Saturday, 18 August 2012 18:09

Ayla and the Mad Scientist: (Chap 14)

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Ayla and the Mad Scientist, the 9th Phase novel by Diane Castle, Chapter 14 – Les Liaisons Dangereux

Ayla and the Mad Scientist

CHAPTER 14 – Les Liaisons Dangereux

a Whateley novel

by Diane Castle

 

TEAM KIMBA

“I can’t believe she hit us with a Doombot!  That’s so cheat-y!” Generator complained as she rushed down the hallway.  She rushed to Phase’s little room and yanked open the door to complain.  The room was empty.  “Did she cut through the walls so she didn’t have to talk to me?”

“TEAM KIMBA!  REPORT TO ROOM ONE ON THE DOUBLE!” bellowed Bardue through the loudspeakers.

Chaka ignored the loudspeaker and strolled into the room behind Generator and Shroud.  “Hmm…”  She walked to the chair and put her hand on the seat.  “Seat’s cold.  Phase hasn’t been sittin’ in here.  Something’s up.”

Fey stepped in and looked at the ley lines.  “No one’s been in here for a little while.  I think.”

Chaka said, “I can believe that.  Maybe it wasn’t Phase at all.”

Lancer said, “Let’s go.”  He had to physically herd half the team out of the room and down the hall.

Chaka added, “She was a little too much with the monologuing and getting distracted.”

Tennyo said, “She knows a lot about us.  She didn’t use any of it against us.”

Lancer said, “I’m still not buying the part about the useless murders of MCO agents.  Not her style at all.”

Chaka said, “The part about ‘you need five years of econ to even understand what I figured out already’?  Totally Phase.”

They walked into Room 1 and found Bardue standing there with Wilson, Sam Everheart, and one of the sim jockeys.  Sitting stiffly on one of the benches, and not in a sim suit, was Phase.

<(Chaka) Yep, somebody wasn’t in the sim.>

<(Fey) She’s absolutely miserable.>

<(Shroud) She’s all sad and upset and stuff.>

<(Lancer) She doesn’t look it.>

<(Chaka) She never looks it.>

<(Fey) Unlocking comms so we can talk to her again.>

<(Generator) Hey Phase, we know it wasn’t you.  Are you okay?>

<(Phase) Sure.  I’m fine.>

<(Chaka) She’s not okay, look at her ki!  And she didn’t say ‘of course’.  She’s totally not fine.>

They sat down around Phase.  Generator and Shroud sat on either side of her, close enough that their hips and shoulders were touching her.

Lancer asked, “Gunny, who did you get to play Dark Phase?”

Bardue stared at him.  “What makes you think it wasn’t Phase?”

Chaka smirked at him, “You were a little too much evil supervillain and not enough smug super-financial whiz with a major ‘tude.”

Fey fibbed, “You fell for the ‘I surrender’ bit too fast.  Phase knows enough to know you can’t get a Sidhe in a binding oath without more loopholes than you’d know what to do with.”

Bardue asked, “So the ‘we surrender’ bit was one more gambit?”

Fey nodded sensuously.  “We have to have anti-Phase protocols too, you know.”

“‘Out of Phase’ is more like it,” said Chaka.

“More like ‘Un-Phased’,” said Tennyo.

“Or ‘Going Through a Phase’,” contributed Generator.

Somebody snerked over the Spots.

AYLA

Toni asked, “So who did play Dark Phase?”

Bardue said, “That would be Admiral Everheart.”

Lancer looked at Sam and said, “Pretty impressive for someone who doesn’t really know Phase like we do.”

I wasn’t sure, but I thought he was sucking up a bit.  Toni and Nikki definitely knew, but now was not the time to ask.

Sam said, “I have observed Phase for an entire winter term in Team Tactics, plus I’ve seen her interacting with the rest of you.  It wasn’t that hard to design a predictive model once Gunny gave me a simulation to work from.”

Bardue said, “And you’ve had the other important Dark Phoenix lessons already.”

<(Generator) We were supposed to learn something from these things?  Besides Phase plans way too much?>

<(Lancer) Hell yeah.  The ‘power upgrade’ scenario, the ‘overwhelming force’ scenario, the ‘massive illusions and trickiness’ scenario, and the ‘come over to the dark side Luke’ scenario.>

<(Chaka) What about the complete craziness scenario?>

<(Phase) Think we got that one Monday night.>

<(Generator) Hey!>

<(Shroud) Yeah!  Hey also!>

I tried to sound calm and focused as I said, “I refused to do it, so they’re going to boot me off the training team.  Six is probably a better size for you guys anyway.”

“You can’t kick her off the team!” Jade yelped.

“You won’t kick her off the team,” Hank insisted.

“And why not?” Bardue glared at him.

Toni said, “If you boot her, we walk.  We can dissolve Team Kimba.  Phase knows the rulebook inside and out.  We can all find ways to ditch sim training.”

Hank said, “We did this voluntarily, to get more experience.  We’re not doing it to play around in the sims, or for bragging rights.”

Nikki said, “We don’t need this hassle, anyway.  We have homework, and lives of our own.”

Billie added, “And real threats trying to blow us up.”

Jade and Jinn gave me big hugs, which made me feel better.  Even when Jinn poked me in the side with something sharp and metallic.  Knowing the J-Team, she probably did it on purpose.

Bardue said to Billie and Hank, “You haven’t even asked me what I was planning on doing.”  Then he knelt down in front of me and softly said, “Phase, I’m not going to boot you off the team.  But you need to see Dr. Bellows about this.  You’re not the first person who couldn’t attack a teammate in a given situation.  You won’t be the last.  But it’s a weakness.  A weakness someone can take advantage of.  That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or that you’re weak.  It just means you and your team need to know about it ahead of time.”

Hank said, “We do.  And we know Phase can really step it up and take on any one of us if we’ve gone Dark Phoenix.”

Billie said, “And now we know if we get a Dark Phase, it’s probably not Phase in there anyway.”

Jade said, “And we totally weren’t surprised Dark Phase would lead off with power armor minions and stuff like that.  And a Doombot.”

“Thaaaaaanks,” I growled.

They each gave me another hug.  Only this time, the sharp poke in the ribs came from the other side.  I didn’t know if they were in on this together, or if yet another one of the J-Team was sneaking around jabbing at me.

It probably didn’t matter, as long as it took my mind off the whole mess.  At least I didn’t burst into tears in front of Bardue and Wilson and Everheart.  That would have been absolutely humiliating.  For a guy trying to prove he was still a guy, I had plenty of lapses where I was anything but manly.  That was discouraging and depressing.  All right, sometimes thinking about it scared the hell out of me.  I didn’t want to get more female!  I was risking my neck going to Jobe just to be male again!

Maybe Jade was deliberately doing it just to distract me and not make me feel even more unmasculine for accepting hugs.  Just because she enjoyed emphasizing her ‘wacky inventor’ persona as Jade didn’t mean she wasn’t understanding.  After all, she could literally ‘see’ people’s emotions, so she had to be better at handling emotional people than your average girl.

After Bardue and Everheart lectured us on details we still needed to remember, and Wilson played ‘good cop’ by telling all the things the team did right, we were allowed to leave.  I sat in the room by myself while everyone else went and changed clothes.

I stewed about several things.  I had watched Sam’s work as Dark Phase on the big monitor in Room 1, so I knew what sort of simulation they ran, and what sorts of attacks they employed.  It seemed to me that there were several details they could have changed to make Dark Phase more dangerous, starting with the first move.  The wave of missiles was a great way to get the team really jumpy, but Sam didn’t know us quite well enough to see the optimal tactics to make the situation go downhill faster.  Attacking Tennyo and Fey was important just to make everyone think the red team was threatening the heavy hitters.  But knocking out Lancer was more important, because it would reduce the ‘rational response’ factor, and injuring Generator would increase the chance that Tennyo might over-react.  Lancer had made a smart move to get himself inside Fey’s forcefield, so he had a much lower chance of getting hammered by an anti-brick missile.

Then I would have made the MCO agents match the team’s expectations more closely.  That would have really irritated Chaka, among others.  I would have pressed the team more.  I would have tried harder to control all the conversations they had with ‘Dark Phase’, especially Chaka’s distracto-chat.  And I would have deployed ‘my’ minions a little differently to deal with the massive threats that Tennyo and Fey posed.

And I was going to have to think about power armor minions.  Just bringing them into the battlefield pretty much marked you as either a supervillain or the Knights of Purity.  And they were expensive.  Keeping a substantive force on retainer was a massive drain on the wallet.  Having them always around, no matter where you might be attacked, was nearly impossible to do without the kinds of powers that meant you didn’t need power armor minions in the first place.  It was really a lot easier to do the supervillain thing and simply have them on hand when your carefully-planned attack was launched.

On the other hand, the Knights of Purity ended up spending huge amounts just keeping their battle teams and support staff and support craft in a state of constant readiness.  And they needed high-speed dropships even when they were staying within a single metropolitan area.

I decided I wasn’t going to be able to cope with power armor protection until I had a fixed base of operations.  Maybe my own home, which would need to have extensive private land around it.  That would be a reasonable place to maintain a couple power armor teams for defensive purposes.  Maybe if the family decided I was less of a threat than your typical mutant, they might consider using that property as a Knights of Purity base.  That would kill two birds with one stone: I would have more protection, and they would get a KoP base station for free.

I looked up as the door opened and the team started trickling in.  They looked fine.  They were happy.  Toni was teasing Nikki about her performance – or lack thereof – in the simulation.  Everyone was teasing Toni about her suspicious nature.

Toni walked over as I arose.  “So Ayles, what was I s’posed ta do when you cornered me down in The Tunnel Of Love?”

I said, “I thought you did great against Sam.  She didn’t really act quite like I would have.  Still, just being your usual annoying self was probably the way to go.”

“Oh, I already knew that part.  Not bein’ able ta read your ki was a hassle, but I had that part down.  But what about the agent?  I mean, what do ya say to a woman who’s desperate to save her own mother?  That was a really shitty trick to pull, y’know.  Even if it wasn’t you.”

I said, “But it’s the sort of tactic I would have used.  A knowledge base leveraged against your opponents’ weakpoints.  Sun Tzu loved that kind of move.”

Fey said, “So did Chaka have any options right then?”

I sighed, “Maybe.  I don’t know Everheart as well as she seems to know how I would react… which could be a problem sometime in the future.  But if you had Chaka Chaka Bang Bang’ed the MCO agent into unconsciousness as soon as you saw her ki point toward her selling out, you might have been able to screw up Dark Phase’s plans for a couple more minutes.  It still wouldn’t have helped with the issue that you were dealing with a hologram and Dark Phase never entered the battlefield at all.  As far as I know, Everheart’s simulacrum wasn’t even on the dropships, so nothing the team did in the sim could have taken out the head badguy.”

Lancer was in the room by then.  He said, “Maybe if we had somewhere else to go besides The Grove.  Or if we had figured out your response would be so over the top, so the Lancer and MCO agents you saw outside The Grove were just more magical illusions, and I was flying them off to somewhere safer.”

Generator said, “I still think having all the MCO power armor tagged like that was totally Evil Genius.  I mean, that’s the kind of thing people expect from somebody like Dr. Diabolik or Deicide.  Do the Goodkinds really have something like that?”

“Put a backdoor in the last place anyone should have backdoors implanted?” I asked aghast.  “Of course not.”

Well, that’s what I had been told.  And I had to believe ‘trusted sources’ particularly if they were my father and my Uncle Herb.  But there were ‘sensitive areas’ that we Goodkinds knew were not going to be revealed until we met the family criteria, namely, working in the business and reaching twenty-one.  I knew some of the areas already, just because father had needed to tell me not to investigate until I reached my majority.  I knew one such area involved Goodkind family initiatives to interfere through legal and political channels with the nefarious plots of several international agencies of evil, like the Brotherhood of the Bell and Thule Gemeinschaft.  Not that anyone I knew around here would even believe that GKI worked hard to save the world.

Okay, Lady Astarte would probably have enough experience that she would believe it.  If I ever had a situation where I was dealing with something like Thule Gemeinschaft maneuvers against my family, she might be a good go-to person.

Still, I could just imagine what someone like Toni or Alex would say if I tried to defend my family by explaining how they expended valuable resources protecting the world from international conspiracies.  Even if I could convince them it was true, they wouldn’t believe that Goodkinds would do something for laudable purposes.

I dropped that line of thought and let the team chivvy me out the door.  The guard checked us out, and we walked down the hall.  Once we were far enough away from the sims and Nikki had checked that Sam hadn’t tagged us with any nanites, we started talking about the sims again.

Lancer said, “That is the kind of thing we need to be prepared for.  Real threats like Dr. Diabolik don’t stand around on the battlefield where we can take potshots at them.”

I said, “Dr. Diabolik probably stays in a cloaked dropship way up over the target city, and directs strike teams from there.”

Toni smirked, “Wow, I guess that’s another thing you have in common with Jadis now.”

“That wasn’t even me in the sim!” I protested.

“Hey, relax,” said Billie.

“Yeah,” agreed Jade.  “We totally would’ve creamed you if you really did show up in the sim.”

Hank said, “It’s not like you didn’t give me your ‘protocols’ to take you down if we had to.”

I grumbled, “Well duh.  I’m easy to take out.  Fey keeps me from diving into the ground with a force field.  Then you pound on me with Lancer or Tennyo, and if I try to go light, hit me with an energy blast of some kind, or some of Tennyo’s plasma, or a ray gun, or whatever.”

Toni got ‘up in my grill’, or whatever the hip phrase happens to be this week.  She snapped, “Look Ayles, nobody that you need Tennyo, Lancer, and Fey to stop is ‘easy to take out’!  So knock this shit off!”

I tried to explain, “That’s just the simple scenario.  I’ve got ways to take me out that don’t require any of our big guns.  For example-”

“Don’t wanna hear it!” she interrupted.  “Just drop it right now, or… or I’ll go tell all the chefs you don’t want any more of their special foods for the rest of the year.”

“Ooh, playing hardball!” teased Hank.

Nikki glared at him, then really glared at me.  “I’m getting pretty tired of this too.  We all know you can take down most of the people on campus in five seconds.  And we all know you can take down ninety five percent of the people on campus, if you have ten minutes to prepare.  And we all know you’ve got a drawer full of weapons and stuff back in your room.”

“AND you’ve got that psi grenade on order,” Billie mentioned.  “Who knows what the heck that’d do to someone like me?”

“They pushed back the delivery date on it by another quarter,” I mumbled.

“And sensei had you sparring against Hank and Billie a lot by end of term,” Jade pointed out.

“And losing most of the time, too,” I reminded her.

Nikki bulldozed over all of us.  “So just stop it.  If you’re feeling insecure about this, well guess what?  We all do!  You don’t think I let Hagarty beat the snot out of me every other day for fun, do you?  No!  It’s because I worry about surprise attacks, and up-close attacks, and attacks that stop my magic.”

“Okay.  I’ll stop complaining about it,” I grudgingly conceded.  That didn’t mean I wouldn’t continue to worry about it.  I’d just be quieter.

Once we got back to the dorm, I found that Vamp wasn’t in my room or loitering with intent in the hallway.  I actually had privacy for a couple minutes.  So I pulled out my bPhone and I checked the regular investment news.  Microsoft was announcing that ‘richer web content’ programming was going to be ‘in’, and Microsoft was announcing they were focusing on it in a big way.  Hmm.

I needed a list of the top companies Microsoft might buy out to quickly acquire technology in the area.  It was a popular strategy among the heavyweights: buy out whoever might be serious competition, then leverage the acquisition into a better knowledge base for your people.  I sat down and called Trin & Macintyre.  I asked for some surreptitious research into the relevant companies and their strengths and weaknesses.

A lot of these companies had weak management, weak marketing, weak development models, weak knowledge bases, or weak personnel structures.  Weak personnel structure was the death knell in a competitive computer business, because you either had too few computer gurus, you were alienating your gurus, or you had just lost your gurus.  A weak knowledge base meant you were lacking in programming or design personnel, or you were restricting yourself to building on antiquated systemata, or you were confining yourself to a small number of OSes or connections or connective models, or you were limiting the areas of your work in some other way.  A weak development model meant that you were making your programmers or designers spend all their time on the wrong things: too many updates, too few updates, unnecessary bells and whistles, too much control of programming function, not enough control of programming function, and a host of similar problems.  Weak marketing meant that you couldn’t sell your product in a competitive market for one reason or another.  And weak management usually led to one of the other problems, or led to getting hit with lawsuits, or filing lawsuits that were going to be too costly, or not recognizing what the industry was doing or would soon do, or lots of other ultimately painful choices.

A company like Microsoft or Goodkind Computing or IBM could salvage most of these problems by acquiring the company.  As long as the knowledge base and computing personnel were solid, all of the other problems could be easily resolved by bringing the purchased company into the fold.  Lots of times the resolution was firing a lot of people, but that was how businesses often worked.  There was no point in keeping incompetent upper management who were leading the company over a cliff.  And evaluating middle management was always a case-by-case project, so you could keep the valuable managers who knew the knowledge workers and understood the projects, and can the bad managers who were doing nothing but alienating their people.

There were too many pointy-haired bosses out there in the real world.  Seriously.  There’s no excuse for this.  If you are in a management position and you’re struggling, you should be working on fixing you before you work on ‘fixing’ your people.  If you don’t understand the work done by your knowledge workers, how can you possibly do your job?  You should be working to learn as much about your project’s underpinnings as you can.  If you don’t feel like you understand the requirements of your job, that can be fixed by study: there are plenty of colleges and on-line sources that teach business and management.

The mere fact that ‘Dilbert’ is so popular among the tech set is a clear indication that there are far too many pointy-haired bosses and perfect-haired upper management types out there.  One of my investment rules is that if the tech company you’re looking at has ever even considered banning Dilbert cartoons, then they have management problems so severe that you’re probably going to have to clean house and bring in your own managers, starting at the top and working downward.

I couldn’t keep doing all this myself.  I really needed a top-notch staff on which I could rely.  But acquiring that sort of staff took time.  I was working on it.  Then, once I got a staff, I was going to have to work on not micro-managing everything.  That might be harder.

          *        *        *        *        *       

BELPHEGOR

He slipped over to the door.  Literally.  Fortunately, he didn’t drop anything.  It was all safely secured in his rolling gear box.  He picked himself up and checked with his system to listen whether anyone was in the hall outside.

It was a good thing he had… ahem… adapted Greasy’s skin sprayer system.  It made a perfect covering for the palms and fingers.  Even with that fall, he wasn’t leaving any fingerprints.

There was no sound from the hallway, so he opened the lab door and moved out.  He only needed to get a good hundred feet away from the door before he could begin his usual casual walk and remain completely unsuspected.

This was his third visit of the night, and he had procured everything he needed, despite the risk of getting caught.  Now he needed to ‘borrow’ someone else’s lab, create another of his masterpieces, and then get into Jobe’s lab to replace Jobe’s serum with his.  He decided to check Delta Spike’s lab first.  She usually left her lab door unlocked so that Security and rescue teams could get in to her if need be.  If Delta’s lab was locked, he was going to try Triaxial’s lab.  Tri usually forgot to lock his stuff up, not that there was much in there worth going through.  He had a mental list of eight or nine other Workshop people who didn’t normally do much to secure their labs.

But he would do whatever it took.  Whatever he needed to do, no matter how painful or exhausting.  He was not going to let a creep like Jobe come out of this mess cured and everything.  He was not going to let his Belphoebe become a victim to a monster like Jobe Wilkins.

And someone with the brilliance of Belphegor, plus a little access to a few other labs, could ensure that Jobe would regret his actions.

          *        *        *        *        *       

VAMP

Vamp slipped out of her room.  Someone was sound asleep and making a little purring noise that was way too girly for someone who was still insisting she was all guy on the inside.

Not to mention that Ayla had a lot of nerve claiming she was still a guy when she had bigger boobs and wider hips than Alex.  It was like she was doing it just to be a jerk.

Not that Ayla didn’t do a ton of stuff just to be a jerk.  Like that huge fuss about the coffee maker.  That was not her fault!  Or the giant hissy fit about using her laptop before the school issued one to Alex.  Okay, maybe that one was her fault.  But Ayla didn’t need to make that huge a deal about it!  Ayla was a bigger whiner than Ainslee Caruthers, and that was saying something.  Ooh, don’t borrow my clothes!  Ooh, don’t put your stuff in my clothes basket.  Ooh, don’t take up my staring-at-naked-hotties time!  Ooh, don’t touch my expensive gear!  Was there anybody more annoying they could have stuck her with?  And she knew just why they had stuck her in a room with a girl who had beaten the shit out of her with a forty foot giant.  Duh.  Whoever was in charge of rooms and such around here wasn’t a whole lot subtler than Darrow.  Still, it could have been worse.  They could have stuck her with someone she clobbered, like Bladedancer.  Nothing like rooming with someone who had a massive grudge against you.  And who also had a freaking magic sword that could slice through anything.

She made her way silently up past Damnation Alley toward her target upstairs.  Nothing like running into Hippolyta to make your day.  Or night.  Alex had seen the weight room downstairs.  Eight and a half tons on the bench press?  That was sick.  Why did some of these women have such a hate-on for transgenders?  Hippolyta really had it in for Lancer, for some insane reason, only Lancer liked tussling with her.  Crazy Kimbas.  And that bitch Tempest, who really had it in for Chaka and Phase.  Well, Tempest hated Fey and Tennyo too, but wasn’t stupid enough to go postal on someone that far out of her weight class.  Hell, Phase was a lot tougher than she looked, and she talked about Tennyo and Fey like they were so far out of her weight class they made Darrow look like someone studying out of a Magic for Dummies book.  Still, if what they all said was true and Fey was two, oh, and one against Darrow, that put her up there with The Magus.  And Alex still hadn’t been able to get the down-low on the Dark Tennyo sim, but it sounded like in one of the runs, Tennyo blew up the entire Eastern Seaboard and plunged the entire planet into a nuclear winter.  That pretty much put her up there with Cataclysm and Deicide on threat potential.

She really ought to be thinking about getting some of the Kimbas on her side, in case she had to take on Darrow again someday.  Some of the Kimbas other than Phase, who was just too annoying for words.  Maybe Generator.  Tara liked her.  And she drove Phase up the wall.

She needed several seconds to get the upstairs bedroom door unlocked, and then she pulled enough energy out of her boytoy’s roomie to knock him out for an hour or two.

She gave her guy a shove.  “Wake up.”

“Whu?  Huh?  Oh, Alex!”  He gave her a sleepy smile.

She glared, “Forget about that.  You forgot to report in today.”

He muttered, “I tried, but it’s not that easy.”

She gave him a chance to explain.  “Why not?  Can’t you just take on the form of one of the other freshies?”

He rolled his eyes.  “No.  Because half the Kimbas can spot anyone who’s up to something.  Didn’t I tell you about getting caught back in the fall?  Fey and Punch are high-level receptive empaths, and even Tempest isn’t too bad at it.  Chaka can read your ki and tell what you’re feeling.  Shroud can read your emotions, and Generator has a devise or something that lets her duplicate it.  And they’re not the only ones on the floor.  I just couldn’t work it this evening.”

She asked, “You didn’t want to just do it in one of your usual looks?”

He shook his head.  “Nope.  Even if I went with the Captain America look or the ultra-nerd look, the girls would still spot I was up to something.”

She grinned, “I like the Cap look.  Very butch.  Very not-you.”

He rolled his eyes.  “I only use that one for special occasions.”

She decided it was time to get to the point.  “So.  What’d ya get me?”

He got out of bed and tiptoed over to the closet in nothing but a pair of white boxer shorts covered in red hearts.  She managed to hold in the assorted snarky comments that ran through her head like a huge sarcastic teleprompter.

He opened a gymbag on the floor of the closet.  “Okay.  Two fifty-mil twenty-by-twenty plastic tarps.  Box of cleaning wipes, just in case.  Four pairs of paper shoe protectors.  Two paper painter’s coveralls.  One box nitrile gloves.  Two shower caps.  Two cloth facemasks with breathing filters.”

“Good so far,” Vamp said.

“This little pressure pot will do everything one of those huge, expensive pro paint sprayers will do, for our purposes.  Three sets of tubing and three sprayheads made for detail work with dyes and stains.”

“Eggggcellent,” she said.  Her Mister Burns was a hundred times better than Phase’s.  No question.

“The pressure pot’s small and only takes quarts or smaller, so I got four quarts of the jet black skin dye.”

“Just black?” she checked.

He said, “Umm, yeah?  Did I forget something?”

She groaned, “Moron.  We absolutely need at least three ounces of bright pink skin dye too.  And some masking tape or masking material so we can keep the black off her lips and nipples.”

“Shit,” he muttered.  “I knew I forgot something.”

She said, “Well, you’ll just have to go back.  Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” he whined.

“Tomorrow,” she insisted.  She knew he liked it when she got tough with him.  He was such a bottom.  But she wasn’t interested in playtime.  “They’re closed on weekends.  You have to pick the stuff up before five tomorrow, or we can’t execute the prank this weekend.”

He sighed, “Okay, okay…  I’ll do it.”

“And when you go back, look like someone else,” she said.

He grinned at her.  “How about The Don?”

“Oh, brilliant,” she muttered.  “Sure, feel free to make yourself look like The Don… if you want to get that psycho and his goons on our asses.”

“Jeez, I was just making a little joke!”

“Very little,” she snapped.  “I heard about that guy.  I don’t think even The Necromancer knows how to do black magic like what he did to Cavalier and Skybolt.  You do not mess with guys who use black magic and have no scruples.  I’ve got the scars to prove it.”

“Fine, fine, no more jokes about Don Sebastiano and his psycho corps,” he muttered.  “Did you get the hair bleach?”

She rolled her eyes.  “Natch!  A dorm full of teenage girls?  There’s enough hair bleaching equipment in this place to handle the entire Miss California contest.  I just borrowed some.  Nobody will ever know.”

He asked, “So when does Jobe stab her in the butt?”

“Jobe probably wishes she could still stab her in the butt,” Alex muttered.  “Tomorrow morning.  I figure we give the serum thirty-six hours to kick in and start doing something.  So we’ll be on for late Saturday night.  Once she’s asleep I’ll suck up enough of her energy to knock her out for a few hours, and we’ll be able to work pretty easily.”

“Sure,” he said.  “She only weighs like.. what?  Ninety pounds?  Piece of cake.”

Alex grinned, “I can’t wait to see her face when she wakes up Sunday morning.”

He smirked, “I can’t wait ‘til she goes postal on Jobe.  A Goodkind versus a Wilkins?  Who do you root for there?  The ring girl?”

She patted him on the head and said, “Go back to sleep, Stevie.”

          *        *        *        *        *       

AYLA

Friday, March 9, 2007, morning

Once again, I woke up before my alarm went off.  I was anxious to get going, and just plain anxious.  All right, I wasn’t anxious.  I was petrified.  I was figuring there was a small chance this would work.  I was figuring there was a small chance it would kill me.  I was figuring there was a reasonable chance that this could do something so horrific to me that I’d be eating meals over with Outcast Corner from here on out.

It didn’t really matter when I looked at the bottom line.  I had to do this.  I had to do whatever I could to stop looking like a hot brunette with a wiener.  Why was I the Exemplar who ended up looking like a freak?

I knew one of the current popular research theories was that Exemplars got their BITs from their own subconscious ideal.  But Goodkind Research had been studying this for years.  There were certainly a lot of cases where that appeared to be true.  But there were a significant fraction of cases where that was probably unrealistic.  Really, I couldn’t see any way that Deimos and Phobos imagined anything like what they ended up resembling by the time they got to Whateley Academy.  And there were a couple even more disturbing cases in the literature.  Very few of those cases were adequately researched within Goodkind Research or by the MCO research departments.  Unfortunately, you couldn’t go to a family who were trying to protect one or two odd-looking mutants and just announce, “Hi, I’m with Goodkind Research!”  Not unless you wanted the dad to whip out his shotgun and give you the Benton Wolf treatment, without any Uncle Abner around to avenge you post hoc.

I didn’t understand pattern theory, but I knew that there were plenty of people putting forth alternative theories that were loosely based on pattern theory, and I was fairly sure that they understood less of pattern theory than I did.  Srivastava and Gupta were shilling for their own version of the ‘in’ theory: that Exemplars got their BITs from the ‘collective unconscious’.  Since they couldn’t even prove there was a collective unconscious, that one really irritated me.  This was supposed to be scientific research, not a battle to get on Oprah.  Christensen, Berlant and Hallam were lobbying for their own variant of the base theory: that not only the Exemplar’s subconscious ideal had an effect on the BIT, but there was an effect from those of the ones around the Exemplar as he or she manifested.  Given how Seraphim looked and knowing she was stuck in a Catholic church while she manifested, that seemed worth investigating.  Marlowe and Hibberley at Goodkind Research had an in-house theory that some of the peculiar BITs might be explained by psychic interference from nearby Psis or Espers, but that one wasn’t considered viable even within GR.  That theory wasn’t in the literature, but Mother had shown me some internal ‘gray literature’ on it last year.  And then there was the version put forth by Kluwer, Grigor, and Webster: all good-looking mutants were Exemplars with BITs, while all the ones ending up looking like something they didn’t want just had GSD instead.  I knew from personal experience that was crap, and I could point out a dozen other counterexamples without leaving the campus.  But Grigor was a longstanding ‘big name’ in biophysics, so he had pull in the scientific community whether or not his theory was right.

I personally would have felt a lot better if I really didn’t believe the primary theory in the field.  I hated thinking that I had done this to myself.  But the more I looked into Melissa’s situation and the Springfield Slasher, the less likely I found it that my current form was natural in any way.  Back when I thought I had a normal BIT and I had acquired it through a normal mutant manifestation, it made sense.  But I had never had the meta-gene complex as a child.  I didn’t have anything approaching a normal BIT, even around here.  On the other hand, the fact that I wanted to believe this stupid body wasn’t my fault didn’t make it so.

I just had to hope that after some help from Jobe, my body would be better.  Male, at a minimum.

Ooh, if I became male, they’d have to move Vamp out of my room!  Yes!  Maybe they could move her out and let her room with someone who would whip her into shape.

No, not Jadis, I liked Jadis.  Not Sara, I liked her too.  Not Fractious, I felt sorry for her.  What about…

Tisiphone.  Yeah, that would be a great pairing.  Their room would be shredded and afire in under a day.  Other than the problems it would cause for their hallmates and house mother, I wasn’t seeing any downside there.

I got up and walked down to the showers a good thirty minutes before my alarm would have started playing one of Vamp’s least favorite Brass Monkey songs.  I was just too apprehensive.  Why couldn’t I be upbeat about things, like Toni?  Or taciturn about things, like Hank?  Or at least be crazy about things, like Jade?

Since I got to the showers earlier than usual, the standard cast of characters was still in their beds.  It also meant there were fewer people waiting for the showers.

Jody looked over at me and asked, “You up early for… umm… that thing with Jobe?”

Oh well, so much for a surreptitious start.  Since I had been working on an agreement with Jobe for a while before we ever got to the science aspect, and we had a team of five working on writing the contract, I supposed it was ridiculous to assume that this would stay private.  Jobe probably talked to the Bad Seeds and his Drow about me.  I had talked to Vanessa and the team about Jobe.  I had told Jody that our usual schedule might get disrupted.  Even Vamp knew about it.  Heck, most of Poe probably knew about it.

Evvie stepped out of her shower and looked at me.  “You okay?”

When a receptive empath asks you something like that, they mean “I can tell you’re not okay, do you want to talk about it now?”

I said, “Thanks for being concerned about me, Evvie.”

That, of course, means “I know perfectly well you know exactly how I’m feeling, but I am not going to talk about it.  I’m just going to skirt the issue instead of giving you a direct ‘no’ answer.”

I needed to add Evvie to my short list for Easter break.  If I needed someone to play personal assistant slash bodyguard for me, someone like Evvie would be a good choice.  She could spot any attackers before they struck, and she could absorb a lot of damage with that PK field.  She could read the emotions of the people with whom I met.  The only real questions were: whether she would want to put up with all the tasks that a real personal assistant had to do; whether she would mind wearing the clothes and maintaining the look; and whether she already had plans for Easter break.  Unlike me, there were plenty of students who did have families who wanted to see them, and there were plenty of students who had active social lives outside of Whateley Academy.

All right, that wasn’t really fair.  Janet and Gracie wanted me to come visit them for a couple days over Easter break.  Gracie wanted me to take a personal look at all the work she had been supervising, instead of merely sending me emails and videos.  Janet was talking about fixing her special ‘spring surprise’ for me, but I was assuming that was a good reason not to go to L.A. over the break.  Given Janet’s rather dubious cooking skills, it was probably going to be a real surprise.  And would probably require intervention by a gastroenterologist.

I didn’t really pay much attention to anyone who didn’t talk to me.  Maybe I was just spoiled by showering and getting to watch a cast of young women so gorgeous they could make ‘Baywatch’ lifeguard girls give up and drown themselves.  Maybe I was just really worried about my upcoming trip to Jobe’s lab.

I knew I was doing something insane.  Jadis had lectured me on that point more than once.  More than thrice.  She had warned me that the only thing worse than a Jobe failure was a Jobe success.  She had pointed at the Fury twins as Example A.  She even told me about the dreaded ‘poo-tonium’ incident from their childhood.  But I had to try.

All right, everyone had lectured me on this.  Even Jade ‘I let a mad scientist hack my foot off while I watched’ Sinclair.  Come to think of it, that wasn’t even close to the craziest thing Jade had ever done.  If Jade thought this plan was crazy, that was a bad sign.

I rushed through my morning routine and got back to my room before my alarm clock would have gone off.  I was dressed and out of the room before my planned wake-up time.  Not that I was nervous or anything like that.

I did deep breathing exercises as I walked down the tunnel toward Jobe’s lab.  I knew they wouldn’t change my attitude or metamorphose my nerves into serenity.  I just wanted to look like I was calm.  It was an old Goodkind family trick.  It was more important to look like you were in control of yourself than to be in control of yourself.  Just as it was more important to be in control of a crisis than to look it.

I arrived a few minutes early at the door to the lab.  There wasn’t the usual security guard at the front of the hallway, which I assumed was probably significant.  Unfortunately, knowing my luck, it was probably a bad sign.

I still walked to the door and pressed the buzzer.  Belphoebe’s voice answered, “Oh, Phase.  Come on in.”  It was easy to tell the Drow Enclave apart when you heard them, because Jobe still had that Illinois/Indiana accent that his father had never lost.  Belphoebe still used the upper-class Brit accent that Belphegor faked all the time.  And Bova had an American Cornbelt accent that had sounded almost tragic when she looked like a cow, but now sounded cute and perky.  I wondered how Freight Train would sound.  And look.

I walked in and found out.  I had seen the ‘curvy sexpot’ body form with Jobe and Belphoebe, and the ‘petite cutie’ body form with Bova.  It appeared that Jobe was at least a student of the female form, because Freight Train didn’t look like either version – once you got past the black skin and elf ears.  She had been a big bruiser before, and clearly unhappy about it.  But now she was a tall, thin, sleek, athletic-looking hottie.  She had a body most pro volleyball women would kill for, or at least spike for.  I had to wonder if Jobe was letting his new drows choose their look.  And I had to wonder if that ‘eighty percent failure rate’ I had heard predicted was realistic, because Freight Train was very clearly doing fine.

She was stark naked and standing in one of Jobe’s scanners, while Jobe studied three monitors and an electronic tablet.  In a definite New Jersey accent, Freight Train asked, “Are we done yet?”

Bova smiled at her.  “I know you’re bored, but you really don’t want to ruin things now, right?”

“Heck no,” agreed Freight Train.  “I already gotta put up with my roomie tellin’ me every darn day I’m an idiot ‘cause I went for it.  I’m not screwin’ things up and havin’ ta listen ta her tell me over and over how she was right.”

Wow.  Way to prioritize there, Freight Train.  Because being able to tell your roommate to shut up was clearly the most important thing when undergoing radical bio-devisor therapies that could kill you or turn you into a monstrosity that would make Migraine look good by comparison.

Belphoebe looked at a set of screens and said, “This looks quite stable, but you’re not going to be finished changing for at least three days.  And then I’m not clearing you for rigorous exercise for at least seven days after that.”

“Four,” snapped Jobe.

“Seven.  Look at the tRNA ontogenesis,” insisted Belphoebe.

“Four.  Study the mitochondrial stability and the intracellular linkages, and then evaluate it.  Properly.”

“I’m still saying seven.  Look at the chemistry in the synapses.”

Bova stepped in, “Can we calm down a little?  Maybe Freight Train would feel safer if we went with the longer time?  After all, it’s not like sensei Ito’s going to let her into Aikido class this term, anyway.”

Jobe complained, “You two still aren’t up to speed.”

Belphoebe counter-complained, “We have two weeks!  That’s a week and a half left to go!”

Jobe said, “I think I’ll ask sensei Yamamoto to give you three lessons a day on weekends.”

“Bloody martinet,” Belphoebe complained.

Bova stepped in again, “Well, don’t you think Jobe is right?  If we can get enough training in just two weeks, surely an extra lesson twice a week would be worth it.  And it’s not like we’re going to be too beat up to take another lesson after a couple hours of regen.”

Jobe pointed out, “Don’t forget the enhanced kinesthetics I designed into these bodies.”

Belphoebe complained, “I know!  I have one of them!  Remember?”

“Oh, how I wish I could forget,” fussed Jobe.

I had to admit it.  The snide pomposity was a lot easier to take coming from a hot girl with a sexy voice than from a whiny, nasal-voiced dweeb with a chin like a ferret.

Bova said, “I really appreciate how fast I can learn those forms.  I never had muscle memory like that before.”

The dynamic in here was fascinating.  Was Bova going to defuse every argument?  Was she going to slowly erode Jobe’s attitude?  I didn’t know, but I decided that I was going to help Bova in any way I could, as long as Jobe wouldn’t realize what I was doing.  I knew that would have unfortunate repercussions, like undoing a lot of the good that Bova seemed to be doing already.  I was already looking forward to seeing what Freight Train could contribute to the milieu.  Unless Jobe was able to enforce some sort of matriarchy, she was slowly going to get marginalized as more reasonable drows outvoted her.  I was smiling to myself at the thought.  Maybe Jadis would be able to get me some video footage.

I waited until Jobe tugged on the lapels of her Whateley labcoat and turned away from the consoles.  I noticed that she had half a dozen instruments clipped to hardpoints on the coat, and even in the labroom she had weapons within easy reach, both inside the labcoat and on the exterior.  I supposed that surviving to the teen years while dealing constantly with Gizmatic had to do something unpleasant to one’s ability to trust.

People probably said very similar things about me.  I didn’t want to think about that.  Even if I probably needed to sit down and analyze it before it bit me.

Once Jobe deigned to look my way, I asked, “Has something changed?  Usually there’s a security guard at the end of the hallway.”

She frowned, “Someone attempted to break into one of the labs in the hallway.  Whoever it was used a tranq dart.  Security thinks they have the competence to analyze the blood samples and figure out what was used.  And they think they’re alert enough to work out from that who did it.”

“Aren’t there concealed cameras and such all over the place down here?” I wondered aloud.

Jobe scowled at me.  “Well duh.  Anyone who can’t figure out how to spoof the security system around here has no business calling themselves a member of the Workshop.  Even Fixx could do it, and he’s pathetic.”  She stopped and thought for a moment.  “Well, he could possibly do it.  He really is extraordinarily pathetic.”

I just said, “But surely you’ve taken that weakness into account.”

She nodded grumpily.  “But someone…”  She stopped and glared at Belphoebe.  “…forgot to turn my private systems on last night when she closed up.  Just like she did on Monday night.”

Belphoebe snapped back, laying on the upper-crust British accent even thicker, “If some people could establish rational mechanisms for operating the controls, the rest of us could get them to work more regularly.”

Jobe snarled, “A set of simple intron patterns is a rational mechanism!”

Bova intervened again.  “I’m sure it’s simple for you, but it’s impossible for me.  One of them is a hundred twenty letters long!  I’d love to be able to help you out, but if I can’t even turn the security measures on and off, you’d always have to be the first one in and the last one out.”

Jobe huffed, “I usually am the first one in and the last one out.”

Bova softly asked, “What about when Darcy wants you to do something?  What about when the Bad Seeds need your help on something?  What about when the headmistress summons you about something?  What about when your family does something?”

“Again?” muttered Jobe.  “Fine.  I see your points.  I will take it under consideration.”

Bova gave her a big smile.  “Thank you.  I’d really appreciate it.”

Jobe smiled back.  I wondered if she had realized the consequences of having her dream girl and not having her perfectly under some sort of control.  Because Jobe looked like a guy who had just been asked to do something by Fey, and I had no doubt Jobe would end up doing what Bova asked… in the next few hours.  If the girls were going to be able to get Jobe to do what they wanted merely by flirting, she was in massive trouble.  And she wasn’t going to see it coming, either.  I concentrated on stock market derivatives so I wouldn’t break into a grin and give it away.  I didn’t have as much of a hope that I could block Bova from picking up my emotions, but I gave it a try.

I turned to the drow who was now out of the scanner and nearly dressed.  “Freight Train.  I’m glad to see you’re doing well.”

She snorted derisively.  “Sure.  You’re the Goodkind, right?  I doubt it.”

Bova softly said, “FT, she does care.  And she’s the one who was nice to Pheebs yesterday in aikido.”

I said, “A lot of people care.  Plenty of people were worried about you.”

She frowned, “Yeah.  Right.  They’ll ‘care’ now that I don’t look like a rhino.”

I just said, “I’m sure plenty of people are just that shallow.  But you’re going to have an advantage most of us don’t.  You’ll know who treated you nicely before, and who is only nice to you now that you’ve changed.  I bet there’s not one single member of Team Kimba who’d treat you any different.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Yeah, well everyone knows they’re completely crazy.  Who let a bunch of Poesies form a training team?”

Bova gently said, “Phase is on that team.”

Freight Train said, “Oh!  I heard about you.  You bought the toughest froshes in the whole school, and then hired some wildcards and devisers.”

I looked at Jobe and asked rhetorically, “Why does everyone assume that?”

Jobe said, “It is the logical action, given you’re a Goodkind.  I still can’t believe you went with power armor minions in Boston.  That’s so… eighties.  Biologicals and technorganics would have been so much better.”

All the Bad Seeds probably assumed that as a Goodkind, I had to buy a team to protect myself.  They had each other, plus anything contributed by their parents, not to mention the raw fear engendered by someone like Dr. Diabolik.  I wondered if there were Golden Kids who really had bought a team, and so it was just expected that other Golds would pull a similar maneuver.

I figured Jobe had some inside knowledge I couldn’t easily acquire, like years of stories from Gizmatic and other former Whateleyites.  I asked her, “Have there really been students who bought their own superteam?”

She rolled her eyes as if I had asked something stupid.  “Naturally.  The Bronze Tiger did it back when dad was here.  It’s a regular occurrence.  Although most of the Golds who do it just hire two or three protectors.  Like Rhetoric.  He hired a flying brick and a forcefield chick – basically like your little friends Lancer and Wallflower, but lower level – as his bodyguards, and then when he went into the training sims, he brought them along and hired the best blaster and the best teleporter he could buy off.”

I asked, “And are there students around here who really believe I could buy off the people on my team?  I mean, we’re talking about Tennyo and Fey and Chaka and Generator here.”

The disbelief was written all over her face.  “Everyone knows how much money you have access to.  You could easily buy an orphan like Generator and an Army brat like Lancer.  Tennyo would do anything for Generator.  Fey and Carmilla?  Just keep them in a steady stream of mithril.  Chaka?  Render thinks you used a little judicious extortion.  Thrasher thinks you found the guy she was drooling over, and handed him to her on a silver platter.”

“And your assessment?” I asked.

She pursed her bright pink lips.  “I think you did some sort of rapid psych assessment and found her biggest weakness.  Probably, you offered her the opportunity to get into bigger and better battles.”

You know, with Chaka that could have worked.  Knowing Chaka as I did, how would she have been able to turn that one down?  “No, white girl.  There’s no way I wanna join a team with you on it.”  “Wait! I’ll let you fight superpowered ninjas!  And upperclass bullies with superpowers!  And huge, hairy Sasquatches!  And super-werewolves and zombies!”  “Righteous!  Okay, sign me up!”

I said, “Chaka is just crazy enough to fall for something like that.”

But there was no way I was explaining to Jobe why we were really a team.  Even if he had gotten to experience the misery of being trapped in a body of the wrong gender, and was now a she… who obviously had discussed Team Kimba at length with the rest of the Bad Seeds, and had no reason to exercise any discretion in future.

Jobe looked over at Bova, who shook her head and said, “I don’t think any of the guesses were right.  She seemed more surprised, and dismayed that you were saying it.”

I added, “And discouraged that you’d think I would have to buy myself a team.”

“We have met you, you know,” replied Jobe in her standard attempt to win friends and influence people.

Bova gave Jobe a look, but didn’t say anything.  I had a feeling she was going to be giving Jobe that look a lot over the upcoming years.

Jobe stepped over to a wall of carefully sequestered vials of assorted compounds, most of which I assumed nobody in their right minds would want to be unsecured.  Even Deathmaiden would probably be afraid to open those chambers.

She put one palm on a palmprint reader and waited while the system recognized her.  Then she typed in a combination on another panel, and the system operated.  I watched with interest as a robotic arm moved within one of the chambers and selected a particular vial.  The arm lifted the vial out of its rack, and then carried it over to a small door on the side of the security chamber.  The door opened, and the arm placed the vial inside.  Then the vial was moved by another robotic arm to a small box of transparent plastic, which opened up so that Jobe could reach in and take out the vial.

She opened a new syringe and extracted twelve cc’s of serum.  Then she said. “Drop your pants and panties, and bend over that table.”

I just stared at her.

Bova said, “She’s not going to fall for it.”

Belphoebe complained, “Even the pater isn’t stupid enough to fall for it!  Honestly!”

Freight Train, now fully dressed, complained, “So what if she’s got the number fourteen butt on campus.  You get to shower in the girls’ showers now!”

Bova said, “Just think how Darcy would feel about you doing this.”

Jobe rolled her eyes again.  “She would be completely unreasonable about it.”

I finally said, “I did hear you say some weeks ago that this would be intravenous.  I’m not a doctor, but even I know shots into the derriere would be intramuscular.”

“Do you play one on television?” snarked Freight Train as she picked up a book bag and prepared to walk out.

Belphoebe said, “It could happen.  It’s not like the Goodkinds don’t own about a hundred television stations worldwide.”

I didn’t correct her underestimate, nor did I point out that I was no longer an official Goodkind, so it was rather unlikely they would pay to create a medical show just so I could have an acting job on it.  Not to mention the stance in Hollywood about mutants in the biz, which had been around since before Technicolor, and which the Goodkinds had been supporting ever since the late ‘60’s as far as I knew.

There was also no point in trying to engage in a war of words, when it looked like the entire room would gang up on me if I did so.  I was fairly sure that even Bova would take the side of her fellow drow if pushed.  So I merely said, “I’m still not dropping my pants just so you can stare at the number fourteen posterior on campus.  Not that I agree with the rating system, or feel that a rating system on such a thing is even acceptable.”

Jobe said, “Wow, it’s like being forced to listen to Macrobiotic.”  She switched to a high-pitched, sniveling whine.  “Ooh, don’t experiment on prisoners.  Ooh, don’t experiment on cattle.  Ooh, don’t experiment on chimpanzees.”  She switched back to her normal voice.  “Honestly, it’s as if she doesn’t want me to do any experimental research at all.”

I refrained from making any comments, even though half a dozen came to mind.  After all, the United Nations was still cranky about that whole ‘tumor beef’ deal in Africa.  As far as I knew, the U.N. had issued more sanctions against Jobe in the past two years than against his dad.  That was saying something.  Something icky.

I returned to the relevant subject matter.  “So.  Do you want to use a vein from the back of my hand, my wrist, or my forearm?”

Jobe stepped over and took my hand.  She looked at the back of my hand and tapped a couple veins.  Then she looked at my wrist and my forearm.  “At least you have noticeable veins, as opposed to some people.”

Bova groused, “It wasn’t my fault!  I had a coat of fur!”  She turned to me and complained, “She shaved the whole back of my arm first!”

Jobe muttered, “It wasn’t my fault your subcutaneous layer had enough fat cells to mold an entire new Belphegor.”

Belphoebe snickered into her labcoat’s sleeve.  “Pardon me.”

Bova just said, “I was a cow.  A huge, fat, inhuman cow.  Naturally I didn’t have normal veins.”

Freight Train walked out the door but pointed at Jobe.  “You two lay offa her, you hear?”

The door shut, and Jobe snidely said, “Thank you, Miss New Joisey.”

Bova gently said, “Shouldn’t we support each other, instead of insulting each other?  We are all in this together now.”

Jobe gave her this look that plainly said ‘and what planet are YOU from’.  But she didn’t say anything.  Still, Bova was a receptive empath, so Jobe didn’t have to say a word to get her point across.

On the other hand, as a receptive empath, Bova would know when she was successfully persuading Jobe, and when Jobe was in a mood to be approached, and when Jobe needed to be distracted from some goal.  And Jobe thought Bova was pretty.  That didn’t require an empath.  It was obvious.  Jobe would never have designed any form of drow that didn’t meet his exacting – and self-serving – requirements, and that included being gorgeous.

Jobe Wilkins.  A class act from start to finish.

Jobe gave up on her war of emotional constructs and came back to me.  She said, “Oh very well, I didn’t expect a Goodkind to play along.”  She held up the syringe so the air moved into the tip, and tapped it lightly.  Then she pressed the plunger just enough to clear the air and cause a tiny partial droplet to form at the tip of the needle.

“Make a fist,” she commanded.

When I obliged, she expertly inserted the tip of the syringe into one vein and injected the contents of the syringe.  It hurt less than I had anticipated, but Jobe did have years of experience injecting God-only-knew-what into experimental subjects, some of which could probably bite and scratch if pissed off.  Some of them probably just begged for mercy while strapped to tables.

Then she carefully withdrew the syringe and let Belphoebe spray some sort of medication over the back of my hand.  The small pain faded, even as the blood swiftly clotted and the wound shrank in size.  She looked at me and said, “Topical anesthetic, clotting agent, and dermal regenerative solution.  You won’t need a bandage or anything.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I didn’t know what else to say.  I hadn’t really expected Jobe to deal with the after-effects of the injection, so I wasn’t going to need the tiny Band-aid™ I had brought along in my utility belt after all.

I looked at the back of my hand and silently prayed this would work.  Really work.  I had to admit it, the guy… umm… girl was a genius.  A cure that no one else could or would work on for me, and Jobe had it done in a third of the time it took to work out the contract between us.

Jobe said, “You can go now.  I’d like you to come back Saturday afternoon so I can assess the cellular transformation rate and the BIT modification performance.  It might take as much as a week or eight days to complete the transformation.  But you should notice effects as early as six and a half to seven and a half hours from now.  But don’t thank me now.  I have some projects I need to work on.”  She turned her back on me and walked over to another computer system.

Bova looked and me and shrugged helplessly.  Well, it wasn’t as if I expected her to be able to upgrade Jobe in a matter of days.  I was figuring it would have to be a long-term exercise.  I gave her a small smile and walked out.

As I walked off to get breakfast, I called Möbius.  “Hi, it’s Phase.  We still on for lunch?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” he said.  “I got it ready.  You’ll need to load it up and get it registered so you can use it in the training sims.”

I calmly said, “I really do have needs for that belt besides horsing around in holographic simulations.”

He said, “Really?  Oh right.  Like in Boston.  Does that really happen much?”

I said, “Constantly.  Even if you don’t count the score or two of campus conflicts I’ve been in, I’ve needed a utility belt almost every time I’ve gone farther away than Dunwich.”

“Yikes,” he gasped into his phone.  “Maybe I ought to get working on more kinds of utility belts and stuff.  Sounds like you need ‘em.”

I admitted, “More utility belts with more capacity, and more stuff to put in ‘em.”

He said, “At least you can afford it.  There’s a ton of guys around here – and girls too if you want to know – who are always mooching around the Workshop trying to get PFGs and blasters and whatnot, and saying they’ll pay you back as soon as they graduate and make it big.  The only ones likely to make it that big are going to be robbing places, and they’re the ones who definitely won’t bother paying you back.”

I had been told about that problem.  I also knew there was a tendency among certain types of Exemplars without scruples to seduce the Workshop nerds who could get them the hardware they wanted.  And it wasn’t just the hot Exemplar femmes fatales, because there were always some less than gorgeous Workshop girls who could be swayed by the next male Exemplar who smiled at them.  This year, there were some fairly hot Workshop girls, but the typical Workshop girl was supposed to look more like Greasy, but with boobs.  All right, most of the Workshop girls, from Wunderkind to Flashbang, were not going to make anybody’s list of the hottest girls on campus.  Certain exceptions, like Bugs and Delta Spike and now Spark, were giving the Workshop a certain cachet it usually lacked.  But it wasn’t as if Venus Inc. was wandering through the Workshop labs looking for the next set of inductees.

Actually, the Workshop was probably going to have a small war with Venus Inc. fairly soon, if the Beauty Nazis didn’t leave certain girls alone.  Lifeline might have gotten Loophole some special dispensation – or perhaps Kodiak threw his weight around to make them leave his girlfriend alone – but the Beauty Nazis had apparently decided that a couple of the cute Workshop girls who didn’t make any effort to look pretty needed to receive the ‘Pygmalion’ treatment, whether they wanted it or not.  I was still trying to figure out if I could intervene without making everything a dozen times worse.  Perhaps I needed to ask Toni and Nikki to give it a try.  After all, Nikki was a rising power among the Beauty Nazis, and Toni was trying to make friends with all of Thunderbird’s posse, including Widget.

I was a little late to breakfast, but not unduly so.  I walked past the vast acres of scrambled eggs, the elephant-sized steam tables of fried and poached and boiled eggs, and the assortment of ‘omelets’ – which were really more like scrambled eggs with junk dumped in the middle.  Then there were the ‘breakfast burritos’ of scrambled eggs and ‘breakfast sausage’ and other ort.  By the time I managed to hike past all the egg-themed food, I was thinking about becoming a vegan.  At least for the morning.

I settled for a cup of the good coffee, a small bowl of grapefruit segments, and the best croissants I could find in the haystack of still-warm breadstuffs. I snagged a little of the real butter for my croissants, and I made my way up the escalator toward the Team Kimba table.

There wasn’t a crystal arranged at the center of the table, so I assumed the conversation I was hearing was real.

Jade was saying, “Well, the magazines are saying pink is out this summer, but that’s okay because it’s gonna be too hot to wear Hello Kitty sweatshirts anyway.”

Billie said, “It can get pretty cold at night up in the Rockies, so don’t pack ‘em away yet.”  I assumed that meant Billie was planning on taking the J-Team home for the summer.  That would be good for both of them.  Or all of them.  Maybe Jade could show Billie’s little brother the true meaning of ‘wacky hijinx’.  Or at least the true meaning of ‘unbelievably painful wedgie’.

Oh wait, she already did that one back on Parents’ Day.  Well, she had improved her technique since then, and Billie’s younger brother sounded like the kind of guy who would be interested in new developments in devising.

I sat down, and Toni said, “Hey, you’re lookin’ distinctly non-turned-into-a-giant-spider-like.”

Jade asked, “You growin’ muscles yet or anything?”

I shook my head no.  “Jobe said I wouldn’t notice anything until two-thirty or three-thirty.”

Toni said, “So right in the middle of physics lab you can start sproutin’ those extra legs.”

Nikki elbowed her and said, “There is something different about your ley lines, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

Toni said, “Well, your ki looks ‘same old same old’.  But your ki’s usually a little whack anyways.”

Billie softly said, “I hope things work out the way you want.”

“Me too, Billie.  Me too.”

Hank frowned, “I still think you’re crazy to go to Jobe.  Even if Dredz says the whole Workshop is freaked that Jobe’s got a hundred percent success rate going so far on that drow stuff.”

I admitted, “The bookies have a whole series of betting lines on it.  Who’s going to be next.  How long before someone dies a horrible death.  How long before someone gets turned into a monstrous freak.  How long before Carson kicks Jobe’s butt out of school and gets her shipped back to Karedonia.”

Nikki asked, “Is Freight Train doing okay?  I hate the whole idea of these corrupted Sidhe, but I don’t want someone nice ending up dead.”

I took a bite of grapefruit and said, “I saw her this morning.  She looks like she’s going to be fine.  And she has a different body type.  The tall, slender athletic type.  She looks a lot happier.”

Nikki scowled, “Well, I’m glad someone’s happier about this, because Aunghadhail is driving me up the wall about it.  The headmistress is putting her foot down about it, but that’s not going to stop what Jobe does away from school.”

“Now there’s a depressing thought,” I added.

Toni said, “Look Ayles, you know I’m worried, right?”

“Right.”

She continued, “And you’re gonna give all of us updates over the Spots when you have symptoms and side effects and stuff.  Right?”

I sighed.  “I hadn’t planned on it, but it seems like a reasonable idea.”

Hank snapped, “Reasonable?  Try ‘crucial’.  We don’t want to find out the hard way you went off the rails and tried slicing chunks of you off, or something worse.”

“Come on,” fussed Jade.  “It was just that once!  And I was having a really bad day.”

Billie glared, “Bad day?  I was afraid you were dead!”

Nikki said, “You would’ve been, if you weren’t a high-level Regen.  You should have come to us.”

“Yeah, I know that.  Now,” Jade pouted.  “Hey, look on the bright side.  At least I didn’t do anything totally crazy like go to Jobe for a cure!”

Billie, Hank, and Nikki all facepalmed.  I just stared at her until she gave me a tiny ‘sorry’ along with her ‘I am too cute to be mad at’ face.  Amazingly, she still thought that face worked on me.  Okay, I was still vulnerable to her Big Sad Puppy Eyes and the dreaded ‘quivering lip with teary eyes’.  But that face?  Nope.  On the other hand, I had noticed that it usually worked on Billie, and worked most of the time on Hank.

<(Lancer) Phase, just use your Spots.  We’ll all have them on today, and if anything major comes up, let us know.  If you need help, one of us can be there fast.>

<(Phase) Thanks.  I mean that.>

Billie ate another entire tray of scrambled eggs and fake omelets, and then we all moved off to first period classes.  I headed for physics class and sat down next to Pendragon and Mister Mystic.

MM leaned forward and talked across Pendragon.  “Hey Phase, is it true you’ve got some sort of contract with Jobe?  You’re not going for the drow thing, are you?”

“Not even if my life depended on it,” I asserted.  “Something completely different.  I have a bad BIT.  Jobe needs more data on genetic alterations to get himself fixed back to his old weasel-boy self.  So he fixes my BIT and in return gets more data to fix himself.”

Pendragon asked suspiciously, “And is that why you needed an entire room of contract experts?”

Well, with five people doing the contract work, I hadn’t really expected it to stay a secret for long.  I said, “Yes.  I wanted some protections that would hold up against Jobe, and he wanted some protections that would hold up against a Goodkind.”

Pendragon said, “One of those sounds more reasonable than the other.”

“I thought so,” I contributed.

Pendragon and Mister Mystic just smirked at each other.

I sat through the entire class, waiting for the first symptoms of Jobe’s serum.  I knew it wasn’t supposed to start so soon, but things could go wrong.  Or things could go extremely right, but I didn’t have much faith in my getting lucky anymore.

Spanish was more of the same.  Still nothing.  I walked to my third class, and Nikki was waiting for me in the hallway.

“Anything yet?” she checked.

“Not that I’ve noticed,” I told her.

“Well, your ley lines are moving.  They look kind of like someone starting a growth spurt,” she guessed.

“How would you know that?” I wondered.

“Lancer.  He’s grown an inch and a half and put on maybe thirty pounds of muscle since the start of school.”

“I…  I hadn’t realized that,” I admitted uncomfortably.  How could I not have noticed that Hank grew an inch and a half?

She said, “It’s been slow.  I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t seen how the lines were altering across his body.”

I said, “Well, I’m hoping to get some growth.  I’d like to be a normal male Exemplar, and that means being a lot taller than five foot nothing.”

I sat all the way through the class and even answered a couple questions.  Apparently, some people hadn’t bothered to look up the suggested readings at the ends of the chapters of the textbook.  Since Nikki had all of said readings on her bookshelf, I had already gone through all of them.

I left Nikki after class, and headed over to Möbius’ lab.  He was tinkering with one of his one-foot-by-one-foot cubes again.  At least this time, I wasn’t exposed to that Refrigerator Repairman Hall Of Fame buttcrack exposure.

He grinned, “Here you go!  See?  Looks pretty much like the old one.”

It really did.  It looked like real leather, even if it wasn’t.  It was still white, with a secure buckle.  It just looked like the leather was twice as thick throughout the front half.  The pockets looked just as fake as before, which was just what I wanted.

I put my hand into the right front pocket, and found that it was about nine or ten inches deep, about a foot and a half across, and about four inches thick.  It also had a plastic rack that seemed to be made of four inch by four inch frames that went down to the bottom, so I could slide a number of tools and weapons in there and still be able to find them again.

The left front pocket was just as big, but it had something different.  This one had a row of spring-loaded tubes, so I could have a row of different eggs and Cobra spheres ready for access.  That would free up the smaller pockets at the back.  It also left an inch or so of space in front of the tubes, and I knew what I was going to do first with that space.  A full-sized notepad and a full-sized pad of graph paper.

What?  I have classes far more often than I have fights.

That meant that I needed to re-organize my holdouts and get the new arrangement registered with Larry and his pals over in the holo sims.  It was a lot more important that I got the organization done for real, but once it was done and I had the order memorized, it made sense to have it registered properly in the sims so I didn’t have to keep switching back and forth between the real arrangement and the simulation one.

I flew through the tunnels and arrived only a little late for lunch with the crew.  There wasn’t anything special for me, so I was forced to resort to a simple salad and a pita bread sandwich.

I sat down and touched Nikki’s crystal so I could hear the real conversation, because it was fairly unlikely the real conversation was over who was the cutest guy in the Alphas.

“…and I still say it’s gonna be the Monster Squad.  They’re really tough, and we won’t suspect ‘em because we’ll be looking for the Grunts or the Capes,” Billie insisted.

Toni smirked at me.  “Why don’t we ask Adverbly Adjective Woman?”

I said, “I assume we’re discussing who’s going to get sicked on us as soon as Bardue stops the Dark Phoenix sims?”

Hank said, “Probably the Grunts.  They’re still undefeated.  Bunker hits you with that ‘fog of war’ thing she does, then Bomber nukes you from orbit, then Deadeye snipes anyone left alive.  Even Outcast Corner hasn’t beaten ‘em.”

Toni said, “The Dragons and the Tigers both put up training teams, and they’re bad mamma-jammas.  Could be them.  I wouldn’t mind gettin’ ta give N’Dizi a nice ki-powered wedgie or two.”

Nikki said, “Venus Inc.’s tougher than you’d think.  Poise is a Lancer-level brick, and Lifeline’s pretty good.  They’ve got a nice, diverse lineup too, with a couple blasters and stuff.”

Jade said, “Stephen told me Pan-Asia’s really tough.  And you gotta expect the Capes.  They’re always a big threat in the training teams.”

I added, “Plus the Alphas, the ‘Lympies,  Outcast Corner, and Team Alpha Three.”

“Who?” Toni wondered.

“Team Alpha Three,” I reiterated.  “They’re the toughest team without a handpicked name.  They’ve got Sirrush – who’s the toughest brick in the school – a high-end mage, a PDP, a flying Energizer, and a reality warper.  Plus, they’ve worked together for over a year.”

Hank asked, “So who’s the big threats in Pan-Asia and Monster Squad?”

I said, “Monster Squad?  Their two big guns are Slab and Jimmy T, in the holos they like to surprise other teams with people like Antenna, and they have enough muscle that Montana’s really just their deviser.”

“Ooh, tough lineup,” said Toni.

I said, “For most teams.  But in a holo, I can disrupt Jimmy.  And in any sim, Billie can go right through Slab’s PK field and punch his lights out.  Pan-Asia?  Silver Serpent’s a major threat for anyone with power armor or metal gadgets.  She could melt most of Shroud.  Her roomie’s a serious PK brick.  Gunkan’s an Energizer with forcefields and blasts.  Hatamoto’s their Exemplar and intel officer.  They’ve got a couple others, but those are their big threats.  Frankly, they could use Chou on their team.”

We spent a while chatting about what Sara did to the Grunts and the Capes in those grisly sims back in the fall, and I managed to ignore the fact that my pita bread sandwich had far too much mayonnaise and really mediocre tomato slices.

Aikido was the same as usual.  I kept waiting for the symptoms to start, and nothing was happening.  Unsurprisingly, I ended up paired against Bova during the sparring.  As we walked to the sparring circle she asked, “Are you going to help me like you helped Pheebs?”

“Sure,” I said.  “No powers, no holdouts, just show me what you are the most comfortable using in a match.”

She gave me a perky grin.  It was so easy telling her from Jobe.  We bowed to each other, and she threw a couple katas at me.  She’d obviously been practicing.  I blocked her punches and kicks, although I cheated and went a little heavy, just in case.  She didn’t seem to be as strong as Jobe and Belphoebe, but she was faster.  I figured it was the difference in body forms, and I wondered what Freight Train would be like.  Okay, Freight Train had her own PK powers to start with, so sparring with her was likely to be completely different than sparring with the rest of the Drow Commune.

Unlike Belphoebe, Bova had a small set of combinations she had practiced, and she concentrated on using them the most.  That meant her balance was better and she was moving faster, but she was a lot more predictable.

The third time she threw the ‘front punch, front kick, rear kick’ combo at me, I could see it coming down Fifth Avenue.  On the second kick, I grabbed her ankle and flipped her over.  She rolled well and came to her feet smoothly, which told me Jobe’s martial arts expert had been knocking them down just as often as he had been letting them kick and punch.

I whispered, “Good recovery.  Just snap those kicks a little faster.”

She nodded and came at me again.  She was working hard on her glide-step, but I could see she had to keep thinking about it.  She stepped forward, concentrating hard on it, and I stepped forward at the same time,  She was still concentrating on her footwork, and she wasn’t ready when I was suddenly close enough to sweep her front leg out from under her and pin her.

Ito called it, and we resumed positions.  I said, “Your glide-step is good, but you need to practice it enough that you don’t have to think about it.”

“Got it.  Thanks.”  She inhaled through her nose and grinned to herself.

It had to still feel like a miracle that she had this healthy, athletic body so soon after she was a dying, lumbering monstrosity.

She looked at me and said, “Don’t feel sorry for me.  I’m great.”  Oops.  Don’t let your emotions loose around empaths.

When soke called “Hajime!” she moved as quickly as she could.  She tried to back me up with two successive kicks, and then she gave me a spinkick.  Her first two kicks were crisp and fast, with good form.  But her spinkick wasn’t as good, and she leapt up into the air for the kick.  If you’re a flyer, you can pack some power behind a mid-air kick.  If you’re a PK brick, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re in the air, because the force comes from your PK field, not your muscles and stance.  If you’re Toni, you can use your ki to do it.  Bova didn’t even have a lot of mass going for her.

I stepped half a step back out of her reach and slapped her kicking foot from underneath.  I hit hard enough that she completed her move by landing on her shoulder instead of her back foot.  She gracefully rolled with the impact, and I let her kip up onto her feet again, instead of pinning her or driving her out of the sparring ring.

“Dang, you’re good,” she whispered.

I knew I was only ‘good’ in the sense that I could beat up people who had only been learning aikido for a couple days.  In terms of pure martial arts training, I was probably somewhere behind Jade.  Nikki and I were the only members of Team Kimba who didn’t have years of martial arts before manifesting, and now Nikki had a personal trainer.  I reminded myself to look into that idea while I was home in Los Angeles over the summer.

“I’m just patient,” I explained.  “Now focus.”

She gave me a brief nod.  Then she came at me with her favorite punch-kick-kick combo.  I blocked the punch and the first kick with little guide parries using the palm of my hand.  As she brought her rear leg forward for the finale of her combo, I slid forward and extended my arm in a snap punch that would have broken her nose if I meant it.  Instead, I stopped the punch about three inches in front of her face as a reminder that she needed to watch her opponent and block incoming attacks too.

I learned that trick from getting my ass handed to me when fighting heavily-armed people way out of my weight class in winter term martial arts.  Toni was particularly good at doing that with a weapon to remind you that she was a lot better than you, while at the same time avoiding actually breaking said weapon on a diamond-hard density changer.  The problem with Toni was that she was smarter than she acted: it wasn’t that I was never able to beat her in sparring; it was that I wasn’t ever able to beat her the same way twice.  That, and I wasn’t going to use any of my eggs on her.  Fireballs and explosives are not reasonable in sparring, the smokecloud eggs would hinder me more than her, and the ice eggs were a potential danger to anyone who needed to breathe.  Soke didn’t want me to use my tangleweb shots in the dojo anymore.  And most of what I could throw at her were objects that she could – and would – grab and then throw back.

When the spar was over, Bova gave me a big grin and a thumbs-up.  I returned the grin.  I figured that the more help I could give her, the more effectively she could deal with Jobe.

As soon as sensei Tolman dismissed the class, I Phase-leapt through the wall.  I simply didn’t have time if she and Ito wanted to have another little chat, like yesterday.  I had to get to physics lab.  I leapt out of my clothes, jumped into the shower, washed off as quickly as I could, did my power-assisted drying trick, and leapt back over to my locker.  Then I dressed as quickly as I could, checked my utility belt was in place, and flew off to physics lab.

I made it with a good thirty seconds to spare.  Pendragon said, “We do realize you’re racing from aikido class.  If you’re running late, we’ll just start without you and let you write down the results we already recorded.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “But I’d rather hear the discussion at the front of the lab, and help with the setup.  If I do run late some time this term, you’re on.”

And sure enough, right in the middle of physics lab – right in the middle of Jobe’s predicted time interval – the first symptoms hit me.

 

to be continued

Read 2633 times Last modified on Friday, 20 August 2021 01:14

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