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Icejack's Very Sucky, No Good, Combat Final

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Icejack's Very Sucky, No Good, Combat Final



Fall 2015 Combat Final: Bystander vs. Icejack. Ooopsie!

We often see how Whateley Academy's combat finals go. But what comes after the grades are recorded, and the crowd's attention shifts to the next spectacle?

Fall 2015 Combat Finals Week,
Arena 99, Whateley Academy.

"Looks like we've got a real pressure cooker of a tail chase, folks. Bystander's halfway up a fire escape and closing in on our alien signal device."

"That's right. I guess neither one of our competitors are good at picking locks."

"Too bad, so sad. I almost feel for Icejack. I hear he's an IT guy, so it must suck that none of the doors are rigged for remote entry."

"Feel for yourself, Bud. Bystander's being super careful. No telling if there are traps until you step on one. Annnnnd, he's on the roof, ready to hit the spindle."

"That's right. Icejack's going to have to rely on speed over stealth."

"Oh. That's a bonehead maneuver! Never turn back to scope out your opponent until you've crossed the finish line."

"That leaves Icejack still scrambling up those stairs. Were they swaying like that before? Oh, *bleep*. Someone's going to need an ambulance."

The ending siren blared out over the PA system, followed by the announcement: "Winner, Bystander."

Nate Chalmers smiled. "Huh. I guess gravity works."

Recovery, Doyle Medical Center.

The Combat Final judges hadn't had much to say to Peter 'Icejack' Raiford since he'd regained consciousness between medical procedures.

"You need to put substantially more work into your situational awareness. Anyone could see that attempting that climb would result in injuries like you sustained. You are very lucky that the Arena's safety features saved your life. For failing to meet your objective and injuring yourself through negligence, you are receiving an 'F'. The world outside is a harsh place for the unprepared. Do better."

Peter could still feel stinging disgust dripping from each syllable. With his luck, that could be a reaction to the meds pumped into him. Why not? After all, what had been the odds he'd get the one fire escape ladder that had to have been left out to rust since the school opened? Weren't the arenas practically rebuilt each year? Logic failed to explain the situation.

Peter had the same impression of his Final as everyone else who'd been watching. An impression that judged his injuries as being all his fault. He fell back into a deep, miserable sleep drowned in a sea of antiseptic off-white walls.

Hours later.

Dr. Ophelia Tenent intercepted Mrs. Carson and guest at the Medical Center's main lobby. Thank the Goddess for small miracles of timing! The afternoon had been bad enough without either of them showing up during surgery. If she looked frazzled or run-down, so be it. This place had seen worse, usually during the school's semiannual Combat Finals.

"Not one word from either of you even hinting that this was all Raiford's fault. I've heard the same line of bullshit from every person who witnessed that match, and I'm sick of hearing it. The next armchair quarterback I'm stuck dealing with gets scrubbed up for surgery."

Mrs. Carson stepped forward to forestall the oncoming collision.

"Doctor, may I introduce Molly Raiford, Peter's mother? Surely, there's a better place to discuss the case?"

Office of the Headmistress.

Despite their friendship, discussing the case with Opie had gone as well as could be expected with her patient being rushed back into surgery. However, distracting the patient's irate mother from accessing the school's electronic records remained a priority. As soon as the IT security team had a break from the ongoing combat finals, Liz Carson would happily let them deal with those matters. At least Mrs. Raiford had finally calmed down. Somewhat.

"Let me get this straight. The unanimous opinion among the witnesses is that the victim is personally responsible for himself being dropped three stories down into a folding steel sandwich?"

"That appears to be the case, yes. Weapons, powers, traps, and taking advantage of hazards and obstacles are all fair game in the combat finals. That much hasn't changed since you and your husband were students."

"And, what exactly are the other kid's, Bystander's, powers?"

"He's a psychokinetic and empath. Why?"

"Are you sure he's not telekinetic as well?"

"That isn't something our powers testing staff would screw up."

"They might do so under the influence of a strong projective empath." At Carson's quizzical look, Molly added, "Even if I dozed off once or twice in class, I did pay attention to the material presented in Dr. Quintain's Powers Theory class. Let's look at it another way. When was the last time there was a unanimous assessment among the eyewitnesses of a combat final?"

"It's been some years since Wondercute disbanded."

Rumors that Miss Ellison intended to revive that legacy notwithstanding.

"So how was this match run similar to theirs?"

"It wasn't. As teams go, those girls were unusually memorable. But, that's all in the past. Our Psychic Code of Ethics still doesn't allow us to go digging through a student's mind based on a suspicion that he might have contributed to another's injuries. Once we go down that road, there's no telling where or if we'll be able to stop."

"So we're expected to suck it up and hope that my son will eventually walk again?"

"If, and that's a very big if, Mr. Chalmers acted out of malice, the more pressure we put on him, the smarter he'll become at covering his tracks next time. Is that what you want? It won't speed up Peter's recovery."

"No. I don't want that. But I don't plan on sitting on my hands either."

"Have a care, young woman. I will not let threats to Whateley's neutrality slide."

Doyle Medical Center.

Peter lay back in the hospital bed, counting pinholes in the matte white ceiling tiles again. His roommate had brought his school-issued tablet to the hospital (which, per Eugene, would be so much better run under the Iron Dragon) for him. He'd have to tackle the electronic biome that was probably infesting it now. But, if nothing else, he'd be able to reread his textbooks to prepare for all the finals he hadn't flunked yet.

By pinhole six-thirty-nine, he managed to ask himself how he could be so calm about being hospitalized. Also, how, for instance, was he going to make it to the restroom if he had to? Not that he really had to...


He was calm enough about the catheter not to look up what that had to have felt like if he'd been awake.

Good thing, too.

Getting out of the Cirque du Soleil traction contraption hooked up to him would have taken too long, anyway.

By pinhole twelve-hundred-and-get-me-out-of-here, he'd been awake long enough to notice that even the best drugs wear off.

That was not okay!

His parents would be home for the entire break. No way to avoid that by pleading late class finals. The clinic staff had already arranged for him to take what tests he could where he was. With them home, there was no need for Ben— Cutler and his team. He shouldn't feel disappointed about that. This was all completely unfair! On the other hand, there was absolutely, positively, no need to tell them how badly he'd been bushwhacked. Maybe he could talk Ms. Takenaka into giving him some pointers without telling the others? That might not be so bad. At least the air there wouldn't smell of rubbing alcohol and bathroom funk.

Guardian Resources and Trading Company, Kapalangpur.

Benjamin Keeling shut off the projector he'd commandeered along with the nondescript small conference room. So far, he and his team had reviewed footage from three cameras covering the accident. Now, he gave them time to think about what they'd seen. No rush. His life had depended on Max 'Dancy Dance' Livingston's near-eidetic memory for details and Yuki 'Kuromu' Takenaka's eye for recognizing patterns too many times to count.

Yuki drawled, "Boys, you know what I'm thinking?"

"I'm not sure Brain. But I'm going to let Max field that one."

He'd probably pay for that comment in paintball bruises, but it broke the mood.

"Thanks, boss. Something just isn't right. Our client weighs what, one-forty, wet? He wasn't stomping around, either. So why didn't the whole mishegas come down on the guy on point? They're both about the same size."

"Metal fatigue? That's the official party line. Yuki?"

"It looks like a demolition job to me."

Yeah. And about that...

Benjamin asked Max to go 'borrow' whatever he needed to tease out more information from the video clips. Once Max walked out to cast his technical wizardry, he sighed.

"I'm going to have to kill someone."

"At least one, assuming there wasn't inside help. No ruling that out. But let's take a step back or two. What's your line of reasoning for ruling attempted murder in or out, and how would you investigate?"

"Let's say the fire escape failed on its own. I'd want to see how it was anchored to that brick wall and what exactly happened to those fixtures. Unbalanced scaffolds and ladders fall away from walls. So, they'd be pulled out. If the collapse went to the side, they'd also be wrenched before shearing."

"Maybe it just happened to fold in on itself, then?"

"It should have been designed to do anything but that. Also, it would have to have been inspected before use, or else we're looking at criminal negligence. That's two strikes against that theory."

Yuki pressed on. "What suggests to you that the accident was deliberate?"

Benjamin ran his fingers through his regulation-short hair as if there was something like an idea there to grab. "Nothing I'd want to take to court. The other guy's got a motive for mischief: grabbing a decisive win boosts his grade. He's still a kid, so he could have overestimated what he needed to delay pursuit. But then he stops, goes back, and checks his work. Why? Icejack was too far behind to waste much time being quiet. Unless Bystander gets off on pain, I'm not seeing it."

"That's motive, plus mitigating and aggravating circumstance. Method?"

"Doesn't Bystander have PK? I really need to study up on what other mutants can do."

Yuki shrugged. "It's great for tanking but usually ineffective at a distance. With fine control of the effect, you can get some slice-and-dice action out of it."

"What about cutting anchors and supports as you go?"

"Depending on strength and practice, sure. How would you know if you looked for it?"

"Again, look at the breaks or cuts. If I used a universal padlock key, the edges would be shiny clean and beviled. Saw cuts leave metal burrs. Not sure what PK would leave."

"You got it: PK cuts are usually clean and shiny. They're like nanowire cuts but flat."

"It's still adding up to overkill, not just a nasty trick left in a hurry. And, yes, this pot is calling that kettle black."

"It only gets better. Once the stage crew goes in and cleans up the accident, all your evidence is headed for recycling or landfill. Cheer up, though. Petey's still alive, recovering, and there's no statute of limitations on attempted homicide."

"I should know this, but does it matter if the alleged perp's a psychic?"

"If he's tampering with witnesses or otherwise hindering prosecution? Hell, yes! Not many places put a statute of limitations on that kind of fuckery. Some will just disappear the accused on principle. What ends your rookie-assed shift with a long dirt nap is when a projective empath or a telepath skullfucks you sideways without anyone copping wise to it. That's why you do not pass 'Go', do not collect your ass in your hat. You call for backup – you hearing me? ASAP – if you even think you might be dealing with those kinds of powers. Your own included."

"What about? Wait. No. Ah, fuck no."

"If you were thinking of lethal force just then, then 'fuck no' is the right answer. How do you know who you're really gunning for? Never forget that folks facing mental or magical coercion charges have nothing to lose by taking down a cop."

Max walked in, catching the tail end of the impromptu police academy moment.

"What about wearing another face? That might confuse the mentalist. Maybe?"

Yuki shook her head. "Without prep, he'd still be wearing the popo drag. Do you want Benjie betting his life that a perp facing supermax won't escalate? Besides, you know how he gets when he's fronting full-time."

"How I get?"

"I'd like to think it's method acting. I'd also like to think that Santa Claus is real and has a thing for nice girls like me."

"What about his hey-y'all-watch-this thing?"

"If they can't shake it off, most low-lifes will break out street sweepers or some other version of spray and pray fuckery."

"Yeah, Max. That's why I go for cover first. There's always a chance someone no-sells that trick. Anything new show up in the tapes?"

"Nope. The cameras they use are high-end, but they autofocus on the foreground action. I couldn't pick out anything I can hang my hat on, so I'm keeping it all in mind next time I need to shake hostiles."

Benjamin let his head drop to the table.

"Why did we ever give up on picking pockets and boosting cars?"

"Desperation makes us all do stupid shit. As professionals, we get to be choosy about how stupid the shit gets. That's why your boss wants you taking a crash course in desperate shitbaggery."

Benjamin slumped back in his chair, "Fuck me."

"Not the job you hired me for."

What would Benjamin do without supportive pals like these?

"Come on. Let's get some food in you before your next shift. I can practically count your ribs."

"Hey! I eat plenty. I've just got some growing left in me."

"You just keep telling yourself that."

Monday morning, Second Combat Finals Week,
Office of the Headmistress, Whateley Academy.

Liz Carson stared back at her former student. The last time she and Molly had talked, it had ended in shouting and veiled threats. This conversation threatened to end badly as well. Lucky for all concerned, the oak furniture was as sturdy as anything from the past century could be.

"It may not appear so at the moment, Molly. But, as I said before, things haven't changed that much since you and Butch were students," she said. "What happens in the sims still stays in the sims. It has to be that way."

Molly Raiford shook her head. "I don't think for one minute that your Mister Chalmers believes that that applies to him."

This was a step up from "murderous scumbag" and "dead man walking." Praise the saints for small progress.

"Then he will have to swallow a hefty dose of cognitive dissonance should he test our patience."

"According to what my sources have dug up, he's more than just a test of your patience. Next time, you might be explaining a broken neck or a corpse to a family. Luckily for you, what I'm proposing is less expensive than you would imagine."

In this job, that would be a first.

"How many scholarships?"

Molly Raiford smiled for the first time since she'd arrived on the school's campus.

"Mrs. Carson, I do believe you're slipping. As hilarious as watching her play 'hello fellow kids' would be, Kuromu is better suited to Security."

Considering how Vaporware and Illustrated Man made their money, it wasn't surprising they'd know a Syndicate member or ten.

"You'd know this, how?"

"She's part of the team we hired to keep an eye on Peter when he's not at school or at home."

"How many others are on this team, and why should I care?"

"That's where my interests overlap yours. You see, the other two members of the team are minors who are missing out on their formative years of education."

When did they start hiring street thugs? If their money was running that tight... But, no, the numbers didn't add up.

"That works out to two non-reimbursed scholarships from my budget, in addition to a questionable improvement to anyone's security."

"Dancy Dance's business agent would prefer he pays his own way. Fewer financial encumbrances and liability issues. Emceeing and performing as the Super Dance Party, he's built quite a following in East Asia. Cutler's the wildcard here."

If that was the windup, the pitch better be damned good.

"How much of a wildcard?"

"My motherly intuition tells me that Peter and Benjamin are at the I'm not staring at you, you're staring at me phase."


"Molly! We're talking about a child here! Your only child, at that!"

"Peter turns fifteen on the second of February. I probably should send him a reminder of the event. Benjamin's only three months older. They're both two or three years older than Max."

"They told you this, and you believed them? Predators lie about their ages all the time."

"True. His boss had told me he was twenty-four when we originally contracted for his team's services. I'll admit that Benjamin looked the part. However, I got suspicious when the team leader kept taking perimeter patrols. Being the sweet lady I am, I paid their boss's supervisor a visit. She gave me the real dates while Butch had a heart-to-heart with said boss."

As a Whateley student, Butch Raiford had had many heart-to-heart talks with various bullies. Carson could make an educated guess how that discussion had run.

The ethical dilemmas involved must have ghosted across Carson's face because Molly added, "Had the people involved been that kind of predator, those would have been much shorter conversations. No, were it up to me, I'd be pushing to have the boys enrolled come January. However, Benjamin's committed to a job this spring and early summer."

Liz Carson sighed, sure that more disastrous news was in the pipeline. After all, it was only Monday.

"I'm going to assume that knowing the nature of this job would be bad for my blood pressure."

Friday evening, December 18, 2015,
Raiford Residence, Kapalangpur.

"Peter! Supper's just about ready!"

Why wasn't the smoke alarm going off?

Oh, right. Mom had mentioned something about ordering in. That would have been right before he'd struggled out of his braces and collapsed into bed. The doctors had warned him that getting his strength back would be taxing, but the news was still sinking in. Back brace first. Bending over wrong would hurt like a bitch.

That was something scary to think about: to rebreak his spine and it not hurt. Could we just fast-forward through the nighmares already?

Unlock the knees, get straps out of the way, get the foot and leg where they go. Thigh strap. Foot strap. Shoe on. Shin straps. Repeat.

Surprise! No smoke from the kitchen. But, no food on the table yet, either. Dad saw him first and waved him to the chair between the table and wall.

"Go ahead and get yourself seated. Our food's on the way up."


"Your mother and I have known you for almost fifteen years. We're not going to start treating you like ch— something easily broken. Besides, the more you hate needing help to get around, the more serious you'll take your physical therapy."

Dad wasn't entirely wrong. Or, innocent... A timely knock at the door meant dinner really was ready.

"Right on time! Come on in!"

Most folks were surprised that a turbo geek like Peter's mother could raise her voice enough to be heard. Most folks hadn't seen a pack of hungry Whitman girls descending upon the breakfast line either. And, just between him and a God Peter didn't believe in, the idea of his mother as a young Dickinson or Melville girl was mental bluescreen-worthy.

Moments later, Mrs. Raiford strode into the dining area with a uniformed guy carrying the takeout food.

"Butch, Peter! Look who's here with the food! The delivery person's okay, aren't they?"


Now was not at all the time to be trapped in a chair with no way to hide.

"I happened to be in the area when I got off work, Ma'am, so I decided to swing by to check on things. Someone should have told me you were expecting deliveries... Actually, shouldn't you all still be en route?"

"Since you're off-duty, it's Molly, not Ma'am. You already know my husband, Butch."

"Mr. Raiford."

Why did Dad look like he'd just scored points over something?

"And, Peter."


"You know what, guys? I think we might have ordered enough for one more. You'll join us, of course?"

"How could I say no?"

"Unwisely, so say yes and hang up your ballistic vest and cap by the door. You don't want to forget those."

Benjamin's lightly tanned face still complimented his green eyes and dark blond hair, just like Peter remembered. The sky blue shirt, dark blue tactical trousers, duty belt, and brimmed cap with black-and-white diced hatband were all new. Looking good on him... like a change in subject is immediately needed! Maybe food?

His mother soon arranged things so the non-dairy local cuisine options were in front of Keeling and the calcium- and protein-loaded servings were in front of Peter. So much for accidental arrivals or food being a safe topic. Tonight was sure to be even more awkward than usual, which was saying a lot.

With the silence wearing thin, Butch asked, "Benjamin, should we take it that you've gone into a new line of business?"

"Ehm, yes and no?"

Mr. Raiford motioned with his fork for Benjamin to continue.

"This," indicating his uniform, "is part of an on-the-job training assignment for working with local authorities. Day shifts with the local PD, evenings being grilled on rules, regs, and procedures. In a couple of weeks, if things go well, I'll be sent out to show what I've learned." After a brief but thorough fork-and-knife investigation, Benjamin dug into something with chicken and a lot of vegetables.

Molly's smile faded. "I think we were all hoping your team would be available over the holidays. Work comes first, I guess."

"That it does, but the rest of my team is available, and I'll be turning in my badge this coming Thursday. I'm sure we can work something out. If you need a vetted driver who isn't on the meter, we've got you covered."

"I'd also like to see Peter getting out of the house, doing things, and not spending the entire school break moping around."

"When I'm not stuck in physical therapy."

"Not a problem, Ma'am."

The meal ended way too soon, which meant that there was no covering up how well Peter wasn't. He got his legs swung around the chair, only to look up and see Benjamin's outstretched hand.

"Use your right hand to transfer weight to the table. I'll support your left as you push yourself up. If you brace yourself on the chair back, you'll smash your knuckles on the wall when it tips back."

"Dammit. I didn't want..."

"Yeah, I didn't want to get run over by a jeep last year, either. Life's like that."

"You what?"

"You didn't notice that I never wore shorts last summer? I'm telling Yuki you asked for her situational awareness training. Very outdoorsy. I'll have to get back with you on that tomorrow. Don't worry, though. She'll love having someone new to boss around."

Saturday, December 19, 2015,
Raiford Residence, Kapalangpur.

Peter had worried, not complained, about his father not flying out to see him in the hospital. What he hadn't worried enough about was how he was expected to take a bath or shower when he couldn't step over the rim of a tub. Surprise! His father had brought in contractors to convert one of the flat's tub and shower enclosures to a walk-in shower, complete with grab bars. That came in handy when their security contractor showed up at the early crack of noon.

His true wake-up call was when his Dad asked if he was ready to head out or should he lend a hand. Did he need help washing himself? No! He was way too old to have his parents help him clean up.

"...Don't worry, Mr. Raiford. My old school had open showers. Nothing I haven't seen before."

That didn't mean Peter had anything he wanted his part-time bodyguard to see of him in his boxers. Ever.

"Good morning!"

Somehow, Keeling was back to looking more like Peter's age again. That's if guys his age wore bright Madras shirts with board shorts that didn't quite hide a healed scar below their left knee.

"Uh, hm. I forgot to ask if you need your equipment for stance control or what."

"Stance and posture. They could reconnect the nerves and reset the bones, but the forced healing left my body scrambling for building materials."

"... Gotcha. How about: you grab your canes, I'll spot you on the transfers."

That was exhausting. Anything would be exhausting after trying to shower without slipping, falling, or being caught staring. Benjamin didn't follow him back into his bedroom. That was a good thing. Right? Was he talking to Dad out there? Not good!

Peter pulled on his athletic socks hard enough to tear a hole in one. Tossing that pair in the trash, he wondered why these things had to happen to him. Then he remembered who was out in the living room. Just because the guy had no interest in him, that didn't mean he wanted his Dad leaking embarrassing childhood stories!

Outside, Peter almost stumbled at the sight of a taxi loitering in the tropical heat, double-parked in front of the upscale apartment building. The building managers paid well to have entrepreneurs hustled on their way! How much cash was Keeling throwing around?

"You haven't had lunch yet, have you? I know I could stand to eat something."

"Um, no. Not yet. Could go for a hamburger, but I don't really know what's where."

"That's what I'm here for." Benjamin walked up to the cab and stuck his head in, "Hey, Max. What's that place on Dunmore with the good chicken?"

"The one where I learned never to say I'm having whatever you're having? Great food, though."

Later, Peter wondered if they'd picked the right destination. He couldn't follow Benjamin's orders (all in Malay), as modified for human digestive safety by Max. The food was very, very good, and like nothing he'd get at home. Peter's New England grandparents had probably had a hand in his parents having conservative tastes in food. For them, salt and pepper still counted as exotic spices.

Speaking about exotic, Max still fit that bill, even after experiencing Whateley Academy. Over seven feet tall, built like a brute, he also sported a wild mane of hair that shifted color without rhyme or reason. Judging by appearance alone, he was obviously the group's brick to Belfry's brains and Kuromu's lethal finesse. Off the job, he came across like one of Whateley Workshop's few upperclassmen who'd won top prize in the genetic lottery. Benjamin, on the other hand, came across as shy, even withdrawn. Peter was still off-guard when Max asked his boss where they were headed next.

"Home, I think."

Already? Peter wasn't that tired!

"You sure about that?"

"It's got historical interest, and it's about as outdoorsy as you can get," Benjamin said. "All you got to do is swing by about an hour after sunset, when we close."

That didn't sound like home, but they paid and left, just the same.

Bukit Aseng Cemetery, Kapalangpur.

A historical marker-like sign next to the Victorian wrought iron gate they passed announced "Bukit Aseng Cemetery". Peter wasn't sure, but there could be a graveyard under the jungle foliage that had overtaken most of the scenery. As if that weren't puzzling enough, the cab's doors locked the moment Peter moved to get a better look out the nearest window. He most certainly didn't jump from shock. It was surprising, that's all.

"Dude," Benjamin said to Max, "That was mean."

"Yeah. But in all the movies, it's the misunderstood good guys who flash that jump scare."

"They're also the ones who die first, aren't they?"

"Depends on the director."


"Spoilsport. Do you want to be let off as close as I can get to the caretaker's shack or somewhere else?"

"Eh. Grass and wet dirt aren't fun with crutches. The path that goes past the shrine up front is solid."

"Your funeral."

"Not funny."

"Sure it is. See you kids later!"

Watching Max take off with their ride, Peter took a chance on asking, "How long ago was this a working cemetery?"

"Still is."

"You called it home."


"Your English doesn't sound like you're from here."

"I am now. That's the part that counts. Reg said he planned to get some brush cleared today. Mom will either be in the office or helping folks. Doesn't that sound like a working establishment?"


"You don't have to be. I should tell you that I've talked over your problem with my parents. Mom's a Taoist scholar. She might have ideas for speeding up your recovery if she knows the origin of the injuries. Your folks kept calling the fight a 'combat final'. Reg knows a thing or two about combat."

"He went to Whateley too?"

That was news.

"Naw. He was a Royal Marine."

How do you cross a Marine and a scholar and end up here? That seemed to be all for now until a young Chinese girl ran up to the two of them. Her long black hair, tied in a pink ribbon, bounced as lively as she did.

< "Big Brother! Who's your new friend?" >

< "Hello, Little Sister. This is Peter." > "Peter, this is Li Hua."

"I didn't know you spoke Chinese."

"I'm still working on it." < "Peter doesn't understand Guangdong dialect." >

< "Aw. That's sad. I could help!" >

< "Shouldn't we let him sit down first? >

< "Oh! He's hurt? Yes!" >

"How about we go inside," Benjamin pointed to an out-of-the-way building. "You can sit down and catch your breath. Li Hua says she can help teach you."

"Okay," Peter drawled. He should be able to cover the distance or die trying. The last thing he wanted was to look like a weakling while being towed down the path by a child. Worse, Keeling bailed, leaving him in the little girl's care, tea set and all. Something to do with cleaning off his makeup or checking in? Whatever that had meant, he wasn't expecting to see a Han lady glide into the common room. Her hair had been pulled back and then piled, plaited, and pinned in an elegant bun atop the back of her head. Her long-sleeved white blouse and ankle-length brown skirt were timelessly modest, yet modern enough to set people at ease.

Peter was struggling to stand when she waved him to sit back down.

"Please don't tire yourself! I trust that you are the Peter Raiford of whom my son spoke?" As with Li Hua, there was an undercurrent of mirth to the line. What had the guy been saying about him?

"Yes, Ma'am, I am. I don't believe I got your name?"

Peter held out his right hand for a handshake. Using one crutch and holding the other in the same hand complicated things, but he managed.

"You wouldn't want my name." The woman's rueful expression brightened as she nodded to herself. "Someday, maybe, I'll explain. I'm now called Naomi Keeling. My husband, Reginald, sent Benjamin to buy more food. They both should return before long."

He'd been abandoned here? Keeling, er, Benjamin, didn't owe him his undivided attention, just, well...

< "Li Hua, could you give us some time to talk? Our guest won't want certain things shared." >

< "Of course!" >

The little girl gathered up her playthings, bowed, and disappeared.

"Is there anything I can do for you to make you more comfortable?"

"I don't know. It felt good to stand up after sitting for a while."

"That's common with some injuries. Spending too much time in one position can be painful. Would you like some tea? My husband prefers black tea in the European style. My son is less particular."

"Whatever's easiest. I'm fine either way."

That was another thing that wasn't adding up.

When Naomi returned with two celadon cups, Peter spoke up, "Pardon me, but how is Benjamin your son? You don't look, um."

"European like him?"

"I was going to say old enough for him to be your son."

Naomi stifled a laugh at that.

"How old do you think he is?"

"He doesn't always look it, but he'd have to be in his mid-twenties to be where I think he is in the business. I've even had teachers who weren't as comfortable with what they can do. Police departments recruit younger, but I don't see it."

"For the right fee, some will even accept a fifteen-year-old. One who isn't as comfortable in his own skin as we'd hope."


"Especially if the recruit in question has a knack for letting people see what they expect to see." Mistaking Peter's incriminating blush, Naomi added, "There's no shame in making an honest mistake. In any case, Reginald and I are old enough to adopt."

"I should have thought of that."

Over the course of several cups of herbal green tea, Peter found himself answering all sorts of questions about his life. How he'd learned that the more lethally professional his nannies, tutors, or minders were, the more danger his parents meant to keep away from him. As he grew older, he understood that they missed him as much in their own way as he missed them. But, he'd be damned if he wasn't grateful that they hadn't hovered over him.

"Just like Benjamin isn't hovering over you?"

"That's different. Besides, I don't have anything for him to interfere with."

"Are you sure about that? I'd think your most important task is to recover your health. As I recall, boys your age are good at complicating the process."

No double-dog dares, no problems.

"I'm scheduled for physical therapy. From the way it's gone so far, maybe some interference wouldn't be so bad."

"Perhaps. You're also a student, aren't you? Intent on becoming a scholar?"

"I'm hoping that what I'm learning will have practical use. There's just a lot to learn. It doesn't help that I just flunked Survival I. They said I'll have to retake that in the spring term. I still get to take the special topics classes I signed up for in the winter term, but, we'll see."

"I recall hearing something about a survival class. Back when I was a young girl, I couldn't have imagined people attending lectures on survival. Being lectured," Naomi's voice trailed off. "Perhaps there should have been more of that."

Peter hung his head. "Yeah. Either way you go, I get to be the village idiot until someone else screws up worse."

"How so?"

"Nate's pretty much harmless. Losing a match to him makes me look like a complete loser. And, of course, if I say anything in my defense, I'm a bad guy and sore loser."

"How well do you know this person?"

"I see him every day in a couple of my classes. He's good-looking enough, but nothing else stands out. Compared to the guys who really have to be watched out for, it's like he isn't even there."

"Perhaps a different approach is called for? Instead of ignoring such a person, one who offers nothing of themself to you, avoid that one entirely."

"If I started doing that, the first one out of my life would be my roommate. If I didn't know better, I'd expect Eugene to accuse me of conspiring to start another Opium War."

Naomi smiled at another private joke. "Let's see about healing your body before you run off to enlist. According to Reginald, war is a 'bloody nasty business'."

"That works for me. When do we start?"

"We've already begun. While we've talked, I've been observing how your chi flows at rest and how that flow responds to different subjects."


I'm so screwed.

"There are things that a healer or counselor keeps in confidence. Unless that silence would lead to further harm there's no need to speak out."

"That obvious?"

"There are so many things you kick yourself for doing or not doing that it would take great patience to discern. You do have a worthy purpose in this life, whether you believe it or not. On the matter of physical healing, my mentors taught that medicinal recipes alone are insufficient. If you wish to fully recover, you should begin relearning how your mind and body move and stand still together."

"That sounds a lot like physical therapy."

"What are the odds that you will discard those therapy exercises as soon as you feel 'good enough'?"


Naomi smiled. "Exactly. Being easily forgotten, how will they help to make your injury a source of mental strength, not weakness?"

"I've never heard anything like that except when people are making claims for their martial arts."

"There is benefit in combining physical forms with meditation. That is why practices like qigong exist. They can be performed by an ordinary person without driving them insane from boredom and lack of progress."

"Do we have time for all that?"

"No. It's not like you can swallow a pill and suddenly know kung fu."


"I can prepare a bone-healing powder and instructions for its use. You can begin learning the rest at school. Does that seem reasonable?"

"I guess so."

"Applying the medicine works best by fumigation. It's not as bad as it sounds in English. We can work around not having the traditional tools and furniture if you are willing."

"With my luck, I'm probably allergic."

"That's why I'd like to try a limited test first."


"Steeping the herbs and cooling the decoction takes time. One learns to plan ahead."

And so it happened that Peter was shirtless against the kitchen table when Benjamin walked in with groceries. It wasn't like the guy had room to complain: the way his wet cotton shirt clung to him suggested he'd raced back from the market after being reminded he had company.


Peter lifted his head up. The medicated heating pad still felt too good to risk moving and dislodging it. Good enough to limit the mild shock of seeing Benjamin not hiding his skin color and bad eye. The way his hair stuck up, the guy must have washed his face off and left it at that. Funny how, as hot as it was outside, exercise sweat didn't smell bad at all.

"... What?"

"I was wondering why we needed more dong quai." Benjamin poked at the cloth pad. "Time to heat things up?"

"Nah. Maybe in a few minutes?"

Like, when it's less embarrassing to stand up? He'd have to remember to blame that on the medicine powder.


From the sounds of it, Benjamin went around putting things away before settling down, arms crossed on the table, across from Peter. That would have been a considerate way to talk face-to-face if he hadn't fallen asleep.

That was how Naomi found the two boys when she returned.

She resoaked/reheated the pad for Peter's back, moving quietly to let the two children rest. On second thought, she added another for Peter's shoulders. They'd probably sleep through meal prep but bolt awake at the sound of a camera click. Something to try on a later date, perhaps.

Raiford Residence, Kapalangpur.

Peter could have sworn he heard his electric clock ticking the seconds away, just to keep him from getting any sleep. Was this jet lag? Only jet lag? Every other time he'd traveled, all he needed was a good long sleep to get reoriented. Sure, he'd been woken up a little early today, but he didn't prefer staying at home that much.

Great. Not even fifteen, close enough, and he was already getting old. Jet lag now, dentures by twenty-one. No one would like him then. Not that they did now. Eugene was a psycho Iron Dragon stan, so he didn't count either way. If Nate had ever... No. It was clear that his interest had only been limited to whatever free homework that Nate could get out of it.

Played like a fucking fiddle. No, not even something that valuable. Like a bootleg eight-bit deer hunter game written in gkBASIC or Befunge.

Peter thought he was kind of popular with most of the girls, but girls were just different like that. Ping and Operator were practically the only ones who understood the same languages he did. On the other hand, the way Damsel avoided him in Powers Lab... and she was an uncontrolled shifter. No need to rush to conclusions.

Someone needs to tell Falsetto that just about everyone's caught him looking in the showers at one time or another.

Who else ever seemed to like him back, like they actually wanted to get to know him? Few people came to mind. Did they count if they were getting paid to be around?

He'd had friends before, but with his family's moves over the years, never any long-term friends. Joining the Bad Seeds might add some acquaintances. Not that he knew his parents' colleagues, let alone their families.

The damn clock wouldn't stop unticking away the sleep that wasn't coming. It wasn't that he was afraid to face whatever awaited him in the dark. The clock just wasn't helping.

Sunday, December 20, 2015,
Raiford Residence, Kapalangpur.

The next day's surprises began with Peter waking up and showering while it was still morning. They continued with his parents eating breakfast or brunch together. They usually worked and lived on different schedules.

Being a Sunday, Peter had to ask, "What's up? Are we going to church?"

Or an apocalypse. Between flying mutant people and real magic, it could happen.

"Nothing like that! Your mother was just running late."

Molly looked over at her husband, "Not too late for some things."

I do not need to know that!

Twenty long minutes later, and a telephone number Peter had been given the night before...

"Hello, Max? Please, help! My parents are flirting, and I don't want to get stuck cleaning the kitchen table after that!. You don't understand. I don't have a problem with the idea of having a little brother or sister. What I have a problem with is being a witness to the conception!"

"So!" Max asked once Peter got himself settled in the passenger seat, "Where to?"

Yeah, 'out' might not be good enough.

"Anywhere but here?"

"Er, yeah. I really don't know much about what's where."

"We've got beaches, fishing. Hiking and parkour might be off the menu."

"Just a little, yeah. What do you do on days off?"

"When I'm not brainstorming my next big show? Bash some improvised munitions together. It's amazing what you can rig from just a few propane tanks. Really, you should see the look on Benjie's face when I get to describing the next cool thing!"

Improvised munitions?

"Just like the look on your face right now!"

Can't imagine why.

"How about something less dangerous? What do the other two do when not on a job?"

"Hm. Yeah. Those sets of activities don't intersect much. Sometimes they practice full-contact paintball in an overgrown quarry with Mr. Keeling. Other times, Benjamin sits in on a poker game. Got it! Here's an idea: we can abuse his range privileges at the Gun Club."

"I don't know how to shoot. Not outside of a video game."

"No problem! We can easily spend a day learning the safety rules and a familiarization fire or two."

"I guess so."

"Dude, you can't count on always having a good hidey hole wired for Electric Jesus and Saint Elvis. Better to know how to use a tool and not need it than to need it and get stuck trying to figure out which side goes towards the enemy."


"So, Max. Um."

"The day went fine for both me and Peter. A shame you missed it."

"Right. Thanks for covering for me."

"Which I needed to do because, what?"

"Well. You know how some families like to exhume their ancestors' bones, clean them up, and make sure they're being cared for?"

"I do now."

"It's a custom. Anyway, we had to help them find the plot because it's been a while."

"So far, so creepy. What'd you do — a seance?"

"Do those even work?"

"I don't even want to know if they do. Go on."

"If you ask me, it should have been a hint that no one had seen them in forever. But, now, after all the bushwhacking and digging, the bones were essentially landscaping material."

"Please tell me you didn't actually say that to the family."

"Of course not! I let Mom do the talking. Something about how no one can stay forever bound to their former life. All things in the Tao, y'know. Anyhow, that kind of wasn't the sort of outdoorsy stuff I promised his parents."

"We spent most of the day at the range instead of mentally scarring him for life."

"Aw, man. Wait. There wasn't any weapons testing, was there?"

"Dude, your connection's going out. Check your battery!"

"Dammit, Max! Max?"

Whatever the reason, the connection was broken now. Damn.

Wednesday morning.

The first day of physical therapy had been bad enough. However, even with Mrs. Keeling's herbal medicine helping, the second day took everything out of Peter. He barely managed to drag himself through dinner before collapsing into a deep, motionless sleep. He'd need a biology textbook just to find names for the places that hurt. Once again, Max chauffeured him to his appointment.

Half an hour later.

"Mr. Raiford? If you have a moment? Something's come up. An irregularity in accounting, or so we hope."

Keep calm. Don't give anything away.

"Sure! Just let me wipe off some sweat."

"Of course."

The administratrivial waited impatiently, giving the lie to there just being an irregularity. Peter made sure to grab his phone before hobbling after her.

In the office, it soon turned out that "... a routine credit check on your parents' finances suggests that there aren't sufficient funds to cover further therapy. We may even have to turn to legal remedies."

"Then there isn't anything I can tell you until you draw up those documents."

"Surely, you have a way to reach your parents to explain the situation?"

Bingo. Fishing expedition.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not privy to their financial data. You've tried using the telephone?"

"The number we have on file has been out of service for quite some time. As I said, there are irregularities."

"That means today's appointment is over?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Then I'll need to gather my gear and call for a cab."

"That would be advisable."

Nothing to see here! Ignore the decoy cellular repeater parked in an unmarked van outside the offices.

"If nothing else, we have to grab the Raifords' bug-out kit. No amateur-hour searches."

"Agreed. That'd be easier with an inside man, so to speak."

"Already on it."

"That's what worries me."

"Just hit the alarms on the way out."

One thing Peter couldn't well ignore was the compact police cruiser parked in front of the medical building's entrance.

"Mr. Raiford?"

"Am I being detained?"

"Your name has turned up in connection with suspected criminal activities. Please turn around and place your hands behind your back."

He was still a minor. There were limits to what the local yokels could get away with, whatever story they've been fed. For now, Peter's best course should be to keep his mouth shut, ears and options open. All of which were immediately limited by the bag thrown over his head and tied off around his neck. He hadn't gotten the bogus officer's name! Then again, they'd either be lying or counting on their target not living long enough for it to matter.

The vehicle came to a quiet stop after an indeterminate time filled with random turns and speed changes. The number of door slams suggested two abductors.

"... my idea of protective custody."

"Not going to disagree, but whoever's fucking around, we're going to find out."

"Watch your back is all I'm saying. Right. Kid, keep any kicking and fighting to yourself unless you want more physical therapy."

Lovely. What next?

What next turned out to be a guided blind walk into a shed, or something, was followed by an agitated conference that was over far too soon.

"Still cooperating? Good. First things first: toe your shoes off. Then, we're taking your socks and trousers."

If they thought he couldn't run off without shoes, someone's in for a surprise.

Surprise! Off came the handcuffs and the boy's shirt. But not the tied blindfold bag.

"Here's where I go my way, and you go yours. Best case is we don't meet again."

A door opened and closed.

The structure's walls muffled the sound of a slamming car door. Accomplice One gone. That leaves the cop's silent partner. Peter didn't dare get his hopes up when someone started tugging the knot loose and removing the blind.

"Hands out. Good."

Son of a bitch!

Benjamin motherfucking Keeling dropped a white crew neck t-shirt, boxer briefs, and black socks into Peter's hands.


"You put them on. Need help?"

"No. Why?"

"Insect infestation, very invasive and itchy."

You could have said 'bugs.' Jackass.

The underclothes were followed by uniform trousers, duty belt, shirt, shiny shoes, even a cap. So much for getting help from the police. In fact, Keeling led him out to the cruiser from before.

"You ride shotgun."

I want a shotgun.

On the way back to town, Keeling filled him in. "We're responding to a break-in at a residential building you should be familiar with. We'll be looking to collect evidence of the Raifords' possible work activities. Documents, papers, money, etc. Also, we'll look for clothing that may have been missed when the place was tossed, but incorporating hidden hold-outs or valuables.

Peter asked, "Any possibility of this being a simple B&E with the family out shopping?"

"Proceed as if that were the case. You could be on camera."

"Won't my face give it away?"

"Not with me around. Still, anything the family should have taken with them, nothing more, leaves with us."

"I'd rather not spend the next two weeks in the same uniform."

"I know a good cleaning service."

"When do we expect the Raiford family to turn back up at their flat?"

"No ETA for the parents. We haven't found the son, so we can't tell if he's involved or if there's foul play involved. If he knows his parents' business, our chances of getting any actionable intel are slim to none. But, sometimes kids figure the family money is just owed them and spill the worst possible security info."

"Fair enough. I've known rich brats like that."

"My condolences."

Once the pair of policemen picked up their call to a familiar address, the driver got more serious.

"Remember this, Rookie. Follow my lead. Don't do anything I wouldn't do. And for God's sake, don't contaminate the scene any more than you can avoid it."

Did this asshole think he was stupid? For that matter, how did he know about the break-in ahead of time?

Being the professional he was, the rookie did not gasp or give any sort of double-take when they arrived. Of course, the officer that slid his lifer butt out from behind the wheel was still the same one assigned that routine patrol. It was just as normal as the rookie's skinny face reflected in his own window: straw-colored hair, green eyes, and all. He adjusted his kit (again, totally unselfconsciously), slipped on a pair of baby blue gloves, and followed his partner in.

After painful hours on their feet, photos taken, inquiries from dispatch answered, and a few evidence boxes strategically misplaced later, the two officers dropped a young ride-along off with his friends. They had reports to complete and so forth back at the station.

Yuki Takenaka slowly looked the teen up one side and back down the other. As fidget-inducing gazes went, this rated an easy eight out of ten.

"You are so very not the only person with questions here. If you have to ask if you'll like the answers, get ready for disappointment."

Great. Just great.


Peter looked around at Keeling's assembled team of assholes. "Fine. Could someone at least tell me what I'm being ransomed for?"

Benjamin choked down the food he'd been chewing. "Nothing. We can't even plant a missing persons report until tomorrow. Until then, we sit tight. Maybe one of the other players tips their hand, maybe not."

"Until then, where am I supposed to sleep?"

"Guess what? Today's your lucky day!" Yuki said.

"Lucky, how?"

"The last place anyone would expect you to go to ground is your former bodyguard's crash pad. It's very unprofessional and raises uncomfortable questions. Besides, if you ran away how would you like to explain that destination to your parents once they contact you?"

"What makes you think they'll be contacting me?"

"What's the point of being this super-duper hacker if you can't figure out a way to contact your kid?"

"What if the message they send is 'Run!'"

"Petey's got a point."

"The House might have a warper or two on retainer," Benjamin said. "I should take my PA in for a security check."

"Hit up the local fences for some deals. My gear and Mom's should brick the first time an unauthorized user fires any of it up. Get me my tools, and I can secure whatever you've got."

"Big talk. You back it up, then we'll get you some backers. Now, who do we dislike enough to run that pawn scam on?"

Bukit Aseng Cemetery.

"...thinking Peter could take my bed. I've still got a bedroll."

Benjamin's argument carried about as much weight as "He followed me home. Can I keep him?" Peter had to wonder if the guy ever listened to himself off the job.

"In that case, you will not barricade the door with your bedroll. Our guest has a bladder too."

Did not think of that.

Reg Keeling asked, "What do we know about the enemy?"

Benjamin looked up and off into space. "That's what's got us improvising. First, there's a no-bid job coming in for Vaporware and Illustrated Man. It's followed by suspicious traffic, direct to their son's medical team. Strip the protection, then beat the bushes to flush the den."

"That can't be it," Peter objected. "Whateley's neutrality can be summed up as no outsider threats against the students. Even using me as leverage against them is guaranteed to get the adverse attention of A- and B-listers."

"Boys, revenge isn't much good to the dead."

"What if it's a catch-and-release job? Isolate the potential recruit, leaving them on the hook for medical bills. Once the target commits to the pitch, patch it all up, plus some blackmail material minus some finder fees. Recruit shows back up, maybe a little scratched and dented, but no harm done to pursue?"

"The minnow is sitting right here."

"Can you see any reason info about your protection detail would be worth more than an option on you or a handle on your parents? It would take a special kind of psycho to pull this just for shits and giggles. They'd still need an in."

"Would there be a finder's fee for selecting the fish to be caught?"

"Maybe. You'd have to be someone who knows Peter's skills very well. Hacking and programming aren't exactly spectator sports. He managed good grades in Powers Theory and IT Lab but took a small hit in Powers Lab."

"How do you know that?"

"Your school's staff sells more data than a middle school coach sells roids. Anyone been extra chummy in class, maybe more interested in your family than they let you in on theirs?"

Peter could feel his cheeks and ears burning as they gave his mistakes all away.

"Please tell me it wasn't Bystander."

Lying just wasn't an option, but silently blanking on anything to say wasn't the right answer either.

"Excuse me. I gotta take a walk."

That wasn't a polite request. Peter started to get up, no matter how much everything ached. He didn't even catch Reg getting up and placing a firm hand on his shoulder.

"Don't. He needs some time alone." Reg didn't soften the blow. "Can't say as I blame him much. You made one Hell of a mistake trusting that other young man."

What could anyone say to that? I'm sorry? Who'd believe that, other than being sorry I got hurt? Duh! No one could have guessed he'd be hurt. Peter was no expert at human interactions, but he knew that, as sure as the sun comes up, Benjamin was hurting. There wasn't any way to make it better, either. Just sit there with a sick feeling like his throat might close up or a grave open and swallow him up. That would be easier than living with the fact he'd just fucked over someone with a professional, if not personal, interest in his health and safety. Throwing money he doesn't have at the problem would be adding insult to injury.

What now?

Thursday morning.

Peter was falling. Again. Each time there was a different face leaning out over the top of the building. Sometimes, he managed to walk again. Sometimes, he never would. The times he couldn't wake up at all? Those were the worst. One or two times, he heard a familiar voice telling him he wasn't alone and that he could go back to sleep. Finally, he woke up to Naomi's voice at the door to the room.

"Benjamin, wake up."

"Don' wanna."

"How much sleep did you get last night?"

"Has to be enough."

From the sound of it, the more correct answer must have been "none."

"Just a rough night. That's all."

"We'll see. Get cleaned up while I make breakfast."

"Yes, Mom. And... thank you."

"Whatever that's for, you're welcome."

In the remaining darkness, an aching, exhausted and broken sleep finally overtook him.

"Peter, we've saved some breakfast for you, and your medicine's almost ready. Do you need help getting up?"

"I'm okay."

Peter sat up. Sooner or later, he'd have to deal with having been hustled out of the clinic in just his street clothes. He still had a police uniform that he didn't recall taking off. That reminded him: how had Keeling managed to get ready for the day without waking him up? No one's that quiet! Next thing you knew, they'd be telling him it was ghosts or some such thing.

Afterward, Reg helped him set up an out-of-the-way hammock. Supposedly, getting more sunlight and rest would help his recovery as much as anything. If anything, the trick was finding a decent patch of sunlight clear of the encroaching jungle.

"It sucks that everyone's been doing everything for me, but I haven't bought anyone Christmas gifts yet."

"How do you figure that? I might be old-fashioned, but I figure people are putting too much into the gifts and not enough into their own. Growing up, a plump chicken or duck for Christmas dinner, maybe some small toys for the little ones, made for a fine holiday celebration."

"Is that what's planned for tomorrow?"

How to beg off from intruding on a family thing without being even more rude?

"We're playing it by ear. Some folks like to leave flowers at the family graves, even if they don't celebrate the holiday themselves."

"But don't you and your family want to have some time to yourselves?"

"We'll have plenty of quiet when our son goes out on his next job. I'd wager it's much the same for your parents when you're away at school."

"Here we are! Two whole computer systems, bricked as hard as a brick outhouse. So, do you want to work your jail-breaking magic here, no broadband, or a Tempest-certified corporate lab?"

Benjamin's eyes were a little glazed. Otherwise, he looked a little too pleased with himself and the crate of electronic gear he carried.

"What's the lab going to cost?"

"Not much. I may have won a bet that they couldn't manage it without you."


"Oh. And here's the cash we raked in off the fences," Benjamin said before handing over some half-folded, half-wadded bank notes.

"What's the other catch?"

"They want to see how good you are. We still don't know who you crossed, but there've been some outside nibbles at the amber alert. The Houses aren't amused, but nothing rates a teachable moment yet."

"Before I commit either way... Am I already committed?"

"You aren't."

"But you are. What does that mean?"

Benjamin sighed. Peter's parents wanted him to learn about things as they were in their new home. However, they did not want that packaged as a crash course. 'In one ear and out the other' boosted confidence in crap readiness.

"The Houses here are kind of like The Families in Chicago, except they've had centuries to divvy up the action. Most of the players in Southeast Asia have a small stake as long as they don't overstep. About the rest... Hm. You know how signing up with a players' guild online makes you an automatic target of one or more others? That. Except, the stakes are as high as it gets."

"Will this dog and pony show commit me?"

"No. You might get a nice job offer, but you're too young for anything enforceable."

"Like you're so old? What gives?"

"Stuff. I don't know all of it. And don't even think you can intimidate my boss. I'm told your Dad tried. Any other questions, comments, or all-out lies?"

"I'm in. Are we going now or waiting on a pickup?"

This is going to hurt, somehow, isn't it.

"Pickup at the gate. For OPSEC's sake, don't leave my line of sight until we are inside the destination. We don't want any inconsistent sightings."

So the House just happens to have a double on standby too? That's stupid. Not! School's got shifters, illusionists, image-projectors, etc. Hiring a doppelganger on might make sense.

Maybe it's a good thing I'm not into capes. Without marquee powers, the Workshoppers who survived going into the hero game were power armor drivers. The rest had to work out their own ways through a topsy-turvy world.

Like, now.

No shit, there it was, close by the gates. A POS brown, aging minivan with cheaply blacked-out windows, a 'Cash, grass, or ass: no one rides for free' sticker holding on for dear life to a sagging white and rust bumper. Even the police wouldn't give this heap a second look. But once inside, a passenger couldn't miss the muted rumbling of horsepower to spare, ready to move enough armor to turn this personnel carrier into a low rider despite its industrial suspension.

Everything about their destination suggested a reasonable paranoia about physical security without giving too much of the owner's identity. Their escort spoke hardly a dozen words between letting them out of the vehicle and ushering them into a secured workspace.

Sure enough, someone had been pawing at the systems. Icejack's first goal was to crack open the cases for a visual and sensor sweep for little presents set up for keylogging, vid capture, etc. He couldn't well use a micro EMP to trash those without killing the system's electronics as well. Photonic circuits wouldn't care at all. When you need things done, get a human on the line. Better yet, get a human who's shopped at the Whateley Workshop's Weapons Fair.

Next came the tedium of verifying that all the things that were supposed to be recognized as the systems booted up actually were. He could manage a pen attack at this level, but that assumed the gear still worked. Even then, it wasn't his favored approach when he wasn't leaving a hardware-based backdoor. The tricky part would be getting the software to play nice with his assumed identity. Use his own or his mother's credentials under an unknown's watchful eye? Not a chance.

Icejack tested the lag on the secure line he'd been promised access to. Significantly more than could be accounted for by raw distance. He could be dealing with an extra layer of monitoring, encryption, or both. Or was it traffic volume? Financial systems, for example, paled in comparison to the bandwidth eaten by hosted video, but their volume mounted up. A latency check against a certain English mega-insurer's servers ran faster than expected. Odd. He carefully backed out of that cozy little hole, shifting log samples to his own machine. Damage here wasn't acceptable. Near the end, he cleaned up the internal counterexploitation files logging his work. Being caught by his mother for using her home machine was something he could live without.

All told, the session amounted to days of testing and analysis by a competent team. Peter's gadgeteering trait, aided by tools and experience, compressed that into several hours of grueling mental work. He would later compare this exercise to an unguided tour through an all-porcupine petting zoo in shorts. Standing up and stretching after what had to be hours, he vaguely recalled coffee or snacks appearing next to him. His stomach called his brain a liar. His back promised all of them would suffer payback.

"So. Urgh. How'd I do?" Peter asked the new escort who'd arrived shortly after he signed off.

"We'll know more once Lloyds Banking Group notices your brief visit."

"That circuit is bypassing both satellites and acknowledged oceanic cables, isn't it? Parallel QE?"

"You graduate June Eighth of Twenty-Nineteen, correct?"


"We'll be talking before then. Please remember that Bank Munasiq pays better than Batavia or Guardian."

"I look forward to that conversation."

Bukit Aseng Cemetery.

Once they were safely returned from that Twilight Zone encounter, Peter asked Benjamin, "What did that guy mean when he said they 'pay better than Batavia or Guardian'?"

"For the record, Guardian has better toys and more of them. Don't look at me like that! If anything, I'm paid to stay away from anyone the House or the Corp wants to recruit. So, there. For now, we both need to crash. You can leave notes at your electronic dead-drops tomorrow."

"What makes you think I'd use something like that?"

"Doesn't everyone use dead-drops? Place an ad in a local newspaper, leave a coded review comment on some hentai, swap out some archived fanfic page, the mind boggles. So many ways to hide a message in the noise of the world, so little time to exploit them."

How many ways to exploit the sender or receiver? Peter would be expected to reach out to his parents, but was that the best option? If that remained his best option, how could their response be gamed?

"I can smell brain gears burning from here, dude. You need some downtime. Look. Worst case, you lay low and leave for school at the end of the week. I'll expense the tickets or ask Accounting to work something out. Your parents or their lawyers can reach you there."

"Crap! I'm supposed to contact the school as soon as I can safely do so."

"Now I know you're too tired to think straight."

"Oh, yeah? How?"

"If it were me, I'd hire someone to intercept any incoming calls, from this part of the world, to the school. All they have to do is listen. But, for a few pounds more, they can take the call too. Where does that leave you, handcuffed to a seat headed for reeducation in Beijing?"

"Don't you have any positive scenarios rattling around in that head?"

Benjamin stifled a laugh at Peter's optimism.

"No. I don't believe in Sanity Clauses or Easter Bunnies, either."

Friday morning.

This time it was Peter's turn to be woken up first. Benjamin was sprawled out, hair pasted to his forehead, more close to his bedroll than on it. His breathing was so shallow that it was hard to tell that respiration was even taking place.

Naomi quietly said, "You wanted to check your messages without anyone watching over your shoulder this morning, didn't you?"

That could be irritating, but not necessarily. Weird, huh

Breakfast first, though. Strange how there must be a trick to cooking rice and vegetables that American restaurant chains couldn't manage. No point in stalling.

The "hidden" message left on Vaporware's system proved that they'd grabbed one of his mother's decoys. Molly Raiford had never told her one and only son to behave and remember to floss. If she had left a message, it would have reminded him that the sofa converts to a bed, and the sofa cushions were meant to provide the perfect angle for something Peter didn't want to think about. Like, ever. For the nth time, he wished his mother's generation could have been just a little bit more prudish.

The online drops were much more concerning.

We're on a job. Will contact you on completion. Whatever you do, don't involve Cutler. Groenwald has ties to known predators. Retrieval arranged on 26th via following contact... alternate rendezvous at...

Who could know of Cutler, but only enough to sound truthy? Or was it?

I've completely fucked up, haven't I?

There was no one he could completely trust. Who could he trust to be acting entirely in their own interest?

"Bad news?" Reg Keeling asked from a couple of steps away.

What was it with Benjamin's family? It was like they could sneak up on, on something really quiet and sneaky. No way to keep things buried here.


"Care to explain in words of more than one syllable? 'Yes, Sir. No, Sir. I don't know, but I'll find out, Sir' only works when you're coming up in the ranks. Sometimes, not even then."

"I've been told that Benjamin is involved in, um, child trafficking."

"Trafficking? Unless you're talking about automobiles and carriages, I'm not up on the lingo."

"Buying and selling kids into s-sex with adults."

"Oh. Someone's been digging in the dirt."

"It's true?"

Oh god. He's seen me naked! No wonder he knew what size clothes to get.

"Hold yer horses, son."


"Because once you loose them, you might never get back to where you want to go. For a time, our Benjamin was one of the children, not young men, being hurt. He's still hurting, I think." Reg turned away for a moment to gather his thoughts. Kids didn't need to know everything about the world.

"Matter of fact, I've never known anyone who's been hurt like that who completely recovers. Naomi has her hopes... What exactly were you told?"

"'Groenwald has ties to known predators.'"

"True enough. But how does someone hunting you know that? If they had access to Benjamin's sealed records, they'd be whistling a different tune. All you'd have to do is ask the boy."

"Wouldn't he just lie about it?"

"Even when passing himself off as another person – convincingly, at that – my son is a pitifully bad liar."

That wasn't untrue. And, given those pieces of the puzzle, Peter couldn't bear to dwell on what kind of lies had burned Benjamin's filter away.

"I'd recommend dealing with the person as he is. Not as he was. That's a surefire route to misery."

"He fucking kidnapped me!"

"Playing to an audience, as I understand it. Would it have worked if you knew ahead of time?"

"Hasn't worked yet. Someone wants me available to be picked up tomorrow. I don't even know who to go to for an outside perspective. Benjamin, Max, and Yuki work for the Houses and Syndicate. I assume you and Naomi are on his side too."

"Fair enough. Surely there are other bears you could poke that no one else knows about?"

"I could get Hartford or Cyberkitty's attention by hacking the school's servers. Trying to hack them. Maybe."

"I don't know what's involved in that. Maybe try something less hostile? There have to be plenty of folks willing to act as a guide or go-between."

"For cash that I don't... I should count how much I have from the stuff sold."

"Were I you, I would also make sure that your accounts are as closed as you were told."

"If they are, there should be traces of the attack left. Miss Donner teaches forensic online accounting, so if I could reach her, that would help. Still need someone to verify the connection unless I want to waste time on challenges and counter-challenges. Plus, it's got to be evening in New England."

"If that's sorted, I'll get me old self out of your way."

"You weren't! I mean, um, thanks?"

"You're welcome. Mind you, that's true whether your our Benjamin's assignment or anything else."

Time to prove I deserved that 'A' in Programming Lab.

Peter had been poking around the edges of the infosphere for a while. Here, topical forums grew like lichen in the shadows of respectable data holdings. A question left here, a loaded comment there, somewhere there had to be part-timer or bored pro who could facilitate the meetings he needed. With any luck, maybe they'd avoid doing the same for the meetings he didn't need. All that proved he needed to make smarter arrangements for, everything, really. As long as that could be done without losing himself to the Library. Data might want to be free, but it didn't fancy being alone.

The Lovely Lady Sally: I hear you're looking for a networking guru.

Icejack Hammering: PTP crypto and security, but I have a liquidity problem.

The Lovely Lady Sally: Overspent? Or did someone freeze your accounts?

Icejack Hammering: Maybe.

The Lovely Lady Sally has invited you to a private room. Wipe your feet first!

Icejack Hammering has joined Lady Sally's Parlor. Hello, Sailor!

The Lovely Lady Sally: Fess up. Whose cage are you trying to rattle on the down-low?

Icejack Hammering: First choice: Cyberkitty or D33RCRO$$, alternates: HIVE or BELVEDERE.

The Lovely Lady Sally: You don't think they can secure a connection from their end???

Icejack Hammering: I need to connect without tipping off anyone else on this end.

The Lovely Lady Sally: Wait one.

The Lovely Lady Sally: There are a couple of freelancers sniffing around. Interesting. Isn't it good to know you're popular? Now that I've had to swat a couple of noses with a newspaper, let's talk favors, shall we?

Belvedere, a gentleman's gentleman among gentlemen, has replied to the lovely lady's invitation.

Cyberkitty pounces on Icejack. Students in trouble are her catnip!

Cyberkitty: So, kiddo, spill. What kind of trouble are you in, and what have you done to make it worse?

Icejack Hammering: I thought it started with my medical payments being frozen, but it had to have started earlier. For example, my parents were handed a hush-hush job on zero notice. If valid, there'd be reimbursement, but that limits the players without explaining why. Sound reasonable so far? Meanwhile, someone posing as my parents are telling me to avoid my bodyguard.

The Lovely Lady Sally: Is that personal security contract with the excitable boys in the Second House still in effect?

Icejack Hammering: As far as I know, yes. Excitable?

Belvedere: It would appear that our interests intersect to a greater extent than we thought. Shall we negotiate?

Peter killed his VR interface, then logged back out with fewer options and more questions than answers. But, it was progress. His body ached from sitting unmoving for so long. His concentration was shot. In fact, he had to be feeling worse than the blond guy watching him looked. Some people should never be seen with bloodshot eyes like that or with extra-dark bruises.

"Through pissing in the Syndicate's Cheerios?"

"Maybe, maybe not. How'd you know about it?"

"New marching orders from Jameson. A confidential source confirmed that someone's been meddling in House business. As a reward, you get to help me carry the groceries we're going out for."

"How's that a reward?"

"Beats a sharp stick in the eye."

"What will we actually be doing?"

"Getting groceries and some clothes for you from the market while a few trusted associates watch for anyone who notices too hard. It's unlikely, but not impossible." Benjamin's face brightened. "Since Max and Yuki will be dropping by after, we'll need the extra grub."

"How big a fight did you get into while I was online?"

"Unlike some people, I was behaving myself! Seizures happen. Wall got in the way. My bad."

"How's that going to work for us tomorrow?"

"I'm to distract you to the point of rescheduling the rendezvous. I'm sure I can think of something. There will be a team or two out looking for anyone laying in wait for you."

Peter asked, "How much violence are you planning on? We don't need to send Dirty Harry for a setup and recruitment operation!"

"If it's a crew of small-time freelancers, ready to cut their losses? What violence? 'Like, yo, we didn't mean any disrespect. Just paying the bills, y'know? Yeah, sure. Get outta here!'"

"I'd like to think that that was a hypothetical."

"That'd be nice, wouldn't it?"

New Year's Day,
A Singapore-bound ferry.

Benjamin Keeling found his traveling companion leaning stiffly against a railing while the ferry loaded. The blue polo and khaki chinos didn't completely hide the braces worn under them, but went well with a fresh haircut.

"I got our itinerary. Totally last-minute, but looks doable."

Peter Raiford would have been happier if he'd been trusted with the documents. Bureaucracies rule Brittania. Wasn't it odd that a pressed white shirt and aviator sunglasses was all it took to make Benjamin look, well, more adult?

"Our itinerary?"

"Yep. Hotel room to crash for a few hours before we fly out of Changi, oh-dark-dirty. The Whateley rep meets us in Dubai. You go your way, and I go mine."

That sounded like goodbye. You never know if going your own way's going to be a permanent condition or not.

"...either of us catches a whiff of anything squirrelly, I break out a new set of tickets and yell for help."

"Do we know who's meeting us?"

"Sahar Chibany. Whateley graduate. Let me send you copies... I was told she's unforgettable."

"After having an 'unforgettable' combat final, I'd prefer something less striking."

"Yeah, sure. You're still with me, aren't you?"

The End

Read 450 times Last modified on Monday, 13 March 2023 08:15

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

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