Call the Thunder, Chapter 1

A Whateley Academy Story

Call the Thunder

By Joe Gunnarson and the Whateley Crew

Chapter 1:  Let’s Play a Game

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

Reverend Darren Englund entered the main control room of Arena 77 with trepidation.  Not since a couple nights after Halloween had he talked to, or attempted to make peace with the Whateley Gun Range Crew and the Group Crisis Simulation Team.  That instance had been a disaster and a half.  The result had been a near-miss with the Heavy Weapons Range Instructor, Erik Mahren, and only the timely intervention of Gunny Bardue and Staff Sergeant Wilson had interrupted a sudden, unexpected rendezvous with a magazine full of .45 caliber bullets that probably would have ripped him open, toughened body or not.  He had been torn between rage at the outburst, and guilt.  The attack on the demon had brought unintended consequences in the death of one of the Range instructors, Mahren’s fiancée.

Carson had not been pleased.

It was a bit of nervousness that he brought with him that was the bleeding edge between paranoia and self-preservation.  Gunny Bardue wanted to talk to him, something he’d refused to do since Cat McQuiston died and Mahren went self-destructive in the personality.  Now Mahren was gone and no one would tell him what had happened to the range safety lunatic of Whateley Academy.  Every night he imagined the cold burning rage he’d seen in the man’s eyes, and almost imagined a set of crosshairs caressing his image whenever he found himself alone in the quiet since the semi maniacal range instructor’s disappearance.  It was not a pleasant feeling to say the least.  Sobering was a better word, and when he’d cooled from the rush of righteous outrage at the demon’s impertinence he’d realized that his actions had made him a very cold-blooded enemy.

Carson had not been sympathetic, to say the least.

Now Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue had called him to Arena 77 to discuss the disposition of said range hand, whom he had been forbidden on pain of immediate termination to approach and vice-versa.  This was what brought him to the Arena to talk to the “ boss” of the range crews.  Or he was when Smythe wasn’t feeling the need to assert his official and unofficial authority amongst the gun monkeys.  He bitterly reflected on the fact that the range crews had been some of his most staunch supporters, and on more than one occasion backup, whenever the threats of monsters, demons and things best left buried in the history of Dunwich cropped up.  Now he couldn’t even get the lot of them to give him more than a dirty look or a dismissive snort.

The sixty-four year old black man named Oscar Bardue was settled into a chair at the control console for the Arena holographic emitters and ANTS bots when Englund walked in behind him.  The old Marine glanced over his shoulder and nodded to Englund neutrally and gestured to the chair next to him.  Bardue was simply plugging away at the computer program, setting in the variables for the upcoming exercise.  Englund waited patiently as the fit old man in the golf shirt and khaki slacks finished what he was doing.

“Reverend.”  Bardue said by way of greeting.

“Good evening Gunny,” Englund replied cautiously, “To what do I owe the meeting?”

“Bear with me for a minute while I get my daughter set up for her run.” Bardue turned and looked over the Arena area.  “All right Caitlin, prep time’s up.  The mission’s your standard shoot 'n scoot.  Could be norms, could be mutants, could be Dragonslayers.  Watch your ass and play it by the numbers.  You have been targeted for attack and the objective is survival by any means necessary.  This is a timed exercise to end when you are either terminated by enemy forces or the timer runs out, indicating an opening you can use to escape.”

Englund spoke when Bardue began powering up; looking over the holographic battleground seeking the person Bardue had been speaking to with the Arena P.A. system.  There wasn’t anyone visible in the odd collection of trees, scattered wooden and concrete buildings and rocks.  The ANTS robots powered up and immediately their holographic emitters kicked in, causing the skeletal robots to be sheathed in the image of an infantryman in full combat garb.  Each one carried weapons, some light, and some heavy.  “I wasn’t aware you had a daughter, Gunny.”

“God-Daughter actually.  She’s in my custody after her Parents had some unfortunate occurrences.”

“Mutant child?”

“She’s about as mutant as they come.”  Gunny punched in the codes and began to get the seeming soldiers moving in patrol formations.  Englund knew from experience that the ones visible were just the beginning.  More ANTS waited in the wings for deployment, and the fallen ones would retask for new missions if the combatants moved out of view.

“So why meet like this?  I know you’re busy.”  Englund was actuially curious.

“About eight or nine years go a young-blooded Lance Corporal wrote a tactical essay on the use of mutants in the military and the difficulties in combating them.  That paper was classified Eyes-Only for four years before it was released to the general public.  I’m sure you are familiar with it.  ’mutant Shock and the Modern Infantryman' I believe it was called.”

Englund nodded.  “I remember.  It was very tongue-in-cheek, but very informative.  I remember the Author’s name was given only as Jeckel.  It detailed the use of mutants, and the means of combating them by baseline forces.  I remember it because it took some of the more wild theories such as super-soldier programs and special military equipment like hand lasers and odd items like that and pitched them out the window.  Mostly due to cost evaluation and poor resource use.”

Bardue nodded.  “One of the core, underlying precepts of the paper though was the advent of ‘Mutant Shock.’  Rather akin to Tank Shock because to baseline troops at large, Mutants are terrifying.  Able to shrug off withering gunfire, some capable of burning tanks to slag, or tear them apart with bare hands.  Others are capable of blasting every neuron in all the brains of an entire platoon at a time, or twisting their minds to the mutant’s whim.  This is something we can’t teach the kids here.  We can’t teach them to fear because in their minds, they are to be feared on the battlefield, and by and large they are correct.”

“I know, I’ve read it, and I’ve seen first-hand what can come of baselines finding themselves at the mercy of one of us.  It’s the primary reason why the MCO continues to exist and be a thorn in all of our lives.” Englund was thoughtful, wondering where this conversation was going.  He also noticed that the ANTS patrols were doing their thing, and there was no sign of the mutant girl that Bardue claimed as his adoptive daughter.

“About a month and a half ago the kids got a taste of how bad things might get.  No I’m not here to lecture you, nor point fingers.  There’s been enough of that going around to last the next century.”  Bardue watched the arena closely while he spoke.  Englund breathed a sigh of relief that he wasn’t aware he’d been holding.  Bardue hadn’t called him to offer ultimatums.

The arena erupted into chaos all at once, and Englund almost missed it.  Four patrolling soldiers were torn apart by an explosion that erupted in the middle of their patrol route.  A split-second later he saw the girl in street clothing burning with eldritch flame as she moved burst into and tear the ten-man formation to shreds before darting back into the cover of the brush, which seemed to be alternately burning, freezing or warping everything it touched, like reality was coming uncorked around her.  Englund took a second to process the series of strikes and knife-slashes from an odd obsidian blade the girl was carrying.  He couldn’t make out details, but she was tall, athletic and well-developed, and her hair was long, black and reflective.  He idly looked to check the difficulty setting, an eight of ten.  Most of the students and all but one or two of the staff would have been hard-pressed against ten opponents at the level eight setting.

“Impressive.” Englund breathed.

“This ain’t shit.  But back to the original comments while I cut loose the next batch of ANTS.  A month ago, one of the unknown co-authors of that very tongue-in-cheek paper went missing here at Whateley Academy.  You and I knew him.  Erik Mahren never was the most stable sonofabitch in the world I will admit, but he got hit hard Halloween.  No one, not him, not you, and not even God, very likely could have predicted that sniper.  One shot to kill his fiancée, probably one of the most powerful manifestors and avatars I have ever seen, and he lost it.  He lost it to the point where Carson had to hold him down to keep him from continuing a suicidal rampage, and he only got worse.”

Englund didn’t respond, letting Bardue talk, watching as the new girl exploded from yet another batch of cover to engage another two of squads of ANTS in a running firefight that wound up with six of them down.  The girl was wielding a four-foot-long belt-fed gun for this one, letting rip and emptying the belt and running like a bat out of hell as the ANTS gave chase, trying to shoot the girl who zigged and zagged from cover to cover like an old pro.  She ran them straight into a building and went inside and shimmied up to the roof while the ANTS did a full tactical breach of the building, pouring inside.  Once they were almost all in she started stomping on something on the rooftop, and the rooms began exploding as claymore mines sent ball bearing caroming off everything within.  The girl was vicious, brutal, and she was leading the ANTS around by their noses.

“From there you know some things, you don’t know others.  You know me and Wilson stopped him from gunning your ass down from behind when you came to the range to talk.  You know Carson’s reaction to the whole thing was to tell you both you’d be terminated immediately if either approaches the other.  What you probably don’t know is just how bad Mahren was getting when I finally kicked him to powers testing to see if we couldn’t rekindle a fire under his ass.”

“How bad did he actually get?” Englund was curious, as none of the range crew ever let it show when someone managed to get to them.  Thus far Mahren was the exception.

“He doesn’t think I know about the drinking, or the nightmares, not all of which were born of Halloween.  Mahren was riding the short bus to a complete breakdown, and of all the range crew, he’s the youngest, most decorated, and quite bluntly the most combat-experienced in the ways that count.  Not a goddamned one of us want to see what he’s capable of pulling if he completely loses his cool.  I know what you’re thinking, Wilson’s a Mutant, and he’s more than capable of keeping Mahren under control.  Not a chance.  Wilson goes buggy trying to puzzle out what’s running through that man’s mind.  He is dangerous, unpredictable, and has a lot of nasty favors and strings he can pull to make someone miserable.”

“So what can I do about this?  The man disappeared, Gunny, and I’ve been wondering if I’m being lined up for a sniper shot.”

“No.  I can tell you you’re not.  Jesus, that girl’s evil.”

“I missed it.  What happened?”

“She took out the last of the standard opponents.  Hit the menu and run the Dragonslayer simulation.  Let’s kick the girl up a notch.”

Englund looked at Bardue a bit mystified.  The Dragonslayers had been the bogeyman of the mutant community the world over for a span of about three years running.  The rumors were rampant about who exactly the psychos were that were rumored to have tracked, attacked and killed somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen powerful mutants using military weapons and tactics between 1997 and 2000, and that was just the list for which there was some evidence of their activity.  Rumors from soldiers and a bootleg military video that circulated illegally gave life to the myth of the super-soldiers, or the MCO hit squad, or the Humans First! extermination team, or Army or Marine team tasked to murder mutants depending on which rumor being heard at the time.  In the intervening six years, the stories and rumors died somewhat, but occasionally a spectacular military-style killing of a mutant would occur to re-ignite speculation and rumor all over again.  Needless to say the Whateley Dragonslayer simulation was one of the most brutal and grueling simulation anyone could get stuck with solo.

“Just do it.” Bardue’s tone brooked no argument.  “Unless I miss my guess she can handle it.”

“Where’s the Menu for this one again?  It’s been almost two years since I’ve touched it.”

Bardue looked over at the console.  “Red-threat scenarios, next to that folder marked ‘Scorched Earth.’”

Englund nodded and threw the simulation program in, to see seven ANTS dart out of the chute away from where the girl was holed up and hiding.

“I’m not telling you all of this to make you afraid that Mahren’s some kind of all-powerful bogeyman coming for your blood, Reverend.  Far from it.  He’s not the bogeyman, but he is dangerous as hell if we let him loose simply because he is unpredictable.  He proved that Halloween Night and on several occasions backing up security, or you on one of your monster hunts.  When I tell you that I don’t know what Mahren has done since he left my command in the corps, and the only thing I’m for sure on is he’s done some work for M-SOC, or Mutant Special Operations Command in the Corps, it’s to enlighten you as to the next part of our dilemma, and how you are going to help me solve it.”

“I’m listening.”  Bardue had Englund’s undivided attention.

“When I sent Erik to powers testing he turned up as a mutant, but the markers were all wrong.  Heavy metals in the blood, including raw cobalt, which is toxic as shit I might add.  Not a single genetic marker matching any mutant trait, no psychic talent except a knack for picking all the wrong answers in the card test.  All in all he should have been dead if his blood work is any indication.  Now he destroyed a powerful magic item that got the magic monkeys into a tizzy, but it’s the side bits that on later analysis that are telling.  Mahren apparently has some kind of spirit clinging to him that’s been feeding him... something.  His knack for odd gear’s too omnidirectional to be natural.  He wasn’t told about the spirit, which seems to have dug in like a tick on a vein, and Mahren’s got no signs of any avatar traits whatsoever.”

“You’re talking about a possession.” Englund looked thoughtful again.

“Yes and no.  It turned Mahren into a mana sink according to the docs and the mages, and kept him alive to reach critical mass.  Which he did reach, I must add.  Erik Mahren literally exploded into a mystic fireball out on the hazard powers testing area.  He survived, but his body was reforged into something else.  He’s a mystic lightning rod, which brings me to Caitlin down there.”

Englund turned abruptly to see the girl get swarmed by four of the Ants, ducking and diving to get out of their line of fire, like she knew what was coming.  The ANTS ran one-by-one and two-by-two in a confusing non-pattern that from outside was obviously a distraction while three others sporting heavy weapons slipped into position.  Against most mutants the tactic would be confusing, overwhelming and in a word, devastating as it would set the mutant up for a shot by the rocket and machinegun-wielding heavy ANTS.  She turned the tables by grabbing an ANT that got too close and tearing it’s weapon and arm away from it’s body, lining up and firing directly into the heavy ANTS.  The launcher grenade killed two of them and she used the rifle to kill the other five on the run.

“That’s...  She knew.  She knew what they were doing.” Englund was amazed, as he’d seen a few mutant kids and one or two staff defeat this simulation, but they’d always done it by overpowering force and stealth.  Caitlin had done it through foreknowledge and skill.  “ That’s Mahren.  That’s not a little girl, that’s where Mahren’s been hiding.”

Bardue turned to him and nodded as he released more standard ANTS.  “ And now you know.  She goes by Caitlin Bardue now, and she’s got a slew of problems to go with the new package, the least of which is the change in balance and center of gravity that have been driving her insane.  Normally she’d be dropped in one of the cottages, but the cottage is getting crowded and she’s dangerously uncontrolled.”

“Why in the cottages?  Why’s she still here?”

“Fair question.  That spirit, that parasite thing that changed her is still with her, and insinuated to the point where separating them would probably kill her.  She still doesn’t know about it, and I know what her reaction would be to it.  I’d rather not have her die.  But what it’s done is turn her into a mystic super-slave, ripe for the picking by any mage, demon or weird fucking critter that can recognize her particular ’mutation.'  She’s here because if we leave her in the cold we may as well be cutting her throat ourselves.  Whateley does not abandon its own, no matter how deserving.”

“You want me to protect her?”

“No.  That task falls to other hands.  What I want you to do, Englund is to stay the hell away from her.  Don’t talk to her, don’t approach her.  She’s got a lot on her mind and I’m going to do my level fucking best to drown her in problem after problem, dilemma after dilemma, task after task.  She thrives under adversity, but I want her occupied.  I don’t want her dwelling on Halloween, or who may or may not have caused it.  So as far as you are concerned, she does not exist.  As far as she is concerned, you do not exist as much as myself, the range crews and Carson can manage.  So this means she will be ground into the dirt as hard as any student, she will get no special dispensations.  Combat finals starts tomorrow, and most children with life-altering circumstances or trauma are excused.  She won’t be.”

“That will be hard on her, especially with everything.” Englund gave Bardue a pleading look.  “ I don’t want to cause her any more grief.  If I see anyone targeting her about this... slave...” Englund spit out the word with extreme distaste, “ thing I will pass word to yourself or Carson.  Like you said.  Whateley protects it’s own.”

“And the rest?”

“I’ll stay clear of her.  I won’t put my nose into her business.”

Bardue smiled for the first time since Englund arrived.  “ Thank you Reverend.  I appreciate that.  It’ll let me concentrate on keeping her attention locked to where it needs to be and not on you.  If we get a hint that she starts getting a wild hair in your direction, you will be the first to know.  Make no mistake.  You cost me two of my crew, but I’ve had about as much blood spilled on this school’s grounds as I can stomach.  So you can relax, the specter of a mad marine with a gun has passed, but stay sharp.  Even Fubar can’t say for sure what she’ll do next.”

“She’s about done.  I think I’ll get out of here.  I can’t make what happened to her right, but I can try not to make it worse.” Englund turned and left.

“You better motherfucker,” Bardue said to an empty room, “ I’m going to far too much trouble to protect your ass, even if we do need you around.”


Monday, December 11th, 2006

“All right, ladies and gentlemen, I suppose you are all wondering why I’ve gathered you here today.” Staff Sergeant Ryan Wilson snickered as the combat instructors came to order, less one or two bodies that were known to have screwed with the results of an official, graded match in combat finals before.  The tall exemplar, Ex-Army Ranger was hardly the picture of Military precision in a shredded old workout T-Shirt and blue jeans that had seen better days.

“Shut yer hole and sit doun Wilson, 'ye pesky bugger,” Sergeant-Major Sean Burlington-Smythe of the British SAS (retired) said from his seat around the table.

“You got it Sergeant-Major.” Wilson sat down at the table and grinned at the other combat instructors, some of whom rolled their eyes at him, others chuckled.

Lillian Dennon, the aging brick instructor smirked at Wilson.  “ We’re here because like every year we wait until the last possible moment to get together and discuss the Combat Finals and figure out who we’re dropping into the Crash.”

“Quite so,” interjected Ito, the short Japanese man who was in charge of organizing the Combat Finals this year.  “ While I would prefer that we have the Crash mapped out long before we start the festivities I recognize that none of us have particularly much time at the end of semester and assigning the Crash at the beginning would be pointless.  Never mind the necessity of balancing out certain...  problematic students for whom random opponent assignments would place themselves or their opponents in unnecessary danger.”

“So which of the Grunts and Capes are we looking at throwing to the lions this year?” Chester Fitzgibbon, the local Shao-Lin Dragon style Kung Fu instructor asked.  It was a fair question, showing the preference for the Crash contestants as being relatively solid.

“We aren’t.” Gunny Bardue stood up.  “ Time for a shakeup folks.  We’ve been lazy for the last few years and have been tapping the same two teams for the crisis matches in the Crash.  So now we’ve been stuck with a situation where only the Grunts and the Capes are preparing properly for the kind of havoc and confusion that goes with the Crash runs.  Normally we’d have Erik and Cat here to go over the info with us since I’ve been having Erik program the scenarios and Cat’s a good one to hit for information on the kids, but due to circumstances neither can be here.”

Most of the instructors traded dark looks at the mention of the losses of the two instructors.  Cat McQuiston, also known as Backdraft had been a Lieutenant with LAPD before she joined Whateley Academy.  She had been murdered by a sniper during the abortive Syndicate assault on the school.  Erik Mahren’s disappearance and circumstances were a tightly held secret between the combat instructors and certain specific parties in the magic department and the administration.  Not all of them were aware of the circumstances of Poe Cottage’s odd arrangements, but all of the instructors at the table were aware of Erik’s massive shift in status.  None outside this circle, or Carson, Delarose, Hartford, Circe and Earth Mother were fully aware of that particular situation, and they intended to keep it that way.

“Since Erik and Cat can’t be here Wilson is Erik’s designated replacement and Smythe’s here because he can’t delegate his responsibility anymore.” Bardue continued on.  “ Ito-Sama I’d like to return the floor to you so we can get the teams that are going to be hit hashed out, and who the matchups will be.”

Ito nodded to Bardue and looked to the assembled instructors.  “ Since everyone is expecting the Grunts and the Capes to be a part of the difficult scenarios I propose we pick two of the freshman teams and tap their members for the demonstrations.”

A knock at the door sounded, prompting Harry Junzo, the advanced Aikido instructor and Telepath/Empath teacher to stand, walk to the door and open it.  He smiled and bowed with genuine courtesy as Susannah Hagarty entered the room.

Amanda Tolman, Ito’s assistant instructor grinned.  “ Welcome to the meeting Ms. Hagarty!  I’m sure you know the usual suspects.  Added to that we have Sergeant-Major Sean Burlington-Smythe, formerly of the Royal SAS...” She pointed to the fiery-haired Scotsman, “ and Staff Sergeant Ryan Wilson, formerly of the US Army Rangers.  Both of them form the rest of our combat range crew and the sponsors of the Grunts team.”

“Pleased to meet you gentlemen.” Hagarty nodded and sat down in an empty seat between Junzo and Genevieve Beaumont, the petite Karate and Kempo instructor.

“Good.  Now that we are all here, I believe explanations are in order.  If you would explain to Ms. Hagarty about the Crash Scenarios, Staff Sergeant?” Ito cracked an evil little smirk as he put the Range Crew’s self-appointed slacker on the spot.

“You are an evil, evil old man, Ito,” Wilson grumbled as he stood.

“Yes, however, you volunteered to join these proceedings after avoiding them like the plague for eight years.  So take your medicine like a good boy.”

“Evil old man.” Wilson looked at Hagarty and dropped the pretense of the slacker bum he let on for public consumption and straightened, unconsciously shifting to parade rest as he spoke, hands locked behind him at his waist.  “All right.  I’m a bit new to this as Ito said.  Normally me compadre, Corporal Mahren would be playing the show here.  But he’s out, so I got nominated.”

Hagarty nodded and watched as the tall exemplar continued.

“The Crash, by my limited understanding, is a series of events snaked into the combat finals in order to prove a point, or teach a lesson.  The most common lesson being 'you are not invulnerable' the second most common being the need to improvise in any situation.  We deliberately pick out two or three teams each year for the Crash and hand select the ones who we are really testing and their opponents.  Normally we’d be tapping the Grunts and the Capes, or our Military aspirants and the future hero crowd in case you weren’t already aware, but this year we’re looking for a shakeup.” The professional demeanor dropped for an instant as he smirked.  “ Our esteemed leaders have been making us wait with baited breath to see who our victims will be this year.”

Hagarty nodded.  “ So we are looking at a high-threat and difficulty level in these proceedings.”

“Correct.” Ito nodded and motioned Wilson to take a seat, flashing a look of mock-annoyance as the Ranger lounged back in his chair, beach-bum demeanor fully reassumed.  “ In fact I called you here because after much deliberation between myself, Gunny Bardue, Mrs. Dennon and Mr. Junzo, one of the two teams will be the infamous Team Kimba, including your student, Nikki Reilly, or Fey as the codename goes.”

Hagarty nodded as Ito addressed Bardue.  “ And have you determined which of the heavy simulator teams might fit our needs?”

The old black man smirked and nodded.  “ The team I’m looking at, with your approval is Outcast Corner, or the Outcasts for short.  Their lineup is Jericho, a Devisor/Gadgeteer with no other real powers of note and a knack for mayhem.  As a side note, he’s blind.  The second is Diamondback, a heavy GSD kid from Whitman.  Exemplar, basic magey type, real low key, and from the reports very shy and very fast reflexes.” He continued as Ito nodded.  “ Last on the official team roster is Razorback who is also severely GSD, our former star Ultraviolent Speedster who used to be our resident King of Detention.  The three have been running the Active track on the Sims for a bit over a month now, and they’ve got a knack for unconventional tactics as well as a driving need to thumb their noses at the established social order.”

Ito nodded.  “ I see no reason not to include them.  This is the group that has adopted Caitlin Bardue then?”

“That’s the one.  I have her listed as a tentative auxiliary for the Outcasts pending her choices in the future.  I’m also going to drop her into the Crash.  Got to come up with her opponents for the scenario.”

Fitzgibbon looked up.  “ Why don’t we begin with Team Kimba?  Who is their team leader?”

“If anyone can figure that out for sure I would be most grateful for the information.” Ito nodded.  “ However, Hank Declan, or Lancer seems to be their tactics man.”

“Ok, let’s start with him then.” Beaumont punched up a file on her computer.  “Hank Declan, one of the Poe kids, obviously.  We have discussed him before.  Basic superman package, intelligent and has a good head on his shoulders.  He’s also making some innovative leaps in the use of the TK field he has according to the notes someone added to the file.”

Lillian Dennon spoke up.  “ Those would be my notes actually.  I’ve been following the boy’s progress for some time and he shows promise.  He would certainly be a fine example in the upcoming exercise, although I would recommend using him as part of the challenge rather than be the one tested.”

Ito nodded.  “ I concur.  Let us leave Lancer aside for now and move on.  Next would be Toni Chandler, or Chaka.  She is one of the core members of Team Kimba, and we have already discussed how she is problematic to teach.”

Wilson raised his hand.  “ Problematic?  How’s that?”

Gunny Bardue answered.  “ Chaka’s some kind of martial arts wizard, manipulates energy so she can pull some straight anime style stunts.  Finding sparring partners who can whup her is a bitch and a half.”

Wilson nodded and flipped through some pages on a clipboard, then took out a pen and wrote something down.  He stood and walked over to Ito and handed him the clipboard.  “ Disaster Zone scenario anyone?  With an added twist.  She likes anime, then let’s give her something anime to play with.”

Ito looked at the clipboard and began to nod approvingly.  “ And here we were thinking you would not have much to contribute.  You seem to have a knack for sadistic scenarios.”

“Hey, what can I say?  It’s me.  The names for the other combatants in that run are on the back page.” Wilson sat back down.

“Very good, this is most acceptable.”

“So which other 'o these kids will we be tossin' tae the lions?”

“For Tennyo we have no choice.” Ito pushed a button on a remote control beside him and a picture of Tennyo appeared on a wall screen.  “ Her powers are at such a level that we cannot safely throw her in a match with another student and hope they survive.”

There were a string of nods around the table and Kasai Tetsuko, the kempo teacher spoke.  “ Perhaps she should take part in our final scenario.  The Mob assault.”

“That was my thought.  Carson’s also, and she’s said we are to place Tennyo in the Mob assault scenario.” Ito turned to the other teachers.  “ Any objection to this?”

No voices were raised, no objections uttered.

“Now, Jade, Ayla and shroud of Team Kimba are either odd enough, or not powerful enough that I could be justified in throwing them into a crash scenario.  Jade is, on her own, more clever than she lets on and is a constant source of low-grade mayhem.  Shroud is odd enough that none of the crash scenarios would significantly threaten her, as she is, according to sources, already dead.” Ito let a slight smirk as he talked.  It was matched by most of the instructors; Wilson was oddly enough one of them.

“What you smirking at Wilson?” Bardue groused.

“Jade.  I have been coaching that little girl on her pistolwork for a little while now.  Wasn’t expecting her to shoot Little Princess Walcutt, but I can’t fault her aim.”

“Indeed.” Ito turned.  “ And I hesitate to give Ayla, or Phase as she is called the added attention of a particularly challenging scenario as it may bring even more attention to her than we have already seen.  This leaves Fey and Bladedancer, whom I have lumped into the Kimbas due to the fact she spends so much time among them.”

“What about that Sara girl?” Mrs. Dennon asked.  “ The one Englund has such a fit over all the time.  Isn’t she a Kimba?”

“Nope.  I have the team rosters right here...” Bardue flipped through a stack of papers.  “ ...and Miss Waite is listed in a separate team, one of the usual hodgepodges, but I’ve been tapping her for some side work keeping the Grunts and other power teams on their toes.”

Ito smirked.  “ We will have to deal with the question of Miss Waite in a moment anyway.”

Fitzgibbon looked annoyed.  “ Bladedancer shouldn’t be in the crash.  She’s not even a mutant and the only reason she’s here is that bloody sword.”

The other instructors rolled their collective eyes and nodded.  Fitzgibbon was a good teacher but he still hadn’t forgiven or forgotten his pasting at the hands of Guan-Yu.

“On the contrary, sir.” Ito smiled wickedly.  “ That is precisely why we will use her in the Crash.  Most mutant children are so secure in their own superiority they don’t take into account an exceptional baseline factor.  I believe Chou Lee will enlighten them otherwise.”

“So who’ll be the cocky bugger we throw 'er at Ito?” Smythe looked curious.

“You have summed up the criteria aptly if ineloquently.” Smythe just grinned at the little Japanese man in response.

“Right then, les' see if we can round us up a wee bugger for the fall.  Who do we hae on the 'needs tae be taken down a peg' list?”

Wilson looked up.  “ One candidate would be a kid named Bardue, Oscar C.  Apparently the guy couldn’t find his ass with both...”

“Shut up Wilson before I take your skinny Exemplar ass out back behind the woodshed.” The old black man shook his head at the other range instructor.

“Yes Grandpa.” Wilson’s voice had a ’subdued and contrite redneck' inflection to it.

“Nex.”

Everyone turned to Tolman.  “ Hey, don’t look at me like that!  But my gut tells me Nex.”

“I’m sorry, but isn’t Nex a junior?  The one who allegedly attacked Fey by ambush?” Hagarty looked concerned.

Ito smiled.  “ That’s the beauty of the Crash.  Anything goes.  Besides, I don’t think there’s a person in this room who wouldn’t mind watching Nex get pounded into the ground by one of the mere baselines he holds in so much contempt.”

“Think she can do it, hoss?” Wilson leaned forward, suddenly serious.  “ Nex gets a wild hair and that girl could be spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair.  Even though we can’t prove it me'n Mahren figured he’s been responsible for over fifteen crippling attacks on baseline humans, and two near-misses against baseline teachers.  The hits fit his M.O. but we haven’t been able to find evidence on the little prick.”

“Why do you think the attacks fit his M.O.?” Hagarty asked.

“We think he’s the little shit that knifed Mahren just shy and high of a kidney about two years ago.  No blade, or really measurable blade type, ergo psiknife or a TK knifehand.  Whoever it was tried to steal one of the Aegis loaders that Mahren had just packed away in the high-security area.  He couldn’t break the system and he almost got his ass shot off by Erik.  Nex was REAL careful not to let anyone see bare skin on his left leg for a while.”

Ito nodded.  “ Suspicions aside, myself and I imagine Mrs. Wong would imagine the girl capable of defeating Nex if she’s been paying attention to her training.”

“This brings us to Fey.” Hagarty smiled.  “ I expect anyone expecting the pretty princess to be helpless will be in for a rather rude shock.  Over the past couple months she has shown vast improvements to her ability to handle her own in hand-to-hand.  While I’d not match her against an exemplar just yet in hand-to-hand she shows promise.”

“And her magic abilities?” Ito looked at her expectantly.

“Now I wish you had asked Wallace to come, but give me a moment.” Hagarty leaned back in her chair and considered how to answer.  “ I believe I will have to go with the words of a young man not too many days ago.  'If she’s not careful she’ll wind up blowing a hole in the world.'  I’m sorry, but my evaluation is better for martial arts.  Magics are really not where I am knowledgeable.”

“Your instincts?” Ito pressed.

“Based on what I’ve seen her do I’d say she’s fully capable of vaporizing a tank or making a skyscraper explode, all at once or level-by-level.”

Wilson let out a low whistle.  “ Now THAT’s a dilemma.  Mages start getting really foul to deal with at the WIZ-four-mark.  I’m assuming she’s higher?”

“From what I understand, yes, easily.”

The instructors started talking and Wilson held a hand up.  “ Hang on folks.  I might have something here.  Cat McQuiston said something about nukes and cockroaches...  You can kill anything with a nuke except a cockroach.  The only sure way to kill one is to stomp on it.”

“How does that help?” Ms. Beaumont asked.

Smythe was the first to catch on, and he started chuckling evilly.  “ Mule.  Good thinkin' laddie.”

Ito looked at Wilson, mildly confused.  “ Are we missing something here?  Mule is an exceptional student but I hardly think a TK brick is the answer.”

Wilson grinned.  “ No, you’re not missing, it was figured out just after we got the kid into the Grunts.  We all know about the little fact that his TK field is far more heavy-handed defensively than it is offensively even for a TK brick, but what’s not obvious is interlaced with the PK is heavy-ass psychic and mystic shielding.  Or it’s the same thing if you listen to Fubar talk.  He’s a damned cockroach, can’t just nuke him.  You have to step on him.”

“How effective are those shields Wilson?” Tolman gave him with a strange look.

“Not as effective as Jimmy Trauger’s Psychic null.  Trying to break Mule’s shields only gives the almighty Fuub a slightly less intense migraine than trying to read JT’s brain.”

“In other words,” Bardue smirked, “ if we throw him in with Fey she’s going to need to find a rather large boot to stomp him with.”

“Very well.  Your cockroach scenario will be used.” Ito looked up.  “ I suggest we take fifteen minutes for a slight break before discussing what to do with the Outcasts.”

There wasn’t much conversation as the instructors stood up to stretch, get some air or use the bathroom.  It only took a few minutes for everyone to filter back to the room, and the whole ordeal was getting time-critical.  Breakfast would be served in two scant hours, and then Ito would have to join Carson for the proceedings.

“All right, before we move on we should probably address Sara Waite since someone brought her up.” Tolman looked up as she continued.  “ She’s one of our local problem children and I doubt we want to give her a whole lot of time and attention in the arena.  Too many folks gunning for her.”

“We could always throw her and Caitlin at each other.  I’d be curious to see who kicks who’s ass.” Wilson’s comment was idle and offhand and he wasn’t expecting Bardue’s response.

“Absolutely not!”  The old Marine snapped off rapidly.  “ We will not be deliberately tossing Caitlin into any situations where she has to play confrontations with mages, avatars of old gods or Class-X entities until after she’s gotten her powers and her confidence under control.  Is that clear?”

It was abrupt, it was unexpected by anyone, and it got the point across in no uncertain terms.  All of the instructors were intelligent enough to hear the sharp note of fear that went into his voice when he’d cut Wilson off, which meant there was more to that little story than he intended to tell.

“Well, since we be talkin' boot tae Outcasts anyway, why no' throw Jericho at Sara?” Sergeant-Major Smythe suggested mildly.  “ I don’t think the demon-girl would have problems beatin' our wee blind laddie.”

Ito nodded.  “ While Jericho shows promise I don’t believe he could do much to prolong a match with Miss Waite.”

Wilson and Bardue, as well as Kasai all sat there like beached fish with their jaws gaping and trying to comprehend what was just said.  Finally it was Wilson who engaged his brain and mouth at the same time.  He even got the words right too.

“I think that would be a flawed premise for putting any of the Outcasts into a fight Ito, sir.” Wilson looked at Bardue, who nodded.  “ I gotta say, I respect your opinion, totally, but I’ve seen the Outcasts in all-out rumbles as a team and as individuals and you won’t find an easy fight in any one of them, including Jericho.”

“Go on.” Ito gave Wilson a patient look.

“Look Jericho alone doesn’t look or seem like much, and more often than not he gets pasted by his opponents, but when was the last time anyone got a quick takedown on him?  He digs in like a tick and doesn’t let go.  Even the Grunts and the Capes have a hard time with him.  He’s underdeveloped, sure, he’s blind.  Ok, but he’s also canny, intelligent and stubborn as an ox.  I’ve seen him stalemate guys like Breaker or who are on the same level mystically as Hekate for orders of minutes, using nothing but minor Devisor stunts that everyone’s seen, most of them Johnny-one-shots and he’s always got a new stunt to pull.”

Kasai nodded.  “ I concur.  Jericho may be limited physically, but he has more tricks than a Swiss army knife and the will to use them.”

Wilson nodded.  “ Now don’t get me wrong, given what I’ve seen I don’t think he’ll win, but I think he’ll be able to drag it out so that your idea of denying Sara the spotlight gets flushed.”

Ito nodded.  “ Your point is clear and taken, however I think Jericho will be the one to place against Miss Waite in the Combat Finals.”

“I got fifteen minutes duration on this one,” Wilson said as he held up a fifty, “ any takers?”

“I believe you are correct but unduly optimistic,” Kasai replied.  “Thirteen minutes.”

“You’re on.”

Ito moved on smoothly, ignoring Wilson’s betting and bluster as simply as he had ignored Mahren’s before him.  “ Next on the Outcast blotter is Jericho’s confirmed partner in crime, Razorback.  This is not a crash test in the traditional sense.  This is simply to determine who to throw him at that will survive the encounter if Razorback rages, which is worthy of a Crash in and of itself.”

Junzo looked up.  “ Well there’s always Jimmy Trauger.  The two of them are friends, they both heal at a phenomenal rate, and they’re both Ultraviolents.”

Ito considered carefully.  “ I see that fight going nowhere and quickly.”

Junzo smiled.  “ Give 'em a time limit and see if they cope.  Fifteen minutes should be enough for those two to have a chance to gross out the crowd with some truly visceral combat.”

Ito nodded.  “ And it neatly bypasses the need to discuss Mister Trauger.  Two birds, one stone.  Very well.  On another note, make this one a Crash test, as it will illustrate what happens when the unstoppable maw meats the inedible object.”

Wilson groaned.  Damn, Ito, I had no idea you were capable of being such a painful wiseass.”

Ito shrugged.  “ Not everything I do revolves around Martial Arts, you know.”

“Diamondback’s the next one.” Gunny Bardue smirked.  “ Let’s give her the unwanted allies scenario.  Program the fight for an attack by Deathlist or something.  Worst case scenario.”

“Who do we give as her unwanted ally?” Wilson grinned.

Ito spoke without pausing.  “ Hekate will do.”

I said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Frequently.  You are an evil, evil old man.” Wilson’s voice echoed the opinions of everyone in the room.  “By the way, Gunny, I got the perfect scenario for our queen of the Alphas.”

Ito looked over.  “ How difficult?”

Wilson smiled.  “ Dragonslayer simulation, max difficulty.  The one Erik wrote.”

Ito smiled.  “ And here I was thinking you’d be a less than apt contributor, Staff Sergeant.  I will expect you at all further crash meetings, as well as accepting my invitation to join us for tea to discuss the students' progress in the future.”

Wilson had been had and he knew it.  He’d just failed to weasel out of additional responsibilities at the school that Erik and Cat had snaked around, and now he was stuck for it.  “ I look forward to it, sir.”

“Good.  Now this brings us to our virtual unknown here, Caitlin, your 'adopted daughter' gunny.”

“Make sure to throw another cockroach here.” Wilson sat up.  “ Nobody here knows what she can do.”

Suzannah Hagarty looked up from some notes she was taking, looking rather surprised.  “How do you know someone and teach them yet have no idea what they can do?”

Ito looked at Hagarty.  “ Since Caitlin, and I know you are familiar with her previous incarnation as you helped Westmont bring her back after the explosion on the hazard range, arrived at Whateley six years ago she has been rather closemouthed about her experiences and what she is capable of.  She taught heavy weapons superbly, but no one here has seen her cut loose and go all out save for a few odd sensor images from Halloween.”

Hagarty looked thunderstruck.  “ Wait, you mean you had a teacher you knew virtually nothing about?”

Wilson shook his head.  “ No, we know a lot, like Carson didn’t like having Caitlin on-campus for the first two years.  He... She used to spar with me, and she concentrated solely on how long she could survive without taking a solid hit, not beating me.”

Bardue spoke up, “ And Wilson’s an exemplar six.  We know she’s better at taking on mutants than she is baselines.  We’ve had one or two incidents with the kids over the years, and he... she beat them, but I still have him cold in hand-to-hand and fencing, and I’m a sixty year old man.”

Wilson piped back in.  “ And now she’s gone straight to Exemplar 4 level with a tentative max of 1200 pounds, but the test results are a bit skewed by her accidentally destroying the weights, and a magic aura she has ZERO control over.”

Ms. Dennon added her two cents.  “ Add to this she will NOT go all out against the students that are her erstwhile classmates, and she has at least one known psychological issue that she was being medicated for before leaves us with no way to accurately gauge what we’re dealing with, baseline or otherwise.  Except to mention that she uses that godawful Military hodgepodge of Karate, boxing, judo and jujitsu.”

Hagarty nodded.  “ Well in our sparring match this... student showed a high degree of competence with her chosen fighting style.  She has adapted certain aspects of Greco-Roman High School Wrestling and some rugby-type maneuvers.  How many years of experience would you say she has with hand-to-hand?”

Bardue shrugged, “ I worked with her for a year and a half, and she sucked at Hand-to-Hand in a way that was sad.  So assuming a sudden shift in her ability I’d say no more than two years of practical application and then six years as an instructor here at Whateley.”

Ito nodded as Hagarty frowned.  “ Now you see our dilemma here.” He turned to the others.  “ I propose we use Lancer as one of her opponents for the Crash Scenario Gunny Bardue has suggested.  I will tap Hippolyta for the other opponent.  Her scenario should finally give us a fairly solid idea what the girl is capable of should she choose to push herself.  The choice of her opponents should allow her to do so without fear for their safety.”

Bardue nodded.  “ All right, now for our other problem children.  We need to decide if the following need their opponents chosen, or left in the random pool due to problems.  First up is Bloodwolf...”

 

“The jury is back, the verdict is in.  Watching paint peel is in fact unexciting as all get out.” Caitlin indulged in a bit of talking to herself.  Unfortunately with nothing else to do for hours on end except maybe destroy a computer by accident...  There weren’t too many other options.

Caitlin Bardue found herself in the odd position of being flopped out on her bed, on her back, from side-to-side with her head dangling off the edge, staring at the wards and runes scattered all over the room at odd angles.  Her dark hair was pooling in a metallic mass on the floor below her head, and the thought of brushing out that particular mop did not exactly bring a girlish giggle to her thoughts.  Cleaning the melted plastic out of her hair had been a real bitch, and she’d had to move to a metal brush she’d made out of some sheet metal with a file in a really bored moment.  Neither did the prospect of another day of school at Whateley Academy fill her with joy.

Oh sure, the school was cool enough, and interesting enough that she’d have loved to have come when she was younger.  That was the key word though, younger.  Despite her appearance to the contrary, the metal-haired, steel-disc-eyed artificer of Whateley Academy was almost thirty years old, and a far cry from the burgeoning fountain of social drama that most girls were in their teen years.  Never mind the prospect of going back to high school after a truly nightmarish stint in the military, six years as a teacher at said high school, and an involuntary, likely irreversible sex change did not exactly appeal.

Then there was the energy corona, her own, personal mystical lightshow that snapped and blazed whenever she moved.  It also frequently hurt like a motherfucker and the only time it ever left off was when she sat completely still, or was safely ensconced in the double-ward barrier in her room and on her clothing in the utility sheds.  Unfortunately, sitting still for long periods drove her absolutely buggy.  She felt at peace when she was up, moving and doing things, but she only got a respite from pain when she wasn’t.

The alarm clock began shrieking its message of wakeup from its place by the three computers set up in a line on the desk.  All three were virtually untouched because she didn’t want to risk annihilating them so no escaping into the world of GEO for her.  Fortunately the piercing wail of the alarm announced an ungodly morning hour that the security goons wouldn’t be questioning her as to why she was still awake at all hours of the night.  The whole not being able to sleep more than an hour at a time really sucked.

“All right, all right, shaddup!” She wandered over and slapped the snooze button, momentarily forgetting she was a lot stronger and shattered the plastic contraption on the desk.  “ Oh fucking brilliant.  What’ll you do next, kill someone’s puppy?”

Four AM was hardly a human hour to be awake unless you were a complete nutcase, a marine or a teacher at the Academy.  Unfortunately, Caitlin was all three, or was until mid-November when her life took a severe turn for the weird.  Now she was just a nutcase.  She even had the documentation to prove it, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

The storage sheds that were her erstwhile dorm room were not exactly what one would call homey, but it suited her, except for the rampant storm of glyphs and sigils that took up every square inch of wall space in order to suppress the magic corona effect that erupted whenever she moved faster than your average garden slug.  The heavy wards on her clothing picked up most of the slack, nearly completely suppressing it to the point where she could function normally.  Nearly being the word because any kind of strong emotions, especially rage and frustration brought the corona back full-bore.  When she was walking about in her clothing it was a nonstop thing, and when she started getting freaked it erupted into a nightmare storm of energy that pretty much did whatever the hell it felt like to the surrounding landscape.  She didn’t even want to think about what would happen were she to get caught in the open without either form of protection.  There had been a few near-misses in the short weeks since she began hanging out with the Outcast crew on a regular basis in the form of anxiety attacks when she thought about her situation too hard, or started dwelling on Halloween.

As she stepped out of her room and began the long, circular walk around Whateley, she refused to think of it as a patrol, the corona ripped back to life.  Filling her existence with the joys of odd lights, weird effects, spooky sounds and the occasional searing pains, the energy was a stark reminder that she was awake and alive.  Whether that was a good thing she preferred to leave to the philosophers.  Her situation would likely have been a lot more tolerable had Carson been a few seconds later in peeling her out of the cockpit of the Syndicate assault ship while screaming, foaming at the mouth and blowing shit up.

She killed that line of thought as soon as it started.  Dwelling on the past wasn’t healthy in her case, her own past or the nightmare flashes and memories of lives past being torn apart and turned into a horror.  Sometimes she found herself wishing for a clean slate of memory to match the new appearance, but the thought of losing the memories of the people she loved and had loved at one time or another was somehow even more painful even if they were dead or wanted nothing more to do with her.

“All right, what to do, what to do...” She began walking at a fair clip, watching the ground while she thought, a habit she’d picked up as a kid when she tried to figure things out.  “ Take a walk, and then finish up at the armory.  Maybe clean up all my old Corps shit for when they get a new instructor.”

Her time in the Marines was neither a time of joy, nor a source of sea stories to tell over a beer except with the few men still alive who had been there with her, fighting like madmen to stay alive against the storm of combat that raged around them nearly continuously it seemed while the rest of the nation carried on, blissfully unaware of the nightmares lived in their name.  The few peaceful memories from that time were marred by the many funerals attended, the constant suspicious eyes of her commanding officers, and the haunted stares of those few with her who knew that their time on the earth would likely be measured in breaths once the shooting inevitably started.  Felicis Fossor, “Lucky Fools,” had been the motto of a few good men who tried to live the Corps motto of Semper Fidelis, “ Always Faithful.”

It seemed that every time she looked for happy memories she wound up sliding back to that time six years ago that she had been approached by Gunny Bardue, who had been her platoon sergeant at one time, with an offer that would pay the bills and maybe help her find some measure of peace if not redemption.  Teaching at Whateley Academy had been the most rewarding time in her life, and had gone a long way in healing old wounds.  She had made friends, and taught children the grim methods of surviving in a world with assholes like her.  Most of them were alive still, even if they weren’t on the side of light and right, but it worked well for her.  Besides, if she’d never come to Whateley she’d have never met Cat, and she wouldn’t trade those happy memories for anything, even some way of numbing the emotional pain.

 She began feeling better as she began her circle of the campus, and thought about the day before.  Ito’s little speech about combat finals had thoroughly failed to pique her interest or awe as it had so many other students.  She’d heard it a dozen times before, hell she’d given it before, but while she was trying to doze off through it Razorback had kept elbowing her so she wouldn’t miss “ the big event.” The Outcasts had been pulling some medical evaluations and doing the legwork to get Cait added to their team roster during most of their classes, so had to attend the “ make-up” briefing.  The oversized lizardman was nothing short of gleeful at the prospect of a good row at the end of the semester.  She could forgive him, however, since he wasn’t exactly privy to that information.  The long and short of it was she doubted that Carson would allow her into the arena with a student under those circumstances, plus she qualified as a person with a major, life-altering exemption to the whole combat finals gig.  Exploding and waking up with boobs isn’t something one writes off as just another thing, no matter how hard she tried.

That almost set off another string of melancholy thought when she saw something shiny.  She looked and grinned as she realized it was a watch face reflecting the dim lighting, not thirty yards away, attached to a guy carrying an attaché case who was looking at her and trying not to look nervous about the fact that he’d been spotted.  Caitlin would love to think herself a mature, semi-functional human, but her time at Whateley had given her a true love for fucking with the recruiters who thought they were slick enough to get onto campus unseen, catch a particular student, or set of students alone and pitch them the recruiting spiel.  CIA, FBI, NSA, it didn’t really matter.  She just loved to embarrass the stupid bastards.  It was like crack for her.  Once had never, ever been enough.

Her worries forgotten, Caitlin waved to the man and flashed a smile then continued on while her quarry relaxed.  Of course no student would question the presence of an adult in a suit on-campus.  Kids aren’t that jaded.  Pity for him that she wasn’t just another kid.  Plus it was the added bonus that they seemed to think coming early was a good idea to avoid pricks like her.  She’d gotten really good at catching them right under the noses of the students and security over the last six years.

Caitlin darted into the cottage the man was waiting by, and had a look-see.  Poe.  She hadn’t realized she’d gone so far off her beaten path.  Of the teachers she was one of the few fully appraised of the situation at Poe, mostly because she guessed and asked Bardue and Carson why they’d quarantined the gay and lesbian crowd away from everyone else.  The answers made sense even if they were a bit off the Politically Correct, and somewhat shortsighted in her opinion.

One broom handle and a roll of duct tape later and she was out of the cottage with none the wiser, and began giggling to herself maniacally as she began planning this poor schlep’s fate on the fly.

“I gotcha now you stupid jackass.”

 

The window being open was bad, but Nikki’s tossing, turning and making weird noises was too much at this ungodly hour.  Chaka hadn’t exactly been a light sleeper before her mutation kicked in, but one sound outside of “ normal” and she was up and alert like nobody’s business.  The sound was suspiciously akin to a woman giggling to herself in a way that could only be described as disturbed.  It took her a moment to realize that her elfin roomie’s oddball noises weren’t, in fact, the source of the maniacal giggling.  There was a god.  Unfortunately God had a sense of humor in that Fey’s voice cracked up in a maniacal mirror of the giggling she had heard before.  It just didn’t sound the same.

“I gotcha now you stupid jackass.” The mumbled words were clear and creepy enough from the little redhead, but the flash of bright light outside the window and muffled yelp of fear from below were just TOO much!

“Nikki wake up.” The statement was obviously too quiet and Nikki was notorious for being a slow learner when the need to wake up came around.

Chaka hopped off the bunk, leaned over the Elfin Princess, cupped her hands around her mouth, and did an impression of a bullhorn.  “ You in the red hair! Pull over and produce your license to create havoc, and a photo ID!”

Nikki jerked upright with a freaked expression on her face and a yelp, breathing hard and looking wildly around for the danger.  Seeing only her semi-maniacal roommate, she started, then predictably reacted as any young, tired, silver-blooded Sidhe noble who had just been woken up halfway into the night would.  She whined.

“Come on, Chaka, it’s four in the freaking morning!”

“Yeah, and you’re doing weirdness to people in your dreams again!  Put some clothes on.  We need to go make sure you didn’t hurt anyone.” Chaka seemed mildly annoyed.

“Huh?” Yes the young redhead was not so quick on the uptake in the early A.M. hours.

“Look Nikki, I know you and Unga-Dunga like to commune with the Force or whatever it is you do when you sleep, but I distinctly heard you say 'I Gotcha now you stupid jackass', then I saw a flash of freaky blue light, and some dude yelped.  I think you might’ve hit one of the security monkeys.”

“Oh shit.” Nikki was out of bed and scrambling to get her clothes on in a flash, suddenly wide awake and moving.  It was probably one of the few times she moved with motivation and purpose before breakfast in the morning.

“Yep, that about sums it up!” Chaka hopped up and blitzed into her clothes, finishing before the elfin redhead was even halfway done.  “ Look on the bright side!  If you make the ultraviolent list because of this, they’ll probably give you a purple armband, accessorizing don’tcha know?”

“You’re enjoying this way too much.”

“Oh you have no idea.”

The two girls were met in the hall by Hank in the common room, unexpectedly.  He came thumping down the hall with an irritated look in his eye.  The boy actually looked somewhat mature with the scowl on his face, the green workout T-shirt and camouflage pants with boots.  He saw the two girls and his expression softened a bit.

“You two hear the weirdness outside?”

“Yep!  And we figure it’s either Nikki magicking people in her sleep, or we get to go round two with some ninjas!” Chaka’s grin was enthusiastic as she bounced out the door.

“We do?”

Nikki shook her head, shrugged her shoulders and the two followed their hyperactive teammate out the door.  They found the spot where the flash occurred and Nikki stopped cold.  The Ley lines here weren’t travelling in a completely normal pattern on the East side of Poe Cottage.  Hank and Chaka moved outward, looking for signs of the poor schlep that Nikki had supposedly zapped in her dreams.

Upon closer inspection the lines were twisted, knotted and warped in odd patterns.  She’d seen this over the past two or so weeks around campus off and on.  Lines knotted in a twist and power hanging, half-spent in the aether.  Each time she laid eyes on the phenomena she’d gotten a creeping feeling of recognition, like she’d seen this before.  It felt like a disruption in the natural flows more than a deliberate and controlled spellcasting.  Even in her worst moments she never knotted the flows, bent them, caused them to redirect, but never to knot up.  Earth Mother and Circe had dismissed the phenomena whenever she asked about it, but still that odd feeling of familiarity was there.

Careful child, this area is charged, but with what I’m not certain.

“Do you have any idea what caused this?  It feels familiar.” Nikki had gotten used to Aunghadhail’s omnipresent participation in her thoughts over the last month, and speaking to the shade of the ancient Sidhe queen hardly felt unusual anymore, even if it WAS extremely aggravating at times.

It does.  It’s like an echo, one I’m not sure even I can recall.  This feels old, and powerful, and I’ll hazard that whatever is causing it is not exactly in control at the moment.  This kind of knotting is usually only caused by someone completely bereft of control, some form of mystical disaster, or a monumental fool.

“Not one of those possibilities is very comforting.” Nikki followed the lines to a spot on the wall where the concrete looked like it had melted and run like wax, leaving a semi-opaque, glassy substance around what looked like a large, but feminine handprint embedded in the concrete.  Whoever had made that had hands almost as big as Hippolyta’s.

Be cautious, child.  I can still sense whatever did this in the area.  Leave the tangles for now.  They will revert to normal of their own accord in the next day or so.  The damage is not severe.

Nikki didn’t get the chance to agree or argue when Hank let out a sharp whistle, pointing at the snow nearby.  The two girls joined him, and they looked at the ground.  Both Nikki and Toni blinked for a moment to process what they were seeing, but there it was.  A patch of ground that looked like it had been torn up in some kind of struggle, and what looked literally like liquid glass rippling in the snow-divot-patches.

“Ok, now this is weird even for you Nikki.  What’d you do, eat after midnight again?” Chaka looked over; noting the drag marks on the ground, indicating someone or something had dragged a struggling captive away from the cottage into the woods.

“I didn’t do it.” Fey shook her head.  “ I never jacked up the magic inherent in an area like whatever did this.  It’s like someone took all the Ley lines and decided to play cat’s cradle with them at random.”

“Never mind when you zap someone, your hobgoblins don’t wear women’s sneakers and drag people into the brush.” Hank turned and began slowly following the path of the drag marks, keeping a sharp eye out for anything, interposing his body between the two girls even as he waved Toni to the flank to cover both him and Fey.  The Kimbas had learned some hard lessons over the past months about fighting.  One of the foremost items on the team’s agenda was keeping enemies off the elfin redhead long enough to bring her considerable mystical power to bear.  Once Fey started slinging the magics in earnest, things tended to fold over and go crunch, and when combined with Tennyo’s raw firepower, Hank’s near-invulnerability, Chaka’s insane martial arts, Phase’s wiliness and Jade’s knack for sheer mayhem things tended to get very rude, very quickly for the opposition.  God forbid Sara or Chou decided to tag along and help.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence Hank.” Fey slid into a watchful rearguard as Hank crept forward.

Chaka had disappeared on the sides and was far from being the kooky, bouncy, hyper girl she normally was.  She actually paid attention when Hank started making moves like he expected trouble.  While he wasn’t exactly the leader, he had the best head for applied tactics in their group and, unlike them, had received a crash course in fighting actual military when he had first manifested his mutation.

As it turned out, the caution wasn’t so necessary, but what they found left them standing with their mouths wide open in shock.

A man was hanging from a tree branch, damn near mummified in duct tape. As they watched in stunned disbelief, one shoe abruptly fell off as he violently gyrated in mid-air trying attempting to wiggle free as the tape writhed unnaturally around him.

Muffled yelps of distress could be faintly discerned from the man as the empty briefcase bounced slightly upwards and snapped at the man’s socked foot. A small swarm of yellow Post-It Notes circled the man much like moths would circle a naked lamp bulb on a hot summer night.   Pamphlets and brochures were affixed as if someone had decided to ’tar and Feather’ the poor man with the contents of his violent briefcase.

Hank noted absently that someone had used a horde of smaller stick tabs that read, ‘signature’ and ‘confidential’ across the mans lower jaw in such a manner to give him a red and green paper beard. The more disturbing part of the man’s discomfiture was the message written in bright green friendly letters upon his forehead saying: I DRINK PEE.

Suddenly it seemed very unlikely that Nikki had anything to do with this one, as her weird magics and hobgoblins tended to not carry green Sharpies on their persons.

Chaka looked over the man for a second and she got a suddenly gleeful expression on her face.  She walked right up to the man and plucked one of the CIA recruiting pamphlets off him.  “ Hey, Sullivan. Is that a new brochure?” She leaned up against the CIA recruiter and idly flipped through the recruiting materiel while Nikki and Hank began snickering at the recruiter’s predicament.

Sullivan looked at them plantitively as Toni stuck the pamphlets back onto him.  “Keep up the good work, Sully.” The teenaged martial-artist began walking towards Poe. 

“Hey Chaka!” Hank hollered at her as she began meandering away, “ Don’t these CIA recruiter bastards come in packs?”

“Oh yeah, all the time.  Apparently it’s all the rage to have three or four grown men get their butts whupped all at once by kids.  Why do you ask?”

Nikki was standing over what Hank was staring at.  “ Because it looks like they tried to fight whatever got your buddy Sullivan here.  Looks like three others.  It looks like they got hauled off too.”

“Wow.  That IS interesting.  This calls for hot cocoa.” Chaka turned and walked away, leaving her two friends chuckling to themselves and shaking their heads as they followed.

Hank looked over at Fey and smirked.  “ I’ll tell Delarose to pick up a package out here once we get inside.” He began dialing on a cell phone as they reached the cottage.

“Mmmm....Carob...” Chaka said, doggedly trying to convince herself of her words.

No one was left to hear Sullivan whimper plantitively for someone to let him free until Security arrived six minutes later.

 

“Chief, Everhart just found another CIA recruiter duct-taped to the main flagpole.  Someone ran his shirt and pants up like a couple flags.” Lieutenant Simeon Trout of Whateley Security’s Third Platoon said easily.

“Isn’t she supposed to be off-duty?” Delarose asked mildly.

“Yeah but she called in about an hour ago.  Apparently she was up doing a morning run and found our first contestant after the Kimba kids called the one they found in.  She wants out to make sure the chumps aren’t here to talk to her again.”

“Fair enough, how many got jumped?”

Trout smirked.  “ We’ve found four in embarrassing positions around campus, there’s the one the kids reported earlier, another guy was found handcuffed and dangling from one of the building flagpoles with what can only be described as an Atomic Wedgie, the third is being treated for second-degree burns and frostbite in the infirmary.  He’s babbling about flashing lights and reality falling apart wherever “ it” touched something.  The fourth is currently being extracted from the flagpole I just mentioned.”

“Shit, that sounds like a familiar M.O.” Delarose thought for a moment.  “Alright, punch up the sensors.  Track down Caitlin Bardue for me, she’ll be joining the Security Auxiliaries this week, and I’d like to get her in here before Combat Finals start to get her kitted out.”

Trout leaned over the control console and began running a sweep.  “ Ok, checking known hangouts for her...  Not in the shed, not at Whitman or Twain, and none of the external campus sensors are picking her up.  Think she left campus?”

“Nope, check the sensors in the Range Four bunker.” Delarose leaned back and sipped his coffee while Trout checked the sensors.

“Nada, nada.  Hey, I got movement inside the back cage of the armory in there, with all that shit that fucker Mahren kept on personal lockdown.  Security lockout’s been overridden on-site.  How the hell did they get in there?  Is Mahren back?”

“No, no danger of Mahren coming back.  That’s Gunny B’s god-daughter, and Mahren transferred control and ownership of all his personal gear to her, hence she has the codes and access.  Plus if the rumblings I’m hearing from Hartford are correct, the little prodigy has all the licenses, and certifications to operate that range and even teach the classes if she was on the payroll.  Carson and Hartford are getting her set up as the manager for the range, tracking all the goodies for the ATF and Federal Marshals.”

“Not that I ain’t glad that asshole isn’t coming back, but I don’t get it.  Why are we letting a student have full access to the armory there when none of the security teams so much as have the main bunker access codes?  I still think that prick should have been subject to security oversight.”

Delarose looked at Trout with an irritated look, and then went back to watching the monitors.  “ She will have oversight.  I have those codes, Bardue and Wilson have the codes to the main bunker, and Everhart’ll have the cage access along with Bunker access once the girl gives them up.  Everhart will be responsible for monitoring Miss Bardue’s activities on-range for the foreseeable future.  Besides, Everhart’s the only one here who’ll get a quick idea how to handle the girl.  You, and your platoon do not have the licenses, nor clearances to touch ninety percent of the hardware kept in that bunker.  This is an old argument, and it will not be discussed further, am I clear?”

“Crystal, sir.” Trout went back to the com.  “ Hey Everhart, since you’re up and about anyway, we need you to go to the range four bunker and pick up a kid for Delarose.  She’s in the back cage with all the locked-out hardware.  Delarose wants you to get the access codes for the bunker and the back cage.  You get to monitor our new little range manager while we hunt for a new heavy instructor who we can legally hire.”

Understood, ETA five minutes.”  Samantha Everhart’s voice came back over the comm channel crystal clear, and Trout let the freaky SEAL-bitch do her job.  He couldn’t screw with Delarose’s little princess, at least not with the old man standing over his shoulder.

 

Caitlin sat inside the back cage of the armory with all the hatches sealed and locked.  Sure enough every time she got in here the facility was in lockdown, a testament to certain parties' attempts to get into the bunker and to her collection of toys she kept sequestered away that included her personal stash of weapons, a full set of the Range REACT armor for the whole range crew and some little tidbits best left out of the public eye, be it for safety reasons or because some types of weapons and armor carried a bit too much notoriety to be seen in public.  The most egregious and obvious of the dangerous examples were the AEGIS Loaders.

The Ammunition Expedient Generation and Insertion System was an evolution of a devise pioneered by the notorious mastermind known as Gizmatic.  While the Devisor who had conquered his own small island nation in the Caribbean had graduated well before Erik Mahren had arrived on-scene at Whateley Academy, both Caitlin and Wilson still referred to the egomaniac as “ the one that got away.” The devise itself was small, and complex, resembling nothing so much as an odd ammo drum for a machinegun.  The original model had been buggy, dangerous to use and rife with flaws, as could be expected from a second-year student, but in the intervening years improving upon the system had been a pet project of the Whateley devisors who frequented the range.  The latest incarnation was a development by a freshman called Slapdash the year before.  Now Slapdash was in the Grunts team, and the devise was capable of feeding a machinegun a seemingly unlimited supply of ammunition until it eventually misfired and blew the bolt out of the top of the gun after prolonged use.

While this seemed on the surface to be a fairly inane development, the fact that the bullets weren’t completely stable resulted in them disappearing as the projectiles, casings and even the powder expended disintegrated, leaving no evidence besides bullet holes in whatever it was used to attack.  Due to the potential forensic nightmare, and a high potential for abuse and liability, Whateley kept the loaders locked down in Mahren’s secured section of the range four armory.

Caitlin was in a fairly good mood.  The recruiters hadn’t been able to put up much of a fight, but then they hadn’t been able to handle her before her change either.  She loved screwing with people who weren’t supposed to be on campus, and even as a semi-normal baseline bastard she had done her level best to make them pay in embarrassment and pride for every inch of ground they gained with the student body.  It was one of her passions, spooking the spooks.  They had hated her before and she saw no reason to end a fun string of harassment simply because her circumstances had changed.

Unfortunately, rather than the hours-long sneak and snatch runs she had done as a man, her heightened physical abilities had rendered the whole thing an exercise of about fifteen minutes.  It was almost anticlimactic.  The bruises were half the fun.  She did kind of feel sorry for the guy who’d accidentally gotten cooked and frozen a bit by her corona.  She hadn’t meant to hurt anyone, just make them piss their pants and suffer the embarrassment of explaining to Delarose what had happened to them.

As a result, she found herself in the Range four bunker continuing a project she’d started about a week ago, marking glyphs and wards into every piece of gear in the armory.  It was painfully easy once she’d put her mind to it, and required very little conscious thought on her part, an outgrowth of her oddball artificer powers she’d been stuck with.  It did, however, mean that she wouldn’t accidentally destroy any of the expensive hardware stored at the Whateley ranges.  Wilson was still steaming over the destruction of three M-16’s on range one while he was on watch.  And it seemed her building odd things here and there, or modifying them were the only times when her wigged-out mystic aura didn’t interfere with whatever she was doing.

She had just put the finishing touches on the heavy Range REACT suit she’d worn as Erik Mahren in the past, both warding it against her aura and re-sizing it to fit her body.  She’d lost about seventy pounds of weight when she’d undergone her catastrophic change from human male to female artificer, and her body was a lot more lithe and slender, with less bulk muscle as a result.  So she’d been forced to adjust the armor for her new size, the fact that she sported breasts, and the fact that her hips and waist traced a more hourglass figure than the old, straight, hard lines she was used to.  It had taken some doing, but she’d managed to make the whole setup work, and the unpowered, heavy-plated armor was a lot easier to move around in than she remembered due to the raw physical strength her new form packed.

She tested the armor again, going through her full range of motion in the bulky rig.  It did constrict movement some, but it wouldn’t interfere with what she needed to do if she had to wear it again, namely cut loose with heavy firepower in the most violent and unsubtle manner imaginable.  The nine back hard points for spare rocket tubes were empty, as was the locking harness for the rocket launcher on her right hip. six spare barrels for a machinegun were strapped to her leg, and she began pulling her hair up so she could get the helmet on when a beep informed her that someone had opened the main blast door to the external part of the bunker from outside.

“Let’s see who’s knocking at my chamber door.” Caitlin flipped on the internal camera that only fed into the back cage and saw the petite blonde girl carrying a manila envelope heading straight for the back cage.  “ Hello what have we here?  You, my dear do not work here.  How’d you get my bunker code?”

She watched, amused at the internal control panel as the internal cage light flickered amber, then red almost faster than her eyes could track.  She wasn’t expecting THAT.  The monitors showed that the security lockout was being slowly overridden, even though the external controls had just had all power cut down to zero to deny access.  That couldn’t be good.  She settled the helmet on her head and adjusted the straps, then picked up her personal baby, a heavily modified M-240 Golf machinegun that had been tweaked to near-unrecognizability and locked an AEGIS to the carrier, then ran the feed to the tray and racked a round.  Whoever it was knocking at her chamber door was NOT getting at the plethora of her personal gear or the dangerous bits without some severe problems, compounded by the fact that she wasn’t just another human norm with some solid experience.

A quick look at the external monitor showed the cute blonde in jeans and a T-shirt standing outside, looking frustrated and annoyed.  Caitlin patched the com feed of the helmet to the external speakers in the main bunker and began speaking.

 

Samantha Everhart looked at the manila envelope Delarose had suddenly called her back to retrieve on the way to the bunker, mildly annoyed.  The recruiters were an amusing bit to an early morning.  She’d found the first one dangling from the horizontal flagpole above the entrance to Shuster Hall when she’d gone out for her morning run.  When she called it in she’d been told about the Kimba find and began hunting for any others, just in case they were prowling for her... again.  And now things were going into another day at work.  Hopefully this would be the last of the B.S. tonight.  Today was supposed to be her day off.

“Hive, what do we have on this Caitlin Bardue?” To the average outsider, it would appear that the seemingly teenage girl was talking to herself.

Checking records.  Caitlin Bardue, age sixteen, freshman.  No cottage listed.  Alternate housing in the northern storage sheds due to hazards to teachers and students.  Exemplar 4, Wiz and Devisor class, levels unknown, Esper 2.  File displaying now.

Sam scanned the file quickly, and noted the hazard warning on the student concerning an uncontrollable magic aura and a need to ensure that the wards on her clothing remained intact.  Two psych warnings gave notice that the girl was a high probable for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a chemical imbalance in the brain leading to Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or something very like it.  Beyond that, there was actually a pathetically thin amount of information on this particular student.

“Not much to go on is there?”

Was that one of those rhetorical questions you mentioned?

“Yeah.” She punched in the external code to open the large, vault door and was gratified to see the large, circular door slide back and roll out of her path.  Delarose had given her that access when she had arrived, though she had never had a reason to use it.  Being a flag rank SEAL officer did bring SOME trust in the security/military professional world after all.  It also carried about the same amount of distrust.

The inside of the bunker was well-lit and she could see the front cage that dominated the majority of the space, with only a small section where the kids could requisition the firearms through a barred window.  Inside the cage was rack upon rack of firearms of every possible variety, including not a few that were still technically under development.

Getting through the cage area was simplicity in itself.  She simply let Hive take care of all the access codes and operate the security checkpoints.  The locker was well-maintained and it looked like the guns were clean.  The secondary security and range control console was in standby mode as it should be.

The bright red, curly-haired wig hanging off one of the machineguns did seem out of place though.

The back cage was misnamed.  Vault would have been a better word.  The blast door was solid Titanium-laced steel, presumably with a wheel-spoke locking arrangement.  There was a simple key pad and intercom setup.  “ Hive, go ahead and open it up.  I don’t feel like waiting on the little princess to get her shit together.” A split-second later the keypad went dark, and the indicator lights went out.

Hive cannot access the armory network through the keypad system.  Security lockout engaged as soon as a bypass was attempted.  Attempting to re-route power through the system.

“Wonderful.  How long is this going to take?”

Multiple interconnected and redundant systems.  High probability that this security system was built by a Devisor.  Hive is attempting to map the system to determine the best course of action, if any.  Estimate time to access eight minutes, thirty-three seconds.

Devisors were a pain in Sam’s ass on campus as their wonky science was a shoe-in for confusing Hive, as technically their little toys should not work, especially by Hive’s exacting and literal standards.

A countdown timer appeared in her vision and Sam sighed.  She wished Delarose had just given her the damned codes, so she wouldn’t have to wait on this girl to decide to get around to coming out.

“Attention.  You have just attempted to illegally enter a federally-monitored armory unit.” The female voice crackled out on the intercom.  “ You have thirty seconds to identify yourself or I will consider you hostile.”

Sam rolled her eyes, annoyed.  It was too early in the morning for this shit, and she hadn’t even had her morning cup of coffee.  “ Samantha Everhart with Whateley Security.  Delarose told me to come get Caitlin Bardue.”

“Wait one while I verify.”

Over the security net hive patched the call into her hearing.  It was surprisingly on the Range REACT secure channel.

“This is Range 4 Armory calling SecOne.  I have a blonde chickadee attempting entry into the back cage who claims she’s with you guys.  No uniform in sight, please advise.”

Delarose’s voice responded promptly, &“She’s there on my order Caitlin.  Let her in, and give her the cage access.  Only Samantha Everhart is authorized to have those codes besides myself.”

“Will do SecOne.  Hija...Range four armory out.”

Three seconds later Hive had withdrawn and the vault door unlocked and swung outward.  Sam saw a figure in heavy-plated tactical armor covered in black symbols and glyphs.  The name plate on the armor had been removed, and the figure looked like some kind of Space Marine in what was obviously some form of heavily-modified Land Warrior armor.  The person’s face was hidden under the helmet and a very large machinegun that she recognized was cradled in her arms.

“Caitlin Bardue I presume?” Sam asked as she stepped forward cautiously.

“That’s me.  Hang on a second while I pop the armor off and break down the banger.  I’ll come with you once I get the shit stowed.” The armored figure snapped and hissed as she moved, crazy energies ripping across her armored form.

Sam nodded quietly and watched as the young woman, there was no other way to describe her, rapidly shucked the armor and stowed it in a storage rack with the machinegun and loader.  The back cage was tricked out with the latest and greatest in security systems, and she got a rundown from hive just how much of a nightmare it would be to override and unlock it without the codes.  Approximately nine minutes, an eternity of work for the nanites who could crack most security algorithms inside a few seconds.

“So what’s with the security system?  I’ve never seen one that could lock me out.”

Caitlin looked over, pulling out the improvised clip she’d put her hair up with and let it fall freely behind her.  “ Devisors put up the system three years ago.  The damned thing’s so stupid-full of redundancies that people have gotten locked in here without any way out for hours.  Any attempt to bypass any of the control nodes results in total power lockdown before the locks move even a millimeter.”

“Paranoid much?”

“Have to be.  There’s plasma weapons in these storage racks back here, and not a few little goodies that’d make the NSA shit kittens.  Last time I accidentally locked myself in I had to disassemble half of it, unlock it, reassemble it and reset it.  Thirty hours of work because of a glitch.  Delarose was pissed.  So we rigged an override control in Kane Hall to unlock and reset the fucker.”

The main desk and file cabinets had a computer which was turned off, and there were two photos, the first one was of a blonde man with steely eyes and a short, blonde with a pixie like haircut.  The second was a group photo of seven men standing alongside one another in civilian attire outside the front gate of Camp Pendleton.  Every one of them looked like marines on liberty.  The photos drew a shock of recognition from Sam, and not exactly in a happy way.  She knew five of the men in the photos, one of whom was hugging the blonde in the other photo.  She idly went over and picked up the group shot and stared at it.

“I’m done, and I know you’re with Security, but would you mind not fondling the pictures?” Caitlin’s clothing under the armor consisted of a white tank top, fingerless gloves, and tight jeans.  Sneakers finished the ensemble best described as “ Wiccan from Hell.”

“I recognize these guys.  Know them from back west.  Buncha unruly sons of bitches.”

Caitlin nodded and pointed at the man standing to the far right.  “ Erik Mahren.  He used to be the heavy weapons teacher here until he hit a burnout spike and went GSD on us.”

Sam looked up, somewhat surprised.  “ Mahren was a mutant?” Another odd bit was the way she talked easily, like she didn’t care one whit that Security wanted her, and her use of terminology was almost like some of the teachers.  Maybe she was reading too much into it and she was just dealing with one of the many genius level exemplars on campus.

Caitlin looked at the photos.  “ Yeah.  He was a bit more than shocked by the whole thing, to say the least.  By the way, the top drawer has the instructions for setting up access codes for the range.  Read 'em, memorize 'em and put the paper back.  You have to do it from Delarose’s desk at Kane Hall.”

Caitlin stood easily, racking her brain for any memory of where she might have seen this chick somewhere.  It didn’t add up.  She wasn’t any of the Marines from the base.  She’d have been about twelve when she, as Mahren, had left the Corps.  There was no memory of anyone’s children ever being brought around her or her team, and she’d have remembered anyone looking like her if she’d known them personally.  Maybe she was one of Prison Bitch’s myriad girlfriends.  Who knew?

“Ok, I’m ready.  Let’s head on out.”

Sam followed Caitlin out, noting very carefully how the girl meticulously locked down everything, as well as the girl’s obviously odd features.  It was how she moved that didn’t add up though.  Upon reflection Sam realized that both of their respective body language and habits were very similar.  Caitlin moved like she had a purpose in life, and was charging forward to meet it.  She also scanned the area every few feet unconsciously, and didn’t feel the need to fill the silence with unnecessary chatter.

It wasn’t till the pair were at Kane Hall that Caitlin’s curiosity got the better of her.  “ So where did you meet Uncle Mahren?  He never mentioned anything about you.”

“Uncle Mahren?”

“Yeah, I kind of latched onto him as a kid when he was still in Dad’s Unit with Gunny Bardue.”

“Long story, I’m not technically allowed to talk about most of it, but he struck me as the kind of guy who didn’t put much stock in rank when he was actually doing what he did.” Sam pointed Caitlin through security towards Delarose’s desk, a place she’d been millions of times, usually to threaten Trout and members of third platoon with bodily harm for “ borrowing” gear from an armory.

Caitlin frowned a bit.  Odder and odder, the questions got more questions.  The mere fact that she knew enough about her past that she wouldn’t talk about it was worrying.

“Oh yeah, Caitlin, Delarose said you needed this.” Sam handed over the manila folder to the girl, who looked at it curiously, then took it gingerly, like she was afraid she’d destroy it.

“Thanks, I’ll look through it when I’m sure I won’t fry it.”

They rounded the corner and saw Delarose looking at the security console over Lieutenant Trout’s shoulder.  He nodded to them as they entered the room, and Caitlin did a double-take as she saw something that connected in her brain finally on the Warning Board that she had failed to notice before.

“Razorback’s an Ultraviolent?” The girl looked mildly startled at seeing the picture of the spined velociraptor kid on the ultraviolent board in the number four slot behind Bloodwolf, Maggot and Killstench.

Delarose shook his head mildly.  “ You’d have known that if you’d paid attention to half the security memos that didn’t pertain to the range, Miss Bardue.”

“Why isn’t he carrying an armband or tracker then?”

“He’s on probation.  We haven’t had a serious outbreak from him in the past semester, so he’s getting his chance to escape the board.”

Hive helpfully displayed the full dossier on Razorback rapidly in Sam’s vision.  “Hey chief, what’s class-three rager mean?  I know what a rager is but I’ve never heard classifications before.”

Hive immediately called up and displayed the information on ragers.  Class-1’s were the ones who had short-duration temper blowouts, usually just enough to swing a couple times or break something.  Class-2’s were the ones who once they got going, kept going until they were taken down, restrained or they wore themselves out.  Class 3 ragers were the nightmares, people who not only went on long, tearing, violent outbursts, but who actually became more deadly when they were raging.

“Razor’s a class THREE?”  Caitlin seemed a bit more than alarmed.

Delarose sighed.  “ We’ll talk about it later Caitlin.  Time to pop you out of that neat little bubble you’ve been living in.  So I need to talk to Samantha here about the security arrangements, and she will be your oversight on the ranges for the future.”

Delarose jerked his head in the direction of Trout and patted his sidearm at Caitlin, whose eyes immediately tracked over and locked on the Ivory-handled automatic pistol he wore strapped to his hip.  “ Oh hell no.” she hissed fiercely.

“Samantha, come to my office please.  Caitlin, take care of whatever issues you have with the range counts then wait for us in the ready room.”

Samantha watched confused as the metal-haired, steel-eyed exemplar gave Delarose a vicious grin and popped her knuckles.  “ The counts will be fixed shortly Chief.”

When the two entered the Chief’s office Delarose left the door open a crack and sat down.

“Chief what the hell was that...” Samantha began as he held up a finger to wait.

A loud SLAM! reverberated through the hallway and Sam clearly heard Caitlin let loose on a screaming tear.

“All right you jakey-ass gomer motherfucker, let’s chat!”  The words were shrieked then punctuated with another loud thump and the sound of a pistol being cocked.

Sam was up and moving for the door when Delarose stopped her with a word.  “Sit.”

“But she’s.” The sound went abruptly silent in the control area for a moment.

“Boys I suggest sitting back down, your platoon leader here and I are going to have a chat, aren’t we you rabid cockbite?”

“Everhart this is an old song that has to be sung every now and again.  If she doesn’t do it, then Wilson, Bardue or Smythe will do it, and I don’t feel like having that particular incident occurring.  So sit down, and let the dominance challenge play itself out here.”

“I’ve seen a lot of shit from you, asshole, but stealing from a dead woman is low even for you!” The girl’s voice was interrupted by trout’s voice saying something unintelligible before she yelled again.  Sam could say one thing, the girl could PROJECT“Shut your fucking cockholster!”

“Chief, is it healthy to let a student make threats and scream at your security teams?”

“No, but in this case, it’s been a long time coming and Caitlin there is in charge of tracking all of the various firearms in the Whateley ranges, so if they come up missing, she can be held legally accountable.  She’s correcting the issue.”

The voice was a lot lower, but still clearly audible.  “Now, the serial number on this pretty little handgun you have tells me it belongs to Cat McQuiston, who died on Halloween.  This gun went missing the day her father came here to collect her personal effects, along with thirteen other weapons from the Range Two cage.  Now I’m going to assume that you were merely recovering the weapon to return it to its proper place and owner.  Am I right?  Nod your head if I’m right.” There was a pregnant pause for a minute. 

“Good, now in the spirit of this happy recovery, I imagine that by the time I get done with Delarose here you and your boys will have recovered all of my missing toys, including Wilson’s KXT Sniper rifle, and have them back in Range Two where they belong aren’t you?  Good boy.  I’d hate to see your platoon have a dinner date with the Fort Leavenworth prison hospital, wouldn’t you?” The rant was ended and they heard angry footsteps pass the hallway, and a hissing ZAP! caused the door to slam shut.

Delarose chuckled and checked the door for damage.  “ Girl’s still got it.  I imagine that answers a lot of questions about biology affecting personality.”

“Chief, what the hell was the point of all that?” Sam was confused and mildly annoyed.  “ And if that was the sound of a normal student I’ll eat my own goddamned head!”

“What that was about, is a rampant problem we have here at Whateley stemming from our 'neutral grounds' status.  As you’re aware, all of the Security teams here draw extra pay from outside in return for information.  Trout and Third Platoon draw most of their pay from sources like the Syndicate and other illegal groups.  We can’t prove it of course, but it’s more or less fact.” He sat back down at his desk.

“So why was that better than having the other range instructors do the talking?”

Delarose sighed.  “ Partly the neutral grounds thing, partly the fact that if Bardue, Smythe or Wilson did the screaming it would be with federal agents on-hand to arrest the lot of them, and I’d have to hire a completely new platoon, most likely from the same types that those jackholes hail from.”

“So it’d just get you a new crew, very likely one that’s even worse?”

“More or less.  The reason Whateley Ranges didn’t suffer their predations was the fact that Bardue and Smythe used Erik Mahren as their hatchetman.  He was a good guy, but he had no problem using the unholy specter of fear to keep the lot of them in line.  Since he basically exploded and we haven’t had a range manager besides Bardue in the interim we’ve had a few items come up missing.  Caitlin seems to be following old patterns, and I’d imagine that Trout’s going to come to be more afraid of her than him.”

“Mahren, you know Chief, I saw a picture of him, along with seven buddies of his from back in the Corps.  He didn’t happen to have a tattoo of a knight spearing a dragon with Hijacker written underneath it did he?”

“You knew him then.”

Sam nodded.  “ Yeah I knew him and his team.  Buncha loose cannon sonsabitches with very little of what one would call discipline or espirit de corps.”

Delarose nodded.  “ He’d been recovering here as a teacher for the past six years.  He and his fiancée both gave their all to defend the school on Halloween, but she died.  The pistol Trout was carrying had been hers.  Erik went self-destructive; Bardue tried to help, and then had a burnout episode on the Hazard area.  Now he’s no longer here.”

“But now you have Caitlin, who happens to have all the necessary paperwork to handle these ranges somehow.”  The pieces clicked together in Sam’s head rapidly.  “You know she dropped her drawers.  She talks like a teacher, and she almost said Hijacker on the radio.”

“I know.  I need to talk to her about shit like that.  Just do me a favor, and don’t out her even to the platoons.  There is some funky-ass shit going on with her mutation, and I got a bad feeling our little lady there is in for a rough ride.  But for now, do me a favor and make sure that Trout’s weapons recoveries are successful, will you?  I’d hate for that girl to actually get mad enough to press charges, or do something permanent to him.”



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