02:10:13 Little Women
Clutching his wounded side, Bergal 6-Fordal stumbled through the woods. He was panting from exhaustion, a combination of the long chase, the wound, and the atmosphere's inadequate oxygen levels. With his other hand he held on to the bottle as if his life depended on it, which, incidentally, it did.
In the pre-dawn darkness he didn't see the wrought iron fence until it was too late. He slammed against it, crying out at the sudden impact. The bottle slipped from his grasp and fell through the bars. Cursing, he dropped to his knees, and stretched his short, multi-jointed arm through the bars. He could just reach it. His fingers wrapped around the precious object just as he heard a crashing in the brush some ways behind him.
He only hesitated a single heartbeat (roughly 0.085 seconds, which probably would have concerned his doctor, had his doctor been inobservant enough to miss the third degree kazer burn in Bergal's side). He pulled the bottle back through the bars, wound his arm back, and pitched it over the top of the fence as hard as he could. He was no Yral 12-Erklaw (starting pitcher for the Fumeear City Mets), but the bottle was gone.
He sank to the ground, leaning heavily against the fence. Whatever happened now, his part was over. He'd done his best.
The crashing grew louder, and three Slax burst through the trees in front of him. Bergal tried to look defiantly at the three-armed lizards, but only succeeded in looking like he meant to be soiling his pants right now.
Three disturbingly powerful kazer rifles pointed directly at him. "Where is it?" barked the lead Slax.
"Gone," said Bergal, his typically high-pitched voice bordering on hysteria, "You'll never have it!"
The bottle had, in fact, landed in a pile of silk and wool clothing about thirty feet away on the other side of the fence, in a small clearing hidden from view of the aliens, and pretty much everyone else, as well. It's hard to say whether the clothing's owners heard the kazer fire, but they certainly didn't hear Bergal 6-Fordal's screams.
They had other things on their minds, and anyway Fumeear screams are only audible to dogs.
Jack was trying to be sympathetic, but it was difficult.
"Phil, what am I gonna do now?" he said.
Philoxia Unpronounceable (not her real name) looked up from her bed in the med-bay rather sheepishly. "Soddy, Jag. I asgged for no Em-Ezz-Gee..."
The fact that she was actually apologizing was an indicator of how off her form she was. She looked, Jack admitted, pretty awful. Her nose, cheeks and eyes were swollen and flushed a deep purple. Her eyes were bloodshot. She had a warm, woolly blanket pulled up to her shoulders and she was clutching her queasy stomach. On the table next to the bed was a half-empty box of tissues and a piled of used ones.
"You thigg I liegg habbing allerjigg reaggshuns?" she asked petulantly.
"No, Phil, I'm just saying that going for Chinese with Rhino and a bunch of his old Marines buddies the night before an undercover op maybe wasn't such a hot idea... I can't send Carla to St. Agatha's alone..."
"You gould send Whino..."
"No, he needs to go with Flarm and Shimo to Zeppo Station. The set-up wouldn't work without him. And I can't go because Radar insists on doing his stupid inspection this weekend."
"Jag, you can'd send Roger!"
"What else can I do? It's a nightmare."
"I'll be oggay in a couble days..."
"No, we can't wait that long. If the Slax beat us to the punch, we'll be in so much trouble they'll be able to see it from Quirinus Prime with a cheap telescope." He sighed. "No, there's no other choice. It has to be Roger and Carla. I'll just... have a... word with him..."
Phil blew her nose. It sounded like the transport's boosters running on watered down kerosene.
"Soddy... Iv id helbs, I veel as miserable as I zound."
"Nah, it's okay, Phil. Just tayg -- I mean, take care of yourself. Anything I can get you?"
"And some of the lefdober mu shu chicken?"
"Don't push it."
"I'm telling you, I got a Royal Commission! You can't arrest me, I'm selling this fine condiment on behalf of his Majesty Auxus III of Patronia!"
"Ah, I don't doubt it."
Roger thinghandled the gypsy through the outer office and into the store-room. He punched the carefully concealed control panel and waited for the Lift-O-Matic.
"So?! It's on the up'n'up! You wanna check the paperwork? I got the commission right here!"
"I'm not interested."
"Aren't you already?"
"To his Majesty, I mean! You'll be pretty sorry when you get slapped with a Royal Lawsuit!"
The Lift-O-Matic doors wooshed open, and Roger pushed his manacled charge inside. As the doors closed, he hit the button for the detention level.
"I'm sure. Well, you may inform His Most Spicy Personage that I personally enjoy his Royal Patronian Six-Klaxon Supernova F'tengi Sauce immensely. Unfortunately, the humans don't, considering that its chief ingredient is concentrated sulfuric acid."
A feathery antenna slipped free from under the gypsy's turban. "Aw, kut."
The Lift-O-Matic doors opened again and Roger shoved him out. As he hustled the gypsy towards the cell, Jack's voice came over the intercom.
"Roger, can you come see me immediately? Top priority."
He shoved the gypsy into the cell and keyed the force field. "See you."
"Hey wait! You say you like the stuff? I can let you have the whole shipment, real cheap!"
"I'll consider it. Make yourself at home, I think you'll find there's still half a sandwich in the cooler from your last visit."
"Roger," said Jack, "I need you to go undercover."
Roger's chest swelled. He met Jack's gaze with what he thought was a look of steel. "You can count on me, chief. What's the operation?"
Jack drummed his fingers on the desk. He was already feeling the beginnings of a headache. "A bottle of zpthssva has been lost in upstate New York, and the Slax are after it."
"Parent of the deity..."
"Yeah. I don't need to tell you what'll happen if somebody uncorks it, or if the Slax get their hands on it. It's imperative we get it first and safely destroy it."
"How the hell did a bottle of zpthssva wind up on Earth?"
"The Slax forced a Fumeear courier ship down over the forest. As you know, the Fumeear used to use it in their orbital weapons systems until it was banned Galaxy-wide."
"By everyone but the Slax."
"Yeah. Lucky for us they can't make it themselves. The Fumeear are still stuck with a stockpile of the stuff, which they've contracted the Jelvans to dispose of a few litres at a time."
"Hence the route through this area..."
"Right. The Slax ship must've been lying in wait. Fortunately it was a small shipment, less than half a litre - the Fumeear aren't dumb enough to load it all in one ship - but it's enough."
"Do we have any idea where it is now?"
Roger waited. Jack tried to avoid his gaze. Finally, Roger prompted him. "Where?"
Jack took a deep breath. "St. Agatha's Residential School for Wayward Lasses."
There was a brief silence. Roger gulped. "W-wayward l-lasses?"
"Yeah. The bottle's somewhere on the school grounds, possibly in the possession of a student. The original plan was to introduce Carla as a Spanish teacher and Phil as a field hockey coach, but Phil sucked down a load of MSG last night and had a -- Roger?"
Roger snapped back to attention. He had been staring slack-jawed into space. "Yes! Right, field hockey coach. Search the school, get the stuff before the Slax, right."
"Roger -- "
"I can do this, Jack. I'm strong."
"I don't have any other options. Unfortunately."
"You can count on me. My focus will be the mission and the mission alone."
"Has Carla been briefed?"
"Yes. She knows what we're up against."
"That's entirely up to you. But if you want my advice, I wouldn't mention it."
"No, no, of course not... Uh... Jack... just so I know, you know, so I'm prepared when we go in... these w-wayward lasses wear, er, uniforms?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess so."
"Shirts and ties? Skirts? S-short skirts?"
"Roger -- "
"Sorry, sorry, just, you know, for informational purposes -- "
"I swear to God, Roger, if there's another 'incident' like in Okinawa -- "
"No! No, no, no! I'll be fine, Jack. Trust me. I can do this. For the team. For the Agency!"
Jack looked at him warily. "If you're sure..."
"All right then. Your positions start tomorrow. You'd better get going."
Roger jumped to his feet, barked a crisp "Yes, sir!" and snapped off a salute. He turned and walked out of the room. He got all the way out the door of Jack's office before breaking into a panicked run.
Jack opened his desk drawer. He hoped he still had some of that extra-strength Advil left...
Mrs. Lurchley, head-mistress of St. Agatha's Residential School for Wayward Lasses, stood at the very pulpit-like podium in the centre of the stage and addressed the auditorium.
"Thank you, Mrs. Trotters, for that lovely interpretation of 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring'. I am sure we will all be very sorry when the grand piano is fixed and you put away your accordion... Now, ladies... settle down, please... now, you have all no doubt noticed some new faces among us today. Miss Scot and Mr. Roger," she pronounced it 'Rho-zhay', "will be filling in for Seņora and Miss Dickinson for the next two weeks."
She swiveled her head to look at Carla and Roger, seated behind her along with the rest of the staff. The way she turned her head reminded Carla of an owl - she wouldn't be surprised if the head-mistress could turn it a full 360 degrees. Mrs. Lurchley was a dried up string-bean of a woman dressed in a frock of the kind Carla had only seen in Victorian period dramas. She looked about a hundred and seven years old, thought Carla, which gave her at least a decade over the rest of the staff.
Mrs. Lurchley looked back at her charges. "Of course, I expect you all to give them the same courtesy and obedience that you give the rest of the staff. In fact, you should make an effort to be particularly kind to them, as they are our guests and we wish them to have pleasant memories of St. Agatha's. Particularly Mr. Roger, who no doubt feels overwhelmed as the only gentlemen in a school consisting entirely of ladies."
Roger felt the breeze as fifty-seven pairs of eyelashes fluttered at him. He smiled politely and began reciting the complete ST codes of Galactic Treaty T-655 in his head.
Mrs. Lurchley continued. "Now, as we conclude this morning's assembly, let us make our new friends feel welcomed with the 'Welcome, Welcome' song. Mrs. Trotters?"
The entire assembly, both staff and students, rose to their feet, as Mrs. Trotters began to play the accordion. Much like 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring', the 'Welcome, Welcome' song sounded exactly like 'Strangers in the Night'.
May we you our welcome lend
May our friendship never end
"That was the most horrible thing I've ever heard," said Carla fifteen minutes later to Roger as they collected coffee in the break room. "I had an aunt who thought the most perfect sound in the world was young voices raised in song. If she'd been forced to listen to the 'Welcome, welcome' song she'd have changed her mind, possibly moving 'young voices' down somewhere below a wounded cat climbing a blackboard."
"Ah," said Roger. Carla sipped her coffee, completely inattentive to Roger's inattention.
"Speaking of blackboards... jeez, Roger, I've never taught any sort of class before. What am I gonna make them do for a whole hour? I can't just stand up there and babble at them in Spanish, teenagers can smell fear... I guess I'll just give them vocabulary or something... What about you, do you actually know anything about field hockey?"
"Mmm? Oh, ah. I, er, did some studying on the way... I still haven't got all the details down, so I'll probably just make them run laps for the first class, ..."
"Good idea. Tire them out, show them you mean business. Give those long, slender, supple legs of theirs a good work-out."
Roger dumped his coffee down the front of his sweater.
"Oh, Roger! Are you okay?"
"Don't do that!"
"Say... things like that!"
Carla looked at him oddly. "Like what? All I said was, give those legs of theirs a good work-out."
"That's not what I'm talking about, it's the extra adjectives!"
"What extra adjectives?"
"You know what I'm talking about!"
"Uh, no, I don't, Roger... Are you okay? You don't look so good..."
Roger gave his head a shake. "No, no, I'm fine. Sorry, Carla, I suppose I must be... er... hearing things. I'll give my ears a scan later tonight."
"Good idea. Mrs. Trotters' accordion might have caused some internal hemorrhaging... All right, I'll see you at lunch, we better get to class."
She gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder and left the coffee room. After she'd gone, Roger closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"ST-1238, subsection 6, paragraph 4," he murmured, "All medicinal herbs must be shipped in hermetically sealed class 2 containers and clearly labeled in trade binary and the primary language(s) of origin and destination worlds, as well as the primary language(s) of any stopping points en route."
One of the advantages of being a phys-ed teacher, Roger found, was the ever-present clipboard, which made it easy to conceal the hand-held scanning device. As the senior girls ran laps around the field (complete with the cudgel-like objects bafflingly referred to as "hockey sticks"), Roger gave the athletic field a thorough scan for the zpthssva. When that came up negative, he initiated an even more detailed scan to analyze later.
His gaze was locked scrupulously on the scanning device, and not on the fifteen athletic young women running around him, their chests heaving in exertion, sweat soaking through their thin jerseys and making their skin glisten, soft skin that had never known the caress of an experienced tentacle... NO. No, no, scanning, looking for zpthssva, fate of the planet, right, right...
Twenty minutes later, it was a deeply relieved Roger who collapsed into the chair in his office (well, Miss Dickinson's office). He plugged the pocket scanner into the analyzer unit he'd stowed in the desk drawer and started unpacking the data. Within a few moments he'd know far more than anyone would ever want to know about the chemical make-up of St. Agatha's hockey field, including whether any non-human species had been traipsing over it recently...
He was interrupted by an urgent knock on the door. He shoved the scanner and analyzer back in the drawer and went to the door. He opened it onto an empty hallway. Roger stood puzzled for half a second, then the knock sounded again from the other side of the room.
To his absolute horror, the knock was coming from the office's other door. The one that opened into the girl's change room.
Roger shut the hall door and crossed the small office to the other door. Standing behind it, he opened it a few inches. "Yes?"
The door was pushed open by a girl with short dark hair. She was wrapped in a towel, and as far as Roger could tell, it was all she was wearing.
"Mr. Rojay, Mabel is being impossible!" she said forcefully. "It's her turn to wash my back in the shower, and she's welshing out!" Before Roger had a chance to respond, two more girls shoved their way into the office behind her - a red-haired girl with braids, wearing her hockey skirt and an overtaxed sports bra, and an African-American girl who appeared to be dressed in just a jersey. Roger locked his eyes on the light fixture behind them.
"I am not welshing!" said the red-haired girl, presumably Mabel, "Jane, you lost your scrub privileges to Maryanne in the poker game on Tuesday after you lost all your clothes, remember? I'm washing LaMarsha's back."
"Oh, you are so buggin'! She gave them back to me the next morning! You know what happens to welshers, Mabel! They dom for the freshmen for a whole month!"
"Girls, please," Roger practically pleaded. "Look, I am not going to get involved in a p-personal dispute. You'll h-have to w-work this out for yourselves."
"Oh, please, Mr. Rojay?" said Jane. She leaned forward and gave Roger a practiced pout. Her towel slipped a few millimitres. "You're so authoritative. I know I just met you but I really respect your judgement."
"Yes, Mr. Rojay," said Mabel sternly, "Jane needs to be put in her place. She needs discipline."
Roger felt his head spinning. ST-1574, clause 45, sun-block imported on worlds orbiting within 1 AU of stars of class B and higher must have a minimum SPF rating of 75... "B-be th-that as it m-may --"
"You're both being ridiculous," LaMarsha interrupted, "Look, Jane, I'll make you a deal. Jane can wash your back if you'll wash mine, scrubbing privileges or no. We can sort it all out with Maryanne in study block."
"Well...," said Jane.
"I'll wash your front...?"
"Okay," Jane conceded, "if we can both wash Mabel's."
"Oh, fine," said Mabel with some exasperation, "whatever it takes to keep you happy..."
"Thanks, Mr. Rojay!" chirped the three in unison as the skipped out of the office. Roger slammed the door shut after them, locked it, then hurriedly dragged the file cabinet over to block it completely.
He spent the ten minutes between classes, plus the first five minutes of the next class, as a ball of tentacles whimpering underneath the desk.
It was with some considerable finesse that Carla was able to escape the Language teacher's lunch klatch, pleading that her strict Catalan Catholicism required her to pray for an hour every day at noon. The actual plan was for her and Roger to search the dormitory while the wayward lasses were in the cafeteria. She met up with him on the edge of the field by the gymnasium. She immediately noticed there was something... out of place about him.
"Roger! Your left eye..."
"Yes?" His voice sounded taxed and hollow.
"It's a centimeter lower than your right!"
"Oh. Sorry." He squeezed both eyes shut, and the left one sort of oozed upwards the necessary distance. He opened them again. "Better?"
"Uh, yeah... Roger, what's wrong? You look terrible."
"I'm fine," he said quickly. "Having some problems holding this shape, is all. I'm just tired."
"I'm a damned phys-ed teacher, aren't I?" he snapped, "I've been... exercising!"
"Okay, okay, no need to be so snippy!"
They started walking towards the dorm hall. "How'd it go out there," Carla asked, "did you get lucky?"
"NO! I mean, er, no, no sign of the, er, you-know-what. I did a complete scan, there was no sign of the bottle on the hockey field or anywhere near it. Mind you, there's a lot of grounds I couldn't cover... I've got the freshmen classes this afternoon, I'll take them on a cross-country run and cover the rest of the grounds. What is interesting, though, is that there's Slax spoor all over the field. And it's fairly fresh. They've been tramping over the grounds looking for it, as recently as last night."
Carla nodded. "They don't have it yet."
"My guess is no, they don't. We're still in the running. What about you, find anything?"
Carla wrinkled her forehead. "No. I checked out all the classrooms on the second and third floors, plus the staff room and the resource centre. No trace of anything, including the Slax. I've been watching the girls, too, for signs somebody's hiding something."
"They're teenagers, Roger. They're all hiding something. I saw some of them passing around a bottle behind their binders in second period, but it was sparkly nail polish."
"Hmm. Did you scan the -- "
"Of course, Roger. Besides, if they were spreading it on their nails, we wouldn't be standing here right now, would we?"
"Right," he said. He managed a sheepish grin. "Sorry. You do know what you're doing, don't you?"
"Some of the time, yes." She smiled. "It's okay, Roger. They're driving me nuts, too."
Roger's jaw dropped. "What?!"
"Like I said, they're teenagers. It's what they do! Jeez, it wasn't that long ago that I was like that... and I was even more horrible to subs than they are! And my subs were actual teachers!"
"Ah. Yes, I see what you mean. How did your classes go?"
"Oh, fine. Nobody threw any actual spit-wads... We went through some vocabulary lists."
"Yup. Parts of the body. They seemed pretty keen on it."
"I... imagine," Roger mumbled.
The dormitory was a three-story stone building, only slightly older, Carla suspected, than Mrs. Lurchley. The freshmen girls occupied the lower floor, the sophomores the second, and the juniors and seniors the third. Carla and Roger slipped in through an open fire door on the west hallway, and stood at the end of a row of double rooms.
"All right, we'd better get to it before lunch is over. You'll do the honours?"
Carla nodded. "Right. Stand watch." She cleared her mind, then let it fill with dancing sparks of energy. Then the sparks were real, surrounding her in a prickly halo like the plastic wrap on the furniture in Mrs. Lurchley's sitting room. Carla stepped forward and through the wall to their right.
Roger strolled casually down the hall as Carla phased from room to room, scanning and searching by hand in each room as she went. She re-emerged at the other end of the hall, shook her head to say "No luck", then phased into the room across from it.
Roger was almost halfway back when three female screams came from one of the rooms - two young and high-pitched, one deeper and more familiar. Carla shot through the wall, her face flushed.
"What? What happened?" asked Roger.
"Nothing. Never mind," she replied, still blushing furiously. "It's not on this floor, let's go."
"But -- "
"It's not on this floor. Lunch is almost over, we'd better get out of here." The last flickers of the phasing energy disappeared as she stalked down the hall as fast as her legs would move while still maintaining some semblance of dignity. Roger glanced at the door to the room Carla had just left. No identifiable sounds came from behind it. He felt his fingertips tingling, as if he'd stuck all twelve of them in a light socket --
He shoved his hands in his pockets, doing his best to will the extra extremities away, and took off after Carla.
Oh, yeah, that's it, baby. That's good, keep doing that, don't stop. I'll be there in no time...What do you want me to do, Maryanne?Mmm? Oh, grab that rod over there and grease it up. Get it nice and slick so it'll go in easy...Sure. Molly, hand me the lube.Dammit, Molly, I said don't stop!Uh, I'm kinda busy here, Charlotte...C'mon, you can reach it and I can't...All right. Hang on, Maryanne... here.Much better...I can only do one thing at a time, y'know... there, how's that?So what's the plan for tonight? We still on to party?'Course. Where you two wanna meet?Stables are free.Perfect. Nothing like a good ol' roll in the hay.Aw, jolly frickin' hockey sticks, Molly...Uhh... not the stables.Why not?I'm banned from the stables.No biggie. Now that you mention it, smoking in all that nice, dry, flammable hay probably isn't such a hot idea...Yeah, good point... uhhhh... almost there Molly... anyway... we can always join Jane and Mabel behind the toolshed.They're such a cute couple, the way they fight all the time...Uhhh... no... haven't... had... time... Will bring it... toooniiight...Besides, Jane's still got half a bottle of Johnny Walker.Oooh, good point. Hey, Maryanne, you open that bottle you and Dawn found last night yet?Slide it in, Charlotte, now! Stick it in!Dammit, Maryanne, you better be there, my hand's cramping up...Got it! Here it comes!Oh... YES!WOO! RIGHT ON!Woo... that's excellent, you guys! Heh, and Jane bet me ten bucks the three of us couldn't change the engine block in Mrs. Rudolph's Prowler all by ourselves!Finally! Ow, jeez... We did it, awesome!Charlotte, is the transmission shaft in straight?Can I let go of this frickin' winch now?Yup!Okay, Moll, you can let go... Whew... if this doesn't get us an A in auto-shop, I don't know what will...
When Carla arrived in the coffee room at 4:30 as scheduled, she was relieved to see it was empty except for Roger. She threw herself into the nearest armchair and let out a sort of strangled noise somewhere between a moan, a whimper, and a growl. She slouched silently for several minutes. Roger didn't say anything.
"I swear, Roger, that was the longest afternoon of my life," she said finally, "I feel like we've been working this case for months."
"I don't know if I can take another day with those -- those little -- If we don't find that bottle soon... Roger, are you listening -- ROGER!"
"What?" He put down the coffee pot he'd be drinking from and looked at her.
"Roger, you're blue!"
"Well, no, just a bit on the run-down side, really. I'm sure we'll both perk up after dinner."
"No, I mean your skin is actually blue! And you've got a ... tentacle or something behind your ear!"
He took another swig from the pot, then grimaced, willing his skin back to its usual pasty Caucasian.
"No, the tentacle is still there!"
"It's a cilia, actual. Here..." He reached up and pushed it back into his head. "Sorry, it's just the end of the day, and I thought since no one was around --"
"Roger, what's going on? You're never this careless about holding your human shape. And why are you drinking coffee right from the pot? Don't say it's all just because you're tired, I know it's more than that!"
"I'm sorry, did you want any?"
"No! Don't change the subject."
Carla was glaring at him intently. He sighed, and massaged his temples.
"Oh, all right... It's... being at this school... with all these, er, wayward lasses... it's rather, er, stressful... and it takes a lot more effort to hold an unnatural shape, when you're under stress... Like standing on one foot when someone's tickling you."
"Under stress? What do you mean? Roger, I've seen you walk unarmed into crowded smuggler's bars with a smile on your face, you can't be scared of a bunch of teenage girls."
"No, no, not that kind of stress..."
"You're worried about the Slax?"
"Yes, but that's not what I'm trying to say..."
"Roger, what are you trying to say?"
"Roger, you're not trying to say that you have a thing for young school girls, are you?"
"ROGER! That's disgusting!"
"It's under control! It's just a bit stressful, that's all! I don't mean to offend you, Carla, but you did ask after all..."
"Roger... you've never..."
"NO! Never! And I never would, either! No, the worst thing that ever happened was when Jack caught me trying to buy some bootleg hentai videos in Japan. Carla, I swear to you, I would never harm a human being. I'm here to do a job, not for my own gratification."
Carla still looked vaguely disturbed. She stared at Roger for half a minute, then shook her head.
"Fine, whatever. Sorry I asked. It just gives me another incentive to find that damned bottle of goop. Did you get a chance to scan any more of the grounds?"
Roger looked relieved to get back to business. "Yes. Amoung my three classes, we covered pretty much most of the grounds that aren't covered in bush. I still have more scan results to analyse, but the preliminaries came up blank. If it's outside, it's in the ungroomed areas."
"Okay," said Carla, "Maybe we should go search those later tonight. I didn't have much chance to search more of the buildings, I was stuck in the classroom with those little hellions all afternoon. Before and after dinner I'll do a scan of the other residences."
"You're not going to search the rooms?"
"No. And no, I don't need your help, either. Just give me your scanner thingy."
"As you wish, I just need the analyser."
"Thanks." She stood up. "I'd better go. Somehow I got suckered into being a study monitor at West Hall."
"Poor thing. Have courage."
"And keep your eyes open."
"You too. And make sure you only have two. Y'know, Roger, you might want to try a cold shower."
"The only shower is the one in the change room."
"Ah. In that case, just stick to coffee."
Many hours after dinner, Jane poured the last few drops of brown liquid into her shot glass. "Ladies, Mr. Walker has left the building."
"Awww!" answered back the disappointed chorus. Mabel, who was squeezed up next to her, elbowed Jane in the ribs. "You've been dipping into it when my back was turned, haven't you? Selfish little cow."
"Hey, it's my bottle!"
"Your brother's bottle, you mean," said Charlotte. The three of them, along with Molly and Maryanne, were camping out in the gardener's toolshed. The cluttered little shed was dark except for the light of their cigarettes and a single large candle in the centre of the room. Jane tipped the empty bottle over so that it pointed back at Charlotte, who grinned mischievously at her.
"Anyone for spin the bottle?" she said.
"Oh, grow up," said Molly. "Who's turn is it to get booze next time?"
"Mine," said Maryanne. "I think can sneak a bottle of rum out of my Dad's liquor cabinet when I go home for Thanksgiving."
"Hey, what about that stuff you found last night when you and Dawn were picking mushrooms?" asked Jane.
"They weren't picking mushrooms," said Mabel, rolling her eyes. Maryanne ignored her.
"Are you serious?" she asked, "That stuff could be anything. Poison, perfume, paint-thinner... "
She pulled The Bottle out of her knapsack. It was hexagonal in cross-section, with a long, thin neck. The glass was of a kind none of them had ever seen before - silvery and yet transparent. The top was sealed by a strange mechanism.
"It's not even labelled in English," Maryanne continued, peering at the strange characters on the white label. "Are you seriously telling me you'd drink this?"
She wiggled the bottle around, making the thick, dark liquid inside slosh around. Jane shrugged.
"No, of course not. Not unless we knew what it was." She pushed her glasses up her nose with her little finger, and took another drag on her cigarette. "But there's only one way to find that out."
Molly took The Bottle from Maryanne and peered at the seal. "I can't even see how you'd open it. This thing looks like it's made of metal. Is it some kind of weird-ass screw top?"
Mabel stretched out her hand. "Give it here, I think I see how it opens. There's a little release or something on the side --"
Suddenly there was a crashing noise from outside the shed. The girls rushed to snuff their cigarettes and hide the butts and empty glasses. Maryanne grabbed The Bottle from Molly and shoved it back in her knapsack.
They had all put on their best looks of complete innocence by the time the door tore open. But it wasn't the gardener or one of the teachers. Standing in the door was a scaly, three-armed monster with glowing yellow eyes. It grinned wolfishly at them as it stepped inside. Two more of the creatures came in behind it, each carrying some kind of giant gun; several more stayed outside.
The five girls were too terrified to even bother screaming, yet. The Slax Commander looked around at them, then finally his eyes fell on Maryanne's knapsack. His grin widened.
"'ullo, 'ullo, 'ullo," he said, "What's all this, then?"
More tea, Mrs. Dingle?Yes, thank you, Mrs. Lurchley, that would be lovely.I do believe so, Mrs. Percy. She should be finished the choir practice by this time. No doubt she has been detained in a discussion with some of the girls.Oh, you really must try Mrs. Redding's shortbread, Mrs. Dingle. They're so delightful.Perhaps in a while, Mrs. Percy. One does not wish to rush through all of life's pleasures all at once.Of course, Mrs. Dingle, of course. Will Mrs. Trotters be joining us, Mrs. Lurchley?She really is a wonderful moulder of young minds, Mrs. Lurchley.Quite, Mrs. Dingle, although I do ofttimes wish that one of our more precocious charges could find it in her heart to sink Mrs. Trotter's accordian in the pond.Oh, do forgive me ladies, for being cross. I should not take it out on poor dear Mrs. Trotters, even if her accordion playing is terrible. It's just that I've had to speak to several of the girls about teasing poor Miss Scot and Mr. Roger.Why, Mrs. Lurchley!Up to their usual tricks, are they, Mrs. Lurchley?Oh, I'm afraid so. I understand that Miss Scot was quite perturbed by the large marital aide that Lucy Winstead and Julia Stanton left in her desk this afternoon.Now, Mrs. Dingle, we must not leap to unfounded conclusions. They most likely purchased it themselves online.Oh, my ears and whiskers, Mrs. Lurchley! Wherever did they find such a thing?Probably from that young vixen, Jane Kerrington, Mrs. Percy.Nonsense, Mrs. Percy, it gives them an outlet, amoung other things.It was a mistake to ever allow the Internet into this school, Mrs. Lurchley.And what are your opinions, ladies, on our new colleagues? A strange pair, if you ask me.I find them quite capable, although I do share your reservations about Mr. Roger, Mrs. Percy. Their references were quite impeccable. Nonetheless, they shall only be with us temporarily...Miss Scot seems very nice, if perhaps rather excessively devout, if you understand me correctly. Mr. Roger, on the other hand, something strikes me as not entirely right about him...But don't you find them rather strange, Mrs. Lurchley? There is something I cannot quite put my finger on...Sit down, dear, you look perturbed.Ah, here is Mrs. Trotters.Is everything all right, Mrs. Trotters?Do forgive me for being tardy, ladies.What did you do with them, Mrs. Trotters?Oh dear!I'm afraid there isn't time, Mrs. Lurchley. I've just caught two more of those dreadful lizard-men in the East Hall.Gracious!Oh, dear. This is quite serious. Ladies, I believe you know what we must do.Oh, they're quite safely out of the way, Mrs. Lurchley. I left the remains in a sack for the groundskeepers to take care of.Was that really necessary, Mrs. Trotters?I should definately say it was, Mrs. Percy. He was waving a rather awful looking weapon about. I fear there may be more of these dreadful beasts lurking on the grounds. We must do something at once.But what about tea?I beg your forgiveness, Mrs. Dingle, but to the dickens with the tea. We must act, as Mrs. Trotters says, at once.
"I'm coming, I'm coming!"
Carla and Roger raced across the school grounds. Just after dark, they had snuck out of the school to make a thorough search of the grounds. They had searched for nearly an hour with no result, and then suddenly Roger got a spike on the scanner - the zpthssva! And it was moving...
They had started to head in the direction of the signal. They rounded the corner of the East Hall, then stopped dead.
There was a Slax interdictor parked on the hockey field. Roger broke into a run, Carla following close behind.
Now Carla felt a stitch in her side, and was slowing down. Roger was still sprinting like a track star. Doesn't seem to have any trouble holding his shape now, Carla thought ruefully.
Suddenly, they heard screams. Carla sucked in her breath and kept running.
She and Roger reached the tool-shed together. It was surrounded by Slax, over a dozen of them, all armed. Several were dragging five screaming, struggling girls from the tool-shed.
Roger stepped forward. "All right, who's in charge here?"
"MR. ROJAY! HELP!"
Roger recognised two of the girls as Jane and Mabel from his senior girls class. "Be with you in a moment, girls," he said calmly.
The lead Slax stepped forward. "What is this?" he hissed.
"Galactic Customs," said Roger. He reached into his jacket and pulled out his ID.
The Slax spat. "Ah, so then you are responsible for this?" He gestured to two plastic garbage bags carried by a nearby Slax sergeant. Roger raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"
"This obscene insult to our people, Mr. Galactic Customs lackey! Well, it is too late for you!" He held up Maryanne's knapsack. "The zpthssva is ours."
"I'd suggest you release it into my custody," said Roger, still cool as a Kuiper belt object. "It might go badly for you at the trial otherwise."
"Let those girls go!" said Carla. The Slax ignored Roger and leered at her.
"And who will stop us, female?" said the Slax. Another jabbed Carla in the back with the barrel of its kazer rifle. "You?"
"Uh, Roger?" Carla whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Sorry," he said, "'Bluff like all hell' was as far as my strategy went."
The lead Slax turned to another nearby. "I will bring the zpthssva back to the ship. When I am, safely aboard, kill them all."
The other saluted, burst into flames, and collapsed to the ground at the leader's feet.
"Never mind, Snapdragon, dear, at least you got one of them."
"I should have worn my spectacles, although they look preposterous overtop of the mask..."
The Slax, as well as Roger and Carla, whirled around and stared in disbelief at the four figures who had appeared behind them. They were four elderly women, dressed in long, brightly colored gowns. Each wore an antique mask over her eyes, and a jeweled flower broach on the breast of their gowns. The masks, though, did little to conceal their identities.
"Mrs. Lurchley?" said Carla in disbelief. "And Mrs. Trotters," said Roger.
"Exterminate them!" shouted the lead Slax. The others trained their weapons on the newcomers, letting go of Roger, Carla and the girls.
"Oh dear," said Mrs. Dingle, wearing a purple and pink gown. "It seems they're going to become violent."
"We shall simply have to discourage them," said Mrs. Percy, in white and green. "Sweet Pea Vine Attack!"
"Dewberry Bubble Blast!" called Mrs. Dingle.
Three Slax were blasted backwards by an effervescent stream of blue energy bubbles from Mrs. Dingle's fingertips, while two others had their guns wrenched out of their grasp by a tangle of vines from Mrs. Percy's palms. The remaining Slax opened fire, but the ladies moved considerably faster than they would seem to have been capable of.
"Sunflower Sun Beam!"
"Snap Dragon Fire Storm!"
Several more Slax were reduced to burnt corpses by blasts of fire and yellow plasma. Roger and Carla pulled the girls to the sidelines and watched with them as their elderly teachers battled the Slax.
Maryanne turned to Carla, utterly confused. "Miss Scot... what's going on?"
"I haven't the faintest idea. Roger, the zpthssva... if they accidentally blow the bottle open --"
"I know. Mrs. Lurchley!"
Mrs. Lurchley, dressed in a pale yellow gown with green and brown accents, called another plasma attack onto two Slax who had just tried to pin and bayonet her. "Yes, Mr. Roger?"
"The knapsack! We need the knapsack!"
"Understood, Mr. Roger! Sweet Pea, if you would be so kind?"
"Taken care of, Sunflower," said Mrs. Percy. Her vines grabbed the knapsack from the Slax leader's grip and pulled it towards her. Mrs. Trotters then incinerated him with another fire blast.
The area of the tool shed was now empty of Slax, except for a dozen odd charred corpses. Mrs. Percy looked at Mrs. Trotters crossly. "Snap Dragon, was that really necessary?"
"Oh, lighten up, Sweet Pea. If you can't incinerate evil alien lizards, then who can you incinerate?"
The four ladies walked over to Roger, Carla and the girls.
"Who --" Roger started.
"Mr. Roger, I believe we should be asking exactly who you are," said Mrs. Lurchley.
"And what is in this knapsack that's so important to so many?" said Mrs. Percy, holding it in front of them.
"The Bottle," said Charlotte, "I think they wanted what was in The Bottle."
Mrs. Percy reached inside the bag and produced The Bottle. "Well?"
Roger opened his mouth, but Carla cut him off. "We're from Galactic Customs, Mrs. Lurchley. The bottle contains a substance called zpthssva, which -- "
"I know what zpthssva is, child," said Mrs. Lurchley curtly, pronouncing the word far better than either Carla or Roger could, "and I am terribly upset that it should show up at my school."
The girls looked more confused than ever. "What the hell is zapstha?" said Mabel. "Hush," said Mrs. Trotters.
"If you are from Galactic Customs," said Mrs. Lurchley, "I should like to see your identification before I give you this bottle." Roger and Carla produced their badges, which the ladies studied carefully.
"They don't look like Galactic Customs badges..."
"It has been almost thirty years since we encountered Lieutenant Gardner, Dewberry. It is possible they may have changed the design slightly..."
Mrs. Lurchley handed the badges back. "Dewberry, will you kindly escort the girls to my office? I wish to discuss some matters with Mr. Roger and Miss Scot in private before they leave."
Mrs. Dingle nodded. She touched her broach, and was briefly enveloped by purple mist. It cleared almost immediately, and she was once again dressed in the respectable tweeds of a history teacher. "Come along, girls."
"Are we in trouble, ma'am?"
"We shall see."
She led them away. Mrs. Lurchley and the others turned back to Roger and Carla, who were wondering the same thing themselves.
"I am convinced of your authenticity," said Mrs. Lurchley. She carefully handed Carla the Bottle, who immediately passed it to Roger. "Now, I would appreciate it if you both took this material and left the grounds of my school, without delay."
Roger cleared his throat. "Well, er, ma'am, there is the matter one Slax interdictor, currently occupying the hockey field..."
"I can think of no better method for your departure. Snap Dragon and I have already ensured that it is unoccupied."
"Ah... right," said Roger, "Very kind."
"Who are you?" asked Carla in bewilderment. "If I may ask. Ma'am."
"You may, Miss Scot," said Mrs. Lurchley, "The ladies and I were once known as the Sunflower Maidens. We have been retired, oh, for nearly sixty years now. We started this school after the War, as a way to continue helping Society in a more conventional vein."
"We have found occasion to don our broaches to protect the school and its pupils a few times since, however," said Mrs. Percy.
"When some fiend needs a good ass-kicking," said Mrs. Trotters.
"Well, it's true. Oh, tonight was a good deal of fun. We were originally five, dear," she said confidentially to Carla, "but Morning Glory - a Mrs. Alden, lovely woman - passed away several years ago. Ah, but she would have enjoyed this."
Carla suppressed a shudder. Bloodthirsty little old ladies...
"That will do, Snap Dragon," said Mrs. Lurchley. She turned back to Roger and Carla. "Now, good night, and good bye. Miss Scot, Mr. Roger. It is cool this time of year, and at our age it is very imprudent to be standing around in the chill."
Jack paged through Carla's report and chuckled. Carla raised an eyebrow at him. "I don't see what's so funny," she said.
"Sorry," said Jack. "I was just thinking, you never really get used to this job. Always something else new and bizarre is waiting for you just around the corner."
"Uh huh," said Carla. "So are you saying that one day being partnered with a horny tentacle monster, finding a giant dildo in your desk, being captured a gun-point by Slax and then rescued by a team of old lady superheroes, is going to be funny?"
"Only if it happens to someone else. And I'm sure Mrs. Lurchley would prefer the term superheroines."
"Have you seen Roger since you got back?"
"No. I've been kind of avoiding him."
"Carla... I know Roger's a little creepy. But he's a decent guy, underneath. I think if you took some time, got to know him a little... you'd still find him a little creepy, but you have to work with him, so get over it. Besides, all Yggsadrine are a little creepy."
"Oh, no, you don't understand," said Carla, "I've moved past that whole fetish thing of his. I mean, a guy like Roger you expect to like creepy things... No, I've been avoiding him because Phil's mad that he burnt out the clutch flying the interdictor back, and it's just dangerous to be anywhere in his vicinity."
"Ah. Right," Jack nodded, "At least she's feeling better... Anyway, after Phil finishes beating him into the bulkhead, let him know that the Jelvans will be picking up the zpthssva Thursday."
"Sure." She finished up her tea and got up from the desk. "Anyway, I'm gonna go do some housework back in my quarters before turning in. "
"Housework? This time of night?"
"Yeah," she said, "It occurred to me this afternoon that I might have some pictures of me when I was in Catholic school in my photo album. I think I should burn them, or something."
Jack chuckled. "Have fun. 'Night."
Maryanne sat nervously in Mrs. Lurchley's office, crossing and uncrossing her legs. The others - Molly, Charlotte, Jane and Mabel - each fidgeted in their own ways.
Finally the door opened and Mrs. Lurchley walked in. She was followed by Mrs. Trotters, Mrs. Dingle and Mrs. Percy. The girls got to their feet. Mrs. Trotters was carrying a wooden box of some kind. Maryanne felt herself break out in a sweat. Gods, she thought, is that a paddle? Do they still do that? Jane might like it, but --
"Well, ladies," said Mrs. Lurchley. She went around behind her desk and sat down. The others stood off to the side, looking grim.
"You have most consummately disgraced yourselves. Indulging in tobacco and alcohol on school property... You have each been given warnings for such behaviour in the past. This, however, is far too brazen an act to ignore. I hope you realise you all face expulsion."
"What?!" Mabel cried, "Are you out of your minds?"
"Mabel!" Jane hissed. Her friend ignored her.
"We were captured by a bunch of lizard men from outer space! That you showed up and fried! And you're going to expel us for smoking and drinking in the tool-shed?!"
Mrs. Lurchley looked at her with the same calm severity. "The unusual circumstances of this evening do not ameliorate the fact that you girls were breaking the rules. Nor does it excuse any of your past behaviours."
"Maybe you're not going to expel us," said Charlotte, "Maybe you're going to fry us, like the lizard men, because we know your secret!" She spoke defiantly, but her lips were trembling.
"Did you fry Miss Scot and Mister Rojay, too?" said Mabel.
"Miss Scot and Mister Roger are quite unharmed," said Mrs. Lurchley. "The first thing you must know, girls, is that a superheroine will never harm an innocent. Or those on the side of Good."
"They are hardly innocents, Mrs. Lurchley," said Mrs. Dingle.
"Nonetheless, you have no reason to worry about us harming you," said Mrs. Lurchley. "As for your expulsion... I realise that this school, for each of you, is a last alternative. Therefore I am reluctant to send you away, despite your transgressions. I have discussed the situation with the others, and we are willing to offer you a rather unique probation..."
Mrs. Trotters set the wooden box down on the desk. Mrs. Lurchley rose from her seta and opened it. Inside were five antique jewelled broaches, each in the shape of a different flower.
"It occurred to us," said Mrs. Lurchley, "that perhaps the time has come to truly finalise our retirement. It is time to pass these on to a younger generation. If you accept these broaches, and the powers and responsibilities that come with them, you may stay at St. Agatha's."
The girls looked at one another in confusion. Maryanne said, "So... you're saying that if we become the new... Flower Girls, or whatever..."
"Sunflower Maidens, dear."
"Right... if we take-over this superhero thing that you do, you'll let us stay."
"That is correct."
Maryanne glanced at the others. She knew from the looks on the faces what their answers were. She turned back to Mrs. Lurchley.
"Sure, what the hell. You've got a deal."