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Saturday, 28 April 2012 23:17

Ayla and the Mad Scientist: (Chap 7)

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Ayla and the Mad Scientist, chapter 7 Les Femmes Savantes, by Diane Castle

Ayla and the Mad Scientist

CHAPTER 7 – Les Femmes Savantes

a Whateley story

by Diane Castle


Tuesday, March 6, 2007
just after lunch

Ace and A-Plus were in the lead, while Interface and Rez had their six.  I assumed that meant that Holdout and Reach were sneaking up behind me, and that Kew was monitoring the situation from a secure location.

We were in the Hawthorne tunnel, so I still had the option of pressing my gymbag against my torso and going light, then jumping straight up to the surface.  But I didn’t want to do that until I had to.  Instead, I went heavy just in case, and I acted as if I had been expecting the encounter.

Actually, I had been expecting the encounter for some time, because I had gone off and done something spectacularly stupid after we returned from Boston back in January.  I had tracked down Kew and screamed at her for stealing my stuff out of my utility belt.  It was my fault I hadn’t emptied it and checked over everything.  It was my fault that I was so busy that week that I let important maintenance like that slip through the cracks.  And it was my fault that I wasn’t creative enough with what I had taken to Boston, so I had ended up running out of nearly everything.

But it was Kew’s fault that several important weapons had vanished out of my utility belt only days before I had needed them.  Only days before my team needed them.  Hank could have died.  Nikki could have been enslaved by the Necromancer, or been gang-raped by escaped convicts, or she might have simply died of her injuries.  Billie could have been buried alive, maybe for years, maybe forever, trapped immovably under seventy feet of rock.  I didn’t want to think any more about what happened to me.

So, being the mature, responsible, thoughtful individual I’m alleged to be, I had tracked down Kew and yelled at her until she cried.  Then, afterward, I had refused to apologize to her or to the Spy Kidz.  I wasn’t proud of the way I had acted, but I had been way too angry to apologize to any of them.

So I was assuming that this little tête-à-tête was going to center around that issue.  And I was also assuming that I was the official supervillain in this scenario.  What a bargain for me.

“Phase!  Do you have a minute?” Ace started off, in his usual manner.  Considering that he seemed to have a life goal of sounding like Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry” every second of every day, it wasn’t particularly encouraging.  I suspected A-Plus would want to play ‘good cop’ to that.

I said, “I might have a minute or two, but I really do need to get to aikido class in a timely manner.  Wouldn’t you rather make an appointment so we could sit down together and not be rushed?”

A-Plus gave me a big, friendly smile.  “Gee, I figured you’d want to get this out of the way and be rid of us.”

Just as I suspected, they were already going for the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine.  And A-Plus was a very hot Exemplar babe, so when she smiled, men stopped thinking and started drooling.  I was having prurient thoughts myself, and I had a girlfriend who was even hotter than A-Plus.  I replied, “It’s seldom a good idea to rush into a business meeting without planning an agenda and getting buy-in from all the interested parties.”

Ace growled, “We don’t want a business meeting.  We just want a quick parley.”

I didn’t give him a break.  “Which is a business meeting, just one in which the agenda is of limited length, and the timelines are usually short.”

A-Plus smiled again.  “Can’t we just have a little chat?”

I asked, “What topics do you want to have on the agenda?”

Ace fumed, “We want to know what you’re up to.  There’s the thing with Kew.  Then you kicked Bladedancer off your team and moved a supervillain into your room.  Then over break week, you vanished.”

I pretended to sigh.  “So.  Four items, or one item with four sub-topics?”

A-Plus asked, “Does it really matter?  Can’t we just talk this out?”

I said, “We can make the attempt.  So shall we do this in reverse order of weight of concerns?”

A-Plus asked, “Why would we do that?”

I explained, “It’s an important conferencing technique when there are time constraints.  If you start with the items least likely to need discussion or least likely to induce ranting, then you have a better chance of getting through more items and possibly even getting through the entire agenda, ending with the topic most likely to need extensive discussion.”

Ace snarled, “And what order would that be for us?”

I said, “First, I took my significant other to Miami for most of break week, so I wasn’t here.  Second, that supervillain in my room?  You can have her.  The school moved Bladedancer out of my room and put Vamp in my room because it was popularly believed that I was best suited to handle her behaviors.  So you can think of it as a punishment for being competent.  Third, we decided as a team to take Bladedancer off the team, because she almost died in Boston and had to be rescued by Generator.  She’s safer now, and she’s happier not being in danger any time we go off campus.  I believe I explained this to one of your secret informants not that long ago.  And finally, I am not going to apologize to Kew.  If she wants me to let this drop, she can either return the stolen articles undamaged, pay me what they cost me, or turn herself in to Security for grand theft.”

“Grand theft?  Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?” A-Plus asked gently.

I shook my head no.  “Did she show you what she lifted out of my utility belt?”

Ace frowned, “What, your Bat-grapple and your batarangs?”

A-Plus didn’t look at him, but murmured, “Be nice.”

I said, “I’ve spent a lot more on equipment for myself than your entire group has.”  I pulled out my tactical baton, sprung it open with a push of a button, and tossed it to Ace.  “Take a swing at the wall with that.”

He held it in his hand and blinked as he got some taste of my financial skills, if I had to guess based on prior experiences with him and A-Plus.  Then he adjusted his grip and swung it.

The tip smashed a large chunk of concrete out of the wall.  Shards of concrete flew all over the place.  Rez gasped, “Hey!  Watch it!”

I held out my hand, and he returned it.  I said, “The reason it has so much extra weight in the end, and the reason it didn’t sustain any damage, is that it’s an adamantium tac baton with an osmium weight in the head.  It cost me a quarter of a million dollars.  Now do you want to guess the cost of the gear Kew pilfered?”

Ace looked at the floor for a couple seconds and said, “Between fifteen and sixty thousand dollars?”

Okay, I admit it, that threw me.  I had no idea he could ‘get’ that much of a financial ability – or perhaps my own specific financial systemata – from his psychometric power.

“No way!”

“Ace, that can’t be right.”

I said, “Twenty-three thousand, seven hundred dollars and some change.  And she didn’t even attempt to return it all.”  In the shocked silence, I said, “And I need to get going.  You’re keeping me from getting to classes, which as you no doubt know, is a violation of two of the sections in the Whateley handbook.”

Interface said, “Great, now she’s taking lessons from Loophole.”

It could have been worse, I suppose.  They could have accused me of taking lessons from She-Beast or Stopwatch.

I pressed my gymbag against my chest, and I said, “We really should schedule a time to discuss these points further, but I must be going.”  I Phase-leapt forward and zoomed off down the tunnel.

I had to fly through the tunnels the whole way, in order to get to Aikido class on time.  Of course, that meant I had to do my density-change trick every time I needed to change direction.  A quick change to fully heavy to stop, then leaping in the new direction and going light to get back to my original velocity.

I just crossed my fingers that no one would object to my changing clothes in the women instructors’ locker room when I hadn’t asked first.  I walked to the locker I had been using all school year long, and stepped out of all of my clothes except my padded underwear and protective bra.  The hangers and shoe shelf I had left in the locker were still there, so I slipped my shoes in, hung up my clothes, and slipped into my gi as quickly as I could manage.

It was just a good thing I had changed at Poe into my padded underwear with the protection built in – and the slightly larger clothes that accompanied them – because I doubted I would have had the time after dealing with the Secret Squirrels.  I slung my utility belt around my waist and Phase-leapt through the wall while I was tying my belt.

Even when flying across the dojo, I was still nearly late.  As it was, I was the last person to sit down in front of the mat.  I found myself sitting seiza beside Britomart and Adamantine.  I gave them a nod, and they both nodded back.  So maybe they weren’t firmly in the ‘We Hate Ayla Club’. 

I knew almost everyone in the class.  In addition to Britomart and Adamantine, I spotted Blot, Aquerna, Kismet, Prism, Verdant, Scrambler, Silverwing, Phobos, Redlight, Mechano Man, Gila, and a couple other kids as holdovers from my aikido class last fall.  On the other hand, Vox, Kamuro, Golden Girl, and several others had opted out of this more advanced class.  I wondered if Golden Girl had transferred to the sixth period class, since she seemed to have a problem with me, and with no one else.  I already knew that Vox wasn’t going to take aikido this term.  And then I knew Shadowolf, Flashbang, and Gavotte from winter term martial arts.  I also noticed that Punch had transferred from fall term’s sixth period to our class.  And Diamondback had joined the class

As had Jobe and her cute widdle daughter Belphoebe.  Since I couldn’t see their eyes, I couldn’t tell which was which.  Bova was sitting in between them, like a petite mediator.  I knew that as drow they all had high regeneration, along with the strength and speed you would expect from an Exemplar-2 or Exemplar-3.  Bova probably still had her psychic talents on top of that.  I didn’t know the current details on their powers, and I had to assume their strength or speed might change over the course of the term.  Especially Bova, whose powers could hardly be stable yet.  My sources also said that they all had enhanced nervous systems, along with improved hearing and sight, plus some other special features Jobe had hardwired into his drow.  Jobe was supposed to have extensive martial arts training, plus he carried more weaponry around than I did.  I expected Belphoebe and Bova would be less of a threat, but Jobe would probably arm them as he saw fit.

I wondered if they were going to try to slip Freight Train into the class once she was sufficiently transformed and healthy.  For that matter, I wondered how Jobe was batting a thousand on his drow girls, when the people I had talked to had predicted about a twenty percent success rate, with horrible deaths and sickening mindwipes occurring in the other eighty percent.

Sensei Tolman and soke Ito walked out to the center of the mat.  Ito said, “Good afternoon, class.”

We all said, “Good afternoon, sensei.”  He had us well trained.

Tolman stepped forward and glared in her usual ‘Toni as an angry black woman’ style.  “I see that all but two of you have successfully completed Aikido I, and some of you successfully completed the winter term martial arts short course.”

I noted that when she said ‘but two of you’ she stared at the drow enclave.  Jobe was supposed to be highly-trained in the martial arts before he even got here, and he was known in his fall term aikido class for adhering to the ‘what happens on the mat stays on the mat’ philosophy, since he was the weakest kid in that class.  On the other hand, he worked with lots of holdouts including some nasty poisons, and he had no qualms about using the most vicious strikes and joint locks he knew.

Supposedly, Jobe had gotten into that war with Counterpoint during winter term because he had beaten Counterpoint on the mat once, and Counterpoint hadn’t been able to let that drop.  The number of people at Whateley who could beat Counterpoint on the mat, even with holdouts, wasn’t that large, and Jobe at that point was effectively a baseline with a big brain and lots of holdouts.  So I made a mental note to be cautious whenever I had to spar with Jobe.  And I was going to watch for holdouts whenever I was sparring with Jobe’s little playmates.

Tolman had the whole class except for Bova and Belphoebe move onto the mat and warm up before moving through a series of katas and forms we should have been practicing regularly since fall term.  It was fairly clear to me that some of us had been doing exactly that.  About a quarter of the class, including Aquerna and Prism and Redlight, looked very sharp.  I had been practicing too, primarily because it only made sense to maintain valuable skills I had spent months acquiring.  I had a host of other reasons, of course.  I was getting in battles far more often than I liked.  The aikido skills were useful on a regular basis in Team Tactics simulations.  Also, Toni has been known to give some of us ‘pop tests’ to see if we remembered how to block certain strikes or get out of certain holds, and getting thrown into a wall wasn’t one of my favorite pastimes.  There’s nothing like walking to the bathroom because you need to pee, and suddenly being assaulted like Inspector Clouseau being attacked by his manservant.  So I felt that my own movements weren’t unreasonably sloppy.

While we were moving through all the forms we were supposed to have learned back in fall term, soke Ito was working with Belphoebe and Bova.  It took us most of the class period to work through most of what we had previously learned.  Over winter term I had done a little research, and I had found out that Ito had been teaching us forms and movements all the way up into first and second dan, even though the forms were primarily sixth kyu to third kyu.  This told me that Ito was adhering to the Japanese style of belts instead of the British style, since some of us were clearly well past fifth or fourth kyu and still were wearing white belts.  It also told me that Ito was a pragmatist, because some of the forms we had learned were from other martial arts.

Granted, Tennyo’s position on belts was to stick with a single color all the time, so your opponent had no idea what your skill level was.  She had apparently picked that up from her martial arts instructors.  On the other hand, we now knew that her two martial arts instructors were really one third of the original Mystic Six, so you couldn’t really assume that her training had been what your average kid might get.

Finally, sensei Ito led Bova and Belphoebe back to the main group and had them join in.  When sensei Tolman finally let us pause, Ito addressed the drow collective.  “Jobe, your… compatriots are not at the same skill level as you are.  But we will try this.  You will have two full weeks to bring their skills up to that of the class.  If they cannot achieve that, they will drop the class and wait until fall to take Aikido I.  If they can, they may stay in this class.  You may need to spend considerable time training them in this interval.  Are there any questions?”

Jobe just said, “No, sensei.”

“Very well,” Ito nodded.  “Let us try some sparring and see if anyone has become rusty due to lack of practice.”

He knew perfectly well who had been in the two winter term martial arts courses.  Most of the school knew that Jobe and Counterpoint had been in the hand-to-hand course, and that had evolved into a private war.  And I knew precisely who in this group had been in the martial arts weaponry course.  Ito had even awarded weapons to some of the students who were in the special topics course.  I was aware of about a dozen students who were given their own weapons once the course was over.  Not that I got one.  Well, I was using a weapon I already owned.  Just as Swordmaiden used a manifested sword or else one of her personal swords, and Chou only used Destiny’s Wave.  But Toni had received a real meteor hammer, and Anna had been given a pair of real kama, and several students had gotten their very own bokken.

But Ito had to know who in the class had definitely been working on martial arts over the winter term.  As did Tolman, after watching several students struggle a bit with some of their forms.  I was rather surprised to note that Kismet wasn’t one of them: she had apparently been working quite diligently since last fall.  Maybe she was hoping to get into a training sim fight against Fey and use some of those martial arts moves to catch Fey by surprise.

My primary surmise was proven correct when the first pairs of sparring partners were announced.  Most of the students who had been practicing were paired up with roughly physically-equivalent students who had not been keeping up, as an oh-so-subtle message.  By the time Ito got to the last few pairings, all the unprepared students had sparred.  Most of them had gotten the message right about the time their face met the mat at high velocity, or someone’s foot had contacted their solar plexus.

So the last few sparring matches were probably for Ito’s other nefarious purposes.  And that was undoubtedly why I was matched against Jobe.

I sighed as I rose to my feet.  This was exactly what I didn’t need.  I didn’t want to spar with someone who liked to poison his opponents.  And I really didn’t want to spar with someone who might get pissed off at me and decide not to give me the serum he had developed.  While Jobe supposedly didn’t hold grudges from aikido class, that didn’t mean he didn’t remember what had happened.

As we walked toward the sparring circle, I asked, “How do you want to do this?  Holdouts or not?  Powers or not?”

Jobe rolled her eyes as if I had said the stupidest thing since the invention of Objectivism and acerbically said, “This is sparring, not poker.”

I mentally shrugged and went fully heavy before I stepped into the circle.  Then I took up my position and didn’t need to change my density.

Sensei Ito called out, “Hajime.”

Jobe was standing with his left arm in a defensive position and his right arm down at his side, so I was keeping an eye on his right arm.  To my complete lack of surprise, he snapped up his arm and threw a kunai underhanded at my midsection.

He was definitely faster than a baseline now.  I tried to catch it in mid-air, and only succeeded in smacking the blade with my palm.  That knocked it well out of the sparring circle, but since I was heavy I didn’t cut my hand open on what was undoubtedly a poisoned weapon.

The kunai went flying off toward the rows of students, and a couple students scrambled to leap out of the way just in case it managed to get all the way to the edge of the mat.  Frankly, that was probably a wise decision, considering Jobe’s reputation.

Jobe followed up with a quick move forward and a two-handed grab at my still-extended arm.  I made sure my stance was stable, and I let him go for the joint lock.

Let me just say if I were a baseline, Jobe probably would have come close to hyperextending my elbow.  He expertly fended off my other arm as he moved in and applied torque.  However, I’m not a baseline.  As an Exemplar who can change density, I’m really one of the worst options for the joint lock.  A well trained mid- to high-level PK brick would be worse, although an untrained PK brick can be caught by surprise once or twice on techniques like this before he or she wises up.  Someone like Blitz could be fairly painful to grab with one’s bare hands.  And a well-trained Psi like sensei Tolman can really make you regret trying something like a joint lock.  But my power set is fairly effective against this general category of martial arts moves.

I could have gone light and moved right through him.  I could have gone disruption-light and knocked him out, even though I wasn’t about to attempt anything like that until I was absolutely certain Jobe’s drow serum hadn’t given him a BIT as well.  I stayed heavy, and I made sure my muscles were tensed.  At that point, putting me in a joint lock was going to be harder than putting Michelangelo’s David in one.

I rolled onto my back and tossed Jobe hard enough that he landed mostly out of the sparring circle.  I had to admit, he did have quite a lot of jiggling going on when he landed.  I wondered if he had an adequate sports bra.  After all, who was Jobe Wilkins going to listen to on any subject?  And it wasn’t as if his father was going to be giving him advice on female clothing.  I hoped.  I really, really hoped.

I rolled up to my feet and stayed fully heavy.  Jobe moved back to her spot on the mat and waited until sensei started us again.

Jobe was smart.  More than smart enough to learn from experience in the middle of a sparring match.  I figured that Jobe had learned that he couldn’t poison me with a knife while I was fully heavy, and that he couldn’t perform some of the standard moves of jujitsu while I was as movable as a solid steel statue.  So I was somewhat worried that his next move would be some sort of aerosol toxin.

Ito called out “Hajime.”

I moved as quickly as I could in a simple form Jobe probably knew: a forward kick followed by a willow palm strike to the nose, followed by a strike to the solar plexus.

Only that wasn’t what I had in mind.  Jobe blocked the front kick with a guide parry, since while I was heavy I was a lot stronger than he was.  Then he brought up his hands to grab my arm and make me overbalance when I performed the willow palm strike.  Only I didn’t extend myself quite that far.  Jobe had told me he was using his powers and his holdouts, so I had on my gloves.  I was a little surprised he hadn’t picked up the faint whine of the capacitor on the back of my glove, since he had enhanced hearing.

But the sense I was attacking was his enhanced eyesight.  One of the tips I had picked up from soke was the fact that many powers were a double-edged sword.  Jobe’s drows all had enhanced hearing, enhanced eyesight, and increased perception of touch.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they had certain disturbing enhancements to their sense of taste or smell, either.  After all, this was Jobe we were discussing.  But someone with extremely good night vision was likely to be a lot more sensitive to sudden attacks using bright light.

And I had a bright light on the palm of one of my gloves.  As he moved slightly back so he was out of range of my handstrike and brought up his arms to help me overbalance, I fired off my palm flash only inches away from his eyes.

He jumped backward like Count Dracula confronted with a ten-foot cross.  He squeezed his eyes closed and turned his head to the side.  But he froze with his hands out.  I kept moving forward, even though I assumed he was trying to locate me by sound.  After all, when I was fully heavy, I wasn’t particularly stealthy.  A ton of weight coming down on an area of less than twenty square inches tends to make noise.

He still had his eyes closed, but he snapped his head to follow my movements.  Okay, he was definitely tracking me by sound.  I took an audible step to my right and Phase-leapt to my left.  As he turned to follow me, I dropped to the mat beside him and grabbed his arm, then executed a hip throw to toss him out of the sparring circle.

“Yame!” sensei Ito called.

“You okay?” I checked.

Jobe blinked a couple times and then nodded.  He said, “That was more sophisticated than I expected from someone with your power set.”  He probably thought that was a compliment, instead of an insult.

I sat back down to smiles and several quick ‘thumbs-up’ motions.  After all, I just beat Jobe.  I wondered how many people got reactions like that when they beat me in sparring.

As soon as Ito dismissed the class, I headed over to sensei Tolman.

She saw me coming, and rolled her eyes.  She headed me off before I even opened my mouth.  “Yes Phase, you can use our showers.  We even left your junk in that one locker.”

I tried to remain polite.  “Thank you, sensei.”  Then I Phase-leapt through the wall into the locker room and hurried through my usual routine.  Since I could step out through my clothes and I could dry off using my powers, I was getting dressed before Tolman strode in.

Physics lab was scheduled for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  It was Tuesday, so I had the period free.  That meant I had enough time to get over to the classrooms near Range 4.

I opted to fly through the tunnels back to Poe, drop off my gymbag and pick up my notebook, and then fly over to the firing ranges.  Thanks to seven weeks of Team Tactics classes, I knew enough about the organization of the buildings that I had no trouble finding the classroom where I could take the school gun safety test.

There were two students sitting at computers and reading intently, so I guessed that the test would be a multiple choice test administered on computer for instant grading.

I walked up to the range officer sitting at the front desk.  “I’m Phase.  Can I sit anywhere to take the test, or do you want to assign me a seat?”

He waved his hand to his left.  “Anywhere in the front row over there.”

I chose not to waste time discussing optimal seating arrangements, and went to work.  I sat down, logged in, and began.

It took me five minutes, and I passed with a hundred percent.  Like it was hard.  Seriously.  I mean, how could anyone with an IQ above room temperature fail that thing?

It had questions like: if you unloaded your weapon and set it down on a table, when you pick it up again, will you…

(A)            treat it like it is loaded
(B)            treat it like it is unloaded
(C)            look down the barrel to see if there’s a bullet in there.

I’m not making this up.  There were fewer than twenty-five questions, and every one of them had been written by Sergeant Obvious so that Bonzo the Chimpanzee could figure out the right answer.

I closed down the computer and walked back to the range officer.  I looked at him and said, “All done.”

He glanced at his computer screen and said, “Passed with a hundred percent.  Now you have to go to a meeting tomorrow night at eight, over at Range 1.  And bring your weapon if you already have it.”

There was no point in complaining about my lack of free time, so I just nodded and left.  With my luck, the sim jockeys would want me down there at exactly the same time.  And Jobe would have something happen in his lab, so he would need me there at the same time.  And I’d also be attacked by Mimeo on my way out of Poe.

At least I didn’t have to worry about scrounging up a weapon.  I already had two, with a third being built to my specifications and a fourth on its way from a specialty dealer in Switzerland.

I had plenty of time before math class, so I detoured over to the Crystal Hall to see if someone I knew was hanging out there.  But Jadis was busy having a surreptitious discussion with a potential client, so I couldn’t drop in on her.  And the Berets were having an argument about Cytherea which I felt I should avoid.  The Underdogs were generally not speaking to me, not that they ever had been part of the Phase Fan Club or anything like that.

So I gave up and headed to class.  I made it to pre-calc with plenty of time to spare, so I was able to sit next to Unicorn and Electrode.  Which had its advantages as well as its disadvantages.  And speaking of which…

Unicorn looked over at me and said, “Hexette said you kicked your roommate off your training team.”

Christ, how long was this going to be circulating through the sewer system that is the Whateley gossip channels?

I said, “I assumed Electrode would have put you straight about that.”

Electrode leaned forward and said, “All I heard was you did it and made her switch to another room, which is like impossible to do, and Delta was the one saying it, so that automatically calls it into question.”

I explained, “The house mother made us split up so she could stick the two newbies with someone with experience.  I was stuck with Vamp for my sins, largely because everyone seems to think she’d run roughshod over anybody else on our floor, including Fey and Chaka, which seems a bit extreme.  Bladedancer was stuck with the Crimson Comet, who desperately needs to absorb some of that zen-like calm, because she just got her powers, and she’s like a honeybee on crack.”

Electrode asked, “She’s the one who just busted up a bank robbery in front of two teevee camera crews in Indiana or Nebraska or somewhere like that?”

“Yep,” I agreed.  “She still thinks she’s invulnerable and unbeatable.  I don’t know how long it’s going to take to convince her otherwise, unless she tries to rescue some Underdogs from a couple campus bullies and finds out the hard way that she’s not exactly Lady Champion.”

Unicorn was not to be put off.  “But did you drop her off the training team?”

“No,” I prevaricated.  “We let her leave the real-world team.  She nearly died the last time we were in Boston, and I think it scared her.  She had a broken rib that punched right into one of her kidneys.  If Generator hadn’t had some weird medical devises along, she probably would have bled to death before the EMTs got her stabilized and to the hospital.  And having to be saved by Generator probably made her realize she’s not that good unless she gets one of her rare power boosts.”

“But she clobbered Nex,” Unicorn said.

“Yeah, and word is she stomped Counterpoint too,” Electrode added.

I lied, “Everyone knows Nex is vastly over-rated when you know he’s coming, and ‘Dancer got lucky against him.  He decided to play with his food, then his maneuvers played directly to her strengths, and finally she got one of her power boosts exactly when it would help the most.  Then Counterpoint pulled the same bonehead routine.  He figured he could fight her with no mimicked powers and just grab hers.  But she’s not a mutant, so he ended up not being able to copy anything.  Do you want to know how often she gets these power boosts?”  I kept going, even though neither one of them nodded.  “In seven weeks of Team Tactics exercises and simulations, I think she got one.  At most one.  And in the places where we really needed something like one of her power boosts in real-world fights, she got zero.  That’s not a very good track record.”

Unicorn said, “Okay, but dumping your teammate off your training team is still a pretty crappy thing to do.”

I nodded.  “Definitely.  If we were just one more Whateley training team, we wouldn’t do it.  She’s got useful skills, too.  But Team Kimba isn’t a training team.  We’re a group of mutants with real-world bullseyes on our backs.  We’ve already fought the Necromancer and the Children of the Night three times, with three clear wins.  He’s specifically targeting us now.”  Unicorn whistled in surprise.  “As are the Yama Dojo.”  Electrode winced.  “And that’s just the appetizer course.  Hanging out with Team Kimba is dangerous.  Riptide went with us to Boston, and ended up having to go one-on-one against The Lamplighter.  Everyone else who came with us got attacked by a team of armored mercenaries who were being paid per violent, close-range kill.  You have to either be powerful, like Tennyo, or else crazy, like Generator, to want to hang out with us on a regular basis.”

“Or both, like you,” smirked Electrode.

I ignored that and said, “Anyway, Hexette doesn’t have a lot of room to cast aspersions, considering she talked Billie into helping her join the ballroom dance group in the fall and promptly leveraged her participation into stealing Billie’s boyfriend.  And it’s not like many boys can even get up the nerve to ask Billie out.”

Unicorn looked over at Electrode with one raised eyebrow.  Electrode whispered, “Tennyo.”

I added, “You know how many boys have asked her out since then?  One.  And it was Hatamoto, so she was afraid he was being a fanboy and asking her out because she looks like Ryoko.”

Unicorn snickered, “I heard that nutball Akira and his loopy gang really think she’s Ryoko for real.”

I said, “It’s worse than that.  They were bugging Tennyo about that, and Generator used one of her devises and animated a stuffed cabbit and got it to run around yelling ‘miya’ and chewing on a carrot, so now Akira’s gang is certain Tennyo really has a way off the planet and is just holding out on them.”

Electrode said, “Sometimes that cabbit’s running around loose in Poe like it’s a pet.  Generator uses it to run errands for her.”

I whispered, “Don’t tell anyone, but Generator weaponized it, too.”

Electrode grimaced, “Jesus, that girl really is crazy.”

Mrs. Bell had already walked into the room and was apparently taking attendance.  Since all but about three of the students from last fall were in the class, and there were only two students who hadn’t taken the fall class with us, she was presumably having an easy time of it.

She finally put her roll down and smiled at us.  “Good afternoon, everybody.  All of you know I’m Mrs. Bell.  I have a handout for everyone.”  She walked up one side of the classroom, handing out stapled pages that she expected people to pass along the rows.  I quickly glanced through mine.  It was pretty much what I was expecting.

She walked back to the desk at the front of the room.  “Now then.  The first page has the reading assignments and when the lecture will cover the material.  The second page has all the homework assignments and their due dates.  The third page has the dates for the midterms and the final, along with the grading guidelines.  All of this is on my page on the school intranet.  And pages four and five are all the things you should remember from fall term for this class.  We’ll quickly go over them all today and tomorrow.  Anything you don’t remember, you’ll need to go over when you do the first homework set.”

She put the last of the stapled collations on her desk, and she moved over to the whiteboard.  “People will tell you that calculus is hard.  That’s absolutely wrong.  Calculus is easy.  Integral calculus is just finding the area under a curve.  There are only a few formulas you need to learn.  Differential calculus is finding the tangent line to a curve, and there are only a few formulas to learn there.  That’s it.  Applying everything you’ll learn in this class is the hard part.  We’ll have a quick review of everything you should have learned so far in algebra and trig over the next couple days, and then we’ll take it up a notch.  And we’ll stress a number of basic concepts that will stand you in good stead when you take calculus and more advanced courses.  But you should think of this class as providing you with a bag full of tricks for solving calculus problems.  If you understand all the material in this course and you can do all the homework, calculus will be easy.  If there are areas where you’re getting stuck, then you’ll have trouble in calculus in those exact same places.”

She quickly wrote six algebra problems on the three whiteboards, two of them side by side at the top of each whiteboard panel.  “Who would like come down and work one of these?”

Of course, I put my hand up.  They were all easy, or at least I remembered how to do all of them from fall term.

After a bit, some of the more competitive class members got tired of seeing the frosh putting a hand in the air every time Mrs. Bell wrote new problems up, and they began insisting on working the problems too.  So there were a lot of us willing to work the problems.  Only once did someone volunteer to work a problem and then screw it up, and that was on a ‘story problem’.

Have I ever mentioned that I hate the term ‘story problem’?  It suggests that the math ought to be kept separate from real-world uses, and occasionally shoved into a silly example with words which do nothing but convince you there isn’t a real need for that bit of mathematics after all.  Would I waste my time on tools that have no use?  No!  Why can’t the math be used in useful contexts from the start?  Businesses need mathematics all the time, and business problems are technically all ‘story problems’, because there’s a financial context to go with the math problem.  They’re not ‘story problems’; they’re just problems.

Granted, the ‘story problems’ in these math books seem to have been invented by people who have never seen the real world.  Maybe they live in some Bizarro World in another dimension and contribute math problems in an attempt to confuse humans.  But those problems that Mrs. Bell was pulling out of fall term’s textbook would have been a lot better if they were couched in meaningful terms, like computing sales tax for your purchases, or graphing a marginal utility curve.

After math class, I headed over to the meeting for the Accounting II students.  Mister Morley greeted me with a big smile.  He clearly still thought he had pulled a fast one on me.  I didn’t see any reason to disillusion him, given that I might benefit from his transparency someday in the future.  He shook my hand like I was a breakable little girl and said, “Phase, I’m really glad you’re willing to help me out with all these classes.”

I merely said, “Let’s hope the teaching assistant gig goes a little more smoothly this term than last term.”

He said, “Well, we got everyone through Accounting I fall term, but we only have about three quarters of them taking Accounting II.  Here’s the class list.”

I glanced over it.  In addition to most of fall term’s class, there were several people who had presumably put off taking Accounting II for at least two terms, thereby giving their brains time to lose all the relevant information.  That meant that we were probably going to need to go over basic Accounting I information for them in several places during the term.  I made a mental note to watch for that sort of problem.

I was frankly more concerned about the students I remembered from last fall.  There were several of them who had probably heard all the gossip about my ‘mistreating’ Bladedancer.  They would probably be even more antagonistic than they were last fall.  I could hardly wait.

I took a seat on the slightly raised dais that supported the teacher’s desk.  I made sure to sit opposite the doors, so anyone looking in at the desk would see me.  And vice versa.

Vox was taking the course, but I already knew she wasn’t going to be coming to the tutorial session.  After all, she had her tutor just down the hall, and she knew she could get me to give her as much time as she wanted, just by showing up at my door and smiling at me.  Not that she needed the help.  She was smart, and she was serious about her studies.  I was sure she’d get an ‘A’ whether or not she came to me for help.  Frankly, I preferred to spend my time with her doing things other than tutoring.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

At any rate, I watched as the students trickled in.  In the case of Aqueous, that was more of a trickle than normal.

Once Mister Marley decided that it was time to begin, he stood up and walked to the front of the desk.  Then he sat back against the edge of the desk and smiled at everyone.  “Good afternoon.  You all know I’m Mister Marley, just as I remember most all of you from Accounting I open sessions.”

He wrote up on the board the name of the textbook, and the URLs for all the online resources the class could use, the online syllabus, and the homework assignments.

He put down the marker and said, “Since this is a personal study course, the tests are self-paced.  As you already know from Accounting I.  You can finish the course any time up to the last day of exams.  But waiting until finals to complete the course is just going to put more stress on you and take time from your other exams.  And there really isn’t a need to take that long.”

A hand went up.  It was Cueball.  “How long is Phase gonna take to get an ‘A+’ and wreck the curve?”

Mister Marley said, “First, there is no curve.  Your grade depends only on how you do on your tests.  It is possible for every single person in here to get an ‘A’ this term.  Except Phase.  Because she took the Accounting II, III, and IV courses on top of her other classes winter term, and she’s here as my teaching assistant for the term.”

He turned to me.  “Phase?  Would you like to say something?”

I stood up.  “First, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Ayla Goodkind.  If you don’t know what that means, just Google my name after class.  Mister Marley asked me to help out in all the open sessions for the personal study Accounting classes, and I said yes.  I do know this material, and I may have insights that will help you understand it.  So take advantage of my presence and ask me questions when you come to open session.  And finally, there are a lot of ugly rumors going around campus about my mistreating my best friend Bladedancer.  I’m going to ask that before you believe any of them, you go ask Bladedancer herself about them.  Or check with Slab or Jimmy T, or else someone you know on Team Kimba.  You wouldn’t want people spreading malicious lies about you, so please don’t do it about me.”  I looked back at Mister Marley.

He said, “The only rumors I’ve heard about Phase are how she made several billion dollars in a massive IPO this year.  She’s like our own personal Warren Buffett.  She has expertise you are never going to be able to approach again, so don’t treat her like she’s out to get you.”  I was pretty sure he gave Aqueous a look.

But it turned out that most of the rest of the session really consisted of people whining about the course requirements and the coursework and the course testing system.  What’s the point of signing up for a completely optional course and then bitching about the amount of work involved?  That made no sense to me.  Not that I said so out loud.  I just took a seat in a desk in the front row, and let Mister Marley go over everything.  The man has more patience than I’m ever going to possess.  I would suck as a high school teacher, even at Whateley.  I would probably be setting up a Goodkind Defense Industries Liquid Taser 6026 with attached pump and extra fluid tanks, so I could tase everyone who asked a stupid question.

I was really not looking forward to the first session for the other accounting classes.  I figured it would be more of the same, especially in the Accounting I open session.  Maybe by the time they got to Accounting IV, they would demonstrate some common sense.

After that whirligig of fun, I hauled my gymbag back to my room and spent a few minutes doing homework before the gang was ready to walk over to get dinner.  I noticed that Vamp had snuck some more of her clothes into my laundry basket.  She was still trying to slip some of her stuff past Jody.  I didn’t take the stuff out of the basket, wad it up, and hurl it into the back of her closet.  But I thought about it.  I fantasized about doing it with Superman levels of strength, so I could compress her clothes into smoking lumps of carbon and then hurl the lumps so they were embedded in the back wall of her closet.

What I actually did was to write a note reminding her not to put her clothes in my clothes basket.  Then I put the note on her desk.  With four strips of adhesive tape.  I used G-Tape, but almost everyone else at Whateley used 3M’s ‘Scotch’ tape.  I had to buy the stuff and have it delivered, because the Whateley school store didn’t carry any Goodkind Industries products.  Of course.  I wondered how many students realized they were eating Goodkind Mills breakfast foods in the cafeteria.

And speaking of the cafeteria, Billie swung by to ask me, “Are you ready for dinner yet?  I’m really hungry.  I worked up an appetite sparring with Chaka.”

I asked, “I assume Toni was using her Ki to avoid your strikes, while you weren’t using anything overt?”

“You mean like flying or my Warper stuff?” she checked.


She frowned, “That wouldn’t be any fun.”  Then she grinned, her little fangs showing cutely at the corners of her mouth.  “Besides, how am I gonna get better at the martial arts part if I use my powers too much?  I need to get way better at kendo for the next time I run into that jerk Mimeo.”

That was actually a valid point.  I should probably consider that in martial arts class.  Although not when I was sparring against the drow collective.  I was staying heavy to fight them until I had some sort of guarantee that I wasn’t going to get horribly poisoned as soon as I returned to my normal density.

She walked down the hall with me, “So… how was your aikido class?”

I shrugged.  “Pretty much what you’d expect.  Lots of students we know.  Punch is in fourth period this term.  So is Diamondback, and Jobe’s squad.  And plenty of people slacked off since fall term, so the first classes are probably going to be going over fall term’s forms.”

“Who’d you get to spar with?  Punch?  She’s really nice, you know,” Billie said.

“Jobe.  I sparred against Jobe.”

“JOBE?” Jade squealed.  “You beat up Jobe?  KEWL!  I gotta hear all about this!”

“Me too!” insisted Jinn, even though they were the same person and they would share the memory as soon as Jade recharged her.

“What’s the what?  Sump’m really good?” Toni popped out of the bathroom to join us.

“Phase got to spar against Jobe!  And I bet she won!” Jade grinned.

Toni gave me her leopard grin.  “Whoa, so you got the Black Borg in your class?  All of ‘em?”

I figured Toni was the only person on the team who could get away with calling Jobe’s group the ‘Black Borg’.  I nodded, “Yes.  All of them, for the moment.  But Jobe has to get Belphoebe and Bova up to class skill levels, or they’ll have to drop out and re-take it next year.”

Toni thought for a moment.  “Hmm.  Could be a problem, depending on what kinda kinesthetic abilities he designed inta them.  Belphegor is pretty much a fat blob, so Belphoebe’s gotta be startin’ off from step one.  Maybe step negative six.  And Bova’s gotta be struggling some with the change in weight and shape and flexibility, so she’s got some re-training to do.”

I said, “There were some kids from fall class who looked like they had forgotten ninety percent of the material from Aikido I.”

Toni nodded and said, “Yeah, but once you’ve got the muscle memory down, that comes back faster than you’d expect.  They might surprise you.”

Hank flew over and joined us.  “What’s all the excitement?”

“Phase got to beat up Jobe in sparring!” Jade chirped excitedly.

Hank winced.  “Is this going to mess up your arrangement with him?  Her?”

I said, “It was just sparring.  Jade’s making too much out of it.”

Said exaggerator said, “No I’m not!  You got to beat up Jobe!  Do you know how many people want to punch her in the face?  About the whole campus!”

“And the United Nations,” added Hank.

Toni grinned, “Wait, wait, don’t tell the story yet.  Nik’s not gonna meet up with us until the caff, so save it.  She’ll really want to hear about Jobette gettin’ her ass kicked.”

I rolled my eyes.  “How do you know Jobe didn’t beat me?”

“Pffft,” Toni smirked.  “Like that’s gonna happen.  Team Kimba doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘defeat’!”

“Sure we do,” said Jade.  “It’s what goes under de ankles.”  She gave me one of her evil smirks.  Billie snorted with laughter behind me.

Toni said, “Which reminds me…  Hey, WordGirl, I gotta say ‘word up’.  I used the word ‘aver’ in English class discussion, and I got bonus points.  Now I gotta figure out how to slip ‘quaff’ in there.”

I said, “Always happy to enhance the modern learning experience.”

“And unleash intellectual chaos!  Mwa-ha-hah!” Jade chimed in.

“Exactly.  I couldn’t have put it better myself,” I pretended to agree.

“At least, not without several six-syllable words,” Billie grinned.

“And saying ‘of course’ a couple times,” Toni added.

There was no point in complaining, since it would just encourage most of them.

So we walked to dinner with Toni recounting all the fun she had sparring with Billie.  “And soke said no powers, so I hadda concentrate just to keep from reading her Ki or using her Ki to power my parries.  It was a blast!  Well, not an actual blast, because Ito hates it when we wreck the mats.  Even if we got a couple spares Ayles bought last term.  So there I am, tryin’ to do what I’m supposed to, and she gives me this massive opening.  So I grab her wrist and arm, and throw her.  Only it’s Tennyo.  So she just forgets about the whole gravity and inertia deal, and she hangs there in mid-air and lets me have it with a backfist I just barely blocked.  But then Tolman gets all over us for not stickin’ to the ‘no powers’ rule.  It’s not either of us were trying to cheat.  It just happened.  And then at the end of class Tolman said she didn’t have time today, she had to go to a meeting, and I really wanted ta spar with her some more!”

Ugh.  Sparring with Tolman.  Exemplar strength and speed, based on my observations in class.  I still didn’t know what level of Exemplar she was.  Martial arts master.  Plus a psychic attack that could render you unconscious, and possibly some holdouts or some powers she had yet to reveal.  Not my idea of a good time.

But this was Chaka we were talking about.  She could block most psychic attacks just by controlling her brow chakra.  She could speed up her reflexes and increase her strength just by re-routing her Ki.  She could temporarily boost herself enough that she could fight an Exemplar-6, at least on the mat.  And she could learn martial arts just by watching an expert perform them.  For Chaka, sensei Tolman would be challenging but not impossible.  I couldn’t do that.  I would get crushed into the mat like I was standing under a piledriver.

Billie said, “I tried to tell her I didn’t mean to do it, I just forgot.  I mean, it just happens naturally.  It wasn’t like I was trying to pull a fast one.”

Toni nodded, “Yeah.  Sensei totally needs to lighten up and have more fun on the mat.”

“I see that happening right about the time that Ito starts rapping,” I said.

“Eww,” Toni complained.  “Old people tryin’ ta rap?  Ick.  Old people who aren’t black?  Even worse.  And it’s not like young black guys can rap worth shit.  Most of ‘em just want ta yell about how they shoot cops and smack women around and buy everyone off with drugs.  I’d like ta introduce ‘em ta Billie and let ‘em try ta smack dat bitch.  Or maybe Hip.”

“Now that’d be funny,” Hank said.  “Has Hip even heard rap music yet?”

Toni got a completely evil look in her eye, and she said, “Hmm, maybe Vince would like ta introduce a hot white girl ta the music of the streets…”

I said, “Don’t do that…  Unless you have the entire thing captured digitally from at least three different angles.”

Toni grinned, “Yeah, we’d have ta show the Knoxville girl the footage too.”

We weren’t using Chou’s name in public anymore, but everyone on the team knew exactly who Toni meant.

Toni asked me, “So, you still gettin’ shit about that?”

I shrugged.  “The Thornies delegated Slab and Jimmy T to go apologize to me and tell me I’m not persona non grata anymore.”

Jade said to Billie, “So, after Persona Tsumi and Persona Batsu, we get Persona Nongurata!”

Billie snickered, and then stopped when she realized everyone else was looking at her.

Hank asked, “What?”

Jade smiled, “Persona.  It’s a Japanese videogame.  Well, Persona 2 is really two video games that go together.  One of ‘em didn’t get released in America, but Stephen-”

“Ooh, Steeeeeeeephen!” Toni crooned.

“-got me a copy and Billie and me have been playing ‘em.”

Billie said, “My Japanese isn’t good enough a lot of the time for the game, but I’m working on it.”

Jade said, “And it’s great for working on my Japanese.  And the games are fun.  But the first Persona game is called Tsumi and the second one is called Batsu.  It was just a joke.”

Toni said, “J, you gotta crack jokes everyone else gets, or else you come off lookin’ like Ayles.”

Jade froze and did the ‘Home Alone’ face.

When the giggling finally stopped, Jade pointed at Toni and tried to put on a serious face.  “Watch it, or I’ll pull out Raising Heart and ‘befriend’ you!”

I said, “Yeah, and that glitter will get all in your food.”

Jade snickered in her best evil laugh and said, “Bunny’s helping me put together something really good for Raising Heart.”

I managed not to wince.  Between Jade and Bunny it could be anything.

Toni ignored the potential threat and said, “C’mon, let’s get to the caff.  I bet Nik’s gonna go wild when she finds out you got to whomp up on The Elf Of Evil.”

Once we got into the Crystal Hall, it wasn’t hard to find Nikki.  There were a dozen guys blocking our way, all of them drooling in her direction.

Toni put a hand on one guy’s shoulder, and he suddenly lurched to the side as if he was being pulled that way.  As he looked behind him with a puzzled expression, she did the same thing to the guy he had just moved away from, and that guy lurched in the opposite direction.  Toni strode through the gap like the guys were her underlings.

Ki.  It does a body good.  Particularly if Toni is wielding it and she’s not messing around with your body.  One of these days, I had a feeling she really was going to figure out how to use Ki to make guys impotent.  Or maybe she would just make them lose control of all their sphincters.  Or something so ghastly that only Jade could conceive of it.

“Nik!  Hey Nikki!  What’s shakin’?”  Toni breezily greeted her roommate with a phrase I didn’t think I could get away with anytime in this life.

Nikki turned around with a ferocious glare across her pretty face.  It didn’t make her any less attractive, it just made her look gorgeous and angry.

“I…”  She looked around and sighed, “Never mind.  Let’s get dinner first and get our seats.”

So I went looking for dinner.  The main course for the night was t-bone steaks.  Billie would probably get a dozen.  I was hoping for something a little more…  Okay, I was being a food snob again, and I was looking for something better.  Satisfied?

I was rewarded for my less than stellar behavior.  Chef Peter slipped out of the kitchen areas with a plate.  He handed it to me and whispered, “We’re making these for the staff tonight.  Porcini-crusted filet mignon with herb butter.”

“Thank you,” I said to him, although my eyes were already glued to the plate.  The filet looked beautifully done, with a rich sauce around the base of the meat.  There was an inscribed sphere of herb butter melting away atop the beef, and finely chopped chives were sprinkled over the butter.  On one side of the plate was a spray of lanceolate herb leaves that all pointed inward toward the main course.  And it smelled heavenly too.

I filched one of the thin leaves and sniffed it.  The distinct anise-like aroma told me that this was tarragon.  Definitely French tarragon.  Russian tarragon was a poor substitute that never had the richness of scent or flavor.

On the other hand, if you ever have the chance to drink Tarhun, skip it.  Bright green, tarragon-flavored soda pop?  Bleah.  I had it one time when Paul and I accompanied father on a business trip to Armenia, and I was too young to drink any of the alcoholic beverages at the dinner.  Of course, I couldn’t say that it was less than exquisite.  Not when Goodkind Industries was in the middle of important negotiations.  I drank almost half of it and thanked our hosts for being so considerate.

I hurried to put together a salad with an oil and vinegar dressing, then I grabbed a cup of green tea and hurried up to the top level to join the gang.

Nikki was already there and chatting with Jade and Jinn.  I knew Jinn had only tagged along to hear my story, since she didn’t eat.  But the J-Team was hanging out with a lot of devisers and gadgeteers, so she was less than thrilled with Jobe without having had to experience his style of criticism.

Jinn was saying, “…and then I said, you can’t be serious, I totally wouldn’t wear a bikini like that, it’s all wrong for my figure type and my coloring.  And she said…”

I hastily touched the crystal at the center of the table.  Jinn’s story changed instantly.  “…and you know there’s no way Ayla would lose to Jobe, and if she did, she’d be complaining non-stop about…  Oh hi, Ayla!”

“So everyone deduced I won the match because I wasn’t complaining about Jobe’s standard methods?” I asked as I carefully sliced a piece from my filet.

“Yep!” Jade said.  “And you weren’t in the hospital all poisoned and stuff.  You know, Counterpoint’s still in the hospital.  Whatever Jobe and Belphy gave him when they had that fight, Jericho says it totally messed up his regeneration.  He hasn’t even been able to copy a regenerator and get someone else’s regen.  Joe says they brought Peril in to see if his regen would do it for Counterpoint, and nada.  And Nikki couldn’t fix him either.”

Nikki glowered.  “I have no idea what they shot him up with, but it’s nasty.  I tried doing some magical healing, and the spell basically avoided the injury.  Like something scared it off, or there’s something wrong with Counterpoint that would be worse if we Healed him.  Majestic was completely pissed at me until she found out she couldn’t get him to heal up either.  Can you believe her nerve?  She thought I was deliberately leaving him like that, with that huge hole in his chest.”

I said, “Whatever they did to him, the doctors had to sew him up like a regular baseline operation and put him on low-level anticoagulants and wide-spectrum antibiotics.  They think he may be laid up for another three or four weeks before he can go back to his dorm room, and he’ll be banned from serious physical activities for the whole term unless he gets some regeneration or he gets a Heal who can break through the effects of Jobe’s serum.”

Toni had just sat down, so she heard most of my spiel.  “Reading doctors’ notes again?”

I said, “Someone was kind enough to provide me with some medical details.”

I noticed that Toni was sitting with one good-sized t-bone steak, grilled probably to medium well.  She had side dishes of green peas, mashed potatoes, and the kind of salad that had too much iceberg lettuce and not enough flavor.  With ranch dressing.  I added, “By the way, have I mentioned that you’re eating better than ninety percent of the students here?”

She said, “Well, I’m tryin’ to manage my diet so I stay in synch with my environment.  You know, too much sugar, and I go bananas-”

“More bananas than usual,” Nikki interjected.

“-and you know what happens if I hit high fructose corn syrup.  Or chocolate.  So eatin’ right takes care of a lot of that.  And it means my roomie can’t rat me out to my mom come end of term.”

“Would I do that?” asked Nikki sweetly.

“If you thought you needed to?  In a heartbeat.  And your little stooge would rat me out just because she can,” Toni insisted.

I took a bite of the filet.  Ohh.  Oh man.  The seared, buttery crust of the filet was redolent with the earthiness of the porcini mushrooms, while the richness of the filet was brought out by the tarragon and chives.  The buttery beef practically melted in my mouth with a savory finish from the fresh garlic that was mixed in.

“Can I have a tiny taste?” Toni asked.

Nikki said, “It smells… pretty darn good for meat.  But I’ll pass.”

Jade asked, “May I have some more, sir?”  She grinned and said, “I asked Jody, and she said it was from ‘Oliver’.  And she said Lisa has a DVD of it and she’ll probably loan it to me.  And it has really cool songs in it.”

I said, “It’s not quite what Oliver Twist says in the original book by Charles Dickens.  I recommend the book, because it lets you know just how badly poor kids were treated in England not that many decades ago.”

Toni said, “So.  Kinda like ‘Black Like Me’ but for white boys?”

“Kind of,” I almost agreed.  I carved out slices for Jade and Toni and served them.

“Oh yeah,” Toni purred.  “This is more like it.  This is awesomely good.  Remember Jade, just skip the poison salads, and you’re good here.”

“Mmm mmm mmm!” Jade muttered with her mouth closed.  “When you grow up, you’ll invite us over for dinner once in a while, right?”

I said, “Of course.  But Toni will have to eat her salad before we serve the main courses.  And the dessert.”

Toni grinned.  “I’d say you’re a mean, mean person.  But that was great.  And I’m not even a huge fan of shrooms.”

Billie and Hank came walking toward us with heavily-laden trays.  It appeared I had made a drastic error.  Billie only had about seven t-bone steaks stacked up on her tray, along with a tower of baked potatoes.  Hank had three steaks and four baked potatoes.  They sat down and touched Nikki’s crystal.

Toni gave Billie a raised eyebrow.  “Cuttin’ back to guard that girlish figure?”

Billie stuck her tongue out at Toni.  “Nah.  They said there’s enough for seconds.”

“And thirds,” Jade said.

“And fourths and fifths,” Jinn added.

“You’re not helping here!” Billie fussed.  Her roommates just smirked at each other.

Hank took a big bite of steak and asked Nikki, “So, what had you so mad back there in the line?  Peeper at it again?”

She frowned, “No, it’s Venus Inc.  Poise wants us to pick next year’s club officers, so they can work with this year’s officers and learn how to be ‘contributors’.  But some of the girls are just…  Well, it’s really more like…”  She switched to a pompously smug tone that had an attempt at a posh British accent.  “We’re all too pretty and so we should be condescending to all those ugly sows out there who need our help desperately.”  She pouted, “Solange is a bitch, but at least she has an idea what it’s like not to be so pretty that everyone falls at your feet.  Some of them were the gorgeous girls even before they manifested, and they’re… snobs.  Beauty snobs.  And it’s not like I can tell ‘em I used to be a boy who hated how the beauty snobs treated him and his pals.”

Jade asked, “Isn’t this what they do every year?  The Workshop guys talk like they expect that kind of stuff from ‘em.  They call them the Beauty Nazis, and way worse.  It sounds like they’re really pushy about the way Widget dresses, just because she’s kind of a tomboy.  And they picked on Loophole about the same thing, but Widget says Lifeline made ‘em leave Loop alone.  And Bunny said they don’t like her eggs!”

Hank frowned, “Well, if they’re gonna pick on Bugs, I say screw ‘em.”

Toni teased, “Don’t you think you should save that for Wallflower?”

Hank rolled his eyes while someone giggled.

Billie swallowed a massive bite of steak and said, “Hey, this’ll cheer you up.  Phase got to beat up Jobe in aikido class!”

Nikki started to react with excitement, but she quickly switched to concern.  She looked at me and asked, “This isn’t going to mess up your deal with Jobe for a cure, is it?  I mean, I think it’s a really bad idea and I’m worried it’s going to go horribly wrong, but I know you want it…”

I sighed, “I don’t think it will mess things up.  And I didn’t just pound her into a bloody smear, so she shouldn’t be holding a grudge.”

“So what happened?”  Jade was practically bouncing in her chair.

“Yeah,” agreed Jinn.  “I wanna hear!”

So I explained how class went, and how Ito was pairing people up to teach some instructional lessons on maintaining your skill levels.  I mentioned a couple sparring matches that I thought were interesting, and then I got to the spar against Jobe.  “…So then she said, ‘This is sparring, not poker!’ and she-”

Chaka interrupted, “THIS!  IS!  SPARRING!”

After everyone stopped laughing several minutes later, there wasn’t much point in continuing a much less entertaining story.  But all of them were interested in my thoughts on weaknesses of the drow cabal.  And all of them were happy to hear Jobe got hammered in a sparring match.

Unfortunately, two of them wanted to know if they could show up in teeny cheerleading outfits with pompoms and cheer for me whenever I sparred against one of the drows.  As it happens, that twosome is the same person.  I nixed that idea.  Repeatedly.  Then I asked Billie to tell them no.  I thought there was a good chance that would work.

When people were finally done laughing so hard that steak was about to come out their noses, Toni went back to an old question.  “So Ayles, the reason I asked you about the Bladedancer thang on the way over, is Nightbane.  She wanted to pump me for secret intel on why we dumped Chou.  She walks right up to me in the locker room after aikido and-”

Jade interrupted, “She called Toni homegirl!  I laughed so hard I almost peed myself!”

Billie said, “Yeah, I think every black girl in the room wanted to smack her one.  But she was totally oblivious.”

Toni nodded in agreement.  “And I swear, that girl got all her interrogation techniques from ‘Get Smart’.  So anyway, she wants to pull Chou into the secret Goobers inner circle, but she’s got to convince some other people.”

I raised one eyebrow and queried, “And you got all this intel… how?”

Toni blithely said, “Just watching her Ki.  She’s a lousy liar, and she’s even worse at interrogation.  Like I said, the ‘Get Smart’ school.  By the time I was done showerin’ I knew everything she wasn’t tellin’ and she had the stock answers outta me.”

Jinn said, “AND half the locker room wanted to smack her one.  If she wasn’t insulting the black girls, she was insulting the Asian girls, or some other group.  She called Silver Serpent’s dad ‘Fu Manchu’!”

I pointed out, “You do know that Silver Serpent’s father is the Iron Dragon, right?”

She nodded, “Oh sure.  Stephen told us about it one night when he took me out on a date.”

“He took ME out on a date!” Jade complained.

Toni looked at me and said, “So, when you gonna get them some new pronouns?  WordGirl?”

“I can’t even keep track of the naming system they’re using,” I complained.

“That’s because it makes no sense at all,” said Billie.  “I tried to get them to explain it to me, and it’s… nuts.”

Jade pouted, “It’s our secret code system!  It’s supposed to be complicated!  If you can’t figure it out, then it’s safe from even really super-genius badguys.”

I started to say something, but it occurred to me that she was probably right.  If she had codenames for her selves that were too obvious, someone might find a way to use that against her someday.  Not that I wanted to encourage complete insanity, but being too easy to predict was an exploitable weakness.

Like the complete insanity around me needed any encouragement whatsoever.

We talked about Jobe and his/her ‘borg collective’ while Billie went back for seconds.  And thirds.  Someone must have given her the eye while she ate her last five steaks, because she put her flatware down and insisted, “I’m a growing girl!  I have to keep my strength up!”

Jade helpfully added, “And she’s hungry!”

We teased Billie most of the way back to Poe, while Toni and Hank tried to puzzle out who our Dark Phoenix would be in a couple hours.  I didn’t bother to tell them that it was pretty obvious.  If the sim jockeys thought we were just messing around, they would hammer us with one of our heavy hitters.  And if the sim jockeys pulled what they did with Jade, our Dark Phoenix probably didn’t know yet that they were going to be turning evil in a couple hours.

I also didn’t say that the time to watch for clues was on the way to the holo sims just before nine.  For example, I should have noticed that Jade was unusually excited on our way to the sims last night, and I should have drawn the correct conclusions from that.  At least I had spotted the ‘Shroud’ threat before she had a chance to disembowel Fey and then probably slice Chaka into sushi.

Once we got back to the rooms, I concentrated on homework.  I wanted to be well ahead in math.  My plan was to get enough pre-calc under my belt that I could get something useful out of memorizing several pages of calculus formulas.  That would give me some advantage in physics class.  It wouldn’t put me at the same level as the students who had already taken calculus, but it would give me an advantage over the students who – like me – had yet to complete pre-calc.

At eight thirty, Toni was knocking on my door, bouncing on the balls of her feet in preparation for another fun sim battle.  I really wished I could bottle her self-confidence and joie de vivre.  For me, the sim battles were stressful.  I didn’t like fighting, but I knew it was unavoidable.  I didn’t like fighting people I knew, but I knew I had to learn how to fight against real threats.  I didn’t like losing, even though I knew it was inevitable.  So I just felt tense all over, even before we went to the sims.  I had a reasonable idea who we were going to be facing, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

As we flew through the Hawthorne tunnel with Toni hitching a ride in Hank’s arms, Toni asked, “So… who’s up tonight?”

I said, “Assuming they don’t bushwhack us with a non-Phoenix sim.”

Toni grinned, “Ah-hah!  That’s exactly the sort of thing Phase would say if it was her!”

Billie said, “But it’s just what she’d say anyway.  I think it’s Lancer or Fey, because they didn’t call me.”

Toni smirked, “Ah-hah!  That’s exactly what you’d say to put us off our game if it was you!”

Jade said, “But they didn’t call us, and Billie’s been studying with us, so I know they couldn’t call her.”

Toni said, “But they didn’t call us either.  Fey didn’t leave the room, and Koehnes doesn’t answer the phone for her.  Yet.  So it’s Lancer or Phase.”

Hank said, “Or neither.  Why would they need to call me ahead of time, when I’d just be doing the same stuff as always?  Generator?  They have to give devisers lead time to figure out their weapons and stuff.”

Toni gave him her leopard grin.  “So it IS you!  Too bad Phase already figured out a hundred ways to stop you.”  She switched to her ‘street Toni’ voice.  “You goin’ down, white boy.”

Hank just glared at her.  “You do remember I’m the one carrying you?”

“Hey, it’s only a four foot drop.  At thirty em pee aitch.  Piece of cake.  Piece of non-chocolate cake with low-sugar frosting.”  She sighed, “I really miss chocolate cake with lots and lots of chocolate frosting.”

If the thing I missed the most was not getting to eat chocolate any more, I would consider life a vast improvement.  Not that I said so out loud.  We all have our crosses we must bear.  “And whosoever doth not bear his cross” and all that jazz.

Yes, I know the King James Version of the Bible isn’t politically correct enough for lots of people, but I grew up with it, and I like it.

When we reached the holographic simulation area and managed to get checked through, we were hurried through our change into our sim suits, even though we were running ahead of schedule by my reckoning.  Then we were all rushed to our separate rooms.  I could see by the clock that it was still eleven minutes to nine.

I settled into the uncomfortable chair and didn’t bother to close the helmet over my face.  Then I waited.  I wasn’t patient, I just waited.

Finally, Bardue’s voice came over the intercom system.  “Team Kimba, just remain in your seats.  We’re conferring with your teammate who’s going to be your Dark Phoenix for tonight.”

Just to cause problems, I said, “Oh, that’s all right, Gunny.  I already figured out who you’re going to tag.”  I didn’t really know for sure, but I had it narrowed down.  Not that I was going to say so.

There was a pregnant pause, and then Sergeant Wilson’s voice came back, at a greatly reduced volume.  “And how do you know that Phase?”

I said, “You didn’t call any of us and do preparation.  That means it has to be one of our most dangerous, and yet most predictable teammates.  For example, if you were going to pick me, you’d want to call me up and talk for a while, because you’d want to know a lot of extra detail.  Where I would pick for a battlezone.  What holdouts I would want, including ones which aren’t registered.  What backup forces I might be bringing to the fight.  After all, you’ve undoubtedly read Sam Everheart’s security report on our third trip to Boston.  So it’s obvious who you’re throwing at us tonight.”

Okay, it wasn’t completely obvious.  But I thought I could narrow it down to two threats.  Not that I was going to say so.

I added, “Oh, and we’ll need to schedule around tomorrow night’s gun safety meeting, because I’ve been told I have to attend.  Then I can bring even more weaponry into the sim battles.”  I thought about giving them a supervillain laugh just to be annoying, but I refrained.

Wilson sternly said, “We’ll schedule around it.  Don’t worry.  Because I’m one of the range jockeys stuck running the meeting.”

Oh great.  Did I just cause even more problems for myself?  Maybe I should take classes on How To Shut Up.

I could hear one of the sim jockeys in the background saying, “All prepped, Gunny.”

Bardue blared through the intercom, “All right Team Kimba, close those sim helmets.  We start in five… four… three…”

I took a deep breath and closed my helmet.

“Two… one… GO.”

          *        *        *        *        *       

I blinked, and we were in what looked like one of the city simulations of Arena ’99.  I did a quick scan of my teammates and groaned inwardly.

<(Phase) It’s Dark Tennyo.>

As if they had practiced, the five teammates around me said the same words in an impromptu Greek chorus.

<Oh crap.>

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