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Ayla and the Mad Scientist [message #51705] Sun, 15 January 2012 13:57 Go to next message
Diane Castle is currently offline  Diane Castle
Messages: 2554
Registered: September 2007
Location: Oregon, USA
CHAPTER 1 A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

Monday, March 5, 2007, early morning
Whateley Academy
Poe Cottage

I woke up when Brass Monkey started singing their tragic lament "High School Fun." Ahh, the joy of fine music...

"Turn that frickin' shit off!"

"Sorry," I said unsympathetically. I turned off the music and listened as Alex grumbled under her breath for two solid minutes. Ahh, the joy of fine music and simultaneous irritation of annoying roommates. Vamp had adopted classical as her music of choice, which meant she had nothing with which to annoy me in turn. I happen to like classical music. I was raised with it.

I thought back to the day I was saddled with Alex O'Brien, AKA Vamp, AKA Miss Pain In The Ass of 2007...

earlier: Monday, February 19
Poe Cottage

Mrs. Horton called me down to her office and said, "Phase? This is our new st-"

"VAMP?!?" I gasped.

Mrs. Horton frowned, "I take it you know of her."

"Know of her?" I growled. "I fought her. So did Ch- Bladedancer. And Carmilla. She's one of the Children of the Night! She's a wanted criminal!"

Vamp smirked, "Yeah, I was in the Children of the Night - as an undercover mole for the Boston DA's office." She went off on a rant about the incompetence of the Boston police, while I waited for her to stop and breathe. She finally stopped raving, and she stared at me. "And what do you mean, you fought me? When? Third grade or sum'thin'? 'cause I am seriously NOT pegging you, and I got a real good memory..."

I cleared my throat and tried to do the sexy purr she'd tried on me in Boston while I was using Matterhorn like an oversized flail. The one that had led to an abrupt and humiliating finale, when even a perverted supervillainess was freaked out by my stupid body.

"That was you? Shit!"

Mrs. Horton frowned at her, "Alex, language please."

Vamp fumed, as she undoubtedly remembered how I had polished off that little tête-à-tête. She finally said, "Well I still'd rather hang with the redhead. She was hot."

I managed not to smirk. Too much. "Next door."

"Whaddaya mean next door? Next door where?"

I explained, "Next door to my room. Fey and Chaka the black girl who kicked Lycanthros' furry butt are in the next room. Generator the girl who took out Ironhawk is down the hall rooming with Tennyo that's the Ryoko look-alike who shredded the Arch-Fiend. Lancer the one who punched out Matterhorn and clobbered the Anti-Paladin is down the hall the other way. And Bladedancer the Asian girl you slammed facefirst into that car is the roommate I really liked that I'm losing so you have a place to stay. She'll be just down the hall, and SO happy to see you again. Plus, Carmilla, who actually is Darrow's niece believe me, that's one creepy family is downstairs some of the time, and in a neighboring dorm some of the time."

"Huh? She gets two separate rooms?"

"Oh, it's way weirder than that."

"Ayla, since you're so ready to impart your knowledge, perhaps you could show Alex around the campus for her official tour. Then..."

I didn't say 'oh crap' at the time, but I certainly thought it all the same. Repeatedly. It would have been extremely convenient if I could have used the 'I have to go study for an exam' excuse or the 'I have to go to class' excuse, but Mrs. Horton was way ahead of me. She knew I was already pulling an A+ in my Shakespeare class and that sensei Ito would let me out of martial arts if she wrote a note to him.

The essential problem was that I felt that I needed to do a good job as Vamp's tour guide, simply because I wanted the job for next fall. I was still somewhat miffed about Beltane's treatment of my misery on that first tour of the campus. The kids who are thrilled to death about their gender change aren't the ones who need the understanding tour guide. If I had been a lot less resilient, her reaction to my situation could have been traumatic. As things were, it merely made me angry. And less than fully coherent. The latter bothered me more.

So I listened to Mrs. Horton's points and carefully consented. Then I gave Vamp the tour, including the visit to the official picture of Lord Paramount in the Homer Gallery. It turned out that Vamp knew a great deal about vampire lore, which really shouldn't have surprised me, given how she looked and what she had picked as a codename. She wasn't as well versed about a lot of other topics, which didn't surprise me a bit.

After we did the obligatory parts of the tour, I showed her around. The classrooms were just classrooms I was sure she had seen a few at some point in her life, even if she gave off that 'I hate school' attitude whenever we approached anything the least bit scholastic. However, the tunnels were more interesting. I showed her Tiny Tim, and the string-theory power station, and Arena '99. I couldn't take her into the holographic sims or some of the other highly-secured areas, but I did mention a few places in passing. Then we made our way back to the dreariness that is Dunn Hall by way of a few Workshop areas.

All right, it was completely my fault that we didn't get to the cafeteria in a timely manner. I stopped in to see Hazmat, and Aquerna was there visiting him. Or possibly bringing him dinner if you can call a mediocre hamburger and French fries 'dinner', particularly when they were in a container that wouldn't keep anything hot. We ended up listening to Anna's questions about 'the cool experiments' and 'the new girl' I was showing around, instead of getting a useful update from Hazmat on his progress with product testing. I had no excuse for letting Anna derail the conversation, except that I didn't want to hurt her feelings. Irrelevant tangential discussions are never a good idea in any meeting, particularly ones with time requirements.

By the time we reached Dunn Hall, the cafeteria line looked like it comprised roughly three-fourths of the entire student body. And some of the obvious heavy eaters, like Slab, were ahead of us, scouring the food tables clean as they went, like giant mutant-powered locusts. Way to make a good impression on the new kid. So I made a desultory suggestion that there was an alternative, if necessary. And that was the moment when I realized what I was facing for the rest of the school year. When given the choice between eating in Dunn Hall and sponging off the rich roommate, Vamp had instantly gone with 'mooch'. I sighed inwardly and led her back toward Poe. Then she dove into my refrigerator like Tennyo after a major battle. For a while there, I was wondering if Alex would start chewing on the refrigerator shelves and the insulation.

After thinking over my options for a bit, I used the Spots and called all of Team Kimba into the room to meet Alex, simply because I didn't want anyone seeing Vamp in our building and starting a superhero battle that could wreck the place. All right, I still didn't like Alex, and she really had this way of getting under my skin and making me want to drop a multi-ton giant on her again but I didn't want Billie getting a murder one rap for atomizing someone in the hallway when said someone wasn't technically a wanted supervillain working for The Necromancer.

<(Phase) Emergency meeting in my room ASAP. The mole working for the Boston Police Department was Vamp, and now she's going to be attending Whateley.>

<(Chaka) Vamp? That bitch that had Chou kissin' windshield?>

<(Fey) Didn't she try to clock you in the back of the head with twenty pounds of concrete? Let's tell Sarah and give the girl a 'surprise'.>

<(Lancer) What's the threat level on this one?>

<(Phase) Is there a level of green that's just really, really irritating? Because that's it.>

<(Chaka) Hospital wall puke green.>

<(Generator) How about neon poison green? Because my roomie said the skirt I liked on that website would even make Jericho wince.>

<(Tennyo) Hey! I was being sarcastic!>

<(Phase) At any rate, my room ASAP. Because guess who got stuck with Vamp for a roommate?>

<(Tennyo) Oh Jeez.>

<(Chaka) Girlfriend, you really are a trouble magnet, you know that?>

<(Phase) I figured that out when I got stuck with you as the wacky sitcom next-door neighbor.>


<(Generator) And Tennyo still has a whole tray of food to eat. She's only had two or three. Maybe four or five. But she has to keep her strength up!>

<(Tennyo) Thaaaaaaanks. Phase, we'll be over pretty soon.>

Alex had managed to stuff her face with comestibles from my pantry and fridge before I was done chatting over the comms. I swear, you'd think they held her in protective custody in Malawi. She looked up from what would be her desk once she unpacked, and asked in an irritating sing-song voice, "Whatcha doin'?"

I said, "Getting the team together so you won't be disintegrated or turned into a slug the first time you walk down the hall to use the bathroom."

"And who's gonna be pulling something like th- Oh fuck!"

And that was when Fey came floating into the room, giving Vamp one of those 'wrath of the Sidhe' looks. Okay, I am willing to admit it: I really need to work on my intimidation factor. The best I had managed all day was getting Alex to produce an eye roll. One second in the room, and Fey had Alex thinking about diving out through the window and running for cover.

The group trickled in one or two at a time, with Billie and Jade and Jinn last. Billie still had Jade under one arm, as if they had just flown over from dinner. That was substantiated by the turkey leg in Billie's other hand, which she was still devouring.

As soon as the team piled into the room and flew or clambered into their usual spots, I turned back to Alex to make the introductions. She looked around uncomfortably... and went for a joke. It fell flat.

I began, "Alex? This is Hank, codename Lancer. Toni and Nikki, AKA Chaka and Fey, next door. Billie and Jade and Jinn, AKA Tennyo and Generator and Shroud. And my former roomie, Chou AKA Bladedancer." I turned to the group and pointed, "Okay, this is Alex. Don't kill her on sight. Yet." Toni instantly demonstrated the proper way to snark, but Alex pretended to ignore her.

Vamp muttered under her breath, "Well, thanks so much for that warm welcome."

I casually reminded her, "Oh, and that thing Mrs. Horton said about not blowing the cover of everyone in Poe? If you wreck that, not only will every single person in Poe hurt you, starting with the people in this room, but every single gaybasher on campus will zero in on you."

Nikki frowned, "And Ayla knows how much fun that is from personal experience."

Hank added, "And then Carson will fry you."

Alex looked unimpressed. "Why should I care about some old biddy headmistress? What's she gonna do? Smack my hand with a ruler?"

I rolled my eyes. "Anyone want to field this one?"

Jade grinned, "Our headmistress? A little scarier than Nightgaunt and your other pals."

Hank asked, "Think about it. Who would you pick for the headmistress here at Mutant Central?" Wow. Who knew Hank could do the Socratic Method?

Alex sneered, "What, Charles Xavier not available?" She actually used her little gray cells for a second and said, "Well, if I could choose anyone, I'd pick Champion or Lady Champion or someone like that."

Billie said, "Good call. Our headmistress is Lady Astarte."

Vamp's jaw dropped most of the way to the floor. "You're fucking kidding me."

I said, "The woman who used to be Lady Champion." Her jaw dropped the rest of the way to the floor. "And it's worse than that. She's smart. When you do something and get caught-"

Toni interjected, "And you will get caught, 'cause there's more security and monitoring 'round here than in Goodkind International headquarters."

"-thank you for that uncomfortable example, Toni. As I was saying, when you get caught and sent to the headmistress, she doesn't just slap you on the wrist using her super strength. No, she likes to get creative."

Vamp shrugged in her typical nonchalant style. Or lack thereof. "I've been getting punished by the Necromancer every time I pissed him off. No way she's gonna top this." She turned her back on us and lifted her hair out of the way.

Crap. There was a burn back there. A horrific burn. It looked like a red-hot metal hand had gripped her nape, probably more than once. Nikki offered to do some Healing, which Alex blew off. I offered to introduce her to Banned Aids upstairs, and she acted like she never even heard me. No, she made this big, impassioned plea for keeping her burns as some sort of memorial to the pain she had endured. Was she nuts? Maybe she was just going for the 'pity me but I'm not asking for pity' maneuver. I was guessing the latter, since her performance was really pretty over the top. I assumed that Phelps Carruthers had paid for her to take some lessons from the William Shatner School of Overacting.

Lily dropped by, skirting around someone in the hallway near the doorframe who was probably X-O, our official floor snoop. Not that I could blame the girl, since she was stuck rooming with Jay Jay, and even hanging around in Poe hallways had to be better than trying to hold meaningful conversations with Scrambler. Of course, as soon as Alex saw Lily squeeze into Hank's beanbag chair with him, The Vampster had to make a flirty pass at Lancer. I was surprised she hadn't made a pass at Fey... other than that whole 'angry Sidhe' display that had nearly made Alex spot her shorts.

Finally, Billie asked the question that had been bugging me ever since we got Captain Tilley's big briefing on the Children of the Night. "So... Why did Darrow go to all that fuss, just to recruit an unwilling follower?"

She shrugged, and then went into an angry rant on the subject. She had three or four wacky guesses why Darrow might have forced her to join his little cadre, but not really any sound ideas. Apparently, Darrow had been less than forthcoming. How surprising. He murders her sugar daddy, frames her for it, coerces her into joining his team of lunatics, tortures her whenever she pisses him off, and then decides not to trust her with secret information. Wow. What a surprise. My personal guess was that Darrow was planning on using her for a very specific sacrifice to some Dark God in the near future, not that I knew enough about dark magics to make a useful induction on the subject. I made a mental note to ask Carmilla when she had the time.

Ultimately, we still gave her the basic rundown on us and our powers. I noticed that no one gave her any of the really important intelligence. That told me that none of my team trusted her any more than I did.

On the other hand, I did let Alex switch to the top bunk. It wasn't as if it mattered to me, and the thought of having a one-ton roommate dropping on top of her in the middle of the night did seem to make her a little edgy.

I also learned the hard way not to let Alex shoulder-surf while I worked on my computer. I went to the bathroom and locked my computer... or so I thought. But I got distracted when Nikki and Toni came in to wash their faces and brush their teeth. It wasn't my fault. They were both wearing these semi-sheer babydolls and no bathrobes. And Nikki bobbles when she brushes. The Playboy Channel would kill to get footage of her just brushing and flossing. By the time I got back, Alex had been working on my computer for almost half an hour. She had picked up my password just by watching me type it, and I don't hunt-and-peck. There are times when I really don't like the Exemplar power set. When I came in and caught her, she claimed she was only writing up a FAQ on her career as a supervillain. Like I believed that. I changed my password as soon as I got her off my machine. And I made her leave the room before I changed it.

I still don't know all of the files she looked through, but at least she didn't leave a virus or a Trojan or a keylogger on the system. And she didn't download anything. Yes, I checked. Thoroughly. She called me 'Goodwhine' and 'Goodkvetch' the entire time I was running security programs to make sure.

back to Monday, March 5, 2007

Chou had moved to her new room a couple weeks ago, and I still hadn't adapted. All right, perhaps I hadn't tried to adapt. I didn't want to adapt, and I didn't want to have to adapt. I had already had to make way too many adaptations in my life, ever since the morning last summer when I woke up and found I had inadvertently changed sides in the battle against the worldwide mutant threat.

Then there was the fact that I liked Chou, and I liked having her as a roommate, and I liked her friends. I liked the fact that she put up with me and my assorted peccadilloes. I hadn't liked her plan to leave Team Kimba, and I hadn't liked her moving down the hall.

I really hadn't liked having to act like I wanted to kick Chou out of Team Kimba, but that was the role I needed to play in her little theatrical production. The problem was that her production was of "Richard III" and I got to play the eponymous king. Well, at least I didn't have to pretend I was a hunchback. It would also be nice if my subconscious would stop reminding me that I was a better-than-average fit for the part, since I was a younger son of the modern equivalent of royalty, and an obnoxious overachiever at that. And we had certainly had a 'winter of discontent' after a fairly problematic summer and fall.

There was no way anyone was going to believe that Jade or Toni or Nikki or Hank would be such a huge jerk as to kick a friend off their training team. What, Jade the sweet and ditzy deviser? Or Toni the sexy sister who wears her heart on her sleeve? Or Hank the stalwart and true hero type? Or Nikki the perfect goddess? No, only the Goodkind could be that big an asshole. Everyone already knew what Goodkinds were like. Or rather, assumed that they knew what we were like, based on hearsay and even less reliable sources... such as television news. On top of that, it was getting fairly well known in certain circles that I was the logistics and intelligence officer for the team, so those people would have expected that I would be the one being the hardass.

earlier: Sunday February 18
Poe Cottage my room

Chou had already asked us to help her leave the team back on Thursday the fifteenth. We had a host of tasks to do before we could begin the project, but we got it started the following Sunday morning. I had to put my foot down about the project name. "I think we should make sure there isn't a name. Then we can't slip up and talk about it in public."

Jade insisted, "No, we need a cool name!"

Billie agreed, "It's traditional."

"Somethin' like Project Shitcan!" Toni suggested from her hammock. I think I managed not to groan.

"Project A-Ko," said Jade.

Hank tried, "How about something like Project Saffron, so nobody can tell from the name what we mean?"

"Project P?" Nikki said. "No one's going to guess it from one letter."

"Project Pee? Sounds like you gotta hit the little girls' room," snarked Toni.

"Project Chou-em-up-and-spit-em out!" Jade grinned.

"Can we be rational about this?" I moaned.

"Certainly not, Miss Goodkind! We're Team Kimba. We don't do rational," Toni insisted in what was an obvious parody of my mannerisms. Even I could tell. The fact that Jade and Billie had giggle fits told me that everyone else could tell, as well.

"Of course!" Nikki snickered.

And of course, ultimately I was overruled as usual and it was named Project Exclusion. Which meant that anyone could figure out what it was. But why bother listening to the one person in the room who actually had experience with project naming? Father had let David and me be involved with some of the Goodkind International project naming, ever since we spotted that the new 'healthy snack foods' initiative had been named Project M.A.I.R.D. by the food sciences techs. We managed to get that changed long before it was announced, because it would be a PR nightmare if the company announced the new project for healthy foods was a homonym for the French word for shit.

So, despite my complaints, we started Project Exclusion first thing Sunday morning. We didn't walk with Chou to Dunn Hall. At breakfast, Chou and Molly ate with Dorjee, instead of with us. Since we sat in the middle of the cafeteria, a lot of people noticed. Chou and Molly didn't eat lunch or dinner with us, either.

That evening, we helped Chou move to her new room. Having a wizard and the J-Team along is definitely the way to do moving. Hank, Billie and I lifted the few heavy objects and toted them down the hall for Chou. Hank took the entire clothes rod down to Chou's room and switched it with the empty clothes rod in the new room. Billie scooped up Chou's books from her desk shelves and put them on the shelves over Chou's new desk. I took Chou's fully made mattress and switched it with the mattress in the new room, so Chou didn't have to make up her bed either. Nikki bespelled Chou's laundry basket and dresser drawers, along with the shelf over Chou's clothes rod, so all the rest of Chou's clothing followed down the hall and tucked itself away where it was supposed to go. And the J-Team grabbed everything else except Destiny's Wave and its stand. So, by the time Chou moved DW and its stand, along with her Robe of Midnight, we had the entire room ready for her.

Hank carefully closed the door so X-O wouldn't be watching, and we all gave her what amounted to goodbye hugs. As I left, I looked over my shoulder. Chou was standing in the middle of the room and looking resolute, but her eyes looked like she was about to burst into tears.

Afterward, we had a secret Team Kimba meeting in my room, complete with magical eavesdropping protections, and we shared. Every one of us except me had been asked by at least one person what was going on with Chou. Even Billie had gotten a couple questions. Techwolf and some of her fellow librarians had asked her.

By the following morning, word was out. The gossip mill at Whateley which was really less like a mill and more like a large factory complete with loading docks and rail lines for optimal transmission of goods was saying that I had kicked Chou out of Team Kimba, and the rest of the team was going along with that. Oh, there were other rumors. That Chou had gotten seriously hurt in Boston and had quit the team like a big crybaby. That Chou had decided she was tired of getting in trouble with Carson just for being on our team and getting dragged into team shenanigans. That the team voted her out in a Survivor-esque tribunal, with a clear majority wanting her gone. And my personal least favorite: Chou had gotten tired of being my personal geisha love-pillow and had bailed. I managed not to cringe when I heard that one. But the most popular rumor was that I had given Chou the axe and had persuaded or coerced the rest of the team to accept my decision.

As if any Kimba other than Hank ever listened to what I had to say. As if any Kimba including Hank followed my directions when they didn't want to. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a campus-wide belief that I had formed Team Kimba as my ultra-dangerous backup, and that I ruled it with an iron fist. In an adamantium gauntlet. Seriously, how could anybody talk to Toni for more than ten seconds and believe that one? How could anyone know anything about Billie or Nikki and think that was rational? And how could anyone on campus think Jade the mistress of the shoulder angels and all-around crazygirl would go along with something like that for more than a couple hours before she went off on one of her own unique tangents? It would probably be easier to get Deadpool to go along with that.

But it meant that people wanted to talk to me at breakfast. And right before breakfast. And after breakfast. And throughout the day.

The people who didn't want to talk to me stared at me with suspicion and anger. In other words, for me it was a lot like most days on campus.

The Bad Seeds had obviously used their various intel sources and were drawing their own conclusions, because after some urgent conversation amongst themselves, Jadis turned and gave me the eye. I murmured to Hank, "Looks like our first customers." I stepped out of the food line and strolled over to see what the Bads wanted.

Jadis was sitting between Dragonrider and Nacht, and ignoring that Dragonrider was scratching her pet's belly on an eating surface. Mal was sitting next to Nephandus and arguing about some detail on a blueprint. Cheese was building some sort of tower with his bacon strips, and was giggling madly at his progress. A number of the usual suspects weren't present, but a quick glance revealed that Thrasher and Render were still in the food line, and Silver Serpent was sitting at the Pan-Asia table. Dunn was unpleasantly overcrowded, but it did make things easier when you were trying to spot someone.

I strolled up to the table and casually sat down next to Dragonrider. "Hi, Lindsay."

She didn't say anything to me. I didn't expect her to. Since Molly was her roommate and friend, I was expecting her to be mad at me. Based on Pern's size, I was assuming Lindsay was reining in her emotions. Pern was still roughly the size of a large housecat, instead of, say, the size of an angry cougar.

I smiled down the table at Jadis. "You rang?"

Jadis glanced my way and said, "Yes. Lindsay and Laurel had some... concerns, and several of the group thought they were worth looking into."

I'd just bet some of the Bads wanted to look into it. I said, "As Lindsay can tell you, Chou isn't on our team anymore. We figured it would be better if she had her own team, with Molly and Dorjee, and some additions like Winnie. I gave her some recommendations."

Jadis raised an eyebrow. I still wasn't completely used to those gold eyes. I liked the old brown ones, to tell the truth. She asked, "Is this really necessary? This is still high school, not the Justice Brigade."

I pursed my lips and lied, "Yes. Anyone who looks good in one combat final but fails badly in the real world shouldn't be playing with trouble magnets like me. Or Tennyo. Or Fey. In our first fight in Boston, she got trashed by Vamp, and had to be rescued after she got slammed face-first into a car. Considering it was Carmilla who did the rescue, do we really want to have to depend on that sort of intervention the next time? Of course not. Over Christmas, she had to be rescued by a girl in a wheelchair. Granted, it was Chaka, throwing cans of food, but still. Our second time in Boston, she spent the whole fight chasing Nightgaunt and never did catch him. He's a baseline, and we were dealing with Class A threats, and she was off doing her own thing instead of helping Lancer, or helping Tennyo, or helping the people Darrow had trapped in that little cage. And then this last time, she nearly died. I mean, Generator had to jump in and save her. Generator! She needs to find another team, where she's not a liability."

Mal said, "That's odd, because most people are guessing you dumped her to improve your sim team."

"Why would I care about how our sim team does?" I pretended to shrug. "We're fine as a sim team. Our team has to prepare for real life problems. And we already have one martial arts nut. But Bladedancer's hit her peak already. Chaka's still growing, and improving. Now eight people is fairly unwieldy in a sim team, but it's just manageable, so we're keeping her with us through the Team Tactics course. And we could keep her around for the sim team, if that was the real issue. No, the real issue is Bladedancer looks better in sims and combat finals than out in the real world. And that's what actually matters."

Render had just sat down along with Thrasher. And he had obviously gleaned the wheat of the conversation from amidst the chaff. He said, "If you wanted to keep her around, you could have put her with your power armor minions."

"I don't have power armor minions," I said staunchly.

Thrasher grinned, "Says the chica who brought two Knights of Purity teams to a superhero battle."

"Knights of Purity units do not count as power armor minions!" I insisted.

Render said, "They do when it's a Goodkind bringing them to the fight."

You know, I hate it when other people are right. And I hadn't even talked about the Trin & Macintyre power armor team I had hired for the restaurant situation. Minions in power armor. That really did sound like a supervillain.

Thrasher looked at me with a smirk, "Dudette, you can't stage a hostile takeover of the Masterminds and not have people think you're totally planning on being the next Big Bad around here."

"Or take over the school betting ring," Nacht added in her best Wednesday Addams tones.

"Or get cozy with Payola Platoon," Render pointed out.

Nephandus looked up from the blueprints. "Or put together the first viable team with a Section 33 on it since Deathlist was in school here."

Mal inserted, "Or orchestrate the first private cabal of inventors since Gizmatic."

"It's not a cabal," I insisted calmly. "It's individual inventors who have patentable products."

Jadis contributed, "Or take on hit teams from the Alphas... and win. With no measurable consequences."

"Oh, there have been plenty of consequences, I've just been dealing with them," I grumbled.

"Or have their own private war with Hartford and survive it."

"It's not a war of any sort," I persevered. "Amelia's just upset because my older sisters weren't nice to some of her cousins. It's a petty little grudge with negligible consequences to either of us thus far."

"Even if she's gone after Tennyo?"

I explained, "That's part of Hartford's grudge with Charles Lodgeman, apparently. Tennyo and Techwolf both got caught in that crossfire. Word is that Seraphim and Skinwalker might have the same problem some day."

"I heard Seraphim has the Reverend's protection too, so she's safe from Hartford," Jadis disagreed. "Temporarily, anyway."

I really didn't like it when someone else had better intel than I did. Even if it was Jadis.

But that was only the first sally of the day. As I walked through the breakfast lines, several of the Golden Kids cut in line to chat with me. At least it gave me something to think about other than hillocks of inedible yellow egg-like substances, and huge warming pans of things which as far as I could tell only came from a pig based on hearsay evidence. There were also brown disks which were supposed to be either pancakes or frisbees, although it was hard to tell which.

Tidewater and Pearlescent slid in line behind me. Macrobiotic stepped in line in front of me with several quiet 'excuse me' and 'pardon me' noises to the rest of the line.

Macrobiotic started, "Phase, I'm sure you only did this out of your concern for others, but I'm worried about how this is going to be perceived by the rest of the school!"

Pearlescent said, "Don't you think this is carrying that 'win at all costs' concept too far?"

Tidewater chimed in, "Are you sure this is something you want to be associated with for the rest of your years here?"

I dryly said, "I assume this is about Bladedancer?"

"Yes!" Macrobiotic pushed. "Everybody is saying the worst things about you!" She took a breath and murmured, "When Traduce and Corrosive were saying things about you, I just ignored it, because, well, you know how they can be when they're... upset at someone." She stopped and gave me a worried look. "But then I heard essentially the same thing from, well, everyone. All my friends in Dickinson are talking about it, since Gateway lives there. And I knew there had to be some awful misunderstanding. But Gateway insisted you really did make Bladedancer leave the team! And Angel says you made her change rooms too! Please, tell me I've got this all wrong."

Tidewater said, "There really has been a lot of gossip about this. There seems to be a big lull in things to talk about right now."

Pearlescent cut in, "Mostly, Team Kimba hasn't gotten into a major fight for a couple days. With the Alphas behaving and Don Sebastiano still out of action, things must be too dull for everybody around here."

Macrobiotic added, "I think it's the cabin fever thing, too. With everyone all cooped up, people are just talking more and gossiping more."

Tidewater said, "The most common theme is that you waited until Bladedancer was heavily involved in planning that Chinese New Year party, and then you backstabbed her and got the rest of the team to kick her out."

Pearlescent added, "Most of the school's pretty impressed that you managed to get her out of your room too, since that's pretty much impossible without divine intervention."

I explained, "Oh, I would have been happy to keep her in the room. She's a great roommate. Quiet, considerate... The dorm mother asked us to split up so each of us could mentor a new kid."

"But would she want to stay in your room after you kicked her off the team?" Macrobiotic wondered.

I said, "It wasn't a backstab. She was really badly hurt on our last trip to Boston. As in 'came within seconds of passing out from blood loss and then dying'. If Generator hadn't worked up this bizarre little medical devise and brought it with her, Chou might have died before the paramedics got her out of there and to an ER. She had a broken rib that punctured a kidney and she was bleeding internally. I think it scared her to realize she could really die doing this kind of stuff."

"So she wanted out?" Tidewater asked.

"And we wanted her safe," I continued. "She's looked pretty good in one or two very visible battles, but winning in a combat final isn't the same thing as winning a street fight against a supervillain in real life. She's also gotten her ass kicked in some less public battles around here. Thunderdrake roughed her up pretty badly, and he's not exactly Champion. Vamp hammered her in our first trip to Boston, and then Chou wasted our second Boston battle chasing Nightgaunt all over the battlefield. And he's a baseline. She's had a couple lucky showings where her power kicked in, but she's massively outgunned when it doesn't. Okay, so she's good at martial arts. But she has already maxed out, and our team is now in the crosshairs every time we step off campus. Hell, we're in the crosshairs a lot of time while we're still on campus. We needed to sideline her."

Macrobiotic asked, "Is that really fair? I mean, you still have Generator, and she's down as number 263 on the lists."

I deliberately rolled my eyes. "First off, let me just say that is so incredibly unfair that she ought to track down those dorks and show them up close and personal that she doesn't deserve that ranking. But she thinks it's funny. And she thinks it gives her a major advantage in fights, since everyone underestimates her. But we're talking about a girl who should have beaten Electrode in the combat finals. Electrode! She has personally fought half the Ultraviolents. Pardon me, half the other Ultraviolents, since she insisted on registering herself as one. You know the jobs no one wants to do as their work study? The sewers and Hawthorne. What's her work study job? The sewers."



"And she loves visiting Hawthorne." I went on, "She thinks rooming with Tennyo is fun. When all of Team Kimba got bushwhacked in the sims start of winter term, who saved the day? Generator. Not Tennyo, not Lancer, not Fey, not me. Generator. Who had the instructors freaked by the end of Team Tactics class? Not Tennyo or Fey. Generator. That girl is a hell of a lot more dangerous than people realize. She doesn't need protection from badguys. Badguys need protection from her."

"But... she's so tiny!" Tidewater whined.

"BIT problem," I said. "As far as we can determine, she should be the same size as Shroud. And, as you should know, size has nothing to do with skill as a deviser.

Pearlescent said, "I still think you're making a mistake kicking Bladedancer off your training team."

I nodded, "We might be. But if we're not going to let her hang with us when we go on trips, she might as well be able to do what she wants and form her own training team. Plus, that means she gets to spend a lot more time with her boyfriend and her girlfriend."

Pearlescent frowned, "Didn't that weird you out? The whole girl-girl thing? Or the threesome thing?"

I said, "They aren't actually at the hot, nasty sex part of the relationship yet. They're still at the early dating and nervous kissing part. And why would I mind seeing two extremely hot girls necking?"

"Tide? Tide..." Pearlescent looked over at her boyfriend, who based on his glazed eyes and slack expression was lost in 'lesbian porn land' as he fantasized about Molly and Chou. "Tide!" She covered her arm in a shimmering PK field and smacked him on the arm hard enough that he was nearly knocked to the ground. As plenty of people on campus have noted before, there are serious hazards to having a PK brick as a significant other.

"Sorry," he muttered, rubbing his arm.

Fortunately for me, that was enough to completely derail their little intervention. Pearlescent was seriously ticked off, Tidewater was ruefully embarrassed, and Macrobiotic was apologetic for Tidewater acting like a guy.
Re: Ayla and the Mad Scientist [message #51706 is a reply to message #51705] Sun, 15 January 2012 13:58 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Diane Castle is currently offline  Diane Castle
Messages: 2554
Registered: September 2007
Location: Oregon, USA
But that didn't end the interrogations. No, that was just the start. At breakfast, I spotted several tables of people who were staring my way but glancing away as soon as they thought I spotted them. Great. It was like eating in a restaurant with my family. If we didn't have a private dining room all to ourselves, we had peepers and gawkers. If my sister Heather was eating with us, we also had oglers and droolers, because Heather never went out in public without the full supermodel hair-and-makeup-and-clothing treatment, just in case she was spotted. At least this time I didn't have paparazzi swarming all over the place taking annoying pictures that would be appearing in newspapers the next day, and in magazines the next week.

I pretended that the stares and whispers didn't bother me. But obviously they did, because afterward I couldn't remember whether my breakfast had tasted good or not. Lancer and I bussed our trays while Billie wolfed down another bushel of foodstuffs and the J-Team kept her company.

When I walked past some of the usual tables, I noticed that several Underdogs were sullenly glaring my way. Not that they were going to confront me about my supposed mistreatment of someone. Chou was trying hard to be Winnie's friend, and it wasn't as if the Underdogs had all that many people going out of their way to be nice to any of them. I groaned inwardly as I realized that Anna and Rhiannon might stop talking to me. It wasn't as if I had that many friends, and they had trusted me back when most of the school regarded me as The Primary Threat To All Of Whateley.

I reminded myself not for the first time that doing what was right was a very different thing from doing what was popular. The Goodkinds had worked at the former for decades, while trying to use politicking and PR to convince others that they were doing the latter. But it didn't change the fact that thousands no, make that millions of ordinary people hated the Goodkinds for doing the right things to protect mankind and the planet. If there was nothing more the entire might of Goodkind International could manage, it was probably absurd to expect that I could sway the opinions of the other students with no resources other than myself.

Once again I thought about hiring someone on campus to handle my Public Relations. If only I could find someone who could do an excellent job first time, with no mistakes. But I also had to worry about finding someone who wouldn't be using Psi or magic to accomplish my goals, and who wouldn't be suspected of using Psi or magic to brainwash most of the campus. I had considered hiring Zenith, but Zoe didn't really trust me, even when she could use her Database technique on me. And if I were to hire her, I would have the problem that lots of people would believe she was using Sahar's darker powers to sway people.

It looked like my best option was still a campaign of disinformation. Granted, I was already working on that. But telling individuals our 'official' version of the story enough times to convince even a small fraction of the student population was liable to be a long-term effort.

So I was back to having nearly the entire student body hating my guts. Why did I think high school was going to be a great experience?

Oh, right. I didn't. I hadn't, even before I turned into a revolting freako intersexed mutant. I had viewed high school as a stepping stone into a top university and a top M.B.A. program. Even with a couple good friends at my side at Chilton, I had still been considering skipping my last year or two of high school and starting college early.

Granted, I had a dozen good friends here, and I could handle the campus enemies I had made. But perhaps I should look harder into taking extra courses and graduating as early as Carson would allow.

On the way out of the cafeteria, half of Pan-Asia had wanted to have a little chat with me. Fortunately, I had Lancer and Tennyo and Fey with me, so I wasn't worried that they would try anything. But they weren't buying the 'we did it because we were looking out for Chou' story either. Hatamoto was giving me the 'I can't believe you would do this' look. Gunkan was giving me the 'you are such an asshat' look. A couple were giving me the 'watch your back from now on' look. Great.

We trooped on toward Team Tactics as a group. Sans Chou, of course. She was going to meet us there, and leave without us, but she was going to stay in the course with us through the final exam.

Jade seemed to be her usual exuberant self, although that could have been due to anything. The rest of us? Not so thrilled. Even Chaka seemed a little discouraged.

After Team Tactics class, which included Bardue really getting in my face about team structure for some mysterious reason, we all headed back to Poe. Well, all of us except Chou. I was already hating this plan. I liked Chou, and now I couldn't even hang out with her anymore.

At least, not openly. Great, I was going to have to exercise industrial espionage techniques just to have chats with my friend.

Lunch was more of the same, and then I only avoided a continuation of the pattern because I had to spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening dealing with my new roommate. And having to deal with Vamp was even less fun than being interrogated campus cliques.

That gave me a minor break. But Tuesday, we were back to the old grind. Majestic and Imperious wanted to do the big staredown with me, but had to rush off because of the crap Counterpoint had gotten himself in, and Judicator was dragging them off to intervene. I didn't know what was behind that, since as far as I knew they should have been ticked off at Chou, and not at me.

And that was pretty much how Tuesday went. At lunch it was Thunderdrake and some of his pals from the Dragons. Then I didn't make it all the way to sixth period martial arts without another meeting. Pendragon and Gloriana swooped in to talk to me, with Iron Star in tow.

Gloriana started, "Phase, we've been hearing some really disturbing rumors about you and Bladedancer..."

Since I was still walking to martial arts class and I did not want to be late, I interrupted her. "Yes, we did ask her to leave the team. No, we don't care about the training team issues. No, I didn't get her moved out of the room, that was the house mother setting things up so Chou and I would each get a new kid to mentor. Yes, Chou nearly died during the last trip to Boston, and the team as a whole thinks she's maxed out on her potential while everyone else is still improving. Yes, she beat Nex very publicly, but he's over-rated and he did himself in by being his usual overconfident stalker self. No, she isn't very dangerous under most conditions, and so she needs to be out of the battlezones when Team Kimba is off campus. Anything else?"

Pendragon frowned, "Still, taking her off the team is a rather non-FSA act. I would expect it from The Don, not from you."

"Ooh, burn!" contributed Iron Star.

I ignored him. I said to Pendragon, "Look, you have to make this kind of call all the time when newbies want into the Capes, so you should know what it's like. We all like Chou. She's a great roommate, and I really didn't want to lose her. But she's a baseline. She's not improving anymore, and her best now is not good enough to keep her safe. This is the best thing I can do for her."

Gloriana pointed out, "There's a big difference between not accepting someone into your club, and publicly humiliating them by kicking them out of your training team."

I said, "In our case, it was a matter of life and death. That's more important."

Gloriana and Pendragon took off, but Iron Star waited a moment so he could get in the last word. "Major dick move there."

Wow, when pricks like Iron Star think you're making a dick move, you're really failing on the public relations front.

Then that night, I had some Poesies from the upper floors drop in on me to tell me that booting Chou out of an all-TG team so she had no support system was a Don Sebastiano level backstab. I gave them the official story and sent them to talk to Chou, but I still had Electrode and Shrike totally pissed off at me.

And the fun just didn't stop. Wednesday morning, after we finished breakfast and were hiking on the paths to Team Tactics class, I got another visitor. Before we were out of sight of Dunn Hall, Billie gave me a little hand signal. It was the American Sign Language gesture for the letter 'M'. 'M' as in 'meeting'. So I once again faked a phone call and then flew off to my little glen with Tennyo in tow. After Aquerna busted up Minefield's big revenge plan in that little glade, the team had been a lot more insistent that I only go there with serious backup. Tennyo counted as somewhere between 'serious backup' and 'drastic overkill', at least as far as campus clods were concerned. It wasn't as if I were about to run into Mimeo and Cataclysm on my way to make a phone call in central campus.

As I expected, it was just Aries. He was field-testing yet another flight pack for Elite League. This one was a little too bulky and awkward for effective field use, in my not-precisely-expert opinion. Still, I thought it had enough fins and exhaust nozzles sticking out that it would probably be quite easy to knock out of commission, and just as easy to target, given its bulk.

Well, I didn't have to use the thing; I only had to look at it while I talked to Aries. "Anything new?" I asked, as if he hadn't desired a meeting.

He nodded. "There's enough craziness going on with all the rumors about your team and Bladedancer that Sebastiano wants some hard intel. He's planning on ransacking someone's brain. Namely, one of the Kimbas who's susceptible to Psi. Since Lancer scared the piss out of Sweetheart, the list of Kimbas who could be read is now down to you and Generator. But she's usually hanging around with Tennyo." He tilted his head in her direction. "So The Don's not likely to risk getting incinerated to do that. And he's looking into your schedule today. So expect he's going to arrange an 'accidental' meeting with you somehow so he can pick your brains on the deal with Bladedancer."

I nodded carefully. "Thanks. And if you want, you can tell him one of your sources told you that Bladedancer wanted to get moved off the team because she nearly died on the last trip. That ought to mesh with what he's heard of the Security reports on the trip. And tell him I'm most vulnerable on my way from lunch to English class. Every other class is chock full of Kimbas."

"Huh," he muttered. "I'll see if I can work that." He lifted off and headed back toward Melville.

Tennyo watched him go and asked, "Do they really think the only people on the whole team who they can read are you and Jade? That's crazy."

I reminded her, "Lancer and Fey did that whole routine on Sweetheart back in December. She told all the Alphas he was unreadable now. And the Security reports said he beat Lady Darke one-on-one, which is bound to make people think he now has major resistance to Psi."

She snorted. "So Sebastiano thinks the only weak links Psi-wise are you and Jade?"

I replied, "You and Fey and Shroud are nearly untouchable, Chaka can block anything she sees coming, and they have bad intel on Lancer. That leaves me and Jade."

"So? Avoid him," she said.

I frowned, "I don't think so. If I don't handle this, he'll eventually try for Jade. And if that fails, he could go for Bunny. Or Molly. Or Rip." Billie winced. "I'd rather handle this on our terms."

"And what are 'our terms' here?" she checked suspiciously.

I explained, "I get Nikki to do her temporary mindblock spell on me, and I go deal directly with Sebby. I tell them it's a new devise from Generator, and then they'll figure out on their own that any of our friends could be protected from telepathic probing at any time, even if they get results off one of them once or twice."


"Yeah. Them. Sebby's out of the Alphas now, and Kodiak's not going to let him back in. Word is that Kody's already working with other campus groups to ensure Sebby isn't allowed back in next year, either. We can help with that. But Sebby's putting together his own pack. Solange, Bogus, Icer, Hamper and Damper, Peppercorn, and as many intelligence assets as he can acquire, since he's short on them now."

"Plus your pal Aries," she smirked. And when Tennyo smirks, her fangs pop out at the corners of her mouth, making her look particularly dangerous. My smirk is simply not in her league.

"And anyone else I might not yet know about," I added.

After Team Tactics ended, I walked with the gang back to Poe. Then I followed Fey and Chaka back into their room and explained, "You know the short-term mindblock spell you did on Hank when we were dealing with the Young Turks?"

"Ye-es," Nikki said warily.

I said, "I need you to drop that on me after lunch when I'm on my way to English class. I think Sebby and Tansy are going to 'surprise' me so they can figure out what the deal is with Chou. And I don't want them going on to tackle Jade or Bunny or Molly, or someone else we can't protect."

"Ayles," Toni complained. "You can't be everybody's mommy! 'Sides, we haven't spilled to anybody."

I insisted, "I still don't want Donny-boy ransacking our friends' brains for tidbits about us. Or doing worse than that."

"Well, yeah," she said. "Who would? I just think you're goin' all Goodkind on this. You don't have ta fix everything in the world, no matter what you think."

Nikki frowned prettily. "Well, I'll do it, but I don't think it's a good idea. And it will only last a few minutes after you move away from me. And I don't want to do it every couple minutes until Donny-boy does whatever you think he's going to do. It takes a big spell, with some hard-to-find ingredients."

"Okay," I said. Which didn't mean that I was acquiescing to her demands, only that I wasn't going to bother her for more castings of the spell that very second.

I left Nikki's room, only to find Jade waiting for me outside my room with a gigantic smile and a bounce in her feet that told me she was up to something. Again. Or perhaps that should be 'as usual'.

"Billie told me what you're up to," she smiled mischievously. "So I got a fake psiblocker for you to wear!" And she pulled out...

Oh my God.

I didn't say it out loud, but I was certainly thinking it. Imagine Hello Kitty meets the steampunk genre. As a pendant on a frilly necklace. With extra pink.

I groaned, "No thank you. Just... no."

"You're sure?" She gave me the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes.

"I'm sure."

She added in a pout. "You're really, really sure? Positively?"


She giggled and then said, "Billie bet me fifty cents you wouldn't wear it no matter what. For a second there, I thought I got you."

She shoved the ugly bit of kitsch into a pocket, and I thought she was done. I really should have known better. After all, this was Jade Sinclair. She smiled, "So I got this for you if you didn't want my Hello Kitty necklace."

She handed me something almost as bad: a necklace made of pink and lime beads, with a bizarre pendant that looked like it had been forged out of blued steel by angry Smurfs.

I told her I would think about wearing it, just to get her to stop offending my eyes with these displays of... well... the word 'tackiness' didn't begin to describe them.

After lunch, I left the cafeteria with Fey. She led me to an empty classroom on the first floor. She had a little spell circle laid out on the floor on a plastic tarp, so she could fold it up and walk off without leaving any traces. I stood in the center of the circle, while she crushed several ingredients between her fingers and sprinkled them into a shallow silver bowl. Then she pronounced an incantation in a language I was sure I didn't know. It was one of those magical languages which resounded oddly and did its best to reverberate through your head without using your hearing to get in there.

Fey finished her incantation, and the ingredients vanished from the bowl. Suddenly, I was hit with a pain so sharp that my first thought was that someone had struck me on the top of my head with a mace. A mace with really sharp spikes. The pain was nearly blinding. How the hell did Lancer put up with this agony last fall?

Fey said, "All done." Then she looked at me and asked, "Ayla? What's wrong?"

Oh. Right. Empath. "I now have a huge headache to go with my Psi block," I complained.

She frowned in puzzlement. "That's weird. Do you want me to cancel the spell?"

The intense pain was making me consider it. A lot. I checked, "This is going to vanish in a few minutes, right?"

"Right. But it shouldn't be giving you that much pain," she insisted.

I stubbornly said, "I'll be fine for a few minutes. I've been hurt worse."

You know, there's something wrong with your life if your head hurts that horribly, and yet you can say those words without lying.

I Phase-leapt through the wall and off to classes, where I could casually walk down the hall while keeping a lookout for The Don. A casual walk was about all I could manage, anyway. My head hurt so badly that just going light and jumping through the walls had nearly had me puking my guts out.

At least I wasn't enduring this intense pain for naught. From the direction of my classroom came my targets. Tansy was pushing Sebastiano in his wheelchair.

I figured I might as well play along. I waited until they had a really clear view of me. Then I pulled Jade's piece of schmatte out of my utility belt and carefully draped it over my neck.

Tansy smirked, "Why, that is so you."

I made myself smile. "You can't get the Generator devises without the Generator choices in fashion. You should have seen the steampunk Hello Kitty thing she's working on."

Don Sebastiano looked up from his wheelchair. My sources at the clinic told me he was now getting physical therapy and was walking well, so I knew this was part of his con game. He was a higher level Exemplar than I was, and the school had more Healers than Jade had J-Teamers. He asked, "And the purpose of the devise is...?"

"It's a Psi blocker. Not that I don't trust the two of you implicitly, but it does put the discussion on an even footing."

The Don looked up at Tansy, and she shrugged, "I'm not getting anything either."

I said, "Why not simply ask me?"

He smiled. I've seen a warmer smile. From a Gila monster in a zoo. "That is reasonable. As we all know, I would never do anything that might be against the Whateley rules for psychics."

"Oh deff," Tansy nodded with a smirk.

"Absolutely," I pretended to agree. "Just as I would never do anything that might wreak economic ruin on someone in untraceable ways." Neither one of them even flinched. I doubted Tansy believed there was any way she could be attacked economically, other than temporary inconveniences like swiping her credit cards.

The Don said, "It struck me as amazingly Alpha of you to boot your own roommate off your training team and then get her kicked out of your room." Tansy nodded in agreement.

I made sure I didn't show my feelings, but when people like Don Sebastiano and Solange thought I was demonstrating Alpha traits, that was a deadly insult. I said, "As your intel sources have no doubt informed you, I didn't have any say in the room arrangement issue. As for the other, we didn't kick her off the sim team as much as we moved her far away from the front lines." I gave Tansy a wintry smile. "Some people are still targeting us, and she's already topped out. She got lucky once or twice here on campus, but she's failed abysmally out in the real world. She didn't like almost dying in Boston. We didn't like it either. So she doesn't get to play with the big boys and girls anymore. And let's face facts. She's a baseline. She was able to face off against Counterpoint because she had nothing for him to mimic. She was able to beat Nex because he spent so much time toying with his prey that she got a chance to attack him. And Nex is vastly over-rated if he doesn't get a chance to launch a sneak attack. Right, Tansy?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she insisted calmly.

I went on, "We're talking about a guy who got schooled by Chaka when she deliberately withheld all of her major attacks. A guy who was embarrassed by Stalwart after he ambushed Fey. Seriously, if you've been thwarted by Stalwart, you need to re-think your career as a supervillain. Nex is so over-rated it's not funny. He couldn't even take Erik Mahren when he got in a sneak attack first."

The Don tilted his head slightly. "I hadn't heard any details about that particular incident."

I shrugged nonchalantly. "Oh yeah, he attacked Mahren from behind in an effort to get into the secure weapons storage over at the ranges. Mahren handed him his ass, but he got away without leaving any evidence. My sources say that Mahren had to go to the clinic for a punctured kidney. So Nex stabbed a baseline from behind, punctured his kidney, and still couldn't take the guy. Too lame for words."

Okay, I had inside information there, because Caitlin Bardue had used it as an example one morning in Team Tactics class when she was once again arguing for her 'don't split up the squad' dogma. Where she found it out, I didn't know, because there were far too many possibilities, including hearing it directly from Mahren, or overhearing Mahren telling Bardue, or having Bardue tell her during a big, angry, dad lecture.

Once they realized they weren't going to get any real intel out of the meeting, just the things I was willing to tell them, they wrapped up.

The Don said, "We really must go. I'm not at full strength yet, and even these little outings are... tiring."

Tansy said, "It's interesting. Generator's devise seems to work really well. But it's so tacky."

I agreed, "Yet another insano devise from the House of Jade. It's really too hideous for me to wear very often. And frankly, it gives me a horrific headache."

I watched them roll off and made sure they were really gone before I let my guard down. The spell finally died shortly after I got into the classroom and took a seat. The feeling of relief was nearly overwhelming.

Well, I felt relieved right up until Silver Serpent and Quyen Nu walked in. They took one look at me and sat in a different row. Crap.

Before martial arts class started, I checked with Hank. He told me he only had a weird tingling feeling in his sinuses above his eyes. I sighed in frustration and let the matter drop. But I was pretty sure I wasn't going to go with that psiblocker spell again.

But once I changed into my gi and warmed up on the mat, I noticed that Anna was avoiding me. She wouldn't even look at me when I looked her way. Great. Just great.

And then, just to make everything extra sucky, Jimmy T and Slab caught up with me on my way to dinner that evening.

Slab said, "We heard about what you did to Bladedancer. We like her, and she's been good for a lot of Thornies. You're not welcome at Hawthorne anymore."

I tried to keep my face a mask. "You do realize that several of your housemates may not agree with you."

Jimmy said, "We had a vote. Chou won by a big margin. Don't come by again."

I refrained from sighing. "Puppet may not agree with you. Or Static Girl. Or Antenna. Or Frostbite. Or-"

"We took a vote," Slab reiterated. "You lost."

Jimmy snarled, "Everyone was saying you weren't a typical Goodkind, and then what do we get? This! Turns out you're as big an asshat as Solange."

I tried, "Why don't you talk to Chou about this? Or Molly."

They ignored me. Slab said, "Someday when Team Kimba kicks your ass off the team, maybe you'll realize what a dickhead move you're pulling."

Then they stomped off. And if there are two people on campus who can stomp off when they want to, it's those two guys.

back to Monday, March 5, 2007

But those hadn't been the only people who had something to say to me about Chou. Or who had nothing to say to me about Chou. Anna and several other kids like her just weren't talking to me anymore. Several gadgeteers with whom I was hoping to form partnerships just avoided me. Silver Serpent and her galpal stopped talking to me in English class. The New Olympians just grew surlier whenever I saw them. Man, I hoped this paid off for Chou, because it wasn't paying off for me in any way, shape, or form.

The only convenient aspect of the whole process with Chou was the 'new kid' Mrs. Horton warned us about, thereby giving us a legitimate way to move Chou to a new room and not deal with the complicated issues that would surface if people noticed that I was still rooming amicably with Chou when I was supposedly 'kicking her off the team'.

At least, it should have been convenient, except for the small fact that I got stuck with a supervillainess for a roommate and an idiotic one, at that. Alex actually thought Phelps Caruthers had something on the ball. Having met the man twice on occasions when Father took all of us to Boston for business, I was of the opinion that his valet had to make sure he put his socks on before his shoes. But no, Vamp thought her 'Pip' was a charming, suave man about town who liked her for her mind. Honestly. Was she really that uncultured and gullible? Maybe she really did have a thing for him and couldn't evaluate him when her hormones were engaged. Either way, I wasn't impressed. And since he had to be nearly as old as Uncle Theo and Vamp had been thirteen or fourteen at the time, not to mention a hermaphroditic mutant who had a serious case of albinism and also looked like a vampire, let me just add this. ICK! With an à la carte order of EWW! I didn't care how much shapeshifting she could do, it was revolting.

If I really had been committing such a venal act as booting my friend off my training team for a tiny potential advantage in some future holo sim, then I would have said that getting stuck with Vamp for at least spring term, if not longer, was karma. I hadn't met Chou's new roommate yet, but if karma came into play, then she would probably get a quiet, thoughtful, considerate roommate who would be a pleasure to be around.

One of the many great things about Chou was that she didn't complain about my alarm playing Brass Monkey to wake me up in the morning. Okay, she didn't complain about that because she awoke hours before I did and was out of the room when my alarm went off. Alex was even less of a morning person than I was. On the other hand, Alex didn't listen to boy band crap and modern country-western, like Molly did. Molly was a bad influence on Chou, musically speaking. I hadn't managed to find a musical genre that Dorjee liked, before Chou moved out. Everything that I tried would be greeted with that same gentle smile, and a vague comment like 'that is... interesting.'

Vamp definitely complained about my morning alarm music. But she complained about a lot of things. She hated Brass Monkey, and had no qualms about saying so. Repeatedly, and at great length.

Okay, she's far from the only one who hates Brass Monkey. Why doesn't anybody like such a great group? Are my tastes just that sophisticated? Well, it wasn't like I could get anyone to try that brodetto, either. I am never going to understand 'normal' people.

In my brief experience with Vamp, she bitched a lot. My music was too weird. I didn't share my food treats with her often enough. The amenities around Whateley Academy were not up to the standards that 'Abby Carfax' was used to. Dunwich was a dump compared to Boston, or any place in America that had a Starbucks and a real Italian restaurant.

Although this morning, she primarily bitched at me about not getting to go to Miami with me. As if there were any reason on earth for me to take her along so she could leech off me like Preston Galloway did in second and third grade. Preston had been a rather painful lesson in dealing with life's sponges and remoras, and I wasn't all that interested in repeating that particular bit of edification.

Come to think of it, the general stupidity and illiteracy of the hoi polloi never ceased to amaze me. All of Boston had been looking for Vamp, the vampire jailbait of the Children of the Night, and yet no one ever noticed that a young woman named Abby Carfax was wandering around playing debutante while having no family in Boston society. Hadn't these people ever read 'Dracula'? Hello? Abby? Carfax? Carfax Abbey was the name of Dracula's lair outside of London. And what did Vamp look like, and use to model her behavior? Vampires. Duh. I had a feeling that Alex had probably smirked every time she used that name.

I floated out of bed and carefully phased out of my new pajamas. I did not want to wreck a brand new pair of Pierre Cardin silk pajamas due to a little carelessness. This particular shade of red was a specialty silk that wasn't available to normal customers. Not that Goodkinds would order it, since it was a silk that came from deviser-bred silkworms that naturally produced colored silk thread. For historical reasons, this particular color was called 'mulberry', even if I felt it wasn't quite the right shade of red for the name.

The now-solid pajamas fell right into the dirty clothes basket. As far as I knew, Vamp wasn't raiding my pajamas yet. Not that it would surprise me any. She had used my computer without permission. She raided my fridge and pantry. She had tried to borrow my utility belt more than once. I had been forced to tell her she could not make coffee in my Krups, and she needed to ask me to make it for her. I was just glad she had her own clothes and her own Whateley uniforms.

I floated over to my bathrobe and went normal. Then I put it on, grabbed my gear, and headed down to the bathroom for my standard matutinal maneuverings. Since Alex had arrived, we had managed to work out a truce in a number of areas, and the bathroom was one of them. We both wanted to ogle the hotties. We both liked using the bathroom mirror to do so. We both knew that two people blocking the sinks was going to be unworkable, since there were only three sinks. So we just showered at different times. That meant that at most one of us was hogging a sink at any time in the morning. If one of us was already up and moving toward the bathroom, the other simply waited a minimum of ten minutes before taking his or her turn.

I knew what was likely to happen in the bathroom, given that pretty much the entire floor knew about the trip to Miami. I managed to get two steps into the bathroom before girls started looking my way.

"So... How was break week? How was Miami?" Toni couldn't have squeezed much more lurid interest into that second question without using an industrial strength lurid-interest compressor.

I focused on stock market derivatives, because I knew that as soon as I started thinking about my four-day vacation, my emotions would be exposed for half the bathroom.

Like I wasn't leaking emotions to said bathroom sharers that very second. Between Nikki and Evvie and Toni and the entire J-Team, I might as well walk around with big flashcards so I could wave my private feelings about in the air. And that didn't even begin to touch on all the normal female intuition surrounding me, or however much empathic abilities Sharisha had from her PDP power set.

Still, I couldn't help thinking how my vacation with Vanessa had gone...

earlier: Tuesday, March 1
somewhere over New York state

I turned to Vanessa and said, "I hope you don't mind the jet."

It was small. This LearJet had only one seat on the port side and only two seats on the starboard side, with only fifteen rows for the whole plane. We were sitting together on the starboard side, in the first row. That gave us a little more legroom, even if Vanessa couldn't put her purse under the seat in front of her. Still, with no one else on board, we didn't exactly have to worry about pickpockets. On the other hand, since the jet was basically a pencil with wings, it didn't have a lot of headroom either.

She looked at me like I had lost my mind. "Ayla, are you crazy? You're flyin' me to Miami. In a LearJet! I'd be impressed if you were just buyin' me a ticket in coach on El Cheapo Airlines. This is... this is whack. The two of us, with the whole jet to ourselves? At least as awesome as the 767 to Boston."

I smiled a little. Sometimes I tended to forget how I looked from the outside.

She said, "Don't tell me we're also stayin' someplace insane."

I shrugged slightly. "The Miami Hilton. It's within easy distance of two of the clubs we talked about, and we have the Presidential suite."

"Suite? You got the two of us a whole suite?"

I said, "I didn't want to pressure you about... bedtime. This will make things easier. You'll have your own bedroom with a private bathroom. I will too. And the suite has its own kitchenette, so you don't have to deal with rising and shining for breakfast, if we were out late the night before."

"Ayla, this is crazy. I heard about other kids goin' to Miami or Fort Lauderdale or like that for spring break, like college kids, and they pile like six girls in a car and drive down and split payin' for the gas, and then they split one cheap room wit' maybe two queen beds and a couple sleeping bags, and they can't afford anything else. You're... You're not even on the same planet."

I shrugged. "I can't help what I'm used to. You'll just have to learn to live with my assorted foibles."

She grinned and rolled her eyes at me. "And like that. When we're out clubbin', try ta talk like normal girls."

I tried my best imitation of Bubble. I opened my eyes wide and burbled, "Ohmygawd, that was like so totally awesome, and they were all no way, and I was like yes way, and like that!"

She laughed and said, "That wasn't what I meant. Like you already knew. I mean, talk more like Nikki or Billie, not like the ditziest white girl in Florida. Just not like the Queen of England. Or the Queen's speechwriter."

I laughed.

We had a great flight down. The pilots didn't have an ETA by which they had to live or die, so they had time to detour around a couple storm systems. That meant we had a really smooth trip. And there wasn't a stewardess on board, just a stocked kitchen, so we helped ourselves whenever we felt like it. Vanessa teased me about the champagne and wines I would be ordering as soon as I turned twenty-one. And when she started doing the French accent, I couldn't stop laughing. Some Sirens really have an amazing ear for spoken sounds. Her imitation of Glissade complaining about the western European students was hysterical.

We landed about half an hour after the projected arrival time, but I didn't care. The careful avoidance of bad weather was easily worth the time. We caught the limo over to the Miami Hilton, and a bellhop took our luggage up to our penthouse suite.

I think Vanessa was a little overwhelmed by the service and the attentiveness. The bellhop acted like a well-trained bellhop should, wheeling all our luggage up and placing it where we asked. I arbitrarily assigned the lavender room to her and the celadon room to me, based on color preferences. There really wasn't going to be much to distinguish the rooms otherwise, since I trusted that they would all be up to the Hilton standards. The maid for the penthouse suites came in behind the bellhop and helped Vanessa put her things away. Then the bellhop pointed out all the amenities to us, including the snacks in the pantry and the treats in the fridge. It was just what I was expecting, but Vanessa looked like her eyes were going to pop out.

I let the maid put away my things in my closet and dresser, and then I made sure to tip her and the bellhop. Vanessa waited until they left, and asked, "Is this ordinary? For penthouse suites and stuff?"

I shrugged casually and said, "It's what I'm used to. I am a Hilton, on my mother's side. So it's possible we get better service than some people."

She slowly shook her head. "I never heard of anybody getting' that kind of service. You are so... different."

I let her look in the fridge and pantry before I showed her the whole suite. Four bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and den. A couple storage areas, a large living room and dining room area with their own half bath, and an office area off to the side. I thought it looked reasonably nice. Vanessa got a Diet Coke out of the fridge and looked around as if she might be evicted at any moment.

"Would you like that in a glass?" I checked.

"You mean a fancy goblet and probably fancy ice cubes and maybe a twist of lime on the side?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, a glass. I'm sure there are some adequate goblets in the cupboards too." She just rolled her eyes.

We spent the rest of the evening just exploring the suite. Granted, I ordered a late dinner for us, and the staff served us in the dining area. The brochettes of beef were perhaps a hair overdone, but the well-prepared port wine sauce made up for the oversight. The brown rice red rice mixture was just the right doneness, and the mélange of winter vegetables was a fairly good mix. I assumed they were using some vegetables grown locally that wouldn't currently survive outside at this time of year in New York or New Hampshire. After we ate and the staff cleaned up, Vanessa had to play with the jacuzzi in her bathroom, then the big screen television and game system in her den.

She kissed me good night and murmured, "I dunno what to say, honey. You're so good to me, and you're not askin' me to put out... I just feel like I ought to..."

"Give me another kiss and then go get some sleep?" I interrupted.

She shook her head slowly and did what I suggested. By the time she stopped kissing me, I needed to go sit in my jacuzzi for a bit.

In the morning, we took our time about getting ready. We had a nice breakfast of Belgian waffles from room service, with Vanessa complaining that she was going to be four dress sizes larger when we got back to Whateley. Then we took a leisurely tour of the city in a van the hotel arranged for us. I took her to dinner at the Versailles Restaurant after the hotel assured me we could get in just as the chefs were pulling the pork roast out of the oven. That actually matters there, since their lechon asada is much better that way. We shared that and an order of their ropa vieja, which is their classic Cuban-style garlic-enriched beef simmered with onion and bell pepper until the beef is in tender shreds. The food was really good, and the wacky décor didn't detract from the quality of the fare. I mean, the place looked like it was decorated by Riptide while taking advice from Jade and Jay Jay. The movers and shakers of the local Cuban-American community often ate there, but there was no one I knew personally.

We were careful not to eat too much, because after that, Vanessa took me out dancing. I had managed to find the Blue View a couple months earlier, when I made an effort to find places I could take Vanessa that would address all my concerns: they needed to allow underage teenagers; they needed to allow non-heterosexual relationships; and they needed to allow mutants. They third one was really the deal-breaker for most places. Lots of clubs were going to allow hot lesbian babes who were dancing together, even if Vanessa and I didn't strictly count as 'lesbian'. Lots of clubs handled the underage issue, either by selling only non-alcoholic drinks or by careful carding. Not too many clubs could afford the risk of mutant superbattles. I had located five such clubs in New York City and the environs, although two of them were open-air dance areas that wouldn't be all that great in February of a really bad winter. I assumed that an open-air dance club was automatically easier to insure, since there were no walls or ceiling to ruin, and the 'dance floor' might be concrete instead of expensive hardwoods.

There was only one such club in Miami, possibly because Florida didn't have the mutant population of New York City or Los Angeles. The Blue View was built in a refurbished warehouse in an area of town that was obviously working on some serious gentrification. And they handled the 'cost of mutant customers' issue via the tried and true method: high cover charges. Vanessa choked when she saw what they were charging. I didn't tell her I had been in clubs that were a lot more exclusive, and a lot more expensive.

We strolled in, and the pounding beat made me wish I had brought earplugs. Deviser earplugs, so that I could hear everything important, while keeping the pulsing techno to a nice, sane, non-eardrum-rupturing volume. I momentarily wondered how painful it would be for someone with abnormally good hearing, like Nikki or Anna or Billie. Toni? She'd just figure out how to use her Ki to control her hearing. Then I wondered if exposing Hank to places like this would be good training so his PK field could 'learn' to protect him from sonic weapons.

The first thing Vanessa had to do was go to the restroom, and I got dragged along too. I looked around as we walked. There was a balcony area with glitzy private sections. There were four sections that were in heavy use. One looked like a bunch of pro basketball players partying down. Either that, or a lot of extraordinarily tall, thin guys in NBA jerseys were conning some skanky young women. Another looked like a couple heavy-set middle-aged white guys liquoring up some significantly younger platinum blondes. The third looked like my conception of gangsta rappers or maybe local drug dealers partying up a storm. Unfortunately, I had no idea whether real drug dealers or real rap stars really looked like that or acted like that. The fourth section was a group of guys leaning toward each other and having a conference around a table. I wondered why someone would try to have a conference here, with all this background noise.

Vanessa just wanted to check her makeup, so I stood there and waited as patiently as I could manage. I just checked out the rest of the female clientele, like the sultry brunette who wasn't wearing any underwear at all underneath that clingy black slipdress. Or that slutty bottle-blonde in the lace-up red patent leather top... who had an automatic and a leather folder in her matching patent leather purse. I could just see the top of the contents of the purse when I looked in the mirror while she freshened her sparkly red lipstick.

Okay, it looked like I might have to pay more attention to my surroundings.
Re: Ayla and the Mad Scientist [message #52576 is a reply to message #51706] Sun, 29 January 2012 03:26 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Diane Castle is currently offline  Diane Castle
Messages: 2554
Registered: September 2007
Location: Oregon, USA
CHAPTER 2 L'Etranger

Vanessa took me out on the dance floor, and she showed me that I had no idea how to dance. I mean, I knew ballroom dance, and I knew what ballet steps looked like even if I couldn't move like that. But Vanessa could dance. She had a grace and fluidity and style that I had no hope of copying. I could have watched her dance like that all night long I just couldn't do it myself. She gave me some help at the start of every song, and she pointed out some lame white girls who were doing moves I should avoid. And yet I still felt like I was floundering around like a dorky white guy.

On the upside, my Exemplar stamina was keeping me from wearing out. And I didn't need to punch guys out to get them to leave us alone.

Oh. at first I was fairly concerned about that part. Guys were watching us. Guys were ogling us. I was fairly sure that a few guys were drooling. There were plenty of guys who thought Vanessa needed to 'go party' with them. There were a disgusting number of guys who thought that I needed to 'go party' with them. All right, I could see why that was happening, since Vanessa was the hottest woman in the entire club, and I was reluctant to admit it, but I could have been the second hottest in the club even though I was wearing no makeup whatsoever.

And my frostiest 'go away' was met with the kind of macho attitude that I didn't like back when I was Trevor and I never had to endure guys looking at me that way. But I had Vanessa with me.

Vox just voiced them into leaving. Some of them she told to find other girls to hit on. Some of them she told to go home. And, of course, there were a few guys with whom she had to be a little more specific.

There was this one guy, Jake, who looked like he was around eighteen, although he could have been a year or two older or younger. He was handsome. Maybe he was even in the lower Exemplar classes. And he obviously was used to girls melting as soon as he smiled at them. Unfortunately, he would just not take no for an answer, and he had decided that I was going to be his party girl for the evening. Ugh. Even if I were actually female, and if I were attracted to males which believe me, is never going to happen even if I live to be a thousand I would not have been attracted to his type. Which was apparently Times New Roman, because he was treating me like he was born a couple thousand years ago. Granted, I had faced weirder things than that in the past year.

Vanessa handled it with aplomb. She simply voiced him. "You just realized she's too gross to put up with."

He promptly turned and dragged his wingman off to hit on some other girls.

I complained, "Too gross? Oh thanks, Vanessa."

She smirked at me. "I was gonna say 'her perfume makes you sick' but I wasn't sure he wouldn't puke all over us if I did."

That was when I stopped and thought about how powerful her Siren power was sometimes. "Eww. Good point."

So we had to put up with guys trying to cut in on the dance floor, and guys trying to buy us drinks like there was any way in hell I was going to drink something I hadn't monitored ever since it was opened and guys trying to lure us upstairs to party with the big boys. There was no question in my mind that the creeps urging us to come upstairs and meet someone 'famous' were fully aware that we were both well under twenty-one.

And finally, there was one guy one sleazy guy who was so fugly I wouldn't go out with him even I were an ordinary baseline het female of the right age group, who had also had five or six too many vodka shots who thought both of us would go with him and do him simultaneously. The fact that we were obviously underage, while he was in his late twenties or early thirties, didn't bother him at all. He just assumed we'd do pretty much anything for free cocaine. What a charmer.

I whispered in Vox's ear, "Voice him and make him go offer coke for sex to the blonde at the bar. The one in the skimpy red patent leather top."

She did it, and carefully waited until the guy was over hitting on the blonde. Then she asked, "What's the deal wit' that? You pimping out strangers now?"

I smiled evilly. "She's a cop. Probably vice or narcotics. She's got a gun and a badge in her purse. I spotted them when we were in the bathroom."

She began giggling into her hands. "Oh my God, you are so sneaky!"

Sure enough, the blonde led him off to one of the back hallways, and then into the door on the right of the hall. We casually made our way back that way, and didn't even try to get past the 'bouncer' who was blocking the hall. I led Vanessa a little to the right, and into a dark area. Then, while she stood watch, I went light, stuck my head far enough into the wall to hear what was going on, and eavesdropped shamelessly.

I pulled my head back and grinned. "Bingo. Our buddy is now under arrest for possession of an illegal drug and soliciting prost. They're checking for wants and warrants. Then they're going to take him to the precinct and see if he also gets charged with using, and if he's carrying enough to bump the charges up to dealing."

She grinned, "Man, crimefighting sure is a lot easier when the badguys will go hit on the cops." I snickered most of the way back to the dancefloor.

We got back to the hotel fairly late, so we slept in the next morning. Rather than go tour some museums, Vanessa opted for a leisurely brunch from room service, followed by an afternoon on the beach. And that was awesome, even if I was wearing a tank top and shorts. Vanessa was wearing this incredibly teeny bikini that clearly demonstrated she was the hottest thing for miles around. She wanted me to wear a bikini too, but there was no way. Seriously. No way. Not even when she kissed me to try to persuade me. Not even a bikini top and shorts.

We showered after the beach, and decided on dinner. After my stubbornness about beachwear, I was willing to relent on dinner. She wanted to go to eat at Joe's Stone Crabs. I had been figuring on dressing up a bit and taking her to the Palme d'Or in the Biltmore Hotel down in Coral Gables. The stone crabs were good, and eating with Vanessa automatically made anyplace better.

We made sure not to overeat, and then we went back to the club. This time, we both had a better idea of what we needed to watch. Or perhaps I should have said 'who' we needed to watch. The bouncer at the door and the receptionist just inside seemed to remember us. Or perhaps the bouncer remembered Vanessa, and the receptionist remembered my credit card. I was using one of my 'Ayla Goodkind' cards just in case we ended up needing to show our MIDs, and the name Goodkind meant something.

Vanessa wanted to dance, and so we went straight to the dance floor... via the women's room of course. The skanky blonde was back, this time in a too tight black top that looked like latex, but I didn't see her and her gun in the ladies' room. Instead there were two bleached blondes who were giggling about a party of NFL hotshots upstairs. While they took off their panties and stuffed them in their purses. Eww.

We got out on the floor and shook our groove thang. Well, Vanessa shook hers, while I tried not to look too dorky. Even after the lessons of the previous night, I still felt utterly inadequate at the kind of dancing one did in a club like this. It was Saturday night, so the party atmosphere was even worse, and the upstairs areas were being used even more heavily. Or perhaps that was 'abused' rather than 'used'.

This time, we were both better prepared. As soon as guys came over and hit on one of us, Vanessa sweetly turned them down.

"You feel like leaving."

"You are going to stop asking us to dance."

"You are going to stop hitting on underage girls because you realize it's sick and whack."

She whispered to me, "Ugh, that last guy? I shoulda made him go kiss that bouncer on the mouth. That'd teach him."

I tried not to laugh, even though I knew that would get us in trouble. People remembered what Vanessa said after her 'command voice' wore off.

After we got back to the hotel and showered separately we watched a little television in my den area before bedtime. We kissed goodnight, and Vanessa left the room.

But I was hardly in bed before there was a knock on the door. "Ayla? Ayla? Can I change my mind?"

She slipped into my bed and kissed me harder, and I never got around to saying any words on the subject.

We were quite late to the airport the next morning. Fortunately, with private planes you get a lot of leeway, even if your plane is likely to get shifted farther back in the takeoff order. So we got back to Whateley fairly late at night, but I really didn't mind...

back to Monday, March 5, 2007

I gave Toni a false smile and said as flatly as I could manage, "Miami was nice. Warm and sunny."

Vox chimed in from behind me, "It was awesome! Best vacay ever!" I hadn't realized Vanessa had walked in. But if Vanessa was here, then it was inevitable that...

Sharisha grudgingly admitted, "Yeah, she can't stop talkin' about the hotel, and the jet, and the restaurants, and the dance club, and friggin' everything."

Toni had to ask, "So, how's our Ayla on the dance floor?"

I groaned, "Just as bad as every dorky white guy you've ever seen."

Vanessa said, "Ayla's not that bad. Better'n most of the white girls out there, but no Shakira."

I insisted, "I was bad. Vanessa gave me a ton of help, and I still was lame. Now she was spectacular. The hottest thing in the entire club. Guys were hitting on her all the time."

She snorted. "Guys were hittin' on us. Ayla doesn't want to admit it, but she was the hotness out there. So, the two hottest girls in the entire club, and they're gettin' down on the dance floor and they're obviously inta each other. Every guy in the whole club was wantin' summa dat."

I couldn't help scowling, but I knew she was right. I grumbled, "And plenty of them didn't care we were underage, and plenty of them weren't interested in taking no for an answer."

"You didn't get in any fights, did you?" Billie asked.

"Me?" I protested. "I don't start fights!"

Nikki pointed out, "Then this would be the first time you didn't get into a fight when you went off Whateley grounds since... what? August?"

I glared at her. I just said, "I had a Siren running interference."

Jade piped up, "Ooh! Did you make 'em do anything funny? Like wet their pants in front of everybody? Or go give themselves the Don Sebastiano treatment?"

Vox reminded her, "Not a good idea. People remember what I tell them to do."

Jade asked, "Even if what you tell them to do is not to remember what you told 'em?"

Vox said, "We tried that one in Sirens class. Didn't work."

But Jade was undeterred. "But you could voice 'em to go do something crazy and then knock themselves out, and the concussion would probably take care of the short term memory issue!"

"Jade!" Billie snapped.

I said, "And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Generator is the most dangerous deviser at Whateley."

"No gentlemen in here 'cept you, Ayles," Toni smirked.

"And if she was a gentleman, she wouldn't be gawkin' at us when we're showerin'," Sharisha pointed out grumpily.

You know, I really hate it when the people who are right about me are my enemies.

Vox wiggled her eyebrows and smirked, "Oh, I dunno about that, Ayla was like a perfect gentleman, what wit' doing everything I asked..."

I think I managed not to blush, because the things she asked for last night after she slipped into my bed weren't anybody's business but ours.

Half the room stared at me and smirked. Nikki, Evvie, Toni, Jade, and even Sharisha did. Damn empaths. Bunny and Rip looked at Nikki's face and smirked as they said, "Ohhhhh!"

Fortunately, Vox came through with a save right then, because she launched into this story about the penthouse suite, and the room service, and the Versailles Restaurant, and...

She was still chattering away when someone new came flying literally flying into the bathroom. She was flying horizontally, with her arms straight out in front and her hands in fists, which was a good way to crash into someone in a hallway and injure at least one person. She was also nearly naked, and surrounded by a sheer red capsule of energy that trailed off behind her into a faint, rapidly-thinning tail.

"Psst. Who?" I whispered out of the side of my mouth at Toni.

The girl righted herself and landed smoothly on her feet. The red capsule faded out, revealing a busty blonde whose body said 'twenty-something porn starlet' while her face said 'young teens'. So Exemplar and Energizer, at a minimum. Possibly Exemplar and PK brick, or Exemplar and Manifestor, or a few other combinations. Avatar and Wizard seemed unlikely, and there was no sign of any invention. So I was going to go with Exemplar and Energizer.

The girl, who was wearing nothing but a sheer red babydoll nightie with matching sheer red panties, announced to the entire bathroom, "Hi! I'm Bladedancer's new roommate!"

Toni whispered back, "Cecile."

'Cecile' fisted her hands and put them on her hipbones with her elbows out at the sides. She made sure her feet spread slightly wider than her hips, just as if she had been taking dorkiness lessons from Skyhawk. Then she announced, "I'm the Crimson Comet! But everyone can call me Ceecee when I'm not in uniform."

Sharisha growled, "Fuckin' crazy white bitches" and turned away to dry off.

I just said, "It's a red flag day. You can't show off your powers outside, or even inside if there are any relatives in the dorm."

She pouted, "That's totally not fair!" But she didn't change her stance.

That was fine with me. She was wearing next to nothing. It was pretty clear from what everyone in the whole bathroom could see that she was all girl. And that she had given herself a Brazilian and done a less than professional job of it. But she was rooming with Chou, so that made her one of us. I was guessing she was still in the 'I only want to shop at Frederick's of Hollywood and Victoria's Secret' stage of her transformation. I could hardly wait until she met Marty and Elaine, and they started trading fashion tips. That said, she was a dynamite Exemplar blonde with big boobs, so watching her flaunt herself in the bathroom was hardly a hardship.

Of course, everyone else in the bathroom also knew what the room assignment meant. Sharisha suddenly fumed, "Wait! Yer roomin' with Chou? Oh great, another fuckin' boybitch!"

Ceecee looked over at Sharisha with obvious confusion written across her pretty face. She asked the room, "Aren't we all supposed to get along and be friendly? You know, a secret shared is a secret... umm... something?"

Toni and I took 'Our Friend the Comet' aside. I whispered, "Chou and Sharisha had a huge fight last fall with superpowers and Chou put her in the hospital. So we're not all one happy family around here. Just leave her alone, and she'll leave you alone. Probably."

Toni snorted, "Prob'ly not. Sharisha's got a mad hate-on for girls like us. But other than her, the rest of the girls on the floor are great. Most of the guys are good, too. Just watch out for Risk and Flux, 'cause they'll prank anybody. Same for Belle upstairs."

"Oh! I met Belle already!" Ceecee proclaimed excitedly. She gave me my big tour and all." Then she pouted, "And she played a big prank on me too." She gave Toni a smile. "Thanks for helping me out!"

Toni mouthed at me, 'explain later' and just patted Ceecee on the shoulder before moving over to a sink.

I merely pointed out, "By the way Ceecee, you might want to wear a bathrobe in the halls, since guys live on this floor too. And there might be a father or two helping move kids in today."

Ceecee grinned, "Nope, I'm the only new girl. Or boy. Or anything. Here, anyway, because I met the other new kids already, and they're in different dorms." She paused for a second and looked down at her clothes. Or lack thereof. "But the bathrobe's a good idea."

I added, "And a towel. And your bath gear. And whatever else you might want, like toothbrush and toothpaste."

Bunny said, "Maybe your hairdryer and brushes too."

Rip asked, "Do you have a bag or a kit for your stuff? They sell 'em at the school store."

Ceecee said, "Ooh, I didn't think about all that. I've got a lot more stuff than I used to. And... Oh hey, will they have tampons too?"

Toni said, "Three hundred superpowered girls with superpowered PMS and super-periods? Oh girl, they got everything you need."

Nikki gently asked, "Have you... had a period yet?"

Ceecee glanced around and then said, "Umm, not yet? I've only been a girl for a couple weeks. If I hadn't busted up a bank robbery they maybe wouldn't of told mom and dad to send me here."

Oh shit. First time supers who went 'superhero' right after mutant manifestation had painfully high rates of injury, property damage, injury and death of innocent bystanders, and death rates on the bad guys. As I knew from personal experience, since I had wrecked an entire street fighting a supervillain, and I had been lucky I didn't cripple or kill Sparkler when I finally stopped her. Hell, I was lucky my sister and I hadn't been killed. And first time supervillains tended to have even worse stats. It was no wonder so many cities wanted the Knights of Purity to back up their SWAT teams.

But Ceecee was still amped about her first foray in crime fighting. It sounded like she hadn't even done that much damage to the bank or the bank robbers, which was probably a minor miracle. But it was clear from what she wasn't saying that the police and her parents had been somewhat less than thrilled with her efforts.

She finished up as she finally got into a shower, "So can I eat breakfast with you? Because Bladedancer said you really know a lot about the classes, especially some girl named Phase, and I think she's gotta be wrong about some of this stuff."

Nikki just told her to meet up with us outside my room when she was dried off and dressed, and she had her hair all done. Because Ceecee looked like the kind of girl who needed to have her hair done right before she could set foot outside her bedroom, and if she was new at this sort of thing, it would probably take her longer than most real girls would require. Perhaps a lot longer.

It did take a while. I watched Vamp go off to breakfast with Tara and a couple of the upperclassers. I watched Chou go off to breakfast to meet up with Molly and Dorjee. I watched Risk and Flux sneaking around with a video camera to catch peeks of Ceecee flying back and forth from the bathroom wearing only a towel that didn't hold up to whatever prank they then pulled. That led to a sudden surprised squeal, some male laughter, and a couple red energy blasts that quickly led to a not-quite-manly yelp and some heavy shoes running down the other hall.

When Ceecee finally showed up, properly dressed and coiffed for spring in Los Angeles if not for March around here, her first question wasn't about Risk and Flux. "How come it's so much warmer in the bathroom? Back home, our bathroom's way colder."

"Well Ceecee, that's one of the many important things you have ta learn about around here," began Toni in her attempt at a 'wise old sage' voice.

"Along with rules like 'never listen to Toni'," added Nikki.

"Or 'never follow anyone who says I have a cunning plan'," Hank chipped in.

"And 'never get involved in a land war in Asia'," smiled Billie.

"Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" Jade contributed triumphantly.

"Oh! The Princess Bride! I love that movie!" Ceecee smiled. Then she pouted, "My dad hates when I watch it. He says it's too girly."

Nikki asked, "How long have you been one of us?" Ceecee looked at Hank and me. Nikki explained patiently, "Yes, Ayla too. And Hank's one of us, just going in the other direction."

"Oh. Well, this is Monday, so lemme see..." She started counting on her fingers. "My eyes changed fifteen days ago on a Sunday, and it took me three really sucky days to turn into me, and I felt really rotten the whole time, but then I was okay again Wednesday morning." She gave everyone a happy smile.

I got the feeling that several of my teammates would have liked to wring Ceecee's neck at that moment. Nikki had taken roughly a year to change fully, and Jade was still trying to get where she wanted. Toni had gone through months of change while having to share a room with an obnoxious big brother. Hank went through months and months of really uncomfortable changes in front of most of an army base. And, unlike some people I could name, Ceecee had even gotten the change she wanted. She had no idea how lucky she was.

I found I was actually looking forward to being around Alex if it happened to be the moment when Ceecee bounced in and Alex verbally slamdunked her. I think that says something important about me. On the other hand, I refrained from browbeating the girl, despite the intense temptation. On the gripping hand, I did imagine for several seconds the fun of introducing Ceecee to Jadis and Kate.

Thanks to Ceecee's questions, we managed to stroll off to breakfast without a lot of additional chatter about my experiences over break. Maybe my intense unwillingness to discuss it was a tiny tip-off for the crew. Instead, Ceecee got us started talking about class schedules. Once again, most of the team was taking sixth period aikido, while I was taking it fourth period.

I explained once again, "I don't have a choice. There's only one pre-calculus class, and I need to take that."

Toni shook her head. "No way, you don't need to take it. You just want to. What you need ta take is aikido with the big girls."

Hank cleared his throat meaningfully.

Toni smoothly corrected herself. "I mean, with the big girls and boys. You aren't gettin' nothin' out of sparring against Aquerna and Kamuro. Your only chance ta learn how to fight in the big leagues is here. You can take college courses anytime."

I said, "There are going to be plenty of good opponents for me in fourth period. Just because you're not in there doesn't mean there's no one who's any good."

Hank said, "No, I think Miss Motormouth is right."


He went on, "You need to be sparring against the serious powerhouses around here. You ought to be doing sixth period aikido, and you ought to be in sensei Dennon's brick class."

I insisted, "There's more to life than P.E."

Of course, my reluctance to take Dennon's class could also have had something to do with Poise's comments about the girls having to pass a test where they had to spar while wearing a tight skirt and high heels, and carrying a cup of tea. I really was planning on taking that course, but I was counting on being able to do so after I got my body fixed. Wearing a tux? Not as big a personal problem.

He shook his head. "We've got too many heavyweight enemies out there. You need to be preparing for major nastiness. Look at what happened to you against Sparkler because you didn't know how to fight. Look at what happened to you against Mimeo. Or those demons at Christmas. Or-"

I interrupted, "I see your point. But I can merge academics and self-defense into the same schedule. And pre-calc is important. I can't take calculus or advanced physics without it. Trust me on this, but business calculus is a joke. I'm interested in studying serious economics and econometrics, and I need a real math background for that."

Ceecee wondered out loud, "You need calculus for economics? The econ courses I looked at don't have any kind of math as a pre-req."

Billie gave her a look. "Home Ec doesn't count as economics."

Hank cut into that discussion. "Look, we made a big enough splash in Team Tactics that we got moved into the sim battles. And that's why we have that appointment down in the holo sims at five this afternoon."

"CRAP!" I complained. "When did that happen?"

Hank blew out a deep breath. "While you were off partying in Miami, and we were all sitting around helping get Alex ready for spring term classes."

I checked, "I thought the Whateley guidelines said that teams weren't eligible for the battle sims unless they had at least one-third sophomores or upperclassmen, and then only on a case-by-case basis."

Billie muttered, "Technically, Nikki and I are both old enough to count as sophomores. If someone wants to."

Hank added, ticking courses off on his fingers, "And you placed out of Latin I through III, intro English, and Algebra I and II. Plus Geometry. Then you did more than a full courseload, and you went through all four Accounting courses like they were 'See Spot Run'. So Admin says they can count you as a sophomore too, if they choose to."

Ceecee looked at me and gasped, "Wow, she was right, you are a genius at this stuff!"

Several of us were still staring at Hank, so he explained, "I got a complete rundown on your scholastics from them when they told me you were technically one of the 'sophomores' on the team. That puts us over the thirty-three percent rule."

I groaned, "So they're using semantics and rules-lawyering to get the hot frosh team into the battle sims."
Re: Ayla and the Mad Scientist [message #52577 is a reply to message #52576] Sun, 29 January 2012 03:26 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Diane Castle is currently offline  Diane Castle
Messages: 2554
Registered: September 2007
Location: Oregon, USA
"Maybe they took some lessons from Loophole!" Jade chirped mischievously.

Toni said, "Well, maybe, if some team smartasses hadn't figured out three different ways to stomp the snot outta that killer sim in Team Tactics-"

"I told you Radioactive Condor Girl was a brilliant idea!" Jade and Jinn both insisted.

"Pronouns, please?" Nikki groused.

Toni ignored the byplay and continued, "-they wouldn't have thought we were too cool for school."

Nikki said, "Well, what did you expect? You don't get a great big 'A' in Team Tactics without getting a bullseye painted on your butt."

Toni just grinned. "Yeah, about that. Thanks, Ayles."

I grumbled, "With all the work we did, we should have gotten an A+ in that course."

Hank said, "You mean with all the extra credit work you turned in."

I calmly insisted, "I didn't do any extra credit work that didn't involve at least half the team."

Hank rolled his eyes. "No, you just did all the collation, re-structuring, writing, proofreading, and typing."

"And your point is?"

Toni said, "Give it up, Hunk. Our girl's happier not lettin' us screw up her grade point average. Can you imagine what our briefings would've looked like if I wrote 'em? Or Jade?"

Hank said, "I don't think they were grading on grammar. Or whether we submitted 'em on electronic letterhead from Hello Kitty."

"Hey! I only sent those to you once! Well, maybe twice."

Jinn interrupted, "Four times. Remember the two I sent?"

"Oh yeah," Jade agreed. "I wasn't gonna count those."

I said, "When you guys are done arguing with yourself, I'd like to make a point. I can organize and write a three-page paper in less time than it takes to get all my notes printed off and annotated for someone else to write up. And I would still want to read your paper, edit it, and check the final copy before you sent it off. So figure it would take Toni or Nikki five times longer than I need to write it up, even using my notes, and add in time for the editing cycle, and I think we're looking at needing eight times as long to do it your way as my way. I'd end up spending at least twice as much time, and I'd be less happy with the outcome."

Toni groaned, "And what could be less fun than having Ayla leaning over your shoulder correcting your punctuation and complaining about how you organized your discussion?"

"Talking to Jobe?" Jade tried.

"I dunno," Toni smirked. "Watching that boygirl tryin' to hide those boobs was pretty damn hysterical for a couple weeks."

Nikki changed the subject back to the earlier topic. "So what exactly are you taking if you can't make time for sixth period? Not that I'm complaining. I can't do it either. I've got Hagarty kicking my ass then, which can't be any less fun than getting thrown around by Hank."

I said, "AP Physics I, Spanish II, Intro to Magical Concepts-"

"Grimes got Sir Wallace to make me do the TA thing in there. Ugh," Nikki complained.

"-Aikido II, Physics lab, Pre-calc, plus I'm doing the TA jobs for Accounting I through IV, so that's my free afternoons Monday through Thursday. And I'm starting weekly lessons with Circe on Saturday afternoons."

"Overdoin' the whole school deal, Ayles," Toni said.

"High school is supposed to be fun, y'know," Jade insisted.

"I think the operative phrase there is 'supposed to be' because if it wasn't for all of you and Vox, it would be pretty much unbearable," I admitted.

I really didn't want to think what things would be like if the highlight of my day was coming back to the room and having to endure more Alex. Even with the might of the Kimbas behind me, I still had regular 'oh my God it's a fucking Goodkind' moments around campus, and that was never going to go away. I was still trying to tone down my attitude, which even people in the Golden Kids thought needed some downward adjustment. That didn't touch on the humiliating 'chick with a dick' problems, because a lot of the guys who didn't want to hit on me hard because I looked like a hot girl, wanted to hit me hard because I looked like a hot girl. Then there was the whole issue of all the other threats who were trying to kill me or put me in a hospital bed. A lot of the time, I felt like there was a bullseye painted on my back. Or perhaps on my butt.

My life was really a lot better before I turned into an intersexed, mostly-female, widely-hated freakazoid mutant with an unfortunate ancestry and a minimum of security forces around me. Even if it meant that I had my blinders ripped off, so that I had learned the truth about some important aspects of reality.

Ceecee, on the other hand, was busy working the system to do the minimum amount of work in the easiest courses. She was asking, "So which is easiest for science: marine science, earth science, botany, or biology?"

Billie said, "None of the biology or botany classes are on the slacker track, and they've got some really amazing biology classes if you have the interest and the aptitude. So if you're looking for the slide classes, marine science and earth science. But they're not going to help you for college like normal biology and chem and physics."

I had somehow managed to forget that Billie was really, really good with biology. Or at least I hadn't thought about it lately. She was still struggling with math, but she just grokked biology. She had really enjoyed the bio class she had taken fall term, which from what she had talked about was mostly grad-level theoretical biology and biochemistry.

Not that Ceecee was interested in details like that. She was still grappling with a new class schedule in a new school with new people. As far as I could tell, she hadn't really dealt with her own mutant manifestation and her accompanying powers. She had pulled a Toni, though. She had gone from a miserably unhappy ugly duckling to a sparkling swan. A swan with superpowers. I wondered how she was going to deal with plebeian concepts like school and homework.

I wondered how I would have dealt if I hadn't turned into a freak and my family hadn't been terrified of me. Would I be another Stormwolf, swaggering around with a stick up my ass? Would I be another Tidewater, busy being a Golden Kid? Would I be another Fantastico, using my money and prestige to hit on every hot woman who crossed my path? Or would I be even worse?

"OOH!" Ceecee's voice cut through my little fugue. "Wow, it's even cooler than it was last night!" Ceecee was staring open-mouthed at the Crystal Hall.

I had to admit it. The new Crystal Hall really was improved. Instead of a huge geodesic dome with a single floor and a phenomenal amount of wasted space, it was now the same geodesic dome, but with an additional two levels added. Each new level was still a large disk with a high ceiling, so no one was feeling cramped. The upper two levels didn't touch the sides of the dome, so there was enough space to fly around the level, if you were so inclined. There were already a couple students who had opted on green flag days to fly up to their level rather than taking the stairs.

Every level had great views. The seniors had re-designed the central waterfall and pools so the system reached up higher than the current top level, and each level had some waterfalls and some pools. Three tall, slender trees rose up through openings in the upper floors. As if that wasn't enough, the plantings on each level tended to be thematic. There was one elevator, plus a winding staircase that coiled around the central waterfall. There were also two up escalators and two down escalators, a pair on each side of the dome.

The ground floor was a now-larger food area plus the same eating areas. The specialty foods were more separated from the main food lines for a little privacy. The vent-fan area was still there, thank God. All we needed was Killstench or Musk or Miasma turning the entire dome into a toxic waste dump.

Since each level was a little smaller than the level below it, we weren't actually increasing the seating area by a factor of three, but it was reasonably close since there were no food tables on the upper levels. That meant that there was a lot less crowding, and a massive reduction in tension. Well, anything would have been better than cramming ninety percent of the student body into the Dunn Hall cafeteria three times a day. Not to mention that the food was back to its usual quality.

Once the Alphas announced the re-opening of the Crystal Hall at the end of winter term, the self-proclaimed big cheeses had instantly jockeyed for positions. The Alphas had, of course, taken one of the central tables on the top level, near the uppermost portion of the waterfall. The New Olympians had taken another, on the opposite side of the waterfall. The Golden Kids and the Cape Squad also took tables near the center of the top level, a fact which surprised no one. The rest of the top level was mainly comprised of groups who wanted a nice seat and didn't feel like fighting for the center of the top level, but were too tough to kick down to a lower floor. Team Kimba was up there, in what I considered to be a primo spot where we had a nice view of the waterfall pools and also of the great outdoors. Hank and I had made sure we were also far enough away from the elevator and the stairs that we would be hard to bushwhack. The Grunts, the Bad Seeds, and the Pan-Asians were on the same level. I thought the Bads showed a great deal of maturity and forethought when they decided to sit out toward the windows, so they didn't have to put up with the Cape Squad three times a day. I suspected that Jadis had needed to argue with a number of Bad Seeds to get them to see reason.

We could have forced our way closer to the center, but none of us saw the need. And none of us wanted to sit next to the Alphas or the 'Lympies. It turned out that Venus, Inc. was on our level and had appropriated a table relatively near us, which meant more pulchritude for Hank and me to enjoy. Okay, that was also more pulchritude for Nikki and Toni to enjoy as well, since they were still playing on both sides of the park. Jade didn't have eyes for anyone other than Stephen, and Billie simply didn't look at other teenagers male or female the way most of us did. I really wished I knew whether that was a sign that she was still a lot more depressed than she wanted to admit, or if it was a sign of something a lot more disturbing, such as the possibility that she wasn't all that attracted to humans anymore. Outcast Corner was on our level too, but Hank and I had made sure the waterfall was between us and Jericho's clothing.

The Dragons and the Tigers had both wanted a prestigious spot for their table. They had ended up having a sparring contest during exam week of winter term, because neither wanted to be on the same floor as the other, but neither wanted to be stuck on a lower level than their rivals. The contest was big enough that they had held it in the dojo with sensei Tolman and sensei Ito as judges. Toni and Billie had dragged most of us to see it. I had to admit that I was impressed. There were eleven matches, each of them best two falls out of three. The Dragons had won the contest 6-4, since one match had ended in a double knockout and had been judged a draw. N'Dizi was a gigantic jerk, but he was a tough jerk: even with a still-healing spear puncture through the butt, he won his match against one of the Dragons' toughest members. The primary consequence of the match was that the Dragons had a table on our level and the Tigers had one only one level down. That worked out well for us. Toni didn't have to deal with N'Dizi every day, and Chou didn't have to look at that lamebrain Thunderdrake.

Chou's team was on the next level down, almost right underneath us, where Team Kimba could lend some subtle tactical assistance, if Team Chou ever called for it. After all, I could dive right through the floor and hurl a couple weapons at any troublemakers, and Fey didn't even have to do that to lend a helping hand. Then the J-Team could swarm over the edge of the level and inward to help out Team Chou in any of a dozen different bizarre ways, including as a swarm of hornets.

Yeah, Jade had five dozen little plastic hornets with nasty payloads in their stingers, in a plastic box inside her purse of holding. Not that I had needed to deal with the things yet. I just knew about it because she had gone to Bunny for assistance, and Bunny had come to me for a few expensive components. Jade had gotten the idea from one of our sims last term, and had run wild with it. So I knew that anyone might suddenly find a cloud of hornets attacking them with everything from knockout injections to tracking devises.

Knowing Jade as I did, I was sure that someday, some jerk would yank her purse away from her, open it up to look inside, and get a faceful of angry hornet surprise. Hell, I wouldn't be all that surprised if someday some jerk opened up her purse to look inside and got a faceful of her best mimicry of the facehugger from "Alien". I was just hoping that a surprise like that didn't happen while I was eating nearby.

Of course, the Underdogs and the Nerd Herd were down on the bottom level, over where no one could pick on them without obviously going out of their way to do so. The Losers, Horrorshow's dorky buddies from Emerson dorm, were down there too, as were some of the GSD kids who didn't want to use the escalators or the elevator.

The Goths were down there too, as were some of the bullies who had been taken down a peg or five over the course of the year. My sources told me that the Capes and the Betas both had made sure that Buster and his buddies knew where they were going to be sitting for the rest of the year. They were just seated as far away from the Underdogs and the Nerd Herd as was feasible. The only potential problem I had heard about so far was that Bravo Company was sitting not too far from the bully tables, and Bravo kept trying to lay the verbal smackdown on the 'known offenders', warning them in his usual Skyhawk-esque way to straighten up and fly right, or else. Hazard and the other bookies had several lines running on this: how long it would be before there was a mealtime fight between Bravo Company and some of the bullies; who would get hurt; how serious the injuries would be; how much property damage would happen; and even whether a pack of squirrels would get involved. Risk wouldn't tell me who was betting on the pack of squirrels. He claimed he had no idea.

The middle level held most of the middle of the school's pecking order. The Beret Mafia was in there, which really pissed Kismet off immensely, but she couldn't get any support from the rest of the Berets to battle their way up to the top floor. The Whateley Academy Martial Arts Cheerleaders were there, and several of them complained loudly about how unfair that was, every chance they got.

The G.O.B. had been consigned to the middle level; their luster was a bit tarnished now that they had suffered several consecutive failures, all of them on a very public scale. It had consequently impacted the hotness of the dates that Oiler and Minefield could get, and the number of hot girls who would go out with Fantastico. I knew perfectly well that Fantastico was holding most of that against me, and my contacts told me that Minefield was trying to find a way to get back at Aquerna. I wasn't going to let that happen, even if Anna was still mad at me. But no one who spent time plotting against one of the Underdogs was going to be taken seriously around Whateley. Well, no one who had their big revenge plans scuttled by one Underdog was going to be taken seriously around Whateley.

On the other hand, lots of students just sat where they wanted on the lower two levels and had meals with their friends. The Crystal Hall was large enough that the entire student body could be seated on the bottom level, if chairs and tables were brought down and squeezed in. Vanessa just sat wherever her homeys were sitting, and that seemed to change from day to day. Some of the time, they were up with the Tigers, and some of the time they were over with a bunch of the Dickinson girls, and some of the time they were wherever they could get the most privacy.

By the way, I think that I need special dispensation in order to utter the word 'homey' in ordinary conversation. There are plenty of things that Vanessa and Toni say that I am never going to be able to say without looking like the biggest dork since Vanilla Ice.

But some of the students still weren't using the Crystal Hall. My sources told me that Thuban was still mainly having private meals over in his secret lair in Twain. A number of the devisers and gadgeteers didn't remember to eat while meals were being served: my sources told me that Anna was occasionally using her highly limited pocket money to buy Hazmat a burger and fries, and she was getting it to go. There were a couple scroungers who ran food for a number of the Workshop kids, tacking on a standard percentage to recoup their investment of time. Some of the Thornies never left their dorm, and the ones who did seemed to cluster off toward one side on the bottom level, where they were out of the way and could be undisturbed. Of course, since Jimmy T and Slab were usually in that group, no one sane was going to go over and pick on them. In fact, the Thornies were more likely to cause some of the problems on that level, particularly when Olympia ate with them. Apparently, she said the phrase "Are you looking at me?" more often than Travis Bickel, with roughly the same consequences, only she yelled it out in Greek. My contacts had informed me that Jimmy T and Slab had already had to separate her and Bravo, along with Bravo's loony girlfriend Pucelle. Vamp really got under my skin a lot, but she had excellent nicknames for Pucelle, and she traded snarky nicknames with Toni enough that I had heard most of them. My personal favorite so far was "Jeanne d'ork", but I had a feeling Vamp would come up with more gems before spring term was over.

But all the jockeying for position and the changes in seating options meant that we Kimbas were usually left alone. We didn't have to look at Jericho's clothes, and we didn't have to watch Sarah consume a cage full of bunnies, and we didn't have to put up with annoying twits. We could have a nice, enjoyable meal. Except when my own tablemates were keeping me from enjoying my meal.

We went through the food lines. I was still reminding myself every day to be thankful we weren't stuck in the dank oubliette that was the Dunn Hall cafeteria, with their hillocks of ort that everyone else was content to eat. I made a small detour past the dairy area to take a plate from Jana. At least Jana was still talking to me. And hopefully not spitting in my food before she brought it out.

The plate held two nice-sized cinnamon rolls. I could tell just by looking that the glaze wasn't the usual dreadful 'all sugar all the time' icing that cinnamon rolls usually wore. I made sure to get a cup of the good coffee, and a bowl of a tasty-looking citrus fusion that a lot of other kids were avoiding because it clearly had two kinds of grapefruit in it. Well, what they didn't know wasn't going to hurt them, but it was certainly going to improve my breakfast.

I watched as Ceecee rode up the closer escalator with Nikki. So did most of the other guys and maybe a third of the women. Granted, some of the women were trying to size up the new competition, because it was obvious Ceecee was an Exemplar, and if she was already hanging out with Fey, that apparently put her fairly high up in the Whateley pecking order. Still, Fey wasn't just a '10', she was the '10', and Ceecee was a good 9.5, even if the Bulgarian judge was giving her a low score for pairing that miniskirt with those heels. Watching them going up an escalator was just one of the pleasures of Whateley.

I made a small detour so I could put a disruption-light hand through Greasy's recording gear as Peeper tried to get him lined up on Nikki and Ceecee's buns. As the videocamera started to smoke and sizzle, Peeper turned to glare at Greasy, like the poor guy had done it deliberately. I took advantage of the moment to move around on Peeper's other side and pass a disruption-light finger through Peeper's wireless microphone and the recording/editing hardware he had slung over the shoulder closer to me. Then I casually walked off to the escalator while Peeper started banging the mike on Greasy's shoulder. Like that was going to get it working again.

I rode up to the top level and checked out the place as I walked over to our table. Kodiak was having some sort of discussion with Pyrrhic, while Loophole tried to get everyone to calm down. Imperious was talking with Majestic, and apparently making fun of the Alpha table. Cytherea was sashaying to the New Olympian table while her Toy of the Week carried her tray for her. Jericho was showing off his new shirt, and making most of the Outcasts wince. Diamondback was turning around and facing away from him while she ate, which I supposed was easier to do if you had a serpentine torso. Over by our table, Poise was showing something in a magazine to Lifeline and a couple other Venus Inc. girls. Jade was interested in it too, which was all I needed in order to be sure I would not be interested.

I sat down between Toni and Hank. As soon as I touched the crystal... nothing happened.

Hank murmured, "Don't bother." He tilted his head toward our guest. Ceecee was sitting at the table between Nikki and Jade. Unfortunately, Fey had to keep mentally switching the crystal on and off, since Ceecee wanted to keep chatting with everybody, but she hadn't bothered to touch the crystal.

It wasn't as if Nikki didn't do this regularly, since she had to turn off the spell most of the times when people walked over to talk to one of us, but I could see she was getting frustrated. And without the crystal, we had to watch what we said. Okay, we would have had to watch what we said even if we were using the crystal and Ceecee had touched it, since she appeared to have all the discretion of Scrambler on methamphetamines. Not that I had ever seen Scrambler take drugs, or ever come across any suggestion that she did. Word was that some of the speedsters had trouble ever slowing down to normal speeds, so they drugged up just to deal with the rest of the world. Scrambler didn't appear to be one of them. And from what I had been able to find out, the speedsters who were druggies were usually hitting the downers or pot or designer drugs, not chemicals that made their perceptions worse. One of my sources thought that the reason Bombshell had booted Accelerator out of Elite League was that he used. A lot. Not that booting their speedster out of the team would leave a gaping hole, since a lot of Cape wannabe's were apparently trying to get a slot on that team. And my evaluation from Team Tactics class was that Accelerator was the least useful member of the team, because of his behavior and attitude. That was probably going to be a headache for Team Kimba at some point down the line, particularly if they picked up some of the more dangerous talents as replacements.

I took a slow bite of one of the cinnamon rolls, and managed not to drool on myself. Oh man, those were good. The perfectly-baked dough was rich and buttery and yeasty, and the filling was a deliciously buttery crème of cinnamon and brown sugar, with just a hint of cardamom. The glaze wasn't a thick, cloying glob of overly sweet icing. It was a rich cream cheese topping, with just the right amount of vanilla and sugar to make the cinnamon of the rolls really sing in your mouth.

Ceecee looked over and asked Toni, "I didn't see any cinnamon rolls. How come Ayla has special food? Is she on some kind of fancy diet plan? 'Cause she totally doesn't need to be losing more weight."

Toni grinned at me and said, "Umm, yeah. A diet plan. You could say that."

I refrained from sighing. "It's technically not a diet plan. I just..."

Lancer said, "She has such a refined palate that the chefs here use her as an expert taster for the food they fix for the faculty and staff."

I said, "That's not strictly correct. I just prefer to eat something other than corndogs and Big Macs."

Ceecee nodded. "I totally get you. Those Chicken McNuggets are way better, and I like the Quarter Pounders more. Big Macs are so nineties."

Toni snorted into her milk but somehow kept from making whatever smartass comment she was thinking.

But before I could correct her, Ceecee was off on another tangent. "So anyways the reason why I wanted to sit with Team Kimba today was I wanted to ask you if Chou was right about my classes. She's telling me I need to take martial arts too, and I just don't get that. I mean, I'm super-strong! I don't need P.E."

Toni said, "I think Chou's right. And the martial arts they teach are really pretty cool."

Ceecee pouted, "Superman never takes karate, ya know, he just punches people. Or... hits 'em with trucks! Hey, can you hit guys with trucks in karate class? 'Cause that would be my special move. The guy goes hi-ya! And I go 'TRUCK!' And the match is over."

Hank casually asked, "Can you pick up a truck?"

Ceecee frowned, "Well, no, not like a dumptruck." Then she perked up again. "But I can pick up a compact car."

Toni patiently said, "Look Ceecee, you're not the strongest kid at Whateley. So if you want to be a superhero when you grow up, you need to learn how to fight people who are just as strong as you. Or stronger."

Ceecee insisted, "Hey, that's what I got my comet-blasts for! And my comet-shield! And my comet-flight! I so don't need comet-karate too. And anyways, I got regular classes to take like what I'm supposed to be taking this year! I mean, I got signed up for English and pre-algebra and marine science and global studies and Intro to Superpowers with that lab." She looked around the table. "Because learning about superpowers is really gonna be good when I'm fighting supervillains! But English? And math? Stupid. Maybe global studies can help me, so I'll know about Karedonia and Interleague and stuff like that."

I tried again, "Ceecee, there is more to life than fighting badguys. You'll have to get a job when you grow up."

"Crimefighter!" she smiled.

"I meant a job that actually pays the rent."

"Crimefighter on a superteam," she extrapolated.

"Lots of superteams can't pay a living wage. You'd still have to have a real job," I explained.

"I'll be a model!" she said perkily. I could actually hear the slap as Nikki facepalmed. "Chou said there was a modeling club, I'll join them too."

I did my best to let her down gently. "You're talking about two groups that have a ton of applicants every term. Do you really think you're better qualified than, say, the top half a dozen people in the entire senior class?"

She pushed out her lower lip as she thought it over for several seconds. "Okay, then I can wait to join when I'm a senior."

Toni said, "Look Ceecee, martial arts isn't just a bunch of Bruce Lee wannabe's screamin' at each other and breaking boards with their faces. It's people like Hank and Billie learning how to leverage their powers and be more effective. Most of the big guns in the Cape Squad have had at least a year of martial arts, if not a lot more. Maybe you don't take aikido this term. But I really think you'd get a lot out of it if you took it next year."

Hank said, "And you'd not just learn how to fight people stronger than you. You'd learn how people weaker than you might fight you."

Ceecee shrugged, "How can anybody weaker than me fight me? I'm superstrong, and I got forcefields too!"

I took over. "Hank's roughly twice as strong as you are. He's a PK superboy. He can hit you with five tons of force with just his little finger. The lead teacher for the aikido class is a baseline. An old man. He beat Hank on the first day. He used as many tricks as he could, but he still did it. Once. And that's all that it takes in the real world. If a supervillain uses a couple tricks on you and beats you just once, that may be it. You may end up dead, or too severely injured to play superhero ever again. That's why this sort of class is important."

And yes, the pure hypocrisy of my statements, so soon after I refused to switch to sixth period aikido, did in fact leave a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I was ever going to admit it, when Toni was sitting there wearing an enormous, smug smirk.

At any rate, I still thought I could learn as much aikido in fourth period as in sixth period, even if I wasn't going to be fighting Toni and Hank and Billie. Also, I thought life would be easier if Chou and I didn't have to spar anytime soon, since people watching us spar would be expecting some anger management issues, and a lot of people would probably be rooting for Chou to slice me up into tiny slivers of sushi.

Okay, if Counterpoint was in fourth period aikido with me, then that was going to be a problem. Even though he was still pretty horribly mangled from his big fight with Jobe and Belphoebe, and whatever Jobe had injected into him was still doing a number on his ability to regenerate. I was anticipating that he wouldn't be taking any martial arts this term, since he was a lot more likely to be spending most of the term in a hospital bed. Or, if Jobe's serum did what some of Jobe's secret formulae could do, Counterpoint might be spending the term in a terrarium. Or a pet bed.

Back in fall term, there had been four periods for the introductory aikido class taught by Tolman and Ito. This term, there were only two classes: fourth period and sixth period. I had a feeling that the Counterpoints of the school would want to move up to sixth period so they could fight the heavy hitters of the freshman class, while everyone else still taking aikido would be in fourth period, so even if Counterpoint did manage to get back on his feet later in the term, I didn't think he would be my problem. Toni and Chou and Jade's problem? Unfortunately likely. And it wasn't as if Sara would just get fed up with him and eat him.

I did try to convince Ceecee to take a better science course than marine science, which was one of the slide courses, along with earth science, which was known around campus as 'Rocks For Jocks'. But the more Tennyo talked about the biology course she took last term, the more intimidated Ceecee became. Granted, Billie's class was a really poor example for a high school science course, given that her teacher had been getting them to study some cutting edge research on introns.

Just to make matters worse, Jade started talking about force and power in physics, and how the formulas made no sense for a lot of what she and the J-Team did. That just convinced Ceecee to skip physics and stick with her current schedule. It convinced me that Jade hadn't been paying attention some of the time in her class, or else was doing a really poor job of explaining how classical physics wasn't able to explain mutant powers like pattern theory could. Not that I understood pattern theory, or even thought I could learn even the fundamentals of it without years of study. No, that was the kind of work that I hired people to do for me.

Suffice it to say that by the end of breakfast, we hadn't convinced Ceecee to make any changes whatsoever, except that Jade had convinced Ceecee she could probably wear even higher heels, since she could fly when she wanted to. And Nikki had given up completely on stealth, and had simply turned her crystal off for the morning meal.

Oh, and it turned out that Poise and her friends were focusing on what would be the in colors for fall this year. I suppose someone has to care about that, as long as it isn't me. If Vanessa wanted to talk about it, I'd point her at Poise. Or Jade. Or Fey. Or even Alex, as long as I didn't have to sit and chat with her about it.

When Billie finally finished her third tray of breakfast, we all got up. Ceecee was fine with bussing her tray, since she was used to that in school. But she pouted when we had to remind her it was a red flag day so she couldn't fly over the edge of the level and down to the ground level with her tray. I did notice that she ate a lot more than a fashion-obsesssed teen would eat, but she was an Energizer. I figured that it was a relief for her to be able to eat five servings of scrambled eggs and a plate full of Canadian bacon without anyone gaping at her. After all, no one was likely to notice that as long as she was sitting next to Billie and Hank, the human vacuum cleaners. Ceecee had two full plates of food; Billie had three full trays.

Then Ceecee pouted when Jade insisted on taking Billie's tray too. Toni spotted it before I did, and teased her, "Oh yeah, didn't anyone mention this yet? The younger roommate has to buss the table for the other roommate. So I guess you're gonna be bussing Chou's tray all term long."

"Oh no! That's not fair!" Ceecee squeaked.

Jade helpfully added, "Oh yeah, and so every time Molly or Dorjee eats with you guys, you'll have to buss their trays too."

"That's totally not fair!" Ceecee pouted.

Nikki started to tell Ceecee, "Oh, and you'll probably have to fetch napkins and flatware-"

But Jade lost it. She burst out in a long series of giggles that made Toni snort with laughter too. That made everyone else grin. Except Ceecee, who pouted, "You.... You sneaks!" She paused for a second and checked, "I don't really have to get Bladedancer's tray every meal, right?"

"Right," Hank surrendered. "They were just teasing."

I supplied, "Jade's always trying to do stuff for Billie because she feels like she owes Billie a bunch of favors."

Billie looked over Jade's head and mouthed to Ceecee, "She really doesn't owe me anything."

Jade said, "And this is why I keep my devises going all the time. I really do owe her a ton. And she's the best roomie ever. And she puts up with me and all my stuff."

"The J-Team," I mentioned.

"The J-Team?" Ceecee checked as we went down to the main floor.

"Right," Toni nodded. "All Jade devises can be grouped together under the collective noun 'the J-Team'." She stuck her tongue out at me and said, "See? I did so get something out of that stupid English class."

I pretended to agree. "Yes, and the collective noun for a group of Jade's inventions is a 'wackiness' of devises."

We teased each other as we strolled back down the brick path to Poe, pointing out important landmarks, like the snow sculpture of Don Sebastiano getting anally probed with a desk lamp. Whoever had cast magics on that thing had done a great job. It wasn't showing any signs of melting yet.

So Toni started telling Ceecee stories about Sebastiano. And Toni really is a great storyteller. For a while there, Ceecee was laughing so hard I thought she was going to have to run off the path into the bushes so she didn't wet herself.

We had just barely gotten back into Poe and watched Ceecee sprint for the half-bath down the hall, when Mrs. Horton caught us in the entryway. "Girls? Hank? Mrs. Carson needs to speak with all of you as soon as you can get over to her office."

<(Phase) Crap. What is it this time?>

<(Generator) We didn't do it! And no one can prove it!>

<(Lancer) Phase, are you sure it isn't something YOU did in Miami?>

<(Phase) We didn't do anything wrong, and if we had, Carson would be calling me and Vox on the carpet, not all of Team Kimba.>

<(Tennyo) Well, let's get over there and find out. Keeping her waiting won't do anyone any good.>

<(Generator) Are you sure we can't maybe take a nap first? I've got some laundry I've gotta do...>

<(Lancer) Move out.>

<(Phase) The tunnel. Then we can fly.>

<(Chaka) What makes you think we want to get there early?>

But Billie scooped up Jade and Jinn under her arms and abruptly spun around in mid-air to head for the stairs. Hank grabbed Toni, scooping her up under her back and knees. I looked at Fey, and we flew after our teammates.

It only took us a couple minutes to get through the Hawthorne tunnel and up to Admin. That could have had something to do with the fact that Billie was leading our team through the tunnels, and very few people on campus wanted to have a showdown with Tennyo the Destroyer. Several people simply got out of her way, but two guys just dove to the floor, and a few other people flattened themselves against the walls as if we might attack them if they didn't clear a path for us.

Have I ever mentioned how much I detest the reputation that Poe has, and the Kimbas in particular? I don't enjoy being considered crazy, or having people think I surround myself with crazy people. It might help if we weren't constantly doing crazy things that made the campus gossipnet because they were so much more interesting than anything else going on around the school. But when people talked about the crazies at Poe, Team Kimba tended to be Exhibit A of late.

At least Jade didn't manage to destroy the entire school with her shoulder angel concept. Although the Halloween disaster was still linked with Team Kimba, since we had been Sarah's 'bodyguards' that night. Lots of people assumed correctly that we were expecting trouble. The fact that we were only expecting another attack from Nightbane and her pals, and not a massed invasion force, didn't change a lot of attitudes about us.

I wasn't surprised to find Hartford sitting at her desk looking surly and glaring at a couple monitors. I was surprised to find Chou patiently sitting in one of the visitors' chairs. Oh man, I was really hoping this wasn't about Chou leaving the team.

No, wait. If it wasn't about that, then it was probably about our latest battle against Darrow and his associates. Or one of the other little disasters into which we had managed to step. Or one of our other supervillain nemeses. Or...

Maybe it would just be about Radioactive Condor Girl.

Hartford seemed to be keeping an eye on us while we waited for Carson to get off her phone. Hartford seemed to have an eye on Chou and me, and I wondered if she was anticipating a fight or at least a little trash-talking. From the headmistress's office came some indistinct noises. It sounded like Carson was yelling at someone, even if the soundproofing made it hard to make out details.

<(Phase) Fey, can you tap into that?>

<(Fey) They have really good wards up around her office. I can't make the sounds clear enough to understand.>

<(Generator) Can you pipe them to Bugs so she can record them and run them through some filters later?>

<(Lancer) Too late.>

The sweet sounds of Mrs. Carson yelling at someone other than me had stopped. A red light at the top of Hartford's deskphone flickered.

Hartford looked at Hank. "You can all go in now."

Hank managed to smile politely. "Thank you, ma'am."

We walked in and took up positions. At least, it seemed that way. Hank and I sat front and center. Nikki and Toni flanked us. Chou sat behind us and to my left with Billie. Jade sat next to Jinn behind us and to my right.

I was expecting Mrs. Carson to begin with her usual 'do you know why you have been summoned' routine. Instead, she rubbed her palms together as if she was uncomfortable.

"I have some unfortunate news, and I wanted to make sure all of you heard it. I was just notified less than an hour ago about something that happened over three weeks ago, and should have been reported to us promptly. Granted, they had a reason for not telling us at once, but this is a potential problem, and you have the right to know about it."

Over three weeks ago? That moved it back toward a timeframe when Team Kimba hadn't been up to much.

She continued, "I suspect that all of you know the Department of Paranormal Affairs took steps against the Berlin MCO office at the end of January."

Several of us nodded. It wasn't as if the entire campus hadn't known. Someone had leaked intel to WARS in time for them to cover the surprise arrests in downtown Berlin, and there had been a number of parties on campus celebrating the event. As far as I had been able to tell, the DPA had been very careful not to leak news of their op ahead of time, since plenty of people in the Justice Department would have ratted them out to the MCO. That meant that the leak had to have come from a mutant-friendly source in the DPA itself, even if I hadn't been able to find out how high in the chain of command the leak was.

"There were several mutants being held in the MCO security cells at the time. When the DPA finally closed all investigations in the building, they moved the mutants out. The intended destination was the DPA secure facility in Virginia."

Ooh. I didn't like the way that last sentence sounded.

"Make and Overclock escaped while in transit."

Chaka fussed, "Oh come on, how could those two dorks take down a couple men in black and bust loose? Overclock? That tub o' lard couldn't take down my Uncle Carl! Heck, he couldn't take down my Grammy!" She paused as if she were actually thinking it over. "Nah, Uncle Carl would be easier."

And I realized the sickening truth. I had a sudden impulse to lean forward and bang my forehead on Carson's desk. I didn't. I just sighed. I said, "The DPA has special transport vehicles for powered prisoners."

Fey just looked at me with one eyebrow raised eloquently. "Aaaaaaand?"

I told her, "They're designed so none of the DPA officers can get hurt in a breakout. They're... robotic."

Tennyo actually screeched. "WHAAA?!"

Generator gasped, "What? They put the master computer crackers inside a computer? With wheels?"

Fey groaned, "Goddess! Even Arkham Asylum isn't that stupid, and they're in a comic book!"

Lancer pleaded, "Please, tell me our government isn't really LESS competent than the freaking MCO!"

Generator turned her head and complained, "I told you. You should've let me give them super-wedgies!"

Tennyo murmured, "Jade? Totally not helping here."

Bladedancer took a calming breath and asked, "So. Mrs. Carson. How long can we expect it will be before they attack us again?"
Re: Ayla and the Mad Scientist [message #53601 is a reply to message #52577] Sun, 12 February 2012 02:38 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Diane Castle is currently offline  Diane Castle
Messages: 2554
Registered: September 2007
Location: Oregon, USA
CHAPTER 3 L'Immoraliste

Mrs. Carson said, "I don't believe they'll have the resources, or the inclination. Right now they have to be spending all their time in avoiding legal pursuit."

Generator turned toward Chou and pushed, "You know, Paige is really cool. I bet if Jet asked her, she'd love to try and track 'em down and do stuff to their computers!"

I noticed Carson didn't react to Jade's comment. And it wasn't as if Jade had whispered. The entire room had heard her.

Mrs. Carson calmly said, "Ms. Hartford believes that they will be unable to breach the school's firewalls. If The Palm hasn't managed, she doubts they can come close. Unless they know any of your real names and are also willing to risk the wrath of the world superhero and supervillain communities, your families..." She looked right at me. "...and your finances should be safe."

I said, "As far as I have been able to ascertain, the only real name they might know is mine."

Chaka helpfully added, "And if they go after your fam, those little weasels'll get just what they deserve."

Mrs. Carson carefully ignored that comment and asked me, "Do you need to transfer any of your holdings to more secure facilities?"

I replied, "I believe my holdings are as secure as is feasible. While the stock markets are theoretically a point of attack, the cyber-security the government has put in place has stood up to everything short of a Palm attack."

Mrs. Carson smiled. "Ms. Hartford assures me that the NYSE and the ASE have both been attacked by The Palm, and her countermeasures have been sufficient. So I think we'll assume Overclock and Make won't have any success there."

Chaka just had to check, "And there's no way those dorks can get in at us here?"

Mrs. Carson gave Toni a very wintry smile. "Amelia Hartford is always eager for old students to come back and... visit her in cyberspace. And she's always... prepared for visitors."

I had the feeling that if anyone in the room had been one of the school computer whizzes, there would have been an audible gulp. Then I wondered if there were any of my inventors who needed a subtle hint that playing pranks on the school intranet, even after graduating, might be fraught with peril.

Jericho. I'd better mention something to him. Or maybe Diamondback, since she seemed to monitor his behavior better than he did. Maybe Loophole and Carmen. And Askey. And...

As we left Admin and got far enough away that Hartford couldn't eavesdrop, Toni hastily asked, "Whadda ya think?"

I surreptitiously glanced around. Several computers were still visible, and I had no doubt that Hartford could capture the webcam atop any of them. Did she have software that could read lips? I wasn't interested in finding out the hard way.

<(Phase) Security would be good here.>

<(Lancer) Definitely.>

<(Chaka) Hey, what are Nikki's crystals for? This stuff!>

<(Phase) Carson didn't react when Generator suggested cyberwarfare against The Twin Turkeys. She probably has Hartford on the job.>

<(Lancer) She probably can't keep Hartass OFF the job, given they screwed with her code.>

<(Tennyo) So maybe she's already hunting down the creeps, even if it might be good for me?>

<(Fey) She took the whole invasion of the sims pretty personally. Her aura really flares every time the subject comes up.>

<(Generator) Oh yeah. She is mucho cheesed off.>

<(Shroud) Lots of anger, some frustration, some embarrassment, a whole rainbow of stuff, but mainly she's really, really mad.>

<(Chaka) And she's already on the Dark Side, so we don't have to worry about where anger leads.>

<(Lancer) Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suff...>

<(Chaka) Man! That is the WORST Bobcat Goldthwaite imitation ever!>

<(Lancer) ...ering. Oh never mind.>

<(Phase) You've got to be ready to handle the hecklers before you take that comedy routine on the road.> It really wasn't a very good Yoda imitation.

We took the tunnels back to Poe, only this time we didn't make everyone dive out of the way. In fact, we said hello to everyone. At least one of us knew every single person we passed. That wasn't much of a surprise once we got near the Hawthorne tunnel, since we all knew everyone in Poe and most of the people in Hawthorne. I did notice that not very many of the non-Poe people said hello back to me.

Once we got back to our rooms and I checked that Alex wasn't about to pop in, I called Trin & MacIntyre through our usual blind drops. Once I was through the standard verification suite, one of their staffers came on. "Ms. Goodkind, this is Anne Harris, and we will be recording this for record-keeping and a customer service review to be held in July. Is that acceptable with you?"


She asked, "What may we do for you? Do you need to speak to Ms. Trin or Ms. MacIntyre?"

"No, and I won't need to speak to one of the senior staff, either. I just wanted to give your agency an alert. Two teenaged mutants, codenames Overclock and Make, were arrested by the MCO in January, and escaped from DPA custody last month, even though their only talents are computer-related. The only two targets they're likely to attack are Whateley Academy-"

I had to stop for a moment while Ms. Harris had an acute attack of hilarity. I had a feeling she was fully aware of Amelia Hartford's reputation. Anne finally apologized, "I'm so sorry for interrupting you. It's just that... well, D33rCr0$$ lives there."

"How do you spell that?" I checked suspiciously.

"Cap D, three three ar, Cap C, ar zero dollar dollar," she reeled off.

Deer Cross? Oh. Hart Ford. With dollar signs. Not exactly a subtle pseudonym. Maybe that was her 'white hat' pseudonym, as opposed to what she called herself in her black hat and gray hat days. Or maybe she was smart enough to establish herself as D33rCr0$$ the white hat, while simultaneously running 'black hat' operations behind the scenes. I wasn't going to waste my money checking that out, if the entire FBI and NSC hadn't ever been able to come up with anything that could establish enough probable cause for a search warrant.

I refrained from commenting, and I continued. "The other target they might know to attack would be me. So you'll want to get MCO and DPA records on these two losers, buff up your computer security as needed, check over mine some more, and one other thing. I would like you to start hunting for these two specific teenaged hackers. It won't be in the MCO records, but Overclock has a weakness for Mountain Dew and Honey Nut Goodios, while Make prefers Mountain Dew Code Red. I also have some code samples from both of them that your forensic hackers might want to use as templates when they investigate possible Internet sightings."

"Now that would be very useful, Ms. Goodkind."

I said, "I'll email them to your computer security group."

She made a little 'hmm' noise. "Please send them to Carl Watts. Let me send his email address to your phone..."

* * * * *

I spent the rest of the morning dealing with phone calls and emails I hadn't touched since I left for Miami. There wasn't anything critical, but there was a lot of chaff to wade through. Plans for meetings for parts of Marvel Entertainment over spring break, drafts of contracts for my inventors, three more documents to run past Diamondback to keep Jericho happy, and a report from Trin & MacIntyre on their first cut for possible hires for a variety of jobs. It was a good thing I had a high reading speed and Exemplar levels of retention, or I would have been working through all that material for a couple weeks.

Alex came in with Tara while I was working. I just waved at them and said, "Sorry, I can't talk now," before I went back to the document I was reading. Since I was using my holo-glasses, they couldn't see anything except a blank screen. I had a pair of 'sunglasses' hooked up to the secondary video port of my laptop, and each lens had a tiny prism mounted in the middle. Images displayed at the prisms from the earpieces of the glasses were projected directly into my eyes, so no one but me could see. And I also had some normal vision through the dark glasses, so it was like looking into a really large display screen which was also casting a shadow image of the view behind the screen.

I could still hear Alex rummaging through my pantry. Tara finally whispered, "Are we disturbing her?"

Alex said, "Nah, she's just really serious about her porn."

I chose to ignore her. Paying attention to her just encouraged her to keep acting up. I kept working while they popped some popcorn.

Tara finally asked, "Why'd we come in here if we were just getting popcorn?"

Alex said, "Ayla's popcorn is way better than that dreck in the vending machine downstairs, and her microwave is a lot better than the dorm machine."

Fortunately, Alex was busy, or she would have put a lot more effort into being annoying and distracting. I think there must have been courses in it in the Boston public school system.

A while later, most of the Kimbas came and dragged me off to lunch, which was a good thing. I was in the zone, and I might have missed lunch before I finished studying all the contracts. I so needed a good PA and a topnotch staff to deal with all these details. A topnotch, trustworthy staff. But I was working on that part too. I just needed some time.

Chaka was going on about her work with Sahar. "I was so close! I could see her Ki movin', but she just couldn't get a handle on it. I gotta figure out a way so everyone else can see it movin' or feel it movin' or it's gonna take 'bout a century to get a normal person ta get that Ki doin' something icy. Soke's all 'do not rush what cannot be hurried' and all that zen, but it's not like I got all that long! Semi's got this term and next year, and then she graduates! How'm I supposed ta teach a lifetime skill in a year and a half? Even ta Sahar?"

I suggested, "Maybe you need to use your Ki skills to make your brain work more efficiently. If Paragons can grok things and counter them, maybe you can use your Ki for the same thing."

She groaned. "Been there, done that, got the ki-shirt." Jade and Billie giggled behind us. "I tried that with a couple Paragons on campus, and nada. Zip. Zero. The big goose egg."

"It didn't work," Nikki added.

"That's what I said!" insisted Toni. "And I hadda put up with Mace hittin' on me the whole time! They're not usin' their Ki at all, and so I couldn't see how they do it."

I explained, "I meant that you might be able to work out a way of using your Ki to do something analogous, not that I thought you could do your magic ki-copy trick on them."

"Yeah, you should just change your name to Mega-Man," Jade snarked.

"Mega-Woman," Toni blithely said, easily running with the joke. "Maybe Mega-Sassy-Black-Hottie."

I just said, "On the other hand, maybe Ito is right and you shouldn't be trying to rush this. If Sahar wants it badly enough, she can keep working with you on and off for the next decade or two."

"See?" Nikki said to Toni.

Toni rolled her eyes. "If Ayles is sayin' it, are you sure you wanna be sayin' it too? You might end up bein' Finance Faerie."

Nikki showed her clear Sidhe superiority and Aunghadhail's training. She stuck her tongue out at Toni and blew her a raspberry.

Toni cocked her hip and shoulder in a move I couldn't do if Vanessa coached me for a week. "Homes, I get enuffa that back in the room from Koehnes."

Nikki archly said, "If you'd stop hunting her down and giving her Ki-assisted finger pokes, she might lay off a bit."

Toni insisted, "No way. If I let that little brownie start gettin' what she wants, she'll just get worse."

Nikki looked like she was thinking it over for a couple seconds before she finally said, "You may be right."

"Course I'm right, Kee! That girl is out ta make you get treated like the queen of the whole dorm. And if she ever gets that far, she'll go for the whole campus," Toni said.

I rather suspected that Toni was right. It wasn't as if Sidhe like Koehnes really thought of humans as being all that important, and Koehnes clearly thought Nikki ought to take her rightful place as Queen of the West and Daughter of the Burning Oak, probably with a continent to rule and a house the size of one of the Goodkind estates.

As we walked along the path past Melville and moved down into the bowl of central campus, I spotted some of the Bads and their buds walking down the closer Melville path to get to the Quad. It looked like Jadis was talking to Misty and Kate, while Jobe and Phoebe were having some sort of argument that seemed to involve Jobe's labcoat and Phoebe's Whateley uniform skirt. The third drow walking with them was obviously trying to play peacemaker. Thrasher was wheeling his way around them on his skateboard, while Render tried to get the sk8rb0i to stop and listen to something he wanted to say. Phoebe looked our way and pointed at us, and Jobe stopped what she was doing for long enough to see who Phoebe was indicating. She haughtily shrugged us off and went back to her argument.

That just made me think about the last two meetings I had endured with Jobe.

The one in early February had been almost amusing. Jobe had sounded different. Most of the fourteen-year-olds around Whateley were either having their voice change, or had already hit that point. Jobe's voice had sounded like it had gone a lot higher. And he was trying to pitch it lower, back to his previous annoying tones. My sources around campus had been more than happy to tell me why. It was because 'he' was rapidly turning into a 'she'.

Jobe had been wearing his labcoat like it was a protective breastplate. And he had been wearing sunglasses. Inside. In the windowless underground bio-lab areas. The labcoat had looked oddly padded in front. He had clearly been reaching the point where one didn't have to look for the obvious; it was nearly unavoidable.

"Jobe, is it true you've finished your drow project?" I had asked as casually as I could manage.

He had practically jumped. "Who's been talking about me?" he had snapped, his voice going even higher.

I had told him, "Almost everyone. The whole campus is talking about a crazy rumor that you finished your drow serum, and then you injected yourself with it, so you're turning into your own dreamgirl. Most people think you did it on purpose. I think that part's absurd."

He had puffed out his once-pathetic chest like he was Stormwolf. "So you recognize the basic manliness that is Jobe Wilkins. Very perspicacious of you."

I hadn't told him that I thought he was about as manly as Gotterdammerung. Who was wearing dresses to his classes half the time now. No, I didn't believe he would deliberately inject himself... because I thought he was a self-centered, arrogant asshole who thought he was due everything. If he had been transgendered to start with, he would have been beating everyone in the face with it, and demanding it as his right. He would have come to Whateley as a girl, since as the crown prince of a country he obviously felt that he could do anything he damned well wanted.

Then I thought about the meeting in his lab at the end of February...

earlier: Monday, February 28
Jobe's lab deep in the tunnels under Whateley Academy

"Put that down! No, not there! Where it's supposed to go!" Jobe snapped yet again at Belphoebe

Belphoebe was looking through some of Jobe's smaller pieces of equipment and moving them to a transport frame on an anti-grav sled. In a fairly good attempt at a posh British accent, she said, "Mater, how can I possibly set up my own lab with the dreck that's available around here? Do you know what models of PCR analysis systems they think are current around here? It's a travesty!"

Jobe insisted, "You still can't have that one. Order your own. Or use the one in our room."

Jobe turned back to face me. "And I'll even throw in my lovely daughter over there, if you'll take her off my hands."

I carefully said, "No thank you. She's not a part of the agreement, and I don't want to do anything to jeopardize the contract."

"Yes. Well, that is a concern," she finally admitted.

Jobe was still trying to revert back to male, and she was still trying to pass herself off as her old male self with some reasonably impressive prosthetics. But there was no hiding those ears, or those gazongas, or those hips. I knew exactly how she felt about being stuck in a female body, so I wasn't being unkind to her... no matter how tempting it could be.

But here in the privacy of her lab, she was Jobe the Drow. Jet black skin, pure white hair pulled back in a schoolteacher's bun, bright pink lips that were currently compressed in a moue of frustration at her 'daughter' and certain larcenous tendencies that might have been passed down from Belphegor's thought processes. Or they might be Jobe's own acquisitive nature when it came to the latest and coolest laboratory hardware. Fortunately, I had yet to be addressed by either of them with regard to any state-of-the-art equipment made by Goodkind Biomedical... assuming either of them even considered Goodkind Biomedical's equipment to be state of the art, given the kinds of gear to be found around here.

I stopped and thought for a second. Did people have this much trouble with pronouns for me? I decided I would stick with 'he' for Jobe and 'she for Belphoebe, at least when I was talking to either of them. They would both be happier that way.

I also wasn't going to point out that Jobe was now quite attractive in an exotic way, or that Jobe's old looks were only attractive if compared to a naked mole rat. Although naked mole rats had a better chin than he used to possess. Now, if Jobe used that artificial skin and then tugged on a wig to hide her hair and pinnae, she would probably hate how attractive she would look. Instead, she had spent weeks trying to pass as Jobe The Dude: she applied really ugly prostheses for her nose and chin, strapped down those hooters, used a prosthetic to change the shape of her torso, and pretended she looked like a normal guy again. She hadn't really looked like the old Jobe when she had been pulling that ruse.

Meanwhile, thanks primarily to Peeper, the entire campus knew how Jobe looked. There was no fixing the PR issue that Peeper had gone public with the information on WARS while drooling over Jobe's looks and doing everything short of actually whacking off to a picture of Jobe.

Come to think of it, Peeper probably has that Sierra Club poster of Fey and a blown-up photo of new Jobe side by side on the wall beside his bed. Ick.

I put the hideous notion out of my head and got back to business. "Are you happy with the contract?"

Jobe pouted those pink lips and thought it over, even though she already had an answer. She wouldn't have called me down to her lab if she weren't satisfied with the contract. "I assume you're looking for some perk out of this?"

I shook my head no. "I just want to make sure you're fully on board with this. No minor reservations, no clauses you still suspect, none of that." She gave me one raised eyebrow, so I continued, "I like everything in the contract, and I would feel better if I felt confident that you do too."

"I wouldn't have called you down here if I weren't," she said imperiously.

That was what I wanted her to say out loud. "Good. Now if only our contract team were happy campers. Jadis is still not talking to me." And that bothered me a lot more than I was willing to admit.

She shrugged, setting off some interesting jiggling. She really needed a bra under that top and labcoat. "Jads will get over it. She always does. She likes me too much to hold a grudge for more than a couple days. She's still waiting for me to change myself back to my original manly self."

Wow, the peaks of self-deception here were so monumentally high that they were probably extending out of the stratosphere far enough to threaten passing GPS satellites. On the other hand, Jadis was probably the only female not related to Jobe who tolerated her at all, so Crown Princess Jobe was no doubt re-interpreting that as she saw fit.

"And you reviewed every clause in the contract with a reputable lawyer?" I checked.

"Obviously," she said in her most scathing tones. Frankly, the new Jobe was much better at 'scathing' than the old Jobe, largely because the nasal whininess was gone and the irritating voice had been replaced by a sexy contralto.

I said, "Good, because those special clauses where I get to buy out your dad's businesses at one cent on the dollar were hard to slip past Nephandus."

"Oh hah hah," she sneered.

Belphoebe purred, "I thought it was amusing. Oh, the look in your eyes!"

I admitted, "Look, I just want this to go well. I want you to trust me, at least as far as the contract extends. And I want to feel good about what you're developing. If we can make this a win-win situation, I'm happy."

Jobe rolled her eyes and said, "I'm going to trust you as far as the contract goes, because several people who aren't completely naïve morons vouched for you. So let's get to work. I have some important tRNA research I don't want to impact."

"What do you need from me?" I asked. I was hoping it was nothing invasive, but I wasn't going to protest unless he asked for something completely unreasonable, like bone marrow samples or samples from my cerebellum. Okay, right then I was seriously considering giving up some bone marrow samples if it would get me back to a male body.

She pointed at a surgical tray on the table. "Nothing much. A blood sample, a cheek scraping, and a couple scans."

Belphoebe took the blood samples from my forearm while Jobe took the scraping from the inside of my cheek. Then I had to strip naked to stand in the scanner. At least it wasn't an enclosed bed like a typical hospital MRI system. It was a circular platform with a matching eight-foot ceiling and four devise-studded poles set equiangularly around the platform.

Jobe and Belphoebe watched several monitors while the system did what I assumed were several distinct scans. That was a guess on my part, and I didn't ask Jobe for elucidation. But I could see the devises light up in sequence. The lights went all the way down to the platform and then back up. There was a pause for several seconds, and then the whole process repeated twice more. So I was assuming I had seen three separate scans.

But Jobe wanted to do more scanning. I had to go light while he did two more scans, and then go heavy while he did yet more scans.

When Belphoebe brought my clothes over to me, she looked toward Jobe and said, "Well, she certainly is better... developed than the Pater."

I refrained from saying anything, since I didn't know her stance on her 'father figure'. Jobe didn't feel so limited. He said, "Gerbils are better hung than Bel-Fatso."

Belphoebe giggled, so I assumed she wasn't a huge fan of the guy, either.

As I got dressed again, I nodded, "Great. If you need anything else, just let me know."

Jobe just glared at me. "Why would I need anything else that I didn't already plan for? That would be short-sighted and moronic."

back to Monday, March 5, 2007

Nikki looked over at the three Drows and growled, "Ugh. It wasn't bad enough he turned himself into a travesty of the Sidhe, then he got Belphoebe, and now he's turned Bova into another one. This has to stop."

I wasn't exactly a member of the Jobe Wilkins Fan Club, but I still pointed out, "He didn't create Belphoebe, he just created the serum. Belphegor stole some of the serum and Drow'ed up a cloned body. Jobe just got stuck with the consequences."

Fey glared at me, letting Aunghadhail out a bit. "But she's going to make more! Have you seen the application form?"

"Actually, yes," I admitted. "She has an ego the size of Los Angeles."

Chaka groaned, "She really thinks girls are gonna want to get all Drow'ed up just to hang with the Jobemeister."

"Maybe that's the Jobemeistress these days," smirked Jade.

"Your German is dreadful," I chipped in.

"Frau Jobella," contributed Tennyo. Jade snorted in amusement.

"It's not funny," Nikki avowed. "It's sick!"

I said, "There is something seriously wrong with an essay contest to get turned into a black elf."

Toni added, "Who just might kick the bucket during the whole transformation sequence."

Jade mischievously asked, "You mean they don't just lose their clothes and magically change and get sparkly new outfits? With a magic staff?" Nikki just glared at her. "Okay, okay, I know it's not that kind of transformation sequence. Can't anybody take a joke anymore?"

"I thought it was funny," said Billie.

Toni looked at Nikki. "Okay, were you able to help Bova?"

Nikki's shoulders slumped. "No, and I really tried. So did Prism. And Cascade, I didn't think the Dragons would be nice about Bova, but they had her give it a try. And Caduceus has been working with her. Banned Aids even went over and gave it a shot. And I think they brought in Jericho to see if one of his medical devises might help. But we all knew if they couldn't stop her disease, she'd..." Nikki closed her eyes and shuddered for a second. "Imagine turning into a cow. Really, really slowly, so you know your body is doing really gross stuff, and you can tell when your brain starts doing freaky cow-like things. And you can read the minds of everyone around you while they yuck it up at your expense, or while they pity you."

Toni pushed a little harder. "So... if Jobe was maybe the only one who could save her, and it just turned her into a sexy dark elf, are you gonna complain?"

Jade chipped in, "She is pretty cute. There's no way you'd guess she used to be Bova just like a week or two ago."

That was certainly true. Bova had been over three hundred pounds, and blatantly bovine. Now she was petite and pixie-ish. And happy. There was no mistaking that, even at this distance. She had been a hideous, lumbering monstrosity living under a death sentence, and now she was alive and healthy and beautiful and petite.

I could actually see as Nikki and Aunghadhail took turns controlling her body as they thought it over. Her posture and her expression would change. She would go from teen girl to experienced queen and back. It was even weirder when she was sitting in a chair, because Aunghadhail sat so formally, and Nikki tended to sit in this relaxed, sexy pose that made me think of Catwoman.

Finally, Nikki said, "No, we would be willing to give Jobe a pass for Bova. She's a nice girl who didn't deserve this. We wouldn't condemn a girl to death for this."

I asked, "What about Freight Train?"

Nikki glared at me. "Don't tell me..."

I nodded. "Yup. She saw how Bova came out, and she talked Jobe into giving her the serum. My sources tell me she got the injections only a couple hours before Carson came back from a couple days off and instantly went ballistic on Jobe and Belphoebe when she heard. Freight Train's already changing, just more slowly than Bova."

Billie complained, "Why'd she want it? She was just... well, kind of huge... and not real feminine, and her face was sort of guy-like... and..."

I interrupted, "There's more than one reason she named herself Freight Train." I had made a short list of girls who might be so horrified by their appearance that they would try anything, even if it meant a risk of death, or having to hang out with Jobe for the rest of their lives. But Freight Train hadn't even made my Top Thirty. So, while I had spent too much time making sure people I knew, like Phobos and Diamondback and Puppet, wouldn't do something so insane, I had missed the girls who were human-looking but not 'conventionally attractive'.

Toni got one of her sneaky leopard grins. "So... what about Puppet? She's trapped in that room maybe forever, and Cantrel says it's only a matter of time before some more of her organs crap out. And they can't put transplants in her. Or even the artificial gadgeteer organs they got. Her blood eats that stuff up in no time."

Before Nikki could answer, I cut in. "No way. Jobe is not messing with my family. We'll find something to help Melissa without her getting turned into Jobe's girlfriend permanently."

Nikki and this time it really was Nikki, and not Fey with Aunghadhail riding on her shoulder said, "I'll agree with Richie Rich. There has to be something better than the Drow serum for Puppet. It's not like she's going to die tomorrow if she doesn't get it."

Jade teased, "Ooh, you agreed with Ayla last week too. Is this a trend?"

Billie asked, "So how is Puppet doing?"

I shrugged. "I can't get much out of her these days. I'm not allowed to go over to Hawthorne in person, and videoconferencing isn't really the same as being there in person. Plus, she's pissed at me for getting blackballed from Hawthorne, because the only non-Thornies who have been in to visit her since then are Billie and Harvey. And Sara creeps her out when she visits."

Jade gave Billie a way-to-go hug.

"Harvey? You mean Mega-Death?" Toni checked.

"Yeah," I said. "Last term, he headed a team that built a new system for her. She's having almost no leaks now, and it's working better, and it has fewer side effects."

"Side effects?" Jade wondered.

"Yeah, side effects," I said. "The old system was a piston pump system that made her and her tubing constantly rock back and forth like she was sitting in a wave pool."



Toni asked, "Someone was willing to work with Mega-Death?"

I grinned, "Someone wasn't given a choice. Workshop winter term class projects. Hazmat and Ergonomic got assigned to work with him. The rest of the class managed to grab onto each other for safety, and they were the unlucky 'volunteers'. But he didn't have any drick-outs on the project, and they did so well Mrs. Cantrel invited them to come back and take a crack at someone else's equipment."

"The Good Thorne-keeping Seal of Approval," Toni joked.

I continued, "They built a Halon system for Frostbite so she doesn't have a water-based fire control system in her room anymore. And it's not a hundred percent breathable, but it's a Halon variant that won't hurt her, even if she inhales it for a minute or two."

"Wow, that sounds pretty fly," Toni murmured. "What next? The Foob's pumps?"

I said, "Cantrel gave them a list. Static Girl, Olympia, Antenna, Plasmoid, Musk, Screech, and five other students are ahead of Louis on it. Not that we're supposed to know about that. But Harvey thinks that with some luck he might get all the way down to Fubar on the list by next spring, unless fall term adds too many new kids who have needs more pressing than Fubar's."

"Did Mega-Death show you the list?" Nikki asked.

"No, but he couldn't exactly claim it was wrong when I asked him about it."

Toni smirked, "And it ain't like that boy's got a poker face. I could make a fortune playin' cards against him."

I pointed out, "You could make a fortune playing cards against pretty much anybody." But she was right. The look on Harvey's face when I had showed him the list had been all the confirmation I needed.

When we reached the food lines in the Crystal Hall, I saw Jana casually keeping an eye out for me, and I knew that it was a good thing my friends had dragged me down here. I took the time to prepare a nice salad with a decent vinaigrette dressing, before I strolled over to see what the chefs had for me.

Man, was I glad the chefs weren't mad at me about Chou. That would have been really inconvenient. I wasn't sure why Jana wasn't mad at me when a lot of her housemates were, but I wasn't going to look a gift centaur in the mouth.

It wasn't a hamburger. It was a gorgeous Portobello mushroom in between warm halves of a whole grain cottage roll. I hurried up to our table and took a bite before I began studying it.

Mmmm. The bun was still fresh, and then lightly grilled. The dressing was a scrumptious pesto mayonnaise with hints of black and red pepper. The pesto in the mixture had just the right amount of pine nuts to accompany the earthy richness of the mushroom. The grilled mushroom tasted like it had been grilled using a really top quality olive oil. I could just smell the olive richness atop the meaty earthiness of the mushroom. There were strips of grilled already-roasted red peppers too, and fresh leaves of arugula. A nice slice of provolone cheese topped the mushroom and was just melted enough to gracefully accompany the rest of the burger.

"Foodgasm alert!" Toni warned the whole table.

"We already noticed the drooling," Nikki helpfully supplied.

"And the mmmm-ing," Jade added.

"Probably has weird stuff in it, like that poison endive," Toni said, in an obvious effort to get me to give her a bite.

I gave her a smug smile. "This has arugula on top of a big mushroom."

"Ooh!" Nikki practically squeaked. "More Portobello mushroom burgers? They're always so good!"

I deliberately cut a wedge out of my burger and carefully placed it on her plate.

Nikki stared at it, looked at her soup and salad, and finally caved in. "Oh what the heck, it won't be good if I let it get cold." She snarfed it down in two inelegant bites.

I helpfully added, "Plus, if you looked away for more than a second, Toni might swipe and eat it."

"Mmm mmm-mn mmp!" she said back. She swallowed. "It's really good. What's in the secret sauce?"

I told her, "Part good quality pesto, part homemade mayonnaise. More pesto than mayo. Some fresh-ground pepper for seasoning."

She cutely wrinkled her nose. "Would it work with store-bought pesto and mayonnaise?"

I shrugged. "Sort of. It wouldn't be as good. The quality of the final product is affected a lot by the quality of the ingredients."

"How about specialty store pesto and mayo?" she asked.

"Maybe," I said. "I don't know the quality you'd find, but some stores carry really high end products."

Toni pointed out, "Just remember. Ayla's idea of 'high end product' probably isn't what you're thinkin' of."

Nikki sighed, "Yeah, I'm thinking of a jar of pesto that costs like ten bucks, and she's probably thinking of a jar of pesto that costs a hundred bucks."

Billie teased, "So you're pretty close, by Ayla's standards on money." Then she went back to her trayful of over-stacked cheeseburgers.

Is a cheeseburger supposed to be taller than it is wide? Oh well, I didn't have to eat the things. It looked like every cheeseburger had about seven hamburger patties and fourteen slices of some oozing orange cheese-like substance. Sometimes I wondered how her parents planned to keep her fed over the summer. Maybe cattle rustling. Her mom could probably use those Energizer powers to roast the cows whole.

Toni opted out of trying a bite of my mushroom 'burger'. She had two reasonably sized cheeseburgers and some healthy side dishes, which was not what most people had on their plates. Most of the room had burgers and fries or onion rings. Or burgers with fries and some onion rings stuck in the bun with the meat. Is this a new food trend I somehow overlooked? I mean, I can see a burger with well-prepared onions on it. Even raw onions, if they're of a decent quality. Greasy onion rings atop a greasy burger? That didn't sound so appetizing to me, although it struck me that a properly prepared onion ring could make an interesting accompaniment for a less grease-loaded burger. Maybe buffalo or beefalo meat to handle the fat content without losing the meaty flavor. No, Toni had a salad, a serving of peas and carrots, and a fruit cup. Plus a big vanilla milkshake. With whipped cream on top. Granted, she needed the calories, given the way she worked out every day. It wasn't as if she were in danger of turning into a butterball anytime soon.

As I walked across the level to go buss my tray, I spotted a hand signal from Jadis, so I casually strolled over to visit the Bad Seeds.

I smiled at everyone. "Good afternoon. So where is my ever-charming roommate?"

Nacht said flatly, "We had a complaint from Michael Jackson's lawyers about the whole 'ebony and ivory' deal."

Belphoebe said, "It was funny the first time. It's getting old now."

Nacht gave her a raised eyebrow and a stare that Wednesday Addams would kill for. "You think Vamp would have told Phase?"

Jadis said, "I doubt Vamp would tell Phase the room was on fire. They seem to be at loggerheads."

I said, "We just happen to have a demilitarized zone, which is all known space between the two of us."

Jobe said, "Oddly enough, that wasn't why I wanted you to come over."

For once, I was glad of her his complete lack of tact and empathy. I replied, "I didn't think so." Then I looked past him/her and said to the pretty little pixie sitting between Jobe and Belphoebe, "Bova. I'm glad to see you're doing so well. Any side effects or complications?"

Jobe muttered, "Side effects? Complications? As if!"

Bova gave me a big, cheerful smile. "None! This is... awesome!"

I smiled back. "Good. A number of people were worried about your illness. To what are you going to change your codename? I could lend a hand if there's any problems with the process."

Jadis carefully cleared her throat, pointedly reminding me that my bureaucratic expertise was not going to be needed when the full power of the Bad Seeds was available.

She said, "I've decided not to change it. I know it doesn't really fit now, but it's meaningful for me. At least for me, it's going to be a reminder about everyone who ever became a mutant and died of one form of GSD or another. Because I know I was incredibly lucky."

"Because she was fortunate enough to come to my attention at the right moment," Jobe said in what she clearly thought was a modest comment.

"Absolutely," I said with a completely straight face. I looked at her and asked, "How is Freight Train doing?"

Belphoebe jumped in. "She's doing quite well. Clearly within tolerances for optimal cellular transformation, and her neurotransmitters in her synaptic vesicles are looking very good. She's just changing more slowly than Bova did."

I checked, "But you're not going to change anyone else, right?"

Jobe rolled her eyes. "The headmistress was obsessing about that just this weekend. You'd think we were testing Ebola vaccines on the student body. And there are so many girls I could help with this serum. I still think Jadis would benefit enormously. Just look at her."

"Jobe, shut up," three different Bads said simultaneously.

"You see? This is the appreciation that befalls the most far-sighted men of science," she complained. Now that she wasn't in his old body, it was much less nasal. Not that it wasn't still annoying and supercilious. It was just that a hot babe can get away with the snotty replies a lot more readily than a wimpy weasel with obvious delusions of grandeur.

Jobe went on, "But that's the point I wanted to discuss. I've had a small breakthrough on your little problem, and I believe I'll have stage 1 and 2 testing complete by Thursday. So I'd like to schedule your injection for Friday morning. Can you be at my lab before first period?"

Holy crap, she had a success in about a week. One lousy week! With that kind of genius, maybe she had a right to be this rude and superior. I asked, "Would you prefer before or after breakfast?"

"Before would be fine."

I gave her a smile. "Great. I'll see you then."

I think I managed to walk off as if nothing were going on. Even though I felt like jumping up and down like some of the more manic dancers at that club in Miami.

I caught up with the gang and walked back to Poe with them, but I didn't bring up my arrangement with Jobe. Everyone on the team had already made their feelings known on the subject. They ranged from 'you must be crazy' all the way to 'you are so whack even Jade wouldn't do this shit'.
Re: Ayla and the Mad Scientist [message #53602 is a reply to message #53601] Sun, 12 February 2012 02:40 Go to previous message
Diane Castle is currently offline  Diane Castle
Messages: 2554
Registered: September 2007
Location: Oregon, USA

Once I got to my room, I checked that Alex wasn't around. Then I walked down the hall until I was in the right spot. I checked again to make sure no one was around, and I walked through the wall.

Chou looked up from her desk. "Hi, Ayla. What can I do for you?"

I said, "I just wanted to remind you about the meeting at two."

She nodded carefully. "I think... that you need to have this meeting without me. If anything important comes up, you can let me know later."

I checked, "Did you find out anything new?"

She shook her head sadly. "I am sorry, but I have not come up with anything since the last time we talked. I wish I could say I knew more, but..."

"It's okay," I assured her. "This sort of investigative work usually goes extremely slowly, except for the occasional information spike when a puzzle piece comes in that's just what you need. Then you make a big leap forward, after which you go back to the same plodding efforts."

She smiled sadly, "You make it sound so... exciting."

I sighed, "I only know what it's like at my level, and even then I only know about specific investigations. It's not like a Sam Spade novel."

"So I don't have to dress in a cheongsam and be the femme fatale?" she grinned.

"And I don't have to get beaten up half a dozen times every book," I added.

She smiled sadly. "I miss having you as a roommate. Ceecee is just so..."

"Happy? Overjoyed? Wacky? Impetuous?" I tried.

"Hmm... I would say 'inconsiderate' if I had to. She just doesn't understand like you do. And she doesn't listen, either."

I nodded. "At least you're not stuck with Vamp. I was hoping you'd get someone good."

"Thank you, but I... Uh-oh," she muttered as someone stopped outside her door.

I went light and dove through the floor where it met her outer wall. I flew through the outer wall of the building without hitting a power line, and I hastily dove back into the building so I re-entered through the kitchen window. No one was looking, so I landed quietly on the kitchen floor and took the time to go get some more of my snacks to refill my pantry. Vamp had the appetite of an Energizer, and so I needed a pantry and refrigerator five or six times the size or a really strong lock. Unfortunately, I didn't have the room. I made a mental note to ask Möbius if he had that one-foot-cube storage closet ready yet.

I brewed some of the good coffee, popped some popcorn, pulled out some other snacks, and generally prepared for the incoming horde. Nikki dropped by about ten minutes early to start preparation on the magical eavesdropping. And for other reasons.

She sniffed the air. "Is that the... good coffee?"

I nodded. "Got your mug?"

She rushed back to her room and came back with her largest mug and a small carton of skim milk. She held out her mug and grinned, "Please sir, may I have some more?"

"Anyone who quotes Dickens automatically gets refills," I said.

"Even if I learned it from a musical on teevee?" she checked winsomely.

"Well, I knew it was from another source, because the quote wasn't quite right. What he actually said was 'Please sir, I want some more.' No polite request."

She said, "You know, ordinary people can't quote Dickens and Shakespeare and everything."

Says the uber-mage with an ancient Sidhe in her head. I asked, "Are any of us ordinary people?"

She thought about it for a few seconds. She finally said, "Even the baselines in Security aren't ordinary people. Maybe a couple of the Underdogs are basically still ordinary people, but even guys like Stalwart have been changed because they have a superpower."

I thought about what I knew about Jade's life before she manifested. And Toni's. "At least for some people, it was a change for the better."

She frowned. "And for a lot of people, it wasn't." She looked right at me. I tried to keep my expression neutral, but that wasn't particularly useful against a powerful empath.

On the other hand, being with a powerful empath meant that she could tell I didn't want to talk about how my once-perfect life had been folded, spindled, and mutilated, before being coated in a ganache of suck and then lovingly frosted in humiliation. She set her mug down and said, "Let me get started, so we're all ready when the locusts descend."

"Which reminds me," I said. "Would you like some Brie? While it still exists outside Billie's stomach?"

"Eww, thank you for that lovely image," she said. But she sliced some of the Brie and ate it on one of the crackers.

Her eyes fluttered closed and she purred, "Mmm, this Brie is like the best Brie ever. Where'd you get it?" I opened my mouth and she held out a hand. "No wait, don't tell me. I won't be able to afford it anyway. And it's probably a super-special brand made by the Brie-masters of some little cheese monastery in France."

She wasn't that far off. I shrugged casually. "Then eat five or six slices of this while you're doing the preparations. I won't tell."

"Won't tell what?" Toni asked as she bopped into the room.

"I won't tell you that Nikki's thinking of replacing her roommate," I lied. Of course, I knew that Toni could tell just by looking at my Ki that I was making it up. "Vamp's available. I'll trade her for... oh... how about some pocket lint?"

Nikki casually said, "Oh, I don't need someone like Vamp. I'd settle for less. You know, even a roommate like Fractious would be an improvement over Toni."

Toni laughed and stuck her tongue out at us. I didn't say anything, because it occurred to me that Nikki might be the perfect roommate for Fractious. Koehnes would keep the room clean enough even for someone with OCD, and Nikki could charm the room to hold up to one of Fractious' freakouts. And if Fractious didn't have to worry about cleanliness issues, she would probably be a decent roommate. Plus, Nikki could take care of Risk and Flux as soon as they started playing pranks on Fractious, which was probably inevitable around here.

I asked, "If you had a roommate like Static Girl, could you pull off her energy and use it like lightning for an Essence source?"

She froze for a second and then said, "Ooh, that could be a cool idea! I'll drop by and see if I can visit her without an insulated suit."

Toni asked, "So Ayles, how come you don't drop by 'Thorne anymore? Antenna mentioned you don't go hang with him."

"Slab and Jimmy T paid me a visit. Didn't I tell you this? I'm blackballed. I'm not allowed to go visit anyone over there."

Toni slapped her forehead. "Crap, is this still the Chou thing? What is it with those boneheads? We told 'em it wasn't your fault, it was a team thing."

I told her, "I think they need someone to blame for something they see as blatantly unfair. And everyone knows I rule the Kimbas with an iron first."

"In an adamantium glove," Toni joked.

Nikki said, "I still don't get why everyone wants to believe you're behind Team Kimba."

I pointed out, "Why else would we have a team on day one? Everyone knows we had the team pulled together before Ninja Night. And we just happen to be a team that's effective. Really, really effective. Most people figure that indicates planning and personnel selection. That spells 'Goodkind' to most of the campus."

Toni added, "And it's not like we can up and spill the whole 'used ta be the other sex' thang, so why else would we be in Ayles' superteam?"

I contributed, "I also heard that I made you guys accept the name Team Kimba as a loyalty test, because everyone knows a Goodkind wouldn't put up with a name like that unless I chose to. And it's obscure enough that people are figuring I must have been the one to dredge up the name."

Nikki took another bite of Brie and grinned, "I guess they don't know Jade very well."

In my best 'spooky announcer' tones I said, "Those who do usually run away gibbering in terror, with blood pouring from their eyes and ears."

In a much better imitation, Toni intoned, "The fortunate ones are found and locked away where they can't hurt themselves. After years of shock therapy-"

"Involving repeated exposure to Jericho's clothing choices," Nikki interrupted.

"-they may be fit once again for society," Toni wrapped up.

There was a knock on my doorframe. Sam stuck her head in and asked, "Am I early again?"

I waved her in and remembered the last meeting in my room with Samantha Everheart.

earlier: Sunday, February 4, 3 pm
Ayla's room

Chou was brewing up some of her special tea, while I microwaved five large bags of popcorn and put out some assorted other snacks on a serving tray. Hank had already come in. He had politely asked if there was anything he could do to help, and I had admitted that the room was just too small to have three people trying to do food prep around my pantry-fridge stack. So he staked out his favorite beanbag chair on the floor and watched us.

There was a knock on the doorframe, and I looked over. It was Sam Everheart. She looked around the room and asked, "Am I too early? And is this going to be big enough for the meeting?"

I waved her in. "No, you're not early. The rest of the team is late. And you'll be surprised at how easily the team squeezes in. So grab a seat anywhere. Hammock, bed, chair, beanbag, whatever."

"What's left?" she asked carefully.

Hank supplied, "Billie and Jinn usually don't sit. They just float around the room. Sometimes Jade does too. Toni and Nikki usually grab the hammocks."

Sam turned my desk chair around to face the room, and she sat stiffly. "I'm still not sure I should be here for this, because-"

I held up a hand. "Let's not discuss any of that until we have anti-eavesdropping measures in place."

She nodded. "Are we going to use that crystal your team uses at meals?"

Nikki and Toni walked in just in time to catch Sam's comment. Nikki had a slightly shocked expression on her face, which made me grin. It wasn't like we were all that surreptitious about our security measures when we ate in the cafeteria. In the crowded confines of Dunn Hall it must have been unmistakable to the tables close to us. And Carson had already told me that enough Magical Arts instructors had figured out what we were doing that there were attempts to magically reverse-engineer Nikki's system.

Nikki cleared her throat and carefully said, "No, we're going to use something that would be a little more conspicuous if we used it in public."

Toni popped a slice of apple in her mouth and said around it, "Go ahead and whip out that hoodoo."

Nikki gave her a glare and went back to work. She stood in the middle of the room with her hands cupped together, and she chanted in a language that reverberated strangely around the room. The words seemed to make the very air before her face waver and pulse. Then she finished her incantation and opened her hands.

The usual translucent blue sphere quickly expanded until it reached the walls of the room and penetrated them.

Toni scarfed down a piece of Gouda and a couple grapes. "Got it?"

"Naturally," Nikki insisted.

"Sam?" I checked. She was sitting rigidly in her chair, and not moving.

Just about the time I was going to call Nikki for some kind of magical assistance, Sam blinked twice. Then she turned her head and asked, "Was that... your usual kind of magic?"

Nikki shrugged and said, "One kind. Why?"

Sam said, "I've seen a lot of your spells in class, but... experiencing that one was different. I couldn't categorize it or compute what was going on."

Oh. So the part of her that was a nanite supercomputer just temporarily locked up trying to figure out what the heck we used on her. Lots of luck on that one. I was fairly sure that even if Sam had access to serious linguistic resources along with all her computing power, she wasn't going to be able to decode Nikki's language. And I had my suspicions that Nikki's speech wouldn't show up on a computer record of the event. So Sam was going to be pretty frustrated if she spent much time trying to understand what she just saw.

Chou sat on her bed and calmly chewed her apple slice. She said to Sam, "It is not always wise to need to grasp at every straw."

Toni said, "Thank you, Master Po."

Sam looked like she was already trying to process Nikki's spell and not having much success. After about five billion nanoseconds, she frowned, "I think I see your point."

"Hey, you didn't start without us, didja?" Jade asked as she flew into the room just ahead of Billie, who was only a few feet in front of Jinn.

I said, "No, and there's popcorn." I lobbed one bag to Billie and a second bag to Hank. Then I told Billie, "There's lots more where that came from."

Toni said around another wedge of cheese, "And keep your moldy breadgrabbers offa my cheese that Ayles hasn't told me the name of."

I said, "It's Gouda."

"What, I know it's good. You picked up an Italian accent since lunch?" Toni asked, like she didn't know exactly what I had said.

"Atsa right, Zeppo," I told her.

Jade checked, "Your cheese is called goo-da? That's weird."

Toni said, "I gotta remember this. Mom would love some of this for a birthday present. What goes with Gouda?"

I said, "Lots of stuff. Try the sliced Bartlett pears with it too. I'd recommend apples, pears, maybe peaches depending on your mom's personal preferences, and any really good quality crackers."

Hank said, "If we're done with Personal Shopper 101, I think Officer Everheart has places to go."

Sam just said, "Thank you. But this is a really interesting view into how your team works."

Billie swallowed a mouthful of popcorn and said, "Yeah, and if you ever need expert advice on money or food or anything like that, ask Ayla. She knows an insane amount of stuff about food."

Sam dryly said, "I had picked that up from the Security reports covering the Crystal Hall. Every time the chefs ordered a small quantity of something unusual, it turned out to be for Phase." She turned to me and asked, "So... how were those specialty onions?"

I wasn't about to let her faze me. I calmly said, "Interesting. Despite the claims of the various growers, it seemed to me that the natural fluctuations in the sweetness and bite of any particular variety were wider than the differences between the averages of the varieties. I thought the Oso Sweets had a sweeter taste than the Vidalias, on average, but they didn't have as much of the onion tang. On the other hand, I'm not as addicted to sweets as some people, so another taster might have a completely different evaluation."

"So there's no absolute best sweet onion?" she checked. "It's a matter of taste?"

"I'm not sure," I temporized. "I'd like to try some Walla Walla onions grown in, say, Southern California, and some Vidalia onions grown in the Palouse, just so I could try and separate the climate conditions from the breeding stock."

"Or maybe some of all of them, all grown at the same place," Toni suggested. "Like my folks' back yard. And maybe we could make Vince do all the weeding and digging and that."

Chou snickered at that. She had met Vince when she went to Toni's for Christmas, and hadn't been impressed. Toni described Chou's impression as 'underwhelmed'. My feeling was that Chou's impression had been somewhat closer to 'nauseated'. My personal impression of Vince at Parents' Day had been more of a normal black teenager trying too hard to be cool, but then I hadn't had to be one of the girls he was drooling over. Nikki's presence fortuitously drew all the male attention in the area, much like spilled sugar drawing every grubby little ant near a picnic.

I closed my door and said, "Everybody grab snacks, and let's get started." Once the flurry of assaults on the food passed, with Toni merrily juggling Gouda to keep it out of Billie and Jade's hands, I continued. "I called this meeting-"

"Because one of us is the murderer!" announced Toni, Jade and Jinn, in a rough chorus.

I pretended to ignore them. "-because we have a couple important points we need to talk about, and they're serious enough I wanted campus security involved. Last Saturday, we ran into some serious problems. I've been looking into it, and I've asked some people to do a little investigating. Here's what we know or are fairly sure about. There were three separate attacks, all done at the same time, and we know the Rox C assault had traps very specifically designed for Fey and Tennyo, and one probably specifically designed for Lancer. So the Boston PD are pretty confident that the simultaneous attacks were to make them split their forces, and to make us split our team."

Toni complained, "Eldritch isn't gonna come in here and yell at us about splitting the squadron again, is she?"

I said, "Sam might. Except that we all know the assignments were made by the authorizing police department, operating under their best practices."

"Can you not talk like this is a business conference?" Toni fussed.

I went on, "It appears that Darrow needed some SWAT teams in place around Rox C so he could use a Siren on them. They know it was a Siren, because Trin & MacIntyre brought in some Psi and Esper investigators to check the survivors for me, and apparently Darrow coerced some of the jailers to tell him everything they knew about the jail protections, so he had the opportunity to design an assault that would get around them. Then Darrow and his people walked right into Rox C, wearing the police uniforms of some officers they murdered outside the Roxbury Penitentiary areas. The police are pretty sure that the complete disappearance of Compulsion from the area there haven't even been any reported sightings means that his daughter Obsession was the Siren that Darrow used, but there's no evidence at all. It's strictly induction."

"Great," Hank muttered. "Is that the same Compulsion that Bardue was talking about when you went all Riddler on the V's?"

Sam nodded, "Yup. Major supervillain with dangerous Psi powers. But since he was apparently long gone before you guys got there, you're unlikely to be on his radar."

Nikki grumbled, "Why don't we just take out ads asking people to come attack us?"

I went on, "Captain Tilley has some intel he's not sharing, but it looks like Darrow fed them the right jailbreak, the wrong museum, and the wrong kidnapping. The right jailbreak was to get those SWAT teams in place. The wrong museum was so he could find the mole that has been feeding the police intel on his operations."

"So that's how they knew about the robbery and the jailbreak thing back in the fall," Billie said.

I continued, "And the wrong kidnapping was so the mercs hired to kill our friends could have some time first to take out the SWAT vans that were then needed for the Boothroyd kidnap."

"I'm really getting pretty peeved at that guy," Nikki muttered.

I said, "Since we know he pulled that sneaky routine at the museum on our first trip, and he went after Toni's mithril-exuding buddy the second time, I had Trin & MacIntyre investigate all three crimes. At the museum heist, the boxes that our thieves thought had some evil magic inside them? Nothing. They weren't even genuine. That whole theft was a bit of sleight of hand, because somehow someone else walked off with one of the scrolls that were stuck behind the reliquaries. No one knows anything important about it, but T & M got the museum's records staff to come up with a couple photos off the thing." I handed the pictures to Nikki.

"Son of a bitch," she swore. "By the..." She swiftly descended into curses that didn't even sound like human languages.

Sam calmly said, "Fey, could you take a couple deep breaths and tell us what you see?"

She complained, "I can't read the Latin parts I bet Phase can but the indented pieces are old Egyptian, which I can only read because it's descended from a Sidhe language. There isn't enough in these pictures to say what these spells can do, but this is really old, really dark magic. This scroll ought to be locked up at ARC, or in the restricted part of the library here, not on display in a public museum. Idiots!"

I grimaced, "So Darrow figured out who his mole was by feeding bad intel to his people and seeing where the cops really went, and he also got a really nasty bit of late-night reading for himself. Now, the Boothroyd emeralds..."

I handed out several pictures of some of the Boothroyd women wearing the necklace and tiara. "Notice anything?"

Hank said, "Don't they polish their silver?"

"Probably just weird lighting," Billie said.

Nikki glared angrily, and Toni stopped to stare at her, probably checking her Ki.

Sam stared at one of the pictures for several seconds. She finally said, "Based on the vectors for the incoming light sources and the positions of the objects around them, the reflectivity is all wrong for silver. Either these images are all Photoshopped, or this can't be real silver."

Nikki growled, "It's mithril. The bastard heisted a bunch of mithril."

Sam said, "It may be worse than that. Based on a quick Fourier analysis of this close-up, I think the metal has to be engraved with some sort of glyphs."

Nikki slapped her forehead. "Inscribed mithril. Shit!"

I asked Sam, "Can you come up with readable images of the inscriptions?"

She shook her head no. "Not unless you have a much better image than this one. Right now, I'm working at the absolute smallest recoverable detail possible to extract using the pixels available in the image. If there's an image of the mithril in a studio setting, preferably a close-up, I can do better."

I nodded. "I already have T & M searching for something like that."

"Any other good news?" Jade frowned.

"Oh yeah," I said. "Here's the really fun part. The police have a tiny bit of information from the people who got arrested. Darrow hired the mercs and the museum robbers within hours of word getting around campus here that we were going to Boston on Saturday. So someone here contacted Darrow or one of his people and ratted us out."

Chou said, "Would that be right about the time you were saying nothing would go wrong?"

"Thanks for rubbing that in," I mentioned. "Et tu Chou-te?"

Sam said, "You may have the wrong audience for multi-lingual jokes."

Hank said, "You are talking to someone who's read a thousand pages of Ezra Pound. And tried to talk about it to her floormates."

Nikki helped out, "And we all know she's a Shakespeare fangirl."

Sam looked around the room and said, "I stand corrected."

I said, "So now we're at one of the two points I spotted last Saturday. I was flying back to help Fey when Darrow hit her with a really nasty spell. From maybe a hundred fifty yards away, I could see a flash of red and green magical lights, flashing out from a magical circle on the ground around Nikki." I looked over at Nikki, so she would know it was her turn to take over the tale.

Nikki said to Sam, "We'd already pulled a little con on Ayla to lure her into a surprise birthday party in Jody's room. Part of it was scaring the pants off her that there was more of that Ley Line Entanglement circle that Chou and her group managed to sunder just a few days earlier."

I groused, "And you don't want to know how much time I spent worrying about ways to take down a mind-controlled Fey and Chaka."

She continued, "But we the party planners didn't know how much intel on the circle went into the Security files, and we didn't know how much of that intel Ayla got from... umm..."

I interrupted. "Officer Everheart is fully aware that I have contacts in Security, and she knows who those contacts are."

Nikki relaxed a little. "Okay, so we figured we needed to make the circle as realistic as possible without it being a viable threat to anything. Chou sketched as much of the thing as she could remember, and I made my copy as realistic as I could. We even used a paint that would show up as a blood red when Ayla looked at it through her facemask."

Great. So Bunny was in on it too. Was the entire floor in on my surprise party and I had missed all of it? I sucked as a detective.

I took over. "So when I saw Darrow's Ley Line attack on Fey, I realized it looked just like what Nikki had painted on her floor. And I suspected Nikki got the model for that from Chou. But Darrow's attack worked, and it worked in a way that reminded me of the effects of the circle here. So I had to face the very real possibility that the thing on Nikki's floor really did look just like Chou's circle. Meaning, Darrow was now wielding attacks like the one here just off campus."

Nikki said, "So Ayla came to me about this after we got back from Boston. After Mrs. Carson chewed us out. Again. I thought it over, and I think Ayla's right, even if I really didn't have the time to stand there and admire Darrow's work at the time."

I said, "I asked T & M to go back and get imagery on that magical circle attack, but the ground there was torn up by a later spell. They think Darrow put little magical timebombs on a couple of his workings, just to keep people from finding out what he did and fixing them."

Billie asked the logical question. "So, is Darrow actually Hekate's teacher?"

Nikki pointed out, "If Darrow was her teacher, why hasn't he thrown anything like that at us before?"

Hank interjected, "That we know of."

Nikki frowned, "Okay, we have two options here: either Darrow is the one who's been teaching Hekate these Mythos magics, or else Hekate just taught this stuff to Darrow."

"Three options," I pointed out. "Maybe Hekate and Darrow are now both shopping at Mythos 'R' Us. Remember, Nimbus was using Mythos materials in that injector he buried in Merry's butt?"

Nikki actually winced at that one. She pursed her lips and said, "Yeah. I sort of forgot about him. And then The Bastard was definitely using Mythos magics on those Weres. I figure Nimbus must be pretty heavily involved in the black arts to be able to build something like that and not go stark raving mad."

Toni groaned, "Oh great, yet another dark wizard. Is this a theme?"

I interrupted, "Maybe it's a motif, Giff."

Jade said, "I totally don't get your jokes, Ayla."

Toni said, "No prob there. No one gets her jokes." She turned to me and said, "Hey Ayles, didn't you get a letter yesterday from Leonardo da Vinci asking you ta stop cribbin' his 'A' material?"

I said, "Yeah, but it was written backward so I just ignored it."

Billie said, "Okay, I don't get your jokes either."

Toni said, "The English Department doesn't get her jokes."

I pretended to ignore her and pointed out, "Don't forget the three dark mages who got eaten in L.A. over Christmas. They were trying to deal with a demon to grant Nimbus a boon. So I'm guessing Nimbus is an evil deviser and a dark wizard."

"Greeeeeaat," muttered Hank.

"It's a floorwax and a dessert topping." Everyone stopped and stared. Sam suddenly blushed and asked, "I said that out loud, didn't I?"

Hank said, "It was pretty unfair you were the only one who hadn't gotten to make a joke in one of our meetings."

Billie asked, "But how many deviser-wizard combos are there around campus, not counting Jade and Chou?"

Toni asked, "Besides Ivory-Merchant Wardrobe Boy? Dunno."

I started naming names. "Knick-Knack. Techno-Devil. Technocrat, but he did early graduation this term and he left. He's going to be doing some kind of top-secret project for the DPA this spring at their high-security headquarters in Virginia."

"Which is so secret you just happen to know about it," Hank said.

I went on as if I hadn't been interrupted. "And also anybody smart enough to avoid getting listed as a deviser-wizard combo on their powers testing."

"That wouldn't be smart at all," Nikki insisted. "Even the best wizards still need to learn how to gather Essence, and how to store it, and how to use it, and spellworking, and control, and a ton of other aspects. I've got Aunghdhail to help with all that stuff, and I still need a lot of coursework."

Jade piped up, "Yeah, and the same deal for devisers. They need all those Workshop courses, even if they're super-smart already, like Jobe. And even Jobe's taking a ton of Workshop classes, but he's argued with the teacher pretty much every day in the Workshop bio course he's taking now." She cleared her throat. "Or so I heard from a few people."

Hank thought out loud. "So our combo kid would have to list himself as a wizard and have a way to get a full deviser background on his own, or else he'd list himself as a deviser and have to have a way to get a full background on wizardry on his own."

"And there isn't anybody who fits those criteria on campus," I interjected. I waited until everyone finished staring my way and Toni got enough eye-rolling in. "I already checked that option. None of the people with wizard backgrounds, like Fey and Hexette and Gypsy and Skinwalker and Majestic, are claiming to be solely devisers. And none of the people with serious deviser backgrounds, like Jobe and Techno-Devil, are claiming to be solely wizards."

Billie said, "Except She-Beast. She's taking Wizard courses and she's got major deviser stuff in her family."

I said, "It's not her."

"Or so you think," Toni added.

I opened my mouth to rebut that, but Hank got in there first. "And moving on..."

I went on, "Outside of Whateley, we're mainly looking at a lot of major problems like The Necromancer and Deicide and a bunch of guys who might be deviser-wizard combos, but Interpol and the MCO aren't sure, like Doctor Pygmalion or Cataclysm. Granted, Cataclysm is tentatively listed as an Avatar/Deviser/Wizard combo, because they don't really know, and they don't have any way to find out, and so they're still sitting around debating about it. The MCO maintains he's the same Cataclysm as a normal-looking deviser who used to go here, and Interpol thinks he's some kind of inter-dimensional being with deviser and wizard powers. And those are the two sane theories about him."

Sam said, "There's a note in Cataclysm's files in Security that says the headmistress thinks he's probably not the deviser who used the same codename when he went here back in the Eighties."

Jade murmured to Billie, "How come our intel's as good as Interpol?" Billie just rolled her eyes and pointed at me. I ignored them.

Nikki winced a little. "I don't want to be dealing with someone like Cataclysm. Or Deicide. Okay, Doctor Pygmalion is probably our level."

Hank frowned, "Hell, I don't want to be dealing with Doctor Pygmalion. He may have over half a dozen women who are stronger than Delta, with more powers, and who'd do anything he said, even if they died trying."

I groaned, "And Delta thinks she didn't get hit with any of his mind control whammy, but do you really want to have to find out in a battle situation?"

"Oh crap," Toni choked. Chou and Jade just stared at me with horrified expressions. Sam looked like she was making a hundred mental notes and logging them all into Security's network. That was fine with me. I had no intention of saying anything in front of her that I didn't want Security to know about.

I got the meeting back on track. "Now I'll get Trin & Macintyre to check a few mages who have fought Darrow and see if he's ever thrown anything like this at them."

Nikki frowned at me, "Do I want to know how much that's going to cost you?"

I calmly responded, "No." Then I went back to my topic. "Now, as I was saying, I'm hoping Sam will help us out by asking Mrs. Carson and Chief Delarose about the same thing."

This time, Sam frowned at me, "I can't go behind their backs."

I nodded slightly. "I don't want you to. I want this to be completely official. Given the problems Whateley students and staff have had with Darrow, I think this is something that needs to be investigated by Security. Especially if it may lead us to Hekate."

She thought it over in a millisecond and replied, "That's more reasonable."

I pointed out, "I wouldn't have invited you to the meeting if we were going to be doing anything illegal. And that includes your notifying Security and the headmistress that I'm involving Trin & Macintyre on this." Then I turned my head to Nikki. "And I want you to check with Circe and anybody else in the Magical Arts Department who might have had a run-in with Darrow, and ask them the same thing. We need to know if this is new for him."

Hank took advantage of the lull to ask, "So what was the second thing you spotted?"

I admitted, "Oh. That. The Good Ol' Boyz had intel on our fight at Rox C that had to be from the report Sam filed. But Sam's report said Tennyo held her own against Mimeo until she was bushwhacked by Darrow."

Nikki asked, "So? That's what happened. That's what we told her."

Jade loyally grumbled, "She woulda squished that jerk in another minute."

I nodded. "But that wasn't what Fantastico was told. His intelligence officer messed up."

Toni shrugged, "So?"

Hank said, "Everyone knows they use Ferret for their intel. And he's not as smart as he thinks."

I nodded again. "And The Don got exactly the same intel, right down to the error on Tennyo's battle."

Jade said, "So... Ferret got his stuff from The Don's intelligence officer?"

I said, "Or else Ferret is now selling out the G.O.B. to Donny-boy. Think about it. Sebastiano lost most of his forces when Kodiak took over, and his primary intelligence officer before that was the guy who later gave him a rectal exam with a lamp. His next best intel source is still hanging with Kodiak and doesn't talk to Sebby any more. Plus, my sources tell me Hartford is squeezing him out of the Alpha privileges, which include Alpha access to certain kinds of information from Security. He may not have decent intel anymore, until he's rebuilt his network. But it's assumed he's on the upswing, while the Good Ol' Boyz are plunging ever downward. So Ferret may be trying to hitch his wagon to a star, even if it's a dark star."

Jinn looked at me and said, "I like your version better."

Jade stuck her tongue out at Jinn. Jinn stared back, crossed her eyes, and made her nose tilt up into a more porcine shape. Jade started to put her hand up toward her own face, but Billie reached over and stopped her so I don't know what she was about to do. I'm sure it would have been astonishingly mature. Not.

I continued, "We may have to assume that anything the G.O.B. hear about us will get funneled straight to Sebby."

Hank gave me an evil smirk. "Or we might want to see if any disinformation we feed to Fantastico's gang ends up misleading The Don even more." I returned the smirk.

Sam suddenly said, "Maybe you should wait until I leave the room before you start discussing some of this stuff. I am Whateley Security, after all. And I'm going to have to report this to Chief Delarose."

I nodded. "I'm counting on it. The more Delarose knows about Donny-boy's quaint little machinations, the happier I'll be. And if we can uncover his intel sources for Security and cause more problems for him, then it's a win-win."

Nikki gave Sam a wicked smile. "And it's not like this would be the first time you left a few nanites on us to listen in, anyway."

Sam actually managed not to blush.
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