Tuesday, 08 February 2022 01:00

Knockoff 2 - Fight or Flight (part 3)

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A Whateley Academy Tale

Knockoff 2 - Fight or Flight

by

ElrodW

 

Part Three

 

Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - Martial Arts Special Topics Class
Laird Hall, Whateley Academy

Lillian Dennon strode confidently into the gym, looking at all the students who were knelt in a proper seiza position along the edge of the mat. Without thinking, she shook her head slightly, chuckling, as she stopped and gave the students a more careful once-over.

"This is Martial Arts Special Topics," she announced. "It's a new mixed martial arts class, picking up where Sensei Ito's introductory class left off, adding in elements of judo, tae kwon do, kung fu, and everything else I can think of that will help you in combat." She looked around again to see if anyone was in the wrong place. No-one left.

"If this is an advanced class," one older boy raised his hand and voice simultaneously, "what's a freshman doing here?" He was scowling at Martina.

"Mister ... Jonathan Knowles, is it?" Dennon asked. When he nodded, she continued. "Who appointed you class monitor?" Her voice dripped with sarcasm. The boy wilted under the unwanted attention, but not before shooting a look of pure malice toward Martina.

"Even though it's my class and I judge who is or is not ready, let's do a little exercise. If you've had at least one class of martial arts, raise your hand." Every student lifted a hand. "Two?" Fewer hands stayed in the air. "Three?" Dennon continued through eight classes, until every hand was lowered - except Martina's.

"Miss Hughes," Dennon asked Martina directly, while every other student was looking at her with disbelief. "How long have you studied martial arts?"

Martina wished she wasn't in the spotlight; after the undue attention brought her way by the Italian Snob, she would rather have blended into the background. "Um, since I was four," she answered. "Mom had me start early so I knew how to take care of myself."

"Figures," one boy in the back blurted out, "since she's a villain and you're a villain in training."

"That will be enough of that!" Dennon growled angrily. She glared around the students, noting which ones looked guilty. "Whateley is neutral. There are no heroes or villains here, only high school students getting an education! If I hear or see anyone dragging in some hero versus villain crap, I will have security remove you from my class, and after Chief Franklin is done talking with you, you will get a chance to talk to Mrs. Carson - probably just before someone comes to permanently take you off campus! Do you understand?"

After a few moments of withering stares, Mrs. Dennon figured she'd made her point. "I know Martina's martial arts instructor personally. As a favor to her sensei, I tutored Martina - rather mercilessly - for a few weeks this summer. I am the one who decides if she's capable of passing this class."

"Mr. Knowles, since you don't think Miss Hughes belongs in this class, come to the center ring. Martina, you too." Martina reluctantly came to the ring, but Jonathan strode arrogantly, confident he was going to put this villain's daughter in her place.

"Two minute round, no powers, no boundaries. You win when your opponent taps out. Got it?" When both nodded, Dennon said simply, "Begin."

It would have been hard for any student to describe exactly what happened without looking at the camera footage in slow motion. The overconfident boy went on the attack, intending to quickly end what he considered a farce, and while he'd learned a few things from Ito's class, Martina quite simply outclassed him - badly. He'd barely started his first combination attack than he was flipped, and the girl followed him over, landing on top of him and tangling his limbs in a lock that was obviously quite painful and from which he could barely reach the mat to tap out after he realized that he'd had his ass handed to him in mere seconds.

Jonathan glowered at Martina as he slunk back to his place, but Mrs. Dennon had Martina stay in the center of the mat. "Describe the principles of the fighting style Sensei Roberts teaches."

"Sensei Roberts said there's only one principle to fighting. Don't lose," Martina replied.

"What martial arts form does he teach?"

"A mash-up of everything," Martina replied. "Sensei Roberts is at least fourth degree black belt - or the equivalent - in twelve or thirteen different forms of martial arts."

"Okay, class," she turned back to the other students, "we're going to do some sparring to see how much you all forgot over the summer." Two girls entered the gym from the locker rooms - one a lithe Asian girl, and the other a tall, slender black girl who seemed to be overdosing on caffeine.

"Our two assistants are Chou and Toni, both extremely accomplished martial artists. They will be helping me from time to time. Martina, you've already fought, so I'd like you to fill in as a sparring partner where needed so we can properly assess skills. Okay, count off by threes. Ones with me, twos with Toni, threes with Chou."

As the students joined their groups, Martina saw some students giving her distinctly unfriendly looks. She had a bad feeling about the class.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

As the group assembled at 'their' table, having claimed it by right of being there as a group several times without being displaced by upperclassmen, Todd and Christine were the first to notice that they hadn't seen Martina in the serving lines. Jori and Elle caught on pretty quickly to the reason the two were looking around the cafeteria.

"Have any of you seen Martina?" Elle asked bluntly.

Kiera shook her head. "She has an after-classes class - advanced martial arts hulk type smash and bash and stuff, I think."

"It's an advanced martial arts classes," Todd corrected her. "Apparently, her mom knows one of the teachers, and the two of them ganged up and made her take it."

Jori visibly cringed. "I'm glad I'm in survival class!" she declared. "I'm not much into fighting."

Darby grinned. "The one that teaches you how to properly say, 'Run away!' like Arthur and his knights?"

Todd sighed. "I swear, one of these days you're going to use a Holy Grail reference once too often, and I'm going to have to smack you!" he said as he jokingly slapped the back of Darby's head.

"Help! Help!" Darby chuckled. "I'm being repressed!"

"Bloody peasant!" Elle chimed in almost automatically. When she saw all the others gawking at her, she shrugged. "What? You think in Norway we don't see that movie?"

"Oh, here she comes!" Dosi interrupted the jocular teasing.

Kiera grimaced when she saw Martina limping toward the table holding her tray with only one hand because her other arm was clutched tightly to her side. She dashed to Martina's side to help her with her tray.

"What happened?" Todd was the first to ask as Martina sat down. "The Italian Mafioso try to do a hit job?"

Martina chuckled at Todd's characterization even as she shook her head. "No. Mrs. Dennon's class." She paused to take a drink. "Mrs. Dennon roped me into 'helping' because she knows Mom and my sensei from back home, and she knows how I fight ...."

"Wait, a teacher knows your instructor?"

"Hold on," Martina held a hand up to signal stop while she shook her head. "Let me explain." She gave them the quick rundown on Sensei Roberts, Mrs. Dennon, her mother, and her summer tutoring.

Todd frowned. "You might want to talk to Mrs. Dennon," he suggested, "so you don't get marked as a teacher's pet."

Martina shrugged. "Probably too late for that. Anyway, she had me help sparring so she could see how good each student is. Me and a couple of upperclassmen," she added, sensing that at least one of her friends thought she'd fought the entire class. "Anyway, one of the guys didn't control his power very well, and I ended up in Doyle with a broken arm and a lot of bruises."

"Broken arm?" Jori asked, wincing at the thought of being injured fighting.

"Minor, really," Martina replied nonchalantly. "Compared to some of the kids there. One of the nurses told me that the first week of martial arts classes sends a lot of kids to Doyle. My broken arm was one of the milder cases."

Jori and Dosi visibly gulped, stealing a nervous glance at each other, glad that they were in survival.

"Anyway ..." Martina stopped suddenly, and her expression clouded as she focused her gaze across the cafeteria. The others followed her stare at a solidly-built boy carrying his tray. He'd stopped walking and was sneering at Martina.

"I take it that's the guy that hurt you?" Dosi asked.

Martina nodded as she turned her attention back to her meal. "Yeah. Probably pissed that I could outfight him, even though I'm only a freshman."

Kiera continued to gaze at the offender for a couple of moments. "I don't think that's why," she suddenly said, her eyes narrowed in focus at the boy. All of the group looked, and though the boy was no longer staring at Martina, they saw the guy stop by the Italian Problem's table, where she practically leaped to her feet and gave him a hug and a kiss before half-tugging him to sit beside her.

"Well, now we know why he made a mistake," Elle said.

"Yeah. She can't leave keep it just between the two of you, so she's recruiting other kids to expand her campaign of harassment?" Darby asked rhetorically. "That really sucks!"

"Yeah, she probably did," Elle commented between sips of her beverage. When everyone was staring slack-jawed at her, she looked around. "What?" she asked innocently. "I mean, how else could she persuade upperclassmen to do her dirty work?"

Kiera, Jori, and Dosi gawked at her for a few seconds, and then the whole table burst into laughter.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - Early Morning
Poe Cottage, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

As soon as Martina walked into the bathroom for her morning shower, heads turned toward her and the noise of conversation drastically reduced. The Italian snob glared at her, then leaned a little closer to a girl standing next to her at the sinks and hissed 'malfattore', while still looking at Martina. While it appeared to be whispered, it was deliberately loud enough for Martina to hear. "Puttana e cattiva, proprio come sua madre."

While Martina didn't speak Italian, she'd lived in Phoenix long enough to be exposed to a lot of Spanish-speaking kids and their taunts and insults, and because Italian and Spanish were both derived from Latin, there were enough similarities in the two languages that she understood the gist of Christina's insult. Two could play at that game. She turned and looked calmly at Christina. "Bufón sin cerebro como tu padre," she said with a smile.

It took a couple of moments for Christina to associate enough of the Spanish words with the Italian cognates, and the moment it came together, her demeanor changed from curious to enraged. If not for the quick reflexes of Cindy and Lina, Christina would have hit Martina, and with the Italian's higher PK rating, Martina would probably have been injured.

The two girls insistently whispered something to the Italian girl, who continued to glare hatefully at Martina. After a moment, Christina nodded, then gathered her toiletries and stomped out of the bathroom, glancing a couple of times at Martina with a hateful expression.

"What did you say that set her off like that?" Jinx asked as the girls got back to their morning routines after the interruption.

To Martina's surprise, Bethany beat her to the explanation. "Martina said she was a brainless buffoon like her father," she chuckled. "Which is a lot more polite than Christina's comments," she added.

"You understand Italian?" Breakdown asked, surprised.

Bethany merely shrugged as she worked on her hair. "Christina's insult was in Italian. Martina's response was in Spanish." She sensed that people were staring at her. "What? So my mom is a linguist and insisted we all learn foreign languages," she said. "In our house, we kind of changed language every week. French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Polish, German. No big deal." Then she grinned. "Except when I had friends sleep over. Then it got a little ... interesting."

Before anyone could comment, Angel burst into the room, looking rather unhappy. Her eyes quickly focused on Martina. "As soon as you're done here," she directed, "Mrs. Horton wants to talk to you about your little altercation." She looked around the room. "She'll probably want to talk to all of you girls, too." Rolling her eyes and sighing heavily, Angel walked back out of the restroom, muttering something about being crazy to take the job.

Martina's conversation with Mrs. Horton was short, polite, and to the point. Yes, Christina had started the insulting and snide comments, yes she was wrong, but please be a bigger person and don't prod the Italian girl into escalating things into a fight. On the one hand, it chafed Martina that she was being lightly chastised, but on the other, Mrs. Horton was treating her as more mature than Christina.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - After Breakfast
Fixer's Patio, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

As Martina walked with her friends out of Crystal Hall, the girl refusing to be intimidated by the ongoing harassment campaign by the European nut-job, she noticed Jadis Diabolik sitting at her usual table reading a book, or at least she wanted to give everyone the impression that she was reading. Martina had learned well from her mother; she noticed that Jadis held the book high, so that it nearly completely disguised the fact that her eyes were not focused on the contents of the reading material, but were instead laser-focused on her.

"Excuse me a sec," Martina told her friends as she turned and walked toward the white-haired Melville fixer. She scooted a chair back and sat down opposite Jadis. "Afternoon," she said simply.

"Good afternoon," Jadis replied as she lowered her book. "Can I help you?"

Martina chuckled. "I was about to ask you the same."

"Oh?" Jadis seemed a little surprised.

"You were watching me, weren't you?"

Jadis smiled thinly as she set down her book. "Touché. I've heard that your Italian nemesis has been causing a lot of ... difficulties."

"And if I join the Seeds, somehow that will all go away?" Martina said with a snort.

"This is high school," Jadis replied with a wry smile. "Kids are going to gossip about something and tease or harass someone. No, the freshmen are still going to be dumb until they get more experience, but the older students know that messing with our group isn't the smartest thing they could do, and they generally look elsewhere for victims. With a little coaching from upperclassmen, the freshies usually fall in line pretty quickly."

Martina simply shrugged. "It won't take long for someone to do something stupid and draw all the attention. I can put up with the Italian idiot for a while."

"If you change your mind, you know how to find me."

"I'll keep that in mind." Martina rose and with a nod toward Jadis, she turned to rejoin her friends.

A few minutes later, Katrina sat down opposite Jadis. "You seem distracted," she commented, noting that Jadis was seriously studying her computer.

"I'm trying to figure out why the Volante girl hates Setup's daughter so much," Jadis answered without looking up.

"Hopefully something less boring than the usual hero-villain rivalry?"

"Maybe." Jadis continued her perusal, and then her eyebrows rose. "Hmmm - this is interesting." She didn't wait for Nacht to ask; likely she wouldn't but would simply act bored to goad Jadis into speaking first. "The job-tracker database shows that Setup has done three jobs in Italy. One in Rome, one in Maranello ...."

Nacht frowned. "Wait - why does that sound familiar?"

"Maybe because Cheese was arguing with Cueball after breakfast a couple of days ago about Italian sports cars," Jadis prompted. "Ferrari's headquarters are in Maranello."

"Why would Setup be dealing with Ferrari?" Katrina asked rhetorically.

"Who knows? Maybe industrial espionage for their Formula One team? Maybe long-standing feud with Ford ...."

Katrina wrinkled her nose. "Ford? As in Ford Motor Company?"

"That's not important," Jadis interrupted. "What is important is that the third job was in Naples."

"Let me guess," Katrina didn't let Jadis continue. "Setup's job involved the Volante family?"

Jadis nodded. "Better than that. Volante's father is part of a hero team in Naples. The job Setup was on included distracting a couple of members of that hero team."

"So let me guess. She seduced him to distract him, abandoned him, left a scorned lover, and now Papa Volante wants his sweet baby girl to get revenge on Setup's daughter?" Katrina said sarcastically.

"Well, the bits of data aren't that detailed," Jadis chuckled, "so you can let your filthy romance-novel-contaminated mind make up whatever story you like, but yeah, it does look like it's personal."

"If that's the case, the Volante girl isn't going to stop," Katrina noted dryly. She stood abruptly. "Gotta get to class. You better hustle it, too, if you don't want detention," she added before walking casually away.

Needlessly, Jadis nodded acknowledgment. She skimmed another tidbit of data on Setup, then started folding her laptop, but something made her stop and re-open the computer. She studied the fragment of data, then, her eyes wide open, she pulled up another note, and then another, then looked at the first one again. "This doesn't make sense!" she commented to herself, shaking her head and frowning at the data she was seeing. "What is going on here?"

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - First Period Art Class
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

In art class, the normal pre-class buzz among students nearly halted when Martina walked in with Dosi and Jori, and it seemed to Martina that most of the class was staring directly at her. Jori was suddenly very alert as the whispering around the class resumed, and Martina noticed her friend's change in posture and facial expression.

"What?" Martina whispered to Jori.

Jori winced. "I'll tell you later," she whispered back to Martina.

Martina sighed and shook her head. "They're talking about me, aren't they?"

"Later," Jori repeated a little more insistently. She wasn't quite sure how she was going to tell her friend what she'd overheard - none-too-polite comments about being a villain's daughter, comments about whether she'd follow in her mom's 'seductress/slut' footsteps, and some rather graphic and rude dialog among a small group of boys about what they hoped they'd be able to do with Martina before she was kicked out of the school. The common theme matched - too perfectly - what Martina had reported to her friends at breakfast about the altercation with Christina. The Italian Bitch was spreading her nasty gossip quickly and very widely.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - Before Lunch
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Hey, Jadis," Jobe stuck her head into Jadis' room. "You coming with us?"

Surprised by the interruption, and chiding herself for allowing someone to get the drop on her, Jadis shot a quick glance at the visitor. "Give me a minute," she answered, focusing her attention back on her computer.

Jobe noticed how intently the white-haired girl was studying something on her computer. "You found something," she suggested.

"What makes you say that?"

Jobe smirked. "You've had your nose buried in that since lunchtime yesterday. Are you planning to share whatever it is you found about Setup's daughter?"

Jadis couldn't help but chuckle at Jobe's accurate and logical deduction. "Don't you want to guess?"

"Hmphh!" Jobe snorted. "I never guess. There's either enough data for a logical conclusion, or there isn't."

"I'll catch up with you in the caf. Something here is not making sense, and it's really bugging me."

Uninvited, Jobe closed the door behind herself and then looked over Jadis' shoulder. "You're digging through public records on Setup and her child and her known aliases?"

"It doesn't add up."

"The answer is self-evident," Jobe said with a shrug

"The answer seems self-evident," Jadis corrected the Drow princess.

"If you insist on connecting every dot," Jobe replied arrogantly, "consider that they lived in Phoenix, so the obvious place to look would be Doc Morris' records."

"You think so, Captain Obvious?" Jadis asked sarcastically. "That would confirm it, but Doc Morris' records are extremely secure. They can't be accessed from on-line."

Jobe rolled her eyes, then reached around Jadis and let her fingers dance on the keyboard. "His records are backed up to a data vault in Karedonia."

"Which you have access to? To paraphrase Mel Brooks, 'it's good to be the Crown Princess.'" Jadis stared at the data which crawled across her screen. At one point, she froze the screen, and one of her eyebrows lifted. "Well, that ices it." She cleared her computer and then folded it shut. "This is potentially very dangerous information."

"Based on personal experience, you might think I would disagree," Jobe began, "but Setup is not Emperor Wilkins, and there are certain 'protections' that come with being part of the royal family that Knockoff does not enjoy."

"Dangerous to both Knockoff and to Setup," Jadis agreed.

"You're planning something with this information," Jobe said, sounding confident in her guess.

"Let's go get some breakfast." As usual, Jadis wasn't about to reveal her thoughts and plans, even to a fellow member of the Bad Seeds.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - After Classes
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Alyss quick-stepped into the elevator, interrupting the doors closing. Her roommate Martina and a couple of older girls, Toni and Kayda, were already in the lift. Alyss glanced at Martina. "You look like someone shot your dog," she commented at Martina's glum expression. "Italian problems again?"

Martina shook her head and sighed heavily. "Yup. I can deal with her giving me shit, but she's collected a little clique of flunkies, and they've been harassing my friends, too. A couple of her little coterie deliberately hurt my friends in martial arts classes."

"And it was all 'accidental', right?" Toni observed.

"Isn't that's the usual bullshit excuse?" Alyss snorted. "Pardon my French."

"Worse, until I get approval from the flight instructors, I can only fly in a very limited area, and several of Christina's mafia are in flight class."

"And harassing you and your friends?" Kayda speculated. "So the rumors about you going to Doyle after an accident in that class ...."

Martina simply nodded. "Oddly enough, I'm a little afraid of heights, but flying gives me a bit of ... freedom ... that lets me kind of forget about my day-to-day problems."

Toni glanced at Kayda, then the two older girls nodded. "Talk to Ayla," Toni suggested. "If anyone in Poe knows how to deal with this, it's Ayles."

Since they were only going up one floor, the ride was short, and the door opened as soon as they stopped. "Or Lanie," Kayda added. "There's a reason she's called Loophole."

By coincidence, Elaine Nalley was waiting for the elevator when the door opened. "That's still not funny, Kayda," she said with a mock scowl. She stepped aside as the quartet exited the elevator car, turning her back on the open door. "What's the problem?" she asked.

"I want to get some flying time, but I'm not approved for anything more than flight class and low-level core campus flying," Martina groused.

Lanie sighed and nodded understandingly. "Yeah, the flight powers rule change," she acknowledged. "There were several 'incidents' last year that caused the administration to insist on more training before flight."

"Like your little high-altitude supersonic test flight of your armored suit?" Toni chuckled.

Lanie saw the look of combined surprise and frustration on Martina's face. "Yeah, there was that," she admitted. "So, since you can't go flying outdoors yet, why don't you use the arena?"

"That's where we have flight class," Martina countered.

"No," the redhead shook her head. "Not during flight class."

"It's booked for sims, though," Kayda noted, "so it wouldn't be available anyway." She frowned. "You know how busy the sim schedule is."

"Most of that is in the pods, though," Lanie shot back, "which leaves the cavern wide open."

"And ... I ... we ... could book that?"

"We?"

"My friends and I," Martina explained. "We could book time there?"

"Sure. Let's go to your computer, and I'll show you how," Lanie offered, taking out her phone to send a text message; Martina and Alyss correctly guessed that she was telling someone that she'd be late.

A few minutes later, Martina glanced over her shoulder at the redhead. "No good. The arena is booked solid!"

"That's mostly the simulation instructors," Lanie explained, and without waiting, she reached in and tapped on one part of the computer screen. "Here - this splits the arena schedule into the instructors, the cavern, and the pods."

Martina's eyes widened. "There's a lot of free time in the cavern!" It seemed too good to be true. "And I can book it? Even as a freshman?" she asked skeptically. "I thought you had to have a sim team to do that!"

"For flight practice, no," Lanie nodded. "Just pick an open time and sign up. It won't let you reserve more than an hour and a half at a time, and it won't let you reserve more than once per week. You can sign up on 'standby', though, so if no-one else reserves it by six pm the day before, it goes down the standby list."

"Cool!" Martina noticed that the following evening had openings. She clicked on a time and started to fill in her information. "This will be so cool!" When she clicked 'enter', a red box appeared on the screen. "I have to provide my own flight safety monitor?"

"Yeah," Lanie agreed. "There should be a list of students who can be hired or bribed. Check with your flight instructor tomorrow morning. It's usually easy to persuade someone to help out."

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - Dinner
Fixer's Patio, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Jadis spoke into her phone, sitting at her usual table on the patio outside the cafeteria dome. "Okay, it's not such a little request." She glanced around, both to ensure that the wrong ears didn't hear her and to spot a person she intended to talk to. "Leave the data in the Karedonia Data Vault intact, though. It might be very important someday."

She paused a few moments. "Okay, I'll have a chat with your advisor to see if you can get credit for this. We'll call it square after this, okay?" Instinctively, she nodded at the response she got, even though the gesture was useless to a phone conversation. "Okay. Let me know when you're done."

Through good luck or careful timing on Jadis' part, the person she wanted to speak with was walking by as Jadis put away her phone. "Martina!" she called out.

Martina stopped and turned when she heard her name being called, and like a chain of dominos, her little eclectic retinue stopped as well. For a moment, Jadis studied the white-haired girl accompanying Martina, feeling a very unusual twinge of jealousy about Martina's friend. While Jadis' hair was also white, the Sidhe friend - Elle? - wore her hair much longer, and with the faint streaks of shades of ice blue, it had a luster that Jadis' hair lacked. Jadis quickly pushed away the wee bit of envy as Martina approached.

"You want to talk to me?" Martina asked the obvious question.

Jadis gestured to a chair, and Martina sat. "I did a bit of research," the white-haired girl didn't beat around the bush, "and found some ... oddities in your background."

Martina felt ice in her veins - the roundabout way Jadis spoke hinted that her secret wasn't so secret any longer. "Such as?" she forced herself to calmly ask.

"Wouldn't you consider it unusual that there are records about a woman and an only child who is a son, and then there are records that speak of the same woman and an only child who is a daughter?" Jadis was a tiny bit cryptic and discrete.

Martina's featured changed into a very deep frown, while inside she felt panic rising and fought to control her racing heart. "Oh?" She didn't trust herself to say more.

Jadis smiled faintly. "Given societal prejudices, I think you'd agree that such information might lead to danger for both the mother and the daughter."

"What do you want?" Martina asked bluntly, knowing that Jadis had the high trumps in the discussion since she'd obviously figured out Martina's secret.

Jadis' smile broadened. "You're most likely thinking that this is an attempt at blackmail or coercion, correct?" She shook her head. "That's amateurish and highly undignified. I don't work like that."

"Then what?"

"Your mom is very good at covering her tracks, but there are still puzzle pieces out in the electronic jungle that someone could have used to figure out the truth."

Martina didn't miss Jadis' choice of words. "Could have?"

"I called in a favor to have those records altered or erased."

Martina's expression didn't change. "So now you're going to demand a favor in return? Like I join the Seeds out of gratitude?"

Jadis chuckled heartily. "No. Call it a ... demonstration ... of how the Seeds can help each other and how we look out for each other. Just something to consider." She briefly glanced toward the entrance to the cafeteria. "I think your friends are waiting for you to join them for breakfast."

Martina was puzzled by Jadis' actions. "Okay. Thanks, I guess."

"All I'm asking is that you think about it."

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - Early Evening
Near Arena 99, Whateley Academy

"So what's with the mystery?" Todd couldn't help but asking as she walked with Martina and the Greek girl Theodosia toward the large arena.

Martina grinned like a Cheshire Cat. "You'll see."

"This better be good," Theodosia muttered, but her eyes were somewhat fixed on Todd. Martina got the distinct impression that Theodosia had set her sights on the boy.

The small group stopped at a pair of large doors into the arena. "You'll see," Martina repeated. She turned to the doors and waved her student ID near a scanner. A light on the scanner flashed red, but Martina was ready. Pulling a paper from her pocket, she typed a few numbers into the keypad part of the scanner. The red light turned green, and the doors opened.

Inside, the lights in the vast arena did little to make it seem less like a huge cave. The trio strode through a passageway under the viewing stands to the floor of the arena itself.

"Martina Hughes?" An older upperclassmen wearing a bright red vest put down her laptop and rose from a chair sitting on the edge of the arena floor.

"Yup."

"Amy Tang," the older girl introduced herself. "I'm your safety officer for this evening. You know the rules?" she asked.

"I'm in flight class, so yeah." Martina frowned a tiny bit because she thought she recognized the upperclassman girl as a member of the Capes.

"Just to confirm - you didn't specify restrictions, so it's open flight time?"

Martina glanced at Todd and Dosi, who simply shrugged. "Yeah, I don't have a problem if others want to fly, too."

The rules were quite simple, the same as in flight practice. Any flier overtaking another had to pass to the right. The flight path was a large oval, circulating counter-clockwise, with a holo-projected translucent barrier channeling the arena into a giant oval 'track'.

As the trio flew, students dribbled into the arena in twos and threes, attracted by the 'open flight time' notice, and soon there were more than three dozen fliers, mages, devisors, and warpers noisily and gleefully orbiting the arena, with lesser-skilled students mostly staying to lower half of the arena as they'd been advised.

Without warning, someone darted at high speed very closely past Martina, breaking the rules by passing on her left side and leaving a very faint blue streak in her wake. Startled, Martina momentarily lost control, but as she was regaining altitude, another student flew past her on her right side, again at very high speed. The second near miss distracted Martina enough that she tumbled, but she regained control about fifteen feet above the arena floor.

A loud blast of an air-horn grabbed everyone's attention, and the students quickly circled and landed, with both Gooney Bird and Buzzard Boy competing for the prize for least graceful landing of the day. As soon as the students all gathered in a circle around the safety monitor, she called Martina and Christina Volante in front.

"What happened?" Amy demanded of Martina.

Glowering at Christina, Martina explained. "She was too close and too fast on her pass, and when I recovered from that, someone," she glared at Eamon, one of Christina's friends, "passed me fast on the outside."

"And that's when you lost control?" The older girl looked at Martina. "You'll learn more in flight class, but your first job, no matter what, is to ignore any distractions. Your primary focus has to be keeping in control of your flight."

Martina fumed, more-so when she heard snickers from Christina, Eamon, and Benny Hale, another of Christina's friends. "I know," she groused.

"But you did a good job recovering," the upperclassman added. She turned to Christina. "What do you have to say?"

"She suddenly veered into my flight path," Christina lied, glaring at Martina. "I managed to avoid colliding with her, but ..."

"That's a damned lie!" Todd snapped angrily, unable to control his fury at the Italian menace's false statement. "Martina was flying ...."

"Stop!" the upperclassman snarled angrily. She frowned at the two girls, then looked at Martina. "You reserved the arena, right?" When Martina nodded, she sighed. "Okay, here's how I'm going to handle this. Since you," she looked at Martina, "reserved the arena, it would be your call about whether she," she glanced at Christina, "stays. But if you committed a blatant safety violation, I have to ask you to leave."

One of the freshmen, who Martina recognized from flight class but didn't know, raised her hand meekly. "Um, ma'am?"

Amy turned to her. "Yes?"

"Um," the girl said meekly, very hesitantly, "I was, um, about thirty meters behind her," she nodded toward Martina, "and, um, both, um, girls were flying straight and level. It was, um, a blatant pass on, um, the wrong side," she muttered.

The safety monitor looked around to see if anyone disagreed with what the unnamed freshman girl had reported. When no-one disputed her account, Amy looked at Martina. "Your call."

Martina glanced at Christina and shrugged. "I don't care if she stays, as long as she doesn't come near me again. Her or her friends."

Amy narrowed her eyes as she thought. "Okay." She looked at Christina. "If you want to stay and practice flying, I can get some of the arena transponders for all of you. I'll have sim control monitor so none of you," she looked at Christina, "come with five yards of her."

Christina glowered, cheeks burning with fury. "You're going to treat me like I'm the villain?" she demanded. Clearly, since Amy was one of the Capes, she had expected the older girl to take her side in the dispute with Martina. "She's the villain, not me!" Cursing in Italian, she turned and stomped toward the arena exit, and her friends joined her in leaving.

"Okay, get back to flying," the upperclassman directed. Then she gestured to Martina to approach him. "What was that all about?"

"Her dad is some kind of hero. Mom isn't. There's some ... history," Martina explained. "She fancies herself as following in daddy's footsteps, and she thinks I'm automatically a villain."

Amy gawked at her explanation for a second or two, then she shook her head with a sigh. "So that explains the 'evil villainous student' thing that she was babbling about at the FSHA meeting." She rolled her eyes. "There's always one, isn't there?"

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Thursday, September 6, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

"You reserved the arena again?" Todd asked as he met up with Martina, Dosi, and Elle, just outside the entrance to the vast arena where they had flying class and free flying.

Martina shook her head. "No, but it was listed as 'open flying', so I figured we could mess around some more."

Dosi laughed. "You mean practice, don't you?"

"To-may-to, to-mah-to," Todd chuckled. "Same thing."

"It's actually to-mah-ta," Dosi replied with feigned seriousness, while Elle chimed in simultaneously, "to-maht."

Grinning at her friends' banter, Martina turned to the keypad and keyed in the session key number she'd gotten from the arena's website. Her smile was replaced by a bewildered look when a display above the number keypad flashed, 'Restricted' while a red LED blinked.

"What the hell?" she muttered softly. Puzzled, she pressed a button labeled 'Sim Control' which was next to a speaker.

"Sim Control," a bored female voice answered.

"The site says this is an open flight period," Martina quickly explained, "but the entry says entrance is restricted."

"That means you need to use your ID to enter," the bored voice replied.

Glancing at her compatriots for a moment, Martina pulled her ID, fixed on a badge lanyard around her neck, from under her shirt, and held it up to the RFID reader. Almost immediately, the red LED blinked again, and this time the display lit up with "Access Denied".

After a moment, Todd gently pushed the still-gawking Martina to the side and tried his own ID. It, too, produced the 'access denied' response from the system.

With a sinking feeling, Martina gestured for Dosi and Elle to try. They, too, got the same response from the panel.

Martina once-again pressed the intercom button.

"Sim Control," the bored voice once more replied.

"This is an open period for Arena 99, right?" Martina asked, trying to remain polite.

"Yes." There was a pause. "It's listed as a restricted access event. Reserved by ..."

"Let me guess," Martina interrupted. "Christina Volante?"

"That's right. Anyway, access restrictions are within arena usage guidelines, so I'm afraid you aren't permitted access today."

"Thanks anyway," Martina acknowledged begrudgingly. She knew it wasn't the arena controller's fault, so she wasn't going to take out her frustration on the worker.

"Well, that explains it," Dosi chimed in as the group trudged back down the tunnels away from the arena.

"Explains what?" Elle, Todd, and Martina asked almost in harmony.

"I wondered why a couple of her 'gang' seemed so self-satisfyingly smug at lunch," Dosi noted to the group. "I wondered what they were up to."

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Thursday, September 6, 2007 - Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Despite Mrs. Horton's 'open door' policy whereby anyone could just walk into her apartment if the door was open, Martina wasn't comfortable with possibly intruding uninvited. She knocked on the door to announce herself.

"Come in, Martina," Mrs. Horton called out, and from the way her voice echoed, Martina guess that she was in her kitchen. It was a mystery to most of the residents how Mrs. Horton knew who was at her door; speculation ranged from her being psychic to magic wards that identified her visitors.

Before Martina was too far into the housemother's apartment, Mrs. Horton emerged from the kitchen with a plate of cookies, and from the smell, they were fresh-baked. Mrs. Horton could practically read the frustration and anger radiating from the girl. She gestured toward her small dining table, where she set the plate. "Tea?"

"No thanks," Martina replied as she slumped into a chair.

"What's bothering you?" Mrs. Horton got right to the point. "Or rather, who is bothering you?"

"Two guesses," Martina grumbled.

"Christina, again?" Mrs. Horton frowned. "If she's trying to fight you again, I'll notify security and administration."

Martina couldn't resist taking one of the cookies, and as she chewed the first bite, her mood was already softening. "Nothing so blunt," she answered after swallowing. "It seems my friends and I underestimated just how vindictive and clever she and her friends could be."

"What now?" Mrs. Horton asked with genuine concern.

Martina closed her eyes a moment and silently shook her head while she took a deep breath. She'd learned the technique from both her mom and Sensei Roberts. They both said it always paid to take a moment to ensure a clear head, and Martina had found that advice handy many times. "The arena was booked for open flying this afternoon. My friends and I ..."

Mrs. Horton couldn't help but chuckle. "Sorry," she apologized, interrupting the girl. "It's just that ... your mom and your teachers did a good job teaching you the proper way to say 'my friends and I' instead of the usual, erroneous 'me and my friends'. Do go on."

Martina sighed. "We were denied access to the arena, because when she reserved it, the Italian Puta ...."

"Manners!" Mrs. Horton spoke sharply.

"She had us on a no-access list," Martina finished.

Mrs. Horton took a cookie for herself, then pushed the plate closer to the unhappy girl. "It is her right, since she reserved it."

"I know," Martina acknowledged with a frown. "I read the handbook." She winced with contrition for snapping undeservedly at her house mother. "She and her friends - and a few she no doubt recruited - have reserved the arena for practice flight for every open period as far forward as they can - and guess who's on the access denied list?"

The house-mother's eyes widened. "Oh, dear!"

Martina nodded. "She is perfectly within the rules, even though I seriously doubt that that manipulation was the intent of those rules!"

"Do you want to talk to the administration?" Mrs. Horton asked, watching the girl's reaction. Martina was smart enough to know that if the administration intervened, it would invite a lot of unwanted attention from every bully and half-witted hero-wannabe. When Martina shook her head, Mrs. Horton continued. "There are the Seeds, you know. Officially-recognized clubs have priority over informal groups."

Martina answered with a semi-derisive snort. "Yeah, that'd be like waving a red handkerchief at a bull. To her, it would be the same as admitting that I'm a villain." After a moment, she added, "As if she needed anything beyond her stupid imagination to think that anyway."

"Official teams get priority," Mrs. Horton observed.

She took another bite of cookie. "So, the way I see it, my options are to, one, talk to the administration, two, play 'race to the sign-up' with her and her band, three, join the Seeds, or four, start a team with my friends, and get sucked into being tortured by Gunny Bardue's brand of torture in the simulators?" Martina shook her head vehemently. "Mom told me all about Gunny and his contest for 'sadistic bastard of the week' with Ito."

"Why am I not surprised that your mother briefed you so well?" Mrs. Horton mused aloud. "A lot of students settle matters with a one-on-one or team contest in the arenas."

Martina harumphed again. "Mom told me all about Whateley's version of a code duello. No thanks. My experience is that nothing is really solved except to further piss off, er ... annoy ... the loser. Unless it's to the death, in which case the loser's would be the ones getting very unhappy."

It was Mrs. Horton's turn at a wry chuckle. "Whateley doesn't allow combat to the death. At least not intentionally."

"I'm going to have to think about what to do. Maybe mom has some advice."

"At least I don't have to worry about you pulling the biometric mimic trick your mother does!" Mrs. Horton said with a grin. She once more read Martina's astonished expression. "Yes, she pulled a lot of pranks. Enough that I'm very glad she wasn't in my cottage!"

"Maybe I can talk my friends into another little hike," Martina mused as she grabbed another cookie.

"You are paying strict attention to the off-limits areas."

Martina noted the concern in the housemother's voice and the sudden worried expression. "Yes, I am. Is it really as dangerous as mom implied? She made it sound like ... campfire ghost stories."

"Yes, it is," Mrs. Horton replied somberly. "Nightmare fuel. Class X stuff that would make Godzilla look like a slobbering friendly puppy-dog."

Martina gulped nervously. She'd thought her mom was kidding. "So all those legends and stories ...?"

"Are mostly true," Mrs. Horton completed her sentence.

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Friday, September 7, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Admin Wing, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

When Martina opened the door to the administration wing's large conference room, she somehow wasn't too surprised at the occupants lining both sides of the long conference table, one side glaring daggers at the other side, and the other side seeming both bored and amused by their opposites. She hadn't complained to the administration about the Italian Problem, so she had no idea why she'd, and her team, had been summoned to the conference room.

"Hey, guys," she said cheerfully as she took an empty seat between Todd and Dosi. "What's up?"

"No idea," Todd said with a shrug. "But if I had to guess ...."

Martina didn't lose her smile as she scanned the opposite side of the table, not in the least surprised at the group. Christina was joined by her friends Eamon Fitzpatrick, Neal Mills, Suzanne Roscoe, Benny Hale, Maryann Klein, and another boy that Martina didn't recognize.

"He's Joel Osborne," Dosi whispered, leaning closer to Martina. "Sophomore. Probably one of her fan-boys. No doubt she's ...." Dosi's speculation ended abruptly when the door opened again.

Mrs. Carson entered first, followed by Ms. Hartford, Gunny Bardue, Soke Ito, Trish Savage, and two unknown men, one in a security uniform with a standard kit of weapons that far outdid anything any of the kids had ever seen in a police situation. The entire group walked past the students to the head of the table, behind the Volante band of vigilante-wanna-bes. Martina gulped when recognized the prominently and deliberately displayed tattoo on the security man's arm as he walked behind Christina. Her mother had told her many tales of the Dragonslayers, especially noting their tell-tale tattoo. The tattoo had such a fearsome reputation that no-one but an absolute idiot would wear it; the St. George's Dragon tattoo was practically an open invitation for attack from powerful, unfriendly mutants. Lots of unfriendly mutants. With extreme prejudice. And lots of help.

Curiosity made Darby look, too. Ito he recognized. Next was a tall, older woman who was nonetheless very fit and could be described as very attractive for her age. Something about the next man struck Darby as ... odd. The uniform he wore definitely wasn't 't a Whateley Security uniform; his pants were khaki, but his pullover was green over a tan shirt, and his belt appeared to have a Scottish tartan pattern. It looked strangely familiar, and as soon as Darby noticed the man's rank insignia - a single crown - he realized it was a British Army barracks uniform. Fragmentary thoughts and memories rapidly coalesced in his brain. A Company Sergeant-Major? Here at Whateley? The final piece clicked into place, and his eyes widened like saucers. "Inverness!" couldn't help but mouth to himself. He hadn't intended to speak aloud, but he had, and the man halted and his head snapped toward the boy, indicating he'd overheard the soft comment. Darby gulped nervously, lowering his eyes from the man's inscrutable but steel gaze, until the man continued walking to his place at the table.

The Headmistress, Mrs. Carson, didn't waste any time on pleasantries. "Ms. Hartford?" she practically demanded in a tone that indicated her lack of patience or frustration with a tough day.

Ms. Hartford stood, holding up a piece of paper. "Administration has received multiple reports of deliberate harassment in flight class."

For a brief moment, the Italian Nuisance's eyes widened, then her gaze firmed and her mouth started to open while she leaned forward to speak.

"Not one word until I finish," Ms. Hartford snapped sharply, glaring at the Volante girl and intimidating her into silence.

"Poe's house-mother reported significant disagreements and harassment, sufficient to cause her to violate procedures and change room assignments without prior administration approval." Ms. Hartford looked unhappy at this; it was well-known that she was the brains behind all the administrivia on which orderly functioning of the campus was based. "Security and the security auxiliaries have reported numerous instances of physical incidents in Crystal Hall, including tripping, knocking trays away from another student, use of PK and magic to sabotage food, and significant verbal harassment, the spirit of which is contrary to the Whateley principles of neutrality." She let her iron gaze go up and down the table, not staring at any one student too long so no-one watching could infer who she thought the culprit or culprits were.

"A report indicates unsafe flying that approaches a deliberate assault, confirmed by security footage."

Based on what her mother had told her, Martina strongly suspected that Ms. Hartford wasn't reading from the paper in her hands, but was using it as a prop to add to the intimidation factor. It was a known tactic of hers.

Ms. Hartford turned slightly. "Sergeant Major."

The British army officer stood. "It is not uncommon for students and groups to reserve 'open' time in Arena 99 for skills development, often involving flight practice. It is common for these types of activities to be open to any students wishing to develop those skills. It is, however, extremely rare for such reservations to be open to all but a few excluded students." He very briefly glanced at the Italian menace's side of the table as if inviting a response.

Christina Volante didn't disappoint. "The student handbook says that is permissible for the party reserving the arena to restrict access."

"True," Burlington-Smythe acknowledged evenly. "Taken in isolation, it would not invite the attention of staff and administration. However, it is not an isolated incident. My scheduling staff noted a rather obvious pattern in the reservations for flight skill development activities. Despite being made by different students, all included the same exclusion," the Sergeant Major added, never allowing the slightest hint of criticism or disapproval in his voice, but his choice of words made it abundantly obvious that he found this pattern of behavior wrong. "And all of the students making said reservations are associated with one clique."

Again, Christina displayed an abundance of ignorance about knowing when to keep her mouth shut. "The handbook and the on-line policies of the arena, they say that one student is allowed to make one reservation in a two week period."

"That is the 'letter of the law', as we Americans are wont to say," Mrs. Carson replied acerbically. "Not the 'spirit of the law'." She stood, which together with her piercing gaze increased the 'scary Headmistress' factor by an order of magnitude. "My staff all agrees that there is a personal rivalry which, despite warnings about the Neutrality Accords, threatens to grow to involve more of the student body. While the potential for disruption of the school's mission and activities is extremely remote, I am nipping this in the bud."

Christina's gang gaped at the headmistress, then looked among themselves, puzzled, as did Martina's little coterie of friends. Because of her mom's extensive briefings on Whateley, though, Martina had a good idea of what the staff was thinking.

Gunny stood, ramrod stiff, his arms crossed sternly, and his expression looking like nothing so much as an irritated drill instructor. "When rivalries threaten to escalate," Gunny began, "we have the authority, if necessary, to compel students to take their differences into the arenas."

"A duel?" Martina asked with certainty. She glared at the Italian. "I don't need to fight to prove anything."

"Because you're a vigliacca!" Christina practically spat, leaping to her feet and leaning onto the table toward Martina, her face red with rage. "Just like your madre! Just like all villains!"

"That will be enough of that!" Mrs. Carson practically roared, herself standing and leaning forward, fists on the table. Unlike Christina's theatrics, however, Mrs. Carson was highly effective at intimidating others. The Italian girl slumped back in her chair and stared at her hands in her lap, having been thoroughly cowed.

Martina glared at the Italian, then turned toward Mrs. Carson. "If it'll stop her and her ... friends ...," she managed to stop herself from using the word 'minions', "from harassing my friends, I'll give her the satisfaction of a duel. The other condition - as Mom told me - we settle it in the arena, and it stays in the arena."

"We're part of this, too," Todd growled. He turned toward Mrs. Carson. "I'm standing with my friend!"

"Me, too," echoed Dosi and Darby simultaneously, while the others on Martina's side of the table nodded their agreement firmly.

"So you wish to fight as a group," Ito spoke for the first time, hints of a semi-sadistic grin on his face. He noted a tiny hint of nervousness in a couple of Christina's group.

"What ... what if ...?" Benny Hale, worry wrinkled forehead with a quavering voice, started. "Um, I mean, I'm standing with my friends, but, um ..."

Ito's grin, if anything, broadened. "Would I be correct that you are might have concerns that your mutant powers aren't that suitable for a fight?" he asked, quite accurately in fact.

"If I remember what Mom said," Martina said cautiously, "the handbook says it doesn't have to be a fight, only a 'contest' or 'competition'." She added air-quotes.

Ms. Hartford let a tiny hint of a smile momentarily cross her features. "True." Since she was Setup's daughter, Ms. Hartford wasn't really surprised by Martina.

Mrs. Carson nodded. "The only requirement is that both parties agree to the format of the contest."

Gunny scowled. It looked like a good fight was going to be spoiled. "Since you are all freshmen, and it's early in the season ...."

"And considering that Martina has a significant advantage in martial arts training," Ito added, looking directly at the Italian girl. For the first time, her expression showed a hint of uncertainty before she could school her features to once more appear unafraid.

The Sergeant-Major in charge of the ranges cleared his throat. "Since the physical aspects of this ... rivalry ... have manifested them in flight class and flight practice, perhaps a flight-related contest would be appropriate."

Mrs. Carson looked back and forth between Martina and the Italian girl, until both nodded their agreement.

"What is the contest?" Todd interrupted with the obvious question. "Is it solo? Team? A race? And obstacle course? A fight while flying?"

"Some of us fly," Elle added. "So can we participate in a group contest with Martina."

Gunny smiled smugly. "I will design ...."

"No," Martina said firmly. "That's not required for these ... contests. It's in the handbook."

"And your mother warned you?" Ms. Hartford chuckled with a knowing smile.

Martina shrugged. "All that's required is that we agree to the format."

Mrs. Carson permitted herself a smile. Martina was acting far more maturely than the Volante girl. "Very well. You two," she looked at Martina and then Christina, "will come up with an agreeable format. I suggest you," she looked at Martina, "offer a couple contest options to your opponent, who will propose counter-suggestions. I will direct Mrs. Horton to mediate. You have until Monday at noon to agree to a contest format."

"Agreed," Martina nodded.

"Si," Christina added her concurrence.

"There will be no further incidents. Do you understand?" Mrs. Carson added, to which both girls nodded their understanding. "Good. I expect that I will not see either of you for any reason relating to this ... rivalry. Dismissed."

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Friday, September 7, 2007 - Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Martina?" Tatiana's voice echoed with concern; while she liked to talk to Martina, they'd set up routine times to talk, mostly at Tatiana's insistence so as not to infringe on Martina's 'social time' with her friends. It was not one of the pre-arranged times.

"It's mostly okay," Martina hastily reassured her mom. "Just ... routine stuff. Like you told me about this place."

Tatiana chuckled wryly. "That's not exactly reassuring, you know."

"Uh, yeah. I suppose so," Martina said, her shrug invisible to her mother but her tone of voice conveying the message. "You know the problems I've been having with that Italian bitch?"

"Um, that's the Volante girl, right?"

"Yeah. Well, she was getting aggressive in flight class and practice, pranking my friends, and then she and her friends hogged all the unused arena time for open flight practice - except for me and my friends."

"Within the rules?"

"Yeah," Martina grunted. "But Gunny noticed, and with all the other complaints ...."

"Eek!" Tatiana winced. "Gunny?"

"Yeah. We, uh, got called in to see Mrs. Carson. Me, my friends, her and her friends. With Ito, Gunny, Ms. Hartford, one of the house-mothers, some British Sergeant Major who runs the ranges."

"And?"

Martina shook her head with a bit of an eye-roll. Of course her mother would have instantly figured out what was going on. "And we got put on the spot to resolve this."

"A challenge duel?"

"No," Martina quickly answered. "I told Mrs. Carson that the Italian Idiot having a tantrum wasn't worth fighting over. And since it started over flight class and practice, we're going to have some kind of fly-off."

"I'm proud of you for not fighting over something so ... petty."

"Yeah. If it was just me, I wouldn't give a rat's ass. But my friends? I wasn't going to stand for that. So now we have to come up with a mutually-agreeable contest," Martina groused.

"So - now you need to do some intel work," Tatiana immediately advised. She pre-empted Martina's confusion. "If you're going to make a contest, you want to make sure you don't play into her strengths. Which means you need to find out how your flight powers compare to hers."

"Okay, I can see that," Martina acknowledged. "And since this isn't supposed to be a fight, whatever we come up with needs to preclude any 'accidents'."

"Check with the Seeds, or if you have any other contacts who might have some intel. I'd stay away from the Intelligence Corps - they can sometimes be a little 'holier than thou'. And if you snoop around, you can probably find one of the less 'ethical' security members who'll sell you the info you need, but if you go that route, it may not be exactly trustworthy. Check with your cottage fixer, too."

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"Mary!" Martina called down the hall to her wing advisor. "Got a sec?"

Mary Goodhope, the resident advisor for Martina's wing of freshmen in Poe, halted mid-stride and turned her head. "What's up Martina?" she asked when she recognized the freshman girl.

"I need some help."

"The contest?" Mary asked with a smirk. "Yeah, I know. The whole campus knows. No communication is faster than the Whateley rumor-mill!"

"Yeah, I suppose. Anyway, I need to come up with contest ideas, and since you're a flier ...."

Mary smiled, shaking her head. "Sorry, no can do. You're both Poesies and both my responsibility. I can't play favorites."

"So asking you for intel won't work, either?" Martina asked, already knowing the answer.

"Nope. And you won't get help from Zenith, either," Mary advised Martina. "But ...."

"But what?"

Mary tried to look impassive, and she almost succeeded. "You could ask Jadis Diabolik."

Martina's head-shake was firm and instant. "No thanks. I'd rather not owe her anything else."

One of the resident advisor's eyebrows climbed up her forehead, but she kept her question to herself. If Martina wanted her to know, Martina would tell her. "Ayla Goodkind is usually a very good source of information.

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Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

A little hesitantly, Martina walked across the big open common area of Poe toward the sophomore wings to talk to Ayla, but before she needed to turn to the left or right, she heard Team Kimba in the common room between the wings. It was well-known on the floor as "Kimba Corner", having been appropriate by the somewhat well-known team that included Ayla. Martina poked her head in the door to see if Ayla was there.

Anyone who hadn't seen Kimba Corner would have thought it a madhouse. There were four hammocks hanging diagonally between the outer wall and the side walls, two to a side like bunk beds. They were high enough that a sofa fit comfortably under one pair, and a love seat and pair of over-stuffed chairs sat beneath the other. While all common rooms had a modest bookshelf, Kimba Corner had a decent stereo system installed in the shelves, with speakers mounted in the ceiling. A large-screen television was mounted to the wall beside the door so it was visible to all of the occupants. Beside the bookshelf, a good sized professional popcorn machine sat, hot and emitting the familiar and too-enticing odor of hot theater popcorn, while next to it, a large coffee pot was competing to fill the room with its own aroma of hot fresh-brewed coffee.

Billie floated horizontally, like lying on her side on a bed, but near the ceiling and watching the TV. Near her, Jade was sprawled face-down, propped on her elbows - on what appeared to be an oriental rug, also facing the TV, but given the laptop open on the rug, it was unlikely she was paying attention to whatever was on.

Nikki Reilly curled up in one of the large chairs, while her little 'elf' servant Koehnes sat at her feet and scowled at Hank's little elf Leanne, who was gleefully riding a large stuffed lion like a rodeo bronco-buster. Hank seemed to be ignoring all the other goings-on, as he was busy cuddling with his girlfriend wallflower in one hammock, while a non-Poe girl was snuggled tightly to Ayla in the love-seat. Toni was somehow impossibly moving between the hammocks on one side of the room while still watching the movie, and Jinn - Jade's self-pronounced "dead sister" - sat in the other stuffed chair, actually studying.

"Excuse me, Ayla?" Martina asked hesitantly, not sure if she should interrupt the insanity.

Ayla produced a remote, and the movie - Martina guessed it was Titanic from the music of the sound-track - paused. "Yes, Martina?" Ayla asked politely.

"Mary said you might be able to get me some information," Martina replied.

"Oooh," Toni chuckled as she flipped into the lower of the pair of hammocks by making the upper one do what appeared to be a double roll before she dropped, with a full-length turn of her body, into the hammock below. She landed with barely any disturbance to the cloth hammock. "Ayla's Intelligence Service. Any information for sale - if you can afford it!"

"That's going to cost you some premium desserts! Or gourmet coffee," Fey chimed in, adding to the teasing of her teammate.

Jade rolled slightly and looked down toward Martina, an excited grin forming. "Do you like my flying carpet?" she interrupted. "It's really neat! I got it this summer when I was in France!"

Ayla rolled his eyes (Martina had learned that despite outward appearances, Ayla identified as and preferred to be addressed as male) at the ribbing from his friends and pointedly ignored Jade's excited question. If he didn't it'd take her half an hour or more to 'summarize' how she obtained the carpet, which in point of fact did not fly but was part of the J-team. "I presume this has to do with your little spat with Christina Volante and the contest you've been pushed into?"

Martina shook her head, sighing. "Does anyone on campus NOT know about that?"

"No," most of Team Kimba chimed in simultaneously, with grins.

"Been a while since we've had a 'pistols at dawn' type of duel," Fey chuckled.

"Sorry to spoil your fun, but it's just a fly-off of some kind," Martina replied. "Mary suggested you might be able to help me get intel about Christina and her friends' actual powers and skills."

"No doubt she's looking for the same type of info on you and your friends," Hank observed.

"You're assuming she's smart enough for that," Martina snorted. Her view of the Volante girl was not positive.

Ayla shook his head. "It'd be a huge mistake to assume she isn't smart enough to do some basic research," he said as he pulled out a laptop. "Never underestimate an opponent."

"Sheesh! You sound like Sensei Roberts. And Mrs. Dennon. And Gunny, for that matter! I want it to be fair," Martina said flatly to pre-empt any questions about her motives.

"Why?" Toni asked while spinning around in the hammock. "That brat needs a good whoopin'!"

Ayla ignored Toni and focused on the computer. "Christina Volante. Her friends are?"

"Eamon Fitzpatrick," Martina began. "Suzanna Roscoe."

"Another girl need some attitude adjustment," Toni commented dryly.

"Neal Mills. Benny Hale."

"That's Buzzard Boy, right?" Jade chimed in.

"He's been called that," Martina acknowledged. "Maryann Klein. And she's got some hanger-on - Joel Osborne."

"Cape," Hank noted.

"I bet she's playin' him," Toni added. "Everyone knows that girl wants to be a Cape, just like daddy dearest."

"Girl's got daddy issues," Wallflower smirked from beside Hank.

"And your friends?" Ayla asked.

Martina thought a moment. If Ayla could get intel on the Volante gang, he could no doubt get info on who her friends were, and their powers too. It seemed pointless to hold back anything. "Marjorie White. Darby Danniel - he's a devisor. Todd Dixon - flier. I think he's a PK like me. Elle Ruud."

Fey's eyes narrowed. "She's the Norwegian Sidhe girl with the ice hair," she said in more of a statement than a question.

"If you mean she has elf ears like yours, then yeah," Martina answered. She frowned ever so slightly. "You seem to know her or something."

Fey stared evenly at Martina for a moment, then shrugged. "I thought she reminded me of someone, but ... I guess I was wrong."

"There's Christine Spijker. She's from the Netherlands. Kiera. Kiera Ó Comhraidhe. I think that's how it's pronounced, anyway. And Dosi. Erm, Theodosia. Papadopoulos. She's Greek."

"Besides you and Todd, who can fly?" Fey asked. She noted Martina's surprise. "Some of us are security auxiliaries. I read the reports. You and Todd got busted for violating flight rules."

Martina kept her jaw from dropping too wide open. If Fey was this well informed, then who knew what information Ayla had access to. "Darby thinks he can either whip up or borrow a flight rig. Dosi is a gravity warper, so she can hover pretty well. Elle does the magic thing, so she can fly. Kiera and Jori - nope."

Ayla nodded. "I'll see what I can dig up."

"If you can't find anything, Mom suggested that I can find someone in security who plays fast and loose with the rules," Martina added.

The eyes of the girl cuddling with Ayla snapped open in alarm, and Ayla frowned deeply. "That'd be third platoon of security. They're known as the 'payola platoon'." He shook his head. "You don't want to go that route if you can help it. You'd be much better off asking Jadis Diabolik for information. You do know what they say about paying the Danegeld..."

"Okayyyyy," Martina answered hesitantly. "But ... Jadis is a little ... scary." Ayla's eyes narrowed even more. Martina winced and nodded slightly. "She figured out something ... that nobody should have known." While the other Poesies knew Martina's secret, she wasn't sure about the girl with Ayla, and she didn't want to risk any further disclosure of that very sensitive information.

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Sunday, September 9, 2007 - After Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Jori shook her head as she said, "I got nothing."

Martina sighed in acknowledgment and then looked around the table at her other friends. "Anyone else?" She was answered by a chorus of 'no' and head shakes. She looked down, shaking her head in frustration. "Dammit, I'm running out of time."

Todd cocked his head slightly to one side, biting his lower lip slightly as he focused his eyes somewhere high on the other side of the crystal dome. For several seconds, he stared, and the others could practically hear the gears turning in his head. "Maybe we're looking at this wrong," he finally said when he lowered his gaze again.

"What do you mean?" Elle asked.

"We're thinking of races, right? Like track and field?" Todd asked.

"Well, yeah," Dosi replied. "How are we supposed to do something like football ... er, to you Americans, that'd be soccer ... while flying?"

"I could see maybe doing flying rugby," Darby noted, "but if she and her crew decide to play dirty, it could get real ugly real fast."

"So that leaves track and field," Martina grumbled, "since I can't think of any way to adapt a team sport for flying that won't give them the ability to get violent."

"That's just races and relay races," Elle said flatly, reflecting the general mood at the table.

Jori nodded. "Maybe an obstacle race, like slalom skiing?"

"Which she doesn't like because she's fast but not maneuverable. Her counter-offer of speed racing is a non-starter because we know she's a lot faster. And whoever on her team had the lame-brain idea of a flying relay to stack concrete blocks needs to bloody-well get stuffed!" Darby added.

"Yeah, so what can ...?" Martina started to say, but she stopped when she saw some fellow Poesies approaching her table. "Hey, Ayla," she called out to Ayla, Hank, and Nikki. The trio circled to an open end of the table where they could be seen by all. "Can we help you?"

Ayla took a breath to answer, but Hank beat him to the punch. "I think it's the other way around."

"Huh?"

"Hank is insinuating that we should be offering to help you. In short, I have the data you requested." Ayla glanced obviously at the open seats at the table.

Martina noticed. "Won't you join us?" she invited. After newcomers sat, she glanced around the table. "Ayla, Nikki, and Hank are sophomores from Poe," she introduced them to her friends. "Marjorie White," she nodded toward Jori. "Darby Danniel is our resident Englishman. The scruffy trouble-maker is Todd Dixon." Martina chuckled. "He's from South Dakota, which explains his strange behavior."

"Hey! I'm not strange!" Todd protested, not noticing the curious looks among the three Poesies.

"Then you've probably heard of our friend Kayda," Hank commented. "Kayda Franks? Probably been in the news a lot there."

Todd wrinkled his nose. "The name sounds familiar but I'm not really sure."

"You might want to look her up sometime," Hank suggested.

"Sometime when she's not traumatized about something or other," Nikki added hastily.

"And you know elf-girl, here," Martina continued, nodding at Elle. Despite them having met previously, Nikki was again staring at Elle, a discerning and cautious expression on her face. Elle looked nervous at the way Nikki was staring at her again.

"Christine Spijker is from Holland. She rooms with Kiera, our resident Irish gal."

"No red hair to go with the green eyes?" Hank asked jokingly.

"Me little leprechaun spirit will probably get you for that," Kiera said with a mischievous grin. "He doesn't like it when people make fun of Ireland and things Irish!"

Nikki's eyes rose. "Avatar?" she asked simply. Martina suspected that the older Sidhe girl, who was known to be a very powerful mage, could somehow sense Kiera's spirit.

"No," Kiera laughed. "Me little leprechaun lives in me purse!"

"And Theodosia Papadopoulos," Martina ignored the jibes and continued introductions.

"I surmise from the name that you're of Greek ancestry?" Ayla suggested.

"If you guys ever form a team, you can call yourself Team UN!" Hank chuckled.

"Or the UNTeam!" Todd shot back.

"And your official drink would be the uncola?" Hank continued in jest. Seeing the blank stares around him, he rolled his eyes. "The Uncola. Ads a long time ago for 7-up. Because it wasn't a cola." He shook his head sadly. "It loses a lot when you have to explain it," he lamented.

"You said you had some information?" Martina ignored Hank and cut to the chase, and she saw the reaction at her brusque business-like approach. "Sorry, but I'm running out of time. I have a deadline to get ... her ... to agree to a contest format, and if I don't, Gunny will come up with the contest. And Mom said ...."

"... he is in a running contest with Ito for the 'sadistic instructor of the month' award," Hank completed her sentence, perhaps with a little more verbal panache than Martina would have used.

"If you understand your opponents, you should be able to avoid her tricking you into an unfair contest," Ayla turned to the business at hand. Martina simply nodded.

"Eamon Fitzpatrick. He's a competent devisor, and he's got a flying devise that gives him average speed and very fast acceleration, but only in a straight line. The limit is the power consumption of his rig. Neal Mills. TK superman, which means he's high-rated TK. He's got potential, but he's not very skilled, which makes him an average flier. Suzanna Roscoe. Wizard. She uses a spell to fly, so she's limited by her essence. She's also a novice flier, which makes her average in speed and not good at maneuvering. Benny Hale."

"Buzzard Boy," Martina said with an eye-roll.

"He'll never live down that nickname," Hank noted.

"He's a manifestor, so he's limited in his form. He's a very skilled flier, mostly at soaring. He's awful at takeoff, and his large wingspan makes him not very maneuverable. And Christine Volante. PK. She's a decent flier, and her strength is speed. She's very quick, but at the cost of maneuverability."

"Ayla said the description 'as maneuverable as a brick' fits her," Nikki chimed in.

"You want to know how your team compares?" Ayla asked.

Martina glanced around at her friends, surprised at the question. "Um, yeah, I guess so."

"Todd Dixon. PK. Decent speed, average maneuverability. Elle Ruud - magic. Good acceleration. My source says you got a lot of tutoring and practice while interning with the Bordeaux heroes this past summer, correct?"

Elle looked shocked, but she nodded. "Yes."

"Theodosia. Warper. Getting better, but not fast or maneuverable." Ayla looked sympathetically at her. "It takes practice, trust me. With time and effort, you'll get better." He turned to Martina. "And you are rated as average speed but extremely maneuverable."

"So if you come up with a team contest, it's five against four."

"Five against five," Darby said with certainty. "I've been talking with Tommy in the labs, and he's helping me with a flight rig."

Nikki winced visibly. "He hasn't got the best record for safety," she advised him.

Darby shrugged. "His sister Theresa said the rig he developed this summer has hundreds of flight hours with no incidents," he reported, "so I'm not overly worried."

"And with the safeties in the arena, you should be okay. It wouldn't be like him to take an initial test flight to five thousand feet altitude," Hank said with a grin.

"That's good info," Martina agreed with a nod, "but that doesn't help us get a contest format."

"Mixed course. Like a military obstacle course," Hank said. "A balance of straight for speed and maneuvering obstacles. With the hard-light system in the arena, you could actually do a longer course, with the arena changing every lap."

"So - add in some endurance?" Todd quickly caught on.

"But that's a head-to-head competition," Dosi noted. "We were hoping for a team contest."

"Take the sum of the best three or four times from each team," Ayla suggested.

"What about a relay race?" Darby asked. "That'd be interesting."

"Might be a good backup option," Martina agreed. "With some 'hurdles' - obstacles to maneuver through - so it's a little more balanced?"

"Why not propose both?" Nikki asked.

"Be better with a third, then," Todd said. "Then it would be best two out of three."

"And it'd be good if we could get some kind of game," Dosi noted. "Like football."

"Or hockey," Hank added.

"Hockey could get out of hand."

"If any of you dare to mention Quidditch," Nikki interrupted fiercely, "I will zap you. Hard!" After realizing the scope of her outburst, Nikki shrank back in her chair, blushing a bit out of embarrassment for making such a scene.

Martina and her friends were taken aback. "Uh, okay. But ... what's that about?" Martina asked.

Hank chuckled. "Nikki has had way too many people teasing her about flying her broom, using a crooked wand, and Quidditch. Ever since the last book and the movie came out, it seems like magic user is getting compared to Harry or other characters, or challenged to do some crap like the movie."

"Sorry. It gets really old," Nikki said meekly by way of apology.

"Why not hockey?" Elle asked, changing the subject back to the original discussion.

"The American joke is, 'I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out'," Todd commented. "American hockey is known for being rather ... rough. Same for rugby."

"Something like polo?" Ayla suggested.

Nikki and Hank rolled their eyes. "We are not going to let you make some new flying version of a rich-boy's game!" Nikki chided her teammate. "Besides, I don't think the bio-devisors are done with the flying horses."

Ayla shrugged. "Probably couldn't call them 'flying horses', since Mobil trademarked the 'flying red horse' in the thirties. Might get away with actually calling one a Pegasus, since the Greek ...."

"Ayla!" Nikki tried to interrupt.

"... mythology would likely count as 'prior art', but I don't know of a court case on that."

"Ayla, enough with the useless trivia recitation!" Nikki snapped at her teammate.

"Lacrosse?" Todd asked hesitantly.

"What?"

"Well, lacrosse is a constantly moving game, so winged fliers wouldn't be at a disadvantage."

"If you put in lacrosse sticks, and if the 'ball' couldn't be carried ...." Martina speculated.

The ideas began to flow quickly. By the time they finished kibitzing, the proposal was a game that was a mash-up of hockey, soccer, and lacrosse, with goals similar to large basketball hoops, a ball with an anti-grav unit in it so it would float, and some rough ideas of game play and rules.

As she folded up her laptop with all the notes she'd taken, Martina's brow wrinkled with worry. "Will the game work, though?"

Ayla seemed overly confident. "I know someone who can set up a simulation of the game, and that would let you tweak the rules to be fairer."

"Well, I guess I better get to Mrs. Horton's apartment so I can formally propose this set of contests." As Martina started to stand, she looked at Darby. "By the way, I was going to ask you something, but things kept coming up."

"What?"

"Friday in the conference room, you were looking at the guy in the army uniform," Martina started.

"British Army uniform," Darby corrected her.

"Yeah. You seemed to recognize him, and you said something that got his attention."

"Yeah. I recognized him. Company Sergeant Major Burlington-Smythe."

Ayla's eyebrow rose. "He's in charge of the ranges. You know him?"

"I don't know him, but of course I recognize him!" Darby replied. "Military stuff is kind of a hobby. And he's ... he's pretty well known. From the Royal Regiment of Scotland. SAS. He was awarded a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross because of the Inverness Incident. Very high award, especially for SAS."

Hank nodded, immediately understanding. "SAS is like our special ops forces. They don't publicize anything. Nor award medals."

"The Conspicuous Gallantry Cross is a very high award in the British Armed Forces, equivalent to our Navy Cross or an Army Distinguished Service Cross," Ayla explained, once more demonstrating his vast knowledge of what most people considered useless trivia.

"If he's SAS," Hank noted, "it might explain why he's here. Keep a low profile until the publicity of his award dies down. Seals and Delta would do the same. And maybe he's also here to babysit any 'interesting' UK mutants, or to try to recruit them."

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Monday, September 10, 2007 - Lunchtime
Arena 99 Briefing Room, Whateley Academy

Langley Paulson chuckled as he shook his head, responding to Gunny's grumbling. "Don't blame me," he said when Gunny paused for breath. "You guys forced the issue."

Gunny frowned then nodded a bit. "Yeah, you're right I suppose." He took a big sip of coffee and looked morosely at his half-eaten sandwich which he probably wasn't going to have the time to finish. "They were supposed to just fight it out, though." He was sitting with Ito, Langley, and Sergeant Major Burlington-Smythe, the range boss, working on their newest problem. Included in the meeting was Kelly Alexander, a new and very competent member of the simulator staff. With expertise in computer graphics, she'd been hired specifically because her talents were a perfect fit to make the best use of the new solid-hologram technology of the big arena.

Ito paused with a bite of sukiyaki halfway to his mouth. "I warned you. If you had known Setup, you'd have expected her daughter to do something like this."

"That's what Amelia said after the meeting, too," Burlington-Smythe grumbled. "And now we've got to try to make sense out of their 'proposals'."

"Obstacle race should be easy," Paulson said, looking at his laptop, the display of which was shared to a big-screen display in the briefing room. "It's just a matter of balancing the mix of straight and obstacle sections."

"I still think we need to make them takeoff from the ground," Gunny groused, glaring at the display.

"Have you ever seen an albatross try to take off or land?" Paulson shot right back. "Great fliers, but a kid like Goony Bird couldn't compete because it takes him so damned long to take off and get altitude. Some of the fliers could complete a lap before he even got off the ground."

"So they air launch," Ito begrudgingly agreed. "Are we going to use that for the relay race format, too?"

"If we use a takeoff platform for an obstacle race, I think we have to use it as a platform for a relay race," Gunny admitted.

"Let's focus on the obstacle race first," the Sergeant Major bluntly stated to re-orient the discussion.

Kelly fiddled with her laptop, slowly flipping through four different variations of an arena layout. The large display showed various 3-D views of Arena 99, with various obstacles displayed in translucent colors. About half of the arena had no obstacles, while the other had various blocks and poles to denote where the fliers would have to maneuver. "Very basic," she commented as she moved through the options. "Very simple to set up in the hologram system."

"Hell, we could do that with the mechanical systems pretty easily since we don't need set decoration," Gunny commented as he studied the screen. "How many laps are you going to make them do?" he asked. "We should challenge their endurance, here, too."

"Three?" Ito suggested.

Langley thought a moment. "If all they were doing was the obstacle course, I'd go for four laps, but they're also going to do a lap or two in the relay race, then who-knows how long in that damned game they've proposed."

"Two laps, then?" the Sergeant Major replied, to which the others nodded.

"Okay. If your team can get a couple of basic setups in the system, after classes are done, I'll round up some fliers to test them when the simulators aren't busy."

"Not Tennyo, though," Gunny immediately commented with a deep scowl. "Her flying is unreal, not at all representative of any other student."

"Agreed," Ito and Langley Paulson concurred without hesitation.

"But Team Kimba has enough fliers that we can probably use them to test the 'game' when we figure that out," Gunny noted. "I think we'll do several runs in the VR system first, so we can hash out the rules and game-play."

Langley nodded. "I'm half tempted to try to persuade some of the staff to help test out the course, too," he said with a grin. "But yeah, it shouldn't be hard to get enough volunteers to test this."

Burlington-Smythe stood and walked to the display. "For the obstacle course, you can have them double-back to make better use of the arena space," he noted. "Think F1, not Indy."

The new sim technician traced a bit on the touchscreen of her laptop, and the large display echoed her inputs, until the overall course more resembled a road course instead of a large oval. "Not any more difficult to set up."

"How about going vertical?" Langley asked. "Climbing and diving are part of flying, and we've got the headroom in the arena, so can we use it?"

Kelly shrugged. "Pretty trivial," she said as her fingers danced across her screen again. The display once more changed, and now it included a couple of high and low obstacles, including one that was a switchback with a total direction change. "Like that?"

"Yeah, that's good," Ito said through a bite of his lunch. "How long will it take you to program the sim computers for this?"

"Two or three hours," Kelly answered. "When someone," she gave a sideways look at Gunny, "gives me a couple of weeks without overloading me with sims, I can do what I was hired to do and tie a couple of graphics packages together so set design will take minutes instead of hours."

Burlington-Smythe suppressed a chuckle; he knew how good the woman was. She'd worked in the movie industry with CGI, which was a big factor why she'd been hired. "We're going to need that before combat finals, and the sooner we get it done, the better."

"Yeah, and I know what you're about to say," Gunny grumbled. "Cut back on the sims and let Kelly work her programming magic."

"How long to set up two or three rough courses - no decoration, just blocks and such - so I can get some eager volunteers ...."

"You mean draftees," Gunny interrupted.

"Whatever. So I can get some students in the arena to test them?" Langley asked.

"Basic, no set decoration? I can have a couple done by mid-afternoon. They're going to be very rough," she added a note of caution.

"If it's only a test, they shouldn't care if it's a huge black block or the Chrysler Building," Ito countered sarcastically. "I think they'll know enough to not fly into it."

"If they don't, they have no business flying!" Langley laughed.

"We can use these basic test tracks for the contestants to practice," Burlington-Smythe added.

"Have we got enough on that so we can move on to the relay race?" Ito asked.

"One last thing," Kelly interjected. "We should have some markers for direction to the next obstacle or two. I don't think they'll have enough time to memorize the course, and once it's a fully-dressed set, they might get confused."

"Yeah, good idea," Gunny agreed. "Make two or three courses for them to practice. I want to spring the real course on them on race day so no-one has any advantage."

"And they wait in the briefing room until their turn?" Ito asked.

"Obviously," Gunny answered.

"Okay, done with that?" Ito asked again.

"Enough that we can move on."

"Good. I'm a little concerned that the relay race is going to end up a speed contest," Langley said. "An oval track will favor the fast fliers over the maneuverable ones."

"It's a relay race, like track and field, so oval track." Gunny shook his head. "The baton passes should even things up quite a bit. If a team isn't smart enough to use only their fastest fliers, well, we can't cure stupid."

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - Early Evening
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Martina and her friends walked out onto the floor of Arena 99, looking around at how it was set up. On one end stood a 'launch tower', a platform high above the floor from which racers would start. In the middle of the arena, nearest the viewing stands and force field, an identical tower stood, but this was longer, like a short runway. In the back portion of the arena, many of the mechanical towers were raised up out of the floor into a maze-like jumble of oversize building blocks, forming the maneuvering portion of the practice obstacle course.

"What do you think, Todd?" Martina asked.

"We've only got a little over a week until the contest. We need to really make maximum use of the time," the boy replied. "I think that while a couple of us practice the obstacle lap, we really need to spend time working on the relay hand-off. That'll make or break the race."

"It's that critical?" Elle asked skeptically.

"My older brother runs track. His team has won races because other teams muffed the hand-off, and his team has lost races because they blew the hand-off," Todd explained. "Yeah, it's that critical."

"Dosi," Martina turned to her friend, "right now, I think you should focus on flying and turning."

Dosi nodded. "I'm getting the hang of it, though," she added. "After powers class yesterday, Dr. Quintain suggested I talk to a kid they call Catapult. He's a sophomore, and a gravity warper like me."

"And?" Elle asked simply.

Dosi smiled. "He gave me a few ideas that work for him. You know how all the bad sci-fi movies picture a black hole like a big vortex funnel made out of grid lines? He said he visualizes gravity around him like that, and then he pinches the lines where he wants to increase or decrease gravity, and it helps him focus on using his power."

"Does it work?"

"Seems to," Dosi answered. "But it's trickier to move or change direction. He said he visualizes increasing gravity ahead of himself, and then 'falling' toward wherever he visualizes the concentrated gravity. It's kind of backwards for me, though. I think of anti-gravity pushing me up, but the concept is the same." She chuckled. "If you do it right, it's supposed to be like pulling G's in a plane or roller coaster. He did warn me to be careful, though. He said that a couple times he made the turn so sharp that the G-forces made him pass out, and the fall caused him to end up in Doyle with broken bones."

"How about your rig, Darby?" Martina asked.

Darby shrugged. "Seems to work pretty well. Thomas and Nathan in the lab volunteered some ideas and a couple of their designs, but several devisors and gadgeteers implied their inventions were not known for being paragons of safety, and in fact, the two seemed to have a sense of invincibility or a streak of suicidal insanity. In the conversation, someone mentioned Amy's mum, who's a devisor with a record of making devises that actually work. Naturally I was intrigued, so I asked if Amy would be so kind as to put me in contact. Her mum provided several ideas, and she suggested a few minor improvements on Thomas' design that could slightly reduce the odds of unpleasantness like injury or death from a coin toss to acceptable."

"So the short answer is, your rig should work," Todd chuckled.

"There's no 'should' about it," Darby retorted. "It works quite well." He saw Martina's mouth start to open, so he tried to anticipate her question. "The rig operates about twenty minutes on a power pack at maximum output. The harder I accelerate, of course, the more power it draws."

"Twenty minutes - that'll cover a race," Todd said thoughtfully.

"You hope," Martina noted with one cocked eyebrow.

"And your spell?" Dosi asked Elle.

"If I conserve my essence," Elle replied, "I should be able to fly for about an hour and a half."

The group began to practice their skills. For relay hand-offs, one would take off from the launch platform while another waited on the relay platform. After the hand-off, the second flier would circle and approach the first on the platform to make another hand-off, repeating until their initial hesitant hand-offs were more confident and smoother. That wasn't to say that they didn't have their share of goofs and missteps, which usually resulted in the baton hitting the floor. Every time that happened, they cringed; such an error during an actual race could easily cost them the competition.

While two practiced hand-offs, the other three circled the obstacle course, tentatively at first but gaining speed as they became more comfortable. One feature of the course that was extremely helpful was a set of translucent holographic arrows that lit up the path, so the fliers wouldn't have to guess which way to go.

After a while, they'd rotate their practices. At Todd's insistence, they tried to get every flier to practice hand-offs to and from every other member of their team. As he noted, once they had the baton hand-offs down, they could do timed laps to figure out which four of the five team members would fly in the race. They had plenty of time to practice that, and a lap on the obstacle course was almost trivial in comparison to doing a relay exchanges.

At the start, the simulation control team had turned on the arena flight safeties, and that turned out to be a wise precaution a few times. More than once, Darby lost control of his rig and crashed; fortunately, he was unscathed except for a bruised ego. Elle's crash was far less severe when she ran out of essence to fuel her spell; she just gradually lost lift and drifted downward.

When Todd and Martina were both on the obstacle laps, they got extremely competitive, with the result that both of them crashed a few times. Oddly, Dosi was the least injured of the group, having never crashed because she flew slowly and deliberately to practice gravity warping flight techniques.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - Early Evening
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Cautiously, Memo entered the simulation briefing room, studying those already present. Seeing Gunny's gesture toward an empty chair, she slid into the seat. "Ayla," she said with a head nod to the Poesie, then she glanced at the other student. "Zenith." She turned toward Gunny and Ito sitting beside him. "Would it be out of place for me to ask why the hell I'm here?"

"No, it wouldn't," Ito replied simply.

Memo looked at him, then frowned as she realized that he'd answered the only question she'd asked. "Why am I here?"

Ito glanced at Gunny, cracking a half smile. "Some people have noticed that besides your ability to almost instantly assemble data into viable wagering odds, you are extremely well versed in nearly every sport."

Memo glanced at Ayla and cocked an eyebrow, figuring that Ayla had been the one who'd informed the staff of her interest. "So? I'm not the only one who likes sports."

"Perhaps, but none of the other students have the income stream you've been generating through various professional sports wagering interests," Gunny noted.

"And your combination of talents and interests would be of great assistance to us right now," Zenith chimed in.

"Does this have anything to do with the upcoming contest between Volante and Hughes?" Memo asked directly. Ito's eyebrows lifted, surprised by her accurate inference, while Gunny smiled and she heard Zenith smirk aloud. "I can't tell you the odds until I know what type of contest they're having. All anyone knows is it's some kind of aerial contest or combat."

"That's not why we need your help," Ayla said. "Not to wager on the contest, but to help design it."

Memo frowned. "What? Help design it?"

"You have an encyclopedic knowledge of sports. The girls and their friends want to engage in an aerial game - and our Headmistress graciously delegated the task of refining a rough concept for a game into something that's actually ... doable. And fair," Ito replied.

"An aerial game? Like what, soccer? Football? Rugby?" Memo asked as she tried to get her brain wrapped around the extremely bizarre request. "You know that powers will make it very difficult to come up with a game that's 'fair'."

"Yes, that's what makes this challenging. The very rough concept that's been proposed is a mash-up of a variety of sports. Hockey, soccer, rugby, la crosse. That kind of sport."

"So - you've got some type of ball?" She got a nod from Ito. "TK or magic screw up that idea. What's the point of taking a shot if someone uses TK to deflect it?"

"Powers testing has very small TK detectors," Zenith countered. "So we can put one of those on the ball."

"If you've got TK on both sides, you'll need referees to put context to how the ball - I presume it's some kind of ball - was moved. And TK could be used to ... rough up ... an opponent," Memo noted.

"The same is true for magic," Ayla added.

"Okay, let's say we can come up with some type of game. Here are the problems I see. One, the ball has to have neutral buoyancy. It wouldn't do to have a flying game if the ball is stuck on the ground. Two, most powers shouldn't be used. Would you want to be in the way if an exemplar-five kicked a ball? I wouldn't."

"Some type of pads and helmets would probably be a good precaution against that type of injury," Ayla offered his suggestion.

"Three, the game can't require stationary players. Not all fliers can hover. Four, if this becomes more than just a grudge match, a 'goalie' position is probably out, because there may be teams with no hovering fliers."

"So that means whatever goal is used needs to be small enough to make shots uncertain," Zenith noted. "Or you would have very high-scoring games."

"Fifth," Memo continued, "carrying the ball shouldn't be allowed. Would you like to get between a PK superman carrying a ball and the goal?"

"Point taken," Ito said.

"Dribbling like soccer or basketball, or using a stick to guide the ball like hockey?" Ayla asked, betraying that the junior business tycoon had paid at least a little attention to something besides Wall Street reports and news.

"What if the player's stick was a combination of a lacrosse and hockey?" Zenith suggested. "The player uses the net end to catch or intercept a pass, but would use the hockey-stick end to dribble the ball. And either end could probably be used to pass."

"Sixth, how many periods and how long are the periods? Some fliers, especially low-power wiz and some lab-coat types, will have limited endurance. Seventh, is there a 'foul count' system like basketball or card system like soccer such that a particularly offensive player would eventually be disqualified? Eighth, in the event of a foul, how is a penalty enacted? A penalty shot or free throw? A penalty box? The equivalent of a 'throw in'?"

Ayla thought a moment, then looked at Gunny. "It would probably be very useful to have a computer simulation to see how any proposed rules play out."

"Good idea," Ito acknowledged reluctantly. He didn't want any students to get cocky from too much praise.

"Ninth, how big is the field? How big is the goal? Tenth, how many players in the air at a time? Eleventh, what about injury and endurance substitutions? Despite the safeties in the arena, there will be injuries that disable a player. If there is no means of re-balancing the teams, the team losing a player to endurance or injury would be at a severe disadvantage," Memo continued, while Ayla typed on his laptop.

As suggestions bounced back and forth, Memo kept noting any possible issues, but it seemed that progress was being made.

In the middle of the discussion, Ayla perked up, staring at his laptop. "Ringo replied that one of his game engines and AI system could simulate any game we can come up with."

"Will he do that?" Gunny asked.

"It's a computer game. He's a computer geek," Zenith laughed. "Of course he'll do it."

"How long will it take?" Ito asked the obvious next question.

"I already sent him some of the parameters and options we've been discussing," Ayla admitted sheepishly, knowing that he'd violated the implicit secrecy this group was committed to, but he also knew that without help such as Ringo could provide, the entire thing would be a disaster. "His game is set up using a script engine to input the rules and parameters, so once we have a list, he said he can have a monte-carlo simulation running five minutes after we get him the list."

Zenith perked up. "Can he vary rules between the simulation runs? That'd help narrow down which rules will work and which won't."

Ayla nodded, then typed. Moments later, he nodded again. "He said his rule input engine already uses an input data file, so it's easy to vary rules. And he said if he can use the mainframe, he thinks he can do about ten thousand runs by morning."

"Let's get some draft rules and options, then," Gunny directed, "so he can get started." An evil smile came across his features. "We'll need to do a run in the simulators tomorrow against Ringo's computer AI opponents." He looked at Ayla with a particularly sadistic grin. "Phase, tell your team you've got a sim tomorrow after classes are out." He turned to Ito. "Let's round up some other 'volunteers' so we can do some live testing after we iron out some rules with Team Kimba."

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Saturday, September 15, 2007 - Early Morning
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Wearing helmets, knee and elbow pads, and red-colored slip-on jerseys, Martina led her team out onto the floor of Arena 99, with a cottage-mate of Todd's and Darby's accompanying them. The game rules called for five players on the 'field', so if any substitutions were needed, an additional flier was recruited. The other three friends, Christine, Kiera, and Jori, had taken seats in the arena viewing stands, joining a few friends of Team Kimba who were also there as spectators.

The boy, Rajendra Singh, was shorter and of slighter build than either Todd or Darby, and he had the darker complexion typical of natives of the Indian sub-continent. Raj was entirely neutral in the dispute between the girls, and he was a competent flier, manifesting wings similar to those of a quail. When Todd and Darby asked him, his comment was, "Sure. I hope it will be more fun than cricket. My family could not understand why I was not fond of cricket." The fact that he fit their unwitting UN theme was purely coincidental.

Ayla and Team Kimba awaited them on the arena floor, similarly attired but with blue jerseys. Jade floated on her 'flying carpet', while her sister Jinn hovered mid-air. Fey stood silently, her flaming red hair tied back out of the way in a ponytail, and Jade's roommate Billie seemed to effortlessly float a few inches in the air, although her pose and posture seemed like she was standing on solid ground, giving the impression that ground didn't like her and pushed her off itself. Their sixth player - new for this session since the last 'sub' hadn't worked out so well - was a girl Martina recognized from Poe, wearing the blue vest over a blue and white and red super-girl-type outfit.

"This is Marty Penn," Ayla introduced their new player. "She's our new sixth."

"Teri isn't playing today?" Darby asked.

"No, not today," Fey answered. "Her ... excess enthusiasm was driving Gunny nuts."

Ayla nodded. "She's a very good flier, and despite her size, she's more than capable of handling the stick. But ..."

"She tended to get carried away, right?" Dosi speculatively completed his sentence.

"Extremely, yeah," Lancer answered. "She's not inherently bad or nasty, but ... she tends to be easily distracted, and she can get a little out of control when she's excited. She's a lot stronger than she looks, and in the game ...."

Martina winced at that comment. "You don't have to tell me! I got hit by one of her shots." Without thinking, she rubbed her left forearm. "Makes me happy for regeneration."

The 'field' was laid out with holographic force-field walls that extended floor-to-ceiling, about sixty meters long by twenty meters wide and twenty meters high. In the centers of the opposing ends were holes about a meter in diameter outlined by a red ring to make them more visible.

"What's changed since last time?" Martina asked Ayla. In the first few practice sessions, the computer simulations, Team Kimba, and a few other 'volunteers' had found that the rules and layout needed significant adjustments, both to enhance game-play and to reduce confusion in the 'rules'.

"They decided to drop the 'offside' rule," Ayla began.

"Yay!" Todd interrupted with enthusiasm. "That rule was stupid and confusing."

"I told you, it's not confusing!" Darby countered. "Any five-year-old fan of football knows the offside rule!"

"That's 'soccer', and it's confusing," Todd shot back, but his arguing had the feel of friendly banter.

"So it'll be more like basketball, with fast-breaks," Martina noted with a bit of enthusiasm.

"Gunny wants to try just penalty shots for fouls, no penalty box," Ayla continued.

"That take away power plays," Todd noted. "But with fast-breaks ...."

"The computer simulations show it will make the game a little faster paced, and should increase scoring opportunities," Lancer added

"The ball is changed, too. It's lighter, so it won't have as much inertia."

"Good!" Martina said enthusiastically.

"It's also bigger. The net result is that it has more drag. That should slow it, so it'll act less like a bullet and more like a volleyball," Ayla added. "The labs have adjusted the anti-grav unit so it's perfectly buoyant. It won't arc like it did last time. Of course, this will throw off everything you know about the ballistics of the ball."

"Skip the physics lecture, Ayles," Fey chided her teammate as she frowned.

"The ball has a couple of other safety features. Martina, you're a ranged PK. Try to move the ball."

With a puzzled expression, Martina reached out and slapped the ball with her PK fist. Though it moved easily, it also began to flash bright blue and beep loudly.

"PK sensor. It's detuned a little so your natural PK field shouldn't affect it at all, but the sensitivity can be adjusted if necessary." Ayla turned to the white-haired Sidhe girl. "Can you attempt to push it using magic?"

Elle nodded, then incanted quickly as she moved her hands. Again, the ball moved, but this time, it flashed bright red while it beeped.

"Safeguards against PK or magic manipulation of the ball's trajectory, just to remove any temptation for anyone to cheat," Fey said with a wry smile.

"Any other questions?" Ayla asked. When no-one replied, he continued. "We'll practice like you did last evening. A ten-minute period, followed by rest and debrief, and then another practice game. In the second game, you'll face off against the other 'development team'."

Everyone on Martina's team gawked at the last statement. "Another ... team?" Elle stammered in disbelief.

"Of course," Ayla answered. "Gunny and Sensei Ito thought that testing the rules and game-play in live games would be prudent. The other team consists of several volunteers. Skybolt, Wind Runner, Phoenix Fire, Bomber, Harrier, and Zhong Lau. They call themselves the 'Press Gang'."

'"And you guys call yourselves ...?" Dosi prompted.

"Team Kimba, of course," Ayla replied. "Why would we change our team name?"

"There were surprisingly a lot of volunteers," Lancer interjected. "After we practiced against the Press Gang a few times."

"Gunny and Ito wouldn't let just anyone volunteer, though," Fey chimed in. "To quote what he said to the Stratosphere Siblings, 'We don't want you fragging the other players when your rigs have their usual rapid unscheduled disassemblies'."

"And Stormwolf is a big poopy-head because he's too straight-laced and serious to do something that's fun," Jade giggled.

"Oh, and Theodosia," Ayla addressed her directly, "yesterday you wondered aloud if an anti-grav belt would augment your natural gravity warping, correct?" When Dosi nodded, puzzled, Ayla continued with a grim expression. "Don't. This morning, the Press Gang had to replace a player because he tried just that. It did NOT go well for him."

"The two gravity fields interacted badly, and the forces really ... mangled ... his lower extremities," Fey somberly reported. "He was very, very lucky. It's going to take a lot of regenerative healing spells for him to walk again." Wide-eyed at the grim cautionary note, Dosi couldn't help but gulp nervously.

The first practice period went about as Martina had expected; Team Kimba had had a chance to practice with the new rules, and the team was a very well-organized and experienced group. At the post-period briefing, which Lancer had noted was a very essential part of any simulation, contest, or game, Martina's team discussed the changes. The larger ball was easier to spot, and it's increased drag made it easier to catch, deflect, or intercept. Without the 'offside' rule, it was possible for 'fast break' tactics as in basketball, and the larger target made it easier to score. Another factor which was going to require practice was ball-handling, since it took time for the team to adjust to the absence of gravity-influenced arcing trajectory, just as Ayla had predicted. At first, passes among the team and shots at the goal flew high because all of the team's experience had conditioned them to balls traveling in parabolic arcs.

The second practice period, against the Press Gang, went a little better than had the first session. Press Gang was quite obviously a newly-formed team, since they clearly lacked the team unity that Team Kimba possessed. One thing they did have was a non-playing member of the team who stayed on the ground against one side wall, coaching the team with enthusiastic shouts and directions to help direct their game-play.

Whether it was due to the opponent's newness as a team, or because they'd learned quickly from competing against Team Kimba, Martina and her friends fared better, although they were still significantly outclassed in flight skills. It also helped the Press Gang that they hadn't already played a fifteen-minute session, while Martina's team was a little fatigued.

After they'd showered, Martina and her friends left the tunnels for the pleasant autumn weather, choosing a small table near Crystal Hall. Immediately, Todd suggested that they should try to schedule another couple of practice sessions to develop their own skills. Ball-handling, shooting, and fast-break were among the areas the team needed a lot more practice, and they could do that without an opposing team. Another lesson was that Team Kimba had a communication system which they used to great effect to coordinate their actions. The other lesson was the effectiveness of the sideline coach of Press Gang.

After a unanimous consensus that they could use a coach, Dosi suggested that one their three non-flying friends could be their coach, but all three immediately declined, all insisting that they had no coaching experience, with Kiera going to far as to suggest she'd do more harm than good. After some enthusiastic discussion, the group decided to ask the upperclassman who'd coached Press Gang if he'd also coach them.

And since the team was international in nature, they decided to call themselves the UNTeam, as Hank had suggested.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - After Class
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

Sitting in the locker room, Martina and her friends were joking around to avoid getting nervous. They didn't really care if they won or lost, because only bragging rights were really at stake and none of them cared. If losing meant the Italian girl would gloat incessantly instead of attacking and pranking them, the whole team had agreed that would still be a net win for them.

The first contest was the obstacle race; nobody who was competing had seen the course layout because Gunny and Ito had designed it in secret to prevent any competitor from having any sort of advantage. That extended to having the competitors wait in a locker room until it was their turn to fly. To be even fairer, both teams had been checked for communication systems so no-one could tell teammates what to expect on the course. It was all up to the skill of each competitor. All five from each team would fly, and the slowest time from each team would be dropped from the total score. Whichever team had the lowest net time would win.

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Martina and the rest of the UNTeam sat in the arena briefing room, with a mixture of boredom and nervous excitement. They were in two rows behind tables that faced the front of the briefing room, although the front row had turned their chairs so they could talk with the second row. The sound of a door opening halted the conversation, and as one, they turned toward the sound. To their dismay, the Volante team marched in, scowling deeply at their competitors as they took seats on the opposite side of the room.

Christina and her hangers-on had barely sat down when a different door opened, this one at one side of the front of the room. Nobody was surprised when Ito and Gunny marched in, Gunny wearing his perpetual frown that some said he'd been born with, while Ito had a certain smug 'I'm going to get you' sort of smile. It made Martina nervous, wondering what new nastiness the diabolical duo had dreamed up.

Ito produced a bag and set it on the table in front of Martina. "All of you are required to wear masks to disguise your identity before you can enter the arena today."

Todd frowned. "Why?"

Gunny started to speak, but he noticed something in Martina's expression. "Go ahead, Knockoff. Explain."

"Mom told me that despite Whateley security, there is a very high probability that the camera feeds in the arena have been hacked," Martina began.

"Hacked? Why?" The question, surprisingly, was curious and not hostile, and it came from Neal Mills, one of Christina's team.

"Gambling," Gunny said simply. "A lot of money is wagered on our contests and combats. Despite our best efforts, the professional gambling houses manage to find a way to get the video feeds so they can carry the events live for their customers."

"So," Ito continued, "from the time you leave the briefing room until you leave the arena, you will wear masks to conceal your identity."

"I'm going to be a hero," Volante said defiantly. "So it doesn't matter."

"It does matter, and you will wear a mask," Gunny shot back. "Imagine if your identity as a mutant was connected to your real name, and then traced to your family. Do you think the anti-mutant groups would hesitate to come after your family? That's why we are not taking any chances. You will mask up, or you will not enter the arena."

"If you prefer not to wear a mask, you would forfeit the match, of course," Ito added with a sadistic grin. He dumped out the contents of the bag on the table. There was a great assortment of masks, cowls, and other facial disguises. "These are examples made by the costume lab."

"What, no Groucho Marx glasses?" Todd asked, feigning seriousness. Ito goggled at the audacity of his comment, while Gunny frowned. "What? They disguise the nose, eye shape, eyebrows, and upper lip. They meet the requirements. They should be fine."

"No," Gunny said firmly. "No Groucho Marx glasses."

Todd glanced at his team-mates and shrugged, as if to say, 'I tried.' He reached out to the pile and shuffled through them. "Is there enough for a set for all of us?" he asked.

Ito rolled his eyes. "Of course there's enough." He had the insufferable tone of 'do we look like idiots?'

"Let's go with the bright purple masks!" Darby chimed in eagerly. To voice her opinion of his choice, Dosi smacked him - hard.

"The two-tone red diamond masks?" Martina suggested. She got no negative replies. "Okay, the two-tone red ones." She glanced at her rival. "Unless you'd prefer them," she said with a sickeningly-sweet voice.

"Cowls are more appropriate for heroes," Christina huffed. "You can keep those ... stupide maschere rosse! Since you don't have blue, we will take the two-tone cowls."

"It suits you," Todd sighed very softly, shaking his head. "You think the world is just black and white."

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If one didn't know Amelia Hartford well, one would think that she was casually strolling through the tunnels on her way to Arena 99. One who knew her, though, would see a certain determination to her stride, a sense about her that she was operating on a precise schedule, was going where she needed to go, and would arrive nearly to the second of the appointed time.

She turned a corner, opposite the direction sign that pointed left, instead going right. A few dozen meters and she arrived at yet another junction, but curiously, she simply turned around.

"Punctuality is a good trait Linda," she said with a tiny hint of a smile, addressing a girl who had joined her from the left branch of the tunnel. She'd obviously been waiting for Ms. Hartford. "Ensuring I don't have to wait is even better,"

"Business first," Linda Fowler, known also by her codename Tweak, replied with a smug smile.

A figure came out of the shadows to join them, but Ms. Hartford wasn't surprised. "I do so hate the shadowy mysterious figure trope," she said drolly as she continued to retrace her steps, with the two students falling in on either side.

"Are the feeds taken care of?" Ms. Hartford asked somewhat cryptically.

"They're using the standard setup. Drones for close-up shots, wirelessly linked to the control room. Piece of cake," Linda answered, as emotionless in her reply as the Assistant Headmistress had been with her question.

"And the other arrangements?" Hartford tossed another question at the pair.

This time the boy code-named Cueball answered. "The mail was delivered."

"Good."

The boy continued. "I uncovered the contact behind Carruthers. We're going around him.

"That can ensure timely package delivery," Linda added, "and we avoid unnecessary ... expenses."

"Not my circus, not my monkeys," Ms. Hartford said with a shrug. "You do whatever you want with your financial arrangements. My only concern is that the package got where it was supposed to go, on time."

The small group rounded another corner, to where more students were converging near the arena. "Do ensure that your grades don't suffer, Linda, because you're wasting valuable time watching these games," she said curtly, not at all soft like the previous discussion, but in a normal tone that was certain that some students heard, and recognizing the voice, they mostly scattered, just in case the Assistant Headmistress was on a tear about something. She stepped past the two students, and Linda felt a light touch in the small of her back. Linda fought a smile; she already knew the contents of the memory card that was now lightly attached to her back.

As Ms. Hartford walked away with her usual intimidating demeanor, Cueball touched Linda's back in what looked like a romantic gesture. A few moments later, as he withdrew his hand, he let it slide into Linda's. Again, like boyfriend and girlfriend, they walked hand in hand, a public display to cover their true actions.

As soon as Cueball took his hand away, Linda took out her cell phone, and after fiddling a bit, she looked at the phone, while one finger slipped the tiny memory card, smaller than a pinky fingernail, into a special slot in the phone. "It looks like Booker is already set up to take bets," she said aloud, while her fingers tapped. Inside the chip was an access code for Ms. Hartford's private system to spread data across the outside access networks so as not to trigger alarms. Now that she had it, Linda activated a remote program in her lab that began routing the camera feeds through her system and out Hartford's connections to the gambling houses. Just to be sure, she'd also routed the data to her own connection scrambler, just in case.

"I think Booker is going to make a killing on the betting today," Cueball said, continuing their clandestine cover actions. "You want to get in on some of his action?"

"Why not?" Linda replied with a smile. Her work was done; all that was left for her and Cueball was to wait for the payoff. If they made a little extra spending money on wagering, using the information she'd gathered from covert observations of the preparations, so much the better. And since the 'cover' for meeting Ms. Hartford was a 'date' to watch the games, she wasn't going to complain.

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Standing atop the launch platform, Martina tried to keep her breathing calm. The platform was forty feet above the floor, and she had some degree of acrophobia, but the most nerve-wracking thing was behind the force-field were lots of students and staff. She couldn't see them, of course, because the force field had holographic 'set decoration' on it, but everyone in the stands could see her because it operated like a two-way mirror. Martina had never been one for being seen by big crowds, and now she was on display for everyone to watch her flying.

She forced herself to draw another deep breath, and as she slowly exhaled, the countdown started. As they'd learned in practice, the countdown consisted of five short beeps, followed by a longer, deeper tone. All were evenly spaced in time, so one could use the first beeps to prepare for launching at the proper time, not going early or launching late.

As she leaped forward and upward, Martina felt a momentary twinge of panic because the ground seemed so far below. The rational part of her brain pushed back the fear, though, and she propelled herself onto the course. Every time she launched from the platform, which had been quite often in the last couple of weeks, she couldn't help but feel sorry for the manifestors like Goony Bird who needed a long start or a long fall, both with lots of frantic wing-flapping, to get enough airspeed for flight. While Martina felt the fear of falling, those types actually had to fall first before they could get airborne.

Mercifully for the slow-starters, Gunny and Ito had made the first part of the course straight and level so all fliers could get up to speed. This was the part of the course that would heavily favor the Italian nut-case due to her speed, so Martina pushed herself as hard as she could. It was almost a relief to her when she reached the other end of the arena and had to turn, because a turning duel was her forte.

The long straight flight vanished into a desert canyon landscape, with the canyon walls striped with various shades of reds, yellows, and oranges, and Martina was reminded of the landscapes in Arizona. She had a brief hint of homesickness, missing those stunning vistas, before she refocused on following the canyon, with sharp turns to the left and right and no long straight stretches. Rounding one corner in a sharp left-hand turn, she had to suddenly dive to make the next obstacle, an arched rock formation. She chided herself as she accelerated through the arch; she'd been flying high to slightly reduce the severity of the turns, which caused her to have to adapt her flight path suddenly, and that cost her some time.

After another half dozen turns, Martina emerged into another short straight stretch across a simulated wheat field, and then into the heart of a city, where she was surrounded by buildings reaching high over her head. Again, the course took on a maze-like character, but the simulation crew had added a few skybridges between buildings, adding a vertical dimension as she had to go over and under the various obstacles, always following the holographically-displayed arrows.

After dodging through some billboards, she turned one last time back onto the straightaway. In a testament to the flexibility of using hard-light holograms in the simulators, she was above a highway that bored straight into a long tunnel through a mountain. Though it was straight, there was not a lot of margin for error in either her vertical or side-to-side variation in her flight path.

She emerged from the tunnel, her nerves a little taut from the extreme concentration needed in the tunnel, and hauled immediately into a tight turn into a tall redwood forest.

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In the stands, it was easy to identify freshmen students, since they were nearly all gawking at the sudden scenery changes and the way they always had unobstructed view of the competitor through skillful manipulation of the holograms. To add to the viewing experience, a row of large displays lined the top of the force field, each with a different view of the arena.

As soon as Martina started into the tall forest, one of the spectators laughed with delight. "It's the forest moon of Endor!" he called out.

"Where are the Ewoks?" the student's buddy called out. "We want Ewoks!"

"Throwing rocks and sticks!" the first student shouted at the force field. "We want Ewoks!"

Around them, students' reactions were either a huge eye-roll, a roar of laughter, or joining a chant of "We want Ewoks!"

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Booker glanced up at the crowd around him, then looked back at his laptop. A few flits of his fingers, a press of the enter key, and a few seconds later, the screen changed. "Neal Mills is next on the course. Further bets on his over/under time are closed." A couple of his potential customers frowned at the news and turned away, obviously having intended to wager on the boy. Still, there were many more who could still bet.

"Still taking bets on the devisors head-to-head?" a tall senior girl asked.

Booker didn't even look up. "Yes, but when Mills finishes, Danniel is up and betting is closed."

"Thanks," the girl said, turning and already typing into her smart-phone.

A very attractive redhead walked through the crowd like she was parting the Red Sea. For most of the boys, and some of the girls, thoughts about wagering slammed to a halt, and some gawked, slack-jawed, at the display of raw feminine beauty in their midst. It didn't help them that the girl had an attraction aura that she simply couldn't turn off.

"Hey, Nikki," Booker greeted her, having stolen a quick glance her way when he sensed a change in the crowd. "Can I help you?"

"Still taking bets on the mages head-to-head?" Nikki asked, giving the bookie her sweetest smile.

Booker grimaced. "For you, I shouldn't." Seeing the Sidhe redhead's eyes open, he continued. "Elf girl is also Sidhe. I've heard that you recognize her, so I'm concerned that you have an inside track."

"The fact that my ancestor may have known her ancestor isn't a good measure of how much I know about her," Nikki countered.

"Are you mentoring her in finger-wiggling class?" Booker asked bluntly. Staring at her a moment, his determination collapsed. "Okay, I guess you can wager."

"Odds?"

"Three to two on the Sidhe girl," Booker replied.

Nikki's eyes widened like saucers. That didn't match her estimation from having seen both girls perform in the Magic Arts department. As Booker had figured, she really did have a bit of an edge because she was a TA. "Only three to two?"

One of the bystanders had been listening in. "Word is that Elle had some training in magic with a hero team in France before she came here. If you ask me, Booker is being generous in giving her three to two." He lowered his voice. "I don't think Memo got the memo. She's giving are even money."

"While you're here, Nikki," Booker got her attention again, "do you want to lay any money on the relay race?"

"Hmmm," Nikki thought. "There are still several fliers left in obstacles. I should watch a bit."

Booker rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "I'm watching, too, you know, and I'll change the odds if something happens in the rest of the obstacles."

Nikki nodded, then took out her phone and opened an app. "There," she announced when she committed to the small wager. "Oh, and someone asked me to put some money on the devisors head-to-head. For Generator."

Booker was suddenly worried. Wagers for Generator tended to be big money-losers for the bookies. But he also couldn't help but wonder why Generator never placed bets herself. "Okay. Type it in."

"Will you cover a spread?" Nikki continued with her questions. She held up her phone for Booker to see what she was thinking.

The boy winced again, his mind racing to calculate. "That big?" Numbers flowed through his brain, lining up with all the information he had about the two competitors, and odds practically lit up in his brain. "For that, I'll give you eight point four to one."

"Done."

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Wincing in pain, Darby used his hand controller to try to eke out a little more speed from his flying rig. He had time to make up. After some winding turns in the 'canyon', where he'd had to slow down, he lost track of his mental picture of the inside of the arena. He'd been convinced that there physically wasn't enough space for another right turn, let alone a sharp one, so he'd hedged to prepare for a left turn, and he figured he could pour on the coals.

He'd been wrong. Wrong enough that he couldn't quite slow enough, and the 'hard light' nature of the set smacked him as he glanced heavily off a canyon wall, which in turn made him carom into the physical arena wall.

His arm hurt - badly. His helmet had proven its worth, and the cushioning force field had saved him from injury, but he felt guilty for having made such a colossal blunder that was probably going to hurt his team. Fortunately, though he bounced around like a billiard ball, he hadn't lost lift, so once he regained his orientation, he resumed flying.

Now he had to fly better than he had ever flown before. He had to make the rest of the run nearly perfect. Across the short straight, and he was in the cityscape. Throwing caution to the wind, he pushed corners as hard as he dared. But once more, he got caught with a wrong guess. This time, though, he didn't panic, but reacted with a risky strategy, and using what he knew from his love of military history, without thinking, he pulled into a very radical maneuver he'd never tried, hoping that it worked.

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"What the hell was that?" Tommy, one third of the Stratosphere Siblings, asked as he gawked at Darby's maneuver.

His twin brother Nathan was gawking as well. "I don't know." He shook his head. "He's using our design, right?"

"Yeah." Tommy was still staring at the monitor in disbelief.

"Our rig can't do that!"

Their sister Theresa, the third of the group, sighed, shaking her head in exasperation. "If you two idiots would just listen to me for a change!" She drew a breath to calm her nerves; her brothers could be so oblivious at times! "He undoubtedly made some major modifications," she explained, "since he hasn't blown up. And he probably uses his brain to solve a problem instead of trying to brute-force his way through it, unlike two people I know!"

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"Do I miss much?" a girl asked in accented, imperfect English, as she carefully side-stepped past a few other seats in the stands and slipped into one next to the boy she was addressing. She was no ordinary girl; her stature, facial features, and accent spoke of her eastern Asian origin, but unlike most from Japan, she looked like a stereotypical anime cat-girl. The girl wrapped her hands around one of the boy's arms; on his other side, another girl was similarly clinging to him.

"Mais oui, Miki," the other girl said. "Some fliers were very exciting, were they not, Danny?" she turned slightly to address the last part to the boy both girls were holding.

Danny smiled. "This is fun to watch," he agreed. Like Miki, Danny had some feline characteristics, and he had a svelte, athletic build, unlike most of the other male students who were larger and more muscular. He was slowly learning to not mind, because there were more than a few girls who found him attractive.

"Who is flier?" Miki asked.

Danny looked at the boy who'd emerged from the locker room and was walking toward the launch tower. "Martina calls him 'Buzzard Boy'," he replied. "They say he's graceful at soaring, but nothing else." He grinned. "I hope so. I bet that Martina's teammate Dosi would beat his time."

"Per'aps we can watch replays in one of the TV rooms in our cottage," Amelie Vitesse, the other girl, suggested. "'Opefully it will be replayed. And a TV room won't be too crowded."

"After dinner, of course," Danny chuckled. "Japanese tonight?"

"I thought it was pizza night," Miki protested lightly.

"Takeout pizza in the TV room?" Amelie suggested. "The other girls might try to eat our pizza, 'owever."

"And if other girls are there," Danny chuckled, "we don't take up too much room, do we?"

"You are such a coquin!" Amelie giggled.

"Ahem," someone behind the little trio cleared her throat.

With a sinking feeling, Danny turned to see who was behind them. Somehow, he wasn't surprised to see Amelie's older sister Adalie, sitting with her friends Pejuta and Headrush. Adalie was glaring menacingly at him. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach.

Amelie, too, turned, and unlike Danny, she wasn't intimidate. Staring defiantly at her older sister, she clasped both sides of the boy's head, turning him toward her, and she gave him a long, sensuous kiss, all the while she looked defiantly through the corner of her eye.

No sooner had Amelie finished kissing him that Miki decided to do the same thing. Her kiss was a little longer than Amelie's, not that Danny was complaining about either girl's attention.

"Y'all are gonna miss the next flier," Headrush said in her thick southern accent. "The flight is about to start." Beside her, Adalie was fuming at the public displays of affection between her little sister and Danny.

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Benny - Buzzard Boy - hesitated a moment when the start buzzer sounded. Unlike his teammates, he was genuinely terrified of launching from the tower. With manifested wings, getting airborne was a challenge for him. Using every foot of the platform, he ran toward the edge, spreading his wings at the last moment and throwing himself over the edge. As soon as he knew he was in a stable position, he began to frantically flap his wings, clawing for lift.

He was still flapping and climbing when he ran out of straightaway, and he had to turn into the maneuvering obstacles, where he had to move cautiously and deliberately, and though his turns were graceful, they weren't fast. He'd crashed too many times in practice to push his luck too much in the corners. He made up time in the straights, but lost a lot of time in the maneuvering sections. The tighter the maneuvering, the worse he performed. The next-to-the-last section, with a stretch of slalom poles, was murder on his time. Unsurprisingly, he was by far the slowest of the Volante team.

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Despite having been repeatedly assured by Martina, Todd knew he had to have a flawless and fast run. The team was depending on him; he couldn't let them down. And he wanted to impress Kiera. And Christine. Flying down the back stretch, he momentarily visualized getting congratulatory hugs from the two girls fighting over him. He pushed away those very pleasant thoughts to focus on the race. Distractions were his enemy, he reminded himself over and over. Of course, Kiera was a worthwhile distraction. But so was Christine.

He shook off those thoughts just as he entered the city-scape, which was fortunate, because he missed a 'building' on one turn by mere inches. Had he been distracted, he wouldn't have been so fortunate. Left, right, up, right, left, down, zig-zag, dive, pull up - the only thing keeping him from losing his way were the translucent arrows project to show him the course.

Damn, this was a tough course, he thought to himself as he emerged from the city into another straight. He pushed with his PK field as hard as he could, and he quickly accelerated.

The two girls were very close in looks, but Christine had a slight edge in her figure. Of course, they were teens, and it was likely Kiera would develop more. But so would Christine. And it was a tossup - Kiera's green eyes versus Christine's baby blue eyes.

He caught himself in time to brake into the trees. Damn, but this made him think of Star Wars and Endor. Was that what Gunny and Ito had on their minds when they made this set? - Left - Right - Right again! - Or did Ayla help? Of course, from what little he knew of Ayla - Hard left! - Ayla seemed a little too - chicane left then right - stuffed shirt, too businesslike. But some of the others might pull some weird stuff - Left full U-turn, Hard right, hard right again! - like maybe put Imperial AT-STs or - Left and under huge branch - freakin' Ewoks - hard right over ginormous boulder! - and maybe even have the Ewoks - left again! - throwing stuff at him! - Soft right, and he was out of the forest maze! Now a straightaway, which reminded him of the cornfields of eastern South Dakota. He wondered if Kiera or Christine would like that kind of landscape. Or maybe they'd prefer the Black Hills. Holland didn't have mountains like the Hills; Christine might not like that.

Slalom? He saw the row of poles, and remembered training. Left side of the red ones, right side of the blue ones. Damn, this was tougher than training! He was sweating from the exertion of slamming his PK field left, then right, and back left, over and over! And - he was out of that stretch, final turn, and push as hard as he could for the finish line, a translucent marker in the middle of the straightaway!

And he crossed the line. Immediately, he looked left and up, toward the center of the arena, as he let himself to the ground. It seemed like it was taking forever to get the scores - but ....

And he was second fastest, edging Martina for the silver by less than a tenth of a second. But the Italian Nuisance had beat both of them by almost three seconds. He looked left of the individual standings, and ... they won the team total by seven seconds!

He starting grinning, thinking of the celebratory hugs from Kiera. Or Christine. Or both. Maybe he should go with whichever girl congratulated him more. But then the other might be better ....

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Memo's laptop compared the scores. She smiled to herself; no one had won the trifecta, and she had to pay out only one exacta. Several bets for competitors 'in the money', but overall, those bets were winners. She'd lost on a few of the head-to-heads; a big surprise was the inexperienced warper, Theodosia, beating the manifestor from Volante's team, the one they called Buzzard Boy. She'd calculated her odds for that one backwards. And the devisors - she'd counted on Darby crashing and burning, since his rig was a modification of those flying maniacs, the Stratosphere Siblings. So when he beat the Volante team's devisor, she lost quite a bit on that. Overall, though, the first part of these games was a net plus for her!

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The launch tower was centered on the front straight, and translucent poles marked the inside of the oval track around the inside of the arena. Each lap was five hundred meters, with each contestant taking two laps on their leg of the relay. Each team had four fliers, and the rules lawyers had decreed at least one devisor and one magic user in each relay team. Since Dosi was the slowest on Martina's team, she insisted on sitting out this race, and it was a group consensus.

Team Volante, on the other hand, was ruled by the Italian, and she dictated the order of fliers. Having flubbed the obstacle course, Buzzard Boy wanted to save face by performing well in the relay, pointing out how well he'd done in simple laps in practice, but Volante dictated that he would sit out the relay race. Martina's team agreed that, judging by the look on his face, the Italian Pain had squandered quite a bit of good will with him, and possibly with others on her team.

After checking his battery pack, Darby climbed up to the top of the starting platform. Suzanna Roscoe was lead-off for the Volante team.

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In the bookies area, Booker mentally crunched the numbers, taking into account the fliers' performances in the obstacle race, and the order of racers that had just been posted. After trying to figure a way to make more betting options, he quickly decided to not try to out-clever himself. He'd take bets on simple team times at the hand-offs and the end; it was a lot easier to figure odds than other fancy combinations. He mentally calculated what each leg of the relay should do, stacked up split times, and calculated handicaps. As soon as he hit the button, his odds were posted, and moments thereafter, bets started pouring in. He smiled - the computer links made the whole wagering process so much easier for him.

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As soon as Darby and Suzanna left the launch platform, it was lowered so the racers would have a clean straightaway for their legs of the relay. With the broader turns of the relay race, Darby didn't think he'd have to get cute on the corners; so he just applied power and charged into the turn. To his dismay, he found that he had to ease up on power on the first turn, though, so he went back to a mild version of the tactic he'd used in the obstacle race, which managed his energy far better and he didn't need to slow or brake.

By the end of the first leg, he'd built a decent lead, and as he rounded the final corner, he prepared for the tricky hand-off. Once more, the rules-makers had deemed it necessary that the baton pass be completed within a specific 'zone', which was marked out with the by-now-familiar translucent holograms. When he reached a pre-determined point approaching the hand-off tower, he yelled "Go!" to Elle, and she accelerated from the tower.

Practice had paid off; Darby pulled even with her about two thirds of the way through the hand-off zone, and he slapped the baton into the hand she had stretched out behind herself, all the while she was facing and accelerating in the direction of her lap. Her fingers clenched around the baton, Darby released it, and she flew out of the hand-off zone.

Having led, Darby and Elle had the inside position on the tower, so as soon as Elle had the baton, he cut back sharply on his power and circled downward to the 'infield' of the course. Moments later, Suzanna likewise circled to the infield, having completed a somewhat sloppy baton pass to Team Volante's devisor, Eamon Fitzpatrick.

The white-haired Sidhe girl was quick, but Eamon was a tiny bit faster. Despite that, a few deft moves by Elle had resulted in the boy not being able to pass her because he wasn't quite fast enough, and he wasn't quite maneuverable enough, to get by. Martina, next on the launch platform, smiled. After consulting with the 'rules makers', she had made the team watch some clips of NASCAR races, much to Darby's dismay, and had highlighted how small, strategic maneuvers could block an attempt to pass.

Elle approached Martina on the inside of the hand-off tower for the hand-off. A bit anxious, Martina jumped the gun a bit, and had to slow slightly to get the baton before she left the hand-off zone. Chiding herself, she pushed herself as hard as she could. Like Darby, she found herself having to ease up on the first corner, so as she approached the next corner, she decided to do what Darby had done. In turn two, she realized that she'd pulled up a little too much going into the 'Darby maneuver', so she corrected. In turn three, she under did the maneuver, and she had to ease up again as she swung wide in the turn. Turn four was much better, and after 'giving it the beans' as Darby always said, she approached turn one again. This time, she had the maneuver almost perfect. Widening the gap between herself and Neal, she zipped into the back straight, then turn three, and finally to turn four. She knew she had to give Todd as much lead as possible; while he was the quickest flier of the team, the Italian Bitch was much faster. Todd's only hope of beating her was to have an insurmountable lead. Their pass was almost picture perfect, and Todd raced for the first turn.

Unlike Martina, Todd could apply a lot more force with his PK field, which meant he could apply more turning force, so he didn't need to do the maneuver that had helped Martina and Darby. Instead, he subjected his body to punishing G-forces in the corners. Every turn, he gained a little more lead over the Italian, but every straight, she narrowed his lead quite a bit.

Despite some blocking attempts, Volante passed him coming into turn four of the last lap, and despite Todd pressing the corner as fast as he dared, cornering on the edge of blackout-level forces, he couldn't catch her. She crossed the finish line almost three body-lengths ahead of Todd.

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Dr. Filbert Quintain stepped into the tunnel from the arena seating area; he needed to deal with earlier cups of coffee, and then get a fresh cup if any students were running concessions, and it was almost a certainty that they were. He noticed a group of students clustering on one side of the tunnel, and being curious, he walked toward them. As soon as he overheard the discussions, he knew what the students were doing. "Ahem," he cleared his throat to get their attention. Surprised, the students turned toward the noise.

"You students do realize that gambling is against school rules," he began. "Even if it were permissible, I doubt any of you, especially freshmen, have enough experience with the math required to properly estimate the odds of any wagers you would make."

"Um, yes, sir," a couple of the students answered nervously.

"Move along, then," Quintain directed.

As the students drifted away from the unhappy bookie, Memo saw an opportunity. She did a little preparation, then stepped over to Dr. Quintain. "Your winnings, sir," she said, struggling to not smirk.

"Thank you," Quintain said, his voice devoid of any emotion, as he took the envelope, slipped it into an inside jacket pocket, and turned and walked away, leaving behind a small gaggle of students gawking at him in disbelief.

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"How's your battery?" Cavalier, coaching the UNTeam, asked Darby. He'd pushed his flying rig hard in the obstacle course, and again in his leg of the relay race, and they still had three fifteen minute periods of 'the game' to play.

Darby checked a couple of meters on his flying rig, placed where he could see them in-flight if necessary. "Probably twenty-five minutes left, not counting reserve."

Cav glance at his girlfriend, who was, as usual, at his side. She shrugged. "Rajendra is a lot more maneuverable, so that might be handy in the final period. So you play the first period or two, and then we'll substitute?" He looked to Martina to see if she had any objections.

"Don't look at me," Martina chuckled. "It's hard to watch everyone else when you're busy playing, so you've got a better idea of who can do what."

"Besides," Todd chimed in, "that's why we asked you to be coach."

Dosi looked at Cav's girlfriend, Skybolt. "Unless we can talk you into suiting up and playing?" Skybolt goggled at the suggestion and vigorously shook her head 'no'.

Elle chuckled. "I've seen how you look at us playing. I can tell you're anxious to get out there and fly."

Sky started to deny it, but she gave in and nodded. "It does look like fun. But ... I haven't practiced with you as a team. Besides, I have no ... how do you say," she looked at Todd, "I have no pet in this dispute?"

Todd chuckled. "No dog in the fight," he corrected Sky. "I've heard several people say that it looks like fun and they'd like to play to play, too."

Cav glanced at Elle. "How are you for endurance?"

"Good. I can get twenty-five minutes on a spell," Elle replied, "and I have enough to do four or five more spells if needed."

Dosi, Todd, and Martina could all fly as long as they had enough physical energy; the first races had been quite taxing. They were all gulping down energy drinks to help their energy levels and stamina.

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Martina and Todd strode to the center of the 'field', which was simply the smoothed rock of the cavern. There was no need for grass or astroturf, or lined markings; the players would likely never touch the ground. Hank and Robert Shih, also known as Firecat and one of the security auxiliaries, waited in the middle of the arena, both wearing red and yellow striped shirts. Hank looked a little disgusted by the outfit, despite having been assured by Mrs. Ryan that the color combination was best for them to be visible to all the players. Hank thought she was pulling a fast one on him, perhaps as payback for some of what his teammates had put her through the previous year.

The Italian girl strode haughtily to the center of the field, with Neal Mills trailing her like an obedient puppy. Introductions were unnecessary; Hank and Firecat did a quick reminder of expected conduct, fouls, scoring, and penalties. Firecat added that if they wanted to fight, they should book separate time for a combat match, but this was a game with agreed-to rules and conduct. The refs were going to ensure it was a clean game.

The 'field' was divided in two by a faint translucent pane, indicating each side's defensive zone. The only role that played was in separating the teams whenever there was a 'jump ball' to start or resume play. A thin cylinder rose vertically through the center of the field - on a 'jump ball', one player from each side would start on their end of the field, outside the cylinder.

At a referee's whistle to start the game, the ball, which had been resting on the floor, shot into the air in the middle of the cylinder; it was programmed to abruptly stop halfway between floor and ceiling. At the same time, the whistle allowed a member from each team to race into the cylinder to try to take possession of the ball.

Martina had read the rules. There was nothing that said she had to wait for the ball to hit the mid-point, so she dove under the Italian, intercepting the ball as it was still rising, and batting it back to her side, where Dosi caught it. Immediately, the UNTeam went on the offensive, with the ball being neatly passed among the players as they wove through the defenders toward the goal.

Suzanna managed to deflect a pass, causing the pass to go wide, and Eamon scooted up to take the ball. The devisor caught it in his net, and then he had to flip the ball, which he tried to pass to Volante, but he muffed the pass, and Martina intercepted the ball. Just as she flipped the ball to Dosi, the Italian girl gave her a significant body-check.

Immediately, Firecat called a foul. A vertical plane appeared about halfway between the center-line and the Volante team's goal; Martina had to shoot from anywhere outside that plane. She had an advantage over some, such as Buzzard Boy who had to keep moving, because she could stop and hover. Meanwhile, everyone else, from both teams, had to be behind the center-court plane.

Martina's shot missed by a few inches.

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"Hey, Patty!" Montana, a Twain boy with significant GSD, called out. His voice was deep enough and loud enough that it was impossible for her to not have heard, since people forty yards away had heard his booming call.

Patricia 'Yellow Queen' Horton was sitting with her friends, Kelly and Ginger, and her little sister Chelsea; deciding that if she ignored Montana, he'd make a bigger scene, which would draw more attention to herself and her little coterie. "What?" she asked in a thoroughly annoyed tone.

"You're supposed to be cheerleaders, right?" Montana called.

"And?"

"This is a game! Do your cheering stuff!" Montana taunted. A lot of Montana's friends around him joined his call for them to cheer, mostly because they liked the short skirts of Patricia's cheering 'uniform'.

Patricia glanced at her friends, then looked back at Montana, rolling her eyes, a disdainful expression plain to see. "They're freshies," she said in a tone that practically shouted, 'the answer is obvious, you moron!'

Montana didn't get the hint, or he was enjoying taunting the Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleaders. "So?"

"Cheering for freshies is soooo beneath us!" Patricia replied, then haughtily turned back to the game.

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After a lot of back-and-forth, with several shots from both teams failing to score, Team Volante got the ball and started another drive toward the UNTeam's goal. Suzanna caught a pass, and flipped it ahead of Buzzard Boy, who was in a good position to take a shot.

Todd zoom-climbed directly in front of Buzzard Boy, which startled him, causing him to miss catching a pass since he had to quickly maneuver and flap his manifested wings to avoid crashing. Coming in behind him, Dosi slapped the ball toward Elle, who caught it, flipped it deftly out of her net, and batted it toward Martina. She, in turn, looked downfield and saw Darby crossing the mid-field plane, so she flipped the ball his way, then darted toward their opponent's goal.

With Martina, Elle, and Darby flying, maneuvering, and passing, they confused Eamon and Neal, who'd managed to fall back to defend their goal, but the three had practiced, and the fast-break was almost picture-perfect, easily outflanking the would-be defenders. Martina made a pass to Elle, who administered the coup-de-grace by slapping it into the goal.

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It wasn't unusual to see a girl sitting in the stands watching the game. It was unusual, though, even by Whateley standards, that the girl had a small 'fairy' sitting on her shoulder. Mary was excitedly watching the game, cheering for the action more than for either team, but on her shoulder, Teri sat, elbows on her knees and cheeks on her elbows, sulking.

Mary leapt to her feet, cheering wildly as Martina's team completed the play with a goal, and surprisingly to many, Teri stayed on her shoulder as if glued to her. "That was great, wasn't it?" Mary asked enthusiastically as she sat back down.

"No," Teri grumbled.

"It's fun!" Mary countered. "Why aren't you more excited?"

Teri looked at her friend. "They wouldn't let me play! Even on the practice team! Even though I'm an awesome flier! And I'm strong enough to handle the stick. Paddle. Whatever they call it!"

Mary shook her head, smiling sadly at the tiny girl. "I know you're good enough, and strong enough. Everyone knows. But ... you have to admit that you got a little bit out of control."

"I did not get out of control!" Teri protested with a deep scowl. "Just 'caused the others didn't enjoy flying and playing as much as I did!"

As Teri continued to sulk, the whistle for the end of the period sounded.

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Less than a minute into the second period, Darby positioned himself to catch a pass from Dosi, but just before the ball got to his net, Neal, moving to intercept, body-checked Darby hard enough to send him into the wall. Hard. There was a sharp 'pfzzzzt' sound from the boy's rig as he fell to the ground, saved only by the safety force field, but he still hit hard enough that when he sat up, one arm was held tightly against his side and he was grimacing in pain. Immediately, one of the refs, Hank, called an injury timeout, while the other flagged Neal for a foul.

Cav and Skybolt ran to Darby from the sidelines, while Martina swooped down beside the boy. From off the field, a medical team scrambled through a 'door' in the force-field.

Meanwhile, Rajendra came off the sidelines to substitute for Darby, while the refs huddled to discuss the situation. With the body-check foul, Darby should have had a penalty shot at the goal, but it was obvious that he was in no shape to continue playing. They finally decided that the substitute for Darby should take the shot.

Rajendra had a tougher time with the penalty shot because unlike Todd and Martina, he had to keep moving to fly. The ball was set at the penalty line, Rajendra flew very deliberately to it, and he turned his body at the last minute just enough to slap the ball.

It went in the goal.

As he flew back to his team so they could do another 'jump ball' to continue play, Rajendra grinned. "Who knew that being forced to play cricket would actually pay off?"

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The teams rested between the second and third period, sitting at opposite ends of the 'field'. Nearly everyone on Martina's team was guzzling energy drinks in an effort to stave off fatigue and keep their powers 'fed'. Volante's team was doing the same, and while the UNTeam was discussing game-play and strategy with their coach, it looked like the Italian girl's team was doing little more than griping and blaming one another for bad passes, failed shots, and allowed goals.

Midfield, Hank and Firecat sat by the sidelines, resting and discussing the game-play so far. They were both concerned that the Italian girl's team was really pushing the limits on fouls, playing as dirty and violently as they thought they could get away with. The two agreed that they needed to clamp down on calling fouls. So far, it hadn't mattered. The UNTeam was doing well at penalty shots, and they had a significant lead. But it was still dirty play, and they were going to end up hurting another player, like they had hurt Darby.

Beneath the bench that they were resting on, Teri sneaked toward the ball, a huge grin plastered on her face.

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At the whistle starting the final period, the ball leaped to the center. Volante had learned from the first 'jump ball', and she dove to intercept the rising ball, but Todd was doing the same. Volante won the race to the ball, deftly flipping it back to a team member, and then pulling up sharply into Todd's path, so that he collided with her. When there was no whistle for a foul, she turned toward the nearest referee, playing the victim.

Hank watched the whole thing, and he shook his head. "You caused it. No foul," he chided her.

Exasperated, she turned back to the action.

As Eamon swung at the ball, at the last moment, the ball 'jumped' out of the way of his stick.

Neither Elle nor Buzzard Boy saw the ball change directions on its own; they just saw it coming between them, and both charged to take control. This time, the ball moved sharply to one side, and with both watching it move suddenly, they collided heavily.

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Mary turned to see what Teri thought about the odd movements of the ball, but to her surprise, the wee fairy girl wasn't in sight. Mary goggled, then looked back at the playing field, just in time to see the ball make a sudden climb and then do a loop.

"She wouldn't!" Mary mouthed to herself in disbelief. As she continued to watch, the ball made a sudden stop and then flew to the side.

"She would!" Mary said with a sinking feeling.

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The ball was a marvel of technology; inside was a battery, a series of anti-grav units to allow controlled motion and hovering no matter its orientation, a processor to control the ball, a PK sensor, and a magic detecting crystal with a special sensor to turn the crystal's output into the ball's flashers. The whole thing was covered with shock-absorbing padding, but naturally, there was an access panel so the ball could be maintained, recharged, and repaired as necessary.

Despite the amount of gear crammed in it, the ball had been made larger to increase its drag, which allowed just enough room for Teri to squeeze in. She peered out of the partially-open access panel that she was holding in place, giggling at the confusion and chaos she was causing. She was thinking that this might be even more fun than playing!

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Neal charged at the erratically moving ball, and he managed to snag it in the net end of his stick. He grinned triumphantly; maybe the other buffoons were making a hash of simply snagging the ball, but he was showing them how to play the game! He flipped the ball out of the net and batted it smartly toward Eamon.

The shock of the hit made Teri lose her grip on the access panel, and it tore free of the ball. Trying to get her bearings, she stuck her head out of the hole, just in time to be snagged in Eamon's net. Once more, the ball was flipped out of the net end, and again she was jostled sharply when Eamon smacked it back to his teammate Neal.

Totally disorientated by the smacks and tumbling, Teri struggled to climb out of the cramped interior, but hampered by the netting, escape was proving very difficult. Knowing that she had to get away from the players, she took off, flying wildly.

Unfortunately for her, and more unfortunately for Neal, the sticks had wrist straps so they wouldn't be lost, and the strapping material was very strong. Teri's erratic, wild flight, therefore, dragged the hapless boy behind her, bouncing him off a wall, then he was pulled in tight circles, loops, and corkscrew maneuvers as the little fairy flew wildly to avoid being smacked around even more.

It was a fluke of chance that the little fairy girl's flight carried her straight into the goal at the UNTeam end of the field, towing the by-now-terrified boy along for the ride.

If Teri had passed straight through the goal, there would have been no further problems, but she passed through at an extreme angle, with the result that there was no way Neal was going to fit through the hole.

With the sudden stop of boy and stick, the netting had finally suffered enough, and it tore under the abuse, freeing the ball and Teri.

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Around Mary, the crowd was roaring with laughter at the sudden comedic turn the game had taken, and when Neal was left stuck in the goal, some people ended up with sore ribs from laughing so hard. Mary could only face-palm. Teri was going to be in soooo much trouble. Again.

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As the referees discussed the strange event, Elle flew over beside Martina. "Does that count as a goal against us?"

Martina wiped tears from her eyes because she was laughing so hard. "Who cares!" she replied through laughter. "That was FUNNY!"

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In the stands, Team Kimba was as caught up in the hilarity of the situation as any of the other students. In particular, Jade was jumping up and down excitedly, and she giggled maniacally as the tiny fairy girl still a bit dazed, flew out of the ball.

Fey, Toni, and Ayla suddenly realized how Jade was reacting. "No!" they all barked nearly simultaneously.

"You are NOT going to put part of the J-team into the ball!" Ayla commanded. Jade reacted in her usual manner - she turned on her +10 Big Sad Puppy-Dog Eyes.

Ayla quickly looked away to avoid her plaintive look, while Nikki shook her head. "No, Jade! No! You're NOT going to do that!" she ordered sternly.

Jade sat down heavily, pouting.

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When the game resumed, using a spare ball because Teri's thrashing around as she tried to escape the cramped ball had damaged some of the circuitry, Neal sat out, still dazed from his 'goal'.

After the refs decided to restart the period due to outside interference, the UNTeam scored three more fast-breaks, which it seemed Team Volante was helpless to counter, and even worse at trying to replicate the tactic. The net result was that their frustration grew, fouls increased, and UNTeam's lead grew. When the final buzzer sounded, UNTeam had won by a respectable twelve points.

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On the floor of the arena, the teams passed in parallel lines, shaking hands, as was tradition in many sports contests. When the Italian Bitch came to Martina, she flinched and withdrew her hand, scowling at her foe.

Martina had been willing to end the 'feud' in the game. Apparently, her nemesis wasn't. Still, she wasn't going to be petty or arrogant. "Good game." Volante just snarled at her.

Ito, Gunny, and Mrs. Carson came onto the arena floor, and after congratulating both teams, they lined up the contestants.

"Okay," Gunny announced, "you've had a chance to get your frustrations out. That's it. End of harassment. Understand?"

Martina and her team nodded. The instructors turned to Team Volante, and they all turned on their 'intimidating adult' looks. "Okay," the Italian finally said. "Even though she's a villain, like her mother!" she added under her breath. She turned and stomped off angrily, and after exchanging puzzled glances among themselves, her team followed her out of the arena.

The members of UNTeam left the field to talk with the excited fans, who were eagerly congratulating them on their win. Watching them, Mrs. Carson shook her head. "I have a bad feeling that the lesson didn't sink in, and that we haven't seen the last of the harassment."

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - After Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

The UNTeam sat in the waning afternoon sun, laughing and joking and enjoying some premium desserts to celebrate their victory - provided by some anonymous donor, though Martina suspected who the donor was. Lots of students came by to congratulate them on their win or to simply thank them for providing an afternoon of entertainment. Many of the non-fliers seemed quite envious of their ability to participate in such a set of exciting, fast-paced games, while many fliers asked if they could challenge the UNTeam to a game. None of the UNTeam was excited about the thought of playing another set of games; they were simply too exhausted, though they were still on the post-game victory adrenaline high. Except Darby; he was happy because of the pain killers he'd been given for the shoulder that Neal had caused him to dislocate.

When someone thoughtlessly clapped Darby on the shoulder in congratulations, he flinched in pain, which drew apologies. Martina looked more than a bit worried. "Are you sure you're okay being here?" she asked.

Darby tried to shrug off her concerns, at least one shoulder did. The other stopped and another grimace crossed his features. "Yeah," he said slowly. "They did a healing spell, but they said it'd be best if the last bit of my body repairing itself was natural. So I've still got a bit of pain."

"A bit?" Dosi asked, wide-eyed. She'd seen his reactions.

"Well, the nose," Darby said with a smile. "And the hat. But she's still a witch!"

"Obviously, your sense of humor was undamaged," Kiera chuckled. Then she cocked an eyebrow. "Say, what did you say to Neal that pissed him off so much?" No-one had heard the comment which Darby had said to the boy who caused the accident, only that Neal had become enraged to the point that the referees were both threatening to eject him if he didn't calm down.

Darby chuckled. "A few things," he replied. "I told him I didn't know he fancied me that much!"

His teammates erupted with laughter, and many students who were gathered around for dessert and to enjoy 'inside stories' of the games and the team, also chuckled at the put-down.

"Then I suggested he should thank me for protecting him from the wall," Darby added. "And that since he hadn't, perhaps his mum had been too busy with her 'second job' to teach him manners."

It took a few seconds for the meaning of Darby's verbal jab to register, but then Martina and Todd, and indeed most of the team and many of the gathered crowd who were in earshot, were in tears laughing at Darby's put-downs. They knew he had a razor-sharp wit, even if most Americans didn't always recognize the subtlety of dry British humor.

As the students slowly dispersed, returning to their cottages for studying or social activities, a girl hesitantly approached the UNTeam's table. "Excuse me," she said to Darby during a lull in the conversation.

"Yes?" Darby replied, looking at her.

"Um, I'm Suzanne. I watched the game, and in the first part, the obstacle course, you did something strange in the corners," Suzanne - Hexette - asked.

Todd nodded, turning to his teammate. "Yeah," he agreed. "I was meaning to ask you about that. What the hell was that?"

Darby shrugged again, and again winced at the burst of pain in his shoulder. "It's called a hi yo-yo. It's a common tactic for fighter pilots."

"Fighter pilot tactic ...," Jori said cautiously. "How did you come up with that? Where did you learn it?"

"Oh, great grandad flew Spits in the big war, against the Jerries. When I was young, he used to regale my brother and me with tales about all his combat experiences." He grinned. "And some of his non-flight adventures, if you know what I mean," he added, waggling his eyebrows. "Anyway, that's what got me interested in military history, and when he told the stories, I spent hours trying to imagine and visualize all of the maneuvers. Later, I read and studied all of them."

"Fighter pilot maneuvers?" Martina gawked. "What's special about that one? And how did you ever come up with using it?"

"It's a simple maneuver to tighten a turn while managing your energy," Darby replied. "You pitch up, gravity slows you down, which lets you tighten your turn radius, and when you pitch back down, you regain the speed you lost. As to why," he winced, "I goofed and came into a corner much too fast. I didn't really think. It just ... was the thing to do. As the flying was so competitive, I kept picturing my great grandad and the maneuvers he did."

"Well, it worked!" Todd exclaimed. "I tried it in a couple of corners."

The clustered students on one side of the table parted as Mr. Paulson approached. "Looks like you all had fun," he said jovially.

"It was a lot of fun," the fliers in the group agreed.

"And good flight practice, too?" the teacher continued. "Do you guys mind if I use some of that in my flight class?"

Martina exchanged glances with her teammates. "Um, sure, but ... Gunny and Ito programmed the sims, so it's not really ours to say," she said meekly.

"And the game?" Paulson continued. "I heard how much thought and work you guys put into coming up with that." He smiled. "Since that ended, I've had a lot of upperclassmen ask me why I never taught that when they were taking my class. I think there's a lot more interest than you may realize."

"So?" Todd asked. "We had our challenge match. That's all we were in it for."

Firecat was in the group around the table. "You might want to rethink that. I know a few groups what would like to challenge you to a match."

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Friday, September 21, 2007 - Before Dinner
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Once again, Martina and her team found themselves in the conference room in the administrative wing. This time, though, Team Volante wasn't present. Instead, Langley Paulson and several students were.

Mrs. Carson didn't waste time; as soon as she got to the head of the table, she looked over Martina's team. "You caused quite a stir with those aerial games," she said bluntly. "The faculty has informed me that there are many students inquiring about how they can get on teams to play the aerial games."

Gunny nodded. "My sim team has been fending off requests all day." He didn't sound thrilled.

"I have a feeling you're going to tell us why this concerns us?" Martina asked mildly.

"Very good," Mrs. Carson said with a smile. "Ms. Hartford told me not to underestimate you, because your mom is a very smart cookie and you're cut from the same cloth."

"And?"

"And I can't have my staff spending all their time setting up and managing non-curricular games," Mrs. Carson replied.

Martina frowned and glanced at her team, then looked back at Mrs. Carson. "And ... that involves us how?"

Mrs. Carson smiled at Gunny and Paulson. "I want you to set up a ... a club. A flying game club. So the club can manage setting up matches, designing courses, arranging arena time, arranging referees, and so on. I want you do take that load from my simulator crew."

Langley Paulson nodded. "You'll get extra credit in flight class."

Martina goggled at Mrs. Carson, her jaw hanging open. "Us?" she finally stammered. "But ... there are others ... upperclassmen ...." She shook her head. "Why us?"

"Because you and your team blazed the trail," Gunny piped up. "Everyone knows that your team organized this."

"But all we wanted was to get that Italian snot-nosed brat to leave us alone!" Martina protested. Her team enthusiastically agreed with her characterization of the match.

"Sometimes," Ito said thoughtfully, "we get swept up in events bigger than us. For the good of all around us, we have to swim with the current."

"Is that some Confucian stuff?" Darby asked with a frown.

"No, but he probably said something similar."

"Of course," Mrs. Carson continued, "if you don't want to help establish a club, we can always ask the other team. I'm sure they have just as good ideas about how such a club would run."

Martina's jaw dropped again. After gawking at the Headmistress for a few seconds, she closed her eyes, shut her jaw, and shook her head slowly. "She warned me to watch out for these kinds of traps," she muttered softly to herself.

"I presume that means you will accept the task?" Ito asked with a wicked grin.

A few minutes later, the group walked out of Schuster, wide-eyed in disbelief at what had transpired. They halted on the quad, looking a bit dazed, all at a loss for exactly what to say.

Todd said it best.

"Guys, I think we just got railroaded."

 

FIN

Read 3894 times Last modified on Tuesday, 08 February 2022 00:57

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brudin
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brudin
6 months ago
You dont say when the heros affront martina’s mother, is it somthing like 15 years ago or something like that ??
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Zebbedea
6 months ago
Totally loved this! Lots of time with your own crew of characters, but lots of 1st gen got some love as well. The descriptions of the obstacle race and game were spot on, so much so that I could visualise it easily.

Thanks so much for a great story and I am looking forward to more of Martina's adventures.
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Gumby
6 months ago
Why do I think that even getting expelled would not be a big enough slap up side the head for Christina? I love your description of the match, I wonder will the 3 parts appear in more places? I could see the "game" being used in the finals (Ito and Gunny grinning evilly).
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