All eyes were on Sean when he boarded the school bus Monday morning, squeezing down the aisle and lugging a heavy box in his right hand. He edged sideways, careful not bump his cast into anyone, deliberately passing up a couple of empty spots. Sean paused when he came to Randall who just grinned and patted the empty seat beside him.
"Whatever," Sean muttered and plopped down next to him.
"You really kicked the hornet's nest, dude," Randall's grin grew wider, "Kaitlyn hasn't stopped yapping since she got back home Saturday night."
"Bugger off," Sean growled tiredly. Sunday yesterday had been the worst ever in recent memory. His parents had nearly disowned him. Then there had been back-to-back visits from the Portsmouth PD, State Police, Army CID and Homeland Security. The police hadn't charged him with anything yet but had wanted to "just ask him a few questions". To top it off the DOE woman - what's her name - Megan had shown up, of all people, and summarily ejected the extremely pissed Homeland Security agent with a wave of her badge...
"Duuuude!" Sean jumped as the boy across the aisle leaned over with an exaggerated whisper , "Is it true? Judith sicced her kill-bots on you because you hit on her? And Kaitlyn had to step in and save your ass?"
The boy sounded awed.
"What the heck!" Sean swore, "I did NOT hit on Judith... not my style."
"Way to go, bro..." laughed another boy, "how far did you get... if you catch my drift..."
"Now we know why he took AP Bio," another chuckled.
"...manipulative sexist pig," a girl's voice shrilled from the back.
"Ask Kaitlyn if you don't believe me," snarled Sean, "she was there."
Sudden silence as thirty-nine pairs of eyes turned to Kaitlyn.
"No comment," Kaitlyn replied coolly.
"...the heck that's supposed to mean?" Sean protested, twisting his neck back, "you know I never hit on anyone... tell them."
Insults or gossip bounced off Sean, but insinuations about chasing a girl got to him.
"No comment," Kaitlyn's voice grew chillier and more formal, "the most popular version of events of Saturday night may or may not be accurate."
Sean turned to Randall helplessly who just chuckled, "Don't look at me, dude. My sister suddenly hates you. Something to do with manipulating and hurting her friend's feelings."
"Does your sister know the Phreak Club was one of the instigators behind that master plan?" Sean whispered.
"Sssh!" the grin disappeared from Randall's face, "Not so loud."
"...that's how my face got busted," Sean wound down his summary. Mei Ling's face had grown progressively paler with the details of Sean's injuries and harrowing escape from dismemberment followed by his ill-fated attempt at breaking into Mrs. Fuller's office. She sat still for a minute, her fists clenched as she digested the info dump.
Judith was nowhere to be seen, to Sean's huge relief. He didn't want to face Judith. They were sitting in the farthest corner of the cafeteria that Sean could find away from the throng of students. That didn't protect him from the passing stares and glares. The glares were mostly from girls who were treating him as a creep. More unsettling was the reaction from some 'dude bros' who had walked up to congratulate Sean in all sincerity on his "epic boss attempt at snaring the Fuller princess". Like Judith was some kind of game trophy to be unlocked. Mei Ling's death glare made them beat a hasty retreat even as they hurled choice epithets like "chill out, beyotch."
"You could have so easily died," whispered Mei Ling, "and you look like shit... except for your hair which looks better than mine."
"Um... thanks, I guess?" Sean's attention was drawn to the 'breaking' news on the wall-mounted TV.
KILLER DRONES RUN AMOK AT LOCAL PLANT... SCHOOL CHILDREN NARROWLY ESCAPE ROBOCALYPSE... SOFTWARE GLITCH SUSPECTED... ARE WE SAFE FROM OUR OWN WEAPONS?... CONGRESS DEMANDS INVESTIGATION... THREE SOLDIERS AND ONE STUDENT GRAVELY INJURED IN RESCUE...
Mei Ling leaned forward with a look of concern, "Are you hurting now?"
"Um... what? Oh no, the medication finally... OWW!" Sean yelled in outrage, rubbing his forehead, "What's that for?"
"For being a world class idiot," Mei Ling leaned back, "None of this would have happened if you hadn't gone chasing after Judith."
"I. Did. Not," Sean spat, "Go. After. Judith."
"Same difference, Mr. James wanna-be Bond," scoffed Mei Ling, "you went to steal her mom's trade secrets. Let me lay down the law. If you pull any more dumb shit like that I'm out. If you want to waste your considerable... potential on trivial shit like petty theft, go ahead. But don't expect me to waste my time optimizing your knowledge tree, if you're going to end up in jail anyway."
"No," Sean said hoarsely, shaking his head, "no more shady stuff, I swear. I hurt my mom... I don't want to do that again."
"See that you don't," Mei Ling said grimly.
"But I found something interesting in Mrs. Fuller office," Sean leaned forward, lowering his voice, "something I think I can use..."
"Sean," growled Mei Ling warningly.
"No, wait," Sean said quickly, "I said I'm not doing any more shady stuff. But I've more than paid my fair share for this piece of knowledge... by getting the shit beaten out of me by Jason and the rogue drone and being unable to sue his family. It's only fair that I get something out of it."
"Says the guy who broke into someone's private office," scoffed Mei Ling, " The SEC will take a dim view of your notion of fairness."
"It wouldn't be insider trading, not really," Sean shook his head earnestly, "it's simply exploiting proprietary knowledge of trading robots already operating in the stock market. Technically it's industrial espionage, but no one knows I've actually assimilated Mrs. Fuller's work documents. They think they caught me as soon as I hacked open that office door. As long as we don't make waves... look I'm going to pitch my proposal to the Phreak Club this week. Why don't you sit in and judge for yourself... if you still feel it crosses the line you can veto it and I won't purse it."
Mei Ling stared at him for long seconds, and then nodded reluctantly, "Fair enough. I'll withold judgement till then... we have company."
Kaitlyn strolled up to their table and dropped into the remaining chair. She sported a jersey and shorts, her wiry hair bundled in a long ponytail. Her eyes were first drawn to Sean's cast and then flicked over his busted lip and black eye, concern warring with hostility on her face.
"Did you really make friends with Judith just so you could steal from her mom?" Kaitlyn demanded incredulously after a while, "Not cool, dude. Do you have any idea how she feels right now? You lied to her about having reconciled with her brother. And my idiot brother let slip that you befriended Judith only to get invited to her party... meaning you also lied to her about being interested biotech. She saw you, whom she considered a friend, being attacked and nearly killed by one of her dad's drones... said friend caught breaking into her mother's office right after they took care of your surgery... and seeing said friend getting punched by her brother."
"Since you seem to know so much about my activities," Sean's tone was cool even as his gut twisted, "I won't bother answering. Not that I owe you an explanation."
"I saved your ass back there, you insufferable... ass," Kaitlyn sounded aggreived, "by getting them to launch the other drones... you're welcome."
"I'm sorry," Sean sighed, " you're right. I acted like an ass... and thanks for saving my life."
"You're... welcome," Kaitlyn sounded surpised and a little mollified.
"Now can you please put an end to this idiotic rumour about me and Judith?" Sean begged.
"Oh, that," Kaitlyn shrugged, "that was started by Ashley to get back at you. To make you look like an even bigger douche than you are. Why do you care so much anyway?"
"Because it makes me look like a loser who chases frivolous crap," snarled Sean.
"You think girls are crap?" Kaitlyn's voice was ominously calm, as Mei Ling shot him a glare.
"I didn't mean it that way," Sean clarified hastily.
"What exactly did you mean?" Kaitlyn's smile was pleasantly fake.
"Yes, please do elaborate," growled Mei Ling.
"It's about my station in life," Sean sighed, "Let's face it... most of us struggle through school and college just so we can be wage slaves for some corporation... for someone like Jason's dad. Well... screw that. I want total financial freedom. A master of all I survey. I'm not willing to settle for anything less. And until I achieve that, anything else is a distraction. That's like trying to acquire a girlfriend when trapped inside a supermax prison... kind of pointless, don't you think."
The girls looked thoughtful but no longer irritated.
"Well, I'm listening," Kaitlyn said after a minute.
"For what?" Sean raised an eyebrow.
"Your proposal to boost our girls soccer game," Kaitlyn exclaimed in annoyance at Sean's baffled expression, "didn't my brother tell you... of couse he didn't, the jerktard."
"Your soccer game?" Sean looked more baffled.
"I made the varsity team this year," Kaitlyn clarified, "I have dreams of bagging a college scholarship."
"Varsity team?" Sean looked at Kaitlyn with new respect, "In your sophomore year? Damn...you must be good."
Kaitlyn certainly had the physique for it, and apparently grit to match. Sean leaned back, giving her his full attention for the first time.
"You bet I am," Kaitlyn grinned proudly, then her smile grew subdued, "but that doesn't do me much good if we don't survive the playoffs to make it to the regionals. Which Cardiff High hasn't done in five years."
"I still don't see what it's got to do with me," Sean frowned.
"I'm getting to that, dude," Kaitlyn said, "we usually lose to Greenwich or Seymour by the skin of our teeth. If you can do your thing and mathematically figure out how to... up our game, we might make it all the way to the finals. Our first playoff is next week."
"My thing?" Sean was taken aback, "Isn't that your coach's job? I'm not a soccer expert. What can I do that your coach or captain cannot?"
"I don't know," admitted Kaitlyn, "but I saw you lecturing Mr. Fuller and his engineers on something that they missed... in an area of their expertise."
"That was a fluke," Sean waved dismissively, "you can't expect me to pull miracles out on demand."
"Randy says if anyone can do it, you can," Kaitlyn mused.
"Your brother also says that aliens built the Great Pyramid," snorted Sean, eliciting a giggle from Kaitlyn, "And why should I bother? What's in it for me?"
"Besides repaying me for saving your life and helping the school?" there was an edge to Kaitlyn's voice, "Dude, do you have any idea how much more state funding our girls soccer program would get if we make it to regionals? It won't kill you to think of benefiting something besides yourself, you know. Here's the deal, you make a honest effort to analyze our game, and I'll... I'll set the record straight on what happened on Saturday. That you had absolutely no interest in Judith and you went to her party only to steal from her mom."
Mei Ling made a choking noise that sounded like suppressed laughter.
Sean scowled, "I'll need detailed records of all our matches for the past decade."
"That can be arranged," Kaitlyn nodded.
"While you are here," ventured Sean, "I have a favour to ask. I have a piece of equipment that belongs to Judith. Can you return it when you see her."
"Why don't you return it yourself when you see her in AP Bio?" Kaitlyn asked shrewdly, "She isn't going to punch you... she's just hurt and confused. It's your chance to explain yourself."
"I'm dropping that class," Sean admitted, not meeting Kaitlyn's eyes.
"So you're a coward as well as a thief," Kaitlyn said softly after an awkward pause, "but whatever, dude. I'll return it for you. Just don't forget our deal. I'll print records of all our girls soccer matches and dump it on you in the bus."
END OF CHAPTER