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Ashley Raine, skateboarder supreme, surfer extreme, and martial artist crème de la crème, was in the most challenging and brutal fight of his life.

And he was losing.

He ducked, dodged, blocked, and sometimes, tentatively, tried to strike back at his tormentor. Sweat soaked his clothes as he stretched his skills to their utmost limit, but the outcome was certain from the first exchange of blows; though he stretched out a futile and hopeless battle against fate as long as humanly possible, Ashley couldn't evade his opponent's brutal fists forever. One ill-timed jump and a midair throw later, the end was at hand.

Ryu fell to the ground a final time, and Chun Li jumped up and down, shouting "Yatta!"

Ashley almost crushed the controller in his bare hands as he glared at the person sitting next to him. "One more fight!"

Jason laughed as he set his own controller down. "Ashley, just because you're capable of nigh-superhuman feats of strength and speed doesn't let you cross the line to true superhuman and make you skilled enough to beat me at Street Fighter. You have much more training before you can snatch the controller from my hand, young weedhopper."

Ashley waved one hand flippantly. "C'mon, Jason. I'm a frickin' martial artist. A game like this is solely a matter of fast reflexes, of mashing the buttons faster than you. I should be able to whup yer sorry ass, but…."

Jason grinned and said mockingly, "Old age and treachery will beat youth and reflexes every time." As he set the controller down, Jason glanced at the clock. Hesitantly, he added, "Er, Ash, didn't you want me to remind you about meeting Rachel at nine..?"

Ashley looked at the clock himself and blanched. "Eight forty-FIVE?!?!" In one smooth motion, he catapulted over the back of the couch and jumped out their window, snatching his new skateboard as he passed over it.

Jason, who had carefully turned off his game and put everything away, looked out the window and watched Ashley drop his skateboard and hop on, using his momentum to take off down the sloping sidewalk at an amazing speed. "With how often he jumps out the window, it's easy to forget we live on the third floor…" He tripped over an object, and after glancing down he rolled his eyes and shouted out the window, "ASHLEY, YOU FORGOT YOUR SHOES AGAIN!!"


Kyouki no Kyanpasu
(Crazy Campus)

An original story
by Aaron Bergman

© Copyright 2002-2005 by Aaron Berman.


Episode One: Culture Shock


Crouch down a bit and lean into the curve…

Ashley sighed as he let his body move along the familiar route to his girlfriend's workplace and free his brain to do the hard work of considering the path his life was taking. "I love Rachel, I guess, but—"

Shift weight to the side and turn to avoid that crack in the sidewalk…

"She's always so damn demanding."

Do my super-ollie up to the railing down the stairs and nosegrind down…

"Maybe I should've gone out with that one Japanese ninja girl, what was her name—"

Kickflip off as my board reaches the end of the railing, spinning around once before I reach the ground just for flare…

"Shikei? Shiken? Shi-something, that's for sure."

Take the landing firmly, making sure not to lose my balance like that one time I bounced and flipped a triple somersault…

"Stupid Japanese names. But at least she understood what a martial artist's—"

Duck the clothesline punch that comes at me from the shadowy alley, then hop off my board and kick the bottom up, catching the trucks in my left hand…

"Gotta do what a martial artist's gotta…"

Put my board on my left shoulder and tilt my head slightly, putting just the right scowl on my face for an irreverent pose.

"Do?"

Ashley knew very well that he wasn't the sharpest knife on the magnetized rack. Years of training had honed his reflexes to react long, long before any actual synapses fired, and he was far more comfortable thinking with his fists than his mind anyway. Now, though, his brain caught up with his body rather abruptly and Ashley groaned in annoyance, spoiling the fight-opening pose that he'd practiced so often in front of mirrors innumerable.

"Look, buddy, I ain't got time for this."

A shadow detached itself from inside the alley and stepped forward into the wan light from the street lamps. "At last, Ashley Raine, you have the opportunity to face the Bull of Tenochtitlan, Rodriguez Domingo Perro Aguilez!"

After glancing the mountain-like man over once, Ashley wasn't quite sure exactly what made him want to both laugh and cry at the same time. It could have been the dark pink on light blue wrestling suit that his cartoonishly-proportioned body was squeezed into. Maybe it was the ill-fitting Zorro mask that fell off his slanted forehead and drooped down his nose. But most likely it was the way his cleanly shaven and very polished head threw blinding highlights into Ashley's eyes.

Something about this guy makes my fists itch to break his face, but… I really DON'T want to piss Rachel off again this month. So… Ashley nodded to himself and decided to try reasonable.

"If you're lookin' to get some more rank in the C circuit, you DO need to challenge me officially. Fer cryin' out loud, this is the big-time! Call my dojo at…"

The man balled up his fists and charged, bellowing, and Ashley decided that reasonable wasn't going to work. He flipped his skateboard away carefully, aiming for the grass, and slid one foot forward. Big, bulky, slow. This should be a quick fight, which is good. I hate to rush a beating like the one this guy's earned for interrupting me, but…

What happened next was a sequence the likes of which Ashley had only seen in his favorite black-and-white comedies.

Ashley's skateboard bounced off of something in the grass and, through some weird providence of coincidence, hit the sidewalk again, rolling towards the charging Bull of Tenochtitlan.

Not watching where he was going, the Bull stepped on the board at an angle, tilting it up into an impromptu manual, and it carried him backwards while his arms flailed about wildly.

The wheels hit a crack and the board caught, sending the Bull into a backflip that carried him almost to the edge of the stairs Ashley had just descended. The martial artist winced just before the Bull of Tenochtitlan landed.

A sharp snap echoed through the night.

"Oh… it hurts… owie…."

Ashley walked over to the Bull of Tenochtitlan and looked down at him, a bead of sweat rolling down his head.

"I can't just leave him here." A glance at the university clock tower told Ashley that he was already late, and that every second which ticked further along only added to his doom, but—

"Gawddammit, it's the Code. C'mon, Rachel, understand just this once…"


The light through the restaurant windows reprieved the oppressive gloom of the street outside, and Ashley could hear laughter and merriment through the cheerful music that skirled out of the open windows.

He moved to the door, and it swung open smoothly at his touch. He stepped through, conjuring all the courage he'd ever known, all the valiance he'd ever crafted, for that simple action.

The suddenly cowardly and timid martial artist flinched as every waitress in the place pierced him with gimlet gazes. The music scratched momentarily then halted entirely, and dead silence filled the cafe.

"Er… when is Rachel's next break, Marcie?"

"To deal with YOU?" The older woman behind the counter tossed her black hair back over her shoulder with one hand. "Any time she needs one, jerk." A slight gesture sent one of the waitresses scurrying for the kitchen doors, and Marcie pointed towards a table nestled in a corner. "Wait for her there, you insensitive deadbeat. Why she even puts up with you…"

An expressive sigh filled with hidden meaning chased Ashley to the table and he slid into the cold vinyl seats, half-wondering if any of the waitresses giving him the evil eye would hand him a menu. Despite their obvious ill-will, one of them dropped a laminated sheet in front of him and walked away without another word.

It was starting to sink in that he was in deep trouble. He'd never been given the cold shoulder like THIS before. Ever. The music started up again, but this time it was slow, almost dirge-like…

He held the menu up over his face, trying to hide from the accusing eyes, and scanned down its listings of fried food to distract himself, if only for a moment, from the ordeal about to come.

"A-hem."

He decided to try confident. He closed the menu and said, "Hey, babe, you won't believe what happened to me on the way… over… here..?"

Ashley had seen many a terrifying sight in his time, most of them inflicted on him by his grandfather in the name of martial arts. A pit with a hundred starving cats, a park filled with stupidly huge animals, midnight raids on sorority laundry baskets, a thousand tax returns that absolutely, positively, HAD to be done overnight… the ways of the training martial artist are frightening, but each new challenge overcome prepares you for the next.

Rachel didn't look angry. No vein throbbing, no flaming glare, just a calm, sedate look, and for just a moment Ashley dared to hope that he wasn't doomed after all.

Then, her eyebrow twitched. Once.

And Ashley realized what true terror was as it filled his soul and paralyzed his body, rendering him unable to even twitch, much less run away, as Rachel slid into the other seat.

"So, Ashley, what was it this time?" Her tone was almost friendly, but now he knew better than to trust it.

"Well, y'see, I was on my way here, and this idiot jumped out of the shadows and challenged me. I woulda just clobbered him quick and hauled ass here, but…"

"But??" Now the carefully constructed facade that Rachel had plastered over her face began to crack and fall away, revealing the fiery rage behind it.

"Ah, er, ah, heh, y'see, h-h-he…"

She slammed both hands, palm down, onto the table. "STOP STAMMERING!!"

"He broke his leg after slipping on my skateboard, and I had to carry him to the campus clinic!"

Rachel put one hand to her forehead and started rubbing her temples, leaning back slightly. "So. Let me guess, your Code of Martial Artists?"

Ashley grinned in relief. "Y-yeah! So, you underst—"

He suddenly noticed that he was holding her wrist firmly, the back of her hand inches from his face, and Ashley realized that she'd just tried to slap him. Tears glistened in her green eyes, and she spat out, "It's over, Ashley. I like you, but I can't deal with the way you take all that stuff you do with your friends more seriously than you do me. Last month there was that kung fu movie festival that you TOLD me you would take me to, then you DITCHED me for that stupid surfing tournament…"

Ashley let go of her hand and grimaced. "Look, you know how I feel about kung fu movies. Besides, I got CHALLENGED by Quentin. I can't just stand back from a—"

Rachel interrupted. "Then, two weeks ago, that man came to my house and knocked me out as some kind of bait in a trap for you! He apologized nicely about doing it after you rescued me, but—"

"And he was punished for it, too. He should've realized that you weren't a martial artist and weren't subject to the Co—"

"I'M SICK OF HEARING ABOUT THIS STUPID CODE OF MARTIAL ARTISTS, ASHLEY!! It drives me INSANE that because of YOU I can't feel safe any more. He came into my house, Ashley."

She looked down at her lap, and then looked up again, a solemn expression on her face. "I… I can't be your fiancée any more."

Ashley got a cold, hollow feeling in his stomach and he felt as if Rachel and the restaurant and the whole world were starting to fall away from him, distancing him from the pain he knew should be tearing at him from the inside.

He'd never really thought about it deeply, but Ashley had always known that he loved Rachel… and he had to admit that she was right. It'd be better for her, a lot better, if I wasn't in her life.

That feeling of separation grew and filled his whole body with a numbing chill as his vision tunneled slowly, and he wondered why he was about to faint. It isn't as if this is a big surprise; I should have seen this coming a long time ago…

Rachel pulled the ring off of her finger and tossed it at him, and Ashley didn't, couldn't, react as it bounced off his chest and landed in his lap. Then she put her face in both of her hands. "That's what I wanted to talk to you tonight about. I've already discussed it with your parents and mine, and…"

She looked up at him and gasped. "Ashley? Ashley!"

…And Ashley realized that it WASN'T some illusion of distance created by his mind to protect him from the pain of Rachel's truthful words and realistic actions, that he WAS falling away from her and the restaurant and the world, tugging him from an unimaginable direction. He screamed as his vision narrowed to only Rachel's face and her outstretched hand, and he fought with all his strength to put one hand out to hers…

Then blackness closed over his sight and he traveled for an infinite time in a way that he lacked any words to describe, even to himself, and the only thing that saved him from madness was her final words, echoing over and over in his ears:

"Forget what I said! I do love you! Come back…!"


Ashley hit a cold metal floor hard, landing on his stomach in a way that whomped a breath he'd held for eternity. He lay there, gasping, eyes closed so tight against the darkness that he wasn't sure whether or not the feeling of steel underneath him was just an illusion created by his mind, and he didn't want to risk opening them only to find out that it was.

A ringing sound echoed through his ears, and without opening his eyes Ashley reached one hand out and caught a ring in his hand. Rachel… did you mean what you said? The small gem poked his palm, and fresh tears squeezed out of his eyes as he clenched harder around the ring he'd given Rachel in what suddenly seemed like another life, a much happier one. Whether she loves me or not doesn't matter anyway. She's better off without me…

Then, a woman spoke into the silence. "I told you that it wouldn't work, Devan, but would you ever listen to me? Nooooo, of course not." The woman's voice was husky and manlike, sounding like butterscotch poured out over Ashley's ears. "Never mind the fact that I've actually had experience messing around with the infinite, never mind the fact that…"

"Oh just shut up, will you Rube?" This other voice was male and sounded quite irritated. "You've proved your point. Obviously a scientist isn't qualified to mess around with the wonders of space and time, only you mystics and crystal-wavers, am I right?"

"For once, you admit the truth! But we don't have time for a good argument right now. We've gotta find out where this poor guy came from and help him get back."

"Hey, don't bother yourself on my account…" Ashley tried to say, but it came out only as a low groan of agony and despair. Lacking the energy to do anything else, he just kept lying down as slow, rhythmic steps walked towards him. He managed to turn his head and watch a pair of sturdy boots move next to his head, then slowly kneel down, revealing that the walker was clad in a dark blue jumpsuit that was far too large for the person wearing it.

Firm hands took his chin and turned his head so that he was looking into the face of the one of the cutest girls he'd ever laid eyes on. Her delicate features were framed by bangs and two long strands of hair that dangled in front of her ears and almost reached down to the floor. Though her fierce, bushy eyebrows gave her an almost masculine aspect, the illusion was spoiled by her large, liquid gray eyes and small rosebud mouth, which was currently quirked up in a strange half-smile.

"Are you okay?" she asked simply.

Ashley fainted.


Ruben was on her feet in one smooth motion. She looked over at Wiley, who was busy banging on his would-be time machine with a hydrospanner. "Devan! Your victim just collapsed. Where the heck is your Bedbug-Bot?"

Wiley stopped in mid-swing and slowly lowered the 'spanner. "Eh, she's somewhere around." He turned away from the exposed electronics that were sending up small drifts of black smoke and shouted into the depths of his underground laboratory, "Bedbug-Bot! Come HERE, Bedbug-Bot!"

Shortly, a bed with mechanized legs came waddling out of the ill-lit depths, and Ruben sighed to herself. I guess I can understand the need for proper mood-lighting in a lair, but I wish he'd just admit how handy some fluorescents would be…

Wiley pointed to the raised platform. "Over there, Bedbug-Bot! Over there!" Obediently, the long, squat robot walked to where Wiley pointed and waited there with an air of patience.

Ruben patted Bedbug-Bot with one hand as she pointed the other at Wiley's victim. She seized him in bonds of Air and lifted him over to Bedbug-Bot. The magician directed a stray tendril of Air to sweep aside the covers and set him carefully down, withdrawing her bonds slowly.

"I still don't understand how you do that."

Ruben shrugged without looking over her shoulder. "It's crystal-waving nonsense, why the heck should you care?" After smoothing the man's sweat-soaked hair away from his forehead, she held a black pearl centered over his forehead. The pearl let out a small flash of blue light, then another, then a third, pulsing steadily.

Ruben let out a small sigh. "Good. Aside from an understandable amount of despair, his sanity is still intact from his exposure to the horrors of the true reality of space and time." She allowed herself a small smile. "As intact as anyone's ever is, anyway…"

She ran the pearl slowly over the rest of him, holding it several inches above his skin. "Now, let's see what other damage you've done to him with your insane contraption." After several minutes of waving the pearl back-and-forth across his body and carefully watching the the rhythmic flashes, she leaned away and stowed the pearl in a small pouch at her side. "Nmph. Now that's odd."

"What is?"

The magician looked over her shoulder at Wiley. "Incredibly enough, he sustained absolutely no damage from being dragged here by your lunatic experiment. Perhaps," she added grudgingly, "your design won't kill anything that travels through it, as I had originally thought."

Wiley pressed a button on a small remote control attached to his belt, then raised one fist into the sky and power-posed against the Rising Sun! (Hologram conveniently provided by Ego-Bot™. Would life be worth living without one?) "I knew it! My design was perfect! UWA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!"

Ruben waited until Wiley had stopped laughing, than pointed at the other platform. "I suppose that's why the guinea pig is still there?"

Wiley turned and regarded the small rodent thoughtfully. "I will admit, there are a few minor design fla— er, unexpected extra features."

"A few UNEXPECTED extra fea— er, MINOR design flaws!" Ruben towered over Wiley, rage burning in her eyes. "As I recall, your machine was supposed to send the guinea pig one day into the future, not drag some helpless soul from spirits know where in time and space!"

Her righteous ire burned for a moment, then Wiley said with an slight grin, "The same way a certain person's spells was supposed to help a helpless soul gain relief from an old family ghost, not make every ghoul, spirit, and haunt from a thousand miles around come screaming to torment him?"

A blush crept over Ruben's face and she looked down at her hands, twiddling her fingers. "Well, that was improvised spellcasting, and you never know what might go wrong when you meddle with an established formula…" She sighed. "I guess we all make mistakes, right?"

"Now that's the attitude I expect from my first friend on this backwater planet!" Wiley stepped next to the man that was lying on Bedbug-Bot and poked his upper arm. The mad scientist 'ouched' as his finger was bent painfully in payment for his efforts, then he turned to Ruben. "What say you wake him up, okay?"


Ashley rose to consciousness slowly, almost unwillingly. I'm so comfortable. Wow, I guess it WAS all a dream. But… He fidgeted as something cold and metal poked into his back. Why is there a 3/8 socket wrench in my bed?

"Can you hear me? Do you speak this language?"

Ashley jerked upright as the woman he'd seen in his dream spoke into his ear, almost banging his head into her face. "AAHH!!!"

He looked around and nearly screamed again. Instead of his comfortable room decorated with Three Stooges and Marx Brothers posters, he was in a room that was so huge the far walls were shrouded in darkness. There were tables and desks and work-benches everywhere, and every square inch of them, along with a healthy amount of floor space, was covered with a bewildering array of weird-looking electronic devices and tools. Several machines were moving around in the background, arranging and disarranging the gear scattered about to some unknowable commands.

He closed his eyes and pinched himself. "Ow. It isn't a dream."

"Excuse me?"

Ashley opened his eyes and looked at the woman who'd spoken to him earlier. She was standing beside the bed, looking sympathetic, one hand on her cheek and the other in the pocket of her coverall. "Uh, it isn't a dream?"

She nodded and sat down on the bed beside him. "You poor guy…" Distracted for a moment by a glimpse down the front of her loose coverall, Ashley missed what she said next. Did she say her name was Robin? She must've… that's about the only name that would fit into what she said. She gestured and Ashley turned around to see a man working in a machine with a tool in each hand, not flinching back at the occasional spark that singed his stained and dirty lab coat. She asked gently, "Your name is..?"

"Ashley Raine." He sighed and tried to make a joke, but it came out sounding tired and depressed. "I take it this means that I'm not in Kansas any more?"

Robin looked blankly at him. "Huh?"

"…Never mind." Ashley sighed again. Great, just great. Not only am I drawn to… wherever this is… in a way that only the cheesiest '50's sci-fi movie would let slide, but I'm in a place where people are ignorant of the classic quotes!? Cast into a barbarous land indeed…

"Actually, you're in southern California, not Kansas." She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "And it's currently… hmmm… 2147 Anno Domini, if that's the timescale you're used to."

Ashley stared, his throat not working for a moment, then he squeaked out, "Excuse me, did you say it was 2147?"

"Yeah!" She nodded cutely, grinning.

"That's what I thought." Ashley tilted his head to the side. "Okay, time to shave with Arkham's Gillette… or something like that… stupid logic classes." He moved out of the bed, and Robin got out of his way quickly, an expression of surprise on her face. "Well, since a time machine is just plain crazy, and myself thinking that I'm a hundred and fifty years in the future is absolutely cracked, I guess that means I AM crazy!"

Ashley sighed in relief. "Thank God. For a second there, I thought for sure that I was in trouble. Well, guess that I just have to wait peacefully until they drag me to the nuthouse!"

Someone cleared their throat, and Ashley turned around to see the tall, skinny man looking up from his box, still twisting a tool around inside the machine. "The only problem in shaving with Occham's Razor is that it's inherently flawed. It only works from deductive logic, rather than inductive logic, and I assure you that you need to do some inducting of new data into your world-view to deal with this. Fortunately," he indicated the box with a sweeping gesture, "I think that I can send you back to your home right now, IF you want to go."

"Of course he does!" Robin said indignantly.

Ashley looked down at the ring in his hand and held it between two fingers, frowning in thought. DO I want to go back? He slipped the ring onto his pinky and sighed. Whether or not I get out of her life, I don't belong here. It wouldn't be right for me to throw all my old life away, just because of Rachel. His eyes widened as a sudden memory came rushing forward. And there're the finals of that surfing tournament that Quentin challenged me to! I CAN'T let HIM win! His fist clenched.

"Then step onto the platform, and I shall return you to your home time."

Now, though,  Robin looked dubious. "Uh, Devan, are you sure that this is a good idea? Maybe you should look over the clockwork or whatever runs that thing before using it again…"

"Pish-posh. It worked once, it'll work again. Trust me."

Ashley was already on the platform, waiting impatiently. I won't lose to Quentin! That stuck-up prig, thinks he's so hot because he's got money and can afford personal trainers 24 hours a day when I have to train by snatching hot marshmallows out of a blazing fire… His eyes narrowed in rage at the thought of mocking laughter echoing across time. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!"

The scientist strode over to a console covered in blinking lights. He contemplated the two levers protruding from it for a moment, then shrugged and placed his hand on one. "If that one brought you here, then…"

He pulled the lever.

The box exploded in a shower of sparks and flames, sending burning metal in all directions. Ashley ducked low to avoid the cables that had snapped up, whipping over the platform that they'd once connected to, and when he looked up again he saw a swarm of machines wielding fire extinguishers, battling the dozens of little fires that had sprung up around the shop.

The scientist was standing in the same place, face and hair blackened by the blast, the lever still in his hand, though the rest of the machine was reduced to a small hill of dust that blew away in some unseen wind as Ashley watched.

The woman had one hand out in front of her in the direction of the blast, an eerie blue glow around it. She lowered her hand slowly, the glow fading, and looked up at Ashley, resignation on her face. "Well, I should have expected THAT from one of HIS inventions. It looks like you're going to be here for a while, at least until he fixes the ma—"

Ashley found himself with both fists clenching the scientist's lab coat, shaking the hapless fellow wildly. "YOU SEND ME BACK NOW!!"

The scientist's eyes focused on Ashley's face, then his eyes narrowed, the only warning that Ashley had before a giant's fist smashed into his chest and sent him flying away from the scientist. "Don't TOUCH me, plebian!"

The martial artist landed and rolled backwards, coming up in a ready crouch. Damn! He's fast! What the hell did he hit me with? Ashley noticed that one of the scientist's hands was at a control on his belt, and his eyes narrowed. I bet that's what he did. So if I can pin his hands…

He heard Robin sigh. "We don't have time for this. PACIFY." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her gesture towards both him and the scientist, sweeping her hand in a wide arc. Sparkles shot across Ashley's vision and all he could think was how tired he was, how pointless it was to do anything but sleep. He shook his head and put one foot forward heavily, fighting against the sudden urge to lie down and give up, striding forward slowly, battling with every ounce of his will to not collapse before he beat nine kinds of hell out of the bastard that had brought him here.

"Ninja-Bots, forward!"

Through the haze of drowsiness, Ashley was vaguely aware of his reflexes galvanizing into something unstoppable as black forms tried to block his path…


Wiley ducked bits of Ninja-Bot as they flew from the swirling melee that was mere feet in front of him. The scientist watched, his eyes widening in shock as he saw the martial artist battling with no less than four of his best creations ever, and actually WINNING. He clutched his head as Ruben's spell attacked his defenses, trying to worm its way past them and knock him out. "Ouch! Damn it all, second wave forward! Defend my lab's honor!"

The second wave, consisting of only one robot, strode forth. Wiley looked at it and groaned internally. Out of all the damn bots to keep as the absolute LAST line of defense, I had to pick…

Ashley looked up from the limp remains of the last and jumped just in time to avoid a whirling dervish attack executed by the spinning Top Man.

With sharp blows of his hands, the martial artist knocked away the thrown tops and came down, foot aimed right for Top Man's head, who managed to spin away, avoiding the attack… but tripping over a broken shard of Ninja-Bot, flying away into the darkness in a clatter of mechanical limbs.

As the martial artist turned back towards Wiley, the scientist uttered two words at the look in the man's eye.

"Uh-oh…"


Then Ashley fell, dragged down by a lethargy that seeped into his bones, filling them with a leaden weight which crept to encompass his whole body. For a moment, he tried to stand, pushing himself up with arms that protested every movement, then they gave way and he collapsed against his will into a peaceful sleep.


Ruben lowered her hand slowly, gasping with the effort of finally knocking out the surprisingly strong-willed martial artist. "Well, that wasn't supposed to happen." Am I losing my touch? Or is he THAT strong? He went berserk when I cast the Pacify, as if suppressing his consciousness only brought out something stronger in him… She shook her head doubtfully. I hope that using so much power doesn't affect my transformation back.

Wiley tried to glare up at her, but he couldn't quite summon up enough anger to make it effective. "Aw, dammit, Ruben, I hate it when you use that Pacify bippity-boppity-boo on me."

She glared at him, and had more than enough anger behind the glare to make it effective. "Then you should stop picking fights that you can't win so I don't have to haul your ass out of the fire."

"Oh, what makes you think I would have," the scientist yawned voluminously, "lost, eh? In my own lab? With my extensive supply of defensive implements?" He let out a nervous chuckle and looked away from her, yawning again.

Ruben mopped sweat from her brow with one oversized sleeve and said dryly, "Call it a hunch." She waggled a finger and the prone Ashley floated into the air, his arms dangling limply. Ruben rubbed the back of her neck as she sighed. "Can you fix the time machine?"

Wiley tossed the lever he still held onto the floor and grunted. "Not bloody likely. I'll have to order fresh parts and slap an entirely new one together, and now that I've proven that the theory works, why should I bother making a new one?"

Ruben sighed and cracked her knuckles. "Look, Devan, if you don't take responsibility for helping out this—" She glanced significantly at the floating man, and Wiley grunted.

"Fine, fine, fine, I understand. I'll do it as fast as I can, okay? But some of those parts will take me MONTHS to get in. Until then…"

Ruben looked down at Ashley, who had floated gradually to her side, and patted his head sympathetically. "What do we do with him now that he's stuck here?"

Devan held up one finger. "Ah! I know! We can keep him locked and tied up in the lower level of my lab! I have a perfectly good dungeon down there that's just going to waste."

"…"

Devan shrugged resignedly. "All right, fine, just shoot down all of my suggestions. He'll need SOME sort of cover if he's going to be out in the open, somewhere we can keep an eye on him."

Ruben grinned. "What about the Purloined Letter method? We enroll him for at least the fall semester? He's about the right age for a student here…"

"Yeah. Might as well enroll him as an excuse to keep him close until I put the machine together." Wiley reached out one hand and a holographic keyboard appeared underneath it. As he typed rapidly he said, "and as a partial repatriation, I'LL cover the expense of his schooling until I send him home, okay? Talk to the Gweep."

"Thanks. I'll ask this guy when he wakes up, but I think I can phrase it so he won't refuse." Ruben started for the door and the floating Ashley followed her. "I'm gonna take him over to my room and set him up in Ogre's bed." She grinned. "I was gonna need a new roommate anyway." 


The mysterious shadow watched…

The mysterious shadow waited…

The mysterious shadow…

Gnawed on a ham sandwich, chewing messily, his eyes trained on the entrance of the Extreme Science building.

He finished the last bite and almost choked on it as the Prophecy was Fulfilled.

Not wanting to be called a fool by the ancient Wise Ones, he reached into his shirt and removed the sacred scroll, unrolling it just far enough to read aloud the first words. "Andde inne Thee Twelfe Hour Shalle come Thee One, Emerging From Thee Lab of Madness Rife. Thee One Shalle Bee Floating…"

He smiled in anticipation. "Soon, Ashley Raine, as the rest of the prophecy is fulfilled, you shall face me in combat to determine who will stand and who will fall." He glanced at his watch and gasped. "But for now, I'm missing today's episode of Modern Ninja Living!" He faded into the darkness.

Ruben stopped for a moment, certain that someone was watching her. Then Ashley bumped into her from behind, and she shrugged it off as relatively unimportant. If someone wants to duel me, they can look all they want to first. She grinned and said aloud, "It's been a long time since I've crushed a challenger like a bug."


Ruben leaned backwards in her chair, splitting her attention between the novel in her hands and her patient on the lower bunk. After the dose of sedative magic he took, he should be out for a few hours at least. She smiled slyly. But if what I think is true…

Ashley stirred and snorted, so Ruben marked her place and sat up. "Are you awake again?"

"Where IS he!"

Ruben sighed. "He's trying to make a new time machine so we can send you back to your own time."

Ashley sat up, and the sudden motion made him clutch his head as if he were in pain. "That's great," he groaned without much enthusiasm.

"…He says it'll take a few months."

He stopped clutching and jerked his head towards Ruben, jaw gaping in shock. For a moment, his mouth moved up and down without uttering a sound, then he took a deep breath and almost shouted, "WHAT?!"

"Don't worry about it, don't worry about it!" Ruben waved one hand. "We can send you back to the moment you left. From this end, you have all the time in the world."

Ashley rubbed his face and groaned, "What the heck am I gonna do until then?"

"Well," Ruben stood up, "Devan is paying for you to enroll in this university for a semester. Since you're already a sophomore in your old community college, I can just ask my friend to hack some records here and there and get you admitted as a sophomore here. You'll have to enroll for classes, of course, but…"

Ashley swung his legs out of the bunk and sat on the edge. "Well, that doesn't sound so bad, but…" He gave Ruben a suspicious look. "Wait a sec. How'd you know that I was a college student?"

Ruben tossed his wallet into his lap. "Your student ID in your wallet, silly." She stood up and handed him a set of clothes. "Also, your trip through time didn't leave your whites at your whitest, if you know what I mean. There's a shower at the end of hall; don't come back until you're clean."

"A shower?" Ashley looked thoughtful and stood up himself. He raised one arm and sniffed, wincing visibly at the odor.

"Yes. Outside the door and to your left; it's the door at the end of the hall labeled 'Bathing Area.'" Ruben got behind Ashley and he looked over his shoulder at her. "I'm going over next door to the Gweep's so he can get started on the hack-job. Come over there when you get done, okay?" She set her hands on his back and started shoving him out the door.


Ashley let himself be pushed out the door by the diminutive female, too bemused by the view down her loose shirt to resist. When the door closed behind him, he wiped a slight line of drool from his chin and shrugged. Well, she did have a point about the shower… I could really use one. He started for the door at the end of the hall with a thoughtful air about him.

A brief tap later, he swung the door open and stepped in. The sound of a shower greeted him as he looked around the room. There were four shower stalls, one of them running, but the steam fogging the door rendered whomever was inside invisible. Another door in the wall to the left had a hand-lettered sign hanging from it that read, "Make sure to rinse yourself before entering the bathtub."

Ashley slid his shirt off and tossed it onto the bench, then he stretched out a hundred and fifty year's worth of kinked muscle and tendon.

"Oooohh…" Ashley stopped stretching and noticed the woman peeking out of the still-running shower, a wide grin spread across her face. She winked at him and turned the shower off and stepped out, seizing a towel at the last moment and covering her front with it as she walked to the bathtub door.

When she closed the door behind her, Ashley breathed a sigh of relief. Then, she leaned out of the door again and he jumped. The woman laughed slightly as she reached out to put a sign on the door that read, "Females Only! NO PEEPING, PERVS!!" Smaller writing underneath that said, "Yes, this means you, Kokeru M." She winked at him again and swung the door shut.

Ashley stood there and blinked several times, then shrugged and finished preparing for his shower.


There are few things more useless in the summer months than the drum major of a marching band, and Drum Major Pip was all too tragically aware of that. With a bare minimum of minions to order around until the next semester began, the Drum Major was doing whatever she could to secure her future.

"Join the Marching Band! C'mon, what's wrong with you people? Don't you have any school spirit?!"

"Mistress…"

Drum Major Pip turned to her boon companion, French Horn One. Oh, she knew that his real name was, uh, er, hmm… Olaf Beefcake, but she found that it helped her focus to only think of her minions as the objects that they were.

"Yes, French Horn One?"

"I do not t'ink zat ve vill get any new recruits today, Mistress."

The Drum Major would have become tremendously angry at most of her minions if they'd dared contradict any of her ideas (Overlording 203: Care and Feeding of Flunkies had taught her deal with those who dared to speak against her very harshly) but French Horn One was a… special case. He led her crack squad of French Horns into combat, and was her trusted right hand man.

Why, she'd even trust him to babysit her beloved Chia pets! So it was with an indulgent tone that she asked, "Whyever not, French Horn One?"

The hulking man took in the entire campus with one sweep of his muscled arm. "Because, Mistress, it is ze summer semester. Ze only people here know of ze marching band already…" He took a deep breath, then continued. "And ze uniforms scare off many people."

Drum Major Pip looked French Horn One up and down. He was dressed out in the standard marching band uniform, just like she; purple half-cape, shiny silver uniform, freshly shined boots, and a two-foot hat with a purple, bobbing plume nodding cheerfully back and forth on the top. "What's wrong with the uniform?"

Noting that her tone was more mild then angry, Olaf Beefcake took another breath and said slowly, "Because people are scared of ze uniform after you almost conquered ze campus last semester."

The Drum Major cackled briefly. "AheheeHEehehee!" Then, she calmed herself, and said dismissively, "As well they should fear me. Why, if that filthy Mad Sci major hadn't managed to flank my Flute battalion with his robots, I would have taken the Admin Building for sure! And from there, I would have ruled the whole campus. And from the campus, I could have ruled the world…" Ah, such a simple plan. Where could it have possibly gone wrong?

"So, Mistress, you see vhat I am saying?"

"I… suppose." For a moment, Drum Major Pip was downcast. Then, she brightened and seized a handful of recruitment pamphlets. "I suppose I'll just have to redouble my efforts! AheHEheHEEheheee!" She continued to cackle even as she strode off to find new vict— er, potential new band members!

Olaf Beefcake stood there for a moment, watching her, then shook his head. "I suppose zat I should go and follow her. Zere is no telling vhat trouble to vhich she could get in…"


Ashley stepped out of the bathroom door, dressed in his borrowed clothing and refreshed by a briskly cold shower. He started for the door that Robin had pushed him out of, but as he touched the doorknob he paused. Didn't she say something about being next door?

Just as he was turning towards the door, it swung open.

…And Ashley could only stare in wonder at the goddess of raw lust incarnate that stepped out, drooling incoherently as she strode towards him and put one hand out to stroke his cheek, her black eyes half-lidded. "So, you're the poor guy?" she breathed sexily, her chest moving in ways that compelled his eyes downward.

Several seconds later, Ashley realized that she was probably expecting some sort of answer. After swallowing several times to restore the moisture in his throat, he spoke. "Gah? Bwehh… Gah!"

She gasped in shock, her red tongue flicking over fanged teeth. "I forgot!" She turned away and her hands went to her hair, pinning it up in a bun.

When she turned back, Ashley blinked. Instead of the sex goddess that had been there just seconds before, paralyzing him with her beauty, there was just a woman in front of him. She was attractive, to be sure, but there was no reason…

Fanged teeth? Black eyes?

She patted her bun carefully. "Sorry, I'm so used to letting my hair down around Ruben and his friends that I didn't think you'd be affected so strongly. My name here is Lilah." She put her right hand out and Ashley took it reflexively, shaking firmly.

"Uh… what are you?" As soon as the words left his mouth, Ashley had to curse their sheer stupidity. She didn't seem to mind, however, and she chuckled lightly.

"I was created by man long ago, a desire they thought they wished for but in the end could never attain. I have—"

"Eh, Lilah, are you planning to tell him your whole life's story or are you going to show him in here?" The voice sounded strangely familiar to Ashley, but it was undeniably masculine and wasn't the scientist who'd dragged him here.

Lilah glanced over her shoulder. "Okay, okay, I'll show him in." She rolled her eyes and beckoned the martial artist. "Please come in."

Ashley followed her through the door, and a young man looked up from his perch on the single bed in the room. "Hey, Ashley. After the Gweep gets done with whatever he needs you to do personally, we'll head over to the Admin building and…" The man peered closely at Ashley. "Why are you turning grey?"

Now, to say that Ashley was dimwitted simply because he found thinking with his fists easier than his brain would be wrong. After all, it takes SOME intelligence to memorize three thousand different martial arts and learn efficient counter-techniques for each, or analyze a fresh opponent's style in a fraction of a second and adapt to it, or to remember the Eight Hundred Kata of the Panty Collector.

All of those instincts were tingling the moment he laid eyes upon the man with his hair pulled back in a ponytail and two long strands left dangling before his ears. I've seen this guy before… but where?

Gears turned, circuits clicked shut, and his mind supplied the answer almost as soon as he asked the question of himself.

This man was Robin.

Ashley's world wobbled around him for the third time that day, and he clutched for the doorknob. "What the hell's going on?"


Ruben stared blankly at Ashley for a moment, then he smacked one fist into his open palm. "Oh, didn't I tell you? Spirits, how absentminded of me…"

"You idiot!" Lilah bashed the back of his head, and he glared irately at her.

"Damn it, you can't blame me for one little slip! I've had more important things to worry about than me, what with trying to figure out how to clean up after ANOTHER of Devan's messes and help out this poor victim."

Lilah crossed her legs and floated in midair, looking at Ruben with a vacant expression that he knew all too well was a false front. "Why are you helping him, anyway?"

"Because when I screwed up last year, Devan handed out proton packs to the entire dorm to help ME clean up MY mess."

"No, I meant HIM." Lilah jerked her head towards the martial artist who was still clutching the doorknob, staring at Ruben as if he'd grown a second head. Well, Ruben didn't blame him one bit for that.

Ruben scratched the back of his head. "Because he needs a helping hand, that's why!" And because I may need him, since my previous partner for the Tourney doubles graduated last year…

Lilah grinned slyly. "Oh, I see how it is…" She floated over to the sorcerer and elbowed him in the ribs. "Nudge-nudge-say-no-MORE!"

"…Are you implying something?"

She nudged again. "A nod's as good as a wink to an old succubus!"

Ashley recovered a few of his wits and managed to say, "Excuse me…"

Ruben blinked. "I don't think I catch your meaning."

"Well, when you first met this guy, you were a woman, right?"

"Um, can I get some answers over here?"

"Your point being?"

"Are you guys ignoring me INTENTIONALLY?"

Lilah nudged one final time. "Well, women have needs, and this guy is a pretty prime hunk of beefcake. Deny it as you might, sometimes YOU'RE a woman too…"

Ruben jumped off the bed to get away from her elbow, a horrible suspicion about what Lilah was talking beginning to seep in. "Look if you're saying that I—"

She held out both hands, waving them in denial. "Oh, no, no, no! Well, yes, that is what I'm saying."

"OKAY, THAT'S IT!" Ruben raised one hand and pointed it at the serenely floating Lilah, eldritch energies flickering around it. "I'm banishing you back to Hell, you sex-spawned gutter-minded fiend!!"

She stood up straight and let go of the restraint she kept around her powers and her true form, letting her wings snap out and spreading them as far as she could. "You still don't have the experience to beat me, you poor repressed little man."

Ruben's fingers popped audibly as he used them to weave a Pythagorean Death-Hex around Lilah. For a moment, she seemed daunted by the equation, but his anger had let slip a small hole in the otherwise perfect weave and she fended the Hex off by solving it with ease.

"Pathetic. You KNOW I had higher marks than you in math, for all your hours of studying…"

Ruben glared, struggling to come up with a properly cutting response. "Yes, of course you're more familiar with higher math than I am. You need CALCULUS just to figure out all the men you've slept with!!"

"Why, Ruben, you say that like it's a BAD thing…"

Ruben opened his mouth to retort again, then he realized she'd already cast her spell while his attention was distracted by her words. For a moment, he searched his defenses frantically to find what she'd cast, looking so hard that he almost missed the insidious curse she'd slid in. Blast! Limbaugh's Raving Idiocy!

Fortunately, Ruben defended his sanity in time with a quickly woven Ward of Franken. "Dear old woman, you should recover from your dotage long enough to learn that once-powerful curses now have quick, efficient countermeasures. Your ancient right-wing sorceries have no 'oomph' any more."

Now it was her turn to glare in impotent rage. "'Old woman?' 'Dotage?' I'll show YOU old!!"

Lilah held out both hands in front of her, cupping them as she gathered energy into her palm. Ruben, confused, did the same in response, though this was going too far. She could blow up half the building with what she has in there. I'm gonna have to try for containment…

Then, Ruben crossed a line that he'd never been able to pin down for certain. It fluctuated constantly, letting him slide right up to the edge some days while others it ambushed him unexpectedly with casting spells he'd never had a problem with before.

The change he'd grown all too familiar with swept through his body. His bones shrunk, his body deformed, and his flesh moved in weird ways. Ruben staggered backwards, one of her hands moving up to her face as the other clenched tighter around the power she'd summoned lest it rage out of control and wind up destroying the dorm. Again. Ruben gritted her teeth. I am SO not paying to repair this dorm a third time!

After she finished transforming, Ruben glared up at the laughing Lilah, who had let her gathered energies dissipate harmlessly. "Damn you! I JUST changed back!!" With a flick of her wrist the magician dispersed her power safely as well. "Now who KNOWS when I'm gonna turn back into a man again!"

She waved one hand idly towards Ashley and said, "Yes, but some people prefer visual aides." She turned towards the martial artist and visibly folded her true form away again, becoming an almost normal-looking woman.

"Geh?" Ashley shook his head rapidly, his eyes refocusing on the two women standing in front of him. "Er, you mean me?"

"Yes, of course I do!" She gave a sultry sigh. "I've yet to meet a man that DIDN'T like visual aides…"

Suddenly, the Gweep looked away from his computer screen. "Ashley, could you please touch the scanner? I need your finger and palm prints."

Ashley shook his head wildly and looked towards the fourth person in the room as if noticing him for the first time, a mistake that Ruben could understand quite easily. If there was a person who could simply walk into a room and by virtue of sheer charisma and force of personality make everyone there willing to follow him into the bowels of Hell itself, the Gweep would be the point farthest from that person. He shrunk into the background so well that those who knew him best believed he did it on purpose, and Ruben had to admit that you never quite noticed him until he WANTED to be noticed.


Ashley blinked. "Uh, yeah… sure. No problem." He stepped over piles of discarded magazines, stacks of disks, and small mountains of electrical components. The Gweep held out a mysterious device about the size of a calculator that seemed to be nothing but one little futuristic computer screen and the martial artist, after a moment of deliberation, placed his hand against it, palm down.

Ashley flinched away. "Ow!" That stung!

"Sorry, electrostatic backlash." The Gweep plugged the device back into his computer, and his keys clattered. Ashley shrugged and sat down in a chair next to the computer, turning towards Ruben. "All right, that's it. I want some answers! Why the hell were you a woman before, how were you a man just a second ago, and just what is going on!?"

Before Ruben could reply, Lilah spoke with a grin. "He got blasted one night and cursed himself to turn into a girl in a botched attempt to win a stupid bet."

The magician glared. "That's not how it happened!"

Lilah gave him a sly look. "But it's basically how it happened, right?"

Ashley shook his head. "A CURSE? You gotta be kidding me. What are you, a magician?"

Lilah burst out laughing again. The Gweep looked amused. Even Ruben seemed less irritated. Lilah was the first to speak. "A magician. I guess you could put it that way, although it would be like calling a hurricane a spring drizzle."

Ruben shrugged. "You exaggerate, succubus. I'm hardly at the fullness of my powers yet. Gimme a few decades."

Lilah smiled smugly. "I can smell a man with power, and you already have more than some sorcerers I've met who've lived for centuries."

"And I STILL can't banish you back to the fiery pits? What kind of a loser magician does that make me?"

They both shared a laugh over that while Ashley watched, his irritation growing. The martial artist raised one hand. "So, let me get this straight. This," he gestured broadly, "is the future, and you," he pointed at Ruben, "are a wizard who cursed himself."

Both of the women nodded cutely, and Ashley slapped his palms against his thighs. "WHAT THE HELL kind of place is this? What happened in the last hundred and fifty years that could POSSIBLY bring back magic, or anything like THIS?!"

Both of the women exchanged glances. Ruben spoke first. "Well, that's history. Mythology, even! I suppose one of the first classes we'll sign you up for will be something to do with the events leading up to World War III and World War III itself…"

Lilah shrugged. "Yeah. I was right in the middle of it, and I'M not sure I can explain what happened!"

Ashley blinked. "Hooo-kay, I guess I can… er… accept that for now… but are you sure you can't tell me anything?"

Ruben sighed. "Can I field this one?" Lilah nodded, and Ruben cracked her knuckles. "Well, it wouldn't be right to say magic 'came back' in any fashion. Instead, say rather that magic was here during even the darkest times of the so-called 'Information Age', when enchantment and the very gods themselves struggled for precious belief.

"But…" Ruben seemed to struggle for words, then the Gweep interrupted.

"We don't have time for a history lesson. A few prophecies came to pass, the world was almost destroyed, now the world is protected by the benevolent hand of the Goddess Incarnate and all Her servants." The Gweep turned away from his computer and scowled at them. "Now, the backdoor I set up in the college that Ashley is supposed to be from won't last through the night, so could you PLEASE take him to sign up for classes before my half-hour's hard work is wasted?"

Ruben grinned and stood up. "Fine, fine, fine. I get the idea. C'mon, Ashley, I'll take you to the Admin building."

Ashley stood up himself. "You still haven't sold me on this idea of enrolling into this university. What's the point?"

Ruben sighed and held one hand out. "Because we have to keep you close, just in case Devan finishes the machine early. Besides, do you really WANT to go out into the world and find a real job?"

Without another word, Ruben walked out the door, and after standing there for another moment, Ashley followed.

Lilah scratched her chin as the door swung shut after them. "I wonder what he REALLY wants that poor guy for?"


The mysterious shadow watched…

The mysterious shadow waited…

The mysterious shadow…

Sighed in exasperation. "Thanks to that stupid prophecy, I missed today's episode of Modern Ninja Living! I can't believe it… today's episode was about poisoned caltrops, too." He smashed one fist into his palm.

"I guess I'll just have to go to my friend's house and see if he recorded it. Aw well, the prophecy doesn't say that I fight Ashley until tomorrow anyway." He leapt for the nearest rooftop, nearly colliding with several other people bounding from rooftop to rooftop. He sighed in resignation.

"There are just WAY too many ninja around these days…"


Ashley touched Ruben's shoulder as they stepped out of the dorm. "Hey, Ruben, what does she see in a guy like him anyway?"

She looked confused for a moment, then smiled. "Who, Lilah and the Gweep?"

"Yeah."

She held up two fingers. "I don't know for sure, but I've got two theories. One: After thousands of years of being wanted only for her body and having sex with men who didn't care about her, the fact that he likes her more for her mind than for her body really turns her on."

Ashley smiled. "And the second?"

"That he has a really, really large—"

"Join the Marching Band?"

Ashley flinched back as a flyer was shoved at his nose by a hand attached to a floating helmet with a cheerful purple plume.

"C'mon, show some school spirit! Join the Marching Band and become one of my faithful legion!"

After withdrawing a bit, Ashley saw that his initial impression of being assaulted by just a helmet was wrong, but not by much. It was part of a rather… shiny marching band uniform that assaulted his eyes even as the person hidden under the helmet's visor assaulted his ears with another demand. "You get a free marching band uniform, an instrument of your choice, and as many orders as you can stomach!"

Ruben grabbed the martial artist's arm, pulling him away from the marching band uniform. "Don't make eye contact. Keep moving. Don't say a thing…"

"Ruben! I remember you! You were the one that defeated my Piccolo section's ritual spell in March!" She swept her baton out and pointed it at her face. "I will HAVE MY REVENGE UPON YOU!!"

Ruben brushed it away. "Yeah, yeah, yeah… Excuse me, Drum Major, but I have important business elsewhere."

Another man in a marching band uniform rushed up and put one hand on the French horn that rested at his side. He was… massive, gargantuan, barbarian, really, really big, whatever words you wanted to use to describe the way that he strained his uniform at every seam. "Excuze me, Mistress. We cannot defeat him here, vait until ve have our legions again."

The Drum Major whined for a moment, then she straightened up. "Very well, I shall heed your advice for now. But when I have my legions again… you shall be defeated!! AheeheHEheheeheeHEE!!!"

Ashley blinked and watched the two move away quickly. "Okay, that was… strange."

Ruben laughed. "Get used to it, Ashley. This sort of thing happens ALL the time." She swept one hand out. "This way, if you please."


Wiley had just finished cleaning up the last of the broken 'bot bits when his computer spoke. "Mr. Wiley, there's a sub-ether visual communication coming in for you from your grandfather."

He grinned and moved towards the computer. "Excellent! Put it on the main screen."

Just as Wiley sat down in his chair, the balding face of his grandfather appeared. Without preamble, he asked, "So, Devan, how did your experiment with time travel go?"

Wiley shrugged. "A success, of course! I dragged some poor native from two hundred years in the past to the present as an unexpected side effect, and the machine blew up before I could send him back, but…"

Both of them chorused. "When you slap a new machine together, sometimes it spits out a gear!" They shared a laugh, and Grandfather Wiley wiped a tear away from his eye.

"Ah… good times, good times. Heard any good ones lately?"

The younger Wiley leaned back in his chair. "Actually, yes. Just last year, a fellow student got his doctorate with an amusing little paper entitled 'Theories of Convergent and Divergent Evolution From a Galactic Primogenitor Race.'

"His theory was that there was some," Wiley used finger quotes, "'First Race' that spread all over the galaxy, and then all the colonies somehow lost contact with each other, growing apart, and that's why so many races across the galaxy are physiologically similar to the indigenous intelligent species on this planet, what was their word for themselves…" He frowned for a moment. "Ah. 'Humans.' Quaint notion, eh?"

Grandfather Wiley shook one finger. "Now remember, boy, you CAN'T tell them the truth. The main directive of an elder race in dealing with a younger race is—"

"Yeah, Gramps, I know. 'Don't tell 'em what they ain't ready to handle.' I wouldn't dare anyway. Do you realize that the natives on this world actually die of natural causes? Barbaric!"

Grandfather Wiley shrugged resignedly. "Yes, but that school is obscure enough that no one will know exactly what you've learned there. That's an edge in the local circles, you know? I know the Dean through a mutual friend, and he seems like a fellow soul, willing to go the extra mile to ensure that his students get a real education they can use in life!"

An explosion echoed from over the speakers, and the younger Wiley grimaced. "Grandfather, haven't you defeated the Blue Bungler YET?! Fer cryin' out loud, it isn't like that contraption is designed very well. One sharp pointy object and it goes KABLAM!"

Grandfather Wiley looked embarrassed as he reached off-screen. "Yes, well, I still haven't won the bet, but then, neither has Light, so it goes on until one of us loses." He shrugged again. "And to be honest, I'll miss the contest when it's over. It's a good way to pass the centuries, you know?"

The screen went blank, and Wiley stared at it a moment before standing up. "I miss my homeworld, but… Grandfather is right. No one is going to cringe in fear at the name of the Mad MISTER Wiley. I need a doctorate before I can return home…" He grinned and waved to his Cleaner-Bots, who were waiting patiently for him. "Besides, it's fun here! College IS the place to par-tay, and I'll kind of miss it when it's over too."


Ashley knew how signing up for classes was supposed to go. The three-mile line which only the strong survived, the pleading, groveling, sniveling, whining, and begging that you had to do to get even a tenth of the classes you wanted or needed, and finally receiving your actual class schedule, which if you were lucky resembled in some vague way the one you'd pleaded, groveled, sniveled, whined, and begged for.

So far, he'd quite surprised and pleased at the newfangled way that no sniveling at all was involved.

The middle-aged woman looked over her glasses at Ashley. "So, Mr. Raine, you're transferring from Moreno College?"

"Well, yeah…" Ashley frowned. I suppose. Did that Gweep guy even mention a college name?

'Well, that could raise some difficulties."

"R-really? What kind of difficulties?" Ashley tried to keep his cool, but his heart rate suddenly jumped. It's probably nothing, he tried to reassure himself, but there was something about her expression that made him nervous.

"Well, like the fact that you can't be from there because I worked there less than two months ago. In fact," she hit another key, "according to this, I taught a class that you took a semester ago."

"D'wah?" Ashley's eyes opened wider and wider as she kept speaking. "I… oh…" Dammit! My cover is sooo blown! What the hell am I gonna do now?

The woman in grey watched this thought pass visibly over Ashley's face and chuckled briefly. "Don't worry about it. It's just a minor screw-up in an otherwise perfect ID job. The one thing computers still can't cover is the human factor. I admire an artist like that one too much," she waved one hand at the computer screen, "to mess up a beautiful job like this."

Ashley was surprised a second time by the woman's casual attitude to massive computer fraud. "You don't care about my ID being fake?"

"Goddess, no!" The woman seemed shocked. "The campus policy is to accept any student, no matter what circumstances come up, as long as they can pay tuition and handle the classes they sign up for. And your credit balance," she tapped idly on a few keys before smiling at the result, "is more than adequate."

"What about criminals?"

The woman smiled broadly. "We have enough white magicians, superheroes-in-training, martial artists, and valiant mecha pilots that any criminal attending knows that plying his trade on campus would be suicide and grounds for immediate expulsion. Besides, even if one or a half-dozen pops up, it gives all the prospective heroes a chance to practice their future trade."

After a short pause, she added fearfully, "Besides, I rather suspect the Dean instigates some incidents just to keep things lively."

"Uh… okay." The Dean? What's with that terror-filled look? Is he some kind of villain? Ashley rolled his eyes. Wouldn't surprise me one bit in a place like this.

She smiled and leaned away again. "Now, do you have any idea what your major will be, or will you be choosing one in another semester?"

Ashley shrugged. "Can I get a list? I mean, I really wasn't expecting to come to this school…" Understatement of the day, ye have been spoken.

She pointed to a booklet on the desk, and Ashley flipped it into his hands and started leafing through it. The woman turned back to her computer and worked while he read through the first few pages. He came to the list of majors and…

"Martial Arts? World Domination? God? Sailor Senshi? Iron Chef? ArbyFish Herding? What kind of majors are these?"

The woman smiled again. "We try to offer… unique majors, suited to extraordinary abilities that other schools might refuse to teach because of the likely amount of property damage."

Ashley blinked. "Uh… then I'd like a main course of Martial Arts Master with a side dish of Cinematography, hold the World Domination."

She laughed. "That's what I like, a sense of humor! Well, here's a possible course list…"

Over the next fifteen minutes, Ashley chose courses from a list that nearly croggled his mind. Finally, deciding that he didn't want to take too much because he was hoping to leave soon, he only picked a few choice items, one of which he held high hopes for. C'mon, Late 20th Century Sports History 101. Lead me to bettin' victory…

He almost trampled Ruben, who was waiting outside the door. She looked up at him, frowning. "What was that for?"

Ashley sighed. "I didn't take too many classes, but…"

"But what?"

"I don't want to enjoy myself here while my family and friends are worried sick about me at home. It just wouldn't be right."

Ruben waggled one finger in Ashley's face. "You're just not thinking fourth-dimensionally! You have all the time in the world, from THIS end. We can send you back any time you want to go, right back to the moment you left. Why not enjoy yourself? You'll get a glimpse of what's to come. The only problem is that when you go back, you'll NEVER be able to tell anyone what goes on."

She scratched the back of her head, toying with her ponytail idly. "I suppose I can put some sort of hex on you that would you not blab. Getting locked up for insanity wouldn't be a very pleasant end to an adventure like this, y'know?" Ruben patted Ashley's shoulder.

Ashley shrugged. "Well, maybe. Let me think about it. I'm not exactly… comfortable with the thought of spells and stuff being cast on me."

"I can understand that." Ruben grinned at him. "Ready for the grand campus tour?"

"That'd be great!"

Ruben held out one open hand. "Three ninety-five, please."

"Wha'?"

"The traditional price for tours? Oh, never mind." She waved her open hand dismissively. "Let's go."

They exited the main administration building, and Ashley looked up at it. I was too busy watching for marching band freaks to give this building a good look before…

It looked like a Gothic castle had mated with a haunted manor house and given birth to a towering complex designed for the sole purpose of intimidating whomever had to enter it. Gargoyles and stone griffons perched on every available surface, peering in every possible direction as though guarding the administration from any possible threat. Ashley thought he saw crows and other, darker things circling the top of the building, cawing throatily.

Ruben noticed where the martial artist's attention was, and turned to look at the Admin building himself. "It is rather… impressive, isn't it?" With a broad gesture, she indicated the vast expanse of open lawn in front of the Admin Building. Paths made out of some stone that glittered in the late afternoon sunlight cut through the lawn, forming geometric designs in the green grass. The biggest buildings on the campus surrounded it in a circle, and Ashley remembered that the other buildings formed bigger circles that spread out farther and farther, until at the very fringes where the dorms blended into the regular city streets.

Interrupting Ashley's mental map-drawing, Ruben said, "This is the quad. Reality is just a li-i-ittle flexible here." She made a pinching motion between two fingers, and Ashley tilted one head to the side.

"How so?"

Ruben stepped out onto the lawn. "I wouldn't mind having a tree to sit against and shade me from this hot sun." To Ashley's amazement, a tree appeared. At first, it shimmered as though it were just a mirage half-glimpsed in the distance, then it solidified, its leaves and trunk filling with color as though some unseen hand were pouring into a tree-shaped mold. Ruben leaned against it and sighed. "That's the stuff. But I think it's a little silly to have a big ol' tree in this open lawn."

The tree disappeared, and Ashley gaped. After a moment, he exclaimed, "That's cool!"

Ruben shrugged. "If you're an official student or ex-student, you can bend reality a little on the quad. Most people couldn't actually make the tree appear, but they'd have something to lean against and shade would cover them."

Ashley stepped out on the quad. "I wish I had an apple tree. Man, am I hungry!"

Something hit him sharply on the head, and Ashley put one hand out to catch a bright red apple as it bounced from his noggin. "Ow!" Ruben covered her mouth with one slim hand and giggled.

"Well, it looks like you've got some unseen abilities. Anyway, if you're hungry, we can get something to eat in the campus mall."

Ashley lifted one eyebrow as he rubbed the bump on his head with his free hand. "The campus has a mall?"

"Well, not really. It's just the bookstore, a food court, and some other stores, but we call it a mall anyway. Now, to continue the tour…" Ruben moved on, and Ashley followed her.

When they'd walked perhaps fifty feet from the Admin Tower, Ruben pointed at the building nearest them. It was an innocuous building, made of some anonymous brown stone. The only thing that belied the innocent image was the greenish-purple smoke roiling from one of the windows, sending a plume high into the clear blue sky. "That's the Extreme Science Building, also known as The Mad's Lab. It's where you first entered the campus, but DON'T YOU DARE try to storm it in order to threaten Devan into sending you back."

Ashley had already taken a half-step towards the building, but as Ruben spoke, he turned around. "Why is that?"

Ruben was already continuing along the path as she spoke. "Well, aside from the fact that he's already working on it? The mads have some of the strangest things defending their labs. I remember one time…" She shuddered and trailed off, seeming lost in memory.

"One time?" Ashley prompted.

As if speaking to herself, Ruben mused, "Who knew that movies that awful actually existed? Surely, they were developed only as acts of terrorism…"

Ruben gestured at the next building in line, which was a tower the color of well-polished ivory. It was maybe twelve stories tall and had an elegant, fae grace as it swept into the sky, forming a shining counterpoint to the darkness of the Admin Tower. Ashley found it calming just to look at; a peace seemed to flow from it that seeped into his bones. "That's the Ivory Tower, where all of the Thaumaturgy classes are held. It's not a bad place to hang out, if you can sling spells. If not, you'd best stay away from it."

Ashley shrugged. "Eh, I guess that I should stay away from it then. Far, far away." He tried to bite into the apple that he'd forgotten about for a moment, only to find that it had softly and silently vanished away.

Ruben giggled again. "C'mon, hurry up! We don't have all day for you to stand there and look stupid!" She grabbed his hand and started tugging the martial artist along.


Ashley was sitting at a table in the food court, snacking on what was, for him, a modest meal, while Ruben looked over his class list.

"Ashley, are you SURE that these classes are such a good idea?"

"Mmph? Glorp-scarf-snap…"

"…Never mind." Ruben toyed with one strand of her hair absently and ran a finger down the list. I'll just get the Gweep to do some… switching. I mean, 20th Century Sports History? I can understand WHY he'd want to do it, but using time travel for that sort of thing only leads to trouble. She sighed sadly and turned the plain golden band that adorned her finger around twice. Big trouble

"Yo, Ruben. Is there any way I could borrow some money from you to buy some new threads?"

Ruben jumped slightly as she looked up at the martial artist. "Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. But instead of buying just threads, why not buy the whole outfit? Factories make clothes these days; you don't have to sew them yourself…"

Ashley frowned. "Um, it was just a figure of speech. It's not like I'm from the friggin' Dark Ages, fer cryin out loud…"

Ruben laughed again, throwing her head back. "I was just kidding! Don't take me so seriously, you're apt to hurt yourself."

The martial artist gave a sigh of exaggerated long-suffering, shaking his head. "I'm just not sure HOW seriously to take ANYTHING here. I mean, we didn't have majors like martial arts mastery or world domination in my time." He grinned. "Now I sound like some kind of old man."

Ashley hunched over and put his lips over his teeth, and said with a passable impersonation of a wheezy geezer, "In my daysh we didn't need fanshy majorsh to teach ush how to take over the world. If we wanted to shtand ashtride the planet like a coloshush and crush everyone under our shandaled feet, we jusht hired shome thugs and did it the hard way!" He clucked his tongue sadly. "Oh my, yesh, oh my."

Ashley stopped, for which Ruben was extremely grateful, as she was in grave danger of killing herself with laughter. In between desperate gasps for breath and further bursts of hilarity, she managed to say, "You sound… just like… Great-Grandpa…"

The martial artist waited patiently for her to get done, then he asked, "So, how the heck can we get to the mall? I REALLY don't relish the thought of spending the night in these borrowed clothes." He picked at his shirt. "I mean, what kind of person would wear something this big? A giant?"

"No, an ogre." Ruben winked at the momentarily confused man as she stood up, sliding her chair back. "Now, I know just the way to get us to the mall fast. Hope you don't get airsick."


The psychic broke free of her meditative trance, shuddering at the glimpses that the future had offered her. "Darkness… like, totally gloomy stuff!"

As she put one hand out to rise from her cross-legged position on the floor, it unexpectedly met with soft fur. She flinched back for a moment, then touched it again, her hand closing around the offending object and bringing it closer to her face.

"Like, what an awesomely cute plushie!" She looked up and frowned, one of her eyes opening slightly. "But, how did it get here? That is sooo weird…"


"You call this a mall?" Ashley stopped and looked dubiously at the less-than-impressive building that Ruben had brought him to.

"Eh, it's an alright mall." Ruben looked over her shoulder and stuck out her tongue for just a second, a playful expression on her face. "Nothing like the Crystal Palace mall or Kethares out in space but it does okay for itself."

Ashley kept frowning as he shaded his eyes with one hand, scanning the area dramatically. "But how can you have a mall with only two measly stories? Or one that takes up less than a mile in parking spaces? Though I will admit," he added, "some of the vehicles in the parking spaces are pretty damn impressive. A couple of flying saucers, a robotic bird thingy, a gaggle of giant robots, and… is that a flaming chariot pulled by ten steeds of fire over there?" The martial artist pointed, and Ruben groaned as she followed his finger.

"Gods. I HATE gods." Ruben shook her head and giggled again, covering her mouth with her hand as her shoulders shook, and Ashley could only stare at her. She's… adorable. I know what she really is; I mean, I watched her change right in front of me! But she's… she's…

"Ashley? Ashley! ASHLEY!!"

"Gah!"

Ashley jumped, startled, as he suddenly realized that while he'd been staring at Ruben, she'd walked right up to him and Ruben was now staring him right in the eyes, a concerned look on her face. "Are you all right, Ashley?" She reached up on tip-toes and placed one hand on his forehead, brushing her breasts accidentally along his body and…

The martial artist flinched away, moving like lightning away from the wizard. "I'mfinereallyjustfine!" He looked down at his hands and shuddered, closing one fist. He's a MAN, dammit! Ruben-is-a-MAN! There's no reason to get affected by her. Her body is just some kind of magical curse. Her red lips… her beautiful eyes… her soft b-b-breasts…

Ashley noticed a sudden stinging sensation in his cheek and he put one hand up to it. Ruben looked up at him, her hand still out to one side, and said apologetically, "I'm sorry, but it seemed like you were in some sort of trance. Probably a delayed reaction to the method that you were dragged to this time… I think that it might be best to avoid too much stimulus for now; let's go back to the campus."

Ashley held out one hand before she could make a move. "No, no, no, I'm fine! Really!"

Ruben tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. "Are you sure?"

The martial artist nodded mutely, afraid to trust his suddenly tied tongue. At his nod, the magician… bounced. She leapt into the air, her hands waving cutely, a broad smile on her face. "Yay!"

Ruben slapped herself once she landed, though, with a very angry frown on her face. "Dammit! Stupid morphological field."

"Geh?" Ashley shook his head rapidly to clear the afterimage of her bounce from his eyes, though he was half-afraid and half-hopeful that it would stay with him for a long, long time. She's a man! "Er, I mean, morphological field?"

"Yeah." Ruben sighed and turned away, walking towards the mall entrance. "Just like how a container shapes the water poured into it, a body shapes the… consciousness poured into it. A person who changes into, say, a cute black piglet reacts just like one, even though he knows that he isn't a pig at all.

"And I just happened to be shaped like a cute girl." She muttered angrily, "Stupid curse what the hell was I thinking I'm never ever drinking that much again stupid alcohol and stupid peer pressure…" Her muttering petered off into a surly murmur too low for Ashley to hear, but he didn't really need or want to. He slapped her shoulder lightly and pointed towards the mall.

"Well, are you going to just stand around grumbling or are you going to take me shopping?"

The magician looked rebellious for a moment, her lower lip sticking out, and then she brightened a bit. "Aw well, no help for it now. Might as well cure the blues with a few new books!" Ruben started for the mall with a determined look, just in time to miss Ashley slap himself on the same spot he'd just been slapped a moment before.

Ruben is a MAN!

A nagging little voice answered his internal shout. Yes, SHE may be, but do you WANT to believe that she is? Why else would you be reacting like this to HER? As it faded into silence, the voice added, You're such an idiot when it comes to women…


"I can't believe you don't like kung fu movies."

Ashley looked away from the Keystone Kops poster he was carefully placing on his own side of the room and rolled his eyes. "You've said that some fifteen times since we walked out of the poster store. Give it up already, will ya?"

Ruben glared, but her mouth twitched as she fought the urge to smile. I dunno what it is, but something about him just makes me want to laugh more than I have in the last two years.  "It's just shock, okay? I didn't think there was a civilized being alive that couldn't enjoy a good kung fu movie."

He cocked one finger and pointed it at Ruben, making a shooting sound. "Bingo! The key word there is 'good'." The martial artist turned back to his poster, moving away from it to check on how evenly it was hung. "I have yet to see a kung fu movie that wasn't acted badly and directed worse, despite the hordes of friends droolingly devoted to trying to puzzle out the terrible subtitles and inconsistent translation."

"But… but…" Ruben stumbled for words for a moment, trying to remember some of the classic kung fu actors. "Surely you don't think that Bruce Lee was a bad actor? Or Jackie Chan? Or Akane Saotome? Or…"

He shrugged and cut her off. "Never heard of any of them."

Now, Ruben was literally left speechless, for several reasons. "Spirits! I don't believe it."

Ashley leapt off his bed and reached for the next poster, unrolling it and holding it up. "Believe. The truth is out there." He grinned and held it out to Ruben, pointing at the flying saucer. "I love cheesy alien invasion stories; at least they don't take themselves too seriously." He turned it around and looked at it again, a frown on his face. "But what are these x-files? The guy said that it was around my time, but I don't remember seeing anything about it…"

Ruben shook her head slowly, skeptically. "I almost feel insulted. I mean, Akane Saotome was a close friend…" She cut herself off suddenly, but not suddenly enough. Ashley turned away from the poster again, and this time his frown was real.

"What do you mean, close friend?"

She chuckled nervously. "Just a figure of speech. I feel like she's almost my sister; that's how much I like her movies. Spirits, didn't I tell you not to take me too seriously!" Whew. I hope he doesn't ask me any more about…

As the martial artist turned back to moving in, the frown slowly disappearing, Ruben let herself finish the thought. Yes, I'm sure he'd react pretty badly if he found out that I might be able to send him back any time I want to…


The mysterious shadow watched…

The mysterious shadow waited…

The mysterious shadow…

Smiled.

"Be ready for me on the morrow, Ashley. I shall come for you then."

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Dear SPIRITS ABOVE, I hope I never have to rewrite this again.

Actually, this is the first time I've had to rewrite it, though I never would have thought of doing it if one of my good friends hadn't disemboweled the first version so handily. >,<

Thanx a lot, Ben. No, really, I mean it! If it hadn't've been for you, this story would be a lot worse. Also, props go out to the rest of fanboy's fangirls; Fan, Jamie, Rena, and the three different people who emailed me about this story while I was rewriting this very chapter.

Well, I think it holds up a lot better now; what do you think, sirs and madams?

Aaron Mikhal Bergman

iamfanboy@hotmail.com

Episode 2
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