|Magellan Universe characters © Grace Crowley/xmung
© ZMiles, 2012
Note: this story is not Magellan canon.
xmung comments: A winner of the Magellan Fan Comp and it's a great, fun read – Charisma, Rochelle and Jenna are assigned to, of all things, a TV cooking competition to improve Forn demon/Human relations! It works in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. While the story isn’t cannon it does a great job of presenting the Magellanverse in ways I have imagined but not yet depicted in the comic. It’s a lengthy read but very much worth the time.
ZMiles says: “The plot occurred to me shortly after rereading the ‘Worst Fieldtrip Ever’ arc — I thought it might be interesting to know how the other cadets reacted when they heard about Jenna’s flake-out”.
“So, remind me again why we’re here.”
The only sign of Rochelle’s irritation was a slightly twitching eyebrow. “Because this is the mission they assigned us.”
“I know that already. You know what I meant.” Charisma Epoch scowled. “Aren’t you supposed to be smart?”
‘Here’ was a large television studio, currently being set up for a TV show. Charisma noted the bustling production assistants and technical people, and for a moment felt like she was back on stage with her band. Except that she played music, and there wasn’t supposed to be any music whatsoever for this show.
“The Academic Council judged that it would be good training for us, and useful to the world, to assign us this mission,” said Rochelle.
“And how is it productive, exactly, to send three cadets to a TV studio to be contestants on a program that no one will watch?”
Rochelle sighed. “It is for diplomatic relations, Charisma.”
Most of the studio was dominated by what looked like a bunch of tables. Tech guys and staff were running this way and that, trying to get things set up. It reminded Charisma of her band.
“In order to defuse increasing tension on Earth between humans and the Forn refuges,” the mission briefing had said, “Channel 17 is hosting a large reality TV show, in which every team must contain at least one Forn member. The producers intend, quote, “to show the world that the Forn are not demonic monsters, but have the same hearts and souls that we humans do.” Your team will participate in the show as one of the competing teams, both to assure the safety of the cast – there have been threats from anti-Forn groups – and to demonstrate Magellan’s commitment to peace and integration.”
“But this is so lame! No one watches Channel 17! And no one watches cooking shows anymore!” Charisma sighed dramatically, tossing her suitcases at a hapless camera guy. “Get this to the contestant rooms,” she ordered.
As the guy ran off, she complained, “If Magellan wants to look all open-minded with the Forn, whatever. But why us? We could be doing something real, like stopping Gator-Maid’s latest attack.”
Rochelle rolled her eyes. “Perhaps they do not consider three second-year cadets to be of sufficient skill to halt a class-A supervillain.”
“Well, they don’t consider this mission important enough to send three people who are actually good at anything. I’m great, of course, and I guess you’re not totally useless, but why the Hell is she on the mission?”
She gestured at the third member of the team, Jenna Zots, who appeared to be trying to ignore Charisma. She was looking at all the Forn that were around, occasionally waving to someone that she knew.
“Because, as this is a cooking show designed to placate fears about the Forn, each team must contain at least one Forn member,” said Rochelle, in a voice that sounded like she was talking to a small and stupid child. “And she is the only Forn in our year.”
“But she’s useless…” Charisma frowned. “Or, if this is just a stupid diplomatic thing and that’s why they picked Zots, why am I even here?”
“Because, as this is a cooking show, the team needs someone who has been on camera before and can make Magellan look good for the media. That would be you,” Rochelle deadpanned.
“Okay, baldy, why are you here then?”
“Because, as this is a cooking show, the team needs someone who actually knows how to cook.”
Charisma scowled. “Are you implying I can’t cook?”
“No. I am explicitly stating that I would be surprised if you could boil water without contaminating it, spilling it, or setting it on fire.”
They had drifted over to the set now. Pots and pans were being laid out on the tables, along with rows of ingredients. Charisma noted there were sane human ones – fruits and vegetables – and also junk foods, and a lot of gross things like tree bark and bugs. Probably for the Forn. If the goal was to make the Forn look good in front of the public, maybe they’d have been better off choosing an activity that didn’t involve them being completely gross.
As they passed a station, Charisma saw a smallish pot, and a bottle of clear liquid – probably water. After Rochelle had passed her, she quickly turned on an oven burner, dumped the water into the pot, and put it on the oven. She’d make Rochelle eat her words. Sure, she never cooked for herself – that was what restaurants and live-in chefs were for – but she knew it couldn’t be very hard. Hell, Jones managed to do it.
“Are you the Magellan team?” A tall production assistant – Forn, Charisma saw – had come over to them.
“Yes,” said Rochelle.
Jenna had taken a cautious step backwards. She seemed to be staring at his head.
“Your rooms are directly down that hall and to the right. The three of you are in bedroom 10.”
“Wait – we don’t get our own rooms?” demanded Charisma.
“No. Ah, due to space constraints, each team gets a bedroom, and all ten teams will share a common living room. But you’ll be spending a lot of time on the set anyway… the bedrooms are just for sleeping.”
Charisma thought of her luggage – the four stuffed-to-bulging bags. “What if there’s not room?”
The assistant shrugged. Then he gave them all a small package. “Your complimentary matchbooks.”
“What?” asked Jenna. “I don’t get it. What’s a matchbook?”
Rochelle explained. “Before portable lighters were common, most restaurants – at least fancy restaurants – gave out boxes of matches so that customers could smoke if they wished. The matches are a throwback to that custom.”“Not only that, but in honor of the Forn, see what happens when you light them,” urged the assistant.
Charisma sighed, already bored. She idly tried lighting a match, and shredded it – super-strength had done it again. She tried again, more gingerly, and managed to make a brilliant blue flame.
“Wow! Cool!” said Jenna, having evidently gotten over her stage fright.
Charisma rolled her eyes and tossed the match into the pot she was boiling. “Lame. I think—“
The blast of heat sent her stumbling forwards.
She turned to see that her pot of boiling water was now a pot of fire. An alarm blared from somewhere.
Rochelle dashed over to the pot and sniffed. “You attempted to boil vodka? And threw a match into the pot?” Her voice was disbelieving.
“Hey, I thought it was water! It wasn’t labeled!”
“Actually,” said Rochelle, glancing at the bottle as she began to maneuver the pot to the sink, “It was.”
Charisma grabbed the pot and easily flew it to the sink, where she poured out the flaming vodka. She could hear the crew murmuring about her, in mostly derogatory tones. Furious, she turned back to see Rochelle smirking.
“You can’t boil water,” teased Jenna.
“I hate you both.”
The bedrooms were cramped and not at all to Charisma’s style. Her luggage wouldn’t fit in the closet, even if Rochelle and Jenna didn’t contribute any of their own. And Rochelle was adamant that her own bag deserved closet space.
“I have brought sufficient sets of clothing for the duration of the competition, as well as the tools I need to continue my studies and to research the various cooking methods they wish us to employee. I have included nothing superfluous. Perhaps, had you done the same, there would be adequate space for your possessions.”
“Would it kill you to use actual English, instead of fancy book words?” snapped Charisma. This day just kept getting worse.
She jammed in as many of her suitcases as she could. Then selected for herself the bunk on the left, and put the last suitcase on it.
“Do you snore?” asked Rochelle.
“Of course not.”
“I snore, a little,” admitted Jenna.
Rochelle sighed. Jenna looked downcast.
“Shouldn’t you be playing with your Forn friends?” Charisma asked Jenna. Maybe if she could get the other two girls to leave, she could rearrange the room before they got back. Actually, if she could get them to leave, maybe she could sneak out and take a few days in Hawaii. If Spence objected, her dad could yell at him… he owed her at least that much. It wasn’t like he was good for anything else, besides ‘saving the world’ a couple times a month.
Jenna frowned. “Did you see that production assistant? His hairstyle, with just the two strips down the back.”
“I saw it, he looked like a nitwit. So?” Charisma was a bit surprised to learn that Jenna cared about fashion. It certainly wasn’t apparent from her lame civilian outfits.
“No, it means he’s part of the Fa’kr sect.”
“Or he likes the hair style,” pointed out Rochelle.
“Your cousin—“ began Rochelle.
“Was lying when he told Gifford it was just to look cool,” snapped Jenna. “Forn hairstyles are incredibly important. You can tell what someone does, how accomplished they are, how many and which family members they have, and most importantly, what they believe, by their hairstyle.”
She gestured at her own. “Ponytail – warrior in training.” Charisma snickered, but Jenna ignored this. “Shoulder length – teenager. Symmetrical – no specialty yet. If I end up focusing on my elemental magic, the right side will be a little longer than the left. Martial arts, it’s reversed. This band here, above my ears – that it extends to here,” she gestured to the forward point of her hair on the left side of her forehead, “Indicates that my father is still alive and a respected member of the community. The right point—“
“So, if you go out on a windy day and your hair shifts, do you lose your identity?” asked Rochelle. “Would a bad haircut turn a respected, married soldier into an elderly seamstress widow with no accomplishments of record?”
Jenna flushed. “Of course not! But this matters. The reason why the J’Ta sect are so depraved is that, by shaving their heads, they erase all of that sort of identification. If no one can be identified as a war hero or great leader or whatever, they can all claim they are. It encourages lying and backstabbing and—“
“Bored now.” Charisma floated over to her bed. “Bored bored bored.”
“Then be quiet,” said Rochelle, obviously annoyed, “And let me work.” She had gotten her computer out from her bag and was quickly going online. “I am studying for the competition tomorrow.”
“But we don’t even know what ingredients we’ll get,” said Jenna.
“I am analyzing existing cooking shows and determining what is statistically likely.”
“That sounds beyond lame.” Charisma kicked back on her bed. “So what’s the plan for the show?”
“I will determine what to do, and will make the difficult components. You and Cadet Zots will do exactly as I say, and will mostly be preparing ingredients and plating food,” said Rochelle.
Jenna scowled. “Hey, I’m not an idiot. I’ve cooked before.”
“Do you know what ‘sous vide’ means? What it means to cook something ‘confit?’ What a BTU is?”
“No, but I can learn.”
“Not nearly as fast as I can. Besides, the Forn diet is very different from human food – and this show is about cooking human food. Your cultural knowledge is of no use.”
“Why are you such a jerk?” snapped Jenna.
“I am simply honest. I do not enjoy wasting time by saying things that mean other things that I can only hope are correctly inferred, all for the sake of placating someone’s ego. I am doing you the honor of assuming you have sufficient maturity to engage in adult conversations.”
Irritated by the insults, and bored, Charisma began to sing one of her more recent pop hits. If se had to listen to someone’s voice, it could at least be her own. “Sista Superior, you’re no match for me… you can’t stop my destiny…”
“Oh, shut up! Everyone knows you can’t sing anyway, it’s all autotuned!” yelled Jenna.
Charisma flushed. “What did you say? Did you just say what I think you—“
“Both of you, quiet!” yelled Rochelle. “I am attempting to prepare for our mission!”
Jenna sighed. “This was the worst possible team assignment. Why did it have to be us?” She sat on her bed. “Maybe they’re trying to get us to work together and become friends or something.”
“That is not it,” said Rochelle.
“Why? Is that goal silly?”
“That goal is futile,” said Rochelle in a blunt tone.
“Hello, good afternoon, and welcome to the first annual Forn Cooking Extravaganza!”
The host of the show was a tall Forn named Wil Taks. He had a bombastic personality, which Charisma could at least kind of support; he was a TV show host and so would need to entertain an audience. His bizarre outfit – including the weird disco suit, the earrings and gold buttons, the oversized cufflinks, the shoes shined so brightly that they probably glowed in the dark – was another thing. He looked like he was trying way too hard.
His head was shaven. Charisma supposed this meant that he was a J’Ta member, or possibly a TV producer. Or a loser. But then again, that label applied to most Forn (and most people that weren’t her, now that she thought about it).
There were ten teams total on the show, so thirty contestants. About two thirds of them were Forn. Charisma counted five different hairstyles – shaven bald, ponytail, pigtails (and one of these was a guy), buzz cut, and one weirdo who had spiked it. Maybe the spikes meant ‘desperately seeking attention.’ It was what they meant for humans, anyway.
“I’m your host, Wil Taks! And, for the next two weeks, these ten teams will be competing in a brutal, no-holds-barred competition to determine which of them can produce the ultimate food! French, Italian, Chinese, German, every possible culinary style will be tested! Now, let’s meet the teams!”
The audience lights flashed. Spotlights swept over the teams as the stage lights dimmed. The music became low and vaguely anticipatory.
“Team number 1, From the New York Academy of Culinary Sciences. One of only three culinary schools worldwide, I should state, to be run by a Forn. We have here the top student chef at that institution, Jaka!” Jaka, a Forn whose skin was a bit more blue-y than the others, stood, waved, and took a huge bow.
The crowd roared. Charisma rolled her eyes. Like a cook was worthy of that kind of applause.
Taks continued. “And the top underclassman chef… and, as their supervisor, Chef Hikari Chigusa, trained in the Tokyo Academy of Fine Dining, and worked under the famous chefs…”
Charisma tuned this out. Rochelle was making notes in her comm – probably to analyze the opposing teams later. Whatever. Charisma’s interest in doing well extended only so far as ‘not looking like an idiot.’ Beyond that, she didn’t care at all about a dinky cooking competition.
Four teams were from culinary academies; New York, Tokyo, Paris, and Shanghai. Two teams were sets of chefs from restaurants; one French and one Austrailian. Two were teams of home cooks, and at least one of those – entirely Forn –appeared to have a lot of trouble speaking English.
The ninth team seemed vaguely familiar to Charisma. But it was Rochelle who recognized them.
“Wait a minute,” she said, interrupting Taks’ spiel. “That team is comprised entirely of amateur supervillains.”
“Ah, I see one of the teams has been recognized! Yes, folks, this is the Terrible Trio, quite recently paroled from a supervillain lockup in Istanbul.”
Two of the trio were human siblings; Hans and Greta van Lichner. They had mild super-strength and super-speed. The third was a Forn, K’kat Trad.
“He’s Fa’kr”, muttered Jenna. Charisma ignored her. She did note that K’kat had a very fashionable leather jacket and shades. He seemed to know how to dress, which was more than anyone else on stage (besides her, of course) could manage.
“Hey, are we safe?” yelled one of the audience members, with a look of not really wanting to be there.
“No worries! First of all, they’re all on parole now, which means that, hey, someone thinks they’re rehabilitated!”
Charisma noted that Hans and Greta weren’t even pretending to look rehabilitated. They were openly chuckling at that. K’kat was smirking.
“And second, none of them was convicted of any violent crimes.”
“Theft,” said Hans, in a German accent that Charisma found rather cute. “From banks, big business. Hacking, safecracking. No one ever hurt.”
“Yes. We rob rich, give to poor,” said Greta.
“When did you ever give to the poor?” asked Rochelle.
“Eh. Check get lost in mail.” The crowd laughed obligingly.
“Doesn’t this show have a million dollar cash prize?” asked one of the restaurant chefs.
Taks laughed. “Yes, yes, we thought of that. No worries, though, our safe is absolutely impenetrable! Besides, that’s why our last time is a group of heros from Magellan Academy!”
The spotlights swung over to the Magellan trio.
Though she didn’t want to be on the show, Charisma was energized by the cameras suddenly turning on her. Gripe later, but perform now. So Charisma waved and preened for the audience. “Hey everyone! We are gonna kick some ass!” She pumped her fist and the crowd roared.
“That’s Charisma Epoch, folks, famous pop star, hero in training, and, of course, daughter of the legendary Vlad Epoch – who, incidentally, was the one to catch the Terrible Trio in Istanbul two years ago.” Charisma scowled at the mention of her father. “Second, Jenna Zots, that team’s Forn representative.”
Jenna waved to the crowd, smiling but obviously nervous. Charisma sighed to herself. Amateurs. “And third, Rochelle Kwan, considered one of the smartest cadets at Magellan.” Rochelle didn’t even look at the audience. She just continued making notes in her comm.
“Hey, they don’t have any cooks or chefs,” said one of the Forn from the Shangai Culinary Academy. “Neither the hero or villain teams. Isn’t that against the rules?”
“I know about cooking,” said Rochelle, at the same time the Trio Forn said, “I can cook.”
“Both passed their auditions with flying colors,” said Taks. The Magellan trio looked at each other — there had been no audition; they’d just been assigned the mission. “They have every chance of success!”
Charisma tuned out Taks as he began to announce the judges. Two humans, one Forn. The Forn was the senior judge, and she seemed kid of annoying – she rambled a bit about proper food and how she had no compunction against calling out bad food for being what it was. “Poorly cooked food is more than a mistake. It is a crime. It is a betrayal of everything chefs claim to support. They should receive no mercy.” She seemed kind of insane.
Taks continued. “Now, tomorrow, these teams will begin to create the greatest of foods! They have the finest ingredients, the most amazing equipment, and are playing for prizes beyond measure! In addition to the grand prize of a million dollars, the winners of individual competitions will receive prizes like trips to exotic locales, cooking equipment, meals at the finest and most exclusive restaurants anywhere in the world, and more! Now, give all the teams a big cheer!”
The crowd clapped and whooped. Charisma had managed to recover her smile; there was a crowd and she wanted to look good in front of them.
“Alright! The big show begins tomorrow, so teams, get a good rest tonight – you’re going to need it!”
And she was thinking, ‘I hate all these people.’“Aren’t you guys going to come down?”
Charisma frowned at the undergraduate chef from the New York team. “Why would I?”
“Well, we’re going to talk, you know, meet each other. Um, the TV guys will ask us questions. Maybe a couple people will cook something.”
“Let me think about it – no.” Charisma smiled smugly. “I’ve got better things to do than to hang out with you guys.”
“Uh, but Miss Epoch, what other things? We’re not allowed to leave the studio.”
Charisma blinked, then turned to Rochelle, who was reading at her desk. “What?!”
“Rule of the competition,” said Rochelle. “Deal with it.”
“What about you?” the guy asked Rochelle.
“I am busy preparing for tomorrow. I have no time for frivolities.”
“I’ll go down,” said Jenna. She scowled at Rochelle, though not at Charisma. “At least some of us know how to have fun.”
“You should go,” said Rochelle to Charisma. “The entire point of your presence is to manage the media.”
“Maybe I don’t want to.” Charisma flopped on her bed as the guy left with Jenna.
“You, turning down a chance to be on camera? Quite unusual,” mused Rochelle. “Perhaps you are scared to be seen in the presence of those more accomplished than yourself.”
Charisma flipped to her feet. “Maybe I will go. And tell them all about how hard it is being forced to live with people like you two.”
“I could not possibly care less what you say, so long as you leave me alone,” said Rochelle, not even looking up from her work.
Charisma stomped down to the common area, a large living room with enough chairs and couches to comfortably seat the thirty contestants. There were so many Forn that the room was very blue, Charisma noted. And the Forn clashed with the walls.
“…so I was saying, you can’t cook duck confit unless you use actual fat,” Hikari Chigusa was saying. “And this idiot, he’s all, ‘watch me!’ So he uses this synthetic fat, and sure enough, when we go to look at the duck, it’s all rotted and disgusting.”
“Did you make him eat it?” asked one of the home cooks, an older woman.
Hikari smiled. “Well, he did tell me he’d be willing to serve it to a customer. So yes. He had to eat it.”
Some of the cooks laughed, while a few others looked surprised or horrified.
There were about five camera guys in the room, and sound guys with them. Most of them were Forn. One turned to Charisma. “Ms. Epoch! Would you tell the world how you feel about being here?”
Charisma, acutely aware that she hadn’t done her hair in hours, put on the best smile she could. One had to act for one’s fans, at least enough that they would continue to buy one’s merchandise. Besides, she was the only person here worth looking at; it could well be considered a heroic act to stay on the screen as long as possible to spare the viewers from seeing, say, Rochelle.
“I’m very confident that we’re going to win,” she said.
“Aren’t you worried that, as your team has no professional chefs, you’re at a major disadvantage?”
The other conversations had died down. Charisma saw Hans, Greta, and K’kat looking at her with curiosity. “Of course not. With me on the team, we can’t possibly lose.”
“I agree,” said the old guy on one of the home-cook teams. “Who needs professional training? Real cooking comes from the heart.”
Hikari got to her feet and stretched. “Well, I’ll bite. You, and Charisma too, wanna do a quick competition right now? Thirty minutes, just using whatever they stocked the fridges with?”
“Sure,” said the old guy.
Charisma paused. She had no idea what they’d stocked; for that matter, she’d never cooked before. “Umm…”
The others were starting to snicker.
That did it. Charisma tossed her head back. “Fine. I accept your challenge.”
Hikari walked to the fridge, opened it, and smiled. “Awesome selection.” She took out some green things, a couple of red and yellow things, and a meat thing. Charisma tried to remember what raw meats and poultry looked like.
Charisma and the old guy (who introduced himself as Willard Cole), went to the large preparation table in the kitchenette. Hikari neatly divided up the ingredients. “Look good to you?”
The man smiled. “Perfect. Let’s see your high-class cooking compete with homemade recipes.”
“Yes, I think we will.”
K’kat, of the Trio team, volunteered to judge. Charisma was a bit relieved at that, since as long as she didn’t fail completely, she could blame any sort of poor showing on his obvious bias against heroes.
“Begin!” said K’kat.Hikari used the yellow and red things (peppers, apparently) and some onion to make what she called ‘chicken piri piri.’ It smelled spectacular, and K’kat nodded when he took a few bites. “Delicious. This is based on Jamie Oliver’s recipe, right?”
Hikari smirked. “A few improvements. But sure, I heard that he has a similar dish.”
Cole had made what looked like a simple baked chicken with grilled peppers and a light sauce.
“It’s fine,” said K’kat. “Kind of plain, though.”
Cole shrugged. “This is the food that people eat at home. Food that people really like.”
Charisma wasn’t sure what she’d done wrong. The peppers and other vegetables had been crushed in her hands when she’d tried to manipulate them; seeds had gone flying everywhere, including into her eye, and apparently they were toxic or something because they stung like crazy. She put her chicken in the oven just like the others, turned the oven to the same temperature that Cole had, and in what seemed like a moment, black smoke was billowing out of it.
She had a pile of mush, and something that looked vaguely like gravel or charcoal.
“I don’t think I need to taste this,” said K’kat. He laughed. “Guess they put you on the team for your, uh, winning personality?” The other chefs laughed.
The reason, Charisma thought, that K’kat was not about to go flying through a wall was because they were on camera. That was the only reason.
“I told you to let me do the cooking.”
Charisma turned to see that Rochelle had just entered the room.
“I had a bad day,” said Charisma, but even she could hear how lame that was. Even the cameraman was smirking.
Hans said, “Yes, see brilliant Magellan hero. Such good training. All world must fear them.” He and Greta laughed.
“I noticed you two didn’t cook anything,” said Jenna. She’d been watching the whole thing with a vaguely sympathetic look, which had annoyed Charisma more than anything else.
Hans shrugged. “We here for ‘moral support.’”
“You’ll be at a huge disadvantage against teams with three competent cooks,” said Hikari. “Why would you bother showing up?”
Greta shrugged. “We nice people?”
“K’kat can win for us,” said Hans.
K’kat nodded. “Just one of me’s better than all of you!” There were some groans, and a few laughs.
Jenna got up. “Hey, uh, Charisma? Can we talk?”
The only place that didn’t have camera people following them was the bathroom, so Jenna and Charisma ducked inside there.
“Um… look, if you want a few tips on cooking or whatever… I wasn’t lying before. I know a few things.” Jenna shrugged. She was twisting her hands nervously. “Maybe not at Rochelle’s level, but…”
“Your help? I don’t need your help,” snapped Charisma. What could Jenna have to offer her?
“I mean, just some simple cooking things. You know, for the cameras…”
Charisma paused. That could be useful…
But still. It was Jenna freaking Zots. Jenna was probably the most friendless person in the class. After Oz Magellan (where she’d apparently flaked out and cowered in a corner during a fight), most of the class considered her to be a dropout that hadn’t quite gotten the message yet. It would be social suicide for Charisma to associate with her any more than necessary. And this whole competition was on TV. What if other people in the Powerhouse Club saw her?
No way. She’d just wing it.
“Like I’d need help from you,” said Charisma. “You should be asking me for help.”
“But you can’t boil—“
“Oh, shut up!” Charisma stormed out of the bathroom.
“I hate them all,” she muttered.
There was no way that whatever minor problems cropped up the next day would be worth the humiliation of being seen working with Jenna.
“And the Magellan team, in last place, with only one single point out of thirty!” Taks announced to the laughing television audience.
The first day hadn’t started out so badly. Charisma distinctly remembered feeling optimistic. The challenges had looked pretty easy.
“The format,” Rochelle had told them in a brusque voice, “Is that there are two competitions per day. In the morning, the challenge is a group competition, based around one specific ingredient, and the prize is an advantage for the larger afternoon challenge. The afternoon task is an individual theme challenge – like making a dish for a wedding or a funeral or something — and is for some more substantial prize.”
Taks had repeated this, and then had gone on to describe that day’s challenges. “Today’s Mini Challenge is based around one of the most fundamental ingredients – -chicken!”
And that had gone well. Rochelle, of course, had known what was coming, and so had prepared some sort of dish that Charisma guessed was supposed to be impressive. It wasn’t to her tastes herself, but whatever. One had to keep the audience happy.
“Cadet Zots, prepare the ingredients,” Rochelle had said, rapidly handing her the basket of vegetables. “Can you peel and wash these?”
“Good.” Rochelle had begun to mix up some strange combination of herbs and spices. “Cadet Epoch. Look pretty for the cameras.”
“I don’t take orders—“
“You can dirty your nails and help dismember this chicken if you want,” Rochelle had said dryly. She had also gestured at the carcass.
“…okay, you win.” Charisma crossed her arms. No way was she freaking dissecting a bird.
And it had gone great. Rochelle’s dish had actually taken first place, narrowly beating out the Tokyo team and the French restaurant group. And Charisma had gotten to give a crowing interview, where she said how awesome she (and, by extension, the rest of her team) was.
But the afternoon was a trainwreck.
The test was for each individual on the team to make a single dish, so that they produced three dishes total, for a three-course meal at a formal restaurant. They were told that the chief component of the score would be ‘creativity’, although of course the food still had to taste good. “It might be creative to give us an empty pot, but you’re sure not getting points for it!” Taks had said.
“We’re not allowed to help each other cook,” Jenna had said. They’d been given five minutes for the teams to talk amongst themselves before they’d be split up. Jenna had looked very nervous once the individual challenges were announced. “What do we do?”
“I will walk you through it on the comms,” said Rochelle. “I will speak softly enough that the cameras will not overhear me.”
“But you can’t see what we’re doing; how can you know what to say?”
“Just follow my instructions exactly and you will perform acceptably,” Rochelle had responded.
Charisma had rolled her eyes, but hadn’t complained. If nothing else, Rochelle was smart. Maybe she could just tell her how to make the foods into… better food, and they’d be done.
But then she was stuck at the table, with Rochelle and Jenna scattered elsewhere in the room. On her left was Cole; on her right was K’kat. Both seemed confident.
“Ms. Epoch,” K’kat had said. “How nice to be working next to you.”
“You know, your father put me away last time.”
“Not for long enough, I guess.”
“It’s okay. I couldn’t hold it against a beautiful woman like yourself.”
Charisma repressed a shudder. Was a blue supervillain hitting on her? “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t pay attention to a criminal like yourself anyway.”
The ingredients were the same mix of vegetables and things in little bottles and containers that she’d seen that morning. The meat wasn’t chicken, but beyond that, Charisma couldn’t say what it was. Cow, maybe.
As soon as the competition began, Rochelle began whispering in her earpiece. Charisma made an honest effort to listen, if only to avoid looking bad on television, but Rochelle left her way behind. “Put the beef in the eight-inch pan, turn the front-left burner to two degrees past medium, and heat the meat for exactly eighty-six seconds.” Good grief, Charisma thought, who talked like that?
She tried to make food out of it. She got the meat into the pan and turned on the burner; she smashed the vegetables (they came apart when she gripped them; apparently food was fragile), took out the yucky stuff on the insides, and put the rest in the pan too. Then she stirred it a little and hoped it worked.
It didn’t. She got it off the burner as soon as it began to catch on fire, but by then she had a pan of black, crunchy junk.
K’kat had laughed. “Would you like to copy me?” He showed her his dish, which smelled so delicious that Charisma wanted to grab it out of the pan and eat a bite or two. “Pepper steak. That’s what they wanted.”
Cole chuckled. “Simple, you mean. Simple is the best food there is, kid.”
And then a camera was in Charisma’s face. “Feeling good about your chances, Ms. Epoch?”
Charisma looked at her smoking mass of food-ish substance. “…I’m feeling confident our team will win.”
K’kat laughed. “Sorry, Epoch. The Trio’s gonna win the day! And, hey, camera guy, can I just give a big shout out to my lovely fans?”
“You certainly can. Ah, do bank robbers have fans?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” K’kat winked at the camera. “Scarcely a week went by in jail when some adoring fan, mostly of the female persuasion, didn’t send me a pie and a letter that was very… well, I’m sure you can guess.” He winked. Charisma gagged.
When it came time to judge, it was an unmitigated disaster. Charisma’s dish received 0. “Shockingly inept,” said the head judge. Charisma had only restrained herself from throttling the judge by promising that, as a reward for being so good, she’d get her dad to buy her a new outfit from a suitably famous Parisian designer.
Jenna had tried to follow Rochelle’s instructions, but had gotten lost somewhere. She had what looked like a decent salad, but the beef hadn’t made it into the final plate. “Where’s the beef?” Taks had joked.
“I, uh, left it in the pan,” said an embarrassed Jenna. One point was awarded, out of ten.
Rochelle’s dish, by contrast, looked spectacular. It easily outclassed every other dish there.
“Remarkable technique,” the head judge had mused. “Very nice balance of flavors. Exquisite control of the dish. There’s just one thing.”
“What?” Rochelle had asked.
“I’ve had this before. You didn’t create this – I recognize the recipe.” The judge had turned to the audience. “Michel’s, in Chicago. One of the top steakhouses in the Midwest area. Two Michelin Stars. And this dish is their specialty.”
“So you’re saying that Rochelle Kwan was able to replicate a star restaurant’s most famous dish? Amazing!” Taks had enthused. Rochelle had smiled slightly. Charisma had wanted to punch her.
“Indicative of technical skill, but this challenge was to test creativity. There is no creativity in simply copying another chef! I don’t see how I can give this dish any points.”
Rochelle had looked furious. “I object. I—“
“Did you make even one change from the recipe?”
And then, to make matters even worse, Hikari had presented her dish. “Mine was also based on that same meal, but of course I did make some changes. Note how, instead of roasted peppers, I used water chestnuts. I feel that it suits the texture of the dish better.”
“But the peppers add flavor,” one judge had began. “Water chestnuts are bland.”
“Precisely. I used different herbs to keep the same flavor. Flavor’s just as good, but the texture is far superior! Furthermore, you’ll note that I used chicken stock instead of water for the base, to give a richer flavor throughout.”
She got a perfect score of 10, as did the other two members of her team.
The Trio team did mediocre. K’kat got a 9, but Hans and Greta got a 3 each. The other contestants got between 4’s and 6’s. Charisma told herself that she wouldn’t have wanted to eat any of the dishes, although Hikari’s, Cole’s, and K’kat’s did look good.
At the end of the day, the New York team led, followed by the home-cook team with Cole. The Trio was near the bottom. And Magellan, of course, was dead last.
“We’ll tune in tomorrow to see if the New York group can increase their lead, and to watch as Magellan struggles to overcome their gaping deficit!” Taks laughed.
“They are hero. Maybe they no time for anything else like food,” said Greta, smirking.
“Yeah, maybe they’re overspecialized.” Hikari grinned. “Hey, you know what? Maybe we’ll offer a scholarship to a couple Magellan cadets. Clearly, they need it.” More laughter.
Rochelle was openly scowling, and Jenna looked close to tears. Charisma wanted to punch everyone, but of course they were on camera and that would look unseemly.
So she grabbed Jenna right after the day’s taping ended and dragged her into a side room before the cameras could follow. “Okay, fine. You can show me the cooking stuff.” She took care to make it sound like the favor it was.
Jenna looked a little annoyed at the tone, but nodded. “Awesome. We can sneak into the studio after hours… all the ingredients and tools should still be there.”
“After hours?” That would interfere with Charisma’s sleeping time. She needed her beauty sleep. “Let’s do it now.”
“They’re still filming. They’ll see us—“
The door banged open. Rochelle glared at them, then moved inside and shut the door. “Why did you not follow my directions?”
“I tried!” started Jenna.
Rochelle cut her off. “A monkey could have followed them. A child could have managed it.”
“Hey, it’s not her – or my — fault you were unclear,” snapped Charisma. She didn’t like defending Jenna, but she disliked Rochelle more.
“I am trying to fulfill the mission, despite your ineptitude. I would appreciate if you put in even a fraction of the work that I do,” snapped Rochelle. “Your performances were humiliating.”
“Hey, I got one more point than you,” said Jenna.
Charisma couldn’t help but chuckle.
“The judge is an idiot. But nevertheless, I will correct my performance to keep in line with her inane requirements. See that you two correct yours as well.”
“Make me,” said Charisma.
Jenna tugged on Rochelle’s arm. “Wait. Um, Rochelle, we’re sorry, okay? But maybe you can have us do easier recipes?”
“Our mission is to do well on the show.”
“But we aren’t doing well—“
“Thanks to your laziness,” snapped Rochelle. “Correct it.”
Charisma rolled her eyes. She really wanted to just go home. Or maybe to Paris.
“So… tonight then?” asked Jenna in a very timid voice.
The dorms that evening were dreadful.
The camera people and interviewers just kept talking about their blow-out loss. The other contestants mocked them. The New York team ‘graciously’ offered to cook dinner, and of course it was so good that not even Charisma or Rochelle could find fault with it.
“You did almost as bad as us,” snapped Charisma to Hans and Greta at one point. “Don’t be so cocky.”
“They are not here to win,” said Rochelle, calmly eating her meal. “They are either a ratings stunt on the part of the producers, or the most blatant embezzlement scheme in history.”
K’kat filled in. “What, you think we agreed with Taks to come on the show, use the chance to steal the prize money, and then give him a cut?”
“It is highly possible.”
“Oh no. Hero on to us. Whatever do we do?” deadpanned Hans, triggering another bout of laughter.
Rochelle said, still calmly, “We will be watching you, and will arrest you if you attempt anything illegal.”
“Three second-year cadets. We must flee for lives,” said Greta.
K’kat was laughing.
Most of the Forn were eating on one side of the table, and the humans at the other. Charisma noted that the Forn were grouped by hairstyle. Jenna was with the five or so others who had ponytails, and they were talking animatedly. Then there were the baldies, the pig-taileds, the buzzes, and, by himself, spiky. Spiky was the Forn on Hikari’s team.
Charisma sighed as she finished her meal. This was just so boring. She wished that Billy or another powerhouse was there. Maybe she could have had fun then.
Charisma awoke to a ringing sound in her ears, and she saw Jenna standing over her with a bent frying pan.
She blushed. “I, uh, wanted to wake you up, but you wouldn’t do anything when I rolled you…”
Charisma touched her head. Yes, it seemed like Jenna had hit her with the frying pan. It stung, faintly. Well, benefit of being a powerhouse. A simple tap wouldn’t wake you; often, alarms wouldn’t either. “And you woke me why?”
“Uh… for the training. I was just going to show you a few things. You know, for the show.”
Charisma sighed and got up. She hated this, but she hated looking dumb on TV slightly more.
Jenna was able to hack the locks to get into the filming room. The studio was dark at night, but Jenna seemed to have no trouble finding her way around. She got both of them to a table.
Beneath the tables were mini-fridges with baskets of ingredients. Jenna took out one. “Um… so I guess maybe now we can do things like vegetable prep? For salads and stuff?”
Charisma thought back to the dishes that day. There had been a couple of salads, but the judges had hated them. “A salad is not a real dish,” the head judge had said. “A real dish is based around a protein or a grain.”
“I thought the judges hated salads?”
“It’s somewhere to start. Besides. We get to chop things.”
Charisma rolled her eyes. “Ew. Really? You sound like you’re five.”
Jenna took out a pepper. “Okay. Imagine that this is Kaycee’s face. Now, here’s how you seed them. First you chop off the stem like this – like you were cutting off her forehead – and then you…”
Charisma couldn’t help but laugh at the analogy, and managed to watch Jenna quickly seed the pepper.
“Ta da!” Jenna showed her the finished pepper, which was now cut into strips. “Forn use a lot of vegetables in their food, and of human ones, a lot of peppers. They taste kind of similar to some stuff we ate at our own home world.”
“Fascinating,” lied Charisma.
She picked up one of the peppers, squeezed it a bit like she’d seen Jenna, and accidentally crushed it into a pulpy mass.
Jenna clamped her mouth shut, but it was obvious she was fighting not to giggle.
Charisma turned away. “Yeah, go ahead, laugh. What powers do you have? Way I hear it, you’re too scared to even use what you’ve got.”
Jenna said nothing, and when Charisma turned back, she saw that Jenna was looking downcast.
“Hey, Earth to Jenna? You were going to be showing me how to do this?” She snapped her fingers… the sonic boom of which was enough to send Jenna sprawling against the other table.
Charisma shrugged, then returned her attention to the pepper.
“I… anyway. Try holding the pepper like a really fragile…” Jenna trailed off. “Actually, no. You’re really strong. We should be using that.” She crossed her arms. “I mean, I know Rochelle doesn’t want you to do anything, but I don’t get why we can’t use your powers to do well. I mean, you have them, right?”
Charisma nodded at the acknowledgement of her superiority.
“Okay, try this. Try to tear the pepper at this point.”
Charisma did so, and easily ripped it into two halves connected only by the other side. The seeds and stalk dangled from one of the halves, and she yanked them out.
“Faster than my time. Nice.” Jenna nodded.
Charisma examined her nails. “Ugh. Can’t they at least give us gloves?”
“Okay. Now, onions…”
Jenna walked Charisma through a half dozen vegetables, until Charisma found that she couldn’t even feign interest anymore. Jenna would show her both the traditional way, and the best way for her to accomplish something using her super-strength.
“It must be really nice,” mused Jenna, “To be so strong.”
This was a topic that Charisma liked – herself. “Of course.”
“I mean, you must, like, completely fearless.” Jenna took out a pan and showed Charisma how to put oil in. “Is it true that nothing can hurt you?”
“Of course,” lied Charisma. Electricity could hurt her, but Jenna didn’t need to know that.
“Okay, now you need to tilt the pan to coat the bottom…”
“Uh…” Jenna blushed. “’Why’ is really Rochelle’s thing. I think it helps distribute the heat evenly?”
Charisma took the pan, twirled it, and spattered oil everywhere. “I think my pan is defective.”
Jenna quickly re-oiled it. “Let me show you.”
She put her hands on Charisma’s, but almost immediately tensed up. When she tried to move Charisma’s hands, to show her how to tilt the pan, she moved in short, sharp jerks.
“What, scared?” mocked Charisma.
“A little, yeah,” said Jenna with an embarrassed smile. “I mean, you could totally just crush my hands now if you wanted to.”
Charisma frowned. She didn’t like the Forn, but wasn’t sure why the Forn would fear her. “Um. I don’t want to.”
“I know, but you could.” Jenna tilted Charisma’s hands, and the oil swirled around the pan. “That’s why it must be nice to be you… no one can hurt you.”
The oil began to sizzle, and Jenna dropped the peppers and onions in.
“Can we please get to something interesting?” asked Charisma, wanting to change the topic. Was Jenna coming on to her?
Jenna began to put the vegetables in the pan. Soon they were sizzling. “Um, we’ll have to look up how long to cook each one… I forget. But the idea is to cook them until things happen to them. Like, the peppers should become soft, and the onions should get see-through.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Yeah, I wish there was just a ‘make food’ button.”
Charisma couldn’t help but chuckle. She’d been feeling the same thing all day.
When it was done, Jenna tried a bite. “Not bad for a vegetarian dish.”
Charisma tried it too. It didn’t suck. “Huh. Guess you knew something after all.”
The insult didn’t seem to phase Jenna. “So… I guess, we’ll do more tomorrow then?”
On her way out, Jenna paused. She looked back at the tables. “Does this room look… weird… to you?”
Charisma pushed Jenna out of the way. “No more than your face.”
Charisma returned to the dorms, where she gratefully got into bed, and dreamed that she was back home with Billy or some other suitable guy, and that the whole show was just a distant, stupid memory.
The next three days were a combination of being boring, annoying, and hilarious.
The team challenges usually went okay. They won one more, and placed well in the others. The biggest challenge was the setup of the stage, which changed daily. But the individual ones… those were more painful.
The Magellan team didn’t do quite so badly as they had on the first day, but they didn’t exactly do well either. Charisma was now getting 1’s and 2’s for her food, which was better than 0’s, but not by much. Jenna was getting 4’s, and got a 5 one day for something that involved a duck and French-sounding words.
Rochelle… well. The judges seemed to hate her. Charisma was incredibly amused by this.
Her dishes were, invariably, too close to some recipe or formula. “There’s no heart in what you’re doing,” the head judge kept saying. “It’s like a math problem for you. Some silly math problem. Real food comes from the heart. A machine could have designed this food.”
Rochelle had gradually become more angry. “The food tastes precisely the same whether or not the chef was thinking of passion or of some scientific principles.”
“Ignore the heathen,” joked Hikari. Her dishes were generally similar to Rochelle’s, but always had some weird twist that not even Rochelle seemed to understand.
“Blanching the vegetables is well known to be an inferior technique for this dish!” Rochelle had snapped. “It has been proven scientifically—“
“But that little difference gives it a whole new taste. There’s feeling, here. Respect for the audience. And I like it. 10 points,” said the head judge.
“I hate her,” growled Rochelle. Charisma was bemused; she had never seen Rochelle express any emotion, besides mild scorn or mild smugness. “She is clearly biased.”
She got on her comm. “I am going to research her. I am certain that the Trio team is bribing the judge. This is all to humiliate me.”
“Or maybe it’s for ratings,” said Charisma, before she could stop herself.
Charisma sighed. “Hello, pop star here? I know a little about TV.” Realizing that she would get to lecture Rochelle, of all people, made her quite merry. “Look, the show wants people to watch so it sells ads. So it has to give them what they want. And what they want is for the arrogant person who didn’t have to work at all for her cooking smarts to be smacked down.”
“I worked extremely hard!”
“You have an IQ of what, nine million? And you learned all this fancy dining stuff in a week by reading online? Joe Public wants to hear about the guy who spent five years at university, or who worked at a restaurant for a decade, winning. Or even the home cooks, since they’re the stock underdogs – nothing but passion and a lifetime of experience.”
Rochelle was staring.
“Whereas, you? You’re the joke. I guarantee you, half the interviews they show will be of people saying they find you annoying.”
“What about the villain team, then? They didn’t work for anything!”
Charisma shrugged. “Hans and Greta, sure. But they’re having fun for the cameras, so the people like to watch them. Bet the final competition has you and me going up against them. K’kat, they’ll probably give him some heartwarming crap about turning his life around in prison. Trust me, my agent’s been through all these things with me. I know how this goes.”
Rochelle was almost grinding her teeth. Finally, she turned to Jenna. “As to our mission. How… are you getting along with the other Forn?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“Are you associating with anyone who doesn’t have your hairstyle?”
“Yeah, I guess. Except for the J’ta, everyone’s getting along okay.”
“At least we are accomplishing one thing,” growled Rochelle. “I will be studying. Do not disturb me.” She disappeared to her room.
“Rochelle’s way too arrogant,” Charisma groused. “All she has is smarts. That’s not enough for anything. Smarts didn’t stop Sista Superior.”
“She’d be fine if she would just… I don’t know. Think of us as part of the team. She acts like she just needs to order us to do things, and we’re supposed to do them. Like she’s our boss.”
“ I should be in charge,” said Charisma.
“What would you have us cook?” teased Jenna.
Charisma’s first response was ‘I’d make Rochelle come up with something,’ but she was able to realize how stupid that would sound. “…anyway. Can we get to meats tonight?”
Charisma was beginning to find her nightly cooking sections with Jenna to be not totally annoying. It was something to do, and as Jenna was keen to remind her, they were continuing to beat Rochelle in the competition, which was fun in and of itself. It was annoying that the sets changed every night, and they always seemed to freak Jenna out (though Charisma had no idea why; maybe she was afraid of shelving and oven patterns too), but other than that, it was okay.
“Sure.” Most of the prior few days had been about grains and fruits and vegetables. It was just simple crash-course stuff. But now, hopefully, they’d actually start cooking real food.
Jenna froze when she entered the studio that night, though. “Wait. This is different.”
The studio set had been changed again. Charisma couldn’t see anything especially odd, though.
“This doesn’t make sense.”
“What? I told you, the show’s just trying to keep things new for the idiot viewers.”
Jenna walked from one table to another, as if in a daze. Then, “Um ,Charisma? Could you… uh… fly me up! I want to see this from up high.’
“You’re joking, right? I’m not a taxi.”
“Please? Come on, as a friend.”
Charisma laughed. “Jenna, it’s great that you’re teaching me, but believe me, we’re not friends.”
“But…” Jenna wrung her hands. “Charisma, I’m really scared.”
Scared of what? Charisma wanted to ask. Was some kind of geometry against Forn beliefs?
But then again, why not? Maybe Jenna would freak out in some funny way.
She grabbed the back of Jenna’s shirt and lifted off. Jenna squealed. “Hey, how about some warning!”
“You’re mean,” said Jenna, but she didn’t seem all that mad. “Okay, yeah, right here.”
She looked down.
“I don’t get this. Look at the table arrangements.”
Charisma did. “What?”
“It’s a Forn holy symbol. From the Mog Texts.”
“Can we go down now?”
Jenna agreed, and the two descended.
“And can we cook now?”
“Wait a minute.” Jenna shook her head. “There’s something really wrong about this.”
“Just wait a minute!” She looked almost panicked. She grabbed a carton of flour from a cabinet and spilled a bunch on the table, then began drawing lines. “Did the room look like this yesterday? Tables at these lines, and the cameras were here, and the shelves with cooking stuff…?”
“Who the Hell cares?”
Charisma frowned. Jenna seemed to be really freaking out. “Okay, okay. Um.” She tried to remember. “Yeah, that looks right.”
She quickly recreated the other days of filming. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it. Look!”
She tapped her comm. “The symbols… ‘May our Truth Live Forever In.’”
“It’s not complete. I’ll bet that… the next couple days will arrange the tables to finish it. ‘May our Truth Live Forever In Holy Flame.’” She bit her lip. “Charisma. You’re the TV expert. Do these shows bring in family members or friends of the cast?”
“Oh Mog.” She clutched the table. “May our Truth Live Forever In Holy Flame is a commandment of the J’Ta sect. They’re here. The Crusaders. They’re going to kill us all.”
“We have to tell Rochelle. We have to tell Magellan. They’re going to invite the families and then kill everyone that isn’t in the J’Ta sect…”
“Uh, Jenna, this is a cooking show. Speaking of which – let’s cook, okay?”
Jenna took off at a run. Swearing, Charisma pursued.
Jenna raced through the living room, startling the other chefs that were there.
“Hey, Jenna!” called out one of the Forn –one from the Austrailian restaurant team. “We’re having a traditional Forn meal. You want some?”
Charisma gagged. A bunch of Forn were passing around a bowl of moss and tree bark. Yuck.
“No time,” gasped Jenna, hurrying into the Team 10 bedroom.
Charisma followed, just in time to hear Jenna tell Rochelle her ideas.
“You are overreacting,” was Rochelle’s response.
Charisma frowned. Rochelle was looking weird. There were dark circles under her eyes. She’d been staying up late, Charisma had noticed, but she hadn’t noticed this before. Rochelle was rarely important enough to notice.
“I’m not! This is deliberate. The chance of this being a coincidence—“
“I am something of an expert on Forn religious symbols,” said Rochelle.
“…I’m a Forn, Rochelle.”
“And I received a better grade than you in the Forn section of cultural studies. Virtually any combination of those tables and other furnishings could be a religious symbol. There are literally thousands of them.”
“And the odds that they would form that particular meaning?”
“Miniscule. But the odds that they would form some sort of meaning are highly significant. The symbols have multiple meanings depending on their context. I could arrange these symbols in almost any pattern and come up with some scriptural quote.”
“But – the host, he’s J’Ta—“
“Or he merely prefers a shaven head. Besides, even if he were J’Ta, what does it matter?”
“That phrase was the kickoff to the Forn crusades! All the Forn will be here – they’re going to strike then! The J’Ta are going to kill every Forn here that isn’t one of them! They—“
Rochelle got up. She looked really angry.
“Jenna. I have tolerated your outbursts for this entire mission. I am aware of your… shortcomings, and am not wholly unsympathetic.”
“I know about the cowardice you displayed at Oz Magellan.” She glowered. “And I have done what I could to assist you. But my patience is at an end. If it is so important to you, I will contact Magellan Island with your suspicions. But that is it. What I want – what we need – is for you two to leave me alone so I can determine how we win this competition.” Her eyes flashed. “If you continue to whine, I will inform the Academic Council about your attitudes. Given your past conduct, you will likely be removed from Magellan for conduct unbecoming a cadet.”
“I most certainly can.”
She turned away.
Charisma was beginning to feel slightly embarrassed for Jenna, who was shaking like a leaf. “Geez, Jenna, who cares if the host is J’Ta or whatever?”
Jenna gulped, and then turned on her hoof and left the bedroom.
Charisma followed Jenna, more curious than concerned. But she wasn’t in the living room either.“Hey,” said K’kat. “What was with Jenna? She just stormed out.”
“How should I know?”
“Probably just concerned that she’s not doing so well,” said Hikari. “In the competition. After tomorrow, we’re half done.”
Charisma frowned at Hikari. Something had been bugging her. “Hey, what’s your deal, anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, why are you here? You never try to talk to the cameras.” Indeed, Charisma had only seen Hikari talking to the cameras when they directly asked her a question. Most of the other contestants, besides the other Magellan folks, were seeking them out.
“Maybe I just want to cook good food. Anyway, you’d better find your girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend!” Charisma recoiled. She was only interested in other powerhouses, she was straight, and she was not into blue people. “Yuck!”
The others chuckled, and K’kat said, “What, you don’t like Forn?”
“Oh, shut up. You’re just a criminal.”
“Hey, I totally reformed.” K’kat jumped to his feet and struck a quasi-heroic pose. “I’m just here to compete, same as anyone else.”
“You’re here to rob the vault,” grumbled Charisma as she pushed past him.
“Charisma!” yelled one of the camera guys. “Care to tell the public what your plans are for pulling Magellan out of their dismal ranking? You guys have been in last place ever since this thing began!”
Cole, whose homecooking team had slid to ninth place after an initial strong start, said, “It’s not about placement. It’s about making good food.”
Charisma ignored Cole. She thought he was probably senile. She also ignored the camera guy, and instead followed Jenna.
Jenna had taken refuge from the cameras in a large linens closet just at the edge of the residential area. She was shaking.
Charisma was able to identify her hideout – her tail was poking out. She opened the door, trying to figure out what to do. It was crucial that Jenna teach her how to cook meats. “Jenna?”
“I can’t believe she won’t help me!” hissed Jenna, opening the door and letting Charisma in. “She just thinks I’m making things up.”
Charisma thought that too, but she just said, “Well, she’s a jerk. I’ve known that forever.” Maybe Jenna would go back to helping her cook if Charisma pretended that she sympathized with her.
“Just cause we’re not as smart as her.”
“…yeah,” said Charisma.
Jenna was still clearly upset. “I know I’m not seeing things. I’m going to explore backstage to figure out what’s going on. I need your help.”
“Help me break into the backstage area. If they’re really planning, I don’t know, some new crusade or something, I’ll know what to look for. They’ll need altars and stuff.”
Charisma raised an eyebrow. “Cooking is one thing, but you really expect me to help you snoop around behind the stage? I know what’s behind stages. Dirty technical equipment. Not interested.”
“Please! I’ve been helping you this whole time! You owe me!”
It was the wrong thing to say. Charisma’s sympathy vanished. “News flash ,Jenna, I let you help me out of charity. So you could say that you provided a service to me.” This wasn’t really true, but Charisma thought it sounded good. “I—“
Jenna threw herself down in front of Charisma. “I’m begging you,” she managed.
Charisma was so taken aback that she didn’t know what to say. She just stared.
“If this is the kickoff to some new J’Ta crusade, the Forn on earth will die. They will slaughter all of us. Yeah, I’m scared. Maybe I’m a bad hero. Maybe someone like Jones or whoever wouldn’t need your help… fine. I’ll do whatever you want for as long as you want, just help me with this.” She paused. “Please.”
“…whatever I want?”
Charisma remembered something. Some people… Spence, her dad… seemed to think that her attitude was unbecoming a hero. She knew better, that attitude didn’t matter, but whatever.
If Jenna would do whatever she wanted…
She could spin it as kind of like she was mentoring Jenna. All she’d have to do would be to assign Jenna annoy exercises or tasks – maybe even any chores she (Charisma) was asked to do. Or she could just have Jenna run laps around Magellan island. Or even do Charisma’s hair or nails (as a ‘gesture of thanks to her mentor’). She could say that she was just trying to help bring up a failing cadet.
And the best part was, most people thought that Jenna would fail out anyway. If, by some miracle, Jenna stayed at Magellan, it would clearly be due to Charisma’s influence. If she didn’t, that was to be expected, and hey, Charisma had tried. Win-win.
A lot of credit for not much work… and all she had to do now was shadow Jenna as they went through some storage rooms?
Charisma held up a hand. “Whatever I want. Remember that.”
Jenna bowed her head. “Yes. It’s… it’s worth it, if we can help head off another Crusade.”
“Okay, then. I—“
“Thank you!” Jenna hugged Charisma’s legs.
Charisma winced. “Um. You can get up now.” It was embarrassing, with Jenna literally kneeling and begging in front of her. Jenna was setting new records of pathetic-ness. Even Kaycee wasn’t this bad.
“I can get us in. Just watch my back.” Jenna hopped to her feet. “Let’s go.”
Jenna hacked the backstage door, and the two heroines made their way into the network of hallways and storage rooms that were a prerequisite for any studio.
“What are we looking for, exactly?” Charisma asked.
“If they really are setting a Crusade up, they’ll need a temple on-site. They’ll probably also have weapons and holy objects in one or more of the storage rooms.”
Charisma wished that she’d bothered to get one of Hugh Black’s X-Ray goggles. He was an annoying, geeky twerp, but he could usually be convinced to part with gadgets in exchange for just the slightest hint of female affection. Once, she’d seen Montana-Rose get him to do her homework for a weekend, while she played some magic game with the Witch Club, just for a kiss on the cheek.
Jenna hacked another door and opened it, but the only things inside were dusty props.
“So what were the J’Ta Crusades, anyway?” asked Charisma. She felt vaguely interested in whatever was terrifying Jenna.
“The J’Ta tried to kill everyone who didn’t share their beliefs about the Forn deity, Mog,” said Jenna. “They slaughtered millions. They had… these giant altars, where day and night they would haul in ‘heretics’, people in my sect and others, and kill them.”
Jenna blanched. “Please don’t ask me that.” She paused. Then she finally said, “They use a lot of different knives. Each knife goes with a different part of the body. It’s very… symbolic.”
Charisma felt a little sick.
Jenna took a few moments to recover, then continued. “If it happens on Earth, even Magellan won’t be safe. The J’Ta are fanatics. They’ll storm the island, and even if they don’t take it over, they’ll kill any ‘heretics’ they can, and any humans who get in their way.”
An hour passed. They were getting near the back of the studio. Jenna didn’t seem to be any more relaxed by their failure to find weapons or an altar, though. Charisma, for her part, was bored again, and was mostly drifting along after Jenna and cursorily covering her when she opened doors.
They finally got to a door that didn’t seem to fit. It was sturdier than the others, and Jenna said that the lock was much more difficult to hack. Faint conversation within the room could be heard.
“According to the schematics, there should be a vent we can use,” said Jenna.
Charisma wrinkled her nose. “A vent? Ugh.”
“Come on. You promised.”
Charisma sighed and told herself that it would be worth it to have a servant that she would get credit for treating however she pleased. “Alright, fine. Let’s just get this over with.”
Jenna found the duct, which proved to be just large enough for them to crawl through. Then she led the way.
They could see, by looking through a grate, that the room was very large.
And it looked, to Charisma, like it was some sort of crazy temple.
There was a large statue of some creature – Mog? – in the center of the room. A few Forn were kneeling in front of it. Further back were mats and chairs, and a few other Forn were talking in a language that sounded… well, alien, to Charisma.
All the Forn had shaven heads.
Jenna froze. “Mog. Mog help us.”
Charisma looked down in confusion. “What are they saying?”
Jenna – sweating nervously — tapped a few buttons on her comm, then handed it to Charisma. “Put it up to your ear. It’ll translate. Oh, Mog, we’re all going to die…”
Charisma sighed, but did so. “Shut up,” she hissed to Jenna. “They’ll hear us, and you’re annoying me.”
The comm produced a faint voice that Charisma could just make out. But at least it was English, not the Forn language.
“…sixty family members and friends in all. Two per contestant on average. They don’t know about it,” one was saying. It was a cameraman ; Charisma recognized him from the dorms.
Fa’kr was talking to Wil Taks. Taks grinned. “Perfect. How many heretics?”
“J’Ta make up approximately one quarter of the Forn here. Of those who would be willing to fight with us… probably only one or two. Rema, from the second home cooking team, and maybe Tavan, from the Shanghai group. The others are not nearly faithful enough.”
“What about the heroes and villains?” asked a Forn in a suit – Charisma pinned him as a network executive. “They might try to stop us.”
“The safecrackers have no experience in physical combat. They are just a distraction for the Magellan idiots to focus on,” said Taks, “They think I want them to steal the money in exchange for a cut… idiots.” He laughed. “The money has already been invested in this attack. There is nothing for them to steal. As for the Magellan humans, Epoch and Kwan… they have no experience with Forn poisons. We can simply drug their food.”
Charisma stiffened. How dare they?
“We could drug all their food,” said the cameraman. “All the contestants and family members.”
“No. Then it would not be obvious that Mog was with us. We will attack the other Forn without impeding them in any way. Mog will ensure our victory.” Taks thought. “But Kwan and Epoch are not Forn and are not part of this. It will be easy enough to drug them.”
“And Zots and K’kat?”
Taks smiled. “I will deal with both of them myself. And demonstrate that the petty conflicts here pale in importance before our Holy Crusade!” He had a small suitcase with him; he opened it and drew what looked like a long, ceremonial sword. “Neither of them have much combat ability, but it will be a powerful symbolic victory.”
He laughed. “This will be the signal to our J’Ta brethren that they need not cower from the ‘heroes’ of this world that would shelter the depraved infidels. We will show them, on national television, how weak these heroes, and villains, and heretics truly are. I predict a very short, victorious war… and then we have exterminated their filth. And the only remaining Forn will be those of us who truly worship Mog.”
Charisma was seriously debating smashing down and obliterating the whole crowd. How dare they attempt to attack her? She didn’t care about Forn at all; the whole lot could move to Mars or another galaxy for all she cared, but threatening to drug her? That was ridiculous.
But she was capable of understanding that a seemingly unprovoked attack would probably backfire. The idiots, she concluded, would probably think that she was in the wrong if she attacked first.
In fact… Taks was a TV host. And that meant…
A motion by Jenna caused Charisma to look up.
Wow. She’d thought Jenna had been bad before. The normally blue girl was almost green, literally shaking with fear. “Oh Mog, oh Mog, oh Mog…”
She began to shudder wildly enough to begin moving the vent. She opened her mouth, presumably to scream.
“Shit,” hissed Charisma. She quickly grabbed Jenna’s head and muffled her the fastest way she could – by pressing her arm into her mouth.
Jenna tried to shriek, and bit down, but her teeth couldn’t possibly break Charisma’s skin. She was bulletproof; teeth were no trouble, not even Forn ones.
Jenna began writhing wildly.
“Jenna, stop it!” hissed Charisma.
Jenna’s eyes were wide with terror.
If this kept up, they’d probably be noticed – someone would have to hear the struggling in the vents – and then they were screwed no matter what. Even if Charisma fought through all the Forn, that wouldn’t solve the problem because…
“Listen, Jenna.” She caught Jenna’s gaze, and carefully held Jenna’s head so she couldn’t look away. She just had to be careful not to squeeze too hard and pop her head like a grape. She recoiled at the thought, then went on. “Oh, for… okay, look. I’m protecting you, right? That was the deal? So you don’t have anything to worry about. So stop shaking.”
Jenna slowly stopped.
“If I let you open your mouth, you’re not going to scream,” Charisma instructed.
Jenna weakly nodded.
Charisma released her, and Jenna immediately hissed, “Attack them now! You can save all of us!”
“This guy’s a TV host. He knows how to manipulate the media. If we attack them now, he can spin it so that it’s our fault.” Something clicked. “Or your sect’s fault. He’ll claim that your sect is violent and provoked it, and that anything after that will just be them defending themselves.”
“That’s not true, that’s—“
“That’s what he’ll tell the public, and they will believe it.” Charisma felt very happy; this was a subject that she knew more about than Rochelle, or anyone else at Magellan. Being a pop star had taught her way more about the media than whatever was in Rochelle’s books. “He’ll say, ‘we were just worshipping peacefully when a whatever-weirdo-sect-you-are Forn and a super jumped out and attacked us all.’ He’ll inspire the J’ta to rise up and fight your sect, and he’ll block Magellan from doing anything about it, because it will look like Magellan itself helped provoke the attack, and Magellan will need to distance itself from us.”
“So… we can’t do anything?”
“Not without proof, which we don’t have. Unless anything down there can’t be used for actual rituals that don’t involve killing, or whatever the Hell they’re doing?”
Jenna peaked. “No… I mean, I see swords and knives, but all have peaceful ritualistic purposes.”
“So there’s no proof they mean to attack us.”
“We have to just let them make the first move? People could die!” squeaked Jenna.
Charisma controlled her urge to throttle the Forn. “We’ll think of something, but unless we have proof—“
“The missing money!”
“They’ll say that Hans and Greta stole it.”
“The conversation – did you record it?”
“Uh, why would I?” Charisma frowned. She hadn’t thought of it, and evidently, nor had Jenna. Taks and the others had split up by this point, and were probably not going to conveniently confess again in the next few minutes. “Not my job. You were the one who wanted to look for clues.”
Jenna said, “Okay, then, uh… look, now we can both tell Rochelle. She has to listen to both of us. She can come up with some plan. Something to do to save us, and not trigger another Forn war.”
Charisma disliked Rochelle, but acknowledged that she could be useful for things involving planning. “Fine.”
Jenna was still very weak upon returning to the dorms. At least, that was how she looked when she collapsed on her bed.
“What now?” asked Rochelle.
Charisma floated to her bed, stopping only to bodily throw a camera guy and sound guy out of the room. She slammed the door, then turned back to Rochelle. “So, short story, Taks and his buddies want to kill everyone.”
Rochelle raised an eyebrow. “You too?”
Charisma briefly recounted everything that they had overheard.
Rochelle paused for a long moment, and then said, in an even tone, “Did you concoct this story in order to justify leaving the competition and indulging yourself in a vacation for the remaining mission period?”
Charisma was frozen in shock for a moment. Then she went to slap Rochelle.
She pulled it at the last minute. Otherwise she might have killed her. But she did end up smashing a rather large hole in the wall.
“It is a perfectly valid question,” said Rochelle. “Your disdain for actual heroics has been obvious for quite some time, as has Cadet Zots’ cowardice. It would make logical sense for you two to make up a story allowing you to take a vacation and Zots to return to the safety of Magellan Island.”
Charisma saw that Jenna was staring at Rochelle with pure fury in her eyes.
Evidently, Rochelle saw it too. She sighed. “I will report it to Magellan Island. But if this is made up, I assure you, the Academic Council will know who to blame.”
She began to tap her comm.
And then she stopped.
“What?” asked Charisma.
“…I cannot access Magellan Island.”
“What, like someone’s blocking us?” Charisma realized what this meant. “Almost as if I was right?” She smiled. Ah, this felt good for her.
“Hey, I was right first,” said Jenna. Charisma ignored her.
Rochelle looked very embarrassed as she stabbed at her communicator. “They have erected a firewall.”
“Break it,” urged Jenna.
“I can break it, but not without alerting the J’Ta here. And they could begin the slaughter of the contestants long before we returned with reinforcements. The same is true for an attempt at physical escape.”
“We can’t attack first, Charisma says,” said Jenna.
“I agree with Charisma.” Charisma was pleased to see the obvious pain Rochelle was feeling at uttering those words. “If we cannot leave to get help or contact outside assistance, our only remaining option is to wait until the J’Ta make their move, and then counter it.”
Charisma sighed. “This is ridiculous. Way too much work.”
“It is almost as if you are training to be a hero or something,” said Rochelle.
Jenna got into her bed. Charisma noted that she seemed a little calmer than before.
“What?” Charisma was looking over her clothes to see what nightshirt she wanted to wear. She had to look stylish. After all, there was filming going on.
“Thanks for stopping me from freaking out in the vent,” said Jenna. She smiled slightly.
“Hey, we had a deal. Which I kept, by the way.”
Jenna nodded. “But still. Thanks.” She lay her head back on her bed. She hadn’t even bothered to change into nightclothes. “I’m glad you were there. You’re really strong… you make me feel safe.”
Charisma blinked. What?
She turned, but Jenna had turned her head away and seemed to be trying to go to sleep.
She saw Rochelle, who was looking at her, and then began to smile.
Charisma blushed a deep scarlet. ‘Oh no,’ she thought. ‘No. Jenna Zots is not flirting with me. She’s blue. I don’t do blue.’
“I’m – I’m going to take a shower.” Charisma stormed into the bathroom and slammed the door.
The next morning, when Rochelle zapped Charisma with her taser to wake her up, Charisma still felt slightly better.
Especially because, for once, she was the expert.
“If Taks moves today, it’s going to be filmed,” she told them. “This isn’t just a punching fight like any of the idiots in charge of Force Magellan do. It’s about appearance.”
“Who cares?” asked Jenna. “I mean, it’s not like they’re going to film the fight—“
“They will,” said Charisma. “And that means two problems. One, regular humans will be watching. If we attack early, or fight too viciously, they’ll think that Magellan and the non J’Ta Forn are persecuting the J’Ta. Two, other Forn are watching. If we’re too passive, the J’Ta will conclude that the non J’Ta are wimps, and that helps Taks too by inspiring the others.”
Rochelle had said, after a moment, “Thank you for that analysis, Charisma.”
Charisma had smiled and felt very smug.
They talked strategies next.
“If you are scared, Jenna, you should consider defending the other Forn and civilians rather than fighting with us.”
“But I want – I want to help.”
“Keeping the civilians alive is helping,” said Rochelle.
Jenna opened her mouth to protest, but Rochelle said – unusually gently – “Jenna. I am not saying this out of some desire to punish you. Based on my knowledge of your personality and skills, you would be much better defending a group of civilians –behind fixed defenses, with time to prepare – than attacking head-on. The civilians need someone to give them orders to help erect the defenses. To take charge. Someone with training to make the first barriers and reassure them it can be done. You are ideally suited.”
Jenna had finally conceded the point, though she’d looked defeated. “Guess I’m not hero material, huh?”
For once, Rochelle had sufficient tact not to answer.
After the discussion, the trio into the living room, then the studio area. It was indeed the ‘family visit’ day, so the set was very crowded.
Charisma had been wondering if her dad would show up. Surely the Forn wouldn’t do anything if Epoch were around (and, of course, like everyone else, they didn’t think twice about doing something with her around, even though she was just as strong as him…) But no. And that probably made sense. Taks wouldn’t have invited any serious threats to his plans.
In fact, she noted, the only people visiting her and Rochelle were loose acquaintances.
“Hey! Char!” It was one of her drummers. The one who had been infatuated with her (even moreso than the others). She rolled her eyes and turned her back on him.
Rochelle was aggressively blowing off some nerdy-looking people. Probably friends from home, though Charisma, although that did assume that Rochelle had friends, which was probably not realistic. They were probably people that Rochelle had beaten for the National Geek Awards. Where was Rochelle from, anyway? Charisma thought. Canada, right? Maybe they were polar bear tamers.
Jenna was hugging her parents and some other Forn guy. Rochelle had told her not to warn her relatives; if she did, then they might panic, and then Taks could simply choose to do nothing and spread the story of the intolerant and cruel non J’Ta Forn. It would be a huge victory for him. Jenna hadn’t liked this idea, but had gone along with it.
“Remember to eat nothing,” Rochelle hissed to Charisma as they passed.
“I know,” she grumbled.
There were interviews, during which Charisma tried valiantly to remember her drummer’s name (she failed, but he didn’t seem to care), and Rochelle didn’t even pretend to remember the names of the people who were there to see her. Jenna spoke for a few minutes about how much she loved her parents., and the third guy, a Forn with a ponytail who was apparently an ex of Jenna’s.
“Alright!” said the bombastic Taks. “Now, relatives will please go over here to these booths. Today, you’re going to be the judges!” The music played, and the crowd cheered.
Rochelle whispered to Charisma, “Look. The J’Ta Forn are seated at the far end—“
“I see it. I’m not an idiot.”
“You failed Reconnaissance 101 and—“
Charisma rolled her eyes and went to her cooking station. She scowled at K’kat, who smiled politely at her. “Charisma, why do you hate me so?”
“It’d take way too long to list.”
“You really should let me take you to dinner.”
First Jenna, now K’kat. Why did blue people want to date her? Okay, everyone probably wanted to date her, but why did they have to tell her? And why only them? Why couldn’t Billy, for instance, admit the love that he had to feel for someone as incredible as her?
Taks rattled off the individual test, which was to bake a cake. Rochelle had said that they had to pretend to compete, but they couldn’t risk eating the food.
“What if it’s a contact poison?” Jenna had asked.
Rochelle had paused. “I can probably procure gloves from somewhere backstage, but it would look very suspicious. We may simply have to risk it. Besides, Jenna, you need not worry; Taks said he would not drug you or the other Forn.”
“Well, yeah, but you guys—“
“We can take care of ourselves.”
Charisma wondered if maybe they were being too hard on Jenna, or at least, if Rochelle was. Jenna had flaked, but then again, Rochelle hadn’t been there.
Charisma wondered how Rochelle would have responded to almost being eaten by a giant spider. It amused her.
She then realized that the competition had started five minutes ago.
Ignoring K’kat’s chuckles, she began to mix ingredients. Unlike the other competitions, they had all been given a basic cake recipe, so that they’d be able to at least get something going. Jenna had filled her in on the basics, so it wouldn’t be too hard to avoid embarrassment.
She noticed that the production crew demographics had changed. Almost all of the active crew people had the J’Ta shaven heads. The crew members who were Forn but were not J’Ta all seemed to be at the crew snack table, in the audience relaxing, or huddled in a couple of spots, watching.
Charisma was itching to punch someone. The stress of the last day – the whole ‘we’re out to kill you all!’ revelation, and Jenna flirting with her – was way too much. It would be incredibly relaxing to go up against some hardy supervillain that she could just deck into next week.
K’kat chuckled. “Hey, Epoch. Your cake is falling over.”
Charisma blinked. Her cake was indeed lopsided.
Taks had drifted to the back rows and approached. He flashed a brilliant smile that indicated expensive dentistry and frequent brushing. “Charisma Epoch! How’s it coming?”
Could she punch him yet, she wondered? No, not yet. She had to grin and bear it a little while longer.
She was here to be the media representative of Magellan, after all.
“Fine, just fine. I think I’ve got good odds this time.”
“You’ve yet to break a ‘3’. That makes you one of the weakest candidates here, statistically. Yet you’re confident. Are cakes your specialty?” He grinned roguishly. “If I may say, it doesn’t look like you eat too many of them. You’re one of the fittest contestants we’ve had!”
Charisma was ready to throw something at the next person to flirt at her. But it was show business. She knew how to be professional even when she hated her crew, her press, and her fans. “Thanks, Wil. Be sure to taste mine when these are all done.”
“Oh, don’t worry! I’m tasting all of these.” He grinned at the camera guy following him. “I have the best job on the planet, folks. Thirty brilliant cooks, all baking me a cake!”
K’kat chimed in, “Well, twenty-nine brilliant cooks. Rochelle Kwan has yet to score a point.”
Taks laughed and went to tease Rochelle about it, and Charisma was able to get back to the cooking.
Charisma’s cake got a six, which both surprised and pleased her. Unsure of what to do once she had the base, she’d ripped up some fruit like Jenna had showed her, and then, based off of hazy articles she’d read or TV shows she’d seen, mashed some of the pieces with some extra sugar and formed a sort of thick syrup or jelly or jam. Some reddish, gloopy substance, anyway. Then she’d cut the cake into layers and spread the jam in each layer.
“Very nicely done,” the head judge said. “Layer cakes are hard to make. Where did you get the idea for the fruit?”
Charisma paused. Why not tell the truth, and throw Jenna a bone? Besides, Magellan was supposed to be all about teamwork, for reasons that Charisma didn’t really understand. “Jenna Zots, actually. She taught me a few tricks with fruit.”
Despite the dangerous circumstances, Charisma saw Jenna blush at the mention.
Jenna, apparently, had actual experience baking, because her cake looked spectacular.
“It’s something my parents taught me,” she said. The cameras turned to Jenna’s mother and father in the family booths, where they waved. “Even when I was a little kid, my mom and dad baked a cake every weekend. They said it was a good way to get used to our new world.”
“New world?” asked Taks.
“Yeah… I mean, we came to Earth after the Forn Crusades. It was a really bad time… there were just millions of Forn dying everywhere. But it was still home, and – I was just a kid – and I found earth really scary. The food was kind of weird, at first. So my parents baked cakes, which I loved, and they used local ingredients” the crowd made an ‘aww’ sound, “And that helped me acclimate.”
Taks looked momentarily horrified. Charisma and Rochelle exchanged glances. Jenna had to know that the show was not live and that this interview was not going to air, as it went against the whole ‘Yay Crusades!’ thing that Taks had going.
Charisma wondered if Jenna was trying to rattle Taks, but dismissed it. Jenna didn’t seem that smart. She’d probably just forgotten that the show wasn’t live.
“Ah – anyway, the cake. Describe it?”
Jenna did. It was basically a luscious chocolate cake with fudge and other sweet things.
“Decadent. Sublime. Right up to the edge of overpowering, but doesn’t quite fall over. Eight out of ten,” said the head judge.
And to make matters even better, Hikari – who had won almost every individual competition thus far, or had at least gotten in the top five – only got a seven with her pound cake. And K’kat, who usually did almost as well as her, got an eight with his ‘deconstructed ice cream cake,’ which Charisma found frankly incomprehensible. Judging by their gazes, so did the judges, but of course they couldn’t admit it, so he got an eight.
Charisma had to stifle a laugh. Rochelle had evidently tried doing something very fancy involving leaving hollow sections of the batter, ,and as a result had wound up with a cake that had collapsed in the oven. She had, literally, a pan of floury sludge.
The crowd laughed. Rochelle reddened.
Charisma was pleased. Rochelle deserved this.
After the judge ripped apart Rochelle with a long speech and yet another zero, the scoring was wrapped up. Jenna and K’kat had tied for the highest scores, so each team would be getting a time bonus in the afternoon competition.
Lunch was a strained affair. Charisma and Rochelle couldn’t eat anything, of course, and every move by one of the J’Ta contestants or staff members could herald the attack. Then again, a nerve weapon or explosive could herald the attack, although Rochelle and Charisma had concluded that this was unlikely – the point was to show how awesome the J’Ta were, so it was more likely that they would be attacking directly.
But lunch wrapped without incident, and then Taks took center stage.
“Before continuing on with our program, I feel that it is time to reveal to our loyal viewers a little history.” He smiled. “I’ll be brief, don’t worry, and then we can get back on to the main event.”
Charisma and Rochelle glanced at each other, and then Rochelle drifted over to Taks. Jenna and Charisma were meandering towards the bleachers.
“The Forn worship a god called Mog. Mog, the Forn believe, gave the Forn the vast bounty they had – their homes, their food, their medicines, even their power over the elements.” He waved his hand, and water began flowing from a sink, then curved into a passable imitation of a Forn. The audience clapped. “And in exchange, all Mog asked were for simple dictates to be followed. Things concerning diet, rest patterns, prayers, and so forth.”
“But over time, some groups of Forn began to argue over which dictates were correct. One sect was called the J’Ta, another the Fa’kr, and the Seeli, and so forth. And, as their differences grew greater, they began to war.”
A few of the Forn, mostly older ones, were nodding.
“The reason they warred was because each sect believed – and still believes – that Mog would bless the correct group.”
He let out a dramatic sigh. “Now, as it happens, I am a member of the J’Ta sect—“
A few of the Forn in the audience, and one of the contestants – the Forn on Cole’s team – booed and hissed.
“And we have recently received divine guidance,” and now Taks looked a little less like a talk show host and a little more insane, with a two-wide grin and wide, staring eyes, “That indicates that Mog is not pleased that we have allowed so many heretics to escape. So this episode will not feature cooking. It will feature cleansing.”
He clapped his hands, and with a vast roar, the J’Ta Forn – behind the cameras, in the audience, on the set, and even two of the cooks – charged at the others.
“NOW!” yelled Rochelle.
Jenna brought her hands up. The ground quaked for a moment, and then a wall of earth curved up and began to swallow the bleachers where the relatives were sitting.
“GET DOWN!” yelled Jenna, sprinting towards them.
Two J’Ta in the bleachers drew knives and leapt at the others, but Charisma had taken off the moment Taks had said ‘cleansing,’ and she got there first. She flicked one Forn in the head with a finger and knocked him out. The second stabbed her, and the knife bounced off her skin.
She smiled, and he made an odd squeaking sound before leaping off the bleachers and to the floor.
Jenna was continuing to wall off the bleachers with a dome of earth. Rochelle had made her way to the other Forn chefs that were not J’Ta. Reva attacked with a large knife, but Rochelle easily sidestepped, grabbed her arm, dislocated it, then sent her sprawling.
She raised her voice. “All remaining Forn civilians, get close together.”
Humans were fleeing the studio. The J’Ta were letting them leave, but were stopping any Forn who tried to escape. Charisma had to hurry to one door and intervene before the J’Ta executed an older Forn civilian.
Several J’Ta were trying to pull down Jenna’s earth dome with their own earth magic. Over the comms, Charisma could hear Jenna exhorting the civilians to help her maintain the barricade. “Anyone with any control over earth, keep the dome up! There’s more of us than them! We can do this!” And the dome stayed up.
Rochelle had herded the non-J’Ta Forn chefs back over to the bleachers. She was more than a match for the J’Ta, having appropriated several knives, which she was throwing like shuriken and striking nerve clusters whenever she did so. “Jenna, open it, there’s a few more.”
Jenna did so and the non-combatant chefs ran in.
Charisma took a breath and looked around.
There were maybe thirty J’Ta, including Taks, although the host was edging for a back door. A few were still filming, but most had weapons – knives and swords – and had approached the dome. Most of the civilian Forn were in the bleachers dome, which seemed to be holding despite the attempts of several J’Ta to tear it down. Jenna was evidently doing okay in keeping it up.
Charisma wondered. What would happen next? The J’Ta couldn’t hurt Charisma, they didn’t seem to be able to touch Rochelle, and they weren’t able to get through the barricade. Maybe they would just give up.
Taks grinned. “You all – take down the dome! Mog will ensure our victory!”
Rochelle said, calmly, “You cannot destroy the dome, and if you try Cadet Epoch and I will lay waste to your forces.”
Taks laughed. He was all the way at a back door now. “Oh really? The power of Mog, and the one million dollar prize that I… decided to put to better use… will prove you wrong!” He ran out the back.
Rochelle frowned, then turned to Charisma. “Can you handle fifteen?”
“I can take them all.”
“Fine.” Rochelle’s voice turned a little more dry. “Make sure to say something suitable for the cameras.”
Charisma looked, and saw that some J’Ta were still filming. Apparently they thought they still had a chance, and wanted to preserve a record of the fight for broadcast. It was almost cute.
Charisma smiled. “We’re Magellan. We protect civilians from evil.” It wasn’t a great line, but whatever. She was finally having fun.
“GET THEM!” roared one of the J’Ta, and the fight was on.
Two blasts of fire shot at Charisma, and hit her with no noticeable impact other than scorching her clothes. This, of course, infuriated her, and she knocked both of those Forn out without a second thought.
Tendrils of water floated around her and attempted to bind her, but she easily pulled free. A J’Ta leapt at her, screaming something in the Forn language, and she swatted him aside.
She looked to her left to see Rochelle easily dealing with a group of Forn. She was dodging whatever they threw at her – earth from below, water from the sinks, fire spawned from nowhere. And whenever she struck at something, she hit a pressure point or nerve thingie, and the enemy went down.
Despite her burned clothes, Charisma smiled. She hadn’t actually had a good fight in way too long, and most of hers had happened when she wanted to do something besides be a hero – like when her pop concerts kept getting derailed. This was almost relaxing.
She knocked out a charging production assistant with a flick of a finger. “Kind of wish they’d make it challenging, at least.”
Rochelle smiled briefly. “Be wary. Taks spent that million dollars on something; he is probably getting it now.”
“Bring it,” said Charisma.
The dome burst open in a flood of earth that knocked back the remaining J’Ta who were clustered around it. And then Jenna was leading the civilians and other chefs into burying them up to their heads. “We win!” said a cheering Jenna.
“Yes,” said Rochelle.
Then Charisma heard a loud, mechanical thumping sound.
The door burst open, and Taks, wearing what looked like a large suit of powered armor, marched in.
“So long, Magellan! So long, heretics!”
Charisma hopped up into the air. She smiled; it looked like she could take out the armor in one punch—
“Wait.” It was Rochelle.
“He knew you would be here. It is highly likely that he has integrated some defense in that suit that can block you. Probably electrified outer plating. In fact – look.” Taks’ armor flashed slightly as an unusually strong current ran through it.
Charisma scowled as Taks brought up his arm and fired a missile. She dodged, and it hit one of the chef stations, breaking water pipes and sending it flooding everywhere.
“I will go,” said Rochelle. She had her comm out. “It will not be difficult to find the schematics and identify the weak points.”
Charisma nodded, but something had occurred to her. She forced herself to think, even though Taks had opened fire on her with some kind of chain-gun. (The bullets just bounced off. The other Forn, meanwhile, had gotten back under another dome that Jenna had helped erect).
Taks had to have realized that the supers would be able to take him down, if he didn’t poison them. Clearly, the poisoning had failed. Why on earth was he still here?
Her eyes widened.
Right. He was a TV host. He knew the media.
Rochelle ignored her.
Charisma flew over to Rochelle and reached her just before she got in range of Taks. She lifted the bald girl up by her shirt. Rochelle began wriggling, but Charisma didn’t let go. Rather, she flew them both back to the big earth dome.
“Listen. You said it yourself; I’m the PR expert on the team. Well, this is PR. Look; he wants to show that the J’Ta are the best, right? If we take him out, that’s going to be spun as ‘J’Ta better than all other Forn, need two of Magellan’s best to take them down.’ Any J’Ta not in range of a Magellan base will be inspired to attack.”
Rochelle stopped struggling. After a pause she said, “…that is reasonable.”
“Obviously.” Charisma put Rochelle down behind her. Taks’ next attack bounced harmlessly off of her, and his attack at the dome was diverted by a huge jet of water that knocked the missile aside. Probably a Forn in the dome.
“It has to be the Forn that defeat him,” said Rochelle.
“But if we just leave or stop fighting and evac the civvies,” continued Charisma, “Then it looks like not even Magellan can fight the J’Ta, but had to flee instead. The J’Ta will be inspired to start uprisings all over.”
“Fight me!” yelled Taks, but everyone ignored him.
“So we cannot win and cannot leave. I do not suggest we lose.” Rochelle thought for a moment. “Very well. I believe I have a plan. Jenna, are you willing to fight Taks if we remove his armor?”
There was an audible gulp over the communicators, and then, “…yes.”
Taks was ranting something that Charisma was ignoring. Couldn’t he shut up already?
“Here is my plan,” said Rochelle.
Rochelle sprinted at Taks, armed with a long ceremonial sword that she’d taken off of a dead J’Ta. Charisma, meanwhile, flew to the ceiling and quickly found a suitable support beam. The studio roof was exposed, of course, which made things easier.
“Stupid girl! You are no match for my holy fury!” roared Taks, smashing at Rochelle with a giant metal fist. Rochelle evaded.
“Your holy fury is nothing compared to my intellect,” goaded Rochelle. Charisma rolled her eyes. The baldy might be brilliant, but she could not come up with witty repartee to save her life.
She yanked the support beam out of the roof. That was probably bad for the studio, but who cared? She wasn’t paying for it.
Rochelle dodged another blow. “Do you realize that you and your Mog are losing to a seventeen-year-old girl whose has no physical superpowers whatsoever?”
Charisma hefted the beam. “How hard, Rochelle?”
“Two inches of titanium. For you… not very hard.”
Charisma chuckled. “Got it.”
She flew down, holding the beam like a giant bat. “Hey, Taks!”
“Your hosting sucks.”
She smacked his armor with the beam.
Sparks flew everywhere as the armor began to break.
“Stop!” roared Taks, but Charisma smiled and hit it a few more times.
Rochelle grabbed a bottle of water from one of the still-intact chef’s tables and splashed a bit on the armor. Nothing sparked. “It’s not electrified now. You broke the power source. Get the armor off.”
Charisma smirked at Taks before ripping the armor off the suit and shoving him towards the center of the room.
Jenna exited the earth dome, the opening closing behind her, and approached Taks.
“I don’t know much about Forn, but you guys do have ceremonial duels, right?” asked Charisma.
Jenna nodded. “You bastard,” she hissed at Taks. “J’Ta psycho. I’ll end you here. You’re leaving this building in a police car.”
Taks roared and charged Jenna.
It was a short fight. Jenna, whatever her issues with courage, had Magellan training. Taks had zealotry, but seemingly no combat experience. Jenna hit him twice, dodged the bit of fire he tossed at her, and then sealed him in earth.
And that was that.
It was, Charisma felt, somewhat anti-climatic.
“Good work,” said Rochelle.
It took little time to find the hole in the firewall that Taks could use to communicate with people on the outside of the studio. Rather than tear down the wall, she just spoofed Taks’ computer’s identity, then sent messages to the police and the nearest Magellan branch. “The police should be here within five minutes; Magellan within thirty,” said Rochelle.
Hikari Chigusa hadn’t fled outside with the other humans, but had hidden under one of the chef’s tables. “That was awesome!” she’d said, breathless, when the fight was over. Then she’d begged for autographs, which Charisma (happily) and Rochelle (reluctantly) gave. As it, turned out, she had some medical training, and so she volunteered to get the injured Forn to the indoor loading/unloading docks, so the ambulances could get them out easily. Charisma had helped fly them over, in rare good spirits.
The three Magellan heroes then retreated to the dorm living room, Jenna after spending about five minutes talking to her parents and ex. To Charisma, it seemed to consist mostly of crying.
Jenna sank down on the couch after Rochelle finished her compliment. “Wow. What a day. ”
“There was nothing to fear,” said Rochelle. “They were not a serious threat. Still, we all acted capably and prevented the Forn from being slaughtered.”
“Go us,” said Charisma. She’d changed into a non-burned outfit as soon as they’d returned to the dorms. She wasn’t really listening to Rochelle; her mind had already turned to other things. What would she have Jenna do back at Magellan? Maybe her laundry, first of all. And then maybe a few laps. Or maybe her nails… there were so many options now that Jenna had agreed to do whatever she wanted.
She’d fought surprisingly well. Of course, Taks was practically a civilian without his armor, but she hadn’t thought that Jenna would even get into the fight willingly. And she’d been competent with the earth domes.
Charisma realized that she was thinking polite and even complimentary thoughts about Zots, arguably the weakest student in the class after Jones. She shook her head. It was just adrenaline from the fight.
“We might as well stop another crime,” said Rochelle. “We should try to find our safecrackers.”
“Why? Nothing for them to take,” said Jenna.
“Attempted safecracking and theft are still crimes. If they have found that the safe is empty now, they might still be looking for more money. Besides… I believe we can defeat them.”
Charisma smiled a little. Revenge on K’kat for his flirting would be a sweet way to end the dya. “Awesome. Jenna?”
Jenna got up. Whatever she was afraid of, she clearly wasn’t afraid of three thieves. “I’m ready.”
“Then we should go,” said Rochelle.
On the way, they ran into another Forn that they knew. It was the head judge, who had ducked backstage during the fighting.
The judge saw Rochelle coming and let out a weird, yipping noise, then began trying to back up. Rochelle increased her pace slightly.
Charisma and Jenna both chuckled.
“Come on, Roch,” said Jenna. “You can’t hurt her just cause she hated your food.”
“It was good food,” said Rochelle. “I was judged unfairly.”
Charisma again seized Rochelle’s shirt, preventing her from going forwards. “As the group’s PR expert, I can inform you that punching a judge? Not good for the image.”
Rochelle scowled. “Thank you for that incredibly obvious bit of advice, Charisma.”
The judge said, in a rapid torrent, “Please don’t hurt me!”
“You made up all those horrible criticisms of my food,” said Rochelle.
The judge was almost crying. “That was what they told us to say!”
“Who is they?”
“The show! Taks! He said that it’d be bad for ratings if the smart cadet won everything! He said to turf your scores and he’d try to get me my own show!”
Rochelle paused, then said, “When Taks is charged, I will insist that a count of fraud be added.”
“He tried to kill about eighty Forn,” said Jenna. “A count of fraud is kind of… superfluous, right?”
“Nevertheless. It was a crime.” Rochelle turned to the judge. “You may go. But think very hard before acting falsely again.”
The judge ran away.
Charisma was smiling. “Gee, everyone always said that you were a stick-in-the-mud, Rochelle. You can be downright nasty.”
“Hardly. It was only fair.”
Jenna and Charisma exchanged glances, and Jenna rolled her eyes.
Charisma couldn’t help it. She chuckled. Then she stifled it as Rochelle turned. She didn’t want an argument.
The safe was near the back of the stage. They could all hear hammering from within it.
Though the door was locked, Charisma easily ripped it off its hinges. Inside were Hans and Greta.
“Thank Gott,” said Hans. “We trapped inside!”
“What happened?” asked Rochelle.
Greta elbowed Hans. “Wait. We need talk lawyer.”
Rochelle and Charisma looked at each other, and then Rochelle asked, “Were you involved with Taks’ crusade?”
“No! Honest! Not that at all!” said Hans. He was sweating; he seemed very nervous. “No. Just here, ah, steal money. Taks say, if we give him ten percent, he tell us code.”
“Taks spent the money,” said Rochelle. “Therefore, he lied to you, and indeed had you brought onto the show to distract us from the real threat. But Taks has been defeated; our presence here is proof of that. And there is obviously no money. So why are you still here?” Her eyes narrowed. “Why did K’kat not flee with you? You three are strong enough to have evaded the J’Ta. Whatever your faults, you have no records of abandoning your companions. What is really going on?”
“We want lawyer,” snapped Greta. “We not talk.”
Rochelle was silent for a moment. “Okay.” She turned. “Charisma, where did you stash Taks?”
“Taks?” Charisma frowned, puzzled.
“What you want him for?” demanded Greta.
“Well, we need to know where he got all his weapons. I mean, supplying him with those is a serious crime. Perhaps he will tell us. Maybe he will tell us that you did it.”
“But we didn’t!”
“But we still must listen to his story, and report it our Magellan superiors.” Rochelle shrugged. “Perhaps he will even say that this was all your idea and that he was just an innocent puppet.”
“But you know that lie,” snapped Hans.
Charisma realized what was going on. “Yeah, but it’d be real lame to try to figure all that out. I say, we just goes with what he says and call it a day.”
Rochelle nodded. “A television host, against two known criminals? No one would believe them.”
“Wait!” said Hans. “I talk, I talk. Just listen, okay?”
Charisma cocked her head, but said nothing. She was smiling inside, though. This was a lot of fun!
“Like I said. Taks ask us go on show, steal money, give him ten percent. Money gone, so bald-head maybe right; Taks just want us distract you. But other reason.”
“Shut up!” hissed Greta.
Hans ignored her. “We talk Hikari Chigusa first day show. She know we mad at K’kat – he mistake get us caught last time. She say, Taks have crazy plan. When crazy thing happens, we give her K’kat, and she pay us million dollars.”
“Hikari knew this how?” asked Rochelle.
“She say, she know knife, sword merchants, selling him lots weapons. She figure out what weapons mean for Forn. So she figure out what he want do.”
“And what does she want K’kat for?”
“I not know!”
And that was all that they could get out of them.
Hans and Greta were tied to a support column by thin steel beams that Charisma bent, the vault door was shoved back into place, and the Magellan trio began looking for Hikari.
“I had suspicions that she was evil,” Rochelle said.
“What, because she kept beating you?” asked Charisma.
“Everyone beat you,” teased Jenna.
Rochelle rolled her eyes. “It was rigged.”
Rochelle then held up her hand. The loading docks were just down the hallway. That was where Hikari had supposedly taken the wounded Forn.
“Charisma and I will go in,” whispered Rochelle. “Jenna, remain behind to guard our rear.”
Jenna sounded slightly put out. “If she’s just a human, I think I can help—“
“If she’s just a human, we will not require assistance,” said Rochelle. “We will only need help if she has powers greater than our own, in which case you will be of little utility.”
Jenna looked genuinely annoyed. “I haven’t screwed up once today.”
“We may have very little time. Certainly too little to argue,” whispered Rochelle. She had drawn one of the kitchen knives, as they had no other weapons.
Charisma hesitated. She was feeling oddly… concerned for Zots. It didn’t seem fair, really, to send her to the back after her performance earlier. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to let her—“
“Shh,” hushed Rochelle. “Quietly. Come on.”
The two entered the indoor loading/unloading docks and stopped short.
A lot of Forn were there. Far more than had been injured during the attack. In fact, it looked like over forty Forn were there, including K’kat and the Forn from Hikari’s team. A few J’Ta were mixed in with the rest, several with injuries from being stabbed by Rochelle or bonked on the head by Charisma.
All had been restrained on what looked like large catering carts, and most were unconscious. The injured ones had been given hasty first aid, enough to stabilize them, but no more than that. Charisma smelled an odd, cloying scent and wondered if the Forn had been drugged.
Hikari was talking on a phone. “Looks like I got about forty. Yeah, more than expected, but we’ve got buyers, right? Great!” She was twirling a large knife in one hand while she talked on her cell. “Including the villain, yeah. The super—“
Her gaze passed over a shiny metal case on the ground, and Charisma realized suddenly that their reflections were visible in the case.
Rochelle began to yell, “Freeze! Now—“
Hikari swiveled, throwing the knife in one smooth, incredibly fast motion.
One moment she was holding the knife, and the next, Charisma turned to see the hilt sticking out of Rochelle’s chest.
Rochelle looked down, blankly. “No way,” she managed. “That…”
She fell over.
Charisma caught her and lowered her down. She knew nothing about injuries or first aid – she generally blew off that class – but she was reasonably certain that having a knife in your chest was a bad thing. Should she take it out? Or—
“Leave it… in…” managed Rochelle in wheezy gasps. “Keeps… blood in. Just… stop Hikari!”
Charisma turned again to see that Hikari had drawn another knife. There was a maniacal glint in her eye.
Charisma flew directly at Hikari. The chef clearly had no idea what Charisma could do; knives couldn’t break her skin. She could block the knife blow, then slam Hikari against a wall until the chef gave up.
Hikari swung. Charisma blocked—
The knife cut Charisma.
It was just a little, before the knife suddenly stopped moving. And Charisma’s momentum was sufficient to send them both flying into a solid wall, making Hikari cry out as they connected. But it was still an actual injury.
Charisma smelled something familiar. “Hex2O on the knife?”
Hikari grinned. “You got it.”
“Yeah, you got the knife in a whole…” Charisma tried to remember what a small unit was. “Centimeter.” Indeed, it was barely sticking out of her left upper arm. Hikari was still holding it, but seemed unable to either shove it in or yank it out. “Hex2O wears off fast. All you just did? Was piss me off.”
“My bad luck,” said Hikari, not seeming concerned at all.
Then she pressed down on the hilt.
Charisma’s next conscious thoughts were that, if this was what pain felt like, she had a lot more respect… no, pity, for regular heroes that weren’t awesome like her.
Her head was pounding, and her left arm was screaming in pain. When she tried to open her eyes, only one seemed to work.
“What’d… what’d you do?” she managed.
She looked down. There was a lot of blood, and she had a feeling most of it was hers. Her left arm wouldn’t move. She twisted her head – even that hurt – and saw that the arm was still attached to her body, which was definitely a good development, but it had been almost completely shattered. She counted at least three breaks, and from the way her shoulder hurt, there might be one there too.
Oh, and she had over a dozen major gashes and wounds.
Charisma tried to get up, but couldn’t. Maybe it was blood loss, or a concussion, or some other fancy medical thing.
Then someone had picked her up and was carrying her somewhere. She tried to protest, but couldn’t do more than emit a low moan.
And then she was dropped with a ‘thump.’ “You two can hang out here till I’m done,” said Hikari. She laughed.
“What did you do?” managed Charisma.
“Injection knife. Got a little canister of pressurized CO2 inside. Real useful if you’re doing underwater fishing and you’re worried about sharks. Just stab and press the button, blows up whatever you stab like a cheap balloon. I’m amazed you’re still alive.”
Charisma groaned. She wasn’t sure how much longer that would last.
Then she heard footsteps. “Charisma! Rochelle!” It was Jenna.
She heard Rochelle grumble something, then manage, “Jenna… call for help…”
“Guys, are you okay?”
Charisma’s vision had cleared slightly, at least in her right eye, and she could see that Hikari had drawn another knife. This one was really long, almost a sword.
“Call Magellan…” managed Rochelle. “Get outside. Call… tell them to hurry…” She groaned in pain.
“The police and Magellan never got your message,” chirped Hikari. “I knew about Taks’ plans weeks ago. When he set up his firewall, I got into the system first and redirect his little tunnel out of it to go into my accounts. I have to approve everything entering or leaving the studio.”
Rochelle hung her head.
“Yeah, outsmarted by a mere human. Stings, don’t it?” Hikari laughed.
Jenna took a few steps into the room. “Get away – get away from my friends!”
“Jenna, you… you can’t beat her…” hissed Rochelle. “She’s too good… leave the studio and call for help…”
“But you’ll be dead by then.”
“You don’t have to die too,” said Rochelle. She seemed almost… angry? “Go!”
Charisma had never really thought about dying. She was supposed to be invincible, right? The only ones who could beat her were the sort of world-threatening monsters that only came around once every few decades. Like the Q’Arth or something.
And now it looked like a regular human, even weaker than stupid Jones, might have done it.
Charisma groaned. This sucked.
And what was Jenna doing? Charisma would never admit to liking Jenna, but she had to admit that she’d grown slightly… fond… of the blue person. Jenna had helped her not look like an idiot on national TV, after all. And she’d managed to hold the domes despite all the J’Ta; that was kind of neat.
She didn’t really like the Forn; if they somehow all lived, she didn’t want to be friends with her. But she felt bad, somehow, that Jenna might die pointlessly just to save her and the baldy.
“Run…” she managed to hiss.
Jenna looked longingly at the door.
“We can… hold her off…” hissed Rochelle.
“But you’ll die.” Jenna looked back at the downed Forn, then Rochelle, and then Charisma. Charisma caught her gaze, and was confused. Jenna seemed almost…
No, she definitely seemed concerned. Which was weird; Charisma would have guessed that Jenna would mostly be feeling terror. This was Jenna Zots, after all, supposedly the biggest coward in the class.
Jenna dropped into a combat stance. “Surrender now, or I’ll be forced to stop you.”
“Your funeral.” Hikari began to approach.
“Run!” coughed Rochelle. It was obviously paining her to speak. “Leave, and—“
Charisma blinked. She’d never heard Jenna be so vehement.
“If you’re going to say something to help me beat her, fine. Otherwise, shut up so I can save your ass.”
Charisma couldn’t help but smile. Rochelle looked suitably embarrassed… or as embarrassed as one could look with a knife in one’s chest.
Jenna began to circle around Hikari, who seemed totally unconcerned.
“What are you doing with them?” demanded Jenna. “All the Forn?”
“Selling them,” said Hikari, easily. “Forn are animals like any other.”
“Animals? You mean…” Jenna turned a bit green. “Meat?”
“People’ll pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for endangered monkey or tuna,” said Hikari. “Half million or more for Phernian tentacles. And millions for Forn. It’s a meat almost no one’s tried. It’s got everything. Illegal, and therefore expensive, so it’s a status symbol – you gotta be both rich and have connections to be able to afford and acquire Forn. And almost no one knows what it tastes like. A new taste, that my clients will have the privilege of experiencing before just about anyone else. For true connoisseurs, novelty is the greatest spice. And hey, they ain’t human, so it’s not gross or anything.”
“Hey, I’m not eating it. I’m just the procurer. I get the Forn, I deliver them, and later on, if needed, I cook it. One million a head, ten for the supervillain – that’s just a status thing, you know. Tons of heros would want his head, only the rich gazillionaire gets it, yadda yadda.”
“I’ll stop you,” hissed Jenna.
“Really? I’ve been a food procurer for years. Admittedly, most of it was just endangered stuff, but when a few clients wanted to taste demon or Phernian, who was I to say no?” She grinned. “Hell, I’d do it at cost, if only to get experience cooking with different foods, you know? The millions they pay me is just a bonus.”
Hikari leapt at Jenna and slashed with her knife. Unlike Rochelle, Jenna was prepared for this, and evaded, but barely. And she was not a good physical fighter. She was dodging okay, but wasn’t even close to getting blows in.
Charisma was feeling more woozy. Blood loss, probably. How long did that take to kill you? Maybe she should have paid attention in class. Well, if she survived, maybe she’d make understanding at least first aid more of a priority…
She heard Jenna yell, “I won’t let you hurt my friends! Or the other Forn!”
“Then try and stop me, Forn! But I bet I’ll take you down and add another few million dollars to my bank account!”
Jenna gestured, and a breeze whipped up. Jenna’s air magic, probably. But it wasn’t enough to do more than ruffle Hikari’s hair.
Jenna tried with earth magic, but Hikari skipped out of the way of the rising earth. “Gotta be faster than that to catch me!”
She threw the knife. Jenna managed to dodge it, barely, but Hikari had already drawn another from her chef’s whites by the time the Forn recovered.
Charisma would have rolled her eyes, had she the energy. Forget Jenna’s helpfulness; at this point, Charisma wished that Lyta had been their third.
Evidently, Jenna was thinking the same thing. She lowered her arms, looking helpless. She glanced over at Rochelle and Charisma again.
Charisma heard Rochelle cough weakly. She couldn’t do much more than say, “Jenna… get help…” She was about to pass out.
Then Jenna leapt straight at Hikari.
Whatever Hikari had been expecting, it wasn’t that. She stabbed with the knife, and gashed Jenna’s arm, but Jenna kept going and knocked over the chef.
They hit the ground. Hikari stabbed Jenna again, this time in the shoulder, and then the floor cracked.
Then the ground opened up and seemed to swallow them both.
Charisma couldn’t see what was going on, but she heard Jenna.
Jenna hauled herself upright from the hole in the ground. She was bleeding badly, but she made it to the loading door. “Come on, come on, open…”
Losing patience, she raised her hands, and then the whole ground began to shake.
The area under the door shifted, and that part of the back wall collapsed.
Jenna stepped outside, beyond the reach of Taks’ firewall, then tapped her comm. “Emergency services? Two wounded supers and about forty Forn, some injured, all drugged…”
Charisma woke up in a hospital bed.
“Ow,” she managed.
Doctors were bustling around, and a few ran over to her. One helped her sit up while the others took readings.
They were in the Magellan infirmary – Charisma recognized it from her adventures on the Day of the Dragons. She saw Rochelle in the bed next to her, reading a book that looked very thick and incredibly boring. There was a thick bandage across her upper chest, and a scar was poking up above it. Jenna was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, her father burst in. “Poppet!” He hugged her.
“Daddy!” she complained, trying to shove him off.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Is my daughter okay?”
“She’ll be fine in a few days,” one of the doctors said. “She lost a lot of blood, and we had to, uh, basically put her arm and shoulder back together, but she’ll live.”
Charisma sighed as she settled deeper into the mattress and pillows. Well, she’d live. That was great.
She could not believe, though, that Jenna freaking Zots had saved her life.
At least it wasn’t her dad again.
The next couple of hours were just a blur. Doctors wanted to run tests. Security wanted to know what had hurt her; apparently this was the first time that a normal human had managed to screw up a powerhouse’s body that badly, and there was something of a panic going on at Magellan command. Spence showed up to yell at her and Rochelle for screwing up so badly against a norm, although Rochelle actually got him to be quiet for a second when she pointed out that Magellan attested that Jones, another norm, was as strong as a super, so why not Hikari? And though it all, Charisma’s father wouldn’t leave her side, and in fact insisted on holding her hand through the interviews.
But finally it was over, and most of the others left to allow Charisma and Rochelle to rest. Even her father left her alone.
For want of anything to do, Charisma decided to hazard a conversation. “You okay?”
“I will recover. Yourself?”
“Yeah, they say I’ll make it.”
They were silent for a few moments. Then, Rochelle took a deep breath. “I wanted to thank you. And to apologize. Your… knowledge of the media and press proved invaluable during the mission. Had you not been there, I may have made the wrong decision and precipitated a new round of Forn Crusades. I was wrong to… question your utility.”
Rochelle, admitting she was wrong?
Maybe Charisma had actually died, and was just in heaven.
But just in case she hadn’t. Charisma knew what she had to say next, and managed to grit the words out. “Yeah, well, you did good too. We all did great.”
“Even Jenna,” said Rochelle. “I need to apologize to her as well—“
At that moment, Jenna walked through the door with a big basket of fruit and what looked like a small computer. “Uh, hi guys.”
“Jenna.” Charisma couldn’t deny that it felt good to see her again. “Um.”
‘Thank you for saving our lives,” said Rochelle.
“Yes. That.” Charisma blushed. She wasn’t good at gratitude.
Jenna held up her hands to protest, but Rochelle continued. “I completely misjudged you. Both your knowledge of Forn culture, and your fighting ability and courage. I was wrong, and I am deeply sorry.” As best she could while still in bed, she inclined her upper body in a half-bow.
Charisma nodded. “So, uh… right. Thanks.”
Jenna blushed more deeply. “No problem, guys. You’d have done the same for me.”
She gave Rochelle the computer. “Thought you might want something to do.”
“Thank you.” Rochelle took it.
Jenna turned to Charisma. “I, uh. I had no idea what to get you, but I know the food here isn’t too good, so I got you some fresh stuff…”
Charisma looked into the basket. It was okay; better than the hospital grub, anyway. “It’s fine,” she said.
Jenna was still looking at her oddly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” said Charisma. What else did Jenna want? Maybe she (Charisma) was supposed to say something like what Rochelle had said?
“And, uh. Yeah, I underestimated you too. You did way better than we thought… sorry I got you wrong…” Ugh. This was physically painful to Charisma, despite whatever painkillers they had her on. “But thanks for, you know, saving us anyway. And for teaching me how to cook.”
Jenna blushed. “No problem, Charisma.”
She moved closer to Charisma. Rochelle had seemingly become absorbed in her computer.
“And… thank you too. For helping to protect me.” She took Charisma’s hand and smiled. “Like I said, I’m glad you went on this mission with me. I always feel safer around you.”
Charisma was feeling a little light headed. “That’s, um. Nice.”
Jenna sat on the edge of the bed next to Charisma. “So when you get discharged… uh, wanna, maybe, hang out or something?”
Well, she had saved her life…
Charisma managed, “I guess I still need to tell you what to do, right? In exchange for, uh, the whole sneaking backstage thing?”
Jenna nodded. “Sure. Let’s meet and talk about it.”
When Jenna got up, Charisma got up the courage to ask, “Hey, uh, Jenna. Why’d you stay and guard us anyway? You could probably have gotten to an exit… gotten help.”
Jenna shrugged. “You’d been protecting me the whole day. I couldn’t abandon you two.” She blushed again. “Especially…”
“…what, especially me?”
“Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t let you… uh… I couldn’t let them hurt you.”
Jenna hesitated, then darted in and kissed Charisma’s cheek lightly. Charisma turned a bright red.
Jenna blushed and hurried out. “See you guys later!”
Red-faced, Charisma turned to see a snickering Rochelle.
“Hey. It’s… um. Nothing romantic. We’re just talking about, uh… it’s this French thing and…” Charisma was suddenly blanking on what explanation she could give that wouldn’t have ‘romantic’ overtones.
Rochelle nodded. “Do not worry. I have the perfect solution.”
“A new product from the makers of Hex2O. It is a bracelet that nullifies invincibility when the wearer is… ah, aroused. So you don’t need to worry about crushing someone that you are hugging or fornica—“
Charisma threw a pillow at Rochelle. “Stop it!”
Rochelle burst into laughter.
Charisma sighed and sank back in her bed.
Oh well. Jenna was nice enough, and had taken down an enemy that had beaten, well, her. So she was strong too.
Maybe it’d be worth giving her a try.
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Magellan © Grace Crowley 2004-12