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Stepping Out

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A Whateley Academy Tale

 

Stepping Out

by

null0trooper, but the whole Gen 2 Crew got involved

 

"Now, the mist across the window hides the lines
But nothing hides the color of the lights that shine
Electricity so fine
Look and dry your eyes"
— Joe Jackson, "Stepping Out"

 



Dafira in labWelcome To The Psi Club.

Monday evening, September 12, 2016,
Crystal Hall Cafeteria, Whateley Academy.

Stella 'Dafira' Nolan poked at her dinner. Today was the first day of classes at one of the world's most exotic schools. But how would she be spending the evening later? Meeting with classmates to work on an assignment. School hadn't started off with that much of a grind back home!

Granted, the class was "Powers Theory", the theoretical half of "Introduction to Superpowers". Call it what you like; it was still homework. The topic? Their own superpowers.

Livy Breedon went by the code name Provenance. She said her powers were a mix of gadgeteering and psi. What would it be like to just hold a machine and be able to use it and fix it? Imagine being in the Enterprise's sick bay trying to save a patient, but the tricorder doesn't work. Instead of calling down to Engineering during an emergency, you could just fix it with tools that you'd be keeping around just in case! Or, you could just pick up some piece of alien tech brought back from somewhere halfway across the galaxy and know how to use it.

It would have to be cooler to pull off things like that than muddling around with a head full of floating jellyfish tentacles. Handling some ancient Sith tech and ending up with that knowledge burned into your mind might not be so cool. Did Sith tech even exist?

Then there was Puck, or Puckwidget. It was unfair enough that his exemplar trait boosted his looks, strength, and smarts, but getting empathy, precog, and probability mangling, too? He'd won the genetic lottery! Speaking of, if that had happened to her, she'd head to a grocery and wait for the best ticket to come up. Maybe not. What about poker? Empathy would let you know if the other players are bluffing or not, and precog would show which cards are coming up. That might turn out better with blackjack, but the principle applies. Stella wouldn't mind being dressed up like some super-slinky Bond Girl, playing arm candy to an undercover spy. Maybe not all the time, but once would be nice. Dream on, girl. Didn't casinos check MIDs for precog and luck powers?


Tabitha waved a hand in front of her daydreaming roommate's face.

"Earth to Dafira! Come in, Dafira!"

"Huh? Oh, I'm sorry. I've been trying to come up with cool new things that we could do with our powers. Nothing's really coming to me."

"What about some ways to leverage your own powers?" Tabitha asked, cutting herself another piece of chicken. "I had witnesses when I manifested, and some of what I supposedly did is still foggy. How lame is that?"

"I manifested at an anime and comics convention," Stella said. "Even with a head full of this," she waved a hand at her silvery tentacles and filaments, "I'm lucky anyone noticed."

"About that. You know how you kind of fan out your hair, or whatever it is, to face whoever comes up behind you? What does that do for you?"

"I didn't know I did that."

"Huh. Maybe you could work on focusing your, whatever it is?"

"I don't even know if it's heat or sonic."

"Unless there's a migratory police call box following you, I'd bet against you sonicking anything," Tabitha said. "Speaking of screwdrivers, maybe Livy can scrounge up some emitters for various stuff."

"Emitters for stuff."

"Electromagnetic radiation spans a whole range of wavelengths. It's not just about bouncing visible light and radio waves around."

Stella smiled, shaking her head, and said, "You are definitely a born techie."

It was a good thing that Tabbie wasn't one to rub her STEM interests in everyone's faces like some of the Workshop boys did. Sure, some of it was just posturing and jockeying for attention, but it could wear thin.

"Nah, mate. I've seen just about every techie show on the telly, looking after my two baby brothers. Two who, by the way, should be thankful the Beeb doesn't broadcast a corporal punishment channel after what they did to the microwave. Mom would be trying out a whole new set of recipes."

"I'll, um, have to think about it. I don't even know where to start."


Beck Library.

"...EM emitters? Maybe we could get you a tour through the QA labs?" Livy Breedon asked.

"How would that help?" Stella asked. This was all outside of her wheelhouse.

"They've already got equipment for using x-rays and gamma radiation to check welds. No need to reinvent the wheel."

Puck piped up, "Just don't forget your two-million sunblock unless you want to have a really bad day."

Livy frowned but paused before saying, "I'd say the Workshop is safer than that. But, with school starting late, I've had time to hear some horror stories. As long as Stella doesn't have fissionables in her tentacles – you don't, do you? – we should be fine."

"I'm not sure anyone thought to check for that," Stella said, her supper sinking to the bottom of her stomach. 'This is Whateley; anything can happen' was sounding much more like a dark omen than something cool.

"Puck, would your precognition help us avoid the worse ideas?"

"I don't know. I've only gotten warnings about something I was about to do, not about what other people are doing. It's worth a shot. Sign me up."

Stella's initial instinct was to object, "There's no way they'll let me walk around someone's workplace."

"Sending the email now," said Livy. "No time like the present! What else we got?"

Tabbie asked, "Have you tried out your object reading on devises? From what I've heard, you always have to be asking yourself: 'Am I doing this wrong? Has it gone wonky on its own?'"

"I've only been doing any of this for a few months. I'm a freshman like you guys, remember?"

"There's Parker Danes in Emerson. He's a devisor," Puck added. "But, from what he's said, it doesn't sound like he's making anything complicated."

"Shouldn't be too hard to set something up," Tabbie mused. "There's Electradyne, Helsing, Watson, and Power Stunt on our floor in Whitman. Let's please skip Calibrate. She's a nutter."

Puck asked, "Isn't that redundant with devisors?"

"Much more of a nutter than Helsing and the others. How about that?"


Wednesday evening,
Room 236, Whitman Cottage.

The floor meeting had been tense and, in its own way, as disturbing as the incident that prompted it. Stella hadn't wanted to learn any new ways to kill a werewolf before breakfast, let alone five. Now, the last thing she'd want was to hand one of Helsing's devises to Livy to check out. What if the girl was as handy at making curses as breaking them? She stayed quiet when Helsing opened the floor to questions. Suppose the Dathomiri were real; that would be... something she really didn't want to face.

Her roommate, on the other hand, was someone she had to do better than just face.

"Um, Tabitha? About what you asked Abigail: is there something else you wanted to say?"

Tabbie looked up to the stars. As before, when she'd asked her question, she sounded much older than a freshman.

"Is it so much to ask in this modern world — that a guest offer no harm to those you have accepted into your home, nor take any action which would be considered untoward for a guest?"

"How does that apply to Thwack landing a haymaker upside Abigail's face?"

"Excessive, but there was a time and place when the Helsing's implied threats would have warranted death."

"Okay, then," Stella said, hoping to drop the subject. "Remind me to be on my best behavior if I'm ever in London."

"Nah. It's fine," Tabitha, not whoever or whatever, said. "Anything the police can't handle, the guests' bosses will sort out. And, between you and me, I'd rather face the Met."

"What can someone's boss do? Reprimand or fire them?"

"Ill-behaved minions eventually pop up in the Thames."

"What?"

"London's a world capital. It's not just rock stars and celebrities that come through! One gent who stayed with us ended up with a military escort for most of his stay over his sort of trouble."

"Did you ever find out what that was about?"

"Violate a guest's privacy? That puts you on all sorts of shortlists! I'll leave that to the professionals."

And that was another thing Stella didn't need to hear. The way things are going, do I want to know where I'll be after I graduate? Was she already complicating her options?


Wednesday afternoon,
Radiologic QA/QC Lab, Whateley Workshop.

Livy stopped their small group at the laboratory entrance.

"Dr. Lawrence agreed to a brief tour," she said. "Anything else depends on how we behave. And that starts with these." Livy handed out three ID badges to attach to their clothes as she did for herself. "I've kept them in the lead foil pouch they sent me. You wouldn't want someone's weird powers to affect the measurements."

"We'd still be getting exposed to radiation if that happens," Puck remarked.

He had a point.

"True. From what I've read, the badges are meant to track how good the lab's safety measures are, not ours. The rest of campus might as well be the Wild West." Livy looked around and asked, "Is everybody good? Yes? Let me text the professor and let him know we're here."

Shortly after the text went out, the students were met at the door by a thirty-something guy in a Workshop lab coat. Between super-heavy eyeglasses, scraggly goatee, and frizzy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, he wouldn't have looked out of place among a gaggle of UC Berkeley slackers. Someone had scratched out the final 'e' in 'Lawrence' with a felt-tipped pen to make his nametag read 'Dr. Lawrencium'.

"Come in! We've only got a couple of tests running. That means that now's as good a time as any to show our work off," Dr. Lawrence said. He let Livy and Tabbie enter the lab, but Puck hauled Stella away from the door at the last second.

"Nope! Negats on that. Sorry. I don't know why, but Stella can't be in there right now."

"Okay," Dr. Lawrence said. "Miss Breedon mentioned that there might be an issue, but we can work with that. Give me a few minutes. When it's clear for her to come in, give us a shout." He disappeared inside the lab.

Inside, he told Livy and Tabbie, "Let's make this an experiment. Your friend doesn't have any severe trouble outside, does she?" He knew he should have checked earlier to see if any of the kids were living in Hawthorn.

Livy looked over to Tabbie. If anyone should know, it was her.

"No. I guess that narrows things down to whatever radiation sources are above background for topside or down here."

"You'd be surprised to find how many places in our tunnel system where that's not a safe assumption."

Livy nodded, "Thanks, Professor."

Dr. Lawrence nodded a distracted agreement. "What about common hazards? Microwave ovens, terahertz scanners at airports, wi-fi repeaters, tanning beds?"

"No, but you aren't using those in here, are you?" asked Tabbie.

"Of course not, but we have a lot of exotic equipment set up here, and experimental designs might not account for everything. My graduate advisor always said, 'There's always time to do it right the second time.' Since most of what we do isn't time-dependent, we can stop and restart most scans without affecting the data. If a weld is good this morning, it will still be good tomorrow."

Livy asked, "Aside from the unexpected, is everything fully shielded?"

"No. Like I said: exotic and experimental. Sane isn't in the specs. We still have x-ray equipment that will kill you if you don't follow procedures to the letter. These days, we only haul that out for class demonstrations. You can't deny it, though. The threat of a horrible death does get a student's attention."

"Lovely."

"Surprisingly effective, I'd say." Dr. Lawrence began shutting down equipment. Some devices had control panels, and some just had on/off switches. One of them had what looked like a pair of moving cameras pointing at a massive plank of wood. That was one of the on/off devices more egregiously lacking in visible shielding.

"...and then there are things that should have been obvious."

Puck yelled, "We're good," as soon as the doctor flicked the switch to "Off".

Livy lingered by the dodgy scanner while the rest waited until Dr. Lawrence finished writing what had to be a page of notes. The gear would physically work as intended, but something was off with the control system.

"What we just witnessed was one of the possible effects of using electron scattering to measure the surface density of an organic material. Electrons can't go far through air, so they don't present much danger from a respectful distance. However, if the organic material is wood with nails stuck in it, all in a magnetic field, maybe not. Even then, that would be a minor issue if the control software wasn't repeatedly irradiating those nails instead of moving past the anomaly."

Oops.

"On the bright side, if Miss Nolan can detect or even image scattered x-rays – maybe other radiation as well – we could design a work-study position around that. How does that sound?"

Work-study? With how much her parents were paying for the school?

"That sounds great!"

Dr. Lawrence rubbed his hands together like a mad scientist.

"Good! Now, let's get started on that tour we promised you..."


Tabitha stopped Stella on their way back to Whitman Cottage.

"You've been quiet as a mouse since that tour. What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," Stella said. "I just wasn't expecting to end up with an app on my phone to alert me to gamma-ray bursts."

"You were expecting something more like 'Use the Force, Dafira?'"

"No! That would be cool, but I don't know. Did I agree to that work-study position too quickly?"

"It might not be safer than tunnel maintenance or groundskeeping, but any paying job helps. Give it a go. If it doesn't work out, you can find something else."

Put that way, it made more sense to Stella.

Nice to know someone's got faith in me.


Shortly before lights out, Tabitha received a phone call. Not that she minded: she'd rather hear a human voice go on about a problem than play text tag.

"Hi, Tabitha! This is Livy. Can we talk privately for a few minutes?"

"Give me a few minutes, and I'll call you back. How's that sound?"

"Good enough."

A few minutes and another call later: "So, Tabitha. I know this is going to sound strange, but did it make any sense to you that Doctor Lawrence would be running a dangerous test – unattended – when we showed up?"

"It was a bit odd, yeah. To be fair, I don't think anyone expected Dafira to pick up anything."

"I was thinking they didn't expect Puck to pick up on something that could have blinded her. That, or whatever the equivalent would be."

"You think someone has it out for either one of them?"

"I don't know. Do you mind keeping this between us, and we both look after our friends?"

"Sure. If nothing comes of it, there's no harm done. We might want to think twice about getting too creative with our powers homework, ourselves."

"Good idea! Thanks. That must be Vera. We'll have to talk more about the homework tomorrow! Good night!"

"Ta."

Tabitha disconnected the call and sat down. Looking at it from a certain point of view, it only made sense for someone – several someones – to be interested in oddball student abilities.

But a place this big would attract more players than she would know about. So, then. Whose team is Livy on?


Thursday afternoon,
7th Period Powers Theory.

Dafira remained less than convinced that it was "misogynist" for Puck to read out what their group had come up with together. Then, both Tabitha and Livy had to go and back him up. Traitors.

"... As far as we can tell, Provenance's object reading ability is reasonably accurate in providing equipment construction and maintenance data. We tested a number of weapons at Range 4 with various mechanical, hydraulically assisted, and electronic upgrades. Given the breadth of potential, more testing is recommended."

Hopefully, Mr. Bergamot didn't catch Livy's wink.

"We decided that certain tests of Puckwidget's abilities might violate the Whateley Student Ethics code." Starting with the 'Do Not Get Caught' provisions. "His receptive empathy is limited to thirty or so meters, line-of-sight. His precognitive ability only extends to the outcomes of his own actions." Or his inactions. "So, we think cognitive factors might be coming into play at longer timespans. Self-fulfilling prophecies, anyone?"

Mr. Bergamot asked, "Earlier, you said something about your extra-sensory ability extending into the infrared. Does it scale with how close or how much of your view is taken up by an object?"

"With human-sized objects, yes. Distinguishing between a much larger person further away and a smaller person close up is tricky."

"Okay. Well, then! Let's hear from our manifestors. I trust we won't be serenaded with "Another Brick In The Wall" while Mister Walters is talking, will we? No? Good."


After Powers Theory and Lab class.

Having to play it cool for two hours had been getting on Stella's nerves. Now that they were out of the building and the other students were all headed to one destination or another, she asked, "Guys, do you think we did okay?"

"Sure," Puck answered. "Hell, if I had stood up and given our report, Bergamot would have docked us a grade from the start."

"What makes you say that?"

"Let's see. I'm the only swinging dick out of the four of us. According to Mrs. Ryan, adding red hair comes across as a challenge to authority. And talk about distrust: baselines have nothing but for empaths and precogs. That's why everybody knew I sure wasn't going to get a fair shake back in Vah Beach. It didn't help much that today's uniform day for me and Livy."

"Oh."

Livy said, "It's not as if governments and armies don't neglect to report a thing or two. We're just kids. How can we be expected to do better than the adults?"

"I don't think these adults can be fooled all the time," Tabitha said. "All I have is a hunch that there's more going on with me, but weird dreams don't count."

"We've still got four years here to figure it out. No rush."


Friday afternoon,
7th Period Powers Theory.

After taking roll, Mr. Bergamot launched into the Idea of the Day.

"Alright. You've all discussed your abilities with others who share similar powers. I hope you remembered to take notes! Today's in-class assignment will be to interview a student who doesn't have as much in common with you. Or maybe they do. Since it's such a great day, I'll be handing out a list of questions to work from. That way, there's no reason you can't write your data up and turn it in before midnight on Saturday."


Dafira looked at the question sheet that had been passed out. Even though it couldn't be, it looked longer than it had at the start of class. This just wasn't her thing. Sure, trying out new things was part of school. But, still!

I've got this. It's just like talking to the others the other day, no pressure. Just flying solo.

She said to the sullen boy who'd answered to 'Hadrian', "I think we can manage this in the thirty minutes we've got. No rush."

"Somehow, I don't think it'll take that long. I did pay attention to your group's presentation."

As if I didn't? Why would... Never mind.

"Right. So, let's start with your name and work down the list."

"Mark Adam Walters, five-nine, ninety-five pounds. Tell me if I'm going too fast. It's hard to be sure about that kind of thing, what with having a speedster for a roommate."

"Huh. Never thought of that. What's your power?" Dafira asked, hoping the boy's lavender hair wasn't the universe's sick idea of a joke.

"Manifestor five. I make walls."

"Walls? Like PK or force-field shields?"

"No. Walls. Many, many bricks or stones. In a wall. I'd demonstrate, but I don't want to be the one paying for a whole new floor."

Dafira remarked, "That's a lot of bricks."

"Hmph."

Tell us how you really feel about it!

Dafira pushed forward, asking, "Solid brick? Like, can it stop bullets or, I don't know, radiation?"

"About like solid bricks, I guess," Mark said, starting to slump down in his chair. "I don't know if the powers testers checked if I could make my own nuclear fallout shelter."

If Dafira had to guess, based on the way his lavender eyes darkened, he'd tried something like that, and it didn't turn out well.

It could still be done? If he had help?

She said, "Testing that is something I might be able to arrange with Professor Lawrence, if you're interested."

Mark shrank further back in his seat.

"I'll think about it. The problem with a wall is that if people can't smash it, they can go around or tip it over."

Just as she'd thought: he'd needed protection once, and it failed.

"So it's always just a slab of brick?"

"No. But that's just what a wall is."

"Not according to my roommate."

"The PDP underdog?"

"Tabbie's a bit more than that! She's keen on studying architecture and construction. She might have ideas on stabilizing your constructs. Something to think about."

Seeing little interest, Dafira went on to the next question, "How does it feel to use your power?"

Mark stayed silent, holding something back. Good or bad memories? He was still looking up and off to the side when he said, "I'm not sure how to explain it. I mean, like, imagine that somewhere out there is this huge amount of stuff. More than you could ever need if you knew how to pull it to yourself and shape it? So, I imagine a wall in my mind. I think I do? I can picture it. Then there's just this wall between me and... Yeah, it's just a wall. I suppose it could be made of stone, too. That's why I picked out Hadrian for my codename. Stonewall was taken already."

That was probably for the best. Naming yourself after General Stonewall Jackson wouldn't make for a positive introduction in some places.

"Can you do it more than once, or does the first wall go away?"

"Hm. Yeah, but then I have to figure out what part of it I can keep control over." Mark closed his eyes. Other discussions in the classroom paved over the silence between them.

"Look. I don't want to end up burying myself. Not yet, anyway. You know?"

Have I crossed a line here?

Dafira said, "Me neither. My offer to introduce you to Tabitha is still open."

 

"Maybe," Mark shrugged. "My turn, I guess. Name, rank, serial number?"

So he did have a sense of humor, staked and buried like a vampire.

"Estella Jean Nolan. Five-two. One-twenty pounds."

"One-twenty? Seriously? You don't look it."

"I got lucky. Part of the deal was losing fat and gaining muscle."

"Cool. Any powers other than whatever lets you tell when someone or something's behind you?"

"That's the esper two part so far. I'm also rated energizer two and manifestor two..." Stella paused. We can skip over the internal part the testers weren't sure of, right? "But that last part could be structural. Basically, don't touch my hair, ever. It's not hair, and the parts that aren't electrically charged are venomous like a jellyfish."

"Thanks for that warning! Wait, does anybody seriously do that?"

Has he ever ridden on a school bus with real, live girls? To his credit, her brother Andy only had to be told once.

"What? Touch other people's hair without asking? Yeah."

Mark screwed up his face at the idea, "Ew. Moving along. How does it feel to use your powers? They're always on, aren't they?"

"Er, yeah. If, like, you walked up behind me out in the open? I get the impression of something blocking out whatever was behind you. But, there's also a dim glow – I mean, it's not so much a color – on top of that."

"What I wouldn't have given for that!"

Stella shook her head but smiled a little at Mark's naiveté.

"Be careful what you ask for! My tendrils are pretty sensitive to odors. Would you like to taste through your skull some preppie asshole's cloud of Polo? Or, that old lady perfume, Poison? The name fits. Then there's bathrooms, locker rooms, the dumpsters behind the caff, Aunt Flo's monthly visits."

Green doesn't go well with lavender. Who knew?

Stella pointed out one of the guys from the spatial warper group. Dark brown hair, lanky, and tanned, he was practically Mark's opposite number.

"See that guy? Even with the shower and Ivory soap, I can tell he's hitting the gym hard after lunch. Right before coming here."

Mark gave the guy a long stare before asking, "Hold up. You even clocked his soap?"

"My little bother uses the same brand. Cold showers don't get all of it off."

"Er, I think Kent has BMA before this class. Cold shower? Huh."

"You know him?"

"Yeah, he lives down the hall from me in Poe. Anything interesting about the rest of what you've got?"

"Those researcher types just had to test and retest what they called my bioelectic organs until I nearly passed out. That's draining? I guess. They said they were adding the manifesting rating because the fact that I create the toxins is more important than the mechanisms behind it. Doesn't feel like what you described. There's not much else I can say about it."

Mark looked down his list for an exit question.

"If you really manifest the stuff, maybe you could use it like mace or something. Personal defense?"

"Thanks! That could come in handy."

With most of the assignment completed, Dafira and Hadrian spent their time rewriting their notes and looking busy until the class ended. The sooner that happened, the less awkward it would be for both of them.


After Powers Theory class.

Mark took one slow, deep breath after another. There weren't a lot of exercises he could use in a classroom, but he could manage breathing. Worrying about how stupid his silent freak-out must look could wait for later.

One.

Between classes, he could sneak himself a piece of cinnamon gum. Maybe take a detour outside?

Two.

Where was it? He could have sworn he still had some.

Three.

Found it!

Four.

Look confident, feel confident.

Six.

No!

Okay. Now, it's six.

One foot in front of the other. Breathe? Breathe.

Seven.

Just follow the rest of the class. Walk, don't run. Is the wind picking up outside? You couldn't always hear the tornado warning sirens from the school's hallway.

Someone grabbed Mark's shoulder. He didn't like being grabbed; being grabbed always meant getting beat up! But, for now, it was something real he could hold on to.

"Let's take this somewhere safer for you. They haven't fixed the guys' restroom yet."

The redhead looked familiar from class, but Mark couldn't remember the name.

"Just call me Puck. Most people do. I figure it's best you sit yourself down on the middle head and – I wouldn't say this any other time – take some deep breaths. Do whatever you need to. I'll text Mrs. Bohn about being late."

Good thing he kept a mini-bottle of peppermint oil on hand, his therapist's idea.

"Th-thanks."

"No sweat. It beats going off on a snipe hunt for someone who can break down a surprise brick wall."

Five or so shaky, cold-sweating minutes of his heart jackhammering the inside of his chest later, someone knocked on the bathroom door. Who the Hell does that?

"What can I do you for?" Puck asked. "Plumbing's totally broke-dick, by the way."

"Um. Right. Is Hadrian still in here? Mrs. Bohn sent me to take him over to Doyle."

Toolbox. Kent something? It could have been worse.

"What if he doesn't feel like leaving?"

"I can wait. Just so you know, me and him are on the same hall in Poe. It's not like I'm going to poke fun at the guy for whatever. Do you know what happened?"

"He's been trying to hold himself together ever since doing that class assignment with Dafira."

If I'm going to be the official Poe-ster Child, I might as well get it over with.

Mark broke into the awkward conversation by the sinks, saying, "Just a panic attack. Got reminded of some things as happened last year. That's all."

Puckwidget didn't confirm or deny, and Kent hoped they could leave it at that. From where he stood, between Hadrian and Swerve, the House Parents had put two of the most miserable guys on the whole floor together.

Puck stared, nodded once, and said, "You've got the watch. I'll head to class."

"Hasta luego."

Minutes passed until Mark felt ready to walk out. Getting outside and away from walls and ceilings was good. Nothing around them looked, sounded, or smelled like a small-town Alabama school. No darkening skies with tornado weather in them. Would it have been better to stay where he was? Where his failures could catch up to him? He wouldn't have to deal with remembering any of it afterward if he had.

"Woah, there!" Kent said.

"What?"

"You were getting the shakes again."

Lovely. How'd he even notice with those suoer-dark shades?

Mark winced but asked, "Since when'd y'all become an empath?"

"Let's just say I've seen some of the signs. So, I won't pry if you don't."

"It's a deal."

"Want me to stick around until after?"

"Thanks, but if it's all the same, I'd rather not."


Taking Care of Business


Pour Choices.

Late Sunday morning, October 2, 2016,
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy.

There were no ends to the things that Stella 'Dafira' Nolan would rather not know about her fellow students. But, sure as God made little green apples, the school's cafeteria was buzzing over the latest dirt! Would someone have dug so much history up if none of it were true? It could have all been faked. But, the school administration hadn't disavowed any of it. Stella didn't know the girl or – supposedly – the guy in question, who should she believe? She sat down to eat with her roommate and asked, "I assume you've seen the news about that, um, guy? In Dickinson? Fiorello something? It's kind of freaky, even for this place. At least he doesn't need to worry about looking human enough for the H1! bigots."

"She," Tabbie reminded her. "Look. If there were any male parts left, they wouldn't have put her in Dickinson. Oh. Now, that's an unfortunate choice of names, isn't it?"

"You think they'd put her in one of the Freak Houses?" Stella asked. "I wouldn't. Too many freshmen already in Whitman. Too much of a girl to be put in Twain. Can you imagine waking up one day with a whole new everything? Most boys back home would either wear themselves out dialing 'M' for 'More' or slit their wrists. Some'd do both."

It wasn't something she normally gave much thought to. But Akron had to have quite a few folks who'd be over the moon if they woke up to a free sex change. 'The perversity of the universe tends toward a maximum.' Right? They'd be just as likely as not to be left out, wouldn't they?

Neither girl said much more until Tabbie finished her morning cuppa. "Well, then. What was the change like for you? Losing your hair, skin turning a different color. Pasty white European isn't all it's cracked up to be, but that can't have been too easy."

Stella swallowed a mouthful of apple juice before answering. She didn't like putting things out there for people to pity.

"Easier than you might think. I lost my hair the first time I got radiation after a round of chemo."

"You what?"

In for a penny...

Stella said, "Hey, it's — it's not no big deal at all, but I had good doctors and family, and I beat it. My little brother? He took it hard. God! I hope he's not trying to find a replacement sister..." He'd never been fascinated with snakes before, had he? "All kidding aside, I bet it felt like the end of the world. Her world now. Forever."

"Yeah," Tabbie agreed. "You won't see me in the back of a pub, crying over not getting a body image template."

Stella and Tabitha were interrupted by a hearty, "Hey, ladies! What's new? Mind if I sit here?"

Somewhere on his MID, Max 'Super-Dance-Party' Livingston should have 'Break any mood, any time, anywhere' listed as one of his powers.

Tabbie spoke up, "Seat's free. Speaking of what's new, have you checked your cell phone alerts lately?"

Max waved that off with, "Oh, that."

"Um, yeah? Everybody's either talking about it or trying very hard not to address the tempest in their little teacup."

"Sucks to be them. It's not like it's contagious."

Stella muttered, "I don't think he gets it."

Max stared at first, then softened his expression as he said, "What's there to get? That a girl used to be a dude? You've never been to Thailand. Amazing what a good team of doctors can sculpt. What's really a miracle is how a scrawny Chinese kid could become a finely-tuned dancing machine and international emcee? I mean, what are the odds?"

Max beamed at the self-reminder of how awesome that had turned out.

Stella was even more convinced he didn't get it.

"Okay. How would you feel if someone close to you – someone you trusted – turned out to be someone else? What if they were lying about their past? Imagine being trapped in a relationship under false pretenses."

"Trapped? How? No one spills all their secrets before they even get to third base! Plenty of time to either bail out on something that isn't going to work or make the best of it while it lasts. Some people I could name would have rounded home plate, finished the game, showered, and dressed for the post-game celebration before they got halfway through their dirty laundry!"

That wasn't oddly specific, with or without the details.

"You should get to know each other first before... before that!"

Isn't that the way things are supposed to be? Or was that only for suburban Ohio?

Tabbie laughed at her roommate's visible confusion. She'd seen an odd couple or three stagger in after a late night out.

"Girl? At our age, go with that. Trust me. Some so-called adults don't even know their bedroom buddy's name until the morning after, if then! It rarely works out well. Practically never." Tabbie hid her smile behind a refilled coffee mug. Let them take that info however they want.

"Yeah," Max agreed. "The hard part in life's dealing with who you're with now. Way I hear it, devisor drugs and mutant manifestations are one-way trips. No take-backs. And, as far as any entrapment stuff goes? When the game is blackmail, everyone plays dirty."

"Exactly," Tabitha said. "That's got to be what this is all about. Some scumbag got told 'no' and decided to ruin the girl's reputation. You just know that the asshole would have been all cool with it, just so long as he got his wee willie wick wet. Give it a few days, and the gossips will have something new to screech about."


Saturday morning, October 08, 2016,
Costume Shop I.

Ten minutes before the bell, Mrs. Ryan shut down the classroom projector and cleared her throat.

"That will be all for now with regard to computer-aided design software. I recommend that you refer to the supplementary materials I've posted on the class bulletin board. The user manuals may be adequate for common tasks, but I promise you that there are undocumented features that you will need to learn. Next week, based on what we've learned about the materials and tools available to choose from, we'll move on to construction techniques. Or, how did Lady Astarte manage to stay inside that low-cut strapless one-piece?"

"By staying away from deviser lasagna?"

"Mr. Lambert, see me after class for speaking out of turn. Before the rest of you join the lunch stampede, I wish to remind you all of Whateley Academy's annual All Hallow's Eve party. Student and staff attendance is traditionally encouraged. You may be wondering how that bears on this class. As we discussed at the beginning of the term, costumes and uniforms may be designed to conceal identifying facts or provide misleading hints. In short, Halloween is the perfect opportunity to show off the skills you're learning in my class."

One student asked, "Mrs. Ryan, does that mean we have homework due on Halloween?"

"No. I am offering an extra credit opportunity for the bold and creative."

That woke a few students up.

"Bear in mind that the credit granted will hardly offset classroom projects that are finished late or turned in incomplete. If you were professional couturiers, your clients would not be satisfied with the excuse that some other project had priority. There are professional supervillains who would be more forgiving and less destructive.

There are additional considerations beyond timeliness. This year's Halloween Ball theme is, and I quote: Dance-Off Battle Royale! I would not count on the music or the mood being suitable for a Viennese Waltz; try as one of my protégés might. Dabble in gauze and fine lace at your peril. Also, a cardinal rule of Whateley Academy Halloween planning is that you do not show up as yourself or in your professional persona."

"Mrs. Ryan, does that mean we can relax a bit and skip the expensive ballistic fabrics?"

She waited for the class to settle back down under a suddenly steely gaze.

"I dearly wish that that were the case," she said. Her gaze didn't waver, but then again, it didn't need to.

Several students exchanged panicked looks.

"At the very least, expect a wide variety of practical jokes from your classmates. The technology, mystic arts, and psychic arts programs have their reputations to protect! Quality control and safety might be neglected to the inconvenience of many. However, in 2006, the school was attacked by well-armed forces, resulting in the deaths of numerous security officers and other staff members. There have been other attempts to compromise the school's security since. Given recent events, I recommend balancing any flights of fancy with both caution and budget. Class dismissed."

As Tabitha Dieulafoy headed out from the class, she briefly considered options. It could be fun to go for a "naughty schoolgirl" look. With the weather in this part of the States running a good ten degrees below London, she'd have to break out some of the design tricks Mrs. Ryan had taught her students.


Elsewhere on campus, one ruminated over what they'd been taught about that fateful Halloween night ten years ago. Just like then, the air of this so-called Academy was psychically choked by the excited prattling about who was going as what. Gods and Demons! If any of the brats were the least bit honest, they'd be yapping about how they planned to flaunt their true selves through their costumes. Any night other than Samhain, they wouldn't last five minutes with their real faces exposed.

Without Carson to keep them safe, they might not last even that long outside these walls!

Steady now! That is then, this is now. Subtlety is needed.

Of course, adding anything to the festivities to expose the hypocrites was verboten. The Dylans tried to spike the punch every year, never once succeeding. But magic, if the intent were pure and the power drawn from beyond the veil, might yet remain undetectable to those lackeys Grimes and Tenent. Dissolve, refine, condense, reveal for all to see.

Trick or Treat!


As the Event drew closer, conversations turned to the Halloween Party and whatever might be involved.

"I hear the school band is going to be away at some battle of the bands contest come Halloween weekend. Too bad."

"Don't get your hopes up! That's Saturday. Halloween is on Monday. And New Hampshire's only 190 miles long. They'll be back. The Imp hasn't lost a student group yet, except for that one time, and no one involved is allowed to talk about it."

"How bad were they last year?"

"Imagine a collab between Negativland and Brass Monkey. Now imagine being stuck in an I-Love-Me jacket so you can't shove a pencil through your eardrums."

"I'd rather not. Ever. What are you going as?"

"No idea. Are you planning to enter the costume contest? Did you hear that going as yourself all grown up is a disqualifier?"

Who says you have to grow up?


Whitman Cottage, Room 236.

Back home, Halloween wasn't nearly as much of a big deal as it was here. Tabitha finally broke down and asked her roommate what she'd heard about the planned party. Was it going to start after class, earlier, or what?

"Of course, the party isn't starting until after dinner. Celebrate Halloween with the sun still up? No way! Besides, could you imagine trying to feed and water a few hundred super-hungry teens off-site without some kind of disaster?"

Tabbie shook her head, "You're forgetting the part where a Dickinson girl and a Melvillain show up, pre-dance, in the same outfit. Bang! Out come the stupor-powers and inedible flying objects. I bet they're relying on the floors in the Crystal Hall being designed for washing down with fire suppressant foam and a fire hose. After hearing about Corrine's dustup with Stark, I've no problem with that."

Dafira lifted her eyebrows at that but nodded. "Good thing dirt and smoke don't show up on black. Sith robes are washable, too. "

"Don't they ever shrink in the dryer? Or does The Dark Side handle that along with breaking out the cookies?"

"Wonders beyond your ken, modern CGI renderers do work! And for you, young padawan?"

"I've got some thoughts on that, but they're ones I'm not sharing with the folks back home."


Off-Campus.

Half the world away, in a rarely-used corner of a generic office, a secured telephone rang.

The current chair-warmer replied, "Yes, thank you. Put him on. Max! What's doing?"

"Hey, bud! I wanted to run this great idea I just had for a Halloween costume past you!"

"Sure. That's exactly what I'm here for."

"Bullshit. You're supposed to be on desk duty while you recover from that last show. Do I need to call your boss, or?"

Doesn't anyone trust me to look after myself? Just because I hate being cooped up indoors?

"He's right outside. Do you really want me to bother him?"

"Maybe not. So! Paul Stanley!"

Max was clearly waiting for something to register. Nada.

"Paul, who?"

"Paul Stanley." Max clarified for the dense, "The one and only Starchild!"

Still nothing.

"The frontman for Kiss. Just one of the most influential rock bands ever!"

"Does he have two heads or something? That would be tricky to pull off, not going to lie."

"Philistine! I'll send you pics. The idea is to show up as someone you're not."

"Last I heard, you're a performer too. I suppose you could show me what you put together when I get there on November eleventh."

"What?"

"I've got a courier delivery scheduled for Whateley, stopping in London on my way back. I was planning on sending out an email once I have all the arrangements settled."

"Whateley Academy has a Guest House. You've got to stay there."

"There have to be cheaper digs in the area."

"They might cut you a deal."

Did Max sound a little desperate?

"I'll check into that, thanks."

"You really think I'm too much like Paul Stanley?"

Going by what an internet search pulled up? Meh.

"You don't need a pound of grease paint to keep from scaring the children, but you're both musicians and actors."

Was Max going to make him think something up? Fine.

"Shrek. He's ugly, mean, cranky, and doesn't like the limelight."

"Seriously? I could work with that..."

"Glad I could help."

"I'm going! But, send Petey his own email about dropping in. Not just a carbon copy, okay? Trust me."

"Fine. I'll do that too."

Benjamin Xiáng Keeling hung up the phone and sighed. He turned in his chair to look out across the Kapala Lagoon, smoke and ash from Anak Kapala blowing away in the trade winds. Didn't Max know that he wanted to be there with his friends? Oh, and Peter too. Someone had to look out for the guy... until they weren't needed. Maybe, not even wanted? Maybe this new project was meant to take his mind off things that were never going to happen anyway.

Once he'd worried at the wording of two emails enough, a dozen or so times each, Benjamin left early for the day. Just between himself and the lonely mountain, he couldn't say for sure if anyone noticed.


Emerson Cottage, Room 241, Icejack and Esquire.

Gideon 'Esquire' Crawford looked over at the outfit that his roommate, Peter Raiford, was assembling. It would have been far simpler to stay ignorant of the faux pas in progress, but one does as one must to avoid unflattering associations. The navy blue blazer and trousers, pale blue shirt, red-and-navy school tie, etc., didn't look bad, per se. However,

"You do know that you are already a student at a private school, right?"

"Since we've got a couple of days still, I'm planning on dying my hair blonde too."

Gideon knew a trap when he saw one, but he could afford to spring one once in a while.

"Why?"

"Cosplaying Alex Rider. The gear's practical enough, and I can't think of too many folks less like me. Maybe Dr. Jack Bright. I hear he's based on one of the more free-spirited researchers at ARC."

In Esquire's experience, his roommate barely managed laid back. Thank God the guy wasn't as laid-back in hygiene matters as many other gadgeteers. But, 'free-spirited'? That would be too much of a stretch.

"I shouldn't have asked."

"What've you got planned?"

"It's too early to divulge. What's the point of a disguise if everyone knows who you are?"

"Fine," Peter thought. "I'll just upgrade Stabby to take blackmail photos."


Monday afternoon, October 31, 2016,
Whateley Academy.

Venus, Inc. Principal Photography Studio, Dunn Hall.

"So far, so good," Peter told himself as he stretched in his seat.

Photo sessions were coming in timestamped, checksummed, and ready for backup, as intended. The usual spurious data packets were bouncing off the private studio network. Various daemons collected metadata for later fingerprinting in case someone came up with a new security exploit. It was just about time for this code monkey to head off for dinner...

"Look at you, slacking off! I haven't seen you sweating under the spotlights like the rest of us."

Danielle "Shutterfly" James stood in the IT room's doorway, mock-glowering at her fellow support techie. A gadgeteer specializing in video, she could step in when Flashbulb and FrameRate got swamped. It didn't hurt the club's image that she was also an exemplar beauty.

"That would explain why the cameras are still working. Besides, people actually want to see you all."

"Peter, you need to learn how to relax. What are you wearing to the party? You did remember to bring everything, right? It's looking like we'll be shooting through dinner."

Peter had been looking forward to dinner.

Plus, he hadn't yet read the hair dye instructions.

And, and, dinner!

"Um, I need time to dye my hair. I couldn't find a wig that would work for the cosplay. And then there's, huh?"

Another thing about exemplars: they're good at yanking a person out of their seat.

"Grab your costume, and let's get you to makeup! I bet you didn't even make sure the colors would go with the hair color," Danielle said. Turning back to Peter, she asked, "Do you have any photo references?"

"Yeah. I've got some stills from the movie promotions. I also have photos of a guy who could have filled the role in real life."

"Oh? Someone special? That sounds kind of kinky!"

"He's my former bodyguard! It's nothing like that at all!"

"So that's what they're calling it now!" Danielle thought but caught herself before asking, "So why him?"

"We're absolutely, completely, totally different," Peter claimed. "Remind me to introduce you two when he shows up for classes if he manages to survive long enough."

"Cool," Danielle said before changing subjects. "You still using those drones I rigged up for you?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Because I bet we can get some great video of our ladies on the way to Holbrook Arena. There's enough outdoor lighting to get full color in post. We can scope out new talent while we're at it!"

"We?"

"Since the school barely trusts him with net access after getting mixed up in that pay-per-view scheme, Jeff's focussing on Cynthia. Can't blame him for being a guy, but two-drones-one-pilot? Indoors? No. Besides, you need to work on your videocam skills. Blocking scenes ain't the same as target practice."

"What about the party?"

"Dude. You just finished telling me you were going stag. Your cloud's going to be my silver lining tonight."


Twain Cottage, Super-Dance-Party.

Max Livingston had spent hours getting his Shrek costume ready for a grand show. He'd used enough hair remover to render a furry catatonic, followed by enough grease paint to touch up a big top. Throw in the molded foam fat suit, and no one would recognize him. But even as it all seemed to come together, something was missing. Something he couldn't put his finger on. Something that didn't work with rhinestones and glitter. But what?

If his bestie were here, Max would have pushed to get him to dress up as Jack O'Greene from "Legend." He was as short as Tom Cruise. Sure, Benjamin wouldn't be interested in snogging Mia Sara or wearing shiny gold armor. Maybe a goblin instead? The guy hated unicorns, not that he could get within a mile or ten of one. And he wouldn't be shooting with a telephoto lens even if he managed to.

That's it!

Minutes later, Max padded his way into the freshman common room.

"Anyone up for taking a few pictures? I really want to show this off to one of my friends back home. His idea, no lie!"

One of his fellow freshmen looked up from whatever he was gluing together (Mrs. Ryan would have been politely horrified) and said, "I didn't know they celebrated Halloween where you're from."

"We don't, and Benjamin doesn't. But, er, he does appreciate dressing the part."

Another asked, "What? No parties, no costumes, no headstones in the front yard or TPing the neighbors' houses?"

"We have parties on our own holidays! Dressing up as yaoguai, not so much. As to the rest? That would be a big Nope, raised to the Hell Nope."

Taka Ono asked, "The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated in Kapalangpur, yes?"

"It sure is! Food, fireworks - even Anak Kapala gets into the act, music, plays, the works."

Taka nodded to himself, "So, Trick or Treat. Not needed."

"Plus, Benjamin already lives in a cemetery."

Taka backed up and hid his hands behind his back.

"C'mon. It's not like he lives in a coffin! There's a house on the property and all that."

Half an hour later, Max remembered how grumpy his bestie could be before his morning coffee. But, despite the death threats (all in good fun, right?) and the twelve-hour time difference, Benjie sounded glad he called. Until Benjamin mentioned it, in all the haste and runarounds of getting ready, he'd completely forgotten to put on clothes!

That's what friends were for!


Whitman Cottage, Room 215, Hydrostatic and Onyx.

Riley Spencer knew for a fact that she wasn't allergic to the blonde wig or the metric ass-ton of sequins armoring her pink dress and heels. Some days, she even wore more makeup than she had on. Whoever came up with the idea of 'natural complexion' makeup had to have been laughing their asses off all the way to the bank. So, yeah. That skin-crawling distaste for all things Summer was a sure sign that she'd gotten the blonde bimbo look just right.

"Too much skin. Hmph. Very well. Feminine clothes suit you."

"Thank you. It must've hurt Mao to say that."

Jenny replied in her own voice, "It's not that. She's not used to modern styles."

Riley bit back a laugh. Mao still couldn't help being Mao.

"I'm more surprised by your costume. Some of the comments I've been hearing weren't very ladylike."

"Like you can complain! I explained that the idea of a Halloween costume is to dress up to keep wandering spirits from recognizing the revelers. Yes, I know that real spirits aren't that easy to fool! But the school store still had chest binders at a good price, and who'd be looking for me dressed out for soccer as a boy?"

Jenny had a point. The devisor five o'clock shadow makeup pulled double duty in hiding her whisker markings. Unless and until she developed a fetish for Workshop tech-speak, that was all that Riley needed to know.


Room 236, Homely and Dafira.

Maybe, just maybe, Tabitha Dieulafoy thought to herself, she'd jump into the costume contest tonight.

"Saddle brown", or #8B3B0F, wasn't a web-safe color, but as bodysuits went, it was parent-safe. Over that went an ice-brown, padded linen blouse tied off at her midriff. She could untie it and secure the tails under her belted plaid skirt if she got cold. Another synthetic leather belt carried essentials, like a taser, bear spray, Cuckoo Channel, drink tester, decoy phone, lipstick, and makeup compact. Used with a couple of attachments, it could be used to hogtie a low-end brick. Glittering chains, pendants, bangles, and abalone hoop earrings announced that Whateley had a new Pirate Queen onboard. A tweak here and there after the night's over should be all that would be needed for a good grade.

Tabitha had maybe overspent on a pair of gorgeous knee-high boots. Or not. Adding internal greaves, metatarsal protection, pointed steel toe caps, and all that costs extra. Oh, but they were so worth it. These bad girls were coming home for the holidays!

Tabitha turned back around to see how her roommate was making out. Stella had been operating under a delusion that wearing traditional Sith robes over a Nightsister's red dress would let her hide in the crowd. It wasn't kevra, but the school got a nice discount on a synthetic taffeta that wore like canvas. Once the boys got a good look, Girlfriend was in for some kind of awakening!

"H-help! Did these boots shrink, or what?"

Dafira's awakening is starting early!

"No, you're just stressing out. I'll help; you just sit back and think about how good you'll look in red thigh-highs!"

"I can't believe I'm doing this!" Stella complained. "I should have gone with the leg wraps."

"They don't stay up. Your legs will thank you in the morning that we didn't get them wrapped that bloody tight. But, you know what? It's just one night a year. 'Live a little' is what I have to say about it."

"One night. Okay, I guess."

Wait until she finds out why these are called FMBs.

Tabitha smiled, saying, "That's the spirit! I'm heading over to help with setup. So, I'll see you there."


Poe Cottage, Room 212, Glyph and DragonsFyre.

The longer Bianca watched her roommate fuss over that Maleficent costume, the more determined she was to stick with something simple tonight. Furthermore, she'd bet those back-swept curved horns would only be the first of Morgana's costume malfunctions. Second?

"You know that makeup isn't going to stay on if you get the least bit hot under the collar," Bianca said.

"That," said Morgana, "is going to be more of a 'you' problem. Or should I say more of a 'you and Janine' problem?"

"Get your mind out of the gutter. You never know what you'll find there. Besides, after this past weekend, I've no plans to stir up more trouble."

"Yes, Mum."

Morgana twirled, letting the black and purple dress flutter to its best effect. The headdress securing the character's horns wobbled but held itself in place.

"How do I look?"

"Positively demonic. When she gets here, I'll tell Thulia she's been an influence."

Morgana maturely blew her delicate roommate a raspberry. Then she went back to checking how her seams were holding out. Extra credit is almost as Serious Business as, well, other propositions she'd like to work on. With Thulia, not Mrs. Ryan!


Emerson Cottage, Room 221, Kuvuka.

My first American Halloween!

Everything was new here, each complicated and confusing in its own way. Being stuck between childhood candy-collecting and adult celebration only made figuring it all out that much harder. However, Lukas Malual has been told that this party will be a lot of fun! The rules about what to wear and why made little sense. Hide one's identity from the spirits? Even the simplest of children knows evil spirits walk among us. They've never grown so numerous that entire communities must go about undercover! God would not allow such a thing to happen.

Other bad things happened more openly, like the day people came to kill Lukas for his mutation. Lucky he was, that there were many foreign policemen working with the UN mission. One of them, even though he caused Lucas to become confused and injured, saved him and his mother. Lucas remembered the pale man's yellow hair, indigo-blue scarf, and stone-green eyes. What kind of man could be more different from Lukas? So, he decided his course of action. Used uniforms are cheap to buy online. For some reason, no one checks to see if the buyer is a good person or deceitful. He'd still need to ask someone about what a "police uniform fetish" is. Puck, his roommate, would only tell him to wash all the clothes twice before wearing them.

So American!


Poe Cottage, Room 222, Hadrian.

As far as Mark Walters could tell, "come as you aren't" wasn't much better than "come as you are." The folks back home would agree. That is, if they could hold their forked tongues long enough to give a polite opinion.

Screw them. All of them!

He and his family didn't need a burning cross on the lawn to know how unwelcome he was. Fine, he'd just stay up here in the North and send anonymous Christmas cards or something.

For tonight's festivities, Mark unpacked the only package he'd gotten since getting here. Leather brogans, indigo-blue wool trousers, suspenders, cotton shirt, dark blue woolen jacket and forage cap, leather belt and brass buckle with a big old raised "US" that even some myopic peckerwood could read. His rifle was some machined wood, brass, and steel that Kent from down the hall managed to rig up. Sure, he'd only been able to buy this used uniform because some Union reenactor was getting out of the hobby. Even with that, it was the biggest "Eff you all and the mangy horse you rode in on!" he could come up with. Funny thing was, he looked pretty darn good in the mirror, squared away and all.


Sundown, All Hallow's Eve,
Holbrook Arena.

A sudden gust of wind failed to hike up Tabitha's skirt on her way into the affair. Defeated, it looked around for someone to play with. Unbothered, she continued on her way. If the party's organized at all, there's sure to be some folks working and others bothering a teacher or two instead. Which group would be the larger? This was high school, after all.

No surprise, then, that one of the snack tables was directly under a hanging stage of metal plates lashed together with rope and wire coils. As soon as the sound system kicked in, that Road Warrior tinker-toy set was going to be louder than an underground metal band on meth. Where the noise would be abated by the crowd, guess what wasn't set up? Tabitha sighed and walked a circuit around the arena, the better to get a feel for how she was going to make people feel welcome. What with what couldn't be moved, and what needed to be fixed already, her work was cut out for her. Now, who was that guy in Powers class with the on-call handyman trick?

Miss Grimes turned her attention from the freshman back to the arguing juniors.

"Jeanne, Caitlin. Do you see Miss Dieulafoy over there? Her family are hoteliers; they do all this and more for a living. I'd suggest enlisting her help while it's available."

Caitlin Grey motioned her fellow RA to go talk to the girl. She had a new question for Miss Grimes.

"Is that girl what's happening to the wards on the hall?"

"Based on her ambiguous powers testing results, I find it highly likely. There's one way to find out."

"That's to get back to work?" Binder asked, already knowing the answer.

Miss Grimes nodded. "All of our work. You run along. I'll leave a message for Mrs. Montaigne in the morning."

"And some kind of madness has started to evolve."

Kent 'Toolbox' Holloway shut down his portable welder, pulled up his face shield, and wiped a good half-hour of sweat off his brow. The work hadn't been too hard: welding more support lines to segments of a floating steel deck should be enough that it wouldn't all come crashing down mid-dance. There had also been some dodgy mixed-metal joins to cut and rig in replacements. There was always time to get something right the second time, wasn't there?

Whatever Electradyne was wiring the floor for, he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He'd asked politely, but how does a tank reverb?

The first thing to do was reload his "toolbox". He hated not having his tools and supplies out of place. With that done, Kent could head back to Poe to ditch his Bulwark shirt and coveralls and clean up. A nice warm shower might make him feel more human. Then again, it wasn't like anyone would care when or if he came back to the party. There were people here at school he was getting to know. That was neighborly, but it wasn't the same thing as having a date. Which he didn't.

"Holloway!"

Tabitha Dieulafoy, the girl from Powers Theory class, had caught back up to him. Not that he was in a hurry to leave.

"Thank you so much for coming out on, like, no notice." Tabitha held out a big red cup filled with punch. "Drink up! We can't have you passing out from dehydration after doing your Fix-It Felix thing for us."

He was thirsty, and it'd be a dick move to refuse, wouldn't it?

She clearly wasn't going to go away until he'd drunk it all. Not that he minded, but had she added some push-up padding since Friday's class?

"On the house! You go get cleaned up. But remember, costume or no costume, you're welcome back here!"

"Why, thank you, friend!" Kent shut up before he started rambling. The heck?

"Be seeing you!"

He sure was missing his golden hammer. But, by Jiminy, a regular one'd do! He brushed his brown hair away from his eyes, walking away with a spring in his step.

"Well, I'm not the world's most physical guy."

Gravedigger (he had a mundane name, but he much preferred his codename) spun in front of his dressing mirror. The ruffled black satin skirt he'd ordered flared out gracefully, giving the impression of petticoats without giving in too much to the past. If anything, the dress's spaghetti straps held up better than expected. That was no reason to ditch the studded leather belt and its treasury of useful tricks! Black fishnets (tastefully torn), knee-high boots, and a spiked choker rounded out the accessories. And, of course, the blackened mauve, long, chunky spikes of his new hairstyle made a statement about embracing one's inner harpy that that poor Dickinson girl could never understand. Deeming it all sufficient, Gravedigger looked around to see Amadeus already pointing to the corner where his black satin parasol lay. Good.

He and his spectral minions were sure to cross paths with the young demoness of Poe. That much was certain. Indeed, how could one such as that resist? All he needed to do was mix with the hoi polloi and observe. Sooner or later, she was sure to let her real face show. Just a matter of time, and the game would be on!

"Say it once, say it twice. Take a chance and roll the dice."

Whateley Academy's latest Trustee replacement surveyed the crowd of milling students."Ah, childhood! I remember it like it was yesterday. So many people to do and things to play!" Elizabeth Carson had remembered what it was like to be a schoolgirl. Geoffrey Mazarin? Maybe not so much. "I'm so needed here." Business over, it wouldn't be sporting not to put any effort into blending in! Not to mention how much of a pain Miss Cranky Ray of Sunshine could be if their paths crossed. Something subtle but educational was in order.

A tuck here, a flounce there: perfect!

No sooner had she walked in, but she was greeted by one of the students.

"Girl, I love the sailor fuku outfit! Is it specific to an anime?"

She curled her tail in to pull off a model's twirl. Then she smiled a big, toothy smile and said, "All of them, of course!"

"Good answer," Tabitha said, extending a hand to her, "I'm Tabbie Dieulafoy. Pleased to meet you. In case no one's said so, welcome to the party!"

"Sun Wukong," Sun said. "For tonight, call me Sunny. I love parties!"

"Me too. Have you tried any of the refreshments yet?"

"No." Sunny's face briefly fell before brightening again. "But I look forward to trying some!"

"Follow me, Sunny. We'll have you sorted in no time."

"Music plays and figures dance, with partners chosen by chance."

Shannon 'Do I look like a freaking actress?' Dougherty knew he should have felt more self-conscious about the dark blue and white (and blood-splattered red all over) knee-length apron dress and the black-haired wig he was wearing. However, the dress was meant for "developing figures," and he got it cheap from the theater department. Like Frodo and Sam, a simple man like him didn't need perfect. He only had to pass as one of the prowling orcs surrounding him and his evil twin Sprite for a few hours. Then, they could sneak away from the Enemy's camp under the cover of darkness.

After watching someone hustle from one refreshments table to the next, he asked the fairy on his shoulder, "Should I be surprised that the one person running around, keeping the party foods stocked, is a black girl in a Renfair wench outfit?"

Halloween was one thing from her old life that Vanessa Gordon didn't miss. Young Aiden had loved dressing up in a cool, baseline-affirming costume one night a year. Tonight, she wore swashbuckling finery, trying to recapture some of the innocence and happiness stolen from her. Clothing that fit her new size was usually too expensive, but agreeing to be in Venus, Inc.'s annual GSD calendar came with access to a huge costume vault. Who would have ever thought of a "Tink" size? Too bad Aiden's bigoted father never got to see his son in a Dolly Parton-sized red wig, with fairy green bodice, skirt, and knee-high leather boots. That would've been the Best Aneurysm Ever.

"Shannon, are you kink-shaming my outfit? You'd still be stuck with hobo chic if I hadn't hooked you up."

"No. It's just that back in the City, the 'hired help' is usually black. The folks in charge like to pretend they're better than that. Yet there's always a separate service entrance. Go figure."

In spite of his shielding, Shannon's empathy picked up a combination of annoyance and humor right behind them. Oh, well. Even a minor dustup would be a good excuse to call it a night.

The "serving wench" introduced herself, "By the by, my name is Tabbie Dieulafoy, and I do come from a long line of discreet suppliers and listeners. What about you, Alice?"

"Er, no?"

What kind of snappy answer would you have come up with? 'Alice in Wonderland' wasn't his style. A look at Sprite's face confirmed he wasn't alone in that.

"Do try the punch! I'm told that "If one drinks much from a bottle marked 'poison,' it's almost certain to disagree with one sooner or later." We can't have that now, can we?"

With that, Tabitha swaggered off into the crowd like a cat who'd got the cream.

Maybe she had?

"The punch can't be that good, can it?"

From Shannon's shoulder, Vanessa whispered in his ear, "Let's wait and watch someone else find out first."

"Good idea."

"On the outside, always looking in. Will I ever be more than I've always been?"

It would be ever so much easier for Peter if he could sit back and just turn the analytical side of his brain off. Fat chance of that happening, or being a good idea in general. He could still entertain the idea now and then when his attention started to wander. Today had already run long. But then came makeup and costuming, a hastily choked-down dinner-to-go, and leapfrogging video feeds with Danielle as Venus, Inc.'s stable of models left for the party in groups of two or three.

Now they were filming the crowd. Something that would have been easier if they'd arrived earlier while the lights were still up. Nonetheless, the data were stacking up to one conclusion.

"Er, Danielle? Is it just me, or are the shots I'm getting all down-cleavage or up-skirt? Know what I mean? Are you sure this is what we're aiming for?"

Translation: Why am I here?

"Yes, and no. Yes, those shots can be nice to have, if only to prove you've been staying at the right altitude. But, no, you need to be panning across the crowd more and focusing on the details less. If you want to get a better look, orbit your subject so you don't have to rely on static lighting. Try to get some contrast against background if you can, so avoid the losers-in-black corners in the dark. Oh! If you're on-scene for a fight, slow down, get timestamps, and for heaven's sake, don't crowd them."

"Hai, Sensei."

"Laugh-a while you can, monkey boy! The better you do now, the easier the editing will go later."

Editing? When did he sign up for that? What?

He also hadn't signed up for nearly bumping into Toolbox when he turned around. Situational awareness much? Ever?

"Howdy, friend!" Kent said. "Say, Pete. You're looking a bit tuckered out. Try some of this holiday punch, see if that don't fix you right up. Don't know why folks are avoiding this batch, but I'm sure each bowl's filled with a jen-you-wine winner. See you around!"

That.

What was that?

Different? Unexpected? Twice as many words than the guy had ever said to him? The nametag might've said "Kent", but Peter wasn't sure if the cheery guy who'd just handed him a drink was the same Toolbox he sparred with in BMA or not. The "let's have a beer sometime" vibe worked so much better for him than "lost puppy dog." If the punch was laced with that much of the good stuff, he might as well take advantage of it.

Speaking of taking advantage, surveilling folks at a party? Were the Secret Squirrels turning into a pack of utter tossers, or what? Maybe it's time someone taught them a thing or two about their own party games.

"Well, standing back from the looking glass, there stood a woman where a half-grown kid had stood."

Riley Spencer was many things. Some of them she even liked. Stupid wasn't on either list. That ruled out touching anything from punch-and-snacks tables close to the boys' room or too close to the exits. Even with Miss Morticia watching the punch bowls and drawing goths like a freaking flame, she knew better than to trust high schoolers at a party.

On the other hand, Summer would freak the fuck out if she got shit-faced. Mao would keep Jenny sober, so she had a "designated driver." Decisions, decisions.

Fuck it. I've got the fairytale pink dress and shoes. Why shouldn't I break them in tonight?

Riley strode over to a punch bowl with a pink color to it. Damn, it was almost as sickly sweet as her sell-out sister. One party cup down the hatch for hydration. Another to sip on while she scoped out the beefcake of the hoof...

"Oof! Pardon me! You okay?"

This wasn't the way she'd wanted to be knocked off her feet. Then again, the view wasn't all bad. If he was polite enough to offer a hand up, what kind of girl was she to refuse?

"Thank you! I'm Riley, by the way."

By some weird coincidence, her drink was back in her hand as if nothing had happened.

"My pleasure, Miss Bytheway," the firey-haired boy sporting a Parrothead Nation tropical shirt replied. Before she could object, he laughed and added, "Just kidding. I'm Puck."

"Well, Puck, do you dance?"

"Some. Not like my sister, though."

"But she's not here, is she? Come on."

Other than a hunch, Puck hadn't been sure why he had to step into the Whitmaniac's way like that. He wouldn't say no to a dance or two. After that, they'd both be off to where they next needed to be.

"But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?"

Climbing halfway up the stowed-away bleachers secured Peter Raiford a good vantage point for piloting and recording. His impromptu perch was also proving difficult for Squirrels to safely sneak up on. But if Mouse fell one more time, he'd ask one of the chaperones to escort her to Doyle Medical Center. The trick to that would be figuring out which staff member wouldn't mind that it was his personal microdrone that buzzed Carrie's approach. He told Danielle he was going on break to charge batteries and answer the call of nature.

It was a good plan. No question.

"Hey, faggot! Yeah, you. Y'all got a permission slip to dress up like some butt-licking Yankee?"

And that was not the right question.

'Beavis' called out to 'Butthead', "Looks more like a YankER from here, bro!"

The red-faced guy in a Civil War outfit broke and fired back, "Who the Sam Hell do you boys think you are?"

"Darby's the name. Don't wear it out! Ahuh-ahuh."

Who fed the gremlins after dark? Think! They wouldn't be picking a fight with even odds. Powers in play?

Peter switched to a different channel on his comms.

"Derecha, Icejack. I need backup, about 10m from the boys' room."

"Got it, Crash. I'm on my way, but don't go picking no fights."

"Gassy and Sigh are doing the provoking."

"Oh. Why didn't you lead with that?"

Peter saw a black kid from the dorm in a police uniform coming in from the opposite direction to Peter's approach. Lukas Malual, if he recalled correctly. Walking right into this crap, wasn't he?

"Excuse me! Folks? Could you move back some? Gentlemen! Stop!"

From the way Lukas doubled over, Gassy must have hit him with some of the aerokinetic "bullets" he'd showed off last year. Peter didn't need to read lips to know what Sigh had just called Lukas. Tag-team goading the kid into running into an invisible shield of hypercondensed air, shifting on the fly to catch him in a crossfire? Lovely. Peter switched his PFG on just in time to bounce off a wall of stone that popped up between the Darbies and Lukas on one side and Union Guy on the other.

From the other side of the wall, Derecha commanded, "Samuel Darby, David Darby. Stand down. Stand down and wait here for Security."

This time, there was NO mistaking what Darbies didn't do for certain racial groups. Lukas disappeared.

Oh, right. He must be the latest teleporter in the dorm.

Seconds later, Darby Dumb and Darby Dumber were complaining in twin drawls:

"Let! Us! Go!"

"Who the fuck put these stupid rocks in our way?"

"Y'all just wait 'til our father hears about this."

"Stop it!"

"Let us go, bitch!"

Union Guy looked ready to round the wall himself. Peter caught him by the shoulder and said, "Don't."

"Why not?" the guy asked in his own King Cotton drawl. "I'm the one being trash-talked here."

"You were the one. First off, it's less detention for you if you calm down. Second, Derecha over there's my teammate. The Darby twins have some decent tricks, but one of her is better than any four of them."

"We'll just have to see."

"And for fuck's sake, don't go pointing that musket like it's a stick."

"It's just a prop — that Kent made for me..."

Right. "Don't care."

"Or, at least, it was," the other said. He shouldered whatever it really was and stuck out a hand. "Mark Walters, Eighteenth Reg— Sorry. I meant to say my codename's Hadrian. I'm down in Poe, next door to Toolbox, who you probably don't know. Sorry. I don't think I was expecting this kind of bullshit here. Should've known better."

"Peter Raiford. Icejack. But lots of people call me:"

"Crash! You got the other guy in this?"

Mark muttered, "That's got to be some story."

Peter responded over his comm circuit, "He's still here," a pause, then, "I'll ask."

He asked Mark, "Can you make your wall go away? Not just knock it over, but, just gone?"

"So long as it ain't up for too long."

"It'd be nice to have it down before—"

Oh, look. The Chief of Security. Already here and already pissed off.

"Nevermind. Just do it."

The Chief turned to the two auxiliaries with her.

"Rook? You've got Hadrian and Icejack. Chillout? You and Derecha can escort Kane Hall's latest overnight guests and start on the paperwork. I have some things to discuss with Kuvuka."

Peter begged off for long enough to use the restroom and get laughed at by Shutterfly. This was going to be a long night, wasn't it?

"I think that life's too short for this, I want back my ignorance and bliss."

Under other circumstances, accompanying a blond, buff, exemplar guy in a uniform would be one of the night's highlights, even for most straight guys. But Adam Hinz took his Security responsibilities way too seriously to win many friends in Poe Cottage. That was going to be a second strike with Mark: not many in Boys Town saw any point in Rook being in Poe at all. Icejack was practically a criminal in training. "Hostile witness" didn't begin to cover this sitch.

"Gentlemen, let's take it outside where it's quieter."

"Agreed."

"Might as well. I can tell where I'm not welcome."

This was going to be as much fun as pulling teeth. The way the Bad Seed immediately looked around for cameras outside the auditorium didn't bode well for cooperation.

"Not here," Icejack said, even though he was now staring at his electronic PA. "This cam's been taken offline. The next one is a dummy."

"Then we can sit on one of the benches along the main path to Emerson."

"I'd rather not lose my trousers to a glue prank, mate."

"Fine. If that's true, let me call in to Kane Hall. We can still walk and talk."

"Suit yourself."

So, he did.

"Okay. Let's start simple. Who are each of you at the party with?"

Hadrian hesitated before saying, "Ah can honestly say that every girl I asked had other plans for th' evening."

Icejack's eye-roll was almost hidden by the dark. "Technically speaking, no one."

"Let's skip the technicalities, please."

"I'm filming the event with Shutterfly — on behalf of Venus, Inc. Before you ask how I rate, I owe her one for some technical work."

"You wouldn't happen to have video of the altercation, would you?"

"Danielle caught part of it."

"And you were?"

"On break to take a piss. Not against the school regs, last I checked."

"And you, Hadrian?"

"Minding my own business when those two scalawags started acting up. Were they born in a barn, raised in a ditch, or what?"

Adam asked, "In what way were they acting up?"

Was this guy on whatever was making the rounds tonight?

"Making fun of my hair – like I have some say in the matter – some other horseshit. I ignored them until they finally called me out."

Icejack added, "That would be the first part I'd heard. The remainder fits this year's pattern of behavior. Passive-aggressive comments, then escalation until their target responds."

"Just because they sound innocent to a pack of looky-loos don't make such comments right to make."

Icejack pursed his lips and nodded. "Didn't say they were."

Adam couldn't compromise the Poe Secret by asking how the twins knew that Hadrian was gay in front of the Emerson guy.

"Who used powers first?"

Hadrian looked guilty. "I guess I must've..."

"Not unless you're Samuel Darby. He's got a compressed-air bullet trick that's good for leaving no evidence. I saw Lukas go down like he'd been hit with something that I didn't see. That was before his," Icejack pointed at Hadrian, "wall went up."

"Do either of you know why Kuvuka and Derecha jumped in?"

"From where I was, Lukas looked like he was taking his cosplay too much to heart. I called Derecha in because she has similar powers to the twin disappointments. We're on a combat team together."

Considering how well his combat final went last year, it was hard not to pity the girl's team for getting stuck with "Crash" Raiford. Nonetheless, what they said had happened was corroborated by witnesses. Nothing left but to send Icejack back to the party and escort Hadrian back to Poe. Unfair as it was, some things can't be talked about in the open. Whether the boy would listen? No one who knew better ever said that growing up as a man in this world was easy.

"But it's not a crime that you're here tonight. It's not some pilgrim who's seen the light."

Riley knew from a change in the atmosphere that the festivities were drawing to a close. Whatever sugar rush had been keeping her going, it was fading fast. She inhaled warm smoke and prairie-warmed musk on the chest her head lay on. Looking up into cornflower blue eyes, she almost lost track of her surroundings.

Of course, this damned school would find a way to spoil a moment. This time, with an announcement that curfew wouldn't be extended more than a half-hour past the next song.

Cody's chest softly rumbled under her as he asked, "Are you okay?" Some day, when he finished growing into his paws, he'd be one hell of a catch...

No. Best to enjoy today. Her enemies, whoever they really were, weren't going to let her have a good tomorrow. She'd learned that early on when her father died. Then, Gretchen had to leave.

"As good as I'll ever be. Let's find Jenny and Parker and get out of here."

"Your wish is my—"

"No. I leave the commands to my mother; she enjoys playing those games."

"I just meant, you know."

"No harm, no foul, Cow Poke."

"If I get home before daylight I just might get some sleep tonight."

Danielle's voice rang loud and clear in Peter's ear jack. "Hey, Peter, glad you're back. Change of plans!"

"Pumpkin time?"

"Dream on. That goth fashion crime that keeps creeping on DragonsFyre? I think you should cut in for the last couple of songs. Just a feeling I've got."

Of course, it was absolutely, positively, not a ruse to get blackmail material. Peter sighed to himself and let his partner vector him to their target. He queried the campus dorm listings to refresh his memory. Funny how it wasn't as clear as it had been. That must be what the kids are called exhaustion these days. That didn't stop him from swimming through the crowd like he'd seen Keeling do.

He found Morgana in one of the many "Are we having fun yet?" groups that were chatting until they could politely leave. Despite the music, DragonsFyre must've heard Peter walk up. She whirled around faster than he could tap on the shoulder. She was probably surprised he hadn't pawed at her butt.

"Morgana! How about a dance with a poor gadgeteer?"

"That's the line you're going with? Seriously? Didn't have anything lamer?"

She wasn't wrong. Still hurt.

"Mea culpa maxima gratia plena, but it's the truth."

Morgana laughed and said, "You should be glad you didn't pull that on a Catholic or even a music lover."

Peter put his hand over his heart. "Then, to make it up to you, I shall endeavor to keep my feet from stepping on yours for the remainder of the dance. Shall we?"

"Persistent, aren't you?"

"For that much truth, you must come with me."

"If I want to live?"

"...Nothing so dire. But, it would be a great help."

Dire? What's wrong with me?

"Okay. Fine," Morgana allowed. "But when I say it's over, it's over."

"Alright by me."

Morgana lead the way. Since when did Maleficent follow anyone? On the floor, she leaned forward.

"What's your game?"

"Keepaway."

"I'm out."

Peter stepped into her path to say, "We're not playing. You're being shadowed. Shutterfly asked me to step in."

"The Spy Kids have been after me and Bianca for a couple of months now. You're late to the party. Why do you care, anyway?"

"The Secret Squirrels don't do drag. Or, chase vee-eye's models around."

"How would you know about that?"

"Shutterfly and I are subbing for Flashbulb and FrameRate tonight. Soooo, dance with me?"

Morgana nodded but remained stiff, not getting into the music. So much for the dancing lessons Mom sent him to. Had she expected him to get to know some girls? And then what?

"I suppose I owe you one. Where's this mythical stan?"

Peter said, "Edge of the dance floor, goth crowd, on your five," then signaled a turn.

"Got it. I also saw a drone hovering over us," Morgana accused.

"That's Danielle the Slavedriver. Know your stan?"

"Vaguely familiar, but no. This isn't a recruitment pitch disguised as concern?"

"Not my job. But, er, do you need an escort back to your cottage?"

"From a guy who hasn't introduced himself?"

Peter stepped back and bowed. "Peter Arsenicker Raiford, of the Arkham Raifords, at your service."

"Sure, I'll walk you back to your cottage!"

"Wait. What? That's not what I asked!"

"You're a locker-sized A/V geek taking morning Calculus. Me fifth element - supreme being. Me protect you."

And you wanted to dance so I asked you to dance. But fear is in your soul.


Tuesday morning aftermaths, November 1, 2016,
Whateley Academy.

Whitman Cottage, Hydrostatic.

As far as Riley Spencer's legs and back were concerned, Tuesday was shaping up to be Monday-squared. What had to have possessed her to try keeping up with bricks and energizers on the dance floor? Checking her phone for messages would let her know who to avoid. Or, she could hit the showers. Hot water would help with the muscle aches while she figured out how the Hell so many new phone numbers were suddenly in her contacts list.

After a thorough shower and scrub, she could even admit to having a good time last night. Cow Poke cleaned up nicely enough to smell good when put through his paces. That didn't mean there was any fucking way she'd be sticking it out for three and a half more years in this place. Her family and the people in charge here wanted a puppet in a princess dress. Dresses and toys could be replaced. She'd outgrown pretty party dresses. Time to learn how to cut some strings without opening a vein in the process.


Whitman Cottage, Homely.

All those times that Tabbie had filled in at a registration desk came in handy this morning. She did wake up a bit knackered from being on her feet all night. Otherwise, she'd slept like a log and was all that much better for it. Seeing so many kids kicking back and enjoying themselves for a change was good for the heart. Of course, she'd still need to be quiet for Stella. They'd all but cut her out of her costume at the end of the night. Tricky business with the girl dead on her feet!

Tabbie waited until after she'd gotten ready for the day to check her messages. This might be a high school, but folks at a party texted the most curious things!

The appointment to see Mrs. Montaigne was one such curious thing, though the Mystic Arts Department Head didn't seem to be the sort who'd do that by mistake.

The various snapshots of Tabbie in her Halloween outfit were rather nice. Her mother would only have a small cow, but her aunties would say the style suited her. Score one for the baby girl!

She had no idea who'd sneaked a small gift basket of peaches onto her desk. They smelled heavenly, so whoever it was was forgiven!


Emerson Cottage, Kuvuka.

Lukas Malual woke up remembering having had a good time at the party. Strangely enough, he didn't recall much partying himself. Almost like being under a spell, he found himself intervening in minor scuffles or arguments. Sometimes, it only took a calm voice and patience to let the argumentative know that they were acting like fools. Others took more convincing. He wasn't one to take on just anyone with no backup. That would be foolish! It certainly wasn't what he saw when that police sergeant took Lukas and his mother away from that mob! His mother still says she doesn't remember, but he remembered the policeman taking a bullet that was surely meant for Lukas.

So Lukas was honestly surprised to wake up to a sincere thank-you for volunteering message from Security Chief Everheart. Miss Everheart had gone so far as to attach a list of classes to consider taking if he still wanted to become a Security Auxiliary after disposing of his costume. He also received a personal message from Security Officer Takenaka, reminding him to burn said costume and scatter the ashes. Something about reminding her of someone who was 'bad, mad, and dangerous to know'? He'd have to ask Puck or Drop-Bear what that meant.


Emerson Cottage, Icejack.

Peter hurt all over. Having been all over, through, around, even under both Venus, Inc.'s studio cableways and the Holbrook Arena in general might explain it. If not, he could always blame the dreams. Sigmund Freud would have a thing or two to say about an aged-up version of his little sister dropping a dossier on his desk containing pictures of not one but two clones of Benjamin Keeling. The uncomfortable parts were a dream. The other parts, something about all the crayons in a box drawing lines, were closer to nightmares. And now he'd woken up before his alarm could go off! It was tempting to chuck it at a wall. But then he'd have to get a new clock and listen to an annoyed roommate.

On top of everything else, his pillow looked more battered than he felt. How did girls deal with makeup or hair dye rubbing off? Or was that one of life's grand mysteries that boiled down to being better prepared? Note to self: never tell Benjamin or Max about this.

Bathroom.

Shower.

Try not to dwell too much on what a night of watching without a chance of touching was affecting his mood. If he stayed awake long enough to get to the cafeteria, that would be awesome. Then he could start working on ignoring how Lukas could have chosen that particular uniform he was wearing last night.


Poe Cottage, Hadrian.

Mark had his own method for waking up from nightmares. Some mornings, he'd get by on washing his face in cold water. Others called for a cold shower to wake up, then warm water for scrubbing the imaginary blood off his hands. "Survivor's guilt," or so the doctors said. Once in a rare while, he could even sleep in until his or Zander's alarm clock went off.

It wasn't any one thing that had grabbed him by the soul and ridden him hard and far. Mud, blood, gunsmoke, guts, and rotted flesh and bandages lingered in his nose. For a drawn-out moment, he remembered the disaster at Richmond, Kentucky. Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Atlanta were (later) wins, but with so many dead they hardly felt like successes. Face after face after blank or mutilated face.

Mark thanked God She'd made tiled shower stalls all but self-cleaning.

He got his own sorry self as cleaned up as was ever going to happen, then headed over to Crystal Hall for the night shift and nightmares early breakfast. Even if it had all been ghosts and nightmares, as sure as the cold stars above him, Mark Walters knew he might not ever be going home.

I can't tell where the journey will end, but I know where to start


Saturday, November 12, 2016,
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy.

Not far from the cafeteria entrance, Puck was saying to two women, "... Mom, Liesey, trust me on this. Even Ney Award-winning mess halls have nothing on Crystal Hall here! If anyone goes away hungry, it's gotta be their own fault."

The much taller of the three replied, "We get it, you weren't fed enough back home. I don't see your roommate around. I thought he was heading over here for lunch. Maybe it's not so great after all?"

"Negats on that, Sis. He was planning on meeting his sponsor. I'm not sure when that's supposed to happen."

The shorter, possibly older woman prompted him, "Sponsor?"

"Yeah. Don't ask me how it works, but even though the Aussie government is footing the bill, it was some CIA analyst or something that helped him and his family get out of Darfur. Hey, I see Tabbie and Dafira from my Powers Theory class. Maybe we can..."

"Have them run interference for you, Eddie? Fine. Just point us at the chow lines while you strike out."

Puck shook his head but gave his family the needed directions before walking over to where Tabitha and Estella were seated.

"Um, Tabbie, Dafira? You don't mind..."

Tabitha set down her drink.

"We heard. Stella's still recovering from her family visiting. That's your mother and sister, yeah?"

Puck nodded, "Dad couldn't get leave. Back in a minute." He turned to go, stopped, then asked,

"Recovering? Do I? Oh."

Dafira winced at both Puck's mangled perspective and her own recent memory.

"Andy's managed to propose to Ekene and barely survived propositioning Kat before our father could drag him back to the parking lot. It takes a lot to fluster Telekat. He managed."


Shortly after, Puck, his mother Barbara, and sister Annaliese arrived with laden trays. Both of her children shared Barbara's red hair and pale, rosy skin tone. Moreover, at 6-foot-4, Annaliese could have passed for an exemplar, much like her brother.

"I guess you know my brother's a Navy brat. And I hear his roommate was mixed up with international spies or something, to hear him tell it. How'd you two end up here?"

Stella gestured to her dark pink skin and the silver fronds and tendrils replacing her hair.

"It's kind of obvious that I'm a mutant. Not everyone in Akron, other than my little brother, approves."

Tabitha shrugged. It wasn't entirely a secret, was it?

"I manifested while working reception at one of my parents' places." Seeing Annaliese's eyebrows furrow, she added, "Well, there was a bit of an altercation between some hoodlums and two of the guests in the lobby. That could have kicked it off. When I woke up in hospital, they told me about Whateley. Funny thing about that. I think the cop was from Lukas' part of the world."

"Australia?"

"No. Africa. It could have been a cover story. Twitchy enough for a spy, that one."

A faint smile ghosted across Annaliese's face, interrupted by a student stopping by. Was her brother actually almost popular?

"Dafira! How'd it go with the family visit?"

Nope. Same old Eddie. This new guy looked like he belonged on a metal album cover; he was at least a foot taller than she was!

"I'll survive. Ekene's going to be avoiding me for the next week or so. What about you, Max? Didn't you say your bestie from back home was visiting?"

Mrs. Effingham asked, "Where is home, if I may ask?"

Max beamed in pride, "Kapalangpur. Don't worry about never hearing of it."

Eddie said, "WESTPAC. Wasn't that the place you told Dad he'd stay on the ship if he didn't want to learn about California divorce laws the hard way?"

"Benjamin's folks are kind of more, er, old-fashioned than that. It's still a great place if you know where to hang! But, nah. He's wandered off again, something about business with Dickinson."

Stella said, "Didn't you tell him that's a girl's dorm?"

"That just makes it one of the places he can't get in trouble!"

Annaliese took a bite from her burger to hide the telepathic realization that Lukas, Tabitha, and now Max were talking about the same person. Winter was going to be an interesting semester. For now, she'd just let Eddie think he was still standing on his own. Baby brothers have to start growing up sometime.


Super Dance Party in the Jungle


Stomping Grounds.

 

Early Tuesday afternoon, December 13, 2016,
Underclassmen Combat Finals, Arena 77, Whateley Academy.

"Next up, we have Soundoff and Homely. Ladies, you have fifteen minutes to present yourselves at the Arena entrance. Don't be late!"

The first MID to hit the arena's overhead displays bore a United Nations blue background:

    
  Code name: Soundoff  
Ratings: EN 4, All other information classified.
Techniques: Kinetic energy absorption, firearms ratings (Classified), Class 3 Firearms License. All other information classified.
Weak vs. Unknown
Backup / Team Affiliation: Grunts, United States Military Mutant Delayed Entry Program (Enlisted)
       

The second MID bore a dull orange background most familiar to Whateley's students. However, where Soundoff's MMID displayed a holographic eagle, Homely's MID had a holographic Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.

    
  Code name: Homely  
Ratings: PDP 1
Techniques: Ringing up 999, Running Away, Screaming Bloody Murder, Calling my father.
Weak vs. Bad curry, a Normal Human Weakness
Backup / Team Affiliation: Underdogs
       

Tabitha stared at the displays, thinking, "Energizer four, which means she can juggle lethal amounts of energy. All that 'kinetic energy absorption' means is that some of it goes into buffing her. I'm screwed." She turned to the other Whitman girls she'd been sitting with and asked, "Anyone got any pointers?"

Michelle Campbell pursed her lips as if she were debating a point with herself before saying, "Soundoff was in my BMA class last autumn. Her best trick is creating a zone of silence so you'll never hear her coming after you. I've got a leg up on her for speed, but she can knock a body flat with a punch. She's sure to have continued working on her fighting skills."

"What you're saying, then, is I'll be sitting for finals from a room in hospital. Is that it?"

"What I'm saying is that you'll be graded against your talents, not hers. It's points off for ending up in A&E."

"We'll just have to see then, " Tabitha said. "Wish me luck?"

Some of them did before Tabitha headed for the exit with the nearest ladies' washup. You couldn't blame folks for being nervy. And it was a good thing that this lot didn't expect a girl to be wearing a fancy union suit under her schoolgirl togs.


According to the anime fans in the dorm, as long as an inch of skin was left showing between socks and skirt, men were expected to spring nose bleeds or something. The older ones might. The last thing Tabitha needed was to be followed around by a pack of horny bleeding pensioners. But what if the respectable sort could be encouraged to look away instead? Her parents hadn't sent her to a state school to find out what's working for the current crop of slags, but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing!

Using that dangerous bit of knowledge, and some behind-the-scenes help from her aunties, Tabitha designed a supersuit for a costuming class project. She'd chosen red ochre for the background color, equivalent to "nude" on her. From ankle to mid-thigh, she added a fishnet, lace, and garters pattern in "antique ruby". Who comes up with these daft color names? Too bad that Mrs. Ryan vetoed more anatomically-themed patterns on the torso! That still left real estate for a green sequined two-piece pattern that would give her a jumpstart on her next Carnival dress.

Right. She'd be managing that just as soon as both her parents went blind.

Over the bodysuit, Tabitha attached as much of a shift as she could fit under a reversable wraparound skirt. More of a scarf, she could easily hike it up from "mm-hm" to "you got the job!" length, as her mate Evey would have put it. Let the boys keep dreaming of a free show! Like the skirt, her white blouse was fireproof, expendable, and drew the eye away from "generous" ballistic gel padding. Armored leather jacket, utility belt, gloves, reinforced platform boots, and a black head-wrap completed the street look.

She had a couple of plain domino masks stashed for privacy's sake. However, she'd also designed a mask that imitated a raccoon-face eyeliner (had it been applied with a trowel) along with blue and purple eyeshadow garish enough to offend Boy George. The trouble was she wasn't sure how long the spirit gum would work with her makeup. She was trying out a UV-reactive grease paint for a friend of hers in the Workshop. If it worked as intended, facial recognition would be useless.

Truth to tell, Tabitha could feel her pores already choking to death.


WARS Broadcast Booth

"Coming up soon, we've got a freshman Underdog up against one of the JROTC sophs. Someone's going home early."

"Yeah. Say what you will about 'Homely', but I'd sure love to take her home!"

"That, my friend, may be more information than anyone wanted or needed to know about either of you."


Soundoff.

Like many other JROTC cadets, Maria Chambers chose to wear urban camo. Over it went a ballistic plate carrier. A gray balaclava masked features and kept her hair out of the way. It was all time-tested, functional, and allowed in the arena. While she got herself squared away, she assessed her opponent's MID information.

"Screaming bloody murder? Calling Daddy? Good God."

Package Deal Psychic 1 indicated that the mutant gene fairy didn't like Little Miss Homely. The testers hadn't even wasted time listing the package powers! Homely's MID was barely more informative than jack but less than squat. She'd just have to keep her options open.

At the muster point, Maria was appalled to see her opponent dolled up like an anime pirate hooker.

Guess who's carrying the load on this op?

Maria spoke first, or rather, she made a series of complicated gestures that her VI personal assistant translated for the simulator technician and Homely.

Soundoff reporting as ordered! I take it that you, indicating Tabitha, are Homely? Please bear with me. My power makes it impossible to hear or be heard. My assistance software can listen for and translate your speech.

Homely nodded. "So, it can hear me if I am behind you or your view is blocked?"

That... is correct. If you can be heard.

"Anything else you can tell me? I've got to give you fair warning. My powers aren't suited to combat. The best I can look forward to is a hunch here or there as we go."

Soundoff's software tagged Homely's statements as English and flagged the powers bit as evasive. Dressed as she was, she might be popular with the boys but hardly much else. For Maria's plan to work, she only needed Homely's buy-in.

I can dampen sound completely in an area around me at need.

Homely replied, "Sounds useful." She turned to the technician and asked, "What's the game plan?"

"We've got a simple game lined up. You go to the address on these cards, pick up a package and deliver it to an address to be determined. Once you both enter the arena, we put fifteen minutes on the clock."

"As simple as all that? What's the catch, mate?"

The technician handed the students each a card. "It's up to the two of you to decide on cooperation or competition. It's up to us to decide on the special features along the way."

"I figured as much. Soundoff. Are we together, or do you want to make a drag race of it?"

We are supposed to be learning teamwork. If you are willing to work together, I am too.


Combat stage, Arena 77.

Leaden clouds hovered cold over bitter city streets packed with road rage and exhaust fumes. The sidewalks were packed with grumpy people picking their way around litter and puddles that reeked of sour piss and milk. Of course, most of the vehicles, people, and what-have-you were hard-light holos. But some of the holos hid robotic opponents. Soundoff was still entering the street names and numbers into her personal assistant when she was yanked to the side.

"'Together' means no getting run over by the scooters, yeah?"

Affirmative.

Homely went on, "I think I've got a handle on where we're meant to go. Ready to stretch your legs?"

Was she ever!

Soundoff finished her data entry, so she could point to where they were and their shortest route. I should lead since I have the map.

Homely might have disagreed, but they had no time for a debate.

Instead, she said, "Got it. I'll follow, what, ten paces behind?" Soundoff nodded. "Ten paces, and back you up."

For the most part, Soundoff stuck to the street side of the sidewalks. However, the mapped route soon took the pair into an alley, derelicts and all.


Homely.

What was it with Americans and their short cuts? Too many bins and doorways here. The best Homely could manage here was to make it look like she planned to mug the other girl. Soundoff sidestepped the first alkie sleeping off the piss. That was the mistake.

An itch in the back of her head had Homely turning in time to bat away the beer bottle chucked at her head.

What kind of boozer would? Right. The lookout.

Time to find out how good that assistant is. "Look sharp, girl!"

"Whazza matter? You fink yer off the clock?"

"Works for me." Homely backed up in Soundoff's direction. 'Choose your ground. Make them come to you.'

The mangy pisher lunged and swiped at her with his knoife. Was he seriously intent on blood or was he herding her? Homely backed up again and risked a quick look around. A broom handle sticking up from a bin wasn't much, but it gave her range.

Now the guy was serious! Homely let him rush her. She sidestepped at the last moment, smashing his worn-out face with her new rod.

Homely heard nothing behind her but distant muffled sounds.

Not good.

She turned around to see if Soundoff needed help.


Soundoff.

Soundoff's first instinct was to go around, but she was supposed to be demonstrating her abilities! Her energizer ability had been converting the traffic noise echoing between the buildings along the street into a comfortable thrum along her muscles. Her heads-up display barely registered Homely's warning before the noise analysis software tagging movement. Whoever it was was ahead of them and off to her side.

Who was she to look a target-rich opportunity in the mouth? Someone with a telescoping shock baton in one hand who knows how to use it.

The dull thunk of her first strike was disappointing. When did gangbangers start wearing sports armor?

It was almost a shame the gear didn't cover forearms. It wasn't effective against joint locks, either.

Drop'em and shock'em.

Turning around to survey the wider sitch, she was surprised that Homely had managed to take a couple down herself. Maybe the frosh wasn't completely useless?


Homely.

So Soundoff is that bleeding fast, strong as a brick, and trained? Lovely. The fight had been silent and brutal. These boys will be crying for Mommy and the police as soon as they stop twitching and place some calls. They were too close to the pickup point to draw such unwelcome attention.

Homely straightened her outfit and said to her partner, "Look. We need this lot to stay quiet. If the Met gets your description... You do stand out in a crowd dressed like that, you know?"

The other shrugged.

What could she do now?

Tabitha pressed on saying, "Let's say I make the pickup, come back for you, and off we go?"

There could be OPFOR waiting for us.

"Then I come back with the bad news, and we make a different plan?"

Understood, but be quick about it.

"That's the idea."


Tabitha had to hand it to Evey: hitching her skirt up and tying her blouse like some music video extra worked a charm. The chav loitering outside the pickup point paid more attention to her bum than anything. If only he were real. If only he had employment prospects. Knowing how to properly tail a lady wouldn't hurt him either.

She quietly said to the open air outside their meetup point, "Soundoff, I'm bringing a plus-one."

"Understood."


Soundoff.

Maria and her squadmates had been just as intent as anyone else on watching the combat finals. Unlike the casuals, they'd paid attention to the tactics in use. Many scenarios boiled down to power levels (equal vs. unequal) and cooperation between the combatants. When the power levels were balanced, players working at cross-purposes tended to run out the clock or wear each other out. Those who cooperated beat the obstacles. When the power levels were uneven, the weaker opponents often held the team back if they cooperated. If the stronger player took out the weaker early enough, they were more likely to succeed. In the post-action debrief, some cadets had been docked points for waiting too long to act.

Soundoff felt good about remembering to bring a roll of carbon-fiber duct tape. It was a useful thing anyone could carry without sending up red flares. Plus, it worked better for securing prisoners than zip ties. One strike to the gut disoriented the punk on Homely's tail long enough to secure him.

Do you have the package?

"In my handbag. Shall we go?"

Soundoff nodded. Which way?

Homely made the rookie mistake of looking down to pull out the brown paper-wrapped object to read the address off.

The traffic noise in this sim made the cityscape a perfect setup for the sound-based energizer. Poor Homely didn't stand a chance. Moving in bullet time, Maria wound the duct tape first around her upper arms and chest and then around her boots. A cloth and another piece of tape ensured the girl wouldn't be calling for help. And, to ensure no one would see Homely from the street, she left her bound opponent behind a trash bin. No one ever said she'd have to beat the other guy up to win! As long as the package was delivered, it didn't matter what Homely did.

Soundoff sped away, intent on beating the clock. She didn't notice a small self-stick tag on the bottom of the package.


Homely.

As if she hadn't gotten her full measure of humiliation in, it hadn't been three minutes until Tabitha had company. She could care less for his cheeky leer. Didn't blokes go for older girls once they were old enough to shave?

"Oh, ho! Ditched by our mate, were we?"

Her would-be Romeo needed a better class of pickup lines if he wanted to get anywhere.

Tabitha rolled her eyes. She'd been played. She knew it, everyone at school knew it, even the bleeding robots knew it! She wriggled her way to the bin, so she could rub her face against the disgusting thing. An edge of the tape gag caught hold of it. A careful pull back made short work of her gag. What had the bitch used, the rag she polished her brass with?

Tabitha finally replied, "Looks that way, yeah. I don't see you running off after her."

"I fancy I don't need to," he said. "A girl like you ought to be good for a trick or two."

"I'm not on the market."

He was right about tricks. Get much closer and he'd be finding how tricky the difficult way.

"Paddington!"

Tabitha's electronic personal assistant responded, "Yes, mistress?"

"Connect me to the Met's reporting line. We're calling in a mutant assault. Assailant thought to be headed for address to follow."

"How's about I give you a better number to call?"

"What? Your lawyer's office? I'm underage, you know."

"Even better. It'll take my backup some time to get here. He had something of a run-in with some gaffer's tape, but I've got a direct line on the street cameras."

"I've got the frequency of the tracker she's carrying."

"See? Those are the tricks I'm talking about, Miss?"

"Nice try. To you, it's just Homely."


Arena 77, Combat Final Debriefing Room A.

Tabitha had heard from Puck that the Army had assigned a replacement for Sergeant-Major Sean Burlington-Smythe. The prat hadn't bothered to actually describe their Quartermaster sergeant instructor. A full six-foot-three of rangy no-nonsense spit-and-polish — he gave nothing away until both girls were seated. Only then did he open the debrief.

"Miss Chambers."

"Yes, Sergeant Major?"

"As betrayals go, yours was reasonably effective. However, you failed to recognize that the layout was based on London, England, a city with many unique features."

"I don't follow. One city's much like another."

de Vyrly shook his head and said, "That city's natives ought beg to disagree. Does your translator software not flag accents?"

"Yes?"

Waiting for de Vyrly to lead Soundoff to water was getting painful. Tabitha cut to the chase, saying, "I've been a West Ender my whole life, but I do know my way around town."

"Oh."

"Oh, indeed," de Vyrly said, neither agreeing nor entirely disagreeing. "You threw away an advantage that few others are given in these exercises. Worse, you openly betrayed the colleague you were working with."

"What happened to 'Whatever happens in the arena stays in the arena'?"

"We are evaluating your progress toward surviving the outside world, where some of these matches inevitably manage to be broadcast. Whether you realize it yet or not, you have closed doors to certain future careers beyond this school. Third, you left an adversary on your six."

de Vyrly then turned a measuring gaze to Tabitha.

"Miss Dieulafoy, knowing that we were simulating London, why did you hold off on calling in your more effective markers? At worst, you would have been informed they weren't available. At best, this exercise might have become interesting."

"As you just said, sir, we were on air. Should I compromise what allies I have outside? I'd agreed to assist with the delivery, which I did. Whatever might happen with the boys from the Met, I'm right as rain."

"Something which has never ceased to amaze your parents and others."

Maria asked, "What does that have to do with me? I handed over the package within the time limit. I win."

de Vyrly shook his head.

"You not only left an enemy on your six but retained a tracking device on the package. Had we continued past the turnover, thanks to Miss Dieulafoy, you would have walked right into the eager hands of the police. Granted, your ability to remain silent is useful for evading most police forces. However, London is only one of many cities to host an extensive video surveillance network, negating such benefit. Your former partner could have told you all about that, along with why it's advisable to avoid the network's dead zones."

"Are you saying that she got loose to place a call? How?"

Tabitha deadpanned, "The tape fell off."

Thinking about those cameras, Maria said, "She would have been on camera as well!"

Tabitha said, with as much innocence as she could muster, "Spoilers."

"Be that as it may, the Academy teaches evasion, among several related subjects, to every student on the Survival track. However, one thing is left to the students to figure out: every mission has a context."

"Like an undercover cop who wouldn't dare lay a hand on a minor."

"As was the case today. Also, there are students enrolled here, or soon to be, who are not limited to calling the local police or fire dispatch. Did you not read Homely's MID information?"

"Ringing up 999, running away screaming bloody murder, calling her father. I don't get the joke."

The Command Sergeant Major shook his head. Some did, some never would. He said, "No joke. As a hotelier, Mr. Dieulafoy knows many well-connected people in London. You know none. Although you completed the objective at hand, you risked compromising whatever mission brought you to the city. That only takes you from an 'A' to a 'B', Miss Chambers, as we could not allow time for consequences to play out. Miss Dieulafoy, while you did not complete your objective, you did take appropriate countermeasures instead of giving up. You were close to being effective but not close enough. C+."


Arena 77 stands, Whateley Academy.

The Whitman group gathered for the survival track and limited-destruction combat finals greeted Tabitha with subdued enthusiasm. On the one hand, they wanted to show support for their own. On the other hand, getting manhandled by the Dickinson girl wasn't much to cheer for.

"What'd you get?" Stella asked Tabitha.

"Time served for misbehavior. That last bloke I was talking to before the show ended? He was supposed to be a plainclothes officer."

"Seriously? After getting backstabbed? That's just rubbing salt in it."

"That's one way to look at it. They never said they'd make it easy on us. I'll just have to take the 'C' and explain the grade to my folks."

"How do you think they'll take it?"

"Better than they'll take my outfit."


Thursday morning, December 15, 2016,
Underclassmen Combat Finals, Arena 99, Whateley Academy.

This late in the week, most of the can't-miss matchups had already been run. Only those students living under the Hawthorne basement could still be unaware of this year's Courier Scenario. Speculation on close, competitive matches vs. crash "life lessons" couldn't help but wind down. But this is Whateley, and there's always room for novelty and excitement.

"The next scenario calls for! Ophidian and what? Bear with me here, folks. Super-Dance-Party. Okay. Wherever you are, whoever you are, you two have fifteen minutes to present yourselves at the Arena entrance. I'd make it five if I were you guys."

The first MID on the arena's overhead displays featured a young African or African-American woman in a green and black paneled supersuit trimmed in electric blue. Her hair was worn bound up in a colorfully geometric print head wrap. The ID card's background was the standard student-orange color.

    
  Code name: Ophidian  
Ratings: EX 3, RE 3. Martial arts - basic.
Techniques: Six-pack of Snakebite.
Weak vs. Mentalists, Voodoo, Snake charmers.
Backup / Team Affiliation: N/A
       

The Whitmaniac section of the stands.

Faollass leaned over to ask her dorm neighbor, "Weak versus voodoo? What the Hell is that about?"

Gathering up her belongings, Ekene 'Ophidian' Banister replied, "Look. The MCO interview was going on and on, so I blanked on the question. What was I supposed to say? That my powers don't work on wood?"

"Definitely not that."

"Besides, it's not like I have psi powers to rely on, either. Wish me luck!"


The second MID on display had been issued by the United Kingdom. Curiously enough, the background was clear, while some sort of sparkly effect had been superimposed on the display. It could have been photoshopped from a 1970s IGN production if one didn't know better. The mug shot used was equally eccentric. The stocky man in the picture had a wilder multicolor mane of hair than Jareth the Goblin King. His gold-capped tusks shone like the sequins attached to the collars and shoulders of a white bodysuit.

    
  Code name: Super-Dance-Party  
Ratings: EX 3, GA 2. Martial arts - basic.
Techniques: Merengue. Cha-Cha. The cars that go boom!
Weak vs. Wet blankets. Black Magic Women. Darkness. Temptation.
Backup / Team Affiliation: Commonwealth. Worn Wrench. The Law Offices of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe. My best friend from back home who would be totally growly and grumpy if I named him here, but he can kick your [redacted].
       

The Artist Sometimes Known As Max looked into the stares of his fellow Twainees.

"I shouldn't have mentioned that song, should I?"

Still disgruntled about his own combat final, John Irvine started to say one thing but shook his head.

"That's your takeaway? Nothing else comes to mind?"

"No? Everyone loves Barry Manilow! There must be something strange going on, then."

"Right. Wake me up when it's over, will ya?"

"Sure!"


Three weeks earlier,
Combat Finals planning session.

Time and again, Staff Sergeant Ryan Wilson asked himself what the kids were thinking when they chose their code names. Other times, he was sure the real answers might be worse.

"Next, we have, er, Super-Dance-Party. Like Charger, one of the problems here is that he'll be immediately recognized when the video of his combat final leaks. If not when the footage first gets out, people may take notice during his upcoming Christmas show."

Lillian Dennon asked, "How is it that no one's connected the boy's identities so far?" The Livingston boy might not be as much of a Brick as most of Dennon's students. However, he seemed to have mastered a skill that all of them could work on.

"As far as we can tell," Wilson replied, searching his memory for known incidents. "He hasn't been asked to dress up in a stage show costume for any known jobs, legal or otherwise."

"His trick must lie somewhere in the intersection of laziness and genius. Not that that helps us much."

Sensei Ito set his tea down and observed, "Perhaps we are overthinking the challenge? We are asking him to dress up and put on a show, are we not?"

Wilson wasn't sure he liked where this was going.

He said, "The idea is to demonstrate that he can apply what he has learned."

"However, has the student not demonstrated that he can survive as a visible mutant? His records suggest as much."

"What are you saying we should do that I'm not seeing?"

"Why, dress him up and put on a show, of course! Miss Banister also has a personally identifying case of GSD; does she not? We ask Mr. Livingston's agents for ideas. We cast her as his ally or adversary and provide suitable stage props and direction. Belvedere and the Workshop staff should be good for postprocessing recommendations. Imp?"

Imp smiled. Now, the boys were on her stomping grounds!

"I love it!" To the other shocked but wary planners, she said, "If we're going to teach the kids about making the most of available resources, we've gotta do the same. So, which one are we putting in the Tweetie Bird costume?"


Today,
Briefing Room 3, Arena 99.

On his best days, Max 'Super-Dance-Party' Livingston looked older than some of the school's staff. Ryan Wilson recognized the child's (How is he only twelve years old?) detached stare from the veterans among the school's Security force and REACT team. Seeing him in person, dressed in the mil-spec gear he'd worn for whatever combat tasks they'd be springing on him, Wilson was tempted to send Ophidian home with an 'A' just for showing up. Speaking of the girl, Ekene 'Ophidian' Banister stood there with far more poise than she should be feeling right now.

"Good morning, kids. Welcome to our Banana Republic. We have some changes planned, starting with the outfits and gear you're being provided. The locker rooms are right down the hall. Be back in five."

A person could be amazed by how much could be set into motion with some research and a few telephone calls.

Both kids were mid-grade exemplars, so they could stand a surprise or two. Super-Dance-Party found an explorer's pith helmet and tropical linen outfit to change into. It wasn't terribly practical, but the look was classic. And, it was his own fault for keeping the Livingston name. Not to mention the demo disk of cover songs his agent had sent him to learn. Ophidian could keep the bodysuit, but some of Mrs. Ryan's students had been tasked to give her a leather aviator's jacket and a brown fedora with six strategic holes for her namesnakes.

Five minutes later, the gleam in both students' eyes proved that the planners had made the right call. However, it was up to them to prove that they had what this crash would take.

Wilson said, "Instead of yet another courier run, you two will be breaking into... Let's call it a dig site, shall we? Your job is to bring back a certain item of importance. Your first of several choices starts now: are you going to work as a team or against each other?"

Max smiled a toothy grin, "Lady's Choice."

From what Ekene remembered from the old movies, the intrepid graverobber and companion usually wins.

"Team," she said. "I expect you've set up obstacles to take each of us out individually. I want better odds."

Max's grin widened. "Sounds like someone I know! I'm in. What's next?"

"You two will be starting off from Rick's Cantina with a map of your route and destination. You have twenty minutes to get there, get in, and get back. While you're on the move, we'll be adjusting the simulated terrain. This is meant to be a challenge, not a travel documentary."

"If we're starting off in a bar?"

"Young man. A. You are on a time limit! B. There's not a chance in Hell you'll be served anything alcoholic here. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Dump out your pockets so we can start the weapons checks and comms redirects."


Arena 99, Max.

They hadn't been kidding about being on the clock! The students had barely had time to get seated and take a second look at their map before the starting siren blared. On cue, a pack of uniformed thugs strolled into the cantina. The two bolted for the nearest exits, as one does.

A short distance 'out of town', Max caught up with Ekene. Something wasn't right.

"Hang on. This is supposed to be the main road out of here. Where is the traffic?"

"Don't they have country roads where you're from?"

"Sure we do!" Max said, "But they usually have tire tracks on them. What I think we have here – he dug a walnut-sized ball of pliable stuff from a pocket on his belt and started kneading it – might not be healthy for us. See that disturbed patch over there?"

"Yeah?"

Max pitched the lump warming up in his hand at the indicated spot.

The low explosive's detonation was drowned out by the overpressure-triggered mine.

"No tracks going out of town. Someone out there is unpopular."

"Okay, then. What do you suggest?" Ekene asked as Max hustled her off the road into the bush.

Crouching by his partner, Max said, "Let's break trail parallel to the road. We want to be close enough to see vehicles but far enough away to keep our feet out of the ambush. You go forward for a while, then take cover. I leapfrog your position and do the same. If no one intercepts us, we're good. Otherwise, whoever's pinned down has backup coming. Five bucks says we meet opposition on the return trip for sure."

"I'm not sure if you're too paranoid or not paranoid enough."

"That's the spirit!"


For better or worse, the lights dimmed to night-time darkness during Ekene's turn to take point. If she hadn't met Max before, at the Whitman/Twain mixer, she might have jumped out of her skin at the sight of him. You don't often see a mane of glowing hair on anyone! And, if they had conscious control of the display, they wouldn't be playing with it in a darkened combat sim.

That complicated things. She'd stopped short of a clearing near their target. So far, the uniformed guard she'd spotted hadn't seen them. She motioned for her partner to stop at her position.


Max was stumped. His mane shifted from happy greens to indigo. He usually had his buddies to bail him out of awkward spots like this! If Yuki were here, the guy would already be sprouting a knife or two from his kidneys. With Benjie (Benjamin!) Max could just distract the guard from the real danger. Hold on.

"Ophidian? How fast does your snakes' venom work?"

"Other than an allergic reaction? Symptoms in ten minutes."

"Oh."

"Strikes to the upper body would work faster, but I'd have to get close."

"Good enough! You go right to sneak up close. I'll go left and get his attention."

Minutes later, Max popped up next to the camp guard/lookout.

"Hi there! Have you heard about our Lord and Sav—"

"What? Ach! Get it off!" was all the guy managed before Max clamped his hand across his face.

The ANT only mimicked convulsions and death by paralysis in the dark, but Ekene'd be having nightmares after this.

"So much for the element of surprise."

She asked Max, "Any ideas for getting into and back out of the creepy cave in the hill behind the camp filled with the Purifier wannabes?"

"Let's get you as close as we can before changing plans. I've still got my grapple gun and rope. You've got six sets of IR sensors on your head."

"What will you be doing while I'm playing Laura Croft?"

"I'll be the distraction. If the baddies think I'm escaping down the road back to town, that's one or two minesweepers we can follow."


Ekene.

A couple of weeks earlier, Tabbie had gotten Ekene and Stella Jean into the organized insanity billed as a 'Weapons Fair'. It was enlightening, in a short-bus special kind of way. Where else could you get mini smoke grenades that blocked visible and UV light without blocking heat? Knowing that, there was no polite way Ekene could just ask how Max would go about grabbing someone's attention. There was always the risk of getting an honest answer!

Today, Ekene concentrated on scaling the rocky side of a scarp without dislodging the hook holding her weight. By the time she was midway up the slope, she'd already lost her footing enough times to swear off taking up rock climbing as a hobby. The theater wonks who'd made the rocks extra slippery could take a low dive on this! One more slip and a banged-up shoulder later, she decided a face-first dive would be better.


Combat Finals support channel.

Peter 'Icejack' Raiford was busy playing tech support. But since this shift in the control booths counted against his Lab grade, the aggravations could only multiply from here on out. His advisor called him up to dump a new one on him.

"Oh, look. Someone's trying a buffer overflow attack on the local network. Icejack? Be a dear and show our pest what a real buffer looks like."

"On it. How's our data stream looking?"

"As long as our leads keep the kayfabe on the down-low, we're good on time."

"I'm going to pretend you never said any of that."

"I bet you'd listen if a certain someone were talking."

Peter 'Icejack' Raiford would pay even more attention if a certain someone wore a leather jacket and hat like Ophidian was sporting. Work now, delusional fantasies about straight guys later. Elsewhere on campus, a reckless junior's tablet started smoking.

"That was almost cruel 'Jack," Cyberkitty purred.

"Play stupid games win stupid prizes. I know I have."

"So have I. Don't get too cocky, just the same. Once Ophidian makes her move, can we tighten up the motion capture on her face for the digital makeup changes?"

A full-time sim tech answered back, "We'll need to move some cameras into position, but I can cover for that by throwing an ANT at her."

Lady Sally cautioned the team, "We'll need five of those toys on standby for Super-Dance-Party. 'Martial arts: Basic', was it?"

"Negat on that," Cyber-Kitty replied. "Sensei Tolman's good, but she can't work miracles in one semester. Let's try two running medium difficulty to keep our pacing on track. He should have a trick or two up his sleeves."

"Just keep us away from there being four of anything. We don't want Super-Dance-Party's Asian fans to get too worried."

Perish the thought of getting anything more than IP lawyers involved!


Cave site, Ekene.

Ekene cursed her luck. One lit room. No guards outside the room. But why shouldn't there be a goon inside it? Quieter that way, maybe.

< Was? Ein schwarzes? >

"How about I show you a schwartz?"

Already in motion, Ekene pulled a tactical baton from her utility belt as she'd been taught. Never give a fucker an even break.

Strike at the left shoulder for the flinch.

Follow up with an elbow strike on his dominant side (His holster had been a dead giveaway.)

Fuck it. One tap to the back of the head should keep him down long enough to gag and hogtie him. A concussion meant he'd need medical attention as soon as possible. But that was on him and his buddies.

Whatever the gold-plated trophy was meant to represent, it wouldn't be worth it in the real world.

She could always worry about that stuff later. For now, it was time to book it out of here!


Base camp, Max.

Max was beginning to think that the folks he'd woken up weren't happy with him. Go figure! On the other hand, he sure had their attention.

What would Yuki or Benjamin do?

Oh, yeah. Setting off a flashbang in close quarters sucked. Adding smoke to the drop? Full three-sixty suckage. However, he could rely on his memory for the last positions of some of the mooks.

Jeez! That cut across his ribs hurt!

Max stepped back and to the side, hoping to catch one or two off their timing.

His right hand connected with something! Bingo!

A wild grab as he pivoted caught someone's uniform. He swung the hapless mook into the space his friends should be closing through. It cost Max a couple more cuts and a punch to the face, but his slumping meatshield lost more.

Retracing his steps, Max listened as best as he could for anyone calling for reinforcements. Vocal orders were a stupid idea, but his partner was the only one who could see in the dark on her own. Backhanding the pommel of a combat knife into a head or two made people shut up. Adding a tear gas mini to the confusion provoked someone into charging off in a vehicle. He wiped his face with a chemical neutralizer and hustled off to boost one of the jeeps he'd found earlier.

I bet Ekene will be happy to see me!


Ekene?

Ekene hurt all over. The grappling hook lost its purchase just as she'd shifted her weight to the rope. Falling and rolling twenty or so meters down a rocky slope in the dark was at the very bottom of her to-do list.

Bottom. Heh.

Even with her regeneration ability, she was barely conscious of being tucked into the jump seat of a vehicle. Good thing for someone that her snakes were every bit as stunned as she was, if not more. The world spun around them for more minutes.

"You going to be okay?"

The glowing mass had to either be the light at the end of the tunnel or an oncoming Super-Dance-Party. Given a chance, she'd take the latter.

"Getting there. I could use some food. Regen." Ekene paused as the world took one last lurch.

"Takes it out of you? Here. I've got some field rations."

"Did you pick up the statue?"

"Yep! Soon as you're ready, we can hit the road. One of our pals cleared an IED the hard way."

"Let's just go."


Arena 99, "Rick's Cantina."

Ekene Banister was hot, sweaty, dirty, and pretty damned pleased with herself. Let the other kids judge, but she walked into the cantina like a queen poised to hold court on the spot. That self-amused prick of a staff sergeant was leaning against a piano in a dusty corner of the dive's verandah. A white jacket didn't suit him at all. She strode up to the, no, her mark, setting the cheap statuette down on the grand with a solid thump.

"Here it is. 'X' never, ever, marks the spot, so don't blame my team if you missed yours. Pay up."

Wilson looked up toward one of the arena's less-concealed cameras and smirked.

"You haven't won yet, Professor. In fact—"

"In fact," Ekene said, letting some Georgia drawl spread the vowels out. "The closing bell hasn't rung. So, we are all still in business. As to your... colleagues? Already being dealt with. You still have time to get your act together and credit our accounts. Be seeing you."

A few long, springing steps and a diving vault through an unglazed window put Ekene in position to haul herself into the jeep Max had borrowed.

"Where to, lady?"

"Anywhere away from here."

Max fiddled with the radio until he heard a station, put the jeep in gear, and drove off for the Arena exit.

"I'll take my chance 'cause luck is on my side or something
I know what you're thinking."


Combat Finals support channel.

"And that's a wrap, ladies and gentlemen," Lady Sally announced. "Please give Belvedere and me a few minutes to return control of the outbound cables to whoever had them last. Then you may shut down your various VFX packages before I'm obligated to ask where they came from."

Peter Raiford asked, "How many combat finals are spoofed or processed each year?"

Cyberkitty shrugged but said, "The control team gets the raw feed, and the on-campus spectators see what they see. Other than that, we do what we have to to protect the security of students and staff. Sometimes, we broadcast a training match recorded from the VR combat sims instead of a final. As long as the outcomes look equal to the gambling houses, it's not like they're entitled to anything from us."

"The school gets a cut?"

"Only from the Mutant Death Match pay-per-view revenue, where it's legal enough."

"Don't ask inconvenient questions — got it."

"Not if you don't want me to dock your grade for excess naiveté."


Briefing Room 3, Arena 99.

Staff Sgt. Wilson and Sensei Ito were already there when the two students trudged in. A little theater was always good for a bit of intimidation if needed.

Max spoke first. "So! How'd we do, for reals?"

Ekene was too tired to even try biting Max. Did he ever wind down? She almost missed Ito-Sensei's answer.

"Whatever could you mean, Mr. Livingston?"

Ekene couldn't help staring at Max. Livingston? And they'd set them up with an African theme?

"Well, you know... I mean, it took me way too long to put the pieces together, but I haven't heard any of the Survival I guys complaining about Mr. Anderson springing IEDs on them. That means someone had to have known about certain things in my past. Then I remembered the cover tracks my agent asked me to record, and it all made sense."

"If that is so, how well would you say the two of you did?"

"We met the mission objective on time and under budget and got everyone out. That's a solid win to me. Ekene kept her cool when things got spicy, so I'd give her props. I guess I need to work more on my close-in defense. If I'd gotten dropped, that would have compromised our exfil."

"Miss Banister?"

Max's surprise seriousness was shocking enough. Now the teachers were asking for her opinion?

"I would have never seen that bomb in the road coming. I've seen enough news footage from the Middle East to know the real thing would have been lethal. Getting in and out of the cave? I'm sure you all saw me come back down."

Ekene asked Max, "Why would you keep climbing gear with you at school? We're only supposed to bring our normal gear into the combat finals."

"That's easy! My best bud likes to go climbing, among other things. Extra rope and stuff comes in handy when he gets stuck in a bad spot – not that he'll ever admit to it. Anyway, you should see all the rope lines and guy wires a production uses backstage!"

"I'll take your word for that."

Wilson spoke up on that cue.

"If we can take your word that you two will work on those rough spots, you both get a 'B'. If you don't put in the work, we'll revise those grades to a 'C'. We'll know from your teachers' feedback during the Spring Term. Sensei?"

"You are both capable of more, if not better, with or without the issues of protecting your identities. Indeed, we will be expecting better from you, perhaps sooner than later."

That wasn't ominous. No, not at all.


Outside the Arena.

Max surprised Ekene again by gathering up his stuff and leaving the building. Most of the other freshman boys were riveted to the combat finals action. The same could be said for most of the freshman girls. When you weren't in one, the combat finals were a combination of action, sport, suspense, prospective doom, even comedy.

"Hey, Super Dance, er...?"

"Party. Just Max is easier to say."

"Max." Ekene nodded, "Mind if I ask you a question or two?"

"I can't guarantee the answers. But, shoot!"

Funny how the same smile could be sinister one moment but sunny in the next.

"It just occurred to me that I haven't seen you in the stands watching the finals. Now, you're hustling away instead of relaxing and watching the games. Furthermore, the way Ito talked, this was right up your alley. What gives?"

"Oh. I guess it's kind of all the same."

"Good same or bad same?"

"Woah. That's a deep question!"

Max was quiet for a long time before speaking.

"You see, some of the things I've done to afford a school like this? They seemed like a good idea at the time. It was all exciting action. Lots of Boom! And Pew-Pew! And getting paid just to be there, you know?"

Ekene shook her head 'no'. "My parents came to the States to get away from all that. Kenya's too close to some war zones. And the warlords out there aren't picky about cannon fodder. I've also read about other things going on there, but my mother doesn't talk about that."

"You gotta trust me when I say you want to cut her some slack about that. One of my besties still has wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. But please pay attention when they try to show you what it looks like when shit gets serious. Listen when they tell you what it takes to be alive at the end of it."

"What about you?"

"Looks like luck isn't enough to get out with everyone I brought in. Who knew?"

"Not me. But thank you for getting me out. Tell that bestie of yours that I'm glad he got you out, too."

"Heh. We'll see!"

The End.


Read 2499 times Last modified on Wednesday, 06 March 2024 23:58
null0trooper

Whatever it is that I am definitely innocent of, I can explain.

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