Monday, 27 May 2024 04:00

No Heroes, Part 1: New to the neighborhood

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No Heroes
Part 1: New to the neighborhood

by null0trooper

Benjamin needs a new coat, a roommate, a clue or two, and maybe someone should inventory the rocks in his head. It's all good for something at Whateley Academy.

A/N: Thanks go out to Wasamon, Domoviye, and Amethyst for help with the Student Orientation.


"Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed."
— Leonard Cohen, "Everybody Knows"

Saturday morning, January 7, 2016,
Dunwich, New Hampshire, United States.

Even if the Dunwich Arms Hotel had nothing else going for it, at least there were no dead hookers hiding in the bed. Not wanting any early-morning surprises, Benjamin Keeling had checked under the mattress and box springs, just to be sure. It wasn't as if he was still stalling going out into the frigid New England air. After all, his winter gear was rated for worse weather than forecasted. So what if he looked more like a hunter or irregular militia member than a prep school student? On second thought, synthetics hold onto body odors, so maybe he smelled like one.

Colombine rezzed in, looking warmer than any body had a right to in a leather jacket.

"Benjamin, it's minus 14 degrees outside, not minus 40."

"Still too cold. I bet some of that oh-so-picturesque snow down there is dry ice."

"Not on this planet. What's the real problem?"

Benjamin flopped back down on the bed, "Wanna go home. I don't even know how to be a student! Or worse, a high school student. It's not like I ever planned on getting this old."

"And here I was, hoping you could show me something of how it's done, you know?"

"That's... not fair, Cee."

"No, but you might feel better about it with coffee and food in your stomach. You don't want to be cranky with your new tailor, do you?"

"No. I guess not. No one wants to put up with me that badly."

Outside, Benjamin took in the plowed snow, salted snow, trodden snow, drifted snow, and swept snow blanketing Dunwich. Not for the first time, he wondered why his memories of something so white were so black. What little he knew about Dunwich suggested that this was not the best place and time to find out.

Myrtle's Diner featured a real Myrtle and even a breakfast menu that wasn't built out of warmed-over turkey bacon and reconstituted cheese. Benjamin had heard stories about hipster tastes! Ew. Scrambled eggs, home fries, coffee, and a slice of apple pie – no cheese, thanks – all hit the spot. It was all good, except for one huge guy grading papers at one of the tables. He kept sniffing the air and giving Benjamin dirty looks.

You'd've thought I'd gone and killed someone! Well, maybe he had, but that was no excuse!

Outside the diner, Colombine spoke over his concealed earpiece, "Don't forget that Miss Rogers has been retained to fully kit you out."

"Yeah?"

"The company has set aside an ample budget for your wardrobe. You can't very well impress your fellow students by cutting too many corners on that."

"I don't cut corners! Hardly ever! Besides, if they wanted to impress anyone, why send me?"

"Right... We'll get back to that. How did you cope with clothing at your last school?"

"The school quartermaster issued us our uniforms." Benjamin stopped walking. "It's kind of ironic. Back then, at a military school, I didn't have to worry about being shot at. Just 'Here you go, Cadet Groenwald, don't trash this s-set like you did l-last year's.' W-which I d-didn't."

Benjamin stood, blinking, lost to a memory of darkness. Damn, this place gets cold quick as soon as you stop moving!

He knew that having a quality wardrobe was good. Necessary, even. It was the shopping for clothes that tended to be a nightmare. Once, he'd had to be rescued by the MCO! And what did it say about his life that something as simple as going out to buy a warm jacket could involve suppression fire? Standing around in the cold like a tourist wasn't going to get it done any sooner, so he trudged on.


Rogers Fabric Boutique, Dunwich, NH.

The shop's door was unlocked. So much for using "you weren't open" to get out of the appointment. A set of brass door chimes rang out with the door's swing. Maybe it was patchouli he smelled? Benjamin was still at the 'hands in pockets, just browsing' phase when a young brunette bustled up to the storefront.

"Excuse me," she said, "I'm only open for appointments on Saturday mornings. However, if you could come back this afternoon, I'm sure I can work you in."

That's Miss Rogers? Emphasis on the Miss!

If he bailed out now, it would be embarrassing and stupid of him. Benjamin reached into his anorak for his wallet, fished out a business card, and handed it to the young woman.

"I was told that I should arrive by nine o'clock," Benjamin said. "However, rescheduling works too." Being professional called for flexibility. Unless maybe you were an accountant.

The card read Benjamin Xiáng Keeling, Authorized Expediter, Guardian Resources and Trading Company, Kapalangpur, London. Below the title, the card displayed a 32-digit telephone number that would ring up a gatekeeper who'd decide whether Mr. Keeling was available. It wasn't a perfect system but it only had to hold up long enough to discourage mischief. Benjamin had asked his boss whose mischief they were hoping to discourage, but the man had been unhelpfully vague.

"Well then, please have a seat while I double-check my bookings. I'll be right back."

As soon as the woman stepped out, Benjamin whispered to Colombine, "No cheating!" All he heard back was a lightly mocking laugh before his phone vibrated.

"Keeling, here. Go ahead."

"There's a Miss Rogers on the line. She says there's a young man handing out your business cards. Where are you at the moment?"

The question was simple. The voice stress test they would be running against his answer wasn't. Paranoia was part of both their jobs. He played it straight, saying, "In the front of her shop in Dunwich. Where it's warm."

"I shall patch her through, then."

"Thank you." He paused for the line to connect before saying, "Benjamin Keeling here. How might I be of service?"

"Mr. Keeling, I thought the appointment set up for nine o'clock this morning was for you or possibly your son. Instead, there's a young man here who's certainly no high school freshman. He's claiming to be you."

"Yes. The appointment is for me. Otherwise, you wouldn't have the card with this number, and we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Miss Rogers returned to the front of her store, phone in hand. The son of a bitch waved at her and signed off.

"You were expecting someone taller?"

She walked up to him, extending a hand. "Let's start over. I'm Cecilia Rogers, and you are?"

"Benjamin Keeling!" He shook the offered hand. No harm, no foul. "I believe I have an appointment this morning: school kit and so forth?"

"School uniforms, also a limited professional and casual wardrobe. I should warn you that military surplus isn't in fashion. Some of the instructors up at the school haven't gotten the memo. However, don't follow their example!"

"But it's really, really cold out there!"

"Depends on what you're used to." Miss Rogers asked, "For example, I know London, but whereabouts is Kapalangpur? The name reminds me of Malaysia."

Benjamin said, "Close! We're near the Equator, not far from the northern end of the Singapore Strait. All nice and all warm. It wouldn't hurt to have an overcoat or a couple of jumpers on hand. Or, a concealed ballistic vest: those hold the heat in."

"Like the one you're wearing now?"

"America's a dangerous place! Colder than what I remember, too."

"Right. Let's take you back and get your measurements." Miss Rogers flipped a sign in the door from "Open" to "Closed" and locked up. Then, she lead the boy to the business end of her workshop. "By the way, what cottage are you assigned to? That determines the tie color for your school uniform, athletic gear, and a few other things."

Benjamin said, "Twain."

Cecilia might have thought Emerson Cottage a better fit for someone who considers the U.S. a 'dangerous place', but she nodded.

"Brown and gray. Before you ask, hiding grass and blood stains is part of the reason solid gray was dropped. So, how does a student with their own corporate accounts end up assigned anywhere but Melville Cottage? They do bill themselves as 'the best-suited to training young mutants to negotiate the upper echelons of power and privilege'."

"Just lucky enough to not be double-billed for the privilege, I guess. Does that mean you were in Whitman, Dickinson, or Poe?"

"Whitman Cottage, Class of 2001."

"There you go, then. Not a Melville graduate, yet your reputation reaches halfway around the world." He glanced around and said, "I can see why."

This part of the building was more like a proper tailor's shop! There were articulated body forms that had to be more flexible than some human gymnasts. Folding screens of dyed silk had been set up to mark out changing areas. There were even some nice chairs worthy of an old-fashioned bridal party. Benjamin guessed the fabrics must be warehoused in a separate part of the building. The security camera placements pointed to which door led there. The cot propped against the wall, pretending it hadn't been used in forever, was a nice touch. If it had so much as a week's worth of dust on it, he'd be surprised.

Benjamin shrugged off his distraction, "As far as answering services go, that's more of a company thing. If I'm not in my office, there's never something that no one else can handle. Practically never."

"When you're not in your office?"

"It's not like that! They stuck me out of the way, in a corner, behind my boss's desk.

"But, you have a corner office. Is it at ground level?"

"As if! I have to switch elevators on the way up from the sub-level locker room."

Cecilia led Benjamin to an oversized shipping crate and told him to follow the instructions inside. Simple enough. She wouldn't trap him inside with no way to get out, would she? A muscle in his right calf started twitching a steady tattoo. Just great. He'd just have to gut this out long enough to get some scripts filled. What next?

Cecilia glanced at the blinking notice on her tablet. Teen boys tended to balk at undressing without rhyme or reason. Her measurement booth used a sophisticated array of sensors to get precision results without blinding her clients. But, the sensors only worked if the clients cooperated.

"You'll have to take off any watch or PA bands you're wearing, Bluetooth or other devices, too."

"Do I have to?"

"There's no one else here to even think about stealing any of your stuff."

"... o-kay."

"You aren't wearing body makeup, are you?"

"You said this doesn't have cameras built in!"

And that would be a 'yes'.

"I only need them for sampling skin and hair colors, which are stored as multiple palettes. I have makeup remover inside one of the drawers... there." She keyed in a command to open a supply drawer and gave the boy time to clean up.

Cecilia pretended not to hear Benjamin mumble, "Where the hell did I get those bruises?" The revised skin tone palette limited color options, but the kids in Twain and Whitman deserved her best efforts.

Benjamin left the booth covered in a towel, appearing battered and sick compared to when he arrived. The makeup hadn't been pancaked on earlier, so he had to have had better-than-average experience with cover-up cosmetics. Cecilia looked away from the jade ball sitting where an eyeball should have been.

"How long has it been since you manifested? No one gets that good with makeup overnight."

"Three years and, um, two months. The main thing I got from it is a rock in my head. One of many, according to my boss's son. And, hm, I can manifest things like makeup, machine oil, tools, et cetera. They don't last long, but that's no big deal."

"Why Whateley, then? It sounds like you're comfortable with your mutation." Miss Rogers turned her attention back to design templates.

"Let's see. My boss says I need to get a diploma to appease the Human Resources harpies. He'd know all about that. Someone, and I don't know who, is one-and-one on abduction attempts. That's kind of a problem. The Iron Dragon might still be peeved at me. But, yeah, comfortable is as good a word as any."

Miss Rogers scoffed, "I hardly think the Iron Dragon cares much about a — how old are you?"

"Sixteen."

"About a sixteen-year-old who says he's a low-end manifestor. The MCO might be a problem."

"The MCO's kind of the usual thing, what you'd expect. But with the Dragon it's personal. So, I'm wearing my vest."

"We should start you off with a base layer with good wicking and high puncture resistance," Miss Rogers said. No point in mentioning that vests don't protect against headshots. "Ballistic synthetics-reinforced oxford cloth should work for your uniform shirts. I can add structure to your school jackets by incorporating impact gel packs. Good overall defense without too much bulkiness. Does that sound good so far?"

"Okay?"

Colombine whispered to Benjamin, "Stain resistance would be advisable."

His face darkened, but he rolled with it.

"Um, something that doesn't hold on to, er, protein stains might be a plus."

Miss Rogers stared at him for several long seconds.

"Do you think I don't know anything about male anatomy?"

If the boy's blood wasn't closer to black than red, he'd have been the color of a fire engine.

"N-no! I was referring to, you know, blood, I guess? Wait... No. Not that kind of blood!"

Flustered as he was, his eyes tracked Cecilia's gaze and center of mass, not her breasts. How was this kid not assigned to Poe? This year, it felt like half the incoming freshmen were Poesies or halfway in the club.

"Mister Keeling."

"Benjamin."

"Benjamin, how long has it been since you've hung around with boys, girls, or even stray animals your own age?

"Ummmm... Does personal security count?"

"I should have known. Wear and tear was invented for your demographic. Bloodstains are par for the course."

"They usually don't bleed black."

"That's good to know, I suppose. For Whateley uniforms, I often use Hydrospell-treated and Zylor-interwoven cotton or wool. The combination gives good strength, puncture and slash resistance, and stain resistance. Do you have any allergies I should know about? You came in wearing synthetics, so I'd assume you're okay with cold iron, but I've been surprised before."

"I haven't had any problems with the cemetery gates back home. I'm pretty sure they're cast-iron."

"Fair enough."

Cecilia tapped a series of commands into her tablet. She watched Benjamin's eye bug out as fabric began streaming onto a tailor's form matching his exact size. Once draped, automated machinery held, stitched, and/or fused fabrics into clothing.

"For your base layer, I'm using a silver-impregnated variant of kevra. This is a shoulder-entry bodysuit with a front-to-back buttoned fly: you won't have to deal with shirttails rolling up during various activities. You could shower in it after a workout, but it would still need to be cleaned properly. So would you. Some students try to wear a supersuit under their school uniform, twenty-four seven, but that has drawbacks."

Benjamin smiled an impish smile, asking, "Would those drawbacks include 'brillo bush' or 'chest mat'?"

"I'm not sure I want to know where or how you ran across those terms."

"The better part of a month spent as a scratch test monkey?"

"Just remember that soap is your friend."

The shop equipment continued weaving its spell. First, it spooled out a white dress shirt, a black utility belt, and woolen trousers. A gray jumper and a white-trimmed Whateley blazer were built onto another form.

"That's your basic male uniform. For footgear, your boots will do for now. A utility belt isn't required, but many students wear one. Keep an eye out for what's coming out of the Workshop before Combat Finals. If you don't have a good leather belt and dress shoes, hit up the school store before showing up to a formal dance or mixer. Do you have any odd hobbies that require specialized clothing?" Cecilia began removing the clothes to hand to her customer to try on.

"I've got two, maybe three sarongs and ikats for silat practice. If I get a chance, that is. It sucks that I had to leave my bike at home. How does this Hydrospell treatment work for paintball? I want to get some drone practice in when I can. What else? Rock-climbing. That's fun."

"Those are your hobbies?" It was an odd assortment, but this was Whateley! "No JROTC uniforms?"

"The boss didn't say anything about that, so no."

Colombine didn't correct him, so he wasn't intended to be mistaken for a goldbricking member of the local detachment.

Cecilia shooed Benjamin off to try on the school uniform while she sketched some ideas out. Sadly, men's clothing tended to be conservative, and Benjamin lacked the build or self-assurance to try anything daring. Once again, her customer was taking his time.

"Do you need help back there?"

"No, ma'am! Still working on it. Tie?"

"Top drawer on the right."

"Got it!"

Benjamin stepped out from behind the privacy screen. The jacket settled into place with a well-practiced shrug. He didn't have exemplar-grade looks, but he cleaned up well.

"Street next? So, what's functional, got pockets, low-maintenance, functional, and isn't too fancy for doing stuff? I think I have pictures of what I usually wear loaded on my PA." He fiddled his way through menus to cover for Colombine transferring a selection of pictures. Seeing Miss Rogers wince, Benjamin knew he was on track for regret. Maybe she didn't like shirts with lots of color? His curiosity soon got the better of him. He walked over and stood on tiptoe to see what made Miss Rogers giggle: target practice with Yuki and Reg. Good times. Other photos and clips, however? Huh.

"That? ... Okay. Now, that was so not my fault."

"What can I say? Pastels suck. Unless you count camo."

"Yeeeeaaaahhh. Newton's First Law was working overtime that day."

"Max. Is. A dead man."

"That's one of the suits I sent ahead. Pale blue chalkstripe on gray works great with my skin tone."

"Hang on! That is not what it looks like!"

"Benjamin? Why does it look like you're sitting alone in the front row at a getai? Aren't those seats reserved?"

"Huh? Where's everybody else? Stupid camera."

"Yeah... That kind of hurt. Ever try avoiding your boss when your leg's banged up, and you forgot to mention it in your report? Not something I'd recommend, like, ever."

"Who took that?"

"Aside from any questions raised by the foreign police uniform, is that a bullet wound, Mr. Keeling?"

"That's not the point! I don't remember that at all!"

"Probably because you weren't conscious?"

After a few more incriminating photos, Cecilia said, "I think I need to talk shop with a colleague for a few minutes. Please wait here, and try not to break yourself!"

Benjamin subvocalized for his throat mic, "What did I do wrong?"

"Nothing new. Miss Rogers needs to know how much death and destruction your clothing will be required to survive. I pulled what I judged to be a representative sample without compromising your colleagues or clients."

Colombine wasn't wrong about that, per se. At least she hadn't sent over too many 'object lesson' stills.

"Why'd you shop out everyone in the front row at the concert but me?"

"Benjamin, what do you see when you view that picture?"

Benjamin pulled out his phone to thumb through some directories. "Right. So. On my left is Mrs. Huang's grandmother. She refused to be seated by herself without a proper young gentleman to escort her. Not sure how that meant me. The old guy on my right is Ezekiel Smith, heckling someone else in the crowd over something. His Chinese is a whole lot better than mine. Not sure who everyone else is, but it was a free show for the Ghost Festival. Why?"

At times like this, the AI wanted to strangle the human.

'A few minutes' stretched into and beyond a half-hour. Benjamin had had enough experience with gadgeteers not to worry about that. No explosions, so it must have been a friendly talk. Miss Rogers returned with an armful of clothing. Was there more than one assembly rig?

"A friend of mine has a similar aversion to anything colder than a round of New Orleans Hurricanes. Another has an aversion to clothing worn to gangland shootings."

"I sent everything to the cleaners once already! And I'm not—"

Colombine quietly said, "Benjamin? You're not helping your case."

Benjamin pouted but shut up.

"As I was saying, we'll bag the evidence up for one of the local specialty cleaners. I've got some winter-weight trousers here. The color is close enough to black to pass muster without showing dirt as easily. The buttons inside the waistband are for suspenders. Keep the base layer and socks on, but hang up the rest of the school uniform." Miss Rogers handed over the first items. Then she shooed him back to the changing area.

The results when he returned were promising: darker blonds could usually pull off the neutrals. Make that "mostly promising", as he didn't have enough of a gut to get away with sucking it in.

Pulling on the multicolored rugby shirt mussed up Benjamin's hair enough to give him a more sporty than preppy style. That should help him fit in with the other Twainees. With luck, Miss Rogers hoped that a supply of similar shirts would keep his love of loud tropical prints and grungy cargo shorts in check. A charcoal twill overcoat (extra pockets sewn into the lining for "stuff"), matching flat cap, and raw umber scarf completed an illusion of sophistication. At least he wouldn't be arriving at school looking as much like or smelling like a serial killer.

"I know there will be trouble with keeping makeup off the scarf, but this color hides most foundation colors. For hiding lipstick, you're on your own, kiddo."

"How's that a problem?"

"You'll understand when you're older. Moving along then, I provide free repairs on my work, within reason. I decide what's within reason and what's not and prorate from there. Just send the damaged items back to me in one of the mailers I'll be sending with you."

"Even with that... I mean, no offense intended, but I hate putting all this money into stuff that I will be outgrowing."

The way the boy delivered that last part – head straight, chin up – he had to know he was running out of time to add those inches to his height. Miss Rogers decided to let him deflect for now.

Cecilia said, "In that case, any uniforms or clothing in good condition can be donated to the school's scholarship program for a tax write-off. Some of the kids arriving at the school are lucky to have clothes on their backs after escaping bad situations back home."

Benjamin's face fell, just for a moment.

"Oh," he said.

Crap! I should have known that!

"Er, that's alright then."

"I'd hope so."

Cecilia let his lapse slide for now as well, but she might have to place a couple of warning calls to Doyle later.

"I'll schedule your fitting for a week from now, then." She asked, "Do you have any Saturday morning classes this term?"

"Barring any changes, no morning classes that I know of. Maybe a pickup game of tag if someone's up for it."

"That works. It'll let me see wear patterns. So, bring in your kit as-is, and I'll see you shortly after the first bus from Whateley arrives at one o'clock."

"With bells on!"

Something about him suggested he might just do that.

"Leave the bells at home."


Saturday afternoon,
Twain Cottage, Whateley Academy.

Selecting suitable clothes for an otherwise completely normal sixteen-year-old burned some time. Likewise, so did an extended wait to catch a bus from Dunwich to Whateley. Then Benjamin had to register "his" AI with Security. Waste of time, that. How could they not know that Colombine would be accompanying him? Then came the mandatory "I love me" gallery viewing. All in all, Benjamin ended up at Twain Cottage hours later than he'd planned. Then again, he'd learned the hard way not to schedule stuff for the last possible minute. There's asking for trouble, and then there's begging for it!

On checking in with the Twain House Parent, Benjamin was briskly escorted to his new home away from home. So far, so normal. He turned on his heels at the welcoming sonic onslaught of "Hey, roomie!" and "Viva Las Vegas". How did Mr. Filbert know to body-block the doorway against his escape?

Benjamin was beat. "I might not have heard this version," he admitted.

Max's smile showed all thirty-four teeth and tusks. But, he turned the stereo volume down from "ghetto-blasting the paint from stadium walls" to "let's talk".

Mr. Filbert said, "Well, then. I'll just let you two get acquainted."

"One thing, sir?"

"Yes?"

Benjamin said, "I was told that I'd be rooming with, you know, someone more ... different, maybe freaky?" He turned back to add, "No, Max. Disco does not count as 'freaky' unless you've found a disco tribute album in honor of Weird Al."

"I'd buy that in a heartbeat! That reminds me: I've got to find something more Rick James-y for my next show!"

"Can I burn it in a heartbeat?"

Moving a lad this tactless in with Peter Foley would have worked ever so well, like dynamite and lit sparklers. Conrad remembered he hadn't yet introduced the two by name.

"Do you two know each other?"

"How? Why?"

Benjamin's brows furrowed in disbelief. It wasn't obvious? "Max is my best friend, going way back," he said.

"Me, him, Yuki." Max added, "Yuki Takenaka's the Japanese-Filipina officer in Second Platoon? Wow. It really has been years, now that I think about it."

These two are best friends with Second Platoon's 'Chromed-out Acid Bitch'? That explained a couple of things while raising entirely new questions.

Mr. Filbert said, "Please avoid throwing the five-letter f-word around so casually. Most of our students and staff are very self-conscious about their appearance."

"Sir, I thought it was my name until the oxygen-sucking bastards hired a nanny to supervise their biological mistake."

That explained a few of the more hypertension-inducing items in the boy's oversized files. Such a lovely home environment.

"In any case, do try to minimize the damages and any other offenses while you're here at Whateley."

Once Mr. Filbert left, Max rammed the conversation back on track, "By the way, this is a ZZ Top cover." That you've never heard of, let alone the band. "You, my friend, need to expand your horizons. Lucky for you, I'm just the right person to help you out!"

"I'm still recovering from 'expanding my horizons' at Lady Sally's!"

"What? You really weren't an illegal customer?"

"If you'll recall, we've worked with her!"

"Yeah, but, going by the specs you sent me, anyone else would have gone in hock up to their ears over that simsuit. You'll be getting royalties." Max would know. Each of his productions paid out a small fortune in licensing fees, insurance premiums, and civil damage settlements.

Benjamin shrugged. "The funds go to the House, ledgered toward or against my share. In the end, it all seems to work."

"Cool. Maybe we can take Economics together next year? Not sure how that works for someone who's literally owned by his employer, but relax and unpack. We can hit the Crystal Hall caff and maybe the school bookstore for whatever you forgot to pack." Max poked around in the 'take those off now' bag. "Tell me you packed something for the weather that isn't military surplus."

"I'm supposed to be off the clock!"

"Do you need help getting blood stains out? High-end exemplars, weres, and some of the doggy and kitty mutants can smell that on you. Hell, some of them can tell you what you had for breakfast from that last couple of drops left after peeing. Oh, yeah. If you skip the deodorant, some of the bitchier ones will demand to change seats in class. You'd think the other Workshoppers would get the hint, but nope. Not happening."

"Your lack of faith is disturbing. Hah!" Benjamin pulled out a second rugby jersey from a shopping bag. "See? But you're right. Icejack's mother said I should check in on him now and then so he doesn't forget to shower or eat."

"I'm sure he'll be looking forward to that!"

"What good is keeping a person from getting killed or kidnapped, only to let them get sick? Wait a minute. You're an exemplar! Are you saying I stink, and you're only just now telling me?"

"Different people smell different close-up. No one smells great in a foxhole after a week or so. You know that. If I concentrate on it, I can tell when Yuki's hating life, and when you're pretending you aren't hurt, bleeding, or ready to seize. Billy might clock you in a heartbeat."

"Billy?"

"He lives here. His code name is Bloodhound. Connect the dots," said Max.

Benjamin thought about that for all of a moment. Then he said, "Speaking of connections, there's someone I need to introduce you to."

"You've met someone?"

"Sort of, yeah. More like expanding the team?"

"You've met someone."

"I do talk to people!"

"When you're not on the job? Who is this special unicorn? Or, did you have to perform a summoning at a deserted crossroad at midnight?"

"Her name is Colombine."

She put a halt to Benjamin's hole-digging exercise by rezzing in, atop the nearest desk. She kept the morning's digital leather jacket and boots, pairing them with a blouse tucked into jeans. Simple, casual, but with enough flash mixed in to catch the self-proclaimed international emcee's eye. The splash of lilac sparkles was garish but didn't hurt.

"I'm pleased to finally meet you, Max."

"Cool! About time you got a virtual personal assistant. What model is it?"

"She. Is not. A toy."

The last time Max had seen Benjamin grind his teeth and chew his words like that was just before kicking the shit out of some H1!-style jerks. Benjamin's lines weren't easy to find, but bad things happened when people crossed them. When the guy's hands were already balled up into fists? Crap!

"Whatever I said, I apologize! Can I see the terminal?"

"Not that that makes a difference."

Colombine said, "Benjamin. Give your friend a chance."

Benjamin blew out a breath and shoved his forearm up so Max could get a close look. Unsurprisingly, said close look involved dangling by the forearm. Max didn't need glasses yet, did he?

"Dude, that's not a VIPA rig. How did you get this? There's a guy on the floor with a Sidewinder prototype... But hang on now! That green light... She's REAL?" Max stared at the violet-haired hardlight avatar and asked again, "You're real?"

"Last time I checked," Colombine said and pinched herself. "See? What did you think we were working on for the past six weeks or so?"

"He mentioned something about simsuits. Then he disappeared. Now that you mention it, he can't have been behaving himself that much."

"When do I ever not behave?"

"All the time, buddy. So..."

"Colombine. And yes, he is going to pay for that at a time and location of my choosing."

"Colombine, what exactly do you do?"

"We're partners. I mostly stay out of the way of the oncoming insanity and watch the resulting fallout. You could say it's a learning experience."

"Damn. She knows you pretty well, dude."

"I should be feeling attacked now, shouldn't I?"


Sunday,
Outside Twain Cottage.

With the first day of classes fast approaching, returning students made the cottages that much noisier and lengthened the cafeteria checkout lines. At his old school, Benjamin had always checked in as soon as physically possible, so this was familiar. For that matter, he was much the same as he had been back then, just bigger and taller. The students around him had changed. Over a third of them had some version of Exemplar look-at-me! trait going for them. No, thanks. It wasn't as if he wanted to be a center of attention. It wasn't easy to make out how many folks had GSD: the weather called for more skin coverage than less. He'd bet good money they didn't want to be stared at any more than he did.

Benjamin double-checked that his school ID badge was tucked into a shielded billfold. His cell phone and other regular gear were already being routed as-needed through his AIPA terminal. He spoke to the thin air as if he were on a call. Which, technically, he was.

"Cee, ready to ground-truth some mapping data?"

"Would it matter if I weren't?"

"Yes. Anything that was keeping you that preoccupied would be a good reason to go to ground."

"Not my point, but a reasonable one. Video and audio are coming in five-by-five, so where first?"

"Last time I was here, I scoped out the north perimeter road between here and the Guest House. Let's go south. We shouldn't see much foot traffic until we get close to the co-ed cottages."

"The point being?"

"No traffic, no witnesses. Maybe no timely Security coverage."

"Paranoid much?"

"Humans may be persistence hunters, but we can't say no to staging an ambush. Let's find the watering holes and escape routes."

... said the professional bait

"That bored already?"

"Maybe?"

If nothing else, Benjamin could just turn off his brain and observe the world from a walking meditation. Any irregularities, like Poe Cottage and a copse of trees being perfectly sited to hide Hawthorne from the Quad, could be examined later. The rarely-traveled but well-maintained southward path beyond them somehow felt like it didn't want to be explored yet. After following a loop around Melville Cottage, he decided it might be time to blend back into campus traffic.

"Want to hit the coffee shop for a recharge?"

After spending a couple of hours depending on solid-state micro gyros and dead-reckoning for location data?

"I think we could both use one, yes."

Inside, Benjamin favored a very busy Concierge with a smile and a nod. His recent stint working in logistics had taught him how much work went into looking like you weren't working.

"What'll it be today?" the barista at the counter, "Jane", asked. Taking in the weather-disheveled freshman's clothing, she added, "If you order the cafe americano, you can even mix in a packet of cocoa mix at no extra cost."

"That sounds lovely for a day like this, but how about your best robusta roasted for Turkish coffee? Practically a shame to roast an arabica so dark... Maybe a piece of baklava on the side? Oh, and where best to recharge my personal assistant?"

Jane said, "I'm required to warn you that certain premium items are surcharged to your personal allowance account as well as counted toward the basic scholarship meal plan. Are you still interested in the coffee and dessert selection?"

"I think I can afford a cup of joe and some walnuts."

"It will be a few extra minutes for the roast and grind. I'll bring your order out to you. All of the tables feature a charging station."

"That'll be great."

Benjamin suppressed a smirk as he paid and found a seat. Of course, he drew the expected number of who's-the-interloper stares. He'd happily admit that the best part of the territory-staking game was watching the reactions to violations of the rules. Under duress, he might even admit that, thanks to Lady Sally and Reg, he could tell who here was honestly "upper-crust" and who were the wannabes. It didn't hurt that Colombine enjoyed crowd-watching too.

If he'd asked her, Colombine might have pointed out that she didn't enjoy running so many threat profiles over a freaking cup of coffee!

Jane didn't hover to see if Benjamin enjoyed the coffee or not. According to the zeros in his account, she'd shoved her foot too far in her mouth over the order already to justify going for an ankle. Thus, he was able to savor in private the warmth of the mug seeping into his hands and the rich aroma of a black and bitter brew, green with the aroma of freshly ground cardamom. Two of the cottage empaths changed their order to "whatever he's having."

Having helped line up an import deal with that Tanzanian grower was so worth it.


Afternoon.

"You know, Cee, it's probably some sort of ethics breach, but..."

"But Peter's in Boston, waiting for the northbound train to Berlin to board passengers."

"Oh," Benjamin said, wondering how he should feel about that.

"He's recently posted on one of the school's internal forums to that effect. My assessment of the posts' tone is that his maternal grandparents in Maine have not relaxed in their antipathy toward their son-in-law. Nor do they approve of his family; neither their antecedents nor their anticipated prospects." Colombine trailed off, waiting for a response. "I take it that you aren't surprised by that conjecture?"

"No. I know that all families have their share of problems. I can safeguard the guy against some physical threats: it's part of my job. I can't make everything good or even right."

"For him, or for yourself?"

"Now that I think about it? Maybe not anyone."

"I'm requesting your medical appointment be moved up. 'Impending doom' is still a symptom of multiple disorders."

"Can't hurt."


Monday morning, January 9, 2017,
Second Floor, Schuster Hall.

Retired Staff Sergeant Ryan Wilson knew that Whateley Academy's tuition, room, and board were expensive compared to most other boarding schools. However, the school was also the best when it came to teaching newly manifested mutants how to use their abilities. So, for many parents, sending their darlings on the first flight out could be the best option for all concerned. For those who weren't convinced, he could quote the school's promotional materials without relying on the eidetic memory that came with his mutant Exemplar Trait.

Unfortunately, transferring in at this point in the year negated many of the intangible benefits the school offered the kids. By the Winter Break, social groups have already had four months to form and close ranks. Few of the productive special-interest clubs that might have had open doors held meetings during the seven-week Winter Term following the break. The Senior Project and fast-paced Special Topics courses tied up many of the older students best able to help out.

Outside of YA novels, where the outcast becomes the prom queen in three easy acts, few teens fall through the system's cracks gracefully. Paranormal abilities only made the forensic scenes more gruesome when they do hit the ground. The weapons ranges got more than their fair share of those swan dives. So here he was, welcoming committee and den mother in one, hoping to catch them before they fell. Wilson could be excused the paranoia of re-checking his tablet against any last-minute changes to the Winter Term newcomer roster.

Dina Radford arrived first, escorted to the meeting by Poe Cottage's own Pat Barnes. Next to the beauty with goldenrod streaks in her light brown hair, Hat Trick looked as masculine as... This year, the Poesies were going all-out for the "It's Complicated" category, weren't they?

"See you at lunch?" the young woman asked her escort.

"You can count on it," Pat said. He humbly took her hand to kiss for the briefest of appropriate moments. "Adieu. Duty and class advisors call."

"Go. I'll be fine! As much as you've talked this place up? I need to see it for myself."

There being no invitation to sit in, the boy departed.

Wilson looked up and said, "Poe Cottage, Dina Radford, correct?"

"In one!"

Wilson said, "We've got nearly a dozen students in this term's incoming class. There have been some delayed arrivals, so I'm hoping that you and the Whitman girls will be able to help your late-arriving classmates out from what you learn today. Hawthorne Cottage handles its own new student orientations. Twain and Whitman Cottages are further away from the center of campus than Emerson and Dickinson. Their residents also have their own challenges in settling down into a normal routine."

A feline upperclassman appeared in the classroom doorway. Judging by the twitch of her tawny fur-covered ears and her Cheshire grin, she'd jumped at taking Sergeant Wilson's words as her cue.

"Please tell me we're not doing normal this year, and me without a normal setting on my shock-prod yet!"

"Perish the thought, Telekat. Herding kittens?"

"I even brought you a stray! Ladies? Your indoctrination awaits! Oops. Did I say indoctrination? I meant disorientation."

Wilson shook his head. "I'm fully qualified to give them all the wrong impressions about their new digs without assistance."

A short brunette edged past the manic Junior to hunt for a good seat in the back of the classroom. No luck, as usual. All but a few desks had been cleared to the side of the room, removing 'all the way in the back' from available options. 'Not so far back' would have to do.

Telekat chirped, "Understood! Isabella, Carmen, catch me after lunch. Gwen, Lily, if you can't find PV or Mrs. Savage, I'll be around. Clover, Anneliese, see me or Bai Yun. Get it, got it, we good?" Then she all but shoved them to their fates inside. After all, she was a Resident Assistant Who Cared For Her Litter.

"Miss Mathers?"

Missy raised her eyebrows.

The brunette's identity confirmed, Wilson said to her, "Please pull your seat closer to the front. We aren't going to be crowded today. Er, do I need to send anyone out to find your escort?"

Missy's eye roll spoke volumes. "She's probably still catching up. I should thank Kat for rescuing me."

The crowd of new Whitman girls, Isabella, Carmen, Gwen and Lily, Clover, and Anneliese, were as different as could be.

Isabella stood just over five feet tall in the low-heeled shoes custom-built into her KAFO braces. Her chestnut brown hair was cut in a stylish and practical pixie cut. Her jacket and long skirt were well-made and tastefully drew attention away from her thin face and frame.

Carmen Melendez managed to be shorter, more wiry, and maybe even more withdrawn than the petite Miss Altilia. A ferret-like combination of round ears on top of her head, tail, pronounced canine teeth, claws, and dark markings around her eyes amounted to more than enough GSD to make most girls even more insecure. Hopefully, she wouldn't fall in with the angrier members of F3.

Gwen had a Magical Girl vibe going. Beautifully styled, hip-length, wavy, silvery, ice-blue hair would have been enough. Oh, but her glowing blue freckles and glowing turquoise eyes clinched the deal. In contrast, Lily's dark brown hair was more of a shoulder-length hatchet cut.

The short, cold New England winter days couldn't be easy on green-skinned Clover. Green foliage grew from her head and, from the way her school jacket hung, her back and shoulders as well. Most likely, she was a photosynthesizer. Wilson made a note to himself to ask Mrs. Savage about nudging the girl to help Carmen out.

Anneliese might have been a conventional auburn-haired beauty had she stood a foot or so shorter and gone with shorter heels on her boots. Her leather jacket reminded Wilson of something a Marine friend would be happy to wear, but that illusion was easily shattered.

Instead of a drill sergeant's snarl, Anneliese's voice poured out into the air like bourbon.

"Well, ladies, it looks like we get to sit front and center."

"Not if we yield the places of honor to those running late," Isabella Altilia said. "Isn't that right, sir?"

"That would be Isn't that right, Sergeant? I work for a living," Wilson barked out before smiling an arc-light smile. No harm, no foul. The taller girl acknowledged the military reference with a nod and a smile.

"I'll try not to steal all their sunshine," said the green girl. Even though Clover Rozic was far shorter than Anneliese, her green skin and hair (thorny green vines, actually) drew the eye much as her shapely frame. Despite the cheerful tone of her voice, her body language broadcast an unease that was difficult to pin down. Shyness?

She might need Carmen's support as much as the other girl could use hers.

"Grab a seat. We've at least one more coming, and then we'll be good to go." He watched Isabella maneuver into a seat without voicing a complaint. Judging by the notes in her file, she must be managing better than she had been.

Five minutes past the hour, the lone boy in the group arrived. To Wilson's Exemplar-5 senses, the mukhallat he was wearing had arrived on the hour. The bundled-up boy was of average height at best and wore his darker blond hair clipped short. Not much more could be said for Benjamin Keeling other than "Mad Dogs and Englishmen". Had the boy's cheeks and ears turned olive-brown from the cold instead of red? That was unusual, but it made for a positive ID. Benjamin took his time removing his cap, scarf, gloves, and overcoat.

"Someone doesn't like the cold," remarked Dina.

"Hate it," Benjamin replied. His voice hinted at a British passport but no particular port of call.

Wilson waved the boy to a seat. No need to let things get side-tracked this early.

"Okay," Wilson continued, "let's get this show on the road, shall we? I'm Sergeant Wilson. I'll be giving you the orientation lecture that we give all the mid-year newcomers, so you're not left wandering around and getting lost. At the beginning of the year, we let the cottages handle this with a student guide. You folks probably got a five-minute run-down on the way to one of the school's cafeterias."

Radford, Rozic, and Keeling acted like they knew there was more than one place to eat. The others were surprised. Five minutes may have been too optimistic.

"As I was saying, we handle mid-year transfers with these little meet-and-greet classes. Get a few things understood out front, clear up any misunderstandings, and hopefully get you off on the right foot. Starting with the obvious, Whateley is – wait for it, folks! – a school for mutants. That much is obvious. What's not obvious, to people outside the school and to a lot of kids attending the school, is that this is not a school for superheroes. Some of your classmates are the children of superheroes or have been sponsored by licensed hero groups and police agencies. Some are the children of supervillains or have been sponsored by The Syndicate and criminal groups. Some of the rest are on scholarships funded by government security and intelligence agencies or their country's military. As expensive as the annual tuition is, each year has had one or two pay their own way. Others have corporate sponsors or will obtain such sponsorships. What they all have in common is that rich or poor, for better or worse, Whateley Academy is neutral ground. Leave your vendettas, grudges, and prejudices behind you at the gates. Please do not try to bribe the gargoyles to take care of those vendettas while you are in class!"

After a theatrical pause, Wilson added, "Some of our past students have been capable of doing that. Not all of them survived to become alumni."

Wilson continued, "We are not here to teach you to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way in brightly-colored underwear. We're not even here to teach you how to take over the world with a bucket on your head. We're here to teach you how to control your powers, how to use them effectively and responsibly, and, most of all, how to survive in a world that is hostile to all of us.

Dina Radford spoke up.

"Sergeant? You just told us to leave our grudges and prejudices at the gate, but what about the other students and their prejudices?"

Wilson sighed. Of course, she would have heard about last term's fiascos.

"Miss Radford, we aren't your parents. We can't tell you how to think or who to like and expect to have that stick. We can and will expect each of you to behave within reasonable constraints or live with the consequences. The world outside being as it is, I'd caution you against making character judgments based on appearance, background, religion, or powers. Likewise, don't think you can pick up everything about a person's background from their clothing or power set without bothering to get to know them. You will make that mistake anyway, but you will regret doing so."

Dina looked thoughtful. Missy would have something, but she was interrupted by Benjamin grabbing his wrist in pain.

Anneliese's military brat decoder ring must have been working. "Something happened, Sergeant. At least two of us have been warned about it. Spit it out."

"You might already know that the exemplar trait can result in physical traits that aren't very photogenic." Like what happened to my sister. Thank you Ms. Rozic for keeping it to a juvenile eye-roll. "What you might not know is that one of the rarer effects can be a change to the opposite physical sex. One of our freshman students in Dickinson Cottage, Calliope, was outed as being born male. She's been the target of harassment ever since" even assaulted "for something that she didn't choose and which has no bearing on her character. Don't be surprised if your classmates prefer to keep some secrets to themselves as a result of that train wreck."

"I think I understand. Thank you, Sergeant."

"I'm only telling you all this much because you will end up hearing gossip about her. Also, I don't want any of you getting yourselves in trouble taking matters into your own hands." Wilson paused to let that sink into thick teenaged skulls. "As it is, Miss Effingham, you will be tasked with studying the Whateley Canon of Psychic Ethics in detail. You aren't the only person here who needs to learn how to handle things you shouldn't know."

"Believe it or not, I'd rather hear what you have to say from your own lips."

Wilson filled them in on the flag system, the essential nature of the cottages, UV warning bands, and so forth.

"Those assigned to Poe Cottage are chosen because their background indicated a specific need for peer support and counseling."

"We like to call it the Nut House!"

"Could you repeat that a little louder, Miss Radford? The other half-dozen students with mental health appointments this week might not have heard you the first time. In any case, GSD is only one factor in assignment to Twain or Whitman."

"So I've heard."

"Is there a problem, Mister Keeling?"

"Only with people who make snotty comments about my best friend behind his back."

"That — believe it or not — is one of the other factors."

"From here, I'll take you on a tour of the campus. Show you around so that you have an idea of where things are when classes start. But first, I want you to introduce yourselves. Here at Whateley, "what's your mutant power?" is equivalent to "what's your major?" at most colleges. The difference is that our freshmen usually have an answer that won't change two to seven times before they graduate. Tell us a little about yourself, your power, and if you had an interesting manifestation, tell us about that. The rest of you, listen up; you might learn something. Let's start with Miss Radford on my left."

"I'm Dina Radford, and I'm from Sunset Hills, Missourah," she said, rhyming Missouri with Uhura. "... about five miles southwest of the St. Louis city limits. I've got two brothers. Dylan's the older one and he's also a mutant. Too bad he's a Grade-A manipulative jerk who's headed for a world of trouble if he don't shape up. He's already on probation for screwing with people's heads. I'm sure hoping David doesn't take after him. Now, my boyfriend, Pat, he started school here last fall. I don't want to think about where I'd be without him."

It was cute to see Radford's freckles glitter from the classroom lights while she completely lost track of her train of thought. Young Love. Keeling cleared his throat.

"... Oh, right! According to the DPA, I'm a warper, so I took Featherweight as a code name. So far, I can change my mass to be lighter or heavier. Luckily, I'm also an exemplar, or I'd fall on my face from the extra weight! However, dancing in three-inch stilettos without worrying about breaking a heel is what old folks call 'da bomb'. The DPA's helping out with an internship, which means my parents won't have to knock over a riverboat casino for the cash to send me here." She gestured for one of the shorter Whitman girls to take the lead. "Over to you."

"No pressure," Isabella murmured. Then she recognized what Dina had done: by not standing up to give her introduction, Isabella wouldn't need to either. Smart girl! "My name is Isabella Altilia. Please, no Alitalia jokes. My family name is Altilia, like the town in the Calabria region of Italy. That's where my family is from. Capisce? To shorten a long story, manifesting as a mutant gave me my life back, even though I didn't get all the benefits." The boy twitched at that, but she paid it no mind. What could he know about being betrayed by his own body?

"You all may be wondering why I chose Bodymod for my code name, no? One of my favorite things in life is art, including body art. With work and study, I can manifest those things that I've committed to ink. In fact, my latest set of braces is one such design, based on working exoskeleton proposals. However, there's no reason I couldn't expand that into power frames or even more interesting things in my spare time. It's all industrial design and chrome, after all. That being so, our rocker can go next."

"Good morning, everyone, I'll be your Package Deal Psychic on today's package menu. Anneliese Effingham, but it says 'Serenella' on my lifer card. Dad always did call me his little 1MC, but now I can break out the fishnets and turn one or two of Black Canary's tricks. None of you have made my shit list yet, so I'll refrain from demonstrating indoors. Like I said, PDP, so this..." she waved her hand to indicate her whole body "...is all original equipment. Other than that, I can do some mind-reading with anyone I'm talking to, and I'm as good as the next person at most things. Music and singing's my number one thing in life, so I'm here to work on that too. Home's Virginia Beach as long as my father stays homeported in No-fucking-vagina. Uncle Sugar's Navy is picking up my tab, so I'm inchopping the local JROTC unit. Wow. That was over fast! Good. Next? How about you, Clover?"

The green girl stood up and said, "I'm Clover Rozic, from Mesa, Arizona. I guess it's no surprise that I have plant powers like my parents. And, yeah, I really did choose 'Weed' for my codename." She gestured to her hair. "But, with these weeds, it's strictly look but don't touch. Not unless you're into spending the rest of the day unable to move." The one boy in the group twitched at that. Weird tic, but probably Too Much Information there. "I can grow vines from my back that let me hold and carry things. I can also make seeds sprout and grow, just not as fast as Mom can. That pretty much covers all my superpowers. Any questions?"

Seeing none, Clover sat back down.

The remaining two Whitmaniacs exchanged a 'you-go-first' look before Carmen stood up instead.

"Er, sir, I'm Carmen Melendez," she said with a faintly rolled 'r'. "My power, so to speak, isn't very flashy. I'm told that I'm smarter than baseline and stronger, like an Olympic athlete."

Sergeant Wilson said, "That would be an exemplar trait. Go on."

"They also say that I have an internal energizer, ferret instead of bunny, trait. That gives me good speed, endurance, and reflexes. But I have to eat a lot more if I don't want to get sick. Um..."

"Where did you say you're from?"

Carmen's Spanish name and dusky brown skin wasn't exactly New England standard.

"Oh, right! Santa Fe. It's not the biggest city, but it's the capital. Pretty nice."

Turning into a ferret person and having basic powers couldn't be all that interesting to these kids, even as Carlos. Losing steam, she gestured to the pretty magical girl from one of the other Whitman wings to go ahead.

"Good morning, everyone! I’m Maiden Starlight, but you can call me Gwen."

She gave her audience a moment to decide whether to laugh or groan at the name choices. "If I'm going to look like I stepped out of an anime, I might as well own it, right? My main power is healing, which is cool, but I can mimic some powers as well! In some ways, I'm one of the luckiest girls here. Now, I turn you over to Lily." Gwen sat back down.

"I'm Lily Pond. Blame it on L.A. if you want, but yes, that is my real name. Or call me Tresse. Most people do. I'm a high-level regenerator, so this is about as short as you'll see my hair get. If I go too long without cutting it? Let's just say that the blondie locked up in a tower has got nothing on me. That's pretty much it."

"Let's hear from... Let's see." Wilson pretended to check his clipboard, as if he hadn't memorized the printouts, "Next? How about you, Miss Mathers? Stand up and tell us about yourself, please."

Missy Mathers's scowl was understandable. The kids coming here with an inspirational power, story, or both, were the exception to the rule, but those were the stories that got signal-boosted. According to the files, hers wasn't one of those. She could almost see it in everyone else's expressions.

Wilson's actual thoughts were running less on "Here it comes" and more along the lines of "Why on earth did I let two coercive psis and a PDP sit so close to each other?"

Might as well get this over with, Missy thought. Aloud, she said, "I'm Melissa Mathers, but my friends call me Missy. I know I'm not much to look at..." Something flickered in her mauve-tinted eyes before she could stomp out the downward-pointed thoughts: therapy one, ANTs zero. "The trouble is, well, there's a reason my MID reads 'Crybaby'. As much as I hate it, being a siren can have a way of making itself the gift that keeps on giving everyone else pain. I'd rather not demonstrate it. Thanks."

Wilson said, "Thank you. You will have to demonstrate your abilities when you go for powers testing. Everyone, no exceptions, gets retested soon after arriving here. We have the best facilities on the planet for powers testing, bar none. You'll also be getting a chance to change the code name on your MID files without much trouble, so long as you do so by the end of Spring Term."

"Oh. Okay." Missy didn't sound convinced that it could be an improvement, but carried on, "I understand. If this is everybody, are we going to be starting the campus tour soon?"

Wilson cleared his throat and pointed to the tow-headed freshman sitting next to her. On second impression, he appeared older than most of his classmates. Had he been sitting there the whole time? Of course he had. This is Whateley.

"Me?" Benjamin turned around, in the vain hope he could fob the attention off on someone else. Missy raised her eyebrows as if to ask, 'Are you dim enough to expect me to go again?'

"Yes, you," Wilson said. "Tell us who you are, where you're from, and what you're doing here."

In for a penny, charged the full pound. Benjamin stood up and bowed. "Good morning, ladies, gent, Sergeant. Benjamin Xiáng Keeling, Authorized Expediter, Guardian Resources and Trading Company, Kapalangpur and London, at your service. Let's see... Kapalangpur, as you likely haven't heard, is a British Overseas Territory a three-hour ferry ride east out of Singapore. I've had an MID longer than I can remember, thanks to being born with black blood and two hearts. Extra thanks to a bit of mad science, I'm still alive and have an active mutant gene complex, so that's sorted. Powers, powers..."

Colombine said over Benjamin's earpiece, "Do not try a psi trick with Crybaby this close. Serenella may be listening in. Wilson definitely is."

"I've got a trick or two for getting people and things to ignore me..." He ignored Wilson's muttered "We noticed", saying, "but I'm classified as a close range, limited-duration, limited-durability manifestor. Maybe not as good as Isabella, but that's okay. Watch."

He pulled a shiny coin from a pocket and flicked it into the air. At the apex of its flight, it vanished. Benjamin walked over to Dina, reached out to her, and pulled the classic pulled-it-from-your-ear trick. Holding the coin up, he said, "Pesky things, pocket change." He knuckle-walked it across the back of his right hand and disappeared it.

Wilson frowned. "So that's it? You manifest fairy gold? I'll have to tell you about the Underdogs while we're on the tour."

Keeling favored him with a grin as he took off his glasses. "I must say that makeup also comes in handy." Wilson was to his left, so the Army sergeant got the full show when Benjamin dismissed his manifested makeup. A jade ball sat where the boy's left eye should be. His other eye featured brown capillaries around its green iris. Without the makeup, his tanned skin took on a drab olive cast. Wilson routinely saw far worse at breakfast. Carmen looked ill. Isabella had a distant look in her dark brown eyes, working out how Benjamin got this way and not liking the answers.

"To answer the top three questions: It's been three years. It doesn't hurt now. I don't need an ambulance."

Trying not to stare at the guy's face, Dina noticed something else odd. Benjamin's torso was stockier than it should be for a teen boy that size.

"What's the deal with the bulletproof vest," she asked. "Isn't this place supposed to be safe for us?"

Wilson had planned to explain how safe the school was supposed to be, but Keeling plowed ahead.

"I'm told that a third of the students here are the techie love-children of Nikola Tesla and the National Rifle Association. On a good day, they show all the restraint of a Peruvian Wonder Llama. Wearing a flak vest increases my chances of surviving to graduation."

"And the real reason?"

Keeling shrugged, "I'm used to it."

"Did you, by any chance, spend those last three years extorting gold from an underground fairy kingdom so that you could rescue your father from the Russian mafia?"

Dina had to be having him on. For one thing, she couldn't know he'd worked with thieves by law. That still didn't leave him much to go on.

"I've no idea what you're talking about. We're fifty bloody miles out from the closest mainland in the South China Sea. The only thing under Kap-town is a magma chamber."

"You've never read the Artemis Fowl books?"

"No. Should I have?"

"Aside from reading, which is obviously out of the question, what do you do with your free time?"

Benjamin's face brightened. This was familiar ground; he even knew what to leave out!

"When I'm not at work or out on a job, I help Mom and Reg out with repairs and maintenance around the cemetery."

Anneliese spoke up. "Sounds like Keeling here's more the Gaiman type than a Colfer reader."

Wilson appreciated that the ladies were punching 'up', but they'd had their fun.

"Now, the tour. Our first stop will be the Homer Gallery downstairs. You'll be seeing more of Cecilia Rogers' designs." Keeling's eyes narrowed at the mention. Too bad.

Isabella asked, "What gave it away?"

Aside from falling for a bluff aimed at Keeling? "Dunwich is unusual, full stop. Part of the local charm is that one of the go-to designers and tailors for supersuits has set up shop in town. Miss Rogers also custom-fits Whateley Academy uniforms for some of our students' unique requirements. For the record, one of the perks of being a high-level Exemplar is that I could read the label inside Keeling's coat from across the room. Before we get started, though. Miss Altilia, if you need us to slow down or take a break, we will. Power pack charges don't last forever."


Homer Gallery, Schuster Hall.

Sergeant Wilson's job was now to herd the group of teens into the Gallery to gaze upon the portrait of Fredrick Coveanu, a.k.a. Lord Paramount. The man was also known for a couple of things Ryan Wilson had never needed to hear from Amelia Hartford's lips.

Dina asked, "Didn't he disappear, like, from here?" She'd probably heard that from Hat Trick.

"Yes," Sergeant Wilson said. "Our Assistant Headmistress, Paramount's fiancee, has had to take a hiatus while she deals with the loss."

Anneliese spoke up into the silence, "How's Wallachia holding up?"

"They're landlocked between Hungary and Romania. How do you think they're doing?"

"The revolution isn't being televised."

"As far as anyone knows."

Showing off the trophy section had a knack for getting devisors and gadgeteers to out themselves. Each year, Wilson thanked God that the Adamantite glass cases kept "I just wanted to see it" to just looking at the displays. Even then, some of the weapons and implements of destruction shown here were replicas. Toys like the Tartarus Projector were kept in secure vaults. Others, like Professor Ripper's Quasar Gun, had turned out too useful to hide away. Some nights, Ryan Wilson still woke up in a cold sweat, remembering that Halloween night and everything else that could have been lost.

Wilson called everyone's attention to the 'big-ass pile of gold'. "All right now. This exhibit almost speaks for itself. Could someone pry Altilia and Keeling away from the weapons displays?"

Carmen read out, "It says here that it was donated by Gabriella Guzman as a statement to future students. She's a big real estate investor back home!"

"That's part of it, yes," Wilson said. "The bequest also carried the stipulation that this metric ton of 16-carat gold be displayed in clear view of Lord Paramount's portrait. So let's hear your impressions."

Dina started the ball rolling with, "Money can't buy everything."

Isabella said, "True. But he who has the gold makes the rules. Lord Paramount couldn't have held power as long as he did without money backing him up."

Anneliese asked, "Does it go back to the estate, or is it something the school could fall back on when money gets tight?"

"Given the wording of the bequest," Wilson said, "it doesn't move until and unless the portrait is taken down permanently."

"Well then, that's still some financial security. If Paramount got the boot, there'd be this. Gold doesn't go bad sitting there."

"Welcome to the rat race: I win! Yay. Next." Missy wasn't overly impressed.

Tresse finally came up with, "It sucks to be a dragon."

Dina asked him, "How do you get that out of a golden stack of bricks?"

Anneliese raised her hand and finger to object, paused, grinned, and said, "Oh. That's good."

Lily shrugged as if it were obvious.

"Wherever there's a hoard of gold, there's a dragon sitting on it, waiting for the hero to shove a sword through its head."

"You've been listening to way too much Wagner."

"I would have said 'daddy issues' myself."

Clover spoke up, saying, "Most of my family are supers. Try me. So far, all I'm seeing is just another pissing contest between people who could have done more."

Benjamin said, "Nah, nah, that's fine. I'll just hold it. What? One set of sealed custody orders is more than enough family drama for me."

"The question for the class was: what do you see in this display?"

"Whatever potential you think it has, it's worthless just sitting there unused, hidden away."

That made some sense.

Keeling assumed, wrongly, that the others' silence was an invitation to explain. "It's probably 16-karat gold because outside of antique items, the market deals in 14- and 18- carat gold. The only way you could move this lot is to melt it down and add just enough base metal to get from sixty-six point six to fifty-eight point three percent purity. That assumes you can match the base metal against elemental fingerprinting. It might be easier to steal a small country."

Even the carefree magical girl backed away from Mr. Cold, Calculated Larceny.

As the implications of that exposition sunk in, Sergeant Wilson said, "On the way back from the Workshop, I'll point out the Campus Bookstore. They've got a decent selection of safes for anyone suddenly developing an interest. Out of curiosity, Mister Keeling, who is your roommate?"

"Max Livingston. Maximillion Argyle Livingston ahem the fourth."

"And, how well would you say he's gotten to know you so far?"

Do I need to warn Conrad about an impending disaster?

Keeling shrugged, "We've slept in the same ditches."

Wilson's self-respect wouldn't allow him to ask how, or why, that could have happened. There was always the risk that the teen would tell him.


The Workshop.

Going over the details on how to access the tunnels and which areas were still Strictly Prohibited went about as well as any other year's tour. No, the giant robot can't walk. Yes, it was still a useful teaching tool. There was one time that it took out a student's scale model BOLO. No, there will be absolutely NO complete maps of the complex provided. They'd be out of date the following week. Le Bistro wasn't the only underground full-service restaurant anymore, but reservations still had a waiting list measured in weeks and solid favors.

Getting all the kids out of the fabrication lab only required a few fingers to be pried loose from a door frame. Unfortunately, that gave Keeling time to wander off. He was found annoying the hell out of one of the kids in the computer labs. After being caught so easily, maybe he'll rethink the perfume oils? On second thought, it was better than bathing in Axe.


The Cafeteria at Crystal Hall.

The last stop on the tour was the easiest to find. If the giant crystalline geodesic sphere didn't give it away, the smell of food left no doubt. In any case, the new students were likely to have eaten breakfast there, this morning before orientation started. Sergeant Wilson stepped out of the way before announcing, "That concludes this Winter 2017 Orientation. However, my door is open to students who need help, as long as that offer isn't abused. Go ahead and eat already." Not that more than two of them could or would stampede anywhere, but Wilson stepped out of the line of fire nevertheless. Weirder things routinely happened at Whateley Academy.

Inside, Dina told the others, "Sorry to desert you all, but I promised I'd eat lunch with my bee-eff. How about I grab a table while I'm waiting and everyone's getting their food?"

Most just shrugged, their minds already on food, while Isabella and the other girls said it was a good idea. Minutes later, everyone but Clover and Carmen had returned, and Dina had another idea.

"We could totally be the Breakfast Club!"

Benjamin asked, "What's a 'Breakfast Club'? Is this going to be something from another book I haven't read?"

"It's official: Benjamin's Emilio Estevez! It's a classic movie, dude."

Isabella said, "Missy so gets Ally Sheedy."

"The compulsive liar and all-around freak?"

"She also rocks the gloom cookie attitude."

A little on-the-nose, but Missy agreed. "I'm in."

Anneliese looked up from her phone to say, "We're still short the geek, rebel, and princess from the original five. I'm all down for Judd Nelson's bad boy. No offense, but I rock leather better than the average bear."

"What was this Emilio Estevez person?" asked Benjamin.

"He played the blond jock with Daddy issues," Dina said as she stood up again to scan the lunch crowd for her errant boyfriend.

"Never mind. I plead the Fifth."

"And not one of us is surprised after that commentary on how to fence a pile of gold," Isabella said. "I'll take the geek."

Anneliese said, "Says here that he's played by a guy."

"That was then."

"He was also suicidal."

"Been there, done that," Isabella said. "I still have the scripts, wasn't kidding about my mutation giving me back my life. We still have Molly Ringwald's Princess. "

"I'll take the Princess," Dina said, finally seeing her boyfriend in the crowd.

"Better you than me," Anneliese said. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather muscle in on Benji's criminal empire?"

Benjamin objected, "I prefer Benjamin."

"This is me not caring until you tell the rest of us your code name."

"Belfry."

"As in 'three bats shy of a full belfry'?"

"That's one way of looking at it."

"From here?" Anneliese said, "Sounds like that's about the only way of looking at it."


Halfway through the lunch period, a senior walked up to what was left of the Winter Losers table. She was obviously older than the underclassmen stumbling around. She also combined a dancer's grace with red-highlighted blonde hair, and the high cheekbones and warm complexion North American Plains Tribes were known for. As she came closer, her pointed ears gave her a more exotic look. However, she must've lost one hell of a bet or become disoriented by a concussion to be slumming it with the ground floor crowd.

Becky 'FairyFire' Wheeler was disappointed to have missed Clover Rozic and Dina Radford. However, she kept her best performance face on. Anything less and she'd be killing her chances by insulting the remaining folks in the Winter class.

"Hello! Sorry to interrupt, but you're the new students this term? Just out of the orientation tour?"

Anneliese smiled, saying, "We're missing a few. It's hard to compete with boyfriends, girlfriends, sunlight..."

"... but please, take a seat if you still want to."

"Don't mind if I do," Becky said. "I'm Becky Wheeler, FairyFire. I'm here as the President of the Elemental Dance Club."

Missy didn't miss a beat. "Not interested. Trust me, you aren't either."

"I'll have to pass," Isabella said, with barely a hint of bitterness.

"Elemental dance? What does that mean?" Anneliese asked. It could be interesting.

"Have you ever watched fire dancers or aerial dances? We're hoping to combine traditional or indigenous performance and acrobatics with elemental manipulation to create unique spectacles. For starters, we want to build a foundation of solid performances for the school. But, like the school band, we hope to perform off-campus as well."

"Oh," Anneliese actually looked disappointed. "I'm planning on concentrating on my music as much as I can. Cirque du Soleil uses live vocals, but it sounds like it might be a while before you'd even want me for a show." She yielded the floor to the other Whitman girls. Lily and Gwen exchanged a look and shook their heads vigorously. Carmen pursed her lips at the thought but sadly shook her head. Unless fire and fur went together better than she thought they would, this wasn't her dance.

Six down, two off-side, one to go.

"We also have a couple of guys in the club. Garnet and Tidestriker. You can guess that they're pretty much earth- and water-oriented. We'd really be open to recruiting one or two more."

At least the lone guy might be willing to hear her out? If this orientation group were a dance class, he could be the token not-so-straight dude. A weird one (not many people walked around with a rock for an eyeball), but beggars can't be choosers!

The guy sighed and reached for something in his jacket. And she'd so hoped not to antagonize anyone!

"I suppose you'd want to see my Equity and BECTU cards first?" Benjamin asked.

"Sure. I'd be happy to see what you can— Wait. You've heard of Actor's Equity? And, the other?"

"BECTU. The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union. My roommate's been an Equity member for a couple of years now."

Sure as God made little green apples, the union cards were real. "How?"

"I've got a couple of video editing credits, some development work for entertainment VR. Contact juggling and sleight of hand count as 'variety'. I still haven't forgiven Max for insisting I get credited for that one scene even after the footage hit the floor."

Colombine murmured over Benjamin's earpiece, "It was a very naturalistic death scene."

Becky returned his cards to a suddenly pale Benjamin, "What about it? Unlike Ms. Dennon's Exemplar Grace class, the final doesn't require you to spar with an opponent, in heels, without spilling a drop of your tea."

The sudden gleam in the guy's eyes didn't bode well for this Max person future class selections. Becky made her retreat as soon as she politely could after exchanging contact information.


Monday afternoon,
Laird Hall.

After lunch, Benjamin rushed back to Twain Cottage to dig out his gym bag and MA gear. He still would have been late for his evaluation if Colombine hadn't pulled up a map. The assigned dojo was but one of several in the Laird Hall facilities.

If folks here took the arts that seriously, what were the odds that he was at the ass end of the training curve?

Two women met Benjamin inside the dojo. The lead instructor was a statuesque six feet tall if she were an inch. Her natural hairstyle framed a moderately dark-skinned West African face. It also made a statement. You're not good enough to even touch my hair. The other instructor wasn't as tall or curvy, but clearly the junior here. Going by the casually deliberate way both women moved, Benjamin was badly outclassed.

"Good afternoon. I am Sensei Tolman, my colleague is Sensei Beaumont. I'm the primary sensei for our Basic Martial Arts course in addition to Basic Aikido. Sensei Beaumont teaches Kendo and Karate. And you are?"

"Benjamin Keeling. I've had some instruction in Tae Kwon Do and Krav Maga. However, I've been learning silat from Chegu Danial Tuah."

"That sounds eclectic, but let's start off with any forms you know. Any time you are ready. "

He saluted each teacher with namaste, racking his brain for any of the old TKD katas. He fumbled through two of them. Oh, well. He followed with combination drills along the line of retsev. Muscle memory kicked in to finish with silat forms.

Genevive Beaumont spoke first. "Mister Keeling, you can stop admitting that you were ever enrolled in Tae Kwon Do. Your teachers have corrected most of the bad habits that casual TKD students pick up." A twinkle in her eye suggested that he still had a long, long way to go. The technical critique that followed confirmed it.

Sensei Tolman asked, "When was the last time that your head injury was thoroughly examined? I'm talking about the injury that also cost you your left eye before you started training in silat."

Benjamin felt the blood drain from his face, too embarrassed to meet Tolman's eyes for a moment. He'd never been clocked that easily!

"I didn't have access to regular health care at the time I was injured. So far, I've been lucky."

"A warrior does not rely on luck."

"No, Sensei. Nor does a warrior turn his back on unearned good fortune."

Tolman's voice was steely but not unkind. "Mister Keeling, you will be at Doyle Medical Center at nine tomorrow morning for a complete physical evaluation. Students have, do, and will get hurt in our martial arts curricula. Some have died as a result of training accidents. I will not have a student injured or killed because of untreated pre-existing trauma. That foolishness is not acceptable in my dojo. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sensei."

"Furthermore, know that you will receive the same honesty we expect of you. You need considerable practice at basic skills before considering a higher class. Nonetheless, do you wish to continue?"

"Yes, Sensei. We're here. Let's do it."

"Good. Has your guru taught you tari?"

"Yes, Sensei."

Tolman asked her colleague, "Sensei Beaumont? Five minutes sufficient?"

"I should think so."

Again, Benjamin saluted with namaste, which both teachers returned. Back home, his guru had insisted on practicing the freeform style. Such practice focused the student's senses and attention on the moment. With Sensei Tolman as his opponent, five minutes flew by like five seconds.

"Yame! Mister Keeling, there's a water fountain over there. Drink."

"Ya, Cikgu!"

Benjamin walked off, drenched in sweat.

Sensei Tolman asked, "Your impression, Genevive?"

"The left frontal lobe is more damaged than the right. The temporal lobes seem largely spared. I would bet that his teacher extends practice to avoid short-term memory problems. Call it a gut feeling, but a full medical examination is dangerously overdue."

"Is that all?"

"Non. Did you notice he was grinning like a maniac the entire time you were leading him by the nose? This could be good therapy for him. We merely need to find methods that work to the best advantage."

Sensei Tolman led the boy around by the nose again for the second, "no powers, no holdouts", round. Again, he was directed to the water fountain while the teachers talked.

Tolman said, "There's an issue with strikes and blocks. He's subconsciously reaching for something. Care to take a chance that he plays with weapons already?"

"Oui." Sensei Beaumont said, "I shall need a shinai and two masks. Pain is said to be a patient teacher."

The big stick definitely got the kid's attention. He even felt more present, which didn't fit the profile.

Sensei Tolman announced to the two, "For this match, powers and holdouts are allowed; best two falls out of three. Are you ready?"

"Hai, Sensei!"

Hajime!

Keeling hop-stepped to rush past Beaumont on her left. Feet can be fast, but a sword can — be blocked by two batons from nowhere.

She ignored a foot stomp as a blatant distraction. Freeing the shinai from the crossed batons gave her better options.

Benjamin went hunting for openings in her offense. On chance or by instinct, he sprung away from the spot her shinai swept through.

Beaumont, too, stepped away from where Keeling's move should have put himself.

There was no one in the ring!

Sensei Tolman's focus gave Keeling's location away.

However, that moment of delay gave Benjamin the chance to throw her from the ring.

What was that old phrase? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me?

Sensei Beaumont regarded the manifested balisong Keeling now held in his lead hand as live steel. So, she was dealing with a novice silat fighter who loved distractions. She pressed her attack relentlessly, keeping him from getting far enough away for his vanishing act to matter. He'd have some impressive bruises tomorrow, but <c'est la guerre>. Tolman refrained from pointing out that both maniacs were grinning behind their masks this time.

Sensei Beaumont removed her mask first, giving Keeling permission to do likewise. "Your opinion, Sensei Tolman?"

"Mister Keeling, as I said before, a complete physical examination is not negotiable. As to your skills, you need much more work in many areas. The only cure for that is practice. If Sensei Dennon and your doctors agree, I recommend her Judo class this coming Spring Term. Sensei Beaumont?"

"I concur with Sensei Tolman in this. You and I both know you can't afford a grappler taking you to the mat. Sensei Dennon is tough. She's also a good teacher. You could learn from her. Now, do you have any questions before we hand you over to our survival instructor?"

"I thought the other placement tests were for academic subjects?"

Sensei Tolman shook her head. "Welcome to Whateley Academy, Mr. Keeling. These are academic subjects. After our colleagues put you through your survival skill paces, they'll hand you over to the Ranges. Then, you have an evening Q&A with Powers Theory, Home Economics, and anyone else still awake. Here's Mr. Anderson, right on time, as always.

Perfect timing was a trick that Benjamin envied.

The man who stepped into the dojo was well-built, tall, and graceful. Not a single hair was out of place. Dark sunglasses worn indoors completed the image of unflappable coolness.

"Good afternoon! I take it this is our chew toy of the day?"

Sensei Tolman smiled at her colleague. "He's all yours, Kurt." A drawl under the 'all' promised an interesting time for all.

"Okay, then! Hit the showers and meet me in five at the elevators. We'll be taking the tunnels to Arena 77. That's where I usually hold my Survival I classes. Our other instructor is already there, setting things up."

One hour later, freshman Benjamin Keeling had been assigned his first Whateley Academy detention. Manifesting a bouncing Chinese meditation ball is interesting. Manifesting one that breaks up into smaller and smaller bouncing jangling balls before disappearing is a curiosity. Doing so in front of incorrigible staff members is a Bad Idea. However, the time spent wasn't a complete loss. He walked away with a half-credit for Survival I and tips for upping his game.


Range Four.

The Basic Firearms Safety exam amounted to "Can you handle a firearm without killing yourself and bystanders?" No problem there, as anyone failing that did not need to be on a firing range. The variety of firearms available for check-out was drool-worthy. Benjamin checked out a Glock G17 that fit well in his hands. That familiar feeling prompted him to stand that much straighter as he shot the static targets. He remained on autopilot mode for the pop-up go/no-go round and cleaning.

Plinking at a paper target with an MP5SFA3 semi-automatic carbine in single-fire mode went well until the Range Master opened another lane for target practice. Just another of the guards in a gray duty uniform. The ever-present shock collar weighed down on his neck. Was he or wasn't he where he was supposed to be? The Range Master yelled something in the wrong accent. New guards and trainers were the worst! Benjamin broke out in a cold sweat. His heart galloped on an adrenaline tear, slowing the world around him down. Out! He never got away. Now! He never could get away. They'd always find him. Was he hearing gunfire? Or was this a disciplinary session, with him next under the whip?

The next thing Benjamin knew, he was on the floor of an office, looking up at one of the biggest, baddest warriors he'd ever met. The name on the name tape, Tyson, didn't ring a bell. A vestigial enlisted instinct shouted that it should.

"Tell me straight, Keeling. Where does a kid your age see action?" Tyson asked. He let "don't ever lie to me" hang unspoken in the silence as Benjamin worked on sitting up.

Benjamin stared into the floor as if it were a concrete window on the past. "South Sudan. Darfur. Short-term contracts." His mouth was dry as the cotton between his ears. He should have gotten to Medical earlier. That was obvious. He looked back up through bloodshot eyes, "Is anyone hurt?" Honesty for honesty.

"No one is hurt. You don't recall setting your rifle down and flagging the Range Master?"

"... No."

"You understand how that might present a problem for me?"

Fricking nightmare for him, I'd bet.

"Yes." Benjamin's neck was knotted stiff.

Tyson said, "Here's what's going to happen. You've got the experience to match Pistol 100 and 200, maybe more, maybe not. However, you're in no mental condition to be on a range unless you're by yourself. That dog won't hunt. I would have allowed you to take Combat Movement, as you probably rely too much on not being seen. However, as things stand right now, you won't be back on any of my ranges until you're cleared by Doyle Medical. Physical and Psych. Do you understand what I am telling you?"

"No shooting until my head's in the right place. Try not to get shot before then?"

Tyson nodded. "Not exactly what I said, but not getting shot at isn't the worst idea I've heard today. You've got a neat trick going, but it won't work all the time. Too many people will take it as an invitation to shoot at you. "

"What, PTSD and a seizure disorder?"

"No. Your disappearing act."

"That's in my files."

Tyson said, "I'm talking before your spazz-out, while you were taking the Glock out for a spin. Now, to most people on this planet, making yourself someone else's problem is useful. They see, but don't care. To those who actually pay attention to themselves and the universe, it's a big red flag. That includes me, likely the Oni, possibly Hikaru and the sword nut she's babysitting, maybe Reilly in the Magic Department. So, doing it intentionally?"

"No. Only an idiot would intentionally do that on a Range!" Tyson could practically feel the gears grinding in the boy's head. "Totally defeats the purpose. Lots and lots of pushups if I was back at school. My old school was before, though."

"There are ways to get that back under control, maybe even make it better." That got Keeling's full attention. "Once you're up for it, that is. Now, go get some food inside you. Report back to Schuster Hall at twenty-hundred for the sit-down tests."


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Part 2: Hard wakeup calls

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Whatever it is that I am definitely innocent of, I can explain.

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