Thursday, 10 May 2007 00:54

The Clue of the Unseen Switch

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a Literary Girls Adventure

by Bek D Corbin

Mrs. Savage poked her head in the door as she passed the ground floor library at Whitman cottage. The six girls huddled around the table working diligently at their laptops were some of the usual suspects, the ‘Whitman Annex’ of the Literary Girls clique. They were probably working hard at one of their self-imposed ‘deadlines’ for the stories they wrote for each other. But at least they weren’t hogging the library for one of their silly Role Playing Games. 

As Mrs. Savage went down the hall, a blurry form followed her until she headed up the stairs. Once she was well up the stairs, the misty form whisked back down the hall and into the library. It flew inside and pooled itself into the lap of one of the girls around the table, solidifying into the form of a yearling Silver Fox. The black-haired girl with the white blaze looked at the fox and asked, “She’s gone?”

The foxling gave a yip. “Okay, but go back and keep lookout. It’d be just like her to double back, just in case.” The fox gave an impertinent sniff, but went back to stalking after the Whitman House Mother, which was more fun than watching them natter at each other, anyway.

Rebecca ‘Foxfire’ Corbin giggled. “Okay, where were we?” She touched an ultra button on her laptop, and the mat on the table between them went from a blank checked surface to a geological relief map. Floating above the relief map were five images of anime-style ‘magical girls’ riding giant hawks (well, except for the one riding a giant owl). They were facing off against thirteen darkling figures, including a rather overblown female figure. “Oh, right- Babs, you were having Eijiko deal with one of the Crab-Raven Monsters.”

Barbara Anne ‘Babs’ Younkle, a.k.a. Compiler, picked up a handful of dice. As she shook them, she yelled ‘LOVELY ANGELFIRE ROSE OF DIVINE JUSTICE!”

Simone ‘Arachne’ Bender shushed her. “Not so loud!”

As Babs threw her dice, Elaine ‘Doc’ Nalley, a.k.a. Loophole, was looking furiously through the Combat Rules section. “Hah! I knew it!” She waited for the ‘Lovely Angelfire of Divine Justice’ display to finish its elaborate lightshow. “Okay, Ramajini summons up the ‘Apocalypse Whirlwind of Stygian Drowning’ and throws it at the Midnight Jade Bakemono Empress.”

Bekky slid her glasses down her nose and stared at Doc with her big sapphire blue eyes. “Are you SURE that you want to use darkness based magic on Oni Royalty?”

“Sure! It says in Section 16, subsection 8-” As Doc hammered away at an obscure interpretation of the combat rules, a large white wolf wearing what looked to be some sort of carrying rig walked in the door and propped its head up on the table.

Babs reached over and scratched the wolf behind the ears. Renae ‘Reverb’ Griest looked over, a pencil held between her nose and upper lip, and said, “You better shift, Stel. They don’t mind you visiting, but Mrs. Savage says that we have enough fur floating around here as is, we don’t need to import any.”

There was a blurring around the wolf as it first changed into a fur-covered humanoid with a wolf-like head, then into a tall, though obviously still growing young teenage girl with short white hair and eerie yellow eyes, wearing the Whateley school uniform. She leaned over and looked at the hologram icons. “Hmmm ... Is it just me, or does that image right there-” she pointed at the ‘Midnight Jade Bakemono Empress’ “- look just like that Poe girl, Fey?”

Heather ‘Selkie’ O’Malley hit a button on her laptop, and the ‘Bakemono Empress’ image toggled through several size increases, to the point where it stood a good three feet tall on the table, obscuring the other images. “Y’know, Stella’s right?”

Bekky folded her arms across her chest and sniffed indignantly. *humphf!* “Don’t be ridiculous! One overblown pointy-eared redhead bimbo looks the same as another.”

Margaret ‘Maggie’ Vincent, a.k.a. Lifeline, leaned her chin on her hand and smirked, “Oh, she’s just got her nose out of joint, ‘cause Nikki blows the rest of us out of the water in our Magic classes. Or is it that she’s at least a full C cup, and you’re still working on a B, Hon?”

Bekky humphf!-ed again and said, “It’s not that! There are enough Exemplars on campus that you just have to learn to live with that. It’s that … damn-” Bekky waved a hand, sending a wave of something over her, which appeared to turn her into a cruel parody of Nikki Reilly, “- ‘Oh, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful!’-” Bekky/’Fey’ struck a melodramatic pose, “-‘I never intended to become so mind-numbingly gorgeous! It’s- It’s- it’s not my fault!’-“ Bekky dropped the illusion. “-act of hers that gets up my nose. Besides, with my powers-“ Bekky waved her hand again, and suddenly she was the Teen Queen of every straight boy’s- and man’s- dreams, “-I could give her and all the other glamour pusses around here a run for their money.”

“And why don’t you?” Heather asked as she played for time, trying to figure out what to have her character, Mytaimo, do that wouldn’t get her creamed.

“Too dang much bother, and it would be like honey to all the ass-wipes on campus.” 

“Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that, Honey,” Simone smirked. She knew what Doc was up to, and knew it wouldn’t work. She also knew just how to pick up the ball Nalley was about to fumble. “In the meantime, I notice you haven’t dropped that illusion.”

Bekky shed the illusion with an irritated wave of her hand. “Oh, please! Do we HAVE to talk about Team Kimba? I mean, what are we, some sort of third echelon ‘background’ characters in some Team Kimba comic book? Well, I dunno about you, but _I_ wasn’t born just to stand around and go ‘ooh’ and be in peril while the ‘real’ heroes of the story go around having lives!”

“Oh yeah,” Renae sneered, “Your life is just jam-packed with action and adventure. That’s why you spend your afternoons writing stories.”

Bekky made an impolite noise. “Please! There’s a difference between having a life, and going around stirring up trouble!”

“And trouble is the very word for it!” a voice said, as if from out of nowhere.  A general ‘Oh, Lord’ went around the table.

From out of a shadow under the table, a gangly girl who seemed to be made of shadows and moonlight stepped into the room.

“You got dish, Shady?” Bekky asked her roommate.

Lillian ‘Shadowdancer’ Deschamps leaned forward, the avid look of really juicy gossip shining on her face. “Guess which martial arts madcap messed up major?”

“That would be Chaka, right?” Doc asked, “What did she do THIS time? Fight all the Tigers at once in the middle of the Quad?”

“Oh, she only WISHES that it was that simple! They got her under lock, and they’re gonna throw away the key!”

“Why?” Bekky asked, her eyes going narrow with suspicion.

“Well, it seems that she attacked Little Bee and put her in the hospital! Banged her up something fierce, poor thing!”

“Why?” Bekky asked again.

“Hold it,” Stella interrupted. “Who the hell is ‘Little Bee’?”

“Y’know the ‘Yellow Queen’?” Heather asked. “Y’know the ‘all-that’ blonde with the sonic-blaster laugh that’s always going around dressed as some kind of cheerleader?”

Bekky broke in, “WHY do they ALLOW her to DO that? We don’t even HAVE a football team!”

“I know that it’s asking a lot of you, Bekky, but can we stay on track here for a change?” Doc asked with asperity. “So, silk-breath, you were saying?”

“ ‘Little Bee’ is YQ’s little sister,” Babs said instead. “A regular ‘Mini-Me’ for her big sister. She’s a gadgeteer.” Babs poked at her laptop. “And not exactly what you’d call one of the brighter lights.”

“You know her, Babs?” Heather asked.

“Sorta. I see her around the Workshop, you know how it is ...”

“Well, you’re not gonna see her around for a while!” Lily exulted. “If she wasn't an Exemplar, she’d be in a body bag!”

“And they nailed Chaka for this?” Doc asked.

“Yep! She says that Bee jumped her, and that she barely managed to stay alive.”

“What?” Babs asked incredulously, “That doesn’t make any sense! YQ isn’t in Chaka’s league, let alone Little Bee.”

“Well, the fact that Little Bee was wearing a combat-grade exoskeleton had a little something to do with it.”

Simone gave out a bitter laugh. “You mean to tell me that Chaka’s getting busted for winning, when she gets jumped by someone in power armor?”

“No,” Shadowdancer corrected her. “The witnesses say that Chaka jumped BEE, beat her unconscious, and kept beating her.”

“You saw this, Lil?” Bekky asked.

“Nyet,” Lilly sighed, “t’were the Wild Watusi.”

“The ‘Wild Watusi?”

“You know,” Maggie made a blank face and made as if holding a shield and spear, “ ‘Oh, what a shmuck I am, Oh, what a shmuck I am, Oh, what a shmuck I am ...

“OH, Farrago and his crew of idiots,” Bekky shook her head. “Those guys are never gonna live that down.” She paused. “And the Administration listened to those yoyos?”

“Hey, they were right there!” Lilly said.

“Hold on ...” Babs held up a finger. “You just said that Chaka ‘barely managed to stay alive’?”

“Yeah, she’s banged up something fierce.” Lilly’s eyes glittered with relating someone else’s bad news.

Babs’ eyes crossed. “How? Hitting Chaka is like trying to nail down a bead of mercury!”

“Yeah,” Renae grunted, “even TOUCHING her in the dojo, means that you’re damn good, let alone beating her up. So, how did a wannabe like Little Bee do it?”

“Maybe it’s something to do with the exoskeleton,” Babs offered. “Maybe it had some sort of really advanced targeting system. Any word on that, Spooky?” She looked at Lilly.

Shadowdancer grinned. “No way to say. They trucked it over to Security as soon as they pried Little Bee out of it at the infirmary. But get this- Security is turning the place upside down, looking for it!”

“It’s missing?” Bekky raised an eyebrow.

“Hey, all that I know is, they’re looking for it.”

Bekky smiled. “Y’know, Lilly, I’ll bet that Security would offer some sort of reward to the clever girl who found it ...”

“Oooh! Good Idea!” Shadowdancer ducked into the sliver of darkness offered by one of the bookcases, and was gone.

“She’s up to something,” Bekky said with a certainty born of familiarity.

“What makes you say that?”

“That wasn’t dish that she came out with. That was solid information. Lilly will dish until the cows come home, but she never parts with information unless there’s some quid pro quo.”

“And I know what it is,” Babs said with equal certainty. “She knows that Chaka didn’t attack Little Bee.”

“People will do stupid, vicious stuff, just because they can,” Simone said with a certainty born of too many encounters of just that sort.

“Not Chaka!” Babs insisted, “She’s my Tai Chi instructor! She’s not like that! She offered to teach me Tai Chi, just because she thought that it would help! And she did the same for Dr. Heavy and Diz, and after her Detention was over, she kept visiting us! People like that don’t go around trying to be badasses! Besides, she bounces bricks like Montana around on the mat! She doesn’t NEED to go around picking on little kids to prove that she’s tough!”

“Maybe the Yellow Queen said something to Chaka to really piss her off, and she took it out on Little Bee,” Loophole guessed.

“Not Chaka’s style,” Stella said. “Besides, even if she had something against YQ or Li’l Bee, she wouldn’t go jumping the squirt. She promised Diz that she’d visit today, and help her with something.”

“There you go!” Babs concluded. “No way that Chaka would let Diz down like that. Besides, where did Little Bee get an exoskeleton, anyway?”

Bekky, who had been deep in furious thought up to now, held up a finger. “Excuse me? What was that last bit?”

“I said, ‘Where did Little Bee get an exoskeleton, anyway’?”

“You mean, she couldn’t have just built it? You just said that she IS a gadgeteer.”

“No way! Exoskeletons, power frames, linear motors in general, just aren’t her bag.”

“Yeah,” Loophole agreed, “And you don’t find many ‘general practitioner’ gadgeteers, like me- most of them almost always have a specialization of some sort.”

Bekky came to some sort of conclusion, and started typing at her laptop, shutting the game down. “Okay, now I KNOW that something’s going down.”

“Hey! We were in the middle of a game!”

“We can get back to that any time we want!” Bekky made a flourish, and a deerstalker cap appeared on her head, a magnifying glass appeared in her hand, and a pipe in her teeth. “The game is afoot, Watson!”

It wasn’t hard, finding ‘the scene of the crime’. The area near the outbuilding between Hawthorne cottage and the rest of the campus still had ‘crime scene’ tape around it, though Security had long since departed the scene.

“Wow!” Maggie said, “Will you look at the damage to the grass! How much did that exoskeleton weigh?”

“Well, if you’re gonna carry even so much as the pilot’s weight, you’re talking at least 250 lbs.,” Babs said with authority.

“Closer to 500 pounds,” Elaine said, looking at the divots.

“Yo! Sherlock!” Arachne called from where she was, leaning over slightly into the shrubs surrounding the outbuilding. “I may have something for you.”

“What is it, Simone?” Bekky asked, as the other girls joined her at the bush.

“I have an eyewitness.” Simone pointed at the bush. Woven among the branches was a beautiful textbook example of a radial-type spider’s web with a large spider doing maintenance on it. Simone was an Avatar, and she had bonded with a greater Spider spirit. Aside from other applications of that bond, Simone was known and adored by spiders all over the Whateley campus. They told her things, and they regarded themselves as her personal guard after a fashion.

“Oh, gross!” Elaine moaned. ‘Loophole’ couldn’t stand spiders, a fact that sometimes made having her and Simone in the same room problematic.

“So,” Simone cooed, “tell me what happened just now. No, not the thing with the gnat, the thing with the big things over there ...”

“How can something that small even understand her?” Renae wondered.

“It’s a magic thing,” Bekky and Maggie said at the same time.

Simone made a quick snatch and grabbed a fly, which she used to pay off her informant. “Well, she says that the big metallic thing came along after the tractor pulling the leaf collector came by. It settled over there and waited for a while-”

“How long?” Babs, the accuracy fiend, asked.

“She’s a spider! She doesn’t think in terms of hours or minutes, she thinks in terms of events. Then the bouncy thing came around the corner, and the big metallic thing blocked her path. It managed to corner Chaka and hem her into this general recessed area.”

Bekky was polishing her glasses, and put them back to look harder at the situation. “Hmmm ... I wonder how she managed to keep Chaka hemmed in like that. The girl’s fast and slippery as hell.”

“Some sort of telescoping things on the suit. She says the big metal thing fought like a spider, while the bouncy thing fought like a snake.”

“SEE?” Babs gloried in being right, “I TOLD you, Chaka didn’t start that fight! Little Bee was waiting for her!”

“Yeah,” Elaine agreed, “but just TRY and take that witness to Delarose!” She edged away from the bush.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Maggie said as she looked at the mashed grass, “It could have just looked that way to the spider. Okay, so Little Bee does not normally work with power frames. So what? She could have been trying something new, and brought her frame out here to field-test it. She wasn’t familiar with handling it, and blundered into Chaka, who mistook it for an ambush. They flail around for a while, Chaka gets beat up by the suit’s arms, and she mistakes Little Bee for a real opponent, so she opens up her A-list moves and beats the crap out of Bee. Heck, from what I hear, the only way TO hit Chaka is by accident! Oh Hell, no, that doesn’t work ...”

“Why not, Mags?”

“This is where the spider says that the exoskeleton was parked, Simone?”

“Yeah. So what?”

“This patch right here is beginning to die. It was mashed so long that the individual leaves were killed. Grass is pretty damn tough; for something weighing 500 to 600 pounds to kill it, it would have had to stand on the grass for at least a half-hour.” Maggie was a Mage-type mutant, as was Bekky, but Maggie was far more closely attuned to the vital energies than ‘Foxfire’ was. She was a skilled healer, and when she said that the grass was dying, the rest of the girls believed her.

“So,” Bekky said thoughtfully, “it WAS an ambush ...” She flickered back to attention. “Stel! Do you know Chaka’s scent well enough to track her by it?”

Stella shrugged. “I’ll give it a shot.” Stella shifted to wolf-form and began snuffling about. It took her a while- it couldn’t have been easy, what with all the Security types inconsiderately messing up the crime scene. You’d think that they never watched CSI! Then she seemed to find it. She followed it to a point and let out a bark. She shifted to her normal form and said, “She came from that direction, through here, and into that mess. From here, I lose her.”

“Good job, Stel!” Bekky said as she walked over to the spot. “Perfect! Here, have a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Hey, you’d bite my head off, I made the doggie biscuit joke again ...” Stella wurfed peevishly, but still took the chocolate treat. “Okay, let’s see what really happened ...”

“Hunh?” Babs asked, as Bekky kneeled on the grass and began making passes that resulted in pale blue patterns in the air.

“Hush,” Maggie said, “Minor working in progress.”

A pale blue flame formed between Bekky’s fingers. Bekky carefully placed the flame in an elaborate circle pattern on the ground. The flame flickered around, then grew into a vague featureless image of a slender girl with short hair. “Okay, I got Chaka’s pattern ... and now ...” another flicker of flame ran into the area surrounded by yellow tape, before it grew into an odd combination of figures, a clearly defined figure of a longhaired girl, surrounded and made taller by a murkier, boxier, more robotic seeming image. “And that should be Little Bee in her exoskeleton. Okay, I can replay this, but I can’t slow it down, so watch closely. Ready ... set ... GO!”

The first figure began loping along with a bounding stride, when the second boxier figure shot out to intercept it with long extending legs. The smaller figure within the larger figure briefly flared into clearer definition, and you could make out the features of a cute looking girl as she silently mouthed something at the first figure. The first figure flared, becoming the intense but composed features of Toni ‘Chaka’ Chandler’, and there was a change in the color and patterns of ‘her’ figure. Then the ‘robot’ unleashed a flurry of piston-like punches that the ‘Chaka’ image barely managed to evade. At first, ‘Chaka’ was definitely on the defense, and found ‘herself’ boxed in by exoskeleton. She tried to get out of the box a few times, but ‘Little Bee’ kept hedging her in.

But that was the best ‘Little Bee’ seemed to be able to do. ‘Chaka’ kept slipping through her attacks, and was consistently at least a step ahead of the frame-jockey. Every so often, ‘Little Bee’ would let fly with a surprise piston-blow that would catch ‘Chaka’ by surprise, but those few effective blows seemed to either surprise or frustrate the pilot even more than missing did. After one particularly nasty piston-punch, ‘Chaka’ seemed to take off what kid gloves as she may have been wearing and really began to tear into the pilot. She slipped in between the waldos, braced herself on them with her arms and did a series of jackhammer kicks to the frame’s midsection.

The ‘Little Bee’ image flickered, but for some reason, she seemed to become more effective, delivering a few more smashing blows to the ‘Chaka’ figure. It went on like this for a bit, with the ‘Little Bee’ image going in and out of focus, and the ‘Chaka’ image both dealing and taking a lot of damage from the power frame. Eventually, the ‘Little Bee’ flickered out altogether, but the dimmer image kept fighting, no matter how badly the ‘Chaka’ image ripped into it. Indeed, it seemed to get better once the ‘Little Bee’ image winked out, and really started pounding on the ‘Chaka’ image.

Then the ‘Chaka’ image managed to maneuver ‘herself’ into a position where she was able to run away from the combat. Strangely, the power frame did follow her, but after several yards, it locked into place and toppled over.

With that, the little drama ended.

Bekky re-ran it a few times. “See? That PROVES that Little Bee started the fight!” Babs insisted, sticking up for her Tai Chi instructor.

“What was that bit where Little Bee’s ‘ghost’ flickered out?” Heather asked, running a finger over her upper lip.

“Well, from the way that the images got clearer at some spots, I’d say that the ‘flickering out’ meant that Bee either was dazed, or she was knocked out altogether.”

“Then the ‘Watusi’ were right, and Chaka kept beating on Bee, even after she was unconscious?” Elaine wondered.

“How?” Heather asked. “HOW could Bee have been unconscious? Her frame was still fighting!”

“Exactly,” Bekky said from her crouch. “I think that we need to get a good look at that exoskeleton, don’t you?”

Halliwell glowered at them. “NO, you CAN’T look at the exoskeleton found at the scene! Even if we knew where it WAS, you still couldn’t look at it! And tell the busybodies that you run into on your way out the same thing!”

“Excuse me, Sir,” Heather used her most lilting Irish accent, “but how are you going to prove anything, without that vital piece of evidence?”

“We have four eye witnesses! And you can hear what they have to say at the expulsion hearing tomorrow!”

“The hearing’s going to be tomorrow?” Renae asked, “Isn’t that rushing it? I mean, she’s not even out of the infirmary yet.”

“We want her expelled from the school, before she’s handed over to the County authorities and charged with Assault and Battery."

“County authorities?” Bekky asked, “But I thought that Whateley was on Reservation territory or something.”

“Just! Get! Out!”

As they walked away from the Security Office, Maggie asked plaintively, “Does anyone but me smell a railroading in progress?”

“Simone?” Bekky asked, only half-rousing from her semi-habitual daydreaming state, “I think this is a job for the Webb Street Irregulars. Do you think that your eight-legged groupies could find the exoskeleton, based on the impressions you got from the *ahem!* ‘eye witness’?”

“Already working on it,” Simone said. “You know what they say: ‘Great minds-’ ...”

“Think outside the box,” Renae finished with a snip. “And why are we doing this? I mean, there was a certain morbid curiosity value to seeing the scene of the crime, but WHY are we going to all this trouble? I mean, it’s not OUR problem!”

“It may not be YOUR problem,” Babs snapped, “but it’s sure as hell MY problem! My spasms are getting better since I started doing Tai Chi! Okay, they still happen, but it’s nowhere near as bad, and I’m recovering a lot more quickly. Chaka’s my Tai Chi instructor!”

“Okay, that sucks, but they’ll get you a REAL Tai Chi instructor, one who knows what he’s doing!”

“Hey, Chaka may not have experience, but she knows what she’s doing! AND, she’s not guessing, she can SEE my chi as it moves! How many instructors can say that?”

“Chill, Babs, chill ...” Stella said soothingly. “Besides, I don’t think that they’re gonna kick Chaka out. Mrs. Cantrel would have a fit. Besides you and Dr. Heavy, there’s Diz to think about.”

“I think that you’re being a trifle optimistic, Stella,” Bekky said with a calm detached tone. “The person who set this up chose his tools carefully. Consider this- it won’t be the first time that a Whateley student has been attacked or even injured by another student. But  this time they’re already talking expulsion and criminal charges.

“It might just be the San Francisco Liberal knee-jerk reaction I grew up with coloring my perceptions, but I can’t help but think that there’s a nasty undertone of racism at work here. I mean, it’s one thing for a student to beat the crap out of another student; that happens. Maybe not every day, but it does happen. For a hospitalization, we’re talking some serious detention, and not the puff-piece stuff that Chaka’s been doing at Hawthorn. But a black student beats the crap out of a cute little blonde girl, and they’re talking expulsion and Juvie?”

“You think that Chaka was set up, Bekster?”

“I’d be amazed if she wasn’t.”

“So, now what do we do?”

“Now, unless anyone else has any brilliant ideas, we wait for the Webb St. Irregulars to turn up that exoskeleton.”

Babs and Stella went back to Hawthorn for dinner.

The scene with the spiders had made Doc a tad antsy about eating with Simone, so, Bekky, Maggie, Heather, Renae and Simone were eating and trying to ignore the ‘Watusi’ regaling the entire dinner hall with their rendition of the ‘dastardly attack’. This wasn’t easy, as the main speaker was Glissade, who was using some trick of her sonic powers so that her voice managed to carry clearly to every corner of the Crystal Hall, without actually being loud. Glissade and the other ‘Watusi’ had apparently recovered from their humiliating fall from grace; as they were sitting at the Alpha table, giving Don Sebastiano and his ‘court’ a blow by blow description of the ‘atrocity’.

“Hold on,” Hekate’s flunky, Randa ‘Conjure’ Van Dusen objected, sounding pathetically small in comparison, “HOW is it that you lot just happened to be there to see this?”

“What?” Farrago said indignantly, “It was supposed to be some sort of secret? We saw poor little Little Bee working on that power frame thing of hers, from halfway across the Quad! Then Chaka came along, and she obviously didn’t care WHO saw her ...”

Suddenly, four trim figures put themselves between the Literary Girls and Farrago’s braying. They looked like they were ready to on some sort of Mission Impossible, wearing black turtlenecks, climbing gloves and cross-trainers, almost as a uniform. The one girl in the group wore cargo pants, while the boys wore some dark colored variation in denim. Add heads-up eyepieces, gear-laden utility vests, and wrist-mounted consoles to the groups uniform.  The apparent leader of the group, a Caucasian boy, stepped forward, placed his gloved hands on the table and said, in a melodramatic husky near-whisper, “We need to talk.”

Bekky couldn’t help herself. Fighting a snide grin, she stated, “First, you have to tell me the password.”


“The Password! Otherwise, how do I know that you’re not a double-agent?”

The boy, ‘Ace’ by codename, glared at her. “Are you trying to be funny?”

“Apparently not.”

The girl of the group was cute enough, even though her face was set in the steely ‘professional’ expression that seemed to be uniform for the group. Stepping forward, she snapped, “This is NOT a laughing matter!”

“What’sa matta, Kim? Is Dr. Drakken trying to take over the world again?”

‘Ace’ took the lead again. “Look, we have ... information ... that you found something that Security missed at the scene of this afternoon’s fracas. We need to know what it was.”

Maggie smiled blandly. “Oh? And WHY do you need to know?”

“That’s ... need to know information.”

“Look,” Simone said as the most intimidating member of their group, “if we had any hard evidence, we would have given it to Security.”

“Hey, no need to get hostile here!” The boy who looked at least partially ethnically Asian stepped forward. “Look, it’s pretty obvious from the way that the ‘Wild Watusi’ are going on, that they’re talking out of their asses. All we want is-”

“Hey, ‘Interface’?” Simone said in the quiet controlled voice her friends knew meant she was getting ready to get nasty, “You DO know that telepathically probing someone without their express permission is strictly verboten, don’t you?”

“What? Why I-”

“You were trying the oldest gag in the telepath’s bag of tricks- you talk about it, and read our unspoken reactions to what you say.”

“What? Now what gives you that idea?”

“I may not be a telepath, but you’re dancing on my web, little fly.” As she spoke, Simone showed her fangs, and six lidless eyes manifested themselves on her forehead.

The Spy Kids (as they were collectively known) had the usual adverse reaction to Simone’s threat display. Maggie stood up and said, “Wow, WAY too much tension right now. You’re gonna spoil dinner! Besides, do you guys really want people asking what you’re up to, dressed like that?”

“What?” the blonde girl, A-Plus by name, asked. “We always dress like this!”

“You would,” Bekky said dryly.

“We always dress like this,” Holdout, the token black member of the foursome explained. “If we’re always kitted out this way, then there’s no way that Security can bear down on us for ‘acting suspiciously’.”

“Look,” Maggie said with a sigh, “let’s make a deal here- we tell you something, you tell US something. Nice and on the up-and-up.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Ace said in his usual Clint Eastwood rasp.

“And none of that ‘need to know’ crap,” Bekky insisted.

“Okay. You first.”

Bekky shook her head. “Nope. First, we shake on it. And take off the gloves; I won’t shake with a guy who puts distance between himself and his promises.”

Ace stripped the glove from his hand with a glower and stuck out his hand. Bekky pulled her hand from under the table and took it.

“Well, we have a deal?” Ace grated.

Bekky gave a foxy smile. “Oh, you BET we have a deal.”

“You wanted the shake, you go first.”

“Okay, we have an informant. This informant says that Little Bee was waiting for Chaka and jumped her.”

“You call that information? Why didn’t you pass that along to Security?”

“Our informant isn’t the sort that Security takes very seriously.”

Ace gave her a critical look. “And what makes you think that this ‘informant’ is on the up and up?”

“We checked on her story, and it held up.”


“Nah-ah. You next. What makes YOU think that there’s more to this Chaka/Little Bee thing than meets the eye?”

Ace grumped a little. “Kew, our Technical Support, got curious; it seems that Power Frames are sort of out of Little Bee’s area of expertise. Especially one fast enough to take out a speed demon like Chaka. She checked the materials sign-out sheet at the Workshop; Little Bee has been working on some sort of flying rig for weeks. There’s nothing about a power frame. Interface checked her database library ‘withdrawals’- she hasn’t made any inquiries about power frame construction. So, she didn’t build it herself. But nobody’s stepping forward.”

Bekky nodded. “Okay, cool, that’s a legit reason to be looking into it. Your question?”

“Why are YOU pushing your nose into it?”

“We hang with Babs- y’know, Compiler? The girl who kludged up a suite of ‘supergirl’ nanites, and ever so slightly screwed up the mix? She now weighs somewhere in the range of 400 pounds, and has what she calls ‘gorilla klutz’ attacks that could qualify as a super power. Chaka’s been helping her out with Tai Chi, and so far it’s been working better than anything else has. If Chaka gets the old heave-ho, Babs MIGHT get another Tai Chi instructor, but it won’t be the same.”

Bekky had her ducks in a row. “Okay, MY question: How- er, no, that won’t work ... Okay, WHAT do you know about how the mysterious power frame got out of Security?”

“Why would WE know anything?” A-Plus said cagily.

“Hey, you guys are all about being ‘Superspies: the Next Generation’, right? Don’t tell ME that you haven’t been cozying up to Security!”

Holdout gave her a sour look. “Security only talks to us when we’re checking out a possible scene.”

“In other words,” Renae said snidely, “when they catch you breaking and entering into one of the teacher’s offices.”

“You haven’t answered the question,” Simone said testily.

Interface gave up, “Security doesn’t know how the frame got out of their office, and they’d REALLY like to know.”

“Okay,” A-Plus took the ball, “our question again. How did you verify your ‘informant’s’ information?”

“Dramatic re-enactment.” Bekky formed small ‘foxfire’ images of Chaka and the power frame. “We found Chaka’s traces on the path and I charged them with magical energy. Applying the principles of Similarity, Contagion, Precedence, and Theme, I had the energy ‘replay’ the most recent emotionally charged incidents at the scene of the crime.” She replayed the fight between Chaka and the power frame. “As you can see, the power frame pilot started the fight, and Chaka left the fight as soon as she could, at which point the frame collapsed.”

“THAT’S your evidence?” Ace snarled.

“Are you questioning my powers?” Bekky replied sweetly as foxfire started to burn in her eyes.

“Well, you can hardly put it to forensic cross-examination or have it examined in CSI lab, now can you?” A-Plus pointed out logically. “Why didn’t Chaka leave before she beat the crap out of Little Bee in the frame?”

“You can’t see it,” Renae explained, “but Chaka was hedged into a recess of the outbuilding by the power frame.”

“Why couldn’t she just jump out of the power frame’s reach?”

“Dunno,” Bekky admitted. “Damn good question, too.”

“Why should we believe this?” Ace asked. “After all, we have four eyewitnesses who don’t say anything about caging Chaka in.” He jerked a thumb at the Alpha’s table. “Four witnesses whose testimony will stand up at the hearing tomorrow.”

“The Watusi are lying,” Heather said out of left field. That stopped the  Spy Kidz and the rest of the Lit Chix for a second, as Heather wasn’t the sort who normally forced herself into a conversation like that.

“Not that I’m not inclined to believe just that,” Interface said tactfully, “but lying about something like this is major. What makes you think that they’re lying?”

“Listen to them,” Heather held her ground. “They were just saying that they saw Chaka attack Little Bee from the Quad. That’s impossible. When the fight started, Chaka and Little Bee were shielded from view by the angle of the outbuilding. And the power frame kept Chaka hemmed into that recess, which is completely hidden from the view from the Quad. The only reason that Farrago and his cronies saw the power frame at all, was because after Chaka managed to get away from it, it walked at least five yards to where it COULD be seen from the Quad.”

“You can prove that?” Ace said cautiously.

“Go to the scene of the attack. The grass where the power frame was standing should be beginning to die, and the power frame tore up the grass something fierce during the fight. And all of it is well out of sight of the Quad.”

“As you would expect, from an ambush,” Simone pointed out.

“GO, HEATHER!” Maggie said with a cheer.

“Way to get your Sherlock on!” Renae cheered. Heather just blushed furiously.

“Okay, THAT is real evidence,” Ace admitted. “I think that we’re done here.”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Bekky snapped, “What’s this? We have a question coming to us!”

“Yeah,” Ace smiled snarkily. “And the question is: why did you make such a sucker deal?”

“You sneaky sunnavabitch!” Ren snapped.

“Wrong.” Bekky held up her hand. A mystic pattern ablaze with pale blue fire was drawn on the palm of her hand . “The question is: Do you know what happens when you break a Sorcerer’s contract?”

Ace jerked his hand and looked at his palm. On it was a matching pattern, written in foxfire.

“Ace, every culture has at least one legend where a cocky young man cuts a deal with a witch and tries to break it. He may or may not get away with his life and his soul in the end, but in absolutely NONE of them, does he say, ‘well, THAT was a good idea’. The pain you’re feeling is just a warning; you can still keep your bargain and spare yourself the true price.”

“Which is?”

Bekky smiled demonically. “You don’t wanna know.”

“Oh, I wanna know,” Renae egged Bekky on.

“Do your worst,” Ace snarled. “I’m an Exemplar; I can shrug off anything that you throw at me.”

“Wrong again!” Bekky chirped. “You’re an Exemplar; that means you’re even more vulnerable, as the basics of your power are that your mind-state affects your body-state. Magic affects the mind-state at its most primal level. Keep the pact, or your new nickname will be ‘Deuce’.”

Ace managed to study his features back to composure. “Okay, witch- what’s your question?” Bekky gave a wave of her hand, and the pain in Ace’s hand faded, but the glow was still there.

“Okay, my reading here is that bit about your buddy Kew was one of those ‘factual but misleading statements’. Her discovery about Little Bee’s materials and research is the sort of thing that you do to confirm a suspicion. But what got you 007 wannabes curious in the first place?”

Ace made a face. “We got a tip. An informant, who’s been valuable in the past. Our informant told us that the ‘Watusi’ were lying about what they saw, but that she couldn’t go to Security with what she knew. What your friend told us confirmed our suspicions.”

“Oh? And who is this ‘informant’?”

“We promised that we’d keep her identity confidential.”

Bekky gave an aggravated sigh, and accepted that as she made a production of wiping her hand clean of the mandala.

Ace pulled on his glove, “Look, I know that you wanna play Nancy Drew, but this is shaping up to be big. Some very heavy players are interested in this, and if we want to find out what really happened, we can’t be wasting our time protecting you. The Masterminds are interested, and so are the Ninjas.”

“Oh, those pesky ninjas!” Renae snarked.

“Most of them are harmless,” A-Plus admitted. “Nex isn’t. And I understand that Zenith and Sahar are asking questions, as well. If Sahar and Nex are involved, then it WILL get nasty.”

“Masterminds, Spy Kidz and Ninjas, oh my!” Simone sneered, “The roofs ARE going to be busy tonight! Why is Zenith getting involved?”

“House pride, I guess. Security has told Team Kimba in no uncertain terms that if they do ANYTHING, they’ll all be expelled.” Holdout said.

“Just ... stay out of our way ...” Ace rasped. With that bit of melodrama, the Spy Kidz walked away.

“Nancy Drew ...” Renae snarled. “Not even ‘Veronica Mars’, but Nancy Drew. Okay, show of hands! I call it to a vote that we have officially been dissed!”

Three of them raised their hands, but Bekky was lost in a near trance of speculation.

“Yo! Bekster! You sayin’ that we haven’t been dissed?”

Bekky snapped out of her trance, but ignored the question. “Simone, any word from the Irregulars?”

Simone paused and concentrated. “All that the girls have to say, is that it’s getting late and the trapping’s getting hard. They’re happy that the hunt is taking them indoors, and they’re starting to squabble over turf.”

“But no sign of the frame.”

“Nope, nary a sign.”

Reeeaaallllyyy ...” a sneaky smile crept over Bekky’s face. The others tried to pry whatever insight had occurred to Bekky out of her, but she kept it to herself with all the relish of a teenage girl with a secret.

Once they were out of the Crystal Hall, Bekky peered out into the night, knelt down and whistled. “Boots! Here, Boots!” A few minutes later, the young foxling came scampering out of the night and leapt into Bekky’s arms. Bekky took a second to pull a few leaves and burrs from the fox’s nearly black gray coat, then held her up to look her straight in the eyes. Bekky grinned and said, “Hey, Boots! Someone thinks that they’re being clever! They’ve hidden something on campus, and they’re using Evasion magic of some sort.” The little gray fox’s eyes sparkled with the anticipation of the hunt. “I figure that you should start near the Security Offices and see what you can find. Come back to me when you find it.” She gave the little predator a kiss on the forehead and sent her off to play.

“Y’know, the girls could’a found it, if you gave ‘em enough time,” Simone said dryly.”

“Oh, I’m not dissing the girls, Simone, but time is one thing we don’t have. And quite the contrary, they gave us a major clue. If the girls, along with Security, the Masterminds, the Ninjas, the Spy Kidz, and a couple of heavy-duty psychics like Zenith and Sahar couldn’t find it, then the only answer is some sort of concealment magic. With those kinds of people- and spiders- looking for it, the only way to hide that exoskeleton is if they’re simply not looking where it is; in other words, evasion magics. The girls are everywhere, but they’re still natural spiders. Not only is Boots a familiar, but fox-spirits have an affinity for evasion magics.”

“Why did you have Boots start at Security?” Renae asked.

“Moving something that size would get noticed, even with evasion magic. So, they’d move it just enough that people wouldn’t trip over it by accident.”

“Why move it at all?” Heather asked. “If there’s a spell on it, why not just leave it there?”

“Too ‘Purloined Letter’. Simple, but risky. Besides, there’s always the chance that Security might swallow their pride and go to the Magical Arts Department for help.”

“Please!” Renae snorted, “Security go to Magical Arts? And admit that they can’t find it using raw professionalism and-” Renae went on like that all the way back to Whitman.

Two hours later, Stella and Babs met the rest of the Lit Chix in the ‘Special Access’ tunnels that linked Hawthorne, Whitman and Twain to Kane Hall and several of the other school buildings. “Did you two have any trouble getting out after curfew?” Maggie asked.

Babs and Elaine just looked at each other and laughed.

Stella gave a pained smile. “Babs can get out of Hawthorne any time she wants to, and nobody will know about it until they step into a puddle of something and their shoes become permanently fused with the sidewalk.” 

The girls followed the little gray fox down the corridor. As they walked, Elaine kept checking on her laptop. “Interesting ...”

“What’s up, Doc?”

“This section of corridor already has a security blocker up; it’s not running right now, but you can just switch it on and off, if you want to.”

Bekky quirked a satisfied half-smile. “It’s looking better and better.” Then Boots ran into a recessed alcove with a door marked ‘Custodian’. But instead of the janitor’s door, the little fox scratched at the wall opposite it. Bekky walked up to the blank wall and peered at it. “Hmmm ...”

“Gonna ask it to stick out its tongue?” Renae gibed.

Bekky pulled back, held up her two hands forming a triangle with her thumbs and forefingers, and peered through the hole. “Interesting ...” Then she reached down to the corner of the wall and the floor, and ran a finger up the wall. It was as if she was unzipping a cover that revealed a door, almost exactly like the one across the alcove from it.

“A hidden door. How Ann Rice,” Simone sneered.

Bekky tried the doorknob, and it was unlocked. “Of course ... why carry around a key to a door that you can’t admit exists?”

The girls stepped through the door into an untidy room filled with boxes, a few shelves, some odd machinery, and a couple of racks of clothing. Checking the racks, the girls found uniforms for Security and the custodians, and a what looked like spare copies of the Combat Training uniforms created by the more identity-minded training teams. “Okay, what IS this place?” Heather asked.

“Well, right off the bat, I’d say that it’s the Alphas contraband storage room,” Bekky said as she poked through a box on one of the shelves.

“Why would the Alphas have a contraband storage room?” Stella asked.

“Well, they can’t leave this crap laying around Melville, now can they?” Babs said. “I mean, that would be a bit much, even for Don Sebastiano!” Ooohh! Spray Lubricant! Perfect for tripping someone up, while looking perfectly innocent!” She sent a mischievous grin in Stella’s direction.

“There’s too much crap here,” Bekky said with a sigh. “Mags, can you tell what in here has been used the most recently?”

Maggie placed a hand over her right eye and looked around the room. “That thing over there,” she pointed at what looked like some sort of CB radio setup with a visor rig attached, hooked up to a major league personal computer.

Elaine was almost magnetically drawn to the contraption. She and Babs started talking intently to each other. “Damn,” Simone muttered, “and me without my ‘Geek to English’ dictionary.”

Suddenly, one of the pieces of machinery jerked around for a bit, rolling around on wheels. “Just a second, I almost got it ...” Doc said, “It’s pretty idiot-proof ...”

“You mean, Peeper and Greasy are behind this?”

“GOT IT!” The odd pile of pipes, struts and gears reconfigured itself into a roughly humanoid arrangement.

“Oh, so THAT’S how they got it out of the Security Locker,” Bekky said in a tone of enlightenment. “It just got up, unlocked the door and rolled out.”

“How Ellery Queen,” Maggie murmured.

“So, I take it that this is the exoskeleton that everyone’s looking for?” Renae asked. “Odd, it thought that it would look more ... chivalric than this.”

“What do you mean?” Elaine asked as she and Babs started examining the frame.

“Well, look at it! It’s all out in the open! It looks sort of like the power lifter that Sigourney Weaver wore when she fought the Alien Queen in ‘Aliens’. I mean, there’s a place for the pilot, but where’s the body armor?”

“Yes, there is that ...” Bekky mused.

“And what are those freaky panels all over it about?” Heather asked.

“Okay, now THIS is weird,” Babs said.

“What is it? Does Optimus Prime here have the key to Cybertron after all?”

“No, the frame is rigged with a direct VR control, just like the RC rig over there, so that the pilot can control the frame without bothering with things like a joystick or anything. But why bother having a pilot in the first place, when you can use the RC rig? Without any body armor, the pilot’s way out in the open and could get really banged up in a hand to hand fight. Why risk injuring the pilot, when you can fight from safety by RC?”

A slow smile crossed Bekky’s face. “Unless ... that’s the entire point ...” She snapped to attention again. “Babs, Doc, which set of controls has priority, the on-board control or the RC? And how does the RC ‘see’? I don’t see any cameras or anything.”

Babs and Elaine peered at the heavy-duty communications mast. “Strange. The comm mast doesn’t connect directly to the servo controls, it connects to those panels.”

“Which do WHAT exactly?”

Elaine put on the RC visor, and put the frame through a few basic moves. “Interesting ... the panels seem to give the RC a 360 degree arc of vision. Hold it, what’s this ...” The exoskeleton went blurry, then seemed to fade out of sight completely.

“OF COURSE! NOW it makes sense!” Bekky exulted. “Babs! Look for a hidden link between the panels and the servo controls!”

Renae shut down the stealth field and Babs checked the wiring. “Whoa! Here it is! These two junction boxes are actually ONE junction box purposely gimmicked to look like separate units! I’ll bet that if we take this apart, there’s a remote controlled switch inside it as well.

“My guess is that the hologram camouflage effect that those panels creates requires a LOT of processing power, which the computer over there provides. If it’s a hand to hand combat rig, it might take too many knocks to risk having the computer on-board. This is the reason for the heavy-duty wireless link.”

“OR, at least that’s what the designer said,” Bekky opined. “It might even be for real. But it definitely gave a perfect excuse to install a really wide band wireless link that you could sneak a remote control into.”

“Whoa!” Elaine exulted, “We just hit the jackpot! Babs, check the servo controls!”

“Got it!” Babs said, “It looks like some sort of recording device.”

“I think that it’s a ‘black box’ that records all servo commands.” Elaine speculated. “I’m getting all sorts of kinetic information, including a history of all strike commands.”

“WHY would they install a ‘black box’?” Heather asked in confusion.

“For dry runs and tests,” Babs explained. “On something this complex, you want to know if certain commands or processes are conflicting or glitching, before you send it out to do anything real. My guess is that they once they had it right they didn’t want to screw with the configuration, so they didn’t remove the recorder.”

“Or, they just didn’t bother,” Renae said sourly.

Bekky grinned and purred, “Perfect.”

Simone grinned evilly and purred off into a corner, “Well, did you hear what you wanted to hear?” A scrawny girl darted from where she was hidden towards a large shadowed area.

“LILLY!” Bekky shouted as she sent forth lines of foxfire to cut Shadowdancer off from any of the shadows she could have used to escape. Instead, the darkling feygirl had to resort to ducking through the door, where she was caught like a fly in one of Simone’s webs, which only became visible when Lilly hit it.

“What?” Lilly blurted as she struggled in the strands of the web, “How did you ...”

“What?” Simone jeered as she lounged against the door jam, “You thought that you were being sneaky or something?” Maggie gave her a reproachful- but light- slap with the back of her hand. “Oh, okay ... I put a web across the door, just in case someone tried to sneak in on us while we were busy.”

The other girls all gave her a ‘you’re paranoid’ look.

“Hey, it happens all the time, in the movies!”

“That’s only when the writer wants to insert some cheap drama or provide some convenient information,” Bekky sniffed. “God knows, it’s nothing that I’d pull in one of MY stories.”


“True,” Bekky sighed, “and it IS convenient. I was NOT looking forward to trying to track you down, Lil.”

“Track me down?” Lilly asked, a bead of sweat trickling down her pale face, “Why would you want to track ME down? I mean we’re roommates, fer cryin’ out loud!”

“Really? It didn’t seem to mean that much to you, when you set us up to go afoul of Don Sebastiano and the Alphas.”

“W-w-what are you talking about, Bekky? I just passed along some dish and-”

“Lillian,” Bekky stressed her roommate’s full name, “you never pass along anything that even vaguely resembles information without getting something in return. And yet, this afternoon, not forty-five minutes after the incident went down, you not only knew that it had happened, you not only knew who it happened to, and who had witnessed it, and how badly Little Bee was damaged, but that Security had already lost this stupid exoskeleton! And yet, with ripe juicy info like that, which you could sell to any number of parties on campus, you came to US to just casually drop it in our ears. And then later, you sell this information to the Spy Kidz, and if I’m picking up correctly, the Masterminds, the Ninjas, and probably Zenith and Sahar.”

“Hey, I’m not the only dirt merchant on campus, y’know.”

“True, but you’re the only one parting with this dirt with such an open hand. Now, the only reason that you’d start spreading news like that around is if you knew something about what went down that nobody else knows, and you don’t like the way that things are shaping up. Which suggests to me that you know that Chaka wasn’t responsible for busting up Little Bee, and you have personal reasons for either keeping Chaka at Whateley, or for tripping up Don Sebastiano.”

Shadowdancer gave a weak smile. “What makes you think that Don Sebastiano’s involved in this?”

“Oh, Please! You only told me all of that, because you knew that I’d figure it out! A few weeks ago, Chaka helped send the Alphas to detention for the first time that anyone can remember! Two weeks later, Chaka personally sends The Don himself to detention for three weeks. It was only a matter of time before The Don tried to get back at Chaka. The only questions were when, where, and how. With this rig, either Chaka or Little Bee gets sent to the hospital and the other one gets expelled, and The Don’s hands are clean, either way. This whole frame-up has Don Sebastiano written all over it!”

Bekky paused and put on her most intimidating face. “Listen up, you Addams Family reject! You set us up to take the shit from the Alphas when their little revenge scheme went south. So, I wanna know- WHY are you so interested in Chaka?”

“Not Chaka,” Heather corrected her. “Her Roommate, Fey.”

“What?” Bekky yelped, “You mean little miss ‘Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful’ is the root of all this?”

“Of course. Fey looks to Fey, after all.”

Bekky blinked at Heather, and took in Heather’s classic Irish Country Girl good looks and copper-wire red hair. “Well, of course, of course!” Her eyes narrowed, “Okay, I stand corrected- so, what is Nikki Reilly to you? You’re supposed to be some sort of Sluagh or something; what’s she to you?”

Lilly glared back at Bekky through eyes that seemed to be dark holes in her pale face. “She is ... more than you could ever imagine ... She is glory, and terror, and hope, and more than that, and she’s only just beginning.”

Heather raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t know that the Underdwellers had poetry.”

Bekky ignored that. “And you don’t want Don Sebastiano to get rid of Chaka, because she’s Nikki’s Reilly’s roommate?”

“Close enow.”

“And Reilly’s important enough to you, that you’d go to all these lengths to screw up Don Sebastiano’s plan, even though you are so sacred of him that you’d sacrifice me and my friends to avoid his displeasure? You KNOW that Hekate and I don’t get along! The only reason that she hasn’t squished me yet is that I’m too low-profile to bother with. If I cross The Don like this, she’ll make mincemeat out of all of us!”

“You were SUPPOSED to tell everything that you knew to the Spy Kidz!” Lilly shot back.

“Well, we would have,” Renae admitted.

"But they got all bitchy and dissed us ...” Bekky gritted her teeth.

“Okay, one last little thing: you couldn’t have gotten all of that dish off the grapevine; you had to have seen what happened, personally. Something that made you think that Chaka was being set up. I gotta know- what was it?”

Lilly pursed her mouth and said nothing.

“Bekky dear, why don’t you let ME handle it from here?” Simone’s voice sounded hollow as her eyes went totally black and the five extra eyes appeared on her forehead. When she opened her mouth, slender needle like fangs became visible.

Lilly recoiled. “I was in the Crystal Hall just before it happened! The Watusi were sitting there, all by themselves. Then, all of a sudden, Farrago sits up and hustles the lot of them out of the Hall. They went running off like the devil himself was after them. They headed straight for the path to Hawthorne, and got to the outbuilding just as the power frame staggered around the corner.”

“But ... HOW could they have known what was going on?” Maggie said confused. “None of them are clairvoyant- I think.”

Bekky screwed up her face and thought carefully. You could almost hear the cogs turning in her mind. Boots leapt up into her arms, and Bekky unconsciously pantomimed the ‘evil mastermind stroking his cat’ trope. Then she came to a conclusion. “Lilly, I’m willing to cut you a deal: we call it a wash. You set us up; we squeezed you for answers, all even-steven. You agree to let this slide and keep quiet that we found this place, and we don’t clue the Spy Kidz, the Ninjas or the Masterminds that you were yanking their chains for your own purposes. Though the Spy Kidz really should have seen that angle coming, if they’re serious about the whole ‘spy biz’ thing.”

“That sounds reasonable.” Lilly’s eyes narrowed. “What do YOU get out of it?”

“You’re my roommate. Do you honestly think that I want to share a room with someone who’s looking to screw with me? Of course, I could ask for a new roommate, and get stuck with someone like the snake-girl, or worse, that deer-bitch, Trisha.”

Lilly considered it. “Maybe. But you’re getting a lot for not grassing me out to the Spy Kidz.”

“We’re throwing in forgiving you for playing us as well,” Bekky pointed out. “Very well, let me sweeten the deal for you. You want to stop Chaka from getting expelled, probably because you think that she stands between her roommate Nikki, and Don Sebastiano in some way. I think that we can stop that from happening. AND we won’t tell anyone about this room, and you can do anything that you want with everything in here, except for the exoskeleton and the control rig. We’re moving those outta here. The rest? That I leave up to you. And, as a capper, I’ll even agree that we won’t snoop into the reason WHY you’re so interested in Nikki Reilly, as long as you agree to never look inside my music box, the little gold filigree one.”

A strange look flickered across the darkling faerie-girl’s face as she reached out a hand. “It’s a deal.

As the Lit Chix moved the power frame from the concealed contraband room to a janitor’s closet, Renae grumbled, “Okay, so we found the stupid power frame. So what? How does that help us get Chaka off the hook?”

“My dear Reverb,” Bekky smiled superiorly, “it tells us everything!”

“Oh Lord,” Heather moaned, “it’s Exposition Time. She’s gonna get all Sherlock Holmes on us.”

“Oh, let her have her fun,” Maggie said. “Exposition is what she does.”

Bekky spelled out her logic for them.

“Okay,” Simone said grudgingly, “that works. But it’s still got two major flaws in it. First, if we go to anyone with this, we gotta convince them of it all before Chaka’s expulsion hearing, which is at 10 O’clock tomorrow morning. Second, even if we manage to pull all that off, the Alphas are gonna know that we screwed up their big revenge plot. Bekky, there is NO WAY that Hekate’s gonna let messing with The Don’s big plan slide.”

Bekky nodded. “Agreed. But the solution’s simple. Hey, it’s getting late; Stella, Babs, head back to Hawthorne and get online. We have some heavy duty conferencing to do.”


“Because, it’s gonna take all of us to work out the details on this one. But if we do this right, we are gonna score BIG!”

Normally, the Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleaders didn’t hang out en masse, let alone in uniform. While their self-proclaimed leader, Patty (a.k.a. ‘The Yellow Queen’), did wear the uniform every time she had an excuse, she normally hung out with her two best buds Kelly and Ginger, and her little sister Little Bee tagged along. Sandi, Stacy and Tiffany did occasionally hang with Patty, Kelly and Ginger, but they actually had wardrobes, thank you very much! But this was serious. Patty’s little sister had been beaten almost to death, and the Poe cottage freakazoid was gonna get expelled for it.

Patty needed the entire Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleaders Squad behind her, and in uniform. Cheerleader solidarity was a must! Besides, it was a good excuse for getting out of First Period.

In a troop, they set out from Dickinson to the auditorium. “Oh, it’s so SAD!” Stacy squeaked, “Your own little sister!

“Yeah,” Sandi droned in an utterly unconvincing drawl, “I hope they nail that Poe freak Chaka to the WALL for this.”

“That is sooo ... wrrooonnnggg ...” Tiffany said absently, as if she really knew what they were talking about.

The Yellow Queen gritted her teeth, remembering the reason why she didn’t hang with Sandi, Stacy and Tiffany. Her irritation with them, the stupid hearing and the whole situation was a major reason why she allowed herself to be misled by a detour sign saying that the path ahead was being redone.

As they trudged along, Kelly noticed something. “Hey, we’re heading away from the auditorium.”

Just then, a line of pale blue fire lanced out from the bushes, cutting them off. Behind them, a huge nearly transparent spider web sealed off their exit. “Ambush!” Patty snapped. “Team Kimba must want us to keep from testifying! Pyramid of Power formation!”

One of the reasons cheerleading translates so well into the Martial Arts is that it’s a very physical discipline that focuses on set routines. Out of pure reflex, Sandi, Stacy and Tiffany took their positions in the ‘Pyramid of Power’ formation, reeling off their code names to signify that they were in position. “Dazzle!” “Hardcase!” “Multiplex!” As soon as she was sure that Sandi and Tiffany were in place, Stacy warped gravity so that she was sixteen times heavier and stronger than before, while the weight of the other girls was 1/16th what it normally was.

When they felt the gravity change, Kelly and Ginger jumped up, setting their feet on Sandi, Stacy and Tiffany’s shoulders, also calling out their code names: “Gem!” “Taser!”

When Ginger called out ‘Taser’, Patty sprang to the very top and shouted, “And I’m the queen!” Then she braced, getting ready to use the pyramid to its full potential, allowing her to bombard the greatest area with her ear-rattling ‘laugh’ while not breaking the eardrums of the other cheerleaders.

But even as she was taking her big breath, Heather popped out of the bushes. Her skin was blue, her eyes were huge and solid black. She pointed her webbed hands at the ground under the pyramid and manifested a sheet of water under their feet. The water solidified somewhat, creating a frictionless area under the three bottom girls’ feet.

As Heather did her thing, Renae focused her ‘amplification’ power on ‘Hardcase’, making the girl even heavier and the other girls even lighter. On a signal from Renae that she’d done her part, Stella burst out of her place of concealment in ‘garou’ form hitting ‘Hardcase’ squarely in her center of gravity.

The one-two-three combination knocked Stacy off her feet, taking Sandi and Tiffany with her, and threw Kelly, Ginger and Patty into the web. With a flick of her fingers, Simone caused the web to come crashing down on Sandi, Stacy and Tiffany, taking Kelly, Ginger and Patty with it. Between the lack of traction under them, the web over them and the blue magic fire strengthening the web, the Cheerleaders were trapped.

As the Cheerleaders struggled with the net, the Lit Chix stepped out from their cover. When she saw them, the Yellow Queen startled. “What? You’re not Team Kimba, who the hell ARE you? You’re not gonna stop us from getting to that hearing!”

“STOP you, Queenie?” Bekky said with a grin. “You got us all wrong! We’re here to sell you absolutely vital, must-have information! And maybe save your collective asses as well!”


“Let me set the stage for you-”

“It’s exposition time!” Renae said in an ‘It’s Hammer Time’ cadence.

Elaine silenced her with a gentle slap, letting Bekky continue. “A few days ago, Don Sebastiano came to you with a proposition. Not to let you into the Alphas, though that might have been part of the package, I dunno. Anyway, everyone knows that you don’t much like Poe Cottage, and Chaka’s sort of been your *ahem!* ‘special friend’ for a while now. BUT in all the times that you’ve faced against her in the dojo, she’s blown you off the mat. And, well, after that scene in the caff a month ago, Chaka ain’t exactly one’a The Don’s favorite people, either.

So he tells you that he’s figured out Chaka’s weak spot. As I got it figured out, the reason that Chaka’s so hard to hit is that she uses what I think is called the ‘Receding Water’ gimmick. When you thrust with a punch or a kick, you’re propelling it with your ki in a minor manner. Chaka just feels it with her ki, and it’s like trying to put the same poles of two magnets together- they repel. You’re literally pushing Chaka out of the way of your own blow. I assume that she uses a reverse of the same technique to home in and hit.

“BUT, what happens if Chaka faces something that doesn’t have Ki? Well then, suddenly Chaka’s big edge goes right up in smoke, now doesn’t it? So, The Don had this really great power frame made up with these kickass extending arms for piston-powerful punches, and a hologrammic camouflage system, so Chaka won’t be able to see what her opponent’s doing. But, there was a problem- namely, that Chaka’s so freaking FAST that in order for this exoskeleton thing to keep up with her, the pilot would have to use a direct VR control linkage instead of a joystick. And the control linkage that his tech-geek came up with had a flaw- namely that it requires someone who is both a gadgeteer and a martial artist of some sort to operate it. Fortunately, there JUST HAPPENS to be just such a combination, right here on campus- your little sister, Bee. AND, as the icing on the cake, Chaka gets her ass handed to her by a Junior High kid!

“But The Don can’t just go and ask Little Bee to do this himself. No, he’s all polite, and asks YOU to go to Bee to do this. Of course, Bee will do damn near anything that you ask of her. And the next thing you know, she’s in the hospital.”

Bekky crouched down by the Yellow Queen’s head and grinned. “So, am I right, or am I right?”
“You’re WRONG! I have eye witnesses-”

“Oh, Farrago and his crew of idiots are lying, and we both know it.”


“We can,” Bekky grinned. “Heather?” Heather spelled out her observations at the outbuilding. Then Bekky took over again. “Not only will Security’s own photographs of the attack scene prove that there was no way that the Watusi could have seen the beginning of the fight, but a close examination of the condition of a certain patch of grass will prove that the power frame was standing there for at least a half hour before Chaka showed up. The only reason Little Bee would have for just standing there for that long, was if she was waiting for someone. Namely, the person who showed up: Chaka.”

“You can’t prove that!”

“It’s the only explanation that fits the physical evidence once you dismiss the perjuries of Farrago and his crew. Once the hearing board learns that the ‘testimony’ of the Watusi is a lie, and that there’s substantial evidence of an ambush, they’re gonna table expelling Chaka until a REAL investigation is made.

“Oh, and Queenie? We already passed along that little tidbit to Ace and the Spy Kidz. They’re just aching to play the Ace Investigators who crack the mystery. Oh, and they ARE already at the auditorium, waiting for their star turn.”

The Yellow Queen glared at Bekky. “Is THAT the ‘crucial, must-have information’ that you were going to sell me?”

“I said, ‘absolutely vital’. And no, I’m just letting you know that your plan is scuppered, and you are in DIRE need of a new plan.”

“All that you have is a fancy theory and some torn up grass. That isn’t real proof.”

“Wrong. We found the exoskeleton.”

“What?” Patty said in a flat hollow voice.

Bekky grinned even wider. “I SAID, ‘we found the exoskeleton’. AND, we’ve moved it, so you can’t call Don Sebastiano, and get him to hide it again before Security gets there. Y’know, that whole ‘innocent victim’ line is gonna look pretty damn weak, once anyone from the Workshop takes a look at that thing. How do you explain away a power frame with piston-driving fists and a stealth field as anything BUT an ambush weapon? Queenie, it looks like Little Bee is looking at Assault With A Deadly Weapon charges when she gets out of the hospital.”

“WHAT?” Patty blurted out.

“Are you sure about that?” Maggie asked. “I mean, I don’t think that a power frame is considered a deadly weapon. Maybe ‘Attempted Vehicular Homicide’.”

“Do you need a license to operate a power frame?”

“I’m not really sure,” Maggie admitted. “Is it really relevant?”

“Well, they were gonna throw Aggravated Assault and Battery charges at Chaka. And if Chaka has to face charges, then it would be a horrible double standard if they let Little Bee slide, especially since it’s a much worse charge. I mean, kids get into fights all the time, but they don’t go running each other over with cars!”

“HEY!” the Yellow Queen screamed, “This is my LITTLE SISTER we’re talking about!”

Bekky turned back to the Cheerleaders. “Hey, don’t blame US. WE didn’t talk Little Bee into committing a Class A felony.”

“Are you sure that it’s a Class A felony?” Maggie asked.

“Well, I think that the only comparable charge is a Hit and Run, and they always-”

“OKAY!” Patty interrupted loudly, “LOOK, so Bee DID jump Chaka! That doesn’t give Chaka the right to beat my sister to a bloody pulp!”

Bekky leaned over and tapped the Yellow Queen on the brow. “Yo, Blondie! That bleach you’re using seep into your brain? That power frame that you talked your little sister into was designed for one purpose and one purpose only- to set up both Little Bee and Chaka, so that Chaka would pound the crap out of her.”


“You keep asking that. Look, YQ- you must have seen that frame. Remember what it looked like? Aside from the straps that kept Bee’s legs inside the strider units, she was almost completely exposed, not even a cage around her body. She was WIDE OPEN.”

“But the Stealth Field-”

“Would only hide her from Chaka’s normal vision, not her ability to sense Ki. Bee’s Ki- and everyone has it, though they can’t use it the way Chaka does- would have been like this big red target floating in the middle of the air.”

“NO! The whole idea-”

“The whole idea was that Chaka wouldn’t be able to see the frame with her Ki sense, and the Stealth field would have hidden the rest. Y’see, that’s the real thing- there’s no way that Stealth field would have hidden Bee’s Ki. Besides, there’s a big problem with the whole concept.”

“What?” Patty was clearly out of her depth.

“If Chaka was completely open to attacks from things that have no Ki, then she’d be mincemeat in any fight with swords, staves or really, most kinds of melee weapons. But she’s not! She rules in Kendo practice! That’s because she can sense the intent, the focus of the person using the staff or sword- or power frame- as they prepare to strike. So, sending a person in a power frame to jump Chaka doesn’t make much sense, even if they DO have a nifty Stealth field.”

Bekky was really starting to get into her exposition. “Nope, the best way to use that bit, is to send a robot or remote controlled drone of some sort against her. No Ki whatsoever. But the problem with that is, yeah you can beat the crap outta her, but it would create more problems. Chaka’s in the hospital, and the physical evidence suggests a robot of some sort. Even at Whateley, sending a robot to trash someone is way over the top.

“Don Sebastiano’s the first person that they’d think of, and he knows it. What he needs is someone to blame for it, someone to take the fall, especially if Chaka dies. And even Don Sebastiano can’t get a tech-geek to build something that will get them sent away for years and years. BUT, what if he can turn it around somehow? What if he can make CHAKA the one who’s blamed for everything? What if he can somehow strap someone to his combat robot, so that Chaka has something to hit that has nothing to do with how the robot operates?

“Why, of course! Tell the gullible chump that it’s not a ROBOT, that it’s a POWER FRAME! Then send the idiot to go fight Chaka in it, and get the shit kicked out of them! However, for this to work, Chaka will really have to go to town on them, really mess them up. But even Chaka isn’t clueless enough to keep beating on someone when they’re obviously unconscious, even if the power frame is still attacking her. So, equip the frame with Stealth field! It’ll make sneaking up on Chaka easier, and she’ll never know when the *ahem!* ‘pilot’ is unconscious. Chaka would keep punching as long as the exoskeleton was attacking her, and she’d never know that Bee was down for the count.”

“HAH!” YQ interrupted. “Now I KNOW that you’re talking shit! Bee checked the frame! She kept complaining about the processing power! It didn’t HAVE enough computer shit to attack on its own!”

“Of course it didn’t,” Bekky replied reasonably. “What’s the fun of sending someone ELSE to kick the shit out of someone you hate? Especially when YOU can do it by remote control?”

“Remote Control?”

“Sure!” Babs cut in, not wanting Bekky to have all the fun. “The reason that Bee was complaining about the processing power, was that she quite reasonably didn’t see how the Stealth field had enough ROM to manage that kind of effect with the speed that it would need. It takes a LOT of speed and RAM to create holograms of stuff in the background. Hey, tech-geeks worry about that kind of thing. A VERY wide band Wi-Fi link provided the processing for the Stealth field. And the reason for that, was the Wi-Fi also allowed Don Sebastiano to sneak in a remote control link that overrode Bee’s control of the frame.”

“Yep!” Elaine said, “Once Bee stepped into that rig, she was Don Sebastiano’s own Rock’em Sock’em Robot. He got to enjoy beating the cream cheese out of Chaka, and Bee took all the lumps. In every sense of the word.”

“And YOU talked her into it,” Simone accused ominously.

“Me?” Patty squeaked.

“You’re the only one who could talk Bee into doing something that stupid,” Renae said. “Besides, The Don would never let himself stoop to talking to a mere Junior High level student.”

“Hey, why are you telling us this?” Ginger asked from where she was. “Howcum you don’t just go to Security with it?”

“Why?” Bekky said broadly, “Because there’s nothing in it for US! WE are here to sell YOU,” she ‘beeped’ YQ’s nose, “a once-in-a-lifetime ‘get-out-of-the-shithouse-FREE’ card!”

“And BOY do you need one!” Simone sniped. “The Don doesn’t like leaving loose ends laying about!”

“The Don?” Sandi bleated. “Why would The Don-?”

“All of this rigmarole is about The Don distancing himself from his crime,” Heather pointed out. “HE has managed to place several layers of proxies and patsies between himself and anyone who goes looking for the truth. BUT, there’s ONE PERSON who can place him at the right place, at the right time. And that would be YOU, ‘your highness’.”

“Hey, you didn’t really think that The Don was gonna make YOU an Alpha, did you?” Renae jeered.

“Why would he make you a Queen, when he’s using you like a Pawn?” Heather added.

“Oh, Nice one!” Bekky cheered.

“THINK about it!” she turned her attention back to the Yellow Queen. “That power frame had ceramet alloy ‘hands’- it could’a KILLED Chaka. Chaka had no idea how much damage she was doing to Bee- she could’a KILLED Bee. They could’a killed each other! And it would’a all been the same to The Don, as long as HIS hands were clean. Now, I’m not saying that he was trying to kill Chaka. I’m just saying that he probably just didn’t give enough of a shit to think about that prospect a lot. He really doesn’t want to be connected to that, especially after what happened in the caff.”

Patty blanched.

“Relax! I doubt that he’d cold-bloodedly kill you. Far more likely, he’ll just discredit you.”

“Discredit?” Tiffany asked.

“Disgrace? Shame? Dishonor?” Renae tried, “Y’know … Make Queenie here look like such a complete and utter weenie that NOBODY would ever take anything that she said seriously, especially if she were to claim something major, like’ The Don set Chaka up’?”

“Patty!” Stacy squeaked, “You can’t let him DO that! Everybody KNOWS that we hang out with you!”

And this is exactly why I don’t let those three boobs hang out with me full-time,’ Patty thought to herself as she gritted her teeth. “Okay, what’s this ‘get out of trouble free’ card that you were talking about?”

Why, I’m glad that you asked that!” Bekky switched to a gushy ‘cheapo TV ad announcer’ voice. “Because, for a limited time only, we are offering this fantastic Three for the price of One offer!

“First, we aren’t going to give all of this to Zenith, who, even as we speak, is lobbying the Expulsion Board to wait until Chaka gets out of the hospital to hear HER side of the story before expelling her! This will give YOU a chance to tell a carefully prepared story that will get Chaka, Bee AND YOU all off the hook!

“Second, we will provide, for the same, low, low price, not only the location, but the KEY to the place where we currently have the Exoskeleton that everyone’s looking for! With this exoskeleton, you should have enough physical evidence to prove to the board’s satisfaction that your little sister should NOT be expelled.

That is, provided that you stick to the story that will be provided to you, and you let Chaka off the hook. If not, we provide Zenith with a tape recording of this conversation, and you and Bee BOTH get expelled. I dunno about the rest of these clowns. Now, what would YOU pay for this offer?

“Oh … But wait! There’s more! If you agree right now, we’ll throw in the piece de resistance! A cover story fashioned by some of the most original, creative and devious minds at Whateley- that would be us- that has been carefully constructed to provide YOU with the maximum ass-coverage possible! Not only will you get you and your sister off the hook for almost killing Chaka! Not only will you avoid having both the Alphas AND Team Kimba- if not all of Poe Cottage- after your artfully lightened scalp! Not only will you come out of this looking like a true CLASS ACT! BUT you may actually come out of this with Chaka feeling she owes YOU one!”

Bekky dropped the faux-announcer voice. “WHAT?  I gotta throw in a Vegimatic or a Pocket Fisherman as well?”

The Yellow Queen gritted her teeth. “Okay, OKAY! What do you want? I don’t have much money on me.”

“Oh, please!” Bekky breezed, “Money is so crass!”

“Not to mention, possibly illegal,” Heather muttered in an aside.

“In accordance with tradition for letting a being of power out of a bottle, we want three wishes.”

“What?” Kelly bleated, “What do look like, a bunch of genies?”

“No, Alakazam pretty much has that action sewed up,” Bekky admitted. “By ‘three wishes’, what we mean is that your little group owes our little group three favors, to be repaid when WE want, under terms that WE set.”

“Is THAT all?” Patty said, not believing her luck. ‘We can blow off these losers when they come asking for their favors indefinitely.

“Oh, it’s not that easy,” Bekky warned her. “Babs?” Babs handed Bekky a clipboard with a piece of paper on it, and a thick crystalline looking pen. Bekky handed the pen and clipboard to the Yellow Queen. “Sign on the dotted line.”

“What? Are you nuts? I’m not signing anything!”

“Nothing’s changed, Blondie,” Renae warned. “We can still take this whole shooting match to Zenith, and she can get Chaka off the hook, and put you right on it. We’ll only get one favor that way, but hey, a bird in the hand and all that ...”

“This offer’s on the table for only so long,” Bekky said in her best ‘Donald Trump’ voice. “Going ... once ... Going ... twice ... Going ...”

“OKAY, OKAY, I’LL SIGN!” Patty grabbed the clipboard and ran the clunky pen across the part where she was supposed to sign. “What’s the matter with this stupid pen?”

“Just shake it until you see the ink show up in the pen,” Babs told her.

Patty shook it irritably until a line of dark red appeared. Then she signed.

Bekky looked at the document. “I’m sorry, but I can’t accept ‘the Yellow Queen’ as your signature. Sign again with your real name, Patricia.”

Patty grabbed the pen and signed her real name with a snarl.

“Okay, now the rest of you. Sign.”  Bekky took the pen back and the red ink disappeared.

“What?” Sandi bleated, “But WE don’t have anything to do with any of this!”

“This document binds you to secrecy regarding our involvement in this affair. And, let’s face it, The Don can’t be sure exactly HOW much Queenie here told you about her deal with him. You’ll be protected as well.”

The Yellow Queen had a far more pragmatic way of handling Sandi. “SIGN!” she snarled. Sandi and the rest signed quickly, as soon as Bekky handed them the pen, each having to shake it until the red ink flowed..

When the last of them had signed, Bekky removed the foxfire, Simone lifted her webbing, and Heather let the Cheerleaders get up.

Bekky handed Patty her copy of the contract. “Oh, by the way, YQ. I know that you’re thinking that we don’t have any way of enforcing this contract. You’re wrong.” She held up the clunky pen and twisted the top. “Y’see, this pen is one of Babs’ little inventions, something that she cooked up so that she could draw blood from kids who have skin that’s so tough that needles can’t penetrate it. It uses nanites to draw blood through the skin by some sort of osmosis. The point being, you all just signed a Sorcerer’s Contract- in your own blood.”

“What?” Patty grabbed at the pen, but Bekky just threw it over her shoulder, where her familiar, Boots, caught it on the fly. The little fox was gone like a puff of gray smoke.

“Now,” Bekky started grandly, “for those of you who may not know me, I’m a Mage, as are two of my friends. YOU have all just signed a Sorcerer’s Contract in your own blood. And, just so that it’s perfect clear to everyone, the way a Sorcerer’s Contract works, is that as long as you aren’t living up to the terms of that contract, you will have bad luck. And I DO mean BAD LUCK. The longer you try to hold out, the more you fight it, the worse your luck will get.

“Oh, and Queenie? No Mage in their right mind, not even Hekate, the Queen of Bad Luck herself, will try to break a legit Sorcerer’s Contact. And even if you DO somehow manage to weasel out of it, Patty old darlin’, I have samples of blood from each of you, fresh from your veins. Locks of hair and nail clippings are all very well and good, but by definition, they’re dead tissue! But Blood? Oh, blood’s not only alive, but it’s the very mystic symbol of life! The Laws of Definition, Similarity, Contagion and theme ... oh, the uses for someone’s blood just roll on and on!”

Bekky leaned over and grinned in Patty’s face. “Short form? When we call in those ‘wishes’ you WILL make good on them, if you know what’s good for you!”

“Okay, okay, OKAY! You’re Marie Leveau come back again!” Patty snarled, a touch of her New Orleans accent peeking through. “We signed, you got what you wanted! Now, YOU pay up!”

“Of course, of course!” Bekky handed over the key and told Patty the room number. “Now, listen up! I know that most of you are Exemplars, so pay attention! I’m only going to say this once! Last night, you were so distraught about your sister that you didn’t check your e-mail. If you HAD, you would have gotten an e-mail that Little Bee sent yesterday, telling you that she couldn’t do something or other. It seems she’d promised another Gadgeteer in the Workshop that she’d help him out by field-testing some dingus or another that was glitching, the idea being that Bee, not really being all that into power frames and such, might see something that someone who was too close to the subject might miss. Fresh eyes and all that. Doc?”

Elaine had her laptop out and was typing away. With a flourish of clicks, she said, “Done! Sent, with an altered timestamp, and set in your Inbox so that if your laptop is checked it will look kosher.”

“This morning,” Bekky resumed, “you got a call from a boy saying that he had finally figured out what went wrong. He explained about the favor that Bee was doing him, and the e-mail that Doc just sent confirmed it. He said that he had asked Bee to check out his power frame yesterday. It seems that he was trying to get a hologram projecting stealth system to work with some sort of multi-configuration power frame. And no, he didn’t explain WHY he wanted to equip a transformer exoskeleton with a stealth system, you just figured that that’s the sort of thing that tech-geeks do.”

“Amen!” Elaine said, “Tell it, Sister!”

“It seems that he was having problems with interference from some outside source. Part of what Bee was doing, was trying to figure out where the interference was coming from, as well as why it was creeping into his system. Which is probably why Bee was by the outbuilding with the stealth field on; she was trying to find the source of the interference. Anyway, he sends her off in the power frame, and the next thing he knows, Bee is in the hospital, Chaka is too, and his power frame has been impounded by Security!”

“Poor, poor little fictional tech-geek,” Simone said dolefully. “Even non-existence is no protection from troubles and woes.”

“Having no idea as to what happened, and really needing to know, he used remote control to turn on the frame’s stealth field and get it out of Security. Once he had it in the cleaning supply closet where it is now- Security couldn’t find it, as it had the stealth field on- he managed to check the on-board recorder. From there, it becomes a blur of techno-babble-”

“Which I can provide, free of charge!” Babs offered.

“Thank you, Babs,” Bekky cut her off. “The gist of the geek-speak is that there was some sort of signal that shouldn’t have been affecting the power frame’s controls, but was. Someone or something gave the commands that resulted in the power frame identifying Chaka as a target and attacking. At least, that’s what you ‘think’ he said. He said something about video game protocols, and you think that he means that some wireless fighter game stuff got mixed in somehow, or maybe someone thought that it was a First Person Fighter game or something. He was talking really fast, and you only really got a fraction of what he was talking about. Anyway, he gave you this printout-” Elaine’s gloved fingers handed over a thick sheaf of paper filled with very dense figures that were heavily highlighted. “-which he says proves that the command to attack Chaka came from the external source, and that Bee’s commands were to break off and stand down.”

“And they will,” Elaine said. “It’s some of my best writing.”

“Yes, I’m afraid that it is,” Simone said wryly. Elaine responded by sticking out her tongue.

“At any rate,” Bekky said wearily, “while said tech-geek swore you to not rat him out to Security, you managed to get the location and key of the closet where he’d stashed the power frame from him. While you had been all for hanging Chaka from the highest yardarm yesterday, you now know that she was only defending herself.”

“Hold on, this doesn’t work,” Patty said. “If Chaka was supposed to be defending herself and Bee was trying to stop the stupid dingus, then why didn’t Chaka stop when Bee cried out?”

“Simple. Bee didn’t cry out. She was using an inductive VR interface to pilot the rig, which requires so much concentration that Bee couldn’t spare the brainpower to warn Chaka. Anyway, as you see it, it’s bad enough that both of them got sent to the hospital because of this, but really, it comes down to a catastrophic equipment failure, and Chaka shouldn’t have to take the blame for something that she didn’t do.”

“Why should I let Chaka off the hook?” Patty said coldly.

“Because, Queenie, it doesn’t work if you don’t play it that way,” Bekky pointed out. “If you go in there screaming for blood, Zenith will be fighting you every inch of the way. And remember, Zenith’s a telepath. Before, you could have gotten past her on your pure rage at what happened to Bee. But now, if you try to pull that, Zenith will rip you to bits. And even if Zenith doesn’t get you, Sahar will. And you KNOW that Sahar can peel you like a grape.

“But read from our script, and it’s all good! Everyone knows that you and Chaka don’t get along, so you get boo-koo Coolness points for doing the right thing! Zenith and Sahar have no reason to go digging through your dirty laundry. You get Brownie points up the whazoo from the teachers; you know that teacher just love hearing that sappy ‘truth, honor, and decency’ crap from students.

“And Security won’t be giving you any hassles, either, as you’re providing an explanation for how the exoskeleton got out of their locker that doesn’t make them look like chimps. And Don Sebastiano probably won’t feel that he has to do anything to you in order to cover himself, as you’ve made it look like there was no criminality.

“So, instead of a vindictive bitch, YOU look uber-cool. Instead of someone who tried to all but run over Chaka with a car, Bee is just the victim of someone else’s project; she’ll get all sorts of props for that from the tech-geeks, it hits them where they live.

“Instead of someone who got the shit kicked out of her by a Junior High kid, Chaka’s just someone who got in the way of a major high tech malfunction. The Cheerleaders all get a boost in the status department by having such an awesomely cool leader. And Security gets to punish the nameless tech-geek by confiscating his project. So, it’s all good. You even come out better with The Don!”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I don’t claim to really understand how The Don thinks, but if I get the Alpha’s weltanschauung-”

“Weltanschauung?” Patty asked blankly. “What does The Don’s dinky have to do with this?”

“Weltanschauung- their paradigm? Their world view?” Patty remained confused.

Bekky snarled, “Okay, the rules that they play by, is that Third Grade enough for you? Read a book, already!” she mastered her temper.

“The Alphas are very big on being the masters, instead of the servants. The Don doesn’t respect anyone that he manipulates. BUT if you refuse to play the game by his rules and still win, well then! You’re an equal, someone that he has to respect!”

Patty took the offered key and documentation. “Okay, you sold me.” She gave Bekky a measuring glance. “But you went to a lot of trouble, just to get that fucking bitch Chaka off the hook. How come?”

Bekky paused and returned Patty’s measuring look. “Maybe it’s that as a Mage, I’m aware of so much more than you are. Maybe I see omens and portents within such seemingly trivial matters that hint at dire consequences if such things were to be left unchecked. Maybe what appear to be simple high school antics are just masks for deep dark tides of such incredible power and ancient menace that it would strip your puny mind if you were even to guess at them! Maybe Chaka is but the very tip of ancient and arcane matters that have their origins in things that predate even the ascension of Homo Sapiens to the ranks of the thinking, to the very formation of the Universe, even!”  By this time, Bekky was shouting. Her eyes and hands were ablaze with foxfire, and Patty and the Cheerleaders cringed.

Then suddenly, Bekky stopped. “Or, maybe I just wanted to be the heroine for a change, instead of just writing about such things.” When she waved her hands, the Cheerleaders scurried off in the direction of the auditorium.

Once they were out of earshot, Bekky reached over to Babs, who handed her a cell phone. “So, Zenith, you get everything?”

[Oh, yeah. Just what I needed.]

“Good. Are you sure that you can cover us, for missing First Period?”

[Yes, I can tell Mr. Pollock that you were helping with my defense. But while we’re talking, exactly what do you want for this?]

Bekky took a deep breath, looked around and said, “Tell you what- tell Chaka that she owes Babs a big one, and we’ll let them thrash it out, the next time that she’s over at Hawthorne.” Zenith was a trifle confused, but said that she’d pass the message along.

As Babs took her phone back, Simone said, “If those bubble-headed bitches think that The Don’s going to let them be, then they’re even dumber than their hairdos.”

“Hey, The Don’s gonna take out his frustrations out on someone, and better them than us,” Bekky said defensively. “Besides, I didn’t say that he WOULDN’T feel that he has to do anything, just that he PROBABLY wouldn’t feel that way. What do I know about how Don Sebastiano thinks?”

That done, they started making their way towards Schuster Hall. They even had a few minutes before Second Period started.

As they walked, Heather asked, “Okay, Sherlock, while you’re on a roll, how are you gonna get around your promise to Lilly, that you wouldn’t try to find out why she’s so interested in Nikki Reilly?”

“Yeah!” Maggie added, “And what’s so flipping important to you about that silly little filigree box of yours?”

Bekky grinned evilly. “Oh that filigree box is VERY important. And it’s important, because last night I placed a charm on it that will tell me the second that Lilly opens it.”

“And WHY would she open it? She just promised that she wouldn’t.”

Bekky’s grin widened. “Because she’s a sluagh, and the fatal vice of the sluagh is curiosity. It will take a while, and she’ll probably go half-nuts fighting it, but she WILL open that box. Then I’ll have that pasty-faced Pandora right where I want her.”

“Why? Just because she made a deal with you?”

Bekky’s grin turned into a smug smile. She held up the palm of her hand, in which a mandala glowed. “You better believe it! And once she opens that filigree box, the Sorcerer’s Contract that I bound her to will make sure that she doesn’t try anything funny, when we start looking into exactly WHAT is so special about Nikki Reilly.”

Read 2480 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 02:44

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