This takes place between books 1 and 2.

Otto squinted at the circuit diagram he had drawn. It seemed all right, but it was hard to tell. He stared hard at a lone squiggle, trying to figure out what he had meant by it. Maybe his pencil had broken, he mused, and the zigzag had been purely accidental. That was the only logical explanation. Satisfied, Otto continued sketching. He was rudely interrupted by an elbow in his ribs. His exclamation of annoyance was luckily masked by the ruckus signifying the end of the class. Otto looked up angrily to see who had just elbowed him. Laura's flushed face was glaring at him. "What did you do that for?" he complained.

"You weren't listening at all."

"So?"

"The Contessa said something important," Laura persisted.

"That'd be a first," said Otto, yawning. Shelby, attracted by the noise, put in her two cents.

"Otto's right," she said. "See?" She held up a notebook full of doodles. As Otto looked closer, he realized that it was an animation of a beaver attacking the Contessa's elaborate hairstyle. Laura sniffed disapprovingly.

"So no one heard what the Contessa said?" she asked.

"No," said Otto. "And frankly, I don't really care."

"Aren't any of you interested?" Laura tried again. "Wing?"

"Not really," said Shelby. "Frankly, I can't really see myself manipulating anyone in the future. We're Alphas, remember?"

"What did the Contessa say?" asked Wing, who had decided that humoring Laura was probably a safe strategy. Visions of malfunctioning technology flashed before his eyes.

"Not cool, Ninja Boy. Not cool at all," said Shelby.

"Not cool?" Wing raised his eyebrows.

"My dear culturally blind ninja," Shelby said, "do I really have to explain the meaning of 'not cool' to you?"

"Actually," said Wing with dignity "I do know what you mean by the Americanism 'not cool'. I just do not think that it is a proper term."

"How do you know that we aren't in America right now?" asked Shelby.

"How many tropical islands housing extinct volcanoes in America do you know of?" asked Otto.

"I don't know any," retorted Shelby. "That's the point. H.I.V.E.'s location is a secret."

"I still don't think it's in America," said Otto.

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Otto? Shelby?" interjected Wing. "I think that Villainy Studies is going to start in about thirty seconds." Shelby cursed.

"Another Americanism?" asked Otto innocently. In response, Shelby very eloquently stuck her tongue out at him.

"Last one into the classroom is a loser!" she called out behind her as she turned to run.

"And gets in serious trouble with the guards," muttered Otto. "And Nero... and Raven... and everyone else in the universe..." He too started to run. As he increased his pace to a sprint, Wing began jogging to keep up with him.

"Ten seconds, I think," Wing said impassively. The featureless hallway stretched out before them. It seemed like miles to the Villainy Studies classroom. Otto ran on, hoping against hope that the bell wouldn't sound. Just as he began to seriously consider the possibility that they really weren't late at all, the bell began to ring. Desperately, Otto put on a burst of speed, skidding into the class just as the bell was on its final ring. Somehow, Wing, who had been jogging sedately the whole way, had managed to slip in before he did,

"Late, Mr. Malpense," said Nero. "Sit down." Otto slid into his seat next to Laura, extremely thankful that his chair was in the second to last row. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that she was as stiff and upright as a statue. Idly, he wondered why.

"Loser," Shelby, who sat behind him, whispered. Otto ignored her.

"As I'm sure you already heard the Contessa say," Nero began pointedly, "for the first time ever, there will be an election at H.I.V.E." The excited buzzing proved that no one but Laura had actually been listening. Nero cleared his throat. The class was silent. Instantly. "Because this is the first time that anything like this has been tried, we are limiting all candidates to the Alpha stream alone. Since the Alphas specialize in leadership, this should be very interesting. The winner get nothing." The whole class practically exploded. "Silence!" Nero yelled. "Silence!" However, not even the implicit threat that Raven would come and murder them all seemed to quiet the class. Nero decided to make the threat explicit.

He flipped open his blackbox. "H.I.V. ?"

"What can I do for you today?" asked H.I.V. 's synthetic voice.

"Get me Raven," instructed Nero. Those in the front few rows that heard were instantly silent. The rest of the class, however, kept on talking. Nero surreptitiously adjusted the noise-receiving level of his blackbox; he didn't want to seem to be screaming at Raven when he called her. "Raven," he yelled. "Could you come here for a moment?" This time, it was only the back of the class that had not heard him. Oh well, thought Nero wryly. They were the ones closest to the door anyway. If Raven was in the mood, they would be the first to get injured. Precisely 29 seconds later, the door seemed to open and close of its own accord. Driven by some primal instinct, the whole class gulped. Even the back rows. Especially the back rows.

Even and especially Otto Malpense, who was still busily trying to figure out whether the glory of winning was worth the inconvenience. Ultimate bragging rights were one thing, but a long, hard campaign where he actually had to - horrors - work for nothing were quite another. Working on a device that could, say, unseat the prime minister was one thing. Working to get the approval of a group of junior supervillains was quite another. When Otto was going to rule, he was going to rule by cachet alone. And possibly fear. Fear was good too.

"I am giving you this time," Nero continued, "to partner up and arrange for any future meetings with your partner. Anyone who has difficulty finding a partner should come up here to be assigned one." He gave them a glare to show that it was not perfectly all right if they couldn't find a partner and that asking him for one was a Bad Idea. "Any questions?" Franz, in a moment of bravery, raised his hand. "Yes, Mr. Argentblum?"

"Why are we needing partners?" asked Franz. Nero pretended to be confused.

"I thought that the Contessa had already explained that," he said, knowing perfectly well that almost all of the Alphas thought that Political Manipulation was a complete waste of their time. "Can anyone here enlighten Mr. Argentblum please?" The whole class was suddenly still. Then, Laura's hand began slowly creeping up.

"Yes, Miss Brand?" Nero asked.

"We're supposed to have a president and a vice-president," Laura said so quietly that Otto had to strain to hear her.

"Could you repeat that, Miss Brand?" Nero asked. "I don't think that Mr. Argentblum heard."

"We're supposed to have a president and a vice-president," Laura said slightly more audibly. Nero, sensing that it would be a while before anyone in the front could actually hear what Miss Brand was saying, decided to interject.

"Thank you. As Miss Brand just said, in each group, there is to be one member running for president and one for vice president. Any more questions?" A boy in the third row raised his hand.

"When will the elections be, sir?"

"A week from today," Nero replied. "Any more questions?" The class was silent. "Very well. I'll leave you to it." Instantly, there was pandemonium. Most of the class had already, using glances and gestures, picked their partners. However, there were, of course, some people who had committed themselves to joining five people and some who had misinterpreted gestures and had nobody. A few scuffles broke out, but Nero managed to step in and break them up. Otto, Wing, Shelby, and Laura were all staring at each other.

"So..." said Otto. There was an awkward silence. Shelby decided to take charge.

"OK. There are four people who have to be split into two partnerships. So, Otto, who do you want to be your partner?"

"Um... Well..."

"Never mind," said Shelby briskly. "I'll get back to you later. Laura?" Laura flushed and seemed incapable of making any sound. "Wing?" Shelby asked hopefully.

"I would be happy to be partnered with any one of you," Wing said calmly. Shelby sighed.

"I'm so glad that we're all so decisive. The mark of a great leader, you know."

"Sarcasm alert!" yelled Otto. Laura sniffed again. Franz and Nigel walked up to them.

"So, have you been choosing partners?" asked Nigel.

"Yeah," said Shelby.

"What does it look like we're doing?" asked Otto irritably.

"We are already being partners," Franz said proudly, pointing to Nigel. They walked away.

"We need to think logically about this," said Otto.

"Aye-aye," said Shelby happily. "Whatever you say, captain."

"So," began Otto, "Laura and I are good with computers, and you and Wing are good at... uh... physical things. So... so... do we want to put two people who are good at the same thing together, or do we want to split talents?"

"It could be useful to have two people who are good at the same thing together," Laura suggested. "Less issues."

"No, Brand," Shelby argued. "Each group should have a mix to be good at the most things possible."

"What do you think, Wing?" asked Otto.

"I think that I will stay out of this," said Wing. "As I have said before, I am fine with whatever happens."

"I think that we should consider the social aspects, though," Shelby interjected.

"Aye," said Laura gravely. "As the Contessa often says, politics is a brutal business."

"You're right," said Otto. "I think that it should be me and Wing who are partners. And you two girls." Neither Laura nor Shelby seemed very happy about the prospect.

"No," said Shelby. "Are you nuts? You two definitely need female guidance. Not that I care or anything," she added quickly.

"I am plenty old enough to be without 'female guidance'!" said Otto indignantly.

"Blind enough, you mean," said Shelby.

"Actually," said Laura, "I think that it would be wise to appeal to as many voters as possible. I think that one male and one female per team would be a good idea."

"So than why didn't you like the idea of splitting talents?" asked Shelby indignantly. "Wouldn't that 'appeal to as many voters as possible'?" Laura shrugged.

"Well, anyway," Otto said, "judging by the response, I guess that that's one combination down. Which of you ladies would like to be with me?" Shelby coughed loudly. Otto glared at her. Her face face, however, was a perfect mask of innocence.

"To avoid deaths," said Laura, "I think that Shelby and Otto should be separate."

"I doubt that either would resort to killing," said Wing. "It seems a rather extreme reaction to an insult."

"There are some insults worth killing for," said Laura wisely.

"Fine," said Shelby to Wing. "Let's go."

"So... ah..." Otto began, "so... I guess we're partners."

"You guess?" asked Laura sarcastically."Tell me, do you want a malfunctioning alarm clock?"

"No," said Otto. "Not particularly."

"So do you want to meet in our room at seven?" Laura asked.

"By 'our room', I suppose you mean the one that you and Shelby share?"

"Yes," said Laura. Luckily, they were spared trying to make any more casual conversation by the bell.

"See you then," Otto called as he grabbed his books and began jogging to Tactical Education. He really didn't want to be late again; detention with Colonel Francisco was something to be avoided at all costs.

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