Saturday, 16 June 2012 18:13

Ayla and the Mad Scientist: (Chap 10)

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Ayla and the Mad Scientist, the 9th Phase novel by Diane Castle, Chapter 10 – Le Misanthrope

Ayla and the Mad Scientist

CHAPTER 10 – Le Misanthrope

a Whateley novel

by Diane Castle

 

still Saturday, February 24, 2007
the tunnels, near the Hawthorne tunnel

AYLA

Tisiphone.  Just who I didn’t want.  She was standing there looking just as inhuman and insane as ever.  She still had the scaly red skin and black claws.  She still had the twisting black horns that sprouted from her temples like she was riffing on the traditional concept of a devil.  She still had the leathery black batwings.  She had just downgraded her outfit.  Instead of the old ‘leather bikini with straps’ outfit, she had gone with a leather bikini with straps and little bits of metal armor in weird places.  And she had a massive sword at her right side.  In a leather scabbard, of course.

I glanced behind me to make sure the threats were as expected.  Megaera was the hunched-over one with the scaly blue skin that was mottled and peeling.  Her hair was coming out in spots, so she looked like a cancer victim.  Her avian wings looked like they were partly bat because of the large areas that looked like the feathers had contracted some sort of disease and fallen out.  On top of her gruesome appearance, she had an Esper power that let her induce nausea and feelings of sickness in people around her.  I was definitely feeling it already.

Alecto was the tall one with the willowy, reasonably attractive shape.  She had jet black skin and black feather-covered wings.  Her eyes were gray, with red pupils.  Her teeth were very white and very pointed.  Her sharp fingernails were obviously painted, since they were a variety of nail polish colors.  She was the brick of the three, and she supposedly had a neurotoxin she could inject from her fangs that caused intense pain.

Tisiphone chortled, “And you can’t get away this time!  You’re trapped here, in between us, and you can’t use your phasing power!”

<(Shroud) Is this that ‘secret weakness’ deal?>

<(Phase) Yeah.>

Damn.  I had really wanted to save my ‘secret weakness to dark chocolate’ ruse for someone worth the effort, not Fire-For-Brains here.  I decided to stall until Tennyo arrived, at which point our three pests would get pounded into the floor for threatening Jade.  Also, I was feeling ill from Megaera’s power, and I was a little worried I might have an attack of nausea if I tried anything that involved sudden movement.

I tried to sound as casual as I could.  “So who tipped you off?” I asked.

“NO TALKING!” Tisiphone screamed.  “DIE!”  She threw two fireballs right at me.

I did have the option of going heavy, so the fireballs wouldn’t hurt me.  Not that my going heavy would protect Jade.  I knew Jade could regenerate from getting hit with a fireball, but serious burns were not fun.

I also had the option of going light and simply leaping up to the surface.  But if I did that, FireBitch would probably attack Jade and Jinn just to ‘get even’.  Plus, I would ruin my ‘secret weakness’ surprise.

I went heavy, because I could probably get away with pretending that anything I did was part of my Exemplar abilities.  It turned out I didn’t need to.

Jade snapped her hand out of her purse and threw Spinner underhanded at the fireballs.

The great thing about an empathic weapon that’s really you?  It knows exactly what you want it to do.  Spinner didn’t bother to spin up.  It flew sideways and swatted one fireball into the wall, then scooped the other fireball out of the air before it reached me.

Unfortunately for Tisiphone’s posse, Spinner then flipped over my head and flung the still-blazing manifested material right at Megaera.  Meggie screamed in terror and dove to the floor.  I was willing to bet those feathers weren’t treated with flame-retardant chemicals.

As soon as Megaera was distracted, the nausea I was feeling abruptly lessened.  Fireball version 2.0 was still standing there in shock, wondering what happened to her brilliant plan.  So I pulled out one of Bunny’s ice eggs and threw it as hard as I could, right into her crotch.

Before she had a chance to grab her groin and shriek in pain, she was coated in ice from her feet up to her collarbone.  That was when she started shrieking.  If Jade had really been ten, instead of looking like it, I might have covered her ears with my hands.  FireBitch had certainly been working on her vocabulary.

Jinn leapt through the air and tackled Alecto.  Unfortunately, the impact hardly even staggered the demon-girl.  Alecto immediately sank her teeth into Jinn’s shoulder.  And screamed in pain as she broke a fang on a handful of chain.  She was probably lucky she hadn’t tried punching Jinn in the face, given where that bear trap usually lurked.

Megaera scrambled to get out of Alecto’s way, so she obviously knew she needed to avoid getting hit by their team brick.  I wondered if they had practiced their attacks on anyone.

Spinner came up from behind Megaera and smacked her on the back of the head.  Meggie went down and stayed down.

Alecto slung Jinn hard into one of the walls.  If Jinn had been human, she would have a smear.  But Jinn just popped back into her usual form and scooted around behind Alecto.

Alecto spun on the balls of her feet so Jinn couldn’t attack her from the rear.  That was definitely a tactical error.  Jade threw her Hello Kitty compact at Alecto’s back.  A second later, Alecto was clapping a clawed hand to her butt, where the compact had just finished giving her an injection and then darting out of reach.

Alecto whirled to face us.  “What was that?”

Jade smiled cheerfully.  “Oh, just one of the toxins it’s equipped with.  I’ll have to check it to see whether you got the knockout drug, the muscle relaxant, or the lethal poison.”

“You BITCH!”

Jade kept smiling.  “But don’t worry.  If it’s the lethal poison, I can fish out the antidote pretty quick.  Unless you keep attacking us and it gets busted or something…”

Alecto dropped her hands.  “Okay, okay, okay.  I get the hint.  I’m sitting down and being a good girl.  Just check that little piece of shit and tell me whether I got the poison.”

As Alecto sat down, the compact came soaring back to Jade.  Alecto watched in astonishment as it did a little victory roll along Jade’s forearm and then settled gracefully onto Jade’s palm.

Jade pulled out her ‘universal remote’ and clicked buttons while pointing at the compact.  Then the compact made a series of boops and beeps that sounded suspiciously like the synthesizer tones from “Close Encounters”.  Jade gave Alecto another cheery grin.  “Good news.  Nothing lethal.  This time.  So stay put, and my little Hello Kitty compact won’t go into autonomous attack mode.”

The compact leapt a foot into the air and flashed a pair of wicked looking knifeblades.  Then it spun until the knives were just a blur.

Alecto winced, “Okay already.  I got it.  Little pink compact is nastier than it looks.  Frigging devisers…”

Just then, a Security team came running in from behind Alecto.  Three seconds later, Tennyo flew in from behind Tisiphone.  Not long afterward, Chaka came sprinting down the corridor as additional backup.  Then Hank and Nikki turned up before the Security team got a still-cursing Tisiphone out of all that ice.

Why do I get all the crazy firebitches?

It turned out Hank had called Security as soon as I alerted the team on the Spots, so I didn’t have to argue with a Kane Hall squad about who started the fight.  And Security was relatively happy with us for doing what students are supposed to do.

I did have to explain exactly what had happened, and then walk back to Kane Hall with everybody to file Security reports.  Somehow, I got a private room with Sergeant Buxton.  Color me surprised.  Not.

After I gave a detailed recollection of events, Sergeant Buxton looked over his notes.  “So.  Summary.  They boxed you in.  You contacted Lancer to call Security.  Tisiphone threw a couple fireballs at you, while Megaera hit you with her Esper trait.  Generator deflected the fireballs and took out the Esper.  You threw one non-lethal devise.  Shroud jumped on Alecto and was hammered into the wall, but Alecto chipped a tooth on Shroud.  Generator ended the fight with that pink compact devise.  And your other teammates arrived after Security.”

“Right,” I agreed.

He made a couple more quick notes.  “Sounds short and sweet.  The Furies are probably gonna be doing big-time detention over this one.”

I said, “Here’s something for Security to investigate.  Someone got into my private school records.  Tisiphone knew I have a weird weakness to dark chocolate.  I love it, but it knocks my Warper power off-line for a couple hours.  Someone knew the Golden Kids party was going to have a chocolate theme, and someone knew about my weakness.  So, whoever it was tipped off Tisiphone and her buddies, and gave them enough information that they knew when and where to lay an ambush.  My guess is that Tisiphone doesn’t really know who gave her the intel.  And I’m sure someone did give her the information.  She’s not smart enough or stable enough to work it out by herself.”

He nodded as he wrote that down.  “Yep.  We can investigate, but the problem is you have a lot of enemies.  There are probably half a dozen likely candidates.”

“And another dozen less likely candidates, as well,” I contributed.  “This seems sleazy enough to be Don Sebastiano, but I don’t know if he has the intelligence network for it.”

“Yet,” Buxton added pessimistically.

“Right,” I agreed.  “I would first look at him, the Masterminds, the G.O.B., the Dragons, the Golden Kids council along with the people who were at the Golden Kids party, and maybe Pan-Asia.”  Not that I thought they would find the culprits.  Particularly if a Security officer was the person responsible for giving the secret intelligence to one of my opponents.  Or if Hartford was the one who dredged up the intel on me.

He grinned at me, “Wow, that’s some list.  You’re winning friends and influencing people right and left.”

 

back to Wednesday, March 7, 2007

I arrived at the Kimba table just in time to hear the punchline of a joke.  “…to keep the flies off the bride!”

I leaned forward and touched the crystal.  Nikki finished, “…and that’s all Koehnes knows about it.”

I sat down and said, “Nikki, you need to validate your source material for your crystal better.  I think it was telling a crude ethnic joke.”

Nikki muttered ancient imprecations under her breath.  “Maybe we should just stop using it unless we have important stuff to talk about.  It’s getting to be more trouble than it’s worth, and it seems like everybody knows we’re using it.”

Hank said, “Sounds good here.  For anything short, we can always use the Spots.”

I said, “And our normal table conversation would probably make eavesdroppers scream and pass out.”

Toni said, “Jade’s normal table conversation would make people think we’re all loco en la cabeza.”

I replied, “Jade’s normal table conversation would make people think she’s suffering from some kind of multiple personality syndrome.”

“She isn’t?” three different people asked.

Jade stuck her tongue out at the whole table.  “We are not!”

“Yo.  Ayles.  Those don’t look like anything that was in the food line.”

I looked up at Toni and said, “Curiously, that’s because there was nothing like this in the food line.”

Nikki said, “Those are the best-looking croissants ever.  I mean, they look like they’re right out of a food magazine.  Whenever mom makes ‘em, they look good, but not that good.”

“And not that chocolaty,” added Jade.

I showed her the inside of the roll I had already pulled apart.

“And really not that chocolaty,” she insisted.

The entire table hit me with the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes.  While Nikki and Jade have lethal weaponry in this category, Billie just doesn’t have the right look for it.  And even Hank’s is better than Toni’s.  Toni is just too darn cheerful to pull it off convincingly.

I carefully cut one croissant into five uneven pieces.  I wanted to make sure that the people who got the ends of the roll still got some filling and some ganache.

While everyone else was oohing and ahhing over their treats, I savored the second croissant.  All right, Toni just had a tiny nibble of her croissant and only ate the white chocolate off hers.  Then she let Billie inhale the rest of it.

The croissants were gorgeous.  They were perfectly baked, and full of yeasty, buttery flavor.  The filling was a thick dark chocolate with a hint of espresso for flavor, and plenty of butter for mouthfeel.  The hard ganache across the top was crisp and tasty.  I probably could have eaten two more.  That wasn’t saying much, since Billie could probably have eaten a hundred more.

As I enjoyed the rich earthiness of the dark chocolate filling, I thought about Tisiphone’s attack, and the fact that Security never was able to learn who sent Tisiphone the memo on me.  She had received an email that was supposedly from Don Sebastiano, but an examination of the packets revealed that the email was forged.  Which meant someone was trying to frame The Don for it.  Or else Donny-boy was executing a brilliant double bluff.

Since I didn’t know how good a job of email forgery had been committed, I couldn’t really assess the likelihoods either way.  If the forgery was so good that it had taken someone like Sam or Hartford to spot it, then it was entirely possible that someone with a good deviser or gadgeteer but not a topnotch cyberpath had tried to incriminate Sebastiano.  If the forgery was so lame that Security had spotted it right away, then it was more likely that Sebastiano was behind it.  I had talked to Buxton about that, since I didn’t think Sam would spill that kind of information.  But Buxton didn’t know the details of the evaluation work on the email.  He only knew that one of the Security officers had taken the email to someone ‘really good’.

Nikki glanced at the crystal and said, “Okay, Ayla brought this up, and my crazy roommate and I put together a short list of ideas for the J-Team to prank Belle the next time she pulls something on one of us.”  She passed a handwritten sheet over to Jade.  “There are a ton of things I can do, but we all know Belle didn’t retaliate after Jade got even that last time.  Either she thinks Jade’s too cute to prank, or she doesn’t want to make Billie really mad at her.  At any rate, Jade’s really good at this stuff.”

Jade giggled fiendishly.  “Ooh, I like this one: I cast Jann into Belle’s cellphone and reprogram it so all her ringtones are Team Wondercute favorites.”  She looked up and added, “Then I can fake-call her and tell her I’m from SanRio and her order of five thousand monogrammed Hello Kitty plushies is on its way, and we’re expecting payment right away.”

When we all stopped laughing, she went on down the list, “Hmm, I can cast Jann into Belle’s computer and read her keystrokes and get her password, but that’d only work if she used it before the charge ran out.”

Nikki admitted, “It’d probably be easier for me to extract the password.  Or maybe change it.  I’d have to do a lot of research to figure out the spellwork, and it might turn out to be one of the personalized spells.  They can get pretty icky, and believe me, nothing that requires the hair or blood of your spell target is a good thing.”

I said, “Maybe Jade could just change the background image to one of her Hello Kitty pictures, and lock it in place.”

Hank laughed, “No, make it a big picture of The Don in a big heart-shaped cutout.”  We all cracked up at that.

Nikki said, “Here’s another one.  Jade casts into Belle’s shoes, so she goes off to class and then in the middle of the caff she gets… HAPPY FEET!”

Jade said, “I’ve been practicing on stereo sound.  You know, broadcasting the same thing into both eardrums, just a fraction of a second apart so it sounds like the sound’s coming from your right, or your left.  I pretty much got it.  So… I cast into both her eardrums while somebody distracts her.  Then I can make it like everything in her room is talking to her.  Her alarm clock sings anime theme songs.  Her scale tells her to go on a diet.  Her pillow starts telling her to come back to bed and get some more sleep.  Her books start telling her she needs to sit down and do more studying.  Then she goes in the bathroom and her bathrobe keeps talking to her about how cute Shove is and ohmigod she’s looking this way don’t look at her…”

When we all stopped laughing, we went over the list some more and added even more wacky suggestions, until it was time to get going to the first class.

As I walked over to physics class, I made a phone call.  It wasn’t that hard to dial the holo sim area and get Larry on the line.

“Yello!”

“Larry, it’s Phase.”

“Hey!  What can I do for you?  That nuclear blast was awesome to code up.  Bardue never lets us run most of this stuff.”

I didn’t mention that causing a nuclear blast in the sims was not exactly on my bucket list.  I merely said, “I wanted to know if I could get my new weapons registered without coming in.”

“Well, what’ve you got?”

I told him, “A Cobra 320 with tactical loads only.  You can check the Workshop records and see it was delivered today.  And a Goodkind Defense Industries CM019A one-shot combat maser.”

“WOW!  How’d you get a GDI CM019A?”

I explained, “I’m a Goodkind.  I have special access that isn’t commonly available.”  But I could hear plenty of excited comments behind Larry.

“Somebody got GDI hardware?  Bring it in!”

“I gotta see this!  Even Kane Hall can’t get a CM019!”

“It’s real?  Not a knockoff?”

“Oh please get it in here!  You can have all the Twix I brought in for lunch!”

Larry said, “We need – I mean – I’ll need to inspect that one.  And I may need some expert evaluation from some of the other sim jocks.”

“Larry…” I said in a forceful tone.  I didn’t growl at him.  Really.

“Oh please?” he begged.

“Tell ‘im we’ll accidentally list it as a CM019B!” someone called out from the background.

I gave in.  I was going to have to bring it in anyway, so I might as well gain an advantage from doing so.  An illegal advantage that was only available where it didn’t really matter.  I said, “I’ll bring both of them by on my way to the gun safety meeting tonight.”

“GREAT!  Uhh, I mean, that’ll be just fine here.”

I wanted to call Möbius too, but I was already at the classroom.  I put my phone away and found my seat.  My assigned seat.  At least Pendragon and the Capes weren’t still mad at me about Chou.  And I didn’t have to sit near Quarrel.

Dr. Yablonski limped into the classroom.  I noticed that his limp was better than it had been yesterday.  I wondered if it had anything to do with the barometric pressure change the day before.

He started lecturing as soon as he picked up a marker.  “Yesterday, we covered the basic algebra and trig that you need for this course.  Today, we’ll talk about scientific notation and significant figures.  Then we’ll cover measurement units and the prefixes you’re likely to see.  We’ll finish up with some work on unit conversion.”

I just took out my bPhone and prepared to make some notes on it.  I didn’t say what I was thinking.  After all, everyone in the class had to know a lot of the common unit prefixes just from buying thumbdrives and MP3 players and cellphones and computers.  Prefixes like kilo- and mega- and giga- and tera- and peta- and exa- were everywhere, including in consumer ads.

“After I cover significant figures, we’ll have a worksheet for each group.  It will give you hands-on experience in working with scientific notation and significant figures in the sort of situation that might arise in a lab.  We’ll be doing something analogous in lab this afternoon, so pay careful attention.”

Well, that was a pretty explicit hint.  Given how the classes had gone so far, I was actually looking forward to the lab this afternoon.

On my way to Spanish class, I gave Möbius a call.  “It’s Phase.  Again.  I think I’m going to need a belt with more room.”

“But still the same waist measurement?” he checked.

“Yes,” I admitted unhappily.  “I was wondering about a belt like I already have, along with a couple front pockets that are maybe three inches by half a foot or a foot across, and eight inches to a foot deep.”

“Ooh, that’s pretty close to something I’ve been working on already.  I got the idea when I saw Delta wearing this fancy belt on her supersuit.  It’s about half an inch thick and two inches wide, with this big buckle that says ‘DS’ on it.  It looks completely decorative, but she’s got these flat cartridges that are about two by two, on a really thin backing.  So I thought about taking your style of belt, making the ‘leather’ twice as thick, and sinking the pocket into that.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  “When do you think you might have one ready for me?”

He hmmed for a second.  “Oh, maybe Friday?  Check me at lunchtime.”

“Sounds great,” I said.  I had to admit, I was expecting he would need a three to six week project timeline.  “What about those one foot cubes?”

He complained, “I got the alpha test one working.  For about a day and a half.  I think it’s back to the drawing board on ‘em.  At least my little TARDIS boxes are working great.  Loop told the Alphas about them after the Boston trip, and somebody like Tabby told some of the Golds, and I’ve sold over a dozen since then.  I’m having to raise the price again.  Maxx bought three!  He told me he’s got two of ‘em on the floor of his closet just for storage, and the other one’s on his bookshelf over his desk for old textbooks.”

As I walked up to the classroom for Spanish, I said, “Great, I have to go.”  Then I prepared for another class with two particular annoying guys.  Why do I have to look like a hottie?  Why couldn’t I look like a normal Exemplar guy?  Ugh.

Fortunately, Alworth and Jimenez were sitting near the back of the room.  Unfortunately, they were glowering in my general direction, which might bode ill for later.

The class itself went fine.  Everyone still in the course had already learned that when Señor Ramirez said to do the homework, he meant it.  Still, not everyone had an Exemplar memory, so plenty of people struggled with the new vocabulary and idioms.  And really, how likely were we to be sitting in a restaurant speaking Spanish about things that were really American breakfast foods?

All right, that was a rhetorical question, because there were a ton of people who went to foreign countries and expected the food to be the same as back home.  I wish I could say that part is restricted to Americans, but it isn’t.

Actually, I wish I could say that it is restricted to lower-class Americans who only travel as far as Tijuana.

After the class ended, I went heavy as I left, but nothing happened.  Toni urged me to give Nikki a hard time in ‘abra cadabra class’ as she put it, and she headed off to her third period class.

I arrived at third period class right as half the class did, and I waited patiently as several people tried to squeeze through a door that wasn’t wide enough for any two of them.  Actually, it wasn’t wide enough for Mugwump and also a paperback novel.

Okay, that’s not really fair to Mugwump.  The guy was overweight, but he wasn’t really as wide as the doorframe.

Solange walked up, stared at the students trying to squeeze through the doorway, and cringed.  She opened her mouth to say something biting, and then realized who she was standing beside.

Just to be difficult, I said, “How’s detention going with The Three Sabrinas?”

“Worse than sitting in this loser class,” she muttered angrily.

I told her, “I would think you would see the marginal utility of a class like this.  You’re not going to learn how to turn them into fruitbats, but you may learn enough that you’ll recognize when they’re trying to do it to you.”

She looked at me like she knew I was setting her up for something nasty, but she couldn’t figure out just where the booby trap would be.  I shouldn’t have been amused by her discomfort, but I was.  I think that says something unflattering about me.  After all the grief she had dished up, seeing some of that returning like bread upon the waters was… satisfying.

I should have been quite pleased.  After all, this was the girl who had picked on me for years, when I was too small to defend myself.  This was the girl who was responsible for a lot of the ugliness we had faced since the start of school.  I found myself conflicted.  I was pleased and yet simultaneously uncomfortable with that feeling.  I knew what it was like being on the other side of things, and it wasn’t exactly a carnival.  I just focused on the horrific things she had tried to arrange for Nikki and Billie and Jade.

I walked in and took my seat in between Palantir and Geomancer.  I said, “Hi, Winnie.  Hi, Irene.”

“H-hi.”

“I don’t really like ‘Irene’.  I mean, it’s better than getting called Pally, but still…”

I shrugged.  “Okay.  I don’t really care whether you call me Phase or Ayla.  I’m not that attached to the whole codename concept.”

Winnie said, “I k-kinda figured you’d be all r-ready to be a s-superhero-”

“Supervillain from what I hear,” Irene groused under her breath.

“-from w-what Molly and Chou said.”

I said, “I don’t plan to be a super anything.  I’m going to be a financier.”

Palantir stopped and stared at me as if I had just announced I had the pneumonic plague.  And then coughed on her several times.

Winnie said, “Oh r-right.  The c-comic book th-thing.”

“What?” Palantir wondered.

“She’s Ayla G-goodkind. She’s already a b-billionaire.”

Palantir looked at me with a new understanding.  It was the understanding that I usually classified as ‘dollar signs in the eyes’.  She had been looking around the campus for free Essence, and now she was thinking about what else she might be able to get.  Great.  Grimes was so going to owe me a major favor.

Well, I had learned how to deal with people who thought I was a leaky ATM.  And I had learned how to deal with people who were the human equivalent of a remora.  I could deal with Palantir.  I just hoped she was one of the sponges rather than the remoras, because they could sometimes be educated.  I realized that Palantir couldn’t be too avaricious, or she would have been a hell of a lot nicer to Solange.

I reached into my utility belt and pulled out my equipment for this class.  A 4”x6” notepad and a good pen.  My bPhone could stay safe, just in case of any magical hiccups during the class.  Or deliberate magical attacks.  I didn’t think that a magical attack on me or my equipment could get past Fey or Grimes unnoticed, but I also didn’t think someone stupid enough to launch a magical attack at me while I was in this class would figure that out beforehand.  I didn’t really need the notepad, but teachers don’t like seeing a student stare at them for an hour and never write down a single thing they say.  Even if they know that said student can probably quote their lecture verbatim because of a high-level Exemplar mental package.

Granted, not every Exemplar with the standard mental package can listen to a conversation and quote it verbatim, even if he or she can read a textbook and memorize the text.  Research has indicated that – just as different baselines have different preferred learning modalities – a lot of Exemplars show that they are better at memorizing the printed word or else memorizing the spoken word.  I was better at memorizing the written word, which seemed to be the most common form of the Exemplar mental package.  On the other hand, I was better at memorizing the spoken word than a lot of people, particularly when I put in the effort.

Ms. Grimes cleared her throat to get people to stop talking.  Nikki looked around the room at something.  I couldn’t tell what.  Maybe she was looking at the Essence running loose in the room, or maybe she was watching people suck down Essence from ley lines running through the classroom.  I couldn’t tell.  I wondered if I would ever get good enough to be able to spot ley lines, much less manipulate them.

Grimes went back to one of her topics from yesterday.  “Has everyone read the assigned reading?”

She looked around the room and gave Nikki a look.  Apparently, some people behind me had slacked off already.  Having a high-level empath and a skilled magic user looking at you while you were feeling guilty was probably not going to be good for your class participation grade.

She said, “Now yesterday we started talking about an important difference.  How is being able to do magic different from being a mutant with the Wizard power?  Would anyone in the class like to contribute?”

The next ten minutes were interesting.  I could tell by the answers who had read the material, and of those, who had understood it.  Eldritch had grasped the key feature that mutants with the Wizard power were more likely to have innate ways of drawing in Essence without having to work at it.  Solange was correct when she said that mutants with the Wizard power were more likely to have particular ‘tricks’ they could do without spending years working up to them.  I had a feeling she was glaring holes in Palantir’s back while she said it.  Mugwump said that Wizard mutants were more likely to have an instinctive feel for one or more general categories of magic, which was a clear misinterpretation of what the author had written.  I let Palantir jump all over him about that one.  She enjoyed it.  A lot.

When Grimes finally singled me out, I pointed out, “Despite the common belief, mutants who perform magic don’t by default have extra gifts when it comes to knowing spells, or learning spells, or performing spells.”  I gave Nikki a glance.  “However, Solange was correct.  They may have one or more innate abilities which would give them an edge in a magical contest, including the common Wizard trait of accruing Essence without years of learning how to do it.  Just in this room, we have someone who can pull Essence out of ley lines and nature, someone who can manipulate ley lines, and someone who can snarl ley lines without even trying.”

Winnie turned bright red when she realized I was talking about her.  I wondered if she knew that I had put her in a category with Fey and Eldritch.  I was guessing she didn’t.  If she had known, she probably would have turned from red to infra-red and her face would have become invisible to human eyesight.

But Grimes didn’t let the class off that easily.  She talked about baseline mages and mutants with the Wizard trait, and tried to drum it into everyone’s head that some highly-trained, well-prepared baseline could kick their magical asses if they weren’t prepared.  Nikki and I exchanged looks, since we both knew what she had been through more than once.

I raised my hand in the air.  When Grimes finally called on me, I asked, “Is Circe a baseline mage or a Wizard type mutant?”

Ms. Grimes gave me a smirk and said, “Yes.”  Oh great, was class going to turn into one of those irritating ‘logic puzzle’ books where you faced three guards, one of whom always lied, the other always told the truth, and the third alternated between truths and lies?  “Circe has never been tested to determine if she’s a mutant.  But her path of learning was strictly in the classical baseline style.  Considering that she essentially outlived some of the gods she once called upon for power, that’s quite remarkable.”

I wondered if that was a sore point for someone like Imperious or Majestic.

Grimes went on, “On the other hand, we do know that Circe has mentored over a hundred white mages, none of whom have had the Wizard power set, even if the last couple have been Whateley mutants.”

I had heard about those kids.  ‘Horribly killed’ didn’t begin to cover it.  I had asked Trin & MacIntyre to do a little research for me, and that had made the picture a little less opaque.  It seemed that the four protégées that Trin & MacIntyre’s researchers had been able to track had been powerful forces for good, but sooner or later had all lost that one critical battle.  And given who the opposing team was, there were no free passes.  There was no hearty handshake and a ‘better luck next time old bean’.  When the good guys lost, they died in as gruesome a manner as the other team could afford.

And who was going to be Circe’s new protégée?  The idiot who was going to run around fighting dark magics until he got turned into hero tartare for some demons?  Me.

Fortunately, Grimes wasn’t focusing on anything new and intrinsically complex, because my mind wasn’t on it.  I did notice that she announced a change in the schedule.

“If you remember the course syllabus, we were going to have a one-day guest lecture on the astral plane and various magical traditions connected to it.  I did have that scheduled for May, but we will be able to get Totem of the original Mystic Six in here on this coming Tuesday, so we’ll juggle the schedule accordingly.”

Several people oohed over that.  I wondered if they realized that Grimes was talking about a guy who was one of the school trustees.  And I wondered if Nikki would need to be elsewhere that day, because Mister Lodgeman had major troubles being around an exact copy of his late wife.  Between Aunghadhail’s memories and stuff the Mystic Six had told Billie, the team knew a bit more about Cirque and Totem than Charlie Lodgeman would probably want us to know.

Once the bell rang, Winnie asked me, “W-what do you kn-now about T-totem?”

Palantir said, “Your smugness rating went up to about eleven when Grimesy said that.”

I told them, “It’s Charlie Lodgeman.  He’s one of the trustees.  Team Kimba knows him.”  There was no way I was telling them some of the other information I had on him.  Winnie could always ask Chou for some details if she wanted to.  As for Palantir, I still didn’t trust her discretion.

I walked off to lunch with Nikki once more.  I checked, “Got your beads?”

She scowled.  “After yesterday, I’m wearing ‘em all the time.  I am so sick and tired of that little weasel.”

I said, “We could use one of the J-Team.  Then we’d have someone watching the sides and the back while we walk.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be learning all that ‘constant awareness of your surroundings’ jazz in martial arts?” she asked.  “Toni can’t stop talking about stuff like that.”

I replied, “Well, that’s Toni.  If it can’t be done with Ki, it’s not worth doing.”

She snorted sexily.  “Yesterday, she was trying to figure out how to keep her pencils sharp just with Ki.”

I said, “We should tell her about this revolutionary new invention.  We call it the ‘pencil sharpener’.  Amazing concept.”

She grinned and said, “I think she was trying to manipulate the graphite somehow.”

I said, “Tell her she’s wasting her time.  If she can manipulate forms of carbon, there’s a big market in top-quality artificial diamonds, and there’s real money to be made in carbon nanotubes and buckyballs.”

“And naturally, you could be her agent and provide markets for her goods, for an appropriate percentage.”

“Of course,” I agreed.

She just rolled her eyes and went off to see what the vegetarian selections were for the day.  I picked up a tray, made myself some Darjeeling tea, and then sauntered over to see if there were any treats for me, before I resorted to chowing down on whatever ort had been collected in the usual acre-sized pans of inedibility.

All right, that wasn’t really fair.  Even if most of the student body would eat anything.  Macaroni and cheese out of a box, made with ‘cheese powder’.  Hamburger Helper™, one of the great oxymorons of life.  Salisbury steak, something which was nothing like a steak, and had never been anywhere near Salisbury, England.

And yes, I do know that the eponymous Salisbury isn’t a place, but a person.  And I have actually been in a Japanese restaurant that sold a variety of hanbagu steaks.  And back at Gracie’s house, I once watched someone eat a Salisbury steak out of a microwave dinner.  Salisbury steak, fake gravy, and cheap egg noodles, plus a mélange of peas and diced carrots that also looked awful.  I didn’t make snide comments or vomit or anything.

Chef Peter slipped out of the back and slid a large salad onto the back of one of the refrigerated food areas just as I came by.  I grabbed it and put it on my tray with a whispered ‘thank you’.  Then I assessed the salad before acquiring any more food.

It was a pear salad.  I could see that there were sliced pears artfully arranged over a bed of baby spinach.  Atop that were some finely minced shallot and finely diced red bell pepper.  There was a drizzling of something that smelled like balsamic vinegar over that, and the salad was topped with freshly grated cheese and crumbled bacon.

I decided I could wait to get more food later.  I didn’t want to wait on the salad.  I headed up to the Kimba table.

When I got there, Toni was having a big discussion with Jade about something.  I could see arms waving and intense expressions.  Billie and Hank were looking on.  Hank looked resigned, while Billie was looking at Jade with a mixture of what I guessed were fondness and exasperation.

I walked up and caught Toni insisting, “Well, no!  It doesn’t work that way.  You’ll have to work with me for years just to unlock your Ki, and then you’ll have to learn at least one basic Ki technique before you’d be ready for that.”

Jade fumed, “But a Ki-assisted wedgie is the perfect technique for me!  It totally stops people cold, and it intimidates the heck out of everybody else, and it sounds too crazy to be worth bothering with.”

Toni flatly said, “It is too crazy to be worth bothering with.”

I adjusted my seat and said, “Why would you even bother when you have your centipede wedgie machine?  And you could… do your thing without that?”  I wasn’t about to say ‘cast into someone’s undershorts’ in public with no crystal to provide anti-snooping features.

<(Generator) Yeah, don’t say it.  Look, there’s lots of Wizards and Avatars and people who can see PK and guys like that around here.  I’d just like to have more non-J-Team tricks up my sleeve.>

<(Lancer) I’m all for that.>

<(Phase) Me too.>

<(Tennyo) Me three.>

<(Fey) I’ve got the crystal.  I’ll be up there in just a minute.>

<(Generator) It’s okay.  Somebody’s just being a big poopyhead.>

Toni stuck her tongue out at Jade.  Then stared at my salad.  “Hey Ayles, there’s no frisee or endive in that thing, is there?”

“No,” I responded.  “Why do you ask?”  It was fairly obvious why she was asking.  The salad looked beautiful.

Billie shrugged, “Hey, it’s just a pear salad.  My mom makes ‘em.  You open up a can of pears, get a bunch of leafs off a head of iceberg lettuce, put a pear on each leaf, and grate some American cheese on each one.”

I tried not to gag.  “That’s not a salad, that’s a travesty!”

Billie broke into a grin.  “Gotcha.”

“Oh, your face!” Toni laughed.  “I thought you were gonna go postal on her.”

“What?” asked Jade.  “I’ve seen salad like that at my old school, and the cafeteria down the street from my foster folks, and a ton of places.”

I defended the noble pear.  “Something that’s been canned in a syrup of slime and sugar no longer bears any resemblance to the perfection of a just-ripe pear.  And iceberg lettuce?  It has no flavor and no savor.  You might as well use a high-quality paper instead.  And that orange crap that people call American cheese?  Oh, please.  America makes hundreds of really excellent cheeses.  That junk is not one of them.”

“So lemme see how good this salad really is,” Toni pushed.

“Me too,” Jade begged.

“And me?” Billie asked.  “I’m sorry for teasing you.  But you’re really easy.”

Hank said, “I’ll pass.”

Toni grinned, “Yeah, he has a deal with Popeye.  He doesn’t eat spinach, and Popeye doesn’t learn to fly.”

“Of course,” Hank said in a bad imitation of the obvious source.

I carefully dished up a little segment onto each plate.  A pear slice, with spinach underneath and the assorted accoutrements on top.  Then I separated another piece for Nikki, and I cut a section of salad for myself.

Mmm.  The chefs – or perhaps the sous-chefs – had chosen several pears that were just perfectly ripe.  The pears were crisp, yet lusciously tender.  Juicy and sweet, yet still firm.  Lush and aromatic, yet not cloying.  The spinach and shallots gave the salad a lovely contrasting bite, while the sweet red pepper added a little extra zing.  The rich balsamic vinegar offset the sweetness of the pears and added a layered density to the whole.  The grated cheese was Asiago, or something very similar.  The still-warm bacon crumbles and the cheese gave the salad more complexity, plus a rich mouthfeel and a lush umami taste.  There wasn’t a mound of bacon or cheese, but then these were foods with a high flavor profile, and they didn’t need pounds of the stuff in order to have a delectable influence on the salad.

“Mmm!” purred Toni.

“Oooh!” gasped Jade.

“This is really good,” Billie added.  “It’d be even better with a lot more bacon and cheese.”

“What’s really good?” asked Nikki as she sat down.

Toni pointed at the last bite of salad as it disappeared into her mouth.  “Ayla finally got a salad that isn’t poisoned.  Mmm.”

I looked at Nikki and said, “I saved you a little serving.”

“Ooh.  Thanks.”

While Nikki picked the bacon off her serving and let Billie eat it, I said to Hank, “It really is good.  And not weird.”

Hank thought it over for a bit.  I wasn’t going to press, because he wasn’t the most adventurous eater ever.  He finally took a little segment when Nikki started having her own little foodgasm over her serving.

Hank left most of his spinach on his plate, but he obviously liked the pear and cheese and bacon.  After he wolfed that part of the serving down, he said, “That’s pretty good.  I guess I never had a ripe pear before.  The ones in the trees near the base were always too hard and not sweet, and the ones mom brought home were always too mushy for me.”

“Sounds like you weren’t letting the ones in the trees get ripe enough,” Billie ventured.  “There were some pear trees on an old lot near our house, and you had to wait until the deer thought they were ripe enough to eat.  Then we climbed up in the tree and got the ones that the deer didn’t take bites out of.”

Toni interrupted, “What, the deer just took a bite and then left a perfectly good pear with a big ol’ deer chomp outta the side?”

Billie nodded.  “Yep.  They’re pretty, but they’re dumb as a box of antlers.”

“Like Tansy,” Nikki jibed.

Billie added, “And they’ll ruin whatever you don’t want ‘em to get into.”

“Just like Tansy,” Toni said.

And smack in the middle of Tansy bashing, my bPhone rang.  It was Sam Everheart.  “Phase, can you talk now?”

“I am right in the middle of the Crystal Hall, but yes,” I temporized.

“I checked what we talked about, and I have some results.  When can we meet?”

I said, “Give me thirty seconds to check.”  Then I put the phone on hold.  <(Phase) It’s Sam with some intel.  Can we have an early dinner and meet in my room?>

<(Chaka) Sure, unless Tennyo needs an extra hour for steaks or something.>

<pththththt>

<(Lancer) Yes.  Anybody who can’t make it can get the news from the rest.>

<(Fey) I’m good.>

<(Tennyo) Yes, I can make it.  Even if they do have steaks for dinner.  Nya.>

I flipped back to the phone.  “We can make it.  My room, 7:05.  We’ll have to keep it short, because we have time constraints tonight.”

Sam just said, “See you then.”

<(Chaka) And just what is this all about anyway?>

<(Phase) Remember the conversations about whether someone might have gotten a call and known about a certain trip?>

<(Generator) Oh.  Right.>

<(Lancer) Let’s can the chatter until the meeting.>

<(Chaka) Roger that, sarge.  Over and out.  Five by five.  Pip pip and cheerio.>

<(Lancer) Why do I even bother?>

<(Phase) Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.>

<(Lancer) Well I must be crazy to put up with you girls.>

<(Fey) Who said that?>

<(Generator) He’s so sweet!>

<(Phase) Einstein.>

<(Chaka) Did you just read a huge book and memorize every quote known to man?>

<(Phase) No, just the ones directly relevant to you.>

<(Tennyo) Ooh, BURN!>

I wondered if any passersby watched us stare at each other for long seconds and then burst into laughter.  Given that this was Whateley Academy, something like that probably happened regularly.  How many groups had a Psi or Wizard who could orchestrate mental communication?  Probably over a dozen.  Not that I had ever seen S.T.A.R. League Jr. using their mental comms for lunch chats.

Aikido was more of the same.  I ended up rushing through a quick clothes change and just making it to the mat with about five seconds to spare.  I paid attention to the Drow junto too.  It appeared from what I could hear that Jobe was paying some martial arts expert to whip Bova and Belphoebe into shape in order to meet Ito’s ‘two weeks’ deadline.  Apparently, it didn’t matter how seriously they got pummeled by their instructor, because their regen healed it all up in no time.  On the other hand, Belphoebe was fussing about it to Bova, who was really enjoying being able to do something fun and athletic with her body, for the first time in ages.

I wasn’t thrilled with Jobe’s little drowing project, but I was completely sympathetic to Bova’s situation.  I knew exactly how it felt to have a fucked-up body that you hated.  Plus, Bova seemed nice.  I wondered if Jobe had considered the possible consequences of having nice, well-adjusted, polite people in his collective, particularly if said nice people had empathic abilities.

Sparring was fun.  Redlight wanted to spar with powers and no holdouts.  That went fairly well.  He knew he couldn’t nail me with his mental paralysis attack unless I was distracted, so he concentrated on his PK attacks.  So I went heavy and parried his attacks.  He went for the PK superboy bit first.  He was roughly as strong as I was, possibly slightly less, and I had the edge on quickness, so I was able to get him in an armlock and toss him out of the sparring circle.  I just had to remember to hang onto his wrist when I threw him to the mat, or he would have flown up into the air and avoided giving me a point.  After that, he tried the remote PK power, but he couldn’t lift me when I was fully heavy.  So he tried switching back and forth between PK and the paralysis attack.  That required more concentration on my part, but I managed to toss him out of the sparring circle one time when he was switching from PK to Esper and couldn’t switch to PK superboy fast enough to fly back into the circle.  Unlike some people, he gave me a ‘thumbs up’ and a smile on our way back to the edge of the mat.

Jobe had apparently learned that she didn’t need to go with holdouts and deadly poisons all the time, now that she had physical powers as well.  She was also impressively skilled in at least one martial art I didn’t know, because she took down Shadowolf, first with a wicked-looking joint lock that wasn’t anything Ito had shown us, and then a fast combination that looked more like tae kwan do, even if I couldn’t tell for sure.  Shadowolf tried one of his standard shadow tricks on her, but – surprise! – a Drow apparently doesn’t need a lot of light to operate.  Bova seemed pretty excited at the prospect of getting that good someday.

Several other members of the class took on slightly appalled expressions.  I presumed they were just realizing the horror of Jobe Wilkins with mutant physical powers on top of the bio-warfare and knives and other assorted holdouts.  The only concept that cheered me up was that Jobe was really unlikely to buy a utility belt from Möbius.  How likely was it that Jobe would admit there was anything she couldn’t build?  I couldn’t see her going to Möbius and groveling for a utility belt if there was a chance she could ever build one herself.

Granted, Jobe’s idea of a utility belt might be pockets in her own body that she could reach into for more weaponry.  So the ick factor would be increased markedly.  Or perhaps some day there might be a version of the Drow body that had Verdant’s power and only required Jobe’s knowledge of biochemistry to be a constant, ever-evolving threat.  Maybe with fangs… and poison claws at the fingertips and elbows and knees… and toxins delivered the way that a spitting cobra did.  Yuck.

I had to hurry to make Physics Lab on time.  I leapt across the dojo and through the wall into the locker room, then hopped out of my clothes and flew into the shower for a fast wash and a Phase-dry.  Then I scrambled into my Whateley uniform, left my gymbag in the locker, and flew through the walls.  Since it was a green flag day, I could just fly across campus and in through the window of the lab classroom, instead of having to cut through the tunnels and up through the floor of the room.

All right, I had already mapped out where in the tunnels I would have to be in order to fly straight up and end up in the physics lab room.  So sue me.

But I made it on time.  Mister Mystic was quite impressed when he found out I showered after aikido and still made it to class on time.  Well, having plenty of time to shower after class was one of the advantages of sixth period P.E.

I pulled out my physics lab equipment from my school pocket on my utility belt.  In addition to my notepad and pen, I also had a 6”x6” pad of graph paper, a mechanical pencil with extra lead, and an eraser.

Physics lab was almost fun.  Each group had a lab table with a different experiment, but all of them involved an object moving with (supposedly) constant acceleration.  We had to record the time as the object passed multiple checkpoints with synchronized clocks of varying accuracy.  Then we had to work out the velocity curve and compute the acceleration from that.  Actually, the velocity ‘curve’ was supposed to be a straight line, since we were purportedly dealing with constant acceleration.

We had a little toy jetcar on a track.  The velocities were simple, since the distance from point A to point B, divided by the time needed to cover the distance, was the average speed over that segment.  We ran the experiment ten times, and we found marginally different times for each segment.  When we plotted all the average speeds on our graph paper, we had multiple points at each place on the x-axis.  Pendragon knew the formulae for estimating the coefficients of a simple linear regression, so we did the computations and we plotted the resulting straight line.  That gave us the acceleration.  Dr. Yablonski was right: working on graph paper made the tables and computations and graphing a lot simpler to perform.

The only tricky part was assessing the significant digits we could use at each stage, and reporting everything properly in our notes.  The significant digits also mattered when we reported our estimate of the standard error on our estimate of the acceleration.  We conferred and made sure we were in agreement on all the points in our lab, and then we started writing.  I had a large portion of the lab written up before class ended.  Pendragon was farther along than I was, but he just wrote faster.

After the rush from aikido to physics, the simple walk to pre-calc class was a relief.

Frankly, the walk was more fun than the class.  Mrs. Bell was still reviewing fall term mathematics and making sure everyone was on the same page.  And the Friday quiz would be over the same material as the fall term final.  It seemed like half the class was actually worried about that.  I was in the quarter of the class who just looked bored at the news.  I might not have the mathematical intuition of some of the class, but I did know how to study, and I did remember what I had already studied.  Mrs. Bell wrote some more problems on the board, but I didn’t get to do a single one.  As far as I could tell, she was focusing on the portion of the class who needed more help.  I stopped raising my hand after five minutes, and concentrated on getting my physics lab report completed.

Math class was so tedious that I finished my lab report before the bell rang.  I walked over to the Accounting III open session, hoping the session would be less of a problem than yesterday’s session, but actually expecting it to be worse.

Mister Marley was once again waiting for me with the class roster.  There were only fifteen students taking the course, and all but one were juniors or seniors.  The lone exception was Timeless, Jade’s little friend who took scads of personal study courses because he didn’t sleep.  Rumor was he had a couple massively powerful GEO characters because he could play for hours every night and level up regularly.  I noted that there were no Workshop kids on the roster.  There hadn’t been any in Accounting II, either.  Didn’t these people think they needed to do something besides invent junk?  Like file patents, market products, monitor business processes, compete in a complex globalized market…  No wonder so many of them went bankrupt or had some business major steal the company out from under them.  I suspected that would explain why so many devisers and gadgeteers went off the rails and became supervillains.

I recognized several of the seven students who finally showed up for the session.  One was a hanger-on in the Whateley Academy Martial Arts Cheerleaders, and so had probably heard all about me from the Yellow Queen and company.  One was a member of the A-Team, and so had probably heard about me from Minefield’s perspective.  One was a member of The Don’s cadre of bullies and thugs, and so he probably had The Don’s perspective when it came to people like me.  And one was a girl that I knew hung around with Traduce, so I could guess what she had been told about me.

Mister Marley gave almost the same opening comments as the day before, so I repeated my message.  It looked like I had less success than with the Accounting II class, which wasn’t encouraging.

As it turned out, the only ‘accounting class’ questions any of them had for me were ‘what stocks should I buy’ and ‘can you make me a millionaire too’.  After the students left, I told Mister Marley, “If no one wants to ask me serious questions, there’s no point in having me here.”

He just frowned unhappily and said, “Well, let’s see how we do tomorrow and Monday.”

I flew back to the Eastman Annex, grabbed my gymbag, and flew home.  I was really questioning the idea of working as a TA for Marley.  If he was only going to have half a dozen students showing up for a given course, he really didn’t need a TA at all.

When I got to the room, Vamp was studying with Tara.  They were even sitting on separate beanbag chairs and holding textbooks.  I just said hello and asked Alex to have a leisurely dinner so I could have a 7:05 meeting in the room.  Alex was her usual snide self, so I didn’t bother to tell her the agenda for the meeting.

I managed to get all my homework done for Thursday and Friday before it was time for dinner.  We were eating at the very beginning of dinner, which was why Billie was rushing us all out the door extra early.

“Come on, we need to hurry!  Look at the time!” she insisted.

Hank said, “You never rush like this for classes.”

She said, “That’s because we don’t have to wait in line for classes!”

I immediately interjected, “Whoa!  No one said anything about waiting in lines just to get food.”

She said, “Well, sure.  If we don’t get there ten minutes early, we’ll have to wait fifteen minutes to get our food.  People get hungry and they pile up!”

Toni said, “Oh come on, Ayla’s never waited in a line for ten minutes in her life!”

“Of course I have,” I snapped.  “Just… not for food.”

“Okay, name three times you had to wait in line for more than ten minutes,” she said.

“Junior high graduation.  The whole class had to go in alphabetical order.”  I was starting to have to think hard.  “The first time I went to see Brass Monkey.  And… umm… when we all had to file into the auditorium for Carson’s ‘welcome to Whateley’ speech.”

Hank said, “Okay, I was gonna give you the benefit of the doubt, but that’s just pathetic.  That’s three times in your whole life?  I vote we make Ayla stand in lines at least once every week this term.”

“Yeah.”

“Definitely.”

“OF COURSE!” Toni boomed.

“I think I’ll just go back to the room and eat there,” I considered.

“Oh no,” insisted Jade, grabbing my right arm.

“No way,” insisted Toni, grabbing my left arm.

“It’ll be okay,” Nikki whispered to me over Jade’s shoulder.

I wasn’t exactly a good sport about it, but I let them lead me into the Crystal Hall so we could stand in line until they opened the doors.  There were a good four dozen heavy eaters in front of us already, and I had to wonder how early some of these people got in line just to be the first two or three in the door.  Just how hungry did they have to be?  And how little did they have to do in their lives that they didn’t mind standing in line like this, probably every day?  Probably three times a day, if you wanted to be picky about it.  Even if you valued their time at little more than minimum wage, that was a huge amount of time and money they were wasting for very little gain.

And it wasn’t like the school prevented people from eating in between meals.  After all, there was a kitchen in every dorm on campus, with food – well, edible substances that some people considered food – ready to be prepared.  Every room that could have a ‘studio cooler’ had one.  There were a couple places in central campus where you could get fast food almost anytime people were awake.  And if that wasn’t sufficient, I supposed that one could always resort to the ‘Feral and Bloodwolf approach’ and go catch some live food in the forest.

Billie and Hank were in a serious discussion about the main course for the evening.  It wasn’t posted anywhere that I could see, but apparently the serious eaters all knew.

I pulled out my bPhone and logged into the campus intranet… and voilà.  “Tonight’s main dishes are pot roast with vegetables, meat loaf, Whateley special soy loaf for vegans and vegetarians, and beef stew.”

“What?”

“We can get the menu over the phone?”

“She’s hooked up to the campus net.”

“They have all the menus on there too?  How come no one told me?”

There was suddenly a mad scramble for cell phones.  Some of them wouldn’t hook up to the wireless networks, which resulted in angry complaining and one phone being thrown.  A speedster sprinted out of the line and caught it before it shattered all over the wall.

“They have tonight’s desserts on here!  ALL RIGHT!”

Apparently, being able to look up the dessert list ahead of time was the greatest development since the invention of the tv dinner.  A big discussion ensued over the relative merits of the cafeteria’s apple crisp and blueberry pie, versus the ‘Waldorf Astoria red velvet cake’.  I refrained from pointing out that the Waldorf Astoria had never ever had a ‘red velvet cake’ on their menu - and since the Goodkind family had owned the Waldorf since the 1930’s, I knew that was correct.

Billie muttered, “What’s the big deal?  I’ll just get a couple servings of each.”

Several people who obviously ate normal amounts of food turned and gave her nasty glares.  She either missed the looks or else she ignored them.  It wasn’t as if she were unique at Whateley – at least, in terms of food consumption.  But there were still plenty of students with ‘normal’ metabolisms, who had to avoid eating as much as the Shifter or Energizer at the place across the table from them.

I wondered if there were baseline analogues to us.  Perhaps training tables at universities, where football linemen attempted to add another forty pounds to their already-massive physiques, while across the table from them sat gymnasts who couldn’t afford to gain an ounce of fat, or wrestlers who couldn’t afford to gain an ounce period.  Did pro football players eat with the petite perennially-dieting cheerleaders?

I used my bPhone to check my email until the doors finally opened.  It looked like Microsoft was going to expand into ‘rich Internet applications’; that probably meant that they were soon going to be buying out one or more companies in that field, so I needed to commission some research right away.  Then there was buzz about Goodkind International’s globalization efforts in Burma, Thailand, and Laos; if the short-term and medium-term work there paid off, it would really help the median income of those countries, which would incidentally cause the sweatshops there to have to pay much higher wages or lose workers to better jobs, which would in turn help small American businesses who were currently being undercut by the overseas sweatshops.  And it looked like Tansy’s dad was going to be able to dodge a major SEC investigation into suspect practices at a couple of the biggest brokerages.  Oh well, not everything can be good news.

Everyone jumped into action when we heard the sound of someone unlocking the doors.  I sent off a quick text to Chef Peter that I was eating unusually early, so I wouldn’t be around later for a treat.  Then I put my phone away.  I didn’t know if there was going to be a massive crush to get through the doors.  And I didn’t know if the first few students were likely to slam the doors open hard enough to knock the cafeteria workers across the room.

Actually, none of that came to pass.  The three guys in the very front of the line waited patiently until the doors were open and locked into place.  Then they simply walked in, forcing the people behind them to walk.  There was one Shifter who did an odd thing where he leapt like a flying squirrel over the front guys and glided about fifteen feet before he landed and made a dash for the dessert area.  Other than him, the line was – dare I say it – reasonably well behaved.  Color me surprised.

I took a sample of the pot roast and vegetables, and a ladle of the beef stew.  Then I made myself a salad with a simple dressing of some balsamic vinegar and the good olive oil.  I grabbed a glass of milk, and I made my way up to our table.

I should have guessed that I would be the last one to the table.  Billie was already digging into an entire plate of the pot roast, and she had a huge bowl of the beef stew.  Normal people would have called it a serving bowl, but around here it was just a ‘large serving’.  Hank had roughly ten servings of ‘meat loaf’ which looked like it had mainly loafed in terms of presentation.  Nikki was eating the ‘soy loaf’ and smiling as if it were tasty.

The beef stew was acceptable, although bland.  The pot roast was just as bad as I had feared.  The meat was overcooked, and the vegetables were horribly overdone.  Based on the reactions from the rest of the table, this is what they were hoping for.  Ugh.  No wonder we had never been served pot roast back when I was still a Goodkind.  And the meat loaf looked like some sous-chef had yet to learn how to make a decent terrine.

I made a deliberate effort not to look at anyone else’s food while I ate my stew and salad.  Then I bussed my tray and flew back to my room to prepare.

I piled Alex’s dirty clothes into her closet, and I tugged her bed into a semblance of neatness.  Then I popped some popcorn and sliced some apples.  I had the cheeses on the tray just as Hank came flying in.

“Am I first?”

“Yes,” I told him.  “So you can peel the wrapping off the cheeses and do some slicing.”

“Wow, not much of an incentive to be on time to these things,” he muttered.

I pointed out, “Yes, but you get to try all the cheeses before the other bottomless pits show up.”

He grinned, “Wow, when you put it like that, how can I refuse?”

Toni zipped in at that moment.  “Hold on, if there’s any Gouda, I want it.”

I said, “No Gouda tonight.”

She segued into a bad Italian accent.  “Well, that’s-a no good-a.”

“Thank you, Chico,” I replied.  “The cheese that looks like Swiss that Hank’s unveiling now is Jarlsberg.  This is some of the Special Reserve.  I like it better.”

“You would,” she teased.  She took a bite and purred, “Ooh!  Oh, now this is some cheese!  What else you got?”

“The other cheese is a good Leerdammer.”

“They both look like Swiss to me,” Hank said.

Toni cut herself a slice.  “Mmm.  Oh yeah, that’s right, Hulkster.  They’re just plain ol’ Swiss cheese.  You wouldn’t wanna waste your time with ‘em.  You just go hop in your beanbag and let me get rid of this stuff for ya.”

Nikki walked in and caught the tail end of Toni’s comment, so she rushed over and tried to body-block Toni away from the cheese.  That was about as successful as the release of the Edsel.  Toni slid around Nikki’s hip shove, and used her Ki to move Nikki away from the tray, which was the direction Nikki didn’t want to go.

Before things could turn into a food fight, Billie flew in with the J-Team in tow.  “Hey, Swiss cheese.  I like that.”

Nikki said around a mouthful of Jarlsberg, “Yep, plain old Swiss cheese, nothing interesting here.”

Sam walked up and knocked on my doorframe.  “Am I the last one here?”

I waved her in.  Meanwhile, Billie carefully considered what Nikki said, “So…  It’s not Swiss cheese?  And I do need to get some of each?”

“Yes,” I said,

“No!” insisted Toni.

“Mm-mmn,” agreed Nikki.

Billie flew over both of them and hovered upside down over the tray.  She helped herself to a slice of each.  “That’s pretty good Swiss cheese, I gotta admit.”

“Me too!” called out a Greek chorus of Jade, Jinn, a cabbit, and a Hello Kitty compact.

Sam looked around at us and slowly shook her head.  “Whateley never stops.  Just when you think you’ve gotten used to the weirdness…”

Hank looked over at her and said, “Officer Everheart, thanks for coming.  I know you don’t have much time.”

She didn’t bother to glance at a clock when she said, “We still have one minute until 7:05.  Are you expecting anyone else?”

“No ma’am,” Hank said politely.  He turned his head and looked at Nikki, who just nodded.

She stepped into the middle of the room and whispered words that made the air pulse and warp.  The familiar blue light formed in her cupped hands, and then expanded until it passed through the walls of the room.  “Ready.”

Sam said, “I did some checking of phone records.  Phase was right.  Don Sebastiano could have received the intel before he made his call through the anonymizer network.  In our time window, he received one untraceable call from an outside re-routing service, one call from Solange on her cell phone, one call from Peppercorn from his room, and one call that appears to be from Hartford’s desk.  But that one was spoofed.  There’s no way to trace it when it’s not a live signal.  But it’s definitely spoofed.  So it’s likely that he could have known about your Boston trip by the time he made his outbound call.”

I said, “And one of our suspect outside calls could have been through the routing service back to The Don.  If he’s using Ferret as his primary intelligence officer, it could have been him.”

Toni said, “Could’ve.  Or not.  I think N’Dizi’s a lot more likely.  He had a way bigger grudge against us right then, and we already know he likes ta work through powerful patsies.”

Jade insisted, “Well it definitely wasn’t Stephen!”

No one wanted to argue with her about that, particularly in front of Sam.

Nikki said, “I doubt it was She-Beast.”  I started to thank her for the support, but she continued, “She’s a lot smarter than that.  If she was behind the attacks, she wouldn’t bother routing stuff through Sebastiano for no good reason.”  Okay, so that wasn’t support.

I said, “Nephandus isn’t exactly Mister Wholesome, but so far he’s been happy with the moves we’ve made as a team.  I don’t see a motive there.  And Paparazzi?  We’re supposed to be off her radar, just like she’s off of ours.  My sources tell me she’s pulled some pretty suspicious stuff this year, but nothing connected to us.  So I think Ferret’s the most likely suspect.”

Toni disagreed.  Granted, we were both focusing on people who were personal problems for us.  So there was always the possibility that I was pushing my inductions too far, just like I had done with Hartford back in the fall.

By the time Sam left, there was no popcorn or cheese or fruit left – not that Sam had any of it.  Jade volunteered to clean the tray and the knives for me, so I grabbed my gear, texted Larry that I was incoming, and flew off to the holo sims.

When I pressed the buzzer at the holographic simulation center, a camera above the door checked me.  Then some sort of devise did an extra check before they even opened the door.  I was hoping the devise checked for invisible intruders too.  One of the Security guys ushered me in and watched as I walked through a devise that looked vaguely like the Star Trek version of an airport metal detector.  Nothing beeped or set off an alarm.

Larry was standing outside Room 5, and he was grinning like a Cheshire cat.  As soon as I was cleared by the Security officer, he waved me down the hall.  When I reached him, he opened the door to Room 5 and held it for me.  He probably thought he was being polite.

I stepped in and found five other people waiting excitedly.

Larry smiled, “Okay everyone, this is Phase.  Phase, pretty much everyone wanted to see your GDI hardware, but some of the rest of us are holding down the fort right this second.”

One guy, who looked somewhat like Belphegor as an adult only with blue-dyed hair, laughed, “Yeah, Jack and KC drew the short straws.”

Another guy, who was tall and thin and blond, said stiffly, “Well technically, we didn’t use straws, we used the atomic clock and the random number generator.”

Larry looked at me, tilted his head slightly at Tall, Thin, and Blond, and mouthed, “Asperger’s.”  Then he introduced me around.  “This is Bill, and Chuck, and Scott, and Tony, and Goldie.”  Blue-haired Belph was Scott, and ‘Mister Asperger’ was Bill.  Goldie was the only girl among the group, and she was no Bugs.  She had unkempt brown hair, a bad complexion and a big nose, and twenty or thirty extra pounds underneath her Whateley labcoat.  And she was still way out of most of these guys’ class.

“Pleased to meet all of you,” I prevaricated.

Tony complained, “Around here, you have to use a truly random number generator, because some people know the formula for the linear congruential in the PRNG, and they can do the math in their heads fast enough to figure out if they want to go next or not.”  This appeared to be a long-standing point of contention.

All right, I admit it.  As they argued, I considered learning about pseudo-random number generator algorithms, just to see if I could gain an advantage like that someday when it might really matter.  From what they were saying, the base algorithms were nothing more than multiplication and addition with some large numbers.  Any Exemplar with the mental package could do that, if he or she wanted to learn.

Larry called everyone to order.  “Guys!  Guys!  Phase came all the way down here, and Wilson’s got her in his gunbunny meet at eight.  So let’s try and focus, okay?

When I had their attention, I reached under my blazer and pulled out the Cobra 320, followed by the GDI CM019A.  Everyone’s eyes tracked onto the combat maser.  I had a sudden naughty thought about slowly waving it around and seeing if they just stood there and tracked it with their heads.  Of course I didn’t do that.

“Is that a Möbius belt?”  I nodded.

“Can we take it apart?”  I just glared.

“For Christ’s sake Bill, don’t stare down the barrel!”

“But… but the firing chamber!”

Apparently the firing chamber was what everyone wanted to see.  I didn’t understand the physics, but it sounded as if some bright boy at GDI – maybe one of the 6S scientists that Goodkind Research always tried to scoop up after grad school – had figured out how to build an ionized plasma that was a room-temperature colloidal suspension which was transparent to the emission frequencies, which meant that the entire unit was a huge focusing chamber that was also the battery power.  I was going to have to talk to Bunny about what that could mean in terms of gadgeteer weapons.

The maser ended up being passed around so everyone could hold it.  I went heavy for that part of the process, because those guys really needed lessons on weapon safety.  I was just glad the CM019A wasn’t fully charged yet.  I still walked over and turned it off while Bill was holding it.  And Goldie.

Then the room devolved into an argument over whether they could ‘accidentally’ register me as carrying a CM019B, which was a lot bulkier and only provided a couple extra shots before needing a recharge.  Larry was lobbying for a CM019C, which was the size of a bazooka and needed a hundred pound backpack for the power supply.  Even I couldn’t get a real CM019C.  As far as I knew, GDI was still working on another beta test version, since the first beta tests last year had not gone as planned.  Then their initial model run for the U.S. DoD was expected to be for only six units.

I finally managed to stop the discussion long enough to say, “Look, it’s only a sim anyway.  I don’t need a CM019B.  It’s a lot more important to me that all of you not get into massive amounts of trouble with Everheart and Bardue and Wilson.”  That was technically true.  I wanted to maintain good relations with the sim staff a lot more than I wanted the negligible upgrade from a CM019A to a CM019B.  I figured the former was going to be worth a lot more to me in the long run.

After they finally registered my weapons, I checked that I still had plenty of time before I needed to be at the gun safety meeting.

Larry and Scott were the last guys out of the room.  As I started to walk to the exit, Larry said, “Umm, Phase.  Thanks a heap for letting us take a look at that.  You have the coolest gear.  Can I ask how much it cost?”

“No,” I insisted.  “You may not.”

Scott just whistled.  “Wow.  That much?”

Larry turned to him and said, “You priced the tac baton, didn’t you?”

Scott nodded.  “Don’t see how anybody could bring it in at under about three mil.”  I wasn’t going to stop and explain why the right mutant skillset could alter his calculations by an order of magnitude.

Larry turned to go back to work and said, “So what makes you think Phase cares about the cost?”

Scott walked off alongside him, saying, “I always wanted a Golden Kid who wanted to put serious cash into cool sim weapons.  Dynamaxx?  Tons of students have power armor.  BORRRRING!”

I was so glad that their life’s ambitions were being fulfilled through my sim registrations.  Not.

Since I still had plenty of time, I carefully stowed away my gear in the right pockets, then walked over to the ranges.

When I reached the classroom, Sergeant Wilson was already inside, setting up a projection screen and glaring at the two people who were already sitting down.  Oh, it was Flashbang and Tinkertrain.  The stories that people told about those two made them sound like the female deviser version of Beavis and Butthead.

Tink whined, “…so I still don’t see why we haveta sit through this again.  We pass the test every term!”

Wilson glared at her.  “And yet the lessons never seem to sink in, do they?”

Flashbang bleated, “We get it!  Really!”

“Totally,” Tinkertrain agreed with an excess of head-bobbing.

Wilson loomed over them in his most intimidating pose.  “And so that’s why before we even had Erik Mahren’s remains in the ground, you two tried an end-around on three different weapons, all of which Mahren had nixed?  Haven’t you figured out that Mahren probably saved your lives every time he said ‘no’ to you?”

While the two girls cringed, probably because they were hoping Wilson didn’t know about that little issue, Wilson looked over at me.  “Phase.  Sit down.  Somewhere up front.”

I said, “If you’d rather have a private meeting with your two little friends, I can arrange to come back some other time.”

Tinkertrain whispered far too loudly, “Is she always like that?”

Flashbang replied, “Hells yeah.  You shoulda seen her in martial arts last term.  Like having the Queen of England in class with you.”  She put her hands on her hips and affected a posh British accent.  “Oh, veddy good, a capital strike.  We are dreadfully sorry, but we blocked it, and we already struck thee about the head and neck with our billion dollar diamond-encrusted warclub.”

I pretended to ignore her, while Tink giggled madly through her nose.  I sat down where Wilson was indicating.  Wilson just said, “Sounds like Ito and Tolman didn’t tell me everything about their weapons class.”  He managed not to smirk.

Mega-Death came racing in.  “Sorry I’m late!  Sorry!”

Wilson just made a ‘calm down’ gesture.  “It’s okay.  We still have four or five minutes to go.”

Mega-Death insisted, “But I wanted to get the projection screen set up and the projector adjusted, and I wanted to check over the remote control system.”

Wilson let him dash into the control booth next door to work on the screen, and in a few seconds, a rhomboid of light shone on the screen.  MD’s voice came over the address system, “See?  Completely not square.  I gotta get the keystone correction and then work on the focus.  Let me get this fixed…”  And while I watched, the rhomboid changed shape, widening at the bottom until it was a rectangle, and then stretching out until it was nearly square.  Then the fuzzy images shifted back and forth until they were crystal clear.  Three more students came in while Harvey was making adjustments.

One of them was Mugwump.  He was walking with a massive staff that had to be seven feet tall and two inches thick.  He immediately started complaining.  “I don’t see why I’m being lumped in with a bunch of Muggles who want to be rifle-toting rednecks.”

“Shut it, Voldemort,” Wilson snapped.  I managed not to laugh.

“How dare you, sir!  I am nothing like V-”

“I SAID SHUT IT!” bellowed Wilson.

Mugwump shut up and sat down.  He looked like he had just come fairly close to needing a pair of Depends™.

Wilson stormed up to the projection screen.  “All right.  The six of you have all qualified for this presentation.  All six of you need to see this.  It’s not pretty.  It’s not fun.  It has some fairly unpleasant scenes.  And everything in here is real.  Everything you’ll see has really happened, and this is actual footage of the event.  The only fiddling with the original footage is that a couple of black and white films were colorized for us, and a couple of grainy films were cleaned up by the computer lab here.”  He turned and glared at Mugwump.  “And carrying a seven foot long energy weapon is still carrying a weapon, whether it’s magic or devise or gadget or something right out of the Gizmatic catalog.  Do you understand me?”  Mugwump nodded meekly.

The film was basically ‘Everyone Who Didn’t Learn Gun Safety’.  And it was grisly.  Guys showing off with guns and accidentally shooting themselves, or their friends, or even complete strangers.  A guy showing he knew his gun was unloaded by firing it into his own face… and blowing his face off.  A guy messing with his buddy’s gun and blowing his leg off.  Guys not handling weapons safely, and killing or maiming someone.  A guy trying a ‘quick draw’ and shooting himself in the thigh.  A guy being ‘cool’ with a gun stuck in his waistband, and shooting himself in the groin when he tried to pull the gun out.  A couple guys not looking downrange and shooting innocent bystanders when they missed their targets.  The last three clips were obviously from our own ranges. One of them was a guy firing a deviser rifle that exploded in a twenty-foot fireball.  It wasn’t clear if what was left of the guy survived the blast.

At the end of the film, Wilson snapped, “During the entire time Erik Mahren was our range safety officer, not one student died on our ranges.  I aim to tie that record.  You all have new weapons.  Some of them are more unusual than others.  But they are all weapons.  They can all be fired by accident, they can all misfire, and they can all kill someone if things go wrong.  All weapons which do not meet school standards must be test-fired to my satisfaction on the ranges before you may wield them.  That means you, you, and you!”  He pointed ferociously at Flashbang, Tinkertrain, and Mugwump.

He went over the basic rules of gun safety once again, with bullet points appearing beside him on the screen.  Then he made sure his three problem children had appointments to test-fire their toys on the ranges.  After that, he dismissed us.  The rest of the room fled like he had just pulled the pin on a grenade.

“Mega-Death!”

“Yes sergeant?” a muffled voice came from the speakers.

“Can you shut all this down and lock up?”

“Yes, sergeant.”

“Then I’ll leave things in your hands.  I have to get over to the sims and watch some students try to beat each other up.”

“Got it, sergeant.”

Wilson shooed me out of the room ahead of him, and he set off toward the holo sims.  I tried walking along beside him, but he was a lot taller than I was, and he had much longer legs.  Plus Exemplar-6 reflexes, so he could walk faster than baselines.

I went light and floated alongside him as best as I could.  “Excuse me, sergeant, but I noticed you didn’t bother emphasizing the rules to me specifically, although you focused on everyone else in the room at one time or another.”

“Is that a question, Phase?”

“Not precisely,” I admitted.  “It was more of a lead-in to a question.”

“MD told us that you grew up with a rifle range on your estate, and a rifle safety officer,” he said.

“We did,” I said.  “Major Hartnung was very… pointed about proper weapon safety.  We weren’t allowed on the ranges until he was satisfied we wouldn’t accidentally put a bullet somewhere we weren’t supposed to.  And we weren’t invited hunting with the adults until we demonstrated our skills to the colonel’s satisfaction.”

“Major Hartnung?” he wondered.

I adopted Hartnung’s Midlands accent as best I could.  “Major Geoffrey William Hartnung, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, retired.”

“Crack shot?”

“He could easily hit a bullseye at three or four times the distance I would even try it,” I said.  All right, I might have exaggerated a hair.  I did like the major.  Not that I would ever get the chance to see him and talk to him again.

“So… what weapons did you get?” he asked.

“Cobra 320, non-lethal loads only.  And a GDI CM019A combat maser.”

He snorted softly.  “And how many of the sim jockeys had to help register that?”

“Six.”  He laughed out loud at that.

When we got checked into the sim area, I rushed off to the women’s lockers.  No one was there.  It looked like I was running late.  <(Phase) I just got to the lockers.  Where’s everyone else?>

<(Chaka) Sittin’ on our pert, sexy derry-airs waitin’ on some rich kid.>

<(Phase) Damn.>

I stepped out of my clothing, hung it up quickly, and struggled to get into the suit without Nikki’s magic.  It probably took me five minutes.  While I worked at getting into the suit, I checked on things.  <(Phase) Anybody get a suspicious phone call?>

<(Lancer) Tennyo and G and Shroud sort of followed us around the whole time to make sure the sim guys couldn’t contact us.  Pretty annoying.>

<(Generator) Well how was I supposed to know you and Wallflower weren’t really studying in your room?>

<(Chaka) Ohhh.  One of those biology exams, huh?>

<(Generator) Well at least now I know why they call it gross anatomy.>

<(Lancer) HEY!>

<(Tennyo) I told you to apologize, not make things worse.>

<(Chaka) Closest we had was when Scrambler called and it took Fey five tries to get her to figure out it wasn’t Jody’s number.>

<(Fey) And Shroud hovered in our room for like an hour.  She even followed us to the toilet!>

<(Shroud) And we followed you all the way here too.  Just we had to sit for ten minutes…>

<(Chaka) Thirteen minutes.  And countin’.>

<(Shroud) …until someone finished with their ‘gun safety’ class.>

<(Generator) So you’re our most likely suspect!>

<(Phase) Gee, thanks.  Oh, that reminds me.  Fey?  The new kid.  Mugwump.  He’s got a seven foot staff that they’re classifying as a range weapon, so it’s probably a blasting rod.>

<(Chaka) Seven feet long?  Blasting rod?  Ya think he’s compensatin’ for something?>

<(Fey) Oh, you’ve got to see this kid.  He’s like the Harry Potter wannabe.  He looks like Harry, only after swelling up to Belphegor’s weight.  He even went with the same color hair dye and the same glasses!>

<(Phase) And he named himself after one of Dumbledore’s titles.>

<snerk>

<giggle>

I finally got the suit on, and I flew through a couple walls to get into my assigned chair.  I announced to the speakers, “Okay!  Phase now in place!”  Then I sat down and adjusted the stupid helmet on my head.

“All right, Team Kimba,” Wilson’s voice came through.  “Going live in ten… nine…  Phase, get your helmet closed so we can initialize.  “Four… three… two… one… go!”

We appeared in the middle of the Quad, with most of us hovering twenty to forty feet in the air.  I looked around quickly, only to find that all of us were present.

All of us?

Fey spun and pointed right at me.  <(Fey) Look out!  It’s Phase!>

She hurled a bolt of flickering blue energy right at my face.

Read 2592 times Last modified on Friday, 20 August 2021 01:15

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