- LI: Sophomore Year #13 – Steam Complex Chp. 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #14 – Steam Complex Chp. 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #15 – Steam Complex Chp. 3
- LI: Sophomore Year #16 – Out of the Past Chp. 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #17 – Out of the Past Chp. 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #18 – Operation: Fuzzy Cheer Part 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #19 – Operation: Fuzzy Cheer Part 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #20 – Operation: Fuzzy Cheer Part 3
- LI: Sophomore Year #21 – Student Union Part 1
- LI: Sophomore Year #22 – Student Union Part 2
- LI: Sophomore Year #22 – Student Union Part 3
- LI: Sophomore Year #23 – Student Union Part 4
- LI: Sophomore Year #24 – Student Union Part 5
- LI: Sophomore Year Annual #5
Steampunk watched the other guests panicking with a sense of detached calm. Thus far, she hadn’t seen the source of their reaction and as such, saw no reason to go along with the crowd, especially since the crowd didn’t seem to know where it was going.
Instead, she contented herself with standing very still and keeping out of the way. If she watched them long enough, she reasoned that she’d eventually figure out what was going on and then react accordingly. To do otherwise posed a very real risk of being trampled by stampeding socialites.
At the fringes, she caught glimpses of Institute security including T. Alvin Warren. They had managed to collect Joy Duvall and Jacob Richmond and Warren himself was going against the hide of humanity to try and reach the girl Steampunk knew best as ‘Tantrum’, but knew was called Annette. Annette seemed to have come to the same conclusion as she had and was pressing herself up against the wall of an exhibit on water recycling systems.
Of the rest of the Institute group, Dr. Kingsbury was nowhere to be found, as was Stephanie Carroll. Vincent Liedecker and Laurel Brant were across the hall, both scanning the crowd, presumably for students, and Maya Blumberg was… rapidly approaching with Edward Argent close behind.
It was about that time that Steampunk finally identified the problem: drones. Palm-sized, hornet-shaped drones, which were swarming up from the floor below and whose collective flight path closely followed Maya and Eddie.
Obviously, those two had reason to run. And as they were coming toward her now too so did she.
After quick deliberation during which her desire to have the ‘why’ of the swarm clarified, Steampunk let Maya reach her before falling into step with the pair.
“Alice, I’m so happy to see you,” Maya said, the usually nervousness in her voice elevated to full-blown terror, “The pollination drones from downstairs have gone crazy and Eddie says they’re following us and even if they’re not, they’re dangerous and a fire hazard and I thought since you managed to hack into Dr. Kingsbury’s files and stuff, maybe you could reprogram the hive to not be evil, please?”
Steampunk stared at the other girl. Not because it was the most she’d heard Maya say in one go, but because she was stuck trying to parse what had apparently been a single sentence with half a dozen subjects. It took a few moments, but she finally sussed out that Maya wanted her to employ her computer knowledge against the drones.
“I am not certain I can do as you ask, Maya Blumberg,” she explained as soon as she figured it out.
The terror in Maya’s eyes peaked and she looked behind them, then ahead. They were running out of length in the second floor hall. Even though other people were also running in that direction, they were forced to pick a new direction to flee before long because all that lay in that direction were the refreshment tables.
Steampunk wanted to calm her friend, so she chose to offer an explanation. “My knowledge is limited to systems I have studied extensively. I operated the Generations Project archive since I was twelve years old. I have been navigating the Institute’s network from the day I arrived. I do not learn instantly or intuitively. It is unlikely that I will be able to learn enough of the drone colony’s programming in time to be of use.”
“Translation: we’re screwed,” said Eddie.
“That would be an incorrect translation. I was very careful in avoiding that sentiment.”
By now, they had reached the refreshment tables, but unlike everyone else, Eddie came to a full stop and turned to face the swarm and the crowd they were driving before them.
Maya stopped a few steps afterward and turned back. “Eddie, what are you doing?”
The young man chewed his lip. “They’re just bugs, right? Robot bugs, but they’re not really all that stronger or faster or anything, right? Aside from being made of metal. And that ‘turning super-hot thing?”
“But being stung is still being stabbed!” Maya pleaded with him. “Eddie, people die from hornet stings, you know?”
Steampunk had also stopped, unwilling the leave the other two. She ignored the well-dressed middle-aged folks brushing and pushing past her. “They die from the venom, not the actual wounds.”
“I don’t know if they’re after you or me,” Eddie said, looking at Maya out of the corner of his eye, “but I’ve got my luck on my side. Stay behind me: I hit a nest of yellow jackets mowing the lawn on time—this’ll work.”
With that, he reached back and grabbed the tablecloth on the table behind him and yanked.
A dozen platters of hors d’oeuvres and a punch bowl clattered to the floor. For a moment, Eddie blinked at it, confused. He’d been confident that his luck would make everything remain in place. There wasn’t much time for contemplation, however, was the leading edge of the swarm was upon him.
Giving a shout, he whipped the tablecloth around him, swinging the bulk of it at the drones, smacking some away and tangling the wings and stingers of others in the folds.
His victory was short-lived, however, as it soon became evident that the drones had one thing that normal wasps or bees didn’t: problem-solving software backing them up. Stingers that weren’t just pointed but sharp tore through the fancy tablecloth with ease while mechanical legs pushed hindering folds aside. Within moments, the entangled drones were crawling out of their clothen prison, ready to launch themselves at their target.
Others, after observing their swarm-mates being hit by the flailing cloth, swiftly calculated its movements and evaded, swinging around wide to come at Eddie from other angles.
The first to get near him, however, exploded into sparks and inert metal against a silver platter covered in cocktail sauce. Wielding the platter with uncharacteristic zeal, Maya stepped close to Eddie and swung over his head, smashing another two incoming drones and showering the both of them in sauce and ruined machines parts.
“They’re after you,” She told him, wide-eyed and breathless as she continued to fend off the flying assailants. Once more, the drones’ software identified an obstacle and responded by pulling back and calculating a new plan of attack.
“Why?!” Eddie asked, still not giving up on swinging the tablecloth.
A curtain of red flashed past them: the contents of a punch bowl from another table courtesy of Steampunk. While the drones were waterproofed against torrential rain, the shear mass of the punch knocked several from the air.
“I don’t know,” Maya admitted. She was watching the drones watch them and stopped trying to swat them with the platter, knowing it was useless now that they were on to her. Some had not identified Steampunk as a threat too and were swarming around her. One darted in and slashed with its stinger. The sleeve of her borrowed dress and the outer layer of her containment suit parted along a three-inch incision, but the blade couldn’t get through the advanced materials further down.
All that made Maya think was how skin and muscle wouldn’t stand a chance against that.
“E-eddie?” She asked, trying hard to swallow her fear. Memories of burning bodies and fire singing merrily in its hungry ignorance crowded in around her, but couldn’t quite overcome the sight of Steampunk’s highly resilient suit being slashed open or the image in her mind’s eye of Eddie getting that a hundred-fold.
“Maya, you should get out of here. T-they’re after me, not you.” Eddie didn’t even try to sound unafraid. Tears were burning his eyes and the only reason he was blinking them back was because he’d lose sight of the drones otherwise.
Finding her resolve, Maya hurled the platter at a group of drones, then grabbed Eddie by the shoulders and shoved him straight down. “G-get down!” She ordered.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Steampunk comply. She didn’t even have to check the other guests, they were either gone, or had hit the deck long ago. Some of the security people from the Institute were coming toward them, but they wouldn’t be in range in time to be in danger.
She let go. It wasn’t like hitting a switch, or willing the chance to happen. It was more like giving in to something that had been trying to happen for months. She only changed for Powers class where it was just her and Ms. Keyes. Beyond that, there had only been two occasions where she’d transformed in public: spring break the year before, and just before the start of the term when a man in giant powered armor tried to attack the school.
Rumors that she could do it at all, or even that she had fire powers beyond smoking when she was stressed was apocrypha at the Institute.
Until now. Everyone was going to see or hear about it this time. She knew there were reporters present for the open house, and there was no way to keep Joy or Annette quite about it.
Not that any of that mattered in the moment. Eddie was going to be hurt if she didn’t so something, and she would never forgive herself if she just let it happen.
And so Maya became fire. Her Institute-issued clothing refused to burn, leaving only her fiery head, hands and her calves where her skirt and shoes didn’t cover visible, though a few tissues she’s stowed in her pockets combusted in the heat.
Now glaring at the drones through eyes glowing with the white heat of a blast furnace, Maya extended her hands and unleashed twin cones of whirling flame. It wasn’t enough to melt their bodies, but the green lenses of their sensor suites cracked with the temperature chance and their inner workings rapidly overheated, sending dozens of drones spiraling toward the ground trailing smoke from every opening of their exoskeletons.
The swarm attempted to evade, but where the drones flew, Maya’s flames followed, twisting and writhing like living things as they sought out their targets and washed over them. Within a few seconds, the hive was decimated, the remnants being only those which flew low enough that Maya couldn’t risk attacking them for fear of burning Eddie or the other guests.
These few streaked toward her—or more accurately, Eddie, who was still on the ground at her feet. Ripping stingers extended as Maya lost precious fractions of a second trying to think of a way to stop them…
…Only to watch them stop on their own, rimed in a familiar purple telekinetic signature. She cast around until she saw Annette, now safely off to the side with a pair of LI security team members. The other girl’s eyes were lit with a flame of their own; purple like her TK. As she stared at the drones, they started to come apart: screw by screw, seam by seam, solder by solder.
Parts clattered to the ground, as pristine and untouched as they day they were manufactured.
For a brief moment, Annette caught Maya’s eye, but only for that moment before rolling her eyes and looking away, feigning disinterest.
With no danger, the adrenaline spurring Maya to action ebbed and with barely a thought, her flames guttered out, leaving her standing with Eddie in the center of a scene of ruin.
Laurel watched as Maya dropped into a crouch to see it Eddie was okay. Even though she had nothing on hand to help in the fight, she would have been right there if Mr. Liedecker hadn’t grabbed her arm. She comforted herself in the fact that he would never know how close he came to being thrown to the ground for that courtesy of muscle memory.
“Seems like the little firefly ain’t quite as retiring as she likes to think she is,” Liedecker said with a laugh in his voice, “Ain’t that sweet: she’s protectin’ her little boyfriend there.”
“Maya’s… complicated. That’s why I’ve been looking so hard for a proper guardian for her. Making her a mere ward of the Institute won’t do.”
Liedecker nodded. “And I suppose you already have your hands full with one teenager.”
And that being in the middle of the superheroics of Freeland House might traumatize the girl further, Laurel thought. “Essentially. That, and I’m busy with so many projects, I wouldn’t be able to give her the time she deserves.”
At this, Liedecker hmmed under his breath. “I’ll take that under advisement. Right after I do something about our security. Alvin Warren is the best in his field when dealing with normal threats: terrorists, kidnappers and the like. We never suspected there would be more… exotic threats. After this and the ‘flower’ incident, it’s clear that a school for super-powered children needs a security component of the same.”
“I could talk to the Descendants…” Laurel started.
“Maybe just one or two…” Liedecker watched Maya helping Eddie up and then scanned the crowd to find Annette. “…for training.”
“Ms. Brant, the last two extra-normal threats to the school were thwarted by students. The students themselves are the targets. As much as I wanted to shield them from this, we do have a school full of children who may very well be future superheroes. I think it’s time we offered a new, very selective, very carefully overseen elective: the Liedecker Institute Self-Defense Team.”
Not many people at the open house were paying any attention to much of anything going on down on the first floor any more.
So no one had seen one of the young waitresses dropping her platter of crab puffs and lunging at the drone display brandishing an extending steel baton like a magic wand. Nor did they notice a lightning bolt fly from the baton to the central hive controls.
It hadn’t stopped the swarm—their programming was changed at the hive, but shared among the hive members in a cloud drive—but it was all she could think of at the moment. Now she was sitting next to the display with her knees pulled up to her chest, her head down, trying not to cry in frustration.
She was so absorbed in her failure that she didn’t notice a hand reaching for her until it had pulled off her black wig, revealing her dark auburn hair beneath.
“Bit off more than you could chew, little sis?”
Horrified, Tammy looked up to find her brother and Tink standing over her in evening wear. Then her eyes narrowed. “You told!”
“No, she didn’t,” Warrick defended, “I got tickets without her knowing and surprised her yesterday. She kind of had to tell me then because I was going to see your Science Club friends here anyway. But my question is: why didn’t you tell me? You know I would have had your back, Tammy.”
Tammy folded her arms around her knees. “No, you would have showed up and grabbed the bad guy before he showed himself, and everything would have been ruined because we’d have no evidence!”
Warrick frowned. That’s pretty much exactly what he would have done. “Do you have evidence now?”
“Once the police fingerprint the hive thing. He had to have reprogrammed them that way, right? Hey, how come you didn’t help with the swarm of robots?”
“I did,” said Warrick, “But my powers have a hard time with a ton of little things. I was about to armor up and swing your friends out of here when Mae—”
“When Maya when Vesuvius on them. Kid’s got power to spare.”
Tammy grinned. “I know. She’s pretty awesome when she forgets she doesn’t want to be awesome.” She hesitated a moment, then asked, “So what now?”
“Now? We clue Laurel and Liedecker in about your teacher. Did you forget that she’s a genius and wouldn’t just let him know she’s on to him? Then, we call Mom and Dad so they get to hear what you’ve been up to. If I had to get the talk about not taking risks, you get that joy too.”
Sighing, Tammy accepted the hands both he and Tink extended to help her up and got to her feet. “Any chance I can skip that part?”
“There is no way I’m missing this… so no. You wanna be a hero, you take the good and the bad.”
End Student Union.