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Icejack 2: Back to School

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"Normal is not the norm"
— Guus Eikens, Martijn Westerholt, Johanna Wessels, "We Are the Others"

Thursday, September 1, 2016,
Turkish airspace, Qatar Airways Flight QR 743, Doha to Boston Logan.

"At least someone's being responsible," Peter Raiford muttered to himself after reading the latest email from his parents.

Sitting next to him, Yuki Takenaka asked, "Anyone I know, for a change?" At Peter's frown, she added, "What? It could happen. Surprise me."

"Mom and Dad just got your ex-boss checked back into the hospital he left against medical advice."

"He's your ex-boss too, after that op. He could be your friend. You just have to give him a chance."

"How about he takes a god-damned chance on looking out for himself? That isn't too much to ask of a friend, is it?"

Peter hoped he'd never understand what he saw in Yuki's eyes. Hopes like that didn't stretch that far in their business.

"No. It isn't. But you see, Benjie never got that memo. Watching our sixes gives him a reason to haul his ass out of bed, so we do the best we can to return the favor. Don't get me wrong! I swear he's abusing the situation. Somehow. Plausible deniability or some such bullshit. How's he actually doing?"

Peter's instinctive move to hide his screen from Yuki spoke volumes.

"Petey."

He sighed and looked down, letting his dark bangs fall forward over his brow. Busted.

"Mom says the concussion's more serious than they thought. He passed out before our flight even cleared the gate. Once he's stabilized, he's being moved to a more secure site."

"Hate to say it, but that sounds about right."

"Yeah."

"How are you doing?"

"What do you mean? I'm fine. Always have been."

"Sure you are, kid. Just like Benjie," Yuki said to herself. Aloud, she said, "Speaking of ex-bosses and other fiascos... How are you planning to handle combat finals from here on out, now that you've gone pro?"

"For one thing, I'll muddy the waters by signing up with the Bad Seeds."

"Those would be what? The school's terrorist gardening track?"

"No. Not that I'd be surprised. Just the kids of pros in the business sticking up for each other. I'm hoping the casuals who run across any questionable connections or gear will file the info under 'like father, like son.'"

"Could you please keep your name off Security's Grudge Match tote board?"

"I'm already avoiding Nate and Eugene."

"I'm sure you've got the mad skills to torque off a whole lot more lame bitches than just those two."

Peter shook his head, "I'm not that bad."

"I'm not the one you have to convince. By the way," Yuki pointed at Peter's chest. "You need to get some shut-eye. Boston's notorious for freaky shit."

"I'd've thought Dunwich, Arkham, Innsmouth, Ipswich, Kingsport, and, I guess, Salem would be the worst offenders. Oh, and the backcountry. Can't forget the dark places up in the hills and mountains. Let's just say the gene pool needs to get cleaned out with claws and pitchforks every now and then."

"I'll be sure to keep that in mind. Penciling it in between all my other nightmares now."

"You know all those stories about the nasties playing with their food?"

"I'd rather not."

Peter chuckled at something he'd once been told. "The successful ones don't. That's why there are no survivors left after the hunt to spread stories."

"I'm going to pretend you made that last part up," Yuki said. "Because that made too much sense."


Amtrak, The Crescent, northbound.

Philippa Anne-Marie Aldo, better known to her friends as Derecha, was ready to take advantage of the next three days as an unaccompanied young woman. She'd be cooped up on a train, but it would still be time spent without her younger siblings or older aunts and cousins. The only immediate downside was that she couldn't splurge on an extra dessert or two without raising eyebrows. Just another day in the life of an average mutant. Then again, it wasn't like she wouldn't be getting just as much stink-eye just for sounding like a Mississippi gal.

Yes, she ate fried catfish, loved good fried chicken, and no one made potato salad half as good as her Momma. The joke was on the haters, though. She couldn't name two white folks from back home who wouldn't say the same thing. They'd just be wrong about the potato salad.

Last year, she'd been self-conscious about her curly dark-green hair. Learning to keep it in a more 'urban' (right) style that people expected to see dyed had helped. Since she'd started helping out with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency this past summer, it had almost become a signature part of her look. Funny how people got used to things like that. It had made her whole day when she heard a little old church lady "bless that green-haired child" who'd helped her out from the wreckage of her trailer after a tornado went through. All she'd done was put her back into the work where her PK wouldn't have helped, but, yeah.

Derecha adjusted the blue-and-green earrings Miss Deedee's children sent her after the funeral and dried her eyes. She returned to her seat, head held high. Whatever the year ahead held for her, Hell or high water, she knew who she was doing this for.


Holloman AFB, "Home of the Fightin' 49ers", NM.

"Don't even think of it until we've boarded and the bird is in the air," Agent Resnick admonished from the near side of his mouth.

Of course, now that the guy had gone and said that, Kent Holloway was half-again that much more tempted to take his sunglasses off. It was one thing to carry on like a couple of Men in Black in the airport, but—

"I like to think of us as being on a Mission From God. Much cooler. Besides, the real MiBs don't wear milspec BCDs."

"I still remember them."

"Which they won't take too kindly. Let's keep quiet about that."

"Is there anything from this past summer I can talk about?"

"You can say you've seen some honest-to-god UFOs. With all the super-science adventurers, devisors, and everything else running around, you'd think people would be just a little less skeptical."

Kent furrowed his eyebrows, trying to get his bearings on where Resnick was coming from.

"But then the objects aren't unidentified."

"Wait until you've met some more devisors and their devises. Half the time, I don't think they know what they've built. Once you're safely on-campus, you can talk about manifesting as a mutant with the others. Blame your, er, unscheduled availability problems on the MCO. They're used to that."

"But, I can't tell the truth."

"Welcome to operational security. As if people tolerate hearing any amount of truth that deviates from the bullshit they've already swallowed. It just makes you the bad guy. And, if that don't prove that mutants are one hundred percent human, nothing else would," Resnick said, half to Kent, half to himself. "According to my briefing, you're in luck. Whateley has a couple of counselors with obscenely high clearances."

"I guess so."

"Think about it. The school gets research funding and scholarship grants from DARPA and the DOE. Someone's got to ride herd on the accumulated pool of crazy powering that."


After the flight's second take-off, Kent finally got back to the earlier topic. He asked Agent Resnick, "About that pool of crazy at, at school: you do know that that includes me?"

Resnick gestured maybe-yes-maybe-no. "As I understand it, electrical energizers and devisors are high-risk for Diedrick's Syndrome. I'm surprised that warpers aren't, but the combination might be lethal. They'll go over all that stuff in some of your classes."

"I have something to look forward to, I suppose."

"What were you expecting, the X-Men version of High School Musical?"

"No! But, me and my parents were told there would be all these advanced engineering and science classes I could take."

"There are. But from what I've heard, the school also pushes self-defense training and adapting to fast-evolving situations. That's one of the reasons your sponsors are forking out the big bucks."

"Where'd you go to high school? You've got me as an assignment, so it can't have been a D or F school."

Resnick smiled. It'd taken the boy long enough.

"Whateley Academy. Class of 2007. If I'd had to stick it out back in Des Moines, I wouldn't be here today."

"Oh. Any tips?"

"Take the whole curriculum seriously. Good overall grades at a college-prep boarding school translates into good scholarships to better universities. The HR folks at the Office of Management and Budget really like those things. But don't forget you're still just a kid, too."

Now they remember!


Room 241, Emerson Cottage, Whateley Academy.

The things one does to get along with a roommate. Not that Peter minded helping out all that much: leaving Gideon's stuff sitting in the basement storage for anyone to paw through would be a dick move. However, he didn't need a reminder email featuring a bulleted list of Things To Not Forget.

After all, they were still in the same room as last year. Now that their former residents had moved up to the third floor as newly-minted juniors, last year's sophomore wings were now this year's freshman wings, The Resident Assistants changed, of course. But, that was their problem. Peter moved his own stuff in before setting Gideon's belongings squarely on the bed on the left side of the room, as seen looking toward the door.

For a brief moment, he could picture his whatever-Benjamin-was carefully lining up every possible item on that side of the room so that one axis pointed to the center of the door. A) Because there was no one to stop him, and B) just to watch the reactions. Now that he thought about it... Nah. Better to unpack his own things. Or, arrange the piles on his bed and desk for now and get back around to it later. That sounded better.

Oh, right. He also had time to start up Stabby the Ceiling Roomba for its calibration and obstacle management initialization. Peter didn't know how Max had jury-rigged an anti-grav unit into that small a casing. But, he knew Max knew his way around anything with wheels and other things that just happened to explode.


Room 226, Poe Cottage.

Kent dropped his, originally his father's, old duffle bag on a bare mattress in a bare room. Sure, the desk, bedframe, and all that were nice. The fact remained that, what with the news of an explosion and cave-in down in the Workshop tunnels, no one was keen to bunk with a future Workshopper. Add in being a warper, and he might as well have announced he'd just rolled in from the state leper colony. No, make that the state insane asylum, since Poe was supposed to be the dorm for mentally unstable students. He couldn't set the record straight, even with someone who'd listen to a crazy person, thanks to Mrs. Horton's spell.

Getting a cold shoulder just saying 'Good afternoon' was a surefire way of showing that he wasn't welcome here. Maybe things could still get better when the rest of the students check in and classes start?

If not, he had a lonely four years ahead of him, locked in this closet.

Maybe next time, he'd just stay gone.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016,
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy.

Paige Donner looked over from the terminal on her desk to her latest advisee.

"If we move lunch to fourth period, it looks like we can get you into Calculus class after that. Since you passed Survival last Spring, your P.E. requirement is taken care of."

Peter pulled a folded notebook page from his shirt pocket to check his notes before replying, "I'd like to take BMA this term. Just, not right after lunch. Not one of the Jet Li wannabe psycho periods either, if we can do that."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I'd rather not fight hand-to-hand. Like, at all. That's not me. But, thanks to everything that happened last year, along with recent events," Peter let his words trail off. What was left unsaid couldn't be testified to later. That didn't make 20/20 hindsight a damned bit easier to live with.

"Peter, whether you believe it or not, we'd hoped to avoid pushing you one way or the other. I know how it feels when all your options are stripped away." Paige added, "One class by itself can't turn you into Neo Anderson. But, I won't argue against it being useful."

"Let's give it a shot."

"Done. Evening IT Lab like last year?"

Peter couldn't help smiling.

"What can I say? Between East Coast script kiddies and West Coastal Office Space drones, it's a target-rich environment."

"Did you know that I used to resemble that statement?"

"What? Then you got a life?"

"I had to," Paige said, shaking her head. Point made. "I would have liked a few more years to be a kid than I was given. Someday, you'll be telling some other code monkey the same thing. Now. Do you have any self-study goals?"

"If I'm going to compete with other network jockeys after school, I need to beef up my math skills. Statistics and Cryptanalysis? Also, I'm interested in hardening comms gear against... I guess you might call it 'interplanar distortions'?"

"The math I can arrange. Trying to beat magic at its own game? I'm not so sure about that. Research the scope of your expected problems before committing to a project you can't test. But! You're going to leave some free time for socialization too. Don't think that we can't monitor your time usage."

"I'm sure there's plenty of folks beating down the doors to hook up with a Bad Seed nerd."

"You won't know unless you're there to meet them. Hiding inside a locked lab where no one will look for you doesn't count. Now, scat!"


3rd Period, First Day of Classes,
Biology I, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy.

Peter was in the middle of his getting-ready-for-notetaking routine: grab a new folder with some ruled notebook paper, try to figure out which pen worked, etc., when he was interrupted by a hefty thump landing on the lab bench next to him.

Max Livingston's voice boomed, "Hey! Didn't know you'd be taking this class too! We can be lab partners! Is this term going to be awesome or what?"

"You're taking Biology I?"

Argh. Was that a stupid question or what?

"Yeah! I would have taken Chem One, but I tested out. Chem Two was already booked solid."

Both ignored muttered comments about "Letting just anyone take college prep classes." We'll see who's 'just anyone' when the final grades get posted.


6th Period,
Basic Martial Arts, Laird Hall.

One advantage to signing up for BMA "late", as he saw it, was that Peter had some idea of what to expect. Sensei Tolman would be teaching the class. He would need a white gi and belt. Sifu Wong hadn't required gi for Tai Chi Chuan class last year, but they did survive daily wear better than basic sweats. The fact that cotton held up to hot wash and rinse cycles, removing lingering pheromones, wasn't lost on him. He wore a plain pair of broken-in flat-soled shoes that he could quickly slip off before stepping onto the mats.

In the training space, there were a couple of students sitting in a Japanese kneeling position along the perimeter of the mats. Others milled about, some talking, some not. At best, Peter recognized a couple of Emerson freshmen, though he didn't really know them. With nothing better to do, he did a few limbering-up exercises."

Sensei Tolman's opening remarks made it clear to everyone that Nathan Upton was the one martial arts student with a clue on class requirements: Be on-time. Start class sitting seiza at the edge of the mats. Yes, Sensei.

"To begin, if you've had martial arts training, including internal styles, raise your hand."

Oops. Someone had done their homework on the class roster.

"I see that I'll have some bad habits to break, but I assure you all that I have years of practice in doing so. This class is about teaching you to fight so you can survive. It's not about starting you on the path to grand master or teaching you the philosophical underpinnings of an art. It's about fighting, plain and simple. Now, can you tell me why?"

Nathan from earlier looked slightly smug. But, of course...

"Peter?"

She probably won't like this, but here goes nothing.

"If you don't know how to fight and when to avoid a fight, you give away your choice in the matter. And, possibly, your life or others' lives."

"Understood. Up until this point, I haven't mentioned powers, mutant or otherwise. Anyone care to elaborate on why that might be? Yes, Chessa?"

"Unless you can position yourself for your powers to swing an encounter in your favor, they don't matter, do they?"

"In practice, you won't always have the luxury of picking your ground. The choices you'll make then still matter." Sensei Tolman paused to smile. "That starts with where you've chosen to sit. Those of you to my left, choose a partner. You will go with my assistant, Helen Cartwright, for skills assessment. Those to my right, you're with me."


No one had thought to warn Kent about how Basic Martial Arts class was run. So, it was entirely reasonable to wipe some drops of nervous sweat with the sleeve of his gi, or whatever it was called. The dark-haired guy he was suddenly facing had raised his hand when the teach— sensei had asked who already had some training. He was so screwed. Worse, the guy had to be an upperclassman or something!

<Hajime!>

Damn. What to do? Rush in and get it over with?

Kent put his fists up like he'd seen in the movies.

The guy adjusted his stance and put his hands up in some kind of kung fu way.

Might as well try...

... and miss?

Now he was facing away from the older guy. Looking like an idiot.

The next attempted punches also missed. What about a kick, like those kids who took Taekwondo?

One thing hit: his shoulders to the mat.

This time, he tried tackling his opponent. Low, fast... and landing on the mat even harder.

<Yame!>

Finally!

Kent wasn't a fighter by any means. What's the point? That didn't take the sting out of being told he needs to learn how to commit to a strike and how to fall. It sure felt like he had the falling down part down pat! Got to take it like a man.

"Hey, um..." Damn!

"Peter."

That was actually an image he wouldn't mind, but he didn't want to be punched out for real on the way to the lockerroom.

"Kent. I was wondering— How much training have you had?"

"Not much. I took some tai chi last year. Over the summer, my, um, bodyguard used me as his punching bag."

Um, bodyguard? Oh, geez. Good looking, older, willing to actually talk to a person...

When they reached the locker room, Kent asked, "So, are you a senior or something? How do you? I mean, why would you need a bodyguard?"

"Just a sophomore. As far as bodyguards go, what can I say? After two abductions, my parents insisted."

"Oh. I kind of know how that goes."

"Yeah. Well. It's not something I'd recommend. Anyway, I need to get cleaned up and head out to Spanish and then my electronics class. Catch you later, Kent."

Kent finished a cold after-P.E. shower before "electronics class" registered. Another tech mutant, just like him? What are the odds?


Wednesday, September 14, 2016,
Room 241, Emerson Cottage.

From: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

To: Archeopterix, Camshaft, Cricket, Derecha, Entelecheia, Icejack

Subject: Team 6502 Roster and Orientation

Msg recipients are to report for training team orientation @ Arena 91, 1700, Thursday, Sept. 22nd. Be prepared to demonstrate your power set. Combat uniforms recommended.


The only person on the team who Peter knew at all was Cam Hudson. They'd both been in Fall Powers Theory last year, but Nate had monopolized his attention. That had turned out so great. Then they'd ended up in the Special Topics on Interface Design, but Cam had made a point of avoiding him by then. He couldn't blame the guy. Hopefully, he brought more to the table than Peter himself could.

"It's a shame that you got stuck with such a lackluster team."

Peter's roommate, Gideon, clearly wasn't working on winning friends today.

"The Seeds have a better chance of showing up the Capes fielding a more combat-focused team. I was there when you pitched the idea, remember? Tyler's the better shifter, and Milena is exactly who you want for intel."

"Hmph. I didn't mean it quite like that."

"I do," Peter said. "What with A.J. or Clint on magic and Hammer as your brick, the bases are pretty much covered. You'll all have enough work coming together as a team without carrying me."

Gideon stared at him. "Who are you, and where have you hidden Icejack's body?"

"I had an interesting summer. That's all I can say."

"I'm sure. However, I still hope we can get the White Lady to join us."

"It's good to have goals, I guess. Aim high? Just don't shoot yourself in the foot before you've sighted in."


Thursday afternoon, September 22, 2016,
Icejack.

At least the tenth-period meeting time left Peter some time to pack up after his Electronics II class. From what he'd heard, the sim jockeys were just as liable to schedule their mandatory fun exercises minutes after major Workshop classes as not. Because it's obviously so much easier to get from the south end of Sub-Level Two to the north end of campus under Holbrook Arena than from Kane Hall or Shuster Hall. Whatever. He stopped in at Emerson Cottage long enough to exchange his school uniform for a charcoal gray jumpsuit, black work belt and gear pack, and harness, swapping pairs of augmented reality glasses on their charger.


Briefing Room 12, Arena 91, Whateley Academy.

The Arena 91 complex might have been built for the 1991 Senior Project, but looked like the designer graduated thirty years earlier. The hard-wearing industrial floor tile, nondescript chairs, and suspicious drop ceiling couldn't have made Philippa "Derecha" Aldo's combat final uniform look more out of place if everyone had pitched in and tried. Last year, the Roman-styled armor and cape she'd put together in Costume Lab had looked smart and heroic. Now? How was a hero supposed to look, really?

"Hey! You're Derecha, right?"

"Sure am! Archeopterix?"

"Guilty as charged! Most places I go by Becky, though."

Unlike Derecha, Rebecca had opted for a sleeveless gray sweatsuit. She sure didn't need something fancy getting in the way of shifting. But, when it came to visual recognition (something Mrs. Ryan was always keen on), her features were striking enough. The girl's blue-feathered mohawk stood out from the black feathers that had replaced her hair, and her nose and mouth had been distorted into a humanoid beak.

Maybe she could stand to streamline her own togs?

They chatted politely until the cable guy showed up. Oh, wait. He was just dressed as one.

"Hey. I'm Peter, Icejack when we're in the sims."

Philippa nodded. Rebecca patted the chair next to her with a taloned hand.

"We know. Derecha and I were kind of surprised that they were dumping you into a training team already. I mean, after the way you got sidelined last year. I'm Becky, by the way."

Peter shrugged off his book pack and sat down.

"Turns out I have a low-end Shifting trait. That and physical therapy helped a lot. Also, my parents changed their security contract to make sure I stayed active over the summer."

"And here I thought Shifter Two and being stuck with never looking human again was bad deal. How good's your control?"

"Mostly adaptive. No one noticed until I lost some flexibility because my ligaments healed up stronger."

Derecha asked, "What was that about a security contract? Are your parents paranoid or what?"

"Or what. I was kind of abducted, again, last Christmas Break. So, it only looks like paranoia. Not being able to walk very far without crutches meant I wasn't getting much choice in the matter."

Exactly who abducted him was another matter altogether.

A new voice broke in. "Oh! So that's what the spirits meant when they said you 'were taken'. Sometimes, I'm not sure how well they want to be understood."

The speaker at the door was a thin, almost twiggy, girl. Her silvery hair and frosted green eyes kind of looked like she was a Luna Lovegood cosplayer. Entelechia? That was the third girl's codename from the message sent out.

"My apologies for interrupting. Let's start over. I'm Trina Keller. Is this the meeting room for Team, hm, Sixty-five-oh-two?"

"I hope so," Derecha said. "Otherwise, we're all in the wrong place. I'm Derecha. This is Becky and Peter."

Becky said, "The other two guys are in Twain, so they should be here soon. You can't miss Cricket. Anyone know Camshaft?"

"I had a couple of classes with him last year," Peter said, looking away while he tried to jog his memory. "He's another Workshopper, but he should be out of any of the lab classes by now."

Trina took a seat up front across from Derecha.

"You prefer going by your code name?"

"Well, yeah. That way, when someone screws it up, they don't end up calling me 'Flipper'."

"I will endeavor to avoid making too many seafood jokes."

"I can get behind that."

They only had a couple more minutes of quiet awkwardness to sit through.

"Cam? Room Twelve. This is us!"

Rex Fields had the mutant Exemplar trait going for him in spades. He was tall, muscular, with an international model's brown skin and high cheekbones, and he kept his curly black hair negligently stylish. Unfortunately, most folks paid more attention to his black, composite eyes and to the way his torso had been lengthened to accommodate an extra pair of long, narrow legs. If anyone in the group deserved to go by 'Cricket', he did. With a broad smile, he went over to sit with Trina.

Cameron Hudson, Camshaft, seemed quieter, his amber eyes taking in everything without revealing much. Like Derecha, he was wearing last year's combat final uniform. Overall, it was a basic black supersuit, featuring gray side panels, a utility belt with an oversized buckle, and a headband to keep his shaggy brown hair out of his face. A starfield and gloss effect suggested he was running a close-in Personal Field Generator. If he still wanted to avoid Peter this year, this whole teamwork thing was going to be difficult.

Oh. Right. Empath. The guy still should've known that going by 'Camshaft' was an invitation to look and compare. Something in the back of Peter's mind suggested that it might be a nice shaft but the wrong cam. When had he started worrying about things like that? He was only here at Whateley to get some training and a diploma.

Mr. Shane walked into the meeting room a minute short of the ten-minute rule running out. With this kind of omen, Team 6502 won't soon be turning out to be one of the luckier ones.

"Oh. You're all here on time. That's good."

Only in our dreams. Not the nice ones, either.


Mr. Shane opened with a memorized bit about being happy to see them all, looking forward to watching their development over the next three years, and... Yeah. No one in the room needed a calculator to know that a couple hundred sophomores, minus those spoken for by their clubs or besties, made for a couple dozen teams. Meeting on Thursday, add two heavy GSD kids, carry the doubled shifters and twidgits, and it totaled up to "Welcome to Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel. Population: You."

"... and see what you can do."

Time to look awake again!

Mr. Shane led the bored teens into one of the underground training areas that doubled as staging areas for Combat Finals sets. Ready-made obstacles and props could be nice useful. What do you train on when you don't yet know what you need to train on?

"Don't forget that in the team training sessions, we'll be requiring that each of you wear a mask of some kind and stick to code names. We don't want students being identified from any leaked match or practice footage."

Becky asked, "Mr. Shane? How well do you expect that to work? Even in a stormtrooper helmet and a burqa, Cricket and I are going to be identifiable. Might as well add Camshaft to that. Practically everyone knows they're roommates."

Derecha thought for a few moments before pointing out that "My powers can be duplicated with weather magic. But, how many mages are going to be limited to just those? Icejack here could pass for... Sorry. Those turbogeeked goggles you're sporting give you away as a devisor or something. Otherwise, you look like the cable guy."

"That was kind of the point, yeah."

"Guys," Mr. Shane said, "We're not asking for your cooperation in this matter. I'm telling you that you have to abide by the same rules you know from the combat finals. Sure, some of you stick out like a sore thumb. Any team with a decent intelligence officer will look up your capabilities as soon as you show up if not before. I'd recommend that you all adopt more of a can-do attitude and work on fixing those problems. Any further questions? No? Who's going to be first to show us what they can do?"

Derecha stepped forward. "I guess I can go first. It'd work better if we had a larger space."

"How so? Says here you're aerokinetic."

"Physics. To get upward thrust, I need to move a couple hundred cubic meters of air down some, or use less air but push down harder. Either way, the air that gets moved has to get replaced from somewhere."

"Must suck to deal with someone like Becky," mumbled Peter.

"Speak up, Crash. I don't think she heard that."

Peter winced, but what did he expect? Nicknames like that are memorable. He should be glad it wasn't worse!

"What? If her shifting gives her proportional wings, straight-line winds on the floor and updrafts at the walls help her gain altitude." Peter mimed a bird taking off with his hands. "When you stop, she can still glide. Can you?"

"You see any wings?"

Peter shrugged, "Tried holding onto wing-shaped air constructs? Parafoil shape, I guess?"

"Where were you last year? I could have used that kind of help in Flight class."

"Retaking Survival class after flunking out the hard way."

"Oh, yeah." Derecha remembered that combat final. "So that really is why everyone started calling you Crash."

"While we're on it, just don't coat the floor with your ice." He quickly added, "I know a manifestor who would do that. Not as much initially, but it adds up over time if you keep doing it."

"You, me, and Becky are signing out some flight practice space."

"I can pilot a drone, but I can't fly."

"You're still someone who can watch from offside and pay attention. Becky?"

"Hell, yeah. We need more shifter solidarity anyway."

Mr. Shane tapped his clipboard to regain the students' attention.

"You still need to finish meeting your team. Arky... um."

Becky sighed before explaining for the umpteenth time, "Archeopterix. As in the ancient avian therapods. Before you ask, it's spelled with an 'i' instead of a 'y' for trademark reasons."

"Right. That's what I meant."

Sure, he did.

"Anyhoo, I'm a shifter, complete with the lovely downside that "mostly human" is as normal as I can get. I can manage something functionally avian enough to fly or glide. On the ground, I can pull off one of the smaller terror birds. Thirty to forty miles per hour ain't nothing to sneeze at when you can't catch a headwind."

Mr. Shane didn't sound impressed when he said, "Can you manage anything more impressive?"

"Mr. Shane, sir, can you outrun a cougar or a cheetah you just pissed off? That'd be impressive."

Cricket stepped up to diffuse the situation as best he could. An internal energizer and exemplar brick, "able to leap multistory buildings in a single bound," the only reason he was on this team had to be his heavy GSD. To his credit, he agreed that the ceiling for the training space was far too low. His roommate, Cam, didn't mind that so much. A gadgeteer working in street transports (scooters, motorized skateboards) and exotics, he was disappointed that only half the team could use his skills.

"Entel—" Mr. Shane paused, unsure of what the Hell he was looking at.

"Entelecheia. While I do have a functional flight belt," Trina said, "I wouldn't mind not having to devote all my essence to recharging it."

"As a mage, I'm sure that saving your juice for combat buffs or direct damage would benefit the team."

"I'd need cover, but if you mean casting defensive wards, yes."

"Spells for improving your teammates' physical abilities and healing injuries are also valuable."

"If I could cast such spells, I suppose so."

"What?"

"For some reason, healing spells just don't work well for me. My skills are more attuned to communing with spirits of the dead."

"Other than zombie apocalypses and requests by the Christian Fellowship kids, we don't run graveyard scenarios, " Mr. Shane replied, "It's hard enough to get students to take the training we offer here seriously."

Peter muttered something to the effect that "Benjamin will be so disappointed."

Trina looked confused, asking, "Who's Benjamin?"

"A... friend, um, back home. He'll be a freshman next term if he doesn't injure himself again."

"Oh. It's good to have friends. Why would he be disappointed? Does he photograph graveyards or something?"

"He lives in one."

"I think I'd like to meet him sometime."

That would be a disturbing first.

"Awesome, I'm sure," snarked Mr. Shane. "Last up is Icejack, your other gadgeteer. What sort of weapons or combat gear do you work with?"

"If you're asking what I can do." Peter said, "I'm a gadgeteer specializing in SIGINT and OPSEC. If you're expecting to see me magically rearrange two coconuts and a bobby pin into a working plasma projector, don't hold your breath."

Mr. Shane looked like he'd bitten into the fifth or sixth lemon of the day. Given the age group, he should've known better than to expect respect. Fine.

"How far do you think that sarcasm will get you with Doctor Reaper?"

"About as far as anyone gets. Six. Feet. Down. Two Across."

"Son, what you have is a bad attitude. If you think that's going to win you any brownie points with a professional team, you've got another thing coming."

"As a matter of fact, my parents are professionals. Who should I say you were?"

"For the record, I served my country in uniform. With honor, I might add."

"Callsign?"

"Not your problem."

Peter kept his grin dialed down to merely rebellious. 'Yeller' should have known better than to make his service records a challenge. What? Benjamin wasn't the only asshole with connections!


"Icejack, hold up!"

Peter stopped and turned to see what Cam had to say.

"Look. I know you weren't only trying to get on Shane's nerves. You have real RC and comms experience, don't you?"

"My friend back home, the one who lives in a graveyard? His idea of fun is paintball drone tag. Beyond that, the thing is that when you're offsite, sitting on comms and telemetry, you're not there to help out when someone gets hurt."

"Not going to pry into that unless you want to talk sometime. But, I'm sure that if we work together, we can get an edge on a lot of folks."

"No reason not to."

"I was hoping for more enthusiasm, but there's no harm in tossing some ideas around! By the way, when's the last time you talked to your friend? He's probably doing better by now."


As far as he knew, Peter and his friend had seen both better and worse days than the one they met.

A bit over a year ago,
Washington DC.

From the relative comfort of a GSA-spec bench, Benjamin Keeling watched a handful of school tour groups enter the National Air and Space Museum. His quarry was suspected to still be in the DC area. At this hour of the day, they should feel safest in a nicely public venue guaranteed to attract hordes of middle school and high school students. On general principle, he'd sent Max out to procure a generic vehicle. Just in case, Yuki was playing International Tourist on the western end of the National Mall.

According to well-paid sources, there were enough irregularities in the timed-pass sales to slip Benjamin and a couple of others in through the remaining cracks. He wasn't entirely certain, but ten o'clock at the National Museum of the American Indian had drawn a couple of interested parties. It would suck so hard if it turned out he'd photographed a spook working their day job by accident. Back to sniffing out which one of these teens is not like the others. One of these teens just doesn't belong. If that didn't pan out, there were still options.

What did it say about his life that he was the one member of his team who worked best in a crowd, alone?


Peter Raiford's day, no, his year, had already gone from bad to disastrous. His parents had taught him some of the ways to shake a tail. Some even worked indoors. But, sooner or later, the tour group he'd ghosted at the door would have to exit the building. If the man following him was working with a team (the worst case, therefore most likely), then he'd be passed off to one or more trackers that he hadn't yet made. He could run, but he couldn't hide then.

For now, though, he still needed to eat and get off his feet. The museum's cafe should be good.

It should have been good.

If he still had his wallet... which he didn't.

Oh, God.

From somewhere back in the cafeteria checkout lane, someone shouted, "Oy! Jerkwad! Forget something?" That was followed by "Don't know why I put up with him. Friends, huh?" noises being made by a blond kid who'd been in the tour group. Said kid was now waving a wallet that looked like Peter's as a free pass to jump ahead in the line. Sidling up to the cashier at the very front of the line, the guy pulled out a twenty from said wallet before handing it back.

"Least you could do for making me clean up after you, you know."

"I, um, I mean, he's not..."

"Sorry, Miss. We just can't take him anywhere."

The cashier gamely refused to take the bait, instead handing the change to Peter. He pocketed his wallet.

Blond guy tilted his head, indicating a table with a good view of the entrance. Once there, he picked the best chair for watching the entrance.

"Thanks, I guess," Peter said. "But who the Hell are you?"

"The person most likely to scream 'Oh my God! You're a mutant!' if you don't start eating lunch with your newest and bestest friend in the world and stop acting like you're afraid of your own shadow."

"..."

"You also dropped your shades."

No, he had not dropped any such thing. There was no way the pair being handed to him didn't include a tracker for someone else's convenience.

"Why should I trust you?"

"Hey! It's not like I do. But, my man Max swears these lenses will fuck with casual face recognition if we get split up."

"Not that I'm with you, er?"

"Benjamin. Not Benjie, no matter what anyone else says."

"Okay, Benjamin. You should know that I already have at least one tail, so you're too late to swoop in for a prize."

"Yeah... About that. You didn't like him, did you?"

"What? No!"

"Cool."

"Why is that cool?"

"He got sloppy," Benjamin remarked and took a large bite out of his sandwich.

Sloppy?

"I bet he had friends," Peter said. "They won't be happy."

"Counting on it. Especially after they hear what he's being charged with, and I'm betting it won't be the first time. You going to eat all those fries?"

"Sure, have some. So, we're just going to eat lunch and walk out the front door?"

"That's the plan."

"Benjamin, or whoever you are, you're insane. We're just two kids."

Benjamin grabbed too many fries and said, "Shouldn't you have thought of that before poking around certain mainframes?"

There was 'in deep'. But this was 'in so deep that the sharks are using an innocent kid like this as bait'.

"... Yeah. Maybe," Peter would admit that much. "Assuming that your plan works, then what?"


Somehow, 'then what' included walking to the International Spy Museum. Because, why not?

"Nah. No reason," Benjamin not-explained. "It just worked out, being close and all."

Peter resigned himself to his designated mushroom status. Later, he'd find out that Keeling was always like that to everyone.

Much later, he'd find out how his tail had gotten Keeling's attention and how many years of free room and board at Federal expense that attention had won him.

The spycraft museum had a lot of cool gadgets and devises on display. Like the Smithsonian, he really didn't want to leave before he got to see everything. Reality, meanwhile, must have been sprinting to catch up. There was no way the cabbie that pulled up in front of them was legit. For one thing, he looked like an ork from a cyberpunk video game. The Powers That Be frowned on making D.C. a war zone like New York City, but that didn't mean that blatantly obvious mutants were welcome.

"This is our ride. You get in. Follow Max's directions and, for God's sake, do not look at the speedometer. Go!"

Startled, Peter complied before hearing the door slam. When he looked out, Benjamin was nowhere to be found.

The or— Max said, "Once we get on the highway, duck down out of the way," before punctuating his words with a swerve and tire screech worthy of a capitol city taxi driver.

"Where's Benjamin? Are you just leaving him behind?"

"That'd be a first, dude! Usually, he ditches us."

What.

"But he's..."

"Officially my boss, yeah. For some reason, he thinks it's okay for him to play it fast and loose. It works, but don't tell him that."

"I'll be sure not to."

I'm so dead.

"That's the spirit!"


After no-telling-how-long, Max the Madd Cabbie announced, "Here we are! Beautiful Congress Heights!"

Having heard of the place in passing, Peter risked poking his head up enough to see how beautiful Congress Heights was. It wasn't. Even Max was practically whitebread compared to this place. Hell, Samuel L. motherfucking Jackson was too whitebread for this place!

I'm dead. We're all dead. The Reaper is just held up in traffic or something.

Max patted Peter on the back, "Dude, safe houses aren't supposed to be pretty. Except for this one place I got to stay in. That was fun. Don't worry. Once it gets dark enough, I'll either call someone to pick up the cab or leave it where it'll get stripped clean."

"How long?"

"I don't know. But, a pro crew can have a vehicle jacked up and parted out before you know it's gone."

"I meant, 'How long are we here for?'"

"Right. I knew that," Max said with a grin. "A couple of days for Benjie to lay a false trail, double back, hook up with Yuki, and then we decide where to take you."

They'd pulled in front of a brick-clad house. Bricks would stop stray bullets, right? Peter let himself be hustled inside before too many locals noticed the new renters.

"Wait. You don't already know where you're taking me?"

"Not really. Benjamin's employers don't seem too interested, so we're might be working for one of the other Houses. You're too young to openly hire."

"How was he hired, or is he a lot older than he looks?"

"It's complicated. Not in a nice way. That's all I can say about that. But, dude, you've got parents who'll want you back."

"They're... on assignment. They might not even know I'm gone or why."

"So, we should hold off getting killed or something until they do, right? Let's see what the kitchen is stocked with. Food makes most things better."


Early AM.

Benjamin let himself in by a back window in case anyone was up and about at need-a-fix o'clock. Downstairs, he found Max and Peter sprawled out near the remains of delivery pizza and soda, bathed in the glow of after-hours Comedy Central. Peter's ill-fitting shoes had fallen off his hooves, and his dark hair now curled around two little black horns. If Benjamin ever got the chance to meet the lucky person the guy was dreaming about... Nah. Just because he couldn't have that sort of happiness, that didn't mean he couldn't do his damnedest to keep the guy safe long enough to find their own.

Until then, there were blankets upstairs, and one of them was too ... colorful not to use.


Normal People's Morning.

It was easy for the others sleeping over to tell, and hear tell, when Peter woke up.

"What the fuck! How did I end up with an Addams Family blanket? Stop laughing, Max. You're the one with Animaniacs."

"I'm keeping it! Wait up! Where are you going?"

"I, um, got to check something in the bathroom."

Peter's hooves made clip-clop noises on the wood flooring. If only he could sink through the floor and disappear to some place where it wouldn't matter if he lost his concentration ever again. Somehow, he didn't expect his luck to work like that. At least he could wash his face and try to shift back. That done, he opened the bathroom door—

—only to be met by a disgustingly wide-awake Benjamin Keeling holding his shoes.

"If we get some time, I'm dragging you to a shoe store. These kicks are too lame for the short bus patrol."


Thursday night of the present day,
Room 241, Emerson Cottage.

It wasn't like Peter was really avoiding talking to Benjamin, good idea or not. In fact, the distance afforded him by calling was a good thing! If his mind happened to stray to things he shouldn't be thinking about, there was that much less chance of embarrassing himself. All he had to do was dial the improbably long number that would eventually reach Keeling.

"Hello. This is Peter Raiford, at Whateley Academy. May I speak to Benjamin Keeling?"

"Mr. Keeling's not currently in the office, though he should be available. Please hold."

It had taken the better part of a year to get this number. Even then, he'd had to wade through multiple evasions to get to a murky explanation for how a fifteen-year-old needed a gatekeeper on a telephone line he wasn't allowed to turn off.

"Hi! Peter! What's wrong? Do I need to book a flight? Max didn't say there were any problems."

This was a bad idea.

"Actually, I called to check on how you were doing."

"Me? Why would anyone... I mean, I'm fine! You're the one everyone worries about." Benjamin paused a whole second or two before prompting, "So?"

"I'm okay."

"You're attending an exclusive, six-figure tuition prep school, and that's the best they can do?" Benjamin added, half to himself, "Sounds like a rip-off."

"It's still a high school. My neurotic roommate has Mommy issues. My free time just took a hit because God knows how much make-work we'll be pulling for this 'combat sim training team' thing to work. Oh, and someone has been radio silent for weeks after being hospitalized for a concussion! 'I'm okay' seems pretty good under the circumstances!"

"I'm not in the hospital, just on light duty. Serious! You can even ask my boss. Next week, I'm playing tour guide for some VIP associated with the Unhappy Hooker we ran into a few weeks ago."

"Why."

"Because I know the place. He doesn't. After that, I've already been told I'm going to be stuck behind a desk, all day, all week, in a tiny office with too many windows. Did I mention I'm to be buried in paperwork?"

"You're complaining that you're being given time to heal up?"

"I'm stuck in a box! Who does that?"

"Pretty much every white-collar job I've ever heard of. The idea might be to encourage employees not to get hurt."

"It was just this once!"

Am I supposed to believe that?

After he finished catching up on Benjamin's aggrieved state of being expected to not injure himself (much) further (for now), Peter was left wondering something.

Why would Max still be reporting to anyone? Never. Mind.


Friday morning,
3rd Period Biology I, Kane Hall.

Another morning, another round of classes. One in particular interested Peter, but not as much for the subject as usual. If he didn't know better – Did he? – there was more going on about this place than even the conspiracy-minded clubs thought. By the same token, the Masterminds and Dylans weren't as well-hidden as they made themselves out to be. Crossby wasn't exactly helping his own case when he and his crew were partying by the case themselves. Let's stick to jumping at one shadow at a time!

"Hey, Max."

"Good Morning! How's it going, dude?"

"When was the last time you talked to your boss?"

"About five minutes after you two hung up last night. Maybe less. You need to be more convincing when you say you're fine. Or, change it up a bit! Your happy-to-be-alive 'I'm okay' is almost identical to your give-me-a-minute-while-I-reset-this-bone 'I'm okay'."

"I'm not that bad."

"Right. Let's see how it goes the next time you go and trigger the mothering instincts of a paranoid fifteen-year-old with apocalyptic trust issues again."

"Again?"

"Dude. If you weren't in serious trouble last year, we would have had to make something up to distract your mother and him. I suggested we kidnap you again or something, but Yuki said I'd be the one wearing a dress on the Washington Mall in summer."

That was a mental image no one needed.

"And that's the real reason you're in this class."

"Nah. I really was hoping for Chemistry. But when that didn't pan out, it was this or American History. Kind of a no-brainer. Once your sister's born, we think you'll be in the clear until your mother starts wanting grandchildren."

"You haven't met her parents, my grandparents. I'm surprised I've met them."

"That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement."

"It isn't."

"Well. Now that that's settled, you got your homework? I'd like to double-check my answers, and I don't trust Lab Rat not to eat my homework."


Late Friday afternoon, September 30,
Whateley Academy.

Peter had to ask around a bit to get what he needed before working with Archeopterix and Derecha. First, he needed to find out where Venus, Inc. ran their photo shoots. Then, he needed information on that shooting schedule. The worst possible time to walk in would be before or during a shoot, or when the place was vacant. He only needed to hook up with their camera team. If they were anything like Max's stage crews, their work started with setup and didn't end until well after a shoot.

After only two or three runarounds (Peter obviously wasn't model material, so what was his sudden interest?) and a round of email tag, the time came to drop in at the end of whatever models do in front of a camera. The idea of dressing up for a part wasn't new when it came to site infiltration. Of course, the last time he got dressed up was when he was being abducted for the second time, which ended up with him impersonating a policeman. Something about that was so wrong. Likewise, makeup. From the way Max talked, it was more useful than the spy flicks made it out to be. Even Dad had his own kit. No, what had him nervous was the idea of being on the wrong end of a camera set to record.


Venus Incorporated Clubhouse.

Once Peter had outlined what he was looking for, Danielle 'Shutterfly' James asked the first reasonable question that came to mind.

"Why not ask Photech?"

"Because Marty's a dick, and I don't need to be there when he finally learns why that's a bad thing."

"Why me? I'm only helping out here, and I've still got plenty of work."

"So does Flashbulb. However, I think my teammates would be happier with a girl than a guy behind the camera."

"Hoping for the perfectly deniable up-skirt shot?"

"What? No!"

"... show them shaking a little tail." Danielle's empath trait prompted her to take a second look at her paling classmate.

He was, like, ninety-seven percent sure his teammates weren't that kind of girl.

"Er, which teammates are we talking about?"

"Becky, er, Archeopterix, and Derecha."

Hm.

"I take it that Becky is a shifter who'd have issues with costume placement?"

Peter nodded rapidly. It would almost be comical if he weren't so earnestly serious.

"Okay. How about you tell me what you're looking for? Maybe I can point you in the right direction?"

"That would be great! Basically, I'm looking to record two fliers. Derecha's aerokinetic, which plays havoc with air currents. At least, that would be the case in the indoor flight arenas, and that could be either exploited by someone like Archeopterix or used against her. But, we need to see what's going on. I'm not sure whether thermal imaging does the job or whether polarized lighting is the way to go. Maybe a non-toxic smoke tracer, combined with low-temp heating? I'd have to check with Becky to see how she perceives thermal updrafts, if she does. That opens up the whole issue of simplifying the components needed, rigging them to a headmounted frame, and feeding the rectified images back on a HUD. Photo stitching would also be useful, but I think I can grab some code from NASA to work with that."

Shutterfly looked away from her mental notes to say, "Yeah, scratch Photech. Even if he wasn't a dick, he's not up to it. Holo's kind of tightly wound. If he hears about the project and volunteers, cool. Otherwise, he's not interested anyway."

"What about Ping," asked one of the Venus models. She blushed and said, "Sorry. I heard someone mention a shifter so I came over to see if it was someone I know."

"For shifters, we just have Becky and me in our training team," Peter said. "That's more than most teams, and she's got some useful forms."

"What do you do then?"

"Adaptive shifter one. It helps me qualify for Emerson Cottage. Otherwise, I get a boost to my CON score or extra pheromones at the worst possible times."

For certain values of 'worst'. It sounded to Danielle like someone has a long-distance crush.

"Qualify for Emerson? How?"

Peter concentrated on relaxing for a moment but still winced when his shoes fell off. Within seconds, his dark hair thickened and curled. Poking out of his hairline, he had a puckishly stubby pair of black horns that matched his split hooves. He did smell a bit 'woofier' too.

"Danielle, while you're calculating lighting and filters. I'm taking, what's your name?"

"Peter."

"Hi. I'm Cassie. While FrameRate's still around, Peter and I are going to get some Percy Jackson shots in. And, oh my god!"

"What now?"

"Pete, show Miss Oblivious your hands."

He held out his hands. Nothing new there.

"Palms down, dummy!"

Danielle took in the improbable details before saying, "Now you two are just screwing with me."

"I know, right? If I could get my nails glossy black like that, I sure wouldn't hide them! They'd go perfect with me as Thalia Grace, don't you guys think? Are they strong, or weak like acrylic?"

"They're good enough for rock climbing when there's practically nothing to hang from." Under his breath, Peter added, "And, the jerk on belay below you is making comments about your form."

Danielle's empathy pinged again. That jerk must be the someone he wants. As long as he's not a complete troll, that could be kind of sexy.

"I still hate you. Come on! Wardrobe's this way!"


Three days later,
3rd Period Biology I

"Hey, Max."

There wasn't going to be an easy way to put it, was there?

"Hmmm?"

And now even Max was suspicious.

"Regarding signing things like a model release form, howscrewedamI?"

"Looks like our little Petey's growing up!"

"How would you like your next special's music replaced with John Philip Sousa marches?"

"Aw, c'mon! It's not the end of the world. Besides, they'd still need to have the release signed by a parent or guardian."

Peter's PDA pinged.

It was Mom. And, she'd sent attachments. Why was there a Bcc: line?

"Oh, hey! Who's the sweetie with you?"

"Cassie Locke. And, yeah, she's cool. Here, she's cosplaying Thalia Grace from the Percy Jackson series."

"Is it any good?"

"I only read the first couple of books. Didn't fit the emo image I was going for at the time, but good enough."

"And now you're hanging out with the models... Why? How?"

"I told you I was asking around for help on video recording and optics for imaging air movement. I haven't heard back yet from Shutterfly."

"I've heard from Taka that she's good," Max said.

"Exactly. So, if it can't be done or it's trivial, I should hear back soon. Otherwise, it's a go, depending on how it goes. For the other stuff, I guess I need to pray for editorial intervention. I mean, she looks great, but in my default form, I look like a refugee from Arkham. Guess that's what cropping and CGI background restoration is good for."

"The term is 'stand-in'. But that's what we like about you: always positive, for severely constrained values of 'positive'."

4PM, Thursday afternoon, October 6, 2016,
Arena 77, Whateley Academy.

Peter hustled over to the old arena as soon as his electronics class ended, stopping only to slip on a mask as required by the arenas. Inside, Shutterfly was already at work. Like Peter, Danielle was wearing a Workshop lab coat. However, instead of a plain domino mask, she'd chosen a golden mask like one would see at a masquerade ball. It looked nice next to her light brown hair. This being Whateley, she probably had enough miniaturized electronics and optics built into it for any two fancy balls.

"How are we looking?" he asked.

"Not bad. Arena 77 was upgraded a few years ago, but the safety system is reactive and relies more on mechanicals and practical effects than Arena 99's hard-light systems."

"Less outside interference from outside systems?"

"Exactly. For my initial setup," Danielle pointed out the two sets of lighting fixtures she'd set up, "I'm using two banks of polarized light, one rotated slightly out of phase from the other. Crossing that shared pair of axes, I'm grabbing background reference feeds that can be easily subtracted from any other composite inputs. That's where the two off-the-shelf drones come in. I went with OTS because the important part is getting the 4K video downlinks, everything else, you'd want stability and ease of repair."

"Oh, yeah. Even if I could bribe Murphy, something's guaranteed to happen to any gear in flight."

"Also, I'm using gigahertz transmitters. If this works, I figure you'll want to use that or a higher frequency. If the FCC can't hear you, they can't complain."

"Outdoors, hm..." Peter mused, "I think I'll want to stick to microwave frequencies. Got to have some tactical range when working with flyers. Also, signal degradation to rain is going to be a bitch if I shoot too high."

"What do you think about getting high-definition video encrypted for over-the-air transmission to a central storage point?"

Peter thought back to the studio plans he'd been shown.

"If you're outfitting studios, I'd recommend encrypted point-to-point fiber-optic. Have the camera to receiver link up in the terahertz range so a closed door blocks anyone outside from copying the traffic. That doesn't mean you can get away with skipping bug sweeps in the dressing rooms, but killing any leaks from production work is worth the trouble."


"Hey, y'all!" Derecha called out from the nearest arena entrance, "We interrupting anything?"

Peter jerked upright, looking up from his laptop as if he'd been fast asleep. Not the worst comparison for a mutant techie startled out of their zone.

"Huh? No. Just, erm, looking over the software side of what Shutterfly's set up."

"Okay. And that's for?"

"I was wondering if there were a good way to visualize air currents. What with your TK and B— Archeopterix's wings... if it works, we're solid. If it doesn't work, we've got data to work from."

"And you needed one of Venus, Inc.'s photographers because?"

Danielle shook her head.

"I just help out on the tech side when Flashbulb gets himself overcommitted. FrameRate's going to be great as a fashion photographer, but she's more of an optics guru. 'Jack, did you ask Cyber Swarm?"

"No. He makes gadgets, but they're all one-offs. They also have a nasty habit of including traceable serial numbers and undocumented functions not under the control of the owner."

Shutterfly raised an are-you-shitting-me? eyebrow.

"The things you learn. What are we checking out on our first run?"

"Let's see what we can pick up with Derecha flying normally. Aerial track, hover, some basic maneuvers? Derecha?"

"Sure. I want to try out that airfoil trick you suggested. If we can see how the air around me is affected, it might be easier to work out the kinks."

Peter checked his notes and scribbled a few things down.

"One possibility we could also try is to see if you can break up your thrust vectors into four sections. It'd be like a quadcopter. Whichever one is putting out the least thrust tilts you down to move in that direction. Pushing more from the opposing section does kind of the same..."

"But it's less stable," Shutterfly finished for him. "You do gain or lose less altitude, so it can pay off."

"I should've packed some headache pills, huh?"

"Maybe?"

Peter looked up from his note-taking.

"Definitely. Archeopterix needs to practice working with you helping her on take-off. I mean, she could shift into a fast runner and leap into a winged shift." He shrugged as if that wasn't a proven thing.

"Yeah, right," Becky drawled.

"What happened when you tried?"

"I haven't. It sounds too much like a recipe for disaster."

Shutterfly pointed out, "That's one of the reasons I booked the arena. We can call the control room to add environmental effects and obstacles once we have the basics down."

Derecha said, "And if we don't?"

"Just book this or another space. Once I've got the project all written up, 'Jack will have just about everything he needs to take over from me."

"Deal. Let's do this."

The rest of the hour went well enough. Not being an exemplar himself, Peter struggled to keep up with his temporary mentor. It also turned out that Archeopterix wasn't a fast enough shifter for a four-footed running start. But, that could be practiced. So far, so good, but as with anything unexpected coming around to blindside a person on an everyday Thursday afternoon, it only took a few seconds.

Derecha passed out about four stories up.

Archeopterix screamed and dove to intercept her teammate's fall, pulling out of the dive right under Derecha.

In theory, that would have worked. In the movies, it might have.

Instead, the additional body weight provided the leverage needed against air resistance to dislocate both shoulders.

Alannis Morrisette-ironically, the arena's safety systems kicked in to prevent far worse damage when the two young women hit the floor.

Peter arrived right behind Danielle, who gently moved Derecha off a prone Archeopterix. He breathed a short-lived sigh of relief that Derecha was breathing, with equal and responsive pupils.

"Why isn't Archeopterix changing back?" Danielle asked.

"Because it's going to hurt like a motherfuck without help. And, she has to stay awake for it."

Becky grumbled, "No shit."

Danielle sounded confused when she asked, "Then why not wait for medical help?"

"Dammit, girl, I'm hangin' on by my fingernails as it is. Me'n Icejack are shifters, not exemplars. If we just let an injury go, our bodies might not heal right. How'd you do last year, 'Jack?"

Peter's pulse hammered in his ears for a few seconds, but he choked his bile back down to answer.

"My spine self-stabilized by fusing several vertebrae together. They told me later that one of the operations was just to chisel them back apart and pack cartilage back in between them." He took a couple of breaths before going on to explain what comes next.

"What we're going to have to do, now, is lift her up by her body, holding her arms stable as much as we can, so she can get her feet under her."

"Why?"

"Why?" Becky growled, "Because Ah need to be lying down on my back to reduce the dislocations, not sprawled out face down!"

By most accounts, there's no place anywhere within a hundred country miles of the girl's native Abilene where the next words out of her mouth would be considered "ladylike." Derecha woke up, mostly groggy and somewhat shocked.

"Icejack," Becky said. "Check my bookbag. I've got some energy gel packs. Make sure she gets one down."

"On it!"

Peter returned with those and more. He handed a couple to Shutterfly to help Becky with. Then he opened one up for Derecha.

"Try not to think too hard about whether you're sucking or drinking it."

"Only you would, Crash."

Peter called the control room line to update the operators and get an arrival time for medical help. Ten minutes wasn't bad, but he wasn't the one in pain here.

"If they ain't here by the time I get this down. You did say you took Survival, right?"

Survival class didn't include actual people with actual injuries, but the techniques taught got the job done. After his teammates were safely carted off to Doyle to a matching chorus of "I'll be fine!" Peter helped Danielle pack up. At the least, that was something he could do. Or, rather, it was one of the things he could do. On impulse, he bought a sealed pack of cards and some chocolates, and headed over to Doyle Medical Center. Two injured girls plus Becky's roommate and him made four. That was just about perfect for a few hands of poker or spades.


Thursday afternoon, October 20, 2016,
Briefing Room 12, Arena 91, Whateley Academy.

By mutual agreement, the members of Team 6502 arrived ten minutes early for their scheduled training. Cricket had asked around about how so-called combat training teams actually worked, not just what the carefully-worded descriptions in student handbooks claimed. In theory, the simulator personnel didn't play high school musical politics. Being the mature high school sophomores the team members were, they were sure they knew better.

Once everyone got settled in, Derecha asked, "Other than being picked nearly last, how screwed are we?"

Cricket said, "Okay. From what the old hands in F3 are saying, there are multiple training tracks. Depending on who else opts for what, they're more or less brutal."

"Let's hear it."

"The 'active track' takes priority on the sim schedules, running anywhere from three scenarios a week to back-to-back matches. Get this: it requires its own waiver of liability and separate approvals from Doyle. Why? Because they've managed to injure bricks in VR and almost lost a few students to PTSD."

"That doesn't sound like a good deal," Archaeopterix said. "Who's stupid enough to ask to go through all that?"

"The same folks who obsess over training team stats like they're March Madness and SEC football all wrapped up in a neat package of violence. The Capes, the Grunts, Team Phoenix. In other words, any group that's trying to build clout, gets set up for special attention, or becomes popular with the betting consortiums. The old Wondercute club was supposedly that insane."

The new club looked to be in the running for taking up the old group's mantle. Enough said!

Cricket let the Wondercute omens sink in before continuing.

"There's a minimal development track: students who, for various reasons, can't hold up under the standard track intensity. Almost all their simulator time is replaced with classes, including remedial Survival exercises. In sad fact, they're only assigned to 'teams' to avoid accidentally placing these students on a 'real team'. Basically seen as screw-ups and losers, these folks would be lumped together with the bottom ten percent of all teams as the Retard League. If we don't need to be in the top ten percent, we certainly don't want to land in the bottom tiers.

"The 'standard track' schedule runs monthly to weekly. If active is varsity, standard would be junior varsity. That would be most of the club teams: the Western European Alliance, The Nations, Goobers, Dragons, Tigers, Bohemians, etc."

Icejack spoke up: "The Bad Seeds might be fielding a team, but the roster's up in the air."

Depending on who wants Gideon's head on a spike this week.

"Good to know," Cricket nodded as he added that to his notes. "The tracks are also broken down by team focus. Superhero teams are the Alpha Track, military is Omega, high threat response teams are Beta, Syndicate is Sigma, Search and Rescue is Gamma."

Entelecheia hazarded a question, "High threat response?"

"Think Delta Force, SAS, Dragonslayers, Sabretooths. Boogie monsters. Back when she was a student, Miss Bardue used to be on a team slotted for Beta track scenarios. Not a lot of information has been passed down about them, so I don't know. Supposedly, there was some friction between her and her friends and the founder of F3. Never came to anything, though."

"And the reason we need to know about the combat training tracks?"

"Mr. Shane's guaranteed to try to sell us on one or the other. Military track is practically reserved for the JROTC unit. Myself and Becky are heavy GSD, which rules out 'superhero'. That leaves monsters, criminals, and clean-up crews for us."

Derecha added, "You'd be surprised how often ice powers get filed under 'future villain'. No, really! Any time some idiot screws up their shower settings, it's always my fault. Icejack's a Bad Seed. Talking to the dead puts Entelecheia on the Goobers' hit list. Cam," He was being pretty quiet "maybe you should run away while the getting's good?"

"Where were the heroes when my best friend needed someone to talk him down from putting a fucking bullet through his head?"

Oh. Fucking. Hell.

"Icejack, where were the heroes when Bystander tried to kill you? Don't lie to me or give me no I-deserved-it bullshit. I'm an empath," Cam spat on the floor to emphasize the point. "Nate's real good at masking his presence, not so good at keeping what turns him on hidden."

"I vote for Search and Rescue," Entelecheia said. "If asked politely, it might help the recently deceased to find some closure by searching through any wreckage. We have people who can arrive on-site as fast as emergency services. Even without a healer, minutes matter."

Derecha agreed. "I've seen too many folks lose everything to tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. Everything, guys. It can take days for floodwater to go down and roads to get cleared. Becky?"

"I can't even imagine what it's like to be needed and not know how to help. Sure. Let's make this craziness good for something. Cricket, how're they going to run us through something that normally takes hours or days? Or, are they just going to throw everyone at us for 'reasons'?"

"Canis told me that the extra-long sim reservations, especially if they're only hours apart, are usually SAR scenarios. That's why they aren't popular: back-to-back and extended sims take everything out of you."

"So does physical therapy," mumbled Icejack. "We'll still need to work on some combat stuff. Opportunists are a thing."

"Cam?"

Cam nodded, lost in thought again over what could have been done. Given a second chance, could he make a difference?


Thursday evening, Beck Library.

Seeing Peter's haphazard collection of notes and stuff, precariously held together by a clipboard, Cam pulled out a notepad and pen and quietly hoped that disorganization wasn't contagious.

"What do you want to go over first? Aside from our assigned homework."

Because pouring over an entire binder filled with powers, skills, and every other thing the Combat Simulator crew could come up with – in autistic detail – would drive an adult Mormon to drink.

"Weapons and holdouts, maybe armor?"

"Cricket's a pretty hefty exemplar-four, so he hasn't gone for that. The best we can expect is that maybe we can guilt him into carrying some spare gear in a backpack. Any armor strong enough to matter is going to be heavy enough to cut into his jump distance. Me, I've got a taser and a PFG. What about you?"

"I keep my Colt M4 Carbine locked up when I'm not at the Ranges, but I usually carry my Heckler and Koch VP9. For closer in, I have a Cobra 420 linear induction pistol, a taser, and I bought one of Telekat's strobe/shrieker packs last year. It's like The Flashbang from Hell. You ought to look into that and the Cobra; maybe Trina should too?"

"What loads does the Cobra take?"

"Twenty-millimeter mini grenades. I've got shock, webbing, smoke, knockout, and boxes of practice rounds. You can get genuine CS from Sin d'Rome. But, if the wind changes, you end up gassing yourself."

"We've got an aerokinetic on our side. That doesn't have to be a problem," Cam said. "With practice, we could end up better than the police with that stuff."

"Think we can convince Derecha and Becky to play bomber?"

"If we can minimize risk to civilians, yeah. Webbing? I haven't seen that used much in finals."

"If your opponent has TK, they can pitch it back at you in mid-air. If you don't have plenty of the right solvent for your web mix, you're screwed. Also, can you imagine getting hit in the face with that stuff?"

Cam asked, "Then why do you carry it?"

"Because there are people who need it."

"Okay... I won't ask. What about Becky? I don't think she can have her hands free unless she's on the ground or falling."

Peter hadn't thought about that.

"You're right. She might be able to carry a pack of stuff, but she'd have to shift again to use anything from it."

Cam sketched some ideas while he talked. Most had propellors or jets.

"Less falling would be good, but grav belts aren't cheap. Let's ask Trina if she can manage a one-shot feather fall token or something. She'd need one too, right? Otherwise, you know what? There's got to be a way to trim the weight off an emergency parachute. Maybe rig something to trigger its release on a rapid loss of altitude? Downdrafts. Those could be a problem."

"Don't forget Derecha. Most of us have bullet-proof vests from taking Survival class, but that doesn't mean she can't be shot down."

"Speaking of skydiving, maybe we should get helmet cams. You know, for recon and stuff. The trick would be figuring out how to use the video streams..."

Cam's attention was clearly chasing its muse.

"... Parachutes and skydiving gear's going to require some training, but how hard can that be?"

Peter said, "Getting good cameras shouldn't be a problem. I'll hit up Holo with some system specs for compositing whatever imagery we can get. I was thinking of doing that anyway for HUD visors."

"Sounds boring, to be honest. You said 'visors'. Why would you need more than one visor?"

"In case one tactical coordinator goes down, I'd want the system to failover to someone else on the team. What about transportation? Isn't that what you usually work on?"

"Since you've volunteered for command post—"

"I haven't."

"Like I was saying, we might want you to hold back or even hole up."

"That sounds too much like being a sitting duck."

"It's not like anyone can outrun radio comms."

"The ducks are getting louder, Cam."

"I'm still working on a real Back to the Future hoverboard. If you want to get in on the early testing, that'd be cool."

"Quack."

"Yeah, I was thinking gyro-stabilization too!"

Watching Cam rush off to the bowels of the Workshop, Peter was consoled by the fact that he wasn't half as hyper-focused on his projects. Obviously, he'd know if he went off the deep end like that.


Friday evening, October 21,
Bad Seeds Table, Crystal Hall.

Peter had barely sat down with his tray of food when his personal assistant beeped at him. On the screen was the message he'd been expecting.

Hey, Sport, Where you at? We could use a little help with the trays. --Dad

Bad Seeds table. Do you want to come up, or me to come down?

You're interacting with people? I'm coming up! --Mom

Gideon was making a show of disinterest, mostly because he had the inside track. He also had a good idea why his roommate was pinching the bridge of his nose like an oncoming headache. Tyler, on the other hand?

"Whoah! Someone's accusing us of being people! This I've got to see."

"First, I've got to find them. Hey, Twitch. Guard my dinner?"

"What's in it for me?"

"Twenty bucks, and you can hex anyone trying to steal from my tray."

"But no one was going to do that anyway!"

"Twenty bucks for your time and attention is still twenty bucks toward a certain fair coming up."

"Done!"


Ground Floor, Crystal Hall.

He should've known that Max would've already caught up with his parents, even if he was supposed to no longer be working for them. Then again, personal/professional boundaries were pretty much an alien concept to the big dude.

"... doing pretty good in Biology. If Peter's going to be out all weekend, I'll work up this week's lab exercise and send it over for wordsmithing."

And if Mom wanted to know his grades, she could do what normal parents did and hack the Admin server.

"That'd be wonderful! Why aren't you eating with Peter?"

"I've got all my homies in Twain down here. That, and the anime club isn't formal enough for assigned seating."

"Mom, we've extended invites, but there aren't that many new students related to supervillains."

"Oh?"

"And that's my cue to exit stage left! Nice t'meet you and your husband again, Mrs. Raiford!"

"The same, Max," Molly replied. She took her men in tow to the food line. "Food now, explanations later."

"There's got to be a few legacies from the bad old days," Molly said. "Do I really want chopped liver when I know I'm going to be raiding the ice cream machine? Hm. Might as well."

Peter tried not to dwell on the more revolting mysteries of "eating for two."

"AJ's mom is The Witch Queen. Didn't you do some work for her operation?"

"Victoria? Of course! Everyone who wants to stay in business needs secured personnel records and hardened financial records storage. We must have still been in D.C. at the time. Any others?"

"That's our lone freshman. Twitch – Tek Witch or Michelle – is in the Junior High Program. She's one of us, by the way, but she loves making it look like magic."

"That's it? Those ribs look good, don't they?"

"It's kind of a sore point, but the White Lady's successor got outed a few weeks ago, and we still look like idiots over that. And, the Green Cross all but outed her daughter on national TV. Can't imagine what it's like to be her."

"You know, if that bitch had her way, we'd all be dead. Could you hand me one of those cupcakes?"

"Sure."

"Thank you. However, you just stretched your arm beyond what a fitted sleeve should allow to show. Game over, dear. People like that, and certain family members, are just that petty."


Bad Seeds Table, Crystal Hall.

"I saved your dinner, just like you — Oh, wow! Your Mom is really really pregnant! When's she due? Are you getting a baby brother or is she a baby sister? Is it okay if I, um..."

Peter pulled a fresh twenty from his wallet to pay their most excitable Seed.

"Yes, she is. Sunday. A sister. And, you'll have to ask her."

Somehow, Twitch's eyes widened even more.

"Can I? Please? I'll be real careful!"

Molly smiled. "Let me sit down first!" Then she carefully guided Twitch's hand to a good spot to feel a kick or two.

"Wow. Karma's going to be so jealous! Thanks! It doesn't hurt does it?"

"It can, Michelle, is it?" Molly asked. At a joyful nod – a real adult paying attention! – she continued. "Michelle, I have to be honest with you. Childbirth can be very painful, but I wouldn't give up my children for the world. Even if my firstborn had a bad habit of head butts." She tucked in, seemingly innocent to her son's mortification.

"Mo-om!"

Butch just said, "Grin and bear it, Pete. It comes with the territory."

Sister Secret asked, "Doesn't pregnancy get in the way of certain kinds of jobs?"

"Ideally, it's a matter of planning for your future. Build up a grubstake, then choose a time when you can back off from physical conflict and lean into prenatal care. You may think your body can tank a gut punch, and maybe you get lucky. Once. If the first doesn't, the next time might still end in tears. Boys, you don't get let off the hook either. Get yourself killed or disabled, and who's going to look out for your family?"

AJ muttered something to the effect of "Most people have to watch out for my family."

"Not to mention their employees. Butch and I have always been more of a Mom and Pop business, but we should've hired a security team for Peter much sooner than we did. Something to keep in mind, whatever business you get into."

Three demolished trays and some vague comments about family bonding time and Arkhamite traditions later, the three retired to Peter's dorm room to grab a few things and go.


Room 241, Emerson Cottage.

While Peter pulled out his overnight bag to swap some items in or out, Molly reminded him, "Don't forget your boots, dear."

"Mom, I don't plan on passing out!"

"Neither did your father, who had, and I quote: seen plenty of natural births. Out cold as soon as my water broke. Besides, the rule is to come as you are! Come to think of it, does your roommate know about your shifting? You almost gave me a heart attack seeing you with feet for the first time!"

"Gideon doesn't give a damn what anyone looks like before he's had a proper shave and a civilized morning repast."

"That... tracks. Do you need a trim? Your cousin Elom should be there tomorrow."

"We have a farrier on campus. Also, Ms. Imp gives out tips for horn and scale care."

"You've been practicing? Good."

"It's more like Sensei Tolman enjoys coming up with new things for my body to adapt to. Growing scales was a surprise."

Besides, he was used to traveling with a tin of carnauba paste wax already.


Raiford House, Arkham, NH.

For the record, it is one Hell of a lot different when it's your own Mom, sweat-soaked and red-faced in pain, screaming at the top of her lungs what she was going to do to your father in detail, with hand gestures, for doing this to her. Again. The post-birth traditional ritual was merely bloody and macabre in comparison. Once everyone was cleaned up and calmed down, the scene was almost small-town New England normal.

Almost.

The next thing a dazed Peter knew, he was holding a bundle of newborn Baby Sister.

"Now it's your turn for the naming, Pete."

Thanks, Dad. How was he going to come up with a name? He had enough trouble naming subroutines and objects. What if she woke up, looked at him, and started screaming? That would be just about right.

Instead, she woke and looked up at her future protector, pawn, and sometimes rock, with eyes a pale amethyst that could see through to forever. Then she held out to him the slightest slip of a flower in case the rocks were in Peter's head. He, for once, graciously accepted, never suspecting how much a part of his life that would become.

"Violetta. Her name's Violetta."


3rd period, Monday, October 24,
Biology I, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy.

Peter had barely gotten to his seat when Max greeted him, "Hey! Thanks for getting back to me on the lab write-up! How'd it go?"

"Well. It went really well. No complications. Got to catch up with all sorts of relatives I don't relate to. Learned lots of new phrases to never repeat on pain of death."

"So, you're now the proud big brother to a baby brother, sister, litter of puppies?"

"Her name's Violetta. She is not a puppy."

"Just checking! Um... Those aren't your usual boots."

"We ran late getting back."

"And the horns?"

"She thinks they're awesome."

Max stoically refrained from naming any other members of that fan club.

"I can change shoes later. I'll be black and blue after BMA anyway."


6th period, BMA, Laird Hall.

Maybe, just maybe, the Monday back from a post-Parents Day road trip wasn't the best for practicing kicks and blocks in class. Then again, students didn't have a vote in such things. Practicing with Kent, Puck, or Cathy usually went well since they weren't insanely stronger. However, the class also included high-end exemplars.

Lesley York, Faolass, was one such brick. Rated as an Exemplar-4, she had the strength of a small team of weightlifters. Not only that, but she was that much faster than a normal person. However, GSD had left her with digitigrade legs, like an anthropomorphic wolf. Front kicks without hurting her toes or gouging chunks out of her partner were an exercise in frustration. Her side kicks were spread out along longer tarsals, but that only made for bigger bruises when Peter managed to block her kicks. The very worst part was that he'd partnered with her enough times to know that she didn't want to hurt anyone who hadn't hurt her first.

Normally, the odds of Peter hurting her without a weapon were just shy of nonexistent. Normal wasn't a setting that Sensei Tolman was striving for.

"Peter, did I say that you were to use powers during this exercise?"

"No, Sensei."

"'No' is correct. You are to practice kicks with and without your hooves, to the extent you are able."

Faolass asked, "Wouldn't that be like kicking with shoes on?"

"Let's find out. Hajime!"

Now that he was in a corner, Peter's feet almost shifted to caprine hocks and hooves on their own. Other students sparring slowed down at the same time.

So that's how it was going to be today?

Peter had been practicing his kicks with human feet and human balls of the foot. Trying to pull nonexistent toes up for a front kick was just not happening. At least Lesley had similar structures!

She quietly said to him, "Peter, go with your instincts. Trust me on this."

For a baseline human, it was like trying to deliberately stub your own middle toes. He still missed.

Lesley yelped in pain.

"What? What happened?" Peter asked.

"Caught my wrist. Not broken, but give me a minute. That was a right good kick."

After skills practice, Peter's first sparring match put him against Puckwidget. Balancing slightly more skill against Puck's precognition and luck only won him one of the three sparring rounds. However, as far as both were concerned, it could have been much worse. The two Emersonsofbitches shook hands and returned to their places on the mat.


Friday evening, Parents Day Weekend,
Emerson Cottage, Whateley Academy.

It was Official. How does it all work, when after weeks of worrying about and kind of sort of missing someone, your brain short-circuits the moment they show back up your life? It doesn't. Therefore, Peter Raiford's life makes no sense whatsoever. The food at Le Bistro had been great, everything it was built up to be. That could only mean that Max and Mom and Dad probably had something to do with it too.

Benjamin, damn him, clearly only saw him as a friend. Peter still wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Okay. He could have gone without Gideon's comment about how he looked like he must've enjoyed his night.


Saturday morning.

Somehow, breakfast with the 'rents and Max and Benjamin was even more awkward than last night's dinner. Peter almost forgot to borrow Benjamin's virtual personal assistant to transfer data to the upgraded model he'd been working on since the beginning of September. There was a huge risk that Benjamin's sensory scrambling abilities would nuke the upgrades as thoroughly as they did standard electronic sensors and processors. But, if the gear held up, that had to be worth an 'A'.

All too soon, Peter and his parents had to leave for Arkham. That was okay since his grandparents were looking after Violetta. But, by the time he'd be back to Whateley, Benjamin would already be gone. Not that he should care, but it wasn't optimal, either. Too many places to see, people to do, or something like that.


Monday morning, November 14, 2016,
Morning Tai Chi Chuan, Laird Hall.

Peter wondered if the worst part of fixing a broken habit was the work involved or having to admit to slacking off. Either way, he would be finding out soon enough. Sifu Wong acknowledged his arrival by walking him over to a spot on the mats that wasn't being taken up by the regulars. Through the pre-breakfast period, she occasionally stopped him to adjust his stance or hand and feet positions, no more or less than the others.

After the session was over, Sifu Wong called Peter over.

"How has your class with Sensei Tolman been going?"

Unexpected. Then again, they were colleagues, and the question didn't sound malicious.

"Going well, or I hope it is."

"You can only hope?"

"Most of the individual skills are coming along, but I can't say I've improved more than anyone else. But, I think working on what I'm learning is more important than worrying about what everyone else can already do."

"And so, the reason you've returned to my class?"

"It's, um, more selfish than that."

Sifu Wong Ah Lam favored him with an out-with-it-already expression.

"After everything on Parents Day, if I miss breakfast, Max will rat me out to Benjamin, who'll tell my mother all about it, if he doesn't drop in to do something about it himself. When I was taking Tai Chi Chuan last year, I always followed up by going to breakfast. So... Sounds dumb, doesn't it."

"I wouldn't call one good habit reinforcing other positive actions dumb. Be clear with yourself as to your reasons; the rest will work their way out."

"Thank you, Sifu."

"You have picked up some odd habits over the summer, but we can work on that. Now, go get cleaned up for breakfast."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Wong Ah Lam had a feeling this wouldn't be the last she heard of whoever 'Benjamin' was. It wouldn't be the strangest thing that could happen at Whateley, would it?


Early Saturday afternoon, November 19, 2016,
Whateley Weapons Fair, The Whateley Workshop.

The earliest part of the afternoon had gone swimmingly. Too early for the Weapons Fair curse to explode; it was the perfect time to get Twitch in and out past sleazes like Jack-N-Box. Nikita, a senior who should know better, but also an Amazon, looked for a moment like she'd object to a male accompanying Twitch on the way out of the venue. The moment Twitch was distracted, Icejack returned glare for glacial glare and tapped his Bad Seed lapel pin.

Don't even think it.

Maybe if he didn't now have Violetta to look out for... No. The entire point of the Bad Seeds and Whateley was for people to "leave the kids out of your bullshit". The Amazons might be the Vindictive Dyke Fight Club for all he cared, but he knew some experts in the art of payback.

"Peter? Is something wrong?"

"Just kicking myself for not asking where you need to be after the Fair."

"I was thinking maybe it would be fun to watch anime in the Wondercute clubhouse. But, where it is is supposed to be a secret!"

"How about I walk you to Dickinson? That way, you can drop off any goodies, and your clubhouse stays safe."

"Okay!"


Bad Seeds Clubhouse.

As it would happen, Esquire was hanging out in the clubhouse when Icejack stopped by. So much for discretely hiding out from the wide world of idiocy.

"Spill. Why did you activate your comm line and leave it open? Other than to tell us exactly where you were going?"

"Fucking Nikita looked like she was going to call the Worn Wrench on me for being seen with Twitch. That, or she's got advanced devisor senioritis."

"Worn Wrench? Don't you mean the Amazons?"

"Don't let your principal be separated from you, no matter the pretext. If that succeeds, watch your six until you've verified you're in the clear."

Gideon shook his head. "Okay, okay. Have it your way. I'm not going to ask. But no, we're not handing over our most vulnerable members to be picked at by harpies. Is the venue still standing?"

"So far. I still have some vendors to check out on my own. Maybe pick up one of Cyber Swarm's bugs to see how he's handling control channels. After that, no promises."

Gideon said, "Avoiding such fire sales is just one more reason I still have all my original fingers. You should consider it." Then he went back to whatever he was planning. Hopefully, it was only homework planning, since his efforts to recruit Glyph had gone ever so well.

I wonder if Cherry Bomb still has some of those mini glitter bombs?


Whateley Weapons Fair.

Back at the Fair, Peter psyched himself back into what he liked to think was a 'professional buyer' mode: not too interested in the wares for sale, but not dismissive either. Hardly anyone noticed: the Workshop crowd wasn't known for picking up subtle cues like that. In any case, he wandered about, hands in pockets, taking note of those offering or working on something interesting.

The first return stop was sure to be the most expensive: "Newton's Gravitic Devices". The 'c' in 'devices' was underlined three times. One can't imagine why. To be honest, there weren't many devices to choose from. Mostly, they varied as small, medium, or large.

"See anything you like," asked the trim, brown-haired guy seated behind the table."

"That depends. I'm assuming the different sizes are based on the power reserves?"

"Power storage is always the biggest challenge, yes. But, passenger and cargo weight are the greatest drain. More weight, higher elevation or speed, shorter flight times."

Peter had done some of his homework. He also knew a thing or two about drones.

"And the higher the power density, the deadlier the malfunction."

Two folks who'd drifted toward the booth suddenly lost interest.

"Are you here to look, or just scuttle my sales, er...?" Newton trailed off in hopes of getting a name.

"Peter Raiford. Icejack. How many sales have you made so far?"

"None. You'd think people would realize that I have to buy materials and components. By the way, I'm Gordon Campbell."

"Good to meet you. Speaking of components, how customizable are your flight belts? I don't know about anyone else, but I'd be happier with something more like a full-body climbing harness than a regular belt."

"You do know that while you're within the belt's antigrav field, you're not going to slip out one way or another? Also, don't you think that would look strange with a supersuit?"

Someone hadn't watched last year's Fall Combat Final.

Peter just shook his head and said, "If I and my teammates like how your gear works, considering the price, I may be looking to send one or two folks your way. Anchoring points are a plus. Being able to use the antigrav as a backup for a climbing or flight accident is a bigger plus."

"How would that even work?"

"Compare the rate of descent to a critical downward value?"

"I'd planned to ask whether you were looking for speed, maneuverability, or endurance," said Gordon. "But I could work in a barometric altimeter."

"Which I bet won't work well with an aerokinetic."

"Maybe not."

Peter followed up by asking, "Why not use an inertial positioning system? Less chance of it being confused by inverted flight."

"I could do that. But, Thanksgiving is next week. And, I'm working as a T.A. for Electronics and have my own projects coming due. I could get something together by ... the week after next?" Gordon said, hopefully.

"For a total cost of?"

The momentary hope evaporated.

"For a medium-carry belt, maybe twenty minutes top flight time, with extra straps and the new failsafe, I'd have to charge five grand."

"Okay."

"I mean, I understand how much that is. But, shaving off the flight time makes it hard to get in enough practice."

"Got it. So, half now and half on delivery?"

"Hang on a minute. Just let me," Gordon looked confused. "Wait. What?"

"Gordon? Do you know how much it costs for a week or two of hospitalization, in traction, followed by months of physical and mental therapy?"

"No. But you don't have to threaten me like that!"

Peter almost laughed. Hurray for the Bad Seed Experience™.

"There's a reason half the sophomore class calls me 'Crash'. I've got this. I just need to know where to send the deposit."

There had to be a place where he could quietly go bang his head on a wall or two. Now to find the young girl, probably a freshman, who was supposedly working in wearable tech. If time and luck allow, maybe he could grab a couple of PFGs to part out for projectors? Worth a shot!

Toolbox.

Later, Kent would admit that he wasn't sure whether the chaos started with Stark ranting about something unfair people unfairly out to get him, or Petshop's shrieking about someone scaring her babies. Either one would suffice. He was entirely sure that the rush for the doors meant that the annual fair was now Closed For Business. What should he do now, with all the confusion?

He only jumped a couple of inches when someone grabbed his shoulders from behind.

"Your toolbox. Can you pack things that aren't yours?"

"Um..."

Why was Peter asking?

"Yeah. But I don't—"

Peter turned him to face more to the right.

"See the dark-haired girl over there? The one with all the nice toys? She's packing low-grade explosives and other stuff. Help her pack up and clear out before things get worse."

"You mean Cherry Bomb?"

"Good man. Go!"

Just in case there was a God, Kent prayed that Peter didn't notice how red his face and ears must be right about now.

Icejack.

Explosives being dealt with, Peter looked around for the closest person with a deer-in-the-headlights stare. One such freshman had a table full of cosmetics and toiletries set out. Weren't some of those things flammable? Did he want to find out in an enclosed space? He headed over.

"Do you need help packing? Everything has to be out of here before Security shows up."

"What? I thought all that was taken care of."

"Not anymore."

"Oh. Oh, crap!" The kid pulled a couple of tote boxes from behind his chair and waved in the general direction of what might have been shampoo bottles, degreaser, maybe both. "This stuff can just go in a box. I'll take care of the things that don't mix."


Monday morning, November 21, 2016,
Poe Cottage.

After breakfast, Kent Holloway rushed back to the cottage to put on his clean (Clean, cleanest? This one smelled okay.) school uniform. For some reason, the school had scheduled a freshmen-only Assembly, so it could be something Important. It didn't help his nerves any that all morning, the sophomores would just look at the freshmen and shake their heads. Some of the upperclassman students looked more amused than they should. Even the sky was overcast. Did the entire world know something he didn't?

As with all the other school assemblies, the students were led in and seated by cottage. So far, so normal.

What wasn't so normal was the Headmaster's history lesson. Kent had heard about the Fools' Fight and the Fullerton Incident. He hadn't heard that the previous Headmistress, Dr. Carson, had been a negotiator between the MCO, DPA, and Whateley Academy for all the aftermath. He could even believe that Mr. Turner was a retired superhero, but Dr. Mazarin really was a supervillain named 'Le Compte'? That was crazy!

A couple of other items stood out. Why on Earth did everyone need to have their MID cards reissued? Later, he'd hear about the many students who had had to be quietly sneaked onto campus for safety or security reasons. Then again, no one on the base had ever said the MCO was trustworthy... Going by the way so many of the others had gone quiet, MIDs must mean something different to some folks. Maybe it was like coming out to your parents, except they'd be outed as mutants to the world? Kent couldn't complain either way. Other than Dr. Barton, there wasn't anyone he knew that was even cleared for a discussion on why he had a blue-bordered MMID in his wallet.

At least this had been good for skipping English class.


After BMA.

It had taken him all through lunch and into the next class, but Kent needed to talk to someone who'd know something about MIDs and secrets. What was the worst that could happen? Well, a lot of things, but Icejack didn't have lethal offensive powers.

Kent jogged to catch up with Icejack. "Er, excuse me. Can we talk?"

Peter's shoulders stiffened. After several long seconds he relaxed and said, "I've got to get to Spanish, but, sure."

Outside the building, Peter asked, "What's the problem? Worried about getting a MID?"

"I, er, actually have one already," Kent said.

"So? They issue a new one that's been updated from your powers testing results. No problem."

"How? I mean, I heard that your parents are, um..."

Peter sighed and said, "The word is 'supervillain'. But, they're not exactly Dr. Diabolik and the Witch Queen. Much less disturbing. So?"

"How do they handle it with there being stuff in their records they don't want to – or can't – talk about?"

"Aren't you kind of young for carrying dire super-secrets?"

Kent shot back, "Hey! I'm fourteen! You're not so old yourself! When did you get yours, huh?"

"Fourteen. Airlines kind of insist on seeing a MID with the boarding pass. They aren't so picky about what's on it unless you're a danger to the flight."

"Oh. So they don't go digging into everything?"

Because that would be bad.

"Unless there's an active warrant issued by a judge who's willing to risk a superpowered fight at an airport with hundreds of civilians at risk, Hell no. That's with just a regular MID. When it comes to official government-issued MIDs, even the MCO backs the fuck off."

"Really?"

"I've seen it happen. Someone I know has one of those. The ticket agent scans the passport, asks for additional ID, scans that, turns pale, and wishes him a very safe and uneventful trip."

"Oh."

Peter's got to be pulling my leg.

"Trust me. As long as you aren't being a jerk to people and have witnesses around, you're good to go."

"Um, thanks."

"No problem. See you later!"

As if that was going to happen. How would a regular person go about even meeting people like that? It just wasn't fair. Might as well sign up and be done with it.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016,
The Workshop, Whateley Academy.

From the looks of it, Gordon 'Newton' Campbell's workspace was one of the more spacious caverns making up the underground Workshop complex. The Gearheads had their dedicated portal to shared tracks on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Gun Bunnies could always test their newest weapons out on Range 4. Most of the other specialty shops shared equipment and workspaces. Peter's assigned cubbyhole was on the small end, but he only needed enough server space and bandwidth to stretch his virtual muscles.

"There you are! Thanks for coming. I gotta admit I wasn't sure I was going to get this done before Finals."

"No problem. So, what've you got for me?"

"Like I promised, I've got a medium-carry belt with tri-axial inertial tracking. Included are two rechargeable, fullerene-matrix batteries. Differing energy storage tech changes flight duration, top speed, carrying capacity, and – very importantly – your center of gravity."

"That's an issue for maneuverability, right?"

"It's an issue for maneuvering at all. My antigrav projection system is designed to instantiate a null-g or negative-g ellipsoid around your body, far enough away to allow for PFG use. Changing your body posture offsets your center of gravity more or less from the field's centroid. It also redirects the thrust axis. The more those things change, the more torque is applied.

"If you're not careful and fully in control, the faster you'll spin out and the harder you'll crash."

This is why Peter had no intention of just handing this thing out.

"There wouldn't happen to be a user's manual, would there?"

"Why?" Gordon looked genuinely confused by the idea. "If the belt malfunctions or needs repair, you can always bring it back to me."

"Maybe more of an operator's manual, then?"

"All you need to do is practice, go slow to get used to the handling, and you're set."

Maybe this wasn't his best idea?

"Okay, then. What about incorporating additional thrusters?"

Gordon's slow reply was, "If you're thinking about a back-mounted jet unit..."

Because strapping one to your chest might do bad things to the lower anatomy?

"... You could, but you'll have a constantly-changing weight. Invest in fireproof trousers. Too many folks forget that until they end up getting burned. Another piece of free advice?"

"Sure."

"Please don't make Combat Finals your first, or even twenty-first, test drive."

"I'll keep that in mind," Peter said. He wired the rest of the payment to Newton before he left. In the absence of more documentation than "I'm sure you'll work it out," it was best to stay on the inventor's good side for as long as possible.


Tuesday afternoon, December 13, 2016,
Combat final: Icejack versus Perfecto, Arena 99.

Andy McGillicudy's (locally known as "Roar, the morning voice of WARS radio!") voice boomed out over the stadium PA system.

"Annnnnd our next match-up is: Icejack. Perfecto. Gentlemen, you have ten minutes to report to Arena 99. Get ready or get demolished!"

Code name: Icejack
Ratings: GA-2, SH-1, Martial Arts - Basic
Techniques: Antisocial engineering, strategic disengagement, Cobra 420 linear induction pistol (9-shot), Code Monkey.
Weak vs. Normal Human Weakness.
Backup / Team Affiation: My parents' lawyers. My sponsors' lawyers. Team 6502.

The second MID also bore a dull orange background most familiar to Whateley's students. However, where Icejack's MID had a governmental version of the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, Perfecto's MID bore a stylized American eagle.

Code name: Perfecto
Ratings: EX 3, ES 2 (Paragon), Martial Arts - Basic
Techniques: Enhanced speed, strength, endurance. Mixed Martial Arts. Anything you can do, I can do better.
Weak vs. Sweet dark chocolate.
Backup / Team Affiation: None

Icejack.

Peter Raiford didn't bother stifling his sigh at the blatant nerd v. jock matchup. He shifted his street gear between various pockets, planning on leaving his jacket in one of the lockers outside the Arena. He grabbed a cheap facemask from his utility belt and wrote on it with a black Sharpie:

"Kiss me I'm Contagious"

A Volcom ball cap finished the "ask me if I care" look. A year ago, he'd tried to look more the part of a prospective super-something. The whole school watched Crash's Train Wreck. Since then, he'd retaken his Survival class with a vengeance. Thus, his choice of cap, mask, and a touch of UV-scrambling makeup: facial recognition software wouldn't work well against him. He'd also spent the past summer with people who routinely went on the kind of delivery jobs this term's scenarios were based on. He could practically hear Benjamin saying that nobody looks for ordinary when interesting is walking around.

No self-awareness at that address.

Cam looked over and shook his head. "I think you've got the antisocial part down pat."

Icejack told him and the others sitting in the arena bleachers with him, "Back in a few."


Pre-scenario briefing.

Icejack arrived at the staging area, close to the Arena entrance, ahead of his opponent. The folks running the game wouldn't start the briefing until Perfecto arrived for the show. Best to take advantage of their sportsmanship if he could.

"What radio channels are you using for emergency response? Police, fire, MCO, minimum. Also, encryption packages."

Technician Chuck Cunningham (if the name tag could be trusted) looked up from his clipboard.

"Why should we tell you?"

"Because it's your job to simulate a scenario that requires those things outside the school. It's my job to know such things before going out on a gig. Don't understand that? Well then, I'm out and it will be your team pinned with the 'F' for being fuckups."."

"Who do you think you are?"

"I'm Icejack. Look me up."


Perfecto.

Rodrigo Lesters, as always, arrived on time and impeccably dressed. Impressions always mattered. Unlike the schlub from down the hall, he wore a cobalt blue half-cowl that complemented the blue, brown, and gold supersuit he'd updated for the current season. Girls swooned over the heroic sheen of sweat the headgear left in his naturally wavy dark hair when he took it off.

Another nice thing about supersuits is how easily they could be cleaned up after wiping the floor with some loser. This Raiford wasn't a fighter, but he always could have been paired with someone who was.


Icejack and Perfecto were ushered into a bare storefront that opened onto the Arena. A sim tech choked down a swig of soda and waved them over to his second-hand office desk. Talk about a crappy break room. Icejack let Perfecto take the lead. Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool...

"Walker, C." (according to the name tape on his jumpsuit) pushed a business card across the desk to Perfecto.

"Good luck finding it."

Perfecto took the card and rolled his eyes at something. Maybe too much cheesy snack dust from the desk stuck to it? He tossed off an asinine "Later, losers," he said on the way out the door.

Peter approached Walker and put his hand out for the next card.

"When you see it you'll know."

"Thanks!"

Cryptic much? Or was he meant to solve some puzzle with that clue? Combat finals could get weird that way.

Peter examined both sides of the clean business card he'd been handed. The ink was fresh enough for a couple of letters to still be glossy. Too glossy? Still, it was good enough for government work. He slipped it into a card scanner on his belt, tapping out a few commands before putting the ejected card in his shirt pocket for safekeeping.


Icejack.

Outside the starting space dubiously calling itself "La Farmacia", Peter scanned the staged townscape for the usual unusual bits. No shouts and scuffles, so Perfecto must be playing it cool to avoid drawing attention to himself. "Main Street" featured several shops and businesses guaranteed to distract a gadgeteer or devisor for the full fifteen minutes they were allotted.

"Map"

Icejack tossed a surveillance microdrone into the air and waited for telemetry to go green on his augmented reality HUD. Originally a bootleg of one of Cyber Swarm's designs, it should be good for up to ten minutes of flight. However, it shouldn't take more than five to quickstep his way to the address he'd been given. And that left him time to duck into a watch repair storefront.

Sitting inside, away from the windows, Peter borrowed a jeweler's loupe, tweezers, and dental tools. A high-intensity penlight and his cell phone camera completed the improvised microscope. It took him a few minutes to find whatever "it" was.

He pulled a chip of glossy celluloid from the business card.

"Hm."


Five blocks away, at Streit's Barbershop.

The designers had gone all out on the yellowed walls, aging posters, and such. Rodrigo could say that much for them. Otherwise, like the overweight Anglos getting their hair clipped in the same style they wore back when they played football, the place was just another cliche. Naming the barbers "Madrina" and "Roscoe"? Whatever. Hand out some cigars and leather chaps; why don't they?

Perfecto walked up to the barber working the till and held out the business card, saying, "I'm here for the package."

"What kind of package were you supposed to get? You know that we cut hair here?"

"Para la farmacia."

"Do tell. Gentlemen? Are either of you familiar with la farmacia?"


Main Street, Outside Gepetto's Watch Sales and Repair.

"Leaving so soon? Or did you forget something?"

Well, if it isn't Officer Friendly.

"No. Just looking. A bit dusty..."

Icejack brought his hands back in front of him, blowing a cloud of dust from his hands. Wiping them together seemed to get the rest off.

The police officer, actually one of the Arena's robotic units, coughed as if he were worried about inhaling something more harmful than dust. Then he said, "If that's true, then you won't mind coming with me while I take a look around."

"Not a problem. Who knows, maybe you'll find something your age."

"Hah! After you, bucko."

Icejack didn't hurry. He either had time or didn't.


Perfecto, still at Streit's Barbershop.

As an exemplar-three, Rodrigo was strong and proud of it! The ladies didn't mind the muscles at all. But, these guys looked like they liked muscles a bit too much. 'Roided out', as the public school kids would say. Movie prop badges or not, the two were between him and the perfect exit. Luckily, his esper ability could give him his best fighting chance before any two baselines could think of a way to stop him.

He really should have worried about the barbers as well. Those eagle-globe-anchor tattoos on their biceps were an interesting artistic detail but what of them?


Icejack, back at Gepetto's Watch Sales and Repair.

Peter breathed a sigh of relief when a new green light flashed in his AR view. He'd been skeptical of the ad copy in Sin d'Rome's catalog, but the fine print had inspired better uses for the specialized nanites. After all, cell phones and security drones weren't the only transmitters needing to be hijacked. And, when it came to man-in-the-middle attacks, he was pretty good himself.

First test!

"You are getting very sleepy, officer. Why don't you try telling me your name and designation as you find yourself relaxing further?"


Arena 99 Control Room.

The technician monitoring the watch store scene turned his station off, then on, before worrying. In theory, the kids knew better than to attack the simulation itself. In practice, one had doubts. But, whatever the kid just did, he had no joy getting his remote equipment back online.

"Gunny? One of our ANTs just dropped out! What now... It's back again? Huh."

"Which unit was it, son?"

"Oh-thirty-seven. I sent it to intercept Icejack and give Perfecto a chance to double back. But, now, they're just talking."

"You put an automated unit on a gadgeteer named ICE-jack?"

"The kid's ranked at number two-eleven in his class! It didn't look like he was doing much of anything in that watch repair mockup, so I thought we could up the stakes."

"Does the phrase Intrusion Counter-measure Equipment ring a bell?"

"Yes, Gunny, it does. But that's just a cyberpunk trope."

"Do you think our Workshop students care that it's just a trope? I promise you their instructors don't."

"Should I shut the unit down?"

"No. A Syndicate courier should know better than leaving any permanent traces. When the match is over, isolate it, clean it up, and then run diagnostics. Anything hinky, we deduct from his score."

"What would an actual Syndicate operation do?"

"Deduct the heat from somewhere more up-close and painful."


Icejack.

While they stayed on live video, there wasn't much sense in blocking hardware-level telemetry. Peter adjusted the firewall while "Officer Krupke" reported to his new Chief.

"Sir! I'm getting reports of a disturbance at Streit's Barbershop, over in Boy's Town. Orders?"

"Which units are being dispatched?"

"067 and 099 are on-site. They've called for backup."

"Very well. Proceed with caution. Keep me informed."

"Yes, sir!"

With that, the unit rushed out of the shop. Now that Peter thought of it, the cop vaguely reminded him of another officer he knew. Just as well that Krupke wasn't real and Officer Keeling was far away.

Speaking of which, Icejack still had his own package to deliver.


Offices of Magnum and Pi.

To be honest, Peter wasn't sure he wasn't overthinking things. If they had been given identical goals, then Perfecto should have intercepted him already. That, or the folks running this thing were letting them run out the clock.

Inside the fake office, the furnishings were worn and dingy, but that made sense for stage props at risk of being destroyed. The mousy-haired office manager/receptionist turned around at the sound of Icejack's entrance. Not Peter's type, but there was a reason female props were hard-light simulations. Ew.

She politely cleared her throat to gain the client's attention. "Can I help you, Mister...?"

"I'm just a messenger. Gabriel, if you want. Nobody, if you don't."

Peter handed her a heavy business card with an extra bit of sparkle on Streit's apostrophe.

"Nobody it is. Let me see if Mister Magnum is available. Please wait here."

Challenge and counter-challenge accepted.

"Sure thing."

The scattered magazines left for clients in the office's cramped waiting room looked older than those at his last dentist's office! Peter heard sirens in the distance, matching the simulated police dispatch traffic he'd been listening to. Not a time to get comfortable yet. At least Peter could watch for any inbound Emersonsofbitches from where he was.

None of that told him what Rodrigo had done. Next time, maybe he'd have to put a drone on his opponent. Paragons were supposed to be mistake-proof, at least against non-espers. Oh. Yeah. That was a little cruel.

After a couple of entertaining minutes, the woman returned.

"Please convey to Mr. Walker that his fees will be wired to him before close of business. By the way, Icejack, you won this round."

"Thank you, Miss Pi."

Probably should release Krupke while he was at it. No harm, no lingering nanites, no detention today.


Arena 99, Debriefing Room 1

Perfecto.

"Mister Lesters, before we remove the brick handcuffs, could you enlighten us as to what was going through your head?"

Rodrigo snapped, "I could tell I'd been sent into a trap. All the people were ANTs. How was I supposed to know that the two of them were masquerading as off-duty police?"

"You weren't. However, once you did know, running from questioning and resisting arrest were progressively worse ideas."


Icejack.

"What would you have done if Perfecto had stopped you and demanded your card? Why did you even make a copy?"

Peter raised an eyebrow. "A copy? I made two of them. The second card had the valid address of a business location on the other side of the arena. The first was Streit's, but with a modified address. That one was for in case I got jumped at the start. Other than that, I kept my mouth shut and followed directions."


Perfecto.

"What you should have done, once you realized that no one knew anything about your mission, was to return to your starting point for directions you could follow."

"Where do you people even come up with this?"

"It's from a classic article about miscommunications and following unclear commands, A Letter to Garcia."


Icejack.

"Why did you look for the microdot?"

"Aside from the hints both of us got at the start?" Peter explained, "A courier can't be assumed to know what their pickups and deliveries are! If everybody knows your business, it ain't your business no more. So, either the instructions were on the card, at the barbershop with the pickup, or someone's circus needs a new monkey."

"The instructions could have been somewhere else."

"My card scanner found no indications of steganography in use. Check your printer?"

Back in the stands, Cam slapped Peter on the back and said, "See? That's why we need you holding down command and control for the team!"

"Quack."


The End for Now

Read 5997 times Last modified on Saturday, 11 November 2023 14:20
null0trooper

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

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