member of that girl-pack. While Romy loomed a good three inches over Adalie, ‘Charge’ was definitely the ‘alpha’ member of the little group. “Am I interrupting anything?” Adalie asked with a frost-tinged Parisian accent.

“As a matter of fact, YES,” Harlan said amiably. “But, it’s nothing that I can’t get back to.” Harlan knew better than to verbally fence with Charge. Besides being French and a girl, Charge was also a speedster, and if anything, her mouth was even faster than her feet. Harlan moved carefully to the bay door and said over his shoulder, “I’ll get back to you, Jenny-hon!”

As he walked down the hall, Harlan heard a spate of bickering French from behind him. He recognized Charge’s voice rattling away, but he also heard Jenny’s voice as well. He couldn’t understand what she was saying, but he got the impression that she was holding her ground for once. He smiled to himself. Yep, creativity, brilliance and charm were all very good, but in the long run it’s always persistence that pays off!

As he trudged through the Workshop, Harley turned over everything in his mind- the security arrangement in the Workshop, how people would cover their movements as to enter lockers, how to get past the lockers’ security arrangements, that creepy symbiot goop, why anyone would want something that would change a person’s BIT, how would you hide something that?  And even though he tried to be professional about it, the image of Jenny’s face looking up at him, saying that she’d be very grateful, kept popping into his mind’s eye. He was so wrapped up in his reverie that he didn’t notice the jaw-dropping uber-blonde coming out of the elevator just as he was getting on.

Eve ‘Heartbreaker’ Hilton normally didn’t pay a lot of attention to other people’s thoughts. She was a telepath, and she’d long since learned that most people’s thoughts are rather trite and boring. But then, most people aren’t furiously thinking about how to get around Workshop security. As she was a leading member of the Masterminds, the Criminal Geniuses-in-training at Whateley, her curiosity was more than a trifle piqued. She got an impression of a tarry black substance in a glass drum, an general overlay of Kane Hall security, the general notion of BITs, an electronic device, people changing shape, a couple of images of a blonde girl with glasses and a pair of goggles up on her forehead, and a fleeting image of her buddy Jello …

Now Eve’s attention was firmly riveted, Whateley Code of Telepathic Ethics be damned! While Eve fancied herself a cold-blooded femme fatale of the Film Noir School, she had two traits that were very much at odds with that ideation- first, she bitterly loathed bullies, having been a frequent victim of them in her ‘ugly duckling’ days, and secondly, she was passionately loyal to her friends. Especially to Jello, who was brave and true, and deserved a lot better than the shitty hand that she’d been dealt.

Eve was in the Workshop to see what kind of progress Knick-knack was making with his BIT-splicer. Did that boy have some sort of plans for stealing the BIT-splicer for some reason? As Heartbreaker mulled this over, the elevator lifted out of her range, and all that she could get was a fleeting image of the Spy Kidz and the thought, ‘This is my chance! I’ll show them!’

‘Oh Crap!’ Heartbreaker thought to herself, ‘Just what Jello doesn’t need, to have some critical piece of techno-crack stolen before they can get the BIT-splicer done!’ Though it was squarely against her code as a Mastermind, Eve found herself in a position where she’d have to rat out a person who was going to try to pull a daring heist. She just had to find someone who’d believe her.

‘My luck finally must have turned!’ Harlan thought to himself when he spotted Holdout and Rez sitting together at dinner. The rest of the Spy Kidz had gone off to do something else, but the two were just sitting, talking. As he approached, he saw something that almost changed his mind. They had that ‘boy and girl digging on each other’ vibe going down. Nertz. He wanted a favor from them, and crashing their little not-a-date wouldn’t exactly be smooth. Then, just when he was about to walk away and maybe catch Holdout at Emerson, he saw one of those awkward silences drop down. He gave them a moment to recover, and when they didn’t, he came to the rescue. “Hey, Darren! Kenya… I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“Ah, well…” Before Holdout could put his foot into his mouth, Reach filled them in on Jenny’s problem. “Okay, how’s that any of the Cadets’ business?”

“Well, Holdout, think about it! Security’s on the Cadets’ ass about sneaking around, right? But you guys got all kinds of brownie points when you proved that the Watusis couldn’t have spotted Chaka beating on the Yellow Queen’s little sister, because of the pattern of damage to the grass, right? It would have been really good for you, if Queenie hadn’t come in saying that Chaka was innocent. Wouldn’t another nice little investigation coup get Security off your asses?”

Holdout nodded. “Smoothing things over with Security is always good. But I don’t know if I can talk Ace-”

Harlan cut him off. “I don’t particularly want Ace or the others in on this."

“Why not?”

“Hey, Ace busted my chops with that break-in thing. I'd like a chance to prove that I’m not the fuck-up he seems to think that I am.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure that’s ALL there is to it,” Rez purred with a pussycat smirk on her face.

Harlan gave a ‘waddya want?’ shrug. “Sure, I’m trying to show a certain pretty girl that I got the right stuff, too. Either of you got a problem with that?”

Both Darren and Kenya shrugged. “Okay, but if not Ace, then who?”

“Just us three. I’m not asking you guys to do it all for me, I just need a little backup.”

Holdout thought about it for a second, and then Rez said, “Hey, what could it hurt? I mean, they’re pretty much letting me tag along just ‘cause we’re dating. If it’s just Reach and me doing this, then maybe they’ll take us seriously. And maybe you can step out of the shadows a little yourself. I mean, Ace is a right guy and all, but y’gotta admit, he’s a real spotlight hog!”

Holdout gave Rez a goofy grin, and Reach let them have a little ‘giddy young lovers’ time. Eventually, they remembered Reach and got back to business. “Okay, let’s start with the basics,” Reach started off. “Who, What, When, Where and How. In order to figure out where the ENI gizmo is, we have to figure out who took it. In order to figure that out, we have to figure how it was taken. And in order to figure out how it was taken, it helps to know when and where it was taken. So, we have our starting point: when and where. It was taken from Spark’s locker at some time between lunch and fifth period.”

Rez pulled out a laptop that was light years ahead of the school’s general issue laptops and logged on. “Okay, the Workshop lockers are monitored. But if you can’t fudge your way around those cameras, they take away your Mad Scientist goggles. It isn’t so much a matter of figuring out how they got around Security; it’s more figuring out which of a lot of proven methods they used to get around Security. Security keeps trying, God bless ‘em, but hey, it’s the nature of the beast.”

“So, you know all the methods of getting around Security’s watch on the lockers?”

“Not personally, but Tinkertrain and Madskillz keep a listing, complete with commentary, on his site. They keep up with it because … well, it’s a nerd thing …”

Harlan looked at the listings and goggled. “… wooof… Don’t you tech-heads have lives?”

“Hey, what can I say, we love a challenge …”

Maaannn… with that many options, we may have to fall back on ‘When’ and ‘Who’, just to figure out ‘How’.” Harlan shifted his gaze from the screen to Rez. “Kenya, do these listings include the people that Tinkertrain and Madskillz think use them?”

“Of course!” Between them, Reach and Rez thrashed out a way of sorting out who at the Workshop could have been there during the time that the ENI disappeared, the Security spoofing techniques that they were known to use, and the tell-tale signs that would show up on Security records. “The only problem,” Kenya sighed, “is that it’s gonna be damn tedious going through them one at a time, trying out each and every possible combination.”

Reach held up a hand. “I’ll take care of that. Hey, you all are doin’ me a big favor, so I’ll do the slog work. E-mail me the links, and I’ll go through it after I take care of my homework.”

“SIR!” Kenya snapped, “If you think that I’m just going to let you just come in and take care of all the boring, tedious grunt work- well then, you are absolutely right!

Heartbreaker used her telepathy to catch Charge at absolutely the right time. And you need to catch a speedster at absolutely the right time, if you don’t want to run yourself ragged tagging along after them. “Excuse me, Adalie?”

“What?” Charge’s large gray eyes narrowed. She was a member of the ‘Beret Mafia’, and made a point of not trusting Americans much. Especially blonde exemplar ones who went around flaunting their over-ripe charms.

“You’re friends with that devisor, I think she calls herself ‘Spark’?”

Charge’s sharp features hardened even more. “Yes. What of it?”

“She’s one of the team helping my friend, Jello. Is everything all right on that?”

“She is having a few problems, I’m afraid. Alas, this place is full of thieves.”

Heartbreaker worried her lower lip. “I was afraid of that. I’m afraid that I may have some information. Earlier, when I was in the Workshop, I passed a boy who was leaving. His thoughts were full of a strange black tarry substance in a glass drum, an electronic device, the security layout of the Workshop, and thoughts of theft. As I got the impression that Jello was involved somehow, I tried to get more from him, but he was already leaving. All that I was able to get was the thought ‘this is my chance! I’ll show them!’ I think that he’s trying to rush one of the cliques, and is planning on stealing something to prove his mettle. I, ah, won’t say exactly which group I think that he’s rushing… for various reasons.”

Charge’s hand lashed out and grabbed Eve’s arm. Her large gray eyes bored into Eve’s blue ones. “This boy… who was he?”

“Well, I don’t know his name, but he’s right over there.” She pointed over to where Harlan was sitting with Holdout and Rez, as they poured over Rez’ laptop.

Je le savais!” Adalie snapped. “HIM!” Immediately, she dashed out of the Crystal Hall at speeds of nearly 90 mph. But people didn’t really notice. It was Whateley, after all, and you got used to speedsters zipping all over the place.

Genevive clutched at a pillow for comfort as her big green eyes filled with tears. “Mais PORQUOI? WHY? I thought that he LIKED me?”

“Oh, he’s trying to get into some stupid little American club where they pretend that they’re thieves or spies or something ridiculous like that!” Adalie snarled as she paced- or what was a pace for her, and would be a sprint for a non-speedster- around Spark’s room at Dickinson cottage.

“How do you know that?” Romy asked from where she was comforting Genevive on the bed.

“One of their own told me!”

“Why would he do that?”

“She’s friends with that melting freak, Jello, that you’re trying to help. She doesn’t want him stealing your Engram engin to foul up Jello’s chance of getting back to normal. It’s probably the only decent thing that chienne has ever felt, and she doesn’t want him prise d’merde all over it!”

“But if he already stole my ENI, why would he want to steal something else? And WHAT do I have that he’d want to steal?”

“Well…” Adalie slowed down to about 30 mph and thought. “Well, if he stole your new ENI, he took it from your locker. Not really a challenge for a voleur d’maitre, no? But if he gets into the Secure bay, with all the security systems and alarms, well then, he’s Arsene Lupin all over again, now isn’t he? And as for what…” Adalie paused. “Well, she DID say something about a black tarry substance in a glass drum…”

Ma symbiot cutane!” Jenny leapt up, her grief burned away by pure outrage. “He was very interested in it, when I was setting it up in the lab! TOO interested!”

“Why would he want THAT kleverig goop?” Romy asked, making a face.

“Because, if he bonds with the symbiot, he will become more powerful!” Spark said with conviction.

“But you haven’t gotten it to WORK yet,” Romy said reasonably.

“But HE doesn’t know that! He’ll just steal the symbiot and the charger, and completely spoil months of research and work!”

Bien alors!” Adalie said with a shark-like grin. “We will just have to stop him, and teach the back stabber a lesson that he won’t soon forget, now won’t we?”

Monday, November 28th

“Hey, Harlan!” Holdout greeted him in the halls three days later, “How goes the hunt?”

“Mind-numbing,” Reach admitted in a flat weary voice. “But I think that I got the field narrowed down to three possibles in the window of opportunity. Kenya, I got two guys and a girl. The girl’s called ‘Wunderkind’.”

Rez thought it over. “Nah. Wundy’s a pain, but she’s a gadgeteer, not a devisor. Besides, she’s into force fields and stuff- no real reason for her to want something that by definition deals with the brain.”

“Okay, just what I was looking for,” Harlan said. “Next is a guy called ‘Hazmat’.”

“Nah. Strictly a Chemistry goon.”

“Which leaves a freshman called ‘Belphegor’.”

“Belphegor?” Rez asked, “Well, of course, it would be Belfo.”

“Oh, we have a winner?”

“Oh, HELL yeah! Belfo is the biggest thief and mooch in the Workshop! Worse, he’s one of those ‘renaissance nerds’, who’s all over the place- and stealing everything that isn’t nailed down. And get this- his specialty is ‘adapting’ other people’s work to his purpose. And trying to take out patents on it.”

Holdout nodded. “Yep. Kew’s always bitching about Belfo ripping off her stuff and trying to take credit for it. Worse, while he’s a Frosh on paper, this is his second year at Whateley. I’ve heard that he’s really paranoid, and has hidden caches all throughout the tunnels. Finding where he stashed Spark’s ENI will be a bear; even if we can find his caches, we won’t necessarily be able to find the one with your lady’s stolen treasure in it.”

“Yeah,” Harlan agreed. “But I been thinking about that. Kenya, all these fancy high-energy gizmos all have their own patterns in the way that they use energy, right? So, that pattern would leave a telltale signature in the power grid, right? So, if we can find a time that Jenny was working on her ENI thing when no one else was using the Workshop power grid-”

Kenya already had her forearm-mounted console up and was furiously accessing the database. "Way ahead of you, Rubber-boy!” Kenya grinned. “The Workshop’s power grid is segregated so that different high-energy devises don’t synch off each other, delta spike and blow a circuit. Isolating Jenny’s ENI signature will be a snap!”

“And once you have that, all you have to do is run a comparison for the peripheral power grid in the tunnels during the times when Belphegor might have been in his secret labs,” Darren calculated. “But all that that gives us is a rough estimate of where it might be. We still wouldn’t have any way of finding the exact location, or getting into it, or proving to Security that Belphegor was the thief.”

Harlan nodded. “Okay, that means we have to get a little more personal. Kenya, could you point out this Belphegor guy to me?”

Rez snorted. “Point him out? Odds are, you’ve already seen him. Big round kid, floats around all over the place in this flying chair that looks even more like an egg than he does, that has this really annoying vt-vt-vt-vt suspension thing?”

“Chubby kid, reddish hair, sullen expression, constantly stuffing his face with something?”

“Ah, you’ve already met Belfo!”

“Asshole damn near ran over me a few times with that stupid chair of his! Doesn’t he stop for…” Reach trailed off as a sneaky expression crossed his face.

Genevive was inspired. Anger tends to do that do Devisors. And, while she didn’t cackle insanely while she made adjustments to her newest project, she was grinning in a way that would have given anyone, even her father, pause. Things were coming together, conceptual barriers were crumbling and new understanding of her grand design blossomed.

Oh, how he would suffer!

Tuesday, November 29th

Phillip ‘Pip’ Blackadar, or ‘Belphegor’ as he preferred to be known, floated carefully down the maintenance tunnel. He didn’t see anyone, but you could never be too careful. His security system indicated that there was an unspecified malfunction going on in his current main hidden lab. It was probably just a short circuit or something, but he had to be sure before it wrecked all of his projects. How all those wretched intellectual pygmies would laugh, if all the Great Belphegor’s glorious work were ruined! He activated the access frequency from his chair arm console, and hologram projectors masked the fact that he stopped, even as a hologram of his chair floated onwards. What appeared to be a bit of reinforcing bracing in the wall folded inward, he floated his chair into the lab, and the doors closed behind him.

As the secret doors clicked shut, another hologram dropped, revealing Rez, Holdout, Reach, Lieutenant Reynolds and Sergeant Harris of Whateley Security, all hiding in a niche.

“Well,” Harris grunted, “give Fatboy his due. That is one WELL-MADE camouflaged set of doors.”

Lieutenant Reynolds twitched the corner of his mouth. “So far, so good. But now we have to wait here, and hope that he didn’t think to install a hidden camera covering this space-”

“Not an issue,” Harlan said smugly as he pulled on a gas mask. “As a matter of fact- Darren?”

Holdout pulled on his own mask, snapped his fingers and started counting. On the count of ‘Eight’, the door swung open, a cloud of noxious smoke billowed out, and Belphegor came staggering out coughing wetly and trying valiantly to keep from retching.

“Holdout compressed several pounds of chemicals together into a packet about the size of a postage stamp,” Harlan explained. “I stuck the ‘stamp’ on the back of Belphegor’s chair. Holdout just decompressed the ‘stamp’ which means that the chemicals immediately re-bonded with open air- short form: instant stink bomb from Hell. Hey, we hadda get him to open those doors somehow!”

“Why Belfo!” Rez said brightly through her gas mask. “What EVER happened? Did something go WRONG? Why, we’d better go in there, to make sure that this fire doesn’t spread!” Rez, Holdout and Reach went into the secret lab and came out later, each holding a piece of equipment.

“STOP! That’s MINE!” Belphegor wheezed.

“Really?” Harlan held up something that looked vaguely like a 1940’s movie prop man’s idea of what a futuristic camera would look like. “Because this looks a lot like the Neurological Engram Inducer that Jen- er, Codename: ‘Spark’ registered with the Workshop. Why, here’s the registration number, right here. Lieutenant Reynolds, would you contact the Workshop main office and confirm whose project this really is?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Reynolds said through his handkerchief, “Very convincing.” He scowled at Belphegor. “Blackadar, you KNOW that it’s against regs to construct secret rooms and establish unmonitored work bays. Everything in there is going to be confiscated, and don’t give me any guff about warrants.”

“But THIS is the registered property of Spark,” Harlan held up the ENI, “and should be immediately returned to its rightful owner.”

Harris nudged Reynolds. “Sawyer did good. Let the kid be the big hero for his girlfriend. AFTER we confirm the registration with the main office.”

As Reynolds called Security for more men (and confirmed the registration numbers with the Workshop), Harlan gleefully sent Jenny a text message that he’d found the ENI, and was looking forward to returning it to her.

A few minutes later, Harlan got a return text saying that she was overjoyed, but she was stuck in the middle of something. For safety’s sake, he’d better take the ENI directly to her Security Bay. She’d send a key card to the concierge’s office at Emerson.

“Why do you think that Jenny sent the key card to Emerson?” Harlan asked as they walked up to the Secure Bays in the Workshop. “Why not just tell the Workshop front desk to issue me a key card?”

“Are you kidding?” Rez asked. “At Whateley? Security’s iffy enough without big gaps like that. Secure Key Cards are issued in strictly controlled numbers, and the students have to sign for all of them. She was probably just closer to Emerson than she was to the Workshop.”

Harlan nodded and took the key card out of the envelope. But when the door opened, he stopped dead in his tracks. “Something’s very wrong here.”

“What’s the matter?” Darren asked, looking over his shoulder into the unlit bay.

“That.” Harlan pointed to a 50-gallon glass drum filled with a black liquid that was framed by the light from the door. “That’s Jenny’s symbiot project. It shouldn’t be on the floor.”

“Hunh?” Rez looked around Reach’s shoulder and snapped a picture of it. “What do you think’s going on?”

“I have NO idea,” Harlan said grimly. “But this is a devisor’s lab with no devisor in it, and something seriously wrong.”

“Kenya, go get Security,” Holdout ordered. “Harlan’s right, something’s wrong here. We’ll begin a preliminary examination of the site.”

“What? But CSI-”

“We don’t KNOW that it’s a crime scene. We just know that something’s wrong. We don’t want to blow what cred we have with Security by crying wolf right now. IF we spot anything wrong, we back out. If not, we just tell the security guy that something strange happened. For all we know, Spark was just moving things around, set that there and forgot to put it back. Hey, she’s a devisor- they do weird stuff like that. Mildly suspicious, but nothing to set off an alarm about. First, we make SURE that something’s wrong, and I don’t want you getting hurt if anything goes really wrong.”

As Kenya ran off to find Workshop security, Darren and Harlan carefully stepped into the bay. “Well, I don’t see anything weird,” Holdout said neutrally. “Other than the weird stuff that you normally see in a devisor’s lab. I’ve never been in here before, Harley-”


“Sorry, Harlan- you see anything off?”

“Not right off the bat… But I was only here once, when we was unloadin’ stuff. The only thing as I’m sure is wrong is that symbiot culture thing on the floor.”

“Where should it be?”

“Over there, in that cradle-thing.” Harlan set the ENI on a bench, took a pair of work gloves and gingerly picked up the glass drum. “Don’t see any cracks or signs of bein’ dropped. It should go in here, like this-” He carried the drum over to the cradle and cautiously fitted it onto the rotary arm.

As the drum clicked into place, an ear-splitting ‘whooping’ alarm went off, piercing both Reach and Holdout’s eardrums. Slender cables shot out from the cradle and latched onto Reach, delivering a powerful taser jolt that immediately knocked him unconscious. While Holdout was holding his hands over his ears and trying to keep from throwing up from the vertigo side effect of the alarm, eight metallic tentacles reached out from sockets and picked up Harlan. Equipment automatically reconfigured, revealing a secure prisoner gurney. The tentacles lashed Harlan to the gurney, and more equipment clicked into place itself around him. One bit of gear swung down and started beaming a flickering purple light on Harlan’s insensate head. Another piece of equipment, one that resembled the ENI that Harlan had placed on one of the benches, pulled up beside the purple light projector and a beamed a light onto his brow. Harlan began to spasm, but the waldoes kept him secure on the gurney. One of the computer monitors flickered to life, and a readout appeared on it. A computer rendition of Jenny’s voice calmly stated, ‘Engram Overwrite Induction process initiated; Interruption of this process could be very dangerous to the subject. Initial signs are excellent. Estimated time until completion of process: 2 hours, 14 minutes, 16 seconds. 2 hours, 14 minutes, 12 seconds…”

Costigan, the Workshop overseer bustled in and managed to shut down the alarm. “Get him OUT of there!” Holdout snapped.

“Sorry, Kid!” Costigan said, “But policy is that interrupting something like this with a live subject, even an unwilling subject, is too dangerous. We gotta let it run its course.” He desolately watched Reach’s form spasm. “And pray that we’re not abetting a fucking murder.”

10:25 PM

Eve ‘Heartbreaker’ Hilton was more than a little puzzled as to why she was being escorted into Headmistress Carson’s office that late at night. Neither she nor any of the other Masterminds had done anything. Lately. That they’d gotten caught at, at least.

Both Carson and Hartford were there, wearing different casual clothes, but matching scowls. Standing in the hot spot on the carpet in front of Carson’s desk were four girls and a boy. The all watched her as she was led in and added to the row of the accused. “Miss Hilton, do you have any idea why you were called here?” Carson asked with a glacial tone.

“Errr … Not without reading someone’s mind, no,” Eve admitted hesitantly.

“Miss Hilton,” Hartford began in her best Prosecutor’s tone, “are the Masterminds rushing one Harlan Chapman Sawyer?”


“Code name: ‘Reach’.”

“Miss Hartford, I can assure you that I’m not a member of any alleged ‘Masterminds’ clique, and-”

“Just answer the question.”

“I’m drawing a blank on this ‘Reach’ guy,” Heartbreaker said with total honesty.

“Does THIS help?” Carson showed her an 8x10” portrait of Harlan Sawyer.

“Oh, HIM!” Eve said, her photographic memory coming to her aid. “No, never met him.”

“Are you SURE?”

“Yes’m. Absolutely sure.”

“Then why did you tell HER-” Hartford pointed at Charge, who was silently bristling with indignation, “- that the Masterminds were rushing him, and that he’d not only stolen Miss Etincelle’s Neurological Engram Inducer, but was planning to steal something called a Dermal Symbiot proto-culture as proof of his burglary skills?”

“Because I didn’t!” Eve bristled right back. “A few days ago, I passed him in the Workshop, and I *ahem!* ‘overheard’ him thinking about a lot of stuff, including burglary, high tech, some black stuff in a bottle, and my friend Jello. I tried to get more, but all that I heard was ‘this is my chance, I’ll show them!’ Later, I saw that he was hanging out with two of the Spy Kidz, and figured that he was rushing for them. Adding what I heard with the Spy Kidz, I figured that he was gonna try to swipe a prototype or something James Bond-y like that.”

“The Cadets are NOT thieves!” Holdout blurted out.

“Yeah, yeah,” Heartbreaker jeered.

“SILENCE!” Hartford snapped.

“QUELLE?” Genevive blurted out, looking at Adalie, “But you said that you had positive proof that ‘Arley was stealing from me! You call that PROOF?” Adalie responded with a brisk fusillade of French, which sparked a lively argument in that language.

Assez! Calmez-vous, ou je donnerai vous tous les deux un mois de détention!” Carson trumpeted in fluent (if British-accented) French. “And, Miss Vitesse,” she added in a growl, “I’d suggest that you discard the stereotype that all Americans are hopelessly monolingual.”

“I STILL say that this ‘Reach’ was trying to steal the symbiot proto-culture,” Charge said with stiff dignity. “How did he get into the lab, if not by breaking in? Why break in, unless it was to STEAL? And our trap was set only to go off when the proto-culture drum was lifted from its cradle. The proof of his guilt is in the fact that he was caught,” she finished with smug triumph at her impeccable logic.

“We went to the bay to return Spark’s ENI gizmo,” Holdout retorted in a flat weary tone.

“Which you STOLE!” Charge shot back.

“Which we recovered from Belphegor.”

“So you say!” As if it had been forensically proven that Holdout and Rez were liars and thieves.

“So do Lt. Reynolds and Sgt. Harris, who saw the whole thing.”

“Miss Vitesse, Mister Colm and Miss McAllen are backed up by two security officers,” Carson informed her and held up a bound report. “I have the incident report right here. At 4:15, the students code named Holdout, Rez and Reach assisted Lt. Reynolds and Sgt. Harris of the Whateley Security Detail in locating a secret laboratory created by the student code named ‘Belphegor’.”

“Belphegor?” Spark asked incredulously.

“In said secret laboratory, they found no less than 14 separate unique pieces of equipment registered to other students- only three of which were reported stolen. Still, Mr. Blackadar is looking at a lot of detention. I’m thinking that the sewer crew needs technical assistance.” Carson paused and glowered at Charge, Spark and Migraine. “Even so, he’s in a lot less trouble than YOU three are.”

One by one, unbiased testimony and physical evidence overcame Adalie’s accusations and objections. Harlan and Genevive’s cell phones contained records of the text messages, though Jenny maintained that she’d never seen it. The Emerson concierge confirmed that Harlan had picked up the key card at the office. Kenya had a shot of the symbiot proto-culture drum on the floor. There was the issue of the sonic nausea alarms that the three girls insisted that they hadn’t set. Harris’ report confirmed that he’d given Reach permission to return the stolen ENI devise. As each new piece of evidence was brought in, Adalie retreated further into bitter silence, Romy looked sicker, and Jenny got greener with shame and remorse.

When the last of Adalie’s objections had been overturned, Carson leaned forward with her hands folded on her desk. “Ladies… I’m going to give you what I like to call ‘the Vigilante Speech’. Do you know where the term ‘Vigilante’ comes from? It’s an original Americanism. In the 19th Century, there were large areas that were lightly settled and Law and Order hadn’t been established, and even then, corruption was rampant. So, groups of citizen formed secret ‘Committees of Vigilance’ and used mob action to force out bandits and other unsavory types.

Now, the most famous of these was the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851. The reason that it became so famous, was that during the Gold Rush, law and order in San Francisco had almost completely broken down due to the flood of gold-seekers. But the Committee of Vigilance was very careful, as they knew what they were doing was outside the law. Their tribunals were scrupulously run, and they were famous for their fairness. They abided by the rules of jurisprudence, they heard evidence and testimony from both sides of the matter, and they acquitted more people than they convicted. Only three men got hung by the 1851 Vigilance Committee. The others who were convicted were ‘exiled’ to Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, under pain of death if they ever returned. And, when the state of general disorder in San Francisco ebbed, the Committee of Vigilance disbanded. Indeed, the worst that could be said of that Committee was that it made the other Vigilantes, ones that didn’t hew to as high a standard, look disrespectable.

“And that’s where this little history lesson really heads. Most of the Vigilance Committees didn’t abide by that exacting standard of due process. They seized people with little reason, held kangaroo courts, violated the accuseds’ rights, and lynched a lot people, whether they were guilty or not. In a lot of cases, all they were really guilty of was being the wrong creed or color, or having something that someone wanted.  Indeed, even the next San Francisco Committee of Vigilance abandoned that standard, and there were several lynchings, including two people who were provably innocent. Today, to be a vigilante is to take the Law into your own hands, on spurious accusations, usually with ulterior motives, with little to no real evidence, without hearing testimony, and meting out a punishment that may not be warranted against a person who may be innocent. Those of us with super powers are extremely vulnerable to the lure of vigilantism.

“Ladies, what you did today was Vigilantism, pure and simple. You acted on an accusation that wasn’t even an accusation, just a suggestion that someone may have done or may do something wrong. You asked no questions, you sought no evidence, and you considered no alternatives. You did not take your grievance to any mature authority but decided the matter yourselves. Acting on flimsy evidence and testimony, you took it upon yourselves to try, convict and sentence another student. You laid down a punishment that would have been excessive, cruel AND unusual, even IF Sawyer HAD been planning to rob you! And worst of all, you did all of this to a boy who was not only innocent of all charges, but going out of his way to HELP you!” Carson hit the intercom. “Bring in Sawyer.”

The door opened, and a Hispanic woman led in a girl wearing the black turtleneck sweater, cargo pants, cross-trainers, finger-less gloves and utility belt affected by the Spy Kidz. The girl was curvy, tall, athletic and absolutely lovely with glossy black hair in a shag-cut that didn’t really flatter her long classic features. Her sweater and cargo pants appeared to be a couple sizes too small for her and her forearms and shins poke too far out the ends, “Who’s she?” Rez asked.

“That’s Sawyer,” Hartford said with her usual sardonic relish.

“REACH?” Holdout blurted out, “Is that YOU?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” she replied in a weary clear contralto that still carried a touch of her Kentucky accent.

“What did they DO to you, man?” Darren asked, horrified.

“Well, apparently,” Carson started, peering through her reading glasses at a report, “Miss Etincelle modified her ‘Exemplar State Inducer’ to superimpose a specific BIT upon Mr. Sawyer, thus resulting in that. By the way, Miss Etincelle, exactly whose BIT did you use?”

“Well, we used the BIT recording of that Poe Girl, Zenith,” Jenny said timorously.

“Zenith?” Carson said, as if that were somehow significant.

“Zenith?” Heartbreaker echoed, though hers carried a note of being slighted somehow. “Why not mine? It was on file with Knick-knack.”

Well…” Spark whined, “We wanted to embarrass ‘Arley and we figured that turning him into a lovely girl would embarrass him the most.”

AND?” Heartbreaker added with a touch of frost.

“Well, Adalie said that you’d warned us, and it seemed poor repayment of that service to summarily commandeer your essential likeness that way. You were very brave, offering to allow Jello to become your twin; thrusting another twin upon you would have been rude.”

“Oh!” Heartbreaker accepted the explanation as a compliment.

“Still, I find it ODD that you were so considerate, while you were in the middle of doing something so inexcusably STUPID!” Carson snapped.

“Excuse me?” Harlan interrupted, “But what exactly DID happen? The last thing that I remember, I was… going into Jenny’s lab… there was that drum of symbiot goop on the floor … I put the drum back in the cradle… then somebody shoved a live wire up my ass, then I woke up in the infirmary, with HER telling me not to get upset!” Harley finished by pointing at the Hispanic woman who had come in with him (or her).

Mrs. Carson very calmly spelled out the entire sequence of events, winding the story up with, “And you should be grateful that you were unconscious for the Imprinting stage of the process. From the eyewitness accounts, it would have been excruciating.”

Harlan looked at Spark aghast. “Jenny! How COULD you?”

“I was upset …” she whimpered, obviously all too aware that that wasn’t a valid excuse, but it was all she had. “Oh, ‘Arlee! I’m so SORRY! I’ll do anything that I can to make it up to you!” she burst out crying.

“I don’t see what everyone’s so upset about,” Charge said nonchalantly. “So, we were wrong, so what? He’s fine, and Genevive’s process is only temporary, so he should change back in a week. Or two. Maybe more …”

“SO WHAT?” Carson snarled, “Do you have any IDEA of what you did? You blithely tampered with someone’s mind and body! You imposed defining characteristics on someone who you never gave a chance to defend himself! You used untested, unproven Devisor level equipment on an unwilling subject! You not only risked driving Sawyer insane or crippling him or inducing GSD that could scar him for life, you risked KILLING him! Even if Sawyer HAD given his permission, you not only performed this process without Workshop oversight, you did it by fu … freaking REMOTE CONTROL! Miss Vitesse, that goes far beyond reckless or irresponsible, and well into the legal definition of ‘Malicious’. Miss Vitesse, Miss Etincelle, Miss Kumler, you should realize that it is well within my power to have you arrested and extradited to the State of New Hampshire to be tried for Assault, Mayhem, and Attempted Murder!”

Both Jenny and Romy blanched, but Adalie held her ground. “So? I’ll be deported back to France…”  

Carson gave her a ‘don’t mess with me, you little bitch, I’m meaner than you are’ look. “True. And the French MCO will of course, have to be alerted that a reckless and dangerous mutant was expelled from the United States for Attempted Murder. And France operates by the Code Napoleon, under which the burden of proof lies with the accused …”

Adalie wilted under the thought of coming under the jurisdiction of the Bureau de Commission de Mutant Français.

Carson gave an acidulous grin and said, “Oh, and Miss Vitesse? For me, this IS playing with kid gloves.” She leaned back and glowered at all three of the European girls. “Indeed, there is only one reason why I’m not telling Security to fit you for power restraints right now. From what you’re saying, and by Mr. Colm and Miss McAllen’s testimony, it sounds like someone changed your trap. Your trap was geared to catch someone trying to steal the symbiot proto-culture. That mitigates things … a little. Someone obviously knew that Mr. Sawyer wasn’t trying to rob you, and changed the trap so that it would snare him anyway. They also made sure that you wouldn’t be on site when it happened, and that no one would be able to save Sawyer before the process started. The intercepted text message, the key card, the proto-culture drum on the floor, the sonic weapons: one is an accident, two is circumstance, three is enemy action, four is attempted murder.”

Carson’s gaze swept over the seven teenagers. “At the moment, the question is: was Sawyer the target? Or was Etincelle? Or maybe you, Miss Vitesse? Was someone trying to kill Reach, or to use his death or crippling to ruin one or all of you? No matter how it pans out, someone is playing a very nasty game at my school, and I have no intention of obliging them. Security WILL look into it.”

She shifted her attention to the Hispanic woman who brought Harlan in. “Dr. Guitterez, what kind of shape is Sawyer in?”

Dr. Guitterez adjusted her glasses. “He woke up screaming and had to be physically restrained, which in light of his powers, was far more easily said than done. He was sullen, hysterical, defensive, enraged, paranoid, combative, and verbally abusive. In other words, a perfectly normal and healthy response for a boy his age to his situation. After about 45 minutes of being a complete maniac, he calmed down, mostly because he was too tired to keep throwing things around. I administered a sedative that should still have him in deep sleep- he woke up after about a half-hour. I was able to guide him through a few of the techniques for Self-Ideation Dissonance that we use for extreme GSD cases, and he has a much better grip on the situation. Though the prospect that his condition is temporary, or that it can be reversed is a major part of his acceptance. My judgement is that Reach is a very tough individual, and as long as he’s kept busy and not allowed to sulk, he should be fine.”

“Thank you.” Carson regarded Reach. “Mr. Sawyer, given your response upon waking, my guess is that you are the person on campus least likely to have engineered that trap in Spark’s lab. And yes, I did consider that possibility, if only to discard it. Still, there is a good chance that you were the intended target of a possibly lethal trap. Do you have any enemies that we should know about?”

Harlan’s eyes flickered over at Adalie and Romy. “Nah, too obvious…”

“Never dismiss the obvious, Mr. Sawyer.”

“Well, Belphegor can’t be too happy with me right about now.”

“But he had no reason to be angry with you before you trapped him, and he was busy with Security afterwards.”

“Well, I’m not exactly bosom buddies with my roommate, Glitch…” Harlan winced at the poor choice of words. “But Stimpy’s such a lump that I can’t see him pulling off anything that elaborate. Besides, they won’t let him into the Workshop, and they’d know if he snuck in somehow. He’s got the money to pay someone else to do it, but to be honest, I can’t really see any reason WHY.”

“Anyone else?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that I was universally beloved, but I don’t go out of my way to make enemies, neither.”

Carson nodded. “Good enough. Anyone who took measures that elaborate would only do so if their identity weren’t immediately obvious. Reach, you say that you want to be a Cop. Well, I want you to look into this affair. Look around, ask questions, shake things up a little.”

“I thought that Security was going to handle it,” Harlan said cautiously.

“They are. And no, I don’t really expect you to find anything that Security can’t. What I really want you to do is to rattle the student body. Kick up some dust, get ‘Mister X’ to watch you, instead of what Security’s doing.” Carson held up a finger to stave off protest from Harlan. “And, NO, I’m not asking you to just play at investigating. I want you to really find out as much as you can. Security has a lot on its plate, and you might find things out simply because ‘Mr. X’ will be concentrating on them. Besides, the kids here seem to regard getting around Security as some kind of sport- we might as well put that to use for a change. I’ll arrange for Lt. Reynolds to be your liaison with Security.”

Carson regarded Holdout. “Mister Colm, please pass along to Ace that I highly suggest that the *ahem!* ‘Intelligence Cadet Corps’ would find their time better spent assisting Reach, than with their usual ‘hide-and-seek’ games with the Masterminds and Ninjas.” Holdout nodded briskly.

Carson returned her gaze to Charge, Spark and Migraine. “As for you three- mitigating circumstances or no mitigating circumstances, what you did was completely uncalled for.”

“Madam Carson, I’ll do whatever it takes to make this up to ‘Arlee!” Jenny whimpered.

“We’ll get back to you later.” Carson glowered at Charge. “While Miss Etincelle is quite remorseful, YOU, Miss Vitesse, seem to regard yourself as being put upon by being called to answer for your actions. You and Miss Kumler are getting a month of detention. And NO, you won’t be serving it together. Miss Kumler, you will do your month of detention at Hawthorne Cottage. Miss Vitesse, you will get a seasonal special detention with the Groundkeepers. You will spend your first week or so getting to know the basics of maintenance. But this is New Hampshire, and we should be getting our first snows soon. Miss Vitesse, I warn you- even Sisyphus would blanche at the task of keeping the walks and roads here free of snow.”

As Migraine and Charge looked sick, Carson turned to Genevieve. “Miss Etincelle, while Miss Vitesse may have been the driving force of this debacle, and ‘Mr. X’ twisted it to his own ends, YOU are still primarily responsible for what happened. It was your lab, your technology, and your trap, which you set. Despite his current rather *ahem!* ‘robust’ appearance, the fact is, that Mr. Sawyer is still in very grave danger. You tampered with things that shouldn’t be tampered with, and on more than one level. Mr. Sawyer’s condition could degenerate, he could go mad, he could burn out, or he could simply drop dead. And even if you’re right, and he will simply return to normal after a week or so-”

“All my preliminary attempts started to fade after about a week, so-” Jenny started in a pained voice.

“NOT the issue!” Carson cut her off. “Even IF that does happen, Sawyer will still be stuck as a girl for roughly a week. And that’s assuming that he does change back to normal. Miss Vitesse, are you familiar with the Americanism of ‘Murphy’s Law’?”

“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong?”

“At the worst possible time, in the worst possible way. Murphy’s Law, as applied to Devisors, adds explosions. Your punishment is that you are assigned to Mr. Sawyer as his nurse and attendant for the duration of his current state. You will contrive a portable engram scanner, and keep tabs on his neurological condition. You will report your findings regularly to the doctors at the clinic. And beyond that, you will help Sawyer cope with his female condition, including the nuances of getting dressed. You can go to Student Services- they have stores of lost and discarded clothing left by students. We keep them for impoverished students, but as it will only be a week or so- in theory, at least- you should be able to scrape together an acceptable temporary wardrobe. Also, you will share a room with him, so that you can be immediately at hand if anything goes wrong in the middle of the night.”

“WHAT?” Harlan blurted out, “Don’t *I* have any say in this? You’re sticking me in a room with the bitch who damn near electrocuted me, and did THIS to me? What did _I_ do wrong?”

Carson looked at him nonplussed. “Well, this is a first,” she said when she recovered. “A healthy teenage boy refusing to share a room with a girl that he likes?”

“A girl who stabbed me in the back!” 

“Please, ‘Arlee, let me make it up to you!” Jenny pleaded.

“Sawyer, Etincelle is the most capable person that we can expend to being an on-call nurse for you.” Hartford said severely. “I appreciate your sentiments, but this is the most efficient use of space and manpower for the situation. You can’t stay at Emerson as you are, and we need the beds for students who are HURT! Deal with it!”

“Excuse me Madam,” Romy finally spoke up, “but are you moving HIM into our room at Dickinson?”

“No Miss Kumler, Sawyer has already suffered enough, and will suffer even more before the dust settles. I have no intention of dropping him into the middle of Dickinson that way.” Carson paused … “So, where DO we put you two?”

“Poe?” Hartford asked, over-casually.

“No… I don’t think so… After all, it’s supposed to be a temporary measure… Hawthorne would be both embarrassing and too expensive. Melville. Miss Hartford, contact the housemothers over at Melville, and tell them to arrange a girls’ room on the freshman floor. It’s late, so Sawyer will spend the night at the Infirmary. In the morning, they can move. Miss Vitesse, Miss Kumler, you will assist Miss Etincelle in moving her personal equipment. Your rooms at your current dorms will be held for you, on the pretext that this is temporary. Well! I think that that covers everything! That is, unless you have something that you’d like to add?” Carson shot a raised eyebrow at Hartford.

“What? Why would I have something to add?”

“What? No insistence that Sawyer be incarcerated at Hawthorne, or that Miss Etincelle be listed as an Ultra-Violent, and have to wear a marking bracelet? No demand that those three be summarily expelled and turned over to the Authorities for legal proceedings?”

Hartford shot Carson an unamused look.

“Excuse me, but there IS one more issue at hand,” Dr. Guitterez cut in. “When Mr. Sawyer was still hysterical, it took six baseline attendants and three ‘brick’ type students to subdue him. Before, Mr. Sawyer was on record as only being able to stretch about ten feet, while losing strength at full extension, and only being as strong as a moderately athletic 15-year-old boy without extension. Harlan, would you favor us with a quick demonstration? Pick up Holdout over there? No, don’t move, just stretch.”

“Well… okay… Darren?” Holdout nodded, and Harlan reached out a good 15 feet to where he was standing and set his hands under the other boy’s arms. At this range, Harlan’s arms should have been like limp spaghetti. Instead they were firm and unshaken. Harlan lifted, and it was like picking up a blow-up doll. Harlan hefted Darren up a good ten feet without straining, and then gently set him back on his feet. Harlan pulled his arms back in. Normally, it should have been like gathering in a rope, but this was simple, natural and reflexive. “Whoa…” Harlan grunted softly.

“Okay… I’m impressed…” Holdout said carefully.

Mon Dieu!” Jenny said awestruck, “My XSI worked!

“It seems that way,” Dr. Guitterez said. “By my estimation, Sawyer has the strength consistent with an Exemplar: 5 or 6, maybe 7 rating. We’ll have to do tests to determine what other aspects of the Exemplar state Sawyer may or may not have picked up in the process.”

Carson robbed her temples, as if she was getting a headache. “Before anyone says anything stupid, let me point out that Spark’s XSI dingus is a DEVISE! The fact that it worked on Sawyer the way that it did, means nothing! You were angry, right, Spark?”

Mai Oui.” Jenny said, not following Carson’s train of thought.

“An angry devisor can pull off almost anything, especially aimed at the target of her anger. But that doesn’t mean that it will do the same thing when used on someone in cold blood. Indeed, the potential for disaster here is mind-boggling! That thing is DANGEROUS! But, there are non-Exemplar students on campus who simply will NOT CARE! Miss Etincelle, you will go now, and I do mean NOW, directly to the Workshop and move ALL your Exemplar State Inducer prototypes, plans and notes from your secure bay to an Ultra-Secure isolation lab! You will do so with a full complement of security covering you. You will NOT remove any of those prototypes or plans from that Ultra-Secure lab. You will only do work on it under close supervision, at least until we have determined exactly what happened to Sawyer. In the mean time, the official line is that what happened to Sawyer is a fluke, and no live experimentation is to be done with students, no matter how vigorously they volunteer.”

Hartford cleared her throat. “Headmistress Carson, may I respectfully suggest that any student caught trying to ‘borrow’ any of the XSI prototypes or notes be summarily expelled?”

“For once, Amelia, we are in complete agreement,” Carson said with a voice of steel. She turned her gaze on Heartbreaker. “Miss Hilton, please pass along to the Masterminds- no, I don’t want to hear it!- and any other, ah, ‘interested parties’ that the XSI is strictly hands off. No excuses will be tolerated. If we catch anyone even giving that thing a long glance, it’s out the door! And if it does somehow go missing, yours will be the first door we break down, Heartbreaker!” Eve started to protest, but Carson cut her off. “Just get the word out!”

With that, the meeting was dismissed. Jenny tried to talk to Harlan, but he stalked off after Dr. Guitterez in the general direction of the Infirmary.

Wednesday, November 30th

The next morning, Harlan woke up in a hospital bed surrounded by an electric forest of diagnostic equipment, and had another- though far milder and nonviolent - panic attack. Nurse Lipton came in and helped him calm down. Once Harlan had a grip on himself (if that term still applied), Lipton brought in an infirmary breakfast. “We have the preliminary results of the tests that we did while you were cooling down last night. If you’re interested, you appear to be able to lift three and a half tons, which puts you about on a par with an Exemplar: 6. That’s without extension; at full extension, we’re guessing that you can lift somewhere between 700 and 1200 pounds. Your skin shows an interesting combination of the elastic give that you had before, and dermal hardness on a par with an Exemplar: 6. Right at the moment, dear, you are one tough SOB. Remember those ‘flash cards’ that we showed you last night?”

“How can you forget 16 variable algebraic equations shown to you for only 10 seconds?” Harlan asked wryly.

“Which you not only read, and remembered, but were able to calculate in your head after they were taken away. Which is also consistent with the Exemplar state.”

“Gee, and I was only getting ‘C’s in Algebra.”

“Don’t get too cocky, Harley-”


“Harlan. Remember, according to Spark, this is only temporary. You might want catch up on your reading, while the ‘Speed Reading’ effect is in place. There’s a good chance that you might actually remember it after the affect fades.”

“Thank you for reminding me,” Harlan said without irony.

“Knock, knock!” someone called cheerily from the ward door. “Goodwill calling!” Standing at the door were two seventeen- or so- year old girls in Whateley uniforms. One was taller, with blonde hair was in a shag haircut, while the other was darker in both skin and hair that fell to the small of her back, but both were absolutely gorgeous. Harlan immediately pegged them both as Exemplars. They were carrying some clothing. “Are you decent?”

Nurse Lipton called them in. The blonde gave Harlan a cheery smile. “Hi! My name’s Zoe. Code name’s Zenith. Mrs. Carson thought you could use a sort of ‘big sister’ to help you adjust.”

“Zenith …” that triggered a memory for Harlan. “Jenny said that she used your BIT for her engram imprint thing.”

“Yep! I guess that Carson figured that that somehow made you my business.” Zoe peered at Harlan closely. “Though I can’t say that I really see that much resemblance.”

The other girl looked from one to the other. “Oh, she’s not a perfect duplicate of you, Zoe. But there is a definite resemblance. Like a little sister, or close cousin or something like that. Well, maybe not that little- she’s the same height as you, but skinnier.”

“What? Hasn’t Mom been feeding you?” Zoe teased. “Oh, that’s Semi, she’s my best friend. Her code name’s ‘Sahar’.”

“Not ‘Sahara’,” Semi informed him, “but ‘Sahar’.”

“I thought that Mrs. Carson said that Jenny was gonna be looking after me,” Harlan said defensively. Had Jenny backed out on her promise to do anything that she could to get him back to normal somehow?

“Oh, she will!” Zoe assured him. “Y’see, like I said, I’m supposed to be more like a ‘big sister’ than a nurse. Right now, you’re hanging on by your fingernails, trying to keep from goin’ nuts. One of a guy’s worst nightmares just got dropped all over you. Not only have you just had the manhood that you only just really came into taken away from you, but got turned into a really cute girl. You’re freaked, but you’re keeping it under control. Good for you, Dude! But you don’t know how to handle the stuff like getting dressed and goin’ to the toilet, and I’m here to walk you through that. It will be weird, but together, we will get through it, don’t you worry. Besides, you’re gonna need some help getting your stuff from Emerson over to Melville, and believe me, when you get to Melville, you’re gonna need some backup!”

Harlan wasn’t sure about that, but decided to take it at face value. He decided to change the topic. “So, what are those?” 

Zenith held up a pair of blue jeans. “Clothes! Hey, your old duds won’t fit you- oh, yeah, you’re a stretcher. No, I still don’t think that trying to squeeze into your old vines would be that good an idea.”

“Wait!” An idea seized Harlan. “Like you said! I’m a stretcher! My stretching ability increased along with my strength! I should be able to mold myself back into a guy- or at least something that sort of looks like a guy!” Harlan spent the better part of ten minutes trying to twist and tie himself back into something that didn’t resemble a teen queen. But every time that he got anywhere, he found himself slipping back into what was apparently his ‘default’ form.

Harlan was about to try yet again, when Zoe laid a hand on his shoulder. “Okay, as your officially designated Big Sister, I think that that’s enough of that.”


“But nothing! You’ll just waste time and drive yourself nuts if you keep at it that way. The BIT splice will fade when it’s damned good and ready to! From the file that Carson showed me, if it hasn’t faded yet, then Spark must have been right about her ‘week or so’ estimate. Which means that you’re going to have to bite the bullet and take it like a man … or whatever. In the meantime, Carson’s given us a day off from classes to get you moved into Melville. But daylight’s wastin’, so get dressed and let’s go!”

Harlan looked mulishly at the clothes they were carrying. “How do you know that that will even fit me?”

“Are you kidding? They have your measurements down to the micrometer! Okay, it’s from the second hand pile, but believe me, this will FIT!”

As Zenith and Sahar guided Harlan thorough the intricacies of putting on a bra, Zenith assured him, “Don’t worry, I’m not throwing you in the deep end of the pool. No skirts, though you may have to wear one starting tomorrow. Of course, we won’t play the ‘hide in boy’s clothing’ game either. The trick is to come out and admit that you’re a girl, while wearing stuff that you’re comfortable with. Besides, as cold as it is out there, not that many girls are gonna be wearing a skirt anyway. You’ll notice that the school kinda looks the other way about girls wearing trousers with their uniforms between November and March.”

Harlan had to admit that the jeans and the turtleneck sweater really did fit like a glove. “Um, how about a jacket or something?”

“So you won’t feel like you’re waving ‘the girls’ around?” Zenith said with a smirk. “Sorry, but you’re going to have to get used to it. Besides, you’ll have to wear a heavy coat over that when we get outside, and wearing a jacket under that would be too hot. Okay Harley, run a comb through your hair, and let’s get going!”

“Harlan. Harley is a girl’s name.”

Zenith just grinned at him. “You have no intention of making this easy on me, do you?”

“I’m not gonna let you punk out, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Harley,” the other girl, Sahar, cut in, “it’s going to be a while, so you’re going to have to get comfortable. And you won’t get comfortable if you keep tying yourself up in knots. As you Americans say, ‘just go with the flow’.”

When Harlan when to the mirror, he had another nasty shock. While his brain knew that he was female, his gut hadn’t quite wrapped around that notion. It was still a shock. You’re supposed to see YOUR face in the mirror, not someone else’s. The face that he saw belonged to an action movie heroine, not him. It was a classic beauty’s face, just strong and regular enough to suggest power and courage. His eyes had been dark blue and regular size. The girl in the mirror had huge eyes that were like sapphires. Harlan had gotten used to seeing girls around campus who would have shamed the teen queens back at his local high schools; the girl in the mirror was a notch above them. She was on a level with Zenith or Majestic, or maybe that Fey girl in Poe who was such a big noise.

But Harlan’s real objection to the girl in the mirror wasn’t that she was a girl- but rather, that she wasn’t really HIM. That nagged at him for some reason.

As the three of them entered the door at Emerson, Harlan gave Ralph the traditional pat on the head for luck. Or, he would have, if Ralph had been there. “Damned Ninjas! Just because they can’t bag Poe’s bust …”

Then he noticed an unusual silence in the common room. It was morning, but they were in the sweet spot between breakfast and First Period. There should have been a bunch of guys pulling themselves together for classes, guys furiously putting finishing touches on homework, guys just hanging around. Harlan looked around. There were about a dozen guys hanging around the common room, doing whatever. Or, rather, they HAD been doing whatever. Now, they were all doing the same thing- looking at them that ‘deer in the headlights’ glazed stare.

“Hey guys!” Zenith said with a cheery grin. “Is Mrs. Tolliver here?”

As one of the boys scurried for the housemother, Zoe leaned over and whispered, “What’s their problem?”

“We don’t get a lot of cute girls here,” Harlan whispered back. “Guys usually go to their girlfriends’ cottages.”

The awkward silence was broken when Holdout came down the stairs, saw Harlan and blurted, “Harley! What are you doing here?”

“Harlan! And I LIVE here, remember?”

“You’re going to stay here … like THAT?”

‘HARLAN?’ went around the common room, and the boys’ eyes went even rounder.

“No, they’re moving me over to Melville for the duration. I’m just here to pick up my stuff, so no one rips it off while I’m gone.”

“Hey! Why would we do something like that?” one of the boys asked sharply.

“Because you CAN,” Harlan shot right back, just as sharply.

“It’s Harley, all right.”


Then Mrs. Tolliver, a lanky African-American woman entering her late 50s gracefully, with a crisp refined demeanor that balanced discipline and maternal care, walked up. “Well, Harlan!” she gave him an encouraging smile. “At least you turned out nicely. Scott, would you escort Harlan and … his … two … friends … to his room, and see to it that no one annoys them while they get his things?”

Scott ‘Thunderbird’ Emerson nodded. “Hey, Zenith. Let me guess- they assigned you to help Reach here adjust?” he said, as if he were privy to some inside information. Zoe nodded, and Scott gestured two of his friends, Rack and Tarmac to come with them.

Rack adjusted the length of his leg-struts as to be eye-to-eye with Harlan. “Word in the Workshop has it that Spark jumped you and turned you into this- what did you DO to her, to piss her off that bad?” Reach spelled it out for Rack as they climbed the stairs. “Okay, that sucks big time. But Hey! Look at the bright side! It’ll only last for a week, and who knows? Maybe some of the Exemplar part will stick!”

As they came out onto the First Year floor, Sahar muttered, “In the movies, there seems to be some sort of rule that when a girl enters a locker room or boys-only dorm, there has to be at least one chunky boy walking around in a towel…”

“You’ve been hanging out with Chaka too much …” Zenith muttered back.

There was an unpleasant moment with Harlan’s roommate, Renshaw Millard ‘Stimpy’ Egerton, a.k.a. ‘Glitch’. As they left the room with Harlan’s things, Zoe asked, “Is he ALWAYS that big a pain?”

“Rich boy. Never quite recovered from it.” Harlan gave a resigned sigh. “Oh well, at least now I can use my laptop in my room. Glitch’s power is that he overloads electronics. I can’t keep track of how many homework assignments that got deleted because Stimpy couldn’t be bothered to knock.”

“Well, maybe they’ll get you a better roommate when you come back.”

“Not a chance. No way anyone else is moving in with him, and once he gets used to having a single, there’ll be no living with him.”

T-Bird and his two buddies offered to help carry some of the stuff over to Melville. Harlan started to object, but Sahar stopped him. “Let them help … It lets the little dears feel useful…”

Actually, Tarmac turned out to be quite useful. He used his ‘tar’ manifestation to create an ‘escalator’ that carried both the boxes and them up O. Henry Hill, with Melville Cottage perched regally atop it. Harlan thought that Melville looked more like a luxury hotel than a high school dorm. Mister Forrest, one of the ‘housemothers’ at Melville, met them in the lobby. Forrest was an early fifty-ish man still in athletic trim with a hard face and steely eyes. He struck Harlan as the sort who probably wore a jacket and a tie during an August afternoon. Forrest approached Harlan cautiously. “So. Sawyer. I understand that you’ll be staying with us for a while.”


“They told me about you. So. Sawyer. How are you holding up?”

“Well sir, it was a little rocky at first, but I think that I’ll be able to make it.”

“Good man.” Forrest’s eyes flickered around to Holdout, Thunderbird, Rack and Tarmac. Then his eyes settled on Zenith. “And what are you doing here?”

Zenith smiled. “Just helping the little sister get settled. Oh, and I’ll be around a bit to check up on her from time to time.”

Forrest hmmm-ed. Then his eyes settled on Sahar, and he went wary. “Sahar,” he said with careful neutrality.

“Mister Forrest.”

There was a moment of strange tension between them, and then Forrest broke off to set about organizing the move. He sent Thunderbird, Rack and Tarmac up to the room with Harlan’s stuff. He told Harlan, Zenith and Sahar that Spark, ‘being both a young lady and a devisor’ had so much that needed moving that she needed assistance. The Grounds department would lend a truck, but they needed hands to handle the loading and unloading.

As they started down the steps of O. Henry Hill, Zenith said, “Y’know, Harley, this week could either be Heaven or Hell for you.”


“Harlan. Yep, it could be a little slice of Heaven, you and your girl sharing a room together, complete with the Headmistress’ seal of approval. Real sweet.”


“OR you could haul in that mad with along with the luggage, and all it will be is a nice cozy little HELL.”

“What are you talking about? Look at what she did to me!”

“Harl- Harlan, I’m not saying that you don’t have a reason to be pissed! Hell, you got reason and then some. I’m just saying, don’t dump it all on Genevieve.”

“What do you know about it?”

“Well, *I* know a good deal about it,” Sahar said from Zoe’s far side. “I live in Dickinson with Spark. She was boiling mad for three days, and then last night, she was all but tearing her eyeballs out with grief and remorse. Saying that she feels bad about what she did is an understatement of British Aristocratic proportions.”

Harlan stopped on the step and choked out, “But WHY would she even THINK that about me? I mean, what kind of CREEP does she think I am?” Anger, frustration, and despair burbled out, making Sawyer incomprehensible for a few minutes. When his mouth went back online, he yelled, “Dammit, WHY does this always happen to me? I mean, I try, and I try, and I KEEP trying, and it’s Never enough!” He snarled, and then choked, and then had to fight to keep back tears. “I mean, why can’t I ever be good enough for anybody?”

“Interesting…” Sahar said. “That’s almost exactly- except for the excursions into French- what Genevieve was saying a few days ago.”

“Reach,” Zenith said, “I hear that you pulled off a coup yesterday, before, y’know, the, ah, incident. You tracked down Belphegor’s hidden cache of stolen loot, right? You were feeling pretty damn good, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, and then she went and STABBED ME IN THE BACK!”

“And that is EXACTLY how Spark felt three days ago,” Sahar said serenely. “She was finally making contact with a cute boy who was actually interested in her and her work. Not only was he interested but also he was interested enough that he’d go out of his way to find something that had been stolen from her. She was floating on air because of you. But then her friend, Adalie, whom she has NO reason to mistrust or disbelieve, comes and tells her that it was all a LIE. That this wonderful boy who thought so much of her was a FRAUD who was using her, and would steal even more from her. She felt almost exactly the same rage that you felt.”

“Reach, Genevieve’s not just a girl,” Zenith pointed out. “She’s a FRENCH girl and on top of all of that, she’s a Devisor. Devisors get mad BIG. Harley, ol’ buddy,” Zoe laid a comradely hand on Harlan’s shoulder, “you should be thanking your guardian angel that she didn’t decide to change you into a RAT and sic the cat on you!”


“That’s not the point,” Zenith said. “I’m not saying that you did anything wrong. Heck, I’m not even saying that you don’t have a perfect right to be pissed off.” She leaned over. “But what I AM saying, is that just ‘cause you’re in the right now, doesn’t mean that you might not be in the wrong later.”


“Har-Harlan, do you know why Carson told me to help look after you?”

Harlan reeled from the non-sequitur. “Aaahhh … Because Jenny used your BIT when she changed me?”

“No, that just gave her the idea. I think that it’s because last year, I was in pretty much the same position that you’re in. Y’see, last year, Semi here and me was buds. Best buds. BUT she was playing me, and she made me look a fool.”

“What can I say?” Sahar asked. “I was an idiot.”

“Anyway, we had this BIG blowout, real nasty, and we spent the whole second part of last year snarling at each other. Even when Semi realized that she’d screwed up and tried to apologize, I was still so mad and hurt  that I kept kickin’ her in the teeth every time that she tried to talk to me. And that’s where *I* was in the wrong. I decided that being mad and not getting hurt again were more important than the fact that I still cared about Semi. Finally, it got so bad that a girl in my cottage had to practically drag us into the same room and twist my arm to get into a telepathic link with Semi.” Zoe draped an arm around Semi’s shoulder. “Smartest thing I ever did, letting myself get roped into that.”

Sahar gave Harlan an odd look. “Harley, what I did to Zoe last year was wrong. I won’t even try to defend what I did, now. But she forgave me, and our friendship has been stronger for that. I … I feel a need to be a better person, because she forgave me.” She paused. “What Genevieve did was wrong, I won’t argue that. All that I ask, is that you consider that she was just as angry and hurt then, as you are now.”

“But WHY would she even think that I’d try to use her like that?” Harlan asked, exasperated. 

“I think that her friends Adalie and Romy may have had a hand in that.”

“She didn’t have to listen to ‘em.”

“True. But there is something that I think that you should know about those three. Genevieve and Adalie are both French, and Romy is Dutch. They are Europeans, in an American school where most of the students are American, or Canadian, which is close enough.”

“So, you’re sayin’ that they’re Beret Mafia types? That they can’t stand Americans?”

“No, even by the standards of the Beret Mafia, they’re rather … standoffish. They seem to have formed one of those ‘misfit bonds’ that unattractive girls create to protect themselves from the scorn of more conventionally attractive girls. Of course, when they do, they all but paint targets on themselves.”

“Okay, I can see Romy doin’ that,” Harlan allowed. “She’s kinda a lump, and not just in her figure. But what about Charge and Jenny? I mean, Charge is a little skinny, but Jenny’s cute!”

Semi stifled a laugh. She stopped and gestured her hands over her absolutely lovely figure. Then she indicated Zoe, whose physical beauty outshone even her own charms. And then she gestured at Harlan’s current curvaceous physique. “True. But Harlan- this is Whateley! We have some of the most mind-numbing gorgeous teenagers in the world at this school! We have several girls here who have a legitimate claim to divine beauty! Miss Universe would feel inadequate here!”

Harlan thought this over as they trudged over to Dickinson Hill. Sahar let him think it over for a bit. Then she said, “My sources tell me that you’ve been trying to rush the Spy Kidz.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Have you been having any luck?”

“No,” Harlan droned.

“And yet, when you went to recover Genevieve’s whatever-it-was, you managed to accomplish a feat of detection that was far above anything that the Spy Kidz could throw at you? Why were you so competent for Genevieve, but not for Ace?”

“Well … I was doin’ it for Jenny …”

“And doing it for her gave you a real reason to be on top of things, right?” Zenith asked.


“Well, ask yourself this- even admitting that what Jenny did was absolutely wrong, and she shouldn’t have done it, and she shouldn’t have believed Charge or Migraine- is being mad at Jenny really WORTH giving up what you had going for you when you had her on your side?”

Harlan stopped at the bottom of the stairs up Dickinson Hill. He was obviously thinking it over. Zoe said, “Okay, you’re still angry, I get that. But, a word in yer ear- bein’ angry feels great, makes you feel big and strong and righteous- but it gets boring real fast. On the other hand, forgiving someone feels even better. And the good feeling lasts a lot longer. As I said before, your stay at Melville could be a slice of Heaven or Hell- and it’s YOUR call.” With that, they headed up the stairs to Dickinson Cottage.

Five minutes later, the Dickinson housemother, Mrs. Nelson, met them in the Dickinson lobby. Harlan found himself going ‘where no man had gone before’- above the ground floor of Dickinson cottage. ‘Gentleman callers’ were strictly prohibited beyond the lobby. At least, in theory. At a school where a good portion of the student body could fly, leap great distances in a single bound, teleport, be invisible, or pass thru walls, the most effective thing keeping the boys out, was the girls.

By this time, most of the girls were already out of the cottage, but Harlan couldn’t shake the feeling that those girls who were still in were either giving him the evil eye- or worse, laughing at him. That impression wasn’t exactly helped when he saw the amount of stuff that they had to move. “How did you get all of this stuff IN there, in the first place?”

“Most of it is padding and protective casing. This is precision instrumentation,” Jenny said primly.

“Why do you need to have all this stuff in your room? Doesn’t this belong in the workshop?”

“You, sir, or miss, or whatever, have NO appreciation for the close, intimate bond between a Scientist and her instrumentation,” Romy said with more vinegar than she normally showed.

Adalie glowered at Harlan as if all of this was his fault. "If I hear that you’ve taken advantage of this miserable farce to take advantage of Genevieve …”

“What with?”

“I’m sure that you’ll apply that famous ‘Yankee Ingenuity’ to the problem.”

“A ‘problem’ that only exists because YOU made a whole raft of snap decisions about me that say a lot more about YOU than they do about me!” Harlan snapped back.

“Ooo … Nice one!” Zenith murmured. “You may just have a knack for being a girl.”

Charge snarled at Zenith, “If anything happens to Genevieve because of this, I’ll-”

Sahar stepped forward, her face stoically grim. There was a sense of something between the two girls, and Adalie stopped dead in her tracks. “NO. You won’t. Harley is right. You were the primary driver behind this ‘miserable farce’ as you put it. You have absolutely no moral weight to throw around in this.”

“ ‘Moral weight’?” Adalie sneered, “You hypocrite! You-”

“I am someone who has vast experience in situations like this,” Sahar continued serenely. “Foisting the blame off on others only makes it worse. Trying to paint yourself as the wounded party or the outraged voice of morality, only makes you ridiculous, Adalie. Accept your portion of the blame for this, and get on with your life.”

“As you did?”

“As I am, even now.” Adalie opened her mouth, but Sahar beat her to the punch. “Someone who runs as quickly as you do can ill afford to be tripping over her own feet, No?”

Charge shut her mouth with a snap and marched out of the room, furious. Jenny asked Romy to see after Adalie to see that she didn’t do anything foolish. Then the four of them toted the carrying packets down the stairs to the waiting truck. The short ride over to Melville was strained, even with Zenith and Sahar trying to lighten things up.

The tension continued when they got to Melville. T-Bird and his two buddies picked up on it. After getting all the gear onto the cargo elevator, they pled having to get to classes and bid a hasty adieu. “Cowards,” Zenith muttered under her breath as they escaped. Even so, after hooking up the extra-strong power line that Spark would need for some of her equipment, they also cited a need to get to classes, leaving Harlan and Jenny alone together.

Jenny had cobbled together a small but effective MRI scanner and sat Harlan down under the cowl to get a first reading. Looking at the initial results, Jenny said, “You’re angry.” It wasn’t clear whether she was citing the readout, or just stating the bloody obvious.

“Of COURSE, I’m angry!” Harlan snapped. “I mean, how COULD You?”

“I’m SORRY!” Jenny sobbed back, “I- I- I just wanted to hurt you, to let you know how much you hurt me!”

“But I didn’t!”

“I KNOW!” she wailed. “ ‘Arley, I, I …”

“Dammit, Jenny HOW could you think that I’d DO something like that to you? I mean, THIS …” he gestured at his body, “This is bad enough, but … but to think that I’d go through all that, just to rip you off?”

“ ‘Arley…” Jenny choked, “I … I was- J'étais juste si heureux que vous m'avez aimé! I was just so happy that you liked me!”


“I was just afraid! Pourquoi quelqu'un comme un crétin comme moi? Why would anyone like a … what’s the word? Nerd! Why would anyone like a nerd like me? Especially a cute boy such as you?”

“Nerd? Jenny-honey, you’re not a nerd!”

Oh, oui je suis un crétin! I AM a nerd!” Jenny was already misting up, and rapidly approaching open tears. “And I’m FAT, and UGLY, and I have to wear- Je dois porter ces verres vilains stupides- these stupid, ugly glasses! Why would anyone want a fat ugly nerd who has to wear ces verres vilains stupides, and N'est pas tout se refroidit et dans le vent et joli, and bores everyone by rattling on and on about high energy wave interference and material ionic refraction, and-”

Jenny was in open tears. Harlan hated it when girls cried. She looked so miserable and lonely and cute. Channeling far too many old Hollywood romantic comedy movies, Harlan stood up, took Jenny in his arms, pulled her face to his and kissed her. Jenny squeaked with surprise, then snarled with outrage, then squeaked again with another sort of surprise, and then sighed and cooed, all without ever prying her lips from Harlan’s.

Score one for Hollywood.

After a bit, their lips finally parted, and Jenny cooed, “Oh, c'était doux.”

“May I take that to mean that you liked it?”

Mais Oui!” she sparkled back. Then she looked up at Harley with big pleading eyes behind her glasses. “Does this mean that you forgive me?” she bit her lip.

Harlan sighed deeply. Hey, at the very least, he finally got to kiss Jenny! “Of course, I forgive you! How can I stay angry at that cute little face?” Jenny cooed again. “I’m just sorry that we had to finally get here while I’m like this.”

“Oh, I don’t think that that’s going to be a problem,” Jenny purred as she gently pushed Harlan back onto the bed and sat in his lap. She settled in and offered her lips for kissing. Not being a complete blockhead, Harlan accepted the offer with gusto.

After a bit, Harlan broke the kiss. “Ah, before we get completely carried away, I think that we can safely assume that the Melville housemothers are all too aware that we might get up to something. Maybe not this soon, but they’re going to keep their eyes on us. So, we gotta play it cool, or we’re both in even more trouble.”

“So … no more kissing?” Jenny asked in a desolate little girl voice.

Harlan leaned over and kissed her again. “Don’t be silly. We just have to keep a rein on it. Kissing, but it doesn’t go any further.”

Jenny relaxed a bit. “Good. Besides, I don’t think that I’m really ready for … going further, as you put it. And I don’t think that I could deny you anything, ‘Arlee. So, I will trust to your self-control.”

Good Lord, how many boys would take that as an open invite to go for home base?’ Harlan thought to himself. But he was pretty sure that Jenny really wasn’t ready to go any further. She didn’t strike him as the type to be coy about getting really physical. He let out an aggrieved sigh. “In that case, I think that a break right about now is called for. Tell you what- I haven’t had a real shower since I got shocked, and I’m a little tacky. I’ll go take a shower, and you get started on the rest of this stuff. By the time that I get back, maybe I’ll have that self-control that you’re putting so much stake in.”

Harlan dug out his bathrobe, towel and soap, and headed for the showers. But Melville was laid out differently than Emerson (for obvious reasons), and he wound up asking a boy he saw in the halls where the showers were. The boy pointed far down the hall past the stairwell and said, “Over there, in Chick Country!”

Harlan opened his mouth to protest, and realized, ’Oh. Right. Chick. Check.’

Stepping into the girls’ shower was like one of those anime moments, where the hero steps through a door or screen from a normal realistic setting into one of rampant fantasy. Harlan knew that they paid more attention to women’s bathrooms than men’s, both in construction and maintenance, but this was ridiculous! The girls’ shower was a marvel in light pink tile. Instead of the slight funk of mildew that is in every men’s shower, there was a mild floral fragrance. Along the wall were those triplex mirrors that you see in actresses’ dressing rooms. The shower stalls were large, and the glass door had an Art Nouveau design etched in it. There were three long gooseneck showerheads in each stall, with those adjustable heads that pulsed water and stuff. The shower mat somehow managed to be both stable and comfortable under his feet. Somehow the water coming out of the shower managed to be an almost perfect 98.6 degrees with an option to warm or cool.

Between the elaborate showers and the … interesting … experience of soaping up, Harlan thought that he could get USED to this.

After Second Period, Don Sebastiano was waylaid by his partner in crime, Hekate. “Sebastiano, we need to talk. Alone.”

Sebastiano dismissed Cavalier and Aries and went off to talk with Hekate in a secluded nook. “Well?”

“Have you heard about the two newest freshmen in Melville?”

That puzzled The Don for a second, before he made the connection. “Ah, you mean the girl devisor and the boy that she turned into a girl in a fit of jealousy? The ones that our esteemed headmistress made the inspired decision to make share a room in our hallowed home? Yes,” he purred. “I heard that Heartbreaker is spreading the news far and wide. You have your first little joke already planned?”

Hekate shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry, Sebastiano, but No.”

“No? Really, Kallista, I’m shocked! I’d think that you-”

Hekate cut him off. “I mean that I’ve heard from our patron, and he says ‘No’. In no uncertain terms.”

“What? Why? What interest could he have in those two?”

“In them personally? None, I think. But as I understand it, he has a decided interest in the Workshop. And, unfortunately, at the moment, so do Carson and Security. Carson’s taking this little fiasco quite seriously, and Security is taking the heat for it. As a result, our patron has had to shut down a few very sensitive projects that he needs to keep under wraps. He finds this … inconvenient. He would find it even more inconvenient if Security found traces of those projects, or other contraband aspects of his that are housed in the Workshop. He had to change several of his favored secret entrances when that ass Belphegor all but gave Holdout and his study group a guided tour of his caches, and that moron Vipra tore up that secret entrance. All those things have put a crimp on his very tight schedule.

“Also, there’s the annoying fact that the girl claims that someone tampered with her little trap. That means that there’s someone that we don’t know about who has access to the Secure Bays. Our patron wants to know who he is, how he got in, and if this mysterious intruder has other … assets … that we might be interested in.”

“And what does this have to do with pranking the gender-bender and the lady mad scientist?”

“Heartbreaker says that Carson put the boy on it personally. My sources tell me that he’s the sort who lacks the good sense to stop sniffing around until he finds what he’s after. So, the sooner that this junior bloodhound finds the man he’s looking for- or, more likely, Security does- the sooner that Security can go back to sleep, things go back to normal, and our patron can get back on schedule. If anyone pranks either the boy-girl, Reach, or Spark, the girl gadgeteer, Security will have to check it out on general principles. Which will waste time that our patron doesn’t want wasted.”

Don Sebastiano looked like he’d drunk some sour milk, but couldn’t spit out. “But it’s a golden opportunity! Something like this only comes along once in a blue moon!”

“I know, Sebastiano,” Hekate cooed consolingly. “But what’s one little prank, against what our patron has planned?”

“I don’t know- what does he have planned? I know about the Avatar scam, but I know that there’s more to it than that!”

“There, there, Sebastiano. Isn’t the Avatar scam big enough for you? All that I know, is that it’s big. And we want to be in on it.”

Sebastiano scowled. “Okay, okay… but how do I sell the Alphas on laying off that bicha?”

“Well, you’re the one who’s always mouthing off about what a wizard he is at spin control and manufacturing consent. Take it as a challenge.”

When Harlan got back to their room, Jenny was busy at work hunched over some project, her goggles covering her eyes, happily humming away. He looked around and saw Jenny had only begun to open things and put them away. “Ah, Jenny? Aren’t you going to finish putting your clothes away?” But Jenny didn’t seem to hear him, and kept happily humming as she used a Bunsen burner to bend a piece of metal. Oh well- he knew a few gadgeteers and devisors at Emerson, like Rack and Stalwart. One of the first things that you learn around guys like that is, 'Don’t interrupt the genius while s/he’s creating’.

Harlan changed back into his clothing, using a closet door as a screen, just in case. He’d just have to leave the room when Jenny was changing. Of course, all that he had to wear were the clothes that Zoe and Semi had brought him, so he had to climb into worn clothing. As a boy, he’d done that often enough, but for some reason, it wasn’t as easy now. He’d have to go to the Discard room and get some more. Of course, Jenny would never forgive him if he went without asking her along. Besides, she knew more about sizes and stuff like that than he did. But that meant waiting until she snapped out of her gadeteering-trance.

Harlan spent the time putting his stuff where he could get at it, while not unpacking everything- they were only going to be there for a few days, after all. He left the technical equipment well alone. His dad always got pissed if Harlan ever touched his tools or other stuff in the garage. After a bit, Harlan just sat down and waited. His eyes finally drifted on one of the few things that Jenny had actually managed to get completely unpacked before inspiration struck. It was a poster that she’d tacked up above her bed. It was a sepia-tone print of a cute blonde girl with glasses in a rather Victorian-esque green tweed (?) dress resting an oversized wrench on her shoulder as she stood proudly in front of an array of over-elaborate retro-tech equipment. To the right of the girl was a large rather improbable-looking zeppelin. In ornate script was the legend ‘Girl Genius’ ®. It struck him that the girl on the poster sort of looked like Jenny. Well, maybe in five or six years maybe. Or, at least, how she probably wanted to look in five or six years. He wondered what the poster was all about.

Suddenly, Jenny finished annealing a bronze-tone finish to what she was working on, she pulled her goggles back up to her hair, and she cried, “C’est Fini!

“Does that mean that you’re finished?”

“Oh! ‘Arlee! You’re back! I was hoping that I’d be done by the time that you finished your shower.”

“I, ah, finished that about an hour ago.”

Jenny ducked her head, and gave a wide embarrassed grin. “Sorry. I lost track of time. I do that a lot.”

“So, what were you working on?”

“Ah!” Jenny beamed, back on safe territory. “While you were in the shower, I had la grande inspiration! Why should we break up our day, coming either here or the Workshop to scan you, when we could scan you, ah, twenty-four/seven, as they say?” She held up a bronze-tone visor that uncomfortably resembled the one that Cyclops© of the X-Men™ wears. “As you wear this, it scans your mind and relays the data by a cell-phone link here and to the Workshop. Also-” In true tech-head fashion, Jenny had loaded down the visor with every doohickey that could possibly be of any use, including a digital camera and recorder, UV and IR optics, a MP3 player, a GPS/Map system, AR overlays and a communications link.

Harlan could see that this was part of Jenny trying to make up to him. He took the visor and slipped it on. It was reasonably comfortable. Still, “I feel like Cap’n Picard’s gonna tell me to take the ship to Warp Seven.” Jenny took the joke in good spirits. Harlan asked her for a little help in finding appropriate clothes from the discard bin, which Jenny jumped on. “But before we go- what’s THAT about?” he pointed at the ‘Girl Genius’ poster.

On the way over, Jenny explained that ‘Girl Genius’ was her favorite web-comic. She described an oddball pseudo-19th Century world of ‘Steam Punk’, ruled by mad scientists who created strange devises and creatures with absolutely no regard for long-term consequences. “Sounds like a world where the only Super-types are Devisors,” Harlan said.

D’accord! And that is why I chose my code name,” Jenny replied.

“Come again?”

“Well, the ‘devisors’ of that world are referred to as ‘Sparks’. They have the ‘spark’ of genius, so they are sparks; I have that self-same ‘spark’, so *I* am Spark!”

“Okay… I can see that…” Harlan agreed. “Of course, I think that it might have sum’thin’ t’do with the fact that you look a lot like that ‘Agatha’ girl.”

“Really?” Jenny squeaked delightedly, “You really think so?”

“Well, you’re both blonde, cute, got great bodies-” Jenny squealed, “-and you both wear those goggles.” Jenny walked the rest of the way a solid inch off the ground.

“I am NOT wearing this,” Harlan said, holding up a sort of ‘Swiss miss’ dress with a short pleated skirt, a frilly blouse and petticoats.

“But it would fit you perfectly!” Jenny insisted. “And it would look so kyewwt!

“I thought that you uber-brain types played with test tubes and motherboards instead of Barbie© dolls.”

After bickering over Harlan’s wardrobe for the next week (or how ever long), they spent what was left of the morning getting Jenny’s home equipment set up. Or, at least Jenny did most of the fine connection work, only asking Harlan to help with the heavy lifting, which suited him just fine. Harlan spent the time checking out the ‘Girl Genius’ web comic that Jenny was so amped about. Instead of being the grim, non-linear, incomprehensible, faux-existentialist ‘Metal Hurlant’ European tripe that he was dreading, it turned out to actually be a very fun comedy/ adventure strip by a guy named Phil Foglio. The best description of it that came to him was ‘a Marx Brothers comedy scripted by Jules Verne and H. G. Welles during a beer bust’. “So, when are you gonna create a talking cat?” he teased.

“What? And get cat hair in all the equipment?”

“Okay, then how about one of those trilobite broaches?”

“Tempting, but every Madgirl needs her own cote d’armes, and I’ve been too busy to sit down and design one.”

Finally, they noticed that it was getting on towards lunchtime. “We’d better get to the cafeteria early,” Jenny insisted.

“Why? You know something about today’s menu?”

“I was thinking that it wouldn’t be a very good idea for us to enter while there is a crowd. Someone would feel obligated to make nasty remarks, and once it starts-”

“Yeah, I know, I know. Farrago and his crew still haven’t lived down that ‘Watusi’ thing.”

When they got to the cafeteria, the main rush hadn’t started yet, and they were able to get to the food counter while there was still a full selection. The locusts hadn’t swept by yet.  Jenny paused and carefully considered her selection, paying attention to the taste, presentation and nutritional values of the choices. Harlan piled his tray up high with stuff that he knew was food. “ ‘Arlee! Are you really going to EAT all that?”

“Well, sure, honey! I’m still a growing boy!” Harlan paused. “I hope.”

Jenny was encouraging Harley to eat more slowly and savor the food, praising the skill (and patience) of the Whateley cooks to the skies, when two boys of roughly the same age walked up. “Wow, Harley,” said the tow-headed boy with a smirk, “sounds like she’s already got you P*whipped but GOOD!”

“Hello, Tom,” Harlan said sourly. “And my name is Harlan. You KNOW that.  Jenny, this is Tom Leszczynski and Marcello Baldinato, from Emerson. Their code names are Gauntlet and Cagliostro, respectively. So, what do you two clowns want?”

“What? Can’t we check in with an old buddy, see how sh- HE’S doing?”

“Well, as you can see, I’m doing just fine, so-”

“But you’re not doing just fine,” the other boy, ‘Cagliostro’ said in the silky Italian version of the classic hypnotist’s drone as he tried to hold Harlan’s gaze with his own. “You’re hurt and confused, and you need guidance-”

“Y’know Cags,” Harlan interrupted him, “you keep trying that hypnotism thing, and it ain’t worked yet. Which is a DAMN good thing for you, ‘cause if it ever DID, the Psychic Arts department would come down on you like a ton of bricks! Now, I haven’t studied the Whateley Canon of Psychic Ethics, but there is no way that they let going around puttin’ the whammy on people slide!” He started suggestively tapping his balled fist into the palm of his other hand. “Now, why don’t you just go and get some of that good food, and let us eat in peace now, hunh?”

“Or what?” Gauntlet held up his fist, which was suddenly covered in a matte black metallic ‘mechanical’ glove that reached down to his elbow. The ‘glove’ arced suggestively with power. “You gonna start something, right here in the cafeteria? When all we was doin’ was bein’ friendly?”

Harlan was hastily trying to figure out what to do without losing face, while not stepping into Gauntlet’s trap and starting the fight, when a large taloned hand came from behind Gauntlet and wrapped around the ‘glove’. “Naughty, naughty,” said a feminine voice. The talon closed and crushed the ‘glove’, but somehow did it without crushing Gauntlet’s actual hand. The talon opened again, and the manifested material escaped in a puff of smoke.

Gauntlet and Cagliostro spun around to face a phalanx of seven quite un-amused looking 14- to 15-year old girls, led by a skinny girl who looked to be about 16 or so. She looked relatively normal, except for her large golden eyes, and the tufted white hair that was dyed red in places, especially the two horn-like forelocks. But what really set her apart was that her right hand, which, though normal up to the forearm, was a large taloned claw. The white-haired girl looked severely at Gauntlet and simply said, “Scram.”

“Now, now,” Cagliostro said soothingly, “Bellisima, is that-”

Je vous ai dit de ficher le camp, vous lissant l'idiot. Recevez maintenant l'enfer de ma voie avant que j'arrache vos tripes et les saute comme une corde!” she snapped in perfect French, which was close enough to Italian for Marcello to get the idea. Her backup snarled at them in unison. Gauntlet and Cagliostro took the hint, and found another table.

The girls arranged themselves around Harlan and Jenny around the lunch table. “HI!” the lead girl said brightly with an innocent grin. Still, the tone of her voice carried the message that this conversation would only remain pleasant as long as she was in charge. “I’m Jadis. The handle’s She-Beast, I’m up on the Sophomore floor. That’s Geri, Vickie, Melanie, Emma, Brittany, and Christina. They’re on the Freshman floor. You two are the new girls on the floor, right?”

Harlan spared Jenny a look, and she was frozen with terror. “Ah, yeah,” he said, picking up that there was some serious power mongering going down, but not getting the particulars. “Yeah, we are. Sort of. But don’t worry, we’ll only be in Melville for a week or two.”

Jadis nodded. “Yeah, so we heard. She sorta did the gender-bend on you for cheating on her. Good for you, Honey!” Harlan started to correct her, but Jadis bulldozed over him. “And that’s sort of our problem.” She managed to convey that the problem was the Melville girls’, but they were more than happy to dump it in Jenny and Harlan’s laps. “Have you had a chance to take a shower yet?”

Jenny started to ask what that had to do with anything, but Harlan sturdily said, “Yes”, immediately getting what Jadis was about.

“Excellent,” Jadis purred.

Quoi?” Jenny blurted out.

Jadis turned her regard on Jenny. “Spark- your handle IS ‘Spark’, right?- contrary to popular opinion Melville does NOT have a maintenance budget that is ten times that of all the other cottages combined. It’s just newer and better designed. However, there IS one thing about the old place that is pretty standard- the plumbing. That was until Hydroflux came along. Hydroflux is a Junior now, and she’s a devisor specializing in hydrodynamics. Anyway, two years ago, she had this plan for a dingus that simultaneously heats, pressurizes and removes harsh minerals from tap water. She installed it in the Freshman girls’ shower, and well, the rest is history. She found her calling. She is to plumbing, what Michelangelo was to painting ceilings. Once she got started, there was no stopping her. Like anyone tried. She completely re-did the Freshman showers, leaving them as the work of art that they are now. Since then, she’s renovated each girls’ shower on the floor that she was moved onto. I’ve personally donated 15 thousand dollars to her efforts, and I think that it’s worth every penny. The Freshman girls’ showers are merely excellent. The Sophomore girls’ showers are inspired. And the Junior girls’? ‘Pushing the envelope’ doesn’t even BEGIN to cover what she’s doing up there! The mind boggles what the Senior’s showers will be like when she gets done with them!”

Jenny blinked. “I hadn’t heard a single thing about any of this!”

Jadis raised a finger. “Exactly. And now, you put your finger on the very pulse of our problem. Nobody but the Melville housemothers and girls knows about those showers. Not the boys, not the Administration, and most definitely NOT any of the kids in any of the other cottages! And that’s a GOOD thing!”


Jadis leaned over, a gleam in her eyes. “Because, the first thing that happens when people hear about something like that, is they want in on it. Transfer requests to Melville will skyrocket. The boys will try to crash the showers. And if they can’t crash them, they’ll just break them to be nasty. Girls in the other cottages will whine at the Administration that THEY want cutting edge, resort-quality showers too! And the Administration, in order to stop all the whining, will simply tell the housemothers to strip out all of Hydroflux’s hard work- work? ART!- and go back having us take-” Jadis shuddered, “-NORMAL showers!” The Melville girls all winced in revulsion. Jadis muttered, “They’d probably move all the shower stuff into their own digs.”

“Well,” Harlan said weakly, “we’ll only be here for a week; two, tops!”

Annnddd … THAT’S precisely what our problem is, sweetie.” Jadis fixed them both with cold gold eyes. “Now, we can be reasonably sure that you two aren’t going to go spill the beans to the boys. Hey, why would you? BUT, what’s to keep you from running off at the mouth, once you’re safely at Dickinson and Emerson, hhmmm??”

“It’s that important to you?” Jenny asked, puzzled.

“They’re what showers should be like.”

Comment tres Americain.”

Harlan looked Jadis back right in the eye. “Y’know, I sorta have a hard time believin’ that you just came over here expectin’ us to come up with somethin’ that you’d take as proof a’ goodwill.”

“Yew got thet raht, Ellie Mae! Or, Jethro. Or whatever…” Jadis produced a sheet of raw rice paper written on with red ink. “I just happen to have right here in my possession, a contract between us that will ensure that you both will keep the little matter of the Melville girls’ showers between us.”

Harlan picked up the paper and looked at it. “’Arley …” Jenny said in a timid little voice, “Don’t sign that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a deal with the devil. Her. Her name is Jadis. The only girl with that name at Whateley is Jadis Diabolik. She’s the daughter of Dr. Diabolik, the supervillain.”

“Oh?” Jadis quirked an eyebrow. “You’ve heard of me?”

“I’ve heard about you around the Workshop.”

“Then you’ve probably heard that I pride myself on square dealing.”

“I’ve heard that you have a habit of beating up devisors who try to outdo your little brother, Techno-Devil.”

“Only that yutz, Belphegor, when he rips Malachai off. And I’m proud of that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Harlan cut in, before it could get nasty. “I’m not signing this. First of all, I have no intention of spilling your little secret. Second, there’s no way for you to make this contract stick, even if I did sign it.”

“Oh, yes there is,” Jadis said with a predatory non-smile.

“How about this?” Harlan offered. “We take this to Mr. Forrest. He already knows about this, right? So we show Mr. Forrest this contract. If it’s on the up and up, then we’ll sign it when we leave Melville. And, in the meantime, you all do something for us.”

“Which is?” Jadis asked cautiously.

“Well, Melville has a reputation for being Dirty Trick Central. Even as we speak, I’ll bet the Alphas over there,” Harlan pointed over to where the Alphas were clustering together for lunch, “are hatching up some stupid thing to make Jenny and me miserable. You keep them off our backs, and we’ll keep mum about yer showers.”

Jadis looked at the Melville girls and they silently discussed it with shared glances. When they made up their minds, Jadis said, “Okay, sounds like a deal. But you watch yourself, Stretcho- if you don’t keep this deal, we have ways of making your lives miserable, even when you’re back in your own cottages!”

The Alpha Inner Circle was already hard at work planning the big prank when Don Sebastiano and Hekate got to the Alpha table. “No, no, no,” Aries was saying. “FORCING her to do anything just doesn’t cut it. What you gotta do is arrange it so that she gets out on the ledge in the buff by herself!”

The Don made a rude noise as he sat down. “Oh, Please! What IS this, Third Grade?”

“You have a problem with it, Don?”

“Problem? A- it’s too easy, B-it’s too obvious, C- it goes too far, and D- it’s just plain lame!

“How can something go too far AND be lame?”

Sebastiano gave out a martyred sigh and spelled it out for them. “First, it’s too easy. The girl he was trying to impress just made a fool of the poor pendejo. Worse than a fool, she made him into a girl! He’s wide open! It’s like taking away a baby’s bottle! You could, but why bother? Second, it’s too obvious. I mean, people, he’s in MELVILLE! Everybody’s expecting us to make the schmo feel bad. AND, Forrest and Carson are expecting it. A good prank is one that nobody sees coming. Everyone sees this one coming. Third, the ‘Spark’ chick just hit him where every man is vulnerable. She took away his Manhood. That's ...  too far, just too damn far. How can you not feel for the poor loser? Anything on top of that would be simply unacceptable. Period. And last, like I just said, she took away his manhood! How do you top that? Anything that you could DO to him, would just be punking out. Remember what Freya always said, ‘a joke is a joke, until it goes too far, and then it’s just pathetic’. Give Freya her due, she could be a bitch at times, but she knew when to draw the line.”

“So… we’re leaving this doink alone?” Bogus asked in tones of confusion.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” Sebastiano said, “Of COURSE we prank him! We just wait until the timing’s right, that’s all. We wait until the madgirl’s whatever-it-was wears off and he’s a real guy again, he’s found out who it was that sent her prank toxic, and he’s nice and safe back in Emerson. While he’s here, he’s on his guard. But, back at good ol’ Emerson, in his own bed? So, the next morning he wakes up- *BAM!*- in a four-poster canopy bed with a room full of plushies, wearing a frilly pink nightgown, with a blonde sausage-curl wig, and NO IDEA of how he got there!” The Don finished framing the idea with his hands, a grin of vicious humor across his face.

“What do you think those Alphas were laughing at?” Jenny asked.

“Us,” Harlan said with flat certainty. Jenny quavered a bit, and Harlan assured her, “It’s not your fault. They’re Alphas, it’s like throwing a gutted fish to the sharks.”

Jenny let out a whimper of renewed guilt, and Harlan comforted her with an arm across her shoulder. “Finish up and let’s get out of here.” Harlan told her.

D’accord,” Jenny agreed. “We need to finish moving the rest of my things from my old bay down to the Ultra-Secure bay that they’ve assigned me.”

“I thought you did that last night.”

Non, just the XSI and notes. Like most devisors, I tend to work on several projects at once, as the inspiration strikes me.”

As they left the Crystal Dome in the general direction of Kane Hall, they headed through one of the outside groupings of tables that kids often use for lunch or hanging out during warmer weather. As it was late November, while the snow hadn’t started-yet-, it was still damn cold out. Most of the tables were empty, but there were five boys clustered together, despite the cold.

Jenny took Harlan’s hand in hers and there was one of those special quiet moments where words are not only unnecessary but unwelcome.

Alas, unwelcome things, words or otherwise, DO have a tendency to force themselves on you. “HEY! Hey, FAGGOT!”

‘Oh Shit, it’s starting already,’ Harlan thought to himself. But to stop would only be tacitly admitting something, so he looked straight ahead and kept walking, squeezing Jenny’s hand so that she wouldn’t do anything like stopping and trying to talk sense to that asshat. Rational discussions don’t start off with ‘Hey, Faggot’.

They continued on, despite a couple more catcalls. Then someone threw a soda can that hit Harlan on the shoulder. It was empty, but they threw it with enough force that if Harlan hadn’t had the Stretcher’s innate resistance to physical damage, it would have probably broken his shoulder blade. Harlan stopped. Outnumbered or not, a man does NOT put up with that crap. Especially when the next thing they threw might hit Jenny. Harlan turned, and said in his best ‘Kentucky down-home boy getting ready to scrap’ tone, “You clowns got some kinda PROBLEM or somethin’?”

Three of the five boys got up from the table, threw their shoulders back, and strutted over. Harlan immediately pegged them as a classic ‘bullying trio’: a Brute, a Wiseass and a Psycho. One of them was your basic ‘send to Central Casting’ Brick, several inches over Six Feet tall, thick build, massive chest even under the Chicago Bears parka that he was wearing, with chin that looked like you could have used it for an anvil. He stood a little back from the other two, not so much distancing himself from them as letting them take the lead. It didn’t take much to peg him as the Brute of the trio. Taking the lead was a guy who wasn’t quite as tall as the Brick, maybe Five-ten or so, and he was long and lanky. He had the dancing eyes and smug grin of a cocky jerk. Definitely, he was the Wiseass. He’d do most of the talking. And the third one could have been a textbook picture of the hair-trigger tempered rageaholic Psycho: short with fair hair trimmed into a buzz-cut, and eyes that already glittered with barely suppressed anger. He’d gotten picked on a lot when he was younger, and now he was spreading the grief around in revenge.

“Yeah,” the Wiseass sneered, “We got a problem with sissyboys who go around dressed up like girls. What, we mutants ain’t got enough shit as it is, we gotta-”

“I am not ‘dressed up’ like a girl,” Harlan droned a pro forma explanation, “I happen to be physically female-”

“BULL SHIT!” Wiseass shouted over Harlan’s reply. “You are just some shit-eating little FAG, mincing around with yer sissy-ass little Dyke girlfriend here-”

“HOW can I be a fag, if I have a girlfriend? And how can she be a dyke, if your entire objection to me is that I’m a guy?”

“SHUT UP!” Wiseass yelled, “The thing is, we ain’t gonna put up with you prancing around here, trolling for cocks to suck!”

“Yeah!” the little nutcase finally popped, “There is NO WAY that I am letting a fucking little PANSY like you go down on me!”

“Jeez,” Harlan drawled, “You guys must really be hard up! Why don’t you just go back to your dorm and do each other? Keep it simple, hunh?

The little lunatic screamed and opened his mouth wide. He channeled all of his inarticulate rage and balled it up into a wad of plasma that shot out his mouth like a cannon. Harlan dodged out of the way of the plasma-bolt by stretching way up, so that the charge passed between his legs. “Get ‘er, Truck!” yelled the Wiseass.

‘Truck’ grabbed Harlan by one of the legs and tried to yank him down. Harlan shifted the weight to his other leg, lifted Truck off the ground with his first leg, and smashed him into the ground with a whipping motion.

Jenny reached into her overcoat, but Wiseass jeered, “Nah-ah-ah! Naughty, naught! Let’s see what you got in there…” The personal force field generator that Jenny (like most devisors) carried around came floating out of her jacket. “Ooohh… A Pee-Eff-Gee! I’ve always wanted one’a those…”

Jenny tried to snatch the CD player sized PFG out of the air, but she couldn’t get a hold of it. Just as it was about to waft into the Wiseass’ hand, another hand came shooting out of left field. The Wiseass must have already had some manner of force field up, because Harlan’s punch packed enough power to shatter a cinderblock and Wiseass was merely stunned. Still, it gave Jenny her chance to get her PFG back and turn it on. An egg-shaped dome formed over her, keeping her safe.

“Tee-Kay!” ‘Truck’ yelled, “I’ll MASH you for that, Faggot!”

“Oh? He was your boyfriend?” Reach said glibly as he deftly evaded Truck’s roundhouse punch. “I had no idea.” <dodge!> I know how it is..” <whiff!> “Young lovers…” <duck!> “Yearning for each other’s touch and kiss…”

Then Truck stopped and looked with panic back over his shoulder. “Nitro! No!” ‘Nitro’ was silently screaming again, but this time, his entire body was crackling with energy. The energy rose to a crescendo and exploded out in all directions. Truck was knocked off his feet, and Jenny’s protective force field was knocked out, but Harlan instinctively rolled up into a ball. The force of the blast blew Harlan back, but he rode the concussive wave, letting it carry him instead of resisting it. He used the energy to bounce him into a wall and ricocheted back. He caught Nitro in the stomach with all the power of Nitro’s own blast, and sent the little headcase sprawling.

‘Tee-Kay’ shook the little tweeting birds out of his head and staggered to his feet. ‘Okay, time to stop fucking around…’ he thought to himself. He pointed at finger at the fag-bitch using her stretching to hold Truck up by one foot, and started twirling his finger, using his PK to agitate the fluids of his target’s inner ear.

Harlan paused for a second as a wave of nausea washed over him. He dropped Truck and dropped to all fours, trying to get a grip. Tee-Kay grinned. Now all that he had to do was keep it up, while Truck gave the little fairy what he had coming to him. Then something got him from behind and lifted him by the collar of his jacket. As he struggled, it turned him around and he found himself a good foot off the ground staring into an exquisite female face of Mediterranean cast framed by a cap of golden hair, wearing an expression that one might have when examining a particularly disgusting bug. “And what are YOU up to, little man?” she asked.

Tee-Kay said absolutely the worst possible thing- “Oh, Shit! Hippo!”

Hippolyte responded by simply shaking him until he couldn’t see straight. When Tee-Kay turned green, she tucked him under her arm and stalked over to where Nitro had picked himself up. Nitro furiously rambled on incoherently about… something having to do with sexual deviants, although height also seemed to be a major element for some reason. Hippolyte gingerly touched the coruscating sheath of energy but only managed to delay the detonation by taking a nasty shock.

But Jenny hurried up and attached her reconfigured personal force field generator to the energy field. Nitro’s blast shorted out the PFG, but the field managed to hold long enough to invert the explosion into an implosion, which left him a smoking heap on the ground. Hippolyte slung him over her shoulder as Jenny picked up her PFG again, and checked out the damage.

Harlan and Truck were still going at it. It was pretty much a stalemate, as Truck was too dense for Harlan to really hurt, no matter how strong he was, and Harlan’s body just gave way under the force of Truck’s punches. Neither one was really able to hurt the other one. Harlan was still pummeling away with his fists, but he’d employed a secondary tactic of wrapping his waist around Truck’s face, cutting off the bully’s breathing. Truck started to split his attentions between trying to hit Harlan and pulling the stretcher’s skin away from his face.

Hippolyte and Jenny walked up and watched them go at it. “Do you think we should help her?” Hippolyte asked.

Non,” Jenny said, sounding utterly unconcerned for Harlan’s safety. “I think that ‘Arley needs to blow off some steam, and better on that lump than someone who doesn’t have it coming.”

Truck was starting to reel when a stiff breeze came down, and brought the Wild Pack with it. Theo ‘Stonebear’ Waller, who had been traveling with Adam ‘Stormwolf’ Ironknife in his 8” tall height, hopped off Adam’s shoulder, grew to his favored 12’ tall height as he dropped, and started to pry Harlan off of Truck. Stormwolf and Diana ‘Thunderfox’ Ritter stepped in to help Theo keep them apart.

Dale ‘Mindbird’ Townsend approached Hippolyte and Jenny. “So, what happened here?”

“These fucking dykes fucking jumped us, just ‘cause we was tryin’ to be fucking friendly!” Tee-Kay yelled from under Hippolyte’s arm.

“Oh, hush, Tee-Kay,” Mindbird said severely. “I always know when you’re lying.” She finished with a mutter, “Your lips move…”

“Those three jumped these two girls,” Hippolyte said. “They were loud, vulgar, insulting, and threatening. The girls did nothing wrong, and then this one,” she nodded her head at Nitro, still draped unconscious over her shoulder, “attacked with a potentially lethal energy burst.”

“THAT IS A FUCKING LIE!” Tee-Kay shrilled, “We say that THEY jumped US, and there ain’t a fucking thing that you can do to prove otherwise!”

Jenny picked up Harlan’s visor from where it had fallen on the ground. “Oh, I don’t know about that…”

Three hours later, after taking depositions from all six people involved, Chief Delarose played a video clip from Harlan’s visor, ‘Yeah, we got a problem with sissyboys who go around dressed up like girls. What, we mutants ain’t got enough shit as it is, we gotta-’ the clip repeated. “Well, I think that this is pretty cut and dried,” Delarose began.

“HEY, that is NOT how it went down,” Tee-Kay insisted. “They musta tricked that up on a computer and-”

“SHUT IT.” Delarose said with a desultory snap. “Now, here’s how it’s gonna go down. Either you can accept your punishment from me, and it doesn’t go any further than that, OR I forward this to Miss Harda- er, Hartford, and let HER handle you.”

Truck, Nitro and Tee-Kay all shared scared looks and shook their heads to the second option. “Good. You may be smarter than you look. And act. Okay! Hippolyte! Apparently, you stepped in to break up the fight. In theory, you should’a waited for Security or one of the Peacekeeper teams to handle it. But, since we’re keeping this one off the books, and you kept it as non-violent as possible, I’m gonna accept that it was the best thing to do. Good work, kid, you get a gold star in your folder. You can leave now, if you want to.

“Spark. You didn’t attack anyone, and your sole action in the whole thing was to contain one of Explosion Boy’s blasts. Good for you. No punishment. Aside from the one you’re already working off, that is.

“Reach. Basically, you got jumped. By the book, you should’a just run away. But, this is the real world, and we both know that that would’a just made you an even bigger target than you are now. So, you get a fight on your sheet, and Time Served.

“As for you three clowns,” he glowered at Truck, Nitro and Tee-Kay. “I am TIRED of this ‘TNT’ crap! You’re getting a week’s Detention for starting the fight, and another week for the Gay Bashing angle. And NO, you won’t be serving it together. Tee-Kay, you’ll be doing your two weeks helping down in the sewers. Hey, you talk trash, you GET trash. Truck, you’ll be doing your detention with Maintenance & Repairs. Maybe you’ll learn how to use those muscles for something other than breaking stuff. Nitro, you’re doing your two weeks at Hawthorne. Let’s see how your act plays with Fubar.” Nitro started to complain, but Delarose cut him off. “LOOK, Clarence, the only reason that they haven’t fitted you for an Ultraviolet band is that you’re here on Probation. Since you’ve been here, you’ve been in an average of 1.75 fights a week. Now, will you settle the hell DOWN, or do we send you back to Iowa, where they’ll probably just hand you over right away to the MCO?”

The three boys accepted the judgement with grim stoicism. As they filed out of the Security room, Delarose said to Harlan, “There’s something I want you to see.” He gestured to Lt. Reynolds who was a few desks over. When Reynolds came over, Delarose said, “Carson wants you to conduct a parallel investigation on the booby trap with our investigation. And, while I’m not exactly thrilled at the idea of having Nancy Drew- er, sorry, Sawyer- ‘the Hardy Boys’ poking around my jurisdiction, I can see the value of double-teaming whatever Sneaky Pete did this to you. That is, as long as you share any information that you dig up. Reynolds, you’re our liaison; the 007s are in the case room, so try and get everyone on the same page, hunh?"

Reynolds escorted Jenny and Harlan down the hall a few doors to a room where the Cadets were indeed waiting. Rez took a look at Harlan and blurted, “HARLEY! I heard that you got jumped, but what did they DO to you?”

“What?” Harlan said, not bothering with his usual correction. Then he finally noticed that his stretching had done its usual damage and dishevelment to his new clothing. “Oh, not much. He got in a few punches, but this is mostly what happens when someone who can stretch wears clothes that can’t.” He adjusted what he could, to look a bit more presentable.

“Okay,” Reynolds started off, “Carson has said that you all are being allowed to conduct your own investigation of the trap. Security will also be conducting an investigation of it. You will bring every new bit of information and evidence to me. If you have a question for Security, pass it along through me. IF we think that the information is both pertinent and won’t compromise school security, I’ll pass the answers over to you. This room will be your headquarters for the investigation. It’s a little barren at the moment, but that will change as real information comes in. Please notice, we have a topographical map of the Academy over here, and architect’s diagrams of the Kane Hall and Llewellyn Annex over here. And over here, we have our Rogue’s Gallery.” He stuck pictures of Reach, Spark, Charge, Belphegor and Glitch at the top of a whiteboard.

“Am I still a suspect?” Jenny asked with worry coloring her voice.

“You’re involved,” Reynolds informed her. “You could be responsible and playing a very involved game, or you could be the real target of it, or you may just be the real perp’s pawn, as advertised. Too soon to say, and no matter which side the coin lands on, you will be a factor in the solution. At this point, we’re just collecting evidence, not making any conclusions. Okay, you and your pack left the bay with the proto-culture thing still in the cradle, when?” He took the time and laid out where she’d been where. “This will be checked. We will also check out where your friend Vitesse went, and how long she stayed there. We’ll try to find out what Reach’s roommate, Glitch, was up to. We already know what Belphegor was doing, but he’s too fricking obvious to simply dismiss.” Reynolds looked around, and gave a nod. “Well, I think that that’s everything, so I’ll leave you do it.”

After Reynolds left, Ace looked around the room and said, “Well, I don’t know about you all, but I feel appropriately condescended to.”

A-Plus shot him an irritable look. “Hey, they’re giving us an equal shot at figuring this out. We don’t have to worry about Security coming down on us when we ask questions for once. So, they’re not giving us everything- so what? If you were in their shoes, would YOU?”

Ace shrugged. “Probably not. Okay! We need to sort out where we have to start and-”

“Hold it.”

“It can keep, Reach. Kew, I need you to-”

“I SAID, _hold it!_” Harlan snapped. “Who put you in charge?”

“What are you talking about?” Ace snarled back, “You aren’t even IN the Cadets!”

“This is MY case,” Harlan held his ground. “Carson-”

“Carson gave US the case!” Ace snarled.

“NO, Carson specifically gave ME the case, she just gave you permission to- and I quote- ‘assist’. Assist, as in ‘not take over’.”

“LOOK,” Ace started.

“He’s right,” Rez said. “Her exact words were, ‘Mr. Colm, please pass along to Ace that I highly suggest that the *ahem!* ‘Intelligence Cadet Corps’ would find their time better spent assisting Reach, than with their usual ‘hide-and-seek’ games with the Masterminds and Ninjas.’ Her exact words. If we want in on this case, we have to do it on Reach’s terms. After all, he can refuse our assistance.”

“And who asked YOU?” Kew snapped, atypically for the usually reticent Spy Kidz resident gadget goddess.

“She said so, because she was there when Carson said it!” Harlan didn’t like the way that the Cadets were closing ranks against him and Kenya. Holdout looked really uncomfortable, being stuck between his girlfriend and his buds. A real No-Win scenario.

“This is our chance to show that we can handle a real investigation, and we’re supposed to hand it over to someone who wound up egg on her-oh, I’m so sorry!” Ace said with snide sweetness, “HIS, face?”

“Maybe, but in my last case, which was a REAL case,” Harlan pointed out tersely, “not some bull-shit bit of hoop-jumping, or third-story game of TAG, I – oh, sorry Kenya, WE figured out that it was Belphegor and tracked down his secret cache, which Security knew nothing about.”

“Oh, so you got lucky ONCE-”

“LUCKY? Luck had nothing to DO with it! We used our brains-”

“And walked straight into a trap that turned you into a girl!”

Harlan went red in the eye, and was about to give Ace a 3,000 p.s.i. attitude adjustment, when a voice from the doorway said, “Okay, that was officially a low blow, Ace!” They turned to see Zenith and Sahar standing at the door. “Hey, Harley! I heard that you got into a fight, and came over to see how you were holding up.” She gave Ace a frosty look. “It seems to be your day for making friends, I see.”

Ace folded his arms across his chest defensively. “The rookie seems to think that he knows all the answers.”

“Mister Big Stuff here was making noises that Harley and I should just sit back and let the <snerk!> ‘professionals’ drive the bus,” Kenya said, moving to Harlan’s side, matching Ace’s posture and raising a challenging eyebrow.

“Really?” Zenith said, “Odd, Mrs. Carson told me that she gave Reach here the job.”

“Hey,” Ace rasped, “WE have experience! WE know the lay of the land, and WE know the people on campus! WE are the ones who gathered the evidence that put Latchkey and Nightfox in Juvie, leaving the Masterminds run by a bunch of Sophomores and Froshes!”

“ACTUALLY,” Zenith interrupted, “as I recall, it was Semi,” she pointed at Sahar, “who actually provided that evidence, back when she was running with you guys.” The temperature in the room dropped twenty degrees as Ace and A-Plus shot daggers at Sahar. “HOWEVER,” Zenith continued, bulldozing over the unpleasantness, “Ace does have a point about the Sp-er, Cadets having experience that would be invaluable in this matter. So, why don’t we let HIM lead the case?” she pointed at Holdout.

“What?” Darren bleated.

“Why not? I understand that you ramrodded Harley and Rez’s search for the stolen ENI. Both sides know that they can work with you.”

“Yeah!” Kenya beamed, “That works!”

Harlan nodded. “Yeah, I can work with the man.”

Ace found himself in the uncomfortable position of either admitting that there was a better person for a job than himself or dissing a good friend, namely Holdout. He surprised himself, in that it was so hard to do the obvious right thing. He was faced with the fact that he just sort of took for granted that he’d be in charge of a case. It took him a moment to wrestle with that fact, and then admit. “Yeah, Darren’s the right man for the job.”

Holdout shot Ace a look that promised that they were going to have a few words about that long pause. Then taking the reins of the investigation. “Okay, it strikes me that the first thing that we have to do is separate what we know happened, from what we think happened, and figure out precisely what it is that we don’t know.”

Pardonnez-moi,” Jenny said. “I need to go to the Workshop and move my equipment up to the Isolate Bay. If you have any questions for me, I’ll be there.”

“Why?” Harlan asked, “I thought that you did that last night.”

Non, just my Engram Neurologique Inducer. It was late.”

“Don’t move anything!” Harley said, “We need to examine the scene!”

“Security already examined it,” Ace said in a weary tone.

“So?” Holdout said, “Why not go and take a look anyway? We can help the lady move and get a better idea of the lay of the land at the same time.”

Ace started to argue, but couldn’t get around the fact that it was a reasonable idea, and being in the field was always better than hanging around a sparse room, anyway. As they walked through the labyrinthine system of subterranean tunnels that linked some of the cottages to the main buildings, they thrashed out what they did know.

“Okay,” Harlan started off, “first of all, from what Jenny and Charge said, her trap was rigged to go off when someone took the proto-culture drum from its cradle. But, I had no reason to take the drum, so someone removed it, and placed it to where I would naturally replace it, setting off the trap. That means that whoever did it, knew that I wouldn’t take the drum as originally planned, so they had to improvise. Which means that they somehow knew that Heartbreaker’s story was bogus, and I was on the up and up.”

“Yeah,” Holdout agreed. “And it also means that whoever did it had a reason to want to get you.”

“OR, to get Spark or Charge to take the fall for killing or maiming you,” A-Plus pointed out.

“It also means that whoever did it, knew enough about Spark’s design to remove the drum without triggering the trap, while still keeping the trigger primed to go off,” Kew added.

“What I want to know,” Rez said, “is how whoever it was rigged those sonic nausea alarms without Jenny, Adalie or Romy noticing.”

“Ah, Hello?” Interface jeered, “They added that AFTER the girls left?”

“Interface?” Ace said cautiously, “Those things are three units the size of steamer trunks. If he brought them in after the girls left, HOW did ‘Mr or Miss X’ get them IN, without Security noticing?”

“And where did they come from?” Holdout said. “The only reason to have them in place, would be to keep Kenya and me from saving Harley-”


“-from the tentacles.”

“Which means that whoever it was, was expecting me to show up with company,” Harlan mused. “Normally, you think of someone breaking and entering as coming alone, especially if I’m supposedly rushing the Masterminds. Which means that ‘Mr. or Miss X’ knows a lot about me, personally.”

“True,” Rez admitted, “but he is also pretty close to Spark- he was able to intercept your page from Jenny’s phone without her knowing about it, and could use her phone to respond.”

“Couldn’t he have just intercepted the message?” Interface asked.

“No,” Sahar contributed to the discussion, “if he had somehow intercepted the transmission, then the text wouldn’t be on Jenny’s cell. That is, unless ‘Mr. X’ is intentionally arranging all of this to make Jenny look as guilty as possible.”

“Who asked YOU?” A-Plus snapped.

“Logic is logic,” Semi responded equitably. “This person also knew how to use Workshop Security to send that access card to be delivered to Emerson.”

“AND they arranged for Spark to be away from the Workshop for the two and a half hours that the process required, so they had to know something about both Reach’s and Spark’s schedules,” Zenith pointed out.

Dont parlez-vous?” Jenny blurted. “Two and a half HOURS?”

“Isn’t that how long you set the thing for?”

NON! I set it for a HALF-hour! It was only supposed to inconvenience ‘Arley for a day, two days at the most! Two and a ‘alf hours might have KILLED him!” she looked at Harlan with shocked eyes.

“Oh-KAY,” Holdout breathed, “that can’t have been an accident. It could only have been done deliberately.” He gave Harlan a grave look. “Reach, it looks like someone’s trying to kill you.” He shifted his gaze over to Jenny. “OR, set you up for a murder rap.”

“Either way, this someone is playing hardball,” Ace grated.

By this time, they’d gotten to the Workshop, and they checked in en masse with the Security desk. Reynolds had left them a message stating that according to the air-pressure gauges in the secure bays, the bay hadn’t been opened since Jenny sealed it at 3:11 PM.”

“Air-pressure gauges?” Harlan asked.

“The Secure Bays are hermetically sealed and the air-pressure is automatically dropped by about 10 pounds p.s.i.” Rez explained.

“Besides being an extra level of security,” Kew jumped in, “it helps to bring down the moisture and dust in the air, neither of which are good for our experiments.”

“I DO remember a sort of hiss when the door opened,” Holdout commented. “So, we have our first piece of real evidence. Assuming that neither Spark nor Charge somehow set all that up without the others noticing, then someone managed to get into the bay without releasing the pressure.”

“Why not just gimmick the air pressure gauges so they wouldn’t register the change in pressure, and then go in?” Harlan asked.

“No,” Interface said, serious for once. “From what Darren just said, the bay was pressurized when you entered. The most logical way for the air-pressurization circuit to work is that it notices the pressurization and automatically sets the pump to start working the next time that the bay is sealed.”

“What if someone was still in the bay when it was sealed?”

“There’s an emergency latch inside the bay door,” Jenny said. “Just pull it, the seal is broken, and Security is notified.”

“SO, somehow, someone got into the bay without triggering an alarm or re-setting the air pressure,” Harlan murmured. “A Teleporter?”

Interface smirked, “That’s always the first thing that a rookie thinks of in a ‘locked room mystery’. Look, Harley-”


Harley- we have to limit the set of suspects to people who knew about the ENI and how you were playing poor sweet Jenny for a fool.”

“More to the point,” Harlan said with quiet triumph, “someone who knew that I wasn’t playing Jenny for a fool.”

“Anyway, you know any teleporters, Sweetie?” Interface gave Spark a roguish grin.”

Non,” Jenny said shyly shrinking away from his attentions into Harlan’s side. Harlan gave I-face a look of smug triumph.

“Besides, teleporting into a blind situation is a recipe for disaster,” Darren said authoritatively. “And teleporting in those speakers would have been a bear and a half- each one weighs over 200 pounds! Besides, ‘porting that much volume into the room would have altered the air pressure in the room. Not much, but enough for the pressure gauges to have noticed.” The others all looked at Holdout, impressed by his mass of knowledge. “Hey, you pick up things like this in Warper Powers Theory!”

“Score one for Powers Theory,” Harlan muttered.

The group was passing through one of the corridors when an alarm went off, and a revolving light started flashing by the door to one of the bays. The crew and several others rushed to the bay door and looked in. There was a cloud of various small objects whirling around in the bay, keeping a dark-haired girl in a lab coat pinned against the wall. She was trying to get to something, but the maelstrom of debris kept her from getting to it. There was an eerie sound that was something between an electric wail and a howl reverberating through the lab.

“Fear Not, Fair Lady!” trumpeted a boy who looked more like a romantic novel’s idea of a knight in shining armor than a lab rat (lab coat not withstanding), in voice that sounded like a backwoods Tennessee bumpkin trying to recite Shakespeare. “Thy deliverance is nigh at hand!”

Someone yelled, “Stalwart! NO!”

Stalwart ignored them and strode into the room as if he were fighting a heavy gale. He reached so far and then his shoulder-length golden blonde hair frizzled out into a burr, and he was thrown bodily back into the hallway.

“Nice going, Sir Lack-a-lot,” another blonde prettyboy wearing a redingote sneered in a cosmopolitan European accent.

“Oh HUSH, Nephan-dork,” Kew said with asperity. “It’s just another of Delta Spike’s galvanomorph accidents.”

Holdout reached into a pocket and somehow pulled out a full-scale customized paintball gun with an oversized pellet reservoir. “It’ll help to see what we’re dealing with.”

“Switch it to pellet mode,” Rez suggested.

Holdout fired, and the solid pellets interacted with the mass somehow so that despite not hitting anything solid, they still exploded and marked something in the middle of the lab. When he finished, Holdout had revealed a bizarre dome shaped creature with a single ‘eye’ like spot and a gape that could have passed for a wide mouth. It gave another ululating faux-electronic wail and tried to get closer to the girl in the lab. “See? Just another of the Explosion Queen’s goof-ups.” Kew said, unimpressed by the sight.

“What IS it?”

“Galvanomorph,” one of the lab rats said clinically. “Basically, a self-perpetuating energy vortex that has remedial survival and hunting instincts. Dee-Ess accidentally creates one every so often. At least this one is just trying to chow down on her, instead of ME this time.”

“Still, we gotta do something,” Harlan said. “How do you get rid of these things?”

“Ground ‘em and drain off their charge, and they just go away.”

“Anyone got a grounding cable on them?” Harlan was almost overwhelmed by offers from all directions. With Zenith and Stalwart holding his legs, Harlan took four cables into the bay.

“Look for its feet!” someone yelled from the hallway.

“This thing has feet?”

“More like anchoring points, but, yeah, pretty much feet.”

The galvanomorph appeared to move by ‘jumping’ its anchoring points from one location to another, so the foot analogy worked. Harlan kept it from moving by intercepting its ‘steps’ and then managed to plant one of the cable points in his ‘pivot foot’. The galvanomorph struggled and tried to free itself by planting its other foot and pulling the trapped one loose, but Harlan took advantage of that to pin the loose ‘foot’. He was trying to plant a third cable in the galvanomorph’s ‘eye’ when there was another humming, and a light flashed at them.

Harlan turned to see the girl- Delta Spike by code name, he guessed- was holding an elaborate Kirby-esque ‘gun’ with twin flanges at the front and a large cylinder in the center. A line of light formed between the gun and the galvanomorph, and the gun sort of slurped up the bizarre creature. “HAH! GOTCHA, ya little booger!” Delta Spike enthused.

“You destroyed it?” Harlan asked.

“Better! I captured it!” she said with a victorious grin. “Now I can figure out how these things form, so I get some work done, without these pesky critters ripping up my lab!”

“And it’s about time,” came wearily from the hallway.

Harlan had a brief flash of déjà vu, looking at Delta Spike. Then he realized that she was the picture of a Hollywood ‘Girl Scientist’, the one who’s supposed to be a drab little geek, but you know that the second that she takes off her glasses and lets her hair down, she’s absolutely gorgeous. Delta Spike had long glossy black hair that was tied up in a style that really didn’t suit her. She wore a pair of thick clunky-looking black frame glasses that couldn’t have done a better job of disguising her classic features if she’d designed them for just that task. Still, she smiled prettily enough. “Thanks for the assist! Couldn’t get to the capture gun! Oh, I don’t think that we’ve met? I’m Delta Spike!” she extended a friendly hand.

Harlan took the hand and shook it. “Ah, I’m Harlan, er, that is, Reach.”

“Harlan?” Delta Spike adjusted her glasses, as if trying to remember something. Then she saw Jenny standing over in the doorway. “Oh! Reach! Right! You’re that boy that Spark turned into a girl when she caught you cheating on her, right?” She grinned in anticipation and her eyes sparkled with investigative glee behind the big glasses.

“Er, It’s a bit more complicated than that, but yeah.”

“Well, I can help you with that! I have some experience with induced biomorphology-”

Jenny came stomping into the bay. “First, he was NOT cheating on me, and secondly, we have things well in hand, sil vouz plait!” She grabbed Harlan’s hand and towed him out of the lab, “And third, we have things to take care of, Au Revoir!

“Wow, Mister Smooth Moves,” Interface purred mockingly back in the hall. “Howcum you didn’t have moves like that when you were a guy, and it would have done you some good?”

“Stow it, Interface. Jenny, what was all that about?” Harlan asked as he took his hand back from her.

“It was for your own good,” Jenny maintained peevishly.

“And you might wanna spruce up a little,” Ace muttered. Harlan looked down, and noticed that his sweater-sleeves and pants legs were riding up and that the waist of his sweater was hitched up just under his breasts. ‘Breasts.’ Harlan shook that one off as he pulled everything back into place.

“Delta Spike’s a sweet girl,” Rez offered, “but she sort of has a problem with knowing when to quit. She’d have you on the slab, get carried away with enthusiasm, and God alone knows what you’d wind up as.”

Jenny made a disgusted noise and summed her objections up with “Poe Cottage,” tapping the side of her head significantly.

“YES, she IS,” Zenith said with an acid grin. Spark wilted as she realized that she’d just harshed Zenith’s cottage, and let herself be shepherded down to the Secure Bays where Adalie and Romy were waiting for them.

“I don’t see why, if we have all these people, _I_ have to break my back carrying everything down to that stupid locked-up place.” Adalie grumped.

“Because you instigated, aided and abetted an act of criminal stupidity,” Sahar said with sere sweetness. “And your punishment is to be as helpful in general as you possibly can. Here. Take.” She handed Charge a packed piece of instrumentation.

As Ace, A-Plus, Kew and Interface examined the bay lock and took note of the suggestive marks left by Security’s CSI team, Holdout put forth, “Okay, we’ve got what we know. Now, we figure out what we need to know.”

“Well, first, you have to figure out who was the real target all along,” Romy cut him off. “Was it Harlan, Genevieve, or Adalie?”

“Why would anyone want to get Adalie arrested or expelled?” Rez asked as she supervised packing some of the instruments.

“Later,” Darren said firmly but gently. “First, we get all our real questions framed properly. And, Yes, it DOES help to have them framed and written down. Otherwise, important issues tend to get glossed over or forgotten.”

“The man does have a point,” Zenith said. “Okay, next question. In order to know that changing the trap was necessary, ‘Mr. X’ had to know that Spark was setting the trap in the first place, and that Harley had no intention of ripping her off. So, how did ‘Mr. X’ know that Harley was in earnest?”

“What I want to know,” Interface said as he examined the hermetic seal on the door, “is how ‘Mr. X’ got IN here, in the first place? At least, without setting off any of the security measures. I mean, between teleporters, intangible types and telekinetics, getting IN isn’t the problem. It’s the ‘without a trace’ part that gets me.”

“What makes ME suspicious, is how ‘Mister X’ got his hands on Spark’s pager,” Ace said. “He’d have to know that Reach was going to call Spark, be able to get the cell phone away from her to take the call and return it without being noticed.”

“The issue as to how they got Security to send the key card probably won’t go anywhere, but it’s still worth following,” A-Plus mentioned.

Darren dutifully wrote each down and looked at his PDA. “Anything else?” When none came, he nodded and saved. “Okay, now we figure out how we can go about answering these questions.”

“Not quite.” Sahar said definitively.

“What do you mean?”

“Before you charge out after that, you must carefully consider another angle- Motive. Very well!” Sahar said briskly, like a teacher putting a question to her class. “What are the possible motives for a crime such as this?”

“Jealousy,” Zenith said with a sly glance at Jenny. “A crime de passion can still be committed in cold blood.”

Harlan gave Jenny a wry grin. “What’s this? I already have a rival?”

Jenny pursed her lips and scowled. “Not that I am aware of.”

“Hey,” Interface cracked, “whoever did this knows a lot about high-tech! Now, doesn’t a girl-shy ubergeek harboring a secret crush sound just like the guy to pull all of this off?”

“Get real,” Holdout said repressively. “Still, he does have a point- whoever did this at the very least knew how to get the proto-culture off the cradle without setting off the trap, and how to rig up those speakers. As for re-setting the time on the computer, any idiot could do that.”

Harlan shot a snarky grin at Adalie. “And what about YOU, Charge? Are you a part of any passionate menages a trois that we should know about?” Adalie just shot a sneer back at him, to cover her blushes.

“Speaking of High Tech,” A-Plus quashed the badinage, “what about professional jealousy? Spark, have you stepped on any toes here in the Workshop recently?”

Jenny flustered. “Non! I’ve managed to get onto Knick-knack’s BIT-Splicer project, but it is HIS project! I only got this Secure Bay because Belphegor stole my ENI, and Knick-knack asked the Overseer. Indeed, this incident with ‘Arley may be my big breakthrough, with my ENI concept proving itself. If anything, any jealousy would begin NOW!”

Both Kew and Rez nodded their agreement to this assessment.

“Okay, then what about personal jealousy?” Ace asked. “Not romantic or professional, but on a more personal basis.”

“Well, there IS Kaiju…” Romy whined softly.

“Kaiju?” Harlan asked.

“Kaiju is a Whitman girl in the Advanced Technologies program," Kew explained. “She has rather pronounced GSD, the sort who really needs the underground tunnel system to get around. She makes out like she’s quite nice, but there have been a few incidents, nasty little ‘accidents’, and there are rumors that she’s quite jealous of attractive mutants.”

“Are we talking Factor Three here?” Ace asked.

“I don’t know, one way or the other. But I might imagine that it could be possible that she could conceive a vicious jealous resentment of Spark and Reach’s new relationship.”

“Factor Three?” Harlan asked.

“Later,” Ace said. “That’s pretty iffy. We should still look into it, but it’s pretty damn thin. Still, people have done worse with less provocation. Next on the list, my personal favorite, as it’s the easiest to check on and is the most logical- Profit. Can anyone think of anyone who would stand to profit if Reach got killed or maimed, or if Spark or Charge got expelled?”

“The closest thing that I could think of for me would be that my roommate Glitch gets a single,” Harlan said. “But that’s pretty whack, even for Stimpy!

Adalie shook her head, and Jenny said, “The only conceivable profit in getting rid of me, would be if someone else were working on an ENI and thought that I would beat them to the patent.”

“Slim, but possible,” Holdout said as he jotted it down. “Okay, what about Anger or Revenge? Charge, who have you pissed off lately?”

From there, they discussed, fear, self-defense, defending someone else, and some sort of grudge. Jenny sighed, “As much as I hate to say it there is one last possibility that we haven’t discussed- Experimentation. That someone did all this, simply because they wished to see if my XSI would work on a live human, and didn’t wish to accept the blame for it.”

By this time, they’d gotten everything packed and stowed on the carts, and they pushed the carts over to the cargo lift. Mr. Costigan gave Spark her card, which she slid through the security lock, and the lift went down the shaft another hundred feet into the bedrock that supported Whateley Academy. Holdout watched the layers of granite as they dropped and remarked, “Y’know, sometimes I wonder, with all the tunneling and secret chambers and all that, if some day, all that there’s gonna be of Whateley is a big hole in the ground.”

“Well, they do reinforce the tunnels and underground chambers as best they can,” Kew said defensively.

“Yeah, maybe, but what about all the ‘Dark Legacy’ crap and the personal tunnels and the secret labs and chambers and all that?”

“Well, Security fills those with concrete when they find them, so at least there’s some shoring up,” Ace remarked.

“Still, the young man’s got a point,” Costigan said. “We are getting pretty honeycombed down here. We’ve managed to find a few hidden caches here and there with Ultrasound and other scanning techniques, but all that really means is that we’ve found those ones. The nature of the bedrock’s against us there. Fortunately, the very density of the bedrock that works against us all makes for a very solid foundation.”

They got off the lift and walked through two checkpoints to get to Spark’s new Ultra-Secure isolated lab. The Ultra-Secure lab was significantly larger than the old merely ‘secure’ bay had been, and the power outlets and already stowed XSI gear only concealed a mere portion of the elaborate designs in faint silver that were traced across the walls. “What are these designs?” Romy asked as she ran a finger over the pattern on the wall closest to the door.

“Well, the problem with trying to keep anything really secure at a place like Whateley,” Mr. Costigan began, “is how do you keep something safe from people who can teleport or walk through walls? And then there’s the Mages, who aren’t the most trustworthy of people from the get-go.” Harlan thought that he detected a trace of a technophile’s distrust of the mystical in the man’s voice. “So, besides the several hundred feet of granite on every side, this chamber is lined with an osmium ceramic compound, and those patterns are enchanted silver. Basically, the entire room is warded against Magic, Psi, PK, teleportation or most known forms of intangibility. Ain’t nothing getting’ in, if we can help it.”

Zenith clapped her hands briskly. “Okay, the sooner that we get this place set up and everything put away, the sooner that we can get to work! Okay, that’s going to need the most power, so you should-”

Pardonez moi,” Jenny said with chilly hauteur, “but this is MY lab! What makes you think that you can arrange it better than I can?”

“Probably because she can, Genevieve, dear,” Sahar replied. “It’s not a slight on your expertise, it’s a matter of Zoe’s mutant trait. You see, she has what she calls her ‘Database’ technique. It’s a combination of the ‘Paragon’ ESPer technique, such as A-Plus uses, and a wide-area telepathy that taps into the unconscious minds of people around her. She can draw on the skills, talents and knowledge of those around her and use the ‘Paragon’ aspect to place all that into the proper context. She is literally as smart as you and everyone else in this room.”

A-Plus fumed a little. “Well then, if she’s so dang smart, why doesn’t she figure out our little mystery for us?”

“Not my job, dear,” Zoe replied amiably. “It’s your case. MY job is to help Harley-”


“-cope while he’s on this side of the War between the Sexes.”

“However, if you’re looking for help this early in the game, I’d be willing to lend a hand,” Sahar offered.

“Like you did LAST YEAR?” A-Plus said with barely concealed rancor.

“Actually, all that I was offering to do, was read those nausea speakers with psychometry.”

“Psychometry?” Harlan asked.

“Why only the speakers?” Jenny asked.

Zoe answered Harlan. “ ‘Psychometry’ is the clairvoyant ability to ‘read’ impressions from an object. Like the classic bit where the clairvoyant freaks out ‘cause she handles a knife that was used to kill someone? It’s one of the knacks that Semi picked up.”

“Among others,” A-Plus muttered.

“As for the speakers,” Sahar explained to Jenny, “they are the only piece of evidence that we can reasonably be sure were handled only by the perpetrator. Even if he wiped them clean of fingerprints and anything, he’d have left his own signature impression of himself.”

“Good luck getting anything off those things,” Ace said definitively. “After the Forensics labs gets through with them, any psychic imprints will be completely obscured. Still, that might be a big advantage at some other stage of the investigation.”

“I could teach you how, Ace” Semi offered. “I’ve managed to help Zoe break out of the limits of her knack into more mainstream telepathy. I might be able to help you ‘de-focus’ your talent into more conventional psychometry, without losing your ‘talent-borrowing’ gift.”

“We’re getting along just fine without you,” A-Plus said nastily.

Holdout stepped in to derail the spiteful tangent that the conversation was taking. “Still, Sahar does present another aspect to this case that we should be carefully considering- Powers. I think that we can either dismiss the Faculty, Staff and Security from our list of suspects. Or, at least shove them to the very bottom of the list, until we learn anything to the contrary. If someone from the Faculty, Staff or Security wanted to hurt Harley, Jenny or Adalie, they could have done it a lot more easily and less dramatically that the elaborate set-up that Harley walked into. That means that whoever did it was most likely a student, which means a mutant of some sort.

“For instance, Zenith- with your database technique, you could have figured out a way around all the security measures and you could have known exactly how to set everything up. Yes, I know- you have no motive, and from the look on your face, you probably have an excellent alibi for the time in question. Ace could have done the same- he could have ‘read’ Jenny’s equipment with his psychometric talent and copied her skills. A-Plus could have just winged it with her Paragon trait. Interface or Kenya could have influenced the instrumentation from outside the bay. Sahar could have done almost any of those. BUT, all of us lack motives, and we can all probably account for our whereabouts at the time in question.” He raised an inquiring eyebrow in Sahar’s direction.

“She was with me during lunch,” Zoe vouched for her friend, “She was provably in classes from One to Three, and we played doubles tennis from 3:30 to 4:30.”

“By which time, Harley was having his neurons fried,” Darren extrapolated. He put all that down on his PDA. “Okay, Charge is a speedster, she could have rushed in and out of the bay while Jenny was distracted, BUT there’s no way that she could have gotten those speakers in without being bloody obvious. Romy-” Holdout faltered. “Romy, exactly what DO you do? I mean, what’s your mutant power?”

“Romy is a telepath,” Adalie said protectively. “But she is limited to projecting her thoughts in ways that create excruciating headaches. And so, her code name of ‘Migraine’.”

“You can check on that with Security,” Romy said meekly.

“Right.” Darren made a note of it.

“What about this ‘Kaiju’ that you mentioned?” Ace asked.

“Well, she makes out like she’s a very nice person, but there have been a lot of very strange accidents that happen around her.” Romy started.

“I mean, what are her powers?” Ace corrected her. Though, while you’re at it, I guess that it wouldn’t hurt to hear why you’re suspicious of her.”

“Well, she’s one of those ‘shell manifesters’, the sort that create a powerful exoskeleton around themselves? Hers isn’t just monstrous, it’s somehow affected her body and now it’s all twisted and freakish!”

“I see…” Ace said in a way that suggested that he didn’t see what Romy was getting at. “And how would that help her get into the secure bay?”

“It wouldn’t. Her powers aren’t technologisch in nature. But she’s a real…”

“While Kaiju’s mutant powers don’t increase her skills with technology,” Jenny took over for Romy. “But she’s very skilled with electronics naturally, almost a genius. I think that Romy’s point is that Kaiju could have gotten around the Security measures if she put her mind to it. And, she is quite knowledgeable about acoustics.”

“Iffy,” Harlan commented. “What is her motive supposed to be?”

“I couldn’t say, but as Romy pointed out, accidents do seem to happen around her.”

“The trap in that lab wasn’t an accident.”

“True. But the trap involved the same sort of techniques that you would use in arranging an ‘accident’.”

“Still Iffy,” Holdout said. “Still, we’ll have to check her out.”

The move did indeed go more quickly with Zenith directing things and Jenny was impressed by the efficient layout of the lab. “Hey, look at the pool of talent that I had to draw on,” Zenith dissembled. “Well, now that that’s done, we’ll leave you to your work. Semi?”

Sahar gave Harlan and Jenny a nod. “Remember, if you want to talk about anything, just give us a call.” She gave Jenny a significant look. “Really. Anything.”

“WHY would we call YOU?” A-Plus snarled.

“Because you need someone to talk to?”

After Zenith and Sahar left, Holdout took charge again. “Okay, we’ve got our preliminaries taken care of, now it’s footwork time. Ace, A-Plus, you work the usual suspects. Rez, Kew, you ask around the Workshop. Interface and I will hit the information brokers. Reach?” Darren took a deep breath and patted Harlan on the shoulder. “Harlan, someone’s gotta do an eyeball inspection of the access and power ducts around the scene of the crime. It’s gonna be dull, painstaking, dull, finicky and dull, but it’s gotta be done.”

“You left out ‘dull’.” Harlan let out a martyred sigh. “And I’m good at that sort of thing, right?”

“Well, while you’re doing it, you can talk to both Security and the Maintenance guys. Since Carson specifically gave you the job, they’ll be a lot more likely to talk to you. And the fact that you’ll be going over everything with a fine-toothed comb won’t hurt, either.”

Harlan let out a slightly lighter-hearted sigh. “Well, Jenny-hon, looks like we’re both gonna be busy for the next few days. Gimme a hug to tide me over?”

Jenny walked over and gave Harlan a big hug. Then she started straightening out his sweater, which had gotten all pushed out of place again, when he was using his stretching to get the lab in shape. Then, for some reason, she became incredibly interested in the way that his sweater tugged this way that that. Then she looked up, a look of sheer inspiration on her face. She murmured, “Mais évidemment! C'est si simple! Pourquoi je ne l'ai pas vu auparavant?

“Jenny?” Harlan asked. But Jenny rushed over to her workbench and started wrestling the proto-culture drum out of its cradle. She dug a big heaping helping of the goop out of the drum and went to work with a happy song on her lips. “What?”

“Don’t take it personally, Reach,” Kew said. “She’ll be like that for a while. She’s just had the Big Idea.”

“ ‘Big Idea’?”

“Yeah, sometimes we Devisors just get these incredible *Boom!* flashes of insight and inspiration, and it’s like we suddenly just GET whatever it is, and we KNOW how to make it work, and, well, keeping us away from whatever we need to make it happen is like getting between a grizzly bear and a honeycomb.”

“I thought that Devisors somehow bent the laws of Physics to make their do-jobbies work.”

“We do. Or, at least, that’s a part of it. I mean, you CAN just sort of bang away at a problem and sort of cram it into what you want to happen, but that’s a lot of work, and well, it can get very nasty. But with the Big Idea, you just sort of KNOW how to make it happen! Laws of Physics? Who needs them! You have the BIG IDEA!” The usually timid and reserved Kew had gotten rather excited, and was shouting by this point. Then she looked about her, eyes glittering, and noticed all the Spy Kidz giving her odd looks. She wilted and said, “And, well, it’s a lot easier to reverse engineer Devises into things that you can actually patent if you have a, uhm, ‘Big Idea’.” Then she gave up on it and tried to pull her head into her shell.

Harlan looked at Jenny, hard at work. “Is she gonna be okay like that?”

“Yeah,” Rez said with amusement in her voice. “She’ll just have to be reminded to eat.”

Oui,” Charge said with gusty resignation. “And we’ll have to tell her teachers that she’s taking a ‘Devisor Day’ or two. She’ll have to make up her classes. Again.” She looked around her rather remorsefully. “You have no idea as to how many weekends she’s lost that way.”

Again, Harlan found that the allegedly dreary, tedious job was proving a lot more interesting than people thought that would be. Searching the Workshop tunnels and access ducts in the vicinity of Jenny’s ‘secure’ bay required a working knowledge of the systems involved, and Gunderman, the technician who was showing him, was an excellent teacher. The systems in the Workshop were a crazy quilt of patches, kludging, improvisation, experimentation, fixes, sabotage, counter-sabotage, accident, and repairs. “I don’t mean to tell a man his job or nuthin’,” Harlan said, “But you guys really need to just tear ever’thing out and do a wholesale replacement!”

“We did.”



Eventually, Gunderman reminded Harlan that it was well past 7, and he’d better go get something to eat while the cafeteria was still serving dinner. Harlan’s stomach agreed with Gunderman entirely, and Harlan remembered Rez’s comment about Jenny needing to be reminded to eat. He had Gunderman call Security and allow him down to Jenny’s Ultra-Secure bay. She was in the middle of doing something with the black goop that resembled spinning yarn. “Hey Jenny?”

“Hmm?” Jenny looked up distractedly. “Oh! ‘Arlee! What is it?”

“It’s past Seven. We’ll have to haul, if we wanna make dinner.”

 “I’m in the middle of this, and I don’t want to lose my train of thought. Would you pick up something for me?” she gave him a quick peck on the cheek and then dived back into her work. Harlan stood there for a moment, aghast. Then he thought about when he’d seen Stalwart in a Devisor-trance, and decided that he was lucky that he’d gotten the peck on the cheek. ‘Well, this must be the price of being the boyfriend of a scientific genius.

Harlan headed out of the Workshop, but told Security that he’d be back with a doggy bag.

The Crystal Hall was still open, but there weren’t many people still around. Interface and Kew were sitting by themselves, going over notes on PDAs. Harley helped himself to a big heaping plate of what was left in the trays and walked over to their table. “So, cross-referencing your information? Anything interesting?”

“Not yet,” Interface sighed. “So far, everyone that we’ve talked to was way more interested in Spark’s Exemplar State thingamabob than in you, Spark or Charge. Heck, some of ‘em didn’t even know your name.”

“How sure are you about that?”

“I can ‘interface’ with both computers and human minds. They’re not really sure how I do it, but I can do it. So, I’m pretty sure that they were on the up and up.”

“Y’mean we got computers that are as complicated as human minds now?”

“Hey, like I said- we’re not really sure HOW I do it, I just do it. Actually, computers are a lot easier than human minds. But picking up surface thoughts is pretty easy.”

They batted around a few ideas, but kept coming back to ‘need more information’. Both Interface and Kew begged off further brainstorming, saying that they had homework to get to. How come you never see the X-Men sweating over an English paper? ‘Good Lord! Magneto has taken the UN General Assembly hostage! We must stop him!’ ‘Sorry, guys, I’d love to help, but I have a History essay due tomorrow.’

Harlan started going over what he’d learned in the tunnels, when he heard chairs scrape, and two people sat next to him. Snapping back to reality, Harlan looked to either side of him. He’d been expecting another gay-bashing to start, but he was pleasantly surprised- and utterly baffled. Two girls he didn’t recognize were sitting on either side of him, with smiles almost tearing off their faces. They were both lovely- and wearing Superhero outfits. “I thought that they’d NEVER leave!” the brunette in the white outfit with the black cape said.

“Oh, MAN, you turned out great!” gushed the blonde in the blue outfit with the white cape.

“Do I… ah… know either of you?” Harlan said uncomfortably.

“Oh sure!” the brunette said breezily. “I’m Delta Spike! We met this afternoon, when you pulled the plug on that galvanomorph, remember?”

Harlan peered at her face. Yes, she was wearing her hair in a much more becoming style, she’d gotten rid of the clunky glasses, and we was wearing a touch of lipstick and eyeliner, but it was definitely the girl that he’d met earlier. “Wow. I always thought that that ‘Clark Kent is just Superman wearing glasses bit’ was a joke!”

“See?” Delta Spike said across Harlan to the blonde, “I TOLD you those AR glasses would do the trick! Of course, it’s not just the glasses,” she turned back to Harlan, “there’s hair and body language, and the lab coat helps a lot. But unless you wanna be like Bugs, wearing capri pants and miniskirts and like all that, and have all the lab rats drooling all over you all the time, y’gotta hide your light under a bushel a little.” Delta flipped her glossy black hair back and preened. “Oh, and this is Marty, or ‘Mega-Girl’, as she’s called in the Cape Squad.”

“Yeah!” Mega-Girl glowed. “We just hadda come over and congratulate you! I mean, MAN, what a sweet move! How’d you manage to pull it off?”

“Pull it off?”

“So, when are they gonna move you over to Poe?”


Delta reached over and slapped Marty’s hand. “So, who says that she’s gotta move to Poe? I mean, we’re getting pretty packish over there. And she’s got that sweet arrangement with Spark over in Melville, I hear. Speaking of whom, Reach, where IS Spark?”

“She’s, ah, still in the Workshop, hard at work. She got what Kew called ‘the Big Idea’.”

“Oh, good. Now look, Reach, I really want to tell you that I really wanna get in on this. Knickknack is being his usual prissy prima donna self about letting me into his BIT Splicer project, but induced bio-morphology is going to be big, like absolutely HUGE, the coming big thing, and I wanna be in on it!”

“Hey, she knows her stuff!” Mega-Girl held up her gauntleted fist. “She helped attune my outfit to my PK, so not only don’t I rip up my gloves when I’m punching something, but my suit actually has armor value now!”

“Ah, speaking of which,” Harlan had the distinct sense that this conversation had taken a left turn at Albuquerque on the road to reality, so he shifted to a safer topic, “Why are you wearing those outfits in the cafeteria?”

“HEY, _I_ am one of the Cape Squad!” Marty laid a hand on her impressive chest. “What’s the point of doing all the superhero training, if you can’t show off the goods every so often?”

“Besides, I wanted to sort of field test this outfit,” Delta Spike stood and turned. “Besides being both a Devisor AND a legitimate genius, I am an induced energizer-”

“ ‘Induced Energizer’?” Harlan had visions of Delta Spike in a pink bunny outfit, banging away at a drum.

“That means that she’s an Energizer, but she got that way because another Devisor did something to her, not ‘cause she was born with it.” Marty explained.

“ANYWAY, as I was saying,” Delta Spike ruthlessly dragged the topic back over to her, “I am an induced energizer- zaps, force field, flight, increased strength, increased healing rate, your basic overall energizer package. No one thing is really all that great, BUT, this suit harnesses, focuses and refines my energy. The body stocking is tough enough to stop a .45 round at ten feet. It also gives me enough structural support so that I increase my dead-lift weight from roughly 2,200 pounds to 6,500 pounds. THESE-” she pointed at the black bands on her wrists that contrasted so much with her mostly white outfit, “refine my energy zaps into more effective forms. Still haven’t gotten the ‘freeze ray’ to work right yet though.” She shrugged that off. “Anyway, after getting that ‘Space Ghost’-”

“Space Ghost?”  Harlan hooted in confusion, “The talk show guy?”

“Philistine,” Delta sniffed. “No appreciation for the Classics. Anyway, after all that, I just had to build an ‘Inviso’ screen into my cape.” She touched a triangular plate on her chest, and her long black cape went transparent, turning at least the part of her that was covered by it effectively invisible. “Now, if only I could get the rest of my suit to do the same. But, you can only pack so much into something that’s only 2.7mm thick.”

“Enough of that!” Mega-Girl said, “What’s really important here, is that you gotta find some way of stabilizing, or you could blow it!”

“Stabilizing?” Harlan said, in more confusion.

“Yes, Spark may not have mentioned this, but all of her previous attempts at BIT-conversion only have only lasted a little while,” Delta Spike said seriously. “Now, obviously you don’t want to go back into the splicer every few days- I mean, beauty is one thing, but that’s just plain maschocistic! BUT, if you talk Spark into letting me in on this little project, I think that between the two of us, we can have you nice and stable in, oh, at least by Easter.”

“You … think … that you can have me back to being a boy by Easter? But Jenny says that I should change back in a week or so!”

“You … WANT … to change back to being a boy?”

“HAIL Yeah!”

Both Mega-Girl and Delta Spike’s jaws were scraping on the ground and they were beginning to blither, when Charge and Migraine walked up. “Are we interrupting anything? Adalie asked with a chilly tone in her voice.

“Oh, NO!” Harlan got up. “I was just finishing! You couldn’t be more on time! I came to get some dinner, and I was gonna take something for Jenny- she’s staying late at the Workshop. Maybe you’d have a good idea what she’d like?”

“I see that you’re very popular,” Adalie said with a sniff as Delta-Spike and Mega-Girl left.

“Thank you!” Harlan said with gusty sincerity. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou! I thought that I’d NEVER get away from those dingbats!”


“Those two nutbars back there!” Harlan let out a shuddering blustery breath.

“They are very pretty …” Adalie said with Gallic suspicion.

“That’s Delta Spike, the one with the black cape. Remember, the whacko with the galvanomorph?”

“You’re joking!” Adalie said, eyes wide. She sneaked a peek back. “THAT is Delta Spike?”

“I never joke about crazy.”

“What did she want?”

“She wanted in on Jenny’s XSI project.”

“Well, she would,” Charge sniffed. “Instead of being a place of serious and dignified Scientific Inquiry, the Workshop is more like the backstage of le Grand Opera.”

“And, she offered to help me stay a girl, if you can believe that.”

Adalie crossed her eyes. “Why would she think that?”

“Not important. So, any ideas of what Jenny would like for dinner?”

“You were serious back there with Delta Spike?”

“Not really, I was winging it, but a good idea is a good idea. So, think that she’ll notice that the lasagna is a little old?”

“Philistine,” Adalie muttered. “But not to worry, Lothario.” She walked up to the line and ordered a ‘Devisor Special’ to go. The cook poured some soup into a sealed container and added it to an already prepared box meal. Adalie waved aside the offered cup of coffee, in favor of an herbal tea.

“What’s that?”

“A Devisor Special. Finger food and hot soup. A nice healthy balanced meal that’s a trifle bland but can be eaten while the consumer is on automatique. Perfect for Devisors, intense artistes, academics and other absent-minded types. If not for these, Genevieve would have starved to death, weeks ago.”

Harlan and the girls went back to the Workshop, and the ‘Devisor Special’ got them past with barely a hitch. Jenny accepted the meal, but scarcely noticed it. Instead, the second that she saw Harlan, she ran a bunch of instruments all over him and asked him to stretch as far as he could. That done, she measured him at his default dimensions, and then she went back to her work. Still, her hand went almost automatically to the carryout carton and snagged one of the bite-sized sandwiches.

Seeing that that was all there was to be done at the moment, Harlan, Adalie and Romy quietly left the laboratory. “Is she like that ALL the time?”

Non,” Adalie sighed. “Most of the time, she’s as you know her, a sweet, lovely girl who just needs to stand up for herself a little more. But when le grande inspiration strikes, well, she’s more of an automaton than a girl.”

“Any idea what she’s up to?”

“Well, I’d say that she was knitting her boyfriend a sweater, but what sort of sweater could you make that that poisseuse?”

Harlan was about to hazard a guess, when his ears picked up something that put him on his guard. He shushed Charge and Migraine and followed the sound of conversation down the non-isolated Secure Bays’ corridor. He finally picked out the voices. They were both young males, probably students. One spoke with a silky cosmopolitan European accent that carried a tone of annoyance. The other was wheedling in the sort of ‘posh’ accent that many Brits at Whateley affected. “- the possibilities!” The Brit cajoled.

“So, it’s yet another ‘Induced Exemplar’ craze. What of it? There were three last year, and there will probably be at least two more this year,” the Continental dismissed. “Nothing came of those, and most likely, nothing will come of this one.”

“Ah, but this one is different!” the Brit insisted. “This was no mere fluke! Spark fully intended to change the stretcher boy into a girl, and succeeded completely!”

“And what would YOU know about it?”

The voices were coming right at them. Harlan didn’t want them clamming up, not when the conversation was just getting interesting. He reached up and grabbed one of the overhead pipes and hauled Adalie and Romy up out of sight. The two boys walked along under them, as a quadrupedal robot pushed a cart through the corridor.

Harlan barely recognized the shorter, rounder one as Belphegor. Well, it was the first time that he’d seen the slug without that idiotic chair of his- they must have confiscated it as part of his punishment. The other one was taller, more slender, and something of a pretty-boy, with long blonde hair pulled back in a braid that fell halfway down his back. He wore a long old-fashioned coat with a jabot, of all things and was carrying a walking stick like a 19th Century dandy. “Well,” Belphegor smarmed, “I knew that Spark was hot on the trail of something with her Neurological Engram Inducer, and I managed to get my hands on it.”

“Would this hand be the one that led Reach right to your secret cache of stolen experiments?”

Belphegor made a dismissive noise. “Please! He… inconvenienced me in the morning, and he was strapped to a slab, being an experiment in the afternoon. As the Americans would say, ‘You do the Math’.”

“Yes, and according to the Math, you were doing hard labor in the sewers during the time in question.”

Belphegor puffed himself up even more than usual. “Yeeesss … a perfect alibi is the true hallmark of a genius …”

“And if you’re such a genius, then why do you need anything from me?”

“Well, Great Nephandus, just because I am the true force behind this great breakthrough-”

By this time they’d moved down the corridor beyond Reach’s ability to follow the conversation. Harlan wished that he could stretch down to listen in better, but he couldn’t drop Adalie or Romy. He watched in frustration as Belphegor and Nephandus walked down the corridor, their exchange little better than a blur of muttering and wheedling. When the two devisors passed through a security lock, Harlan carefully brought the girls down to the floor. He rushed to the security lock, but Belphegor and Nephandus had already passed out of sight.

Harlan looked at Adalie and Romy. “Either of you know who this ‘Nephandus’ is?”

Romy nodded. “He’s a combination Wizard and Devisor. I’ve heard that he summons dark spirits and binds them to power those robots of his. Also, he’s one of the ‘Bad Seeds’.”

“Bad Seeds?”

“There are students here at Whateley, the children of known supervillains,” Adalie explained. “They’re called ‘the Bad Seeds’, as they’re obviously just preparing for their entries into the world of villainy.”

A Wizard AND a Devisor? The combination of magic and technology offered too much in both Motive and Means of Entry, to be ignored. “We’ve got to talk to Jenny, to see if she’s had any run-ins with this ‘Nephandus’ guy.”

“I’d be amazed if she hasn’t,” Adalie commented as they returned to the elevator to the Isolated Ultra-Secure level. “Nephandus is constantly in and out of this place, and he regards chasing pretty girls as something between a sport and a religious devotion.”

But when they got to Jenny’s lab, she didn’t answer. Given what happened to him, Harlan started to freak out, but Adalie remained calm. She called the guard on the night watch and had him open the lab. The lights were still on, and from where they were, they could see Jenny’s still form slumped over her workstation. “Jenny!” Harlan called out, and he reached forward for her.

But Adalie zipped in front of him. “Don’t worry, Romeo. Sweet Juliet is not dead, but dost simply sleep.” Indeed, as they came closer, Harlan could hear her breathing. Even though she had one cheek resting in some of her goop, Jenny was breathing regularly.

“What happened to her? She was full of energy ten minutes ago?”

“Looks like it’s just a lack of coffee,” the security guard said. “The devisors here damn near hook themselves up to caffeine IV drips to keep themselves going. Those devisor jags can be damn tiring.”

“I had something to do with that,” Adalie admitted. “Instead of the usual coffee, I had the cafeteria lady include a cup of chamomile tea. She was pushing herself very hard, putting together that trap for you, and she didn’t get a wink of sleep last night worrying about you. And if I let her, she’d have worked herself to death putting… whatever that is together, to make amends. I just wanted for her to get a good night’s sleep.”

Harlan nodded, seeing the common sense in it. “Okay, but what ELSE did you put in there? It hit her pretty hard!”

“Oh, nothing! Genevieve’s mother always gave her some chamomile to help her get to sleep.” Charge paused. “Though, I admit, I didn’t expect her to go to sleep THAT fast…”

“Oh well…” Harlan sighed as he picked Jenny up and settled her into his arms. “If she’s gonna sleep, she might as well sleep over in Melville, where she’ll wake up comfortable. C’mon, let’s go.”

“And where are WE going?” Adalie asked, her voice sharp with suspicion again.

“Melville. That is, unless you trust me to put her into her jammies?”

“Let’s go,” Charge grumped.

Thursday, November 31st

Jenny woke up the next day refreshed and eager to get back to work on her project. “NO, you don’t!” Harlan said sternly. “You already lost one day this weekend to a ‘Devisor Day’. YOU are going to classes, so that you won’t be that far behind. Your project can wait until your regular lab time.” Jenny grumped, but allowed Harlan to push her in the general direction of the Crystal Hall for breakfast.

Breakfast was awkward, with Spy Kidz sitting with them. people from the Beret Mafia coming over and speaking with Jenny in rapid fire French, and the two groups not exactly mixing very well. As Automa-Tech, the snippish ‘Queen Bee’ of the Berets left with her entourage, Harlan was reminded of something. “I just remembered. When Adalie, Romy and I headed back to the Workshop to bring you dinner last night, we overheard Belphegor and some guy called Nephandus talking about you and your XSI project. Belphegor was making noises that he’d arranged the whole thing.”

“Not a chance,” Darren said flat out. “Belphegor was doing hard detention all day yesterday. They didn’t even let him out for dinner until hours after you’d gotten trapped. The only way that he could have arranged the trap, was if he set it before we busted him.”

“And we were following him remotely,” Rez said sturdily. “He didn’t come anywhere near Spark’s secure lab.”

“Maybe,” Ace said. “On the other hand, if one of the Bad Seeds is involved in this, we gotta check it out. Nephandus is bad news. He has the skills to set that trap, there could be some strange magical way that he could get into the secure labs, AND, he’s ruthless enough pull it off, just to see if the XSI was worth stealing.”

“Really?” Harlan pondered. “He didn’t sound all that interested in what Belphegor was trying to peddle.”

“Well, if he was the real mastermind behind the trap, then he’d know that Belfo was talking out of his ass, now wouldn’t he?” Interface pointed out. “Also, we don’t know where pretty evil boy was during the time in question, or what he was doing.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Kew said. “Keeping track of the Bad Seeds is like trying to nail rainwater to the wall; they’re just too good at getting around our trackers.”

Then Zenith and Sahar walked up. “Hey! Just thought that I’d bring you guys the latest from Security- they’ve ID’d those speakers that were used in the trap. They were built and designed by a guy code named ‘Goodvibes’. He claims that they were stolen from his locker.”

“Well, he WOULD, now wouldn’t he?”

“Yeah, but he’s got an alibi for the time in question,” Zenith maintained.

“Also, he wouldn’t have any interest in my XSI, let alone the skill in setting it up” Jenny pointed out. “Biophysics is well out of his spheres of interest.”

“Besides, everyone knows that Dr. Goodvibes is, like, one of two or three guys to go to for really high end resonance hardware,” Rez added.

“And he’s been trying to get his stuff into a secure locker for weeks,” Kew threw in. “So getting it wouldn’t exactly be a challenge.”

“Anyway, Security says that there are no fingerprints on it, not even Goodvibes’,” Zenith tried to get them back on track.

“And if he was slick enough to get into a secure lab, he’d have known enough  not to use his own equipment, or at least, he wouldn’t bother to wipe off his own fingerprints,” A-Plus extrapolated.

They milled it over a bit more, but they were just spinning their wheels. Finally, they had to break for classes, without really coming up with anything further. As they left, Zenith held onto Harlan, but shooed Jenny off to class. “There’s a little something that we have to talk with Harley about. In private.”

As Jenny skittered off with Adalie and Romy, casting a suspicious glance over her shoulder, Zenith started, “Now, Harley, about yesterday… with Delta Spike and Mega-Girl…”

“Hey, I am not gonna badger Jenny into letting that girl in on her project! That chick is bizarre! Even for Whateley!”

“Eeerrr … yes… I’ll have to give you that one,” Zoe said with a pained smile. “Come, let’s walk and talk. No, I wasn’t lobbying for Elaine. Rather, I’d like to ask you a huge favor. I’d be terribly obliged if you didn’t tell anyone about that …”

“Why?” Harlan said warily.

“You could have put that better, Zoe,” Sahar said. “Now you’ve got him all suspicious.” Zoe obviously wracked her brains to figure how to frame her request better. “No good, Z. Now he’s really suspicious. Better give him the down-low, or he’ll go nuts trying to figure it out.”

Zenith gave a gusty breath of annoyance. “Okay, but first, I want your word- your solemn word- that you’ll keep this in strictest confidence.” Harlan gave her a puzzled look, but nodded. “Harley. SAY it.”

“Okay, okay! I give you my solemn word that I’ll keep this in the strictest confidence.”

“Okay, here goes- the reason why Delta Spike thought that you wanted to stay as a girl, was that she was born a boy.”

What?” Harlan asked in sheer disbelief.

“Look, she was born a boy named Elliot in Silicon Valley, but she says that she knew that she should have been born a girl since, like, she was six. The whole ‘tragic transsexual’ story, you’ve probably seen it on Oprah. BUT, besides being a transsexual, she was also both a legitimate genius and a Devisor. When her Devisor trait kicked in, her first thought was to build a gizmo to change herself into a girl. Fortunately for herself, her family and probably the entire greater San Jose area, she had a rare flash of common sense and figured out that she’d have to get every aspect of it right the first time, or royally screw herself over. While she was trying to figure a way around this, she discovered an article on-line about a particularly screwy ‘mad scientist’ type called ‘Dr. Pygmalion’, or just ‘Dr. Pyg’ for short.

“Now, Dr. Pyg is rather famous- or should I say, notorious- even in Mad Science circles. This is because, while he says that he’s studying the nature of Preterhuman Abilities, for some reason, all of his male test subjects come out of his devise as gorgeous, busty, libidinous, airhead bimbos. Most of them have some sort of superhuman ability, but they’re all bimbos who are utterly, slavishly devoted to HIM.”

“So, you’re sayin’ that this ‘Dr. Pygmalion’ is some kind of pervert?”

“Of EPIC proportions,” Zenith sighed. “Anyway, what Elliot did next was pure Delta Spike. Elliot started frequenting the 'Teen Genius', 'Teen TG' and Devisor-fan chat-rooms and forums, all using different log-on names, but from the same bogus account. After about seven months of trolling the chat rooms, Elliot finally got a bite from someone that he was reasonably certain was Dr. Pyg. Then Dr. Pyg casually suggested a Next Level project in Private Chat. Elliot bit in as far as he managed to make the gizmo work. Then he notified the Police and the local superheroes, and arranged a 'sting'. During the meet, Elliot allowed Dr. Pyg to stuff him into his babe-ification devise and change him into her. But before Dr. Pyg could use his brainwashing gizmo, which was apparently a separate part of the process- no matter WHAT he says- as to get a teen devisor in his harem, Elliot yelled out the vox-recog trigger in the devise that he’d brought to Dr. Pyg. This set off a 'neuralizer wave' gimmick that caused everyone in its range to forget everything that had happened during their span of short-term memory. This was the Cops and superheroes’ cue to bust in. It turns out that besides turning Elliot into a girl, it turned her into a functioning Exemplar and Energizer combo. Still, remember that Dr. Pyg’s babe-ification rig IS a devise. So, Delta was packed off to Whateley. But, even by Whateley standards, Elaine is pretty dang weird, so she got shoved into Poe. After bouncing through a few roommates, she managed to get Mega-Girl, and they get along, and she isn’t weirded out by Elaine or anything.

“The point here, is that Elaine may be a global level flake, but she’s a very sweet person, and she did a GOOD thing in taking down Dr. Pyg. But now, she’s afraid that you’ll out her as TS. Harley, after what you went through with TNT, I’d think that you’d agree that being the target of that kind of raw bigotry isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.”

“Yeah… but… deliberately turning yourself into a GIRL?”

“Classic Delta Spike. Elaine sort of has the problem that while she’s a whiz at getting from Point A to Point E and figuring out what Points B, C and D are, she hasn’t quite wrapped her head around the fact that there are Points F, G, through Z involved. It just never occurred to her that she might have missed something when she was setting up Dr. Pyg- like the fact that Dr. Pyg’s Guinea Pygs are still fanatically loyal to him, and want her head on a plate.”

“The point being,” Sahar took over for Zenith and looked Harlan straight in the eyes with her odd red-ringed ones, “can we have your promise, your WORD as a Man of Honor, that you won’t divulge this to anyone? After all, it seems that Dr. Pygmalion’s transformation process is permanent, so she is a fully functioning legitimate female now, no matter what she was born. She isn’t hurting anyone by enjoying her life as such. To ‘out’ her would only cause problems that resolve nothing. Do I have your word?”

Harlan thought it over for a bit and saw Semi’s point. Delta Spike might be a little weird- even by Whateley standards- but he didn’t really see any harm in her. And as for the idea of ‘outing’ Delta to divert the homophobes and bullies- well, that was both repugnant and futile, the act of the sleaziest kind of weasel. “Okay. You have my word, as a Man of Honor.”

Sahar nodded with a smile and let Harlan get to his classes. As Harlan headed off to Shuster Hall, Zoe leaned over to her best friend and lover and whispered, “Did I get a sense of a telepathic probe going on?”

“Yes. Just making sure of things.”

“OH?” Zenith said with a chilly note of disapproval.

“I didn’t make up his mind for him,” Semi defended herself. “He chose to protect Delta’s secret all on his own. I just added a small suggestion, to help him keep his word. Every time that he starts to phrase anything that mentions Delta Spike and her secret, he’ll be reminded, so that it doesn’t slip off his tongue.”

Hhmmm …” Zenith muse. “I see, pretty harmless … But still, you did it without his permission … We’ll have to work out the ethics of this one.”

“But I’m trying!

“I know, sweetheart, but Ethics are tricky, even for people who aren’t fighting old ingrained reflexes. Let’s just talk about this one for a while, hmmm?”

Friday, December 1st

Walking around Whateley with either Jenny or one of the Spy Kidz as a girl was one thing. Poking around the maze of tunnels around the Workshop was more of the same. But walking through the halls of Shuster as a girl by him(?)self was a whole different thing. And there was the embarrassing moment at the beginning of each class, where the teacher called out his name (or code name, depending on the class), and Harlan had to show his note from the Administration. And then the teacher would announce to the class that Harlan was the ‘victim of a devisor accident, which hopefully will lapse quickly’. And, of course, the kids in class would react with all the restraint, decorum, maturity and compassion that you can expect from a bunch of 15-year olds. When Harlan caught up with whoever re-rigged Jenny’s trap, he was gonna mash their face in!

Still, despite his state of almost constant near-lethal levels of embarrassment, Harlan found that his classes went very smoothly. Well, the academic parts of them anyway. He was taking the core elements for the Non-Exemplar/Genius students, the stock Math, History, Science, etc. classes, and he was enjoying a good B average. But he’d always needed to work at it. But now, Math, his worst subject, was, like, a breeze! He found himself doing complex polynomials in his head! His Math teacher just looked at his work, sniffed, and said something about hoping that some of that stuck, once the ‘Exemplar’ thing wore off.

The less said about Harlan’s experiences in the girls’ room, the better.

Even with the brief respite at Lunch, Harlan was only too glad when he hooked up with Jenny at the end of the day, and had a little craved-for emotional support. “Rough day?” Interface asked roguishly, as Jenny gave Harlan a kiss on the cheek.

“You have no idea …” Harlan droned. “And tomorrow, they say I gotta do it in a girl’s uniform.”

“Oh!” Jenny piped up, “Speaking of uniforms, my latest project is almost finished, and it’s at the First Test stage!”

“Oh? What is it?”

Jenny just smiled minxishly and said they’d have to see.

“Jenny?” Harlan asked from behind the screen. “Are you sure about this?”

“Of course I am!”

“It’s … a little … unforgiving…”

“Oh, don’t be shy ‘Arlee!” she chided. “I have to show it to M’sieur Asterlitz for his hokay!”

“I am NOT coming out!”

“Why? You look fine, ‘Arlee… Oh wait. Bête moi… ‘Ere, put this on and fasten it onto the combine-slip at the top of the fastener.” She handed Harlan what looked like a utility vest.

“Well… that’s better,” Harlan admitted. “Sorta.” Grumbling, Harlan stepped out. While the vest covered his torso from the shoulder to just at the hip, the rest of his body was wrapped in a form-fitting black sheath. Not that the vest did a very good job of concealing his current feminine contours.

Interface let out a wolf-whistle and started making grunting noises. A-Plus shushed him. “Did it ever occur to you, that maybe this is why you’re having such a hard time getting a date?” she chided him.

Mr. Asterlitz looked Harlan up and down. “Well, so far a good fit. Now precisely, Miss Etincelle, what interesting properties does this project have?”

“But of course!” Jenny said chipperly.  “’Arley, would you reach over to there and pick up that wrench on the bench, sil vouz plais?

“Are you sure?” Harlan wondered. The sleeves of the outfit covered his arms like a coat of paint, and it would only slow him down.

Mais Oui. Just reach over and pick it up, please.”

Harlan shrugged and reached over. He expected the sleeve to resist him and then burst, but he didn’t notice any resistance at all. The sheath was like a second skin and it flexed with him as he stretched. When he retracted his arm with the wrench in hand, the sleeve didn’t bunch up or ride along his shoulder, the way it normally did. Experimentally, Harlan stretched out first one, then two, then different combinations of his fingers on both hands. The fingers on the gloves stretched and retracted with his fingers. Then he stretched both legs to see if they did likewise. They did. “I don’t even feel any drag,” he commented as he closely examined his hands.

“I altered my symbiot design so that each mote only stretched out laterally, while still making it so that it attuned to PK energy,” Jenny explained to Mr. Asterlitz. “So each mote reacts to ‘Arley’s PK as he stretches, matching his movement. When I started, I was working with a standard cloth mesh pattern, but I found that a long-chain sequence wasn’t as strong as I’d hoped, so I adopted a radial matrix based on the fractal patterns that PK force fields use. Besides being structurally stronger, the matrixes duplicate the impact defraction mechanism that PK force fields use for an absolute hardness factor of 650 and an impact strength of 1240 kg. p.s.i.”

“Which means?” Ace asked.

Jenny swung the wrench at Harlan’s arm, hitting him on the biceps. The wrench bounced off Harlan’s arm. “I didn’t feel a thing!” he gasped.

“The fullerene matrixes filter ‘Arley’s PK energy into the patterns of a PK force field. I estimate that ‘Arley could take a round from a .45 caliber gun at close range while wearing that. Also, M’sieur Asterlitz? If you’d try to grab ‘Arley by the arm?”

Asterlitz was game, and tried to take hold of Harlan. But while Harlan didn’t resist, and Asterlitz had no problem in actually grabbing him, he found that holding on was another matter. His hand just slid off. “As a side effect of the protective factor, the force field resists most attempts to seize the wearer,” Jenny explained. “This ‘slick’ effect covers the surface of the entire suit, except for a few ‘anchoring points’ for the vest, the bottoms of the feet and the palms of the gloves. Also, it resists paint-” Jenny seized a squeeze bottle of colored liquid and squirted it on Harlan. The paint dribbled off without discoloring the suit in the least. “-Glue-” Jenny took another bottle and squirted glue on Harlan, which has as little effect as the paint did. “-and even Acid!” Jenny picked up a glass filled with a liquid and poured it on Harlan’s arm. It dribbled off with as little effect as either the paint or the glue. She dipped a metal stub into what liquid was left in the glass; it dissolved, proving that it was, indeed, sulfuric acid.

“But what about grass stains?” Interface quipped.

But Jenny was on a roll. “The suit is programmed to maintain a steady, comfortable 65 degree Fahrenheit temperature for the wearer, sealing body heat in if the external temperature is below 65 degrees, and expelling the heat if it’s over 65 outside. There is a special mechanism for expelling skin moisture in the areas of the hands, feet, groin and arm pits. There is a more diffuse system for dispersing skin moisture for the rest of the body. Oh! Oh, yes! Also the heat-control mechanism reacts instantaneously to abrupt changes in external temperature.” She lit a Bunsen burner and waved the flame at Harlan.

“Jeez!” Harlan reacted, but in fact, he didn’t feel the flame at all. When he realized that he hadn’t been burned, he gingerly reached for the flame.

“NON, ARLEE!” Jenny snapped, pulling the burner away from his hand. “I had to forgo that on the hands, or you wouldn’t be able to feel anything with your hands!” She collected herself. “Voyons, ce qui fait oublier je? Oh évidemment! Since this may have to function as a costume de discrétion, er, ‘Stealth Suit’, I tweaked the suit so that it could trigger a choice of two stealth functions. ‘Arlee, think ‘brouillard’.”


“Uhm… ‘Fog’. The mist, not the word. Your visor has a thought-pattern recognition trigger.”

Harlan shrugged and noticeably concentrated. Then his entire body from the neck down flickered and seemed to go transparent.

“Besides preserving ‘Arley’s modesty, the vest contains a series of sensors that feed visual data to the matrixes in the suit, creating a combination of the PK force field bending light around ‘Arley, and the suit itself blending into what’s behind it. Et viola, a camouflage effect.”

“Not quite Invisibility,” Mr. Asterlitz remarked as he made a few notes on his pad.

C’est vrai, but much better for sneaking around unnoticed than most camouflage systems. As long as he doesn’t try to move in the open, or when someone’s looking directly at him, he should go unnoticed.”

“That is, as long as people don’t think that heads floating in midair is weird,” A-Plus sniped.

“I didn’t want to work on a hood until the rest of the system has been approved,” Jenny sniffed. “Besides, I was going to work on that next, when I fell asleep.” Harlan reached over and gave Jenny a consoling kiss on the cheek.

As Jenny blushed, Mr. Asterlitz cleared his throat to get back to the matter at hand. “And what’s the other stealth function?”

“Ah, when ‘Arley thinks ‘frost’ or ‘ice’, the matrixes will react as though the external temperature had dropped to absolute zero. In this mode, ‘Arley will present absolutely NO heat signature for Infrared or Thermograph imaging to detect. In this setting, the matrixes shunt excess body heat into a special bladder in the vest. In normal sub-zero conditions, the bladder would bleed off the heat continuously. But when triggered from the visor, the bladder contains the heat for up to sixteen minutes, and then vent it in a concentrated blast.”

“Wow, Harl- you got flaming farts!” Interface jeered.

“Oh yes, and the vest also provides extra protection to ‘Arley’s soft areas, the floating ribs and the neck,” Jenny continued, primly ignoring Interface. “And, evidentment, it has pockets and storage clips for various bits of equipment, which the bodysuit’s basic design precludes.”

“Okay, Jen,” Harlan interrupted, but what are these things at the tips of my little fingers?”

“Ah! There’s always something! Besides its other properties, the fullerene carbon can also carry a signal, when properly treated. Those tips are mini-cameras that transmit an image of what you aim them at to a screen in your visor. This will allow you to see around corners, down pipes and so on, without exposing your head. Just think 'periscope' and the cameras will activate.”

Asterlitz tested it my having Harlan read something on his clipboard from across the room, using only the ‘pinky cam’. Then he totted it all up and declared, “Very impressive, Spark. You’ve developed this concept quite a deal from your beginnings. The basics are reasonably simple, but the execution is versatile and useful, and it’s a direction that no one’s taken yet. So far, I’m giving this project a ‘B’. Of course, you DO realize that you still have to meet the final two tests?”

“Aahhh … What are those?” Harlan asked, a nagging feeling of dread crawling up his spine.

“First, the Devise test and then the Reliability test.”

“Devise test?”

“Devises aren’t Science, Reach,” Asterlitz said portentously. “SCIENCE can be replicated by anyone with the proper training, tools, facilities and procedures. Devises, while interesting, amusing and occasionally useful, aren’t Science. You can’t patent a devise, and ‘discoveries’ found with devises aren’t recognized by the Scientific Community. They are strange anomalies that contribute nothing to the store of Humanity’s knowledge. So, we will arrange for a non-devisor in the Advanced Technologies Program to have access to Spark’s notes. If they can recreate Spark’s tools to produce more of these fullerene matrixes and attune them to PK energy as to duplicate the effects of that suit, then it’s not a devise, but reproducible technology. That would put Spark’s grade in an entirely different category. Not to mention, it would mean that she’d get her first patent.”

Jenny reacted to hearing that in pretty much the same way that a Hollywood actress would react to being told that she’d been nominated for an Oscar. “Un brevet? Voulez-vous dire vraiment que je pourrais en recevoir un brevet? C'est grand! Mon premier semestre et je reçois mon premier brevet! Oh, mon Dieu!” She burbled on in French for a bit, jumped up and down and made a happy noise that started off as a squeal, broke off into giggling, and ended with a coo.

“In case you haven’t figured it out, Harl,” Kew said snidely, “getting a patent is pretty major here in the Workshop.”

Harlan relaxed a little. At least this ‘devisor test’ didn’t involve him doing anything like running through fire or swimming through acid, as he’d been envisioning. Then Asterlitz said, “The Reliability Test requires that you wear that suit as much as possible for at least two weeks.”

“What?” Harlan blurted in horror.

“Anything can look good for short periods of time. It’s only after prolonged use, particularly in specialty areas like your stretching or the reflex armor function, when we learn if a design really has what it’s supposed to. So, these fullerene matrixes respond as designed when you stretch now. So What? It’s what happens when they’ve been stretching repeatedly over a long period of time that’s really interesting. All sorts of glitches and side effects and wear & tear can happen. Spark’s design could hold up perfectly. OR, they could fall apart when you’re in the middle of a sparring session. OR, something totally unexpected could happen. THIS is Science, my dear! Certain sacrifices must be made!”

Harlan noted rebelliously to himself that the people who talked the loudest about sacrifices having to be made never seemed to be the ones actually called on to make the sacrifices themselves. “How long are we talking about?”

“Oh, as I said, roughly two weeks.”

“And I have to wear this every day?”

“Of course. That’s the point.”

“All the time?”

“I’ll write a note explaining the situation for your teachers.”


“That IS the idea.”

“Even in BED?”

“In Bed?” Asterlitz paused and considered. “No, I don’t think that that will quite be necessary.”

Harlan gave Jenny a hard look. “You DID make this thing washable, didn’t you?”

“Of course! As a matter of fact, the fullerene matrixes will move all skin moisture, excess oils and other such… things… from your skin to the exterior. All that you’ll have to do is rinse it out.”

“Won’t the force field stop that?”

“You’ll have to take it OFF, of course.” Jenny said primly.

“Okay, I can see that. Now, how do I use the toilet in this thing?”


Harlan came out of the girls’ room looking rather annoyed. “Well, that just means that there’ll be something for ‘Mark II’,” A-Plus said with a smirk.

Harlan unnecessarily adjusted the fit of the suit. “Hey, Rez, can I borrow one of those lab coat things?”

“Sure. Why?”

“I don’t like the stares I’m getting.”

When they returned to the Case room, Interface snarked, “Ooohh … black longcoat, slick leggings, visor- nobody’d take you for a spy in THAT getup!”

Harlan just flipped I-face off. “If you’re so amused by it, why don’t you ask Jenny to make YOU one?”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind something like that,” Ace commented as he looked up from the schematic that he was checking.

“Yer kiddin’!”

“No,” Ace maintained. “It’s a step up from our current outfit in almost every way. Superior armor, camouflage, and anti-grapple qualities, wonderful protection against heat and chemical attacks, and it’s at least as inconspicuous as what we wear now. The ‘pinky cam’ sounds like a good idea and I’ll bet that if it doesn’t have a self-repair function now, her next iteration of it will. Mind you, I wouldn’t ask any of you who aren’t stretchers, like Reach, or Exemplars, like A-Plus or me, to wear it. But still, if it survives the 2-week Reliability test, I’ll bet that Spark gets a LOT of requests for a suit from various Exemplars and PK superman-types.”

Hmmm?” Rez gave Harlan a long look over. “I wonder how it would work on a package deal psychic…” she muttered to herself.

“YEAH!” Interface leered, “Show OFF that bod, Rez!”

Kenya blushed furiously and said primly, “Well, Reach has proven that it does go well with a lab coat, and I often wear one of those anyway…”

“Well, you’ll figure it out when you’re doing the Devisor test, Kenya,” Darren said. Then he glowered at I-face, who promptly backed down.

“So, what are we looking at?” Harlan said to get the topic back on a more professional track.

“We’re trying to track Nephandus’ whereabouts at the time that you were attacked,” Holdout said. “Like everyone else at the Workshop, he has a bay and a locker. BUT, like his buddy Belphegor, it’s pretty much agreed that he has at least ONE secret lab hidden somewhere, where he does the work that he doesn’t want the Administration to know about.”

“Like summoning demons,” Ace muttered as he looked over a section of wiring diagram.

“Bad joke,” Harlan muttered back as he peeked over Ace’s shoulder.

“So who’s joking?”


“The word is that he summons up demons- minor demons, ‘Imps’ are the proper term, I think, but still demons- and binds them into those nasty little robots that he always has with him.” A-Plus said from where she was checking out a ventilation layout.

“They let him DO that?”

“It’s that famous ‘Whateley Neutrality’,” Interface said dryly. “As long as he doesn’t sic the damned things on anyone, or ‘recklessly endanger’ anybody by doing so, then it falls under the heading of ‘Mystic Arts Training’.”

“So they just let him hone his skills here, so when he graduates, he’ll be able to recklessly endanger people who aren’t mutants with powers to protect them?” Harlan asked, aghast.

“Pretty much,” Kew said. “But there IS a definite upside to it- while HE may be perfecting his nasty little bag of tricks, there are at least a dozen people on campus looking over his shoulder, who’ll know ALL ABOUT them when he tries to pull them out in the real world.”

“Maybe.” Harlan peered at the diagram. “Wait a minute. Something’s wrong here. This coolant pipe doesn’t dogleg here. It proceeds at least another 100 yards in this direction before making that 90 degree turn.”

“Are you sure about that, Reach?” Darren asked.

“Hey, I’m the one who’s been over every inch of this place in past few days- YES, I’m sure! I just couldn’t put in into perspective until now.”

“Kenya, make a virtual copy of this schematic, and then project an image that we can adjust. Harley, start from there, and make every correction that you can spot.”

A half-hour later, Harlan had drastically altered the layout of that portion of the blueprints. Kew, Interface and Rez lent their technical expertise, and they pieced together a decidedly different picture of how the section of the Workshop that Nephandus was believed to be spending his unaccounted-for hours in, looked. “Woof! Look at it! THREE unexplained areas, all with connections to the power and drainage grids.”

“SO, now all that we have to do is figure out which of them is Nephandus’ unsupervised lab,” Ace said as he assumed a dramatic posture leaning over the hologram layout.” As they were poring over it, Jenny came in and started kibitzing curiously. As Harlan explained the layout, she raised her eyebrows.

“This is all very interesting, but it does not work, I’m afraid.”

“Why not?” Kew asked defensively.

“Yes, these areas do exist, and they are drawing on power from these energy-drain masking systems here, here, here and here. However, there is a material problem.” The assembled Spy Kidz all gave her a ‘well?’ look. “HOW does he get INTO any of these places?” Jenny traced out a track that they’d pieced together for Nephandus’ usual path on his way to this month’s hidden lair. “See? All the walls along his path are either load-bearing supports, or they’re riddled with energy lines, fiber optics or water pipes. He’d be an idiot to interrupt any of those walls with a secret entrance; Maintenance would be there in a heartbeat, and Security two seconds after them!”

A-Plus made a disgusted ‘tisk’. “Y’know, she’s right.”

Harlan looked at the schematic, and then a metaphorical light bulb popped up over his head. “No WONDER the Bad Seeds are giving you guys such a runaround! They’re the kids of supervillains, right? So, they know all the usual tricks for secret entrances and all like that, AND they know that YOU guys know all the usual tricks. SO, they think outside the box!” Harlan made adjustments to the hologram map.

Ace looked down at the whole new dimension that Reach was suggesting, and then looked up sharply at Reach. “When did YOU get so competent?”

Fifth Period Basic Martial Arts

Tolman-sensei said sternly, “Reach, I thought that it was understood that all students were to wear gis.”

“Special circumstances,” Harlan said as he handed her the note from Mr. Asterlitz.

Tolman-sensei read the note, and her expression softened. “Ah. The first Reliability Test of the school year. Well, this should be interesting- seeing as how you’ll be testing that suit AND your new physique at the same time. Let’s hope that something is an improvement, no, Reach? Very well, you and Shuttle, on the mat!”

Harlan stepped onto the mat with the cocky young African-American. Shuttle was one of the Tigers, the Afro-Centric martial arts clique at Whateley, but for all his after-school studying, he was still a freshman and pretty much a beginner. Still, he was working his Warper power quite nicely into his Kung Fu technique. Harlan rather wondered why Shuttle was still in the Fifth Period BMA class, which was pretty well known for being filled with the lamer students- like Reach. “Hey Reach!” Shuttle called from across the mat, where he was dancing on the balls of his feet. “If you think I’m gonna take it easy on you, just ‘cause you came outta the closet, then you are seriously trippin’, Cracker-boy!”

Oh, like Shuttle would let a little thing like Reach being technically female keep him from letting venting on his favorite punching bag. Reach’s first instinct when being grappled was to go limp and let his grappled limb stretch out. Shuttle just turned that to his advantage. Reach had lost track of the times that Shuttle had tied him into knots- literally.

Tolman said “Hajime!” and the match began. Shuttle shot forward. His warper power was like teleportation, but not exactly the instantaneous movement that defined teleportation. Rather, Shuttle ‘blurred’ forward in a streak where he was and was not simultaneously at all the points in his trajectory. This meant that if you tried to hit him while he was moving, then he did this bizarre ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ thing where he simply wasn’t where you were hitting, no matter where you were striking at. Even so, he somehow managed to factor his forward momentum into his strikes. Harlan wasn’t a physicist, he just knew that it hurt.

Shuttle zipped in and tried to grab Harlan’s arm in the maneuver that usually to him to stretch out his arm. But instead of two hands full of taffy, it was like trying to pick up a bead of mercury. His hands just slipped off Reach’s arm, and Reach came around with his off hand to smack Shuttle in the back of the head. Shuttle staggered forward, righted himself and was back on his guard. “Okay, whatevva’ the fuck THAT was about … Atemi time!” He shot forward and gave Harlan a rapid-fire barrage of punches to the midsection- that did absolutely nothing.

Reach decided that it was time to take a more active part in the match. He let go with his own barrage of punches. Shuttle retreated, but Harlan decided to live up to his code name and reached out with long-range jabs. This time, it was his turn for his punches to do absolutely nothing. Shuttle just ‘flowed’ around them. Harlan kept jabbing away, keeping Shuttle busy while he gave himself time to think. How do you touch something that’s there, but not there?

Then he remembered seeing Shuttle ‘blurring’ down the halls, only to stop to open a door, go through, and start ‘blurring’ again in his faux-speedster way. That meant that he couldn’t ‘blur’ through solid objects. And even if he could, well, Reach knew that PKs and PK force fields were their own special little thing. Reach pulled arms in and the stretched them out wide, looping them around Shuttle’s furiously blurring form. Then he locked his hands together and retracted his arms. He swept Shuttle up in his arms, pulled him and started crushing Shuttle against his chest. Shuttle blurred against it with everything he had, but he couldn’t escape Reach’s grip. Reach put everything that he had in the crush. Shuttle struggled, but Reach was too strong for him. Shuttle grimaced, and then Tolman shouted ‘Yame!’

Reach let Shuttle go, and the young man dropped and cradled his chest. He looked up and grated out, “You win. But only ‘cause of that stupid suit.” But as Harlan shifted his weight on the balls of his feet, he couldn’t shake the impression that Shuttle was wrong, that there was something more going on, something more than the suit or even the enhanced strength and reflexes.

Saturday, December 2nd 

[secure channel: Kew, do you have the usual Pursuit & Surveillance drones deployed?]

[secure channel: Yes, Ace, I know, I know- Bogey wouldn’t feel comfortable unless he was sure that he was foxing them.]

[secure channel: Rez, are you ready?]

[secure channel: Yep, Bogey will have all the usual measures to fool.]

[secure channel: A-Plus, where is our Bogey?]

[secure channel: Bogey is approaching foxhole #5, and he has a vixen with him. She’s one of the Cheerleaders … Taser, I think.]

[secure channel: Okay, Cadets, the game has just changed drastically. This is a lot more than just finding out if pretty evil boy was behind Reach’s ambush; Bogey wouldn’t risk exposing one of his secret caches unless we was either selling something nasty to Taser- or if he was planning to do something unspeakable to her. Either way, we have to get Security here, and NOW. Reach, are you in position?]

[secure channel: In position. If we’re right, he’s expecting some kind of technological pursuit, and won’t be expecting an old-fashioned tail.]

[secure channel: Holdout, you in place?]

[secure channel: Ready and waiting, Ace]

[secure channel: Okay, I-face, you’re our most expendable man right at the moment. Go get Reynolds or Harris and get them here, STAT.]

[secure channel: Right!]

[closed link: Holdout, I thought that YOU were still in charge of this case!]

[closed link: I am, Reach; but Ace was getting all stressed out over not being in charge, so I put him in control of this phase of the operation]

[closed link: AND, if it goes pear-shaped, he’s the one with egg on his face?]

[closed link: Why, whatever ARE you talking about, Mister Sawyer? WELL! I Never!]

Jean-Armand ‘Nephandus’ St. Michel-du Chantraine opened the door of the hidden lift and made a production of peeking both ways, even though his lift had plenty of warning systems built in. “There! Come! Quickly!”

Ginger ‘Taser’ Harris sauntered out of the lift with the air of someone who was totally confident of her ability to handle the situation. The fact that she was wearing only her Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleader uniform didn’t seem to bother her in the least. Indeed, from where he was, Reach got the impression that Taser was working it. Of course, looking down from the roof of the corridor, hiding among the pipes and cables wasn’t the best vantage point to appreciate Taser’s rolling strut from. Using the pipes and cables as rungs to cling to, Reach followed them down the corridor.

Nephandus offered Taser an arm, which she accepted with an air of playing along with him- as long as he played by her rules. They strolled along murmuring things to each other that Reach couldn’t make out from where he was. After walking a ways into the tunnels, Nephandus held his walking stick before him, and touched a stud on the head of the cane. A section of the floor swung up and the two went down the stairs.

[secure channel: Ace, they’ve gone in] As the hatch began to swing down, Harlan dropped from his perch and stretched his arms down into the stairwell. Even though Jenny’s fullerene suit protected him as the hatch tried to seal itself again, it wasn’t any even vaguely like comfortable as the pressure tried to crush his arms. Using the ‘pinkie cams’, he found the manual controls for the hatch. He turned off the alarm and reopened the hatch. [secure channel: Ace, I’ve secured the hatch. I don’t think Bogey knows we’re here]

[secure channel: Good work, Reach. Team, converge on Reach’s signal. Reach, if anything happens-]

[secure channel: -I know. Scream like a little girl]

Looking at the hatch, Holdout said, “What I really wanna know is, HOW do these Mad Scientist types dig all these secret chambers without anyone noticing? I mean, just moving the dirt alone should be a dead giveaway!”

They all looked at Kew and Rez. “Sorry,” Kew said flatly. “Workshop secret.”

“We COULD tell you,” Rez supported her, “but then we’d have to kill you.” She held up her forearm console and tapped away at it as data streamed in tiny lights across her eyepiece. “You better get in there, and NOW! All eight of Nephandus’ power-drain masking transformers just fired up. He must be building up a big charge for something. Who knows WHAT he’s doing to Taser?”

“Okay, let’s do it!” Darren said masterfully (probably showing off a little for Kenya). “Ace, you, A-Plus and Reach go in first and engage Bogey. Don’t do anything extreme until the rest of us get in there. If it gets violent, we want HIM to start it. Our first priority is to get Taser to safety. Reach, you can move the quickest of the lot of us, get her out of there as fast as you can. I-face, Rez you go in and try to figure out what whatever it is that Bogey’s got running. I’ll try to run protection for you while A-Plus and Ace keep him busy. Kew, you stay here and run overwatch.”

“Why don’t I ever get to go in?” Kew fussed, even as she relaxed a bit.

“And what about you?” Holdout asked Lieutenant Reynolds.

“I think that we’ll wait out here until the dust settles,” Harris said, shooting a ‘veteran non-com stepping in to help the rookie ossifer’ look at Reynolds.

Darren nodded, and gestured for Ace, A-Plus and Reach to go. Interface overrode the alarms for the inner door, and Ace and A-Plus dashed in, A-Plus doing some distracting acrobatics while Ace kept it simple. Once they were securely inside, Reach stretched in. Too hurried to take in the décor, Harlan focused on the people. Nephandus and Taser were huddled together on an over-upholstered leather couch. Taser’s top was slipping and Nephandus had his hand inside her panties. They both looked up in abject surprise at the intruders on their tryst. Harlan flinched, but immediately figured that action was infinitely preferable to embarrassed paralysis, so he reached out and grabbed Taser, hauling her from Nephandus’ embrace.

Taser reacted with an enraged squeal and let out a jolt of electric power that would have stunned an elephant. However, between the PK field and the insulating properties of Jenny’s fulleroid suit, Harlan was protected. On the other hand, the only gripping surface that he had was on his hands, and Taser immediately wriggled out of his grasp. She did an expert set of flips and jolted A-Plus into unconsciousness. She managed to avoid Harlan enough that she distracted Ace, allowing Nephandus to reach for his walking stick. Nephandus touched a stud on his walking stick, and one of the dark wooden panels of the chamber slid down, revealing a ‘honeycomb’. Small dark figures shot out of the honeycomb like bullets out of a gun and began to swarm Ace and Reach.

“Fools!” Nephandus barked in his best supervillain taunt (which needed work), “You think to badger me in my own den? Suffer the Swarm of Agonizing Paralysis!”

Ace started jerking and swatting at his limbs. Harlan felt a few pricks on his face, but was otherwise fine. He managed to focus on one of the pinky-sized attackers and saw that it was basically a small robotic ‘wasp’, complete with meta-ceramic crushing jaws and a small ‘stinger’. The stingers and jaws weren’t powerful enough to get through Harlan’s protective suit anymore than Taser’s jolt had, but the stinging on his face was starting to drive him nuts.

Showing what he was really made of, Nephandus wasn’t running or going for a bigger, better weapon, but just stood there gloating at his ‘genius’. Harlan reached out with his hand, grabbed the walking stick, which must have had the controls on it, and pulled it out of Nephandus’ hand. Realizing that he didn’t know enough about these things to figure out the controls he chucked the cane at Kenya. “REZ! CATCH!”

Rez caught the cane, fumbled with it for a second, and then the entire swarm stiffened and dropped.

Taser looked around at them and started cussing up a storm, asking them who they thought they were, her father? Harlan tried to get her out of the chamber, but she kept squirming out of his arms. Ace was wrestling with Nephandus, and A-Plus was groggily coming to. Reynolds and Harris came in and everyone started talking at once. Harlan was curious what had everyone so upset.

Then their surroundings finally sank in for him. It wasn’t a mad scientist’s lab. If anything, it looked more like a spread from Playboy on the ‘Swinging Bachelor Pad’. Harlan was just barely able to make out soft music over all the arguing. Apparently, Nephandus and Taser were upset because they’d broken up a hot date. Mortified, Harlan let Taser go. Nephandus was blithering about being targeted because of who his parents were. Taser was outraged at being embarrassed that way. Ace was making the horrible argument that they were doing it for Taser’s own good. Reynolds was propounding that no matter what they were doing, this secret chamber was against the regs, and even if it wasn’t, the liquor at the wet bar was.

Rez was bouncing around on her feet, trying to get someone, anyone to listen to her. She tried again and again, until she lost her temper. She punched a sequence into her forearm console and formed a virtual cone that acted as a very high-powered amplifier. “WILL YOU IDIOTS SHUT UP AND LISTEN?” she screeched, almost bowling over the bickering mob with the power of her voice.

Everyone shut up at once and looked at her. Kenya wilted slightly and said in a much more timid voice, “There’s a powerful energy signature coming from there.” She pointed at the mirror behind the wet bar. Ace, Reynolds and Harlan stretched over to the wet bar and peered at the mirror. Ace and Reynolds started to look for a way to look behind the mirror, but for some reason, the mirror really pissed Harlan off. He cocked a fist and punched the mirror, shattering it into bits. Behind the glass was a complex device with a large elaborate electromagnetic coil and a directional bowl, which was aimed directly at the couch.

Everyone turned to look at Nephandus, who was wilting with a ‘Oh Shit’ look. “SO. Nephandus,” Holdout said, smug triumph clear in his voice. “You wanna tell us what THAT is?”

Back at Security, even Kew, Rez and Interface together weren’t sure what the dingus was. “NO, I DON’T know what it is!” Taser yelled at the top of her lungs. “But you better believe that I WANT to know what it is! It was pointed right at me!”

“Why did you go down there with Nephandus?” Reynolds asked.

“I was expecting a nice shrimp dinner!” she said primly. “Jean-Armand told me that he had an ‘in’ with the chefs, and he promised me a four-star dinner! I wasn’t expecting to be the one microwaved!

“Oh Lord, Jay-Arm, what did you get up to NOW?” came a resigned voice from the hallway. She-Beast walked in, looking like a mother who had come to bail her kid out from a joyriding charge.

“Diabolik,” Ace said warily, “what are YOU doing here?”

“I heard that Jay-Arm got in some kind of trouble in that room that I rented him. I figured that it would be better if I came here on my own, before you decided to come and drag me in.”

“Hold on,” Reynolds cut in. “Are you telling me that YOU built that room and stocked it?”

“Oh, no. Fuzor, who graduated last year, built it some time ago. I found it by following ‘Mr. High Energy’ around last year just before graduation. Nephandus here said that he had a ‘special project’ that he needed room for, and I rented that chamber to him.”

“And you didn’t tell Security about this?”

“There is NO passage in the Whateley Unified Code of Regulations that obligates me to inform Security if I find such a thing, and there’s no profit in me doing so.” She-Beast cocked an eyebrow at Reynolds, as if to say ‘Go ahead, look it up. I DARE you.’ She gave out a gusty sigh. “So, what did nancy-boy do THIS time?”

“We’re not quite sure,” A-Plus admitted. “We caught your buddy irradiating HER-” she jerked a thumb at Taser who bridled at it, “with THAT.” She pointed at the whateveritwas. “You got any idea as to what it is?”

Jadis turned her head to look at it, apparently not expecting to recognize it. She started, looked at it harder, and then a glint of recognition lit her face. She guffawed, bent over laughing and pointed a finger at Nephandus. “I don’t be-LIEVE it! Jay-Arm! You ripped off Belphegor?

“Belphegor?” Harlan asked, confused. “What’s HE got to do with anything?”

“I take it that you recognize this?” Holdout asked dryly.

“Yeah,” She-Beast gasped. “It’s one of Belly-flops great inventions. It’s what he called a ‘Randiness Wave Generator’.”

“A… Randiness Wave Generator?” Reynolds asked in a pained voice. Taser was looking daggers at a shrinking Nephandus.

“Yeah. It’s sort of an electronic aphrodisiac. Or at least that was Bel-fart’s idea. His basic theory, as I understand it, was that the body tends to interpret certain kinds of stimuli as cues for different kinds of responses. For instance, some people respond to some kinds of noises by getting pissed off, because the noises trigger certain kinds of physical reactions that their brain interprets as them getting angry. His theory was that by stimulating the body in a certain way, he could mimic the physical responses for getting sexually aroused. The body thinks that it’s aroused, so the mind becomes aroused, that sort of thing. Bel-finkor had his rig tweaked to the point where it would trigger certain cues that mimicked the signs of female arousal.”

“So … what happened?”

“What do you THINK happened?” She-Beast shot back. “We kicked his ass! The stupid thing only really worked on female energizers! Bel-fraudo kept tweaking the damn thing so’s it would work on all women, and all he really wound up doing was pissing us all off!”

“Oh, that explains THAT,” Harlan said, shaking his head as he tried to get rid of the headache that he’d had since he’d broken the glass.

“Well…” Nephandus tried to excuse himself, “I didn’t STEAL it … I just … borrowed the plans. Belphegor’s problem was that he was trying to achieve a blanket affect, where he should have been fine-tuning the device’s effect upon the target group that it was effective upon.”

“Female Energizers,” Taser grated through clenched teeth, her eyes almost literally sparking. “YOU DIDN’T EVEN HAVE THE SHRIMP DINNER THAT YOU PROMISED THERE!”

Taser jumped Nephandus, and they had to pry them apart. Harlan started to stretch out, but then suddenly his headache almost cracked his skull wide open and he passed out.

When Harlan came to, the Spy K- er, Cadets were all gathered around him, looking at him intently. “What happened?” he asked weakly.

“Ah, that was sort of going to be OUR question,” Rez said.

Taser snarled at Nephandus, “You mean, you turned that thing ON ME?”

Harlan ignored an offered hand and struggled to his feet. Then he realized that he’d had to struggle to his feet. He looked down at his chest, which now lacked the twin bumps. He checked with his hands. Yep, flat as a board. “Y’mean, I turned BACK?”

As the others nodded, Nephandus asked unctuously, “Does this mean that I get some time off from my detention, for helping this poor boy find his way back to manhood?”

“Well, Harley, it looks like you are officially male again,” Dr. Guitterez said after she finished her examination.

“Does that mean that I’ll be all right?” Harlan asked. “It’s over? Everything’s back to normal?”

“ ‘Normal’ is NOT a word that we use a lot around here, kid.” Dr. Guitterez said wryly. “ ‘Usual’ and ‘Healthy’, yes- ‘Normal’, no. And it’s the ‘Healthy’ part that really concerns me. So, tell me again; when did these headaches start?”

“Right about after I smashed in the mirror that was hiding that dingus of Nephandus’. At first it was pissin’ me off, but when they turned it off, I stopped bein’ angry, and I got this little headache right about here.” He pointed at a spot just behind the crown of his head. “And it kept getting’ bigger’n bigger, ‘till I passed out.”

Guitterez tapped her lip with the tip of her finger. “That’s NOT how these BIT implants fail. Usually, they just fade away as the subject’s original BIT reasserts itself.”

There was a knock, and Zenith and Sahar walked in, followed by a very worried Jenny. “Yo, Harl!” Zoe greeted him, “Feelin’ like your old self again?”

“Yeah… for what that’s worth.”

“So, how much is-” Zenith rattled off a Sophomore-level Algebra equation. Harlan thought about it for a moment, ticked off a few things on his fingers, but managed to get the right answer.

“This is interesting,” Dr. Guitterez said as she jotted down notes. “You were only getting Cs in Algebra before. Do you remember those equations that I showed you on the flash cards?”

Harlan knitted his brow. “Nope.”

Guitterez gave a classic ‘doctor’s hmm’. “So, the Mental Calculator and Eidetic Recall aspects of the Exemplar state have lapsed, but the mathematical concepts seem to have passed over into long-term memory and been incorporated into your skill-set. Very interesting.”

“What about your strength?” Jenny asked.

“Back to normal.”

“What about the stretching?” Harlan stretched out his arm, which began to dip at about five feet and was a drooping arch at ten feet.

“How Depressing, in Freudian terms,” Sahar said dryly.

“But are you all right, otherwise?” Jenny asked, concerned.

“Sorta. Okay. I guess,” Harlan hedged.

“So, where are you gonna go tonight, to sleep?” Zoe asked. “Back to Emerson?”

“Well, he can’t share that room with Spark anymore,” Dr. Guitterez said authoritatively. “On the other hand, it’s too late for him to move his things back over to Emerson. Besides, with as unusual a reformation trigger as we have here, I’d feel better if we kept him here overnight, just in case.”

“By the way, Reach, does that suit of Spark’s still fit?” Sahar asked.

“Yeah, apparently the same thing that makes it stretch back with me makes it fit no matter how I change,” Harlan said. “Hey, Jenny! There’s another market for these things! Shapeshifters!”

Jenny walked over, looking up at him with sad eyes, and biting her lower lip. “So, we can’t be roommates anymore?”

“Hey, kid, don’t be sad,” Harlan said in a bad Bogart impression. “We’ll always have Melville.”

“Do I HAVE to still wear this thing?” Harlan asked Dr. Guitterez the next morning, as he held up Jenny’s fullerene suit.

“Yes.” Guitterez said in a voice that brooked no guff. “Asterlitz was very clear on that. Two weeks, or Spark can’t get her patent. Besides, I want you to keep wearing that visor.”


“Well, the data that we got from it when you changed was… interesting. We haven’t quite figured out what it all means just yet. We need more data, and Spark’s solution was absolutely brilliant. And besides all that, how ARE we feeling this morning?”

Harlan refrained from making any of the using ‘we’ jokes. “Weird.”

“Oh? How? Missing being super-strong?”

“Yeah, that too. Well, I imagine that you can get real used to that sorta thing real quick. But it’s more’n that. I mean …” he struggled to put what he was feeling into words. “It’s like … it’s like something’s not right. Off-kilter. Like a car that ain’t idlin’ right and needs a tune-up. Like that.”

“Interesting.” Guitterez made a note of it.

“You keep sayin’ that.”

Sunday, December 3rd

Harlan’s morning was a rather embarrassing repeat with him having to explain how he’d gotten turned into a girl in the first place. The suit didn’t help things much. He got together with Jenny at lunch. Adalie and Romy gave him poisonous glances as he sat down. “So,” Adalie said icily, “the rumor mill is correct. You are back to your old sub-standard self. And yet, _I_ am still on detention.”

“Wow. Sucks to be you, hunh?”

“It snowed last night.”

“Well then, you’d better stoke up for all the shovelin’ yer gonna have t’do t’day, won’cha?” Harlan gave her a snarky grin.

“If you think that you have some sort of free pass-” Adalie bristled.

“For your information, I spent last night in the infirmary, and today, instead of spending time with my girlfriend,” Harlan said in his best ‘Jack Webb’ impression. Jenny blushed but had a tight little smile, “out looking for the ratsass who set that trap in the first place, I’m going to be lugging all my stuff over from Melville BACK to Emerson. To stay with a roommate, of whom the best that I can honestly say is that the lack of his continued presence has been one of the redeeming features of this little fiasco.”

“Oh? Then when will you be returning to Dickinson, Genevieve?”

Jenny screwed up her face with annoyance. “Oh, I’m just so busy! I’m going to ask the Melville housemothers if I can have a few days to wrap up my works in progress, before I return to Maison d’Emilee.” Harlan pulled down his visor, and he and Charge had a silent conversation between them as to who would make sure that she ate. Jenny was too wrapped up in her descriptions of exactly where she was with her XSI to take notice.

“Hey, Harley! Jenny! And the Sparkettes!” Darren and Kenya sat down. “So, howya enjoying your return to the blue side of the blanket?” Darren continued.

Adalie gave Holdout and Rez a chilly glare, and an even icier, “Pardonne,” as she and Romy got up to leave.

As the two girls stalked over to the Beret Mafia table, Kenya called out facetiously, “Was it something I said?”

“Hey, Holdout,” Harlan said. “I gotta lug all my stuff back to Emerson this afternoon. Could I get a hand?”

“Sorry, I’d love to help, but I’m the ramrod on the investigation into who booby-trapped Jenny’s trap, remember?”

‘Yeah, sure,’ Harlan thought to himself. ‘Everyone wants to help the cute chick, but once she turns back into Joe Shlub, he’s on his own.’ “Oh, and since I’ve been out of the loop for a bit, did you get anything out of Nephandus?”

“Nah.” Darren poked at his food in irritation. “She-Beast says that pretty evil boy was busy down in that secret lab, probably setting up that ‘electric Spanish fly’ thing of his right about the time that Spark left the bay. And the power records for the hidden lab back her up.”

“She could have falsified the power records,” Jenny offered.

“For a lab that no one was supposed to find?” Darren shook his head. “Nah. Besides, She-Beast and Nephandus hang, but the word is that she wouldn’t put herself on the spot for him. Not that I wouldn’t love to catch her at it.”

Harlan chewed on that for a while. Then, looking for a new topic, he asked Jenny, “SO, how is the Devisor test going? Any word from the guy they asked to try and replicate it?”

“Ask her,” Jenny pointed her fork at Kenya.

“Asterlitz gave you the Devisor test?”

“And why not?” Kenya asked.

“Because you’re a Frosh, and everyone knows that Froshes aren’t real people, they’re these bizarre blobs of protoplasm that you have to herd around until they gel into something that vaguely resembles a human being,” Harlan (a freshman) said with bland facetiousness.

Kenya accepted his joke with grace and aplomb. “WELL, it’s been hard, what with keeping up with the cadets on this investigation and squirming around from class to class leaving a trail of ooze behind me, but I’ve been able to give it a few spare hours.” She bit into her beef stroganoff. “So far, it’s going pretty good. You may actually have invented something, Jen. There are still a few glaring gaps in your notes and things I don’t understand, but it’s coming along.”

“Why wouldn’t you understand?” Harlan asked.

“Well, you see ‘Arlee, one of the problems with being a devisor and getting la grande inspiration est c'il que tout vient à toi tellement rapidement et vous comprenez tout tellement complètement que vous tendez à la sorte de lustre au-dessus des choses que vous comprenez complètement, ainsi vous ne voyez pas l'utilité de noter lui, et-”

“What I THINK she’s trying to say, Reach,” Zenith interrupted as she and Sahar walked up, “is that devisors understand their ‘Big Idea’ so much that they forget that it’s not obvious to other people. They tend to go on and forget to spell out important fundamental principles and details, which they blithely assume everyone knows all about.”

“That is exactly what _I_ just said,” Jenny pouted. “And how would you know about it?”

“My database technique,” Zenith explained. “It’s a lot like that. I’m as smart as everyone in the room, and I can know what they know, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve learned it. I can go to a convention of scientists and have wonderful, informed conversations with them, but unless I do something to actually learn all of that, I won’t understand my own comments once I leave the convention.”

“Y’mean, like how I remembered Algebra, even after I changed back and wasn’t an Exemplar anymore?”

“No, almost exactly the opposite, Harl. I have to learn the stuff while I still understand it. I have to think about it and work it all out while the mojo’s still working. I have to figure out what it is that I understand, which is a lot harder than it sounds. And that’s what Devisors have to do. They have to figure out what it is that they understand, while they understand it, even though they don’t get on a gut level WHY they have to figure out something so obvious.”

“Sort of like Nikola Tesla,” Semi offered.

“Please!” Jenny snapped.

“Hey, don’t go dissing the Patron Saint of Mad Science!” Kenya supported Jenny.

“Nikola Tesla?” Harlan asked.

“He was the guy who invented Alternating Current,” Darren offered.

“More to the point, he was a blithering genius,” Zenith continued. “He had tons of great ideas that he built prototypes for, but he understood the principles of electromagnetic wave interaction so well that it just never occurred to him that he’d have to explain them to anyone. Oh, he made notes, but when you read them, you can tell that he assumed that you understood things that were obvious to him, but we STILL just don’t GET.”

“And that’s why I’m having problems breeding Jenny’s fulleroid matrixes,” Kenya finished up. The conversation bounced around a bit from there, but the really important thing was settled by the end of lunch- Harlan was on his own, when it came to lugging his stuff back to Emerson.

“Oh. You’re back.” Renshaw ‘Stimpy’ Millard Egerton gave his roommate his usual brattish look of passive-aggressive annoyance.

“Yeah, I’m back,” Harlan said, looking around at the disarray that the room was in. “How nice of you to throw me a welcome-back party. Pity I wasn’t here to enjoy it.”

“If you don’t like it, WHY don’t you move into another room?” Stimpy sulked. It was an old argument. Renshaw was a year older than Harlan was, and thought that the younger boy should have shown him some deference. Harlan’s position was that he wasn’t getting paid to pick up after a 16-year old toddler. Stimpy had the money, so why didn’t he pay someone to act as his maid?

“I asked, but Mrs. Tolliver ain’t havin’ it,” Harlan shot back. He swept Ren’s stuff off his bed and put his box of clothes on it. Then he turned and walked to the door.

“Where are you going now?” Stimpy whined.

“I gotta go back for the rest of my stuff. I know I got a lot less stuff than you do, but it does take me more than one trip to move it all.” Harlan opened the door but turned again and glowered at Stimpy. “Don’t throw up on anything.”

Harlan was delayed by Emerson boys stopping him and asking all sorts of questions about <leer> rooming with Jenny, <jealous curiosity> what it was like at Melville and <salacious inquisitiveness> what it was like being a girl for a while. “Hey, try it out, and find out for yourself!” But he stopped one of them. “Hey Runestrong. Is there any chance-”

“Sorry, Reach, but my answer is still NO! I roomed with that waste of space all last year and I lit a candle to St. Jude in thanks when I heard that Stimpy had flunked his finals last year. And I’m a Methodist!” The chubby sophomore waved off any more of Harlan’s pleas and headed up the stairs.

Harlan gave a martyred sigh and headed out into the frosty cold of the late afternoon. But when he was at the door, Mrs. Tolliver called to him. “Oh, REACH? Harlan, a girl called. She said that her name was Adalie, and there’s a problem at the Grounds department, so she wouldn’t be able to take Jenny her food.” Tolliver looked at the message again. “Is that right?”

Harlan sighed and nodded. “Yes, Mrs. Tolliver. I may be a little late getting back with the rest of my stuff.”

“Well then, shouldn’t you put on something a little warmer?” She looked at Harlan’s skintight suit, which- even with the overcoat- didn’t look like it would keep anyone warm in Hawaii.

Harlan pulled a knit cap over his head. “Believe it or not, Mrs. Tolliver, I’m probably warmer than you are.”

Harlan picked up a ‘devisor special’ (with chamomile tea) and a couple of hot meals to go at the cafeteria. He figured that he’d eat with Jenny in her lab, and double up dropping her off at Melville with picking up her stuff. Maybe he’d ask one of the Melville girls to check in on her, or tuck her in or something.

Harlan ducked down into the Shuster Hall access to the underground tunnels, which linked up with the underground portion of the Workshop. Traffic was unusually light in the tunnel, which normally had at least a few people taking advantage of it, especially in cold weather. Then, just when he was about ten feet away from one of the secure doors, it slammed shut. Then the food cartons jumped right out of his hands and splattered in his face. He heard the sound of nasty laughter behind him. Turning around, he spotted Truck, Nitro and Tee-Kay, the three guys who’d jumped him earlier, lounging around, leaning against the walls. “Yeah, real funny, Tee-Kay.” Harlan started to walk back the way he came, to go get replacements for the food that the psychokinetic punk had ruined.

Tee-Kay stood away from the wall. “HEY! You makin’ THREATS, Fag-boy?”

“In case, you haven’t noticed, I’m a GUY again.”

“So? You’re still a FAG.”

“Get a life, loser.” Harlan tried to walk past them.

Tee-Kay reached out with his PK and snatched the visor from Harlan’s face. “Nah-ah, Fag-boy. Not this time.” He tossed the visor to Nitro, who shorted it out just by catching it. “You need to be taught some manners.”

Having a pretty good idea of what was coming, Harlan tried to stretch and slither his way past ‘TNT’, but he was expecting a bit more from his body than it was giving. As he stumbled, Truck tried to grab hold of one of his legs, but couldn’t hold on. Score one for Jenny’s suit. TK managed to hold onto Harlan with his PK long enough for Truck to latch onto Harlan’s longcoat. Harlan managed to break free of TK’s hold and slither out of the coat. Nitro let out a scream and shot a plasma ball at Harlan’s back. The ball bounced harmlessly off Harlan’s back. Seeing an opening, Harlan threw a punch at Nitro, popping the little headcase one right on the button, despite his sparking energy corona.

That was as good as it got for Harlan. Seeing that their chew-toy was tougher than expected, Tee-Kay pulled out his spoiler. He twirled his finger at Reach, causing that annoying ‘vertigo’ effect again. As Harlan struggled to keep his lunch down, Truck figured that the only part of his target’s head that he could get a hold of was the head, so he helped himself to a handful of Harlan’s hair. With that grip, he slammed his fist repeatedly into Harlan’s stomach. Jenny’s suit protected Harlan, as did his elastic nature, but he was still taking a beating.

As Truck hammered away at his midsection, Harlan flailed away ineffectually, both physically and mentally. Dammit, he KNEW that he was better than this! He should be able to whup these punks ass, no problem! WHY couldn’t he pull it together? He knew that he knew how to do it, he’d been doing it for days! Being an Exemplar couldn’t have meant that much! Was he really more of a man as a girl than he was as a boy? The foul thought that his father had been right about him all along crept through his mind. But instead of completely defeating him, as it normally did; instead, it triggered a spark of pure rage in him. HE WOULD SHOW THAT STUPID, THANKLESS, COLD-BLOODED, HYPOCRITE BASTARD OF A FATHER OF HIS!

His anger made him focus, and in that focus, he finally found that synch, that touch that he’d been looking for. He forced his legs to stretch up, taking Truck up with him, ignoring the fact that Truck was holding onto his hair. Truck reflexively let go of Harlan’s hair and tried to get a better hold on Harlan proper. Bad Reflex. His hands slipped on the fulleroid suit and he dropped like a rock, barely missing Nitro. Reach grabbed onto some of the overhead pipes, curled himself up into a ball and ricocheted off the wall on his way back down, building up speed to knock Nitro off his feet.

Harlan uncurled and faced off against Tee-Kay and Truck, the latter of whom was climbing to his feet. Tee-Kay was looking at Harlan with a very ODD look, one of abject surprise and… something else… “I KNEW it! I KNEW that you was a fag! You FA-” Harlan shut Tee-Kay up with a punch in the mouth that felt like maybe it broke a couple of teeth.

Truck yelled, “I’ll rip you apart!” and launched himself at Harlan. But Reach was in the ZONE, firing on all eight cylinders, and generally on a roll! He slithered around Truck’s punch even as the big goon was throwing it and managed to get behind him. Just knowing what to do instinctively, he grabbed one of Truck’s ankles and pulled him up off his feet. Harlan extended his legs and used that elevation to use Truck as a big ugly clumsy smelly club, that yelped in pain when we was smashed into Nitro as the smaller boy tried to build up a charge for one of his trademark explosive blasts. After getting slammed a couple of times, both Tee-Kay and Nitro went down for the count. Then Harley slammed Truck into the floor a couple of times before Truck was able to wriggle loose from his grip.

Truck backed away from Harlan, trying to figure out where a nice simple jump-and-thump-the-chump had turned into such a cluster-fuck. ‘Fuck it’, he decided, ‘all I gotta do is keep my feet on the ground.’ It didn’t quite turn out that way. Harlan used his range advantage ruthlessly, punching at Truck from out of normal arm’s range, jabbing away furiously. Before, when they were fighting, they couldn’t really hurt each other- Truck was too hard for Reach to hurt, and Reach was too pliable for Truck to really hurt. But Jenny’s suit changed that equation. The fullerene matrixes on Harlan’s hands acted like ‘knuckle dusters’ that were harder than Truck’s flesh by a factor of about 100 in Absolute Hardness. Truck was taking a pounding when Security broke through the locked secure door to save him.

“Wa’ th’ FU’ Ah Yhu Tokkin’ Abowh’?” Tee-Kay yelled as best he could through the jaw-splint and cracked-tooth binders which filled his mouth. The Novocaine didn’t help any, either. “Tha’ Faaaght ju’ped UZZ!”

“Zip it,” Delarose growled. “Look, Kravitz, I don’t wanna hear from you. Besides, didn’t the doctor tell you to take it easy with that mouth? And I don’t wanna hear from you either, Clarence,” he snarled at Nitro. He pointed a finger at Truck. “YOU. What’s YOUR take on what happened?”

Truck paused. He wasn’t that good at the mixing it up with words, like Tee-Kay was. The deal was, Tee-Kay set ‘em up, Truck knocked ‘em down, and Nitro kept ‘em off balance. Oh well, better keep it close to the truth. That way, he wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting details. “Look, Tee-Kay, Nitro an’ me, we just got off detention. We was just, y’know, hangin’ down in the tunnels.”

“Looking for some GSD types to harass, maybe?”

“Hey, it’s COLD out there! Anyway, along comes Fag-boy over there, with his freak kinko-suit and ‘gee-I’m-oh-so-trendy’ glasses. Freako trips over his own feet and spills the stuff he’s carryin’ all over hisself. We laugh. Hey! It’s FUNNY! You’d laugh too! Anyway, he gets all bent outta shape and jumps us. And that's all there is to it.”

Delarose strummed his fingers on his desk. “Uh-hunh. And exactly HOW did Reach’s visor get slagged, hmmm?”

“Hey, Nitro was defendin’ himself! And the faggo glasses sorta got … trashed.” Then Truck grinned. “Gee, it’s a damn shame that those things got trashed. If they hadn’t then that camera thing in ‘em would back up our story, wouldn’t it? As it is, it’s our word against HIS- or hers- or whatever.” Truck jerked a dismissive thumb in the direction of Harlan who was standing there, with his skintight fullerene suit showing off the feminine curves that he was sporting- again. 

Delarose grinned right back at Truck. “Then you’ll be glad to know that the visor didn’t have the recording chip built into it- it had a cellular link that broadcast everything to two recorders at the doctor’s office and in the Workshop.” He twisted the monitor on his desk around and played the recording, starting when the secure door closed, through the sight of the food cartons hopping out of Reach’s hands, right up to the point where it flew into Tee-Kay’s hand and he tossed it to Nitro. “Care to change your statement, Chuckles?”

“Tho Wha’?” Tee-Kay blurted out. “Hee’zth a FAAHGT! Juz’t Loo’kt ‘Im! He cuddn’ WAYT t’ ged all gurly agin’!”

“Really?” Delarose said calmly. “That’s not what the doctors say.” Then his gaze went steely. “AND, it’s not the point. The POINT is that Sawyer claims that someone called the housemother at Emerson and sent him on a wild goose chase. Tolliver confirms this. And Vitesse claims that she never made the call. Once Sawyer goes to the cafeteria, it doesn’t exactly take a genius to figure that he’ll take the underground tunnels over to the Workshop. Like you said, it’s cold out there. THEN, interesting thing- Sawyer gets herded by sealed doors and detours into the very hallway that you three stooges are hanging in. At the same time, other students are just as pointedly being herded away from where you three were. And then, that secure door slams shut, trapping him in there with YOU. How’d you pull that off, guys?”

“Hey, we didn’t do nuthin!” Truck said defensively. “We was just hangin’, till Fag-boy over there comes along!”

“Oh, you just HAPPENED to conveniently be there, when someone springs a trap on Reach. Get real, Truck!” Delarose snapped, all business. “Who are you mooks working for?”

“What working for? We was just-”

“Actually, Chief, I believe them on that one,” Harlan cut in.

“We don’t need any help from YOU, fag.” Nitro said nastily.

“So, who’s helping YOU?” Harlan shot right back.

“Okay, I’m game for a little amateur deduction,” Delarose said. “What makes you think that they’re on the up and up?”

“Three things. First, it’s obvious that they weren’t expecting me.”


“Look at the footage. If they’d been expecting me, they definitely would have come up with better moves than THAT. They probably would have set it up that they blindsided me, or something. It would at least have been a lot smoother. Second, this is too much like the trap that was set for me in the Secure Bay. It appears that ‘Mr. X’ is trying to be sneaky, and he’s using pawns like Jenny and Charge, or Larry Moe & Curly here to do his dirty work; dupes that don’t realize that they’re being used, and can’t finger him. And third, do you honestly think that ‘Mr. X’ would trust those three yutzes to not rat him out?” Delarose acknowledged the points with a nod. “Most likely, ‘Mr. X’ spotted them hanging out, and built the trap around them.”

“Good point,” Delarose conceded. “The phone call from someone claiming to be Charge is too dang much like that text message that you got. But it does give us a little information. Like, whoever did it is pretty tech-savvy. Hacking into the computers to control the Emergency Tunnel Traffic Control system is pretty good work. Too bad, it’s almost impossible to trace.”

Harlan nodded. “Also, we know whoever it was is still close to Jenny and me, and knew that we needed periodically to take ‘devisor meals’ to her.”

“Right. But the important thing is, that we can be pretty certain that ‘Mister X’ is after YOU for some reason.” Delarose’s demeanor turned dark and aimed his ire at ‘TNT’. “And on THAT note, let’s get back to YOU.”

“UZ?” Tee-Kay blurted. “Wy hyew hasslin’ UZ? Whad abou’ HIM? Hee’s a fuggin FAAHG! Lug ad ‘im!”

“Even IF that were true- which is pretty damn debatable, seeing as how he’s got a girlfriend who’s worried t’death about him- that’s NOT THE POINT! Even if he WAS gay, that still wouldn’t be an excuse for you ding-dongs to jump him like that!” Delarose leaned over and glowered at them. “As for YOU punks, apparently the Grade School solution didn’t work; SO we’re gonna have to go Pre-K. Since we can’t expect you to behave yourselves when you’re together, we’ll just have to separate you. I’m going to ask Miss Hartford to okay transferring you to different cottages.” He paused and considered. “Okay, Nitro, there’s no real point in moving you out of Twain. Your roommate Harry says that he’s willing to put up with you, and I don’t see any reason in foisting you off on someone else who might not be as understanding. Tee-Kay, putting you in Melville would be like throwing you into a briar patch, so you go to Emerson.”

“Put him in with my old roomie, Ren!” Harlan suggested brightly. “Believe me, you’ll get along great! A match made in heaven! He’s a great guy, and he’s rich, too!”

“Zip it, Reach. Truck, that leaves Melville for you.” Truck and Reach glowered sourly at each other. “That is,” Delarose grinned evilly, “unless you’d like to try your luck over in Poe. It’d be a coin-toss whether you’d get on a floor with Hippolyte or Team Kimba.” Truck shook his head vigorously. “Besides getting moved to new cottages, I’m sticking this little note in your files- from now on, any punishments that you get will automatically be doubled if you three are together when it goes down. Now get out of my sight, I’m tired of looking at you.”

“Well, here we are again,” Dr. Guitterez said brightly.

“Very funny,” Harlan not-laughed. “So, any idea why this happened?”

“Well, I have an idea, but it’s nothing that I’d go on record with. Pity you didn’t have Spark’s visor on when you changed. By the way exactly what DID happen when you changed?”

Reach spelled out the sequence of events, and Guitterez made a ‘hmmm…’ “It’s that a definite ‘hmmm…’ or a guarded ‘hmmm…’?”

“Okay, here’s my working hypothesis. Somehow, Spark’s XSI imposed a second BIT on you.”

“A second BIT? How can that work?”

“Please! We’re not even sure that BITs really exist, let alone how they work! They’re a working hypothesis that’s worked really well so far. And multiple BITs aren’t that off the wall. You’re a Shifter with a malleable BIT, right? Well, multi-phasic shifters with distinct alternate forms can be said to have more than one operative BIT.”

Harlan felt his eyes cross. “So, I can switch back and forth from boy to girl?”

“It’s a possibility. Still, it’s only a theory. It’s also possible that Nephandus’ whateveritwas-”

“ ‘Randiness Wave Generator’.”

“-Randiness Wave Generator,” Guitterez sighed and massaged the bridge of her nose, “made you switch back to your original BIT before the imposed BIT had faded. The question being, then WHY did you switch when you got jumped?”

Harlan put on a pained expression. “That’s not really the question that I’m asking myself at the moment. Right now, what I wanna know is- can I control the switch?”

 “I don’t know. We’d need brain scans from the moment you shifted to figure that out. We have readings for the first shift, but you weren’t wearing the visor for the second one. So aside from readings just before and after- but not DURING- the shift, we don’t know what was going on in your head at the time.” Dr. Guiterrez slid her glasses down her nose. “And that’s not what’s really bugging you, Reach. You’re not upset like you were the first time you woke up like this. But you definitely have something on your mind. Talk to me, Harlan. What’s bugging you?”

Harlan looked down at his hands. “Remember how, last time we talked, I said that I felt like something was off, like a car that wasn’t idling right? Well, now I feel like I’m firin’ on all eight cylinders. When I ripped into those yahoos, it wasn’t just that I was super-strong, or that I could stretch better- I was ON! I was focused, my head was in the game, and all like that. It’s like I finally woke up! I don’t think that it’s the Exemplar thing- I mean, I know some Exemplars who have a hard time putting their shoes on.” Harlan looked up, an expression of insight crossing his face. “I’m … comfortable like this!”

After Dr. Guitterez was finished with him, Jenny insisted that Harlan go straight to Melville with her. “Jenny, I gotta go back over to Emerson and get my stuff.”

Ne soyez pas ridicules, ‘Arlee! It was only a box of your boy’s clothes, and even if you change back soon, remember the Reliability test? My fullerene suit is the only clothes that you’ll need for at least another week.”

Harlan nodded, seeing her point. Then it occurred to him that the notion of wearing the revealing catsuit didn’t bother him as much as it had before.

When they got to Melville, Mr. Forrest stopped them. “Back again, Reach? What happened this time?”

Harlan shrugged. “That’s a very good question, sir. I wish I knew. So does Dr. Guitterez.”

“Any idea of how long you’ll be with us this time?”

“Nary a clue. It could be that this is permanent, and Nephandus’ gizmo forced a temporary switchback to my old form.”

Jenny perked up. “An intriguing notion, ‘Arlee! We’ll have to see if we can requisition Nephandus’ ‘Randiness Wave Generator’ and see if it will trigger another shift, and if so, what happens after that!” She pulled out a PDA and made a note of it.

Harlan winced at the idea of being a guinea pig. Mr. Forrest let them get back to their room. When they were back in their room, Harlan asked, “So, Jenny, why were you so interested in getting back here?”

“This!” Jenny plopped a set of sleek, sexy-looking wrap-around-mirrored shades on Harlan’s nose. “To replace the visor that those idiotes ruined. These have all the functions of the old visor, but aren’t as conspicuous as the visor.”

Harley propped the shades up on his head and quirked a smile. “You could have brought them to me at the infirmary.” He took Jenny by the shoulders and pulled her gently but firmly to him. “I was thinking that maybe you were thinking more in terms of this.” He lowered his face to Jenny’s and kissed her. Jenny melted into his embrace, and all thoughts of technology and mystery faded into irrelevance before the imperative of Young Love.

But even Young Love couldn’t get around the fact that Harlan was still wearing that suit, that he couldn’t feel her body next to his, and she couldn’t get a satisfying grip on him. And the slipping around was putting a serious crimp on their mooky. “Maybe you should take off the suit?” Jenny asked coquettishly.

“Not a good idea,” Harlan breathed hard. “Romance is one thing, rampaging hormones is another. I hate to do it, Jenny-hon, but I think that this is the point where I go for a cold shower. If I didn’t, we’d both regret it later.”

Jenny pouted a little, but settled herself at her workstation as Harlan grabbed his bathrobe, towel and shower kit. It was comparatively early- too early for the late night ‘shower before bed’ rush, so Harlan had the Girls’ shower to himself again. Settling his stuff on basket outside the shower stall, Harlan undid the vest, and unzipped the body suit. He was halfway through slipping out of it when he caught sight of one of the sexiest thing that he’d ever seen outside of a Playboy spread: himself, half-naked, peeling off the suit, reflected in that 3-way mirror.


Not taking his eyes off his reflection, he stripped the suit completely off his legs.


Before, he’d intellectually accepted the fact that he was both female and extremely attractive. But then it had been wrapped up with the preconception that it was all a horrible mistake, and that he was beautiful was one more embarrassment to endure. But now? Now that he wasn’t fighting it, he finally accepted the fact that he wasn’t just pretty, he was fucking gorgeous! He turned this way and that, getting a better look at his body from every perspective, and every perspective pleased. He realized that there were professional models who would kill to have a body like this. Harlan paused. He wasn’t exactly singing ‘I Enjoy Being A Girl’, but- then he remembered what he’d told Dr. Guitterez; he was getting comfortable in this body. He wondered what that meant.

He stepped into the shower and rinsed off the exterior of the catsuit. That done, he got his soap worked up a fine lather over his strange, but no longer quite so alien body. It would have taken a stronger will than he had, to resist exploring and experimenting with it a little. With a chuckle, Harlan recalled that he’d gone to take that shower to get over being aroused.

When Harlan got to their room, Jenny started to say something about him being right, when he silenced her by pulling her to him again and pressing his lips against hers. It was much better without the suit.

Monday, December 4th

The next morning, Jenny fussed about the weather as she and Harlan were going down to breakfast. “HOW can the weather turn so cold, so quickly? It has to be global warming, I tell you!”

“I’m not sayin’ that it is or that it isn’t, Jen,” Harlan maintained. “I’m just sayin’ that the fact that we’re up here in New Hampshire may have somethin’ t’do with it.”

As they crossed the lobby, they came across the familiar sight of a young man with a bunch of boxes and bundles, suggesting that he was moving in. “Hey TRUCK, ol’ buddy!” Harlan greeted him. “I see that you got yer stuff all packed and ready to move on in. HEY, we’ll be on the same floor! Of course, you’ll be over in ‘Boy’s Town’ and-”

“Ah, shaddap,” Truck growled back. “You could at least help me with this shit, y’know. I mean, it IS all YOUR fault that I got moved over to this dump!”

Harlan paused for just a second. “Hey, you need help, Truck ol’ buddy? Sure I’ll give you some help.” Harlan handed Truck the largest box and then quickly stacked all the boxes on top of that box, until Truck was carrying them all at once. Of course, they were stacked up way past the top of this head, and he couldn’t see where he was going. “There y’go, Truck! Now, straight ahead, then about four paces over, up the stairs- there are 30 steps on each flight- I think. And three flights up to our floor. Good luck, Bud!”

As Truck staggered, trying to balance the awkward load, Harlan walked towards the lobby door. “Y’know, Jenny, sometimes I wish that I was a better person.” There was a crashing sound behind them. “But not right now.”

Aries only barely paused to look at the new meat that he had just tripped up. His focus was on the two feminine figures at the door. He zipped over to the Concierge’s office and asked Mrs. Deng, “Isn’t that that ‘Reach’ guy? The one that got turned into a chick by his girlfriend? Over there at the door?”

“Yes. What of it?”

“Well, I heard that he changed back into a guy and got shipped back to Los- er, Emerson, where he came from.”

“He did. But for some reason, he changed back to a girl again, so he’s back here again.”

“When did this happen?”

“Last night, at about, oh, Nine or so.”

“Nine?” But if Reach was back here at Melville at Nine, then WHO did they prank over in his room at Emerson, at Eleven?


“Wha …?” Ren struggled to consciousness and sat up in his bed. Who was the idiot with the stupid blonde sausage-curl wig and pink nightgown? And why was their room painted pink? And where did all the frilly canopy bed and stuffed animals come from?


Ren looked at the clock. It was way too early to be waking up, even if he had a new roommate. Hell, he cursed the fact that it was too early for a good stiff drink, and God knew, he needed one.

Harlan got all the expected comments and snide remarks when he showed up at classes as a female-again. And there were the expected nasty moments in the girls’ rooms, when nature called. And yet, for some bizarre reason, the Alpha Bitches, like Hekate and Solange, the ones who had the big rep as verbal bullies, didn’t jump on the ‘razz the pervert’ wagon. They weren’t exactly what you’d call supportive, but they didn’t join in raising the big stink either. Regardless, Harlan plowed through the day, meeting up with Jenny and the Spy Kidz at lunch.

The Cadets offered their condolences on Harlan’s regression. “Hey,” Harlan grunted, “I’m coping. So, any news?”

“I’d say that the real news is the attack on you,” Ace maintained. “It narrows the possible real targets down to just you. According to Reynolds, the attack on you was orchestrated by someone who knew how to handle the tunnel controls. That means that the trap in the Secure Bay was meant for YOU, and not a way of framing either Spark or Charge.”

“OR, it could be a way of deflecting suspicion,” Rez hazarded a guess.

“Not likely,” A-Plus disagreed. “That only works in cheap mystery stories. Y’gotta remember actually doing anything decisive is both risky and stressful. Unless ‘Mr. X’ is under one hell of a time restriction, he’d probably just wait for things to cool down, and try a totally different angle to get at them. No, this has all the signs of someone grabbing an opportunity, and not really caring about the results. Someone’s lashing out at you, Reach, and they don’t care whether you get hurt- or killed- in the process.”

“Still, it’s odd that someone who put together such an elaborate trap on the first try, would pull something so… haphazard on the second one.” Rez pondered.

“Good point, Kenya,” Ace admitted. “But it still comes down to all this is aimed at Harlan.” Ace gave Reach a hard look.

Harlan spread his hands in a shrug. “Hey, there are lots of people givin’ me grief NOW, but before?”

Interface piped up. “Yeah, well, Kew and I think that we got a lead on someone. Remember, we had the idea that maybe it was someone who was jealous of Reach and Sparky? Well, figuring that while there are a few stone-cold foxes in the Workshop, Jenny here has that ‘approachable girl geek vibe’ going down-”

Pardonnez-moi?” Jenny said in that cold tone that only the French can handle right.

“-so it was a lot more likely that it was some guy-geek who was too shy to cowboy up and actually talk to her, than some ‘woman scorned’ techno-chick. We asked around, and while no one actually owned up to anything, we got a definite hit.”

“Oh?” Jenny was quite interested. “Really? Who?”

“You know a guy called ‘Wizard’?”

“Albert?” Jenny chirped in recognition.

“What’s this?” Harlan asked. “I have a rival already?”

“Albert is a very sweet English boy-”

“Welsh,” Kew corrected her.

“Is that important?”

“It is to the Welsh.”

“Albert is a very sweet Welsh boy that I did a few early projects with,” Jenny continued primly. “He was helpful, but I never got any impression that he was all that interested.”

‘In other words, he tried, but he didn’t have the patience to get past your shyness,’ Harlan thought wryly. “What makes you think that this ‘Wizard’ is our man? And ‘Wizard’? How did he snag such a primo code name? I hadda slog through at least a hundred code name requests before I settled on ‘Reach’.”

“ ‘Wizard’ is a ‘legacy name’,” Holdout explained. “Students who graduated have had it before. I’ll get that he’s the fifth ‘Wizard’ to have studied here.”

“And I’ll bet that none of them have had anything to do with magic,” Rez said smugly.

“What? You think that m’man here was the first one to come up with the code name ‘Ace’?” Darren jerked a thumb in Ace’s direction.

“And you thought that the ‘Ubergeek with a secret crush’ theory wouldn’t go anywhere,” Interface gloated. “Anyway, Kew and I floated around a few questions in the Workshop and we got a major reaction out of Wizzo.”

“More accurately, HE got a major reaction out of Wizard,” Kew said sternly. _I_ didn’t see so much as a blink out of him.”

“So, what DID you sense, I-Face?” Holdout said, stylus poised over his PDA.

“Nothing definite,” Interface admitted. “A burst of annoyance and hostility at the mention of Reach, something fuzzy but intense about Spark, and a whole lot of static. The boy’s real good at keeping his thoughts to himself.”

“So who IS my rival for the fair Genevieve’s affections? Is he here? I may want to stalk over, slap him with a glove and challenge him to tiddlywinks at dawn!” Harlan looked around the cafeteria.

“You’re in luck, D’Artagnian,” Interface drawled. “He’s right over there.” He pointed at a table that was rather thick with techno-geek types.

“He’s tall, gangly, narrow face, beak of a nose, has hair like ginger steel wool and acne like a pox, probably wears those Augmented Reality glasses to brush his teeth-” Kew said with a hint of distaste in her tone.

“ ‘Tech Geek #4, from the ‘Dorker Image’ catalogue,” Interface said in a ‘fashion show commentator’ voice, “wearing the stunning powder blue Whateley Lab coat with the scintillating star-and-moon pattern for a lovely ‘Harry Potter Wannabe’ effect, which is completed by the three hovering robot drones in attendance!”

“Gee,” Harlan said dryly. “I feel so intimidated. What are his powers?”

“Well, he’s a pretty vanilla Devisor,” Kew summed him up. “He’s built some pretty spectacular things, but nothing that he’s been able to retro-engineer for the patent.” A hint of disdain crept into her voice. “His big things are Solid-Light Holograms and Synthetic Warping.”

“Solid Light Holograms?” Holdout jumped on this like a hungry wolf. “You mean that he can create solid objects out of light?”


“Can he animate them?”

“Yes. He makes these little virtual imp things. He calls them his Photo-Familiars. They’re complex enough that he can interact with them strictly through verbal instruction.”

“They can affect solid objects?”

“Of course. They’re solid light holograms.”

“How much can they lift?” Kew paused and thought.

“Don’t know. Between 10 and 100 kilograms, I’d say.”

“That’s a pretty wide gap,” A-Plus pointed out.

“I never paid them that much attention.”

Harlan saw where Holdout was going. “The proto-culture drum weighed about 25 to 30 pounds. Aside from the change on the timer, that was the ONLY thing that was changed inside the Secure Bay. I’d say that that was well within the ‘photo-familiars’ capabilities.”

“So, you’re saying that Wizard somehow snuck one of his ‘imps’ into Spark’s bay and set it all up?” Kenya asked.

“Or maybe he just ‘beamed’ it in. I mean it’s just, like, a computer sprite formed with hardened light, right? It wouldn’t have any real mass to displace, so it wouldn’t trip the Pressure Gauges.”

Kew shook her head. “Problem,” she said authoritatively. “Wizard doesn’t just whistle those things into existence, and then they’re self-perpetuating. Well, not unless he’s LOT more advanced than I think he is. They’re solid light holograms, but they’re still holograms, and they need to be cast by special projectors.”

“He’s British- maybe he pulled a ‘Red Dwarf’,” Rez hazarded.

“ ‘Red Dwarf’?” 

Kew started to explain about Rimmer, and decided against it. “She’s suggesting that perhaps Wizard used a ‘light bead’, a floating projector that rests within the area that the hologram occupies to project and animate it.”

“How large would this ‘light bead’ be?”

“Oh, I’d say about the size of a lemon or so.”

“In other words, small enough to sneak into- and out of- the Security Bay without being noticed.”

Harlan nodded. “So, Kew, you said that Wizard’s other specialty was ‘Synthetic Warping’? What the HECK is ‘Synthetic Warping’?”

“Synthetic Warping is achieving Warper effects through technology. I studied Holdout’s shrinking effect, and I’ve developed a devise that can shrink things and keep them stable at that size. Most of the 007s gadgets are effective because I can shrink something large down to a size where they can carry it until they need it. Then they can hit the ‘Restore’ trigger, and what they need is right there at hand!”

“Of course, the problem with that is, that they can’t shrink it back DOWN, once they’ve deployed it,” Darren said smugly.

“What sort of Warper effects can be synthesized, Kew?”

“Well, no one’s figured out how to replicate Probability Manipulation- for which blessings, we are duly thankful, Lord! But we can do shrinking, growth, pocket spaces, deflection-”

“Can you do teleporting?” Harlan cut her off.

“Well, of course! Not very long distances… ten, fifteen meters or so… and of course, ‘blink’ jaunts.”

Ace raised an interested eyebrow and nodded. “So, we have a jealous would-be boyfriend, with lots of technical expertise, and access to two possible methods of entry. Means and motive- Darren, what say we ask a few questions as regards Wizard’s opportunity?”

Pardonnez,” Spark said severely, “But this all hinges on the notion that Albert is madly infatuated with me. I find this hard to believe.”

“I don’t,” Harlan said glibly. “As a matter of fact, I find it all-too likely that a sizeable portion of the male regulars of the Workshop are madly infatuated with you.”

Jenny blushed and wrinkled her nose at Harlan. “Be that as it may, but may I point out that there are thee problems with your beguiling scenario?”

“Which ARE?”

Premièrement, ‘M. X’ would have to have known that I was angry with ‘Arlee, and that I had set that trap for him. Deuxièmement, he would have had to know the particulars of that trap. Et dans le troisième endroit, he would have had to have known that ‘Arlee was NOT setting me up, and that he wouldn’t have fallen into the trap, unless it was altered in the way that it was. For the first case, while the fact that I was angry may have been well known, that I was setting a trap for ‘Arlee was not. For the second case, I was very careful about keeping those details to myself, lest it get out to ‘Arlee. Pour le troisième cas, IF Albert WAS infatuated with me and knew all of the above somehow, it would have suited his fancy that ‘Arlee was playing me for a fool and would waited for him to fall into my trap. He wouldn’t have altered the trap unless, somehow, he KNEW that ‘Arlee was good and true!”

A-Plus’ eyebrows almost rose off her face as she leaned back and absorbed this. “Give her what’s due, she DOES make some damn good points!”

Ace rubbed his chin. “Not if we take a stalker scenario. If Wizard was obsessed with Spark- and why not? She’s a real cutie!” A-Plus punched Ace in the shoulder a little harder than she should have. “Then he would have both a reason to violently resent Harley’s-”


“-his intrusion into Wizard’s ‘unspoken relationship’ with Spark, and to keep an eye on both Spark and Reach. He’d probably WANT Spark’s trap to work, but he wouldn’t want to take the chance that Reach wouldn’t take the bait.”

“Nice counter-argument, Ace,” Darren said as he jotted all of that down. “BUT, it’s all conjecture. The situation is suggestive but not conclusive. However, it does provide a place to start. If we can find evidence that either proves or disproves any of Jenny’s points- that Wizard did or did not know those things, then we’ll know whether he’s a legitimate suspect, or just another red herring.”

Oh, c'est ridicule!” Came from just behind them in a disgusted voice. The crew looked up to see Charge and Migraine standing there with trays in hand. “You ‘master detectives’ are overlooking the most obvious person!”

“Charge, we KNOW that Harley didn’t try to steal Jenny’s proto-culture.”

“I know that! I BOW before the overwhelming evidence! I wasn’t speaking of Gumby here! I was speaking of Belphegor!”

“Belphegor?” Rez echoed. “But we know that he was heading for detention when Reach got trapped!”

“More to the point,” Interface said with a weary voice, “the only way for Belfo to have done it, would have been if he set the trap BEFORE he got busted, when he didn’t have a motive yet!”

“Ah,” Adalie beamed, smug triumph all over her sharp features, “but there is your mistake! You presume that it was a trap!”

“What else could it have been?”

“Simple larceny gone wrong. Belphegor is the most notorious thief in the Workshop, no? And yet, despite the fact that he is far from inconspicuous or stealthy, he gets away with it, time and again. How? I do not know; it is not really pertinent at the moment. Every other gadgeteer and devisor seems to feel obliged to construct a robot, why not Belphegor? At any rate, Belphegor already has seized Genevieve’s ENI, and now he wants her goudron collant noir- why? Who knows? Ask Belphegor. He thinks of her as his victim, someone whom he can rob time and again without consequence. Placing her equipment in the Secure Bays is merely a challenge to him! Not knowing of Genevieve’s fury or the trap that she has set, he sends his robotic thief into the bay. However, in order to have gone undetected for so long, the robot thief must be very careful! It disengages the alarm on the proto-culture drum and removes it. Mais alors, le désastre! ‘Arlan opens the Bay just as the robot has removed the drum. The robot scurries into hiding, leaving the drum on the floor. ‘Arlan sees the drum and knows that something is wrong. Stupidly, he replaces the drum in the cradle, setting off the alarm. Et viola! Not a trap, merely an accident as the result of an interrupted burglary.”

“Nice theory, Charge,” Holdout said, looking up at her with an amused smirk. “Three problems: ONE, it doesn’t explain how the timer for the XSI got re-set.”

“As part of setting off the alarms, Belphegor’s robot accidentally re-set the timer.” Adalie maintained smugly.

“Why? The alarms and the timer were completely separate units with totally different functions,” Rez pointed out.

Charge struggled with that one. Holdout didn’t wait for her. “Problem Two: it doesn’t account for the mysterious text message that sent us straight to the Secure Bay. And, Problem Three: I never left the door of the Secure Bay, and both we and Security checked every inch of that Bay. We didn’t find a trace of any robot or any other intruder, and believe me we LOOKED.”

Adalie wilted with an annoyed scowl.

“Still, she does raise the legitimate point that Belphegor does sort of just jump out at you as a suspect,” Kew pointed out. “And, it may not have been a trap. It LOOKS like a trap, and I don’t see how that mysterious text message could have been anything other than bait for a trap, but it IS possible. There have been baffling mysteries where someone was shot dead, and it turned out that it was a total fluke, that someone had shot at something else and missed, hitting the victim.”

A-Plus leaned over and murmured, “You’re rambling, Kew.”


“I’ll give you this, Charge- Belfo IS both too fricking obvious and too dang sneaky to completely dismiss,” Holdout admitted. “And, as you point out, just because we don’t know of any reason why his theoretical robotic thief would reset the timer doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. The odds are still that it was a trap aimed at Reach, but it might have been as you say. Indeed, it’s possible that Belfo could have arranged the trap on the fly after he got busted. After all, it took us about a half-hour to get from Belfo’s hidden lab to the Bay, right?”

Precisement!” Adalie exulted. “It starts out as burglary, but revenge turns it into a vicious trap! After all, Belphegor was watching Genevieve, his spy drones no doubt knew the basics of her plan, and he definitely knew that ‘Arlan on his way to the bay. Q.E.D.!”

“You’re not going to say something about ‘little gray cells’, are you?”

“Poirot was Belgian.”

“I’m sorry, but NOT ‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’.” A-Plus sighed. “Merely a viable hypothesis. Which, by the way, STILL doesn’t explain that text message.”

Holdout let out a shrill whistle. “Okay, people, I think that we have officially come to the point where we’ve exhausted the possibilities of the information that we’ve got at the moment. Now, we go out and get some real information. Kew, I-face, work the shop for more specific information about Wizard. Ace, A-Plus, talk with Security, find out what they know about Belfo’s sticky-fingered ways. Reach-”

“NON!” Jenny snapped decisively. “No detecting for ‘Arlee this afternoon! As his health and wellbeing have been placed in my hands,” there were some knowing smirks around the table, “I have arranged for ‘Arlee to be examined by the leading authority in BIT neuro-physics! This august sage may be able to reassure us as to ‘Arlee’s safety.”

“ ‘Reassure us as to Harley’s safety’,” Harlan muttered. “Oh, and get close to one of the big noises in the Workshop at the same time.”

“Now, now, ‘Arlee, Knick-knack is the guiding light on the BIT-splicer project. Well, Kew and Sonex are in it as well, but Knick-knack is the one with the Big Idea.”

“Kew is on this project? Then why couldn’t she do this?”

“Because, she is BUSY, remember?”

Harlan would have felt a lot more comfortable if the lab didn’t remind him so much of those ‘garage inventor/ high school science project’ bits on sit-coms, the ones where the overeager gadgeteer throws the switch and the whole thing explodes. The BIT scanner had that ‘thrown together from bits and pieces of this and that’ look. Knick-knack himself also had something of a ‘thrown together from bits and pieces of this and that’ look to him. He was a big kid, taller than most adults, and beefy. Yet his face was very much still in his teens, and while his arms looked like they belonged on a blacksmith or a weightlifter, his hands looked like they belonged on a brain surgeon. Even his legs seemed mismatched; one of his legs was stunted, and Knick-knack wore a tricked-out brace over his jeans.  His coat was festooned with every conceivable doohickey, and his clothing was definitely from the mix-and-match collection. Even his sneakers were mismatched. Only the pair of eerily beautiful, eerily graceful and eerily silent female assistants matched. And they matched perfectly. They were identical. And they moved in perfect synchronization. Harlan had the distinct impression that they weren’t human. Or even technically alive.

Finally, Knick-knack seemed to remember that Harlan was there, and strapped Reach into the kludged-together contraption with all the delicate care of a butcher handling a rack of beef. “Hey, watch it!” Harlan snapped. “I’m a living person, remember?”

“Of course you’re a living person,” Knick-knack said was he bent an aluminum strut as to strap Harley in. “What would be the point of examining the BIT of a corpse?” Then, without a lot of ceremony, Knick-knack threw a switch. There was a humming, the obligatory dimming of the lights, and Harlan felt like a cartoon character that’d just stuck his finger in an electrical socket.

The power went down, and as Harlan was getting over the ‘extra crispy’ feeling, Knick-knack scowled at the results. He nattered at Jenny in French for a bit. Then an American voice called from the doorway, “Hey, it’s pretty obvious!” Harlan barely managed to turn his head enough to see Delta Spike leaning in the doorway. She was in her ‘Lab-Geek’ mode, with her hair up and her face blocked by the clunky Augmented Reality glasses. “You need information from the entire body and-”

Oh, épargnez-moi, vous faible-witted tailladez!” Knick-knack roared. “Que faites-vous ici, en tout cas ? Je vous ai spécialement dit de ne jamais pousser votre nez idiot dans mon laboratoire de nouveau!

“Hey, all I’m saying is…”

Enought! Sortez ici avant que je me déchire votre petite épingle évitent et l'utilisent pour soutenir une table inégale, qui est tout que c'est bon pour!” Knick-knack grabbed a piece of scrap metal and made as if to charge at Delta Spike, who ran down the hall. Knick-knack dropped the scrap metal and muttered, “C'est tout ce que j'ai besoin - d'avoir valeur de neuf mois de travail pour aller le grondement comme un pétard chinois bon marché!

Then Jenny said something in French, they went back and forth a bit, and she said to Harlan in English, “ ‘Arlee, I’m afraid that you’re going to have to take the suit off.”

“Excuse me?”

“I think what Delta Spike’s point was, that the BIT-scanner needs to see how what you envision in your brain affects how it shapes your body. But the suit is causing the PK to become too refined and focused, so it can’t get an appropriate picture.”

“You mean, I gotta do that AGAIN? What, Medium Rare wasn’t good enough, the customer wants me Well-Done?”

“ ‘Arlee, what’s the point of going through all of this, if we don’t’ get accurate data?”

The two assistants held up a sheet, which allowed Harlan to change into the hospital gown. As Knick-knack folded the metal to secure him into the scanner, Harlan asked. “Knick-knack, are you familiar with a girl here in the Workshop, one called ‘Kaiju’?”

Knick-knack didn’t even pause as he finished re-setting the scanner. “Kaiju? Sadhira? What about her?”

“Well, what can you tell me about her?”

“She’s an electronic genius. Not a devisor or a gadgeteer, but a legitimate genius. She does lovely work. I farm out some of my side-work to her, when I’m pressed for time. Worth every penny. If people stop giving her a bad time, she could be the next Nicola Tesla.”

“That’s not what I’m really asking, Knick,” Harlan fudged. “What can you tell me about how she gets along in the Workshop. I mean, does she get along well with the other girls?”

Knick-knack made a dismissive sound. <pfui!> “Can’t go by gossip around here. Scientists should know that FACTS, not petty gossip, is what makes up Truth! Just because she has a little GSD, people think that she’s capable of all sorts of wickedness. Never heard such drivel in my life.” Then, as if to punctuate it, he turned on the scanner, and Harlan was absolutely certain that he’d upped the voltage this time.

As Harlan changed behind the sheet (and shook the stars out of his head), Knick-knack and Jenny eagerly studied the input. They muttered softly in French to each other until Harlan stood there, fully clothed again, tapping his foot impatiently. “Very interesting,” Knick-knack finally addressed Harlan directly. “As Dr. Guitterez surmised, you now seem to have TWO distinct and separate Body Image Templates. Spark, your XSI seems to have a mitigated success.”

“Mitigated?” Harlan asked.

“Well, you must remember that as a Shifter, your basic mutant power is widely believed to be a variant of the Exemplar trait- or vice versa. Either way, you control your body. A shifter does it in a more dramatic and far more conscious way, but the core mechanic is more or less the same.”

“Hold on, Knick- from what I understand, the Exemplar thing gets its power because it’s SET. Defined. The Shifter thing is less powerful, but a lot more versatile.”

“Yes. And?”

“If that was the case here, and I got two BITS, then wouldn’t it follow that I would only be a shifter in my male form and an exemplar in the female form?”

“Yes, that does rather follow.”

“But I’m a shifter in my female form as well as an exemplar. Heck, I’m a better shifter in my female form.”

Knick-knack paused and blinked. “Really? Well, combination Exemplar/ Shifters ARE quite rare. And those rare Exemplar/ Shifter combinations are usually quite high level in both traits. Perhaps there’s some sort of synergy involved.”

“Okay, I can deal with that. So- how do I shift back to my male form?”

Knick-knack paused and stared blankly at Harlan. “You mean… you can’t do that? Voluntarily?”


“Then how did you change back into a female, after reverting to the male form?”

Aaahhh … That was sorta MY question for YOU.”

Sadhira ‘Kaiju’ Patel heard a scrambling noise from on high. Looking up, she saw the paperback book-sized ventilation grate swing loose on one screw. Then a pair of black tar-like things shot out of the ventilation shaft, reached down to the floor and formed into a pair of hands. A person emerged from the shaft like toothpaste being squeezed out of the tube. Sadhira immediately secured her project and scrambled over to the panic button. The button flared red she pushed it and there was a single whoop of the alarm. Then the klaxon went silent. Reacting, Sadhira ‘monstered out’. Special fasteners allowed her clothing to fall away from her body as she grew into a 7’ tall figure from a Japanese monster movie, complete with claws, rugged armor, tail and jagged spikes down her back.

The intruder, an exquisitely curvaceous young woman in a black catsuit held up her hands and simply said, “Kaiju, call Security.”

 Kaiju paused.

The intruder did nothing, so she cautiously went to the wall phone and gingerly punched in the code for Security. Her eyes never left the intruder. Security answered almost immediately, and she was automatically shunted off to a specific line. “Miss Patel, this is Chief Delarose. Just listen to him.” Delarose hung up.

Kaiju looked at the intruder and said in an accented voice. “Him?”

“Long, involved story, which I WILL get around to, if you’ll just calm down and hear me out.”

Kaiju thought about it and said, “Turn around.”

“Excuse me?”

“Turn around. I have to get dressed. I hate looking like this, and I’m not going to talk to you, standing here stark naked.”

Harlan nodded his understanding and pointedly turned his back. A few moments later, she told him that he could turn around again. She had shed her monstrous form, but not entirely. Her skin was green, and the legs that came from out of her skirt were digigrade, like a bird’s, and instead of a dainty foot, they ended in largish talons. Behind her, a whip-like tail twitched back and forth like an annoyed cat. Her hands were slightly overlarge and clawed. A slight muzzle obscured her face. All in all, she gave the suggestion of an anthropomorphic carnosaur. And yet, for all that, she was still damned cute. The muzzle didn’t disfigure her face, beyond a rather endearing puppyish quality. The rest of her features were handsome and feminine, and her clothing did nothing to conceal the fact that she had a figure that would have done a Hindu temple proud. Her hair was neon purple, pulled back into a ponytail with bangs. She looked weird, but damned cute.

She folded her arms across her magnificent chest and said, “Delarose said to listen to you. So talk.”

Harlan introduced himself, and spelled out his predicament. As he got to the part where the 007s had to keep up surveillance on both Belphegor and Wizard, Kaiju nodded and said, “Fascinating. But what does it have to do with you sneaking in here that way?”

Harlan smiled in what he hoped was an endearing way and stepped forward, which only drove home the fact that Kaiju was at least six inches taller than he was. “A-heh. It’s like this. I had to come to you with this proposal in strictest confidence. No one can know that we’ve talked, aside from Chief Delarose. Our problem is that if we’re tailing Wizard and Belphegor, then we’re letting them make the rules, set the pace, and choose the time and place. NOT a good way to win. Granted, one of them is innocent- if only of the trap- but they’ll both be as slippery as they can, just on general principles. So, we need another tactic, one were we set the rules, etc., etc. What we came up with, was that if ‘Mr. X’- whether he’s Wizard or Belphegor- knows that there’s an alternate suspect, then he’d probably do something to frame her.”

“Her? You want me to be your ‘alternate suspect’?” her violet cat’s eyes narrowed suspiciously and her tail twitched. “WHY would _I_ make for such a good alternate suspect?”

“Well, we need someone who might be regarded as a legitimate suspect on one hand, but has a low probability of actually being the perp on the other. Your name was brought up as a low-probability suspect, back when we thought that the trap might have been a roundabout way of striking at either Spark or maybe Charge. Now we’re certain that the trap was targeted specifically at me, so you’re completely in the clear.”

Kaiju’s eyes were hard. “And WHY exactly was I brought up as a suspect?”

“To be honest, I’m not really sure. Your name just popped up. Something about ‘accidents happening’ while you were around.”

“Accidents that _I_ was the victim of.”

“Yes, that’s one of the reasons why we thought of you as the decoy.”

“Come again?”

“If someone’s pranking you, then it means that the idea that you’re someone that people can dump on is floating out there. Which means that ‘Mr. X’ will be that much more likely to go for the idea of framing you for the trap.” Harlan decided to sweeten the deal a little more. “AND, it would mean that you’d put across the message that you’re not the world’s punching bag.”

Kaiju mulled it over for a bit. “And what if ‘Mister X’ decides that I’d make a better corpse than a scapegoat?”

“WHY would he attack you, let alone try to kill you? His real target so far has been ME, and to be honest, I don’t think that he really wants to kill me. He doesn’t care if I die or get seriously messed up, but I don’t think that killing me is what he’s really after. No, you should only come into this as a way of shifting blame offa him.”

Kaiju nodded. “I see. You catch the person who set the trap for you and get to be the big detective. What do _I_ get out of it?”

“Bragging rights. Once we catch ‘Mr. X’, there won’t be any reason to keep your assistance a secret. And, the 007s will owe you a favor. And as I said before, it will put out there that you’re not a punching bag.”

“Maybe,” Kaiju humphed. “But I want something more.”

“Such as?”

“You’re this big deal detective? Find out who’s been ‘pranking’ me, as you put it.”

Harlan grimaced. “Well … thing is, I can’t make any guarantees. I mean, I’m only a freshman! I mean, I’ll look into it, see what I can figure out, but my first commitment right at this time is to find out who set that trap for me. But I’ll do what I can.”

“Then DO it! You have no idea how … infuriating … it is to have things suddenly go haywire, and have everyone blame YOU!” Then an idea crossed Kaiju’s mind. “How do I know that you’re not setting me up? After all, you’ve been making all these noises about catching ‘Mr. X’. You’ve pretty much put your reputation on the line. You’ve been at it for how long? The golden 48 hours has passed, and you just admitted that you don’t really know who ‘Mr. X’ is. So, maybe you’re looking to save some face on one hand, and get ‘Mr. X’ off your back on the other. Set the GSD girl up to take the fall. Nobody will mind. While I’m playing decoy, you plant some evidence. I’m expecting you to ride to the rescue when they find it, but instead, you’re making Sherlock Holmes sounds at the Expulsion hearing. You look like the Great Detective, and ‘Mr. X’ will probably figure that he’s gotten away with it, and won’t try again. You get everything you want, and I get a one-way ticket back to India.”

Harley raised his eyebrows. “Wow. You watch a lot of Film Noir? I’d say that you were paranoid, but in this situation, that’s actually pretty good thinking. Yeah, I AM asking for a lot of a complete stranger.”

He thought it over. “Okay, how about this? I get Delarose to sign a note confirming that you’re being deputized by Security to help in this matter. That should ease any worries that you may have regarding that. Also, asking you to trust us to watch your back IS asking a lot, because it might give the whole thing away. Do you have a couple of friends that you can trust to watch your back?” Kaiju nodded. “Good. Tell them that you’re worried, that you think that someone’s following you. Don’t tell them that it’s us, keeping a token eye on you- that’s just for ‘Mr. X’ to spot, so that he can feel sneaky and time when to make his move to frame you. Have them quietly do things like photograph every nook of your room, locker and this bay, so we have photographic proof of what it’s like now. Think about where, if YOU were going to set yourself up, you’d hide something incriminating, so that it wouldn’t be obvious, but where it could still get found when an ‘anonymous tip’ sends Security on a search. Figure out a pattern, and conduct regular searches. If ‘Mr. X’ somehow manages to slip past us AND your backup, then you can find whatever he was going to plant on you and alert Security before he does. Heck, with the right timing, we might figure out who he is from the time that he pulls his frame!”

“You have this all planned out,” Kaiju said warily.

“No, just thinking on my feet. Heck, work out whatever you think will work best for yourself. I was just throwing out suggestions.”

Kaiju looked at him warily. “Security knows about it?”

“Make up an excuse to talk to your counselor. I’ll call Delarose, and have him call her, and you can all thrash it out together.”

“Why would Security be so interested?”

“Someone broke into the Secure Bays, and they still don’t know how he did it. It’s their business to find out that sort of thing.”

Kaiju paused … “I’ll talk to Delarose.”

“Fine! When you do, thrash out how we’ll arrange the meets, so that you can keep in touch without blowing your cover.”

“Can’t you just come here, like you just did?”

Reach jerked a thumb at the ventilation duct. “Believe me, this is a LOT harder than it looks.” He stretched up to the vent, squeezed both arms into the duct, and laboriously forced himself into it. Kaiju reflected that it looked like something out of an old cartoon. If it was harder than it looked and it looked like it was, then she’d finally found a reason to prefer her own mutation.

Tuesday, December 5th

“Delarose says that the Patel girl will go along with it,” Reynolds informed the Cadets in Security’s ‘Cone of Silence’. “From now on, your first priority will be protecting our decoy, so we’ll be operating under the strictest security. Assume at all times that you are under some form of surveillance. You will not speak of it, even among yourselves, unless you are in a Security Level B+ installation. If you need to discuss it, write it down on paper, pass the messages as inconspicuously as you can, and then destroy the messages. And yes, eating the paper actually is a way of getting rid of it. Do NOT use any form of electronic messaging to discuss the case. Otherwise, follow your usual routines for maintaining your coverage of Suspects A & B.”

“Which one’s A and which one’s B?”

“Belphegor’s ‘A’ and Wizard’s ‘B’. Calling Belfo ‘B’ would be too obvious.”

Kew asked, “Covering those two is going to be major! Where are we going to get the extra surveillance drones from?”


“Well, we can’t pull our usual units from watching the Bad Seeds, now can we?”

“Why not?” Rez asked. “After all, we want A and B to get wind that we’re tailing them, right? If we pull the usual measures from watching the Seeds, they WILL notice, and at least one of them is going to check out why. Can you think of better stooges to pass along what we WANT A and B to hear?”

“Jenny-hon, not that I don’t find you fiddlin’ with my front … uhm … stimulatin’, but exactly what are you DOIN’?”

“Oh, you do?” Jenny looked up with a minxish grin as she finished affixing things to the clasps on Harlan’s vest. “That’s good to know, for later,” she said as she teasingly let a little finger stray across the slope of Harlan’s breast.

“You ain’t comin’ out of the closet on me, are you Jenny-hon?”

“ ‘come out of the closet’?” Jenny paused to track down the idiom, then found it and blushed. “NON! Non, but a girl can’t help but find our … situation … rather … intriguing, non?

“Whew! Big relief there. SO … What IS all this stuff?”

“Well, after you were ambushed, it struck me that if you’re going to train to be a secret agent, you’re going to need some James Bond gadgets.”

“Well, I was more in mind of becomin’ a COP than a SPY, but go on.”

“So, the problem was how to give you things that you could use if you couldn’t use your hands, either because you were crawling through one of those ventilation ducts, or fighting, or you didn’t want to give away your intentions.”

“Which are purely honorable, I assure you.”

Quel Dommage. At any rate, starting off simply-” she touched the top clasp, and its cover gave off a bright light. “Essentially, a flashlight that leaves your hands free. It has a candlelight power that is equal to most commercial flashlights, and it has a thirty-hour battery life. The second one,” she touched the clasp lower down on the vest, “is more or less the same, only for the Ultraviolet, for when darkness is your friend. Remember, you have a UV adapter in your glasses.”

“Sneakin’ around in the dark wearing sunglasses- that’s just tryin’ too dang hard to be cool.”

Très amusant.” She touched the third clasp. “The next one produces an instant cloud of noxious smoke which stings the eyes as well as the lungs. Your glasses should protect your eyes. It should fill a 50x50-foot room and then break down and disperse within three minutes of being deployed. I did think of including an identifying dye, but that would only mark you as well.”

“Be dang messy, too.”

“Will you take this seriously?”

“Jenny-hon, makin’ jokes about the gear is a part of the whole ‘Q fillin’ in Bond about the gadgets’ scene! Iff’n I didn’t make jokes, they’d kick me out of the 007s!”

Jenny sniffed. “At any rate, besides that, when you think ‘strobe flash bulb’-” Jenny couldn’t finish. It was like asking someone to not think about polar bears. Harlan reflexively imagined a strobe flash bulb going off, and the three clasps immediately started flashing on and off in a very bright and distracting dazzling light. Turning her head, Jenny touched the top clasp, turning it off. As she blinked the stars out of her eyes, she continued, “The top clasp is, of course, the ‘Off’ switch. The str- the lights should run for about five minutes at that setting, before losing power. Your glasses have a filter that will neutralize the strobe for you. Next, we should assume that word will get around about the camera in your glasses and the wireless link. Any attacker will most likely try to either jam its signal or disable it. SO,” she tapped one of the shoulder clasps, “there is a digital camera built in here. Just think of a camera being shot and you’ll take a picture. This other clasp is empty; it’s just a place to hide something when you think that you’ll be searched.”

She reached over and picked up a long, thin, flat, oddly shaped thing. “This is a version of the forearm computer console that the Spy- er, the Cadets favor. It is at least as powerful as the standard Whateley laptop computer, and is even more impact and shock resistant.” She banged it against the desk. “It will be even more impact resistant when it interfaces with your PK.”

“Just a sec- how am I supposed to carry it on my arm? That part of my arm has that ‘slick’ effect, remember?”

“Good, you’ve been listening! The exterior casing of the unit is clad with the fullerene symbiot, so it will merge with your PK field and adhere to the sleeve. That way it will be protected by your PK, it won’t interfere with the ‘slick’ effect, and it will blend along with the rest of the suit when you’re using that feature. When you remove the suit, the PK field will fail and the console will separate from the suit. Your finger automatically penetrates the PK, allowing you to touch the keys. When your finger neutralizes the PK field just above it, the key will light up. The ‘board’ is a standard QWERTY configuration, but you’ll have to get used to using it one-handed. All the Cadets do. However, there is ONE key that is MOST important.” She touched a rounded knob at the ‘lower right’ side of the console. “This is the ‘Panic Button’. When someone jumps you or you are in danger, PUSH THIS. The camera will automatically start taking a picture every second, and a special frequency will alert Security, the Cadets AND ME that you are in danger. The signal will also allow them to locate you.”

“Hmmm… you’re keeping tabs on me already?”

“ ‘Arlee, someone is trying to KILL you,” Jenny said severely. “Besides, it’s not totally one-sided.” She pulled back the sleeve on her left arm and exposed a classically over-elaborate gadgeteer watch with a large red ‘stopwatch’ style button on the side. “This red switch is my ‘panic button’.”

“That’s… kinda bulky, ain’t it, Jenny? Won’t you keep accidentally setting it off?”

Non. It requires five seconds of constant depression, which triggers a silent vibration alert. If I somehow accidentally activate it, I’ll have ten seconds to deactivate it.”

Harlan gave it a martyred look. “Jenny, you definitely need to get some interests outside the lab.”

Jenny smiled and pushed him into a chair, helping herself to a seat in his lap. “Oh? Do you have any ideas in that department?”

Wednesday, December 6th

“Hey, Rack!” Harlan called out as he approached the diminutive gadgeteer and his entourage at their table at lunch.

“Yo, Harley!” Rack called back. “What’s this? You deign to share our midday repast? I thought that you were too important these days, that you were spending all your time tracking down the guy who booby-trapped you!” Rack turned to the three girls sitting with him- and giving Harlan the evil eye. “Girls, this is Harley-”


“-Sawyer, a.k.a. ‘Reach’. You may have heard that some poor slob got changed into a girl by his devisor girlfriend. Ladies, meet the slob.”

One of them, a lovely Asian girl, opened her sloe eyes wide and said, “YOU’RE a GUY?”

Harlan nodded. “Yeah. I get a lot of that these days. Anyway, Rack, I need your expert opinion on something.”

“Harl, you got Kew, Rez and Spark all in your corner already, and Delta Spike panting to get in on it. What do you need MY help for?”

“This isn’t a technical matter, Rack. The thing is, you have a reputation as someone who understands women.”

Rack chuckled and shook his head. “Harl, I don’t understand women- I just appreciate being around them, and I have the simple sense to let them know that.” He beamed a smile at the three girls who showered him with approval. Oh yeah. He understood women, all right.

“Be that as it may- are you familiar with Sadhira Patel, goes by the code name of ‘Kaiju’?”

“Sadhira? Yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve worked with her a few projects. Nothing Devisor-y, but good solid conventional technology, which usually is better in the long run.”

“Okay, but here’s where your specialty comes in- what sort of PERSON is she?”


“Okay, let me take another tack- what’s your impression of all these ‘accidents’ that have been happening to her?”

Rack thought it over a bit. “Well, I’ve HEARD about them, but I haven’t actually SEEN any of them happen. It’s like, out of nowhere, something spills or moves or gets lost at just the wrong time. Cables get switched, random stuff like that.”

“And it always happens to Kaiju?”

“Who’s Kaiju?” One of the girls asked.

“WHAT is a ‘Kaiju’?” another one asked. “I never heard of it!”

“Kaiju is a girl in the Advanced Technologies Program, girls,” Rack explained. “You may have seen her around campus. She has GSD; her skin is green, she has weird legs and a tail. All in all, think a teenage girl T-Rex. She’s a manifester, and when she manifests her carapace, she sort of looks like a scaled-down Japanese movie monster. That’s where her code name comes from; ‘Kaiju’ is sort of an umbrella term for movie monsters like Godzilla, Gamera, Mothra and like that.” Rack turned his attention back to Harlan. “No, it doesn’t always happen to Kai. BUT, it seems like she’s always around when it happens.”

“Or, maybe she’s just getting scapegoated for stuff that happens anyway.”

Rack nodded sadly. “Always a possibility.”

“How is she taking this, emotionally?”

“The Whateley Psychic’s Canon of Ethics-” Rack started.

“-doesn’t stop you from ‘listening in’ on what people are broadcasting,” Harlan finished. “It’s not like tapping their phone lines, it’s like overhearing what they’re muttering as they pass you.”

Rack gave a wide Gallic shrug. “Sadhira’s a nice girl who got shafted in a place where girls are particularly tender- her looks. If she accepted the fact that the bozos who get weirded out by her appearance aren’t the guys that she’d want paying attention to her in the first place, she’d be a lot happier. But, getting over yourself is something that only you can do for yourself. I’d try to give her some advice in that direction, but I know from personal experience that the people who need that kind of advice the most are usually the who really don’t wanna hear it.”

“Hey, said the second girl, the one with the dirty blonde hair. “Why are you asking questions about this Kaiju chick?”

“Sorry, can’t comment,” Harlan said with a pained smile, as he left.

“Well, Harley!” Zenith said with a grin as she and Sahar joined up with him, “What’s this? Are you taking up with Whateley’s resident pocket-sized Don Juan?”

“You’ve been spending too much time with Beltane, Zoe,” Sahar commented dryly.

Harlan spared a look back at Rack’s table, where Racks’ three young lady friends were busily whispering among themselves. “No, just getting a little revenge.”

“On Rack? What did he ever do to you?”

“Oh, not on Rack. I just unleashed one of the most insidious weapons imaginable on ‘Mr. X’.”

“Which IS?” Zenith raised a curious eyebrow.

“Gossipy Teenage Girls,” Harlan said with an evil grin. “I figure that ‘Mr. X’ is trying to keep tabs on our investigation, so I seeded some bait into the rumor mill. With any luck, ‘Mr. X’ will put Two and Two together and get a hook.”

Zenith gave Harlan a knowing smile. “You fiend! And speaking of hooks, I see that your ‘cure’ didn’t take very well. Back on the girl’s side of the room. Howya hangin’ in there, bubby?”

Harlan made an annoyed face. “It’s weird. The first time, it was like they’d taken away everything that I was. It was like an insult, and the improved strength and powers only made it worse. But when I changed back, there was something different.” Harlan paused and mused on something. “No, that was the problem. I was back to normal. But it was like I’d been near-sighted, put on some glasses, and took the glasses off again.” Harlan let out a deep sigh. “All my life, I’ve been breaking my back, trying to be good enough. But I could never quite make it work, no matter how hard I tried. Things just… sort of … slipped away in my hands. I could never quite get a grip.

“After Jenny printed that BIT thing in my head, I could GET that grip. But I was too busy being weirded out by being a girl and the investigation and all the awkwardness to really notice. When I changed back to a boy, it was like losing your glasses must be like. I KNEW that I could do better, that I was smarter and… all like that… but I just couldn’t make it happen anymore! It wasn’t the strength or the stretching or any of that- well, not all of it, anyway- it’s … it’s like I’m reaching out to touch something, but something’s blocking me, or pushing my hand aside. And now … now, it’s like I found those glasses. When I took out those ‘TNT’ dickwads, it was like I knew exactly what do to. I didn’t have to think about it too hard, or worry, I just DID it!” Harlan paused again, as if realizing something. “And being a girl doesn’t bug me as much this time. I don’t stress about guys looking at me. I’m … getting comfortable like this?”

“And this is wrong, why?”

“ ‘Cause I’m a GUY!”

“Only part-time, it seems,” Zoe pointed out. “Look, Harley- I heard about that ‘Two BITs’ thing that happened. It strikes me that there are basically three ways that this thing is gonna resolve itself. The best solution is that the two BITs will merge, and hopefully you’ll turn out as a really focused, really capable Exemplar boy, with the best of both worlds, if that is what you really want. Or, the BIT that Spark implanted will fade, and hopefully, you’ll learn how to get around that blockage that you were talking about. Or, the third option is that both BITs are permanent, and you’ll bop back and forth between them. In any case, the real thing that you’ve got to do is make the best of it, no matter which one it is.”

“Okay, but what I wanna know is, WHY I’m so frickin’ competent in this form, when I have to bust my hump just to keep from tripping over my own feet as a guy!” Harlan said sharply.

“Well, the fact that you’re an Exemplar in this form may have something to do with it,” Zenith said.

“I’m sorry, Zoe, but that doesn’t work,” Sahar said quietly. “While Exemplars do have eidetic recall, can speed-read and several other interesting mental functions, being an Exemplar doesn’t make us smarter or more competent. I can name twenty Exemplars on campus, right off the top of my head, who are just as stupid and inept as any baseline. Nex comes immediately to mind. Also, we know that the Exemplar state is heavily influenced by your self-image. If Harley conceived of herself as an inept bungler before, then she’d be just as much of a bungler now, if not worse.”

Zenith thought about it. “Well, she was-”


“Sorry, Harl. He was implanted with my BIT, right? Maybe he got my incredible competence and incomparable flair, right along with my killer bod?”

Sahar shook her head. “There’s nothing in the BIT concept that implies that personality traits are embodied in the BIT. However, there IS something else of yours that may have been transferred over. Your ‘Database’ ESPer/Psi trick.”

“But … I’m not a psychic,” Harlan pointed out.

“True, but you ARE a Shifter, and the ‘Mimic’ syndrome is an application of the Shifter trait. It’s possible that Zoe’s BIT is manifesting some aspect of her Database syndrome in your brain, and that’s what’s making you so competent.”

Zoe scrunched up her face with concern. “I hate to drop another ‘tater on your plate, Harl, but Semi may have a point there. You’re gonna have to be tested for ESP and Psi.”

“Hey, I’m BUSY! I have my investigation to run! And, on top of everything else, I have HOMEWORK that’s hanging!”

“So what? If you’re so dang smart now, you’ll get all of that done in ten minutes!”

Coming away from the Psychic Arts Lab, Zoe said, “Okay, so it was a bust, and you don’t have either ESP or telepathy! Hey, better safe than sorry, and all that.”

‘Maybe, but it still doesn’t explain why I’m such a klutz as a guy,’ Harlan thought to himself. On the other hand, while she was still there- “Zenith, could I ask you something? I would have asked them back there, but I was too embarrassed.”

“Well, y’got my interest, honey. What it is?”

Harlan gave Zenith and Sahar strained look. “I, uhm, I’ve been getting these… feelings… y’know… in my body. My boo-er, breasts get all tight and the nipples get hard and tingly. My, ah…”

“It’s called a vagina, dear.”

“ah, right. It gets swollen, and there’s this sort of swirling sensation in the pit of my stomach…”

Zoe quirked a smile. “And would Jenny be in the immediate vicinity when these odd sensations happen?”

“uhm… Yeah…”

“And what would you two be doing at these times?” Zenith asked with a wicked grin.

Harlan said nothing, but felt himself blush red as a beet. Semi stifled a snicker. Zenith draped a sisterly arm over Harlan’s shoulder. “Not to worry, Hon! That’s just how girls feel when they get aroused.”

“Aroused?” Harlan wondered if it was possible to blush to death. “So, uhm, what do you DO about it?”

“DO? Harley, far be it from me to suggest that my *ahem!* ‘little sister’ violate the school rules regarding *ahem!* ‘carnal relations’, but you ARE sharing a room with your girlfriend aren’t you?”

Harlan discovered whole new dimensions in blushing. “heh, Well … Jenny just … isn’t ready for that yet.”

Zoe gave Harlan an odd look, and then shrugged something off. “Okay, that’s your business.”

“So … what do I do … when I get … y’know … aroused?

“Well, what does anyone do, when they get the urge and their one and only isn’t available?”

“Yeah … well … but … I don’t have … y’know… the equipment anymore!”

“Oh you got the equipment. Different set of tools, but you still got equipment.”

“But how?”

“Ah, now we’re talking technique. THAT, I can help you with, Sis. First you …” On their way back to Melville, Zenith filled Reach in the basic techniques of ‘dialing the pink telephone’. She also pointed out that Harlan had a HUGE advantage over other girls, what with those stretchable fingers.

Thursday, December 7th

“ ‘Arlee? Are you all right? When I came in last night, you were out cold, all sprawled out across the room, naked. And you had the oddest grin on your face.”

While Emily Anne ‘Kew’ Quenton was best known for putting together the gadgets that the rest of the 007s used, where she really shone was remote surveillance and tactical over-watch. To be honest, she didn’t really like getting out in the ‘field’. Well, as much field as they had at Whateley. She left the rough and tumble to the other 007s. On the other hand, she really liked knowing what was going on. While she hadn’t been able to catch any of the Bad Seeds doing anything illegal (yet), she had been vital in helping nail the Masterminds last year, sending Latchkey and Nightfox to Juvenile Incarceration, and Dupraeve, who put the ‘Evil’ into the Masterminds, into flight. Well, maybe not ‘vital’. As Zenith had said, Sahar had been the one who had managed to infiltrate the Masterminds and wreck their big scheme, which would have made all of Whateley slaves to Dupraeve’s will. But Kew had been instrumental in capturing Nightfox and Latchkey. Well, maybe not instrumental. Multiplex had actually caught Nightfox, even though two of her duplicates had been killed doing it. But she’d been important in every facet of the operation! Well, except for the parts where they’d isolated her, because they knew that Dupraeve had penetrated her mental defenses. Well, she’d been important in most of the-

Kew turned off this train of thought, it was depressing her.

Kew was the goddess of the remote surveillance drone. Nobody could pack more instrumentation into a smaller packet than she could. And she had designs for almost every application, and she could get in anywhere, ANYWHERE! Well, she could, if not for those pesky ‘Right to Privacy’ regulations that the Administration insisted on. One of the advantages of trying to keep track of someone at Whateley (even if people did seem to think that shooting down her drones was target practice), was that everyone had schedules. Everyone had to go to classes, and anyone who was worth watching knew that being out after 2 AM was just begging Security to bag them. Which cut down on the hours, which was a huge edge. Of course, on this job, she had the rest of the 007s herding the marks, which meant that she could get creative!

“Hello, Ace? Come in, Ace …” she prompted. She had him on overhead visual, and saw that he was waiting at the most strategic exit of Kane Hall, dressed with a long coat and muffler over his Whateley uniform. It was a likely place for Wizard to leave, and he could easily get to the other aboveground exits if Wizard took any of those. Kew had drones at all the other major exits and at the emergency exits as well, just in case Wizard got artful.

[I’m here, Kew. Any ETA on Bogey?]

“Sorry, Ace, no drones inside the School Buildings or the dorms, you know that.”

[Yeah, I know, but that doesn’t make standing out here in the cold any more comfortable]

“Hazards of being in the field, Ace,” Kew said as she sipped her hot coffee. She switched the band. A-Plus was standing a similar vigil down in the tunnels.  "A-Plus? How’s everything, Hon?”

[So far, so good. I just don’t like being this obvious]

“It’s all part of the grand plan, Annie.”

[Why couldn’t I at least be partnered up with Ace?]

“We need someone down in the tunnels, honey, and with three suspects, we’re so spread out, we can only spare two people per bogey.”

[Hold on, I just spotted Bogey. Tell Ace]

“What?” Kew checked her boards. She switched over to Ace. “Ace, do you have Bogey in sight?”

[No, not- hold it, he just came out the door]

Kew conference-spliced the signals. “People, Bogey has smelled the coffee. I have bogeys at both your positions, at all the exits, and at two of the emergency exits.”

[Kew, how are they dressed?] A-Plus asked.

“Dark blue parka, yellow-and-red muffler, black watch cap.”

[So is mine. But I sort of doubt that someone would be that bundled up down in the tunnels. Besides, I just noticed that my bogey doesn’t have a shadow]

“Good thinking, A-Plus! I’ll pass that along to Ace. Between the three of us, we should be able to figure out which is the real Bogey, and keep the pressure on.” She switched frequency. “Holdout. We have contact, and Bogey is playing his first card. We’re on it. How are things with the Eggman?”

[He hasn’t shown up yet] Holdout said wearily. Kew’s drones placed him inside the Maintenance building. [Interface, any sign of him?]

[Yeah,] Interface said from his post outside the building. [He just showed up in that stupid chair of his]

[What? I-face, Belf- Eggman isn’t supposed to bring that chair to detention! I don’t think that he’s even allowed to USE it while he’s on detention!]

Kew watched Interface casually stroll by the egg-shaped floating chair. [Humpty-Dumpty’s fallen off his wall. That’s an android replica built into the chair]

[Which means that the ‘Eggman’ that showed up at detention at the time in question could also have been a replica] Holdout said decisively [Eggman goes to the head of the suspect list]

“Holdout, Bogey is also pulling tricks with holograms,” Kew informed him. “Ace and A-Plus are busting their humps trying to figure out which one is him.”

[Understood. He’s still a suspect. But Eggman is now our Prime Suspect. He has a history with the victim, familiarity with the devise in question, and now we can’t place him anywhere at the time in question. Bogey may be trying to shake our tail, but so would I, if people were following me]

“Okay, what about Miss Scarlet?”

[The plan still works. Keep Rez and Reach on her.]

“You’re the boss.” Kew cut the line and switched over to Rez’s band. “Heads up, Rez. Both Bogey and Eggman have slipped the leash.”

[What? Both of them?]

“Hey, shit happens, get used to it. All that it means is that the chances are that one of them will make a move. There’s a four-hour ‘golden window’ between Nine PM and One AM for ‘Mr. X’ for him to get at her lab. But in the meantime, the other target, her room, is still open.”

[Kew, can you patch me over to Holdout?]


[Well, I was wondering if he could switch me over to the search for either Bogey or Eggman]

“Why? We need someone inside Whitman and-”

[Heh. That’s sort of IT. I’m a Dickinson girl, and you know how those Whitman bitches are-]

“Ah, Rez … _I’m_ a Whitman bitch …”

[Reach, this is Kew! We have a situation!]

Harlan startled at his post outside Kaiju’s third-story window at Whitman. “What is it, Kew?”

[We have confirmation that Eggman made his move in the Workshop. He’s trapped the others in the tunnels and I think that he’s got something else up his sleeve. Rez is trying to get the others free, and we need you to follow and make an eyeball observation]

“Kew, I can’t arrest round-boy, I’m just a student!”

[No need to get physical, Reach. We just need you to SEE whatever it is that he’s got going wherever he’s going. I can lead you, but we can’t use downloads from my surveillance bugs as evidence. We NEED someone to actually see whatever it is.]

“How do I get into the tunnels from here?”

[Use the access stairs in Whitman. I’ll lead you from there]

Harlan dashed past the Whitman girls and ducked down into the access stairwell over their squealing protests. Nothing for it, time was of the essence. Kew led him through the tunnels into a side branch. At a terse warning from Kew, Reach climbed up into the overhead pipes and spider-clambered down the tunnel until he saw a familiar egg-shaped construct slowly floating silently down the hall. The ‘egg’ paused and literally passed through the rough-hewn granite wall. Harlan dropped and used every iota of speed that his Exemplar reflexes and stretching gave him to get his hands through the hologram and past the sliding doors as they closed. Again, the doors tried to crush his arms, but again Jenny’s fulleroid suit protected him. Despite its embarrassing skin-tightness, he was getting rather fond of it. He used his ‘pinky cams’ to guide his fingers in operating the manual controls to the door. “Kew, I have the door. Send the others.”

[They’re on their way. They should be there soon, but Ace says not to wait for them. You need to go inside, and see what Belphegor is up to]

Harlan turned on his UV light and stealthily crept down the short barren side-hall. He found another locked door, and Kew guided him through using its safety features to get around the lock. Just as he was opening the door, he heard a shrill feminine shriek of fear, and then he heard Jenny’s voice scream, “HARLEY! HELP!

Harlan all but tore the doors off their mounts and rushed into the room. It was a large flat, featureless circular area that was empty except for the sight of Jenny wrestling vigorously with Belphegor, who had finally exited his chair. Too busy to register the emptiness of the area or the odd fact that Jenny was there, Reach hit his panic button and dashed out to the rescue.

But both Jenny and Belphegor flickered into nothingness as his hands passed through them. As Harlan tried to recover, Nephandus’ silky voice gloated over a PA system, “Ah, I LOVE dealing with freshmen. They’re always SO predictable. What, did you learn your tactics watching ‘the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers? Are you going to call your Mega-Zorg now?” Harlan searched around for Nephandus, and found him up in what looked like some sort of control booth overlooking what was obviously some sort of arena. As Harlan was looking, four long metallic arms came snaking out of ‘Belphegor’s’ chair, grappling his arms and legs- or at least trying to. An elaborate yet familiar gadget spun around and engaged within the ‘seat’ of the chair. “Well, what are you idiots waiting for? This is your perfect opportunity!”

A familiar voice snarled from the darkness, “Hey, we ain’t agreed to nothin’ yet!”

Into the light walked three familiar figures. “YOU!” thundered Truck.

“Suh-WEET!” enthused Nitro, sparks of electricity already cascading over his body.

“WHAD?” Tee-Kay shrilled as best the splints in his mouth would let him. “Yew again?” As his two compadres started to move forward, Tee-Kay shouted, “NO! Donn’ do id! Donn’ be chumps!”

“What are you talking about?” Truck looked at his friend aghast. “Let’s JUMP the fag!”

“YEAH!” Nitro agreed. “She made us look like WIMPS!”

“OH ged REAL!” Tee-Kay snarled back. He was getting better at enunciating through the tooth-binders. “What ah yew, STOOPID? We alreddy KNOW that she cahn kick our assez! You wand her to send you to the fukkin’ Hah’spiddal?”

What are you morons waiting for?” Nephandus roared from the safety of his booth. “What ARE you, Cowards?

“ ‘Ey, FOK YEW, Sissy-boy!” Tee-Kay yelled back up to the booth. “Yew jus’ payd uz to come heer! Yew didd’n say nuthin’ abowd Killin’ no-buddy!”

“Killin’?” Truck echoed, “Nobody said nothin’ about killin’! Why would we have to kill her? We just beat the crap outta her, right?”

“Donn’ be stoopid, Trok! After all the tries on ‘er, the only way of nod geddin’ ekhshpelled is if we kill her! An’ I ain’t doin’ thad! Leastways, nod for no meezly five hunnerd bocks! And if we DON’ kill ‘er, she drops a dime on uz. Even if we blame this all on Fancy-Nancy up ther’, weer still geddin’ Detention fer fokkin’ MONTHS!”

“So, we just-” Nitro started to quibble.

“We’re ALREADY BUZ’TED! Sheez got that stoopid camera inn’er glazzes, remember? An’ thad’s whad we KNOW aboud!”

While Tee-Kay was actually earning his position as what passed for brains in ‘TNT’, Harlan slithered out of the long metal arms and tied them in a knot. Nitro had formed a ball of plasma, which he was holding in his two hands, not sure what to do. Tee-Kay walked past him, up to Harlan. “Look, we diddn’ know nuthin’ aboud this. He paid us five hunnerd bucks each, jusd to show up.”

I THOUGHT that you’d APPRECIATE the help!” Nephandus thundered. “I’ll pay you a THOUSAND each, if you’ll just get ON with it!

“Hey, Tee-Kay, a Grand!” Truck said hopefully.

“Naw. He’d only piss aroun’ and nod pay us.” Tee-Kay looked sourly at Harlan. “Look, I don’ like you, you don’ like me, an’ thad’s fine. Bud I’m nod gonna do sum’thin’ stoopid, jus’ so some frilly-lacy girly-boy can keep his hands clean. I only wan’ WUN THING frum yew.”

Harlan was genuinely curious. “What’s that?”

“HOW the HELL did yew put up wid dat peese’a shid Glitch fo’ so long?”

“They put in you in my room with Stimpy?” Harlan tried his best not to snicker. “I was only joking!”

“Yah. SO?”

“To be honest, I made a point of not spending a lot of time in the room.” Tee-Kay gave out a growl of supreme annoyance. “BUT, I can offer you this. Up on the second floor, there’s a guy called Stalwart. He’s kinda weird, but he’s a gadgeteer, and he knows how to unscramble Stimpy’s electro-frazzle on computer files. Talk to him, and he should be able to restore anything that Glitch did. I think that he has some sort of electrical insulation for the laptops, but you’ll have to work that out with him.”

“KEWL! Yer a Dood!” Tee-Kay turned to his friends. “Led’s go, crew. We god nuthin’ here.” Nitro gave a low growl of frustration, and looked like he was still about to launch it at Reach.

“Hey, look at the bright side, Nitro,” Truck said philosophically, “we got paid five bills for doin’ pretty much nothin’!” Nitro let out a cry of pure annoyance and let his plasma ball fly at the mock Belphegor chair, trashing it. Then he turned around and stalked after Tee-Kay and Truck.

“No! Wait! I’ll make it TWO Thousand!” Nephandus shrilled.

As soon as he was sure that ‘TNT’ was well and truly out of the picture, Harlan clambered up to the control booth and kicked in the protective plastic sheet. Nephandus scrambled for the door as his robotic companion shifted over into ‘anime over-gunned threat’ mode. Reach lashed out and grabbed Nephandus by the hand that was holding his walking stick, dragging him back into the room and disarming him at the same time. Then he used the walking stick to batter the droid into high-tech scrap.

With a bead of sweat trickling down the side of his fine-featured face, Nephandus asked, “Why didn’t you change back into a boy?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, Belphegor claimed that his Randiness Wave Generator was the trigger for you changing back into a boy. I, ah, had one built into the capture chair down there. You changing back into a form that they could beat you up was sort of the entire point of all this.”

“Oh. That explains this splitting headache that I’ve got. WHY did you set this trap? Even YOU aren’t so lame as to hold a grudge for that stupid thing in your passion pit.”

GRUDGE?” Nephandus screeched like a girl, “You’re accusing ME of holding a grudge? YOU’RE the one persecuting ME for that stupid trap, which I had NOTHING to do with!”

What are you talking about? I know that you had nuthin’ t’do with it.”


“Your buddy, She-Beast, gave you an alibi. We checked it out, and it held up. Besides, at the time of the trap, you had no reason to want to hurt me.”

“What? But Belphegor…” Nephandus paused, a look of pained realization spread over his face, and he wiped the metaphorical egg off his face. “Belphegor…”

Nephandus was cursing Belphegor hip and thigh as Harlan tried to get an outside line to Security. Then that headache went into overdrive, Harlan clutched his head, and darkness fell over him.

Friday, December 8th

“Anyway, when Security brought me to with some smelling salts, I was a guy again.” Harlan explained to Kaiju in her room at Whitman. She’d gone through the agreed-on signal for a meet, and she’d been more than a trifle surprised when a boy, not the girl that she’d met, came crawling through her window.

“So, you’re back at your old dorm?” Kaiju asked.

“No, there’s no way of knowing whether I’ll suddenly change back to a girl or not, or if I’ll just keep switching back and forth, or even how long it will take to figure it out. They’re keeping me at Melville and now I’m sharing a room over on the boys’ end of the floor.”

“How did Nephandus manage to lure you into the secret arena?”

“Well, apparently the Bad Seeds managed to hack Kew’s security protocols a long time ago, so he isolated my comm-link from the others, and used those protocols- and a voice-filter imitation of Kew’s voice- to lead me right there. Last I saw of her, Kew was threatening to eviscerate Nephandus over it.”

Kaiju didn’t look happy. “If they’ve hacked your security protocols-”

“NO, the Bad Seeds hacked our protocols. Neither Belphegor nor Wizard are members of the Bad Seeds, though, not for the want of trying, on Belfo’s part. And Nephandus claims that he didn’t let Belfo in on any of the stuff that he learned from eavesdropping on us. Besides, our SOP forbids discussing things like your undercover status on the air. We only mentioned you as one of our suspects.”

“But Nephandus-”

“Oh, Pretty Evil Boy definitely doesn’t like ME, but right now he wants Belfo’s head on a platter. He’s not gonna help round-boy no-how. So, your cover’s safe- at least from our end. You got your backup coverin’ you?”

“Yes. She’s-”

“I don’t need t’know. Remember, she’s not just your protection from ‘Mr. X’, she’s your protection from US.” Harlan paused. “Remember, the fewer people who know about this, the safer it is for you. You didn’t tell your boyfriend, didja?”

Kaiju stiffened and a pall fell over her countenance. “I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said coldly.

“Yer kiddin’.”

“Why would anyone want to date a freak like me?”

Sensing that he was suddenly walking through an adolescent mine field, Harlan picked his words as carefully as he could. “Look, I ain’t gonna insult your intelligence and tell you that you like a n- typical teenage girl, you know better’n that. BUT- and I only say this ‘cause you know that I ain’t hittin’ on you in your own bedroom- you ARE hella cute. Weird cute, but still cute.”

Kaiju looked oddly delicate for a girl who looked like she could shred buildings in half. “Do you mean that?”

“Oh HECK yeah! There GOTTA be guys over in Twain that are thinking hot ‘n heavy thoughts about you.”

“Twain,” she said with touch of disdain.

“And not just the GSD guys,” Harlan covered quickly. “Some of the more normal lookin’ guys have probably noticed. You may not have picked up on it, but you have the kind of body that guys like to watch.”

“IF they’re into Godzilla movies.”

“If they’re into girls at all.” Kaiju held up her hands, as if wondering if they outweighed her other charms. “Kai, whether you believe it or not, you have a look that works for you. Hey, look at it from the guy’s point of view. Goin’ up to a pretty girl is dang hard, ‘specially when she’s got reason t’be touchy. Y’never know if she says no ‘cause she thinks that she’s supposed to the first time, or if she’s shy or nervous, or if she’s just not into you- or, in your case, if she’s got all this baggage that you got no idea how t’handle. Look, if you want to, when this is wrapped up, I’ll talk to Rack and-”

“NO!” Kaiju said sharply, obviously embarrassed.

“Ow! I didn’t mean to hurt you, Kai. Hey, I’m just a freshman. I’m amazed that I’ doin’ this well with my own girl. All that I can tell you is- you got a chance, if you let it happen."

Kaiju fiddled with her hands a little, uncomfortable with the turn in the conversation. Eager to shift the topic to something easier for both of them, she said, “That reminds me- someone’s been stealing equipment from me.”

“OH?” Harlan took out his PDA and set to take notes. “Is this new, since we started the rumors, or has it been going on for a while?”

“Oh, I’ve been hit for equipment, same as everyone. But normally, it’s just *ahem!* ‘borrowing’ this or that, and usually people try to take stuff that you won’t miss immediately. But this is different. Besides tools and components, someone took very specific instrumentation and prototypes.”

“Okay, you got my attention. What was the stuff for?”

“Some of it was piecework that I was doing for Knickknack.”

“Knickknack? Did it have anything to do with his BIT project?” Kaiju nodded. “That can NOT be good. What was the other stuff?”

Kaiju bridled a little. “They took pieces of my Counter-MATD project.”

“Your what?

“MATD. Manifestation Augmented Tissue Deformity. That’s what is making me look like this.”

“I thought that you had GSD.”

“Only in the improper common usage of the term. Textbook GSD is the direct result of a genetic trait. Your genes say that you should have wings or horns or an extra set of arms.”

“I thought that GSD happened because your BIT was out of whack.”

“No, people just rubber-stamp ‘GSD’ over any mutant with, uhm, ‘body issues’. MATD happens only to manifesters. Though I imagine that other mutant types have things that happen to them as well. MATD happens when a ‘Carapace’ type manifester’s manifestations interact with their skin, their muscles and other tissue in the body. Normally, when someone like, say, Iron Star or Panzer erects their carapace, they somehow manage to maintain a separation between their body and the manifestation. Others- like me- don’t or can’t maintain that, and the manifestation seeps into their bodies, altering the tissue. Depending on the form of the carapace, the skin, muscle and bone could take on, oh say, a metallic quality.”

“I take it that you didn’t pull that out of a hat.”

“No. Last year, a carapace manifestor named Steeljack died when those parts of his body that didn’t become metallic rejected the parts that did.”

“Ew,” Harlan said in a choked voice.

Kaiju held up a bulky electronic device on her left wrist. “I’ve managed to diminish the MATD effect with this. But my aim is to find a way to use the effect to diminish the deformity, maybe even reverse it.”

Harlan found himself focusing too much on his PDA. “SO, what exactly was stolen?”

“Ask Security. I informed the Workshop teachers, as a matter of standard procedure.”

Harlan gave Kaiju a measuring look. “I may not be a big-deal psychic, but I can tell that this project means a lot to you. There’s more’n just your looks at stake here.” Kaiju flustered, but Harlan recognized the signs. “Is the Indian MCO THAT nasty?”

“Yes. Vicious. And Ruthless. And quite efficient. And they have the support of the Government and the average citizen.”

Woof. I mean, how Gestapo-like ARE they over there? I mean, now that I think about it, from the sheer population that India has there should be a LOT more of you Indians here at Whateley, but I can only think of a handful that I’ve seen around campus.”

“Well, that IS a big part of it. Also, you have to understand, there’s no magic ‘Mutant Detecting Machine’ that can track down a single mutant from across the globe. And they can’t exactly advertise, now can they? They have to rely more or less on word of mouth, with people who know people asking some very dangerous questions. And there have been some very ugly riots when a child suddenly manifested her mutant traits unexpectedly.” Harlan wryly wondered where that one had come from. “And there are rumors, that there are unscrupulous parties that kidnap newly emergent mutants to use them in unspeakable ways. There are even rumors of rakashas and … Nagas!” Kai ended with a whisper.


Kaiju tried to gloss over her last bit. “But I think the ‘Peace Corps’ idea has a lot of merit,” she hurried the topic along.

“Peace Corps?” Harlan asked, as confused as he was by the mention of ‘rakashas and nagas’.

“It’s a theory that’s making the rounds. Maybe you’ll get to it later in Powers Theory. The basis for it is the fact that most mutants, human or animal, miscarry due to some lethal defect. It’s further believed that while we may be hardier once our mutation manifests itself, before it manifest, especially during gestation and in the first few months of life, that mutants are especially susceptible to disease and other causes of infant mortality. It was noticed that the first wave of superhuman mutants- or at least the first observable wave of us- arose in North America and Western Europe. Just before this wave, there were widespread programs both America and Europe to inoculate pregnant mothers and young children for a wide variety of diseases. This lead to what they called ‘the Baby Boom’. We think that this affected the disparity in mutants in three ways. First, there were simply more children, so the minority that was mutants increased as well. Second, we think that the percentage was larger, since the vaccinations and so on helped mutants that would otherwise have died of some disease survive. Third, it’s possible that the mutants responded to the vaccinations better than the baseline infants did, which meant that they survived things that would have killed a baseline child, increasing the percentage even more especially among the latent mutants. However, that was in the then Developed World- the USA, Canada and Europe. In the ‘Third World’, which then included India, infant mortality- with its theoretical affect on lowering the survival rate of infant mutants even more- was still quite high.

“But in the 1960s, the United States- largely as a propaganda measure in the Cold War- instituted the Peace Corps. Besides other admirable projects, the Peace Corps inoculated hundreds of thousands of mothers and children in the Third World. However, the Third World didn’t have the means to feed that many children then, and there was a massive famine in India in the late 1960s, which probably kept the number of Indian mutants down. However, we’ve given up on sustenance farming, so now India not only feeds its own, it exports food. But those mutants that arose in the 1960s made a terrible impression in India. Besides, Brahmins don’t much like the idea of Vaishya, Sudra and Dalit-”


“Hindu caste politics. The Brahmins don’t much like the idea of the ‘lower orders’ suddenly becoming more powerful than they are. Besides the political side of it, it spits in the eye of a basic sacred tenet. Not that that lower varna are better. People turn a blind eye to a mother putting down a child with a visible mutation. The MCO has far-reaching powers. Indian superheroes are only beginning to accept that mutants can choose to not be evil, or even heroic. And it’s worse in other parts of Asia and the Middle East. Also, in the United States and Western Europe, you have both latent and active mutants breeding, producing Second and even Third generation mutants, who are more stable and more likely to survive.”

Harlan could see the sense in that. A telepath or even one of the lower level Exemplars would have a lot easier time getting laid that the average joe. He could see a single good-looking mutant stud having hundreds, maybe even a thousand, kids that he didn’t know (or care) about. And back in the Sixties and Seventies, there was that whole ‘Sexual Revolution’ thing that he saw that documentary about. “Anyway! Where were we, before we got off onto this?” He checked his PDA. “Oh! Right! You were saying that some of your gear was stolen. Do you have any ideas, any suspects? For instance, did you see either- er, no, let’s just keep it to was anyone acting suspiciously about the time that the equipment was stolen?”

“Well, Delta Spike was being a nuisance as usual.”

“Delta Spike?” Harlan perked up his ears (not literally). “What did she want?

“The usual. To mooch components and borrow equipment. And she was nosing around to get in on a project that looked like it might earn a profit.”

“Why would she want to get on a project that looked like it was going to make money? I mean, she’s still in high school! She doesn’t really have to worry about money yet.”

Kaiju nodded. “For most people, no. But we’re talking about the Explosion Queen! She’s trashed five labs so far, and ruined who knows how many of her own projects! Her credit is used up, she’s taken out two loans, and NOBODY wants to share workspace with her! She NEEDS money to keep going.”

‘Interesting, but none of that gives her any reason to try to trap ME,' Harlan thought to himself.

“And, she’s been badgering me about the BIT project,” Kaiju continued.

“What? Why would she be asking you about the BIT project?”

“I’m not sure,” Kaiju admitted. “But then, she’s also been nagging Knickknack, Sonex, Kew and Spark about it as well.”

“Hmmm … can you back this up? Can anyone verify this for you?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, Spark’s friend Migraine is in World History with both of us, and I’m sure that she’s seen Delta yammering away at me when I was trying to get to my next class.”

“Really?” Harlan paused. Something seemed off about that. “I thought that you were a sophomore.”

“I am. Delta Spike just seems like a giddy freshman, but she’s actually a sophomore, and doing quite well in her classes. At least, in the classes that don’t involve explosives.”

“Okay, it’s something anyway.” Harlan jotted it down. “So, anything else?”

A gleam came to Kaiju’s eye. “Well, I was thinking … If I’m supposed to be a suspect, shouldn’t someone, you know … interrogate me?”

Harlan shrugged. “Well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt…”

Without her realizing it, Kaiju’s tail started wagging. “Could you make sure that it’s Ace?” The gleam in her eyes was a full-fledged sparkle.

Harlan couldn’t help but reflect on all those ‘teenage’ dramas and comedies. He noted that the plain, chubby, awkward, shy and/or nerdy girls who decried the superficial obsession with physical attractiveness never wanted the plain, chubby, awkward, shy and/or nerdy boys to see past their appearances and see the beauty underneath. NO, the plain, chubby, awkward, shy and/or nerdy girls always wanted the cute, buff, athletic, outgoing and/or cool boys to see past their appearances and see the beauty underneath.

When Harlan got back to his (new) room at Melville he found a merry fire burning in the fireplace, warming up the room. Which was strange, seeing as they didn’t have fireplaces in the bedrooms. Well, at least not on the freshman floor. Thiago ‘F-X’ Silva, Harlan’s new roommate, was sprawled on the floor near the fireplace, diligently doing his homework. “They sent that box of clothes over from Emerson,” Thiago said. Which struck him as odd, seeing that Harlan had gone over to Emerson with the express purpose of getting that exact box.

“I know,” Harlan lied, covering quickly for his excuse for being out to visit Kaiju. “That’s what they told me, after I slogged all the way over there. NICE of the concierge to tell me as I was on my way out.”

“Welcome to Melville,” F-X said with a martyred smile. He reached out his hand, and another hand sort of budded out from it, flew over to the hot plate and got the cup of hot chocolate that had been heating on it.

“Why didn’t you just ‘F-X’ up a flame to heat the cocoa in your hand?”

“Too much energy,” Thiago said as he sipped the chocolate.

Harley wondered about that. F-X’s ‘illusions’ were created by some kind of psychokinesis that gave them form and sound as well as image. But if he had enough energy to heat the room (or at least part of the room) with his PK, wouldn’t F-X be able to heat up the cup? Or maybe he didn’t have enough energy to do both at the same time. Or maybe Thiago was enough of a prankster that he was pulling Harlan’s leg. Harlan noted that telekinetics seemed to have weird senses of humor.

“So? Going to visit your girl?” Thiago asked innocently.

“I might just do that,” Harlan said carefully. This was Melville, and whatever protection he had from the cottage’s infamous pranksters might be slipping. He guarded his thoughts. He knew that F-X was a psychokinetic, but he didn’t quite trust the boy enough to be sure that Thiago wasn’t hiding the fact that he might also be telepathic.

They were interrupted by a knock at the door. As Harlan was the one up, he went to the door. She-Beast smiled acidly at him from the hallway. “Might we have a moment of your precious time?”

Without giving him a chance to answer, Jadis reached in and pulled Harlan out into the hall. Two other girls whom Harlan recognized as being in the crowd that had backed She-Beast up in the cafeteria bracketed them, and Jadis frog-marched him down the hall to one of the girl’s rooms.

Inside the room, the rest of the girls all glowered threateningly at him. “You don’t have to ask,” Harlan quickly assured them. “I haven’t told anyone over at Emerson about the showers.”

“And what about your roommate?” the redhead asked.

“What am I, stupid? The reason that I’m still here, is that there’s a 50/50 chance that I’ll revert to being a girl again! I dunno when, but it will probably happen! And when it does, I want to be able to use those showers as much as you do! And I sure as hell don’t want to be stuck buck naked in those showers with twenty- to- a- hundred girls who want to skin me alive!”

A fierce ‘good’ expression settled over the girls’ collective faces. “Smart boy,” said the brunette as they filed out of the room.

“Hey, Reach,” She-Beast said, “Nephandus told me that you asked Security to cut him some slack with that ambush thing yesterday. Nice gesture, Slim. Not that nancy-boy is worth the effort, but nice gesture, anyway. By way of a little quid pro quo, let me give you a little advice- they’re starting to talk about your girlfriend, Spark, down in the Workshop. The buzz is that Rez is getting close to bridging all the gaps in Spark’s notes, and her fullerene matrix thing might actually make it to the Patent Office.”

“Really? Cool!”

“Yeah, cool. But unfortunately, success breeds predation. Pass along that it would be a good idea for her to start taking some proactive measures to protect her patents, or she’ll work her fingers to the bone, and maggots like Belphegor will take all the credit- and money.”

“Well, they have her in a isolated Ultra-Secure Bay.”

She-Beast nodded. “And that’s a good beginning. But that only protects her stuff while it’s in the bay. You would be amazed at some of the things that people will do with a prototype that they can claim is their propriety technology.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Get her to come up with a logo, and have her incorporate it into all her work.”

Harlan blinked. “But taking off any identifying marks is the first thing that I’d do, if I stole something.”

Jadis shook her head. “Nothing that you can pry off. By ‘incorporate it’, I mean work it into the design of the gizmo somehow.” She took what looked like a cell phone from the belt of her skirt. “This is a personal force field generator that my brother Malachai made for me. See the logo?” She pointed at the back of the unit, which had a raised design that resembled a stylized devil’s face, in the style of the Transformers Autobot or Decepticon logos.

“So? How does that stop somebody from stealin’ it? Just take it outta the casing.”

“True.” Jadis removed the device from it’s casing, and pointed at the circuitry board. “But HOW are they gonna remove THAT?” Harlan looked closer, and he could see the devil’s-head design worked into the pattern of the circuitry. “Have her come up with a distinctive ‘Spark’ design of some kind and register it with the Workshop. It’s not perfect, but it’s a real help with the jackals.”

“Well, Jenny WAS talking about a personal symbol of some kind, anyway,” Harlan mused. “By the way, I’m pretty dang impressed. That’s the smallest PFG that I’ve seen.”

“Oh, it’s not all that powerful. It’s not designed to protect me from bullets or bricks or anything like that. My own PK shell does that a lot better. I got the idea from this girl over in Dickinson called ‘Pristine’. She uses the force field that she generates to repel dirt, grease and like that, and keep herself … well, pristine! This unit just protects me from mud, rain, grease, thrown food- and invisible radioactive tracking dyes, tracer units, bugs, things like that.” Jadis took something small from a pocket, which Harlan recognized as one of Kew’s smallest remote surveillance drones, and crushed it between her fingers.

Making a note to relay She-Beast’s implied message to Kew, Harlan went back to his new room. “What was that about?” Thiago- who was now lounging on his bed- asked.

“Sorry, can’t tell you.”

“Ah, She-Beast was selling you some information about your mysterious trap?”

“You know She-Beast?”

“She gets around, tries to be helpful. I hear that she’s trying to wrangle the Cottage Fixer position for herself. Was she helpful? That WAS what that was all about, wasn’t it?”

“Well, I could tell you, F-X, but then I’d have to kill you.” And as he watched his new roommate rummage around in the studio cooler with multiple hands without leaving the comfort of his bed or pulling his nose from the book, Harlan thought, ‘And God help you, if you ever DO find out, you poor sod.’

Saturday, December 9th

“So, ‘Arlee, what do you think about THIS one?”

Harlan looked at the design, and scowled a bit. “What’s it supposed to be? A spider?”

“No, a spark! I am Spark, so my symbol should be a spark!”

“How are you gonna work that into your circuitry and other designs?”

Jenny looked at her sketch and worried her lower lip. “Oh bon point.”

“Don’t worry so hard about it, honey! Just keep it in mind and maybe you’ll get le grand inspiration, and not only will it be a really cool design that everyone will wish they’d thought up, but it’ll also be a really efficient circuitry design as well!” Jenny’s eyes popped wide open and she cooed.

“AFTER classes, thank you very much,” Harlan said severely.

Jenny and Harlan sat down at the lunch table across from Adalie and Romy. “Well,” Adalie greeted them snidely, “if it isn’t Whateley’s latest power couple, Jenlan.”

“Please, please! No more photographs! Damn you paparazzi!

When the rest of the Cadets started to gather around Adalie stood up with a muted snarl. “Hold on, I need to ask you some questions,” Harlan said.

“I’ve told you everything that I know about this stupid-”

“Not you- HER.” Reach pointed at Romy.

“ME?” Romy squeaked. “I didn’t do anything!”

“I didn’t say that you did. I just want to confirm that-”

“Leave her ALONE!” Adalie snapped.

“I’m not suggesting that she had anything to do with the ambush. I just need some confirmation about something that she may or may not have seen. Romy, I have information that Kaiju-” Reach indicated the girl sitting several tables over, with whom Ace was speaking intently.

“What’s that ‘Ace’ fool doing?” Adalie asked.

“Oh, he’s just covering the other side of the question at hand. Romy, I understand that you’ve witnessed Delta Spike questioning-”

“WHY is her tail doing that?” Adalie ignored him.

“Well, I understand that she tends to display her emotions with it, rather like a cat,” Harlan hedged. “She may be coping with the stress of being questioned that way.”

“Why is she WAGGING it?”

“Ace must really be getting to her,” Harlan said, stifling a smirk. “ANYWAY, Romy- Romy?” Romy wasn’t paying any attention to him. Rather, she was watching Ace and Kaiju closely, with rather the same sharp intensity that A-Plus was. “ROMY? MIGRAINE?” Harlan said, trying to get her attention.

“Oh?” Romy snapped back to the present. “What was it, A- er, Harley?”

Score another one for the Exemplar boy with the rippling muscles, male model features, and bad-boy act,’ Harlan silently grumped to himself. “Romy, my sources tell me that you’ve seen Delta Spike talking with Kaiju over there, trying to get her to talk about details of the BIT project.”

“Oh. Oh, yes! Delta Spike is very interested in what she calls ‘Induced Bio-morphology’. She seems to think that altering the shape of people’s bodies and like that is going to be the ‘next big thing’. She’s particularly interested in Genevieve’s XSI project.”

“She came out and said that to Kaiju?”

“No, she said that to ME.”

“You? I didn’t know that you and she were friends, Romy,” Jenny said.

“Well, we’re not, really. She keeps just walking up to me and asking questions and presuming that I know wat de hel she’s talking about.”

Yeah, that sounds like Delta Spike,’ Harlan sighed to himself.

“She thinks that I know all sorts of high tech stuff! I’m not a devisor! I’m barely a telepath! All that I can do is give people headaches! And that idiot Albert is even worse!”


“He’s been doing the same thing, only he’s asking all sorts of crazy questions about Genevieve and Harley.”

“Sounds like he’s jealous, Gumby,” Interface snickered.

“Interface, I have been putting up with your crap, pretty much ‘cause I hav’ta,” Harlan growled, settling dangerously into his ‘down-home boy settin’ to butt heads’ tone. “But if you take to callin’ me ‘Gumby’, yer gonna find thet I don’t got t’be an Exemplar t’ knock yer teeth in.”

“Reel it in, both of you,” Holdout said with an authority that he was getting more comfortable with. “Kew, Rez, Spark- has Delta Spike been bending your ears, like she has Migraine’s?”

“Well, YEAH,” Rez said, “but that’s pretty much par for the course in the Workshop. People are always asking.”

“Yeah, but Delta’s been pushing it,” Kew said.

“Doesn’t she always?”

“Yeah, but you’d think that she’d be getting ready for the Combat Finals.”

“Combat Finals?” Jenny squeaked.

“Sure,” A-Plus said. “Twice a year, at the end of the semester, they have these tests where students fight each other, to see how well they can handle themselves in a crisis situation.”

Comment très américain,” Adalie muttered. “Tout se ramène à la violence.”

“It’s not about violence,” A-Plus said in a ‘I’ve had just about enough of your crap’ tone. “It’s about being able to protect yourself in a tight situation. That includes violence, but it also covers a whole lot more. As a matter of fact, you’d probably get a better grade if you found a nonviolent solution to the problem.”

“But you said that the students fight each other,” Romy whimpered.

“It would be more accurate to say that they compete with each other to solve the problem,” Holdout said. “Unfortunately, violence is what usually pops into most people’s heads.”

“Do we HAVE to take these ‘Combat Finals’?” Romy asked.

“They count for a big chunk of our grade for the semester.”

“But I haven’t TAKEN any martial arts classes!” Jenny blurted.

“Maybe they only match students who have taken martial arts with other students who have taken martial arts,” Romy said hopefully.

“Nope. The selection is purely random,” A-Plus said. “You might even get matched against a sophomore. BUT at least you won’t get matched up against a junior or a senior. Even the Senseis aren’t THAT sadistic.”

“But you CAN take things into the match, right?” Jenny asked hopefully.

“The rule is ‘Only things that you normally carry on you as a matter of course’,” Kew said. She spared Rez and her usual ‘Spy Kid’ rig a sideways glance. “Of course, we Cadets make a point of carrying a lot of unusual stuff on us, as a matter of course.” A smug grin crossed her face. “I’d like to see those Venus Inc. bitches claim that THEY carry capture-net casters or tear-gas bombs around in their makeup cases!”

Jenny whimpered.

Harlan laid a comforting arm across her shoulder. “So, you’ll just THINK your way out of it! Jenny, you’re a GENIUS! The poor slob won’t know what hit him!” Then Harlan turned his attention back to Romy. “So, back to this ‘Albert’ guy-”

Adalie let out a disgusted noise. <Pfui!> “Please! Cela de nouveau? Reach, it’s been how many days, and you’re STILL on this? It’s getting monotonous!”

Harlan gave Adalie a stern look. “YEP! I’m still on it! Charge, you may not appreciate this, bein’ a speedster and all, but no matter what Sherlock Holmes and all them might think, the most important thing that an investigator can have is persistence.”

“If you say so, Inspector Javert.”

“You say that like it’s an insult. It’s not. Javert was the kind of cop that every crook is afraid will get on his trail. Someone who will simply NOT give up, no matter how long it takes, or what he has t’do to get his man. Somethin’ my Daddy always told me-” actually, he’d told it to Harlan’s brother Jasper. Mr. Sawyer didn’t seem to have a lot to say to Harlan. Past ‘you’re pathetic!’ “-the reason why politicians are so dang DUMB, is that you don’t really need brains to be in politics. What you really need is stick-to-it-iveness. The guys in power ain’t the smart ones, they’re just the stubborn ones.

“Adalie, most people think that investigations are chess games, with the players tryin’ to out-think each other. They’re not. They’re marathon races, with the cop and the crook tryin’ to see who’ll give up first. And the crook knows that if he gives up, he goes t’ jail, so the cop’s gotta be twice as tough to keep up. If you’re bored with me doggin’ this trail, then do everyone a favor and confess. If not, let me do what I gotta do.” With that, he went back to grilling Romy about what Wizard had been asking her about.

“Knock, knock,” Harlan said at the door to Delta Spike’s lab.

“Oh!” Delta Spike turned and goggled surprised. “Hello, Harley!”

“Harlan.” Harlan said reflexively. “‘Skuse me, but I need some expert advice.”

“Well, what about Kew or Spark or-”

“My credit with the 007s is wearing a little thin right about now. I hear that lawyers never ask a question in court unless they already know the answer. I want to ask this question and know that I won’t look like a dork when I do it.”

“Okay, shoot.”

“Okay, so far everyone’s assuming that ‘Mr. X’ actually entered the secure bay. But what if he didn’t need to? What if he used psycho-kinesis to lift the drum out of the cradle? I know, he still has to get past the booby trap, which I know from personal experience was still set- I’ll work that out later. Right now, I need to know if it’s possible.”

Delta raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you ask the Psychic Arts department?”

“If I’m right, it’s all too likely that ‘Mr. X’ will get wind of it. And if I’m wrong, I really look like a dork. I think that you know what that’s like.”

Delta gave a rueful chuckle. “ALL too well. But why me? I’m not a Psychic Arts specialist.”

“Well, I know that you know something about PK; you attuned Mega-Girl’s gauntlets to her PK frequency so that it synched with her energies, remember? So, I figure that the reason that 'Mr. X’ chose the proto-culture drum because it was already attuned to PK energy.”

“Reasonable,” Delta nodded. “But it doesn’t work. First of all, while I’m not a hundred percent sure of Spark’s process, I do know that PK is a very idiosyncratic frequency. Spark’s process for that suit of yours probably takes a minute or two to realign itself to your personal frequencies.” Delta blinked. “Come to think of it, maybe a PK Identification system might prove useful.” She hastily made a note of it on her PDA. “Anyway, there’s also the matter that the proto-culture drum was being attuned at the time. It was being bombarded by a PK- surrogate, which only marginally copies the grosser aspects of PK, which is, I’m afraid, the closest that we’ve come to synthesizing PK. Even so, it would interfere with ‘Mr. X’s’ attempts to lift it out of the cradle. And even beyond that, there’s no way for him to see what he was doing. He’d need to see the drum inside the bay in order to lift it.”

“What if he’s a Package Deal Psychic? What if he used ESP?”

Delta shook her head. “Still doesn’t work. He’d need to use his ESP and his PK at the same time. And anyone powerful could do that would sort of jump out at you. Nobody that powerful in the Workshop. At least, not who’d have a grudge against you.”

Harley grimaced. “That’s what I was afraid of.” He gave a melodramatic sigh. “SO, how’s that galvanomorph you caught doing?”

Delta beamed. “Oh, Fluffy? He’s doing great! At least, I think he is. It’s kinda hard to tell with a packet of self-perpetuating energy.”

“So, has Kaiju had any big ideas on how to paper-train the little dickens?”

“Kaiju?” Delta blinked. “Why would Kaiju be interested?”

“Oh, I was asking questions, and you know how it is, you pick up stuff that has nothing to do with anything. I heard that you and Kaiju hang, and she’s this big electronic genius, so I thought that she’d be the perfect person to help.”

“No, not really. I’ve been asking her about her body morphing experiments. I think that induced Bio-morphology-” From there, Delta went on to natter on about her conviction that in the future, everyone would want to be able to mold their body as they wanted, her prospects in the upcoming Combat Finals, her difficulties in getting funding, and a few veiled references to Harlan keeping her secret.

Monday, December 11th

The dreaded Combat Finals were in their first day, and the investigation was placed on temporary hold as the 007s watched the matches- along with everyone else who had the slightest interest in not spending the Christmas break in traction. “Hey, there’s your bosom buddy, Charge, over there with the Berets,” Interface snarked. “Where’s Spark, Harley?”

“Harlan,” he replied automatically. “She went straight to the Workshop. I think that she’s going to be throwing a few tricks together, hoping that she’ll be able to build it before she gets called.” He tried to get the discussion back to the investigation, even as the repair crew was cleaning up the debris of the last fight. Reach silently wondered if part of the reason for the matches was driving home to the students that there were consequences to big super-powered fights, beyond getting beat up. “Anyway, it struck me that while Delta Spike might not be able to synthesize psychokinetic energy, she may be able to control those ‘galvanomorph’ things of hers. So, she could have sent it through the door to set up the trap.”

“But she only trapped that galvanomorph the day after you were ambushed,” Kenya pointed out.

“Or, at least, that’s what she claims,” Interface said. “Hey, she could have trapped one and trained it a month ago, and who would have noticed? So, she uses it, and then the next day, she goes through this whole big drama with a bunch of witnesses where she ‘finally manages to capture one’.”

“And what would be her motive?” Darren asked.

“Pure experimentation,” Kew guessed. “She hears about Spark’s big mad-on, and finds out about her trap for Harley-”


“-and she figures that she can get a huge jump on the XSI research AND get rid of a major rival in one stroke. She sets up Harley-”

“Problem,” A-Plus pointed out. “She still needs to know that Reach isn’t ripping Spark off. HOW does she know that?” She paused. “Come to think of it, how do ANY of our suspects know that?”

“Surveillance.” Ace said solidly. “If Wizard is playing the ‘stalker’ card, then he’s been watching Spark closely. So, he’d know about the trap. He’d also probably be watching Reach via some sort of remote drone- God knows, he has the tech chops to build one. When Reach gets the ENI from Belphegor, Wizard knows that his rival is close to making a his big move on his would-be girlfriend. So, he intercepts the text message, sends Reach on a wild goose chase, and activates his surveillance drone inside the secure bay. It quick-kludges the trap together and the trap is set. The drone probably has some sort of stealth feature that allowed it to get into the bay, operate there, and extract itself without being seen. OR, he just warped it in and out.”

“And the text message, still on Jenny’s phone?”

“Wizard planted it, by calling and leaving a message with a crocked time stamp and caller ID.”

“Difficult,” Kew commented.

“But not impossible,” Rez pointed out.

“But Belphegor could do the same thing,” Holdout reminded them. “Charge’s scenario, as flimsy as it is, could hold up. So, Wizard and Belphegor are still tied for Suspect Number One, and Delta Spike is coming up as a sound Number Three. We’re SUPPOSED to be eliminating suspects, not racking them up, people!”

Then Harlan’s cell phone beeped. As the others bickered, he checked his cell. There was a text message. “Well, what do you know? Cast your bread upon the water, and it shall come back to you, tenfold!” Hiding his arm, he started tapping out a message on his console and shot an I-message to the others: [Reach: THIS IS 2 GUD 2 B TRU. REZ, I-M S-B & VERIFY] “She-Beast just sent me a text message. She says that Nephandus has come up with a major lead on Belphegor. She wants me to call her back on a secure line and get the down-lo.”

Playing along for the presumed audio pickup, Ace drawled, “She-Beast would want some reciprocation if she was going to pass along any real information, even if it was about Belfo.”

“Maybe, but I think that She-Beast is a little more interested in getting Security off her back, and letting things settle back to normal,” Harlan said, trying not to ‘act for the microphone’.


Darren shrugged and said, “Well, it can’t hurt to listen to what she has to say. Give her a ring, Reach.”





Reach walked over to the Security booth and asked to use the phone. Explaining that it was regarding his investigation, he got permission and called She-Beast’s number. He looked through the Security Booth window, trying to spot her. He’d seen her before, sitting with two girls whom he assumed were more Bad Seeds. Well, the black-haired girl looked like a Bad Seed, but he had problems seeing the redhead as a supervillainess. But he did spot Romy, sitting all by herself in a corner, morosely reading a book. But what really interested him was that Wizard was sitting about ten yards away from Romy, engrossed in his custom laptop. That is, IF it was indeed Wizard, and not one of his hologram dopplegangers. Nope, Harlan could tell by the shadow that he was casting. Before he picked up the phone, he keyed in, [Reach: PICKING UP PHONE. LISTEN IN, TRACE IF POSS, ANALYZE VOICE] “Hello, Jadis?”

“Harlan?” the voice came back. “I just got this from Nephandus. Belphegor is taking advantage of the Combat Trials to pull something. It’s going to go down NOW.”

“Now, as in right now?”

“That’s why I called you as quickly as I could. Belphegor’s moving whatever it was that he used to get into the Secure Bay. He’s going to try to use it to pull another theft, I’m not sure what. If you move now, you can catch him in the act.”


“Where is it going down, Jadis?” Harlan caught himself unconsciously enunciating carefully for the machine.

“I don’t know. Nephandus tagged his chair with a transponder. I’ll e-mail your cell the hailing frequency.”











On a nod from Holdout, Ace called Reach on his cell phone, and they acted out their parts for ‘Bogey’. Ace, Rez and Interface agreed to try to find Kaiju, while Holdout led Reach, Kew and A-Plus to track down Belphegor. As they disconnected, Kew initiated the ‘vaccine’, and Rez patched in a counter-tracking program which enacted an elaborate drama for the benefit of ‘Bogey’s’ tracking program.

The bogus ‘transponder’ signal led Reach, Kew and A-Plus on a wending trail through the tunnels. After a bit, Kew was panting. “WHY *pant* is he going through all this nonsense?”

Harlan was also breathing hard, but A-Plus wasn’t even winded. “You spend too much time on overwatch, Kew. He’s just trying to rattle us, get us tired, so that we’ll just jump at the first opening he gives us.” She followed the track to a ventilation duct. “And speaking of the devil.” She looked at Harlan significantly. “OH- DEAR- how-will-we-EVER-fit-through-that-tiny-ventilation-duct?” she said in a mocking faux-wooden actress voice.

[secure channel: Ace, Holdout, Bogey has shown us the trap. Shall we delay ‘till you get here?]

[secure channel: Security says that they can have men there in Five. Go in and keep him busy ‘till we get there.]

[secure channel: Problem, Holdout- Bogey only gave Reach an invite. He’d have to go in alone]

[secure channel: I got no problem going in alone, as long as I know I got backup on the way]

[secure channel: Reach, I can’t allow you to-]

[secure channel: Too late, Holdout- he’s gone in]

[secure channel: Why didn’t you STOP him?]

[secure channel: HOW? It was like holding onto a buttered eel!]

Harlan had a moment of intense claustrophobia as he crammed himself into the duct-again, following the transponder signal. It had been a LOT easier last time. But then, so much was easier when he was like that- well, everything except taking a whiz standing up. Harlan found himself getting angry. It occurred to him that he would have already been through this stupid duct, the other way. Then the duct just ahead of him sealed, and he felt a rush of air that suggested that the duct behind him had also been shut. He felt the duct swing, pointing him downwards, and a rush of liquid forced him from the duct, He dropped a good thirty feet to a polished floor. If his body had taken impact the way that normal bodies do, he’d have been dead, right there. Flushed out of the plumbing, like the piece of shit that you are,” snarled a voice through an amplifier.

“Who do you think you are, my father?” Harlan muttered to himself. As he picked himself up, he hit the counter-scramble feature. Looking around, he recognized the place- it was the allegedly ‘secret’ arena that Nephandus had used to jump him. “What? This place again? Haven’t we already been here, Belphegor?”

Belphegor? You think that you’re facing that oaf Belphegor?” A platform, about two feet across, floated down to about a foot off the arena floor. Standing on the platform was a dramatic figure in dark purple power armor, covered in flowing robes marked in moons and stars. In one hand, he held an elaborate faux-mystical staff. In the semi-conical helmet there was a clear faceplate that showed the scowling features of the weasel-faced Welsh boy. “You only WISH that you were facing Belphegor! I AM WIZARD!

Harlan strummed his fingers on the floor. “OH. Give. Me. A. Fucking. Break. Aw, c’mon, Belfo, I know that it’s you in there! There’s no way that anyone would make a suit of armor THAT dorky for themselves! Knock off the act, and let’s get down to it!”

I AM WIZARD!” he shrilled.

“Yeah, right. Like Wizard would really be chump enough to put his own name on any of this.”

Why would I be ashamed? I’m going to FORCE you to admit what you’re doing to Genevieve!

“Jenny? What does Jenny have to do with any of this?”

Oh, don’t play coy, you filthy Yank swine! I KNOW what you’re up to!”

“Why does everyone assume that I’m tryin’ to force Jenny t’do what she doesn’t wanna do?”

“Oh, I know EXACTLY what you’re doing, you lying silver-tongued piece of filth! You arranged that whole farcical thing with the XSI, to get Genevieve to feel sorry for you! All of it, a typical filthy American swindle! First, you steal her research to turn you into an exemplar, and then you manipulate her, so she feels guilty about it! Now, you’ve got her jumping through hoops for you, building equipment for you for FREE!”

“Are you kidding? Once she gets an idea into her head, it’s almost impossible to stop her! Do you honestly think that I put this suit on because I WANTED to?”

Enough of your LIES!” Wizard shrilled. “I’ll BEAT the truth out of you!” He pointed his staff at Harlan and fired off a ball of plasma, which bounced off Harlan’s suit.

Still, it was only a matter of time before Wizard figured out that Jenny never got around to making that hood for the suit, and a head-shot would pretty much do it for ol’ Reach. Harlan did a quick duck-and-roll, and hit his panic button.

In her isolated Secure Bay, Jenny was frantically putting the finishing touches on a combination force-field/ capture field/ stun-wave projector. It was clumsy and crude and it only had five shots, but she was expecting a call at any moment, telling her that her MID card had been called. WHY hadn’t she taken that Beginning Martial Arts class? Or at least gone jogging? Well, there was the fact that she hated violence, but-

In mid- internal quibble, her wrist unit started flashing and buzzing. She looked at it baffled for a moment? What was this, again? She remembered it. She’d made it for Harley… His Panic Button! It had to be constantly depressed for ten seconds for the signal to go off! “Mon Dieu! ‘Arlee! Je dois aller l'aident!” But as she bolted for the door, a wave of pain washed over her, and she was knocked to the floor.

For once, Harlan found that he was just as good now as he’d been before. But then, he had a LOT of practice ducking around, evading fire. And, well, the fact that Wizard’s shooting practice had obviously only been on a Playstation, helped. Well, from what he’d picked up, when in doubt, get the asshole with an itchy trigger finger monologing. “Hey, Wizzo! You DO know that even if you mash me, you still don’t stand a chance with Jenny!”

“And why is THAT, you overrated rubber band?”

“DUDE, why do you think a hottie like the Invisible Girl is shacking up with a nerd-wad like Reed Richards? Chump, he’s a stretcher! We can make every part- and I DO mean every part of our bodies as long and thick as we want? Why do you think they call him ‘Mr. Fantastic’? Hey, Man, once you go fantastic, everything else is spastic!” Wait a minute, the idea was to get HIM to start monologing…

Well, it did work, after a fashion. Wizard did get pissed and started spouting off about how Harlan was jerking Jenny around, and how Wizard would make him tell the truth.

“Oh yeah!” Harlan jeered. “Beat the truth out of me! Yep, yep, works every time! Drag the poor sap into court, battered and bleeding and slap that ol’ confession on the judge’s desk! Dude, I think that you’ve been watching too many Action movies! Y’see, here in the States, we got this little thing called ‘proper judicial procedure’-”

Very well, you leave me no choice! I have to use my ULTIMATE WEAPON!”

“What? You’re going to force me to eat English cooking? YOU FIEND!

Wizard pulled something out from behind his back and pointed it at Harlan. Harlan felt a really annoying sensation. Then he recognized it. “Dude. That’s Nephandus’ Randiness Wave Generator.”

YES! You recognize it! Your Nemesis! The only thing that can stop you!”

“PINHEAD!” Harlan snapped. “That’s the thing that changes me back to a guy! I’m already a guy! All that is gonna do is piss me off!”

You’re joking.”

“WHY would I do THAT?”

Then there was a banging noise. “What’s that?”

“THAT… is what we call ‘backup’.” The door to the arena buckled in, and A-Plus came somersaulting in, followed by Holdout, who was shrinking down a battering ram, Sgt. Harris of Security, Rez and Kew (who stood by the door).

“Oh Dear,” Wizard said acidly, “I seem to be outnumbered.” There was a flickering, and suddenly there were seven ‘Wizards’ each floating around on a platform. “What a pity,” they all said in unison. 

Jenny struggled to consciousness. Her body felt like it was being pulled and twisted in every direction. Her head felt like someone stuck an electric cooking beater into her brain and turned it on full blast. Some instinct kicked in, and she realized what it was- her Exemplar State Inducer! No! She’d only tested the XSI on vat-grown rotifer brain analogues! Well, and on Harley, too. There was no telling what it would do to her! Her head was clamped in a vice, but she realized that she was strapped onto some kind of gurney, and she was already thrashing about so heavily that if she could get out of it, she’d have ripped out already. Then she realized that she wasn’t strapped in with leather restraint cuffs. Whoever had trapped her, and tied her in with thick latex straps and put a latex ball in her mouth. She couldn't get free, but she could move her hand some. Concentrating as much as she could, she twisted her left hand around and tried to feel. Yes! Her captor had left her ‘watch’ on her wrist. Feeling as if she was breaking her wrist, she squirmed around inside the latex cuff and finally got some leverage, set the alarm bar against the frame and pressed the bar. Finally, she felt the hard vibration tell her that the panic signal had been activated. It seemed an eternity as she held her wrist in that awkward, bone-snapping position, until the vibration shifted from the harsh ‘you’ve pushed the panic button’ mode to the gentler ‘the signal is going out, people are coming to help you’ mode. Jenny sagged, her strength spent. The pain was agonizing, but she knew that Harley was coming to save her.

But in her current state, it had slipped her mind that just before she got zapped, Harley had pushed HIS panic button.

Holdout brought out his capture-net caster and bagged one of the flying ‘Wizards’, only to have it ‘jaunt’ out of the net. Rez created one of her light/PK hologram bubbles around another, only to have it de-rez and have another one form from scratch. A-Plus was grappling with another one and not getting anywhere. Sgt. Harris was bellowing to Wizard to stop screwing around, and surrender! Kew was furiously fiddling with her forearm console. But the Wizards were operating in almost perfect unison, trying to herd Reach into a position where the real Wizard could blast him.

Harlan began getting an idea of which one was the real Wizard, when a flashing red letters appeared inside his wraparound glasses: ‘SOS! SPARK! LOCATION: Isolate Secure Bay #17! SOS! SPARK! LOC-’ “SHIT!” Harlan shouted, “JENNY!” Looking around, he noticed that the other 007s were getting the same message.

Wizard swooped down for another blast.

“I don’t have TIME for this!” Harlan snarled. He snaked through the legs of the others and headed for the door.

“Oh, now you show your true colors, don’t you Sawyer?” Wizard jibed. “Come back here, you spineless SWINE!”

“We have an emergency situation here, Griffin!” A-Plus shouted.

“Don’t make it any worse on yourself! What did you do?” Harris demanded.

“What are you talking about?”

“Spark just sent out a panic signal! She’s in her bay at the Workshop! Reach must be going to help her!”

“Oh PLEASE!” Wizard sneered. “How Convenient! Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it!” He headed for the door but Holdout, Rez and Kew each erected barriers to stop him. He simply jaunted past the barriers, and his solid-light dopplegangers all faded back into nonexistence.

Reach was using all of his speed and stretching to get to Jenny. And stretcher can move VERY quickly when they want to. But the Tunnel Control system seemed to be working against him again. But they didn’t seem to be slowing down the armored asshole riding up his ass. “Come BACK here and fight like a man, you malleable maggot!” Wizard boomed.

“Stop running and FIGHT, you COWARD!” Albert ‘Wizard’ Griffin shrieked into his headset as he furiously worked the controls on his console.

Then he felt a tapping against the side of his head. “Oh, that’s Rich, coming from YOU!” drawled a youthful American voice just a foot away from him.

Albert startled, pulled down the full immersion visor of his RC unit and stared open mouthed at Ace, Interface and Lt. Reynolds who were standing there peeking into the hidden niche where he was curled up. Mastering himself, Albert scowled at Interface. “So. You tracked my signal.”

“What signal?” I-face said drolly. “You were screaming at the top of your lungs! We just followed the sound of your voice.” He grinned. “By the way, nice android replica. Spotted it right off the bat!”

 Lt. Reynolds leaned over and said, “I think that we need to have a nice long talk.” He reached over and hit the power button on the console unit.

In the corridors, the ‘Wizard’ drone suddenly slumped and dropped off its platform in the middle of firing a blast at Harlan. For which blessings he was duly grateful, but he had more urgent things on his mind. He used every ounce of his skill and determination to get past the obstacles the malfunctioning Tunnel Control system was throwing in his way. Students were helping other students who were also trapped by the sudden stoppages and lockups, but Harlan just raced past them. He set off all the Security alarms as he dashed past the tunnel checkpoint for the Workshop and breezed right into the heart of the main workroom. Security was reacting but they were also badly overwhelmed by the sudden surge of emergencies they had to cope with. Looking around desperately, Harlan saw a familiar face. “RACK!” he shouted, “CODE RED! JENNY! The Secure Bay! I gotta get there!”

Rack, who had been studying the Workshop’s exploded schematics of the Knights of Purity power armor with his teammates Thunderbird and Vortex, startled for a bit, but Harlan’s urgency was so clear in his surface thoughts that he understood in a second. “Over there! Fire stairs! Jenny’s bay is five levels down!” The three dashed to the fire door and only waited the few seconds for Harlan to leap down to the main floor and join them. Harlan didn’t bother with the stairs and leaped down the center well. T-Bird picked up Rack, frame and all, and floated down after him, with Vortex floating down on her own power.

Harlan reflexively swung himself onto the stair on the proper level and kicked the door in. Together, they raced down the granite hallway to bay #17. The card lock on the reinforced door responded to the buzzer, saying that the bay was ‘locked and sealed for security measures’.

“Rack, can you open it with your ESP or PK?” T-Bird asked.

Rack studied the lock and grunted. “Maybe. But these things are designed to prevent that. We may have to get Security to understand that this is more important than the-”

“WE. DON’T. HAVE. TIME. FOR. THIS. SHIT!” Harlan grated out. He his fingers into the near-hermetic crack of the door and started pulling with everything that he had. He couldn’t lose Jenny! They’d come through too much to get where they were! He couldn’t fail her!

“Harley, that door’s rated to resist 4,000 pounds of force!” Rack begged. “You’ll-”

There was a sound of tortured metal screaming, and the door began bending in his hands. An alarm went off, and a red light over the door started flashing. The hasp of the secure bolt came off and the bolt itself was bent as the door swung open.

Inside, they could make out what they thought was Jenny’s form on a jury-rigged frame. It was the right size and obviously female, but it- and much of the frame- was covered in a black gooey tar. A device of some sort that looked like a retro-‘futuristic’ camera was beaming a pair of colored lights onto the brow of the spasming form. The floor of the lab was covered in something black. And they heard Spark’s voice calmly reciting, “One hour 8 minutes 24 seconds. One hour 8 minutes 23 seconds. One hour 8 minutes twen-”

“JENNY!” Harlan screamed, but Rack beat him to the punch and grabbed his arms with his rack’s waldoes. T-Bird and Vortex also grabbed him and tried to drag him back with pure leverage, since they couldn’t get a good grip on him. Migraine rushed up and added her strength to theirs. Finally they managed to bring him back from the door.

“REACH!” Rack shouted into Harlan’s face, telepathically broadcasting his message into the boys’ brain. “You CAN’T stop it! It’s got to run its course! If you stop it, you might kill her!”

“But Jenny! I’ve got to-”

“You can’t,” T-Bird said with a voice that spoke of knowledge of just that pain. “You’ll only make it worse.”

“Harley, what happened?” Romy asked, her voice fraught with worry. “What’s going on?”

Rack kept telepathically pummeling him with the idea that he couldn’t help, until Harlan gave up with a sob. As Reach nodded heavily, Vortex let go. Then she noticed something. “Hey! When did you turn into a girl?”

“You are in a WORLD of trouble, Griffin!” Delarose growled at the sullen boy slouched down in a chair in front of his desk. “Assault with advanced technology. Arranging an ambush. Unauthorized use of a forbidden arena. Tampering with the Tunnel Control system. Assault and Unauthorized Experimentation on an Unwilling Subject!”

“What are you nattering about?” Albert snapped. “I haven’t done any experimentation on anyone!”

“How did you get into that secure bay to set that trap for Sawyer?”

“I had NOTHING to do with that!” Albert growled. “Not for the lack of wanting to, but I didn’t _DO_ it.”

“Okay then, where is Kaiju?”

“Kaiju? Godzilla Girl? What about her?”

“She hit the panic button, just before you sprung your little trap on Sawyer. We’ve looked for her, and we can’t find her.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Wizard responded mulishly.

“Okay, then TELL me- HOW did you get into that isolated ultra-secure bay? All the security measures were still in place, and Sawyer had to rip the door off to get to Spark!”

“WHAT?” Albert bleated in confusion. “Spark? Something’s happened to Genevieve? If that bastard Sawyer has-”

“You are NOT in a position to be making any threats, Taffy-boy!” Delarose growled. “You screwed up BIG TIME. This is WAY beyond me. This is beyond even Hartford. You’re going to have to answer directly to Carson on this one. I haven’t even spoken to her yet, and I already know that she’s ready to rip a tank apart with her bare hands on this one!”

One of the ironies of teaching, is that most teacher want to have a relaxed, friendly relationship with their students, but are forced by necessity to act as stern disciplinarians. Headmistress Elizabeth Carson could be a very sweet, very endearing person who could put you totally at your ease. But the look on her face as she looked at the students assembled in front of her desk could have stopped the Charge of the Light Brigade in its tracks. “THIS is unacceptable. This is beyond unacceptable! This is an outrage! No, when Sawyer was attacked and experimented on, THAT was an outrage. THIS is an all-out Scandal! The first time, it was outrageous, but it was in a medium security bay and it came at us from out of left field! This time, it happened in an Ultra-Secure Bay, while Security and a team of gifted amateurs was investigating the first attack!

“We didn’t build those Ultra-Secure bays to give the Masterminds something to practice on! They’re supposed to be secure! NO ONE gets in without us knowing about it! But the first we knew that Etincelle was in trouble, was when Sawyer ripped the door off its hinges! Now, I want to know what happened.”

Lt. Reynolds stepped forward and cleared his throat. As he spelled out the details of the incident, the students stepped forward and confirmed or denied the statement. Carson glowered at Wizard. “Well, Griffin, you seem to be the pivotal man in all of this. Care to explain WHY you saw fit to ambush Sawyer here just as Miss Etincelle was being attacked, and bollixed up the Tunnel Controls to keep him from getting to Etincelle?”

Wizard stepped forward and stood as straight and soldierly as his slouching frame would allow. “Mrs. Carson, I have reason to believe that Sawyer arranged the entire farce in the median Secure Bays as a way of making himself an Exemplar and placing Miss Etincelle in a position where she felt an obligation to him. I observed that while Security was looking everywhere else, they weren’t looking in the most obvious direction- namely, at Sawyer. Everyone was so busy tiptoeing around his delicate feelings that they didn’t ask the questions that needed to be asked. And, on top of that, Miss Etincelle was forced into a repugnant and compromising position with a person whom I regard to be of the very lowest order. A young lady was made to share a room with an oversexed teenage lout who-”

“Enough!” Carson cut him off. “And what about the attack on Etincelle, and overriding the Tunnel Controls?”

“I know nothing of either of those things. My intention in interrogating Sawyer was to force some item of information out of him that I could take to the Administration, so as to free Miss Etincelle from her noxious obligation to him.”

Carson gave Wizard a sour look. “You were gonna beat it out of him? Kid, you watch too much American TV. Chief Delarose- how do you respond to Mr. Griffin’s accusation of negligence?”

Delarose stepped forward a bit. “Son, the reason why it was so obvious to you is that it WAS obvious, even to us poor dull-witted colonials. In a situation like this, the alleged ‘victim’ is the first person that we check out. We checked his actions between the time that Spark left her bay and the time that he left Reynolds with Holdout and Rez, and he’s covered for every second of it. Even allowing that he might have some really slick trick up his sleeve- hey, this is Whateley, stranger things have happened (this year)- we placed a special undercover agent on him, and put him to investigating his own attack. We figured that if he were innocent, it would help him deal with it. If not, he’d try to cover it up, and our special agent would catch him. Special Agent? Report.”

Zenith and Sahar stepped forward. “Zoe?” Harlan asked, shocked and hurt. “YOU were spying on me?”

“No, Harley, my job was to help you cope and I did just that. Spying on you was HER job.” She jerked a thumb at Sahar.

“WHAT?” A-Plus blurted out. “You trusted HER with a special assignment, and not US?”

Delarose cleared his throat. “We DID give you a special assignment, remember? Besides, Sahar is both a Junior and a telepath.”

“After what she did last year?”

“Her personal life aside, Sahar did absolutely nothing that was against School Regs. A little sleazy, I’ll allow, but she IS on the short list for being accepted into the CIA when she graduates college. Her skills as a telepath were perfect for vetting Reach, and she had the skills to get him to reveal himself without coercion, if he was behind it all. Besides, we had a control on her at all times.”

Zenith raised a hand. “That would be me.”

“So. Vesmarran. Was Sawyer behind the first incident?”

Sahar shook her head. “No. My opinion is that Reach IS tough enough to have both shocked himself and endured the XSI process, just to become an Exemplar. BUT, his discomfort at being turned female, his distress at being betrayed by Spark, and his determination to discover the guilty party were all quite genuine.” She finished with a nod to Harlan.

What??” Wizard said, absolutely befogged.

“And what are your impressions of Mr. Griffin’s accusations as regards Sawyer’s intentions regarding Miss Etincelle?”

“A potent blend of sour grapes, wishful thinking and teenage hormones.”

Delarose continued. “The Cadets being assigned to investigate was on the up and up. Their brief was to investigate the break-in and trap in parallel with Security’s investigation, but it was understood that their real job was to kick up dust, and keep the suspects watching them, instead of the professionals. And they succeeded, brilliantly. And they managed to pull off some actual investigation. They found out about Nephandus’ passion pit, and they managed to nail down the whereabouts at the time in question, of most of our serious suspects. Or, at least they WOULD HAVE, if SOMEONE hadn’t been so fricking clever with hologram decoys and android stand-ins and teleportation!” He barked at Wizard. “As it is, I can’t rule you out for the Kennedy Assassination!

“But we still don’t know who pulled off the first break-in or how they did it,” Carson said sourly.

“Well, you don’t win a ball game with home runs.”

“Maybe. So, what are the particulars regarding Spark’s attack?”

Delarose pulled out a folder and looked in it. “We’re reasonably certain that the door to the Ultra-Secure Bay hadn’t been compromised. We would have been absolutely certain, but somebody ripped the door off the jam, making that difficult. But the lock had been jammed so there was no way that we could have gotten it open without ripping the door off. Security cameras reveal that the victim, Spark, entered the bay alone, and no one entered or left the bay between the time she entered and the time that Reach showed up. The security camera inside the bay itself had been defocused manually, and we’re not sure precisely when. The victim of the attack was found stretched out on an improvised frame made of bits and pieces of this and that. She was strapped to the frame with four 643mm x 74.5mm x 2mm latex bands tied in ‘Strangle Snare’ knots. Such bands can be found almost anywhere in the Workshop for temporarily securing things. The latest versions of her Neurological Engram Inducer and her Psychokinetic Response Attuner were jury-rigged into a Exemplar State Inducer such as was used on Reach, and turned on Spark. From the countdown on the computer, it was set for one and a half-hours, and she’d been exposed for seven minutes and 11 seconds before she managed to hit her panic button.

“We found a cobbled together energy weapon on one of the workbenches. It was designed for six charges, and one charge was spent. From the notes on the bench near the weapon, it looks like Spark was in the process of building it.”

“The Combat Finals kinda jumped out of nowhere at Jenny,” Harlan explained. “She was all in a tizzy that she was gonna get trashed in the Finals.”

“Knowing Genevieve, she’d have been just as worried about the effect on her Grade Point Average,” Charge grumped.

Delarose cleared his throat sharply and continued. “The victim, most of the frame, much of the furnishings and equipment, and all of the bay floor were covered in a near-liquid-fine dust comprised of the fullerene material that Spark was working on. The source of the dust was a large, 200-liter drum on an attunement rig similar to the one that trapped Reach the first time.”

“I needed more fullerene material to work with in my Devisor tests,” Rez explained. “I’m figuring it out, but my mistakes pretty much trash the material that I’m given. Jenny figured that it would be easier to make it in large batches than to keep making small batches. She also figured that she’d get the patent, and was expecting a large demand for the stuff, once the word got around.”

“It’s nice to hear that some of my students are thinking ahead,” Carson commented. “Does it look like it will pass the Devisor test?”

Kenya brightened. “Yes ma’am! I haven’t gotten it yet, and it’s kinda weird, and it will probably go through a bunch of refinement stages before it hits any real markets, but the science is sound.”

Delarose cleared his throat again. “The drum had exploded for reasons unknown. Half of the drum was still intact but one half was blown completely outwards, spreading the dust and several large shards of glass over the lab. While the dust that settled on the floor and the other furnishings remained in a particulate form, much of it congealed into a thick tar that covered the victim and the frame that she was on. The tar covering the victim and the tar covering the frame appear to have congealed in drastically different ways, and are separate and distinct masses.

“As per safety protocols, the process was allowed to finish, and then the victim was removed from the bay without being removed from the frame. In the infirmary, the frame and the tarry masses were examined, and Dr. Guitterez took the initiative to remove Spark from the frame. When she was removed from the frame, Spark began curling up into a fetal ball, and resisted all efforts to prevent her from doing so. When she finished rolling up into that ball, the tar closed around her and formed a hard exterior shell, creating what is for all purposes, a giant egg.”

“An EGG?” Romy hooted. “How does she breathe?”

“According to Guitterez, the shell is permeable, allowing oxygen and nitrogen in. She says that ultrasound, thermograph and X-ray scans are inconclusive, and given the Devisor nature of the fullerene material, using anything more exotic would be begging for a disaster. Telepathic contact is useless- all they get is ‘mental static’. According to them, Spark is quite unconscious.

“Initial studies of the bay reveal no obvious means of entry, and both the Psychic Arts and Mystic Arts people say that the wards protecting the bay are still intact and working.”

There was a pause, and Delta Spike raised her hand. “I, ah, understand why they are here,” she pointed at Charge and Migraine. “And I understand why they are here,” she indicated the 007s. “And I even understand why they are here,” she pointed at Nephandus, Belphegor and Wizard. “But why am _I_ here?”

“You are here, Miss Fleischer, because of the frame and some of the attendant equipment attached to the frame. You see, besides the Exemplar State Inducer, there were several instruments monitoring what was happening to Spark as she was being exposed, analyzing it, and broadcasting the data.”

“How could a signal get out of there?” Holdout asked.

“The same way that Spark’s panic button signal got out. There was a cellular relay inside the bay that linked to the outside.”

“And what does that have to do with me?” Delta Spike asked timidly.

“Pieces of the frame and individual bits of monitoring equipment each have been identified as having been built by one the following students: Belphegor, Delta Spike, Kaiju, Nephandus and Wizard.”

Belphegor, Nephandus and Delta Spike all started furiously denying the implication. Wizard held on, “Well then, why isn’t Kaiju here, answering questions along with the rest of us?”

“Because we can’t FIND her. And just as you were putting out the bait for trap, Griffin, both Ace and Security got messages from Kaiju saying that she was in big trouble.”

“Hold on,” Rez said. “I analyzed that call- the voice was synthesized. It was an ‘Eliza’ type response program, reading from a script. It was exactly the same kind of program that HE used in his bait message from She-Beast.” Rez pointed at Wizard.

“I had NOTHING to do with her disappearance!” Wizard screamed.

“QUIET!” Carson snapped. “Ace, why would Kaiju call you if she was in trouble?”

“Kaiju was helping Security set up our suspects,” Delarose intercepted the question. He spelled out how Kaiju had agreed to be a target for being framed. “But now we can’t find her. We’ve looked all over, spoken with her roommate, and talked to her friends. So far, Nada.”

Carson nodded. “Very well. Charge, Migraine, Delta Spike- you are free to go. Nephandus, Belphegor- you may return to your detentions. Wizard- stay outside, I’ll want to talk to you later. All of you can expect to answer questions from Security at some time, so keep yourself available. Cadets- I’ll want to talk to you for a bit, but it’s a trifle cramped at the moment.”

When the other students had left the office, Carson addressed the students. “Let me start out by saying that you all have done a first-class job of bird-dogging this situation. Security says that they had only a fraction of the trouble that they usually have keeping tabs on the people in question. However, the stakes have just gone up drastically. The Ultra-Secure Labs are supposed to be burglarproof. However, somebody not only got in there, but we don’t know how they got in there! Somebody got past our wards and other security measures. That has implications far beyond Spark being attacked, implications I can’t go into with you. AND, there _is_ the matter of two, possibly three potentially lethal attacks on students. I’m sorry, but we can’t afford to have you kicking up any more dust on this. You’ve done what good you can, and I don’t want to hear about you Cadets poking around that Lab. Do you understand me?”

“What measures are being taken to find Kaiju?” Ace asked worriedly.

“You have a special interest?” Carson asked. A-Plus shot a look of more than casual interest at Ace.

“I ‘interrogated’ her, to help foster the illusion that she was a suspect. She… just seemed like a very nice girl who was doing a very brave thing, and she was really interested in how our investigation was proceeding.”

“I’ll BET she was really interested,” Delarose said as he put away his cell phone. “That was our CSI team. They put down special mag-lev planking before the medics went to remove the frame, so the dust on the floor wasn’t disturbed. They said that someone had stepped through the dust on the floor and swept over their footprints. But they missed a partial, right next to the frame.”

“So, we know what size foot ‘Mr. X’ has, and what sort of shoes he wears?” Harlan asked eagerly.

“Better. We know whose footprint it was.”

“FOOTPRINT?” was the general consensus. “Who takes off their shoes when they break into a place?” Interface asked, aghast.

“Simple. Someone who can’t wear normal shoes, and whose feet are so tough that wearing shoes is a waste of leather. Someone like Sadhira Patel, a.k.a. ‘Kaiju’.”

“KAIJU?” Ace and Reach blurted out as one. “Why would Kaiju help our investigation, if she was the guilty party?”

“Crooks like knowing what the cops are thinking,” Delarose said stolidly. “What, you never watched Columbo?”

“Are you sure?” Rez asked.

“She has a very distinctive footprint.”

Carson broke off a deep train of thought. “Very well, that’s all. Just … go back to your usual routines. And please, DON’T discuss this new development with anyone. Dismissed. Except for you, Sawyer. I’d like to have a few words with you.”

The Cadets filed out, leaving Harlan alone with Mrs. Carson. Her expression softened from her hard authoritarian mode. “So. Harlan. How are you holding up?”

“Me? I’m not the one in the infirmary trapped inside a fu-freaking EGG?”

“No, but you’ve changed back into a girl, and you’re worried about Spark. You got blindsided on this, and you’re blaming yourself. But nobody saw that coming. Our ‘Mr. X’ took his time, picked his options carefully and took great pains to confuse things as much as he could.”

“ ‘Mr. X’? You don’t think that it was Kaiju?”

“I’m not fool enough to commit myself on anything at this early stage. And neither Kaiju nor Mr. X are the point right at this moment. You are. Harlan, I don’t want you playing ‘Greyfriars Bobby’ at Jenny’s bedside, getting in the medics’ way.”

“But … Jenny … she needs me!”

“You will be allowed two hours of ‘visiting time’ every day in the afternoon, until she … wakes up. Or hatches. Or whatever happens. But you WILL go to your classes! You WILL take your Combat Finals when your name is called! And you WILL go to the first of those parties that Melville is always throwing. It’s about time they actually served a useful purpose. You will NOT mope around the Infirmary.” Harlan grimaced mulishly, but nodded.

“Good. You’re showing some sense. Next, there’s the matter that you’ve changed into a girl again. Dare I hope that you were at least wearing that monitoring device that Spark made for you this time?” Harlan nodded. “Good. Guitterez will be ecstatic to get a contrasting readout. Of course, you’ll move back to the room that you share with Spark. But there’s another element to all this. We have no idea whether or not you’re going to keep bopping back and forth between states like this. When we thought that it would only be temporary, we didn’t see any reason to upset your parents. But now, there’s a significant chance that this is going to be a steady part of your life, one way or another. They have a right to know about this. I’m going to contact them and have them come up here to see you. Hopefully, your father and mother will have the good sense to not make up their minds about this before they actually meet with you and discuss this.”

Harlan screwed up his face in awkward embarrassment. “Weeelllll … there’s kind’a a problem with that …”

“Your parents disowned you when your mutant trait manifested itself?” Harlan nodded. “Lord, I wish that I hadn’t dealt with precisely that before,” Carson sighed. “Serves me right for not reading your file first. So, who is your guardian?”

“My Aunt Connie. She’s my mother’s sister. Her address and all that are in my file.”

“I see. Well, sometimes things like this can help bring about a mending of bridges. It’s happened.” Carson pointed refrained from mentioning that it had happened exactly twice in her experience. “Would you mind if I contacted your parents?”

Harlan let out a gusty sigh. “If you think it will do any good.”

“I’ll arrange for your Aunt to be brought here. The decision as to what will happen rests with her. I’ll arrange for your parents to come as well, if they’re so inclined.”

A wan smile crossed Harlan’s face. “That should be interesting …”

“Very well. Now, get going. Oh, and tell Mr. Griffin that it’s his turn. I think it’s time that he heard the Vigilante Speech.”

Harlan knew that he was supposed to go straight to Melville, but he couldn’t help heading over to the Infirmary, first. They wouldn’t let him go in, but he was able to get a look inside. There were all the expected high tech doodads wrapped around it, but it was still just an egg. A huge misshapen black egg. That Jenny was inside. How could Jenny be inside that? WHY was she inside that thing? What was happening to her? He stood there, numb and mute, for a long time. At least long enough for the medics to get tired of him hanging there and sending him off with a tick in his ear.

With nowhere else really to go, Harlan drifted over to Melville. He picked up some of this stuff from F-X’s room and went to the room that he shared with Jenny. Other than stashing a few things on his bed, Jenny hadn’t changed a thing. She even had one of her projects half-finished on her workbench. Numbly, Harlan picked up Jenny’s pillow from her bed. It smelled like her talcum powder. Clutching the pillow to his chest, he sank down onto his bed and rocked back and forth, trying not to cry. “Jennnyyyy …”

Tuesday, December 12th

Harlan woke up to the sound of loud knocking at his door. He struggled to the door to find Zenith and Sahar behind it. “Woof! Look at you!” Zoe exclaimed. “You look like ten miles of bad road.”

“Just as we thought,” Semi tutted. “I’ll bet that you didn’t eat OR shower yesterday, did you?”

Harlan scowled at them. “I thought that your mission was over; I’ve proven that I wasn’t behind the mess at the Secure Bay.”

“Oh, HER mission _is_ over,” Zoe said. “But it looks like mine is just beginning.” The two girls stepped in over Harlan’s objections. “First things first, get out of that skinsuit and take a shower.” Zoe paused and said, “Don’t stand on modestly, Harley. You haven’t got anything that we haven’t got.” She paused. “Don’t make us strip you out of that and drag you into the showers, Harley. We can and WILL do it.”

Harlan started to argue, but the prospect of them doing just that- and worse, discovering the secret of the Melville girls’ showers (and the horrible consequences thereof)- was enough to knock him right out of his funk. “No need! I’ll be a good boy! Or … whatever …” Using the closet door as a screen he slipped out of the suit and into his bathrobe, and was out the door.

“Well! That was easier than expected!” Zoe said.

“Let’s make sure that he doesn’t try to slip out the back,” Semi came back.

“I was NOT trying to slip out the back!” Harlan insisted on their way to the Crystal Hall. “I was looking for YOU!”

“Very moving, very convincing,” Zoe said as she and Semi frog-marched him to breakfast. “Now, I want you to eat a good hearty breakfast. You are NOT going to do Jenny the least bit of good by starving yourself. Especially now that you’re an Exemplar.”

“What does my being an Exemplar have to do with anything?”

“Being an Exemplar means that you’ll be able to do stupid things, like ignoring that you’re hungry, until you fall down flat on your face from hunger. You haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday. Now start putting food on that plate!”

They found Adalie and Romy sitting disconsolately by themselves. Charge was picking at her food, while Romy was taking the exact opposite approach and was attacking her food as if she was expecting it to counterattack at any moment. They exchanged a few terse inquiries as to Jenny’s health, but there wasn’t any real news. A few people dropped by to ask questions and offer condolences. Wizard and Delta Spike each dropped by and talked with Adalie and Romy. Mostly with Romy. For the most part, breakfast was nourishing but tense.

Harlan plodded through his classes and the inevitable comments about his renewed feminine status. Zenith and Sahar were there most of the time, making sure that he got from one class to another without getting waylaid by some of the more egregious idiots. What Zenith’s formidable presence didn’t deflect, Sahar’s fearsome reputation did.

Harlan sat with the Cadets at lunch. There was a tense moment as Gauntlet and Cagliostro walked up, apparently smelling blood in the water. But Interface beat them to the punch. I-face got up and stared them down. “Don’t,” was all that he said.

“Don’t what?” Cagliostro started to dissemble. “We just-”

“BULL. Try it with someone who doesn’t know exactly what you’re trying to pull.” Interface had his best ‘hardass’ face on. Well, if you’re going to work in Espionage, you’ve got to have a hardass face. I-face’s wasn’t very good yet, but he was working on it. But he was helped enormously when the rest of the Cadets rose en masse, backing him up.

Gauntlet and Cags backed down and went looking for easier prey. As the 007s sat down, Ace said. “So, Harley- you don’t really think that Kiaju is ‘Mr. X’, do you?”

The question stirred Harlan from his fog. “What?”

“Well, you and I are the only ones here who have actually met Kaiju, and spoken to her face to face. I just don’t accept that she pulled all of this off. She just didn’t have that kind of personality.”

“Oh, like you’re such an expert,” A-Plus scoffed. “Sahar played you like a kazoo.”

“Being had by Sahar is like losing at arm wrestling to the Incredible Hulk,” Ace shot back. “I mean, she’s put it over on everyone she’s come across. So, what do you think, Harley?”

Harlan paused and really focused for the first time that day. “I dunno. When we talked, she was real nervous that we suspected her.” Then a penny dropped. “Though, now that you mention it- they still haven’t answered WHY she did it.”

A-Plus snorted. “Ah, HELLO? Research? She didn’t want to have to wait for months, if not years, for Spark’s XSI to get approved.”

“Why would she be in such a hurry for that?”

Kew leaned over, a look of snide pity on her face. “Reach, if you didn’t notice that she was practically a poster girl for GSD, then I don’t really think that you belong in the Cadets.”

Harlan shot a severe look back at Kew. “No, she doesn’t have GSD. Not the BIT-based version or the textbook version. She has a condition called MATD.” Harlan spelled out the details of Manifestation Augmented Tissue Deformity.

“Hold on,” Rez said. “So, you’re saying that this MATD means that changing her BIT won’t do jack for her?”

Harlan shrugged. “Well, I imagine that if she somehow managed to turn herself into an Exemplar, that might correct the effects of the MATD. But if the MATD was still warping her body, wouldn’t that cause a lot of stress on her?”

The Cadets all looked at each other. “Yeah, that makes sense, I guess,” Kew admitted. “I mean, I’m into hardware, not wetware.”

A-Plus looked like she was racking her brain. “You’re right, Harley. I remember a mention of MATD- the syndrome causes a lot of stress on body tissue and trying to counter that would cause all kinds of complications- gangrene, cancer, all sorts of nasty stuff.”

“Kaiju was working on a gizmo to minimize the effect that her manifestation had on her body, and she was researching a way of using the effect to reverse itself,” Harlan continued.

“Right!” Ace said triumphantly. “She is too smart and too grounded not to realize that using the XSI on herself would be stupid. And the only reason to fast-forward research like that, is to use it on yourself!”

The other Cadets looked at each other. “They got a point,” Holdout admitted.

“But why the over-elaborate ‘oh help, I’ve been captured’ bit with the computer-masked message?” Kew asked.

“Non-issue,” Ace stated definitively. “Equal probability that it was sent by either Kaiju to cover herself, or a real captor, not realizing that we knew about the computer mask. Proves nothing, so we discard it.”

“And if Security’s looking for Kaiju, then they’re not looking for whoever DID do it,” Harlan said. “And we DID say that we’d protect her.”

“But Carson took us off the case,” Rez said. “If we interfere with the Security investigation, we blow all the credit that we’ve built up.”

“So, who’s investigating?” Interface asked ingenuously. “We’re just … concerned about a friend who’s suddenly dropped out of sight. We’re not asking where she might be hiding, which is Security’s job we’re just  … asking around to see if anyone knows anything about what might have happened to Kaiju. She’s not a fugitive as far as we’re concerned; she’s just a missing student. Nothing wrong with us looking for someone who’s lost.”

“Nicely weaseled, Randy,” Holdout said. “It would be nice to talk to whoever she had watching her back, but we don’t know who she asked to So, the first order of business is to talk with her roommate and find out who her friends are. Kenya?”

Rez was already at work on her forearm console. “According to this, her roomie was… Maledicta? What’s a Maledicta?”

‘Maledicta’ turned out to be THAT Goth Chick. No, not the sleek, raven-tressed, porcelain-skinned, sloe-eyed darkling temptress who moves with sinuous grace and exudes sheer sexuality. No, that’s Sara Waite, a.k.a. ‘Carmilla’. Maledicta was the OTHER Goth Chick. The pudgy, bad black dye-jobbed, piggy-eyed sullen shlump who hangs out at every Goth club and wishes that a demon would buy her soul, so that she could become that sleek, raven-tressed yada-yada-yada. Kew liked her.

It was hard enough hanging out with a stone-cold blonde Exemplar babe like A-Plus. It was worse having a not-Exemplar but still dang cute techno-babe like Rez cutting into her action. But now she had a mind-numbing uber-babe- WHO USED TO BE A GUY- walking around in skin-tight black latex! (okay, not latex, way to belabor a triviality!) Kew was getting creamed in the looks department. But standing next to Maledicta, Kew felt like Angelina Jolie. “NO, I don’t know where Sadhira got to!” Maledicta snarled. “Just because I share a room with her, doesn’t mean that we share makeup and giggle into the night talking about boys! All that she ever wanted to talk about was her stupid electronics! I had more important things to think about,” Maledicta huffed. “I have my _Art_!”

Oh?’ Rez thought to herself. ‘ ‘My Little Pony’ collages, maybe?’

No one rose to the bait. After an awkward silence, where no one asked precisely what ‘art’ Maledicta spoke of, she said in a lofty tone. “My Magic.”

“You’re in the Mystic Arts program?”

“YES! I AM!” Maledicta snapped.

“Oh?” Harlan pulled out his PDA. “What’s your specialty?”

Darkness …” Maledicta intoned ominously. With a wave of her hand, a stream of darkness flowed about her.

A-Plus wondered whether Maledicta was a fan of Nacht, the Bad Seed. Nacht also worked with darkness and cultivated a rather brooding mystique. But then, Nacht had actual power- and actual style. Maledicta followed A-Plus’ gaze over to the Bad Seeds’ table. Her expression faltered for a second. She returned her attention to the Cadets and said with haughty grandeur. “And WHY should I bestir myself to help YOU? You who persecute my lover, my one true love, my soul mate?”

Aaannndd WHO would that be?”

“Why, Jean-Armand, of course!” she lavished a doting look back over at the Bad Seeds’ table. At the Seeds’ table, Nephandus seemed to sense something. He started, looked around, and traced the sensation to Maledicta’s table. She graced him with a gushing smile. He didn’t even notice the Cadets, he simply became exceedingly interested in his lunch. Keeping his head down, he elbowed the side of the Asian girl who was sitting next to him. She simply returned his poke with a backhanded slap that rocked his head.

“Did Kaiju mention anything, or did anything happen in the past week that might give you an idea-”

“ENOUGH!” Maledicta emoted, the back of her hand to her brow. “You will NOT badger me into betraying my sacred troth!” She arose and stalked away from the table.

“Could you at least tell us if she had any friends?” Harlan called after her.

Wednesday, December 13th

Quentin Sawyer looked around the air terminal. “What a dump,” he groused. “Don’t fancy-schmancy superhero schools like this have private airstrips or something?”

“Why of course they do, Quent!” his sister-in-law Connie said sprightly. “Right next to the big neon sign saying ‘Superhero School- lob your artillery shells 100 yards in that direction’.”

“Oh please, you two!” Linda chided her husband and sister. “Let’s put the best face on this that we can, for Harlan’s sake!” She gave them the chipper little smile she always had when she hoped to inspire someone to better behavior. It even worked occasionally. “Oh look! There’s our greeter!”

The stocky but reasonably youthful looking man with the ‘Sawyer Party’ sign greeted them. “You’re Connie Beaumont and party?”

Connie took the lead-like you could stop her with a bulldozer- and established herself as the person to talk to, leaving Quentin trailing along. As usual. Snow was heavy on the ground already, and Quent was grateful for the heater in the van. “Why is it so damn cold?” he groused. “It’s only December, for cryin’ out loud!”

“It’s New Hampshire, Quent,” Connie shot back with her usual note of mixed amusement and dismissal. “We’re up in the Presidential Mountains. It gets cold up here quick.”

Quent wondered why he’d let himself get talked into wasting what few ‘Personal Days’ he had at the refinery to come up here. As far as he was concerned, that little wimp Harlan was dead. But apparently Connie had talked Linda into thinking that this would somehow ‘mend bridges’. How the fuck do you just ‘get over’ having your son becoming some sort of twisted freak? Well, he’d signed off on the punk. So why was he here, freezing his balls off?

The van drove through scenery that looked like it popped off a Hallmark Christmas card until they came to a gate in an oh-so-picturesque fieldstone wall. They drove through more wooded area to some high-rent buildings. ‘Humph,’ Quentin thought to himself sullenly, ‘Punk’s going to a better school than _I_ ever got to go to.’

The van stopped in front of a red brick Colonial-style building that looked like the Administration building in every high- toned college or boarding school movie that Quentin ever saw, and they were shown in. But the woman sitting behind the headmistress’ desk didn’t belong in any college movie that he ever saw. Well, except for maybe some of those soft-core porn movies that HBO shows late at night.

She was too dang good looking to be a real school principal. She was the kind of blonde that they don’t make anymore, the kind of almost too-perfect blonde that Hollywood starlets were back in the 50s and 60s. Quentin was reeling from the impact of seeing her when Connie stepped forward, shook the blonde’s hand and started asking questions, which should have been his job. “So, Mrs. Carson, exactly why have you called us here? Has something happened to Harley?”

“The boy’s name is HARLAN,” Quentin said mulishly.

The blonde nodded acknowledging Quentin’s point. “Yes, something HAS happened to Harlan. He’s not hurt, but saying that he’s ‘fine’ would really be stretching the definition of the word. Now, please, take a seat and lend me an ear. This will take some telling …” From there she went on to spin this totally bogus story about Harlan getting trapped in some bizarroid ‘mad scientist’ dingus, them not knowing who was responsible for it, and Harlan was a girl now.

“You are totally shitting me,” Quentin said in flat disbelief.

“Mister Sawyer, if I were putting you on, I’d do it with something a lot more credible than this,” Carson assured him.

“So, you’re saying that Harley’s going to stay a girl?” Linda asked, a note of shock in her voice.

Carson made a ‘who knows?’ gesture. “It’s hard to say. The thinking was at first that the XSI imprint would fade within a week or two. But Harlan’s changed back and forth twice so far, and the readings that they got suggest that the female BIT is just as strong and viable as it was when it was first printed. So, the ‘just fade away’ theory, as nice as it would be, is looking weaker and weaker. Our current thinking is that Harlan somehow now has two stable BITs, and it requires some as-yet-unknown trigger to shift from one to the other.  Harlan may remain female, only changing back to male with the artificial trigger that that idiotic ‘Randiness Wave Generator’ provides. He may learn how to switch from one BIT to the other at will. The male BIT may atrophy, leaving only the female BIT. The two BITs could merge, hopefully leaving Harlan as a male exemplar. Or, far more likely, something completely different that hasn’t occurred to us will happen.”

Connie nodded. “And what are you going to do about it?”

Carson clasped her hands before her on the desk and leaned forward slightly. “THAT is what I’ve called you here to discuss. We currently have Harlan in a situation where he has two part-time dorm rooms, one for each gender, and a roommate of the appropriate gender in each. The girl who created the Exemplar State Inducer is rooming with him in the girl-state room, so the person who is best qualified to evaluate his condition is available if anything suddenly goes wrong. He’s attending classes again and he has a supportive group of friends who have accepted his condition. But it’s up to YOU to decide what’s best for Harlan, whether to allow him to continue here at Whateley or make other arrangements.”

“Other arrangements?” Connie asked.

“Like getting him out of this loony bin!” Quentin snapped. “What kind of place IS this? Damn straight I’m pulling my boy out-”

“Oh hush, Quent,” Connie said with quiet authority. “Harlan’s not your boy anymore. That’s the point here, after all. He’s not a boy and he’s not yours. You kicked him out without a second thought.”

“HE’S MY-”

“And he’s not your whipping post, either,” Connie continued in a steelier tone. “You signed over all parental authority to me. I’m his legal guardian, and you’ll have to go to court to get that rescinded. You’ll have to show that you have some alternative to this school that will be better for Harley, and we both know that you can’t.”

“LOOK, you ball-busting BITCH-” Quentin shouted.

“You will mind your language in my office!” Carson snapped. Quentin cringed like a kicked dog before Carson’s authority. “Mr. Sawyer, Ms. Beaumont is quite right- the final decision will be hers to make. However, my experience in matters like this is that it would be best if all the parental parties concerned had a voice in the matter. I’d like you to spend a few days with us, talk with Harlan, get to know the situation better and then make your decision together.”

Quentin was slightly mollified. At least someone was taking him seriously. “Well, when will he be out of classes? Let’s see how he’s holding up.”

“Classes are out, just now,” Carson explained. “We’ve had Midterms, and the students are busy with a special part of our curriculum. So, Harlan is waiting for you in the office outside.” She hit her intercom and said, “Mrs. Linford, would you send Reach in?”

Quent looked to the door; after all the crap that he’d been through, he could use a good laugh, seeing what kind of girl the little wimp looked like. Probably just as much of a wishy-washy weedy little loser as he had been as a boy. The door opened, and three girls walked in. Quent’s jaw hit the floor. They didn’t make high school girls like this, not in real life! The shortest of them was about his height but gazelle slender, with dark olive-tone skin and a long angular face with a patrician nose, pronounced cheekbones and large sloe hazel eyes with an eerie red ring around the irises. Her hair was midnight black and fell in waves to the small of her back. The other two appeared to be sisters, with similar short shaggy haircuts, though the blonde was curvier than the brunette was. They were both almost too perfect to be true, with long regular features that were strong with character, yet delicate enough to be absolutely gorgeous. Their large round eyes were matching shades of sapphire blue. While the blonde and the other girl were wearing school uniforms, the brunette sister was wearing a kinky black catsuit, which she covered with a long gray coat of some sort. Quent was snapped out of his shock when Linda goggled at the girl with the long wavy hair and said, “Harlan, sweetie, is that YOU?”

The girl in the kinky catsuit gave an embarrassed chuckle, full lips pulled into an sheepish grin, held up a hand and said, “Aaahhh … No, Mom. It’s me. Harlan.”

“WHAT?” barked Quent, bolting to his feet. THAT was his worthless punk kid? How was he supposed to …? Thrashing around blindly, he seized on the first thing that occurred to him. “What is that SICK outfit that you got on? What, did they make some kind of FAG out of you, boy? You look like you’re trolling for truck drivers!”

“Oh, the outfit? Heh, well, it’s sorta a long story …”

“Oh, I’ll BET it is! God DAMN it, Harlan, you STILL don’t have the good sense to come in out of the rain, do you?”

“Quentin, put a SOCK in it!” Connie snarled. She stood as well and there was a very tense moment when they locked gazes. Quent gave in, and Connie smiled frostily. Her smile gained warmth as she looked at Harlan. She gave a hearty laugh, “Well, we can’t say that we weren’t warned! I’ll give you this, Harley dear- when you decide to become a girl, you don’t mess around!” Then she gave his frame a long look, taking in the fullerene suit. “Still, I’ll give ol’ Fuss-an’-Feathers here his due- that IS a helluva suit you got on hon. So what IS this long story you were talking about? And who are these two?”

Harlan was introducing Zenith and Sahar when his cell phone went off. He excused himself, answered it and then looked over to Mrs. Carson. “Ma’am, I’ve just been called for my Combat Final. Will you tell them to re-schedule me?”

Carson flickered a look at Quent and Linda. “Actually, I think that your parents need a moment to absorb things. What say we give them a chance to get settled in at the guest cottage and get used to the idea?”

“Hey, I don’t need any time to get used to any freako ideas,” Quent growled. “I already know that what he NEEDS is to be taken out of this freak school, and go to a REAL school, where he’ll learn about the real world, and maybe how to be a MAN!”

“Oh?” Connie sneered. “If there is a such a school, why haven’t YOU enrolled?”

Carson cut off Quent’s reply. “Harlan, just go and get it over with. I think that your folks and I will have a few things to discuss, so after you finish, why don’t you drop in on Spark, and see how things are progressing there?”

“HEY!” Quent barked at Harlan as he turned to go, “I haven’t said that you could go!”

“Just Go, Harley,” Connie said, gently but firmly, overriding Quent.

“Where do you think YOU’RE going, you little PUKE?” Quent demanded. Harlan stood there, torn between obediences. Then he started to turn again.

“DON’T. YOU. GO.” Quent grated. Harlan scowled, brought down the pair of sunglasses that he’d propped up on his head and left. “HEY!” Quent yelled, “You come BACK here!” Then he noticed that the girl with the long waving hair was giving him an odd look. “What are YOU looking at?”

Connie cleared her throat dramatically. “So, what are these ‘Combat Finals’ that seem to be so important?”

Carson stopped giving Quent the evil eye and graced Connie with a smile. “Whateley tries to prepare our students for the world. And unfortunately, a large portion of the world really doesn’t like mutants. The Combat Finals test the students’ ability to cope with high stress situations.”

“So, you put two mutants in a room and let them blast the hell out of each other?” Quent said with a leer. “Sounds like something I saw in Vegas.”

“Despite the name, the Combat Finals aren’t about combat,” Carson corrected him. “They’re about dealing with difficult situations. The students are given a problem to solve in the face of extreme conditions in competition with other students. The first one to solve the problem wins. Usually, this involves beating the other student in a fight, but we award extra points for a creative and non-violent solution. A student can even get a better grade if they lose the conflict, if they use a creative and effective strategy in the face of an overwhelming superior force by their opponent.”

“Let me guess,” Quent gave her a snide smile. “This is one of those ‘grade on a curve’ schools.” 

“Quite the opposite,” Carson said equitably. “Grading curves are pointless. Either the student understands the material that he’s being trained in or he doesn’t. We grade each student on their understanding of the course material, not how they fared in comparison to each other. Of course, that’s with an objective standard, which doesn’t apply in the Combat Finals. Still, we’re trying to get the students to learn to apply themselves to these situations. As we say, it doesn’t make any sense to spend all this money training these kids, if they go and get themselves killed right after graduation.”

Quentin grunted, “Heh. Complete waste of time and money in Harlan’s case. I’ll betcha that he gets himself-or herself- creamed, if the guy he’s up against is worth a bucket of spit.”

“Oh, Quent, I’m sure he’ll be all right!” Linda giggled. “I mean, he’s only a freshman! They wouldn’t pair him up with anyone actually dangerous, now would they?”

“Actually, Mrs. Sawyer, we tried that,” Carson corrected her, “and we found that the students didn’t take the Combat Finals that seriously. So the match-up is totally random. Harlan could face a girl with all the powers of a hamster, or he could face a thirty foot-tall giant who can bench-press locomotive engines. We find that the uncertainty helps keep the kids focused and makes them take the finals seriously.”

“Sh’yeah,” Quent muttered. “Waste’a time, the punk’s gonna get creamed.”

“Maybe. Let’s see.” Carson pressed a sequence of buttons on her keyboard, and a very wide screen monitor dropped, covering most of one wall. It flickered to life, showing a three-quarters overhead view of a circular arena surrounded by seats protected by a high polished concrete wall and thick ‘glass’. The arena was filled with a mockup cityscape and there was already a young man waiting in one of the contestants’ circles. An equal distance from the two circles was an odd looking cylinder with an onion bulb on top. “We change the objective every year. This year, the objective is the ‘doomsday device’. The objective is to get into that spindle and answer three questions, while keeping the other student from doing the same. Simple in essence, difficult in execution. Let’s see who Harlan is up against.” She typed in again and a red ‘card’ appeared on the screen. “Ah. Bronco.”

Code Name: BRONCO
Ratings: Exemplar-3
Techniques: Super-Strength:
  • Upper Limits: 5.6 tons
  • Carrying Strength: 4.2 tons
  • Casual Strength: 2.3 tons
Extreme Durability
  • Rated ‘Bulletproof’ at Sniper levels
Enhanced Healing

  • Standing Jump: 2340 ft.
  • Running Jump: 7100 ft.
  • Direct Horizontal: 500 ft.
  • Top Speed: 55 MPH
  • Cruising Speed: 35 MPH
‘Mule Kick’: Focuses more PK power through feet than hands, able to do more damage with kicks, with greater knock back force
Weak vs.: Sonics, Magic, Gravitics
Backup/ Team affiliation: Silo
Whateley Maintenance & Repairs Department

“ ‘Team Affiliation: Silo and Whateley Maintenance & Repairs Department’?” Connie asked.

“Bronco is one of our more… _rural_ students, from the Rockies,” Carson explained. “He and his buddy ‘Silo’ have a tendency to amuse themselves with their super strength in ways that can best be described as ‘Hey Bubba! Check this out!’ As a result, they’re on detention more often than they’re not. Since they do so much damage, we have them do their detention with the Maintenance and Repairs department, fixing the damage that they’ve done. As it stands, they’ve spent so much time with Maintenance & Repairs that they could get Construction Contractor licenses straight out of graduation.”

Quent looked at the picture on the MID card. The boy reminded Quent of that guy who did those ‘Tremors’ movies… what was his name? Oh, right. This Bronco looked like a young Fred Ward. “This kid is in Harlan’s class? He looks like he needs a shave!”

Carson gave an embarrassed grin. “Well, actually Bronco is 17- he and his buddy Silo aren’t exactly what you’d call ‘Rhodes Scholars’. Bronco is still a sophomore. After all, we DO have grading standards. But he and Silo are getting so old that we’re thinking of graduating them with GEDs, and hiring them on full-time with Maintenance & Repairs.”

“Man, will you just look at that guy?” Quent murmured, “Why couldn’t I have a kid like that?”

“What’s this?” Connie sniped, “Suddenly, your golden boy Jasper not measuring up?”

Harlan hurried over to Arena ’99. The closer he got, the madder he got. He’d only been away from his dad for a little over six months, but he’d already forgotten how the old man could light into you. Just when you think that you’ve got a grip on things, just when you think that you’re actually good at something, along he comes and just shits all over everything. On top of everything, all that had to happen just when they were gonna let him see Jenny. He had to see Jenny. He had to be sure that she was okay. He was supposed to have protected her, but he hadn’t been there for her. Well, at least Carson had said that he could go see Jenny when he got this crap over with.

He hurried past the Security check, shucked his overcoat and entered the arena proper. Holdout had filled him in on his opponent, a PK brick with fast feet. To be honest, Harlan wasn’t really listening that hard, he was focusing on the one thing that would make this day anything other than a complete loss- that maybe Jenny would break out of that stupid egg today. Bronco was standing in the other starting circle, wearing his usual cowboy hat, boots, jeans, sleeveless flannel shirt over a Faith Hill T-shirt and soup-plate sized belt buckle. As Harlan stepped into his starting circle and the countdown began, Bronco called over from his circle, “Hey! I heard that you just became a girl an’ all, but that don’t mean that you got a God-given right t’keep a guy waitin’!”

“Put a sock in it, Hopalong!” Harlan snarled back. “I have just had the week from Hell! I’ve been running myself ragged chasing a fucking shadow, my girlfriend’s in a freaking EGG, I still got Finals, and now I have to deal with my screaming asshole of a FATHER! I need to check on Jenny to make sure that she’s okay, but I gotta go through THIS crap first! The LAST thing I need right now is to take any shit from a rodeo dropout!”

Bronco reeled a bit. He hadn’t been expecting that intense a reaction. “Well then, let’s get to it!” The countdown ran down to Zero and Bronco launched himself into the air with a vaulting leap. Harlan didn’t move an inch. Instead, he stretched his hand forward, grabbed Bronco by the ankle, pulled him out of his leap’s arc and slammed him into the ground. Harlan whipped Bronco back and forth a couple of times, slamming him into the ground each time, until Bronco’s boot slipped off his foot, and he went flying.

Bronco got up and shook his head clear. Not bothering to think up a plan of action, he charged towards Reach at top speed. Reach stood still until the very last minute, sidestepped Bronco’s charge and snagged him by the foot. He did the ‘whip back and forth thing’ a couple of times again, and then grated out, “I. Don’t. Have. TIME! For this SHIT!” Harlan carried Bronco up to one of the lampposts near the spindle and draped his arm over the lamppost’s arm, letting Bronco dangle by his foot. Then he stretched out his arm as long as he could and lowered himself to the spindle. Bronco tried to bend up to free himself a couple of times, but Reach was keeping tabs on him with his ‘pinky cam’, and kept dropping him and catching him again when he tried it. Reach let himself into the spindle, answered the three questions, and let Bronco drop.

Reach didn’t wait for the referee’s judgement and started for the exit. “Hey! Sawyer!” Bronco called after him.

“Yeah?” Harlan stopped and turned. “What?”

Bronco ambled over to him. “You’re that worried about your girl? After what she did to you?”


Bronco stopped, mulled it over a bit, nodded and stuck out his hand to shake. “Give her my best.”

Harlan nodded and shook Bronco’s hand amicably. “I’ll do that.” Then he turned and left.

Bronco watched Harlan’s backside move with appreciation as the boy/girl left. ‘Damn shame. Oh well, at least I did better’n Silo did. I lost too, but at least I didn’t get some Euro-trash nancy-boy’s pointy little head rammed up my ass.’

“What was THAT?” Quent yelled at the screen. “That wasn’t a FIGHT!”

“Actually, that was an excellent Final,” Carson said as she keyed in the instruction to recall the monitor. “Harlan quickly found a solution that didn’t involve lots of collateral damage or reckless endangerment, and wasn’t even all that hard on his opponent. I hope that Ito-soke gives him a good grade.”

“Will we be able to speak with this ‘Ito-soke’ about Harley?” Connie asked.

“Yes, you’ll be able to talk to all of his teacher, although Ito-soke won’t really be available until the end of the matches today. I think that I can arrange for you to meet some of Harlan’s friends, though Harlan himself is mostly likely headed over to the infirmary to check on his girlfriend, Genevieve.”

“WHY would he do THAT?” Quentin groused. “ ‘Specially after what she did to him?”

Because, he’s worried about her, like a normal human being would be,” Connie said testily. “Yes, I think I would like to talk to his friends. It’s nice to hear that he’s made some friends. He was complaining about not fitting in here when I came for Parent’s Day a month ago.”

Ace searched along the section of underground tunnel that was the last place that Kaiju had been seen. It was a long shot, but he didn’t buy Kaiju as the devious unseen mastermind behind the mess in the Secure Bays. For one thing, she was too conspicuous. Even if she had some sort of strange invention that would get her past all the security arrangements, a six-foot tall green girl with a tail simply couldn’t just blend into the background! Well, not unless she was part chameleon …

Suddenly the very ground under Ace’s feet slipped out from under him. A figure zipped out of nowhere and sent him sprawling into a huge spider web spun so fine as to be nearly invisible. As Ace thrashed about in the web, figures gathered about him. He looked at them in horror. “No! Not YOU! Anything but YOU!”

‘I really should be getting some studying in,’ Harlan thought. The egg hadn’t changed a jot in the hour that he’d been there. They’d arranged a high-tech cage of monitors around the glossy black ovoid but none of the sensors showed anything that made sense. But he just couldn’t go away. Jenny was inside that thing. Inside a freaking EGG. Dammit, he should have been there. He should have protected her. Instead, he had been playing stupid games with that pinhead, Wizard. “Why are you still here?” Romy asked.

“Oh. I didn’t notice you come in.”

“Nobody ever notices me,” Romy said quietly, mournfully. “But you haven’t answered my question. Why do you insist on being here, when you can do nothing? Genevieve will come out- or not- when she’s ready.”

“Why are you here?” Harlan asked, turning the question around on her.

“My parents aren’t here to see me,” Romy replied, a sulky tone underneath her calm.

“Lucky you,” Harlan sighed. Even hours sitting there, staring at that stupid egg was better than letting his dad rag at him like he always did.

“There was nothing you could have done,” Romy said softly. “Kaiju planned her trap far too well. She had everything laid out so that anyone who could have stopped her was busy elsewhere, even Security.” But somehow, Romy saying that only pointed out how hollow an excuse it was.

“Can … can you tell if she’s … she’s in pain, in there?” Harlan asked in a shallow voice.

Nr, kan ik niet,” Romy said, bitterness in her voice. “I can’t do anything except cause others pain.” She tried visibly to buck up. “But I’ve only been here for a few months, so maybe I can change that.”

“Good luck with that,” Harlan said as he returned to staring gloomily at the egg.

Quentin didn’t know what irritated him more, the over-the-top cafeteria that his worthless pervert son got to eat in everyday, with the big dome and the fancy tropical garden in the middle of the dining area, or the fancy food that the punks got to eat. He was a working guy, who worked hard to support his family, and he had to eat crummy food that tasted like cardboard in a dingy, rundown cafeteria at the refinery, but his stupid gender-bent KID got to eat like THIS?

Then Connie saw Harlan enter the Crystal Hall. “HARLEY! Harley-hon! Over here!” She called out.

Harlan visibly flinched and slouched over to their table.

“And where have YOU been?” Quent demanded. “You were done with that stupid fight thing hours ago!”

“I was studyin’,” Harlan said mulishly. “We got Winter Finals comin’ up.”

“LOOK, we came up here to freeze our asses off to see you, so the very least that you can do is be here for us to make up our minds as to whether we’re gonna let you stay here,” Quent banged a fingertip into the table to make his point. “And if you think that I’m gonna waste my money-”

“It’s not your money that’s paying for this, Quent,” Connie interrupted him. “It’s mine, and he’s getting a scholarship.” Connie brightened up as she turned to Harley. “So, Harley dear. That lovely girl- Zenith, right? Interesting name. Anyway, she says that you’re starting to fit in with a group called the ‘Spy Kids’?”

“Zenith is her code name,” Harlan hedged. “The kids all pick a code name that goes on their mutant powers and combat training files, which are kept separate from their regular studies files.”

“You’re hanging out with ‘Spy Kids’?” Quent said with an acid grin.

“We’re the Intelligence Corps Cadets,” Harlan said defensively. “Besides the regular schoolin’, we train ourselves in the kind of things that would be useful for going to work for like the CIA or the FBI or the Police.”

“Good LUCK,” Quent snarled. “The FBI actually has standards.”

“We saw your- what did she call it?- oh! Combat Final,” Linda cut in, trying to avoid unpleasantness as she always did. “We were very impressed.”

“Yeah. Nice bit of cheatin’, kid.”

“Would it KILL you to be supportive, just ONCE in your life, Quent?” Connie asked. She took a deep cleansing breath and tried to talk to her nephew. This wasn’t easy, with her brother-in-law dropping his nasty little bombs every so often. Connie reflected that it had been a bad idea bringing Quent and Linda here. Quent didn’t do well in nice places like upscale restaurants, and something about this place seemed to bring out the very worst in him. Maybe if they’d brought Jasper along, Quent would at least feel an obligation to look good in front of his favored son.

Then a group of students wearing near-uniform long coats over black turtleneck sweaters and either cargo pants or denims, with fancy high-tech eye-sets and rigs on their forearms walked up. “Hey, Reach,” the apparent leader, a good-looking young African American kid greeted him. “Have you seen Ace around? He was looking for something-” Then the young man noticed them and said, “Whups, sorry. Are these your folks?” Harlan introduced the students collectively as the Cadets that they’d been talking about earlier, and then individually by code name.

“What are you all dressed up as?” Quent said with his usual warmth, charm and grace.

“Oh this? This is our usual Mission Outfit. We wear it when we’re not in class, so-”

“I thought that that-” Quent pointed at Harlan’s fullerene suit, “-was his ‘mission outfit’.” Harlan tried to explain the Reliability Test, but Quent kept it up for a while, keeping everyone off balance by consistently changing the topic and keeping them on the defensive.

Connie was about to tell Quent to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine, in front of young folks or not, when a strapping young man dressed as the other Cadets were, came hurrying up to them. “GUYS! You would not believe what I have just been through! Hey, who’s-” There were more introductions. The young man was called ‘Ace’, and he had apparently been on the lookout for new clues in the matter regarding Harley’s investigation. “I got jumped by the Lit Chix!”

“Lit Chix?” Interface hooted. “What? You forgot to return a library book?”

“Lit Chix?” Linda echoed.

“Another clique here at Whateley, Mom,” Harlan explained. “It would take too long.”

“No, not the regular ‘Lord Byron’ crowd,” Ace said, “those girls that we ran into when we were checking out Chaka getting jumped?”


“Don’t ask, Mom.”

“It seems that Kaiju did have backup, after all,” Ace continued. “She asked Arachne- the really creepy one with the spider powers?- to watch her back. Well, Arachne says that Kaiju didn’t tell her about working with Security, just that she was being followed by someone, and she needed someone to watch her forty. Arachne agreed and then Kaiju just up and disappeared, right under her nose. Since we were maintaining our own surveillance on Kaiju, Arachne got the rest of her Lit Chick buddies to ask me a few pointed questions.”

“You let yourself get forcibly interrogated by a bunch of tea-sipping poetry addicts?” the blonde girl, A-Plus asked with a touch of amused disdain in her voice.

“Hey, these aren’t the Haut Poetry girls, these are the girls who read hard sci-fi and Detective novels!” Ace insisted. “I’m lucky that they didn’t decide to waterboard me! I finally managed to convince them that I was as worried about Kaiju as they were, and we managed a constructive information exchange.”

“You didn’t shake on anything, didja Ace?” Interface asked snidely.

Ace returned a cold glare. “The point is, that Arachne says that she was watching Kaiju 24/7 for days with about a hundred spiders that report to her- don’t ask me how, I dunno and I don’t WANT to know. Kaiju didn’t to anything unusual, except for prepping for the Combat Final. Then, the morning of the first Combat Final, she goes to her lab like usual, and *zip!* she disappears. The lights go out, and Kaiju is gone, and there’s not trace of her. Arachne says that she AND her Lit Chick friends have pulled out all the stops, and they can’t find a trace of her anywhere.”

Then Adalie and Romy walked up. “Is Kaiju still missing?” Adalie asked, having apparently overheard.

“HOLD IT!” Quent snapped. “WHO the HELL is ‘Kaiju’, and what are you punks talking about?”

Harlan deferred the explanation over to Holdout, as the Cadet in charge of the investigation. Darren filled in the blanks in his best ‘debriefing’ manner, starting with Harlan’s attack in the Secure Bay and ending with Genevieve's plight, though he kept the matter of Kaiju being under suspicion out of it. 

“So. Let me see if I’ve got this right,” Quent said in a cold judgmental voice. “You were entrusted with an investigation, and NOT ONLY haven’t you found out who did it, but you’ve managed to get two girls killed?”

“We don’t know that Kaiju’s been harmed, and-”

“You don’t know where one is, and the other’s inside a fucking EGG!” Quent steamrollered over Darren. “This ‘Kaiju’, whatever the fuck a ‘Kaiju’ is, is probably dead and the other one’s as good as dead! Harlan you were supposed to protect them! That’s what a MAN is supposed to do! Instead you were dicking around with these clowns! This is just like you, Harlan- I give you the slightest responsibility, the kind of thing that a THREE-YEAR-OLD would be able to do with his eyes shut, and you screw it up seven ways to Sunday! And this time, you got two girls KILLED! I am ASHAMED of you! I am ashamed that you’re my Son! And look at you! You’re a disgrace, dressed like a kinky HOOKER! If I’d done anything this … fucked up … I’d be out there finding out whoever did it! But YOU? You’re sitting around, sucking your thumb! You make me Sick!

Harlan sat there, flinching. Connie looked at the scene, sick to her stomach. It was like seeing a full-grown man whaling away at a cringing child. Quent was getting to Harlan, she could tell it. Quent smelled blood and he was going in for the kill. Connie started to interrupt, but Quent shouted her down. “SHUT UP! It’s obvious that you need a MAN’S steady hand to keep you on anything that even resembles the right track. I thought that even Connie couldn’t screw up keeping a little wimp like you in line, but it looks like I was wrong. First thing when we get back to Louisville, I’m getting custody of you back and pulling you out of this freak show they call a school.” He pushed his food away from him, stood and said, “C’mon, Linda, let’s go. I’ve lost my appetite.”

As Quent marched off and Linda skittered after him, Rez said, “Geez-ZUZ! What an Asshole!

“Harley?” Connie gently spoke to the boy as he hunched over the table in obvious pain. “Harley, your father is just talking out of his ass, just like you know he always does. He signed away all of his parental authority. He can’t pull you out of this school, and he knows it. The only way that he can get custody of you back is if you tell the court that you really want to go back to him. And you don’t want that, do you, Harley? Harley?” Connie’s question took a panicked tone.

Harlan slumped in shame and dread, because he knew that if his father told him to tell the courts that, he would. Deep in his heart, he knew that his father was right. He’d been fooling himself for the past six months, that it had been his father’s fault. No. Dad was right. Harlan had been fucking around when he should have been protecting Jenny, and Jenny was suffering for it. He’d talked Kaiju into helping them, and now she was probably dead, or at best captured by ‘Mr. X’. It was all his fault. He deserved everything that his father would do to him.

Connie and the Cadets tried to talk Harlan around, but nothing got through his shell of despair. Even Romy stopped him on his way out and said, “He’s wrong, you know. There was no way that you could have known what Mr. X was up to.” And the dumpy Dutch girl’s pity and transparent lie only made it all worse.

Harlan didn’t even bother to shower; he just climbed out of Jenny’s fullerene suit and went to bed. His dreams were full of eggs that kept slipping out of his hands and shattering. And Jenny and Kaiju and everyone that he loved were in the eggs, killed because he couldn’t keep them from tumbling out of his numb hands. And his father was there with a mop, complaining about having to clean up the mess.

Thursday, December 14th

In the morning, Harlan knew that something was wrong. At first, he thought that it was simply that Jenny wasn’t there, trying to make up her mind whether to brush her hair, do more homework or work on yet another idea of hers. Strange, it had only been a couple of weeks, but he’d gotten used to it so quickly. Then, as he swung out of bed, he noticed how his pajamas were draping strangely. No breasts. No hips. He was a boy again. ‘Whoopie, I’m a boy again,’ he thought sourly. ‘Before, I at least had beauty, super strength and reliable stretching going for me. Now, I’m a complete loser.’

Quent was in his glory at breakfast. “SEE?” he crowed, “What did I tell you? All it took was a firm, manly hand, and the little loser falls right in step! HAH!”

“They said that the boy was going to change back eventually, anyway,” Connie shot back.

“You keep tellin’ yerself that, Con,” Quent gloated.

“Quentin Fuller Sawyer, I have watched you bullyrag and browbeat that boy for fifteen years, and I haven’t liked or approved so much as a second of it. When Harley-”

“Harlan,” father and son reflexively corrected in perfect unison.

“If you think that I’m just going to stand by and let you smash was self-respect that boy still has-”

“RESPECT is EARNED,” Quent pontificated. “A man has to show that he’s worthy of being respected, even by himself. Harlan knows that, it’s the one thing about him that gives me the slightest hope. He keeps trying, even when he should know better. And who knows? Maybe, some day, he’ll actually do something right! Miracles do happen.”

Zenith and Sahar walked up to their table. “Hey, Harley! Sawyers, Miss Beaufort …” Zoe greeted them. “Well, I see that you’re back to your old self again. Howya holdin’ up, kiddo?”

“Go away,” Quent ordered repressively.

“Excuse me?”

“We have having an important family discussion here, and we don’t need stupid little bimbos poking their noses in.”

“Quent, that was uncalled for, even by your what you laughingly refer to as standards,” Connie said severely.

“I ignore you.”

“Harley NEEDS to go to this school, and you’re too chintzy to even pay the reduced tuition that covers what his scholarship doesn’t!”

“HARLAN needs to learn what the real world is like,” Quent maintained with a royal certainty. “As a matter of fact, I don’t even see why he should waste time in a regular high school. I mean, it’s not like he’s ever gonna get a REAL job, not a freak like him. Why give the PTA an excuse to call in the MCO? No, I think that I have enough clout to swing getting Harlan a job at the refinery, mopping stuff and like that. Even a retarded chimp can do that kind of thing, so Harlan has a chance!”

“Excuse me, Sir,” Sahar said in her most respectful tone. “But the fact that Harlan has changed back to his original male state doesn’t mean that he will remain male permanently. From what we’ve seen he-”

“Hey, just PISS OFF, Bitch! I’m in charge here and-”

The gentle respectful expression that Sahar had worn walking over to the table dropped and her face tightened to an icy demeanor. Her eyes widened for a second and there was a sense of unseen power. Quent stopped in mid-sentence as he felt a power sort of ‘tap’ him right between the eyes. “My name is not ‘Bitch’, Mr. Sawyer,” Semi said in a frosty tone to match her expression. “My code name is ‘Sahar’. Not ‘Sahara’. Sahar. It is Arabic for what you would call ‘the Evil Eye’. I have the power to what comes down to curse people with horrible luck. You are both a guest and a parent at Whateley, which does give you certain protections. However, that does not mean that you have carte blanche to insult me.”

“Well, actually dear, legally he’s NOT Harley’s father,” Connie said sweetly. “If you can, you have my blessing to whammy him into the middle of next week!”

Quent shot Connie a nasty grin. Then he turned to Harlan. “Son, when we get back to Louisville, you’re going to tell the Judge that you realize that coming back to live with your mother and me is the best thing for you. Aren’t you?”

Harlan felt like he was swallowing broken glass. “Yessir.”

“See?” Quent glowed with triumph. “Skuze me, I think I’ll go get some of that whatever this is, while it’s still free.” He stood and sauntered over to the food line.

“Harley!” Zoe rasped, “You can’t be serious about going along with this!”

“Harley, he may be your father, but that man wishes you no good,” Sahar said, her expression thawing. “I have only just met him, and just from the thoughts that he broadcast with a bullhorn, I can tell you that he is a bottomless well of spite and loathing, both for himself and the entire world. He doesn’t want to have you at home, he merely wishes to amuse himself by harming you and your aunt in the most direct and immediate way possible. What happens when you are completely in his power is beyond my ability to imagine. He will vent his spleen on you at every-”

“Harley, honey, LISTEN to the girl!” Connie cut in. “She knows what she’s talking about! I’ve known Quentin Sawyer since Middle School, and you could tell that he was the biggest lump of nothing ever to go nowhere, even then. Harley, he doesn’t love you or your mother.”

“Connie!” Linda gasped. “He’s my HUSBAND!”

“Linda, you are my sister and I love you dearly, but everyone who knows you knows that you’re a natural-born doormat. And I take no joy in tellin’ you that. You have a sweet nature, but no grit or spunk. You are literally the ONLY kind of wife that Quentin Sawyer could possibly have.”

She returned her attention to Harlan. “Harley, THINK about your family- they are NOT NORMAL. They’re not even a family. You, your mother and your brother are just … meat shields that your father puts between him and the world that he knows just exists to eat him alive. You’re not people, not even Jasper, who’s possibly the closest thing to a real person for Quent. You’re really just things that he holds onto, ‘cause if he didn’t have you, he’d have to be alone with the one person in all the world that he hates more’n anything in the world- himself.

“Even Jasper isn’t a real person to his own father. He’s this … action figure that Quentin plays with, as he lives out fantasies of being a high school hero, like he never was in real life. Jasper’s his G. I. Joe doll, and you’re … well, you’re sorta like that poor raggedy doll that some little kids have, the one that they take out all their anger and frustration out on. As long as he has you to despise, Quentin doesn’t have to feel quite as bad about himself. But that means that you can’t have anything good, or do anything right. Harley, you KNOW this. You’re not stupid-”

Then Quent came back with a plate heaped high. He took in the situation with a single glance and played his next card. “Harlan, why the HELL are you still wearing that stupid fag outfit?” Harlan started to explain about Jenny’s experiment, but his father just ran over him. “Yeah, yeah, you always have an excuse. But I ain’t havin’ it. I’m in charge of you again, and I’m tellin’ you to take that stupid thing off, I’m ashamed to be seen with you in that.”

Zenith inserted herself, “Harley, as I remember, you were supposed to test that thing for two weeks. It’s the fourteenth, so Asterlitz will want to examine it, and I think that it will be easier to do if you’re not wearing it.” Quent started to complain, but Zenith shut him up with a single icy glare, no telepathy necessary.

After he dropped the fullerene suit off with Mr. Asterlitz, Zenith and Sahar accompanied Harlan and his folks as they visited his teachers. Quent made a point of asking each and every teacher some variation on the same questions, trying to get them to reinforce his base position that Harlan was wasting his time in high school. The teachers were cooperative and polite, but Quent was facing off against people who’d coped with more difficult people than himself. He wasn’t enjoying himself, and by the time that Lunch rolled around, he felt the need to put Harlan back in his place. “Y’know, Con, this is exactly the kind of school that you would put a kid into. Harlan needs a strong hand, isn’t that right, boy?”

“Yessir,” Harlan said hollowly.

“Y’see? A firm hand is just what he needs! Why-” Quent went on to amuse himself exploring all the ways that he could ruin Harlan’s life.

Harlan was numbly sitting there, listening to his father’s plans when he heard a beep from his glasses, which were still propped up on his head. He tilted them down and the ‘marquee’ scroll read [GOTTA TALK 2 U. BOYS RM]

“What are those things?” Quent demanded, pointing at the glasses.

“Oh, these are just something that Jenny made-”

“Don’t try to be cool, you ain’t got the right stuff for it. Give ‘em over. NOW!” Harlan handed over the glasses and got up. “Where you goin’?”

“I gotta go to the restroom.”

“Oh? Gonna go CRY?” Quent snapped the glasses in two. With the faintest spark of rebellion still inside him, Harlan relished the trivial victory that, in typical tech-geek fashion, Jenny had made two of them. He headed off for the boy’s room.

He’d been expecting Ace or Holdout. But instead, Randy ‘Interface’ Welles was standing there, arms folded across his chest, tapping his foot. “Okay, what the HELL are you DOING?”

“What?” Harlan bleated.

“WHY are you putting up with that screaming asshole?”

“He’s my father…”

“So WHAT? Ace says that he’s talking about pulling you out of school!”

“He’s doing what he thinks is best,” Harlan droned.

“Bull_ SHIT!” I-Face snapped. “Tell that to someone who can’t read thoughts! All he’s doing is getting his sick jollies screwing you over.”

“He’s RIGHT,” Harlan grated. “Jenny and Kaiju trusted me, and I screwed up. They’re probably going to die, and it’s all my fault. I deserve everything that he’s going to do to me.”

“Bull-Shit,” Interface said calmly. “What happened to you? You’re tougher than this! You’re SMARTER than this! Yeah, we got blindsided! So did Security! Kaiju even had her own friends watching her back, and Mr. X STILL made her disappear into thin air!”

Harlan shot Interface a suspicious look. “Hey, why are YOU so concerned? It’s not like you ever had any use for me. I’d think that you’d be warming up my going away party.”

Interface made a disgusted noise. “So, I was giving the new guy some shit. So what? It’s expected. Some day I’ll tell you about some of the shit that Rolodex used to put me through. You told me to put a sock in it, why don’t you tell your old man the same?”

“Jenny was counting on me,” Harlan said fatalistically.

“YERG!” Interface all but screamed. “What’s that got to do with it? You are so fucking STUBBORN! Why couldn’t you be this stubborn when your old man was pissing in your ear?” Then he shot Harlan a strange look. “You’re not thinking right.”

“Look, I know that you want-”

“I’m not trying to sweet talk you,” I-face said sharply. “I’m talking literal. I interface with minds as well as computers, remember? And you’re not thinking right. You were thinking one way when you bagged Belphegor, then another way when you got turned into a girl, and now you’re back to thinking the way that you did at first. No, it’s not the same. You’re locked in somehow.” Harlan started to say something, but Interface just ignored it. “Harley, I want you to remember what it was like, when you were a girl. Even ACE had to admit that you had it on the ball! Just … remember …”

Harlan did remember. It had been so great. It wasn’t just being super-strong. It wasn’t being able to stretch like Mr. Fantastic. It wasn’t even being beautiful, though that was great, too. It was like … being in focus, being able to just reach out and DO things. “Why can’t I do that now?” Harlan asked. He wasn’t moaning over a lost ability; he was asking the whys of that lost ability. He could see how he could do it, so why wasn’t he just DOING it?

“That’s the boy,” Randy said encouragingly. “Now you got it. Now sink those teeth into THAT. You got a stubborn streak that makes a bulldog look like a Chihuahua, so let’s make it work for us, instead of against us.”

Harlan and Randy walked out of the boys’ room and headed for the family’s table. Quent looked up and immediately spotted the difference in Harlan’s posture and facial expression. “What?” he sniped, “You hadda go give this guy a blow job?”

But before Harlan could react, Zenith put her cell phone away. “HARLEY! That was Guitterez! She says that suddenly there’s activity inside Jenny’s egg! It’s increasing! She wants you there STAT, to be there for Jenny if she breaks out!”

“Oh, Gimme a break!” Quent yelled, “How convenient! There is NO WAY that Harl- HEY! COME BACK HERE! I’m not through with you!” But Harlan and Randy were already through the door to the underground tunnel access.

A stretcher can really move when he wants to, and Harlan beat Randy to the Infirmary by several minutes. Adalie was already there. The ‘Egg’ room, which had been quiet except for the occasional beep of electronic equipment, was abuzz. Now the cramped room was packed with medics and technicians, all fiddling furiously with the instrumentation. Complex images flashed across the instrumentation, showing some sort of activity within the egg. “Energy levels are topping out!” “Heartbeat is over 120 beats per minute!” “The shell is reaching 94.44 Celsius!” “She must be boiling alive in there!”

Harlan finally found Dr. Guitterez. “What’s going on?”

“We’re not sure, Harley,” Guitterez admitted. “But whatever it is, it’s going to happen soon!” As if on cue, four black chitinous tendrils broke through the shell. The egg cracked open, sending pieces of shell onto the floor. A steaming liquid poured out, filling the room with a fetid reek. What looked like a slender feminine figure in close fitting segmented black armor stepped out of the egg, the four tendrils waving about from her back. Her face looked like an insect’s, with large compound plates over where her human eyes would be. She jerked around in obvious confusion. “Get back!” Guitterez shouted. Not really necessary, the medics and technicians all had enough experience at Whateley to know when to get the hell out of the way. She started to thrash about, knocking the instrumentation about.

From behind him, Harlan heard his father say, “THAT is your girlfriend? Jeez, can you pick ‘em!”

“Jenny?” Harlan shouted. “Jenny!” She seemed to recognize his voice. Harlan stretched forward, careful of the hot liquid still steaming on the floor. She reacted defensively at first, but Harlan managed to grab her hands. “Jenny! It’s me Harley! Remember? Jenny, Hon, you gotta concentrate! Focus! Remember? You’re all right! You’re safe… You’re with me…”

The slight figure relaxed and the tendrils drooped and withdrew into her body. Her face twitched a little, she tensed again, and then she reached up with her hands. She pulled the carapace from her face like a mask, revealing a lovely delicate face of wistful beauty with a tiny little nose, a pointed chin, graceful cheekbones, a rosebud mouth and huge green eyes.

“Jenny?” Harlan asked, astounded.

Jenny tried to say something, but instead opened her mouth wide and forced an irregular wad of a lumpy white substance from her mouth. She spat it out and looked up at him. “ H- h- Arlee?” she croaked, her voice ragged. “Qu'est-ce qui continue? Qu'est-ce qui m'est arrivé?” Then she got control of her English again. “What happened?”

“Mister X again. This time, he jumped you. Jenny? Are you okay? Can you move?”

Qu'est-ce qui est cela?” Jenny said as she looked at her hand, entranced. Then the rigid plates fell from her hand like dead leaves from a tree, leaving her hand covered in a black substance. She flexed her hand experimentally. Then the rest of the shell fell from her body in pieces, revealing a form of gazelle-like grace and slenderness clad in a thin sheath of black, and a long cascade of golden hair. She clutched at Harlan. “What’s happening?” She whispered.

“Jenny … you remember that ‘Xora’ thing you were workin’ on? I think it worked.”

“Good work, Harlan,” Dr. Guitterez said gently but firmly, carefully stepping through the steaming waste. “Genevieve? I’m Dr. Guiterrez, remember me? I looked after Harley? You’re safe now. But we need to be sure. I need you to come with me, and take some tests. You’re not in trouble, and it looks like you’re in fine condition, but we need to be sure. You’ll stay the night here. Don’t worry, Harley will be by to check on you.” Guitterez shot him an amused look. “Once an hour, from his track record. We’ll probably be able to set our watches by him.” She took Jenny by the shoulders and steered her off.

Harlan watched Dr. Guitterez lead Jenny off. A relief that was probably something like what a man who gets a pardon at the foot of the gallows feels washed over him. “Man, you can’t win for losing, can you, Harlan?” he heard his father jeer behind your back.

“What do you mean?” Harlan said, feeling the hackles on his back starting to rise.

“You tie yourself into knots over that girl, and now she’s gonna just up and leave you flat. I mean, look at her! Do you honestly think that she’s gonna hang out with a loser like YOU, lookin’ like that? Why I’ll bet that she doesn’t even wait to come back from Christmas vacation. She’ll have a new boyfriend and give you yer walkin’ papers before the next snowfall! That kind of bitch doesn’t settle for anything but the BEST!” Quent was grinning in vicious glee. “I’ll be she was a real dog before, wasn’t she? Only kinda girl you could get! But now?”

“Dad?” Harlan interrupted him in a flat voice, “ZIP IT.”

“What did you say to me, BOY?”

“I said, ‘ZIP IT’, and I meant ZIP IT,” Harlan snarled right back into his father’s face, looking him straight in the eye. “You don’t talk about Jenny like that! You don’t know her, and you don’t have the right to say anything!”

“RIGHT? Who the FUCK are YOU to tell ME about RIGHTS? I am your FATHER-”

“You’re only my father when you need a dog to kick! I have spent my entire life trying to be good enough for you! I’d’a had a better chance of talkin’ the sun out of going down! Talk about a waste of time! It was never about me, was it? It was always about YOU! You had Jasper t’let you feel like a winner, and you had me to keep you from feeling like a loser! You’ve shit on everything that I’ve ever tried to do, just ‘cause you’re the kind of sad, mean little NOTHING that would!”

Quent went red in the eye and slapped Harlan in the face. Harlan didn’t even blink. “Is that the best you got?” Harlan asked calmly. Quent closed his fists and slammed them into Harlan’s face repeatedly. Harlan stood there, taking it with an infuriating serenity. After more than a solid minute of pounding at Harlan, Quent slowed down and stopped, panting.

“Are you quite through?” Harlan asked. “Good. Now, go away. I have things t’do.”

Enraged, Quent raised his fist again, but Sgt. Harris of Security stepped and expertly took him by the wrist in a grip that put bone-crushing leverage on Quent’s forearm. “I think that that’s quite enough,” Harris said in a ‘I’m showing you professional courtesy, but give me half an excuse and I’ll pound you into mush’ tone. “You’ve had a hard day. Why don’t you go back to your guest cottage and lie down?”

“And while you’re doing that,” Connie stepped in, relieved triumph wreathing her face in smiles, “I’ll call the airport and get you two flights back to Louisville.”

As Sgt. Harris escorted Quent out the door (never releasing that grip on Quent’s wrist), Linda said in an exasperated tone to her son, “HARLAN! You shouldn’t have said that to him! He’s your FATHER!”

“Yeah, Mom, but don’t worry,” Harlan said, a confident smile on his lips, “people have had to put up with worse handicaps, and lived full, happy lives!” As Connie took Harlan into her arms for a big congratulatory hug, Interface grinned at him and offered up his fist. Harlan tapped the fist with his own in a happy salute.

“-and the exterior shell and that segmented carapace that you came out with were of fused fullerene materials,” Kenya explained to Jenny. Kenya, Charge, Harlan and the other cadets were gathered around Jenny’s bed in the Infirmary. It was against standard procedure, but Dr. Guitterez figured that Jenny needed to be ‘briefed’, and this was the most effective way. “When Harley broke into the bay, the stuff was spread out all over everything. The entire floor, most of the workbenches, your equipment, YOU.”

“But why?” Jenny asked. “It makes no sense! If ‘Mr. X’ was using me as an unwilling test subject for my own XSI, then WHY did he contaminate the procedure with an unnecessary element like the proto-culture?”

“That is a DAMN good question, Jen,” Harlan admitted.

“Did they keep samples of the shell and the carapace?” Jenny asked avidly.

“Not to worry, Madam Curie,” A-Plus said, “Guitterez took samples of everything including that funky-smelling liquid that came out of your egg. I heard one tech say something about the liquid containing scraps and fibers from your clothes and other stuff.”

“Enough of that!” Kew snapped, eaten up from nose to foot with curiosity. “The symbiot! Does it work? Like on Xora?”

“Close enough,” Jenny said. She held up one hand. At an invisible cue, an inky blackness rose up from the sleeve of her hospital gown and covered her hand. It continued, forming long thin sharp blades on the tips of each finger. Then the fingers joined to form a single hand-blade. Experimentally, she reached over with the hand-blade and gouged out a sliver of aluminum from the post next to her bed. Looking more closely, she formed a series of tools at the ends of her fingers. “Incroyable,” she said softly. “It’s one thing to see such things on television or read about them… but to SEE it, to be a part of it…”

“How do you control it?” Kew asked.

“I don’t know,” Jenny admitted. “I just do it.”

“Maybe it’s an aspect of your PK,” Harlan guessed. “I don’t think about stretching my limbs, I just do it. So your symbiot-thing is kind of like my fullerene suit, only a little … livelier …” That spurred a memory. “Do you have any problems with not feeling things through it?”

Non,” she said very matter-of-factly, running a blunt finger along her blanket. “If anything, I’d say that my senses are sharper, more distinct through it.” That seemed to spark a recollection for her as well. “ ‘Arlee! Why aren’t you wearing my suit?”

“I turned it over to Mr. Asterlitz this morning. You were inside that stupid egg thing for over three days. He says that there are a few more tests to run on it, but it looks good.”

“REALLY?” Jenny’s face brightened like the sun coming up.

“Really,” Kenya confirmed. “I, ah, had some ‘expert advice’,” she indicated Ace, who maintained his usual tough-guy demeanor, “who helped me piece together a few of the parts that I wasn’t getting. But as of now, your fullerene matrixes have passed the Devisor test, and Asterlitz says that you’re on the fast track to getting your first patent!”

Jenny exploded into the French equivalent of ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ and almost pitched herself out of her bed. “It looks like I’ll have to learn how to control my new strength,” she said, abashed, as she set herself aright. Dr. Guitterez says that the tests say that I’m now the equivalent of an Exemplar: level Five.” She was almost as pleased with that as she was by the news of her patent.

“You do realize that you’re still in a bind, Spark,” Ace said in his professional tone.


“You’re an artificial Exemplar, and the creator of the devise that did it. There are going to be a lot of people who will think that you owe it to them to turn them into Exemplars as well.”

Quoi? But that is insane! This was a pure fluke! I didn’t even DO it to myself!”

“They won’t see it that way.”

Jenny wilted. “Maybe … we could keep it a secret?”

Adalie handed her a mirror. “Not a real option, Cherie.”

Jenny looked in the mirror, and couldn’t help but be heartened a bit. While she’d never actually sat down and thought out how she’d like to look, what she saw was most likely exactly what she’d come up with. Somehow that reminded her of something. “Adalie! Where is Romy?”

Adalie screwed up her face in sympathetic discomfort. “C'est un peu malaisé,” she said tensely. “Romy hasn’t been taking this well. First, you and Gumby, and then the detention, and then you moving out, and then, on top of all that, THIS. Romy feels like she’s losing you, Cherie. And I don’t know how she’ll take you turning into …  cela…”

Jenny’s eyes crossed. “Que voulez-vous dire, 'CELA'?

“Genevieve, if you still were as you were before … how would YOU feel about sharing a room with THAT?” Adalie pointed at the mirror.

“If you’ll remember, I DID,” Jenny said primly. But she relented. “Still, I do see your point.” She mused on it for a bit. “We’ll just have to see what we can do to help her cope. As always.” Jenny decided to change the topic. “So, ‘Arley, how are you enjoying wearing normal clothes again?”

Harlan gave her a bright smile, “T’tell the truth, Jen, I kinda miss the ol’ rubber drawers. Once you get used to having everything on display, they are DANG comfortable! And I sorta got outta the habit of fixing my clothes each time I stretch.” He adjusted the fit of his sleeves. “Anytime you wanna make version 2.0, let me know.”

Darren got them back on the track, as regarded the investigation. “So, do you remember anything about when you were attacked?”

Non, not really,” she admitted. “I was focusing entirely on making my wave-gun for the Combat Finals, and then I got the alarm from ‘Arley. Then I heard a crashing noise. I turned and then *zap!* I fell unconscious. Mr. Delarose guesses that whoever it was somehow used my own wave-gun on me. I vaguely remember being strapped into something and my brain being bombarded. I managed to twist my wrist with my watch to hit my own panic button and set it off.” She paused, realizing something. “Why didn’t ‘Mr. X’ take my watch off?”

“You’re assuming that he realized that your watch had a panic button.”

“It had a big red button on the side. What else could it be? Besides, I could have put almost anything in that case- a laser, a teleportation key, a PFG, anything. If _I_ had captured a devisor, the first thing that I would do is take EVERYTHING from her, even little things like earrings, as she might have hidden something she could use to escape in it.”

They thrashed it out a bit more, but they didn’t get any further. The Cadets filed out, leaving Harlan with Genevieve. As Adalie scowled at them, Harlan leaned over her. “Jenny, I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For not being there for you. I should have been there for you.”

“ ‘Arlee, you can’t be with me every minute, no matter how sweet that might be. Mr. X just waited until he had the opportunity to strike. He didn’t even wait for me to be alone, he arranged a way for you to be kept busy.”

Harlan flushed a little and whispered, “I love you, Genevieve Etincelle.”

“That just means that you have impeccable taste, Harlan Sawyer,” Jenny said minxishly. “I love you, too ‘Arley Sawyer.”

Adalie stalked out of the room as the young lovers shared a goodbye kiss.

Outside the room, two people were waiting for Harlan. One was a tall, slender, pale woman who rather reminded Harlan of Morticia Addams with a more conventional wardrobe. The man was slightly shorter than the woman, stocky with a swarthy complexion, a beard, and he was wearing a fez. The woman greeted him. “Mr. Sawyer? I am Miss Grimes of the Mystic Arts department, and this is Mr. Al-Feyez, also of the Mystic Arts department. We were wondering if we could ask you a few questions about what happened to Spark?”

“Why me? Dr. Guitterez or Chief Delarose are the ones that you should you should ask.”

Mr. Al-Feyez made a sheepish expression. “Alas,” he said in a deep voice with a slight singsong accent, “cooperation between the various departments isn’t what it should be. There are… rivalries. Chief Delarose, while an excellent Security chief, dislikes bringing either the Mystic Arts or Psychic Arts departments into investigations.”

“Well, can’t blame him for that,” Harlan said. “The man’s got to be able to go to the courts with hard evidence, and you know how the courts just LOVE hearing ‘well, this guy here says it’s so and we gotta take his word on it’.”

“Yes, yes, but that’s not the point here. When Delarose does condescend to using one of the departments, he invariably uses the Psychic Arts department. But I must know a few things about the transformation of that young lady inside.”

“Such as?”

“Nothing even the most vaguely bit confidential, I assure you. First and foremost- this young lady has been transformed from a normal girl- yes, yes, a devisor, but physically normal- into an Exemplar?”

Aaahhhh … Yeah …”

“And she emerged in this state after three days inside an EGG?” Al-Feyez asked eagerly

“Well, Yeah,” Harlan admitted, “but it was because of a devise, nothing t’do with the Magic department.”

Miss Grimes took over with a sigh. “Mr. Al-Feyez is our resident expert in Alchemy. He’s convinced that what we call ‘Devises’ are really nothing more than enchantments and alchemical workings tricked out in technological drag.”

“Even if this ‘Devise’ were working by an alternative but still mundane set of rules, it wouldn’t explain how the girl changed so completely, so quickly,” Al-Feyez insisted. “If her devise activated a nascent Exemplar trait within her, it would still take MONTHS for it to completely re-work her physiology. Instead, it took only three days. THREE DAYS! The symbolism is obvious, as is that of the egg!”

“Hakim, you are making the classic error of mistaking similarities for verities!” Grimes moaned. “I agree, it’s very suggestive, but it’s hardly conclusive! HOW are we going to get the Board to increase our budget, if we take half-baked proofs like that to them? We need hard, empirical EVIDENCE!”

“The Board?” Al-Feyez made a dismissive sound. <pfui!> “This could be the proof that we need to establish the connection between Devisements and the Arcane! We must get samples of that shell to analyze!” As they bustled off, Harlan simply noted to himself that there were some very strange people at Whateley.

Friday, December 15th

Connie watched with amazement as Jenny tucked into her very large breakfast. “Didn’t they FEED you in the Infirmary?” she asked with a tinge of amusement in her voice.

Genevieve had the good manners to swallow before answering. “Mais Oui! But when I woke up, I was simply ravenous!”

Harlan put in, “Well, when I’m in Exemplar mode, I do notice that my appetite kicks up a bit. Besides, Jenny hasn’t eaten in three days.” Then he leaned over and whispered in Connie’s ear, “Where’s Dad and Mom?”

“Oh, Quent’s sulking again,” Connie whispered back. She looked around at the throng of students who were all gaily chattering away. “Is it always this … lively?”

“I think that most of them are happy that the Combat Finals are over,” Harlan guessed. “Classes are over, and they’ve got a whole week to goof off before Final Exams start, while the Upperclassmen get their chops handed to them in their Combat Finals.”

“The Combat Finals are over?” Jenny asked brightly.

“Well, last day, anyway.”

Jenny gave a loud coo of happiness. “Good! Then you can help me move my equipment up from the Ultra-Secure bay to my new secure bay.”

“They’re moving you back to just the Secure level?”

Jenny gave a very gallic shrug. “The competition for the Ultra-Secure bays is very fierce, and Mister X appears to be able to get into the Ultra-Secure without too much trouble. So, trying to stop him is useless, at least until they decipher how he got IN. They aren’t putting anything new into the Ultra-Secure bays until they catch ‘Mr. X’. SO, the only people that we can expect to keep out are the more conventional thieves, who we can trust the simply Secure bays to stop.” She gave another gallic shrug.

Connie decided that they needed another topic. “So, Genevieve, what are your thoughts on that ‘Angel’ up in New York that everyone’s so het up about?”

A timid voice from behind them interrupted, “Genevieve? Is that really you?”

Connie turned to see a stocky pudding-faced girl with stringy brown hair cut into a pageboy ‘do that really didn’t flatter her face standing there, looking agog at Genevieve. Internally, Connie winced for the poor girl. It must be hard enough for the poor thing in a school like this, with so many heart-stopping beautiful girls around; but to have her best friend suddenly blossom into a prime example of the beauties?

“Yes, Romy. It’s me,” Jenny said with a wide smile. “Come, join us! This is ‘Arley’s Aunt Connie.”

Romy acknowledged Connie with a nod but kept standing. “Genevieve, I’m sorry,” she said, her head down.

“Sorry? Sorry for what?”

“I didn’t visit you. I just couldn’t. The thought of you inside that thing, I … I just couldn’t face it.”

Jenny got up and gave Romy a big hug. “Oh, Romy! Why would you? I was inside an egg! I couldn’t hear you or know that you were there!”

“He did,” Romy said, nodding in Harlan’s direction. “Every day. They had to drag him out with a bulldozer, to keep him from getting in the medics’ way.”

“Really?” Jenny peeped at Harlan. “You did?”

Connie decided that it was time to step in, or it would just get mushy and embarrass poor Romy. “Why don’t you come with us, Romy? We were going over to the ‘Workshop’. Genevieve has to move some things, and I’ve never seen a real ‘Mad Scientist’s laboratory’ before.”

Romy allowed herself to be talked into it, and watched in amazement as Genevieve- never a particularly heavy eater- polished off her plate and went back for seconds (or was it thirds?)

Genevieve and Romy whispered between themselves, Romy obviously wanting to know everything, but not wanting to be loud about it. A step behind them, Connie murmured to Harlan, “You know, there’s something familiar about that girl.”

“Jenny? You gonna tell me that you knew a girl just like Jenny, and she’s gonna break my heart, Aunt Connie?”

“No, the other one. I don’t know what it is. I just can’t put my finger on it.” Then she dismissed the thought. “Harlan? Where did you get those glasses? I thought that your father broke the pair that Genevieve gave you.”

Harlan slightly adjusted the wraparound shades for effect. “He did,” Harlan grinned. “But Jenny usually makes two of things like this, don’t you honey?”

“What?” Genevieve called back.

“I was just telling Aunt Connie that you always make two of little projects like this, unless it’s something really cutting edge like the ENI, or you’re in a hurry, like with your ‘wave gun’.”

“My wave gun?” Jenny echoed. “But I did duplicate my wave-gun. It wasn’t really that advanced, a simple reinforced wave projection with a few additional settings. I use the second set to save time. I switch between the two sets, making sure of my design in each stage. That way, if I make a mistake with one set, I don’t destroy the entire project. It winds up saving time. Delta Spike’s problem is that she’s so confident of her abilities that she just charges ahead with a single prototype and has to go back over the same ground again and again.”

“Interesting people that you go to school with,” Connie mused wryly.

But Harlan saw more. “Hold it- if you made TWO wave guns, where’s the other one? Delarose definitely would have mentioned it if there were TWO of them in the Ultra-Secure bay.”

“It wasn’t there?”

“No, Delarose said that they found ONE, with a single charge used. Andy why would they take the one that hadn’t been used? If anything, I’d remove it, if only because it would be quicker and easier than wiping off the fingerprints. And a psychometrist …” That meant something, Harlan mused. It meant something important.

Harlan hadn’t been connected with the Workshop when Connie had visited during Parents’ Day, so she’d never seen the huge multi-story main area, where the students worked with the really BIG equipment.

“Oh … My … Gawd …” she gaped. “Is that a REAL giant robot?”

“Yes,” Jenny said, amusement in her voice. She remembered her reaction the first time she’d seen it. “They call it ‘Tiny Tim’.”


“No, not really,” Jenny sighed, still a trifle disappointed herself. “The whole ‘giant robot’ concept breaks too many different laws of physics to work. Tiny Tim over there can barely walk a few steps, let alone go into battle. Whateley kids have been trying to make him work for years, decades perhaps.”

“Then… why are you working on it?”

“Because, even if we don’t succeed, the ideas that we come up with for trying to fix this part of the problem or that are absolute gold mines for other applications! The new hip design that Automa-Tech came up with won’t make Tiny Tim walk, but I understand that Disney is throwing pots of money at her for the patent rights.”

“Hmmm… Connie murmured. “Sure, sure- the real reason that you kids keep working on it, is because it’s COOL.”

“And your point IS?”

Then Harlan spotted Rack, T-Bird and a girl. “Hey Guys!” He introduced Connie around. “And this is Widget. She’s a gadgeteer, like Rack.”

“So!” Connie said brightly at them, “What are you- omigawd, is that a suit of ‘Knights of Purity’ power armor? How did you get a suit of Knights of Purity armor?”

Rack, T-Bird and Widget all looked at each other. “Classified.” They said in perfect unison.

Picking up on the tension, Connie went for what she thought was an obvious neutral topic. “So, are you two boyfriend and girlfriend?” she cheerily asked T-Bird and Widget. Widget turned beet red, and Thunderbird gave an embarrassed grin.

Before either of them had to say anything that would have made the situation worse, Harlan and Jenny hurried Connie along. “Why do they have it all opened up like that?” Connie asked as she was all but frog-marched to the secure elevator down to the lower levels. 

“You don’t know, you don’t want to know.”

When they were safely in the elevator, Connie asked, “What did I say wrong?”

Harlan gave a sheepish grin. “Ticklish situation. Nothing that you could be expected to know about. Y’see, T-Bird and Widget aren’t bee-eff and gee-eff. Not that Widget wouldn’t love it, but Scott’s kinda thick between the ears when it comes to girls. He thinks that they’re just pals. And just to make things worse, not only does Scott have Widget panting after him, her best bud Tesla also has a crush on him. AND he has two girls from Melville who are also after him.”

“You’re kidding,” Connie said aghast. “He must know what’s going on.”

“Nope. Nary a clue. And, just to make it utterly ridiculous, he DOES have a girlfriend named Chaka. The word is that she just sorta jumped on him and said, ‘you’re my boyfriend now, get used to it’. Still, she’s a babe, so Scott’s not exactly trying clawing at the ground to get out of it.”

“She just sort of walked up to him and said ‘you’re mine?’”

“Pretty much.” Harlan confirmed.

“Poe Cottage,” Jenny said significantly, tapping the side of her head.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, Poe cottage is where they put the weirdoes and head cases,” Harlan said. “Not the flat-out psychos, but the real oddballs. And Chaka has a reputation for being a REAL oddball.”

Connie gave her nephew a sidelong look. “Maybe, but please notice that she got the boy that those other four girls were chasing after, not them. She may have been a little forward, but from what you said, that may have been the only way for him to get the idea. Harley dear, if- or when- you change back into a girl, you may notice that there seem to be two sorts of men in the world: the ones who won’t get the hint that you’re interested, and the ones who won’t get the message that you’re not. It’s a gross exaggeration, but try telling yourself that after some lout pins you in a corner and stares at your cleavage for hours. Of course, Widget might have a much better chance if she didn’t dress that way. It might be politically incorrect of me, I definitely think that if she wants that boy, she’d be well advised to remind him that she’s a girl. Your ‘Chaka’ may have the right idea- some men just need to be conked on the head with a big ol’ mallet.”

“Owch,” Harlan said, but Jenny gave the woman a respectful look.

The guard on duty checked Genevieve’s authorization papers and double-checked that Harlan, Romy and Connie were who they said they were. The equipment in the Secure Bay suitably impressed Connie. She had a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering, and she knew enough about Jenny’s equipment to know that she was looking at Next Level stuff. The mag-lev ‘planks’ keeping them from disturbing the powder-fine fullerene material on the floor as CSI lifted it off (literally) one inch at a time was particularly impressive. Connie and Romy watched from the door as Harlan and Jenny carefully loaded those plastic-wrapped parcels that CSI cleared for removal. Jenny asked if they could have an escort with the cart up to her new bay, but the guard said that, with the last Combat Final and the investigation, they simply didn’t have the manpower. His curiosity (and vested interest) biting him badly, Harlan asked, “So … any prints or other points of interest?”

“Just that one toe print,” the CSI tech said, almost on automatic. “No fingerprints other than the girl’s. And the Psychic Arts guys said that that Psychokinetic Energy Surrogate thing over there,” she jerked a thumb at the large oil-drum sized mechanism, “was leaking that PK analog energy all over the place and screwed up any chance of getting a psychometric reading. But it’s always the same with the Psychos, they always have an excuse,” she went on rambling about people who think that gimmicks are better than good established forensic work. Harlan carefully left her and her comrade to their work, before she remembered that she was talking to someone that she probably shouldn’t be.

“And what are YOUR thoughts on this whole mess, Romy?” Connie asked as they left the bay with Harlan pushing the cart.

“I’m just glad that Genevieve is all right,” Romy mumbled, looking at her feet. “I haven’t been much help.”

Romy was about to say something else, when Jenny got a call on her cell phone. She said Adalie’s name and then broke into a spate of rapid French, which started off surprised and took on a note of sharp annoyance. “Qu'est-ce qu'il y a, Genevieve?” Romy asked. Jenny responded in more sharp French.

“Pardon?” Harley asked with a touch of bewilderment.

Ils m'ont appelé pour les Finales de Combat!” then she made herself switch to English. “The Combat Finals! They’ve called my name!”

“What? But you just got out of the Infirmary!”

“I KNOW,” she groaned. “Adalie says that she tried to talk them out of it, but M. Ito said that he could not conceive as to how turning into an Exemplar could possibly have reduced my chances.”

“Did she say who you were up against?” Jenny groaned again.

“Someone called ‘Iron Star’.”

Harlan tried to think of something supportive to say, but drew a blank. The best that he could come up with was, “Well, from what I’ve heard, he’s nothing if not a gentleman.” Harlan gave her a consoling hug. “You better get goin’. Draggin’ yer heels will only lower your grade. I’ll get this up to your new bay, and get over there as quick as I can.”

Jenny gave a loud aggrieved snort and strode over in the general direction of the elevator. “Romy?”

Romy gave her a look like a sick sheep. “I don’t think that I could bear to watch. Watching two people fight like that makes me want to crawl under my bed.”

“I’ll be along with Harley,” Connie said. Jenny let out a gusty sigh and they all went to the elevator. Harlan let Jenny over to the alcove next to the main work area, then went back down to the secure bay floor. Jenny stalked through the main work area muttering and gesticulating angrily. Rack and Widget were using a Vibratory Probe to penetrate the KoP power suit’s defenses to defuse the self-destruct mechanism. That prompted a memory of what little she knew about Iron Star. She picked up her cell phone. “Adalie? Could you send me a picture of Iron Star’s MID?”

Adalie sent a picture:

Code Name:  IRON STAR
Ratings:  Manifester: 4
 Faux-Energizer: 3
Techniques: Manifestation takes form of metallic ‘power armor’ with:

  • Upper Limits: 6.3 tons
  • Carrying Strength: 4.8 tons
  • Casual Strength: 2.2 tons
Energy Projection: Electromagnetic Energy, damaging potential   equal to roughly 5 sticks of TNT
 Environmental Protection against most chemical, radiation and  temperature hazards for up to 25 minutes

 Extreme Durability
  • Rated ‘Bulletproof’ at RPG levels
  • Top Speed: 75 MPH
  • Cruising Speed: 43 MPH
Weak vs.:

 Electromagnetic energy, Vibrations, Magic

Backup/ Team affiliation:  Future Superheroes of America The X-Press (training team)

Yes, that fit what she knew about him. He was only a sophomore, but the accepted wisdom was that he’d take over the leadership of the ‘Cape Squad’ when Pendragon and Gloriana graduated this year. And while they might be posturing buffoons, the Cape Squad had a reputation for getting into real fights off-campus with real supervillains and winning- or at least not getting their backsides too badly battered. She doubted that Pendragon would choose his successor based on a gleaming suit of armor alone.

She watched as Widget carefully removed the small (but remarkably potent when merged) explosive chips from the KoP armor without actually removing the cera-metallic carapace. She placed each chip in a separate explosion-proof container, and then used the Vibratory Probe to start removing the retaining bolts from the plate. An idea came to Genevieve. Not a ‘Big Idea’, but an idea.

“This may take a little longer that we thought,” Harlan told his Aunt Connie as they got off the elevator. “Jenny gave me her key-card, but I’m still gonna have to convince-”

wacht een minuut, wat is dat?” Romy interrupted him. “That noise?”

Harlan turned to see what Romy was talking about, but a wave of pain washed over him, and he was thrown to the floor.

“What took you so long?” The security guard asked tersely.

“I wasn’t expecting to be called,” Genevieve responded equitably. “I had to walk all the way here from the Workshop.”

“What’s that?” he pointed at the unit on her arm.

“Medical Observation device. I just got out of the Infirmary, and Dr. Guitterez wants to make sure that my condition is stable. You can call her if-”

“Nah, no problem. You’re running late as it is.”

“We’re still waiting for Spark to show up. Spark played the ‘Oh No, I’m Sick’ card earlier in the week, but the doctors have given her a clean bill of health. For someone who’s supposed to be so dang smart, she should’a known that the Senseis keep Friday open for all the wimpizoids who try to weasel out by pleading sick and like that. Heck, rumor has it that they save the real nut-busters like Iron Dork for Friday just to throw them at the weenies. Well, Greaseball, it looks like little miss slowpoke finally decided to sho- WHOA-HO-HO! Campers, it looks like there’s been a change in the lineup! Buckethead’s scheduled opponent, Spark, has been traded for a real HOTTIE! I don’t recognize her, Grease-o, why haven’t they changed the MID display?”

“Well, Peeper, according to the referees, that IS Spark. And I do remembering hearing about an accident that she was in, back in the Workshop.”

Whoa! Talk about better living through technology! Anyway, the countdown’s beginning, and the match is finally underway. Man, I hope that Iron Star doesn’t mess her up too badly!”

The buzzer sounded. Iron Star, a good-looking boy with dark hair and an athletic build, raised his fists to the sky dramatically, threw back his head and shouted, “_I_ AM_ IRON_ STAR_!” As his proclamation rang through the arena, coruscating energy surrounded and occluded him. When the glistening haze cleared, he stood there a chivalric figure in gleaming power armor, with dark metal bands on his arms and legs, his head, hands, feet and chest covered respectively in gleaming silver-tone helmet, gauntlets, boots and breastplate with a large raised black metal star on the center. A white cape draped over the pair of stubby upswept wings jutting from his back and cables connected his boots and gauntlets to his breastplate.

While Iron Star was doing all this, Jenny was running with everything she had for the spindle. But she didn’t duck into the spindle and try to answer the questions quickly. Instead, she tapped her ‘medical observation bracelet’, and the Whateley Power Tools Harness that she’d placed on the teleportation cradle that she was *ahem!* ‘borrowing’ from Wizard popped into her hands. She strapped the harness on, and the power indicator blinked green even as she heard the thrust of jets as Iron Star took off.

“Harley?” Harlan struggled to full consciousness, prodded along by the harsh acrid smell of ammonia salts just under his nose. He opened his eyes to see Romy kneeling over him, looking into his face with ovine concern. “Are you all right?”

Nnnrrrggg …” he struggled to get up. “What happened?”

“Someone used some sort of energy weapon on us.”

“Did you get a look at him before he shot you?”

“No, I think that he got us all with one shot. I managed to see a wave of some sort.”

“A wave? Like Jenny’s wave-gun? The one that ‘Mr. X’ stole?”

“I don’t know, I never saw it.”

Harlan looked around. “Aunt Connie?”

“She’s still unconscious.”

Harlan snapped to complete wakefulness. “She’s unconscious? Is she okay?”

“Her breathing is normal. I think that she’ll be all right.”

“Why aren’t you unconscious too?”

Romy looked rather shame-faced. “Well, with everyone being attacked left and right, I thought that it would be best to be safe. I borrowed one of Genevieve’s PFGs, just in case. I turned it on as soon as I recognized the sound of his chair. The wave burned out the generator, but I think that it took the brunt of the force.”

Harlan leapt on the single clue like a hungry wolf. “The sound of his chair?”

“Yes. It was Belphegor’s chair, I’m sure of it.”

“A high pitched vt-vt-vt-vt-vt?”

“Whiny, just like its creator.”

“Are you sure that you didn’t see him?”

“No, but now that I think of it, I did see an odd sort of blurring, a shape in the air, just before the wave started.”

“But why would he attack us out in the ope-”

“HARLEY!” Romy cut him off. “Genevieve’s ENI! It’s gone!”

Indeed, the clear plastic bag containing the ENI was missing. “Of course…” he snarled. He took a look at his aunt lying there unconscious, and a cold rage overtook him. People seemed to have gotten the stupid idea that they could just walk all over him. They’d attacked him, slandered him, abused him and ridiculed him. They’d attacked the girl that he loved. And now they attacked his aunt, the only adult who’d ever shown real love for him. Belphegor had made mistakes before, but this one was gonna bite him in the ass BIG TIME.

Harlan had seen the vest that went with Jenny’s fullerene suit in a plastic bag when he’d looked for the ENI. He grabbed the bag, tore it open and pulled the vest on. Then he lowered his glasses and used the internal communicator. “Reynolds? This is Reach.” He filled the lieutenant in on the situation. “Get some medics down here and put out an alert for Belphegor. I’m going after him. I have a good idea as to where he’s headed.”

Iron Star was flying high and trying to steer Genevieve far from the spindle, so that he could use it without being interrupted, but not have to hurt Spark to do so. Comment chevaleresque. Genevieve was avoiding his ploy by using those ‘Dr. Octopus’ tentacles that she could form now to skip among the mockup buildings, where his energy blasts weren’t as effective. She was amazing herself with her reflexes and stamina. Before, if she’d been running and jumping around like this, she’d have thrown up with exhaustion by now. Then she heard the *ping!* that said that her opening gambit was ready. Now, all that she had to do was come up with a supporting gambit, and she had pretty much won!

She skittered around a corner in a way that Iron Star would be sure to see her. She readied the PREDS [Precision Ranged Epoxy Deployment System], fed the resins into the mixing chamber and… Iron Star zoomed in, she fired, and a compressed glob of metallic epoxy landed squarely in the center of his glassine ‘visor’. He reacted and went crashing through the faux-brick wall.

Hey! Where did she get the web-gun? And where did those Doc Ock arms come from?”

“Well, Peep, I don’t know about the tentacles, but that’s not a web-gun. That’s a standard-issue Workshop epoxy gun, designed by the illustrious ‘Mr. Sticky’ to accurately deliver a precise amount of glue to the exact spot desired at a range of up to 70 yards.”

“Okay, I like it, but will Ito-sensei let it slide?"

“They haven’t stopped the-”

“Ooohhh!! LIGHT SABER!Spark is going at Iron Snot with a Light Saber!

“Actually, Peeper, that’s a Plasma Cut-“


Harlan couldn’t make himself wait for the elevator; instead he clambered up the interior of the stairwell. He hauled himself up to shop floor and ran into the main area. If he was right, then boulder-butt had to have come through here. “RACK! T-Bird! Did Belphegor just come through here?”

Rack looked up, puzzled, and said, “eh, Sure! He just lit through here as though the devil was on his tail.”

“He WISHES!” Harlan snapped, eyes ablaze. “Sunuvabitch just ripped off Jenny’s project and zapped my Aunt Connie in the process! Where did he go?”

“You’re kidding!” Widget said. “Everyone knows that Carson laid down a mandatory expulsion for anyone messing with Spark’s XSI!”

“Let’s find him, and see!” Rack said dropping his tools and extending the legs of his rack to their greatest length. “He went that way!”

“Of course he did!” Harlan loved being right.

Iron Star soared back up to where he thought Genevieve couldn’t get at him. Not according to plan- not that there WAS a plan- but nothing that she couldn’t improvise a solution for. She adjusted the valence bonder so that the effect limiter was extended to an area 5 inches wide and 100 yards long. It wouldn’t cause the electrons to merge fields, but that wasn’t what she wanted, anyway.

“Spark just nailed Rusty Nail with some sort of lightning gun-”

“That’s a Valence Bonder, Peeper. It’s sort of like a welding arc that creates a shared molecular bond between two objects, instead of just-”

“And now she’s reeling him in.”

“I think she’s using the Valence Bonder to synch with his magnetic field, making hard for him to stay aloft.”

“Nice try, Gadget Girl, but no luck. Ironing Board is putting everything he’s got into his jetboots.”

Genevieve sourly watched as Iron Star escaped the grip of her improvised tractor beam. Well, if being around Harley had taught her anything it’s that victory comes to those who keep trying. She wasn’t a big tactician- indeed, she hated the whole idea of fighting- but an entire One-Third of her grade for this entire semester depended on this idiotic sparring match!

Harlan and Rack pelted down the corridor at top speed as T-Bird and Widget flew after them. “Where are we headed?” Thunderbird asked.

“One of Belphegor’s hidden labs!” Harlan shot back. “If he can hide the ENI before we catch him, then he has perfect deniability! All we have is Romy saying that she heard something that sounded like his chair! But if we catch him red-handed, that’s a whole new kettle of fish!”

“You know where this lab is?” Rack said. “Then why didn’t you tell Security and have him busted?”

“I already did! I figure that he’s disabled Security’s tattletales on that lab, and he figures that it’s the last place that Security will look!”

“Ah, that’s … pretty slim, Reach.”

“Hey, he wouldn’t build two labs so close together, so that’s probably the only hidden lair he’s got in this stretch of the tunnels. So, why was he heading this way in such a screaming hurry, if not to get to his cache and get rid of the incriminating evidence?”

T-Bird looked over at Widget who was flying right next to him. “Is that the same flying/ super-strength/ force field rig that you used at Halloween?”

Widget turned beet red and said shamefacedly, “Hey, what d’you want? I love playing Supergirl!”

“Oh, I do NOT believe this! Spark has arranged a _siege machine_ and is approaching the spindle!”

“You have to give her this, Peep- the girl does know how to throw something together in a hurry!”

“And here comes the knight in shining error, to rain on her parade. He’s ripping the canopy off and- Whoa! What’s this? Spark has jury-rigged the ANTS and they’re attacking Iron Britches!”

“Hold it- Spark is climbing up behind Iron Star while he’s busy and she’s pressing something against his back-”

“Omigawd … is that a …?”

“NO, Peeper, it’s a Vibratory Probe.”

“What kind of Sicko _IS_ she?”

“Peeper, a ‘vibratory probe’ is a tool-”

“She had better not come anywhere NEAR me with that thing!”

“It’s a tool that vibrates so that it’s for all practical purposes intangible. It passes through solid metal and ceramic plates like it's not even there, and you can use it to put things into or take things out of complex machinery without taking the machine apart.”

“What could she be putting into him? NO, I _don’t_ wanna know!”

“Peep, I think that she isn’t putting anything into him- he lists vibrations as part of his weakness, and I think that she’s using that against him.”

“Iron Virgin is slumping. Are we looking at a fate worse than death, right here in Arena ’99, Campers? Wait, she’s pulling something from her tool belt. She’s unfolding it, and… Oh Christ! Greasy, what the HELL is that thing for?”

“Just what it looks like, Peeper. It’s a buzz saw with mono-molecular edges, and they use it to cut through really tough things like they were warm butter.”

Harlan, Rack, Thunderbird and Widget got to the stretch of side tunnel where Belphegor’s lab was, and the door was wide open. “Here it is-” Harlan said unnecessarily. 

“Didn’t Security put some sort of barrier on this thing, or at least an alarm?”

“They did. It looks like someone took it down. Can you open it without setting off the alarm that Belphegor’s set for himself, Rack?”

Rack pushed at the door, swinging it in. “That quiet enough for you?”

Thunderbird took Reach by the shoulder. “I know that you’re pissed, but you’d better let me go first.” Without waiting for Harlan to answer he rushed through the doorway, with Widget hot on his heels.

“Scott!” Rack shouted, “Wait! Belphegor’s-” there was a loud crackling sound, and Reach felt a tingling that made the fillings of his teeth taste bitter. Rack and Widget’s PFGs were fried and there was an acrid smell in the air, but they were still up. Thunderbird was crackling with energy, but reeling. Harlan stretched up over and past them into the lab. Belphegor was cursing, trying to get his chair to work. Apparently the wave-gun wasn’t as selective in its effects as it might have been.

Harlan reached over and tried to pull Belfo out of his chair, but the big lump was too far away and too heavy. Belphegor clubbed at Reach’s arms, cursing, “You won’t get ME, you limp-wristed prannock!” He lifted a panel, pulled a switch, the chair sprang back to life. He hit the control stick and sent the chair into a rapid spin. The spin pulled Harlan off his feet, spun him with it a few times, and threw him across one of the workbenches. “HAH! As though a crass vulgarian such as yourself could bring low the great BELPHEGOR!”

As Reach reeled- it’s very easy to get used to being a lot tougher than you normally are, but nowhere near as easy re-learning how to be not as tough- Thunderbird snapped back to himself. Belphegor hit another switch and a set of loudspeakers popped out of his chair. The enclosed room ululated with ear-splitting noise, making everyone except Belphegor clutch at their ears. Belfo took advantage of the distraction to ram his chair into T-Bird and Rack, sending them sprawling. Widget jumped onto the chair, grappling at the speakers. Belfo spun her off, but she took one of the speakers with her. Belfo slid his chair over to one of the workbenches, where a heavy energy weapon was standing on a rack. He snatched it up and shot it at Thunderbird, encasing him in ice. He similarly dispatched Rack, even though the small gadgeteer was still reeling from the sensory overload.

Widget pulled something from her tool belt and ran to help the boys. Belphegor bagged her with the ice-gun just before she could get at them. “And now for you,” Belphegor growled. He turned his chair and aimed the ice-gun at Harlan, who was still pulling himself off of the workbench. Harlan saw it coming and immediately thought ‘strobe flash bulb’. The clasps on his vest started strobing, which completely fouled Belphegor’s aim. Reach launched himself at Belfo again, this time going for the gun. They grappled with the gun, which went off inside the cowl of the chair, freezing both boys. Belphegor cussed like Captain Hook, while Harlan staggered away from the chair. Belphegor must have had that gun waiting especially for him; the extreme cold affected his stretching, which wasn’t all that effective in his current state anyway. Belphegor dug around in his chair and pulled out Jenny’s wave-gun. “Why won’t you just leave me ALONE?” he yelled as he fired a wave right at Harlan.

The wave fried Harlan’s vest and glasses, shutting off the strobe and making the glasses a liability. As Harlan pulled the glasses off, Belphegor took advantage of the distraction to ram Harlan with his chair and pinned him against one of the walls. “Let’s see you wiggle your way out of THIS!” Belphegor grinned savagely.

Genevieve finished sawing through the last of the power cables linking Iron Star’s boots and gauntlets to his breastplate. That should cut down on all that ‘flying around and firing energy blasts from a safe distance’ nonsense. Then Iron Star managed to shed the last of Jenny’s suborned ANTS, and he dispatched a few of the others with energy blasts. “Qu'est-ce qui est cela?” Jenny gasped. “C'est impossible! I just the power lines to your energy gauntlets!”

Iron Star was a trifle taken aback. “Ah, well ...  Y’see, this suit of armor is just a manifestation. It doesn’t use real technology. I only create those power cables, ‘cause they look cool.”

“ ‘Look Cool’? Look Cool?” Jenny sputtered, “De toutes les bêtises idiotes, stupides, abrutissantes, j'entendais jamais dans toute ma vie! Comment osent vous encombrer un design avec pas les projections seulement inutiles mais embrouillantes! Et que croyez-vous que vous FAITES, en drapant un cap sur les ailes?” she ripped into him verbally, her sense of design esthetics totally outraged. Then she reached into her tool belt and just plain ripped into him.

“Oh my GAWD, what is she DOING to him? Oh Man, that just ain’t RIGHT!”

Widget’s instant thawing device triggered automatically, but it took her a moment to recover. She sensed another energy discharge, and she looked up to see Belphegor gunning his chair into the wall. Underneath the chair, she could see Reach’s legs, struggling. “Stop it, you asshole!” She shouted, leaping at Belphegor. “You’ll KILL him!”

“That’s rather the idea, you stupid bint!” Belfo snapped. “It’s him or me! I’ll show him to try and frame the great Belphegor!” Then there was a sudden wrenching, and the chair was pulled up from its suspension cushion. With a heave, Harlan wrapped her arms around the chair, lifted it up on its side and shook it until Belphegor fell out of it.

With a scream of rage, she ripped the reinforced metal, ceramic compound and plastic ‘egg’ apart like it was made of papier-mâché. “No more!” she rasped. “No more flying chair!” she kicked away both the wave-gun and the frozen-over ice-gun. “No more fancy guns!” She reached out, picked up Belpehgor and started ripping his gadget-laden greatcoat apart, starting with the PFG Belfo was clawing at. "No more TOYS! No more hiding behind your stupid GADGETS!”

Seeing that Harley wasn’t completely in control of herself, Widget stepped between them. “NO! No matter what he’s done, we’ve got to leave him for Security!”

“I haven’t done ANYTHING!” Belphegor sobbed. “Well, at least, not recently!”

“OH?” Harley reached over and took the ‘futuristic camera’-looking device from one of the counters and held it up in his face. “And what’s THIS, hunh?”

“YOU put that here, in order to FRAME me, you flexible freak!” Belphegor sputtered. “You couldn’t solve the REAL crime, so you had to pin it on someone!

“Oh and I suppose that I left a freezing gun, which could’ve KILLED me, right out in the open where you could get at it!”

As Belphegor gabbled, T-Bird finished freeing Rack from his icy prison. “Harley! Rack’s in bad shape! We’ve got to get him to the infirmary!”

Harley snarled at Belphegor, “Lucky you.”

Iron Star floated a good thirty feet off the ground, but he wasn’t under his own power. At least not directly. He was captured in a bubble of electromagnetic force created by a reconfigured PFG that was running off his power. “That bubble holding you up works off the faux-metal in your ‘armor’,” Genevieve explained. “If you dismiss your armor, you’ll drop thirty feet. And I’m rather certain that you can’t recall your armor in the half- second that it will take to fall on your face, and probably break several of your bones. I’ll bring you down, once I’ve answered the questions.” She did just that, and as soon as she recovered her PFG and a few of the other tools that had been scattered, she stalked off, muttering animatedly about fools who don’t understand the value of elegant simplicity in design.

Well, Campers, it looks like we can forget about Vixens with Swords, Minxes with Whips and Babes with Guns- obviously the next hot kink is going to be- CHICKS WITH POWER TOOLS!

Adalie met her at the exit, beaming. “Bravo, Genevieve! Vous rendez nous tous fiers! Vous avez fait piéger cet imbécile comme un papillon sous le verre!

Papillon?” Genevieve echoed. “Mais évidemment! Un papillon!

Chuckling, Adalie snapped her fingers in front of Genevieve’s face, bringing her back to the here and now. 

“Well, I’m still very impressed.” Adalie continued. “Iron Star has a very fearsome reputation, and you did take a few rather nasty hits in there.”

“Hits?” Awful realization dropped onto Genevieve like a ton of bricks. “Oh mon Dieu! Je pourrais avoir été TUÉ! I might have been KILLED!” She wrapped her arms around Adalie and started bawling in delayed panic.

Then a Security Guard cleared his throat. “Spark? Excuse me, but I’m afraid that there’s been an another incident…”

“Belphegor has been a royal pain in the ass from Day One, but he has FINALLY gone too far!” Delarose said as he handed the recovered ENI back to Genevieve. “We didn’t provide any protection for you as you were moving your stuff, as we didn’t think that anyone would be STUPID enough to pull a smash-and-grab like that. And, we needed the manpower for the Combat Finals. But we caught him red-handed, and Carson laid down that trying to steal that thing was an automatic expulsion offense, so he is OUT of here!"

Jenny turned the boxy device over in her hands. “But this isn’t my ENI,” she said simply.

“WHAT?” Delarose, Reynolds, Harley, Thunderbird and Widget all said as one.

“I said, this isn’t my ENI. It’s a very good copy, but the balance is all wrong, these inputs don’t belong here, and this aperture is the wrong diameter.”

“But HOW?” Harley asked.

Delarose strummed his fingers on his desk. “SOMEONE is playing games with us.”

Jenny insisted on going to with Harley to see her Aunt Connie in the Infirmary. Connie was lying on a cot, but the doctor said that she was fine, there was no sign of any nervous damage or tachycardia. “Hey, all I got is a slight headache,” Connie laughed. “Gimme an aspirin, and I’ll be right as rain. I see that you’re using the girl’s bathrooms again, Harley. How did that happen?”

“Well, I ran down the bast- er, loser who zapped us. He ripped off one of Jenny’s prototypes, and I got it back from him. I, ah, changed while he was tryin’ to mash me into a wall.”

“Can I expect you to keep doin’ that when you come home for Christmas?”

Harley shrugged. “Haven’t a clue. I still don’t know why I changed back to a boy the last time.”

Connie gave Harley a wan smile. “Well, at least we can do the ‘Female Bonding’ thing while we shop for some new clothes for you. What you have on doesn’t do anything near as much for you as that sexy latex thing did.”

Jenny stifled a giggle, but any comment that she might have made was shoved aside by a nasty remark from behind them. “Jeez! You just couldn’t WAIT t’get all sissied up again, could you?” Quentin snarled at Harley.

“Jenny Dear, would you leave us, please?” Connie asked quickly. “You don’t need to have to deal with this.”

Quent barely managed to contain himself as the little bitch wiggled out of the room. When the door closed, he snarled, “I HOPE that you’re PROUD of yourself, Harlan! You just can’t keep from screwing up, can you? Look! Now you got your Aunt hurt!”

“I’m not hurt, Quent,” Connie started, “and-”

“If you think that I’m gonna let you keep fucking up like this without raising a ruckus-”

“DAD- shut up.”

“Don’t you shut ME up, you fucking FREAK! When I get custody of you back I’m gonna-”

“Dad, it’s not gonna happen. I’m not gonna sign any stupid form that you shove in my face, no matter how much shit you give me.”

“HARLAN!” Linda gasped at the obscenity.

“OH, you’ll sign!” Quent roared. “And even if you don’t, I’ll STILL get custody back!”

“No you won’t,” Harley said calmly. “You’re not gonna file any papers, or make any complaints, or do anything more’n go to your stupid lodge meetings.”

“Yeah? Whaddya gonna do, punk? Use yer freak mutant powers on me? The MCO would just LOVE to hear about THAT!”

Harley gave Quent a feral smile back. “I don’t need t’hit you. You’re not gonna file any papers, ‘cause y’aint that stupid. ‘Cause even if the courts DO give you custody, it won’t be like it used t’be. I’ll live with you, but there’s no way that I’ll hide for you. I’ll be the most famous mutant in Louisville, maybe in Kentucky!"

“Oh NO you will NOT!” Quent jabbed a finger in Harley’s chest. “And the first thing that you’re gonna do is stop this stupid FAG shit and go back to being a boy!”

“NOPE,” Harley said with a pop. “Not gonna happen.”

“What? You LIKE being a girl, you FAG?”

“Hey, what’s not to like?” Harley said with a grin. “I’m stronger, tougher, smarter, and God knows, cuter- aw hell, who am I kidding? I’m fucking gorgeous! I’m just all-around more compet-” Harley’s eye fell on her father’s scowling, beet-red, near- apoplectic face and then she looked over at Connie. Then she burst out giggling.

“What the FUCK are you laughing at, you FREAK?” Quentin shrilled.

“YOU,” Harley said with a grin. “I just figured it out. It was so fucking simple, but I didn’t figure it out until my nose got shoved in it!” She broke down laughing out loud.

“What are you talking about, Harley?” Connie asked as Linda stood there looking like a distressed cow.

Harley mastered her laughter. “We’ve been wracking our brains trying to figure out why I keep changing back and forth, and why I do it at different times. And it’s so obvious. I was never able to use my stretching effectively before, no matter how hard I tried, because, in some bizarre, twisted way, I was trying to become YOU-" Harley pointed at Quent. “Or at least what you kept telling me I should be. The thing is, you kept telling me that I was weak, that I was stupid, that I was inept. So I tried to please you, and I became weak, stupid and inept, even as I was trying to be strong, smart and capable. So, I unwittingly kept sabotaging myself, because I knew that I couldn’t do anything right, because you told me so. And you were my Dad, and you knew best. You fucking piece of shit.

“But she-” Harley pointed a finger at Connie, “-kept telling me that I was already good enough. She saved my soul. I looked to you for what an adult was supposed to be. But I found what I WANTED an adult- a real adult, not a stunted pre-teen like you- to be like, in her. But I wasn’t female, so I couldn’t BE that. Then this happened,” Harley indicated her body. “And suddenly I had permission to be smart and cool and all like that.

“When I changed back to being a boy … it was like being blind again, after seeing for the first time. I think that Nephandus’ ‘Horniness Ray’ affected me physically in a way that I wasn’t ready for, so I shifted back to being a boy as a protective reaction. When I was depressed, and you pulled your sick mind-fuck on me, I embraced my inner loser, and changed back. But every time that I needed- and I do mean needed- to be strong and able, I shifted back to being a girl. Because, Dad, YOU taught me that men are mean, nasty, hurtful, inept-”

“You watch your mouth, BOY!”

“NO- GIRL.” Harley grinned in utter triumph. “I just admitted to myself that I LIKE being a girl!”

“If you think that I am gonna let you fag around dressed like a girl-”

“GOOD! Then we’re agreed! I’ll stay a girl, and you’ll stay the hell away from me! See, Dad? If you try to get custody of me, I’ll just go to school like this. And I’ll use my mutant powers every chance I can get! And there’s no way in hell that you can stop me!” Harley’s grin went feral. “And we all KNOW what shy, docile, timid folks the Kentucky chapter of ‘Humanity First!’ are.”

Quent went ashen-faced “You wouldn’t! They’d burn down our house!”

“Hey, it’s your call, ‘Daddikins’. If you wanna be known as the father of the sexiest mutant chick this side of the Mississippi, you go right ahead and file for custody. Oh, and Dad? You know how every year, I save up for months to buy you something extra special on Christmas? Well, I did that this year too- but I think that I’ll spend the money on a miniskirt. Oh, and if you’re thinking about calling the MCO and making all sorts of crazy accusations-” Harley placed a hand on Quent’s chest and pushed him against a wall. Quent tried to fight it, but he was a 160-lb. man, who wasn’t in the best shape, trying to resist thousands of pounds of force. Harley’s hand pressed Quent’s ribs in until he was sure that they were about to crack. “-DON’T.”

Harley released him and he fell to his knees, gasping. Linda tried to help him up, but he forced her helping hands aside with a snarl. He looked up at Harley, and dug deep into his bag of mind tricks. He pulled out the only one that had any chance of working. His face screwed up, his eyes shooting daggers, he said venomously, “You think that you’re BETTER’N me, don’t you?”

“YEP. And, more to the point, YOU think that I’m better’n you.” Harley heard an amused noise. She turned to spot Zenith and Sahar ducking their heads out of the doorjamb. “Dad, Mom, why don’t you go back to the Guest Cottage? Zenith and Sahar will make sure that you get there all right. And, just in case you’re thinking about doing something stupid and vicious, like informing ‘Humanity First!’ about this place, well, Zenith and Sahar can fill you in on exactly WHY that’s such a bad idea.”

Harley gently but firmly guided his parents out the door. When the door closed, Connie sat up and looked at Harley, who was beaming at the door in triumph. “Harley-hon? Don’t.”

“Don’t what, Aunt Connie?”

“Don’t ‘Don’t What, Aunt Connie’ me, young m- lady! I can tell that you just had tons of fun getting’ your own back from your father. You’re thinking how much fun you can have, yanking his chain back in Louisville. Don’t.”

“Why not? It’s not like he hasn’t got it coming!”

“Harley, you can’t go around the rest of your life getting even with your father. It’s not healthy, it’s a waste, and you have better things to do.”

“WHAT? Are you telling me that you want me to make things up with him?”

Connie gave a rueful laugh. “Oh, Good Lord, NO! That would only make things WORSE!” She laughed herself out. “No, dear, trying to patch things up with Quent would be a recipe for disaster. What I’m saying is, just walk away.”

“Walk away?”

“Harley, you’re not going to win against your father. Period. Every time that you think that you’ve won, he’ll just change the rules. And he knows ALL the buttons to push; he knows, because he pounded them into your head himself.”

“I just won, right now.”

“Yes, you did, dear. You won the real battle. You got out from under his thumb and you can claim your own soul and you even tweaked his nose doin’ it. That’s a three battles more’n most people ever win. All’s I’m sayin’ is don’t piss it away tryin’ to grind his face in the mud. ‘Cause if you do, then you’ll lose everything. You’ll become him, and even if Quent loses, the asshole that he is wins by passin’ along to another generation, like a demon hoppin’ from one body to another.

“You don’t remember your Grandfather, do you?”

“Grampaw Grady? What about him?”

Connie gave another rueful laugh. “Harley-sweetie, I never thought that I’d see the day when I sang Quentin Sawyer’s praises, but compared to his father Grady, Quent’s a SAINT! I mean, Quent’s mean, but he works hard, makes a decent living for his family, and he doesn’t hit your mother- leastways, not as I could ever tell. But your Grampaw Grady? *Phew!* Now THERE was a mean old man! I remember back in Middle School, he never missed a chance to humiliate Quent in front of the other kids. He wasn’t ever quite drunk, but he always had a beer or two under his belt. Never spent a penny on his family that he didn’t absolutely have to. And he put Quent and his sister in the hospital a couple of times that I’m sure of.

“If Quent has a single redeeming trait, it’s that he’s not as bad as his father was. And I shudder to think of what Grady’s father was probably like. But Quent never really managed to get out from under his father’s thumb. The old man’s been dead for twelve years now and on some level, Quent’s still trying to please the old rip. He could never just walk away. And that’s what I’m telling you, Harley. The only way that you’ll ever really be free is if you just walk away. Now. And forever.” Her eyes somber, Connie held out her hand. “Please. Harley. I love you. Just walk away. Have a life. As a superhero or a supercop, or a supermodel or a supermom or whatever you decide to do with your life. Just … live it for yourself. And not for Quent. Not even to spite him. Because that would be … the worst waste that I could possibly imagine.”

Harley paused, and she could see what Aunt Connie was talking about. She could either live her life like she really wanted, or she could play stupid ‘prove to dad that I’m really worth his time’ games. And what good was that? She took Connie’s hand. “I promise, Aunt Connie.” She gave a grin. “I hear that when you hit thirteen or fifteen or so, you make this big decision about who you really are. I just decided that I’m the kick-ass babe that every boy wants and every girl wishes that she was!”

Connie let out a loud laugh and gave Harley a big hug. “That’s a good start, honey. But you got to learn to aim higher!”

“Are you sure that you want to go to this party?” Jenny asked as she and Harley walked down from their room to the second floor of Melville Cottage.

“Sure! Hey, we’re under direct orders! Mrs. Carson herself told me to go to the first party that they threw here. Are you gonna let me go into the Alpha’s den all by myself?”

“Speaking of nasty people, who was that horrible, horrible man you were talking to with your Aunt this afternoon?”

“Oh, nobody. Just a personal demon I had to put down. He’s a relative, one of those people who think that they’re a thousand times more important in the family than they really are. But he doesn’t have any real say over anything.”

“Oh good. I was worried that he might be your father.”

Harley thought that it was time to change the subject. “So, where did you get that cool brooch?”

“Do you like it?” Jenny beamed as she fingered the large gold-filigree butterfly locket. “I just made it! It’s going to be my sigil, like Agatha’s trilobite emblem! Adalie gave me the idea, right after my Combat Final. I think that the butterfly is an excellent symbol for me, no? Oh very well, I emerged from an egg, not a cocoon, but the symbolism is more or less the same.”

Harley lilted Jenny’s face up toward her own. “You were never a caterpillar, Genevieve Etincelle, nor an ugly duckling. You were just a different kind of gorgeous.” Then she leaned down and kissed Jenny, as the smaller girl blushed. Then they hurriedly looked around, in case anyone saw them.

“While sharing a room with you is sweet, ‘Arley, it’s a trifle strange to not be able to kiss you in public, even though everyone knows that we are lovers,” Jenny mused.

Then they were at the doorway to the party. A loud Top 40 hit blared through the closed door. Jenny halted and looked up at Harley, her big green eyes full of not quite fear, and worried her lower lip. Harley took Jenny’s hand in hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Jenny squeezed back and then she was ready to enter the fray.

Given Melville’s reputation, the party was rather under-whelming. It was a rather standard boarding school party, with refreshments, dancing and a lot of standing around honing young schmoozing skills. Aside from the occasional casual display of mutant powers, it could have been any teenage party with an overabundance of outrageously attractive kids. Exemplars counted for a little under a third of the student body, but apparently the percentage was noticeably higher at Melville. Jenny and Harley filtered into the crowd, just two more mega-babes among the throng of feminine (and masculine) splendor.

Or at least, that was the way that it was at first. A ham-hock hand landed on Harley’s shoulder. “Hey, ain’t you that boy-girl-boy freak that we got stuck with?”

“No, I’m the boy-girl-boy who’s walking right over there, and not playing into this crap,” Harley shrugged the hand off her shoulder. Turning around, she had a distinct sense that she’d suddenly stepped into an old cartoon, one with a parody of the ‘All-American Hero’. The boy was good-looking. Ridiculously so. He had a barrel-chest, massive biceps, waving blonde hair, and a jaw that took up a quarter of his face. He was wearing a blue T-shirt with a large gold foil ‘B’ screened onto it. And just to make the picture utterly ludicrous, he had yellow cape pinned to his T-shirt. “Oh, you have GOT to be fucking kidding me.”

“_I_ am CAPTAIN BRAVO, Champion of-”

“Captain? Whatever. _I_ am Harley, Utterly Bored. Now go away.”

But ‘Captain Bravo wouldn’t let go. “LOOK, YOU-” He stopped as an empty soda can came out of left field and hit him upside the head.

Suddenly, they were surrounded by a circle of extremely annoyed looking girls. “And what do you think you’re doing, Bravo?” The lot of them burst into a storm of acrimony where all their bitching merged into cackling like a flock of chickens. “Who do you think/she’s more of a MAN/if you grab my ass/stayed by her side/big DOOFUS/never seen anything so romantic/why can’t YOU/just because Spark pounded Iron Shmuck/prancing around here like the second coming/-”

Harley heard some giggling and saw a prime pair of Exemplar babes, one blonde the other Asian watching the scene with amusement. She walked over and asked, “So, what’s THAT all about?”

“Oh, the big prat is ‘Bravo’,” the Asian girl answered with a polished British accent. “Fancies himself the next Champion. But the Cape Squad, in a rare act of common sense, keeps flushing his application. Odds are, he thinks that if he gets back at you for your girlfriend whupping Iron Star, tin man will put in a good word for him.”

The blonde smirked, “Though, I do rather get the impression that he gets nervous in the line for the boys’ shower, too.” They both giggled at that.

“And what’s with them?” Harley jerked at thumb at the girls who had backed Bravo into a corner. Some of them had clustered around Jenny, and some of them were sneaking looks at Harley.

“Well, the story of how you had to be dragged away from your girlfriend’s side is making the rounds. Most of the girls in Melville think that it’s simply too, too romantic for words. Most of them are asking themselves why they couldn’t have a boyfriend just like you.” The blonde stopped and ran an eye down Harley’s frame. “Or, at least, one who wouldn’t look quite so good in a bikini.”

“Hold on,” Harley said. “Now I remember you from Carson’s office! You’re Heartbreaker, one of the Masterminds.”

“Masterminds?” Heartbreaker said with a look of wide-eyed innocence. "Why, whatever DO you mean?”

Turning to the slinky Chinese girl, Harley concluded. “And that would probably make you Hazard. Probability Warper, and, obviously, an Exemplar. And, I understand, one of the better bookies at Whateley. I hear that you run the tightest odds, and always pay off when a bet wins.”

“High praise, Sherlock,” Hazard commented as she lifted her soft drink in a toast. At least, Harley thought that it was a soft drink.

“So, I do hope that you didn’t take too much of a bath on Jenny’s match. I … was a little busy at the time, but I understand that she took out Iron Star? What were the odds on that one?”

Hazard’s violet eyes sparkled and she gave a throaty chuckle. “Why would _I_ be upset about that? The punters all put their money on Iron Tights to just shove poor little Genevieve aside.” She giggled more loudly. “I made a pile on her! Almost as much as I did when Chaka …” She laughed out loud. “OY! BRAVO!” She called over in not quite so polished a tone. “Precisely how did you ever manage to-”

“HEY!” Bravo called back over the heads of the girls who were still cackling at him en masse, “She CHEATED! That should have been disallowed!”

“And he was SO looking forward to doing well in the Combat Finals to buck up his grades,” Hazard sighed with wry amusement.

Heartbreaker was giving Harley a close look. “By the way, may I say that I approve of the way that you’re adapting. Nice outfit, and I do mean that. Nice, simple, feminine and stylish, but not going overboard trying to be girly.”

Harley was wearing black stretch pants and a white pointy collared sleeveless blouse. She ran a finger under one of the collar points and said, “Well, Zenith and Sahar were a big help here. As I figure it, I have no way of knowing how this alternate BIT thing is going to turn out. I can expect to spend at least a good portion of my time as a girl for a while, so I might as well get comfortable with it.”

“And you’re sharing a room with Spark?” Heartbreaker asked, cocking an eyebrow at Harley. “Even when you’re male?”

“What, you haven’t heard?”

“Apparently not. Must be Melville gossip. I’m over in Dickinson.”

“In theory, Jenny’s still working off her detention for Unauthorized Experimentation on an Unwilling Subject. She’s supposed to keep an eye on me, in case something goes hinky. I have another room- and another roommate- when I shift back to a guy.” Harley looked around. “There he is. Hey, Thiago!”

Thiago looked up and saw who Harley was standing with. He hurried over as quickly as decorum would allow. “WELL!” He beamed ingratiatingly at Harley, Heartbreaker and Hazard. “It really was my lucky day when I was picked to share a room with you! First, you’re hardly ever there, and even when you are there, you attract lovely ladies like a magnet! And now, you rise to your duty as a roommate, and you gather these lovely ladies to warm poor lonely Thiago’s chilly nights!”

“Thiago?” Harley said through a tight-clenched grin. “Lose the hands.” He held up both hands, his face a picture of wounded innocence. “ALL your hands.” The PK construct ‘hands’ faded from stroking Harley’s leg.

Thiago held his composure admirably. “By the way Harlan, why aren’t you wearing that fetching black latex number that you’ve been wearing for weeks?”

“Mr. Asterlitz, the Workshop Project Manager has it. I had to wear it for a Reliability Test, remember? That portion of the test is over, and now Asterlitz doing other things. But why not get the word from the authority? Hey Jenny!” Harley called out to where Jenny was still clucking away with the hens.

Like Thiago, Jenny noticed who Harley was talking to, but she hurried over for totally different reasons. She was genuinely surprised when Heartbreaker and Hazard wanted to talk to her about the fullerene suit. “You’re serious?” Hazard asked pointedly. “It keeps its shape, avoids catching and tearing, and it has camouflage AND armor value?”

“An Absolute Hardness of 650, harder than steel,” Jenny said smugly. “The initial prototype shows absolutely NO signs of wear, even though poor ‘Arley has been beaten, shocked, blasted, frozen-”

“No, hon, not frozen- that happened after I turned the suit over to Asterlitz.”

“But of course,” Jenny said smugly. “If you had had the suit, you would have had nothing to fear from that Ice Gun. And that’s only the first iteration of the suit! Thanks to ‘Arley, I already have substantial improvements in mind for the design of the next iteration.”

“And I’ll be the first to offer to test it, Jen,” Harley offered. “Once you get used to showing off practically everything, it’s dang comfortable.” She knew that Jenny was trolling for prospective customers.

Both Heartbreaker and Hazard looked like they were nibbling. “Oh? You’re going to market it, after you get a patent?”

“Well, Asterlitz is already doing the preliminary groundwork for the patent. Rez says that she’s down to the last obstacle, and it looks like I’ve passed the Devisor test.”

“And what about that symbiot thing that you used to such great effect?” Hazard asked, eyes a-glitter.

Jenny held up her hand and blackness flowed up it forming curlicues and other oddments on the tips of her fingers. “That, plus est la pitié, is a simon-pure fluke. Even with a working symbiot to study, it would take years, decades possibly, to replicate. And I shudder to think what might happen if someone tried to bud off a piece of it.”

“Pity. Now, how much would the patentable suits go for?” Heartbreaker asked cagily.

“Well, you must understand that, at least for the meantime, each suit would have to both be cut and attuned to each specific customer. Remember, the fullerene dodecahedron is a synthetic mineral, and synthetic and mineral materials are so much harder to attune to PK energies than organic ones are. This is very expensive, of course …”

As Jenny went about her sales pitch, She-Beast and one of her friends walked up. “Ah, Reach! Making friends, I see,” She-Beast purred. “Hazard. Heartbreaker, I see that you’re still crashing the A-list parties. And who’s this?”

She-Beast and Heartbreaker fenced about a bit- Harley got the impression that they didn’t like each other much, even if Jadis and Hazard got along- and the topic rolled around to Belphegor. “I’m sorry if you’re sore that your buddy Chair-Boy got busted-”

Heartbreaker and She-Beast looked at each other and broke out into gales of vicious female laughter. “BELPHEGOR? Buddy?” Jadis gasped. “Oh, you ARE new around here, aren’t you?”

“If anything, bagging him only raised your stock around here,” Hazard commented.

“Which will only make it worse when he walks,” Jadis’ pale dark-haired friend droned.

“Oh, by the way, Reach, Spark, this is Kate Twardovski, a.k.a. Nacht. She’s a fellow ‘Bad Seed’,” She-Beast remarked.

“Why do you think that he won’t get expelled?” Jenny asked. “After all, he DID try to steal my ENI and Carson let everyone know that anyone trying to steal it would be summarily expelled.” Jenny knew that the ENI was a fake, but Security had kept that a secret. It might be interesting to see if the dark, dour girl knew something that she wasn’t supposed to.

“Belfo will walk,” Nacht insisted, “because he didn’t steal it.”

“What makes you say that?” Harley asked.

“Because, the only reason that Belfo would make a smash-and-grab like that would be if he wanted to use the XSI immediately on himself. He wouldn’t take that risk for someone else, and he could use the notes that he’d made when he stole it the first time for any other application. And he wouldn’t use the XSI on himself.”

“Why not?” Jenny asked.

“Simple,” Nacht responded. “He doesn’t have the guts to use another devisor’s devise that’s only been tested twice. He’s got more nerve than a bum tooth, but no physical courage whatever. Use a gadget that’s only been tested on humans twice? Belfo’s not that brave OR that stupid.” She-Beast, Heartbreaker, and Hazard shared brief looks and nodded their agreement with Nacht’s assessment.

Harley shared a look with Jenny; it sounded logical, and it was based on a better familiarity with the boy than they had. “FUCK,” Harley spat disgustedly. “Another dead end!” She looked at the four girls. “Okay, I’m not too proud to ask experts. Any of you got any ideas?”

Heartbreaker and Hazard just gave him smug ‘Yeah, Right!’ looks. But She-Beast chewed it over for a bit. “I don’t know enough to make more than an educated guess, but from what I’ve heard, I can give you three pointers. First, whoever the person who attacked you two is, he thinks he’s clever. Or at least, he’s trying to be clever. But he’s not really all that smart.”

“Oh? He’s had us running around in circles,” Harley admitted.

“I said, he’s TRYING to be smart,” Jadis maintained. “But he’s making amateurish mistakes. He keeps throwing new twists and wrinkles at you, trying to confuse you. A good crook knows to keep it simple and stick to tricks that he knows will work for him. There’s a reason why the term ‘Modus Operandi’ was coined. Trying new things is dangerous. Also, a smart crook would know better than to pull a ‘Locked Room’ mystery.”


“Because, it’s STUPID! Nothing that gets under a cop’s skin like a locked room mystery! Why do you think you only hear about locked room mysteries in books? Because in real life, the people who are smart enough to think up a locked room angle are also smart enough to know that when the cop finally figures it out, they are screwed!

“Second, and this factors into the ‘Locked Room’ thing too, Locked Room puzzles always revolve around a gimmick.”

“A gimmick?” Harley asked, trying to get She-Beast’s point. “You mean some new high-tech gadget?”

“Yes, but not really. I mean more a gimmick in the Show Biz sense of the word. Maybe a gadget, or a power, or an optical or situational illusion. It basically comes down to the person pulling this off is foisting at least one false assumption down your throat. Agatha Christie loved those. In Death on the Nile, the killer had an accomplice who made a production of shooting at him and missing by an inch. The killer made out like he was shot in the leg. As the accomplice distracted everyone by being dragged off, leaving the killer alone, he’d grab the gun and run off, use it to kill the real victim. Then he’d run back to where he’d been shot at, before anyone can get back to him, and shot himself in the leg. Okay, a little drastic, and I leave out a lot for simplicity’s sake, but that’s it; the killer foisted the false assumption that he couldn’t have killed the victim, because he’d been shot in the leg at the time. That’s the gimmick. Once you figure out the gimmick, how it was REALLY done, the culprit is pretty obvious.”

“But you said that ‘Mr. X’ wasn’t intelligent. He’d have to be pretty dang smart to figure out a gimmick to get into the Secure Bays.”

She-Beast made a dismissive noise. “Please! I’m the daughter of a supervillain. I’ve seen a lot of guys with gimmicks. They don’t come up with NEW gimmicks for new crimes; they somehow stumble across their gimmick first, and then they plan all their crimes AROUND that gimmick. Mr. X didn’t figure a way to get into the Secure Bays to attack you- he attacked you in the Secure Bays because he knew that he had a way of getting in beforehand. Odds are everything inexplicable that he’s done will be explained- and pretty obvious in retrospect- once you figure out the gimmick.”

Harley nodded. The strange girl seemed to know what she was talking about. “Okay. And the third thing?”

“Again, it’s a classic. You’re focusing on how ‘Mr. X’ got in. What you’re NOT asking yourself is, ‘How did Mr. X get OUT?’”

It was Friday night and Melville Cottage and it was the end of the Combat Finals, so everyone was blowing off some steam. The party lasted until well after the normal curfew, and broke up when Mr. Forrest shut off the music and loudly announced that it was 10 PM. Then Forrest trudged off to cope with shutting down the Alpha’s party, which was a horse of a completely different color. “So, ‘Arley- how many times did someone suggest that YOU were a lesbian?”

“Oh, I heard my fair share of ‘Xena and Gabrielle’ jokes. Not as many times as they suggested that I was gay. Though a LOT more than the yutzes who said it right to my face.”

“You showed admirable restraint.”

“Restraint? Hell, Honey, it’s not restraint. I’m just waitin’ for Christmas vacation, so’s I can start planning my payback proper. This is Melville, after all; I don’t just have to get back at them, I gotta do it in STYLE! By the way, while it hasn’t been an issue, I think that we don’t have to look very far to find the donor for your BIT.”


“Yeah, I don’t think that ‘Mr. X’ showed as much respect for Heartbreaker’s tender feelings as you did.”


“Well, it’s sort of like me and Zenith- if I didn’t know better, I’d say that you two were sisters or somethin’.”

“Really? Well, we already had her BIT on record …Maybe I gained some psychic powers in the process?”

“I’ve already been over that with Zenith. I didn’t get any psychic powers in the bargain. But, I’d say take it up with Dr. Guitterez, just in case. Maybe you got lucky.”

They got to the room, and as per usual, Harley grabbed her bathrobe and pee-jays and headed for the shower. Showering had been an … interesting experience … before. But she’d been fighting it then. Now, she was free to really explore this wonderful new body she’d been given without any guilt or embarrassment. And in that exploration, she found something that helped that little voice way in the back of her head, but posed a terrible temptation.

After showering, she put on the pajamas and headed back to their room. While they weren’t uncomfortable, the way the pajama top draped was a little … off. Maybe she should experiment with a nightgown or something like that? She knocked at the door, and Jenny told her to come in. “ ‘Arlee?” Jenny said from behind the open closet door, which was strategically placed so that it could act as a screen to the door to the hallway.

“Yeah, Jen?”

“I was thinking about something that your Aunt Connie said. She seems to know what she’s talking about.”

“Yeah, she generally does.”

Jenny stepped from behind the door. She was wearing a filmy negligée, and under that, all she had on was a black bustier, panties, stockings and high heels. Harley startled. “ ‘Arlee, is this a big enough mallet?” The cups of the bustier and the panties receded like water pooling into the rest of her symbiot, exposing her breasts and nether regions. Teetering slightly on her heels, Jenny walked up to Harley and kissed her. She slipped a hand under Harley’s pajama top and caressed one breast.

Harley looked down at Jenny, dumbstruck. Then she saw an element of hesitation and- frustration?- in Jenny’s eyes. Then the penny dropped. Jenny didn’t want to be the one to be taking the initiative. She wanted Harley to do it. But Harley was trying so hard to be ‘noble’ and not take advantage of a girl who wanted to be taken advantage of. “Jenny … I’m sorry …”

“ ‘Arlee?” Jenny bleated.

“I should have picked up sooner.” Harley took Jenny’s face in her hands and pulled her up and kissed her deeply, taking control of the situation (and Jenny). Jenny’s symbiot covering melted away from Harlan’s touch, revealing tender flesh to be touched. Harley took full advantage of that- and her own long tongue. Their first time was sweet and fulsome, and Harley rejoiced in bringing Genevieve to a gasping climax. Not that she was willing to leave it at that.

As Jenny basked in the afterglow of her orgasm, Harley stepped back and sat on her heels on the mattress. “Jenny?” she said with a big grin.

MMmmm?” Jenny murmured voluptuously.

“I have a surprise for you.”

Then Harley showed Jenny what she’d discovered in the shower.

Jenny’s eyes grew wide. “HOW?”

“I’m a stretcher- I can make EVERY part of my body bigger, longer and thicker.” Then Harley crawled forward, and showed that while she was now a girl, she could still be a man where it counted.

After that, Jenny decided to take more of initiative, and used every trick that she’d ever read about in romance novels (even so, French romance novels are more about suggestion than technical advice). As she brought Harley to an orgasm that Harley had to muffle with a pillow, she had an idea. Turnabout, as the English say, is Fair Play. “ ‘Arley? _I_ have a surprise for YOU.” Mimicking Harley’s act of earlier, she sat back on her heels and a thick black phallus grew out of her groin.

Made bold by her recent orgasm, Harley let impulse override inhibition, and reached out to touch the lingam. She ran a finger down its length, and Jenny gasped with pleasure. “You can feel that?” Harley asked.

Mais Oui! C’est incroyable!” Emboldened by the rush of pleasure, Jenny crawled forward and made a woman of Harley. Harley had that expected moment of abject terror with the first thrust. That fear was completely forgotten by the third thrust.

Afterwards, cuddling, Harley joked, “Jenny-honey, if you can patent THAT, you will be richer than Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Dan Goodkind and the Queen of England put together!” She kissed Jenny’s temple. “And now what?”

Jenny grinned wantonly. “Well, you’re the one who’s always boasting that he never stops …”

They made sweet love long into the night. When they were spent hours later, they held each other, speaking sweet soft words to each other. Being young, they spoke of ‘love’ and ‘always’ and ‘forever’. And being young, they meant it.

Saturday, December 16th

At breakfast, Romy and Adalie couldn’t decide quite what to make of Genevieve and Harley. Harley had this very relaxed, very contented look to her, while Genevieve had this air of infuriating smugness. But when she came over, Zenith took one look at them and dragged Harley over to another table. “You DIDN’T! You DAWG! Tell me everything! And be Graphic!

“-and, well, we dropped off some time about Four.” Harley paused as she was about to sip her orange juice. “Should I be telling you this?”

“Not to worry Harl,” Zenith assured her. “It’s one thing for guys to go bragging, it’s another for girls to share.” She leaned forward, her eyes aglitter. “She really formed a … you know? With her symbiot?” Harley nodded. “And she felt with it?”

Harley nodded again and added, “And NO, she can’t sell copies.”

“I am SO proud of you, Sis.”

“Uhm, Zenith? I could I study with you tonight?”

“Oh? I thought-”

“Exactly. Next week is the Underclass’ Exams, remember? Thing is, I haven’t studied all week, what with Jenny bein’ in an egg, my folks and all. And I need to _study_.”

“Gotcha. And temptation- among other things- raises its head when you’re with Jenny.”

“Right. By the way, did you get my folks off all right yesterday?”

“By which I take your meaning as, ‘Did Semi and I drum into your dad’s pin head that trying to rat out Whateley would be only slightly less painful than jumping into a vat of acid?’ Yes, it took some doing, but we managed to convince him to keep his silence, while not breaking any rules about assaulting parents.” Zenith gave Harley a long look. “You grew UP with that?”

“Don’t get me started. Aunt Connie says to ‘just walk away’. But I think that I’m gonna be talking to the counselor about more’n just changing my sex.”

“Your aunt is a very wise woman.”

“Her advice has done me a world of good.” Harley started patting down her coat.

“Lose something?”

“Yeah, those special glasses that Jenny made for me. My dad broke one pair, and I kinda got used to wearin’ ‘em.”

“Besides, they look cool.”

“And your point IS?”

“So? You’re an Exemplar now- you’ve got Eidetic Recall. Just go back to the last time that you know you had them.”

Harley went back to when her Dad broke that first pair and went step by step until, “I lost them during the fight in Belfo’s lab.”

“Thanks for opening this up, Harris,” Zenith told the Security sergeant.

“Not a problem, Zee,” he replied. “But you can’t go inside.”

“Why not?” Harley asked poking her head in the door.

“CSI is looking for any traces that might suggest where Kaiju is.”

“Will they go in there and get my glasses?”

“Hey, I dunno where they are.”

“How am I supposed to get my glasses?”

“Well, they must call you ‘Reach’ for SOME reason.”

“Right.” Harley stretched halfway into the room and tried to figure out where her glasses got to. “CSI hasn’t already bagged them, have they?”


Harley remembered where she was standing. Maybe they fell over there… She reached over and started feeling around. Ah! There they were. “Got ‘em!”

“Hard week, Harrison?” Sahar asked.

“Same as usual, only more so, what with running late.”

“Running late?” Harley asked as she examined the glasses. Damn! They were busted! No … Fried…

“Yeah, we ran late ‘cause so many kids dragged their heels. Like YOU, and your buddies, Spark and Migraine.”

The glasses must have been overloaded when Belfo zapped her with Jenny’s wave-gun. “Romy was late?”

“Yeah, took her almost an hour for your pal Charge to find her. At least she was the worst offender. Been worse other years, what with prying kids out of hidey-holes …”

Suddenly, things just started clicking together for Harley, and the more she put together, the more other things clicked into place and a shape started to form, not so much for what was there, as for what wasn’t there. Glasses. Wave Gun. Lab. Secure Bays. Fullerene Proto-culture. Rubber. Jenny’s Watch. PK. Belphegor. Goo. Rubber. TNT. Nephandus. The Tunnel Control system. ESP. Rez. Kaiju. Spiders. Romy. Glass shards. Dust. Toe. Thiago. Hands. Delta Spike. Wizard. Arena ’91. The ENI. Aunt Connie. Ice Gun. Telepathy. Agatha Christie. Girl Genius. Nephandus.

“What’s the matter, Harley?” Zenith asked.

“Oh my,” Sahar said softly. “If she were a devisor, I’d say that she was having a Big Idea.”

Just as suddenly, Harley snapped out of it. “HARRIS!” she said in a tone that brooked no guff, “I need you to make a couple of discreet calls…”

Ultra Secure Bay #17 was rather roomy for a workshop, but it was rather cramped for 16 people, and it got even more cramped when Sergeant Harris brought Albert ‘Wizard’ Griffin in to join them. Wizard looked around, recognized Lt. Harris, Sawyer, Jenny, her friend Adalie, the Spy Kids, Delta Spike, Nephandus and Belphegor, but he couldn’t place the four other girls or the scholarly looking African man in tweeds. “What IS this?” Then he noticed that they all seemed to be sitting oriented around Sawyer. “Oh please! Not the old ‘Get all the suspects in one room and the Master Detective explains everything’ chestnut!”

“Actually, Wizard, it’s almost the exact opposite,” Sawyer shot back. “You’re all here because you’re NOT suspects. Now, I DO have a theory that I’m hoping to confirm, but I need input from all of you to prove it. If I’m right, you’re all in the clear from any charges stemming from the attacks on Spark and me, the theft of the ENI, and the disappearance of Kaiju.”

“But you’re still going to play Sherlock Holmes,” Griffin said nastily. “Count me out.”

“But I think that you have crucial information.”

“So what? I have studying to do, and you’re wasting my time.”

Wizard got up to leave, but Nephandus snarled at him, “Sit down, you idiot. If this gets me out of detention, I’m willing to let Rubber-girl play Master Detective.” Sgt. Harris laid a hand on Wizard’s shoulder and forced him down onto one of the seats.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” Harley said cheerily. “Now, I admit, this is just a theory. And I’m going to ask Dr. Carstaires,” she pointed at the scholarly looking black man who adjusted his glasses in curiosity, “one question. If I’m wrong, my idea is a total washout and I’ve wasted a few minutes of your time. If not, BOY do I have a lot more questions that need to be answered!” She took a centering breath and started. “Doctor Carstaires is with the Psychic Arts department. He’s in charge of making sure that the telepaths and espers abide by the Whateley Canon of Ethics.”

“Quite Right,” Dr. Carstaires answered in a deep, rich polished British accent with just a touch of a Jamaican lilt. “And exactly what is your question, young lady?”

“When this room was examined by the Psychic Arts people, I’m betting that they found a single chink in the wards that protect this room. It was a tiny ‘hole’ in the protections, and it was far too small to account for any kind of teleportation, right?”

Carstaires’ expression immediately changed from indulgent toleration to surprised interest. He straightened up and regarded Harley with much more interest. “Why… Yes! How did you know this?”

Harley grinned. “Later. And- my entire theory hinges on this, I can tell you EXACTLY where it is.”

Carstaires raised a single eyebrow. “Yes?”

Harley reached over and ran a finger over the pattern on the wall closest to the door. “Right here.”

Carstaires blinked rapidly, taken aback. “Why… YES! Precisely there!”

Harley grinned widely. The only thing better than being right, is being right with WITNESSES.

“Okay, Sawyer, You’ve just bought yourself some credibility,” Lt. Reynolds said. “You got the floor.”

Harley cleared her throat and ran down the sequence as it was generally known. There were a few questions, but no one offered any significant objections. “Okay, I’ve made a list of the really pertinent questions:

·         When Heartbreaker passed along her suspicion about me, why didn’t Adalie, Romy and Jenny check it out somehow?

·         How did Mr. X get into the Secure Bays?

·         How did the speakers get into the bay for the first attack?

·         Why did Mr. X sic TNT on me?

·         How did Mr. X time his attack on Jenny so perfectly?

·         Why did Mr. X distract the Cadets with Wizard?

·         How did Mr. X control the Tunnel Traffic Control system?

·         Why was the black dust all over the floor and everything?

·         How did Mr. X get all the pieces of equipment from Belphegor, Delta Spike, Kaiju, Nephandus and Wizard?

·         What was that odd rubber thing in Jenny’s mouth?

·         Why was Jenny covered in Goo?

·         Why didn’t Mr. X take off Jenny’s watch?

·         Why did Mr. X use rubber bands instead of handcuffs or leather cuffs to keep Jenny constrained?

·         Why did Kaiju disappear?

·         Why did Arachne’s spiders suddenly lose Kaiju?

·         If she was responsible for spreading the black dust on the floor, why didn’t Kaiju just wear foot coverings?

·         Why did Nephandus and Belphegor both have the same fear that I was obsessed with them?

·         If pure experimentation was Mr. X’s intention all along, why did he attack me repeatedly?

·         How did the missing ENI get switched?

·         If I got zapped in the hall when the ENI got snatched, why did my glasses and gimmicks still work when I faced Belphegor?

·         Why was the wrong Wave-gun stolen?

·         Why did Belphegor panic? How did he know that we were after him?

·         How did _I_ know where Belfo was going? In retrospect, it wasn’t all that obvious. I mean, we know that Belfo has other hidden labs out there.

·         Why wasn’t any of Jenny’s gear fried by the wave gun?

·         Why was the wave gun that Belphegor had set to such a low power?

·         Why was the Ice Gun- remember, cold is one of my weaknesses- conveniently placed where Belfo could get at it when the wave gun turned out to be a bust?

·        How did Mr. X know that I wasn’t wearing Jenny’s fullerene suit, which would have protected me against the cold blast?”

“From which, M. Poirot, we can deduce that you know exactly BUGGER ALL,” Wizard said drolly.

“Just framing the issues, Harry Potty-mouth,” Harlan quipped back. “Now, yesterday at the Melville post-Combat Finals party, I went to the experts. She-Beast came up with three very good points. First, she said that we were assuming that ‘Mr. X’ was some subtle mastermind. But from what we’re seeing, he’s probably an amateur, and not really a very smart one, bending over backwards trying to be clever. Second, she pointed out that ‘Mr. X’ had a gimmick that allowed him to pull off all these uber-slick moves. Peg the gimmick, and we have him. Third, she said that we were focusing too hard on how ‘Mr. X’ got in and not enough on how he got out.”

“You’re taking advice from a supervillain?” Wizard said dismissively.

“NO, from the daughter of a supervillain. And it was a good thing that I did, or I wouldn’t have realized the significance of this,” Harley held up her glasses.

“You need to have your eyes- or head- examined?” Wizard heckled.

“NO, these glasses are fried. They overloaded when Belphegor shot me with the wave-gun in his lab.”

“You’re trying to blame all of this on ME!” Belphegor blurted out. “I KNEW IT! You thin-”

SHADDAP, Blackadar!” Harris bellowed. “Let the kid talk.”

“NO, Belfo,” Harley continued. “I am willing to state- and believe me, this sticks in my craw- that you are innocent of the Unauthorized Experiments on me and Jenny. The POINT here is that I thought, that I’d been zapped by the wave gun in the halls, when the ENI was stolen. But if Belfo had used the wave-gun to grab the ENI, then my glasses, and all the other stuff on the cart- would have overloaded then. But the overload didn’t happen until I had Lard-butt here cornered in that lab. Also, when I came to from the wave-gun shock, I felt a tingling in my hands and feet and a strange taste in my mouth. I was too busy being angry enough to rip Belfo’s head off to notice if I felt anything like that in the hall, but my Aunt Connie was as right as rain when she came to. All that she needed was an asprin, and other than that, she was fine! Dr. Carstaires, I asked Lt. Reynolds to get the Infirmary notes on my Aunt Connie’s condition when she was admitted. Does she show any of the signs of a telepathic blast?”

Reynolds handed Carstaires a dossier. Carstaires looked through the file for a moment. “Yes, the low blood pressure, lack of visible trauma, elevated adrenaline levels and quick recovery are all signs of a psychic assault. Of course, it could also be the signs of a sonic assault as well.”

“Believe me, Doc- I’d KNOW if I had been hit with a sound attack. So, while I haven’t proven that we were hit with a psychic blast, I think that Belphegor didn’t zap us with the wave gun that was stolen from Jenny’s lab. Okay Belfo, correct me if I go wrong. You’re in the workshop, probably brooding over getting your butt whupped by that Team Kimba chick. You get a message from someone that you have reason to trust that I’m setting you up. I allegedly have taken Jenny’s ENI and a few other pieces of stolen equipment, and planted them in that lab we caught you in. My guess is that the reason given for this frame is that I’m allegedly obsessed with getting you expelled, probably to look good as a detective. You know that you’re already on pretty shaky ground with the administration. Carson’s made it clear that anyone stealing the ENI will immediately be booted out. If you get kicked out of Whateley, you are fair game for every super powered predator out there, and you know it. You make a beeline for the lab, which has conveniently had both the Security barrier and the alarm removed. Ack! There’s the ENI! Right beside the ENI is a weapon that you haven’t seen yet. Being half magpie, you pick up the gun out of sheer reflex. Then T-Bird, Rack, Widget and I come storming in. You think that this is the big setup, and decide to blast your way out. Crap! The wave gun shorts out the electronics in Rack’s frame and Widget’s Supergirl PFG, but that’s it. You use the gear in your chair, but it’s not doing the job. Reflexively, you grab for the first thing that looks like it will do the job- the Ice Gun that’s so conveniently set up on a rack. And it’s an Ice Gun; I just happen to react to intense cold by reflexively contracting, which pretty much makes my stretching powers go away. Did you know that, Belfo?”

“No,” Belphegor blustered in a tone that would have done Rumpole of the Bailey proud. “And there’s no way that you can prove that I DID! Admit it! YOU arranged that entire imbroglio, in order to make yourself look good!”

Harley let out a disgusted noise. “GAWD! You just don’t GET it, do you, blubber-brains? You were SET UP! We were BOTH set up! You were set up to go to the lab where the mockup ENI was stashed, and I was set up to chase you! We were supposed to take each other out! There were three possible outcomes. One, you could kill me with the best possible weapon to do the job, just when I didn’t have the armor which would have completely protected me from it. I’m dead, you’re looking at a Murder One rap. Two, I get the Ice Gun away from you, and as I’m too mad to think straight, I kill you. Three, neither of us get killed, but you’re fingered for stealing the ENI.”

Belphegor looked at Harley warily. “Then … you admit that I DIDN’T steal the Neural Engram Inducer?”

Harley let out a groan. “I ALREADY SAID THAT!

“Then … why? Why would anyone want to kill you or I?”

Harley shook a finger. “Not quite the issue, Belfo. But we’ll get back to that. The real points are- how did I know where you were going? I just knew somehow. But, as Rack pointed out- by the way Rack, how are you doing?- ‘that’s pretty slim’.”

Rack grinned. “I’m okay. Lucky for me, Prism was on duty, or I’d still be in bed with hypothermia.” He spared Belphegor a dirty look. “And it was pretty damn slim.”

“Exactly. The old ‘it’s the last place anyone would look’ bit doesn’t hold water when you really look at it. Everyone knows that Belfo has a few more hidden labs out there- why in God’s name would he hide the ENI in a place that Security would search as a matter of SOP?”

“I wouldn’t!” Belphegor blustered, “I DIDN’T!”

“And I believe you, Belfo! So, why did I think that you would, when I was under pressure? And why did you panic the way you did? And where’d you get the idea that I was obsessed with bringing you in? Come to mention it, why did Nephandus think the same thing? It strikes me that one of the applications of telepathy is the implanting of suggestions, of ‘nudging’ associations. Does that sound feasible, Dr. Carstaires?”

Carstaires nodded. “More than feasible. It’s a stock telepathic method. Use psychic influence to increase the possibility of a suggestion, and to narrow the possible interpretations of that suggestion. Done at the proper times, a telepath could help you make up your mind, or trigger a specific emotional response. Such as panic,” he nodded at Belphegor.

“Thank you. My point with this was to build a case for telepathy being used. Arachne!” Harlan called on the Spider Avatar. “You said that your spiders were watching Kaiju went she suddenly disappeared?”

“Yes. A few of them were watching her. Then the lights went out, and Kaiju was nowhere to be seen.”

“Are spiders susceptible to telepathic influence, the same as humans are?”

Arachne crossed her eyes. “I hadn’t thought of it. But yeah, I guess so.”

“Dr. Carstaires. Is it possible to create a sort of ‘telepathic invisibility?”

“Well, it’s more a case of ‘psychic evasion of notice’ but yes,” Carstaires said. “And yes, it would work especially well on simple minds, such as spiders and other invertebrates.”

Harley nodded with satisfaction. “SO. I think that I’ve made a case for Telepathy.”

“A case,” Wizard said snidely, “without a shred of real PROOF.”

“I’m getting there.”


“But surely,” Harley countered. “Where was I? Oh yes. She-Beast said that we were coping with at least one false assumption that Mr. X had foisted off on us. I think that I’ve found one of them. We have been trying to figure out how someone could have gotten into the Secure Bays, without either setting off alarms and air pressure gauges of the first, and getting past the wards of the second. How did Mr. X get in? How did he get OUT? Simple. He didn’t. He reached into the first bay with psycho-kinesis,” Harley stretched out a hand in demonstration, “lifted the proto-culture drum out of the cradle, and set it where I’d be sure to find it.”

“HOW?” Wizard asked sharply. “I’m not a psychic or a psychokinetic, but I DO know that you’d have to be able to SEE it, in order to LIFT it!”

“Yeah, Reach,” Delta Spike said, “We talked about this, remember? Mr. X would have to be able to see the drum and he’s have to be able to disconnect the booby trap trigger. And even then, the drum was being irradiated by PK Energy Surrogate generator, which would interfere with Mr. X’s PK.”

“Exactly,” Harley said smugly. “Jenny, would you spell out what ‘Heterodyne’ means? Not the Girl Genius, but the electronics term?”

“Well, Radio Engineers boost the power of a signal by matching two similar but still different frequencies so the power of one signal increases the other … oh, mon Dieu…”

“Exactly.” Harley reached over and snapped a finger on the oil-drum sized PK Energy Surrogate generator. “Mr. X used this to heterodyne his PK energy. He was able to use its energy signature to find the generator, and from there, finding the drum was easy.”

“Wait a minute, Harley,” Rack objected. “Matching the generator’s frequency to his PK energy’s would require that Mr. X have access to the generator for a long time, and do a lot of testing. How did he do that without being noticed?”

“You have the wrong end of the right stick, Rack,” Harley said. “Mr. X didn’t attune this generator’s frequency to his PK; he adjusted his PK to synch with the generator. Which still means that he had to be around this generator for a while, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as obvious.”

“Hold on,” Rez said. “Okay, you have a way of getting inside the secure bays. But lifting the drum out of the PK attuner is one thing, and assembling all that gear together and strapping Spark into it is another. I mean, that takes fine manipulation, and that’s hard even when you can see what you’re doing. How did he see what he was doing? And how did Mr. X get all that junk IN there, in the first place?”

“Good Questions, Rez. I’ll get to that last bit later. As to how the frame and the other parts of the XSI were assembled, I’ll have to address another part of the puzzle as well. Do you remember that proto-culture dust that was all over everything? Why was it there? Also, when she came to, Jenny pointed out that the XSI was such a long shot that any sane researcher wouldn’t have complicated it by introducing the element of the fullerene dust. So, why DID he?” Harley let her audience grapple with it for a moment. “Simple. He DIDN’T. It was a fluke. I’ll get to Jenny’s symbiot in a minute.”

“You keep SAYING that,” Wizard snarled.

Harley ignored him. “Now, as Rez pointed out, Mr. X could get in, but he couldn’t see what he was doing. So, how did he assemble the XSI from the bits and pieces in the lab? He FELT his way around.”

“What?” Rack bleated, “But you can’t FEEL with PK!”

“Oh? YOU do it all the time, with your rack. You use the metal hands to do complex adjustments all the time.”

“That’s different! I focus my PK through the rack, and animate it. The stresses and resistance on the metal provide me with an analog for touch.”

“Exactly,” Harlan said with a triumphant grin. “And that’s what Mr. X did. Using the PK Energy Surrogate generator as an ‘anchor’ he sent his PK through that chink in the wards, heterodyned it with the generator energy and sent it into the 200-liter drum of proto-culture. He animated the proto-culture dust, and burst it through the glass drum. He used the proto-culture to assemble the larger pieces, and to lift Jenny onto the frame. I’m not absolutely sure about the larger pieces, but I AM sure that he used the proto-culture to lift Jenny onto the frame. Why? Remember, Jenny, you asked why Mr. X would unnecessarily overcomplicate the XSI process by introducing an unstable element like the fullerene motes? He didn’t. That was a complete fluke. When the go lifted Jenny, it created a link with her. When the XSI charged her with PK energy, Jenny unwittingly drew the goop- or at least those parts that were sufficiently attuned to her- which covered her up like a cocoon.”

“You’re GUESSING,” Wizard hissed.

“OF COURSE, I’M GUESSING, YOU DORK!” Harley snapped. “Gimme a break, I’m only a freshman! Of course I could be wrong! That’s why all of you are here, in case I got something wrong, so I don’t accuse the wrong person!” Harley calmed herself. “But I don’t think that I’m wrong about this. It’s the only thing that makes any kind of sense. As for why Jenny formed that Egg …” Harley shrugged helplessly. “Who know? That’s devisor stuff and it’s WAY beyond me.”

“Hold on,” Rack said. “The fullerene mass would do for heavy lifting and like all that. But what about the fine manipulation part of it? Connecting leads, adjusting things, like that? How could a boneless mass of go do all that?”

“Good points, Rack. It didn’t.” Harley took a pair of white latex gloves from a pocket. “You can find latex gloves like these all over the Workshop. The gloves are for protection, of course, and the straps are used to temporarily bind and secure things. The gloves are several gauges thicker than the thin things that you normally see in hospitals and so on. Mr. X attuned some gloves and used them to do all the fine manipulation.

“Okay, I can see that,” Delta Spike conceded. “But even feeling around with the fullerene mass and the gloves, putting together a high tech contraption like the XSI is hard. So how did he SEE to do all the fine adjustments?” Harley smiled.

“I’ll get to that later. Right now, I’m making my case for Telekinesis, and I think that I’ve done that. Next, at least in part, I think that keeping an ‘eye’ on what he was doing could be explained with ESP.  Switching back and forth between PK and ESP, Mr. X put together the XSI. ESP would also explain how Mr. X knew the exact perfect time to warn Belphegor, and then send me after him. And a combination of ESP and PK would explain Mr. X being able to manipulate the Tunnel Control system. The Tunnel Control system was designed to be used in a case of a disaster or a riot or an invasion, or in case one of the Workshop projects went disastrously awry. Hey, it happens. It can be directed from almost any place in the underground tunnels, as long as you have the proper security clearance.”

“So, you’re saying that Mr. X has an in with Security?” Nephandus asked with a sly look at the Cadets.

“No, just that he’s wrangled himself something that looks suspiciously like a security clearance. Exactly WHAT, I dunno. Anyway, with ESP and PK, Mr. X could arrange that trap with TNT down in the tunnels, or create that obstacle course when I was trying to get to Jenny to save her from her own XSI experiment.” Harley took a centering breath. “SO- Telekinesis, Telepathy, and ESP. Would it be too much of a leap of logic to infer that Mr. X is a Package Deal Psychic?”

Rez and Rack exploded in outraged denials. “Please!” Harley shouted. “I’ve said again and again, no one in this room is a suspect! Still…” Harley took a slip of paper from a pocket. “Adalie? Would you run over to Dickinson and get these two library books from Jenny’s room there?” Jenny gave Charge her key to the room, and Adalie zipped off.

“Very well, that’s the first false assumption explained,” Harley resumed. “The second false assumption is that Mr. X had a single, rational agenda that he pursued from the get-go. But he didn’t. He had two agendas and he switched back and forth as it suited him. Now please, by ‘irrational’, I don’t mean, ‘Oh, the King of the Mushroom people is trying to invade the world in cupcake ships’ delusional. I’m talking more about the everyday kind of irrational. I’m talking about the kind irrational that makes pudgy balding middle-aged guys driving fancy sports cars think that they look like anything other than pudgy balding middle-aged guys having a Midlife Crisis. Wishful thinking on steroids, and not really thinking things through. That kind of irrational.

“Now, John Douglas, the FBI’s premier profiler, likes to say, ‘In order to know an artist, you must study his works’. So, let’s look at how Mr. X works. He’s very good at hiding himself, and deflecting attention from himself. He rarely works directly, only doing things himself when he absolutely HAS to. He prefers to work through cat’s-paws, getting other people to do the dirty work for him. Now, I think that this is important. It’s more than simply not wanting to expose himself. On a certain level, I don’t think that Mr. X wants to get his hands dirty.”

“You’re saying that Don Sebastiano is behind all this? Ace asked.

“No. Why would The Don be interested in developing an Exemplar making devise?” Harley paused, considering something. “If anything, I think that The Don would want to destroy an Exemplar making devise, as it would devalue his own position.” She waved that aside. “Besides, he’s not a telekinetic. Also, and this IS important, while The Don can be mean, even vicious, he isn’t murderous. And Mr. X easily could have killed Jenny, Belpehgor or me. Indeed, while Mr. X simply discounts the risks to Jenny and Belfo, he seems have an active grudge against me personally. He doesn’t really care what happens to Jenny, Belphegor or to Nephandus or Wizard. They’re just tools that he’s using. He appears to be a masterful ‘button-pusher’, with skill at manipulating people that is only enhanced by his telepathy. He has a vital interest in Jenny’s Exemplar State Inducer. He is literally willing to KILL to get it. But why the desperate interest? If he thinks that the XSI will work, why is he rushing things? The first thing that comes to mind is that he wants to use it on himself. To become an Exemplar. And this means two things- first, that he IS desperate, and second, that he isn’t thinking it through. Using a devise that’s only been tested on two humans is stupid. Or very, very desperate. He appears to be Scientifically and Technologically skilled, and yet he’s willing to pull a classic bonehead play like using a mostly-untested devise on himself.

Harley looked at Zenith and Sahar. “Zenith! Part of your mutant talent is that you can tap into other people’s skills and use them.”

“Yeah. And?” Zoe raised an eyebrow.

“Could you use that skill to understand how to put together and use the XSI?”

“Sure. If I had the right mix of people around me.”

“What if you had several brilliant technically oriented minds on a string, with a telepathic link of some sort?”

Zenith waggled her hand. “Iffy. It would depend on distance and a whole bunch of other things.”

Then Adalie returned with the books. “It took a little searching, but I found them.”

Harley took the books. “Thank you very much. I’ll get to these a little later. Sahar! You can ‘copy’ other Espers and Psis ‘knacks’, right?”

“Yes. But I need to form a very intimate bond with them into order to do so, and I’m still not as good with the knack as they are.”

“Could other Psis or Espers just figure out how to duplicate a knack just by analyzing how the Knack-user does their trick?”

Sahar nodded. “Yes. For instance, your friend Rack over there duplicates the Gadgeteer knack. But he has a lot of technological training, and he has to work at it.”

“And they still wouldn’t be as good with the knack as the original. If someone studied Zenith’s ‘database’ knack and duplicated it, what would the result be?”

Sahar mulled it over for a bit. “I’d say that he’d have an immediate understanding of what he was trying to do, but not really understand the greater implications. For instance, he could use a complicated device, but not create it from scratch.”

“Thank you, that was exactly what I expected.” Harley paused again. “When she was describing how gimmicks work last night, She-Beast mentioned Agatha Christie. Besides her love of misleading clues as regards time, Christie had a few other trademarks. The big one was her love of the ‘false face’, the idea that people build misleading facades around their lives, and that behind that mask, a completely different person could be hiding. So, a ruthless killer would present a persona of virtue, kindness, even victim-hood-”

“Yeah!” The girl with the glasses sitting beside Arachne chirped. “Christie LOVED that bit! In Murder on the Orient Express, the mastermind passed herself off as a nattering bourgeois housewife! In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the killer was not only a kindly country doctor, but the narrator of the book! In Evil Under The Sun, a philanderer and his discarded wife turn out to be a pair of murderous con artists! In-”

“Excuse me,” Harley cut in. “Exactly WHO are YOU?”

“Oh, I’m Foxfire. I’m here with Arachne.”

“And WHY are you here?”

“Hey, try and stop her,” Arachne muttered.

Harley massaged the bridge of her nose. “Whatever. Where was I? Oh yes- now it’s one thing to pull off that kind of whole-life masquerade in book, but it’s another to do it in real life. Yes, most of us construct social facades for ourselves, but we do let our real selves peek through. But someone who conceals the sort of malice and venom that we’ve seen of Mr. X could only be of two kinds of people. Either he’s totally cold-blooded, a complete sociopath, or he holds everything in because he’s angry and doesn’t want other people to know that he’s angry. He feels rejected and put-upon, but feels that if others knew, they’d bludgeon him with it. So, he sulks behind his mask, and picks and chooses his opportunities for revenge.”

“Revenge? Against who?” Foxfire asked.

“Everyone. The entire world. He’s a telepath, remember? He knows precisely what sort of evil lurks in the hearts of men. And it scares the bejeezus out of him. Given the hostility that I sense in the attacks on me, I think that the latter is a lot more likely. A sociopath wouldn’t expose himself that way.”

“Hold on,” A-Plus said. “What about shame? A person who was deeply and profoundly ashamed of something might act as we’ve seen, if they were protecting their secret.”

“A worthy thought, Miss Pollard,” Dr. Carstaires. “But someone who was concealing a guilty secret wouldn’t act so openly. They’d try to keep it all quiet, as so that it would die down quickly. They’d certainly never pull that stunt with the tunnel controls.”

“You know, Sawyer” Wizard said with a tired voice, “you’re building a very pretty castle in the clouds, but you still haven’t laid any real foundations for anything. You still haven’t shown us a single shred of real PROOF.”

“Okay, Wizzo, you want proof?” Harley said with a vicious grin, “YOU are gonna provide that proof. Let me guess how you came to jump me in Arena ’91. You had a huge crush on Jenny, but you couldn’t get through that shell of shyness of hers- either that, or you just didn’t have the balls to go up and ask her out, which is a lot more likely.” Wizard started to stand and object, but Harley reached over, and shoved him back down into his seat. “Then I came along and had both the luck and the persistence to actually get past Jenny’s invisible wall. That really pissed you off, but nowhere near as much as when Carson made us roommates! You went around pissing and moaning about it, and you found someone who agreed with you. Not only did he agree with you, but he told you things that made you positive that not only was I taking advantage of Jenny, but I’d set the whole thing up!

“Finally, you couldn’t take it anymore, and you decided that the only way to set things to rights- and actually look like something that could accidentally pass as a man in poor lighting- was to corner me and pound me until I confessed!” Harley broke and addressed the others. “Y’know, that actually WAS the gist of that whole fiasco in Arena ’91?” she returned to her spiel. “Anyway, you couldn’t set all that up yourself. You had an accomplice. Someone who found out how to get into Arena ’91. Someone who herded that lame-ass android decoy of yours into the stands at Arena ’99. Someone who helped you time your bogus call to me from She-Beast for optimum effect.”

“You. Have. NO. Proof,” Wizard said snappishly.

“Oh?” Harley returned with a smug grin. “Then make a monkey out of me. You don’t have to tell me WHO. All that you have to do is tell me- in front of one, two, three, four, FIVE telepaths!- that your accomplice was NOT…” Harley waited a long pause. “… Romy Kumler, a.k.a. Migraine.”

Wizard’s face fell like a televangelist’s TVQ after getting caught in the men’s stalls with a mulatto drag queen. Jenny and Adalie screamed, “WHAT?” The rest gave more sedate ‘Hunh?’ noises.

“I’ll take that for a ‘Yes’, Wizzo,” Harley purred.

“HOW?” Griffin blurted. “But she’d never…”

“Belphegor!” Harley ran over her rival. “Let me guess- you’ve been ‘romancing’ Romy, and picking her brains for little trifles about Jenny’s projects.”

“Well,” Belfo huffed smugly, “can _I_ help it if the little Dutch girl has fallen prey to my manly charms?”

“And this same ‘little Dutch girl’ was the same one who called you and told you that I’d framed you, thus setting both of us up for that fracas in your old lab.”

Belphegor’s face fell. “BITCH!” he roared. It wasn’t clear whether he was referring to Harley or Romy.

“Nephandus!” Harley continued over Belfo’s fulminations. “Romy was the one who suggested using TNT, after Belfo here convinced you that I had it in for you, and that I’d stop at nothing to see you expelled, didn’t she?”

Nephandus said nothing, but the scowl on his face spoke volumes. Interface guffawed, “HAW! You got took by both Belfo AND Migraine!” This only made him scowl and finger his walking stick suggestively.

“Delta Spike! In the past couple of weeks, you’ve been having nice long talks with Romy about the detailed minutiae of Jenny’s work haven’t you?”

“There’s nothing wrong with …”

“My, my, my …” Harley tutted. “For a poor homely wallflower with only two good friends to her name, Romy turns out to be quite the social butterfly! I wouldn’t be surprised if she hasn’t been seen spending time with Kaiju as well!”

Adalie stood and hissed, “You’re WRONG! Romy wouldn’t have done any of that! She couldn’t! And I can prove it!”

“Take your best shot, Charge,” Harley dared. “You’ve been itching to, for weeks.”

“Romy couldn’t have done it, because she’s not a telekinetic. She’s only a telepath, and she can only broadcast those headache things!” Adalie ended with a defiant flip of her ponytail.

“We only know that, because Romy tells us that every time she gets a chance. Doctor Carstaires?”

Dr. Carstaires put on a pair of glasses and produced a dossier. “At Miss Sawyer’s prompting, Lieutenant Reynolds asked me to look at Migraine’s Psychic Arts department file. Theoretically, every advancement that a student makes in her Psychic Arts class would be mirrored in her file at Security. However, Miss Kumler, alias ‘Migraine’ has no less than seventeen recorded accomplishments in her development that do not appear in her Security file. According to Security, Romy Kumler is still confined to causing simple headaches in others.”

“But that-”

“Miss Vitesse, Romy is not a telepath- she is a quite accomplished Package Deal Psychic.”

“What?” Jenny blurted, “How could Romy make that many accomplishments in only four months?”

“Four months?” Carstaires raised an eyebrow. “Miss Kumler WAS first assessed as very limited telepath- last year. But she made a breakthrough in February and was re-classified as Package Deal Psychic. When I discovered the discrepancy between our records and Security’s, I decided to go along with Miss Sawyer’s plan. Both Psychic Arts and Security are very interested in finding out how that came about. One or two missed reports happen. But SEVENTEEN?”

“But… Romy’s only a freshman!” Adalie mewled.

“No, she’s a sophomore,” Harley corrected her. “She’s in Delta Spike and Kaiju’s World History class, and they’re both sophomores.”

“But why would she LIE about something like that?”

“Because it’s her defense mechanism. Now, ask yourself- why would a sophomore ask to stay down in the Puppy kennel- or whatever you all call the freshman floor? Jenny, were you paired with Romy on the first day, or did you swap roomies to get her?”

“Well,” Jenny paused, “well, at first I had Charmer, but she was so … so …” Jenny paused again. “Come to think of it, she wasn’t really that bad …” Jenny crossed her big green eyes. “Come to think of it, why DID I ask to change rooms?”

“I’ll bet that Romy was having problems with her roommate, and you felt sorry for her and offered to switch,” Harlan said confidently. “I’ll bet that if you go back over the past four months, every time that it looked like one of you was going to go out and actually do anything, Romy had some sort of crisis or another. How did you put it? ‘We’ll just have to see what we can do to help her cope. As always.’ Jenny, Adalie- that’s the story of your friendship: Romy is hurt and you both bend over backwards trying to make her feel better. It’s always about Romy, and only about Romy.”

“No! She helps us whenever she can!”

“Really?” Reynolds asked drolly. “When we checked on her movements during the hours of her detention, we found out that, according to the Hawthorne house mother, her detention had been rescinded. And yet, she never raised a finger to help either of you.”

Que?” Adalie snapped, “Oh, cette petite chienne intéressée! J'ai travaillé mes matières premières de mains, en gardant ces allées d'idiot claires!” 

Harley let out a long sigh. “Jenny, Adalie, you didn’t just happen to become friends with Romy. She picked you very carefully. She probably made mistakes with her roommates in her freshman year, and figured that she’d have more luck with the new crop of froshes.”

“You’re just making this up,” Wizard grated. “Just because you figured out that Romy was helping me, STILL doesn’t prove a DAMN THING! You still don’t have any PROOF!”

“Actually, we do,” Reynolds said. He opened a notebook computer and placed it where everyone could see the screen. He slid in a thumb drive and the screen showed a shot from a security camera showing what appeared to be Wizard, a couple of other students and Romy sitting in the bleachers at Arena ’99.

“Yeah? So? Wizard asked. “This proves what? She isn’t doing anything.”

“Right,” Reynolds. “She does absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip. She doesn’t move a muscle for twenty-five minutes. She’s reading a math book. Now who looks at a math book for twenty-five minutes, while watching Combat Finals?”

 “She’s in a deep trance,” Carstaires said. “Even using both Miss Etincelle and the PK Energy Surrogate generator as anchors, she needs to focus all of her attention to the task of attacking Miss Etincelle and manipulating the fullerene goo.”

“More to the point, she starts doing this right as I’m answering the land line for the bogus She-Beast call,” Harley said. “And then, roughly twenty-five minutes later, just as you set off your panic button, she gets up and leaves the arena.”

“Why is that important?” Jenny asked.

“Jenny, you asked why ‘Mr. X’ didn’t remove your watch,” Harley reminded her. “Why? Because, she WANTED you to put out a distress call. That’s also why she didn’t use handcuffs or leather restraints. And the timing is important, because she wanted either me or the Cadets to come gallumpfing to the rescue and open the Secure Bay door.”

“And why would she want us to do that?” Ace asked.

“Because she didn’t want Security to be there to do it. She wanted amateurs who would just rip the door off and mess things up. The reason for the whole bit with the Tunnel Control doors, was so that it would slow us down, so that she could be there when we did it, before Security showed up.”

“AGAIN, you have no PROOF!” Wizard groaned.

“Oh?” Harley hooted. “Try this on for size- Romy gets up just as the Panic Button goes off, and five minutes later, she’s at Secure Bay #17’s door.”

“So? The Bays are a good five minute walk from Arena ’99.”

“Not when the Tunnel Control system is running amok, it isn’t,” Reynolds said. “Everyone else in the tunnels was scrambling for their lives. But I have footage of Miss Romy just casually strolling through the tunnels, and the doors open just for her.”

“She has to walk,” Carstaires guessed. “Manipulating the tunnel controls doesn’t take as much concentration as manipulating the fullerene mass, but it doesn’t allow her to do anything like run.”

“Okay, I’ll bite,” Holdout said. “So, WHY is it so important that she get there just as you guys do?”

“Well, Romy had to explain why the proto-culture had broken out of the drum,” Harley took the ball again. “So, being in ‘Evil Mastermind’ mode, she decided to use a tell-tale clue to pin a frame on someone else. She uses her PK to spread the proto-culture uniformly around the floor, to make it look like someone else was covering up imaginary clues that aren’t there. Oh yes, and to plant a false clue to send Security after the wrong person.” “What do you mean?”

“Please! That toe print in the dust? I mean, how obvious can you get? Think about it? Even if she’s used to walking around barefoot, do you honestly think that Kaiju would want to get that gunk on her feet? If she was slick enough to do all the rest that it would take to get into USB #17, then she’d be smart enough to wear rubber slippers.”

“And HOW was she supposed to make this toe print?” Wizard asked.

Harley held up one of the two books that Charge had fetched for her. It was a reproduction of a vintage 1920s Boy Scout Handbook (back when the handbook was actually useful). “Oh, look! It’s been dog-eared! Let’s see what Romy was keeping track of. Ah, knots. Specifically, the ‘Strangle Snare’ knot. Reynolds, what knots were used to tie up Jenny?”

“The strangle snare knot.”

“Of course … and the other dog-ear is … ‘how to make a plaster casting of animal tracks’.” Harley looked up. “Romy zapped Kaiju, made a plaster casting of her foot, and used that to make a rubber molding of a toe, which she used to make that incriminating print.”


“Simple. While T-Bird, Widget and Rack were dragging me back from the door, she simply used her PK to levitate the rubber toe into the room and made that print. She also took advantage of that opportunity to grab one of the Wave-guns that Jenny was working on, with an eye towards using it to frame someone.”

Reynolds added, “As per SOP, we checked the trash cans in the immediate vicinity, and found shreds of foam rubber in one. It was tricky, but when a digital scan of the smooth exterior bits was pieced together, it formed a ‘rubber toe’. But then, we were suspicious of that toe print from the first. It’s a classic amateur mistake: stage-setting the scene of the crime with too many clues.”

“What’s the other book?” Holdout asked.

Harley held up the other book.

“It’s a book on Braille.”


“Sure. How do you think Romy knew which part was which?”

Reynolds cut in again. “We knew someone was playing games when we found strips of plastic with raised dots on them stuck to the equipment. But we couldn’t figure out what they said.”

“I think that I can tell you what they are,” Jenny said.


“The names of the equipment- in Dutch.” Reynolds wiped the metaphorical egg off his face.

“Okay, while you’re on a roll,” Rez said, “why did Romy pick Kaiju to be her fall-guy? There are lots of kids on campus who would kill for a chance to be an Exemplar, who wouldn’t be anywhere near as conspicuous as Kaiju when they tried to get around.”

Harley nodded, conceding the point. “Because Kaiju’s been Romy’s whipping post for months. Kaiju complained that she’d been the target of mysterious ‘pranks’, and she had no idea as to who was picking on her.”

 Dr. Carstaires cleared his throat. “Miss Sawyer, that’s quite enough.”

“Thank God,” Harley moaned, “I thought that she’d never leave. I was starting to bore myself.”

“What are you talking about?” Delta Spike asked.

Dr. Carstaires gave a smug grin. “Miss Etincelle, Miss Vitesse, one of you is about to receive a phone call from Miss Kumler. She’ll say that she’s being chased by Kaiju, and then the link will go dead, though her cell phone will still be responding. In One … Two …” Carstaires counted to ten, and then looked surprised and disappointed.

Then Adalie’s phone rang. She answered it. “Romy? Romy, what are …?” She looked at Carstaires flummoxed as Romy recited Carstaires prediction, almost word for word and the signal died.

Carstaires was smug, and Harley ‘chalked one up’ in the air. Then Harley pulled out her own cell-phone. “Kew? You can cut the power to the lab. Kew?” Harley’s voice and face lost their smug confidence, and panic replaced it. “KEW? ARE YOU THERE?” Harley dropped the phone. “REZ! Patch into Kew’s system! She was following Romy with surveillance drones and monitoring the power for several suspect sites. We need to know where Romy is, before the XSI activates!”

“I’m on it!” Rez was already working her forearm console for everything that it’s worth. “Kew’s system says that there’s been a power buildup in … ‘passion pit’?”

“That’s Nephandus’ nookie parlor, where he took Taser!” Holdout said. “Cut the power!”

“I can’t! There’s a Security lock on it!”

“Reach! Ace! A-Plus! Get there, NOW!” Holdout barked, “Kenya, you, Rack and Interface get to Kew’s nest ASAP! See what happened to Kew!” With that, the Cadets, plus Jenny, Adalie, Zenith, Sahar, Delta Spike and Nephandus all rushed out of the room.

Looking around at the much less crowded room, Belphegor asked, “Does this mean that I’m not on detention anymore?”

“You were EXPECTING this?” Jenny said as she spider-scuttled down the hall at Harley’s side.

“NO!” Harley said, as she stretched for all that she was worth. “We were setting Romy up with that little ‘explain how the culprit did it’ session, yes. We needed to prod her into making a move on our terms. The idea was that Romy would pull pretty much this: try to make it look like Kaiju was using her as another unwilling experiment subject. We had Kew watching her and a few suspicious sites with surveillance drones. Romy would only make that call after she had her little ‘victimization’ set up and the XSI warmed up and ready to go. Once Romy had moved Kaiju and strapped herself in, Kew was supposed to shut down the power to wherever Romy had set up shop. But we didn’t figure that Romy would spot the drones and take out Kew first.”

“If you knew where Romy’s lab was, why didn’t you just search it?” Delta Spike asked from where she was flying just behind them.

“We weren’t sure!” Harley shot back, annoyed at having to answer questions on the run. “If the Psychics and Mages couldn’t find Kaiju, then it was a sure thing that she was being kept in an area that was warded. The most obvious place for that would be one of Nephandus’ labs, like the passion pit. But if Belfo had more than one lab out there, then it was a sure thing that Nephandus has more than one, too! If we just searched all of Nephandus’ possible labs, what would be the odds that we’d get the right one, right off the bat? Almost nil! If we started a brute-force search, then Romy would know about it and probably kill Kai, just so that she’d disappear and stay a suspect!”

“What makes you think that Migraine hasn’t killed her already?” Nephandus asked as he belted along after them. “It would be the safest thing for her to do.”

“Romy either killed Kai immediately, or she kept her around, just in case she needed a fresh dead body for something,” Harlan answered. “We’re betting that she was too squeamish to kill in cold blood. After all, she always used pawns to do her dirty work before. That’s what this was all about- making Romy move Kaiju from wherever she had her stashed, while Kew watched her.”

“But how would Migraine KNOW?” Ace asked.

“That was why I sent Charge out for those books. Romy had to be eaten up with curiosity when she wasn’t invited into the warded US bay, so she ‘hitched a ride’ on Adalie’s mind and ‘listened in’ through that chink. Why d’you think Reynolds and Carstaires let me do all the talking? Carstaires was watching Romy’s psychic link to Charge; when Romy dropped the link, we knew that she’d made her move. Why do you think I went on and on like that?”

“Because you’re a glory-hogging know-it-all?” A-Plus snapped.

When the Cadets (and friends) got to the hatch to Nephandus’ passion pit, they all looked at Nephandus. “What?” he asked.

“So? Open it!”

“They disconnected my electronic key! I don’t have any way IN there!”

“Looks like we’re gonna have to do this the hard way,” Ace rasped. “Reach, Spark, you take that side. A-Plus, Delta Spike, you take that side. Zenith, Sahar, you take that side. Holdout and I will take this side, and we’ll just rip it out!”

“OR …” Holdout said calmly. He placed a hand on the hatch and shrunk it, lifted it out of its frame and let it re-size.

“Or, we could do it that way,” Ace admitted.

Except for the walnut paneling and other décor, the scene inside the passion pit was a replay of when Jenny had been used as an unwilling experiment subject. The near-liquid fullerene proto-culture covered almost every inch of everything. The XSI frame was cobbled together and a black ‘doughboy’ was twitching on it. Lights played on the blank visage, and a computerized rendition of Jenny’s voice reeled off the countdown.

“SHIT!” Harley lashed out at one of the walls, splintering it. “No clues as to where Kaiju might be! And we can’t stop the process now, so the fucking bitch might win after all!”

“What do you mean?” Jenny asked. “We know that Romy-”

“What she means,” Sahar cut in, “is that we don’t have any proof that Migraine is the true author of all this. She can still claim that she was attacked by Kaiju.”

“Yeah,” Harley grunted. “As much as I hate to admit it, Harry Potty-head was right. Everything we have is circumstantial evidence and guesswork. I know that Romy’s behind all of this, and you know it and Reynolds knows it. But try proving it to an expulsion committee. And even if she does get expelled, so what? She’ll be an Exemplar. It will probably synch with her PDP powers, and she’ll be more powerful than ever. With her mind-fuck skills and back stab instincts, she’d probably sign on with the MCO.”

Almost out of breath, Sgt. Harris came clambering down into the lab. “Don’t touch anything!” he said almost automatically.

“Ah, Sergeant Harris,” Nephandus purred evilly. “It seems that the miscreant may escape the grasp of Justice after all. It appears that there is no material proof that the wicked Migraine was the hand that set all this suffering into motion. But… what if _I_ were to offer evidence that you could take, not only to Miss Carson, but to the courts?”

“You’re saying that you know something, kid?”

“I might … but it would have to be worth my while …”

“Such as?”

Ohhh … I’ll be generous … I’m slated to be on detention for the next two months. Drop that, and I’ll give you proof positive.”

“If it’ll stick, you got a deal, Du Chantraine.”

Nephandus pointed at a stained glass mural set up high on one of the walls. “For… sentimental reasons, I thought that I might record my date with Taser. There’s a shielded recorder up there. It’s set so that it turns on when the power masking transformers are powered up, and it’s placed so that you can see everything that goes on in here while its on. From the looks of that thing, it takes at least a half-hour to warm up. During this time, the recorder would be taping everything. Including, alas, Migraine undressing and covering herself with that glop. Why would she do that?” He paused, looking at the black figure wonderingly.

“She probably thinks that the proto-culture is the magic ingredient that changed my body so quickly,” Jenny said wistfully. “As ‘Arley said, she probably doesn’t really understand the processes involved. And she always did have a streak of ‘magical thinking’.”

“Whatever,” Nephandus completely dismissed the girl on the rack. He opened a hidden panel in the wall, and touched a control. A 120” flat-panel monitor slid out of the wall. He touched another control, and the screen rewound. Barely following the action, Nephandus hit ‘play’, and the recorder showed Kaiju stretched out on the frame with an electric headset on her temples. Romy removed Kaiju from the frame, took off her clothing, and chucked the clothing in a hidden hamper in the wall. Romy wrestled Kaiju into a sack and then onto the ubiquitous Workshop cart and wheeled her out. A few minutes later, Romy returned and started to undress. “That’s quite enough, I think,” Nephandus said as he stopped the playback. “There! Proof positive that Migraine is, after all, the evil mastermind that has plagued our lives of recent. I think that this merits dropping those detentions?”

Harris grunted. “Yeah. Now, get. We still have to figure out where Kaiju is.”

“Well, Sawyer … No hard feelings and all that …” Nephandus walked out of the lab with an air of triumphant vindication.

“We still have to find Kaiju,” Harley growled, poking around. “She’s our responsibility…”

“Nephandus may have given us more than he knew,” Sahar said. She felt at the panel where the hidden hamper was and opened it. She pulled out Kaiju’s clothing. “We saw Migraine take these clothes off Kaiju- Velcro™  fasteners?- anyway, these should still have strong psychic traces of Kaiju. Unfortunately, I’ve never met Kaiju …” her eyes flickered over to where Ace was. “But YOU have, Ace. And you are a psychometrist.”

Ace paled. “But my knack doesn’t work that way. I get skill patterns from what I read, not images.”

“But you have a familiarity with the person that we’re looking for. I don’t. If we work together, we can find Kaiju. But you’ll have to trust me.”

“Trust YOU?” A-Plus snapped. “Is THIS what all this is really about? You’ve got Zenith back under your spell, and now you want Ace too?”

“Semi doesn’t have me under any spell,” Zenith said. “She’s trying to make up for past wrongs.”

“Am I supposed to believe that?” A-Plus shot back.

“She don’t have to,” Sahar said, locking her eyes with Ace’s. “But you do. If we don’t find Kaiju, then Migraine’s plan to dispose of her will go ahead. And I guarantee that we’ll never find a trace of her. Think about it- Migraine’s plan is to pass herself off as the third unwilling victim of Kaiju’s XSI experiments. Kaiju is nowhere to argue the point. She simply disappears. It’s assumed that she used the XSI on herself, and either died or was changed so dramatically that no one would ever be able to identify her as Kaiju. For Migraine’s plan to work, she can’t leave any clues that Kaiju is dead. And this is the Workshop; I shudder to think of all the ways that a body could disappear. She can’t be far, and Migraine is squeamish enough that she probably left Kaiju in some sort of timed device. But we don’t have TIME to waste arguing!”

“ACE,” Holdout said sternly. “Do it. I’m not ordering you as a leader. I’m telling you, as a friend. If you don’t trust Sahar on this one, and Kaiju dies, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

Fighting a deep-rooted reluctance, Ace nodded. Sahar held out Kaiju’s panties and she and Ace both held the wispy slip of cotton. Semi murmured softly to Ace, encouraging and guiding him. Then he opened his eyes. “I see her! She’s still alive! She’s bleeding… But she’s still alive! She’s in THAT direction! There are all sorts of sharp pointed things and they’re cutting into her!”

“Congratulations, Ace,” Sahar said. “You’ve broken out of your limitations, and into a larger world.

Suddenly just knowing where Kaiju was, Ace pelted out of the room, followed by Reach, Spark, Delta Spike, Rack and Holdout. Following Ace’s rough intuition, they raced to- “The Scrap Metal Recycling Bin?” Harley asked incredulously. “Why would Migraine stick Kai in there, where it would only be a matter of time before someone found her?”

But Jenny, Rack and Delta Spike looked at each other with complete understanding. “We have to get her out of there NOW! That bin periodically goes through a ‘rendering’ stage where everything inside it is passed through a mono-molecular ‘shredder’, before it’s separated in a centrifuge and melted down for new metal!”

“You’re kidding.”

“Hey, would YOU just throw some of that stuff onto a scrap heap?”

“When does the rendering stage start?”

“Well, it’s five minutes to Noon, so I’ll bet that it starts at High Noon! Get her OUT of there!”

Rack and Delta Spike hurriedly started levitating things out of the bin as Jenny and Harley carefully started picking at (occasionally razor-sharp) bits of metal. Holdout shrank larger bits to the point where they were small enough to be removed. “I found her foot!”

“How the hell did Romy get her under all that crap?”

“Ask the bitch when she wakes up!”

Carefully, cautiously, they removed the crushing weight from Kaiju’s body. Holdout produced a medical gurney and an ambulance-quality First Aid kit. Ace and A-Plus became the perfect EMT team and started prepping Kaiju as Harley called for real medics to come and pick her up.

As the medics raced off to get Kaiju to the Infirmary, Ace took the stethoscope that bore the psychic imprint of a truly great, very dedicated ER nurse and said, “It could have been a lot worse. She’s lost a lot of blood and there was a lot of puncture trauma, but none of the shards pierced her brain or eyes or internal organs. Lucky for her, she never felt any of it. That headset was an electro-narcosis rig, or ‘Russian Sleep set. Migraine probably didn’t want to waste time checking sedative drips. Hell, I’d say that Kaiju is probably half-starved right now. Migraine didn’t bother with an IV drip or a catheter or anything.

As they returned to the hidden lab, Adalie was standing there, looking at Romy on the frame. Her face was scrunched up, wracked by conflicting emotions. When Harley was close enough, Adalie turned and started grating things at her in French. Harley didn’t need to understand French to know what she was saying- ‘this is all your fault, you American piece of shit!’ Adalie vented for five solid minutes, and by the end, she was choking on her own tears. Harley pulled Adalie to her in a hug and said, “It’s okay, Adalie. You didn’t do anything wrong People like Romy and … well, they just can’t help shitting all over everyone they touch.” Adalie just broke down crying and buried her face in Harley’s chest.

Monday, December 17th

“And then Ace used some psychometry trick to figure out where you were,” Foxfire told Kaiju. “The doctors say that it was very touch and go for a while, ‘cause you lost a lot of blood, but luckily, they had a couple of pints of your blood in the bank.”

“That’s very nice,” Kaiju said. “And … exactly WHO are you?”

“She’s one of my friends,” Arachne explained. “She helped me search the campus for you when you suddenly went missing.”

“That’s nice. And what’s she doing here?”

“Hey, try stopping her.”

Kaiju lay there, still looking very wan and weak. “What I don’t understand, is why Migraine picked ME to be the scapegoat for all of this.”

“Jealousy“.” Harley stepped in. “Think about what an INSULT you must be to Migraine! You’re a practically a ‘Humanity First!’ poster girl for monstrous GSD, but she’s STILL cuter than Romy is! You aren’t just cute, you’re sexy! Kai, remember when Ace was ‘interrogating’ you in the cafeteria? Migraine couldn’t take her eyes off you two. Even a pseudo-reptilian GSD case had a better chance with a cute boy like Ace than she did. So, by framing you, Migraine deflected suspicion from herself, acquired a bunch of your equipment, and got back at one of the thousands of people that she felt were persecuting her.”

“Still, to contrive such an elaborate plot …”

“Oh, getting even with you and me was just the icing on the cake for Migraine. What she really wanted was the XSI. But, you see, the first ‘experiment’ really was just an attack at me. She didn’t expect it to work, and she sort of threw the booby trap together at the last minute, when she discovered that I was on the up-and-up. But then it blew up in her face, and almost cost her everything! She was a gnat’s breadth from getting expelled, and maybe even sent to jail, but she was saved at the last minute by the fluke that the particulars of her trap made it look like someone else had changed it. That scared her. It scared her a LOT. But, she couldn’t pass on the opportunity of becoming an Exemplar, which she probably thought would solve all her problems. And, I kinda scared the crap out of her with my ‘Inspector Javert’ act. So, she went all ‘Professor Moriarty’, and channeled all the ‘evil mastermind’ books and movies that she’d ever seen. Which of course, is the signature of an amateur.”

“Wow,” Foxfire said breathily. “And I thought that _I_ loved exposition!” 

Watching Harley, Jenny, Adalie and the Lit Chix visit with Sadhira from the Infirmary hallway, A-Plus turned to Sahar and said, “Okay, I’m tired of all the Bee-Ess, Sahar. You and your buddy Zenith managed to attach yourself to this investigation almost from the word ‘Go’, and I wanna know why!”

Semi gazed with eerie calm at both A-Plus and Ace. “You won’t believe me.” “Try me.”

Sahar gave a deep sigh. “Last year, I used both of you, quite shabbily.”

“No kidding,” A-Plus growled.

“So what?” Ace said. “It’s an occupational hazard. If I’d been on the ball, you wouldn’t have gotten to me.”

“No, Ace, ‘occupational hazard’ or not, what I did to you was WRONG. I realize that now. I won’t try to diminish that. And I owe both of you apologies. My qi gung-sifu, Chaka, tells me that I’m in a sort of recovery, and suggests something like the ‘Twelve Steps’ that alcoholics and other addicts use to break away from their addiction. One of the twelve steps is to go back and think about those that you’ve harmed, and make amends.”

“And you thought that helping Reach would make amends to the Cadets?”

“No, Ace. I merely did that, because it was right … and it would get me close enough to see how I could make amends to you in a way that would reflect the depth and sincerity of my apology. I helped you break through your self-imposed limitations into the greater world of Clairvoyance; THAT is my redress to you. And my apology- I wronged you, Ace. I am sorry.” Sahar turned to A-Plus. “I also wronged you, Anne. I am even more sorry about that. And I offer THIS as my recompense to you.” She took Ace and A-Plus’ hands and put them together. “Anne, you have harbored deep romantic feelings for Andy ever since you first laid eyes on him two years ago. He shares these feelings. Andy, you have longed for Anne almost as long. She wants you just as much as you want her.” She released their hands, which stayed together on their own. “There! Go, and have a wonderful life!”

Both Ace and A-Plus blushed beet red. “But … Semi …” Ace hissed. “What about KAIJU?”

“Mister Bond, Welcome to High School!”

Friday, December 21st

“One more exam, and we are FREE baby, FREE and CLEAR!” Interface exulted.

“How are you doing, Kew?” Harley asked.

“Don’t get me started,” Kew grumbled. “And how are you doing?”

Harley grinned. “It’s a breeze! It was too late for them to shift me over to the Exemplars and Geniuses’ class, so I took the normal exams! I am gonna ACE these things!”

“Of course you will, Sawyer,” Wizard sniped as he walked up to the 007s table. “It appears that your true mutant power is for pulling off incredible CHEATS.”

“Albert?” Jenny said in a sweet voice as she stood and looked him in the eye. “I am very flattered that you are taken with me, and I think that it’s very sweet.” She laid a hand on his cheek. Suddenly the fingers sprouted claws that poked into the soft flesh of his cheek. Jenny’s voice went hard. “But if you don’t stop bugging my girlfriend, I’m going to HURT you.”

“Miss Etincelle?” a voice called out from the door to the Crystal Hall. Looking in that direction, Harley spotted Mrs. Linford escorting a 40-something couple.

“Papa?” Jenny skittered over to them and threw her arms around them in big hugs. Apparently, Carson felt that it wouldn’t be right to just drop the new Jenny into her parent’s arms without a personal explanation. There was a fusillade of French between the parents and their renovated daughter. Harley could tell just from the tone and cadence of their voices that M. & Mdm. Etincelle were stunned, thrilled and concerned in equal measure. And from the look on his face, whatever his feelings about Americans and their guns had been before, now he was suddenly in the market for a shotgun. While he was dressed in well-cut modern clothes and was clean-shaven, he suddenly was the embodiment of every fin du siècle French melodrama pater familias with bristling beard and mustaches, looking to thrash any and all suitors for his daughter’s hand with the family buggy whip.

Jenny towed her parents over to the 007s table. “Et, Papa, ceux-ci sont mes amis! Vous savez Adalie, évidemment. Ceux-ci sont les Cadets de Corps d'Intelligence. Oh, et c'est le Wizard. Ne l'écoutez pas, il est un idiot.” She introduced the Spy Kidz in turn.

“And who is THIS?” M. Etincelle said, looking up at Harley as she rose to extend her hand, taking in her Exemplar face and form. “Oh, I’m just Genevieve’s new roommate. Call me Harley.” ‘Hey, my mother may have married a fool, but she didn’t raise any.

After the last exam, the Cadets were called into Carson’s office. “I called you in here before you left for your Christmas break, because there’s been a development that I thought that you all should know about. At about 11:30 last night, Migraine regained consciousness.”

“Oh?” Jenny asked, worried despite herself. “Is she all right?”

“No, she is not. As a matter of fact, she’s had a total breakdown, which started with a violent episode that made Reach’s wakeup tantrum look like a hissy fit. We had to bring in Fubar to slap her down. Her condition isn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. She’s not dead or brain-fried. But it’s bad.” She passed glossy photographs out to the Cadets. The figure in the pictures was like something out of a H. R. Geiger portrait of a sexy insect-woman, somehow both beautiful and sensual, yet horrific and utterly inhuman, and all the more alluring and disturbing for the contrast. Her face and body were perfectly formed, an Exemplar ideal of feminine beauty. But the face and body were formed by a rigid segmented insectile carapace with harsh edges and thorny projections. And Geiger would have included a pair of all-too human eyes staring out of the hard mask. Her eyes were covered by a pair of blank lids that revealed nothing.

“Ewww …” Interface recoiled.

“How can she FEEL anything?” Rez asked.

“She can’t,” Carson replied. “She is completely encased in that exoskeleton of hers. She does appear to have taken on the strength and dexterity of an Exemplar/ level: 5, but instead of becoming a fluid, responsive symbiot, Spark’s fullerene compound appears to have fused with her skin to form that shell.”

Comment très approprié,” Jenny murmured. “She always did want to keep the world at bay. Now, no one will ever touch her, ever again.”

“This is the danger of both Devises and the Exemplar state,” Carson said. “Many of them reflect workings of our minds that we’d rather not deal with. Migraine was especially foolish. We found out who the donor for her BIT matrix was.”


“It was Delta Spike.” Harley flinched. Carson continued, “You see, while she doesn’t like to talk about it, Delta Spike isn’t either a natural Exemplar or Energizer. She was used as an experimental subject herself by a rogue Devisor.” Carson left the issue of who that rogue devisor was, unsaid.

“You mean … Migraine used a BIT that was the result of a devise? In MY XSI?” Jenny choked. “Which is ALSO a devise?”

As one, the Cadets went EEEwww

“Precisely.” Carson tapped the glossies. “I’m going to show the entire school these pictures at the first assembly of the Spring semester. I want people to understand that you can’t just step into a magical gadget and solve all your problems. And that you’ll only make things worse if you try. Reach, Spark, I know that you didn’t mean to, but your condition will probably inspire other poor fools to try something like this. I’m hoping that these pictures will convince them otherwise. Oh, and Reach?”


“Why are you wearing that dress?”

Harley looked down at the ‘Swiss Miss’ outfit with the waist cincher, petticoats and peasant blouse. “When I came back from the showers this morning, these were the only clothes in my room. I literally had nothing else to wear.”

Carson smiled wryly. “I was rather wondering why the Alphas had left you alone so much.”

“Oh, I don’t think that the Alphas were behind this, ma’am.” Harley flicked a glance over at Jenny, who was struggling to stifle a giggle.

“Madam Carson?” Jenny managed to get out. “What will happen to Migraine now?” Even Jenny and Adalie now only referred to their false friend as ‘Migraine’. “Will she be moved over to Hawthorne cottage?”

“No,” Carson said with deadly finality. “She completely broke down under the shock of her transformation. She’s certifiably violently insane, and under the circumstances we can’t press criminal charges against her. Placing her in Hawthorne would endanger the students there, even if Fubar would put up with her. And he won’t. We’ve transferred her over to ARC, the Arkham Research Center. They’re certified to handle violently insane psychic and other dangerous paranormals. Her psychological troubles go very deep. She may recover. But at least for now, Migraine is someone else’s headache.”



0 # DocSavage 2017-02-01 01:39
I've read th8is story a few times since it first appeared, during archive crawls. =) Couple of things I always wonder about: 1) Is Taser aware that the word stands for "Thomas A Swift's Electric Rifle?" The inventor was a fan of the Tom Swift boy's adventure series. Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle is from 1911 and inspired the Taser. Given her personality I don't think she would like that. =)
2) I get the feeling that Glitch, "Stimpy." Is the missing Dionysius (or Bacchus) the Olympians are looking for and can't wait to see a story about that.
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