Jade 5: Redefining Jade
Babs Yerunkle / Jade / Jade 5 – Redefining Jade"
A Whateley Academy Tale
Jade 5 – Redefining JadeBy Babs Yerunkle
23: The calm before
Whateley Academy October 4, Wednesday morning, 4:37 AM
Jade woke suddenly. As always, she touched the gloves and brought Jinn out.
The thought struck her – it really was Jinn! She was whole again! After the past week where she’d thought that a part of herself was dead, or vanished, or torn away – to finally be whole again was a joy that she could hardly explain. She’d had trouble explaining it, even to her closest friends. She’d been able to conjure up Jann, and even Jeanie and Jasmine. The fact that she could make multiple versions of her spirit-self was great, but it didn’t make any of them disposable. Each and every one of them was her. She was them. And she couldn’t cope with the idea that she had died. She herself had died. Or at least, so it had seemed.
But now she was whole again.
Maybe it had been a mistake to put Jann into Jinn’s costume. Because when Jinn vanished and Jann immediately took her place, it was almost natural that her friends would think that Jinn was replaceable. After all, hadn’t she been seamlessly replaced?
And that wasn’t the only rough spot. Ayla had snidely suggested that she was suffering from some sort of multiple-personality thing, and that Jinn, Jann, Jeanie, Jasmine, Jewel, and Jayna (assuming she ever got that far) were all different personalities, not just multiple copies of her. Okay, so maybe she behaved a bit different when she was a non-physical real-female spirit-girl. What did they expect? She could call all her spirit selves something dull, like “Jade 1” “Jade 2” and “Jade 3.” That would make the point, but they were pretty dumb names. She liked to think she was more creative than that.
How did she want the others to behave toward her?
When she was Jinn, she was now looking a lot more grown up, thanks to her body image and hypnosis work. It was definitely a kick trying to act more mature, and having people treat her with more respect. At the same time, she didn’t really want to lose her childhood. Fortunately, she could have the best of both world. That is, if she could slowly convince people to see her spirit-self as a unique and important person. Come to think of it, this should fit in well with Hank’s suggestion. What had he said?
“Let’s start the intelligence process both ways – learning about them, and hiding details about ourselves, or better, providing false information. Jade, you should start by not revealing that you can create more than one of Jinn. Practice plenty, but do it in a way that doesn’t reveal things to outsiders.”
Okay. She’d practice. But the only human-seeming body she’d create would be Jinn. And if anything else happened to Jinn, maybe she’d just have to bite the bullet, and give up the real girl-shape for a while. Then they wouldn’t see Jinn as being quite so disposable.
Thinking it over, she decided that she needed a new background, too. A fake story, for public consumption. What was Tansy calling her at the end? Ghost-girl, demon-spawn, and hell-spirit. There ought to be some good backgrounds she could invent around those ideas. Sara could probably help with that, being half-demon. She’d seemed to know plenty about occult stuff.
Jinn suddenly returned, and she had two other big thoughts. Thinking things over with two minds was handy. She should be finding out everything she could about avatars, and how to defend against them. But she’d remembered an even more vital issue. As Jade, she’d actually shot Tansy, although it had been with a non-lethal taser load. Every time Tansy thought about the twelve-year-old girl that had shot her, she’d had the idea that as soon as there was time, she’d find the little girl and “deal with her.” There’d been thoughts like that about both Fey and Ayla, too.
And Tansy had asked Thuban to, “get rid of Hekate.” When he’d said that he didn’t do assassinations, Tansy had actually been disappointed. As it was, she’d paid twenty-five thousand dollars, just to lose the girl for a week.
The conclusions were obvious. Tansy had money to burn, she’d tried to use assassination before, and she wanted to “deal with” Jade, Fey, and Ayla, but especially Jade.
That was a pretty nasty thing to consider. So… first things first. Jade lay down on her bed and tried to create Jinn, take her back, and re-create her. Then she tried other variations.
Within a few minutes, she had some info. Having Jinn “back” didn’t make the spirits any stronger. That is, her spirit form could lift the same amount today that she’d been able to lift yesterday – right on the borderline of 200 pounds. The whole Tansy episode seemed to have kicked her into a new development cycle, but Jinn’s strength was only increasing by a tiny amount each day. Being re-united didn’t make any of the spirits any stronger.
Likewise, her casting strength hadn’t gotten any stronger. The first spirit she conjured up could go in and out, in and out. It tired Jade about as much as running up two flights of stairs, but she got the energy back when Jinn (or whomever) came back. Jann was the same, but creating a second spirit was much more tiring. That left her feeling like she’d just run a mile or so. She could still move and fight, but she wasn’t in top form. When either of the spirits returned, she recovered almost instantly to “just run up the stairs.” On the other hand, she could cast the second spirit over again, in-and-out just like the first spirit. This left her with a constant feeling of being tired but she hoped she’d build up a tolerance.
That was the same as yesterday, but yesterday, she’d actually been able to make four spirits. The three that she could conjure up, and the original Jinn. Actually, Jinn and Jann, since they’d merged. Perhaps the count should be five spirits.
That meant that, over time, she’d recovered the energy or power or whatever went into casting Jinn. This opened interesting possibilities, if she could convince dozens of avatars to carry around copies of her. She could make an army of herselfs, if she could only figure out how to keep them all from evaporating.
She sat back down, satisfied for the moment with her investigations.
She conjured up Shroud and a sets of gloves for Jann, and set to work. Jinn, as Shroud, took measurements and attempted to sketch out the bones of her forearms. That was part of their new plan for a better attack for Shroud. Meanwhile, Jade turned on her laptop and started writing new backgrounds. Jann went thin and slipped under the door, then headed to the downstairs library to look for books on avatars.
By the time Tennyo’s alarm went off at five, Jade had the basic details of the story in place. She sat back and watched as her roommate stretched.
“Hey, Jade. Glad to see you’re awake. We were a little worried when you passed out on us.”
“Integration,” Jinn reminded her. “I think it’s going to happen whenever one of me joins up again after a few days away. Matching up the memories takes a lot of brainwork, I guess. The weird thing is, when Tansy sucked me in after the breakfast brawl, I had two spirit-versions of me join up, and they got knocked out too. So I guess it’s more than just a physical-brain thing.”
Billie looked over Jade carefully. “So how are you feeling?”
Jade smiled – happier than she’d been in more than a week. “Physically, great. Emotionally, great. I’m a bit worried that Tansy Walcutt is going to hire an assassin to kill me, but I’ll talk about that at breakfast. Hey, do you know anyone who does metal fabrication?”
Billie blinked at that. “Uh… you might try Harry Wolfe. I introduced you, didn’t I? I think he’s been around a couple of time. He’s a sort of mechanic-gadgeteer. Did you just say ‘assassinate’ ?”
“Uh huh. We should be okay until this afternoon at the very earliest. I’ll explain at breakfast.”
“Yeah… sure. I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Jade watched happily as her roommate stumbled off toward the showers. Tennyo looked really out of it this morning, she thought. I wonder what’s wrong?
She put her new background info into an email, and sent it to Tennyo, Toni, Fey, Ayla, Hank, Sara, and Bunny:
So, hi everyone!
I’m not sure how to start this, so I’m just going to. Remember that Hank said we should come up with ways to fake the bad guys out? So I’ve decided that I need to do that. Remember that I’m now supposed to be a devisor (Bunny’s helping me out on that – Thanks Honey Bunny!). And Jann, Jeannie, and Jasmine don’t exist. Never did. (Trust me, Bunny and I have plans.) So I need to invent a new background for Jinn. Here’s the story I came up with:
Jinn Sinclair is the oldest girl in the Sinclair family. She was killed in a terribly sad accident when Jade was only six years old. Details of the accident aren’t really clear yet (I still need to figure something out), but from the few hints that Jade has provided, it was probably some sort of magical experiment. The little girl was hit really hard (by the death, not in the accident), and wouldn’t talk about it or anything for a couple of months. Then she started playing with an imaginary playmate named “Jinn.”
So then when Jade grows up, suddenly she’s got these mutant powers. Only there’s two completely different powers. Jade starts making cool little gizmos and stuff (sound familiar, Bun?). But she could also summon up the spirit of her dead sister. Well, maybe Jinn was a mutant all along, or maybe she needs some sort of special energy from Jade – the Academy’s people are still researching that part. What they know so far is that Jinn needs to periodically recharge by seeing Jade again, and that it is taking her a while to learn how to shape the energy to look like she’s supposed to – a seventeen-year-old girl. But Jinn is the older sister, and she really looks out for her younger sister. And they live together with their favorite roomie Tennyo, and they talk about *everything*, so they usually know what’s happened to each other.
Okay, that’s the main story. That’s what we can talk about in public. And from now on, I’m going to act like and pretend like it’s true. Only there’s a couple of problems with it. Like, if Tansy or someone asks how come Jinn was still around when Tansy was doing the whole possession thing, I’ve got another story, that’s just a teeny bit different.
Here goes. Yeah, there was an accident when Jade was six years old. It was some really dark mysterious magic thing (maybe you can come up with some good details, Nikki or Sara?). Anyway, that’s how Jade’s mommy died. (Really sad, she was a good person.) Only, something happened with Jade. Because of the accident. And her dad was okay, I guess, but he wasn’t always a really great guy, you know? (I mean, I figure he was the one who was doing this magic stuff that he wasn’t supposed to.)
Anyway, that’s where Jinn came from. There never was an “older sister”, ot in real life. Jade claims that Jinn is an older sister, but no one really knows where Jinn came from. Some sort of ghost? Like connected to her mother or something? Some sort of demon? A spirit? And everyone’s a little spooked by the fact that when Jinn was taken by Tansy (and they KNOW that really happened), then suddenly there’s this new spirit to take Jinn’s place. What’s that all about? No one knows, except maybe Jade or Jinn, and they aren’t talking.
But anyway, everyone uses the “Jinn is Jade’s older sister” story, but there’s some creepy stuff about Jinn. Like the whole “Shroud” business – what if it isn’t just an act?
So that’s my (new) story.
-- Jade (and Jinn, too, who turns into a creepy spirit of shadows!)
She was really zooming along. She’d already made her plans for costume class, she had the designs and sizes for her arm bones, and she’d called Harry and arrange to meet up with him (and probably Tennyo) for lunch. Meanwhile, Jann had found out that avatars were pretty rare. Jade wanted to do a bit more research before handing herself over to a stranger’s hands.
“Come on, Hank!” she begged. “You’ve still got 45 minutes before breakfast. You only need ten minutes to take a shower. That leaves plenty of time to show me.”
Both Jinn and Jann were back in her head, so she was ready.
“I still can’t get over this,” he admitted, sheepishly. “I mean, us guys are so damn fast in the bathroom. The whole shower-and-prep thing is practically as fast as you can scrub off. Well, okay, there’s a couple of guys that really primp, but I’m wondering if that’s just ‘cause this is Poe.”
Jade frowned. “I can remember some guys really primping, back in junior high. Most of us thought they were pretty stupid. I mean, who cares about the hair and cologne and stuff? Just a quick comb and you’re done, right?” She had the grace to blush. “I guess… I guess I need to learn all about that, don’t I?”
Hank snorted. “Guess I don’t have all that much to unlearn. I never got all that fancy back when… well, before.”
“Yeah.” Jade was just as eager to drop that subject. “So, are you going to show me?”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s something you can learn. I do it instinctively. Maybe it has to be built-in or something.”
“Let me try.”
“Okay, okay.” Reluctantly, he pulled his shirt off and handed a used-up pen to Jade.
Jade made sure the door was locked, then cast Jinn into Hank’s shirt. “I just need something that’s fairly wide. My vision gets a little better, the bigger I am.” Then she cast Jann into the pen. “This way, I can study how you change exactly where I’m poking you.”
All prepared, she jabbed at Hank with the pen. As expected, the TK field that coated his skin resisted the attack. Jade stabbed a couple more times, sometimes quick, sometimes pushing slowly.
“See anything, guys?”
“Not really,” Jinn-the-shirt said. “I mean, I can tell that something’s happening where you stab, but it’s impossible to see any details.”
“I’m getting something,” came from the speaker-disk hovering next to the pen. “When I touch him – it’s like a grid. Not exactly. But when I’m on the surface of something, I think I’m like a flat sheet. This feels like some sort of complicated pattern. It comes alive the instant we touch, but it’s not doing anything – not until you push on it.”
Jinn-the-shirt made a “hmm” sound. “Maybe – this is kind of freaky, ‘cause he’s a guy – but maybe if you cast me into his skin, I could watch it.”
With that, Jinn and Jann both returned to her. Jade suddenly remembered seeing the complex weave that Jann had noticed. It wasn’t so much seeing it, as feeling it. And it wasn’t exactly a weave. Like many aspects of psi, it seemed to have more than three dimensions. Jade didn’t really have words to think about it or describe it. The feeling was of some complicated pattern squeezed out in a layer over Hank’s skin. When the front part of the pattern was pressed up next to the back part, something happened. It was like the energy could suddenly flow freely.
“I think I see what’s happening,” Jade began. “Well, kind of. I see what’s happening, but I don’t know how. The patterns over your skin is really complicated. I mean, I can’t really see the patterns, but I can see what they’re doing. Are you willing to let me, uh, charge Jinn into your, uh, skin? If you don’t want to, it’s alright. I mean, I’ll understand. But that might help me see what’s going on.”
Jade touched his skin and was almost surprised when she could charge Jinn into the boy.
For Jinn, it was entirely different. She hadn’t noticed anything, being charged into Hank’s shirt. But entering his skin was completely different. For one thing, she didn’t arrive.
Coating the surface of Hank’s skin was a field of unimaginable force. It was like stepping onto a neutron star. Her awareness was instantly crushed flat, and spread like a paste to cover Hank’s body.
The field wasn’t featureless. There were complex mechanisms at work, psi-constructs in the field that waited passively. As Jinn’s awareness adapted, she realized that her vision was still working. She could see a pen approaching. As the tip of the pen struck the field, the psi-constructs reacted. The harder they were pressed, the more power flowed in, exactly canceling the force of the pen. Meanwhile, a secondary, tiny trickle of force reached inward, tickling against Hank’s skin.
These psi-constructs were obviously the secret to Hank’s protective field. And while she could see them now, and watch them working, duplicating the constructs was about as easy as duplicating a professional musician’s movements, after watching them play a solo. She’d try, she’d see what she could do, but it would be an awfully long time before she created anything useful.
She tried to return to Jade and suddenly discovered that she couldn’t.
She was stuck, trapped in Hank’s TK field like a fly landing on honey. And Hank’s field was immensely stronger than she was. Using TK to pull herself out activated the same mechanisms that his protective force field did. Pushing in didn’t have any luck either.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Something kind of tickles.”
Panicking, Jinn tried to think. She moved her effort and awareness up to his ear. As loud as possible, she pulled back and forth, moving herself like a speaker disk.
“Hank! Can you hear me?”
There was no response.
“HANK! CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
“What?” He cupped a hand to his ear. “Jade, did you say something?”
Yelling even louder, Jinn explained herself. She ended with, “CAN YOU DROP YOUR TK SHIELD? CAN YOU LET GO?”
A moment later, she was suddenly free.
Jade reeled back as the memories slammed into her. “Whoa! Close one! I’ll make a note of that – never charge myself into someone with a skin-field like yours. Yikes. Like being stuck in tar.”
“Huh, what do you know?” Hank was saying. “I have to concentrate to keep it turned off, but this is kind of interesting. Everything feels a little more … raw … you know? Hey, if I do reps like this on the nautilus, I can work my actual muscles! Cool. So, did you learn anything?”
Jinn nodded. “From the inside, your ‘force field’ thing is incredibly complex. It’s like there are these feedback and response circuits. Only it’s not electronics, it’s all psi-constructs. Not like I could duplicate them, though. Well, maybe, with two or three hundred years of study and practice. There was a bunch of stuff in there that never even got triggered. You should check yourself out against lasers and sonics and stuff.”
“Sure. Maybe I will. Glad I could help.”
She’d learned a lot, but Hank’s TK-invulnerability was a bust. Well, maybe she’d come up with something else.
Breakfast was wild. Everyone paid complete and utter attention to her. The entire crew was there, including both Bunny and Riptide. They found an isolated spot in the cafeteria, checked for eavesdroppers, and Jade began to tell the tale of Tansy.
Throughout it all, she kept to the fiction of describing her “sister” and what the “other girl” had gone through. She told about the Alphas, and how they got along (or didn’t). She talked about telepaths and avatars and dual minds. One recurring theme was her struggle to understand her own powers, and the triumph of learning how to actually possess Tansy.
“Hold on,” Toni said sharply. “You mean to say that while you were possessing her, you were really, honestly, no-fooling-around possessing her?”
Jade nodded. “Yeah, stories and, you know, misinformation aside, that’s exactly what it was like. I mean, using her muscles, speaking with her voice, seeing through her eyes, and particularly feeling with her skin. I would have felt really guilty if it hadn’t been that creep Tansy.”
Nikki leaned forward in curiosity. “So, in a way, it was sort of a dream-come-true for you, huh?”
Jade had the grace to blush. “Well, aside from being so close to Tansy, and having to worry about her waking up. And she’d definitely bigger than I think I’ll ever be!”
Hank, of all people, looked momentarily puzzled, until Billie made a “huge handful” gesture in front of her own bosom.
Jade continued on, explaining about telepaths and mind shields, and how Fey had almost saved her by tugging her free until Tansy tricked her.
“Damn!” the elfin mage swore. “I thought – but how was I supposed to know? And I couldn’t take the chance that I was really hurting you.”
Jade smiled and put her hand on top of Fey’s. “Thanks,” was all she said.
Leaning back, she got decidedly casual and dropped a bombshell. “Oh, what else happened when my sister was possessing Tansy? Let’s see… oh, right. She had sex.”
That got a reaction. Toni, of all people, started choking on her breakfast. Nikki would have helped, but she was looking pretty green herself. Tennyo was just stunned.
Bunny leaned forward and, in a voice of dread, asked, “With a man?”
When the most entertaining reactions had stabilized, Jade continued. “Fortunately, Jinn and Jann had been sort of forcibly merged at that point. Remember when I passed out last night? Same thing happened to them. So my big sister was completely unconscious through the whole, ugly affair.”
Nikki was still looking ill, but mentioned, “When you said ‘affair’ did you mean… oh, never mind.”
“So…” Toni broached, a little too casually, “you don’t know anything about how it was, or what it was like?”
“Not a bit,” Jade confirmed. “Except that from what I can tell, it’s really disgusting, and not at all pleasant. I mean, really disgusting.”
“With a man? I could have told you that,” Riptide offered.
“And worst of all?” Jade leaned in closer, and spoke conspiratorially. “Guys have this – yuck! – stuff. And it ends up inside of you. And it’s all sticky and smelly, and drips out of you practically forever. Gross!”
“Eww. Some kind of sex-period,” Tennyo said. “Are you sure that’s normal? That isn’t the way people usually describe it.”
“Tansy, if you can believe it, is always taking these birth control pills. Jinn lied to her, and said that we’d swapped in aspirin instead. Man, you should have seen that girl go ballistic! Freaking out doesn’t begin to cover it.”
“Gang,” Nikki begged, holding a hand over her mouth, “can we please stop talking about this?”
“Second the motion!” Rip instantly added.
“Okay,” Jade agreed. She knew she’d have enough smut-gossip to keep going for weeks. Seeing the aftermath with Tansy had been enough to utterly eliminate the curiosity appeal that sex had. Not that she was physically equipped for it, but even if she was, she wasn’t sure that she ever wanted a guy to… do that stuff to her. Even so, it was fun to talk about, even if only to gross out her friends.
“Anyway, there’s lots of other stuff to tell, I’ll probably be going on for weeks with weird little things I saw or heard.” There was one HUGE detail – The Don’s talk about stealing spirits out of avatars – that she hadn’t mentioned. She didn’t plan to mention it, either – not until they were in someplace more private. The acoustics in the cafeteria dome were too strange. You could never be sure who might overhear you. She could handle it if someone managed to eavesdrop on things so far, but that topic was too scary. But there was one thing…
“One last detail,” she said, “and it’s a really big one. So Tansy’s whole point was to make a play for The Don, right? And even she doesn’t know how he did his mind-control whammy with Cavalier and Skybolt.”
“Yeah, you already said that,” Riptide reminded her.
“Right. And I told you how she got Thuban to get rid of Hekate for a week. You know how much she paid for that? Twenty-five thousand dollars! And originally, I think she wanted him to KILL Hekate! Like, murder! But he said he didn’t do assassinations. Right up front, clear as can be. That’s what he said. And she was disappointed. Jinn could sense her emotions, and that’s what Tansy was feeling – disappointment.”
Everyone was quiet at that, as they digested the concept.
“So here’s the thing,” Jade continued. “Toward the end, Tansy was seriously angry at three of us. Mostly me, ‘cause I shot her. She was pretty pissed at Fey, too. I think it’s the whole modeling thing. And Ayla was the third. Partially some childhood history, I think, but it was also your whole,” she momentarily dropped her voice to a whisper, “girl/guy thing, you know? I couldn’t figure her out. She was halfway attracted and halfway scared.”
“Thank you!” Ayla said, in an obvious attempt to head off the conversation. “That’s more than I want to know! Let’s not go there, okay?”
“Right. Anyway, we’ve got three people that she’s really p.o.’ed at, and money to burn, and a history of hiring out murders. And I suddenly thought…”
Tennyo nodded. “I think we get the picture.”
Nikki shook her head. “No way! That sort of thing doesn’t really happen, does it?”
Ayla snorted. “The Walcutts? Are you kidding? Although frankly, I’m shocked that Tansy would be so careless. But then, she’s always been pretty sloppy.” She began to tick off points on her fingers. “Let’s see, first, when you’re doing anything dirty you never make the contact directly. It’s always done through at least one level of intermediary. And you always maintain ‘plausible deniability’ – you know, the old misunderstood wishes thing. Second, violence is so completely looked down on. It’s just so… blue collar. What are we, a gang? Some sort of mafia? Although,” she mused, “with a name like ‘The Don’ you have to wonder.”
Toni broke into the lecture. “But you punch people, Ayla. Doesn’t that violate rule two?”
“Naw. I’m a mutant. Different standards. Also, face-to-face stuff is completely different. But then, I’m violating rule three as much as Tansy is. That is, ‘breeding always shows.’ I think Grace worked most of that out of me. And rule four isn’t so much a rule as a philosophy. ‘Always do it in style.’ Assassination or some such crass physical attack is so totally lacking in style. But,” she shrugged. “If your question is ‘Could Tansy do it?’ the answer is, ‘Hell yes.’ She wouldn’t batt an eyelash over it. It wouldn’t bother her at all. On the other hand, ‘Would Tansy do it?’ I don’t think so. Not unless she’s completely slipped up on anything like style or class or respect or class consciousness.”
“Thanks. That makes me feel just soooo much better,” Nikki groused.
“Hey, no problem.”
24: School and detention
October 4, Wednesday morning, 8:45 AM
It was another boring lecture, and Jann had a problem. What exactly was she supposed to do? Eventually, she’d be operating all the “gadgets” that she’d invent as Jade-the-devisor. But first she needed to work with Bunny to lash together some special effects so that things would at least look convincing. And for now, she was just hanging around so that she could build up her endurance, and push the limit of her powers.
But it was so boring!
She could listen to the class lecture, but her physical half was already doing that, and who cared about prepositions, anyway? She’d gotten convinced about nouns and adjectives and stuff, but prepositions?
She’d been popping back and forth a bit, trying to get a comfortable fit. If she cast herself into her skin, then she and herself could talk telepathically, without anyone catching on. But she was as uncoordinated as a web-footed giraffe. The different Tansy variations didn’t seem to matter much. Whether she was object-mode or girl-shape or whatever, she still had full telepathy, full TK, and she saw with both types of vision. She decided that possessing herself was somehow fundamentally different from possessing other people.
And being cast into just the clothes was boring with a capitol B. That’s probably how she’d do it when she turned into girl-gadgets, but right now it was completely dull.
So she worked on variations. She tried skin and clothes, but that worked like back with Tansy – she got sucked into the skin and ended up possessing herself. Then she figured out that she could cast herself into the “dead” parts of her body without getting sucked into the skin. She could occupy her fingernails, or teeth, or hair. For a while she occupied all the super-fine hairs on her body. That was interesting. By waving the hairs near her eardrums, she could speak to herself without anyone overhearing. But herself-in-body couldn’t talk back. She tried possessing every hair on her head. Each one burrowed into the skin of her scalp, just above her brain. Unfortunately, that didn’t give her any special abilities like telepathy with herself.
Then, almost by accident, she stumbled onto a major trick. She decided she needed more practice going from cast-into-object into cast-into-girlshape and back. As Jinn, she’d be using that trick a lot, particularly for a quick-change idea she’d been working on. She’d gotten it down to less than a tenth of a second. So there she was, spread through her clothes and hair, and then –flick– she was a ghostly girl just larger than her real physical body.
And that’s what did it. She instantly heard the undercurrents of her other-self’s thoughts.
A little more experimentation revealed that any time part of her “naked” spirit passed through any part of her physical body, the two of them were in contact.
But it really did make her feel naked. Particularly since the whole Tansy affair. She knew that her spirit form was supremely vulnerable to any avatar. All they had to do was touch her exposed spirit body, and she could be sucked in.
And it probably looked really odd to people like Fey and Toni, who could see her spirit form. One minute, there’s this quiet Asian girl sitting there, the next moment a ghost is flickering into place around her. She paused to consider. Would this endanger the whole disinformation campaign? A hostile snoop with the proper powers would see that Jinn was a “spook” and even when Jinn was out-and-about, Jade still had spooks flickering around her.
Nah, it’s too much fun. I’m not going to live my life in total paranoia. Besides, the fallback story can still fit. Maybe they’ll think I’m a mystic nexus or something – a living portal to the spirit realm.
The main problem with switching into girl-shape was that the clothes tended to expand to fit her. Since her sprit-form was seventeen, and her body-form was only twelve, her clothes looked like they were inflating. Even when she consciously shrunk down to match her body size, her clothes were suddenly showing a figure that didn’t match her body.
It kept her entertained through a boring class, but she decided to quit when she began to get looks from classmates.
The next period (algebra) she spent trying to duplicate Hank’s complicated TK field. If she could get it right she could turn any outfit into armor! Or, inhabiting her own skin, she could gain super-tough skin. Her TK should be strong enough to resist a knife, maybe even a low-caliber bullet! And it would probably soften the blow on other attacks.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t manage to duplicate the complicated field that Hank used. She could use her powers to make her clothes stiffer. In theory, that would make her stronger. Just like in Ranma ½, or in Dragonball Z, if she made her clothes heavier and stiffer, it would provide a constant load, and constant martial arts training. In theory, that should provide fantastic exercise and great muscle toning. It was too bad that didn’t work for her. Whatever kept her from growing older also seemed to prevent her from getting stronger. Way back in the ugly days when she’d been a boy, she’d done a lot of working out with free weights that her dad had bought. They’d never helped at all, although she hadn’t understood why, at the time.
There was something lurking at the edge of her mind, though… martial arts training, and she’d had an earlier thought about paranoia. Since she had plenty of free time, she should probably be watching in every direction for snipers or assassins. That shouldn’t be a problem for today – Tansy would probably be busy until this afternoon. She shuddered at the thought of what Tansy was probably doing right now.
Yeah, she should probably be watching, constantly alert, looking for threats, escape routes, suspicious people, angry emotions, that sort of thing. Someday she’d be a hot-shot Aikido master, like Ito sensei, and then she’d have an automatic awareness of everything around her, but that took long and intensive training.
The thought suddenly exploded through her – TRAINING!
She would make her clothes heavier and stiffer – well, as soon as it would do her some good. And in the meantime, she’d give herself the even harder training for movement and awareness. That was what she could do as her Jann-self – she would become Jann sensei! She would be constantly watching herself walk and move and react. She’d train her body-self to be aware of everything, to always move properly, to constantly maintain her center and balance. With this level of training, she might learn to be as good as Toni sempai!
Well, maybe someday. She decided she wouldn’t hold her breath.
She popped back to join with her physical side, then back out. She held the clothing and hair, including the fine hairs in her ear canal. She could talk to herself, but her body-half couldn’t answer back, except out loud.
“Alright, kohai, we will begin with some simple awareness exercises. Don’t turn your head or otherwise react in front of your classmates. You will subtly flick your index finger to indicate direction. First: an external threat is most likely to come from where?”
Her physical self flicked a finger to point at the door, then at the window. No great surprise, she’d been thinking of this exercise before she’d separated again.
“And your escape routes?” More flicks. Door, window.
“Now some exercises to use me effectively. I’m going to coordinate all your gadgets and outside stuff, so you won’t need to think about them. I’ll return, focusing on a new destination for you to cast me into. As fast as possible, we’ll do cast-and-return. … Pencil!”
She was instantly recast into the pencil. She returned, thinking Book!
Tennyo’s friend at lunch was a werewolf. At least, that’s what he looked like. He was about seven feet tall, with brownish-black fur over his entire body. The odd thing about him were the cutoff shorts and the red vest with gold embroidery.
“Nice vest,” Jinn said. She was dressed as Shroud, with white skin. At the moment she had her hood thrown back.
“You must be Jinn,” he said, in a deep voice with a hint of a more guttural rumble. He turned to look at the younger girl approaching the table. “And you must be Jade.”
The small girl nodded. “Hi, Tennyo.” Then she looked at the werewolf. UP at the werewolf. And up, and up.
“Whoa! And you must be Harry.” Then she slapped herself in the face. “Oh, jeez, sorry.”
“Nice one, shrimp,” Shroud said.
They all sat down, and everyone except Shroud prepared to eat while they continued the introductions.
“I keep seeing you in passing,” Jade said, “but I think this is the first time Tennyo’s actually introduced us.” She scowled at her roommate.
“Snot my fault,” Tennyo said. “You could ask, you know.” Her voice was slightly distorted, since she was chewing an entire half sandwich. She had seven more sandwich halves on her plate.
“So,” Harry opened conversationally, “Billie tells me you’re some sort of spirit of the dead or something?”
Shroud shrugged. “Yeah, or something. It’s not quite clear what yet. I’m Jade’s older sister, but I’m not really alive. Well, I am, but not in the conventional sense. I just possess things. Sort of like a limited poltergeist, I guess. Hmmm, that’s not too bad a description.”
“And are you a gypsy or something?” Jade asked the werewolf.
“Come on, you guys!” Billie whined around a second sandwich. “Stop embarrassing me!”
“It’s okay,” Harry said. “A gypsy? Where did that come from?”
“Well, it’s the cool vest. It’s sort of gypsy-looking.”
“No, this is just to hold my stuff. Convenient, and fairly comfortable. Clothes get a lot more irritating when you’re covered in fur. This is what I wear on green-flag days. On red-flag days I have to wear a hooded cloak, even more concealing than yours, Jinn. Even so, I mostly keep to the class buildings and tunnels.”
“That sucks,” Jade and Jinn said in unison.
“You’ll get used to that from them,” Billie explained.
“So, Billie said something about metal fabrication?”
“Yeah, are you any good?”
Harry made an endearing sort of snuffing sound through his nose. “Well, my mutant power isn’t because of how I look. They’re thinking I might be a sort of mechanical gadgeteer. What are you looking for?”
Shroud leaned forward. She was the only one not eating, so she took over the speaking. “You sound like exactly what I need! You probably saw our little fight with the Alphas, Saturday morning.”
Harry nodded, while discretely chewing his lunch.
“Well, we’re expecting more trouble. I’m pretty hard to hurt, since I don’t actually have a body.” To illustrate, she pulled her glove away and gave a view down her empty sleeve. “Nothing to get injured. But at the same time, when I hit someone, it has all the impact of being struck by a wad of laundry.”
Harry nodded again. “Makes sense.”
“I know a bit about fighting, but it’s useless like this. My first attempt to fix it was to fill my gloves with a few pounds of shot. That way, when I hit it made a pretty good impact. But it’s too limited. It’s hard to use for elbow strikes, I can’t use a knife hand, and most of my blocks are useless.”
Harry seemed to be listening, but he picked up one rib and sucked the meat off of it, while making doggie-growling sounds. “Sorry. Can’t help myself. Superman was vulnerable to kryptonite – my one weakness is barbecue. And it’s hell to get out of fur.” He shrugged while Jade giggled and Tennyo smiled. “So it sounds like you’ve got a solution in mind already.”
“Uh huh.” Shroud held her arm out. “For atemi strikes – what some people call ‘hard style,’ you need mass and a hard surface. This isn’t the way a sensei would describe it, because he already knows that his students have the common background of having human bodies. I don’t, so I’ve had to think about this in more detail. In most moves, the energy from a strike comes from building momentum, and from concentrating the mass and motion of your body behind a strike. Most strikes are also designed to focus the impact on a small, hard area of the human body – such as the first two knuckles of the fist. This puts your hard bones behind the strike. The smaller and harder the area of impact, the better the blow can be. But I don’t have any bones, and I have very little material to use to build momentum.”
“Which is by you filled your gloves with shot.”
“Exactly. But that really only works for a punch. Martial arts allows for dozens of other types of blows. After thinking hard about it, I decided that I could get most of the benefit by simulating the mass in my forearm – from elbow to fingertip. Same for my feet – knees to toes. For a real martial artist, you can get more power by putting the rest of your body into things, but I think this should be enough for me.”
“Hmmm, I think I see.” Harry paused to lick his chops. His tongue did an impressive job of cleaning off his muzzle. “If you could make a whole fake forearm, simulating the muscle and bone and skin and stuff, then ‘poltergeist’ it to move normally, you’d get most of the power when you swung into a punch.”
“Exactly. And I could use nearly the full range of moves – blocks, elbow strikes, haito – the ridge hand, yubi – finger strikes, almost everything.”
Harry picked up another sauce-covered rib. “Sounds plausible. Uh, you don’t expect me to do any corpse-robbing or anything, I hope. I may look like a werewolf, but I’m really not into the whole horror thing.”
“Not at all.” She pulled several sheets of paper from her notebook, her own sketch and photocopies of the skeletal system. “Just the bones. The forearm, wrist, and fingers. If they were made out of metal…”
Harry nodded. “I get it. The weight of the metal would give you the mass you need, and the hard surface would provide a devastating strike..”
He licked his fingers clean and looked at the diagrams. “Well, the casting should be easy – there’s enough skeletal models around. Are you married to a realistic wrist design? It would be easier and stronger to just put in a ball joint. The human wrist bones need to be really complex, but I don’t think you have that problem here.”
“A ball joint would be fine.”
“The big issue is what alloy to use. That and how to temper it. We might want to consider some unusual annealing steps…”
Tennyo and Jade grinned at each other as their lunch companions suddenly veered off in a flurry of technical details.
The seven of them (including Jinn) headed slowly toward Hawthorne. Jinn stood out, looking pure white and scarcely dressed, with a ragged bandeau top and an equally ragged skirt. The rest of her was a pure chalk-white (quite literally, since she was using pulverized chalk), even her hair.
Ayla was busy grousing. “It was a lot easier thinking about the whole ‘Cooler King’ approach when we weren’t so close to the problem.”
“Hey,” Hank reminded her, “if it was easy, no one would be impressed. So you picked your assignment yet?”
“I have!” Jade announced. She seemed to be addressing Toni. “She’s the one you told me about, Sempai. Jello, the girl without a body image template. I was thinking, maybe we’d be good for each other.”
The cocky black girl smiled back at her. “I hope so.”
The were received by Ms. Cantrel, the house mother at Hawthorne. She was a large, elderly black woman in a wheelchair. But, like some of the other wheelchairs on campus, this one had been significantly modified. In fact, this one seemed more modified than any of the others Jade had seen. It had no wheels, but glowing golden orbs at each corner, each orb the size of a grapefruit. The wheelchair didn’t merely hover, it positively swooshed about. It moved faster than they expected, giving the house mother surprising speed for someone of her bulk.
She zoomed up to them, as soon as they opened the front door.
“Well, here at last, and about time, too!”
“Are we late?” Toni asked, oddly subdued around large old woman.
“Late? Not yet you aren’t! But unless we get moving you might be. And those kids need every minute they can get, so don’t sit there gawking, let’s get to work!”
Jade told the woman that she’d be helping “Jello”, so before she had a chance to collect her wits or to look around at the crowd at Hawthorne, she was bustled up the stairs and practically shoved into a room.
Inside, the room was a complete mess. The floor and bed (she assumed the covered mound was a bed) were covered in sheets, discarded clothing, magazines. And in the center of it all, sitting in the room’s one chair and watching TV was a humanoid figure that rippled and shifted as she entered the room. After a moment, the figure seemed to solidify into a rough copy of her, including jeans and apron.
“Uh, hi, I guess.”
“Oh, oh!” Jade recognized that effect. “You have the locker, I think three down from mine, right?”
“Oh, uh, maybe?”
“I keep seeing you between classes. I was confused at first, because I thought there were, I don’t know, twenty different people using the same locker, but they were all you, weren’t they?”
The other girl shrugged, which helped her shoulders to slump and she gradually lost more cohesion.
“So I think I’m supposed to be your personal servant or something. What would you like me to do?”
“I dunno. Clean up?” The older girl shrugged, as if cleaning up was not exactly vital.
“Cool. Actually, I’m really glad to be here. I’ve been hearing about you for a while, and I wanted to talk to you.” Jade paused to listen to Jann-sensei’s whispers in her ear. Her other self had apparently been surveying the room and coming up with a cleaning and organizational plan. Jade started to gather magazines as she continued to chatter. “See, from what the doctors have been telling me, I think we’re the exact opposites.”
“Opposites?” Something seemed to penetrate to the other girl, and she seemed to pay attention to Jade for the first time. “What do you mean?”
“Well, from what I’ve heard, your real problem is that you don’t have a body image template, right?”
The other girl, who was now looking more and more like a mirror image of Jade gave her ubiquitous shrug. “I guess.”
“Right. That’s what they’ve been telling me. What they didn’t tell me was that you had such awesome shapeshifting powers!”
Jello perked up a bit more at that. “You’re impressed with my powers?”
“Well, sure! Who wouldn’t be? Not the downside, of course. Sorry, that must really suck. But being able to be anyone, or anything – wow! Is that the coolest thing ever, or what?”
“I dunno. I guess. But if you could be anything you wanted, what would you be?”
Jade was momentarily stunned. “Uh, I have an answer to that one, but I can’t really tell you. It’s kind of a deep, dark secret. But trust me, I do have something in mind.”
Jade started stacking the magazines on the shelf. Following the instructions whispered in her ear, her hands moved quickly to organize them by title and date. Jade herself concentrated more on her conversation with Jello. The girl had seemed almost dazed earlier, but she seemed to be coming out of that now.
“So how do you figure you’re my exact opposite. And to really be my opposite, you’d have to be a boy, wouldn’t you?”
Jade tried to hide her embarrassment at that last point. “Uh, well, how old do you think I am?”
“Uh, I don’t know, maybe eleven? Are you one of the middle-school kids?”
“No, I’m fourteen! My body image template is completely stuck! I haven’t grown so much as a millimeter in years. Exercise never makes me any stronger, it’s like there’s nothing I can do to change my body at all. I’m completely stuck.”
“Oh.” The other girl, who was now her exact duplicate seemed to be actually thinking. Her voice now sounded like Jade’s too. “So who have you been seeing?”
“Dr. Bellows – he’s been teaching me self-hypnosis.”
“Uh huh. Got that. Did it work?”
Jade grinned. “Sure! It’s pretty cool. I’m not sure why more people aren’t using it. I use the ‘study’ technique all the time. I’ve used some of the others once or twice, but I’m really working on coming up with my own. I had a gun I’m trying to learn to use – devisor thing, you know? – and I’ve got a marksmanship hypno thing. Dr. Bellows calls it a ‘spell’ even if it really isn’t. I use that a lot.”
Jello was awake enough that she began helping pick things up. “Whoa, you really get to talking, don’t you? Slow down for a minute. The reason the hypnosis isn’t more popular is that it doesn’t work that well on most people. Some people, like me, are really suggestible. They seem like good candidates, and you get a lot of them on the initial sessions – it looks like everything’s going to work great. Unfortunately, we’re too suggestible. Stuff comes in fine, but it either dribbles out just as quick, or else it’s replaced by new suggestions.”
“Oh.” Jade paused for a moment, while Jann described how Jello’s aura and emotions were changing and brightening, as she got more involved. “Yeah, I hadn’t really thought about that.”
“Most people don’t. They hear about it, and think it’s going to solve all their problems. But it’s usually really, really temporary. Then there’s other types – the un-suggestible ones. Really strong force of will. Can’t be hypnotized. Which is kind of a shame, because from what I hear, if you could hypnotize them, it would stick really well.”
Jade had a sudden thought. Was this what had happened to Cavalier and Skybolt? Had The Don used some sort of telepathic technique like Tansy’s to force a suggestion into a strong-willed mind, until it stuck?
“And then lastly, there’s a batch in the middle that’s just right. They can accept suggestions – some of the time. And they have a really strong will – most of the time. And the trick is to find a way to get them into the trance, and to word things in a way that they can accept, and then hypnosis is really, really effective.”
“Oh.” Jade suddenly understood. “I think that’s what happened to me. I didn’t actually let Dr. Bellows hypnotize me. I had my sister plugging my ears. She was listening to the doc, and whispering the real commands into my ear. I trust her completely.”
Jello-Jade’s eyes were gleaming with intelligence now. “Interesting. And did it work?”
“Like a charm. I could whip off one of those post-hypnotic programs right now. Except I don’t feel like sleeping, or studying, or improving my marksmanship.”
“No, I mean, did it work for your body image problem.”
“Oh. No, didn’t make a bit of difference.” She paused for a moment. “No, actually, it worked pretty well.”
The other girl was naturally confused by this response.
“Uh, come again? It either worked or it didn’t, right?”
“Well…” Jade took a deep breath. “See, my older sister Jinn, she’s dead, and kind of a poltergeist now. She used to spend a lot of time just inside my head, but we figured out how to let her come out and possess things, like a ghost or poltergeist or something. Only when she does, we think she’s using my body image template. At first, she looked just my age. Fourteen – what I’m supposed to be, not what I’m stuck as. But with the hypnosis, she now looks seventeen – her age. It’s still my template, but it’s what I’m going to look like at seventeen. At least, I hope so. So anyway, the hypnosis changed my template, and helped Jinn, but I’m still stuck.”
Jello-Jade shook her head. “Dead sister, huh? Weird, even for Whateley. Hey, is she here today? Can I meet her?”
“Yeah, she’s cleaning up with Musk.”
“Oh, God. Not Sue! You’re kidding.”
Jade shrugged. “She’s a ghost. It’s not like she can smell anything.”
“Oh. That might work, then. Hey, I’m sorry I was so out of it, earlier. I never did introduce myself. I’m Eleanor Ruskin, code name ‘Jello’.” She held out a hand.
Instead, Jade gave her a hug. “Hi. Jade Sinclair. I’m still trying out code names, but I’m going with ‘Generator’ for now. Does that sound okay for a devisor?”
The other girl smiled and nodded. “Uh huh. You got any cool gadgets yet?”
“No. I had this gun, but it got kind of confiscated after Saturday’s big fight. I kind of shot Tansy Walcutt with it, and security got a little upset.”
Jello squealed. “You shot Tansy? I hate that girl!”
“Oh, yeah. It’s kind of a long story, and you’re in one part of it. See, it started with my sister….”
Things were not going nearly so well for Jinn. She’d assumed that this “musk-girl” would be contaminating anything she wore, so she’d collected a set of rags and discards from other members of the cottage. The tattered black bandeau-top and her short, ragged black skirt gave her a “jungle princess” look. Or perhaps it was more of a “castaway” look. But since her skin was entirely composed of thick layers of chalk dust, she looked pure white, and just slightly transparent (when she stood in front of a light). Still, the results were dramatic, and Jinn was loving the attention. This was the first chance she’d had to strut her stuff as a “full grown girl.” She’d had her seventeen-year-old form since Saturday afternoon, but there’d been way too many other things on her mind. And while she’d gotten a few comments in class, she’d deliberately shrunk her height down to being barely taller than her previous five-foot-three, to make the changes less noticeable. A little work with her cloak, and her new figure was concealed, too.
And now, here she was, practically wearing a bikini.
Ms. Cantrel escorted her up to the third floor. Her main comment on seeing Jinn was, “Lordy, I think you must be the whitest girl I ever saw.”
“Ironically, I’m Japanese,” Jinn told her.
“Do tell.” The house mother rapped on a door at the very far end of the hallway. “Sue honey, open up! You’ve got maid.”
After a moment, the door opened. An attractive-looking girl poked her head out. She had jet-black hair, with a white stripe that ran across the top of her head from her forehead straight back to her neck. The girl with the white and black hair looked at the girl with the white skin and skimpy black clothes.
“Oh lovely. How cute. White-and-black, for the girl with the stupid hair. Well, you might as well get it over with.” She ushered Jinn in and closed the door behind her.
“Look, much as I enjoyed hearing about the Alphas getting kicked in the teeth, I really don’t appreciate being used as your punishment. I find the whole concept demeaning and insulting. We both know that you’d rather be anywhere but here, so let’s get this over as fast as possible, okay? I’m surprised you’ve held up as long as you have. Most people are usually gasping for air at this point.”
Jinn smiled. “Just one of the many advantages of being dead, I suppose. Altered senses. And it’s not like I actually breathe.”
“Great. And I didn’t think my life could sink any lower. Now they’re dumping the dead people on me.”
“Wow, aren’t you the little ray of sunshine.”
The girl smirked. “That’s what they tell me. Name’s Sue Kunque. They call me Musk.” She held out her hand, somewhat challengingly.
“Jinn Sinclair. ‘Shroud.’ Although Tansy Walcutt had plenty of other names for me, including Hellspawn, Demon, and ‘That Damned Ghost.’ Pleased to meet you.”
They shook for a moment, then Musk deliberately pulled her hand back. “Sorry, just testing. Didn’t mean to actually hurt you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Isn’t your hand stinging?”
Jinn held up her hand to look at it. Her palm had turned a sort of greenish yellow. “Huh, how ‘bout that. What did you do?”
“Just one of my regular traits. My hands can emit a mildly corrosive film. It’s hell on clothes and furnishings. I figured you’d pull away before you got really hurt though.”
Jinn stepped over to the trashcan. With her left finger, she flicked away the discolored bits of her right hand, letting go of them so they fell into the trash. When she was done, there was a hole in her hand. She held it out toward Sue. “See? No harm done.” The dust from her skin flowed into the space and restored the color and shape of her hand.
“That’s just revolting. Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Nope. Can’t feel pain. An advantage of being dead, I guess. On the other hand, I can’t feel pleasure, either. One of the disadvantages.” She looked around. “So, I think I’m supposed to be your personal servant for the next week. What can I do for you?”
“Leave me to wallow in misery by myself, thank you.”
“Nope. I’ve got to do work. They were mentioning cleanup and other stuff? Someone said something about ventilator filters?”
“Yeah, with a delightful mutation like mine, I have both a stand-alone room filter and an independently powered, quintuple filter and precipitator on the intake over there. Hmm, and if you’re really keen on the whole personal slavery thing, I guess you could do my bedding and laundry, too. Like three times a week isn’t enough. Even so, everyone hates me whenever I use the laundry machines. And if that doesn’t get you, I’ll let you clean the floor, ceiling, and walls. They pick up a sort of filmy crust after a few months. I had this room last year, too, you know. And then all my books and personal objects. Followed by another cycle of laundry.” She crossed her arms and stared at Jinn challengingly.
“Okay. Let’s start with the filters.” Jinn rose into the air.
25: The pink weapon
October 4, Wednesday evening, 7:30 PM
Dinner was lively. Everyone had plenty to say about detention. Then when they came home, they found Hippolyta guarding the mail slots.
“Here!” the body builder said in irritation, thrusting a small package into Jade’s hands. “I don’t know what’s in there, but some idiot from Emerson thought he could lift it right out of your mailbox.” She smacked a fist into her palm. “I persuaded him to leave us the hell alone.”
“Uh, thanks,” Jade offered.
“We look out for our own, here,” was all the muscular girl said, as she vanished up the stairs.
“Ooo! Jade’s got a sweetie!” Toni sang. “A secret admirer, sending you gifts? Who sent it? Let me see!”
Jade snatched the disk away. She’d already seen the return address. “It’s not what you think! She isn’t a sweetie, we were just playing around.”
That got everyone’s attention. You could hear a pin drop in the silence that followed.
“Okay,” Tennyo growled, “I think it’s about time you explained that little comment.”
“Um, it’s sort of a DVD… of…” she mumbled the rest.
“I don’t think I quite caught that,” Fey said. “I heard the word ‘kiss,’ but nothing else.”
“I’ve got a DVD player,” Bunny offered. “Well, I mean, everyone has a player in their laptop, but I’ve got a big-screen projector in the room.”
“Hey, this is personal!” Jade protested. “It’s my first kiss! There’s nothing to see besides a little making out… and… stuff.”
By now, the whole team was hustling her up to Bunny’s room.
“Wait a minute,” Bunny said, in sudden realization. “Girl or a guy?”
Riptide took on a blushish tinge that may have been due to her powers. “Oh yeah.”
Jade remembered that Duplex had created a face that no one would recognize. “You don’t know her, so don’t worry.”
“Thank God!” Bunny and Rip said together.
“Settle down, everyone,” Hank ordered. “She’s just a kid. What is it, your first kiss at a birthday party or something?”
“Close enough,” Jade said. “Just innocent, like I said! It’s not like I took any of her clothes off or anything!”
That stopped them all again.
“You took the other girl’s clothes off?” Toni asked slowly.
“Huh? Of course not. Why are you even asking?”
Tennyo looked confused. “You said, ‘it’s not like I took her clothes off.’ What were we supposed to think?”
“Oh,” Jade understood again. “I mean Tansy’s clothes. I didn’t take any of those off. Well, not on camera.”
Everyone blinked at her in astonishment.
“Ah,” Tennyo said. “Got it. Cue up that disk.”
“Yep,” Toni agree. “Must see. No more protests. In you go.” She shoved Jade into Bunny’s room.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Fey protested. “I’ve seen Tansy’s figure in the changing room. It’s no better than mine.”
Hank stared at Fey, obviously undressing her with his eyes. “No better. Heh. Yeah. Just have to see.” The giggles and snorking sounds that crept through his voice made him sound like a complete moron.
“Do we have to let this GUY into our room?” Rip demanded of Toni.
“Well, he IS part of the team,” Toni allowed, while slapping Hank across the back of the head. “At least, for now. Straighten up, pervert!”
Despite Jade’s protests the team crowded into Bunny’s room, and soon the intimate little first kiss scene was playing for everyone to see. Afterward…
“Whew!” Bunny said, fanning herself. “Not bad! Another shot?”
“Sure!” Hank called.
“Hey!” Jade protested. “That’s three times already.”
“I don’t remember you telling us about that!” Tennyo hollered. “What was the point behind that… that… scene?”
“Chill out, Mom,” Jade muttered, under her breath. She wasn’t really irritated, though. Louder she explained, “Look, it’s blackmail material. Tansy is a pretty frothing anti-lesbian, and we figured that something like that would drive her insane.”
Bunny and Rip looked at each other. “Seems like a reasonable guess.”
Toni drummed her fingers in irritation. “Please explain to me exactly why you thought it would be a good idea to create blackmail material that would drive one of our enemies completely over the edge.”
Jade got a little huffy at that. “Look, she wasn’t our enemy at that point, she was my enemy. No one else even knew I was alive. These girls were the only ones who knew anything about it. I was helping them out by tormenting Tansy – and you’ve got to know that everyone in Dickinson hates that girl – and by giving them dandy blackmail material. Tansy can sure afford it. Do you know that she dropped about forty thousand dollars on her schemes last week? Mostly, just to sleep with a guy she hates. The girl’s got money to burn.
“Anyway, I had to grab for any weapon or tool I could find. And this was one of them.” She finally snatched the disk back. “It’s not like I’m going to have it for long anyway. The other girls have probably already sold their copies back to Tansy, for a hefty fee.”
Nikki objected. “So you’re planning to blackmail her? Is that the kind of person you want to be?”
Jade didn’t understand at first. “But… she’s got so much money, you wouldn’t believe it! And the more we bleed out of her, the less she’ll have to attack us with. This is just self-defense. And it’s not like she doesn’t deserve it!”
“No, I see Nikki’s point,” Toni said. “I’m not saying that Tansy doesn’t deserve it, or that you shouldn’t do it, but think it over, before you commit yourself. A lot of this whole ‘dark side’ stuff starts small and then snowballs bigger and bigger.”
“Yes, sensei,” Jade muttered. Didn’t any of them get it?
Everyone headed back to their own rooms, with Rip following Toni, but Bunny held Jade back.
“Hold on,” the blonde said, “I’ve got something to show you. I think I’ve got my first one.” She pulled out a slightly oversized pink plastic compact. See? There’s even a paper-thin lid at the top you can open to get a mirror.”
She handed it over to Jade.
Jade accepted the surprisingly heavy compact. “I like the big Hello Kitty face on top. Makes it a little friendlier, doesn’t it?” She hefted it. “Kind of heavy. Is it made of rock or something?” Jade popped open the small mirror and looked. Nothing special. She was looking for a concealed TV screen or something. There were several small dots around the rim. “Are these buttons?”
“Not exactly. Put it down on my desk, then charge into it. This’ll be Jasmine, right?”
“Nope. Not like it matters, the names are kind of arbitrary. But everyone’s back home where they belong. Jinn’s in the room studying, so Jann gets to be gadget-girl. This will be good, she’s been waiting for some action.”
Jade put the compact down, then touched it with a finger as she sent Jann into the thing. Immediately the compact rattled a bit. Six small needles popped out of the rim.
“In addition to providing a defense from someone that tries to grab you, Jann, you’ll notice small reservoirs connected to each needle. Each reservoir is sized to provide exactly two doses.” Bunny reached over and spun the compact so that it was Kitty-side up, then she touched the sides of the needles (not the tips), skipping her finger around to alternate sides as she went. “Paralysis, paralysis, fast-acting sleep sedative, same, a euphoric compound – I call it ‘happy juice’ – careful with that one since although it’s not technically illegal yet, it’s pretty questionable. The last needle holds a lethal neurotoxin. Don’t ask where I got it. I’m trusting you to only use that one against monsters and vicious animals and stuff.”
“Hey, the casing is like a speaker disk – what happened to my voice?” The voice had come out mechanical and clipped, sounding quite robotic.
Bunny was gleeful. “Special effects, right? I superimpose a different waveform on the casing when you vibrate it, to change the voice. ‘Kitty Compact’ is officially an autonomous defense robot. Now, you’ll notice two more reservoirs connected to small vents. This is sleepy gas. Each capsule holds enough to create a cloud that’s about a foot in diameter, so you only get two shots and you’ll need to be right next to their face. The good news is that it’s colorless and odorless, so no one should notice the cloud.”
Jade stared at the thick compact. “Jann, you looking around in there?”
“Affirmative,” the compact sounded, then giggled in with an odd mechanical tone. The compact wobbled, then floated up in the air. The six needles popped back in, then came out one at a time. Then in different combinations.
Jade watched, fascinated. “It looks like there should be eight needles.”
“We’ll get to that in a minute. I’m sure Jann has already seen, but she’s just waiting. Hey, Jann, you see the small round wheel thing? I remembered what you said about having about 3000 watts of power. This should only take a tiny fraction of your energy. Can you spin it up and keep it going? That’s your generator.
“This unit not ‘Jann,’ this unit is ‘Kitty Compact’.” The robot-giggle came again.
Jade snickered. “I can see I’m going to have to work on the giggle.”
A thin whine came from the floating compact, and a sequence of red LED lights turned on around the rim. The top and bottom also began to alternately blink in a soft pink glow.
“If you look around, you should see a bunch of little bumps. They’re momentary contact switches. You’ll have to hold them to turn on the lights, but it should give you full control over all of them. And the larger lights will have a pink glow, but if you flip the mirror lid open, it will be white. You can use it as a nightlight or flashlight. Sorry, I couldn’t think of anything clever to do with the mirror, it’s just tacked on. You could tear that piece off without really damaging Kitty Compact, but the rest is pretty durable.”
The compact floated in the air, the light pattern circling around the rim. The top and bottom alternately blinked pink, then the mirror flipped open, providing a flashlight-like beam. Eventually, the light patterns got fancier, blinking on off in different directions and sequences.
“Okay Jann, can you see the larger wheel? Spin that one up, too.”
Another whine, louder this time, climbed the scale as it spun up. A tiny, quarter-inch flame came from the bottom of the compact – from the middle of the flat side. As the compact jiggled, tiny flames came in bursts from around the rim.
“I’m using an atmospheric exciter there. Power hog, but very compact. Your spinning provides all the energy needed – it’s about 300 watts. This is pure special effect – unless you need to light a cigarette. Not enough heat to do much else. Jann, do you see that ball bearing in the tube assembly? That’s the automatic valve. It ducts the flame toward wherever you’re accelerating away from. Either down, most of the time, or side-to-side when maneuvering. You could hold the bearing in place, to concentrate the flame and send it out one port, but the flames are supposed to make it look like a rocket drive or something.”
“Wow,” Jade said. “Pretty, and cool, too! I mean, the gas, the lighter, the flashlight, and especially the knock-out needles. Slick!”
Bunny grinned, then did the side-to-side head movement that flopped her pony tails around like big rabbit ears. “That’s not the best part. I showed you all the little stuff first. Jann, before the big surprise, see those two rods alongside? If you can pop those into place, it should lock everything rigid and strengthen the assembly by a factor of four.” She took a deep breath and focused her gaze on the small pink plastic disk, hovering on its small flame. “Kitty Compact: Attack Mode!”
Instantly two dagger blades snapped out from opposite sides of the compact. The full octagonal design was now revealed, with the two dagger blades and the six smaller needles.
“The compact is exactly eight centimeters wide, and each blade is seven centimeters long. Well, seven exposed. So the total devise – and use an ‘s’ so that people know this is a unique-to-you devisor devise – the total length is twenty-two centimeters. Almost nine inches. And since Jann is as strong as a grown man, it should have a decent attack. Obviously, she doesn’t need a hilt, since she is the knife. Your main problem in combat, Jann, will be to avoid getting blown to bits by bullets or lightning bolts or something, so keep a little mobile.”
The knife-disk began jittering about, apparently propelled by small flames that came from the bottom, rim holes, and occasionally the top. It looked almost nervous the way it constantly zipped from spot to spot. Suddenly, it began to spin. By now, there was an even fringe of flame and spinning steel as the lethal propeller jittered its way around the room.
“Hey! You watch out for my stuff!”
But the spinning devise moved with controlled precision, quickly circumnavigating the top of the room, staying an even four inches away from the ceiling and walls.
“Hmm, spinning. Hadn’t thought of that. I’ll have to work on a Mark II version. I was hoping to toughen the case and add a capacitor for a nice electrical jolt on the knife edges, but you have to stop somewhere. It’s all a non-magnetic alloy, so you should be okay with metal detectors. If it gets smashed, bring me back the pieces for analysis, and particularly the metal from the knife blades – that’s the most expensive part.”
Jade looked uncomfortable for a moment. “Uh, after such a fantastically great gizmo, I hate to bug you, but…”
“Yeah? Hey, don’t worry! Us gadgeteers are all about upgrades and new versions.”
“Well could you make another one, really durable, with, I don’t know, foam blades and needles?”
Bunny slapped her head. “Right! Training!”
She felt a little better as she fell asleep. Jinn was studying, Jann was practicing. Their endurance was up over seventy-four minutes now, so she’d be getting lots of work done while she slept. Particularly since she was still on the “wake up every two hours” plan.
She now had one decent defense for her physical body – even without her gun – and Jinn would have better capabilities as soon as Harry finished work on her “bones.” She didn’t feel confident yet, but things were looking up.
Tansy had been free for most of the evening. With luck, it would take her a little time to get organized. Jade had to make sure that she took full advantage of whatever time she was given.
With that in mind, and to speed her trip into slumberland, she reached out and charged up Jeanie. As expected, the extra effort knocked her out immediately.
26: Research and developments
October 5, Thursday, 1:52 AM
It was third shift, and Jinn was finding it hard to keep track of all the versions of “her” that were around. As of tonight, there were now three versions of her roaming around the room while Billie and Jade-physical slept. She had to double-check, looking down at how she was “dressed.”
I’m not a book, so I’m not Jeanie. I’m not in the compact or a gadget, so I’m not Jann. I’ve got the material for clothes and a body – I must be Jinn. It wasn’t quite so consciously thought out as that, but she needed to make sure that she answered to the right name. It was sometimes the only way she had of keeping track of herselves. The few times the many of her had gotten into a conversation with each of herself, it had gotten a bit confusing. She’d have to work on that.
She experimented around with her look a bit more. She reminded herself that she was seventeen now, which was a heady experience. Being Jinn was the best. Jinn was the only one of her that really got to walk around in girl-shape.
Right now, she was using minimal materials. She’d snagged plenty of scraps of black spandex and lycra from the costume shop scrap bin. She’d expected to need them for detention. Musk had certainly proven that point! Even Jinn’s chalk-powder had gotten contaminated. Normally, she could give the particles of her body a sort of sonic-vibration “humm” – she way she did with her speaker disk – and it would shake the dirt right off her. But Sue’s musk had an actual chemical effect, permeating both the chalk and the spandex, rendering them permanently smelly, even after a sonic cleaning. Fortunately, Hawthorne had an incinerator in their basement. Surprisingly, that cottage had three levels of basements, with the incinerator on the lowest level. Jinn had opened the door and walked into the flames, burning up every particle of her and eliminating the stench. She’d planned on dropping her “hold” on herself once she was in the incinerator, but it was an interesting experience. Even as the outfit turned to ash and her chalk particles changed composition in the heat, she retained her grip on them. She could tell that she was becoming more tenuous and transparent – as her particles turning into gas she could still hold on to them, but they were a little more slippery, for want of a better word. She had to work on keeping them from bleeding out of her grasp. In contrast, the ash was easy to hold. She held herself in perfect girl-shape, even as her material turned to ash. It seemed like a nicely spooky effect. Maybe she could do something with it for Halloween, at the end of the month.
Partly because of that, she was practicing using the bare minimum of material. She had charged into several scraps of black spandex, a mortar and pestle, a box of chalk, and three lumps of coal. She ground the chalk and coal into powder, then “dropped” the mortar and pestle. The chalk powder flowed over her skin, outlining her proper girl-shape. She used the coal for eyeballs, lips, and hair. It was a nicely Goth look.
Her outfit took a bit more work, but she had that done quickly enough. A cloaked hood (she left the bottom edge ragged), the same bikini-bandeau top she’d worn to Hawthorne, and a miniskirt-and-black-panties affair for her bottom. She added cuffed gloves and slippers, and felt almost presentable.
She felt like a bit of an exhibitionist, walking around in what was little more than a bikini. But it wasn’t like she could get cold or anything. Besides, when she finally got to be the lucky one, to be Jinn, she wanted to show off. She knew it had to be overcompensation or something like that, but she had a figure now, and she intended to take advantage of it!
She decided to double-check her measurements, to see if they’d altered from her first appearance. She even (silently) interrupted Jann, to get her to help holding the tape. At seventeen, she was… she topped out at five-foot-seven tall. Her measurements were also unchanged, at 34-23-35, with a small B cup. It was the same as when Tennyo had first measured her, meaning that this was probably real. Her measurements were stable. If she could just get her template to affect her physical body, this is what she’d be growing into.
Saying she was thrilled would be an understatement. While she knew that, in a school of super physiques, most of the older girls tended to average a C cup, with some at D or larger, looking down at herself she thought that B was more than enough. Perhaps she was influenced by her time in her undeveloped physical body, but a B cup was a delight. Stroking a hand down her side, feeling her waist and hips, she felt every inch the girl. And now that she had an outfit to match, she was ready to do some midnight exploring.
Aside from her skin and outfit, one other thing she’d brought along was a small black pouch a little smaller than a juice box. When she switched from girl-shape to object, she could collect together her chalk and coal, and pour herself back into the tiny black bag. Then she could drift about as a pure black cloak. She practiced that now, slipping under the door so that she could exit the room without bothering to open the door.
Wafting along the hallway like a haunted cloak was amusing, but she didn’t really want to spook out the other Poesies (as some called them). Besides, she wanted to be a girl. Floating outside her door, she practiced her transformation. The cloak wrapped around like a cocoon. She opened the pouch, and let the coal and chalk fly out, outlining her girl-shape. Then, unwrapping the cloak, she stepped forward, seemingly appearing from nowhere.
She roamed the halls for a bit, went down to the library and read what she could on avatars. But what she really wanted was someone to talk to. Then she remembered someone mentioning that Sara didn’t sleep. Could that be true?
She let herself into the basement and stepped silently down to the end of the hall. Once there, she felt like slapping herself in the head. Did Sara have a light on? How the heck would Jinn be able to tell? But she thought she heard a sound somewhere inside. She had just placed her ear to the door, when it was suddenly yanked open.
“Can I HELP you?” the vampire girl asked, in some irritation.
“Sorry,” Jinn told her. “It’s just… I heard you don’t sleep. It gets kind of dull around here in the middle of the night.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” the other girl grumped. “Okay, come on in. Sorry for the bitchiness – I just don’t like people spying on me.”
“Yeah,” Jinn agreed. “Hey, how’d you know I was there?”
Sara looked puzzled for a moment. “I’m not sure. Just a feeling.”
Jinn followed Sara back into the room, making herself at home and sitting lotus-style in mid-air, her cloak dangling down to brush at the ground. “Nice décor.”
Sara contemplated the walls. “Yeah, I was thinking of maybe checks or stripes, but I they had a discount on the mystic runes wallpaper, so I said, what the heck.”
Jinn snorted. “I’m guessing they’re active. To my vision, they look like they’re written in red laser lines.”
“Yeah. My vision is weird. I don’t see color or light. The only stuff that comes out in color are emotions. Well, mutant powers look sort of more-violet than violet. And I guess, seeing that, that some magic stuff comes out as a kind of pure red.”
“Really?” Sara was suddenly showing real interest. “Hey, I see auras. Sort of a fuzzy cloud around a person. Is that what you see?”
“Not exactly. For me, it looks like their skin is transparent, and there’s a sort of colored light inside them, and it’s glowing through their translucent skin.”
They compared colors and emotions, and found that those didn’t quite match up, either. But they both enjoyed watching emotions.
“Did you see Nikki this morning?” Sara asked. “I swear, her aura was like a bruise, all twisted up with purples and reds, when you were talking about sex. I almost fell off my seat from laughing. I think I managed to hold it in, though.”
“Well,” Jinn said, “I spotted you. A sort of sparkling yellow. I don’t think the others have noticed yet. I’d say it was the fairly innocent DVD, but you seem to have a tinge of lust almost all of the time.”
Sara shrugged. “I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with that.”
Jinn didn’t know what to say. “Nikki’s the one I feel for, though. She was a guy, not too long ago. And now she’s suddenly thinking about… you know. I think she’s scared to death.”
“Oh, she wanted it,” Sara said confidently. “Billie too. They just won’t admit it yet. Most of the table, heck, most of the school is a bubbling pot of hormones. That’s what makes you the weird one.”
“It’s cause I don’t have any hormones,” Jinn admitted. “That’s a problem with being a naked spirit, or whatever I am. The passions aren’t quite there like they are in a physical body.”
“Yeah, but even ‘in the flesh,’ I don’t get a lot of the old lust smell from you.”
“Give me a chance to go through puberty, first,” Jinn said. “You know, speaking from the pre-adolescent point of view, the whole sex stuff is either monumentally disgusting, or so hilarious I can’t believe it. Usually both. Kind of like bathroom humor, only squared.”
Sara sighed and rolled her eyes. “I see your point. But wait till you start to bloom.” She gave Jinn the eye. “In fact, I’m surprised you don’t already have a bevy of young lads – or maybe lasses – trailing around after you.”
“Well, I haven’t been ‘grown up’ for more than a couple of days. I’ve been kind of keeping under wraps. We’ll see.” After a pause, Jinn ventured, “Hey, can I ask you a personal question?”
“Never met her, and I refuse to take a paternity test,” the vampire-girl quipped.
“No, this is serious. What’s it like?”
“Sex? I don’t really –”
“No, death.” Jinn interrupted. “I mean, you died, right? And your father, if that’s what he really was, is a demon from hell. You must have the inside track. I kind of died recently, so now I’m wondering about it.”
“Oh.” The vampire girl was quiet for a moment as she collected her thoughts. “Look, I don’t have an ‘inside track,’ as you call it. I guess I died, but it was a lot like being asleep. And as for dear old dad, he hasn’t sent me any revelations yet.”
“I understand. Sorry if I offended you or anything.”
“Not at all.” Sara waved her hand in dismissal. “I’d rather have people asking me up front than just stewing over stuff. Sorry I couldn’t give you the big secret. But, hey, I might be able to help you in other ways.”
“Like what?” Unconsciously, Jinn leaned forward.
“From your email this morning. You want to fake out some story about you being a ghost, and all. I’ve done some research, and I have some ideas on that.”
“Really? What have you got?”
Sara walked to a small bookshelf and pulled out a couple of old volumes. “First off, considering your ancestry, did you ever think of impersonating a kami?”
“I’m not sure I like that idea,” Jinn decided. “I mean, I’m not exactly Shinto, but still. What have you got on them?”
Sara flipped though a book finding illustrations, as she summarized from memory. “Classic nature spirits tied to places, animals, trees, people and things. There are supposed to be eight million kami in the ‘pantheon.’ While most kami were spirits of natural formations, some were spirits of buildings and of people, like guardian angels except more ghost-like. Certain people could converse with kami, who were usually invisible, particularly Japanese ‘witches’ or ‘shrine maidens’ known as miko. You could be a kami to Jade’s miko. She fits fine as one of the young, virginal, girls they have attending to Shinto shrines. We could get her a red hakima and a white kimono, and you could be her own personal kami.”
“Maybe,” Jinn said. “But I think if my mom was still alive, she might have disapproved. Have you got anything else?”
“Sure,” Sara told her. “If you don’t like kami, you could be an oni demon or a kishin, one of the demon gods. They come in any form imaginable.”
“Same problem, really. I think I like the kami idea better.”
“Try this,” Sara suggested. “If you don’t want to play fast-and-loose with Japanese culture, how about something from eastern Europe and Russia? You could be a raggamoffin.”
“Not quite. That’s a scruffy little urchin. A raggamoffin is a demonic spirit that possess, guess what? Clothes! They favor discarded rags and the like, and then use those clothes to strangle people to death, mostly for the sheer homicidal joy of it. They’re classic psychopaths and sociopaths. I’ve read several stories of raggamoffins where they hide in a child’s wardrobe or trunk, waiting for an opportunity to strike at a vulnerable little boy or girl. Another favored tactic was wrapping a creature up in themselves and ‘possessing’ them, moving the person like a puppet and forcing them to kill others. Definitely not nice creatures, but it might be perfect for a spooky cover story.”
“Ick!” Jinn said. “No thanks. A spooky cover story sounds fine, but that would keep me from ever getting a babysitting job. I mean, not a chance, never.”
Sara raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “You plan to be doing much babysitting here at Whateley?”
“Well…” Jinn’s voice was obviously a touch embarrassed. “You never know. And if I ever had any kids of my own… I just kind of thought that maybe it would be nice if they always had some of me, trailing them around, watching out for them, you know?”
“With an attitude like that, I can see that you’d want to cut down on the whole ‘child butcher’ backstory. But remember, I used to be a horror writer. This sort of stuff was my bread and butter.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Jinn remembered. “Hey, do you autograph books?”
“Don’t get me started,” Sara muttered, darkly. “Well, that brings us to the last choice, but it’s probably the best. The ghul.”
“The ghoul? Isn’t that like a flesh-eating zombie?”
“No,” Sara shook her head. “The ghoul is an undead creature that lives in catacombs and feeds on dead human flesh. Ironically enough, it was H.P. Lovecraft that first described that version of ghoul.”
She paused, looking at the glowing walls, her own skin, and seemed to take a moment to recall that she was now living in the “Lovecraft Room.”
“Okay,” she admitted. “Given what’s happened in my life recently, I suppose we should expect to run across real ghouls sooner or later. It would just figure.
“But what I meant to talk about wasn’t the ghoul, but the ghul or ghulah. They stem from old Arabia, about the time of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights stories. This was back when people believed in a race of elemental beings called the Jinn—”
“I like it already!” Jinn said. “I mean, I didn’t pick this name by accident!”
“Right. So you probably already know that the Jinn were creatures of air created from smokeless black fire.”
“Sure. I knew that!” Jinn said, unconvincingly.
“That's fine so far, but to go a bit further, there were many different types of Jinn. The most powerful were the ones we now know as the ‘Genies of the Lamps’ who were imprisoned by King Solomon the Wise and forced to render service to the possessors of the lamp. But there were lesser Jinn, and one of these types were the ghuls, male, or ghulahs, female.”
Sara flipped through another volume, showing pen-and-ink illustrations, and also some photographs of something. The pen-and-ink was easily visible to Jinn’s altered vision, but the pictures were just rectangles of random gray speckles.
“Ghulahs were shapeshifting spirits who, though made of air or spirit, seduced men in a solid form, bore ghul children by them and ate the corpses of the dead. In One Thousand and One Arabian Nights there is a very typical vampire story where a man marries a woman who refuses to eat and sneaks out each night to feast on freshly dead bodies with her ghul friends. She tries to kill him for his curiosity, but he and a bunch of other guys track her down to a tomb and finish her off. Ghuls are typically portrayed as female and evil, which is typical pseudo-religious patriarchal propaganda. Oh, they also have powdery white skin, prefer dark colors and have a tendency to tear their enemies apart and eat them.”
Jinn held up her chalk-white arm, with the black glove over her hand. “Hmm, powdery white skin? Prefer dark colors? This is black, right? I’m never quite sure.”
“It’s black,” Sara assured her.
“Well, it’s not so much that we eat flesh,” Jinn said, testing out the idea. “We just sort of sip portions of the spiritual energy. Far better to take them from the freshly dead, who don’t need it, rather than feeding on a live banquet – I mean, person.”
“That’s the… spirit,” Sara joked.
“I like the part about seducing. Were ghulahs beautiful?”
“Were there any women in Arabian Nights stories who weren’t?”
“Good point.” Jinn wrapped her arms around herself, as if she were cold. “You know, I could do it. The seducing part, I mean. Even the, yuck, sex. I’m physically real, even down there. It’s not like I’d feel much, which is maybe a good thing, but I could seduce a man. And the idea of having children… someday, I really want to.” She thought about it some more. “Was there anything else on ghulahs?”
“A bit,” Sara said. “The myth started in Arabia, but as the story spread north to Europe, many people believe that it served as one of the seeds for the whole vampire legend.”
Jade laughed politely behind her hand. “I like the way you say ‘myth.’ Look around! Are you sure the ghulahs and vampires aren’t real?”
“Good point. In which case, maybe vampires were later mutations or evolutions from ghulah ancestors. They have a lot in common. Devouring human flesh, often female, seducing young men, blah, blah, blah. The usual patriarchal garbage. Even the Celts had a version of them, the baobhan sith.”
“Banshee?” Jinn asked.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t believe how it’s spelled. The ‘baavan shee,’ to give it something close to the original pronunciation, had a demonic spirit which took the form of a young girl and combined the faerie circle dance tradition, where young men would be drawn into a dance with a circle of beautiful young women and either die of old age before they could let go or dance forever with the fae in the circle. So the baobhan sith would lure the man into a dance and drain his blood.”
“I like it,” Jinn pronounced. “Of course, I guess I’d be in trouble if Tennyo ever invites me to one of her ballroom dances, and I give one of the guys there the… dance of death!”
“Definitely,” Sara agreed. “It’s not really your approved party procedure. Except maybe for Halloween dances.”
And so the two girls talked long into the early hours of the morning, beginning a tradition that would last for some time to come.
Dr. Traekham had tried to schedule an appointment for Wednesday afternoon, but it conflicted with Jade’s first shift of detention. With ill grace, the doctor finally compromised on an appointment for seven AM Thursday morning. He’d insisted that Jade and Jinn show up together.
Jade wasn’t that happy with his attitude, but she needed his help, so here she was at the crack of dawn waiting outside his office. Inside, she could hear him conferring with another man. Finally, at nearly seven thirty, the door opened and Dr. Traekham looked out.
“You’re finally here? About time.”
“I’ve been here since seven sharp,” Jinn said, with some irritation.
She was in her “ragged bikini” outfit. The frayed and torn edges of her flat-black bandeau and hot pants contrasted with the chalk white of her skin. She’d taken to using small dime-sized disks of the ultra-black fabric to give herself unusually large pupils. It made her more appealing (she thought) and less disturbing than having pupil-less chalk-white eyes, or even worse, coal-black eyes. She was sitting cross-legged, floating in mid-air about three feet off the ground, just high enough so that her cloak didn’t get dirty.
Jade tried to play good cop to her “older sister’s” bad cop. “I’m sure he had a good reason for needing us here this early.”
“Exactly,” the doctor said, cutting her off. He tossed a set of pale green hospital robes to each of them. “Put these on, right away. You can change in the side room.” With that, he slipped back into his examination room.
Jade and Jinn looked at one another in puzzlement, then moved to the changing room.
“Do we have to—” Jinn began.
“We need him.” Jade answered.
Shoulders slumping, Jinn undressed. For her, it was a matter of a moment’s concentration. Her clothes vanished like leaves sinking under water.
Jade, in contrast, undressed like a normal person. Removing her gadgeteer vest, her tech-belt, and the shoes with their attached LEDs. She quickly moved on to remove her blouse and cargo pants, until she was dressed only in bra and panties. With extreme reluctance, she removed those as well, folding them neatly for the top of her pile of clothing. She stood revealed as a physically normal eleven or twelve year old boy, with a pretty face, a feminine hairstyle, and colorful barrettes. She slipped into the concealing gown as quickly as possible.
“You ready in there?”
“Yeah,” Jinn called. “Should we come out?”
“Yes. There will be a quick examination.”
They were both surprised to see a second man in the examining room. Dr. Traekham was speaking to the other man and pointing occasionally at pages in a paper file folder.
“—so you can see for yourself. The Body Image Template, embodied in physical form. You can see Bellows’ report here. Hypnotic age progression to the late teens.” He glanced up at Jinn. “Drop your robe now,” he ordered.
Jinn looked back in surprise and a bit of outrage. “Who is this guy? If those are my records, they’re supposed to be private!”
Dr. Traekham had plenty of his own outrage. “You will do as you’re told! This man is Dr. Steven Nobel, the east coast’s leading endocrinologist, and a top researcher in mutant physiology.”
Jade’s eyes grew wide. She thought she knew what this meant.
Reluctantly, Jinn dropped her gown. She stood there in silent stoicism as the pair of doctors peered and poked at her.
“Amazing. Aside from the chalky texture, it feels like completely normal flesh. I can feel her ribs, and the differentiation between fat and glandular tissue!” This came while the visitor was palpitating her breast.
“Alright. And now let’s check the boy. Drop your gown, young man.”
Jade’s experience was even more humiliating, as her most shameful secrets were felt and measured, weighed and discussed.
“Still pre-pubescent. That would lend hope for a successful transition.”
“Remember, the boy’s at least an exemplar-one. That means we have to consider a spontaneous reorganization.”
“Then why bother with the hormone treatment?”
“It’s just like the Ruskin case.” Dr. Traekham taped a file folder, apparently oblivious to Jade’s humiliated presence. “You argued then that the hormone surge might shock the exemplar mechanism into action.”
“Yes, I’ve seen it work in three other cases, even though Ruskin failed. But I was wondering if there were alternative motives.”
“Well, the boy desires to transition to match the BIT.”
Jade couldn’t stand the way they treated her like such an object, while they discussed her shame so blatantly. Just once she tried to interrupt them. “Did you say Ruskin? Are you talking about Eleanor Ruskin? Jello? Because I’ve been talking to her, and it didn’t seem to do her much good.”
The endocrinologist looked up at her. “No. We’re still working on that patient.” Then he turned back to Dr. Traekham.
After a half hour of this humiliation, the endocrinologist abruptly left the room. No explanation was given to Jade or Jinn.
“What’s going on?” she asked Dr. Traekham, as she hastily slipped back into her gown.
The doctor took a form from his file folder. “Sign this.”
“Hold on,” Jinn interrupted. “Not until we read it, first.”
“Fine. But Dr. Nobel will be leaving in five minutes. If you want the shot, you’d better sign.”
Jade was in shock. “What, TODAY? I’m getting my first hormone shot TODAY?”
Dr. Nobel stepped back into the room, holding a large hypodermic. “Immediately, in fact. Just two years ago, we would have started you on a regimen of estrogen, progesterone, and an androgen blocker. Although this shot does in fact contain a starter dose of those elements, it is primarily composed of Lutinase, a cocktail created by a biochemist devisor that stimulates your own glands to begin producing a feminine balance of hormones, while suppressing the normal male outputs. In the initial stages, Lutinase works significantly faster than a conventional puberty. When used on normal subjects the feminization is highly accelerated, until the female reaches a corresponding balance for her age, at which point the process of puberty resumes at the normal rate.”
“What does that mean for me?” Jade asked in wild hope. “How long before I start seeing something?”
Dr. Nobel shrugged. “As I said, Lutinase is a modern miracle drug, which functions much more rapidly that older treatments. For a normal person in your situation – a normal fourteen-year-old, you would feel pain and sensitivity in your nipples as early as this evening. This might be accompanied with slight enlargement of the nipple and surrounding areola within a few days. By the end of next week we would expect to see some increase in the fat pad behind each breast, along with visible changes in the fat and skin structures of the face and much of the body. Within a month you would see visible effects at the thighs, hips, waist, chest, neck, and face.
“The risks are primarily thrombosis or pulmonary embolism, although fortunately for you, the risk increases with age. Being pre-pubescent, your risk is minimal. You don’t smoke, do you?”
Jade shook her head.
“Good. Don’t start. Now, the most important thing is that, if you are an exemplar, it’s possible that none of the normal rules will apply! Our goal here is not so much to begin you on hormone therapy leading to SRS, as it is to ‘kick-start’ your exemplar system into operation. At that point, the drugs we’d give you would be moot. Radical exemplar changes can happen in minutes, hours, days, or over the course of a year. Typically, there will be a smooth metamorphosis that lasts several months.”
Jade was stunned, and was left with no idea about what to expect.
The endocrinologist turned to Dr. Traekham. “Does the boy know how to conduct her own breast exam?”
“Yes, I’ve instructed her.”
“Then if the paperwork is finished, I’ll administer the first shot, and leave you with the supplies and instructions.”
Jinn looked up from the page and shrugged. “It’s your official approval to begin the process leading to Sexual Reassignment Surgery.”
With the prize so close, Jade couldn’t wait. “Do it!” she decided.
A minute later, she was receiving a very painful, and a very joyous shot in the arm.
October 5, Thursday, 11:41 AM
Harry dropped in for lunch. Just as he had the day before, he followed Tennyo in. The entire crew was there this time, and introductions were made all around. Most had met him at least once before, but a few hadn’t.
He noticed Jade’s beaming face. “You’re in a good mood.”
“Uh huh.” But she didn’t explain why.
Harry shrugged, and pulled out the two long packages. “First, considering how serious you sounded, I thought you might like these at the earliest possible opportunity.”
He unwrapped the paper to show off two gleaming black skeletal arms. They were black metal duplicates of forearms, wrists, and finger bones.
“Wow!” Jinn and Jade said together. “They’re so cool!”
“How’d you get them to be black?” Jade asked.
“How much do we owe you?” Jinn said, at practically the same time. And then, “Can I try them on?”
“They’re yours. I’m still working on the leg bones. And let’s see if I got everything. Uh, the color is all the way through – special alloy. I’ll charge you for materials, that’s looking like about two-fifty including the legs.”
Jade and Jinn both hugged him, from opposite sides. Then they each took an arm to study.
“Lighter than I’d expected,” Jade said.
“About three pounds each. Of course, they’re rock hard. Well, technically, I guess they’re harder than most minerals.”
“Nicely articulated,” Jinn said, working the finger bones and studying the flexibility of the wrist.
“Yeah, the individual bones are held together by a cable strung down the centers. It’s pretty durable, and it allows a small amount of flex. You can see the knuckles are tied together the same way.”
Finishing her study, Jinn (dressed as Shroud) pulled up the front of her shirt and stuffed the metal objects up under her shirt – into what would have been the chest cavity of a normal person.
“Charge?” she asked Jade, then she began to slump.
Jade was already there, reaching out to touch her “older sister.” Immediately, Jinn sat back up again. She held both arms forward, and it was easy to see a ripple traveling down her arm. When it was done, she practiced her dexterity, picking up a drinking glass, using a knife and fork, and writing something with a pen.
“How’s it feel?” Toni asked.
“Completely normal,” Jinn admitted. “They feel pretty much like bones are supposed to feel, in my normal body. I don’t have to devote any extra attention to thinking about them. Which is exactly what I was hoping for.”
Then she pulled off her glove so that everyone could see the skeletal black bones projecting out of her empty sleeve. It was spooky watching the skeletal hand duplicate all the earlier activities.
“Hmm, it’s harder like this. Without the glove in place, I’m forced to conform to the surface of the metal. My fingers feel too thin.” She pulled the glove back on and it inflated, as if there were a normal hand inside. When she clenched her fist, it was possible to see the joints and knuckles straining at the fabric of the glove, exactly as it would on a normal person. Jinn seemed absorbed in examining the action of her hand and arm, as if she could see the solid metal through the fabric of her costume.
Nikki idly twirled her fork around in her salad, then mentioned, “I don’t know about anyone else, but I do not want to get hit by those hands. Not even in training. Ouch.”
“Well, that’s the idea, isn’t it?” Jade said. “But you’re right. I’ll have to start picking tougher sparring partners in class.”
“She,” Toni gently correct. “Your sister Jinn, she’ll have to start sparring with new partners.”
“Oh, right. Thanks. And that reminds me. I – that is, Jinn has another new trick to show you.” She nodded to her other self, who was still engrossed in the movements of her own hand and arm. “Jinn! Show them the change.”
“Huh? Oh, right. I practiced this for hours last night. Didn’t have the arms yet, but I think I can work that in.” She was dressed as Shroud, with black hair, bone-white skin, and a deliberately ragged sleeveless halter, hotpants with similarly ragged flame-ripped edges, small gloves and matching boots, all over her flawless bone-white skin. Naturally, behind her was her large ebony cloak, even if the hood was pulled back at the moment.
“I figured that every girl needs some variety, so I came up with this.” As Shroud spoke, her cloak floated up around her, as if magically lifting on its own. Shroud lifted up too, and the cloak wrapped around her like a cocoon. She’d drawn her feet up so that only the cloak could be seen. The black cocoon spun in the air three times quickly. At the end of that, the cloak opened once more, revealing a normal girl who looked around in feigned puzzlement. She was a completely ordinary-looking Japanese girl, perhaps seventeen years old. She had straight black hair that fell to her shoulders. Her blue scoopneck top revealed both her midriff and bellybutton, but also her arms. And due to the design of the scoopneck, a modest amount of cleavage was also revealed. Finally, she had low hiphugger jeans that seemed practically tailored for her. Then ended in mid-calf, and her feet were clad in sandals.
The cloak had somehow folded itself up behind her back. As she turned around, the cloak had vanished, too.
“How --?” Ayla sputtered.
The green-eyed Japanese girl blinked at her. “How what?” She paused to flex her hands and study them again.
“Where’d all this come from?” Tennyo asked.
Jinn smiled. She looked like a normal, average Japanese girl. “Jade and I went together to costume lab. We made about a dozen pours. I’ve got a full-body skin, pieces – to use with outfits like this. Some spare heads and hands and feet. I’ve finally got something to put on all my empty hangers.” She tipped her head down and added quietly, “Of course, if anyone checks my wardrobe, it’s going to look like a horror exhibit.”
“But where is it?” Ayla persisted. “Your old costume. That huge cloak?”
The girl leaned forward and rested her hand on Ayla’s shoulder. “Don’t you know?” Her voice oozed sincerity as she touched a hand delicately to her heart. “The only things that are truly important are those you carry inside of you.”
There was silence for a moment, then groans came from around the table.
“What?” Hank asked, “You have a whole backpack in there or something?”
“It’s actually an iron box,” she said, brightly. “I call it my ‘locker.’ I carry some schoolbooks, some other skin pourings, my cloak and costume. I’ve been practicing. Now that I can switch from girl-shape to object and back again, it’s easy. All I have left is to figure out a good style. You know, so it doesn’t look so gross when I grab something.”
“I’m afraid to ask,” Tennyo admitted.
“Oh, like this.” Jinn touched her belly at the bellybutton, then snaked a hand in under her skimpy top. It was a quick move, but it was obvious she was reaching inside her body in a way that shouldn’t be possible. Her hand came out holding a textbook on beginning Chinese, a notebook, and a pen. “See?”
“I was right,” Tennyo said. “You have got to find some way of doing that move that won’t make people sick.”
“I’ll work on it.”
By the time martial arts class rolled around, she was torn between nervousness and elation. On the one side, her nipples felt swollen and unbearably sensitive. Practically every move she made reminded her of how her breasts were beginning to grow at last. On the negative side, Tansy had been free for almost a day now. Jade didn’t know when the attack would come, but she knew it would be soon.
In the locker room, she used Jann-sensei to give her a tuck, while she dressed in her gi. Jinn, for the first time, didn’t need to vanish. Jade was finally letting her “older sister” show her full height and age. Jinn did the “clothes suddenly sink through my skin trick,” tucking everything other than combat gear into her “locker.” It was built armored, to stand up to real combat. If sparring would be too rough for it, she wanted to find out now. In addition to its thick metal construction, the locker had no external lock, it just had a simple latch that was only reachable from the inside. A TK or magnetic expert could open it in a second, anyone else would have trouble.
Jinn dressed in a gi. Aside from her hair, she was whiter than the gi.
Jade dressed, but paused to study the hard little disk that seemed to be growing under her nipples. She couldn’t believe it was finally happening!
A few girls commented on Jinn’s sudden “growth spurt.”
“Yeah,” the spirit-girl told them, “I had a condition that finally got resolved. Now I can look my proper age, instead of being stuck in a body that’s no older than my little sister.”
Most people didn’t know what to make of this, so they just nodded and moved on.
In class, Jade was in the zone. Between her fears of Tansy and Jann-sensei’s coaching, she was spotting dangers and opportunities, and reacting thoughtfully, with perfect form.
Ito sensei observed her as she sparred with a levitator girl who was also a freshman, though she was taller than Jane.
“This is very good,” he said. “You picked up some fire, a little aggression last week. It seems to have stuck.”
“Thank you, sensei,” Jade said, without moving her eyes from her opponent. “I’ll try not to lose it. A … friend … got hurt last week, and it made me angry. She’s okay now, but I’m not sure that I am.”
“Let the emotions give you fire and strength, but don’t let them rule you,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve heard that advice before.”
“Yes, sensei,” she leaned back from a sloppy crescent kick. “Thank you.”
A bit later, when Ito sensei came to Jinn, he was much more critical.
Jinn was sparring with Evvie again. She’d picked up the leg bones from Harry, so both her punches and kicks had very solid force behind them. And although Evvie’s strongest punch didn’t hurt her, she was still practicing her blocks.
“No, no, no!” Ito sensei yelled. “Stop this immediately!”
The both stopped. “What’s wrong, sensei?” Jinn asked. “I’m finally starting to get some good power.”
“Yes. And how have you done this? More sand?”
She hadn’t thought he’d noticed. He’d never asked her about her increased effectiveness. “Uh, look.” She peeled her glove back to show him.
He looked at the bones, feeling them and manipulating them. “Very nice. Also a complete waste.”
Jinn was stunned. “What?”
“These are only useful if you wish to remain in disguise as a person. You can hit or block, and still appear to be a person. But you are not a person! Never forget that! You’re like an octopus, raised by people. You’ve been feeling sad because you can’t tap dance. Of course not! An octopus does not tap dance! Instead, you need to find out what you do better than people!” He pushed her intricate and complex arms away. “These are tap shoes. Go. Leave my dojo and do not return until you can show me something that you do better than people. I cannot teach you. I only know how to teach people.” With that, he dramatically turned his back to her.
Jinn was astonished. Finally, saying nothing, she turned and walked out of the dojo, while everyone stared at her.
She silently changed out of her gi and into her regular clothes. She didn’t know what to do, or what to think. She’d respected Ito sensei, but he’d humiliated her in class. He had completely humiliated her.
She wandered into the gym room, which was mostly empty. There were punching bags set up, appropriate for different power levels. She was a TK-2, meaning she could lift between 50 and 200 pounds. In her case, that was currently about 194 pounds. The bag was set a little high for her, but that was no problem. She didn’t really stand, anyway. Listlessly, she floated up to it and began punching, trying to set up a good rhythm. But it wasn’t really what she wanted. She wanted to use the level 3 bag. A TK-3 could lift between 200 pounds and a ton. That’s what she should be working on. Hank used the TK-4 bag, for 2 to 5 tons. She drifted over to that. Punching the level four bag caused it to barely wobble. If she could work that, then she’d be getting real respect. Nobody fooled around with Hank. But her? She was just a wimp. Everyone knew it. Tansy knew it, and that’s why Tansy would be able to finish her off, whenever she wanted to.
By now Jinn was pounding on the level four bag as hard as she could, but it still wasn’t doing anything more than wobbling. She spun around backwards, giving a massive backfist to the bag. Still only a wobble. She did it again. When she timed it just right, she could push the wobble a little higher, building up the pendulum action.
Manic with frustration, she began to spin like a top, her arms held out cruciform. Again and again she slammed a backfist into the bag. It didn’t bother her. She never felt pain. She didn’t get dizzy, either. If she wanted, she could spin even faster. She moved back, just for a second, building up her speed and frustration, then moved in whirling like a dervish, smashing her knuckles into the hated back, spinning like a blur. The fabric of her gloves shredded under the onslaught.
All at once, the bag ripped open.
Jinn yanked herself to a stop. The level four bag took punches from people that could lift five tons, and punch through an engine block.
She’d just ripped it open. A mixture of ultra-dense pellets and rubber padding was dribbling out the tear to land on the floor.
“Sure, it makes sense,” Harry Wolfe was telling her. Jinn had caught him just after his final class. “Look at it this way. When you’re punching it, it takes a level four to really get it going properly. But you weren’t using it properly, were you?”
“No,” she said. “I showed you what I did. I was spinning like a top.”
“And you don’t get dizzy?”
“My senses don’t work that way. And I kind of see in every direction anyway, so that wasn’t a problem either.” She’d had no difficulty spinning the Kitty Compact. Was that what had inspired this move?
“Okay. Well you were coming at it more like a buzzsaw. Actually, maybe ‘lawnmower’ would be a better analogy.”
Jinn looked at him with a “huh?” expression.
“I calculated it out,” he said. “You can generate about four horsepower. That’s the size of a big lawnmower engine. In other words, by the standards of Whateley, nothing to write home about. But a lawnmower builds up a lot of momentum, whipping those blades around. What would happen if you attacked the punching bag with a lawnmower?”
“It would rip open, obviously,” Jinn said.
“Exactly. Even though it’s only four horsepower, a lawnmower stores up a lot of momentum in those spinning blades. When you hit a rock or something, that momentum all comes out in that single moment. It’s like a mechanical capacitor – it stores the energy to release it in one big hit. In the case of a lawnmower, you do even better, because the energy is concentrated along a sharp edge. The smaller the area, the greater the pressure. That’s simple hydraulics, or mechanics too, I guess.”
Jinn mused. “It’s the same in martial arts. If you want power, you concentrate the strike onto your first two knuckles.”
She thought about it, while she wafted along behind Harry. She’d followed him to admin, and then down to the underground level and into one of the shops.
“If I really, really wanted to concentrate my power, how would I do that?”
“You’d use something like this.” Harry rummaged through a toolbox. “It’s called a ‘star drill’ although I don’t know why. It’s really just a big spike.”
Jinn took a metal bar, about two feet long. It had a flat striking surface on one end, and a point on the other. The bar flared into more of a plus shape as it neared the point, she assumed that added strength or something, but other than that it was like a giant two-foot-long nail.
“A star-drill is what you use to hammer through concrete or masonry. You set the point against the rock, and hit the back end with a sledge hammer. You want to talk about concentrating power? Take a ten pound sledge, swing it through a nice arc, and bring it down on the head of that star drill. There at the sharp point you are going to get one hellacious amount of force. A lot of mutant ‘bricks’ are bulletproof, but that’s nothing next to the amount of force you’ll get at the point of that spike. It’s all simple mechanics. Kinetic energy and the surface area you spread it across.” He gave a sinister chuckle. “Besides, a star drill is made to go through bricks.”
Jinn began to see the light. “Harry… if you were me, and you wanted to whip up a quick system for using that principle in a fight, what would you do?”
The werewolf stroked his fingers down the length of his muzzle. “Interesting thought. I’m not sure how practical it would be in a fight. I’d go with spikes probably. I’ve got some railroad spikes right here—”
He opened another drawer and pulled out a foot-long bar of metal. It was square, not round, and the “head” only protruded on one side. For all that, it was a nasty piece of metal to think of as a weapon. It tapered from an inch wide at the top, down to a sharp point at the tip.
“Yeah, I’d just use these for testing, since they’re reasonably cheap. Just until I worked out the design problems, you understand. And for the sledge hammer, hmm.” He turned to look at Jinn. “How quick can you coordinate your different moving parts?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you were spinning a lawnmower blade, could you move the spike into place in the interval before the next blade swung around?”
“Give me a second, I’ll try.”
Jinn needed something she was already charged into. Refolding herself, she put on new gloves, and levitated a nickel from her change purse. Putting her arm out cruciform, she began to spin her arms up, while the rest of her remained still.
“You got a target in here?”
Harry pointed at a long hallway with a piece of sheet metal hanging at one end. “Down there.”
Jinn had left her head and face in place, although her arms were now spinning like the lawnmower blades that Harry kept mentioning. Her thought was to slap the nickel toward the target. Levitating the nickel just above the spinning “blades” of her palms, she waited for just the right moment. Then as her left arm swung past, she dropped the nickel down, as her right palm spun around to smack it.
– CLINK! – ping, ping, thud
The nickel shot down the dark hallway. It had missed the sheet metal target completely, but it plainly had a good deal of force.
“Ouch,” Jinn said, belatedly.
“I thought you couldn’t get hurt?” Harry asked.
“Not normally,” she told him. “But all my pieces have to be in about a six foot globe. Think of it as about an arm’s reach. Pulling something out of me hurts, and I forgot to let go of the nickel before it got ripped away.”
“Still,” he noted, “it did prove the concept.”
“Yeah, I guess so. At the very least, I’ve got a ‘whirlwind punch’ move.”
“A lawnmower-blade ‘knife hand’ might be even better.”
That’s when she saw the clock. “Oh… shoot! I’ve got to get to detention! Harry, can you do me a favor?”
“Detention starts in one minute. Man, I hope I’m carrying my supplies. Could you take something back to my room for me? We’ll be out of detention at 6:30, although we’ll probably stop by for dinner, first.”
“Sure. What do I need to take back?”
“My body.” She quickly inverted all her parts. She popped the latch on her “locker” box and sucked everything inside: her arms and legs folded up, her cloak, her face and powder, everything. Then she locked the box closed on the inside and set it down on the table.
“Thanks, Harry!” She vibrated the outside of the box to talk. “Gotta go!”
28: Frank and the Soul Sucker
October 5, Thursday, 4:00 PM
Jade’s combination of irritation and fear vanished as soon as Jinn rejoined her. Remembering what she’d learned really cheered her up, not that she needed cheering right now. She quickly charged Jinn into the disposable outfit, as they hit the entry of Hawthorne.
Jade was still hurting, from the hit she’d taken to the chest. It was good and bad. The area under her left nipple throbbed with a pain like an ice pick into her rib cage. She’d never realized that her blocks didn’t give nearly enough protection to the vulnerable breast region. But emotionally, she was floating along on a song. This was proof that she was finally developing!
Ms. Cantrel, the house mother, met them again, and sent Jinn off to clean Musk’s room again, “Never a shortage of that work, hun.” She sent Jade back to Jello’s room.
“Just a quick job today. I think I’ll put you in with Frank after that. Finding something that could cheer that boy up would make us all happier.”
Jade moved quickly toward the stairs, being careful to bypass the vault doors on the downstairs bathroom. Tennyo had told her just enough to scare her off. Jade figured that it wasn’t likely to be much worse then her normal job cleaning the sewers, but then, when she went into the sewers, she had backup.
She was actually looking forward to seeing Eleanor again. They seemed to hit it off pretty well the day before. The uncontrollable shapeshifter had problems, but Jade was fascinated by the way those problems were such a complete opposite to her own.
“Hi, Eleanor!” she said, entering the room.
Jello sat slumped, half-melted into the chair in the center of her room, vapidly watching TV. “Oh, you.”
“I’m here for a quick clean-up again. Anything in particular you want?”
“Whatever. I don’t really care.” Jello was slowly morphing into a cross between Jade and the game show host on the TV. The mix was not entirely appealing.
“As you can see,” Jade said cheerfully, “I’m still alive. Tansy hasn’t managed to assassinate me yet.”
“Tansy?” That got a reaction. “I hate that girl! Is she after you, too?”
Jade was sure she’d told this story yesterday. “Yeah. Well, I kind of shot her up a bit. It was one of those electrical shots. Lit her up like a Christmas tree. See, it started with my sister…”
Jade told the story again, sure that she had already told most of these details to Eleanor. But from the girl’s reaction, plainly that wasn’t the case. Jade just shrugged, and continued the tale while cleaning.
A little later there was a knock on the door, and the Ms. Cantrel came bustling in. “Well, this certainly looks nice. Sorry Eleanor, I’m going to take your visitor. She’s going to see Frank for a while.”
Eleanor, who was looking exactly like Jade now, got suddenly worried. “Truman? Wow, sorry Jade. You seem nice enough. Hey, go easy on him, okay? He doesn’t really mean any of it. Well, he does, but… you know…” The door closed on her, cutting her off.
“Frank Truman?” Jade asked, following the floating wheelchair.
“No, his name is Truman Phillips. His code-name is Frank. You’ll be tutoring him in English. He has to wear a damper helmet in class, and he hasn’t quite adjusted yet. I think he’s missed some of the background work, so he’s having trouble. Right there, behind that door. Good luck, dear.” And before she could open the door, the house mother was zooming away.
Puzzled, Jade knocked on the door. What kind of a code-name is ‘Frank’? she wondered. The door opened to show a scrawny, thin kid with messy hair. She guessed he was probably about five-three, which put him six inches taller than her.
Looking at the boy and staring into the room was deeply depressing for some reason. There wasn’t anything she could put her finger on. The room seemed neater than average, and the boy looked perfectly normal. She glanced at him from under her eyelashes, hoping suddenly that he’d like her. She really, really wanted him to like her. She tried a smile, which made her feel immensely guilty for some reason.
“Uh, Ms. Cantrel said you needed tutoring in English? I’m just a Freshman, but she seemed to think I could help.”
“Miss Devlin’s beginning English, at 9:30?” he asked.
“I get it at 8:30,” she admitted. She tried to put a little extra bit of friendliness into her voice, because she really wanted him to like her. She had a lurking fear that something would go wrong, but friendship was more important than anything.
“I guess it’s just hard to get excited about parts of speech,” he admitted.
“Didn’t she show your class the tape on those two superheroes?”
“I missed it. I was getting my assessment.”
The thought made Jade sad. It had been a really good demonstration, and missing out on something like that might have been a loss that he couldn’t recover from.
“Well,” she said, projecting false cheer, “did anyone describe it for you? You want me to try?”
As she talked, her depression lifted. She realized that this boy was about her age, and although he initially seemed a bit plain, he was really, really cute. The more she talked, the more she was enchanted by him, until she began feeling the beginning stirrings of lust. She wondered what he looked like with his clothes off. She was feeling really guilty right now, but she wondered what it would be like to kiss him. As she talked, she began to lean forward, subconsciously moving her mouth closer to his.
“What the HECK are you doing?” It was Jann-sensei’s voice in her ear.
Jade jerked back, feeling a flush of guilt a moment later. “So, anyway,” she continued, trying to maintain a smooth narrative, “this guy sounded like a complete loser.”
“Wait a minute,” Jann secretly spoke to her, “did you just feel a stab of guilt? For no particular reason?”
Jade stopped, having reached the end of her narrative. She tried to keep her face neutral, but some of her confusion must have shown through, and she was feeling very apprehensive about that. Apprehensive and fearful, knowing that doom was a moment away.
“Are…” She held up a hand. “Wait a minute.” She needed some room. She got out of the seat – when had she started sitting so close to this guy? And why did she feel so terrified?
She moved a couple of feet away. “These aren’t my emotions, are they?”
“I can’t help it!” he wailed. The sound of his misery made her want to just about die. “Whatever I’m feeling, it’s projected to everyone around me! It started happening this summer and I don’t like it! This is ruining my life! I wish I’d never been a mutant!”
Now that she knew what to look for, she could feel the outside emotions flooding into her. A moment later, Jann returned to her, and that confirmed it. Normally, they saw the world through two different sets of eyes. But this time, both their emotions had been in virtual lockstep. It was obvious in retrospect.
“I have to wear this special helmet when I’m outside of my room,” the boy continued. “It’s killing me! I can’t think, I can’t enjoy anything. I’m the only person here who can’t even meet anyone!”
“Hold on, HOLD ON!” she yelled. “Okay, I’ve got a… ‘technique’ let’s call it. It may help me out, but it leaves me really uncoordinated, okay?”
The boy nodded, leaving her feeling miserable.
Jade recast Jann into her own body. As before, this left all her muscles sort of spasmodic, but in Tansy’s case the ‘dual mind’ had helped against telepathic intrusion. Immediately, she noticed a slight lessening of the effect. Her mind was much sharper, though, so it was easier to spend a portion of her mind watching her own emotions and guarding against foreign influences. After a moment, she added the static buzz that she’d learned from Tansy’s mindshield. That helped a little more, but didn’t eliminate the effect.
Jade tried to walk back to her seat, her muscles jerking and moving too soon or too late. She would have fallen, but in this state she could use telekinesis to keep herself upright. For some reason, the TK wasn’t spasmodic.
Finally achieving her seat again, she turned to face him. She recognized the dread, fear, and self-loathing as his emotions, not hers. It helped that she could read his emotions in the color of his aura. Aha! part of her thought. I can use his color to figure out the projection, and maybe I can somehow subtract that influence… She further realized that this was a nearly-perfect training exercise for her. This would help her fine-tune her aura colors, since she could actually feel the emotions that corresponded to each color.
“Okay, okay. I think I’m okay now. Emotion projection?” He nodded miserably. “Anything else?”
“No. I wish. I wish I had some good power, but instead, everything I feel gets sent to everyone around me. That’s all I’ve got. And I have to wear that stupid helmet whenever I go out, and I hate it! And as soon as anyone finds out what I’m really thinking about, they hate me.”
It was tricky learning how to rebalance the emotions. It wasn’t so simple as doing a mental subtraction. She had to perceive and figure it out, and use her intellect to counter the response she would have normally had.
“Okay, first off, I don’t hate you. In fact,” she consciously double-thought, trying to buffer herself against the hope suddenly battering her, “I think you’re pretty interesting. So let me think for a second…”
She ran the thoughts through her mind, looking at it from two different sides, which was easy when she was both Jade and Jann, but separate like this.
“Look, you think you’ve got a sucky, unpopular power. But it doesn’t have to be that way. First off, there are a lot of depressed, unhappy, unconfident people in the world. They’d absolutely love to have someone like you around, if you could make them feel better. In fact, I think a lot of people would like to have you around. They’d need to know in advance how you were affecting them, and you’d have to learn the discipline to keep yourself feeling positive emotions, rather than negative ones. Uh, you aren’t manic-depressive, are you?”
“No,” he snuffled out. “Not technically. Only because life keeps dumping on me. You make it sound real easy, but sometimes I can’t help what I think. I see a girl, and all of a sudden she knows exactly what my mind’s on.”
“Hmmm.” Jade was grinning, despite the fear being pushed at her. It got easier, as you recognized the outside emotions. “I think your potential girlfriend just needs some training. Not me! I’m still having some issues with puberty.”
At the word “puberty,” an emotional tide washed over her. She tried to continue. “But, you know, us girls are always complaining that men don’t communicate enough, and aren’t open enough with their emotions. That sure isn’t your problem, is it?” She gave him a coy little smile. “And frankly – oh, I suddenly get your code-name. ‘Frank.’ Real clever. Well, maybe I should be frank, too. I, uh, I don’t really mind when someone thinks I’m cute. In fact, I like it. And those lust thoughts. The whole ‘rip off her clothes and have wild monkey sex’ thing. Girls have thoughts like that, too, you know. Well, at least judging by the girls in my cottage who’ve actually gone through puberty.” And judging by the aura colors she’d frequently observed in the Poe girls. “I’m not too sure about those thoughts myself – the whole puberty thing. To be honest, I think the whole sex thing is kind of nauseating. But I’ll admit that I’m curious, and the whole idea just seems so… adult.”
She smacked herself in the head. “I’m babbling, aren’t I?”
There was a ripple of amusement coming from Frank. It marked the turning point from his negative emotions.
Jade grinned back at him. “I guess I’m saying, the emotions are flattering, and interesting, scary, but intriguing.” She gave him the eye. “Just so long as it’s only thoughts. No touching, buster!”
It took them a while, but they gradually settled in to studying. Jade’s English class was a half-chapter ahead, which helped Jade in the lesson. She complimented “Frank” each time he sent good thoughts her way, and gave him a mild chiding each time he dipped off into depression.
“You know,” she told him, “if you could ever figure out how to control your own emotions, you would be immensely powerful. I’ll bet you’d be real handy for police work, particularly crowd situations. You’d be the life of every party, and they’d probably just need to ban you completely from politics, you’d be so good.”
He wanted to believe her, but he was afraid. “You really think so?”
She nodded vigorously. “If you’re open and honest about it up front, I don’t think people will resent it. Yeah, you’d pretty much own any crowd you want to. Party, riot, rally – anything. You are going to be so freaking famous I can’t believe it. If you became a rock star or something? Wow. I’ll be able to tell people that I knew you back when.”
It was a kick watching his emotions unfold.
“But… can anyone really control their own emotions? And what if I can’t?”
“Well, until then, just being near you is great practice in self-control, discipline, and telepathic defense.”
That brought him down a bit.
“Hey,” Jade suggested, “tell Ms. Cantrel that you need tutoring tomorrow, too, okay?”
She could feel him going high again.
Toni was giving the evening’s story as they ate. “…so not only does she have silvery skin, but she’s actually covered with this sort of liquid silver gunk. And when I shook hands, some of the silvery stuff stuck to my ring, so now I’ve got this pure silver ring, only it won’t fit me anymore ‘cause of the new layer. So the girl, Silver, takes some of the goo and electroplates my bracelet, as a sort of apology, right?”
Jade was eyeing both the ring and the bracelet. She could see why they were called “silver”, because they were so shiny. But really, they were too shiny. A moment later, Jann-sensei touched her, to share the spirit-vision, and Jade got a real surprise. To her spirit vision, most of the world appeared in shades of gray. It was easy to spot edges and even different materials, but the only color came from emotions, that lit people up like a paper lantern. Mutant powers were an almost ultra-violet in color, and she’d seen magic that was a crisp laser-red. Now there was a new object. This ring was just as silvery in her spirit-vision as it was in the real world. In fact, she could spot power and emotion-glows reflecting off the shiny surface.
That made no sense at all, because her spirit-vision didn’t work through light. And without light, how could there be reflection? But there was.
“So I’m talking to Nikki, and she is like, totally entranced with my new shiny toy. I swear, she’s drooling over my bauble, right up to the point where Mrs. Chulkris, our teacher from Mystic Concepts confiscates it. And then she wigs out!”
“Nikki wigged out?” Tennyo asked in confusion.
“No, dope!” Nikki sniped back at Tennyo. “Mrs. Chulkris. Because she figured out what it is!” Nikki adopted her ‘expert mage’ lecturing tone. “Simply put, it was a layer of pure mithril. Moonsilver. Maiden’s silver. Known to alchemists as hermargent, lunargent, or sometimes ‘pure silver,’ it was considered the spiritual distillation and perfection of silver, of similar value to the legendary philosopher’s stone.”
Off to the side, Ayla muttered, “So you’re telling me it’s silver, right?” No one paid any attention.
Nikki continued. “It serves as a magical lens and focus, and is attuned to pure magical and spiritual energies. It is anathema to lycanthropes, far more so than ordinary silver. Stronger than steel, lighter than aluminum, it can’t be processed by ordinary means. According to legend, its strength and magical properties made it an ideal material for armor. With moonsilver’s price and rarity nowadays, that would be like making a car out of platinum, though stories claim that, in days of legend, certain of the elves wore mithril armor.”
Toni blinked at her. “You’ve been studying since class, haven’t you?”
Jade-Jann couldn’t stop looking at the ring. In the outer world, it was merely attractive. Perhaps it gleamed with a shine that was more than it should have had, but it was relatively normal. Through spirit-vision, however, it was much more like a lens. There were ripples of distortion around the outer edge of the ring, and their brief glimpse through the center had shown a featureless blank. She heard Toni mention something about the value of the ring, but missed the exact figure in her distraction.
“So anyway,” Toni finished up, “I figure I’ll give it to Jade. If it fits, that is.”
Taking Jade’s left hand, the black girl slid the ring on. It was too large for Jade’s ring finger, but it fit perfectly on her middle finger.
At first, Jade was too stunned to say anything. Had Toni just handed her a priceless artifact? She had to cut her link with Jann, it was becoming too distracting looking at the ring. She looked up at the expectant face of the hyperactive black girl. As much as anything, Jade was more affected by the thought that Toni had chosen to be deliberately nice to her. The friendship mattered more than the ring.
Jade hugged the other girl tightly. “Thank you, Toni,” she whispered. “I love it! It’s the nicest gift I’ve ever been given!”
“Hey!” Toni pried herself free. “You’re welcome! I just thought you’d had such a hard time recently that you needed something nice to give you another little boost. Besides having Jinn back, I mean. We all – as in the rest of the team – wanted you to have it.”
For some reason, she thought of her last birthday. Back when she’d been a boy. Back when her father’s only present was another set of free weights and two used wrestling magazines.
Toni and the team had been more generous, on a random whim, than her father had been on her birthday.
She wiped at her eyes. “I – I never really got a nice gift from anyone.” Not since her mother had died. “I’ll always wear this, and never forget who gave it to me.”
“Just enjoy it,” Nikki advised, giving her a hug.
It took her all evening to build up the fortitude she needed to face her fear.
She dropped by Kane Hall and spent thirty minutes in target practice. She tried begging to get her gun back for purposes of self-protection, but they wouldn’t budge. Lieutenant Forsyth wasn’t returning her calls, so she was left with the original penalty period that had been slapped down for shooting another student. They’d give her the gun back on November 1, not a day sooner.
Unable to put things off any longer, she trudged back to Poe and reluctantly climbed the stairs to Zenith’s dorm room. Beside her, Shroud refolded herself and came out as Jinn – the human-looking version. Together, they crept up to the fourth floor and slunk down the hallway, trying to look as inoffensive as possible.
Finally, the two of them came face-to-face with The Door. Jinn worked up the nerve, rapping on it with her knuckles.
“Handy having bones,” Jade commented.
“Hard to knock on doors without them,” Jinn agreed.
After a moment, the knob turned and the door opened. Backlit in the glowing rectangle was a girl they’d only seen in passing. She was a little short, which still put her an inch taller than Jinn. She looked Asian, or perhaps Amer-Asian, with large green eyes and straight black hair that fell to her shoulders.
“Okay, I know you,” she said to Jade. “You,” to Jinn, “I’ve seen maybe once or twice in the last day. In case you haven’t gotten the message, we like our privacy here in Poe.”
“No, it’s okay!” Jade said. “She’s my roommate—”
“I’ve seen your roommate, honey, and that’s not her.”
“No, not Tennyo, my other roommate.”
“I’m her older sister,” Jinn offered. “I usually wear the cape?” A second later, the hooded cape wrapped around her.
“Oh, right. Got it now. So they’re cramming you three to a room down in the nursery? Wow, major sardine time. I’d heard we were getting some new entries, but this is definitely over the top.”
“Oh, it’s no problem,” Jade assured her. “She’s dead, so she doesn’t need to sleep or anything. I mean, she doesn’t take up a bed. We just fold her up and put her in the drawer.”
“Hmmm, right.” The girl gave a half-grin. “Hey, you guys are doing okay. The name’s Shrike, but you can call me Della, if you want.”
“Thank you.” Jade and Jinn spoke together, and bowed in unison.
“Huh, if it wasn’t already obvious that you were sisters… But you probably want to see the fixer, don’t you?”
“We wouldn’t be bothering you seniors if we didn’t need help,” Jade admitted.
“Seniors? I wish! Naw, Zoe and I paid for our fourth-floor room, believe me, but we’re still just juniors. And next year,” she cast her gaze upward, “next year I’m bucking for a penthouse!” Then she turned toward the interior of the room. “Hey, Zoe! Customers!” The girl gave them a two-finger salute, and faded back into her room.
Jade didn’t even think of walking into the room. Instead, she waited patiently in the hallway, trying through sheer personality to be as unobtrusive to the seniors passing by. A moment later, a stunningly beautiful blonde came out, wearing a rumpled set of sweats. On most people the outfit would have looked sloppy. On Zenith, the rumpled short hair and mussed clothing only seemed to frame her beauty. It was as if the clothes were saying, “even at her worst she looks great, so imagine how she’d look in something halfway nice.”
Jade and Jinn both bowed again.
“Hi. Tennyo’s roommate, right? Jade… and Jinn. Come on in. They don’t give me an office with this job, but don’t worry. Della’s usually okay.”
The two of them stepped lightly into the room. Inside, it was surprisingly like the freshman quarters. Everything was higher quality – better paint, furniture that was higher quality and less battered, a better view. But other than that, you could barely tell that this was part of the fabled “executive wing” – the legendary fourth floor.
“So, what’s the prob?” Zenith plopped down on her bed.
Taking the cue to be casual, Jinn took her lotus-in-mid-air seat, while Jade sat formally and stiffly on a chair.
“Well, we need avatar training,” Jinn opened. “I need it.”
“This have anything to do with last Saturday’s excitement outside the cafeteria?”
Jade nodded nervously. “There’s this girl, Tansy Walcutt, I kind of shot her a little.”
“I’ve heard of her.” Zenith’s voice had cooled, noticeably. “So how do you ‘kind of’ shoot someone?”
“Well, it was just a little taser shot.”
Jinn sighed. “My fault. Or maybe I should say, it was because of me. It turns out that among her whole glamour thing and her secret hypnotic powers, Tansy is also an avatar. And since I’m really just a spirit—”
“My dead sister!” Jade interjected.
“—right, Tansy was able to suck me up and possess me. She held me hostage for a week.”
Zenith nodded, skeptically. “Dead spirit, huh? Funny. I’d rather gotten the impression that you Jade, were a manifestor, a Man:0cz creating a second astral body at range zero, and the duplicate astral, you Jinn, were a TK2d with Esper:3 vision.” She shrugged. “Guess I was wrong.”
Jade hung her head while Jinn slapped herself in the face.
“Uh, well,” Jinn admitted, “we’re sort of working on a disinformation campaign. You know? Don’t advertise your exact powers and weaknesses, so they don’t target the vulnerable one.” She pointed with her thumb back at Jade.
Zenith nodded. “Good idea. Tell you what. Shoot me the details of your cover story, and I’ll smooth over some rough spots and start leaking out the new info. I won’t change any school records, but sometimes those aren’t so accurate anyway, so people take ‘em with a grain of salt. And I’m guessing that Jade, here, is working on a cover as a devisor. Got any real talent in that area?”
“Well, not really. But I’m getting some help.”
“Good. You might start thinking about more hard science classes next session, and read some science fiction and pulps stories from anytime before 1950. They’ve got some good ideas that you can spin for devisor explanations. Heck, I’ve heard weirder stuff from the real devisors.” Once Jade nodded, Zoe continued with, “So what’s the problem?”
“I was helpless,” Jinn admitted. “As soon as she touched me, swoosh, I was sucked right in. Is that going to happen every time an avatar touches me? Is there anything I can do to stop it?”
“Don’t know. Let’s find out.” Zoe looked across at her roommate. “Hey, is it okay if we use the room for this?”
Della smirked and got off her bed. “My cue, huh? Okay, I’ll be over in the sunroom.”
Zoe moved to the telephone and made a quick call. “Rick? Does Mongoose know much about avatar defenses, like pulling on spirits and stuff? Can you hop over to my room? Slick.”
As Della closed the door, departing, Zoe turned to face them, suddenly acting a bit too casual. “So you were there 24-7 with Tansy, right? You meet her roommate?”
“Sahar? Yeah, she was a bit strange. I almost thought she might be able to help us, but Tansy had already paid her fee. In fact, I was meaning to tell you. Tansy had set up something particularly obnoxious for her roommate and Sahar said she’d do it, but only if Tansy could arrange for 30 minutes where Sahar could talk to you in private.”
Zoe’s voice was cold. “You want to pay me for this little consulting time? Fine. As soon as we’re done here, you’re going to tell me absolutely everything—”
There was a quick knock on the door, and her demeanor changed instantly. “That you Rick? I’ll be right there!”
While Zenith ran to the door, Jade looked in puzzlement to Jinn. The older girl reached out a hand. Understanding instantly, Jade reached to the sleeve of the outfit. It began to collapse as Jinn popped back, but she’d gotten quick at charging the spirit back into her outfit. It was an instant touch-and-charge, but suddenly Jade possessed Jinn’s memories, and had seen her perceptions.
The instant she was in private with them, Zoe’s emotions had turned into a boil of angry reds, the silvery sheen of hatred, all boiling together with colors that were usually associated with guilt and longing. Putting that together with the clues from Sahar, she suddenly guessed that the two girls had been lovers, and that one of them had dumped the other. There was probably more to it than that, though.
The man coming in the door had to be a senior. He looked more like a college student. He wore a satin shirt that was unbuttoned down the bottom of his chest, and had pants that looked like they might have been painted on. He had a slightly Latino look about him, but Jade wasn’t sure.
“What seems to be the problem, oh reluctant beauty?” He bent to kiss Zoe’s hand.
She snatched her hand back before anything could happen. “Can it, Rick. We’ve got a freshman with a problem. She’s a free-roaming spirit, and some avatar has been poaching on her.”
The man glided up to Jinn. He didn’t walk, it was definitely a sensual glide. “What have we here? Curious, curious. I get no reaction at all. Haven’t seen that in a while.” Rounding Jinn, he came to Jade. “Ah, but you’re a treasure, aren’t you?” He reached out to stroke her cheek with one finger. Jade almost flinched back in surprise.
“And dressed to suit! Not many lads would conceal such innocent beauty in a surprise wrap, would they?”
Jade felt her face go white. “I… I’m a girl!” she protested, feebly.
“That’s not what your body tells me, sweet thing.”
“Rick, back off!” Zoe ordered, harshly. “She’s just a freshman, and barely that, from the looks of her!”
The man stepped back. “No offense intended, nor coercion. But if you’re interested, you know where to find me. And Zoe, dear, you know that the mongoose moves fast.”
“Rick, do you have any idea how tired we get of that line?”
Jade was stunned. She hadn’t passed! This was the first time she’d been outted in … well, ever! Always before people had accepted her at face value. She wasn’t dressing outrageously, she wasn’t pretending to have some over-endowed figure. She wasn’t even pretending to have entered puberty. So what was she doing wrong? No one was supposed to be able to tell!
As if sensing her distress, Jann-sensei began to whisper reassuringly in her ear. “There was something about his face, mutant energy. Don’t worry, we can still pass. He has extra senses. We’ll deal with this later. Pull yourself together.”
Meanwhile, Jinn was filling in Rick the Mongoose. “…so I don’t want her to be able to get me again. Or any other avatar, for that matter.”
“Well, we got a tiny problem, little dead lady. See, I can feel you sitting there, and I’ve got to say, you tug at my instincts. Do you maybe have a hallow you can retreat to? That protects a lot of the class two spirits.”
Jinn shook her head. “I’ve heard that ‘class’ business before. What does it mean?”
“You’ll really need to take an avatar course. I’d also advise Greater and Lesser Entities, in addition to Avatar Intro. It’s pretty good, but they only offer it every other year. But for the quick rundown, we’ve got your class one entities, those are mutants like us. A lot of good old mutants end up looking like some sort of supernatural thing. Your ‘ghosts’ – no offense – ‘werewolves’, ‘elves’, ‘vampires’, stuff like that. Class one means you got a mutant that just looks like a supernatural creature. Technically any mutant is a class one, but we really only use class one for the mis-identified cases. Mind you, there are real werewolves, elves, and vampires, so you don’t want to be confusing the two, although sometimes it’s impossible to tell the difference.
“Class two is the bulk of your supernatural activity. It’s what we avatars work with. Most of your spirits, demons, ghosts, loa, goblins, what-not. There’s finer distinctions that you will get in the course, so you’ll be able to tell a class-2-corporeal from a class-2-elemental, but that’s not important right now. A lot of class two’s have a location or object that they’re tied to. Their defenses become much stronger inside their hallow.
“And lastly, we get the weird stuff, which gets dumped into class three. This is stuff that isn’t just a class-2 knot of magical power, and it’s pretty much hit or miss whether an avatar can affect a class three. I can tell, just sitting here, that you’re a class-3. You feel kind of like a regular spirit, but different, too.”
“What about ‘class-x’,” Jinn asked. “I’ve heard about that.”
“Naw, I think that’s just a joke,” Mongoose replied. “The geezer profs claim that’s reserved for entities that predate the age of the planet, or have the ability to destroy souls or unravel the universe, or crap like that. I’ve been around a bit, so trust me when I say that I don’t think you’re going to come up against any real class-X entities. Besides,” he grinned, “if you did, you’d hardly be able to come back and complain about bad advice, would you?”
“So,” he said, readying himself as if to strike, “are you willing to see if you can stand against me?”
Jinn felt a stab of fear. “If you capture me, you’ll let me go again, right?”
Rick smiled, and suddenly he wasn’t Rick so much as the Avatar of the Mongoose. The difference was somehow obvious. “You will be released as soon as you desire.”
Before Jinn finished her sentence, Mongoose had lunged forward, faster than the eye could follow, jabbing his fingers straight through her sternum. Jinn was in girl-shape, so it felt like he was shoving his hand through her chest. As he lunged, her vision spotted the different. A ultra-violet glow filled his body, and it was a slightly different hue than any she had ever seen – except when Tansy had first drained her. As his hand speared in just below her ribcage, it felt as if he were actually slicing into her body – her soul. Normally, as Jinn, she couldn’t feel pain. This was painful though. She could feel him ripping open the fabric of her soul, and then he began to pull.
Instantly, she contracted into a point. Her time with Tansy had made this a fast process, almost instinctive. And it helped. She could feel him pulling, and contracting into a point was pulling back in the other direction. But it wasn’t enough. She would have screamed if she could. It felt like she was a spiderweb, anchored strand-by-strand to the material of her costume. The Mongoose was pulling that spiderweb away, pulling the strands free, one by one. Each little rip was like the pain she felt when something was pulled out of her range. She tried pulling back, but it wasn’t strong enough to counter the Mongoose’s pull.
Then, with a final snap, she was pulled loose and she flowed in the opposite direction, her web spreading up and over the Mongoose’s body, forming a net that covered his skin. Instantly, she tried her other trick, contracting to a point and entering the nostrils. Again, the Mongoose’s power was too strong. The network of her self was locked into his skin, and she couldn’t move.
She sighed and looked around, taking stock of her situation. This certainly proved how vulnerable she was to avatars. She was better at resisting than she’d been before Tansy, but it wasn’t good enough.
It took her a moment to realize that there was another spirit trapped here, as well. The spiderweb of Jinn’s essence was spread across this man’s body like a computer gridwork. But there was a more tangled net. It didn’t cover his skin, so much as it filled the inside of his body. It was an infinitely complicated tangle, like a thousand strings knotted together, and if filled the empty void of his arms, legs, torso, and head. Jinn immediately discovered that if she cast her vision in a particular manner, she could see the other entity and feel its mind.
The spirit of the mongoose was aware of her, and it watched her with high amusement. It wasn’t verbal, its mind was much more like an animal. But it had definite moods and ideas. For a moment, watching the tangle of magic energy, she understood, in some tiny way, how the trapped patterns added strength and invincibility to the avatar body that contained it. There were abilities there – some power concentrated through the eyes, another through the nose. And the mongoose itself was constantly pushing its own ideas and emotions into their host. Chief among those was amusement and excitement and a boundless energy. It had a childish need to be moving, doing, teasing.
She shifted her attention. It was like changing the focus of your eyes, but more complex. Again, she thought of the claim that psi phenomena required more than three dimensions. She could see the man’s primitive mind shield. He wasn’t a telepath, like Tansy, because he had only the most basic and instinctive barrier. Jinn was able to flow around the outside, then somehow, around a crack to slip inside and nestle up on the inside of his almost non-existent mind shield. The mongoose was there with her, inside the shield. Jinn formed a mild blister on the inside of the shield to hold her thoughts.
Somehow, seeing her own network, and seeing the mongoose tangle, she understood. Tansy wouldn’t have “digested” her. That wasn’t what avatars did. Tansy, and this man Rick, would supply the energy to keep her going, while providing a place for her to live. That’s what an avatar was – a sort of mobile home that provided you with food, housing, and stimulus. In return, the avatar got the use of your own magics. It seemed like an understandable compromise, though she’d bet that not everyone saw it that way.
Jinn refocused again, looking outside the body. Jade, glowing with fearful anxiety, had gathered up Jinn’s clothes and “body.” As interesting as this was, Jinn needed to continue her training.
Interesting, she sent to the man, telepathically. But I’m ready to go back now. Release me.
“Whoa! What a strange sensation,” Mongoose said aloud. “I can actually hear your voice! Freaky. The mongoose never talks to me.”
The mongoose talks to you constantly, she said. Its emotions and attitudes are constantly with you. But perhaps you have forgotten what is you, and what is the spirit. Now release me.
“Okay, okay. Settle down. I’ve never actually done this ‘releasing’ business before. Give me a second.”
Jinn felt some tugs and pulls at the fabric of her spirit. She suspected that there were abilities that this avatar was unaware of. Then, he got the combination right, and she was free. This wasn’t a shove-away, as Tansy had done, it was a simple let-go. She herself pulled free, and released her hold.
Jade was managing to hold herself firm, not crying in public. Jann was crooning softly and supportively in her ear. Still, it was all she could do not to quail before this man. He had spotted her instantly. For the past month, she had been passing very successfully as a girl, but he saw through her instantly. In one blow, it shattered her confidence. He saw her as a boy dressed up in girl clothes. Not only was he amused, but he’d touched her and given some sort of invitation for sex. Sex as a boy. With this man. Sex as a girl still gave her an icky feeling, but she was curious, too. Sex in a boy’s body – the disgust and revulsion she felt was overwhelming. And for her to be a boy, wearing girl’s clothes – it was just wrong. It made her ill. She didn’t mind that other boys in the hallway might do that. That was fine with her. But the clothes, her dressing, this was all because she was a girl. She had to be a girl. She wouldn’t see herself as a boy.
To think that someone else saw her mis-formed body and liked it, even hungered for it, that was just sick. She felt a terrible burning in her stomach that made her want to puke.
When Jinn’s memories returned, it was a welcome distraction. Jade was charging up the outfit without a moment’s hesitation.
“Good,” Jinn said. “Let’s try it again.”
They performed several more cycles. The pain provided ample incentive to find a way to avoid Mongoose’s amazingly fast strikes. Jinn discovered that, in girl-shape, she was quite vulnerable. A poke through the surface of her “skin” gave him a hook into the fabric of her spirit. Although she got better at hanging on and pulling back, she was never able to keep Mongoose from eventually ripping her free. But when she took object-shape, it was much harder for him to get that initial hold on her.
“I think I get it,” he said. “It’s like these clothes, those arm bones, they form your ‘hallow.’ The sacred place where you live. Inside that hallow, you’re most protected. I need to snag your naked spirit to get a grip on you. I can’t do that when you’re in your hallow, but you have a sort of stretchy spirit-film between all the different pieces.”
After the latest return, she began to get the idea. “So what if there was just one big connected piece?” She looped a piece of string, tying together her arms, cloak, and bodysuit. She cast into them, in object-shape, and said, “Let’s try it now.”
The Mongoose took her fabric arm and tried to suck her spirit out. She felt the pull, but comfortably anchored inside the protective matter of her sleeve, she could resist the pull. He pulled off her glove. Jinn actually felt the difference, as her spirit stretched in the vulnerable gap between sleeve and glove. Even before Mongoose could strike, she released the glove and snapped back into the safe embrace of her sleeve fabric.
Then Mongoose grabbed her metal arm. Jinn still had her full strength, but hidden deep within the heavy metal, she barely even felt his pull. She didn’t resist physically, only spiritually, as Mongoose began to pull her body apart, trying to get access to her spirit. As each piece broke connection, she learned to recognize the feel of her bare spirit. It felt like she was naked and exposed. She was learning to drop the connection swiftly, so that she could snap back into safety. Finally, she was down to the two metal arms, with a section of string typing them together. Mongoose grabbed the string.
“I can feel you in there,” he said.
It was his strongest pull yet, but she was able to cling to the matter of the string and resist him.
“I can feel you, but I can’t pull you out,” he admitted. Without warning, his other hand flashed out, snapping the taut string. Jinn instantly felt the “exposed” feeling. She dropped her left arm and pulled as hard as she could into the mass of the right arm. Mongoose held one corner of her spirit.
This time, she had an excellent hold, on a strongly protected piece of matter. They pulled against each other. For a moment, it was stalemate. Then, with a heave, Mongoose slowly began pulling her loose. She fought to the end, but he finally got her.
There was another release, and she reformed.
“I think that’s about all I can teach you,” he admitted. “Pretty amazing. I think I learned more about capturing and holding spirits than I ever learned in any class. If you want to serve as a model or training aid for any of the avatar classes, I’m sure the school would love to have you. It might help. I’m ranked as AV-3. You might have a tougher time resisting higher-level avatars.”
“Thanks,” Jinn said, after re-forming. “I got a lot out of this. But I’d just as soon that you didn’t mention it to any other avatars. The last thing I want is a bunch of you soul-suckers constantly trying to shred my spirit.”
“Oh, and a lovely day to you, too.” Mongoose dropped his aspect. “Let me know if you ever want another session.”
“Thanks,” Jinn said, “but I really prefer a girl’s body. Still… if the right girl came around, I might consider it. Don’t mention it to any of them, please, but if you want to drop me some suggestions, I could think about it.”
Back in their room, Jade collapsed on the bed, finally giving way to her tears. Jinn had stayed behind to talk with Zoe about the details of Tansy’s life and roommate. Jade allowed herself to drift into total bawling. She was so jealous of Jinn! Jinn was the lucky one. Jinn had a girl’s body, she had a figure.
It was ironic, because Jade was Jinn. Just… not right now she wasn’t. Right now, she was trapped in this stupid boy body.
The crying made her feel weak, but somehow right, at the same time. Wasn’t a girl allowed to give in to her emotions? And she kept telling herself that she WAS a girl. No matter what her stupid body thought.
It was just that she’d been exposed to easily, and so totally. Now she’d be wondering for weeks, for months probably, whether everyone else looked at her and see some sex-kinked boy, like Mongoose had done. Was that what everyone thought of her? That she was some boy-whore, dressed in a “surprise wrap”?
The worst part was how she saw herself. Despite all the confidence she gained from her time as Jinn, when she returned to her real body, she couldn’t help knowing that she was a boy. Maybe that was what was holding her back. So long as she kept seeing her male body, maybe her body would never begin its transformation. She was growing to hate that bit of male flesh between her legs.
Still sniffling, she pulled off her blouse to begin dressing for bed.
Her nipples were definitely showing signs of development. The entire circle of each areola had swollen and puffed up. The nipples themselves were larger, harder, swollen. It was painful, but a pain that she wanted.
She had to believe there was hope.
October 6, Friday, 5:43 AM
Tennyo was already gone to her flight class when Jade pulled herself out of bed. She scratched at her chest, feeling slightly odd. A moment later, she was pulling her shirt off in shock.
She had breasts!
She didn’t think she was quite up to triple-A size, but there was definitely something there. Her nipples were visibly larger, her areola was bigger. And there was a visible, noticeable swelling on both sides of her chest! You had to look closely to see it, but she could definitely feel it.
She posed in front of their small mirror, turning this way and that. Then she tried posing with a bra and her uniform’s blouse on. Unfortunately, the slightest bit of clothing completely concealed her developments, but she knew, even if no one else did!
She quickly gave herself the breast exam the doctor had insisted upon. Then she checked the rest of her body, to see if there were other changes. She thought perhaps her thighs might be a bit rounder, and her face seemed slightly different. It was hard to be certain.
The miracle hormones were working!
Jinn was doing some last-minute studying. They’d established a routine. Jade took the backpack to breakfast, along with all of Jinn’s supplies. Jinn stayed behind in the room, in a lightweight “disposable” body. That let her read, get some last-minute studying done, and keep an eye on the rooms for a bit longer in case someone came up with the clever idea of being sneaky while the team was off at breakfast. Then, right before class, Jade would charge up Jinn’s “locker” and all of her supplies. Which meant that Jinn-in-the-room needed to evaporate by about 8:20.
Jinn glanced at the clock. She still had fifteen minutes. That made it doubly surprising when the phone rang.
“Mushi mushi. Jinn Sinclair.”
“Hell ghost? I want my disk back.” It was Tansy’s voice. Tansy Walcutt.
Jinn was initially unsure of how to deal with this. “Tansy. How … uh … to hear from you.”
“Can it, bitch. I’m still cleaning up the messes you’ve created for me. You’ll be glad to know I’ve finally got all my credit cards reactivated.”
Jinn had worked up a pretty decent irritation by this time. “That’s so comforting to hear, Tansy. I know that last week must have been just terrible for you.” Was there any way she could probe, to see if Tansy had some sort of revenge scheme in the works?
“Just shut the hell up. How much is it going to cost me to get that porn blackmail disk back?”
“I’m not sure,” Jinn decided. “I have to find out what the going rate is. What did you pay for the other disks?”
“None of your fucking business!”
“I’ll be checking on my own,” Jinn reminded her.
“All right. The going rate is thirty-five hundred. We can arrange a swap, and I’ll give you the cash this afternoon.”
As her mind reeled from the thought of picking up $3500, Jinn suddenly wondered if that meant that there’d be an attack this evening. If she were injured or killed, Tansy would try to search her room and pick up the disk for free. Or did she want the disk back in her own hands before the attack happened?
“I don’t have it with me,” Jinn finally said.
“You haven’t shown it to anyone else, have you?”
“No, of course not,” Jinn smoothly lied. “I already knew what was on it. It’s just that I hid it in a safe spot. It will take me a while to get it.” The truth was, she’d been carrying it inside her “locker.”
“This afternoon. Six-thirty, just before dinner, in the cafeteria.”
“Now just a second,” Jinn countered. “I haven’t agreed to that price. I was thinking the boys at Whateley Academy Radio Station might want to bid on it. They could launch a TV or web feed with something like that. They don’t have much cash, but Ayla Goodkind does. You remember her? Former friend? I haven’t suggested anything yet, but she might be interested.”
“You BITCH. Okay, I’ll deal. What’s your asking price?”
“An even ten thousand sounds good,” Jinn mentioned, wondering how far Tansy would go for this.
“Damn you to hell! Okay, we’ll do it. But you better have that disk!”
“It’s in a safe place,” Jinn reminded her. “So I can’t get it today. The earliest I can manage is Sunday evening.”
“Then maybe I’ll talk to you then.” Without so much as a goodbye, Tansy slammed down her handset and disconnected.
It was a tempting offer. That was an unbelievable amount of money. She was in hock to both Harry Wolfe for the metal work he’d done, and to Bunny for devisor gadgets. Not to mention paying off her currently-withheld gun, the loads for the gun, and the fact that someday, eventually, she’d like to buy some nice clothes for her real body, and clothes for her new seventeen-year-old body too.
Her debts were already on their way up toward a thousand dollars. And that was with her friends giving free labor and only charging for materials. Ten thousand dollars would clean out every debt and leave a very nice sum to use against future shopping or emergencies.
But… blackmail was wrong, wasn’t it?
Not that Tansy hadn’t done much worse. But did that justify the blackmail money? Even if that money would be used to buy defenses from an attack that Tansy would launch?
Jinn wasn’t sure about this, but it was time to get to class. Setting her book down, she folded up her body and vanished.
For lunch, Jinn was off pulling her normal shift in maintenance while Jade ate. No one else had arrived yet, so Jade had a few moments to herself, to think.
Whateley was an interesting school to keep up in. Her grades were doing pretty well, so far. High B’s, mostly. That was better than it sounded, because some of the people she was competing against were exemplars like Toni. Toni could read a 400 page book in an hour, memorizing and retaining most of the information. Sara was nearly that fast, and had a photographic memory. Of course, Sara had already been through high school once, so Jade wasn’t competing with her.
Fortunately, most of the students had physical gifts rather than mental ones, otherwise Jade would have been buried by the competition.
Her own abilities weren’t really mental, although her spirit-form had a much better memory, and that carried over into her physical body. But Jade’s abilities helped her immensely in school. She took classes as herself and as Jinn. Meanwhile, Jann-sensei was working and training her constantly on combat and awareness. And finally, she got in a lot of time each night, when other people slept. For every 24-hour day, she effectively gained – she paused to calculate it out – she experienced about 60 hours worth of events. Considering that most people experienced about 16 hours worth of events per day, it meant that she was now living life almost four times faster than everyone around her. Or perhaps she was doing four times more stuff in the time she had. The extra time for studying certainly helped. That was how she was managing to pull high B’s in classes that contained exemplar geniuses. Now if she could just get her last few problems out of the way, life would be great.
A large problem was money. Her double shifts in maintenance helped, but it would take weeks to pay back her current debts that way. She was still debating the idea of blackmailing Tansy out of ten thousand dollars. It was such an absurd amount of money that it almost seemed to make the morality vanish. How could she pass up that much cash?
About that time, Harry showed up, plopping a large satchel down beside her.
“Is Jinn getting food?” he asked.
“She doesn’t eat,” Jade reminded him. “She usually pulls a shift in maintenance during lunch. We’ve got to pay for all the goodies, don’t we?”
She thought again of $10,000.
“I’ll have to trust you to pass on this stuff to her, then.” He opened the satchel and pulled out supplies. “These are plain old ordinary sledge-hammer heads, ten pounds each. I took out the normal shaft and replaced it with this plug, and several feet of braided tungsten cable. That’s free, it was scrap down in the lab. No one cares about six feet of cable, it’s too short for anything useful.” He showed her how the heads were connected by the cable, like gigantic bolas. “I was going to use a hard shaft, but this is collapsible and should work just as well. Besides, this fitting will friction-grip the cable, so you can choke up on it as much as you’d like. As for the spikes,” he pulled out some rusty six-inch spikes, and a similar item that was newer, but twelve inches long.
Jade hefted both spikes.
“Those smaller ones are pure surplus, actually pulled out of defunct rail lines. About two bucks each, and there’s plenty of them available. Unfortunately, as you can see, it’s just square stock with a flattened head on one side and a wedge-shaped point. You really want a needle point. So I made up these twelve-inch versions from square steel stock. I slammed a bit of a flattened head on one side, and sharpened the point to a needle. Try that against your brick and I’ll bet you do some nasty damage.”
Jade felt the tip of the twelve-inch spikes. The metal had the blackened look of smith-forged iron, and the tip was actually sharp. She imagined driving this in with a sledge hammer.
“Yeah, I’ll have to see how practical this is in combat, but thanks, Harry! I’m feeling a lot better about things.”
He rubbed his muzzle. “Well, this is just for rough testing. I’ve been thinking about it, and it will be pretty hard to use in real combat. Speed matters there. I’m thinking that the whole ‘spinning like a top’ attack wouldn’t be so bad, particularly if you could mount a sledge-hammer hand, or maybe a real blade. And angular momentum isn’t the only way to store up potential energy, so…”
Jinn smiled. “I appreciate the work, but you know it may be weeks before I can pay for this.”
“No, it’s an interesting project. Everyone in class always seems to get carried away by the same stuff. It’s either the ultimate car or the ultimate giant robot. It’s nice to have something different.”
“Well, if you don’t mind…” She smiled at him, placing a hand on his furry arm.
She realized that she was lightly flirting. She wasn’t entirely sure about this, but this morning’s “developments” had compensated for the self-confidence disaster when Mongoose saw through her dressing, the day before. Also, she wasn’t entirely sure about the flirting part. She didn’t want Harry to think she was coming on to him, but she did want to give thanks, and support, and appreciation, and to let him know what a fine, noble specimen of male he was, and how much she admired him. Without coming on to him, of course.
Playing the girl-game was complicated, but wonderful. Even learning the rules was fun.
If Harry noticed the admiring hand on his arm, his only response was a slight smile. “Okay, I’ve drawn up some plans. This is preliminary. The arms you’ve got now are very much ‘version one’ – castings from real skeletons. For the finger bones, I think we want to keep that realism, but there’s no reason to remain wedded to nature’s design for the forearm bones. That’s tied in to a muscle structure that you don’t need or use. Instead, I suggest more of an armored cylinder. Hardened on the outside, to allow for martial-arts style blocks.
“Now, remember how I said there were other ways to store energy?” He tapped the drawing. “Here – this spring is from an auto shock absorber. It’s about one ton of compression. I have a geared spindle to wind it in, that will take about ten seconds. The mechanism is inside the cylinder – impossible to reach if you weren’t using TK. Just leave it cocked most of the time. There’s a safety, here, and the release catch here. Once you trip this release, and your fist springs ten inches forward for a devastating blow. Pretty unexpected, too, since how many people attack with a telescoping arm? The mass of the arm-tube helps put some mass behind the blow. But it’s even better!” He pulled out another set of drawings. “The finger bones are actually one of the weaker elements. I saw some abrasion from when you punched through that bag yesterday. So when the tough fight comes, the fingers fold up and slide into the tubular housing. And what slides out to replace them is this—” he tapped a drawing “—twelve inches of double-edged blade. It’s halfway between a dagger and a sword. The mechanism would be too complex if you weren’t using telekinesis to handle the mechanical linkages. The short sword ends up mounted onto your ‘wrist’, so you have a limited amount of pivot for fencing maneuverability, and you’ve still got the whole piston-punch maneuver, so you can give a devastating surprise stab.”
Jade was honestly admiring. “Wow! What an arsenal! But I’m not sure I could actually cut someone open.”
Harry shrugged. “Save that for fighting demons and robots and stuff, then. If you just want to batter someone with a blunt object, spin the arm end-for-end. The ‘elbow’ is a blunt striking surface. Once you flip the arm, the ‘elbow’ becomes your ‘fist’ area.” His brow furrowed and his muzzle crinkled up. “Hmmm, maybe I could modify the ‘piston punch’ mechanism so that it could work either the wrist or the elbow…”
“One other modification,” she suggested. “I’ve done some avatar research. I really need to have all my ‘pieces’ tied together. Sort of like conducting in electricity only it doesn’t need to be an electrical conductor, just a connection of solid matter. If there’s any air gaps, my naked spirit has to stretch between them, and then an avatar can reach in to touch me, and suck me up.”
Harry nodded. “I suppose I could tie everything together with more tungsten cable. Yeah! Then you could do the ‘spinning top’ move with your arms – either bludgeon side out, or blade-side out. Either way, you’ll have some real power. Hmmm, you could spin your legs too, giving two discs of death – high and low. And I’ll need to reinforce. Maybe I can get a second-pass design by next Tuesday. Let me work the bugs out, before I start fabrication.”
He reached into the satchel again. “And if anyone comes reaching into your body, try this on them.” The item he produced consisted of several half-loops of metal, with spring steel in between.
“A bear trap?”
He shook his head. “It’s actually a smooth-jawed wolf trap. It was in the scrap bin, and you can see why I’d just as soon get rid of it.”
She looked at the werewolf in understanding. “What’s the difference?”
“Well, serrated jaws will mangle a limb. You might as well amputate. The smooth jawed traps capture, but don’t kill. And a bear trap is strong enough to snap a bone clean in half. A wolf trap like this will keep the limb trapped, but might not break the bone.”
Jade thought of Mongoose stabbing his fingers through her chest. Something like this would be fast enough to catch even Mongoose by surprise – if she could get him to hit her in just the right spot.
Tennyo arrived then, and looked at the diagrams spread over the lunch table. “Hi, guys. What’s up?”
Jade smiled up at her roommate. “Harry’s figuring out how to turn Shroud into an unstoppable killing machine.”
“Hey, great! Just so long as it doesn’t cut into dance practice.”
Jade gave Tennyo a mischievous look. It was a game they were both still learning, but they were getting better at it. Jade took Harry’s furred arm and clutched it to her chest. “Harry! Won’t you please make me into an unstoppable killing machine?”
Tennyo took his other arm and stroked it gently. “But Harry, I want you to take me dancing!”
Trapped between them, Harry moaned in feigned agony. “Girls! There’s only so much of me to go around!”
The two small girls looked up at the towering werewolf and were unable to hold back their laughter. After a moment, Harry joined them.
Dinner was chaotic. As usual, there was the three-way not-quite-flirting thing going on between Fey, Hank, and Tennyo. That was made worse by Hank’s absence from tonight’s dinner, since he was eating with some new girl named Lily.
“I’m not saying he shouldn’t be going out with girls,” Fey put in, “it’s just that … what do we know about this new girl?”
“We know she’s poaching on our team members!” Tennyo growled out.
Fey disagreed. “Honestly, I think it was more Hank chasing after her. Still, I worry about the lunk.”
“How come?” Tennyo jabbed back. “Afraid Hank the Tank might get in trouble?”
“Maybe,” Fey admitted. “He’s the most naïve member of the team.”
“No kidding!” Jade jumped in. “He still doesn’t even know how to shower right!”
Tennyo boggled at her smaller roommate. “How do—?” She shook her head. “Never mind. I was going to say that he’s our second most naïve member. Now I’m not so sure.”
Jade waved the comment off, still feeling very much on edge. She’d been preparing for Tansy’s attack. She expected it to happen any day. Now this thing with Hank was hitting her just when she was the most nervous, and she couldn’t help blurting out her wild suspicions.
“So, did you ever think that this new girl, Lily, might be, I don’t know, working for Tansy?” she asked.
“Are you sure you aren’t turning paranoid?” Fey asked. “Sure, Tansy’s a mega-bitch, but it’s hard to believe she’d be that obsessed about us.”
“Oh, you obviously don’t know Tansy,” Ayla countered. “Still, the timeline doesn’t quite fit. I mean, the call for roommates went out on Friday, right? The breakfast battle didn’t happen until the next day.”
“But the new girl moved into the room right above ours,” Jade pointed out. “Coincidence? Tansy already had Jinn, and she knew where Jinn was rooming.”
“You know the new entry is a T-girl, don’t you?” In typical fashion, Toni leaned back to watch the effect of her bombshell.
“No way!” “Where’d you hear that?” “Are you sure?”
“Look,” Toni explained. “She moves in … here … you know? I have it from two different sources that she’s not gay. Besides, she’s been seeing a lot of Hank all of a sudden, right?”
“Too much,” Tennyo muttered darkly.
Nikki added, “That boy’s an idiot. For all his supposed experience, he doesn’t know the first thing about how to deal with girls.”
“I rest my case.”
Jade thought. “If so, she’s transitioning to a girl. Remember, she’s rooming with Angel, and Angel can’t touch guys.”
Toni looked up. “Hey, wait. If the new girl’s moving in with Angel, what happened to Angel’s roommate?”
“Juanita?” Jade shrugged. “I haven’t heard. I’ve been kind of busy the last week or so.”
“If the new girl is working for Tansy,” Tennyo decided, “someone’s going to have to rearrange her face for her.”
“Got a couple more,” Bunny said, dragging Jade into her room. “These are just for you, no special TK tricks needed.”
She held out a couple of barrettes. They were chrome-silver with rhinestone-sized jewels on them.
“Okay, well the thing is the batteries are high capacity but drain pretty fast, like about three hours. I’ve moved from a old-fashioned rotating generator to a piezo unit, so it’s cheaper, sturdier, and smaller. When you charge into ‘em you’ll have to squeeze and release the piezo units for two minutes or so – that’ll keep everything charged. But to use ‘em, that doesn’t take any special stuff at all.” She pointed to her own head, where she had new gemstone-studded wraps on her ponytails. “I’m using a set myself, although I have a bigger battery.”
“Cool,” Jade said. “They’re really pretty. The blue matches your eyes.”
Bunny smiled. “Thanks! So clip the barrettes in. I’ll make you a set of combs and a tiara, too. The right one – you noticed the ‘R’ on the back? – if you press the gem on that, it’ll generate the keen eyepiece viewpane you had before. I really liked that look. Like your old one, this doesn’t do anything, it’s just special effects.”
Jade pressed the right stud. Immediately, a faint square window appeared over her right eye. It was noticeable, but subtle. But as she looked in the mirror, she saw a much more vivid blue square. This one seemed to have flickers and half-seen information that panned across it.
“Projective hologram, largely unidirectional,” Bunny explained. “Holograms are kind of my specialty, so it was easy. If the battery’s charged, the hologram is good for about ten minutes, which should be plenty. Here’s an earpiece that goes with it. This one is actually functional and has a spread-spectrum encrypted channel, with a directional mike that will pick up anything you say from a whisper to a shout, but cuts out most ambient noise. I altered your gun ring so that it’s got a push-to-talk button on it. So the radio unit fits right over your ear. Either ear, you’ll want to trade off. Just leave it running perpetually. Same charging scheme, it will last for three hours on a charge. I’m trying to standardize everything, which means sizing batteries depending on power draw.
“Here’s a matching unit for Jinn. This control here allows her to generate new vocal effects. She should vibrate the back plate, the speaker in front will emit the modified sound. If she presses this button, no sound comes out, but it transmits. In this position, it transmits and speaks. This’ll make her sound less like you and more like your big sister.”
“That’ll help,” Jade agreed.
“Last, on the barrettes. Press the left jewel and both barrettes will put out a pulsating light show. The beams emitted are specially polarized and focused. Anyone from five to fifty feet away should see a pulsating set of colors that hits them differently on each side of their retinas. This creates conflicts when processed in the back of the brain. End result: vertigo, nausea, disorientation. It’s not a strong effect, but it may give you a chance to take the initiative or flee. Go ahead and move fifty feet down the hall, and I’ll trigger mine.”
Jade moved back and looked at Bunny.
“Here I go!” Bunny touched one of her pigtails. Suddenly, the ties for the pigtails began flashing in weird colors and patterns. After a moment, Jade realized that the light show was over, but she had big flashbulb spots before her eyes. Worse, she felt like she wanted to throw up, and it felt like the corridor was spinning. It took nearly a minute for the nausea to fade.
“Keen, huh? Who would have guessed that people would react to strongly to alternating pastels and day-glo?”
“Wow, thanks!” Jade gave her friend a hug. “And the things you make are always so pretty!”
Bunny gave one of her rare frowns. “Riptide complains. She says they look like toys.”
“Aw, what does she know? She doesn’t even like your rabbits! I mean, how can anyone not love those rabbits? Oh, hey,” Jade suddenly added, “I thought of a way I could help show you my appreciation – if you’re willing.”
“Sure! What is it?” Bunny bounced around like her namesake.
“Well,” Jade shut the door, then leaned closer to her girlfriend, “for concealing, I figured you could make a belt with blinking lights, and wrist and ankle bands. You could call them ‘de-gravitators’ or something. But for real, I’d just charge Jinn or Jann into your skin. She could lift you up, let you float and fly, and even help you lift large objects by focusing her power in the palms of your hands. And it’s a cool kind of strength, too. Since the energy comes from TK, you don’t get off balance, even if you’re carrying heavy things way off to the side. So your explanation would be that you’d ‘de-gravitated’ them. I think it should work. It depends on whether I can charge Jann into a normal person who isn’t an avatar, and isn’t like Hank. Willing to be my guinea pig, for a test run?”
Jade was more than a little nervous, following her experiences with Hank and Mongoose. But Bunny wasn’t an avatar, and even if she was, this was a completely different situation. She also didn’t have Hank’s tar-pit TK field. Jade wasn’t entirely sure this would work, but she touched Bunny’s wrist and charged Jann into her friend’s skin.
For Jann, she was in TK-object mode, definitely not in girl-mode. Still, her shape was most definitely female. She spoke at an ultra-quiet level, vibrating Bunny’s eardrum, as she’d learned to do with Jade.
“Hi! It’s Jann. Am I too loud?”
“No, that’s pretty good,” Bunny said, turning her head to look. “Where are you?”
“In your skin. I’m touching your eardrum to talk. Ready to be ‘de-gravitated’?”
“Yeah! Hey, how do I get rid of you? Wish you gone?”
“I’m not sure. With Hank, I left on my own. Give it a try and see if you can force me out.”
Bunny clenched up her eyes and grunted, but Jann didn’t feel any effect.
“Nope, that doesn’t seem to be doing anything,” Jann said. “Here, I’m going to do half weight.”
Bunny suddenly wobbled. “Whoa! I feel different! Kind of like I’m in the pool!” She jumped and hit her head on the ceiling. “Ow! Oh, don’t know my own strength I guess.”
Jann spoke in her ear. “Okay, normal weight coming back. Let’s try Spiderman mode.”
“Spiderman mode? What the heck is that?” Suspicious, she moved to the wall and placed her hand against it.
Jann lifted Bunny so that she was nearly weightless, pushing her lightly against the wall. For the hand in contact, she held that more tightly against the surface, simulating a grip.
“Mondo keen!” Bunny began to use her hands and feet to climb up the wall. “Hey, can I stand up like Spiderman?” She rose to her feet, standing horizontally from the wall. Now she walked up onto the ceiling, so that she was standing upside down. “How great is this? Hey, what happens if I jump off?”
Jann said, “Automatically shifting to weightless mode.” Then she laughed. “Sorry, I’m starting to get used to talking like a gizmo when I’m pretending to be one.”
Bunny floated in mid-air, then kicked off the ceiling. “Man, this is fantastic! It’s like being in a pool, only faster. Easier to breathe, too. Hey! You better not be looking up my skirt!”
“Would I do that?” Jade called, from below them. “Besides, I like polka-dot panties.”
“Argg!” Bunny tried to gather her skirt closer. “This would be even more embarrassing if I wasn’t a raging lesbian.”
Jade sighed. “And if I wasn’t the wrong gender.”
“Oh, yeah, I keep forgetting.”
Jade looked down. “Thanks.”
Bunny used her hand and pushed off from the ceiling, gently drifting down to the floor again. “Thanks, Jann. That’s enough for now.” She gave Jade a quick one-armed hug. “It’s just that, looking at you, it’s impossible to think that you’re still … you know.”
“Thanks.” The voice was a little morose.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get you fixed up, girl.”
29: The Worst Day
October 7, Saturday, 7:30 AM
Even on Saturday, Jade couldn’t sleep in too late. Tennyo had woken her when she got up for her flight class. Then there was the fact that breakfast closed down at 8:15, so if she wanted to shower ahead of time…
Waking up wasn’t as much of a chore as it would have been, though. She was taking her magic hormone injections, and she was already seeing some results. Jade wanted to bless the devisor who’d come up with the potent mixture. This morning would be her second full day, and she wanted to see what wonderful new surprises her body had for her. Stripping off her nightgown, she headed for the mirror.
It was immediately obvious that there were surprises, but they weren’t wonderful.
She’d seen some development, she was sure of it! Her nipples had been larger, she’d even seen the beginnings of breast growth. Nothing so large as triple-A size, but there was some growth.
Now there was nothing. It was as if she’d imagined it all. Her nipples were the exact same size and appearance they’d been for the last several years. Her face – whatever changes there had been were gone. She searched her entire body. Nothing. It was as if the entire hormone idea had been one big dream.
Her shock and then her frantic searching in the mirror took more time than she realized. By the time she made it to breakfast, the cafeteria was just closing up. She was able to grab a single plain bagel, and then the staff rolled the shutters closed over the serving area.
Jade nibbled miserably at her inadequate food, wondering how things could get any worse.
Of course, that was before she started work.
“What’s wrong with you? Dog die?” Morrie demanded.
“Personal problem,” was all she muttered.
“Eh, whatever. Furnace work today, down in the basement a’ Schuster. Got us a load of incinerating to do.”
Stan explained it to her. “Normally, it’s the physical plant team that does all the incinerating. They’ve been calling for more backup when they do furnace work.”
“Let me guess,” she said in an utterly flat tone. “Some horrible monster makes their work a living hell.”
Morrie snorted. “More like a living heck. Yeah, there’s a ghost or something down in the furnace. The ghost went berserk a couple of weeks ago and touched off a methane explosion in the sewers. Blew the manhole covers across a good chunk of campus. Nearly toasted Stan ‘n’ me.”
Jade remembered that. As she recalled, that was the incident that got Billie fired from her maintenance job. She was glad that the explosion, at least, was no longer being blamed on her roommate. Billie was picking up a bit of a reputation as a jinx, but none of it was actually her fault.
“Hey, why don’t we let Jade run defense?”
Morrie grunted. “Yeah, not a bad idea. What about it? You think you’re up to fighting off ghosts?”
After the nightmare tunnel they’d showed her a couple of weeks back, she wasn’t about to get overconfident. “I don’t know. What’s it involve?”
“Oh, don’t worry too much,” Stan told her. “The actual work is being done by a pair of student grunts. They just called us in for defense. And the ghost isn’t much. It likes to throw stuff around, occasionally shoot some flames. Nothing like,” he lowered his voice, “you know.”
She nodded. After being in the nightmarish place that was the final endpoint of the sewer, she had no desire to speak of it by name. She tried not to even think about it.
“Actually,” Morrie added, “it probably isn’t a ghost. We aren’t sure what it is – minor demon, poltergeist, some sort a angry nature spirit. Ya get a lot of junk piling up down here.”
A fight was sounding like it might not be a bad idea. “Okay. What do I do?”
“Well, it’s mostly a sort of cloud-thing,” Stan said. “So our guns and stuff don’t do much good. But about the only harm it can cause is throwing stuff, or small burns. So we figured this Plexiglas riot shield…”
Jade took the transparent shield and hefted it. “You just want me to block stuff, right?”
“Yeah,” Morrie confirmed. “Protect the students working the incinerator shift. Meanwhile, Stan and I are going to try out the latest anti-spirit equipment, and see if anything discourages our obnoxious guest.”
The incinerator was a long conveyor belt rolling in to the main furnace. She wasn’t sure why the school maintained an old-fashioned boiler, when the reactor she’d seen in the underground labs should be enough to power a good-sized town. But then there was a lot about this school that she didn’t understand yet.
The two “workers” were students like her. She’d heard they were seniors, which was hard to believe. The apparent leader was only a couple of inches taller than her – probably still under five feet. His buddy was almost as wide as he was tall, being about five-foot-two and looking like he was solid muscle.
“You brought a pair of girls?” the short redhead sneered. “We’ve got major trouble down here. We need real backup!”
Shroud was in one of her disposable costumes – you could never tell with sewer work – but as Jade watched, her “big sister” turned full black as she hid the chalk. It looked like she vanished into the cloak. She was getting pretty good with that trick.
“Do not mock that which you do not understand!” her sister intoned, as her cloak hovered in front of the obnoxious redhead.
“Let’s see more fighting and less talk,” was the quick reply.
They started up the line easily enough. The two boys sorted through trash, using specialized shovels to scoop things onto the conveyor belt. The belt trundled down a few dozen feet, before dumping the trash into the mouth of a raging furnace.
Jade stood around, looking alert and feeling useless. Of course, Jann-sensei was always at work with her, reporting what went on behind her back, giving pointers on stance and preparedness. Lately, Jann had picked up a new technique. Jann was keeping herself strongly buried in gizmos and other material objects. But she’d found a way to reach out a finger and poke it into Jade’s head, opening a telepathic bond whenever she wanted.
That’s what she did this time. Jade suddenly had her perceptions expanded, seeing in spirit-vision. To normal vision, nothing was happening yet. To spirit-vision, though, she could see a silvery cloud forming in mid-air. Shroud was already moving to intercept. Jade raised her shield, and moved to put herself between the cloud and the boys working.
The cloud dropped to the ground. Instantly, a piece of rubbish shot toward the red-headed boy. Jade blocked it with her Plexiglas shield.
The cloud formed into a face – somewhat goat-like, somewhat reptilian. It scowled at her, while flying around to the other side of the room and trying the trick again. She checked with normal vision – if she looked hard, she could see some sort of distortion in the air, but it wasn’t obvious. The effect was better for low-key spookiness than real grand-scale terror.
The game that followed was a frustrating game of chase. The cloud sped ahead of Jinn, who was dressed as Shroud. Jade played the goalie position, catching the pieces that occasionally got past Jinn. Morrie and Stan blasted (mostly shooting wild) with a variety of weird energy guns. None of those seemed to have any effect on the cloud when they eventually got a hit.
So long as she could see the cloud (and she always could, using Jann-sensei’s spirit-vision), she had no trouble keeping it under control. In fact, the job was a little boring. She could liven it up by using a bo-stick to block with. That way, at least she could get in some good training. But the trouble came from another area entirely.
She and Jann had been working together – telepathically linked into one person. They’d been concentrating on the ghost, and ignoring the boys. If she’d taken time to watch their emotions, she would have noticed how they were getting more and more fearful. Finally, a piece of wood come flying at the boys. Jinn was out of position, so Jade raised her shield to block.
“It’s going to hit!”
The red-headed boy jabbed out with a finger and launched a bolt of flame. Jade had raised her shield at the same time. The wood hit the front of the shield – perfectly blocked. The flame hit the backside of the shield and seemed to splash. A lick of flame curled over the back of Jade’s hand.
“Ow! Dammit! What did you do that for?”
“Hold up! Hold up!” Morrie shouted.
Stan came running up to her. “Here, I’ve got coolant and burn gel,” he said. “I thought the ghost might try to burn us.”
Stan sprayed some sort of cooling spray on her hand, which instantly felt much better. The gel helped, too, but Jade could tell that her right hand was going to be hurting pretty badly, not too long from now.
“Hmph. Wasn’t expecting friendly fire,” Morrie shot off, with a glare at the short red-head.
“It’s her fault!” The kid yelled back. “If she’d done a better job of blocking—”
“Shut your mouth!” Morrie shouted back. “It was going fine until you panicked!”
“Is it going to leave a scar?” she asked Stan, suddenly worried.
“Yeah, I’m afraid so. There’s one or two spots that may have gotten a bit below the surface layers. Sorry about that. We wouldn’t have given you this if we thought…”
“It’s not your fault,” she said, trying not to cry.
“Look at the bright side. While your hand heals up, you can get a medical leave at full pay. No work, full pay, how great is that?” Stan smiled, but it seemed like he was trying too hard.
Dr. Traekham was available to look at her hand. He confirmed that there would be some minor scarring on the back of her right hand. At least the bandage was flesh-toned and unobtrusive.
She was in a bad enough mood that she didn’t want to go borrowing more trouble, but she told him about her reaction to the hormones. All her reactions – the initial success and developments, along with the reversal that happened overnight.
“The initial reaction certainly sounds promising. I’m a bit confused by the reversion, but we told you that all bets are off when dealing with an exemplar. The best I can do is increase the dosage. That will leave your emotions even more unstable, but Dr. Nobel gave me some boosters and dosage guidelines. Do you want me to set it up to the maximum dosage? After what we’ve just seen, I don’t thing anything less will have an effect.”
Jade nodded firmly. “Do it!”
She’d adjusted her detention shift to a later time, so that she could get a full day of work. Jinn was still on the job, so Jade bummed around the library until it was time to head to Hawthorne with her sister. She tried to talk to Tennyo, but the librarian shushed her immediately. A half-hour later, Jinn finally got off shift. Jade charged her into the real Shroud gear, and they hiked off to detention.
Inside Hawthorne, Jinn took off for more cleaning in Musk’s room. Jade left Jinn’s “locker” and her supplies in the coat closet. She decided to read a book, so she cast Jann into the pile of her stuff to protect it, and take some time off reading. She really needed the relaxation. It would be good to receive that when she took Jann back as they left the cottage.
Farther inside, Jade was drawn by the crowd in the library.
A Hawthorne student typically had one of two traits. Either they had a physical mutation that was usually quite dramatic (to put it politely), or else they had a mental or physical power that – while not impacting their appearance unduly – made it difficult for them to room near other students. Thus, it was a mixed crowd in the library. Many human-looking or nearly human students, standing side-by-side with people who looked like they summered at the black lagoon, or had an excess of tentacles, or other problems. But in the center of the crowd, protected by a bubble of respect, was a grown woman holding something.
Being short, Jade couldn’t see through the crowd. Since Ms. Cantrel, the house mother, hadn’t given her any assignments, she squeezed past.
The woman in the center was a tall, willowy blonde, and she was holding a baby. The baby seemed to have his mother’s white-blonde hair, but a somewhat darker skin tone suggested that his father had a darker complexion.
Jade was stunned. She looked at the squirming baby – no more than three months old – and it was like someone had strummed a giant cello string in her chest. There was a vibration of empathy and desire that she’d never known before. All she could do was stare at the innocent child in helpless wonder.
Jade belatedly spotted the house mother, hovering in her chair at the inside rim of the circle of watchers.
“I’d love to hold him,” Ms. Cantrel said.
“I’m not setting him down on the table, and I won’t trust my baby to telekinesis, so unless you can figure out some other way—”
At that moment, the baby dropped the wadded-up blanket he was holding. Jade was impressed with the respectful circle the watchers supplied, but she wanted to be helpful. Before anyone else could lend a hand, she darted forward to snatch the tiny blanket from the floor.
“Honey, stop!” “Don’t!” “Get back!”
But before the cries could register, Jade was handing the blanket back to the tiny baby. From this close, she could see that his eyes were a very light blue in color.
“He’s so beautiful,” she said, before she could stop herself.
The blonde woman looked at her in shock. “Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry,” Jade mumbled. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I just wanted to get his blanket.” She stepped back into the watching circle.
“No, wait!” The woman stepped forward and everyone in the crowd stepped back. “Just now, when you were beside me, didn’t it bother you?”
Jade shook her head in puzzlement. “What are you talking about?”
“Honey, that’s Cardiac!” Ms. Cantrel said gently.
“I’m sorry,” Jade said, reflexively bowing. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Are you sure you didn’t feel anything?” the Nordic woman asked. “I generate a fear aura, out to just beyond my arm’s reach. It’s strong enough that people have actually died.” Her voice had a tone of weary regret. “That’s how I got my name.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Kali here was just telling us about her husband’s tragedy,” Ms. Cantrel explained. “I was hoping she might let me hold the baby, but…”
“You know I’d love to,” Cardiac said, “if I could just hand him to you.”
“Uh, if I could help…” Jade mentioned, tentatively.
Cardiac looked at her, then looked sharply at the house mother. “Is she…?”
Ms. Cantrel considered, then nodded. “This is Jade. She’s from Poe, actually. She’s doing a week of detention for beating up some Alpha kids.”
Cardiac snorted. “Lord, are those idiots still around? Well, if you really want to risk it.”
Jade stepped cautiously forward. “Am I supposed to be feeling something?”
The woman looked at her in shock. “Do you have some impenetrable mind shield?”
Jade shook her head. “I don’t think so. I was helping out ‘Frank’, and I certainly felt him.”
“How astonishing.” The woman focused a steely gaze on her. “Can I trust you to hold my baby, and to carry him to the people who’d like to see him?”
“I…I’ll do my best.”
The blonde bent down to her, apparently astonished by Jade’s proximity. “Here, you hold him like this.”
And so it was that for the next hour, Jade carried a small baby back and forth between mother and the viewing audience. Cardiac was nervous, having her child out of arm’s reach. At the same time, she was pleased to see people fawning over the child and definitely not flinching. So far, her baby seemed perfectly normal. Throughout this all, she continued her story to Ms. Cantrel, and to everyone else listening.
“…so once we found out that he could ‘sidestep’ my fear aura by shifting his time field, our marriage was guaranteed. Roy took the official name of ‘Ebon Flow.’ He never got over his limitation, whenever he altered time faster or slower, he had to live with an immediate after-backlash, where he spent a matching amount of time, from a personal perspective, in the opposite state. But as I said, either way blocked him from my fear aura.”
“And how did you like working for the CIA, dear?” Ms. Cantrel asked.
The audience hung on every word of the story. Jade had missed the introductions, but it was obvious that both Cardiac and Ebon Flow were alumni of Hawthorne. But she made sure that her main attention was focused on the baby. She didn’t need Jann-sensei constantly drilling her to utilize the lessons she’d been getting. Chief among which was: Don’t lose sight of your main goal. In this case, her main goal was to keep the baby safe and happy.
“The CIA wasn’t bad,” Cardiac answered. “I got plenty tired of interrogation work. Not that it’s tough, I just… well, would it be so bad to be normal?”
The entire audience murmured their sympathy.
“And Roy had it okay, too, once the Company accepted that his ‘down time’ was also payroll-time. That’s going to keep us going now that… he’s…” She had to pause, to use a tissue.
“Can you tell us about it?” Ms Cantrel asked.
“You probably saw most of it on the news. Remember that nerve-gas scare at the Pentagon?”
Jade carefully took the baby back into her arms. He yawned, and then rolled his head toward her. An unsteady baby hand reached out to pat her gently on the chest.
“They knew what the bomb looked like, but not which office it was in. It was going to detonate in twenty seconds. There was no time to evacuate or even sound an alert. And the nation couldn’t afford a loss of that size. So Roy…” she had to use the tissue again “…he pushed himself farther than he’s ever done. We think he must have searched about 60% of the offices before he found it. When he did, he rushed it outside but the time limit was up. It was going to go off. So he deliberately threw himself into the backlash – while still holding the bomb.” Her voice had a tone of infinite pain. “You should see him – he’s his own monument. Holding that damn bomb, which is still in the process of going off, but his look is so damn proud! He saved them all! But… we don’t know how long it took him to search the whole building. A year? Ten years? And now he has to spend ten years of personal time, but they think he’s slowed by a factor of at least ten million. There may not even be people left on the planet when he finally comes out of it!”
The baby was just starting to fuss as Jade handed him back to his mother.
“I’m sorry,” Cardiac said. “Maybe that’s enough for tonight. Is there someplace I can nurse him? You know… Roy never got to see his son?”
“Don’t worry, dear,” Ms. Cantrel comforted her. “I’m sure they’ll figure something out.”
“No, the power blocks could always stop him from using his powers in the first place, but nothing ever worked against the backlash. I won’t ever give up. You have to know that. But he’s gone.”
As the two adults left together, Jade and the rest of the students looked at each other across a gulf that separated the Hawthorne students from everyone who was merely visiting.
Jade opened her mouth, but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“That’s the kind of thing some of us dream about, you know?” this was from the student who looked like the black lagoon stand-in. “That we can go out in a big way. Something incredible and heroic, and that afterward they’ll miss us and talk about how great we were.”
A few other students made sounds of approval, then the crowd dispersed.
Walking home, she couldn’t help dwelling on what it had been like to hold the baby. It was only 600 yards back to Poe, and she still had a half-hour before curfew, so she took her time as she strolled along.
She knew that Nakamura-sensei would have yelled at her, but for once she thought her preparations were good enough. First, no one would even be looking for her on this particular path, this late at night. Second, she had Jinn flying overhead, watching for trouble, decked out with all of Harry’s latest tricks. She was wearing all of Bunny’s gizmos, which Jann-sensei had just finished charging, leaving her other self free to keep alert, giving Jade eyes in the back of her head.
That left her with a few minutes to think to herself. Just walking peacefully, thinking about everything that had happened in the past few days.
She was sure that Tansy was planning something to get her, sooner or later. Coming up with better weapons and gizmos was a good idea, but she was starting to run out of inspiration. There had to be a better way to handle things than just starting some sort of mad arms race. Although… ten thousand dollars could buy a lot of arms race.
That brought up a whole different thought. Was she safe, up until the moment when she cashed in Tansy’s blackmail DVD? On the other hand, cashing it in wouldn’t just raise her out of debt, it would leave her rolling in cash. She’d never had that opportunity before. It might be nice to be spoiled rich for a while.
Not that money would solve her main problem. For a day or so, she’d honestly thought that hormones might be the answer. Until her body went and undid all the changes. She didn’t want to admit it, but Poe was filled with exemplars whose body image had gone wrong. What if her body-image was that of an eleven-year-old boy? Not that any Poe problem was the worst you could get. Detention in Hawthorne had certainly taught her that. A lot of those student would be happy to be stuck as an eleven-year-old boy. Was it selfish to want more? To want to be a girl? And more, she privately admitted to herself, she really wanted to be a pretty girl. And ever since holding that baby, she thought that maybe there was a new wish forming in her mind. Someday, somehow, she was going to have her own baby. She promised herself that.
It struck her that perhaps that was what her powers were intended for, all along. Her powers could make her one of the best mothers in the world. She could make the children’s toys and stuffed animals come alive to entertain them. She could see her babies’ emotions, she could watch over them every minute to keep them safe. About the only thing she couldn’t do was nurse them. Or to carry them or give birth. Somehow, the idea that she herself might give birth wasn’t as gross as it should have been.
What would it be like to hold her own baby? To nurse him? There had to be someway to get this stupid body of hers to go in the right direction!
“There’s something behind that tree there,” the words were whispered in her ear. A moment later, Jann was back, the memories and images flooding her mind. If there had been any movement, the figure was hiding behind a tree. It was best to be careful. She pulled out her pink compact and cast Jann into it.
“Kitty Compact: scan area.”
With a quick circling pulse of LEDs, the pink compact rocketed upward on a tiny jet of flame. “Working!” came the rough robotic voice from the device. There was another jet of flames as the device rocketed forward toward the trees that flanked the walking path.
Jade readied herself, just in case. She was reminded anew at how tiring the second casting was. She always felt a bit sluggish after casting a second spirit-self.
She heard Jinn’s voice over the filament-speaker that tucked into her ear. [Any trouble? I don’t see anything – wait, ahead of you!]
As Jinn spoke, two boys stepped out from behind the trees, thirty feet ahead. They flanked the path, blocking the way back to Poe Cottage. She’d been daydreaming, and this was what came from it. Jade tried to ready herself, but she really missed her gun.
[Look out!] Jinn’s radio voice came at the same time that Jade saw a flicker of motion from the corner of her eye. Tansy had gone all out, sending three attackers after one little girl. She tried to twist away, but she was still sluggish after re-casting Jann. She managed to avoid most of the strike – it slammed her shoulder instead of snapping her neck. She had a moment of gray-out, and when her head cleared, two hairy hands had grabbed her. The gigantic paws were wrapped around her forearms, and they lifted her off the ground, holding her aloft by her arms. She twisted her head, trying to see the monster behind her. She got a glimpse of a muzzle like Harry’s, then the hands pushed her forward like a shield and all she could see was Jann dropping silently to the ground, in total Shroud-mode.
Behind Shroud, two very large boys lumbered up, one of them holding the carcass of some dead animal. She realized that the animal had been a bobcat, and that its blood was splashed across the faces of both boys.
Have they been feeding on it? They couldn’t possibly have been biting off pieces of the carcass, could they? She distantly recalled that after some kinds of hunts, the hunters would smear their faces with the blood of their kill.
“Say hello to my wolfpack,” Jade’s captor said, from behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled from his breath. “We’ve already blooded ourselves. Now it’s time for the real fun.”
Behind the boys, ignored, was the levitating compact that held Jann. Jade understood – she’d been in that exact position. While the spinning knife blade was impressive, she didn’t think she’d be able to actually cut into someone. Which meant that it was only good as a threat. She didn’t need telepathy to know that Jann was waiting for an opportunity to use the knockout injection, instead.
Shroud stepped forward, speaking through Bunny’s effect generator that gave her a haunted-sounding voice. “Let the girl go, or I promise you’ll regret it.” Shroud formed a chalk-face, which hovered inside the night-black cloak.
At the voice, Jade gave a twist to free herself. It did no good at all – she might as well have been held in a vise. She kicked back, trying to sink her heel into her captor’s crotch. Instead, she landed a kick on his thigh. The grip tightened painfully.
“The name’s Bloodwolf. I hold the spirit of the werewolf, little girl. Even if you could harm me, I heal faster than you’d believe!” There was a snort that parted the hair in the back of her head. “Hear that, black spirit? I hope so, ‘cause you’re what I came for. Word is, you’re nothing but a loose spirit. Whatever avatar grabs you, sucks you up. That’s what I’m here for. That, and a little blood sport. So you come forward and hand yourself over, or I play ‘make a wish’ with the little girl here.”
That confirmed it for Jade. Not many people knew that Jinn could be attacked by avatars. The team, Harry, Zenith and Mongoose. And, of course, there was Tansy. This guy had to have found out from Tansy.
Her paranoia had been valid. And Jinn was about to find out, under combat conditions, whether her anti-avatar defenses worked.
Whatever happened with that, Jade needed to free herself. She tried to catch the eyes of the linebackers. She gave them one last plea for reason.
“That was a good scare guys, but it’s time to let me go now, okay? That way, we can all have a laugh. Nobody hurt, nobody gets in trouble, right?”
Instead, they just sniggered sickly. “We won’t get in trouble. It was this bobcat that dragged you off into the woods and killed you. Before he was killed by that spirit.”
His buddy agreed. “Yeah, before ghost-girl suffered a freak supernatural accident and vanished away.”
Their comments penetrated. She’d been grabbed, and was being held helplessly, but it was only with the comments that her skin went suddenly cold. They actually intended to kill her! It made perfect sense. If she got away, they’d all be in big trouble. This wasn’t like fighting Alphas, or even the ninjas. This was more like the fear she’d felt, back when she had to face her father. Crippling, incapacitating fear. But unlike facing her father, she could use her training against these three.
She’d already gone for her captor’s crotch – a nasty move, but one that might have equalized the fight temporarily. That hadn’t worked. But there were other vulnerabilities. In particular, when attacked by dogs, she’d been taught that the dogs’ muzzle was their most sensitive anatomy. That’s where the delicate nasal passages ran.
Jade tried to harness her fear, as she decided on a plan.
“Kitty Compact,” she ordered, “attack!” And as she said the last word, she slammed her head backwards as hard as possible.
She felt part of his face crunch against the back of her head. That had to hurt. She was ready to hit the ground running. Instead, Bloodwolf suddenly leaned on her. He moved one furred, clawed hand to her shoulder while the other hand lunged for her neck to rip her throat open.
“You DIE for that, bitch!”
Her training moved her again, without requiring conscious thought. This was a classic “grab from behind” move. As the claw lunged for her throat, she reached up with both arms to grab him. As she gripped the arm at her throat, Bloodwolf screamed. Jade continued the motion, barely noticing her captor’s reaction. She pulled and dropped, pulling him forward and off balance. Then, in the instant he toppled, she straightened with all the power in her legs. It was a classic “use their size against them” move, and Bloodwolf flipped, spinning overhead to slam hard against the ground.
Before he could rise, she sprinted for Poe – heading right between the two hulking brutes.
Her gamble was rewarded as one of them collapsed. Jade glimpsed Jann – or rather, the Kitty Compact – hovering behind the collapsing boy. The disk circled off behind the other boy.
“Killstench?” The remaining boy focused on her, not even realizing the compact was behind him. “I don’t know what you did to him, you little rug rat, but you’re going down hard. The name’s Maggot. My touch is like acid. It dissolves flesh like salt on a slug!”
“Thanks for the warning.” Jade had been hoping to save this for use against the werewolf, but she needed to act now. She pressed the activation button that Bunny had added to her gun ring. Even with her eyes squeezed shut, she could see the brilliant strobe flashes of her barrettes. It must be a hundred times worse for her attacker, particularly since his eyes were dark adapted. The flashing stopped a moment later, and she raced forward again.
They boy named Maggot was staggering and reeling, but still blocked her path. Jade faked a quick kick to his crotch. He awkwardly hunched over to cover himself, leaving his face wide open for Jade’s sokutei kick. The momentum of her hop-feint was added to her swinging leg, as her right leg came up to a full vertical. Her heel hit his jaw. Done wrong, she might have snapped his neck. In this case, it was slightly less lethal, but powerful enough to drop him on the spot.
“Kitty Compact: sedate.”
Jann rocketed in to jab the fallen boy with another needle. Even if the kick had only stunned him, he wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon.
Behind her, Jade could hear Shroud’s haunt-voice. “Surrender now, or I’ll hurt you. You may not recover.”
Jade knew she should flee now, but she’d recently gone through a week of hell, thinking that Jinn had died. It was tactically stupid, but she stayed to watch. She had to know whether Jinn would survive.
The werewolf was facing Shroud’s billowing cloak. This was the first time Jade had been able to really see him. Superficially, he resembled Harry. But when she saw Harry, she saw a big, strong, lug – a goofy friend that was half overgrown puppy. Bloodwolf, by comparison, projected himself as a lethal predator. His jeans were his only sign of humanity.
“Human or spirit, you’re dead meat now!”
Will he go for my face? Jade wondered. Will I drop it in time? She – as Jinn – had planned a trap move against avatars. Mongoose had said that her “naked spirit” tugged as his senses. So her maneuver held up a face-shaped screen of chalk, with her spirit exposed. Her spirit-self formed a film, suspending the chalk particles in mid-air. If she could act quickly enough, she could “drop” the particles, and move her spirit out of the way. Even if that failed, she hoped the avatar would be distracted enough by her next surprise that he’d let go, momentarily. Because she’d placed the bear trap where her head would be. An unchivalrous foe might try a scratch or punch to the face – a vulnerable target for a human. Jinn wasn’t human, and they were just beginning to figure out how to exploit that. One way was to play to their foe’s expectations: the face was vulnerable. Humans didn’t have their heads turn into bear traps.
Jann-sensei wasn’t with her at the moment, but the lessons stuck. Jade kept her senses alert scanning for other threats. But for just a moment, she focused on the critical scene between Bloodwolf and Jinn.
Bloodwolf lunged. Even expecting it, Jade was shocked at his speed. Could Jinn move in time? But a second later, Bloodwolf howled, his cry piercing through the night. The bear trap gave a meaty snap as it closed on his right wrist. The monster staggered back, and Jinn’s cloak billowed after him. Jade heard the whirring, as Jinn spun up Harry’s sledgehammer bolas.
The fight was over. Jinn still needed to finish up with Bloodwolf, but the fight was over. She allowed reaction to seep into her.
Her paranoia had been completely correct. Tansy had come after her, sending vicious predators to kill her. So far as Tansy knew, she was a relatively weak eleven-year-old girl, and the woman had sent a werewolf to rip her open and feed on her steaming guts.
This was just the perfect cap on an already crappy day. Her breasts had been stolen from her, her hope for a proper body snatched away just as she’d started hoping. She’d been burned, and disappointed, and taunted with what she’d never have, and now these scum wanted to kill her!
Jade felt a touch of fury. With the combat finished, she could afford to let her emotions loose, and what she was feeling was the stirring of a volcanic rage. She’d been emotionally ragged, these last couple of days. She attributed it to the paranoia and stress. Now all of that tension was coalescing into a black rage against Tansy, and against these loathsome sub-humans that had tried to kill her.
This has to stop! If this attack failed, Tansy would just try again. The girl had more money than she could ever spend, even on pointless assassination attempts. She wasn’t sure how to stop Tansy, maybe she’d get some idea when she was calmer. But she was sure ready to do whatever it took to stop Bloodwolf! As he’d pointed out, he healed fast. She could kill him, but even in a rage, she wasn’t sure she manage that. But she’d certainly do her best to scare him off!
Shroud was doing half the job. Jade heard the clanging sounds as sledgehammer met railroad spike. Shroud was pinning Bloodwolf up against a tree, as he screamed for mercy.
“Stop it! Mother of God, STOP IT!”
It was gratifying. It was pathetic. She was the little girl, and she hadn’t bawled like that.
In any case, he seemed properly restrained now. She approached to look him over. What else could she do to intimidate him, to keep him from coming after her again?
“I think that’s probably enough, Shroud,” she told Jinn. “Can you come up with something creative for those two?” she asked, pointing back at the two unconscious linebackers.
Shroud billowed off, and Jade glared up at the formerly fearsome werewolf, pinned to the tree at his gut, thigh, shoulder, and opposite arm. Shroud had taken the bear trap with her, although the werewolf’s wrist still hung at an odd angle.
Sarcastically, she told him, “It’s real lucky that you heal so fast. I mean, that probably woulda killed someone who didn’t heal up. But it looks like those spikes are just steel, not silver or anything.” She’d have to fix that in the future. How much did it cost to silver-plate something? She was sure that ten thousand dollars would pay for it. Next time, she’d pin him with silver spikes.
Bloodwolf whimpered pathetically, but it wasn’t enough.
Silver! Jade looked at the moonsilver ring that Tony had given her. It is anathema to lycanthropes, far more so than ordinary silver. That’s what Nikki had said. She thought aloud. “You let go way too easily when I flipped you. And you screamed, too, didn’t you? I wonder…”
She pressed her hand against his leg and he screamed as if it was burning him. Indeed, it seemed to leave a blistering burn. His skin actually steamed from the touch.
“Hey, Shroud, can you move that log for me to stand on?”
Jinn floated back, and dragged up the log. Jade climbed up, pulling off the moonsilver ring and reaching forward with it. The werewolf stared at the ring in terror, following it with his eyes. Jade touched it to his chest. The skin burned, and Bloodwolf yelled out loud – at least, as loud as he could while wounded like this.
“I’ll talk! I’ll tell you whatever you want to know! You want to know who sent me? I’ll tell you! Just – Dear God – stop it!”
“Oh, I know who sent you,” she informed him. “It was Tansy Walcutt, wasn’t it? Did she pay for it? Naw, too easily traced. Let’s see, she probably slept with you, so she could get into your mind while your defenses were weak. You probably thought she was, like, the most fabulous ever? As if. That’s just her power working. Or maybe she didn’t even bother to sleep with you, just talked to you all quiet and intimate.
“Whatever, once your defenses were down, she used her telepathy to give you some sort of hypnotic suggestion. That way, she gets her revenge, and if you get caught she doesn’t have to take a fall. Pretty slick, really. There’s no way anyone can prove anything, so she’ll get off scott free. But I’m getting kind of tired of this, so I think it’s time to send her a little message.”
The more she thought about it, the angrier she got. Tansy’s scheme had only worked because Bloodwolf thought Jade would be an easy kill. No one would try this kind of thing on The Don – they were too afraid of him. Maybe it was time people learned to be afraid of her!
She didn’t know how long the blisters would last before they healed, but she was going to write a message on his chest in blisters. That was getting off lightly. He’d planned to kill her and gut her – just like that bobcat. The thought of animal torture made her even angrier.
Quickly, she sketched the ring across Bloodwolf’s chest, and he howled again in agony. She let him see the look in her eyes. The look she was trying to give him was, “Try this again, and I’ll grind you into little chunks!”
Finally, she was done. She hopped down to examine her work. “I was going to write ‘Tansy really fucked me,’” she said, “which is true enough, but I’m not supposed to use language like that.”
She gave him her most intimidating scowl, and felt Jinn billowing up behind her. She hoped it would add to the effect.
She tried to spell it out, one last time, so that he would get the point. “I wouldn’t do this, normally, but you killed that bobcat. And I think you hurt it before you killed it. I don’t like it when other people hurt the animals!” The irony of her actions bothered her for an instant – she had just finished torturing an animal herself – but her rage told her that it was necessary. “If you do it again, I’ll be very upset!”
She wasn’t sure whether she was getting through to him, so she just turned and walked away.
It had been one of the worst days of her life, and she decided to go back home before she did something she really regretted.
October 7, Saturday, 10:30 PM
Team Kimba was a quiet and subdued group that evening. Everyone was supposed to be in bed with lights out by ten thirty. Mrs. Horton never bothered to enforce this on Friday or Saturday night, and this night, the team took full advantage of it. By mutual acclaim, they gravitated to Sara’s room in the basement. The more secure underground location, the mass of concrete around them, and the shielding runes, gave Sara’s room a more private and secure feeling than the sunroom. She did have an outside window, but Jade charged a pair of spy-guards to keep watch – one for outside the window, and one for the basement hallway.
One clue to her agitation was that she didn’t even consider names for herselves, as she charged her up.
The her guarding outside the window considered this, as she unobtrusively roved in her speck-of-sand body.
Am I Jinn? she wondered, Or am I Jann? Which of us did I charge first? The inside and outside me were both created about the same time.
Her self-image was continuing to evolve. She considered that it might be easier if she began naming herself according to what she did, rather than the order she cast herself. She was beginning to act that way anyway. It didn’t matter whether the first casting went into the costume or the body-gizmos. The one in the costume was always “Jinn” and the one with the gizmos and coaching was “Jann-sensei.” Each of her had a slightly different role, and hence, personality. Or more accurately, she had a single, increasingly complex personality. She expressed herself and reacted differently depending on whether she was Jinn the older sister who became Shroud, or Jann the tutor, guard, and sensei, or Kitty Compact, or a pinpoint spy, like now.
The more she considered, the more appropriate this seemed. Name and identity went hand-in-hand. She behaved differently when she was Jinn and when she was Shroud. And she could switch back and forth between those two without needing her physical self to re-charge her. Likewise, when she was occupying her body’s clothing and gizmos, she was Jann. Even without a new charging, she could detach the compact and go flying off as Kitty Compact.
She’d have to think about this a bit more. There was always a moment of disorientation after being charged into something. If she could streamline the process of identifying who and where she was, it would mean that she could react faster, and maybe train herself better for reactions that were appropriate to this form, without trying to act inappropriately. That was a lesson she was finally learning as Jinn – or was it Shroud? Shroud needed to fight in a way that made sense for her, not necessarily in the Aikido-trained moves that Jade used.
Tentatively identifying herself as “Jamie Bond, the SpySpeck,” she began learning how to maximize the potential of this form.
Jade hoped the two of her outside on guard duty were coping okay. She knew that physical-her really need the comfort of the other girls right now.
It was worse than she’d thought. Billie, Nikki, and Ayla had also been attacked.
They’d pushed back all the furniture, and Sara had tossed her quilt onto the floor. Six girls and one ex-girl lay on their bellies, in a circle, heads coming together in the center. They were closer and more intimate than normal. Shoulders rubbed against shoulder, arms rubbed against the girl on each side. Occasionally, one girl would slip an arm over her neighbor’s shoulders or waist. It wasn’t sexual, it was a group of close friends sharing warmth and comfort after a devastating shock.
“Okay, let’s get the facts first,” Toni whispered into the center of the circle. “We had four separate attacks, and they seem to have been fairly well coordinated. The good news is that we came through each attacks okay. The bad news is that we don’t know why the rest of us were left out. Did they think we were too tough to hit? They didn’t go for Hank. Or are they waiting to hit us tomorrow, or the day after?”
“I’m not so sure about the ‘too tough’ theory,” Hank mused. “I mean, I can see that they might target Jade as being weak – no offense – but Nikki? Billie?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Ayla muttered.
“No, Toni’s got a point,” Nikki said, shivering. “Nex was taunting me, saying that everyone knew I wasn’t any good at close-in fighting. But going after Billie? That doesn’t make any sense. Unless you’re a complete idiot.”
Sara was still learning everyone’s background. “You said that same stuff at last week’s skull-session. What’s the big deal? She’s got a nasty sword, but it’s not like she’s Godzilla or something.” She saw the blank looks that everyone else in the circle was giving her. “Well she’s not, is she?”
“I guess we haven’t been talking about it that much,” Jade said quietly. “Not after Hartford tried to transfer her to Hawthorne. The main reason Billie is here is to learn how to tone down. She’s got tons of power, but she needs to work on control. Uh, what did you miss? Maybe when she accidentally blew out half the windows on campus—”
“It wasn’t that many windows,” Billie muttered quietly.
“—just because she’d gotten too enthusiastic and couldn’t hold it any more. Or there was the time she was locked in a training room shooting range, targeted by a legion of death lasers all set on ‘kill’ and had to cut her way through the vault door (after trashing the range of course), or—”
“Enough!” Sara held up her hand. “I’m starting to get the idea.”
Toni had to add the finishing cherry on top. “So ambushing Billie shows about as much sense as shaking nitroglycerine, trying to intimidate it. Sure, the nitro might get scared, but you got to question the smarts of the person doing the shaking.”
Billie muttered something else.
Sara, with her keen hearing, had picked it up. “Antimatter?” She snorted. “I’ll buy the nitro analogy, but you’re nowhere near something like antimatter. Sorry, that’s a whole different category. That’s the sort of stuff that blows apart planets. And while I’m starting to get the idea that your ambushers were idiots—”
“Got that right.”
“—it’s a bit of a stretch to say that it would be endangering the whole planet.”
“Okay,” Hank decided, “so whoever is behind all this is either massively uninformed, or monumentally stupid.”
“Which has Tansy written all over it,” Ayla insisted. “But seriously, when we’re putting the clues together, I don’t really count. The dweeb-head who targeted me admitted she was doing it on her own. She was just trying to score points with the Alphas.”
“Oh, I really believe that,” Jade said, sarcastically. “I’ve told you how Tansy does her hypnosis, right? She probably slid up behind Miss Dweeb-head and started dropping ‘suggestions’, like ‘The Alphas would be sooo impressed if I just wasted Tansy’s number one enemy Trevor.’ Come on, Ayla, you know that girl is completely obsessed with you. Now that I think of it, I’m starting to wonder whether she might have been the one who dropped off your blackmail letter, way back on Ninja Night.”
“No way!” Ayla shouted. “That’s just stupid!” But her voice began to peter out. “Tansy wouldn’t have tried… well, I mean, why would she… Hmmm.” She looked up at Jade. “You think she might have done the blackmail letter?”
Jade shrugged. “She could have. Keep her on your list of suspects.”
After talking a bit more, Toni finally summarized. “Okay, so let’s see if I’ve got this. They probably weren’t going to kill Billie, since they said they might let her live. It was probably a ‘rough her up and teach her a lesson’ bit, with some tough talk thrown in. Ayla – who knows? There were some empty threats and we have no idea how far the ‘dweeb-head’ intended to go. With Nikki, Nex definitely planned to slash up her face and ruin her looks, enough to eliminate her from modeling. We don’t know whether he was intending rape. He probably wasn’t going for a kill. Lastly, with Jade and Jinn, Bloodwolf was planning to ‘eat’ Jinn and kill Jade, making it look like an animal attack. Everyone agree so far?”
The heads around the circle nodded. Nikki looked sickest, as she considered what nearly happened to her.
Toni continued. “So we have three questions: those of us who weren’t hit, what should we do? Those who were hit, are you safe now, what do you do? And lastly, what do we do long-term?”
“The first two questions are tactics,” Hank pronounced. “The last one is strategy. Let’s leave the long-term strategy until later. We can work on that when we have breathing space. The vital issue is keeping your head attached.”
“I guess,” Nikki admitted, reluctantly, “we don’t dare assume that we’re safe now, just because we were hit once. So it’s really the same question for all of us. There’s someone out there gunning for us. How do we keep alive while we figure out the real solution?”
“Well, it’s pretty much what we talked about last week, isn’t it?” Billie asked. “Everyone works on their weak points. Wear your combat gear 24-7. We had some ideas for fighting as a team, but that doesn’t apply too much for the individual ambush situations.”
“So we don’t go anywhere – not anywhere – alone,” Hank pronounced. “Well, maybe to the bathroom. And we should be okay inside Poe.”
“Doesn’t work. There’s the fact that we all have separate classes,” Nikki pointed out.
Sara had the answer. “Communications. I said it last week, and it’s even more important now.”
Jade touched her ring and brought up her holographic eyepiece and radio link. “Bunny made this for me. I’ve got it on all the time. It doesn’t do much good right now, because Jinn isn’t Shroud, she’s in spy mode. But I’ve got communications.”
“Okay,” Sara agreed. “Nice start. Do you wear it in your sleep? No? Then how will you come to someone’s aid, if they’re attacked in the middle of the night? And can you call the rest of the team? When you were ambushed, most of us were only a couple hundred yards away. One call and we would have been all over that werewolf’s ass!”
“Technology isn’t always reliable,” Nikki mentioned.
“No?” Sara shot back. “Okay, Miss Magic! Come up with a non-techno solution, and we’ll put both of them in place! Redundancy is good.”
“How about hitting them back?” Jade suggested, very quietly.
“You were talking about shaking nitroglycerine. Well, half those guys that attacked us walked away without a scratch. And we know that Tansy is behind this…”
“You suggesting a Sopranos-style return hit?” Sara asked. “We deliberately hit them in revenge?”
“I … don’t know,” the smallest girl admitted. “Maybe. What if they were scared, too?”
“It’s got some merit,” Hank admitted. “The army loves it. Unofficial as Hell, sometimes, but they do it. Someone hits you hard, you hit back twice as hard. Certainly in deployments, but also for fights on base, in bars, stuff like that. A response matched to the style and type of attack – match a bar fight with a bar fight, that sort of thing.” He looked at Toni. “What about your folk?”
Toni blinked at him in astonishment, before her face actually changed color. Jade was almost glad that she couldn’t see emotions right then. As the blood drained from Toni’s face, it turned her normally rich brown complexion into a rather frightening gray tone.
“My people? What the hell is that supposed to mean? How do we do it in drug-land? Down in the projects? You want to know if I take out my Saturday night special and do a drive-by on the mutha that messed up my ho’s? Is that it?”
Hank blinked in astonishment. “I meant, how do you easterners and suburbanites handle this sort of thing?”
Toni deflated. “Oh,” she said meekly.
Nikki snickered. “Say Edgar,” she said in a bad New England accent, “looks like maybe the chowder gang has been messing with our crab pots again. What say we cruise by their dock, and teach them not to mess with Leroy’s Lobstermen?”
Everyone dissolved in giggles except for Toni, who was hiding under her arms and saying, “Shoot me now.”
“Look, I admit that in the heat of battle I might feel like ripping some arms off,” Billie admitted, half jokingly, “but we’re the good guys, aren’t we? That’s what makes us different. We don’t do stuff like that. Anyway, we didn’t end up too bad, did we? The guys after me ended up with a broken arm and serious cases of fright – though I still don’t get that. Old Nex isn’t going to be sneaking up on anyone again, not in this century.” Nikki nodded agreement. “The ‘dweeb-head’ got totally trashed. And Bloodwolf…” Billie looked a little disturbed “… we definitely don’t need any more punishment there. What were you thinking?”
“I had a really bad day, okay?” Jade sulked. “I mean, REALLY bad.”
“This is bothering me,” Billie said. “Jinn don’t seem like the type to just nail someone up to a tree. And you don’t seem like the type to go burning messages in people’s chests.”
“Well he tortured and killed this poor animal! It was just a helpless bobcat. Besides,” she admitted, “I think I was having a really bad case of PMS or something.”
“Wait a minute,” Billie stopped her. “Unless something very big has changed, you don’t get PMS, do you?”
“I started hormone shots on Thursday,” Jade admitted, almost whispering.
There was a moment of silence at that bombshell, then an instant demand for details. In spite of herself, Jade found herself explaining about the beginnings of breast growth, as well as their disappearance by Saturday morning.
The other girls, particularly Toni, expressed concern about the speed and recklessness of her treatment, but Jade assured them that there were several different doctors consulting on her case.
That ended with an uncomfortable silence, as if no one was willing to say something that might upset Jade.
“So, like I said,” Jade finished, “it was a really bad day. I’m on a higher dose now, but there’s no physical reaction.”
“Don’t talk to me about obnoxious hormones until you’re starting your period,” Nikki complained. “Sometimes being female just sucks. Your breasts bloat up, your crotch starts hemorrhaging, and your hormones make you feel like a complete psycho-bitch.”
“Well?” Nikki was now glaring at Sara, who was directly across the circle from her. “What are you staring at?”
Sara, like the rest of them, was on her belly, head propped up on her arms. After a moment, everyone realized that Sara was in a perfect position to look down the top of Nikki’s blouse.
“You’re kidding,” the apparent thirteen-year-old said. “You mean those things get bigger?”
With a shriek, Nikki wrapped her arms around herself.
“Hey, I’m the daughter of a lust demon! I’m keeping my hands (and other appendages) off, but you can’t expect me not to look! Particularly when the view’s that good!”
And that was pretty much the end of the serious discussion.
Hank tried to figure out how he could escort every girl around, but that got drowned out by Nikki’s fight with Sara. It had begun quietly, with Nikki protesting that she just wanted to have a normal romantic life, if that were possible. Unfortunately, Sara loudly asked how Bunny was in the sack, and Nikki’s protests drowned Hank out (particularly since he was interested in the answer). Nikki wouldn’t admit to doing anything, and she certainly wasn’t going to provide details.
Then Nikki deliberately shifted the attention to Toni, who eventually admitted to some kissing sessions with both Riptide and Thunderbird (though never both together). Ayla confessed that sometimes the girls on campus gave her a raging hard-on. Once everyone agreed that the last bit was “too much information,” attention shifted to the three innocents: Billie, Jade, and Hank. While all three protested that they had good reasons for not rushing into romance, the other four gave them looks that promised interesting times ahead, in the weeks to come.
By common consent, no one wanted to sleep in their dorm rooms, so the entire team crashed in Sara’s room, turning it into a giant sleepover. And while the “lust demon” did restrain her actions, she became freer with her comments as the night wore on.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, great fun was had by all. The team finally fell asleep (aside from Sara and various immaterial spirits), comforted by their companions and protectors, dreaming of romance and intimacies, rather than predators and death.
31: Strategy Session
October 8, Sunday afternoon, 2:17 PM
Jinn floated cross-legged in the center of the room, reading. Tennyo lay stretched out on the air, working at her desk. Jade was the only one actually sitting, as she pecked away at her laptop, trying to get just the right spin on her English paper. There was a knock at the door, and before any of the them could move to answer it, Toni stuck her head in. “Hey, Dudettes! Stir your stumps! We got a briefing in five!”
“We HAVE a briefing in five,” Jade absently corrected, her head still stuck in her English homework.
“Whatever. Five minutes, Kimba Korner. Bring pencils and paper.” With that, she was out of the room, and Jade could hear a knock several doors down.
“What’s she up to NOW?” Tennyo snarled. “I was just getting the hang of this stupid algebra!”
Jade was ready for a little stress relief. She didn’t usually expose anyone other than Jinn, but this was Poe – it should be safe enough. Jann rejoined her. Jade kicked her chair away from the desk, wheeled over to the bed, and cast Jann into Tennyo’s stuffed cabbit.
The animal came alive and bounded to its feet. “Something’s afoot!” it squeaked. “Shall I investigate?”
Tennyo gave a half smile. “Sure. Knock yourself out.”
The cabbit squeaked “CHAAARRRGE!” and bounded out of the room.
Jade closed down her laptop and grabbed a pad of paper. “Shall we?”
Tennyo grumpily put down her book and sighed. “Oh well – maybe she just needs help with her algebra.”
“Give me a second,” Jinn called. “I need to put on my face.”
Jinn was dressed in a minimal outfit – chalk skin, black clothes, and cape. The cape wrapped around her, when it unwrapped a second later she looked like any normal levitating girl. The clothes she wore actually belonged to Jade. The black t-shirt was stretched fairly tight and exposed her belly, and the stretch pants had turned into Capri pants on the older girl. It showed off her figure admirably. Although she didn’t realize it, it also demonstrated to her friends how little she owned.
The two older girls floated after Jade, as the three of them headed for the sunroom.
Up in the “Kimba Korner,” Toni and Ayla had arranged a portable whiteboard. Besides Toni, Ayla, Nikki, Sara and Hank, Rip was there, watching Bunny arrange bejeweled eggs at strategic places. Six Upperclassmen were also crowding in. Jade recognized Zenith immediately, but it took a bit for her to place the other five as the ‘Wild Pack’. The ‘Betas’, as their detractors called them, were the team of peacekeepers who had broken up the Breakfast Brawl a week before. The two girls on that team had also helped guard Tennyo, during the difficult period before Tennyo’s hearing. Jade settled in, wondering what the Pack was doing here.
Toni marched up in front of the whiteboard, wearing a plastic soldier’s helmet with general’s stars on it, a toy cigar stuck in her mouth and a riding crop tucked under her arm. She came to a stop, faced those assembled, and began to speak in a bad George C. Scott “Patton” voice. “Good Evening. I’m glad that you all could make it. The—”
Adam Ironknife, a.k.a. ‘Stormwolf’, cut off her act. “If you want us to stay, first things first – can the comedy act.”
Toni cocked an eyebrow at him, shrugged, and tossed the cigar aside. In her normal voice, she said, “Okay, the reason that I called you all here today is that as some of you may NOT be aware, recently, four members of ‘Team Kimba’ were attacked.”
Rip and Bugs reacted to the news, but the Pack didn’t. But then, as peacekeepers, Security talked to them a lot. Ironknife folded his arms across his impressive chest and nodded.
“All four attacks failed, largely due to the fact that the individuals attacked were badly underestimated. But that trick only works ONCE. Three of the attackers were ‘convinced’ to reveal that Tansy Walcutt put them up to it. And, more recently, we had information from an impeccable source that Tansy holds grudges against three of us – coincidentally, those same three were three of the targets. Or is it coincidence?
“A while ago, Hank here,” Toni gestured in his direction, “pointed out that we’ve been focusing too much on tactics, and not enough on strategy. I don’t think that we can afford that anymore.” Toni placed an 8” x 11” fashion glossy of Tansy Walcutt on the whiteboard. “I think that it is time to start outlining a sustained campaign to neutralize the Walcutt Threat.”
“And why are WE here?” Ironknife interrupted.
“Well, Zenith,” Toni gestured in her direction, “tells me that the Wild Pack and the Alphas have been mixing it up for years.”
“It’s more just Adam and Donny-boy,” Diana, the lanky redhead, cut in. “But his fights are our fights, and The Don sort of drags in the rest of the Alphas. And this means?”
“You guys are here as our ‘Alpha Experts’.” Toni put a long shot of Don Sebastiano up on the whiteboard, and drew a blue line connecting the two photos. “While she may be on the outs with the Alphas right now, Tansy IS an Alpha. And, that source that I mentioned says that she recently developed a secret connection to The Don. So, anything that affects Tansy will indirectly affect The Don. And, as you said, The Don sort of drags in the rest of the Alphas.
“So, eventually, it’s gonna boil down to Team Kimba versus The Alphas. And with that crew, the sooner that we start dealing with them seriously, the better.”
Before any of the visitors could respond to that, Jade stood up.
“You know,” she said, “this is sounding pretty interesting already, but we always meet in this corner. Everyone knows that. I’m not saying that someone is eavesdropping on us, but if they wanted to, this would be the spot to spy on.”
“If you’ve got a better suggestion, I’d like to hear it,” Stormwolf replied.
“Well,” she offered, “I was just thinking that we could take precautions first. I see that Bunny’s already set up her anti-eavesdropping eggs. Fey, you said you’d been thinking of some sort of wards (whatever those are)? And I was hoping that Sara, or maybe Mindbird, could do something to guard against telepaths…”
Mindbird chuckled. “We get the idea.”
Adam Ironknife looked impatient. “I think this is a waste of time, but if it will really make you feel better, go ahead.”
So Fey cast a shimmery intangible bubble that expanded out through the walls of the room. Fey claimed that it “might help a lot.” The telepaths applied their own arcane arts, while Bunny double-checked her eggs. Finally, everyone settled in to resume the discussion.
Ironknife stood, instantly dominating the room. “Are we finally ready to get on with this? Good. Because what I have to say is fairly simple. Your team has reached a point that most teams don’t arrive at until their junior or senior year. It’s time to decide which ‘side’ you’re on.”
“What, you mean like ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’?” Tennyo asked, skeptically.
“Exactly,” Ironknife confirmed. “I’d advise you to put the issue off as long as you can. This is a big decision, and I don’t want you to make the wrong one. Let me lay it out for you: the Good Guys, as a quick cliché for anyone law-abiding, have certain restrictions they must abide by. One of those restrictions is that you are not allowed to go charging into your foe’s home and drag them out to a richly deserved punishment. Not unless you are deputized, and specifically assigned this duty by appropriately empowered authorities. In fact, you are extremely restricted, unless you catch them in the act of doing something illegal, or unless you’re acting in self-defense.
“This all gets a lot easier, if you begin working with security. That can be a big boost after graduation if you’re interested in a career with heroic teams, law enforcement, or in specialized federal work. No matter how it shakes out, you have the support and backing of the largest group imaginable – the full force of our civilization.
“Conversely, you can opt for the quick-and-easy route. Play the unrestrained vigilante. Make ‘deterrence strikes’ against your foes – whenever and wherever. Act defensively or be ‘pro-active’. It’s your choice. But don’t expect society to stand behind your actions. The public and the law will fear and condemn you. We’ll spot your little feud and move in to shut both sides down.”
Dale, the stacked blonde, smiled at them all. “I think Adam’s bias might be showing. But he’s got a point. Plotting anti-Alpha strategy is sending you straight down the wrong path. You’re already posted on the ‘Feud List’ down at security.”
“Beg pardon?” Toni cut in.
Ironknife rounded on the smaller black girl. “Known feuds are posted in security. Detention and other penalties double for continuing a feud. Check it out in your handbook. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – the Wild Pack is listed as feuding with the Alphas, too. The Alphas have collected quite a list of enemies. Not as big a list as the Ultra-Violents, but close.”
“I don’t get it,” Rip admitted. “You said that feuding isn’t allowed, and that the Wild Pack has a feud with the Alphas. But the redhead, there, admitted that you and The Don always fight, and your groups get pulled in.”
Adam Ironknife looked glum. “I’m not entirely proud of that. Yes, Sebastiano and I can’t seem to run into each other without starting a verbal confrontation. He’s never fought me directly, he’s not that stupid. In a real fight between the two of us, he’d be lucky to last three seconds. But whenever we start to argue, our teams gather ‘round. I can’t speak for his team, but my team is there to make sure that things don’t escalate.
“That doesn’t mean that fights don’t get started. Since our sophomore year, the Alphas have been smart enough not to start anything themselves, but they seem to have a pretty good supply of suckers and dupes. If the chaos gets bad enough, a few of them may get ‘swept up’ in the brawl.” He scowled. “Aries is particularly bad that way. More commonly, we run across trouble caused by the so-called Alpha ‘hit squad’. But whatever the situation, our job as peacekeepers is to stop the fight, stop the damage, and round up the troublemakers. If we weren’t connected to security, we wouldn’t even be able to do that much.”
“Oh, come on!” Ayla exploded. “Surely you sometimes get the urge to just pound the snot out of those creeps!”
Robert Shih, the single Asian in the Pack, fielded that one. “Oh, yeah, we’ve been there. Hey, group-against-group fights are fine, so long as they’re supervised and don’t end up destroying a lot of property. You can schedule through phys ed. They’ll set up a holo arena, supervisor, and everything. Pretty fast response, too. They’ve been trying to handle all the little blow-ups that seem to happen. With the Alphas – we issue a challenge, but they always have some fancy-sounding reason to chicken out. At least, ever since our last big rout, last year when we were sophomores.”
Nikki looked disturbed. “So… what are we supposed to do? How do we protect ourselves against these jerks?”
“Security.” Theo, the largest member of the Wild Pack, was 6’ 6” of gigantic black linebacker. He looked like he could eat Mean Joe Green and Refrigerator Perry in one sitting. His voice rumbled out, but for all that, he spoke calmly and thoughtfully. “You’d be eligible to become an auxiliary to Academy Security after completing one semester at Whateley. You’d be peacekeepers, the way we started out. That would give you contacts, protection, information, reliable jobs, advanced equipment – the advantages go on and on. You’d be putting yourself in the path of danger, but as you’ve seen, you’re in danger already. And for the really tough situations, it’s hard to beat the backup.”
“Sounds great – if we live that long,” Ayla muttered.
“There’s a third path,” this was from the Robert Shih again. “You don’t join the establishment, and you don’t fall to the depths of a true villain. You walk your own ground in the middle. It’s the toughest path, since you receive none of the advantages of either side. Even worse, you can never simply ‘declare’ for one side or the other. You are always walking in ambiguity, defined more by what you are not.”
“That’s the worst of both worlds!” Tennyo decided.
Jade studied him closely. “And it’s not the path you chose.”
The Asian boy inclined his head toward her. “The … team … decided on our current course.” He glanced toward Adam Ironknife. “That’s not to say that we never chafe under the restrictions.”
Toni held her hands up for attention. “Okay, okay, so the short answer is, you’re not going to give us any help on our strategy, right?”
Adam Ironknife sighed. “Look, I’m sure you got the standard lecture when you guys were called in after that cafeteria stunt. We just told you how to set up a real team-vs-team fight. But any sort of wild brawl, ambush, or whatever you want to call it, is completely, absolutely, utterly forbidden. Especially when it endangers students or school property. And if you get caught in a fight that you’re already on the feud list for – let me just say that your current detention will look like a cakewalk.”
“Wait, hold on here!” Jade said. “What about protecting ourselves? Isn’t the team allowed to help?”
“Of course! The team is allowed to act defensively. We wouldn’t dream of stopping that!”
“So how am I supposed to defend myself from an assassin?” Jade demanded. “He outnumbered me, jumped me by surprise in the dark, and planned to kill me! Am I just supposed to sit back and wait for it to happen again?”
Ironknife’s eyes narrowed for a moment, then widened in surprise. “You took out Bloodwolf and his crew?”
“I—” Jade was suddenly wary. “I didn’t say that.”
“Process of elimination. So let’s hear your counter-suggestion? What would you like to do, to make yourself safe?”
“I don’t know!” Jade yelled, getting louder and angrier. “Maybe going after Tansy Walcutt and stopping this at the source!”
“Can you prove that she had anything to do with the attacks? If you have a single shred of real proof, then let’s see it. I’ll see Tansy’s hide nailed to the wall! But if you can’t prove it, my hands are tied.”
Jade was still steaming. “Just like no one was able to help Cavalier or Skybolt, huh?”
That hit each of the Wild Pack like a bucket of icewater. Finally Dale, the stacked blonde, said, “If you have any proof, even any clue about that, please bring it to security. I— we— none of us are happy about that. But we can’t prove that Elaine and Jean-Michel didn’t just change their mind.”
“You know who did it!” Jade muttered. “The Don.”
“So I ask you again,” Adam Ironknife said, “how would you plan to fix it?”
“A little mindreading…”
“He’s a telepath,” Dale said. “Even if that was ethical, which it’s not, his shield is too good. You’d have to completely mind-rape him to get anything. And I hope you can’t find a telepath who would agree to that.”
“Maybe just shoot him.”
“Tempting,” the Asian boy agreed. “But there’s the risk that whatever was done to Cavalier and Skybolt – if anything was done – might get ‘frozen’. Maybe permanently. So there’s a good chance that you’d be running forever from the law, and no good would come of it.”
“There’s got to be something you can do!” Jade almost screamed in frustration.
The assembled Wild Bunch stared back at her, silently.
“One question,” Sara asked, sounding refreshingly calm after the previous outburst. “How many students die each year?”
Adam Ironknife looked startled, then guilty. “Whateley is a dangerous place. That was made clear when our families signed the waivers.”
“On average, four a year. Another five receive long-term disabilities. But you have to understand, most of those come from power burnouts, overloads, GSD, or the like.”
“GSD?” Bunny asked.
“Gross Structural Dystrophy,” Zenith quietly explained, from the side. “Physical changes that distort the body. Sometimes fatally. One of the downsides of being a mutant.”
“Most of the deaths,” Sara repeated. “I see.”
Adam glared back at her. “You should see. This year’s first was your dark sorcery friend, Bloodworm.”
Jade considered for a while, then finally decided it was time. “Excuse me,” she called, “is the anti-eavesdropping stuff still up?”
When everyone nodded, Jade turned to look at Toni. “Sempai, they keep asking for evidence. Is it time to tell them about the big secret?”
The black girl nodded. “Maybe past time.”
“What’s this all about?” Adam Ironknife demanded.
Jinn drifted forward. “You probably know by now that this was all started when Tansy absorbed me. For a while, she thought I was unconscious or destroyed. I recovered from that, in time to catch Don Sebastiano revealing some extremely disturbing information.” She paused, as if gathering a deep breath. “They plan to kidnap avatars, steal their spirits, and perform whatever experiments they deem necessary. When they know enough, they want to steal the Champion Force.”
Jade was pleased to see the shock at Jinn’s announcement. She’d told the central members of the team, but this was the first that Bunny and Riptide had heard of it. And none of the Wild Pack had suspected any of this, from the look on their faces.
“Here’s exactly what I heard…”
The discussion that followed was intense. Adam Ironknife could scarcely believe it.
“Well, that’s part of the reason we couldn’t just rush out and accuse them,” Toni pointed out. “Besides, much as we dislike The Don, he’s just a wanna-be in this game. But we aren’t sure who to tell, or how to handle this. We know that we have to do something, but we can’t think of what!”
“But we know how to handle it.” Robert Shih, ‘Bobcat,’ took the center of attention. “In fact, it would be a lot better if your group just let this drop for now. We can alert the people who need to know, and we can make sure these sickos get caught. Leave everything to us.”
“You have got to be kidding!” Ayla shouted. “This is gonna be big! We want in on it! We deserve to be in on it, after everything we’ve gone through over those stupid damn Alphas!”
“You will be,” Adam Ironknife promised, “if at all possible. That’s the best I can say. If this information is true –”
“It is,” Jinn interrupted. “At least, Don Sebastiano thought it was real.”
“If the information pans out, then we need to work quietly. And as promising as your team might be, particularly for freshmen –”
Everyone was swelling in pride at the praise.
“—subtlety hasn’t exactly been your strong suit.”
And that, pretty much, was that. Adam Ironknife began to rise, preparing to leave. His team took the cue and began to get ready themselves.
“Wait,” Toni cried. “What about our strategy? What about neutralizing the Walcutt Threat? What about actual assassins? You must be able to give us SOME help!”
Ironknife looked back. “Assassins and ambushers are fair game.” He turned his harsh gaze on Jade. “If someone attacks you out in the woods by yourself, you do whatever you need to. I may not always agree with the measures taken, but it’s hard to feel any sympathy for a coward who attacks that way. Learn to protect yourself and learn how to minimize your risks. That’s good advice all around.
“As for the Alphas, or the ‘Walcutt Threat’, or whatever… Go ahead and plan anything you’d like against them. Make it look like World War III if you feel like it. Just don’t expect my sympathy or help. Because by then you’ve chosen your path, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the wrong path. And don’t expect that it’s going to protect you from threats or dangers lurking in the night. If anything, it might make those threats even worse.
“I know this isn’t the advice you wanted, but it’s what I have to give.”
With that, Adam Ironknife and the Wild Pack turned and filed out of the room.
32: Desperate Measures
Crystal Hall October 9, Monday 11:50 AM
Jinn was wearing her “skin”, looking deliberately normal. She’d run her bill a little higher, buying a Whateley Uniform to fit her seventeen-year-old body, but it definitely helped her blend in. She flexed a fist, watching the outline of her metal knuckles, as the elastic polymer of her skin stretched over the knuckles. She didn’t expect to be fighting, but it was wise to be prepared.
She parted from Jade. The younger girl headed to the Kimba table, eating with the regular crew. Jinn had a different mission. No one would miss her; she was usually off working maintenance during lunch. She was free today, but hadn’t told anyone.
Instead, she headed farther into the cafeteria, searching for a particular target. She’d done other research, but this was a clincher. She spotted him sitting alone, eating a huge meal. Despite his isolation, he didn’t look miserable. From the color of his aura, he seemed more contemplative.
Jinn approached the blond sasquatch known as Montana.
“Mr. Terwilliger?” The furry face looked up in surprise. Obviously, not many people bothered to do research on him. “May I sit for a moment? I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“Suit yourself.” As she sat, he continued gruffly, “You oughta know, I beat girls like you to a pulp.”
“The fight with Chaka? I was there.” She didn’t say anything more about it.
Monty continued to shovel food into his mouth. “What do you want?” Small bits of food came out as he talked.
“I want to ask you about Thuban. How much did you pay him for last Tuesday?”
That stopped him cold. He carefully set down his fork and wiped his face. His aura was suddenly glowing like a stoked fire, and its color was the rosy hue that indicated interest or attention. It was a color that could easily shift to a glowing red rage.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Even if I did, why do you want to know?” The words were spoken slowly, and clearly.
“I want to speak to Thuban. I want to know how much it will cost me. More, I want to know what kind of man he is.”
“Everyone at Twain looks out for Thuban, and he looks out for us. I’m not gonna let you do anything to cause him trouble.”
“No trouble,” she assured him. “I need his help. But not if the cost is too high. And I need to know if I can trust him.”
A fist struck the table, hard. Monty looked at his fist in surprise, as if startled by his own reaction. Turning back to her, he said tightly, “Thuban’s honor is absolute! He never breaks his word! If he says something, you can bet your life on it! Sometimes, honor’s all you got left. I guess people don’t appreciate it, not ‘till it’s gone.” He seemed on the verge of hyperventilating. Calming slightly, he said, “You know something about last Tuesday? Okay, I’ll tell you this. How much did I ask for? How much did I pay? I’ll tell you! Nothing. Thuban came and got me. He got me when I was at about the lowest spot you can get. And he offered me … justice. When I didn’t deserve it, and didn’t think I wanted it, and had pissed off the entire cottage. And he came anyway, and started giving me a little of my respect back. How much did I pay him? Not a penny. But I’ll tell you this, I’ll be paying him back for the rest of my life, and consider it a bargain!”
He opened him mouth wide, showing gleaming rows of sharply pointed teeth. “Yeah, a bargain.”
Jinn considered telling him about her time with Tansy, and the little bits she knew of what had happened. Instead, it seemed better to leave things where they were.
She reached forward for his hand. Monty shook hands in surprise.
“Thank you, Mr. Terwilliger. That’s exactly what I wanted to know.”
The passage down to Thuban’s cavern was just as she’d seen it when she’d been held by Tansy. Jade was dressed in her uniform. Beside her, Jinn was dressed identically, even if she filled out the uniform better. They entered Twain by the front door, but thanks to her appointment call, they were hustled through to the back and down to the basement. The boy leading them had a sort of dark green helmet, and appeared to be somewhat pudgy. Surreptitiously studying him, Jade realized that the “helmet” was actually his hair. Or where his hair would have been, if he hadn’t grown his own armor plating. She realized that the bloated body under his uniform must actually be some sort of turtle-shell armor.
In the back of a basement room, there was a bronze metal disk. Pitted and ancient in appearance, it was carved with images and ideograms that she recognized from Chinese class, although she couldn’t read them. The disk was six feet tall, a half foot thick, and seemed to weigh several tons. It rolled to one side with a rumble that echoed in her bones.
Beyond the disk, a circular hole in the concrete wall opened on to a gigantic cavern. There was a ledge, with a man who looked like a living statue. He held a rope. A pulley had been bolted to the cavern ceiling. A small chair dangled from the rope, just beyond the ledge.
“First visit to Thuban?” the man rumbled, in a voice that was reminiscent of a concrete mixer. “I can lower you one at a time. Stick to the path – it isn’t safe, otherwise.”
Jinn lifted lightly into the air. “We can make our own way, if that’s not against the rules.”
“Not at all. Just stick to the path.”
Jinn scooped her up and they floated over the edge. Jade wasn’t afraid of dropping. Even if Jinn slipped, Jann-sensei was charged into her clothes and gear. Jann would catch her.
She found herself wondering about geometry as they floated down to the path, nearly fifty feet below. This cavern was huge. But from its position, the rock roof couldn’t be more than three or four feet thick, because on this side of Twain there were trees and bushes. But the stalactite-covered ceiling made it look like an entire mountain loomed over their head.
Perhaps someone on Thuban’s team was a warper. Had the bronze disk been some sort of teleportation gateway, that sent her to a cave that was actually hundreds of miles away? Or was there an even stranger explanation?
On the ground, they both elected to walk. A path had been carved through the tunnel floor, winding between the stalagmites. There were pools, here and there, with lights placed deep under the water to create an enchanting water garden that glowed in radiant blues and greens. Flaming torches lined the path, and came alit as they approached, guiding them clearly forward. In the exact center of the cavern sat a silk pavilion.
As they approached, the final torches came alight, bracketing the silk curtain that served as a door into the pavilion.
Jade’s hand reached out to grasp Jinn’s. The two girls looked at each other and nodded.
“Jade Sssinclair and your … sssister … Jinn. Pleassse enter.”
They stepped through the curtain to face Thuban. Inside, they bowed in unison.
“I offer to conceal myself from the sensibilities of delicate humansss,” the half-man seated before them said. “But you, ssspirit, have been here before. And since you’ve been here, you’ve both been here.”
Jade was shocked. She hadn’t thought he’d know so much about her. Fortunately, Jinn handled the speaking.
“Noble Thuban, you’ve done an excellent job of protecting the more vulnerable members of Twain. When Ollie Hatchel was attacked by the Ultra-Violents, the perpetrators were found the next day, beaten three times worse. A group of Melville boys ‘accidentally’ broke Ross Seper’s leg, before the inter-cottage basketball tournament. The next day, they had to drop out of the tournament themselves, due to ‘accidental’ injuries received. Everyone knows about this – that’s the whole point. I would like to receive this same protection. Before some assassin comes looking for me, I want him to know that – even if he gets me – someone’s coming for him immediately afterward.”
The man leaned forward. “You think that’sss what I’m creating here? A mob protection racket?”
As her older sister and Thuban talked, Jinn studied the man. His skin had a pattern to it that suggested scales. Golden scales. He was medium tall, probably not quite six feet, but he looked like solid muscle in a whipcord body. His clothes were elegant – a long-sleeved white dress shirt with European courtly ruffles at the collar and cuffs. Tight black pants, tucked into mid-calf boots with a mirror shine.
His hands indicated more reptilian influence, since the fingers came to claw-like points, rather than showing rounded fingertips and nails, as a human might. His hair seemed to be replaced by a set of golden spines. His face was the most reptilian, with its slitted sea-green eyes, and his protruding jaw and muzzle.
“You’ve begun to offer your protection to Hawthorne student. Jello told me about your message, although it had slipped her mind by the next day. I don’t know about a mob, but you have a service to offer, and you’re extending your influence.”
“You’re one of the pretty ones, one of the attractive little mutants they trot out for every publicity shot and public-relations event. You don’t need thisss kind of protection. None of your type do.”
Jinn stood there for a moment. Abruptly, her face folded inward in a truly disgusting fashion. Her arms, uniform, and skin looked like they were being consumed from within. A second later, her exterior was gone. What remained was a black steel box the size of a small vacuum cleaner, floating where her torso had been. Black cables stretched from the floating box to black, skeletal arms and legs. A pair of glass eyes and dentures floated where her head had been.
“In my case,” the dentures moved as if held in an invisible mouth “the beauty is definitely only skin deep. I have no body of my own. Wearing a garment like this is useful if I want people to treat me like a normal person. They wouldn’t be so accepting of an animated skeleton, or a walking teddy bear, or most of the other forms I’ve worn.”
The metal chest-box cracked open and there was a swirl of particles. When that ended, Shroud floated in mid-air, her cloak billowing behind her, and her chalk-white skin contrasting against the ragged black bandeau and skirt she wore.
“I choose my appearance for affect. I can be as pretty or ugly as I choose to be. What I can never have is a real, living body.”
The half-man nodded. “You can look like anyone you choose?”
“I need the proper masks and paraphernalia. When I arrived last month, all I had was a rubber Madonna mask. Wearing that, I could walk through a mall and pass as a real person.”
Thuban leaned forward. Jade suddenly realized that he wasn’t just reptilian, he was a dragon. Thuban may have once been completely human, but his mutation was changing him to have the appearance of some type of Chinese dragon.
“A fine set of lies! The truth is that you’re just a projection of that one—” his taloned finger shot out, as he turned to stare at Jade “—and I see no blemishes on your sssmooth ssskin.”
Jade trembled under the weight of those cold, slitted eyes. If she revealed her shame, the revolting secret she kept hidden under her clothes, maybe he’d understand that she carried far more than blemishes. She thought of all the people who had spoken of his honor and trustworthiness. If he would swear to keep her secret…
Then she thought of how people reacted when they discovered a secret like hers. She thought of all the victims shot, stabbed, beaten with bats and crowbars and fists. The library at Poe contained a private section, only opened after curfew. It held archives that specifically applied to gays, lesbians, and transgendered students. The TG archives had a long list of victims who had been killed for trying to be what they were in their souls. Transgendered people not so different from her, born into a body of the wrong gender and trying to live the life they needed to live. And when they were discovered, they were buried alive. They were run over in cars. They were suffocated and mutilated. And those crimes were often committed by close friends. To be more accurate, former close friends.
She understood Thuban’s motivation. He felt his humanity slipping from him, so he reached out to save those in a similar plight. And while she could pass for human just fine, she understood far too well what it was like to be in a body not of her own choosing. She was afraid of the teeming masses spotting her, identifying her, and then moving to eliminate her.
She wanted to tell all those things to Thuban, except that one tiny detail halted her. It was a line in a book that had read, “Those crimes were often committed by close friends.”
Thuban was hardly a close friend, but the lesson was that even people who knew you and liked you could react with violent hatred when they discovered this particular secret. How would Thuban react? Would he find her argument compelling, her situation sympathetic? Or would he show a more typical reaction? She’d like to believe that his own problems would make him more sympathetic to other problems, even if they differed in detail. Experience was starting to show her that she couldn’t count on that reaction.
She couldn’t take the chance. Instead, she opted for a safer, less convincing approach.
“I’m trapped at age eleven. Never growing, always just waiting to discover what adolescence is about, always seen as a child. My body has betrayed me, too.”
Thuban leaned back on his strange metallic chair. Jade realized that the chair was actually composed of stacks and piles of coins, glued or held somehow in the shape of a huge chair. The beginnings of the dragon’s horde? she wondered.
“I do not barter away my protection to clear-skinned beautiesss whose only complaint is eternal youth. There has been nothing worthwhile here. I’m not even interested in your offer. Go.”
Jinn reached forward. “But…”
“You have no money. You have nothing to bargain with.”
He was right, of course. Jade wasn’t sure how he knew, but he was right.
Then she had the glimmer of an idea. “I assume that you’re no fan of the Alphas.”
The slitted eyes blinked at her slowly. “While your attack on them was gratifying and amusing, it was hardly a ssservice for me. I owe you nothing for it.”
“No, no, no.” She couldn’t hold back a grin. He hated the Alphas! This was perfect! “I have a high-level spy in the ranks of the Alphas. This spy composes daily summaries of everything they do. Unfortunately, I only have half of the access password, but I have some clues to the rest. Interested?”
“You should see his aura flare!” came Jann-sensei’s voice in her ear. “He’s hooked!”
Thuban’s body language barely changed, however. “It might be worth sssome trifle,” he admitted. “What do you seek in return?”
“What I’d like is for you to be our friend. A friend to me and our entire group. You help us and we help you.”
“You cannot ssspeak for your comrades. The residents of Twain have reason to be sssuspicious of beautiful women. Such females ssseeem less interested in … our kind … for some reason.”
“What is with you? Not everyone’s like that you know!”
“I eagerly await the exception to this rule.”
Jann’s voice came in her ear again. “He’s still interested, but he’s looking pretty happy. It’s time to move in with a real offer. Coming in…”
Jade paused to consider the new thoughts, as Jann merged with her. She re-charged Jann, then spoke more thoughtfully.
“Alright then, try this: First, that you should crack the password and monitor the report site.”
“That goes without saying,” he agreed.
“And that you immediately alert us of any plans or dangers that are headed our way—”
She continued on, “—that you become aware of from any source, not just the report site.”
That surprised him, and he leaned back to consider. “I have some confidential sssources that cannot be compromised.”
Jade smiled back at him sweetly. “Then I leave it as a matter of your own honor, to chart the most correct course between informing us, and protecting your sources.”
Thuban hissed briefly in surprise. “You bargain better than I’d expect, for your age.”
She gave him a look of annoyance. “I told you about my problem. But I’m not done with my list. Some of the things the Alphas are planning are extremely nasty. If you find out about something like that ahead of time, I’d like you to drop a hint to the proper ear, or contact me, or take some action to keep people from being hurt too badly. I’m not saying you need to do it for free, or that you can’t take favors or obligations or money or whatever. But I don’t want you to sit on the information and let someone get hurt.”
It was her hope that that would help protect any avatars that were due to be kidnapped by The Don, without revealing details of the avatar scheme itself.
“You ask for sssubstantial concessions.”
She smiled sweetly. “Oh, come on. It’s a chance to sit at the center of an even better web. It doesn’t cost you a thing, except for occasionally dropping a hint into the right ear.”
He smiled tightly. With a bit of a shock, she realized that she’d been thinking his face wasn’t capable of that expression. The smile transformed him into a much more sympathetic figure.
“It’s still a lot of work.”
“Hey!” she realized. “That hissing accent is nothing but a put-on, isn’t it?”
Thuban gave the smallest of jolts, and the smile vanished.
“Perhapsss, and perhapsss not.”
“Look, let me tell you about this spy. Cavalier spends pretty much every waking moment waiting hand and foot on The Don. Man, there’s a guy that needs some help. He’s been turned into an utter mind-slave, and no one seems to be doing a thing to help him. Him and Skybolt both. Anyway, Cavalier is The Don’s personal perpetual servant. So this nasty telepath – she’ll remain nameless, but for convenience let’s just refer to her as ‘Tansy’ – this nasty telepath wants to learn all The Don’s secrets. Now The Don has his own telepathic shields. But he forgot that Cavalier doesn’t. So Tansy gives Cavalier this nasty little telepathic mind-zap post-hypnotic suggestion saying that The Don is forgetful, and needs his most trusted friend to keep track of every little detail of his life, so he won’t forget. Only, he should never be reminding overtly about his bad memory, ‘cause that would hurt his feelings. If he ever wants to know anything, he’ll go look it up himself on the computer. So every single day, Cavalier dutifully goes off in private and records ever detail of The Don’s life to a secret email account.
“And if someone was really clever, he’d intercept the messages as soon as they came in, and substitute slightly altered messages. That way, he could not only have the perfect spy constantly watching over The Don’s shoulder, he could simultaneously feed false information to Tansy.
“So ask yourself – how much is THAT worth?”
Thuban’s smile was back. “You do make a tempting offer. Have you finished your list of demands?”
“Just one more: I need someone with some really good computer resources, for a couple of hours’ work.”
“Agreed,” Thuban said instantly.
Jade was surprised as his quick acceptance. “No haggling? No contract signed in blood?”
“My word is my bond. And would you really have compromised on any of those points?”
Jinn met with Tansy late that evening. She wasn’t going to get anywhere near the vicious model in her real body, but she thought she knew enough now to meet with her in spirit form. Jinn was dressed as Shroud, all in black. She was pulled completely into her costume – she wouldn’t give Tansy any opportunity to touch her spirit.
She spotted Tansy coming, but it was a near thing. The older girl was projecting her “don’t notice me” field. Even with Jinn’s mind shield, she looked past the approaching student several times before noticing an active mutant power.
For one final time, Jinn contemplated the wisdom of what she was doing. She was about a thousand dollars in debt. Defending herself properly was definitely going to cost some money. Working her debt off the normal way would take her a couple of months, and make new acquisitions that much harder. There was so much she could do with ten thousand dollars.
“Start your laptop,” she ordered, as Tansy approached.
She had the pleasure of seeing Tansy’s surprise and fear, written in her aura. Jinn hadn’t waited until the other girl dropped her field. Let her think that her power has no effect on me at all, she thought.
“You have the disk?” Tansy demanded. As she booted the computer, she pulled up a small briefcase. “I have the cash. I deducted the cost of the case. Once I verify the disk, this is yours.”
Jinn didn’t reply directly. Instead, she passed Tansy a small slip of paper. One side had a web address. The other side was a list of email addresses. “The wireless connection is excellent inside the cafeteria. Type in the web address.”
Confused, Tansy did. Jinn didn’t see light; she couldn’t see a computer screen. She could tell from the sound when the make-out scene began to play. Tansy’s aura was an even better indicator, starting at a pink confusion, moving to a fearful yellow, and settling on a combination of horror and hatred.
“That website will vanish in fifteen minutes. Don’t bother trying to trace it. I won’t tell you where the disk is physically located, but it’s not Norway, Jamaica, or Peru, and it is definitely not North America. The player will remain physically disconnected from the web, but if my friends and I ever get seriously injured or killed, a news monitoring program will detect that. It will re-connect the disk and player to the web, and mail an alert to every address on the other side of the paper. I think you’ll find everyone in your cottage, all the Alphas, the modeling club, oh, and members of your family, too. Just for icing, there will be a story fabricated explaining that this young girl was jilted by you, and how she’s doing this to alert everyone else to what kind of person you really are.”
“You – utter – bitch! You’re going to regret this! I swear it!”
Jinn shook her head. “You’re picking up an awful lot of enemies, Tansy. Has Bloodwolf come calling yet? Or Nex? We’re willing to walk away from this right now. Leave us alone, and you won’t have any trouble from us.”
Jinn forced her voice to take on a more threatening edge. She needed to convince Tansy that she was serious. “Don’t think we’ve forgotten what you tried this time. Nex was trying to deliberate ruin Fey’s face. Bloodwolf had something more final in mind. You’re going to leave my little sister alone. You’re going to leave all of us alone. If you don’t, that disk going public will be the least of your worries. I’ll be back to haunt you. You’ll never sleep safely again. And what you planned for Fey’s face will be nothing compared to what I do to you, bit by bit, carving away a new chunk every night.”
It was a bluff – at least, she didn’t think she’d be able to do anything like that. Tansy’s aura wavered between fear and defiance. Jinn lifted out of her chair.
“You’ve had the last word. You got off a nasty strike. End it there and it’s over. You’re one up. But if you keep this up, we’ll have no choice. It will be our survival against yours. You really don’t want to see what the team could do to you, once they’re really angry. If you’re lucky, you’ll die quickly. Good God, what were you thinking? Ruin Fey’s face and leave her magic intact? Were you insane? Before the sun rose, she’d rip out your soul and permanently stuff it into a body that was dirt poor, ugly, diseased, male, and elderly. I’ve seen her do it! Go ask security about the crystal chanters. And if you’d killed her? Have you seen Tennyo on a rampage? Or Hank? Or Ayla, when she calls in all her money and contacts? Piece of advice: look up a fellow named Bloodworm. See if you can find out what happened to him. Then contemplate the meaning of the term, a fate worse than death. And once you’ve finished your research, ask yourself whether you want to take this to the next level.”
Jinn rotated silently in mid-air and floated away. Behind her, Tansy’s emotions displayed growing doubt and fear. Jinn smiled internally, thinking that she’d laced just enough truth into her bluff to make it convincing. And if Tansy did her research, so much the better. The team hadn’t been responsible for those accidents, but if they could serve to intimidate, why not get some mileage from the disasters?
She doubted that Adam Ironknife would have approved of that scene, but she felt satisfied with herself. She hadn’t declared war. In fact, she’d done everything she could to calm things down, end the feud, and resolve things peacefully. But if Tansy wouldn’t give up, Jinn decided that she was going to fight. And she wasn’t sure that she’d limit herself to the rules, either.
She sympathized with the goals and ideals that Adam Ironknife has told them. She would try to live by those rules herself, if she was allowed to. But Adam’s world didn’t include assassins that struck in the night. It didn’t include what happened to Cavalier and Skybolt.
She realized that she had taken her first step onto what Robert Shih had called “the third path.”
It felt right.
The end of Jade 5 – Redefining Jade