Tuesday, 10 January 2023 01:00

Misguided Genius (Part 1)

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A Whateley Universe Story

Misguided Genius

by

Bek D Corbin

 

Part One

 

The Diogenes was moored at a special unidentified dock as the last of the supplies was being loaded on. “So, when can we go aboard and get our things settled?” Clare Bernard-Gagny asked.

“SOP is to wait for Dr. Chase to get here,” Eric Newell, the ship’s Security Officer, said as he reviewed the ship’s upgrades.

Clare made an ‘I understand’ noise and walked over by Glynis and Isobel. It was a little awkward; there were three new boys who’d been patiently waiting when she showed up. Etiquette rather demanded that they be introduced by Dr. Chase, and chatting with Glynis and Izzy without including the rookies would have been rude.

Clare gave the three a speculative glance. It was a little unusual for there to be three rookies, but with the deaths of Hugh Feinberg and Leo Rivera- and the felony arrest of Suzy Becker- there was a big gap in the Wiz Kids’ roster. It would have been even bigger, but Leo had been the only ‘Senior’ that year. If he’d lived, he would have been a shoo-in for the Quartermass Prize. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight and considering Leo’s psychopathic manipulations, Clare wondered how he’d managed to pull that off.

“It won’t be long,” Newell said, not looking up from his tablet. “They should be here in 4 minutes.” Clare wondered whether Eric was relying on Dr. Chase’s passion for punctuality, or if he was tracking her car with a satellite, or if he had her RFID’d (with the worrisome possibility that he had the rest of them tagged as well). Then she discarded the last possibility- due to her Malice Upgrade, Dr. Chase was what Metahuman Powers wonks call an ‘energizer superwoman’. That is, she somehow channeled electromagnetic energy through her body to achieve her various superhuman feats. While the field might not fry any RFID, it would most likely jam any signal. Newell was probably tracking her through that distinctive field using cell phone relays. Come to think of it, did Dr. Chase have a special cell phone that was shielded against her personal electrical field?

With that thought, Clare started blocking out a revision to her resume and University applications, one that extolled the ‘rounded education’ aspects of her tours on the Diogenes. How do you put a positive academic spin on having been under fully automatic gunfire multiple times?

Then a Kelly Green range rover with Quest Foundation ID plates and a hill of baggage lashed to the roof pulled up. Dr. Chase, in her ‘incognito’ mufti, got out of the ‘shotgun’ seat and called cheerily, “Hello, everyone!”

As Dr. Chase introduced herself to the three newbies and shook their hands, her son Tom, wearing a Q Foundation jacket and his trademark cowboy hat got out of the driver’s door. He casually leaned against the fender of the range rover as he checked out the new competition. And Tom Chase could get in a competition with 3-year-old over who could hold their breath the longest. Then he looked around, and asked, “Where’s Linda?”

“She hasn’t shown up yet,” Newell said. “Where’s Collier? I thought she was coming with you two.”

Tom gave a martyred sigh and looked upwards. A winged figure swooped in a circle and then dived down to the pier. “WOO!” Tyler Collier hooted as she touched down. As she landed, for an instant, a clear bubble formed around her. She pulled at a tab on the bulky vest-harness she wore over her polo shirt, and the bat-like 12-foot-wingspan ‘glider’ retracted into the struts, which folded against her back. That done, Tyler pulled the goggles from her eyes and removed the helmet. Tyler’s hair was still the floppy ‘I got a regular cut months ago, and I’ve been trimming away at it with scissors to keep it out of my eyes’ mess it always was, but as for the rest, the only reason that Claire knew that it was Tyler was that she’d been chatting with him- er, HER, online for months. Her face was taking to the Malice Upgrade very nicely. Tyler had always been slender, but now instead of the popsicle-stick man he’d been before, there was a sleek power to her figure. Clare just hoped that Ty’s fashion sense was still as stunted as it had been before. “Hey Guys!” she called out as she walked over to the Range Rover. Well, at least the wonky grin and dancing eyes that Ty had had whenever he’d pulled off one of his left-field coups was still recognizable.

“Okay, what’s that?” Glynis asked, indicating the bright red harness.

“Oh this? This is SO COOL! Jadis Frost’s brother Mal is an inventor, and it turns out that he’s a fan of the show! He particularly liked Hughie, and we got chatting online while I was still up in Alaska. We were griping about the Q-Wings and well, one thing led to another, and he cobbled this together for me.” Ty finished with that wonky grin.

Glynis paused, thought and glowered. “Jadis Frost’s brother? As in ‘also the child of Dr. Diabolik’? Ty, is there any chance that he’s a supervillain?”

Tyler’s grin froze in place and she said, “The subject never came up. Anyway, besides the issue that a Q-Wing takes, like, 2-to-5 minutes to get unpacked and ready to go, one of the big problems that anyone who’s been up in one during a nasty situation can tell you is that you’re way out in the open! You’re just hanging unprotected out in the middle of the air without anything even vaguely resembling cover, a duck on the wing, ready for any Elmer Fudd wannabe to take a pot shot at. I was telling Mal that I had the same problem when I was flying, ‘cause the mechanism that allows me to fly doesn’t permit me to devote any energy to a protective field. Well, at least not now. I might figure out a way around that eventually. But Mal has a bunch of designs for PFGs-”

“Pee-Eff-Gees?” Interrupted one of the new guys.

“It stands for ‘Personal Force field Generator’,” Tyler explained. “They’re all over the place in Super-Science circles.”

“If they’ve got force field generators that you can wear on your person, why aren’t the Police- or at least Special Forces- using them?” another of the newbies asked.

“Let’s see:” Tyler started ticking things off on her fingers, “Costs- the per unit costs on these things is ridiculous- reliability, battery size and weight, battery life, exotic materials, Tac-Com interference, radar signatures that you could read by, residual light displays, if the battery goes your protection is shot… by and large, most Police and militaries find body armor a better buy.”

“Then why…”

“Oh, this thing works off the secondary field that I create when I fly, super-speed or use super-strength. I am the battery. Okay, I’m still working on a way around the radio silence aspect.”

Newell gave an exasperated sigh. “And another excuse for ignoring radio instructions is born.”

“Is there a blaster built into that thing?” One of the other newbies asked, peering at the harness curiously.

“NO,” Dr. Chase said with a flat hard voice. “The Diogenes is still a research vessel. Only our Security staff is allowed to carry firearms.”

And, very much in his ‘Security Chief’ persona, Newell said, “Heads up.” Following Newell’s gaze, Dr. Chase and the Wiz Kids (new and old) saw a Boston Whaler pull up to the dock. A curiously crowded Boston Whaler. The moment the boat was securely against the dock, all eight of the occupants, a mixed range of brunettes and redheads, clearly related, climbed off the boat in a move that was more than half boarding action.

Dr. Chase stepped forward, establishing her position as the Mission Leader. “Linda, glad to see you back. Dr. Garland? Professor Havoc? Assembled Havocs? Is there something we need to discuss? And why didn’t you just send me an e-mail?”

“THIS is why,” the paterfamilias of the group said. He pointed a remote at Tyler and clicked a button. And clicked. And clicked.

As Dr. Havoc looked with confusion at the remote, Tyler asked, “WHAT? I am supposed to change channels? Spit out a DVD? Start playing golden oldies from the 70s and 80s?”

Linda Havoc let out a low aggrieved groan and said through clenched teeth, “Daddy thinks that Jadis Diabolik slipped Tyler something to reactivate the mind control segment of the Malice Upgrade.”

Dr. Chase shot Prof. Havoc a sour look. “Miles, the Malice Complex used on Tyler was cobbled together from the Complex in my blood. In the first place, I got rid of the mind control segment by dissolving it. Making sure that absolutely no trace of that was left was a prime priority of mine, second only to making sure that the rest of the complex was stable.

“In the second place, Leo Rivera and Suzy Becker, the two genius-IQ idiots who reverse-engineered it to use on themselves, had absolutely NO intention of recreating any portion of the mind control sequence.”

“And in the third place,” Tyler cut in, “Jadis FROST never got close enough to me to slip me anything. The only time we’ve met face-to-face, we had five feet of bulletproof glass and a Messingite™ counter between us.”

“Like she’d let a little thing like THAT slow her down,” Melody Havoc, who was dropping her signature ‘bronze’ sheen, grumped.

But Prof. Havoc was of the ‘never say die’ school. “She needn’t have done it personally. She-”

“DADDY!” Linda yipped, “This is MY place to shine! Go… find a giant gorilla or something!” With her jaw set in a pugnacious jut, Linda picked up her bags and trunks and dragged them over next to Claire and Izzy.

Grant, the eldest son of the Hazards, and after his parents the most lettered (2 Doctorates, 3 Masters, 4 Bachelors, and a raft of Associates degrees), stepped forward and said in his most masterful tones, “LOOK-”

Tyler stepped up and grinned up at him with a ‘Go head, PUNK- Make my day!’ gleam in her eye, “Are you setting yourself up as the judge as to my fitness to be on a Quest Foundation mission?”

“We have-”

“Absolutely no standing in this matter at all,” Dr. Chase stepped forward. “Dr. Garland, Prof. Havoc, if you feel that allowing Linda to sail with the Wiz Kids on the Diogenes places her in an unacceptable risk, you have the right to forbid it. Past that, you’re attempting to impose your will on a Quest Foundation project without consulting either the Board of Directors or the Board of Trustees. And, as I recall from our several discussions in the past about the unacceptable risk that the kids were being exposed to, you have a remarkable respect for the authority of the Boards of Directors and Trustees. Are you withdrawing Linda from this tour on the Diogenes?”

“Don’t. Even. THINK. About. It!” Linda glared at her parents. Taking in the expressions on Linda’s brothers and sisters, the unsettling thought occurred to Claire that Linda might welcome her time on the Diogenes as a step down on the level of competition.

Things were silently building tension, as the Wiz Kids and the Diogenes crew had no intention of letting the Havocs push them around and the Havocs found themselves in a position where the only way they could back down was to admit that they were wrong. And the Havocs had a nigh-religious aversion to admitting that they’re wrong. Dr. Garland gave out a martyred sigh, stepped up to Dr. Chase and said, “It was a legitimate worry that turned out to not be a problem. We found out, and now we’re going home.” She turned to her husband and gave him a stern look. “AREN’T WE, Miles?”

Professor Havoc started to say something but caught the look in his wife’s eye. He wilted slightly and said, “Yes Dear.”

Dr. Garland turned to Dr. Chase with a ‘there, that’s over’ look. Then she walked over to her youngest daughter. “Well Linda, have a nice time. Remember, we’re using the Antigua variant security code, for when you e-mail home.” She gave Linda a maternal goodbye hug and kiss. Then she turned to the rest of her brood. “Okay kids, let’s get before gorillas flying on pteranodons decide to attack the Intrepid.”

Linda turned to Izzy and said, “You only think that’s a joke.”

Dr. Chase addressed the three rookies, “Okay, we need to wait for Raquel Santoya, our new Director of Filming to get with her crew, and we can start to make introductions. Trust me, with this many new people, getting it all over with at once is the best way to handle it.”

“You won’t have to wait for long, Doc,” Eric said. “Their van is coming through the security gate.”

Indeed, a long shuttle bus with another mountain of luggage and gear pulled up. Eight people of varying descriptions got out and started moving around luggage. Dr. Chase mused to herself that Ms. Santoya had brought along a very large crew. A twenty-ish woman who might have been Hispanic walked over to Dr. Chase with a big smile on her face. “Dr. Chase! Well, after all the running around, we’re finally getting this season under way!”

“This Mission,” Dr. Chase said as though she was getting something understood right off the bat. She was about to add to that, but then she noticed something off. “You brought along your little brother?” she asked, indicating the boy who’d just gotten out of the van and was looking around owlishly.

“Oh No!” Santoya said, “That’s Heike.”

“Heike?”

“Heike Zernike? The new contestant from Nigmegen, in the Netherlands? He’s one of the replacements for the students you lost last year?” She indicated an athletic boy of maybe 16 who was helping- or at least trying to help- another boy into a folding wheelchair. The other boy was steadfastly refusing any assistance, and leveraged himself into the chair by gripping the upper sill of the van hatch and swinging with the calm expertise of a gymnast.

“First of all, they’re not ‘contestants’,” Dr. Chase said in a tone of holding a position against covert intrusion. “Second, what do you mean ‘three new students’? Those are the three new students,” she indicated the three boys who were already there. As one, Dr. Chase and Ms. Santoya went for their phones. Five minutes later, Dr. Chase tucked her phone away with an aggrieved sigh. “Gather ‘round,” she said with a tired voice.

“Wow, we haven’t even left port, and already there’s drama,” Glynnis snarked.

“It seems that in the grand old tradition of bureaucracy, there’s been a snag,” Dr. Chase said with a grump. “Apparently, two different parties, exact identities yet unknown, reviewed the candidates list and came up with three different choices for the new guys. So, instead of three new students aboard the Diogenes, we have SIX. Problem: we only have space and supplies for three.”

“Okay, what are your specialties?” Linda asked, taking the initiative (shock! shock!)

“My name’s Tom Tsung,” one of the two strapping young Asian men said. “I’m a physicist, and my particular sphere of interest is power gems. You see-”

“Tom Tsung?” Dr. Chase interrupted him. “Are you any relation to the ‘Tommy’ Tsung who was one of the original ‘Whiz Kids’, back in the 1940s?”

“My grandfather,” Tom answered with that mix of pride and annoyance of people with an illustrious-if overshadowing- ancestor. “I’m Thomas Tsung the Third. I try to not rely on his reputation if I can avoid it.”

“And you?” Dr. Chase asked the large burly African-American young man.

“My name’s Maynard Lingies,” he answered. “I’m an engineer.”

“What field?”

“Name one: I have a Masters in Applied Engineering, and Associates’ degrees in Chemical, Civil, Electrical and Mechanical, but I have a special interest in Vehicular Engineering.”

“Feeling some pressure, Tom-2?” Glynnis asked Tom Chase puckishly.

“And my name’s Geoffrey Boothroyd,” the teenager in the wheelchair said with a modest burr that Glynnis recognized as a Lowland Scots accent. “My field is Biophysics, with an admittedly selfish interest in Neurophysics and Bionic Electronics.” He gave Dr. Chase a look like he was daring her to bring up the chair.

‘Oh, one of those,’ Izzy thought to herself. ‘A ‘don’t help me, I can do it myself!’ type.’

“My name is Heike,” the 10-year-old boy piped up. “I am a Polymath, and I already have a Master’s degree in Mathematics, and I speak 9 languages and-”

Tyler (and probably the rest of the Wiz Kids) had a terrible premonition that she was about to find out what 80% of her interactions with normal people had been like for those ‘normal’ people.

Heike was clearly revving up for a full recitation of his resume, but the athletic kid who’d tried to help Boothroyd with the chair cut him off. “I’m Mordecai Shearer,” he introduced himself with a New England accent, the precise locale Tyler couldn’t place. “I have a Bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in Pre-Mogul Indian Archaeology, and Associate’s degrees in Pre-Arabic Middle Eastern Culture Archaeology and Anthropology, and I speak TWELVE languages. And, I’m an accredited Rock Climber and Spelunker.”

‘Wonderful,’ Glynnis thought to herself, ‘we have an Indiana Jones wannabe on board.’

Looking back to the final new guy, who was among the three who’d been waiting on the dock, the other strapping young Asian man stepped forward and introduced himself. “My name’s Mike Kung, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Sciences from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, and associates’ degrees in Inorganic Chemistry and Biochemistry. My specialty is the effect of industrial pollution on oceangoing ecosystems. I speak 4 languages, have a helicopter pilot’s license, and I’m an accredited diver and boat handler.”

“CRUD,” Dr. Chase ground out through her teeth. “No easy choices present themselves. Okay, we’re gonna have to get in touch with the Foundation- no, skip that; getting in touch with the Foundation is the last thing we want to do. They’d still be batting it around come Christmas. Eric, Santoya, we’re going to have to sit down and figure out what we’re going to do.

“Kids, load your gear aboard the ship. Get to know each other. If you feel like it, head out into Los Angeles for the day. I really doubt that we’re going to be leaving dock today.”

Remembering what Mr. Dunmore had pointed out about how Tom and Linda would react to her new status- and abilities- Tyler decided to take the first step. Well, not the first step- she’d spent most of her time at the Chase’s place in Carlsbad pushing Tom’s nose in the fact that she could effortlessly outdo him in most physical challenges, and she was his equal in most intellectual challenges. Which meant that it was Linda’s turn.

“Well, let’s get going! MAN, you brought the usual mountain of junk, didn’t you, Linds?” Tyler picked up both trunks, one per hand and flew them over to the ship. Linda shot Tyler a deadly look, picked up the rest of her bags and lugged them over the gangplank with her jaw at a pugnacious tilt. Tom, on the other hand, accepted this with a measure of amusement, and took his own luggage aboard with a glad air.

There were some difficulties getting Boothroyd’s chair aboard, and finally, Dr. Chase picked it up and carried him aboard. Over his loud objections. “This will have to do until we can build a wheelchair access,” Dr. Chase said as she set him down. “Which should have communicated to us before we were scheduled to depart,” she said aiming a sharp look at Ms. Santoya.

“You rookies will have to double up your cabins for the moment,” she continued. “Don’t unpack just yet- we haven’t figured out what we’re going to do.

“As for the rest of you, unpack and then do the ‘new mission’ interviews with our new interviewer. When that’s done… just go into town and entertain yourselves, without setting anything on fire, okay?”

Tyler got her stuff stowed away by herself, in far less time than it would have before, even given that her Geology gear was noticeably heavier than most of the other Wiz Kids stuff. She felt a little awkward moving into what had been Suzy’s room. But that was more than made up for by confirming one of the recurring suspicions on the boy’s side: yes, the girls’ cabins were slightly larger and nicer than the guys, and the girls’ ‘head’ was noticeably larger and nicer.

Not that Tyler was gonna tell the guys that.

Once she was settled away, she headed back to the salon, to wait for her set with the interviewers. Given the highly competitive nature of the Wiz Kids, there was a set order for the interviews by call sign. The new guys were getting the orientation tour by Newell, so they’d be done last.

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Buttercup

Interviewer: “Given the nasty scandal that erupted at the end of your last season-”

Clare: “Mission. This is a scientific research mission with training aspects. We do real research on this ship. You people with the cameras are just along for the ride. Your predecessor, Derek Lennox, forgot that, and went for the sensationalism. And he’s under indictment now.”

Interviewer: “Given the scandal you were embroiled in, what are your current feelings about the Quest Foundation?”

Clare: “I’m optimistic that the Foundation will pull itself out of the hole that Darren Arcero and his gang of thieves dug for it. Arcero and his goons were far too greedy to spread their skim around with the other directors, who were mostly too busy trying to keep the Foundation afloat. It’s only been a few months, but our new Financial Director, Lyle Korman says that we’re more than solvent again. The lawsuits, on the other hand, will take years to settle out.”

Interviewer: “You’re sure about that? That Mr. Korman is sharing the real situation with you Wiz Kids?”

Clare: “He will if he has the survival instinct of an ant. We seven returning Wiz Kids are still the Board of Executors, and everyone knows it.”

Interviewer: Given what happened, do you think that the Wiz Kids show still has credibility?”

Clare: “Now that we don’t have Arcero, Ellsworth and Lennox making we Wiz Kids do tricks like trained monkeys, I think the show will have more credibility. Our ratings may suffer, but as we keep saying, this isn’t a game show, it’s SCIENCE.”

Interviewer: “You think that without Arcero and Lennox dealing with known Supervillains, that armed criminals will stop attacking the Diogenes?”

Clare: “I can HOPE they do. Pity, from what I do know about supervillains, the very fact that we’re a known target will make one antisocial moron or another try to take us out for some reason.”

Interviewer: “Why do you think that a supervillain might try to attack the Diogenes?”

Clare: “What’s the American term? ‘Bragging Rights’? They might attack simply to prove that they could do what The Stone King and The Wraith Queen- or Dr. Pelagean- or I’ve lost track- couldn’t.”

Interviewer: “How do you feel about Hugh Feinberg?”

Clare: “Hughie? Well, I don’t miss him as much as Tyler does- no one but his mother and father really can- but I do miss him. We Wiz Kids take ourselves far too seriously. Hugh had a great gift for knowing when and how to lighten the mood. And he was far braver than the film editors gave him credit for. The months after he died were very strained on the Diogenes. If anything makes me worry, it’s how we’ll all get along without him.”

Interviewer: “And what about Leonardo Rivera?”

Clare: “Leo played me like a fiddle. I’m very angry at him about that. But then, he played everyone like one musical instrument or another, especially Suzy. I’m not glad that he’s dead, but I truly shudder to think what Leo would have been capable of if he hadn’t botched his attempt to tweak the Malice Upgrade. There was a very real possibility that the Diogenes would have been sunk, with only Leo-and maybe Suzy, maybe not- surviving.”

Interviewer: “And speaking of Suzy Becker, she cut a plea bargain and got several thousand hours of Community Service for Mayhem, Abduction and Grand Larceny charges, and the Argentine government won’t be pressing charges in Leonardo Rivera’s death. What are your feelings about that?”

Clare: “I’m not that surprised. No one wants to prosecute a cute young blonde, who has the excuse that her sexy boyfriend drugged her into doing it. If anything, I’m thanking my patron saint that she isn’t doing her community service on the Diogenes.”

Interviewer: “What are your opinions on Tyler Collier returning to the Diogenes?”

Clare: “This is a question? Of course Ty is coming on this mission! None of his skill and insight has diminished in the least from our last few missions. It’s good to have another person who can look at a soil composition sample and not go ‘It’s Dirt’. And it can hardly hurt to have a second super powered person on the ship, if one of those idiot supervillains tries anything!”

Interviewer: “And what are your plans regarding this mission?”

Clare: “Plans? What plans? I want to finish my study on the proxies of the deltas of extinct river mouths of the Atlantic, publish a paper on my findings, and complete this tour on the Diogenes. It’s good that Tyler’s still with us, as she’s one of the few people- besides Suzy- I can really talk with about it. Really, my plans haven’t changed that much.”

Interviewer: “And what do you make of the six new contestants?”

Clare: “NOT contestants. Students. And what am I supposed to make of them? I barely got to talk to them. I’m a genius, not a telepath.”

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Cowboy

Interviewer: “Do you think that you’ll be able to concentrate on your research his mission? Or do you think that you’ll still have to deal with Supervillains?”

Tom: “I have information that Arcero is fighting charges of abetting certain supervillains we dealt with, but not others. The only reason he’d focus on certain charges is that those were the ones he was worried about. So he knows that the USAG can’t prove those charges. Which means that he knows that those charges won’t stick, because he wasn’t doing business with those specific crooks. Which means that we handled a bunch of supervillains, mad scientists, terrorists, etc, etc, etc… who weren’t dropping off their dirty laundry. Which means that whatever was making those nutcases attack the Diogenes is probably still a factor. Only now there won’t be fun and games death traps, ‘cause they won’t be posing for the cameras.”

Interviewer: “How do you feel about Leonardo Rivera?”

Tom: “Well, you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I always knew that there was something seriously off about Leo. He was always smiling in your face in a way that made me think that he was reaching for my wallet. He was always coming out on top, but making it look like it was me sabotaging myself, or Linda pulling a fast one. Now that we don’t have the King of Backstab on board, maybe I won’t have to work so hard to keep from being shoved into the background.”

Interviewer: “Suzy Becker cut a plea bargain and got several thousand hours of Community Service for Mayhem, Abduction and Grand Larceny charges, and the Argentine government won’t be pressing charges in Leonardo Rivera’s death. What are your feelings about that?”

Tom: “I’m not surprised in the least. The California SA’s case against Suzy was badly undermined by the fact that she was ‘arrested’ by Jadis Diabolik and her cronies. And Suzy’s defense lawyer knew that. Besides, Suzy’s scientific career is totally blown. Putting her in jail would only give her practical training in crime and an excuse to become a supervillain.”

Interviewer: “Suzy Becker is a Hydrologist. How would a Hydrologist apply that as to become a supervillain?”

Tom: “I don’t know, but the possibilities are horrifying.”

Interviewer: “What are your opinions on Tyler Collier returning to the Diogenes?”

Tom: “I think it’s a bad idea. I think that Tyler is like this close-” <holds fingers a half inch apart> “-to losing it. It’s not Ty’s fault. I mean, think about it! First his best friend dies in his arms. Then he’s jumped, injected with a massive dose of THX 1157 and turned into a girl. Then he’s thrown in jail, accused of murder, and a known troublemaker like Jadis Diabolik uses him as a catspaw to get control of the Quest Foundation. That would take a sledgehammer to anyone’s head. Yeah he had his head shrunk ‘till it would fit inside a thimble, but that was under tight controls. You didn’t see him during the summer break. The Tyler Collier I knew was a fun little goofball whose big joys in life were looking at rocks under a microscope and clowning around with Hugh Feinberg. The ‘New, Improved Tyler’-” <mimes ‘air quotes’ with fingers> “- is all about showing off how much better she is than everyone. I just know that she’s gonna play up for the cameras, and try to be a big star. I don’t know how I’m gonna hack this.”

Interviewer: “And what are your plans regarding this mission?”

Tom: “To get the show back on a proper footing. Lennox, the sadistic wiseass who was the director for the cameras, tried to turn Wiz Kids into a superhero show. This is a show about SCIENCE, not blowing things up or throwing boulders. If I have to throw myself into dangerous situations to make that happen, so be it.”

Interviewer: “And what do you make of the six new contestants?”

Tom: “NOT contestants. Students. I don’t have a good feeling. And it’s not about them; I don’t even know those guys. But the fact that politicking at the Board of Directors level made that glitch happen. I’m worried that the new director is going to try to take the show in a ‘game show’ direction, with all kinds of ‘Survivor’ crap to make it more interesting. Like we need more interesting.”

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Rockhound

Interviewer: “Given the scandal you were embroiled in, what’s your current feelings about the Quest Foundation?”

Tyler: “I think that the current Quest Foundation is the organization that I signed up for when I started this. Yes, the bogus ripoff scam that Arcero and his goons played on us for the past three years made me think that the Foundation’s rep was just a bunch of PR. But the people they’ve got now are, well, the kind of people I expected to be running the Quest Foundation.”

Interviewer: “Even Jadis Diabolik?”

Tyler: “Her name is Frost. And yes, I know, there are a lot of people who think that she’s the Devil’s Daughter. Well, when everyone else was saying ‘that vicious sicko, Tyler, I hope the freak rots’, Jadis Frost was flying to Alaska to talk to me face to face and arrange for an actual defense. I owe her. And not just for getting me out from under that. I owe her for realizing that to be accused does not necessarily mean guilt. But then, she’s had an entire lifetime of experience from just that perspective.”

Interviewer: “Given what happened, do you think that the Wiz Kids show still has credibility?”

Tyler: “If anything, I think we have more credibility. Now that Lennox is out the picture, maybe we can get around to showing people how Science is done, instead of having to cope with the psycho of the week.”

Interviewer: “You think that without Arcero and Lennox dealing with known Supervillains, that armed criminals will stop attacking the Diogenes?”

Tyler: “To be honest, I have no idea. I have no concept of how supervillains think. I mean, my first month on the Diogenes, we had to cope with a yoyo who dressed up as a sea lion and expected to be taken seriously!”

Interviewer: “How do you feel about Leonardo Rivera?”

Tyler: “This is gonna sound horrible, but I’m glad he’s not around. Not that I’m glad he’s dead, but he was very smart about screwing with people. If he’d survived the Malice Complex upgrade, it would have gotten very nasty.”

Interviewer: “Suzy Becker cut a plea bargain and got several thousand hours of Community Service for Mayhem, Abduction and Grand Larceny charges, and the Argentine government won’t be pressing charges in Leonardo Rivera’s death. What are your feelings about that?”

Tyler: “Well… I’m glad for Suzy. Yeah, I know, she shoved me into that forced adaptation chamber and framed me for Leonardo’s death. But that was an accident. Not that she gets off for trying to do it to Glynis. Let’s face it, Suzy was screwed the second that Leonardo set his sights on her. Leo was a psychopath; it might have taken him a while, but eventually he was gonna screw her over, one way or another. It’s what psychopaths do.”

Interviewer: You still feel that you’re friends with Suzy Becker? After all she’s done to you and the other Wiz Kids?

Tyler: “Well, Suzy needs a friend. The last time I talked with her, she was going through a bad ‘Oh My God, I did THAT?’ stage as her normal perceptions are recovering from the THX-1157. Of course, if she was still a high functioning psychopath, that’s just what she’d say… My real problem with the whole thing with Suzy is that I don’t really know how to feel about her. Yeah, her psychopathy was due to the THX-1157 that Leo talked her into doing, but when did he do that? When did the THX start to take over? How much of what I ‘know’ about Suzy Becker is real?”

Interviewer: “How are you adapting?”

Tyler: “To what? Being Free? Being a girl? Having super powers?”

Interviewer: “Any and all of the above. They’re all valid questions, and people are curious.”

Tyler: <sits back, thinks about it for a moment> “Well, being OUT, being FREE… is such a buzz I can’t say enough about it. Jadis Frost was worried that I might become institutionalized, and… to be honest, I can see why she’d be worried. I think I came close. Being an active part of securing my freedom was a big part of not becoming institutionalized. But I can never unlearn that horrible realization that I came pretty damn close to spending the rest of my life in Solitary Confinement in Argentina.

“As for being a girl? In its own way, that’s as weird as having super-strength. Besides the obvious, there’s the fact that if the Malice Complex keeps working the way it has, I’m going to look a lot like Dr. Chase. Not a clone or anything, but I think that we’ll be mistaken for mother and daughter a lot. And since Dr. Chase is a major babe, that means that I’m going to have to deal with that. And yes, for the girls in the viewing audience, I know that I’m complaining about something they’d go through hell to have; but being beautiful is largely about attracting guys, and I’m not into that. Worse, there’ll be a lot of guys attracted to me, but also be squicked by the idea that I used to be a guy. I see a lot of twisted drama coming my way because of that.”

Interviewer: “You seem to have adapted well to your new sex.”

Tyler: “That’s because you didn’t see me when I first woke up. There was a good reason they kept me in a concrete bunker for two weeks. And now? Well, the one good thing about my incarceration was that it gave me something to stew over, other than my sex change. By the time I was out from under the accusation, I’d been female for weeks, and I was getting used to the idea.”

Interviewer: “And speaking of that, has your… adjustment… affected how you see the opposite sex?”

Tyler: “Only in that the ‘opposite sex’ is now the sex I used to be. I’m still attracted to girls. It’s just a lot more complicated than it used to be. And while we’re on the subject- I was a freaking Teen Heartthrob… and nobody TOLD ME? How did they do that? It turns out that I was getting hundreds of fan letters and e-mails… okay, nowhere near as many as Leo or Tom, but what do you want? And they didn’t tell me about it! Worse, they held that back from Hughie! Do you have any idea of how many nights we wasted shlumping around, bemoaning the fact that we were this big fat lump and scrawny little shrimp, and no cute girl would even give us a second glance?

“And now? Okay, I know, there are teenage lesbians- but how would they feel about dating a girl who used to be a guy? I have done some research on the topic online- for what that’s worth- and apparently there’s a lot of conflicting opinions on that. Very… vocally… conflicting opinions.”

Interviewer: “But you would be interested in some sort of relationship?”

Tyler: “Well, sure! But besides all the ‘teenage lesbian’ and sex change weirdness, there’s the whole super powers thing. I mean… even when I’m not channeling the energy, I’m a lot stronger than I have any right to be. I’m not sure that it would be safe for me to, y’know… get intimate with a normal girl. I’m not dissing normal girls, mind you. It’s just… google ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’ by Larry Niven. Not as bad as that, but… seriously, I wouldn’t feel comfortable dating a girl who… wasn’t… well… sturdy enough… if there was an accident.

“I mean, even before we get around to whether I’m attracted to her or not- and vice versa- I’m looking for a 16-year-old lesbian who’s super-tough, super-strong would be a lot better, who wouldn’t be weirded out by the fact that I’m a guy under all this, can handle hanging out with geniuses, and could hack the media attention.

“That’s… a very small dating pool.”

Interviewer: “And now that the mystery of Leonardo Rivera’s death has been cleared, and the corruption within the Quest Foundation has been cleaned up, what are your plans?”

Tyler: “Oh, that’s probably the only thing in my life that hasn’t changed- thank God!- I’m going to get the Masters, work toward the doctorate, get my submarine mining and tectonics and geothermal power projects off the ground, and make a difference in the world! Yeah, there are gonna be side-tracks and serendipity and God only knows what, but I’m holding onto that!”

Interviewer: “And what are your opinions of the new students on the ship?”

Tyler: “Well, my first reflex is to beg off, saying that I don’t know them well enough to say anything. But the thing is, I’m worried for them. There are six of them, and three berths. That’s… suspicious. I’m concerned that some sort of competition is going to be arranged. And that is exactly the kind of ‘Survivor’ crap that we don’t need. We finally got rid of Lennox and Arcero and Baines, and their stupid superhero TV show crud, and now we’re supposed to start voting people off the boat?”

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Tyler surrendered the interview chair to Izzy, who looked like she had a few things to get off her chest. Tyler didn’t envy whoever Izzy was going to go off on. She may have been ethnically Chinese, but she had definitely picked up the Mexican ‘don’t take any shit’ attitude.

As Tyler left the interview room, Linda said, “Clare, Izzy and I are gonna go into Los Angeles, kick back and hang out for a few hours, while Momma Bear and the new director hammer out whatever we’re gonna do. You want to come with?”

“This isn’t gonna turn into a surprise intervention makeover thing, is it?”

“That only happens on sitcoms,” Linda assured her. “If you don’t want someone competent trimming that bird’s nest on your head or getting clothes that don’t look like a Salvation Army exploded, that’s your lookout.”

Hanging out. Girl talk. Window shopping. Well, it was going to happen eventually. And it would be hanging out, girl talk and window shopping with three girl geniuses. “Cool,” Tyler said. “When Izzy’s done with her interview, knock on my cabin. They gave me Suzy’s old cabin, because my life isn’t awkward and weird enough already. I gotta get my stuff set up and answer e-mails and messages and all that crap.”

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“Yeah, Mom? I got your Facebook message, you need to talk about something? Ah, Mom? The only reason I let Julian and Penny move back into the house was that it would look bad if I kicked YOU out onto the street. NO, that does NOT set a precedent! Mom, I am not persecuting Julian. Doing an audit is standard operating procedure when control of a company shifts from one party to another. Well, doesn’t the fact that Julian doesn’t want an audit done until after he’s fixed the books say something? YES, the IRS has to be involved, that’s sort of the way it works, Mom. ‘Uncle Curtis’? MOM, he’s an even bigger crook than Julian is! No, I don’t want-

“Hello, Julian. For form’s sake, let me inform you that I record all my calls these days, and everything we say will be recorded, stored, and notarized at the first opportunity. And, for the record, NO, you are NOT going to be reinstated as the CEO of the dry cleaning business. Then you shouldn’t have put it in my name, should you? Go right ahead, Julian. Any lawyer who would take your case would take one look at MY lawyer and run screaming for Mexico. OWE you? Julian, the only thing I owe you is an ass-kicking, and you’re not going to get that, ‘cause you wouldn’t survive it. And while we’re on veiled threats of legal action- Julian, go get a dictionary and look up ‘Restraining Order’. Getting Mom to get me to call HER does not qualify as me ‘initiating contact’. NO, Julian, I am NOT setting up a tuition account for Penny. Why? Because we both know the second the money’s in that account, you’ll siphon out every cent, claim that I never deposited anything, and sue for breach of promise. How can I say that? Well, starting with your Top Ten Hits, there’s my 12th Birthday party….”

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Half an hour later, Tyler finished with her second call. “G’bye, Dad,” she sighed as she logged off her phone. She leaned back on her bunk for a moment, trying to make the bad taste in her mouth go away. ‘Dammit, 16 is way too young to be this tired’, she griped to herself. Then she grabbed her backpack and harness and went up on deck. She found Newell and informed him that she and three of the others were heading into Los Angeles to get out from underfoot.

Okaaayyy…” he said, entering that in his log. “We probably won’t be heading out today, so unless we call you, feel free to check out what nightlife they let Sixteeners have in LA. Hey,” he spotted her harness, “you taking that with you?”

“I gotta get used to having it around,” Tyler pointed out. “Otherwise, I probably won’t have it on me when I need it.”

“Okay, I can see that. But don’t go joyflitting around with it until we clear it with FAA.”

“Oh Joy, paperwork,” Tyler grumped. Still, Ty had noticed that Jadis Frost almost made a religion of having her paperwork clean, square and Bristol-fashioned. And Ty could think of a lot worse cues to follow. She nodded to Newell and went to find Clare, Izzy and Linda.

They took in how Tyler leapt into the back of the jeep, and got in as well. “So, you got news from home?” Linda asked casually, reluctantly giving up the driver’s seat to Izzy. Linda had a Learner’s permit, but Izzy had a full driver’s license. A Mexican driver’s license, but still, a license.

Tyler let out an aggrieved moan. “Julian, my mother’s sleazebag husband, is glossing over the fact that he disowned me a few months ago and ordered me to reinstate him as the head of our dry cleaning businesses and other investments. Oh, and he regards all of my money, including the 10 mil bonus, as rightfully his.” Tyler let out another annoyed moan. “I’m not worried; Parky could roll over any lawyer who’d take on Julian as a client, and not even look up from his bridge game.”

“Mr. Dunmore plays bridge?”

“Parky plays contract bridge at a level where it’s on a par with International Chess. He plays on occasion with Omar Sharif, who is a very serious ranked international player.” Tyler waved that aside. “AND, my dad has yet another pipe dream he wants me to fund.”

Isobel started the car. “At least you got to keep your money. The second my grandmother heard about it, she latched onto the money and immediately started planning my cousins’ educations, an extension to the bakery, the purchase of a filling station, and a medical practice for my cousin Consuela.”

At Tyler and Linda’s curious looks, Clare explained, “I’ve met Izzy’s family. Her gran’mere Lucinda rules that family with an iron fist. And she worships Gabriella Guzman like some American Blacks worship Oprah Winfrey. She is never letting go of that money. But at least Izzy doesn’t have to worry about her tuition. I wish I could say the same. My Uncle Maxcence is noodging my father into letting him take over my money for me.” She rolled her eyes.

“Dad put my money in a trust fund for me,” Linda said simply. But then, the Havocs were used to dealing with serious money. “I suggest that you do the same, Clare.”

As she pulled the car off the pier, Izzy, probably looking for a more pleasant topic of conversation, asked Tyler, “So, what’s the latest from Alaska?”

Tyler gave a sigh and said, “Jake is dead.”

“Jake? Which one’s Jake?”

“The lumpy kid who had super-strength?” Tyler reminded them. Not that she blamed them; while the Wiz Kids had talked with the Project: Square One kids, it had, by necessity been over the internet. Tyler had lived with Jake, even for a short period, and it hurt. “He was just getting his somatotype kinks ironed out, and he had an aneurism. His heart increased his blood pressure to the point where he blew a blood vessel in the premotor region of his brain.” Then judging by the reaction from the other girls that lighter news was needed, Tyler continued, “Ray sends greetings, says that he’s reconnecting with his family, and that he’s having some very weird reactions from the kids in his high school. Especially the bullies. Byron, y’know ‘Zap’? The investigators that Miss Frost put on his buddies Riff and company have turned up enough compromising evidence that an appeal is being scheduled. Miss Frost says there’s a good chance that his conviction may be overturned. Luke, or ‘the Mighty Pulse’, is coming along nicely. Not only can he control his pulses better, but he’s learning how to do more than just massive EMP bursts.”

“I’m not sure whether to be happy for him, or to worry about the staff up there,” Linda said with a rueful chuckle.

“And what about that cute girl who liked you so much?” Clare asked.

“Barbara or Holly?”

“You actually picked up on the fact that Barbara liked you?” Izzy yelped.

“It took a bit, but I did wrap my head around that fact.” Ty let out a sigh. “Pity she’s not Bi-curious. Oh well. She’s back in general circulation, and we touch base on Facebook on a pretty regular base. If no one minds, I’m gonna give her a shout-out for her high school during one of the sessions.”

“And what about Mittens?” Clare asked. But then Clare and Holly had gotten along very well.

“She’s still up in Alaska,” Ty said. “She’s mastered her dissolving thing to the point where now she can mold and reset materials in new forms. The current theory is that she sends electromagnetic pulses that hit resonant frequencies in the valence bonds of various materials. Mittens just says that she ‘feels what will work’.” Ty let out a chuckle. “Apparently she’s going through an intense ‘modern sculpture’ period and she mooshes stuff around stuff like it’s Play-Doh™.”

“Don’t tell Loogie that,” Clare, Izzy and Linda said in perfect unison.

Ty held up a reproving finger. “Better. I can provide him with MRI readouts of her both molding and dissolving various substances.”

“That will only encourage him,” Izzy said severely.

“Yeah, but it’ll encourage him in a way that will tie him up in his lab for days at a stretch.”

Clare, Izzy and Linda paused as they thought about that. “Well Played, Sir, well played,” Izzy said primly.

While Tyler had worried that they were heading for some Southern California retail center (malls becoming more and more a thing of nostalgia), she was pleasantly surprised when Izzy headed into Culver City. While the big noise in the High Tech industry was still up in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, Los Angeles also had its own areas for high tech startups and other such endeavors. The four girls casually strolled around and took in the street level action as a truly bizarre amalgamation of techies, hipsters, sales monsters, lawyers and fiscal types all tried to prowl the jungle of innovation and finance as to get their hooks into the next Uber™ or Pinterest™.

Looking around at the street level displays that were as much hype for IPOs as identification of a location, Linda said, “You have to wonder how many of these ‘breakthrough innovations’ are going to be here in six months time.”

“If they’re still here,” Izzy said, “then they’re going nowhere. If they haven’t been bought out by someone huge, like Apple or Microsoft, then they move to Santa Monica.”

“I look around and wonder where the tulip bulbs are,” Clare sneered.

“’Tulip’?” echoed a hypester a few feet away, who immediately dived into her smartphone and started pitching ‘tulip’ as a keyword for something.

“You must be enjoying your ten million,” Izzy jeered, “giving away potentially lucrative intellectual properties that way.”

Then a tech-type pulled the wing-harness from Tyler’s shoulder and started closely examining it. Tyler snatched it back. “Piss off,” she stated stonily. “Proprietary Technology.” He started to object, but she simply stared him down.

As the techster stalked away, Linda said, “Tom’s been bitching that you’ve been getting too confrontational. Of course, with Tom ‘too confrontational’ can mean not laying down and letting him use you to wipe his feet. But still, you might put a little more effort into learning de-escalating conflicts.”

Tyler was wrapping her head around the tangle of nuance that was Linda ‘Spotlight Hog’ Havoc telling her to ramp down a little, when there was an explosion and a jangle of various alarms and sirens going off.

The four Wiz Kids looked down the street, along with a hundred other rubberneckers, and there was nothing. Then the side of a building blew out, sending bits of concrete, glass and extruded aluminum out into the street. Even before the cloud of debris settled, a large humanoid figure stumbled through the dust, wearing high-tech chain mail armor along with an armored exoskeleton, armed with large energy weapons, one forearm mounted, the other pivot mounted on one shoulder. “Oh. Crap,” Tyler said, hurriedly pulling her wing harness on.

“You’re not going to try to stop that?” Linda demanded.

“Of course not,” Tyler shot back. “But this thing has a personal force field projector built in. It’s a spherical design for optimum deflection, but it should be large enough for you three to hide behind.” Tyler finished by jerking a thumb behind her.

Seeing four more, more conventional power frames and six smaller figures emerge from the cloud of dust, even Linda saw the good sense and ducked behind Tyler. For what tactical reasons none of them was sure, but the 11 raiders charged down the street in their general direction, the behemoth in front knocking aside cars like a linebacker knocking aside interceptors.

Behind them, two more figures zoomed out of the cloud of debris. They were both in white, but one was flying high above with some sort of jet rig, while the other was zipping along on powered skates. The one on skates rocketed ahead of the charging felons, stopped and sprayed the road ahead of them with some sort of liquid from a gun like projector. Some of the smaller figures, females in red tight fitting cerametal composite armor- or prosthetic limbs- with theme ‘horned’ helmets- tried to avoid the spray by leaping up and aside, but the airborne pursuer potted them on the fly, knocking them out of their trajectory.

The skater, who stopped just long enough for Tyler to get a look at her, adjusted her gun and irradiated the liquid she’d just sprayed on the tarmac. The skater was a trim but curvy girl, about Tyler’s age. She was wearing a long-sleeved white minidress with matching high boots, which gave Ty the impression that they had serious armor value. She also had built up gloves, a tac/ops visor and a serious utility belt, which included a hip-mounted unit for that ‘gun’. Interestingly, she wasn’t wearing a helmet over her long, flame-red hair, which was pulled back in a perky high ponytail.

The redhead made the mistake of staying where she was to see the results of her gambit. The power armor and the cyborgs all started to slip and tumble. Unfortunately, the slippage triggered the armors’ weapon systems, and the energy weapons started discharging randomly.

Tyler was suddenly very aware that Clare, Izzy and Linda weren’t the only ones hiding behind her. A small crowd was trying to fit behind Tyler’s force bubble. Tyler figured that the glider rig’s design incorporated some electromagnetic field elements to improve surface area, which implied that the extended wings might provide more coverage. So she released the wings and spread them wide. But the armor pilots reacted to that as though it was some kind of threat posture and opened fire. Some of the energy bursts simply derezzed into impotence, while others rebounded back at the attackers.

“Crap!” Tyler grunted, “Get DOWN!” she snapped, “I’m going to draw their fire!” Once there was a lull in the barrage, she grabbed a flying ‘spy-eye’ camera and threw it at the nearest power frame with her full strength. Then she trotted, not moved at her super-speed, but simply trotted at a normal pace a good 15 feet away. Some, but not all of the felons resumed firing at her, and again, some of those shots rebounded. One of them surprised the flyer, who took a sudden dive. While the landing may or may not have harmed her, it would have put her in the middle of the pack of the raiders. Tyler let out another ‘Crap!’ and power leapt at her fall trajectory. She managed to intercept the flyer and did a tuck and roll that got them both away from the raiders.

“Hey!” came a high pitched feminine voice in the tone of intense peeve. “It was…. _wow_” Tyler took a brief look, and the girl in her arms was a near duplicate of the skater, only she was wearing a sleeveless white bodysuit with matching long ‘opera’ gloves. The girl, whose facial features were classic high school beauty queen, looked at Tyler with wide green eyes and a gob-stopped expression.

Then another barrage started, and the girl started fiddling with her gun again. Tyler super-sped them another 10 feet away from that point. “Hey! Why’d you do that?” the girl demanded.

“Unarmed Civilians,” Tyler said bluntly, pointing at the mass of people who were crowding themselves into what cover as was available. But the raiders were still getting their bearings, and Ty got the impression that they weren’t dealing with the developments as well as they might. “Crap,” Tyler muttered again, and she leapt onto the nearest power frame. She grabbed onto the frame’s shoulder mounted pivot gun with both hands and pulled with everything she had. The gun tore off its mount, and Tyler threw it away. She thought for a second about taking out the arm-mounted gun as well, but wasn’t sure whether the pilot’s flesh-and-blood arm was cased in the frame arm or not; different designs went different ways, and Tyler didn’t have time to figure it out. She decided against it, and hopped onto the big guy with the chain mail, and ripped the pivot gun off his exoskeleton as well. One of the cyborgs grabbed Tyler’s leg and tried to pull her off the big man, but Tyler simply lifted off, dove back down, and crashed the borgette into another power frame. Ty took advantage of that to rip the pivot gun off that one as well. She moved from one power frame to another, disarming them by pulling the energy weapons from their sockets.

The equation changed as one of the frames flared with energy, which rippled across the thin sheet of liquid. The raiders stopped fumbling about and got to their collective feet. But instead of trying to stop Tyler, they simply charged in formation without firing their remaining weapons. The Skater, who had been fiddling with her equipment belt, took this in, and with a flick of her wrist produced a glowing energy net from one of her gauntlets.

Tyler zipped over to her and grabbed her by the wrists. “NO.”

“WHAT?” the girls, who were indeed identical except for the cuts of their hair and outfits, yelped in near-perfect unison. “But you’re letting them get away!”

“They’ve stopped shooting up the place,” Tyler pointed out. “I’m not a cop, and neither are either of you. As long as they’re not immediately endangering innocent civilians, I’m leaving them to the Police.”

The Flyer, who’d touched down next to Tyler yammered that they had to STOP them or they’d get AWAY! But Tyler grabbed them both by the backs of their collars. “Yeah, they’re getting away, but they’re not shooting up the place.”

“But they’ve stolen a-”

“Not our problem,” Linda said as she came behind the two girls, expertly disconnecting power leads to the jetpack and power skates. “WE stay here, to talk to the Police.”

“Why?” the Skater asked. “WE haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Yeah, but if you leave the scene of the crime, you will be committing a crime,” Tyler pointed out. Actually, what Tyler was citing was ‘Leaving the scene of an accident’, which was the basis for ‘Hit and Run’ charges. But Ty figured that these two wouldn’t know the difference. “Clare? Izzy? Linda, you take Ponytail over there; Izzy, you take Pageboy over there; Clare, you stay with me. And call Dr. Chase.”

“Why are you doing this?” ‘Ponytail’ asked.

“This is so they can’t say that we’re cooking up a cover story for the cops.”

“They? They who? And why would they say that?”

Tyler just pointed to the mass of Tech Insiders, all furiously talking into their smartphones, and summed up the horror in one word: “Lawyers.”

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Three-and-a-½ Hours Later

“Why did you insist on having your lawyer here?” the LAPD detective asked. “This isn’t a hostile interrogation.”

“And I’d like to keep it that way,” Tyler said with a pert smile.

The detective cleared his throat. “Why did you interfere with Dr. Lucifer’s raid?”

“I didn’t,” Tyler held her ground. “Those two girls did. They tried to stop the raiders by creating a slick on the ground. Unfortunately, they chose a spot that was right in front of a large group of unprotected civilians who didn’t have a lot of cover. I only acted to protect the people around me from random shots.”

“According to your statement, you were wearing a personal force field generator, and you had your friends hide behind that. Why did you go on the offensive?”

“The slick created a situation where if I didn’t act, accidental firings might injure or kill one of the bystanders. And they definitely would have caused thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damages to the buildings and outlets. I’m not 100% clear on the ‘Duty to Rescue’ laws, but I do know that someone having superhuman abilities complicates them a LOT. I figured that it would be best all around if I erred on the side of caution, and kept the raiders from shooting up the place.”

“Weren’t you scared, jumping a bunch of gun-toting crooks that way? Most people would be scrambling for cover in a situation like that.”

Tyler let out an ‘eh!’ “In the last three years, I’ve been in over 20 armed conflicts without the benefit of having normal weapons, let alone super powers. I’ve been shot at, blasted, gassed, sonically bombarded, zapped, bombed, swarmed, taken hostage, scanned, tied up, tied up upside down, clawed, bitten, darted and threatened with decapitation. And those are the fun memories. The first time, I had to burn my boxers in shame; but on our last mission, I was attacked by skeletal wraiths and dragged under the ground by an invisible hand, and it was just another day at the office.

“Detective, do you remember your first real gunfight?”

“Vividly.”

“What do you remember about your last gun standoff?”

The detective shrugged. “And why did you think you could handle four suits of power armor?”

“I knew that I couldn’t,” Tyler riposted. “I took out the shoulder-mounted pivot guns because they were the largest, most dangerous, most exposed, and most likely to go off by accident. Once I took out the pivot guns, I moved on before the pilot could react.”

“You grabbed a recording ‘flying eye’ right out of the air and threw it at one of the power armors. How did you pull that off?”

“I’ve been living with things like flying cameras for months at a time the past 3 years,” Tyler explained. “After a while, you just know they’re there.”

“Why did you let Dr. Lucifer’s goons escape?”

Tyler shrugged. “Hey, I’m not a cop; I had no authority to arrest or detain them, and trying to capture them would have endangered the civilians. I took out their big guns so they wouldn’t shoot up the place. After going through all that, why would I give them a reason to use the arm mounted guns? If we let them go, then they’d be too busy running to blast anything. And without their pivot guns, they’d be a lot more likely to surrender if SWAT or some recognized superheroes showed up.”

The detective gave Tyler a measuring gaze, clearly wanting to rattle the kid, just to see if anything popped out. The kid was smart, but smart kids think they know everything, so they get really flustered if you catch them at anything. But the presence of the Quest Foundation lawyer made that tricky. “You were supposed to be just hanging out with your three friends. Why did you go to Tech City?”

“To see what the action is like,” Tyler responded. “I’ve got 10 million dollars that needs investing before my scumbag stepfather gets his hooks into it.”

“You didn’t go there because Hayley or Holly told you to?”

“Who’s Hayley? Or Holly, for that matter?”

“The two girls you helped a few hours ago? You’ve never met them before?”

“Hayley and Holly? Twins?” Tyler blurted out. “Wow. Okay, not ‘Logan Hogan’, but still… parents can be cruel.”

“You didn’t agree to meet them there?”

“Dude, I’ve never even heard of them before, let alone know them.”

“So, you don’t know Hayley and Holly Hellion?”

Hayley and Holly Hellion?” Tyler winced. “That’s even worse than ‘Logan Hogan’! What kind of parent gives their daughters names like that?”

“Helen Hellion, and her husband, Dr. Hector Hellion.”

“Hector Hellion?” Tyler asked in a sick voice.

“He’s a criminal scientist, got busted about five years ago, and no one’s bothered to break him out- for once,” the detective said. “Are you sure that you’ve never met either Hayley or Holly? You’re the same age, you’re all geniuses, you’ve all been augmented with nanite super-soldier processes, you’re both in the Reality TV game-”

“You mean that was a Reality TV stunt?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

“What show are they on? I mean, just because I’m on Wiz Kids doesn’t mean that I’m up on every show out there.”

“They’re not on a show,” the detective said. “Though, God knows, not for the want of trying. They’re trying to be ‘Celebrity Heroes’, playing the ‘making up for their father’s misdeeds’ card.” He looked intently at Tyler. “So, you’ve never made contact with Holly or Hayley or their mother, Helen?”

Tyler pulled out her phone. “Tell you what- I’ll log onto my Facebook™ account- this is a one-time thing, I’m not giving up my right to privacy, I’m just answering a legitimate question- and you can check the Messages header. Just the headers; more than that, and you’re intruding.”

“Facebook? What about MySpace? Twitter? Snapchat? Pinterest? Instagram? GoodBuzz?”

“The old administration at the Quest Foundation limited us to one social media site ‘for Security reasons’. More like they wanted to be able to control what we learned, so they could put the screws to us more efficiently. I just haven’t seen any need to get on more sites. I mean, every message is another chance to shoot yourself in the foot.”

The detective nodded and took the phone. After a few surprisingly expert minutes of browsing the ‘read’ column, he allowed that none of the incoming addresses suggested any of the Hellions; he further admitted that the Hellions were about as subtle as a ball-peen hammer, so any addy they used would practically scream who they were. The detective got up and told Tyler and the lawyer to stay there. He left and came back several minutes later. “Okay, the stories your three friends told all jibe, and your Security Chief, Newell, verifies that you left with the harness giving him the reason you gave me. It hangs together, and while you involving yourself that way may be a little iffy, I’d say you’re covered by the Good Samaritan laws. And, like you said, your standing under the ‘Duty to Rescue’ laws is kind of fuzzy, so it’s best to err on the side of not letting people get shot up.

“So, just sign a few more bits of paperwork, and you’re good to go.”

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Hayley Hellion fumed as she waited with her sister Holly for their mother to come and bail them out. Or get them released on her recognizance, or whatever the procedure was. This was NOT how she’d seen her and Holly’s big score going down. They were supposed to catch those Lucifer goons red-handed with their power armor around their ankles. There was supposed to be TV crews and paparazzi and offers to appear on Ryan Seacrest!

Instead, they blew the wall of the building out, and the super-slick solution got all gummed up, and that flat-chested bitch with the bad hair and the dorky vest muscled in on their action. Now they were stuck in this funky old cop shop while the gears of Justice ground slowly. Very slowly.

Dammit, once they got the upgrade reverse-engineered, things were supposed to go her and Holly’s way! There were supposed to be hunky boys drooling after them, and endorsement deals, and a line of nano-tech bikinis, and cameos on The Big Bang Theory! But they were stuck in this stupid police station, where the closest thing to a cute guy was a 30-something Latino with a spare tire. Please! This was Los Angeles! Where were the studly loose cannon cops with six-pack abs who play by their own rules and lounge around the station in ripped T-shirts?

Then Holly, who had her nose in her geniusphone, gave a high-pitched squeal. “What? Has Olivia O’Brien entered rehab for the first time?”

“No, it’s Tyler Collier!”

“Tyler Collier entered rehab? Who’s Tyler Collier?”

“You know, the Rockhound? On Wiz Kids?”

“I thought he died.”

“No, that was Hugh Feinberg, his big huggable buddy who died.”

“Y’mean, Tyler Collier is that totally droolable, to DIE for Argentine guy?”

“No, that was the other guy who died. Tyler was the cute little guy with the glasses? The geologist who was always coming up with those totally out-of-left field moves that caught everyone by surprise?”

“Oh, the one that Mitzi Kiefhauser was gnashing her teeth and pulling out her hair about? What about him?”

“THAT is Tyler Collier!” Holly pointed at the lithe girl who strolled out of the interview room and started talking with the redhead, the Asian chick and the Black chick.

“THAT’S Tyler Collier?” Hayley crossed her eyes at the girl. “When did he come out of the closet?”

“He didn’t!” Holly insisted. “Part of that whole ‘scandal at the Quest Foundation’ thing a couple of months ago was that Tyler got jumped and someone pumped him full of a super-soldier serum and shoved into an adaptation chamber, like we did. And he came out of it a hawt chick, like we did. But he didn’t want it like we did.” She finished with a rueful sigh. “The Wiz Kids fan sites have been full of it, with fangirls screaming that it can’t be true. But it is.” She finished with a wistful sigh and look in Tyler’s direction.

Hayley also looked at Tyler, but her face fell in abject horror. “WHAT? You mean not only are three of the only cute guys we could actually TALK to gone, but one of ‘em got turned into THAT? On top of everything else, we gotta compete with THAT?”

“You weren’t listening, Sister Dearest,” Holly said with an acidulous smirk. “I said ‘he didn’t want it like we did’. I was checking, and they gave pre-mission interviews for all the Wiz Kids. And this is what Tyler had to say:”

[“I mean, even before we get around to whether I’m attracted to her or not- and vice versa- I’m looking for a 16-year-old lesbian who’s super-tough, super-strong would be a lot better, who wouldn’t be weirded out by the fact that I’m a guy under all this, can handle hanging out with geniuses, and could hack the media attention.

[That’s… a very small dating pool.”]

“Yeah? My ass bleeds for him!” Hayley snarked back. “We’re in exactly the same ‘small dating pool’. Not only are the cute guys we meet wee delicate flowers who can’t hack the fact that we can lift 3-ton boulders, but they’re mostly as dumb as those boulders too.”

“Hayles, think about it: she’s looking for a girlfriend who’s super-tough, super-strong, who won’t get weirded out by the fact that he’s a guy under all that, can hang out with geniuses, and can hack the media attention; and we can offer him TWO of them,” Holly finished with a wanton smirk.

“But Holl… she’s a GIRL now!”

“So? Look at what kissing a girl did for Katy Perry’s career!”

“Yeah, but…”

“Hayles, think about it! You know that there are guys who just love the idea of ‘converting’ a gorgeous lesbian, and there are more who’d take it as some kind of challenge! This is just the kind of thing we need to perk up our profile. We don’t even have to say that we’re not into guys; we just get our pictures taken with Tyler Collier in suggestive poses. The Press will go bozo for it, some guy’s bound to try his luck, and later we can just play the ‘we were only experimenting’ card. The real point is that suddenly we’re newsworthy, and once that happens, the rest follows automatically. Mom will make sure of it.”

“Yeah, but….”

“Hayles, think about it: if we’re gonna do this, Tyler is perfect! She’s gorgeous, she’s a total sweetheart, and best of all, she has absolutely NO IDEA of how to handle girls! Someone’s gonna jump on her; it might as well be US! And, let’s face it- after this cluster fuck trying to bag Dr. Lucifer, we need to take control of the narrative, or we’ll be pigeonholed as a couple of incompetent ditzes!”

That did it for Hayley. Growing up, the sisters’ undeniable intellect had been the only thing that they had any real pride in; they both would rather be skinned alive than be ridiculed as airheads.

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*

Tyler thanked the Quest Foundation lawyer and walked over to where Clare, Izzy, and Linda were watching something with some interest. “What’s up?” Tyler asked.

“Interesting development,” Linda said clinically, indicating Dr. Chase, who was interacting with a tall, statuesque, well-dressed woman with vividly red hair. “They seem to know each other.”

“Oh, that must be Helen Hellion,” Tyler commented, making herself note the confrontational body postures both women were assuming.

Helen Hellion?” Linda and Clare winced in unison.

“What makes you say that?” Izzy asked, fishing for tips.

“The detective who interviewed me told me that the two girls who started that whole mess were named ‘Hayley and Holly Hellion’,” Tyler said. “He told me that they’d been augmented with nanite super-soldier suites, like I was. Jadis Frost told me that it was maybe not common, but done for criminal scientists to augment women to be combination girlfriend/bodyguards.”

“And that woman obviously knows Dr. Chase,” Izzy said, picking up the thread of Tyler’s logic. “And she isn’t afraid of her, not in the least. That implies that she either has some sort of super power or has been augmented herself.”

“And even if they’re geniuses, the girls are still only 16,” Clare said. “It’s far more likely that they’d reverse-engineered their mother’s nanite suite as to use on themselves, than do it from scratch.”

“And there’s the whole ‘spitting image stepped back in time’ bit.” Linda said with a disapproving moue. “They even use the same cheap brand of obvious red hair dye. Still, you got that with information we weren’t privy to,” she said, sliding her eyes over to Tyler, as though that somehow invalidated Ty’s deduction.

“The detective said that Holly and Hayley are angling to become some sort of ‘Celebrity Heroines’,” Tyler continued, ignoring Linda. “From the way she’s interacting with Dr. Chase, I’d say that Mrs. Hellion supports them in that, and she’s not happy with the way that I crashed their big moment.” And while she didn’t vocalize it, it struck Tyler from Mrs. Hellion’s posture that Dr. Hellion still being incarcerated might be due more to his enjoying a breather from his wife than want of a means of escape.

“Superhero stage mothers,” Izzy said with a shudder.

“Still, the Cops signed off on me, saying that I used reasonable force, and it was well within both the Duty to Rescue and Good Samaritan laws,” Tyler looked at Clare, Izzy and Linda. “And you?”

“Us?” Izzy sneered, “Heck, everything I did was well within the ‘Momma didn’t raise no FOOLS’ laws.” Clare and Linda just nodded their heads, indicating that they were clear to go as well.

“Just as soon as Mama Bear gets through sharpening her claws on Mrs. Hellion, we’ll find out whether we’re getting dragged back to the Diogenes, or if we can try to get in a little night life,” Clare said.

“You’re heading out tonight?” one of the two redheads, who’d both managed to come up on the four Wiz Kids’ blindside. “You’re going to be doing the clubs and like that?”

“Well, I don’t know about ‘doing the clubs’,” Ty hedged uncomfortably. “Our plans are a little up in the air at the moment.”

“GREAT!” sparkled the other one- Tyler wasn’t sure whether Hayley was the one with the ponytail or the pageboy. “Holly and I have been dying to check out the hot clubs, and with the six of us, there’s no way that any Door King will even bother to look at our IDs.”

“I think that Dr. Chase-”

“Not to worry!” the twins bustled over to their mother, interrupting her bitchfest with Dr. Chase.

“No way they’re getting us off the hook,” Linda sneered.

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The Next Day

“What did you think you were doing?” Glynis demanded at breakfast.

“I’m getting a second helping of pancakes,” Tyler said, baffled. “Hey, these nanites of mine don’t feed themselves, they run mostly on carbohydrates!”

“Not that! Though, do you have to use ALL the strawberry syrup? THIS!” Glynis shoved her tablet at Tyler. It was showing a celebrity gossip page. She expanded one of the thumbnails to full screen, showing Tyler at an ill-lit nightclub with two extremely attractive redheaded girls in white outfits flanking her at a table. The twin redheads were clearly rubbing their bodies against Tyler’s.

Tyler tweaked the image to widen it, showing Clare, Izzy and Linda at the same table. Tyler calmly explained about going into Los Angeles for the day, the incident with Dr. Lucifer’s minions, encountering Hayley and Holly Hellion, and the resultant night out afterwards. “Dr. Chase okayed it.”

It would be more accurate to say that Dr. Chase got blindsided by it, but she did give her permission.

Linda reached over Tyler’s shoulder and swiped through the gallery. “How come there aren’t any solo shots of me in this?”

“Probably because they couldn’t get you in a shot that makes you look stupid or sleazy,” Tyler hazarded, experimenting with this strange thing that Dr. Chase had told her about, called ‘tact’.

“Picking up groupies already?” Tom Chase asked snidely.

“More like they picked up Ty,” Izzy said.

“Exactly what are they doing?” Tom asked.

“If you need that explained to you, then you’re not smart enough to be on this boat,” Maynard, one of the new guys said, not looking up from the heap of breakfast on his plate.

“Not in front of the kid,” Boothroyd, the guy in the wheelchair said primly.

“Hey!” Heike, the kid in question piped up in outrage.

“♪Good morning, Wunderkinder!♪” Dr. Chase greeted them all as she walked in. Then she took in the sheer amount of adolescent appetite on display. “Oh Dear. We’re going to have to resolve this before we set out, or you’ll be gnawing on the woodwork before the first mission is even halfway done.” She helped herself to a serving that was at least as large as any of the boys’ and said, “Finish up and assemble on the poop deck. We’ve come up with a solution. And No, we don’t really expect you to be happy with it.”

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Once the Wiz Kids, established and prospective, were assembled on the rear deck, Dr. Chase addressed them. “Okay, the problem is that your transcripts are exactly what the Quest Foundation looks for, and your theses are exemplary- especially a truly elegant solution to Gilman’s Transform Paradox,” she said, giving Heike a wondering look.

“So the issue is now less about your academic qualifications, and more about how you’d function in the field as a Wiz Kid. While we don’t go looking for it, trouble has a habit of finding us. We’ve been lucky so far, but on our last voyage, two of ours died and two more had… nasty complications that they’re still learning to live with.

“So the crux of our decision is figuring out which of you have the odd combination of daring, ingenuity, resource and grit to be a Wiz Kid. Which will include the ability to adapt to strange, even hostile situations quickly and survive.”

A loud groan went up from the veteran Wiz Kids. “Ahh… MAN!” someone moaned, “A competition? This is exactly the ‘Survivor’ kind of crap we want to avoid!”

“Agreed,” Dr. Chase said pleasantly but firmly. “But it’s the simplest and most direct way of figuring out who of these six will stay and who’ll go.”

“It’ll also make for *cough!/bullshit* ‘Killer TV’,” Tyler grumped over folded arms, echoing one of Darryl Lennox’s, the previous camera director of scant fond remembrance, favorite catchphrases.

“Again, agreed,” Dr. Chase said more firmly. “But it’s the best that we could come up with without descending to ‘Rock-Scissors-Paper’. So, you have 3 hours to psych yourself up for it, and you’ll be driven to the first testing site.”

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Tyler swooped down to the first testing site, an electronics and high-tech recycling center near the waterfront in Long Beach. She landed, unbuckled Heike’s harness and let him down to the ground. The boy gave a loud whoop, and excitedly enunciated how exciting it had been in an awkward hodgepodge of Dutch and English.

“Why’d you bring the kid like that?” Tom Chase asked, keeping well away from the ‘flying eyeball’ drones that buzzed around the place.

“Why not? He was curious about what it was like to fly, and this way, there was less chance that he’d get squished in the shuttle.” Tyler had vivid- and less than pleasant- memories of being the ‘little kid’ on the ship during his first tour with the Wiz Kids. Getting trampled underfoot had been a constant annoyance-going-on-danger for him.

Dr. Chase nodded, and waved Heike to the lineup of the six candidates. She started to address them, but Santoya stopped her to get one of the prime cameras into a better position. After an unnecessarily long delay as the cameraman got the shot lined up properly, Dr. Chase resumed, “Okay, this is the first challenge. You don’t have to worry about being eliminated this time around, because you’ll have to face all four challenges. Your overall performance will be examined and your ability to work with others. You’ll form three teams of two, but for each challenge, the teams will change.

“The first challenge is a combination of build competition and race. Using only the tools and materials available here,” she waved her hand at a wide and eclectic collection of…. stuff… spread out on the concrete, “you will jury-rig together a flying rig.” To uniformly raised hands of inquiry she added, “By ‘Flying Rig’, I mean some sort of device that will lift itself and at least one person off the ground and move them. Ground effect vehicles and lifting bodies will both be accepted, but catapults, linear accelerators and other throwing mechanisms will not.

“Once you’ve built your rig and had it cleared by our panel of judges, you will race them across the water and through the series of hoops we’ve installed around the area,” she pointed at five large hoops set up across the water in various places, including rocks, piers and buoys. “You and your rig must go through the hoops without destroying them. If you miss the hoop or damage it, you’ll have to start all over again. While your rig doesn’t have to hold both of you at once, if it’s a one-man craft, then both of you will have to pilot it in turn and complete the circuit. When both of you have successfully completed the circuit, your part in the challenge will be over. Tyler Collier here will be flying overhead to provide assistance to anyone who falls from their vehicle for any reason.

“BUT, while speed will be a consideration, the first team to finish the challenge will not necessarily be the winners. The originality, elegance and effectiveness of your design, cleverness in how you use your materials, handling of the craft, and the condition that the craft will be in at the end of the circuit will also be considerations. And for the judges of those qualities, we’ve managed to talk Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of the Mythbusters into providing their expertise!”

“And pure Geek Cred will also be a priority!” Adam added with a puckish grin as he and Hyneman strolled into camera shot.

Looking at the pile of diverse high tech junk strewn about the area, Jamie droned, “I’m having a traumatic episode flashback…”

“There, there, Beret Man,” Adam patting his longtime co-host on the shoulder.

Dr. Chase put two red, two blue and two yellow ping-pong balls in a sack, shook it and held it high as the six young men reached in to select their partners. And yes, she lowered the bag for Heike. Tom Tsung was partnered with Geoff Boothroyd, the Scots boy in the wheelchair. Heike was partnered with Maynard Lingies, who answered to ‘Tank’. That left Mike Kung with Mordecai Shearer. Both Mike and Mordecai looked like they wished that they could partner up with someone with more engineering chops.

The six young geniuses were issued safety gear and then were put on their marks. On ‘Go’, they ran in among the piles of materials and started wildly improvising. ‘Tank’ scored an early lead when he recognized a harness that he figured could serve as a good keystone to a ‘jetpack’ rig. Heike, still jazzed from his flight with Tyler, agreed and immediately found an ionization chamber that could function as a primary propulsion drive.

Tom Tsung immediately got in a wrangle with Geoff over whether to build a one or two man craft. Geoff felt that a 2-man craft would have Tom ‘hovering’ over him. Tom insisted that a 2-man craft would only take slightly more time to build, while cutting the ‘race’ time in half.

Surprisingly, Mike Kung and Mordecai Shearer fell immediately into agreement that a frame they found could be the foundation for a vectored thrust ‘bike’. Still, finding something that they could adjust to provide that vectored thrust might be a challenge.

Tank agreed to be the form around which the jetpack would be built. Anything that could lift his near-200 pound frame would have no problem with Heike’s 90 pounds (if that). But they conflicted when Heike got the idea of adding what he called a ‘lift dome’ to the arrangement. The kid’s math was impeccable, but he hadn’t yet learned the classic Engineering paradox of ‘Less is More’.

Tom Tsung and Geoff agreed on a microwave repulsion ‘GEV’ raft, given the foundation components they’d found. Their big problem was how to make the thing ‘hop’ high enough to get through the hoops.

Mike and Mordecai were having problems with getting their VTV ‘bike’ to balance correctly. Which is one of the trials in a build challenge: you can’t spend months doing computer models to get your balance of thrust and drag right. They decided that it was a bike; they’d just have to fly it by feel. Which was another way of saying ‘we can’t go too fast, or we’ll tear ourselves apart when we hit the water’.

Tom and Geoff were the first to get their project to the examination gate. Hyneman and Savage looked over the ‘raft’, and while they had some problems with the ‘hop’ mechanism that Tom and Geoff had come up with, they couldn’t find anything really wrong with the overall design or construction. As Geoff strapped himself in and Tom shoved the raft into the water, Savage turned to Hyneman and said, “Well, Jamie- at least this time it’s not US.”

Tom and Geoff’s lead inspired Mike and Mordecai to take their shot and trust to the Mordecai’s uncanny sense of balance. And Mordecai’s sense of balance was uncanny; unfortunately, their communication of Mordecai’s sense of balance with Mike’s sense of drag didn’t work that well. But they had the meager satisfaction as Tyler pulled them from the water, of seeing the raft flip over when it tried to ‘hop’ through the first hoop.

As for Heike and Tank, seeing the two ‘front runners’ get sent back to the build station convinced Heike to go along with Tank’s more restrained ‘lets get it right the first time’ approach. Still, between Heike’s frantic bursts of inspiration and the catch-as-catch-can nature of the selection of parts and tools, the resulting ‘wing’ was a crazy quilt of mismatched and repurposed parts strung together in a haphazard way. When Heike and Tank wheeled their rig to the examination gate, Adam and Jamie were aghast. “I wouldn’t send a crate up in a dog like that!” Adam snarked. “Where’s the bubblegum and baling wire?”

“I don’t believe it,” Linda Havoc said from the ‘bleachers’, where the incumbent Wiz Kids (less Tyler, who was on lifeguard duty) were watching this with a mixture of curiosity and schadenfreude. “They let that tangled mess of wiring through.”

“So what?” Logan Hogan asked rhetorically, secure in his position as the resident ‘King of MacGyvering’. “It’s not like they’re going to have to do repairs on the spot. It either flies or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t fly, the force of landing will disassemble it for them.”

“And he wonders why he has trouble getting dates,” Izzy whispered aside to Clare.

Aaannnddd… well I’ll be!” Tom Chase gaped as he watched through binoculars. “It’s lifting off! The new guy has it under control. Barely. It’s clumsy, and the way it’s accelerating won’t win any prizes.”

“But it’s flying, and he’s got it under control,” Glynis pointed out. “It’s clumsy, like you said… he had to break off and retake it, but he’s on a trajectory for the first hoop. And… he’s through!”

“Wow, will you look at the Saucer and Bike teams?” Linda managed to keep from laughing out loud. “The guy in the wheelchair looks like he’s torturing that stabilizer for the ‘Hop’ mechanism!”

“And it looks like ‘Indiana Jones’ and Scuba guy have given up on their ‘bike’ idea, and they’ve added a ‘sidecar’ to it,” Izzy noted.

“That… is either gonna win this for them,” Tom said, “or it’s gonna be the star of the blooper reel.”

“And Jetpack Guy is approaching the second hoop!” Glynis said. “Feh! He missed it, but he’s coming around for a second try.”

“Wow, it’s turning into a real race!” Logan said. “The Saucer crew has given up on the ‘Hop’ idea, and they’re reconverting it into a sustained altitude system. Can’t blame ‘em- the ‘hop’ thing was a stupid idea.”

“Hey, they’re turning the GEV system into an Ionic Suspension Cushion,” Linda said in a rare moment of appreciation for the work of others. “It’ll be a little clumsy, but it’s a quantum shift over the ‘Hop’ thing.”

“They just stole the ‘lift dome’ the kid put together,” Tom argued.

“And? He wasn’t using it.”

“And the jetpack is making its first run on the third hoop,” Clare said. “No signs of any problems, other than a stiff turning mechanism.”

“Not so fast,” Logan said, peering through his binoculars. “I see a faint trail of smoke. If he gets back to the shore for the second lap before it goes up, there may be hope, but if it doesn’t hold up, he’s doing down hard.”

“At least Dr. Chase insisted they wear floatation vests,” Glynis offered.

“Still, he’s through the third hoop,” Linda said.

“And the Saucer crew is off for Take Two,” Tom said in a race announcer voice. “They’re burning batteries to make up for lost time, but the Bike team is right behind them. The balance provided by the sidecar, with the sidecar pilot handling the balancing so the pilot can concentrate on SPEED, seems to be working. But the Jetpack pilot has learned from the first three hoops, and just blew through the fourth hoop, and is making tracks for the fifth!

“But then, he may just be trying to get his rig to the shore before it burns out on him! He goes right through the fifth hoop, and he’s heading for home. If he wasn’t a solo pilot, he’d have won by now. The Saucer and Bike teams are heading for the hoop, and they’re having some sort of problem!”

“I’d say their intense electromagnetic force fields are interacting with each other,” Linda said and went on in more detail. Glynis nodded sagely, but Clare and Izzy shared an awkward look; they were a botanist and an information sciences expert respectively. Through sheer osmosis, their time with the Wiz Kids had given them enough of a nodding familiarity with High Energy Physics that they had a rough idea as to what Linda was talking about. But not enough to appreciate the nuances that Tom, Glynis and Linda were sharing. And with a crew like the Wiz Kids, admitting that you didn’t know what they were talking about was a major social faux pas.

“The Saucer team went through the first hoop, but it’s off on a wild tangent,” Logan reported as he watched. “The Bike team has stalled, but they look like they’re doing a quick-fix on the fly. Or stall, in this case. They’re both losing a lot of time, and they need to make up as much of it as they can, while the jetpack comes around for it second lap.”

“And the Jetpack comes in to the gate with its tail on fire,” Tom continued in his racetrack announcer voice. “But the Kid is already there with a fire extinguisher. And a rack for the rig. Give the squirt his due: he knows how to plan ahead. They have the fire out, and they’re removing the burned out component. They’ve got something ready and they’re fiddling with it.

“The Saucer team has managed to get their saucer under control, and are headed for the first hoop again. They make it, but the Bike team is right behind them. They’re jockeying for position, trying to get the lead for the second hoop, without getting snagged in each other’s fields again.

“And the Kid is out of the gate and burning rubber for the first hoop! The Jetpack is performing a lot better this time, but the squirt is a lot lighter than the big guy. He’s through the first hoop, and starting to jockey for position around the Saucer and Bike teams.”

“Wait a minute!” Izzy said, “Someone’s coming onto the course!”

Everyone turned their binoculars to view a jetski-configuration open vehicle race onto the course and match trajectories with the jetpack. The ‘jetski’ was being ridden by two shapely redheaded teenage girls in ‘wetsuit’ bathing suits (one light blue, the other dark green). The ‘jetski’ flew a good five feet over the surface, but every so often, it dipped down, and you could just barely see an irregular transparent oval around the craft. “It’s the Hellion sisters!” Clare said. “What do they think they’re doing?”

“They think they’re photobombing this shoot,” Linda drawled with a sneer.

“Why? There’s no way the Foundation will let this air!”

“What makes you think that Santoya has the only cameras filming this?” Glynis said with a sneering drawl that matched Linda’s perfectly.

“And it doesn’t matter what they say about you, as long as they spell your name right,” Tom echoed the ancient Show Biz chestnut.

Logan leaned into his binoculars, as though the few inches would make the powerful optics clearer, “ah, I don’t think they’ve been paying enough attention to the race.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re headed straight for the first hoop, and that suspension field their scooter has is just the kind of thing that would interfere with the Saucer and the Bike. But they’re headed right for the Saucer, and I don’t think they’re paying any attention to the Bike.”

“Oh Crap!” Glynis pulled out her phone and tried to call Tyler. “I can’t reach her! I think that vest of hers is creating a secondary force field that blocks incoming calls! And if it’s that powerful, Ty could get dragged into that mess as well!”

‘Well, this just got a lot more interesting,’ both Tom and Linda thought to themselves as they peered through their binoculars with matching smirks.

The Hellion Sisters edged around the Bike, and were so intent on overtaking the Saucer that they didn’t notice the drag when their field interacted with the bike’s. Or when they overtook the Saucer and started dragging it after them. “Oh, this is getting ugly,” Glynis said. “Their fields are starting to synch off each other, getting stronger. The jetpack is slowing down, and the jetski is losing speed as well.”

“The Hellions’ jetski is losing speed,” Tom continued without the race track announcer voice, “and the pilot seems to have picked up that they’re tangled up. In what, I’m not sure she knows. The jetski is wriggling back and forth trying to shake whatever’s slowing them down. Oh, but here comes the second hoop! They just barely make it through the hoop! But the Bike team dings the hoop, and they’ll have to start the course over. But the Bike isn’t slowing down. They may not be able to slow down without wiping out.

“Oh! The jetski has latched onto the Saucer, and the rider is trying to get them disconnected. But that slows them both down, and the Bike, which was trying to get around the Saucer plows right into them. The jetski gets shot forward like a bullet, and the rider is barely holding on for dear life.

“The Jetski just barely misses the jetpack, but the kid looks like he’s gotten caught up in the jetski’s magnetic wake, and they’ve missed the turn for the third hoop. The rider must be very strong; she’s managed to pull herself back up onto the jetski. Both the jetpack and the jetski are making turns to retake the third hoop. They’re sharp enough to attempt opposite turns, but that magnetic wake is making it hard for them.

“And the Jetbike pulls free of the Saucer, and heads for the third hoop. But it cuts off both the jetski and the jetpack, and we have another tangle. The Jetski manages to pull free of the jetbike’s wake, but they overshoot their turn and they slam into the Saucer. I don’t know how, but they hit the Saucer at just the right angle to flip it over- and it was already upside down, I have no idea how that’s gonna settle out.

“All four riders from the Saucer and the jetski go into the water. The backlash from losing the jetski has made the jetpack lose its balance and now the kid is furiously trying to reestablish control over his unit.

“Tyler, who was trying to come in to help with the tangle with the jetski and the saucer, has come up and she’s helping the kid get his balance back. That could weigh against the kid.”

“I don’t think so,” Linda corrected him. But then Linda loved to correct Tom. “The way Heike’s strapped into that flight rig, even with his life vest, he’d sink like a stone if he went into the water. Still that design glitch will be factored against his team.”

“What?” Glynis yelped, “Tyler just got snatched away from Heike! Heike’s managed to stay stable, but Ty’s being dragged behind the jetbike!”

Tom Chase barely managed to stifle a laugh at that. Linda kept her eyes on the Kid. “Heike’s landed on the Saucer, and he’s… he’s taking the lift dome from the Saucer?”

“Okay, he’s removing a welded component from a vehicle that’s sinking and attaching it to his own rig, while the vehicle sinks,” Logan reported. “I don’t care what anyone says, that’s damn impressive.”

“And he’s taking off,” Izzy said. “His lift dome is giving his rig badly needed stability and speed. He’s catching up with the jetbike… and avoiding the magnetic wake, the kid is quick on the uptake… and he’s heading for the fourth hoop.”

“The pilot of the jetbike just shook Tyler loose,” Clare said. “Ty lifts off out of the water, and she’s looking around. What’s she looking around for?”

“The redhead- one of the Hellion sisters, I still can’t tell them apart- or bother to try,” Izzy said cattily. “She’s yelling something. Can’t hear it from here… Where’s her sister?”

“Oh Crikey,” Glynis gasped. “They’re not wearing life vests. Didn’t want to bulk out those sleek physiques, I guess. Dr. Chase weighs in at 68 kilos, but looks like she’s only 57 kilos, if that. If the Hellions’ nanite upgrades have the same effect on their density, then they’re 20% heavier for their volume than normal people. They may have negative buoyancy!”

“Yeah, but she’s a lot stronger than normal people,” Tom reminded her.

“And that will help her when she’s sinking, HOW?”

The Hellion sister, Hayley, appeared to have given Tyler the same basic rundown as she clutched onto the jetski for dear life. Tyler looked down into the water intently, and then dived down deep. The other Wiz Kids couldn’t see what she was doing, but a few moments later, she shot up out of the water with the other Hellion sister in her arms. Holly was limp and unresponsive.

As she flew to the shore, Tyler shifted Holly in her arms and did a variation on the Heimlich maneuver to force some water out of her lungs. As soon as they were on firm ground, Tyler lay Holly flat out, compressed her solar plexus, and then blew air into her lungs. She breathed heavily into Holly’s lungs for several minutes. Then Tyler paused to take a few breaths for herself. Then with a deep breath, she lowered her face to Holly’s and-

-Holly wrapped her arms around Tyler and kissed her deeply, pulling their bodies close together.

“Have you been giving Tyler lessons?” Linda grumped at Tom. “She’s getting as good at hogging the camera as you are.”

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Dr. Chase addressed the Wiz Kids again. “Well, despite the interference from Tyler’s guests-”

“I didn’t inform them about the challenge, I didn’t invite them, I didn’t allow them onto the course,” Tyler cut her off. “I just kept one of them from drowning. Or are you telling me that being annoying is a death penalty offence, and that I should have let her drown?”

Dr. Chase gave Tyler a long wry look and amended her statement. “Despite the interference of the Hellion sisters, the race was a success. Yes, Heike and Tank came in first, but far more importantly, we got good ideas as to your individual abilities to improvise, deal with emergencies and cope with setbacks. And by and large you all did quite well. But in this case, all of you doing well just means that more challenges are necessary.

“So, tomorrow, we will go on to the next challenge. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it will be. First, I don’t want you making plans for it. Secondly, I don’t want anyone blogging about this.”

“Why are you looking at ME?” Tyler complained.

“Well, _I_ wasn’t the one getting a big sloppy kiss from a hawt redhead,” Tom Chase said reprovingly.

“What’s the matter?” Ty shot back puckishly. “Jealous?”

“Two wet bodies, mashed together…” Tom continued salaciously.

“You ARE Jealous!” Ty gloated back.

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The next day, Eric Newell drove the veteran Wiz Kids out to Hawthorne, a suburb that was just south of Inglewood, and was home to both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla headquarters. They went to the abandoned Hawthorne Shopping Mall, which still hadn’t been slated for demolitions. Newell had the Wiz Kids set up a control center and prep a system of surprises for the Wiz Candidates. There were a few surprises for the Wiz Kids and more than a few delays, but they managed to get the place rigged and running.

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Dr. Chase had the six rookies stand in front of the rather desolate looking shopping mall, which was cordoned off from the street by chain link fencing, green strips of fabric overlaid on the chain link and panels of plywood. “Okay Guys, this is the Hawthorne Shopping Mall, which has the dubious distinction of being the largest abandoned and longest-closed mall in the Greater Los Angeles area, and a contender for the United States. You may recognize bits of it; it’s been used as a set in a bunch of movies and TV episodes. They’re talking about tearing it down; they’ve been talking about tearing it down for over 15 years. Currently, it’s being used as a storage depot for various high tech components and materials.”

She opened the gate and took the candidates into the mall, which was lit as per usual, but still had the bleak look of neglect and abandonment. Interestingly, there were dozens, if not scores of manikins standing around with diverse articles of clothing to differentiate them. “These,” Dr. Chase waved a hand around at the figures, “are Mobile Anthroform Decoys, or MADs. They’re used in SWAT and Special Forces tactical training exercises, including Hogan’s Alleys and like that. They’re a step up from the pop-up pictures they still sometimes use; budgets and all that. They are programmed to mill around the mall, go up and down stairs, in and out of stores, carry things, cluster up for a while and then disperse, and generally perpetuate the stereotype of the American Consumer as mindless zombie.

“This is a combination Scavenger Hunt and Build Contest. Your challenge is to gain control of as many MADs as you can- without damaging them. Every MAD you gain control of will count as a Plus One on your final score; every damaged MAD will count as a Minus One, and every destroyed MAD will count as a Minus TWO. The mall is your basic cruciform with a central atrium, four levels, a multiplex theater, seven 4+story major department stores, and an 8-story parking garage. There are inventories for what’s stored where- but we’re not telling you where they are. There are technical specs for the MADs, same caveats. The escalators are down, but some of the elevators are working and safe- they’re the ones with the bright red tape on the doors.”

“And now we pick your teams,” Dr. Chase pulled out the bag and the colored ping-pong balls.

“I thought we had our teams,” Heike said, looking at Tank.

“Part of these tests is to see how you all handle dealing with others,” Dr. Chase explained. “Not just to see how well one team or another performs. You two did very well on the race; let’s see how you both deal with working with someone else.” Heike made a muffled whine like a puppy being parted from his new friend, but nodded.

They had to re-draw when Tom Tsung got matched up with Geoff Boothroyd again. But on the second draw, Tom Tsung was partnered with Mordecai Shearer, Boothroyd was partnered with Heike, and Tank was paired with Mike Kung.

Once the new teams had been decided and were busy planning their moves, Dr. Chase quietly parted from them. She blended into the background of the mall and made her way to the mall’s central office. Using the key she’d been given, she accessed one of the elevators that hadn’t been marked with red tape and took it to the security offices on the top floor. Using the pre-existing wiring and camera setups, the Wiz Kids and Santoya’s camera crew had turned the security office into a command center for controlling the MADs and keeping tabs on the rookies. They had workstations set up on counters along two walls, with a cutout for the corner for a rough U-shape. Over the workstations were four large monitors displaying the overhead situation for the four concourses, with bright green triangles for the MADs and yellow dots with identifying names for the six contestants. Dr. Chase sat in a pivoting office chair and checked out the situation. “Okay, let’s see what kind of moves these guys have.”

“To boldly go, where no man has gone before!” Tyler declared, mimicking William Shatner’s classic catchphrase. The others looked around, took in the vague similarity to the classic Enterprise bridge and gave Tyler uniform dirty looks. “WHAT? Aw, c’mon, Hughie isn’t here, and someone’s got to do it!”

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“Yeah? SHOW me where it says that I can’t adjust a floor sweeper into a forklift!”

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“But…I can’t go in there! It’s a Victoria’s Secret!” Heike blushed.

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“It’s going over the edge! We’ve got to stop it! Because if we don’t stop it, they’ll knock off points, that’s why!”

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“Don’t help me!” Geoff snapped.

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“Yeah, overriding their control signal would be very elegant-IF that’s how they work. In the mean time, we could rack up points by capturing MADs and penning them up. After all, they’re just robots, right?”

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“Hah! Got another one!”

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“I can’t help it!” Tyler said. “I look at Heike, and I see my own childhood! We’re probably the closest he’s ever had to kids his own age he can talk to! We gotta do something for the squirt!”

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“Okay, Mom’s got the Janeway vibe, but no way you’re Chakotay. Maybe Worf, the big snarly threat that gets one-punched in the first second of any fight.”

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“I know that I’m not supposed to do this, but…”

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‘Yes, I know that fans are shipping me with Tyler, but that’s just leftover ‘Velma is a lesbian’ vibe. Like I need that, with my luck with guys!”

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“My grandmother’s gonna go NUTS. She’s always on me to find a nice Chinese boy. Now I got TWO to choose from, and they’re both geniuses with degrees! I just hope she doesn’t send my Tia Mafalda to the ship to match-make.”

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“Hey Izzy, you didn’t use the Astrology clue, did you?”

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“Of COURSE they’re going to figure it out! It’s a simple 13-stage compound conversion that will lead them to the hair salon on the second floor, no problem,” Logan assured Clare.

“At least I put in the bit about ‘split ends’.”

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“Remember, this is not a video game, kids. Those are real people you’re messing with, so don’t get too crazy.” Dr. Chase gave an evil grin. “Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun with them.”

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“We have open windows on Neiman Marcus-4 and Nordstrom’s-5.” Newell reported, “I’m sending flying eyeballs to check them out.”

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“’Don’t worry about split ends’ Split ends! I get it! The second part of the inventory is in the Vidal Sassoon™ hair salon!”

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“Why is ‘FAO Schwartz’ supposed to be funny?” Heike wondered.

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“They clearly have visual sensors; possibly their command links are IR, rather than radio?”

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“Would it help if I dyed my hair ginger?” Geoff sneered.

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“Is it me, or are the MADs going into Forever 21™ dressed one way, and coming out dressed another?”

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“Ultrasonics! They can use it to issue commands and create a sonar map of the situation!”

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“♪Klingons off the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow, scrape them off, Jim!♪” Tyler sang.

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“Hey, I’m picking up blips and bleeps that don’t seem to want to register. There’s something off going on down there.”

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“Hey Cowboy!” Linda jeered, I’ll bet you that I can make my MADs square dance before you can!”

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“Did you see that?”

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“Dance, dance my pretties, DANCE!” Izzy cackled.

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The three teams had broken up the central atrium between them, placing their projects far enough apart that they wouldn’t distract each other. Any thoughts of sabotage were damped by the idea that Dr. Chase was watching, and even the socially thickest of them didn’t think that she’d interpret wrecking another’s project as ‘initiative’, rather than ‘over-competitive’. The Tsung/Shearer team had constructed a ‘claw’ that picked up MADs, and was storing them in a pen. As they were doing this, Tom tried to figure out whether the MADs primary communications system was radio or ultrasonics.

The Zernike/ Boothroyd team had erected a ‘maze’ that caught wandering MADs and guided them into another pen. They had caught fewer MADs, but it was a simpler system that more or less took care of itself as Heike and Geoff switched off trying to decipher the MADs’ sonics protocols, and scrounging around in the various stores to see what technology was available.

The Lingies/Kung team had decided to pass on physically capturing MADs and concentrated on deciphering the sonics protocols.

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“I say if those Hellion girls were really interested in Ty, they’d get her to do something about that HAIR.” Linda insisted.

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ooohhhh…. That is gonna hurt in the morning…”

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“Clumsy, but it was a good first effort. Let’s see what he learns from that.”

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*

“We have something interfering with Thermographics overall,” Newell told Dr. Chase. “Can you spare anyone to go find out what’s wrong?”

“Tom, go where Ace tells you. Now, maybe we can get something done with a minimum of bitching.”

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“Okay, I admit it, I’m stumped- what the H**l is ‘Orion Trine Lyra’ supposed to mean?”

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“’Orion Trine Lyra’?” Heike said. “‘Trine’ is an astrological factor, and Orion and Lyra are constellations- therefore, the trine of Orion and Lyra must be a mathematical constant, and the clue either means the location or some factor of the MADs’ communications bands. It wouldn’t be efficient to place their CPUs and drives in the actual chasses, so the units must be drones driven from a remote location, so that may be a factor too.”

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“I’m not sure what it was designed for, but it could function nicely as a lynchpin signal director.”

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“I am NOT a Shopping Cart!” Geoff yelled.

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“No, Heike! Don’t climb on that!”

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“Is it me, or are the MADs with blue kerchiefs ganging up on the MADs with the red kerchiefs?”

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“Hey, I’m getting some interference with my MADs- are you messing with me again, Cowboy?”

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“‘Okay, ‘Mr. Wheels’… okay, okay, Boothroyd! He’s found a component, and he’s damn near creaming in his jeans. But… what IS it?” Glynis wondered.

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“I think Tyler trying to clown it up is overcompensating, don’t you?”

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“Did you program the MADs to do that?”

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“Okay, Mike’s cute- but I wanna see him in swimtrunks one more time before I make any moves,” Izzy told Clare.

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“Okay, they’ve figured out the ultrasonic command link. I say it’s time to get MST3K!”

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“What IS that thing they’ve found?”

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“Interesting… Tom Tsung gets that cooperating with the other teams is more effective than competing with them. Yes, that dig was aimed at YOU, Tommy.”

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“We have five fewer MADs than we had before. Has anyone trashed any of them without owning up to it?”

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*

“Sooo… exactly what does ‘damaging the MAD’ mean?” Tank mused.

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“HEY! Where are the MADs we rounded up?”

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“You cannot tell me that that was just a random action menu point; someone told that droid to do that,” Logan said, a tad spooked.

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“You say ‘MADs’, I say NEDs,” Boothroyd snarked.

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“You can make it do that?” Mike Kung looked wide-eyed at what Tank was doing.

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“I’m getting a constant on their signal! I think I’ve got their bandwidth cracked!”

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“Don’t give me that, there’s something weird going on with the video security feeds!” Tom Chase insisted.

“As much as I hate it, especially when he’s being such a little bitch, but Tom’s right; there IS something off about the incoming security footage,” Tyler said. “It’s off, but I can’t say what it is, and it’s making me mental!”

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“Okay, they’re covering the bases pretty well- when do we throw them the curve ball?” Dr. Chase asked.

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“I hate to add to the paranoia, but there is definitely something wrong with the way the cameras are cycling,” Glynis added.

“Okay, I wasn’t sure before, but now I know that there is something seriously hinky with the angling of the Security cameras,” Linda agreed.

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“They’re rigging a… fog generator?”

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“I did NOT order them to do that…” Izzy said.

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“NO, I’m not making the lights do that,” Linda said. “Are you making the lights do that?”

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Dr. Chase sat back in her chair, unconsciously mimicking the classic ‘Captain Kirk’ position with her hand in her chin, musing. She ran through several possibilities. Then a knowing smirk passed over her chin. “We’re going to kick it up a notch. Tommy, Linda, Tyler… I want you each to go to… the central Fire Exit stairwells on Two, Three and Four. Tyler, I want you on Two, so you can fly up to Four if anything happens. Tommy? Take your lariat; it might actually be useful for a change.”

“What do you want us to look for?” Linda asked suspiciously as she rose from her chair.

“I’m not sure. All of you, keep your communications rigs open, and the video cams on. Oh, and it’s ‘observe and report’, not ‘be the big damn hero’, any of you. Eric? You… oh, what am I doing, telling you your job? Just take some men and place them as you see fit.”

As the other Wiz Kids reallocated control of the MADs among themselves, Dr. Chase waited until Newell reported that his men were in position. Then she patched herself into the galleria public announcement system. “Emergency! Emergency!” she said in a calm voice to get across that it wasn’t a real emergency. “A Vampire has gained entrance to the Mall, and it is biting bystanders, turning them into Zombies. If the Vampire manages to infect one of the MADs that you’ve taken control of, then you lose the point for that MAD. If a Zombie touches you, you lose a point. Destroying a Zombie will not count against you. If the Vampire ‘bites’ you, you are out of this challenge. If you destroy the Vampire, you gain TEN points.

“Oh, and the Vampire looks just like all the other MADs.”

Then she leaned forward and addressed the remaining Wiz Kids. “Izzy, you will run the Zombies; start off with five. Glynis, you will run the Vampire. Clare and Logan, you run the ‘uninfected’ MADs. All of you, I want you to spread the MADs, infected and uninfected, as wide across the mall complex as you can. This is important; I want you to use the MADs heat-signature sensors to find people who are hiding in the mall. I think they’ve foxed the wide area sensors, but they can’t have gotten to the MADs. But I think they have co-opted several MADs; use our MADs’ ultrasonic coordinating frequency to find any MADs who’re not responding to our controls.”

“Any idea who they are?” Glynis asked. “They must have been using the mall as a hideout or storage or training area, and decided to lay low when we came to set up shop.”

“No clue just yet,” Dr. Chase admitted. “But if you can, try to use the MADs to herd them to where Newell, his men, Tommy, Linda or Tyler can eyeball them. They apparently know the mall- and its security systems- well enough that that may be the only way we’ll locate them.”

“What if they try to suborn our MADs?” Logan asked. “They seem to have taken down a few for some reason.”

“Good Call, Loogie! Send out a few as bait, inform Newell and watch for any signs of tampering. Make it so.”

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“Mama Bear, this is Diva. Do you have a squad of MADs milling around this area for some reason?”

“Diva, this is Mama Bear. Stay where you, but take cover. Remember, ‘observe and report’- NOT ‘jump in without looking.’ Ace, this is Mama Bear; we have runaway MADs on Four. Cowboy, Rockhound, this is Mama Bear; we have a situation on Four. Ace is handling it. Do NOT leave your posts until I tell you to. This may be a feint to get one of you-”

“Mama Bear, we have a situation in the atrium,” Izzy reported clinically. “We have multiple MADs that aren’t being run by the ‘Civilians’ or ‘Zombies’ demons, massing near the atrium, and they’re advancing on the Rookies’ projects.”

“Mama Bear, this is Security Team Two. We have a mass of MADs that are not responding to our instructions on Parking Level two, and there are trucks that are not on our TOE.”

“Mama Bear, this is Cowboy- I have movement on Three. I am going to eyeball it.”

“Cowboy, do not leave your post! Tom? Tommy? Tommy, come back! Dammit, I’m your mother, will you listen to me for a change? Ace, this is Mama Bear. We have movement on Three, and Cowboy is going to investigate. Someone is trying to pull something and is trying to distract our forces-”

“Mama Bear, this is Rockhound. I have moment- very FAST movement. I am going to see what it is.”

“Rockhound, you are to- DAMMIT, Tyler, will you stop trying to be so damn macho? Do not intercept, I repeat, do NOT intercept!” But the situation monitor showed that Tyler was proceeding- at roughly 60 mph. With a snarl of frustration, Dr. Chase opened the ‘all channels’ band. “Attention! Attention! This is not a drill! I repeat, this is NOT a drill! We have a danger situation. Unknown parties have infiltrated this mall for unknown reasons, and we have reason to suspect that they have taken over several of the MADs for also unknown reasons. The challenge has been postponed. Do NOT engage the MADs entering the atrium. I repeat, do NOT engage the MADs! All students, both Wiz Kids and rookies, are to report to the main entrance at the front of the mall, ASAP. Don’t try to be heroes, we have trained and experienced security men to handle this situation, just get yourselves to the main entrance!”

But Glynis, Logan, Clare and Izzy reported, and the video feeds confirmed, that Tyler, Tom and Linda were charging off after whatever they’d spotted, and the six rookies had interpreted her message as ‘Free Swim’. With a beetled brow, Dr. Chase gustily grated out in frustration something that every parent has said at least once: “KIDS!

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*

Tyler was just able to catch up to the fast-moving intruder, mostly because she stopped long enough to kick open one of the doors in the office wing. She stopped and checked to see what the intruder was doing, what he was up to. Or she. While the intruder was wearing a baggy hoodie with cloth cat-ears, the suit that showed below that was skin-tight, showing off a very feminine set of legs- and backside. She was looking around the office with a flashlight, saying, “Snap. Snap. Enlarge, enlarge, Snap. Snap. Enlarge. Snap…” in a young soprano voice. Then she picked up a folder from a table.

Ty set herself to jump the intruder, but Better Judgment- using the mental voice of Jadis Frost- told her that she was being an idiot. She didn’t know what this woman was doing, and jumping her could be Aggravated Assault. And given the major distaste for enforced incarceration that she’d developed in Alaska, Frost’s ‘armor-plate your ass’ style made a lot of sense. Pausing to set the proper tone by assuming a commanding pose, Tyler stood straight, squared her shoulders back, and folded her arms across her chest. Which was as commanding as she seriously thought she could get. She thought about assuming a shooter’s stance with her hand cupped as to suggest a gun. But people got very weird about even intimating that you have a gun in California. So, after a deep breath, Tyler said with as much authority as she could muster, “Who are you, what are you doing, and what right do you have to be here?”

The intruder startled and turned. She turned out to be a very cute girl about Tyler’s age, wearing an oversized set of mirrored catseye glasses that concealed much of her face better than a domino mask would have. The girl looked at Tyler and said, “Oh, Snap.”

Feeling a little foolish, Tyler tried to amp up her presence a little and repeated, “Who are you? And… what is this place?” Tyler looked past the girl, to a skeletal mockup of a high-rise building.

The girl just grinned widely, raised a finger as if to illustrate a point, opened her mouth- and cartwheeled past Tyler into the corridor. Tyler shifted to super-speed and zipped in front of where the girl was cartwheeling to. The girl had speed, but she didn’t have control; she cartwheeled right into Tyler.

As they disentangled themselves, the girl let out a speculative hum and smirked into Tyler’s face. Tyler tried to grab her, but the girl just giggled and wriggled out of her grasp. Then she did a vaulting leap to get out of Tyler’s reach. Tyler tried to use super-speed again, but they just wound up getting tangled up in each other, one squirming to get away, the other to try to hold on.

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“Okeh, I’m certain that those are the rogue MADs that Dr. Chase told us about,” Heike said. “They’re using a syncopated choreography that’s completely different from the pseudorandom scene that they’ve been using.”

“Always good to be certain about these things,” Boothroyd said. “Let’s not repeat the shambles with the maze. Are the cables secure?”

“Secure!” Heike chirped. “Ready to rip!”

“Good job, squirt!” With that, Boothroyd activated the sequence, and their MADs advanced on the ‘Renegade’ MADs with hands held, forming a ‘human’ chain. Geoff wondered whether this would count toward their capture bag. </p

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“Well, Tyler’s managing to hold onto that burglar. At least I THINK she’s trying to hold on.”

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“We can’t get the rest of it out of the office, not with those two going at it in there.”

“Bugger. Well then, there’s nothing for it.” He touched a few buttons on his smartphone, went through the procedure which caused a large red button to show on the platen, and pressed it.

Back in the office, multiple mixed packets of Semtex™ and thermite went off. The office instantly went up in flames.

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“What?” Tyler and the intruder said as one. “Why did you do THAT? I didn’t do that, YOU did!” Then they simultaneously realized that they were in an inferno and super-sped out of the office.

Once they were well away, Tyler remembered that she was sort of obligated to bring this girl in for questioning and tackled her again. This time, Ty focused on getting her by that hoodie, which at least wasn’t like trying to strangle a buttered eel. But that got them into a face-to-face clinch. Tyler noticed that the girl was about her age, and distinctly cute; at least from what she could tell around those huge catseye glasses of hers. The girl gave a wicked grin, and Tyler felt the girl grope one of her (Tyler’s) breasts. Tyler gave a ‘yeep!’ and pulled back.

“Now, now, Cutie,” the burglar purred through an eager grin. “Don’t get me all exited and then play coy…”

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Logan watched the action and went beet-red with embarrassment. Seeing this, first Izzy, then Clare, and then Glynnis switched their monitors to that camera. “oh my!” Glynnis gasped.

“We can’t show THAT!” Clare objected.

“Not without charging for the download anyway,” Izzy agreed. And recorded.

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Tank and Mike Kung were putting the final touches on their quickie project to convert a floor polisher into a capture unit. But then there was a loud squawk, and a burst of panicked Dutch. Looking around, they spotted Geoff Boothryod frantically pushing his wheelchair as Heike shoved at the back of his chair to get it moving faster. “The Vampire got into our collection pen!” Geoff yelled. “But the MADs aren’t acting like Zombies!”

Indeed, there was a monster-movie worthy group of MADs lumbering in their direction. MADs were designed for durability and ease of repair after disabling impacts, not speed. And that was the only thing that kept Geoff and Heike from being overrun.

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“Why did you steer the ‘vampire’ into the pen of MADs?” Dr. Chase asked.

“I didn’t!” Glynis said. “We’re clearly out of the testing stage and into, well, maybe not crisis, but definitely emergency situation. I parked the Vampire by the escalator and…” Glynis locked up just shy of admitting that she’d been watching Tyler mix it up with the unidentified intruder. Instead, she blushed beet red, which more or less confessed to the entire thing.

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“What are you doing here?” Linda whispered, or more accurately, hissed.

“I followed someone here from Three,” Tom answered. “Any idea what’s going on here?”

“It looks like a Mission Rehearsal stage,” Linda said, not thinking to snipe for a change. “Whoever it is has a real thing about precision timing. There are stopwatches all over the fucking place.”

“With Adverse Reinforcement measures,” Tom noted. “Bad smell sprayers, firecrackers, buzzers, and probably shockers.” Then Tom stopped and noticed something. That stack of equipment over there- you wouldn’t be able to see the Stage from that side, if the lights on this side were off.”

“AND?”

“And that stack of gear is where Boothroyd found that piece of equipment that he was so excited about. And with his lower point of view, spotting the rehearsal stage would be even harder with the lights off.”

“What WAS it that he found?” Linda asked.

“Some kind of wide area mass-signal synchronizer and router,” Tom answered, carefully unwinding his lariat.

“That’s… a very advanced… and esoteric… and expensive piece of gear to leave lying around,” Linda noted.

“On the other hand, it’s just the kind of gear you’d want if you wanted precise control over a lot of very complex pieces of electronics over a large area, so you could get them to orchestrate a delicate operation flawlessly,” Tom said, scanning the room. “THERE!” He shouted, looking at one corner.

Linda jumped almost reflexively, but only succeeding in flushing a figure in a baggy dark covert ops suit with a complete enclosing helmet out from another niche. Tom threw his lariat where the bunny was bolting to.

And he would have lassoed the perp, but the bunny snagged the loop of the lariat in midflight and yanked on it. While Tom wasn’t jerked over to where the perp was standing, he was pulled off his feet and lost the lariat.

Linda sprinted over to the perp and tried to get him into a Krav Maga wrist lock, which she intended to leverage into an arm lock behind the back. But the perp’s wrist wouldn’t bend, and he reversed it so that he had Linda by the wrist. Instead of going for a full hold, the perp used the hold to throw Linda into one of the rehearsal set’s mechanisms, an assembly of cables, pulleys, gears and ratchets. Clearly the perp intended to tangle Linda in among the cables, but she managed to brace herself in time.

Tom was up on his feet, and looking around intently for the perp, keeping one eye on the door. Linda gingerly peeled herself away from the framework of the assembly and reluctantly positioned herself to watch the door, leaving Tom free to search for the perp. Once they knew where he was, they’d have him cold. Tom cautiously backed up to Linda and started to whisper something to her. But then Tom’s own lariat came out of a sector that Tom swore the perp couldn’t have gotten to and lassoed them together. The lariat didn’t hold them long, but it was enough for the perp to sprint past them, and out the door.

Tom and Linda struggled to get out of the lariat, but had problems coordinating (as anyone who knew them would have predicted). When they did get out into the hall, for some reason the perp was checking a power panel. They charged him, but the perp left the panel immediately. Tom followed the perp while Linda checked the panel. There was nothing strange about the set of the switches. But Linda caught sight of the perp as he tried to get back into the rehearsal stage area, and charged after him.

And from there, the next four or five minutes were very confusing, as the perp ran rings around both Tom and Linda, especially when they were trying to cooperate with each other.

Finally, Tom gave up with a shriek of frustration. “Mom is gonna chew my ass clean OFF,” he muttered as he stalked back to the Mission Control room.

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“Mama Bear, this is Ace. I have a fix on our Unknowns, and a passel of our missing MADs. There are three trucks in the parking garage, and the Unknowns are using the MADs to load the trucks.”

[How? Those MADs aren’t really built for that kind of action]

“Okay, here goes. They’ve got crates of something, dunno. The MADs are cooperating moving the crates on pallets off an elevator to a giant-”

[A giant?]

“Yeah. A Giant. He moves the pallets over to the truck in one move and hands them over to a guy who loads them by hand.”

[By Hand? Ace, don’t try to stop them yourself; I’m on route]

“What about Rockhound? She can get here faster.”

[She’s… got her hands full] there was an odd pause. [BOY does she have her hands full.]

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The intruder was giggling like she was being tickled. Tyler was trying to get a hold on her, and not having a lot of success. The girl ducked and dodged around playfully, grinning as she giggled. But it was all snatching at empty air; Tyler, channeling Dr. Chase, was herding the girl closer to the main area. If she could get Tom or Linda- Mr. Newell would probably be a lot better- in on this, then maybe they could corral this girl and get some answers. The girl was too young to be a hardened criminal, so she’d probably talk if she was threatened with being turned over to the Police.

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“Oh-kay, let’s see if our theory holds up,” Tom Tsung slipped on a pair of sunglasses. Mordecai did likewise and gave Tom a thumbs-up. A precisely aimed IR laser that was targeting one of a system of mirrors around the mall. There was a brief flash of rainbow light around the hallways that quickly faded. The MADs kept moving, but their coordination was very off, and Geoff and Heike were finally able to get away from them.

“Mitigated success,” Mordecai grumbled. “They don’t act like they’ve been cut off from their external drivers, but they are stumbling around like they’re blind. They must have been using some IR discrimination system to identify and differentiate targets and other units.”

“Okay, but if they’re not using IR, then some form of ultrasonics are our best bet,” Geoff said as he wheeled up with Heike hitching a ride on the back of his chair.

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“Alright at least the boys aren’t in dire peril of being vampirized by the robo-zombies,” Glynis said. “So what are we going to do about the GIANT trying to steal those MADs? Dr. Chase? Dr. Chase?” Glynis turned around just in time to see the door to the operations room slam shut, with Dr. Chase nowhere in sight.

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Heike poked at one of the MADs with a pole, and wasn’t very happy with the drone’s aggressive capture/response. “Okay, what do we do now?” he asked. “Try a brute force frequency hack? Or maybe a wide-band jamming sig- GNAH!” Heike yelped as a man ran through the MADs scattering them, and sending Heike and Mordecai scrambling as well. The man was wearing a LA Rams™ football helmet, martial arts padding and hockey arm and shin guards, but he was moving at speeds that would have eclipsed an Olympic sprinter, let alone a running back. He zipped back and forth, knocking all of the prospective Wiz Kids off their feet, even Geoff.

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Aaannddd… who is THIS?” Clare asked helplessly.

“No idea,” Izzy admitted. “Let’s call Mr. Newell and see what he says.”

“I’m afraid that he’s rather busy at the moment,” Glynis said, looking at another monitor.

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The guy loading the pallets into the trucks stopped and trotted off. ‘Ace’ Newell had no intention of facing off against the giant. Guys like that tend to be annoyingly bulletproof. Ace’s plan was less cinematic, but far more pragmatic: He was going to put multiple bullets in the front tires of the trucks. The tires of trucks hauling that much tonnage have to be heavily inflated. A single bullet would make driving the truck dangerous. Multiple bullets would make it almost impossible.

Keeping his body as low to the ground as he could and still run, Ace sprinted for the space between the trucks. But just as he was about to get there, a massive hand dropped in front of him like a fleshy gate.

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“Let’s see if I can get Dr. Chase to help him,” Glynis said.

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As the rookie Wiz Kids reacted and tried to get their bearings, a woman wearing exercise leotards, along with heavy shoes and gloves and a hockey helmet did a tumbling leap over them. She quickly scaled Geoff’s signal tower, and started picking at one component delicately.

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While not a superspeedster, Dr. Chase’s superior strength gave her an edge in running and jumping, something that Daryl Lennox had exploited for spectacle on a routine basis. Unfortunately, Lennox’s exploitation meant that her mobility advantage was reasonably well known. Dr. Chase was at top speed, bypassing the elevators and headed for the stairwell. She could drop to the atrium level far more quickly than an elevator could lower her.

But as she rounded into the doorway to the stairwell, something happened that hadn’t happened to her in a while- she was stopped dead in her tracks, like she’d run into a brick wall. And brick walls didn’t slow her down like they used to. Looking up, she started into the broad face of a young but tough looking man in his mid-twenties. He had the physique of a man who did hard labor, not someone who worked on muscle groups in a gym, and the grimly sullen face of a man who didn’t care what others thought of him. He was dressed in dingy gray coveralls, and wore a black knit cap on his head. He reflexively went on guard.

And Dr. Chase ran face-first into one of the paradoxes of her existence. She understood Superman’s ‘World of Cardboard’ speech all-too well. Most of her focus in a fight was devoted to putting her opponent down without causing him any permanent damage. She used her usual opening moves on him, and he didn’t even blink. He waded through her barrage of punches and kicks, ignoring them. He got a good grip on her, and then caused a good deal of damage to the stairwell, using her as a club. Then, as she reeled from that, he tore open one of the elevators and dropped her down the shaft. It didn’t even take him that long.

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The Wiz Kids in the Control Room looked on aghast as their usual reliables were quickly and effectively handled. “What about Tyler?” Clare asked.

“Still has her hands full,” Izzy said with a smirk.

“What about Tom or Linda?” Glynis asked.

“Any of these guys would tear Tom or Linda apart,” Logan said with the cold-blooded logic that was his trademark. “These are the ‘Dangerous People’ Dr. Chase always warned us about, the ones who wouldn’t play around, and just hurt us because it was the most efficient way of getting their job done. At least the speedster isn’t actively trying to hurt the New Guys. Right now… the best thing we can do is try to get clear shots of them, especially their faces. So at least the Police will know who to go looking for.”

A chilly pall fell over Clare, Glynis and Izzy. It was reasonable, logical and responsible. It was probably the most effective thing they could do. But that didn’t mean that they had to like it.

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The tone of the fight changed again. The girl was still giggling, but there was something about the grin that showed under those oversized glasses. She was still writhing, but she wasn’t trying to wriggle out from Tyler’s grip anymore. Now she was rubbing her body against Tyler, affecting Ty in a way that she wasn’t really comfortable with, given the circumstances. The girl reversed the grapple and was now grabbing Tyler, taking big handfuls of Ty’s body in ways that the network’s Standards and Practices people would definitely censor. They both struggled, trying to get control of the situation for very different reasons, and the girl pressed Ty against the railing of the central atrium. Their writhing caused Tyler to go over the railing. On pure reflex, she grabbed the girl’s hoodie, causing them both to fall a good 30 feet into the central concourse-

-where the MADs, the rookie Wiz Kids and the two unknown intruders were.

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“Okay, I did NOT see that coming,” Logan admitted.

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Tyler had just enough time when falling to remember that she could fly, and levitated just before she hit the atrium floor. The other girl managed to right herself, and landed with an odd electrical display. This surprised pretty much everyone, especially the woman who’d just disconnected the router from Geoff’s signal tower. She had the router cocked as though she was going to pass it to the footballer. But she paused to try to figure out what the new girls were about. Then she remembered what she was doing and threw.

The girl in the cat-hood pointed her hands at the router in midflight and somehow pulled it to her. “Hey!” Geoff demanded as he pushed towards her with intent, “What are you doing, I NEED that!”

The girl just made a motion with her hand like she was pushing Geoff away, a streak of electricity shot out, hit the chair and he rolled backwards uncontrollably into a mass of MADs. Tank and Tom Tsung charged in to help Geoff, but that only put them in harm’s way as well. Tyler ran over to help, but shifted power into strength instead of speed.

With Tyler out of the way, the woman in gym gear did a vaulting tumbling leap down onto the cat-hooded girl. The gym lady lashed out at the cat-hood girl with a hand that gave off a nasty shine, but the girl dashed out of her reach in staccato bursts of speed. The gym lady and the football guy tried to steer the cat-hooded girl, but she was too wary for them.

At least she was until she almost ran into a slender man in a black trench coat and wide-brimmed hat, who almost everyone agreed simply hadn’t been there before. Just as she was reacting to his presence, he laid one hand on her shoulder and she stopped, still as stone. Then he kicked the fog machine, which was on neutral, into overdrive, filling the immediate space with fog. Mike Kung started for them, but the man in black calmly pried the router out of the cat-hooded girl’s hands. Then he tossed it to the guy in football armor, and disappeared into the fog. The footballer dashed up the stairs to the second level and disappeared into the hallways of the mall. The gym lady leapt up to the third level and also disappeared from sight.

The cat-hooded girl just stood there, frozen in place.

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*

“The man in black!” Glynis yelped, since Dr. Chase wasn’t there to do it. “Where IS he? FIND him!”

“Nothing!” Logan said, clicking around the camera-frames frantically. “I’m picking up a couple of dark streaks, but I have no idea where he’s going, or even if that’s him.”

“No sign of spandex-lady,” Izzy said flatly.

“Flying eyeballs report motion on Neiman Marcus-4,” Clare said. “But whoever-it-was, was too fast for that drone to get a snap of.”

“Wait a minute, I managed to get a couple of eyeballs into the parking garage,” Logan said. “Mr. Newell is down and doesn’t look good. Our perps are in the loading garage, pulling some MADs into three trucks.”

Then there was a rattling explosion. “Wiz Kids, we have an explosion in the parking garage,” Glynis reported to all parties. Dr. Chase has finally arrived at the garage and is extracting Ace. All Security officer and Wiz Kids- and I DO mean ALL- are ordered to report to the front gate of the mall- and I mean the OUTSIDE of the front gate!- until we can figure out if this dump is safe to be in! And that means you too, Tyler!”

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“Yeah, I hear you, Velma,” Tyler phoned back. “But there’s a problem: the Sophomore year Catwoman? She’s not moving. And I don’t mean that she doesn’t want to move, I mean I literally can’t budge her! I’m putting all my strength into it, and Tank and Mike are helping, but we can’t get her to move an inch!”

Tank was tapping her forehead, trying to get an idea as to what was going on, when the ‘Catwoman wannabe’ suddenly snapped out of it. She was as startled as the Wiz Kids, but just as the guys were framing their questions, she zipped down the mall to the far side, and they heard the sounds of plywood breaking and glass shattering.

[TYLER!] Glynis snapped, [DON’T. Don’t make me sic Dr. Chase on you! Go! To! The! Front! Gate! NOW!]

Sheesh, when did she get so grouchy?” Tyler grumped, but she still went straight to the front gates.

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“And then she headed for the far side of the mall at Mach-whatever,” Tyler summed up in her part of the debriefing session. “From what we heard, she did a hard exit out the doors on the other side. We would have pursued, but we were under strict orders to vacate the premises.” Tank and Mike silently nodded, confirming the events.

Glynis just gave Dr. Chase and Newell a silent ‘I did the right thing’ blank look.

“And while it is nice to see a sudden upsurge in intelligent, responsible behavior- as I was climbing out of an abandoned elevator shaft,” Dr. Chase said, looking at the smartboard with the best shots they had of the six unknowns, “it doesn’t alter the fact that we know absolutely nothing about these people, or what they’re planning.”

“That’s not quite correct,” said a voice from the back of the room. The Wiz Kids and their minders turned to see a slender woman with shaggy white hair, wearing a very well-cut suit of scarlet clothing including a stylish wide-brimmed hat, standing at the back of the room.

“Diabolik,” Linda sneered.

“Anal-Retentive,” Jadis Frost shot back.

“Where are your two cohorts?” Linda asked snidely.

“What? They have lives,” Frost said as she strolled up to the front of the room. “Dr. Baber at the Foundation asked me to look into this for them. He seems to think that I’m on a first-name basis with everyone in the Supervillain community.”

“So you know everyone on that board,” Linda cooed snidely.

“Not everyone,” Frost said, touching one of the headshots and dragging it to the center of the smartboard. “HIM, I know.”

“Let me guess, you two used to date,” Tom Chase sneered, not willing to let Linda hog all the zingers.

“More like nodding acquaintances,” Frost tapped the shot, expanding it to fill the monitor. It was the man in black, a slender, narrow-faced man in his mid-Twenties. The magnified shot made the tense, disapproving set of his mouth more apparent. “This is Niles Ridgley, Age 26, Place of Birth: Manchester England, British Citizen and escaped convict.

“He’s a mutant with what’s called a ‘Warper’ trait, the ability to warp the very fabric of reality. In his case, he can dilate or compress TIME for short periods. He can slow down or speed up the passage of time, to make himself move at incredible speeds, or cause other people or things to be stuck where they are. When he stopped that girl in the cat hoodie, he seemed to appear out of nowhere and then touched her. What I think he did was he slowed time around him to get into position, and then sped up time around her, placing her in a form of stasis.”

“Is there any reason why he did it that way?” Tom Tsung asked.

“Okay, an INTELLIGENT question,” Jadis nodded in Tsung’s direction. “Yes. When you warp reality (let’s avoid the high physics explanation, there are only so many hours in the day) it’s like stretching a rubber band. You can stretch it for a while, but eventually it snaps back. Nigel here has a raft of ways of keeping the balance. One of his favorites is building up a lot of tension by moving at accelerated time and putting the backlash onto a door or like that which he’s just moved through, making it impossible to open until the time dilation is spent.

“Nigel fancies himself a Criminal Mastermind of the Mission Impossible school, with intricate plans, outré maneuvers and split-second timing. Unfortunately for Nigel, but fortunately for the rest of us, he tends to over-plan his schemes and loads them down with too many failure points.”

“Are you sure this guy is your Nigel Ridgley?” Glynis asked suspiciously.

“Well, the gimmick with the stasis effect coupled with this picture is pretty conclusive, but I have something that I think that I can present as proof.” She looked at Detective Sergeant Valerio Ramos of the LA Sherriff’s Department, the police liaison to the Quest Foundation. “From the footage taken by the flying eyes when Linda and Tom went into the training and practice chambers, there were several timed challenge stations. Did any of the stopwatches used in those stations survive?”

“Yes,” Ramos said sturdily.

“How many of them were Marathon™ ST211003s?”

“All of them,” Ramos said, rather ruffled. “How did you know that?”

“Marathons are Ridgley’s stopwatch of choice,” Jadis answered. “They go for about $150 a pop retail, but he buys them in bulk, wholesale. Oh, and the punishments for not completing the challenge in time are just his style, too. Ridgley has a passion for precision that borders on a fetish. As a matter of fact, while he’s used other names, he calls himself ‘Precision’, adding ‘Mister’ or ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ to suit his moods and pretensions. Oh, and he has degrees in Logistics, Engineering and History to back it up.”

Frost reduced Ridgley’s picture and enlarged the headshot of the ‘Gym Lady’. Jadis studied the picture for a moment and muttered something about ‘nose and boob jobs’. “Now her, I know. This is Marga Zborov, a Czech national born in Karlovy Vary; ICE is after her almost as much as the FBI and the MCO are. She’s a mutant with what’s called the ‘Energizer’ trait. She can channel powerful electromagnetic bursts, make great leaps and controlled descents, and she has hand-strikes that can paralyze or stun. She occasionally uses jetpacks powered by her personal energy. Back when I knew her, she had a yen to be a supervillain. Looks like she’s made it- last I heard, she had two outstanding murder warrants out for her.”

Jadis paused for a moment. “I wonder- should you feel good for someone when they live their dreams or be annoyed that those dreams are stupid?”

Jadis waved that aside. “She’s a competent hand-to-hand combatant, a reasonable stealth operative, and she has a mean streak you could plant cotton on. From your descriptions, the outfit you saw her in at the mall was her training outfit; her operating togs will be a lot meaner. Marga loves having backups and holdouts.” Jadis looked at her phone and added, “According to my source, while she’s had several code names, she’s currently using ‘Escapade’. I can only hope that she’s figured out that it’s better to be non-threatening.”

Jadis shrank that window and expanded another, the ‘football player’. “I think- and I stress think, though with Ridgley calling the shots and that jaw, it’s a good shot- that this is George Warren Mayfield, American national, born in Salem, Oregon, with a string of felony warrants out for him, but thankfully no Murder warrants.

“Another mutant, also an Energizer, though his bias is towards bursts of Flash-scale speed, though these also boost his strength and durability. His downside is that he has a 5-minute ‘battery’ that takes hours to recharge. Though that’s his personal internal ‘battery’; he may have improved on that, and I’d be amazed if he hasn’t acquired some kind of technical amplification of some aspect of those abilities. He wasn’t particularly vicious when I knew him, but if he’s hanging around with Marga, I wouldn’t put too much stake in that, if you ever run into him again. He’s currently using the nom de felon ‘Maddash’. He used to call himself ‘Dash’, but the Incredibles movie blew that out of the water for him.”

She shrank that window and expanded the window for the thug in the gray coveralls and black watchcap. “This is Benjamin Alonzo Torres, American National, born in El Monte in Los Angeles County. Also a mutant, he’s your basic brick, able to lift 4 tons with effort, bulletproof up to .50 caliber round levels of impact, and some level of energy absorption.”

“He’s a mutant?” Linda said snidely. “Am I picking up on a theme?”

Jadis ignored her. “He’s your basic super-strong thug. Not much in the way of the more disciplined martial arts, but he’s a street fighter at a level where Brown and Black Belts get worried. He has a long list of Wants, Warrants and Suspicions following him around, including three Murder raps. But despite that, he’s not particularly vicious; totally ruthless, he’ll kill you if that’s what it takes, but he won’t cripple or kill you if it doesn’t have to.”

“How comforting,” Tom Tsung said with a worried tone to his voice.

“You know him too?” Izzy asked.

“Not personally,” Jadis answered. “More that I knew OF him. He’s currently using the handle ‘Brawler’. Make of that what you will.” She shrank down his profile and expanded the giant’s. “This is the supervillain known as Matterhorn.”

“And you know him too?”

“As a matter of fact, no,” Jadis said flatly. “As I said, I hardly know everyone in the supervillain community. But I have heard of him, through two friends. As a matter of fact, one of those friends dropped him on the other one.” Jadis looked out at the blank looks on the assembled faces. “It was complex, you’d have to know the people involved, that sort of thing.

“Anyway, Matterhorn- no idea of his real name, whether he’s a mutant or a Batson Factor, if he has a Dynamorph or Power Stone-”

“How are you sure it’s this Matterhorn guy?” someone asked.

Jadis gave a sharp breath and picked up the remote. She called up the recording of Newell frantically scrambling to keep from getting squashed like a roach. “The reason that he’s called ‘Matterhorn’, aside from his size, is that while the source of his power is in question, its basic nature isn’t. Now I’m sure that you all know that a normal human being blown up to 30 feet high would break his legs from his own weight if he tried to walk, that is if he didn’t broil himself inside his skin from the Inverse Square Law first. But Matterhorn not only doesn’t fry himself, he’s actually very cold, because he ‘grows’ by warping space around himself so he seems much larger. While other ‘giants’ do this as well, for some reason, the imbalance Matterhorn causes creates a field of cold, so when he’s big, he’s partially covered with ice.” Jadis fiddled with the remote, froze one segment, and blew up a portion of the screen showing ice falling from the giant. “Like that.”

“Now, Matterhorn is a professional mercenary, with the emphasis on professional. Newell, the reason that Matterhorn didn’t squash you like a cockroach is simply that a killing would have complicated his contract too much. Period. And for you kids, that goes double. Ridgley, Zborov, Mayfield, Torres, Matterhorn- they didn’t try to kill you today, for the simple reason that killing a bunch of kids with such a high TV profile would have been stupid, and set the LAPD and LASD after them. But if you corner them and try to capture them, the kid gloves WILL come off. And you Wiz Kids who’ve been under the gun? That was kid gloves too. Now, think about it: as nasty as those scrapes were, how much worse would it have been if they had really been trying to kill you?”

Jadis diminished Matterhorn’s mug shot and brought up the mysterious man in the black covert ops rig, and the cat-hooded girl. “As for these two? No clue. Never seen either of them before.”

“Well it’s nice that you can admit that,” Ramos said with a smirk. “As a matter of fact, I can contribute something here.” He walked up to the smartboard and diminished the black covert ops photo as to expand the cat-hooded girl. “While we don’t know her name or other pertinents, this young woman is known to the LAPD as ‘Hex Kitten’. And no, she doesn’t call herself that; that tag was slapped on her by a local reporter and it stuck. She hasn’t communicated directly with the LAPD. And despite appearances, she isn’t a supervillain, or even a thief. Rather, she’s a Recovery Agent for stolen goods; she doesn’t steal things, she steals them back from thieves and supervillains.”

“Is that legal?” Tyler asked.

“The sleazebag lawyer she works for makes sure its legal,” Ramos assured her.

“But even if she has super powers, letting a minor do that kind of dangerous work is illegal,” Dr. Chase objected.

“According to Gerald Freed, the lawyer I did NOT just call a sleazebag either explicitly or implicitly, says she’s of age,” Ramos said with an undertone of ‘I ain’t buying it either’. “And this is Los Angeles; you got 15-year-olds who look 22, 21-year-olds who look 12, 40-year-olds who look 25 and 70+ year olds who look like 40-year-olds aging gracefully. And that’s before you take into account the mutant-, dynamorph-, power gem-, origin- whatever factor.” Ramos rolled his eyes, as to say, ‘not worth the effort’.

“But she broke and entered the mall,” Tyler pointed out. “That’s at least a misdemeanor, right?”

Ramos shook his head. “Freed’s too careful for that. He probably got permission from the holding company to check the electronics junk being stored for… something. Odds are that if you made a stink about it, you’d get in trouble for jumping her, and she won’t even get a slap on the wrist.”

“When she was checking out the models and floor plans and like that, she was saying ‘snap, snap, enlarge, snap’,” Tyler said. “It sounds like someone took Google Glasses™ seriously. She probably took pictures of the planning layout. There were architect’s models of a building, as I recall, and scale-model breakdowns of an area. And there were maps and floor plans and schematics tacked up. I doubt that I could remember specifics, but I got a definite impression that it was their planning room. Which was probably why they torched it. But wouldn’t that be withholding evidence from the Police?”

“I doubt it,” Ramos said sourly. “Hex Kitten would just pass the information along to Freed, and he’s way too cagy to get caught on a technicality like that. I dunno what dodge he’ll use, but I have no doubt that it’ll stick.”

“Why was this ‘Hex Kitten’ in the mall?” Heike asked as he strained to look over the older Wiz Kids’ heads to get a look at the board.

“The Coordinating Router,” Geoff said bitterly. “I thought that something that bleedin’ edge had no business being in that mash of trash.”

“Then why did you take it?”

“Because it was a COORDINATING ROUTER!” Geoff said as though that explained everything. Then something seemed to register for him. “We found a ton of this ‘n that, including a bunch of scragged multipurpose aerial drones. And they went to a ton of trouble to take a bunch of MADs. Whatever they’re up to must have a well-coordinated squad of drones as a major element of the plan.”

“As distractions or combatants or menial labor?”

“You’re asking ME?”

“I found one of those arcade games, the kind where you pass a football through a very narrow hole to win,” Tank said. “But there wasn’t any sign of any other time-killers. What kind of plan would involve throwing a football?”

“And we found a bunch of rolls of canvas with pouches, and some of them had bars of iron in them,” Glynis said. “Each bar weighed exactly 11.07 kilos, but it was duct taped into the pouch. There were 16 rows of 4 pouches, for 64 pouches each. Your Mr. Ridgley is supposed to be such a fiend for precision, Ms. Frost; do you have any ideas as to what he might be up to?”

Jadis shook her head. “NO. No, I have no ideas as to what Nigel is up to, and No, I have no intention of getting any further involved in this. I identified those I could, to the best of my knowledge. My closest connection with any of them is thin at best. But that there’s a connection at all is enough to rouse the suspicions of persons who’d inflate that meager link into a major mutant conspiracy.”

“Well that tends to happen, when you act like the Second Coming of Brigand,” Ramos said puckishly.

Jadis gave the Wiz Kids a ‘see what I have to put up with?’ look. “So, this will be the end of my involvement with this affair. Period.” With that, she walked out.

Dr. Chase stood and addressed the Wiz Kids. “Okay, I know, it’s very tempting to try and play detective on this. But we get enough trouble from career criminals just by being out there; we don’t need to go looking for it. As Ms. Frost pointed out, at least two of these people have outstanding Murder warrants pending. Unless you’re bulletproof, if you see these people, just CALL THE POLICE. And No, that isn’t permission to go after them, Tyler.

“Now, despite the interruption, the competition was a… mitigated success,” Dr. Chase tactfully shifted the topic. “The point of the exercise was to find out how you’d react in a crisis; and a surprise intrusion of a band of supervillains worked a lot better than the prepackaged ‘surprise’ of the ‘vampire’. There was no ‘winner’, but you all did well. Tomorrow morning, we’ll begin the next test. And NO, we’re not going to tell you. Normally, this is the part where we’d all pitch in and clean up, but the mall is now a crime scene, so we get to skip out on that. For the rest of the day, kick back, relax and do…. Stuff…”

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“So, Tyler, what are you going to do this afternoon?” Mike Kung asked.

“Dunno,” Tyler admitted. “It’s too nice a day to spend inside crunching numbers for my submarine geothermal mining project, the Diogenes is too crowded to just hang out, going into town with the guys would be awkward, going with the girls would be asking for trouble, and I don’t wanna fly without my wing harness, but I can’t do that until the FAA gives it their okay. So, I’m pretty much looking for something that’s not too lame.”

Mike was about to say something when a bright red Chevrolet Corvette Z15 convertible drove through the pier gate and pulled up beside the Diogenes. Two redheaded girls in the front seats stood up and called out, “Hiii, Tyyyleerrr.”

“And it is written,” Mike said in the tones of citing Ancient Sages, “’Ask and you shall receive’.”

Tyler flew/hopped off the ship over to beside the car. “Hayley? Holly? What are you doing here?”

Hayley and Holly slinked out of the ‘Vette. Hayley was wearing a white silk long-sleeved shirt over a blue bra, tied off under her bosom, with a pair of blue jeans short-shorts. Holly was wearing a blue jersey halter top with a pair of white duck Capri pants. It was early September, so it was still warm enough for that to be street wear- but only in Los Angeles.

“HI, Tyler,” Holly purred as she walked up to Ty. “I just wanted to thank you for how you saved my life two days ago. I thought that you could use some of THIS,” she held up a white plastic bottle. “It’s my own special shampoo. Besides cleaning the hair, moisturizing the scalp and having a mild antifungal- really, with Global Warming, molds and fungi are going to be a lot bigger problem than people realize- this has a mild fire retardant factor. When you run into dangerous situations as often as we do, you’ve got to be worried about having your hair catch on fire.” She shook her pageboy do in demonstration.

“Now hold up the bottle and big smile for the camera!” Izzy yelled from the railing.

“OR, if you’re worried about your hair, you could simply wear a helmet when you’re going into a dangerous situation,” Tyler pointed out.

“Yeah, but where’s the TVQ in that?”

“And I brought you something too,” Hayley said playfully. With a puckish smirk, she held a 12” tall stuffed brown bear wearing a gray trench coat and snap brim hat up to her face and struck a pose.

“It’s… a teddy bear…” Tyler pointed out the obvious.

oooohhh…!!!” came a chorus of jeers from the railings of the ship, “A TEDDY BEEEAAARRR…” And sure enough, the pier-side railing was full.

“No, it’s a Spy Bear!” Hayley said, pushing the plushy up to Tyler. “It’s an anthroform remote surveillance unit! It synchs up to your Smartphone, is compatible with iOS™ or Android®, and it has options for bipedal or quadrupedal motion. It has a digital camera that can take snapshots or record up to 5 minutes of footage. It also has audio, Thermographic Recognition, IR and UV. You can leave it on your desk to watch your work, in case anyone snoops through your stuff.” Hayley shot Holly a nasty look.

“I did NOT take your work!” Holly huffed. “Why would I mess with your acoustic experiment? I’m Biophysics and Biochem, remember?”

“And it will look SO kyyyuuutteee on your dresser,” Tom Chase catcalled.

“Now you could do the same thing with an aerial drone, but these days everyone knows what a spy drone looks like. But if they see a teddy bear? They just ask ‘who dropped the toy?’”

“And it can sit on your bed and keep you company…” Linda jeered.

“And the trench coat isn’t just an affectation,” Hayley continued. “The lining is a rack for various operations chips, so you can alter its functions quickly.” She held the adorable spy camera up next to her face and smiled winningly.

“Which is nice,” Holly said, taking the ‘Spy Bear’ from Hayley and tossing it in the back seat of the ‘Vette, “but the reason we’re here is to take you shopping.”

“Shopping?” Tyler echoed, “Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”

“Tyler,” Hayley stepped in, “we know how it is- you’re this big genius, and you think that’s all that matters. Then you turn around and you’re all alone because you have no social skills and your taste in clothing sucks.”

“And you’re hanging on to your old wardrobe because it’s the last shred of your manhood,” Holly cut in. “But that’s not a good idea, on a whole bunch of levels. If nothing else, it gives wiseasses a club to use on you. If you own up to your femininity, then you take away their club- or at least one of their clubs. I’m not saying you have to go all glam, but there are a lot of looks that are very femme without being all girly-girl.”

“Just not what you’re wearing,” Hayley said pertly.

“I’d love to say something snippy and sarcastic here,” Clare said as she rested her chin on her hand at the railing, “but the sad fact is that they have a good point.”

Hayley and Holly came around on Tyler’s both sides and used their very feminine wiles on Tyler’s still very teenage boy sensibilities. As Tyler balked, the jeers and slightly lewd suggestions flew freely from the railing of the Diogenes. “Oh puh-leeze!” Linda scoffed, “You know that they’re just trying to exploit Tyler!”

“And that makes them different from any other 16-year-old girl HOW?” Geoff asked, watching the scene with a big grin on his face. Linda gave a weary tisk. “What? I may be paralyzed from the waist down, but I’m not DEAD. Yeah, c’mawwwn, exploit me, babe, EXPLOIT ME!” he yelled down to the car.

“Well, you don’t need to be a genius to see how this is going to go,” Glynis said as she walked down the gangway off the ship. “I’m going along as chaperone.”

“WHY?” Hayley and Holly asked in perfect chorus.

“Well, besides the obvious, there’s the matter that it wouldn’t look good if Ty was busted for riding in a car with no accredited driver.”

“We have drivers’ licenses,” Hayley and Holly said in unison again.

“You’re 16,” Glynis pointed out, “You have learners’ PERMITS, which require that there be a licensed driver in the car when you operate the vehicle. I, on the other hand, am 17 and have my LICENSE.” She smugly held up a laminated card.

Peering at the card, Holly said, “That’s a BRITISH drivers’ license.”

“Which is recognized and valid in the state of California,” Glynis held her ground.

“FINE,” Hayley snarled, slamming a pair of sunglasses on. “But I’M driving.” She jingled the keys as she walked to the driver’s side door.

“Lovely,” Glynis smugged, going to the far door. “I’ll take the side seat, to keep an eye on you while you try to drive this thing, which is too much car for a learner.”

“Perfect,” Holly said with a big grin. She swept Tyler up into her arms and climbed into the back seat with her. She set Tyler onto the seat and buckled her in. Then she draped her arm around Tyler’s shoulder and said, “Well? What are we waiting for?”

Hayley shot her twin a sharp look, but she had no intention of giving up driving the ‘Vette after all they had to go through to get to use it. She put the key in the ignition, gunned the engine and did a U-turn reverse to get off the pier.

Watching the corvette drive off the pier onto the road, Tommy Chase tipped his trademark cowboy hat back and said, “Well, you don’t need to be psychic to see trouble heading Ty’s way. So there’s only one thing to do.” He pulled out his tablet. “Set up a betting pool. So, the factors are: exactly what are the Hellions pulling, how badly things will go screwy, and how many police officers will have to be called in to settle things down…”

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While the Hellions did take Tyler shopping, Glynis noted that they didn’t go to Beverly Hills or Bel-Aire, or any of the paparazzi-hives where they could be sure of a good photo-op or two. Instead, they went to the more tech-trendy outlets near Tech City. And Glynis noted that while Holly was all over Tyler, getting her to try more and more clothing on, Hayley kept checking her watch. Then, just about 4 o’clock, Hayley suddenly declared that Tyler HAD to have her hair done, because the mess she was wearing made everything she tried on look sloppy.

Well, Glynis had a hard time arguing with that. But she found the timing of it suspicious. Then, instead of taking her to Andy LeCompte or Méche Salon, again primo photo op opportunities, they took Tyler to a Supercuts™ near the innovation center. When Glynis pointed that out, Hayley said that this salon was used by up-and-coming Tech types, so their hairdressers could give Ty a ‘do that would fit in with that set, and probably be nice and easy to maintain.

“Besides,” Holly said, “one of these Supercutters will be a lot more likely to give my Fireproofing Shampoo a try- and an endorsement.”

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A half-hour later, Tyler had been shampooed, washed, rinsed, trimmed and styled. Her hair was a little shorter. The cut was a short sporty bob, that the stylist assured Tyler was what all the prominent female tech mavens were wearing. Tyler looked at herself in the salon window reflection; the cut did have a certain style, a sort of zing. So why did she feel like she’d lost something in the trim? “I’m not gonna have to, y’know, condition and… stuff… to keep it like this, am I?”

“Seriously, you look niiiccceee…” Holly assured her. “But why didn’t you try my fireproofing shampoo?” Then, as the first wave of refugees from the grindstone started to file out, a bluish streak broke through their ranks and into one of the buildings. A shot rang out, and the techsters scattered to find cover. As they did this, a trim woman in a deep red outfit covered in silvery metallic diamonds and long flowing black hair, did a dramatic rolling handstand charge through the thinning crowd into the same building. Alarms went off, and suddenly a giant in gold-plate on blue heavy body armor started to make his way to the same building, with a normally-sized man in a rather stock (if also well-armored) green-and-yellow ‘supervillain’ suit trotting after him. Tyler noticed that the giant was already gaining a sheath of rime-frost, and the smaller man had ‘Brawler’ on the side of his leggings.

“OMIGAWD!” Holly and Hayley said in chorus. “It’s a Break-in!” Hayley gasped. Together they ran to the trunk of the Vette.

“NO,” Tyler said sternly placing her hand firmly on the hood of the trunk. “This is a Police matter. We call 911, on the very off-chance that they haven’t already been alerted by the building’s Security. If, and I stress IF, we see any civilians being directly endangered, we can act to protect them, but unless and until we see anyone being threatened, we let the Cops handle it.”

“But those are Supervillains!” Holly insisted, yanking at the trunk, trying to get it open. “The Cops can’t handle them! It would be a bloodbath!”

“And there are four acknowledged superhero teams in the greater Los Angeles area- five if they’re still shooting ‘The Mask Squad’- who’ll be contacted by either the LAPD or the LA Sheriff. THEY will handle it. If we go charging in, we’d be liable for the damages or anyone injured in the fight.”

“She’s right, girls,” Glynis said with no small (and quite obvious) satisfaction. “As it stands, Tyler doing anything would simply escalate the violence, and she’d be held accountable.”

“So? Who says that we can’t find out what they’re doing?” Holly asked. Together, Holly and Hayley pulled the hood of the trunk open- after all, no matter how much force Tyler put on it, that force was only as great as her weight. When the trunk was open, Hayley reached in, lifted a safety lid, and pressed a large green button. A swarm- a small swarm, but still a swarm- of grapefruit sized ‘flying eye’ remote cameras flew out and hovered around the girls. Holly, who already had her geniusphone out, snapped a picture of the building in question, and deftly initiated a menu of instructions.

As the ‘flying eyes’ trooped off to scout out the location, Glynis asked, “You carry a squad of flying cameras around with you?”

“This is Los Angeles,” Hayley said as though that explained everything.

“You’re calling 911?” Tyler asked Hayley, as she was doing something with her geniusphone, and Holly was clearly guiding the flying eyes.

“No, I’m informing KTLA Channel 5 News,” Hayley said matter-of-factly. “But calling 911 is a good idea; you do it.”

“What are you doing?” Tyler yelped at Holly, who’d put her geniusphone away and was pulling her white Capri pants down. Glynis immediately spread out her arms, as to form a human screen from cameras.

“What? I’m supposed to find a phone booth?” Holly asked rhetorically as she pulled her white armored sleeveless pantsuit on. “Have you ever tried to find a phone booth in Los Angeles? ARE there any phone booths left in LA? And who changes in a phone booth, anyway?” She tugged at some cords that dropped some cloths from the sides of the hatch, giving her and Hayley a modicum of privacy.

“Okay, I don’t need a script to see where this is going, girls,” Tyler said severely. “But I can’t let you go in there, flying Tac/ Ops or not. I mean, isn’t there the teeny matter that you two blew out the side of a building the last time you tried to play hero?”

“We’re paying that off!” Holly and Hayley returned in unison.

“Girls,” Glynis said putting as much authority into her voice as her British accent would allow (a surprisingly effective move in Los Angeles), “I’m afraid that unless something happens to obviously endanger the people still in that building, anything that any of you three could do would only make the situation far worse. Just call the Police-”

Then three LA school district busses pulled up, and both the front door and back emergency doors of all three busses opened up. From the back doors came swarms of large aerial drones, and from front doors tottered MADs wearing bright red polo shirts, with brown squarish packets strapped to their chests. They were each carrying a rifle-like weapon with a 2-pronged addition sticking out the front. Hayley pulled an optical device from the harness that she hadn’t gotten around to putting on and peered at the newcomers. “Those are demolitions packets! Anyone messing with those drones, either the ones in the air or the ones on the ground, could set off a chain reaction that could hurt, cripple or KILL hundreds of people!”

“And they’re herding the civilians into small groups to act as meat shields!” Holly added.

“So, that’s what Ridgley wanted the MADs and the Coordinating Router for,” Glynis let slip.

“A coordinating router?” Haley asked as she pulled her opera gloves on. “You mean they have a coordinating router?”

“You know what a coordinating router is?”

“Well, YAH!” Hayley said, “I’ve only subscribed to the Top 10 Telecommunications news sites since I was EIGHT!”

“APN this, MPLS that,” Holly sneered, rolling her eyes, “IPT, FMU, Hybrid this, Cloud Native that, Capillary the other…”

“The POINT here is that those supervillains are going to use those MADs to keep the civilians as hostages, while the aerial units gather up as many more hostages as they can, and the coordinating router will keep shuffling them around so that SWAT won’t be able to develop a safe tactic for extracting the hostage until WAY after the Supervils have pulled off whatever they’re here for!” Hayley rattled off.

Tyler and Glynis looked at each other. “She’s right,” Glynis admitted, “And I HATE it!”

“Look, the Router is probably connected to the building’s internal and external Security feeds,” Hayley said. “Just get me to where the Router is patched in, and getting it unpatched will be a piece of cake.”

“But don’t just rip it out,” Holly said. ‘Anyone this tech savvy would have a subsystem that would detonate all the demo packs in response to any sudden drop in voltage across the system.” Glynis gave Holly a chilly look. “What? I happen to be into demolitions! Y’know? Supervillain kid? ‘Jamie wants big boom’?” she finished with an awkward grin.

“She’s right,” Tyler said. “From what Frost said, Ridgley is just anal enough to have at least one such subsystem.” Glynis, Holly and Hayley gave Tyler surprised looks. “Hey, I’m a Geologist. We use demolitions in a wide variety of applications. I got my Federal Explosives License when I was 12.”

“That’s RIGHT!” Holly gleeped brightly. “I remember! The Hyena Men in Sierra Leone! We could-”

Shaking her head and rubbing the bridge of her nose, Tyler held up a restraining hand and said, “NO. Yes, I agree, it sucks, but as it is, Ridgley has it rigged so that if they get away with… whatever, the hostages won’t be hurt. Afterwards? Detonating those drones would kick Felonious Endangerment right up to Mass Murder. There’s no way that Ridgley would be stupid enough to do that; if anything, us going in there and trying to be the Big Damn Heroes would get everyone killed, and YES, we’d be liable, minors or not. Glynis, call 911, give them the low-down, and we can use the girls’ drones to give SWAT a logistical heads-up. Unless something happens to upset this very delicate situation, we stay put.” Tyler fixed the two Hellions with her best ‘I’m the Man here’ glare. Ironically, now that she didn’t have the primary equipment for it, she was doing a better job of it. When he’d tried it before, all he got for it was gales of laughter.

Holly and Hayley gave Tyler coordinated ‘but we WANNA!’ pouts. Tyler held firm- until a gray figure darted through the gathering hostage groups evading shots from the MADs and drones. Glynis gasped, “It’s Hex Kitten! She’s here for the router; that’s what she was really after, at the Hawthorne Mall. Ridgley must have stolen it, and there’s a bounty out for its return.”

“But she doesn’t know about the demo packets,” Tyler added, seeing Glynis’ real point. Looking at Hayley, she asked, “So, you can jam the demo packet’s signal, right?”

“Sure!” Hayley breezed. “IF I had my broadcast rig- which I don’t- and I knew what their frequency was- which I don’t- and Ridgley doesn’t have Anti-Jam EMC- which I sincerely doubt- and it doesn’t set off the demo packets by accident- which is way too likely.”

Tyler rage-cringed and snarled. “FINE! I’ll go in and try to keep her from blowing the place apart. You two get geared up and go in- but only to remove the router! It’s the only way to get the hostages away from them without blowing them to pieces. Past That? Leave it to the Cops! Glynis, call 911, and try to get them to see that we’re only doing this because Hex Kitten forced our hand.” With that, Tyler shrugged into her harness, lifted off and headed towards the building.

Holly and Hayley hugged each other as they gave out squees of triumph, the kind that only teenage girls who’ve gotten away with something can pull off. Then they hastily helped each other on with their battle togs and harnesses. As they did this, Glynis looked heavenward for strength and punched 911 into her Smartphone.

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As she flew into the building, ‘Threshold Innovation Park’ (Jeez, pretentious much?), Tyler furiously tried to figure out where Ridgley would install the router. While Electronics wasn’t his-er, HER area of expertise, Tyler was electronics savvy enough to realize that the router would be placed where it would have a clear area of signal for the drones, while being located somewhere that Ridgley would have a clear shot at it, most likely with a communications laser. Then again, she could just follow Hex Kitten, who seemed to have an idea as to what was going on. After all, from what Sgt. Ramos had said, what Hex Kitten was trying wasn’t illegal, just dangerous. If Tyler helped Hex Kitten remove the router, it would make it harder for Ridgley to make good on his implicit threat of blowing up the hostages, so there was no reason for them to fight this time.

Tyler just hoped that Hex Kitten would listen to her. Tyler had always had problem getting girls he hadn’t known for months to listen to him about anything, no matter how important. Not that his track record with guys was much better.

When Tyler got past the unmanned Security cordon, the guy in blue, whom Ty supposed was ‘Maddash’ and the woman in red-with-white-diamonds (probably ‘Escapade’), were just breaking off from mixing it up with the building’s Security guys. Seriously, rent-a-cops don’t get paid enough to get bounced around like that. Tyler hoped that the Security guys had Sick Days lined up. Maddash and Escapade were reacting to Hex Kitten, who’d just breezed past them. She jumped onto a kind of scissor-lift refitted as a catapult, hit a button and got thrown WAY up into the air.

Okay, a catapult was a clever way of getting people up to a higher floor quickly without tiring them too much. Maddash and Escapade were caught between handling the justifiably pissed security guards and Tyler getting to the catapult. For some reason, Maddash wasn’t dashing about. The catapult was clearly not part of the building’s usual gear, and was undoubtedly part of the villains’ scheme. So Tyler smashed it and flew up the stairwell before Maddash and Escapade could react.

Just as Escapade was about to try to leap up the stairwell, a trim redheaded girl in white zipped up on power skates. “Quick!” she yelled right into Maddash’s face, “The Router’s blown! Get out before this place goes sky high!” On pure reflex, Maddash looked over to the Security office, where the router was patched into the building’s Fire Control panel. “♪Thank you!♪” the girl chirped, just before she sprayed Maddash head to foot with a grayish powder.

“Dash, you IDIOT!” Escapade shrieked.

“Aw, take a chill pill, Gramma!” the girl sneered, just before she flicked her wrist as to switch the setting of the pistol-like nozzle of her sprayer. Then she sprayed Escapade with a gooey greasy-green near-gel that covered the woman from head to foot. Then the girl gave a gloating “Beep! Beep!” and jetted out of the lobby into the Fire Control Center.

Escapade let out a snarl and lurched to follow the little ninny before she derailed everything. But the gel was paradoxically too sticky and too slippery. Somehow it contrived to slip when she needed traction, and to stick her foot to the floor when she needed to lift her feet. And there was something off about Escapade’s energy. It just wasn’t reacting the way it should. And for some reason that gel was bubbling and sudsing. Escapade jammed at her communicator button, as to tell Precision that his precious timetable was seriously screwed, but the gel was messing with that as well.

Maddash, who’d been watching this dumfounded, started to run toward the Fire Control Center. But the second he lifted a foot, he slipped on the gray dust at his feet and fell on his face. He struggled to get up, but couldn’t get any purchase to lift himself. Several minutes of futile struggling on both their parts later, and the girl zipped out with the router, connections dangling everywhere, tucked under her arm. “Gee thanks! You were tons of help. I’m gonna give you a rave review on Yelp™.” Then she skated over to the stairwell, hopped up onto the wall railing and powered up higher.

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Brawler kicked the pushy Catwoman-wannabe kid as she tried to pull the roll off the catcher before he could. The kick sent her sprawling and she smashed into the far wall. But Brawler knew from experience that she wasn’t slumping the way she would if she was unconscious. He hated to leave someone hostile at his back, but he had a job to do. He carried the roll on his shoulder through the short hallway into the courtyard that was open to the sky. Matterhorn was standing there at full height. He had a hand at the temple of his helmet, which probably meant that he was talking to someone on a communications band. Then Matterhorn noticed him and looked down. “We got eight rolls, but there’s a problem! I got a super-powered intruder right behind me, and Maddash and Escapade aren’t answering my calls. Is that Precision?”

Matterhorn paused and said, “Yeah. He heard you, and he knows just what to do.” Without a word, Matterhorn reached down and picked up Brawler. With a few pauses for adjustments for accuracy aided by Precision, Matterhorn cocked the furiously squawking Brawler and passed him like a football.

Brawler missed the matt on the van roof by a couple of feet, but that was due mostly to his own panicked thrashing. Brawler was tough, but hitting asphalt at that velocity still hurts. But his mutant trait allowed him to absorb kinetic impact, so if anything, he was tougher for taking the hit. He was strong enough to peel himself off the blacktop and get over to the van. He pulled that matt off and gripped it by the handles on one side, turning the matt into a 6-foot high x 8-foot wide ‘catcher’s mitt’. He slowly ‘clapped’ the mitt to show that he was ready to receive.

He clapped until he got a signal from Precision that Matterhorn had just ‘passed’ a roll. Brawler readied the mitt and caught the roll. Brawler could lift a little over 2 tons, so even with the protection of the mitt, the impact of the roll rocked him. It perked up his strength a little more, which was the reason that Precision chose him for the job. The second roll hurt a little less, and by the time the forth roll hit, he was strong enough to be very dangerous.

Brawler was prepped for the fifth roll, and it took him a while to realize that Matterhorn was way off schedule. Looking up over the edge of the ‘mitt’, he saw that there wasn’t a roll incoming. Then he saw a roll come flying, just as it should, if maybe a little behind schedule. Brawler flinched at the thought of being behind schedule. Damn stink penalties. Then a blur appeared around the roll. It slowed in mid-flight and came to a stop. Brawler followed the tight cone of blur to a girl in some kind of flight rig. She was pointing a ‘gun’ that produced a whirlwind that caused the blur. Brawler had seen enough double-dome projects just like it to know one when he saw it.

The girl used the vortex to slow down the roll in mid-flight and set it down on the ground next to another roll. Oh No! Brawler knew that Precision would ding him for every roll that the girl hijacked. And he wasn’t going to have wasted weeks on Precision’s piss-ant rehearsal drills, just to be in the hole for a couple of Mil!

As Brawler charged at her, the girl waited for something, then casually aimed her vortex gun at him, and lifted him off his feet. Then she threw him to the far corner of the parking lot. Brawler was not known for being a deep thinker, but he was wise enough to cover his ass.

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“What do you MEAN the rolls are being intercepted?” Precision demanded. “By a GIRL? Why don’t you- oh, Vortex gun. Yeah, I see your problem, Buster. How about Maneuver Chuck-12? Chuck-12, you throw everything heavy in the area at her until the Vortex gun gives out. Oh, the only things weapon-heavy are the rolls, and she’s already got two of those. How about-”

Precision was cut off by the sound of the hatch on the News van door sliding open. Before he could kick in his time-dilation, there was a *tzung!* sound, and he froze- completely. Ten minutes subjective time would pass before he unfroze. ‘What if he hadn’t been a time-warping mutant?” the LAPD SWAT sergeant asked Glynis as she lowered the warp-disruptor.

“Then nothing would have happened,” Glynis said with the smug little look of victory (which cost her Viewer Identification points) that she used when she figured something out when no one else did.

“And how did you know that it was a time-warp whatever?”

“The Hellion sisters had it in the boot of that car of theirs,” Glynis explained. “I figured that they had a countermeasure for each of the villains. They geared up with measures for each of the villains they’d seen. Precision here never showed himself, so they didn’t weigh themselves down with a gizmo they didn’t expect to use.”

“And how did you know that he’d be in this van?”

“Our profile on Precision said that he was anal-retentive and had control issues. He’d want to keep as close an eye on the action as he could. And this News van was the only thing in the area with a communications tower that could handle that.”

“That, and you checked the license plates on this van and found out that it was stolen.”

“That too.”

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Maddash fiddled with his personal recharge unit and shoved in a power cartridge as Escapade scraped the foaming gunk off her. They were both bone-tired, but in the supervillain biz the old chestnut ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’ isn’t a byword; it’s a bare minimum for keeping your career on track. No one wants to hire a wimp for dirty work. The elevator dinged, the door opened, and they shared ‘let’s do this’ looks. They squared their shoulders and advanced out of the elevator. They were greeted by the sound of thrashing about. They advanced to the courtyard, where Matterhorn was prone on the concrete, but putting up a fight regardless. There were three girls zipping around keeping the big guy from getting up. One was the smartass redhead who had the router. Another one was one of the Wiz Kids who’d rumbled their rehearsal space at the Hawthorne mall. And the third one? Yet another Catwoman wannabe, but this one had some serious speedster chops.

And since when did Catwoman throw around electrical bursts?

Then Maddash spotted the undelivered rolls, waiting for Matterhorn to throw them to Brawler. Obviously the plan was rumbled, BUT- “We stick to the plan,” Maddash said. “Grab a roll and go over the side.”

Escapade nodded grimly and they both ran for the line of rolls, each grabbing one roll, no matter how clumsy and heavy it was. The redhead tried to cut off Escapade, and got body-checked off her skates for it.

Maddash ran up to Matterhorn, who’d managed to get on his hands and feet. The chick with the flight rig tried to knock Matterhorn off his pins again, but Maddash took the hit for him. “Third Down, Big Guy!” Maddash snapped. “It’s Hail Mary time!” Matterhorn nodded, snatched up Maddash and cocked his arm to pass. But the Catgirl jumped on top of Maddash and held on. And Maddash couldn’t use the PFG to peel her off; it only had one use, and he needed that for his touchdown.

Matterhorn didn’t register the extra weight and heaved for all he was worth. But then, Matterhorn was of the ‘Win, Lose or Draw, it wasn’t ‘cause I wussed out’ school. The catgirl screamed as Matterhorn let fly, and the girl with the flying rig zipped right after them.

The skater girl was suddenly very aware that she was all alone against two supervillains, both of whom had recent scores to settle with her.

But Escapade was more professional- and pragmatic- than that. She clipped a carabineer with a rappelling cord attached to the leg of a bench that was bolted to the floor. She then jumped up to the edge of the wall that enclosed the courtyard- or at least she tried to. She had to scramble for it, but she made it over the side and then rappelled down the other side. Matterhorn grabbed a roll with one hand, gripped the side with the other and pulled himself up to the edge as he shrank down to normal size as he did. He then connected a carabineer to Escapade’s cord and followed her down to street level.

Hayley had the distinct impression that she’d just been outdone by sheer professionalism. Then she kicked in her skates again; if she could skate up there in good time, then skating down should be a piece of cake. “aaawww…. CRAP!”

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Maddash made a crash landing in the parking lot with absolutely no assistance from Brawler. Not that he really expected it, but is it too much to ask for a little professionalism? The catgirl flipped off him in a way that synched with the ‘popping’ of the PFG ‘bubble’ to really rattle his cage.

But when he cleared his head, he had a hard time blaming Brawler. Mr. Tough Guy was being held in an awkward unleveraged position by the chick with the flying rig- that is, the brunette chick in civvies, not the redhead in the kicky white outfit- face down on the blacktop with one arm leveraged behind his back as a full squad of SWAT slapped the third of a set of extra-large double-reinforced handcuffs on him, ready to complete the bust by snapping them all shut. Brawler was good and busted. Maddash actually felt sorry for the goon. But teamwork is teamwork is teamwork, even when your teamie is an asshole. Hell, especially when your teamie is an asshole.

Maddash charged through the SWAT cops, scattering them and giving Brawler his opening. Brawler had more than his fair share of faults, but being slow to take advantage of an out wasn’t one of them. He made a break for it, but he was almost instantly picked up by a vortex from above. “Naaawwwt agaaaaiiinnn!” Brawler bawled.

So much for teamwork. Maddash grabbed a second roll, but ran into the awkward fact that he was already carrying a roll that weighed almost one and a half thousand pounds. Maddash was significantly stronger than the average baseline human, but he wasn’t THAT much stronger, and even when he was charged up, he was just up to carrying one of those puppies. Marga was mixing it up with the Catgirl and barely holding her own. Stopwatch, or Mr. Precision as he was calling himself these days, wasn’t giving any suggestions (for once) so Maddash decided to look out for Number One.

Unfortunately, almost wrenching his arm out of his socket that way stopped Maddash cold, and he got jumped by the girl in the flying rig. Which, normally, jailbait or not, would have made Maddash’s day. But this chick was stronger than he was.

Thank God for body armor.

Maddash dropped both rolls and shoved in a fresh power cartridge. But in his case of rattling chimes-ringing, he lit out in the wrong direction and had to pull a 60 degree turn and head for the Interstate. But the girl was after him, and- how the hell could she be a speedster, on top of everything else?

Stupid California traffic! As he piled into the side of a BMW that was making an illegal turn, Maddash had the fleeting thought that Hazard had been right to not take this gig. Then a pair of delicate- but unnaturally strong- hands peeled him off the dent in the overpriced nouveau-riche-mobile. ‘Crap,’ he thought to himself, ‘at least my Escape Insurance with the Syndicate is paid up.’

Brawler managed to escape the vortex by holding himself straight, legs together, arms flat against his side, thus reducing his drag. He landed, but made the mistake of looking up at the girl with the flying rig. She pegged him straight in the face with a dazzle-beam. As he reacted, another girl in white zipped past him on power-skates and tagged him with a paralytic baton. He furiously tried to fight the paralysis, but the girl with the flying rig dropped on top of him, forcing him to the blacktop. Between them, they managed to wrestle his arms close enough together to shut the hasps of the handcuffs that SWAT had gotten on him. Then they wrapped his ankles together with very powerful binders.

Marga was of two minds: on one hand, she realized that her best option at this point was to just drop the roll and leave; on the other hand, that one roll was worth enough money that even with the paltry 5% that the fences would let her have, she could retire. The deciding factor was, sadly, that annoying stubborn pride of hers refused to let a scrawny teenage knockoff Catwoman get the better of her.

The problem was that their powers were too similar: electromagnetic pulses, turbo-charged strength and speed, powered jumps and like that. Marga clearly had more experience, but she didn’t have any practice dealing with people with the same basic style. The kid, on the other hand, had the paradoxical advantage of not having a lot of experience in violence; which meant that she wasn’t fighting her own reflexes.

Oh, and the kid was both faster than she was, and could blast at range.

But training and experience will out. ‘Escapade’ suckered the little bitch into a classic anime jump-clash, grappled her into a fall, and used her to break Escapade’s fall. As the catgirl reeled, Escapade prepped one of her killing strikes. But she stopped short- would a killing electrical strike damage another energizer? Or would it just glance off her nervous system? Maybe it would even buff her?

As Marga chose exactly the wrong time to break from her usual thoughtless form, the skate-girl zipped by and gave her a point-blank dazzling flare. As Marga reacted to that, the other girl, the one with the flying rig, loaded a cylindrical cartridge into her projector and let fly. In flight, the cylinder unrolled into a sheet that separated into a net. The net draped itself around Marga and reacted to her energy by contracting, cinching itself tighter. Marga tried to burn it off her, but if anything, it was draining her energy.

Who builds an energy-draining net, let alone carries it to a crime scene, on the off-chance that they MIGHT run into an energizer?

When Marga fell, Hex Kitten jumped on her and secured the older woman’s legs with binders from the fannypack on her belt. Then she checked the woman’s back- no sign of the router. Hex Kitten felt her stomach tighten as the possibility that she’d gone through all that, just to go back empty handed. Then she felt something that replaced that worry with an even greater terror: the ground under them shook.

While people from other places may think that Californians are blasé about earthquakes, the fact is that most Californians are only nonchalant about the minor tremors that freak out visitors to the state. Like most locals, Hex Kitten’s reaction to the shaking was ‘oh crap, this is a big one’.

Then Hex Kitten looked up, and her worries about a repeat of the 1996 quake disappeared. But it vanished only to be replaced by a more immediate threat: that 30 foot-tall giant was tromping down the blacktop at her, leaving bathtub-sized holes in the asphalt behind him. But a figure zipped over her in his direction, and Hex Kitten just had time to register that it was that dark-haired girl with the red jetpack before-

- a beam of energy lanced out from behind them, hitting the giant square in his center mass. He quavered like Jell-o™ for a moment, and shrank down to normal size, tripping over the side of his own footprint.

Tyler looked down as Matterhorn scrambled to get back to his feet. Deciding to not trust that this was only a temporary measure, or that the villain wasn’t as dangerous at normal height as he was at full growth, Ty dove down and gripped the back of Matterhorn’s breastplate. With a firm grip, Tyler lifted until they were about 40 feet up. Leaning in to speak at her prisoner’s ear level, Tyler said, “Now, no matter how big you get, how you think you’ll handle a 40 foot drop?”

Matterhorn’s only response was to make a sick sound and stop struggling. Then Tyler pulled out her cell phone, called Glynis and asked her to ask the SWAT captain if they had anything to restrain a giant. After some confusion due to poor signal quality, SWAT had Holly Hellion fly up with a ‘Choke Collar’, which she clamped around Matterhorn’s neck. The theory was that while the prisoner might grow, the collar wouldn’t, and it would put pressure on his carotids, causing him to pass out. Which toed the line of ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishment’ according to some Civil Rights types, but the courts had accepted it as a humane special measure to handle an extraordinary prisoner. When the collar was firmly around Matterhorn’s neck, Tyler lowered them both down to the ground and remanded him over to the LAPD.

“HEY!” Hayley snapped when she saw Glynis saunter smugly onto the scene, carrying a strange tangle of tubing and instrumentation. “That’s MY Warp Disruptor!”

“Yes, I know,” Glynis said with the same smirk that had annoyed the SWAT cops before.

“What are you doing with the Router?” Hex Kitten demanded of Hayley. “That’s MY Score! I have the Writ of Replevin for it!’

From that point, it broke out into a 4-way bitch-fest, and SWAT wisely decided to stay out of it, at least as long as the girls confined themselves to squabbling. Tyler, even more wisely, decided to derail the squabbling before it escalated into superpowered violence- on local TV. “LADIES,” she cut in smoothly (or at least she hoped smoothly) “The Router? So what? It’s peanuts! If you let Hex Kitten-”

“Hex Kitten?” Hex Kitten gleeped, “Who’s Hex Kitten?”

“If you let her have the Router, which, as she said, she does have a writ for, then Glynis and I will let the three of you jointly file for the reward on these rolls, using the Quest Foundation’s resources.”

“Why would we want to use your Foundation’s lawyers?” Holly asked.

“Yeah, we already HAVE a lawyer,” Hayley continued.

“And he charges you HOW MUCH, just to have lunch?” Tyler asked archly. “The Foundation has more lawyers, on salary, who are flat-out better than Freed, or whoever you Hellions use, and are better connected. They’ll GET us the 5% of these rolls’ estimated value.”

“AND, no one will bother to ask why you two just happened to have exactly the proper exotic equipment to have on hand to handle a passel of ne’er-do-wells that you just happened to stumble across by happenstance,” Glynis said with her trademark smug satisfaction. “Or do you always tool around in a sports car with Newscast-grade remote drones and Warp Disruptors in the boot?” Glynis patted the beyond SOTA piece of hardware in question.

“Why would that be so much better than the reward for the router?” Hex Kitten asked.

“Think about it- there are nine rolls at 64 units per roll,” Tyler said. “Of something that a Mastermind level criminal went to these lengths to break the Law to get. It may not be a fortune, but it’s worth the effort.”

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“It’s worth HOW MUCH?” was the general reaction by the assembled Wiz Kids at the debriefing that evening.

“Three Hundred Thirty-five Million,” Dr. Chase said looking at her tablet.

“What was in those rolls?” Logan asked, “Gold?”

“No, Gold is a little more expensive per ounce- though not by much,” Dr. Chase said. “Though, the stuff you recovered is a lot more stable in the market.”

“What IS it?” Tank asked with the interest that a Working Class kid usually had for big money.

“Unformatted Messingite.”

‘What?’ was the general response, even from Logan, the chemist. But Tyler, who had some experience with the material said, “Why would Precision go to those lengths to steal a bunch of Messingite? Yeah, it’s expensive, but each piece has to be custom-made from scratch, one molecular level at a time, because it has to be formed to its intended shape, because it’s almost impossible to reshape after it’s formed!”

“Ah, but you see, it’s Unformatted Messingite,” Dr. Chase said.

“HAH?” Tyler responded, as flummoxed as the others.

“Dr. Amos Messing, the inventor of Messingite™, was all-too aware of the practical difficulties of Messingite as it was,” Dr. Chase explained. “So, his most recent development was a change in his process where he could make a unit of Messingite without locking it into shape, keeping it in a malleable, workable state until it’s set.”

“So… each of those units could be shaped into almost anything?” Tyler said, wrapping her head around the notion. “And then, when it’s formatted, it’s just this side of indestructible?”

Dr. Chase shrugged. “What can I say? When you need Messingite for something, you need Messingite.” She paused, “I wonder if I could copyright that, and sell it to the A3’s marketing firm…”

“You’re telling me that Dr. Amazing can take carbon, which sells for $10 to $12 a pound,” Mike Kung said, “and turn it into something that sells for…”

“Roughly one and half thousand US dollars per ounce,” Dr. Chase filled in.

“Now THAT’S genius…” Geoff said, slightly croggled.

“And it would explain why the Amazing Three can afford to keep rebuilding the Kirby Building,” Linda said.

“Not to mention pay the Insurance premiums,” Tom Chase added.

“Kids, a lot of ‘Super Science’ types pay their bills this way,” Dr. Chase said. “For instance, Dr. Helen Smart developed a kind of high-friction resistant latex alternative, that isn’t as expensive or as high demand as Messingite, but still underwrites 30% of her operating costs. Amos Messing just happened to hit a butter zone where the demand is ridiculously high and the nearest competition is nowhere near as good. And even then, he has a secret weapon his competition can’t match: Melinda Martin.”

“Galaxy Girl?” Izzy asked skeptically. “How do her energy powers factor into this?”

“They don’t,” Dr. Chase said with a lopsided grin. “Melinda’s a marketing diva. Without her, the market for Messingite never would have developed, Union Carbide or DuPont would have bought it for pennies and shelved it, and Amos Messing would be just another impoverished lab rat, scraping by to make ends meet.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Kids, there is a consortium of 12 marketing firms in New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Mumbai and Hong Kong that all kick in to pay Melinda $10 Million US dollars a year to stick to being a superheroine and wiping Amos’ nose.”

“And she takes it?”

“Kids, with all the super-scientists and uber-geniuses running around, WHY do you think we only have the International Research Station on the moon, and just three orbital platforms?”

 

To Be Continued
Read 1204 times Last modified on Monday, 09 January 2023 18:41

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ReadingIsGood
3 weeks ago
I am enjoying this story very much so far, though I had to go back and re-read the earlier story first to make sure I re-familiarized myself with the characters.
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