Saturday, 26 May 2012 23:15

Ayla and the Mad Scientist: (Chap 9)

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Ayla and the Mad Scientist, Chapter 9 – Les après-dînées, by Diane Castle

Ayla and the Mad Scientist

CHAPTER 9 – Les après-dînées

a Whateley novel

by Diane Castle

 

Wednesday, March 7, 2007, morning
Poe Cottage

AYLA

I woke up and looked over.  My alarm wouldn’t go off for another four minutes.  I was briefly tempted to lie around in bed and let the alarm go off, just to annoy Alex.  But just because she was being annoying and petty didn’t mean I needed to act similarly.  I was better than that.

And escalation didn’t work for anyone who didn’t have a clear superiority on the battlefield, along with a willingness to absorb any necessary losses along the way.  I wasn’t interested in winning if it meant I ended up with a ruined room, or ruined friendships, or a ruined romance.  I didn’t even want X-O to get hurt.  I thought Tara could do a lot better in a relationship, but she seemed to hover around doorways snooping a lot less since Alex gave her something to do with her time.

I switched off the alarm clock, grabbed my stuff, and walked down to the bathroom.  This way, I got extra ogling time, and there was always the possibility Alex would hit her snooze button a half dozen times before she dragged herself out of bed, giving me even more ogling time at the back end.

On the other hand, if that happened, I would have to decide whether to piss her off by waking her up so she could get to classes on time, or piss her off by not waking here up so she missed her morning classes.  Of course, I could just ask Tara to go wake her up, but that seemed like the boring, pedestrian option.

And then there was the ‘send the J-Team in to wake up Alex’ option.  Alex might find herself with a brass band in her middle ear, or being spun through the air like a propeller, or being given one of Jade’s super-wedgies, or being attacked by animated pink glitter.  But I really wanted to have a functional room at the end of the activity, so those probably weren’t realistic choices.

Now having the J-Team wake up Beltane…

I knew I had an enormous smirk on my face when I walked into the bathroom.  Still, the Wonder Twins spotted me before they even turned around.  Nikki turned her head and arched one gorgeous brow, “Ayla?  What are you up to?”

Toni looked at me, no doubt assessing my Ki.  “So, what’s so smirk-a-riffic?”

I told them, “I was thinking about getting back at Belle by having the J-Team wake her up for a few mornings in a row.”

Toni and Nikki looked at each other… and began howling with laughter.

Toni snickered in her best Jade imitation, “Raising Heart!  STARLIGHT ENEMA!”

Nikki laughed, “She touches Belle’s mattress and turns it into Spinner!”

Toni giggled, “Yeah, get about three hundred rpms on that puppy and then watch the ectoplasm fly!”

I said, “Or she just puts a brass band in Belle’s middle ear.”

Toni said, “No!  She puts Jasmine in both of Belle’s ears and plays good and bad shoulder angels all day!  ‘Ooh, you should definitely do that.’  ‘No, don’t do that!  It’s mean!’  ‘Don’t listen to her, go ahead and be evil.’  Belle would think she was going crazy!”

Nikki added, “Then she starts saying, ‘We should go prank Don Sebastiano instead.’  Or maybe Solange.”

Toni pretended to check, “And would that be the good shoulder angel?  I mean, we are talking about Donny-boy and The Tanz.”

Vanessa walked in and caught the end of our conversation.  “Donny and the Tanz?  Isn’t that a golden oldie?”

Sharisha was right behind her, and said, “Yeah.  Elton John, maybe.”

And then we got three minutes of Elton John singing “Donny and the Tanz” while Vanessa was waiting to get into the showers.

“They got colostomies, expensive sleaze, you know I read it in a magazine, uh oh, D-d-d-donny and the Tanz!”

And since Vox was singing it, it really sounded like classic Elton John, down to the piano accompaniment.  Plus, she was good at winging a parody song.  I spent so much time enjoying her singing that I missed Nikki getting into her shower.  Being able to make boys forget to watch Fey take off her bathrobe?  Now that’s what I call a distraction.

So after I showered and did my power-assisted drying off, I spent a good ten minutes at the mirror.  Nikki and Toni got involved in more discussion of J-Team pranks for Belle, instead of finishing with their towels and putting on their bathrobes.  Then Bunny got out of her shower and got distracted with the creative possibilities.  That meant that she not only failed to dry off, she stood there soaking wet and naked, eagerly discussing wacky pranks.

Okay, I admit it.  I had no idea what they dreamed up.  My brain switched over to full processing of optical data.  I think it wasn’t until Vanessa stepped out of her shower that I regained the power of speech.

I stepped over and helped her slip into her bathrobe.  “That song was great.”

“What?  No joke about why the bathroom’s so small?” she grinned.

“I’ve done that joke a few times too many, already,” I said.

“A few hunnert times too many, if y’ask me,” Sharisha grumbled behind me.

Right about then, Nikki and Toni both looked over at us and stopped talking.  I had a feeling that it was Sharisha’s emotions they were reading, because my emotions hadn’t changed for a long time.  And that was why I had my bathrobe re-tied so my erection was pressed against my stomach instead of leaning out like the Tower of Pisa.

Vanessa tilted her head slightly toward the no-longer naked trio.  “What’s up wit’ them?”

I said, “Oh, top secret stuff.  You’re better off not knowing, until after it happens.  To someone not in this room.”

Sharisha growled, “Hope they’re doin’ it ta Shove.  Or your boy-bitch pal Beltane.”

I knew about her problems with Shove.  Granted, most of the dorm had one or two problems with Shove.  But Belle?  I asked, “Why Beltane?”

Sharisha fumed silently, but Vanessa said, “You know that ‘ectoplasm door’ trick she does?”  I nodded.  Belle had tied Billie in knots with that one.  “Well, she can do an ectoplasm doorstop on the other side of your real door.  ‘Risha shoved on her door and it wouldn’t open, so she figured it was Belle’s fake door bit, because they had words the day before.  Only it was just an ectoplasm doorstop holding our real door in place, and she ripped the door off its hinges.”

I decided to be polite to someone who didn’t really deserve it.  I asked Sharisha, “You didn’t get in trouble for that, did you?  I mean, it wasn’t your fault.”

Sharisha frowned, “Not much.  Mrs. Horton did that Harry Potter reparo trick she does, and the door was fixed.  But she sort of got on my ass about not startin’ trouble with crazy honkies who love ta turn that kinda shit into great big wars.  I mean, the whole campus knows Belle’s still pullin’ that crap on that Thorn kid, and that’s been goin’ on… what?  Maybe two months now?  No wonder everyone thinks Poe’s full of loonies.”

“Poe is full of loonies,” I pointed out.  “Who are the craziest people on campus who aren’t full-fledged ‘drickers?”

Sharisha pointed her finger at my chest.  “Your buddies.  Generator.  Chaka over there.  That supervillain roomie ya got.  Beltane.  Mega-Girl.  Feral.  Plus maybe Jericho and Thorn and… umm… hell, I’m runnin’ outta people.  Maybe Jimmy T.  And those damn Team Wondercute white bitches Generator’s runnin’ around with.  They’re pretty effin’ weird.”

Vanessa admitted, “It’s tough to top someone who stands on a chair in the middle of the Crystal Hall and yells that they’re not crazy ‘cause the voices in her head told her so.”

I said, “So think of Team Kimba as yet another Whateley Academy effort to maintain the secret of Poe.”

Sharisha frowned, “That ain’t how I think of you freaks.”  She stormed out, with Vanessa following her and trying to talk her into something that might pass for rationality.

The Thrillsome Threesome walked over to me, only by then they were all wearing bathrobes.  Chaka looked at the door Sharisha had used for her big exit and asked, “Still tryin’ ta talk to Anger Management Failure Woman?”

I shrugged and said, “I look at it as a small effort on my part that’s worth trying because of Vanessa.”

Nikki said, “You can’t waste your time on bad roommates.”  She glanced over at Toni and said, “Lord knows I’ve wasted enough time on Chaka already.”

“Hey!”  Toni stuck out her forefinger like a gun.

Nikki went on, “Sharisha’s just a big ball of anger and frustration, and-  GAAHK!”

Toni withdrew her Ki-asisted fingerpoke and said, “Gotta agree with the sparkly fairy princess.”

Nikki rubbed her side where she had been prodded, and scowled, “Would you knock that off?  It’s bad enough Koehnes loves that stupid book.  And I don’t even know where she got it!”

Suddenly all three girls stared at me.  “Oh no, it definitely wasn’t me.”  They continued staring at me.

Nikki cautiously said, “Truth.  Definitely not fibbing.”

Toni said, “But you’re suspicious too.”

Bunny said, “Oh!  So you’ve got an idea who it probably was, but you don’t really know.”

I complained, “Have any of you even heard of the Whateley Canon of Ethics for Psis and Espers?”

Nikki said, “Probably Jade.”

“Oh, deff,” agreed Toni.

Bunny defended her Wondercute teammate, “She wouldn’t do something like…  You said it was something about a sparkly fairy princess?”

“That’s even the title,” groused Nikki.

Bunny’s shoulders sagged slightly.  “Okay, so she would do something exactly like that.”  She added, “But she probably thought it was a really great book!”

Toni smirked, “Oh, it is.  Koehnes loves it.  I’m teaching her to read English with it.”

Nikki complained, “Ayla, remember what I said about wasting time on bad roommates?”

I tried to sound hopeful as I asked, “Want to swap?  I can have all of Vamp’s stuff dumped into the hall in under a minute.”

Bunny said, “I don’t know why you’re so hard on Alex.  She’s been really good for Tara.  We’ve been really worried about her, because Jay Jay’s really pretty hard to room with even if she’s a nice person.”

I insisted, “I’m not hard on Alex, Alex is a pain in the ass to me.  And I’m glad Tara’s doing better, but she could really do better than Vamp.”

Bunny pursed her lips, which should have made her look like an old maid.  On her it made her look sexy and kissable.  She argued, “Maybe, but maybe not.  It’s really hard being a normal girl around here.  If Tara was in a normal high school, she could be one of the cute girls.  One of the pretty girls, if she wanted to work at it every day, which she totally doesn’t.  But around here, she’s within a standard deviation of the median.”

Boy, and I get grief for slipping business phrases into my language.  As it happened, I knew enough about basic statistics to know what she meant.  So I just nodded for her to keep talking.

She continued, “Tara’s shy too.  And we have way too many of our prettier Poesies hooking up with Kimbas, so that undercuts the people like Tara and Jody.  And Jay Jay and Pilar, for that matter.”

All right, I was questioning her logic at that point.  First, she and Rip were two of the main ‘hooking up with Kimbas’ issues on the floor.  And second, Jay Jay and Pilar?  Okay, Jay Jay was like a hyperactive honeybee, but she had the whole ‘California blonde’ look working for her.  And Pilar might have green skin and a tail and those smaller arms under her regular arms, but she was still gorgeous, with a great rack.  And she could Shift enough to make the tail and arms and green tint go away for a couple hours.

She finished, “So Tara was feeling alone and uncomfortable, and it’s not like she could ask out girls who aren’t in Poe, and maybe Vamp is a really good thing for her.  Tara’s already picked up some really good skills, thanks to her, and she’s a lot happier.”

“So glad someone’s talking up my good traits.”  Alex strolled in, doing her best to sashay in shower clogs.

I was tempted to reply with ‘because they’re so hard to find without an electron microscope’ but I refrained.  Continuing a private feud in public was almost never a good idea.  Especially if there was any chance of your being nominated as the ‘bad guy’ by the public who heard about it, or were told about it, or were misled about it by what passed for news reporting.  There was more than one sound reason why the Goodkinds had made an effort to build their own news and broadcasting companies.

I just pointed toward the showers and said, “You’re in luck.  There’s one open r-”

Jay Jay came sprinting in, zipped into the lone available shower, and yanked the curtain closed at such speed that it swung around the side of the shower and got caught on the outside clothes hooks.

“-ight… oh never mind.”

Vamp looked at me in frustration, as if I had carefully planned the whole thing.  That’s right, get Alex’s showering hopes up and then dash them cruelly.  While involving the girl who showers the fastest of anyone in the whole dorm.

I rolled my eyes.  “I didn’t do it at all!  And anyway, it only takes Jay Jay about half a second to shower.  Just… get in line.”

I left the bathroom and flew back to my room.  At least I would have some time alone while Alex was showering, and then drying off, and then staring at girls in the mirror.

A sopping-wet Jay Jay sprinted down the hall toward me, so I went light.  It was just as well, because she was flinging water everywhere.  “SorrybutIforgotmytowelsoIgottogettomyroomfast!”

I was still dry as I walked into my room.  One couldn’t say the same for the walls and floor of the hallway.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a sign one could put out to warn people that the floor was wet.  Perhaps a big red ‘Scrambler showered here’ sign.

But before I closed my door, I heard The Terrible Twosome coming down the hall.  So I stepped back out of my room.  “Watch out for water all over the place.”

Nikki looked around at the water and frowned.  Toni, on the other hand, grinned.  She took two fast steps and leapt into a surfing pose, then slid about fifteen or twenty feet down the hall.

Nikki snorted at her roommate’s antics and carefully picked her way down the hall, avoiding the more obvious wet spots.  She frowned, “Jay Jay again, right?  This is… what?  Third time this month already?”

Toni practiced sliding on one foot while in an ice skater’s pose.  “More.  She pretty much forgot her towel every day during off-week.  I think Tara’s been reminding her before she runs off to the showers, so ‘Tara sleeping in’ equals ‘more Double-J forgetfulness’.  Or maybe not.”

Nikki stopped and stared at some water dripping down one of the hallway walls.  After several seconds, she shook her head and said, “No, I better not use that spell.”  She sighed, “I’ll just call Jay Jay and ask her to come back and wipe up the water.”

I stepped back into my room and closed the door so I could get dressed.  I hung up my towel and put away my shower kit.  Then I picked out my clothes for the day.  Not that there was any mystery there.  It wasn’t like I was Toni and I had to ‘make a statement’ with the right clothing and then accessorize perfectly, down to the right earrings and how far her blouse had to be tugged out of her skirt’s waist.

Seriously, I just did not get some of the clothing rules Toni and Nikki lived by.  What difference did it make whether that blouse was tugged out of the waistband one inch or two inches?  Shirts were shirts.  You tucked them in, or else you went for the ‘old guy who doesn’t care anymore’ look and left them completely untucked.  But they had official clothing rules, and special deviances for particular types of blouses and leotards, and maybe even seasonal fashion rules.  There were probably also changes due to cutting-edge trends that I was ignoring, and what someone they didn’t like had just chosen to wear, and some other things Toni probably made up to torment me.

I just pulled out some underwear and a nicely-pressed Whateley Academy uniform.  Pants, of course.  As the weather slowly grew warmer, more girls were switching to the skirts they had worn back in the fall.  And plenty of girls were wearing skirts that were a lot shorter than the official school skirt length.  Okay, there were also some girls who wore skirts that were a lot longer than the official school skirt length.  That was fine with me.  I mean, it was great staring at Attributes when she wore one of her ‘waistband with a pleat hanging from it’ skirts, but I didn’t feel the need to make everyone dress like her.  There were a couple girls from India or Pakistan who chose to wear saris, and there was at least one girl from one of the Arabic countries who wore a modern version of the burkha around campus.  Hippolyta chose not to, because she had a serious beef with the religion in which she was raised, but that was a completely different issue.

I was just taking off my bathrobe when there was a knock on the door.  I sighed inwardly and pulled it back on, tying it carefully since I had no idea who was on the other side of the door.

I opened the door to find Mrs. Horton, who was staring at the water all over the hallway.  I said, “I believe Fey has already called Scrambler to come clean it up.”

Mrs. Horton compressed her lips, which made her look about ten years older.  “That girl,” she sighed.  “I think she’d forget her own head if it wasn’t already attached.”

I asked, “Did you have something to bring to my attention?  Or were you looking for my roommate?  Alex is still in the bathroom.”

Mrs. Horton looked at me and said, “I’d like you to come down to my office and pick up your two deliveries.  One of your Workshop friends brought the first one by early this morning, and one of your couriers popped in about five minutes ago.  The courier let me sign for the second one, but I’m not comfortable having weapons in my office.  I’m especially uncomfortable when the weapon is in a Goodkind Defense Industries transport case.”

I refused to apologize for that.  “I realize that my name isn’t popular around here, but surely you see that buying equipment from Goodkind International is always going to be better than funding supervillains.”

She said, “If you’re referring to the Gizmatic catalogues around campus, I don’t support their use either.  Mister – pardon me, Miss – Wilkins gets a shipment of several hundred catalogues with every printing, and there’s no keeping the Workshop kids from looking through them, much less trying to stop the gofers from peddling copies all over the campus.”

I managed to keep a straight face as I said, “I believe that’s Crown Princess Jobe now.”

She looked around at the hallway and gave me a tiny smile.  “You wouldn’t think the secret of the cottage would hold up, even with the spells on the building and the surrounding grounds.  But then we get all these little incidents.  Jobe and Reach changing gender…  Saladin coming out…  Macrobiotic publicly defending Saladin by announcing she’s bisexual…”

I said, “Macro’s PC enough that she might have said it just to support him, even without it being true.”

She nodded, “But still.  It seems like this year, every single dorm has someone turning up as LGBTI, so Poe’s little secret seems even less likely than usual.”

I added, “It probably helps that certain Poe residents have really emphasized the ‘completely crazy’ aspect more than usual.”

She gave me a smirk.  “Just because your friends have made a bit of a splash this year doesn’t make this year an exception.  You should have seen what Marty and Kendall and Elaine and the rest of them got up to last year.  And anyone who remembers Gazoo’s junior and senior years is bound to still think we really are the campus loony bin.”

Gazoo?  Why did that sound familiar?  I couldn’t place it.  I knew I was going to have to look that one up as soon as Mrs. Horton let me get dressed.

Once Mrs. Horton departed, I closed my door again and took off my bathrobe to get dressed.

Knock knock!  Knockknockknockknockknockknockknockknock!

I sighed and pulled my bathrobe back on.  Given the speed of those knocks, it was a safe bet that it was Jay Jay. I re-tied my bathrobe and opened the door.  Again.  “Hi, Jay J-”

“I’mreallysorryaboutthewater. Ineverremembermytowel. AthomeIhavemyownbathroom. SoI’mreallysorry. Bye!”

And she was off, running up and down the hall wiping off the walls, then cleaning up the floor with a couple sponges.

“Jay Jay?” I said.

“Yeah?” she paused for a moment.

“Why don’t you hang your towel on your doorknob last thing at night, so you can’t open the door in the morning without being reminded?”

She actually held still for over a second.  “That’sareallygoodidea. ThanksAyla!”

And she was gone.  I knew she had tried a few other things over the course of the school year.  She had even tried leaving a towel in the bathroom for when she forgot, but someone had decided that gave them new opportunities for pranks.  Once, her nice-looking towel was actually frozen solid, so when she grabbed it and pressed it against her chest, she shrieked like a banshee.  And that was still better than the time someone dusted her nice green towel with matching green powdered dye, so everywhere she wiped was stained green.  Fortunately, that time Nikki was in the bathroom and was able to magically remove the dye from Jay Jay’s skin.  But that was definitely the last time Jay Jay was willing to leave a towel in the bathroom overnight.

I still thought the guilty party was Risk, or maybe Flux, but Jade and Billie thought it was Stoner.

Once I was dressed, I headed down to Mrs. Horton’s office.  She pointed – quite unnecessarily, in my opinion – at two objects on her desk.  One was a plastic carrying case the size of a small briefcase, except that it was about three inches thick.  The other was a shipping box covered in anti-tampering seals.  The box was about the size of a shipping carton for a small laptop computer.  I was depending on it being primarily padding and reinforcement, because I really had no use for a weapon the size of a laptop, and what I had ordered was definitely not supposed to be that big.

I thanked Mrs. Horton and carried my two purchases up to my room.  I was figuring that both would need to be charged before I could use them, so they weren’t going to be immediately useful.

Except in the sims.  I could get them registered with the sim guys even before they were fully charged and operational.  If Jade or Toni were in here while I explained my evil plan, I would have made sure to add in an evil laugh too.

The carrying case had a thumbprint lock.  I had performed the registry with my thumbprint when I paid Loophole to build the weapon for me, so I knew it would only open for me, and presumably Loophole as well.  The best part about the lock was that a simple thumbprint was obtainable by a determined thief, but a thumbprint lock like this one, which also required an EEG reading, was a lot harder to defeat.  Not that the case would stop anybody with the right power set.  Hank could tear it open.  Billie could disintegrate the lock.  Nikki could cast a spell to break it open.  Jade could use some of her nanowire to snake inside and pop the lock from the inside.  And Toni could probably figure out how to use her Ki to make the case pop open.  But the case and lock were still about as good as I could get without paying for an adamantium case and an anti-personnel lock – not that that would stop half the people I had in mind.

Just as I popped the thumbprint lock on the carrying case and opened it, Vamp strolled in.  She ogled the hardware inside and asked in a childish sing-song, “Whatcha got?  Is it for me?”

I lied, “Part of it is for you.  I bought an anti-personnel lock with poison darts so when you inevitably try to break it open, you’ll regret it.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Christ, it’s like rooming with Jobe.”

“You should ask Oak about rooming with Jobe.”

She winced.  “Eww.  I heard about that room.  I mean, who wants a room that looks like a giant rectum?”

I had to make an effort not to snicker.  That was a good metaphor.  The door was really more of a sphincter than a normal doorway, and the interior surfaces were more organic than was really comfortable.  Oak loved it, but then he was mostly tree.

I checked the equipment in the case.  One ten-foot extension cord.  One Cobra barrel-cleaning kit, which is at least as important when you’re firing a linear induction pistol as when you’re using a normal firearm.  One Cobra 320 small linear induction handgun with battery.  Two replacement battery packs.  Four tubes of spheres: taser shots, tangleweb shots, gascloud shots, and practice shots.  The gascloud shots produced a cloud of gas that was thick enough to double as a smokebomb, but the gas was a knockout gas that could be absorbed through the skin as well as inhaled.

Even better, whoever had designed the case – I was guessing Elaine herself – designed it with the battery pack chargers built in.  When the handgun and the replacement batteries were in their little holders, they would get charged if they needed it.  And the case would be locked with them in place inside, because the extension cord plugged into a connector on the back of the case.  So the toys inside could be charged without leaving them somewhere accessible.

Vamp leaned over my shoulder and said, “You never struck me as a gunbunny.”

“I’m not,” I insisted.  “Just because I have a grasp of gun safety and I want some additional protection against attacks hardly means I’m a gun nut.”

“Don’t the Goodkinds give big cash bucks to the NRA?” she sneered.

“Of course,” I said.  “Goodkinds support all the Constitutional Amendments, as well as basic American freedoms and the American small businessman.”

“Wow, I didn’t expect to get a PR blurb with my breakfast.”

I ignored the crack and inspected the Cobra.  The Cobra 320 is a small two-shot pistol.  You have to hold the safety and open the breech to load it.  I verified that there was nothing in the breech, and that the linear induction coils looked clean.  I still made a mental note to sit down and give everything a thorough cleaning, just in case.  Knowing Elaine, I expected that she had cleaned it and test-fired it herself before sending it over, but it never hurt to be sure.  Particularly with firearms.  And business contracts.

I took out the extension cord, hooked it up to the power strip at the back of my desk, and locked the case closed.  Then I grabbed the sealed shipping box.

“Gonna need my superpowers to open that one up?” she asked rhetorically.

It was rather well sealed.  The anti-tampering strips would let anyone know if the carton had been opened, and the strips would probably thwart any ordinary goniff.   Not that any of the thieves and miscreants around Whateley Academy counted as ordinary.  But strips like that were supposed to withstand a quarter ton of pull, and be able to withstand any cutting implement up to diamond-coated motorized saws.

I firmly said, “No.”  Then I ran my hand across the top of the shipping carton, doing my light-heavy-light flicker as I went.  That effectively disintegrated the anti-tampering strips and the top of the carton.  It also shut up my roommate for a couple seconds.

I reached in and lifted off the protective MessingFoam™ shell protecting the innards.  Lying inside on another molded piece of the material was my purchase.

It looked vaguely like a flashlight.  It was seven inches long and two inches thick, with a slight flare at the end where the transparent lens sat.  Along its length it said in official Goodkind Old Style™ font: Goodkind Defense Industries CM019A.

“What the hell is that, or are you buyin’ dildoes from your family these days?”

I gritted my teeth.  If she had asked if I was buying dildoes from my mother, I might have punched her.  I didn’t know why she was so much better at getting under my skin than plenty of other pests in my life, but it was probably one of her superpowers.

I lifted it out and checked the control panel, being careful to keep it pointing at the wall.  Even though I really wanted to point it at her.  And test-fire it.

Nope, no charge at all.  Okay, it had a charging cradle with cord.  There was no safety protection, as there was with the Cobra.  But something like this wouldn’t normally be left out in a dorm room, either.

I explained, “It’s a GDI combat maser.”

“No way!”

“Way,” I said, just to be annoying.

She retorted, “Like hell.  Combat masers take enormous amounts of power.  Dyna-Man’s got one on his suit, and it takes a good thirty seconds to recharge it even with the power generation he’s got for an entire suit of power armor.  There’s no frikking way that thing is a combat maser, unless it comes with its own nuclear power plant and a really long extension cord.”

I tended to forget that Alex was smart, and that she had gone through the School of Supervillain Hard Knocks at the clutching hands of The Necromancer.  She usually spoke and acted like a typical Southie who had dropped out of school.  And she was a Southie who had dropped out of school, although being thrown in jail and having to live on the streets hardly counted as doing it of her own free will.

I deigned to elucidate.  “It’s a one-shot combat maser.  The whole thing is a massive lithium-air colloid battery, with the focusing chamber also doubling as energy storage.  So I get one blast, and then it’s back to the charging unit.”

She stopped and thought that over.  “Okay, I’ll buy it.  But that thing had to cost more than your stupid tactical baton.”

I shrugged.  “It’s only money.  If I need a long-range energy weapon and I don’t have one, that’s likely to carry a higher opportunity cost than buying one and not using it for a while.”

She stared at me.  “Do you have to talk like Milton Friedman all the time?”

“That reminds me,” I said.  “You have to pay for your lunch today.”

“What?”  She stopped and stared at me for about three seconds.  “Oh.  I get it.  I’m sure economists are peeing themselves laughing at that one right this minute.  Even Dennis Miller thinks your material is too highbrow.”

“Sorry.  My rubber chicken and fake dog doo were confiscated by the deputy headmistress.”

She shook her head and sashayed over to her side of the room to get dressed.  I hooked up the charging cradle and plugged in the maser.  I wondered whether Vamp would mess around with my combat maser some time when I was out of the room for a while.  Then I thought about ways to get my other two purchases so my roommate Simon Templar wouldn’t know about them.

Then it was time for breakfast.  I hesitated about leaving Vamp in the room with my new gear, but that was silly.  She was going to have thousands of opportunities to mess with them over the rest of the term.

Perhaps I was going to have to keep them both in my utility belt all the time.  Perhaps I was going to have to get a bigger utility belt.  And perhaps I was going to have to find a way to magically seal my utility belts so other people couldn’t reach into them.  I couldn’t exactly get a utility belt with larger pockets and put a beartrap in one of them.

All right, in theory I could.  Jade wasn’t afraid to stick a beartrap inside Jinn’s head.  But Jade also wasn’t afraid to let a guy cut her foot off.  Or staple a guy to a tree with railroad spikes.  Or fire a rocket grenade at a magical trap in which a friend was standing.  Or inhabit a stuffed cabbit and bite a man’s junk off.  Or…

Well, there wasn’t very much that Jade was afraid to try.  I was definitely not in her weight class when it came to rampant craziness.  There was no way I could bring myself to put an armed beartrap in a pocket that someone might put their hand into.

I put those thoughts aside and went looking for the rest of the team.  That search only took me about a second, since Toni and Nikki were arguing with Jade about something at the end of the hallway, and I could hear them before I even stepped out into the hall.

“No really, when you turn into a supervillain you HAVE to do the whole thing with the costume and the hair and everything!” Jade was insisting.  “And the evil laugh!  They totally wouldn’t let me do the evil laugh, so don’t ask first.  Just sneak it in.”

Toni shook her head.  “Unh-uh, G.  Not happenin’.  I don’t care how whack you wanna look.  When I play Dark Chaka, I’m just lookin’ same as always.”

Nikki calmly pointed out, “Tennyo didn’t change her look when she was Dark Tennyo.”

“Well, she’s already super-cool!” Jade protested.

I walked up and said, “Therefore, the cool kids don’t have to change their look.”

“So I guess you’ll be goin’ for a massive transformation,” Toni snarked.

Before I could reply, Nikki jumped in.  “So, will you go for the Lex Luthor power suit, or the Lex Luthor power armor?”

“Is there really a difference?” I asked superciliously.  I wasn’t going to discuss the fact that I really, really didn’t want to play Dark Phase.  If I was fortunate, Bardue and Wilson would tire of their little ploy before it was my turn.  After all, since they ran with Dark Generator first and then started at the top of our line-up with Dark Tennyo, I figured there was a reasonable chance that I would be last in line.  And they might even opt to throw Dark Bladedancer at us before then, just to show us that they thought I was a jerk for kicking Chou off the team.

Billie swooped in and interrupted the conversation.  “Where’s Lancer?  I’m hungry!”

“Are you ever not hungry?” I wondered rhetorically.

Toni said, “It’s nice out today.  Let’s hit the bricks.”

Rip walked up just then.  “Can I come too?”

“Of course,” I said.  The rest of the team chorused their answers as well.

“Sure.”

“Totally.”

“Why not?”

Hank came floating down the hall with Lily, and then Bugs hopped out of her room.  Jay Jay joined us before we got to the stairs, and Risk and Flux joined us while we were walking to the front door.  Belle was just leaving too, so she walked with us.  By the time we reached the Crystal Hall, we were a crowd of twenty.

Granted, half a dozen of that crowd were Belle’s ectoplasm.  They did look almost real, unless you were within twenty feet.  Close up, they looked horrifically unnatural.  And they didn’t move quite right, since they didn’t have a human skeletal structure to use as the initial framework.  And, as we already knew, they didn’t talk.  Not that that part that mattered, since Toni and Rip and Jay Jay talked enough for a squadron of us.

After a while, the three of them were in a deep discussion on whether or not they were going to go with their parents for the midnight release of the final Harry Potter book, come mid-summer.  I didn’t say anything, but I knew that for some of us there was no chance whatsoever that our parents would want to be anywhere near us, even for one night.

“Oh, Goodkinds don’t stand in line waiting for books and signings and stuff like that,” Toni teased me, giving me a little elbow to show she wanted me to play along.

I said, “Of course not.  We own the publishing house.  We just have the publishers send us a dozen copies while they’re being sent out to bookstores across the country.  But don’t worry.  I’ll call you up the day before the release and spoil all the surprise twists for you.”

Jay Jay squeaked, “Ohnoyoucan’tdothat! I’lljustdie!”

Nikki patted her on the shoulder.  “Ayla’s just teasing.”  Once Jay Jay’s body sagged in relief, Nikki added, “She’ll have her maid call you up and spoil it for you.”

Jay Jay started frantically fussing, until she noticed that half the crowd was giggling madly.  “Ooh, that wasn’t nice!”  She snorted, “Okay, it was pretty funny.”

Hank added, “And whatever you do, don’t ask Ayla for any predictions about the book.”

“Why not?” Rip wondered.

“Because she’ll tell you,” said Toni.  “Ya really think Literary Critique Girl over there hasn’t thought about it?  She probably has a theory about how book seven’ll turn out, and most of it’ll be right.  So big, big spoilers if you get her talkin’ about it.”

Lily dared, “So… what can you tell just from literary criticism?  Anything?”

“A lot,” I admitted.  “Rowling likes the classical mythologies of the hero and what Joseph Campbell called ‘the hero’s journey’.  So you can expect what Campbell called ‘the road of trials’ and ‘the night sea voyage’ and probably what he called, ‘the belly of the whale’.  Then there will be an apotheosis, and the book will end with the battle against Voldemort and his forces.”

“There isn’t really gonna be something inside a whale, is there?” Jay Jay checked.

Toni said, “Come on, even I know that’s a metaphor.  I mean, the road of trials thing makes sense, since they have ta find all those Horcruxes and avoid gettin’ caught.  So the belly of the whale is some sorta ref to Jonah and the whale, right?”

I nodded.  “Right.  ‘The belly of the whale’ reflects a symbolic death and rebirth for the protagonist.  It can be any kind of leap into the unknown.  Frankly, Rowling already did that for the overarching series when Harry leaves everything he’s ever known and steps through the barrier between platforms nine and ten to go off to Hogwarts.  But I’m expecting something more in book seven.  And the ‘night sea voyage’ is where the hero has to sneak into some place like the secret underground lair to get someone or something.  It’s usually associated with darkness and water, so Campbell named it the ‘night sea voyage’.”

Jade piped up, “Like the big thing at the end of book six where Harry and Dumbledore go into Voldemort’s secret cave!  It’s at night, and it’s dark inside, with water inside and out, and monsters in the water.”

I nodded again.  “Exactly.  Don’t expect anything that fits the model any better than that, but do expect more trials that fit into the mold.”

Billie asked, “And what about that apoptosis thing?”

“An apotheosis really means an elevation to godhood, but that’s not exactly what Campbell was after.  Here, we mean our heroes have to have their eyes opened, and they learn things which reshape their worldview.  It’s often something to do with the character himself.”

Toni shook her head slowly.  “I feel like I oughta get English class credit just for walking to breakfast.”

Hank signaled me with a tilt of his head.  I gave him a tiny nod of acknowledgement.

As the gang all trundled into the Crystal Hall, Hank and Lily pulled me aside.  They looked at each other.  Lily asked, “Okay, umm…  Do you think Harry’s another Horcrux?”

I looked at the two of them.  Hank blushed slightly and said, “We’ve got a bet between us.  On the internet there’s a huge amount of arguing on this, and if Dumbledore’s really dead, and if Harry and Ron and Hermione all live, and stuff like that.”

I gave them a raised eyebrow.  “Do you really want to know?”

Lily said, “It’s not really knowing.  It’s just your interpretation.”

I pursed my lips and said, “Harry’s a Horcrux.  Dumbledore knows, or rather, knew.  Dumbledore has a plan in play based on the fact that Riddle used Harry’s blood to rebuild his body.  Dumbledore even reacted when Harry revealed that detail.  He deliberately under-trained Harry so Riddle would get another chance to kill Harry.  I think that Harry will get all the Horcruxes, then when Voldemort hits Harry with an Avada Kedavra, it’ll kill the Horcrux inside Harry, rebound to kill Voldemort, and leave Harry alive, because of the blood connection between the two of them.  Instant win condition, and Harry doesn’t have to commit murder.”

Hank asked, “So you’re saying Dumbledore’s definitely dead?”

I nodded.  “We know that from what the phoenix did.  And he has to be dead, because that’s part of the hero’s journey.  He can’t have someone far more powerful standing there ready to protect him, like Dumbledore did back in book five.”

Lily asked, “So the apotheosis thing you said?  Maybe Harry finds out he’s a Horcrux too?”

I said, “That’s my interpretation, based on Rowling sticking with the classical literary forms.”

Hank asked, “So… do Ron and Hermione die?”

I said, “I can’t tell.  Ron?  I would say he’s got a high likelihood of acquiring Dead Sidekick Syndrome.  Hermione?  Not as much, largely because she’s pretty much an avatar of Rowling herself.  But Rowling could kill off either one; she’s pretty fixated on death in the whole series, so I’m guessing there are going to be more good-guy corpses before book seven wraps up.  Anybody competent who stands between Harry and the bad guys could end up dead, so McGonagall, Flitwick, Moody, Hagrid, the Weasleys, and Lupin are all potential targets.”

Lily looked around like she was about to ask something she didn’t want anyone else to hear.  “Where are the other Horcruxes?”

I said, “Okay, first off, R.A.B. is bound to be Sirius’s brother Regulus.  So the locket Horcrux was in Number 12 Grimmauld Place in that cabinet.  It’s the locket they couldn’t get open while they were cleaning the house in book five.”  Hank slapped his forehead.  “So Kreacher will have it.”

“And?” Lily prompted me.

“I’m going to speculate that we’ll see the ‘night sea voyage’ in other forms again.  Probably in the Gringotts vaults or in Hogwarts itself.  There has to be a reason Voldemort went back to Hogwarts to ask for the Defense Against the Dark Arts job when he had to know Dumbledore wouldn’t give it to him.  He was probably planting one of his Horcruxes in Hogwarts.  It may even have been one of the objects Rowling very carefully mentioned in the Room of Requirement when Harry hides the book from Snape.  It will be something from Rowena Ravenclaw, since we’ve seen powerful objects from the other three founders.  If I have to make a wild guess, it’s the battleaxe with the blood on it that Harry runs past.”

Lily said, “One more thing.  Snape.  Good guy or bad guy?”

“Bad person working for the good guys,” I ventured.  “We know he had a thing for Lily Evans.  He’s probably been working for Dumbledore ever since Voldemort killed the Potters.  After all, we know Snape saved Dumbledore’s life when Albus got cursed by the ring.  Snape could have just not done a very good job right then, and let Dumbledore buy the farm.  Way simpler and way less obvious than a spell in the middle of a battle.  So I’m guessing Dumbledore asked Snape to do it for some reason.  And so Harry will find out in book seven.”

Hank mentioned, “But you could be wrong on a lot of this stuff.”

I agreed, “I’m bound to be wrong on some of it.”

Lily said, “I’m thinking I’m going to win that ten bucks.”

Hank looked at my raised eyebrow and admitted, “The bets between us.  Harry as a Horcrux, and Dumbledore coming back in the last book.”

I shook my head and went to get some breakfast.

That proved to be a good decision on my part, because I spotted someone waiting for me.  I picked up a tray, poured myself a cup of the good coffee, and then casually gathered up my breakfast treat.

It was a plate of three freshly-baked croissants.  The perfectly-baked, flaky rolls were decorated with a hard ganache of dark chocolate and white chocolate elegantly arranged in parallel diagonals across the tops.  I took the time to pull one still-hot roll apart, and I was rewarded for my efforts.  There was a filling of dark chocolate hidden inside.  Mmm.  Somehow, I managed to resist diving in until I walked up to the Kimba table on the top level.

As I walked up the stairs, the rich scent of the chocolate reminded me of the February Golden Kids party, and Tabby’s ‘chocolate everything’ menu.

earlier: Saturday, February 24, 2007
8 p.m.
the party room for the Golden Kids

I knew my tie was tied perfectly, so I didn’t reach up to check it.  That would be a sign of nervousness, and I was not going to reveal any anxieties on my part.

The entire school seemed to be angry with me.  I had already been chastised – if you could call it that – by three of the Golden Kids earlier in the week, and there was a real possibility someone might decide to blackball me.  There was a chance that it could happen during the soiree, and there was an even better chance that people would discuss it during the evening, and decide to do it at a later date.

I performed a simple breathing exercise before anyone could see me, and then I walked from the hall into the atrium.  Tabby had a girl taking coats, but I didn’t have one.  Most of the crowd would have had to walk outside from Melville or Dickinson or Emerson, whereas I could take the tunnels from Poe.  I strolled past and entered the main room.

I noticed that the usual people were already arriving.  Tabby was greeting Tidewater and Pearlescent, so I just gave her a wave and moved on.  I didn’t know whether her having to greet me would be a problem, so I avoided the issue.  Temporarily, at least.

Macrobiotic and Corrosive both spotted me and made beelines for me.  That was both good and bad.  Corrosive was cute, and Macrobiotic was a gorgeous Exemplar brunette.  Corrosive was wearing a clinging dress made out of a shimmering deviser fabric that wouldn’t disintegrate from the chemicals in her skin oils.  Macrobiotic was wearing what looked to my inexpert eye like a genuine Gloria Vanderbilt wrap dress, and it showed off more cleavage than she usually revealed.  And since they were both hurrying toward me at ‘best polite rush’ pace, they were both joggling ferociously.

On the downside, Corrosive would certainly want to tell me unpleasant gossip about myself and the Kimbas and Chou… or else she would want to extract potential gossip from me.  And I didn’t know whether Macrobiotic would be supportive.  She did tend to try to support the underdog in any conflict, and the entire campus regarded Chou as the David to my Goliath.

Macrobiotic reached me first, but chose not to cut off Corrosive.  She waited a second until Corrosive could join us, and then said, “Good evening, Phase.  I’m glad you could join us.”

Corrosive smirked slightly as she said, “I wasn’t sure you were going to show up.”

I figured that I might as well get it over with.  I smiled at both of them.  “Good evening, Sophia…  Karen…  Why wouldn’t I show up?  I know the food is going to be excellent.”

Corrosive said, “There are the worst rumors going around about you and Bladedancer!  Did you really kick her off your team for being a big loser, and then get her kicked out of your room?”

“Corrosive!” Macrobiotic groaned.  “Please.  Phase has been here… what?  Five seconds?”

I said, “Thank you, Sophia, but this is something everyone in the room is dying to find out about, including you.”

She blushed a little and said, “Yes, but it’s incredibly rude, and really unfair to you and Bladedancer both.”

Corrosive asked, “Is it true Bladedancer got hurt in Boston and threw an enormous temper tantrum in Poe about getting out of your team?”  She couldn’t quite manage to keep the malicious tone out of her voice.

I said, “It is true that she got hurt in Boston.  What most people don’t know is how badly she was injured.  If Generator hadn’t been there, and hadn’t had all her medical devises with her, Chou probably would have lapsed into unconsciousness before the police backup arrived, and probably would have died before the EMT’s could get her to an emergency room.  She had a broken rib in her lower back that punched right into a kidney, and she was pouring blood into her abdomen.  She hurt so much she couldn’t move.  I think it really scared her.  Even with the training sims and the combat finals and the skirmishes on campus, we seldom get confronted with our own mortality so directly.”

“So she really did throw a huge temper tantrum?” Corrosive asked nastily.

“No.  After we got back, we had a team meeting in my room and she asked if there was a way she could be kept safe.  Given what happens all the time to Team Kimba, we couldn’t even guarantee she’d be safe with us on campus.  So we all agreed she’d be happier moving off the team.  She still stayed with us through the final exam in Team Tactics.”

Macrobiotic said, “And you have to know there’s no way a dorm parent would let someone change rooms on a whim.  You know Solange and Sahar are still rooming together.”

I explained, “They have a new supervillainess on campus, and she’s spent a year as one of The Necromancer’s Children of the Night.  It was decided by whoever is in charge of these things, probably Shugendo, that Vamp would run roughshod over most underclass kids, so she needed to be in a room with someone who could and would stand up to her, and be able to deal with her end runs around propriety.  Lucky me.”

Corrosive’s eyes lit up at the new information.  “The Children of the Night, you say?”

I added, “Yes, and she was a mole working for the Boston police, and she was tortured by The Necromancer.  So she’s in Poe while she deals with her post-traumatic stress disorder and her scars.”

Macrobiotic cringed.  “That’s dreadful!”

Corrosive checked, “A mole?  Inside an organization like the Necromancer’s?  She’s either really brave or really crazy.”

“Really angry is more like it,” I asserted.  “Darrow forced her to join the team by murdering her boyfriend and framing her for it, so she had nowhere else to go.  Somehow, it didn’t occur to him that she might be incredibly pissed off at him.  Or else he didn’t care, because he didn’t think she could harm him and his operations.  Probably the latter.”

“So now you have a supervillain for a roommate…” Corrosive considered.

“I really miss Bladedancer,” I said.  “She was a great roommate.  Quiet, considerate, fun to talk with, her taste in music wasn’t too awful…  We used to have regular movie nights with friends in our room.  And Sunday afternoon tea.  Her sponsors sent her this utterly amazing tea, grown only in a special area in China, and we’d serve it to everybody.  Now I’m stuck with a supervillain who isn’t quiet, or considerate, or fun to talk with.  I can’t even trust her to keep her hands off my property, and she’s trying to take advantage of the person I hired to do cleaning and laundry and such for me.”

Macrobiotic asked, “And who is Bladedancer going to get as a new roommate?”

“We don’t know yet.  It will depend on who’s the next girl they chuck into Poe.”  I admitted, “I hope it’s someone nice.”

Corrosive darted off to tell her new news to anyone who would listen.  I watched her go.  That dress was really clinging to her.  In all the right places.

Macrobiotic watched her go and said, “I feel bad for her.  That fabric is so tight, but there are limited choices for her when her skin dissolves most textiles.  She can’t wear nylon or rayon clothing without it disintegrating in a matter of hours.  Natural fabrics like wool and cotton just take longer to break down.  And some of the things she can wear, she doesn’t like.”

Traduce strolled up with Dynamaxx.  “Talking about Corrosive?”

“I feel bad for her,” Macrobiotic reiterated.

Dynamaxx smiled wickedly.  “On the good side, when Peeper and Greasy bothered her last fall, she took off her gloves and smeared her skin oils all over their camera lenses.  Before they could get the lenses clean, the chemicals scarred them beyond the point where they could be repaired.”

Traduce looked at him and said, “I would have thought you were a big supporter of Peeper’s work.  The pictures, the videos, the interviews…”

He deliberately leered down at her and purred, “Oh, I am most decidedly a lover of the female form.  But I prefer a little taste, a little class…”

“And that would be why you went out with Taser?” she fired back.

He wasn’t fazed in the least.  “We all know why I went out with Taser.  Granted, I was hoping for more style, and she was hoping for more naïveté on my part.  Still, she was an interesting conversationalist, and refreshingly honest after dinner.  I will probably ask her out again.  In the near future.”

While Traduce tried to dig her claws into Dynamaxx, a server came by with a tray of little empanadas.  It was Jade, in a simple gray maid’s dress and three-inch heels.

I said, “Hi, Jade.  I thought Tabby was going to have all of you wearing flats.”

She nodded, “Hi Ayla.  Umm, yeah, she said flats.  But I’m so short.  Jinn and Marty were making me feel like a midget, and I wanted Stephen to pay attention to me, so I borrowed a pair of shoes from Bunny.  Ooh, and you need to try these.  They’re awesome.”

“What are they?” asked Macrobiotic.

“Empanadas, but they have chicken in mole inside,” she said.  “When I heard what the ingredients were, I thought ‘bleah’ but they’re really good!”

Macrobiotic smiled gently, “Thank you, but I think I’ll pass.”

Jade looked at her and said, “Oh!  Right!  You’re a vegetarian.  Okay, Anna over there has some really good vegetarian treats.  I think Tabby said they’re vegan.  It’s roasted butternut squash with a special vinaigrette, on little rounds.”

“That does sound good.  Thank you,” Macrobiotic said.

Dynamaxx zinged Traduce as soon as he thought Jade was out of hearing.  “And that’s why you should be nicer to the hired help.”

Macrobiotic and I slipped off while Traduce and Dynamaxx got into an argument about the treatment of maids and butlers and personal assistants and cooks.

I took a bite of the empanada.  “Ohh, this is great.”

“What’s in it?” Macrobiotic asked.  “I mean, besides the chicken.”

I said, “Classic empanada on the outside.  The chicken’s coarsely shredded, but you could probably replicate it with a textured soy protein.  The mole has flavors of onion and garlic… there’s orange and orange peel and maybe raisin… a good quality chocolate, some spicy chiles but not so much that they overwhelm the dish… cumin and coriander, definitely.  Maybe oregano too, and I’m not quite sure about the other seasonings.”

She smiled, “That does sound good.  I’m sure I could talk mom into trying something like it with tempeh instead of chicken.”

I wanted to ask how her mom felt about Sophia’s vegetarianism and her political correctness, but if I asked, I would have to be willing to talk about how I was doing with my family.  I passed.  Instead, I led her over to where Anna was serving Ren and a couple of his friends.

Anna looked like a treed squirrel when she turned around and saw I was there.  I let Macrobiotic take a treat before I helped myself.  Then I let Anna scurry away.  I had a round of toasted pita bread with a slightly smaller circle of squash centered on it.  I took a bite and enjoyed the nutty richness of the squash, which was set off by a vinaigrette dressing of shallots and cacao nibs and balsamic vinegar.

“Someone who’s upset with you?” Macrobiotic asked.  “Or is it the ‘Goodkind’ thing?”

I confessed, “I know Anna.  And she knows Bladedancer.  She’s close friends with Gateway and Geomancer, and she’s mad at me for what everyone assumes I did.”

“But that’s not fair,” Macrobiotic insisted.  “Judging others by… hearsay, and not giving others a second chance?  That’s as bad as what Humanity Firsters do to mutants.”

“It’s human nature,” I replied.  “I’m a Goodkind.  This is just what everyone in the entire school has been expecting me to do to someone.  It’s what everyone in Hollywood expects of my sister Heather.  It’s what everyone at the Wall Street Journal expects of my father.”

She clenched her teeth in utter frustration.  “But that’s just… not fair!  It’s… it’s what my whole family’s been facing for like a century.”  I looked at her and let her go on when she was ready.  “Do you know why the first Ferriss woman fought against Deathmaiden?  Why she didn’t change her name when she got married?”

I knew the original Ferriss was a biologist at Harvard in the 1910’s and led the scientific efforts to cure the ‘mutant influenza’ that Deathmaiden used against the eastern seaboard of the United States in that decade.  But I hadn’t heard this tidbit.  I said, “I know the general background, but not the specifics.”

She nodded.  “She was my great-great-great-grandmother.  She was still finishing her Ph.D. in microbiology at Harvard, and doing coursework toward an M.D. at Harvard Medical School.  Her major prof was the famous bacteriologist Felix Fassbinder.  What isn’t common knowledge is she and Felix had secretly gotten married at a little church in Boston.  When Deathmaiden wiped out the biology departments of Yale and Harvard, and killed about forty thousand people in her first strike, she found out she was one of only three biologists left alive in the two departments together.  Her husband was dead.  And she was pregnant.  And the Fassbinder family refused to recognize her as married to their son, even though she had a marriage certificate and everything.  It wasn’t like she could go get the priest who married them, either.  The church – the whole area around Harvard – was a charnel house.  She still completed her degree and then got her M.D.  She still fought to come up with a cure.  But she was treated like an ‘unwed mother’ no matter what she said or did.  So she kept her last name.  She stood up for other women in situations like hers.  People thought of her as one of those crazy feminists.  She wasn’t.  She was just a woman who wanted what was fair.  Her daughter was never recognized as a Fassbinder, so she kept her maiden name when she got married.  And it’s a family tradition now.  Just like every one of us has gone into the biological sciences.  And every one of us has married early and had a child as soon as we could, because we all know Deathmaiden’s going to beat us one of these days.”

She looked around the room.  “Everybody’s so relaxed, and so happy, and none of them think about the fact that Deathmaiden’s due back in a couple years.  I pretty much have to, because the whole family knows she’ll target me and mom.  And any family we have.  Mom never got over dad’s death.  It was so… horrible.”

I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t think Sophia had gotten over her dad’s death either.  How can you cope when you’re just a toddler and someone kills your dad in your living room with a mailbomb?

“Has anyone in your family ever figured out how Deathmaiden keeps coming back?”

She shrugged hopelessly.  “Mom thinks it’s cloning technology, and the gap between appearances is the clones aging normally instead of using forced maturation, which pretty much never works right.  But mom’s field of expertise is cellular composition, including cell cloning, so she’s got a technological bias.  Gran thinks it’s some sort of non-vertebrate regeneration process and Deathmaiden may be a self-aware sentient fungus now, but mycology and mycological regeneration are her fields of expertise.  Great-gran thinks Deathmaiden’s probably nothing but self-replicating cancer cells, so she can leave a jar of herself in a hidden lab for years, and grow from that, so she can come back no matter what happens to her first body.  You probably guessed it: Great-gran’s field is oncology.  I think it’s probably something even more disturbing.”

We managed to get off that subject when Marty came by with a tray of little chunks of meat coated in a thick brown sauce and placed on skewers.  There was a little dipping bowl of more sauce in the center of the tray.

Macrobiotic watched as I chose one, dipped it into the sauce, and bit it, pulling the skewer out.  Oh, was that good.

Marty looked at my face and said, “Yeah, they’re shortribs in sauce.  They’re really great.  My favorite, not counting the dessert things.”

Macrobiotic looked at me and said, “Tell me about it.”  She caught my raised eyebrow and said, “Just because I opt not to eat meat as an ethical choice doesn’t mean I won’t eat it if it’s served to me when I’m a guest at someone’s house.  And I’m still interested in things that taste good.”  She grinned, “Plus, you really know your stuff.”

So I chewed carefully and said, “Let me see…  Shortribs browned and then cooked until tender.  The sauce has onions and garlic, lots of rosemary, chocolate, tomato, probably carrots and celery…  Umm… a very nice dry red wine, maybe a cabernet…  Thyme and maybe bay leaf, but I can’t be sure what else, maybe parsley.”

Jinn came by with champagne flutes of my non-alcoholic Prosecco and a nice mineral water.  I took a flute of the Prosecco, while Macrobiotic chose the water.  Then Rhiannon came by with a tray of small cups, each one about the size of a demitasse, with teaspoons.  Each cup had turkey and cannelini bean chili with a hint of chocolate, and there were two or three spoonfuls of chili in each cup.  The chili was good, but not as good as the shortribs or the chicken mole empanadas.

It was obvious to me that Macrobiotic was sticking to me as a sort of rumor guardian, but I didn’t realize that Pearlescent was walking around with Tidewater in tow, defending my good name, such as it was.

At least I didn’t realize it until the desserts came around, and Jade let me know.  “Hey, Ayla.  Hi, Macrobiotic.  I’ve got dark chocolate cheesecake bites.  They’re good, but the chocolate dipped strawberries are the best.  Rhiannon’s got ‘em.”  She looked at me, flicked her eyes toward Macrobiotic, and looked at me for a response.

“Yes, you can talk in front of Sophia,” I murmured.

She said, “Okay.  I just wanted to let you know that Pearlescent and Tidewater have been going around telling people you’re not a badguy and you wouldn’t just kick Chou out of our team just to be a jerkface.”

I looked over at Macrobiotic, who had the grace to blush.  She admitted, “We, umm, sort of decided to make things easier for you, because some people do have a tendency to spread ugly rumors.  Or plot ways to kick people out of the Golds when they’re not plotting how to take over the Alphas.  So I went with you, while Tide and Pearl worked the room.”  She looked down at the floor.  “I hope you’re not mad at me.”

“No, I’m not mad,” I told her.  “In fact, I’m rather pleased.  And flattered that you’d go to this much effort for a frosh.”  Not that I had really expected she was spending all this time with me just because she found me attractive.  After all, she had just publicly announced she was bi not that long ago, and I knew I looked attractively female, regardless of my personal preferences.  But I really doubted that she thought I was the hottest thing in a room full of Exemplars.

<(Phase) Is Shroud on?>

<(Shroud) Shroud here.>

<(Phase) Is G really not wearing her Spot?>

<(Shroud) She didn’t think she needed it for waitressing, and she didn’t want to have it on in case Stephen took her somewhere afterward.>

<(Lancer) Any problem?>

<(Phase) No, G just didn’t wear her Spot to do the waitressing and Thuban-izing.>

<(Chaka) That sounds a lot dirtier than G’s likely to go for.>

<(Phase) Sorry to get everyone worked up.  This is strictly comm chatter in the middle of the Golden Kids meeting.>

Macrobiotic took a bite of the little dark chocolate cheesecake.  “Mmm!  Ooh, this is good.”

The miniature cheesecakes were about an inch across, and the cheesecake filling was redolent with chocolate goodness.  It was also thick and rich and everything a well-made cheesecake was supposed to be.  I bit mine in half and savored it.  When I looked up, Macrobiotic was helping herself to a second one.

She saw I was looking at her, and she smiled with embarrassment.  “Cheesecake is my big weakness.  If I was totally vegan, I’d be doomed.”  She joked, “Anyway, the big advantage of not eating meat is I always have more room after the main course goes by and it’s time for dessert.”

I turned to Jade and asked, “Can you persuade the other waitresses to come by this way, so we can sample all the desserts?”

She nodded, “Sure.  You’ll probably go for the shoe pastry with the chocolate inside.  But it doesn’t look like a shoe.”

I managed not to grin.  “It’s c-h-o-u-x, not s-h-o-e.  The original version of the dough was used in little cabbage-shaped buns.  ‘Choux’ means cabbages.”

Jade just smiled at me.  “Ayla, is there anything you don’t know?”

“Yeah,” I responded.  “What you did to Beltane when she played that ectoplasmic door trick on your roomie.”

“Oh, that,” she said.  “The next morning, when she showered, her towel and bathrobe ran away.  Somehow.  They just jumped up into the air and ran off.  So she had to walk back to her room naked and sopping wet.  And it’s cold in her hall, because Feral’s always leaving her window open all night long.  And when she got to her room, her door handle was stuck.  She couldn’t get her door open.  She had to make herself some ectoplasm clothes and go get Mrs. Horton.  But somebody we know magically dispersed her ectoplasm clothes while she was walking through the common room and knocking on Mrs. Horton’s door.  And then when they got up to Belle’s room, there was nothing wrong with the door.  And the towel and bathrobe were hanging in the bathroom.”  She gave me an evil little grin and skipped off.

Macrobiotic asked, “Dare I ask?  And isn’t her roommate Tennyo?”

I explained, “You know Beltane, right?”  She nodded in that way that told me she knew more about Belle than she wanted to.  “Belle opened Tennyo’s door and put a fake ectoplasm door in the doorframe.  Then Tennyo struggled for five or ten minutes, trying to get the door open without breaking it.  I figured Generator wouldn’t let that go by unanswered, even if I heard Tennyo eventually got even with a prank from Risk and Flux.”

Macrobiotic guessed, “And so the magical spell was Fey?”

“Almost certainly,” I nodded.  “And Belle still likes to play pranks on us when she can.”  I saw the look in her eyes, so I added, “Sometimes Poe is less of a loony bin and more of a wacky funhouse.”

She said, “I’m not sure I can imagine what it was like during the shoulder angel problems, with Generator and Delta Spike and Fey and Beltane.”

I smiled in memory.  “There were a number of prank shoulder angels.  In fact one time, there were competing prank shoulder angels in the hallway.”  I told her about the time that Molly was pranked, followed by Chou.

When Macrobiotic stopped giggling, she finished her mini-cheesecake and looked around for more dessert.  By then, Glitch and a couple of his pals had drifted over to see what was so funny, and Dynamaxx had walked over with some more people to see why a crowd was gathering.  Marty and Jinn took advantage of the grouping to ply their wares.  Tidewater and Pearlescent stepped over to make sure people weren’t ganging up on me.  Corrosive and Traduce couldn’t resist the lure of a crowd.

I had one of the little choux pastries.  It was really more of a profiterole, with a rich semisweet chocolate pastry cream inside, and a dark chocolate ganache on the top.  There was just a hint of green tea in the ganache to give it a little zing that was just enough to offset the sweetness of the pastry and the cream filling.

Jinn managed to find homes for all the flutes of Prosecco and mineral water left on her tray, while also letting everyone know that there was a barista over to the side, making hot chocolates, mochas, espressos, and ordinary coffees.  Marty looked way too hot for a simple maid in an ordinary gray knee-length dress, so she had no trouble flirting with every guy in the group and talking people who had already eaten too much into trying one of the pastries.

Uproar finally had to ask, “Okay, did you kick Bladedancer out?”

The whole crowd had obviously been waiting for someone to ask that.  I caught Tidewater’s eye to let him know I had it under control.

I said, “Look at it as a business case.  Team Kimba’s been taking Team Tactics.  You have to keep the entire team stable through the entire course.  We could be failed just for ejecting one team member without cause.  So it made no sense whatsoever  for me – or any of us – to kick Bladedancer off the team before we even got to the final exam.  Telling her she was off the team as soon as the course final was over would be potentially worse, since she could leave the course or deliberately screw us over during the last simulations of the class and the final.  Unilaterally ejecting a team member could also have other repercussions, since any disgruntled teammate could go passive-aggressive on me and pull the old ‘oops I made a booboo’ routine in the final, wrecking everything.  If you look at it that way, it should be obvious that I wouldn’t even suggest something like that in the middle of the course.”

Ren looked at the ceiling for a couple seconds and said, “Okay, I’m sold.”

Maxx said, “I’m convinced.”  He looked around at the group and said, “I’m in that course.  You haven’t seen how hard Phase is working to get an ‘A’ in there.  There’s no way she would screw that up when she could wait until the end of the term.”

Uproar pursed his lips, thought for a second, and said, “Okay, I’ll buy that.”

Ren said, “Everyone should.  We’re talking Over-achiever Goodkind here.  We’re talking valedictorian of the junior high graduating class for Chilton.”

Traduce smiled maliciously, “So if it makes no sense for Phase to kick Bladedancer off the team, then Bladedancer must have jumped ship the first time she got hurt in a real fight.”

That was what we wanted people to think, but it just sounded so harsh that way.  I said, “She nearly died.  She was lying on a floor in agony, bleeding internally, with a broken rib punched right into a kidney.  She’s really lucky we have a deviser who’s crazy enough to want to mix it up on the front lines.”

“That would be Generator, right?”

“Right,” I nodded.  “The tiny Japanese girl walking around serving the miniature cheesecakes.”

“Doesn’t she worry about getting hurt?”

“She’s a Poesie.  She’s crazy.”

I said, “Not only does she not worry about getting hurt, she has actually used getting hurt as a stratagem.  One time in Boston, Ironhawk grabbed her and tried to use her as a hostage.  She impaled herself on his blade so she could get close enough to him to slap a devise on him and take over his control system.”

“Whoa!  Is she crazy?”

I said, “Yes.  And she’s a Regen-5, so she was healed up before we rode home.  And she has a tolerance for pain that’s frankly terrifying.  She broke her arm early in her combat final against Electrode, and she just kept going.”

“I thought she won that one, right up until the last second.”

I said, “I think that if they had a rematch today, she could cream Electrode.  She has four times as many devises working now, and she’s been through Team Tactics so she has a much better idea of how to tackle opposing threats.”

“But she’s so tiny!” Glitch complained.

Dynamaxx slowly shook his head at Glitch’s stupidity.  “You have no idea.  We had one simulation where she played the supervillain, and she destroyed Outcast Corner.  Outcast Corner!  And she did it with Hello Kitty junkyard dog robots, and some things just as crazy.  With devisers it’s not how tiny they are, it’s whether their squirtgun has water, or a knockout gas, or liquid Ebola.”

I think everyone within hearing assumed he was talking about Jobe there at the end.  I certainly did.

Corrosive certainly did, because she immediately launched into some lurid gossip about Jobe.

I tried to ignore the discussion, since I really didn’t believe in gossip.  My family had been subjected to it far too many times, and in far too many types of media.  Instead, I focused on food.

Rhiannon had a tray of chocolate-dipped strawberries and raspberries.  The strawberries were double-dipped, once in dark chocolate, and once in white chocolate.  But someone had dipped the berries at an angle in dark chocolate first, then flipped them over and dipped them at a similar angle in white chocolate, so that the two dippings made a pretty ‘V’ shape that covered most of the berry.  The berries were sweetly ripe, and the dark chocolate offset the sweetness, with the white chocolate providing flair and texture.  The raspberries were dipped in a good quality milk chocolate, but someone had done something so the raspberries maintained their shape without flattening out under the stress of the dipping and cooling.  Perhaps the raspberries were harvested with their stems in, and dipped first, then the stems were plucked out after the chocolate was fully solidified.  I didn’t know enough about picking raspberries to know if that was even possible

Anna had a tray of miniature tiramisu with spiced pear.  It sounded excellent, but it wasn’t quite as good as the other desserts.  The pears were deliciously poached with ginger and cinnamon.  The mousse was a mixture of white chocolate and mascarpone and whipped cream, with some good quality vanilla and what I assumed was pear brandy.  The ladyfinger slices tasted like they were freshly baked.  But the finished product was too much.  Too sweet.  Too lacking, given the rich chocolates that comprised the other desserts.  And just, in general, trying a little too hard.  Or maybe it was my general dislike of white chocolate when real chocolate was around.

I never did make it over to the coffee area.  Tabby said the mochas were just a hair sweeter than she liked them, but the hot chocolates were excellent.  I didn’t ask her how much of each she had consumed.

At the end of the party, while Tabby was thanking everyone for attending, I walked over and checked on Jinn and Jade.  Marty?  She was down the hall already, letting one of Tidewater’s friends chat her up.  Because that went so well the last time.

Jade monitored everything as the J-Team cleaned up.  She looked at me and said, “Last time, the laundry took the longest, so we got that first thing.”  I did notice that the tables were all denuded, and the tablecloths were gone.  “I spotted ‘em and got ‘em in the washing machine already, and I’m also in the machine scrubbing the stains, so I can run ‘em through on a quick wash and then get ‘em dried and ironed and folded.”

The tables were getting folded up and put away.  The vacuum cleaner was taking care of the floor and furniture.  The chairs were being shoved onto racks.  The trays and plates and demitasse cups and flatware were all being washed.  I wondered if Jade had extended herself just as far as she could go without passing out.

Once the main room was cleaned up, Jade and Jinn took care of the washing and drying.  The tablecloths jumped out of the washing machine and started ironing themselves, which looked like it ought to be painful.  The rack of dishes ran itself through the industrial washer and then moved through the gadgeteer drying system, after which Jinn helped the dishes put themselves away.  The silver trays cleaned and polished themselves before stacking themselves in the right cabinet.  It was actually really interesting to watch, in a ‘Fantasia’ sort of way.

Tabby dropped by to check on how the J-Team were doing, and she was stunned by Jade’s progress.  “Are… are those tablecloths ironing themselves?”

Jade bounced on her toes.  “Yep!  It’s a devise.  I got the idea from watching this old Disney movie with a lady who’s a witch and at the end of the movie she fights Nazis.”  Okay, that sounded weird, even by Jade’s standards.

Tabby obviously felt the same, because she gave me a look that plainly said, “Is she serious?”

I said, “Don’t ask about the armband idea she got from watching ‘Project A-Ko’.  It shoots missiles.  Or the Kim Possible grappling gun.  Or the flying Hello Kitty attack compact.”

Tabby said, “I saw that one, back when your friends did their arena challenge.”

Jade scowled at me.  “Some people are just mean about Hello Kitty.  It’s really popular in Japan.”

Tabby said to her, “It’s popular in San Francisco, for that matter.  Even outside the Asian communities.”

“Kewl,” Jade smiled.

In a surprisingly short period of time, the tablecloths were all ironed and folded and shelved.  Once again, they were the last thing finished.  By then, Tabby had already written Jade a check and left.  The two Security men had their gear all packed up and were watching Jade’s ‘devises’ iron and fold.

Green said, “You know, if you could turn those into gadgets, you’d be filthy rich.  Every guy I know would pay a ton to have a gadget that did his laundry and dishes for him.”

Jade and Jinn changed into regular clothes, with Jinn holding a clothing bag that had their dresses and shoes.  Once everything was done in the kitchen area, we left, with the Security men locking up behind us.

Jade said, “The laundry is still the slowest part.  I’ve got to figure out how to speed that up.  Even spreading me out more to do more tasks didn’t fix that problem.”

I just said, “You’ll figure it out.”  She smiled, so I added, “And maybe you’ll figure out how to use pronouns properly too.”

She and Jinn stuck their tongues out at me simultaneously.

We walked down the halls toward the Hawthorne tunnel, with Jade and Jinn bouncing ideas off each other about the tablecloths.  “You think we could talk Fey into coming by and cleaning ‘em magically?”

Suddenly, Jinn switched to the Spots.  <(Shroud) Incoming behind us.  It’s two of the Furies.>

<(Phase) Then we probably have the third one waiting to ambush us at the turn up there.>

<(Lancer) Where are you?>

<(Phase) Not quite at the entrance to the Hawthorne tunnel.>

<(Tennyo) I’ll be there in under a minute.>

I stopped and pretended I was tying my left shoe.

Jade glanced behind her and said, “Last time I don’t wear my Spot.”

Tisiphone apparently got tired of lurking around the corner, because she leapt out, fireballs in hand, and snapped, “This time, you’re toast, Phase!  Get it?  Toast?”

Jade muttered, “Crap.  On a popsicle stick too.”

 

to be continued

Read 2745 times Last modified on Friday, 20 August 2021 01:16

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