Sunday, 04 July 2010 00:08

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl: (Chap 9)

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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Birthday Brawl / Part 9

Ayla and the Birthday Brawl

by Diane Castle (and the usual troublemakers)

CHAPTER 9 – The Legend of Arthur, or of Magnificence

Vox was standing there, right out of the showers, naked and soaking wet and breathing hard, her eyes dilated.  My God, she had never looked so incredibly sexy.  I suddenly was having trouble breathing too.  Not to mention the throbbing need in my pants.

Then she voiced me: get out those brick condoms I know you have.”


Oh God.


I mean, oh God!




Vanessa left a couple hours later.  Man, that was unbelievable.  It was just as erotic and exciting and amazing and perfect as I had always imagined it would be.  And that’s all I’m saying about it.  So there.

Okay, I wished she hadn't voiced me, but if she hadn't, would I have had the willpower and chivalry to say no?  I didn't know.  I should have said no.  I most definitely should have said no the second time, or the third time, or…  Oh never mind.

I just hoped no one else was overdoing it in the showers with the new showerheads and then doing that sort of thing.  I had this mental image of a naked, sopping-wet Nikki flying over to Emerson and demanding that Stalwart ‘stand and deliver’, so to speak.  Or were Bugs and Fey taking care of each other?  No Ayla, don’t even start thinking about that one.  Or Riptide and Chaka.  Or…  Okay, just stop it!  No thinking about gorgeous, sopping-wet goddesses making passionate lesbian love for hours until…  Just think about something else!  Goodkind, you are such a perv!  In fact, I was getting a pulsing in my pants just from fantasizing about it.  There was a downside to the extra endurance I obtained from my Exemplar power.  Not that Vanessa had complained.

Oh yeah, I had totally forgotten about lunch.  I barely remembered to hand Vanessa her set of anti-Peeper beads as she was leaving.  Hell, I was almost late to martial arts class as it was.  And when I got there, it still took all my willpower to get the stupid smile off my face.

I walked out of my clothes, didn’t take the time to hang them up properly, and then changed into my gi and utility belt as quickly as I could.  I still only made it to the edge of the mat with about a second to spare.  I was the very last person in seiza position, and sensei Ito was already walking out as I adjusted my position.

Hank, sitting on my right, whispered out of the side of his mouth.  “Where the hell were you?”

I didn’t answer.  I just gritted my teeth and focused on not grinning like an idiot.

We started with the usual warm-ups and exercises.  For extra fun, Beaumont had the Exemplars doing handstands, using their Exemplar strength and balance to maintain their position, and then we did pushups.  Vertical pushups with our feet straight up in the air.  Some of the non-Exemplars and faux-Exemplars, like Tennyo and Sledge, were doing it too.  Granted, Billie looked bizarre doing a handstand and having her hair still flowing along her back toward her butt.  Aquerna and Shroud were giving it a try, off to the side, even if pushups were meaningless for a PK entity like Jinn.  I seriously doubted that I would have done it if I hadn’t been told to.  Still, a vertical pushup was nothing for the high-level Exemplars like Aztecka and Judicator.  Beaumont had them doing their vertical pushups with steel weights strapped to their ankles.  And I don’t mean those tiny little weights that baselines strap to their wrists and ankles when they jog.  Aztecka had two quarter-ton weights strapped to her legs, and she was still doing vertical pushups as easily as if she were in zero gravity.

We did pushups and leg lifts and sit-ups.  Leg lifts are definitely not as much fun when you had a sensei standing on your ankles and letting you lift her six inches into the air.  Similarly, sit-ups aren’t so entertaining when you have to hook your feet under a steel bar and lift your upper body while sensei Tolman stands on your shoulders.  When they were done torturing us in new and creative ways, we moved on to practicing our katas and learning new techniques.

Most of the class that day was spent working against people who were using weapons different from your own.  At first, I was using my tactical baton – which I was not allowed to make heavy for this particular bit of training with this particular opponent – and learning how to defend against small weapons.  Tolman paired me against Força first.  I had the advantage of a much longer weapon.  But he was dual-wielding, so I had to counter both his knives with my baton, or else block the second knife with my off hand.  Given that I was allowed to go heavy, my hand was hard enough that he was probably going to have to sharpen his knives after class.  I really thought Força was using the worst possible martial art given his powers.  His capoeira was constantly putting him in positions where he couldn’t use his power blasts effectively.  I thought he needed to learn another martial art.  Okay, he needed to learn these lessons well, and then find a kick-oriented martial art to learn so he could use his hand-blasts more.  But Força had years of experience with capoeira, and Ito knew a hell of a lot more than I did about integrating martial arts styles.  Still, I figured that if Força didn’t get pointed at Tae Kwan Do or something similar one of these months, I was going to stick in my own two cents.  Which in martial arts terms was probably worth a lot less than a halfpenny.  Maybe it would be worth one or two Hungarian pengo.

After working with Força, I was paired with Shadowolf.  He had graduated from a choice of two fighting claws or else using his own shadow claws.  He was using fighting claws on each hand, and also a shadow claw.  Granted, he wasn’t really good at wielding three claws all at once.  He was learning some new katas so he could get down the necessary muscle memory.  But he was going to be a menace when he got good at three – or possibly four – claws at once.  It would be like trying to rub the tummy of an angry cougar.  The only upside was that he couldn’t hurt me with his fighting claws or his shadow claws as long as I was fully heavy; which meant that he would probably end up using his fighting claws to attack, and blinding me with one of his other shadow techniques.  I decided not to give him any helpful advice like that until I could count him as a firm ally.

After Shadowolf, I was paired with someone else.  Beaumont turned to me and said, “Phase, cette fois you may use your baton at full heaviness.”

Merci,” I answered cautiously.  Okay, who was going to be facing me that a one hundred twenty pound baton was fair?

“Sledge?  Please step over here.”

Oh, that was who.  Crap.  Sledge picked up his solid steel sledgehammer with the handle made out of steel pipe, and trotted over to face me.  He let it drag on the mat, like it weighed a ton.  Beaumont glanced down at the hammerhead pressing against the mat.  “Is zis too heavy?”

I frowned, “Look Sledge, Chaka already gave us a blow-by-blow description of your hammer fight with her, so I know you can handle it easily.”

He shrugged and flipped it up as if it weighed no more than a bokken.  Beaumont gave him an evil grin, probably because she liked the idea of using the apparent awkwardness of the weapon as a tactical advantage.

I made sure I was fully heavy, and I kept the tactical baton retracted until Beaumont told us to begin.  Sledge started out making a big, sweeping swing.  But Chaka had told us all about how Sledge used the big swings as feints in order to make quick jabs into your ribs and switch attack modes when you’re swinging something too strenuously to adjust for it.  Okay, Toni had told us every single detail of the fight, while acting out some of her favorite moments with the cabbit playing the part of Sledge.  Somehow, I didn’t think Sledge would be too thrilled to hear that little detail.  I didn’t know much about black people, even if I’d had a black friend back at Chilton and I hung out with Toni and Vanessa.  Toni thought Sledge was a real, live gangsta.  I didn’t know anything about that.  My friend at Chilton had been yet another rich kid, and I was pretty sure Toni was upper-middle class.  Then Vanessa wanted to be the next Condi Rice or Oprah Winfrey.  I didn’t think Sledge was like any of my friends.  So I didn’t treat him as one.  I didn’t smile.  I didn’t kid around.

He swung his hammer and suddenly darted forward to jab it at my ribcage.  I popped out my tactical baton and blocked as hard as I could, knocking his hammer wide to his right.  Then I used that to make a quick strike against his lower ribs.

He was really surprised when my baton actually made contact and nearly knocked him over.  He swung his sledgehammer back into an offensive position and glowered, “What the hell is that?”

“Adamantium,” I admitted.  It looked like Toni was right – of course, Toni was almost always right when it came to combat.  Sledge was used to being able to use his energizer powers to deflect any metal weapons from actually making contact with his body.  But adamantium isn’t a ferrous metal.  It’s not a metal at all.  Okay, it looks and feels like a metal.  It’s metal-like.  But it’s not ferrous, and it doesn’t conduct electricity, and it has a molecular structure that is different from metals in technical ways that I don’t have enough physics background to really understand.  So it ignored his magnetic field – or whatever his energizer trait put out – and hammered him, so to speak.

Not that Sledge bothered about getting hit in the ribs with a small girder.  He didn’t even rub his side or change his stance.  He just glowered with his usual emotionless expression.

I whipped the baton behind my back in Chou’s favorite stance, and snapped it back into the handle as I did so.  Then I made sure it was heavy again while I waited for Sledge’s next move.

Sledge swung, and I popped out the baton to block.  Or, at least, I tried.  But Sledge was surprisingly quick with that sledgehammer, and really sneaky.  He turned his swing into a darting jab that slid past my baton and caught me right in the solar plexus.  That really hurt!

Okay, I admit it, getting hit in the solar plexus with a sledgehammer powered by a faux-Exemplar ought to be a lot more than a mere ‘oh that hurt’ moment.  But I was fully heavy, and even in a decent – although not expert – stance.  So he didn’t knock me across the room.  He didn’t knock me down.  He didn’t even knock the wind out of me.  On the other hand, he nailed me hard enough that I failed to grab the hammer as he swung it back for another attack.

I swung the baton behind my back, retracting it and making it heavy once more.  I just nodded and said, “Nice move.”  I didn’t mention that I was probably going to have a nice, rectangular bruise below my sternum that was going to get a lot of attention later with Chou’s muscle cream.  “Can you show me that one again?”

Of course, I’m not Toni.  I can’t ‘pull a Ranma’ and instantly figure out how martial arts moves work and how to counter them.  I need help on this stuff.  Sledge even obliged.  He did exactly the same move, and my baton block missed his hammer again.  That time, I put my other hand up and caught the sledgehammer before it pounded into my solar plexus.  That hurt too, but not like getting hammered in the gut.

I let go, and he moved back into the same position.  “Again?” he asked.

I nodded.  The next time, I went light at the last second, so the hammer jabbed into my intangible stomach and then hastily retreated.  I didn’t disintegrate the head of the hammer, as I did with Swordmaiden the other day, although I probably should have.  I knew that if I did the ‘going light’ bit again, he’d probably use his Energizer power to shock the crap out of me.

It took me about three more times before I figured out how to block his ‘fake swing then quick jab’ move.  I ended up faking a block to go with his fake ‘big swing’ maneuver, and then making a downward slice with my fully heavy baton to knock his hammer aside in the middle of his jab.  I didn’t quite knock it out of his hands, but it was close.

I was expecting a few disses from Sledge, but maybe he didn’t need to talk smack to people.  Maybe he was just that tough.  When Beaumont ended our turn, he just looked at me with that set expression and gave me a tiny nod.  Given that I was expecting some nasty comments about Goodkinds and intersexed freaks, I figured that I got off lightly.

But we still weren’t done working with partners.  And I hadn’t had even one break to watch what craziness Toni was up to, or to see how Jade and Anna were holding up, or to study what the class badasses were now doing.

I was really hoping I could get in a turn with Judicator or someone like that.  I didn’t really want to fight her without knowing how to fight her.  Tennyo could do it easily.  Hank was strong enough to just knock Judicator out of the sparring ring – but Hank was strong enough to knock almost everybody out of the sparring ring.  Okay, he had to work when he sparred with Tennyo.  I knew from experience that he couldn’t knock me backward more than a couple feet if I was fully heavy and in a good stance, so he would have to pick me up and throw me.  Okay, he could pick me up and throw me without any trouble, unless I unleashed a bunch of holdouts at him first.  Toni could fight Judicator by using her Ki trick for PK.  It had worked against Cavalier, and it had worked on Judicator in the sim, so I was figuring it would work here.  But I wasn’t one of them.  I had a power that could take out Judicator, which I couldn’t use: she was an Exemplar and PDP, so there was no way I was going to use my disruption-light ability.  In theory, I would have to get close enough to her that I could get a finger past her PK helmet or PK armor and into her face or her neck, and knock her out.  But there was no way I was going to do that in real life.  Not if I might accidentally turn her into another Tisiphone.  So I would have to figure out how to defend against her PK shield and spear, while dealing with her PK armor.  Then I also needed to assume that she was using one of the tricks of the experienced PDP: creating robust PK effects, and then switching as fast as she could over to her Psi or Esper power for a fraction of a second to get a feel for what her opponent was about to do, and then switching back to the PK effect before it started to break down.  I figured I would need to focus on stock market derivatives in order to block any telepathy or empathic powers, but I didn’t think that anything I could do would stop her if she was using some sort of precognitive power to read my next moves.

So of course, I didn’t get Judicator.  Ito called me over, “Phase, for the last turn, would you partner Aquerna?”

Well, what was I going to say to that?  I said, “Of course, sensei.  I would be happy to.”

And then I was facing a beaming, excited Aquerna who obviously was happy to spar with me.  In fact, she could hardly stand still.  “Hi, Ayla!  This is great!  I never get to spar with you, y’ know?”

Sensei Ito gently said, “Aquerna, you may use your regular kama against Phase, since they will not hurt her.  But keep the sheaths over the blades, so they do not become damaged.”

“Okay!  I mean, yes, sensei.”  She grinned at me, her two upper front teeth escaping slightly from her upper lip.  “This is great, I only get to work with these against Shroud mainly, and one time with Lancer.  What are you gonna use?”

Ito looked at me and said at roughly the same time, “Phase, since Aquerna is using real kama, you should remain fully heavy or fully light at all times.  And you may use your tactical baton however you see fit.”

Great.  Just great.  If I totally hammered Anna with a one hundred twenty pound tac baton, I’d feel like a complete asshole.  And if I went easy on her, Ito would get all over my case.  Again.  Or was I overthinking the entire process?  Anna wasn’t as strong as I was, but she was just as quick, and she had her leaping ability so she could get back out of the way.  Maybe I could do what I was supposed to, and just avoid hitting her hard.  Which sounded simple, but wasn’t as trivial when you considered that I had only been learning martial arts of any kind for under five months, and my skill level was not exactly up there with Interface or Plastic Girl.

I held my baton retracted in the ready position behind my back.  Then I made sure I was fully heavy, along with the baton.  I gave Anna a smile and said, “Whenever you’re ready.”

She moved.  She brought both kama up toward her left shoulder and made a double attack at my right ribs and the right side of my neck.  It wasn’t exactly a classic kata, as far as I knew, and the way she shifted her weight looked… odd.  Not really human, in a subtle way.

I snapped out my baton and brought it up to defend my neck and head.  I swung it just far enough forward that I thought I could block the lower kama with my forearm.  Anna touched my forearm and the baton lightly with the blades of the kama, and then snapped her weapons back.  As I parried the attack and tried to tap her across the short ribs with my baton, she made a big backward leap that took her out of the sparring area and nearly put her in between Shadowolf and Redlight, who were working as a pair about twenty feet behind her.  She hopped forward and gave me a big grin.

I said, “You can hit me harder than that.  I’m resilient.”

She nodded chipperly.  “Oh, I know that!  Sensei says I need to work on my control, and getting out of the way of stronger mutants.”

I nodded.  That was exactly what she had just done, even if she leapt backward like a squirrel confronted by a bobcat.  I didn’t think she realized just how squirrel-like some of her mannerisms were.  I thought back to Toni talking about Anna calling her squirrels, and how freaky she thought that was.  If even the Underdogs were weird, that certainly said something about the average Whateley student.

“Ready?” she said.  I nodded.  She froze for a split second, and I took advantage of her to go light.  She leapt forward and did a quick sequence of hacks and slashes that went through my intangible form.  Just before she leapt back, she noticed my smile and looked down.  I stuck my baton through her chest, and then I quickly snapped it back before it could go heavy and hurt her.

She winced, “Ooh, that would hurt.  Okay, I gotta watch out for that.”  She stepped back into her stance and said, “Ready?”  I nodded.  She giggled, “This is so fun!”  She took a quick peek to see if any of the sensei were watching her, and she whispered, “Shroud’s really nice, but she never smiles.”

I let her attack again.  This time, I managed to block both strikes with my baton, and I nearly tagged her as she leapt back out of the way of my parry.  I told her, “You can’t win by avoiding everything.”

She nodded.  She took a deep breath and launched another attack.  I was still fully heavy, so I just ignored the kama strikes at my left arm and left side, and used my baton to knock her legs out from under her in a smooth sweep that only worked because the baton weighed more than she did when I caught her behind the knees.

She rolled gracefully and popped up to all fours.  Then she jumped up onto her feet.  I quietly pointed out, “You also have to stop telegraphing your attacks.”

She blushed a little and grinned, “Oh.  Okay.”

We had a decent sparring session after that, even though she couldn’t win against me.  I just couldn’t get over how damned cheerful she was about losing.  She was just so chipper and excited about sparring with me that it really made me feel like a grouchy old jerk.  I mean, why couldn’t I be happy about losing if I was learning important lessons in martial arts at the same time?  And why couldn’t I treat these little sessions as personal interactions too?  She was so blatantly glad to do something as small as this with me that it made me feel like I was mistreating her somehow.

And she was getting pretty good with those kama.  Some day, some bully was really going to piss her off, the sheaths would come off those blades, and there would be bully sushi all over the place.  Even if she wasn’t anywhere near as strong as some of the people on campus, she was quick.  And there weren’t many mutants who could take a razor-sharp blade to the soft parts of the body.  Sure, there were the PK bricks, and the people with force fields, and the rock-hard types like me, but most mutants weren’t bladeproof.  Even an Exemplar-5 or Exemplar-6 would probably get cut up fairly badly by a skilled blade wielder, unless they had some warning and could use their superior reflexes.

Okay, Anna’s sheer ebullience made the session more fun than I was expecting.  It was kind of like hanging around with Toni while feeling grouchy, and being dragged into enjoying oneself despite everything one attempted.  In fact, I was wondering what it would look like if Toni and Anna sparred together.  Would it turn into some sort of Jackie Chan martial arts comedy?

After working with Aquerna, we were moved back into our usual groups, and the instructors went over the moves that worked for our chosen weapons and the moves that didn’t.  I could see the point, even if I had been able to work most of that out all by my lonesome while working with Sledge.  I wasn’t exactly comfortable around Sledge, but he seemed to be really skilled with his sledgehammer.  I could understand why Toni wanted to spar with him again, and it wasn’t because she thought he looked hot.  Okay, I really didn’t know whether Toni thought he looked hot, and I had avoided some of the girltalk times when that kind of topic was more likely to come to the fore, so it was my own fault for not knowing things like that.

The first round of sparring was interesting.  Redlight used his PK superman attack against Aztecka, but she was still far quicker than he was, and just about as strong.  It didn’t take her that long to win.  Tennyo wasn’t allowed to use any of her major attacks and had to use a katana instead of her lightsaber, but she still utterly overwhelmed Shadowolf.  I mainly watched Aztecka, trying to pick out the flaws in her style.  I didn’t see many.  Toni probably was spotting dozens.

The second round started out with sensei Ito calling out, “Phase?  Here, with me.”  I hopped up and hurried over to him.  He murmured quietly, “Since you performed so well yesterday…”  Then he raised his voice, “Chaka?  You may spar with Phase.”

Crap!  That evil little midget was doing it to me again!  Well, that got the smile off my face.

I glanced over to the rows of seated students.  Chaka was already on her feet and bouncing over toward us.  Her eyes were lit up like it was Christmas morning and she had been extra good all year.  I sighed.

Since Chaka was an Exemplar, there was no way that I was going to do the disruption-light bit against her.  Not even if Ito ordered me to.  I would quit the goddamned course before I would risk shredding her BIT.  On the other hand, Ito hadn’t told me to leave my tactical baton, so I was going to use that.  Not that I thought I could hit her with it.  I didn’t think I could hit Toni with anything smaller than Matterhorn.  I also pulled on my gloves and charged up the touch taser.

Chaka hurried over with one of her toys.  It was her latest meteor hammer.  It consisted of a long metal chain with a spiked steel ball at each end.  Each meteor looked like it weighed ten or twenty pounds.  I instantly went fully heavy.  Boy, I couldn’t wait to get hit in the face with that.

Once the other two sparring pairs were up, Ito started us.  Of course, Chaka exploded off her mark like a weaponized energizer bunny.  But I was expecting that.  She spun up her meteor hammer and unleashed one end of it at my left ankle.

I kicked it back at her like it was a soccer ball.  It hurt my foot some, but it was worth it to see the complete look of surprise on her face.  Had anyone just swatted those meteors back at her?  I didn’t think she had used her meteor hammer against Lancer, so perhaps no one had been given the opportunity yet.  I had an intense urge to smirk, which I suppressed.  After all, the number of times I had caught Chaka by surprise in martial arts was now all the way up to… let me think… one.

Not that the service return slowed her down any.  She somehow managed to swing the other meteor about so it knocked the first one back into its designated orbit, and she went back into action.  Okay, I didn’t see how anyone could possibly do that with a pair of spiked steel balls, unless they were using some sort of specific Esper trait, like Ricochet did.  But Toni did it without even trying hard.  It was yet another example of why living around Toni could be so frustrating.

The second meteor came swinging my way, this time at head height, and a little faster.  I snapped out my tactical baton and blocked with it.  Since the baton was fully heavy, it easily overcame the momentum of Toni’s steel meteor.  The meteor bounced off the baton as if I were a PK brick.

Chaka spun, and reversed the direction of her meteors.  Then she came at me with both meteors simultaneously.  I had to admit it.  Her move looked awesome.  It would have been great to be sitting down watching her use it on someone I didn’t mind seeing hit a few times with steel meteors at high speed.  Sebastiano came to mind, for some wacky reason.  I just didn’t want to be the intended target.  Tough luck, Goodkind.  I was the intended target, and Toni knew she could go all out against me because of the whole ‘density changer’ deal.  And I could hardly play defense all day, unless I actually enjoyed being pummeled with spiky steel balls.

I retracted my baton, shoved it into its pocket on my utility belt, and moved straight at her.  A meteor hammer is really a ranged weapon, so once I closed to within a couple feet of her, she simply whirled her weapon around herself as she spun in a tight circle, and it wrapped itself into a multi-strand chain belt with two big honking spiked balls hanging on it at the small of her back.  I didn’t know how she made the darn thing do that, but I had seen her do plenty of similarly impossible moves with the meteor hammers using her Ki, so I just assumed it was a skill I couldn’t learn without wasting several years of my life working toward it.

I tried to launch a combination at her, but she was already prepared for me.  She slid to the side of my punch, brush-blocked my front kick, oozed out of the way of my back kick, avoided my backfist, and slid inside my other punch.  I tried slipping in a little taser touch, but I couldn’t get a hand on her.

By then she was so close that she had no trouble punching me as her counter.  The only problem was that I was fully heavy, so she didn’t hurt me.  If anything, she hurt her knuckles on my face.

From there, we slid into a complicated stalemate for long seconds.  She couldn’t hurt me when I was heavy, but I couldn’t land a blow.  I knew she was doing her Ki bit where she used the force of the attack to scoot herself out of the way.  I just didn’t have an effective counter to it.  Every attack I tried was simply avoided, as if I were moving in slow motion.  ‘Frustrating’ didn’t begin to describe it.

So I tried thinking outside the box.  First, I tried using the flash from my other glove to blind her.  But she knew that trick.  I had used it on our second trip to Boston, and I had talked about it with the team.  Anyway, it was a stupid idea, since she didn’t need sight to dodge my attacks.

She tried hooking my knee with her front leg.  If I hadn’t been in a good stance – and ten times heavier than she was – I would have ended up on my butt.  I countered by grabbing at her ankle.  But she was way too fast for me, and I missed.  This was starting to feel utterly pointless.  As long as she could perceive my Ki, she could counter anything I threw at her before I came close to making contact.

‘Threw at her’…  Okay, I had another idea.  I feinted with my right leg, and I hurled two throwing darts off the back of my left hand.  She reacted before I let go of both darts.  Instead of doing any of the things I expected, she did this ‘spinning tornado’ move that reminded of her combat final.

Great, now she was learning martial arts techniques from forces of nature.

She literally slapped both darts out of the air, catching a dart on the palm of each hand.  She kept spinning like a top, and as she whirled around she hurled them right back at me.  Along with three darts of her own, which I didn’t even see her pull out of her gi.  Fortunately, I was still fully heavy, so the darts just plinked harmlessly off me.  My darts were probably bent now, so I would probably have to replace them.  Crap.

She spun and moved several yards away.  It dawned on me what she was going to do as soon as she gained the separation between us.  In a single ridiculously fast spin, the meteors suddenly flew off her waist and the chain unwound.  And she was wielding her meteor hammer again.  She was spinning one just over her head in a ten foot radius, and spinning the second one vertically like a circular shield in a two foot radius.

Sure enough, the upper meteor suddenly leapt at me in a tight curve that looked like the meteor would pass behind me so that it was going to wrap around me.

Okay, I had a counter for that.  I had kept it in mind ever since I saw her wrap up Aztecka for a quick TKO.  I did a slide-step forward.

The meteor was just about to pass behind me and wrap me in the chain, when I did my fast light-heavy-light flicker.  I disintegrated the chain as it passed through me.  The meteor went whizzing off toward the far end of the dojo.  I didn’t even think to look to see whether it was going to crash into one of the other sparring pairs.  I was too busy.

I caught her flat-footed.  She was surprised enough that when I caught the severed end of the chain in my off hand, I was able to yank her off her feet.  She flipped in mid-air, which would have been impossible for me.  But she was a much easier target that way.  I threw one of my ‘cannonballs’ at her.

She spotted it coming, and twisted her body like a cat.  Or a slinky.  Certainly, mere humans couldn’t gyrate like that.  She snagged the cannonball out of the air and prepared to return serve.

But I lucked out.  The extra momentum of the cannonball was enough to push her through the air, and she landed just outside the sparring ring.  She frowned for a second when Ito called it.  Then she gave me her leopard grin and tossed the ‘cannonball’ aside.  She stepped back into the ring and took up a stance.  She even did the ‘come and get some’ hand gesture before Ito started us again.

She slid forward and snapped the chain of the meteor hammer, once again turning it into a multi-strand chain belt with a really large accessory on the back.  As soon as my eyes flickered down to her waist, she attacked.  She came at me with a flurry of kicks and strikes to my head and upper body.  I blocked as many of them as I could, and took the rest of them.  As long as I was fully heavy, I could do that.  But I didn’t see what she was up to.  I knew she had to be plotting something.  She was always pulling some trick out of her ass.

When she thought I was leaning back far enough to be over-balanced, she tried to take out my legs and flip me backward.  I spotted it just as she dropped to the mat and both of her legs came whizzing at my front ankle at a speed too fast for me to regain a decent stance or get out of the way.

I went light just as her legs whirred through my front ankle.  Then I went heavy again before she could double back or get back to her feet.  I hastily focused on my stance.  It was a good thing I did, because she performed this weird break-dancing move that turned her missed ankle-hook into a two-footed tiger kick which caught me right in the solar plexus.  Even fully heavy and properly balanced, I was nearly staggered.  That girl could hit!

And she still wasn’t stymied.  She used the rebound force to roll away from me and kip up onto her feet in a wide-legged Tae Kwan Do stance with her lone meteor once again whirling over her head.  At least this time, I had a better idea of how to deal with her meteor hammer.

Or rather, I thought I did.  She tried the same move as before, hurling the meteor in an arc so it would pass behind me and entangle me in the chain.  I did my light-heavy-light flicker on the other half of her meteor hammer, and I tried to snag the severed end of the chain.  Which was exactly what she was waiting for me to do.  She timed my flicker perfectly, and she blasted me with her Chaka Chaka Bang Bang in one of the split seconds while I was light.

As I picked myself up off the mat and the little birdies stopped flying around my head, Ito called the point for Chaka.  Damn, that hurt!  Okay, no going light around her anymore.  I didn’t know how she could time her attack that accurately, but I had to assume she was using her Ki-reading ability to watch my density flicker.  Great.  That meant my density flicker had serious weak points as well.  At least, when I was fighting someone like Chaka.

I took my position again, and I got into a balanced stance.  I took a slow breath and let Ito start us once more.  This time, I was going to stay heavy.  If I went light, I was going to be toast.  On the other hand, she no longer had a meteor hammer.  Or even a meteor.  She was down to a chain that didn’t hurt me, and a host of throwing weapons that would bounce off me.  And she had to know that, so she would be coming up with some wacky plan to beat me while I was heavy.  Maybe she would jack up her strength so she could use some judo throw and my momentum to toss me out of the sparring ring for a win.

I put one hand behind my back and slipped my tactical baton back out of my utility belt.  I kept it retracted and made sure it was still heavy.  I figured that I would only have one shot at her with it before she adapted, so I needed to make my move count.  Assuming I could come up with a move when I needed it.

I stayed heavy and used the tactical baton like a lead weight in a boxing glove.  I punched at her, trying to back her toward the edge of the sparring circle.  But she just flowed through my attacks.  It didn’t matter how quickly I punched, or how many punches I threw, I couldn’t hit her.  It was like trying to hit Barry Allen.  She was too fast, and her Ki-based defense was too effective.

But she wasn’t making much progress, either.  She got in a number of punches and kicks, but all they did was jar me.  All right, I was going to have plenty of bruises by this evening, and Chou was going to have to brew up more of her muscle cream.  But as long as I was fully heavy, Chaka couldn’t hit me hard enough to knock me down, much less take me out.  I could tell by her expression that she knew it as well as I did.

Not that a little thing like that was going to stop her.  She gave me a little smirk and moved forward.  I blocked her first punch and ignored her next three, in an effort to get in one myself.  Not that it did me any good.  Her punches bounced off my face and stomach while she slid out of the way of my own attack.  Then, once she was close enough, her arm came up like a serpent’s strike, and just about the time a two-fingered attack came powering down toward my collarbone, I realized exactly what she was up to.  She had suckered me into letting her get close enough to do her viper-fang paralyzing nerve attack.  Damn it.  I couldn’t move fast enough to block it or dodge it, and she struck me about two inches below the middle of my righthand collarbone.

Her hand bounced back.  I wasn’t paralyzed.  I made a grab attack to get her in a judo throw, and she brush-blocked my arm.  I followed up as quickly as I could with a punch and kick combination, even as I realized that she could see my Ki meridians, or whatever they were, but she couldn’t strike them hard enough as long as I was fully heavy.  One small step for Ayla, one giant step for Goodkind.

I still couldn’t land a blow or back her out of the ring.  She was too darn fast, and too darn skilled.  But she wasn’t making much progress against me.  And I had a feeling she wasn’t going to settle for a tie if she could pull one more astonishing move out of her repertoire and bombard me with it.  I knew one thing, though.  There were several things I was not going to let her sucker me into trying.  I was not going to go light and get blasted into the next county.  I was not going to let her overbalance me so she could flip me out of the sparring ring.  And under no circumstance whatsoever was I going to go to normal density, because she could pound me into paste with any one of her attacks if I were stupid enough to do that.

Then she made her move.  She dodged my roundhouse kick and slid behind me.  Then she wrapped the remains of her meteor hammer around my neck.  Which she knew wouldn’t hold me.  Okay, what was I going to do, when she was obviously setting me up for something?  No going light and ducking through the chains.  No staying heavy and trying to throw her over my shoulder so she could reverse the throw and nail me.  No…

I stayed heavy but made the center of my chest light.  I held the tactical baton and popped it open, stabbing myself right through the heart.  Except that the center of my chest was light, and for one second my baton was fully heavy.  I nailed her right in her chest.  It was the one time she couldn’t see from my Ki how I was about to attack.

I yanked the baton back and went fully heavy again.  Ito called out, “Yame!  Final point to Phase.”

Chaka dropped her chain and stepped back.  She moved in front of me and bowed politely.  But as she did so, she muttered, “Dammit Phase, you stabbed me right in the boob!”

“Sorry,” I whispered.

I took my seat again, carefully sitting seiza as I returned my toys to my belt pockets.  I was going to have to wait until class was over to find my cannonball and my two throwing darts.

Lancer grinned at me and whispered, “Been watching much anime there, Phase?”

I didn't reply.  Oh, I wanted to snap off a reply, but Ito was looking our way.  And he gave me that look again.  Great.  Tomorrow, I’d probably have to fight Lancer again.  I figured I’d better prep my utility belt for him.  I figured that I had better prepare more than just my utility belt, if I was going to have to fight that boy.

I sat patiently, watching the other heavy hitters in the class and thinking about strategies for battling them.  Sledge and Aztecka looked pretty tough.  As tough as Judicator.  Bladedancer wasn’t there that afternoon, but I didn’t want to have to face her either.  Lancer was his usual unstoppable PK brick self.  I might have a chance against Sledge or Aztecka.  Oh yeah, Ito would throw Lancer at me tomorrow.  I just knew it.

Maybe I would just slip something in Hank’s food tomorrow at lunchtime.  Enough sedative, and he’d sleep through class.  No, that could get him in trouble.  Besides, it was just plain wrong.  It was the kind of thing The Don would pull, so there was no way I was considering it.  Well, not for a class.  I needed other plans.

Once Ito dismissed class, I hurried to pick up my lost toys.  The cannonball was way off at one of the far walls, while the two throwing darts had been tossed to the edge of the mat.  Both were bent.  Straightening them out and ensuring they would fly right when thrown was going to be a lot more work than just buying a couple new ones.  I went heavy, crushed them both so they weren’t dangerous anymore, and tossed them into the trashcan in the women instructors’ locker room.  Then I hurried through my shower so I could catch Judicator before she left.

Just seconds after I left the locker room, Toni hopped out of the girls’ locker room and made a beeline toward me.  I just knew she would.  Before she could say anything, I held up one hand and said, “Hang on.  I need to catch Judicator so I can talk to her about something important.  Can you give me a couple minutes?”

She thought for a second and asked, “This is about the Chou thing, right?”


She nodded, “Oh, okay.  Lemme go round up the gang while you’re makin’ with the downlow.”

The really disturbing part of that sentence was that I actually understood it.

I watched the girls trickle out of the locker room in twos and threes, with Toni dragging Kimbas off to the side in her usual inimitable style.  Finally, Judicator walked out in a Whateley uniform, looking more like an ordinary – if unusually attractive – high school student than a Greek goddess.

I ambled over to her so she saw me coming.  When she stopped to see what I was up to, I asked her, “Can we talk, just for a minute?”

She cautiously looked around, perhaps checking whether I had Lancer and Tennyo waiting to pounce on her.  “Yes.  I do not see why we can’t just talk.”

I can take a hint.  I said, “If you’d feel more comfortable in different surroundings, just say so.”

Aztecka walked up behind Judicator and glanced at me.  She said to Judicator, “Is she bothering you?”

Judicator smiled slightly.  “No, in fact Phase was just asking if I wanted someone like you around for this chat.  Would you stay?  It’s about… my old friends.”

“Ohhhh…” Aztecka sighed, which told me that Judicator had spilled the beans for some reason.  It probably gave her a powerful external ally for the times when Imperious and Majestic were being their traditional selves.

I said, “That’s exactly why I wanted to chat.  I just wanted to clear up some misconceptions and improve communication.”

Aztecka looked down at me and said, “You sound like a politician.”

I said, “I’m a financier.”

Judicator said, “She’s a Goodkind.”

Aztecka gave me a definitely wary ‘oh so you’re the one’ look.  She said to Judicator, “No wonder you wanted someone else to listen.”

I chose to ignore that.  I said to Judicator, “I know all about the big battle yesterday.”  She started to argue, and I cut her off.  “We’re not mad.  We’re not looking to start anything.  We don’t want any trouble.”

“Than why are you bringing this up?” she wondered suspiciously.

“Because your friends were set up,” I told her.  “From what Bladedancer said afterward, it was obvious to me that someone got Counterpoint all worked up by claiming that Chou was badmouthing him and talking smack.  Bladedancer never does that.  Not even when she wins easily.  And she didn’t win against Counterpoint in the sim.  We switched opponents.  I was the one who beat Counterpoint.”

“Okay, I’m impressed,” she admitted.  “He’s a very skilled fighter, and even his simulation should have reflected that.  Did he have any added powers to use?”

I said, “Exemplar, Speedster, and Blaster.  But my powers are… problematic to use.  They’ve nearly killed me a couple times.  I’ve been working with them for months, and I still don’t have them fully under control.  So a power mimic who had never worked with my power set before was at a serious disadvantage.”

She pursed her lips in thought, “So the… person who told all this to Counterpoint was presumably trying to get him to attack Bladedancer.  Was he trying to get Bladedancer injured, or was he trying to get Counterpoint injured?  Or was he playing a more complex strategy and attempting to get a large proportion of the New Olympians injured?  Perhaps the goal was to drive a wedge between us and your team…”

“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “I don’t know who set up Counterpoint in the first place.  But Counterpoint knows, and you should explain all this to him and Imperious both.”

She stared at me carefully.  I concentrated hard on stock market derivatives, just in case she was using a Psi or Esper technique on me.  She said, “You probably have a list of suspects.  Don’t you?”

Aztecka snorted, “I would.  And I’d go through ‘em one by one until I found the guilty one.”

I glanced at her and said, “Not quite my style.  Besides, Team Kimba and the New Olympians are both good at making enemies.  That makes my list extremely long.”

Judicator nodded briefly.  “But all I need do is speak with Counterpoint.  I’ll do that.  Thank you, Phase.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “I’m always happy to clear up small misunderstandings, particularly when it means someone unpleasant is going to get a little payback in the very near future.”

Judicator smiled slightly.  “I think that Imperious will have a very hard time ensuring that the payback is ‘little’.”  She turned to leave.  “I owe you one.”

I nodded.  “And you owe Bladedancer several.  One for your boy attacking her over nothing, and a couple for her leaving all of you alive and not horribly maimed.  That sword of hers?  It cut through Bombshell’s PK field.  It cut through Nex’s PDP protection.  It may be the only thing on earth that Tennyo’s lightsaber doesn’t slice through.  She took it easy on your friends.”

She nodded grimly, and walked off alongside Aztecka.

“Whew,” I groaned to myself.  I was fairly sure that had gone according to plan.  But I wouldn’t know for probably somewhere between three and twenty-six hours.  Well, that was my best guess.  I figured that Judicator would make an effort to get all of the New Olympians together, and given that we had just finished sixth period, I didn’t see her succeeding until after dinner at the earliest.  Imperious would probably want Counterpoint to make an example of someone who thought he could use the Greek Gods as chessmen.  That would probably happen either tonight after the meeting, or else tomorrow.  And I really doubted that Counterpoint would show a lot of patience with regard to being used like an attack dog.  It might take him a little time to track down our perpetrator, but I doubted that it would take him all night and day.  So, from three to twenty-six hours, although my personal best guesses were that he would strike immediately after the meeting this evening, or else as soon as he could tomorrow morning, or soon after the meeting if it ended up taking place tomorrow morning instead of this evening.  If someone who didn’t like Team Kimba just sort of got pounded into steak tartare tonight around eight, or tomorrow around eight in the morning, I wasn’t going to be particularly surprised.

I had my suspicions, of course.  Someone had sicked Counterpoint on Toni, and Counterpoint hadn’t had any qualms about taking out a member of Barricade in the process.  Either Counterpoint was a bigger nutbar than I had heard, or someone he knew personally was using him as a weapon.  Someone who wasn’t in the New Olympians, either.  I was guessing it was either someone connected with Don Sebastiano, someone involved in the big power struggle between the Tigers and the Dragons, or someone who had a beef with Team Kimba as a whole.  It was even possible that two different people were targeting two different members of Team Kimba through the same irrational God of War, but I doubted Counterpoint had that many people he would listen to without checking with some ‘Lympies first.  The ‘Chaka and Chou’ double might mean it was someone involved with the attacks on Chou in Baltimore, but it seemed more likely that I was looking for someone connected with the Dragons or the Tigers.

Oh well, I didn’t need to do the detective work.  Judicator would make sure to do it all.  Athena would feel a need to get to the bottom of it all, and make sure that her family was properly protected.  My only real question was which Greek God would get to tear our troublemaker a secondary gastrointestinal egress.  I would just make sure that Team Kimba helped pick up the pieces.

And I was also counting on Judicator giving all the New Olympians a complete review of everything that I had said.  Toni had enjoyed explaining to us how Counterpoint had nearly killed himself trying to use her powers.  If Counterpoint thought that my powers were just as difficult to use, or perhaps even more dangerous to wield, then he might decide that I was a lousy choice for his next opponent.  If not, then there was also the possibility that Imperious or Judicator would point that out to him and make him tow the line.  At any rate, I was hoping that my ‘casual tangential remark’ would pay substantial dividends from here on out.

I strolled over to where Toni was talking and gesturing away.  Based on the ‘lasso’ arm movements she was making, she was talking about how she should have kicked my ass on the mat earlier.  “…and I was totally thinkin’ she’d grab my wrists and try ta throw me, and I was all set to counter her move, even if she prob’ly weighed like a ton…”

I interjected, “Yeah, I’ve got to cut down on the Ben and Jerry’s.”  Hank and Jade laughed.

Chaka grinned at me, “You did good out there, Hulkster.  You just gotta get over this whole ‘I’m no good at martial arts’ attitude you got.”

I frowned, “Yeah, well tell me that after Ito throws me at Hank tomorrow and I get my ass kicked.”

“Pessimist much?” Toni said.  “You don’t get better if you don’t work out against people better’n you!  You don’t think I wanna spar with Counterpoint ‘cause he’s a laugh riot, do ya?  No, I wanna spar with him because he’s got the moves.”

“A couple thousand years of martial arts practice will do that,” I reminded her.

“Exactly!  And that’s how ya learn!  Ya don’t learn anything from sparrin’ with Aquerna, ‘cept how to dodge squirrels.”

“Buster sure didn’t learn that,” snickered Billie.

Toni kept going, “You wanna get good enough to make a difference when some bad dude comes after you?  Then you gotta work as hard and as long as sensei Ito, so you can get that good.”

All right, that was an entirely valid point.  I knew I was conflicted about martial arts class and the Team Tactics class.  I didn’t even want to punch people.  After growing up with a ‘no physical violence’ mentality, it was difficult to switch so abruptly into this whole ‘superheroes punch people in the face’ mode.  I still didn’t like hitting people, and I didn’t like getting hit, either.  Not to mention that I really didn’t like to lose, and getting better in martial arts meant a lot of losing little matches against better fighters.  But I didn’t say any of that.

Instead, I snarked, “And that’s why you’ve been skating by on your Ki powers?”

She shook her head no.  “Unh-uh.  That’s why I ain’t skatin’ by on my Ki powers anymore.  That was a mistake.  I shoulda known better, and I learned my lesson, and all it cost me was a couple days with my teeth in a mouthguard.  I’ve gotta work a lot harder.  When I can take CP or Judicator or Chou without usin’ any Ki powers, then I’ll think about takin’ it a little easier.  If you want to win the fight, you gotta put in the training first.”  She paused and looked at my waist.  “Unless you got a couple anti-mutant bazookas in your utility belt I don’t know about.”

I said, “I’m not the one with the bazookas under their clothes.  That would be Mindbird.”

Hank helpfully added, “Or Attributes.  That girl is stacked.”

And just about the time the girls would have jumped all over Hank and given him grief about his girlfriend, Jade interrupted.  “So what was the deal with Judicator?  You didn’t threaten her, didja?”

“No, I didn’t,” I insisted.  “I prefer to work through other methodologies.”

“So speaks Business Babe!” intoned Toni.

I pretended to ignore her and the assorted chuckles.  “I took a different approach.  I explained that someone set Chou up, and used Ares, God of War as a chewtoy.”

Hank got it instantly.  “Crap.  The ‘Lympies are gonna be pissed when they hear the details on that.”

I nodded, “That’s the general idea.  Counterpoint will know just who pointed him at Chou and lied like a rug to make him mad enough to do something stupid.”  I glanced at Toni and corrected myself, “Something else stupid, that is.”

Toni shrugged, “Hey, when all you got is a sword, everything looks like a pincushion.”

Billie added, “And that guy thinks he’s got the biggest sword in the whole country.”

Jade tugged on her sleeve and hissed in her ear, “Did you mean whisper whisper?”

Billie grinned at her and nodded.  Jade put her hand over her mouth and giggled naughtily.

I pursed my lips.  “He probably is some sort of reincarnation of Ares, so all he knows is fighting and practicing for the next fight.  I don’t know what it would take to change a couple thousand years of that mindset.”

Jade perked up, “I know!  When Toni can beat him up without using her Ki powers, like she said.  He won’t like losing to a girl.  ‘Specially a girl who can beat him up without using her superpowers.”

“That will probably just motivate him to try a thousand other tactics in one battle with Toni after another,” I muttered darkly.

“Kewl!” exclaimed said martial artist.  “That would be so freakin’ fresh!”  She looked like she was almost ready to leap into the air at the mere idea.  “I think I’m gonna go ask sensei Tolman if she’ll show me a couple new katas,” she grinned, and she rushed off toward the women instructors’ locker room.

Hank smiled, “Well, I guess Toni’s gonna be busy for the next hour or so.  Ya think she’ll be done by dinner?”

I hadn’t noticed that Sahar had joined our little cluster, but it was Sahar who answered.  “I think so.  She needs to restore all that energy she burned off today.”

“What did she do this time? I asked.

Sahar explained, “She was working with the kama and the fighting claws when I came in.  Then she helped me work on my Ki skills and my judo for half an hour.  And then she worked with Interface for a while before class started.”

“No wonder she didn’t have the energy to clobber me,” I said.

Hank frowned, “If you keep that up, I will cream you tomorrow.  You won fair and square.  Chaka wasn’t holding anything back.  About the only thing she didn’t try was her Ki shout, and we all know how to defend against that one.”

Okay, I did know how to defend against her Ki shout.  She needed time to pull Ki in, and then she needed time to focus it in her lungs.  So I only had to keep her from having the time.  If she had stopped and tried to do the preparatory moves, I would have Phase-leapt to a spot right in front of her and punched her in the solar plexus.

On the other hand, she could have bluffed me with a fake Ki shout, and then blasted me with her Chaka Chaka Bang Bang when I Phase-leapt at her.  I needed to bear that in mind for future sparring.

Hank went on, “And the only things you used were your gloves and your baton.  And that cannonball.  I didn’t see one single egg or any of the other gizmos you’ve got in your belt.  So I think you’re the one who didn’t go all out.”

Billie encouraged me, “Sometimes you just gotta try stuff.  You don’t know what’d work on Toni until you give it a shot.  I’m sorry I missed watching you guys.  I was sparring with Redlight, and I missed the whole thing except the last few seconds.”

I checked, “I missed that.  Did he try the Psi paralysis thing on you?”

Billie frowned a little.  “I’m not sure.  I think so, but it didn’t do anything to me.  So he spent the whole rest of the spar doing his PK superman power, and I wasn’t allowed to touch him except with my bokken, so I couldn’t punch right through his field.  And there was no way I was going to use any of my big stuff on someone who’s a nice guy.”

“And he puts up with Diva!” Jade pointed out.

“That’s not a nice guy,” I said.  “That’s a weak manager.”

“Ayla, not everything in life is related to business,” Hank sighed.

I refrained from replying.  However, the rest of the group replied for me.  Billie and Jade and even Jinn all pretended to stare at him like he had just said the dumbest thing on earth.  I just made sure I didn’t have an expression like that on my face.  Billie and Jade burst into giggles together.

I simply turned to Hank and said, “Management is management.  It’s an American fallacy to assume all management people are capable of managing all projects, regardless of personnel and subject matter.  But that doesn’t mean that underlying management principles aren’t relevant.”

Hank gave me a raised eyebrow.  I think he learned that one from me.  He asked, “Okay then, how would you handle Diva?”

I calmly explained, “I wouldn’t.  She has to understand that team dynamics are more important than individual extravagances.  If she can’t grasp that and act as a team player more, then I would look for a new brick in my lineup.”

“That’s kind of… harsh,” Jade muttered.

“It’s the way we have to do it in the military,” said Hank.  “Lives are at stake if we don’t.”

“It’s life,” said Sahar.

“It’s how Team Kimba does it, you know,” I pointed out.  “How many times have we had to go with the team’s needs over one person’s desires?  Even if the one person is me?  How many times has one person on the team risked his or her neck for someone else on the team?  Diva’s implicitly endangering the rest of the team by her actions.  How would you have felt if their supervillain pursuit sim was real, and Diva got Greta and Theresa killed with her stupid glory-hog stunt?”

Jade pouted, “I would’ve been real mad at her.”

I pushed my point, “Would any of us pull that and put the rest of Team Kimba at risk?”

“Well, no,” she admitted.

I finished, “Duplex could dupe Redlight or Zip instead, and they could do without Diva.  Or they could pick up a better brick.  It wouldn’t do Diva’s rep any good to get kicked off a team where she was far and away the heavy hitter, but I think most of the training teams on campus already know what a liability she is.”

“Ayla’s right,” agreed Billie.

“Oh.  Okay.  If you say so,” Jade said.  And that was that.  As soon as her onee-sama said it was so, Jade was good.  Sometimes I really wondered about that girl.

I let most of the group get ahead of me, so I could have a little bit of privacy.  I pulled out my phone and dialed the best florist my researchers had been able to find in the Berlin area.  Even though it was the middle of winter, they could come up with four dozen red roses in mint condition.  Okay, so the price was a little on the high side.  They were probably having to ship them from a hothouse or at least some place several states away.  Rather than going with some of the girlier options, I picked a Lalique crystal vase.  I made sure they would have the bouquet ready by tomorrow morning, and then I arranged for my favorite courier service to pick them up and deliver them to Vanessa’s room.

That was when I spotted two girls walking back to Melville.  As soon as I recognized them, I decided to make a detour.  <(Phase) Guys, I’m going over to talk with Reach and Spark.  I’ll catch up in a bit.>

<(Tennyo) You’re not walking right into Melville without backup, are you?>

<(Phase) I wasn’t planning on it.  Still, plenty of Melvillains could show up.  Anyone want to drop by, or fly overwatch?>

<(Lancer) I’ve got a thing with Wallflower, and I’m already running late.>

<(Tennyo) I’m supposed to be over at Hawthorne for a meeting in a couple minutes.>

<(Generator) I’m sending Jann over to keep an eye on you.  She’s got my other Spot too.>

<(Phase) Any hint on what she looks like this time?>

<(Lancer) At least it’s not that Hello Kitty plushie.>

<(Generator) What’s wrong with Hello Kitty?>

I sighed inwardly, and decided that I really didn’t need to know yet.  If I was attacked and a cabbit leapt into the fray, it would be fairly obvious.  Or perhaps it would be a whirling cluster of chains and knives.  At any rate, subtlety wasn’t Jade’s strong point.

I Phase-leapt across the snowbanks to the path on which Reach and Spark were sauntering.  I almost hadn’t recognized Reach, since she wasn’t in that shiny black catsuit she liked for Spy Kidz activities.  They were both in normal Whateley uniforms, although Reach was wearing that fancy visor.  That was the real giveaway.  After all, hot babes in Whateley uniforms were all over this campus.

I deliberately went heavy and dropped to the brickwork to make a loud clacking noise.  I didn’t want them to think I was trying to sneak up on them.  “Hi.  Do you two have a minute?”

“Ah don’t think we’ve met, have we?” asked Reach suspiciously in a heavy Kentucky accent that made her sound like a hayseed.  A very attractive hayseed, but still…  It was as if someone had stuck Daisy Duke into a Whateley uniform.

Spark asked in her French accent, “Aren’t you Phase?  Didn’t Kismet introduce us?”

“Yes,” I nodded.  “In the cafeteria.”

Spark turned to Reach and murmured in French, “She is the Goodkind with the family that hates mutants.

I looked at Reach and said, “Yes.  It’s true.  I’m a Goodkind.”  I glanced at Spark and added, “And I also speak French fairly well.”

Spark had the grace to blush.  “Oh.  That is right.  You have talked with Kismet in French and Dynamaxx in German.”

Reach wondered out loud, “Ah know why Ah’m learnin’ French, but why do you know a bunch of foreign languages already?”

I shrugged carelessly.  “It’s partly my prep school background, and partly my family’s international activities.  We do a lot with all the European countries, and Goodkind Europe is a very active branch of GKI.”

Spark looked like she was dying to say something to Reach, but she couldn’t say it in French because I would still understand it.  I had a feeling it was related to European attitudes about Goodkind International.  A lot of the French were not happy about our purchases of certain French corporations.  A lot of people felt that one of the reasons the French government had finally agreed to join the European Union was to gain more protection against Goodkind Europe.  Not everyone felt that way.  Goodkind Europe had revitalized the Polish steel mills and turned them into productive systems that weren’t environmental hazards.  So Poland’s government was still fairly pro-Goodkind.  But most of the French farmers were still really upset with some of the efforts Goodkind Europe had made in agricultural economics.  I told her, “You can complain about Goodkind International after I leave.”

Reach said, “If you wanna talk Intelligence Cadet Corps stuff, you oughta go to Ace.  Ah’m just the rookie.”

I explained, “I really wanted to talk to Spark about her research.”

Spark burst out, “But I am not supposed to talk about my biomorphology experiments, and you are not supposed to be asking, and Madame Carson made them hands-off for the whole school!”

Yeah, it wasn’t as if Carson hadn’t already done the big show-and-tell for the whole school, including before and after film footage of Migraine.  That sure made the entire student body cringe.  Even most of the GSD cases didn’t want to risk ending up like that. 

I just smiled, “Yes.  I know.  I’m not really interested right now in something you’ll need years to perfect.  But if I can’t get my body fixed before we graduate, then I’ll be wanting to talk with you some more.  After we graduate, Carson’s orders are no longer in effect.  And after we graduate, you can look for outside funding sources.  Like me.  I can provide extensive funding for the right projects.”

She nodded.  “Charmer and Kismet said that you are extremely rich.  And Dynamaxx said you are supporting several of the inventors in the Workshop now.”

“And that’s why I dropped by,” I said, finally coming around to the point after the requisite chitchat.  “I’m interested in that visor Reach is wearing.  Loophole said it’s mostly gadget and only partially devise.  Do you think you could make it all gadget with no devises whatsoever?”

“Why do you ask?”

I said, “Because I think it has some real utility if it can be mass-produced.  In particular, I think I could get you a long-term research grant.”

Reach checked, “How long-term?  And for how much?”

I said, “Probably around ten years.  And the grant would most likely be for around two hundred million dollars.”

Spark dropped her bookbag.

Reach frowned, “Who the hell would pay that kind of money for a visor?”

“Not just the visor, but the entire communications package and extended connectivity package she probably has built into it,” I pointed out.  “And the ‘who’ is simple.  The U.S. Defense Department’s Land Warrior program.”

She frowned, and said in French, “But I am not an American.”

I smirked, “That’s right, so you’d have to have an American with security training monitoring you constantly, as part of the grant.”

She looked shyly at Reach, who was rolling her eyes at me.  Reach said, “Phase, are you always this sneaky?”

I just grinned, “Haven’t the rest of the Spy Kidz told you about my play against the Masterminds last term?”

She snorted, “The one that ended up with Holdout half-naked in a snowdrift with Compiler on top of him?  Interface won’t stop hinting about it when Ace and Holdout are around.  But they haven’t told me anything useful about what was going down.”

I told her, “Okay, if the Cadets really won’t tell you, come over to my room some time, and Bladedancer and I will tell you the entire story.”

Spark smiled, “You live in Poe, do you not?  Near Delta Spike and Mega-Girl?  They thought we should move into Poe as well.”

I slowly shook my head.  “No, you definitely shouldn’t try to move into Poe.”

Spark started, “But Delta and Mega-Girl said…”

I snorted, “Come on, you know what they’re like.  They were trying to help you.  So now you know about Poe.  You’re not the only ones.  But if Poe was an open campus secret, this school would turn into a war zone.  Every homophobe on campus would be getting into it with every Poesie.  You know what it was like when Reach switched sides.  That was almost as bad as when the whole campus was gunning for me, my first month here.  Can you imagine G-Force and his homeboys, plus all the Alphas, plus all of Gold Stallion’s jerk force, plus Superior and his pals, plus the Good Ol’ Boyz, all in a fight to the death against Team Kimba?  There wouldn’t be anything left for miles around.  Things are better this way.  For now, anyway.”

Reach looked upward thoughtfully for long seconds.  She finally said, “Is there a reason a pink hockey puck with jet propulsion is hovering in a tree right behind you?”

<(Phase) You’re busted.>

<(Generator)  Oops.>

<(Phase) Come on down and hover by my right shoulder.>

I said, “It’s a protection drone Generator built for me.”

Jann in the compact flew down and showed off by orbiting me twice before coming to a halt two feet from my right shoulder.

Spark stared.  “Is that… a Hello Kitty makeup compact?”

“A what?” asked Reach, which just demonstrated that he was still mostly guy inside that body.

I smiled thinly.  “It looks like one, right down to the lid with the mirror.  Just as the cabbit she built for Tennyo looks like a real, live cabbit from Tenchi Muyo.  Generator’s a really good deviser, but you do have to put up with her sense of style.”

“So I noticed when she was in the combat finals,” Spark said.  “The armbands with the missiles were very… efficient with space, but looked like they were from a cartoon.”

“They were,” I said, ratting Jade out.  “She got the idea from watching an anime called Project A-Ko.”

“That sounds pretty high-level Deviser to me,” said Reach thoughtfully.  “She sees somethin’ in a cartoon and makes it work for real?  That isn’t what her rating says on her MID.”

I stared at her and said, “Oddly enough, a number of us seem to have developed new powers which aren’t reflected yet on our MIDs.”

Meanwhile, Spark was staring at the Hello Kitty compact.  When I spotted her reaching out to touch it, I warned her, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

She didn't stop.  I didn’t think that many serious Devisers would have.  However, she wasn’t reaching for a real protection drone.  The compact suddenly jumped two feet higher and flashed its knifeblades threateningly.

“I told you,” I said.

C’est merveilleuse,” she whispered.

Spark stared suspiciously.  “That’s the AI drone that took out Swoop in you guys’ arena fight, isn’t it?”

“Yep,” I agreed.  “It has flight, maneuverability, long-term power supply and fuel system, artificial intelligence, and a host of offensive and defensive capabilities.  But it’s a devise, and so I’m not funding future developments on it.  Yet.”

The compact popped out its blades once again, and locked them in place.  Then it began spinning madly.  It orbited my torso three times and then jumped up to a height of ten feet.

I looked at it and said, “You can stop showing off now.”  It moved back to near my shoulder and retracted its blades.

I said to Reach and Spark, “And that’s another thing about Generator’s devises.  Her AIs tend to be built with deliberate quirks like that.  It’s almost like dealing with Generator herself.”

Spark thought for a couple seconds and said, “So she programs in human-like behaviors to make them act more like humans than machines?  Is she trying to find a way to beat a Turing test?”

I smiled.  “No, she just likes doing silly stuff.  It doesn’t make her devises seem intelligent so much as flat-out wacky.”

Reach watched the compact with untrusting eyes.  “Ah woulda said more lahk ‘unpredictable’ if you wanna know…”

“Oh, you get that behavior too,” I said.  “Remember her shoulder angels?  Those were a real pain.”

Reach smiled evilly.  “Ah really lahked what they did ta Peeper.”

I smiled mirthlessly.  “You didn’t see how much trouble I got into in Team Tactics class when it turned out Generator had a pair of shoulder angels for me that I didn’t know about.  They smarted off to Sergeant Bardue and Admiral Everheart.  I think I nearly got kicked out of that class.”

“Yeah.  Unpredictable isn’t a good thing a lotta the time,” Reach agreed.

Once Spark finished ogling the flying compact, she and Reach walked off to their dorm.  I held out my hand, palm upward, and the compact landed on it.  I said, “You want to go for a ride home?”

It vibrated, “Sure!”

So I wrapped my hand around it and went heavy.  I took a couple fast steps down the path and then went light.  I rocketed intangibly through a couple trees and off toward Poe.  At my speed, I couldn’t control my aim well enough for me to fly through the walls and into my room, so I settled for going heavy and dropping onto the sidewalk in front of the dorm.

I waited until I walked in before letting go of the compact.  I said, “Go tell Jade I sold another Workshop kid on ‘Jade the amazing deviser’.”

The compact vibrated, “Gotcha.  And thanks for the ride.  That was fun!  I never get to go that fast, unless Tennyo’s carrying us around.”

“And try to watch those pronouns,” I suggested.  The compact swooped over to the stairs and zoomed off to Jade’s room.

I ran a quick errand before I headed off to Hawthorne.  I flew up to my room, dropped off my junk, and picked up one set of the bespelled beads.  Then I flew up to Shove’s room.  I knocked on the door.

“YAH!” a voice screeched from inside the room.

I leapt through the door to find Shove sitting at her desk and looking startled.  “Are you okay?” I asked.  “I heard you scream.”

She blew out a slow, frustrated breath.  “I thought it was Ectoplasm Bitch coming after me again.  The last time there was a knock like that, these gray tentacles starting coming through the door and blood started dripping out of the wall.”


“Yeah, ‘eww’ doesn’t begin to describe it.  I’ve got to get her to lay off.”

I asked, “Why don’t you just apologize?”

She gave me a look that clearly said she would rather be attacked by giant bloody tentacles than apologize to Belle.  Okay, just be that way.  See if Beltane lets you off the hook anytime in the next fortnight.

I said, “I brought you a present.  Beads.”  I tossed her the little clear envelope.  “The pink is for panties, the blue is for bras.  Don’t wear it until dinnertime.  We’re planning on a little post-dinner surprise for Peeper.  Of course, if he doesn’t stare through anyone’s clothing, he won’t have any problem.”

“He’s a guy,” she said.  “Like any teenaged guy wouldn’t be looking through girls’ clothes all the time, if he could.”  She paused a second.  “Except for the guys like Askey.  They’d be looking through guys’ clothes all the time.”

I couldn’t keep the smirk off my face.  “And you wouldn’t be peeping through anyone’s clothes if you could?”

She rolled her eyes.  “I’ve got the showers here, you know.  I don’t need to look through girls’ clothes.  I see ‘em naked right here in the dorm.  And I’m not sneaking around and taking advantage of ‘em either.  They know I’m looking, and they’re looking right back at me.”  She glared at me and added, “A lot more girls would be pissed off at you if you weren’t so fucking pretty, so at least they get to look at you too.”

I admitted, “You know, I’d give up looking at the girls in the bathroom if I could just go back to looking like a boy.  I’d  even give up looking at Fey and Vox and Bugs.”

She grinned wickedly.  “Give up looking at Fey in the showers?  You must be serious.  Or crazy.”

“You know, some of that’s her glamour.  If you hang around her enough, you sort of get used to it.  Mostly…” I told her.  Okay, I was exaggerating.  Or lying.  Nikki’s glamour was still really potent.  And I hoped I never again had to hear complaints about how her powers had basically forced every girl on the floor to synch their periods with hers.

“Yeah, like who cares?  If you tell me Angelina Jolie had a lip job to look that sexy, would I care?  Fuck no,” she proclaimed.  “Gorgeous is gorgeous.”

I had to agree with her on that.  Did guys care whether Pamela Anderson had a boob job?  Or two?  Or seven?  No.  Not even close.  All that really mattered was that she still had boobs most adult guys would kill to get their hands on, and she was almost as old as my mother.  On the other hand, Attributes clearly had never had a breast implant, and she was built like a Playboy Playmate… and a half.  There was a lot to be said for the Exemplar power set.

Shove shooed me out so she could pin beads on her lingerie, so I walked through her door and flew down through the hallways to get to the basement.  Then I headed off to Hawthorne.  As soon as I entered the Hawthorne tunnel, I started concentrating on my new tactic right away.

Instead of focusing on stock market computations, which I had been having a hard time maintaining while engaging in serious conversation, I concentrated on something else.  I had gotten the idea from watching Jade the other day.

Fubar appeared almost as soon as I walked through the doors and up the steps into Hawthorne.  This time, he was wearing a gray three-piece suit with a white shirt and a thin red tie.  “Good afternoon, Ayl…  Ugh!  Honestly Ayla, I know you’re trying to block Psi powers, but that’s just evil.”

I couldn’t help grinning.  I just said, “Really, a shirt and tie like that?  You ought to be going with the classic IBM navy blue.  Or else keep the gray suit – it looks good on you – but change the shirt and tie.”

As I stood there, the shirt changed to a pink color, the tie widened, and the tie changed to a paisley that incorporated both the shirt and suit colors.

I nodded, “Much better.”

He pursed his lips.  “If you say so.  I don’t really think pink is my style.”

I told him, “This isn’t the Fifties, you know.  Businessmen can wear a pink shirt, as long as they don’t act like they’re embarrassed about it.  But if you don’t like it, change to a different color.”

His shirt changed to a medium blue, and the paisley pattern changed accordingly.

“Nice,” I assured him.  “Very stylish, and yet very businesslike.”

“Unlike that song,” he pointed out.  “Surely you could have come up with a less horrible song to sing in your head.”

I kept my face impassive as I said, “But that’s the whole point of using a really awful song.  I’m still refining my technique, so I may have a much worse one by next week.”

“Please don’t assume you need to do it on my account,” he groaned.

I kept concentrating on the song while I talked with the Foob, which frankly wasn’t all that easy.

Finally, Fubar sent me upstairs.  “Mrs. Cantrel says you can visit Puppet if you want.  Her room is clean still.  Static Girl and Frostbite would both like to see you, although they’re both doing fine in math this term.  And Antenna says he has something new to show you from his brother.”  He stopped and stared up the steps.  “Oh, and Mrs. Cantrel says Diz would like another game of Scrabble, because Chaka isn’t as good an opponent as you are.”

“Thanks,” I smiled, and I went light.  As I floated up the stairs, I could hear him behind me.  He was already singing the song, although he was slightly off-key.  “I’m addicted to you, don’t you know that you’re toxic?  And I love what you do, don’t you know that you’re toxic?...  Aaugh!  Ayla!  Don’t do this anymore!”

I smirked to myself.  “That’ll teach him…  With a taste of your lips I’m on a ride…  Oh crap!  Now it’s stuck in my head too!  Damnit!”

I drifted up to the lobby, and found Mrs. Cantrel waiting for me.  “Now whatever you do, Phase, don’t go singin’ that song up here!” she commanded.  “Hearin’ it in Louis’ head was bad enough!”

I shrugged.  “I didn’t ask him to read my mind.”

She frowned, “It’s not like the poor boy’s doing it on purpose, you know.  We’re all just too ‘loud’.  About the only people around here who block well enough are Carmilla and Jimmy T.  And Fey and Tennyo, when they come around.  Now don’t be mean to him, understand?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said with an inward sigh.  What about the whole aspect of ‘oh Fubar, try not to ransack Ayla’s brain, would you?’  Why was I always the bad guy?  Was I doing something wrong that I didn’t even realize?  Or maybe it was my entire approach.  Perhaps it was my attitude.  Everyone said I still had a Goodkind attitude about life, and if people like the daughter of Dr. Diabolik and the host of Aunghadhail were seeing it, then it was probably there.  I figured there was probably no point in making a rebuttal to Mrs. Cantrel, when she still wasn’t calling me ‘Ayla’ after all this time.  At least I wasn’t back to being called ‘Goodchild’.

She said, “Why don’t you go see Antenna?  He’s dyin’ for you to come by so he can show you something he got.  Then you can go see how Frostbite and Static Girl are doing on their special topics course, and Puppet’d like to see you too.”

“Yes ma’am.”

I headed down the hall to Brian’s room.  A couple guys stopped watching the big-screen television long enough to see who it was, but none of them came out to say hi.  Apparently, I was a lot less interesting than that day’s episode of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich or whoever was on.  I wondered if everyone else would have just shrugged that off.  I also wondered if they all would have stopped watching that show if it were Fey or Chaka or Lancer who dropped by.

Well, of course they would have all stopped watching if Fey dropped by.  The entire real studio audience would have stampeded out to see Fey.  Along with the cast and crew and host and announcer.  That was what Fey was.  I knew from my years as a Goodkind scion that the adulation of the hoi polloi was fickle and uninformed, but that didn’t mean I actively sought to be ignored and disliked.

On the other hand, someone like Toni wouldn’t be upset or aggravated.  She could just shake it off and go on with her life.  That was one of the aspects of her personality that I both admired and disliked.  I was never going to admit that I wished I could just let little things like that go.  And I didn’t want to tell anyone that sometimes Toni’s tendency to shrug off things like that was really annoying.  The contrapositive to that was that Toni also had to put up with me, and I had to admit that I wasn’t the easiest person on earth to get along with.

Okay, Dr. Diabolik was probably easier to get along with than I was.  Mal and Jadis were teenagers and still thought he was terrific, which was more emphatic a recommendation the more one thought about it.  No one in my family thought I was terrific, maybe not even Gracie.  Paul was only at the point where he was willing to take phone calls from me.  Nobody else was even on speaking terms with me, and half the family would have me shot on sight if I were ever stupid enough to show up on their doorstep.

I knocked on the double doors that allowed Antenna to go in and out of his room while in his energy drainer.

“Don’t come in!” Brian yelled.  “I’m not in the drainer!”

I went heavy and replied, “It’s Phase.”

“Oh!  Okay.  Then come on in,” he hollered.

I looked to make sure no one else was in the hallway, just in case Antenna unleashed a particularly virulent lightning blast or two.  Then I carefully opened the heavy doors and slipped inside.

He was sitting in a big plastic chair, typing on a large plastic keyboard.  The plastic keyboard used a simple mechanical system to press on computer keys in an insulated vault about two feet away.  The computer screen for his computer was behind several inches of clear plastic, and the rest of the computer was ruggedized components that were physically separated and possibly not even in the same room.

He looked up.  “Hey Phase!  I’ve got an internet connection now!  And it hardly ever goes down.  Oh man, I’m glad you came by.  I’ve gotta show you this.”

He typed away, jumping from what looked like a computer search on sexy female mutants.  Okay, I couldn’t blame him.  He was cooped up in here all the time, and I got to ogle unbelievably hot babes every single day.  In the showers.

He pulled up an email package and logged in.  Then he clicked on a video message.  A guy who looked an awful lot like Brian but several years older was sitting in an armchair in a small living room.  The guy said, “Brian!  How the holy fuck did you get a fucking signed poster of Brass Monkey?  You’re killing me!  Is that really real?  I gotta know.  I’ve got twenty bucks with Chris that says you got somebody there to fake it for you.”

Brian looked up at me with an evil grin.  “Hah!  This is like the first time I was able to outdo him on pretty much anything!”

I figured that made a lot of sense, because Brian’s older brother appeared to be about eight years older than he was, so when Brian was a kid, his big brother would have been able to crush him in things like sports or games.  I smiled back, “Make sure to really rub it in that all of them signed the poster.  In person.  No copies.  And not in a record store, either.”

We listened to Brass Monkey’s great paean to the future of robotics, “Crush Kill Destroy”, and tried to sing along while Brian composed his video email reply.  It took a while to get it just right, so he could really rub it in.

Finally, there was a loud knock at the doors.  When I opened the right-hand door to see who it was, there was a wall of black and grey blocking the hallway.

“Oh.  Hi, Slab,” I said.

He growled past me, “Hey Antenna, Mrs. Cantrel says to turn it down.  And you…”  He glared down at me.  “She says you might want to go up and see Static next.  Don’t be mean to her.”

I acted like I wasn’t bothered by his attitude.  I looked over my shoulder and said, “See you around, Brian.”  Then I slipped past Slab’s immense bulk and headed off to the stairs.  All right, I went light and eased my way around him with about half my body moving through the wall, because Slab didn’t bother to back up for me.  And I knew he had some sort of PK field, so I wasn’t going to try to go light and cut through him.  That would be about as bad as trying to walk through Hank.

I floated up the stairs to Static Girl’s room.  I knocked on the door and heard Claire’s voice calling out, “Hold on a second!  The screen door isn’t closed!”

I called out, “It’s me.  Phase.  You don’t have to close the screen door.”  I ventured as far as to open the door and walk into her room.

She was just getting up from her desk chair.  She gave me a big grin and said, “I was in the middle of my math course.”

“Oh,” I hastily apologized.  “I didn’t mean to interrupt something important.”

“Oh no,” she insisted.  “I want you to see this.  I doing it all myself!”

She took me by the hand and led me over to her study desk.  Her grip hit me with severe tingles as we walked, so it was a really good thing I was heavy.  A normal density Ayla would probably have been barbecued.

I noticed that she had a computer set-up much like Antenna’s.  She had a heavy rubber keyboard and mouse, with heavily-insulated cables leading into the wall.  Behind a couple inches of clear plastic was a wall-mounted computer screen that could presumably stand up to her static charge.  There was no sign of the other components, which were presumably heavily protected and possibly set in a distant room.

On her computer screen were two windows.  One was a diagram showing how the formula for a quadratic equation related to pieces of the graph like the center line of the parabola.  The other was a two-question test about quadratic equations.

She pointed at the screen and explained happily, “This is so cool.  I’m taking this special topics math class.  It’s all computer-based.  Me and Frostbite are both taking it, and I only know that because Mrs. Cantrel got us to talk about it together.  I don’t know who else is doing it.  But it started out with like a two hour test that was all these little questions trying to find out what we knew and what we didn’t.  I guess I knew more than I thought, because the computer kept me at it a lot longer than Frosty.”

“You are well ahead of her in math,” I pointed out.

“Well, yeah,” she admitted.  “But you know there was like a ton of stuff I didn’t know how to do.”

I said, “I think it was more like a smattering of things you didn’t know how to do, and some other things you didn’t know how to do well.”

She shrugged, “Anyway, the computer program figured out what I could do and what I couldn’t, and so then it set up this special program tailored just for me, and it’s been catching me up on all this stuff I didn’t get, and then it’s gonna go over the trig again with me, and maybe I’ll be all caught up by the end of the term!”

I smiled, “That would be pretty cool.  Then we can do our calc homework together.”

“Yeah,” she grinned.  “I’ve been doing extra hours on this so I can get all caught up.  I’m so sick and tired of being Miss Stupid in math class.  Especially when dad is like Mister Super Math Genius.”

I remembered that her dad was a high-energy physicist.  I told her, “You can’t judge yourself against grown-ups who are experts in the field.  If I’d grown up judging my business administration abilities against my father’s skillset, I’d have had the worst self-esteem problem in New York.”

Okay, maybe I had grown up judging my business skills against Father and my uncles.  But back when I was in elementary school, I had seen that my business skills were easily on a par with most adults.  In fact, most adults had the business skills of trained lemurs.  If I had a respect problem, it was that I had very little respect for the business skills of most of the people outside my family.

I watched for a few minutes while Claire showed me that she had been learning a lot of algebra and geometry over the past couple weeks.  While I watched her work, I got out the cable and took care of the static charge on everything else in the room.

I thought this concept was brilliant.  A math class designed to find out what kids still didn’t know, and fill in those gaps, so they were ready to get back on track in math.  I wondered why more schools didn’t have a ‘special topics’ course like that.  I decided that I needed to find out who had programmed this computer class, and make an effort to get it marketed to every middle school and high school in the country.  Even if Hartford was the brain behind the course, it was something worthwhile.  I figured I could put aside our personal enmity to do something important for all those students who still thought math was evil.

Okay, if it turned out that Overclock was the brain behind this program, I might not be so reasonable about things.  And if it really was Hartford, then I was likely to have some serious run-ins with her over the business plan and marketing issues.  I was hoping that it was someone like Jericho or Kludge.

I understood that in theory, most topnotch computer programmers were capable of designing a testing interface and an AI to figure out where a student’s weakness were, and then building a lesson plan based on that.  But, as I like to say, the difference between theory and practice is that in theory there isn’t any difference.  Someone had spent an enormous amount of time building each separate lesson and making it clear enough for a nervous student to learn on his or her own.  That took a certain talent that was drastically different from computer programming skills.  The sheer number of hours of work involved in designing the individual lessons had to be worth substantial remuneration.

I let Claire concentrate on her math class, and I told her I would come back another day.  Then I headed over to Frostbite’s room.

I didn’t quite get there.  Olympia walked around a corner in her golden ‘power armor’ and spotted me.  “You!  Halt!  Tell me where Lancer is right now!”

Oh crap.  Just the person I didn’t want to confront.  Not only did I not want to risk damaging her BIT by going disruption-light through her, I didn’t want to risk wrecking her ‘power armor’ in any way and possibly letting her find out that it was a power suppressor system.  If she ever wised up to that, she would never wear it again.  Given that she was dangerous enough while wearing it, I didn’t want to think about the repercussions if she ditched the suit for good.

I went completely light, so I wouldn’t risk hurting her or her suit.  Then I said, “I don’t know where Lancer is now, and there’s no reason why I should know.  I’m not his appointment calendar.  I know he was in class an hour ago.  Is that good enough?”

“No!” she shouted.  “It is not!  He comes around here, and I can never find him!  I need to talk to him!  He must understand he belongs to me!  That black-haired hussy is keeping him away from me!”

I started slowly walking backward, toward the staircase.  I was hoping that her voice would carry down the stairs.  Then someone would hear Olympia going postal in the hallway, and would come rescue me.  I really didn’t want to keep this up until she ‘dricked out.

Okay, I really didn’t want this nutbar to become Hank’s personal insane stalker.  It was bad enough that she was delusional and she rampaged around Hawthorne.  So I didn’t mention things like sending him mail or email.  I didn’t mention anything that I thought would set her off, like suggesting psychiatric counseling or changing her meds.

So I tried a little redirection.  I asked, “Have you seen Tisiphone around here lately?”

She frowned.  “No!  Why would I care about that freak?  She’s crazy!”

That was the pot calling the kettle black.  I just acted like I was paying carefully attention to her every word.

She went on, “She did nothing but obsess about some girl…  Phase…  Wait, that’s you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said as if I were stunned she hadn’t placed me at once.  “Don’t you remember me from before?  Tisiphone’s after me.  You know, she’s wacko.”

Olympia nodded sagely.  “Completely mad…  And the nerve of her picking a name like that!  Greek?  She’s not even European.”

“Wacko and brazen,” I agreed.  “She’s not around now, is she?”

Olympia said, “No, they packed her off to Whitman as fast as they could.  Now she’s their problem.”

“Whew,” I pretended to sigh.  “That’s a relief.”  And I jumped up through the ceiling.

I didn’t hear Olympia screaming her lungs out, so I figured that I had dodged that bullet fairly effectively.  Hank would be so happy to hear Oly was still madly in love with him.

I snuck down the halls to Frostbite’s room and knocked on the massive freezer door.

“Go away, Oly!  I don’t know WHERE he is!  Okay?”

I couldn’t help grinning.  I knew exactly how she felt.  I said, “It’s Phase.  Oly isn’t around.”

“What?”  She yanked open the door and peered into the hallway frantically.

I smiled, “I said Oly isn’t around.  I just had a big confrontation with her, and hopefully she’s too distracted to get back on the ‘Lancer’ kick for a couple minutes.”

She smiled mischievously, “You did?  How’d you do it?  You didn’t knock her out or anything, did you?”

I admitted, “I got her distracted by acting worried about Tisiphone.”

Frostbite winced.  “Oh God.  Her.  We had to separate them maybe half a dozen times before they moved her out.  Luckily, we have the muscle to do it.  Slab had to do it a couple times, and Jimmy did it at least once, and the Foob had to separate ‘em the rest of the times.”  She ushered me into the room and shut the door behind me.  “You know, she really, really hates you.  Are you fireproof?”

I shrugged.  “When I’m heavy, she can’t hurt me.  When I’m light, I can walk right through her.  Plus, she’s likely to be fairly skittish about having me walk through any part of her ever again.”  I didn’t mention that I was fairly skittish about attempting such a thing ever again.  I also didn’t mention that I was completely vulnerable to a sneak fireball attack when I was normal density, or even when I was light.

I looked around the room.  The heating elements looked like they were doing fine, and the room seemed nice and toasty.  Of course, there were still the emergency sprinklers overhead.  But I had plans for that.  If Carson let me go ahead and donate the money to expand Poe and Hawthorne, I was going to ask her to include the money for some rooms that had Halon gas instead of water sprinklers.  Then Frostbite could have a water-free room for a change.

I said, “So how’s math class going?  Claire said you two were taking the special topics course.”

She rolled her eyes.  “You mean the ‘Math For Dummies’ class?  Claire’s all hot to trot about it.  She spends so much time on the computer working on it, you’d think it was Facebook or Twitter or something.”

I pointed out, “Well, it’s different for her.”

“Why?  ‘Cause she’s supposed to be in that pre-calc class?”

“No,” I explained.  “Because her dad’s a genius high-energy physicist who thinks math like this is incredibly easy.”

“Ooh,” she muttered.  “Oh yeah, I kinda forgot about that.  My dad?  He thinks if I ever take a calculus class in college I must be a super-brain.”  She looked around the room and sighed.  “Like someone like me could ever go to college and not wreck the place.”

“Look, just because you don’t have a handle on your powers doesn’t mean you won’t ever have a handle on them.  And plenty of colleges these days let you take classes without being physically present.”

She shrugged.  “What difference does it make if I do college or not?  It’s not like it’ll ever be any help getting me a job or something.”

I frowned at her.  “That’s not the attitude I want to hear from a future employee of AJG Consolidated.”

“What the heck is AJG Consolidated, and why would someone like them give me a job?” she pouted.

“First, AJG Consolidated is me.  Ayla Jane Goodkind.  A-J-G.  And some day, it’ll be one of the biggest corporations on the planet.  Second, there are a lot of things someone with your powers can do.  We just have to work out what’s an ideal job for you.  Everything from flash-freezing or freeze-drying specialty items, to controlling liquid spills when tankers have accidents on roadways.  And third, I expect my employees to be college graduates and want to better themselves throughout their careers.”

“Whoa, you plan big,” she gasped.  “But lots of people think they’re gonna be the next Bill Gates.  Why should I think you can make it stick?”

I pointed her at her computer keyboard and screen, which looked a great deal like Claire’s.  “Google the recent Marvel IPO.”

“Okay…” she said, obviously humoring me.  “Lemme see here…  Big deal this week on Wall Street…  Huge stock price jump…  Stock split already…”  She looked at me.  “So what?”

“Now look up who put the IPO together and made the real profits on it,” I insisted.

She shrugged, “Okay…”  She typed some more, and finally found what I wanted her to locate.  “Lemme see…  Marvel IPO put together by Ron Perelman and teen financial genius Ayla Goodkind?  Holy fuck!  Is that really you?”

“Yep,” I answered.  “This isn’t my first big financial maneuver, but it’s the most public one.  As of this week, I’m the richest teenager on the planet, not counting kids who are inheriting family wealth, like my brothers and sisters.  The Marvel IPO is just the beginning.  I have a lot more in mind.  And if you want to put in the work first on things like college and powers training, I will find you a good job, no matter where you need to be, or what conditions you need in order to work.”

“Whew,” she whistled.  I could see in her eyes that she had never really believed that someone like her was ever going to be anything except Enemy Number 187 on an H1 poster.

She finally asked, “Why?”

I had no intention of discussing things like my guilty conscience, or my feelings of not belonging, or my need to show people around here that I wasn’t a menace bigger than Cataclysm.  I just said, “Goodkinds don’t complain.  We fix things.  And there are a lot of things around here that need fixing.”

She just gaped at me.  She finally said, “You are so not like normal people.  I mean, I figured that whole ‘I am the queen’ ‘tood you got was because we’re all Thornies, but then Fubar said you’re always like that, but…  Jesus!  You are like the queen or something!”

I calmly said, “I do not have an attitude.”

“You’re doing it again!” she squealed.

Oh crap.  I really have to get this under control.  I took a calming breath without making it obvious, and I said, “I try not to.”  I decided not to tell her that the children of Dr. Diabolik thought I was as bad as their father.  When I was in first grade.  “I am not like normal people.  I’m not like normal mutants.  I can do more.  I think my success with the Marvel IPO speaks for itself.  I’m giving you an opportunity, and all it will cost you is… the effort you ought to be putting into your life anyway.  Think about it.”

I decided that I ought to make an exit, since I had just given her a great exit line.  I closed her door behind me, and I went off to talk to Puppet.  But I was really bothered.  Did everybody see me as some rich snob with an attitude so thick you could cut it with a tableknife?  And if everybody saw me that way, then how could I claim that I didn’t have an attitude?

And what the hell was wrong with me that I knew the children of Dr. Diabolik, and The Stalker of the Stars, and the vessel of Aunghadhail, and The Kellith, and they all thought I had too much ‘tood?

I was feeling kind of discouraged when I got to Melissa’s room.  I pressed the intercom outside her door, and Mrs. Cantrel’s voice came through.  “Is that you, Phase?”

“Yes, ma’am.  I wanted to know if I needed full MOPP 4 before entering Melissa’s room, or if less gear is adequate today.”

She said, “Just the boots.  Take the gasmask anyway, but we haven’t had any leaks since Harvey’s new system went online.  I don’t know what kind of plastic that Hazmat boy came up with, but it’s still not showing any signs of corrosion.  I told Puppet not to get her hopes up, but this is really looking good.”

“Thank you,” I said, somewhat more politely than I felt.  I slipped on the smallest pair of overboots and hooked the smallest gasmask onto my utility belt.

I knocked on the heavy door with the hermetic seal, and said, “Melissa, it’s Ayla.”

“Oh come on in!”

I opened the door to find Melissa once again at her computer screen, listening to a lecture.  She pressed a key, and the screen froze.

She gave me a big smile, “Hi!  This isn’t live, it’s some taped lectures, so I can just stop it, no problem.”

“What is it?” I asked.

She pointed at a chair for me to sit down.  “I’m taking the special topics course on Asian history.  But I was pretty bored, so I’m doing the extra credit stuff too.  Professor Wang says if I work through all of it and get the papers in before the end of term, I can take the AP test for some college credit, too.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” I told her.  And it did.  I couldn’t imagine how bored I would be if I were trapped in this little room all day, every day, for years on end.  It would be like prison.  It would be like solitary confinement in a prison.  I would be taking every single extra credit and personal study course I could find, including some on-line college courses if the school would let me.  I said, “I’m reading the textbooks for Accounting II, III, and IV, and the teacher’s going to let me work as a teaching assistant after this.”

She snickered.  “You?  Isn’t college level accounting pretty much remedial for you?  After one of the big get-togethers, I heard my dad telling my mom you were like a little business administration computer on legs.”

I didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.  Perhaps both.  I admitted, “I sure worked hard as a kid trying to be the person I thought Father and my big brothers wanted me to be.  But the more time I spend around normal people, the more I wonder if I should have spent more time trying to be just a kid.”

“Pffft.”  She waved my concern aside.  “What?  Be like the kids on teevee?  Why would you want to know what Burger King hamburgers taste like, or what comes in Happy Meals?  Would you really want to be so bored all the time you run around with a bunch of other kids, playing ‘hide and go seek’ in some little tract of woods until someone falls out of a tree and breaks their arm?”  She shook her head slowly.  “Middle class is vastly over-rated.”

“On a similar subject, let me ask you a question,” I began.  “Am I too pushy?  Do I have ‘an attitude’?”

She just rolled her eyes.  “Well, yeah.  Duh.”


She frowned at me.  “What’s wrong?  So you think you know better than other people.  Well, you do.  I do too.  Even that idiot Tansy Walcutt knows more about high finance and geopolitical issues than the teachers here do.  Okay, so you act like you know what you’re doing, and that makes trailer trash morons uncomfortable.  Tough shit for them.  What are they going to do to fix economic crises and solve international political problems?  Watch Jerry Springer?  Maybe vote for some creep because he’s handsome and personable?  People like that are why we’re having economic and political problems!  Don’t pay any attention to them!”

I confessed, “It turns out I knew the children of Dr. Diabolik when I was in first grade.”

She laughed.  “Oh my God, I bet Aunt Helen exploded when she found out.”

“Yeah, the whole family did.  Father was especially pissed when the newspaper that buried this until their reporters could check it out… turned out to be one of the newspapers we owned.  They didn’t bother to give Father’s people a heads-up even though it directly affected at least two of his children.”

She nodded, “Okay, so…”

I explained, “It turns out that Jadis and Mal are here now.”

She nodded again.  “I know that.  Jimmy T was giving the whole dorm a big talk back in the fall about campus threats, and he talked about the new Bad Seeds.”

“I heard Mal telling Nephandus that I used to have an attitude so heavy that he and Jadis thought I could go head-to-head with their dad.  Who they knew was a mutant supervillain.  When I was in first grade.  And when people who have that kind of background think you have too much attitude, it’s relevant.”

She asked, “Well, what do your friends think?”

“They think I have a ‘tood, but they’re okay with it.  They tend to have plenty of attitude themselves.”

She tried again.  “So what’s the problem?”

I sighed.  “I seem to be rubbing a lot of people the wrong way.  If it were only Solange and the Yellow Queen and their ilk, I wouldn’t care.  But it’s a lot of people I don’t want to alienate.  Devisers whom I want to work with me.  Mrs. Carson and the other school administrators.  Teachers.  My sensei in martial arts.  Other people in my dorm.”

She shrugged, which set swinging an entire line of tubes that emerged from her back.  “You only have to put up with most of these people for another month.  Or one more course.  Some of them you just have to endure for a couple years.  But once you leave Whateley, is it going to matter that you didn’t get along with some trailer trash who thinks the most important thing is being sure to vote for her favorite American Idol?”

“You can vote for the performers on American Idol?” I checked.  “That seems really prone to systemic abuse.”

Of course,” she said witheringly.  “That’s really the whole point.  It doesn’t really matter who the judges like.  That’s just for show.  What matters is picking out some bimbo or himbo the producers can control, who’s really popular with the target market segments, so they can sell shitloads of records.”

“That makes economic sense,” I agreed.  “I just never watched the show, so I have no idea how it works…  Other than hearing far too much from Generator about her favorite singers.  But Jade’s idea of a great group would be a boy band who sings J-Pop.”

“Eww.  I so did not need to hear that,” she frowned.  “Now Jade’s the little Japanese pipsqueak who comes by and visits Jello and Frank and them?”

“Right,” I said.  “Her big sister Shroud’s the chalk white one who visits Musk and a few others.”

She nodded.  “You know, it’s really freaky the way your team likes coming over here.”

I agreed, “Yeah, we’re all weirdoes.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “You know, more than one person around here has noticed that you managed to pull together the most dangerous team in the entire freshman class.  Tennyo and Fey alone make your team probably one of the top five teams in the whole school, and you guys are still froshes.  Lancer isn’t the toughest PK brick in school, but he’s like number four or five, and one of the ones higher than him is Diz, so she shouldn’t even count.  Then you’ve got Bladedancer, and nobody’s sure just what her upper limits are, now that everybody knows she can chop up the toughest PDPs and PK bricks in school.  Then there’s Chaka.  I watched that combat final, and it looked like one of those X-Men movies.  And you’re not exactly chopped liver here, I heard you one-punched Kodiak and Fantastico both.  You guys dropped the Yama Dojo; then you dropped the Alphas; your bottom half crushed the Young Turks like bugs; word is you guys kicked The Necromancer’s ass; and everyone says you’re the toughest team in that Team Tactics class…  You couldn’t have pulled together a tougher team unless you snagged maybe Stormwolf and Slab and Thunderbird too.”

I just said, “I wasn’t the one who pulled the team together.”

“Mm-hmm,” she said, in a disbelieving tone.

So now I was reputed to be the mastermind behind Team Kimba, the gang of loonies so dangerous they included the first Section 33 case since Neurox.  Terrific.  I said, “I’m not the power behind the team.”

She smiled smugly.  “And yet you got every one of the girls on the team to play French maid for you on Saturday.  In really sexy outfits.  If you’re not running the team, then how’d you get Tennyo and Fey to play maid for an entire evening?”

“They’re friends,” I said.

“Friends with benefits?” she leered.

“Oh, no way,” I protested.  God, all I needed was a campus rumor that I was schtupping Fey and Tennyo both.  Someone would murder me.  If Billie and Nikki didn’t, then Harry or Bunny or Jade most certainly would.  Or Vanessa and Sharisha.  Or the campus Sidhe.  Or Akira’s group of whackjobs.  Or the Faerie Appreciation Society.  And then Stalwart would say very uncomplimentary things at my funeral.

By the time I talked her out of that ridiculous idea, it was time to leave.  I figured I had just enough time to drop by and see Diz for a few minutes.  I dropped off the gasmask and overboots, and headed down to Diz’s room.  As I flew, I thought about Melissa.  She really seemed to love history.  I just needed to figure out a way I could design a career in a history-related field for her when she couldn’t leave her room.

Crap, I was doing it again!  Once again, I was deciding what someone else ought to be doing, and trying to impose my ideas on her.  Even if I was pretty sure I was right…

I knocked on the immense, heavy door that had to stand up to Diz’s PK field.  When I entered, I found her room in its usual state of confusion… and her special Scrabble board was set out, ready to go.

She grinned, “I was hoping you’d come by.  Mrs. Cantrel said you were around.”

I looked at the clock and said, “I don’t think we have time for a game.  I’ve got to get back to Poe, and I’m meeting friends for dinner.”

“Oh, no problem!” she insisted.  “We can play speed Scrabble!”

Which turned out to be just like Scrabble.  For hyperactive speedsters.  On methamphetamine.  Diz was concentrating so hard she hardly had time to mention that she was still doing Tai Chi lessons with Toni, much less how they were going.

Okay, I only asked as a distraction.  The little snot still beat me again.  If I had just drawn a better letter on my last turn, I could have won.  Damnit.  Okay, I admit it, I was being a poor sport about losing in Scrabble to a kid.  I don’t like losing.

On my way out, Fubar appeared in a neatly-pressed navy pinstriped suit to tell me goodbye.  “Thanks for being gentle with Olympia.  And…  Oh God, what is that you’re thinking about?  Brass Monkey?  That’s nearly as bad as the Britney Spears song!”

I smiled evilly, “But now you can go visit Brian, and he can tell you all about the song, and you can sing along with him, and he can show you pictures of the band, and everything.”

“Ayla?  You’re a bad, bad boy,” he complained.

“Thank you.  I try,” I smirked.



Sebastiano was listening to Radio Nacional de Venezuela, but he was thinking about switching over to RNE 3 from Madrid and catching some decent music for a while.  Before he could change the station, his phone rang.

He immediately clicked the button to switch to his phone.  “Don Sebastiano here.”  He rapidly deployed his anti-eavesdropping systems before the speaker on the other end of the line could say anything.

“Don Sebastiano, I have some more intelligence on the Kimbas,” his little information mine whispered.

Sebastiano refrained from making any appropriate comments.  He had dealt with this particular vermin before, and had found the quality of the intelligence to be mediocre at best.  But information accrued, and even mediocre information had its uses.  He merely said, “Go on.  You know my rules.”

The voice said, “I managed to bug the Team Kimba table, and this is what I got before my system shorted out.”

The recording started.  Sebastiano immediately recognized the voice of Bladedancer. 

“So I was listening to my new Britney Spears record, and my stupid roommate came in crying about her boyfriend…”

The Don tuned out the rest.  How could anyone fall for this garbage?  Bladedancer’s roommate was Phase, who didn’t have a boyfriend, and didn’t like boys, and claimed to be a boy.  It was well-known that Phase was having clandestine dinners with Vox, who was probably after whatever she could get out of some rich white freak.  Clearly, the Kimbas were hard at work acting out these little performances.  That meant they knew they were being monitored when they were in public.  And it meant they were actively pursuing techniques for disinformation.

He hated to say it, but he could learn something from those stupid bimbos.  Undoubtedly, it was Phase who was behind this.  The Goodkind would know about this sort of industrial espionage and counter-espionage, and would be applying it to life at Whateley.  He needed to be doing the same, particularly if he was going to be going up against Hekate’s Master.

When the recording lapsed into a mind-numbing discussion about boy bands, Sebastiano finally gave up.  He said, “I will bear that in mind.  You may continue to seek out new intelligence for me.  But try to come up with information more useful than this drivel.  Understand?”

“Yes sir.  Sorry sir.  I’ll do better, sir.  I won’t have the intel on Minefield’s upcoming attack against Phase for a few more days, but I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”

Sebastiano hung up and switched back to the radio.  As if he cared about Minefield’s plots.  Minefield didn’t have the cojones to mount an assault on the Alphas, and he was still too intimidated to try to get even with Sebastiano after that little incident last year.

Ah well.  At times like this, he really missed having Cavalier and Skybolt under his thumb.  As well as having Hekate and her peons at his beck and call.  But he was The Don, and he would overcome this unfortunate setback.

He didn’t even have time to switch over to RNE 3 and listen to something other than the American version of ‘popular music’ before the phone rang again.  He left his anti-eavesdropping systems running, just in case.

“Don Sebastiano speaking.”

“Hi.  It’s me.  I was told not to come by and see you, but… I decided I could still call.  Is that okay?”

“Yes,” he said.  He recognized the voice of Icer at once.  And he was utterly unsurprised to get this call, in this way.  Hamper and Damper had already told him that Icer was at loose ends.  Sebastiano carefully said, “I was hoping you might call or drop by.  I am re-forming my cadre, and a valuable ally like yourself would have a place with me.”

Naturally, Icer asked, “Who else is in the group?”

Sebastiano sneered at the phone.  What a loser.  No wonder Kodiak had no use for him, and he had been utterly unable to wheedle his way back into the Golden Kids, despite his family business.  He lied, “It’s cell-structured.  You are high enough up that you’ll only deal directly with me.”

“Okay!  That’s really great.  Whatever you say!”  Icer babbled on in the same manner for several seconds.  It was obvious that the loser truly believed him.  But then, Icer had always fallen for his schemes before.

While Icer was still impressed – and impressionable – he told the idiot, “You will only meet other members when I need you to.  I have to protect my most important team members, like you.”

Icer actually believed that, as well.  Not that Icer had been the first person to call him.  Bogus had been the first, Farrago had been the second, and Peppercorn had been the third.  But Bogus was nothing without The Don to give him direction, and Peppercorn had been maneuvered into cutting his ties with all his old friends, so he had nowhere else to turn to.  Farrago was being shunned by some of his old friends for his Alpha bullying and because of that little problem with Overclock and Make.  And then there were his two primary information gatherers, plus some third-tier losers who were desperate enough to turn to him now that Kodiak had cut them off, and some assorted morons who thought that they would be better off betraying their friends to him.

He now had well over a dozen underlings to manipulate directly, and twice that many he could manipulate more indirectly.  Just as importantly, Solange and Hamper and Damper didn’t realize that he was using them as his pawns as well.  He still needed more information gatherers and more hitmen and more pawns.  And he needed to make sure that the other Alphas didn’t realize what he was doing behind their backs.

He had thought over the details of his concepts about Señor X.  He had one decent Wizard in his pocket still, along with his contacts who had conferred with several very knowledgeable adult Wizards on his behalf.  So, even though Hekate had run away with her tail between her legs, he wasn’t left with no information on these magical issues.  Using everything he could find out, he had been able to verify a few details.  If Señor X were posing as a school student, he couldn’t be jumping from person to person.  Even Skinwalker couldn’t take over a person without leaving telltale memories of what had happened, and anyone taken over by Señor X and forced to do heinous things involving Mythos magics would have gone screaming to Security or Admin immediately afterward.  Even if Señor X could render someone unconscious for several hours and leap into their body, the now-uncontrolled body would be restored to full control, and Señor X would have a serious problem because of that.

On the other hand, there was nothing saying that Señor X could not have posed as one of the seniors last year, left, killed that body, and then taken over the body of one of this year’s freshmen.  Sara Waite came to mind immediately.  As did Chaka.  Perhaps the reason he had failed so spectacularly against the ‘ki mistress’ was that she was really far more dangerous than a mere martial arts nut.  Or it could be the Goodkind, who was displaying the savvy and counter-intelligence skills of someone three times that age.

Furthermore, powerful magics could easily block even the Psi powers of someone like Fubar, so Señor X could be walking about the school safe from any Psi snooping.  Everyone knew that Carmilla and Chaka could block Psi powers, but Phase was supposedly vulnerable.  Sebastiano wondered idly if Señor X were able to fake a weakness to Psi while creating a false psychic impression.  If anyone in high school could be clever enough to figure that out and do it effectively, it would be the Goodkind.

He knew he needed better ways to investigate the Kimbas.  He needed to provide his own disinformation.  He needed to maintain the illusion of a seriously injured victim who was no longer in charge.  He needed to operate much farther undercover than before.  He needed to convince Señor X that he was a broken puppet.  A pawn to be easily moved about the board without regard for its threat potential to the player.

He lay back in the hospital bed and thought over his options.  He needed Bogus to maneuver a Security officer into presenting one of the Spy Kidz with some ‘cases’ to investigate.  But The Don needed the most effective investigator among those idiots.  Someone desperate to be recognized.  Someone with no connection whatsoever to The Don.  Someone like Reach.

Yes, Reach would do very nicely.  The Don thought through his encyclopedic memory.  There were three cases that would be excellent investigative subjects, and would slowly tighten a noose about the neck of the elusive Señor X, until The Don controlled him utterly.



I caught up with the rest of the Kimbas as they were on their way out of Poe.  I smirked, “Good thing I caught up with you, because there’s no telling what trouble you’d get in without me.”

“Oh?  Why is that?” Toni doubted.

I grinned, “Apparently, I’m the brains behind Team Kimba, and I pulled you guys together so I’d have the most dangerous team on campus.”

“Sounds just like a Goodkind,” Hank teased.

“Where you hear something like that?” Jade wondered.

I said, “Hawthorne.  It’s a rumor making the rounds.  Somebody’s probably noticed that most of the top teams are carefully constructed.  And, if someone constructed Team Kimba, it would be…”

“You,” Nikki said.  “Does everyone on campus think you spend all your time scheming and plotting?”

“Doesn’t she?” Toni wondered out loud.

Hank interrupted, “How are the Thornies?”

I sighed, “I hate to bring it up, but Olympia’s on the warpath looking for you.  Again.  I had to distract her and make a run for it.”

Hank slowly shook his head.  “I feel bad for her, but she’s nuts.”

I said, “On top of the Diedrick’s, she’s delusional.  I don’t know whether she’s just stalker-riffic, or if she’s got some sort of full-blown psychosis, but I recommend avoiding her.”

“Run away!  Run away!” squealed Nikki in a Monty Python imitation.

Chou said, “Just talk to Mrs. Cantrel and tell her you cannot come to Hawthorne any more unless she deals with Olympia first.  You know they want people like us to keep showing up.”

“Good thinkin’,” Toni said.  “Because you just know Oly’d prob’ly like it if Hank had to rough her up to get her to stop.  She’d think he was just really manly or sump’m.”

Hank frowned, “That’s the last thing I wanna do.  If I hit her hard enough to stop her, it’d probably bust her fake armor before it took her down, and then she’d really be out of control.”

We walked to Dunn Hall while we batted around several ridiculous ideas for the ‘Olympia’ situation.  Before we entered the building, Toni held up one hand in a ‘halt’ gesture.  “Everybody got their beads?”



“Yes, Toni, this is only the seventh time you’ve asked me in the last hour,” sighed Nikki.

In her best – or worst, depending on your interpretation – ‘George C. Scott as Patton’ voice, she said, “Then let’s go show ‘em what’s what!”

“Was that supposed to be Bea Arthur?” I pretended to wonder.

“I thought it was Martha Stewart,” smirked Billie.

“Elmer Fudd.  It was definitely Elmer Fudd,” insisted Hank.

Toni just grinned and led us up to the food line.  I was trying not to think about the evil-looking morass of beef stew lurking ahead of me like The Blob.  Everyone else was slapping huge ladles of the stuff into bowls as if it were actually potable.

Hank elbowed me from in front.  Fortunately, he was careful, so I didn’t get a set of crushed ribs and a broken arm.  “Hey foodie.  Isn’t that one of your pet chefs up there?”

I looked down the line.  Past the food tables and the dessert area was Chef Marcel, waiting patiently with a massive smirk on his face.

Chou poked me in the back and whispered, “You had better hurry down there.”

Okay, I can take a hint, particularly when it is roughly as subtle as a punch from Sirrush.  I snagged a tray and wove my way through the hungry throng to where Marcel was ‘casually’ loitering.  When I was within twenty feet, he snapped his fingers.  Jana came out holding a tray.

I think I gasped when I saw what was on the tray.  Beside a cup of coffee there was a dinner plate topped with a metal warming cover.  There was also a salad and a smaller plate with a similar protective cover atop it.  It was a complete three-course dinner.  For me.

Jana and Marcel beamed, “Happy birthday, Phase.”

Not that I got choked up or anything, but I had to swallow twice before I could say, “Thank you.  Thank you very much.”

Marcel smiled, “And my two colleagues also wish you a happy birthday, but they cannot both leave the other restaurant when I am here.”

Jana grinned, “A couple of your friends made sure we knew it was your birthday, and when you were coming.  Have the dinner plate first while it’s still hot.”

Marcel added, “It is André’s grandmother’s secret recipe.”

I felt… well, honored.  Maybe it was silly to feel that way about a piece of food, but I did.  I slipped into French, since it seemed fitting.  “Please tell him I appreciate this very much.

Marcel smiled.  “I contributed the dessert, and Peter prepared the salad.”

Jana added, “And it’s the good coffee from the staff cafeteria.”

“Thank you,” I managed to repeat.  “Thank you both.  Very much.”  I didn’t know what was under the warming cover and the dessert cover, but the mere fact that they had gone out of their way to make me something special for my birthday meant a great deal.

I took it back to the Kimba table, and sat down as the rest of the gang clustered around me.  Nikki draped her crystal about the salt and pepper shakers in the center of the table, and everyone leaned forward to touch it.

Hank said, “Well go on.  Eat up.  You know, you’re pretty much impossible to shop for, but then Chou had this idea.”

Toni said, “Yeah.  And remember.  Foodgasms are okay, but no droolin’ all over yourself.”

“I wanna see!” whispered Jade.

I lifted off the warming cover, and I just stared.

There was a square of lasagna.  Well, calling it lasagna was like calling Nikki ‘somewhat attractive’.  This was the crème de la crème of lasagna.  There were gorgeous, thin strata of white, green and red, layered perfectly, and topped with a perfectly browned layer of cheese.  Scattered atop it were what looked like deep-fried baby spinach leaves.  And it smelled unbelievably good.  I cut off a corner and took a careful bite.  Mmmm.

“Ayles, you’re havin’ another foodgasm there…”

“Oh my God this is good.”  I looked around the table.  Thanks a ton, you guys.”

“Happy birthday, Ayla,” cheered several of my friends.

Toni starting singing ‘Happy Birthday’, while Jade slipped in the traditional ‘you live in a zoo’ variant that everyone has heard before they get out of first grade.

The lasagna was so rich and creamy and buttery and cheesy and meaty that I just savored the bite.

“… happy birthday to yoooooooou!” Toni and Nikki sang.

“…and you smell like one tooooooo!” Jade finished at the same time.

While I enjoyed the first bite, I cut out a small vertical section and picked it apart.  The green layers were homemade spinach pasta.  It wasn’t just spinach pasta.  It was rich and buttery and delicious, with just the right amount of spinach flavor.  The white strata were a tasty béchamel sauce, or else a really excellent Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, melted into the lasagna.  The Parmigiano-Reggiano across the top was bubbly and just browned enough to make it a little crunchy and crisp.  The red layers were a rich tomato sauce with plenty of basil and oregano, plus ground beef and ground veal.  And the topping really was baby spinach leaves, deep fried in a subtle oil that left them crisp fragments of spinach taste.

It was a good thing this was a ‘secret recipe’, or I would eat several portions of it every night, and I would end up weighing more than Slab.

Alongside the luscious lasagna were five stalks of asparagus.  Not the grotesque, woody garbage that most Americans think is asparagus.  This was real asparagus, fresh from someone’s field while it was still sweet and fragrant and delectable.  The asparagus was grilled with a hint of garlic, and then drizzled with a light lemon sauce.

“Ayles, you’re foodgasming all over yourself there,” Toni teased.

“I have to admit, that does sound really good.  And it smells really good, too,” pointed out Chou.

I looked at Toni.  “Pass me your plate.”

“What?” she said.  “This isn’t gonna be like that poison salad, is it?  It took me like three glasses of milk to get the taste of that stuff outta my mouth!”

“Fine.”  I turned to Chou.  “Hand me a plate.  This does have some meat in it, but not much.”  She had actually liked the endive and apple salad, unlike some people, so she quickly passed me her now-empty salad plate.   I cut a vertical section and laid it out for her.  Then I enjoyed another exquisite bite.

“Mmm!  Mmm mmm mmm!” Chou groaned.  “Oh!  That isn’t lasagna, that’s… like… like the Exemplar of lasagna!”

I ended up giving Toni and Hank tastes as well.  Nikki passed, since there was ground meat in it.  Chou gave Molly some of hers.

Hank said, “I gotta tell you.  You eat some weird stuff sometimes.  But this…  Jeez, this is like a dozen times better than Mrs. Dellatorre’s lasagna, and I thought that was the best ever.”

Toni said, “Ya think if I went back and begged, they’d let me have a piece too?”

Billie said, “Umm, can I have a taste too?  Italian isn’t my favorite, but that does smell really good.”

“Me too!” added Jade.

I looked back toward the kitchen, and Jana was hanging around looking my way.  I said, “Let me go check.”  I put the warming cover back on the lasagna and told Chou, “Guard it.  Don’t even let Sun have any if she shows up.”

She grinned at me and snapped off a salute.  “Aye aye, captain.”

As I left, I heard Toni start pretend-pleading, “Oh come on, you can give me just one more bite, maybe two…”  Then I got far enough from the table that the spell on the crystal kicked in, and I began hearing the fake conversation.  It sounded like Toni was pleading with Chou to borrow her Jesse McCartney CDs.  I snickered to myself most of the way to the dessert area.

Jana grinned broadly.  “Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”  When I nodded, she pouted, “But it’s a family secret, and he wouldn’t tell me.  My dad would love to have that recipe for his restaurant!”

I asked, “I hate to be greedy, but is there any chance there might be a second piece of the lasagna loitering around, waiting to be devoured?”

Jana giggled, “Yes, there is.  And an extra dessert.  And some extra forks and knives and spoons.”  She ducked back into the kitchen and emerged in seconds with another tray.  Both the dinner plate and the dessert plate were covered, and there was an array of cutlery on the side for sharing.

“Thanks a ton, Jana,” I told her.  “And be sure to thank everyone.  This is so great.”

She said, “I gotta go before I change back, but I helped a tiny bit with the dessert.  It’s really good.”

As I headed back to the Kimba table, Beltane cut me off.  “Your second tray?  Well, well, well… I see some of us are starting in on the Freshman Fifteen before we ever get out of high school!”

I just said, “That’s right.  And I plan to make sure you hear just how incredibly delicious it was, and then you’ll be wondering why I wasn’t sharing it with you.”

Her eyes flickered to the sides.  “Now, while we have a second, what’s going on?  Shove was frantic that she had to be here at dinner.  She even ignored my latest prank!”

I almost laughed out loud.  I explained, “Fey enchanted some beads.  If you’re wearing them, anybody who looks through your clothing at your privates-”

“Like, say, Peeper,” she interrupted.

“-will get an illusion of hairy male boobs and a male groin.  An erect male groin.”

Her eyes lit up with an unholy gleam.  “And…?”

“And we’re going to spring this on Peeper as soon as we’re all finished eating.  Fey and Chaka have the point positions on this, and we have some flanking positions prepared.”

I could tell she wanted to look behind her and locate Peeper.  But she was too skilled a prankster to make such a rookie mistake.  She thought for a second, and then asked, “And then, once your team has traumatized him enough, perhaps he could go back to his room…”  She switched to an announcer voice, so she sounded as if she were doing the voiceover for a horror movie.  “…only to encounter an enormous ectoplasmic onslaught of pursuing penises!”

I managed not to laugh out loud.  Instead, I suggested, “I think that could wait a little.  We need to work the ‘bead’ angle enough to really freak him out thoroughly first.”  She grinned evilly in agreement.

Frankly, I was figuring that I needed to get Belle working together on that with Thorn.  Probably the only way those two were going to call off their war was if they had a target they both wanted to blast.

I was assuming that Thorn, as one of the new kids, was probably friends with Seraphim, if not more attached to her than that.  And everyone around campus knew that Peeper had pursued Seraphim as one of his latest victims.  So Thorn – and the rest of the new kids – were probably fairly fed up with Peeper right about now.  If I could organize it carefully enough, Thorn and Beltane would team up against Peeper without realizing that someone had arranged it.  And the lack of realization was crucial with those two, since they both had a considerable talent for payback.  All I needed was two ectoplasmic eccentrics pranking me.

I walked back to the table, just in time to catch the faux conversation delve into areas I really didn’t want to hear.  “But Aaron Carter’s so much cuter!”  I hastily reached over and touched the crystal.

The real conversation was just as bizarre.  Jade was insisting, “But I don’t wanna have an imaginary penis in my panties!  I don’t care if he’s looking through my clothes or not!”

I averted a rather personal argument by announcing, “Guess what?  Extra lasagna!  And, if you’re good little boys and girls, extra dessert too!”

Hank said, “Man!  I’m telling the chefs about your birthday every year!”

“To heck with that!” insisted Toni.  “I say we tell ‘em it’s Ayla’s birthday every month.”

“I think they might remember that they just fixed a fancy treat the month before,” pointed out my roommate, the voice of reason.

“We just get Fey to do one of those obliviate spells from Harry Potter,” said Jade.

“Jade!” complained Billie.

Nikki rolled her eyes.  “Jade?  Spells?  Good.  Raping people’s brains?  Bad.”

Jade sort of cringed as she said, “Well, it didn’t sound so bad in the books when the Ministry wizards are fixing stuff.”

Molly said, “Remember in book four the Ministry witch who’s missing, and everyone thinks she just got lost again ‘cause she’s a dimwit who’s always getting lost and stuff?  That’s because someone did an obliviate spell on her years ago, and they did it so hard it permanently broke her brain.”

“Eww,” groaned Jade.  “Okay, okay, I get it.  Magical memory messing is evil.”

“Here,” I said encouragingly.  “Have a little lasagna, and it will magically make you forget everything except how amazingly delicious lasagna can be.”

Around a mouthful of lasagna, Toni said, “Gotta admit it, Ayles, this is like the best lasagna ever.”

Molly said, “Mmmm!  I knew there were good reasons for eating at the Kimba table.”  She smirked at Chou, who gave her a little finger-poke in the ribs.  “Eep!”

Chou looked over at me and said, “Dorjee doesn’t eat meat, but if he did, he would like this very much.”

Once I finished the original piece of lasagna and the asparagus – oddly enough, there weren’t droves of people clamoring for a bite of the asparagus, although I gave Nikki a bite and she enjoyed it – I moved on to the next course.

The salad looked gorgeous, too.  It was a bed of fresh baby spinach leaves, topped with sprouts, julienned carrot and a white vegetable that was also julienned.  Then there was a dressing that was redolent with orange and ginger and honey and something spicy.  For garnish, there were toasted white sesame seeds and black sesame seeds scattered in a subtle yin-yang pattern over the top.

I took a bite.  The spiciness of the dressing leapt to the fore, dramatically bringing out the sweetness of the carrot and jicama.  Yeah, the white vegetable was jicama.  The sprouts were definitely daikon.  The spicy, peppery flavor was distinctive.  The dressing was mostly orange juice and white wine vinegar, mixed with honey.  I could see the orange zest and grated fresh ginger and some chopped shallot.  There were subtle flavors of light soy sauce and toasted sesame oil, plus a blast of some sort of hot pepper sauce that I couldn’t identify.  Man, was that good.  Spicy, but good.

Toni checked carefully, “Hey Ayla, is that salad safe for eating?”

I finished chewing and then considered my answer.  “You didn’t like the endive and apple salad, so I’m going to speculate… no.”

Chou asked, “Can I have a taste?”

“Sure,” I told her.  “Pass that salad plate over here.  But let me warn you.  It’s very spicy.”

“A spicy salad?  Blagh!” Toni complained.

Chou liked the salad, but Molly took a bite and dove for her iced tea.

Toni looked over at Molly and said, “See?”

Molly winced, “Too much hot pepper in there for me.”

Toni wondered, “So, when you’re all grown up and you invite us over for dinner, is this what we’re gonna get?  Spicy bitter salad?  Or do we get the lasagna?”

I smirked, “It’ll be like Fear Factor, the dinner version.  You have to eat the gross stuff first, before you get the delicious later courses.”  Hank laughed with a mouth full of food, and almost choked.

Jade asked, “What’s for dessert?”

I finished my salad and lifted off the cover protecting my dessert.  It was a beautifully molded chocolate mousse.

Jade said, “Ooh!  Chocolate pudding!”

Not chocolate pudding,” I corrected her.  “It’s chocolate mousse.”  I took a careful taste and savored it.  “With a little espresso for flavoring, and a touch of green tea for a little zing.”

“Damn!” Toni cursed.  “Chocolate and caffeine?  You’re killing me!”

Nikki teased her, “Ooh, Rip would be so happy.  Go ahead.  Have half a dozen bites.”

Toni demonstrated her innate sophistication and maturity by sticking her tongue out at Nikki, who smirked, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

While I enjoyed my mousse, I passed around the other mousse.  And a dozen spoons.  The reactions varied, from Molly’s orgasmic noises and Nikki’s erotic eye-fluttering, to Hank’s “It’s okay for chocolate, I guess” all the way down to Jade’s “Weird!  I like regular chocolate better.”  Chou also thought it was excellent, and Billie thought it was ‘a lot better than plain old chocolate pudding’.  Toni exercised good judgment and refrained from having any, even though she teased everyone else for tormenting her.

I have to admit, watching Nikki having a near orgasm was worth pretty much any amount of sharing of exquisite treats.  And watching Molly moaning like that was almost as sexy.  On the other hand, it really was pretty mean to have an incredibly delectable dessert that Toni shouldn’t eat.  Perhaps the next time, I would arrange for a non-chocolate treat too.

When I finished my last bite of chocolate mousse and finished my coffee, Toni said, “Finally!  Now we can get goin’ on Operation Ground Peeper.”

Nikki gave her a malevolent smile.  “Oh yeah.  Time to give that x-ray vision some x-rated visions.”

Hank smirked, “Ladies?  You’re on point.  Tennyo?  You and ‘Dancer have lateral pursuit.  Phase?  You bring in the rear assault team on Chaka’s signal.”

Fey and Chaka rose gracefully from their chairs and strode across the room to where Peeper and Greasy were sitting with some of the other Twain guys.  The rest of us followed at a distance, so as not to distract from our two foci.  As soon as it became obvious that two of the hottest babes on campus were making a beeline for Peeper, most of the room turned their heads to watch the show.

Peeper was oblivious to the oncoming catastrophe, since he was busy staring at the girls at the table behind him, and making comments to Greasy about something undoubtedly disgusting.  But it was obvious the second that Greasy saw The Dynamic Duo coming their way.  He froze like a rabbit suddenly confronted by a pair of wildcats.  The guys around them looked at Nikki and Toni, and abruptly decided that discretion was the better part of valor.  One teleported away.  Two dove for the safety of the floor.  One flew out of his chair and headed for the exit.  Two others scrambled to hide behind people at nearby tables.

Peeper gulped.  “I…  Uhh…”

Fey sweetly asked, “Peeper?  What are you up to?”

Chaka quietly said, “We’re just wondering, ya know.”

Whatever Peeper had planned on saying, we never found out.  He got distracted by the visions of pulchritude before him.  His eyes drifted down to Toni’s groin.  Before Greasy could whimper out a warning, Peeper suddenly winced horribly.  He screamed, “AAAAAAGGHHH!”  He whipped his head away from the horror he had just seen.  Instead of taking a hint, he instead stared right at Nikki’s chest…

<(Chaka) Phase?  Phase two.>

I signaled to our second attack wave.

“AAAAAGGHH!  MY EYES!”  He scrambled away and fell to the floor.  Greasy helped him jump to his feet.

Right on schedule, Poise and a couple of her fellow Beauty Nazis walked over, as if they weren’t in on the plan.  Poise calmly asked, “What’s the matter?”

Peeper gasped, “Poise!  Oh thank God!  Just the babe I needed to find!”  He looked at her crotch… and screamed even louder.

He ran off with his hands over his eyes, screeching, “MAKE IT STOP!  MAKE IT STOP!”  Greasy was right behind him, yelling for him to watch where he was going, and trying to keep him from crashing into any tables.

Nikki and Toni casually watched until Peeper and Greasy were both out of the cafeteria and running desperately down the hall.  They high-fived, then low-fived, then did a sexy side-by-side hip-bump.

Toni smirked to us, “This is gonna be the hottest magical charm since the invention of cootie repellent.”

Fey rolled her eyes, “Toni, there’s no such thing as cootie repellent.”

Toni said, “Hmmph.  Someone shoulda told my elementary school that.”

Poise broke into a massive smile.  “I really shouldn’t be enjoying this…  But I am!  I am totally enjoying this moment!”

<(Lancer) Incoming.  Five o’clock.  Capes.>

<(Phase) Copy that.>

I casually turned, as if I didn’t know I had visitors approaching.  It was a slice of the Cape Squad.  Pendragon was strolling our way, with Gloriana and Mister Mystic right behind him.  Powerhouse and Iron Star were right behind them, and at the back of the pack were Magni-Girl and Lady Liberty.  I noticed that Saladin, Hippolyta, and Mega-Girl hadn’t bothered to get out of their chairs.  I was fairly sure that Powerhouse and Iron Star were coming along so they could check out the intensity of beauty that reigned anytime Venus Inc. encountered Team Kimba.  That didn’t include me, by the way.  I just want to make that point crystal clear.

I smiled, “Pendragon!  Nice to see you again.”

He managed a little bit of a smile.  “Phase.  Could you, by any chance, tell us why someone who wasn’t actively causing problems was suddenly sent screaming from the room?”

Powerhouse tried to be smooth.  “After all, there’s no reason why a normal boy would be running away from such lovely ladies.”

I looked at Powerhouse as if he were shilling for me.  “Exactly.  Fey has been working her magics again, and she came up with a simple protective charm.  An illusion, so that if someone used some sort of Esper power or devise to look through women’s clothing to stare at their psychically-undressed forms, they would see something horrific.  Specifically, men’s privates.”

Gloriana suddenly clenched her jaws, and seemed to be struggling not to laugh out loud.

Mister Mystic asked, “And did you just happen to walk up to Peeper while wearing these charms?”

Fey smiled regally.  “Why would I walk up to Peeper otherwise?”

Chaka gave him her leopard grin.  “Nobody asked that boy to stare through our clothes and ogle us.”

I pointed out, “It’s a protective charm.  It’s not a weapon or an attack.  All anyone has to do is not use their powers to perform offensive and technically illegal acts, even if said acts would be virtually impossible to prove in a normal court of law.”

Pendragon frowned, “That argument seems rather specious and self-serving.”

Mister Mystic added, “It also assumes that a given person would be able to stop using said power or devise.”

I argued, “No, it doesn’t.  It doesn’t require said individual to cease being able to see.  It doesn’t require said individual to be able to turn off such a power.  It only requires the individual to stop staring directly at women’s privates.”

Gloriana said, “I believe it also requires the… ahem… individual to realize that this defense has been deployed.”

Chaka grinned, “Oh, I think our ‘individual’ got that particular message, loud and clear.”

Gloriana frowned at Toni.  “I don’t believe that Peeper should be ogling girls, but do you really think this was fair?  Don’t you think that it was rather… cruel?”

I defended our maneuver.  “No, I don’t.  I think it was a quick, surgical strike that ought to serve as a warning to the entire campus, not just one person.  Cruel would be if I let Beltane manifest hundreds of writhing ectoplasmic penises to haunt Peeper night and day.”

“She wouldn’t,” Powerhouse choked in revulsion.

“She would,” Magni-girl replied.  “We’re talking about Beltane.  Remember Farrago and Talos?  Remember her combat final against Warfist?”

“Snerk!”  Mister Mystic suddenly had to turn around and struggle to keep from erupting in loud laughter.

“Warfist?” I asked casually.  Well, not too casually.  I could feel one eyebrow rising in suspicion.

Pendragon muttered, “Do the words ‘of course you know, this means war’ bring to mind anyone in particular?”

Oh God.  Beltane as Bugs Bunny, humiliating some overly aggressive jerk in the combat finals.  I could envision that one.

I needed to find someone who had that on DVD, preferably in high definition.

I tried to keep my face impassive as I said, “At any rate, Belle has already come up with the idea, and I believe I managed to persuade her to hold it in abeyance.  However, Peeper has also pestered Seraphim, who is one of Thorn’s friends, so I think there is more than one ectoplasmic threat who might target Peeper.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they decided to team up on him.”

“Those two?  Would that be like a Marvel Supervillain Team-Up?” Iron Star said snidely.

I ruthlessly said, “No.  They can’t use that name without express written permission of Marvel Comics and Marvel Entertainment Incorporated.  Or my personal say-so.”

Lady Liberty suddenly gushed, “Oh!  That’s right!  That was so amazing, what you did with the stock market… that’s what I love about this country!  Anybody can become a millionaire, and-”

“Lib,” Pendragon interrupted her, “Not now, please?”

Before she could apologize, I said to her, “Look Amy, any time you want to come talk to me about this stuff, you just call me, and we’ll pick a time and place.  Okay?”  After all, anyone that interested in capitalism and financial markets deserved some expert advice about getting into them and succeeding in the longer term.

“Sure!  Great!” she gleamed.

Gloriana gave me a ‘thank you’ smile.

Mister Mystic kept the discussion on topic.  “Are you going to continue to harass our ‘unnamed individual’?  Is this going to be a recurring problem across campus?”

I said, “We are distributing protective beads, free of charge, to any women who want to avoid having perverts gaping at their privates without warning.”  I pulled three sets of the beads out of my utility belt and offered them to Gloriana, Lady Liberty, and Magni-Girl.

All three of them looked askance at the beads.  Magni-Girl said, “That is very… magnanimous of you, Phase.  But this could be construed as a bribe.”

Lady Liberty looked at me and gasped.  “Not that we’re saying it is, just that is might look that way to certain types, and we are obligated to stick to a strict code of ethics, to prevent this kind of thing from being… umm… misconstrued.”

I carefully said, “I seriously doubt that thirty-nine cent beads can be construed as a bribe, unless you’re talking about an extraordinarily poor superhero.  If there were a Justice League of Zimbabwe, maybe they could be bribed with these, but I rather doubt anyone would think this is a bribe.”

Gloriana said, “I would like to think so, but the fact remains.  These are magical charms of indeterminate value.”

Fey said, “I did ‘em dozens at a time.  They’re cheap.”

I added, “And since we’re going to distribute them gratis to anyone who wants them, they’re not exactly exclusive, either.”

Magni-Girl asked, “Even the Bad Seeds?  Or some of your enemies?”

I said, “Good point.  If anyone in the Bad Seeds asks for them, we’ll agree, although I really doubt they need any support.  If anyone in Elite League asks, we’ll agree, although they have their own mage so I doubt they’ll come to us.  I don’t think there are any hot girls in the Good Ol’ Boyz, so that isn’t an issue.”

Pendragon checked, “What about Tisiphone?  Or Majestic?  Or Heartbreaker?  Or Solange?  Or Glissade?  Or Stunner and Alakazam?”  He stopped to look around the cafeteria to see who he had forgotten.  “Oh, right.  The Yellow Queen and her team.  Screech.  Sweetheart.  Tesla and Widget and Aztecka.  Hippolyta.  Shove and Tempest.  Traduce.  Hexette.  Umm… I know I’m forgetting a couple people, but you and your team have made more enemies than some of the Ultraviolents.”

I nodded and said, “First, we’ve patched up some of those relationships.  Some of the Dragons and Tigers might be ticked at us, but we’re good with Stunner and some of the others.  Shove?  She gave me the beads.  She already has a set.  Hexette isn’t an issue, even if she’s dating Tennyo’s ex.  We owe Screech one, anyway.  Heartbreaker and Jello aren’t a problem any longer-”

“We rather thought so, given some of the rumors,” muttered Gloriana.

“-and Chaka is making nice with Thunderbird’s harem.  Plus, Az is getting to know most of us in martial arts this term.  Majestic can perform this type of magic on her own, and wouldn’t dream of asking for help.  Hip isn’t a problem, either.  If Sweetheart or Glissade or the cheerleaders want to apologize and ask for a bead set, we’re good.  The only people on your list with whom I have a problem are Solange and Tisiphone, and both of them would rather chew their own arms off than ask me for any kind of favor.”

They still weren’t sure.  Toni grinned, “Oh, go ahead.  You know you want ‘em!”  She paused and leered, “All the cool kids are doin’ it.”  Mister Mystic had to clench his jaws to keep from laughing.

Pendragon finally said to Gloriana, “Take the charms, dear.  I’ll feel better knowing Peeper is no longer gaping at your… naughty bits.”

That was why I liked Pendragon.  He might be the leader of the Capes, but he wasn’t so preoccupied with following the letter of the law like an obsessive-compulsive bureaucrat.  Stormwolf might have a stick up his ass the size of a totem pole, but Pendragon was a good guy, in more than one sense of the phrase.  Heck, he had roomed with Kodiak back in Wyatt’s ‘date them, drill them, and ditch them’ phase, and they were still on speaking terms.  My contacts said they were probably still friends.

I handed out the little baggies and said, “Pin the blue on the bra and the pink on the panties.  Nice and mnemonic.”

Pendragon looked at me and said, “But don’t assume that dissuading us is the same as getting off scot free.”

“Oh, I’m not assuming that at all,” I told him.  “In fact, I’m being proactive about it.”

He smiled faintly.  “That doesn’t surprise me in the least.”

As the Capes strolled back toward their table, Magni-Girl and Lady Liberty waving their beads in Mega-girl’s face, Toni murmured to me, “Proactive?”

I smiled, “Yep.”  I walked out into the hall, then demonstrated by pulling out my bPhone and making a campus call.  “Hello, Security offices?  I would like to report a violation of the school code.”

Toni and Nikki both rolled their eyes.  Hank just shook his head.

“Could you give me your codename, and explain about the violation?”

“This is Phase,” I said.  “This evening, in the Dunn Hall cafeteria, several of my friends were wearing magical charms.  They’re designed to protect against people using powers or devises to look through their clothes at their private regions, which is clearly forbidden in Section 37, paragraphs 3 and 6.  Someone reacted to the charms.  It was Peeper.  He ran out of the room immediately afterward.”

“Umm… hold on one moment, please.”

Toni groaned, “Ayla, you’re not gonna get away with this one.”

I covered the mouthpiece of the phone and whispered, “I don’t intend to.”

In a few more seconds, a familiar voice came on the line.  “This is Lieutenant Reynolds of Security.  Am I speaking to Phase?”

“Yes sir.”

“Could you repeat the explanation you just gave, so that I’m sure I got the correct information?”

I went over my spiel once more, pointing out that these women – these victimized women – and their defensive charms didn’t have any effect on anyone else in the entire cafeteria.  I insisted, “This means that Peeper is violating a couple clauses in the school code, because the charms can only have an effect if you are using some power or technology to look through girls’ clothing.”

After I chatted a bit more with him and I declined the opportunity to go over to Kane Hall and waste the evening filling out a report against Peeper on a charge based solely on deductive reasoning, he had a few last words for me.  “Well Phase, the Headmistress might have something to say about all of this.”

I told him, “I’m aware of that.  I’m available all the rest of the evening if she wants to talk to me about this.”

As I hung up, I wondered whether I was going to get a lecture from Lady Astarte this evening or tomorrow.  I was also wondering if I had overlooked anything.



Darrow finished making notes from the yellowed tome, reinstated its magical bindings and the protective curses, and then carefully put it back in its niche on his shelves.

Hekate asked from her side of the room, “Will I be allowed to read that one too?”

He growled, “When you have developed the skills to redact the curses and disentangle the magical bindings, then you will be ready to read it.”

Hekate muttered, “When you can snatch the pebble from my hand…”

He didn’t get the reference, but he assumed it was some tidbit of pop culture that would be easier to ignore than to uncover.  He merely said, “If you cannot understand when the journey is a crucial part of the destination, then you will never become a great mage.”

She pouted, “I’m trapped in a bunker, hiding from a Sidhe curse.  I’m not going to live long enough to become a great anything, except maybe a great demonstration that you shouldn’t piss off the Sidhe.”

He didn’t see the downside to that.  Watching a true Sidhe curse unfold and studying the magics involved would be fascinating.  Also, he was growing quite tired of the little brat.  If he and her master couldn’t break that curse and soon, he was going to start thinking about ways to excite Vamp’s curiosity to the point that Vamp might be tempted to crack the wards just to find out what was within.  That would give him the chance to watch Hekate die in a really creative way, while also giving him someone else to blame for the ‘mishap’, as well as giving him another opportunity to punish the little troublemaker.

He added to his journal some thoughts on his newly-jotted notes.  It might be possible to use these ‘ley line distortion’ hexes in several highly creative ways.  Hekate had already come up with a very impressive one, and he had used her idea to devise a second one.  Powering these curses was intricate, given the way one had to distort ley lines, but that just made the problem somewhat more intriguing.  He smiled wickedly at the surprise someone was going to have in a couple days.

He left the warded room and moved through the tunnel.  He was still regretting his foolishness in his last two battles with the bizarrely-named Team Kimba.  He should never have wasted his time shouting out his attacks in his first battle with Fey.  He should have recognized her as a true Sidhe and concentrated more on the threats than the intimidation factor.  Most opponents panicked when he shouted out the name of an attack, whether it was the real name of the attack or not.  Most opponents were utterly unprepared to deal with a threat like ‘Morrigan’s Gale’, and promptly panicked or over-reacted.

But this superheroine Fey was different.  He didn’t waste his voice shouting when he fought The Magus.  He hadn’t bothered when confronting Lady Astarte or Doctor Alexander.  He wouldn’t make such a mistake again when dealing with Fey.  He had been caught unprepared when facing a very high level mage, and had suffered the penalty for it.  This time, he had the opportunity to plan for the superheroes he might face.  That was the way he preferred it.

He entered his private chambers, where he had been forced to do all his personal magical study since Hekate had intruded so unpleasantly in his library.  He had scarcely eased himself into his padded chair before the phone began ringing.  The Caller ID was blocked, as he expected, but his magical identification system told him who was calling.

He answered, “Yes, Major Spaulding?”

Major Bert Spaulding of Yashvilikov’s Mercenary Forces was somewhat taken aback at being identified so easily.  “Umm, Dr. Darrow, I was tasked with calling you personally to verify our contract with you.  We have your specifications, but the overall cost to you might be much higher than with one of our simpler options.”

Darrow grinned, “No, no, that’s precisely what I want.  Your option 4 with bonus cost for hand-to-hand operations.  You’ll want as much power armor as you can manage, since these children are all mutants…”  He listened for a moment and said, “Yes, that’s right.  I’ve already put the base pay in your company’s Karedonian bank account, and the rest will be paid by bounty.  I’m seeking a very specific message here.  The more of them you kill by hand, the more your team will be paid.”

“Yes sir, that’s fine by us.”

Read 2487 times Last modified on Friday, 20 August 2021 01:37

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Original Timeline

Original Timeline stories published from 2004-2009

Original Timeline stories published from 2010 - 2015